Laos Border Saga

Laos Border Saga

Short version:

Ok so I recently attempted to cross into Laos from Vietnam at the Na Meo Border. I have a Vietnamese plated/registered bike (Honda Wave), I have the blue card for said bike, I have an approved 60 day Laos visa that I got at the Laos embassy in Hanoi, I have an international drivers license with motorcycle stamp, I had cash on hand ready to offer “coffee money” if need be, and I did NOT make it in. According to them, you’re required to be guided by a tour group to enter Laos on a motorbike, or have special permissions.

Here’s the long version of what’s going on.

I arrived at the Na Meo border, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and with a boyish sense of optimism that I would be the exception to the horror stories of non entry. Spirits were high!

I got there at 10:30 am sharp bcs I read several online accounts of people showing up just before lunch time and getting lucky going through. It was a Saturday, and the border was busy with lots of traffic. I hoped this would only benefit me , and help me slide through with the rest of my (hopefully) soon to be Laos brethren. Again, spirits were high!

I walk into the office and am directed to the “Passport Control” office. He looks at my Laos visa and asks if I’m coming back into Vietnam, I say yes. He says “Today?” I say (apprehensively) “No, not today.” He looks up at me in a way that almost silently says “Wrong answer buddy.” He then hands me back my passport and directs me “Go to Customs Office for motorbike.” Despite the look, I’m ecstatic, borderline giddy, I think “That was it! I’m in baby!!!” Boy was I wrong.

I now walk the 20 or so steps it takes to get to the customs office. I contemplate skipping there, as if I’m a child that’s been set free to roam the neighborhood in search of the ice cream truck on a hot summers day. I nod “Good day!” to a Vietnamese border guard while en route to said customs office. I arrive, and approach the man behind the desk. He’s adorned with a standard issue bureaucrats uniform, of a white collard shirt and a permanent “unimpressed” look on his face.

“One ticket to Laos please and thank you my kind sir!” I say with a smile and charm I’m sure he isn’t use to in his line of work. He looks up, from his stack of papers in front of him, takes a long drag from his thin cigarette and says “With motorbike?” As if he doesn’t already know the answer. I reply, hastily, confidently, and without a doubt in my head that this is going to go any other way but my way with a sharp “Yes.” This is where things start to go wrong for old Ry.

The man, without hesitation, laughs OUT LOUD, in my face, and says very casually,“No”. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of my guts sinking into the ground below me. My heart actually stopped pumping. Here I was filled with glee, about to have my lifelong dream of experiencing complete and total freedom of life on the road in Laos come to fruition! The dream to motorbike between 3 of the most beautiful countries in the world Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, just one stamp away! Now burst. Like a balloon in the hands of a reckless child.
I ask him “Why not?” He immediately hands me a readily available and heavily handled, sheet of paper, with prehighlighted sentences on it. The paper is entirely in Vietnamese, so I use google translate to try and make sense of it. I won’t be stopped that easily, a little language barrier is no match for my 4g LTE SIM card!

The general consensus of the paper is saying that the only way into Laos with a motorbike, if a foreigner, is through a tour operating company. I didn’t understand this at first and continued to question him after reading it. He continue to say “No, cannot.” There were now several people in the room, freely getting their passports stamped for entry in Laos Land, almost mockingly. I continued to press for more information, and  I even flashed my passport with the Laos visa page open, inside the same page was my blue card and a crisp 500k vnd bill. Still no luck, “No, cannot.” he exclaimed.

I had to step out for some air. My head was spinning with confusion and disbelief that I, ME, would become just another unsuccessful tourist attempting to take on touring the tantalizing trio! After regaining my thoughts and confidence that I had the proper paperwork and there must be something being lost in translation, I put on my big boy pants decided to give it another go!

I reenter the office, now stacked with two more officials behind the desk. One young, wearing a standard issue green border guard uniform. He was seated at the desk next to his older, more jaded, comrade the first man. The third man was an older gentleman, wearing a suit, and standing in an authoritative manner behind the two men, as if to assert dominance. He was the boss, I could tell. I wouldn’t let his presence deter me from gaining entry, not today! I target the younger man. Hopeful that he would see that I was too a younger man, just trying to live my best life, and would thus, be merciful to my pleas. “Let’s kill him with kindness!” I think, before approaching with my best “Xin Chào.” Followed by “I’d like to go to Laos with my motorbike please.” As if I was saying it for the first time, and the first man wasn’t sitting right next to him, already onto my game.

The younger man responds with a soft, “No, not allowed.” I again ask why, and look to the older authoritative figure behind the men. I flash my documents and cash and restate “I have all the documents and payment for the bike right here, can you just let me through?” I say, confidently, but pleading nonetheless. The young man says “You don’t have the license.” as he points to another sheet of paper with an officials signature at the bottom. I translate this page too, and it’s more of the same about needing to be with a tour group, this time there are dates and an itinerary on the page.

The dates are all from 2023, and there’s an outline of the guidelines for the tour. This document states that the tour will begin in Hanoi, but before entering Laos, the guests will be “guided” through the international airport in Nam Xi province in, wait for it, THE PEOPLES REPUBLIC OF CHINA. They then will enter Laos with the guided tour for 7 days.

I miserably try my hand at attempting to sweet talk my way into the country one more time. They are having none of it! I ask where I can get more info on the tour companies.  He tells me there are a few outside of Hanoi and gives me contact info for one of them. I retreat in defeat, my tail between my legs, outside to my motorbike.

I now have to break the news to her, my sweet sweet Blueberry Yum Yum (that’s her name), that “We’re not getting in today little buddy.” Her heart is broken. You see she changed her oil, donned her finest set of tires, and even lubed her chain for this journey, only to be turned away like a common beggar! She deserves to see those roads, and I couldn’t give it to her. Do you know how that makes me feel as a man!? NOT GOOD! But I digress, you’re here for the border crossing info, and I’m sorry for losing my composure there for a minute. It’s just she’s my beautiful little baby and I want the world for her!

Now I’m no political expert, but I did do some digging after seeing these documents (dons tin foil hat.) My theory is this: Laos is deeply in debt to China, fact. China is consistently trying to interfere with Vietnam, fact. Vietnam is not interested in doing business with China (check that fact, that one came from a 73 year old woman I met in Hanoi.) China is missing out on the in bound tourism surge seen in the rest of south east Asia (again may want to check that one.) Theory: China is attempting to funnel tourists in by imposing this crazy restriction into Laos on this very popular travelers route that’s been around for decades! 🫢

Anyways, well there ya go that’s the just of it. Hope this helps all you adventure seekers out there looking to feel the winds of freedom caress your face on the winding roads of Laos. I’ve heard tale of a far away border crossing that’s open to all who shall venture to her gates. This is a little border gate called La Lay Border Checkpoint, near Hue. I’m headed there now and am hopeful to find the warm embrace of her bosom is as told.

Good vibes all around for the people! ✌🏼