Monday, February 27, 2017

At The US Consulate in HCMC

After some of the recent adventures that I have been through, it turns out that my passport is getting pretty full, and I will probably have to renew it fairly soon, not because it is about to expire, but because I am getting close to running out of pages.  Most countries that one can visit require a minimum of two blank pages in a passport to enter; some require four blank pages.  Right now I have six full pages left and spaces here and there for individual stamps on some pages.  But some countries take up a full page for their visa and then maybe a quarter of the adjoining page for the validity stamp.  Since I renewed my Vietnam visa, there are two full pages in my passport for the visas, and then multiple stamps on the next page.  I only had to get one visa sticker for Laos even though I renewed it; they were able to renew it in Luang Prabang with only a stamp, but if I had renewed it by leaving and returning, I would have gotten another full-page visa sticker.

So I have a conundrum coming up.  My Russian visa is in the passport I have now, and Russia does not allow a visa to be valid in an old passport (most other countries do allow you to have a visa in an expired passport, and then show it along with your new passport, but Russia does not allow that).  And I am hoping to visit Russia a few more times in the next few years, since I have a multiple-entry, three-year visa to Russia.  But Russia only allows you to transfer a visa to a new passport at the consulate or embassy where you got the visa, which in my case, was the consulate in Houston.  So I would have to either return to the US to transfer the visa to a new passport, or, possibly, mail my old passport and new passport (once I get one) to a visa service agency in the US to have that done and then have both mailed back.  I probably can't do that while I'm in a country where the mail service is sketchy, though I could do it by private carrier and pay through the nose...but I have time constraints that make it almost impossible.

So when I was in Laos, I figured out what I thought was a workaround to this problem.  Under certain circumstances (and it looked like this circumstance would qualify), one can apply for a second valid passport.  Usually this is only available in situations where it would be just about impossible for one's travel to continue without the second passport.  A good example is if one is going to Israel, and then to one of the Arabic countries that bars entry to anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport (even though Israel will put their stamp in a separate card rather than in your passport if you request it).  That way, you can get the Israeli stamp in one passport, and stamps from any countries you enter via a land border, such as the West Bank or Jordan (because these stamps are circumstancial evidence that you entered Israel and grounds for some Arabic countries to deny you entry), and then get your stamps for the Arabic countries in the other passport.

My plan therefore changed from entering Vietnam somewhere in the middle and slowly making my way down to Saigon, to heading directly to Saigon so I could visit the consulate and get a second passport, then heading back up to the middle of Vietnam.  It took me about a week to get from Southern Laos to Saigon, stopping to rest in cities along the way and do some sightseeing.  I made an appointment with the US Consulate to get the second passport, and got together all my forms and documents to get it happening.

When I got to the US Consulate, there was a huge line stretching down the block.  But it turned out I didn't have to wait in the line, since the line was for non-US citizens applying for visas to the US.  US citizens could just go on through, going through security, of course.  I had researched embassy visits and it was a good thing I did, because there are a number of prohibited items that you can't bring into a US embassy or consulate, and they won't let you leave the items anywhere on the premises; you will just be turned away and have to make a new appointment.  You can't bring in a cellphone, any keys with electronic fobs, any memory sticks or cards, any cameras, etc.  So I left all those items in my locker at the hostel, and just went there with my identification and documents.

I showed up for my appointment, and presented all my documents, and my letter requesting a second passport, and everything seemed to be going fine.  They explained the procedure whereby I would get my second passport sent to me by courier, and I listed the hostel's address, after letting the hostel know that I would have it sent there.

But then it all went wrong.  I got called up to the window again, and was told that they might not be able to issue me a second passport, because there was a requirement for a second passport that I have a letter from my employer justifying my travel.  I told them I don't have an employer, and they said that they probably couldn't do it then, but they were going to look into it more to see if they could find a workaround.  I was completely baffled by the fact that they were seeming to tell me that I had to be employed to get a second passport.  I went to sit back down while they researched it further, and a woman tapped me on the shoulder, and said she overheard what they told me, and she had gotten a second passport a few years ago without having to have a letter from an employer.  So maybe it is a new thing.

