The Slow Journey from Laos to Vietnam (Mar 10-11): A Stop in Dien Bien Phu

My trip from Laos to Vietnam was even longer than the slow boat from Thailand to Laos (read about that journey here)! I went to a travel agency in Nong Khiaw to book my bus ticket for my next destination. I was wanting to do a 2-day trip into Vietnam by taking a 5-hour boat ride to Muang Khua, spending the night, then taking a bus to Dien Bien Phu and then an overnight bus to Sapa. However, I asked three different places and they all said no boat would be available unless I got a private one. I think it was actually because they could only sell bus tickets and not boat tickets, so they were telling me there wasn’t a boat (because the German guys took a boat TO Nong Khiaw). I was skeptical and was going to go straight to the boat office to see if I could get a ticket, but then I realised that I’d save time AND money by just taking the bus (even if it might make me more sick than a boat). My guesthouse quoted me 250000 kip, but the two travel agencies said 220000 kip ($35.42AUD) so I decided to go with one of them. The bus would go straight to Dien Bien Phu, and the sign said that it would take 11 hours, which I was hoping was an over-exaggeration. The guide said that if I wasn’t carsick once I got to Dien Bien Phu, I could continue to Sapa on the 10-hour nightbus. “And if you’re carsick, then you spend the night in Dien Bien Phu and leave for Sapa in the morning.” “And get carsick again?” I replied. I got up at about 6:30 so that I could get ready, pack up my stuff, and hopefully have breakfast before catching the bus. When I asked my guesthouse where I could get food and they suggested that they could make me something, I agreed. I still had just less than 20 minutes left until my 8am bus… but then it was 7:55 and they still hadn’t finished making my sandwich! I honestly didn’t know how it was taking so long to make a sandwich, and was nearly about to leave because I didn’t want to miss my bus. The man said 1 more minute so I decided to wait, but the lady was waiting for it to toast, and then slowly wrapped it in Saran Wrap. Finally she handed me the sandwich and I ran towards the travel agency. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about (as usual when I’m in a hurry) because we didn’t leave for about ten more minutes. When I got into the van, there were three other people inside and they all said that they were going to Luang Prabang, which is in the complete opposite direction of Dien Bien Phu. When the driver got in, I double-checked if the bus was going to Dien Bien Phu and he said yes. However, we started driving towards Luang Prabang. About ten minutes outside of town, the driver did a u-turn back towards town (thank goodness!) but then he just did another u-turn and started driving back. I think everyone in the van was confused as to what was happening, until he pulled over to pick up someone else. We continued our drive and he finally explained that he would be dropping me and the other person off in Pakmong, where we’d get on our respective buses. We got to Pakmong just after 9 and the driver said that my bus would come in 30 minutes. Again, all of the buses were written in Lao so I was hoping that someone would warn me when my bus was there. I ate my sandwich along with my last motion sickness pill, and about 40-45 minutes later, they made a call for Dien Bien Phu. This van was like a limo-van, so it was more like a bus. However, I was once again pushed to the back seat since most people must have already come from Luang Prabang.

There were only two other foreigners on the bus (a couple from Poland), but the rest of the people were locals. They were all friendly and tried to make conversation using the English that they knew, and even shared some oranges with everyone on the bus. The Polish girl was extremely ill, but I’m glad that she was keeping her sickness to herself because I probably would have gotten sick too. I didn’t find the ride too bad actually – but the roads got worse and worse as the ride continued. At about 12pm, the bus stopped for food and a toilet stop (which was the only toilet stop we got on the 11-hour trip – any other stops were on the side of the road when all of the guys got off the bus, and the girls stayed on). This is when it’s tough not knowing the language because had I known we would have been stopped there for 45 minutes, I probably would have ordered some food. However, me and the Polish couple just sat and enjoyed the fresh air. At about 5pm, we arrived at the border. For the first time ever, I actually had to pay to LEAVE a country, which only cost 10000 kip ($1.61). We then had to show our stamped passports to the guards before getting back on the bus, cross the border, get back off, and go through the Panghok border crossing into Vietnam. This is where my research came in handy because I knew that this border crossing didn’t accept e-visas or visas-on-arrival, so I HAD to plan ahead and get my Vietnam visa beforehand or I wouldn’t be let in. I spent a lot more than I should have on my visa ($100), but I didn’t want to risk getting it done in Luang Prabang and having it take too long (Note: I talked to Abbey, who just got that done in Luang Prabang, and she said that the process was extremely smooth). The man just stamped my passport and let me go through. Then there was a guy working the “Medical Examination” room who said hello, and I was confused about having to go through. He asked if I had money to exchange. I was told that I had to change my Lao money IN Laos, or I wouldn’t be able to change it later, so I was thankful that he was there. I got all of my Lao kip changed into Vietnamese dong, left the building, gave my passport to the guards to look at, and then got back on the bus. By that time, we only had just over an hour left until we’d get to Dien Bien Phu, so we got to enjoy the beautiful sunset behind the mountains.

