We arrived on a VIP bus from Vang Vieng. To call the bus VIP would be the a huge stretch but it got us here in one piece. The capital city of Laos Vientiane is exceptionally quiet. Due to Laos' slow moving economy since the secret war the capital has not experienced a large amount of growth as people still have a better standard of living from farming. The capital is wrapped around the meandering Mekong river. Our hotel was right on the water front in the heart of the tourist district.
We stayed in Vientiane for four days as our last relaxing stop before a brief trip to Bangkok and then on to Sydney. The city is known for its cafes and bakeries, with such a strong influence from the French Colonylisation the majority of the architecture has a French flavour. Each cafe we visited had plenty of wonderful pastries and the lovely Lao coffee. The prices are so cheap it is unbelievable.
We visited the Cope Centre which is dedicated to helping people with disabilities from all causes. The main disabilities treated at the centre are those caused by unexploded ordinance dropped by the US during the Secret War ( US bombed Lao in an attempt to stop Vietnamese soldiers entering Southern Vietnam through Lao). Lao became the most bombed country in the world with over 80million bombs dropped which the majority are closter bombs. The shocking fact we learned was the only 30% exploded upon impact. The most heavily bombed part of Lao was in the south at the border with Vietnam. One of the most shocking things is 30 years after the war the majority of bombs are still live and have not been cleared up. The US has contributed 15 million over 15 years to the effort which equates to the same amount of money they spend on a single day bombing Lao ( they bombed it for three years).
The country can't function properly as nobody can roam into the countryside but must stay in-between the red marking posts which signal the area has been cleared for unexploded ordinance. That visit was truly humbling and reminded us as we have been throughout Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos that we are very lucky to have grown up in Ireland!
The next day we went on a cycling tour of the capital which was cool, the bikes we rented were a bit on the old side and lacking brakes. We took off around the capital on an adventure that would bring us to the Royal Palace, Lao version of the Chans D'Leyes, a few of the capitals famous wahts (a.k.a temples). It was really cool and we had great fun. All that was left was to indulge in the amazing bakeries and get our penultimate plane to Bangkok.
Laos is amazing we had such a relaxing time minus the tubing!!
Hope all is well at home, keep safe
One thing to note about Laos is the fact that if you want to travel around you really need to not mind bumpy winding roads. We had been warned that when getting buses in Laos the driver will tend to give you a sweetened version of the journey beforehand. We were told it would take 4 hours to get from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng but it actually took 8. Unfortunately Roy was suffering from a bout of food poisoning too so the very very windy and ridiculously bumpy journey was one I don't think he will forget for a long time!
Vang Vieng used to be a tranquil scenic stop for travellers once upon a time. Since that time the river going through the town has been transformed into a hotspot for the famous 'tubing'. We turned up at this river to experience it for ourselves....
You are given a giant tube and a big green bit of material is tied around your arm - not sure why. Then you walk across a bridge into the first bar, upon entering said bar you are forced to take a shot of whiskey - they pour it into your mouth from the bottle and if you refuse the staff follow you around blaring a siren in your ear. Once the shot is done they tie a pink string around your arm. You then get a drink and you sit in the sun drinking away and listening to blasting music and when you feel ready you go down to the river which is very fast and absolutely full of jagged rocks and you sit in your tube and off you go! As you approach the next bar a man throws a long rope out to you and if you want to stop there he pulls you in. Guess what? The whole ritual starts again, shot of whiskey, coloured string etc. So even if you had planned to take it easy....it just doesn't work that way. There is spray paint everywhere and drinking games and water pistols. Then there is of course all the slides, rope swings, diving boards etc - not safe!!!!!! It's a mental place altogether. We met a few people we knew from travelling so we had fun, and both managed to survive the experience : ) Floating down a river in the dark not knowing where the next bar will pop up was interesting!
The whole town is full of little cafes which have makeshift beds rather than chairs and there are televisions everywhere showing a never ending reel of Friends or Family Guy. The menus are full of normal food but also 'happy' food containing 'happy' ingredients. The whole place is a stoners paradise.
