Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | April 24, 2010

Planes, Boats and Automobiles

The Lao portion of our trip was winding down, it was time to head to Vietnam. But first we had a small detour in Vientiane, Laos, to change planes. In order to squeeze in some tourist time while we were there, our Lao guide Thong came along with us. It was Thong’s first time on an airplane.

Thong was a delightful host while we were in his country. A soft spoken man, he had a quick smile and a sharp sense of humor, even if we didn’t always fully appreciate his jokes. He was generous with his time and attention, making us feel welcome in this strange land, carefully explaining the foreign customs surrounding us.

Now, the tables were turned. He was the neophyte surrounded by a phalanx of travelers, their wallets bulging with assorted frequent flyer cards. Thong was the one trying something new now, and he appeared to be alternately petrified and giddy. He said he was completely unable to sleep the night before, plagued by nerves and excitement. He told us how he still remembered telling his village about his first ride in a car (and I did not get the impression that it had been particularly long ago). He couldn’t wait to add this story to his repertoire.

As we walked up to the Luang Prabang airport, we reviewed the details of pre-trip screening, such as it is in Laos. Instead of entering the building to begin luggage screening, you pass your bag through a hole in the outside wall. Fortunately, there is a conveyer belt under the hole that sweeps your bag into the x-ray machine. You then enter the terminal and, if all goes as planned, meet up with your belongings. If you have any contraband, there is the very convenient and clearly labeled “Box for Placing Prohibited Items,” a plexiglass case with a drop slot containing dozens of pairs of scissors, nail clippers, etc. It even contained someone’s passport photo. I guess in some countries an unflattering picture is considered a dangerous weapon. Truthfully, the poor woman’s picture didn’t strike me as that offensive, but I guess it could have done some minor damage. After gathering up our screened carry-on baggage, we proceeded to the lounge to wait for our flight. We passed time by watching and teasing Thong. We were snapping photos of him as if he was a celebrity. He smiled incessantly, but the nervous death-grip he had on his bag belied his jovial demeanor. He was terrified. And why shouldn’t he be? Soaring above the clouds in a tin can is not something that sounds the least bit safe.

Finally, it was time to board. Thong called his wife to tell her to go stand outside and look for the plane. We walked across the tarmac and climbed the stairs, all the while snapping pictures of Thong.

Thong getting ready to board

As we started our takeoff, every eye was on him. The flight to Vientiane was, fortunately, uneventful. The excitement on Thong’s face was hard to ignore, although there were a few pock marks of fear. After we landed, someone asked Thong how he was. His response: “I am better now.” Spoken like a jaded frequent flier.

We spent some time touring around Vientiane, then back to the airport to bid goodbye to Thong and head on to Vietnam. Thong was flying back to Luang Prabang that afternoon alone. I bet he slept well that night.

We arrived in Hanoi where we were met by our new guide, Tuan. As we climbed into vans to head to our next destination, Ha Long Bay,Tuan spoke to us about what to expect on the way. “In America,” he said, “you drive on the right. In England, you drive on the left. In Vietnam, we drive in the middle.” Everyone laughed. It turned out he wasn’t joking.

If traffic in Laos resembles a fire drill at an insane asylum, traffic in Vietnam is more like the inmates have staged a mass beak-out…and they’ve all gone off their medication. It is chaos layered with disorganization, topped off by confusion. Driving on the right is a mere suggestion: the middle is fine and the left will do in a pinch. As with Laos, the roads are crowded with motorbikes, pedestrians and bicycles, but there are substantially more cars and trucks. The drive from the Hanoi airport to Ha Long Bay was possibly the most terrifying experience if my life. I learned quickly to avoid looking out the front window, since every time I glanced that way I saw that we were driving right down the middle of the road with traffic coming straight at us. It was like a giant game of chicken. And it seemed we were always on the verge of losing.

We arrived at Ha Long Bay in the dark, and I have never been so happy to get on a boat, and away from cars, in my life. Greeted by the smell of salt air, we glided out into the bay, away from the cacophony of honking horns, and began our adventure in Vietnam.


  1. His name is NOT really Thong, OMG that is hilarious!!!

  2. Spelled the same but pronounced “Ton.” Fortunately.

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