On this day in 2011….Stuck at the Vietnam/Laos frontier #Otdi2011


mistyWe woke up at the border gate, and looking past the snoring rapist (admittedly a bit unfair), I could see through the window it had rained heavily last night albeit visibility was limited due to a heavy mist. The digital clock at the front of the coach told me it was 6.30am and through the fog I could just about make out several other coaches parked up on the roadside.

We were ordered off the coach with our hand luggage and ordered to the border control which was about 200m up the mountain. No actually we weren’t ordered, as that would have been a good thing. We were actually just left there while the coach drove off, leaving us to advance into the deep mist on our own without any instruction. The outline of a distant mountain range was just about possible.

We eventually found the passport control and checked out of Laos. Once in the frontier, we took the 5 minute walk across to Vietnam. Everybody had their visa out and were showing them to the guards. Not us, we had done ours online and would pick them up at the crossing. We had it done two days in advance, as recommended, and all was approved. No worries.

At the Vietnam entrance, we waited in small tin hut, while the coach driver called our names from his list to present our documentation to the necessary authorities. When we were called up, we were greeted with a smirk and given our passports back. No visa, no entry. We tried to explain that we booked it online, but they didn’t want to know. They called another set of names up and ordered us aside. A lot of ordering around going on here. We went to the departure side of the border control building to find an empty office to print out our visa but had no luck. Panic was starting to set in now, as all the other guys on our coach were getting through and off continuing through to where presumably our coach was parked. Right okay, maybe we should find our coach and explain our situation. But where was our coach? Not allowed back into Laos, we walked around aimlessly in the fog and rain looking for it. It was nowhere to be seen. Even with no let up from the fog, it definitely felt like there was a lot less people around.

Except for a sole Argentinean lad from tubing, who was anxiously looking for his two other friends. Trading panic stories and predicaments in the cold mist had now replaced the Malvinas/reckless zipwire banter we’d shared while preparing for a trapeze swing on the sunny banks of the Nam Song River only a few days ago.

The three of us decided that we would go back up to the Vietnam border control gate. Walking across a wooden bridge, despite the intense fog, we could see all the locals running across. “Where are the coaches?” we asked, to the response of pointing and laughing. I fucking hate this place already. We managed to get past the first set of security guards and had a few steps in Vietnam when we were hauled up by a guard armed with a machine gun and two dark holes for eyes. We were thrown out instantly; the Argentinean guy said he was off to look for his friends back in Laos. We had now walked the entire length of the frontier without seeing a single coach or anybody who was on it and I can only struggle in conveying, the Microsoft Word thesaurus tool can’t help me here, the dread we felt when it dawned on us that not only were we not getting into Vietnam today, but our coach and everybody on it had. Them and our bags with all our stuff. It’d passed through the border, without us.

Our confusion was compounding. As far as we were concerned, we had the visa and were right to be bedding down on that bus on to Hanoi, not out here freezing our tits off in the rain and cold in no mans land. This was a holiday for fucks sake, not Northern France 1916.

We managed to look as confused and scared as possible to the guard who had kicked us out the first time, but emotions clearly didn’t work with them. So we played the hard game and begged to see our coach driver. Another more senior guard came over and told us he would “take you, take you, than need visa”. It’s important you know I’m not taking the piss out of his broken English, it’s 100 times better than my Vietnamese, I just want you to get an idea of what it was like. He took us into Vietnam, machine gun at the ready, and after a brisk walk we found our coach, the last one left, parked up on a muddy bank. We got on and I was actually very happy to see the Con-Air Rapist perched up in his seat as this was definitely our coach at least. His pock marked face the ever-reliable landmark. We grabbed our hand luggage and went to return to our seats when the Guard ordered us back off, “what’s going? I thought we were safe”. The coach driver was opening the baggage compartment underneath the coach and told us to find our bags. Once found, the driver was ushered away and we were told to follow the Guard back to the border. Which we did, listening to our coach rolling off into the distance, down into the misty magical mountains.