Well, they called me up to the window again, and told me that they could not issue me a second passport, and gave me the cite to the rules in the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) that supposedly explained why I couldn't get it.  So much for that plan.  At least they refunded the passport fee that I had paid.  Now I have to figure out something else.  I probably have enough passport pages to get to Russia once, but probably not after that; I'd have to get the visa transferred in the US to visit further.  So after I got back to the hostel, I went to look up the rules in the FAM online to see what they had to say...and the cites they gave me had no text at all, just said, “Unavailable”.  WTF? The rules they used to turn me down were unavailable for me to read?  What does that mean? Are they classified?  Or just not available for some other reason? It was getting obvious that getting a second passport was just not going to happen, at least not in Saigon, maybe I can convince someone at another embassy to do it.  But it looks like the second passport thing is just not going to happen, and I'll have to figure out some other workaround.  More than likely, I'll just visit Russia once on my current passport, and then apply for a new passport at some point after that, and then any other Russia visits will have to happen after I get the visa transferred via the Houston Russian Consulate, but until then, my Russian visa will be temporarily invalid.  This kind of has a snowball effect that changes around all the plans I had for travel, but I really don't know yet the extent to which my plans will be affected.  But it was my own country that messed up my travel plans, not any of the countries I wanted to visit.  And now I am hearing that Europe may start requiring US citizens to get visas to visit there.  If they go through with that, it will add some additional hassle once I want to visit Europe, but at least that is manageable with planning.  And, likely, it will require a visa sticker that will take up more valuable space in my passport.

Friday, February 17, 2017

From Don Det to Sanamxai

I made my way down to Ban Nakasang, Laos, which is where I needed to cross over to Don Det Island in the 4000 Islands of Laos on the Mekong River. It didn't take me long to find the ferry crossing from  Ban Nakasong to Don Det.  There were special boats that took motorbikes across the river to the island; they consisted of two little dugout boats about the size of canoes, with a platform between the two, and one engine running the whole contraption.  I had read online about the possibility of one's bike getting dumped into the river while perched atop the motorcycle ferry, but luck was with me and I made it across intact.

Once I got on the island, my first thing to do was to get a place to stay.  I rode up the main road through the village a bit, then a friendly German woman asked me if I needed a place to stay, and I went ahead and stayed there.  It was a nice guesthouse with lots of room, but I wish I had gone a little longer and found one of the bungalows with hammocks along the water. After I got settled, I took a motorcycle ride around Don Det Island to see the sights there. First I went down the road on the east coast of the island, the sunrise side.  There were a whole bunch of little restaurants offering “happy” pizzas, cakes, brownies, and shakes.  Then I went down the middle road on the island, which was not very picturesque at all and just ran between a bunch of farms.  The road was very bumpy and rough. At one point, the chain came off my bike. I struggled with it a bit, but didn't have any tools to help get it back on.   One guy stopped where I was wrestling with the bike and tried to help fix it, but he didn't have tools so he told me to wait while he went and got some tools.  He came back after about ten minutes, and tried to work on my bike, but he stripped the outside of the nut a bit using the wrong size wrench.  I thanked him, and said I would pay him and then find someone else to do ti.  After asking around a bit, the locals referred me to another guy, who successfully fixed it and tightened up the chain, which had gotten really loose.  Success.  I was able to get back on the bike and ride again.

I took a bridge on my bike from Don Det Island to Don Khon Island. The roads were very rugged and bumpy, and the island was more desolate and wild, though there were some tourist accoutrements in the north part of Don Khon. Once you get further south, it's all fairly wild.  At one point, I heard a huge noise to my left, and there were a whole bunch of water buffalo stampeding in my direction.  The center of the stampede was in front of me, but I was still on the sides of it.  I quickly started walking my motorbike backwards, and got it about a hundred meters back, and was able to avoid the stampede, hoping that there were no stray animals still to come out of the bush.

I explored around Don Khon island some more.  Don Khon was a lot bigger than Don Det, but much wilder.  I didn't get signal down there, so I had no online map, but I managed to make it back toward the north part of the island, where there was signal again.  I couldn't figure out why I kept missing the road that went to the bridge...I finally figured out that the roads on Google Maps didn't meet and there was an overpass to the road I was on that led to the bridge back to Don Det Island.  So I found a little side path up the hill that led to the overpass, and I was able to cross the bridge back to Don Det.

Later that night, I had dinner at one of the restaurants on the river, and I met Chido and Desi there.  They had been traveling together for a bit, and later that night we all went back to my guesthouse room to just chill for a while.

