I’m in Hanoi at the moment relaxing in luxury in the Old Quarter. US$20 a night for some swank digs with a computer in our room – perfect for blogging!

Luang Prabang.This is a UNESCO world heritage town which is alleged to be the most picturesque city in Southeast Asia! Its long tree-lined boulevards bounded by Laotian Wats and French-influenced maisons. Luang Prabang is squeezed on two sides by rivers and the peninsula thereby formed is where the Laotian kings lived. Very slow place but very restful and ended up meeting two kiwis and two aussies (kiwis being very thin on the ground so far)! The drinking curfew that starts at midnight is only excepted in the bowling alley because it’s sport which means its healthy and what activity can be judged healthier than bowling balls sloshed at 3am? The only downside being having to turn down all the offers of opium and weed from hopeful moto drivers on the walk home. The big highlight in Luang Prabang was visiting the waterfall 1 hr drive away and lounging around in the lagoon about 50 m above the base of the falls. The mountain water was a shade of azure so inviting, we had to scale some treacherous path to paddle in its Blue Lagoon-like waters…

In any case, Luang Prabang is most suitable for honeymooning couples and those with a particular bent for architecture and building restoration techniques. You can also travel between Luang Prabang and Thailand via slow boat.

Luang Prabang to Hà Nôi.Our most epic adventure yet! By bus to Hà Nôi was an inspired move in order to save ourselves the cost/danger of a flight via Air Laos. Therefore we decided to drive via public bus to the border crossing of Na Xoi (Laos)/Na  Maew (Vietnam) which our trusty Bible (Lonely Planet) appellated the most remote border crossing in Laos. Well. Leaving at 10.30am via public bus (not too bad actually, not many people on the bus but acts rather like a taxi where they honk in every village they go through and people get on and off as it proceeds, it being the only form of public transport in these parts, once a day) we drove northwest through some really beautiful highland rural areas where the villages cluster along the roadside, little bamboo huts on stilts from where they farm incredibly steep, misty hillsides for tobacco leaf and bamboo. We wound our way up the hills into some pretty rugged areas, rutted and potholed, and through a National Park where they still have tigers in the wild. We were the only foreigners on the bus and we shared the first leg with farmers taking their crops to market (three enormous bags of tobacco leaf – good for sleeping on I found) and people visiting their families from the cities.

We arrived in Sam Nuea (aka Xam Nua), a dusty and uninspiring provincial supply town at 1am and woke an innkeeper from his slumber to crash for a few hours. By 7am we were at the other bus station (one being for destinations west and the other north and east) to probably get ripped off by purchasing a US$35 bus ticket to Hanoi. This journey commenced at 8am and we drove alongside a twisting river towards the Vietnamese lowlands collecting an eclectic collection of fellow travellers. The border buildings were appropriately massive Soviet-style edifices with appropriately non-existent traffic. After being searched thoroughly by the Vietnamese border guards and our details taken down in a large leather-bound book (no computers here!) and temperatures taken (to check for H1N1 symptoms) we stopped for lunch of course!

The views were incredible with the bus travelling through another National Park through twisting gorges eastward with farmers tending their rice paddies using water buffalo to pull their plows, water wheels in the rushing river lifting water to the upper paddies and bamboo chutes delivering the water to paddies lower down. They were in a harvesting phase with rice fronds (?) being sickled and gathered ready for threshing. The detritus was being burnt and the rice being dried on large tarpaulins by the side of the road. Following some wonderful scenery and inspired bus driving (regular honking to drive cows off the road and warn oncoming cars as well as McCrae-esque swerving to avoid potholes) we arrived in Thanh Hoa where we celebrated with the bus drivers by chopping a mug of beer with them. This is also where the bus driver was delighted to find a live turtle left on the bus by a passenger (almost under my seat!) which he no doubt turned into a family feast that night!

The Bus of Doom. Abandon all hope ye who enter here. We switched buses for the last stretch, three hours into Hanoi. Without a doubt the most harrowing transport experience of my life. the shuddering bus horn noise still grates as memories of this mad trip subside. The driver I suspect had a point to prove by being the most insane driver in the fleet and attempted to drive the bus as if it were a supercar. I had heard that the stretch of State Highway 1 into Hanoi was a dangerous stretch but had no idea! He banked and swerved to overtake buses on a two lane road, (by the way it was pitch dark by this stage) riding the horn constantly, overtaking a truck overtaking a truck with a truck oncoming, avoiding potholes by swinging the wheel as if it weren’t chocka with white-knuckled Vietnamese, blasting ambulances out of the way, deciding two lanes really meant three and ducking back into the lane with the barest of margins. After all that he did in fact stop for 10 min to check the tires, safety first! A blend of skill and insanity. You take your life into your hands travelling on this stretch of road so we are taking the train next time!

Next post will cover Hà Nôi, Halong Bay and Cat Ba (perhaps with a little Sapa thrown in too!).