Category Archives: Travel Tips

Nightmare Bus from Vietnam to Laos

After taking several night buses up the coast of Vietnam, I knew that the times stated meant nothing. When your Vietnamese travel agent says it takes 10 hours, you can add on another 5. So when I booked the bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang and the man told me 24 hours, I knew it would be a bit longer. But little did I know that it would actually take an epic 38 hours (24 of them without food) to get there.

I’m sitting on the back of a sleeper bus somewhere between Vietnam and the Laos border- I don’t know where I am because all I can see is endless countryside out of the window. I’m hungry, so hungry that my stomach is gradually eating itself. My friend and I are sharing the back of the bus with 3 other backpackers, who are all munching on snacks of Pringles and other treats. But not us. No. We assumed that like all other buses in Vietnam there would be some food stops at local restaurants where you find only one thing on the menu; pho (that’s noodle soup to me and you). This overland bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, however, is clearly taking us through the middle of nowhere.

And of course, when you are in the middle of nowhere, the chances of stopping at a restaurant are slim. The driver does, however, make many stops to pick up strange packages, boxes and bags of grain that are placed under the beds and the floor. It wouldn’t surprised me if the whole bus was filled with cocaine and heroin.

At least we have good company, and soon we are all sharing the usual backpacker tales of drunken injuries and random sexual encounters.

The bus journey rolls on, and I pass the time by reading my Kindle and watching a movie on my laptop. Occasionally we make stops for the men to pee, but the females stay on board as none of us are equipped with a shewee and we don’t feel like crouching down by the side of the road. At this point I am refusing to consume water for fear of needing the loo and so instead I sit there gradually dying of thirst.

Eventually the following day, having had no evening meal or breakfast, we screech to a halt at what we assume is the Laos border, but no-one really knows. We stand there and wait, but there are no officials to collect our passport. No-one quite knows what is going on, and the only thing on my mind is “Please please please let there be a Western toilet”. No such luck. Instead I am presented with 2 options- a loo which has now overflown and is flooding the entire cubicle, or a dark room with a hole in the floor and urine everywhere. I choose the latter and make sure I use plenty of hand sanitizer afterwards.

When I emerge from the bathroom it becomes apparent that the Vietnamese officials have arrived and we can hand over our passports to get stamped out of the country. Yippee!

Next we go to the Laos side, where we must purchase our visas with US dollar. My Canadian friend asks why her visa is more expensive than for people with Australian/UK passports (Canada $42/UK $35/Australia $30), and the official replies “Because it is more expensive for visa when we come to your country”. Fair enough. Some of us are ill-prepared and have forgotten to bring enough US dollars, which results in everybody standing around trying to club together to pay in a mixture of Vietnamese Dong and US dollar.

I am one of the last people in the line to collect my passport, so I hurry back to the bus. I am sitting there for a while when the bus driver walks through the aisle asking if anyone has forgotten to get an entry stamp. I check my passport and realise I am the silly one. I haven’t realised that I need to go round the corner and get it stamped- and not having it stamped can apparently lead to an arrest or a large fine. So I scuttle off the bus and feel thankful that the bus driver has realised this before we depart.

Once stamped and officially inside the country, I come back to the bus. Except I am not allowed back on it because the bus needs to be searched. I don’t know what these Laos officials are looking for, but it may have something to do with the ridiculous number of suspicious looking packages that we are transporting across the border. We seem to get the ‘OK’ and now we can put our dirty flip flops into plastic bags again and hop back on board. I ask the driver if we will stop for lunch and he has no idea what I am saying, so I mime the action of eating like I’m Oliver Twist shovelling down a bowl of gruel. The driver holds his hands up and counts on his fingers, indicating that we will eat in maybe another 4 hours…eek.

We sit there in the parking area for what feels like an eternity, and I look out of the window at the Vietnamese bus crew having some sort of debate over a problem I know nothing about. Eventually the engine starts up and we make our way towards Luang Prabang, the bus swaying from side to side as we wind through the hills.

