Da Nang & Hoi An

After Halong our onward journey took us back to Hanoi to pick up an overnight train south to Da Nang, about halfway down the country on the east coast, the South China Sea.

We definitely think the Vietnamese trains are the best way to travel through the country. Cheap and comfortable, you get a real insight to Vietnam country life when you travel by train, passing by rice paddies and through small towns. We booked our four man sleeper cabin on line, showed our e-ticket and on we went. It was at this point, with the slightly dubious hygiene of the train issued blankets, that our sleeping bag liners came in handy!

Da Nang

After a night on the train we arrived in Da Nang the next day. It was time for us to spend a bit of time in one place, catch up on some school work and check out some of Vietnam’s most famous beaches.

Once one of French Indochina’s biggest five cities and also the city in which American troops first landed during the Vietnam conflict, Da Nang is the biggest city in central Vietnam. It is currently being transformed from a sleepy provincial city to a city on the move and we could see the change taking place before our eyes with all the construction being carried out along the shoreline…

We booked a week at Anisha Homestay (which we highly recommend) to the north of the main hotel strip – a little bit away from the central tourist hustle and bustle and more in the ‘local’ area. Still we had over 20 miles of white sandy beaches and clear waters just a five minute walk away. 

The homestay was superb. Giang, the owner, and all of her family were so kind and friendly, the place was really clean and spacious with a really nice, homely feel. Throughout the week Giang introduced us to a range of Vietnamese food and as a result, we probably tried far more variety than we would have been brave enough to try if we had been left to our own devices! We also loved to walk out to the little street restaurant, that did meat and salad with Vietnamese pancake wraps, and then there was the bakery and its ‘Bahn Mi Op La’ that became a staple stop for us for lunch, the doughnuts, cakes and biscuits were pretty good too…oops!

It was also our first introduction to real Vietnamese beds – they were seriously hard, in true Vietnamese tradition! Having said that, we slept really well on them with no backaches or pains in the morning, so maybe there’s something in it…

The first afternoon on the beach we watched the fishermen with awe as they cast out their fishing nets from the traditional Vietnamese basket boats. An hour or so later we were (willingly) roped in to helping pull the nets back in again. Then a crowd of locals started to gather round and the fishermen swiftly sorted the catch, got their scales out and started selling the fish directly from the beach.

The only down side to the beach in Da Nang is that we got to see the world’s plastic pollution problem first hand. Each day we went to the beach we collected some of the plastic waste that was washing up on the shore. We even started collecting bits of plastic that floated by us in the sea too. It also saddened us, and it felt morally wrong, that the beaches in front of the big hotel resorts were groomed and preened, the plastic waste removed so that nobody in those places had to face up to the reality of what we humans are doing to our oceans, whilst the beaches used by local fisherman for their livelihood and used by the locals for their enjoyment were not given the same priority, and therefore plastic pollution here was more than just evident.

One of our favourite spots for the week was a café in the back streets that did excellent iced Vietnamese coffee. It became our daily post school, pre beach stop off  and was also where we watched locals playing a card game that necessitated slapping the cards down on the table as hard as possible, that we still have no idea how you play!

The other highlight in Da Nang is the Dragon Bridge – a 666m Dragon shaped bridge that at 9pm on the weekends spits fire and water! Everyone comes out to watch, locals and tourists alike – the bridge is definitely a feature not to miss.

Da Nang is a world away from the tourist centres of other Vietnamese cities. You definitely feel you are in ‘real’ Vietnam if you stay here and we would recommend anyone heading to Hoi An not to bypass Da Nang, but maybe stay here for a few days too for a completely different Vietnam experience.

Hoi An

Hoi An is only 29km and yet truly a world away from the modern city of Da Nang. Hoi An is the Yang to Da Nang’s Yin! Another UNESCO heritage site in Vietnam, it is a beautifully preserved ancient town, from where the Cham people controlled the spice trade between the 7th and 10th Centuries. It went on to be an important trading port on the Silk route from the 16th Century to the end of the 18th Century, during which it was settled by various nationalities including the Japanese, Dutch, Chinese and Indians. This melting pot of cultural influences helped develop its unique architecture.

We stayed a short walk from Hoi An’s historic old town in a lovely little homestay with a stunning little pool to cool off in. The area around Hoi An is super flat and the hotel provided bikes free of charge, as with most Hoi An hotels. It was the perfect way to get around and see the area as well as the town.

