The ride to Vang Vieng was a windy and bumpy 5 hour journey in a 10 passenger minivan with everyone’s big bags strapped to the roof. We stopped twice to pee off the side of a cliff on the side of road (much more difficult for the girls), and endured the annoying out loud singing of the Brazilian girl listening to her iPod and sitting next to us. From the drop off point, it was an easy 8 minute walk to our hotel – Laos Haven ($20/night including breakfast). Already late in the evening, we ran out to grab dinner at VegeTables ($7.50 for a veggie burger with fries and sweet & sour tofu with rice) before the town shut down for the night.
Vang Vieng is a “has-been”. Up until a few months ago, the town was a major stop for the hippie/druggie/partyer type, when the Laos government cracked down on the scene and closed most of the town’s bars. With an average of one tourist death per month, it’s not hard to understand why. What we found was a sleepy town which stretched along one main street and was full of apathetic locals and many bewildered tourists not quite sure what they were doing there. There were many more of the aforementioned type than we’ve seen in any other place, and they congregated in the one or two places still catering to that crowd (which we avoided like the plague).
Wednesday was spent tubing down the Nam Song river, which flows through the town. Formerly a right of passage for tourists in Laos due to the excess of bars along the banks of the river, our 3-hour experience was rather tranquil, with the greatest amount of excitement generated by the blazing fireball in the sky burning us to a crisp. We must admit, this was partially our fault for forgetting to bring the sunscreen in order to reapply throughout the day. As this was once a major attraction drawing hundreds of people a day, it is rather well organized and operated by a consortium of local communities who have a rotation for the operation and, thereby, the profit. We paid the 55,000 kip each ($7 which included the drop off service) plus 60,000 kip ($7.50) deposit for the inner-tube. Along with a few other tourists, we hopped on a tuktuk which brought us about 4km upstream to the launch point. Here, we took a pre-tubing detour for a visit to the Organic Mulberry and Goat Farm, where we enjoyed a lovely goat cheese platter along with a mulberry iced tea and a mulberry juice ($6). Once in the water, we realized that the tide was very low and that moving along required a lot of hand-paddling and patience.
Back on land, we dropped off the tubes, indulged in an Oreo-Nutella shake and a chocolate-banana pancake ($2.50), before dragging our bright-red bodies out of the heat and into the air conditioning in our room. Once the blazing fireball went down for its nap, we ventured out in search of some Aloe Vera and dinner. Both were easy to find, and Jordan somehow agreed to let Felix take her to an Indian place ($7.50 for two dishes, rice and yummy naan). We relaxed for a while with tea and ice cream at Arena ($2, we passed on the opium tea). Ready to soothe our sunburns with the Aloe, we headed back to our hotel.
Aching from our sunburns, we had a lazy morning while we waited for peak heat to pass. We enjoyed shmoozing with the hotel owner, Michael, a Singaporean with a very interesting outlook on Laos, its people and its future. Around 2pm, we found a tuktuk to take us to the Blue Lagoon ($12.50 + $2.50 entrance fee, 20 dusty minutes) – a beautiful blue-water river lagoon which the local village improved, gated and turned into a tourist attraction complete with a rope swing, tree branch high-dive, Tarzan rope jump, cabanas and a restaurant. It felt great to cool off in the water and relax in the shade for the afternoon. Dinner was mediocre falafel and pasta (guess who has been here in droves?) at an indescript place on the main road ($9). We finished off the night with tea and a peanut butter-chocolate bun at the local bakery ($2).
The 3 hour ride to Vientiane on Friday morning was quick and uneventful on a 24-seater bus ($6 each), and the drop off point was a short 5 minute walk to our next hotel ($26/night including breakfast). Douang Douane Hotel is one of those older hotels that was probably very nice when it was built many years ago. Still, for us, it was quite comfortable and served us well. We quickly discovered that Vientiane is B-O-R-I-N-G! There is really not much to do or see, and we’re not quite sure why any tourists stop there for more than a layover. Still, not having known this in advance, we had booked a flight out on Tuesday and were stuck for 4 days with nothing to do. Determined to make the best of it, we set out to plan our Shabbat: supermarket, bakery, early Friday night dinner at Lao Kitchen (impressive Lao cuisine for a mere $7), prepaid lunch at Joma (repeat of last week, $5), and prepaid 1.5 hour massages at Magic Hands (amazing and only ($9.5 each).
Felix insisted that we see some sights while in Vientiane, so he dragged Jordan through the blazing heat to see Patuxai, the local Arc D’Triumph/Victory Monument. A 1960s creation that offers an impressive view of the city on the seventh floor balcony. Almost as remarkable as the tower itself was the succession of gift shops on every single floor filling the entire building. Our next stop was Cope (10 minute tuk tuk ride – $5), an organization which works with the Lao government on rehabilitation projects. The main focus of the Cope Museum is the suffering caused by UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) left behind by years of bombing by the United States during the Vietnam War. Laos has the highest rate of bombs dropped per capita and 300 people die every year from UXO related incidents.
At this point, we were convinced that we had exhausted all the available activities of interest and spent the next day and a half going from cafe to cafe to catch up on our blog and research our next few destinations. So, we had lunch at Joma (tuna melt-$4), dinner at Aashifa Indian restaurant (two dishes, saffron rice, garlic naan, and a delicious banana paratha – $7.50). We went back to Joma the next morning to cash in on our free drink which we had earned by ordering ten drinks starting in Hanoi. This was coffee snobbery paying off. We ordered a latte (free) and an Americano with a slice of mulberry pie ($2.50). Our next stop was at Common Ground where we ordered a bean and cheese quesadilla (Jordan was missing California, $3). As Jordan was enjoying the quesadilla, she found a surprise – a rubber band which she almost choked on. She went to show the cashier when the American owner immediately rushed over and profusely apologized and in true Western fashion offered her a gift card to make it up to her. Now, with 60,00 kip ($7.50) to spend, we ordered two ice cream blizzards (peanut butter cookie and cookies & cream) and a package of yummy chocolate cookies. At their insistence that we spend the entire amount, we also got a raisin scone which we were very happy to have the next morning for breakfast. We ate dinner at a disappointing sushi restaurant ($5) and made up for it by getting a delicious fruit salad at a Noy’s Fruit Heaven ($2.50).
Tuesday morning, ready to get out of Vientiane and Laos in general, we packed up our stuff and went back to Noy’s Fruit Heaven to blow our last few kip on a fruit shake ($1.25). We took a taxi to the airport ($5) and were excited for a day of airport lounges and duty free shops. Next stop: Chiang Rai, Thailand!