Okay, here I go trying to summarize what I’ve been up to since the end of July:
First Leg: Laos.
On the night of the 26th I didn’t sleep. I stayed up til two and then traveled with a friend to Ho Chi Minh City. He had other business to take care of and I had a flight at 2:15. The road from Long Xuyen to the city is still quite bumpy, so needless to say, I was a tired and strung-out mess when I got there. And all of the morning. I drank lots and lots of coffee, but it didn’t help too much. Finally I was at the airport, in the final departure lounge, and it started raining. Remember, Vietnam is still a developing country, and while they’ve almost completed a large new airport terminal, at the moment they’re using an old building, and if you fly on a small plane (like the one I was going to be on), they bus you across the tarmac to the plane. But it was pouring rain, and the flight was delayed by about 20 minutes because of the rain. Also at the airport I learned some new information about my flight: there was a short stopover in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I wasn’t aware of this, but it didn’t affect the flight time at all.
The flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh was all of about 30 minutes. Not much to be excited about. I didn’t sleep. Since we arrived late because of the rain, the stopover consisted of me getting off the plane, sitting down, and then hearing the announcement that my flight was leaving. Finally, I was headed in the right direction: Laos.
I finally got a little sleep on the plane. I filled out my arrival/departure card and had some noodles that weren’t too bad and looked out the window at the Mekong down amongst the trees. We arrived at the airport and I filed through the line to get my visa, and the process wasn’t too bad. I’d been in contact with the MCC office in Laos, and they had emailed me directions to the office, so I hopped in an overpriced cab and made my way there, snapping pictures on the way.
The security guard was expecting me with keys to the cozy (yet rather warm) guest house next to the office. I threw down my stuff and hopped in the shower before lounging around the house and then taking a short stroll around some streets. Rebekah’s flight was scheduled to arrive about three hours after mine, but as the time progressed, she didn’t come to the office and there were no calls. Another short-term MCCer was there, and he called one of the national staff who then called the airport to see if the flight had arrived. We learned that yes, indeed, the flight had arrived. Where then was Rebekah? I was walking over to the MCC office to check for an email when a cab pulled up and out she stepped.
The next several days were spent wandering around the streets of Vientiane looking at the old buildings and enjoying the very laid-back atmosphere of the place.
We used the phrase “laid-back” so much in the first few days that I banned it from conversations in the future so I wouldn’t get sick of it.
It was great to walk along the edge of the big Mekong and see Thailand over on the other side. I kept thinking that this was the very same river that runs through Long Xuyen, quite a distance downstream.
One day I went out and rented a motorbike and we drove about 25 km outside of Vientiane looking for this place called “The Buddha Park.” We never found it, but we did see the Laos-Thailand friendship bridge and followed the banks of the Mekong the whole time, and the views were pretty amazing.
Most of the time we were in Vientiane we acted like tourists and ate at the surprisingly good foreign restaurants in the town. I heard that the city wasn’t much bigger than Long Xuyen, and I kept thinking, “Why don’t we have this good stuff…”
After several days of good food and chilling, we decided on the next leg of the journey: Southern Laos. The next leg of my trip called for me to meet Lillian and another volunteer over in Hue, in central Vietnam, so I knew I had to get down to the southern part of Laos eventually. We decided to head down to a place known as “The 4000 Islands” where some places didn’t even have electricity and the books gave pretty good reviews. So, with the assistance of some MCC workers, we got two tickets on an overnight bus the Pakse, in southern Laos. The bus ride was nice and smooth and pretty comfy. They gave us blankets and snacks and water and I watched a movie that had been dubbed in Lao before falling asleep.
We arrived in Pakse early the next morning. From there it was a matter of finding local transport further south. We found it without too much trouble, but once again I was feeling tired after having not slept well on the bus. So for about 100 km we were shoved in the back of a small truck, sitting on benches with about 15 other people. It took several hours to traverse this distance, and there were several points where I was nodding off with my head on my bag. Finally, we arrived at the wharf. “Two tickets to Don Khon!” and then we were on a boat cutting through the Mekong river with islands all around us and mountains on the horizon.
There are two islands at the very edge of the Lao/Cambodian border, and we wanted to stay at the one furthest south. The two islands are connected my an old French bridge that used to be part of a very short railroad line that bypassed the rapids on both sides of the islands. As was to be expected, we got dropped off at the wrong island, and hiked for several kilometers through the sun before we found the bridge to the southernmost island (Don Khon). After crossing the bridge, we found a quite bungalow nearby and decided to stay there. We were exhausted.
The next couple days were spent wandering around the island. We saw the rapids in the Mekong (I had no idea that river could be so violent! In the Delta it’s just a lazy river…).
We hiked the old railroad line across the island. I took lots of pictures of an old, wrecked French locomotive
Also, there were several old French villas on the island, some were still being used, and some were in ruins.
We tiptoed along the muddy roads of the village and ate decent food in small restaurants next the the Mekong. And there was a considerable amount of time spent lying in hammocks and reading too. It was at this point when I turned off my cell phone so I didn’t have any clock or any alarms going off at any time. My mind was at ease and it was great.
However, after a couple days on Don Khon, it was time to head back north. We got a van back to Pakse and from there arranged buses to different locations. Rebekah was heading back to Vientiane to catch a flight back to Bangladesh and I found a bus from Pakse to Hue. We had about 30 minutes to kill and sat down at a cafe while a light rain fell. “This is terrible,” Rebekah said, referring to the coffee.
