Crossing the 17th parallel

We took the "slow" night train from Hanoi to Dong Ha. The railway system is wonderfully simple, the Reunification Express runs North-South from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. The slow trains are cheapest, but the are the slowest, they have last priority of all the trains so they have to pull over and wait while the fast trains pass them. They also make stops at smaller local stations whereas the faster trains connect the two major cities with few stops in between. But when you are travelling by night, these things are relatively unimportant.

Dong Ha is the first city we visited south of the 17th parallel, the line that once divided North and South Vietnam. We came to take a tour of the former Demilitarized Zone or DMZ (one of the most heavily armed locations during the war). We were greeted on the train platform by an old tour guide working for the "DMZ Cafe", dressed in a green military raincoat, who quickly whisked us away to the Cafe to book our tour. After putting our bags away in our room we paid 15$US each, put our helmets on, and hopped on motorbikes behind our two drivers.

My driver was the old guide that had met us at the train station. His name is Mr. Dien, he is 62 years old and after our first stop at "Charlie 2" Fire Base when he started to refer to the North Vietnamese as "the enemy" we realised the tour could be different from reading the captions at the Army Museum in Hanoi. Mr. Dien was on the payroll of the U.S Government serving as a Liaison Officer for communication between the American and South Vietnamese Armies. He mentioned briefly his 6 years in prison/re-education camp, saying that he was lucky to be alive. He was eligible for evacuation from Saigon, but at the time could not find his family who had arrived in Saigon before him. He and his family were left behind.

We did the standard DMZ tour, over 100km on motorbike, in the pouring rain and the cold of the winter rainy season of Central Vietnam. We walked along the 17th parallel, on the bridge over the Ben Hai River, we were shown B-52 bombs that were sitting outside a scrap metal factory waiting to be melted down, the National War Martyrs Cemetary and the remains of the two American Fire Bases, Charlie 1 and 2. The highlight of the tour are the incredible Vinh Moc Tunnels a network of underground tunnels built by Vietnamese villagers to hide from the continuous bombing. The tunnels have three levels, the lowest of which is 23m deep. Villagers lived underground on and off for over 5 years, educating their children, cooking their meals, even giving birth. At some times over 1000 people inhabited the tunnels. There is only one entry into the tunnels and there were five exits, each leading into the nearby ocean. Similar tunnels were constructed in nearby villages but none survived the bombing, some collapsing, killing everyone inside. The tunnels were also used by the North Vietnamese Army to send important supplie to their allies in the south. The tunnels are seen by the Vietnamese as an incredible testament to the hard work and courage of their people and are an amazing source of pride. They remain intact and unaltered over 30 years later.

At the end of our tour, the sad-faced Mr. Dien dropped us off at "his office", the DMZ Cafe, owned by his old friend Mr. Tinh, also a war veteran. He expressed proudly that back in the day he had a higher rank than Mr. Tinh, but now "the roles are reversed, and Mr. Tinh gets to do desk work while he is out in the field". Only a few moments on the tour did Mr. Dien show a glimpse of happiness, mainly when he was talking about his old supervisor "four star General Westmoreland, Westy" or when we stopped for lunch and he was able to put back four or five shots of snake whisky before we set off. We all have an idea of how war affects people's lives, but I can't help thinking its worse when you are on the losing side.

Wintertime in Hanoi

There are only 3 million people living in Hanoi, it is the largest city in Northern Vietnam (there are 87 million people in the country). Our train from Sapa arrived at 4:15 a.m. at the Hanoi train station. It was still pitch black out, but all the vendors had already set up outside, serving up cafe and tea for the exhausted passengers. We stopped for a cafe before heading by foot to Hoan Kiem Lake right in the centre of town. Yann was hoping for a photo of the sunrise and we couldn't really show up to a guest house until 7 or 8. By five o'clock the path surrounding the lake was full of Vietnamese dancing, walking, running, stretching. We watched them for hours as the performed their morning routines saying hello when they noticed us.
At 7 we headed out to find a guest house and despite the fact that none of the stores were open yet, the empty streets were still crawling with hotel touts, trying to lure us to their "very cheap" guest house. Our goal was to find a hotel for 3$ U.S but after at least 6 guesthouses we didn't have anything under 5$ and that was for two dorm beds. The touts leave you alone when they offer you a room for 10$ and you ask if they have one for 3$? We realised maybe we might be hoping for a little too much in the busy Old Quarter, so when a loud, annoying young tout offered us a room for 6$ we took a look (despite the fact that he was really really annoying). We had a double bed, cable T.V and a hot shower so I agreed to take it even though it was on the sixth floor (Yann was pouting because he thought we could get better). Note: After 5 days in Hanoi we didn't meet a single person who had a room for less than 8$, even Asian tourists. The one issue was the annoying hyperactive teenage tout who happened to be the owner's son (we did grow to (sort of) like him after a while).

