Month 4 was a very different Month to all the previous ones. I crammed two new countries in a month, Vietnam and Laos, and experienced two different travel styles: solo and buddy travel.
After an initial bumpy start to my solo travels in Vietnam, I started loving it so much that I was actually a little bit sad that it came to an end. I was looking forward to meeting my friend in Laos – but at the same time, I kind of wished my solo time had continued a little bit longer. After Laos I was going to be in Chiang Mai for two weeks to catch up on work and only explore a little bit before meeting Ben at the end of March – more solo travel will have to wait for a while.
My very first impressions of both countries were not the best to be honest. I did not fall in love with Ho Chi Minh City, the first city I visited in Vietnam, like so many other travellers. It was probably also due to my negative mind-set from the start. I failed to research on the best time to travel to Vietnam and arrived slap-bang just a few days before TET – Vietnamese New Year. This meant, everything was booked far in advance. I feared I was going to be stuck in Saigon for the whole two weeks of my travels. My anxiety levels reached a new peak. Vietnam was going to cost me a whole lot more than anticipated. After the bumpy start, however, Vietnam surpassed my expectations. I fell in love with Hoi An – one of my all-time favourite towns ever. And photographing Hanoi was an immense pleasure. I concluded my trip to Vietnam with an excursion to Lan Ha Bay which was phenomenal.
In Lao, I struggled to bond with the locals. I can’t tell you what it is, but I instantly clicked with the Vietnamese – whereas I only encountered a few friendly Lao during the whole two weeks I was there. Which is apparently quite the contrary to what other people have experienced. We had to find things to do all the time in Lao – I kind of missed having the chance just to enjoy the towns we were in. But after a day somewhere we were bored and we wanted to find things to do. So we booked three adventures in total. Incredible experiences with lovely new memories formed. Lao is heaven for those who seek to have an active holiday.
Our last evenings were spent on yet another adventure in the wild. This time we were going to build our own bamboo tent and sleep in the wild. That evening, when we sat by the campfire with hundreds of stars above our heads, listening to my friend’s chill-out tunes and eating deliciously prepared pork with sticky rice (cooked in a bamboo tube!), I felt an intense sense of happiness. Here I was out in the nature doing things I love: exploring, being adventurous, trying something new. I felt blissfully joyful.
Here is my Bliss Report for Month 4: Vietnam & Laos.
Food. I splurged massively in Vietnam, mainly for one reason: I ate loads (look at the food costs in Vietnam as opposed to Laos). In Laos, I had myself a bit better under control. We did mainly eat in restaurants though and skipped the food stalls for a bit pricier meals.
Transportation was expensive to Vietnam (i flew from Bangkok) as I had to buy a last-minute bus to Hoi An during TET (Vietnamese New Year) costing me much more than expected. Laos was very good value for money when it comes to transportation. The bus to Vietntiane and the bus to Chiang Mai were both very affordable (as you can see, I spent less then £40 for both which is very good value for money).
Adventure. This is the most surprising for me. During our time in Laos, we booked three different adventures: the kayaking & tubing in Vang Vieng, the trek & mountainbiking excursion in Luang Prabang and the phenomenal bamboo camping experience in Luang Namtha. In Vietnam I only did one adventure: the one night / two day Lan Ha & Halong Bay boat ride. And yet, I spent only a little bit more in Laos for three adventures than for only one in Vietnam. The conclusion? If you are looking for an active holiday, head to Laos – there are so many fantastic experiences to be had for good value.
Miscellaneous. These costs are usually things like: postcards & stamps (i send out loads from each country I visit), toiletries, medication or anything else that does not fit within the other categories.
Connectivity. Yep, this is how much I spent for unlimited 3G for a whole two weeks. I usually purchase a one-month package as it always works out cheaper.
