After an overnight train from Vinh, we arrive in Danang feeling tired and grubby and slump into the back seat of a taxi for the 45 minute drive down the coast to Hoi An. As we pass the beaches where the Americans first landed in Vietnam during the war, instead there now stand mammoth luxury resorts. We finally arrive at the hotel and decide a few hours’ kip are in order, but when building works and a rather loud drill start mere minutes after our arrival, we decide to head into town instead to explore.
Our hotel is a 15 minute walk from the old town along a rather busy, noisy and dirty main road. But as we turn off towards the river, the scene is very different. French colonial architecture, old fishing boats, cute bars and cafes, a bustling market. In many ways, very similar to Luang Prabang and just as charming.
Having survived on crisps and biscuits for the last two days, we decide to sample some classic Hoi An food. We choose Cao Lau, a dish of noodles, greens and pork, White Rose, shrimp wrapped in rice paper, and a couple of draft beers. The food costs about £1 per dish and the beer an incredible 3,000 dong (about 9p)!!
In the streets, the locals are putting up New Year decorations and there are lanterns strung from building to building. On the river are giant paper models of dragons, fish and tortoises. Families are also burning what appears to be money in small bins outside their homes, although we later discover this is not real money and is a New Year tradition – they believe that by burning the money and other offerings, these will be passed to their ancestors in the afterlife. The streets are full of people carrying out this ritual, rice and salt also cover the streets in similar offerings.
Hoi An is famous for its tailors – I’m sure many of you will have seen the delightful suits that the Top Gear guys got made here when they were in Vietnam. We weren’t planning on getting anything made, but after some window shopping Rich spots a couple of jackets that he’s very keen on and we go for a fitting. The tailors here can make you pretty much anything in 24 hours but it’s better if you have a little longer to allow for alterations. After getting measured we head for a few beers and then bed, it’s been a long couple of days.
The next day it’s back into town for a first fitting and more exploring. We visit the Japanese covered bridge, sample some more Hoi An specialities (Wonton soup this time) and browse the shops full of beautiful bowls, tea sets and TinTin souvenirs. I also decide to buy a pair of boots (tailor made again) and a couple of cotton summer dresses from the same tailor that Rich is getting one of his jackets from.
If you’re feeling touristy, you can visit the My Son ruins easily on a day trip, but after our long journey from Laos we decide to just stay put for a few days instead – there are plenty of temples ahead of us in Cambodia. And so we enjoy more great food, beer and even a little wine and soak up the atmosphere of wonderful Hoi An. And having not planned on buying anything, we leave with two jackets, two dresses, a pair of boots and some presents for the folks back at home. Then it’s back to Danang and another overnight train to Nha Trang, the beach capital of Vietnam.
So, the plan was to catch a 29hr bus direct from Vang Vieng to Hanoi. Things didn’t go well from the start as we were put on a slow local bus to Vientiane, not what we paid for. Arriving in Vientiane around 7pm we should have transfered to a sleeper bus to Hanoi. The sleeper turned out to be another local bus, we were late and there were no sleeper seats left. The thought of 22 hours without a sleeper seat didn’t really work with us so we decided to stay the night in Vientiane and re-arrange plans. After a few beers and some discussion we realised that a trip to Hanoi would cost us five days out of our trip and leave the rest of our travels rather rushed, so instead we decided to re-plan our intenery and hot foot it straight down to ,Hoi An.
Another day in Vientiane wasn’t so bad, I found a local computer shop and get a replacement hard drive for the laptop and Leah spent a few hours in an internet shop researching the next few weeks. That evening, we set off on a sleeper bus to the Vietnam city of Vinh, which was still not quite the bus we were expecting but better than the first try.
