As with karaoke, I have never been kayaking before – but this trip is all about experiencing new things for me so our day in Vang Vieng began with a short lesson, by the river, in the ways of the kayak. The apparently complicated set of instructions on how to steer and stop were supplemented by an extremely odd description of how to use the paddle thing (oar?) to fend off ‘drunk people’ who may attempt to board the boat at some point. We were also requested to ensure that we made a mental note of the inebriated individual responsible, should such an incident occur, in order that they may be identified at a later date and made to pay. None of this made any sense to either of us but we nodded as if it was all old news and climbed into the lump of moulded plastic that we would share for the 7km trip down the Nam Song River.
Our first test came around 20 metres or so from our launch point. We failed. The river turned left. How were we to know?! Well, we did know actually – we steered too soon, hit a bush growing on the bank and promptly tipped upside down into the ankle deep water. River 1 Humans 0.
Luckily, our guide caught our escapee transport further down river and we climbed aboard to soggily continue on our way. We had met a really nice Aussie guy the night before whose mate had broken his foot at a full moon party in Thailand the week before and so was travelling on his own and, just as we were staggering gingerly to our feet in the fast flowing water, he came round the corner with his guide, both laughing.
Fortunately, we figured it out in the end and the remainder of the trip passed relatively incident free bar a few ‘moments’ – we saw another two caves, did a bit of hiking and ate some pretty decent food cooked by the guides on a fire they built while we chatted.
After lunch, we continued down the river, surrounded by stunning scenery, idly paddling in the serene atmosphere. We began to hear some music and, after turning a corner we realised what the warning about drunken people was referring to. Vang Vieng is famous for an activity called ‘tubing’ whereby (mainly Australian) people float down the river in rubber rings, stopping at various bars to get steadily plastered, dance to the deafening music and launch themselves off swing rope things into the water. Fortunately, none of the intoxicated party-goers attempted to board but the sight of it combined with the white noise of each bar playing different dance music at high volume – and all in such a beautiful setting – was quite strange and horrible. We were all young once and I’ve had my share of nights acting like an idiot and almost certainly making an arse out of myself but this just seemed so out of place.
The day was also noted for Annika spotting our new Aussie mate, Adam, slyly spooning some of the Carnation condensed milk for his coffee directly into his mouth. Apparently his dad, who is Phillipino, regularly consumes the aforementioned sweet milk by squeezing it directly from a tube! Dan, you can make friends this way.
After our previous transport experiences on Laos, we ensured that we bought a ticket for a big bus for the trip to Luang Prabang the next day. Arriving at the bus station, the man in charge still tried to lump us onto a minibus but I insisted and eventually we set off. The bus was old and quite knackered but at least we had room to move our legs and there were no more passengers on board than there were seats!
The road from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is around 210km but the journey takes 7 hours due to the fact that the road winds its way up one mountain and down the next and is not straight for more than about 20 metres at any point. The scenery was absolutely stunning as we climbed higher and higher, a new view appearing with every turn. The real drama, however, took place on the road around 2 hours in.
As we approached a sharp left hand bend in the road, a high cliff to our right and a long drop on the inside of the corner, our driver was beeping furiously to warn the driver of an oncoming bus of our presence. The other driver didn’t seem very interested though, and reached the bend at the same time as us and swung round the corner so sharply and swiftly that several of the passengers on the left hand side of our bus leapt out of their seats, afraid that the bus would hit them – and with good reason, as the corner was too tight and the bus had straightened up as it swung round. The driver then hit the brakes suddenly, bringing his bus to an abrupt standstill just in time. Our bus stopped too and we all got out to see what the situation was. The situation was that the driver of the other bus had managed to stop one rotation of the wheel short of going over the edge! The front of the bus had gone round the corner however, leaving the bus straddling the gap – to the amazement and terror of the passengers as, one by one, they clambered off the bus having to sort of jump off sideways to avoid plummeting to their doom. Inevitably, neither driver seemed overly concerned and, once the bus had been wrenched back up the hill a few metres to gasps from the watching tourists we were all packed back in and continued on our way.
Luang Prabang is another UNESCO World Heritage town and justifiably so. It has managed to keep a lot of the old buildings and architecture, much in the same way as Hoi An in Vietnam and it has an unbelievably laid back feel despite the number of tourists. The night market was particularly bizarre, the stall holders happy to just sit there and let you make your own mind up about whether to buy or not. We rented bicycles for both days we were there and had a lovely relaxing time, pedalling around seeing the Wats, shopping and having the odd drink. On our final day, I had my first massage of the trip – a Lao lady pressed and stood on my back, tried to pull my fingers out of their sockets and slapped my arms for an hour. I swear she was making it up as she went along – she even pulled my hair at one point! I did feel a little better afterwards I suppose but I’m not sure massages are really my thing.
And with that, Laos is done – we very nearly skipped Laos when we realised how little time we had for North Vietnam but we are so glad we didn’t. Some of the transport has been tough going but the friendly people in particular have been brilliant and it’s a shame we don’t have longer to see more.
As I write this, we have just landed in Hanoi, having cheekily flown back to Vietnam in order to avoid a 24 hour bus journey. The captain has just informed us that it is 19 degrees outside! I don’t think it has been below 28 at any point since we left so this is going to be a shock. Wish us luck.