Vietnam and Laos are neighbors, but strangers

By Lorie Ann Cascaro and Jesse Pizarro Boga

Locals and tourists flock to Ta Hien Street and nearby alleys to commune over Vietnamese draft beer while sitting on small plastic chairs. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga
Locals and tourists flock to Ta Hien Street and nearby alleys to commune over Vietnamese draft beer while sitting on small plastic chairs. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga

HANOI, Vietnam to VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews / 5 March) – A corner in the outskirt of the Old Quarter in Hanoi became our instant dressing area amid the hustle and bustle of early morning Vietnamese. Jesse had to pull up his hoodie while Lorie wore pants over her beach shorts and a sweater before walking around to figure out where on earth the bus from Hue City dropped us off.

It was freezing 10 degrees Celsius!

Long before our innards could get frozen, Jesse spotted a place to have Banh Cuon (Vietnamese rice cake rolls) for breakfast. A dumpling of ground meat and tiny slices of mushrooms wrapped in a soft steamed white sheet made of rice flour subtly  went through our esophagus.  It was ideal for a stomach that hadn’t had anything since an untouched bland dinner in a bus stopover en route to Vietnam’s capital city. Some Vietnamese took a small plate of Banh Cuon at the sidewalk with plastic short-legged stools and tables before the shops in front would open for business.

Hanoi has a charm that’s unique among other cities, albeit the Old Quarter. Perhaps the weather was one thing, which allows people to exercise their right to fashion and wear coats with fur, knockoff Burberry scarves, and knee-high boots.

Feeling the rush of the quick visit in the city, Lorie took in more traditional Vietnamese food before throwing herself from one street to another. She had Bun Cha for lunch; grilled pieces of pork swimming in a sweet fish sauce mixture with rice noodles. She also had some pieces of Nem Cua Be (fried Vietnamese crab spring rolls), which she describes as a fried, savory (and subtly oily) delight.

The flavors of Vietnamese food, which weren’t too weak nor too strong; this feature makes it easy for anyone new to the dishes to appreciate them without being too overwhelmed.

Lorie had beer corners, West Lake, and Long Bien bridge on her itinerary; most of the museums were closed during her visit. She experienced local life along the way (because she got to drive a motorbike around).

She joined the crowd in Ta Hien Street where locals and tourists alike commune over Bia Hoi (Vietnamese draft beer) while sitting in small plastic stools, and watching life pass by (it’s very inspiring). From there, she drove to West Lake, Hanoi’s biggest freshwater lake that is known for recreation and high-end residences with many surrounding gardens, hotels and villas, and commercial Western establishments.

The 17-kilometer shore length at night shows a different, calm side of Hanoi. Dwellers can park their motorbikes by the shore and watch lights from a distance, while these dance with the ripples in the water.

A quick trip to Long Bien district had Lorie driving through a historic bridge across the Red River. This bridge was originally called Paul Doumer Bridger and had historic importance throughout the Vietnam War. The bridge was built in the 1900s by the architects from Daydé & Pillé of Paris. When someone drives through that bridge, he is literally going through a piece of history!

Drifting in Hanoi’s traffic

Hanoi’s traffic with a ratio of at least 100 motorbikes for every car seems too dangerous to meddle in. Adding to the sight are the staccato of horns and roaring accelerators that  would not encourage one who just steps in the city to steer a two-wheeled vehicle that breaks away from Vietnam’s humdrum.

Once you’re in, there’s no point of going back. Dare to  jump in  a big stream and just let the rapids drift you. The following are Lorie’s tips to survive in Hanoi’s traffic  on a motorbike.

Turn on your reflexes. Watch out for fellow motorists like piranhas that appear suddenly at your sides, or tailing you, waiting to overtake.

Expect for impulsive ones, who switch on their signal light right at the corner of  the street.

Hit your brake before they swerve in front of you.

At junctions, the digital timed traffic lights are like cues in a drag race. But, some Vietnamese cheat before the gunstart. The countdown was still at 04 and they zoom like bees chasing the last batch that passed.

Scooter is easier to drive in Hanoi traffic unless you have much energy and enthusiasm to change gears  every minute with automatic or manual motorbikes.

A view from Lorie's motorbike, while she was driving in Hanoi. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga
A view from Lorie’s motorbike, while she was driving in Hanoi. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga

The streets in Hanoi have no space for indecisive drivers as you just need to choose your way without hesitation and others will let you be. Motorists maintain a speed that cushion a huge smash when your bike’s butt is pushed by someone’s front wheel.

Be keen to the beeps and you’ll know if someone is going to drive past you, either right or left.  Most motorbikes in Vietnam are deprived of side mirrors (we didn’t ask why). Certain volume and pattern of honks tell you if it’s a motorbike, a car or a bus. A swift turn of your head to glance at the back is the way to confirm it.

Transcendentally, you can see a chaotic flow in a single lane. But,  one can even close his or her eyes while crossing and feel the harmony of motorists in Hanoi’s streets.

Yes, there’s a peculiar sense of harmony in the buzzing streets of Hanoi. Lorie had not seen any vehicular accident during her two-day visit. Meanwhile, Jesse lauded Lorie for not freaking out so much while driving during her first day. Slow clap.

