Monthly Archive for October, 2012

Vang Vieng

“They shut Vang Vieng down” – the buzz first reached me in Hanoi, where I heard the story from a girl who had heard it from somebody who was just there the other week. But for that statement to make any sense, you first need to know what Vang Vieng is. Vang Vieng is a city, and of course, you can’t really shut a city down. But that’s not what they meant. For years, Vang Vieng has been synonymous (for some) with the most hedonism. Vang Vieng was the Sodom and Gomorra of Laos. Tubing was introduced at the turn of the century; then, cheap guesthouses and bars sprung up on the riverfront. Laos has historically been rather relaxed about drugs (the hill tribes allegedly produced opium for the US during the ‘secret war’) and there was more than beer on sale – ‘happy pizza’s’ and ‘happy shakes’ abound; the mushrooms in your dinner could very well be the ‘magic’ variety and opium was not hard to come by either. Parties on Don Kong, an island in the river, went on all night, even though the people of Vang Vieng would traditionally rise before dawn to work in the fields. And as if tubing down a fast-flowing river while completely tripped out of your mind wasn’t enough fun by itself, there were rope swings, zip lines and giant slides (you can read a CNN story and photo report here).

Photo courtesy CNN / Matt Benett – this now no longer exists. I think.

If going down a giant slide nicknamed the ‘slide of death’ float down a river in an inner tyre tube while stoned completely out of your mind sounds like a bad idea it’s because it is. Apparently, 26 people died this year alone, and this caused the crackdown. Some say twice that number died last year and it’s because of that; others say a high diplomat’s son was amongst the recent casualties and that he pulled a lot of strings. If you ask me, it’s a good thing people making such basic Darwinian errors removed themselves from the gene pool, but the cleansing of Vang Vieng can only be applauded. Its setting is one of the most amazing in Laos, and opportunities abound for kayaking, caving, rock climbing, you name it. Vang Vieng might finally develop facilities for these kind of sustainable, high revenue activities. However, the town might be beyond redemption. Its name as an anything goes party centre been made. Even after mopping up the worst of the worst, the town still consists mainly of bars that show endless reruns of Friends and / or Family Guy; Whisky / Red Bull buckets are still ubiquitous (though to be fair, the ‘happy’ menu’s seem to have all but disappeared), and the town is teeming with good-for-nothing backpackers that stay for months just to ‘have a good time’ – ie., destroy traditional Lao culture. Then again, this is Laos, and no place is changing as fast. Maybe in five years. We’ll see.

… and into Laos

If overlooking China’s national week when booking (see previous post) was bad, overlooking Vietnam’s coastal typhoon season is really bad. I had looked at the climate graphs for Saigon in the South, and Hanoi in the North, and concluded that all would be fine. Sadly, both cities lie inland, and Vietnam is less than 100km wide in the middle – so there’s only coastal there, and that’s where typhoons hit, right about now. Traveling from North to South this time of year is not a good idea, so I decided to kick it to neighbouring Laos.

Halong Bay sunset Goodbye Vietnam – Halong Bay sunset

Though Vietnam now has several open land borders with Laos, most of these are of little use to most travelers, being quite a way from the major tourist destinations. Of these, the Tay Trung / Sop Hun in the far north is perhaps the most remote. From Hanoi, you have to take an overnight train to Sapa and then a minibus to Dien Bien Phu (it’s now also possible to take a direct overnight bus from Hanoi, but I avoid sleeper busses whenever possible), then a bus into Laos and then it’s another two days by boat before you get back to civilization.

Dien Bien Phu, though probably known by most at least by name (it was here the French forces met a decisive defeat against Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, effectively the end of Indochina), is of no interest to tourists: it’s nothing more than a dusty provincial town with one highway running through it and a few minor streets branching off. The road there from Sapa was atrocious. It’s only 150km as the crow flies, but it’s 280km by road. Of these, the first 180km took us a full seven hours. So abysmal was the road that even now, in the dry season, our Mercedes van had a hard time even getting across. Every time the driver hit a bump (which was always) the battered Benz made a sound like clucking hens. I felt a bit like a clutched egg myself at the end of the day. Still, it could be worse – at least it wasn’t hot.

From Dien Bien, it’s another day by bus to Muang Khua in Laos. At least the road is now paved and so much more comfortable and almost always passable – before, the journey could take up to two days, if it all possible. Still, seven hours is a lot to cover less than 100km. Snaking roads and unexpected landslides that block our passage are as much to blame for that as customs procedures.

