After a week on the open road through Northern Vietnam, with the wind in our hair and the sun on our backs, we arrived back in Hanoi and boarded a cramped sleeper bus to Laos. Returning to a backpacker's reality. Not only would we be laying horizontally for the next 26-ish hours because the seats on this bus are permanently reclined and there is no head space to even sit up if you wanted to, but to top it all off, the back of the bus was jam-packed with boxes of chocolate chip cookies and fans...??? South East Asia randomness in full effect. So that means, the toilet was completely blocked for the next days' journey and we were at the complete mercy of the driver deciding when we could pee. In adding to this hopeless tunnel of 26 hour dreadfulness, there was at least 500lbs of cookies that we were quite literally laying on top of that we couldn’t eat (being hungry next to delicious food you can’t have... probably worse torture than holding your bladder.)
Hayden, Carter and I climbed up to claim the very last top-bunk seats and because of the boxes that were packed onto the bus, it felt like we had more room to sprawl out rather than being cramped into the single seat. This was definitely a bit of a bonus when Carter, a 6’4 Westerner, is trying fit into a 4ft Asian-made bed.
Are you thinking “how the hell did you guys survive a 26 hour bus ride?!” Well, that was my exact thoughts boarding this thing. However, it ended up not being so bad (for me, who can sleep ANYWHERE). If it were Carter or Hayden writing this blog, it may be portrayed in a completely different way. The best part of this entire experience? No one expelled any bodily fluid on/in/ or around the bus (that we know of anyways)!
We arrived into Luang Prabang late at night and in the rain, so the first-impression experience was dampened (get the joke?) but we could still see how beautiful this city would be in the daylight. We could see the French-colonial inspired buildings, the bustling night market and street food vendors that were out and around the town square.
Luang Prabang has a very rich history as it was the old capital of Laos. It has since been replaced by Vientiane but Luang Prabang remains a world heritage site as per UNESCO. I think because of this there was an ease of navigating through the city. There were standardized signs with both Laos and English written on it and all the signs for the temples and important structures through out the city had an English explanation of it's history and significance (which we rarely came across in Vietnam). Only as recently as 2003, tourists were just allowed back into Laos after it became a communist country. Tourists were only permitted to visit the three major cities: Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Vieng Vang. Now, Luang Prabang is known as the spiritual heart of the country and even visiting it for a few days, you can definitely feel why.
In the morning, the views and city far exceeded our expectations. We wandered a little to find another hostel and got to see more of what the city had to offer. The streets are narrow and wind in and around the city with the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers joining one another at the centre. There are ancient temples and wats scattered through the city, in amongst the busy market street and on top of the Phou Si mountain across the river.
We came upon the main walking street during the day, this is where I truly saw the beauty of Laos. There was French colonial influence in many of the buildings and the Main Street reminded me a bit of the French quarter of New Orleans. Not only were the buildings themselves old and charmingly beautiful but so much beauty came from all of the merchants and their handcrafted artisan scarfs, tapestry’s, table runners, dresses, stuffed animals and trinkets made from retrieved bomb fragments, that filled these buildings and shops. Everything had a story behind it; what village made it, who made it, why it was special. This is when I fell in love with the city... and probably the entire country.
Onto my favourite topic, FOOD. There is a heavy Thai influence in Laos food(our favourite). Our first meal was from a local little hole in the wall place where the owners' 10 year old son took our order because he was the only one in the family who could speak English. We all had an amazing variation of a curry & rice dish (I am salivating right now writing about it.) I had a vegetable curry, on my plate came a huge portion of mixed *regular* vegetables, rather than a plate of sautéed green bitter lettuce I normally received in Vietnam anytime I ordered anything vegetable-related. But whether the restaurants are completely local or catered to tourists, you will find something you could eat your way into a food coma with.
There is also a pedestrian night market that shuts down the Main Street from 5pm to 10pm every single night that is simply INCREDIBLE. It’s the best night market I have seen based on the absolutely stunning and beautiful artistry that goes into these tapestry and crafts...and the food. The stalls and vendors went on for miles, you could easily spend the 5 hours it was open going from start to finish, wandering and browsing everything the market had to offer. But it didn’t stop there, the market also trickled down through side streets as well. We ended up turning into a crack in the wall (it was obviously bigger than a crack but definitely much smaller than a side street) and stumbled upon the best looking street food (and all you can eat stations) that we have seen and eaten to date. Vietnam has a good rep for street food but this has it beat 100%! To top it all of it was extremely cheap.
