I Walked Into Laos
It's only 6pm but it's dark out. What I thought was only fog has condensed into steady rain and the wind is whipping through the once-white empty hall of the Namphao International checkpoint. Here I stand, damp backpack at my feet and a large dead moth near my pen, filling out my visa application to enter Laos. The man behind the counter hovers over me to see what I'm writing, looks around confoundedly and asks, "where's your tour group?" In the section pf the application asking how you came into the country, I looked at my boyfriend and told him to say we came by taxi. In actuality, we walked.
How the hell did I end up here?
That's something I repeated both internally and aloud several times throughout the night. I'd love to blame everything on someone or something but I couldn't deny that stupid/reckless decision after stupid/reckless decision planted me squarely in the mud, in the pitch black, on a road in the grey area between the Vietnamese/Laos border.
The stupid decisions started days ago in Hanoi. I was running dangerously close to my Vietnamese visa expiration date, March 1st, but decided to milk my time in northern Vietnam for as long as possible. Instead of getting on a 24-hour bus ride to Luang Prabang, I booked another night at the hostel and a trip to Ha Long Bay. I figured I'd leave the country on the 1st and try to cross off as many bucket list items as possible.
One problem: those long buses to Luang Prabang would cross the border on the 2nd, and I had no idea if I'd be denied an exit stamp or be forced to pay a big fine. So I hopped on a few travel blogs and found a route that would work: take a morning train to Vinh, a city with the closest proximity to one of the border checkpoints, and pick up a 13-hour bus to LP there. It seemed straightforward and appeased my boyfriends request to get there as cheaply as possible. I booked the train and mapped a route from the train station to the bus station to buy the tickets for the next leg.
We got to the train station on March 1st early with no issues. Facing backwards, I watched the crowded city fade to misty rice paddies and duck ponds. We snacked on Pringles and listened to podcasts. Six hours in my backwards window seat and we chugged lazily into Vinh. with our backpacks, we trudged through the foggy town, filled with trash and industrial materials but devoid of many people or cars. I wouldn't say it's high on many tourists' lists. After a kilometer of welcomed walking and leg-stretching I cheerfully asked the man at the ticket counter for two tickets to Luang Prabang. He looked at me and said, "great! See you Saturday." It was Wednesday.
Incredulously I pleaded with the man to give me some more information. I showed him my nearly-expired visa and told him I'd settle for anywhere in Laos, just find me a bus. But there weren't any buses leaving for Laos that day- I'd have to wait it out. He kept repeating, get to the border, get to the border, but couldn't tell me how. Defeated, I even looked up flights from the small Vinh airport. They were expensive, 8+ hours, and still wouldn't get us over the border in time as it routed through Hanoi. I glanced at the gaggle of taxi drivers that had heckled me coming in. I got out my phone, pointed at the border checkpoint on the map, and repeated "Laos" to the group of drivers to see if anyone would bite. One guy thankfully did, and we started our 60-mile journey East. I felt so relieved to be on my way to Laos and out of Vietnam on time that I didn't bother to think even one step ahead.
Ten miles from the border and the taxi had bypassed all of the straight roads and little villages yielding to climbing mountains and sharp blind turns. I couldn't shake this awful pit in my stomach, so I paused the Freakonomics podcast, looked over to Dain editing photos, and told him that we were screwed. He told me to calm down, he'd crossed the Mexico border by car and everything had been fine. Frantic, I told him to look around. There weren't any buildings or hotels for miles and I doubted there would be anything different on the Laos side. Plus, what was going to happen when the cab dropped us off? Would there be a tour bus we could hop on to, a Laotian cab we could hire? As I talked it through I became more and more worried as it became clear how dire our situation actually was. But I barely had time to think about that before we rolled into the fog like a white brick wall.
I had never been in driving conditions so blood-chillingly terrifying. We're on a slender mountain road, cliffs to my right and huge trucks barreling down to my left, trying to navigate its hairpin twists and turns. There are no road lights and the reflective patches on the safety railing were either worn away or covered in mud. The only light we had was the cab's highbeams, which only seemed to set the fog aglow rather than help us see through it. We slowed to a crawl. The driver quieted the blaring EDM music, leaned forward, and continued down the road. If you've ever gotten up in the middle of the night to feel around in the dark for a switch or an item you need, that's exactly how we were proceeding down this road. No one could see a thing, not even the road itself, and we were all on high alert looking out every window searching for a hint as to where the road turned. At one point, I saw lights heading toward us and it wasn't until the vehicle was three feet away that revealed itself to be a big, hulking sixteen-wheeler. That sent fresh panic straight to my head like a shot of vodka. I wanted so badly for this ride to be over until I remember what was, or wasn't, awaiting me and its end.
Our taxi driver was just as relieved as we were to finally see trucks stopped at the Vietnam border. I breathed my only sigh of relief when the immigrations officer stamped my passport and I had officially left the country on time. It didn't take long for the cab driver to get the hell out there and for me to notice that this was just the Vietnamese border- Laos was still down the road. We had no choice but to walk.