Meanwhile, the front desk manager is desperately trying to sell us a package tour to Halong Bay. He wooed us with free coffee and baguettes every morning (until we accepted his tour, after which we no longer existed). We did want to take a tour to Halong Bay, the tours are cheap, all-inclusive ordeals which we felt would be easier and possibly cheaper than doing it on our own. There are no fixed prices for buses in Vietnam, so you can be charged whatever the driver wants to charge you. It is especially difficult when there is only one bus to the destination. We spoke to a backpacker in Laos who had crossed the border from Vietnam from an extremely remote location. The bus driver had charged him 10 times the fare because there was no other way of crossing the border, when he refused to pay, the driver left him (at 2 a.m.) in the middle of nowhere, even though the bus was half empty. Its a strange thing that he would prefer to lose money rather than to charge a foreigner the real price of the ticket (this backpacker had even offered to pay 5 times the price of the ticket). So for 43$US/each we had a three day tour of Halong Bay including all food and transportation.

Before heading on our tour of Halong Bay we spent two days wandering Hanoi, eating Pho on the streets, visiting Uncle Ho's Mausoleum and of course dining out at our new friend's house in the outskirts of Hanoi. Every salesperson in Hanoi knows to charge tourists more than they should. I curse all the fools who throw their money around, "what the heck, thats only 2$ US". The salespeople love to use US dollars cause it makes things seem cheaper. Our first morning a salewoman tried to sell us a donut for 20,000 dong, we eventually got her down to the standard price of 1000 dong. We meet other tourists who were promised a hotel room for 8$ US and when they go to the desk to pay, they are charged 8$/person plus "service charges" and "taxes" so that there room is now over 25$. Instead of walking out (this is check-in) they actually take the room! There are hundreds of guest houses in the old quarter and you let yourself be ripped off, its just so maddening! I blame the tourists for the insanity in Hanoi (and thats really the only way it can be described, insanity!), you have a duty to those who come after you for crying out loud. Our Halong Bay tour begins with a mini bus picking us up at our hotel, and we are crammed into a mini bus with 14 other tourists, no problems yet, this is what we expected. We arrive in Halong City 5 hours later and quickly board our boat. We are served lunch as we sail off into the Bay. As mentioned in the brochure, drinks are not included (and that means no drinking water too), water is sold at three times the price. Yann and I came prepared as we had read the fine print and knew no drinks = no drinks. We visited a cave and sailed through the limestone islands. In the late afternoon we were scheduled for some kayaking, our guide informed us that we were running late so we could only kayak for 45 minutes. We all lined up and loaded into the kayaks from a small ladder hanging off the side of our boat. It was a slow process and our guide yelled the entire time. Yann and I tried to help out, and were the last people to load into a kayak, at which point our guide threw down a paddle and exclaimed: "no more paddle for you, you get one". I don't blame him, it is a difficult concept, 14 kayaks equals..hmmmm... 28 paddles give or take. There was another couple behind us, who had waited patiently the whole time to get in a kayak, when it came to their turn he told them "no, you too late, no kayaking for you!". We set out with our one paddle and later on they caught up to us, with their two paddles, after having argued with our guide. We slept on the our boat the first night. We had the room right over the motor room, and we hoped we would wake up alive the next morning, as all the windows were sealed shut and we took in fumes all night. It was pretty romantic. The next day we were dropped off on Cat Ba Island, the most developped of the islands on Halong Bay. We were scheduled for a 12km hike through the National Park. Our hike consisted of being dropped off on the side of the highway, were we proceeded to walk up a hill for an hour or so until we were picked up by our minibus a little further up the highway. We didn't dare suggest it might not in fact be the National Park (35 km away according to our map), we just pretended it was (makes us much happier). In the afternoon we went to one of Cat Ba's beaches. It was deserted, due to the cloudy winter weather and we lay there reading for a while (our photocopied books from Hanoi). You know they actually have photocopied Noam Chomsky books? Our hotel was quiet and clean with a seaside view and a hot shower and the staff liked us, probably because we were the only tourists who hadn't showed up pissed off at the quality of their "luxury 3 day tour of Halong Bay" (and then taking it out on the poor hotel employees). We were happy to have seen Halong Bay, but also happy to get back to Hanoi away from our evil (prostitute selling) guide. We spent the next few days hitting more Hanoi tourist sites, museums, pagodas. I even posed for a photo with the Canadian ambassador, who we ran into while he was leaving the embassy. Note: the embassy has a prime spot right next to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. Similar themes reappear at all the tourist spots, "the great victories of Vietnam over its agressors", "our great wise leader Ho Chi Minh"... Its all a little bit over the top, but it's obviously an important part of the country's history. The Vietnamese have spent most of the last century under foreign control.

