As the only foreigners, we were immediately surrounded by moto-taxi drivers and money changers. The money changers were all clamouring that we had to change our Lao kip into Vietnamese dong; that this was our last chance. This sounded like a scam so we held on to our kip thinking that we would get a better rate at a bank in Hanoi. Later on we were to discover that they weren’t lying, and we never were able to trade those kip into anything else.
We took moto-taxis two kilometres to the border. We emigrated Laos and the official pointed to a building on the other side of this dirt no-mans land area and said “Vietnam”. We walked across this, maybe seven hundred metres. We immigrated into Vietnam and were surrounded again by taxi touts. We took either a taxi or moto-taxis another kilometre or two, where again they just stopped and we got off. There were a few jeep-buses parked in another clearing. At this point we thought our destination was Hué, thinking we would stay there the night. So we asked around (“Hué? Hué?”) and were shown to a particular jeep-bus. There was more bargaining than usual for this bus, and only vague nods about the Hué destination. This jeep-bus had hard wooden (or possibly metal) seats and had no leg room whatsoever, but we had seats near the front, so at least we had a good view. It wasn’t that crowded, either, (only one person per seat) so we went down the hillside to Hué in relative comfort.
This bus ride took about three and a half to four hours, all downhill. We arrived at a town in the dark. As per usual, the vehicle suddenly stopped and everyone, including the driver, got off. We were in another open area with other buses around, and at least sixty hotel touts and taxi drivers shouting all over the place. Pandemonium. Though it was dark, this area was well lit with street lights. There were at least ten taxi drivers hollering right in our face, but by this time we were getting fed up with all these drivers and touts. They were especially aggressive, by far the most forceful we had experienced on the trip so far. So we both started yelling back and I included some universal swear words at them and they finally backed off a few inches and allowed us to at least consult with each other. We decided; let’s get the hell out of here, anywhere. We converted our bags into knapsacks and started walking. We didn’t know which direction, but we generally followed the other people leaving the parking lot. Within five minutes we could see the rough layout of the village and had an idea which direction its centre was.
We eventually saw three tourist guys together, the first foreigners since the Australian couple three buses back. We found out that we were not, in fact, in Hué, but in Dong Ha. We didn’t even know where this was on the map (you may have determined by now that we weren’t exactly well prepared for this trip), but they told us that we were in fact closer to Hanoi than had we continued to Hué. They were all heading over to a restaurant to meet their friends and they invited us along. It was now about 9:00 pm. At dinner were Kevin and I the Canadians, a Brit, two Australians, a Kiwi, and possibly even an American. The restaurant was one of those outdoor basic kitchens with those little plastic stools. The food was delicious.
We had been going thirty-six hours since our sleep on the Nong Kai train. We hadn’t changed from our now disgusting shorts and T-shirts that we had been wearing since Bangkok, forty-eight hours earlier. We were coughing. We were tired. But we were starting to get a second wind. Our choices were to stay at a hotel in Dong Ha or to continue on to Hanoi. It may seem that the obvious choice was to stay, but we were feeling a bit more aggressive now and thinking along the lines of staying at a basic hotel there versus continuing on to a four or five star hotel we assumed would be in Hanoi. We were also aware of our home-world time constraints for this whole trip; we only had about a week for our whole time away from Malaysia, and we had already spent three days in Bangkok. Dong Ha was all right, but it didn’t seem to warrant extra time to do any sight-seeing. We decided to press on.
One of the guys walked us over to the train station to try and get a ticket. It was Tet, but we gave it a try anyway. There weren’t any tickets except for seats a couple of days later.
So a “friend” popped up, a local who could speak English and who was very helpful – the kind of “friend” that always seems to be available to confused tourists in South East Asia. They’re ready to help in any way possible, getting kick-backs as they negotiate in the local language with local vendors on behalf of the tourist, and also asking for “tips”. The other traveller guys knew this "friend" already. We all knew the score with this guy, but they did say he was somewhat helpful. All travellers have to use these “friends” at some point; they do serve a purpose. So we told him we wanted to go to Hanoi that night and that we couldn’t get train tickets. He took up the challenge. We set off and said good-bye to our backpacker friends.
He started talking to other people around. It transpired he couldn’t get train tickets. There were no “regular” buses leaving that night heading north, but there was a “tourist” bus expected to stop in any moment on its way to Hanoi. The bus arrived just outside the kitchen, a civilised looking large mini-bus. Every seat was full. The friend tried to get us on the bus anyway, but the driver wasn’t having it. Kevin pointed out that every mode of transport so far had at least double the occupants it should have, and why should this suddenly stop now. We were more than happy to sit on the aisle way in the middle, but no go.
