Saturday, October 31, 2009

C:"What are we eating?" R: "I don't know, it's filled with something..."

We left Cat Ba Island on Thursday for Vinh, which is supposedly a place to arrange a quicker bus ride to the Lao border than via Hanoi. And we'd both had about enough fun there the first time. After another rough ride on the night bus, we made it to Vinh at around 2:30am. The bus driver stopped at the far edge of town and booted us off rather unceremoniously after checking our tickets to make sure he was ejecting the right two foreigners. After watching him bless his bus, walking around it with incense sticks, we took off on foot in the direction he pointed when we asked where the bus station in Vinh is. We met probably the only honest motorcycle taxi rider in the entire nation, who stopped, asked where we were going, and motioned for us to put our bags in front of him and for us to both hop on behind. Two backpacks, two daypacks, and two good-sized westerners on the back of a 125cc scooter! He delivered us safely to the bus station at a very fair price, and I could only imagine what he told the other taxi drivers he spoke with when he dropped us off, but I heard a whole lot of laughter. We spent the rest of the morning sitting on the stoop under the lights at the bus station like real homeless people, er, adventurers... AND I peed in the parking lot like a real We got a hotel around 7 after the town woke up and got a nap and shower and felt much better. We were apparently the ONLY westerners in this city of over 200,000 people, because people hung out of bus windows to stare as they passed us on the street, and we felt like celebrities everywhere we went. For a day we really weren't looking forward to, it was actually a lot of fun.
That evening we headed back to the bus station and arranged transportation through Mr Hai, who has a bus that runs periodically to Phonsavan, Laos. Saturday morning we boarded along with a handful of other people and took off for what turned out to be an eventful trip. First, we made a detour to a small town to pick up mattresses, bags of rice, and metal pots (which all got loaded onto the roof), then we picked up more passengers along the way. Stopping for lunch in an unknown small town, we noticed that there was brake fluid all over the front wheel. The bus crew worked on it while we ate lunch (we really have no idea what it was, maybe eel? Colin hopes the ribs were pork...all I can say is, whatever it was, the meat and the green things were tasty). Repairs made, the crew purchased two large jugs of brake fluid and we continued to the border. The ride was beautiful, through mountains, traditional villages with bamboo and stilt homes; I'm glad we didn't fly instead as many people do. We got to the border and were a bit nervous, not knowing the languages or the process. This border crossing isn't commonly used by westerners, and we were a novelty on both sides. Exiting Vietnam was uneventful, we changed currency and the guards made a quick glance through our bags (the one man took my sun hat out of the bag and put it on my head- they are serious about skin safety here). It was less formal on the Laos side, after crossing the bridge, we had to climb a steep, muddy hill, passing clucking chickens, to the border station. The officers took our passports and accompanying photos for our visas on arrival and got out the manual on how to issue the appropriate visa to Americans. After sweating for twenty minutes, our passports were stamped and visas were issued, and we were on our way once again. The celebration was short-lived, since we stopped about 10km inside the Laos border with a flat tire on the bus. Fortunately, we were in one of the few towns along the way, and after an hour and a half, the tube was patched, and we were once again, on our way. We finally arrived in Phonsavan at about 9pm (approximately 375km in 15 hours). We were glad to have brought crackers, fruit, and water with us on the bus. Even though the trip was long, we managed to keep our senses of humor about the situation and enjoyed the journey a lot.
Phonsavan, and Laos in general, is literally a breath of fresh air compared to Vietnam. It is blissfully quiet, the air is clear, noone hassles the few tourists here, and of course, the food is good. Tomorrow we are going to the Plain of Jars and then on to Louang Prabang in a couple of days.

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