Unless you’re still at a nightclub, very loud European trance music (with accompanying DVD pictures) is not the sort of thing that makes 5am a more pleasurable hour. Still less comfortable, is to have this inflicted on you at this time in the wee small hours whilst effectively being stuffed into a tin can. Nevertheless, it seems that this might be what it takes to get into northern Laos from Vietnam on a small bus.
We’d spent the day before on an equally small bus travelling ten hours from Hanoi to the north-western town of Dien Bien Phu where we were to stay the night. Mercifully, this was less cramped affair; although there were moments of concern, such as when we assumed that the man necking shot after shot of vodka during a rest stop was the replacement driver (he wasn’t), or when the bus began to leave within a minute of our badly-timed noodle soup order arriving, or when we were unsure as to whether our destination was the same town we’d originally headed for, or when were to sitting next to a box that moved and chirped. But all that was simply the jitters brought on by language issues and uncertainty. Things were different as we boarded the bus to get us across the border.
Firstly, we were an international contingent of passengers, with French, Australian, Israeli, Canadian and Dutch travellers joining us in the bus. We were all there early of course, hence the DVD entertainment. Then the locals turned up. Then more. Then more. Then some with enormous boxes. Then a few more. With babies. By the time we’d reached the Laos border control, with its painstaking handwritten-in-triplicate bureaucracy, the bus designed for twenty was carrying around twice that number. It made Friday afternoon on the tube seem like a yoga retreat.
Nonetheless, we were in Laos and with some truly awful Vietnamese comedy keeping the locals on the cramped vehicle happy, we bumped down the unmade roads, picking up and dropping off people and goods in between fording streams and taking motorbikes off the roof.
Eventually we reached our destination. That is to say, we were politely shunted off onto a tiny ferry boat which took us across to the village of Muang Khua, where we would stay the night. Here buses and lorries crossed the Nam Ou on a platform secured against the current by a zip-line type mechanism and shunted across by a tug. In finding dry land on the far bank we finished a journey that we will remember for a long time to come.
In both Vietnam and Laos we passed villages and scenery to remember. Stilt houses tucked up against rivers, rice paddies and mountains. Water buffalo aided the many workers in the fields. Women’s dress changed from the high-heels of Hanoi to the head-dress of the rural north-west. Everywhere children waved. It may have been cramped and occasionally confusing and unnerving, but this was another occasion in our travels where the journey itself was the experience.