Hanoi

Hanoi is possibly my favourite city in SE Asia and as such will need more than one article written about it. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the city’s history, it is now the capital city of Vietnam, where the country’s Communist government is based. During the Vietnam War, the city was the hub of the Communist North Vietnamese forces known as the DRV Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Initially, their leader was Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader who freed the nation from French colonial rule. It was, of course, the North that won the Vietnam War, unifying the nation under Communist rule. Today the city still stands as the nation’s capital despite being smaller and less wealthy than the southern capital Ho Chi Minh City. I personally much prefer Hanoi to its larger and wealthier counterpart as the city has a wealth of culture, character, and atmosphere that I have not experienced anywhere else. The city itself is a buzzing hive of ceaseless activity of all types. You will see people in expensive cars driving alongside men on bicycles and rickshaws, businessmen in suits passing women carrying baskets of ducks and chickens over their shoulders. The city is a mix of French, Chinese and Vietnamese culture, cuisine and architecture. Ensure that you stay in the Old Quarter or you will miss out on half of the experiences that the city has to offer. The hustle and bustle of the day continue into the night with a world famous beer house culture existing in the city accompanied by enormous night markets. The city is filled with museums, galleries, theaters and other cultural attractions, as well as bars, parks, clubs, restaurants and other activities. There really is something for everyone. The ceaseless noise from honking traffic and the people crowding the streets makes you feel a vibrancy, unlike many other places I have visited. The city also had the best coffee houses I have ever visited, with Vietnamese coffee being my favorite in the world. Make sure that if you visit the city you try  Trung Nguyen Coffee, in my opinion, it blows Starbucks or any of its copycats out of the water. Make sure to visit a Loteria in order to experience one of the strangest fast food menus I have ever tried. Also try to have dinner or lunch at the City View Cafe, sitting atop the largest building in the Old City, it gives you a fantastic view of your surroundings. There is also a beautiful temple in the center of the lake in the Old District worth paying a visit to. Most of all just spend a few days exploring the city and try everything you are able to and you will not be disappointed.  A final warning is that the city has some of the most aggressive hawkers I have ever encountered, so make sure to be firm with them if you are not interested or they will literally take money out of your wallet and hand you their goods. Hanoi was the only place in SE Asia that I almost got into an altercation with a hawker who pulled my shoes off my feet and began sewing them despite my protest and me trying to take them back from him, while his friend tried taking money out of my wallet as payment. This only happened once but was an unpleasant experience and had I not gotten aggressive with them, they would have simply taken my money from me against my will.

 

 

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The Plain Of Jars

The Plain of Jars is an archaeological wonderland. Throughout the region are hundreds of enormous stone jars thought to be used for burials. The jars are believed to have been created during the iron age, around 2000-2500 years ago. Their origins and purpose are still unknown as there are no markings or other remains to give us any clues. There are 90 jar sites in total, each containing between 1 and 400 jars. The best place to visit the jar sites from is Phonsavan, the regional hub. Many of the jar sites are damaged from US bombing runs during the Vietnam War. Sadly many of the sites are still regarded as dangerous, due to unexploded bombs scattered throughout the region, so take care when exploring them. You will most likely require a guide to transport you between sites and to tell you which areas are safe and which are not.   These jars are an incredible piece of history and are part of a major archaeological mystery and should definitely be seen by everyone.

 

Phonsavan

Phonsavan is the last major eastern town/city in Laos before reaching the Vietnamese border. The city is a rural hub, mostly consisting of farmers and those who sell to farmers. The city is also the closest location to the Plain of Jars which will be covered in my next article. I felt that Phonsavan deserved its own separate article. You can find stunning scenery, traditional culture and cuisine and amazing history in the part of Laos. Spread throughout the region are countless craters from US bombing rounds, as well as countless unexploded bombs and grenades. The locals have made an industry of converting this war era scrap metal into useful items and sellable wares through smelting. You should definitely try to visit one such workshop if you can and watch the locals meltdown bombs to create everything from keychains to silverware, to jewelry, all of which is available for purchase. The scenery alone should attract you, with rolling hills covered in and surrounded by rice fields and water buffalo. Make sure to spend at least a day here, especially if you are passing through on your way to North Western Vietnam. Prices here are also extremely low as it is not a tourism based town. The Plain of Jars is, in my opinion, an ancient wonder of the world and is not to be missed.