4 nights Ho Chi Minh City
3 nights Hoi An
4 nights Hanoi
1 night Lan Ha Bay / Halong Bay
2 nights Vientiane
2 nights Vang Vieng
3 nights Luang Prabang
1 night Village stay
2 nights Luang Namtha
1 night Jungle bamboo tent
Cambodia & secret destination
Solo Travel (Vietnam) &
Buddy Travel (Laos)
After my initial disappointment of my long anticipated Pho Bo in Ho Chi Minh City, I arrived in Hoi An where I splurged massively on food. I ate at street food stalls, but also at famous local establishments such as the Mango Rooms or Miss Ly’s. I jumped for joy when I discovered a Bubble tea with a difference in Saigon and fell in love with Vietnamese Egg coffee in Hanoi. Vietnam is a foodie’s paradise! I also wrote a little food memoire on Vietnam. My favourite dish?
Mi Quang – a central vietnamese dish to die for!
Hoi An – my fairytale town
My initial apprehension about Vietnam changed dramatically once I set foot in Hoi An. Rarely has a town stirred so many emotions in me. I fell in love with it. So much so, that I wrote a cheesy love letter to it. Hoi An was also the place where I ate beautifully prepared master creations of one of my favourite cuisines in the world: vietnamese food was winning me over. Regrettably, I only spent three nights in Hoi An – I could have moved there!
I decided I needed to come back one day.
Photographing in Hanoi
Hanoi captivated me. It reminded me a lot of Budapest and Berlin. It was another grungy artsy type of city that I grew fond of. If I had to choose between Hanoi and Saigon, I would definitely always chose Hanoi. The photography possibilities in this city are endless. In this regard, I learnt something about myself: I love to capture a ‘beautiful mess’. Colour and Chaos have fascinated me ever since I arrived in India.
There was something magical about cracked walls and colourful imperfections.
Spooky Lan Ha Bay
I concluded my trip in Vietnam with going on a Halong Bay excursion. Only for one night – which was sufficient – as the humidity on the boat did not do me any good. I fell ill again. Diagnosis? I nearly escaped a bronchitis. Great. Was I ever going to recover from my initial immune system meltdown? Despite the health issues, Halong Bay (or actually, Lan Ha Bay to be more precise – I purposefully chose a company that would take us to the more remote parts of the Bay) was a mystical spooky and interesting experience. It was beautiful. My favourite part? Kayaking along the Bay area and discovering a fishing village. Houses built on water.
How cool is that?
The UXO Visitor Centre
The UXO Lao Visitor centre in Luang Prabang, as well as the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam, are a must visit, in my eyes. I think you can only fully understand the soul of a country if you know more about its past. And the past of Laos, and Vietnam, is a shocking one. I had no idea about the un-detonated bombs still dotted all over Lao. The volunteers, who risk their lives every day to make Lao a safer country, are doing an incredible job! I’m impressed about their courage. The UXO centre does a lot for the country in terms of not only clearing the bombs, but also educating the population of the dangers with the remaining UXO’s all over. Every year, many people, including children, are killed by accidentally stepping on UXO’s. Please, if you are in Lao, visit these guys and consider donating or buying one of their T-shirts.
Every little helps – to support a worthy cause.
A positive bus experience
I travelled to Laos via the infamous border crossing route. I read many shocking accounts about it on the Internet. Someone called it the ‘bus ride from Hell’. I was worried, to say the least. But, it turned out to be a really good experience in the end. Yes, the people were not overly helpful and friendly towards ‘us foreigners’ but the actual bus ride was pretty ok. It was way better than the 30 hours on a local bus from Kathmandu to Delhi.
That’s for sure.
An incredible massage in Luang Prabang
Wherever I go, I make sure to try out different massage treatments. A massage overlooking the rice fields on Bali? Tick. Overlooking the sea in Gambia? Tick. Enduring the pain of a real Thai massage? Tick. A real Ayurvedic massage treatment in Nepal? Tick. I’ve done it all – or at least: i’ve had my fair share of massages throughout my life. One of the best massage I have ever experienced was in Luang Prabang. I had previously fallen in love with Pokhara’s Ayurvedic massage treatments.
This one was rivalling it for sure.
