As the three of us rattled along through the dark in back of the songthaew, a brief pinprick of light caught my eye out over the rice paddies. As I peered out into the night, another tiny light popped into existence and described a quick arc through the air before vanishing; and then there were dozens of them winking out there in the darkness like will-o’-wisps. Dave, sat across from me on the opposite bench, had noticed them too, out in the darkness behind me, and pointed them out to Mike next to him; and the three of us sat there, bouncing along this rural road in northern Laos towards the border with Vietnam with the wind in our hair, gazing out at the fireflies, lost in our weary thoughts after a long day of washed out roads and landslides and feeling like we’d almost reached our goal. Little did we know then that it was to be a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire…
Anyone who goes long-distance overland backpacking picks up an epic bus journey story or two; ten hours on a crazy mountain road while trussed-up livestock squawks and bleats under your seat, perhaps, all while a friendly local sits on your shoulder or leans over you to vomit out of the window. I’ve got my fair share – such as winding down the Trans-Sumatra highway from Bukkitinggi to Jakarta (a white-knuckle ride, missing logging truck after logging truck by inches as we overtook on blind corners round mountain bends, all with the same driver – the same one guy driving as though with a death wish for himself and all on board, taking only three one-hour breaks per day – the same driver day & night for almost 48 hours!); such as the mud-fest of Luang Nam Tha to Luang Prabang in rainy season (which I’ve been masochistic enough to do a second time even though I knew what it was like); such as the 10-hour marshrutka ride from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude in a Siberian blizzard (we were packed into that marshrutka van like a matryoshka Russian doll!), to name a few. But this 2-day journey from Phonsavan, Laos, to the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi (and the ensuing crazy weekend in Hanoi) was the most incident-filled bit of overland travel I’ve ever done or likely ever will, and it left me with a decent travel story and two new friends for life (and, as it would eventually turn out, future business partners)
Phonsavan to Hanoi, Day 1: Phonsavan and a brace of landslides
I’d met Mike and Dave early that morning at the bus station in Phonsavan, waiting for the bus to fill up and get going as the rain drizzled down on the paddy fields. The scheduled departure time had long been and gone and the bus was showing no signs of movement, so we fell to chatting about this and that, including what we’d seen and done in Phonsavan – such as visiting the UXO museum, which explains the issues Laos still faces today due to unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam war, mostly due to cluster bombs; all the metal that was dropped on northern Laos has been put to good use by the resourceful locals – you see bullets serving as key-rings, spent shells serving as stools and door-stops, knives & forks fashioned from the melted-down metals – but often at great cost, as those who go out searching with metal detectors (because they need the income) often become victims of these weapons doing what they were designed to do, decades after they were dropped there to do it.
The previous day, Mike told me, they’d rented scooters to visit the Plain of Jars, which I’d also visited on a bus tour. It was a good little tour, taking in the mysterious jars – large prehistoric stone pots scattered across the plains around Phonsavan – as well as an abandoned tank and a visit to a village where they were producing lao-lao (a sort of rice moonshine). My tour-mates and I bought a few plastic bottles of the stuff, and it was like drinking paint stripper… not the best night cap I’ve ever had, but there I was, up early the following day to head on to Vietnam without too much of a sore head. The conversation moved on to various other travel stories, as it does, and finally, amid some talk of a landslide, it was announced that the bus was finally leaving.
The road left town and snaked up into the jungle-clad mountains, their peaks wreathed in mist, and after an hour or two we arrived at the aforementioned landslide. These are a common problem in mountainous northern Laos during rainy season, especially with the sadly seemingly ever-increasing deforestation in the area, and roads are often blocked. A pile of earth and fallen undergrowth was blocking our way now, with a large tree making up the bulk of it. Still, it didn’t look impassable and in due course a JCB came trundling up the road behind us to do battle with this obstacle; it wasn’t easy, but the JCB strained and heaved and was eventually victorious and bulldozed a path through to re-open the road. And that was when one of the locals on the bus told us that this landslide was only the small one and that there was another, bigger one further up ahead.
And he wasn’t wrong – a short time later, we pulled up in front of the site of a massive landslide… the road here wasn’t simply buried under some mud and undergrowth; the road here was gone. The volume of mud, rocks, and trees that had come down in the night was enormous, flattening a swathe of forest down the hillside, huge boulders all stacked up in a crazy jumble, with the wet mud filling in the cracks between them.