The next morning, I ended up walking along the sunset side of Don Det Island.  There were a whole bunch of spots on that side of the island where I could wander out into places among the 4000 Islands where the Mekong has receded or changed course, so the ground was walkable but sometimes muddy.

Walking down the west side of Don Det Island some more. I ended up walking all the way to the south tip of the island, where the bridge to the next island is. I walked back up the east side of Don Det Island. I ended up walking the whole circumference of the island that morning. It's not huge, but it's about a two hour walk. There are ruins of a century-old pier along the east side of Don Det Island. It looks like a section of a bridge that just starts and stops out of nowhere.

I met two guys named Tom on Don Det.  The first Tom was Tom from Israel, who had just gotten into a bad motorcycle accident, and had his knees and elbows bandaged up.  He just mostly lay on the floor next to a table in this bar and restaurant across the street from his guesthouse, while he waited to heal up from his accident.  I saw him there most of the time every time I walked by that bar.  The second Tom was Tom from the Czech Republic, who told me that I solved just about all of the IT problems he was having.  I helped him get the money in his SIM card account into a plan so he could use his phone.  He had put the money in the account, but not activated a plan, so I showed him the code to dial to choose the plan he wanted from Lao Telecom.  I can't remember what the other thing I helped him solve was, but he was grateful. Some of the people around were thinking about taking a “happy” cruise offered by some bar on the sunset side, but it turned out the bar wasn't doing it that day.

When I was leaving the next morning, I was walking my motorbike up to the boat ramp, and someone pointed out that my tire looked flat.  It was not yet completely flat, but was losing air rapidly.  I decided to take the ferry across and get it fixed on the other side.  My incident where the chain came off made me realize there were no bike repair shops on Don Det, just individuals who are willing to fix things.  I once again managed to get my motorbike off Don Det Island, back across the Mekong River, once again without my bike and my gear spilling over into the river.  But then once I got to the other side, my tire was completely flat.  I had to walk the bike, pushing it through the beach sand and then up a steep ramp, to try to find a mechanic.  And I found a little bike repair shop in Ban Nakasong.  They fixed the flat and I was ready to go.  I didn't realize that to fix the flat, you have to take the brake assembly apart and put it back together again, but I watched him doing that.

I headed back up Laos Highway 13 to get to a place where I could cross over to Vietnam.  On the way up, there was a particularly nasty looking tour bus wreck.  It had been run off the road, and there was a huge spider web crack/dent in the windshield on the driver's side.  I had already seen a couple of bad motorcycle wrecks along this road previously.  I found a road on a map, south of Pakse, that I decided to take. This road, Laos Highway 18, ended up being the most challenging road I had been on in Laos. It was totally unpaved and extremely rough. I was riding up and down steep rocky and sandy hills, crossing many bridges with just rickety boards. One bridge was closed, but I didn't find out until the end, when I had to slowly back my bike off the bridge. There wasn't enough room to turn my bike around, so all I could do was back it up.  When I got to the beginning of the bridge, I had to back it down a little sandy hill, and the bike slipped out of my grip and I dropped it.  Some guy fishing at the stream helped me pick it up with all my gear strapped on and then I crossed the stream on my bike. I had to ford six streams along the way with my bike, which were each pretty deep. The first time, I just stopped right before the water, wondering what to do, when I saw a local guy just purr right through the water, so I started up my bike and followed his lead.  It wasn't so bad, but my pants got wet up to knee-deep. In the last one, I got stuck in mud in the middle, and pulled the bike out by gently accelerating and guiding with my feet like ski poles. My pants got soaked up past the knees from the crossings, and my shoes got caked with mud. Moving along was slow (at one point, I timed myself and I only went three kilometers in 20 minutes), and so I didn't get to go as fast as I thought I would, and there was no way to get to my destination during the day. So I ended up riding at night in pitch darkness on this difficult road for a couple of hours, even crossing some board bridges almost blind at night, trying to find a village with a guesthouse, and I finally found one after several unsuccessful attempts. To top it off, the rack on my bike snapped off from all the hard bumping, taking my tail light with it, and forcing me to repack my gear on the seat, with the broken rack loaded on top, and I had to sit on the gas tank. I lost my jacket (it was bungee-corded on the back in case I needed it) and my water somewhere along the way when my rack failed. I was just completely exhausted, riding in the dark and hoping each village I arrived in would have a guesthouse.  I finally arrived in the village of Sanamxai, tired, hungry, thirsty, and emotionally spent.  There was one guesthouse in the village, and I jumped on it.  I was so happy to finally stop.  I motioned to my mouth, because I was really hungry, as I hadn't eaten all day, and they fed me some rice and vegetables.  I walked around the village at night a bit; there wasn't much open at night and there wasn't much to see.  Then I collapsed into sleep at the guesthouse.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Leaving Vientiane for Savannakhet and Pakse