Second Leg: Back to Vietnam
The bus from Pakse to Hue was jammed full of fruit and shoes and other weird merchandise everywhere. The seats were small and uncomfortable and they continued to pack people and things everywhere. I took comfort in the fact that everyone on the bus was Vietnamese so I could finally talk to the people around me. They took some fruit out of the cargo and we sat at the back of the bus and ate it. But the bus was really slow. It was just simply full of stuff, and there was stuff on top, and traveling was rather tedious. We even got pulled over by the police and they walked around inspecting the vehicle. If they had searched everything we would’ve been stuck there for hours… I dozed off for maybe an hour during the long ride. And then, in the pitch-black night, we stopped. “Off the bus!” someone shouted. It was 3 a.m. and we were at the Lao/Vietnam border. “Why do we have to get off the bus?” I asked. “Unloading stuff,” some guy told me. “Go into that guest house. We have to wait until 7.” “Four hours?” I asked in disbelief. “Right,” was the answer that I got.
“e-RIC!” someone said. I looked around and it was one of the Lao students headed back to Vietnam to study economics. Vietnamese was our language of communication. “e-RIC! Come eat noodles with us!” “Wait a sec,” I said. “Let me get my bag.”
I climbed on the bus and grabbed my backpack and then went walking down the nearly deserted road. I didn’t see the two Lao students. Then I heard again “e-RIC!” I went and ate noodles and drank coffee and walked around and then sat down again, and then walked around again. Went it was getting near 7 a.m. (when the border opened) I struck up a conversation with another guy and he advised me not to give money to some kind of “passport handler” who collected passports and then got them all stamped at once. I snapped a picture of the bus in the early morning light as I waited.
The border wasn’t too big of a problem for me, personally, but people over here have no sense of politeness when it comes to forming lines, and I got annoyed. But I got through it all and then had to wait, and wait, and wait while the bus got checked out by first the Lao border guards and then by the Vietnamese border guards. Finally, just as I was getting ready to get on the bus, the owner-lady told me to get on her other bus, because it wouldn’t be stopping so much in the final kilometers to Hue. I thought it was a nice gesture.
We finally got away from the border and went down the mountains and the views were quite breathtaking. I was sitting right behind the driver and got some good pictures of the scenery.
Finally, after the mountains and after a little more dozing on my part, we were out of the mountains and on the highway for Hue. I was feeling dehydrated and extremely exhausted, but they had a bucket of ice water in the front of the bus and I kept drinking it and the guys around me kept giving me snacks.
And then I was in Hue. “Where do you get off?” a guy asked me. He looked like he was in charge. “Near the center,” I said and gave him the name of my street. I got off the bus and it was hot. I hadn’t showered in nearly 48 hours. I’d barely slept in 36 hours. I opened by backpack to find that most of my clothes were soaked from a bus ride from Don Khon to Pakse. I found the hotel that Sabrina had booked and hopped right in the shower and turned on the cold water.
The next few days were great. Good food. Good people. Lots of fun. Jeff (who works with VIA in another Mekong Delta town) was there, Lillian was there, and Sabrina was there also. Days were just mainly kicking back and then getting some lunch and meeting up with others in the evening. One night in particular we went out to a very noisy “nightclub.” After about 20 minutes (it seemed much longer) of ear-piercing music, Jeff, Lillian, Sabrina and I got out of there and went and hung out til late at a much quieter place. Here’s Jeff being giddy with some spaghetti.
One day it just rained all day and the streets were flooded and Sabrina and I were trapped at the hotel with bad cable and bad movies to keep us entertained.
I actually bought an umbrella that day after the drizzle chilled me while walking around in the evening. The next morning was when Lillian was leaving for the States, and even though she’ll be back in September, it was kind of a temporary farewell party… something like that.
Third leg: back to the south.
Eventually I had to get back down to Long Xuyen. People from AGU had been calling and texting me literally from the moment I was back in Vietnam. Dan Wessner was there and holding a workshop on IC3 and I needed to be there. Sabrina and I agreed to travel by bus from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City, which was around 1100 km, and I was eager and also intimidated at the thought.
After searching the city for the better part of an afternoon, we finally just went to the bus station and learned that a bus headed south at 6 a.m. the next morning. And then we BOTH overslept and had to improvise. It started with us finding a bus to the nearby city of Da Nang, which was about a 2-hour ride. Once there we booked some tickets to Ho Chi Minh City but had a few hours to kill. We walked around and had lunch and then walked back to the bus station and climbed aboard. This bus also was abysmally slow, and we had a long ride ahead of us. But it was cool to see the fields and mountains in the distance. This is Sabrina and I early into the trip before we were drained of energy and lacked sleep…
After twenty-one (that’s right, 21) hours on that bus, we got to HCMC and found a cheap hotel and showered and then went to find food. Except for a few crackers, we hadn’t eaten for the whole bus ride. So after a recovery day in HCMC, we got on the final bus back to Long Xuyen. I got off the bus and went to meet an old volunteer who was back in town visiting. That’s right, Jack was in Long Xuyen.
The rest of last week was spent in a workshop that Dan Wessner was leading with several teachers and students of An Giang University. A lot of planning was completed and things are now looking good for the upcoming school year.