… and into Laos

If overlooking China’s national week when booking (see previous post) was bad, overlooking Vietnam’s coastal typhoon season is really bad. I had looked at the climate graphs for Saigon in the South, and Hanoi in the North, and concluded that all would be fine. Sadly, both cities lie inland, and Vietnam is less than 100km wide in the middle – so there’s only coastal there, and that’s where typhoons hit, right about now. Traveling from North to South this time of year is not a good idea, so I decided to kick it to neighbouring Laos.

Halong Bay sunset Goodbye Vietnam – Halong Bay sunset

Though Vietnam now has several open land borders with Laos, most of these are of little use to most travelers, being quite a way from the major tourist destinations. Of these, the Tay Trung / Sop Hun in the far north is perhaps the most remote. From Hanoi, you have to take an overnight train to Sapa and then a minibus to Dien Bien Phu (it’s now also possible to take a direct overnight bus from Hanoi, but I avoid sleeper busses whenever possible), then a bus into Laos and then it’s another two days by boat before you get back to civilization.

Dien Bien Phu, though probably known by most at least by name (it was here the French forces met a decisive defeat against Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, effectively the end of Indochina), is of no interest to tourists: it’s nothing more than a dusty provincial town with one highway running through it and a few minor streets branching off. The road there from Sapa was atrocious. It’s only 150km as the crow flies, but it’s 280km by road. Of these, the first 180km took us a full seven hours. So abysmal was the road that even now, in the dry season, our Mercedes van had a hard time even getting across. Every time the driver hit a bump (which was always) the battered Benz made a sound like clucking hens. I felt a bit like a clutched egg myself at the end of the day. Still, it could be worse – at least it wasn’t hot.

From Dien Bien, it’s another day by bus to Muang Khua in Laos. At least the road is now paved and so much more comfortable and almost always passable – before, the journey could take up to two days, if it all possible. Still, seven hours is a lot to cover less than 100km. Snaking roads and unexpected landslides that block our passage are as much to blame for that as customs procedures.

I was warned about this crossing beforehand. Exit procedure at the Vietnamese side is easy enough, but getting into Laos is a different story. Laos does give a visa on arrival, but the customs officials are excruciatingly slow (‘do you think they could make it any more inefficient,’ I asked a fellow traveler. ‘It’s good, it just means they’re chilled out’ – well yes, I would be chilled out as well if I was continously living in an opium daze; without having seen any statistics I’d bet Laos is the one country with the highest percentage of opium smokers) and besides paying for the visa itself – which is 35USD, not cheap by any standard – you also have to pay a ‘fee service’ of 1USD and3000 kip (€0,30) for an ‘H1N1 check’ that is ostensibly fake: they supposedly take your temperature by pointing something like a barcode scanner at your forehead. Prices are always communicated by typing the number in a calculator and showing this to the other party, but they were rather surprised when I handed them back the calculator with 35 punched in, while I pointed at the visa pricelist. They pointed at the sign saying I had to pay one dollar for processing, and were quite offended when I said there was no such thing and that they had made it up. “You want to pay more? OK, you argue, you pay five dollars more”. Apparently, others realized this only it made it more obvious the fee was not official and were quick to try to convince me that no no, it was, in fact, an official government charge, and the guy with the barcode scanner (he could not have been older than 20 and looked rather mentally challenged) was a doctor who had to check for H1N1 (no matter that international treaties prohibit such medical checks as a condition for entry).

They got really pissed when I told them this was corruption – asking in an aggressive tone why I would say such a thing, and offering / threatening to give my money back while at the same time cancelling my visa. Wisely, I hung on to my passport. It was also possible to have a chat with the chief upstairs (literally; they weren’t threatening to kill me) but I – again, wisely – declined. Besides, there was a bus full of people waiting for me, so I made my way out of the checkpoint.

Some (most) people might think it’s only a dollar (‘petty overcharging’, my guidebook says), but in my view there’s no such thing as insignificant corruption. By paying without any protest you’re enabling corruption; I think if we have one ‘duty’ as Westerners it’s to not enable corruption, even petty corruption like this, in whatever small way possible. My protests are not going to achieve anything, obviously; I’m not delusional. But if every tourist passing through here got angry and called them out things might very well change.

We reach Muang Khua around 1.30pm. The road turns sharply downwards and then disappears into the Nam Ou river. Muang Khua is on the opposite bank, where the Nam Ou and Nam Phak meet. We’re ferried across in a narrow longboat. The town itself is ramshackle, but the picture is strangely fitting. A bend in the river, a dusty road; houses on stilts. Around it, the river flows brown; green forests on the opposite bank. As I sit on a terrace overlooking the Nam Ou, darkness falls, the sun, as always in the tropics, sinking rapidly. Before 6.30pm the night is pitch, the city becomes quiet, and the jungle comes alive with the deafening chirping of a million insects.

The End of the Road

Sweat is trickling down my forehead in small streams. The day began cool, a blanket of damp fog hanging over the land, but has become smothering. Yesterday, I traveled by boat from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi. If Muang Khua was fitting, Muang Ngoi is perfect. There are no roads. The small longboat, seating about a dozen, took five hours to get here. There is no internet, because there is no electricity, save for the trickle of power provided by a diesel generator between 6pm and 10pm. There is not much to do, except enjoying the slow pace of life and exploring the countryside, which is all you will ever want to do. Today, I’m hiking through the rice paddies to an even smaller, even remoter village. All around me, jagged karst peaks rise up. Words can hardly describe the scenery. Photos don’t do it justice either, but this should give you some impression:

Countryside near Muang Ngoi Chillin' in the paddies

After a few days at Muang Ngoi, I hopped on the boat to the old capital of Luang Prabang. It’s an hour to the first town that is accessible by road. From there, it is theoretically possible to take the bus, but the boat is almost as fast and much more comfortable – gliding along the Nam Ou and Mekong instead of bouncing up and down like a cocktail shaker. But that’s not all. On the boat from Muang Khua, we were seated on wooden benches, facing sideways. This one has aircraft seats facing the front. This is as comfortable as traveling in this part of the world gets. At dusk, I’m back in civilization.

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