Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nous sommes dans un camion vietnamien

That's my broken French for 'We are in a Vietnamese truck'... More specifically, we are in the back of a Vietnamese truck taking a six hour ride from the border to the town of Thanh Hoa, which is not quite Hanoi I'd been aiming for, but is better than the remote border crossing outpost of Na Maew.

This may have actually been more comfortable than some of the buses I've been on! Or maybe I just didn't get much sleep the night before

Rewinding just a bit... The 'we' was me and a pair of French travelers, Peter and Natalie, whom I had met that morning at the Sam Neua bus station, back in Laos. Both wearing rather matching, fairly amusing, and thoroughly French pairs of pantalounes. Being the only foreigners on the 3 hour mini-bus ride to the Vietnamese border (through areas that I termed 'the most middle of nowhere I've been to so far on the trip') we made quick friends. The border crossing was trivial (the Lonely Planet had mentioned that this wasn't a crossing frequented by foreigners... or anyone, really) as the guys on the Laos side seemed politely bored, while the Vietnamese authorities seemed genuinely excited just to have someone to talk to.

Welcome to Vietnam!

Now, on the Vietnam side, our definitive (and only) source of information, the Lonely Planet, once again warned that transport options were 'scarce'. Well, scarce is better than none, so we'll find something, right? As it turned out, the options were limited to a Minibus to Guonson (the next town over, about 60km away) for $10 each, to catch a bus to Haoni from there and a bus arriving here at 1PM and leaving for Hanoi... sometime. Naturally, we waited for the bus, which arrived... and the driver promptly declared that he'd be going to Hanoi tomorrow at noon. The minibus was now out too as the bus from Guonson also leaves at 1. So we sat around, having lunch and playing cards in the afternoon sun waiting to either spend the night at this 'frontier outpost; or for another transport option to turn up. Eventually one turned up in the form of a minivan who could take us to Ninh Binh (~100km away from Hanoi) for $300 - I countered with $45, they declined, we went back to playing cards.

And an hour later, our truck showed up from the Laos side - after a bit of negotiating and explaining that we were, in fact, willing to just ride in the back, we had a ride! For $25 too (well, as it later turned out, the driver had expected $25 each, but that wasn't in the cards for him). The ride was pretty bumpy - the roads in Vietnam are narrow, windy, and beat up all the way till you get to the bigger cities near the coast. The only other vehicles you see on the road are other trucks, jeeps (a lot of both being older Soviet models), and a constant stream of motorcycles. The road is also quite scenic, as you get a succession of limestone karsts and cliffs on all sides, with peaceful green rice paddies all around, rivers flowing through, and huts, perched high on stilts to avoid being flooded during the rainy season. Considering that I did have plenty of space to stretch out, the ride was arguably more comfortable than several of the buses (and airplanes) I'd been on so far on the trip. And about 7 hours later, we arrived in Thanh Hoa and actually ended up staying in a rather nice hotel room for our troubles!

Going back a bit further still, a few images from Laos:

Tat Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

Wat Xieng Thong Temple

A boy at a hill-top temple in Luang Prabang and a Buddhist statue overlooking the Meukong river

The plain of jars in Phonsavan, Laos - nobody really knows how long these jars have been here, what they were used for, or why there aren't any anywhere else

The fields are also well known for being littered with bombs and craters from the Vietnam war when the US spent a lot of time and effort bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail, running through Laos. An astounding 25% of the bombs dropped failed to detonate!

Bus travel in Laos: not quite the super-luxury bus I'd had in Malaysia! Me, Henrik, and Jaap on the way from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang and another bus we passed along the way, that had clearly seen better days!

This afternoon, off to beautiful Haulong Bay for a couple of days of sight-seeing, and, perhaps, scuba diving!

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