As soon as Sammy and I stepped off the bus, after a winding bus trip through the mountains, we both knew that we were gonna love Luang Prabang. We walked to our hostel along the beautiful main street that is a charming mix of traditional Laotian and French style, the colonial times clearly having left its mark on the town.
We checked in at cheap and wonderful Smile Hostel before walking through the night market, looking at all the handmade and imported souvenirs.
The cosy and relaxed atmosphere of Luang Prabang quickly washed away the stress and discomfort of Vang Vieng. Despite it being a popular tourist spot Luang Prabang manages to hold on to a local feel. Cute cafes and street stalls blend together seamlessly here. The first evening, as well as all the following evenings, Sammy and I ate dinner at the cheap vegetable buffet down the street food alley, popularly nicknamed "buffet street".
The first evening we met an American woman, Christina, there and spent the early evening walking through the market with her.
Back at our hostel Sammy and I ended up chatting to a British woman until 1.30 am.
The next morning we met up with Christina for breakfast at relaxed and serene Utopia.
We stayed there for a while before spending the day exploring the streets and temples of Luang Prabang.
I went to the Vietnamese Embassy and applied for a 3-month visa as well. In the afternoon Sammy and I visited the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Museum, before attempting to watch the sunset by the river with the Swedish guy we met in Vang Vieng and an Australien woman from our dorm. It was too cloudy though, so we went to buffet street instead.
On the 1st of August Sammy and I woke up at 5.20 am to watch the morning alms. It was a beautiful and special ceremony to watch, especially since we were standing down a quiet side street as the only tourists there - the main street had unfortunately turned into a disrespectful tourist attraction.
We read and drank tea before going to a yoga class at Utopia at 7.30 am. It was an incredible way to start the morning even though both Sammy and I are handicapped and therefore probably looked like idiots with our alternative poses.
We spent the day exploring the town further, visiting the beautiful Royal Palace (that we couldn't take pictures of inside) in the afternoon.
In the evening the four guys from the UK arrived and we went to the street market together and then for a drink at a bar.
The next morning we woke up for the morning alms once again but decided to go to bed again after. We all six spent the day at the stunning Kuang Si Waterfalls, swimming in the refreshing blue lagoons and enjoying the surrounding nature.
Sammy and I went for a late lunch at delicious Khaipaen Restaurant that helps youth from surrounding villages and from the street get a job. Then we walked to a tiny building for the Garavek storytelling. The "theatre" turned out to be an incredibly intimate experience with less than 20 chairs in the tiny room and the old local musician greeting us warmly in front of the house. Then started the amazing one-hour show, the old musician playing his khene (traditional bamboo flute) beautifully (at one point serenading Sammy and me), while the storyteller told the legends of Luang Prabang and Laos in an animated and almost singing English. The show was captivating - both of the men funny, passionate and talented. The old man had the kindest eyes I have ever seen. The show was an absolute highlight for both Sammy and me.
Afterwards, we met up with Sammy's friend at the street market and I ended up talking to two young Hmong (tribe in Laos) boys for a solid half an hour. They were in Luang Prabang to study English and were both incredibly eager to learn and sweet. Back at the hostel, we ended up talking with the boys from the UK until 2 am.
The next two days it was raining and as a result, Sammy and I cancelled our plans for going to the caves and instead had some lazy days. On the first of the two days, we hugged the boys goodbye and went to L'Etranger Books and Tea Café, where they played a free movie each night. We just managed to squeeze onto the last cushion in the little cosy upstairs room and sat down with shakes and snacks to watch Bohemian Rapsody.
Afterwards, we went on a late-night walk down the main street and then spent the night chatting on my bed. It was such a nice and cosy evening.
On the second of the two rainy days we relaxed at Utopia all day until Sammy left for her bus to Chiang Rai. After a week together it was hard saying goodbye to her and eating dinner at the market felt lonely all of a sudden. I did have a nice and relaxed evening though, reading and organizing my things in my dorm.
The next morning I was up and out quickly, taking all my stuff to Tiger Trail's office. Here I left my luggage and met my local trecking guides for the next two days: Lee-Wang and Tja. We then drove to pick up the Israeli family of five that I was doing the treck with. I had been lucky enough to join their specialised easy treck to a Khmu (ethnic tribe) village and everyone were incredibly sweet, especially Gal, the mother. We were driven to the river, which we crossed by longboat, officially starting our treck on the opposite river bank.
For the next two hours, we trecked slowly upwards through a forested area and with incredible scenery passing by. The mountains covered in fog were breathtaking and on our way, we passed by fields, plantations and villagers going to and from work.
At one point we had to take off our shoes to cross a small stream.
All in all the treck was idyllic and wonderful, even though the heat and humidity soaked us all through with sweat. On the way up, I chatted with Gal and listened to Lee-Wang and Tja explaining about the culture and nature of Northern Laos.
Around 1 pm we reached Hoify village and our simple guesthouse, where we ate our "lunch boxes": fried noodles wrapped in banana leaves. I took a much needed "shower" (by shower I mean scooping water from a tub and pouring it over myself) and sat down for cardgames with the Israeli family.
