French pastries, saffron robes and talcum powder: Luang Prabang

With a couple of exceptions noted at the end of this post, four days in Luang Praban meanders delightfully by, with little more strenuous than a sprinkle of almond croissant flakes to concern us.

I make no apologies. 

It seems that the well-meaning folks at UNESCO, while protecting a plethora of working Buddhist temples, have also encouraged the decadent cafe tradition left here by the French. Perhaps the temples still remain to serve as people-watching fodder for the coffee drinkers?


That is evidently how some tourists see it anyway, as they block the morning alms-giving ceremonies just to get that perfect saffron-splashed image. Instagram update secured, why not repair to Café Le Banneton for a cappuccino and a pain au chocolat?

UNESCO is also responsible for the horde of (admittedly very tastefully appointed) guesthouses that share Luang Prabang’s central streets with the wats and the cafes. It’s actually comical: once the monks are out of range for the day, what holidaymakers there are in low season are all parked in central open-air hotel bars to people-watch. That of course leaves the streets regrettably devoid of action. As for us backpackers, we are all busy shopping for elephant print trousers at the night market or filling our stomachs for £1.50 in the adjoining smoke-filled alleyways. The vegetarian buffet and the BBQ buffalo sausage are probably hygienic enough. 

More fool us all, as the UNESCO-clean thoroughfares are bordered by some of the most evenly-paved sidewalks in all of South-East Asia. Just wandering around without worrying about falling into the sewage system is a treat in itself. 

Even nature parades its decadence in Luang Prabang. The city centre is shaped by the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, both part of the wonderful panoramic views from the readily accessible summit of Mount Phousi. Moreover Kuang Si falls and their arresting turquoise waters are only about an hour’s ride from the city and occupy a very diverting half-day. Swimming is compulsory, as is the complimentary dead skin removal service offered by the local aquatic life. 

It is hard to feel anything other than smugly relaxed in Luang Prabang, so I should note the following:

1. We wander down a side street one day to find an old woman completely naked in the middle of the road in front of us. As we try not to look, she starts putting on various items of clothing from a frame where they have evidently been drying. Finally dressed for the day she hustles off, completely unfazed.

2. Thinking a haircut would help me to manage the Laos midday heat, I decide to give the yawning barber next door to the hotel where we spend our 2-year anniversary something to do. He must be in his eighties. As I approach, he is sat upright in the chair his clients would normally occupy, brown leathery skin covered in talcum powder. 

“Short” I tell him once I’ve taken his place and he starts covering my torso with an old sheet. His wooden walls are conspicuously covered with half naked calendar models. He dabs talcum powder on the back of my neck.

“Short?” he clarifies. I nod as he fishes out a couple of fittings for his razor. “Number one or number two?” he asks.

At this point I should really check that he means ‘back and sides’ for the razor work and not ‘number two all over’. But I don’t. So here we are:

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Muang Khua

“Muang Khua!”

The conductor is suddenly retrieving our packs and hustling us off the bus. We step down into a small square, opposite a squat bank and shops selling this and that. We change money in the bank and walk along the main street. More of the same, plus a handful of guest houses capitalising on the recent opening to foreigners of our mountain-top border crossing with Vietnam.

It is the first time in two years on the road that I can confidently describe a place I’ve visited as sleepy. We browse a few of the accommodation options; we pick a place with a grand terrace overlooking the Nam Ou river and the road leading down to it.

We have the terrace to ourselves.

A rooster cries. Later, a kitten mews for a bit.

We see a pair of cockneys who have motorbiked here from somewhere. There’s an Australian couple floating about too, him in a loud (ok terrible) shirt we saw on sale opposite our hostel back in Hué.

We go for lunch and dinner at the same place nearby and we wait an hour for service. By 19:30 we are alone in the restaurant in the dark.

The next morning we pack and walk down to the jetty for the daily boat south to Nong Khiaw. If we can muster ten passengers we’ll have our ticket for the six-hour ride reduced to 120,000 Kip pp (£12). Not a chance. The five of us stump up 150,000 Kip each and – together with Deborah, Tom, and Amélie – Kaili and I board the slow boat out of the sleepiest town.

