Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The trail to Vietnam

Why is it that every next leg on my journey requires taking a bus at six o'clock in the morning... And one of those local things, built for people a head smaller than me. And the local buses always operate in "never full" mode... Anyway, to my surprise they run a direct bus from Muang Khua in Laos to Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. The border formalities were easy. One of the border policemen pulled out his wallet and offered to change kip to dong with a really horrible exchange rate. Moonlighting as a currency scammer, how exotic.

Dien Bien Phu is known as the place where the French lost a major battle against the Viet Minh guerilla, and afterwards pulled out of Indochina. It's a modern town with some nice war memorials and museums but I didn't come for those, so I got on a bus to Lai Chau in the very far north of Vietnam, using highway 12. Which turned out to be a rutted trail full of potholes, deep mud, and big rocks. It's too narrow for passing, so I saw a lot of daring maneuvers that are not  commonly seen on European roads. This is odd because in general the roads in Vietnam are excellent. Once we forded a river in the bus, with steam rising up from the hot engine where it touched the water.

The reason to do this trip was the fantastic mountain scenery, following deep valleys and lakeshores, in never-ending twists and turns up on the edge of the mountains. We lost a few hours waiting for road crews resurfacing the road, with absolutely no discernible success, but it was fun to watch them kick huge rocks into the river from high up. Spent 14 hours in the bus.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Travelling the Nam Ou river

The Nam Ou is a tributary of the Mekong, coming from the mountains in the north and joining the Mekong near Luang Prabang. I am hoping to cross the border to Vietnam there, and travelling on the river is the most scenic way there. I had to stop at Muang Ngoi, a small village stretched along a single dirt road,  and spend the night there because upriver travel is slow. They have no Internet, no cell towers, and no electricity except for a few generators that run for a few hours in the evening. The guesthouse charged €3.50 per night.

This morning I wanted to go further up the river, to Muang Khua, but the boat won't go with fewer than 10 passengers and I was alone. So I chartered the entire boat. Being a rich farang has its upsides. (Farang comes from "français" and means foreigner; all foreigners are automatically assumed to be rich.) So I actually made it. Muang Khua is tiny but they have electricity and an Internet café. Actually it's a bicycle repair shop with an Ethernet cable hanging from the ceiling, but I travel with a small access point for cases like this to connect my tablet.

Unfortunately the bus to Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam only goes in the very early morning so I have to stay another night in Laos. And I don't actually know if foreigners are allowed to enter Vietnam in this very remote corner of the country, cross your fingers...

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the jewel of Laos, the land of the one million elephants. (Except they killed off most of those.) This town is home to buddhist monastery at nearly every major corner, with beautiful wooden pagodas painted with gold. The tree-lined streets are quiet, narrow, and lined with wonderful French colonial architecture, with no more than two floors. Simple restaurant terraces overhang the shore of the Mekong river. During the high season, which will begin around November, tourists flood Luang Prabang, but it somehow maintains its charm and dignity. Luang Prabang is far richer than its neighbors due to the money the tourists bring, but the money hasn't done damage. Needless to say, there are no Western chain restaurants, or in fact any Western stores, in town. Luang Prabang has the same charm as Hoi An in Vietnam, which embraced tourism too but did not sell out either.