Solo female trip to Vietnam and Laos 2014 Part 1

#1 Apr 6th, 2014, 05:49
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Hi IMers! Another solo trip for me, female over “ahem” 50…From mid-January to mid-March of 2014 I decided to do a change of pace and go to Vietnam and Laos. First time NOT in India for three years!

I have to say, it was an interesting trip, but I missed the elegance and wicked good humour of the India people….I love India! Having said that, I will try to do justice to the good people of Vietnam and Laos. Very different places!

I arrived in Hanoi on 13 January to excellent cool but sunny weather. I really liked Hanoi. It feels small, it’s easy to walk around (Old Quarter) and there is lots going on for people watching! But I’d rather cross the street any day in Delhi than in Hanoi! They drive FAST, and it’s all motorcycles and scooters. I will never take another motorcycle taxi in Hanoi, really, it was scary!

Some Hanoi images



The lake in Hanoi Old Quarter





I headed down the coast on the train to Danang. The trains are excellent and very comfortable. The four-bed compartments actually have doors on them, which made me feel a little better about my luggage…I had a big ole cable and lock that I didn’t really need. I went straight to Hoi An from Danang. I was amazed at the value in hotels throughout the whole trip…a super place in Hoi An (which is supposed to be expensive) for $10! I would pay $15+ for the same thing in India. Hoi An is quite the DisneyLand. Hoards of tourists roaming the streets, piped in piano concertos (!) that you can hear throughout the main outdoor areas. It IS pretty, in a contrived sort of way, and I enjoyed it for what it was. The food is really FANTASTIC. I would go to Hoi An just to eat. Some of the best food I have had, anywhere.

Did I mention I liked the food? It was also easy and fun to rent a bike and ride around to the beaches (average) and non-touristy areas.

Hoi An





I did the requisite “motorcycle trip” (with a Vietnamese driver) up over the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hue. It was a great trip though a mountainous and misty area and I got to see a lot of rural Vietnam this way, a good introduction to the country. We stopped at lots of interesting places…I got to make rice crepes at one lady’s house! Great motorcycle road!

Ho Chi Minh Trail between Hoi An and Hue



Rice fields and mausoleums on the way



Hue was a LOT of temples…you have to really like temples…

I went on from Hue to Savannakhet in Laos and just missed the Chinese New Year in Vietnam. I was happy about this because travel options get pretty booked up or are non-existent as people ALL go home for the holiday, and lots of places are closed.

Laos felt different right away…a lot more rustic, which I liked! I rode in lots of trucks with slat seats in the back for passengers and lots of cargo. The Laos people are very relaxed and friendly. Every time our truck stopped, ladies with barbeque, bamboo stuffed with sweet rice, jackfruit with chili were offered to us.

Barbeque ladies-they come running for the trucks!



Savannakhet was pretty quiet, but the people were really nice! From here I went on to Don Dhet in the 4000 Islands. It’s a very tiny island and there are some things to see on neighbouring Don Kong as well, but three days was enough. I liked watching the people in the tiny town in Don Dhet just going about their business, playing petang, working on their little gardens, fixing fishing nets and boats.

Scenes of Don Dhet Island (4000 Islands)

The view from a bungalow, Mekong River



Just another laid back day on Don Dhet



I went to Tad Lo from Don Dhet. It felt a bit like an old time backpacker hangout…laid back and rustic and you make your own fun, which suits me! I did a two day trek where they had a Laos “Friendship ceremony” for me. It was lovely and unexpected. Quite elaborate! Two ladies spent a few hours making a shrine of rolled up banana leaves, then they hung white string off the tops, which was used as bracelets for me from the people at the ceremony. Prayers were read and the string was fastened around my wrist while each person recited good wishes for me. It was very touching.

Friendship ceremony near Tad Lo



I love the country in Laos, rolling deciduous forest with pockets of banana, papaya, coffee, sugar cane…everything seems to grow here. We just ate our way through as we walked…with permission of course.

