We took a sleeper bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang which might have been one of the worst decisions we have made thus far. Firstly, the sleeper bus cost us more than a day bus would have (which means we didn’t actually save any money by not paying for accommodation), and this sleeper bus made the sleeper buses in Vietnam seem like a luxury. Instead of getting our own reclining seats, we were both cramped together in a space on the floor, about the size of a child’s bed, with nothing but two blankets and a couple of dirty pillows. After attempting to sleep in positions that would make a chiropractor’s eyes bleed, we finally made it to Luang Prabang at about 6:30 in the morning.
After negotiating a tuk tuk down to 15,000kip per person into the city center, we wandered the streets exhausted, looking for reasonably priced accommodation. After going from guesthouse to guesthouse, another traveler approached us and told us that he too had tried to find accommodation in the price range we were hoping for, only to find that everywhere in the area was at least 120,000kip for a double room. By Western standards, 130,000kip ($16) is not much for a double room, but by comparison it’s quite a lot more than most budget accommodations in Laos and more than most places we stayed in Vietnam. We relented and booked a room in Central Backpackers Hostel (which is not central at all), assuring ourselves that the nice room and free breakfast made it worth it.
We decided that we deserved a nap after a sleepless night, and woke up around noonish. We walked to the center of town where several stalls are set up next to each other selling sandwiches, crepes, and fruit shakes. All of the stalls sell the exact same things and they are there every day. A couple sandwiches and a banana shake later, we wandered around the city to get an idea of what it had to offer.
Luang Prabang is sleepy and laid back like Vientiane, but the scenery is admittedly much better. It sits at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan river, so many of the guesthouses and restaurants sit next to the water. Additionally, the city itself is lush with trees and jungle plants which add to the charming atmosphere.
We headed to a local cafe with the intention of using the internet, (only to find that it didn’t work) but we got some treats anyway. We decided to hang out in the common area of our hostel to do some internet surfing instead which ended up working out much better…until the city wide blackout! It happened out of no where and no one seemed to be perturbed by it. Everything was normal, then all of a sudden we were sitting in complete and utter darkness. It was actually kind of exciting! Plus, the power came back on after 20-30 minutes so it wasn’t a real issue.
For dinner we decided to try a place called Lao Lao Garden. After walking through the main entrance, we found ourselves outside again in their enormous garden patio surrounded by trees and plants. It literally felt like we were sitting in the middle of the jungle even though we were right in the middle of the city. This is where we got our first chance to try traditional Lao barbecue. Our waiter lifted the center tile of our table to reveal a small pit where he put a cement block filled with burning coals. After setting a hot plate shaped like an upside down bowl on top, he poured soup in the ring around the plate and set a big chunk of animal fat in top. He put baskets of raw meat and vegetables on the table next to us and instructed us to start cooking!
First you put vermicelli noodles and vegetables in the soup, then set the meat on top to cook. It was a little time consuming but also quite fun. We were given buffalo, chicken, and pork along with a large assortment of veggies. The food was decent but what really got us was the peanut tamarind sauce they serve on the side…yum!
After dinner we walked across the street and down a small path to a well known backpacker hangout called Utopia. After getting a couple of Beer Laos at the bar, we sat down in the center space where they have a bunch of mats and lounging pillows on the floor to hang out on. The place was really large; it also had a sand volleyball pit, a deck overlooking the river, and scattered tables all in a jungle like setting. They also played some half way decent down tempo music (for the most part) which was a welcome change from most bars in Southeast Asia! We had a lot of fun here, and ended up hanging out with a big group of people from Brazil, Italy, the UK and a dozen other countries. Unlike in Vang Vieng, we had the sense (and we were just tired) to leave before going over the top, and called it a night around 11:30; a relaxing but good start to our stay in Luang Prabang!
Vang Vieng is very small, and although the surrounding scenery is gorgeous, there isn’t really much to do in town other than get raging drunk, or lounge around in one of the hip restaurants until you’re ready to get raging drunk.
We walked along the streets, perusing the touristy shops and came upon a sign advertising ‘German-Thai food, the best schnitzel in Laos.’ We thought that was quite random, and decided we would like to check it out.
After following the hand drawn signs for a few blocks, we finally found Viman Vang Vieng, where we were greeted by a small man with a strange accent. He recommended ordering the schnitzel, after assuring us that it was the best schnitzel in Laos and even better than in Germany, so we decided to try it.
The man, Mr. Kaz, is the owner of the restaurant and seemingly the only person that works there. He rounded the corner and started cooking our food which only took perhaps 20 minutes. Neither of us are any sort of schnitzel-afficianados, but the dish was very good, especially paired with the perfectly fried potatoes!
He sat with us while we ate, explaining that he was born in Thailand and grew up in Germany. He was visiting Laos a couple of years ago, and when he came to Vang Vieng, he realized that “this was his place” and decided to open a restaurant. The result is a quirky combination of German, Thai, and Laotian food, all of which he boasts to be quite skilled–and we certainly can’t argue. We ended up coming here again the following day to try his Thai curry which he makes in the “old-style” and was also very, very good. He is also an artist, and the walls are covered in his eclectic paintings.
After spending a couple of hours with Mr. Kaz, we walked back lazily to our hostel and sat around the common area for a while.
