Arriving in Vietnam wasn’t easy – why should leaving be any different?
After more than 24 hours of being in Lao, the recovery process of crossing the border from Vietnam continues. Right now, I am happily and cozily well on my way in my new, spacious and comfortable room at the Rainbow House in Muang Ngoi, Lao overlooking the Nam Ou River. There’s a crystal clear sky revealing the crescent moon just above me and the river; and I’m writing while I have electricity, which is only available for about 3 hours a day, from 6 – 9 pm. I’ve got another hour or so before it’s gone for the night. So, limited electricity and the very first place of my 3+ months of travel where there is no internet. I am back in laid-back Lao!
While I’m comfy cozy now, there’s been absolutely nothing of the kind for the last 48 hours – the best thing I can say about it is that it’s over. While that may be the best to say, it’s certainly not all I’ll say – as ‘they’ say – only the truth is funny.
So let’s back up a few days – back to soggy Sapa – I was getting a cold and had a scratchy, dry and very sore throat that seemed to be getting worse by the minute. I found some throat lozenges and orange juice (no oranges, unfortunately) at a local market, but the cold was taking hold – I hadn’t been able to beat this one like I did the other. It wasn’t the best condition in which to begin my journey toward Lao, but I also didn’t want to stay in the cold and damp any longer.
My mother came to mind, telling me that I had gotten sick because I wasn’t bundled up enough in the cold and that, along with the change of weather, had gotten me sick. It reminded me of disagreements we used to have – “You don’t get a cold from being cold, Ma, you’ve got to pick up some bug to get sick.” “Yeah, that’s what you say,” she’d reply, “but you’re running around with nothing on, so of course you got sick – what the hell do you expect? Get in bed and take it easy.” I wonder now, in the cold and damp, whether she was onto something.
Thinking of her at times when I was sick, especially as a child, calls up the most tender parts of her that I remember. Each and every time I smell or even see the small round cobalt blue container of Vicks Vapo-Rub, I am transported back to times when I was in bed with a cold or flu and she would rub that magical menthol balm all over my neck and chest and under my nose. Then she’d tuck me tightly in and under the covers and in so doing, take as good care of me as I remember ever needing or wanting taken care of. Writing these words brings the visceral memory right into this present moment. I had a good laugh in remembering our disagreements about how people get colds; and a good cry in missing her soothing, nurturing touch. Neither she nor anyone else was around to give me such care (or such argument!), so I pulled the tiger balm out of my toiletry bag – today, it and I would have to do.
I knew getting to Lao would take some doing. I had heard various horror stories including that the border was open, but that the buses ran only on certain days; other reports were that there were daily buses, but that the road was treacherous. There was no other nearby border crossing; so with the only other options requiring either major overland backtracking in both countries or a way too expensive flight; this one, with all its unknowns, was the one I decided to go with. I’m not sure I would make the same decision in retrospect, but it makes for a good travel tale!
The bus from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu was a small shuttle bus, jammed-packed with tourists – some Vietnamese, and mostly Westerners. I had a window seat in the far back, which meant that I was a bit elevated over the other seats and had a great view of what would be gorgeous countryside throughout our day-long trip; but it also meant my legs were crunched up and my knees were practically in my chest for the entire 8+ hour journey. We stopped only once, about two hours into the trip – one pee break in 8 hours – I’ve learned that this is typical here in Asia – I don’t know how Asian bladders function, but mine has had some trouble adapting to this timetable!
The scenery was, as promised, outstanding – layers of fog lifted to uncover huge green and craggy mountain peaks – blue sky began to appear as the clouds dispersed – the weather looked like it was making a welcome change. But it was difficult to relax into taking in the scenery – along with feeling feverish and cramped; the condition of the road wouldn’t let my attention stray too far. The road was still slick with the recent rains and the ride was as far from smooth as possible – about 75% of the trip was on a dirt road and the rains made it hardly a road at all – more like a muddy track of puddled potholes that the driver tried to skirt around, only to head directly for another … and another. Whether the bus had any shocks is still a question.
