Laos to Vietnam

October 22, 2008 at 4:43 pm 2 comments

I arrived in Vietnam 3 days ago after a 6 hour bus journey from Savanahket (in Laos) to the border, plus 2 hours to the city of Dong Ha by taxi where i cought the 13 hour night train to Hanoi. Coming towards the border on the bus i was glad to leave Laos.


Here i am at the border…


Laos is a peculiar country. Guide books describe it as a very laid back and friendly place… and this is true… in a way. I never once witnessed an act of hostility or violence. I was never robbed (unless you count that one time on the slow boat with the kid who took too much) and i never felt unsafe. The Lao treat each other with respect (ex: men will help women with belongings on busses, busses will actually stop for passengers on the street) and openness (people who don’t know each other talk instead of sitting together in silence). All this was very nice.

However, the Lao people (as a group) can also be rude. Very often, when i’d pass a group of women or girls and they would start talking about me. (The word for foriegner is ‘falang‘ and it’s not always very nice. Kind of like the word nigger in the USA. Imagine being black and passing a group of people who break out into laughter and yelp ‘nigger nigger’ in every sentence amongs themselves as you pass? It’s not pleasant.) I just don’t understand how a whole group of people can do this without being mindful of the tactlessness of it. Sometimes i’d turn my head and stare at them, hoping to remind them that i understand that they’re talking about me. They would always pause when i did this, then laugh. As an anthropology student i feel strange to be so perturbed by this.

I also hated the indifference with which many Lao people handle practical matters. They don’t care if you buy from them or not if to make the sale they have to struggle to understand you. If there’s “work” involved, they’d rather make no sale. Another issue was the lack of rational thinking. (Lack of adequete schooling is a possible cause.) Being a vegetarian, i carried a paper with me that said “I’d like to eat. But i don’t eat meat. Can you make vegetables?” Most of the time i showed this paper i was met with very confused faces, followed by smiling and a head shaking no (even if the food in question was meatless). Isn’t it rational to assume that if you’re holding a bougette and i’m pointing at it and then to my paper back and forth that i’m asking if one agrees with the other? In many situations, the Lao failed to make this connection.

edit:  I hope i didn’t give a negative impression of the Lao people. Being in Vietnam, i’m really missing the warm Lao aura. Some examples i didn’t mention were how welcoming the young Lao people were (whether they spoke any English or not) when they saw westerners in bars and night clubs. They would actively encourage us to join them, pull us to their table, and dance with us. They always smiled and wanted to talk.

So i hoped to find something more familiar to me in Vietnam. I had decided not to stay in Dong Ha because i wanted to get to Hanoi as soon as possible. I felt tired of provincial places. I had hired a taxi who took me to the train station where i bought my ticket and then he suggested i come over his home since i had several hours before the train’s departure. I had many reservations at first, but when i learned that his wife and children were home i decided it would be nice to spend time with a Vietnamese family.

In essense, what happened was this: I ate with his family and played with his young children. When i used the toilet i didn’t take my bag with me and during this time he or someone in the family removed 500,000dong from my wallet. Before this he had helped me change one of my bills into a smaller ones and had given me a 200,000dong bill which later i learned was fake. So by the time i reached Hanoi, i felt betrayed and depressed.

Hanoi is full of taxis – motorcycle taxis, pedicabs, car taxis. They are most abundant in the old quarter (where i live), to the extent where i am propositioned at every other step. On other streets, i am propositioned every 5 meters instead. All these taxi drivers look the same (in my eyes) and they all use the same method to call attention to themselves. In a voice reminiscent of an old friend, they’ll yell out “hello.” Since my arrival in Hanoi i’ve been very hostile towards them, ignoring them and cursing them silently or shooing them away with my hand. I realize now that it’s this tone of friendship they assume that disturbs me so much. Unconsciously it reminds me of the driver from Dong Ha who acted as a friend and then robbed me. I wish they would make it illegal for the taxis to sollicit.

Nor are the people i’ve met on the streets in Hanoi very friendly. I sense a dislike for foreigners from the Vietnamese who have nothing to gain by talking to you. They only talk to you if there’s something you have that they want. It wasn’t like this in Lao. It’s like i was floating down a peaceful stream (Lao) when all of a sudden i came upon turbulent rapids and sharks (Vietnam). I’m adjusting…

ps. I’ve shared this with several friends and some have had (or know others who did) similar first experiences in Vietnam. So i suppose it’s like an initiation, a vaccination…

I should feel lucky that i was only robbed of 700,000 (16,500dong = 1$ so it’s not a lot of money) and not my whole wallet or passport.


Oh and here are some pictures of Hanoi traffic at night…

chaos: motorcycles ride on the side-walk when they feel like it, 
few traffic lights (for cars, not pedestrians)


And for those who like dogs or meat or both….



Entry filed under: travel. Tags: , , , , .

Pakse feet

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dina  |  October 25, 2008 at 11:45 am

    Not so bad.

  • 2. Holly  |  April 24, 2013 at 5:19 am

    I know what you mean about Laotians though. I’m an american born Laotian, nice tan, Tall, I don’t look like an average Laotian facial wise and body type, and I’m far from fluent in speaking Lao but I do understand what people say. I came to visit family for the first time and it was nice at first but then after awhile you see the changes… I guess it’s just jealousy, malice, and being uneducated. But people like to literally yell loudly their opinions of you trying to make you feel bad if they are in a group of friends. they talk about you when you’re standing RIGHT there, but they don’t face you to avoid confrontation or give you a chance to defend yourself. Literally the whole neighborhood will have something to say about you whether it be bad or good, even if you have not met them. They tend to laugh at you, i guess because they are just scared of being laughed at. In a way I don’t blame them because they just don’t know any better and they think that being loudmouths is a good defense mechanism when being confronted with something different… but it does get tiring. and i’m glad to go back to America where people just are more understanding and accepting…. hmm well a lot of the time anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are good people in Laos and its not full on hating and like you said it’s like going through nice flowing relaxing waters. But I just wish they stop being such hard minded people and just learn to accept other cultures openly, but its hard with their tradition set lifestyle.


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