We realize we’ve been a little out of touch in the past couple of weeks (sorry!), so here’s the condensed version of what we’ve been up to:
We left the south of Laos and worked our way up north in the most roundabout, bus-heavy way we could manage — one local bus all day to Tha Kaek, one local bus all day to Vientiane, an overnight bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, and then a minivan from Luang Prabang to the northern town of Nong Khiaw. Was it worth it?, you are probably asking (rhetorically, no doubt, thinking us insane for making such a schlep) — absolutely.
On the van ride there, we met up with four lovely people — Mitch (Canadian), Kat (American-in-the-process-of-becoming-Canadian), Hagar (Israeli), and Tali (Israeli) — and we all got along so well that it was like having a little family abroad. We managed to accumulate new family members, too, upon arrival: Higgy from Germany and Marijna from Holland.
We were lucky to have met such a great group because Nong Khiaw is really the kind of place you want to share with people you love. It’s stunning there — the town nestled on both sides of the Nam Ou river and surrounded by massive limestone karsts, covered in fog in the mornings.
Most of us went for a hike on our second day there. Our guide, Mwah, coaxed us up to the very top of one of the karsts just in time to catch the last of the fog disappearing from the valley! Spectacular.
We also managed to find parents for our little family at this tiny place called Alex’s Restaurant, where a woman named Mama manages five (of seven total) children in her kitchen and sets them to task at their woks while Papa ambles about pouring endless free shots of their family’s lao lao for guests. We had such an amazing dinner there all together before we went our separate ways.
The next day, Tali, Hagar, Sam, Higgy, and I all hopped on a boat to the northern border town of Muang Khua. The boat ride was a bit cramped in the leg department, but proffered some of the most spectacular scenery yet. When we got to Muang Khua, we were lucky enough to have dinner together both nights at the guesthouse where the other three were staying. The hosts there were extremely friendly and for next-to-nothing cooked us towering feasts of genuine Lao food and encouraged us to polish off two bottles of lao lao infused with cinnamon. Needless to say, we tottered all the way back to our hotel.
And in case you’d thought we’d had enough of bus rides, my friends, you would be wrong! In order to cross the border into Vietnam, we first had to wake up at four in the morning (no small feat thanks to the lao lao) and haul our bags down to the pier. From there we were ferried across the Nam Ou to the local bus awaiting us on the other side. From there it was a six-hour-long bus trip across the border, landing us in the Vietnamese town of Dien Bien Phu (where, incidentally, the French were defeated in 1954).
Sadly (for Sam)/thankfully (for everyone else), we were left with no time to visit the war museum because we were shuffled by some very loud bus touts onto a bus that they assured us would take us to Sapa. Two things became apparent once the bus started rolling: first, that they were not actually going to take us all the way to Sapa, and second, since none of us had actually spent more than three minutes in Dien Bien Phu, we’d not had the chance to convert our Lao Kip into Vietnamese Dong, and were therefore travelling with heaps of the wrong currency.
Seven hours later, and we arrived in the town of Not-Quite-Sure-Where, with our bus driver communicating (more or less) to us that we would have to catch another bus to Sapa the following morning around five a.m. To hell with that, we all agreed, so the girls, ourselves, and two other travellers on the bus persuaded the driver and his friend to take us all the way to Sapa that night.
Reasons this turned out to be a mistake:
1. The local bus, now devoid of the body heat of all the sensible passengers who got off where they were supposed to, was now decidedly chilly and the windows refused to remain shut.
2. Half the drive (now in the dark) was encompassed in a dense fog.
3. We still did not have any Vietnamese money. This actually turned out to be quite funny, as our bus drivers (naturally) wanted to stop for dinner, and parked us at one of the restaurants off the highway. The restaurant could not accept our kip, and had, in fact, never even seen Lao money before. So while our drivers feasted at the table next to us, our party of six attempted to divvy up what little food we had left: two pomegranates, a smushed banana, an orange, and half a coconut.
Now, let me just say that before we crossed the order, many, many other travellers had warned us about the harshness/coldness/other-nasty-adjectiveness of the Northern Vietnamese — absolute nonsense. At the sight of us pathetically hacking away at the coconut with a Swiss army knife, our hosts took pity on us, decided to accept the foreign currency they’d never seen before, and take our word for it that the price we were offering was fair, and served us up a whole table full of steaming hot, unbelivably delicious food.
4. So things seemed a little less dire after that, but when we arrived close to midnight in Sapa, naturally everything was closed.
5. We found one hotel that was open (only $100/night for a room!), and the receptionist discerned from talking to our drivers that neither of them had actually ever driven to Sapa before.
But once again, where we expected to be met with either a cripplingly expensive hotel bill or the option of sleeping on the road, hospitality raised its gracious head. The receptionist called a friend of hers who owned a nearby inexpensive guesthouse, and even organized for him to come on motorbike and guide our bus all the way to his doorstep.
Amazing. And it turns out that spending twenty hours travelling in a bus is, in fact, the best way to have a good night’s sleep.
And in the morning, Sapa! What an amazing, beautiful place. Turns out the weather there hovers around five degrees, so we spent most of our first day there buying cheap winter clothes (including full-body long underwear that we kept on for more or less our entire duration there). But even the cold weather was gorgeous: everything draped in a thick fog, fireplaces crackling in the restaurants, curls of steam rising from bowls of the noodle soup (pho), and a welcome reminder of the weather back home.
The highlight of the four days we spent there was our trip to Sa San village. The thing about Sapa is that the population of hard-peddling hilltribe village ladies to tourists is roughly ten-to-one. Essentially, when the new tourists (i.e. fresh meat) wander into town, the women tussle over the rights to sell to them, and eventually tourists have to pick one woman to purchase from in order to (hypothetically) discourage the attention of the others.
We were very lucky here, too. The woman who discovered us was named Yoan, and she was quiet, friendly, and laughed easily. Seriously, this woman was always smiling! She offered to take us on a trek and show us around her village, and we accepted. On our second day there, Sam, Tali, and I followed her through the fog to her home in the H’Mong village of Sa San, where she cooked an amazing hot meal for us over the fire.
She told us about her family, and explained that in the H’Mong villages, it’s the women who do all the money-making. Her husband stays at home during the day and tends to their buffalo, cattle, and children (not necessarily in that order). She has three kids: Su, age eleven, Bao, age nine, and Jan, age seven. They came home just as we were finishing our meal so we got a chance to meet them!
Anyway, the whole experience was very lovely, and very humbling. The standard practice is to purchase gifts from your guide as a thank-you instead of paying them outright for the guided hike and the meal, which were technically free. Sam pointed out that the women who do this are always taking a risk, since there is tecnically no obligation to buy from them at the end of the day, so in a way, they are taking a huge gamble on you as a traveller just as much as you are taking one on them as an honest guide. Anyway, our bags laden with hand-embroidered purchases at the end of the day and hugs all around, I think everyone went home happy at the end of our exchange. For sure, Yoan’s hospitality and good cheer will be something we remember for the rest of this trip.
And even more good fortune: on our final day in Sapa, the fog lifted, and we were able to enjoy extraordinary views of the harvested rice paddies carved into the hillsides. All in all, a perfect beginning to this new leg of the trip.
So there you have it, dear friends & family. Hope you’re all well this holiday season, and we miss you very much.
From Vietnam with love,
Alanna & Sam
(p.s. a shout-out to my little brother, Blake, who recently entered his 20s!)