The Old Town is predominantly pedestrianised, meaning wandering round on foot or by bike is both safe and easy. We took our trusty bikes one day, paid for a tourist ticket that gave us entry into a number of the town’s heritage buildings, museums and a traditional theatre performance, and off we went cycling round to all the major visitor attractions on the list. We managed to cover the Japanese Bridge, the museum of History and Folklore, the museum of Ceramics, the Cantonese Assembly Hall and Gardens, the Old House of Duc An and we squeezed in a traditional dance and music performance at the end. It was the perfect way to to visit and I think we did pretty well!

We also spent our time wandering the streets of the old town, the tailor’s market (which was bitter-sweet given that with four brimming rucksacks and another 10 months to travel we couldn’t fit any of the magnificent made-to-measure clothes in!), the food market where we first tried Hoi An’s famous Cao Lau – the first of many consumed while we were there. And then there was the night market every day from 5.00p.m., across the river bridge on the island. It offers all kinds of treats and delicacies and a particular favourite of ours was the rolled ice-cream. It was just as entertaining to watch it being made as it was to eat it. And of course there was an abundance of silk lanterns and other goods on offer too.

Our stay in Hoi An also coincided with the full moon lantern festival (yes, very proud of myself for having planned that one in!) As we headed down to the riverside after dark, there were people everywhere selling paper lanterns to be lit and floated down the river. Vietnamese tradition sees this as an offering of remembrance and respect for ancestors. Although it did feel a little touristy, and as though the real tradition behind the festival had been replaced with a sense of commercial gain, it was still a very special sight to behold. 

Possibly one of our favourite days, however, took us out of Hoi An’s centre. Before coming to Vietnam, I had romantic visions of peacefully cycling through paddy fields, it seemed to me to be the quintessential Vietnamese experience. The area surrounding Hoi An is flat and full of paddy fields intertwined with waterways heading out to sea. So, we took the bikes out from the hotel again, but this time we headed out to the coast. We weaved our way through the rice paddies and along the road to An Bang beach. This very chilled out place was friendly and welcoming. The waves were quite big, but not too dangerous, so we all had good fun in the water. The beach side bars and restaurants were really reasonably priced and the sun loungers and umbrellas free if you had a drink – it would have been rude not to, right?

So, if you’re heading to Hoi An, don’t bypass Da Nang on your way.  Think about spending a couple of days and seeing two very diverse sides of this beautiful country.

Halong Bay: Getting there & taking a cruise.

Just as with Hanoi, I had reservations about visiting Halong Bay, but for very different reasons. We had heard stories of hundreds of Junk boats all vying for space and time in Halong Bay, taking away from the natural beauty of the place and making it a bit of a tourist trap and to put it plainly, I didn’t want to be disappointed. Thankfully, I can honestly say I most definitely wasn’t!

An example of Vietnamese kindness:

We told the receptionist at our hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter that we wanted to go to Halong Bay on public transport, not an organised tour, as we were going to stay there for a few days. We asked if they could tell us which bus we needed to get to the main bus station, where we could then get a connection to Halong Bay. We couldn’t believe it when he called a friend over who was sitting nearby and who then personally escorted us to the right bus stop, winding through the small streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and out to the main road for about 15 minutes. We were waiting for the catch…but much to our surprise it never came. He was just a helpful young man who liked speaking English and had some spare time. And although we could have made it on our own, it was a much simpler and more interesting experience walking with a local.

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The main bus station

We paid our fare on the city bus and stood with all our baggage as people stared at us smiling, I’m not sure they see many families carrying several rucksacks of varying sizes between them (6 at that point!) and just as we had been told, we got to the main bus station smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that the bus before the one we had wanted to get was only just about to leave. We rocked up to the ticket counter and lo and behold at the counter were 2 of the young travellers we’d shared the night bus from Laos to Vietnam with! Just a couple of days earlier, at Hoa Lo Prison, we had also bumped into a group of young guys that we’d taken the 2 day slow boat to Luang Prabang with…it really is a small world!