After bouncing, sniffling and coughing for more than 8 hours, we arrived into Dien Bien Phu in the late afternoon to more drizzle and chilly-er weather than I anticipated. Upon arrival at the bus station, some of us made an inquiry about tomorrow morning’s ridiculously early 5:30 departure bus for Muang Khua in Lao. The answer was not what any of us wanted to hear. “No bus tomorrow.” No explanation, simply No Bus Tomorrow. Ugh. We, all eight of us Western tourists, made our way across the street to a hotel some of us had heard about, got our rooms for the night and agreed we would meet at the bus station around 5 am, hoping there was simply a misunderstanding – we also figured that maybe we could rustle up our own bus if that alternative was needed. There’s power in numbers, we figured, and we would try to use it to our advantage.
Dien Bien Phu is on very few tourists’ itineraries and in my limited time there, the reason for this was quickly apparent. There is simply nothing of any interest there. The town sprawls around, I imagine, as Vietnamese towns are known to do; but the chill and drizzle didn’t invite much exploration, especially with my cold and my mother’s voice of warnings still resounding in my head. Even finding a restaurant proved to be impossible – I settled for a piece of baguette and a small pineapple. So much for the pomp and circumstance of my final dinner in Vietnam. I found a pharmacy where I got more throat lozenges and vitamin C since they were more important to me than dinner.
At my suggestion, I roomed with a young Irish kid – yes, definitely a ‘kid’ – at 23, he was greener than many at his age, but he was friendly and funny and the arrangement was purely an economical one. The room was shabby, musty-smelling and had one of the very hardest beds I had yet slept on. Once I had made my pharmacy run, I went straight to bed – this would be an early night for sure, if, that is, I could find any sleep on the rock-hard slab of a bed. The night couldn’t pass quickly enough for me, although my sleep was far from fitful as I sniffled and he snored our ways through ‘til morning.
4:30 and my I-phone alarm came way too early. My throat was scratchier and more sore than ever. I decided to pass on the cold-water only shower and did the minimum required to get myself together and to the bus station to meet everyone. I bought a bottle of water and a few more baguette for the ride. The one upside of being sick is that I had very little hunger – lucky for me since I had eaten only breakfast, a piece of bread and a small pineapple in the last day. Today was not looking much more interesting on the cuisine side of things.
The dark of night hadn’t yet given way to morning and yet the bus station was already bustling with local people. Yesterday’s news of no bus was confirmed – indeed the bus to Muang Khua, Lao had been cancelled. What to do now? Staying in DBP was not only uninteresting, but not an option, since it just so happened that today was a local holiday celebrating its historic something-or-other, which meant all the shabby hotel rooms had been sold out at exorbitant rates to Vietnamese tourists. So it seemed there was no staying and there was no going – we had to figure something out.
Two other tourists arrived with bus tickets in hand that they had purchased yesterday. Their money was promptly refunded and they, too, now joined our group. “Can we hire a bus or a small mini-van?” Nope, that was impossible, too, we were told. The only other option was to hire two taxis to take us to the Tay Trang border crossing. The taxis couldn’t cross the border – we would have to figure something else out when we arrived there to take us further on. We negotiated a price, which was so far inflated from the bus fare as to easily be classified as highway robbery; but with our options limited as they were, we all agreed to do it.
None of us knew what to expect or do once we arrived at Tay Trang, but we figured we would address that when we arrived. After all, I was now part of a contingent of nine other tourists, all of them in their early 20’s – they were hardly put out by not knowing what was coming next; and I was far enough into this journey that there was no turning back. Okay, two taxis it is! To the Tay Trang Border and make it jiffy! Well, forget jiffy – just make it and that will be enough.
There was nothing jiffy about the journey, but having just survived the mostly dirt road from Sapa (the part of the trip that was supposed to be ‘easy’), I tried to prepare myself for what was coming, what I had heard was a monstrous journey. This first leg of it was actually better than expected. Ohsure, the potholes continued to be a constant so that there was no real road, just an endless series of holes; but we arrived at the border in a little over an hour, without much fanfare. Supposedly the worst part of the road was on the other side of the Lao border, so still, the trip promised some challenge. And it delivered!