“Hanoi is alive in so many ways,” Lorie said over dinner. She was right: from the people yelling, to the vehicles roaring, energy surged everywhere. She jokingly attributes this to a caffeine rush brought about by strong Vietnamese coffee. Want a cup?

Worlds apart

All of the dizzying movements and deafening sounds mellowed down drastically when, after a visit to Hanoi, Jesse and Lorie were whisked to Vientiane, capital of Laos.

The transition from one city to another is ridiculously abrupt, like a smash cut in a horror film. One second you’re screaming, the next you’re yawning.

And Jesse, who was staring at the seafood skewers on his plate was where our “adventure” in Laos began.

The sticks were drenched in chili sauce (complete with chili chunks and seeds). He looked around and he saw that there were squiggly writings on every street signs and restaurant facades.

Tuk-tuks would pass by occasionally, leaving some dust in their wake. But the streets by which they drove were unusually empty despite the rush hour at that time.

All the women at sight were wearing straight skirts with gold accents and embroidery. The incessant chatter around Jesse didn’t seem familiar to him anymore.

“Where are we again?” Jesse jokingly asked before digging in.

Discover Vientiane seemed exciting to Jesse. But his enthusiasm, however, was greeted by utter disturbance.

He woke up completely horrified by the silence that he experienced. The street life noise that he believes make up for a city’s vibrance and life was absent.

Life appeared to move very slowly on the streets. “A weekday in Vientiane felt like a lazy Sunday morning,” he repeated 10 times during breakfast.

During the day, visits to Patuxai (a local rendition of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe), Pha That Luang (a golden monument in an enclosed compound), and Wat Si Muang (a temple, among others, where we were blessed by a monk) transpired.

Then came the beer bottles at night. The locals’ drinking lifestyle is not something that Jesse sat very well with. He had seen men from Laos drink dozens of beer cans and their skills are astounding, thinking that they do this everyday like clockwork.

Vang Vieng style

All the fun in Laos appeared to be concentrated in Vang Vieng; that’s where most of the young travelers went to for fun that is fueled by the collective non-stop party consciousness ingrained in the brains of the backpackers who go there (because, seriously, Jesse had not heard a backpacker say “I want to go to Laos for cultural exchange. Yay!”).

The rest of the “high-class” senior travelers (often couples) who want all things laid back stuck around Vientiane because that’s just how old people are: they don’t like the noise the young people make.

Nam Xong river and all the sorts of amusement that revolve around it (literally) is where all the Western backpackers commune for beer, cigarettes, and music (and drugs as reported until a year ago).

There wasn’t any genuinely “Laos” in our itinerary.

Tourists in their swimwears jump into the Blue Lagoon in Vangvieng, Laos. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga
Tourists in their swimwears jump into the Blue Lagoon in Vangvieng, Laos. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga

Ours covered trips to possibly an infinite number bars for drinking sprees (which Jesse didn’t do, by the way); bicycle ride down a rocky road; and dipping and diving in a lagoon with blue water.

Normally, backpackers head to Vang Vieng for outdoor activities like water tubing (perhaps a cheap thrill that they can only get in this side of the world), river kayaking, and paintball. Some ride all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and air balloons.

Most guys and gals are found in bungalows (on their hammocks), drinking; others are hanging out in restaurants as 90s sitcom Friends play on the TV (seriously, guys?).

Lorie guided us to several hangout places: Kangaroo Sunset bar, Banana Restaurant, Room 101, Fat Monkey’s, and a Laotian bar that we weren’t able to identify. There’s alcohol, drunk people, outdated playlists, and a ton of smokers.

There were “lady boys” and their out-of-this-world dance moves that should literally be banished out of this world; backpackers and bartenders chugging bottles of hard liquor (*eyes roll*); and a whiny white girl who tied her hoodie jacket on her waist (who still does that?!). Fast forward to the off-road cycling activity please?

Cycling (on a 7-kilometer rocky road) led us to this place called Tham Poukham where Blue Lagoon is located. The lagoon was indeed blue when we arrived; but it would be a stretch if we call a view of it to be “very rewarding” after our long, dusty ride. It’s just a lagoon!

There, backpackers clad in their swimming outfits relaxed, swam, and, uhh, drank more Beerlao. The water was surprisingly refreshing and it’s easy to see why everyone was enjoying their time and whiling the time away.

Others who were interested in old, ancient stuff climbed the Golden Cave, home to a sleeping gold Buddha statue and some stalactites (which were supposed to be “glimmering and a delight”).

Delight and enlightenment in their true form, however, dawned on Jesse through a signage that read “Beerlao burger.”

One of the bars by the river proudly claims this to be their specialty. Unfortunately, when we were there at 11 PM, the bartenders told Jesse that he can’t order one because the kitchen was closed. During the next day, we found that they don’t open until 5 PM–and our bus back to Vientiane leaves at 4.

He said that he will come back for that burger. But being utterly disturbed by the intensity of the laid back lifestyle? Hmm…

(Lorie and Jesse are fellows of FK Norway’s exchange program in Asia. They are currently in Laos and Vietnam respectively. Follow their adventures in Instagram @jesiramoun and in Twitter @kalowrie.)