Halong Bay and Laos

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June 23rd 2013
Published: June 23rd 2013
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I'm typing from the 7th and penultimate country of my gap year adventure - a chilly and rain-sodden Laos. We've just mercifully finished the 6-hour minivan enduro to get from Luang Prabang to the "backpackers mecca turned sour" of Vang Vieng. I never knew Laos was so mountainous, but my head is still spinning from the sickeningly windy road that took us here. From the bliss of the Hai Van, we have very much been brought back to earth with a bump on the pretty but exhausting Laotion roads. This morning's drive was nothing compared to the 29-hour epic that took Harry, Sam, Sam and I from the vibrant labyrinth of Hanoi, across the mountains and into Laos' Luang Prabang. We were given the worst seats in the bus (back row, over the back wheels so we could feel every bump, with no leg room and barely reclining chairs) and frankly I'm amazed that one of us didn't shrivel up and die in the tiny areas we were forced to doze. The journey was well worth it to make Laos in time to meet Marc, who's just flown out after his A-level exams. Luang Prabang is tiny but a real gem and one of my favourites in Asia so far; even the airport betrays its slightly ludicrous title of a "city" - we met marc in the hut-like terminal that could easily have been mistaken for a public lavatory. The "city" is all lazy streets, gleaming temples with sweeping roofs, sleepy tuk-tuk drivers and cheap Beerlao on every corner. It was the perfect place for Marc to get to grips with the nutty Asian ways, and for the rest of us to unwind after our torturous international bus journey.

Back in Vietnam, our last stop before Hanoi was the famous Halong Bay - a highly generous and idyllic spattering of limestone mountains that number up to 4000 and make for obviously spectacular viewing both from the back and on the creaky roof of a tourist boat. Our plan was to once again attempt to imitate Top Gear by buying or renting our own little speed boat, and to explore the islands from that, eventually ending up on the same floating bar the the fellas from Top Gear did at the conclusion of the Vietnam Special. Alas, it was difficult to locate a willing fisherman or tour guide to help us, and we were repeatedly warned that police patrol and pick up independent tourists on their own boats. I took a motorbike taxi to various departments and management buildings to get a permit, but I was sent on to the next building, the next room and, after finally losing patience with a rude female officer at her desk, I was kindly directed into a toilet to continue my enquiries. Our overall Vietnam experience was seriously marred by the people, who were unfailingly out to scam you, take too much of your money and, if they can't see a way of making money out of you, to ignore you altogether. We didn't make one Vietnamese friend, and had a fair few arguments with overcharging and shouting hotel managers or restaurant owners. Obviously it'd be tough on the rural people to tar everyone with the same brush, but our own experience of the locals was extremely poor and is certainly not a drawing point for Vietnam. As Alexis said as we met him in Hue for a day: "You call this communism?"

We did eventually bite the bullet and book a 100 dollar cruise on a very smart boat that impressed us in the brochure. I made sure we didn't give over the money until we saw our vessel, and it turned out that our boat was one of the tattiest on the whole harbour. We took it anyway in the hope that at least the experience would be a good one. It was, overall, a fairly bad experience, redeemed by the natural wonder and UNESCO World Heritage Site that we found ourselves in. It'd be boring to list the numerous muggings-off we had to deal with, but to sum it up, our Frankenstein's monster dead-ringer of a guide told us to "Fuck off" when we were 5 minutes late for a bus that would drop us off at the harbour, where we'd have to wait 2 hours to get back on our boat. It was a ludicrously dodgy affair and our dissatisfied fellow tourists couldn't help but laugh at the atrocious tourist trap we'd fallen into. On the up-side, we did a sticky trek up a green cloud-shrouded mountain, an hour's kayaking through karst caves and we had a great night on our neighbouring boat, which we boarded from ours in our suits to chat to the rowdy young crowd on it, who were coincidentally all at Leeds Uni or Leeds Met. The last morning, as we thankfully chugged towards land, we enjoyed the simply amazing scenery from the sweltering top deck of "The Dragon Pearl." It's difficult to capture it all in one photo; it's like a 360 degree HD screen showing scenes from Avatar or Jurassic Park. It was a sight for sore eyes and, after emerging from our baking cabins with a vodka hangover from hell, ours were eyes in need of inspiring.

Speaking of hangovers, last night after returning from a beautiful turquoise waterfall, Sam and I tentatively asked our very kind hotel owner - "Papa" - for some traditional "LaoLao" rice wine, at around 50% alcohol content. What ensued in the next 2 hours was pure booze-fuelled carnage, with Papa force-feeding us shot after shot of the stuff, each time crying "Senday!!" (cheers) and hugging us all. I reckon we might've had up to 20 shots each. It was brilliant to be back in a country with such a hospitable people, and I was very humbled when Papa told me we are special and kind tourists because we talk to him every morning. As we all agreed, it's experiences like that that we are all out here for. As the others went to dinner, I hung back to chat to Papa and his son a little more. I was with a 50-year-old French bloke who'd fled Timbuktu because his house was bombed. Papa's son told us how his sister had half her body blown off in her rice field, by an unexploded bomb. He said it cost him 10,000 dollars and months of work to fund her medical assistance. It wasn't even a one-off - his grandma was killed by one, and a cousin got hit too. A stat in the Lonely Planet is truly shocking and puts in perspective the risk that the people of Laos are under, just from working in their fields to feed their family: from '64 to '73, 13million tonnes of US bombs were dropped in the Mekong region. It equates to 265kg for every man, woman and child in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And over a quarter of those didn't explode.

Tomorrow, we're excited to go tubing - the real backpacker pull of Laos - which basically involves being given an inner tube, being drive a few clicks up the river and being left to float all the way back, stopping at river-side bars as we pass between looming mountains. Fingers crossed the rain will have stopped.

Love to all at home as usual!


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