Two mad days of travel from Mai Chau (Vietnam) to Sam Neua (Laos)

The morning Ben and I were to leave Mai Chau we saw a newlywed couple walking down the street.

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They picked a good location.  Like the day before the mist was dense in the mountains – the set of stairs that I had climbed to make it to the cave the day before were barely visible in the green mountainside.

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Ben and I would be attempting to navigate a series of six different local bus rides (Mai Chau to Quan Hoa to Dong Tam to Quan Son to Na Meo/Nam Xoi to Vieng Xai to Sam Neua) in order to accomplish our general goal of crossing the border from Vietnam into Laos.  Our Visas were about to expire and I didn’t want to have to bribe the Vietnamese border crossing agent for overstaying my welcome.

The Na Meo (Vietnam) to Nam Xoi (Laos) border crossing is rarely used by tourists because it is so hard to get to.   For Ben and I it was the closest border crossing to Mai Chau, though in this case closest did not mean easiest to reach.  I had researched a way to get from Mai Chau to Sam Neua (our ultimate destination in Laos) from a guy who had done it back in 2009 and provided an excellent and thorough step by step forum post, but as I’ve learned from previous reliance on forum posts they can be far from accurate.  And this route was complicated so even the best explanation of what happened three years ago would be subject to error.

I detailed our route based on the post, writing kilometers in between connecting lines and circling the prices I could hypothetically negotiate for each ride based on the prices the guy negotiated three years ago.

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This chicken scratch scrap of paper was clutch

We stopped on the side of the only street that runs through Mai Chau and watched for our first bus which would take us to Quan Hoa.  While there is an official “bus stop” in Mai Chau you can pretty much wait anywhere in the street that the bus runs along and simply flag it down when you want to hop on.  This is not the strict one destination stop bus system-“be at the bus stop at 4:10 pm or you miss your bus”-that you have in the U.S.   If you are a potential candidate that the bus driver can cram onto his bus and collect more money he will stop for you, even if his bus isn’t going to where you want to go….

I learned this the hard way on our first bus ride from Mai Chau.  As we waited for the bus which seemed to be late (no surprises there) we had been talking to some moto drivers about trying to get this bus to Quan Hoa, our first destination.   They were not being entirely helpful because they wanted to take us on their moto for triple the price of what a bus would cost.

A couple buses rolled by and I would flag them down (there is typically no way to tell where they are going) and ask them “Quan Hoa”?  The first two said “no” but the third bus driver said “ok”.  This should have raised red flags – I was looking for a “yes”, not an “ok”…. As we boarded the bus the moto drivers that we had been talking to started telling us “no no no! no go Quan Hoa!”  This also should have raised red flags but since they had been unhelpful earlier I figured they were still just trying to make me take a moto ride with them for triple the cost of the bus.

I again confirmed with “money collector” (each local bus has one of these guys – they take care of passengers getting on and off and collecting payment) on the bus that he was taking us to Quan Hoa, negotiated our price down to 70,000 Dong a person (only 30,000 more per person than what the guy had paid in 2009), gave the driver 140,000, and we started on our way.  The bus ride started innocently enough – just another local bus jammed packed with people and things.

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But then red flag number three rose after I handed over my money and the money collector started laughing up at the front of the bus with the driver while throwing glances back towards Ben and I.  Red flag number four shot up when at a small town only 15 km from Mai Chau the bus turned around, parked, and everyone exited the bus, including the driver and money collector.  I knew from my chicken scratch notes that Quan Hoa was 54 km from Mai Chau – hmmmmmm.

Ben and I sat there quite confused for about 3 minutes, wondering why we were the only two people on the bus.  Ben still held out some optimism that the guy would hold true to his word and take us to Quan Hoa but I was more than skeptical at this point.  I exited the bus and the man who had taken my money was sitting in the living room of a house with several people while smoking tobacco out of a bong.  He didn’t look like he was going to Quan Hoa anytime soon.  I knew we were most likely screwed when I looked at the buses new destination sign, “My Dinh”, a bus station in  Hanoi.  The bus was going back through Mai Chau to Hanoi.

