Luang Prabang, Laos

27 10 2009

Monday 26th October 2009

luang_prabang_feb_14_2008_002Luang Prabang is so refreshingly different from Hanoi we have fallen in love with it. The feeling of welcome and the friendliness of the Lao people stands in contrast to our experience of Hanoi. But more than that we can see BLUE SKY for the first time in 2 weeks! And NO SMOG! And we don’t feel like people are trying to rip us off all the time! (At least not that we have noticed.) And there are NO HORNS honking incessantly.  Today we have strolled along beautiful tree and palm lined streets overlooking the mighty Mekong River. There is a tranquillity about the town that begs the traveller to slow down and ‘chill out’ – at least in the modern metaphorical sense.  But let me go back and fill in the gap from Sapa to here:

The trip down the mountain to Lao Cai in the bus is an experience in itself. For those of you who are familiar with the Scottsdale sidling, just imagine the windiest 5 minutes of that road, add a 10% gradient for about 5500 feet, and then multiply the distance by about a dozen, remembering of course that centrelines, if there are any, are completely meaningless except maybe as a rough guide to straddle.  Then keep in mind that passing and overtaking happens because your journey must not be hindered by incidentals like blind corners or the converging of any number of trucks, buses, vans, cars, motor cycles, bicycles or pedestrians, all of whom seem to be blissfully unaware of the steep banks and cliffs one side of the road and the often precipitous and unguarded drop offs on the other. Somehow we made it with nothing worse than finger nail dents in the seats.

View from the breakfast cafe Hanoi

View from the breakfast table Hanoi

The overnight train back to Hanoi was uneventful although it was hard to sleep with a squeaking bogie under our carriage and frequent banging stops along the way. We arrived in Hanoi at 5.30am and headed for the taxi touters. There are thousands of taxis in Vietnam as car ownership is only for the very affluent, so you can usually hail a passing taxi at any time of the day. However around departure or arrival places like the train station they lay in wait. But you don’t get to choose one; they have touters who will pester you from the moment you step onto the platform (Maree just reminded me they actually were tapping on the window of our cabin before we even got off the train!) all the way out to the street, offering transport. Then there are various ruses like offering an inflated flat price for the fare. We managed to refuse all offers until we got out of the station to the street, and then turned down a driver who would not set the fare by the meter and clambered into the next taxi who was insistently offering to use his meter. That would have been fine except that it became apparent almost immediately that his meter must be ‘doctored’ as the fare jumped up at an alarming rate and ended up costing us 10 or 15 times what it should. We can only console ourselves with the fact that that equates to not much more than an Australian fare would anyway.

Arriving back at our hotel (where we had been promised the use of a room until mid afternoon when we were to leave for our plane) we found that Sunday morning is a slow start for everyone in Hanoi and the hotel was still closed up. Through the glass doors we could see the night staff asleep on cushions laid out on the foyer floor so we sat on our cases in the street for an hour and a half watching the city come to life.P1000324

After a welcome shower we ‘Googled’ up church services in Hanoi and found no other choice but an International Christian Fellowship meeting across the city. Having had no other christian fellowship but ourselves for 2 weeks we decided to head off to an International hotel where the gathering was held in the ballroom. As travellers we have decided we classify as ‘backpackers with suitcases’ so we felt somewhat conspicuous in our unironed clothes and daypacks. HICFI’m sure you can imagine: This was the ‘other’ end of town! The toilets were bigger than some hotels we have stayed in; marble and mirrors from floor to ceiling and an attendant handing you a fresh cooled towel with silver tongs. But the worship was great; the style not unlike our own and we were made to feel welcome so it was a very agreeable time topped off by coffee that was very nearly as good as St Johns. (maybe it only seemed that good after the lousy stuff I’ve been having)

In spite of booking otherwise, the plane trip to Luang Prabang ended up being Lao Air and a propjet. P1000481But it was a brand new plaP1000482ne and impressively quieter and quicker that the equivalent Fokker F27 so it was an excellent flight of a little over an hour. We arranged our visas on arrival, hired a taxi (that turned out to be a ‘Tuk Tuk’ – a small truck like affair with a motor bike engine where you ride on the open back)  and gave an address out of the Lonely Planet Guide and turned up at 9 o’clock in the hope of a room. We were not disappointed!

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