Best (and Worst) of Laos

Here we have some of our best and worst moments of our time in Laos, again we've put together a gallery of our favourite photos which you can visit if you want the condensed version. The gallery is available here.

1- Akha, Lahu and Hmong villages (near Vieng Phou Kha)
2- Luang Prabang
3- Vientiane

LEAST Interesting Places
1- Vang Vieng (unless you really love watching Friends reruns)
2- Bus trip from Vientiane to Vietnam (evil!!!!)

1-Price of the Nam Ou River boat from Muang Kwa to Muang Ngoi
2-Huge number of Western restaurants on the backpacker circuit

1- Lao cold rice salad with egg and mysterious (possibly raw) meat
2- Mangosteen salad and sticky rice dipped in spicy green chili sauce
3- Lao coffee (extra strong) with a load of condensed milk (once you get used to it)
Honourable Mention: Fresh baguettes

LEAST Delicious Foods
1- Lao coffee (extra strong) with a load of condensed milk (your first few cups)
2- Banana flowers (bitter)

BEST Places to do Nothing
1- Oudom Xay (take advantage of the great value for money)
2- Vientiane

We have updated our homepage with our financial information for Laos. For those of you who are curious about our expenses it is available at here.

42 Hour Trip From Hell

Backpackers are always eager to share their recently acquired "expertise" about such and such country. Getting ready to leave Laos we heard alot about Vietnam, mostly pretty negative, my favourite: "the Vietnamese are liars and bastards". The problem apparently lies in their inheritant desire to screw over foreign tourists, charging them triple or quadruple the usual price, or actually downright lying and stealing. Not that this is uncommon in other countries, but apparently the Vietnamese have mastered the technique of being completely unreasonable.

Despite popular opinion, we couldn't pass up Vietnam of all places! We bought a bus ticket from our Vientiane hostel, that would take us over the border to Vinh, Vietnam. The bus ride is commonly referred to as the "bus ride from hell" but we couldn't seem to find any other (cheap) way of getting to Vietnam. After an early dinner we waited outside our hostel for our "free pick-up" to arrive. It showed up 45 minutes late and dropped us off at the local bus station, confirming our suspicion that we could have bought the tickets ourselves.

The first sign of trouble was the agressive bus drivers (there were three of them) along with some lunatic woman who hurried us to the seats in the back of the bus where they had piled all their rice sacks, chairs, luggage... (to give themselves some leg room). Thankfully Yann objected and grabbed us comfortable seats at the front that were being reserved for the possibility thatVietnamese passengers might arrive. Meanwhile the lunatic woman yelled and paced back and forth through the aisle, for really no apparent reason. Yann quickly befriended the two men sitting next to us: two Vietnamese monks returning from a pilgrimage through Thailand, Burma and Laos. Despite his terrible English, the younger of the two monks, 39 years old, (who I will refer to as young monk) was extremely eager to talk to Yann. Actually I think young monk fell in love with Yann. We had our first ally.

