This is Patuxai, which is a war memorial dedicated to those who died fighting during Word War II and for Lao independence from France in the late 1940s. It was broadly inspired by the Arc de Triomphe (ironic) and was built between 1957 and 1968 with cement donated by the USA that was intended to build a new airport. Apparently some people still call it the ‘vertical runway’.
The mural on the ceiling is of the gods Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra, according to Wikipedia. I love a ceiling mural. If I ever own a house there will be some serious gold leaf-adorned illustration on the kitchen ceiling.
You can also go up on the roof (after walking through a couple of floors are not-quite-finished and mostly full of people selling souvenirs) and enjoy the view of the city. GOD IT WAS HOT. POSSIBLY MY MEMORIES ARE CLOUDED BY THE HELLISH JOURNEY THAT FOLLOWED THIS LITTLE EXCURSION.
The only other part of Vientiane that I really saw was a scrummy Indian restaurant which introduced me to the god blessed beverage of soda water with a slice of lemon, and the post office. Which looked like a post office. I should have taken a photo, in retrospect, because every post office I’ve ever been to abroad is nicer than the ones in Britain. The one in Hoi An in Vietnam had furniture decorated with mother of pearl. Saigon’s main post office looked like a train station. One in Barcelona boasted ceiling murals. The one in Southend is attached to a WH Smith and its main decoration is a glass case with limited edition stamps.
I feel a post dedicated entirely to post offices on the horizon.
I won’t mind if you don’t read it.
Next up in the occasional SE Asia series: Phuket and the Soi Dog Foundation!
Transcript of 1000 conversations I had when I told people I wanted to visit the Plain of Jars in Laos: ‘A plane of jars? Like an aeroplane full of jam jars?’ ‘Um, no. A valley full of ancient jars.’ ‘Oh. I’d like an aeroplane with jam jars.’
I read about the Plain of Jars in a book, and it was a pretty terrible book so I won’t waste your time by telling you what it’s called, but it piqued my interest so we took a trip out to the town of Phonsavan, which is my new reference for the phrase ‘in the middle of bloody nowhere’. The journey from Luang Prabang was long, dusty and included very few straight roads. Anyway, littered around Phonsavan are a couple of thousand stone jars. Some say they were used for burials. Some say they were big old wine containers. Some say aliens.
It’s probably not aliens.
If the giant dusty valley full of jars isn’t strange enough, the giant dusty valley is also full of craters. Look, there’s a jar… oh no it’s half a jar.
To cut a long story short, Phonsavan was carpet bombed during the Vietnam War. I mentioned in my post about Luang Prabang that Laos is the most bombed country in the world; that is essentially because there was a civil war there between 1963 and 1975 which was also a proxy war between America and Russia, hence the carpet bombing (both sides, which involved North Vietnam, South Vietnam, China, America and Thailand, plus the opposing Laos forces, wanted control of the Ho Chi Minh trail and Laotian pan handle. Wiki can explain it better than I can.) Literally nothing ever changes.
So, yeah, craters. Most of the valley has been cleared of UXOs but I must say the added risk of accidental death added a certain level of interest to the trip. For scale, by the way, I’m about 5’1″:
Giant jars aside, Phonsavan is pretty quiet but very beautiful. It’s fairly remote by today’s standards (no listings on HostelWorld!) so we kind of winged it and found a really nice guest house with hot water and open air sinks. I really think brushing your teeth in the great outdoors sets you up for a productive day or good night’s sleep, although it helps if the great outdoors is at a balmy 20 degrees.
Coincidentally, while I was in South East Asia my friend Maria was in Japan for university, and on the group chat one day we were talking about bathrooms (I think I was excited because we had hot water) and Maria sent us a photo of a public toilet in Japan, which had more buttons and nice little additions then I have seen on any toilet, ever. I shared this photo:
Next time in the Occasional South East Asia Diaries: Vang Vieng!
You guys. I can’t tell you about the beautiful country of Laos without first reliving the journey from Hanoi in Vietnam across the boarder to Luang Prabang in northern Laos. It’s one of those events that I look back on and, instead of coherent words, all that appears in my head is a large question mark, like a Homer Simpson thought bubble. Since I am going to Barcelona on Monday and have a serious case of itchy feet, I’ve decided to tell this is in second person to really make a connection with you all and so you get itchy feet too!