Here are some of the paintings, scarves, jewellery, etc, etc. You name it, Luang Prabang night market has it and I probably loved it:
On the morning of December 29th, we woke up before sunrise at 5:45am and got out to the Main Street to witness the daily Alms Giving Ceremony. This is where the local monks from 45 neighboring temples walk through town silently and collect offerings (food & money) from the locals (and some tourists). There is supposedly over 200 monks who participate daily in this ceremony. When we got to the Main Street, unfortunately big white tourist vans out numbered the monks that were lining the street. The night before, I read rules and etiquette of the ceremony for tourist and spectators: no showing your chest, shoulders or legs, be quiet and respectful, do NOT follow the progression, do NOT interrupt the monks or offerers, and if you are going to take photos have no flash, and keep a respectable distance away. Well, it seems as though we were the only one who read this because there were tourists right in the monks face and running along side them to get the “perfect” shot, squeezing in beside them with their stupid selfie sticks. It tainted the experience for us, it's tough to stand by and watch so many people ignore proper etiquette during cultural traditions in order to fulfill their own needs, but it's reality unfortunately. We then left and turned down a side street, as we did a we came across a hundred monks walking in silence, uninterrupted by little to no tourists, and for us, that was the beautifully peaceful moment definitely worth getting up for. The monks were not only collecting food in their baskets, but also giving back to the poor of the community and to the elementary schools for the kids to have lunch. If I understand correctly; the locals will give to monks for good karma and a good after life when they are reincarnated. And the monks will share with those who are in need, out of duty. I don't think we could have ever captured the essence of this ceremony, with the monks walking in precession, in silence, with the sun's light growing gradually around them but here are the two pictures we took to try...
We then climbed Mt Pousi right after sun rise, it was a beautiful 360 view of the entire city because of it's central location. When we were on top, I was surprised to see how LP sprawled much bigger than I thought it did on either side of the river. We were also lucky enough to see monks return back to their respective temples to have their one meal of the day, thanks to the alms ceremony and the giving locals of LP.
Since we were up at dawns crack, we had the rest of the day to travel to Nong Khiaw, a small village 3.5 hours north of LP. The village itself is settled on both sides of the Nam Ou river and is connected by a big beautiful bridge that was built during the war. The left side of the bridge is the original village, where the residents live and local businesses are. To the right of the bridge is more built up to accommodate the small portion of travellers, with river side bungalows, guest homes and restaurants. The village is in between two high mountains, both of which you can climb to view points. One is best for sunrise, which we climbed (more of that to follow). And the other for sunset. I am sure they have names but I didn't retain this information!
Our first full day in Nong Khiaw, we took a day tour with Mr Mang and NK Adventures. We took his riverboat and cruised up the river for 2 hours to his village known for making cotton and silk tapestries. I bought a big mustard yellow hand woven blanket and Carter bought a beautiful scarf from a little lady who was sitting outside of her house weaving more pieces. It was a great feeling to support these very real people, creating these pieces of art with their own hands, rather than buying it from much larger shops in the city who buy them in bulk from small villages like this one.
We also dropped in on a school, even though it was Saturday, there were many kids playing in the school yard. The boys had a super competitive game of pétanque (similar to bocci ball) going on! Our favourite was definitely the score keeper.
The next village, Muang Ngoi, was bigger than the last and also had some infrastructure to support little travellers. Still, their main road was only one kilometre, and was made entirely of dirt. Bombs from the war were laying around everywhere in this village. A devastating fact about Laos is that it's the most bombed country in the history of the world "From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years". Even today, there are foreign specialist teams who work in Laos teaching to safely deal with bombs if they come across any undetonated bombs (which are still being discovered today). In this village, they were using them as seats, garden decoration, and restaurant signage. The ones that gave me goosebumps had been painted by locals with flowers and peace signs. It was pretty surreal and saddening to see how normalized they have become.