I was warned about this crossing beforehand. Exit procedure at the Vietnamese side is easy enough, but getting into Laos is a different story. Laos does give a visa on arrival, but the customs officials are excruciatingly slow (‘do you think they could make it any more inefficient,’ I asked a fellow traveler. ‘It’s good, it just means they’re chilled out’ – well yes, I would be chilled out as well if I was continously living in an opium daze; without having seen any statistics I’d bet Laos is the one country with the highest percentage of opium smokers) and besides paying for the visa itself – which is 35USD, not cheap by any standard – you also have to pay a ‘fee service’ of 1USD and3000 kip (€0,30) for an ‘H1N1 check’ that is ostensibly fake: they supposedly take your temperature by pointing something like a barcode scanner at your forehead. Prices are always communicated by typing the number in a calculator and showing this to the other party, but they were rather surprised when I handed them back the calculator with 35 punched in, while I pointed at the visa pricelist. They pointed at the sign saying I had to pay one dollar for processing, and were quite offended when I said there was no such thing and that they had made it up. “You want to pay more? OK, you argue, you pay five dollars more”. Apparently, others realized this only it made it more obvious the fee was not official and were quick to try to convince me that no no, it was, in fact, an official government charge, and the guy with the barcode scanner (he could not have been older than 20 and looked rather mentally challenged) was a doctor who had to check for H1N1 (no matter that international treaties prohibit such medical checks as a condition for entry).

They got really pissed when I told them this was corruption – asking in an aggressive tone why I would say such a thing, and offering / threatening to give my money back while at the same time cancelling my visa. Wisely, I hung on to my passport. It was also possible to have a chat with the chief upstairs (literally; they weren’t threatening to kill me) but I – again, wisely – declined. Besides, there was a bus full of people waiting for me, so I made my way out of the checkpoint.

Some (most) people might think it’s only a dollar (‘petty overcharging’, my guidebook says), but in my view there’s no such thing as insignificant corruption. By paying without any protest you’re enabling corruption; I think if we have one ‘duty’ as Westerners it’s to not enable corruption, even petty corruption like this, in whatever small way possible. My protests are not going to achieve anything, obviously; I’m not delusional. But if every tourist passing through here got angry and called them out things might very well change.

We reach Muang Khua around 1.30pm. The road turns sharply downwards and then disappears into the Nam Ou river. Muang Khua is on the opposite bank, where the Nam Ou and Nam Phak meet. We’re ferried across in a narrow longboat. The town itself is ramshackle, but the picture is strangely fitting. A bend in the river, a dusty road; houses on stilts. Around it, the river flows brown; green forests on the opposite bank. As I sit on a terrace overlooking the Nam Ou, darkness falls, the sun, as always in the tropics, sinking rapidly. Before 6.30pm the night is pitch, the city becomes quiet, and the jungle comes alive with the deafening chirping of a million insects.

The End of the Road

Sweat is trickling down my forehead in small streams. The day began cool, a blanket of damp fog hanging over the land, but has become smothering. Yesterday, I traveled by boat from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi. If Muang Khua was fitting, Muang Ngoi is perfect. There are no roads. The small longboat, seating about a dozen, took five hours to get here. There is no internet, because there is no electricity, save for the trickle of power provided by a diesel generator between 6pm and 10pm. There is not much to do, except enjoying the slow pace of life and exploring the countryside, which is all you will ever want to do. Today, I’m hiking through the rice paddies to an even smaller, even remoter village. All around me, jagged karst peaks rise up. Words can hardly describe the scenery. Photos don’t do it justice either, but this should give you some impression:

Countryside near Muang Ngoi Chillin' in the paddies

After a few days at Muang Ngoi, I hopped on the boat to the old capital of Luang Prabang. It’s an hour to the first town that is accessible by road. From there, it is theoretically possible to take the bus, but the boat is almost as fast and much more comfortable – gliding along the Nam Ou and Mekong instead of bouncing up and down like a cocktail shaker. But that’s not all. On the boat from Muang Khua, we were seated on wooden benches, facing sideways. This one has aircraft seats facing the front. This is as comfortable as traveling in this part of the world gets. At dusk, I’m back in civilization.

The T5 / M2 from Beijing to Hanoi

The air is hot and polluted outside, on the station platform, but getting on the train is something else entirely. The train doesn’t smell, it reeks; some stench permeates the carriage. It’s the cigarette smoke of ages and general stuffiness, but there is something darker there as well, a smell that I can’t quite place but that I feel I instinctively know and that repulses me. Even after spending several hours on the train I haven’t gotten used to it. But what can you do but endure it?

I wasn’t even supposed to be on this train. Or rather, I didn’t want to go to Vietnam this quick. But I overlooked the fact that it is National Week in China. Meaning that from October 1, 1.3 billion people have a full week off. And considering that October 1 is a Monday, people really have 9 days off in a row and so there’s no trains, no accommodation anywhere, and everywhere is ridiculously crowded. So there was nothing left to me but to get to Vietnam ASAP. The only alternative to this train was a 30 hour hard seat ride to Nanning in Southern China. I passed. This is actually the same train, but apparently the international section has separate carriages and I was able to get a soft sleeper.

I’m sharing the compartment with Chris. Chris is riding his motorcycle down from the UK to, well, all the way to New Zealand if he can make it. He was banned from taking his motorcycle into China, however, after one person in his group drove off without the guide’s permission (you can only enter China with your own vehicle if you or your group have a guide 24 hours a day). So he’s shipping his bike from Mongolia all the way to Bangkok. It makes for interesting conversation, and the 40 or so hours feel like a breeze.