Posts Tagged ‘Sapa’

Vietnam and Laos Travellog: Part 1

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Vietnam

Alley in Hanoi's Old Quarter

Alley in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

We started our adventures in busy Hanoi, luckily having the home of a friend of ours as a base to explore and get over our jet lag. Hanoi is kind of a crazy place, with an abundance of honking taxis and motorbikes and few traffic rules (at least the kind that I recognize).

Hanoi is a pretty nice city, with an Old Quarter where you’re as likely as not to get lost in a maze of streets, each with its own theme. For example, on one road, every shop is selling sewing supplies; on another, things made of metal. We spent a few days exploring the city, sampling the noodles and coffees, and nervously negotiating crossing the streets. Interesting, but we were glad to escape the chaos on an overnight train to Sapa after a couple of days.

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Sapa Rice Paddies

Sapa is a mountain town popular with tourists. The fog at this time of year kept the town somewhat socked in, but a trek into the valley villages revealed hills of beautiful flooded rice paddies, as yet unplanted for the season. Local women from the H’mong ethnic minority followed our groups, selling handicrafts and sharing information about their villages and culture.

After two days in Sapa, we embarked on a night bus towards Dien Bien Phu, at the Laos border. This was a main indication of the difference between travelling in my twenties and travelling in my thirties – no more night buses! Although this one was more comfortable than any I took in Africa, being woken up (from a not-real sleep) every couple of hours with blaring Vietnamese music and a good deal of shouting does not make for a good night. Still, we got to our destination and, after a nap, explored the town, with its wide streets, minimal traffic, and bunkers and monuments from the 1954 battle against the French colonial forces.

Laos

Nam Ou River, Laos

Nam Ou River, Laos

About one week after we left Vancouver, we crossed into Laos, a long, tiring (although only about 70km) but fairly uneventful trip. After a quiet night in a border town, Muang Khua, we took a stunning 3.5 hr boat trip down the Nam Ou river, passing tiny hamlets, swimming children and lounging water buffalo, under the backdrop of stunning jungle mountains. In Laos, we’ve finally hit the hotter weather, and the boat trip was a highlight.

We came to rest in the village of Muang Ngoi, a small place with a high proportion of foreign tourists and bungalow guesthouses. It sits by the river, under dramatic mountains and while it seems like it should be a remote paradise but has been somewhat invaded by travellers. We also seemed to have timed our arrival with the funeral of a local monk, which meant all-night celebrations both nights we stayed. Still, staying in Muang Ngoi was lovely, and we did a small trek out to a tiny village, visiting a cave along the way. Although not especially long, about 2 hours, the trek was hot, and a smart woman at the entrance of the village knew what she was about when she saw us and called out, ‘cold beer!’ The villagers, used to white people walking thru, didn’t really bat an eye as we strolled past their bamboo huts.

Laos, in general, is stunning and seemingly remote. The people are friendly, but standoff-ish, and they don’t harass travellers to buy things, which is nice. After hectic Vietnam, it is lovely and relaxing here. But you can see how much has changed over the last 5-10 years, and I was naively surprised at the throngs of travellers we see everywhere. When I went to Thailand 10 years ago, Laos wasn’t on many itineraries, but with transport and road improvements, it has clearly become very popular. A great destination, but not the untouched paradise I’m sure it once was, and I have a feeling the local people wish it still was.

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