We arrived in Dien Bien Phu at about 7pm and were SURROUNDED by people as we got off the bus, who kept asking if we wanted a taxi. I walked across the street to the bus terminal, but found out that the night bus had already left about an hour ago. Therefore, my options were to take a bus at either 6:30am or 9:30am the next day. As much as I wanted to take the 9:30 bus, I wouldn’t end up arriving in Sapa until at least 5:30pm so I decided to take the 6:30 bus. It cost me 227000 dong ($13.39), and the lady told me I had to be at the station by 6am. Great… I left the station (which was on an extremely busy street) and turned left on the next block. I was slowly walking around, trying to find a guesthouse, when someone yelled, “Hello? Guesthouse?” I asked how much and when he replied 200000 dong ($11.80), I said okay. I went into Tuan Minh Guest House, where he gave me a key and led me to my room. I mean, it wasn’t the nicest of rooms.. there were some burn marks on the bedspread from cigarettes, and the bed was literally the hardest bed I’ve felt in my life – I felt like I was sleeping on a table. I kid you not… I actually knocked on the bed a few times just to make sure it wasn’t made of wood. But it was cheap and less than a five minute walk away from the station, so I really couldn’t complain. At about 8pm, I realised that I’d need more money for the next day (since I had spent almost all of my dong on the bus ticket and guest house) so I set off to find an ATM, which was a 700-metre walk away and seemed to be the only one in the area. Unfortunately, it only allowed 2000000 dong as a maximum withdrawal (about $120) so it would have to do – I wasn’t going to spend another $5 to withdraw twice. I then needed to find food… Pretty much all that was around were street food vendors, so I found a place across the street from the station, where I ordered beef pho and a coke for 40000 dong ($2.36).

The thing that I didn’t realise about Vietnamese cuisine is that they put cilantro/coriander in everything. Not only that, but at this restaurant, they also gave a huge bowl of MORE cilantro to add. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t struggle eating this pho, since that soapy taste took over the whole dish (darn genetics!). I took note to make sure I say, “No green!” anytime I order food in the future. I headed back to my room to have an early night before another long day of travel.

On Monday morning, I got to the station by 6am, gave them my bag, got some snacks, and we left at 6:30. This time, I was the only foreigner in the van. Only me and one lady ended up going all the way from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa, but many other people came on and got off along the way. We stopped about an hour and a half outside of Sapa in a town called Tam Duong at noon, where we were given 40 minutes to have lunch. The thing that I loved about this stop was that everyone on the bus sat at a table together, even though most people had just met that day (whereas in most western countries, people always separate at rest stops). I sat down with all of the locals, and one of them (the only one who seemed to speak any English) asked if I wanted rice or soup, so I said soup. It was only 25000 dong ($1.48)! I enjoyed my pho at the table with a bunch of locals, who continued their conversations and gave me friendly smiles every once in awhile. We all got back on the bus and continued our journey to Sapa. Then, the driver pulled over at a little shack, yelled something inside, and someone came and I could feel the van slowly rising. Next thing I knew, the guy had one of the tires in his hands! I wasn’t sure if this was a regular occurrence, but it was interesting watching the mechanic work on the tire. Once we got our tire back on, we drove the rest of the way to Sapa (and thank goodness the tire was fixed because the roads were horrendous at this point!) and made it in exactly 8 hours, at 2:30pm. Love always

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