Dien Bien Phu – Muang Khua (Laos)

Dep: 06:15

Arr: 14:00

After a night in Dien Bien Phu, we catch a bus that stops every thirty metres or so on its way out of the city. We pick up parcels, people and a box of noisy chicks. The cheeping ones are stored in the roof.

The border crossing comes after a long pull up mountain roads clogged with trucks. A new building commands a spectacular position at the top of range. I am strong-armed through the formalities by our nervous bus conductor, clearly on a tight schedule. At the immigration check on the way out of Vietnam, passports are handed across the desk to the guards with money inside. While the bribe per person only equates to about 35 pence, we decide not to follow suit. The officer behind the desk checks Kaili’s passport and looks at me, stood waiting by his desk.

“Are you married?”

“No”.

“Why”. This is an accusation rather than a question.

Luckily, us being married isn’t one of the prerequisites for leaving Vietnam, even though the guard has taken the opportunity to make us feel like it should be.

The final section of the journey is a slog. Down the other side of the mountain in Laos the views are staggering, forested peaks stretching as far as we can see. But the driver has his schedule so, tyres screaming on the tight hilly bends, we blast off towards Muang Khua.

Conversation practice: Dien Bien Phu

“We saw you coming down from the monument and I challenged my friend to ask you over for a drink or dinner.”

Actively seeking English conversation practice, Zugi and Anne have been hanging out by border city Dien Bien Phu’s Victory Monument. The statue celebrates the Viet Minh’s victory against colonial French forces here in 1954 that lead to the Europeans’ withdrawal from Vietnam altogether. We have ended up in Dien Bien thanks to the logistical necessities of overland travel between Sapa and Laos, but we have discovered the scene of a battle that had a fundamental impact on the future of Indochina on the way.

In the busy city centre, the monument is the most visible reference to the colonial struggles. It commands an excellent position overlooking the traffic and the malls, and the sweeping mountain range we must cross to get into Laos. From the upper reaches of the steps leading up to it, the beacon that is my blonde hair and dark beard combination completely ruins Kaili’s attempts to go incognito, so to dinner with complete strangers we go!

Zugi is an engaging, confident English speaker in town on business from Ho Chi Minh. He works for a corrugated iron company supplying sheets for roofs. Anne is eating dinner with a westerner for the first time and, as a local high school student, is understably a little nervous. The cultural affinity Kaili shares for Vietnam goes a long way to put her at ease and it works out as a nice evening.  

We say our goodbyes early to stock up for our early bus into Laos the following morning.

Sapa to Dien Bien Phu

Dep: 07:30

Arr: 16:30

Our Sapa guesthouse puts us on a minivan that twists and turns down the mountainside in thick fog. The road frequently slumps into gravel traps, seal not yet applied. Buses, trucks and motorbikes vie for occupation of the tarmac. We are turfed off the bus in Lai Chau, immediately to board another.

Bus number two breaks for lunch at a restaurant guarded by red-necked roosters. Men squat beside them, feeding them liquid that makes them splutter and riling them up ready for competition.

Throughout the journey we wind along immense river valleys and past towering forested karst outcrops. We finally pull into Dien Bien Phu, not regretting the decision to go overland to Laos in the slightest.

Marital kidnap: Sapa

 

“There’s a custom among our people where a boy can kidnap any girl.” Mai notes our surprised expressions as we survey the paddy fields of Sapa Valley. “If the girl stays with him for three days, she is agreeing to marry him, if she escapes and runs away, she doesn’t.”

It occurs to me that to some, this might be sort of what I am doing to Kaili, albeit on a different scale.

From Sapa Town (so tourist friendly it’s unfriendly), high school student Mai guides us down the treacherously muddy rice terraces to the villages nestled on the valley floor.

“Do the locals take this path every day?” Kaili asks as we slip down another steep bank.

“Nah, this one is just for tourists,” says Mai. “We just take a motorbike to town.”

The local Hmong hilltribes have had 30 years to get used to visitors tramping through their beautiful valley, and it shows. They are ruthless saleswomen: they are as proficient in English as the situation requires, and even brief eye contact is apparently enough of a connection to generate responsibility to buy.

Local ethnic minority populations we’ve seen elsewhere were sitting behind looms and gift shop checkouts but not the Hmong; they pound the hilly streets all day, hawking homemade bags, scarves and pouches.

Time to go; my hostage is calling me.