Anyway, back to the ticket counter: we asked about the bus to Halong Bay and the lady said, if you’re quick you’ll get the earlier bus, she issued our tickets and then we were given our second personal escort of the day straight out to the bus! Well, we weren’t sure what to expect from the public from what we had read online, and from the fact that so many private tourist transport options were available, but it had to be one of the best buses we’d taken yet – we had huge seats with great leg room, aircon and wifi. A four hour trip including a halfway stop for toilet break and something to eat…all for the princely sum of £4.00 per person!

At the bus station near to Halong Bay we picked up another local bus that dropped us about 300m from our hotel – ok, 3 buses and a bit of planning were involved, but it wasn’t that hard.

The Halong Bay day cruise

Halong Bay itself is a small town, so it didn’t take us too long to look around and check out the prices of the Halong Bay cruises that were on offer everywhere you looked! In the end we opted for the one organised through our hotel as it offered a great package at the most competitive price we had seen.

We were picked up from the hotel early in the morning and taken to the port, where we were given our tickets and shown aboard our Junk boat by our guide. After a short time we set off out across the bay towards the open ocean, which before long opened onto the breathtaking scenery of the tens of dozens of limestone towers and islands protruding magnificently from the sea. It really does have to be seen to be believed!

 

The day cruise included a number of stops. First stop on our cruise was the Sung Sot Cave (Amazing Cave). The Junk boat drops you on the shore of one of the limestone islands and the entrance to an enormous cave, which has some of the most impressive stalactites and stalagmites I’ve ever seen. As you emerge from the cave, the boat is waiting for you at the exit point.

 

Our cruise then continued with a freshly cooked seafood lunch on board the boat, which was superb, as we made our way to the Halong Pearl Farm. Here we got to see the farming process and the harvesting of the pearls.

The final activity, and the icing on the cake for us, was the hour and a half sea kayaking around the towering limestone rocks close to the pearl farm. It really was an unforgettable experience. Halong’s stunning scenery is well deserving of its UNESCO world heritage status and definitely not to be missed if you are visiting northern Vietnam.

 

 

Highlights of Hanoi

 

With just a few days to spend exploring, we only scraped the surface of what Hanoi has to offer, but we tried to make the most of our time. Here are our highlights of this mad but amazing city:

Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Wandering the labyrinth of streets that make up Hanoi’s Old Quarter was one of our favourite things. Seeing the crazy scooters carrying unimaginable loads, the street hawkers offering all kinds of goods, the baskets full of fresh fruits, veggies, pulses, herbs and spices, the carefully balanced baskets being carried on poles. It’s a fantastic place to wander, breathe in Asia (and preferably not the pollution!) and know that you are in the beating heart of the city.

 

Hoa Lo Prison Museum a.k.a. The Hanoi Hilton

A baptism of fire for Vietnamese history, the Hoa Lo Prison is an extremely thought provoking place. Focusing on the Vietnamese struggle for independence from French control in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the prison museum takes you through a series of rooms where prisoners were housed in appalling conditions, shackled to the floor, beaten by guards, held in stockades and even faced the Guillotine.

An unexpected outcome of these unhappy, mistreated people being congregated in one place though, was that it became the perfect place for recruiting resistance fighters. The prison fostered the spread of Vietnamese communism amongst the prisoners, through the word of mouth stories told within its walls.  This was a significant oversight by French colonial powers, particularly when  you consider that at least 4 former Hoa Lo prisoners went on to form part of the North Vietnamese government.

Within the prison are also two rooms dedicated to U.S. POWs, who were held in the prison during the U.S. / Vietnam conflict and who gave it the famous nickname ‘the Hanoi Hilton’. Despite the atrocities of this war, these rooms are a slightly lighter affair than the rest of the prison. The information is, however, presented from the Vietnamese perspective and in a way the authorities would like it to be perceived by the outside world. We on the other hand are not so sure of the real truth.

We really came away from the prison with a much better understanding of the decades of conflict that had hit this nation. I was also impressed with how incensed my children were at the injustice of colonialism and the stupidity of war. This would prove to be a running theme throughout our time in Vietnam…

 

Hao Kiem Lake (The Lake of the Restored Sword) & the Pagoda

By day or by night there was always something to see at Hao Kiem lake. In the relative cool of the morning walking around the edge of the lake, watching people taking art classes, doing Tai Chi, aerobics or running, was a world away from the rest of Hanoi’s mania. Seeing families and friends all spending time together at the lake, partaking in all kinds of different activities made us feel good. In the evening, the lights, the buzz, the various street performances, the teenagers doing skateboarding tricks or practicing dance routines gave a different but just as enjoyable feel.