We were emptied off our bus around 7am. Outside, visibility was about 10 metres due to mist and the temperature was hovering around freezing. It was a surreal moment. Together with hundreds of locals crossing the border we first gain an exit stamp from Laos and then walk around 1km into the mist towards the Vietnam checkpoint. We had already bought visas in Laos so after validating we wait for our bus, carry our bags across the border, until finally we meet up with our bus on the other side. In all, two and a half hours. To any fellow travellers that may read this I’m not going to say it was fun. It was freezing, some of us were soaked through and it took ages, but it was one of those experiences you do really enjoy, just after it’s ended!
After an onward bus to Vinh we book an overnight sleeper to Danang and camp out in a deserted hotel lobby for five hours with a Swiss guy called Stefan who was on holiday from China where he is studying. Strangely the hotel had unprotected superfast wi-fi so we abused it and downloaded over 7GB of films, sorry about that.
So, 48 hours on the road. We’re a bit tired and probably smell a bit. All reports say Hoi An is going to be a relaxing few days.
Next stop after a couple of days in Vientiane was Luang Prabang, which is reached via a 10 hour (although they will tell you it’s eight) bus journey, twisting and turning through the hills, clinging onto your seat as the driver overtakes other vehicles with a sheer drop of 1000m mere inches away. Not a journey we would recommend taking at night not only for safety’s sake but also because the scenery is breathtaking and well worth seeing. We’d show you some videos but alas, they were lost in the laptop incident.
Luang Prabang is a very cute little town full of French influence. You don’t come for any particularly noteworthy sights, but more just to soak up the atmosphere, lounge in the cute cafes and bars and browse the very large (but somewhat repetitive) night market.
There are the usual trekking and elephant camp tours on offer but since we’d already acquainted ourselves with the animals in Chiang Mai we decided to see some local sights instead and picked a full day tour of the surrounding area. We spent the morning on a slow boat up the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves, which are full of hundreds of Buddha figurines.
On the way, we stopped at a small village where we watched ladies weaving cloth and sampled the local rice wine and whiskey. After a pit-stop back in town to grab some lunch it was off to the Kuang Si waterfalls. We’d seen a few pictures but they were much larger and more impressive than we were expecting. The falls are on multiple levels and as you can see from the pics, you can swim in the lagoons which are a gorgeous turquoise colour. Some people were jumping into the pools from the edge of the waterfall but when we saw a guy’s nipple ring get ripped off from the force of hitting the water we decided to give it a miss!!! On the way back to the minivan, we took a look at the neighbouring bear sanctuary where there were several Asiatic black bears enjoying the late afternoon sun. On the way home there was a stop off at another ethnic village but when even the very smallest kids know how to say ‘two for one dollar’ whilst waving friendship bracelets under your nose it makes you feel a little uneasy.
Back in town, it was time to do some shopping. The night market sells a wide array of souvenirs, including clothes, bags, scarves, bedspreads, wood carvings – you name it, they had it. There is some really beautiful stuff but the sheer volume of stalls can be a little overwhelming – the only way to get from one end of the main street to the other is through the market which takes up the whole width of the road and seems to go on endlessly!! There is also some great food stalls where you can grab some dinner. For 10,000 kip (just under £1) you get a plate which you can fill with a variety of dishes including noodles, rice, vegetables and spring rolls. Then you can choose your meat – chicken, sausage or fish at an additional 10,000 kip each. The lady heats it all up in a wok for you and then you join the hoards of other locals and tourists on the benches to eat. Very tasty, although there was a maggot in Richard’s food!!
Other than that, there’s not a great deal to Luang Prabang and you can wander the whole town in half a day. If the weather is clear it’s worth climbing up Phou Si, the hill in the centre of town, where you can catch a great sunset. Unfortunately, it was cloudy on the one day we were in town for sunset, so we never made it, and sat overlooking the night market being prepared for the evening instead.
One thing we did discover in Luang Prabang is a great little wine bar called Pack Luck. After a drought of decent wine in Thailand, we were very grateful of their extensive menu and enjoyed a lovely bottle of Chilean Merlot on more than one occasion. An extravagance perhaps but delicious!!!
After three days it was back down the long and winding road from where we had come to Vang Vieng. Goodbye wine bars, hello tubing…