A Tale of Two Countries
They say Vietnam is one of those countries where you either love it or hate it. By the end of my two-week stay, I was definitely leaning towards the latter.
Vietnam was right in the middle of my Southeast Asia trip. I arrived in Chau Doc via boat from Phnom Penh and in a spur-of-the-moment decision, decided to head to Phu Quoc island. From there, I would make my way north, stopping in Saigon, Nha Trang, Hoi An and finally Hanoi. Although I have a lot of fond memories, the overriding theme of Vietnam was one of growing frustration.
It certainly didn’t help that I was there during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, when prices went through the roof and everywhere became 5,000% more crowded. But it extended beyond that. Vietnam, as a country, was the only place where I felt the people were rude. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I didn’t venture out of the cities or maybe it was lingering resentment towards Americans (maybe they’re nicer to Canadians?). Whatever the case, I constantly felt like the natives were trying to trick and cheat me out of every dollar I had.
I ran into cab drivers who jumped their meters, bus drivers who claimed our tickets were fake, restaurant owners who gave us a foreign menu with higher prices, and hotel managers who gave us shoddy rooms. Likewise, haggling was often a very unpleasant experience with vendors becoming angry or hostile. To top it off, the cities (especially Saigon and Hanoi) had a very stifling atmosphere. It was hot and muggy with a fair amount of pollution. The roads were constantly packed with thousands of motobikes, each jostling for a spot on the road. You think Vuvuzelas are annoying? Try listening to the constant “BEEP BEEP BEEP” of a thousand motobikes. Successfully crossing a street became a small miracle, akin to Moses parting the red sea. Even the nightlife was lacking. With the exception of Nha Trang (Sailing Club anyone?), bars and clubs just weren’t that happening. I can’t comment on Saigon because I only stayed one night but Hoi An had a couple of quiet bars and Hanoi had an early curfew influenced by the still-present communist party.
Vietnam just didn’t resonate with me. By the time I bought my plane tickets to leave Hanoi, I was like a 10-month old baby ready to pop.
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From Hanoi, we flew to Luang Prabang. Laos is one of the last bastions of “undiscovered” places in Southeast Asia and Luang Prabang is certainly the jewel of the country. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and once served as the royal capital of Laos. “LPB”, as I like to affectionately call it, also holds a special place in my heart. After my experience in Vietnam, the town was like a breath of cool, fresh air. Everything I loathed in Vietnam disappeared: the streets were wide open, the air was clean and people were smiling. It felt like I had landed in paradise; funny what a couple of hours on a plane can do for you.
Luang Prabang is nestled in the Laos countryside and flanked by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. There’s a very strong French influence which is reflected in its architecture and delicious French bread. Time also seems to stand still in sleepy LPB. You’ll see people leisurely strolling in the streets, shopkeepers and hotel owners fast asleep at the front desk, and kids spending their afternoons by the riverbanks. Even the normally hyper-aggressive tuktuk drivers are not immune: more often than not, you’ll find them dozing off behind the wheel of their empty carts. And as if this wasn’t good enough, forever gone were the sounds of honking, replaced by the chirping of birds and the gentle soothing sounds of the river.
Not only was it incredibly relaxing, there was a lot to see and do in and around the area. One of the best evenings of my trip was spent watching the sunset from Phu Si hill which provided an awe-inspiring 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape. Located nearby were the Kuang Si waterfalls and Pak Ou caves, both of which are popular attractions. At night, LPB offered the night market as a relaxing way to end a day. On the other hand, if a wild night was in order, who can forget the infamous “Lao lao” rice whiskey and the weird Laos tradition of raging in a bowling alley?
I ended up staying for a week, spending a couple of days doing nothing and taking it easy. The town represented a return to simpler times and it was exactly what I needed after my experience in Vietnam. It was a break from all the noise and hubbub of a capital city and gave me a much needed break from being constantly on the move.
When I left LPB, I felt refreshed, de-stressed and like a million bucks.
My next destination? Vang Vieng. Oh. What. A. Place.