Travelling is about the journey, not just about the destination; as is so often the case, our adventure begins with a journey of note!
Having returned to Pakse from 4000 Islands, it was now time to traverse southern Laos and cross the border into Vietnam. Our bus was due for departure at 5.30AM, and we were going to be crossing the less ‘touristy’ Dansavanh/Lao Bao border (a border that we have since found it out much more popular with smugglers!).
Bleary eyed, we arrived at the departure point and, amongst much chaos and confusion, we were herded onto the bus. This was to be our first experience of the bus that resembles a cattle transporter, with two level seat/bed hybrid accommodations suitable only for people who are 5’8″ or shorter! Having jammed ourselves in, observed that we were the only foreign tourists on board and the only English speakers, the real work on the bus began as they promptly set off about their business collecting the other cargo for the trip; a few hundred weight of rice and sugar that would be piled in amongst us for the entirety of the journey-you couldn’t help but laugh as the walkways in the bus slowly loaded up with various goods to be shipped across the border.
Bus fully loaded, we watched as the last of Laos passed us by and Vietnam loomed ever nearer. Eventually we arrived at the border with the bags of rice and sugar, and were promptly ushered off the bus to negotiate the Visa and passport formalities. It became apparent that all those on the bus with a Laos or Vietnamese passport were being looked after for this part of the process, and so we headed in to face the most difficult of border crossings to date.
With no real idea of what we were supposed to be doing, we entered the border offices and found ourselves in what can best be described as a frenzied maul! It was at this point that it transpired that the Vietnamese do not engage in the art of queuing, and that the general rule of thumb is that it’s every man for themselves. As a pair of very typical Brits, we found this extremely disorienting and could not fathom what was going on. There were no English speakers, people elbowing us out of the way, pushing, shoving and throwing passports with money in at the officials-it was chaos. In no time at all we realised that we were going to have to put up a united front, and so we staked our claim to a spot at the front of the queue and guarded each others backs with ‘necessary force’. The situation was exasperated somewhat by seemingly inert border control staff, they were literally just sat there looking at the hoards of people gathered in front of them. From what we could muster the computer systems were down, and so ensued an uncomfortable stand off until the systems refreshed-and the border control staff lurched into action. Finally our passports were taken to be stamped and Visas checked, and after a little bit of an uncomfortable delay with my passport-we were granted leave of Laos, and formally entered Vietnam….We had made it!
The confusion at the border was not to cease there, during the time in which we were inside, the entire contents of our bus were being unloaded and passed through an x-ray machine outside. With the afore mentioned stock pile of sugar and rice this was not a speedy process, and so we were left mulling around in what we discovered to be no-mans-land. Now we were completely clueless as to our course of action, each time we made movements towards the bus we were barked at in Vietnamese and waved away…To where we did not know. It turns out that we actually needed to walk across the entry point into Vietnam proper, have our passports checked by yet more officials, and wait for the bus to pass through so we could re-embark. After a lot of head scratching and hanging around, we eventually made it back onto the bus and began our journey on Vietnamese soil-to Huế!
We actually arrived around two hours ahead of schedule, quite how that transpired I don’t know-but for sure it was a pleasant surprise.
It is an odd place to start your adventure in Vietnam, usually people head to the either Hanoi in the north, or Ho Chi Minh in the south, but as our start point was southern Laos, we headed to the middle of Vietnam and the city of Huế.
It was the capital of Vietnam until 1945, until Emperor Bảo Đại abdicated and the following communist government was established in the northern city of Hanoi. During the fateful Tết Offensive in the Vietnam War, the city suffered considerable damage to many of the grand buildings situated in the central citadel, a monument to the cities illustrious past; not only due to American military bombing, but also during the massacre at Huế committed by the communist forces. Mass killings were carried out by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army during their capture, occupation and subsequent exit from the city.
The killings were perceived as part of a large-scale purge of the social class systems, including anyone ‘pro American forces’. Press reports also exposed South Vietnamese “revenge squads” had been at work in the aftermath of the battle, searching out and executing citizens that had supported the communist occupation.
Today the citadel is undergoing extensive renovations, but still serves as a great sight to spend a day exploring. A walled city 10km squared and with a surrounding moat, the grandeur and opulence of what once lay there is obvious, and is fantastic fodder for an inquisitive imagination. Tales of the various Vietnamese kings and how they conducted their court are told throughout the grounds, they even had teams of eunuchs who were responsible for the administration of communities of concubines… It really was quite the eye opener.
Aside from the Citadel, Hue proved to be a lovely place to expose ourselves to the ways of Vietnam-things to note that will prove to be ever-present:
1. Fantastic food at rock bottom prices.
2. Food markets where you can get any ingredient, dead or alive, fresh or dried
3. ‘North Face’ jackets/bags for sale at ridiculously low prices (just to be clear, they aren’t genuine North Face, but they are extremely high quality copies)
4. Tailors-if you want to get yourself kitted out in some custom made gear, then surely Vietnam is the place to come.
5. Traffic…More specifically-motorbikes! The place is heaving with motorbike traffic, and crossing the road is hilarious! You just have to put your trust in chaos, and all will be well.
All in all a great place to begin our Vietnamese venture, and the perfect springboard for our onwards travels-next stop the picture perfect Hoi An, and a reunion with some friends from the UK.