THE DISTANCE BETWEEN Hue, Vietnam’s pre-communist capital, and Savannakhet, a sleepy Lao city by the Mekong River, is over 400 kilometres of thick tropical forest. The border checkpoint, somewhere in-between, lies truly in the middle of nowhere. Four hours got us this far, and it would be longer until Savannakhet: five hours by bus, and unimaginably longer if the bus, say, left without us.
Which, of course, it just did.
I’d asked my girlfriend to wait where it had parked, and jogged up to the bank to exchange our Vietnamese money for Lao kip. I was figuring out how best to mime “commission rate” to the teller when a Dutch guy, who’d been sitting behind us on the bus, opened the door and nervously announced: “Um, our bus is leaving.”
I looked out the window and saw two things: first, my girlfriend, looking incredulous by the empty parking space, mouth open and arms outstretched; second, our big grey bus, leisurely rolling away from her.
I quickly shoved the Vietnamese money back into my wallet and rushed outside with the Dutchman. We screamed and ran hopelessly for maybe 10 seconds before, almost out of nowhere, a dozen motorcyclists pulled up ahead of us, waving us down: “Ride?”
So now we found ourselves in this high-speed chase – me, my girlfriend and the Dutchman whose name I never learned – on three separate bikes, racing down this dusty mountain road. A canvas-covered shipment truck drove ahead of us, and when we overtook it, I glimpsed the edge of the cliff a few metres away. Beyond that, the whole Lao mountain range spread out into the horizon; everything was high-noon bright, but hazy, too, because of the mountain fog. The wind blew my hair hard but I turned into it, squinting ahead, honing in on our target.
In that moment, I felt exactly like James Bond.
We cut the bend to catch up, when suddenly – there it is! It’s slowing down! I assumed the bus driver saw us, because he began pulling over into a plot of dirt in front of a wooden bungalow. Mission accomplished.
As we hopped off the bikes, we realized the bungalow was, in fact, a restaurant, situated only a few hundred metres from the border, where everyone on the bus stepped off, relaxed, and ate lunch for the next 30 minutes.
We paid our drivers a dollar each, and I stopped to wonder if the whole thing was just a big set-up to catch slow foreigners. But then, I consider: one dollar is roughly what I’d pay to ride a roller coaster, which is nowhere near as thrilling as those 10 seconds of being James Bond.
This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail in March, 2013.