How Not to Cross an International Border

posted in: Motorbikes, SE Asia, Stories | 3

I’m not ashamed to say that I have a bit of nostalgia for the “Come Fly with Me” era of travel – where the suits were three piece, the stewardesses were hot twenty-something virgins from Iowa, and the destinations were exotic and untouched, experienced by only a few privileged and intrepid travelers.

Alas, that era and its grandeur are firmly a relic of the past.  The modern traveler is nothing more than a sheep among the herd of bleating children, sweatsuit clad moms, and the morbidly obese crammed like sardines into a tin can, paying an arm and a leg to forget it all at the bottom of an insanely small plastic bottle of Jim Beam.

On the upside, travel today is infinitely easier, faster, and more accessible to the masses (ahem … people like us).  Wanna go somewhere?  Hop on Kayak and book a ticket, pick out a hotel on TripAdvisor, and hit up Foursquare to see where everyone is hanging out.  In mere hours, you can plan a trip overseas and be on your way, and it won’t bankrupt you.

That’s not to say that barriers to travel don’t still exist – an international border for example.  So many of today’s borders are a line on a map, drawn during the conflicts of the last century by powers that knew precious little of the people or land they were carving up (I’m looking at you, Europe).  That they were drawn arbitrarily, however, does not diminish their seriousness, and crossing such an imaginary line in the sand is often not so simple.

There are visas, passports, customs inspections, a government’s fear of drugs and terrorism, immigration quotas, and more. If you have anything to lose, it pays to know what is required of you when you roll up to the gate and knock on the door of another country.  This is even more true for remote border crossings that can be a tad less formal but a metric ton more subjective.

Sometimes, this subjectivity works in your favor … and sometimes, it doesn’t.  This is a story of the latter.

How Not To Cross A Border-6433It all begins in Vietnam – Dien Bien Phu (DBP), to be exact.  History buffs may recall DBP as the site where the French got their asses kicked by Uncle Ho and his friend Charlie and then passed the baton on to the Americans, who said, “Ermigerd – communism! Get some!”

Courtney and I arrived in DBP after a grueling, month-long ride through the north of Vietnam, excited to move on to Laos and hopefully better weather and experiences.  Though we’d heard there could be problems trying to get the bikes out of Vietnam at DBP, we were hopeful as we pulled out of town on March 20th.  The sun was shining, the air was warm, and the ride to the border was an easy 35 kilometers through twisty roads and countryside villages.

Before long, we arrived at the gate, hopped off our bikes, and strolled inside like John Wayne entering a saloon: “Two exit stamps, partner, and we’ll be on our way.”


As it turned out, it is in fact illegal to take bikes through this particular border checkpoint unless they were purchased in DBP province.  Ours were purchased in Hanoi.

Sadly, it’s a fact of life that written laws and rules don’t apply to everyone (i.e. politicians and their friends), nor are they enforced without prejudice.  For example, a U.S. border official may turn you away simply for looking like a terrorist (or a Latino), no evidence necessary.  In a place like Vietnam, the officials are less concerned with terrorism and more concerned with making the most of a golden opportunity: a foreigner anxious to cross the border.

In the U.S. and other developed countries, the act of bribing public officials is institutionalized in the form of campaign contributions, the promise of future employment after steering lucrative contracts a certain company’s way, and Rolex watches “gifted” from your wife.

Courtney’s Law: Putting a Price on Corruption

Don’t know how much that “toll” should be?  Here’s how, in theory, we would arrive at an amount appropriate to offer if we were to ever entertain such an immoral, unethical, and illegal idea which, for the record, we would never, ever, do.

B = ((ATR) + D)/2

When calculating a bribe (B), ask yourself, “How much is the alternative (A) going to cost?”  Multiply that by the number of days, or time (T), the alternative takes, then multiply that figure by the risk (R) assumed on the part of the official taking the bribe – usually “1” in countries where a bribe is standard practice. Then, add in your desperation factor (D) – in other words, how much extra you’re willing and able to pay to avoid the alternative. Divide that total by two, and you have your opening offer, with 50% in reserve to plunk down as back-up in case you suck at bargaining.

