My rather shrill and decidedly temperamental Thai alarm clock surprised me immensely by sounding at 5am. Prior to this morning's unexpected accuracy my contender for the world's cheapest and most unreliable alarm clock had both completely failed to activate, and also gone off at 3.45am without my having any recollection of setting it for that ungodly hour. On that notable occasion I was on my way from Bangkok to Chaing Mai, and was sharing a first-class sleeper compartment with perhaps twenty fellow backpacker's and a handful of wealthy Thai's. Thankfully I had my curtain drawn across so no-one realised the source of their nocturnal interruption.
Where was I? Oh, yes, Vientiane the capital city of Laos PDR, 5am and the scene of my first major success with my erratic little alarm clock.Vientiane had proven itself to be a rather dull and uninspiring city. So it was with a certain sense of relief that i bounded out of bed, washed, dressed, slung my backpack over my shoulder, and sauntered outside in search of a tuk tuk to take me to the bus station.For anyone who may be wondering, finding a tuk tuk in the dark and deserted streets of Vientiane at a little after 5am is surprisingly easy.
Firstly, walk for around twenty minutes in what you assume is the direction of the riverfront. At this stage you may, if you are anything like me, suddenly become aware of the fact that you are a little bit disoriented. Fear not, for if you strike out down that little road to the left, completely on a whim as I did, you will be sure to stumble out almost exactly where you had intended to be. Assuming you are anything like me of course.In my case I arrived at the riverfront near to the delicious food stalls that are open at night time. Unfortunately at this hour one is not greeted by the terrific aroma of frying beef, simmering lemon grass and sizzling chilli.
Unfortunately at this hour one is not greeted by anything or anyone much at all. Suffice to say there wasn't a soul about, let alone a tuk tuk in sight. Having factored this precise scenario into my morning's schedule I was aware that I still had plenty of time. The bus I needed to take to theborder town of Lak Sao didn't leave until 6.
30am, and I had been reliably informed that the bus station was only ten minutes by tuk tuk.However, I didn't much relish the thought of an early morning hike without food in my belly, and with only my heavily laden backpack for company. But hike I did and just when I was giving up hope of ever finding a tuk tuk I spotted a slumbering soldier with a rifle across his lap. An ambiguous and non-committal hand gesture was his only response to my polite enquiry about a tuk tuk. So I simply pressed on. Several minutes later and with my mood darkening, a solitary tuk tuk loomed on the horizon.
Quite a magnificent sight if the truth be told. With my previously sagging spirits given a mighty lift I began to march towards the tuk tuk, very aware that my bus was due to leave in a little over half an hour.After waking up the dozing and dishevelled driver and negotiating a price, I was very soon hurtling through the early morning city streets towards the bus station.
People were beginning to stir, monks were strolling in search of alms, and roadside stalls and other businesses were slowly being readied for the day ahead. The sun was unhurriedly rising and lighting the scenes unfurling around me in a most agreeable manner. Vientiane at this hour appeared gentle and charming, almost attractive. But I had a bus to catch and with about two minutes to spare we screeched into the bus station, my driver hurling my bag at me and pointing to my bus and the ticket office.
I ran to the ticket office and bought a ticket before attempting to board the bus. I had to take my backpack on the bus with me and clambering over sacks of rice, various baskets and cages of livestock and one notably diminutive man, proved a little tricky. I soon came to the realisation that there weren't any seats left on the bus. Sensing that i was a little perplexed as to where I was going to spend the next 8 or so hours, a kindly old lady with a basket of chickens and assortment of vegetables on her elderly lap pointed in the direction of a pile of sacks at the end of the bus. I nodded my thanks and reminded myself of the fact that I was travelling on a public bus in Laos after all. This was what travel was all about and why I had chosen to travel by public bus in the first place.
I chucked my pack onto the back seat and slumped into my pile of sacks. I actually found them to be quite agreeable.I couldn't see out the windows which is normally how i pass long bus journeys, so instead I read my book and drifted in and out of a sleep of the head-lolling, jolt awake variety. Apart from a cacophony of noise provided by the wildfowl on board, the journey was uneventful by South-East Asian standards, and we arrived in Lak Sao at 3pm.
