The Bumpy Road to Vietnam

Leaving Laos with Visas in our passports, we had a rough plan to cross the border just after Oudomxai over two days. Having booked our ‘VIP air conditioned’ bus, we arrived to find a rusty old local mini bus full of Chinese people heading towards their border. We struggled to figure out where we could sit, eventually getting one proper seat and one piece of junk that folds down to the isle, sitting at an angle with no back support for six hours was never going to be fun. Those who say “the journey is the adventure” are idiots, this sucked.

Arriving in Oudomxai , we quickly realised it had absolutely nothing to offer, we picked a hotel close to the bus station, grabbed some food from the only place that looked like it may have something we could handle, picked an early bus and moved on.

The border crossing was basic and a little bit messy, the Laos side worked reasonably smoothly, we expected a “checkout fee” but did not have to pay, result. Moving over the border, we went in to the Vietnam office and left our passports in what was a foreigner pile. I noticed the other westerners had taken their bags from the bus, but none of the locals. Not wanting to be the odd ones out, I went back to get ours but was unable as the bus was locked up and the driver was no where to be seen, I’m sure it’s not an issue I said to myself.

The immigration officer was working though the Vietnamese passport pile, as more and more locals pushed in, he continued to ignore any others. One bus driver dropped a pile of passports in, slipped him some cash which went straight I’m to his pocket, welcome to Communism! After a while I started to get concerned, especially as I saw our bus move around the building and start to load the locals on. I tried to have a word with the driver but was not allowed outside without my passport, frustrating to say the least. Eventually when there was nothing else for the immigration numpty to do, he started slowly to stamp ours. We were glad to get through and back on to the bus, who was tooting his horn as if to say “hurry up”, we are trying!

Welcome to Vietnam!Arriving in the North Vietnam town of Dien Bien Phu, we checked in to a nice hotel and left ourselves a full day to relax and explore, this was needed as two full days of buses wears you down. The city has not a lot to offer, the views coming in of the rice paddies was nice, looking down from the Victory Monument which celebrated their win over the French was lovely, running up it was hard on the lungs!

We were undecided where to head next, at dinner with some other backpackers we discussed the northern mountain town of Sapa. Sapa was first recommended to us in South America, ask anyone and they say “Sapa, beautiful”, “Sapa, oh you must to there, beautiful”, “Sapa, highlight of my trip”. When pressed on what there is to do, not much came back.

Happy to take on the recommendation and adding that Annie said she would regret not going since we had the chance, we booked on to the 06:30 bus and headed further north.

Sapa TownThe bus journey was indeed scenic, driving though valleys and local villages it was nice until the bus headed up to the mountains surrounded by grey fog. Arriving at Sapa in the late afternoon, it was dark and dingy. You couldn’t see five meters in front of you, “Beautiful” eh? With the temperature at night being about 3c, it felt like a ski resort without any snow. Being aware of the cold nights we booked a hotel which had electric blankets and a electric heater. I don’t think I’ve been so cold since I left Scotland, it was hard work.

There seems to be two things to do in Sapa, trekking and hiring mopeds/motorbikes. Neither was an option with this fog, we eventually stayed two cold nights, spending one day kicking around, putting up with locals trying to sell you all sorts of shite before leaving for Hanoi on another early day sleeper bus. The buses over the last week have been a mix of crazy and crap, this one was all fully reclining seats and made the journey so much easier, surely heading south would be warmer…

Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang

Mekong River Winding Through Vang Vieng

Leaving Vientiane, our final destination was Luang Prabang, but we decided to stop off en route at Vang Vieng. VV is well known as a backpacker haven, attracting the crowds due to drinks, drugs, and a brilliant tubing/pub crawl route. It’s a strange place, because in theory I should hate it – hundreds of early 20s backpackers (making me feel old) getting drunk in one of the many similar bars and restaurants -, but actually it had a charm, with a lovely laid back feel; it lives in its own little bubble, with no relation to the rest of Laos. Plus, Friends was on 24 hours in many of the restaurants, which I loved (Paul, not so much). We ended up spending 4 days in VV, and by the time we left we were ready to escape the madness.

