Laos

Vientiane was much nicer than we expected. There were plenty of very good restaurants and the riverside bars were great for watching the sunset, with a Beer Lao. It wasn't at all sleazy - the city's half a dozen, or so, prostitutes congregated with the African drug dealers on the same corner each evening.

In every house, and most shops, in Laos we had to remove our shoes before entering.

We had a great time in Vang Vieng. It is set up for back packers, so there are plenty of cheap restaurants, internet cafes and massage places. We ate twice at the Organic Farm CafÁé - Helen said that the tofu sate (not on sticks) was sensational. The first time, as well as a group of young women, a bloke was sitting in the cafÁé, smoking. Of course, only a Brit (or European) would light up, oblivious, or not caring, that they were in an establishment devoted to clean living with other, clearly non-smoking, patrons.

Our only full day in Vang Vieng was great. We cycled across the bridge and on to the village of Na Thong. I have travelled to many places and thought "Why would anyone live here?" In Na Thong, I thought "Why wouldn't you live here?" The hundreds of hectares of rice fields go right to the edge of the beautiful limestone "karsts", with a brown river running through it. The village children, on their way home from school, all simply strip off and play together in the river.

We checked out two caves while we were there. The second, with the reclining golden Buddha, was understated in the guide book. We didn't need to "take care" on the climb up and down. It was downright #@!$-ing dangerous! Helen waited at the cave entrance while I clambered in for a photo. It was extremely slippery. Two young Australian blokes, both wearing thongs, ventured further into the caves. Later, we wondered how many tourists died or disappeared.

The "tubing" down the river was great fun. We didn't pull into any of the raucous, riverside bars, but most others did. In the early morning, we had seen a young man get out of a tuk tuk with a tractor tube. We had assumed that he had been for an early-morning "tube". However, after doing it ourselves, we realised that he had probably spent the night face down in a bar, up river, and had just returned, with the daylight. We then knew why there was a $2 fine for late returns.

On the road, up through the mountains, before Phou Khoun, on the way to Loung Phabang, there were numerous villages, clinging to the downward side of the road. They are remarkable for two things: the window-less houses, made of unpainted planks, and the numerous, bright-eyed, small children, who played endlessly beside the main road from China.

In one village, our minivan driver came to a screeching halt to spare two ducklings that were lagging behind their mother.

In Louang Phabang, Mrs. Chantanon. owner of the Ban Lakkham guesthouse told us that it was her family home, and was more than 150 years old. It is heritage listed, and bordered the Nam Khan river, before the river road was put through. She and her mother were born in the house, and her grandmother was born under the tamarind tree, on the river bank.

The dawn parade of hundreds of monks down the main street and around the block was very impressive. On our second morning, the long stream of orange cut through the grey of the wet street.

Laos was a beautiful, relaxing place to visit, with something for almost everyone.

Vietnam

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