Around dinner time, we got a couple of street sandwiches, then headed to Kangaroo Sunset Bar, one of the infamous local hangouts. It was full of inebriated backpackers playing drinking games and grinding on each other to Top 40s music, all while consuming shot after shot of lao-Lao, the local rice whisky (read: sticky rice moonshine) and huffing ‘happy balloons.’
One of the bartenders wearing a frog suit approached us almost immediately, insisting that we participate in a bizarre game of no-hands darts. She also introduced us to another girl who worked there wearing a penguin suit who challenged me to name all 50 states for a free drink. After winning both the darts game and the state challenge, we were full of free shots of lao-Lao and vodka redbull within 30 minutes of our arrival. After another hour or two of Beer Laos and chatting with the penguin, the bar was closing. There is a curfew in town that forces businesses, with the exception of a few bars, to close down by midnight. Naturally, everyone knows which bars stay open after curfew and there is a mass exodus to said locations at about 11:30pm each night.
Somehow our intentions of going to the bar turned into chatting on the curb with a couple of spacey Norwegian dudes that were tripping on mushrooms. Two hours later, we stumbled back to our room, where we would end up staying for a full 24 hours in recovery from the night before. It’s worth noting that we rarely get drunk anymore (we’re so mature, obviously) so our tolerance is low, and our tolerance for hangovers is even lower.
After a full day of agony and swearing off alcohol for life, we woke up feeling mostly alive and decided we would spend the day at Tham Phu Kham Cave and the Blue Lagoon. Most people rent motos or take tuk tuks, but we decided the exercise would do us good after two days of binging and nothing productive.
About 4 miles each direction, we walked by small farms and admired the towering limestone karsts in the distance. The sun was brutal and when we finally made it there, we were glad to jump in the beautiful (but frigid) blue water of the lagoon before making the sweaty, treacherous ascent to the Tham Phu Kham Cave.
We had done our research and brought along our own flashlights and headlamps to go exploring. Once inside the cave, there is a reclining buddha statue surrounded by stunning rock formations.
Moving on, the cave opens up to a huge cavern and endless tunnels. There are also deadly, plummeting holes with no safety precautions but some markings on the wall, so the flashlights were essential!
We ventured as far into the cave as we dared, but it was apparent how easy it would be to get lost in there so we turned back to avoid any mishaps.
Coming back down from the cave was even more perilous than the ascent. Luckily we had good shoes on, unlike most of the other tourists who were fearfully clutching to the rocks in flip flops.
By the time we started back to town, the sun wasn’t quite as intense but we were pretty exhausted when we got back. We had dinner at one of the chilled out pizza joints on the main road, then went back to the hostel to wait for our sleeper bus at 11:30pm.
We had a blast in Vang Vieng, but we made our exit before falling into the out of control party atmosphere that so many get sucked into. It certainly is a good time and worth doing on occasion, but frankly, we worked our asses off to save up for this trip and don’t feel that it’s a valuable way to spend all of our funds. Plus, feeling too sick to go on adventures during the day just isn’t worth it for us.
After a couple of slow, relaxing days in Vientiane, we woke up early to catch our bus to the infamous river town of Vang Vieng.
Up until 2012, Vang Vieng was well known as the party capital of Laos (similar in status to the Full Moon Parties down on Koh Phangan in Thailand.) Backpackers flocked to this small haven to go tubing down the Nam Song River, stopping at the plethora of riverside bars to binge drink along the way. In addition to the tubing, rope swings, ziplines, and water slides lined the river…their lack of safety precautions giving them the affectionate nicknames of “death swings” and “death slides,” etc. In combination with other easily accessible illicit substances, it was…for lack of a better word, a shit show.
After 27 backpacker deaths by drowning and diving into rocks in 2011, (though the proposed number is actually higher, as many of them were sent directly to Vientiane before being recorded) and 5-10 backpackers ending up in the emergency room daily with serious injuries, the government finally cracked down on Vang Vieng in 2012, closing down the riverside bars and attempting to regulate the situation.
We couldn’t say how Vang Vieng compares now with how it was before the government crackdown, but we can attest that Vang Vieng is still (or at least, once again) a place of absolute madness. Many of the riverside bars are back and bumping, and you see advertisements everywhere for “magic pizzas,” “space brownies,” “happy balloons,” and other obvious euphemisms. There are also these charming billboards everywhere:
Despite its ugly history, tubing down the Nam Song is really just something you have to do, and is widely considered a rite of passage by Southeast Asia backpackers. Against our better judgment, we made our way to the tubing center, got our tubes, and loaded into the tuk tuk with all of the other twenty-somethings to be driven up to the starting point of this ridiculous activity.
Now to be fair, tubing down the river is awesome. The scenery is stunning and there’s just something everyone loves about lounging in an innertube. Also, you don’t have to stop at any of the bars. You could easily just relax down the river and call it a day. But, as previously stated, we were in Vang Vieng, and we wanted to do it right.
After only a few minutes of floating, we came to the first bar. Locals standing by the edge of the river threw ropes to us, so that we could pull ourselves to the side and get out. The bar had a large deck to chill on, along with sand volleyball, and of course, a full bar. We opted to stick with beer because the mixed drinks here are notoriously and deceptively strong. But, the whiskey costs less than the soda so…yeah, it makes sense. We each drank one on the deck, then bought another to drink in our tubes.
The second bar was pretty similar to the first, a large sitting area in a jungle type of setting next to the river. It was also very close to the first bar (we hadn’t even finished our beers) so once we finished those, we decided to splurge and split a mojito before returning to the water once again.
