A Laos Border Post

Panorama DipWe sort of legally own the bikes that we bought in Vietnam. We have the registration cards associated with each of them. These registration cards show the original date of registration and the name of the person to whom they were originally registered. As a foreigner leaving Vietnam on a motorcycle that is registered in Vietnam, one must present this card at the border, as well as proof of vehicle insurance, a valid Vietnamese driver’s license, and a document from the original owner verifying that they no longer own the bike. We don’t have any of those things but we were willing to pay a bribe. We’d heard that of all the border crossings between Vietnam and Laos, the one called Na Meo would be our best bet.Dip Mai Chau DavidRice Paddy Dip BigMai Chau Set DipSo we made our way west from Hanoi toward the Na Meo border, spending several days along the way in a stilt home above bright green rice paddies. Our final night in Vietnam was spent in a hotel only 50 km from the Laos border. We set out in the morning and hoped to reach the border by midday. It’s only 50 km, but we’d heard the road to the border crossing was difficult and we wanted to leave ourselves plenty of time for unforeseen adventures, like crashing, breaking down or getting lost. We ended up having one of each. The roads were as bad as we’d imagined. To refer to them as roads is generous. It took us 6 hours to reach the border. Those 50 km were full of adventure, anticipation and excitement. But mostly just a lot of thick dust. The roads were winding, bumpy, full of gigantic, unavoidable potholes that wanted to devour our motorcycles in one gulp or at least destroy our bikes’ suspension. The road surface was mostly unpaved and covered in sand and/or gravel. We shared it with large trucks and buses who did not care to make any room for us, kicked dust into our faces and reduced our visibility. Joel’s bike lost traction on the slippery sand at one point and went down, pinning him briefly beneath it while fuel spilled out of his tank. Joel was alright save for some bruised knees and a scraped elbow. The Black Pearl’s front alignment was out of whack and the headlight and speedometer (which never functioned anyway) were smashed to bits. Along the way we picked up a fourth rider, a German guy named Jörn, who was relieved to see other foreigners on the road. He had begun to wonder if perhaps he was on the wrong route, since this couldn’t really be a road to an international border, could it?To Na Meo DipBorder DipWhen we finally arrived at the border, people laughed at us. We looked down at our clothing coated in a thick layer of dirt and understood why. We were filthy. Joel’s skin had turned fair and Austin had blonde eyebrows. We would not be charming our way through the border, that was for sure. We only had two real concerns as we approached the immigration officials: 1. What would happen if we were permitted to leave Vietnam with our bikes but weren’t accepted into Laos with them? Would we have to abandon our bikes in the few acres of land between the nations’ checkpoints? 2. We weren’t sure that we had enough money to pay for visas and bribes. We had meant to stop at an ATM on the way to the border, but in such a remote part of the country we never found a cashpoint. What would happen if they let us out of Vietnam but then found we couldn’t pay for our entry into Laos? Would we be stuck forever in no-man’s-land between the nations? Would they put us in jail? There was only one way to find out.HCM Dip 3:4We handed our passports to the uniformed officials and crossed our fingers. In a short time we received our passports back and were directed to another office where we would have to declare our motorcycles. We filled out some paperwork and submitted our all-important vehicle registration cards. The cards were returned to us and we were asked to pay a fee of 20 USD to the man behind the counter. Well prepared Jörn had a crisp 20 dollar bill. Unprepared Joel and Austin counted their money and found that while they did have the equivalent amount of money in Vietnamese dongs, if they paid this fee (which would go directly into the official’s pocket) they wouldn’t have enough cash remaining to pay for the Laos visa. David was in the bathroom and missed this entire event. The guard didn’t speak much English, but seemed to understand our predicament. He insisted we pay him. Austin wrote on her hand, “ATM?” and held it up to show the uniformed man behind the desk, which made him laugh. Of course there were no ATMs around here. We were in the middle of nowhere. And we could forget about our credit cards, which aren’t accepted anywhere in Vietnam but the fanciest of hotels. He saw the cash in Austin’s hand and indicated to it. She put it away with an apologetic look