Kevin and I consulted and decided… taxi. The "friend’s" face lit up like Tet fireworks and he started jabbering already about how expensive that would be. He started asking around. It seemed to be a big deal and involved a lot of people. After about thirty minutes we got to the negotiations part of it. Hanoi was twelve hours away by car. The starting price was US $400. Long story short: we got it down to $225. We knew this was equivalent to an annual salary there, but we were in a very weak bargaining position, and money wasn’t really the issue. We also spent time negotiating as to when payment would take place: we settled on half up front, the remainder upon delivery. Then we were told there was a problem getting permits or whatever to cross different provinces of Vietnam. Then we were ushered into an old Honda Accord sedan. Our "friend" didn’t even ask for a “tip”. Obviously his cut of $225 made him rich enough to be generous. We said good-bye and set off.
It was now about 11:00 pm. A few minutes later the driver stopped and picked up a mate. Neither of them spoke a word of English. Within five minutes we were in pitch black countryside on a straight paved bumpy road with lots of potholes. We were a bit nervous because there were two guys up front who knew we had a ton of cash on us (by local standards).
It was an interesting ride. The road was technically wide enough for two lanes and vehicles going in both directions at high speed. Throughout the entire night, though, there were many pedestrians and animals on both sides of the road, effectively reducing it down to one vehicle lane. The method of driving is to go down the centre of the road at high speed with one hand permanently on the horn. (All vehicles do this in Vietnam – drive with the horn all the time. If the driver sees someone he knows, he will stop the continuous blare to honk out a couple of quick beeps as a hello, and then resume the constant horn.) The road was full of potholes of all sizes that the driver was constantly trying to swerve around and avoid. Looking ahead we could see how a cow, or a man pulling a wagon of furniture, or women carrying rice on the ends of a long pole would suddenly appear ahead on either side of the road. It was like this all night long. The convention when there is an oncoming vehicle is to wait until the very last minute, and then each vehicle moves to the right to avoid each other. As both drivers are blinded and deafened by the high-beam lights and horns, the assumption is that there are no pedestrians, cyclists, or animals on either the side of the road at that very moment.
After a while the driver stopped at a little hut at the side of the road, which turned out to be a kitchen. Kevin refused to leave the car so the three of us went in. The driver bought me some soup, his treat (no problem for him to afford it that night). It was pretty good. There were various checkpoints along the road, but none were any problem. Later on we took a ferry across a river or bay, presumably just north of Dong Hoi. Then it started to rain. After a while we noticed that we were wet. I guess the floor beneath the back seats was completely rusted out because the seats were soaking wet, and so were our dirty shorts. So we sat there wet for the remaining six hours. By this time the driver was starting to fall asleep. He drove off the side of the road at one point, doing considerable damage to the side of the car, and later rear-ended a car in front (traffic was slow then so no big deal). Eventually he pulled over to the side of the road and we all snoozed for an hour or two, steaming up the car as it rained outside.
When daylight arrived it stopped raining and we were treated to some beautiful scenery. The land was flat and occasionally we could see the South China Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin off to our right. The countryside was agricultural and very green. Everywhere we looked there were scenes just like in the movies and documentaries. Women were carrying rice and working knee deep in the fields, oxen were everywhere, there were beast-powered water mills draining the fields (I guess). The roadside was packed with people carrying loads into Hanoi. Families of five on mopeds, a man pushing a bicycle with a wardrobe loaded on it, oxen pulling carts, all manner of bicycles with side-cars loaded with anything under the sun. It was quite different from other parts of South East Asia we had experienced so far. It was fascinating.
We finally arrived in Hanoi twelve hours after leaving Dong Ha. Our original deal was that the driver would find us a hotel and take us to the front door. No more journeys just ending abruptly and having to find another taxi. We had stressed this point during the bargaining stage. It quickly became apparent that the driver didn’t know Hanoi at all, as he kept stopping and asking directions from other taxi drivers. We didn’t know what hotel we were going to, except that Kevin seemed to remember a “Hanoi Hilton”. We didn’t know until much later how funny this was and why people kept looking at us like we were mad every time we mentioned it. Somehow we found out there was a Metropole Hotel, which turned out to be a Sofitel, a very nice hotel. We had to force the driver to take us the final mile to the hotel. He did, following directions after directions.