By the time we reached the third bar, we were feeling the buzz and so was everyone else, clearly. We walked up the steps to find the deck full of wobbly white people awkwardly attempting to dance to terrible pop music and woo each other into some kind of romantic encounter. It looked like everyone was having a lot of fun, and it was quite entertaining. At this point, a French guy we had sort of met on our sleeper bus from Hanoi to Vientiane spotted us and proceeded to exclaim, “HEYYYYYYY, I KNOW YOUUUUUU!!!!!” before making his way back over to the bar.
We agreed that to endure this situation, we must needs more booze, so we decided it would be a good idea to take a shot and then get a bucket: your choice of liquor and soda with ice in…a plastic bucket. We had made it our entire trip avoiding buckets, but this seemed to be the time to get one, if there ever was one. We sipped on our bucket while we watched the soft core fornication taking place on the dance floor, then decided it was time to move on. This is where things started to get a bit fuzzy.
We climbed unsteadily back down to the river where we reentered our tubes and continued to the final bar. The final bar is where some more drinking and some…other stuff happened.
Perhaps limboing under a gasoline soaked rod is a bad idea whilst intoxicated (or ever?), but aside from narrowly avoiding a hair-on-fire incident, it was fine. Plus, the photo is undeniably awesome.
And then there was the obligatory train…
After we had had enough of this blasphemy, we got back in the river with some new Canadian friends we had made and set off for the end of the tubing run. We spent the last leg of the river enjoying the scenery (it really is beautiful, despite the debauchery taking place) and chatting with the Canadians.
Now, at some point we got separated from the Canadians…and then we also got separated from each other…and then all of a sudden it was pitch black outside and completely silent. After coming a little further back to reality, I realized that this was an unacceptable situation, but was unsure of what the right thing to do was.
At this point, I started wondering if somehow I had missed the part where I was supposed to get out or if I just hadn’t made it there yet. Should I get out or should I wait? If I wait, will I end up floating so far down that I don’t know how to get back? After another 10 minutes of being paralyzed with confusion and indecisiveness, I decided to try finding Jojo again.
After calling his name a few times, he finally responded, to my immense relief! At least if we were lost, we were lost together, which didn’t feel quite as lost. We ended up getting out of the water and thankfully Jojo (who actually possesses navigation skills, unlike myself) got us back to the tubing center in town. It turned out that we hadn’t gone all the way to the end of the stretch, so we had to walk quite a ways back into town. To our surprise, the center actually gave us part of our deposit back when we returned our tubes, despite getting there after 6pm.
Despite the removal of the death swings, slides, and other dangerous activities, it’s still easy to see how easy it would be to injure yourself (or worse) while participating in the Vang Vieng tubing. To make matters worse, most of the people we saw at those bars were at least twice as drunk as us, and on god knows what else. Nonetheless, we were still happy that we had done it, and even happier that we had come out unscathed.
We celebrated our successful tubing adventure with some savory street pancakes, a ton of water, and getting ourselves to bed.
Breakfast: 40,000kip ($4.93 USD)
2-Coffee: 10,000kip ($1.23 USD)
Water: 5,000kip ($0.62 USD)
2-Tubing: 150,000kip ($18.47 USD)
Tubing Bars: Approximately 245,000kip ($30.17 USD)
On our second day in Vientiane, we had a couple of destinations in mind, that were a bit far from city center, so we decided to rent a motorbike to get around more efficiently.
Our first stop was Pha That Luang, a large Buddhist stupa covered in gold and regarded as the most important Laotian national monument. Built in the 16th century, it really is quite stunning and impressive to walk around. It wasn’t terribly crowded and you can also buy a flower to offer if you want to.
We were permitted to enter one of the halls and found that it was full of truly visionary paintings!
We spent quite a bit of time exploring the grounds and all of the sculptures around Pha That Luang. We visited quite a few temples in Vietnam but this was easily one of our favorites places.
Our next destination was Buddha Park, located about an hour outside of Vientiane. We downloaded a map onto the tablet (better safe than sorry) and made our way there on our motorbike. On the way, we passed a couple of noteworthy sites including the Lao Brewery and the Friendship Bridge that connects Laos to Thailand.
When we arrived at Buddha Park, we paid a small fee to park our moto and another to enter the park. We also had to pay extra to take a camera in but all in all it still added up to less than three dollars.
We had been there for no more than a few minutes before Jojo had decided that this was his favorite place we had ever visited. At the front of the park near the entrance sits a large pumpkin-shaped structure that you can go inside and climb to the top. Inside, there are some of the creepiest and downright disturbing statues we had ever seen. Come to find out, the three levels inside the pumpkin structure are meant to represent hell, earth, and heaven. You enter through the mouth of a demon and climb your way up through hell and earth, to heaven where you can look down on the entire park.
The entire park is full of beautiful and bizarre statues that you can walk through and look at. Some of our favorites were the enormous sleeping buddha and this other scaley manfish thing eating what looked like another head…?
At the far end of the park is a tower that you can climb into. The steps start out normal sized, but get narrower as you ascend until only your tip-toes can fit on the step.
We had worked up an appetite exploring the park and decided to stop for lunch. After waiting an hour and a half for our food (we will literally always sit that long before bothering to ask what is going on), we walked around the park one last time, then headed back to Vientiane.
