A Travellerspoint blog


The arrival to real life!

sunny 23 °C

So, there we were, somewhere in Hanoi, but luckily still alive despite the bus drivers best efforts. We walked into the bus station to try to find a map, or someone to ask. No go, it was all shut and dark. Fantastic. We decided to just start walking, and wandered around some fairly main, lit streets, but they were all very local, and there was no English anywhere. We walked past a couple of places that could’ve been hotels, but we weren’t sure and didn’t dare go in and ask! 10 minutes and lots more maybe hotels/maybe nots later, we braved it, and after one telling us they had no beds, and looking shocked at the very prospect of us checking in, another one scooped us up, and hurrah, we had a bed! Admittedly a rock solid bed, in what may or may not have been somewhere that people normally rent ‘by the hour’ (read, where to take your mistress/prostitute...), but we decided to ignore that possible fact, and just went to sleep!

The next morning, first task, find out where on earth we were, and how to get to the city centre. After a little walk around, which stressed Susie out because she had no idea where anywhere was in relation to our hotel etc (John did though so it was OK), we found a coffee house with wi-fi. We eventually worked out where we were – about 6km south of the city centre. We decided in our infinite wisdom to walk it, and after getting some money out, checking out (where the woman charged us $3 less than the man had said, which made up for the fact he charged us 5 times more than he should have done for water. Haha.

The walk was rather long, but straightforward, and we were both enjoying being somewhere with some life to it, after all of Laos (which although lovely is very quiet!). After about 90 minutes, we arrived at the hotel we’d planning to stay in, Liberty Hotel, where we were greeted by a lovely, yet completely insane lady who asked us about 10 questions in quick succession, and then finally took us to a really nice room. It had a HOT SHOWER, CABLE TELEVISION, SOFT PILLOWS, and various other luxuries unknown to us for weeks! It was an extravagance at $15 a night, but soooo worth it. Ahhhhh.

We went out and got our bearings (well, John did anyway, Susie seems to have a mental block knowing her way round Hanoi). After a little wander, we went and got a very locals lunch of Bun Cha (grilled pork mince meat balls, with a tasty soup with more pork in it, that is served with a massive plate of lettuce/other greens, loads of noodles, fish spring rolls and a beer), which was very tasty, but LOTS of food and far too much meat for people who’ve basically been eating vegetarian for 2 weeks!

We then went back to the room, and proceeded to have a VERY lazy afternoon, which was much needed after the busy last week or so we’d had! We spent almost the whole afternoon in our room, making the most of having cable tv in our room (first time since Siem Reap!), and watched ‘America’s Next Top Model’ for about 5 hours. Disgraceful, yes, but definitely some much needed trash! Our brains hadn’t chilled out that much for weeks!

After America’s Next Top Model finished, an episode of Masterchef USA gave us both a massive craving for ribs, so a short guide book flick later, we ended up at Al Fresco’s for dinner. This is a small Australian run chain that does ribs, burgers, etc. Upon arrival, we deliberated for a while about whether to get a whole rack each, but descided against it, mainly because it was $20! In the end we shared one, and we were so glad we did. It was huuuuuuge!! With that and an extra potato wedges, we were both struggling to finish it, and we were really hungry before! We did finish though, because they were quite possible the best ribs we’ve ever had - so meaty and delicious, and yummmmm!!!
What made the whole experience even better was the fact that there was paper over the table, and crayons, for drawing on. WIN! We had great fun, and Susie drew an awesome map of our route so far!

We staggered back along the edge of the Hoan Kiem Lake, which was surrounded by couples, cuddling up on the benches! We declined to join in, and instead went back and went to bed!
Did we mention that there's a LOT of motorbikes here???

The next day we woke up at 8am, which is fairly late for us, and set off with the intention to go and see Ho Chi Min’s (or Uncle Ho as the Vietnamese fondly call him) dead, embalmed body. However, when we got there it turns out that it’s shut on Mondays, we can only assume because he needs some down time! Undetered, we set off to find more about him, and went to see his house, a simple wooden building, and the palace next door, which was where the Royal family lived, and is supposed to contrast how wonderfully simply Uncle Ho lived his life!