My plan was to find a guesthouse and explore Lak Sao for a while, and then spend the night there beofre heading into Vietnam in the morning. I was in no hurry, my Vietnamese visa started on 18th September, today was 17th. I had plenty of time so I was happy to break the journey into two and move nice and steadily.Finding out via ten minutes of sign language that there was in fact no guesthouse in Lak Sao slightly scuppered my plans. That they proved to be ill-researched plans had sadly led to my current predicament.
My style of travel has and always will be the "wing it and see what happens" style of travel. This "things will work themselves out in their own weird and wonderful way" approach to travelling has led me into some fascinating situations in the past and inevitably will do so again in the future. Usually I emerge unscathed and armed with a unique story. That's the theory anyway.
The only time this theory cannot be applied, confidently at least, is when one is trying to enter the Socialist Republic of Vietnam one day before their visa officially begins. From all that I had heard on the traveller's grapevine I had about as much chance of entering Vietnam on this particular day as I did of finding rocking-horse shit! However, I didn't have many options and I had given up trying to explain my predicament to the friendly but insistent group of guys offering to drive me to the border and on into Vietnam.So with a great deal of trepidation I threw my bag onto the roof of the minibus, paid my $5 and took a seat. I soon learned that I was to be sharing this nerve-jangling journey with a very curious bunch of people, who I later realised constituted my first impression of the Vietnamese.
The gentleman sitting just across the aisle was chain-smoking ghastly smelling cigarettes with his window firmly rolled down. Another fellow kept hawking up phlegm from the recesses of his lungs and periodically depositing it into a plastic bag he appeared to have brought with him for just that purpose. My third and final fellow passenger was a Vietnamese lady who, to her credit, displayed rather more unobtrusive and sociable character traits. At one stage in our journey she silently offered to share her fried rice with me.
Not meaning to offend I nevertheless politely declined her kind offer.Alongside myself and the Vietnamese passengers were row upon row of cardboard boxes. Quite what these contained I do not know but judging from the hushed, anxious exchanges between the driver and his companion, I assumed the contents weren't technically allowed to leave Laos and enter Vietnam.
Something fishy was going on but that wasn't my chief concern. As we pulled to a stop behind various other vehicles at the border post I was more than a little pre-occupied with the possiblity that I might be denied entry into Vietnam. Precisely what I would be do in this event I did not know. The cardboard boxes were the least of my worries.After waiting around for what seemed an eternity it was our vehicle's turn to approach the border guards.
I was stamped out of Laos with the minimum of fuss. Confirming my suspicions that something fishy was indeed going on, I witnessed my driver palm a border official some money. The search of our vehicle was then less thorough than usual and with the cardboard boxes officially ignored we were waved through.
Towards the Vietnamese side of the border!.Being the only westerner in our group I had to wander over to the imposing Immigration Building on my own. My heart was in my mouth as I presented my passport to the unsmiling official. As he thumbed through my passport to find my visa I realised that my immediate future lay in this indifferent man's hands.
I felt less than comfortable. Soon enough he had located my visa and was beckoning over his stony-faced colleague. After a brief, unreadable conversation the other man walked away.
The man behind the plexi-glass coughed, yawned and then looked me right in the eyes. My heart sank. He cleared his throat, it was the moment of truth.The Immigration official spoke. My heart was beating so loudly in my ears I thought he said $10. He did say $10! I slipped the note under the counter and watched as he placed that glorious stamp in my passport, slid it back to me and waved me into Vietnam.
Easy. What had I been worrying about?.Safely back in the van I replayed the scene in my mind.
Was it a bribe? Or was it an official fee imposed when entering the country one day early? My guidebook couldn't clarify this for me and frankly I wasn't fussed. I had made it into Vietnam and what an exhilarating way to do so!.So, I found myself, twelve hours after my alarm clock had finally realised it's potential, in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. As the day gradually shifted into night I stared at the rolling hills of green and allowed my self to relax and take stock. I hadn't meant to when I woke up this morning but I had made it into Vietnam. I had thirty days to explore this fascinating and beautiful country.