For dinner we couldn’t resist going to Lao Kitchen again for some duck laap – it is that good! This time, we also treated ourselves to a dessert of sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with slices of mango–yum.
We had dedicated our first full day in Vientiane to one of our favorite activities of simply wandering around.
Our first stop was That Dam, also known as the Black Stupa. Legend has it that this structure was once covered in gold and inhabited by a naga, a seven-headed serpent, that tried to protect it during the Siamese-Laotian War in the early 19th century. Allegedly, all of the gold was taken by the Siamese Army during the attack on Vientiane. The structure isn’t really ‘used’ for anything anymore, other than a centerpiece for city festivals and events, but it is still regarded as a ‘guardian spirit’ of the city.
As we walked along the streets of Vientiane, we were careful to avoid the loose concrete slabs that line the sidewalks. Underneath is the sewage system and in some places there are large gaps where an unknowing passerby might find him/herself falling into grey water.
Our next stop was the Patuxai Arch, also known as the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane. The concrete used to construct Patuxai was actually donated to Laos by the United States for the purpose of building a new airport. The Laotian government had another idea in mind, which is how it got its nickname: the vertical runway. Patuxai is dedicated to the people who struggled for independence from France, so it is just slightly larger than the Arc de Triomphe, to trump its French counterpart.
We paid a small fee to climb the steps to the top where we got a beautiful view of Vientiane and the fountains below. Although it was clearly inspired by the Arc de Triomphe, it has a lot of traditional Laotian architecture and design as well.
For lunch we decided to try a local dish: papaya salad. It’s made with shredded, unripened papaya flavored with shrimp, crab, and fish paste giving it a very pungent flavor. It’s also quite spicy. Not terrible, but probably wouldn’t get it again.
After lunch, we wandered around Vientiane and stumbled upon some beautiful pagodas and other monuments. The city seems relatively empty most of the time and we really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere.
Several times, we were enthusiastically approached by Chinese tourists insisting that we pose for pictures with them. Sometimes it would be a group of 20-something girls and sometimes it was middle-aged couples, but every time it included at least 5 different photos of us in different arrangements. It was really strange and without explanation, but we found it quite humorous.
We made our way back to city center for dinner at Lao Kitchen where we tried another local specialty: laap. Laap consists of minced meat (we went for duck) flavored with fish sauce, lime, mint, and chili along with an assortment of other spices and herbs. In contrast with the papaya salad we had tried earlier, we really enjoyed this dish and thought it was actually the best food we had tried since arriving in Southeast Asia.
We ended the night at Bor Pen Nyang, a local bar with a balcony overlooking the river. It was full of people but still really relaxed at the same time – a great end to our first day in Laos!
We had our hotel book a bus ticket for us in Hanoi. Depending on who you asked or what you read, the journey to Vientiane, Laos would be somewhere between 24 and 31 hours.
“Is this a sleeper bus?”
“Yes, yes, sleep!”
At 5pm, a man on a motorbike showed up at our hotel and beckoned us to follow him. “Laos? You come.” We picked up our bags and followed this man through the streets of Hanoi, where he was literally corralling a group of backpackers on the side of the road. He pointed at us, pointed at the group, then took off to go wrangle up some more.
Once all of the passengers had been collected, we boarded a small van. Naturally, there were more people than there were seats on this van, so some of the passengers had to stand/hunch as the van departed. At this point, we all started joking that this would be the bus to Vientiane.
Luckily for us, and especially for the people standing, the van dropped us at the bus station after a short drive out of the city where we were herded to the desk to collect our tickets.
Our bus was meant to depart at 7pm but it was more like 7:30 or 8. Once we located the sleeper bus, we found that the storage areas under the bus (where they normally put your bags) was full of goods being sent to Laos. It is not uncommon for transportation buses to be transporting more than just people, but we had never seen it as packed as this. In fact, it seemed like transporting people was far from a main priority for the people running this bus.
They started barking at the tourists in Vietnamese and eventually started shouting and pointing, “Bag! Bag!” We fell in line and handed them our bags and watched them stack our bags up in the aisles of the bus. Once all of our packs were on board, the bus driver snapped at us again and motioned for us to get out of the way, as they let all of the locals board the bus first.
Once the locals were comfortably seated (all in the front of the bus, by the way) we were nastily ordered to the back of the bus, where we had to climb over and on top of each other’s bags to get to our seats. At first we were anxious to find that we had been stuck in the very back of the bus, where the seats are all smashed up against each other with about 2 feet of space between the bottom and top rows. It was very similar to sharing a twin bed with 2 other people, uncomfortably intimate and squished. The silver lining was that the seats in the very back of the bus recline all the way so that you can actually lay flat, which ended up making up for the lack of space.
We actually ended up sleeping better on this bus than any of the previous sleeper buses we had taken. At around 5 or 6am we arrived at the Vietnam-Laos border where we had to wait for the office to open at 7am.
We exited the bus and lined up at the window to get stamped out of Vietnam before we could get our Laotian visas. After paying a “stamping fee” of $1, we then had to walk 2km to the Laotian side to get our visas processed. After filling out our applications and waiting around for several hours, we finally got our visas and officially begun our journey through Laos!
