I had been planning to write about my travels in Asia in chronological order, which would have meant writing about Taiwan, or Japan, or Singapore next. And while they are all lovely places to visit (or, in Singapore’s case, a place to visit) I didn’t fancy writing about them just yet. Because, like the Devil with his tunes, Laos and Vietnam have all the best stories.
Back in the spring of 2008 I spent a month or so travelling up through Laos and down through Vietnam, after working in Thailand for the previous six. And while Thailand had been a huge roll-call of experiences – my first time in Asia, my first time attempting to teach English, my first time having the roof of my mouth blown off with Tom Yam soup, my first time using a squat toilet (probably in conjunction with the Tom Yam)… All stories for another day. But after so long Thailand had grown quite familiar. Even our wooden, lakeside shack in rural Chonburi had started to feel like home.
So, in the last week of March, a small band of former volunteer English teachers (very Gap-Yah, I know, but honestly it wasn’t – we were nowhere near posh enough) took a Tuk-Tuk over the Mekong River to Vientiane – capital of Laos.
The first indication that we weren’t in Kansas anymore was the taxi that picked us up on the border – the old, blue air-con less Cadillac in the picture above. Incidentally, look at that gorgeous hair. Oh to be 21 again. Or was I 22? Anyway, the Cadillac ferried us into Vientiane – a city so compact and serene that it didn’t really feel like a capital at all. Everything about it was on such a small scale, especially when compared to neighbouring Bangkok, including their take on the Arc de Triomphe (below), which was minuscule compared to its French cousin and topped with local-style Stupas. Even the nearest town to our wooden shack in Thailand – Sri Racha (of hot sauce fame) – was a frenetic metropolis by comparison.
On our first evening in Laos, we watched the sun set over the Mekong below (that’s Thailand on the other side) and enjoyed our first taste of Beer Lao – a true king amongst lager beers that’s very hard to track down outside of Laos. It’s almost worth making a return trip all these years later, for one more sip.
I struggle to remember much about our couple of days in Vientiane – it’s coming up for 9 years now – but I have an overriding memory of French-style apartment blocks and bakeries selling real French bread, a colonial legacy and a godsend after months of the sweet, bleached stuff sold in Thai cafes. We wandered the streets, chomped on baguettes, downed Beer Lao and at one point visited the city swimming pool, which had a ‘stranger’s back garden‘ vibe complete with grass verges and portacabin changing rooms. I had to keep reminding myself: Vientiane is a capital city, Vientiane is a capital city…
And then we hit the road again… We were about five months into constant moving, constant interminable bus journeys and constant living out of a backpack and it had somehow become normal. Thai long-distance buses were always relatively comfortable with reclining seats and TVs blasting out karaoke videos at a decibel level comparable to a 747 in mid take-off. And Thailand had motorways and service stations and, after a while, the novelty wore off as one road blended into the next one, and you might as well have been shooting down the M6 just outside Coventry.
But catching a bus in Laos was next -level stuff. Lao buses must have looked at Thai buses in the way that middle-aged former punks look at themselves in the mirror, thinking Jesus you’ve sold out and shaking their head sorrowfully. On our first journey out of Vientiane, the seats didn’t recline, the suspension seemed somewhat lacking and air-conditioning was but a gleam in its inventor’s eye when this particular bus rolled off the production line. I remember it was busy and our group got split up – few people can afford a car in Laos – and a very nice lady started passing out oranges to various children and relatives, and then me. Moments later I heard a commotion behind me as people rushed to lift their bags from the floor, away from a torrent of liquid running down the aisle. The source of which turned out to be a few rows behind me, where a couple were sitting with a huge drawstring bag full of live chickens. Meanwhile the scenery was breathtaking – see the sharp, staccato peaks in the picture above – and very different from the flat plains of central Thailand.
And you know how I mentioned service stations earlier – well, these here were the Lao version: thatched shelters where people hawked fresh fruit and drinks. While that road in the picture – that dusty, unmarked trail – is one of the main thoroughfares through the country, the Laotian M1 if you will, running from the capital to the ancient city of Luang Prabang, where we were headed. But we had one stop to make before then…
And so we arrived in Vang Vieng – a town so synonymous with backpacker twattery that my earlier claims of oh we weren’t Gap-yahs or anything like that may prove difficult to maintain. But we were young – if that’s any excuse. And we’d spent several months in rural Thailand, far removed from the banana-pancake trail, doing proper cultural stuff in a shack with no air-con or running water and a squat-toilet with monitor lizards for company. So perhaps we deserved a few days drinking whisky from buckets and watching re-runs of Friends…
Because that’s essentially why people go to Vang Vieng. Or I should say ‘went’, as a lot of the wonkily assembled bamboo bars and cafes that used to line the river were pulled down in 2012 after the government grew sick of tourists drowning and locals getting hooked on the drugs that they were supposed to be selling. The minute we arrived on a huge, disused air-strip (above) we realised that Vang Vieng wasn’t much of a place – the town itself was pretty insignificant and had only expanded when the tourists began to arrive in the ’90s. The one thing everyone goes there to do – aside from the buckets and the drugs and the Friends – is ‘tubing’: floating down the river on an inner-tube, taking in the dramatic karst scenery and being pulled in (literally – the owners threw ropes out to drag you over) to every bar en route.
