So the big news is that we have completed a border crossing with almost no mishaps or ripoffs – apart from running out of money! But more on that later.
Our final day in Hoi An began with the man from the post office coming to our hotel to wrap up the mountain of clothes that Annika had purchased ready to be put on a slow boat back to Blighty. Hoi An doesn’t have a train station but Danang, 40km away, does and the trip from there to Hue up the coast was supposed to be fantastic so we decided to do that rather than take yet another bus. The taxi to Danang drove along next to the beach for a distance, giving us a glimpse of what the Danang of the future will look like – most of this stretch of beautiful beach has been sold to the big hotel chains like Le Meridien and Hyatt and vast, soulless hotel complexes are emerging from the sand to make the area look like an identikit beach resort – what effect this may have on tiny little Hoi An down the road over time is anyone’s guess but it can’t be a good thing for it, surely?
After purchasing a baguette and some suspicious looking meat product wrapped in banana leaves for lunch, we boarded the train along with the hoardes when it lumbered into the station. The train had come from Saigon the previous night and there was a tangible feeling of exhaustion and misery amongst the passengers that were already spread out into every space available on our carriage and we had to cram our bags into our tiny seats along with us, making for a less than comfortable journey.
The journey and the scenery were, however, fabulous – the train hugs the coast almost all the way, no matter what and with the coast twisting and turning as it moves north, so did we, sometimes climbing up hills, sometimes chugging through tunnels cut into the mountains and all with views of huge bays, rice paddies and sometimes the front or the back of the long train as it crawled around the corners.
After 3 hours, we disembarked with some relief however, as the bags made things quite awkward. Stepping out of the station, we were virtually knocked off our feet by a scrum of taxi drivers desperate to take us into town but luckily our hotel had arranged a free pick up so we managed to escape.
Our hotel was a Vietnamese attempt at boutique hotel luxury and for only $35 a night it was a bargain. Some of their efforts were very odd, such as the ‘toilet roll cover’ style dress type things which disguised the complimentary water, the provision of scales and the 1970’s style ‘control console’ next to the bed which meant that only one person (me!) had the ability to turn the lights by the bed on and off but the addition of our own personal PC in the room was extremely well received by the geek of our party and I immediately began using it to upload all of our photos so far, which took all night but hopefully was worth it. Click on the photos link at the top to see them all.
Next morning, we’d booked on a tour of the local sights as we only had one day to see everything. It was another scorching hot day and tour buses are always quite tiring so it was a very exhausting day but the guide was excellent. The morning consisted of three visits to the final resting places of past Vietnamese kings. First, the tomb of ‘The Smallpox King’, so named because he failed to have any children, despite his 100 concubines, owing to his condition. Next it was ‘The Sexy King’ (these are not the real names by the way, just the ones used by the guide), who had more than 500 concubines, taking on 5 every night and managed to produce 74 children. Finally there was ‘The Homosexual King’ who was so effete that he is often mistaken in photos for the Queen Mother (theirs, not ours, obviously – that would be weird) or his own mother. These were all well worth seeing and we learnt an awful lot about Vietnamese history before the American War too.
After an exhausting evening trying to get hold of some US dollars for the Laos visa the next day (they only accept dollars, but no bank in Vietnam will give you dollars in exchange for any other currency – mental) we watched a DVD in our room and went to sleep early, prepared for the usual challenge of border crossings which awaited us.
Our bus to Laos took 4 hours to get to the border at Lao Bao at which point we had get off in order to be stamped out of Vietnam. I’m sure it’s not legal but the border guards charged us a dollar each to leave the country – a nice little earner for them, I’m sure, but it almost proved crucial to us when we tried to enter Laos, 500 yards down the road. We’d been told that a Visa would be $35 each and dollars were so hard to get hold of in Hue the night before that I’d only got $70 on me. I had some Vietnam Dong but not much because the cash machines wouldn’t let us draw out any more money the day before due to the daily limit. When we asked the predictably grumpy border guard how much it was, he typed ’40’ into a calculator which made my heart sink. I gave him our $70 and informed him that it was for two but that we had Vietnamese currency, he calculated the difference and showed us that we now owed D195,000 – we had 189,000! D6,000 short (about 15p)! Luckily, a Canadian guy next to us lent us the rest and, after filling in the requisite forms, we got a Visa! Much relief but now we had precisely no money to our names, a 5 hour bus journey to our destination and less than 300ml of water between us. Still, we’d got into the country and that’s what mattered. No-one ripped us off and no-one tried to kidnap anyone to travel with us so I rate that a success! We spent one night in Savannakhet, withdrew some cash and are now in Tha Khaek after an extremely cramped minibus journey which featured no less than 25 passengers in a 12 seater bus for 3 1/2 hours!
Tomorrow we’re off to a homestay with some local people, hopefully, and to see some more caves – then it’s off to the capital, Vientiane. But for now, it’s sleep time.