Now that big question that we had put off was in neon lights – how were we going to make the next leg of the journey? Of course there weren’t any neon lights – there weren’t lights of any kind. Although dawn had broken, the border crossing building was dark and locked up tight. No signs of life, no people, no town – nothing. I wondered if the DBP holiday would mean that the crossing was closed. Only time would tell. So, we did what travelers everywhere must learn to do and do well. We waited.
In about 30 minutes, a person came by and told us the office would open in about an hour – this was great news, if only we could figure out what to do once that happened.
Suddenly there were six border crossing men in their olive green uniforms, down to their matching socks and ebony black polished shoes who seemed to appear out of nowhere – military men, we were to find out – and although our passports were stamped and processed quickly and easily, the next step of the journey would not prove so simple. One of the men spoke excellent English and he seemed friendly and intent on helping us. He made several attempts to contact taxi drivers for the ride to Muang Khua. First at $17 and then at a whopping $25 per person, still he couldn’t find anyone, neither Lao nor Vietnamese, willing to take the job. No one wanted to drive that road. Yet there we were, eager to make the journey that no local dared to take – the wisdom of this decision was wavering dramatically, yet what else could we do but continue the pursuit of leaving Vietnam. With passports already stamped, our visas were now officially expired – the only way to go was forward!
The Lao border crossing was 7 km away (I’m always curious about the space between the crossings – who claims that?!) – he suggested we go there, spend the night and wait for a possible passing bus tomorrow. Whether the next day’s bus would run or be cancelled was unknown – several of us were on tight schedules (certainly not me) and no one was much interested in that idea, but moving on to the border certainly was the next step. One of the civilians working at the border offered us motorbike rides to the border – to the 20-somethings; he said 500,000 dong – $25 dollars! To me, he said 150,000 – because, he said, I was old and needed help. Geez, it was hard to know how to feel and react to that. None of the 20-somethings wanted to pay that ridiculous price (especially when they heard the price he offered me) and I didn’t even want to pay the Senior Discount price. They all decided, in their collective, insulted huff, that they would walk the 7 km and figure out the next step the way most all 20-somethings figure out the next step – when they get to it.
What I could see of the road from where we sat was that it was uphill – the skies had cleared and the sun was already high and hot – 7 km uphill hike in the hot sun with my backpack and day bag – no way, this wasn’t gonna happen for me. This is where the 20-somethings and this 50-something parted ways. They were up for and excited about the challenge. As for me, the Senior Discount was looking more and more appealing. They all took off, with hardly a look or concern back at me standing there alone. Of course they did – how else could it be – they surely weren’t going to offer to carry my bags or forsake their forward motion because I didn’t feel capable of the task. Surely not. But somehow still, that moment was a resounding and dramatic reminder of my sense of aloneness out here – how self-reliant I am required to be and how no one, really, has my back. Except me, of course; and mostly, I am enough. But still, that realization combined with my cold, left me with a sense of tender vulnerability and sadness. Yet and still, I trusted that somehow, all would be well; because, well, because it always is! It’s that combination of raw vulnerability, necessary independence and trust that I’ll be taken care of by some greater force that I repeatedly call on out here – and the truth is, it hasn’t failed me yet. But I had little time for such lengthy dalliances of thought – there was major figuring out to do.
The man with the moto was ready to take me – but for some reason, I hesitated at his offer. I had this other idea that there might be a passing car or truck and I could try to hitch a ride with them. Where I got this crazy idea I couldn’t tell you, but I liked it. The border guy warned me that I could wait all day and still no one might pass – because of the recent heavy rains, everyone was aware that the road was too bad for travel; so they were postponing their trips until dryer days ahead. I’d give it an hour, I figured, and wait for someone to come by. I found my place on the cold, marble bench and began my prayers to the goddess of border crossings and alternate transportation – I wasn’t quite sure of her name, but I was sure she existed! Perhaps she’s a cousin to Dolores, the goddess I call upon for helping me to find parking spaces – Dolores is a goddess I’ve learned about and borrowed from Bear and then made her my own. She almost always delivers, so I trusted her cousin would be equally generous!