We also went to the Ho Chi Min Museum, which tells you about his life and times in a stupidly abstract way!
THis tells you something about HCM, of course :s

We found it all rather amusing though, and the contrast between everything that Ho Chi Min and the Vietnamese communists stood for, compared to Vietnam today, and the stalls outside the museum selling tacky souvenirs, is funny but a little ridiculous and sad.

After that, we went to the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple, which was very pretty and peaceful.

Our tummys finally started rumbling after last nights ribs, and so we headed to a little cafe. It provides jobs for locals from poor backgrounds, and so we felt very good about ourselves, both because our money was going to a good cause, and because we had yummy cakes and tea. Mmmm!

In the afternoon, we watched some more TV, and then went out to St. Joseph's Cathedral. This looks like a small version of the Notre Dame from the outside, and inside looked exactly like a church/cathedral would at home. Despite not being in the least religious, it was really comforting, just because of how British it felt!!

In the evening, we went to a vegetarian restaurant, which specialising in making dishes that look and taste like meat, while still being suitable for veggies. This is fairly common in Vietnam, as traditionally hosts wanted to make food for their Buddhist guests that was the same as their other guests. It was OK, but we caught them at a bad time, as they were very busy, and so it wasn’t as good as it could have been. It did look very like meat, and the taste was there, but the texture was missing!!

We then headed off to bed, ready for our early start to Halong Bay the next day.

Posted by Susiep539 00:31 Archived in Vietnam Tagged hanoi bun_cha st_josephs_catherdral ho_chi_min liberty_hotel temple_of_literature Comments (0)

Sam Neua to Hanoi!


overcast 17 °C

After several more circles of the town centre, we eventually moved up the hill to the first bus station. There John was taken off the bus by the driver and escorted to the front of the ticket queue. Tickets to Hanoi were put in his hand at the price we had been quoted the day before, 300,000k each. Perfect! In a while the bus left and headed east. One the way at Vieng Xai we picked up two Swedish girls who wanted to go to Thanh Hoa, town in Vietnam which is on the route (but not the direct direction) from Laos to Vietnam. As they got on they were told the bus would go there and indeed the name was written on the front in big letters. Simple enough they thought. About an hour into the journey, the man who had assured them the bus would go there told them it now wouldn’t because no one on the bus wanted to go. He demanded more money and told them they had to go to Hanoi. He also very conveniently forgot he spoke English, despite responding to the question “do you speak English?” with “no I do not....” dubious! Anyway, they refused to pay and standoff ensued for the next 8 hours.
Meanwhile we were passing through some rather staggering and beautiful scenery. We had read that the border crossing was the least used and most arduous to approach but apparently this just means the route is even more beautiful (and of course bumpier) than usual!

After 4 hours or so we reached the border, which was really rather grand, with multi-storey buildings on both sides, as tall as any we’d seen in Laos. We didn’t even have to pay the customary $1 bribe to get our visas stamped. Both borders passed easily enough but the guards did insist on going through our dirty laundry, though not through any of the side pockets or other dubious boxes which had been loaded onto our bus, a smugglers dream!
Once we’d passed the check point we stopped in the border town for lunch for an hour and then headed off into Vietnam!

After another 8-9 hours we arrived in...Thanh Hoa. So much for not stopping there, and fortunately the girls still hadn’t paid. A potential scam to look out for! The whole scam was made all the more obvious and ridiculous because we were taken off the Lao bus in Thanh Hoa and would have to change buses, so we were always going to have to stop there. Grrr. Once we were off the bus we had some time to wait for the next one. Obviously at the moment the bus arrived John chose to go to the toilet. The bus didn’t seem very keen to wait for anyone and Susie was very worried he’d be left behind as we were all bundled onto the bus, which was already moving as John stepped onto it. We’d heard the Vietnamese were efficient but this was ridiculous! Later on the bus would pull away after dropping locals off before the conductor had even got back on, he had to run and prise the door open with his fingers to avoid being left behind! This journey, to put it in one word, was INSANE. Apparently in Vietnam every road (even those with one lane) has an invisible third lane, which you gain access to by flashing your lights and beeping your horn, regardless of the space on either side, oncoming traffic, self preservation or consideration for the sanctity of life.... Noone could sleep on journey where you spend as much time headed wildly towards the lorries in front of you as you do undertaking and cutting up everything in sight. All in a bus: clearly the most nimble of modes of transport!

