Last evening, Peter, one of the ‘smiling twins’ at the hotel reception offered to give me breakfast at 6 am, if I wanted to leave early. However, he shocked me into saying that it would take about 12 hours to the border, which closes at 5 pm! My original intent was to stay at Sop Hun, the Loa side of the border, but was told that accommodation would be hard to come by there. So I decided to push through to Tay Trang, the Vietnamese border and shack up in one of the towns close by. Google Maps showed the distance to the border as 360 kms and put the expected time for travel as less than 6 hours! I was confused by the two vastly different estimated times to cover the distance. In the end, I segmented the 360 kms from Luang Prabang to Tay Trang into three of 120 kms each; the first was just about okay, the next 120 kms was awful and the last was superb.
The route was almost entirely though mountainous terrain and the awful part of the stretch was where road works were in progress. I got held up in two places for nearly 30 minutes each, where drains were being laid across the road. The entire stretch was dusty and bumpy. Fortunately, there was a religious convoy and I manoeuvred my car into the convoy. That helped because the convoy was piloted by a senior member of the construction company and he got us past many road blockages. It was so dusty that I had to keep a safe distance from the car in front and even had to stop many times for the dust to clear. The terrain being winding and steep added to the challenge. One of the convoy vehicles carried an image of the seated Buddha. I wondered how the Buddha remained seated with that beatific smile through that horrendous journey!
I feared that I would miss the border working time if the journey went on like that. However, I hit the final stretch of 120 kms by 1 pm and it turned out to be a beauty. I reached the Loa border just before 3 pm and got the formalities done in less than 30 minutes. It took me less than 9 hours to reach the Vietnamese border post – midpoint between the estimates of Peter and Google Maps. I did not stop anywhere in between, except for biological breaks and for taking a few photographs. The heavy breakfast had kept me away from foraging the bags in the car till noon.
As soon as I drove to the Tay Trang border post and parked a smart young immigration officer walked out to meet me. He examined the visa and said that that was in order but he was not so sure if the car could be permitted through with the documents I had. He asked me to confirm that with Customs. The ordeal began then. It took me a long time to explain to the Customs officials the importance of the Carnet and how the countries from Myanmar to Lao PDR had permitted the temporary importation and exportation of the car on the basis of that document. The Immigration officer was very helpful. But the Customs guys stuck to their guns after debating and checking on the Internet for about 90 minutes. They wanted me to go to Hanoi and bring the correct documents to take the car through the post. When I asked them what documents are required they asked me to find that out from the Ministry of Transportation and the Department of Customs. It is just that they had not handled vehicles registered in other than Vietnam and the neighbouring counties of Lao PDR and Cambodia.
The Immigration Officer offered to keep the car in safe custody in his residence for the time I was to be in Hanoi, of course for a fee. He helped me exchange the extra Loa Kips I had and $100 to Vietnamese Dongs – that seemed to be one of his facilitations. My visa for Vietnam was valid from 22 Mar, which he waived to permit entry a day earlier on the condition that I exited the country a day earlier than permitted. He also arranged to get me transported to the Dien Bien bus stand, from where I could get a bus to Hanoi.
I repacked my bags and got my backpack ready for the trip to Hanoi. Phan, the Immigration Officer, told me to make sure that my valuables and documents were carried with me. I packed in a hurry and parked the car in Phan’s residence. The car that ferried me to the bus stand about 40 kms away was packed to capacity and the 4 Vietnamese kept up such a din right through the 1 hour drive that I thought I would go deaf. I couldn’t figure out if they were fighting or just debating a point. I wish I had some cotton to shut out the din. When I was dropped at the bus stand at 6.30 pm I paid the contracted 200,000 VND to the driver. Almost immediately as I exited the car a strong arm caught hold of me and asked if I was going to Hanoi. When I said yes he made me sit on his bike and took me to a bus that had already left the stand! He said that the bus would get me to Hanoi before 6 am for 300,000 VND. The sleeper bus was not fully occupied and was reasonably comfortable. As I got into the bus I was asked to take off the shoes and socks, which were tied up in a plastic cover and handed back to me. I insisted on keeping my backpack with me, which they found bothersome. I did not want to take any risks.
The bus stopped by about 9.30 pm for dinner. As the bus parked at the restaurant – dinner is part of the fare – a box full of chappals was placed beside it. Passengers exiting the bus could take a pair and use it while in the restaurant. A buffet was placed on each table consisting of fried fish, chicken, pork, water cress, cabbage, soup and rice. One kind person fetched me a spoon so that I could have a bowl of rice, chicken and pork. The food was quite tasty and I was hungry because I had not had anything substantial after breakfast early in the morning. I slept in fits and starts and waited to reach Hanoi to meet up with Elvis D’Cruz who had flown into Hanoi to travel with me in Vietnam. With the car still at Tay Trang, I have to reschedule the trip based on what will happen on Monday.