We found it. Kevin went in to check it out and book our room. I stayed in the car to keep the driver and his mate happy. Finally he came back and we were good to go. We paid off the driver and walked in through the lobby, unshaven, in our stinking soaking clothes we had been wearing for three days and nights since we left Bangkok, covered in red dust from head to toe, and coughing our lungs up. Kevin later told me that when he first went through the lobby to book the room, he made sure that he was holding his gold card in a very visible manner so they wouldn’t kick him out. We had arrived.
Since the train ride to Nong Kai, we had only slept one hour in Savannakhet in the past forty-eight hours, so we each took a long hot shower and then a nap until the afternoon. We woke up, dressed (in long trousers), and called Kevin’s friend Samantha. We hadn’t told her we were coming. He chatted with her for a while and then asked her what she was doing after work, suggesting we all meet up. She got confused and we sprung the surprise. It was very effective. It turned out that she was working in the building right next door!
Then we lay out all of our Lao kip bills to dry out from our soaking wallets. They filled the entire room. The jokes were all about money laundering. We dropped off our disgusting laundry and found out from the concierge where we could buy some long sleeve shirts. It was a bit chillier than Malaysia, further south. This was in an interesting market area in the Old Quarter that sold all kinds of “brand name” clothing.
Hanoi is a very pleasant town, at least in the centre by Hoan Kiem Lake. The centre surrounds this lake and all the streets are tree lined. It was very green and cool. For some reason it reminded me of Paris. It was Tet, so there were mopeds (Honda Cub 80s) everywhere carrying orange trees on the back. There were a hundred million bicycles there. It was an amazing sight seeing them all lined up at a red light and then seeing them go when it turned green. These lights were few and far between. There isn’t really much opportunity to cross the street in normal Western safe style. The vehicles simply don’t stop for pedestrians. After watching the locals, including several old ladies, we figured out the system. You simply step off the sidewalk, walk into the traffic, and cross the road. Don’t slow down or alter course, just keep going. The vehicles go around you. After a while this becomes normal.
The photo to the right is of Saigon, taken from the Internet.
We met Samantha at her office where she introduced us to her local assistant. She heard our coughs and took us to a pharmacy. You can buy any prescription drug you want over the counter in Vietnam. We bought some heavy-duty codeine cough medicine that was quite effective. We stayed in Hanoi for two (possibly three) nights. During that time Samantha took us to some excellent top-end restaurants where we had spectacular local food. As it happened, Samantha had two friends visiting her (separately from each other). So there were Kevin and I, sitting in bars in Hanoi with three women. At one point we also ran into some our backpacker friends from Dong Ha. They had taken the train up and it was a bit of a horror story. Although they had booked private first-class cabins, the Tet crush broke all the rules, and they had to physically remove other people from their cabin. They just couldn’t keep out the mobs and ended up having to share their cabins most of the way. They said it was “not good”.
Kevin and I browsed the markets, bought souvenir “antique” compasses, got our shoes shone by one of the hundreds of shoe-shine boys on the street, and walked over to see Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, but it was closed that day.
We had chosen Saigon as our departure point on our Vietnam visa. We had thought that we would take the train or fly down there after visiting Hanoi, but we were tired out and enjoying Hanoi. We needed to sort this out in order to leave Vietnam from Hanoi. The hotel concierge and a travel agent gave us the book answers: that we needed to either fly through Saigon or go down to some government agency and get the visa modified (probably involving a one-day line-up). We finally got a third option from Samantha’s assistant, which was to simply turn up at the Hanoi airport and play stupid. We chose this option and bought some plane to tickets to Bangkok.
We showed up at the airport. We went through emigration; I went first and made it through. Kevin wasn’t so lucky and the official called me back and double-checked my visa, and the argument started. For once it was fortunate that the official couldn’t speak English, so while we knew very well what he was on about, we played stupid and stared at him vacantly, looking at him like he was insane. It was fantastic to be able to play that trick back on the locals after we had experienced it almost non-stop since Vientiane. There was a massive Tet line-up behind us getting impatient and the fellow was starting to get stressed. He went for his boss, who gave us dirty looks and stamped our passports. We got away with it!
We then went to the single departure lounge. The loudspeaker announced something in Vietnamese and everyone got up to board the plane. Fortunately there was a lady checking all the boarding passes as we passed and, at the last second, held us back and told us that that plane was headed for Vladivostok. We went back to the lounge. Two more planes left and each time we checked it, this time holding our boarding passes high and making sure the lady read them. Finally we got on our plane to Bangkok. We stayed one night at the Erewan again, collected our stuff in Kevin’s new suitcase, and flew back to Penang the next day.