Even though we had thought of beating the breakfast rush in the hotel restaurant by being there before the scheduled opening time of 6.30 am Elvis and I missed the deadline; he because of sound sleep and I because of documentation work. However, when we went down for breakfast, to our surprise, the hall was empty and we had the entire run of the place. We had a leisurely breakfast and then got down to business. I asked the receptionist to book me by an overnight bus from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu, which she did quickly. Then it was booking a flight for Elvis to Ho Chi Minh City, which he wanted done from Vietnam Airlines office. That was done too and we walked to the Indian Embassy to thank Joachim Fernando and Mahadevan for all the assistance they had provided. They felt sad too that the car could not be brought in and driven through Vietnam.
The website of the Lao PDR dealing with information on ‘on arrival’ visa clearly mentions that Indians are eligible for the same on arrival at Sop Hun the border post near Tay Trang, the Vietnamese post. Since I was not likely to make any headway in progressing the drive through Vietnam I redrew the itinerary to go back via Sop Hun to Laos. At the Indian Embassy Joachim Fernando suggested that I drop in at the Lao PDR embassy in Hanoi and confirm the issue of ‘on arrival’ visa at Sop Hun. When Elvis and I reached the embassy at 11 am it had closed for lunch even though the etching on the plaque outside the visa section indicated the lunch break between 11.30 am and 1.30 pm. We came back to the hotel and I got the bus booking changed to the next day so that visa for Laos could be obtained in Hanoi, if possible.
I got back to the Laos visa section, which opened at 1.30 pm, with the passport. The officer at the desk confirmed that ‘on arrival’ visa is not available at Sop Hun; this despite the website claiming that it is. Such discrepancies unnecessarily put travelling public at risk of non-compliance. However, the officer confirmed that I could apply for the visa at this office. It normally takes three days for issue of visa at $40 for Indians. However, they have an express service of one day at a $5 extra. I filled out the simple application form just before 2 pm and I was asked to come back with a photograph by 3 pm to collect the passport with the visa stamped. Since I did not have the photograph with me I roamed around a while in search of a studio and finally decided to head back to the hotel where I had copies of passport photos. Elvis and I reached the visa office at just past three pm. I handed over the $45 and a photograph and obtained the passport with the Lao PDR visa stamped in it. Express service without a fuss. I wondered why other embassies do not do the same and get rid of unnecessary hassles.
Ministry of Transportation, Vietnam has stipulated that driving tours should be organised by authorised travel agencies only. A couple of them we got in touch with, through contacts, mentioned that it would take between 5 and 10 days to get the permission and documents. Since I could not afford that much time I decided to get back to Laos via Sop Hun after collecting the car parked in the Vietnam border. Thereafter, I had two options, or so I thought, as mentioned in the last post. There was no clarity about ‘on arrival’ visa on the Thai border yet. Before leaving on the journey, basis the itinerary, I had obtained a three entry visa for Thailand. The first entry was done when I travelled from Myanmar to Laos. If I travel from Laos to Cambodia (via Thailand) and from there to Thailand by the normally travelled route I will exhaust all the three entries permitted on my visa. Hence, when I come from Malaysia to Thailand on the return leg I will need ‘on arrival’ visa at Hat Yai in Thailand, which would be my fourth entry into the country. All research is now trained to find if that is possible. In the meanwhile, Mathew Thomas, a Facebook friend, suggested that I explore the option of travelling to Cambodia through Laos, which will help ‘preserve’ the Thailand visa. I am grateful to friends like these for valuable suggestions and helping me to refocus.
I have drawn out the route to Seam Reap from Luang Prabang, all through from Laos to Cambodia, which is about 1500 kms. The route looks tough and demanding, through mountainous terrain and small villages, where accommodation may be hard to come by. I intend to discuss the route with travel agents in Luang Prabang and then take a final call. I will 'rejoin' the original itinerary either in Seam Reap or Pattaya, depending on the route chosen. However, there is light, finally, at the end of the rather long tunnel.