Well hi there!
I guess you must be wondering if I'm dead because I haven't written in so long, but actually I have just been really busy, and in a land of very slow unreliable internet. I now have a week in Bangkok so I have decided to save up my blog and get it done here. There should be a new post on here every day for the next five days now...
So I left you in Luang Prabang at the end of Day 8....
On day 9 we got up fairly early to go and visit a cultural museum where we learnt about the different groups of people that live in Laos (it turns out there are a lot). This is mostly due to immigration from the surrounding countries, and the different groups retain their identities because Laos is so mountainous, so communities remain separated. I picked up some great photos of native people in the shop there, something more for my wall next year.
Next it was off to the airport to board our shockingly small propeller plane to Vientianne, the capital. I was so terrified of this plane, many of you know I have been worrying about it for months. I took one of the Xanex I bought illegally in the chemist in Thailand, and although it calmed me down significantly before the flight, as soon as I got on the plane I freaked out. Thank goodness it was only a half hour flight. Needless to say it went fine and I am very much alive. The problem was that when I arrived the Xanex tablet was still working, and so I slept for most of the rest of the day and night. Felt very rested the next day!
Day 10 was to be spent in Vientiane. Despite being over 1000 years old there wasn't a great to do in this relatively sleepy city if you were a bit templed-out. The stop here is designed for thickos who've got the wrong Vietnamese visa so they can change it before crossing the border. The city has been variously invaded by China, Burma and the Thais over its long history, and this shows in the variety of cultures and architectural styles in the city. It has been the capital of Laos since the French occupation in the late 19th century. The city is on the border with Thailand, separated by the Mekong River. Just down the road is the Friendship Bridge, built by the Australians. You may ask why the Australians came all this way to build a bridge, but last time they just gave the Lao government the money, the government skimped on the amount of cement they were supposed to use, and the bridge collapsed.
I wandered around the city with three of the girls on my tour, having a look at some of the shops. We found an amazing little shop which sold Laos silk, and I got a beautiful dress for the equivalent of 12 quid! Bargain!
In the evening after dinner we visited an English pub. A bit random in the middle of Laos really. It was run by a guy from Milton Keynes who looked like one of the guys from the 118 advert - brilliant moustache, spectacular mullet. Working for him was a barman called Gone, who we got chatting to. His English was fantastic - he even knew a load of slang and phrases - "hot to trot" and "shacked up" being two of them, plus many more not so clean ones. I guess that's what happens when you learn your English in a pub. He came from Luang Prabang, but hasn't been back there to visit his family in four years. He works three jobs, sending money home to help his parents and four siblings with their education. He was also a monk for ten years! (Buddhism is very popular in Laos). He plans to be a tour guide one day, and would like to travel, although he has never even been over the river to Thailand. It was really insightful talking to him and learning about his life. He gave us all a handmade bracelet when we left (making bracelets seems to be a major passtime of monks and he couldn't quite kick the habit). He also gave me the top of his notepad, which was from Tesco and clearly bore the Tesco Value blue and white stripes, but was written in Thai! Excellent souvenir.
On day 11 it was back on the road to travel through more sleepy countryside to our village homestay, near the border with Vietnam. On our way we were passed by one of the many lorries carrying cages full of dogs to Vietnam to be eaten. Just another reminder of the different culture we were in. The village was called Ban Tabak and was fairly large as villages go. It was on a river so we had the chance to go for a cruise in some old B-52 bomb shell casings with motors strapped to the back - never say the Lao people aren't thrifty. The cruise was stunning. We went in the afternoon as the sun was getting low, and were treated to another view of lush mountains, trademark low-hanging cloud, and clear waters. I took so many photos of this place. After the cruise we had a walk through the village. It was interesting to see the basic wooden houses (complete with fires burning to heat the evening meal - very safe) and the somewhat incongruous looking satellite dishes all over the place.
After a delicious meal cooked by our hosts, we sat out playing cards and were approached by five curious children who lived in the village. We saw this as an excellent opportunity to practice our Lao, and although they at first seemed a bit confused, we eventually established their names and ages, and where the toilets were. They showed us a dance that they had clearly learnt at school. We were just puzzling over what to do in return, when I realised that I had Saturday Night and the Macarena on my iPod - and Tim had speakers. We set up a dance workshop, and I am now proud to announce that the children of Ban Tabak village know the dance to both songs! That night we slept on very comfortable mattresses on the floor of one of the houses. Unfortunately I didn't bargain on three people in the room snoring, one so loudly that the floor actually vibrated, and I got very little sleep.
The next day it was an early start, and another stamp in the passport as we crossed over the border into Vietnam.
Vietnam is about the size of Italy, and has a population of 82 million - a stark contrast to tiny, sparsely populated Laos. It's had a pretty crazy last 100 years, like most of the countries round this area. Occupied by France since the late 19th century, everything changed when Japan invaded in the Second World War. Once Japan were defeated, an organised resistance to French occupation had been built up by the communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh. The war with the French lasted until 1954, when the French gave up any claim to the country. Vietnam was then separated into two - the communist North, and the imperialist South, which were supported by America and other Western powers.
The North had plans for the whole country to become communist, and America weren't too happy about this - remember this was the Cold War and America was very fearful of communism in Russia. The South requested America's help in Vietnam, and America were happy to oblige. Their involvement lasted from 1965-1973 when they admitted defeat and retreated. The war between the North and South continued until 1975, when the whole country became communist and was united. The next war was with the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, lasting from 1979 to around 1989. And finally Vietnam is at peace with everyone and itself. Amazingly, after so much fighting between Vietnam and America, there is very little anti-western sentiment in the country, and the people were very welcoming.
We drove for 12 hours that day, through the very different landscape. It was quite industrial and very crowded, with jagged mountains in the distance and exotic plants and trees. The driving in Vietnam bore a striking similarity to Indian driving, in that it is completely acceptable to overtake if something is coming in the opposite direction, and run any smaller oncoming traffic off the road. I was glad to arrive at our hotel for the night in Ninh Binh.
More tomorrow folks!