Published: April 8th 2012April 8th 2012
The drive from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (south through the Laos countryside) took 8 hours but didn’t feel as long. The sites, scenery and bumpiness of the roads kept us on the edge of our seats and wide awake. We drove through hills up to 2500 metres above sea level which were dramatic limestone formations shrouded in mist – similar to those we were to see later surrounded by sea in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. All along the road we passed through villages entirely constructed of wood and bamboo with all the houses on stilts and everyone living outside and beneath these houses during the day. The climate was cool and people wore cardigans, little jackets and sometimes even woolly hats! We passed many fields that had been created by the slash-and-burn technique. We read in Luang Prabang that the technique is to burn an area of forest each year for 15 years; each area is cultivated and then the crops are rotated; after 15 years the first area is ready to be used again. This has become much more prevalent since the opium crop was clamped down on in Laos. Apparently the country used to be the
biggest producer of raw opium in the world but when it became more difficult to grow it the production moved to Afghanistan. There was a great coffee shop, Saffron Coffee, in Luang Prabang that invested in coffee from farmers in the north of the country to make a viable cash crop for them to replace opium and to stop the slash-and-burn. This company was set up by an American charitable entrepreneur, a breed that appears not to be uncommon in Laos. We came across another one who ran a bar and café called Utopia on the banks of the Nam Chan river in Luang Prabang. He was attempting to ensure that ethical and charitable values were promoted through his venue by raising money for literacy, UXO and other projects from diners.
Vang Vieng is another quiet town in terms of traffic and hustle but not one renowned for its beauty or culture. People go there for the extreme sports on offer; which started with ‘tubing’ on the river and soon outfits were offering all sorts of adventure activities. We didn’t fancy any super-adrenaline ones and decided on hot air ballooning instead. So at 6.30am on the morning after our journey
from Luang Prabang we found ourselves suspended 600 metres above the dry paddy fields of Vang Vieng having picked a coconut from the top of a palm tree on our way up! The sun rose above the limestone hills and we were happy if slightly hot from the hot air burner on the back of our necks.
Later we drove to Vientiane along a shorter, but no less bumpy, road than the day before. As we drove into the city I was following our progress on the map in the Lonely Planet book which turned out to be lucky as, at one point the tour driver started to head along the river front in the opposite direction from our hotel. We pointed wildly at the map in the book and persuaded him that we knew where the hotel was – he was surprised but followed our directions and we found the Beau Rivage Mekong Hotel in a few minutes. We were pleased with the Lonely Planet at that moment, although later we were very displeased indeed!
We decided to visit the COPE centre in Vientiane that afternoon – this is a centre that rehabilitates the victims of UXOs in Laos,
in particular providing prosthetic limbs and physiotherapy. We had read that they had a great visitor centre and exhibition about their work. So we hailed a moto-rickshaw and as the driver didn’t know where the centre was we asked him to drop us at the nearest landmark on the map in our TRUSTY Lonely Planet guide. We walked to where the centre was on the map and found Laos Institute of Cinema and the Centre for Social Media but no COPE centre. We wandered around a little dejectedly and then decided to cut our losses and go for a riverside walk. During the course of the walk we found a stall selling merchandise for a charity called MAG which makes unexploded bombs safe in Laos; the people on the stall told us where the COPE centre actually was and it was NOT where the Lonely Planet had said (well we knew that already), it was about half a mile further up the road. Bah humbug as they say. So the Lonely Planet was trusty no more. Will it be forgiven? Watch this space.
Vientiane is a tiny little capital city really which, given its heat and humidity, is quite nice.
It’s totally possible to walk across the central area in about half an hour. Our hotel was on the far end of town on a dusty, un-tarmacked road, in a sleepy district on the banks of the Mekong facing Thailand on the other side; but still we could walk in 20 minutes to the embassy district, the central shopping area and in 30 minutes to the other side of town. On our second day in town we climbed to the top of Patouxai, an arch based on the Arc de Triomphe, which was built using cement donated by the US government for the Laos people to build an airport runway. Clearly an arch on a roundabout was much more important to have! Ruby did some impressive haggling in the market on the first floor of the arch and managed to buy a T-shirt for 80p!
After a nice relaxing time in Vientiane, we sadly said goodbye to Laos and hopped on a plane to Hanoi. Alex:
Hanoi was a bit of a shock to the system after tiny, quiet Vientiane. It’s a proper big Asian city of over 6 million people, most of them on mopeds. Trying to cross the
road is terrifying – and we were told we just had to walk into the road and the mopeds would drive around us. It takes a bit of a leap of faith but we’re still here (note however, that the rule does not apply to cars – they will run you over, according to the guide). We were in the ‘Old Quarter’ of Hanoi; the streets there are narrow and packed. Every few yards is a street stall selling food, and we tried some rice pancakes with chicken soup, sitting on tiny plastic stools on the pavement. Yum.
The next day was an organised tour of the city – our first and only guided tour of the Indochina trip. We were taken by car first to see the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. We were told the list of dos and don’ts for entering the mausoleum, but we still managed to get told off twice but the Vietnamese soldiers (for talking and wearing sunglasses, not necessARILY at the same time mind you!). We had to queue for a long time and then finally got to file past the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh. It was astonishing to think he’s
been dead since the year I was born. He looked like he died yesterday. It didn’t look real – more like a wax work, but I’m sure it must be real. Afterwards we were shown the French Chateau style palace, where he initially lived and worked when he became leader, then the more basic looking building he moved into later and then finally the small wooden house on stilts he lived and worked in until he died in 1969. It’s a shame he didn’t last another 6 years, to see the country united. We were then taken on to the ‘Temple of Literature’, a Confucian temple dating back nearly a thousand years, where students came to take their final examinations, and stone tablets on the backs of stone turtles had recorded the names of the students who had passed their exams from fifteenth century to the seventeenth century. Unfortunately many of the stone tablets we destroyed by French bombs, during the war for independence.