I left Vientiane and headed towards the general direction of Savannakhet, though the distance was so great that I was pretty sure that I was going to have to stop somewhere in between. And I was right. I ended up stopping in a little town right at the corner of Highways 13 and 8 in Laos at a guesthouse for the night. The room was only 50,000 kip for the night, or a little over six bucks, which was great, and I think it was the cheapest place I have stayed in Laos so far. It didn't have hot water (which was not a big deal because it was hot outside, and I didn't end up taking a shower in the one night I was there anyway), and it didn't have wi-fi in the room, but it did have wi-fi once I moved closer to the office, which was good enough for me. Actually, it probably would have been good enough even if it didn't have wi-fi. I have a Laos SIM card so I have phone signal in Laos. It only costs 50,000 kip, for 5 Gbs over an entire month, which is good enough for mundane tasks, and I just wait for wi-fi to upload pictures (sometimes I will upload just a few over the phone data) or to watch videos. I had a Vietnamese SIM card too, and I'll put it back into my phone once I get to Vietnam again.

I spent the next day heading down to Savannakhet. Southern Laos on Highway 13 is all coastal plains, in contrast to the Northern part of the country, in which there are a lot of mountainous areas. So the ride was not as spectacular when it came to scenery. I arrived in Savannakhet late in the afternoon and found a guesthouse pretty much right in the center of the city, which allowed me to just step outside and be right in the middle of things. Savannakhet is the second largest city in Laos, right behind Vientiane, and it has a large number of beautiful disintegrating French Colonial style buildings interspersed with Laotian shacks. There is a central square, Talaat Yen Plaza, in front of the Catholic Church, that turns into a vibrant night market after the sun goes down. It's probably the closest thing Savanakhet has to a downtown. I was astonished to walk into a convenience store and be in line behind a boy who looked about five years old buying two packs of cigarettes. Just a few blocks away from the central square is the Mekong River, with Thailand right on the other side. The first night I was there, I met a French guy and a Finnish guy in the common area. The French guy said he was 28 years old and was traveling with a brother and a friend, but they had gotten temporarily separated and his two companions were staying in Vientiane; they were due to meet up the next day. He was traveling on a budget of 50,000 kip a day, which was impressive to me, because I was definitely trying to travel cheaply, but even the places I stayed were always more than that. He kept his costs down by WWOOFing, so he would work on farms for free. He said that Couchsurfing didn't really work around Southeast Asia, and I told him I hadn't tried it, but that had been what I had heard from others too. He also did some hitchhiking sometimes, but people in this region didn't really understand hitchhiking, and those that did pick him up wanted some money. I thought that was reasonable, but he seemed pretty impoverished, so it was probably a burden on his budget. The Finnish guy was in his sixties, and he was traveling through Laos and Vietnam by bicycle. He said he had left Ho Chi Minh City and headed slowly this way toward Laos, and he was averaging about 100 kilometers a day. He turned in pretty early because he wanted to get on the road early in the morning; he was already gone by the time I got up.

The next day, I explored Savannakhet a little more. I wandered around for a good part of the day, came back for a bit, and then went out again in the evening into the night. After returning from exploring the city at night, I was going to stay in the guesthouse, but I got a little hungry, so I decided to explore the city a little more. What I didn't realize is that the guesthouse closed fairly early, so the front gate was already padlocked shut with a thick chain at 9:30 at night. I poked around the front desk and found the key to the padlock. I figured I would just run out and get some takeout food from a restaurant and come right back. I ended up taking the key with me so I could get back in, but that meant that everybody else was locked in the guesthouse. When I got outside, almost everything was closed; I guess Savannakhet closes early, but that is the case for many towns in Laos. But I did find one place open near the square, ordered a quick meal for takeout, and then snuck back to the guesthouse. Hopefully nobody else tried to leave in the time I was out, but I wasn't out for long.

