Hanoi to Sapa to Luang Prabang to Pakbeng

I’ve finally met up with the one-and-only Ross M., who flew into Hanoi on Saturday. Thanks to his frequent flyer program, we were able to stay in the Hanoi Sheraton, which was like an isolated island of comfort surrounded by an ocean of urban indifference. I liked Hanoi, much more so than Vietnam’s twin metropolis, Saigon. It was cleaner, more modern, more developed, and much prettier, although the people still betrayed that characteristic north Vietnamese rancor.

I managed to sell my motorbike to a New Zealander for about $100 less than I bought it. The sale was a bit disheartening, and saying goodbye to my steed for the past six weeks was bittersweet, but it had to be done. I guess bikes are cheaper in Hanoi because most tourists actually do the trip from north to south, rather than south to north. Ross and I mulled around town but only spent a night in his free hotel room, then we departed for Sapa on the overnight bus. If you can believe it, this was actually my first experience with public transportation in Asia, seeing as I had been relying my old Sufat 110 until then.

Anyway, the bus was… middling. We had our own “beds,” if that’s what you want to call them, but they felt more like they’d been fitted for Vietnamese school girls, not full-grown American men. I managed only an hour or two of sleep, and we arrived in Sapa town at around 5:30 AM.

The first thing I noticed was how cold it was here. Sapa is only about 10 miles from the Chinese border, and it’s way up in the mountains. Nighttime can dip into the 40s this time of year—a strange climate to arrive in after six weeks in sweltering jungle.

We found a guesthouse, got some rest, then set out for some hiking. We rented a couple of motorbikes, and I found myself cursing the unintuitive build of these “Hondamatics.” They’re like scooters but with manual transmissions and no clutch. The gear shift also works in reverse, and neutral is located below first gear, instead of between first and second. It was so confusing at first that the bike lender stopped me and said, “You never ride motorbike before, so you ride automatic, okay?” I refused. No way I was going to be bested by a semi-automatic scooter after having ridden 2000 kilometers on a manual transmission from Saigon to Hanoi. So I committed myself to learning the deceptive ways of this stupid little Hondamatic. It took some miles, but I finally got it down. I still think it’s a stupid bike with a stupid design.

Sapa 1
Clouds over Sapa rice terraces

Anyway, the bikes allowed us to tour the beautiful, mountainous terrain of Sapa. The region is most famous for its terraced rice patties, which scale up and down the mountain slopes like glaciers. The area is teeming with tourists, and it’s easy to see why. As it turned out, Yuvey was also in Sapa at the time, so we met up once again and had some drinks, then called it a night. We did some more touring and hiking the following day, and almost got attacked by a pair of mean-looking dogs.

That night, we got on a bus that would, eventually, take us to Luang Prabang, Laos. Now, it’s difficult to describe to you, in retrospect, why we chose to take this bus route, knowing it would require some 24 hours of travel for a mere 400-mile distance (as the crow flies). But that’s what we did, and it was one of the strangest, most uncomfortable travel experiences of my life, such that I may never complain again about a cramped ride on the T or a stuffy cross-country flight.

Sapa 2
Rice terraces in Sapa

The first bus was almost identical to the one that took us to Sapa—we each had our own cramped beds—except for the fact that they crammed the floors with Vietnamese travelers, apparently because they pay a much lower price for travel… so I guess they get the shit seats, then? The travel companies also have no competitors (this being a “communist” country), and there’s virtually no oversight, so they’re free to pack people into buses like chickens to a coop, eschewing every modicum of decency and concern for the health and comfort of their passengers, content in the knowledge that the mere demand for transportation will ensure a reliable cash flow for their shady little enterprise.

It’s bull shit, because it means a bus made for about 25 people will house double that. People are stuffed into the aisles like sardines, filling every nook so you can’t even breathe your own air—let alone take a jaunt to the toilet at the back of the bus. Ross and I looked at each other and agreed we should probably just avoid drinking water for that reason. So on top of being hungry and smelly and cramped and uncomfortable, we would also be dehydrated. And yet, compared to others onboard, we didn’t have it that bad. A pair of British tourists behind me were forced to share a bed with two Vietnamese travelers, one of whom proceeded to fart through the entire first stretch of the journey, defiling the enclosed air with a sulfurous fetor so rank I thought the toilet was leaking shit or, at the very least, someone had spoiled their trousers. The nerve of it, my god.

