Leaving Laos with Visas in our passports, we had a rough plan to cross the border just after Oudomxai over two days. Having booked our ‘VIP air conditioned’ bus, we arrived to find a rusty old local mini bus full of Chinese people heading towards their border. We struggled to figure out where we could sit, eventually getting one proper seat and one piece of junk that folds down to the isle, sitting at an angle with no back support for six hours was never going to be fun. Those who say “the journey is the adventure” are idiots, this sucked.
Arriving in Oudomxai , we quickly realised it had absolutely nothing to offer, we picked a hotel close to the bus station, grabbed some food from the only place that looked like it may have something we could handle, picked an early bus and moved on.
The border crossing was basic and a little bit messy, the Laos side worked reasonably smoothly, we expected a “checkout fee” but did not have to pay, result. Moving over the border, we went in to the Vietnam office and left our passports in what was a foreigner pile. I noticed the other westerners had taken their bags from the bus, but none of the locals. Not wanting to be the odd ones out, I went back to get ours but was unable as the bus was locked up and the driver was no where to be seen, I’m sure it’s not an issue I said to myself.
The immigration officer was working though the Vietnamese passport pile, as more and more locals pushed in, he continued to ignore any others. One bus driver dropped a pile of passports in, slipped him some cash which went straight I’m to his pocket, welcome to Communism! After a while I started to get concerned, especially as I saw our bus move around the building and start to load the locals on. I tried to have a word with the driver but was not allowed outside without my passport, frustrating to say the least. Eventually when there was nothing else for the immigration numpty to do, he started slowly to stamp ours. We were glad to get through and back on to the bus, who was tooting his horn as if to say “hurry up”, we are trying!
Arriving in the North Vietnam town of Dien Bien Phu, we checked in to a nice hotel and left ourselves a full day to relax and explore, this was needed as two full days of buses wears you down. The city has not a lot to offer, the views coming in of the rice paddies was nice, looking down from the Victory Monument which celebrated their win over the French was lovely, running up it was hard on the lungs!
We were undecided where to head next, at dinner with some other backpackers we discussed the northern mountain town of Sapa. Sapa was first recommended to us in South America, ask anyone and they say “Sapa, beautiful”, “Sapa, oh you must to there, beautiful”, “Sapa, highlight of my trip”. When pressed on what there is to do, not much came back.
Happy to take on the recommendation and adding that Annie said she would regret not going since we had the chance, we booked on to the 06:30 bus and headed further north.
The bus journey was indeed scenic, driving though valleys and local villages it was nice until the bus headed up to the mountains surrounded by grey fog. Arriving at Sapa in the late afternoon, it was dark and dingy. You couldn’t see five meters in front of you, “Beautiful” eh? With the temperature at night being about 3c, it felt like a ski resort without any snow. Being aware of the cold nights we booked a hotel which had electric blankets and a electric heater. I don’t think I’ve been so cold since I left Scotland, it was hard work.
There seems to be two things to do in Sapa, trekking and hiring mopeds/motorbikes. Neither was an option with this fog, we eventually stayed two cold nights, spending one day kicking around, putting up with locals trying to sell you all sorts of shite before leaving for Hanoi on another early day sleeper bus. The buses over the last week have been a mix of crazy and crap, this one was all fully reclining seats and made the journey so much easier, surely heading south would be warmer…