5pm. You hop on a minibus from your hostel to the bus station. ‘Hop’ really means ‘sit squashed for approximately forty minutes’. The regular bus is not promising. You’re in the rearmost part of the bus next to your younger brother, who is hungover. Usually sleeper bus bunks look like faux leather recliners with little frames attached, but the ones at the back are more like faux leather mattresses, and you squish in right next to a couple of other people, including your brother who you force to sit in the uncomfiest bit of the bed because that’s what you get for travelling with a hangover.
8pm. You have dinner in a small establishment that kept a large bird of prey on a leash. You do not take photos because you have the distinct feeling that the bird of prey is a warg.
10pm. You take diazepam for the first time in your life because you wish to sleep for the next 20 hours, which is approximately the duration of your journey. You try to read a book you picked up in Hanoi but the diazepam kicks in and you start to drift into a surprisingly restful sleep. You wonder briefly if you’ve misunderstood the rudimentary Google search you did before approaching a pharmacist and have misread the possible side effects of diazepam. You briefly contemplate what will happen to your brother if you die right here in the faux leather mattress bed.
7am. You’re awake, but you’re almost comfortable. You’re at the boarder between Vietnam and Laos. It’s cold and misty – you must be at a high altitude. Everything is grey. You creep off the bus wearing flip flops and a t-shirt, clutching your passport and valuables and… you’ve walked onto the set of an apocalypse film?
Aside from about four officials sitting in drafty rooms with mugs of coffee and lots of dark wood furniture, the town’s only inhabitants are dogs. You exchange glances with your equally bemused brother and join the queue for visas. You’re pretty sure it’s twenty dollars for a visa but you’re charged thirty because there is a ‘regional cost’. You go to the loo in what may once have been a military barracks and wonder if they’ll let you come back one day to shoot the apocalypse film.
The diazepam knocks you out for several more hours; when you wake up it’s 3pm. Maybe. you’re closer to ground level and the sun’s out. You stop for food and visit a toilet lit by a single burning candle that in retrospect looks like something one would light to summon the devil. Why is a restaurant toilet lit by a single burning candle when there is definitely electricity in the building? Why are you asking that when you’ve been in Asia for six weeks already? The British are the only people in the world for whom health and safety is a way of life. You notice a series of burnt-out missile shells lined up against walls of buildings and recall something about an American war. You return to your giant bus bed.
You doze off and wake up briefly… up another mountain? You don’t remember the guide book mentioning so many mountains? Maybe it’s all one mountain.
5pm. You’re in Luang Prabang. Your hostel has hot water, lockers that work and a mysterious bottle of Jack Daniels next to your bunk that will not move for the duration of your stay.
You don’t know it that, but that’s one of the nicer Laos-related journeys you will take.
To be completely honest, we planned our route through Vietnam using the route the Top Gear guys took in that Christmas special a few years ago. Ha Long Bay was one of their stops so it was one of ours too. We went with a group from our Hanoi hostel to stay on one of the bay’s islands for a night, because Ha Long is ages out from Hanoi and the occasional group trip is good for you, probably. Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO site and, on Top Gear, looked sparkling and beautifully emerald. We went on a cloudy day, so it actually looked like this:
But we’re British, so it was just like being at home for the summer! Speaking of home, the dock we boarded the boat from reminded me so much of Southend on a bad day that I had to take a photo:
Mud: check. Giant container ships on the horizon: check. Grey skies: check. There were a million little crabs trotting about on the mud, which made a nice change from the crap you normally see on Southend’s mudflats, ha.
So as part of the group trip we were required to partake in group activities. Number one: canoeing with a friend. Or, in my case, my wee brother who is actually a lot taller than me and way more into the sport of canoeing than I am. We nearly came to blows about my ability to paddle right after this photo was taken:
Not as bad as Monopoly at Christmas, but close.