One day there was enough for us just to experience the madness that is tubing. It was then time to hop on board another bus to the capital Vientiane for our last stop in Laos.
Voila : )
We arrived by aeroplane into Luang Prabang airport which is a generous term as it is more of a shed than anything else. The immediate sense of landing in Laos is how relaxed the country is? No rush, everything has it's own pace. This will seem funny but the smell of he air was so nice like a mixture of fragrences. We decided to stay in Luang Prabang for five days to chill out and relax after our express tour through Vietnam. Our accommodation was a two minute walk from the night market, palace and restaurants.
Luang Prabang is the old French Capital of Laos where the King once ruled. It architecture is modelled after an old French village with shutters on every white washed building. The palace is open to visitors so we strolled through the rooms where you can actually envisage the King living there with his wife and concubines!!! It also houses the most sacred Buddha in Laos Buddhism. A golden 73cm tall statue which is due to be moved to a purpose built temple in the grounds of the palace shortly. Overall the palace and surrounding buildings are lovely.
We booked a 1 day tour to ride the elephants and visit the famous waterfalls in the area. Our elephant rise consisted of and hour ride through the jungle and river on top of Mweinup our elephant. She was 41 and was massive. The ride culminated in us having the chafe to feed the elephants which was cool. She loved bananas and we could barely break the next banana of the bunch before trunk would come searching for more food. In the afternoon we visited the waterfalls where we got to swim in pool beneath the final waterfall. The water was chilly to say the least but gave us a break from the heat of the afternoon sunshine.
Luang Prabang was so cool we were able to relax the other days walk to the top of the hill over looking the city for sunset, have a massage in the afternoon and drink the amazing Lao coffee. We had dinner in the L'Elephant Restaurant which was the best western food we have eaten since we left home!! Amazing - Coupled with a bottle of wine to wash it all down. It think at this stage many people think we're alcoholics but don't worry we're not!!
Next is an 6 hour bus to the infamous Vang Vieng to go tubing!! If you don't know what is have a look on the Internet. I have a feeling the hang over will be colossal after this one!!
Hope you're all well
Our last sleeper train between Hue and Hanoi was the longest we had in Vietnam and the least pleasant. At 4.30am we were glad to be getting off! We said goodbye to the cockroaches and got into our minivan to Halong Bay. We arrived there that afternoon having stopped at a few tourist traps along the way including an 'authentic pearl shop'. We stepped out of the minivan and were directed onto a large wooden boat known as a Chinese style junk. There were nine of us on board the junk staying in the bay overnight. As we cruised towards the bay passing many of the 2000 islands that randomly jut up out of the crystal clear emerald waters we admired the beauty that is Halong Bay. Having enjoyed a delicious lunch of seafood on board we eventually arrived in the centre of the bay where our junk docked by some caves. We climbed off the boat and spent an hour wandering through the Hang Sung Sot cave meaning 'surprise cave' as the French people who discovered it were not expecting it be so large and were...surprised : ) the cave was truly impressive with three large chambers and in the second chamber the stalagmites have formed in a shape that the guides try to convince you looks like a finger but which is known among tourists as the 'cock rock'.
After we had emerged fron the caves we were put into kayaks and set free to make our own way around the bay for an hour. Me and Roy were in our own kayak and we made our way around the islands and past a small fishing village full of floating homes.
That night after dinner with the junk anchored in the bay we sat on the deck with the rest of the tour enjoying some local beers, admiring the clear view of the stars and fishing for squid with no success. If you are going to Hanoi we would say a trip to Halong Bay for one night is a must.
The next day we headed back to the capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi. The one thing that really sticks out about this place is the absolutely mental traffic, which as usual consists of millions of motorbikes and scooters. If you want to cross the road you have to just step out into the traffic which may seem like a death wish but as you walk the scooters just avoid you and that is the system, no nice green walking man, no you just step out and hope for the best. Bit of fun really!
