Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dateline: Hue, October 8th, and the rain has stopped, at least for the moment. The trip, quite obviously, has taken another unexpected turn. By now, you had every reason to expect I'd be somewhere in central Laos, headed North. It was close, but no banana this trip. Maybe it wasn't even close. On the 4th I started for the border in occasional light drizzle, through the nearly flooded countryside. The road I would have preferred, up the canyon through the jungle to A Loui (as I came into town) was "broken", so I went the commercially normal route, up Highway One to Highway Nine, both good modern roads built in relative low country. No drama expected. The waterlevel around Hue was about five feet below highway grade, or maybe 30" above the RR grade. There were very few houses with water on the floor, mostly marginal homes built without adequate fill. The fields and low lying ground were all under water of course, we'd had an enormous amount of rain for the past several days and there had been even more in the mountains to the West, all of which drain this way. It was easy riding though and I only stopped for a few photos of the water. Further along, around Dong Ha, 60 km up the road, and lying in a different river plain, the water was higher, within a couple of feet of highway grade, and definitely knee deep in many homes on lower ground. There were interesting hydraulic effects at the concealed mouths of culverts and small bridges, though you couldn't otherwise tell that's what they were, the boils of current as the water kept trying to push through made them obvious. Still, no problem on the road. Highway Nine climbs quickly but smoothly out of the low country into foothills and towards the border 70 odd km to the west, so flat country flooding of broad acreages wasn't the problem. Rather, it was rock and mud slides off the hillsides onto the roadway that slowed us down at times. None were terribly serious, and two or three loaders were out patroling, picking the rock and mud off the roadway and throwing it on over downhill. Still, there was the mud. There are both red and tan muds along this route. The bike and I became one with the countryside, coated in layers, tan and red by turn. Grit, no doubt, got into every bit of the bike. But still, no real problems, we'll both live through that sort of thing. It's a shame there were no white-water-raft operators on the river, confined as it was to a narrow valley bed, it was simply raging down out of the mountains, throwing up huge standing waves and all the scary white water effects. No doubt some of the small homes along the banks were more than a bit concerned. On the other hand, it was full of wood of all sorts, big trees and small, limbs, chunks of whole forest, all in a hurry to turn into driftwood on a China Sea Beach. No chance. The villagers along the way were pulling it out wholesale, men and boys grappling it to the bank and dragging it out, women and children dragging it up out of the way and stacking it. Chain saws and machetes out in force, reducing it to useful sizes. The biggest trunks will make good lumber and some of them were already being squared up with the chain saws for slicing into planks. Nobody will be short firewood in that valley for a long time.

In fact, for all the weather effects, it was a quick passage up to Lao Bao and the border. We were there by noon, but decided not to cross over, since it's a full day's ride on the Lao side to Savannakhet. Rather, we got a hotel room in quite a nice little place. They obviously do a sideline in prostitution, but were perfectly nice about letting me rent the room for the night. . .alone. And it was a perfectly nice room, even with a writing desk in front of a window with a view out over the back yards and the hillside beyond and a big clean bathroom with fixtures that worked. Not at all bad. I wrote a while, and when the rain let up, went out for a look around town (I need to see a map of the place, it's one of those places in the mountains where, having proceeded away from your starting point for half an hour you find yourself back at the hotel. How do they do that. I was trapped in Sapa (in the mountains Northwest of here) once for over an hour, apparently riding in circles the whole time. I simply couldn't get out of town until I hired a motorbike taxi to lead me! Anyway, the day passed, I changed $100 into Lao Kip ($800,000 kip, compared to $1,900,000 VND, keep that in mind, it will come up again).

Next morning I was up bright and early and over the border, but not far. The Vietnamese were their typical businesslike selves, seemed mildly surprised I wasn't on a bus, but nothing alarming, stamped me out of the country (with 3 days still left on my visa, which they carefully unstapled and removed from my passport, and sent me on my way. The Lao, on the other hand, watching me ride up on the bike seemed to gather round like a flock of vultures confronting a staggering cow. H'mm, right off the atmosphere seemed. . .well, I know how the cow feels shall we say. A gentleman with four gold stars on his epaulettes (most had three or fewer) approached me, studied the bike's license to be sure, and then said: "I would like to tell you something. . ." and it went downhill from there. I pointed out I'd crossed into and traveled all over Laos in the past in 2008 and 2009 and it was not a problem. He said, "Not in effect now." I worked around every angle I could think of short of waving money in the air, and there was simply no way. I can have a Lao visa yes. I cannot take my motorbike into Laos. No. No way. What part of "no" are you having trouble with old man??? I gave up. He informed me that they had already called the Vietnamese side and told them I'd be back. I went. The initial border crossing guards didn't have the word and were all for sending me back to Laos to get a visa for Viet Nam. This was definitely going downhill fast. I finally got enough of my Vietnamese together in one place to make it clear that my visa really was in the office 100 yards behind them. They didn't exactly frog-march me, but it was a pretty close escort back to the immigration office. There my visa was retrieved from the trash, a discussion in rapid fire Vietnamese ensued and they stamped it. . .back "in" again I hope, and told me to go to the immigration office in Hue. I went. Oh, the flock of money changers at the border changed my $100 worth of Kip into $90 worth of VN Dong with a smile. They'd started at $80, but I struggled manfully. You expect to lose maybe $5 on a hundred dollar bill at the border, but twice in the same day on the same hundred dollars seemed a bit rough. Oh well, at least I didn't have to buy a Lao Visa .

The rest of that tale is simple so far. The immigration office in Hue wouldn't touch the twice-stamped visa and sent me to Hanoi. Or rather, my visa and passport, so I have become a temporary resident of Hue, until my paperwork gets back, hopefully by Monday. There's a practical lesson in this: if you have any choice in the matter, get a visa in your passport that is firmly cemented in place, not a stapled-in one like the one I had. My strong impression is that the detached AND double stamped visa is what caused the problems. My usual travel agency in Seattle always provides the separate sort of visa, obtained from a VNese embassy in Canada. They do not have to send off your passport and the visa works fine for entry and travel in country. It may not be routinely easy to extend however, since the extension stamp normally goes on the passport page facing the visa. Pure nonsense, but maybe worth knowing. To get the glued-in sort of visa in the States I'd have to mail off my passport 3 weeks before leaving for Viet Nam, but AFTER I know my actual travel dates, since the Vietnamese visa is very date specific. Worth pondering in the future!

It's not as bad as it seems, I thoroughly love Hue and the area, the hotel staff treat me like some sort of honorable grandfather, and I will have no trouble staying busy, particularly since the rain seems to have finally stopped. There was even a bit of distant sun yesterday for ten minutes or so, and I've been out and about a lot. I'll write separately about a few other things.

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