We walked into a home, with a lady boiling rice to make the "Laos Laos". This is what this village is known for, their home-brewed rice whiskey. We were all given a sample shot and of course, the boys were sold, they bought a litre water bottle full for $3.00 and that was their alcohol for NYE the next day. Again, supporting the local community any way we can... ;)
New Years Eve Day. We did another hike to the highest viewpoint over the village right before sunset. It took us 45 minutes to reach the little wooden hut that sat above the entire lush landscape. This was one of the better climbs we have done thus far; the lush and vast landscape really helped us to understand how 'wild' and untamed Laos still is. If you are thinking about visiting Laos, I would really recommend going sooner than later before mass tourism really sets in. Carter got some incredible drone shots which almost captures what we were looking over:
After we got back down, we were invited to a big celebration hosted by the regions governor. This New Years celebration would be complete with a river boat float, ethnic beauty pageant and fireworks (even though Laos real New Years is in April). The ethnic beauty pageant with all local village girls from neighbouring districts coming together for a friendly competition. We arrived in the outdoor “stadium” (if you refer to the previous drone photos you can see the big dirt football pitch where it was hosted) at 7pm to grab our seats and some Beer Lao. We were joined by an Australian and Dutch couple and the show started. About 40 girls, dressed brilliantly in their tribe’s formal and or cultural wear, come out to the stage dancing. The crowd goes absolutely bonkers - all of a sudden hundreds of Laotians are on their feet dancing, drinking, screaming and hoisting up signs with different numbers on them, cheering for their village representative. Well, it didn’t take long for our table to get involved! As soon as Carter stood up and the locals beside us saw a tall white guy enjoying the show, they pushed one of their big signs into his hands and as quickly as that, we were cheering on our girl number 23! Carter's insert: "At one point I went closer to the stage to take a better photo of this hilariously awesome event as were were at a table near the back, people were so proud of their villages candidate, most women were very seriously screaming for their local girl and very focused on cheering, the men were more just drunk and having a blast with us and their buddies. So as I got close to the crowded front area I ran into a woman who was also carrying a #23 sign, I then realized there were about 10 other women with her cheering for #23, they saw me and all started laughing. They grabbed me and handed me a bouquet of flowers, pointed at the stage and gave me a push to start walking. I realized there was a huge open walk way where some people were giving gifts to their candidates. As I am heading up with ALL eyes on me from every angle, the commentator says a whole bunch of words in Laotian and it ends with 23 (because I'm now the massive white guy walking all alone towards stage holding the #23 sign and the flowers.) When I get to the stage #23 steps forward from the line of young ladies and crouches down to collect her gift, says "khob chai le lai" to which I say "bring it home 2-3!" It was a great moment I will never forget. Shortly after I work my way back through the huge crowed to our table of drunken friends and they're all standing on chairs in a circle laughing/holding beer lao and #23 signs. I proudly ask if they saw me get hand picked to deliver our girl her flowers, and they all died laughing because they weren't watching and didn't believe me. As far as I am concerned #23 and I will always remember the moment we had on NYE!!."
That's Carter's claim to fame in Laos, the moment he was essentially a druken Laotian flower girl! The contestants danced... and they danced... And they danced... we drank... and we drank... and we drank. They sang... and they sang... and they sang. We shared shots of the rice whiskey and tried to keep up with the enthusiasm and partying of the locals.
The hour was 11pm and the pageant was still going on. We didn’t really have any idea what was going on at that point... and then all of a sudden, a traditional dance broke out that we were invited up for. I WISH I captured Carter dancing up there alone for the first 2 minutes, he was a good 2 feet taller than everyone else, just bobbing around in a circle, snapping his fingers and two-stepping his feet; it took me the full few minutes to stop laughing and join him. Carter and I tried to mimic the moves of the locals as best we could but were probably making a fool of ourselves. Then at 10 seconds to midnight our table, and our table only, started yelling the countdown. Everyone stared at us and just watched as we yelled 3, 2, 1... I guess the actual countdown is just a western tradition?? We yelled Happy New Year to one another, kissed, hugged, and then to our surprise, the sky lit up with fireworks surrounding both sides of us and because of the lit up sky, you could see the huge mountains that towered over us and the stars peeking through the sky. It was spectacular! Happy 2018!!
We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend the last of 2017 in a remote village in northern Laos, what a life we are living! Cheers to more in 2018.