Tubing Down The Mekong On day 1 we got involved in the main attraction – tubing down the Mekong. We hired our tubes from town, jumped in a Tuk Tuk for a 3km ride and were left at the side of the river. Before we started the tubing, we went to a lovely garden bar for our first drink and free shot of Lao Lao Whisky – made from rice, it tastes as horrible as our stuff. It was here we discovered that there were only 4 bars on the river, before a 2 hour ride on the tube all the way into town. Because it’s dry season, what would take 1 hour when the water was high took over 3 hours, and so most people chose to skip the end section and get a Tuk Tuk from the final bar. It was slightly disappointing; although the scenery was beautiful, we did very little actual tubing as the current was so slow, and the water level so low. So while tubing was what everyone came for, it was much more about the pubs…so we got involved in that instead. Hula hooping, basketball under hoses, boules, flaming limbo, cliff jumping, beer pong, and lots and lots of free whisky shots, there was lots of fun to be had.

Kayaking on the Mekong Our second attempt at tubing was slightly more successful, when we signed up for a trip into a cave, on tubes, and then kayaking. After a frustrating 1.5 hour wait while our guides tried to find us head torches (that’s what you get when you go cheapy), we were eventually led into the cave. With ropes to pull yourself along, you go right into the depths of the cave, with only your head torches giving you any light. Add into the mix the fact that the water was absolutely freezing, it was an exhilarating trip.

The afternoon involved as kayaking back into town. Our second attempt of the trip, Paul and I were much more coordinated, and managed to navigate a few rapids without capsizing.

Luang Prabang offered everything VV didn’t: a real taste of Laos culture, temples, architecture, things to do that didn’t involve alcohol, and history. And most importantly, lots of old American tourists to make us feel young again, yay! It’s the little things.

Luang Prabang Market LP was all about the food. Street-side juice bars, baguette stalls, Laotian BBQs you cook at the table yourself, and crepes. Yum yum yum. After the limitations of South America (fried chicken anyone?), it was a welcome change. With this is mind, we spent our first full day doing a Laotian cookery class. First up, we went to the local market to get our produce. Fortunately neither the grilled rats nor dried buffalo skin on display were on the menu. After our tutors demonstrated the dishes, we were set free to do our best. Apart from burning the garlic (many times) and getting our oyster/soy sauces mixed up, we managed to pull together 5 tasty dishes. We were given recipe books to take away and we’ve kept our favourite recipes to try at home.

After all that eating, we had energy to burn, so we hired bikes and cycled out to the Kuang Si waterfalls. These were a beautiful 32km ride away. Apart from the ridiculously steep final 5km, which nearly killed us, there were lovely gentle rolling hills through local villages, and we got out early enough to beat the midday heat. Since arriving in Laos we had seen nothing but blue skies and sunshine, which is lovely, until you want to do anything mildly physical, and then you feel like you’re going to die.

WaterfallOn the walk up to the falls we passed by a Sun Bear sanctuary. Sun Bears are endangered, and the ones we saw had mostly been saved from poachers (who want their bile for Chinese medicine) or from dancing in the streets. Safe to say they looked like they were enjoying life now, lounging in hammocks in the sun.

The falls themselves were beautiful, with cloudy blue water and lots of natural pools. Before jumping in for a swim, we clambered up to the top, where you can stand at the lip and look down. It was a little bit daunting trying to get your footing on the slippery rocks, knowing that there was a sharp 60 foot drop if things went wrong.

What started off as a brilliant day took a horrible turn of events when we saw a young Korean man drown. In one of the pools there was a rope swing which everyone was jumping in from. What happened exactly remains unclear, but standing waiting for our turn, we noticed a distressed Korean guy in the water – we now know he was looking for his friend. The language barrier was a massive problem, and though a group of us jumped in to try and help find the man, it was no good. Visibility was non-existent, the water was freezing, and none of us were entirely sure what or who we were looking for. Adding to the confusion was the fact that many of the man’s tour group were filming the incident or taking photos, with only one lady showing any signs of distress. After around 20 minutes of uncertainty, locals with a diving mask eventually pulled out the body. Throughout this, tour groups were arriving, unaware of what had happened and were trying to get in the water. One older lady in a tour group by us, despite being informed that she couldn’t swim because of what had happened, was complaining to her guide that they wouldn’t let her in the water. Paul challenged her on her behaviour and she quickly shut up. Unbelievable.

