I wond’r where the Banh Bao man has gone? Exploring palaces within the Imperial City of Hue, Vietnam

Our bus ride and border crossing into Vietnam was fortunately a lot more civilised than previous experiences between Cambodia and Laos. Despite being a little worried that our e-visa’s wouldn’t be accepted, we were soon fast-tracked (much to the annoyance of the locals) between the Laos and Vietnamese officials. Conveniently, they literally sit alongside one another, removing the need for us to walk long distances across no man’s land, which is often the case at land border crossings. No corrupt bribes requested either!

Arrival – Dinner (and getting addicted to Banh bao)

On arrival into Hue we were fought over by the circling taxi drivers, like vultures do with scarce pieces of meat. Nothing new there then! Our hotel was well situated on the edge of the backpacker area, full of bars and restaurants. Although our room was a little noisy from the traffic outside, at least we were an easy walk away from all the lovely grub and ice cold beers. Ironically however, we soon discovered that sometimes one doesn’t need to go hunting for good food; it often comes to you…

While reclining in the many tiny seats and stools that sprawl out on to the street in one of the more popular bars in town – Ta Vet, we heard a sound we’ve become accustomed to in South East Asia: a loud recording played repeatedly from a passing motorbike selling some sort of street food. Initially, as per usual we found this fairly annoying and ignored it, not interested in risking food poisoning to save a couple of dollars. But this time was different, and we couldn’t help but notice a number of bar staff lined up to purchase the food on offer.

Beers in Hue Vietnam
Feeling inquisitive, a little more confident and a lot less cautious after our beers, I hailed a nearby waitress to ask what the guy was selling. She looked puzzled, then ran over to her colleagues, returning with a piece of paper with “Bao cake” scribbled across it. Based on our love for Bao (mentioned in our Phnom Penh post) we couldn’t let this opportunity slip away, so within a flash I’d grabbed a piece of the action. It was truly scrumptious: a sweet, soft, pillow like doughy bread, encompassing a lovely minced pork and onion filling, along with a boiled egg hidden inside. Within seconds we’d devoured it and were left frustrated for the rest of the evening, not having purchased two each as our entire dinner! 

Banh Bao in Hue Vietnam
We spent the rest of our time in Hue failing to track the Banh Bao man down again; instead hearing him go past our hotel late at night after we were already in bed. It seems Banh Bao is like love, you’ll only find it when you’re not looking…

Later that evening, while reluctantly eating dinner not including any Bao, we were reminded just how small the world can be. A friendly Ozzy sounding bloke (check out my attempt at Australian lingo) by the name of Brian, offered to take our photo. After getting chatting to him, we soon learned he now lives in Adelaide but was in fact originally from Colchester in Essex, only a few miles from Billericay where Joella is from!

Day 1 – Exploring Hue’s Imperial City (and greasy baguettes)

Rather than grabbing breakfast at our hotel as per usual, we decided to venture out and have it en route to Hue’s biggest tourist draw: the Imperial City. This turned out to be a comical mistake. After opting for scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon, I was served up a rather minimalist offering, consisting of a quarter of a sausage and half a rasher of bacon. At least they’d included a nice tasty looking baguette. I mistakenly asked for butter, and the waitress disappeared with the whole baguette, only to return with it’s ENTIRE surface area smothered with a thick coating of lard. There was nothing left to do but have a chuckle… and stuff our faces of course 🙂

Jonny small breakfast Hue Vietnam
After a half hour walk in the scorching sun (July – August is the hottest time of year to visit central Vietnam), then purchasing tickets, we entered through the imposing gates of Hue’s famous Imperial City. Hue’s Imperial City, built in the 19th Century under instruction from Emperor Gia Long, is a 4km square walled palace consisting of a variety of beautiful residencies. Although only 10 major sites remain out of the original 160 (bloody wars destroyed the others), it was still incredibly interesting, beautiful and at times very peaceful, despite the many tourists. Getting lost within the tranquil gardens and ancient palaces certainly made a nice contrast to the buzzing streets outside!