Ah, well we survived and after another 4 hours we were yelled at. HANOI! We were then bundled off the bus (which was of course already moving away), presented with our bags (which had been dumped by the side of the road) and left to it. No map. No idea where in Hanoi we were (a city of 3.2 million people, whereas Vientiane, the capital of Laos only has 200,000!), very little Vietnamese money, and on the back of a 14 hour bus ride. The rest of the evening could prove to be an interesting night indeed!

Posted by John_713 06:56 Archived in Laos Tagged vietnam laos border_crossing hanoi border sam_neua nameo nam_xoi Comments (0)

Sam Neua

The Caves of the Pathet Lao

overcast 10 °C

In the morning we were picked up from our hostel and taken to the bus station. There we found out we could have saved 60,000k ($7.50) if we’d booked there rather than through our guesthouse, but we figured the tuktuk probably would have ripped us off nearly that much getting there anyway, c’est la vie. (We swear building all the bus stations right outside the cities is a conspiracy between the tuk tuk drivers and the government town planners to shaft tourists who have to get buses!) The bus we were on was a rather rickety affair, was vey local and soon became rammed to the door, but we managed to get the back seats next to the window so it wasn’t too bad. On the way we also passed through some beautiful scenery and some minority villages where the locals still dress as they have done for hundreds of years.


9.5 hours later, the sun setting, and the bus station now being on top of a rather large hill outside town, rather than dead in the centre (see what I mean about the stations!), we arrived in Sam Neua. We opted to get a tuk tuk down to town since the tiny map we had in our book was clearly out of date. It stopped outside a few guesthouses which was helpful and the second one we tried, “Long Ma” had rooms for 40,000k ($5) so we opted for that, despite it’s rather inventive sink drainage method...


We then went for a little wander but since the sun was now down (it was 6.30pm) and we were in Laos, everything was shut except one touristy restaurant. We ordered fried noodles and fried rice, which looked the real deal, but tasted really strange. Not the most enjoyable meal we’d had. After that, since there was barely any street lighting or anything going on we went to bed.

Next day we got up nice and early and walked back up the hill to go to the bus station, firstly to get tuk tuk to the Pathet Laos caves in Vieng Xai, and secondly to see if there was even a bus from Sam Neua to Vietnam (we’d read on the internet that there was but it didn’t sound very well used or reliable). We got to the top of the hill at around 630am and couldn't find anyone who could help us. Not a soul! Feeling like this trip might be a big mistake we dejectedly headed down the hill to try and find and internet cafe (a daunting prospect since our 2007 guide told us there was only one, which operated out of a private house!) and to get more information.

As we were walking a shared bus driver pulled up to us and asked where we were going? For once we needed help from a passing taxi, told him and he told us to get onboard. The bus itself was full so we had to cling onto the back! He drove for what felt like an age and we weren’t sure if he’d take us all the way to Vieng Xai (50 minutes away) or whether there was another bus station hiding somewhere! In the end it turned out there was another bus station (ridiculous since Sam Neua was tiny, no way did it need two bus stations!) and there we were pointed towards another bigger shared bus which was due to leave in half an hour, 8am. Perfect for us since we needed to be in Vieng Xai by 9am for the caves tour!


The journey was another awe inspirer as we drove along a valley past some beautiful karsts, similar to the ones we had seen in Ban Nua Hin and before too long we arrived in Vieng Xai. After a moment of “errr where do we go now?!” we noticed some helpful, but small, green (so they helpfully blended into the scenery, unobtrusive, but failing at purposeful) signs pointing us to the Cave Tour Information Office. We got there with 10 minutes to spare, paid for our tickets, 60,000k ($7.50)each, and were told that if we wanted to see all the caves we’d have to hire bicycles, because the other people on the tour had said they wanted to already (another 15,000 grrr). We were also presented with a rather swish audioguide, which had been made in Australia, complete with aircraft sound effects and eyewitness accounts of living in the caves. Before too long our guide appeared and off we headed....

A brief interlude for some history....