We came to LP to organise our Vietnamese visas, and happily we did this without hassle or hitch. We were now ready to plot our route into Vietnam, just a few weeks after originally planned.

Vientiane & Kong Lor

Kong Lor Cave

Leaving KL, we flew up to Vientiane the capital of Laos, basically because Air Asia were doing cheap flights allowing us to get to the northern area of South East Asia. Air Asia seems to be the airline that Easyjet aspires to be – arriving at the airport you do a self check-in for your boarding pass but even go as far as to print out and attach your own check in baggage labels, cheap and efficient.

Tuk Tuk AnnieKnowing very little of Laos we explored what seemed like a decent enough small city located on the Mekong River, which runs from China through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and then down to Vietnam, it’s a beast. Beerlao is the drink of choice here and is dirt cheap, a 640ml bottles cost about 75p around town, it’s actually not bad – a welcome step up from overpriced Tiger in KL. A few evenings were spent in various bars drinking and watching the locals, backpackers and what seems to be a bit of an older middle aged tourist/expat crowd. Laos has a 12pm curfew so everywhere closes at 11:30 and you are expected to be home and off the streets by then, seems a little strange.

Our plan is to head north and enter Vietnam once we have a Visa sorted, but the Kong Lor cave located seven hours south was calling. The village used to be a bit of a tricky place to get to, but now with a direct local bus running it seemed worth the journey. The bus was packed with locals who don’t mind endlessly staring at you, I found out making eye contact back soon stopped that. Boarding the bus, we had to sit right at the back which is never ideal and quickly noticed that the two sets of seats in front were not fixed correctly, when the bus cornered the seats would start to pivot around. As the bus seats filled, the locals still proceeded to get on, no one is asked to stand but instead little plastic seats come out and the isle is filled with people sitting all the way down. Needless to say this bus did not have seat belts…

You what?Arriving early evening, we had no accommodation booked so started walking door to door asking each guest house and hotel if they had space. A few other backpackers were doing the same, we all had the same concern “what if someone else gets the last room” and sped up our search accordingly! Turns out there was plenty of room, we checked in and got some food with a few others before heading to bed as the town has nothing else to offer bar the caves.

The Kong Lor caves run with a 7.5k river below them in darkness. We walked down to the entrance, rented a head torch, chartered a long boat and headed in. The boat driver was super confident, racing along the water with a small boy guiding at the front looking for rocks and low water. Its really impressive inside, some of the features are lit up and theres a little pathway where you dismount for a wander. As it’s dry season the boat gets stuck at a couple of points, you have to jump out in to the water whilst they guide it through before hopping back in.

Kong LorThe other side does have a village which you can arrange a “home stay”, basically staying with a local family in their house, reviews say you may end up in a spare room or in their living room. We chose a beer at a stall before getting called to return back to the start. One more night in the Kong Lor village before an early start on the 7am bus back north to Vientiane.

Coming back to Vientiane, the evening was spent with a lovely sunset jog along the river and closed roads of the city which were filled with people who come out for the view, making a nice atmosphere. We are starting to get in to a nice laid back approach to South East Asia travelling, suits me fine!

Kuala Lumpur

Visa? What visa?!

Despite Paul being in arcade heaven, we arrived at Tokyo airport keen to leave Japan, and ready to start our South East Asia adventure. When doing self check-in, we were asked if we had visas for Vietnam. Nope. Ever the optimists, we thought we’d just have to go to a check-in lady to do her magic. Nope. Turns out, ‘visa on arrival’ means ‘you must have a pre-arranged visa on arrival’. Shit. After a little bit of panic research we discovered that we’d have to go to the Vietnamese embassy in Tokyo, which was now closed for the weekend, it being Friday afternoon. So we were left with the option of staying in Tokyo for another 3 nights (something we wanted to avoid, if possible, as we’d intentionally cut down our time in Tokyo because of the cost of accommodation) or source alternative flights. We went with the latter, and after the ever-helpful Japanese Airlines lady did some research we were offered Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, or Jakarta (the only 3 destinations available that didn’t require visas). We went with KL, mainly because we thought that would be the easiest starting point to reach Asia from. So the next day, completely unplanned and unexpected, we found ourselves a good bit poorer and on a flight to KL.

