We both had a good night's rest and woke up to a wonderful misty view of the mountains. We had a great hot bath to start the day and got on the road shortly afterwards.
We stopped in Lak Xao and used the last of our kip on diesel and to post some photo CDs back home. The road was a lot bumpier and dustier after that, although you can see that are making a good attempt to improve the road. When it is complete it will be excellent. We remembered to take photograph of one of the iron buffaloes parked alongside the road. We have so many of them since we have been in Thailand and Laos and I think they certainly make lighter work of field ploughing.
We got to the Laos border at about 10h30 and immigration was quick and painless. We had to wait for them to call the customs guy, so we watched a group of officers playing petanque. When the customs guy did arrive, he had no idea what to do with our carnet and walked off to collect someone who did. Michael then walked the guy through the process and we were finished in a matter of ten minutes. We drove through the border post and up to the Vietnamese side. The offices were extensive and quite modern, but all the booths where the officials were meant to be were empty. We at and waited with some of the locals and about 15 minutes later an official arrived. He only had one entry/exit form so he sent me all around the building to get another one. That done we competed the formalities and paid our $1 each for passport stamping (which everyone paid) and then we went around to the customs which is where all the fun and games began.
We casually passed them the carnet de passages and our passports. They had clearly never seen a carnet before, let alone farang tourists who wished to take their own vehicle across the border. They were friendly, but not particularly helpful to start with. After reading the list of countries on the back of the carnet (of which Vietnam is NOT one) they declared we couldn't use it. We said that was fine and we were happy to go through the normal temporary importation procedures (at this stage we had already completed, in duplicate, the customs form with all the car, owner details etc. they insisted we could not bring the car in and to cut a long story short, we explained our situation and how many prior countries we'd been through, but they weren't keen to look for solutions. Then they suggested that we go back to the Laos border and get a temporary transport document from them, which Michael duly did (well, at least the walking back to the Lao side and asking for it). The Lao side confirmed it was only for Lao vehicles. So it was back to the Vietnamese customs. At this stage I bowed out and Michael stayed and put forward our case while I went and sat in the car. He met an officer called Mr Doung, who was more helpful and appeared interested in trying to look for other options. He told Michael to go to Ha Tinh (some 2.5 hours drive away) to see the police and ask for a temporary permit, armed with a Post-it note with the relevant permit name scrawled in Vietnamese for the Police officer at the other end. They assured Michael it would take 2 hours to get there and that he could come home tonight. We packed him a bag with a towel and a few essentials just in case.
So he set off on a very bumpy journey through spectacular scenery, but he only got to Ha Tinh after 18h00! Needless to say the police officer Michael spoke to told him to come back tomorrow and see him. So he found a hotel (after looking at two) and then had to go on the back of a motorbike with the hotel employee to the police station to "register" as he wasn't prepared to hand his passport over! To make matters worse it was the end of a fasting period for everyone, so nothing was open and no food was to be had! He ate the four sesame seed snaps I'd packed for him and drank the bottle of water. He got roped into playing cards with the hotel owner and her friends, but at least he got to have a nice, deep hot bath! Although the brick-like bed made for a night of discomfort.
In the meanwhile, I holed myself up in Nyathi and read up on Vietnam and polished my language skills learning to count up to a hundred and mastering about six other phrases - I was quite pleased with my progress. I took a sneaky photo of the border buildingsthrough the windscreen when nobody was watching.
Then I noticed the local people with their vehicles crammed to the ceilings with all sorts of goods were all moving very close together (with Nyathi in the middle) and preparing to call it a night and come back tomorrow. I hastily moved Nyathi out and further back along the road to a quieter spot. The Vietnamese are much more inquisitive and forward than the other SE Asians we have encountered and think nothing of opening Nyathi's doors and looking inside. A few of them were rocking the vehicle (to test the springs?) and knocking on the compartments. By nightfall, I gathered Michael wasn't coming back. I sat and watched the border staff play football and then I chatted with a couple of the officers and they helped me with my Vietnamese pronounciation.
