It is a truth universally acknowledged that an American woman abroad must be in want of an elephant experience.
It is also a truth universally acknowledged that this same woman, having spent more than three months in Vietnam, must be in greater want of a renewed visa.
The marriage of these two truths will produce a last-minute run for the border in which this woman ends up in Laos, outside Luang Prabang, furiously scrubbing the head of an elephant.
Chapter 1: How To Get A Visa Inside Vietnam
When I first arrived in Hanoi, I got the three-month, multiple entry visa, forgot about it, basically let it run out. The reason I forgot about it was that I had technically lived illegally in France for four months without a visa (I figured no one would care about the extra month after the first free three; plus, the paperwork for the French visa was so onerous I couldn’t be bothered to fill it out) so I got lazy and forgot countries actually cared about these sorts of things. Then one day, purchasing my next big round of tickets to Singapore and Australia, I checked my passport, saw the visa’s expiration date, blanched.
Like I said, in France, I hadn’t cared. I had a ticket for departure, thus a firm leave date: what could they do? Throw me out of the country on the way out of the country? Fine me, sure, but probably nothing worse.
In Vietnam, however, I could imagine worse. I could imagine not only a fine but a huge “tax” added on top of it to help me avoid certain legal measures, including—say—jail time, so I got on the horn with the friend of a friend, a Vietnamese restaurant/real estate business/tour operator/raconteur who once told me that if I needed my visa renewed he could handle it veryvery quickly, and thus found myself in the back of a terrible restaurant in the Old Quarter that night, eating watery duck curry while haggling over a two-month visa renewal price as—I shit you not—the Muzak version of The Godfather theme trilled in the background.
You might wonder why I didn’t just go down to the Immigration Office, less than a mile away from my house! and pay the 10$ visa fee. The reason for this is that the Immigration Office—charged as it is with handling visas—evidently doesn’t WANT to handle visas and certainly NOT for 10$, thus it tells all foreigners hoping to remain in Hanoi’s loving embrace that they must go to a travel agency. These travel agencies seem to charge wildly different and sometimes outrageous prices for renewing visas, plus they require more prep time than I had to spare, something Mr. Khien promised wouldn’t be an issue. So there I was, downing curry, listening to Mr. Khien negotiate on the phone with his police officer friend (“I know a man,” Mr. Khien said, “what do you say: on The Force?”) about time and price and what I was allowed to get now. Evidently, immigration policies change here, oh, fortnightly, so instead of being eligible for another three-month visa I had to renew for one-month, single entry only, after which I could get another month. Fine. I paid my money, left my passport, and a few days later got my visa.
That still left me with another month to go before I was slated to leave Vietnam for good.
And once again I left things late. So late that, rather than go back to Mr. Khien and his friend on The Force, it was probably safer to hoof it to Laos and renew my visa on return.
Interestingly, this meant having to do another series of backroom negotiations, this time over US dollars. For those of you planning to travel in southeast Asia, make sure you have AND KEEP enough US dollars with you to buy visas to all countries you plan to enter. Evidently, visa offices in Cambodia and Laos ONLY want US dollars, and those in Vietnam certainly prefer it. And getting US dollars in Hanoi is harder than it looks. Harder, that is, than in Saigon, where getting dollars is as simple as going to an exchange office or foreign bank or hotel. But here in Hanoi, City of All Human Annoyance, you can go to certain banks but you need to complete stupid amounts of paperwork, and for really large sums you have to go to the gold markets. I didn’t have time for any of this nonsense, so found myself—again!—tucked away in a dark corner of my apartment complex with the father of a friend here who stockpiles US dollars for just this sort of irritating non-crisis.
In Vietnam, I suspect there is little difference between a black market economy and a regular economy. The black market economy here IS the economy.
Anyway, a few days later, I found myself in Luang Prabang, staying here:
Chapter 2: Paradise Found
Friends, let me just say it: Luang Prabang is heaven. A very very hot heaven as the place is about 100 degrees plus humidity in late April, but heaven nonetheless. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, something I didn’t appreciate the value of until wandering around town, astonished (no better word for it) by the beauty.
I mean, seriously, people: check this out.
The temples! The bougainvillea! The parade of monks each dawn!
I was astonished also, I must note, by both the friendliness of the people (Wait, wait, I kept thinking, no one here is constantly trying to rip me off?) and the startling absence of them.
The first is obviously something to celebrate (especially after living in northern Vietnam), the second not so much. The absence of humanity is due in part to the fact that during the Vietnam War America bombed, killed and displaced tens of thousands of Laotians. Laos was in fact the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history, as we dropped more than two million bombs there and left somewhere around 50 million as yet unexploded munitions in its fields. The absence of people may be initially charming, but it’s also a reminder of certain long-term effects of the Vietnam War.
This is, by the way, something to be confronted throughout southeast Asia. Go anywhere in Cambodia, for example, or outside the bigger cities in Laos, and you’ll see signs for fields that have been or are in the process of being cleared of cluster bombs and land mines. You will also come across museums like COPE or the Land Mine Museum documenting the disastrous consequences of our buried munitions.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear you muttering. We feel terrible about all that. Bloodthirsty, hypocritical war-mongers the lot of us. Got that memo. We suck. SO WHAT ABOUT THE ELEPHANT?
Chapter 3: The Elephant
So one day while wandering around town, panting like a spaniel and mopping at that slick of sweat that had recently become my face, I came across the sign for Elephant Village, a tour company a friend of mine in Vietnam had recommended. Elephant Village was started by a German businessman interested in saving the Asian elephants in Laos. Basically, at his facility, you get “trained” to be an elephant rider (not really: they just shove you on its neck and tell you what commands to shout while the elephant wanders off, totally ignoring you), you go on a little river trek, then (best part of the day!) you get to feed elephants bunches of bananas and then play around in the river with them, washing them down.
OH. MY. GOD.
Reader, my whole life, I’ve hated tours. They’re lame. They’re expensive. They never show you anything “authentic” about a place. You have to hang out with strangers from around the world for a day, slowly learning to hate them. All this is true, but when you get to stand on the head of an elephant in a river, squealing as it hoses you down with water sprayed from its trunk, jumping off from and then clambering up again onto its back as it rolls and sloshes; when you get to return later to its stable to feed—one by one—green bananas into its (let’s just admit it here) vaginal-looking mouth, well then, there’s only one thing to say.
This was so much fun! And even though I kept trying NOT to put my face in the water, having seen the softball-sized mounds of green poop floating past in the river during our trek, it was impossible not to lose myself in the joy of being able to touch an elephant up close, to feel the black wire hairs bristle on its head, to fit my knees behind its rough ears as I leaned over its bowed head with the brush, scrubbing caked mud off its forehead. It’s amazing and a little scary to swim around an elephant in the water, watching as all the other elephants push and jostle each other playfully, to feel the dry, suitcase-like hide of their shoulders. Oh, Reader. It. Is. Fabulous. I could have stayed there the rest of the day.
But, obviously, I only paid enough for an hour.
Anyway, that is what you do on a visa run. After that, it was back to the hotel, the night market, plates of fresh noodles and fish at the food stall buffet, terrible cocktails on the patio, and the liberal and possibly liver-damaging usage of DEET mosquito repellant.
So, how do you wash an elephant? With a river, a brush, an expired visa, a fistful of commandeered US dollars, and--finally--the good sense to know just how to keep your head above water.