After multiple long, dragged out stops, where the bus drivers and their entourage would pig out while we were overcharged for a bottle of water, we arrived at a large restaurant. By this time it was past 2 a.m. and we got off the bus to stretch and pee then the foreigners (about half the bus) loaded back onto the bus, to eagerly continue the trip. About 15 minutes later, someone noticed that the restaurant doors were closed, all the lights were off, and the bus drivers and company had all dissapeared. Any locals still remaining in the bus had reclined their seats and were sleeping. After some laughing and worrying, we concluded we were sitting near the Lao border waiting for it to open. Our bus crew was sleeping in the restaurant (and hotel, so we learned) while we attempted to sleep in the bus. Its important to note that we were now considerably high up in the mountains and it was damn cold. Most of us were still dressed for Vientiane weather. Despite the cold we might have been able to sleep, if it weren't for the pair of drunk, loud, rude Vietnamese guys behind us, who had opted not to pay for a hotel room (we were never given the option). I wont even get into how much they were assholes, its frustrating just writing about it.

By 6 a.m. our monks had joined us, and young monk seemed sad to learn that we had spent the night in the bus. (This didn't stop him from describing his thick warm blankets in considerable detail for someone who can't speak English) He pulled out his bag of offerings that he had collected on his trip and began to feed us. He handed me handfulls of cookies, cakes, fruits and when I enthousiastically thanked him he got serious expression on his face "No! It's for Yann!". He spent the rest of the morning singing to Yann or sending him loving glances.

We joined a queue of other buses crossing the border into Vietnam. All the passengers rushed to the immigration office to get our passports stamped by the Lao authorities. The Lao stamping process involves hundreds of people forcing their way to a small glass window and throwing their passports through the slit. Passports are handed from the back and forced towards the front as people yell and push, the most ridiculous line I heard was "please, let me through, I only have one". To get your passport stamped a little bit quicker, you can throw it towards the window with 10,000 kip in it. The scene is absolutely chaotic, Yann sat in the lounge watching tv and left me with the two passports. Young monk similarly sat down and let old monk (60+) get their stamps. The Vietnamese stamping process was slightly less chaotic, but equally annoying, as the border guards demanded "fees" from each foreigner.By the time everyone on our bus had gone through the stamping process, more than two hours had passed. Seventeen hours after our departure we arrived in Vinh and were dumped on the side of the highway as the rest of the passengers continued their ride to Hanoi. We were greeted by the Vinh motorbike touts, eagerly awaiting us. Since we had no idea where we were, it was pretty hard to negotiate a price for a ride anywhere, so we continuously brushed them off as they tried to offer us rides on their motos. We decided we wanted to head to the train station to book tickets to Hanoi for the next day. They offered us a ride there for 30,000 dong each, which seemed high, even though we were untrained in dealing with Vietnamese dongs (not the motorbike drivers, the currency!). After following us down the street for five minutes or so, they agreed to drive us to the train station that was "very very far" for 10,000 each. Meanwhile we watched the other couple that had been dropped off in Vinh get into a taxi, also heading to the train station. We agreed to the motorbike rides. I was scared, I had never been on a motorbike before and I had my heavy backpack pulling me backwards. I had remembered my aunt Marie-Ange telling me that she had burnt her leg the first time she rode on a motorbike, so instead of putting my feet on the foot rests (which I couldn't find anyways) I stuck my legs out beside me as far as I could manage. I balanced precariously with only my crotch supporting all my weight on the seat. When we got to the train station about 5 minutes later, we got out our 20,000 to pay, and surprise surprise, the drivers accused us of cheating them out of another 20,000 "that we had agreed upon". We stood our ground despite one of the drivers pushing Yann and making a big scene. We turned our back to them and walked into the train station gates. Neither of them followed, the intimidation routine hadn't worked this time.