While we were chatting I saw large truck trundling up with what I thought were goats packed into iron cages with their legs protruding. Then, as it drew nearer, to my absolute horror I heard all the yelping and realised they were dogs! My hands instantly flew up to my mouth in disbelief and I turned away. The officers and guards of course thought this was amusing. I could not believe my eyes. There must have been over 500 dogs of all shapes, sizes and conditions crammed into cages stacked seven high and they were extremely distressed and protesting loudly. It was appalling and I felt so awful that there was absolutely nothing I could do. It felt like all the dogs were imploring me with their desperate eyes to do something! I felt sick to the stomach and retreated to Nyathi's cab where I put the windscreen reflector up and covered the windows with towels so nobody could see in.
The truck drove across the checkpoint and parked about 150m away. The dogs' crying was still clearly audible. I put on a DVD and attempted to drown out the noise and distract myself. I ate biscuits and cheese for dinner and put the ten up at just after 22h00, when I went to bed. I felt dreadful and so wished Michael was there to give me a hug and commiserate in the dogs' plight.
At 05h30 I heard the clanging waking call for the officers so I quickly got up and pulled the tent down. I was keen for as few people as possible to see that there was a big 'hidey-hole' in the top of the vehicle. I had witnessed yesterday how they made all the locals unpack every last item from their cars before allowing them to proceed, plus all 'walking' passengers have their bags X-rayed. I pushed the passenger seat flat, lay under a blanket with my ear plugs in and tried to get some more sleep. It was quieter than I had anticipated and I managed to semi-sleep until after 07h00. To my dismay when I got out the vehicle I could hear dogs crying in the distance and I knew another truckload was headed over from Laos. I thought I could see them moving cages in a truck parked in the valley in No-Man's land. I surreptitiously looked through my binoculars, but couldn't confirm my suspicions and I certainly wasn't going to walk down and investigate.
As I expected, Michael only got back at 14h00 and without any good news. The police had really messed him around. The officer who told him yesterday to come back this morning wasn't even there and the other officers were unhelpful to the point of being rude. They were laughing at him and telling him to go away with a dismissive wave of the hand.
He gave up at 11h00 and had a challenging time catching two buses back to the border. The driver of one tried to scam him out of money, so needless to say he was very unhappy when he got back. As the police did not seem remotely interested in giving us a special form, we told Customs that our vehicle registration papers were fine. We asked to see Mr Duong again and they told us to drive into the 'compound', but then we couldn't find Mr Duong and we had to contend with a gaggle of other officers, who weren't very encouraging, so we decided to call the embassy in Vientiane as they had told us we could take our vehicle in to Vietnam. Mr Duong arrived and in fairness, he really tried to be helpful. We drove the vehicle back to its original position and Michael spent a couple of hours with Customs trying to find out how to get the car in. In the end Mr Duong offered to go with Michael back to Ha Tinh in the afternoon, but after after consideration Michael and I decided it wasn't worth it and would mean another night in Ha Tinh. We told them we had been in discussion with the embassy and that they had said we shouldn't go back to Ha Tinh and that they would call us later with some suggestions.
I told Michael about the dogs and he went to take a closer look at the truck in the valley. Sure enough, they were transferring the dogs from one truck to another. Michael said it was atrocious. They lifted the cages with hooks and every now and again hooked the dog's skin too! Then they would put it down on the cage below and woe betide any dog whose ear or paw was in the way - it just got crushed. Michael asked them if they gave the dogs water and the guys just looked at him as if he was mad. I had heard the dogs at about 07h30, so they had been out in the sweltering heat all day. Both Michael and I felt disgusted.
If a nation decides to eat dogs or cats, it is (barely) acceptable, however, to treat the animals so badly beforehand is barbaric! I know we eat cows, pigs and chickens, but we believe there is a difference. Dogs are more intelligent and I have never heard other animals protest at their treatment in the ways these dogs did. Although we felt revolted we took a photograph to remind us (and other people) of how cruelly animals can be treated. It was Gandhi who said "The greatness of nation, an its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
Tonight, the truck parked just twenty metres away from us and once again a retreat to the cab was called for and another night at the border!