The next day, I left Savannakhet and headed for Pakse. It was getting even hotter as I moved further south. But it cools off pretty quickly at night. The highway is straight, flat, and well-paved for the most part, so I was able to move much faster for the most part. I noticed there were a lot of passive police presences along the way, that is, little stations where there were police sentries and cones to narrow the road, but they didn't seem to stop anyone, at least not anyone that I saw. I also saw some gruesome motorcycle accidents along this stretch of the road. One motorbike had been hit by a car, and was barely recognizable. I can't imagine that the driver survived.

Pakse had a lot more foreign tourists than Savannakhet did, and also had a lot more international restaurants; it seemed like it was geared more for tourists. I have heard that a lot of expats live in places like Vientiane and Savannakhet, which are right on the Thai border, because they can easily renew their visas once they run out by crossing the border for the afternoon, maybe just to have lunch, and then returning. If you have no baggage, it is a pretty straightforward thing to get a new visa-on-arrival just by crossing and coming back. Although I have to admit, nobody ever checked my baggage when I crossed into Laos. Once you get down to Pakse, though it is on the Mekong River, it is no longer on the Thai border, because the Mekong has veered wholly into Laos by that time and is no longer the border marker. Still, Thailand is pretty close.

The hotel I stayed at in Pakse was once again right in the center of town and was only 150,000 kip a night. This one at least had hot water and decent wi-fi. There were also a lot of really good restaurants very close by; I ended up eating several meals at an Indian restaurant across the street. There was also a small grocery store right across the street from the hotel. There were a lot of foreign guests staying there so there were a lot of people to chat with in the little patio outside the lobby, which doubled as a table area for the hotel's restaurant and bar.

Pakse was interesting but not terribly spectacular, so I decided to check out Don Kho Island just a few kilometers north of Pakse. Very few tourists visit this island, and the only way to get here is to take a small local motorized dugout boat from the small village of Ban Saphai. The first thing I arrived at up the steps was the Vat Chompet temple, which is right up a steep set of steps directly above the boat docking area, and is inhabited by Buddhist monks. I met a friendly monk in an orange robe as soon as I ascended the steps, and he spoke some English and seemed like he wanted to practice with me, so we engaged each other in conversation. Unfortunately, I only know a few words in Lao, so I was not able to reciprocate.

After wandering around the temple grounds, I walked south along the east coast of Don Kho Island. There were a number of weaving houses right off this path as silk weaving is one of the major activities of the island. The weaving houses were out in the open, and you could just walk right though them; everybody was going about their daily activities and tourists were free to just wander right through the bottom part of the houses, which for the most part were just outdoors, but there was usually a concrete foundation and some posts holding up a building above the ground level area where the weavers were working. There were only two other tourists on the island that I knew of, a British couple from London that I kept running into over and over again as I explored the island.

Next I went down the path that went down the middle of Don Kho Island, crossing over to the other side of the island. There was a school on that side of the island, and I think it was the only school on the island, so it probably taught all grades. The beach on the west side of Don Kho Island was very nice and I descended to the shoreline to check it out and dip my feet in the river. Then I crossed back over to the east side of the island, and explored the north part. I covered a good deal of the island, as it is very small. One strange thing that I saw was a cow climbing a ladder up the side of the steep cliff on the east side, to get to the top of the cliff and onto the path. I have to admit that was the first time I had ever seen a cow climb a ladder.

I left Don Kho Island and headed back to Ban Saphai on the mainland. The boat guy wanted me to wait for the other two tourists so he could bring us all back at the same time and not have to make two trips. But it wasn't long before they showed up, maybe only about five minutes after I arrived at the docking area.

Once I got back on the boat to Ban Saphai, I walked around the town a bit, as I hadn't explored it before I took the boat to Don Kho. There was a booth in Ban Saphai where a woman had some sort of mill to crush sugar cane and make a pulpy beverage out of it, so I tried one. She ran the sugar cane through several times. The beverage was nothing special and was too sweet for my tastes, so I watered it down a bit with some drinking water. It was also an unnatural looking yellow color though there was nothing in it but the pure sugar cane squeezings. I also checked out the temple in Ban Saphai, Vat Saphai Kang, while I was there. Then I rode my bike back to Pakse, and did some more exploring there before coming back to the hotel for the night. The next morning I took off to head further south.