Our Grand Expedition from the North to South of Laos

To start this post, let us first explain how we ended up on the nonsensical route that we did.

Our original “plan” while traveling Southeast Asia was to start out in Vietnam, then go to Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia.  We started out in Vientiane Laos then headed north, with the intention of taking the two-day slow boat from Luang Prabang over to Thailand.  We would travel south through Thailand and then on to Cambodia before going back to Thailand where we have a potential gig lined up.

When doing some research on visas and the logistics of all this, we considered that perhaps it would be wiser to go to Cambodia before going to Thailand so that we wouldn’t have to worry about multiple Thai visas (since we would be leaving and then coming back.)  The unfortunate part of this plan was that we hadn’t considered it until we were already in Northern Laos.  This new plan would require backtracking down to Vientiane, and then traveling even further down to Pakse and the 4,000 Islands before crossing into Cambodia.

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15.5 hours. Right.

Here is what actually happened:

We started out with an uneventful, four hour bus ride from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang.  Once we arrived at the Luang Prabang bus stop, we intended to book a sleeper bus for that night down to Vientiane–only it was full, so we couldn’t.

At that point our choices were to stay the night in Luang Prabang and take a bus in the morning that would take all day and put us in Vientiane the following night, or to take a sleeper bus the following night.  12 hours sitting on a bus all day sounded horrid so we opted to hang out in Luang Prabang and take the sleeper bus the following night.

While we enjoyed relaxing in Luang Prabang one last time, we probably should have just taken the day bus, because then we could have gotten an actual night’s rest at a guesthouse in Vientiane.  Instead, we spent 12 agonizing hours in a Laos sleeper bus (why didn’t we learn the first time?) crunched up on the ground while the bus violently bounced and swayed all the way to Vientiane.

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We arrived in Vientiane at about 7am with another set of choices.  Do we take another 12 hour day bus straight away and head down to Pakse or wait and do another night bus?  With the horrors of the sleeper bus we had just exited fresh in our minds, we couldn’t bear the idea of doing it again two nights in a row.  Instead, we hopped on a bus two hours later, and headed down to Pakse.

We were assured that the bus to Pakse would be 12 hours, putting us in the city around 10pm which should have been a decent enough time to find a room for the night.  Only, the bus stopped half a hundred times on the way to Pakse for god knows what reasons, extending the journey to about 15 hours.

Do you know how many guesthouses are open at 1am in Pakse?  None.  There are none.

There was only one other backpacker on the bus with us who was also stuck in this situation and the three of us set out to find some kind of accommodation for the night.  Exhausted from no sleep and almost 30 hours on buses, we wandered the deserted streets of Pakse knocking on guesthouse windows, in hopes of waking up the employees and inquiring about rooms.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the people we were able to startle awake all told us that they were full.

An hour later, we found ourselves sitting on a bench by the road, all but given up.  “There is one more on my map, I’m going to go check it,” said our new Spanish friend.  Sure that his efforts would fail, as they had for the last hour, we sat on the bench consumed with exhaustion, frustration, and helplessness.  

Just as we were adjusting ourselves in preparation to sleep on this bench, the Spanish guy reappeared, waving.

“Come on, guys!”

We sprang up and he waved for us to follow him to this one last guesthouse he had found!  It was a little pricier than we would have liked, but being 2am and after what we had been through, we were grateful for anything.

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We woke up the next morning and decided we simply did not have the energy to get to Don Det that day.

Instead, we spent the day exploring Pakse, which is perhaps the most boring city on the planet earth.  Despite being the third largest Laotian city in population, there was hardly anyone around.  Anywhere.  The whole day.

There also isn’t really much to see or do in Pakse and it was Valentine’s Day, so we decided to celebrate by eating lots of delicious food that we normally wouldn’t splurge on.  For lunch it was Dok Mai Lao Caffe, an Italian restaurant run by two older Italian men which was excellent.  For dinner, it was Le Panorama on top of the Pakse Hotel where we could look out over the entire city and watch the sun set.

