Getting to Laos – An epic journey from Hanoi to Vientiane

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.

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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!

Cruising Ha Long Bay

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.

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Kayaking on Halong Bay
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Evidence of water levels

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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.

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Surprise Cave

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After visiting the cave, we got back on our boat and enjoyed a sunset cruise through Halong Bay.

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Sunset on 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.

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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.

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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!

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Jojo enjoying dinner on BBQ Chicken Street

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!

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Vietnamese musicians performing on the street in Old Quarter

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.

Day 2: Halong Bay/Hanoi

Ice Cream: 25,000vnd ($1.17 USD)

Water: 10,000vnd ($0.47 USD)

BBQ Chicken: 246,000vnd ($11.52 USD)

Water: 10,000vnd ($0.47 USD)

Accommodation: 220,000vnd ($10.30 USD)

Day 2 Total Spent: 511,000vnd ($23.93 USD)

Hanoi – Egg Coffee, Motorbikes, and Butchered Organs

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.

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Jojo on the sleeper bus to Hanoi (fake sleeping for full effect.)

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.

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Red Bridge over Hoan Kiem Lake
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Bridge entry near Hoan Kiem Lake
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Women working near Hoan Kiem Lake

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.)

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Walking through Old Quarter Hanoi

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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.)

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Preparing the bun bo nam bo

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.

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Delicious egg coffee at Cafe Giang

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.

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View of Red River from Long Bien Bridge
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Women bicycling across the Long Bien bridge
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Motos on the Long Bien 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.

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Dragon sculptures in the West Lake
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Phu Tay Ho Pagoda near the West Lake

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.

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Worshipping hall of the Van Nien Pagoda
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Jojo walking through the Van Nien Pagoda

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.

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A Vietnamese man working in the Vong Thi Market
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Some…organs

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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.

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
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Nicole in front of the Citadel
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Hole left by a cannon

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.

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Jojo on the motorbike 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!

Hanoi Day 1

Breakfast: 138,000vnd ($6.47 USD)

Pastry: 5,000vnd ($0.23 USD)

Lunch (Nam Bo): 128,000vnd ($6.00 USD)

Water: 15,000vnd ($0.70 USD)

2-Egg Coffee: 40,000vnd ($1.87 USD)

Beer Corner: 40,000vnd ($1.87 USD)

Pastries: 10,000vnd ($0.47 USD)

Water: 10,000vnd ($0.47 USD)

Accommodation: 322,500 vnd ($15.12 USD)

Day 1 Total Spent: 708,500vnd ($33.21 USD)

Hanoi Day 2

Moto Tour: 1,300,000vnd ($60.93 USD)

2-Coconut Coffee: 70,000vnd ($3.28 USD)

Dinner: 260,000vnd ($12.19 USD)

Water: 10,000vnd ($0.47 USD)

Accommodation: 322,500 vnd ($15.12 USD)

Day 2 Total Spent: 1,962,500 ($91.96 USD)