Turns out sometimes even when you’re convinced about something — you can be flat out wrong. This goes for life in general and for our opinion of “soulless” Vang Vieng.
The morning was fruitfully spent removing ourselves from the dirt-and-cement-encrusted clusterf*ck of downtown (aka finding a new guesthouse). We traded our lackluster hotel from the night before for a simple, clean welcoming guesthouse of the traditional vein, with kids and the white family puppy running around — and hot, awesome showers!
Afterwards, we wet our sights on the enticingly-named “Blue Lagoon.” It lay about seven kilometers out of town, up a scenic valley through traditional villages lined by jagged Karst formations.
But not without first having a dip in the river and a little bonding with the local kids:
After waiting for several scooters to zip past, we crossed single file over the awesomely not to code bridge to the other side. As we pedaled up valley, we noticed an excess of expertly-placed racks of woven goods and especially well-stocked stores… this should’ve been our first sign of things to come. Actually, in retrospect, it should’ve been when the spunky smoothie lady who hollered playfully at passersby — and who Tyler rapidly built a rapport with — said, “So you are going to the Blue Lagoon?” Not any of the other numerous caves and pools dotting the valley, but the Blue Lagoon.
As we pedaled leisurely up the road, a steady stream of traffic passed us like busy ants on a log: Tuk Tuks, scooters and dune buggies laden with grinning Falang or Asian tourists wielding selfie sticks. By the time we reached the manned entrance of the Blue Lagoon, we shouldn’t have been surprised to see the parking lot teeming with vehicles. The watery network beyond, dotted with humans in neon life jackets, looked more like a glass table covered in spilled candy corn than a natural pool. We stood there for a moment soaking it all in. Beautiful? Yes. But the whole scene was in direct contrast to the backwoods, road-way-less-traveled approach we’d embraced for weeks.
After finding a forgotten swatch of real estate downstream from the main hubbub of floating candy corn, we slipped into swimsuits and then the water.
With a not to irony, as when we’d visited the travertine falls, the sun wasn’t out for our swim Soon we were plagued by an army of goosebumps. We stood in the shallows trying to warm up, giggling as little fish nipped at the dead skin between our toes.
Then we traded wading for walking up a short, steep rocky incline to the entrance of a cave. On the way, we passed by two restrooms (not the free kind) one labeled “Men” the other labeled “Wome” and a group of Korean tourists, one of whom walked up to Tyler and said, “Where are you from?” This wasn’t the first time tall, thin, very un-Asian-looking Tyler had been approached with such voracious curiosity. Tyler asked the guy how long he was traveling and he said, “Four days. From Vientiane.” Aha! The pieces came together: It was Sunday, Vientiane is less than 200 kilometers away and Vang Vieng was as far as most tourists probably made it.
Heading up to the cave, we joined a steady stream of people including two older women in dresses who didn’t want to pull over and were wearing some combination of sandals/high heels. Above our heads, zipliners whooshed by yelling in joy and/or panic.
We paused at the lip of the cave to observe, far below, an ornate golden shrine of a reclining Buddha. People crawled about like prehistoric crabs with cameras. As Lisa said, the cave was a bit of a “sacrifice zone,” with no paths to keep people on designated paths and no warnings about damaging stalactites or stalagmites by petting them like domesticated animals. Of course, we had our tourist moments, too…
After we’d had our fill, we rode back to town, showered and changed and posted up at a riverfront bar serving two-for-one drinks. The drinks, it turns out, had about as much alcohol in them as Donald Trump has political experience. But the view of the sun setting over the river was worth every last Kip.