We travel all day until the evening, when eventually the driver announces our first food break, 24 hours later. I am elated and will eat just about anything at this point, so I am watering at the mouth when I hear there is delicious pad thai on the menu. I pop next door to stock up on Pringles and cookies, and they let me pay in Vietnamese Dong, although they are killing me on the exchange rate. After inhaling my food, we are back on the bus and I am suddenly in a much more positive mood.

As I chat to my fellow comrades I realise that some of them have booked a ticket to Vang Vieng, which confuses me somewhat because my friend and I had been told there is no direct bus that goes to Vang Vieng. So we had decided to skip it since the tubing has been shut down and we were short on time. I look at a map, and from the direction were are traveling in, Vang Vieng is clearly not en route to Luang Prabang. Perplexed, I assume that I must know nothing and the travel agents/bus drivers must know something I don’t.

Eventually at around midnight, some of my new friends are told to disembark the bus in ‘Vang Vieng’…or so they think. We continue onwards to Luang Prabang, and gradually I drift into a deep sleep. Between 3 and 4am, I open one eye and realise we are stationary. The bus is pitch black and all is quiet except for the sound of a few people snoring. The windows have fogged up, but we are clearly in a parking lot. I realise we must be in Luang Prabang, but because it is the middle of the night, they are letting us sleep. What option would we have if we got off the bus? There are no tuk tuks at this time of night, and the guesthouses in Luang Prabang close at midnight because of the curfew.

The bus feels eerie so I go back to sleep, until eventually we are woken up at around 6am. A solid 38 hours later, we are in Luang Prabang, and we all sleepily haggle on the price for a tuk tuk into town (it’s hard to remember now since I was in such a daze, but I think we agreed on 1 dollar per person).

Later that day we bump into some of our new friends walking by the Mekong river and arrange to meet up at Utopia for a few drinks to celebrate our survival. We soon learn that the friends we dropped off in ‘Vang Vieng’ had actually been dropped off at the junction between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, so they were basically dropped off in the middle of nowhere 100 km from their actual destination. With no way of getting there since it was the middle of the night and the village was deserted, they ended up having to hitch hike to Luang Prabang! One of the boys in their group spoke a little Chinese, and they manage to find a driver who spoke a little Chinese that could give them a ride.

Laos Map

If I ever have to travel overland from Vietnam to Laos again, I’m flying! If you’re contemplating taking the bus from Vietnam to Laos, ask yourself whether you really need to save the cash. If this is all you can afford and you have the time to do it, then I say go with the bus option, but be in for a very long ride and stock up on plenty of food/drink. If you can stretch your budget a little, I would really recommend flying to save yourself the hassle.

However, it made for a good story, and gave us all the more reason to celebrate at the bowling alley when we got to Luang Prabang!

Victoria

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Cyclist falls in love with nature

Truong Van Phuc has traveled to the northern provinces of Viet Nam by motorbike with his friends many a time. However, a 15-day bicycle trip from Ha Noi to Ca Mau, the southernmost point of the country recently made the 24-year-old fall in love with cycling.

Borrowing a giant bike from a friend he met on Facebook, Phuc replaced the old or broken parts, and prepared the itinerary and expenditure for the journey.

The Thai Binh-born packed two sets of clothes, a repair kit and backup inner tubes on the back of the bicycle, and headed south with his friends.

For him, this journey was an opportunity to see the beauty of the country and meet locals in every place he set foot in. Phuc chose the itinerary based on his personal interests.

“I do not think that trips like these are to conquer nature or something like that. Like Edmund Hillary, who is the first mountaineer to reach Mount Everest, said: ‘It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves,'” he said.

“I used to travel by train and by motorbike but with these two means of transportation, sceneries glide past so quickly that we miss the beautiful moments. Moreover, cycling increases our physical strength as well as challenges our perseverance and skill to solve break-downs on the road.”