In Part 2, I'll post about Luang Prabang in the north of Laos, and some trekking in Laos and north Vietnam. Thanks for reading!
It might be the best of times or the worst of times...but it's the only time you've got!
Last edited by JuliaF; Apr 13th, 2014 at 16:44.. Reason: pics
#2 Apr 6th, 2014, 05:50
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Grrrr....pictures didn't come out right again...tooo small! I wonder how I can fix this easily and make them bigger?
#3 Apr 6th, 2014, 06:17
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Part 2 Solo female trip Vietnam and Laos Part 2

I flew from Pakse (near Tad Lo) to Luang Prabang. I don’t usually fly internally, but I think it was a good plan. Luang Prabang was also touristy (a bit like Hoi An) but I really liked it…it seemed to retain it’s identity even though it was a huge tourist draw. Beautiful temples, good food, and a nice town to bike around. Khang Si waterfall near Luang Prabang was probably the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen…you could just walk on and on to different parts of the river with pools that were perfect to swim in. Wow!


Khang Si waterfalls, beautiful!



On to Nong Khiew. My favourite place on the whole trip. It’s about three hours from Luang Prabang by bus and it’s tiny but just has a lovely feel. There is a great restaurant with a herbal sauna (which was great because it was quite cool at night) and you can kayak and climb to a look out. It’s just a beautiful place of jagged mountains and the Nam Ou river is wonderful.

Nong Khiew



Down the Nam Ou river



Near Nong Khiew



From Nong Khiew I got a river boat to Muang Khua. There were three tourists on the boat, which is traditional one like all the others that go up and down the river with passengers and cargo, all bound for tiny thatch-roofed villages along the way. The boat is about five feet wide and about 50 feet long. They are built this way to get through the narrow, shallow parts of the Nam Ou. It got pretty exciting at times, wondering how the boat was going to make it through some pretty impressive rapids!

Muang Khua was a bit slow to grow on me, but it was a wonderful town, mainly because it just seemed like people were enjoying their lives there! People playing badminton, petang (I saw an INDOOR COURT!), outdoor pool tables in frequent use. Just a nice town. I spent a couple of days here waiting for a boat to Hat Sa, which was fine by me.

The boat to Hat Sa only goes when there are enough people. The day I went, it took until about noon until everyone was ready to go. I was the only westerner, and it was a beautiful trip of about seven hours, stopping at little villages all the way up. Plus we had to get around a HUGE Chinese dam under construction… That is one tricky river to navigate, and I was relieved when we came in at 7:00 pm after doing the last bit in the dark (with some help from a light powered by a car battery). I couldn’t see much of Hat Sa in the dark, and the Laos people on our boat had called someone to pick us all up, so we rode in the cab of a big truck on a terrible road 20 km to Phongsali. They very kindly dropped me off near a popular guesthouse, which was full! It was pretty close to 8:00 pm but I stumbled on probably the only restaurant open, which happened to have two French guys and their Laos guide, who helped me find a hotel. A big ugly box of a place, but good enough for the night. Whew, what a day!

The Chinese dam



There were about seven western people in Phongsali by my count next morning! I don’t know where everyone in the “full” hotel were… There’s not much to see, but it was sort of interesting just because it was definitely NOT touristy!

It was freezing and this was about 20 February. I mean REALLY cold, like 4 degrees Celcius and windy. I was really thinking I was crazy to book a trek, but I did. Couldn’t find anyone to go with me, but the next morning two Czech guys turned up from the night before and they turned out to be good fun on a three day trek around the north of Phongsali. The trekking agency just told them this was the only option (!) so we all ended up going together.

We just walked straight out of Phongsali and were quickly in tea plantations. We walked on ridges and you could see for miles across the mountain ranges. Really beautiful! It was quite a mix of forest, some small farms and opium fields. Just beautiful trekking. It was three hard days of eight hours walking a day, and some pretty steep terrain. It would be tough in bad weather, but it was hot and sunny.

Beautiful vista on the Phongsali trek



We stayed in two Akha villages. The women wore their traditional clothing and were quite shy, but we got to playing with all the kids, and that brought their mothers out! The villages had some solar power, but were pretty untouristy. We stayed in the headman’s house in both places and ate with the family. We were able to talk to them as our guide spoke a common language with them.

Poppy field and Akha woman



Sunrise on an Akha village



Akha women and children



We finished the trek in Hat Sa, which turned out to have a guesthouse. It was run by a really nice feisty Akha lady, she was just great to us. We had a beautiful covered patio overlooking Hat Sa port and the river. At the water, there was a little shack that sold the best barbequed fresh fish I have ever had. A great way to end the trek. I really liked Hat Sa.

