Although it was one of the most spectacular road trips that we have taken in Southeast Asia, even the scenery on the bus trip between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng could not distract me from the fact that I was holding a plastic bag full of my own warm stomach contents. Having done pretty well on a couple of previous busses and trains, I was hopeful that motion sickness wouldn’t be an issue but the road was just too much for me. The road wound relentlessly through the mountains but that wasn’t the only interesting part of the trip.
For starters the trip was supposed to take 3 hours, but we have learned that when you are given a time frame, it is the absolute minimum time it will take under ideal conditions. And of course, conditions are never ideal as there is always livestock on the road as well as places where the road has been washed out by a landslide. So the trip took about 5 hours.
Halfway through the trip the bus driver pulled over at a wide spot, opened the door and yelled “toilet”. Feeling both ill and the need to go to the bathroom, I dashed off the bus and start running down the path. I went for quite a ways before the path began to narrow and I realized that there was no actual toilet.
I was more than happy to use the great outdoors because I was not sure if my stomach could handle an actual SE Asian toilet at this point. Then I remembered that people are still injured every year by land mines in Laos and tourists are warned not to leave the path.
Having relieved both my need to pee and to puke, I felt a bit better and started to look around. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of this place that I had just desecrated. In one direction a limestone cliff towered above me while I had a view of the mountains in the opposite direction. The path just a head of me lead to a rice field with an incredible view of the valley below.
The story of the trip didn’t end there. Shortly after getting back on the bus from the toilet stop, it began to rain. There was a considerable lag before I realized that the bus driver wasn’t turning on the windshield wipers. The wiper arms had no blades.
Although we were on an express bus, it is run by the Laos government which is very poor. Laos is regularly a recipient of aid from China, Korea and Japan. It was formerly supported by the USSR. A doctor that we met told us that the Chinese built a hospital in Luang Prabang, but that in the rainy season it was very hard to get to because the Laos government did not have the money to build a road.
In addition to the driver most buses in SE Asia have a driver’s assistant. That person collects tickets and helps with luggage. On our bus the assistant was obviously training to be a driver. On one flat straight spot in the road, the driver and assistant traded spots, WITHOUT stopping the bus.
he road to Vang Vieng was a memorable part of our journey. One that we hope to not repeat!
The first evening on Cat Ba Island, we noticed a large brightly lit monument on top of one of the mountains. We speculated that maybe it was Jesus, because there are many Catholics in Vietnam due to having been a French colony. One evening at supper we asked the restaurant owner. He was very fluent in English which he learned from his patrons. He explained that it was Ho Chi Minh the former communist leader of Vietnam.
The people of Cat Ba Island revere Ho Chi Minh because he visited the island and during his time there taught the people how to grow rice, how to fish and how to live. “How long was he here?” Dave asked. “Only a few hours” came the response.
Cat Ba Island is an incredibly beautiful island surrounded by karsts. The beaches are found in small secluded pockets on the island. The people who live in the floating villages surrounding the island are as comfortable on the water as on land. Cat Ba Island is known for kayaking and climbing. It is a popular destination during the summer holidays for residents of Hanoi.
We were in Cat Ba Island during the slow season. The streets were deserted and there were deals to be had. We paid $25US per night for TWO hotel rooms. We were within a five minute walk of three beaches and from our hotel balcony had an incredible view of the harbour.
Travel in SE Asia, especially to more remote spots like Cat Ba, requires a lot of patience. Everything takes longer than you expect and road blocks seem to pop up everywhere. Three days ahead of time, we booked a tour back to Hanoi for the day we wanted to leave. It was to involve taking a bus, tour boat and bus. Come that day, the first bus only had three seats available and we needed five. We were given the excuse that it was because we had a wheelchair. A mini-bus was then hired to take us to catch the boat and of course, they tried to extract an additional fee, which we refused to pay.
Halong Bay is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. There are little islands and they surround Halong Bay. We took a boat tour to Halong Bay. I had a marvelous time.
On our tour, we climbed up a cave. I went in my backpack. It was really scary at first but the boat left us there and we had to go through the cave to meet the boat. The cave was cool. It had lots of lights. It was way cooler than I expected.
That day we also went kayaking. Kayaking wasn’t what I expected it to be since my parents haven’t showed us what you do. I sat in the hole with my Mom. Lacey sat in the front hole. I paddled a little bit. There was a sea cave in the bay which we went through. It was not a bad experience.
After the cave and before the kayaking we had lunch on the boat. It wasn’t your regular lunch. The captain and the captain’s helper made soup, spring rolls, egg things, rice and fish. As they always say: “the atmosphere makes the meal”. Eating on a boat in Halong Bay was calming.
A place forgotten by time ... Yuanyang, China; where people still wear their traditional costumes and walk their water buffalo on the road. A place where the crops are grown, tended and harvested by hand. Tourists like us are surrounded in the market place; curious villagers gathering to inspect us.
Because there are so few tourists, the local people have not get become indifferent to our presence. When Dave tries to buy a few buttons in the market, the vendor insists on giving them to us. Unlike the big cities in China where we were often hassled to buy something, there is no pressure to make a purchase here. This is a working market, where the local people go to buy supplies. There are a few small shops on the periphery, but very few shoppers in them.
In the market, stalls offer the brightly coloured fabric used by the local people to make their traditional clothing. You can purchase traditional clothing at the market as well. Women sit and sew blankets in their traditional style while they wait in their stalls to make a sale.
On an adjacent street, the food vendors have permanent stalls clustered according to their product. One end of the narrow street is lined with fruit and vegetable vendors. A few meat vendors are clustered in the middle offering everything from live chickens to fresh dog. The other end of the street is lined with stalls where you can build your own soup from the ingredients on offer or sit at a short table and eat grilled bean curd.
An enclosed market is where most of the meat is sold. The animals were freshly butchered that morning and pieces of meat are laid out on plywood tables. Chickens are kept in cages until they are purchased. Then right before your eyes the chicken will be butchered, scalded and plucked by a mechanical chicken plucker.
Life is Yuanyang changes slowly because there are so few visitors from the outside world and yet internet cafes and cell phones are everywhere. We wondered how long this pocket of tradition will survive the influence of an ever changing world.
Bissky Dziadyk Family
Travelling the world as a family since 2008.
In September 2008 our family embarked on a four month journey through South East Asia. Traveling with a child who uses a wheelchair presented its challenges, but following the Mekong River through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam with a wheelchair was truly an adventure.
When we move beyond our fears and embrace our dreams, the Universe has an odd way of not only supporting us but giving us more opportunities than we ever imagined. Embarking on a journey with an open heart we can not help but be changed forever by the experience. Indeed it would be a waste to return untouched in the spiritual realm.
September: China (Beijing, Xi’an,Kunming, Yuanyang)
October: Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay) and
Laos (Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane)
November: Southern Vietnam (Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Delta)
December: Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot and Sihanoukville).