Couchfish Day 64: The worst day of travel. Ever.

Couchfish Day 64: The worst day of travel. Ever.


Just a quick note—this is a very long issue—I’m actually combining the Friday morning paid post with the Friday afternoon free one, as this forms a part of the itinerary, but is also clearly loopy enough for the Friday afternoon post!

After the Vieng Xai caves the four of us ride back to Sam Neua to arrange transport to Hanoi. The Namsoi Nameo crossing is notorious for scams and rip offs so we ask around. A bus guy we meet in a restaurant—always a bad sign—is insistent he can do us a through bus.

“Leave Sam Neua at 8 am and you’ll be in Hanoi at 8 pm,” he says. Looking back, I guess he didn’t specify which day the 8 pm would be on.

So there we are at 8 am when the bus rolls in. As with the trip from Phonsavan, the bus is a creaker, but we pile in and within the hour are on the way.

We pass through the same scenery as yesterday, picking up a few more passengers at Vieng Xai and then to the border. It is all smooth sailing, though the road is awful (see the video above for an idea!). The others have never been to Vietnam before and are excited about getting to Hanoi. The food, the fun, the madness.

Then we reach the border.

The bus pulls up to the side and everyone gets out. That’s not unusual of course, but they take all their bags with them. We ask the driver, should we take our bags? He waves us away, nodding, pointing ahead, he says “bus bus”.

Ok, so much for the through ride.

If only we had had three more kilos of these. Photo: Cindy Fan.

I have a couple of days overstay, so have the US$30 to pay the fee. It is only at this point though, as we’re lining up at immigration, that one of the others, eyeing the sign, asks:

“Stuart, what’s this about an overstay fine?”

It turns out his overstay is two weeks. I tell him the fine is $10 a day, so about $140. He doesn’t have the money.

I think he is joking, but he isn’t. I don’t have that kinda cash on me and before I can say anything, I’m called up, pay my fine and am stamped out of Laos. I step aside and listen as he hands over his passport.

The immigration guy mutters then grabs a receipt book, writes something down, and pushes it to him.

“One hundred and forty US dollars.”

A video showing what the crossing looked like in 2018.

He asks do they take traveller cheques. They don’t.

“I don’t have that much money,” he says.

“No money, no go,” barks back the immigration guy, waving him to the side and calling the next person.

He stands there as the other two in our group, neither of whom have overstays, get stamped through. The other passengers from our bus file past and walk onwards to the crossing with Vietnam.

He asks for his passport back, while the officer serves others. The officer yells:

“No money, no leave. No money, no passport.”

The overstayer says he wants to go back to Sam Neua, he can get money there and return tomorrow.

“No money, no leave. No money, no passport.”

This goes back and forth a bit. The other passengers are all through.

Think peaceful thoughts. Scenery near Vieng Xai. Photo: Adam Poskitt.

While the direct bus is a work of fiction, I start to worry about missing whatever the onwards bus actually is. The others though, want to stick with their companion, so we agree to all go back to Sam Neua and try again tomorrow.

Except the three of us have already left Laos and don’t have new visas. We ask could immigration let us back in by cancelling our exit stamps. They refuse.

Between the four us us we’ve scraped together about US$80 and another $10 in motley kip notes. We ask would this be enough? No.

By this stage we’ve been stuck here twenty minutes. We’re the only people left. Four motley backpackers stuck because of the idiocy of one. We argue but that doesn’t get us anywhere.

The immigration guy couldn’t give a toss. He chats to his mates, ignoring us. He knows he is our only way to get over the border.

Like water off a duck’s back. Noua Waterfall, Vieng Xai. Photo: Adam Poskitt.

A Vietnamese guy walks up, and asks what is going on. He’s one of those typical border operators you meet, always there to help .. for a fee. He says the other bus is going to go soon and the bus we came on has already left.

He asks, “How much do you need?”

I’m immediately wary and say we’re $60 short. He eyes me off and asks where are we going? I say Hanoi.

He laughs. “There are no buses to Hanoi from here. Thanh Hoa ok, but Hanoi no.”

Then, “Ok my brother lives in Thanh Hoa. You give me $100 in traveller cheques and I can pay the fine. My brother will change the cheque for me in Thanh Hoa later.”

We confab and, after much deliberation agree. The guy does a deal with the officer, and the overstayer gets stamped through. We ask after the $40 in change.

“Twenty for you, twenty for me,” he says, handing the overstayer $20. “Now run,” our new Vietnamese friend says, “your bus will go soon”.

The overstayer explodes, and pushes the Vietnamese guy, hard. Things get ugly fast as plenty of non–Couchfish approved language flies back and forth. But we need to be on the bus, so we drag them apart and walk off, abuse chasing us on our way.

Viet Nam–Lao. Ha ha haaaaa. Photo: Cindy Fan.

We reach the Vietnamese border, about twenty minutes away on foot, and cross without incident. Nobody is speaking. We just want to be out of here.

The bus is gone.

One of the others drops her bags and starts crying. I’m having serious sense of humour failure. Bags get thrown to the ground and the other three start fighting, yelling at the overstayer. I don’t know any of them all that well—I’m the new member of our foursome—and I walk back to immigration to ask after our options.

The officer says there is a bus to Thanh Hoa around 6 pm, so in a couple of hours time. He suggests I tell my friends to calm down and that we wait by a coffee shack.

I walk back over and it is pretty ugly. I explain that we have a couple of hours to wait, then a bus to Thanh Hoa should arrive. Our bigger problem though, is money. We have hardly any.

We leave the bags in a pile on the roadside and walk over to get a coffee each—at least we can afford that. We sip instant coffee and watch a bunch of kids kicking a ball around near us. We start to make jokes about our situation—this kind of thing always makes good fodder for stories … much later.

