The bus bit
From Vientiane, Laos – next stop Vietnam. We cycled to the Vietnamese embassy on our Tandems to organise our Vietnam visas whilst in Vientiane and after some scouting around for the best price we booked ourselves on the night bus to Hanoi (via Vinh). Not to be deterred by our 15 hours on a bus 5 days earlier, we opted again for bus transport (to be honest the only other realistic option was plane and we couldn’t afford it) and not any old bus – the (k)night bus!
We were picked up from our hostel and taken to the bus terminal along with four other intrepid travellers (an adventure in itself, not certain we were going to arrive in time given the traffic) we were dropped off by the chauffeur, pointed in the direction of a group of men sitting on small plastic stools and a tiny table, who it turned out were organising the buses. We had no idea which bus we were on, the driver had gone off with our tickets in hand and saying he’d be back in five minutes – welcome to Lao organisation. We were told to stand by a particular bus with all the other ‘Western looking’ travellers who were attempting the same route, while Lao and Vietnamese passengers were ushered past us, the doors of the bus closed and off it went! At that point we were all herded to another bus where, after another round of Lao and Vietnamese passengers being ushered past, we were finally allowed to get on board.
And so, our neon-lit, mean machine was dubbed the Harry Potter bus as the boys, sitting in their bunks thought it was just like the Knight bus that Harry rides on through London. From my point of view the driving was also remarkably similar (for those of you who have no idea what I am talking about you can watch the clip here). Twisting up through Lao mountain roads towards the Vietnam border had me rolling around my bunk several times and I’m not sure I got more than an hours sleep in our fourteen hour trip from sheer nerves!
The border bit
Then there was the border experience – oh boy! Unlike our seamless, easy crossing from Thailand to Laos, this mountain pass, land border crossing was a little more intrepid. We arrived at the border at around 5 a.m. to find the border closed. It opened at 7 a.m., so we had to wait for a couple of hours. Then it got frantic. With no instructions and no idea what was going on, other than that we had heard horror stories of people being left at the border by bus companies, we were guided into the Lao departure corridor, queued at the “foreigners” desk and were duly processed out of Laos.
Then the fun and games began. We got back on our bus, but before all of our other fellow passengers were back on board the bus started off across the long bridge in no-mans land. Frantically trying to indicate to the driver and staff that not everyone was with us, and being totally ignored, we looked out in dismay. Then the bus stopped again and we were told to get off and take our rucksacks from the luggage compartment – we now know that at this point we were being processed into Vietnam and our big bags had to be scanned for security, but at the time we had no clue what was going on. With very little sleep and lots of skepticism, we nervously wondered what was in store, as our bus drove on past us and through the security gates further along the road…
Our bags were processed, our visas and passports were checked and we were indicated to queue by the barriers, where we could still see our bus just beyond our grasp. We started talking to our fellow European bus passengers, who were just as baffled as we were, discussing the plight of two dutch lads that had been left on the Lao border side and tried to communicate to the bus company staff that they couldn’t just be left there.
As we were waiting in the queue to be allowed in to Vietnam, a Spanish couple from our bus came running up to ask if anyone had dollars they could lend them – their electronic visas weren’t being accepted, they had to pay an additional fee for a visa and their dollars were in their hand luggage on the bus, as were ours. We were relieved we had organised our visa through the embassy at this point! A Vietnamese border guard started processing everyone through the gate, ahead of us the odd few people were being directed towards a doorway 20m or so away. When it came to our turn, he looked at our visas, didn’t let us through and waved us towards the same doorway. In a state of total confusion and mild panic, the four of us went over to the doorway, with the concern that the bus would set off without us, with our hand luggage on board, in the back of our minds.
We turned a corner to find a few of our fellow passengers paying for an additional entrance stamp to be put in their passports before they were allowed to enter the country. We approached the very stern looking customs official, who told us that we had to pay an additional 2 dollars each person for a stamp to validate our visa – well, this was news to us, so we politely questioned why. The official, however, was in no mood for explanations to us stupid foreigners, no stamp no entry and he waved us aside – but our problem was no money, no stamp. We hung around for a few long minutes assessing how we were going to deal with this – we couldn’t believe we might not get through the border for the sake of 8 dollars and didn’t even want to imagine the kerfuffle of trying to head back to Vientiane, there were no cash machines, this border was not that sophisticated, when a good samaritan (fellow passenger) who had his money on him said he could loan us the money. The relief was immense and although we somewhat indignantly handed over the money to the customs official we got our all important stamp and could head back to the barrier guard. As if by magic, when we rounded the corner the two ‘left-behind’ Dutch guys appeared, having had to walk the bridge in no mans land, and were now being processed through too. What’s more, our bus was still there!
With more than a little relief, this time we were allowed through the turn style and welcomed into Vietnam. We got back on the bus, took our places for the rest of the journey on to Vinh and sighed a huge sigh of relief…we had made it! Now all that was left was to sit back and enjoy the rest of the trip.