Our sleeper bus to Dien Bien Phu, just under 40 km from the border of Laos, turned out to be one of the best sleeping experiences either of us has had while being transported somewhere. The double seats were long enough for my 6'1" frame to fully stretch out and so it was that with bleary but rested eyes we found ourselves pulling into DBP just before dawn. The city itself doesn't have a whole lot going on. For foreigners, it is mostly either a stopover point as the last city before the border crossing or a history buff bookmark as the site of the final battle with the French in the first Indochina war. After checking into a guesthouse for the evening, we spent the day exploring the quiet streets and searching for two things: food, and a place to exchange some Vietnamese Dong into Laos Kip.
Search number one was the money. You would think that banks at a border town listing exchange services complete with rates would exchange the local currency for the neighboring one. And you would be wrong. Not one but six different banks denied us the service ("We only exchange money into Dong") and three of them suggested we try the gold shop at the main roundabout intersection. "Sure," he said, in whatever mixed language understanding we could conjure, "hold on". We waited a bit while he shuffled through piles and stacks (literally) of money, taking in the fact that his gold jewelry shop was, in the back, outfitted with a complete dentist office setup and some sort of office. One stop shopping? He returned saying no can do and then showed us why: in his wallet a stack of US dollars, none of which would work to break our change as all he had was hundred dollar bills. So it goes.
Search number two, to soothe our disheartened souls, was to find some lunch. Fresh from the street food extravaganza in Hanoi, we headed for the market; a tidier, cleaner, and more open air affair than most, but still complete with piles of eggs in sawdust on a tarp, little mountains of chilies and limes and garlic, buckets of eels and other swimming critters, and, of course, food vendors. We spent maybe fifteen seconds looking at the sign for Pho Ga/Bo/Other (Vietnamese noodle soup with Chicken/Beef/etc.) before a youngish (maybe 25...maybe 35...?) woman with a huge smile came running (actually running) over to usher us to her booth. You have to just follow your gut in these situations sometimes and after trying to question whether it was possible to get Pho Vegetable/tofu with mixed results we decided to just go for it. WIN.
What we got not only ended up being one of, if not THE best bowls of Pho, with fresh tofu from the market and a language free conversation of smiles and laughter throughout, but also a lesson in Vietnamese. We're not sure if the dialect is really as different as they made it seem or if we're really just that bad at getting the nuances of speaking with tonal up and down languages, but they got a kick out of trying to teach us and we (mostly) figured out how to order the soup we were after. Five hours later, we were back for another round and before we could pay we saw our new friend run off, hop on her motorbike waving and smiling, and then return some ten minutes later with her three year old daughter in tow. This time it was our turn to try to coax some words out, as mother prodded shy (and chocolate lollipop preoccupied) daughter to say hello and try out her few English words.
What I haven't mentioned yet is Laos. In the few weeks leading up to our arrival there we'd been doing research on a route, learning key language phrases, and trying to get an actual idea of whether or not we could obtain visas at the border. Search the internet and you'll find enough yes and no reports about this particular border crossing to make it thoroughly impossible to feel sure. Could we have gotten it at the Laos embassy in Hanoi? Yup. Did we? Nope. Mark it up to our being to excited by what was in front of our noses, but we just didn't do it. To add to that, in pushing our time in Hanoi and Vietnam back, we were cutting into the time we had allotted for Laos. I wrote before about maintaining a flexible schedule but when it comes to major plane ticket purchases, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet - something we did, capping our time in Southeast Asia with a flight out of Bangkok on January 26. Bus tickets in hand, we went to bed ready to board the 5am minibus across the border (or at least to it, were we to find no visas available). At 4:15 the next morning, our alarm called us back from sleep and right into an executive meeting where we chose to follow our guts once more.
We were both looking forward to exploring this little country that we've heard nothing (truly, nothing) bad about so on the one hand it was kind of a bummer to let go of the idea that it would be a part of this particular trip. On the other hand - it just didn't seem right. It felt too short, it felt too rushed, it felt like we were cutting off Vietnam despite loving it...so we let it go, reminding ourselves, again, that A) there was never a chance this one trip was going to take us everywhere we want to go B) we can always come back and C) our trip means our rules and within that, there is no right or wrong. There is no "seeing the wrong thing" or "missing out", even when only judged by our own standards. There is only doing what we can and want to do and enjoying whatever that ends up being - something that has, repeatedly, been a harder to grasp reality than idea.
New bus tickets acquired, we got to spend a second day in DBP, making our way up the 359 steps to Victory Monument (where we were serenaded by two competing karaoke singers), enjoy another delicious bowl of pho and arrange ourselves a cheap last minute flight from Hanoi back to Bangkok the day our Vietnam visa expired.
Boarding another pre-dawn minibus in the freezing cold bound for Son La - a town known for its tea industry - the next morning, we were accompanied by a couple ladies in traditional outfits who gave up their breakfast out the window while sacks of rice came and went from the center aisle. Our stopover here served as part of our slow crawl back towards Hanoi, less a retreat and more a taste of what a future return trip (in warmer weather, or at least with our warmer clothes) might look like: a visit to the mountains of Sapa, further exploration of the fields that produced the oolong and green teas we were lucky enough to sample, and some of the local dairy pastures of Moc Chau. A couple extra days in Hanoi finished off what was left of our Vietnam Visas, afforded us a couple more tastes of the streets, and left our brains feeling more in sync with the locations and surroundings of our bodies - at ease with our decisions and excited for the trip when Laos, at last, pulls us across its border.