For us at Dien Bien Phu:

  • A = $15 (extra gas plus difference between the cost of living in Laos vs. Vietnam)
  • T = 3 (days it would take to get us back to where we wanted to be in Laos)
  • R = 1 (basically zero risk on the part of the officer – truly, greasing palms is a way of life here)
  • D = $50 (as mentioned earlier, we were SO over Vietnam)

So, ((15x3x1)+50)/2 = $47.50 (I’d round that figure down in a country like Vietnam, where $40 it a lot of money).

Also, it helps if you don’t call it a bribe.  Tell the official you’re short on time and ask if you can pay a “tax” or “fee” directly to him or her.

For the record, we here at Wanderrlust have never, ever done this, and if you can prove otherwise, please let us know if there is a tax or a fee that we can pay to you – we’re short on time and need to be on our way.

In the rest of the world (and Louisiana), however, the up-front, classic bribe makes the gears turn despite the fact that it’s also illegal.  In many ways, I appreciate the honesty and the directness of bribery.  Alas, we were still newbies and had no idea where to begin.

We tried pleading our case (“But we’re meeting friends in Luang Prabang in three days … please sir!”), and the official we talked to was pretty sympathetic, even making a call to “the boss”.  The boss, whomever he was, said no.

Looking back, I know now that “the call” was a signal that the guy was willing to deal, and I am certain $50 would have done the trick, maybe even $25, and definitely $100.

Ultimately, we decided not to risk getting ourselves arrested for bribery and our brand-new bikes confiscated, so we dejectedly sped off toward the next available border crossing 475 km. away.  It would take two and half days to reach.

What followed next was uneventful – more rain, less than stellar accommodations, and hospitality that zapped our morale and had us saying, “Get me out of Viet-fuckin-nam.”

On our last night in “the shit” before joining the Steve Canyon Program in Laos, we ended up in a horrific establishment called Mai Chau Nature Place Resort.  This is the type of place that short-term visitors to a developing country will rave about for its authenticity.  For those not wearing rose colored glasses, it’s a dump that also happens to operate as a gold mine by taking unsuspecting foreigners’ money (you can read about our experience here).

We spent the night in Mai Chau drinking room temp beer with the other guests (an American couple and Joseph, a Canadian on the front end of a journey through Vietnam similar to ours) discussing where we’d been, what to see, and what to avoid … and praying that the next day’s trip to the border would go smoothly.

When we awoke the next morning, it was clear that Vietnam wasn’t going to let us leave without a fight.  The rain was steady, the temps were hovering in the 50s, and the staff responsible for our inclusive breakfast were still in bed.  It was 7:00 am, and already, we knew we were in for a rough one.

Our one, big, shiny hope for the day was that national highway 217 would be in relatively good shape, with plentiful services along the way since the Na Meo outpost, our destination, was a fairly significant border crossing.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Calling this road a “national highway” is beyond generous.  In fact, it’s an outright fantasy.  Route 217 is nothing more than a rutted and potholed cart path that couldn’t transport a kilo of black-tar heroin if a corrupt official’s livelihood depended on it.

Court and I spent five and half hours negotiating a road that we were told would only take two.  Neither one of us had done any serious off-road riding before arriving in Vietnam, and I’m here to tell you that being proficient in the dirt is an absolute must for riding in this part of the world.

How Not To Cross A Border-121854While there are few pictures from the ride that day, trust me when I say that it was horrific – huge potholes, mudslides, and torrential rain.  There was one bright spot: watching Court plow through knee-high puddles of the thickest mud I’ve ever seen.  Seriously, it was incredible, and how she didn’t fall or stall the bike is beyond me.  To see her come this far after the fear and tentativeness of our early days was awesome.

Nevertheless, it was an arduous experience, and the day wasn’t even halfway over – we still had a border to cross and even more riding to do on the other side.  The town of Na Meo was equally rough, and we were more than a little surprised, as we had previously been to a few border towns that were bustling economic zones of trade.  Na Meo, on the other hand, consisted of a few food stalls, a gas station, and not much else.

When we arrived at the border gate, we found it was closed for lunch.  Yes, you read that correctly, closed for lunch – and for an hour and half no less.  We decided to look for lunch ourselves since we never got our breakfast, and more importantly, an ATM.  We had a few Vietnamese Dong left in our pockets and $100 USD, which was more than enough to cover our Vietnamese exit taxes plus $25 each for a Laos visa.  Still, we would have felt better with a bit more cash, but no dice.  The nearest ATM was at least three hours behind us and there was no way we were going down that road again.

