Coming from: Bo Y, Kon Tum Province, Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Going to: Phou Keua, Attapeu Province, Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Documents required: Passport, Vietnamese Visa
Waiting time: 15 min (Vietnam), 20 min (Laos)
Distance from Bern: 22.123 km
The main attraction of the Bo Y/Phou Keua border crossing is the “Indochina T-Junction”, the border tripoint of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia just nearby. This T-Junction sits on a hilltop, and a couple of years ago the Vietnamese built a representative monument at the place where the three French ex-colonies meet. Reason enough to have a look at it.
So I set out to the Vietnamese border town of Ngoc Hoi and rented a motorbike, because I was fed up with the constant scams and rip-offs at public transport and taxis. I had no concrete idea how to get to that place; I just had spotted it on an online map. Also the guidebooks did not mention it, which was actually a good sign. Google Maps listed several minor roads going up to the T-Junction, with no clear favourite.
Stuck in the mud: My first trial to get to the border tripoint (not me in the picture ;))
So I just gave it a go, and that was harder than expected. The road I tried first indeed led up to the tripoint, but it gradually became a motocross track. My rented motorbike was a city-dweller and clearly not apt for this kind of challenges. When in the end I got utterly stuck and a cow herd was gathering around me, I was close to giving up. My next trial brought me to a military base and, trying to avoid that area, to an obvious smuggler path. I came across a group of men lifting their heavily overloaded motorbikes through the mud: Another right path in a wrong quality.
Now the only option left was a road starting behind the Vietnamese Bo Y border checkpoint. I had tried to avoid it, because it would involve formally leaving Vietnam, and I just had a single-entry visa. Hesitatingly I approached the checkpoint. To my surprise, I was promptly waved through. At the exit gate of the checkpoint, the road towards the “Indochina T-Junction” turned left, even signposted. A border officer stood in a hut nearby. He checked my passport, pointed at the hilltop and said “Eight kilometres!”
Where Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia „meet“: Indochina T-Junction
Driving up the hill was pure pleasure. The road was good, and I was alone. The tourist crowds seem to stay away from the area. But still the rolling hills in all shades of green were a great view, and so was to compare them to their Lao and Cambodian counterparts, which were covered by jungle. The T-Junction-Monument turned out to be – as many things in Vietnam – a scam. It features border stones of Laos and Cambodia, but in fact the border to Cambodia is a hundred meters down the hill, and the one to Laos even two kilometres away, behind another hill. It didn’t matter, the two neighbouring countries and the tripoint were clearly visible, and the whole excursion had been very pleasant.
The real border tripoint is the hill at the horizon.
The next day I crossed the same border by local bus, which was no big deal. I was surprised to see that most locals bribed the border guards. I didn’t, which had no consequences. But the Laotians were again rather unorganized and complicated. There is one booth for immigration check and another one for the issuance of visa. As a foreigner, which did not need a visa, it was not too obvious to me that I should queue at the visa counter. I just found that out after all my fellow passengers had been checked. The immigration officer then worked unnaturally slow, which made my bus driver suggest to me that I might bribe him. The border guard seemed not too convinced that Swiss would enter visa-free. However, my previous entry stamps proved that point, and so did a phone call to a superior. In the end, I got my stamp for free, but I could easily have paid for it.
Bo Y border control checkpoint
Transport: A daily minibus leaves Ngoc Hoi at 7 a.m. (100.000 VND) not from the bus station, but from the garage of Tien Phat, the operator. The garage is on the main road, across the street from the market – easy to spot. More buses from Kon Tum, Pleiku and other towns cross the border as well. In the other direction, buses and minibuses depart from Pakse and Attapeu. These through buses are recommended – especially on the underpopulated Lao side of the border, ending up without onward transport might cost a lot of patience and money. Be aware that Vietnamese bus operators are notorious for overcharging, so find out the price of the ride before entering the bus. I was asked double the actual price, and the fellow passengers even backed the operators’ claim – I had never encountered this kind of behaviour before, not even in infamous Morocco.
Accommodation: There are many rather modest hotels clustered around the market of Ngoc Hoi. Those in Attapeu are spread out around the town. There are only small villages in between, with no obvious accommodation choices. The border settlements neither have hotels.
Food: In Bo Y, on the Vietnamese side of the border, there are several restaurants and snack bars offering the standard Vietnamese fare. On the Lao side, there is no settlement and no restaurant. In the towns of Ngoc Hoi and Attapeu, there are a lot of restaurants. Although the Vietnamese cuisine is renowned, the restaurants in Ngoc Hoi did not overwhelm me.
Money change: The shops outside of the Vietnamese checkpoints change money (Vietnamese Dong and Lao Kip), and so does a counter inside the border terminal. I did not see the same on the Lao side, but there might be.