The next day, happy with our rediscovery of Vang Vieng’s naturally beautiful soul, we set out (after a very leisurely morning) to enjoy another of the less popular caves. And it was finally Tyler plus the entire Merry Harem, as Kater Potater had kicked her cold’s butt the night before! We hoped — and were amply rewarded for the notion — that Nam Bokeo-Phabua cave would be equally awesome but far less of an amusement park. And it had much better signs:
A smiley man took our 10,000 kip (about $1.25) at the entrance. His operation included a short walk past his simple, traditional house…
… along a field past playing dogs and grazing cows…
Over a bamboo bridge that we decided would be best crossed one at a time…
… to the edge of the jagged, mottled gray and black Karst cliffs towering over us. A handwritten sign announced, “You can swim. The water is cold.” And of course, the sun decided we weren’t riding so why show itself? Again, we couldn’t submerge for long but it was magical nonetheless. And no one was there besides Tyler and the very Merry Harem.
And for dinner? One more delectable round of non bubblemeat bubblemeat!
“Nine would be okay,” is what the man in charge of the van we reserved said to Lisa when she suggested we depart for Vientiane at noon the next day. So it was our driver pulled up just after nine and we began the somewhat nerve-wracking process of loading our bikes and bags on and in the van. A three hour, windy van ride followed. All five of us decided it was better not to watch our driver flying around corners like a caffeinated Superman, evading dogs and cattle like a politician dodges questions or rapidly leaving carts and slower vehicles behind like bad memories.
Suddenly, we were in a modern town again, full of malls, stores, gas stations and colorful streets of shops, street vendors, guesthouses and bars. The van pulled up to simple Phone Paseuth Guesthouse, where the friendly hosts watched as we excitedly over-caffeinated on complimentary, strong Laos coffee.
Our days in Vientiane became polarized between well-earned laziness (smoothie drinking, getting massages and relaxing) and productivity (experiencing the city and the necessary work of packing our trusty steeds in boxes for our upcoming flights).
We took one last crack at culture and food at an expensive but awesome traditional Laotian dinner paired with dancing…
…and of course, one last chance to check out a night market.
Reluctantly, with long, fond hugs, the Merry Harem began to disband when Lisa shoved off for Faenza, Italy the first morning we were in Vientiane. The rest of us departed on the second morning; Anne and Kate for very snowy Colorado (ew) and Tyler and I for Saigon. If we thought Vientiane was big, we were way off…
After a short business class flight and a long taxi ride in horrendous traffic, we checked into our swanky hotel in Saigon (thanks to points painstakingly accumulated via our Hilton Honors card — nice detective work, T$). Then, we set out to absorb the madness of Saigon like two Falang sponges, from the scooters to which sidewalks and streets are fully interchangeable…
…to the numerous and beautiful city parks…
… and expansive, but over-whelming-in-a-good way markets (the perfect spot to find a snack, souvenirs and one last strong-as-the-Hulk’s-handshake Vietnamese coffee)…
… to Gothic-inspired architecture…
… long walks on busy sidewalks and unnoticed (but awesome) peace signs.
They say time flies when you’re having fun, but it’s not fun when it’s all over. Time to trade the incredible food, cheap, drinkable beer, friendly people, Buddhist temples, traditional villages, challenging roads and stunning, lush landscapes — and the constant, lovely company of four other humans — for the next adventure.
For those that are sad it’s over, chin up! It’s not quite over — look for a follow-up blog some time in the near future on riveting topics such as Southeast Asian toilets, mole hairs longer than it took me to get to this last blog and cats with broken tails.
Thanks to all of you who have stuck with us through the entire, life-changing journey. Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year all!
6 Replies to “Writing and Riding: From Vang Vieng, Laos to Saigon, Vietnam (The End Is Near)”
We’ve enjoyed following your adventure. Thanks for sharing! Merry Christmas! Lynn & Bob
Happy New Year Lynn & Bob! Thanks for following the adventure, I am grateful I got to experience it 🙂 See you soon I hope!!
You rock! Miss You …all the Best for these festivities and 2017…bea
BEA!!!! Thanks for reading 🙂 That was such a great adventure. A late Happy New Year to you! How is life? Love you 🙂
Thanks for the wonderful journey that I could take vicariously through you.
You’re welcome, I’m grateful to be able to experience such an amazing adventure and share it with others.