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The Mausoleum and Ho Chi Minh Museum

If we didn’t know much about Ho Chi Minh, other than his name, before we arrived in Hanoi, we certainly did by the time we left . We couldn’t go into the impressive Mausoleum which houses Ho Chi Minh’s emabalmed body as it was closed, visiting times are limited, but we did get to marvel at the imposing building in the vast square and the rather scary Vietnamese guards on duty. The museum, as well as being a welcome escape from the heat, was a really interesting story of the history of Ho Chi Minh and definitely worth the visit.

 

Huu Tiep Lake and the B-52 bomber

Part of the fun for this one was navigating Hanoi’s narrow back streets to find it. We didn’t want to take the direct route and it really was an adventure. The remains of part of a shot down B-52 bomber sitting in the centre of a small lake, in a peaceful square, in a crowded part of Hanoi is the unexpected prize at the end. Shot out of the sky in December 1972, the part of the B-52 bomber that landed in and remains in the lake is, to quote the words of Haushik, almost a “war trophy of Vietnam’s victory over the B-52s”. We read the wall mounted inscription and took our pictures, before heading off to find a local coffee shop. Which brings me to our next favourite…

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Vietnamese coffee shops

Our first real introduction to Vietnamese iced coffee was in Hanoi and we have had a soft spot for it ever since. One day, as we were out on a mission, we stopped at an interesting looking coffee shop on the corner of a crossroads. The tables were terraced across the corner so everyone could look out onto the street and watch the crazy Hanoi world go by. We had a full explanation of Vietnamese coffee by a lovely young man, who (thankfully for us) spoke excellent English, after which Vietnamese coffee became a regular on our menu!

Long Bien Bridge

Designed by Gustave Eiffel, this huge cantilever bridge was a massive feat of engineering. Built in 1899 by Vietnamese workers, a massive 2.4 km long it is also considerable historical importance. Control of the bridge also determined control of the northern regions of Vietnam. As such, it was bombed several times by the Americans during the American / Vietnam war, but was always quickly rebuilt by the Vietnamese. It was also one of the first ever targets to be hit using laser guided bombs (for you military history geeks out there!)

Just on the edge of the Old Quarter, we set out along the historic bridge, with it’s crumbling pedestrian pathway, whilst all kinds of crazy scooter loads passed us by. It was hot, noisy and dusty but it also gave us a different perspective on Hanoi life. Vietnamese teens posed for photos on the railway track that runs across the bridge’s span, above banana plantations and shanty towns under the bridge that ran up to the river’s edge. Plenty of  food for thought, not just views down the river and back to the city. 

So there they are, our Hanoi highlights. Have you visited Hanoi? What would you add to the list?

Hanoi

There are no other words for it – Hanoi is MENTAL! But boy, what a buzzing city and what fun we had there. I had my reservations, other travel bloggers I read seemed to either love it or hate it. I wondered how we would feel…

We arrived at Hanoi after dark, pre-warned that the taxi drivers would try to push up their prices on seeing us ‘Westerners’. Forewarned is forearmed they say and we were prepared for haggling our taxi fare. We finally agreed and off we went, ever wary of being ripped off, to find our hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. 

Our driver weaved his way through the craziness of Hanoi’s streets and got us as close to our hotel as possible – I have never seen so many scooters in my life as were roaming Hanoi’s roads that Saturday night, blaring horns and flashing lights all round. As it was a Saturday night, a one-way system was in force with the old quarter zoned off and pedestrianised, so we were let out of the taxi at a barricade and left on the street corner. Rucksacks on, we set off into the crowd. The small, narrow streets of the Old Quarter were absolutely buzzing, rammed full of people, sitting outside small family run restaurants or by street food stalls, being served at small plastic tables and sitting on small plastic stools. The noise and the smells are indescribable, the whole atmosphere was electrifying!

 

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A short walk later (thank God for google maps) and in a street full of Saturday night revelers, eating, drinking or just taking a walk, with music pounding all around us, we arrived. Our room, five flights of stairs up (or 108 steps to be precise), had a balcony overlooking the street. We dropped our stuff and watched the goings on below from a safe distance.

