We well deserved a rest day Sam Neua, and restful it was, with the sole event of note being a stroll round the markets to look some of stalls selling (amongst other things) flaid rat. (It should be pointed out though that most of the stalls were selling perfectly normal produce and so we were able to enjoy a tofu and fish paste baguette lunch, followed by a bamboo-tube-full of sweet sticky rice for pudding, but they don’t make for interesting reading.)
The next day was a short day, heading to our final Laotian destination of Veng Xia. Out the other side of Sam Neua the geography seemed to be surprising different, all be it a variation on the continuing theme of “bloody hilly”. Gone were the rolling mountains and wiggly climbs, replaced by tight little nooks and wide flat river valleys, perforated by huge karst mountains rising out of the abandoned paddy fields. The climate had also changed, and the crystal clear sky had been swapped for low hanging cloud which appeared to be snared on the mountain tops, completely immobile.
The mountains around Vieng Xia contain a rabbit warren of caves and tunnels, and it is in the these tunnels that many thousands of Laotian people (including the Communist Party, which now run the country) hid during the 50s and 60s while the Americans did their level best to flatten the entire mountain range. It is for this reason that Veng Xia is now a popular and unprecedentedly interesting tourist destination. We were shown round the caves, (hospital cave, war cabinet cage, presidents cave, family and friends cave) and finished in the auditorium cave where in the past Russian ballet dancers came to entertain the subterranean inhabitants, but now the cave we treated only to our tour guide performing a rendition of some local ditty. And very good he was to.
Sam Neua had failed us badly in the supply of Indian Restaurants, and it was in this same category that Vieng Xia outdid itself. The india restaurant there was run by an Indian man that looked as happy to see us as we were to see him (i.e. very) and although our hearts sank when we read the menu and saw only the normally Laotian fodder of noodle soup and sticky rice he quickly came back and, leaning in close, said in a conspiratorial whisper “This is the Lao food… I also do Indian.” And bloody good Indian it was to. So good infact that we came back for breakfast.
Our last day in Lao went much as those before it had done… hillylyly… It featured all the thing that had come very much to symbolise our time in Lao, namely sicky rise, and it was a surprisingly long cycle to the border. Ever since our first Laotian border official debacle we have always been wary of border crossings. However, once again we arrived at the exit to Lao and received only interest and friendly comments of support, then crossed unhindered into no mans land. Rounding the corner we were confronted with the formidable looking Vietnam border control building, (of which there would be a photo however sadly at this point Sam’s camera seems to have failed (possibly disabled by some Thunderbird style photo deleting force field emanating from the Vietnamese offices) and so no photos exist). Here too proceedings were carried out exactly by the book, many hundreds of lines of forms and documentation was filled in to make sure that our arrival in the country was properly recorded, our visas checked and verified and were free to go.
This complete fidelity to process was if anything a bit annoying for Sam, who had realised while we were in Luang Prabang that his Vietnamese visa was infact due to expire three days before were booked to fly out of the country. People had suggested that, rather than incurring an overstay penalty he might be able to slip the man on the door a couple of bob and get the numbers jimmied. Sadly however the men in racing green military uniforms were having none of this, and so he had to go into the country with the rather worrying promise of being an illegal immigrant in a communist state.
On the way out the other side everyone’s belongings were getting thoroughly checked, our panniers were gone through with a fine tooth comb, and as we pulled away a woman pushing a small cart was stopped, and a number of her chicken were carried away, presumably for questioning.
Just over the border was the town of Na Moew, and we plugged for the first hotel looking building we could find. This was a sort of cross between a prison and hospital, where the beds stank of cigarettes, and the bathroom stank of urine. To begin with the electricity didn’t work, but after a while that picked up and it was the water that gave out instead. Features included a sort of weird communal balcony, a French style open courtyard and conference room featuring a bust of Ho Chi Minh, reminding us (had there been any doubt) that we were indeed in Vietnam.
Before heading out for dinner Sam popped down stairs to buy a can of beer, being (it turned out later) horrifically over charged for a beer that tasted like a cocktail of sulphur and cabbage. We had more luck when we headed out for dinner however, and we managed to find a restaurant with a manager who spoke essentially fluent English. We could therefore be pretty sure that the local delicacies we were introduced to did not contain any of the pickled snake, which sat in pride of place on top of the fridge.
Day 1 – Sam Meua to Vieng Xia
Day 2 – Vieng Xia to Na Meo