Laos To Vietnam – An Unexpected 36 Hours

Well there was always this dreaded bus I’d heard nothing but horror stories about after my first trip to Southeast Asia. Luang Prabang to Hanoi. Unfortunately I missed Laos my first time around, but was on my way through and that bus route was my way out. This route is known for a 24 hour ride where buses breaking down along the mountain roads is not uncommon. The road bumpy and winding through stunning landscape that is generally missed through the night even though sleep is barely permitted. It is one of those journeys that no one recommends, but always once it’s over it was worth the experience, subliminally telling you to do it. I had to see if it was as bad as everyone made it out to be, and in the end I think I had a worse, yet better experience.

Cluster of Jars
Cluster of Jars

To begin with I was starting in Phonsavan, in the northeast of Laos. A place very undermined, known for the Plain of Jars. Shrouded in mystery, the significance and reasoning behind these clusters of stone jars is still unknown. Like the Stonehenge of the east, only theories exist. Also, similar to Stonehenge, the rock used to carve these was brought from miles away, presumably by elephants. Bones have been found in some leading people to believe they could have been burial urns. Remnants of rice and spices have been uncovered suggesting the potential for storage containers. This area was once on the ‘Silk Road’ for the spice trade. Many had lids to cover, although few remain on. More local legend than anything, a race of giants once walked the rugged landscape. The jars were used to brew their Lao Lao in large batches. Myth or not, this is what I choose to believe.

Relaxing in my throne
Relaxing in my throne

Note: Although thousands of UXOs (unexploded ordnance) have been cleared throughout the main Jar sites, one must still be careful going too far from the beaten track here. This area of Laos was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War and many still lay undiscovered.

Back to the journey. I was also here to cut off about 7 – 8 hours of the journey it took to get from Laung Prabang to Phonsavan, thinking I was clever. In theory this would have worked well. The bus is supposed to pass through and pick me up around 1 am and I would be on route. 3 am comes along and sure enough I find out the bus has broken down on the way, not even making it a third of the way. Reliable. Strategically planning my remaining Kip, assuming I would be on my way out, I couldn’t afford a hotel for the night. An act of kindness from the hotel I booked my ticket through (I’m sure understanding my frustration), gave me a bed for the night.

Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake

I woke up early to try and figure out my options. I had two. Either wait around all day with no money for the potential no show bus again or take local transportation. About the same cost when all said and done, but the local will actually get me there I’m assured. Local it was and he brought me to the bus stop for 9 am. When I say bus, it’s not what most would think. It was a loud, beat up pick-up truck with an extended back carrying around 15 people at any given time along with whatever supplies they’ve bought to bring home. This time there was a new grill loaded up, bags of clothing, bulk groceries and the list goes on. Shoulder to shoulder, legs bent awkwardly, it was a 3 hour stop and go ride until we met another truck coming the other way. Here we had to switch trucks, so I helped unload and load up again, hoping the speed the process if only by a little. About 1 hour further down the road and we came to the border town, only to wait a further 2 hours. Just being told to wait, I finally realized we were waiting for a family to finish purchasing a coconut milk extracting machine. Lending a hand loading it up (not a light piece of equipment, but I want one), we were ready for the final stretch to the border itself. Halfway.

Tortoise Tower, Hoan Kiem Lake
Tortoise Tower, Hoan Kiem Lake

By the time I made it to the border the sun was setting. The most people we manage in the truck was 19, some hanging off the back. 3 locals were car sick, somehow not used to their own roads yet and I think everyone wondering what I was doing there. There was a line up at the border, so I made the 2 km walk through the border as it was getting dark. The opportunistic motorcycle taxi knew I had no option charging me double to get to the closest border town. His claim to the charge was that it was dark. Knowing that was a load of crap, he was right in one sense. I had no choice.

Dropped at a hotel, I enquired about an ATM and a bus to Hanoi that night. Last bus was in 1 hour and there was no ATMs in town apparently. All I had remaining was the Kip that I was refunded in the morning for the bus that I didn’t get. Finally I convinced her that it truly was all I had. She got me a bus ticket and took me to a little shop to show me what I could afford for a snack with the remainder of my money. A snack would have to do, since I haven’t eaten all day and couldn’t get money until I reached Hanoi.

Hanoi street market
Hanoi street market

It was now 7:30 pm. Exhausted, this was the first bus I think I have witnessed arriving early. I was so thankful I could sit down, fall asleep and wake up where I needed to be. This was the first bus I’ve also been on where you can smoke. I don’t mind the smoke necessarily, but the window they opened each time letting the almost freezing North Vietnamese winter air in was brutal. After a few shivering hours, I manage some shut eye. Not before long a lady was shaking me awake. Disoriented, knowing we can’t be there yet, but not really knowing where I was for the past many hours, I just followed the points. Staggering off the bus, she pointed to a random bus on the other side of the highway. With no reason to question, I’ll end up somewhere, I went to get on. Ushered to the back and only remaining seat, I climbed into the middle, two people on either side. Felt a little like a hotdog in a bun. Trying my best not to disturb anyone although I’m sure I did, I made myself comfortable and was back out.

First cup of Vietnamese coffee in a few years
First cup of Vietnamese coffee in a few years

Not 100 percent sure how, but I woke up in Hanoi. It wasn’t the easiest way to get from Laos to Vietnam, but the most interesting way I can guarantee. Getting to see the local way of travel and life. How they go about shopping and the transportation of their goods. Shared fruits with them along the journey, and got to lend a helping hand where I could loading and unloading their belongings. I couldn’t check in for another 6 hours at this point, I thought I would walk the Old Quarter, happy to be back a second time. It was all so similar. Well first things first. I’m exhausted, but need a brief kick of caffeine. Not to mention my fix of strong Vietnamese coffee I’ve been longing for.

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