Beautiful palace Imperial City Hue Vietnam
Jonny and Joella in front of Beautiful palace Imperial City Hue Vietnam
Jonny and Joella in front of Beautiful palace Imperial City Hue Vietnam
Hue Imperial City gardens Vietnam
On the way back to our hotel we discovered why everyone raves about Vietnamese coffee. While sitting at the usual midget tables and chairs in a rather understated cafe opposite the exit to the Imperial City, we were served up authentic Vietnamese style coffees. This included the necessary drip filters, condensed milk and separate glasses of ice to pour over. I do not know how this isn’t more of a thing back in the UK, especially eclectic London during the summer!?!? Perhaps my next business venture, alongside Bau…

Joella in midget chair Hue Vietnam
Slow drip coffee Hue Vietnam
That evening we partook in my newly invented form of dining: a Tapas-crawl. This, as the name suggests is derived from the concept of pub crawls, and consists of sampling various small sized portions of foods at a variety of eateries within a given evening. The highlight was most definitely ending up in a local bar with no other Westerners about, eating the only food stuff available; which was squeezed out from tiny plastic sachets. It was a little like spicy, chewy pate. We were never quite able to uncover what it was, and potentially never will (and probably will never want to know…)

Joella in local bar Hue Vietnam

Day 2 – The Thien Mu Pagoda (and sweaty cycling)
On our second day we braved the hectic roads and the relentless sunshine on bicycles, while losing what seemed like our body weight in sweat. At first this was a little daunting, given the rather lax attitude to any sort of road rules. But soon we were loving it, and at least I was treating it like a game, of life and death I suppose. On the whole, drivers are very aware of their surroundings and don’t drive too fast, so trundling along on bicycles often felt safer than it does in the UK. You just need to avoid waiting for what you’d normally consider as safe gaps at junctions, otherwise you’ll literally be there forever!

Jonny and Joella cycling in Hue Vietnam
Our destination was the impressive Thien Mu pagoda, situated a few miles South West from Hue. This 7 story pagoda (pagodas always have an odd number of levels to banish evil spirits, unlike the pagoda in Kew Gardens in London – silly…) is the unofficial symbol of Hue. It has been refurbished and expanded upon a number of times since the 17th century when it was first built; including the addition of a giant bell that is said to be audible over 6 miles away! The Pagoda is also home to the car that a Buddhist monk (Thich Quang Duc) was driven to Saigon in, where he burned himself alive in protest of the way that Buddhists were being mistreated by the South Vietnamese regime at the time.

Thien Mu Pagoda Hue Vietnam

After exploring the lovely Thien Mu pagoda, we spent the rest of the day enjoying more sweet and tasty Vietnamese coffees and bowls of Pho, in between a quick trip to the local market that felt far more authentic and less touristy than those we previously visited. We also suffered another casualty of the trip – my sunglasses 🙁 One of the lenses fell out, leaving me looking like a pirate on holiday…

Bags of beans in Hue market Vietnam
Pho in Hue Vietnam
Jonny and his broken sunglasses

Shockingly, Hue was never originally on our itinerary, and we were only made aware of it thanks to an Ozzy bloke with size 12 shoes we met back in Phnom Penh. Thank God (and the big Ozzy lad) we adjusted our schedule and made the visit, it would have been gut-wrenchingly annoying had we missed it!

Next stop – Hoi An (not Hanoi that Joella, and I’m sure many others get it confused with)…

I wond’r if he has rabies? Surviving aggressive dogs and monsoons in Savannakhet, Laos

Despite promises of VIP buses with air-con, our transport for the eight hour journey to Savannakhet was barely fit for the road. The tyres were looking very light on tread, and there were holes throughout (in the body work, seats, internal fascia etc). To make matters worse, on top of the aisles being used for storage, huge sacks stuffed full of who know’s what were crammed under every seat, leaving us little to no room for our legs. Not the most comfortable way to travel, but it did give us an insight into how Laotians normally get from A to B – no more moaning from me about the London Underground at rush hour!