Still thinking there was a chance he had not lied to me I started out by politely asking the money collector when he would be taking us to Quan Hoa.  He said “no go to Quan Hoa. My friend with moto take you Quan Hoa.  He take you for 300,000 Dong.”  On hearing this I was done being polite.  I angrily demanded that he give me my money back, repeating our conversation in Mai Chau “Quan Hoa?” – “Ok!” and explaining to him “We are not in Quan Hoa!”  He walked away shaking his head back towards the living room and I followed right on his heels.

I circled around him again demanded my money back.  By this point all the other folks in the living room started to take notice that I was not happy.  I was not afraid to shame him in front of his family and friends – he had taken my money and lied to me and I wanted my money back.  Feeling the gazes of his family and friends around him he sheepishly pulled his wad of money out of his pocket and handed me 60,000 Dong back.  Not enough.  I explain to him “I give you 140!  This is not Quan Hoa! Give me money back!”

He again refused but I remained in his face until he handed me another 20,000 Dong back.  Still not enough.  By this time Ben had exited the bus.  I explained to him what was going on and he joined me in yelling at the Vietnamese fellow, who now had two customers yelling at him in front of his family and friends.  He handed me another 20,000 and at this point I decided to terminate the conflict and walk away.  I had gotten back 100,000 of the 140,000 Dong I gave him and he did take us 15km, so I figured 40,000 Dong was fair for that.

The moto drivers standing nearby (friends with the guy I had been yelling at) knew that Ben and I were now stranded and began pestering us.  “I will take you to Quan Hoa – 300,000 Dong!” But at that point I was upset with all of them and with the situation so Ben and I walked away back through the small town.

We were now stranded in a small town that we didn’t even know the name of 40 km from Quan Hoa with no way to get there except for con men who wanted to rip us off.   It would have been an understatement to say that the first bus ride had not gone according to plan.  We hailed a passing car and asked them if they’d take us to Quan Hoa but the two Vietnamese men in the car also surmised we were stranded and wanted 1,000,000 Dong.  No thanks.

Just when it seemed like all hope was lost a bus rounded the corner with big flashing neon lights reading “Quan Hoa”.  Unreal, the bus we should have waited for in Mai Chau, on its way to Quan Hoa.  Never had I been happier to see a crappy local bus roll by.  We flagged the bus down and hopped on.  Crisis averted.  We paid the man 80 Dong (40 Dong per person, the price the guy got back in 2009) and were on our way.

At Quan Hoa my notes indicated that we would each need to hire motos for around 25,000 Dong apiece to ride us 16 km to Dong Tam, our next destination.  But we got lucky.  No more than five minutes after we had been dropped off in Quan Hoa another random bus rolled by that was on its way to Dong Tam.

The ride to Dong Tam had several seemingly random stops along the way like the one you seen in the video below.

But just as they will pick you up from anywhere along the ride they will drop the locals off anywhere they request along the route – it makes for a lot of short little stops.  Beyond that the ride to Dong Tam was enjoyable, set beside a big river.

At one point I took a film of some young local boys playing football on the side of the muddy river bank.

Dong Tam is a small town at the junction of Mai Chau, Than Hoa, and Na Meo, the Vietnamese border crossing town.  I knew that a bus would be coming from Than Hoa on its way to Quan Son, which was our next destination.  I knew this from my research and also because I confirmed it with a local Vietnamese man who had rode the bus with us from Quan Hoa to Dong Tam.  He used the back of my chicken scratch instructions to draw me a helpful little diagram.

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We ascertained from some locals in Dong Tam that the bus we sought would be coming through “at some point” and that we might have to wait a bit.  We took seats in an old local woman’s house/store and Ben fired up some Fifa on his iPhone.

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The device you see next to Ben’s leg is a bong that the local men use to smoke tobacco. You see it everywhere in Vietnam – they smoke tobacco out of these bongs just like people in the U.S. take cigarettes. While Ben and I were waiting two young local guys came by and smoked out of the bong you see here. As they always do, they offered Ben and I a try but we politely declined.

While we were waiting I turned on my netbook to work on a blog post.  When the old local woman saw me scrolling through my pictures she came over to stand beside me.  Locals are many times entertained by the pictures on my netbook – this may have been the first netbook the woman had ever seen.  I took a break from my blog post to show her pictures I had taken in Mai Chau.  She smiled when she recognized Mai Chau and called some of her other family members over to join in observing them.

