I did not expect to come to Laos to see my first real life Tesla. I recognised the car was something a bit special, but it took Ben to identify it. That’s real money in any country and I think it helped confirm that what we were seeing was the concentrated wealth of Vientiane, not what life is like for the majority in Laos. Having cleared that up, we continued with our day of sight-seeing around Vientiane. We got half way around the National Museum before we were politely kicked out for the lunch time closure. We’d got from the dinosaurs to the beginning of the uprising against the French, and the lack of English translations in this section was starting to lose me.
Ben’s stomach was feeling sensitive so we had Friday pizza for lunch. Then we went around a few of the temples, or ‘wat’s. I was asked to wrap a long Laos skirt over my shorts at the entrance to the grounds. Apparently my hairy legs were a problem but I’m not sure whether it was for Buddha or the monks. Ben’s hairy legs however, were just fine. All of the temples are very ornate and some had roof tiles that shone so much they look lacquered. One had thousands of Buddha statues or statuettes housed around the long walls of a courtyard. At another, visiting monks appeared to kiss the feet of a particular statue and people kneeled before the main statue. It made me think of church proceedings and we wondered what Buddha would make of it all.
As the afternoon wore on we both felt the sudden need to visit the toilets at each of the temples. So back to the hostel it was to take some tablets and cross our fingers they worked for the bus trip. Luckily they did or it would have been an even more uncomfortable night.
We’d read about the bus from Vientiane to Vinh/Hanoi but we still weren’t really prepared for the strangeness of it. We were told to be ready for the transfer from the hostel at 5 pm for the 6:30 bus. The songthaew arrived half an hour late but no worries, we had enough experience now to know the bus would wait for us or be late anyway. We made our way slowly through the dust and fumes of peak hour traffic at the end of a hot day. I finally fully appreciated the value of women’s printed fabric face masks.
The bus station was a dirt paddock ringed with buses. We were relieved to find we weren’t on a dodgy looking one, but an outlandish sleeper bus. It had flashing LED signs in the front window – the modern neon. We had to take our shoes off as we climbed on. The aisle was covered in foam mats. To the sides there were foot high dividers between the ‘seats’ and a mat covering the whole floor between. The top bunks were raised on chrome posts and consisted of super reclining seats. All was in burgundy pleather. LED strip lighting ran the length of both sides of the ceiling, in sections of red, blue and green. There was no mirror ball but there was karaoke on the TV screen the next morning. It took a while for everyone to arrive and even then there was not rush to leave. This didn’t bother us because one of the things we had read was that there was likely to be a long wait at the border. There was.
According to those other reports, we arrived at the border right on time at 2 am. Immigration didn’t open until 7 am. It didn’t make any more sense in real life than it did reading about it. The bus got turned off and we steamed. The reclining seats were perfectly uncomfortable. A lot of people got off and waited outside but I was still hopeful of getting some sleep. I didn’t but Ben got some.
The bus conductor herded us into the immigration building at 6:30 and we waited some more. All the bus conductors were way more pushy than the 12 or so of us foreigners and shoved their wads of passports for the local passengers in ahead of us. Eventually some hand waving indicated that we should all pass ours over. Because it was a weekend we then had to pay 10 000 kip each to get them back. Ben went back to the currency exchange to reclaim some kip and the person behind the counter laughed knowingly.
No one told us what to do next, but we’d read we had to walk across the border, so we made in that general direction. No one stopped us and a fellow who did try to go back towards the bus got pointed in the right direction. Which is basically how the next hour progressed. No one told us what to do, but if we did the wrong thing we’d be told. It was a strange walk. It’s about a kilometre of country road, over a little bridge, past construction sites and an abandoned building. Not really sure where to go, we all just kept going. The flow wasn’t as obvious as other border crossings, but it was all the same really. Immigration, customs, police checks for everyone plus the bus.
We were finally on our way again about two hours after Laos immigration opened. A few young Laos men shared a celebratory whiskey. Going down the hills from the border we saw what we didn’t see in the night coming up the other side. Steep valleys, narrow winding road and steep drops away. As well as going relatively slowly, the driver gave a warning honk approaching each blind corner. I’m not convinced it achieved anything but it was emblematic of traffic this side of the border.
Once down from the hills the bus pulled over and the three of us going to Vinh instead of Hanoi were suddenly required to change to a small local bus. The local bus was good because we could sit up properly and see out the windows better. It also had a very musical horn that must have been to announce itself to prospective passengers, much like an ice cream van. The young Vietnamese man sitting in front of Ben said something and waited for a reply. Getting none, he slowly and carefully said, “Where. Are. You. From?” When Ben said Australia he reached for his backpack and pulled out a soccer shirt with the Australian emblem.
If Australian’s homes are their castles, Vietnamese homes are their palaces. Tall and narrow even when they’re in open space, the many new ones on the road to Vinh had cupolas or other decorative elements. The front yards of many were fully enclosed as an after thought to provide cover for the shiney new car or motorbike and possibly some welcome shade.
We’d decided to go via Vinh instead of direct to Hanoi for a few reasons including wanting to test out the trains in Vietnam. On the way we also decided not to go to Halong Bay because doing it independently sounded demanding, and the tours available for our time frame didn’t really grab us for the prices being charged. So we decided to stop in Ninh Binh on the way to Hanoi instead because there are rock formations in lakes in the area that are similar to Halong Bay.
Several motorbike taxi, or xe om, drivers greeted us on our arrival in Vinh. You want us to get on the back of that, with all our stuff? You have got to be kidding! I took the travel book over to the bus conductor and pointed at the Vietnamese for train station. He said taxi, and very kindly called for one. We liked the taxi driver too. He picked our accents and tried to teach us how to say train station in Vietnamese. We got to the train station an hour before the next train. There were tickets available to Ninh Binh and the train wasn’t even very late. It was wide, had high ceilings, mild aircon, “Rail TV” showing on the two screens and large windows. Like the rest of the long distance trains we’ve been on so far, it’s showing its age. Time for some reading, writing and dozing.