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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Laos to Việt Nam

It used to be possible to take a riverboat up the Nam Ou from Luang Prabang. But Chinese-built dams made that impossible a couple of years ago. So we made our way to our next stop, Nong Khiaw, in a minibus. This wasn’t the most comfortable. They put the seats up and stuff every bit of space under them with luggage, and the bus can’t leave until all fifteen seats are full. We did eventually leave, fifteen foreigners and the driver all crammed in, with the last gal’s backpack held in the well of the sliding door. We stopped a couple of times in three hours, which was a mercy, because the roads are rough. Luckily, we each had a window seat. I don’t think the folks in the middle could see any of the scenery.

It was worth it getting to Nong Khiaw, though. The village is joined with the other side of the river, Ban Sop Houn, via a bridge, and standing on it you can see some of the most spectacular mountain features of northern Laos.
Morning mist from the bridge

We got a little bungalow whose starring feature was a balcony with
View from the hammock
a hammock. Probably the best view I’ve ever had, and certainly the most relaxing place to stay. And we needed it. Because the day hike to the viewpoint above Nong Khiaw, which was supposed to take an hour and a half, was the toughest we’ve done.

It was relentlessly uphill, steps cut into the jungle, and I was just pouring with sweat. I know that’s an expression, but I’m not sure I’ve ever poured like this before. It was just possible to imagine how the heat and humidity felt to servicemen fighting in the jungle for the first time. Only they were wearing and carrying all that war equipment, plus, the obvious danger of death. At the best of times, it is a punishing, hostile environment.
That's pretty much how we experienced it!

In about two hours, though, I did make it to the top. 
View over Nong Khiaw and the Nam Ou
Unaware that T. was right behind me, I started to go back. I was encouraging a young man to finish that last rock climb, when here she came! I guessed, correctly, that the guy was from Ontario—who but an Ontarian would ask if I meant London, Ontario, or London, England? He charmed us right from the start by calling T. “miss.” 

We got to talking to him about Australia, where we’re all eventually headed, and T. was recommending the possibility of renting RVs. “Are you over twenty-five?” she asked him.

“Twenty-eight, but thanks for that,” he said. T. explained that he is very young compared with us, and he professed to be shocked. “I would have guessed you were thirty-five!” 

“God bless you,” T. said. We have met many friendly folks on our travels, but this young Canadian has got to be one of our favorites! 

When we left the trailhead we passed an older North American man who asked us how hard it was. T. ran out of superlatives, but explained that she had done it, and the 360-degree views were worth it. He high-fived her and said he’d see us later. Which he did, several hours later, when we were sitting at a halal restaurant and he walked by on his way back from the hike. Yes, it was hard!

Another friendly guy we kept bumping into was a New Zealander who’d been on our minibus. We saw him when we went for a “nightcap,” which involved free shots of lao-lao, rice whiskey or wine. This is what Laotians who can’t afford Beerlao apparently drink. Infused with passionfruit, mine tasted pretty good.

Nong Khiaw boasts two ATMs, which is big for a provincial town. Unfortunately, neither of them was working during our stay. We were reduced to going into the bank. Remember when going into the bank was a normal way to get out money? They photocopied my passport and my credit card and ostentatiously made me fill out a form. I remarked that it still wasn't as time-consuming a process as depositing a foreign-currency check at our home bank, which requires a longer form and carbon copies in triplicate. T. was not amused. 

This set the tone for the next stage of our journey, which made the minibus seem comfortable by comparison. We got tickets for the riverboat up the Nam Ou to another two-ATM village, Muang Khua. Unbeknownst to us, only one of the boats leaving that morning continued all the way to Muang Khua, and we almost didn’t get on it. The boatman took our tickets and we never saw them again. Since our tickets had been demanded repeatedly on the Mekong River journey, we kept asking for them back; even one of Apostle-looking Guy’s friends tried to help us, since she spoke a little bit of Lao. Eventually, they found us a place in the stern of the boat. One of us was to sit on a can of diesel, and the other on top of someone’s shoes.

The worst thing about this journey, though, was how loud it was. What we thought might have been a basic toilet was just the engine room, and there was nothing cutting it off from where we sat. I was very thankful for my noise-canceling headphones on this particular occasion. As for T., she lent hers to some young parents who were having a terrible time getting their baby to calm down.

"First class," with the insouciant French guy 
As in Tanzania, locals had grabbed all the seats. Fortunately we kept getting “upgraded” as the boat stopped at villages and people got off. When we got to stretch out on the deck of the stern, a Frenchman who got on even after we did said we were now in “first class.” By the last two hours of the journey, there were only foreigners left, and we got the car seats! But overall, it was not a journey for enjoying the scenery. And that’s a shame, because we saw dams being built by the Chinese even as we passed, and soon this journey too may no longer be possible.
It looks nice when you can't hear the boat!
We disembarked at Muang Khua, where the Nam Ou meets the Nam Phak. It was our fourth river and last stop in Laos. From Muang Khua, we were to get a direct bus to Điện Biên Phủ, in Vietnam. Each town is some distance from the border, but there’s nothing but border posts there, so the daily bus was our only option.

In this part of the world, buses (and boats) always transport other things. If there’s any room on the bus, it will be filled with cans, mail, pigs, whatever needs delivering to some town or village down the road. The type of bus I mean is more like a little old school bus than a modern coach. We showed up at 7:00 like the guesthouse lady had told us, knowing that the bus would not leave until 7:30, at least.
Our bags on the bus
The mountainous journey up to the Laos-Vietnam border was very beautiful. It was high and very winding, but the road was in pretty good shape. I kept seeing things like a woman standing in her laundry tub on the side of the road—the kind of tub our laundry had been washed in only days before. And chickens, goats, even buffalo making their way along (or across) the road. I knew I was going to miss Laos, even at exit immigration when the officers asked for (and got) an illegitimate 10,000-kip fee “because it’s the weekend.” The other passengers on the bus, a European couple, promptly coughed up the equivalent of a pound each. What were we supposed to do, hold up the minibus in protest?

I had no idea how much I would miss Laos once we reached the other side of no-man's-land.
Our bags on the boat

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Quite some journey, by boat and by bus. We love your joyous description of the balcony with hammock and great views in Nong Khiaw, Laos. And the photos from the mountain top are spectacular enough to justify the grueling climb (easy for us to say!). G & P