VIP

A short story between Laos and Vietnam

I entered this into a contest for travel writing. Just because. I didn’t win, and that is okay. I wanted to take a moment, a day, I had no pictures of from my travels and mold a story, or attempt to paint a picture with words. There was a word limit and it forced my hand to be more concise, or attempt anyway. I haven’t shared much about my time in Nepal or Southeast Asia yet. It doesn’t mean that I won’t, I just need the time. Until that time, here is a little glimpse of a really hard day on the road. But even on such days the slightest kindness can be a reminder of humanity’s goodness. It makes me think of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Kindness. A poem that she wrote after an awful event, but was graced with a simple moment of kindness. This day held those moments. Traveling isn’t always easy, and I don’t want to be apart of the illusion that only shows the pretty side of it

“I think this is a scam.”
“What?” I replied to the Finnish woman sitting next to me.
“I think this is a scam.” She repeated. “I read about it online. The travel office you buy your bus ticket from takes your money, pockets it, and puts you on a bus with bags of rice, chickens, and all local people.”
There were no chickens, but definitely a lot of boxes shoved under seats, stacked in the aisle, in any overhead space available, mostly locals and at least one bag of rice.
“I bought a ticket for a VIP bus. I think this is a scam, but I don’t know what to do.” Her voice trailed off.

We woke before dawn. Standing on the curb in front of the rundown hotel where the night clerks laid curled up sleeping in the lobby, we waited for the transport to our bus heading to Vietnam from Paske, Laos. Andrew, the family expatriate and my eldest brother, and I stood waiting in the dark with our backpacks. “How are we going to contact the guy who sold us the tickets this early if no one shows up for us?” I ask into the crisp morning. Silence. A cold breeze picks up. A black sedan rolls up and stops right next to us. There is no move to speak to us or take us to the bus station. One bus a day leaves Pakse and crosses into the Vietnam border. I prayed we wouldn’t miss the bus. We had a list of things missed while traveling together. We missed a plane in Chiang Mai,. We missed multiple turns cruising on a motorcycle exploring the Bolaven Plateau. We missed a river taxi in Bangkok.

A truck pulled up. Mostly Laotian and Vietnamese, but there were two young European women among the crowd of faces packed in the truck bed staring out into the morning. We wedged ourselves into the crowd. As the truck pulled away, I stared out of the back hoping I wouldn’t fall into the street. Eventually, we made it to the van that would take us to Vietnam. Cramming inside the driver’s helper directed me to the back row. I cringed at the thought of every bump and curve my body would feel sitting wedged between my brother and the Finnish woman at the tail of the van. “Can’t I sit in another spot?” The driver’s helper ignored me as he directed others where to take a seat. The journey through the wet, muddy jungle of Laos and Vietnam had me wondering about the war. I saw remnants of that time in the military uniforms at the immigration checkpoint and in the simple questioning room where I was asked about my citizenship. Laotian women carried an ATM in their purse. In a quick transaction your kip becomes dong. Yet, it was with the lone dollar I had in my wallet, I paid to use the restroom, not knowing if we would ever stop again. Trying to buy one pack of crackers, I am forced to buy a whole dozen. Everything feels lost in translation and the man in the military uniform shakes his head at me every time I attempt to ask a question. Tracking in mud, we piled back into the rundown van continuing full speed ahead. I down one of my many packs of crackers, it will be all I eat that day. After eight hours and a guardian angel, who enjoyed practicing his English with Andrew and generously ordered us an uber, we made it to our hotel in Da Nang. My head ached. My body questioned the journey.

It came on fast, the wave in my stomach. “Sign here.” I signed the receipt quickly. Clenching my jaw I ran out into the rain. Leaning over the curb, the wave came rushing out of me, joining the downpour flowing through the street. Suddenly, I noticed a pair of black sneakers next to me. Once the wave and the pain in my head subsided, I looked up. The hotel lobby guy was holding an umbrella over me. A simple gesture held with care and kindness. I was VIP.

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