We didn't sleep very well, but in the morning we wrote up a letter stating what had happened regarding our attempt to get Nyathi into Vietnam. Mr Duong came over to Nyathi to talk to us and Michael explained what we were doing. A little later he asked Mr Duong to read the letter and comment on whether he thought it was a fair representation of what had happened (we included in the letter the 3-day wait in Vientiane and the $100 cost for the visas). Mr Duong was very keen to emphasise that Customs was trying to help. Today was actually his day off and in the end he really went out of his way to help us. He offered a a free room in their hotel compound with a very clean shower, toilet and beds. He also insisted we eat at the officers mess, so we sat and had some rice, green leafy steamed vegetable and pork for lunch (one of the accompanying sauces, which I had a small taste of was definitely not suited to my palate and I had a hard time not gagging and washed it down hastily with three gulps of rice). We had a brief wander around the border town and bought a couple of mandarins.
Then he organised with his boss for the customs driver to take all three of us in to Ha Tinh and see the police. Before we left he diligently made photocopies of all our documents and got a letter from the customs chief to give to the Police chief, whom as we understand it, had already had conversations.
Our driver, Mr Jung played us (at maximum volume) a tape of music dedicated to the memory and courageous achievements of Ho Chi Min. It was prefaced, strangely, by a five minute propagandist speech in English! The wonderful thing about the drive was that I got to experience a bit of Vietnam. Michael was right when he said the driving was maniacal and that everyone just sits on their hooters. However, to counter that the scenery was a verdant green and the mountains and valleys we drove through were like the quintessential Vietnam.
Emerald coloured paddy fields tended by folk in conical hats and the odd scarecrow sporting a conical hat too). Buffalo led by their owners around the paddy edges, to look for nutritious feed, without trampling the crop. It was beautiful and the villages seemed to have a neater, more colourful hue to those we have seen in Laos. One thing we thought was a little strange were the number of graves in the middle of fields surrounded by rice. There were also a number of fields which had cemeteries as backdrops.
We arrived at the police station at about 16h00 and Michael and Mr Duong went in. After completing more forms and further discussions (peppered with a bit of banter between Michael and the head honcho, who was practising his English) it turns out there were two options. We could either have a permit immediately for only the Ha Tinh province (which really was not an attractive option for us), or we could wait until the 3rd March when the application for all provinces in Vietnam would be processed and return to the Ha Tinh station. Michael opted for the latter and we left with a receipt to say we should return on the 3rd, when the application SHOULD be approved and returned.
Then Mr Duong told us Mr Jung (our driver) was tired and could we stay in Ha Tinh. This time we had come with a blanket, toothbrushes and a warm top each, but we were really NOT keen to stay the night. However, we decided it was better to stay (although we really didn't believe the driver's "I'm not well" story) so we went back to the same hotel Michael stayed at the night before last. The driver wanted us to be ready at 04h00 and we said no way! We negotiated him to 06h00 and agreed to be ready promptly.
We spent the evening walking through the streets. If friendliness were measured in decibels, the Vietnamese in Ha Tinh would win hands down! A group of women cleaning sand and pebbles were more than happy to let me take their photograph, waving and smiling for us. Everyone was saying hello and the children were following us along the road practising their few stock phrases. One girl on a bicycle plucked up the courage to ask us for an autograph! It was so sweet, because from her manner she came across as timid and demure and probably the one in the class who is always teased to being prudish. Both old and young were keen to greet us and at the market the sellers were calling to each other to say there were farangs.
We stopped and had a Hidu beer (which Michael said it was nasty) and a 7-up at one of the small market stalls. The lady offered us a boiled egg and although we were both very hungry, we declined. We had heard from Kat that in Vietnam that they let the chicks develop in the shells and then they boil them. Shortly afterwards two men sat down and ordered some rice liquor and eggs. We were right to be cautious! The moment they cracked the eggs an unpleasant smell emanated and sure enough you could see the chick inside. It was pretty awful, especially as they suck out all the liquid first and then eat the bird in one or two mouthfuls. We decided to down our drinks swiftly and get out of there.
We stopped and bought some fruit and practised a bit of our Vietnamese with some ladies and then we got fresh, hot baguettes. A bit further on we bought some drinks and a small pot of condensed milk and we headed home. We ate our simple fare ravenously and went for a long hot bath - bliss. We discussed the pros and cons of waiting for a further 6 days for the (possibility) of a permit. We didn't make a final decision and both agreed bed was more important. Just then there was a loud knocking at the door and the hotel owner (after frantic charade displays of her being handcuffed by the police) persuaded us to give her our exit papers to take to the police and register. true to her word she returned just before 22h00 happy and our papers were returned and she asked for two bananas and left.