I love unscripted travel, where you may have an idea where you’re going but no exact plan and no schedule to stick to. Where you have the freedom to sit still for a few days if you really like a place, or take off immediately if you don’t. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to do this trip over several months. And it’s why Vietnam has become an annoying sticking point in an otherwise brilliant journey so far…
I’d always intended Laos to be the central focus, but wanted to visit northern Vietnam and northern Thailand as well. Cambodia has been thrown onto the list at short notice, and as I continue to hear great things about that place from other travellers I’m glad that it has! Laos, Cambodia and Thailand all allow you to obtain a tourist visa on arrival at their border, so you don’t need to plan exactly when you are going to be somewhere. The exception is Vietnam, which requires you to have organised a visa well in advance because they won’t issue one at the border. You can only obtain visas from embassies or consulates, which in my case meant organising it before I left Australia. It’s quite expensive to get a visa for Vietnam too, much more so than the other countries in the region.
You have to pick the dates you want the visa to be valid for, and you have a maximum visa period of 30 days. Which for someone on a variable schedule like me required a bit of guesswork as to when and how long I wanted to be in Vietnam… if I choose an early start date it gives more flexibility of arrival time, but every day that I arrive after it starts is one day less I can stay in the country once I’m there. If I choose a later start date I can maximise my time in Vietnam, but as I can’t enter the country before the visa starts I would therefore run the risk of being stalled at the Laos border if I travel quicker than expected. This latter issue is precisely the problem I’ve faced for the past four days 😦
When planning my Vietnam visa I was forced to speculate when I’d be in certain places, and for how long. I’d intended to spend a week or more in and around Phongsali, so I thought I would spend at least three weeks in northern Laos before wanting to head to Vietnam. Hence I chose a start date of December 11th. As it turned out Phongsali was not very enticing, so I left there sooner than expected for Muang Khua. Muang Khua is the last town in Laos on this route before crossing into northern Vietnam, and I was hoping that it and its surrounds would be an attractive enough place to spend a few days waiting for the Vietnam. At the least I expected enough basic services to make the stop enjoyable. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
It’s not that it’s an unpleasant place – it’s certainly more agreeable than Phongsali – it’s just that there is nothing to do here, and after four days you really begin to get bored. And I don’t mean that in a jaded, oh-I’m-so-hard-to-please kind of way. I mean that because there is only electricity available here for four hours a day (from 5.30pm to 9.30pm), there are no connections to the outside world. No internet. No calling shops. No television in your room, even in the best hotel in town. There’s also nowhere to buy a newspaper (and if you could, it’d be in Lao). No bookshops in any language, let alone English. No guided treks in the surrounding hills. No kayaking or other watery options, even though the beautiful Nam Ou river is on your doorstep. Nothing to do here except eat, read, sleep, and walk around the local area.
All of which are good options, if you want to do them. In other words, it’s a nice place to do nothing if that’s what you want. But if you’re stuck here waiting for your Vietnam visa to kick in and you do want to do something, the lack of options is very annoying! In fact I’ve been feeling a bit off the last few days so I haven’t had the energy to do much, but it would be nice to have the choice… On the plus side, it certainly is cheap here. I initially checked out the “best hotel in town”, the Serrnali Hotel, but managed to find a place nearby with exactly the same facilities (private bathroom with hot water shower when the power’s on and a western toilet, large clean bed) plus the added bonus of a large and comfy covered deck overlooking the town for only a third of the cost of the Serrnali. Yes it’s just A$7 a night for quality accomodation, and I’m struggling to spend more than A$10 a day on food and drink (no booze). Because this is a guesthouse you’re more likely to meet other travellers here too, but few stay more than a day (sensible folks). So in the past few days I’ve slept a lot, eaten very well, re-read two of the books I have with me, and spent lots of time thinking hard about where I want to go in Vietnam amongst other things.
“Why didn’t you go somewhere else for a while?” is probably what you’re thinking by now. Great idea, except I’ve already seen everywhere you can get to within a day or two of here. Phongsali, Oudomxay, Nong Khiaw, even Luang Prabang, all been and done. I could have gone to Sam Neua and Vieng Xai and entered Vietnam via that border, but that would have stuffed up my intended route through Vietnam (or entailed several days backtracking within Laos later, or missing some places entirely). I could even, I realised today once my head cleared a bit, have gone back to Nong Khiaw and spent two days there before returning here. That actually was a good idea but it’s too late now; my visa starts tomorrow so I can finally hit the road again. Vietnam has become a bit of mental distraction really, as I’m loving Laos, but it would be a shame not to see some of it while I’m in the area. The current plan is to just visit some highlights over two weeks (Dien Bien Phu, Sapa, Hanoi, Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, Ninh Binh), then slip back into Laos for another month as I head south towards Cambodia. But that’s just a guide – from now on I genuinely do have the freedom to wander at will 🙂