Some day we'll all look back on this and laugh
Lonely Planet explicitly says, do NOT take the bus from Vientiane to
Hanoi. They say -- but don't really go into helpful detail -- that there is an easier way to do it involving a series of
buses. Basically, there's one bus per day that leaves from the Lao capital and goes to the Vietnamese one. (And a short aside on Hanoi...What a fantastic place. It's a relaxingly chaotic city. It's chilled out, yet there's activity everywhere, whether it's people eating at local stalls, playing board games, getting haircuts on the sidewalk, whatever. Crossing the street is an absolute adventure. There are hardly any cars, everybody is on a motorbike, and they travel in swarms honking away. The key to crossing the street is just to calmly stroll through, the motorbikes will miss you. If you go on your instinct that, 'hey, a fast vehicle is coming, I better wait,' you won't cover much ground, but if you just go -- and don't run, that'll get you in trouble -- everything will work out. You will never have more fun crossing a street.)
That one bus leaves Vientiane at 7 pm, which means it arrives at the border at 3 am, a mere four hours before it actually opens its doors. On average the ride takes about 26 hours even though you're only covering at best 500 km if you measure the highway distance, and even then the route travels two legs of a triangle. The bus is not a tourist bus as it advertises, rather it's mostly Vietnamese and even more mostly the stuff they've gotten in Lao and are bringing back with them. If so many of the seats weren't filled by boxes, they might even almost have enough for everybody. I had been warned that the bus was notorious for overbooking (the people I was out with in Vang Vieng said theirs was over by 10, ours was a much more manageable five) so I wasn't surprised when they produced tiny footstools for those who hadn't shown up on time for a seat. The bus is the closest I've felt to being in the 1950s South: all the farangs sit in the back, if they're lucky enough to have one.
So we set off around 8 (this is Lao after all), all the white people in the back getting to know each other and getting over the shock of some people not having seats for a day-long journey. I sat next to Akim from Munich who was only about 5'5 but still managed to nab all the foot space from me. We also had two Irish girls (Danielle and another whose name I won't even attempt to try to spell), Liz from Wisconsin, Canadians Tom, Darren, Mark and Nicole, Magdalena from Chile, Ali and Scott from Melbourne, and three Swedish girls who were pretty well valiumed up for the whole ride. The beginning of the trip was fairly uneventful, just people struggling to get to sleep for the first several hours until we pulled into a little restaurant type establishment at 3am to wait for the border opening. Since the whole sleeping thing wasn't going so well for me and the bus managed to somehow be both cold and stuffy I got off to stretch my legs assuming it was just a short stop. It was there that things started getting interesting.
I was outside casually chatting with Darren, Tom and the Australian couple when we noticed the crew -- which we had previously noticed was unusually large -- scurrying about. We watched while rather perplexed as the workers, in particular a tiny 12-year old kid, uncovering the rooftop cargo and moving several boxes down to the ground. It was more than just a little odd when the kid started scoping out the underbelly of the bus. It was when he moved for the first box that we had our, "holy shit, this bus is running drugs over the border," moment. It was only slightly more sketchy when the bus started up again only to pull about another 40 meters into the darkness so they continued their work. When we found out we'd be there till six, we tried to order food and realized even more that this was a place to hide out and not really a spot the white man has really ventured before. Aside from hello the most universal English words at eateries in Asia are "rice" and "noodles." Yet the woman running the joint looked at us like we were from Mars when we requested either. At 6 am we reboarded the bus and excitedly filled in everybody else on what they'd been missing. After a very slow, very deliberate drive we were at the border crossing, where we only had to wait another half an hour. As we discussed our ongoing situation we were shrouded in fog, a fitting piece of weather as our heads were more than a little groggy and we had no idea what laid in store.
Finally at 7 the customs office opened to what at the time was the most chaotic scene I've experienced while entering a new country. They didn't bother with such things as "lines." You just merely slide your passport under the window, and in due time you get it back. The woman who took my passport hadn't even changed into uniform yet. With that done I made the half-kilometer (give or take) walk to the Vietnamese side with Tom as we discussed how the kid on our bus was setting up to be the Lao Scarface. We wondered how you say "Say hello to my little friend" in Lao. When we arrived at the Vietnamese side we quickly realized the Laotians had their shit together by comparison. We'd slide our passports under the window just the same, but it was only the optimistic and naive who bothered to wait there to get it back anytime soon. While all the farangs sat around, large groups of Vietnamese would hand in stacks of passports at a time and only a minute or two later got them back and would giddily run off and cross the border. I at least made the most of the time by collecting apologies from Sweden and Canada (it was put to my attention that they had some 'splainin to do for Celine Dione). We also watched amusedly as the bus workers passed through customs with stuffed jackets and only showed customs officials the areas of the bus that were convenient, not where the officials were actually pointing. Two hours after the border opened, we were handed back our passports. Sadly, after the border, Tom, the Australian couple and the Irish girls got on a separate bus to head south. Sad because I enjoyed their company and because they might never know about what happened later.
An hour after crossing the border the bus pulled off to the side of the road as one of the bus crew frantically ran down the bus to pull the curtains over the section of bus where some cargo was located. The evidence was mounting. After working through our third breakdown and winding through the mountains we stopped off for breakfast and our first meal in Vietnam, though we were a little too tired and a little too wary of the toilet situation over the next several hours to enjoy it too much or be too adventurous. As we boarded the bus some skeevy 70-something year old man with only about a half a mouth of teeth grabbed and latched onto my ass. My time in Vietnam
was off to a flying start. Properly sketched out I was starting to reach the point where a sturdy mattress, a hot shower and a cold beer would have made me the happiest man alive.
Further on down the road we made what seemed to be an uneventful stop for petrol. While there, one of the pieces of luggage fell over aboard and it sounded as if it were nothing but cans. Alas, it was a bit more. Around 5:30 we pulled into what looked like a bus station. The more optimistic among us wondered if we had made really good time, even though the surroundings didn't look like much that would make for a capital city that's populated by 3 million people. It wasn't a bus terminal, and it certainly wasn't Hanoi. It was an impound. As it turns out, the box that fell off the top at the petrol station was filled with turtle shells of an endangered species. When the police searched the roof they not only found more of the shells but a bag filled with live snakes. None of the police were too eager to handle snakes that didn't appear to be pleasant to begin with and probably weren't in the best of moods after being stashed away on the top of a bus for the previous 20 hours. The police hadn't even found what was underneath yet. We sat around for an hour as the police talked to the crew and, as best as I can assume, once the two sides couldn't reach a compromise on an appropriate kickback we were told to get all our stuff off the bus and we had to wait for a new one. We were given a minibus with barely enough space for the remaining people and the luggage and barely enough legroom for your typical Asian, but not even close to what I needed. It was during this ride that the joyful delirium of being part of international crime and getting two hours of sleep (keep in mind, the previous night was the late night fireside drinking as well) gave way to utter exhaustion. The lack of feeling in my legs didn't help any. Not a minute too soon we arrived in Hanoi at 9:30, only 26 and a half hours after we were set to leave Vientiane. I wonder if that estimated time includes four hours of blackmarket good relocation, two hours of customs bureaucracy and two hours of haggling over the price of smuggling and other international crimes. Thankfully we were picked up by a hotel representative that put us in a swank room for less than $3 a night. A suitable reward for the most wonderfully awful day of my life.