As a dude who’s crossed five different land borders between Vietnam and its neighboring countries to the west (Laos and Cambodia), I thought I knew the drill: receive the exit stamp, pay for a visa-on-arrival, grease the wheels a bit with a little coffee money, boom, done, good to go. But the checkpoints and border officials have little to do with this story. In fact, they were particularly kind and helpful, and didn’t leverage the fact that my buddy overstayed his visa to extract a few extra dong from him. But that’s neither here nor there.
It all started in Hanoi’s Old Quarter over a cheeky bottle of Men vodka (the cheap stuff that goes down rough and costs less than a bag of chips). I was explaining to my friend, who we’ll call Paco, that I was tired of Hanoi and formulating an escape plan. Serendipitously, he was currently organizing a visa run to, what looked like on the map, the nearest border gate between Vietnam and Laos, Na Meo.
I talked it over with my wife and we agreed that Laos would be a good change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. We packed our bags and left the morning Paco’s visa was set to expire. There is no direct bus to Na Meo from Hanoi, so we had to go through a town called Thanh Hoa. When we arrived, however, we learned that they only operate buses to Na Meo a couple times a week, and only embark during the morning hours. Luckily, a bus was scheduled for the following morning, so we found the nearest “Nha Nghi” and hunkered down for the night.
The next day, we jammed ourselves into the bus, which was packed with both people and cargo. There were two-person seats on either side of a two-foot aisle, in which crammed at least five people, with some standing, some on the floor, and one pushing his ass with great force into my hip bone.
As we were driving along, a Laotian boy who studied English in Thanh Hoa sparked up a conversation. He was going home for the Laos New Year and was excited to see his family. He told us that he didn’t have to pay because his university covered his travel costs. After we were a few hours in to the ride, the ticket boy told us that, due to “insurance” reasons, the price would be more than what they told us on the phone. As a Vietnamese, my wife was charged the usual VND200,000 (a little under $10). But a foreigners, they demanded that Paco and I pay five times that amount each (over VND1 million) — talk about supply and demand. But since we were already en route and no other options were available, there was nothing we could do, even though I only had VND600,000 in my wallet.
We reached the border, shuffled out, and took care of the customs procedures. I said farewell to Paco, who was half a bottle deep and haggling drunkenly with the ticket boy. The rest of the passengers pushed their way back onto the bus and we made our way down the bumpy twists and turns that are characteristic of Laotian highways — stopping frequently to pick up and drop off both people and goods.
Ten hours into the ride — and still miles from the final destination of Sam Neua — they stopped at a dimly lit parking lot to load up with more supplies, demanding that I go to a nearby ATM to get more cash. I obliged, but used my student ID in the ATM and told them it didn’t work. Long story short, we arrived — after more than twelve hours on an uncomfortable, packed, bus — at a countryside bus stop in Sam Neua, late at night, with nobody around. I gave them what I had in my wallet and we started walking towards the city with our thumbs up. We eventually came across a taxi who took us to a hotel and everything was all good. As they say, if you don’t like it, just stay home. But word to the wise, although Na Meo looks like the closest border, unless you have your own means of transportation, take the seemingly longer route in a comfortable sleeper bus and avoid the discomfort and exorbitant “skin-tax” that you will surely encounter with the public shit-shuttle to Na Meo.