The bus was supposed to reach the Dien Bien Phu bus stand before 6 am. It did not because of the 90 minute stop just outside of Hanoi city to tranship parcels. In the end, as events panned out, the delayed arrival into Dien Bien Phu bus stand at a quarter to 7 am was not so critical. I felt I should have stayed a day at the historic city of Dien Bien Phu, which saw the defeat of the French forces against Viet Minh in 1954. The battles saw the evolution of a rugged guerrilla outfit into an organised revolutionary army. Repeated routs of the French army led to the 1954 Geneva agreement where North Vietnam was conceded to Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh.
Buses ply regularly between Dien Bien Phu, which is about 40 kms to the Vietnamese border at Tay Trang, and Laos. I went to the ticket counter to enquire about the bus to Tay Trang and was told to board a bus that would leave at 7.30 am. Apparently, that was the first bus to the border. Reaching the bus stand earlier would not have helped me get to the border earlier. I met a couple on the bus who said that they had been waiting in the bus for nearly four hours! The bus with two handy men left the stand earlier than scheduled and I felt elated that I would reach the border that much earlier. It was an eight hour road journey from Tay Trang to Luang Prabang, as I had experienced on the 21st. I wanted to get to Luang Prabang before it became dark and cover the 120 km bad stretch on the route before evening. My elation was short lived. The driver stopped wherever he could for the handy men to load parcels. The minivan was soon full of all sorts of parcels from furniture to food. One of the handy men, who had earlier refused to keep my backpack on the seat next to me, had to do just that to accommodate more furniture. There were just 7 passengers and I was the only one bound for the border; the rest were on their way to Luang Prabang. It looked as if it had rained quite heavily the previous night for the mountains were clouded in mist. Green rice fields, irrigation canals, people at their jobs quite early in the morning and the clean villages all whizzed past on the 45 minute ride to Tay Trang.
After alighting from the bus I went in search of the Immigration Officer, Pham Van Thang, who had been so helpful at the border when I met with refusal from Customs to let my car through on 21st. He had offered to safe keep the car at his residence. When I told him that I had been unsuccessful in getting the necessary permission to drive in Vietnam he offered his sincere apologies and said, “But rules are rules, you know”. After immigration clearance I went to Thang’s residence and put the backpack in the car and rearranged some stuff in the car before Thang arrived there on his bike. He affixed the sticker on the car in confirmation of the car having ‘technically’ entered Vietnam territory at Tay Trang. Later he exchanged the VND I had with me for Laotian currency, bid me farewell and promised to remain in touch on Facebook.
I did not anticipate any delay at the Laos border of Sop Hun for I had done that easily the last time around. The visa I took in Hanoi helped speed up the immigration clearance. However, I had to pay 46,000 LK as border charge, passport charge and charge to take the car into Laos! And none of the charges were supported by receipts. Then I walked across to the Customs booth and met an official who was thoroughly confused about acceptance of the Carnet. He showed me a green document and wanted me to obtain that. Mercifully, in a short while, I was able to convince him that the Carnet was accepted on the 21st and that he should do so likewise now. Some of his colleagues supported what I said and that saved the day for me. Soon I was driving away from the Sop Hun border onwards to Luang Prabang.
I drove into a fuel station before the long drive ahead. Diesel at the station was almost a dollar a litre. Of the countries during this drive Laos had the costliest diesel (at Rs. 60 a litre) and Myanmar the cheapest (at Rs. 52 a litre). Diesel in Vietnam is Rs. 54 a litre.
The light rain brought on another challenge – the mountain roads were prone to skidding. I had to be extra careful because I almost went off the road twice. The second was scary; the car stopped at the brink of the road, beyond which was a gorge. The palpitation refused to go away for a long time. I was not looking forward to the middle segment of the drive from Sop Hun to Luang Prabang, where the road was in bad condition owing to a lot of works going on. Apart from soil and gravel consolidation works, side and cross drains were being laid, using large number of labour and machines. The ride, besides being bumpy and uncomfortable, was extremely dusty and challenging the last time round. When I reached it I found that the rain had settled the road and dust was not an issue. However, at many places deep excavation had been done and heavy freight trucks had ploughed into it causing traffic hold up and delay. I got held up for more than 90 minutes in three such situations. I was only worried that I would have to drive at night. However, at each of the hold ups I observed that people were patient and disciplined, which solved the problems faster than it otherwise would have been. Not a single vehicle honked or cut the traffic lanes to cause greater discomfort and delay, as I am used to in Kerala. There was no one cursing or blaming any one. It looked a bit strange to me! The only area for improvement I saw was better traffic control at the work locations. However, I was amazed at the amount of work that had been done in the past six days, more so when work was done only between 8 am and 5 pm with a 90 minute break for lunch. Productivity is high and people go about their work without a fuss. In a communist country there are no trade unions or flags to proclaim people power!
Daylight stayed with me till I was 10 kms short of Luang Prabang. By 7 pm I was looking for Peter at the Mekong Sunset View Hotel, where I had stayed last time when I was in the city. The smiling Peter profusely apologised for not having a room for me, but he promised to get me one soon. The helpful person soon took me to the Sok Dee Residence, not very far from his. He said he would have a room for me the next day. I showered after my stuff was lodged in the comfortable room. I had gone straight from the bus to the car at Tay Trang in the morning. I had not even brushed my teeth the whole day. A Listerine gargle is all that I managed. Breakfast and lunch were on the move – almonds, biscuits, figs and plenty of water. In the nine hours between Sop Hun and Luang Prabang I had stopped only once, to fuel.
It was time for beer and dinner; a small provision shop near the Sok Dee Residence had Beerlao. I had a couple leisurely, in bed while going through mails and catching up on the social media, and walked over to the eateries on the Mekong River bank for a small local bite. I had not realised that it was past 10 pm, when most of them had finished taking their last orders. I found one after a fairly long walk that served me pork laap with cucumber and lettuce. Laap, basically a minced meat salad, is considered the national dish of Laos. This part of the town had gone to sleep early as I was the only customer in the restaurant and I too left soon after the meal to the hotel, resisting enticements from massage parlours that were still open and doing brisk business.