We got up early in Muang Ngoi Nuea to begin our marathon journey to Vietnam. I had originally wanted to detour through the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan but one look at a postcard of the site and I decided to skip. We decided to travel through a newly opened border close to Hanoi. We'd read about a lot of scams occurring there and were steeling ourselves up for the upcoming shakedown. We jumped on a boat back to Nong Khiaw and spent the day resting. Our bus to Sam Nuea near the border was supposed to arrive at 7pm, then 8pm, then 9pm. We went to wait for it at a little restaurant beside the bus stop but even they kicked us out at 10pm.Finally at about 10:30 it roared up over the bridge. We flagged it down and jumped on. We knew the bus price was 70 000 kip but the ticket guy insisted on 80 000 kip. We all handed him 70 000 each, closed our eyes and went to sleep. The bus was full of locals who were happy to blast music and sing along to entertain themselves. I stayed awake for a little while watching the bus drive with his high beams down dirt roads made for only one car. Luckily there was hardly anyone on the road. Sometime in the middle of the night they even fixed a flat tire. Not an auspicious start.
In Laos, they don't use horns before going around sharp bends. In the morning while going around one such bend the bus came to a dead stop. We looked up and there was another bus right in front of us at a dead stop as well. We were so lucky no one swerved because we were on the cliff side. A long journey to be sure but we felt pretty good when we arrived at Sam Nuea at 2pm. There is only one international ATM in all of Laos you end up carrying around lots of US dollars. We headed to the bank to change a few more dollars into kip to last us til the border and then headed down to the river where we found some lunch and a big market selling every animal I've ever heard of. There was even a big dead rat for sale but we didn't inquire how much. Michelle is pretty squeamish so we ran through the last part and headed home.
The bus to the border left the next morning at 6:30 and we met 3 more travelers going as well which made our hearts leap. Cora, Andy and Alison. 6 was definitely better than 3 we thought as we jumped on the back of a truck with 2 benches for the 3 hour rainy and miserable journey. At the border they searched our backs on the way out of Laos. My bag was first but one of the guys became so engrossed in an old entertainment magazine I'd had on top that they skipped half my compartments. He did find a tampon which he was curious about. He asked me to explain what it was for. Ummm no. I yelled to girls what they were requesting and they started laughing so the border guards left it alone. 100 meter walk into Vietnam where we found the border guards to be extremely helpful, so we thought. First they told us that there was no bus because of a big storm passing though called Storm 7. But them all of a sudden he said they had a found a private bus to Thanh Hoa (2 hours from Hanoi) for us and it would only cost us 80 US. So the shakedown began. We got him down to $72 or $12 each but he wanted payment of all the money immediately. I had to talk with the border guard for about 45 minutes before we finally agreed that we'd pay all of it when we got there. The bus driver paid off the border guard and we got on the bus to find it full to the top with bags of dried corn. We climbed over them and we were on our way for about 3 minutes before the driver stopped in town and picked up the regular passengers who of course only had to pay $3 each.
It was raining pretty hard while we chatted about the big ripoff. We crossed 2 flooded roads and after about 2 hours the bus halted in front of what looked like a raging river but was actually supposed to be our road. We sat there for about an hour before the driver backed the bus up the road and back to the nearest town called Quan Hoa. He stopped in front of a little restaurant where we went and ordered some soup. We were arguing back and forth as to whether the meat in the soup was pork or beef when we finally realized it was most likely dog. We played cards and killed time until about 10pm when we climbed on the bus to get some sleep. Sacks of dried corn are surprisingly comfortable but the smell. Whew!
At about 1am they finally started the bus and we headed out. The river had receded to the point where we could actually see parts of the road. They drove through quickly and we were on our way. A few hours later the a few of the men got out of the bus to cut way a huge tree that had felled right in the middle of the road. I closed my eyes and waited for it all to be over. We passed through a town about 3am where I kept hearing a rooster crowing. They unloaded some corn and we took off but the crowing didn't stop. I woke up to find they'd brought a rooster aboard. Alison had a bit of a asthma/panic attack. She said later she thought she might die there.
About 8am they woke us up to go and jump on a bus behind us which was going straight to Hanoi. We had decided to screw them back and only give them $5 each. A healthy profit we thought. Oh no. The driver and some of his cronies tried to prevent us from getting on the next bus and then tried to throw us off. Our only guy traveler, Andy was in the back protecting our backpacks when all of a sudden the back windows flew open and like a scene from attack of the living dead, arms were reaching in to fling our backs out. Cora, ever the drama queen threw herself out the window after the backpack screaming the whole way down. Kate went to check on Cora, Alison looked at me and said ' Is this really worth it.?' She grabbed $30 out of her purse. Andy took it and went after the backpacks and poor Michelle was stuck in the back trying to hold onto the remaining bags. I told her to forget it and come sit and watch our small backpacks with Alison. All that and we ended up paying $10 each total. Crazy crazy.
The next bus was much calmer although Michelle woke up to find some crazy Vietnamese guy groping her. We were shell shocked when we got off the bus in Hanoi. We jumped in taxis and headed to our hotels after agreeing to meet for dinner later on. There is an option in Vietnam to purchase an open jaw ticket from Hanoi to Saigon. It's pretty cheap but the Lonely Planet warns that you'll miss out on mingling with the Vietnamese locals on the bus. F@#% that. Sign me up!