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Visa for independent travel in Laos is almost impossible to get in the US, but takes only 4 hours in Laos ($60). One can enter Laos in any of the three overland entry points.
$1 = 14,000 dongs = 7,400 kips = 38 baht
Hanoi. Minibus from airport to city: $3. Travel by hired motorcycle (10000 per trip) or cyclos (allow for better appreciation but slow). Kids sell lots of stamps and coins. Traffic is mainly bicycles and motorcycles. Hotels start at $5 with bathroom (they will find you). Excellent french bread everywhere. Full international meals for $5-6. Many internet cafes, especially along and near Hang Bac. Main monuments: One Pillar Pagoda (replica), Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, Temple of Literature (remodeled), Hoan Kiem lake. Most interesting point is the ++Old Quarter, relatively intact.
Perfume pagoda: $14 tour, 2 hr drive from Hanoi to Ben Duc, 1 hr boat ride to the shrine area, 1 hr hike up the hill (many temples, not just one). Both the drive and the boat trip are worth it for the human landscape (rice fields).
Sapa. Night train to Lao Cai, at the border with China (207,000 dong = $15), motorcycle to the bus station (5,000), bus to Sapa (30,000, 1h 30'). Sapa is in the mountains (Mt Fansipan, 3100 m, is the highest mountain in Vietnam). The area is dotted with villages from several different hill tribes, most prominent the Black Hmong (who are catholic) and Red Zhao. Several trails around town. Very easy, mostly flat. Best trail may actually be the one that leads up to +Hamrong monument, a maze of staircases and trails which affords great views. If nothing else no sellers are allowed so it's peaceful. Sapa gets boring very quickly. The market is an ordinary market and in the nearby villages one can only find children. If you are stuck the whole day in Sapa, you will simply be a target for hundreds of women who want to sell you their "ethnic" junk. Take one of the excursions: $15 to Milong Hlim, 75 kms north and 1 km from China, an authentic market on sunday. The last day take the excursion to Langxa ($12). You will see Black Zhao and Flower Hmong villages and then the bus can drop you off at Lao Cai in time to catch the night train to Hanoi.
Minorities are popular with foreigners, but they engage in all sorts of illegal activities: logging, drug trafficking, child prostitution, poaching. They are responsible for most of the destruction of their own environment.
Tour to Halong Bay $27 (175 km, 3.5 hrs from Hanoi). Worth it only with good weather. The "heaven's grotto" is one of the best.
Flight Hanoi - Danang (7:50, 1 hr, $74). Taxi to Hoy An (30 km south, 2 hrs, $10). Kingdom of Champa: 7th-15th. My Son (50 kms northwest, 1.5 hr by moto organized through the Booking Office in Hoy An for $10, Cham ruins, leveled by US). Immigration in Danang will send you to the Tourist Office, but the new Youth Office is cheaper and more efficient. Exit stamp to Lao Bao: $25. The life style changes dramatically between north and south Vietnam: Danang is more decadent, more American and not a real city. Hanoi has more crowds and character.
Hue, 1.5 hr north of Danang has an Imperial Palace and the tombs of the emperors (1800-1900). To go to Laos you can leave from Danang at 19:30 ($25) or wait for the bus in Dong Ha (ticket from Sinh Cafe in Hue), but the bus won't arrive before 11pm if you are lucky.
Hue to Dong Ha (72 kms, 2 hrs). Dong Ha to Khe Sanh (57 kms, 2 hrs). Khe Sanh to Lao Bao (20 kms, 1 hr). The border opens at 9am and it often takes hour for the bus to clear customs. The bus is overloaded with goods.
Bus to Savannakhet (250 kms, 9 hrs). Bus to Pakse (200 kms, 6:30am, 8 hrs, $2.50). Laos is much poorer than Vietnam. Infrastructures almost don't exist. Roads are worse than in Burma. People live in huts on stilt with very basic furniture. Everything is basic. Roads are in horrible conditions, which explains why there are no hours: nobody really knows what time a bus will arrive. Everything tends to happen very early in the morning, almost nothing works in the afternoon. The Japanese are helping build roads and bridges which will be ready in 2-3 years. Almost nowhere credit cards are accepted. In Pakse most hotels are being remodeled. Out of town there are two very good quality ones 9at km5 and km7 towards the airport, $8-10). People in Laos are not aggressive as in the rest of Southeast Asia. They often stare at you without trying to sell you their goods. Very few of them speak any english at all.
Boat Pakse-Champassak (1hr 20', $0.75). Tuk tuk to Wat Phu (20', $4). Occasionally there are boats to go back to Pakse in the afternoon but you have to flag them down. Boats always travel in pairs. Boats leave when full. The last bus from Champassak to Pakse is at 11:30am. Bus and boat leave from the same place in Champassak.
Wat Phu is 12th century, discovered in 1866, stil very dilapidated, but impressive location on a hill overlooking a lake.
Flight Pakse-Vientiane (9am, 1hr, $95, the airport is 5' from town)
Flight Vientiane-Luang Prabang (9am, 1hr, $57). Excellent international restaurants in Vientiane (La Terrasse, near Douang Deuane Hotel). The contrast between northern and southern Laos is striking. Northern Laos is more international and more developed. + Wat Sisakhet (1818, 6840 tiny Buddhas in the cloister and 2000 inside), + Hophrakeo (1565, surrounded by double colonnade and Buddha statues with several richly decorated doors and staircases in each cardinal direction guarded by monsters). The Friendly Bridge to Thailand is 15 kms south.
Luang Prabang is the old capital (14th-1975). Flights to Bangkok, to Vientiane ($55), to Chiang Mai ($70), to Houay Xay ($46). Bus to Vientiane ($4). Boat to Huay Xay (6 hours, $27) and to Vientiane ($29). Wat Mai, Mt Phousi with great views of the palace and the Mekong, and ++Wat Xieng Thong (1560). HOtel ++Kounsaran ($3).
Pak Ou caves (25 kms, 2 hrs by tuk tuk, $8, plus 3000 kips to cross the Mekong and 8000 kips to enter the cave).
Boat to Huay Sai: buy ticket at the speedboat station, km 6 of the road to the airport, closed saturday and sunday afternoon. Boat leaves at 9am. The speedboats are built to maximize pain. Chances that you will not reach the border in time are high, as the border police closes at 5pm.
The Thai side of Huay Sai is Chiang Kong, 137 km from Chiang Rai. There are many guesthouses on the Thai side of the Mekong. The bus station is 3kms from the ferry landing.
Minibus Chiang Kong-Chiang Saen (53 km, 40 baht, 2 hrs). Minibus Chiang Saen-Mae Sai (40km, 1hr, 20 baht). Mae Sai is the other side of Burma's Tachilek. There are kms of stalls along the road to the border. Flights from Chiang Rai to Bangkok and to Korat ($75). Taxi to the airport $10.
Korat minibus to bus station $4. Bus to Kantaralak (310 kms, 93 baht, $3, 5 hrs). Kantaralak Palace Hotel $7. Motorcycle to Preah Vihear (40km, 1 hr, 250 baht). The park is open 8am-4pm. No border formalities as you travel into Cambodia beyond the temple. The Thais have built a fast and modern highway. Preah Vihear was built by the Khmers between 900 and 1150.
Bus to Ubon Ratchatani (3 hrs, $2). Bus to Bangkok $2. Flight to Bangkok $40.