Days 28-30 in Southeast Asia (Feb 22-24, 2016)
Exploring Vientiane: Wat Sri Suphan
Knowing we only had 2 full days in Vientiane to explore the city (which is plenty of time, because there’s not a ton to do here), we decided to knock a bunch of items off our list right off the bat. It was hot and humid as ever outside, but we decided we were going to see the city by foot anyways, so we set off towards a temple about 1km away called Wat Sri Suphan. It was a nice temple, but nothing super incredible to look at so we didn’t spend too long there.
COPE Visitor Centre & Learning about the UXO
Our next stop was the COPE Visitor Centre, an organization that helps educate both locals and tourists about the UXO (Unexploded Live Ammunition) that cover over a quarter of the country, and have still not blown up since the US bombing during the war. 30% of what was dropped didn’t go off, and there are certain areas of the country now that are almost deserted because of it. Slowly, COPE has been locating these bombs and safely removing them, but it is a tedious chore as one can imagine, and because of the slow process, over 20,000 people have been killed since after the war ended. COPE helps to educate locals and children as well, who often pick up UXO unknowingly thinking it is scrap metal that can be sold for profit, or who build fires in dangerous areas, unaware of the fact that if the ground below the fire has any UXO, it will explode from the heat.
The country has an incredible amount of amputees and disabled individuals because of the problem, and COPE helps improve their lifestyle through prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation. It was shocking to hear just how much of the country is still affected by this since the war, but it was interesting to learn about and definitely reminded us how lucky we are to live somewhere that we’d never worry about accidentally building a campfire over unexploded ammunition. It sometimes takes a little bit of a harsh reality check to realize what a luxury it is to feel so completely safe all the time back home, and it is something we often don’t even think about, simply BECAUSE we are so lucky. I only pray that someday the lovely people of Laos will know that luxury also.
Victory Monument (Patuxai)
After our visit at COPE, we continued walking to the centre of the city to check out Patuxai (Victory Monument), for a view of Vientiane from above. For only 3000LAK (under 50 cents), we were allowed to climb to the top, which made for a great photo of the city, despite the tourist crowds.
That Luang Temple
After, we grabbed a bite to eat at a cafe, and walked a couple more km to That Luang, a beautiful golden temple that was well worth the extra hike away from our hostel. It was surrounded by other temples, and we arrived just as the sun was setting making for a pretty beautiful view. We walked around a bit and enjoyed the peace and quiet (we arrived just afer the inside of the temple had closed for the day, and there were hardly any other tourists), and grabbed a tuk tuk back to the hostel after a long day of walking around the city.
Our Last Night Together in Vientiane
Vientiane is pretty massive compared to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, and it shows just in a simple drive across the city centre as you pass tens of car dealerships and shopping malls and billboards, which are nowhere to be found in either of the other cities we just visited. It was a nice city though, and definitely not as unexciting as a lot of people had told us. Mostly there’s just not much of a night life, but I’m completely okay with that being the case, especially for only a few nights, so I didn’t mind.
When we got back to our hostel, we quickly freshened up and headed back out to check out the night market in Vientiane, where we walked for a few minutes before deciding to sit down for some food. We shared some beers and laughs as we watched Nils and Andrew try the “spicy frog” dish, which made them literally cry and sweat until their faces were dripping. I tried a bite for myself and can definitely vouch for the spicy level, but it was still fun to watch them suffer through, especially Nils who insists on eating only the spiciest foods available and then proceeds to cry and sweat for the next hour while the rest of us laugh and take pictures of him.
Back at the hostel, we found out that if you buy a can of pop at the front desk (10,000LAK or $1.70), the gentleman working at the front would give you a free shot of vodka. I told him we would take 2, and he handed me a couple of glasses to pour some shots ourselves. After pouring the two biggest shots of my life, he looked at me, laughed and said “OH just take it all…” so naturally, we took the bottle, still half full, and went back to the room and drank, basically for free. The 5 of us played cards and drank until 2am (which is really late when you know how early everything here shuts down), and we honestly had the best time together.
We had nothing but an empty room, a deck of cards, a bottle of vodka, some Beer Lao and each other’s company, and I can honestly say it was more fun than any night I’ve spent out so far, at any fancy bar or club. It really was the perfect way to spend our last night together (Andrew and Nils had to leave the next night on a bus North, and David the following morning for Cambodia). In total, we will have spent 19 days with Andrew and Nils, and 23 with David. I’ve grown to love each of these guys as individuals and as part of our little family, and they will be missed dearly.
Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) Before Leaving Vientiane
The next morning, on our final day together, we took a local bus to Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), which only cost us 6000LAK each way, plus 5000LAK entry (17,000LAK or $3 in total), vs. 70,000KLAK or $12 had we booked through our hostel or an agency, and it wasn’t tough to figure out at all. An hour later on bus 14 from the morning market, we had arrived. The park isn’t too big in itself, but there’s a ton to see, including a main sphere with 4 or 5 stories inside to climb up and take pictures from. We spent a couple hours in the park and hopped on the bus back to the city.