That night the island hostel had a beach bonfire. We tried a local type of dance with bamboo sticks that I have since found on YouTube because I don’t know how to explain it without overusing the word ‘ankle’…
The next day we took a walk up a hill. Or, to be more accurate, we climbed a mountain. Climb because it was made of rocks and mountain because there’s no international definition for what constitutes a mountain so although it may have been a large hill, I’m going to call it a mountain. Also, I did it in flip flops. This was because as we were leaving the hostel in Hanoi, someone mentioned there would be a hike of some sort. I had packed a tiny bag and left my proper shoes in a locker, because when we booked no one mentioned a hike. ‘Should I go back for my shoes?’ I thought. Everyone had shoes apart from Maxim and I. ‘Ah, live a little,’ I told myself. ‘You always over plan and over pack.’ So I left my shoes.
I am never living a little again. It was a fucking mountain.
There were monkeys on the other side of the giant pile of rocks, which was nice, although they were basically trained to be nice to tourists which was gross. Also, when we were done saying ‘hey, a monkey’ we had to climb all the way back over the bloody mountain. I ripped the elephant pants I bought in Saigon. Always over pack, kids!
We had to leave our hostel the morning after we got back from Ha Long, because we’d forgotten to book another night, so we relocated to a slightly different part of the Old Quarter. I know I hate group activities, but I was sad to leave some of the people we’d been with on the trip. I don’t really do casual friends but I guess it’s hard not to bond with people over bamboo dancing and rock climbing. So if an American named Suzie (maybe Suzie?) who au paired in London before flying to Hanoi and lost her phone is reading this, hiiiii. Also: an English girl named Claire studying in Australia the English guy travelling with her wearing several ear piercings. We compared passport stamps. It was nice to meet you, and I never say that and mean it.
Oh, by the way, the bathroom of the hostel in Ha Long Bay had no window. This was the view while we cleaned our teeth:
(Can I just say, that title is possibly my favourite in eight years of blogging.)
I really liked Hue, because our visit contained my favourite things: old buildings and comfortable dorm rooms. Our hostel was Wild West-themed and I’m not convinced white people should be appropriating Native American culture any more than we already have, but also we were in Vietnam and I’m not used to anyone other than white people appropriating culture. Is it appropriation the same as appreciation? No. Are they too easily confused in a world built on appropriation? Probably.
Anyway. The reviews on Hostelworld raved about the dorm’s beds and by that point in the trip I’d slept in a tent and on a wooden pallet with what seemed to be a yoga mat so I figured, as long as there’s clean sheets I’m happy.
I was so, so happy. The mattresses were squishy. Giant curtains and wooden separators shielded you from the universe. There was a little box with a key for your belongings as well as a locker. Almost like your bedroom at home, except with eleven other people in there!
Moving on: Hue – pronounced ‘Hway’ – was once the capital of Vietnam and is complete with its own imperial city, aka walled citadel. Maxim and I took a guided tour which I probably should have recorded, because the notes I made on my phone are shite, but here’s what I can tell you with reasonable certainty:
Men wear make up
The 12th and penultimate emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, Khai Dinh, spent loads of time in Europe and when he died in 1925 his tomb – which is the size of an average block of houses – was built with a mix of European and Vietnamese styles, which is why it kind of looks like a cathedral from the Middle Ages. The inside of the tomb reminds me a bit of a church or a temple too. According to my notes, Khai Dinh enjoyed make up and was possibly gay. I have no idea if this had any bearing on his reign.
Men like sex
Onto the next emperor, Minh Mang. He has a serious Wikipedia page but according to my notes he may have had 600 concubines and had the moniker ‘strong at night’. Alternatively that may be another emperor. Presumably such a title is one many of them aimed to enjoy. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed wandering his tomb and highly recommend you also visit if you are in the area.
The Imperial City looks very… imperial
For some reason I have very few photos of the Imperial City, which is enormous and would probably make a good setting for something in Game of Thrones:
I recall that a large portion of the buildings were bombed by B-52s in the American War, but I also have a feeling that one guided tour is not enough to get the full scope of somewhere with as much history as Hue. If anyone fancies sending me back…
We finished with a beautiful evening boat ride along the Perfume River and mooched about the shops for a bit. Hue is a really chilled out town and there are some lovely places in the town selling art and pottery and whatnot, and if I return with a suitcase I will be buying all the art. I seem to remember that Hugh Jackman had something to do with one of them. There was a photograph of him on the wall, anyway…
Next time in the SE Asia blogs: our horrific trip up to Hanoi! Keep an eye out for it, guys, it’ll make you think Southern Rail are the pinnacle of customer service.