We were taken to the border and promptly kicked out again, with a stern warning. Kicked out of Vietnam twice, with no more than a nasty smile and the tapping of a machine gun. Muhammad Ali justified his refusal to enlist in the US Army as “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger”, following the party line of Private Hook in the film Zulu who argued “did I ever see a Zulu walk down the City Road”. Anyways unlike Mr. Ali, I do have a reason to dislike the Vietnamese, and there I was thinking travelling was supposed to make you less racist.

Though it’d be daft to write-off the Vietnamese just yet. Considering I came within a whisker of ending up on the receiving end of a kicking from a gang of bouncers when I was 15, after repeatedly sneaking into a over-18s nightclub back home in Colindale, violence is everywhere. There was a building site next door, and we would climb the scaffolding, jump over into the beer garden and then call somebody to open the fire exit for us. The risk of falling down and breaking your spine paid dividends when you got in and spent the last few hours drinking snakebite, shouting your heroic story to anybody who will listen over Fat Man Scoop. Problem is the Bouncers on the door would do routine checks and if you got caught, you were out. It’s now an Indian bar and restaurant.

The Laotian border guys weren’t too bad, giving the translator software on their Microsoft ’95 a good go, but with little prevail. A brief moment of respite came in the form of a Laotian Billy Mitchell lookalike, who came over to investigate, providing a welcome chuckle and brief distraction, although the rain and mist outside pretty much summed up our hopes. I tried sneaking a picture of Billy for the white pages of my future autobiographical travel book, but this only fuelled their suspicion. After 30 minutes of hoping the translator on the other side could help, the message was clear. We were on our own and we would not be heading into Hanoi tonight.

We had already spent our last kip (currency of Laos), so were going to have trouble getting back into Laos and back to the nearest town to print off our visas. We searched our bags and found just enough Thai baht to convince a truck driver to take us to the nearest town, Lak Sao, where we spent the rest of the morning looking for a place with a printer. Surprisingly hard. Also, as this place was not normally a tour date on the backpackers trail, we could not access any of the ATM. We were now officially broke. Our plan had been to print out our visas and than get the next bus back to the border, but now, neither of these options were open to us. We were pretty much fucked.

The mist had now cleared and it was about mid morning. As much of a stress this was, a little part of me was grateful for the experience. Trauma and drama is often at the heart of a good travel story. A fantastic example of this was when Me, Ben and our two housemates at University, Greg and Winters, headed to Latvia in January 2006 on a last minute whim.

Dancing with wolves, LATVIA 2006

<b><a href=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia1.jpg”><img alt=”Latvia walks” src=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia1.jpg&#8221; width=”604″ height=”453″ /></a></b>It was in the middle of exams, and by means of a break from revision at a nice old English pub near our halls of residence in Mossley Hill, Liverpool. After many great stories of travel, we decided that we should do one together and so when we got back we picked the most random country that we could think of (or one that Ryanair had capitalized on) and booked it for the day after our final exam, the following week. There had been a big gang of us originally and as well as the exams, we were all faced with the headache of sorting out houses for next year. We had placed deposits down for two 6-bedroom houses only a few doors away and the 12 of us were unsure who would live with who. When the rest of the lads responded with “why Latvia?” or “I don’t have a warm enough coat”, we knew there and then that the four us would certainly be living together next year.

Forget the bankruptcy of New Century Financial or increased LIBOR, if you wanted an earlier indication of the Credit Crunch, you only had to look to 2006 where any old wankey student could flake around Wavertree High Street, walk into a bank with a NUS Card and half-hearted promises to make it their principle student loan account, and walk out with a 0% overdraft of no small amount. Times were good for spontaneous capital and the resultant student travel.