The Sapaly Express: Hanoi to Sapa

Dep Hanoi: 11th June 22:00

Arr: Sapa Town: 12th June 11:00

Back in Hanoi, Jaz books us on a train to Lao Cai, near the Chinese border. From there a 40km minivan ride will take us to former French hill station, Sapa.

We are booked onto the incredibly plush Sapaly Express, with its gilded cabin and fluffy bedding. The luxury is incongruous; despite the feather-filled pillows we are still going to be jolted and jilted on the rails. It’s like sleeping in four-poster mahogany dormitory bunks.

I sleep poorly; it’s very hot under the 12-tog Persian duvet. The next morning we watch rain pour down over hillside farms and I think about finally wearing jeans and a jacket again in Sapa’s cooler climate.

Limestone karsts and plastic oceans: Cat Ba Island

“What’s this western obsession with jumping off stuff into water?” Kaili asks, as another brazen youngster leaps from the top deck of a Lan Ha Bay junk. Cheers erupt from the bobbing heads who have already taken the plunge.

For a couple of days we are cruising, stand up paddleboarding, climbing and kayaking in an area that has become popular as a more  ‘chilled out’ version of Halong Bay. Lan Ha Bay surrounds Cat Ba Island, a little to the north of Vietnam’s blockbuster attraction.

The limestone karst outcrops that Halong Bay is famous for are here too, creating beautiful natural auditoriums, swimming pools and arches. The views are incredible throughout our trip. However, the water is absolutely filthy. A top layer of scum surrounds beer cans, bottles and polystyrene. This is particularly the case around the many floating houses in the bay. In fact, billowing along with the currents as they are, the carrier bags could almost be jellyfish from a distance.

60% of plastic in the Earth’s oceans sits in waters surrounding 5 Asian countries. One of these is Vietnam, and on the thoroughly depressing evidence we see all over the bay there is a phenomenal task ahead of anyone with the authority and commitment to attempt change. Slapping a UNESCO World Heritage sticker on it, with all the regulations and restrictions it entails, only goes as far as the designated area’s boundaries.

So I certainly can’t explain why so many western tourists are desperate to get back into the disgusting water, often only seconds after they’ve reboarded whatever means of aquatic transport they’ve been using.

American Landon, at five years old the most sociable passenger on our boat, is no exception. As his Vietnamese mother watches him outdo many of the young adults on our boat with his diving, she turns to me:

“That’s your future you’re watching, Asian mother and Western Father.”
Well, not if Kaili and I ever return to another bloody tandem kayak it isn’t! In 35 degree heat and relentless sunshine we fight for two hours just to get the sodding thing to go in a straight line. With no training on correct posture or technique offered by staff who seem most interested in their own enjoyment, my back takes the weight of each wild set of strokes and my attempts to correct our wayward progress that immediately follow.

A couple of smug tourists glide past just as we’ve straightened our kayak for the 836th time.

“Circle workers is it?” one shouts.

I honestly have a blazing retort ready but before I can unleash it, we are facing the wrong way again. Such witticisms require one to be in sound control of one’s personal geography. 

That night we watch the sun go down and the moon come up in a secluded part of the bay. In the shadow of the boats we observe incredible bio-luminescent plankton in the water before we settle down for the night on the open deck…

…until we wake up in the dark under a torrential downpour. Kaili, sheltered by the deck’s tarpaulin cover that ends above her head, has been trying to physically roll me towards her and relative dryness with no success. I finish the job very quickly once I understand what’s happening. We sleepily hustle below deck and eventually return to sleep on wet bedding.

How to live in Hanoi

We are welcomed to smoggy Hanoi by Kaili’s friend Jaz, an ex-pat accountant with the same Singaporean instinct for good food. 

Jaz is around in the morning to meet us when we reach her two floor flat about half an hour away from The Old Quarter. The flat is a spacious, comfortable place to plot our assault on the city’s food scene.

We meet some of Jaz’ clients and friends over excellent seafood and beer, and my Chinese gets another workout in the process.

While Jaz is at work, Kaili and I watch an interesting water puppet show and take a paid food tour. The tour is scheduled at breakfast but the guide refuses to tailor the evening tour for the morning slot, so I am back on the beer and ‘happy water’ (rice wine) before 11am has swung round. 

Best left to the Singaporean experts, this food selection stuff…