We had 2 days in KL, during which I had a taster, and Paul had a reminder, of Malaysian culture. The highlight was definitely the food, it was amazing. We started on a low – Nandos – and then things got much, much better, Our hostel (the cheapest and also grottiest place in the world) was near Chinatown, and so one evening we had the best Chinese meal I’ve ever had. It was just a street side cafe, but the food was fresh, delicious, and cheap. We finished off with an Indian from a Banana Leaf restaurant, where we once again ordered way too much food and spent the rest of the night with rice belly.

Monkey & Coconut We spent a day on a hop on, hop off tourist bus, visiting mosques, palaces, and a butterfly farm. We also took a trip out to Batu Caves, a Hindu place of worship nestled in giant caves. Paul had been before and had warned me about the super vicious monkeys stealing food, which left me suitably panicky about removing any trace of nuts from my bag. However, Paul must have caught them on a bad day, as this time they were super cute, running around with babies clinging to their bellies, politely accepting any food offered to them.

The caves themselves were pretty impressive, though we couldn’t understand why there was so much rubbish and dirt (as well as dead chickens) lying about. Surely if it’s a sacred spot, they would want to keep it tidy?

After 4 months of travelling we were ready for a little bit of pampering, and so we went to a fish pedicure place. I know these are illegal at home now, but I like them. The fish here were unlike any I’ve seen before – they were HUGE! It took courage, and a lot of encouragement from the owner that we’d be okay, to put our feet in, the fish were so vicious. The session lasted 15 minutes, but after 10 I was done, I wanted some feet left!

Soon our little detour was over and it was time to go back to Plan A. Personally, I was happy to leave, as the men in KL seemed to think it was their right to stare at women as much as they wanted, and it did make me feel uncomfortable, especially when I was on my own. After checking and double checking the visa requirements of various Asian countries, we picked Laos as our next destination. We headed off for our early flight with fingers crossed. Second time lucky!

Tokyo

Akihabara By Night

Heading to Southeast Asia, it was an easy decision (for me at least) to stop in Tokyo. Any tech geek knows full well about the city and the famous streets of Akihabara, I count myself very lucky to be back here once again.

Coming from Honolulu and its lovely weather, we knew that heading north means Japan was right in the middle of winter and the temperatures would be in the single digits, when checking in to the flight we were prepared by the JAL staff to be ready.

For accommodation, we picked a slightly different style hostel with more of a budget hotel feel to it. The first night turned out to be a bit cold, I spent a while the next day with the Aircon controller which was all written in Kanji, pressing every button until I could get it to heat the room up. It was a nice place to stay, great facilities and most importantly a washlet, basically a toilet seat that warms up as you sit on it and washes your bum with a spray when you are finished, brilliant.

Taito's Groove CoasterThe next and first full day, Annie went off to find a swimming pool leaving me at 9:45am standing in Akihabara with a pocket full of 100yen coins and the streets of tech city to explore, tremendous! First thing I noticed was queues outside the big arcades, waiting for the doors to open at 10am, now that’s a queue I don’t mind joining.

The arcades here are nothing like you have ever seen, up to eight floors each themed from UFO pickup machines, sticker printing machines, sit down arcade cabinets, full sized cabinets and rows and rows of beat em ups. I worked my way though as much as I could, one game that stood out was Taito’s Groove Coaster. I’ve since looked it up and it’s an iOS ported to the arcade, normally something I avoid. It reminded me of Dreamcast classic Rez, basically a rhythm game with trance and J-Pop (Japanese music) blasting out as you tap along, addictive stuff.

The toilet in Sega World make me laugh, they have a screen and sensor above the toilet that counts as you pee, the display shows how many cups you have filled, I got to three and 605ml, I sadly didn’t get a chance to go back so I’m unable to tell if that’s a lot.