We hopped back on the bus once everyone had gotten through the border crossing and made our way to the capital city of Vientiane. We were thrilled when we arrived by 3pm–a much shorter journey than expected! When we got off the bus, instead of the usual cluster of people offering taxis and hotels, we were approached by just one man offering all of us a tuk tuk ride (an auto rickshaw used like taxis, instead of cars) into town for 20,000 kip each. We had done our research before arriving in Laos and had read that the ride should really only be 10-15k each, so we and an Israeli couple we had met decided to pass and try to find something else. 20 meters away from the bus stop, another tuk tuk driver offered us a ride for 15k each so we decided to take that instead.
We walked around the center city area looking for a cheap room and found one near the river for about $9/night. It was literally a box with a really crappy bed in it and communal bathrooms down the hall, but it was the cheapest we could find, so we went for it.
We spent the rest of the evening wandering around Vientiane, checking out the modest night market and walking along the river. Despite being the largest city in the country, it didn’t take long to realize that Laos was going to be much different than Vietnam. The streets were really open and quiet despite being a Friday night, and our favorite part was that no one was hustling us to buy anything on the street.
We decided to call it a night pretty early since we had been traveling so long, and we were excited to get an early start to our exploration of Vientiane!
After another night in Hanoi after our Halong Bay Cruise, we spent the day hanging out at the Lake waiting for our night bus to the Northern mountain town of Sapa.
As described in a previous post, if you sit at the lake long enough, you are bound to be approached by university students hoping to speak with you and practice their English. On this day we were approached by a 9 year old boy who spoke better English than almost anyone else we had met in Vietnam! He was super cute and convinced Jojo to race with him and play tag. He told us that his favorite foods were hamburgers and pizza and that when he grows up he wants to be the president of a bank. When we told him we were American, he changed his mind and told us he wanted to be the President of America! Too cute.
Our night bus was to pick us up at 9:00pm back at our hotel where we had booked the ticket, and on our way back we stopped for pizza cones…which is exactly what it sounds like.
The night bus was packed with backpackers dressed in cold weather attire in preparation for the journey north. Unlike the previous sleeper buses we had taken, this one had really thick blankets, which made the trip significantly more comfortable. Not only do the buses not have heat, but it is impossible to turn the air conditioning all the way off (which is not especially ideal in 40 degree weather.)
We arrived in Sapa just before 6:30am, and we were allowed to continue sleeping until about 7. When we got off the bus, we were immediately hounded by people offering hotel rooms and Hmong women from the surrounding villages inviting us to stay in their homes. As we wearily exited the bus, we tried to dodge them so that we could have a minute to think before we decided on our next move, only to be relentlessly followed down the street. After several minutes of trying to politely refuse their offers, one of the women (named Zein) finally broke us and started telling us about her village. For $60, she would guide us on two days of trekking, home-cooked meals included, and one night’s stay. We have no idea if this was good deal or the typical going rate for homestays but we thought it sounded fair, so we agreed to it.
A seemingly random guy on a moto rolled up and we were instructed to give him our packs so that he could drive them to the village. This was a little nerve-racking, but it didn’t seem prudent to argue. So, freshly off a 10 hour night bus from Hanoi to Sapa, we watched our bags being whisked away, and began what would be a 4 hour trek literally up and down mountains to the village of Hau Thao.
We had been freezing cold when we first arrived in the misty town, but we were soon sweating bullets as we made our way through the muddy terrain. Sometimes there was sort of a road, but it was mostly really treacherous rock ‘trails’ and the mud certainly didn’t help.
This was much more than your typical hike through the woods. 90% of the journey was on a 45 degree incline either up or down, and if we weren’t slipping and falling in the mud, we were squeezing to the edge of the trail to let a buffalo pass by or hopping over small streams to avoid wet socks.
Winter in the northern region of Vietnam is very wet, so the visibility wasn’t the greatest; but it was sort of magical walking through the mist and looking over the cliffs into nothingness.
After what seemed like a never ending trek, we finally made it to Zein’s home. The house was constructed out of wood with a cement floor. The house was very open and didn’t really have separate rooms as much as different areas for things like cooking or eating. There was hardly anything in the house apart from a table and plastic chairs, a tv, a firepit, and cooking supplies. We were warmly welcomed into her home by her husband and children as they started making us lunch. When she saw us shivering, one of Zein’s daughters brought us an electric stove to warm our hands, as the house had no insulation. They also had a lot of animals. Aside from the pigs and ducks they kept outside, they also had two dogs with several puppies and two scrawny cats that were running around and sneaking food from the table.
After a huge lunch of rice, tofu, pork, and vegetables, we went for a walk around the Hau Thao village. We carefully walked along rice paddies and visited the home of one of Zein’s friends who was also accompanying us, named Ma Ma Mue. Her home was a little smaller but almost identical in style with large open areas.
It felt like we had just eaten lunch when Zein’s daughters started preparing dinner. Her oldest daughter was only 14, but seemed to be responsible for most of the cooking and cleaning in the house. We sat around the fire and watched them prepare a dish with pork and mushrooms.
After dinner, Zein brought out a water bottle full of homemade rice wine that she insisted we finish with her. I could only stomach one, but Jojo and Zein had about six! Although her English was limited, she knew how to say “Cheers!” in several different languages and after a few shots, she started apologizing for talking too much. It was hard to understand everything she was saying, but she started telling us some of her drinking stories which were really fun to listen to!
We were pretty exhausted by the time 9pm rolled around, and decided it was time for bed. Our sleeping arrangements consisted of several thick blankets on the ground under a mosquito net, up in the loft where all of the rice was kept. While it was certainly a basic sort of accommodation, the welcome warmth of the blankets in combination with sleep deprivation and a long day of serious trekking lead to a long a glorious night of sleep.