Phuc did not run into trouble on the road, but the inner tube of his friend’s touring bike broke a lot because there were small rocks and sharp objects, sometimes even nails, on Vietnamese roads.

However, that was only a tiny part of the trip, and could not diminish the excitement of the bikers. They had received a lot of support from friends and locals who he had just met on Facebook. Phuc still recalled that on numerous occasions they reached home at 11pm, when their parents would be waiting for them to have dinner.

Phuc, who is on an internship with Talisman Energy Inc. in Malaysia, intends to buy a new bike this month and improve his physical strength by cycling on short-distance trips and slopes around Kuala Lumpur. He will travel from the Malaysian capital to HCM City by bike in 20 days in September.

Earlier, in 2008, Nguyen Hoang Long cycled more than 1,700km from HCM City to Ha Noi along with two friends. The Hanoian chose the itinerary because “they would have driving power to pedal from there to get home”.

However, he made one big mistake. At the end of the year, the wind blows from north to south, and cyclists have to pedal upwind. This led to him falling off the bike when cycling from Khanh Hoa Province’s Nha Trang to Binh Thuan Province’s Phan Ri. He received six stitches, and the scar is still on his leg to remind him of the trip.

After the 15-day bike trip, Long decided to join the Emong Group, which has about 50 members, and connect with others who shared his desire of cycling. Since then, he has taken part in various trips with his friends in the group, but has never cycled across Viet Nam again.

Long, who is now an administrator of the Emong Group’s forum, said that they only considered the bicycle as a means of transportation and regarded the feeling of bikers on the journey as more important. He urged cyclists not to go beyond their limitations, and relax when they felt very tired.

Rough riders: Many members of Emong Group are female and as tough as the male members. — Photos courtesy of Emong Group

“Young people often like conquering the challenges. However, this is a trip, not a race. Our objectives are to enjoy cycling and completing the journey,” he said.

Long said that people should use mountain bikes for their trips and only need to bring necessary items such as two sets of water-resistant clothes, a bike repair kit and a medical kit. According to him, for those who want to travel by bike, they should cycle every day to help their muscles get used to it.

Asked why a bike is the best choice for trips, Long said, “Cycling does not make loud noises and that helps bikers hear birds and the winds sing. It is not as fast as traveling by motorbike and not as slow as going on foot. With a bike, tourists can pedal and enjoy the beauty of the areas around,” he added.

He once took a trip to Tay Con Linh, one of highest mountains in the north of Viet Nam. Although, sometimes they had to carry their bikes and walk through the grass and trees, all the members enjoyed themselves cycling on dirt roads and seeing clouds floating around them.— VNS

Many more cycling clubs

There are now a lot of clubs in Viet Nam with members who are interested in travelling by a bicycle. Emong Group, established in 2009, has 50 to 60 active members and often organises short and long trips. The group will celebrate its sixth birthday by cycling to Kim Boi hot springs in the northern province of Hoa Binh on May 10 and 11. Information on the trip is available on the forum at www.emong.org.

Besides, Couchsurfing Hanoi has held various bike tours to tourist destinations in provinces near the capital to Co Loa Citadel in Ha Noi city’s Dong Anh District and Phat Tich Pagoda in Bac Ninh Province. On May 11, they will cycle to Tho Ha pottery village, which is located in Bac Giang Province, 50km from the capital city.

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Viet Nam needs better laws to protect rivers

Many rivers in Viet Nam are dirty with pollution.

It comes from factories, farms, homes and other places.

This problem could be controlled by the country having better laws to protect the rivers.

Experts decided at a special meeting that this was what should happen.

The pollution has mostly been caused by untreated wastewater discharged by households, industrial zones, hospitals, and craft village.
The pollution has mostly been caused by untreated wastewater discharged by households, industrial zones, hospitals, and craft village.

HA NOI (VNS) — Viet Nam needs to have a comprehensive, unified set of rules to control water pollution in the country, because the problem has assumed very serious proportions, experts and officials said at a workshop yesterday.