Hanoi is a bit of a maze and all the streets look the same. The first evening we were there we went to eat dinner at sone local street food BBQ. If you saw this place at home you would run a mile to avoid all kinds of food poisoning, but our tour guy told us it was safe and in fairness there were tonnes of locals so we figured it couldn't be too bad. It was set up on the corner of this junction in the city and they had a table on the path covered in meat and you pick up a box and fill it with whatever uncooked meat you want and then they throw it on a filthy looking BBQ while you take a seat on the curb, surrounded by rubbish and cockroaches, on tiny little plastic stools just big enough to sit on. But it was DELICIOUS.
We then hit the nightclubs as it was our last night with the tour group which we had been with since Cambodia. Just as things were really kicking off at about 12am though the police arrived to remind us that we were in a communist country with a curfew and everyone was kicked out. The bar staff tried to convince us that the police would demand money and then leave and that the party would continue but we didn't fancy hanging around outside waiting for the police to leave so we managed to find another nightclub that appeared closed but under the shutters was really still banging away. Interesting night out!
After two days and nights of exploring the labyrinth streets of Hanoi we were finished with our trip through Vietnam, saying goodbye to the fast pace it was time to slow things down as we flew into peaceful and beautiful Laos.
We arrived to Hue after a 4 hours bus journey. This city was the ancient capital during the period from 1744-1945. The city has a grand palace and a forbidden city similar and smaller to the one in Beijing. Such was the influence from China during this period the Vietnamese language was based on the Chinese dialect. In the 1940's Ho Chi Minh changed the written language to the western alphabet which he learned during his studies in a Paris University. The spoken dialect still has its routes in the Chinese language with four different ways to pronounce each word.
In the afternoon we embarked on a motor cycle tour of the countryside and the ancient monuments including the Kings burial sites. The tour lasted four hours and was amazing battle through the traffic in the city to the stark contrast of silence of the countryside. Vietnam is the worlds largest producer of rice for export and in the modern era 70% is still produced by hand with no machinery used. All the rice is dried and ground by hand and the water is pumped into the paddies field manually too. After bringing us to the rice museum we whizzed along empty streets passing fishermen and water buffalo before we reached the city again where we were brought through winding back alleys to the home of a famous woman who despite having only one arm from the war has gone on to produce very skilfully made conical straw hats each one taking six hours to make. We watched how she made them as we heard her story. We were then brought us a mountain in the dark to visit a famous pagoda and buddah before returning to town, there's nothing quite like sitting on the back of a motorbike in Vietnam, not for the feint of heart!!
The evening we all went for a quiet meal and a few beers to chill after a long day preparing ourselves for a 16 hour train trip the next day to Hanoi!!
Hope you're all well at home
Following another overnight sleeper train we arrived in Hoi An, a pleasant little town full of winding streets and an endless supply of tailor shops. The Old Town sits alongside the Thu Bon River and all the little old buildings are still in good condition giving the place a nice authentic feel. As we walked around here we encountered dozens of souvenir stalls and people offering us boat rides down the river.
We spent our day walking through all the streets admiring the little shops, enjoying the tiny market where Roy proudly bargained a pair of Billabong shorts down to 3US dollars and even got tempted into getting a dress made by a tailor. I was happy as I had a new dress and Roy was happy to partake in more bargaining!
That evening we went out for a traditional Vietnamese meal, I went for marinated prawns in banana leaf which was delicious and of course some rice! Hoi An is such a tranquil pretty town during the day but at night the bars open in full swing and we all managed to find a bar with a generous happy 'hour' that continued from 7pm until 12am.
The next morning was spent by the pool in the hotel as the sun was out in full force. Another day of relaxing and enjoying the Old Town followed by another impressive meal. Hoi An was not the most exciting place we visited but it was nice to slow down and just take in our surroundings for once.
The next day we were all on to Hue involving a four hour bus journey up the mountains : )
On an over night train from Ho Chi Minh City we arrived at 5:30 in the morning into a sleepy costal town. Our first impression of the town was that we could be in any Southern European Beach Resort. Our plan was to chill out at a beach party (all you can drink & eat). The party was on the beach where Miss World was held in 2009. The weather was overcast however many of us still managed to burn somehow (Sara)! The toilets were an experience; instead of being a conventional European toilet or a Asian squat toilet they were in fact a solid concrete floor with a gradient away from the door, it was absolutely disgusting. So everyone sat on the beach and enjoyed the local rum, vodka & whiskey and plenty of barbequed seafood. The water was so warm it was lovely and the waves were unreal! We found two shells in the water stuck together and when we pulled them apart an octopus climed out and ran back into the sea.