While we were in Danang a friend recommended that we visit the the Marble Mountains, and since mountains are made to be climbed, etc, we went for it. Each of the five pagoda-topped mountains is named after the element it’s supposed to represent, and although they are genuinely made from marble, most of the marble souvenirs available are actually imported from China because the alternative would be mining the mountain all the tourists have paid to see.
Only one mountain is accessible to visitors, and I completely wimped out climbing most of it. Maxim disappeared into a cave and came back half an hour later from a completely different direction; I sat on a bench, wheezed a bit and judged other tourists’ walking boots. After Angkor Wat I’d had enough of intrepid exploring for a bit, although in retrospect it would have helped me sweat off all those M&Ms.
In fact, swastikas were everywhere. Trump had only been in office a few weeks at the time and was stretching his tiny, bigoted Muslim-banning fingers, so seeing beautifully-engraved swastikas in a calm, intricate place of worship was like that feeling you get when you eat bad food and know when you’re going to puke but you’re not sure when. I take solace that few of the bone bags taking over America can actually find Vietnam on a map and will never visit these places for active worship.
I don’t spook easily, but some of the caves were a little bit too ancient-religious-shrine for me. This particular buddha, for example, was nearly invisible until you were right on top of him.
The Marble Mountains were probably the only place in the whole of South East Asia where I could really believe in god(s) and spirituality, probably because it’s so old and, unlike Angkor Wat, there aren’t 8,000 tourists taking selfies every five steps.
If you’re in the area, definitely make the trip up the mountain – and if you’ve got luggage space, bring me back a marble statue. There’s a spot on my mum’s patio crying out for a large-ish marble effigy of, well, anything.
The Train to Hue
Nowdays, I commute to London once a week on a train and there is little to recommend it as a form of travel. In February, I was completely fed up with buses and insisted we took the train from Danang to Hue, as everyone who had done the trip absolutely raved about the view. We stopped at a chicken restaurant before we left Danang and it is my eternal shame that I mistook a guy picking up a takeaway for a waiter. I also accidentally ordered a dish of what appeared to be very spicy chicken bones.
I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but if anyone does – I seem to remember it was really well known locally – let me know, because bones aside it was ace.
Our train seats were ticketed and when we reached ours after a suitably long delay, we quietly asked if the elderly Vietnamese couple already in them would mind moving (they didn’t. I felt like a dick white tourist, but I also didn’t want to get turfed off the train).
I distinctly recall that a local man was boarding the train with a duck, and a tourist said something like, ‘Oh, that duck is so cute! Is it a pet?’ The man did not answer. I am not a busybody, so I did not tell the tourist that the duck was probably his dinner.
That elderly couple came off better in the end – our seats were next to a large white pillar, so we couldn’t really see out of the windows to the infamous beautiful views… and I fell asleep as soon as we left the station, so it didn’t matter anyway. I just checked and I don’t have a single piece of evidence that there was a view at all.
It put me in good stead for commuting, in that respect.
I haven’t shared a room since I was about eight, so three months of 12-people dorms with shared bathrooms was in my top five Reasons I Should Maybe Call This Off. By the end of our time in Asia I had mellowed – I even spoke to some of my roommates – but my bedroom and the space that came with it was the thing I missed most other than family. I know that a lot of people who are thinking of going backpacking are put off by the dorm situation so here is a handy guide I put together!
If you’re nervous about sharing a dorm, or if you’re jetlagged or tired or just not feeling it, don’t share one. Maxim and I got a room to ourselves when we first arrived in Bangkok because we knew we were going to arrive and pass out. The first few days of another timezone is what I imagine hell will look like when I get there, so invest in two or three nights of not dorms while you get your sea legs. By time we went home I was happy to sleep in a 30-bed dorm with two bathrooms, but I worked up to it.
