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Leaving Laos, Visiting Vietnam

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Visas for Vietnam arrived on Schedule, and we were at the airport at 05:00 on schedule as well. Along with 2 other farangs. I think they tell the Farangs to show up at 5am as a joke to see how many of us are obedient. Local folk trickled in around 5:30, the coffee shop opened, and at 05:45 the rest of the flight arrived in the form of a French seasoned citizens tour group. I ignored the "film safe" sign on the scanner and asked for a hand check - which was granted, no questions. The plane was a 70 seat turboprop and the flight went without problems. Baggage claim in Savanaket was a normal truck which drove to the plane, loaded the bags, then drove back to the terminal to match them with their owners. After that, the airport emptied out and shut down. Full bike assembly from boxed condition now takes us under an hour, and we were off to Savan to get breakfast in a small cafe with the usual big color pictures of "anywhere else" on the wall. This morning's picture looked familiar - a poster of Seattle from somewhere near the I5-I90 interchange!


Bit of a snafu came up with currency; we had delayed converting more $US to kip and figured we'd do that in Savan when we knew exactly what we'd need to leave Laos. Banks in Savan were closed for "political studying" or something to that effect. Oops. Headed east anyway to the next major town, 67km away. Easy day, rolling hills very good pavement, and traffic fell off quickly as we left Savan. The one curiosity being the occasional flatbed truck with 2-3 huge logs in the back that would roll by one or two per hour. An occasional lumber truck went the other way, but mostly logs going out. The currency wasn't even much of a problem since life was suddenly cheap again; $1.90 for breakfast, $1.20 for lunch, and another $1 for snacks and bottled water. Living it up!

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Climate down in these parts is much hotter and drier than where we came from - really is the dry season. Rivers are reduced to standing pools, and all fields are brown. Temps are high, but humidity is very low. Met a couple Germans mid-day who were coming the other way. They cheerfully said that the road "wasn't as bad as Lonely Planet indicated but there was a fair bit of construction along the way." Accommodations for the night posed a problem; the book lists only one guest house in Dong Hene, described by location, not by name and it was not marked. As we tried to inquire about rooms, we were waved away. We went back to town, where people indicated that we had been in the right place. Bugger, it was the only place to sleep for a long long distance around. We went back again, and eventually found enough English to learn that we needed to come back after 7pm - some banquet going on before then. okeedokee. leisurely dinner, watching the logging trucks go by. And the giant Tonka-Toy construction equipment going by to the east. Uh oh. 7pm rolled around so back we went, to find the party starting to wind down, but a good sized group of rather drunk guys still sitting around drinking beer. Our room was large, dirty and right off the main hall. We hunkered down ignoring the noise and the peeping children at the windows. A drunk guy told us to come drink beer, but drunks are suggestible, so we suggested that we wouldn't be drinking beer and he could go re-join the group, which he did.

The bathroom in this joint was an unhappy cross between traditional Asian and Western. There was the big cement cistern of water with scooper bucket as per traditional; you use the bucket to flush a squat toilet, pour water over your hands to wash, pour water over yourself to shower, etc. But there was also a sink - without water, so you could pour water in that as well, but then it just ran out on your shoes since there was no drain either. There was also a western toilet; which also wasn't connected. So you could flush water down the bowl, which doesn't work anywhere near as well as a squat toilet designed to do just that, or fill the back and flush. Either way you realize how much water gets wasted in a typical flush toilet.


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Being from the US of A isn't going over quite as well down here - despite the guys sitting around at lunch wearing rather authentic looking "US Army" fatigues (including a name patch in the correct location). Could be we're closer to where the US did heavy saturation bombing back in the late 70s trying to hit the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a fair bit of which runs through Laos. At least, I assume the cause is historical, although I'd be more sympathetic to ill will if the locals were watching current events.

Finally figured out the white turnip-looking things in the market - they're Jicama! Grows like a potato, but sweet, peel and eat like an apple pretty tasty!

As we get further from Beer Lao Central (Vientiane) an amazing amount of transportation infrastructure goes toward keeping the beer flowing; virtually every bus which goes by has crates and crates of Beer Lao on top, along with the pickup-taxis.

Second day out of Savan was supposed to be easy, 90km of relatively flat, and, it turned out, most of it with very good, very new pavement, thanks to Japan. 20km of light construction, old pavement, and dirt in the middle, but the real problem was the wind. There was some wind the day before, but today it was just relentless; the beast from the east blowing a steady 20+ kph, full on, in the face all the time. Normally biking one can get a rest with the downhills. Today we fought for every km in an ever-exhausting and mentally draining battle. It's like a long hill climb with never a down. Hot hot day, long straight highways, and full on wind. suspended between the sizzling asphalt and the endless blue sky with just the beast in our own dimension. reality wandered off and took a nap for a while until something more interesting came along. Toward the end of the day we were fighting hard to make 20kph into the wind on a gentle downhill (we would have easily been doing 30kph in calm conditions).

