So Long, Ha Long and the Chaos of Laos

Cold in Ha-Long Bay

The weather was good, we were told, and as we approached the flat grey blue water we could believe it for a minute as the skies were not overcast for once and a weak sun made an entrance and tried, in vain, to warm us up. Traveling in new and unused luxury we were ferried to a large boat which looked a little like the steam-boat paddlers except this was engine powered and had a fancy sun deck where one could admire the view in the 8 degree breeze. We had a lovely little cabin and it felt very Agatha Christie (a la Death on the Nile) as we got to know our other boatmates. We hurtled through Ha Long Bay’s curious mounded islands – heaped rock and tree sitting plumply in the grey blue water and came to a stop amid a fleet of other mini-cruises and right next to a floating village.

Chilly Ha-Long bay- usually green, today, grey

We were to kayak to the village and back which seemed like a terrific idea except Simon and alex had never kayaked together before or actually, operated any vehicle together! Wrapped snug in our life jackets we wobbled inelegantly onto the kayak and solemnly accepted the paddles. Simon patiently tried to explain that a cohesive rhythm was key to getting anywhere. Alex pretended to listen and yet still managed to make the kayak do some impressive circles. Somehow we managed to reach the floating village which was little more than a few small barges lashed together with some sheets  of wood to serve as a platform or deck area. Three families were left in this makeshift village, the Government having cleared the majority away recently with the promise of housing, free schooling and jobs. All in a bid to clean up the bay which the apparent overpopulation had polluted.

One of the curious mountains

After a few friendly waves and feeling like we were trespassing hugely on these peoples’ lives, we slopped on towards some caves. Getting into the rhythm, we powered along pretty quick and almost sheared a crossing enemy kayak in half. It was filled with strangers who were nice enough to laugh off their brush with death. Managing to not capsize, we pulled back into the safety of the boat having admired some shrines set up in the sheltered underside of the mountains, where shallow caves had been formed.

 

Ha-Long Bay is uniquely beautiful, mostly for it’s unusual geological setting. We went to see the Ti-Top mountain monument which is built in honour of a German astronaut who was friendly with Ho chi Minh and consists of a Pagoda at the end of hundreds of steep steps. There were hundreds of tourists milling about and although the view was pretty good from the top, it meant jostling for space in the pagoda between the bristling forests of selfie sticks and the bossy old women taking up all the room to take terrible photos on their cheap mobiles. A little tired of the jostling and huffing and grumbles at the top of the monument, we decided to skip back down and take our opportunity for a swim. Bearing in mind it was winter and almost everyone on the beach was in a coat, we caused quite a sensation with scores of Asian tourists demanding selfies with us once we’d run out of the cool water and squidgey clay like sand. Stoically, we posed, goosebumps and all, with all the grinning tourists, patiently dreaming of our towels and hot drinks.

The bay at night

Alex trying to catch some dinner

Returning to the boat, after a sumptuous meal, we tried our hand at squid fishing. Although, as it turns out, the season was a little early for the squid who, very sensibly, prefer warmer currents to float along. Not to be deterred, we held out our bamboo canes, the end of which had a short fishing line with a squid-shaped four toothed hook at the end. This was bobbed up and down in the pool of light from the boat, the aim of which was to snag a squid. Sadly, none were caught although once we’d left the fishing area we obviously saw loads of massive squid propelling through the shallows on the other said of the boat!

 

One of Ha-Long Bay’s caves

The next morning, we were up and out by 6:30am to visit a cave which we were surprisingly impressed by. The cave was formed naturally hundreds of years ago and had been enhanced recently with cleverly hidden lighting to give it a festive and slightly surreal feel. The cave was pretty huge and contained a lot of interpreted forms- such as a Buddha form and a dragon who promised long life.  Apparently people used to live in them which considering their size and how cosy it felt inside, is understandable.

 

Rice paper for spring rolls

We then set our hand to learning how to make Vietnamese spring rolls. Both Simon and Alex have discovered a deep fondness for the summer rolls but we were told that they were easy to make and we were to learn to make the more complex spring version. Alex took on the roll of spring roll roller and executed 12 perfect little rolls while Simon admired the workmanship and took photos.

 

The crucial stages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving Ha-Long Bay was difficult as it had been such a beautiful place. It’s easy to see why it’s nominated as a natural wonder of the world. We got back on the bus and made our way to Hanoi and to the next stage of the journey- an overnight “luxury” bus to Luang Prabang, Laos! the images of the bus shown to us by the tour agency showed a roomy bus with double cabin beds next to wide and clean windows. For $40 each we were delighted with the deal and looked forward to seeing Laos.