Looking back it was great fun – no use me denying it in an attempt to come across as a latter-day Karl Baedeker – and yes that picture below is me, presumably well-refreshed, doing my best Peter Pan pose as I plunge from a rope-swing. And for an afternoon it was brilliant being able to float down a tropical river, with music blaring from among the trees, and kids of bar owners shouting at you with the little English that they knew – usually ‘Hey you, let’s get fucking wasted’. But once you had grown bored of tubing there truly was nothing else to do in Vang Vieng other than get drunk, or high, and watch bloody Friends. We probably only stayed there a couple of nights, though it felt longer. And then there were the douchebros. Oh, the douchebros. Dude, this mushroom shake is so fucking epic… But were we really any better? I can’t speak for the rest of my group but I certainly adapted to my surroundings – by lounging on beanbags, drinking lots of Beer Lao and enjoying ‘Special Pizza’ – ‘special’ meaning it had copious amounts of weed sprinkled atop. Though this does mean that I can claim to have taken drugs in a country where such offences are punishable by death, and thus pretend for a second that I’m Keith Richards.
Actually, the worst thing we did in Vang Vieng, beyond the drinking and the drugs, and I blame the douchebag atmosphere and the pizza entirely for this, was to run away from a restaurant without paying. I still feel bad about it to this day, although in our defence it was down to a massive tropical storm hitting in a very unexpected manner. Or maybe it was expected, we weren’t really checking weather forecasts on a daily basis you see, but it was like something out of a disaster movie.
One moment we were eating dinner, the next we were thrown into pitch black. An ominous moaning sound began to grow. A stuffy silence spread. Then the wind hit all at once, barreling down the street, knocking bins and shop signs over, and seeming as if it was going to rip the roof off our restaurant. So we, along with most other people it has to be said, panicked and ran outside where, no word of a lie, I was almost picked up by the gale-force winds. In true disaster movie fashion I narrowly dodged a falling billboard (really, this genuinely happened – and definitely not post-‘special’ pizza) as we started to battle against the storm, up the street to our hotel. Dust was flying all around, getting everywhere, when suddenly the rain came – bible style. Having lived in Thailand for six months I knew what tropical rain was like – sudden and heavy – but this was unlike anything we’d seen before. Soaked in seconds, we eventually dragged ourselves back to the hotel and spent the rest of the night watching the storm. That is until the room started to flood and we turned our attention to rescuing our stuff. So, we hadn’t intended not to pay, and I don’t think we actually managed to eat very much of the meal, but the worst bit was the next morning when we walked past the same restaurant, as the owner was having a post-typhoon tidy up. We could have gone in and paid, it would have after all totalled something like 70HKD, but we didn’t. The owner gave us a look along the lines of You were in here last night, weren’t you – you little scrotes? But our consciences went un-pricked and we walked on.
Looking back, every Google result from a Vang Vieng 2016 search refers to a blog, or an article, or Trip Advisor, either bemoaning or exulting in how much quieter it is now, and how much safer, since the bars were demolished and the town cleaned up. So to have visited back in 2008, at the height of the rope swings and the mysterious buckets of booze and the mushroom shakes and ‘special’ pizzas, does give my travels a slight edge, a slight last-days-of-Rome glamour to them. But it was a horrible little place, Vang Vieng, and you could see it very clearly if you stopped tubing and drinking and partying for just one second to look around you.
Luang Prabang was everything that Vang Vieng wasn’t – picturesque streets, ancient temples, a river with boats rather than inflatable tubes. Despite being a city it had a village feel, and whole days could be spent wandering narrow lanes lined with palm trees and wooden houses. As with Vientiane the French colonial influence was strong, but Luang Prabang has a history stretching back centuries and everywhere you turned there were orange-robed monks quietly moving from temple to temple. We were there for the local New Year celebrations, Songkran in Thai, when groups of children would jump out from behind walls or parked cars and douse you with buckets of water. Technically this was to symbolically cleanse you of your sins of the past year, but all we cared about was how refreshing it felt in temperatures pushing 40 degrees C.
We cruised on the Mekong and visited a cave full of Buddhas (below) hacked into the river bank. But we also, as you inevitably do after months of travelling, sought out a few home comforts and somehow ended up in the local bowling alley one evening. Laos was actually subject to a curfew imposed by the military government (not that we’d noticed this in Vang Vieng) and everything shut around 9pm. A party town Luang Prabang was not. But then there was something magical about wandering early back to our hostel along silent, misty streets.
Years later, when I read George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ – the ultimate expat book – I immediately used Luang Prabang to imagine the fictional Kyauktada. It just had that feel, despite being an ancient capital and fairly large city, of being a sleepy outpost at the end of the world.
Something that I had completely forgotten about until I went back through the photos of this trip was the afternoon that we spent swimming in a series of waterfalls, a short tuk-tuk trip out of the city centre. Again I couldn’t resist the rope-swing (above), although there were no waterside bars to help with Dutch courage. At one point it started to pour with rain, and we found tonnes of leeches on our legs while drying off, but it was all so incredibly exotic and tropical that we didn’t care.
