We accepted that to get to the International bus in Dong Ha, we had to travel on another bus that was heading to Vietnam’s DMZ for a day tour. We boarded the tour bus at 6am, first people on it and we were ordered to sit at the front. For the next hour we circled the hotels of Hue picking up other tourists heading to either the DMZ or Laos, as well as some Thai and Vietnamese people heading to Laos. Of course we also changed buses when we were half full to an exact copy of the bus we were on. Then we filled the bus, took on board some collapsible dining chairs and filled the aisles. Eventually we headed for Dong Ha.
First stop was a petrol station to fill up – no need for prior preparation on this tour. Still doesn’t explain why we all got onto this bus when we were already on an identical bus?! Then we dropped off two Thai guys in Dong Ha and next we disembarked at our bus depot to join the Sepon Express. Whilst I dealt with ticketing and passport issues, Julia and Molly boarded the bus to try and get some seats. The seats were full but not with people so they had the driver remove the bags of onions and oranges and he stowed the spare stools under the bus. Before you knew it we had 3 seats at the back of the bus, alongside Chiang Mai Charlie from Nevada and Bart from Poland. Well for a few minutes we were the bad-boys at the back of the bus – then Chiang Mai Charlie said “Goddam” a few more times in a very “John Wayne” kind of way and was awarded a seat at the front of the bus…….actually two seats but hey, we were going to get the longer ride!
So we knew this little bus would be our transport through to Savannakhet, Laos although we had already been mis-lead in regard to seating, ticketing and border procedures, so as with all things in Asia, we were just glad to have a seat and be moving West. The road climbs over the main range that divides Vietnam and Laos, passing through the town of Khe San and traveling alongside some beautiful rivers, mountains and valleys. About an hour before we expected it, we were at the border.
We have previously found Vietnamese border formalities a little daunting – they can be quite strict on procedures and take their work very seriously. Whilst immigration at Lao Bao was serious, it was actually a pretty relaxed process and we were back on the bus and on our way before 11.30am. A short ride under some big memorials and welcome arches and we were in Laos!
We were hoping to get a 90 day Visa in Laos to make Russian Visa applications easier. However that wasn’t to be, despite the Visa officer and immigration official taking considerable time to try and assist us, phoning their local supervisor and then phoning Vientiane for confirmation of what we could and couldn’t do. Pretty good considering it wasn’t their problem – how nice it will be if the Russian Embassy staff in Vientiane are as helpful and understanding.
Anyway, all up the process was very smooth and despite what we had read, the border was very quiet with few people transiting through in either direction. Around midday we set of toward Savanakhet, expecting to arrive at around 4 or 5 pm.
When we got back on the bus we had a new bad-boy on the back seat, a Laotian gentleman with the usual luggage of an overnight bag and a box tied up with twine. Only 10 minutes down the road we picked up more passengers – this time the little plastic stools came out from under the bus and the aisle started to fill. We were glad to be at the back as not long after picking them up, some of the new passengers were dozing off, heads on the sides of the fitted seats they were next to.
We really had no idea how far it was to Savannakhet or how long the trip would take but there was enough interesting scenery and some rather peculiar activities to help pass the time. We knew about a special festival, Songkram, that occurs in this region over the period 13-16 April but we had no idea whether it was localized, national or international. We thought it would have been a big event in Vietnam but we saw nothing to indicate it was even on, except as a marketing scheme for a western pub.
As it turned out, Laos really gets into the spirit of Songkram – it is their New Year celebrations after all. To welcome the New Year and make sure it will be safe and prosperous, people in the region wash away the past. Quite literally. They use buckets of water, pots and pans filled with water, hoses, water pistols and even blow up swimming pools to get themselves and any one near them wet.
The soaking is accompanied by Beer Lao, big-bass music and lots of dancing. What a great way to first see a new country – everybody in the streets, dancing, singing and having a great time. Laotians of all ages were readily saying hello, wishing us well and offering us beer and making us wet!
Fortunately we were prepared for a soaking when we got to Savannakhet because we had turned up in an un-seasonal (we think) storm so had made things waterproof anyway before walking around town and working out what to do next. Bart joined us and we found a pub and had a beer and some food before Bart and I headed off to establish what transport and accommodation options were available.
We were soon soaked through but enjoying the good natured attitude of everyone. Ultimately we found a bus station and given the 3-5 day period of holidays, of which we were in the middle, we started to think that heading to Vientiane might be a more productive use of our evening. Of course in Asia, people like to travel during holiday periods so we were out of luck in regard to any VIP, air-conditioned or express buses. With this in mind and having been told the last bus was 8.00pm, we found Julia and Molly and tried to get a tuk-tuk to the station. And then we started walking. Realising we would never get to the bus station in time, Julia spyed a nice looking 4WD ute with a young man getting into it. So with my best smile and a hint of New Year spirit, I asked the guy if he would take us to the bus – next thing we knew we were piling out of the back of the ute at the bus station and keeping within the festive spirit, we handed over a bottle of Vietnamese wine (just happened to have one spare – as you do!) to thank the young man.
We missed the 8.00pm bus, more because of confusion at the ticket office and the fact that the bus was actually full. But there was an 8.30pm bus that we managed to get tickets for – a local bus that is described by some travel publications as being “excruciatingly slow”. It was cooler than it had been for a few months, the windows opened and the bus was full so how many stops could it have to make on the way to Vientiane – old fashioned air-conditioning should work fine as we motor along and a speed of about 50 or 60 is actually better in this part of the world (read safer).
So 37 stops later, 19 of them for no apparent reason except to let the bus heat up a bit more, we arrived in Vientiane – to more rain, nothing open and not even a tuk-tuk easy to find. Asia’s sleepiest Capital was living up to its name.
However we soon shared a ute into town, found a great hotel and started to wonder how long we could convince ourselves to stay here for – cheap, spoilt for choice and with a very relaxed atmosphere, Vientiane is hard to leave!