Birthdays & Goodbyes
When we got back, Maddie and I ran ahead of the boys and snuck into a little cafe where we grabbed a slice of cake and a candle to bring back to the hostel, and we sang Happy Birthday to Andrew who would be turning 27 in less than a week, and we figured we ought to do a little something special for him since we wouldn’t be with him during his actual birthday. It wasn’t much, but I think he appreciated our efforts which is what matters most at the end of the day.
We hung out by the lobby for the next couple of hours waiting with Andrew and Nils for their minibus out of the city, and after a tearful goodbye, Maddie and I went out for dinner by ourselves, dragging our broken hearts behind us. It wasn’t the same without the boys, but we knew going into this trip that goodbyes were inevitable, I guess the only surprise was just how attached we had become, and how hard it was to say goodbye. I never thought I’d make such incredible friends who would mean so much to me in such a short period of time. They were with me through the worst night of my life in Luang Prabang, and for some of the highlights of the trip so far. We spent all of our time together, from exciting adventures to laying low… and while I know we’ll meet other people along the way who we’ll become friends with, I feel that it’s a rare thing to get as close with just anyone as we did with these guys. Hopefully we’ll bump into them again somewhere along the line, and I told them if we didn’t that they’d better clear a spot on their couch in Alaska for me.
Leaving for Vietnam!
The next morning we said a final goodbye to David, packed our bags, and headed off to the Airport. We booked our tickets online in advance, but I wasn’t totally sure if mine had gone through, because I never received an e-ticket by e-mail, so we made sure we arrived at the airport with plenty of time just incase. Turns out it didn’t go through, and I now had to pay 1.5 times the price Maddie paid, in CASH, meaning I also had to pay ATM fees to withdraw more to pay for the flight last minute, costing me about $190CAD total… I was unimpressed. After running around the airport for a few hours and meeting a couple of British gentlemen who had also been having issues with their tickets and visas, we finally boarded our flight and were off to Hanoi, Vietnam
Honestly, I have loved my time in Laos for a lot of the activities we did and of course the people I was with, but I feel like the food poisoning and now overpaying for a flight kind of left a bitter taste in my mouth. To top it off, we’re pretty sure we had bedbugs in our last hostel, even though I keep telling myself it was just mosquitoes that mauled me on the last night (they’re REALLY bad in Vientiane). My legs from the knee down are absolutely COVERED in bites, as are Maddie’s, and we’re planning a full clothes and bag cleaning once we arrive at our place in Vietnam, just to be safe, but the bites are enough to drive anyone crazy, and it’s very quickly getting from slightly annoying to pull-out-your-hair-maddening.
Welcome to Vietnam!
The flight was a quick hour, and once we arrived in Vietnam, we payed the $25USD visa fee (after getting our visas approved in advance online), got our 30 Day visas and (fairly quickly) got outside of the Airport, ready to make our way to the Train Station where we’d be hopping on an overnight train to Sa Pa in the evening. We split a minivan into the city with the British gentlemen and some other tourists we met, and chatted as we enjoyed our first real view of the massive (and chilly) city of Hanoi. The streets here are crowded and hectic, buildings stacked on top of each other in endless rows, and scooters EVERYWHERE.
Overnight Train From Hanoi to Sa Pa
At last, we reached the station, booked our 8 hour train for 10pm (arriving at 6am), for 545,000VND ($33), and walked around a bit after sticking our bags in lockers at the station. We enjoyed our first meal of wonton soup and steamed pork buns, and sat in a cafe afterwards for the comfy seats and free wifi. We stayed for a couple of hours until the train left, and hopped on board to our new home for the next 8 hours. Here we met Nadia and Kiren, a couple of British ladies who were assigned as our bunk mates. The sleeper train has 4-berth rooms, which is basically two small bunk beds side by side and a bit of room between them with a table, as well as a washroom down the hall to be shared with the whole train section (it wasn’t pretty). We talked for a bit, had some snacks and went to sleep. Overall, the train was pretty nice (and warm), and other than the bug bites on my legs that were driving me crazy, I was very comfortable while I slept. I actually ran to a pharmacy last minute before boarding the train and grabbed some itch cream, which I used when I was up in the night and it actually seemed to help quite a bit.
At 5:30am, we woke up and got our things together before disembarking the train in Lao Cai, where we grabbed a 30 minute minibus for 50,000VND ($3) each to take us to Sa Pa. It was a rainy and cold morning (about 5 degrees), and we bundled up as we got off of the minibus, with nowhere booked to stay and no idea where to go. There we were, enjoying our first look at Northern Vietnam… we tightened our backpack straps and hit the road, ready to find out what Vietnam had in store for us!