After about an hour our bus headed to Quan Son and I was seated next to a young local man who was 24 years old.  He was really excited to be seated next to an English-speaking American and quickly pulled out and showed me his English book that he was using to learn English.

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He flipped through to some of his favorite “conversation exercise” pages and demonstrated his ability to speak sentences to me.  With his allowance I took a few pictures of the pages.  The book looked pretty basic and the “Units” seemed totally disorganized (the phrases and words in each unit seemed completely unrelated) but for him it was all he had and he seemed to be really happy with it.

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His English was broken but I gave him nothing but positive feedback and encouragement, which delighted him.  People in SE Asia really take it as a compliment when you tell them they speak good English so I always do (even if they don’t speak good English).

At times I would observe him sit and stare intently at the seat in front of us, sometimes for 30 seconds or more, while he worked up a question to ask me in English.  After his contemplation he would finally turn to me, smile, and stutter out his question.  I would always smile and nod, and slowly respond.  Though it was a stunted conversation I could tell he was really enjoying practicing with me.  He was a local guy who lived in Quan Son and right before the bus dropped him off at his house I snapped a picture of us.

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After snapping the picture the other locals in the front of the bus wanted their picture taken so they could see themselves on my digital camera.  At their request I gave them a shot as they laughed and then handed my camera to each of them so they could review the shot.

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If you notice the woman on the left, you are not seeing her teeth incorrectly.  They were black, very black.  I had remembered reading about this in Hanoi’s Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

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As explained from the picture I took of the museum’s plaque, Thai, Khang, and Lu villagers in remote areas of Vietnam would burn tree branches to extra resin.  Every couple days they would put three to four layers of this black resin on their teeth.

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Lacquered black teeth are considered beautiful on women from these villages – the blacker, the more beautiful.

Because the practice of lacquering teeth had largely stopped in the mid-20th century, the museum plaque stated that “[n]ow[adays], only a few elderly women have lacquered teeth.”  I guess I was just lucky enough to see one of these women and on a bus ride from Dong Tam to Quan Son of all places.

When we arrived in Quan Son started walking down the street it was almost as if aliens had landed.  Tourists never come to Quan Son so two white men walking down the one road through Quan Son was something rare for most of the locals.   People would curiously peer out at us from their houses/store fronts and many would wave and say “Sin Chau!”

Quan Son is a quaint little town set by the river.

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It was even smaller and quieter than Mai Chau.

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As it had happened to me in Mai Chau, a group of local Quan Son boys started following Ben on their bicycles, interested in the two strange white men walking through their town.

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As we walked the group of kids grew until I finally made them all stop for a picture.

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My research indicated that from Quan Son we would need to catch a moto to Na Meo, the Vietnamese border crossing town.  It was about 4pm and we probably needed to catch a ride before the sun went down but Ben and I were hungry so we stopped for a bite at a local restaurant near the river the runs next to Quan Son.  They served us up a nice steaming plate of meat and vegetables and the customary huge bowl of rice.

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As in Maui Chao our presence in the restaurant did not go unnoticed.  A group of local teenage boys sitting two tables away came over and asked to have their picture taken with us.

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And not just one picture.  They each wanted taking turns getting their picture taken with Ben and I.

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After dinner we talked to the local Quan Son doctor who lived across from the Quan Son hospital.  He spoke pretty good English and explained that we should probably stay the night in Quan Son and take the bus from Na Meo the next day.  This wasn’t part of our plans but the town seemed small and friendly so we took his advice and checked into the town’s one hotel.

As the sun set we observed the locals gathering at certain spots around the town to get their sport on.

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This volleyball match was intense – these guys were good.

About 100 meters from the volleyball game we saw Vietnam’s number one sport being played – badminton.

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There were a group of about eight teams taking turns playing doubles.  The woman in the below video was the best one on the court in this game.

This was not a “winner stays” format.  Instead, two teams would take a turn playing one game and as soon as it finished a different set of four players (two teams) would run onto the court for the next game.

One of the games we watched got really close and I had a chance to film the final four points of the match, all on the video below.  The fourth and last point was really intense.   Almost as intense as pickup basketball games at the University of Iowa’s Fieldhouse.