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Then with stomachs calling we took the plunge and headed into the ruckus. We loved Hanoi and we never looked back.

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The Harry Potter bus to the Vietnam border!

The bus bit

From Vientiane, Laos – next stop Vietnam. We cycled to the Vietnamese embassy on our Tandems to organise our Vietnam visas whilst in Vientiane and after some scouting around for the best price we booked ourselves on the night bus to Hanoi (via Vinh). Not to be deterred by our 15 hours on a bus 5 days earlier, we opted again for bus transport (to be honest the only other realistic option was plane and we couldn’t afford it) and not any old bus – the (k)night bus!

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We were picked up from our hostel and taken to the bus terminal along with four other intrepid travellers (an adventure in itself, not certain we were going to arrive in time given the traffic) we were dropped off by the chauffeur, pointed in the direction of a group of men sitting on small plastic stools and a tiny table, who it turned out were organising the buses. We had no idea which bus we were on, the driver had gone off with our tickets in hand and saying he’d be back in five minutes – welcome to Lao organisation. We were told to stand by a particular bus with all the other ‘Western looking’ travellers who were attempting the same route, while Lao and Vietnamese passengers were ushered past us, the doors of the bus closed and off it went! At that point we were all herded to another bus where, after another round of Lao and Vietnamese passengers being ushered past, we were finally allowed to get on board.

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And so, our neon-lit, mean machine was dubbed the Harry Potter bus as the boys, sitting in their bunks thought it was just like the Knight bus that Harry rides on through London. From my point of view the driving was also remarkably similar (for those of you who have no idea what I am talking about you can watch the clip here). Twisting up through Lao mountain roads towards the Vietnam border had me rolling around my bunk several times and I’m not sure I got more than an hours sleep in our fourteen hour trip from sheer nerves!

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The border bit

Then there was the border experience – oh boy! Unlike our seamless, easy crossing from Thailand to Laos, this mountain pass, land border crossing was a little more intrepid. We arrived at the border at around 5 a.m. to find the border closed. It opened at 7 a.m., so we had to wait for a couple of hours. Then it got frantic. With no instructions and no idea what was going on, other than that we had heard horror stories of people being left at the border by bus companies, we were guided into the Lao departure corridor, queued at the “foreigners” desk and were duly processed out of Laos.

Then the fun and games began. We got back on our bus, but before all of our other fellow passengers were back on board the bus started off across the long bridge in no-mans land. Frantically trying to indicate to the driver and staff that not everyone was with us, and being totally ignored, we looked out in dismay. Then the bus stopped again and we were told to get off and take our rucksacks from the luggage compartment – we now know that at this point we were being processed into Vietnam and our big bags had to be scanned for security, but at the time we had no clue what was going on. With very little sleep and lots of skepticism, we nervously wondered what was in store, as our bus drove on past us and through the security gates further along the road…

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Boys on the (K)night bus!

Our bags were processed, our visas and passports were checked and we were indicated to queue by the barriers, where we could still see our bus just beyond our grasp. We started talking to our fellow European bus passengers, who were just as baffled as we were, discussing the plight of two dutch lads that had been left on the Lao border side and tried to communicate to the bus company staff that they couldn’t just be left there.

As we were waiting in the queue to be allowed in to Vietnam, a Spanish couple from our bus came running up to ask if anyone had dollars they could lend them – their electronic visas weren’t being accepted, they had to pay an additional fee for a visa and their dollars were in their hand luggage on the bus, as were ours. We were relieved we had organised our visa through the embassy at this point! A Vietnamese border guard started processing everyone through the gate, ahead of us the odd few people were being directed towards a doorway 20m or so away. When it came to our turn, he looked at our visas, didn’t let us through and waved us towards the same doorway. In a state of total confusion and mild panic, the four of us went over to the doorway, with the concern that the bus would set off without us, with our hand luggage on board, in the back of our minds.

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Waiting for the border to open!