Back to Muang Khua the next day, and then I went on to Dien Bien Phu. I also liked it; it doesn’t even rate a map in Lonely Planet, so it was fun to explore without any guide book expectations. I also found out I could actually catch a bus to Sapa, right from Dien Bien Phu. So I bought a ticket for the nine hour drive.

They next morning at 6:30 am, me and a couple of other backpackers got on the “mini-bus”, not a good sign! As expected, the road was ROUGH! But very scenic. It wound up and up the mountains and we ended up in Sapa around 3:30. It was a direct bus, which was another nice surprise, so no hassles going through Lao Cai, as I sort of expected.


What can I say about Sapa? VERY touristy. A bit too much for me. Any place where you have to buy “tickets” to visit villages is, well….weird. Let’s put it this way, you really can’t go anywhere around Sapa without a guide, not that I mind that, but the trekking is pretty “trekking lite”, and over well traveled territory!  I DID like the electric blankets in the Sapa hotels! And I did need them the first night. Saturday night in Sapa was quite fun, all the locals come out, and the barbeque restaurants are in full swing. Plus some entertainment (dancing and music) in the big square. On Sunday I went to Bac Ha market. Again a million tourists, but the hill tribes were there too in their fantastic traditional dress. It was a surprisingly long drive to Bac Ha, four hours!

Sapa



Hmong women at the Bac Ha market



A last night train from Lao Cai to Hanoi. Both train trips I had in Vietnam were great. Tea was served (!), water bottles provided, and the bedding was clean and comfortable. Got into Hanoi about 6:00 am, and it rained for the next five days!

I got a two day trip in to Halong Bay. Wow, another super touristy spot. Beautiful places, but Sapa and Halong Bay were not my kind of travel. The good thing about the Halong Bay trip was that it was a small group, the boat was good, and we went to Cat Ong island to some really nice bungalows and we didn’t get caught up in the crush of tourist boats. It was quite cold and wet, but the scenery was still good. I wouldn’t say it was a highlight, but I’m glad I went.

Halong Bay



It’s funny, I was told that it was hard to get off the tourist trail in Vietnam, and that “flashpacking” is kind of where you end up… Well, I would agree. I really felt like backpacking is kind of dead in Southeast Asia, which I was a bit sad about. I think it does have something to do with all the wifi everywhere…there is just not the social scene that there was when backpackers gravitated to the “hangouts” to get the latest info. It’s now all available on the Internet, and now it’s just a bunch of lonely looking individuals glued to their devices in wifi restaurants! For whatever reason, Laos was a bit better and maybe that’s just the way things are now, but I miss the “good old days” in that respect.

So my last night in Hanoi I had a wonderful massage for a grand total of $27! Actually fairly expensive by Southeast Asia standards, but well worth it. So that was my seven weeks in Vietnam in Laos! Thanks for reading!
Last edited by JuliaF; Apr 13th, 2014 at 16:46.. Reason: pics
#4 Apr 6th, 2014, 06:35
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Originally Posted by sab kuch milega View Post
It’s funny, I was told that it was hard to get off the tourist trail in Vietnam, and that “flashpacking” is kind of where you end up… Well, I would agree. I really felt like backpacking is kind of dead in Southeast Asia, which I was a bit sad about. I think it does have something to do with all the wifi everywhere…there is just not the social scene that there was when backpackers gravitated to the “hangouts” to get the latest info. It’s now all available on the Internet, and now it’s just a bunch of lonely looking individuals glued to their devices in wifi restaurants! For whatever reason, Laos was a bit better and maybe that’s just the way things are now, but I miss the “good old days” in that respect.

So my last night in Hanoi I had a wonderful massage for a grand total of $27! Actually fairly expensive by Southeast Asia standards, but well worth it. So that was my seven weeks in Vietnam in Laos! Thanks for reading!
Good trip report.


There were no good old days in Laos or Vietnam for backpackers. When it was opened up to tourists post liberalization, there was; and still a restricted world for aimless wandering. Laos and Vietnam are still dominated by military dominated communist regime.
#5 Apr 6th, 2014, 07:45
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Originally Posted by nycank View Post Good trip report.