The disaster began as soon as we stepped into the tour agency, carrying our luggage. “The bus is cancelled- there was a bus yesterday, today no bus.” We stopped, incredulous, thinking of our plane tickets we’d booked for the day after next. The agent was adamant that we wait there while he sorted something. Two other tourists joined us, also waiting for the mythological luxury bus. Suddenly, after a few barking phonecalls, all four of us were bundled into a tiny car and we were soon racing across town to an unknown destination. We were dropped, unceremoniously on the outskirts of Hanoi and thinking that the agent was just trying to get rid of us we started assembling our bags. Out of nowhere a chap came out and asked if we were the tourists going to Luang Prabang. WE nodded and he explained we had to take two buses to get to Luang Prabang. He hurried us over to a bus which was lit up in disco lights and cooled to arctic temperatures. The TV was turned to deafening levels and soon every bunk was filled with families and strangers.

Alternative luxury

Packing a bus, Vietnam- Laos style

After a chilling ride in the mobile freezer unit, we were deposited in a parking lot filled with minibuses. The chap who’d accosted us earlier motioned for us to board a bus being loaded up in the corner “that’s your bus to Luang Prabang.” We were a little nervous about it as it seemed dangerously top heavy and from now to the border and beyond, the highway was little more than curves in the mountains.

Nevertheless, as we had no choice, we boarded the bus and the driver pointed to two of the narrowest seats for us to sit on. Simon’s knees were somewhere near his ears as he squeezed into the space and Alex was squashed against a grimy window, bags piled on top. We counted space for 25 people on board all told and yet the driver was squeezing more and more people on board to the point where we had 32 crammed in with an old man practically sitting on top of Simon’s cramped knees.

Full to bursting and with almost two tonnes of bags, boxes and miscellaneous stuff on top of the bus, we were off! Next stop was the border with Laos and after the nightmare of the Vietnamese visas, we hoped our information of VOA was correct.

tired of the bus journey

 

The bus journey was endless, it was a hot and cramped 2 hours to the border with two new passengers taken on board en route. We all bounded out of the bus, glad to be stretching our legs and cross on foot. WE queued up to get our stamps in our passport but were beaten to the queue by an agent representing a dozen Dutch tourists- their processing took ages because the official needed to see them in person and they were scattered around the site, enjoying the sun.

 

At last we were stamped and legal to leave. We exited the dark building into the blazing sun and walked across to the Laos immigration building.

Immigration buildings

 

 

 

 

 

Laos seemed pretty straightforward, we filled a visa sheet, paid our $30 and gave a photo, and eventually got our passports back. then we had to pay for the signature on the book, then we had to pay for the tourist tax, then we had to pay for our temperature check and at each booth we walked to it seemed everyone wanted a $1 or two to process something. It as quite funny by the end as we were directed from one official booth to another.  Finally, having paid our dues, we were allowed back on the bus, some of the passengers were curiously missing as there was literally no where to go near the border but we made the most of the unexpected space and extra oxygen.

A luxury bus

View of Laos countryside

What was supposed to be a 14 hour journey from Hanoi was already surpassed by 2 hours and we were getting tired and hungry (no rest stops on this bus!). Eventually, the bus stopped in a town to unladen most of the roof cargo and the passenger number decreased to 24.

Towards sunset we were still nowhere near Luang Prabang but mercifully the driver was kind enough to let us out for a toilet break, snack purchase and drink of water. He was irritated with us for asking but perhaps it is better not to have to clean the seats after an enclosed 15 hour journey.

The small shop was run by a kind and quiet lady who sensed the impatience of the driver and let us use the facilities and buy our snacks as quickly as possible. By 8:30pm, we were pulling into Luang Prabang, now only 6 people on the bus. Still, the driver wouldn’t stop conveniently close to the guesthouse we’d booked and insisted on completing his journey to the bus stop, 3km ahead. We unfolded ourselves off the bus and walked 3km back to the guesthouse who almost gave our room away but thankfully didn’t.

 

We then awoke at dawn for a whistlestop tour of Luang Prabang before catching our flight to K.L.

Monks collecting alms at dawn

Mekong River

It was such a beautiful and peaceful town next to the Mekong river that we were sad to have to leave, particularly as we’d only just arrived (the luxury bus promised to get us there for lunchtime). We made the most of the dawn light and wandered into monasteries and saw people preparing breakfast and setting up restaurants and cafes for the day ahead.

We wandered around until we had to get a tuk-tuk for the airport. Promising the town that we would return.

Monastery in Luang Prabang

 

 

 

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