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The next morning, it was finally time for us venture on to the last leg of the journey to the 4,000 Islands.

A mini-bus picked us up from our hotel at 8am and took us to the bus that would take us about 3 hours south of Pakse to Ban Nakasang, where we boarded a ferry that took us to the island of Don Det, our home base during our stay in the 4,000 Islands.

Perhaps it wasn’t the most logical route, but we finally made it to Don Det, and the hammocks awaiting us on the porch made our arrival that much sweeter!

Journey Breakdown:

Wednesday 2/11: Bus from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang (4-5 hrs)

Thursday 2/12: Sleeper Bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (12 hrs)

Friday 2/13: Day bus from Vientiane to Pakse (15 hrs)

Saturday 2/14: Valentine’s Day in Pakse

Sunday 2/15: Bus/Ferry from Pakse to Don Det (3-4 hours)

Success!

Luang Prabang – Relaxing in the City

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.

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Monks across the river

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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!

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Surprise hole in the table where the coals go

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!

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Big hunk of fat in the middle in to grease the hot plate!

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!

Sandwiches: 45,000kip ($5.54 USD)

Shake: 10,000kip ($1.23 USD)

Water: 5,000kip ($0.62 USD)

2-Beer: 20,000kip ($2.46 USD)

Joma Cafe: 30,000kip ($3.69 USD)

Lao Lao Garden: 123,000kip ($15.14 USD)

Utopia: 50,000kip ($6.15 USD)

Accommodation: 130,000kip ($16 USD)

Total Spent: 413,000kip ($50.83 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)

Getting from Can Tho to Mui Ne – Broken seats, missing buses, and sleep deprivation

We were throwing around a few different options regarding transportation to our next destination, the coastal town of Mui Ne, known for its sand dunes and kite/windsurfing.

Option A) Take the 3.5h bus back to Saigon.  Spend another night in Saigon.  Take a 6h bus the next morning to Mui Ne.

Option B) Take the 3.5h bus back to Saigon.  Catch the next 6h bus to Mui Ne.

Option C) Take the 3.5h bus back to Saigon.  Spend a few hours in Saigon.  Take the 11pm 6h sleeper bus to Mui Ne.

We decided Option C was preferable because it allowed us to enjoy a few more hours in Saigon, while also saving us a night’s accommodation since we’d be sleeping on the bus.

After breakfast, including some grilled bananas and coconut cakes, we  took a taxi back to the bus station outside Can Tho.  Our first mistake was allowing ourselves to be swept into one of the bus company offices without looking for the one used to get to Can Tho first.  We used Phuong Trang to get to Can Tho and had a perfectly pleasant experience, in contrast with what we were about to encounter.  We didn’t even catch the name of the bus company we had stumbled into, but the woman at the desk insisted that there were no big buses to Saigon and that the only option was a minibus.  Translate: This company in particular does not offer big buses to Saigon.  We naively took her word and allowed ourselves to be directed to a minibus (aka large van) with about 12 seats.

This is okay, it’s only a 3.5 hour ride!  Wrong.

Firstly, we ended up in the back row of the bus where the seats do not recline.  This wouldn’t have been a big deal, except for the fact that all of the other rows reclined a lot so the people sitting in front of us were essentially laying in our laps.  Like, small domestic airplanes are luxury compared to this.  We had good attitudes about it and comforted ourselves in the fact that it only cost us 90,000vnd ($4.20 USD) each.

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After about 30 minutes of sitting around (I think we were waiting for all the seats to be filled) we finally took off at about 10:30am.  As we departed and hit the first bump in the road, the row in front of us bounced into our knees.  Hard.  Now we understood why they were sitting at a 140 degree angle, the row of seats were actually broken.  Thus, every slight disturbance in the road caused the row to bounce almost violently.  In fact it looked quite unpleasant for the people sitting there as well as for us.  To avoid further trauma to our knee caps, we experimented with all sorts of unconventional positions for sitting.