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Random question: with all those logging trucks going by, how come there is never one going back empty? Never figured out the answer to this one; never saw an empty logging truck go by! Lots of big empty trucks though; probably Thai-Vietnam trade. A Laos truck would never move if empty; couldn't afford to. Laos transportation maxim: "If it still moves, it isn't overloaded (yet). "

Found a can of Beer Lao which was marked for export! This means that you can appreciate the correct atmosphere while reading these long diatribes! Here's how: Try the local Asian market for Beer Lao - get two cans, that's just more than one bottle would be here. Crank up your thermostat to 25-30C (you do the conversion, I'm just getting used to using real temperature numbers), wear Tevas, shorts, T-shirt, blare loud incomprehensible music in the background, traffic noise outside, and then get all the small children you can find, paint them brown, kids under two aren't wearing pants (not potty-trained we assume), and have them all make a circle around you silently staring while you work. (yeah, the silent bit will be tough with American kids). How's that for environment? Oh, and I almost forgot, download this over a 14.4 modem - should take at least 10 minutes.

Finally fought our way into Muang Phin and promptly found the town English teacher. He was from Savan, had been sent to Sydney by the Laos government to learn English (which he'd managed to do without Aussie accent amazingly enough) and then sent here to Muang Phin to teach. He'd been here two days and was already bored out of his mind.

We seem to be approaching the border; signs are now bilingual - in Lao and Vietnamese. You want English? Look for the tri-lingual sign.

The 13th was our last day in Lao, and luck was definitely not with us. We watched the morning roto-tiller stream go by during breakfast. Roto-tillers are the standard farm-implement-turned-family-car with the addition of a cart on the back. The older ones we can pass on the road, the newer ones will do about 25kph. Hmmm, perhaps one could tour Lao by roto-tiller! Build yourself a little house in the cart and head off. Love to see the looks you'd get once they realized a pale-face was driving. Now there's a book idea who's time will wait.

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Random note on choosing restaurants: One thing we never learned well in Laos was how to pick out a restaurant. We thought that perhaps it was the blue plastic chairs that give it away, but then some shops have these as well so you can sit in the shade while drinking your Beer Lao. I think we made some un-suspecting shop owner cook for us once or twice by mistake, since "this is NOT a restaurant!" is not in our phrase book. Now we're thinking that it's the presence of condiments on the table that indicate a real restaurant. In any case, we always choose the wrong one, and see the better restaurant after we sit down, or after we leave.

The heat was tempered by some clouds -finally. But the hot season is definitely advancing - we haven't needed blankets since Vang Vieng at night, and thinking about actually looking for a hotel with AC at times. The pavement unfortunately ended about 50m east of town, leaving us 80km of unpaved hell, er road to the border. For some reason escaping Laos today became the imperative. 80km, and the border closed at 5pm. We should have gotten an early start. We didn't. The wind should have let up. It didn't. We should have stopped in Sepon for food mid-day. we didn't. Gretchen's tire shouldn't have gone flat yet again. It did. We had 8 hours to do the ride. At 4 hours we were halfway there, hurting, dusty, and tired. Food was scarce, couldn't stop to eat. The air was full of choking, heavy, red dust which covered us and everything we had.

The book said to "look for signs of war scars along the road" but these had long been obliterated by the massive destruction involved in building the new road. Just when it couldn't get worse, it did. Heavy construction, road no longer packed dirt, but rutted dirt, which had been pitted by a giant road-tenderizer, and everything coated in the soft dust. Couldn't tell if the trucks appearing through the 50m visibility were coming or going. Dust subsided as the trucks moved on, but the wind didn't. A new theory for the day suddenly came to mind: we actually got hit by one of those dump trucks and we're in hell now.

15km left to go, and it's an all out battle, but we roll into the Laos border town by 4:15, exhausted, dehydrated, covered in dust and vaguely victorious. There are roughly 5.77 Million people in Laos, and in the last 15 days we have, at conservative estimate, waved and said hello/sa-bai-di! to at least half of them. It was time to move on.

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We stocked up on water, partly to wash the dust off so Customs wouldn't hold their nose and kick us back! Lao checkout was easy, and checkin was a 3-stage process with Vietnam, but not too bad. Once across the border we were swarmed by women wanted to change money. Huh? Black Market? There was no bank listed for Lao Bo (the Vietnamese town) so I changed my Kip and some Baht just to have a little money and assumed I was getting ripped off. Standing around the middle of Lao Bo reality began to sink in. We were in a new country, who's food, customs, currency, and hotels we didn't understand. We were dead tired having fought our way up and out of Laos for 8 hours straight, and it suddenly dawned on me that it would have been much smarter to stay on the Laos side for one last night where we knew the system. Too late. 2km is an infinite distance when there's a border in the middle.

A man in a warehouse was waving at me. I wandered over and asked where the bank was
Right here! How much you want to change?! looked like a warehouse to me, but ok, he gave 15,000 VND/$1, which I thought was pretty close to current. Next I asked about a guest house. big Mistake!!
"Right here!!"
What??
Takes us across the street into a vacant building with spare rooms, and keeps 1/3 of the $20 I just changed. Oh well....

got to wash all the dirt off - I haven't been this dirty all over since I was 8! and then try to find dinner in the new country It was just a surreal night wandered down to a small restaurant. Everyone pointed at us and laughed. We pulled out the "vegetarian" sign and they all had another good laugh. They're definitely laughing at us, not with us. And the young girls (pre-teen) are all wearing pajamas. Eventually got some beer Huda (from Hue) and omelette which was decent, with rice. Hotel was medium noisy, and I was a little paranoid about the place - after all, there was a red light hanging just outside our window! At 06:00 we were awakened by a 5000 Watt rooster crow - right outside the window. No more sleep would be possible so we got up. Closer inspection revealed that yes, there was a guy selling roosters immediately outside our window. maybe that's what a red light means? maybe not. time to go.





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