Friday 21 September. Sơn Tây, Hương Sơn, Hà Tĩnh, Vietnam.
We were up early the morning we left Vietnam, eager to reach the border before the heat picked up. The Cau Treo checkpoint lay thirty kilometres away, high up on the crest of the jungle-slung Annamese Range that loomed beyond the town. Our breakfast noodles mingled with a cold anticipation that had settled in our stomachs. We couldn’t wait to get there. We couldn’t wait to leave.
After nine months on the road with barely a bad incident, the last few weeks in Vietnam had been a slew of tiresome, back-handed scams and persistent hostility. It had all come to a head two days earlier when three men made a passing grab at Liv. She stopped to confront them and they responded by attacking her with rocks. It was all over very quickly, the men fled into the village and Liv wasn’t seriously hurt, but we were both now sick with stress, exhausted, frightened and just wanted out.
We paid the breakfast bill, donned our caps and pushed off towards the hills. The road reared up as soon as we left the town and we ground into a slow rhythm of deep breaths and squeaking chains. Within an hour the sun was pounding, we were drenched in sweat and had barely got started. We chewed old peanuts and gasped hot water from our bottles, watching the world slowly shrink away as we rose into the hills.
* * * * *
It was gone midday when the ascent finally eased off and we saw ahead a queue of trucks snaking back from the border. It was a noisy, ragged affair of scaffold towers, portakabins and barbed fencing, dust-swept and crammed with ranks of idling trucks. We dismounted and quickly picked our way between the growling vehicles, desperate to leave without any hassle.
As soon as we broke cover a guard clocked us and moved in, shouting for us to stop. We hoped we could feign ignorance and push on, but he was on us in no time, gesturing at the bikes and saying something in Vietnamese. I didn’t like the look of him. He was young and cocky, sucking his gums and grinning at us. Liv and I stood silent, scrabbling to hook onto a word we understood. There was a pause, then the guard laughed and nodded at the bikes again, eyeing us and slowly rolling his thumb and forefingers together.
For a moment we glowered at him, then we pushed on, diligently ignoring him as he followed, alternately yelling and laughing at us. Either we were in the process of foiling a scrappy bike fee border scam, or we were being unbelievably obnoxious to a chatty young guard. And we didn’t care, we were through with Vietnam. As we marched away, nerves boiling, we were only glad he didn’t pull a gun or try to arrest us.
By the time we reached the immigration cabin the guard had given up and left us. We got our passports stamped, hearts still thumping, before heading over to the lever-barrier that checked the flow of traffic out of the country. The armed official there was waving a truck through when he turned and, completely unfazed at the sight of two foreigners hauling loaded bicycles, barked something that must have meant ‘passports’. He examined them carefully, taking his time to flick between the pages and peer at the photographs. He looked up sharply, gave us the nod and handed them back. Then we were pushing our bikes up a muddy track, away from the racket of the engines and out of Vietnam.
It would be weeks until we finally put Vietnam behind us. Our instincts were tuned to expect the very worst from people, and since we had no satisfactory explanation for the events of the last few weeks our anxieties were left to fester. We began to wonder whether we were to blame. Whether ten months on the road—of phrasebooks, charades, haggling—had exhausted our patience and condemned all our future interactions to these endless arguments and scathing glances.
Communism was also under suspicion. A Vietnamese guy posting online suggested that, by extracting religion from the country, communism had left morality to wither and exposed this bare, callous edge to people. Our optimism was so badly dented that this blunt kind of reasoning was completely palatable to us. And, if there was even a shred of truth to either of these theories, it followed that crossing into Laos might not spell the end of it.
