Vietnam to Lao: The Road Less Taken (Na Meo)

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It’s no secret that Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s favorite due to its numerous sites as well as affordable food, accommodation and transportation. One of the best things about traveling around Southeast Asia is that the most popular countries Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand can all be crossed by land quite easily for the most part. We decided to make our first of these crossings from Vietnam to Laos. After an epic month of couchsurfing, hitchhiking, teaching and a little too much drinking in Vietnam, Laos was calling our names from afar. That’s when started analyzing maps, and going through blogs to find out the best way to enter Laos, trying as usual to find the cheapest, and least traveled route.

At the end of our Vietnamese odyssey we were in Hanoi, the capital, which happens to be inconveniently located in regards to the available border crossings in to Laos. We thought our choices were limited to either taking a direct bus to Vientiane, the Laotian capital or taking a bus to Dien Bien Phu in the north, known for its importance during the war for independence, and also a frequented and prone to scams crossing. A bus to Dien Bien Phu costs a rough 300,000 dongs, approximately $15, our maximum daily budget, plus it is not even located on the border, that would have implied more money to spend on taking motorcycle taxis to the actual border and our other option, the direct bus to Vientiane would have changed our expected itinerary going from the center to the north and then back south again towards Cambodia, on top of costing $20. A little hopeless and with our visas ending soon, we noticed that another crossing closer to us existed, but how to get there. Very little information could be found online, but by chance we found this blog.

Excited as usual to find the road less taken we followed their steps. We got up early the next day, said goodbye to our friendly couchsurfing host Cuong and took a public bus from his place to My Dinh station, Hanoi’s biggest bus station. From there we hopped on a bus to Mai Chau. Getting to Mai Chau is quite easy, the bus ride takes about three hours and costs 70,000 dongs ($3.50), we enjoyed some beautiful scenery on the way as we drove though a mountain pass.

walking in laos
The adventure begins!

Arriving in Mai Chau at 10 am, we asked around to find out when we could catch the next bus to Quan Hoa, our next destination. A lady working at the market told us the bus would pass by at 11 am so we had an hour free. As our stomachs were already grumbling we decided to try a delicious noodle soup at the helpful and friendly lady’s food stall. After finishing our meals we then sat on the side of the road waiting for the bus explaining to the hoards of persistent motorcycle taxis that we were sure we wanted to take the bus. Once they were sure that we wouldn’t need their services they were very helpful drawing us a useful little map with bus prices on how to continue our journey.

Luckily, we hopped on the right bus going to Quan Hoa, and paid the 50,000 dong ($2.50). About an hour or so later, the bus dropped us off in Quan Hoa and before getting out we asked the driver where to catch a bus to Dong Tam, the next destination, and he pointed to a parked bus. We followed his advice and headed to the bus, which was  empty except for the driver who was taking a nap. After tapping on the window for a few minutes he finally woke up but wouldn’t let us ask him a question, waving his hands in the air epileptically. If you travel to Vietnam, you will see this kind of reaction more than anywhere else in South East Asia, some people refuse to listen to your question, you don’t even have time to open your mouth before they runaway from you waving their hands. We don’t know if it is due to an irrepressible fear of foreigners or the trauma of having to answer to someone that speaks a different language but it would certainly make a nice case study for sociologists.

traditional house laos
A traditional house on the way to Laos


Not able to get any answer from our Vietnamese Rain man and not wanting to pay for a motorcycle taxi to get to our next destination, we decided to hitchhike to Dong Tam, which was only a few kilometers away. Hitchhiking in Vietnam is not the easiest thing but if you are persistent enough, you will eventually get a ride. Keeping that in mind, we walked about 2 kilometers, escorted by apparently all the kids of Quan Hoa, excited to see foreigners pass through their town, when finally a van stopped for us. It was full of people but they kindly made room for us. At first we thought it was some sort of chartered minivan and that we would have to pay for the trip but it turned out they were just helping us and did take us to Dong Tam for free. Cheerful and happy we were able to save a little money and meet some friendly people, we decided we could possibly finish the whole trip hitchhiking.

walking in lao village
Walking through hill tribe villages hoping to get a ride


After making sure that it would not be more convenient to take a bus to Quan Son, the next village on our “step by step journey”, we stuck our thumbs out on the side of a deserted road, hoping someone would go this way. The public bus from Dong Tam to Quan Son costs 50,000 dongs, which is not that expensive but it was leaving an hour later, so we decided to take advantage of that extra hour to advance towards Na Meo. Luckily after 5 minutes a truck stopped for us, simple, easy, perfect. Only when we got in we realized how long it would take to make the 35 kilometers to Quan Son. From Dong Tam to Quan Son, it is all uphill, and the old truck was barely climbing the hill at 10 kilometers per hour, the driver even stopped a few times to fix the trailer apparently even letting off some of his load. Finally, what we feared happened. After only 10 kilometers, the truck broke down and with a sad expression on his face, the driver made us understand we would have to find some other rusty truck to finish the trip .