The locals playing invited Ben and I to play a game but after watching a few games I knew our attempt to play would be laughable.  No sense in playing if you can’t even compete.

After getting our sports fix we headed back to the hotel room.  Knowing we would face a barrage of rice wine shots from the generous and gregarious locals if we went out to grab a late dinner we decided to stay in and go to bed early.

The next morning we wandered to find some place we could eat breakfast.  Two local men munching on some noodle soup and smoking tobacco bongs motioned for us to come join them.  Ben was sick of noodle soup by this point so he went off to get a sandwich but I obliged the men and had them make me some noodle soup.  One of them wanted to try my shades on and get his picture taken.

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When Ben came back we pulled out the LP and started teaching one of the locals some English.

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In about 10 minutes a huge group of locals had started to gather at the random restaurant we had stopped at.

I don’t think it was because of us though.  This was clearly a pre-arranged meet up for what would become a massive feast shared by 20-some people. They invited me to join while Ben agreed to stay out front and watch for our bus.

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The feast was very big and it was nice to be a part of it.   Though it was only 11 am, for them it was 5 o’clock somewhere and they had 15 bottles of rice wine out for the occasion.

Just about every man at the feast came to share a shot of rice wine with me.  Even men at the other table would wait their turn to bring their bottle over, pour us both a shot, say “Sin Mai” and throw it down.  The eight guys at my table shared at least 1-2 shots each with me.  Maybe it was just the full sun, but I felt pretty warm by the end of breakfast.

Our bus ended up coming but it was packed to the brim and chances of getting on seemed unlikely.  To complicate the matter the bus driver’s money collector wanted 600,000 Dong each to drive us just to Na Meo, Vietnam’s border, which was just 55km away.  He even called his English speaking daughter to have her negotiate this ridiculously inflated price for him.

After several minutes of haggling which involved hanging up on the daughter, I said “150,000 for 1 person.”  I then showed the bus 300,000 Dong for both my brother and started walking away.  In hindsight this was a stupid move.  Our visas expired on that day and without this bus we were stranded in Quan Son.  But for some reason I felt it would work – most likely because I was emboldened by rice wine instead of orange juice for breakfast.  But it ended up working.  After I got about 10 meters away the money collector shouted for us to jump in and we did.  From 1.2 million dong, I negotiated him down to 300,000 and we still paid more than the locals did.

The bus drive to Na Meo was less than pleasant – it was the most crowded ride we had been on to date in SE Asia.  There were about 30 people crammed into a bus meant for 14 and the two women next to Ben and I were ill.  We had seen the bus driver hand small clear plastic bags to passengers and now we know why.

The sick women would vomit and noisily spit phlegm into the bags.  Why they make these things clear is anyone’s guess.  It is absolutely disgusting to witness someone sitting one foot from you blow chunks into a bag.  At one point one of the women filled her bag with vomit and phlegm and handed it to the money collector to toss out the window.  Unfortunately for Ben the man’s toss was less than perfect and the bag spilled out all over his leg on its way out the window.  He was not pleased.

Finally the long vomit ride ended and we crossed the border into Laos.

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I had sobered by this point and we were able to get out of Vietnam with 30 minutes to spare on our Visa.

But a new problem awaited us.  There is no place to stay in Nam Xoi, the Laos town at the border crossing so Ben and I needed to continue on this bus to Vieng Xai and then to Sam Neua but we had only paid for the ride to Na Meo.  The bus driver’s money collector, knowing we were stranded in Nam Xoi without him, was again asking for 600,000 Dong each to get us there.  He had a big advantage in this negotiation.  Nevertheless I brushed him aside and told him we would walk, which of course he knew was impossible.

Because the bus had about a 30 minute layover in Nam Xoi, to delay the inevitable disadvantaged haggle I was going to attempt, Ben and I explored Nam Xoi for a bit. It was a small town overlooking the river and border checkpoint in the distance.

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Nearby a group of Laos locals played Sepak Takraw, called “ka-taw” in Laos.

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Sepak Takraw is a combination of volleyball and football – essentially it is volleyball without hands on a badminton sized court.

Ben and I saw Sepak Takraw being played in several places in Laos – it seemed to be more popular than we had seen in Cambodia or Vietnam.

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The game seems incredibly hard to me but these guys made it look pretty easy.

