Left Behind at the Border

“Hurry up,” the bus driver who would later claim not to speak English yelled at us from behind the wheel of the Sepon Travel “tourist” bus we were taking from Dong Ha, Vietnam to Savannahket, Laos. The six of us Westerners, the only actual tourists on the bus, turned toward the bus, gave the driver a long look, and told him that we were doing the best we could.

Jeff and I, along with four British tourists, were standing at the visa window at the Laos customs and immigrations station at the Lao Bao border. Everyone else was back on the bus and ready to go. As locals, all they had to do was get a quick stamp. They didn’t need to fill out four different forms, submit photos, obtain a visa, and then get the required stamp. But hey, we thought, they’d just have to wait. This was after all the “tourist” bus, the one every agency and guesthouse in Vietnam sold tickets for with promises that the bus would take us to the border, wait while we got our visas, and then carry us on to our destination in Laos. It was easy as cake we were told.

Except that it wasn’t. All six of us were being stonewalled by the one and only visa officer. He was pissed that we had simply asked why the visa fee was $10 more than the $30 we had been told it would be. We had confirmed the price with the Sepon Travel ticket agent just the day before. And we’d confirmed it with a French woman right there at the office who had passed through and paid $30 just two days prior. But at the window, we were told that no, it wasn’t $30 but was instead 350,000 kip for Americans and Brits, and 310,000 kip for Swedes. A very homemade sheet listing these prices was shown to us as proof. Wanting to pay in dollars, we asked what the exchange rate was, and we were told 8.600. None of us had an actual idea what it was but that seemed low. It also seemed extremely suspicious when a group of French people were charged $30 each when the rate sheet he showed us gave their visa fee as 300,000 kip. Wouldn’t that mean the exchange rate was 10,000 kip to $1 or that maybe the fee shit was just plain BS and the fee was a flat $30?

Frustrated but knowing that he held all the power, we very calmly asked him to explain how the fee structure worked. I don’t think he could, so he just didn’t. Instead he closed the window, walked to a desk further back in the room, and left us standing there. The bus driver, who hadn’t yet yelled at us, came over to see what was going on. We asked him to help or to translate or whatever, but he refused. Instead he began rounding up all the other passengers and getting them onboard, despite obviously knowing that we weren’t ready to go anywhere.

The “hurry up” call came just as the officer got up from the desk and reapproached the window. But he again refused to serve us or even speak to us. Instead he took all of our forms, crumbled them up, and threw them in the trash. He then sat and stared at us. Let’s just say that at this point, all six of us were reconsidering why we wanted to enter Laos at all. They weren’t exactly rolling out the welcome mat.

But we remained at the window, waiting for the officer’s power play to come to an end. Alice, one of the British girls, went to the bus to explain things to the driver, who by now was honking at us and slowly rolling the bus forward. It was obnoxious, but we figured he wasn’t actually going anywhere. We certainly weren’t, because now the visa officer had found a tour group that he’d decided to wait on instead. He had 10 visas to issue, and we could do nothing but stand there and curse him under our breath.

And then, as the visa officer moved on to about the 6 out of the 10, our bus pulled off. The young British couple got quite upset (all of our luggage was still on the bus after all), while us and the older British couple figured he was just pulling up near the gate or at most going to the town 1 km down the road to get the other passengers started on lunch. And anyhow, what was I going to do? Without a visa I couldn’t enter Lao.

Oddly enough, as soon as our bus pulled off, the visa officer decided we could after all have visas. Well, we could have them after first listening to a lecture from him about how difficult our countries make it for people like him to visit. What was this? Was our being stonewalled retribution for him not being able to get an American or British or Swedish visa? Anyhow, we listened, and nodded, and smiled, and then grabbed our passports with visas, got our stamps, and headed off to find our bus.

It wasn’t at the gate, but the official there said it had just gone into the town, so we began to walk there. We could see a number of buses pulled over on the side of the road, and we figured one must be ours. Wrong again. It was nowhere to be found in the one-horse border town. Well, we rationalized, it must be coming back for us. Strike three. The bus was gone, with our stuff, and with no intention of coming back. This we learned after phone call after phone call to the bus office, where we got run around after run around about what exactly was going on. Two hours after the bus left, we were finally told that we were on our own as far as getting to Savannahket, where we would be reunited with our luggage.

It was too late in the afternoon to catch another bus, so in the end, the six of us hired a sawngthaew (a converted pickup with two wooden benches down the sides of the truck bed) to take us the rest of the way. It cost us $40. Exhausted and angry, we finally arrived in Savannahket at 7 p.m. ready to let someone have it. But wouldn’t you know, the office was closed. Luckily they had left our luggage with a hotel clerk, and it was all there. We’d have to wait until tomorrow to have it out with Sepon Travel. There was no point in railing on a hapless hotel clerk the company had thoughtlessly left to deal with the mess, and we all just wanted a hot meal, a hot shower, and a bed.

The next morning, not willing to let a company get away with that, Jeff and I returned to the office to try to get compensated for our trouble. It wasn’t going to be easy. The office in Laos was just a ticketing agent. Sepon Travel is a Vietnamese company, and we weren’t in Vietnam. But we got the guy at the Laos office to call up the boss in Vietnam, and Jeff (quite calmly and rationally I must say) began to tell the guy what he owed us. Unfortunately, the guy didn’t think he owed us anything. Getting left at the border was, according to him, our fault. First he claimed that the bus driver didn’t speak English and had no idea what was happening. (Not true, but even if so, still their fault.) He then claimed that we had told the bus driver that we weren’t going to get visas, and so he left. (Oh yeah, we just thought we’d take a trip to the Laos border and live in no-man’s land for a while after stamping out of Vietnam). Then he said we had exceeded the time limit for the bus to wait. (We were not given a time limit. Giving a time limit would make no sense as we aren’t allowed to give ourselves a visa and stamp and thus must wait as long as it takes. And finally, advertising themselves as a tourist bus that helps tourists through the border process, they were, by us paying them, contracted to wait however long it took and then carry us on to Savannahket.)

Unfortunately, our being rational and demanding reasoning from them got us nowhere. Customer service does not exist in Asia, as far as we can tell. And getting anyone to take responsibility or tell the truth (instead of just telling you what they think you want to hear whether it’s true or not) is practically impossible. In the end, the guy offered us $20 total for the six of us. We told him he owed us at minimum $48 or half the price of the bus ticket each. We asked why $20, what reasoning there could be for this, but of course he offered none. And then he hung up on us. And when we called back, he disconnected his phone. Very professional, I tell you. Frustrated but tired, and determined not to let this incident set the tone for our time in Laos, we decided to just take the $20 and go. We’d fought the fight, and we’d lost.

But we’re going to do our best to make sure no one else ends up in the same losing battle. Word of mouth is king in the world of travel, and this is a story we just love to tell. Sepon Travel, you should have just been a responsible company and A) not left every single one of your tourists (the people you claim to cater to) at the border and B) ‘fessed up to your mistake and made it right.

*If you are trying to cross the border from Vietnam to Laos at Lao Bao, I highly suggest that you not take the Sepon Travel bus. They are obviously a recklessly irresponsible company. A Laos company called VIP bus also makes the trip, and I’d recommend trying to get a ticket with them. Or go ahead and just do it yourself. Local buses run to and from the border (though be aware that the last one leaves the immigration office for destinations in Laos in early afternoon).

**Also, just FYI, the exchange rate is, in fact, right around 8,600 kip to $1. What the visa actually costs, I don’t know, but at the Lao Bao border you’ll do no better than whatever rate is listed for your country on the very non-official paper the officer shows you.