on her face. It was a stand-off. This was the moment where we’d be turned away, unable to pay the bribe needed to get our bikes out of Vietnam. After some more fruitless back-and-forthing, he finally grew tired of looking at us. “OK, go,” he said, and shooed us out of his office, probably bitter that he wouldn’t be making an extra $80. We’d been cleared to leave Vietnam with our bikes! Just before leaving the office, Jörn turned to the man and asked if he could have his 20 dollars back. The man laughed and told him to get out. It was worth a try.Mountain Range 2 DipDavid was amazed when we told him  we had managed to evade the bribe. We showed our passports to the officials and pushed our bikes through the checkpoint. Having officially exited Vietnam, we hopped on our bikes and rode the 500 meters to the Laos immigration station. At the Laos entry point we filled out some more paperwork and submitted our passports to a man in an office. We took a seat amidst a group of slightly menacing and rowdy Vietnamese truck drivers for whom we apparently presented a source of great entertainment. One at a time the members of Late 80s Mercedes were called to the booth to pay our entry fee into Laos. The fee was $45. Well prepared Jörn paid his fee. Joel was a few bucks short and Austin bailed him out with a few spare US dollars she found tucked in the far cavities of her wallet. For those of us who did not have US dollars or Lao kip (the local currency), we paid with Vietnamese dongs and an unfavorable exchange rate was applied, resulting in a much higher entry fee. Austin was asked to pay over one million Vietnamese dongs. She came up about 400,000 dongs short. Joel donated the last of his dongs but Austin was still about 200,000 shy of the fee. She handed over all the money she had to the man behind the counter and gave him a pleading look. He counted the money, saw it was not enough, but made an allowance for some unknown reason and granted her a visa. David’s fee was even higher. He didn’t have anywhere near enough cash. Austin and Joel were absolutely penniless at this point and David tried his best to negotiate a lower fee. Three times he handed his cash to the man with an imploring look. Each time the man counted the money and, realizing it was again the same amount he had just counted only a minute before, smiled and shook his head no. There was a glint of hope each time and the second time, instead of returning the money to David, he set the money down on his desk. David could tell he was getting closer to taking whatever David could provide. The man in the booth looked sympathetic and called his superior to see if 980,000 dongs would suffice. Just as it was beginning to look hopeless, Jörn stepped in and saved the day. He had enough cash to cover the remainder of David’s fee. Jörn and Joel ended up paying $45 for their visas. Austin ended up paying about $52. David paid nearly $58. We still don’t exactly understand how this makes sense, but the only thing that really mattered was that we had made it through with our motorcycles.Winding Road Pano Dip We pushed our bikes through the checkpoint and felt accomplished and victorious as we stood on Laos soil. Joel pointed to the beautifully paved road stretching out ahead of us and for a moment it all felt too good to be true. We had gotten our bikes through the border, narrowly escaped a bribe, barely managed the visa fee and were gifted the ease and joy of pavement. We all high fived and as we rode away from the border wondered aloud, “Which side of the road do they drive on in Laos, anyway?”


11 thoughts on “A Laos Border Post

  1. That border crossing would have done me in. I suppose my grey hair and wrinkles might have proved to be an advantage had I stayed alive long enough to find out! We are looking forward to having you and David back on US soil! Bon voyage!

    • Sue, I think you probably would have arrived more prepared and looking far more presentable than we and passed right through without a second glance. We are looking forward to our return. Hope we’ll see you and Doug soon!

  2. Austin, Have you forgotten all I taught you about those beautiful brown eyes you have? They will melt most that you gaze upon. Keep up the good work! Can’t wait to see them in person.
    Love you for sure!

  3. Hard to imagine you with blonde eyebrows, Austin! (but kind of fun)
    Glad you made it through, and another tale to tell! Safe Journeys

  4. I love your advangerous story in the way the such happened to us years ago when we came there for the first time. Thick forests and wildness attracted us so all the way that we stayed there for a night. Dust, bad roads, hot wind and locals’ curiosity only kept us more intested in going again, Still we haven’t.

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