But if that was the case nobody had bothered to tell the official in the Laos immigration office. We’d gone in, all smiles, knowing we needed to work to offset our cynicism if we were ever going to break out of it—reminding ourselves not to get our hopes up, because border officials were notorious and a bad experience here did not mean that Laos was a write-off—and we were greeted by this cheerful middle-aged man who met our awkward courtesies with a breezy warmth that hit us like a revelation. Suddenly we remembered what it was to have a friendly chat with someone; it felt like it’d been years. As his colleague prepared our visas, he asked us about the bikes and got us started with a few Lao phrases. By the time he handed our passports back we were brimming with gratitude, thanking him over and over for his exceptional kindness. He shrugged, not of the opinion that it was such a big deal.
This was a very promising start. The two of us were now tense with excitement, the prospect of the weeks ahead opening out into boundless, gut-tingling adventure like it had used to be. But a good experience here did not guarantee anything. We also knew that a major setback now might jeopardise the entire trip, so we reigned in our hopes to concentrate instead on the certainty that we had several kilometres of downhill ahead of us. Gravity shouldered up and charged us down a shaded, riverside road into eastern Laos.
After five kilometres the canopy dispersed, the road flattened out and we emerged onto a wide cultivated plain. It was a sea of rice stretching back on both sides to the hills on the horizon, shimmering in lazy ripples and whirls as it stirred in the wind of the warm afternoon. We hit the brakes to breath it in, finding as our wheels squeaked to a stop that the only sound was the gentle susurration of the wind as it moved between the leaves. It had been some time since we had enjoyed a moment of peace like this. We drank it in as the clouds rolled above us, filtering the light through lavender, honey and back into deeper, subaqueous tones. Then the ripples across the fields began to dart and swarm. A deep wet wind was blustering in from the west. We turned, and were not surprised to see storm clouds surging in over the hills.
It didn’t take long for the weather to catch us. We leapt off the bikes and dragged them bombarded under the eaves of a nearby house. I was just wondering whether the occupants would mind our intrusion, when through the downpour we noticed an elderly woman observing us from the adjacent porch. It took us a moment to realise she was beckoning us over. She spoke no English, but invited us to sit as she fetched a bottle of water. But as she presented it to us a jab of doubt hit me and I feared another scam. I gestured that we had no Lao money, but she frowned at the suggestion, vigorously motioning that it was ours now and of course it was free. Of course.
The realisation that sunk through me recalled thousands of miles of placid riding and a great absence of deceit or trickery amongst the hundreds of people we had met on our journey so far. With a snap the vigilance we’d developed over the past few weeks felt absurd. Whatever it was that had caused us so much grief lately, we had clearly left it behind at the border. I quickly mimed recognition—A gift!—and Liv, who was always much less cynical than me anyway, thanked the lady with a ‘Khawp jai lai lai' that we’d been taught at the border. The old lady smiled and shook her head, surely wondering what on earth had been the matter with us.
* * * * *
The rain moved on and we reached Lak Sao within the hour. Although larger than any of the villages we’d seen that day it was not as big as our map had led us to believe—more like a small, scruffy outpost town with its sagging pylon wires, muddy roads and dogs in the streets. Finding a bed was easy enough, but an inspection of our near-empty money belts brought home the urgency of our finding a cash machine. We had spotted one by the crossroads on our way in, but found it would only accept Lao bank cards. Our eagerness to flee Vietnam had made us sloppy.
‘So, where is the nearest ATM?’ we asked the town’s money changer that night.
He thought about it for a moment, ‘I think Vientiane.’
Vientiane was halfway across the country. If we tried to cycle it we’d go broke before we got there.
So before dawn the next day our alarms fired off and we staggered out of bed to catch the morning bus to Vientiane. But we were in good spirits. A day or two on a bus was nothing when the people were friendly and we could sit back and relax. We were due a bit of luck anyway. Halfway there the bus stopped to collect passengers and Liv spotted the Visa logo across the road. We scrambled off, dashed across the road and drew out enough money to last a month, then hopped straight on another bus heading back the other way. It pulled into Lak Sao after dark: a fourteen hour round trip to visit a cash machine. We ate dinner, then slept like dinosaurs.