Leaving Laos

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.

Laos - Vietnam overland border

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.

Vinh station

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.

Vang Vieng – not quite a lazy day on the river!

Vang Vieng is like no place on earth, but you have to visit to decide if that’s a good or bad thing. At first sight it looks like a small, sleepy, slightly run-down town running parallel to river Nam Song. The banks of the river are flanked by towering limescale mountains and it’s under these that a rash of hotels, guest houses and impossibly cheap restaurants have opened. There’s also an old airstrip just outside town that was used by the America’s planes during the Vietnam war
Vang Vieng suburbs
Originally it was the scenery that attracted people to Vang Vieng, but over the years it has  become a Mecca for travellers to come and party along the river as if the end of the world is nigh. What Vang Vieng is famous for is tubing, let me explain.
For £4, you can hire a large inner tube from the centre of town. Included in the price is a tuk-tuk that will take you about 15 minutes out of town and drop you besides the river. Your mission is to float downstream to town, which should take about three hours. The only obstacle to achieving this objective is that along the river have opened 15-20 bars offering free shots of local whiskey, cheap beer, cocktails and a variety of river swings and slides distracting you from your journey. Many people don’t make it more than a few hundred metres downstream and spend the day getting insanely drunk, dancing the day away. It has to be seen to be believed.
Vang Vieng - tubing
We decided on the first day we would complete the full float back to town, so we started early around 12pm. En route, the bars will throw a rope out to you and pull you into the bars and we managed a fair few beers along the way, getting back into town around 3.30pm. Then we dumped the tubes and  headed straight back to the bars for some fun.
It has to be mentioned there is slightly darker side to the entertainment, on the flip side of every bar menu you will find the “special” menu. Various manifestations of opium, magic mushrooms and weed are offered openly. This just adds to the carnage, there are kids everywhere out of their minds.. if your still not sure  check this link
The next day is Rich’s birthday, so we book a really nice bungalow on the river front, get cakes and wine and have a reasonably relaxed day.
Vang Vieng - Sunset
Two days is enough for us here, as we’re feeling a little old amongst the hoards of Australians on ‘schoolies’ (like Spring break in the States), although we did have some interesting offers to stay…(will fill you in later Alexis)

Vang Vieng - The river running through town
Thinking we are hardened bus travellers we book a ticket from Vang Vieng straight through the Vietnam border to Hanoi. From a roadside agent. Mistake.

Luang Prabang – French-Asian fusion

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 scenery

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.

Slow boat up the Mekong

Pak Ou cave

Pak Ou cave

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!!

Rich in waterfalls

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.

Sunset over Luang Prabang

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…

Laos! – Vientiane

After 12 hours squeezed into a minivan through the night we make our way across the border to Laos. We recommend crossing the border yourself on foot – don’t go with a tour group, it will take ages! We spend a day in Vientiane, pick up some Vietnamese visas and visit the sights around town. You can’t help but spot the French colonial influence, there are some stunning yet decaying French town-houses dotted around this sleepy capital (some pictures in the Laos gallery). It is a huge change of pace from Thailand, slow and very welcome. I think we are going to like Laos. Next stop is Luang Prabang, voted top destination in the world by NY times a few years back, not very backpacker, but we are at least getting a bus through the mountains…

Vientiane in photos…

Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang
Offering at Pha That Luang
Buddhas at Wat Sisaket
Sunset and Beer Lao over the Mekong