We finished our pho, and headed back to the gate, happy to see it open for business.  I went inside to get the passports stamped while Court minded the bikes (always popular among the locals).  Surprisingly, everything was slow but smooth, and before long, the official stamped us out – YES!  I was about to breathe a huge sigh of relief when the official turned to me and said in broken English: “You must pay exit tax for motorbike, now.  $20 each.”

Cue sigh of relief number two, which goes down much better than the first.  I passed him the forty bucks and headed out the door – we were finally out of Vietnam, and we were jubilant.

How Not To Cross A Border-140945
Right before the shit hit the fan.

We passed through a bit of no man’s land between the two borders and arrived at the gate to Laos.  Court and I filled out some paperwork and waited for the three officials to process the documents as slowly as possible, fifty dollars for the visas clutched in my sweaty palms.

What happened next can only be described as the worst moment of our trip.

Official: “That will be $72, sir.”

Me: “I was told the visas were $25 each.  $50 for both.”

Official: “No, $36 each.”

Me: “Why?  Is it because of the bikes?”

Official: “$72.  You pay now.”

On this went for a few minutes, and we could not figure out if he was scamming us, if there was a bike tax, or if the cost of the visas had simply gone up since we’d done our research earlier that day.  What was clear was that he was not budging; we were not getting into Laos without handing over $72 USD, and we were $12 short.

As you’ve read, there was no ATM at the border, and going back into Vietnam was no longer an option since we were stamped out.  Needless to say, they don’t accept credit cards as payment.  It was 2:30 in the afternoon, the sun would be down in a few hours, and the nearest ATM was over 65 km. away … in Laos.  We were royally screwed.

I like to think of Court and myself as intelligent people.  We are rational, common-sense folks who have held down a few good jobs and even been promoted a time or two.  Why I decided to hand over my passport as collateral to some random Laotian border guard, hug my wife, and tell her “I’ll be right back” while I sped off into a foreign country with zero photo ID on my person is beyond me.  I know it’s cliche and I sound like some cheap hooker or drug mule for saying it, but it’s true – I needed the money.

I rode as fast as my little Honda XR125 would take me, grateful that we upgraded from our unreliable $200 Wins.  I was racing not only daylight but also time – that the border guard knew our predicament and had my passport didn’t mean he was going to hang around past closing time for us.  While some parts of the ride were fun (I tend to ride a bit a lot faster than Court), I was glued to the clock and odometer, terrified of getting a flat or being pulled over in a foreign country without my passport while my wife was stranded between two.

I finally arrived at the ATM after the longest 90 minutes ever, pulled out all of the money necessary (plus a whole lot more, just in case), and spun the bike around in the other direction.  With the throttle wide open, I wrung out every last drop of speed the bike had and enjoyed the sun,which was finally out and shining brightly.

I arrived back at the border right around closing time as Court collapsed into sobs, beyond relieved to see me alive.  We paid our fees, collected our visas, and finally crossed into Laos.

3 Responses

  1. Jon Brown
    | Reply

    I love your formula! I have no need for it of course having also never paid a bribe/baksheesh either… to do so would be un-American! I never pretended not to be American either… LOL…

    Joking aside… I have learned, especially in Asia to carry about $199 USD in my bag whenever possible. Usually $100, 4×20, 10, 5, 4×1. There are two reasons for this. #1 I’ve crossed a few borders where legitimate visa fees were collected ONLY in USD. Usually countries with very week currencies of their own, Nepal, Laos & Burma all come to mind (although these may have changed since I was last there). I think Indonesia required payment in USD or EUR.

    Anyway, the $100 bill I carry in case I need to cash and can’t get it from an ATM (happens often enough) and I exchange it for local currency. The rest is so I can make exact change for whatever “fee” I need to pay. Somewhere I recall the border fee being $22 USD with large signs full of mispelled words say “EXAT CHANGE RCUIRED! CHANGE NO!” or something like that and thinking sucks if all you’re carrying is yuppie food stamps ($20 bills)!

    • Courtney Derr
      | Reply

      Jon – Carrying the various denominations is definitely where it’s at. We found later that even if it’s possible to make change, as soon as that big bill comes out, all the small bills suddenly disappear. If I remember correctly, Laos and Cambodia required it. I don’t remember it Indonesia did, but we paid in dollars anyway.

  2. Aaron
    | Reply

    What a great story – hope you guys are doing well!

    Aaron (from phong nha)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.