And so indeed she was – in only half an hour, a small pick up truck appeared. Nothing like the pick up trucks that you may immediately conjure in your head as you read those words – a much smaller variety, with makeshift bars installed along the sides to enable loading up piles of stuff, but no folding down tailgate – I gave no mind to any of those details; all I could see was that my prayers had been answered – my chariot had arrived!
The border guard had the same thoughts and told me I must be a good person to have the luck of them coming along. Yes, it was my lucky day – he would do the necessary translating to secure my place amongst the piles of assorted stuff in the back – of course I can travel back there, I said when he asked me – I might long for some taking care of, but I certainly don’t expect a passenger seat! There were three people upfront – the driver, another man and a sophisticated-looking, very pretty older Vietnamese woman; and two men in the bed. And the best news of all – they would take me not only to the Lao border, but all the way to Muang Khua, my Lao destination – all for 200,000 dong – yes indeed, it was my lucky day!
I hoisted my bags into the back and then came the challenge of doing the same with my body. The truck was high up off the ground and there was no foothold, only a tiny little plastic knob of a thing barely large enough for the smallest part of my foot to use as something to brace myself as I used the sidebars to pull myself up and into the bed. If it’s a little hard to explain or to picture, it was that much harder to do. I was determined and again on my own, as the men in the back offered no help at all. I didn’t care if it took 100 tries – I was gonna get myself in the back of that truck! And so I did – it was hardly the picture of grace and form (picture getting back into a rafting boat), but I did it, I did it!
I found my place on top of a large truck tire (maybe the spare?) – I covered it with my heavy red jacket I was still carrying, realizing now why I hadn’t left it back in Sapa or DBP – it was the perfect cushion and I didn’t care how dirty or damaged it got – I would leave it in the truck when I happily arrived at my destination. I was surrounded with dozens of large plastic crates folded into each other (similar to the milk crate kind we know at home), along with plastic shopping bags of who-knows-what. I braced my back against the side-bar of the truck. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable ride I had ever known, but it was a ride and I had nothing but gratitude for it! As we drove up the hill, I was reminded of how right my intuition had guided me not to hike, nor motorbike this way to the border. It was a steep uphill climb for much of the 7 km and then as steep a descent; and it was a muddy mess that would have made the same of me on the back of a moto. Even a bus would not have been my first choice of a ride – it would have had a hard time with the climb and the mud – seems I was in the perfect vehicle for the trip, even though we did our share of slipping and sliding as well.
The 20-somethings were all still at the border waiting for their visa applications to be processed when we drove up. They had again increased in size to 11 with two more guys who had spent the night there. They found an onward ride they said; and then told the man to add another person to the list. “Ohno, no need,” I said rather proud of myself, “I’ve already got my ride all the way to Muang Khua!” They looked impressed. Or maybe that was just my boastful pride projection. Whatever. An hour passed in the processing of paperwork – I was a little worried when a man came up to me, holding a thermometer to my head, something I had encountered at every other border crossing (they’re testing for the H1N1); but fortunately my feverishness was nothing dramatic enough to record and I moved on to the next step.
As each of the other traveler’s were handed back their passports, they were eager to find their way to their ride. But suddenly it had evaporated – for some unknown reason, their way onward had disappeared. Now they looked longingly at my ride, about which I began to feel very possessive and not particularly interested, I’m a little ashamed to admit, in sharing. A few asked me if there was room for any more people in the back – I told them I didn’t know and to check with the woman in the truck. Then some more approached me. I said that there was room for maybe five more people, but with all the gear and the other two men, I couldn’t imagine more. So much for my imagination. Before we took off, every single one of those eleven 20-somethings, with their huge backpacks (still, I wonder, what the hell they’re carrying in those packs at least double the size of mine?!) had jumped (quite effortlessly, I annoyingly noticed) into the back of the truck and now they were waiting for me and my paperwork to be processed. There they were, all sitting in the back and I approached the truck and the dreaded hoisting-up process. Like the Vietnamese men earlier, none of them offered to give me a hand, even as they saw me struggle not once, but three or four times to pull myself up. So much for the community of travelers helping one another. I finally did it, tried to ignore their ignoring me and found my way back to my tire that lucky for them, they had left for me. So much for my comfort now too, even in the midst of the discomfort, that I had earlier created on my coat-cushioned tire seat. Now we were cramped together with knees to chest like every other transport I had come to know in this country. Fortunately it was open-air and no rain in sight – I couldn’t see much of the scenery from the way I was positioned, but my focus was on keeping my feet and legs from falling asleep and my back supported. Everything else paled in comparative importance.