Not feeling so keen anymore about staying in Vinh, we booked a train ticket to Hanoi, a six hour ride. Three hours later we embarked on to the Reunification Express, the train linking Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city. A brand new train with television sets, confortable seats, and even an on board meal included in the price of the ticket. At the train station we met a young woman from Hanoi who was keen to talk to us and spent a good part of the train ride in our cabin. Before parting ways in Hanoi, she gave us her phone number and made us promise to come over to her place for dinner while we were in Hanoi.The train pulled into Hanoi in the evening and we still wanted to get to Sapa in North Western Vietnam. Our train from Vinh pulled in right as the train to Sapa was leaving. Instead of going to the ticket counter, we were ushered suspiciously to the Sapa train where we could "purchase tickets" from the train attendants. For the price of a first class ticket (which would not have purchased), we were each led to an attendants private cabin. By passing up their bed they can make a quick 250,000 dong each. Although our beds were comfortable and quiet, we slept uneasily, wondering if they would charge us more upon arriving in Sapa. They made some kind of attempt to charge Yann more, but they had written the price in our notebook, so they didn't make too much of a fuss.

The rail line doesn't actually bring you all the way to Sapa, only to Lao Cai. From Lao Cai, there is still a one hour mini-bus ride to Sapa. As you get off the train, dozens of tourist minibuses await, ready to sell you a ticket to Sapa. What they try to prevent you from doing, is walking 200 m to the local bus station to buy your own ticket for half the price. One tout told us that the bus station had closed, and the other told us that it was 5 km away. Of course at 5:30 a.m. most people don't really feel like exploring the dark streets to find the local bus station in order to save less than 1 U.S dollar. Yann and I did though! Actually, we waited for the sun to rise so that we could walk to the only ATM in town to get money before we got to Sapa. We walked the 3 km to the ATM (with a few emergency bathroom stops for me) and back to the local bus station where we haggled to get the local price for our bus to Sapa. We didn't get the local price, but we did get a cheaper price than the minibus, so we were somewhat content. We arrived in Sapa at around 10 a.m. 42 hours after we had left Vientiane. By then I was going to the bathroom every few minutes, having difficulty retaining even water. I went to bed and slept for 24 hours while Yann explored Sapa.We spent 3 days in Sapa, renting a motorbike and running away from handicraft sellers. When we arrived back in Hanoi we had an e-mail from our friend who we met on the train from Vinh. She had invited us for dinner that very night. She came into downtown Hanoi with her friend, and we motorbiked out to her home in the outskirts of Hanoi. She had prepared a veritable feast complete with springrolls, beef, fish, veggies, soup... She had also invited her family members and friends. We ate and drank beer and were welcomed like old friends. We had a wonderful time and felt that we had disproved all the backpackers who said that the Vietnamese weren't welcoming.

Best (and Worst) of China

Here we have some of our best and worst moments of our time in China, we've also put together a gallery of our favourite photos which you can visit if you don't feel like ploughing through our gazillion photos. The gallery is available here.

According to Yann:
1- Beijing
2- Litang and Yuanyang
3- Pingyao
According to Emilie:
1- Litang
2- Beijing
3- Yuanyang

According to Yann:
According to Emilie:

FUNNEST Activities
According to Yann:
1- Horse trekking in Songpan
2- Visiting nomadic monastery festival in Litang
3- Trekking through Yuanyang rice terraces
According to Emilie:
Same choices, possibly in different orders

According to Yann:
1- Mongolian hotpot
2- Peking duck
3- Spicy Sichuan BBQ (especially in Chengdu)
According to Emilie:
1- Dumplings of all kinds (steamed and pork-filled, deep fried momos (Tibetan yak dumplings), friend and chive-filled...)
2- Breads (Tibetan flat bread, fried breakfast bread, muslim flat bread...)
3- Spicy Sichuan BBQ (easy on the spicy)

LEAST Delicious Foods
According to Yann:
1- Herb-filled steamed dumplings
2- Chongqing hotpot
3- Instant noodles (three days in a row on Yangtze boat cruise)
According to Emilie:
1- Soup with cockroach floating in it (ok, didn't have this in China, had it at Chinese buffet in Montreal)
2- Stewed pig interestines
3- Butter tea

BEST Views from a Bus
According to Yann and Emilie:
Kanding to Litang (2 pass over 4500m)

According to Yann and Emilie:
Daocheng to Shangrila

BEST Accomodation
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- The Mis Hostel, Chengdu
2- Cloudland Hostel, Kunming
3- Lijiang Youth Hostel, Lijiang

WORST Accomodation:
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Some hotel in Ruili (so bad that we have repressed its name from our memory)
2- Train-station Hotel, Yichang
3- Some brothel in Jianshui

In addition we have updated our homepage (wiki) with our finance information for China which is available here and a page with the web page of people we met on our trip in China which is available here.