I was trying to avoid buying gadgets as my backpack is already crammed with boring essentials such as clothes, with the shops selling amazing items left right and center, it was hard work. The retro shops especially Super Potato is where I spent a lot of time, drooling over rows and rows of 80s and 90s nostalgia. I almost picked up a NeoGeo Pocket colour, a Wonderswan and a Famicom Bluetooth iOS controller. In the end I stumped for a PS Vita with a lovely OLED screen, should make long journeys coming up a bit easier.

Sensoji Temple Good FortuneEnough with the geek chat, for culture we explored the city by foot and metro, from the busy intersection of Shibuya (which has the strange tag of worlds busiest crossing, it wasn’t rush hour when we were there but still a ton of people flooding the road) to the rituals at the Meiji Shrine where you can join in with various local ceremonies including picking your fortune. We picked ours and both ended up with a bad ones, the rules allow you to fold and hang it up in order to get a second attempt, which resulted in better luck, hooray. Mine told me “Employment should be stopped”, um okay… I’m particularly anti religious and hate churches and all the brainwashing that goes with it, but Buddhist temples have such a nice feeling to them, gone is preaching and hymns, instead you have rituals and respect, very cool.

What amazes me about the city is that vending machines pop up all over the place, every few minutes you find one selling drinks, both soft and beer in the strangest of locations. We tried to work though as many as we could, highlights included strawberry milk in a can and hot sweetcorn which was more like a soup. With all these machines, it’s a sign of how well brought up the people are that you rarely see rubbish, the streets are clean as a hospital, yet I found myself walking for ages looking for a bin.

Full HouseA sumo wrestling match was something we were keen to see, Lady Luck was watching over us as the Grand Sumo Ryrogoku Kokugikan 12 day tournament was in mid flow. Its on every day during the afternoon until 6pm, we went along early to get some cheaper tickets. We made a half assed attempt to find our seats, the numbering made no sense, something confirmed with another westerner who asked us for help. I told them just sit anywhere, that’s what we did and it worked out fine.

The game is very easy to follow, two wrestlers are paired off, not taking into account of weight or height, they stare each other out and then rather violently clash together. The first one to either be pushed out of the ring or touch the floor with anything bar the soles of their feet loses. Matches last between a few seconds up to about half a minute, very entertaining stuff. The normally ├╝ber quiet Japanese get behind their favourites and shout out their names.

Whilst there we ordered some food, I went for the “Beer and Octo Ball” combo, I like beer and seafood, what could go wrong? I love new foods and will happily try most but this gooey substance didn’t sit well, I thought I was going to puke it back out. We managed to finish the three and happy to leave the under “tried, not recommended”.

Skytree Towering Over The CityThe Tokyo Skytree Tower sits looming above most of the city, it’s really gigantic at 605 meters high, second tallest in the world. Inside was a bit of a long queue, this being Japan it was dealt with efficiency, no pissing about like South America here. Views from the top were great, enhanced by interactive displays showing historical and nighttime views of the city, got to love a tech spin on it.

Food in Japan is always interesting, the problem starts when menus do not have any English, looking at a page of Kanji is rather tricky, what is a starter, a main or a drink? We looked around lots of places and managed to find either English menus, or places with picture that give a hint on what you are ordering, don’t want to end up with more Octo Balls!

Annie & Her CakeThe sushi was phenomenal as expected, cheap and really good. At home you normally get sushi with wasabi (the green playdoh looking stuff) on the side, here it’s spread on top of the rice hidden under the fish, a bit of a surprise on first bite. I had more than my fair share of soups with gorgeous udon noodles and even a rather good kaitsu curry. Though I loved the food, at the end I was happy to be moving on to different flavours as it does get rather repetitive.

Final day I went to the Taito drumming museum whilst Annie went off to find a temple, it was quiet and I had the whole place to myself. They have over 800 drums, the majority had a note beside them which means you can play with it. I obviously wasn’t making enough noise as the lady working there came in to tell me that I can play them – I already was, best get hitting harder! Some cracking drums there, none that would fit in a backpack.

Another fantatsic time im the city, now heading to the airport nice and early for a flight to South East Asia and our first port of call, Vietnam, or so we thought.