Then came the part of the journey that had earned all its warnings. The road was a muddy river in parts and an actual river in others – this truck was no four-wheel drive, but the driver drove through the muck, mess and water like it was. There were large trucks in front of us that needed to be hoisted up hills with a crane lest they get stuck tire-deep in the mud. Those same hills required that we all get out and walk the way through the mud as the truck more easily ascended the hill without our weight. Yes, this required us all, but me mostly importantly for me, to get out and then back into the truck. SHIT!
Now a new thing happened as I tried to pull myself up – for some reason, as I attempted to pull myself up yet another time, my body swung around to the outside of the truck and I was hanging and twirling like a very bad dervish. Then I had to jump back down and try again. This was getting not only annoying, but embarrassing and frustrating. Still, those 20-somethings didn’t offer a bit of help. I can’t quite imagine being in that position and not offering to help someone; but lest I get too judgmental I tried to focus instead on getting my ass up on that truck and let go of what I thought they ‘should’ do. Never mind that the option of asking for help was one I chose not to take – if I needed help, well then, I should have just asked. But I guess I’d like to think that some middle-aged woman twirling around off the back of a pick-up, endlessly attempting to pull herself up and into it could engender at least the slightest motivation of concern and wanting to help in the younger generation. Okay, enough of all these damn thoughts – all I wanted to do was just get myself back into the f-ing truck!
Hours passed. The rains were gone – the sun was high in the sky and it was a scorcher of a day. One time when we had to get out so that the truck could make its way up a hill, we had to wait for about 40 minutes while a huge truck ahead of us was pulled out of the mud. There was no shade and no relief from the heat. I had some water, but was hesitant to drink too much, knowing there would be no stops for peeing once we were again underway. I wasn’t sure whether I was delirious from my cold or from the journey itself – I only knew that I was exhausted, worried about the safety of the rest of trip, and aware that earlier in my traveling days, this would have only been an exciting tale – today it made me realize that it’s time to leave these kinds of tales to those eleven other, seemingly unfazed passengers.
Finally to Muang Khua we arrived – I was hot, sweaty, beyond tired and way ready to call it a day of traveling. I got a cold bottle of water and headed to the ferry dock where small boats awaited people and vehicles for the short trip across the river to the village. Then I looked around town, getting my bearings and taking in where I had landed. I had the name of a guest house, the Nam Ou and was on the look-out for it amongst the simple bamboo structures that dotted the hillside of the village. I turned around and where all the other travelers went was a mystery to me – it seemed they had all disappeared! Without a word, without anything, the group has dispersed. Again, I wondered why this even mattered to me, but somehow it did. But I had another more important agenda for my attention and that was finding the Nam Ou.
That’s when I spotted one of the couples from the trip headed over the mud flats; and when I looked up toward the hillside, I saw the sign for the Guest House. I followed them on the rickety boards that led the way over the mud flats and then up the even more rickety wooden stairs leading to the Nam Ou. The stairs were double the normal spacing apart, so I used the shaky, bamboo banister to pull myself and my backpack up stairs that I wasn’t even sure would hold my weight. They did. Arriving on the terrace (very generous word) of the Nam Ou, a woman appeared who seemingly worked there – she looked annoyed at best at my arrival, and without any words, pointed me to one of the rooms. The price was 50,000 kip ($6.25) (she did find the words for that!) – there was no argument – there was no choice – it was home for the night and that was that. But home was a word that I wouldn’t use too loosely for this place. The terrace was strewn with junk and garbage and buckets of standing water with dead insects floating in them.