We woke up around 7 or 8 to the sounds of the girls cooking. After a breakfast of rice and the absolute best fried spring rolls ever, we prepared ourselves for the long trek back to Sapa.
This time we followed the road which should have been significantly easier than the way we had originally come. This time we had to carry our backpacks the whole way though, so it was still just as difficult but in a different way.
The visibility was much better on this day so we could actually see the farms and rice paddies carved into the mountains. The view was breathtaking and it gave us more of an appreciation for what exactly we had hiked through the day before!
Several hours later we had finally made it back to Sapa. Originally we had intended to take a sleeper bus that night back to Hanoi, but we were beyond exhausted and unbelievably cold, so we decided to find a hotel and spend the night in Sapa instead. Our hotel had no heat, but it did have electric blankets so we happily spent the rest of the evening resting in our warm bed and had the receptionist book a bus back to Hanoi for us in the morning.
We were so happy that we went to Sapa on our own instead of through a group tour. We found out that group tours went to ‘registered homestays’ as opposed to the one we went to, where you and 20 other people are put in what is more of a hotel than a homestay and given a much less authentic experience. We were able to support a local family and given incredibly genuine, one-on-one hospitality by Zein’s family. It was a very unique experience and we would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of visiting this beautiful area!
About a four drive from the city of Hanoi lies Ha Long Bay, famous for its jade waters and towering limestone karsts. We had done some research on DIY tours, but because you seem to end up on the same tourist boats in either case, we decided to save ourselves some stress and booked an organized tour from our hotel.
We were picked up in a small van along with about 10 other people and driven to the coastal town of Halong City, the primary gateway to Halong Bay. Once there, we got off the bus and were lead to the harbor, where we boarded the junk boat that would be our home for the next two days.
We were given a large (but un-special) lunch as we sailed across the water to another harbor, where we got off the boat to go kayaking! We were surprised to find that it was much sunnier and warmer here than in Hanoi, which really topped off our spectacular journey around the bay.
Next, we were taken to “Surprise Cave,” located within Bo Hon Island. After walking through a narrow passage, the cave opened up into a huge underground oasis of stalactites and other rock formations. We didn’t get many good photos of the cave because our Nikon died, but it was truly spectacular to walk through and explore.
After visiting the cave, we got back on our boat and enjoyed a sunset cruise through Halong Bay.
After another large but average meal the guests were invited to lounge on the deck and indulge in overpriced drinks. Through all of this (including dinner) the crew was playing loud electronic music and flashing rave lights in the dining room. (It is unknown as to whether this was supposed to be for our enjoyment.) We found this to be hilarious, but it disgruntled several of the other passengers. We ordered a couple of pina coladas and sipped rum splashed with coconut milk as we enjoyed the quiet darkness of the bay.
We retired to our small but comfortable room, equipped with a double bed, private bathroom, and large windows. Aside from the rats skittering in the ceiling all night, we slept relatively well and undisturbed.
The next morning, we were given breakfast as we made our way to Cat Ba Island, where we dropped off some of the passengers who would be staying there another night. Then we headed back through the bay to Halong City.
After lunch, we were back on dry land and on the 4 hour bus back to Hanoi.
We debated over taking another night bus straight away to our next destination, but we were pretty exhausted and decided another night in Hanoi was a better idea. We found a private room for $10 in an Old Quarter hostel, dropped our stuff, and headed for Ly Van Phuc, also known as “BBQ Chicken Street” where patrons are served freshly barbecued chicken wings, thighs, and feet.
It was about a 45 minute walk, but we figured after sitting on a boat/bus all day, we could use the exercise. When we finally got there, it was pretty dark and there were no other tourists to be found. It was a little unnerving as we walked by each establishment, getting stares from all the way down the street, but I think it was mostly because they were waiting to see which vendor we would choose. They all look exactly the same and serve the exact same items, so we went ahead and picked one for no particular reason.
We decided that after coming such a long way, we best try several items, so we ordered 4 wings, 2 thighs, honey roasted sweet potatoes, and flattened banh my bread toasted and coated in honey. It was soooo worth the 45 minute walk and I would highly recommend anyone going to Hanoi to make the journey!
As we made our way back to the Old Quarter, we heard music as we approached the street our hostel was on. On the corner where we were staying, there was a group of Vietnamese people playing traditional instruments for all of the people on the street! An awesome way to end the night!
Day 1: Halong Bay
2-Halong Bay Cruise: 5,095,000vnd ($238.55 USD) *
Booze: 320,000vnd ($14.98 USD)
Day 1 Total Spent: 5,415,000vnd ($253.53 USD)
*We got ripped off on this big time by our hotel. Other guests on the boat said they only paid $70 each for the same tour.
At 1:30pm, we would begin what would end up being a 17 hour journey to the capital city of Hanoi.
Starting in Hoi An, we booked our bus tickets at the hotel. After waiting until 2pm for the bus to finally show, we boarded a medium sized bus that took us on a 5 hour, long winding road through the Central Highlands to Hue.
