After Phonsavan we jumped on a local bus to Sam Neua. This was one of the highlight bus journeys of our whole trip - 11 hours on goat track roads in poor condition and hot weather is probably not everyones cup of tea, but will stay in my mind as a pretty special journy. The bus was run by a family of three. Dad drove the bus, Mum collected the money and fed son. Son (around 8 years old) sat next to dad proudly, fed dad, and tied luggage onto the roof as people came on (There were a lot of people getting on, and occasionally off, during the journy). Mum and son fed water into the radiator of the engine throughout the journey. All three smiled the whole day. Other locals talked (or should I say actions and noises) to us, spewed out the windows (like I said, REALLY windy roads), and passed around fruit. Babys were smily and didn't cry despite hours of sitting - and the no nappy method used by all mothers in this part of the world (nappys aren't available everywhere) seemed to still work with babies going to the toilet only when the bus stopped every few hours for all adults - with no ill results! What really made the trip stick out in our minds however was the mystery of the deer head.
After lunch at our half way point a whole lot of people got on with their luggage (plenty more people than seats). An hour or so on in our journy we are pulled over by army/police type officals. They searched the bus pulling apart peoples luggage we figured a drug search however what they found was more sinister...a set of deer antlers, attatched to half a deer head. Everyone got off the bus and we sat around for about half an hour as all the officals disscussed in a serious manner the deer head. After half an hour the head was loaded back on the roof of the bus, and the officals joined us. Another hour or so down the road we pulled up at another village where the police took some of the bus passangers into an interview room while the rest of us sat around while local kids stared at us, and dogs, pigs and chickens ran around our feet. After a while the bus started up again, Deer head, passangers, and officals all in, we started off on our journy again. To cut a long story short, somewhere on the windy monutain goat roads, said deer head (tied on by 8 year old boy) falls off roof of bus without anyone noticing, until we reach official road block. Might be a bit of a "you had to be there" story, but for us the whole incident was hillarious, probably mainly because we had no idea what was going on.
Sam Nuea was a pretty cool town. We all brought local silk and had Lao skirts made, much to the amusement of the locals (we have never been a) laughed at b) had our bums smacked by old ladies so much in our lives...especially Fiona who got hers above the knee! Skank).
Our next stop was Vieng Xai. We stayed in a cool stilt house above a fish farm. We were visiting the pathet lao caves, where the communist leaders hid out while the USA were bombing them. The caves were inside these rocks with protruded straight out of the landscape. The caves were so awesome, decked out like houses. We timed our visit well. There was a big promotion thing going on the day we were there with travel representatives from all over the world visiting to see what Vieng Xai has to offer, and for the occasion they had put up fancy new signs all over the place (was a pretty simple place in all other respects). They held the wine dine dinner thing at the guest house we were staying at, so we also managed to squeeze in a free cultural show (music and traditional dancing), free left overs from the others parties, and plenty of yarns to Lao (and other) tourist promotion people.
After Vieng Xai we crossed into Vietnam. The crossing had been talked up, we had been told officals were pretty corupt. However we found them lovely...not the same could be said for the bus driver, who increased his price 150% once he realised there were more tourists than just us (we were quicker at the official border business on the Lao side than the other Falang). He then stopped in teh middle of nowhere and demanded more money...wasn't the most plesent expereince with the locals egging the driver on wanting more money. However we got away with $3US more than our original price, and the scenery was totally amazing. The bus took us to Than Hoa - not where we were plannig on going, but we were hungery and tired, so got a taxi to a hotel. We tried getting a meal, but all we found were noodle shops sporting chicken feet, pig heads, and other vegetain friendly fare...who laughed at us when we asked if they could make a noodle soup without meat (well asked with actions and phrase book). We eventually found a shop which sold packaged food, but they wouldn't take US dollars, and we only had 17,000 dong (about $1US). The hotel and shops around us wouldn't change our US dollars into dong so we had to ration one bottle of water and a packet of crackers between the three of us...pretty funny stuff in the morning when dehydrated and hungry we walked around the block in the other direction and found an ATM!
Our next stop was Ninh Binh. The highlight of this town was going to the local fresh market and walking past a glazed dog head, complete with little canine teeth! We did however check out a national park where we did a bit of tramping in the pouring rain and visited a primate rescue center.
We finally summed up the energy to do the thing we had been dreading...we headed to Hanoi. We had already found Vietnam a lot louder, noiser, and pushy than Laos, and had heard Hanoi was even worse. However, we suprised ourselves, and got there and loved it! It was so much fun walking slowly across a road as seemingly hundreds of motorcycles weaved around you. We checked out the local art form - water puppets. We also planned another whole week of activities.
The first installment of our activities was a 3 day trip to Halong Bay. I won't pipe on too much about this place as it's highly likely that with 5000 visitors per day you have already been or heard about the place. It's a really beautiful harbour/sound thing with hundreds of islands jutting out of the water (Not unlike Vieng Xai). However there are also hundreds of other tourist boats, hawkers (on boats), and rubbish in the water. Our boat was really nice though, the food was excellent, and it was great having other people to talk to than ourselves. The highlight of this trip was visiting Monkey Island. The boat parked offshore and we all swam in. While walking over to the information sign on the beach we spotted real live monkeys in the trees playing, and one with a baby. We all crowded around and watched them for a few minutes, then they ran out onto the beach and screemed at us. Most of us ran for the water, but a couple of guys stayed a few microseconds longer and got swipped at by the monkeys. The locals on the boat were in hystirics of laughter (well, so were we), no one was game to get out of the water and back onto the beach after that though. Who would have thought you'd get chased by monkeys on moneky island.
On our return from Hanoi Bay we caught the night train down to Hoi Ann where we have spent the past 3 days shopping. There are hundreds of tailors, you choose fabric and a style, and they make it to fit...very dangerous stuff when they have so many awesome display clothes! We also squeezed in a cooking course and a visit to some ancient chan ruins.
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