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Stung Treng to 4000 Islands to Vietnam - a travel report

I travelled from Stung Treng up to 4000 Islands in Southern Laos. It was relatively hassle-free, but the route is still pretty undeveloped. Contrary to what the latest Lonely Planet Cambodia says, there is no need to get a police permit in Stung Treng – a valid Laos visa is all you need. Also the Lao consul in Ho Chi Minh City (who was a very charming and friendly man) had assured me that it was impossible to enter Laos from Cambodia, and had insisted that I state Vientiane as the point of entry on the visa application form. However this caused no problems at all.

In Stung Treng there are one or two traveller orientated cafes near the river. Just sitting there, you will be quizzed about your travel plans, and I was told there was a boat leaving for the border at 7 am the next day. Price was 5 dollars, which was very reasonable as I was the only passenger. It turned out that they had arranged to meet a party coming south from Cambodia, so the boat had to travel up anyway. The journey was about two hours, going against the current when the Mekong was in full flood. It was a pretty awesome experience, winding through the drowned forest. Worth noting – it was a VERY small boat – if you have any qualms about sitting in the bottom of a tiny wooden boat on a rush mat, then this route is probably not for you.

At the border the experience became very Lao. I cleared Cambodian emigration on one bank of the river, and then the guide took me by boat to the other side. He then looked confused – there was no sign of any immigration office. There were some guys on motorbikes, who told him that it wasn’t far, and that they would take us there, but then showed no signs of doing so any time soon (being used to the bustle and impatience of Vietnam, this was quite alien to me). After a while I asked if it was far, and the guide said maybe 1 km, so we walked.

At the immigration office I was processed fairly quickly, though there was an extra two dollars “overtime” charge as it was Sunday. (This was advertised on a poster on the wall, so no way out of it). The next problem was moving on. There were two or three empty trucks parked up, waiting for passengers to take up the road, but obviously not intending to leave until full. They quoted me ten dollars to rent the whole truck, which I balked at. Again, being used to Vietnam, I asked around for a motorbike to take me. One of the customs officers mulled it over, and then agreed, saying “ten dollars.” When I pointed out that I could get a truck for the same price, he thought it over and suggested eight dollars. I mooted three dollars, at which he shrugged, and got back in his hammock. In Vietnam there would have been a scrum jostling for the business, but that’s not the Lao way of doing things, and in the end I had to fork out ten dollars.

4000 Islands was fantastic.

Some days later I left from Savannakhet to cross to Vietnam. I was told that there was a direct bus to Danang leaving every night at 10 pm. I didn’t like the idea of an overnight journey, so decided to get a bus to Lao Bao on the border early in the morning. Unfortunately my departure was delayed by a dose of the Pathet Lao’s revenge and I finished up departing about 11 am.

The road to the border is now excellent, but the bus took about seven hours and things were very quiet at the border. In fact on the Vietnamese side somebody had to telephone a customs officer who arrived from home about twenty minutes later looking rather disgruntled at being disturbed.

I had hoped to travel down to Dong Ha on the coast that night, but Lao Bao was firmly shut down, and nothing was moving. Still, it was an interesting place to stay for the evening, though they tried to rip me off quite blatantly for accommodation. The town now has two huge hotels, and a large glossy shopping centre, all ready for a cross-border influx of Lao shoppers which hasn’t yet arrived.

Transport to Dong Ha was by minibus the next day. This was slow, as they cruise round and round the town until they’ve picked up more passengers than they can safely carry. In the end 80 km on a reasonable road took over two hours. At Dong Ha I was able to repeat the experience on another minibus into Hue.

All in all both crossings are not difficult, but a little time-consuming.


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