As we mentioned in our Phonsavan blog, the Americans secretly bombed Laos and the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam war. The caves in Vieng Xai were where the Pathet Laos (Laos communists) ran most of the North of the country, and mounted a resistance against the USA and the Laos government between 1964 and 1975. The caves themselves and Vieng Xai were in a deep valley in the mountains, making them the ideal place to hide from aerial bombing and to avoid ground invasion.

Currently, 7 caves, which were the main ones used by the Pathet Lao, are open to the public, with up to 100 in the Vieng Xai area and we visited them all (thanks to the bikes!) The caves were an impressive network, with a hospital, kitchens, living accommodation for over 300 soldiers, printing presses and even a large theatre, tucked away in the caverns.

The Theatre
The area where the former Communist leader used to play table tennis with his bodyguard!

Many of the caves also had an airtight “emergency room” with an air filter donated by Russia, in case the Americans ever dropped gas on the area (fortunately they didn’t).

The Russian air filter.

At each cave, which are named after the members of the original politburo who lived in them during the war, we listened to another part of the audioguide. As I said before it contained accounts from people who had lived in the caves which were quite interesting. Not unexpectedly much of the story was fairly biased, especially since some of the members of the original leadership are still in the government today! So interesting, but to be taken with a pinch of salt. One staggering point it did make was about the cluster bombs which plague the country. America still hasn't signed an international resolution which bans them and we read today in the news that the UK has been permitting their storage on UK soil, despite it being illegal in UK law. So much for Obama's more liberal agenda.... Also at each cave was a modern house, built in 1975. These were infact the houses used by the politbureau after 1975, right outside the caves they had lived in during the war! We had to admire their tenacity to want to stay where they had fought for so long! One had even built a swimming pool out of the crater left by a rather large American bomb!


Once the 4 hour tour finished we headed back to where we had been dropped off to wait for a bus back to Sam Neua. We had been told there was one at 1:30pm, but when we arrived a local in a rather beaten up old rice truck, told us 2pm. It was 1:20, so we had a fair while to wait. With about 10 minutes to go the rice truck driver jumped up and said come with me, so along with a few other people we’d done the tour with, we jumped into his truck.

A few miles in, going up a rather steep hill the truck stalled, and wouldn’t start until he’d revved the hell out of the engine. A few km later, it did it again. And again. And again. Until nearly 2 hours later we got back to Sam Neua. Oh and this wasn’t before he’d stopped in what looked like the middle of nowhere to demand money from us. We were reluctant since we didn’t know where we were but we grudgingly paid him and fortunately it turned out we were only 1km or so from the bus station anyway.

We opted to walk back to the centre, which was further than we’d remembered in the end, and had to rush because we’d nearly run out of money and had to pay around $70 for the bus to Vietnam and our hotel the next day. We got to the main bank at 3:45 to find it shut, despite the opening hours being written large on the front...4PM! Eugh! We then walked to the next bank to find that closed at 3:30! Disaster! Fortunately (and as John well knows) looking pathetic can sometimes get you what you want and sure enough puppy dog eyes at the front door got us inside to change our money! Phew!

An uneventful evening followed. Probably for the best since Susie was predicting a 20+ hour bus ride the next day!
Next morning we woke up early again to seek out our bus, which we had been told would go from out elusive second bus station from the day before. We started off with trip to the (very local) local market to get snacks, Laos doughnuts and something spherical (because Susie liked the shape) and a world of teeny tiny mandarins, for the journey. No sooner had we left the market to look for a tuktuk to the station than a big bus with Hanoi – Thanh Hoa – Sam Neua, appeared in front of us with a driver expectedly asking, “You wanna go to Vietnam?”. “Yes!” we announced and boarded. Any more information was hard to come by and although this looked like the bus we wanted, John was uncharacteristically paranoid about it not being the right one. With 8am (the time the bus we had been told about’s leaving time) quickly approaching and little progress out of Sam Neua achieved (despite going around in circles picking up chickens, birds in cages and miscellaneous boxes of....stuff, he grew more and more worried that this would turn out to be a dud and that we’d miss the connection we really wanted.......