In Otres in Cambodia one of our dorms was open air with about 20 beds, and one morning I overhead and English guy book a private room because some stoners had sat out smoking with a stereo on all night and he hadn’t slept at all. If you can’t beat them and won’t join them, get a private room. I kind of wish I’d had the budget to have a private room – or to stay in a hotel, come to that – because there are some days when the thought of sharing a toilet with 20 other butts does not appeal. I met one guy who had been on the road for two years or something like that, and all I could think was ‘do you never get tired of waking up to the morning breath of eight nationalities?’ Self care is paramount, kiddies. Speaking of self care, if you want to have sex – either with yourself or other people – book a private room. Most hostels have signs up banning sex in dorms with little reminders that they offer private rooms specifically for you to go do that. No one wants to see, hear or have any hint of you boning, ever.
Use the tools you were given
Unless you’re pretty chilled about where you sleep or pretty militant about backpacking like they did in the Stone Age, use the Internet. Hostelworld has a really good search and filter system, so when I booked ahead I never stayed anywhere that didn’t offer security lockers and/or working plumbing. If you’re short on money or don’t know how long you’ll stay somewhere, book one or two nights in advance then pay cash for extra nights once you’re there. It’s cheaper – no added fees for the booking site – and you can up and leave if you want. We stayed in a few places that other people recommended either in person or online (I’ll do another post with names of hostels in SE Asia to head for/avoid) and they were usually bang on the money. If you’re happy to rock up to a destination and mooch about until you find a hostel then ignore this, but if you’re anywhere near as neurotic as me then utilise the Internet and enjoy bedbug-free sheets.
Use your common sense
You’re in a room full of strangers. Don’t leave anything lying around that you wouldn’t want to replace. Most travellers own smartphones, portable chargers and headphones, and most of those tend to be kind of gross, not to mention really cheaper and easier to buy than they are to steal. Your stuff probably won’t get nicked, but don’t flaunt it. Use lockers and padlocks and don’t leave your bag wide open (dirty laundry probably works as a deterrent, but don’t hold me to that).
Let sleeping backpackers lie
If a person is wearing earplugs, headphones or an eye mask, has constructed a curtain on their bunk with a towel or sarong so you can’t see their face, is reading a book or appears to be asleep, leave them the hell alone. Unless there is a fire, you think they are dead or there is a general emergency, do not approach them. Ever.
Look, just don’t be a dick
Dorms are pretty nice places generally. People chat, they exchange money with travellers going to/from somewhere they’ve been, they give out their stuff if they’re going home. A guy in Hanoi who was heading back to Europe gave me bugspray I still have, when I left Bangkok I gave a spare bag to an Indian dude and in Chiang Mai I swapped some Lao kip for Thai baht with an American who was travelling the other way. I’ve got dinner with roomates, swapped destination recommendations in the lobby and lost my temper exactly zero times. I nearly lost my temper once or twice, but you are talking to someone who has thrown phones at walls and remote controls at heads in her lifetime, and it never came to that. That being said, there is some etiquette you should probably live by:
Don’t leave your stuff in the bathroom. Partly because other people will think your bar of soap is disgusting (your hair looks like hair to you and like pubes to everyone else), and partly because someone might use it and then you’ll be on the receiving end of Pube Hell.
Turn out the main light after 10pm and don’t hold loud conversations in the dorm between 10pm and 7am unless you want your roommates to accidentally tread on your phone (some fuckers in a different place in Otres came in drunk at 3am, started a fight with another guy and left the goddamn ceiling lights on as they did so and it’s the only time in my life I’ve wanted to wake up to a room full of corpses).
There is never enough room for your giant backpack, but you can do little things like not leaving it at the foot of a bunk ladder or in the middle of the floor, to improve the rooms ambience and to avoid your roommates constructing a voodoo doll of you.
Okay now I’m gonna leave you with a photograph of the canyon in Pai, Northern Thailand, and go and remind my dogs that it’s not dinner time yet so quit staring at me. I’ll compile that list – and the blog about Hue and central Vietnam – in the next few weeks. In the mean time, if you have any pressing questions about hostels (or dogs) ask away.
‘Don’t stay long in Da Nang,’ they said. ‘There’s only a bridge there,’ they said.
