Category Archives: Laos

Getting into Vietnam

11th July 2015

If you’re planning on visiting The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and you’re required to obtain a visa, a few pieces of information will help ensure you arrive in Vietnam with the least amount of hassle.  From experience, Vietnam requires visitors to jump through more hoops than any other country I’ve visited in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam requires visitors to either obtain a visa prior to arriving, or acquire a “letter of approval” for the visitor to apply for a visa upon arrival.  There are three options that will get you one or the other:

The first option requires mailing your passport to the Vietnamese Embassy in your country well ahead of your visit. The second option is to visit a Vietnamese Embassy and apply for the visa in person.  The third option involves hiring a Vietnamese travel agency as a middleman to submit the relevant paperwork and forward the government’s letter of approval back to you.

I prefer to keep my passport in my possession leading up to travel, so I excluded option one.  One downside to traveling without an itinerary, and a relative lack of wifi, is realizing you’ve waited too long before applying for the letter of approval, which takes at least three business days to process.  Aubrey and I were slowly moving through Laos when we decided we wanted to travel to Vietnam, but we didn’t feel that we had enough time to seek option three, the letter of approval.  So, we went for option two and planned on visiting the Vietnamese Embassy in Vientiane, Laos to apply for a visa in person.  Unfortunately, my mistake was believing the consulate could rush the process and issue a visa application in one day.

Upon arriving at the consulate, I was told it would take at least two business days, most likely three days.  That didn’t work, since we had a flight later that day… whoopsie.  The advice of the consulate was, believe it or not, contact a travel agent, there’s nothing the consulate could do within one business day.

Determined to get to Vietnam despite our drastic procrastination, we retreated to a coffee shop, soaked up some caffeine and wifi, and started contacting travel agents requesting a letter of approval in order to enter the country.  Luckily, we were able to find an agency online that would be able to process our information and provide us with a letter of approval within hours.  Time is money, but we didn’t want to delay our plans or our flights, so we paid an exorbitant rush fee.  My advice would be to skip options one and two and just go for the letter of approval, but well in advance.

The remaining requirements for the visa upon arrival are $45 USD (in addition to the fee for the letter of approval) and one passport size photo.  As for the $45 “stamping fee,” Hanoi’s airport does not have an ATM or currency exchange, so bring dollars, Vietnamese currency is not accepted. I know, convenient right?

As for the photo, Vietnamese customs will take your picture for a fee at the Hanoi airport, but we had already packed a few extras for this situation.  Earlier in the day, after finally getting our letter of approval, we walked around Vientiane looking for a place to procure passport photos.  After searching in the 108 degree heat for way too long, (where’s a photo booth when you need one) we essentially gave up and decided to see some sights in Vientiane.  We stumbled upon the Patuxai gate, which is ironically Laos’ version of the Arc de Triomphe, erected to celebrate its independence from France.  I noticed several local photographers lounging around Patuxai offering to take pictures of tourists in front of the monument, and sell printed copies out of the back of a van.  Almost like at a theme park, but way creepier since the back of a van is involved.IMG_5885 IMG_5884

I saw this as an opportunity.  With some pantomiming skills, I was able to convince one of the photographers to take our pictures and cut them to size for use as passport photos.  Before we knew it, we were posing in the back of a guy’s van, with a blue sarong as a backdrop.  He printed and chopped the photos in a matter of minutes.  I think I might have given him a new business idea.

Although it was an experience to remember, if you’re heading to Vietnam, avoid the consulate and the back of some guy’s van.  Get the letter of approval in advance, and bring US dollars and a few extra passport photos.

IMG_5898IMG_5907 IMG_5902

— Robbie

The Good, The Bad, and the MiniBus

9th July 2015

Traveling through Laos was both beautiful and frustrating, forming an immediate love and hate relationship.  We loved the scenery, the mountains and the karsts, but transportation in Laos was probably the worst we have encountered in Southeast Asia.  Being shoved into a “minibus”, a/k/a, a minivan with 12 other people for 4-5 hours is less than ideal.  That’s probably why we didn’t visit as many cities in Laos as we did in other countries.  However, the cities we did visit were very charming, and worth the effort.

We started in Luang Prabang, which is a UNESCO World Heritage City located in the northern part of Laos.  It was colonized by the French, so many of the buildings showcase european flare.  Of course, the food is also French inspired, from baguettes and pastries to excellent noodle soups.  We spent our two days in Luang Prabang walking around the city, seeing the sights and we even rented a motorbike one day and drove out to the Kuang Si waterfalls.IMG_5452IMG_5662 IMG_5492IMG_5398We visited the Royal Palace Museum, Wat Xieng Thong and a stupa located at the top of Phu Si hill at sunset.  Other than the monuments in Luang Prabang, there is a daily night market, which features local artisans and excellent street food.

Temple at the Royal Palace Museum.

Temple at the Royal Palace Museum.

View from Phu Si hill at sunset.

View from Phu Si hill at sunset.

Street food at the night market.

Street food at the night market.

When we’d had enough of the city, Robbie and I took a motorbike to the beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls.  We hiked to the top, and after getting nice and sweaty, we decided to jump in the water to cool off.  Unfortunately, the water was freezing and was home to fish that enjoyed biting your feet, so we didn’t stay in for long.IMG_5699IMG_5686IMG_5712

IMG_5727

View from the top of the falls.