That evening we celebrated the tour guides birthday and also one of the lads on the trip too. The next day we all woke up to a lovely hangover and with a day of relaxing before our 14 hour train journey to Da Nang followed by a 1 hour bus which would get is to our destination Hoi An!! Many of us decided to take advantage of the day by heading to the local famous mud baths. We all climbed into a giant outdoor bathtub as a group and then it was filled with mud. With all that mud to be honest it felt exactly the same as rugby training in winter, though the mud was slightly warmer. After submersing ourselves in mud for 15 minutes we then had to sun bathe for twenty to allow the mud to harden before entering the hydrotherapy showers where the high power jets of water take all the mud off you. The next stage was a 20 minute jacuzzi followed by a swim in the pool. It was a good way to spend an afternoon getting over the hangover and preparing ourselves for yet another over-night train.
The only ticket we were able to book on this train was a six bed sleeper cabin! The train actually wasn't that bad but the sight of cockroaches within the first ten minutes was not what we wanted to see!! We decided to take a sleeping tablet each so we would just sleep the whole journey. We woke up ten minutes before its arrival into Da Nang with some strange bite marks on our legs!! We were told later they locked like mice bites but we prefer to think they were giant mosquitos!
I hope you're all well and keeping safe at home. We have fallen a bit behind with the blogs but will be back up to speed shortly. Take care
More buses!! We are getting very skilled at curling up into a half decent position for sleeping on the long bus journeys. Arrived in Chau Doc not too far past the Vietnamese border. Triangular straw hats and even more scooters were to be seen everywhere. We weren't expecting too much from Chau Doc as it was more of a stopover between places however the evening we arrived we had the option to go on a motorbike tour up a mountain, we decided to give it a go as there didn't seem to be much else going on. Our motorbike drivers arrived and placed nice colourful helmets on our heads as we hopped onto the back of their seats. I clung to the back of the bike as my driver zipped off through the village streets, it was so much fun and as we passed all the little houses children would run out to wave at us. It was only when we hit the base of the mountain that my driver really took off, next thing I knew we were flying up the hill and bumping over ramps overtaking everyone else! The seat just wasn't cutting it anymore and I found myself clinging to the driver instead, terrifying but exhilarating! We reached the top of the mountain before the rest of the group and caught the sun setting over the Cambodian and Vietnam fields at the border. We all sat around with a beer watching the sunset and preparing ourselves for the bike ride back down the mountain in the dark : ) great craic though!!
The next day we set off again to Ho Chi Minh City. We arrived at lunch time and walked into the town to find food. We ended up in a tiny corner noodle cafe which looked pretty dodgy but had photos on the wall of Bill Clinton eating there so we figured it must be good enough : ) then we had to run to the pub to watch the rugby final, two members of the tour group were from New Zealand which made it that bit more exciting. That evening consisted of many cocktails in celebration which in turn led to karaoke... Our own private giant karaoke room where many incriminating videos were taken!
We felt the brunt of the celebrations the next morning when we had to get up early to visit the Chi Chi tunnels. During the Vietnam war the Vietnamese dug loads of underground tunnels where they slept, cooked, ate and even had hospitals, they really are extraordinary. You can go down into the tunnels and crawl through them yourself to see what it was like, they are so tiny though I only made it through the first ten meters before I freaked out and had to climb out, Roy made it to the end though and at parts had to crawl on his stomach as bats flew at his face. How the soldiers stayed down there for hours I do not know!!! At the end of the tour we had the opportunity to try shooting our choice of weapon, I went for an Ak47 which nearly deafened me and the force of it nearly knocked me back.
That night it was a sleeper train to Nha Trang, onward through Vietnam!