After lunch (which seemed to consist of hundreds of courses), we asked our guide to keep the afternoon session brief as we were all tiring. We went to the “Lake of the Returning Sword” (Hoan Kiem)
in the middle of town – a tale similar to that of King Arthur and Excalibur but with a giant turtle instead of a lady in the lake. There was another temple (Ngoc Son) on an island in the middle of the lake; there was an oven where you put fake money to burn (bought with real money from a vendor nearby) that sent the money to ancestors in the afterlife. Money is still required in the afterlife here, although it seems that counterfeit money is OK - and the counterfeit currency of choice is USD. So people where buying wodges of 100 dollar bills and then throwing them into the oven and watching them burn. George was pretty gob-smacked at the sight of this!
The next day we set off for our trip along Ha Long Bay in a deluxe junk boat. After a long bus journey through the more industrial scenery of Vietnam we arrived at Ha Long Bay. The boat was lovely and the scenery was spectacular. It’s one of those places that I’ve seen so many times in pictures or on TV that it felt like I had been there before. We sailed out amongst the
rocky limestone cliff islands, had a look around a big cave, went kayaking under of low roof tunnel into an entirely enclosed island lagoon – like a baddies lair in of a James Bond film, and then went swimming off the boat. We jumped in off the back (me, George and Ruby), then higher up off the side (just me and G), and then finally off the top of the boat (just me). Later we tried some night fishing off the back of the boat – and caught ………..nothing at all. Ruby went off to bed in disgust – I went and had a beer on deck. Sleeping on the boat was surprisingly easy, the water was very calm and the slight rocking movement worked at treat – I’ve finally found a mode of transport I can sleep on – so long as it’s not going anywhere. In the morning we went for a swim, despite the rain, off a beach made of imported sand on one of the 1900 islands in Ha Long Bay. Lovely. But then the rain got worse and we returned to port in a heavy downpour to catch the bus back to Hanoi. George:
leave Luang Prabang to get a car to Vientiane but on the way we have to stop at Vang Vieng for one night. The hotel we stay in is large and our room is right next to the swimming pool which is where we spend most of our time. Me and my dad go to the barber shop to get our haircut. It is only down the street from us. At dinner we go down to a pizzeria where the seats are beds up in a small separate area. The next day in the early morning we go on a hot air balloon. I feel worried at first but after a while I feel fine. We arrive at Vientiane later in the day. We stay in a nice place called the Riverside Mekong Beau Hotel. In the evening we go to the funfair and I go on a huge bouncy castle that has Ben 10 targets which is great because I get to jump on him and punch him for ages. I get really sweaty. Next day I go on the back of Dad’s bike along the road. I have to sit on the luggage rack. Wednesday is the last
day in Laos and at 12 o’clock we are going to be taken to Vientiane airport; we get on a flight to Hanoi in Vietnam. When we arrive a man called Din takes us to our hotel. For dinner we go to the restaurant next door. I have fried noodles with beef. On Thursday a tour guide takes us around Hanoi. First we go to a mausoleum (ENORMOUS GRAVESTONE YOU CAN GO INSIDE). Inside there is the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh, leader of North Vietnam who kicked out the French. He died in 1969 (when Dad was born) but it looks like he died yesterday. They had mummified his corpse and then took off the linen (He wasn’t mummified in that way George! Ed). The queue was enormous and we waited over ½ an hour just to get tickets. (There was free entry! Ed) (But he’s right, the queue was a corker.). Ho Chi Minh didn’t actually want to get preserved, he wanted to be burned and then get his ashes put in three different places around Vietnam. Afterwards we go to get a snack, me and Ruby get popcorn; we go round the President’s house. There are
lots of different houses and temples. He had three different cars when he lived. He had a big palace but he didn’t like it, so he moved to a small house round the back and then a house on stilts at the front. The house-on-stilts only has 2 rooms, a bedroom and a studio (so not very practical). There is a peacock in a cage just by the house-on-stilts, its displaying its feathers. After, we go and get lunch at a place called Mam. On Friday we are going to go on a cruise around Ha Long bay. It’s overnight so we need to pack. We will do swimming, kayaking and looking in caves. At Ha Long bay we jump off the side and the front of the boat. The side is much higher so I only do it three times. On Saturday it’s very stormy; we go for a swim in rain. Ruby:
We left Luang Prabang to go to Vang Vieng. The countryside was hilly. I saw mountains, bushes and butterflies. The houses were made out of wood and were on stilts. We went on a balloon ride and it was fantastic. I just felt normal up
in the air. I was really high up, 700 metres high. We stayed by the river in Vientiane. We got a tuk-tuk to the market. Me and George went on the bouncy castle, it was fun and awesome. Daddy bought a top. It was a charity to help unexploded bombs. Next morning we went up the arch. I bought a top and it was a beautiful view. We went to Hanoi, we stayed in a big city, Mummy and Daddy ate off the street. We went to a place where we saw the leader, he was dead. His name was Ho Chi Minh, he lived in the house on stilts, a normal house and the palace. We weren’t allowed to step on a mini wall to get into a temple because if we did we would have bad luck. We got on a boat, we stopped to see a spooky cave then we got back on the boat. We did canoeing; me, George and Daddy went swimming and the weather was soaking wet.
There are more photos below