Laos – Vang Vieng & Vientiane

After leaving Luang Prabang, we hopped on a cramped minivan for a ride to Vang Vieng, the adventure capital of Laos. Unfortunately, we were visiting during the wet season and wet it was! Torrential rain hammered down the entire time we were in Vang Vieng, putting an end to our plans of river tubing (the Nam Song river level was flowing rapidly due to the heavy rains and deemed too dangerous). Vang Vieng is on its best behavior after 27 tourists died in 2011 and the government cracked down hard, so it was a definite no-go due to safety concerns. What to do in a sleepy town known primarily for its happy pizza and river tubing when both are now off limits? Catch up on sleep, eat and drink! We did hit the popular with backpackers Sakura Bar for free Lao-Lao cocktails, and grabbed one of the best burgers of the trip at Mama Sababa’s. After suffering through 2 days in Vang Vieng with dismal weather, we were ready to move on so another short minivan ride brought us to the capital city of Vientiane. Luckily, the weather finally improved and we had sun on the forecast for the remainder of our time in Laos. Highlights of Vientiane were the COPE visitor center (a non profit organization that provides rehabilitation for UXO survivors), Pha That Luang (the national symbol and most important religious stupa in Laos), Patuxai “Victory Gate” or locally known as the “monster of concrete”, and last but not least, the surreal but fascinating Buddha Park (24 km outside of the city but an easy public bus ride away). We were supposed to head further south toward Kong Lor Cave but with the recent heavy rains, none of us were too keen on a long bus ride to find out whether the cave could be visited or not, so we took a group vote to decide what to do. The consensus was to skip Kong Lor and fly into Hanoi, thereby saving us 2 days of travel and allowing for the possibility of an excursion to Sapa, a hill station town known for its ethnic minorities (H’mong, Tay and Dao hill tribes). It’s best to stay flexible for an overland adventure as things can and will change! Hanoi here we come…

14 Aug – Off to Vang Vieng today! It felt too early as we trudged up to the guesthouse with our bags at 6:45 am. Luckily, the minivan was waiting for us and we were the first two to load up our bags. Since we had been crammed like sardines in the back row seats of the van to Luang Prabang, we didn’t feel too bad scoring the front row seats of this minivan. Tig went to the bakery and picked up chocolate-filled croissants for breakfast. After the 9 of us piled in, the minivan drove around Luang Prabang picking up 4 additional travelers, making for a super jam packed ride. The weather today was dismal, raining the entire journey. From time to time we could barely make out the surrounding mountains and rice paddies when the rain and fog cleared. At the half way point of our journey, we were forced to off load the minivan and swap to another vehicle since the two drivers are brothers who regularly meet halfway through the journey to switch passengers. So it was a scramble to offload our gear and get it repacked on the new van. A tight squeeze but we managed with our heavy bags. The rain continued for the duration of our journey and intensified once we reached Vang Vieng. While Tig sorted out the ride situation to our accommodation (Maylyn Guesthouse), we stopped at a nearby restaurant for a pricey lunch. The food was good but this is definitely tourist-ville and the food ain’t cheap! Finally, the ride was sorted and we were whisked away to the guesthouse where the owner (Joe) appeared to be confusing the hell out of Tig with bait and switch on the rooms. He had promised one level of accommodation and then told her it wasn’t available any more so we sat around patiently while she worked out the room assignments. Young Gill scored an upgraded room and invited us to join her for drinks on the patio overlooking the river and karst landscape. Honestly, with the crap weather and low lying fog, the room views weren’t that big of a deal. We were just happy that our room was bed bug free! Goes to show you what our priorities are after the incident in Luang Prabang!!! Despite the rain, we were curious to see what Vang Vieng had to offer across the bridge so we left the group and scored an awesome meal at Lukas Pizza (the cheese loaded thin crust pizza hit the spot!). On our walk back across the bridge, the attendant wanted 4000 Kip each for tickets but after Robby had a fun discussion with him, ended up giving us a 2 for 1 discount. Back at Maylyn, we were surprised to discover the rest of the group having dinner with all the other guests. We quickly surmised that the food was OK but the milkshakes were utter crap. Good to know. Robby started playing with the guesthouse dogs and got them way too riled up, so they started barking up a storm and disrupting everyone’s meals. After a couple of furious stares, we caught the hint and left the group in peace.

15 Aug – Grrrr! Visiting Vang Vieng during the rainy season was not the best idea because it has been raining relentlessly since we arrived and we really wanted to go river tubing today. However, due to safety concerns, all river tubing was denied today. What to do instead? With the rain and heavy fog surrounding the landscape, nothing appealed for sightseeing in the morning. Even though we knew it was a long shot, we planned to link up with those interested in going tubing at noon. But Tig came by to let us know that after talking to the local operators, all river tubing was definitely off due to the dangerous high water levels and strong current. So that settled that! Robby went to the river front rooms with the others for a couple of beers and came back to report that even the water in the rice paddies was really high compared to what we had seen yesterday. At around 3 pm, the rain finally eased up a bit so we immediately hit the town for a quick walkabout. As we exited our guesthouse, we noticed that the footbridge leading to a fancy hotel was completely submerged under water and the local kids were having a blast splashing about. While in town, we did a bit of shopping (flip-flops for Robby and a plastic poncho/rain jacket for Becky) before having some noodles for lunch. After checking our Vang Vieng’s major sites (3 Wats and a couple of happy pizza joints), we did a quick recon of Sakura Bar, which offers free drinks from 8 to 9 pm plus a free tank top when you purchase 2 cocktails. Back at the hotel, we chilled until our group dinner at 7 pm where we ate at “Mamma Sabada”. Her bacon cheese burgers topped with garlic sauce are to die for! Serious yum!! Over dinner, Tig informed us that the head office had approved our Hanoi flight detour and we just had to pay the difference in the bus versus the flight price. And so everyone started the process of trying to book their flights on mobile devices. We were keen to take care of it later, so we ditched the group to run over to Sakura. Lars joined us and the 3 of us got there at 8:30 pm, just in time to down as many drinks as we could in 30 minutes. Challenge accepted! About a dozen drinks later, the rest of the group rocked up and we had a good time getting the free tank top deal. The place was packed with a young crowd getting drunk, acting silly and generally having a good old time. After a while, we joined the group in checking out the pub across the street for a few before finally heading back to our guesthouse.