We turned a corner to find a few of our fellow passengers paying for an additional entrance stamp to be put in their passports before they were allowed to enter the country. We approached the very stern looking customs official, who told us that we had to pay an additional 2 dollars each person for a stamp to validate our visa – well, this was news to us, so we politely questioned why. The official, however, was in no mood for explanations to us stupid foreigners, no stamp no entry and he waved us aside – but our problem was no money, no stamp. We hung around for a few long minutes assessing how we were going to deal with this – we couldn’t believe we might not get through the border for the sake of 8 dollars and didn’t even want to imagine the kerfuffle of trying to head back to Vientiane, there were no cash machines, this border was not that sophisticated, when a good samaritan (fellow passenger) who had his money on him said he could loan us the money. The relief was immense and although we somewhat indignantly handed over the money to the customs official we got our all important stamp and could head back to the barrier guard. As if by magic, when we rounded the corner the two ‘left-behind’ Dutch guys appeared, having had to walk the bridge in no mans land, and were now being processed through too. What’s more, our bus was still there!

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The (K)night bus!

With more than a little relief, this time we were allowed through the turn style and welcomed into Vietnam. We got back on the bus, took our places for the rest of the journey on to Vinh and sighed a huge sigh of relief…we had made it! Now all that was left was to sit back and enjoy the rest of the trip.

 

(15 hours on a bus to) Vientiane

Yes, seriously, 15 hours. It should have been 10, but as we soon came to learn timetables are a flexible thing when travelling in Laos! The bus journey was a mixture of eye-opening, educational and a total nightmare – particularly when 11 hours in your husband is moaning more than the kids are!

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Along the way we would suddenly stop in the middle of the road  for an hour or more with no explanation (although I’m sure we could have got one if our Lao had been a bit more fluent than zero!). The second time we stopped, and as we were nearer the front of the queue, we discovered that it was simply due to roadworks, but not roadworks as we know them. The standstill was caused by  piles of earth several meters high literally blocking the entire road and there was no option but to  wait patiently until the workers had finished moving it with the bulldozer so that we could pass. No-one seemed stressed out about it, it was all taken with a pinch of salt, so we just rolled with it.

 

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We eventually arrived at the Vientiane bus station, five hours later than planned, to be slightly overwhelmed by a rush of tuk-tuk drivers vying to take the diverse array of people on the bus to their various destinations. We weighed up our options, waited for the throng to die down a bit, negotiated our price (we’re getting pretty good at that now) and got on one of the truck-tuks to take us through the streets of Vientiane in the dark. At this point, if I’m honest, we were not 100% certain we would end up where we wanted to go, but in all the random tuk-tuk journeys we had taken thus far we hadn’t been let down yet, so statistics were on our side. Lo and behold, 20 minutes later we were dropped right at the door of our hostel. Oh ye of little faith…

So, here we were in Vientiane. The capital of Laos. I had been the one to insist on coming to Vientiane, having read about the history, the French influence, the bakeries, the coffee shop culture and laid back approach to life. My imagination had painted me a very vivid picture of the town and I didn’t want to miss out on the country’s capital. If I’m honest, for me, this was the first place on our trip where I can say that the initial reality did not live up to expectation. I think Mark and Mim of the Common Wanderer summed it up with the opening line of their Vientiane blog post “Vientiane is one of the most beautiful cities in the world” – said pretty much no one ever”…if only I’d read that before we went I might have been less underwhelmed!

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Watching a film in the hostel!

But, don’t let first impressions deceive you – that didn’t mean we didn’t enjoy our time in Vientiane. It’s a small city for a capital and so pretty easy to get around. We had a cool little hostel almost bang in the centre of the historic old quarter and still just a few hundred metres from the Mekong river. There was a great little coffee shop with just as good cakes opposite our hostel, that in our week there became a regular stop for Ice coffees and pastries.

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We hired two tandems for a day and did a cycle tour of the town (route published in the lonely planet if I remember rightly). The tandems were excellent fun and in just a few hours, combined with my superb navigational skills (eh hem), we had visited all the main monuments / attractions of Vientiane, including the Presidential palace, the Australian embassy building, the Chao Anouvong Park and an array of temples.

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The Presidential Palace

During our stay we both cycled and walked up the main boulevard from the Presidential palace, reminiscent of the Paris’ Champs Elysee, to the Patuxai Victory Monument that sits at its end. The impressive monument is modelled on the French capital’s Arc de Triomphe, but with a Lao twist, slightly ironic when you consider it was built to commemorate the Lao people who fought and died in the battle for independence against the French. The detailed, very oriental arch ceilings are beautiful.

