Borderline

When we applied for our visa for Vietnam we had to exactly determine the date from when we were to cross the border.

Clearly, we settled for the day our Laos-visa would expire allowing for a day of overlap if needed as a buffer. But still, thanks to that visa policy we more or less had to hit the border on an exact date otherwise we would overextend the Laos-visa and wasting days we could already be in Vietnam.

Fair enough! What is the problem? Well, as a cyclists it is not that easy to be at a certain (boring) place on an exact date. The reason for this was that neither overextending our Laos-Visa nor spending a whole day in a village in the middle of nowhere just to wait out an ‘surplus’-day was an option to look forward to.

Fortunately, at the end we managed it quite well (almost) although it didn’t seem like that in the first place. When we left Vientiane we picked a border crossing that was far enough south for the many days we still had in Laos but not too far away to make us feel being in a hurry (and allow some buffer for unforseen things). A little border crossing over the small ‘My Gia’pass not used by many travelers.

On the way south, however, we made good progress and realized that we were simply too fast what would have resulted in spending some days at some boring places. And, admittedly, after a month in Laos, many places bore us, most importantly in terms of monotonous food (noodle soup, sometimes fried rice). But also the guest houses, people and (mostly smoke-filled) landscape doesn’t seem to provide any surprises anymore.

Luckily, there was a ‘bright spot on the horizon’, quite literally. The rain during the night just before we left Vientiane, cleared the still omni-present haze of smoke and let the surroundings appear in a different, unusual light: vigorous green, clear views and fresh air (well, there was also again a 30 km-section of very muddy dirt road and we had head-wind for almost three days – but lets forget about that for now …).
A change that made a little detour following a road eastward for 40 km worthwhile and rewarding, although we had to retrace our steps: jungle-like scenery with sharp lime stone peaks standing out. In a little touristic village embedded in that scenery we put in a day of rest, not only to spent a ‘surplus’-day but also to pay a visit to a quite popular cave close-by, the Kong Lo cave.
The cave itself was nice (although less impressive than the Tham Lot cave in Northern Thailand) and the visit actually turned into a 2 hour-boot trip. To explore the cave we had to hire a whole small long-tail boat with two guides (one steering the other sitting in the front helping to navigate through the darkness with another headtorch). They led us the 7 km along the river throughout the cave till we reached the other site and back again. An interesting ride, but also quite loud with all the other roaring boats, mostly taking Lao people back and forth.
Quite exciting at least for us, however, was actually how we got to the cave, another 40 km one way. We didn’t take our bicycles for the lack of time and enthusiasm but for once hired a scooter. After the nice hirer quickly introduced how to operate the scooter’s semi-automatic (Jela’s last little biking experience was 20 years ago, mine simply didn’t exist), we soon set off and took turns on driving. It actually worked quite well although those scooters are clearly to small for my long legs. It took some effort to operate the foot-break or to shift down.

Remarkable about those days during and after this little detour was that it took place during the Songkran (or Lao New Year), a festival usual lasting for three days, sometimes more. For us it mainly meant that we got considerably wet a couple of times every day, for instance, either through kids aiming with their water pistols or water bombs at us, through whole bucketloads from people on pickup trucks, or people pointing hoses from the road side. At its climax, in Thakhek, there was no chance to cross the city without getting soaking wet, especially since any cyclist is an easy and probably quite rewarding target.

Finally, from Thakhek, we dared our ‘border push’ to Vietnam, cycled the approx. 140 km east towards the border (through supposedly beautiful scenery we didn’t see much of – the smoke returned), and spent our supposed last night in Laos in a little village just 17 km before the border. Everything seemed fine and settled for the border crossing the next day.

But an idiotic and stubborn border official wrecked our plan and refused us to enter Vietnam; for a ridiculous reason I didn’t foresee.
About ten years back, my brother and me crossed into Mexico from the US. For we couldn’t find anybody to obtain our stamp to proof the departure; we just skipped it and entered Mexico smoothly. Furthermore, many other border crossing thought that nobody cares about the stamps from the departing country (provided they are not conflicting countries), as more recently the entry into Thailand proved. For that very reason, I used a second passport to be able to apply for the Thailand visa (in Germany) and travel (i.e. cross borders) at the same time. Thus, when we entered Thailand, I used a different passports to leave Malaysia and enter Thailand. No problem. Why should there be any? Not so in Vietnam! They, at least the border official we unfortunately run into, demanded the visa of Vietnam and the departure stamp from Laos to be in the same passport. After a short fit of rage, slamming my passports on the ground, I went back to the Laos’ border to get another stamp for the other passport, just to discover that they are as stubborn as their Vietnamese colleagues: no way! We were stuck and pissed!

Over two beer at the border we worked out a plan B. In short: Retracing our steps to Thakhek at the Thai border (fortunately we got a lift from a truck for at least 100 km), getting back to Thailand for a few days (since our Laos-visa was about to expire, we only had one full day left). There I intended to swap passports, re-enter Laos and again attempt to get into Vietnam.
Wishful thinking. Even at the Thai border I wasn’t able to swap passports for they still required the Lao departure stamp to be in the same passport. Hence, we had to make use of plan C, even more expensive and time-consuming. We headed about 100 km south along the Thai bank of the Mekong river and gratefully enjoyed again the Thai friendliness and openness that noticeably contrasted with the common Lao indifference. We then re-entered Laos at Savannakhet and there I applied for a completely new and expensive Vietnam-visa, to be collected in two days. This, at least, leaves us with 2 days of rest now, not the worst thing with over 40°C in the shadow.

Yes, I have learned my lesson and I am going to stick to the very same passport from now on. All the hassle and money spent in vain was due to my own mistake, of course, and I don’t (try) to blame anybody else. It is, however, still a nuisance as I really didn’t expect these far-reaching consequences when I used my ‘spare’ passport to apply for my Vietnam-visa. The rationale was just a safety-conscious attitude: that in case they mislay my passport at the consulate, I still would have had the right one at hand.

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