Adventure in Laos
The adventures we experienced in Laos were amazing. Lao is truly the go-to destination for active people. In the course of two weeks, we trekked, mountain-biked, kayaked (one time 30km in one day), tubed and my friend even went on to a balloon ride, which I skipped as it would have blown my budget too much. On the mountain-biking / trekking adventure, we met a really nice couple who we befriended, slept in a rural village (where we met really nice people – changing my initial perception of the Lao), ate with our hands…My most favourite memory: eating a freshly prepared meal on banana leafs under a starry sky and sleeping in our self-made bamboo tent.
A feeling of complete bliss overcame me that evening.
A bumpy start to solo travel
Ben had accidentally sent me to the wrong airport in Bangkok which meant I had almost missed my flight. Luckily I did make it on to my first Vietjet experience (a very positive one too). At the airport in HCMC a greedy taxi driver took advantage of me and scammed me. My bad. I should have been more cautious and looked for the bus sign – it would have been a much cheaper ride into town. I also failed to research on the best time to travel to Vietnam. The worst time was during TET, Vietnamese New Year as everything is booked out or more expensive. Guess when I arrived? A few days before. Ben, back at home in the UK, had to research on flights for me and help me out as my anxiety built up to such a horrid extent, that I sat paralysed in front of the computer. I sucked at solo travel – and I had another two weeks of this ahead of me.
It turned out to be fabulous.
In Vietnam, I fell out of love with dorm rooms. I shared the room with very inconsiderate hostel goers, leaving me, an insomniac, with four long sleepless nights. I thoroughly researched on the hostel I was going to stay at – even paid a little bit more to make sure it was going to be a positive experience – with no luck. I decided, dorm rooms were not for me and I was always going to try to book a room for myself, even at a hostel. Not sleeping makes me a really grumpy traveler. Not sleeping makes my already run-down immune system struggle even more. I was not suited for dorm rooms
– at least not for a whole while until I have my insomnia under control.
Ho Chi Minh City
I heard so many great things about the former Saigon, I was really looking forward to it. Until I arrived (with a rather negative mind-set which did not help). I spent four nights there and regretted I did. It just didn’t do it for me. One thing I do regret not doing, was booking myself into one of the many Vespa food tours offered. At the very beginning of my solo travels, I was very cautious not to splurge which meant I did not book one of these. I think, this might have changed my mind about Saigon. Maybe, I’ll give it another chance in the future.
But not before going back to Hoi An – my one true love.
Not being able to sleep for two weeks
The first impressions and expressions of Vientiane and Laos? Too many mosquitoes, a terrible guesthouse, and no proper sleep because my travel buddy has an aversion to A/C’s (i did not sleep properly for two weeks). I compromised. I learnt, I do this too often. When I arrived in Chiang Mai after my trip to Laos, I slept an average of 8-10 hours – I really had to catch up on some rest. I also learnt that before travelling with someone, one of the first questions I’ll ask is:
what is your ideal sleeping temperature?
Being unsure about Laos
My impression about the Lao was not the best – as much as it bugs me to write this. I longed for friendly encounters, like I had in Vietnam, which rarely happened. Lao was the first country which made me feel like I was not really welcome.
I was also not blown away by Luang Prabang as I had hoped for. I actually did not know what the fuss was all about. It did not compete with Hoi An in any way. I actually almost preferred Vang Vieng: I will never forget walking over the bridge to see so many balloons in the air with picture-perfect backdrop. I also loved chilling on the river, drinking a Beerlao and just taking the beautiful atmosphere in. For me, Luang Prabang was pretty but nothing out of the ordinary.
Laos was fantastic for adventures. But we almost felt like we had to book one adventure after another as there was nothing else to do. In Vietnam, I had the feeling I could just enjoy being there – with enough things to do (such as eat gorgeous food!) in all the towns I visited. As a food lover, Lao lacked options. Apart from Lap (which is delicious – but bland) there was not much else to try.
I was about unsure about how I felt about Laos as a whole.