Last days in Laos

From Luang Prabang we headed to the Vang Vieng which is conveniently on the way to the capital city. The town itself is sitting right on a river with beautiful mountains surrounding it in every direction. Its easy to see why it was one of the first backpacker destinations in Laos. The main street is full of cafes with dozens of couches filled by backpackers watching hours of Friends. Seriously. We opted for the popular tubing trip down the river, which took us most of the day as we drifted lazily down river. Its the dry season and we didn't move very quickly, actually sometimes it felt like the wind was keeping us from moving at all. We had been told that we could buy beer at stalls along the river, but we weren't really prepared for what we got. Huge "fun zones" with decks, tarzan ropes, loud punk rock music and loads of drunk frat boy types surrounded by girls in bikinis (not Lao girls). In contrast, on the quieter parts of the river, we were surrounded by poor locals, washing their clothes or collecting seaweed to dry and sell at the market. I tried to think of what their opinion of foreigners would be as they mostly see them floating down river in inner tubes, drunk, fat and loud. After all the fun of Vang Vieng, we took a 4 hour pick-up truck ride to Vientiane, the capital of Laos and spent 4 days there, exploring and finally taking advantage of cheap and fast(er) internet. We stayed in the cheapest hotel we could find, and we definetely got what we paid for, actually maybe we got less than what we paid for. We were bombarded by mosquitoes all night unless we blasted the fan right in our faces which consequentely prevented us from sleeping. The sign on the door of the hotel said "Please be back by 11:30, we our a family and we must sleep too, thanks for your consideration", we were kept up until 2am by the sounds of drinking and partying. To add to the ambience, the bed behind the counter held an old family member sitting in his underwear attached to an iv. We tried to get to all the sites in Vientiane. Yann loved the Patuxai Arch, the attempted replica of the Arc de Triomphe, nicknamed the Vertical Runway, in honour of the fact that it was built using concrete donated from the U.S. for the construction of a new airport runway. The highlight for me was our quiet visit to the most holy site in Laos, the Golden Stupa. After 10km of walking there and back we treated ourselves to Lao massages, the girl massaging me had a nasty cold and was sniffling and sneezing in her hands then proceeding to rub them all over me. Yann, who was lying next to me found this extremely hilarious. We rented bicycles to visit the Mekong waterfront. On our last day in Vientiane we feasted on local Lao food and splurged on French pastries for dessert. A lovely way to leave Laos.

How Did We Spend New Year's Eve?

We spent New Year's Eve in our small guesthouse in Louang Prabang. We had originally planned to party and there were definetely lots of them around. What we realised though was that Lao people don't really celebrate "International New Year", so all we would be doing was buying overpriced drinks with a whole bunch of other travelers. It does have a certain appeal, but we were happy going to bed early and missing the costly celebrations.

Despite the hoards of tourists in Louang Prabang, the town still retains a lot of charm. It sits right on a peninsula bounded by the Mekong River and the Nam Ou River. The historic old quarter of Louang Prabang is dotted with elegant French colonial architecture along with dozens of Lao wats. Young monks and novices roam the streets in their bright orange robes, capturing tourists for some English practise and maybe "some money for books?". Every morning, at sunrise, like everywhere else in Laos, the monks parade down the streets of town quietly collecting food and donations from local worshippers. At night women from nearby villages line the main street with hundreds of stalls selling identical Hmong handicrafts to the tourists. After three nights walking past the colourful handicrafts I succumbed to a very small item, but had I had a larger bag I might have been more wreckless!

Unlike China, the entire tourism industry here is geared towards foreigners. This might be nice for getting a chicken sandwich of a piece of chocolate cake, but that's about it. The entire old quarter of Louang Prabang is made up of guest houses and restaurants, all the employees motorbike to work from outlying areas of town the main interaction you have with locals (even monks) is when they are trying to sell you something (and I definetely don't blame them for that). Sometimes its nice to feel that your every "western need" isn't being met and that you'll have to settle for something a little more "domestic", we definetely experienced this feeling in Northern Laos and we are (retrospectively) greatful for it. After 5 days in Louang Prabang we boarded a bus south to Vang Vieng, a town with a reputation for being a rowdy backpacker stronghold. Despite the fact that we aren't rowdy, we are backpackers, so we felt a stop was in order...

