Sam Neua really didn't have much going on. We wandered up the main street and got to the temple (accompanied by 6-7 curious kids who kept saying "Sabaidee" [hello] in order to see what we'd do), had a look around, then wandered back again via a fresh food market. There appeared to be only one internet cafe in town so we tried to find some more information on Thanh Hoa online, failed, and left after ten minutes.
There also only appears to be 2 restaurants with English menus. If Laos didn't have a completely different script for their alphabet, it wouldn't be so difficult; as it is, our eating options are limited to what we can read, unless we planned to take some risks. Going by yesterday's English language breakdown, and the fact that the guidebook suggests some of the other Laos restaurants are for "adventurous types" and include intestines, we decided to play it safe. More rice and noodles, yum.
Today we checked out of the guesthouse at 7am, having said our goodbyes to Carolyn and Brian last night, as they are staying around to visit the Viengxay caves (something we might have done if we'd had more time). After a hike up to the bus station, we got on the bus only for it to come back down to the centre and stop for an hour whilst the driver had breakfast. Great.
The drive to Thanh Hoa wasn't that eventful. We went through passport control and baggage checking at the border, whilst a Vietnamese official offered to buy our remaining kip at a rate of 2 dong to 1 kip. The current rate is 2.6 dong to 1 kip. I suggested he offered more. He politely refused. I politely refused. We hung on to our kip. Shortly after, we stopped at a little Vietname restaurant where we had our first taste of Vietnamese food. It was steamed rice, steamed spinach, and a couple of pork skewers. The pork was excellent, and the rest was as you'd expect - filling, but bland. Still, I managed to pay in kip - take that, Mr. Unreasonable Exchange Rate Man.
After we crossed the border, the bus journey got more unpleasant. Lots of Vietnamese people crammed in, and many of them decided to light up during the journey. Now, my parents both smoked all through my childhood and teens. I hated it; it's a vile, toxic habit which even to this day makes me feel ill when I'm around cigarettes. It was even worse on car journeys, and may have been the cause of my car sickness when I was younger. Today was the first time I'd been in a moving vehicle whilst around someone actively smoking for well over a decade, and it did not make me feel good. I'm not sure what the smoking laws are on buses, but I suspect even if there are any, the police probably wouldn't be too bothered. In any case, the journey was fairly miserable for both of us.
On arrival in Thanh Hoa, we were pretty much surrounded by groups of motorbike taxi guys, all speaking Vietnamese at us, miming "sleep" and asking us if we wanted to go with them to a guesthouse which they'd undoubtedly get commission from. At that point, we had no Vietnamese dong, and only a vague idea of where we were. One of them suggested that I got on his bike whilst he took me to an ATM; leaving Gilly with our luggage and six unfamiliar men didn't appeal, so I declined and we decided to head up the street on our own, leaving the locals laughing at our backs. Luckily we didn't have to walk far - a hotel about 50m from the bus station looked fairly inviting (the Minh Hotel, I believe), and after inquiring we found it was 200,000 dong or $10. We decided to check out the room, and it looked reasonable. That is, until I decided to use the bathroom, closed the glass fronted door behind me, and then realised that I couldn't open it again. The handle turned but the door wouldn't open. I asked Gilly to open it from her end. There was no handle on her side. I was literally stuck in the bathroom, and unable to get out. After a couple of minutes trying to lever the door open, we gave up and Gilly went down to get some help. I wondered if this was what a contestant on The Crystal Maze felt like.
The guy came back, fiddled with the handle for a minute or so, and managed to get it open. Then, inexplicably, he decided to go into the bathroom himself, close the door behind him and check if the same problem occurred. Naturally, it did. He was now stuck in the bathroom in the same way I was, with the difference being that he knew what he did to open the door, I didn't, and neither of us could communicate about it. In the end I used the tried and tested method of swiping a credit card down the door frame, which worked a treat. The guy sheepishly directed us to another room.
After moving all our stuff in, we went to find an ATM (result - one was just 200m away, and let us withdraw 4 million dong, in a mixture of large and small bills) and a restaurant. Fortunately we were lucky in that respect too: a nice looking restaurant was just a couple of doors down. It seemed a bit too nice though, and when we were ushered into a private room and handed a menu with both English and Vietnamese languages and no prices, alarm bells started to ring. We needn't have worried though: we got a decent sized portion of noodles with beef(even though we'd ordered chicken), a MASSIVE portion of fried rice with seafood, a can of orange juice and a Hanoi Beer for around a fiver. Probably expensive by Vietnamese standards, but we were hungry and tired and it hit the spot.
To be honest, Vietnam hadn't appealed up until that point. The toilet breaks we had basically consisted of going on the floor behind a brick wall. The other occupants of the bus, when not smoking, spent their time clearing their throat in the most noisy, disgusting way possible. I've heard more hacking, spluttering, gargling and snorting than I'd ever want to hear again in a lifetime. They'd make Guybrush Threepwood look like an amateur. The villages and towns we stopped off at were grim, dirty places with rubbish strewn in the roads and gutters, people urinating wherever they fancied it, and almost every road vehicle hammering the horn as if it was the only way to keep the engine from stalling.
We crashed out at about 9pm (well, Gilly did - muggins here decided to stay up and blog). Fortunately, the hotel reception said there was a bus to Hanoi at 10am which gets in at 2pm tomorrow. 4 hours won't be so bad after two 10-hour bus journeys in 4 days.