As we have been making our way up the coast of Vietnam we have encountered many travellers. In meeting so many it's nice to chat and discuss places they have been and recommend, as well as, give them our recommendations in return. In some of these discussions we discovered an increasingly popular way to see the whole country is to buy/rent a motorbike and drive from one side of the country to the other. Some of the people we met were on their journey from North to South Vietnam and told us how incredibly beautiful the most northern part of Vietnam is, and that we couldn't miss it. One dutch traveller, Martin, told us he motorcycles through Europe often and specifically came to Vietnam to make this trip on motorcycle; he recommended a few spots in the far north that were his highlight routes and even told us after motorcycling the north, he's not sure he will ever top that experience in his life. Another Aussie we met had been planning a motorbike trip to Vietnam for almost a year, his reason for being in Vietnam was entirety dedicated to tackling as many roads through the northern mountains stopping in little towns and villages along the way to rest his head. After hearing these stories we were obviously sold on doing something similar in the North, and made sure we allocated at least a week for this loop. The route would start in major northern city Hanoi and end back in Hanoi. After researching some local motorbike rental shops we ended up at one called Phung Motorcycles and they were more than helpful getting us set up to roll. We tested two bikes (Hayden on his own and Brittany and I on one) they even let us leave our huge 65L backpacks in a safe room above their shop. So we strapped only the essentials to the back of our respective rides and put on a few layers of our warmest clothes, as it was 16 degrees in Hanoi at the time. We had several conversations with some locals in Hanoi that we had planned to rip up north and do this loop and some of the feedback was "you must be very brave, north Vietnam very cold" and "I would not go up north this time of year because I'm already too cold in Hanoi" I took the comments with a grain of salt as I am a abnormally large Canadian man, right? Within two hours of our first leg of the trip up to Ha Giang, I had already pulled over on two separate occasions to buy wool gloves and a thick jacket fit for a harsh Canadian winter. All for 230,000 Vietnam Dong or $13.00 CAD. Britters being the smart woman she is bought a nice comfy knock off North Face in Hanoi before leaving for $18 CAD. We spent time on major express ways, smaller highways, two lane highways and one lane roads.. All filled with tour busses, local busses, 18 wheelers rigs, overloaded dump trucks, and cement trucks driving way to fast using the loudest/most frightening horns ever in which they ALWAYS use right as they blow past you or while they're overtaking another truck coming right at you...in your lane. Let's just say that a misty shit shower from a speedy tour bus (see previous blog post) was likely the least of my worries. These vehicles absolutely run the roads of Vietnam and you slow down/squeeze as far onto the shoulder as possible when they approach...or die. On top of this you also need to use what's left of your focus to avoid; stray dogs, chickens crossing the road (seriously why do the chickens need to cross the road, this age old joke still a complete mystery to me), water buffalo, tiny children on massive bicycles, tiny children running down the road unsupervised, sparatic roosters (I hit one), pot holes, people standing in the middle of traffic, loose gravel, wet spots (almost the death of Hayden) and pigs. Lastly, other motorbikes are weaving through traffic like bees; some filled with families of up to 5, strapped with massive living/dead pigs, overloaded boxes, living dogs, fruit baskets, and some (for some strange reason) with over 50 pigeons, ducks or chicken tied down.
So yeah, to say our first 310km trip was mentally taxing would be an understatement. However, equally fasincating to see this type of lifestyle and take part in it as safely as possible (this part is for all the moms reading this)
It wouldn't be a true South East Asian motorbike experience without any sort of motorbike trouble so, of course, we spent about 3 hours in local mechanic shops on the first day. Hayden's bike was first to give when the back tire popped and required a new one.
Almost an hour before sunset Ruby's back spokes began to snap causing our tire to wobble more and more until we were unable to drive any further. Luckily we pulled over beside a small house where a lady was outside, we used Google Translate to get the point across we needed a mechanic, she calls her husband outside and he opens his garage, sure enough he's the small village's mechanic, wild luck. He fixed the spokes well enough to get to Ha Giang and we paid him for his help.
Although we had to ride in the dark for the last two hours, in roughly 7 degrees Celsius, we made it to Ha Giang. First day taking on the wild north: departed Hanoi at 0930 and arrived Ha Giang at 1945. The next morning we had roughly 150km to get to the neighbouring big town of Dong Van. Doesn't seem too bad compared to the day before, however, when the roads look like this...