“We now have several regulations scattered over several legal documents,” said Pham Van Loi, head of the Institute of Science for Environmental Management.

This meant that efforts to control water pollution throughout the country had not been effective, Loi said.

Many localities hardly implemented existing regulations on controlling water pollution, he added.

He said concerned agencies should learn from the experiences of other countries before issuing effective regulations for managing water pollution in Viet Nam.

Loi also suggested the agencies learn experiences from foreign countries before issuing the set of rules on controlling water pollution.

Viet Nam is home to more than 2,300 rivers.

Le Hoang Anh, deputy head of the Centre for Environmental Monitoring said that surface water in rivers in the northern region was highly polluted.

She cited the Nhue and To Lich rivers as examples.

The pollution had mostly been caused by untreated wastewater discharged by households, industrial zones, hospitals, and craft villages, she said, adding the situation was almost the same in the southern region.

For instance, wastewater discharged from industrial zones had polluted long stretches of the Dong Nai River, Anh said.

In the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, wastewater from aquaculture and agricultural production had polluted local rivers, she added.

Anh suggested that authorised agencies in the northern region step up installation and operation of wastewater treatment systemsfor handling household waste in major cities like Ha Noi and Hai Phong, as well as provinces like Quang Ninh.

In the southern region, there was a need for greater focus on treating wastewater discharged by industrial zones, she said.

Mekong Delta authorities, meanwhile, should increase inspections of aquaculture farms as well as agricultural production processes that generate polluting waste, she added.

Loi said authorized agencies should be asked to ratify and apply international conventions on water pollution.

The two-day workshop was jointly organised by the Centre for Environment and Community Research, the Viet Nam Union of Scientific and Technology Associations and Coalition for Clean Water and OXFAM. — VNS

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For child sex abuse victims, the trauma lingers on

HA NOI (VNS) — It’s 5am and people are still sleeping, but Nguyen Thi Nga (not her real name) gets up and prepares lunch to take with her to work at a tailor’s shop in Ha Noi’s Quan Su Street. She has been employed there for nearly a year.

The work not only provides Nga, a 17-year-old girl from the northern province of Ha Nam, with income, but enables her to have a much more varied diet than the sweet potato and cassava she lived on in her hometown. It also helps her forget her sadness and the trauma of being one of Viet Nam’s growing number of child sex abuse victims.

Nga’s nightmare began two years ago when she was 15. Because the family was so poor, a woman in her village suggested that her mother let her go to Ha Noi to find a job.

“She promised my mother that by doing this, I could escape from my alcohol-addicted father, and earn some money to help her,” said Nga.

Her mother agreed and so Nga was taken to a hotel in suburb of Ha Noi. There she was introduced to a man who would be her boss.

“He gave me money, good meals, good accommodation and took me to buy new clothes. There was only one condition, I must do whatever I was told,” she said.

After a few days of such kindness, things changed in a frightening way. The man suddenly made it obvious what he was interested in and so, despite her protests, he raped her. A few days later, while Nga was still haunted by the experience, the man took her to a coffee shop he owned to work with other girls.

She was there for a few days and then, one afternoon, police suddenly raided the shop and arrested her boss for human trafficking. During the chaos she realised, for the first time, that she and some of the other girls in the coffee shop were about to be taken to China and sold.

Police took her to Peace House in Tay Ho District where she was given shelter and received vocational training as a seamstress. Women at the centre also helped her find a job as a tailor’s apprentice.

Nga did not tell her mother about the rape or the coffee shop incident, worried that her mother would feel stressed out.

Administrative reports from provincial labour departments show that about 1,000 young people, including toddlers, are sexually abused each year and over 63 per cent of victims are raped. However, these are only the reported figures. Social workers suspect the rate would be much higher if girls and other youngsters felt free to speak out.

The cities and provinces with most child sex-abuse cases are Ha Noi, HCM City, Ha Giang, Lao Cai and Long An. The children are abused in many ways, including being invited to watch films and through physical contact.

