We thought the hardest part about leaving Laos would be tearing ourselves away from the 4,000 Islands. Not for the first or last time on our trip, we were wrong.
Don Dhet, and all of the islands I’d imagine, have a sort of Shangri-La gravitational pull. A short vacation easily turns into a long stay, which then gives way to a new home. (And there are vacationers turned locals all over the island to prove it.) Don Dhet remains my plan B if I can’t find work in the states. It was that great.
But Susan and I had already booked our trip home and Vietnam awaited. We didn’t book tickets from Don Dhet, because as you can imagine, bus tickets are a bit more expensive on an island. Instead, we took the advice of some local friends and got tickets for our first boat and bus to Pakse, a hub city, where we would purchase another ticket for transit to Vietnam. Or so we thought.
Our travels very rarely started at bus stations, and this trip was no different. We got dropped off at a travel agency office, and they informed us that they didn’t have any trips to Vietnam planned for days, but we might try at the bus station. We tuk tuk’d there, found the station closed and no future Vietnam buses posted for weeks because of Chinese New Year.
We tuk tuk’d back into Pakse and found the same answer at ever tour agency we stopped at: no buses until after Chinese New Year.
If we were wandering with no schedule or timeframe, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Since we had flights booked out of Ho Chi Minh City, this was indeed problematic.
We tracked down a reasonable hostel and got to work figuring out how to get across the border. Susan started searching for flight options, but found them to be outrageously expensive. Apparently there are price hikes since everyone is flying home to celebrate – you guessed it – Chinese New Year. I took a walk down the street to see if there were any tour agencies we missed, and ponder how to convince Susan that hitch hiking might be our best option.
Luck was on our side and I found a man who had seats available on a van going to Hue the next morning. He guaranteed our passage and said he would personally pick us up in front of the hostel the next morning.
Sure enough, just after 4 a.m., our knight in shining mini van arrived and loaded our travel packs. We drove a few minutes down the road, and he stopped to drop us off with another waiting passenger. He explained in the limited English we shared that the actual van would pick us up there. At this point, we had come to accept that it’s never just one vehicle. The van before the van. The tuk tuk before the bus. It usually works out. So we waited.
A few other people gathered, and then a pick-up truck pulled up. The one other passenger who had been there when we arrived waved us over and pointed to the back of the truck. It was our ride.
Our one English speaker had departed, so we charades our way into confirmation that we were supposed to hop in the truck and go. So we did. Driving down the road in the pre-dawn hours, I wondered if this was how we would cross the border.
It wasn’t. We stopped in a parking lot, where a kombi (oversized van) was loading. Our guide waved us over and motioned to bring our bags. We hopped in the van and hoped for the best.
It was us, seven men, one woman, and a chicken.
On our way to the border, we stopped for a lunch that must have been included in our ticket price, because no one brought us a bill. I couldn’t identify what was in several of the bowls on the table, but our fellow passengers kindly pantomimed how to construct our bowls of broth, noodles, and toppings. It reminded me of the early days in Macedonia before I knew much of the language and smiled my way through meals.
Soon afterward, we reached the border, which was our easiest crossing of the trip. With our visas already secured, we just waited for our passports to be checked. No extra fees. No questions. (So I guess the annoyance of getting visas back in Bangkok was worth it.)
The chicken in the van did not appreciate being left alone during this process however, and was quite vocal about his protestations. We theorized that perhaps he had forgotten his chicken passport and was worried about getting caught, or maybe he had been scorned by a hen in Laos and was anxious to get into Vietnam.
We never solved the “why did the chicken cross the border” mystery, because no sooner had we arrived in Hue, we were dropped off on the side of the road. The driver pointed at the ground and said, “Hue!” which served as our confirmation of arrival. Our friends from the van waved us off, the chicken waved a wing (I’m guessing), and we headed off to our next hostel and next adventure.