Trompe le Monde: A Round the World Tour Diary

An online travel diary so people can keep up to date with what I'm doing and where I'm going.

Location: Home, United Kingdom

You all know who I am, I assume.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Odd-yssey

Last time you heard from me I was in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, getting ready to travel to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Here is the account of that epic journey.

It begins on the morning of the 5th December, in Vientiane. We knew our bus to the Vietnamese border left Vientiane bus station that night at 4 in the morning, so we had a day to waste. However, we'd deliberately left some things in Vientiane to do, to fill said day.

So we saw a couple of temples, both of which were nice. One of them is a symbol of Laos independence, a giant golden (painted) Stupa (sort of like a Buddhist spire), and the other was the oldest temple in Vientiane, having been built early in the nineteenth century (Vientiane has been sacked by just about everybody who's ever been in the region so there's very little really old stuff left standing - even that temple has had to be rebuilt since then, as the original was burnt down by the Siamese). I'm afraid, though, that I can't remember the names of either.

We also went back to the Vietnamese Embassy, and collected our visas. While waiting I read a book written by the general of the NVA from teh time of the French and American wars. It was the most biased historical account I've ever read, making such dubious claims as (I'm paraphrasing, but this is the gist): "With the defeat of the Germans and Japanese, Capitalism was clearly falling and the world was entering a new phase". Now, the original had been written in 1974, so from that point of view it could have been seen as fair enough. But I was reading a 2004 revised edition. I think even the nutters from Warwick Uni Students' and Socialist Workers' Party would know to take that out in a revised edition... We also stole another three toilet rolls from the Embassy toilets!

Next up was that most traditional of things to do when wasting time in the capital city of a Communist country: ten pin bowling. Yes, Laos has a bowling alley, so we went along. It was a far cry from the skills displayed as a result of repeated practice in my second year of university, but none of us disgraced ourselves particularly.

All done, we mooched about for the rest of the day, eating dinner very slowly, and then walked to the bus station. It was around 9 o'clock. We had seven hours to kill at a bus station in the middle of the night.

At this point we became aware of the sort-of-hotel nehind us, part of the bus station complex, it would appear. Not that we wanted a room, as we had very little currency left in the Laos kip. But it was of slight concern that this was very much the kind of hotel that rented rooms by the hour, if you get what I mean. And indeed, over the next seven hours, a variety of shady characters and women came and went from the rooms. Classy. I spent most of the time reading books I've bought over the course of my travels so far: "Lord Jim" by Joseph Conrad, which is excellent, and which I got for 50 Rupees from a roadside book vendor in Mumbai, and "The Rock Says", an old autobiography of WWF Wrestler-turned-rubbish-film-actor The Rock, which is also excellent, and which I got for 10 baht from the "everything must go" rack of a second hand bookshop in Chiang Mai. So there you go, literature and wrestling. All to ignore prositution.

Finally, our bus came, and we got on. It left at 4am or so, and I could finally lapse into blessed sleep. And doze I did, notwithstanding the jolting, potholed roads, freezing cold mist streaming in through the open doors, and cramped hard seating. The road we were travelling on? That's right, it was Route 13 Revisited!

Route 13, for those who missed my words about it on my previous post, is a dangerous road on which buses are semi-frequently held up and robbed by armed Hmong tribesmen/bandits. Oh, and they blew up Vientiane bus station in 2003. That's right, the very same bus station at which we'd spent most of the night. Observant readers will also recall that dangerous, dangerous Route 13 was the scene of our bus breaking down for around three quarters of an hour last time I travelled on it, and therefore the scene of many a fatalistic "here come the bandits" type joke.

Back to the present, though, and I was dozing on a bus travelling on the aforementioned deadly transport route.


An almighty explosion sound rocked the bus. It skidded slightly, slewed a bit, then the bus driver wrested some measure of control back from the road and bring us to a halt at the side of the road. The smell of burning was thick in the air, and the bus was leaning over to it's back and left, yawing into the centre of the road. Everyone got off, to see one of the pair of back left tyres in shreds. We'd suffered a massive tyre blowout. Once again, we were stranded on dangerous Route 13, waiting for the morons in charge to fix the bus. This time, though, it was a bitterly cold and misty half six in the morning. We stood around hugging ourselves and stamping our feet to keep warm, and, yes, cracking fatalistic jokes about armed rebels. It took them once again around three quarters of an hour to replace the tyre, once they'd found the replacement buried under the sacks of grain being transported at the back of the bus (I have no idea). But fortunately we didn't hear a single AK-47, and we were soon safely on our way again.