“So… that bulldozer back there probably won’t be able to clear this, will it?”, I asked the same guy.
“No – now we wait for the army”, came the reply. “They use dynamite to open road!”.
“Great – when will they get here?”
“Maybe today, maybe tomorrow… who knows?”
This wasn’t looking good. While the local passengers started producing stashes of food, mostly consisting of wicker baskets of the main Lao staple of sticky rice, and settling in on blankets for the wait, the three of us along with a Dutchman and two American girls who were also on the bus discussed our almost complete lack of food and water. The stoicism and foresightedness of our fellow passengers was impressive; but we needed either to find a ride back to where we’d come from, or find a way to continue beyond this landslide. So a few of us picked our way carefully across the unstable pile of rocks and wet earth, which looked like it could very well have given way any moment and swept us down the hillside – pretty nerve-wracking and perhaps not the brightest idea, but we made it over and started sounding out the drivers of the long line of vehicles waiting on the other side, and eventually we found a songthaew willing to turn around and take the six of us back down to the next town towards Vietnam. He’d been on his way to make a delivery of empty Coca-Cola bottles for recycling – crates and crates of them – so it was going to be a tight fit. And while he didn’t seem too keen to do it at first, we negotiated a fair price with him and as he obviously wasn’t going to get where he’d planned to that day he agreed to do it. So we climbed back over the landslide, picked up the rest of the group, and then we all had to clamber over the landslide again but this time laden with our bags. Super sketchy, but it held; and so we lashed our bags to the roof of the songthaew and crammed ourselves in amongst the crates and onwards we continued to the clanking and jangling of hundreds of glass Cola bottles.
Some hours later, with the sun shining low and the shadows growing long we arrived at the village we’d agreed passage to. It turned out that this was our driver’s home village, and our Dutch and American companions arranged to stay there overnight (not sure where, exactly). However, the three of us who were Vietnam-bound had started the day intent on reaching the border town of Sam Neua, and we hadn’t given up yet. So we had another round of negotiations with the driver to take us a few hours further, writing the numbers on the ground with a stick to make sure there were no verbal misunderstandings, long strings of zeros etched in the dust (there are over ten thousand kip to one British pound) – this time he really didn’t want to make the trip, what with the late hour and him already being home, so we had to make it worth his while. I don’t recall how much we paid – not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but our man had a rather profitable day in the end. So, him being happy with the price and us being happy that we would reach our original goal (which would allow us to make the border crossing in good time the next day and so be able to make Hanoi by the next evening), and with the Coke bottles offloaded to be transported another day, we clambered back into the songthaew’s now-roomy back and drove on into the gathering dusk (stopping to pick up one of the driver’s mates – not sure if this was just for company or he actually needed a ride to Sam Neua too!)
And that’s how we came to be in the back of that songthaew while the fireflies danced over fields of rice paddies under fields of stars. You spend so many hours on the road when travelling, that eventually they can blur together somewhat. You remember these long journeys and the scenery along the way, aided by the photos you snapped through the window; but sometimes a scene etches itself vividly into your memory, and that songthaew ride with two new friends and the dancing fireflies is firmly etched into mine. I almost didn’t want to reach Sam Neua! But in due course we did, having taken the entire day to cover a mere 240km (150 miles), and so after checking into a cheap hotel enjoyed a well-earned bowl of pho before hitting the sack. We would be up early the next day for one last songthaew ride to the border and the madness waiting for us in Vietnam.
Phonsavan to Hanoi, Day 2: Sam Neua to Hanoi; a scam, a crash, and two stolen passports (welcome to Vietnam!)
And after a bright and early start we were crammed once again in the back of a songthaew which was driving us the last 100km (60 miles) to the border. This took us through the town of Vieng Xay, famous for the cave systems used by the Pathet Lao (Laotian communists) for shelter during the Vietnam war as the American air force subjected the area to the heaviest aerial bombardment in history. The caves look remarkable (in the pictures I’ve seen); a natural limestone cave formation which was expanded by the Pathet Lao into an underground fortress, complete with factories and even a concert chamber. They survived the war and went on to overthrow the Laotian monarchy, establishing the Lao People’s Democratic Republic government that holds power to this day. I do now think it would have been a good idea to stop over there and see these caves, as they are both spectacular and historically significant; the tall Dutchman our songthaew picked up in Vieng Xay had done just that and told us it was well worth it.
