26.04.2014 - 27.04.2014 36 °C
From Vientiane, we were picked up by a share tuk-tuk to take us to the bus station for our bus into Vietnam, this went smoothly enough. From the moment we arrived at the bus station however we felt we had already left behind the relaxed, friendliness of Laos. We were pointed towards the bus that was to take us over the border and on to Da Nang and when we didn’t immediately get on, since we were waiting for our rucksack to be returned to us from the roof of the tuk-tuk, we were barked at and pointed towards the bus with more vigour.
Once we had our bag back in hand we obediently went towards the bus, Tess got on board to find seats while Rach put the bag in the hold, there was more barking and pointing as Tess was directed to sit on the back row, despite there being empty places elsewhere. It seems these guys wanted to put all the ‘foreigners’ together and actually we were somewhat relived to see that a group of much more local foreigners (a Chinese girl travelling with two Koreans) were treated just the same as us, with pointing, shoving and shouts of “You! You!”
And so, amid the unfriendly, abrupt treatment from the bus staff, we made ourselves comfortable at the back with our Chinese and Korean friends. Long-distance buses in Vietnam have two layers (not separate floors) of lounger-type seats, which almost fully recline, so at least we should get some sleep on this one, we thought. With the general faffing still going on, our scheduled departure time came and went without any sign that we would be leaving. At one point one of the men that worked on the bus came and indicated our Korean friend to move to an empty seat in front of our row, which he did, only for a different bloke to come 5 minutes later and shout at him for moving there (in Vietnamese, but we got the gist) and prodding him back to the back row. Very strange…
Once we finally set off we found ourselves comfortable enough and the only other spot of trouble from the not-so-friendly bus staff was when one came to wake up the Korean couple in the early hours, indicating they should share a blanket, as he took the blanket the boy had been using and took it to give to a new passenger. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sleepy look of surprise the Korean guy had at having his blanket roughly taken from him!
Other than blanket-gate, all went well until we were woken at 0430 and ordered to get off the bus and bring our passports. Being half asleep, we didn’t think about asking any Qs or taking any other belongings with us. We were handed disposable freshener wipes and toothbrush sets and pointed towards the toilets of this small café we had pulled up beside (which meant traipsing through a family ‘living room’, where a young couple and their baby sat watching as a bus load of people went through to use the facilities). When we returned to the café front, the bus had driven off. Hmm, we thought, that’s interesting. A man who looked vaguely official, because he had a notebook, was collecting everyone’s passports, along with a 30,000 Kip fee to get the stamp out of Laos (around £2.50). This seemed strange as we have never before paid for a stamp out, it is not a departure tax, it is a fee just for this guy to get the passports stamped on our behalf, but since all the Lao and Vietnamese had paid the same we seemed to have no choice. Once we had handed over our passports and the cash the ‘passport’ man tells us “Border open 7 o’clock, you wait here”.
“Wha-aat?!!” we wait here for two and a half hours, with nothing to do, only tiny plastic stools to sit on, in the dark with all of our belongings (including reading books, phone, wallet etc) who-knows-where on the bus? Well, that was not a plan we liked one bit. After 10 minutes or so a kindly Lao man, who we had chatted to on an earlier food and toilet break, took pity on the confusion us ‘foreigners’ were sharing at the general lack of explanation or instruction in English, he asked the whereabouts of the bus and we were told if we wanted, we could walk 1km to it and wait on the bus until the border opens. Well, phew, we all thought and walked off in search of our bus.
The bus was easy enough to locate, but the rudeness of the staff went into overdrive as we attempted to get back on board. Amusingly they pretended to speak no English at all when we said anything but then moments later (whilst not responding to our requests as to whether we could go back to sleep on the bus, or just get our small bags off) they were asking us where we lived and whether we had husbands… After several minutes of requesting whether we could get on, we managed to at least get on to retrieve our small bags so we could have our books etc while we sat outside the bus waiting for the border to open, which it was made clear we had to do.
So the wait outside the bus continued, interrupted every few minutes by women coming by saying "change money, change money" meaning wanting to rip us off by changing our Laos Kip to Vietnamese Dong. Knowing that their rate was shocking (we have an excellent App on our phone for that) we waved off about 8 of these ladies. We didn’t have any Dong on us (the Vietnamese currency is a closed one) but we knew we didn’t need any till we found a cashpoint when we reached our destination and we had a bunch of dollars, which are readily accepted in Vietnam, if we really needed to buy something.
At 6.45am we were given back our passports by the ‘passport man’ - he much richer with everyone’s 30,000 kip lining his pocket, we with a Laos departure stamp happily added to our ever filling passports. We were ordered to start walking over to the border area and held at a gate for the remaining 15 minutes. Just before crossing, a border official summoned all 5 of us foreigners to a little booth signed ‘Health Quarantine’ where another guy pointed a plastic gun at each of our foreheads. Tess must have had a slight look of terror on her face because he quickly explained that he was taking our temperature! All the Lao and Vietnamese nationals did not have to do this, making us wonder what strange diseases Brits, Koreans and Chinese have that they don’t!
At exactly 7am the border gate finally opened and we were allowed to walk through to the Vietnamese border control building (passing the Laos departure gate at which we could have had our passports stamped ourselves with no trouble and without parting with 30k Kip…). We were stopped twice while random guards thumbed through our passports most thoroughly, checking all stamps and having a good look at where we had been. Because of this we ended up right at the back of a long queue for passport control to enter Vietnam and had to wait around 30minutes before finally getting the all clear to enter. Whilst waiting in this queue we couldn’t help but notice the distinct Communist feel around us – the red flag of Vietnam, another red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle were everywhere, the fairly imposing border building, the very stern border officials and the way all the people were herded, mostly in silence to where the guards wanted. Laos is also a communist state, but this felt very different indeed. We wouldn’t say it was a pleasant experience, a little scary actually, but fascinating for sure. If it wasn’t for one of the border officials who displayed a touch of a cheeky sense of humour, we would have been feeling not too confident of liking Vietnam by this stage!
Entry stamps got, another summons to get our stamps checked yet again by a different guard randomly sitting on a fence a little further up from the border and a rushed walk to get to our bus which was beeping at us as though it was our fault this whole process had taken ages, and we were finally in Vietnam proper. Phew. So here’s hoping this journey is not representative of how we will find the country as a whole!