Reflections at the Border Between Laos and Vietnam
On the road with Khiri Travel – a guest blog by Ryan van Velzer
Driving on the roads between the border of Laos and Vietnam, from Sam Nuea to Mai Chau, is a lot like riding an old wooden rollercoaster. The driver throws the clutch into a low gear and ratchets you up the hills, then lets loose to careen through twists, dips and turns on the way down; the whole time your jostled by loose gravel and potholes. On one side of the small ‘two-lane road’ is a sheer drop into the valley below (also a stunning view of the surrounding mountains), on the other side an unforgiving mountain side with very little room in between.
I arrived at the border crossing at noon. The border crossing itself is small, but retains an air of self-importance. Men in well-fitted military uniforms check bags and passports. Needing to find a bathroom (I should have gone when the driver offered), I’d forgotten to exchange money during the entry process and walked into Vietnam empty-handed.
I walked up the road searching for a bathroom or a good bush, gave-up and sat down to wait for my ride. While waiting, a day-laborer walked past me with a plastic bag of beer. As he walked past, he looked at me, looked down at his beer and then nodded ‘follow me’. Never one to turn down a free drink I followed.
Across the street, under a tent beside a river, the man (maybe about 25 years old) and his friends were preparing lunch. On a small reed mat they had set small bowls and chopsticks. They sat down and ushered me over with hand gestures. I took off my shoes and sat down on the mat with them. They opened the beers and passed them around to the three or four men who sat with us.
Lunch and hospitality
A motherly-figure walked over with plates of food; some greens, water potatoes, a fermented fish salad, pork belly and rice were served. As the guest, they continually piled my bowl with food, making sure I had the best bits of the pork belly. Throughout the meal someone would raise their can of beer and we would all cheers and take a sip until there was nothing left.
Afterwards, they served tea. The men smoked tobacco out of bamboo water pipes and we spoke a little bit about our jobs in broken bits of Laos (they were Vietnamese). The men were there as laborers fixing the trucks, which were doing nearby construction. Most of the guys were around my age.
As I finished my second cup of tea, a taxi drove past and I knew it was time to leave. I stood up and tried to offer them money for lunch. The entire tent of people turned and yelled out “No!” in at least three different languages, which was good as I’d forgotten I had no money to give them.
What they have, they share
Having read and spoke to a few people about Vietnam, I wasn’t sure what to think before crossing the border. I’d heard stories about Vietnamese people perhaps being less friendly than in nearby countries. But there in a very small town at the border of Laos and Vietnam, as if deliberately put in my path, were these people of little means who invited a total stranger to sit and have lunch with them.
It became obvious in the ensuing taxi ride that you can’t really trust what people say about a place, you just have to experience it for yourself.