16 Aug – After breakfast, we packed up and huffed it across the bridge to catch our bus to Vientiane. Just our luck…we leave Vang Vieng and this is the first time in 3 days that the sun came out! After a few minutes, the bus pulled up and we had to walk up the hill to meet it since the driver refused to come down to the bridge area. No biggie…we got our bags loaded up, squeezed into our seats, played musical chairs before the other passengers filled up the bus, and settled in for the 4 hour ride to Vientiane. By the time we arrived to Laos’s capital city, it was hot and sunny. The rain was definitely a distant memory! Thus we had a super hot and sweaty walk to the Lao Paris Hotel. Lugging around our huge, heavy backpacks is getting old quickly. We are counting down the days until we get to Vietnam and can off load these bags! Everyone scattered once we got checked in to the hotel, but Tig was adamant that the delinquents sort out our Lao Air flights to Hanoi first before doing anything else. Lars asked if we could book his $100 flight for him and he would give us cash in return. After getting our Vientiane to Hanoi flights all sorted out, we scoped out what to do for the afternoon. It was a hot, humid and muggy afternoon as we hiked over to the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) visitor center. If in Vientiane, do not pass go! Visit the COPE center…it has amazing displays and excellent videos about the devastating effects of UXOs dropped by the USA over Laos during the Vietnam War. We spent a few hours here and left in a somber mood. Since we had skipped lunch, we stopped by the cantina at the entrance to the COPE center and got a delicious meal for cheap. From here we walked to the Patuxai Park where there is the Victory Gate built for Laos independence from France. Just after sunset we made a quick stop at Wat Sisaket, but it was closed and we could only admire the outside grounds. To round out our day, we walked around the Presidential Palace, across the park and through the Night Market. Even in the evening with a light breeze, it was really hot walking through the Night Market with thousands of people milling around. Back at the hotel, we finally took cold showers to cool down and relaxed for the night.

17 Aug – Breakfast in the lobby at 8 am wasn’t ready yet, even though the hotel was supposed to provide it from 7:30 onward. Since we were on the 6th floor of a hotel without an elevator, we wanted to ensure we had everything necessary for this morning’s excursion to Wat That Luang but of course that wasn’t to be. So we huffed and puffed our way up to our room to grab our gear before heading out for the day. Tig coordinated a large tuk tuk for all of us to cram into and off we went, checking out Vientiane’s most famous Wat. Since this is considered the holiest site in Laos, Tig had forewarned us to dress conservatively….long skirts or pants and covered shoulders. It was a sweltering hot day and we were soon covered in sweat. But as soon as we left the Wat, we were able to strip down as our second stop of the day was to Patuxai Park where those who wanted could climb up the arch for a view over the city. Group sightseeing complete, we decided to split off and do our own thing. Everyone else was planning to visit the COPE center but we opted to catch a bus out to Buddha Park. Following the wikitravel instructions to get to the park was simple, and we really enjoyed the over-the-top Buddhist and Hindu statues. After wandering about the park and admiring the countless statues, we were able to climb inside the largest monument for a panoramic view overlooking the entire park. Very cool but not for the claustrophobic! Catching a bus back into town was easy, and we decided to have lunch at a restaurant nearby our hotel. The afternoon plans were to meet up with the gang at 5:30 pm for drinks and dinner but that got delayed an hour due to the heat. Tig and Lars brought us to their favorite noodle place, a sidewalk shack nearby the night market. The owner didn’t mind if we bought drinks from the nearby convenience store as long as we ordered his food. After dinner, we tried to wander through the night market but it was way too insane so the majority of us wandered down the boardwalk to the riverfront where we scored a river front table with a nice breeze. Drinks were reasonable and the mood was merry. Most bizarre thing we witnessed were late night rat hunters wading along the river banks. Armed with a large sack they deposited the rats into, they shone a spot light on the surrounding shrubbery and used a spear-gun to quickly dispose of the rats. The hunters were no joke and are very effective at their job. We only watched them in action for 5 minutes before witnessing their first successful rat catch of the night.

18 Aug – Wow, our time in Laos flew by already! Hard to imagine we are on our way to Vietnam already. After breakfast at 8 am, we decided to split up for the day. The boys (Robby and Lars) headed over to the Laos National Museum while Becky wandered the streets of Vientiane in search of a pedicure. She found plenty of massage and beauty salons but no one willing to do a pedicure. Back in our room before checkout, we sorted through our gear to get our heavy stuff lumped together. We were way overweight and hoped that one of our fellow travelers could help us lug some of our crap in their check in. Lars and Ant said it was no problemo so problem solved. We met the gang at noon in the lobby for the short tuk-tuk ride to the airport. Big surprise at the airport was a Dairy Queen. We just had to get a milkshake which went down a treat! And then we were off…goodbye Vientiane and hello Hanoi!

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