Rice paddies and flat tires
It seems as though I’ve lived a lifetime of experiences since my last update. In the past month I’ve been in three countries and taken countless bus rides.
The road has taken me lazily tubing down the murky Mekong River in rugged Laos; doing head stands beside a waterfall near Chiang Mao; getting cold to the bone motorbiking in rainy mountains; eating noodles, noodles, and more noodles; being the first woman to play pool in a remote northern Vietnam village mountain bar; going briefly to China (kind of); getting stung by a jelly fish after jumping off a cruise boat into the mystical Halong Bay; and don’t even get me started on the amazing people I’ve met.
After completing a refreshing four day yoga retreat near Chiang Mai near the end of July, I went off my planned route and headed to Pai. Everyone I met raved about it as a backpacker haven. So, I popped an anti nausea pill and jumped on a bus up the notoriously curvy route while my bus mates puked into their food baggies. As many people do, I got a bit stuck in Pai and I couldn’t say exactly how all my days slipped away there. The best way to explore Pai is by scooter, so I spent a lot of time tooting around to the various waterfalls, hot springs, caves and the Pai Canyon (which was stunning by sunset). I also wasted away many hours devouring Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants series in many of the various adorable cafes Pai has to offer. I adored Pai, but admittedly it was a westernized hippie village.
Next it was time to move on to Laos, just in the nick of time before my Thailand visa expired. Since I had the time, I chose to take the scenic route to Laos, meandering down the Mekong River on a scenic two-day slow boat to Luang Prabang. A sleepy city full of crumbling French architecture, this is the place to explore nearby Kuang Si waterfall, take a cooking class (I did) and traverse the mountain set squarely in the middle of the city to Wat Chomsi at the top for sunset.
Next up was Vang Vieng, which in the past has been known as the place where young people party til they drop. Literally. It’s a lot more chilled out now – forcibly so by the government – and it’s more about the beautiful adventure tours and various Blue Lagoons the area has to offer. The party scene definitely still exists, however, and one of my highlights of Vang Vieng was tubing down the Mekong River. When I say tubing, I actually mean 10 per cent floating, and 90 per cent playing drinking games at the various riverside bars. A ton of young adults used to die every year on these famous floats, so only a certain number of bars are allowed to be open daily. Vang Vieng was also a place I got stuck, mostly because I met so many fabulous people, many of whom I’ve remained traveling with on and off with even up until writing time (in Vietnam).
I whipped through Laos in under two weeks, far faster than I allocated time to do it. I’d made plans with friends in Vietnam and also, sadly southern Laos is still flooded from the Saddle Dam D collapse. So after only one day in the Laos capital, Vientienne, I flew to Hanoi. After arriving in the evening I immediately caught a night bus to northern Vietnam with a rag tag group of nine, who mostly all met in Vang Vieng, to do a four-day motorcycle tour. We arrived in Ha Giang in the wee hours and caught an hour of shut eye at a hostel before renting our bikes and setting out into the endless terraced paddy fields.
The Ha Giang motorbike loop is my number one highlight of this trip so far, and I seriously doubt anything will top it. Not yet overrun by tourism, authentic Vietnamese life abounded: dodging cattle on the road, women dressed in colourful traditional garb carrying huge loads of something green (?), gaggles of toddlers escorting each other to school in the middle of nowhere. The loop stills seems like a dream filled with overwhelmingly vibrant views, despite not managing a single day without mechanical issues and a gaining a perpetually sore tush.
After our tour, the gang had some desperately needed pizza before boarding the night bus back to Hanoi. Even after four days travelling together, we all still liked each other enough to decide to spend three more days travelling a bit further south to see the famous caves at Phong Nha. Here lies the biggest cave in the world, so cavernous a plane could fly in it. We definitely didn’t see this cave though, because visitors are seriously limited number per year and it costs a fortune to go in. Still, the caves we did manage to go into were breathtaking enough. It was also fascinating to learn a little bit about how the Phong Nha Cave was used as a supply route during the Vietnam War.
After Phong Nha the group reluctantly split up in different directions, but the Aussie, Swiss and I decided to go on a gorgeous two-night Halong Bay cruise. You’d think I’d start growing accustomed to the beautiful scenery, but it’s not even possible. The cruise’s first night consisted of a super swanky room on the boat, kayaking through caves, beer yoga, and also getting peed on to soothe a jellyfish sting for the first time. For the second day and night a small group of us took a little boat an hour and a half to Freedom Island, an extremely remote island with two beaches, no wifi, and probably only 100 metres across. It was a lazy day wasted away in hammocks, exploring islands with kayaks and endless card games at night.
We are now pretty much caught up to real time. My apologies for the massive blog post, I got lazy in blogging. Congratulations if you actually made it this far.
Having seen the north, I’ll now gradually start making my way south in Vietnam, where I foresee many days beach in my near future. 🏖️
Note: for more photos please see my Instagram, @hmlawsonphoto