I went for a walk towards the river but ended up playing with these two cuties instead:
At 4 pm our guides took us around the village, giving us an insight into the local life. It was truly an amazing experience being there amongst the locals, with chickens, goats and pigs roaming the village freely and smoke rising from the bamboo houses all around.
After the walk Lee-Wang took Gal, her husband (whose name I can't pronounce or spell) and me on a one-hour walk to a mutton rice (sticky rice) field, crossing and jumping over small streams on the way and crawling over fences.
Once again our surroundings were absolutely serene and when we got back we were served a delicious traditional dinner of fried bamboo, sticky rice and pumpkin leaves soup.
It got dark quickly (and the village has no electricity) and so I went to bed early in my little bamboo room.
The next morning we ate a lovely breakfast (I got noodle soup and sticky rice, while the others ate omelette) and started on our way back early before the temperature got too hot.
We trecked up and down a dirt road for about an hour, before abruptly taking a right into the jungle by a tiny path that we had all completely overlooked before the guides called us back and pointed it out.
We then slowly descended into the jungle on the narrow, steep, slippery path, finally reaching a beautiful waterfall about 30 minutes later.
We stayed by the waterfall for a while before jumping in a longboat for a 20-minute trip downstream.
And then started our two-hour-long kayaking adventure on the river. It was a beautiful trip that I would've loved to have pictures of, as we passed by lush and green jungle and mountains. The river was lazy most of the way as we paddled along in our double kayaks, Gal and I chatting as we slowly made our way downstream. Just before ending the trip we had to navigate through some stronger rapids, which ultimately led to Sof (16) and Lukas' (14) kayak capsizing. They luckily took it well and laughed it off, as we all dried off on the river banks, eating our lunch of fried noodles (Lukas now a flip flop and a pair of glasses short).
I'm really glad I had the opportunity to do the treck. Although my knee is definitely tired after it, it was rewarding without being damaging. And the time spent in nature and away from the city really gave me a renewed sense of calmness and happiness.
The rest of the day and the whole day after I've spent quietly, getting everything sorted, researching Vietnam and relaxing (for once actually alone). After checkout on the 7th I spent the day at Utopia reading, writing and relaxing.
And then I jumped on the 24-hour sleeper bus to Hanoi (a trip that everyone I'd talked to said was horrible).
Now, on the other side of it I can definitely say the bus ride was an experience. The bus itself was quite nice, with clean reclinable seats. But that's also just about the only positive thing about it. Whe I first boarded it the staff yelled at me, when I tried to sit in seat 19 that had been assigned to me. Instead I was ushered to the very back, where I ended up sharing a very narrow five-person bed with the only other Westerners on the trip - a group of young Germans and Brits: Josh, Nick, Mia and Morgan. Over the next day we got to know each other pretty well and they were luckily really good company.
We didn't have any actual toilet breaks on the way either. About 1.5 hours into the journey they stopped the bus on the side of the road to smoke, and so we got out a squatted down in the grass. The second time they stopped the bus was at 2 am, 7 hours after departure, to eat dinner/breakfast. We were all veg and as a result got instant noodles in hot water. It was a very filling meal. I managed to sleep on and off throughout the night, sometimes kept awake by the adrenalin of the very fast and winding journey through the mountains. I woke up around 6 am bathed in sweat from the sauna-like heat in the bus. It had broken down around 4 am and the AC was off. I found a field to pee in before sitting down on the road with a Laotian guy named Camlar (who had helped us throughout the trip) and Josh, sharing the homemade banana chips Camlar's mum had made him for the journey.
We crossed the boarder hours later and then made our way through Vietnam - stopping for lunch around 2 pm. None of us had any Dong though and we were hungry. Luckily Nick and I had a couple of extra USD we got to pay with and so we all shared our two plates of rice with morning glory.
A bus change later and we were finally in Hanoi around 9.30 pm 27.5 hours later. We got a taxi to my hostel "little charm hanoi hostel", where I checked and then met up with Josh and Nick to try and find some dinner around midnight.
We had a drink at a jazz bar, found a quiet Vietnamese restaurant, where we sat and talked at for a while, before finding refugee from the rain in a pup.
Around 2 am in complete and utter pouring rain two grab motorbike drivers convinced us to hop on their bikes after we asked them if they knew a place to dance. We had no clue where we were going and got completely drenched in seconds, but we laughed the whole way there.
They let us off at the side of the road and pointed to a building that looked completely closed, when the doorman opened the door though a we were met by load electronic music and a mass of locals dancing. It was a really good night that ended after about 2 minutes when I realized my phone was gone. I hand't checked my bag at all the whole night and Hanoi is notourious for good pick pocketers on the street. So we took a taxi back to the boys' hostel and talked until 4 am (the guys had to leave to catch a flight home at 6 am). I was of course frustrated, but this time it was an easy fix and I'm now writing from my new Samsung A10 with all my pictures safely hidden in the cloud and all my apps up and running once again. And I'm still so excited to explore Vietnam.