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!
Luang Prabang in northern Laos is one of the few places I saw in South East Asia that I would return to for a two week suitcase holiday. If you enjoyed yourself in Greece or Italy, you will like Luang Prabang. Awful incoming journey and unavoidable Asian plumbing aside, there’s something for everyone: nature, history, pretty sunsets, temples and waterfalls. Waterfalls!
The Kuang Si Waterfalls
Isobel, if you’re reading this: remember when we were messaging and I told you I’d just dropped my knickers in a drain? This is where that happened! So Kuang Si waterfalls are just outside Luang Prabang and they are absolutely stunningly beautiful.
That water lends a new meaning to the term ‘icy blue’ though, it was bloody freezing. But beautiful! If it wasn’t for the freezing thing, I would have moved right in forever. The trees, the running water, the wooden huts in which visitors change and, if they are not paying attention, accidentally drop their undies in a drain. It was a running drain full of, hopefully, waterfall water.
There is a little bear sanctuary-slash-zoo near the waterfalls, which I am in two minds about. On the one hand, caged animals is an oxymoron. On the other hand, sun and moon bears are seriously endangered due to poaching (apparently some SE Asian cultures think bear bile is good for sexual virility. I can’t think of anything worse for sexual virility). The enclosure we saw definitely seemed kind of small, but the charity that runs the sanctuary recently posted that they have just bought more land and the bears did seem pretty chilled and happy.
There are, of course, at least three wats in Luang Prabang. I checked out a couple, although if I am being totally honest, after a while one wat looks a lot like another wat. Then again, I can’t tell Michel Barnier apart from David Davis.
Luang Prabang has a market with the usual street food, clothes, trinkets and jewellery but it also sells gorgeous indigo-dyed clothes and accessories. I’m not sure how big the local textiles industry is, exactly, but one blue scarf would have set me back £25 after haggling, which was my daily budget and about 20 times more expensive than the average cotton scarf, so I think that the industry is a) highly skilled and b) relatively unique to Luang Prabang. I really, really want to go back and buy an indigo scarf.
There is a really cool alleyway in the town with vendors selling the absolute best street food I have ever tasted from giant pans. I think it cost 50p to fill up a bowl with vegetables and eat til I was ready to hibernate. Full disclosure: I did get a run of the shits while I was there, although that could have been down to literally anything. Possibly the encounter with the drain.
I already wrote about the Killing Fields of the Cambodian genocide and the Vietnamese War Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels, and Laos makes the third corner of a really shitty triangle. I will write more about Laos’ civil war and America’s ‘secret war’ when I post about Phonsavan, which is the next place we stopped in Laos. I blame my politics A Level, but of my favourite parts of Luang Prabang was its UXO museum. UXOs are ‘unexploded ordnance’, basically, bombs that were dropped but never went off. At least 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos by American forces between 1964 and 1973, but a third didn’t detonate (per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history). Over 50,000 people have been killed or injured by ordnance since 1964 and the clean up operation is slow, expensive and dangerous. I don’t have a picture, but there’s a whiteboard outside the museum detailing the exact number of injuries and deaths caused by UXOs per year since 1964; 2016 was the first year no one died from one.
I scrolled through my WordPress gallery and I seem to have shared a ridiculous number of photos of bomb shells. Ten points to anyone who can tell me the names of every type of munition in this photo!
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:
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but for the latter part of the trip I took diazepam on every journey. This was because of the night bus journey from Hue to Hanoi. I should have known it would be shit – I mean, to an anxious traveller with an anxious bladder, all Vietnamese bus journeys are shit. I should have known it would the travelling equivalent of post-dodgy-curry diarrhoea when the bus was so late that hostel staff noticed…
Our driver was a smoker, which I don’t usually mind, except this one smoked while he drove and an air conditioning unit was right above my sleeper bunk, so all the smoke got regurgitated from his lungs and went shoooom up my nostrils. For nine hours minus a couple of toilet stops. Maxim could normally sleep on the buses, but the best I ever seemed to manage was a nap while I tried not to think about needing a wee. On this particular journey the air was so dry that my throat was like sandpaper, but you can never be sure when the driver will stop, so I sipped a bottle of water nervously until a local kid in the bunk next to me asked in broken English if he could have some because did I mention the smoke
Oh, for a loo in a Little Chef
the sunset was deceptively soothing
As we neared Hanoi it transpired that Maxim was not sleeping but was in almost unbearable pain from also needing a wee. We pegged it out the bus and grabbed the nearest cab, which proceeded to take us on the scenic route around Hanoi. By the way, it was 2am. I tried not to think about all the times I’ve been the one with horrific bladder problems as I let the cabbie short change me and followed Maxim into our hostel, where the concierge was napping at his desk and several other travellers were collapsed on sofas because check in wasn’t until midday. I do remember a local lady, at around five, taking live fish from a bucket directly opposite the hostel and beheading and gutting them in the same way I make my morning coffee. I didn’t film it, because I don’t want anyone filming my morning coffee, but I suppose Game of Thrones isn’t that gross once you’ve heard live animals professionally decapitated.