There were no good old days in Laos or Vietnam for backpackers. When it was opened up to tourists post liberalization, there was; and still a restricted world for aimless wandering. Laos and Vietnam are still dominated by military dominated communist regime.
Good perspective nycank...that would explain a lot! When I think about it now, I don't think I have travelled in too many communist countries...

Give me aimless wandering any day!
#6 Apr 6th, 2014, 07:53
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X - Cross-posted with above - X

Wonderful to read about a region I hardly know at all. I have seen some documentaries on travel around Vietnam and off the beaten trail the censors seem to be very active and diligent. Did you encounter no go areas and restrictions? Was the trekking hard in the hills? The Akha region seems a world apart and wonderful! Did you have food issues anywhere? By which I mean stomach issues. Please post some better res pics, they look so wonderful! I just viewed the ones you posted in the images gallery and they have come through perfectly. Lovely pics.

Oh, and what is "flashpacking"?
Last edited by ViShVa; Apr 6th, 2014 at 10:26.. Reason: spelling
#7 Apr 6th, 2014, 09:35
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Fantastic read SKM!
#8 Apr 6th, 2014, 10:28
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Thank you so much V....your write ups are always so well prepared and lively, so I consider it a great compliment. (now...I really need to fix my pics... )
#9 Apr 6th, 2014, 10:39
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It is still a fascinating world. Laos and Cambodia, two societies, ripped apart, by outsiders and their own through history. Vietnam, another unique blend of occidental+oriental.

SKM do write more. What culinary experiences did you have in Laos and N.Vietnam.
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Originally Posted by ViShVa View Post X - Cross-posted with above - X

Wonderful to read about a region I hardly know at all. I have seen some documentaries on travel around Vietnam and off the beaten trail the censors seem to be very active and diligent. Did you encounter no go areas and restrictions? Was the trekking hard in the hills? The Akha region seems a world apart and wonderful! Did you have food issues anywhere? By which I mean stomach issues. Please post some better res pics, they look so wonderful! I just viewed the ones you posted in the images gallery and they have come through perfectly. Lovely pics.

Oh, and what is "flashpacking"?
Hi VishVa, I wouldn't say I really noticed that I was "restricted" from going places, but as a whole, tourists/travellers were "gently directed" into organized activities. I couldn't quite put my finger on it while I was there. I talked to quite a few people and some of them thought the answer is to get a motorcycle, even though I am not confident on a bike to do this myself. This would give you a little more freedom, I think.

I loved trekking north of Phongsali, it was the best part of the trip. In the tradition of good adventure, there is not much info about this area, the transportation is bad, and there is almost no tourist infrastructure in the town, which checks all the boxes for me! You can choose easy or hard treks, and the trekking places (all two of them) have pretty specific info on the treks in order to help you decide. Three reasons it was good trekking: 1) it was incredibly beautiful and reminded me of the lower parts of some Nepal treks; 2) it wasn't touristy; 3) there are many hill tribe villages (Akha and others) in the area.

Regarding food and stomach issues, it was nothing like India! I tend to eat everything everywhere, but after three long trips to India I am still a little stressed about deciding what to eat there. In Vietnam, the food was truly fantastic. I ate lots of street food with no problem. The only time I got sick was right at the end of my trip and I ate at a restaurant that had been on the Food Tour that I took at the beginning of the trip! In Laos there is very little refrigeration and to cool off your drinks they just pour it all into a bag of ice. I just gave in to this after a while (after being encouraged by a guide) and actually never had a problem. Maybe the ice WAS made from filtered water...I doubt it, but the ice looked pretty clean. Anyway, no problems there! In Laos the food was much more basic but I ate stuff like the Ban Mi sandwiches with pate at the bus stations, and from road vendors and no problem also.

That was a bit long winded! Hope I answered your questions, let me know if you have any more.

"Hal", an IMer, has some good posts here about Southeast Asia and it was helpful for me to read them before I went.

Oh and flashpacking! Here is one definition: "One who travels with the intrepid ethos of a backpacker but having added comfort, style and technology whilst still maintaining a sense of exploration and adventure", so basically it's a backpacker with more money and electronic gadgets!
#11 Apr 6th, 2014, 11:11
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Originally Posted by nycank View Post It is still a fascinating world. Laos and Cambodia, two societies, ripped apart, by outsiders and their own through history. Vietnam, another unique blend of occidental+oriental.