Dang Hoa Nam, deputy director of the Department of Child Care and Protection under the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, said that child sex abuse was an urgent problem.

“The tricks used to lure children are more and more sophisticated.”

Child sexual abusers often choose children who are obedient as they are less likely to resist.

Sex abuse, Nam said, can leave child victims with serious and long-term physical and psychological problems.

Nga said it was difficult for her to sleep at night because whenever she closed her eyes, the imagine of the man who raped her appeared.

“Many mornings, I wake up and find my pillow soaking wet with tears and my eyes swollen,” she said.

Molested children are also in danger of contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Nam said abused children often avoided telling their parents to protect family honour and prevent discrimination.

Even now, Nga rarely returns to her hometown to visit her mother. She’s afraid that someone will discover her secret and put her mother in great misery.

She only stays in her house for a day or two and then leaves. She looks down when passing a neighbour as she thinks it’s the best way to conceal her story.

Nam said that co-ordination between the various government departments, such as Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, Culture, Sports and Tourism, Health, Public Security would help prevent abuse. However, trying to help victims return to the community was difficult as they often wanted to hide their problems.

Much effort is now being devoted into helping victims of child sexual abuse. Peace House, which was founded in 2007 and run by the Viet Nam Women’s Union, is a safe shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence, sex abuse and human trafficking.

The house has helped over 3,000 people and provided accommodation for another 600 seeking refuge.

Child sexual abuse also involves tourists. This has resulted in a programme to prevent it as part of prevention efforts in Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand that was launched in 2012.

The programme, Project Childhood, was funded by the Australian Government via World Vision, UNODC and InterPol in Viet Nam. It is carried out in Ha Noi, the northern city of Hai Phong and HCM City.

Project Childhood co-ordinator Nguyen Khanh Hoi said that schools should hold early intervention programmes to protect children. Curricula should include lesson on awareness about sexual matters and protection from abuse.

The project has undertaken research in the community and in tourist areas to assess the situation. During the past two years, Project Childhood conducted a number of training courses for social workers in Ha Noi, Lao Cai, Thai Nguyen, Cao Bang, Khanh Hoa, An Giang and HCM City.

Vu Thi Thuy Hien, deputy head of the Children’s Division under the Yen Bai Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, who was attending a training course in Lao Cai, said it gave her an overview on the latent risks and ways to avoid them.

“As a mother, I’m worried that sexual abuse can hit any children, thus I usually talk to them about the problem,” said Hien.

Hien explained to her children the risks of child sexual abuse, especially on tourist trips, when going out with friends or making friends on the internet.

No case of child sexual abuse has been reported in Yen Bai so far, but Hien said Project Childhood was trying its best to protect children, especially the poor ones who were at high risk.

Hoi said at-risk children, their parents and other members of the public can call the Department of Child Care and Protection’s Child Helpline “Magic number” , free-of-charge, available 24/7 for advice and support on the problem.

With such helping hands, victims of child sex abuse like Nga can develop a new interest in life and return to more normal lives. — VNS

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Vietnam ranks 81st on global travel freedom index

Vietnam ranked 81 out of 219 countries and territories surveyed in a recent global visa restriction index prepared by the residence and citizenship planning adviser Henley & Partners.
Vietnamese citizens can travel to 45 countries and territories around the world without visas making it ninth out of the 10 ASEAN members.
Myanmar’s score was the lowest (with 40) and Singapore’s was the highest (with 167) followed by Malaysia and Brunei.
Dutch, English, and Swedish citizens are the most welcomed in the world, as they can travel to 173 countries and territories without a visa.
The passports of Denmark, Germany, Luxemburg and the US are the world’s second best with visa-free entry to 172 destinations.
Sixteen European countries rank among the top 20 of the list.
Citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq have the lowest free entry with 28 and 31 destinations, respectively.
Thanh Nien News

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