Sam Neua to Ha Noi … the long way. Map: Stuart McDonald.

We go to pay and one of the girls realise her wallet is back in her daypack, so walks back across the road to the bags.

Her daypack is gone.

She screams out for her girlfriend—I thought she’d seen a snake or something—and we all run over. Sure enough her daypack is gone. The overstayer runs back up to immigration and says his friend has been robbed, can they help?

They seem interested and one returns with him. He speaks a little English and seems concerned for our companion who is beside herself. He asks could she have left it on the bus? Or at the Lao border? He says he can’t let us over but if we want, he can go and ask.

My first thought is it was the kids playing football, but they’re still playing, oblivious to us. We thank him and wait while he heads off.

Perhaps we can summon a bus with a conch shell. Cua Lo. Photo: Don Morgan.

She’s sure she left it on the pile, and yes we were all dumb leaving the bags on the side of the road. With all the drama, it is conceivable she has misplaced it. The officer returns, without the bag. He says the Lao side have not seen it.

The overstayer suggests we hitch to Thanh Hoa. The day is getting long and there is no through traffic, so I say I don’t think it is a good idea. He’s been on the receiving end of snark from us all and I get his desire to walk away, but the chance of us getting a ride is near zero.

He’s not deterred. He’s going to walk down the road for a kilometre or so and see what he can find. The three of us say splitting up is a bad idea, but he won’t have a bar of it. It gets nasty. Between the three of them, petty grievances of the last month of travel together resurface as barbs.

He takes his bag and walks off. One of the women yell at him to come back, but he ignores her. The other keeps screaming “you’re an asshole” at him as he hikes off.

Just keep thinking about pho. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

He disappears. A little later, we hear him yelling, but ignore it. We wait. And wait.

Perhaps an hour later, he returns. He walks slow, with a limp. He reaches us and throws his pack down without a word. He looks like he’s been through a clothes dryer filled with dirt. His leg is filthy and he has a t-shirt, soaked in blood, tied around his knee.

It takes a while to get the story out of him. Walking down he’d seen a pack of dogs. They came at him and one bit him on the leg when he tried to kick it. Karma dude. We’re dumbfounded as he unwraps the t–shirt to show a nasty bite below the knee. The bleeding has almost stopped, but the bite is deep and looks painful. One of the girls stands, walks off a few metres, and vomits at her feet.

We clean the wound as best we can, and wrap it in a cleaner t–shirt. There is nothing else we can do—none of us have even a bandaid.

At this point I’d have hitched a ride on this. Ha Tinh. Photo: Don Morgan.

About thirty minutes later, “Oh salvation”. The sound of a bus. A handful of others have gathered by this stage and we don’t even ask after the destination as we get on. It’s small and cramped, but we don’t care.

The bus doesn’t wait long and as we get going, I look out the window at the crossing as we pull away. Staring, I see one of the Vietnamese officers waving. It is the guy who crossed the border for us earlier. He seems a nice guy and I’m touched that he makes the effort to wave us off.

We figure Thanh Hoa is six to eight hours away and settle in. There is however some confusion when we pay the ticket guy. He’s confused about where we are going, but we keep saying Thanh Hoa and in the end, he takes our money.

Our spirits rise. We start being civil to one another again. The overstayer is in quite a bit of pain with his leg, but we nod off to sleep.

Instead of getting angry at dogs, think about peaceful rice fields. Photo: Cindy Fan.

It is on midnight when we arrive in Thanh Hoa. I’ve slept much of the trip and am groggy as we pile out of the bus. I’ve been here in the past but don’t recognise where we are. The grotty parking lot of a bus station has a small group of xe om drivers hanging around. They look at us like we have walked out of an alien spaceship.

Our plan is to get to the train station and then to find a hospital for the overstayer. I ask about getting a ride to the train station, but they don’t understand what I’m asking for. In the end I mime a train and then they get it, laughing.

“No no no. No train,” they say.

I say there is a train, Thanh Hoa is a major city on the main north–south train line. I walk back to the others. They look shellshocked and one is sniffling again—she’s about to lose it.

“We’re not in Thanh Hoa,” she says.

The sign we wanted to see, but never did. Photo: Photo: Sarah Turner.

“What do you mean?” I ask, not understanding what she means.

She lifts her arm and points to a small shopfront. The address signage above it reads “Thai Hoa”—not “Thanh Hoa”.

The Vietnamese border guard wasn’t waving at us to say good bye—he was waving at us because we were on the wrong bus.

I’m the last one to have this revelation imparted to me and it hurts. I’m exhausted—we thought we would have been in Hanoi by now. We have almost no money left, the overstayer is nursing a dog bite and none of us have eaten since the breakfast.

I go back to the xe om guys and ask about getting to Thanh Hoa. Not surprisingly there are no 1 am departures but I establish that in the morning we can get a bus to the train station.

Hello Vinh. Photo: Don Morgan.

We’re so short of money we decide to sit at the bus station until morning—what’s another eight hours? There’s a small seating area and we set up shop there. The xe om guys lose interest and by 2 am it is us alone. We’re all annoyed but too tired to argue anymore. The dog bite is looking bad and he keeps picking at it, making it bleed. We yell at him to stop.

Get 50% off Couchfish forever

We sleep a little, and wake with the morning light. What a sight we must be. A bus station guy surfaces who has some English. Yes, there is a morning bus to the train station. No, it is not to Thanh Hoa, rather it is to Vinh around 90 km further to the south.

Just before midday we arrive in Vinh. There’s a night train that will get us into Hanoi in the wee hours. The rest of the trip passes without event. The overstayer’s leg is fine.

We part ways in Hanoi.

The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.