SKM do write more. What culinary experiences did you have in Laos and N.Vietnam.
Well nycank...since you asked...

I didn't get to Cambodia (wish I had), but Laos and also Vietnam are incredibly interesting because of the history you mention. Vietnam was colonized by the Chinese for 1000 years and certainly shows some of the traitis of that society.

One thing that surprised me was the freshness of the Vietnam war. I don't really know what I expected, I was probably a bit naive to think that "everything had been over for a long time", but it did not feel that way once I got there. For someone who was not that interested in the war, I ended up talking to a lot of Vietnamese about it, and saw a lot of battlefields, caves and memorials. In some of the places I could just not comprehend that they had been battlefields. But being in the country, it became much more apparent what the people had been through, and I really admire the Vietnamese for their toughness.

In Laos I rarely saw Americans, but there were lots in Vietnam. I thought Laos seemed a bit more traumatized than Vietnam; of course their histories are quite different. This is just an impression, but I felt like Laos really was a laid back little country that wasn't quite sure what happened to them. I was talking to one intelligent Laos guy and he actually asked me for my take on the politics of the Vietnam war...I was surprised that he would ask, and I certainly didn't feel too qualified to answer! As I say, these are all just impressions and could be completely off the mark.

Maybe I should move on to the safer topic of food! In Hoi An, I ate really exquisite Vietnamese food. Morning Glory restaurant did their version of "street food" in a really elegant bistro type setting. Tiny crispy pancakes with dipping sauce that you rolled together in rice paper wrappers...I ate there three times and can't remember everything I ate but it was amazing, I would stand in line in Vancouver to get into a restaurant like that. Balewell was a "one menu" place, very local but very good and packed with people. Again, crispy pancakes, then huge skewers of satay with sauce and something else, but a HUGE lunch and just delicious. Mermaid restaurant was seafood and I ate there twice and had the same thing: squid stuffed with pork and mushrooms...I would never have chosen it but the server recommended it and it was great. So long story short, I would go back to Hoi An just to eat, and I usually don't care so much about food on a trip.

In Hanoi I went on an amazing food tour called "Food on Foot" (on TripAdvisor). For three hours, me and four other people went around the old quarter with our guide eating and drinking beer, all included for $25. We ate everything from a full course fish dinner, to silkworm larvae(!); "egg beer" and "egg coffee" (very "Hanoi", VERY good); chinese barbequed duck, rice crepes...the food in Hanoi is also GREAT. Bun Cha (kind of a set meal barbeque) restauraunts set up on the sidewalks, really good. Also for breakfast, there are famous and great "pho" shops. The ice cream in Laos(homemade and delivered by a guy on a bike with a freezer on his rattrap) was really really good. The rest of the Laos food was pretty basic; even Luang Prabang was hit or miss, but the night market had fantastic buffet spreads in a big back lane, fill your plate for 10,000 kip, just over $1 Canadian. Most of the night market food was great there.

Well I could go on! Thanks for asking
#12 Apr 6th, 2014, 11:33
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Nice report. Takes me back. Once left Cambodia without anybody's knowledge, complete with a large ship. (Public forum. I may be lying), so I will say the OP didn't miss much. Overrun by UN crooks it was, at that time.

Next time, recommend add South Vietnam too, especially Vung Tau and the areas around it.
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#13 Apr 6th, 2014, 12:02
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Well I could go on! Thanks for asking
Please continue.


Indeed the west, in it's myopic sense of time-dimension, does not recollect that there are still old men and women who sit by the roadside cafes and perched on low stools, with real physical and emotional scars of that war.



I never had a single lousy meal where ever I went in Vietnam, except in a chintzy pub in Dist 1 of Sai gon a.k.a Ho Chi Minh City.
#14 Apr 6th, 2014, 17:59
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Ahhh brilliant reports SKM! Brought the place alive just reading about all the culinary delights. Thank you so much for posting so eloquently!
#15 Apr 6th, 2014, 21:21
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Originally Posted by capt_mahajan View Post Nice report. Takes me back. Once left Cambodia without anybody's knowledge, complete with a large ship. (Public forum. I may be lying), so I will say the OP didn't miss much. Overrun by UN crooks it was, at that time.

Next time, recommend add South Vietnam too, especially Vung Tau and the areas around it.
C'mon, capt...this sounds like the start of another good story...!
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