Bus to savannakhet
Savannakhet bus aisle
Old savannakhet bus interior
After happily arriving in one piece in Savannakhet, we negotiated well for a ride in Laos version of a tuk tuk. Unlike Cambodia’s Remorques consisting of a trailer attached to a motorbike, these were more aggressive looking and colourful machines, made from one single vehicle. We were once again staying in bungalows, although were more substantial than in Kampong Cham, and the floor, walls and ceiling were all fully sealed – no risk of visits from spiders / scorpions!

Savannakhet Laos tuk tuk
Joella in Savannakhet bungalow
Savannakhet is laid out in a grid style and has always been an important trade town for Laos, being close to the Thai border and en route to the Vietnam border too. Given how quiet and desolate the streets were, it was difficult not to draw comparisons with some of the scenes in The Walking Dead we’ve been watching on the iPad!

While searching for suitably tasty replenishments that evening, we neared the banks of the Mekong and were pleasantly surprised by the old town area. It consisted of lovely french style housing (from colonial times) centred around a quaint and rustic square full of bars and restaurants, where we enjoyed some surprisingly good live music alongside refreshing BeerLaos.

Savannakhet old town
Savannakhet old town bar
Jonny drinking in Savannakhet old town
For dinner we put our trust in Lonely Planet’s recommendation, and headed to Lin’s cafe. It turned out to be a charming little establishment, complete with an indoor water feature, blackboards illustrating the coffee and a menu bursting full of local and Western delights. The decor wasn’t too far away from the hipster cafes back home in London! Although the Green Thai Curry was lacking in oomph, it filled us up adequately.

Day 1 – Booking bus tickets (and being hustled by scary dogs)

After some bananas for breakfast, gifted to us by the lady at Mali Guesthouse in Don Khong, our first mission of the day was to book a bus out of town over the border to Hue in Vietnam. Despite our best attempts to locate a bus booking office in the nearby old town, we were left to admit defeat and walk two miles to the bus station. At least this gave us more of a chance to explore Savannakhet, out with the old town – who knew it once hosted the Olympic Games (apparently?). This also resulted in getting tickets at the lowest price, without paying a middle man. I had a rather nasty surprise when choosing refreshments for our walk back – Genmai flavoured green tea (the bottle on the right), tastes like watery wheatabix, so not the most refreshing, and Joella made me finish it – domestic abuse!

Savannakhet Olympic sign
Green tea bottles Savannakhet
That evening we found ourselves back in the old town square for dinner, this time in what felt like someone’s living room; the family where watching TV on one side of the room, while we sat on the other slurping our flavoursome Chinese noodles. After a brief conversation with one of the regulars, half in French and the other half in English, helpfully translated by his shy daughter, we were on our way.

Up until now we hadn’t paid too much attention to the numerous dogs (of all shapes and sizes) that roam the streets, night and day. They didn’t seem to be strays, just left by their owners to do as they will. However, on our walk back to the bungalow we got the scare of our lives as one of the larger brutes crept up and growled aggressively within inches of us. For a second, my decision to opt out of receiving the rabies jab flashed before my eyes (even though this only gives you an extra few hours to receive medical attention). Fortunately however, he let us walk slowly away without any injury. We became quite cautious of the street dogs from that point on.