I was excited and I was content. In amongst all the panic and confusion back at the border I had managed to find some food and a bottle of water. I sat back and let myself enjoy the journey.I'm not sure how long I had been day-dreaming for but I suddenly became aware that the co-driver had clambered through the minibus and was sitting in the seat next to me.
I reluctantly snapped out of my reverie and realised that he had been asking me for another $10. In Lak Sao I had agreed a price of $5 to be driven to Vinh, in Vietnam. Now they were suddenly demanding more. I argued for a while, angry that the Vietnamese passengers weren't being asked for $10. I knew a two-tier pricing system existed in South-East Asia, and had had no problem with it until now, but being confronted with it so blatantly made me exasperated.
My arguments proved futile and faced with no choice I handed over the $10 very begrudgingly. I wasn't having the best day of my trip and all I wanted was to get to Vinh, fall asleep and start again tomorrow.About seven O'Clock we stopped in a dirty, nondescript little town.
Mistakenly assuming we were stopping for food or to use the toilet, it came as a great shock when I was told we had to change to another minibus. I hadn't been told this earlier, and nor it seemed had my fellow passengers. We were all a bit confused and our doubts and suspicions were soon magnified by the arrival of our new driver. Beady-eyed, unkempt and smelling distinctly of rice wine he was not an individual that easily instilled confidence.
Especially considering I hadn't had the most relaxing of days thus far and was feeling quite fatigued. Now I was stood in a grubby little town somewhere between the border with Laos, and Vinh, our final destination. It was pouring with rain and my new driver appeared to be drunk. Vietnamese roads at night have a reputation for being very crowded and very poorly lit.
Accidents are common and travellers are strongly advised not to travel by road after dark.Not faced with a tremendous amount of options I shoved my pack into the bus and jumped in after it. No sooner had I slammed the door shut we were off. We pulled into the frantic melee of scooters and drove for all of about ten minutes before stopping abruptly. The driver alighted the vehicle and entered what appeared to be a house. Quarter of an hour later he re-appeared and came ambling towards the vehicle before slowly and unsteadily re-positioning himself in the driver's seat.
His hair was wet and slicked back and smelt unmistakably of shampoo. He had also changed his clothes. It appeared that our potentially inebriated driver had treated himself to a quick shower before propelling us to Vinh. Despite having been awake and on the move for over fifteen hours, and having a rapidly diminishing sense of fun, I managed a smile at this man's unbelievable nerve. I actually quite liked the way this chap conducted himself! I just hoped he wasn't really loaded and that we made it to Vinh in one piece.
If he was driving under the influence it never showed, and three hours or so after his shower our inimitable driver pulled alongside a kerb and triumphantly announced that we had made it to Vinh. The time was 10.45pm and I had now been awake for seventeen hours and forty five minutes. In that time I had stumbled and groped my through the dark streets of Vientiane in search of a tuk tuk.
I had been sat on the floor of a public bus surrounded by quacking, squeaking, and clucking farm animals. I discovered that there wasn't a guesthouse in Lak Sao. I had shared a minibus with one man constantly smoking and another constantly spitting into a plastic bag. I had unwittingly been involved in an illegal smuggling operation although I only played a very minor role. I had possibly bribed a Vietnamese Immigration Official.
I had been ripped off. I had swapped minibuses in a dingy little town. My new driver had snuck off for a quick shower.
He may well have been drunk. It had certainly been a long and enervating day.Alas, we had finally reached Vinh and I felt an immense sense of relief washing over me.
I had made it. I began to reflect on how these situations always have a habit of working themselves out in the end. Then I realised that I was exhausted and had to find a bed for the night.
So I asked my driver the whereabouts of the nearest hotel. True to his unpredictable nature he shrugged, pointed up the road somewhat vaguely, and proceeded to drop my backpack into the deepest puddle I had ever seen. With that he cleared his lungs, spat vehemently inches from my feet, nonchalantly combed back his hair and sprang into his cockpit before speeding away.Excuse me, where did you say that hotel was again?..
By: Jonathan Parkes