Thursday, July 25, 2013


A massive arch marks Vietnam's side of the border
It’s a simple white line. A simple, yet very important marker. Only inches across on this short two lane bridge, the white line is painted perpendicular to the road’s center line. I step across the line.

I’ve just left Vietnam, and crossed into Laos.

Having finished my time in northern Vietnam, I've doubled back to Dong Ha near the old DMZ. Hopping into a van this morning, I headed west on Highway 9 to Lao Bao, reaching the frontier with Laos. It’s fitting I'm entering Laos via road, since Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia.

Pausing right on the white border marker, I look down over the side of the bridge. On the map I’m carrying, this bridge is shown to cross over a river, but what is actually below me is a miniscule creek. It’s so narrow, that without a bridge I could cross it with one step. That’s not surprising; the Laos - Vietnam border has never been very difficult to cross, going in either direction. This gave the US military fits during the war, as they were unable to stop communist troops and weapons from infiltrating across this very border.

This smaller (and cheaper) arch marks the Laotian side
I continue walking the road between border posts, pulling my wheeled suitcase behind as I head towards immigration. A welcoming arch looms over the road that reads, “Lao people Democratic Republic”. I notice that the arch that I already passed through over on the Vietnamese side, is far larger and grander looking than this smaller one. Perhaps that’s a subtle attempt at intimidation by the Vietnamese.

Passing through the arch, I notice an odd choice of artwork painted on the wall of the interior: a dinosaur! It looks like a brontosaurus, standing in front of a big Buddhist monument. Buddhism is an ancient religion to be sure, but it certainly didn’t reach back to the age of the dinosaurs.

Waiting to clear customs along this border highway crossing, are long lines of trucks. Unlike the straight trucks I saw in northern Vietnam near the Chinese border, these are Russian made Kamaz trucks. To the other side of the road, is an even longer line of American flat bed tractor trailers, also waiting to clear customs. I’m surprised to see US made trucks here in this remote place, though they aren’t American owned, the trucking company is Vietnames

With all these heavy vehicles parked and idle, the only freight I actually see moving between these two nations is a two wheeled cart bearing produce. The cart is powered not by horse, but by a Vietnamese woman in sandals, who pulls it slowly behind her across the frontier. I’m amazed at her strength, she has to be pulling five times her own weight. After watching her, I’m not going to complain about pulling my insignificant suitcase.

Under the Laotian arch, a painting of... a brontosaurus??

A local woman pulls a heavy cart across the border

This border crossing was once on an ancient trade route connecting Laos and Vietnam. During the war there was little ‘official’ trade at this crossing due to heavy bombing, but in the past decade it has been regaining its prominence. The new bridge, the arches, and the border buildings have all been constructed in the past few years, as trade and tourism have gradually been revived.

After getting my passport stamped, I look for my way into the nearest town, but there are no buses or taxis waiting. A motorcycle driver approaches offering to take me into town, but only for an extortionate fee! I don’t feel like being ripped off today, and I don’t want to try balancing my suitcase on the back of a small motorbike either. Since it isn’t far and it’s still morning, I continue on down the road pulling my suitcase on wheels. Done with my border crossing, I head for the Laotian border town of Densavan, where I will take a hike on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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