But then, as an aside, our tuk-tuk back to the city took us on a detour – tuk-tuk drivers do enjoy taking it upon themselves to act as ad-hoc tour guides – past a tribal village. By this point, after a lot of travelling in the north of Thailand we were well aware that ‘tribal village’ often meant ‘shacks in a clearing with chickens running loose while children beg’. This time was no different – and we didn’t stay long. Long enough, however, to enjoy watching a group of Australians (above) roam the village, snapping incredibly close-up shots of the kids (and chickens), and generally behaving like voyeuristic weirdos. At one point – captured in the above picture – the woman crouching was offering a sweet to the little girl in front of her but withholding it for several minutes until her boyfriend had got his camera ready to capture her moment of selflessness for posterity. Not that there was anything particularly unusual in this scene – there was always an uneasy sense of trespass when we visited these villages and wandered between people’s washing lines – but looking back on it now this picture does some up the strange and rather uncomfortable relationship the village people had with their Western visitors.
We had intended to leave Luang Prabang and cross over into Vietnam by overnight bus. A local travel agent sold us a ticket to Hanoi telling us that it was a very picturesque, 16-hour journey. We did wonder if 16 hours on an overnight bus might be stretching it slightly but we were, as I mentioned earlier, accustomed to the luxurious Thai-version of overnight bus and we thought it would be an ‘experience’. When you’re 21 it’s all about the ‘experience’. And so, one balmy early April evening, we turned up to wait for our border-bound bus.
The bus was late, but then everything was late in Laos. Late enough, though, to have us nervously wondering. Lots of local buses – that looked much like red, US style school buses – came and went from the station. But nothing that looked in any way equipped enough for a 16-hour international journey. And then one of the red school buses pulled in next to us. On the roof, under a tarpaulin, bags were piled upon bags piled upon bags, with a man sat astride them like a mahout upon his elephant. Except this mahout had a gun. The conductor started gesturing for us to get on and, as the situation dawned, we looked inside the bus. There was no room. Not simply no seats; but no room. People were already standing right along the aisle and hanging out the doors. It looked genuinely impossible to fit one of us on – let alone six. But they tried. The conductor, who also had a rifle swinging from under his coat, started clearing a path while his colleague began launching our backpacks onto the roof. I was maybe the third onto the bus and got no further than the driver’s seat. The other three behind me never made it on. Ahead of us, one of my companions had already started having a panic attack and fair enough – I’ve braved the Hong Kong MTR at rush hour and still never seen a scene more sardine-like than this. The thought of a half-hour journey on this vehicle was scary. The thought of 16 hours was truly horrifying. But the worst bit of it all was the locals who’d already reserved precious seats trying to get up and offer them to us – to these rich foreigners who were staring at their bus in shock and revulsion. I’m still touched by that gesture. But we backed our way off, had our bags returned by the weary mahout, and ran to book the next plane to Hanoi.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we’d braved the bus to Hanoi. That evening, after begging our hostel for another night’s stay, we researched the overnight journey from Luang Prabang on a painfully slow internet connection. The results that came back included tales of massive delays, midnight plunges down ravines and (seriously)… highwaymen. Yes, Dick Turpin still haunts the highways of Laos. That explained the rifles at least. But then I wonder if all the people on that bus were actually heading for Vietnam… Perhaps if we’d gritted it out for an hour or so everyone would have got off at the local IKEA and we’d have had the bus to ourselves for the next 15. We’ll never know. The next morning we boarded a plane to Hanoi and bade farewell to Laos.
It was fitting that our attempts to reach Vietnam took an almost disastrous turn. I should state right here, contrary to what I will henceforth go on to write, that I loved Vietnam. But Jesus – what a crazy country. Upon arriving at the airport, our taxi driver pulled the old trick of completely disregarding our directions and choosing a ‘very nice’ hotel for us – that cost a bomb and was miles outside the city centre. And this seemed to set the tone for our three-week stay in Vietnam. We were basically walking dollar signs.
But, while I won’t hear a bad word said against the ‘Nam, I confess that I struggled to fall in love with Hanoi. After the laid-back bliss of Laos, and Luang Prabang especially, Hanoi was a noisy, fumey, dirty mega-city. And the scooters. Oh, the scooters. The way their little engines and exhausts bored their way into your brain. Every pedestrian crossing was flanked by a wall of revving scooters, often with families of four, or huge wide-screen TVs, or fridges, perched on the back.
But I did like the feel of the place. The architecture was even more European than Vientiane, with old colonial style tenements providing a big contrast to the Thai cities that we had spent the previous months in. After finding a second hotel that was more conveniently located and more reasonably priced, we spent a couple of days in the capital of Vietnam. We gorged on baguettes for lunch and pho noodles for dinner. We drank Saigon Beer (no Beer Lao but still highly recommended) in tiny bars and tried to avoid the dog meat markets. And we planned our route through this fascinating new country, starting with a journey to Sapa, way up on the Chinese border.
To be continued…