Anyways, after a couple of nights in Riga, the capital city, we decided to go and search for the wilderness and boarded a train to Siguilda which is about 55km away. The home of Latvian winter sports, although at the time it was more of a ghost town. On the other side of town was a cable cart that crossed the valley, over the Gauja River and onto the other side. The Woman who operated it came out of nowhere and was the first person we had seen in this large but empty town. The purpose for crossing? As well as ‘why not?’ we had also heard that there was skiing over there beyond the dark snow covered woods. The crossing was amazing, looking down at our cable cart’s shadow on the frozen over river below and the odd spot of a wolf prowling amongst the forest. Once on the other side, we were warned that the last crossing back was as at 6pm. But we were too caught up in the trek through the woods, were we spotted several castle ruins lost amongst the trees and snow, to be worried about that. We found the small ski resort and it seemed like we were the only ones who had. A great day skiing all round, so good in fact we only realized how late it had got by 5.30pm. After returning our equipment, we raced back through the forest but were too late to catch the last crossing. Looking across the valley, we could just about make out the cart. The last train back to Riga was at 7pm and if we missed that, we really were in the shit. Winters, as usual, kept cool and decided we would just have to make our way down to the river and see if there’s a bridge or something. Time was against us, and we soon found the easiest way down the valley was too slide on our arses down through the icy paths that had been made by the prowling wolves of the forest. The day before, we had been in one of central Riga’s parks and had a load of fun sliding down the pathways that had been iced over, and now this practice was being put to good use. We must have been sliding non-stop in single file down this hill before we got to the bottom. Over to one side, we could see an old bridge, but given how old it was, we weren’t sure if it was still in use. Sod it, our only real option and as far as we could see it did make it across the river. Our problem lay in the fact that to get to it, we would have to cross some of the frozen river. We had already some experience in this from yesterday when we bought the official UEFA Euro 2004 ball and played football on the frozen Danube River. Which is perhaps one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done. But we had no other option. Normally I would be shitting myself, but considering I’m with some of the best people I’d ever met and people who will go on to be my friends for life I felt relatively calm. Greg and Winters scouted the ice and indicate where to tread. Our bravery (stupidity) is rewarded by the sound of a car bombing through the forest behind us. They must be crossing this bridge. And they do. Winters is the first there and flags the car down and once we’re all up on the bridge, we’re good to go. It’s quite dark by the time we get to the train station and we all conk out on the train, woken only by the ticket collector for our slips.

Point of that sorry was, it’s surviving the fear and overcoming your problems which make a good memory or a worthwhile story. Not to say that’s a worthwhile story to you the reader, but for me it’s one that will continue to give me joy when I wistfully look back on it, perhaps until my dying day. So here we are, in some foreign town, where nobody really has any good reason to help out a few backpackers who have unluckily landed here.

However, an old Woman on the other side of the road who had been watching us fish out our last Thai baht for the truck driver, could sense a predicament. When our cards did not work at the ATMs, she could sense panic. She was here to help. She offered us the money to take one of the buses back to the border, even going as far as taking out the cash and placing it in our hands. There was no ulterior motive here, and I even felt guilty when the thought flashed across my mind. She just wanted to help two guys, obviously in trouble. Although, we both felt like we needed a plan of action before taking on any loans, we thanked the woman profusely and turned down her offer. She would be around the market, so if and when we needed her help she would be happy to offer it. Not a single hotel, office or shop had a printer. Some guys from a local pool hall took Ben up to their bedsit, which consisted of one grotty mattress and a PC. After viewing our Visa, we still could not print it out. Again, we thanked them profusely. They were good people. Walking along the street, we saw what looked like a second hand repairs shop. There was a printer there, but by no means connected and probably no ink. We asked the guy on the till if we could use it to print something and not only did he agree, but also spent the next 5 minutes connecting it up and refilling it with ink. He happily fired it up and printed off our Visas. That was half the problem solved. The next one was how we would access our funds. Oh, but wait, no we had an even bigger problem. Reading the small print, our visas were only valid if picked up from one of four airports in Vietnam. We now had to fly in. That’s why the Vietnamese at the border had no record of us having one. This meant catching a ride back to Vientiane, where we would have to buy plane tickets and fly into Hanoi to pick our visa up from the airport. Alternatively we could buy land crossing visas, but we would have to wait for them to be approved first, which could take up to 3 days. Time wasn’t on our side.

