In Hoi An we spent a lot of time trying to work out how to cross the border in to Laos and get to Vientiane, preferably without having to stop over night in a random small border town. We were quite unsuccessful – we asked at 5 different travel desks – and got 5 different answers….we learned that it would take us somewhere between 12 and 27 hours, that we may or may not get a sleeper bus…and that the buses could stop any number of times, wherever they felt like it, and we would maybe not be able to stay on the same bus the whole way. Helpful. But we had to go by bus – there aren’t any trains heading that way and if we flew it would cost a fortune. So we bit the bullet and booked through our guesthouse who told us that if we left in the morning then the bus would definitely get us to Vientiane the same day and not real late at night.
The next morning we got up early, ready to catch our bus. Jas tried to grab some breakie first, but was dragged away by our driver who rushed us in to the car muttering “small time, small time” a lot. We then drove around the corner to pick up a Spanish guy who turned our to be our only English speaking friend for the next 27 hours or so. It was about a 40 minutes drive to Danag, and there our guy dropped the 3 of us off at the bus station. After about 5 minutes of standing around, we were all loaded onto a bus – which we sat in for the next hour and a half without it moving! On the plus side, it was a sleeper bus, and a pretty comfy one at that. Even Jas wasn’t too uncomfortable (it’s much better being a little Asian-sized person like me when travelling long distances on Asian buses and trains). By just after 9 am (over 2 hours after we left our hotel) the driver had managed to fill the bus with locals and we were on the road. It was all going well for a couple hours, until we pulled over to the side of the road, where the driver and a couple of his mates decided to change out the alternator (this is what Jas told me they were doing anyway – I don’t know what an alternator is). But we were comfy on the bus and not overly concerned, so it wasn’t too bad and an hour so later we were moving again. Next stop was the border crossing. Not quite so smooth. First we queued to get out of Vietnam, which was ordeal free, but slow because were right at the back – mostly because no one spoke English, so by the time we realised we were at the border, everyone else had already grabbed their passports and jumped off! Once we were stamped we wandered over to what we hoped was the Laos entry point (our bus and all of the others, apart from Spanish guy who was clinging to us, had disappeared). Once over, we spotted another passport office and attempted to enter Laos (we also spotted our bus, and thankfully it was waiting for us). This was by far the most confusing point. The passport checker people wouldn’t look at our passports until we had a visa and they repeatedly shouted at us to go to the visa desk, even though every time we told them that there was no one there. Eventually they cottoned on and got on their mobiles to work out where visa guy was and a few minutes later he turned up, we got our forms and eventually we got our stamps and were free to go. Drama over. We carried on with the journey, stopping only for a particularly nasty buffet style dinner at a wooden shack somewhere in southern Laos. At around 2 am, we arrived in Vientaine (or we guessed we were, no one spoke much English, but they pulled our bags of the bus and then wouldn’t let us back on after we got out to investigate). Once safely in a tuk tuk, we had a chat to the driver, who did speak a little English, and he told us that the bus to Vang Vien (where we were headed) left at 5am and he could take us straight to the bus terminal, instead of us having to spend a night in the city. Bonus! At the bus station it was completely dead, so we settled in with our bags (Spaniard still in tow!) and waited. Turns out that the guy was actually telling us that the bus station opened at 5, but through broken English with some of the drivers, we worked out that our bus was at 6.30 and would only take another 3 or 4 hours to reach Vang Vien. So at 6am, we jumped on the bus and both fell fast asleep! Waking up an hour or so later, the sun was up and we were traveling along a pretty little country road hoping that we had fallen asleep on the right bus and that our luggage was still on it! Some road signs told us were heading in the right direction, so we figured it was all good ☺
At 10 am, 27 hours after leaving Hoi An, we arrived in Vang Vien and wandered until we found a cheap but nice guesthouse and settled in. Our room had big windows that had the most amazing view looking out over the river to the mountains. Not bad for 8 bucks a night! After a bit of a nap, it was time for exploring. Vang Vien is a strange place, it’s hard to know whether to love it or hate it. It’s in the most picturesque spot, very green with huge steep mountains in the background. It’s also completely over run with backpackers. We saw far more white faces than local ones and all the bars sold more Western food than Laos food and most showed episodes of friends and family guy non stop. But there is also so much to do there and it’s soooo chilled out, so we decided to love it, watched lots of friends and ended up staying for 4 days!
