Despite seeing that the Lao Airlines headquarters in Luang Prabang looked like a decrepit K-Mart from the 80’s, we decided to book a flight from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam. Lao Airlines doesn’t have the best safety rating and by no means a clean sheet in the crash department so we were a bit nervous for this fairly short flight. When we arrived at the airport it was nicer than we expected so this calmed our nerves until we got a glance at the plane. Clearly this small prop plane was a hand-me-down from a larger airline at some point in time and had the scars to prove it. To calm ourselves we made jokes about how at least this airplane wasn’t held together by duct tape as we walked outside to the passenger stairs leading into the plane. However, to our horrified dismay as we got closer to the plane we could see actual rows of duct tape on the exterior of the plane near the wings and engine. Too late to turn back without causing some sort of “bomb scare” type exit we just really hoped that wasn’t all that held the wings together. When we boarded, the plane interior was extraordinary with rows of vibrant, colorful jungle print seats clearly from the early 80s. Now I absolutely love flying and even the roughest turbulence is nothing to me, but I was quite honestly the most nervous I have ever been on an airplane during takeoff. Any strange rattling noises or bumps I would immediately glance over at the wing to make sure it was still with us. To Lao Airlines credit, it actually turned out to be a very smooth flight with great food so all in all we were pleased with the experience when we landed in Hanoi.
At the airport in Vietnam, we exchanged for some Dong (Vietnamese currency) in the airport and took a bus to the center of Hanoi. All the buildings are very tall, but extraordinarily narrow in the city which was seemingly more wealthy than anywhere in Laos or Thailand. Now I have never been or really had the desire to be in a boy band before, but I felt a bit of sympathy for Justin Timberlake and the rest of NSYNC when I tried to get off the bus. There were literally mobs of Vietnamese Taxi drivers grabbing us, screaming at us and trying to get us to come with them. Now at least Timberlake could tell his mobs of middle school girls to go away, because in my situation these people didn’t speak any English! We decided the train station couldn’t be far from the city center so we attempted to walk and ask locals for directions. Even with a map not one person understood our words, train sounds or sign language so we were out of luck. Eventually we opted to hop on some bicycle rickshaws and cruised through the absolute most insane traffic imaginable. Now I need to quickly describe the lunacy that is Vietnamese traffic for one moment here. Traffic lights are scarce in the city as they opt for circles instead. Now picture a well known traffic circle in your head such as around the Arc De Triomphe in Paris. Next add 10 times more traffic with 75% of it being motorbikes. Which side of the road do they drive on in Vietnam? I think that question is debatable especially in these circles as everyone just goes in full speed in every direction and weaves through each other like four colliding schools of fish. Another crazy aspect is trying to cross the road as a pedestrian. No vehicles will stop for you, the only method is to walk slowly with the same pace and not look at the traffic whizzing towards you. The crazy drivers will just avoid you and slowly mold around you as you cross to the other side. Eventually we arrived at the station and purchased overnight train tickets to Sa Pa, a small town near the border of China that we heard resembled Switzerland. We consumed some surprisingly good local beers and Pho (famous Vietnamese street soup) waiting for the train.
The sleeper train was comfortable and awesome except for the fact that we arrived at 5am before the sun had come up. Unfortunately the train station was quite a ways from the town, and there were no buses running this early in the morning. Since all the taxi’s in Vietnam seemed to be ripping us off, we paid a local guy to drive us to Sa Pa in his SUV. He was blasting the band O-zone (click here to listen) for the entirety of the journey, speeding excessively up these crazy mountain roads. At one point a motorbike was in our way and our driver went absolutely berserk. He honked his horn what seemed like over a million times and tailgated this motorbike to the point of eventually running it off the road. Next, he pulled over our vehicle and stormed out towards the bike. There was a girl driving the motorbike with a guy on the back and our driver yanked him straight off the bike. He pulled this poor guy over to our car and just at the point where I thought I would witness a road rage execution he jammed him into our car. Although it didn’t appear as if the Vietnamese guys knew each other, they eventually just started chatting and smoking cigarettes for the remainder of the ride. I was completely speechless and mystified to the interaction which we just played witness. Here are my theories of what happened:
- Our driver liked the motorbike girl and angry that this dude was on her bike so removed him to show his dominance.
- Riding two on a bike up this mountain holds up traffic and is unsafe so he removed him.
- The band O-Zone was new to Vietnam and our driver was so excited about it that he decided he must show someone else ASAP.
To this day I will never really know the truth, but eventually we arrived in an unreal mountain village looking very similar to a Swiss town. Accommodations were fairly expensive in this town, but with our “Cheap Cheap” requests one guesthouse owner put us up in his kids room in the basement for very little.