150km can quikly turn into a full day adventure. We put on every layer of clothing we brought with us and hit the road. Sorry wait, Ruby decided to act up again and 5 more spokes had snapped off, so we took her into the shop in the early morning.
This is actually a great segway into why we named her Ruby. She was a Red Yahmaha Sirius and this being our second time with her in the shop on our second day...I dropped a "Yeah, more like a Yahmaha R U Sirius?!" so, came to be, Ruby Ursula Sirius. Ha Giang to Dong Van was an unbelievable cruise, the roads up there are a lot more secluded and less travelled. We would still come across trucks and smaller busses, typically transferring locals through some of the northern towns and villages. However, completely peaceful and worry free in comparison to the roads to Ha Giang. We were able to not only take our time and pull over for the occasional photo but we were able to have the narrow road to ourselves, for sometimes 10km at a time. Making it easy to enjoy the surrounding mountain views and wave to the villagers.
One point during the trip we hit a beautiful winding road that curved up the mountain. We pulled over to fly the drone and capture a birds eye view and were immediately greeted by local children from a nearby village. Kids love drones regardless of where you are but these kids were seeing one for the first time. We had a great time meeting them and laughed as they just played and giggled, we even posed for a few photos together. After that the remaining ride to Dong Van was up and down mountains, the scenery was hard to believe.
The next morning was the portion of the journey I was most looking forward to, based on our conversations with other travellers. The first 20km from Dong Van to Bao Lac, the Ma Pi Leng Pass. As soon as we climbed the mountain leaving Dong Van we turned the corner to one of, if not, the most beautiful place I've ever been in my life. An absolutely massive canyon tearing through the middle of a mountain range with sharp & rolling peaks, with the most carefully constructed little road winding through it all. This 20km stretch took us about an hour and a half since every corner we rounded involved pulling over to truly absorb it all. And I mean let's be real, to snap some of the hottest profile pics ever seized! Photo shoot was 'lit' as the young kids would say. This was definitely the most beautiful road I've ever been on, uncontested.
Over the next few days the views changed drastically, but were all equally mind blowing. The further we went north east the smaller the villages and the roads became. Huge smiles and waves from the hardworking farmers we passed and all the giggles from the curious children we stopped to play with. We ate the best Pho we've ever eaten (and we had a lot to compare) in a tiny village where water buffalo roamed the dirt roads and the man & woman who made it for us sat by and watched us eat to ensure we enjoyed it. We came across a tiny elementary school with maybe 4 classrooms amongst another mountain range and decided to make a pit stop. We were welcomed with smiles by the teacher into one classroom where they seemed to be doing arts and crafts, math and language all within the same classroom. Not even 5 minutes had passed before children from all classrooms had run over and eventually the entire school was surrounding the classroom we were in. We laughed and high fived some kids while others hid behind friends...laughed, nervously ran over to slap Britt's or Hayden's hand and then ran away again laughing. One teacher spoke enough English to inform us we were 7km from China and that the students don't learn English, because there are no teachers nearby who know enough English. This was just another stop that made this trip so special.
One of our final stops was a full day trip out to Thac Ban Giac Waterfall, on the boarder of Vietnam and China. This is the 4th largest waterfall on an international boarder in the world, behind Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls and Iguazu Falls... such a incredible spot that had once again blown us away.
I even got the drone out and flew it across to China just to capture this photo from this angle. I will admit there were brief moments of anxiety thinking it may get shot down or have some sort of short circuit crossing a barrier into China. All went according to plan however.
From Cao Bang we made our last trip down to Hanoi which was another impressive push, but made it happen with an early start at 0700, arriving at 1500.
The three of us were not entirely sure what to expect from this northern loop adventure. We heard beautiful views, "motorcycle heaven", amazing people, cheap local food, rustic accommodations, rural Vietnam, scary/dangerous driving at times, rough roads at times, and one thing for sure was cold weather and horrific rain. After our experience we encountered every single one of those things except for the horrific rain thankfully, we went for it well knowing it could have been miserable driving in 5-15'C wet conditions, and it blew away our expectations. Aside from the early morning chill, we spent a week driving in the sunshine. We collectively agree that this journey from Hanoi around the north of Vietnam back to Hanoi, was the greatest week of our lives. I will sign off with some more photos, hope you enjoy.
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!