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Luckily our spirits were relentlessly high today, because we would soon realize that this bus would also be stopping at least 20-30 times on the way to Saigon.  Apparently we had landed ourselves on the local bus, so it actually took about 4.5 hours due to the frequent stops.  At some points there were so many people packed onto this bus that they were not even in seats, including several small children.

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If nothing else, it made for a good story.  Every backpacking adventure has at least one hellish bus ride, and it surely won’t be our last.  We finally made it to Saigon and had to take another taxi back to Pham Ngu Lao st. where we were to catch the sleeper bus to Mui Ne.  We went ahead and purchased our ticket and headed to a nearby smoothie shop.  We enjoyed a coffee and a banana smoothie (and free wifi), and after a few hours there, we roamed around the backpacker district some more which is a lot of a fun at night time.

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Banana shake…yum

At this point it was around 6 or 7pm and we decided to go to Highlands Coffee, where we enjoyed a couple of mojitos and some more free wifi (yay blogging time!)  Around 10:30pm we walked back to the bus stop where we were informed that our bus would come at 11 and we should stand outside and wait for it.  Now, it’s worth noting that we chose Phuong Trang again since we had a good experience getting to Can Tho, but this didn’t go quite as smoothly.  The buses all say their destination on the front and we kept seeing buses headed to Dalat.  Mui Ne is on the way to Dalat, so we asked if these were the buses we were supposed to be getting on, but we were told our bus was still coming.  This happened several times, so we decided we would stop asking and wait for a bus that said Mui Ne on it.  Finally at 12am, a bus that said Mui Ne rolled up.  When we approached the door, the driver told us this was the 12:00 bus, our tickets were for the 11:00 bus, and that we should have been here at 10:45 to catch it.

We have been here since 10:30!  The bus did not come!

It was apparent that the driver did not fully understand what were saying and kept insisting that we missed the bus because we did not arrive early enough.  Normally we are not very pushy people, but we had already had a day full of transportation difficulties.  We were getting to Mui Ne, and we were getting there on this sleeper bus.  After all of the other passengers got on (it was not full), and a few more desperate pleas, the driver finally let us on the bus.

Sleeper buses can be great because they save you a night’s accommodation and you get to fully recline, making the ride pretty comfortable.  Our driver was pretty keen to lay on the horn and there was a distressed infant on board, so sleeping didn’t come quite as easy as we had expected.  Additionally, because we ended up taking a later bus, the drive was shorter because there was less traffic.  So we landed in Mui Ne just after 5am, a little early for finding a place to stay in a small town.

We were dropped off in front of some bungalows that didn’t appear to be open, so we just parked it out front and decided to wait until they were.  After about half an hour sitting in the dark, a man who appeared to be a security guard walked out and asked us what we were doing.  Do you have a room available?  He didn’t answer us, but got on his phone, made a call, and opened the gate.  A woman in a night gown appeared and lead us to one of the bungalows, which we promptly accepted and proceeded to fall asleep.

We knew getting to Mui Ne from Can Tho would be some kind of adventure, and despite the complications, we were glad to have finally made it to the beach!  In hindsight, it’s important to pay attention to what company you are booking (anything) with.  Sometimes companies will push you around in hopes of getting you to purchase before you’ve realized what you’re actually doing and what your other options are.  Additionally, if in doubt, ask every single bus if it’s the one you’re supposed to be on!  People will almost always help you if you ask.

Breakfast: 20,000vnd ($0.93)

Bananas/Coconut Cakes: 8,000vnd ($0.37)

1 Coca Cola: 15,000vnd ($0.70)

Taxi to Can Tho Bus Station: 30,000vnd ($1.40)

Hellish Minibus: 180,000vnd ($8.39)

Taxi to Pham Ngu Lao: 200,000vnd ($9.32)

Dinner: 162,000vnd ($7.55)

Coffee/Smoothie: 31,000vnd ($1.44)

Mojitos: 98,000vnd ($4.57)

Sleeper Bus: 270,000vnd ($12.58)

Total Spent: 1,014,000vnd ($47.25 USD)