Day 2 – Visiting the dinosaur museum (and hiding from the rain)

On the second day we were glad to be alive, considering the torrential winds and rain our little wooden hut was battered with! As the heavy rain showed no signs of stopping, we decided to spend the morning chilling over some tasty Laos coffees made by the owner of the Homestay. Two hours later, not wanting to let the weather get the better of us, we headed out in search of the dinosaur museum (armed with umbrellas).
Jonny and Joella under umbrella in Savannakhet
The museum consisted of just two large rooms, full of glass cabinets containing numerous rare bones and ancient fossils (and cuddly toy kangaroos…!?). As the place was dead, we were lucky enough to be taken on a private tour. Just as well considering it was set up by a French guy, so unfortunately most of the written information was only available in French and Laos. Although there was one colourful poster in English, perfectly suited to our intelligence level too…

Dinosaur museum Savannakhet
Dinosaur museum poster Savannakhet
For dinner we couldn’t resist some of the Western restaurants, so we treated ourselves to quesadillas, hamburgers and fries. Apart from being double charged (the card transaction didn’t seem to go through so we paid in cash too), it was all rather scrumptious!

Originally we hadn’t even planned to visit Savannakhet, and were instead going to go via Laos’ second biggest city: Pakse. But based on our experience, and general consensus that Pakse is little more than a big city, we were very happy with our decision! Overall our stay in Laos has been short, but oh so sweet. Their dish of Lahp is possibly one of my favourite meals of all time, and BeerLaos one of the best lagers. Thank you and good night, next stop – Hue, Vietnam…

I wond’r if I can win a stand-off with a corrupt border guard? Lazy days in Laos’ 4,000 Islands

Our journey from Cambodia into Laos was just about as disjointed as you could imagine, as well as bumpy. After a motorbike ride, boat over the Mekong and two separate minibus rides, it became quite clear that Cambodia doesn’t value its main Laos land border too much! At least two hours of the journey leading to the border was spent being thrown side to side and up and down, as the driver did his best to dodge as many of the crater sized pot holes as was possible. It’s fair to say he did a grand job, and we made it on time without any accidents.

En route – Sorting out visas (and negotiating with corrupt border officials)

Once at the border, together with a fellow traveller from Germany, first we needed to achieve an exit stamp from Cambodia. Despite the $1 bribe per passport that their officials request, this wasn’t too hard going. My attempts to play the dumb tourist worked in part, and I negotiated the fee down to approx $1 worth of left over Cambodian Riel for our two passports. 

Cambodian Laos border

Next up was achieving our Laos entry visa. After completing the necessary forms (miraculously they accepted my miserable attempt at legible handwriting) and the visas processed, our passports were held hostage. These border guards could sense our keenness to enter their country, and were demanding an extortionate $2 (on top of the combined $70 visa fee already paid) for the entry stamp per passport. My initial strategy consisting of repeated blank expressions and repeated “no’s” had little effect. Instead the guard appeared to be finding it all quite entertaining – I needed to up my game.

I’m not sure if it was the thrifty Scot in me, or possibly all the Lonely Planet reading I’d done, but I felt my only remaining option was to enter into a little bit of bartering. Unfortunately I didn’t consider that in this scenario, he held all the aces – both our passports and ability to allow entry into Laos. After repeated attempts at hand signals to indicate 2-4-1, miraculously I seemed to have made ground, and thought I’d achieved a reduced fee of $1 per passport! Getting carried away I handed over the $2 for our 2 passports, but received just Joella’s in return. Crap, he bluffed me, so I was forced to cough up another $2 for mine.

After another brief minibus journey, including a quick tyre change (despite the Laos roads being infinitely better than Cambodia’s), then 10 minutes on a boat, we had arrived on the island of Don Khong. Our accommodation was in a beautiful old French style town house, situated right on the banks of the Mekong. 

Driver fixing a flat tyre in Loas
Mali Guesthouse Don Khong
Day 1 – Exploring the town (and eating like a king)

After a splendid breakfast looking out on to the river, consisting of very strong coffee, baguettes, peanut butter and Nutella, we set off to explore Don Khong’s main town Muang Khong. It was compact, yet perfectly formed; consisting of a main Street along the bank of the Mekong, lined with outdoor eateries. Therefore it didn’t take us long to get our bearings and choose that evenings restaurant (after finding amusement at becoming a millionaire by taking out 1,000,000 Kip from the ATM = £92).