The room was shabby, smelly and the bathroom was nothing short of disgusting. Again, a solid, hard-as-a-rock bed with matching pillows that were thick like bricks. In the middle of the night, with my neck in too much discomfort, I finally made a more comfortable pillow out of some clothes and tried to find some more sleep. This reminded me of my declaration many months ago (hmmm, when I was leaving southern Lao) that I wouldn’t stay in a dumpy place again. Well, here I was in a dumpy place again; but I soothed myself with the reminder that it was for one night only. I would make my way to the charming, small village of Muang Ngoi, my real destination, first thing in the morning. More than once, I second-thought my decision to spend the night; but I reminded myself of what a day it had been; and ohyeah, I was still sick, too. Clearly it was better to stay even in this yucky place and get some rest.
I took a walk around town, went to the boat dock where I saw the sign that said the boats to Muang Ngoi leave at 9:30 in the morning, had a perfunctory meal and went to bed very early. As I walked the town, I felt looks of disdain and disinterest as I passed people by. The warm greeting of “Saibadee” did not come flying off their lips like I had experienced in the south. I was reminded that border towns, no matter where they are in the world, seem to be creepy, unwelcoming places to get out of as quickly as possible. That was definitely my plan!
I awoke in the morning and was startled with the sense that I couldn’t move my arms without excruciating pain – ohmigod, I thought, laying on this hard bed did something to my arms! Of course, as much as the bed sucked in every way, it had absolutely nothing to do with my seeming paralysis. And then it came back to me – the twirling, the reaching, the jumping up onto the truck over and over, and then the pulling myself up the ladder-like steps to this shit hole of a guest house – my arms were quite simply spent.
No matter –I had to get myself back down to the boat dock to confirm my departure time. Gingerly, I made my way there and the man said yes indeed, come back at 9:30, although he wasn’t sure the boat would go because there weren’t other tourists around. I ignored the last part of what he said, determined to focus only on the departure time – it would work out, it had to work out – I couldn’t spend another night in that room or in this town. I went back to the guest house, pulled my way back up the stairs, paid my bill and with all my gear, headed back down to the river for what I was determined would be the final time.
By the time I got back to the boat dock, there was a group of men in the ticket booth. They were laughing and joking and told me the boat would cost me $125 because there were no other tourists who wanted to go today. “Stay here tonight – go tomorrow – no boat today.” Ohmigod. They simply had no idea what they were saying and who they were saying it to. All I could calmly say in response was, “No, I don’t want to stay, I have to go today.” They laughed some more and then went back to their conversation. I assured them other tourists would come, although I had no idea who these tourists were or where they were coming from – I only knew that I desperately needed them to show up and show up very soon!
But they didn’t. As the clock approached 9:30, I was pulled out of my delirious denial and tears began to well in my eyes. My options were narrow and limited and I knew it. But I simply couldn’t go back to that room. And that guest house had been rated the best in town – yikes, what can that say about the others?! I had no idea what I would do, but I couldn’t and I wouldn’t go back to the Nam Ou. I tried my tears and I sat and I waited.
Within only a quarter of an hour, I noticed a fancy new and clean mini-bus drive into the parking lot and head directly to the river. There were two Caucasian people in the van and before they could even get out, I was there to greet them – “Excuse me, where are you going?” I asked hopefully, in the friendliest voice I could muster, which probably sounded more desperate than anything. Aha, they were going in my direction, but before I could get too excited, their tour guide told me he was sorry, they were on a private tour and he couldn’t let me on the boat. Meanwhile, I noticed the boatman placed a piece of plywood onto the boat deck so the guests could climb aboard.
Ohno, ohno, this can’t be true – this boat, with its fancy, cushioned bucket seats and all, is headed downriver right to where I want to go and you’re telling me I can’t come? Oh please, please, you have to help me – I laid out my long, sad tale as quickly as I could. But still he wouldn’t budge. Although the two tourists were completely fine with me joining them, their guide didn’t waver. He would get in trouble with the company, he said; and as he walked away, I followed him, still asking him, promising him no trouble would come, that no one would know, I wouldn’t tell anyone – I begged, yes, I actually begged him to let me on that boat. But he was afraid the tourists were only saying it was okay and would later complain. Quickly I ran back to the boat where they were already comfortably seated, told them of his worries and they assured me it was no problem. He returned with bottled water he had purchased for them and the boatman then pulled the piece of plywood away. They really weren’t gonna let me on this boat. Then a short discussion ensued between the boatman and the tour guide – the boatman reached back for the plywood and laid it down one more time – YIPPEEE!! They were letting me on the boat after all!
