Vietnam: Halfway to Hanoi

The man at the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok assured me that my visa would be valid for thirty days from the date I entered the country, so I optimistically guestimated that we would arrive sometime around October 22nd. Despite having already crossed through most of Northern Laos, I underestimated how long it would take us to get to the Vietnam border (Hofstader’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”), and we wound up arriving on November 5th, two weeks late. We were granted 30 days in the country – counting from the start date on the visa, rather than from the entry date. 17 days to cover 2500km: not gonna happen.

A veggie vendor situated outside the bus station in Ban Phang, perhaps reading the hunger on my face, tried to sell me four tomatoes at a dollar a piece. I did my best to make my refusal a pleasant one. Two minutes down the road, another vendor sold me six tomatoes for seventy-five cents.

The man at the immigration office says that tourist visas can only be extended through travel agencies and sends me on my way. The woman at the tiny tourist info booth by the lake says that tourist visas can’t be extended, period. When I tell her that that’s not what the immigration guy says, she recommends a nearby agent to me. They tell me that it will cost me $95 to extend mine (on top of the $75 I paid in Bangkok), and that Minseong will have to pay $140 to get a visa after entering the country visa-exempt. I immediately formulated a plan to leave Hanoi the following morning, cycle the remaining 300km to the nearest border with Laos, and spend my next 1000km somewhere a little less insanely aggravating.

On the way home, just for the heck of it, we popped by another travel agent, this time not one recommended by the government tourist office. He quoted us a more reasonable price: $35 for me and $85 for Minseong. Result: I’m still in Vietnam, doing my best to love the place.

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Thankfully, it’s not that hard.

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On our way out of Laos, we climbed 700 meters, descended them all, and climbed another 800, reaching the the border an hour or so before sunset. The same border guard who was wholly unapologetic about our crappy visa situation also told that us there was nowhere for us to sleep before Dien Bien Phu, still 40km away. All downhill, in the dark, on a road ridden with potholes on account of all the gigantic trucks making their way to…who knows where? They certainly weren’t there on the Laos side. Somehow we survived the descent. We were rewarded for our troubles with cute restaurant girls – as usual, their mother offered to marry them off to us.

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It’s a pretty common occurrence in these parts.

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Sunset in Dien Bien Phu.

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The first building on the Vietnam side of the 3km no man’s land between the two checkpoints.

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Not on my life.

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We pulled up at a school in a tiny town and asked the security guard if we could pitch our tents. First, he approved. Then, he rethought it and decided that we (and our bikes and gear) ought to sleep in the 4m x 4m guardhouse instead. Chris and I took the twin beds and mosquito nets, Mingyu “pitched” his tent on the floor, using an elaborate system of ropes rather than the poles.

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I don’t recall the last time I saw an overturned truck. Mingyu swears there were some in China, but I don’t remember any, even around the coal mines in Shanxi or the mountain roads of Yunnan. Here, though, we saw three or four in the space of a week. Conclusion: better keep the helmet on.

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Making friends at breakfast.

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Perfect place for a rest. Frisbee, ukuleles, donuts, explaining the American pasttime of “cowtipping” to the Koreans.

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Our first Vietnamese couchsurfing host, “Pooh.” 16 years old, Pooh lives with his cousin in Son La, a sizeable city, while his parents live on the farm a few hours away. Really impressive – when I was Pooh’s age I certainly woudln’t have had the guts to invite four roaming foreigners into my house, nor would I have had the ability to entertain them and engage them in conversation for a whole afternoon and evening. Way to go, Pooh!

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A trip to Son La prison. The English translations were slightly lacking – to the extent that I couldn’t exactly tell who was imprisoning whom – but the scenery was grim, to say the least.

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Great place for wedding photos?

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Pooh in mental agony after I reveal that I’m both a) vegetarian and b) tired tofu-n-tomatoes, the default veg dish.

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We had insisted on paying for Pooh’s food (and ice cream), so when we parted, Pooh insisted we accept a gift to remember him by. As if all our time togeter, and even the mere fact of hosting us, wasn’t enough!

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3 Responses to Vietnam: Halfway to Hanoi

  1. myra says:

    Glad to hear you got the extension for Vietnam. Blessings given to Pooh for being such a wonderful host.

  2. mingyulee says:

    하하하하노이에 살으세요 쭈욱~ yo!