Anyway, a short time later (after having been on the receiving end of the most hostile glares I’ve ever received from a border guard), we were stamped into Vietnam and along with our new Dutch travel companion were attempting to arrange onward transport to Hanoi. This involved an awful lot of being messed around as we tried to negotiate a remotely reasonable price – there’s no public transportation from that border, so we had to deal with the private vehicle owners who knew very well that they had the upper hand. After all, we weren’t going to be walking to Hanoi. We tried to be as polite as possible, but our efforts to bargain were met with outright hostility; tempers became a little frayed, and suddenly our Dutch companion intentionally tripped one of the Vietnamese we were negotiating with. I couldn’t believe my eyes! He apologised and managed to pass it off as a mistake (and I reckon he could have got himself, perhaps all of us, a nasty beating if he hadn’t immediately apologised), but that moron scuppered whatever chance we had of bargaining the price down. I think we paid around 40 dollars each – extortionate by Vietnamese standards at the time, and a few weeks later a Dutch girl in my hostel in Ho Chi Minh City told me that she’d paid 25 dollars from the same border town to Hanoi. Which just goes to show that smiling and being polite & respectful tends to yield better results than kicking people!
In any case, finally we were on our way. We thought that bus was taking us all the way, but in fact it dropped us off by the highway where we were shunted on to another bus to Hanoi. But before that change of buses, we’d stopped for a toilet break in a small town; I managed to score a much-needed coffee, and as we stood there sipping and chatting in the rain, another bus that was parked up alongside ours started reversing out into the street. There was a squeal of tires from the road, and I watched the breaking scooter plough into the side of the bus with no chance of stopping on the wet surface. The helmet-less driver went over his handlebars, smashed his head through the bus window with a sickening crunch, and bounced back into the street. A crowd gathered; no-one helped; we wondered if we could help, and how (I’ve never wanted to be a Vietnamese-speaking medic, but I wished I was right then); but then someone simply picked him up and plonked him on the back of another scooter and held him there behind the driver, his head lolling around on his limp neck, and off they went. To hospital, I hope, but I don’t actually know. What I do know is that he’d probably suffered severe head and neck injuries, and that however bad they were to begin with they would have become worse by the time they got him there.
Talking about it later, Dave and I who’d been facing out towards the road and watched it happen reckoned he was maybe permanently injured, if not dead; whereas Mike, who’d had his back to the accident, judging the situation by how bad his actual injuries seemed afterwards rather than how bad the impact had looked, reckoned he might have come out of it okay. He was just about semi-conscious in the immediate aftermath, so I sincerely hope that Mike was right; but we’ll never know.
So with that sickening crunch fresh in mind, along with the aggro at the border and another full day’s bus travel on top of the previous day’s songthaews and landslides, we finally arrived in Hanoi. The tall Dutchman told us he knew of a good hotel, so we left him to it and went to find our own. After seeing him trip the chap at the border we had little time for him and were glad to be shot of him; but the hotel we did end up in turned out to have been a rather bad choice (and on the way to it, the taxi driver passed a fake note off on us – when Dave tried to use it in a restaurant they showed us it was fake, and it ended up pinned on the wall behind the bar). We checked in late at night and were told 10 dollars a room per night (when they later charged me 15 a night upon checking out, the argument became a scrap and I have a scar on my arm to this day). The hotel staff took our passports to keep in reception (this is standard in Vietnam and they have to do it by law), and I said good night to the lads and crawled into bed. It had been a long, crazy, amazing, stressful couple of days, but it we’d made it and it was finally over… or so we thought…
I woke up the next day to find a note under my door… “Si mate, you’re never gonna believe this. The bastards have lost our fucking passports! Yours is okay, but mine & Dave’s are gone. We’re off to the police station, see you this evening – Mike” (my passport was in a leather holder I’d bought in Mongolia a few months earlier, so presumably whoever took theirs hadn’t noticed mine due to the holder). My time in Vietnam had started as it would continue…