Friday, July 26, 2013

One hell of a ride

Day 10

So where were we? Oh yeah, that 20-hour bus to Vientiane I keep complaining about …

I got picked up at my hostel in Hanoi by motorbike and he dropped me off at the side of a parking lot, saying he would pick up other people. After a while, we all took a minibus to the bus station and got on our bus – I’d rather not sit in the back because I heard the roads were pretty bad in Laos and it’s hard to get out to the bathroom and such. The seats are basically recliners with some space in the front to stretch out your feet, but I could see how someone even just a little taller than me (I’m 5’ 6”) would have to sleep with their legs bent or something. Again, a lot of Europeans on this bus with a few Vietnamese who automatically got the front seats. As with a lot of things in SE Asia, we always had to take off our shoes and put them in a plastic bag when boarding the bus, although we were pretty caked in mud by the end of the trip, so I didn’t know if it really mattered.

A Korean guy sat next to me and I could overhear him talking with his friends about asking me or the other European in the seat over to switch with them so they could sit together. I offered to switch with one of the guys who was holding a seat in the front, but as soon as I got there, the bus attendant shook his head and said it was his seat. I looked back and didn’t see any other seats, but turns out there was one in the very back in the corner. Great. Next time, no time for being nice traveler and I’ll just stick to the seat I got in the first place. But I did end up sitting next to four English guys (they’re everywhere!) and another Dutch guy, all of us in one row, a German guy and Indian guy in front of me, and two girls from Belgium in the second-to-last seats on the other side. We all sort of bonded through the trip and they always teased me for being American (“The window curtain fell off and it’s all the American’s fault!”). I also met a Pakistani guy who was an Economics grad student at Yale – we both used the “I go to school in Connecticut line” and that’s how we figured out we were both at Yale, SMALL WORLD – and his wife from San Francisco on the same bus. It was interesting to hear my seatmates’ conversations about traveling, especially backpacking through America. I’ve never really thought about traveling America that way because it’s home – if I have to go somewhere, I sleep in hotels, not hostels in America because the dollar makes sense to me and I have higher standards for accommodation. It was nice to hear some appreciation for America – the German guy talked about how most people didn’t realize how diverse it was and how more people should check out the Midwest (not just the NY/West Coast route) to really get a taste of it. Ahh, I would love to take like a one-month long road trip someday to see more of America – the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and other beautiful places in the Midwest.

5-seater in the back - but at least the company was good

Our first bathroom stop was one of those outdoor restaurants in the middle of nowhere in Vietnam, but the bathrooms were covered in cobwebs and spiders. The guys I was with were literally freaking out and said they’d rather go pee in the wild. That’s what I ended up doing too, even though I’m not too afraid of spiders. I accidentally got a lot of mud on my shoes, which stayed on throughout the rest of the trip – well, it kind of made it seem like I had been to places at least.

A little after 3 a.m., we arrived at the Vietnam-Laos border, but from reading travel blogs beforehand, I knew they weren’t going to open up until 7. Why did the buses leave so early from Hanoi then? Maybe just to queue early for the immigration line. So we were all stuck on a hot, miserable bus (they had turned off the air conditioning long ago) with the added danger of getting bitten outside of a major city, which could have meant malaria. I put on bug spray like crazy and gave some to the guy next to me. I couldn’t fall asleep because I had to go to the bathroom again, so I decided to make the trek out of the bus – I stepped on a few locals who were sleeping on the bus floor and they were pretty annoyed, but what else could you do? The German guy was already outside (he had jumped out of the window) and was scratching his head as to how I managed to get out from the back of the bus.

This little box of Vietnamese crackers sustained me through that hell ride

I was able to catch a couple hours before they woke us up for immigration. It was a pretty slow process, as it seemed the Vietnamese officials prioritized exit stamping locals first. Some of the people on the bus had trouble with their passports – the Indian guy had the wrong exit date written on his passport when he got his Vietnamese visa, so he spent a good deal arguing with the officials. He did get the stamp in the end without having to bribe them for it. Two girls also didn’t have enough USD for a Laos visa (they only take USD), so one of them ended up taking a taxi back to the nearest ATM on the Vietnamese side. That was a reckless idea, as she wouldn’t come back for another two hours and the bus had to leave the two of them in the end. The other people on the bus were all saying they definitely have offered them money if they had asked – sometimes, you shouldn't hesitate to ask for strangers’ help.

After we got our passports back, we were a bit confused as to where to go next, because we had seen our bus go past us. Turns out we had to walk about 1km on a pretty muddy road from the Vietnamese immigration office to the Lao one. The bus attendant kept pushing us to hurry up, but the Belgian girls got pissed off because they wanted to wait for everyone else at the Vietnamese office. We all made our way eventually to the Lao office, which was a lot quicker than our exit procedures and got back on the bus. The roads weren’t as bad as I thought, although it was pretty windy. I was able to catch up on sleep a bit. The only bad thing after that was getting bit three times in another bathroom on the way – I really hope they weren’t malaria-infected mosquitoes because my Yale travel health session didn’t give me malaria pills after I told them I was only traveling in major cities. If no symptoms show up after 40 days, then I probably don’t have malaria, but we’ll see…

We got to the bus station in Vientiane surprisingly early (around 3 p.m. instead of the projected 5 to 7 p.m.) and I got a jumbo (basically a bigger tuk tuk on the back of a truck instead of a motorbike) to take me to my hostel. I met some more Americans in my dorm (whoot fellow American travelers) and caught a much deserved sleep.

If I had to make the same route again, I’d probably fly. But I am glad I got the experience, met new people, and saved $150. Maybe someday when I have a decent job and some money, I can afford hotels and flights, but while I’m still young and broke, I’m sticking to the hostels and overnight buses because that’s an experience you can only get when you're this age.

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