After our stay in Luang Prabang, we made our way to Vang Vieng in a cramped minivan.  The trip was rough, but we made it to Vang Vieng in one piece.  The views of Vang Vieng are beautiful, as it rests next to limestone mountains, nestled alongside the Nam Song river.

There were 12 of us in this van...ah!

There were 12 of us in this van…ah!

IMG_5754 IMG_5766We took a motorbike ride through the karsts and visited the “Blue Lagoon,” a pool of water that happened to be full of people.  We chose not to take a dip, but we enjoyed watching the crowds.IMG_5768 IMG_5780 IMG_5816We enjoyed the views and French flare of Laos, however, we found ourselves frustrated many times.  If we learned one thing on this trip, it’s that we will never take a “minibus” trip ever again.IMG_5628

 

— Aubrey

Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

4th July 2015

After our wonderful stay in Chiang Rai, Robbie and I decided it was time to cross the border into Laos.  There are a few ways to get to our destination in Laos from Northern Thailand; an 18-24 hour bus ride, an expensive plane ride, or the 2-day SLOOOW BOAT down the Mekong River.  We were told that the bus ride was very uncomfortable, the duration of the trip varies widely and the airfare from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang was too expensive.  So we decided to be spontaneous and adventurous and take the slow boat.  Not sure if it was the best option, but there weren’t any other options.

Our trip from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang was long, hot and frustrating at times, but I’m glad we chose the slow boat.  Why, you ask?  It goes against the nature of most people to take the longer option.  I mean, 18-24 hours on a bus versus 2 solid days on a boat and most people would choose the first option.  But the slow boat option allowed us to see more of Laos and meet some interesting people.  However, I do have some regrets and I’m hoping that if you find yourself trying to get from Northern Thailand to Laos, then you’ll learn something from this post.IMG_5320 IMG_5359

Lesson Number One:  Ask your driver if they’ve picked up everyone.  Robbie and I were picked up from our hotel in Chiang Rai at 6:30 a.m. the morning of the slow boat.  Our driver then stopped at a nearby hotel to pick up two more passengers and we were on our way.  It is a 45 minute drive to Chiang Khong, the closest border town with Customs and Immigration for legally entering Laos.  We had been driving for about 30 minutes when our driver received a call informing him he left two passengers in Chiang Rai.  GREAT!  So we had to turn around and go all the back to pick up the other two people.  I mean, seriously?!  You had one job to do!  In the end we made it to the border and crossed over into Laos with enough time, but it was a close call.IMG_5384 IMG_5389

Lesson Number Two:  Always carry U.S. dollars because sometimes it is the only currency that Customs will take.  Before crossing into Laos, the Thai border officers informed us that we needed to exchange our Thai baht for U.S. dollars, even though we were about to enter a country with a currency other than USD.  Apparently, if you pay for your visa with the local currency then it costs more money.  I know, it doesn’t make sense.  So we had to exchange our Thai baht on the spot and I still don’t know if we got a good exchange rate.  But desperate times call for desperate measures.IMG_5349

Finally, we made it into Laos and we were on our way to board the slow boat.  No more worries…wrong!

Lesson Number Three:  Never trust anyone who works for the slow boat.  Before getting to the slow boat pier, we were taken to a local business where the “proprietor” was waiting for us.  He sat us all down (about 15 people) and told us how the day was going to go.  We would head to the pier and board the boat and we would make our way to Pakbeng, the small river town located approximately halfway between Houay Xiay and Luang Prabang.  There would be no stops and there would be no food/drink served on the boat.  WONDERFUL!  So he convinced all of us to purchase snacks and drinks from his shop and sandwiches from a shop near the pier so we would have some sustenance while on the boat.  So this is the point that everyone starts freaking out a little bit and we all start buying snacks and water and beer for the boat ride.  He also informs us that once we disembark in Pakbeng that the actual town was about 1 km away from the pier, which we will have to walk with our bags in tow, unless we book a hotel ahead of time and they will pick you up.  Sounds legit, right?  So Robbie and I booked a hotel through the boat “proprietor” and hoped for the best.  Once in Pakbeng we knew we’d been had.  Our room was something out of a horror movie.  It was dark, the sheets were stained, the power didn’t work and I was half expecting a rat to crawl across the floor.  YIKES!  Plus one of the hotel employees tried to sell us marijuana…I’m pretty sure that at that point I was ready to get the hell outta dodge!  Luckily, we ended up finding a different hotel in town, which had clean rooms and a very nice staff.  Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and say, oh well, that was a $15 lesson.  Also, the hotels are within walking distance from the pier, so the story about it being far away was just a ploy to get us to book a hotel room with the “proprietor”.IMG_5354 IMG_5353 IMG_5363

Otherwise, the boat ride was fairly enjoyable.  We saw beautiful scenery along the way and saw how most people in Laos really live.  We also met some great people, including the boat’s captain, who told Robbie that fish head soup is good for “boom boom”.  Thanks for the advice, he still looks for it on menus.

— Aubrey