Breakfast at Mali Guesthouse Don Khong
Jonny becoming a millionaire in Laos
As per usual I was keen to try out some traditional Laotian food, namely Lahp (sometimes spelt “Larp”): Finely chopped up pork / chicken / beef / fish (you choose) together with a spicy sour sauce and lots of fresh mint and coriander. It did not disappoint, and neither did the sticky rice, nor the many BeerLaos that helped wash it all down 🙂 Joella was utterly overjoyed with the spicy, yet incredibly flavoursome Green Thai Curry – possibly the best she’s ever encountered in fact!

Tasty Laos Lahp food and BeerLaos
As it was low season, we were often the only Westerners about. This, together with how small the place was, meant some of the restaurant owners were more than happy for us to come back and pay another day if it suited us!

Day 2 – Cycling (and attempting to avoid thunderstorms)

With temperatures surpassing 30 degrees and the humidity approaching 80%, we were extremely grateful for the light breeze in our faces as we cycled around the island (while keeping to the flat sections of course – we’re on holiday)! 

Joella cycling on Don Khong
Half way round I felt the need for an energy boost, so grabbed myself an authentic Thai red bull, which apparently contains twice the caffeine AND taurine as versions exported outside of Asia. Promising to “decrease mental and physical strain, enhance performance, improve concentration and boost reaction speeds” doesn’t come without a price – it’s not carbonated and is even thicker and sweeter than the Western variety, so isn’t very palatable. At least my grimace while drinking gave Joella a giggle!

Frustratingly the latter half of the ride didn’t go without any hitches: Firstly my chain kept coming off (most likely due to it being caked in mud), and secondly because we got caught out in a torrential downpour during an almighty thunder storm! Although, there’s something quite refreshing cycling in the rain, so we took it in our stride and made it back just in time for more beer and exceptionally tasty food, while watching out at the dazzling lightening show over the Mekong.

Mekong river view from Don Khong
Day 3 – Boat tripping to Don Khone (and a broken flip flop)

Having already seen most of Don Khong via bicycle the previous day, we were ready to explore some of the neighbouring islands, most notably Don Det and Don Khon. As these islands were down stream, it took less than an hour to reach them. On the way we were able to take in the general peacefulness of the river, infrequently interrupted by the odd fisherman speeding past.

Speeding fisherman in boat on Mekong
Once on Don Khon, we made an initial effort to explore Don Det on foot, but greatly underestimated the distances involved. This, and the fact that there’s little to see on Don Det other than restaurants and bars (it’s the busier of the 4,000 islands) we decided to turn back and focus on the sights of Don Khon. At least (said with sarcasm) in the process we were able to walk across the rather disappointing and uninspiring ‘French bridge’…

Joella walking on French bridge between Don Det - Don Khon
Back on Don Khon, we headed first to see the old Ban Hang Khon Steam Train. Despite this being a key site of interest on the island, little effort has been done to maintain it. Although it’s roofed and there are a number of information boards surrounding it; so does an almost impenetrable quagmire of mud as well as an inch thick of goat droppings. Fascinatingly it had been left on the island following colonialism by the French, carrying steam ships on land, around the treacherous Somphamit waterfall (also named “Li Phi” meaning spirit trap), which were next on our list to explore… 

Old Ban Hang Khon Steam Train on Don Khon
While en route to check out the waterfall, we encountered a fatal injury… to my beloved flip flops that had recently been celebrating their 10th birthday. One of the toe straps snapped, leaving me to limp the remaining mile, after failing to repair them. The waterfalls / rapids were suitably impressive, although some of the signage left a lot to be desired in terms of safety, with one suggesting a swimming area that looked rather dangerous! We can only assume that during the dry season, these areas are probably a little less rough?

Dangerous swimming sign at Somphamit waterfall Don Khon
Jonny and Joella at Somphamit waterfall Don Khon
All in all Don Khong was exactly what we had hoped it to be: a peaceful hide away, with lashings of friendly people, great food and cheap beer. What more can you ask for!

Next stop: Savannakhet…