Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Phonsavanh, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam

Robyn and I parted ways with Jevin at Phonsavanh.  He wanted to boat through a 7.5 km cave, Tham Kong Lo, while we wanted to avoid long and bumpy bus rides and take a more direct route to Hanoi.  We also wanted to experience some more of rural Lao life before we left the country forever.

We decided to get off the public bus in a nowhere town called Nam Neun, our first objective being to find a suitable place to sleep and store our backpacks.  After a brief jaunt around town, we came to a building with an english sign out front that said "SaynamNeun Guesthouse".  We were in luck!  The tall and dusty building stood alone along the shores of the Nam Neun river with a conspicuous presence.  We approached it and knocked... no response.  Pushing on the door, it creaked open to reveal a large open hallway with dirty floors and dim light filtered in through dusty windows. 

"Sa-bai-dee? Hello?"   

No response.

Venturing inside, our footsteps echoed dully off of blank white walls and the high cobwebbed ceiling.  A slow drip-drip-drip could be heard coming from a back room.  Backing out, we went to sit on the front step, hoping that someone would notice us and come to our aid.  It was about then that the bus we had come in on passed us on the road.  We were here for the night whether it meant lying in the ditch, squatting in an abandoned hotel, or imploring a local to let us sleep on their floor and eat their sticky rice.

We weren't in town for long when we discovered that there were about zero other english speaking people in the vicinity, and that Robyn and I aren't nearly as good at body language as we had thought.  Out of ideas for a guesthouse, we opted for lunch at one of the three little stalls in town: fried vegetables, four whole fried little fish, and sticky rice.

Our plan of looking conspicuous eventually paid off as the innkeeper became aware of our presence and led us back to the haunted mansion where we paid ~$7 for a dirty room with no electricity.  That's when things started getting good.

It was a hot day, so we decided to join the locals in the river, bathing and washing our clothes among the villagers.  It was quite refreshing, but a real challenge to bathe without revealing oneself.

Being the only "falang" (foreigners) in town, we got a lot of looks.  All of the children would shout "Sa-bai-dee" and wave frantically when they saw us.  Nam Neun clearly gets few foreign visitors.

Later, we took a stroll through the village observing the Lao people through their open doors.  They busied themselves with their simple daily chores, stopping briefly to watch us as we passed.

Aesthetically, the town was quite lovely, set in a valley surrounded by mountains and on the edge of clean, quiet stream.

Nam Neun

Nam Neun

The sun went down around 6 pm and, as the only electricity came from a small diesel generator, there wasn't a lot for us to do.  Some of the locals sat around fires, but as we had failed to communicate several times already, we decided to retire to our room to read by the light of our flashlights, asleep by 9.

Although we couldn't be sure, we had the impression that our bus wasn't arriving until around noon so we allowed ourselves to sleep in, catching up from days previous.  Breakfast the next morning was fried noodles, ichiban style.  We then went to wait at the bus stop.  There was no way we would miss our next ticket out of here.  The bus came two hours later and we were off on a four-hour mountain hopping ride on some of the most serpentine roads I have ever traveled.  But what a view!  Miles and miles of unspoiled jungle-covered mountains.

So happy to see our bus arrive

View from pretty much any bus trip around Laos

We arrived in Sam Neu which our guidebook described as "brimming with frontier authenticity" and "worth the long and arduous trek on the public bus" but was actually a dirty town with terrible food and more air pollution than could be accounted for by its small population.  What saved us was the company.  We found the only decent restaurant in town and shared a meal with every other foreigner in Sam Neu, all nine of them.  We shared stories from home and heard all about Iceland, Denmark, and Czechoslovakia.

The next day we hopped over to Vieng Xai, a beautiful little town surrounded by limestone cliffs that house countless caves.  During the war in Vietnam, army officials built fortresses inside these caves massive enough to house entire armies and villages.  Each official family had their own cave-house and there was even a cave used as a theatre for entertaining the troops.  At the height of the Vietnam war (called the American war here), the region was bombed nine times a day every day, but due to the protection afforded by the caves, the people were able to withstand the constant bombardment for 9 years.

Cave where armies hid out during Vietnam (American) war over Laos

From Vieng Xai, we flagged down a bus bound for Hanoi, Vietnam.  The trip would take 14 hours and our driver was raving mad.  He used his horn instead of discretion or brakes and barreled through villages and traffic at incredible speeds.  Everyone had to hold the seat in front of them with two hands for the duration of the trip or else risk flying out of the seat at every bump and corner of which there were many.  But we made good time!

For the last 4 hours our bus was crammed full.  46 people in 26 seats.  But we made it to Hanoi.  We don't know why we're here, what we're going to do, but we made it. 
46 people in 26 seats
The end.

David Parker


Just heard from Jevin and expect to meet up with him in Hanoi in one or two days.  Here's some pretty pictures.

Sunset over the Mekong, Luang Prabang

Tree at Plane of Jars Historical Site

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