Sapa 3
A valley in Sapa

So that was the first bus. It lasted about eight hours and took us to the Laos border, where we hopped onto a much smaller bus and, this time, it was the western tourists who were packed in like sardines. By now the sun was up and sleep only seemed like a nice idea, sort of like the way you think about summer in January. We rode an hour to the border and spent another two or three hours acquiring our visas, a process that really sullied my initial impression of Laos. Because it was a border crossing (less governmental scrutiny), they sweated us for outrageous, fabricated fees at every turn: The “Laos Tourism Fund” fee of $2 per person seemed somewhat reasonable, but the $2 temperature check for Ebola was just absurd. It wasn’t even clever—if you’re going to scam me, at least put some goddamn creativity into it. We also ran out of money and Ross had to borrow some from a German guy to pay for his Visa.

By now my piss was golden yellow and I hadn’t eaten in about 14 hours, but after we finally got our Visas we hopped back onto our cramped little bus and rode through some stunning mountain vistas. This ride was more pleasant, even as we were huddled together in our little truck/van with gear tied haphazardly over the roof. At some point in this journey, my canteen must have gotten loose and fallen off. Oh well.

Ross in Sapa
Ross in Sapa

We stopped for lunch at a small roadside homestay. At first, Ross and I just watched our fellow travelers eat, wishing we had money, but then two Slovakian girls we had met the previous night offered us some money to buy lunch, which was super nice and embarrassing at the same time. They were good people.

When the sun went down we had officially been traveling for about 22 hours, and we were still quite far from Luang Prabang. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, our van pulled over and told us to get out. Through broken English and piss-poor, indifferent communication, the drivers told us we had another bus coming—a much bigger bus. Oh great, a bigger bus. Yes, it was a bigger bus, but what our hospitable driver neglected to tell us was that the bus was already pretty much full. I had to share my “bed” with two Laotian men, with me lying perpendicular to the other beds—my legs stretched over the aisle and resting on the end of another bed. One person was kind enough to offer me a pillow and a blanket, which helped verify to me that the Laotian people are kinder and more friendly than the north Vietnamese, although I still huddled into my corner with their feet pressed against my torso. It was an experience and I rolled with it.

The ride took another six or so hours, all the time winding through dangerous mountain passes we couldn’t see through the dark, until we finally arrived in a mostly vacant Luang Prabang. We managed to find an ATM and pay back our debts, then we set out to find shelter. Seeing as this tourist town is not one for nightlife, we were condemned to walk its empty streets, shouting into dark guesthouses looking for empty rooms. We finally found a room on the cheap, and by the time we crawled into bed it had been 28 hours since we left Sapa. Suffice it to say, we slept well.

Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is an impressive town with a lot of Buddhist temples and French architecture. And so far, the Laotian people are super friendly and much kinder and more genuine than the north Vietnamese—they actually remind me more of south Vietnam. There are western tourists everywhere here, and some of the shops and cafes look like they belong in France. Ross and I walked the town, ate some nice meals, drank some strong French-inspired coffee, trekked around the Mekong river, and hiked a small mountain in the center of town with a view overlooking the entire city (although it’s more of a “town” than a city). We had a decent dinner and met up with those Slovakian girls and had a bit too much to drink. And that was our Thanksgiving.

The Mekong river


The next morning Ross and I were both hungover, which sucked because we had to get up at 6:30 AM to hop on a boat that would take us upriver to a small village called Pakbeng. This journey is part of a two-day river cruise on a Mekong longboat to Houayxay, a town on the Thai border. Hungover as we were, the ride was wonderful–the most relaxing and enjoyable form of transportation I’ve experienced in Asia. Our seats were comfortable; it wasn’t crowded; there was coffee available; and the views were amazing. We toured through very remote stretches of Laos, where fishermen scoured the waters in solitary prestige, and the land seemed to stretch uninhibited and undeveloped in every direction. (There weren’t even any bridges.)

So that’s where we are now: Pakbeng. We’ll take another river cruise tomorrow, and should arrive in Houayxay late afternoon. Because it’s on the border with Thailand, we may actually cross over when we arrive and spend the night there. Then it’s off to Chiang Mai.

Okay, that’s all for now. I miss Mexican food.

Sapa Lady
A friendly lady from Sapa

Luang Prabang Temple

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