‘It’s half an hour from Hoi An,’ we said. ‘By Asian standards that’s about fourteen seconds. We are going to Da Nang.’ There’s also a train line that runs from Da Nang to Hue, our next stop, and everyone we met who had done the journey in the opposite direction raved about the views from the train.
One day I might elaborate on the fourteen-second journey from Hoi An, but for now let’s just say that it was the longest fourteen seconds of my life. Between our hostel in Hoi An and the one in Da Nang, I got lost, found the only cafe in Vietnam without Internet access, had my first ever moped ride and ate three Snickers bars and a pack of M&Ms. When I did arrive, I couldn’t work out if the shops and streets were closed because it was Sunday or if it was because everyone was right about the city being dead, but dinner was a packet of M&Ms and more Snickers (I haven’t eaten either since).
I woke up way too early on the first morning – well, at 8am, but it was one of the few days of the trip that I turned my alarm off and it was therefore too early – courtesy of a local school. There is no way you’d get away with a hostel full of grubby adults that close to a building full of children in the UK, but we were technically in a homestay. Our hosts had converted some rooms in their house into dorms, and a few others into classrooms for local children to learn English from volunteers. In another life, I’d have the temperament to volunteer to teach English, but in this life I grew up listening to My Chemical Romance and therefore say the word ‘fuck’ twelve times a day. Also, I was on holiday.
I went out for breakfast (I don’t think I’ve mentioned this, but Maxim is rarely awake before noon when left to his own devices) and I could not find a single place selling food. We had unwittingly stumbled into the least touristy part of Vietnam; Danang’s wide roads, tarmacked highways and looming office blocks could be part of any big city anywhere.
I found several cafes and bistros in our neighbourhood, but they only offered coffee and yogurt. If I’d been less exhausted and bewildered it would have been fun, but at the time I just wandered around thinking Surely local people eat out too? I still don’t know why this was the case in Da Nang but nowhere else in Vietnam, because I wasn’t after Western food (although there was a KFC), I just wanted to get rice porridge from somewhere that wasn’t a street vendor. SOMETIMES IN LIFE YOU NEED SEATS. After I caved in and got yogurt, which was served in a glass and pronounced ‘yourt’, I bought some home-brand Pringles and on-brand Dairylea triangles. Breakfast of champions, I told myself at the homestay, and the next day I bought cornflakes and borrowed a bowl from the kitchen. I should add that our hosts offered breakfast, but it was off limits. I felt like a dick with my Kellogg’s but IBS comes before everything, and at the time I hadn’t worked out that pho (rice noodle soup for those of you who have not experienced holy grail of noodle dishes) does not contain eggs.
It was Valentine’s Day while we were there, and one of our roommates, Alice, invited us to a coffee bar for the evening. I didn’t think ‘coffee’ and ‘evening’ went together either, BUT IT DOES. England, you are missing a trick. Stop closing your cafes at night and keep them open, with live music and some food, all night. People are sober and chilled out and very, very awake. I’m going to do an entire post on Vietnamese coffee one day – I miss it like I miss pho, the weather and not changing my own bed sheets. If you’re planning a trip to Da Nang and like to drink, relax – there’s a good Aussie bar down by the water front (which is where everything seemed to be, including non-Aussie bars and, um, restaurants. Possibly I should learn to read maps). I pushed the boat out and had a gin and tonic (I think it was my third of the trip; the other two were on Koh Rong when I hurt my foot and thought a $4 mixer was a better idea than weed), and my lasting memory of the evening is of an old white dude at the bar dancing with a local lady like he was in a sleazier version of Strictly. Now I come to think of it, I’ve seen him in Southend.
We also saw Da Nang’s crowning glory, a bridge. I know, I know, a bridge. Boring. Except this bridge is a dragon.
Sometime during our stay in Da Nang was the first time I walked along a street and felt normal. Backpacking is weird; staying in one place for no more than four days at a time is weird; South East Asia is weird. I love all those things, but it took until mid-February for it all to feel normal. Apparently Da Nang is considered to be one of the best places to live in Vietnam because of its infrastructure; there’s a free hospital, plenty of schools – I can attest to their productivity – and a good road system. People just get on with their normal, every day lives – which is the most comforting thing you can see when you only stay in one place for four days. Don’t pass up the chance to go.