The Patuxai park was just beyond it, with neat lawns and impressive fountains. It was here as we were sitting in the shade taking everything in on one of the days that we had a really interesting chance meeting with two young buddhist monk novices. They were so friendly and full of enthusiasm. Wanting to practice their English, we all sat and chatted for about half an hour before they asked us for photos, and vice versa, and then they went off back to their temple, leaving us with big smiles on our faces.

We visited the night market several times, which, unlike the tourist market of Luang Prabang, really is a local market, giving you a far more authentic experience of day to day Lao living. It was absolute bedlam, full of clothes, electronics and mobile phone covers as well as food stalls, where we tried lots of new foods, including our first introduction to pure sugar cane juice (sugar rush alert!) and parathas, a kind of Indian influence pancake that take some skill to make and then can be filled with a variety of savoury or sweet fillings.

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We strolled the promenade in the evening and watched the sunset over the Mekong. The promenade was buzzing with activity and we were particularly entertained by the 70+ year old man with no co-ordination joining in the late night river front aerobics class. We were astonished by the parking…we had never seen so many scooters in one place in our lives (we hadn’t yet been to Vietnam!)

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We could have done even more in Vientiane if we’d had the time and the inclination. This at first underwhelming, compact city has more to offer than you think if you’re prepared to scratch the surface…

Kuang Si Waterfalls

A trip to Luang Prabang is not complete (it seems…and I would have to agree) without taking the opportunity to visit Kuang Si Waterfalls. 29 km south of Luang Prabang sits the beautiful tiered falls and, great for the kids, home to the Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre.

Our day started with a 45 minute tuk-tuk ride to the falls, passing through the Lao countryside and seeing some amazing scenes along the way. It was a bumpy ride and Josh and I were both anxiously trying not to get travel sick, but we made it, whilst passing the time with mental arithmetic problems – that was maths class done for the day!

We arrived at the falls, which cost 20,000 Laotian kip per person to enter. It might sound a lot, but with the current UK sterling exchange rate it’s only £1.80, a ridiculously small amount for what you get.

Let me tell you now, Kuang Si falls are absolutely stunning. They really do not disappoint!

As you arrive at the park the indications are good and you are led through the bear sanctuary. The boys were so excited about seeing the rescued bears and learning all about them, that we had to remind them after a while that we were also there to see the waterfalls. You can read more about the bears here

After the bear sanctuary, there are well-marked trails that lead up the side of the waterfalls. The falls form tiered pools, the lower ones are all swimmable and we were really excited about being able to swim in the natural pools, which offer the added bonus of being able to cool off from the intense Lao heat.

We got to the lower pool and no-one was swimming. We thought maybe we’d misunderstood and you couldn’t swim there…panic! We carried on up to the next tier where we thankfully saw a few people taking a paddle, and it wasn’t crowded by any stretch of the imagination.

At this point we decided we would head up the falls to the higher end and then work our way back, taking a dip in each pool as we passed by. What can I say, it was simply spectacular.

When we got to the area directly at the front of the foot of the falls, where we thought that we couldn’t go any further, we saw that there seemed to be a path on the other side of the viewing bridge. There weren’t  many people (and by that I mean any!) taking it, but we thought what the hell and off we went.

We were so glad that we did. After a very hot, sweaty, jungly walk up the path to we knew not where, the ground flattened and opened up to the most beautiful river and natural pool that formed the top of the waterfall…and apart from 2 park staff who were there to take you on a short boat trip up the river should you want to, we had the pool all to ourselves! For a short while at least.

It was AMAZING. We sat at the side just looking at each other and randomly saying wow every few seconds. We couldn’t believe we were sitting in the middle of the jungle swimming in a turquoise coloured, natural river pool. What an experience. What an experience for our kids! It was just out of this world. Add to this the fact that the fish would come along and nibble at your feet, giving you a free personal foot spa, and the whole experience was somewhat surreal.

After swimming and taking photos for forty-five minutes, we reluctantly started to head back down to the lower section. We wanted to make sure we had time to swim at all the other tiers as we went and, aware that our tuk-tuk driver was patiently waiting for us just outside the park, we didn’t want to outstay our welcome.

So, that’s exactly what we did. We ambled down and we swam in the beautiful turquoise waters, ticking off the tiers one by one, until it was time for us to leave. Back through the bear sanctuary we went, reluctantly leaving the extraordinary Kuang Si waterfalls behind us and on to more adventures…