On the second day, after we had recovered from the huge journey, we decided it was time for some tubing. So we jumped on on a tuk tuk van to head up stream, and the tubing was amazing!!! Floating down the river, each side was covered in wooden bars, with slides and rope swings. The first bar was full and rowdy, so we floated on down to the third one, where the man at the bar threw out a bottle on a rope for us to catch and dragged us in. Awesome! And better yet, we had it to ourselves….for about 3 minutes anyway!
We had heard about the river bars (and seen videos) the night before and were a bit gutted, because instead of the tranquil river floating, beer drinking experience we had imagined – it looked more like a river version of the full moon party. Luckily, once we were on the river, we worked out that the rowdy crowds stayed at the first few bars for ages, then started to float down to the further bars, and instead of floating the last bar-free couple of km’s back to town – they caught a tuk tuk. So we just made sure to stay one bar ahead of the crowds, and had a brilliant day drinking buckets, floating, and chatting to everyone around us.
At our second bar, we were happily sat drinking our whiskey bucket, when we noticed that the bottle thrower guys were going mad trying to catch something in the river. A minute later, a snake came flying out in to the air and landed about a metre away from us!!!! Turns out that was what they were trying to catch, and they thought the best way to do it was to get their hands underneath it and flip it up in to the bar. One guy quickly caught it before had a chance to move and then started trying to get it in to a bottle. So that’s how they make the snake wine!
At 4, we decided we had better leave the bars and head off in our tubes because we had been told that the last part of the river takes about an hour and a half and we wanted to get back to town before dark. A fraction of the people tubing actually go the whole way, so we had a peaceful, relaxing tube down the river, chatting away to people we passed/or that passed us.
The following day we got up and hired a couple of bikes so that we could head towards the mountains and check out some caves. We hadn’t factored in the lack of roads….which made cycling kind of difficult! We peddled over the bamboo bridge across the river and followed some signs for the caves. Then the road stopped. We were attempting to cycle over a dried up river bed full of big cobbles – quite painful on the boobs with no sports bra, haha! So we gave up and walked the rest of the way. At the caves, there was only one other couple there – French I think. So we headed in with the guide and it was so not what we expected. Forget your nice big Margaret River caves, with lights and steps and ladders and walkways. This crazy old dude gave us a head lamp each, and after giving some flowers to Buddah, he took us on the most mental cave tour ever! He had us crawling through tiny spaces, at first upright and sideways, then on our hands and knees, and finally he had us lying flat on the ground going through a space I was sure we were going to get stuck in, with room only to drag ourselves along army style using our arms!! It was quite unique! And afterwards we were filthy. After all that we decided it was time to abandon the healthiness of bikes and go get pancakes.
The next morning we were on a group tour, again with just one other couple, who were again, French. Our first stop was elephant cave, which was quite a small cave with a sleeping Buddah in it (it was called elephant cave because of a naturally elephant shaped rock). Next was cave tubing, which was more scary than fun. We put on head torches (which worked on and off), jumped in to tubes and pulled ourselves along a rope in to the cave. After a while, the rope ran out and we had to splash our way the last 20m to the end of the cave and back (Jas did the swimming, while I clung on to him hoping we wouldn’t get eaten by a giant cave dwelling fish). After that trauma we had a tasty lunch during which we here harassed by ducks and chickens wanting our food. The highlight of the day was when one of the biggest ducks decided to try and get Jas’ attention by nipping him on the bum!!!! After lunch we spent the afternoon kayaking down the river, past all the early bars and tubers, to stop at one of the bars further down the river for a beer, before carrying on back to the village.
The next day we headed on to Luang Prabang, which is a Unesco world heritage site. It’s the prettiest little town I’ve ever seen, with lots of European-looking old buildings and millions of temples. It took us quite a while to find accommodation but we eventually found a really pretty little guesthouse, which was nice and close to both the river and the centre of town.
The centre of Luang Prabang has a huge night market that closes the main streets and takes over all the little lanes. It was so pretty, each stall lit up by heaps of colourful lanterns. For dinner we went to the food stalls and ate rice and noodles with some chicken on a stick. By far the best food in Laos so far.
The next day we wandered around the town and beside the river, checking out all the temples and pretty buildings. At night we headed back to the market, where we had even tastier food than the day before.
Our next stop is Huay Xia which is where we start the Gibbon Experience, which sounds incredible. We decided to take our time getting there, and travel by slow boat. It’ll take us two days, with an overnight stop in a little jungle town called Pak Beng.