Posted by John_713 01:58 Archived in Laos Tagged caves pathet_lao sam_neua vieng_xai Comments (0)

Phonsavanh and the Plain of Jars

sunny 27 °C

We were picked up from our guesthouse by a very plush minibus, that we hoped was taking us all the way to Phonsavanh. Unfortunately it was not to be as we were moved onto an older, but actually more comfortable bus for the journey. However, the bus was only 7 hours, not the 10 we had been led to expect, and so we were happy when we arrived at 4:30pm.

We let ourselves get scooped up from the bus station by a guy who promised us a 40,000kip room. Done! It ws surprisingly nice as well and we were pleased with the decision we made!! We wandered into Phonsavanh to have a little look round. There wasn’t much there, but there was an interesting UXO (unexploded ordinance) information centre. This area was one of the worst affected in Lao during the Vietnam war, and there are still a lot of bombs that havent exploded that are all around the area. During the Vietnam war (and the secret war that America fought with Laos at the same time: more on that in our next blog post), America dropped 2 tonnes of bombs per person living in Lao at the time. This makes Laos the most bombed country per person in history, and the bombs total more than all the bombs dropped in Europe during the 2nd World War. The centre was about how the bombs that didn’t explode are affecting Laos now, since a lot of them didn’t explode, and they estimate that they’ve only cleared 1% of everything there. Apparently 30-60 people are killed in Laos each year, and an average of one person a day is injured by UXO. They also affect a lot of people by making land unavailable for use as farmland. People get injured and killed by accidentally hitting the UXO during farming,trying to take the bombs apart to use the gunpowder inside, and children get hurt because one of the bombs that is very prevalent looks like a tennis ball, and so they play with them, only to have it explode. The centre was interesting, if very scary, and the company that’s running it is doing a lot to remove UXO from the surrounding areas.
A map of where was bombed in Laos

After this, we went on the internet for a while, and then had rice and tofu for dinner and went to bed.

The next day was our trip to the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars is exactly what it sounds like...lots of jars on a plain! They are a lot of boulders on fields all around this area of North Laos, and the biggest are near Phonsavanh. At some point, estimated to be 2000 years ago but nobody really knows, a group of unknown people carved them all into jars of varying shapes and sizes, with the biggest being an estimated 6 tonnes!! Nobody knows why they were carved, but theories range from them being storage containers for rice wine, to them being burial casks. Something this ludicrous we just had to see!!

We woke early and had a huuuuuuge bowl of noodle soup for breakfast.

We then headed off to find our preferred method of jar discovery transport....a motorbike! We rented one for 100,000kip (£8, $12.50), and after a quick bit of tuition from the guy at the shop, John was off, with Susie on the back, both of us feeling slightly scared, but feeling more reassured by the minute, as it turns out John is a natural on a motorbike!

We went to the first jar site, which is 15km from Phonsavnh, and paid our 10,000 kip a head entry fee. The first thighng we saw was a sign about how they’d cleared a thin path through and around the jars of UXO, but warning us to stay inside the white markers, as there could well be UXO outside these. Apparently they’d cleared 127 pieces from the two fields of this site.
The markers - the white path in the middle is the only safe area.

The jars themselves are completely ridiculous, and are just as they sound – lots of huge stones carved into jar shapes! There were also several bomb craters around the site, and a cave.

Then we set off to the second site...or so we thought. Somehow we missed the turning in our motorbike excitement, then scared an old lady by asking her where we had to go! With a lot of pointing and hand gestures, she pointed us back the way we’d come. We went, thought we’d found the road so turned off, and ended up on a 1 hour, 12km long exploration! Using the sun as a compass, we eventually found our way back to where we were going. It was really lovely to see some really untouristy villages, and the countryside was really beautiful. It was a slightly stressful induction for us motorbike novices, but at least the track was empty! We were relieved when we found ourselves again, because we didn’t fancy going all the way back, especially along the bumpy, tiny dirt tracks we were on!

Once we were on the main track again, which was still a dirt track, albeit a larger one, we headed to a waterfall. We climbed over the rocks down the side of the lovely, wide waterfall.

Next, John taught Susie to drive the motorbike, and she drove the next few km to another jar site. This was over a larger area, and quieter, and we had fun wandering around, looking at the countryside and the jars.