aurelien hitchhiking vietnam
Pick-up trucks, the best chance to hitch a ride


Stuck in the middle of nowhere, we started to walk towards Quan Son. A few trucks passed but none of them would stop. We even saw the bus that we refused to wait for in the first place pass, so we started to think we would have to spend the night in Quan Son, if we were lucky enough to get there before the next morning. Knowing there was little we could do about our situation, we actually enjoyed our walk, we passed through tribal villages where everybody greeted us, both excited and shocked to see foreigners walking around their villages, all the kids were welcoming us with a cute “Hello Sintxiao” before they would start running to hide from us, too shy to approach us. These were really amazing, heart touching moments as whole villages celebrated our arrival, old folks smiling at us, waving their hands, stopping what they were doing just to say hello and the kids running around barefoot playing “hide and seek” with us. Most people in traditional dress living in traditional wooden houses on stilts surrounded by goats, dogs, and buffalo. Until eventually we got back to real life, a car stopped.

lao kids running
"Watch out for the funny looking foreigners!"


Saying a car stopped seems like nothing special when hitchhikers are telling a story, but in Vietnam when a car stops for a hitchhiker, it is like Christmas, for somehow only trucks would stop for us so far. The car was a grey Toyota, some sort of pick-up, and inside were two guys who looked like officials, haircut, suits and all, we guessed they were officials because not everybody can afford a car in Vietnam and also because we didn’t speak enough of Vietnamese to ask them. But we did try to ask them anyway, wrong idea! We started with the usual conversation, or they started it to be fair, “Where are you from?” “How old are you” “How long have you stayed in Vietnam?”, the whole dialogue in Vietnamese it sounded more like a “Me happy, Vietnam Good, blabla, hand signs”. Eventually after one of these long and awkward silences, we try to ask what they were doing in life and where they were living. The problem was we didn’t know how to ask those kinds of questions and the only way we had to ask where they were living was using one word we knew, the word for house in Vietnamese, “nhà”. That’s when they stopped the car in the middle of nowhere and asked us kindly to get out. We didn’t try to stay in the car and we waved at them as they were leaving us a walkable 10 kilometers from Quan Son. We then decided to never again ask drivers where they were from.

jacqueline hitchhiking laos


The sun was slowly falling into the mountains, as we started our walk to Quan Son, we only had those 10 kilometers to walk, so we were assured to arrive there at night, have a good night of sleep and then continue our journey to the border the next day, our last legal day in Vietnam, according to our visas. In effort to make it quicker and not really wanting to walk those last 10 kilometers we tried to hitchhike again, and Hallelujah! a big yellow truck stopped. The driver smiled with a mostly toothless grin asking in broken english “You go Quan Son?” We happily said yes and hopped in the truck where we met another guy who was sitting on the bed in the back of the cabin. “We try to go Na Meo (the border)” we said when the driver replied with a big smile on his face “Me go Na Meo!”

traditional house vietnam


hitchhiking truck vietnam
Getting comfy in our 18 wheeler 


Alright! That was it! The end of our trip from Hanoi to Laos, a 200 kilometers journey all done in one day! We continued with the truck through the night to the village of Na Meo which is not easy to reach, especially with a heavy-weight truck. The road after Quan Son slowly faded away to turn into dirt and rocks. The driver had to maneuver the truck around sharp curves bordered with ravins or literally fight with another driver who wouldn’t back up to let us pass, providing us a good entertainment, only pop corn was missing. It was 11 pm when we arrived, we found a cheap guesthouse thanks to the driver and his colleague right on the border and the only thing we would have to do the next morning would be to wake up and walk across the line dividing what was now the familiar to new territory, a new language, and a new people. The next morning waving goodbye to beautiful Vietnam which gave us such amazing experiences as we met so many friendly people, made some great friends, tried some of the best food, and of course discovered the beautiful landscape we were ready for a new journey to begin.

vietnamese border
Vietnamese Immigration Office in Na Meo


Crossing the border was a breeze, especially after some men invited us to drink beer with them at 9 in the morning. Vietnamese customs were very friendly as well as the Laotians. It took around 30 minutes for the whole process of getting out of Vietnam and getting inside Laos. The visa cost us around $30 ($30 for French citizens and $35 for Americans) granting us a month in Laos. We had to walk from time to time, again through tribal villages with kids greeting us with a cute “Hello-Sabaidee”, but a few trucks and a van later we reached the city of Sam Neua, where we could start to enjoy the beauty of this mountainous country!
lao kids out of school
Laotian kids running out of school to greet us

lao officials van
Hitching a ride with Lao officials

 As we found out from that interesting journey though you never know what to expect going off the beaten track is always a more unique, interesting, and memorable experience. It brought us back to a quote we occasionally forget: “It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts”.

1 comment:

  1. lol. I almost gave up on this border too if only not that i'm running out of time. such a horrible ride on a small motorbike. It seems road is currently under construction, hopefully finishes soon. Yet, interim, not advised to take this border for runners. i posted some photos here of my recent run..

    http://www.limbonis.com/2014/10/visa-run-cum-border-tour.html

    ReplyDelete