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.

8 Replies to “Left Behind at the Border”

  1. This begs the question – was the hassle worth the $10 extra you didn’t want to pay for the visa?

    My friends and I encountered the same problem in Cambodia… they wanted 1,000 baht for the visa ($29), even though it says right on it US $20 and we had US $20 to pay for it. “no no no… we cannot take $20… the $20 is only if you go to the other cosulate” etc. etc. We just paid up and were on our way within five minutes.

    Yes, it was a rip off, but when traveling in some of the poorest countries in Asia, you’re going to get ripped off. You kind of need to decide what’s worth it and what’s not.

    I have since learned that you’re more likely to be charged the appropriate amount if you get the visa at an embassy/consulate ahead of time and not at the border. When you’re at the border you’re stuck, and they know that.

    In any case sorry you had such a crappy time of things, and hope the rest of your trip is enjoyable!

  2. It’s the principle of the matter. Sure it would have been easier to pay the “extra” $10 but that’s not what it costs. If travelers just willingly go along with this corruption (“Oh its only $10) what’s to say the people working the crossing won’t begin asking for $15 more. Or $20 more. This isn’t the first time they’ve encountered this problem, so it does no good for other travelers when those before them just agree to pay a greater amount just because its easier.

  3. honestly, I have never heard of people going through so many problems at the borders as you all have. wow. i think your just that unluckly person you hear about. I feel bad as it’s probably given you a shitty impression of asia.

    on the other hand, this is why I hate vietnam. nothing good ever comes from booking something in that country….ever…EVER. which is also one more reason why I will never go back to vietnam.

    but i still feel bad- you hit every bad immigration officer. I also wouldnt be surprised if there was a scam with the sepon travel office with the visas where they get a kick back.

  4. Rebel—It wasn’t about the money so much here. (Although I think Gregory outlined my position pretty well. It’s the principle.) We weren’t refusing to pay an “extra” amount; we were simply asking what the amount was and how he came up with the rate in dollars, especially since it wasn’t what we were told it was and it wasn’t what he charged the people in front of us. The officer was on a power trip, evidenced most by his long lecture on the visa systems in our countries and how he can’t get a visa to go to the US or Britain.

  5. Matt—We’re trying to remember that the men in uniform aren’t representative of the rest of the people, but damn do they get us started off with a bitter taste in our mouth. Usually a good meal and a good night’s sleep and an interaction with a friendly local sets us back on a good track. I think you’re right in that they’re might be a kick-back going to Sepon Travel, because at one point the bus driver went in the office, said some things we obviously couldn’t understand, received a response from the officer, and shortly after that drove off. A guy at the office in Laos said he thinks the visa officer probably told him to leave us…or told him he wasn’t going to get his kickback and thus opted to leave us. And it was a bit suspicious that the visa officer decided to finally serve us not a few minutes after the bus left.

    But actually, we really, really enjoyed Vietnam other than that. So far, it’s the country in Asia I’d be most likely to return to.

  6. This reminds me of the time we negotiated a price for a fish-tail boat ride to a remote dwelling on a penisula in Thailand. When we got out in the water and far away from land, the boat driver demanded an extra fee. You want to talk about stranded? lol We actually refused, while the others on the boat paid. I think, in the end he realized if it came down to it, three Americans were more likely to throw him off the boat and into the water than he was to get our gear off the boat and into the water. Principles. Stand by them…unless you are outnumbered. 🙂

  7. @rebel: Yes, people who deal with situations like this do have the option to simply bite the bullet and pay the scam price regardless… BUT, the more people who allow themselves to be scammed, the more shameless the scammers become.

    @Phil: Good play. Recognise when you occupy the higher (or drier) ground, morally or nautically and press the advantage, so long as you are also morally right.

    @Theresa: From my visit to Lao earlier this year, there are different prices dependant on your nationality. The cheapest were around US$30, with the most expensive, from memory, being Canada which was around US$42. Same deal with China, where an Aussie gets a visa for US$32 or so, and an American fee is US$130+. But, that is apparently due to a reciprocal fee arrangement.

    Don’t let the immigration guy ruin your trip – I found Laos to be one of the most laidback and welcoming countries I have travelled through. The locals are far nicer than the uniformed stooges working the door.

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