Once in Hue, a seemingly random woman asked for our tickets, and beckoned us to follow her around the block to a big sleeper bus that took us another 12 hours to our destination. The seats on a sleeper bus are reasonably comfortable as long as you are under 5’5. If you are taller than this, you’ll be in for a ride stuck in the fetal position in a seat that is only about 12 inches wide. There are also two levels of seats (like, bunk-bed style), and we’ve learned that the bottom row is slightly longer. If you’re lucky, the bus will not be full and no one will be sleeping on the aisle floor. They also played Vietnamese music videos the entire bus ride, which were…really strange, but easily ignored if you had your own music or earplugs like we did.
We finally got to Hanoi around 7am and when we stepped off the bus, we were offered a private room for $12 by a man that either owned or was somehow affiliated with the bus company we used to get to Hanoi. He also offered to pay for our taxi there, so we said we would have a look. The room was decent and for an extra $3 a day we could get breakfast down in the lobby so we agreed to the room. The place is called Violet Hotel, and while we got a good deal on the room, the constant hustling from the front desk about booking tours was extremely annoying. Any time we came in or out, we would be stopped for a 5 minute conversation about tours we weren’t interested in. That being said, it was in a really good location so we were okay with the small hassle. We dropped our stuff in the room and spent the day walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter.
Although its a big city, Hanoi seems much less Westernized than the southern city of Saigon. Many of the streets here are organized by what is sold on them. For example, there is a street full of shops selling only sunglasses, another selling textiles, and another barbecue chicken. There are also beer corners where people sit on tiny stools on the street to have a drink (as opposed to sitting in a traditional bar.)
After working up an appetite walking around the city, we decided to try Bun Bo Nam Bo, a popular dish in Hanoi made with strips of grilled beef and fresh vegetables over rice noodles. Unlike Pho (more popular in the South) which is a soup, this was more like a noodle dish and a little bit tastier (despite using virtually the same ingredients.)
A little more exploring lead us to Cafe Giang, where we intended to try another Hanoi treat: egg coffee. Egg coffee is made by whisking an egg yolk with sweetened condensed milk, butter, and cheese, then adding it to a cup of Vietnamese coffee.
The place looked like a literal hole in the wall and was almost impossible to spot from the street. We were lead up to the second floor where we ordered one ‘egg coffee’ and one ‘chocolate with egg,’ which is hot cocoa made with the egg mixture, rather than coffee. Other items on the menu included ‘beer with egg’ and ‘rum and coffee with egg,’ along with a food menu as well.
We had no idea what to expect when we ordered our beverages, but once we tried them, we were hooked. They were both shockingly delicious despite the strange ingredients and we couldn’t believe we hadn’t heard of egg coffee before! It was a sweet, thick, creamy, decadent, delicious experience that one must try when visiting Hanoi.
We finished our night squatting on tiny stools at a popular beer corner on Ta Hien Street, where we sipped on cheap Vietnamese beer with a bunch of other tourists and locals alike. We also bought a couple of sugar coated donut-like pastries sold by women on the street all over Hanoi.
The next morning we woke up for a motorbike tour of the city we had scheduled the day before with a random guy that approached us on the street. Sounds sketchy, but it wasn’t. While our motorbike driving experience had been successful in Hoi An, we decided the big city traffic was best left for people who actually know how to operate motorbikes, and let ourselves be driven around instead.
We were picked up around 8:30am and were quickly off to our first stop: the Hanoi Opera House. It was built the French in 1911 and still holds regular performances. For some reason we didn’t take any pictures of this, but you can see some at the link above. Our next stop was the Long Bien bridge, where our guide told us about the history of the bridge and how it was used by the French to secure control of the North, back in the early 20th century. It was heavily damaged during the American War but some of the original structure is still intact. We got a glorious view of the Red River standing in the middle of the bridge.
Our next destinations were West Lake and Phu Tay Ho. Beside the largest lake in Hanoi, sits the Phu Tay Ho Pagoda where we witnessed people praying and leaving gifts like fruit, candy, and even some cans of Heineken. We didn’t see any other tourists in this area which was a nice change from Old Quarter.
Next, we visited the Van Nien Pagoda which is about one thousand years old, and almost entirely vacant aside from a few people taking care of the beautiful landscaping. After removing our shoes, we were allowed to walk through and take pictures of one of the worshipping halls. It was full of elaborate statues and built in the architectural style of the Ly Dynasty.
After the Van Nien Pagoda, we moved on to the Vong Thi fresh food market. We had been to several markets throughout Vietnam but this one was very different. It was apparent the second we arrived that this was not a place that tourists often visited. Food markets in Vietnam are often shocking (at least by Western standards), in that there doesn’t seem to be much regulation regarding order or cleanliness; but this one was on an entirely different level than the ones we had seen previously.
There was blood and guts covering seemingly every surface, and various types of animal carcasses and organs laying around everywhere! Despite the shocking scene, we were the ones getting the most attention as we walked through the market as people looked at us curiously and laughed at our reactions to the butchery taking place.
Once we got through the meat vendors, the market opened up to a more familiar (and far less vomit-inducing) produce market where we tried our first pieces of jackfruit. Jackfruits are large, alien looking fruits that taste a little bit like cantaloupe with a firmer texture. After only a couple of bites, my immune system determined jackfruit to be a sworn enemy, and punished me severely for having the audacity to ingest it. Only after an hour of transforming the lining of my esophagus and eye sockets into fine grain sandpaper did it finally subside. (Annoying, but no hospital visit requirement so…worth it.)
