This was a worrying crossing. We had been mentally preparing to lose our bike for many days beforehand, and eventually reached a point where both of us simply assumed that we wouldn’t be allowed to ride it through the border. We spoke about getting a bus down to Ho Chi Minh City to buy second bike once we were in Vietnam. We spoke of what to do when the border officials took our bike from us. Perhaps one of the guards will offer to purchase it from us at a heavily discounted price we hoped. A best case scenario.
The key reason that contributed to our worry was one I mentioned in this post. It’s one of those bureaucratic problems that certain border workers thrive on. It offers them a nice distraction from the monotonous thump thump thump of rubber stamps, and gives them something to chuckle about afterwards as they share dinner and listen to Karaoke.
Thus, our spirits were not high as we drove from Attapeu, the closest main town to the border at 112 kilometres away. Ten minutes west of the town, we had our final Laos breakfast in a little shed owned by a smiling old lady. Her posse included her equally smiley daughter, a dog that grumpily huffed in our direction but soon gave up and fell asleep, and a captured mynah bird in a cage who was a great mimic and spoke to me in Lao. Over the road grazed the usual assortment of buffalo, goats and chickens. We ate pho with beef.
The road to the border was almost completely paved and crossed a couple of large hills, pushing the bike close to first gear but never quite getting steep enough. Many of the pot holes we’d normally expect to dodge in Laos had been filled, so the drive was far more relaxing than usual. Coffee and rubber orchards lined the highway, occasionally giving way to expanses of recently harvested rice fields. There was very little traffic, but every once in a while the famously insane Vietnamese buses would roar past on the wrong side of the road, hands on their musical horns while spewing clumps of dust in our direction, the drivers indifferently faced, relaxed, carefree, oblivious to our terror.
As we neared the border our sense of dread deepened. We took one last photo of our trusty (okay, maybe not so trusty) motorbike, and that photo is now the header of this post. The final 10 kilometres to the border were an uphill slog in 2nd gear, the slow pace and screaming engine doing nothing to brighten our mood.
Bo Y (pronounced boh ee) border was relatively quiet apart from a few trucks and a couple of cars. We were the only non-Laotian or Vietnamese people there, and most of the people crossing were regulars who had border transit permits. For them, it was just another day at the customs office, waiting to get through. We parked our bike inconspicuously in front of the main building between several other bikes, then found the departure window. The man seated behind it was quiet and stern, but we had no problems getting our exit stamp after he’d spent several minutes turning our passports over and over in his hands multiple times. He said nothing about our motorbike (he probably hadn’t seen it), and waved us on.
We collected our bike and, trying not to look as nervous as we were, rode around the customs building and towards the barrier to no man’s land. A pair of guards at the gate made us dismount and asked for our passports. They gave us looks like we were in a huge amount of trouble, but if you’ve ever crossed a border then you will know that these looks are part of the fun. The game of immigration. The customs shuffle. In fact, they’re very much like the looks you get at airports. The looks that make you feel guilty for no apparent reason. After flipping through our passports for a while, one of the officers pointed at me and addressed Caroline.
“Handsome,” he said firmly, to which Caroline and I laughed. “Beautiful,” he said of Caroline, and showed a crack of a smile. They motioned that we could pass, and raised the barrier arm. We had exited Laos!
The drive through no man’s land only took a minute, and our minor elation at having exited successfully was once again replaced with foreboding. Admittedly, we hadn’t been too worried about Laos and assumed that we’d be able to get through with some sweet ‘talking’ if need be. It was getting the motorbike through Vietnamese customs which was the main issue (as I linked to above, but didn’t directly mention for reasons that hopefully are obvious).
Once again, we parked the bike at the front of the customs area trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. We entered and handed our passports to the man behind the glass window. He studied them for a moment, then looked me and said, “No visa.”
“Wha? Yes…yes visa?” I said, momentarily terrified. We had paid for our visas already.
“Oh, here,” he said, suddenly finding it hidden in the pages of my passport. Then after a pause he said, “Sorry,” and smiled apologetically. He gave us our stamps and thanked us. He was shockingly lovely.
We slowly climbed back on our bike, looking at each other with a nervous kind of excitement. Had we gotten through? No. We still weren’t out yet. Keep the champagne on ice…
“Get off!” called a man with an officious disposition, neatly dressed in a light green uniform. He looked like the sort of man who might stomp on a puppy for being too happy. We got off. This was it. Time to say goodbye to the bike that had taken us 2000 kilometres and visited only a paltry 20 mechanics along the way (ahem). The man walked over to a little booth and yelled, “Hey you!” to us, beckoning us over. He took our passports, looked at them, then said ‘thank you’ and handed them back. Then he beamed a huge smile and started trying to chat with us in broken English. Suddenly I no longer thought he looked like a puppy-stomper. “Good luck!” he waved happily, and we were on our way, through the borders and into Vietnam. We couldn’t quite believe it.
“Wait until we’re away from the checkpoint,” said Caroline. After ten minutes of driving we felt safe to celebrate. I’m not really the whooping type, but I let out a kind of loud ‘Yay!’
I now write this from a cheap but very nice hotel Kon Tum. The bike is safely parked downstairs. All is well.
And so what are our first thoughts of Vietnam after one day here? The coffee is plentiful and no doubt addictive (it’s served in little metal things that slowly drip over a glass of condensed milk, which you eventually stir and add ice to), the drivers are bonkers, and the people are abundantly friendly. We’ve had three meals so far, and each time the owners have gathered their friends and sat down with us, babbling away in Vietnamese and not caring that we can’t understand each other. They all seem shocked to have foreign people at their stores, which surprises me (in the best possible way) as I imagined the tourism in Vietnam was wide-spread. It’s high season right now, so apparently not. The food, by the way, is predictably cheap and delicious. Today we accidentally ordered snails and bamboo shoots, mostly through pointing and nodding and looking helpless. They were quite tasty.
So far two people have pointed in wonder at my nose and gone, “Awwwooh.” I thought my nose was normal, but I suppose it looks like a massive beak compared to the snub-nosed Vietnamese. Caroline is constantly getting told that she is beautiful, and I couldn’t agree more.