an exploration of northeast vietnam

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church stairs, hanoi

One of the Redspokes tours I most enjoy leading is the Vietnam/Lao tour. I like this, you will not be surprised to learn, because I like Vietnam and I like Lao. That when the tour finishes I can nip across the Mekong to relax for a few days in on of the finest little riverside guesthouses in Thailand is a bonus.

I would say that of those who join this tour at least half of them travel via South East Asia’s main travel hub, Bangkok, and many of them have a day or two there looking around Thailand’s capital.

So the tour begins in Hanoi, finishes in Vientiane and often involves a stop in Bangkok. Three capital cities of three South East Asian countries all sharing buddhism as the dominant religion, cities that must be pretty much the same, right? No.

Thailand’s capital city Bangkok, or Krung Thep to use its real name (why can’t a place simply be called by its real name?) is home to eleven million people. It boasts all of the advantages and conveniences of any modern city, it boasts an underground rail system and an overhead sky train that is as up to date as any I have seen. It has the newest and busiest international airport in the region, it has overhead motorways, and a road system teetering on the brink of being gridlocked. Everything is available. if my MacBook needs attention it will receive it in Bangkok (it won’t of course, it’s a Mac), bicycle repairs, camera accessories, pizza and red wine. If one needs it Bangkok has it. Bangkok is a vibrant teaming hot and humid 21st century capital.

A night on a Thai sleeper train will, if not exactly whisk you, then at least rumble and slowly sway you to Nong Khai on the border with Lao. Nip across the border, had west along the Mekong for 20KMS, and you will arrive in Vientiane (or more precisely Vieng Chan), the sleepy capital of sleepy Laos, or Lao, as the Lao people say. At the risk of sounding like a travel bore, you really should have been there ten years ago. Ten years ago to cross the road in the capital the only vehicles to watch out for were children going to school on their bicycles, it really was quite wonderful. Riding north from Vientiane on my motorbike back in 2001 if I saw a car every half an hour I thought that the road was crowded. Now, a decade into the twenty-first century life has hotted up a tad in Lao. The roads are sealed and the blight of the modern age is wreaking its havoc of noise and population, the wretched motorcar. But still, when all is said and done Vientiane is as sleepy at a capital city as ever one could find. Most bars and restaurants are closed by eleven, Seven Eleven, MacDonald and Apple Macintosh have yet to make inroads into the country and the only export they seem to have is the highly quaffable Beer Lao. A greater contrast as a capital to Bangkok is hard to imagine. If there is one I have certainly no knowledge of it.

So, for a modern city where you can get every thing done and from where you can travel quickly and easily to anywhere go to Bangkok. For a charming sleepy little backwater of a capital visit Vientiane, but for a sensation tingling capital teaming with richness of life and character, where a communist government runs its affairs from French colonial buildings, where traditionally dressed women hawk their wares through windy streets and alleys running between marvellous historical architecture visit Hanoi (Hà Nộ). That is what I am doing this evening.

When I arrive I shall spend a couple of days wandering the streets eating the food drinking the fantastic coffee and Bia Hoi and admiring the only girls of any city I have ever visited who can make a chap realise that the girls of Bangkok are not the most beautiful in the world. Then, if all goes to plan, on the morning of the seventh my good friend and colleague Phong and I will head out on our bicycles to explore a route through the mountains of North East Vietnam. My intention is to resume normal service with this humble blog forthwith and tell the tale of the journey as it unfolds, WiFi, of course, willing.

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pavement life

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adding chilli to noodle soup at a hanoi street restaurant

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phong as i am used to seeing him. bia hoi (fresh beer) is light refreshing

and very more-ish

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a leaf from a sacred bodhi tree. the buddha obtained enlightenment meditating beneath a bodhi tree, hence

its sacred status in buddhist lands

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