Laos to Vietnam border crossing

June 16, 2005

Warning-this travelogue may cause heart palpitations in our parents. Best read while sitting down or while consuming mass quantities of booze. Very long post.**

Today we make the trip to cross the Laos/Vietnam border. Having decided on this border crossing at the beginning of our trip we felt that it worked the best with our travel plans. Our travel guide did note that all border crossings in Vietnam were sketchy at best but we wanted to see the Plain of Jars so we decided to cross on land. We took a truck to the Laos border and went through Laos immigration with no problems. One guard even commented on how handsome Craig was and how he liked his facial hair. We walked about 1/2 mile to the Vietnam border and this is where things got weird.

Upon entering we were greeting politely by the Vietnam guards. They said hello and shook our hands. We were told to go to customs first which was a hut right next door to the immigration and quarantine huts. We left our bags and the filled out our declaration forms. The guard asked where we were from and we said America and he asked if we were from Washington. We pointed at their map to Denver and he smiled. He went on to say, "Bush no good, I liked Clinton." Anyway, we got through customs and were told to go to immigration so we walked 5 feet over to the immigration office(hut). They told us to go to the quarantine office which consisted of us standing there while another guard filled out some paperwork and handed it to us. We finally got to enter the immigration office and watched another guard do his thing. All the while every guard in the area kept picking up our passports and reviewing them with sober looks on their faces. Compared to the Thailand/Laos border crossing this was very formal and a bit intimating. The guard handed us our passports back and we went back to customs to get our bags. Two guards asked us to empty our bags for security reasons which we were fine with. After making sure we weren't a threat the main guard suggested a path to get to Hanoi. He "kindly" drew us a map w/ the towns along the way, how many kilometers each leg was and the cost of transportation. He was able to provide us transportation to the first stop on motorbike. We weren't super thrilled with this idea but felt a bit stuck so we accepted. $16 dollars later we had our bags strapped onto the motorbikes and we were off to Quan Son. Riding on the back of a motorbike was really thrilling as we climbed bamboo covered mountains. On the downhill portions our drivers would kill the engine and all you could hear was the sound of the air rushing by your ears. It was a heart pumping and beautiful ride. About 30 minutes into the ride my driver stopped, jumped off the bike and ran to a bamboo tent to grab a bamboo pipe of sorts. He then produced a bag of what I'm assuming was an illegal substance and proceeded to smoke that substance out of the pipe. I tried to laugh and smile and motioned to smoke just a little, which he did and we were off. I went to my "happy place" at this stage of the trip. For those not familiar with the "happy place" term it involves zoning out of the current situation to one which brings you the biggest smile to your heart so you can block out the real situation at hand. Remarkably we didn't drive long before we stopped again. Now the border guard said we'd travel 55kms by motorbike to Quan Son where we'd pick up a bus to Thanh Hoa and then on to Hanoi. Where we stopped didn't have a bus in sight but a sign did note Quan Son on it. My gut told me it wasn't right but the signs in Vietnam have about 30 words on average on each one so you never really know. Immediately we were swamped by about 20 guys trying to negotiate a ride in a taxi to either Thanh Hoa or Hanoi. These guys were also sporting a similar bamboo pipe so we knew it could be a long process. The border guard said the bus should be $2.50 per person and the owner of the taxi started negotiations off at $150 for both of us to Hanoi. We both almost fainted. Not only was that a ridiculous amount we simply didn't have $150 worth of US dollars on us. Thus started 45 minutes on us lowering the price and them raising the price. It went on an on like this until at final desperation we decided to pay the guy $40 to take us to Thanh Hoa. He wasn't happy but he agreed and we were off. Keep in mind Thanh Hoa is about 155kms from Quan Son so he was making a killing off of us but we just wanted to get on with it. After another 40 minutes of driving he stopped and picked up a girl and then drove further down the street and stopped. He motioned to the bus and asked for $40. We were flabbergasted. This guy thought he could drive us 35kms for $40 and then he'd give the bus driver some of the $40. We weren't having any of it and Craig immediately jumped out of the van to get our bags. The guy responded in hostility and I asked the girl, which we found out was his daughter, to ask him to calm down. As Craig grabbed our bags the guy tried to shut the hatch door on his head and came over to my door and locked it. Panic set in and I instantly grabbed to unlock the door and got out of the van. In typical fashion the entire town had gathered around the van to catch a free show. The daughter did know some English so we tried over and over to explain that we were going to pay her dad $40 to drive us from Quan Son to Thanh Hoa. She was just as confused because she said we were just now in Quan Son. So yeah the motorbike drivers ditched us 35kms before there were suppose to. So essentially we were double paying just to get to Quan Son. The father was getting increasingly angry as we continued to tell him we paid for him to take us to the bus station in Thanh Hoa and not to the first destination which we thought we'd already arrived at. Regardless he wasn't happy and wanted his money and wanted it now. The bus driver wasn't going to wait for us to finish and he left. I continued to plead with the daughter to understand our position and she became just as hostile as the father. At one point I said "We were willing to pay your father a lot of money and he didn't take us where we wanted so we aren't paying the entire amount. We aren't trying to be cheap or cheat your father but he didn't live up to his end of the bargain." She couldn't understand the concept and got right in my face and called me "Cheap" in the nastiest tone imaginable. This is where I walked away and had my first travel breakdown. I couldn't believe how greedy these people were being and how heartless they were acting. Craig continued the war of the words as the bus we wanted swung by again. As expected the driver of the bus wanted a piece of the action and said we could board for $20. Yeah, $16 more than the standard fare. We said no and they drove off. About 20 minutes later they reappeared asking for $18. We said no again and they motioned that we could walk and laughed as they drove off. As Craig and I sat in the rain on the nearest curb the father and daughter had gone across the street to enjoy a leisurely drink while telling the other onlookers the story and laughing at our predicament as well. Finally they walked over with two other guys and got in the van to drive off. I said "Doesn't your father want the $7 we agreed to pay him?" The daughter said "You pay now?" I said yes and we did so. Almost immediately they offered to let us stay the night at their house and would drive us to Thanh Hoa the next day. We politely declined and they drove off. We might look like fools but we weren't idiots. There was no way we'd stay the night at their house. We both thought we might be sleeping in the jungle that night but it would probably be safer than their house. We put our packs on and walked down the street until we found a official looking business. It was the local post office and we asked about any other means of transportation out of the town. Keeping in line with the others the guy behind the desk offered to take us by motorbike to Thanh Hoa for $45. We laughed and asked about somewhere to sleep. He pointed across the street and we went to find a room. Luckily there was one available and for the next 5 hours we sat in the room with a chair against the door and fumed at the people we had just experienced and the predicament we were in. We had $40 US dollars to our name, no dong as there weren't any banks at the border to get the Vietnamese currency and hadn't had anything to eat but a few pieces of bread that morning. We decided to ask about the next bus out of town and found some guys that confirmed the there was a 4:00 am bus to Thanh Hoa the next day. Not chancing it we asked the girl working at the hotel and she confirmed the time and price. After that we wouldn't leave our room until we woke up the next day at 3:30am. This was by far the worst encounter we've experienced on our travels but fortunately we had each other and were still safe so we counted our lucky stars for that. Our entertainment that night consisted of re-hashing the earlier 5 hours and watching a volleyball game outside our window.

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