I couldn’t stop saying thank you, thank you, thank you. I even told him this would be very good for his karma – I promised I would go in the back and be quiet and he wouldn’t even see me. I was deliriously thrilled. I didn’t even notice that my arms still weren’t working. I found my seat, palatial and more comfortable than any I had sat on, on any boat of the entire trip and I sat back and took in the blessing of the moment and the exquisite scenery of the river as we made our way to Muang Ngoi, a village with no road, only accessible by this river and for me, this boat. Heaven, that’s where I was for those hours on that boat!
We arrived in Muang Ngoi three hours later and the village couldn’t have been a finer place to land. I had heard of it, you see, many months ago, from dear Jaka, my Chinese friend – she had been to this area and loved it; so I was arriving here with her on my mind and the sense that finally, I had arrived in a place where I could feel welcome and at home. There were several guest houses and bungalows – without even trying, I headed to the one that ended up (after later inspection of other places) being the best one in town – the man there greeted me warmly and offered me a discounted room, complete with balcony, river view and all for $3.75 per night! Things were definitely on a roll and in my favor in a big way!
I unpacked my things – made the room my own; and although I intended to lay down for just a short rest on the <get this> soft mattress and pillows, I fell into a dreamy, restful sleep from which I didn’t awake until late in the afternoon – seems my body needed comfort and rest and finally, it got it! While my arms were still terribly achy, it seemed I had mostly recovered from my cold by the time I woke up. I was way beyond delighted!
Before it got dark, I decided to take a small walk to explore the village and it required little more than that. Muang Ngoi is literally a one main dirt road town – all that’s in the road are children, chickens and baby chicks, dogs and the occasional cat. No roads lead here, so there are no cars, no motorbikes, no horns, only a bicycle or two. Simple bamboo structures line the streets and a few side streets head off toward and around the river and that’s about all. The views across the rivers are ones I’ve become accustomed to in Vietnam and now here, back in Lao – mountainous limestone formations all around, and now the added attraction of tropical foliage – bananas, palms and the beloved plumeria.
Muang Ngoi was for me wonderfully restful, recuperating and relaxing days where I read, lolled about town and the river and spent one full day hiking to even smaller villages along deeply forested and then wide-open plain tracks, wading through side rivers, communing with water buffalo and cows and being encircled in clouds of more butterflies than I’ve ever seen in one place.
I had the time and space to catch up and realize that in the midst of all the hoopla of the border crossing, I had indeed left Vietnam after almost two months there – and of course while I knew that was happening, still there was something surprising about being in a whole different country, with a completely different language, culture and food of its own. Even with all its chaos and noise and crowded-ness, I had become accustomed to Vietnam. Now it really was time to say goodbye to Vietnam and hello to Lao!
It’s taken me several days to write this post, what with only a few hours of electricity per day and no internet on which to post it. I left Muang Ngoi today as I slowly head further down river toward the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, where I will be in a few days. For now, I am in Nong Khiaw, the slightly bigger sister to Muang Ngoi, but also another sleepy place. Here I have my own bungalow with 24 hour electricity, internet access, hot water and more gorgeous river views, all for $5 per night! Tonight, my first night here, I’ve spent the entire time writing and reading the emails that filled my In Box after only four days away from it. As much as I love the ability to stay in touch with the world out here, I reveled in my short vacation from the electronic world.
At the same time, I plan to catch up on writing while I’m here – there’s been a huge rainstorm tonight as I’ve sat writing, first on my balcony and then here inside when the rain took over; so if the rains continue tomorrow, I have all the more reason to spend my time with this computer and the many words that still look to make their way to this screen, to that internet and perhaps to your In Box.
So tonight, with my arms almost back to normal and my sniffles and sneezes gone, I am feeling better, I am back in Lao and I am ready for some more adventures, whatever they may be and however they may come. But please, no more Border Crossings for awhile!