As we headed back, taking it in turns to drive and both getting quite confident, we stopped and saw a Russian tank that had been blown up.

We got back to Phonsavanh at 3pm, saw a cow in a truck on the back of a makeshift tractor motor,
had rice and spring rolls for a late lunch, returned the bike,
and then collapsed for the rest of the afternoon! We were both very tired and saddlesore, but really enjoyed our day.

Later, Susie went and bought some cool rice pots from the market, and got her toes repainted (it’s become a bit of an obsession – they’re now green with gold sparkly tips).
We had steak and chips for dinner – YUM – and then went to bed.

Posted by Susiep539 23:34 Archived in Laos Tagged plain_of_jars motorbike phonsavanh phonsavan uxo Comments (0)

Luang Prabang

We got picked up at 10am from our Guesthouse by a bus with an excessively shiny interior.
This picked up various other people and then delivered us to the bus station, where we were transferred to a double decker bus! You could only sit on the top deck, and we headed for the backseats, which meant we got all 5 seats to ourselves for the journey. Hurrah!

However, this didn’t save us on this horrible journey. It was really hilly and bumpy the whole way, and although the scenery was beautiful, this didn’t quit e make up for it!
John fell asleep for a while which saved him, but Susie just felt iller and iller until we finally arrived at 4:30pm. Hurrah! The tuk-tuk driver at the bus station tried to charge us 70,000kip ($9) for the 3k journey into town, so we walked instead! A rather long but money saving walk later, we arrived at the Guesthouse we’d picked. It was too expensive though, so we went to the one across the road. This was cheap at only 40,000kip (£3.50, $5) per night, but did feel and look rather like a prison cell!

When we’d dumped our bags, we went for a wander through the pretty night market into town. We went and got dinner; Susie went western and had a burger, while John had a disappointing curry. We went for a walk along the river, and then went to bed.

The next day we got noodle soup for breakfast and then followed the walking tour that was in the Guidebook. It started with a fresh produce market that was really interesting and had lots of ridiculous things to buy!
Live frogs for dinner anyone??

Then we wandered along the river, where we saw some pretty boats.

After that, the walking tour mostly taught us that there are too any Wats (temples) in Luang Prabang!!
Susie in a Wat garden

An hour and 8 temples later, Susie started to feel ill so we headed back to our Guesthouse, where Susie had a nap and John read. At 12 we went to get lunch, and ended up at a rather posh (although not too expensive) restaurant where we had papaya salad and curry for lunch which was very tasty, if rather spicy!! The restaurant was outside and had a lovely pond and was so nice and peaceful that we sat there for 2 hours, reading and enjoying feeling upmarket(especially since it was still only $3 a head!!!

After that, we went up Phu Si, a hill in the centre of Luang Prabang. On the way up was a temple that had a “Buddha’s footprint”...didn’t look much like a person’s footprint to us though!
What do you think???

We continued our walk to the top, which had such lovely views that we sat down, got our books out, and spent another 2 hours reading and enjoying the view and peace and quiet.
Monument on the top of Phu Si
John reading...and yes, that is a fiction book!!

Until 5pm that is when all the tourist IN THE WORLD came to the top to watch the sun set. We mae our escape and went and booked bus tickets to go to Phonsavanh the next day. We went and enjoyed a beer by the river, and then went to try to find somewhere to eat. As we’ve said before, we are not fans of Lao food, and we thought we ought to be able to find something interesting to eat. However, when an hour walk had provided nothing but more of the same noodle/rice meals, we gave up and had curry. This wasn’t what we felt like, but it filled a hole! After dinner, Susie went for a walk around the night market and bought a few bits and bobs, and then we went to bed.

Overall, we like Luang Prabang, and we felt it is somewhere anyone could come and experience all the niceties of Asia, without any of the less desirable bits. Lots of winding streets, monks, temples, colourful markets, etc. But it all feels a little fake, and after all the other places we've been, we weren't completely taken with it. A lot of people rave about it, but we aren't quite that positive. Nice enough, but not all that!

Posted by Susiep539 03:29 Archived in Laos Tagged luang_prabang phu Comments (0)

(Entries 6 - 10 of 37) « Page 1 [2] 3 4 5 6 7 8 »