That road that had seemed so scary was infinitely worse outside of the cab. The fog had worsened and even started to rain a little. As we walked further and further away from the checkpoint it became pitch black. I couldn't see the mud I was stepping into or the potholes I tripped over; even worse, those speeding trucks that used this road like a Nascar track had no way to see us. Every emotion hit me at once and I became hysterical. I sobbed and I trudged and I panicked and I screamed at Dain. I was mad at myself for ending up in this terrible situation, annoyed that we had no other options, cold and wet from the storm, worried that border patrol wouldn't let pedestrians into their country, and absolutely scared out of my mind that I would be hit by a truck. At that moment, I looked up at three semis barreling down the road, their headlights brighter than heaven. I grab Dain and paused, and when they passed we kept walking the kilometer to the border. Needless to say, we were the only people traveling on foot.
We received our visas with relative ease, even making a few jokes and jabs at each other now that we were inside. But the question still remained: now that we were technically in Laos, what do we do?
There were no taxis, no villages, no hotels, and no cell service. Honestly, it seemed hopeless. I was prepared to sleep on a broken desk chair in that cold office until a tour bus came around at 8 the next morning and I could beg for a seat. One man spoke scant English and offered to help us find a cab. As he wandered around outside, it became clear that there were no cabs and he was asking random people if they'd be willing to take us. Meanwhile, Dain is scanning the maps and notices that the nearest hotel is way too far away to walk, especially in these conditions. At one point, the guard came over and said he could help me for $100 USD. I laughed and told him absolutely not, I'd rather sleep outside. After he walked away, I looked through the door. It had gotten noticeably colder, the rain had picked up, and I knew that would be an unbearable last resort. I had no idea where to go from here. So I picked a fight with my boyfriend.
I told Dain to make himself useful and go speak to the group of guards I noticed playing cards across the street. I told him the guys might respond better to a fellow man but in reality, I couldn't handle the possibility of getting rejected from this last lifeline myself. Dain slipped out into the rain and looking at my phone, I saw I had a little bit of residual reception from my Vietnamese sim card. I started looking up Luang Prabang-bound buses to contact them but couldn't find any company names, much less email addresses. I was clicking on the last available link when Dain's figure appeared under the single bare bulb at the doorway. He'd found a way to Lak Sao, the nearest town big enough to have a hotel and bus station.
I grabbed my bags, too dazed by the days' events to get excited. When I got back to the road, all I saw was a massive Petrolimex semi-truck. Looking back at Dain, who shrugged as if to say, "what else?" we were urged on by the original immigration guard telling us this was our only option and Dain's new buddy who assured us that the driver was his friend. The driver, high in the cabin of the gasoline truck, rearranged a bag of laundry and some provisions to make room for us and our bags. I assured Dain that I had just read a Lonely Planet book that said the Laotian people are very kind and trustworthy, which fell flat on both of our ears. I wasn't afraid of getting robbed or anything else; at this point, I had accepted whatever fate awaited me during my first few hours in Laos was the byproduct of my own terrible decisions. So I took off my sopping flip flops caked in tan mud and hoisted myself into the truck.
Dain sat up in the front, flanked by multiple packages of bottled water and bananas, and I sat in the back with our bags on a little makeshift second row. A child-sized Tigger stuffed animal shared the small mattress pad with me. The man driving could not have been taller than five feet and his weather-beaten face housed kind eyes and a warm smile. With a shift of a giant clutch the truck lurched forward down the road, which could have been a mirror image to the road by which we came. This time, I felt invincible in that enormous vehicle. We hit potholes like they were cracks in the pavement and rounded corners with an impenetrable grace. Once I decided the situation was fairly safe, I realized I was actually quite comfortable. This was my first time in a semi truck and as a hitch-hiker, neither of which are experiences I'd ever thought I'd have. Especially not tonight. I thought I'd be two sleeping pills into my overnight bus by now!
It seemed like no time had passed when I noticed a yellow neon sign outside a hotel. The sparsely populated wooden-hut villages we'd passed had yielded to Lak Sao, which had the makings of a real town. The semi lurched to a stop and I passed down luggage to Dain as we exited, both in disbelief that we had actually made it to a warm bed tonight. We tried to give our lifesaver driver our residual Dong but he wouldn't take it; instead, he insisted we take some of his bottles of water with us. We were so appreciative for his multiple acts of kindness and empathy; were it not for him, I can't even fathom where I'd have ended up that night if he hadn't come our way.
When you're traveling, you have to keep an open mind and an open schedule because plans have a way of changing. I now know how quickly and drastically that change can happen. One minute you're on a train munching on Pringles, the next you're in near darkness feeling your way through the mud into another country. I used to complain that I had too few interesting and truly insane stories, but as I zig-zagged my way through the mountains of Laos in a gas tanker with a total stranger with whom I can't communicate, the one consolation prize I felt I'd won was that this was no longer true.