24 Hours: Border Crossing – Laos to Vietnam

4:00am:  I wake up in a sketchy guesthouse that, with crooked floors and hexagonal dimensions, better resembles a funhouse.

4:30am:  A gang of saber-toothed street dogs chase me through the dark alleyways of charmless Muang Khua all the way to the river.

5:00am:  Standing with two backpacks (big and small, front and back) I balance on a rocking canoe as I cross the Nam Ou in the pitch black of night.

5:05am:  The boat captain’s friend pushes me as I’m balancing, demanding money.  Am I buying into some illegal crossing?  Are we about to storm the Alamo?  I give him what he wants.

8:00am:  It’s light out and we stop, waiting for the dirt road to open in our direction.

8:10am:  I squat over a hole for my usual, early-morning bout of diarrhea while cursing myself for the mystery meat I ate the previous week.  Knees trembling, I vow a strict vegetarian diet.

8:17am:  I am invited to join four Vietnamese men for breakfast (Beer Lao and some rice whiskey).  We drink and smile while watching psychedelic music videos on the television.

8:30am:  I feel dizzy.

9:00am:  I get back on the bus and squeeze into a seat where I (small and thin) can barely fit.  To my right, men laze atop piles of rice as if on bean bags while, up front, women plopped on a mat primp each other’s hair.  The bus cum party chugs along.

11:00am:  On a dusty road that looks destined for the moon, the bus loses its traction, sliding backwards.  I scream, everyone laughs, and we continue forward inching closer to China than Vietnam.

12:30pm:  We reemerge above the clouds at the alpine border with Vietnam.  The guards are on a lunch break.  We will have to wait.

12:31pm:  But while we wait, a prim comrade leads us to a statue of the great leader Ho Chi Minh.  Do we know about him?  Do we know about the American War?  Are there any Americans here?  Would I like to know more about Ho Chi Minh or some destinations in Vietnam where I can learn about the atrocities of the war?

1:00pm: Everyone’s visas have been processed… except mine.

1:15pm:  I am free to enter Nam.

3:00pm:  I arrive in Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam after ten hours of travel.  We have gone approximately one-hundred kilometers, averaging an astonishing ten kilometers an hour.

6:00pm:  I catch an overnight bus to Hanoi sharing a pink bed with a mentally retarded man.  He smiles a lot.

4:00am (the next day):  I arrive in Hanoi, Vietnam with zero stampable pages left in my passport.  (I will be stuck here for a while!)

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Quickpost: Flamboyant Gibberish

They talked and talked – and I think they thought it was English – but I couldn’t understand a word.  I could only smile, take my gifts, sample what was given, and hope for the best.  The vendors of the Ao Nang night stall had a smart way of offering enough free gifts to guilt me into buying excessive amounts of exotic fruit.  By day two, I was considered a regular.  Leaving the stall unmanned, a purple plastic chair was propped up next to the fruits and the firestorm of babble began.  The two men periodically plucked fistfuls of lychee varietals and sliced up jackfruit, watching wide-eyed as I bit into the fleshy skin.  Soon, the younger one produced a baby-pink bottle with a toothy grin.  Its girlish appearance hid a potent potion.

For the novice, over-proof rice whiskey induced instant hick-ups and a pucker-lipped daze.  It also conjured a hardy laugh and an immediate round of seconds.

From what I could gather (or what was inherently clear) they were already drunk and kept this routine as a daily ritual.  Names were never clearly established, but the older one (presumably in his late ‘40s) kept a firm grip on my knee as he relayed tales of flamboyant gibberish.  Puffs of clove cigarettes added an aire of mystery to a cracked hand full of family photos.  What began with a smile parlayed into tears.  Yet, no sooner had his eyes watered he slapped my knee, shaking his head in laughter.

It started sprinkling so I excused myself with an expressive smile, collected my bags of curious fruits, and scurried home.  On the dark side of the street, stiletto-stomping girls screamed, “hello, welcome” from red-lit bars.  I hurried onwards to my guesthouse where I met the owner’s daughter sitting cross-legged in a beige swivel chair.  She cupped her hands around the karaoke microphone as she wailed Thai pop anthems to an empty street.  Like a comic book come to life, Ao Nang’s characters emerged with each turn. The garish town was full of storytellers muttering lavish songs to a confused world.