After the market we drove through “New Hanoi City” and down a street deemed ‘the most beautiful street in Hanoi’ by locals. After driving past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, we stopped at the Hanoi Citadel, which was constructed in 1010 and held court until 1810. On the front wall you can see large holes made by French cannons.
We ended the trip at a restaurant called Little Hanoi where we shared what was probably our best meal in Vietnam with our tour guides. They told us about their families and how they grew up very poor in a village north of Hanoi. One of the guides told us that he studied really hard to get into university after his sister told him that he would get to eat lots of food if he did. Their story was really humbling and we were glad to have supported them by going on their tour.
After the tour we met up with a friend of Jojo’s from OSU who lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a year and now lives in Hanoi. It was interesting getting the perspective from an American living in Southeast Asia rather than just visiting and really made us want to do the same! We ended the night after a couple of beers and retired back to our room in the Old Quarter.
We discussed whether we liked Saigon or Hanoi better, but we couldn’t really come to a conclusion. Both have their charms and drawbacks, but overall we really liked both cities for various reasons. Hanoi definitely feels less Westernized than Saigon, and it isn’t quite so blistering hot, but the street vendors seem to be a little pushier. If you sit by the lake for a while, university students will approach you and ask if they can practice English with you, which we really liked doing. A lot of Vietnamese people took pictures of us as well, and some even asked if they could pose with us which we found really amusing!
After a long sleeper bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An, we arrived at the bus station a short distance from Ancient Town where most hotels and hostels are found. Despite being hounded by taxis, we decided to walk instead, to save a few dollars.
We ended up at the Hoa Binh Hotel and splurged on an $18 hotel room a) because we were exhausted and desperate to put our stuff down immediately and b) because it was a pretty nice place, compared to the places we had been staying at recently.
After a quick power nap, we wandered down the street and into the Ancient Town of Hoi An. Dated back to the 15th century, Hoi An is known for its well-preserved history as a South-East Asian trading port. We walked through the town admiring the architecture and the streets lined with food vendors and silk tailors where you can get custom clothing made.
The well-known historical sites require a ticket to enter, costing around $6 each. In comparison to most tourist attractions in Vietnam that is really steep, so we decided against it. The Ancient Town is really beautiful on its own and we didn’t regret opting out of the attraction ticket. We walked up and down the river and over the bridges, getting a feel for the city and its inhabitants.
We also stopped for lunch at Banh Mi Phuong, boasting the “best Banh Mi in Vietnam,” and featured on No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain a couple of years ago. Banh Mi is a Vietnamese sandwich on a baguette, usually with pork and liver pate. It did not disappoint, and was especially favorable if you wanted options other than liver, as they offered 9 different sandwiches.
Hoi An is full of tourists and doesn’t feel especially ‘authentic’ despite it being such a well-preserved historical city. That being said, it’s a very pleasant little town and each night, hundreds of lanterns line every shop along the river which makes for a magical experience!
Because pretty much everything in Hoi An is within walking distance, it was really easy to not spend a lot of money here (and made up for spending more than usual on our hotel room.) We spent the entire day just wandering around and enjoying the town. We finished our night with a couple of mojitos by the river.
The next morning, we had to decide how to go about getting to My Son, the ruins of an ancient Hindu temple constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries. The ruins are about an hour’s drive outside of Hoi An, but we didn’t want to take an organized tour; so, we decided on a more adventurous route: renting our own motorbike! (Sorry, Moms!) We approached a stand on the street advertising moto rentals and were given helmets as well. (You get a huge fine if you don’t wear a helmet in Vietnam, not to mention that foreign driver’s licenses are not valid which further complicates the issue.) He pointed us down the street to fill up the tank, and after driving around for 20 minutes trying to find a gas pump, we filled up the tank and went on our way!
The ride was was stunning! We drove past farmers working on rice paddys and through a few small towns.
The directions from Hoi An to My Son are pretty straight forward, plus we had a PDF of the directions saved to Jojo’s tablet, just in case. We got turned around a couple of times, and got caught in a couple of terrifying traffic jams, but after about an hour and a half, we had made it to My Son in one piece!
When you first get there and purchase your ticket (about $5 each), you have the option of riding your motorbike the rest of the way, or walk the 2 kilometers to the ruins. We decided to walk it because it was nice outside and the scenery was beautiful. We also stumbled upon a snake by the side of the road. When we stopped to look at it, it started moving strangely and a second head started emerging out of its mouth! After a second of watching in horror at this event, we realized the snake was regurgitating a large frog it had just attempted to eat!
We moved on from the snake and finally made it to the My Son temple ruins. My Son was built by the Champa Kingdom during their rule in Vietnam from 200AD to the 18th century. Although it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 90s, the site is not very well kept. That being said, we felt that the overgrowth actually added to the experience.
The Champas built the My Son temple out of brick, without using any mortar! Some of the ruins are down to piles of bricks, but some are still very much intact. We were surprised that we were allowed to actually walk through what’s left of the temples.
We explored My Son for a couple of hours, but decided we wanted to get back to Hoi An before the sun went down.
Once we got back, we returned to Banh Mi Phuong again for an early dinner and snacked on a fresh street donut. After walking around the clothing shops, I decided to have a custom dress made for about $25. We paid a deposit that night, then the rest the next morning when it was finished!
Despite being full of tourists, Hoi An is definitely worth a visit. There are a lot of historical buildings and artifacts to see within the city, and walking along the river with all the lanterns lit up at night is really spectacular!