Tung Trang people were grasping at straws when I asked them to book me a bus ticket that will leave Hanoi, cross the border to Laos, then take me all the way to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located north of the country. I have been reading up on borders and border crossing; on people who have actually taken the bus from Vietnam to Laos. Most of these readings reveal something that disturbs me. THERE IS NO BUS THAT TAKES PEOPLE DIRECTLY TO LUANG PRABANG! Most public transports head straight to the capital of Vientiane (located at the center of the Lao land mass, bordering Thailand to the west). I must be lucky coz I was able to book for my bus that will supposedly take me straight to Luang Prabang in North Laos.
If you scrutinize the map, there is a more direct western route from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. Derechong pa kaliwa eh, so what gives? Most routes travel all the way south to the Vietnamese province of Vinh then turn westward to cross the border, then head straight to Vientiane. Why not get a more direct route? I shall find out in the next few days. Majority of the buses stop in Vientiane, where connections to the north (Luang Prabang) can be had. That’s what I have been getting so far.
BUS OR PLANE
The decision to cross the border overland is basically an adventurous streak. Taking the plane would be too easy. A Hanoi-to-Luang Prabang (LP) would be a painless 50 minutes by plane to the tune of $165 by Vietnam Airlines. Last February, a boisterous and bossy German lady booked a plane from hanoi to LP for just $115 (I overheard the transaction while I was checking my mail) – not sure with which airline. On the whole, these are affordable rates really, and cuts time and border worries by leaps and bounds. BUT that will be too easy. I am a tad crazy. I actually want to experience how such border crossing goes. Then smugly declare to have "been there" and "done that!" I hate the actual process but I have made a deal with myself for purposes of, once and for all, whetting my curiosity. Besides, the whole idea already sounds like one exciting adventure. It is memorable already way before I took my first steps at the NAIA! I was so tempted – and gave in!
SIX PLANE TRANSFERS
Last February-March travel had was also an extensive itinerary, but it consisted of 6 air transfers – madugo sa plane fare! I drew blood from my credit card. LOL (Although by the time my travels started, most of these plane transfers had been paid already. Besides, etickets can only be purchased through credit card so there was no other way.) My earlier travel also gave me an insight that long bus rides are personally feasible. Pwede din pala for myself (I earlier imagined I’d be miserable sitting for hours with unimaginable backpains).
Now back to Tung Trang, they quoted $30 for my bus seat. It is an aircon bus seat that will take me straight to Luang Prabang, with no bus changes anywhere (even at the border crossing) until LP. Hanoi to Vientiane was just $14, so I have an idea of how far this sojourn will take me. I wanted to go straight to LP so that my Laotian journey can take a more direct itinerary from up north, then going south. Besides, this will save more time and avoid backtracking. I asked the Tung Trang people for a little more detail, but they told me to ask the bus driver once I am there at my bus. It is disconcerting not knowing some major details about a cross-border trip – or how many days I would be traveling! It would be around 2-3 days! Ok then. This will be interesting. Panindigan!
So far, there are 6 official Vietnam-Laos border crossing that I know- Na Maew-Nam Xoi, Nam Can-Nam Khan, Nam Phao-Cau Treo, Na Phao and Cha Lo, Dansavanh-Lao Bao and Attapeu-Quy Nhon. There is a Muang Khua river crossing to Nong Khiaw, but I’m not too crazy with an exceedingly slow river cruise. Sayang ang oras. Malamok pa daw. With regards to my overland crossing, any of the first three borders would be my possible destinations. Na Maew (Hua Phan Province, Laos)-Nam Xoi (Thanh Hoa Province, Vietnam) is the northernmost crossing, with infrequent transportation and a difficult crossing. Moreover, overland visa processing for on-site visa application may not be available. Not my problem, since I am visa-free in Laos or Vietnam. Nam Can-Nam Khan traverses the Xieng Khuang Province (where Phonsavan is, the take-off point for journeys to the Plain of Jars). I don’t think this is the one, since Phonsavan seems too”out of the way” from the main roads leading to Luang Prabang from Vientiane. Therefore, Nam Phao-Cau Treo should be it! The good news is, this has a very scenic route called the Kaew-Neua (Keo-Nua) Pass. The bad news is, this route also travels all the way south to Vinh (which is near Khammoan (already south Laos). Sounds far. Another bad news is, no one knows for sure coz no one volunteers any information and the idiot bus drivers didn’t even consider telling their passengers where they are taking us!
Notoriously popular and charming former presidential daughter Kris Aquino (left); Laos President Lt. Gen. Choummaly Sayasone (center); Laos flag (right)
KRIS AQUINO AND THE CONTENTIOUS LAOS
Before going on further, I’d like to digress to a minor topic of pronunciations - just for the fun of it. I must have read a blog criticizing Kris Aquino for allegedly saying that Saigon is the capital of Vietnam (yeah, she could be an idiot for saying that on air if she hasn’t actually checked). The other point of contention is that, Kris Aquino was gravely mistaken for saying that the diphthonged “Laos” is actually pronounced as a single syllable with silent “s”– and that she is once again in the proximity to being an idiot for saying so since the word has two syllables. Though most dictionaries pronounce it with 2 syllables (la-wos/ley-os), all the locals actually say “Lao”. Laotians SHOULD know how to correctly pronounce their country, don’t you think? Even the backpackers I’ve met along the way call it “Lao” like Im from Udon Thani (which borders Thailand & Laos), my German friend Mario from Berlin, Mark from Brisbane and Sarah from Toronto. Ms. Aquino-Yap was NOT WRONG on that account. Laos was a French colony for several years, and being French, the “s” – if it appears at the end of a word – is usually not pronounced (e.g. Francois –“fran-shwa”). Kris is, afterall, a very smart lass – if only she stops herself from talking too much.
All together now, “LAO!” Nuf said!
Another thing - Laos is officially called “Laos PDR” which stands for “People’s Democratic Republic”. Is it a democratic country then? Not really! It is a socialist republic, i.e. (like Vietnam) communist! The whole country is headed by a military leader (Lt. Gen. Choumally Sayasone, the President). In fact, several parts of the country practice the “curfew”. By 10 PM, most restaurants in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang are close and these "cities" become the proverbial ghost towns. People, even tourists head off to their beds. A geriatric British guy I was in a bus with revealed to me the real meaning and essence of “PDR” - which is (drum roll) ... “Please Don’t Rush!” A perfect description to the laidback demeanor of the Lao people!