25.11.2012 - 13.12.2012
We're in a whole other country since my last update, and crucially 8 months since we left grey old London town. 4 months to go, which feels like a nice amount of time to enjoy but also not too long until the home stretch and we get to see our loved ones again. So, since visiting Vientiane, we moved to Luang Prabang, a picturesque town in Laos with a thriving and hard to resist night market. It also is the home of the Disco Elephant. Now, that's not in any of the Rough Guides or Lonely Planets for Laos, but he should be.
We were wowed by this particular beast in the Golden City Temple, which was ultra bling in all respects. I kickstarted a debate on Facebook on whether Disco Elephant was the best or Disco Peacock, and the consensus was Disco Elephant, and as you see the photo of him, I'm sure you'll agree.
But that's not all we've been doing. We moved on to Phonsavan, to learn more about the Secret War in Laos. This trip has been an immense learning experience, especially in the bits of history not taught at schools in the UK. What happened when the world had turned its attention to the Vietnam in the early 60s was that the US started attacking Laos, the small country next door to try and eliminate the communist threat there and to prevent Laos from helping Vietnam out. This was after US had signed a Geneva agreement to recognise Laos as being neutral.
What was most shocking to us was the fact that for 9 years, between 1964-1973, the US dropped big plane loads of bombs onto Laos every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day. Now this tiny but beautiful country is littered with unexploded bombs, with barely any money to clear it up and this also being a major cause of death and injuries to people in Laos over 40 years later. So much so, that the people cannot farm in uncleared areas which then causes more poverty. We rented a motorbike to explore the Plain of Jars area nearby and were lucky enough to see a Mag International team in action, neutralising a bomb that was found in a village very close to the Plain of Jars area.
After that, we moved on to Viang Xai, where the communist forces in Laos hid in a network of caves whilst they fought against the US attacking them. Stunning place and such an great sense of history visiting the place. We crossed over to Vietnam from Sam Neua, and made it to Hanoi quite late at night after experiencing the hideousness of the Vietnamese roads and the crazy homicidal bus drivers. Hanoi is such a contrast. Serene lakes with locals performing Tai Chi, couples decked out in wedding gear having their photos taken, gorgeous French colonial buildings, and then you have the roaring traffic.
Hanoi traffic has to be experienced to be believed. Crossing the road is an art form in itself, approach the oncoming traffic slowly and edge your way across. No sudden moves, the traffic will move around you. Every time you make it across safely, you breath a sign of relief, thanking whatever deity you can think of. We loved the insane, vibrant, buzzy feel of Hanoi. You really feel alive in a place like this. And then you start noticing what makes Vietnam different. It's incredibly stylish. From the elegance of the shops selling the traditional Ao Dai dresses, to the beflowered scooter helmets and vintage vespa scooters threading through both roads and pavements, it's a joy to observe. These people don't follow trends, they set them.
We took a break from Hanoi and spend 3 days in Ha Long Bay on the one bit of luxury we've indulged in so far. On the Dragon's Pearl Junk boat, we met a very lovely group of people and spent time in the amazing setting of Ha Long and Bai Tu Long bays. We kayaked and cruised and most of all, we ate very well indeed.
On our last night, we even enjoyed dinner in a cave, which was a gorgeous way to end the cruise. We felt thoroughly relaxed so coming back to Hanoi was a real shock to the system after the serenity we'd just had.
We are currently in Hue, having taken a sleeper train over from Hanoi, planning to make our way southwards through Vietnam. The plan is to spend both Christmas and New Year's Eve in Vietnam, before heading over to Cambodia. From then, we're thinking we spend some time in China, possibly flying to Beijing from Bangkok. Any advice on what not to miss in China will be gratefully received, as we're figuring that out as we go along too.