We arrived at Lac Sao, a town near the Laos/Vietnam border, at around midday, and were immediately set upon by Vietnamese bus people trying to get us to take their bus to Hanoi. We explained we wanted to go to Vinh (in central Vietnam) to spend the night there, and soon got ourselves transport on what seemed to be a van with seats in it, staffed by three shady looking blokes. Still, for only US$5, the price was right. And it's not like we had any choice - we weren't going to stay in Lac Sao!

Of course, we started regretting the move quite early on in the trip, when our boys began stopping to load goods into the van. And I mean stopping lots. And I walso mean lots of good. Duvets, steam cleaners, rice cookers, the ubiquitous sacks of grain, boxes and boxes of red bull, and (unbelievably) two or three fridges were all loaded into or on top of the bus as we journeyed to the border, through the wettest, mistiest, coldest mountainous jungle terrain I've ever seen. We even stopped at two warehouses high in the mountains. That's right, we seemed to be getting a lift into Vietnam in a smuggler's van!

We got to the border, and had to get off thebus to present our passports to Laos immigration to get them stamped and so on. While doing this we could only take our day bags with us, leaving our other bags on the bus with the smugglers. I'm not going to pretend the whole thing didn't make me nervous. I mean, first of all, tehy could have just driven off with our stuff. And if they didn't do that, they could have put anything in our bags! Needless to say, the officious Lao bureacrat behind the glass took her sweet time performing the requisite multiple stamping on our passports...

When we got out, the bus was still there, so that was a start! We drove on and soon arrived at the Vietnamese immigration point. This was on the top of a steep mountain, an austere concrete Communist block of a building. At this point visibility was down to around 5m due to the mist. What with that and the architecture, I felt like I was in the opening sequence of a Bond film! Again we had to leave our big bags in the van, taking in our day bags. Got our passports stamped, paid the "stamping fee" (yeah, right, there's a stamping fee - blatantly baksheesh, but when it's a Vietnamese border guard and it's only about 50p, you just pay), and had our bags put through customs' X-Ray scanner. Oh, and we got given a free packet of condoms. Yup, that wasn't a typo: condoms. God knows why - some sort of anti-AIDS initiative, perhaps?

Then we went back to the bus again, and were told that they wouldn't carry our bags over the border. We'd have to do that ourselves. Immediately I was edgy. But a quick check and I couldn't see any evidence of anything having been taken out or put in my bag. So I picked it up, put it on my pack, carrying my other bag in my hand, and walked across the border. And that was it. That's right, I didn't have anyone check my big bag. Only my day bag was X-rayed. I simply walked over the border the second time. I could have been carrying guns, crack and porno and gotten completely away with it.

The van got through customs eventually, having seemed to make a lot of presents of goods to various guards along the way (don't know why Vietnam had such a name for corruption), and we were again on our way, in Vietnam.

We got in to Vinh at around six that night, having had to change buses once. We did annoyingly get dropped at the train station rather than the bus station, as they pretended not to understand us while at the same time trying to get us to either stay at their mate's guest house round the corner, or go witht hem to Hanoi there and then (I mean, come on - we'd been on the road for a hell of a long time!). Exhausted, ratty, bewildered, we got a room in another sleazy guesthouse and slept beneath mosquito nets that stank like death shrouds for nearly 12 hours.

Next morning we got up at around 9am, made our way to the bus station, and immediately procured a bus to Hanoi. We arrived in Hanoi at about 5, and our journey was finally over.

First, though, we had to get a room. The first place we went to could do us a triple room for US$10 per night, but we reckoned we could do better. So we went to another guesthouse. They had no room, but while we sat and drank rubbish "flower tea" (what I wouldn't give, at this point, after so many months, for a proper strong cup of tea!) they rang around and found another place that had a triple room for US$9. We figured we'd take this, as we figured we wouldn't find anything cheaper.

When we got to the hotel, we were amazed - I mean, it looked like an actual posh hotel. Fish pool, polished floors, a reception desk, a restaurant. It was small, but boy, did it look out of our league. We were shown up to our room on the third floor, and... well, we had arrived! It had a TV, a sit-down toilet, a shower, a fridge(!) and, best of all, a balcony looking over the busy narrow Old Quarter street we were on. What it didn't have, though, was three beds. It had two single beds. The woman explained that we could just push the two beds together and sleep the three of us like that. Er... That might work with Asians, who tend to be small. But we're northern Europeans, who tend to be larger. And we're none of us small guys. Could you not bring another mattress in, we asked, and put it on the floor. Reluctantly she agreed to this, and then she tried to claim that the room would cost US$12. A quick putting back on of the bags and making as if to leave later, though, and she was back down to US$9.

Twenty or so minutes later, the mattress arrived. Followed by a bed. In front of our very eyes, the guy put together a bed from it's component parts. We were now staying in a super-plush (by our standards) three bed room with satellite, sit-down toilet, hot shower, balcony over the street below and fridge (!) for only US$9. We had arrived.


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