Because it is so difficult many of the points are short but most points involved a skillful “winner” shot by one of the players, such as the bicycle kick winner in the video below.

Unfortunately the inevitable finally happened and the bus fired up to start the final trip through Vieng Xai and Sam Nuea.  Time to haggle with the money collector again.  As with last time I told him I would only pay 300,000 Dong and got to a point where he was willing to take no less than 600,000 for both of us.  This time he put on a hard bluff, getting on the bus and waiving for the bus driver to start driving unless we paid the full 1.2 million.

As the bus took off I responded with a counter-bluff, walking away and deliberately showing a sad face to all the locals I’d had a chance to meet on the ride to Na Meo.  My bluff was hinged on a gut feeling that they simply would not leave two Americans stranded at the border.  Luckily my intuition was correct.  The bus rolled about 25 meters away before they stopped and waived my brother on.  Sigh of relief.

But they had the last laugh.  On the cramped bus ride from Nam Xoi to Vieng Xai and finally to Sam Nuea, someone (I’m guessing the money collector) pickpocketed over $100 in Thai Baht from my pocket.  I had had my wad on me because I had paid for the Laos visa and forgot to put it back in a safer place than my pocket.

All in all I considered these two days to be two of the most memorable and real “experiences” of the trip.  You take the good with the bad when traveling and these two days of crazy travel, from Mai Chau to Sam Neua, had both.

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6 thoughts on “Two mad days of travel from Mai Chau (Vietnam) to Sam Neua (Laos)

  1. Hi
    Just want to thank you for the blog – found it when I was planning the same route from Mai Chau to Vieng Xai at the end of February and without it I would have believed the guide books and locals who said it could not be done. In Hanoi i was advised that i would be ‘stolen’! Didn’t do any better than you on the bus fares, (as a solo female traveller I played to the sympathies of the other passengers when faced with a greedy conductor, but as you know, they have no shame) but at least was not surprised to be left at a depressing hotel before the border and told it was too late for me to go on in a single day. Much appreciated
    Alex

  2. Thank you so much for this description, we will go tomorrow but the opposit way. So let see what is going to happen:)

    • I’m not sure if you mean hire a moto (have a Vietnamese moto driver take you) or ride one yourself, but either options are viable, sure! You can ride yourself but the roads are not the best so unless you have experience riding a moto on less-than-perfect road’s I would not recommend it. If you hire a moto to take you you might have to pay a little more than we did and it would not be as comfortable as taking the buses, but at least you wouldn’t ever have to wait for transfers. Let me know if you need any more advice – bitto86@gmail.com! Good luck!

  3. Thanks so much for your informative post! We just finished the same border crossing today (May 2016). A summary:
    – Mai Chau: dusty brown bus for Quan Hoa finally came rattling down main road a little after 11 AM. Several other buses passed by during the nearly 2-hour wait, headed to Cun Pheo (which we did not want). Paid 50,000 VND per person. Arrived in Quan Hoa in about 1 hour (12:10 PM).
    – Quan Hoa to Dong Tam: modern AC bus arrived along main road about 1:30 PM. 25,000 VND per person. 30 minute ride to Dong Tam.
    – Dong Tam to Quan Son: dusty bus came by at 2:30 PM; arrived in Quan Son at 3:50 PM. Paid 50,000 VND each. Stayed overnight in QS.
    – Quan Son to Na Meo: bus came speeding by soon after 11 AM, only to stop at the far end of the road for a 1/2 hour lunch (!), so may as well wait for the bus near the far end of the main road. Arrived in Na Meo 1 PM (no noted vomiting, thankfully). 100,000 VND each.
    – Least predictable & most costly part of border crossing was the last leg from Nam Xoi to Vieng Xai. Last bus (a Vietnam to Laos bus) for the day for Sam Neua departed Laos Immigration around 2:20 PM. They wanted 300,000 VND each or 100,000 Kip (we didn’t have any Kip yet); we refused & tried to negotiate 150,000 each. The fare collector slammed the side door shut & the bus took off. One of the Immigration officers came out some time later & pointed to a blue “chapa” type truck & said the driver might take us to Vieng Xai. So, at 3 PM, we got a ride with this driver, at the same Laotian price as the Vietnamese bus: 100,000 Kip each.

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