If there’s one benefit of this detour, it was the invaluable insight to a part bit of Laos that is not normally on the backpacking conveyor belt. Along with this, we got to see the superb hospitality of this little nation (sorry guys to be patronizing). But like most things, economics can describe why your more likely see improved hospitality in the impoverished areas in comparison to the cities or tourist hotspots. One of my favourite economists (yeah, I have a favourite economist), Tim Harford explains this perfectly in his book The Undercover Economist. He compares the manners of people in both Paddington in central London and Preston in Lancashire. He argued that people in Preston were more likely to be polite and friendly, as their time was less costly. Whereas in London, people had choices and time was money, thus, would have less time to hold a door open for somebody or strike up a time consuming conversation as there were more alternatives for them to be getting on with. Why would you want and chat to your elderly and painfully lonely neighbour about the weather when you can go and see Priscilla Queen of the Desert in the West End?

This was a good example of this, as the people here don’t have to worry about getting more buckets for people to drink out of or ensure there are enough rubber tyre tubes for people to ride in.  Also backpackers are not as tainted by the locals here as they are perhaps in Vang Vieng. Again I can revisit that legendary 2006 trip to Latvia for an example. Back to Siguilda, me and Greg are at the top of one of the main slopes preparing to go down when we are approached by a Latvian couple. We get chatting and at first we are surprised they are Latvians, considering how friendly they are. Especially when the woman offers me her gloves to keep my hands warm. Reason for our surprise, was the fact that back in Riga, we had been tarred with the same brush by the locals that had tarred the stag do crowd, all of which had been dressed as Papa Smurf. Fair enough I suppose, and despite our best efforts, we often fell into our own loutish ways. But we also showed manners to the locals. One night, when we returned to our hostel after a boozy one, we noticed a strippers club below. Greg, the kind hearted one of our group, took all the girls out for a burger and chips after they finished their shift. Nothing shifty about it, he just did because that’s the kind sweet guy he is. Not a single one of the Smurfs would have done that. I wonder how we would be received by this nice couple if they knew the true extent of carnage happening in their capital city tonight and the night after, all perfectly orchestrated by my fellow countrymen.

<a href=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia2.jpg”><img alt=”Us in Riga the previous day, January 2006″ src=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia2.jpg?w=300&#8243; width=”300″ height=”225″ /></a> Us in Riga the previous day, January 2006

Back in Laos 2011, we were now on a truck back to Vientiane, the capital city we thought we had left behind. How were we going to get money out? Find a place to stay? How expensive would the flights be? Was Vietnam actually worth it? Sitting in the back of that truck bombing down the dusty road, I began to sing the seemingly appropriate Long and Winding Road by The Beatles, while Ben opted for Why Me Lord? by Johnny Cash. I suppose the most fitting song would be I Got the Wrong Visa and Now It Looks like I’m Stuck in Vientiane For the Next 6 Weeks, if it existed. Maybe we should write it, first single for our ‘difficult second album’. Maybe we can make it again at next year’s BRIT awards following our success on that first proper night in Vang Vieng.

They say Vientiane is the ‘most relaxed city in the world’. Not really, it’s just boring. Saturday night everywhere is shut except for the sleazy bar we had scouted earlier as the place to catch the West Ham Vs Arsenal game, the one thing that had got us through the days events. Unfortunately now it was just full of ladyboys, prostitutes and degenerate western men. We called it a night after half-heartedly looking for an alternative.

Went to bed that night, with the horrible feeling only half the problems were behind us. Would we get a flight in the morning? Were they really going to cost $500, as listed on the internet? Would we have to get a land crossing visa and have to stay here for another 3 or 4 days in the process?

In times like this, I try and think about fate. I certainly believe in fate at times like this. Of course in times of victory I put the outcome down to my own hard work or luck. But not now. This was meant to happen, we are meant to meet somebody or experience something in the future and this experience only ensured that happens. How different is out trip going to be now? If we do get a flight tomorrow and arrive in Hanoi, we will only be one day behind schedule. And think of all the new people we will meet and all the adventures we’re going to have. I then thought about Latvia 2006 again……..


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