We caught our first glimpses of Hanoi as we sped through the evening darkness towards our hotel. Immediately I was captivated by the city and its leafy streets stuffed with people, illuminated by street lamps connected by thick ribbons of tangled electrical wires. I watched the towering skyscrapers and colonial houses go by and longed to step into the inviting orange glow of the cafes and explore the snaking laneways. By the time we reached our hotel, Hanoi had already stolen a piece of my heart. Although we spent just six days in the city altogether, Hanoi was without a doubt one of our Vietnam highlights.
One of the things we can’t quite get used to in Asia is the corruption which forms an ordinary part of everyday life here. From knock-off goods to rigged taxi meters and other tourist scams, travelling is a whole different ball game here compared to in regulation-crazy Europe. While we’re now resigned to the fact that we’ll be charged tourist prices everywhere we go, we’ve found that making overland border crossings in South-East Asia presents some of the most frustrating examples of corruption.
So far, Laos has been our cheapest country to travel in, costing nearly £5 less per day than its closest rival Indonesia. We spent 44 days travelling in Laos altogether; about four weeks during November in the north of the country and another two weeks during February in the south. Overall, we had quite a chilled out and relaxed time in Laid-Back Laos, visiting plenty of waterfalls and temples and although the country is land-locked, we still managed to find time to see some islands! Here's what we spent during our six-week stay in Laos.
Despite being so close to Thailand, Laos is a whole different animal when it comes to getting around. For a start, there are no trains in Laos, the roads are very often just dirt paths and most buses are rickety, old and crammed with locals, luggage and livestock. We had some of our worst journeys while travelling in Laos, here’s how we got around the country.
After our peaceful stay in Four Thousand Islands (minus the stomach aches), we had some time to kill before we were allowed back into Thailand. According to our Lonely Planet, the quiet, colonial town of Pakse seemed like the ideal place to hang out for a while before hopping over the border – how wrong we were.
One of the best ways to catch a glimpse of life in Asia is to take a ride in a tuk tuk. As your driver speeds dangerously and weaves through stationary traffic you’ll experience the true sights, sounds and smells of Asia. It’s likely that you’ll be assaulted with the smell of exhaust fumes, rubbish rotting in the sun, meat cooking on open fires, incense and fruits from market stalls; your ears will be filled with the sounds of beeping horns, the calls of market sellers, the thrum of music from nearby shops, monks chanting, the crowing of roosters and the barks of stray dogs.
Just as we were about to abandon ship, the engine of our crowded longboat sputtered to life and we set off across the moss-coloured surface of the Mekong, skirting around tiny grass-topped mounds. In less than ten minutes we hit the shore of Don Det with a soft bump and disembarked, trudging up the sandbank onto the one dusty road that runs the circumference of the island. We had arrived in Si Phan Don, also known as Four Thousand Islands, the area in southern Laos where the Mekong River is at its widest, surrounding hundreds of sandy islets and some larger inhabited islands.
Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a cave, surrounded by cold rock and the sound of bombs crashing just metres away from you? How would it feel to creep out after nightfall to farm and cook while your children studied in an underground school? Well, that’s exactly how thousands of people lived during the American bombing campaign in Laos – Andrew and I took a trip to the historic caves in the north of the country to learn more.
Thousands of heavy stone jars, up to three metres tall, litter the green and yellow plains of Xieng Khouang in Laos. They’ve been there for thousands of years, grouped together in clusters spread across 90 different sites, their purpose shrouded in mystery. For me they evoke images of Stonehenge, a cluster of ancient pillars assembled in a circular pattern, located back in England. Many people believe Stonehenge was built to serve as a clock or tool to calculate the arrival of solstice, while others think it was an ancient burial ground or important spiritual area. Similar mysteries surround the Plain of Jars in Laos.