I think we were in the Old Quarter of Hanoi – all narrow, windy streets a bit like London or York except with ten thousand more street food vendors selling pho. We didn’t actually stay in Hanoi that long, because our visas were running out – I would have loved to see the old prison, where John McCain was held, and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Then again, I’ve seen a lot of prisons in South East Asia. If you’re ever in Hanoi, though, you must do the following:
Take a walking tour! We did from our hostel – Hanoi is too crowded to travel anywhere by anything larger than a bike or on foot and there is so much to see, it’s one of those places where you need eight pairs of eyes
If you like eggs and coffee, visit Giang Cafe. They invented egg coffee. I unfortunately could not partake but Maxim, who enjoys both coffee and eggs, reported that it tastes a bit like dessert
Go to the post office. Okay so this is probably me being weirdly charmed by post offices, but a post office is such a normal place, it’s perfect for seeing regular people do everyday things. A local girl helped her grandpa with his letters then helped him into a cab, which took me back to all the times we helped my grandmother in and out of cars on days out. Sometimes, when you spend every day doing something new, you need to go and do something normal.
Visit St Joseph’s Cathedral. I believe the site was once a temple, and the whole wrecking-sacred-buildings-to-replace-them-with-other-sacred-buildings thing makes me grind my teeth, but props to the architect because the building itself is spectacular. We mooched in and the smell hit me. I don’t do churches, god or any form of spiritual enlightenment as a matter of principle, but the church smelt like… home. Like England. I was suddenly back in church as a semi-cynical eight year old singing hymns with my mum. Don’t look at me like that, I’m allowed to like the smell of childhood.
Quite Thrones-y, innit
Stained glass is the best glass
We took a trip from Hanoi into Ha Long Bay, but that’s a blog for another day. Have you ever walked into somewhere and smelt childhood?
(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.
Is it weird to feel bad on a good day? I feel kind of icky, because I’ve had a cold and my copy of Magnus Chase and the Hammer of Thor finally came into the library – I reserved it in July. July! – so I’ve been reading more and sleeping less (well, reading more than normal and sleeping less than normal. That was a bad comparison now I think about it). But it’s a good day, because I’m seeing Lorde in London tomorrow and I just booked a holiday! In fact, I’m having a mini-holiday when I see Lorde, because it’s easier to stay in Wood Green and take the tube to work in Portobello on Thursday than it is to go home at midnight and get up at seven for a two-hour commute. The big holiday is four days in Barcelona with my friend Ruby in January, because what’s the point of January if not to head south. Technically we’ve only got as far as booking flights, which is what I wanted to talk to you guys about.
I’ve never been to Barcelona – the last time I was in Spain, the term ‘eurozone bail out’ hadn’t been coined yet – and Ruby has, but on a school trip in year 10… We both want to see the Sagrada Familia and Picasso’s museum but other than that, we’ve got four days to explore and let’s see everything. If you’ve been to Barcelona, tell me: where would you recommend for two faintly antisocial, faintly arty people in their early twenties? One of us – ahem ahem – does not get holiday pay and will be on a strictish budget. I’m fairly sure we’ll bump into some Gaudi buildings and museums and La Rambla, and I’m aware that Barcelona takes ‘faintly arty’ to another level, but unlike the last trip I took, I won’t have three months to read Lonely Planet and decide whether or not I can stomach another jade buddha. Am kind of banking on not seeing any jade buddhas this time around, you know?
Let’s assume I’ll be making a similar decision regarding crucifixes… anyway, tell us your recommendations!
‘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.