Evacuation from Vietnam

15 Feb
Vietnam Airlines - planes from before the war...

Vietnam Airlines - planes from before the war...

I squeezed as much I could out of my Vietnam trip, and out of the time with my ex. But to all stories comes an end. My goodbye-honeymoon came to an end at the same time as my visa for Vietnam: 15th February. Valentine I spent together with my ex (not quite as expected: VIPs can read more here) so the 15th was the last day I could spend in Vietnam, with the Laos border closing at 17h. I had to get there at all cost – and indeed I had to fork out some money to get where I wanted to get – but got a lovely ride through the mountains in return for it – and a not so lovely ride into Laos …

Dien Bien Phu airport - you walk from the plain to the building

Dien Bien Phu airport - you walk from the plain to the building

I had booked a flight to Dien Bien Phu (North-West Vietnam) on the 15th morning – DBP of all places – who on earth goes there? The photographer sitting next to me on the old propeller plane that seemed to date from the Vietnam war, he went there to see the remains of the last famous battle that kicked the French out of Vietnam (before the Americans would come in next to play war). But besides that, nothing much was there – except the Laos border at 34km… My goal.

We left for the airport very early in the morning, so no breakfast in our lovely hotel. In stead we bought some sweet potatoes and some other unidentified root for breakfast from a street vendor. Not really my thing early in the morning, but beggars can’t be choosers. In the minuscule Hanoi airport (10 gates in all – me leaving from gate 10, C from gate 1 – very symbolic) there was only ‘instant soup’ to eat, so I had soup as a second breakfast. When arriving in Dien Bien Phu J had to have a last time the typical food of Vietnam, and I ordered my last Bun soup – soup again… And when arriving in Laos – because of language difficulties, the only thing I managed to order was – guess – SOUP again. I am in desperate need of some solid food soon otherwise I’ll turn into a soup sooner or later…

Me and my moto-racer in Dien Bien Phu

Me and my moto-racer in Dien Bien Phu

When I arrived in Dien Bien Phu, it turned out there was no bus to Laos till the next day (as correctly mentioned in the Lonely Planet – and wrongly in the ‘Stefan Loose’ German guidebook that my plane neighbour swore by). So there was nothing left to do than to negotiate a little price with the moto-drivers on the corner of the street. But since this was not a tourist destination, English was not one of the skills widely available on the street. So I got out my pen and paper, my phrase book and lots of body language to get a driver to Laos – before 5pm when the border would close… When I asked for prices going to the first town in Loas at 35km of the border (which was not even in my guidebook!!), they quoted me prices of 500 or 600.000 Dong (about 25-30 euro) which is enormous considering the bus would cost only 80.000 Dong and would bring me to a bigger town 75km into Laos – and would bring me back on the Lonely Planet maps. So instead I negotiated a price for a motorbike till the border, and then I would walk into Laos – and take it from there.

Speeding through the rice fields to the Laos border

Speeding through the rice fields to the Laos border

It was one of the most beautiful rides I had (besides maybe some romantic rides on the back of my ex’s moto in Sai Gon), through the lush mountains and the bright green rice fields. And even though we were racing down the windy mountain roads, I just kept on taking pictures of the scenery, holding on with one hand, filming with the other.

See pictures below – some movies here – movie 1movie 2 – movie 3

The border guard did it according to the book - copy book ;-)

The border guard did it according to the book - copy book ;-)

The Vietnamese border officials were surprised to see me arriving on foot and were asking me how on Earth I would get into Laos. I didn’t have a clue myself either- I thought I’d just walk… And walking I had to, because the border crossing involved a 2 km walk through no-man’s-land. I sent my last text messages from my Vietnamese phone/sim card and then plunged into Laos… Back in time.

The Lao border was basically a nice concrete building, with nothing near it. So forget about taking a taxi, hiring a moto, or staying the night. This was survival. So I got my phrasebook out – the Lao pages this time – yet another language – and walked up to some workers building something near the border post. I was thinking that the same amount I had spent on a moto-drive down to the border from Dien Bien Phu would also get me to Muang Mai, at 35km from there. But helas, nobody was interested to make an extra few bucks, until I raised the price till double what I paid in Vietnam. Or I could have slept at the border… outside… brrr…

Bye bye Vietnam - Hello Laos

Bye bye Vietnam - Hello Laos

It is only afterwards that I realized why the ride was more expensive down the Lao side. There were basically no roads (anything worthy of that name), but only dirt tracks covered with rocks and sandy patches. On top of that, the moto-driver who finally agreed to take me (only if I paid half of the sum before) already had a big parcel of his own to deliver somewhere, so the space between his knees, where usually my heavy backback goes, was taken. So we started off with my 13kg backpack on my back, and the small rucksack on my right knee, doing a back-braking balancing act for 35kn and one hour and a half, fearing for my life every curve and bump in the road…

Laos - no more roads, no more helmets, no more electricity,...

Laos - no more roads, no more helmets, no more electricity,...

It is only 3 days later, when I came across a mirror again, that the backpack had actually scraped the skin off some of my vertebra which are maybe not cushioned all that well anymore after 1,5 month of rice and noodles and soups-a-go-go.

But I made it into Laos, to a little hotel in Muang Mai – covered in dust from the road, not recognizing the colour of my backpack and clothes anymore – even though my back is not so happy with it.

  • Mission accomplished. Bye bye Vietnam, time for a new chapter.

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