Our new, constant friend — the gray sky — watched over us on our rest day in Dien Bien Phu. The day slipped by amidst late breakfast, errands which involved long walks along the flat, hustling streets and a trek up a very long set of stairs to an Indo-China (between Laos and France) war monument with a view. Of course, the story is told best with pictures:
Once our collective butts had a respite from our saddles, we were ready to press on to the Laos border. We had a butt-crack start, factoring in the long distance (105 km, or 63 miles), the terrain (about 6,000 feet of climbing) and the paperwork involved with our transit from Vietnam to Laos. I emerged bleary-eyed from the room to find everyone else mostly packed up, casting amused glances in my direction.
We headed into the scooter-clogged streets to find some Pho for breakfast. Afterwards, the proprietor — a smiley man in a navy and white cardigan — invited us to have green tea at a low table, as the Vietnamese traditionally do after a meal.
Then we were off, through the bustle of town onto a long, flat stretch with expansive fields on either side, grazing water buffalo here and there. For once, in the distance we could see tall emerald hills on all sides of the wide valley.
Here it was when the inevitable hit. By that I mean for Anne and I nature called and we both answered. Anne had been “peeing out her butt” (pardon the crude language, but it’s hilarious) for two days. I’d chugged a strong Vietnamese coffee immediately after eating. Anne turned to me and said, “I’d feel a lot better if we poo together.”
And so it went that we cemented our friendship in a new, unique way. Except we somehow picked the busiest dirt road in all of Vietnam. As we stood there, sweaty and uncomfortable, large trucks and scooters passed at a constant rate. I stood there attempting to hide the roll of toilet paper in my hand but by the grinning truck drivers and scooterists, we weren’t hiding anything.
Good thing we took care of some serious business, though, because afterwards, we climbed steadily — and sometimes quite steeply — all the way to the Laos border. The scenery, luckily, wasn’t anything to shake a poo-covered stick at.
A couple sweaty hours later we reached the border to find, at 11 a.m., the border staff was at lunch until 1 p.m. So much for getting up at the butt crack… Luckily, even if the restaurant or hotel is very Spartan, with dirt floor, chickens running around (or hanging out in front of the toilet), there is wifi. So we wandered over to the sunflower seed-covered floor of the Spartan, open aired cafe across from the closed down border control, ordered coffee and our first fried rice from the grumpy proprietors and played around on the internet.
At one point, a man tapped Kate on the shoulder and said cheerfully, “Obama!” And he gave a thumbs up. Then “Trump” (pronounced “Trumph”). Thumbs down. Amen, brotha! It’s not the first such interaction; just now at this coffee shop in Oudomxai, Laos I met a Canadian man who married a Laotian woman who said, “You are from the US? You just elected Trump? What do you think?” I said I didn’t like him. He said, “We don’t either. Here or in Canada.”
Anyway, back to the Vietnam border: one o’clock arrived and we filed in to get our stamps out of Vietnam. Except first we went to the wrong office, where a garish man with alarmingly long crack pinky nails told us via a pen and paper we’d need to pay $200 for our stamps. Except we’d already paid $135 each when we flitted down from the skies in Hanoi (Why $135, you might ask? Because we’re American, dollars are gold and therefore a year visa for $135 is the only option, regardless of if you, the American, are only in Vietnam for two weeks). Basically, homie wanted a bribe. We declined to play along. He looked at us.
“Friend, friend, friend, friend, friend,” he said, pointing at each one of us in succession, the light shining menacingly off his lengthy pinky nail. And he wrote down $150. Yeah right, dude.
We escaped to the correct office where a professional man smiled and stamped our passports, directing us out the door where we rode through a misty stretch of no man’s land to the Laos border. There, via a smiling man in a low window at waist height, we were given paperwork to fill out. Hunger struck as it does at the most inappropriate times and we gnoshed on snacks at a low table, writing our information over and over.
Then the real fun began. We took our paperwork back to the same guy, whose smile had taken on a sinister tinge. Stamp, stamp — and please pay $38 at the next window for a multiple entry visa. At the next low window, a curt young man took the money — except, he wouldn’t exactly take much. He scrutinized each $20 bill at great length, like a doctor checking for fleas, refusing bills with nearly indistinguishable tears or folds with a disdainful flick of the wrist.
Eventually, he accepted two twenties with a brusque nod, giving me back two in change which I had to give to the next guy for “tourism.” Then we were shuffled along to the next window where we paid 30,000 kip “for police.” Just as I and my wallet breathed a sigh of relief, a man blocked my way, saying he needed to take my temperature “or I couldn’t go into Laos.” Oh and it was a 5,ooo kip fee. Everyone got nabbed for that except Kate.
Collectively, we couldn’t wait to get out of there — and that was, in terms of the rest of the world, mild corruption. Regardless, it was great to take to the open roads and an epic downhill. Immediately, although the steep green hills didn’t change, other things did. We began to pass through tiny villages with simple houses on stilts, with thatch roofs and walls of woven reeds (which are flattened and hammered by hand). Throngs of excited children would run out, waving both hands, smiling and calling out hello in Laotian: “sa-bah-dee!” Baskets of red, hot Thai peppers cured in the sun, along with long mats of the green, black, pink and white tellicherry peppercorns the region is famous for.
Laos is in the top 20 poorest countries in the world and it became quickly apparent to us how true it was as we cruised through village after village. We said “sa-bah-dee” so many times our mouths dried out, but it never got old. The children and their big, broad smiles warmed our hearts every time.
It also became apparent as we began another long climb that we were going to be riding well into dark. The long sojourn at both borders cost us some daylight. But the topography didn’t care; the sun went down and we went up, then up some more. Soon we all turned into some sort of benign zombie race on bicycles. Way up in a tiny, remote village at dark I crept by a house at snail’s pace. A man walked out with a toothbrush in his mouth, stopped short when he saw me and said, “Whoooa!”
Tyler stopped to wait for the rest of the ladies on a crest and I kept riding. I didn’t turn on a rear or front light and there wasn’t much traffic at all. I cruised what I could see of the white line, in the middle of the road, feeling very much as if I’d taken some sort of narcotic, watching fireflies flitting by, real or imagined. The rest of group said they saw them, too.
By the time we finally went down, we were more exhausted than a whole team of football players who just won the World Cup. And the downhill was simply epic. The road was largely smooth, a video-game like descent that felt like 7 hours and 300 km but may have been about half an hour and 20 km. Another painful 10 km of rolling, tortuous terrain into Muang Khua where we shopped very lightly for a guesthouse and wandered next door and literally got one of every item on the menu, gorged ourselves and passed the flip out.