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Story and Photos by Barry Truter
For Travel Writers'Tales

Xin Chao (good-day): Greetings from Laos, officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic. I've been riding local buses across northern Thailand to the Mekong River and the Laos border town of Houei Xia. Now I'm traveling down the Mekong on a slow boat. The river is broad with sandy banks, at times narrowing to rocky channels. The vegetation is lush and green, the area sparsely populated


1. Laos border control

I overnight in Pakbeng, a bend in the river with a frontier town feel rough, ragged, edgy. In the morning there are elephants on the far bank, and the mist and rocks and rapids remind me of scenes from "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now". The day brings increasing river traffic and larger village populations, peanut farms, women in conical hats panning for gold, fishermen with nets, a limestone karst landscape, and a stronger current taking us to Luang Prabang, the UNESCO heritage site famous for its colonial architecture. The night market is extensive, and the Royal Palace houses a highly revered gold Buddha statue.

3. The vegetable market in Luang Prabang

A couple of days later I'm on a hair-raising ride in a minivan across a mountain range. Heavy morning fog fills the valleys. As the road rises above the mist, mountain peaks punch their way through like green islands in a foggy sea. There are hundreds of switchbacks, hairpins and precipices as we climb to 2,000 metres. Villages cling to the cliff sides, caught between the narrow rough road and the edge of the world. The driver is by turns ruthless, reckless, relentless. He hates being passed.

Eventually we arrive at Vang Vieng on the Nam Song River where the beer flows faster than the river. This place has a reputation for outdoor activities tubing, caving, rock climbing, hot air ballooning, kayaking, dirt biking and partying. Too many fatalities recently so the police have shut down some of the riverside bars.

2. Sunset on the Mekong River

Another minivan ride takes me into Vientiane, the capital, where one walks on the road because the sidewalks are filled with parked cars and motorbikes. The National Museum houses a decaying artifact collection, much of which concerns the unofficial, "secret" war waged by the U.S. Laos has the dubious distinction of having more bombs dropped on it per capita than any other nation on the planet. Between 1964 and 1973, 260 million bombs were dumped on the country, of which an estimated 80 million failed to explode. UXO (un-exploded ordinance) projects continue, hoping to find the explosives before farmers or children stumble on them.

Next stop is the border town of Lak Sao with its single main street wide, dusty, unpaved like a scene from a spaghetti Western. This truck-crossing into Vietnam is sparsely populated with fledgling businesses, a handful of tourists and one restaurant. The market offers fresh fruit and vegetables for sale and fly-blown fish, meat, rats, moles, squirrels and insects.

5. Hanoi traffic is entertaining street theatre

A short ride takes me across the Vietnam border to Vinh (birthplace of Ho Chi Minh) to catch the overnight train to Hanoi. Now I'm holed up in Hanoi's Old Quarter falling for the city despite the traffic which is killing me (almost)! Some cities have one-way streets, some two-way streets Hanoi has all-way streets. Endless streams of motorbikes weave aggressively between buses, trucks, cars, cyclists, pedestrians, street vendors and push carts.

One day I take a break from the city and visit Halong Bay, also a UNESCO site. Two thousand limestone islets dot the bay like stone soup. The scenery is breathtaking, and the caves even more so.

4. Limestone islet in Halong Bay

But Hanoi's Old Quarter is a source of wonder too vibrant, vigorous, visceral. Delicious "pho" (pronounced "fa") is served in numerous noodle soup restaurants. Egg coffee is sipped on balconies overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake. Sidewalk food stalls, bakeries, bars and cafes abound, intermingled with mini hotels and hostels, family shops, small businesses, and the never-ending hustle of street life.

The hammer and sickle flies prominently in both Vietnam and Laos. But there are many differences. Laos is languid, land-locked, laid-back. Vietnam is industrious, and twice the size with 15 times the population 90 million people versus 6.5 million for Laos. Vietnam is strategic, and fiercely independent having fought Chinese, Mongol, French and American invasions. For much of that same period, Laos was considered a backwater buffer state. In Hanoi the traffic greets the dawn, in Laos the cocks crow lustily in the pre-dawn stillness. I take these contrasts home with me.


My trip through Southeast Asia was a combination of solo travel and travel with a small group, eco-tour company. I recommend traveling by local bus and train if you have the time.

Photos: 1. Laos border control

2. Sunset on the Mekong River

3. The vegetable market in Luang Prabang

4. Limestone islet in Halong Bay

5. Hanoi traffic is entertaining street theatre

Barry Truter ( is a writer and musician living in Vancouver, BC.

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