Our whirlwind adventure departing Laos really began after Nong Kiaw, a small town built on the edges of the Pak Ou River, to which Chris and I sailed up to via longboat on Christmas day. The ride took about 8 hours from Luang Prabang, and the scenery was spectacular-- on each side of us were huge mountains covered in teak forests and limestone rock facing. As we glided against the (sometime very shallow) current, we were greeted by dozens of naked Lao children bathing and playing in the water, often accompanied by their mothers tilling the garden plots along the water's edge...
We spent a quiet Christmas night in a bungalow overlooking the river, which provided a beautiful view of the sunset and a very festive Loa staff of youngsters, dressed up in santa hats and gleefully handing out shots of Lao-lao whiskey to the guests.
Whatever food or cause of the sickness that overcame me the next morning is still a mystery, leaving me paralyzed all day and almost unable to board our midnight bus out of town that night. I was again sick, without medicine, for a miserable day, but luckily it subsided after 24 hours.
With a twist of fate we boarded the once daily bus passing through town-- in Loas the public buses are really chancy, sometimes they come, sometimes not. Although scheduled for 9 pm, it arrived blaring its horn on the deserted one-lane street, at 12:15 sharp. What relief! This is when the adventure begins: we were ushered into the already crammed bus, where every seat and aisle space was packed with families, even crowded around the bus driver and engine. Chris and I hovered in the stairway with the porter for the first hour +, smooshed next to a Hmong woman and her tiny babies, swaying in their sleep.
At around 3 am or so, we pulled in to a smaller village of huts and picked up even more people-- another group of confused western travelers who fell off the beaten path! They turn out to be a Canadian woman and a French couple, who become our team of traveling buddies for the next two weeks; and together we survive this 15 hour ride of horror...! No really, looking back I can laugh now, but it was a pretty uncomfortable, draining affair. Interesting however, entering the back roads of Laos,
through the many clusters of huts dotting the mountainsides, and observing the cultural differences of Laos behavior (such as snot rockets out the window...). We stopped for the night in Sam Nuea, a semi-depressing town with little happening, then for a night in Vieng Xia, where the Pathet Lao instilled their wartime headquarters into cavernous karst-mountain cities. We happened to hit the end of December hilltribe festival, one of three days/ nights of ethnic "mountain peoples" who celebrate their year with games, gambling, music, and dance. So many young girls (mostly Hmong) all dolled up in their traditional costumes! They arrived packed in the back of local seangtows, jumping out with jingling, sequined head pieces down to their off-white tennis shoes...
From Laos into Vietnam the border is really tricky-- basically, it is a known scam for travelers to be forced to buy outrageously expensive taxi rides from the border into the next big city (120 km away) from which they can finally catch a local bus to Hanoi. We all read and debated how best to avoid this, finally deciding to take the once-a-week bus across Nameo down to Than Hoa, where we could transfer to another bus
and go back up to Hanoi. This was posted on the bus schedule in Vieng Xai for 100,000 kip (or $10 US), taking 15 plus hours, and (we hoped) would let us avoid having to pay extortionist fees to monopolistic taxi drivers. Our "team" waited at the side of the road in the early morning, praying for this mystery bus to appear, and when it finally did come flying by we cheered with joy! Unfortunately, that cheer later turned to angry hollers when the bus driver later tried to force us into paying considerably more money.
Well, it was a fight to negotiate a fair price, and luckily Chris shmoosed enough with his artistic abilities to befriend the money-collector. We held our first mutiny with the bus pulled over, with us demanding to get off but of course they couldn't let their only 7 passengers walk out because then they wouldn't get anything... However, once settled it was an enjoyable ride through a newly bamboo-filled mountain oasis, strikingly different from Laos!
Our team ended up staying the night in Ninh Binh,
still south of Hanoi, where we could visit Tam Coc, otherwise known as "Halong Bay on the rice paddies". We rented bicycles and explored the town's jutting mountains through backroads and stopping at pagodas, also taking little paddle boats through some caves. Really beautiful, but the town is completely overwhelmed with industrial exhaust, and even the backsides of many mountains are simply being sliced away in order to make concrete. The sky was gray and cloudy, which may be due to winter conditions, but it felt like it had much more to do with the factory fumes and machines and who knows what else....
Next stop: Hanoi!
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