Lounging in Laos

We spent a whole 4 nights in Oudom Xay, a town that people usually pass through on their way somewhere else. I can't say that our television didn't play a part in this. But the fresh baguettes with "Vache Qui Rit" cheese and the deep fried pancakes drenched in butter and condensed milk were also contributing factors. Oh yeah, we did our laundry too.
Oudom Xay is the major trading hub with the Chinese, apparently 80% of people here have Chinese origins. After being in China for so long it was a relief to be able to negotiate in Chinese again, we felt quite at home. We did a one day trek with the local tourist office that is trying enthousiastically to keep people in Oudom Xay for more than a few hours. It was cheap and it was pleasant our guide liked to continuously make the joke that he was Tarzan, hanging from vines making quasi Tarzan-like sounds. He would say "I'm Tarzan" which sounded to me like "I'm faza" and everytime I would respond "who's faza?". The tours only started operating this year, and the Hmong village that we passed through had only had visits from tourists twice before. The village chief welcomed us into his home where we shared the family lunch of boiled banana flours and sticky rice. Other than making the children cry hysterically and pee their pants I think it went very well.

After three nights in Oudom Xay, we reluctantly boarded a bus to Mouang Kwa, another small village. Our plan was to take a slow boat down the apparently beautiful Nam Ou river, starting from Mouang Kwa. When we arrived, fairly early in the day, we were informed that there were no boats leaving unless we wanted to pay 70$ US to charter one. We would have to wait and see if more tourists would show up to share the cost with us. No one did. So we had a relaxing evening in a beautiful guest house overlooking the river. The next morning we arrived at the boat landing hoping for more tourists, we waited all morning and no one showed up. We attempted to negotiate the price, which was impossible. Considering the average annual salary in Laos is 1600$ we felt that 70$ for a 3 hour boat ride was a little much. We had to turn back. Where did we end up? Back in Oudom Xay for another night of HBO!

What we noticed on arrival is that I had left my raincoat in Mouang Kwa. By this point we were pretty discouraged about having to forego our boat trip and this was very hard to deal with in a calm manner. After discussing the possibility of taking the 4 hour bus ride back to Mouang Kwa and hoping that my jacket was still lying on the bench outside the bus station, we decided to ask the Oudom Xay bus station if they could contact the Mouang Kwa bus station and get them to put my jacket on the next bus. Sound simple? Mouang Kwa bus station has no telephone, in fact Mouang Kwa gets electricity for three and half hours every evening. Despite these setbacks, the English speaking woman at the Oudom Xay bus station managed to contact someone in Mouang Kwa on her mobile phone, who then walked to the bus station, found my coat and put it on the next morning's bus.

Waiting for my raincoat to arrive meant that we caught the last bus to Louang Prabang (biggest tourist destination in Laos) and arrived there at 8:30 PM in the busiest season of the year. We walked for 2 hours trying to find a guest house that wasn't full. We ended up on the outskirts of the tourist area, in a bedroom over a small shop selling baby clothes. There was no sign indicating it was a guesthouse but the owner flagged us down as we walked down the street (probably looking pretty discouraged). We got a room with two single beds and a private bathroom with hot shower for a mere 4$ US. The going rate for budget accomodation in the central area is about 20$ US. We have now been in Louang Prabang for three days taking advantage of our extremely cheap accomodations. This means more to spend on the touristy stuff. Louang Prabang is absolutely overrun with tourists, more than we have seen in the entire two months in China. It has so many fancy restaurants, western food (including lovely wine lists). Of course, none of this is within our budget, but we can still live it up on the cheap. For lunch we've been getting baguette sandwiches with sliced roasted chicken breast, tomatoes, lettuce, mayo, onions and cucumbers for 5000K each (50 cents US). The Lao have mastered western food considerably better than the Chinese. Its funny to see the Lao line up for their sandwiches, they fill it with dried shredded pork, spicy chili sauce and maybe a squirt of fish sauce. The baguette however, is universally appreciated.