 

Luang Prabang Surrounding Area

Located outside of Luang Prabang is a number of other fantastic sites and attractions and scenery. Located along the Mekong are numerous villages, shrines, and caves to be explored. Many of this caves hold historical religious sites and are a fantastic experience. Also located near Luang Prabang is Kuang Si Falls, a collection of stunning blue waterfalls and pools that an be swum in. This is a fantastic way to spend a hot afternoon in nature. If you do manage to find yourself with a spare day or two while in Luang Prabang, make sure to explore and enjoy the surrounding area.

 

http://www.laos-guide-999.com/Kuang-si-falls.html

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a famous temple town in the northern mountainous area of Laos. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its historical and cultural importance. You will not find anywhere else quite like this city. The city is known not just for its temples, but also its large population of monks who can be seen streaming through the streets in the early morning to collect food from the town’s people. I highly suggest spending a few days relaxing in Luang Prabang, exploring the town, the surrounding areas, relaxing on the river, soaking in the culture and getting more of a vibe of what Laos historically has been. The small city is also famous for its night market, which takes place down the main street of town, in front of the highly iconic temple, Wat Xieng Thong. If you get a chance, I highly recommend trying the local rice wine or scorpion/snake/lizard infused whiskey. The city has a fantastic communal pool, with a built in bar, so on those hot days that is where you are going to want to relax and unwind. Make sure to climb the hill in the center of town for some stunning views, while there is a small cost to climb it, it is definitely worth paying. Also be sure to visit the towns ethnographic museum to be able to learn about local unique cultural and ethnic groups living in Northern Laos. Make sure to also wake up early enough to be able to buy and give food to the local monks as it is a crucial part of the whole experience and almost feels like something that you need to do.

 

Buddha Park/Xieng Khuan

The Xieng Khuan Buddha Park is a must visit while in the region. This is, in all honesty, one of the major highlights of a visit to Vientiane. The park while looking deceptively historic, is actually relatively modern and collected by one man in the 1950s. Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat was a Buddhist/Hindu monk who attempted to integrate the two religions through the use of this park, housing figures from both religions. The park is located about 25km outside of the city and will need to be driven to. I personally rented a bike and drove myself, just be warned that the road there is in terrible condition and is an adventure in itself to navigate. Make sure that if you are in the area, that you take the time to visit the park for a unique experience.

Vientiane

Vientiane is the capital city of Laos and is definitely the largest in the country by far, but still does not feel like a capital city. The city and surrounding area has between 500,000 and 750,00 residents depending on which survey ou trust. The pace of the city is so slow for a metropolitan area, especially after visiting other such areas in neighbouring countries. The city has an interesting blend of Laotian and French culture, which an be found in its food, architecture, and way of life. Throughout the city, you will find Buddhist temples, located between French colonial buildings. The cuisine in the city is a very definite mix of French fine dining and bakeries and traditional Laotian cuisine serving restaurants and food carts. Located in the center of the city, at its heart is Pha That Luang, a grand historical monument, central to the identity of Laos itself. This is a large golden Buddhist tower, which sadly I couldn’t get close to during my visit for unknown security reasons. The city has some fantastic museums, mixing pre-European Laotian history with French colonial history, as well as Vietnam War and Indochinese War history. If you have a few days in the city make sure to enjoy the cuisine, visit the night markets and soak up the unique atmosphere found only in Vientiane. I still don’t believe that I’ve been anywhere with quite the same culture.