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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

25 Days of Laos (Part 1)

This is a journal of our 25-day trip around Laos on a rented Honda FTR that we fondly called Mustafa. It starts with a long bus ride from Hanoi to Laos and ends with a longer bus ride back to Hanoi.

The Trip From Hanoi to Laos

Excited by the three-week holiday, we shopped for supplies and packed before heading to Sinh Cafe on Dinh Liet Street in the Old Quarter where we got two sleeper bus tickets for USD$30 each two days ago. There, we found out that the mini bus that will take us to the bus station was actually going to be leaving from Luong Ngoc Quyen Street.

We ended up at the corner of some street near Giang Phong Street in Hai Ba Trung District where the driver just drove off without telling us what to expect -- Ahh, yes! We were honored to be given the proper Hanoian service despite the fact that we were no longer tourists but expats living in this topsy turvy city.

As we sat down patiently waiting for what's to come, several tourists were looking around, apparently anxious and agitated that they were left in the middle of nowhere. Also, they felt a bit disturbed by the thought that they might have been cheated. They were also probably looking for the hidden camera that most gag shows would've planted in the area. Having been in Hanoi for two years, it was kind of fun to watch the tourists' reaction to the crazy Hanoian way of doing business.

After around an hour, the bus came to pick us up. We picked two reclining seats and finally settled in. Five minutes later, the bus stopped -- Apparently, they were waiting for two more passengers. It was another hour of waiting and listening to the conductor yak on the phone.

The place where we had to wait was in a dark corner where there were no restaurants or cafes or even a public toilet. There was just some empty structure that people had no option but to use as a place for relieving themselves. Worse, the place was absolutely slippery and one of the Israeli passengers found herself falling into mud, grime and maybe even pee. As far as I was concerned, it was no place for waiting -- I hate waiting in mosquito-infested places with nothing to do.

Finally, the two passengers we were waiting for never came. And, we went back into the bus and headed for Laos. Since there wasn't much light for reading, we decided to get some sleep.

A few hours later, disoriented from being woken up by a lot of yelling, we were asked to transfer to another bus. Apparently, the bus wasn't full enough and they wanted us to move to another bus so we can fill it up. We were very lucky to end up at the back of the bus which we shared with other travellers. The other people ended up with cramped seats and had less space because the aisles were filled up with people as well. Getting to toilets during stop overs means that you have to go through one hell of an obstacle course before you could relieve yourself. It's no fun when you're ready to burst.

It may sound like one hell of a nightmare trip but it can be a great means of starting a conversation. It's great fun to joke about your gripes instead of sulking about them.

Day 1: The Border to Vientiane
Our first day in Laos began at the border. We were woken up by the crew's yelling. And, we headed to the cafeteria while waiting for the offices to open. Having some coffee was great after sleeping on the bus.

An hour later, the offices opened and we had our passports stamped. We were charged a dollar for each stamp. Since we're in the border of Laos and Vietnam and most of the people in the buses were Vietnamese, we just handed in our passport without falling in line. It may sound a bit rude and unnatural for us but it's not customary for Vietnamese people to fall in line. If you do try to, you'll just be shoved to the back of the line and you'll never be able to get your passport stamped.

After we've had our passport stamped, we walked to the other side of the border -- We jokingly called the area No Man's Land since it's in between Laos and Vietnam. In the Laos side of the border, we were once again asked for $2 to have our passport stamped because we got there on a Sunday. I think tourists are supposed to pay for their overtime pay which wasn't such a bad idea.

After everything has been sorted, we had a long ride from the border to Vientiane where we arrived in the afternoon. We quickly booked a room in the Youth Hotel and went for a walk around town. We stayed by the Mekong River and watched the sunset. Since our loop around Laos will start tomorrow, we spent our afternoon chilling.


Mekong River
When it was dark, we headed to the Thong Lor Restaurant for dinner. The food was really good and cheap -- We got some grilled pork ribs, sausages and prawns for just 80,000 kip. 


If you're coming to Laos from Hanoi, you can get your tickets from Sinh Cafe in Dinh Liet Street. It'll cost you around $35. The buses from Hanoi to Laos do not have toilets so try not to drink too much beer before you get on the bus. The bus driver is nice enough to stop if you need to pee but expect to relieve yourself on the side of the road from time to time. So, bring some bring some wet tissues and a bottle of sanitizer if you're a germophobe.

We stayed at the Youth Hotel which isn't even listed in the Lonely Planet. It's cheap and pretty basic -- Not bad for one night's stay.

Extra Costs
Remember to bring loose change when you're at the border. The Vietnamese would definitely ask you for a dollar to stamp your passport. On the other side of the border, you only have to pay $2 when it's a weekend.

The Journey Continues:

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