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Vang Vieng

Updated: Feb 22

Photo By: Sonia Azad
Lamar, Toph and I were split up on the train, and the only time I saw either again was when I said goodbye to Toph while exiting at my stop. 
Since I ran out of time earlier to book a hotel, I planned to connect to Wi-Fi and book something when I arrived in Vang Vieng. I know it seems crazy not to have a hotel booked upon arrival-- but I'm realizing that I'm not alone in this mad method. I met so many solo travelers in Asia who move in the same ways as I do. I've found my people!
I will say-- this instance was the closest I'd come to really not knowing what to do. (Although in retrospect, I would have taken a taxi to a café in the center of town with Wi-Fi access and figured it out there.)
The train didn't have Wi-Fi (or if it did, it wasn't connecting for me). Despite its modern exterior, the train station didn't have Wi-Fi either.
Photo By: Sonia Azad
There is, however, a Café Amazon inside the train station with Wi-Fi! But the train station and café were closed when we arrived.
I knocked on the window outside the café and mouthed to the Lao women behind the counter who were closing up, "Wi-Fi!" They shook their heads. I don't think they understood me. I sat on a bench.
They must have noticed a look of defeat on my face because moments later one of the ladies returned to the window and pressed a sheet of paper with their Wi-Fi info to the window. Saved! 
I connected to their Wi-Fi from outside the train station, booked a hotel and grabbed a Tuk Tuk straight there. 
I was really tired. Really, really tired. At this point, I just wanted hot showers, a comfortable bed, breakfast included, free Wi-Fi... and I got all of that and more! 
My room at the Confetti Garden Hotel had a terrace and was in direct view of a gigantic Buddha. Wow. There was also a view of the pool and the sweet front desk worker who carried my bags up for me said, "I hope you like Korean guys," pointing at the loud trio in the pool. "Just joking," he added.

I chucked because it was actually funny. Koreans are all over this place. Apparently there was a TV show that featured Vang Vieng and it blew up all over Korea, so ever since they've flocked here to vacation-- and to invest. The Chinese are also big investors here (no surprise) taking note of the potential of this place. I can't even imagine what Vang Vieng will look like in 5 or 10 years. 
I got restaurant recommendations from the front desk staff, but decided that I was too tired to go anywhere. I climbed the stairs to my quiet hotel rooftop, ate fried rice with eggs and a side of french fries and went straight to sleep. 
I woke up about 45 minutes later with a weird feeling. It was the fries-- or whatever oil it was fried in. I felt so sick. I threw up (once) and went back to sleep. It wasn't food poisoning or anything intense. It was quite uneventful. The only reason I'm adding this detail is because I've gotten so many food-related questions about this trip via Instagram.
I don't eat meat-- which helps me to avoid a lot of major tummy problems that some people find themselves battling during travel to parts of Asia, Africa and other developing regions. I generally avoid tap water and uncooked vegetables. While abroad, I only eat fruits with skin-- like bananas, mango, passion fruit, oranges, starfruit, pineapple, melons, etc (so that I can peel them). And, I typically don't eat dairy or gluten if I'm in a place that supports those choices... That doesn't leave much.
My body certainly isn't the same-- in shape, strength or sensation-- as when I arrived. I think some of the oils they cook with (soybean, and other seed oils) are really messing with me. Aside from some fresh fruits, I wasn't getting much fiber or protein. I was eating far differently than usual, and made an agreement with myself to just enjoy exploring cultural cuisine-- and deal with the rest when I return home.
There wasn't much time left on this 6-week journey, and I was starting to feel a tug of war between fatigue and my desire to explore. 
After a great breakfast where I interacted with a lovely Dutch woman in the coffee line, I booked a private day tour. Vang Vieng is a small town on the Nam Song River. It's surrounded by striking limestone mountains and caves. Tham Poukham is a cave I'd read about with a blue lagoon and reclining Buddha statue.

Photo By: Sonia Azad
The Tuk Tuk driver took me to that -- then two other blue lagoons and a major viewpoint in Vang Vieng -- all for $45. I know it's a lot (based on local standards) but it's the least I could give -- especially after traversing the bumpy dirt roads through villages to get to these gems. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
The day was sort of overcast-- which was fine. The lagoons were interesting cultural gathering spots for tourists. There is food, lounge chair rental, swings and slides... all centered around bright and beautiful natural springs. It was cool to observe. I liked Lagoon 2 best because it was smallest, most quiet and peaceful. I ate lunch at Blue Lagoon 3 (fried rice, again) and met a nice South Korean girl who was there by herself as well. The place was crowded and she asked if she could set her belongings down in a chair at my table while she went for a swim. Of course! I wandered around the lagoon area and cave site before heading out. The cave here seemed most precarious so I skipped it.

The last stop was the most breathtaking (literally and figuratively)! The hike to the top of Nam Xay was INSANE -- very steep and challenging especially for those not accustomed to hiking. But it culminates with the gorgeous quintessential backdrop of a motorbike, Lao flag and stunning countryside.
Photo By: Sonia Azad
My driver told me it would take about 20 minutes to reach the top. He failed to mention it was straight up muddy, no 'real' handrails and no safeguard. If you slip, you're screwed. If you fall, same. I passed an older couple from Canada on their way down as I was on the ascend. The woman said, "It's a difficult climb. Worth it, but definitely not easy." I saw so many older women: Thai, Korean, Japanese, all hiking up wearing socks and sandals. Sandals!! Like, slides. I was struggling with my Keen water shoes.
The pictures I was able to take on the way up give a pretty clear idea of how wild this was. At the top, a nice Japanese guy named Lon took some photos for me. He had hiked up with his mom. (Again, props to these spritely, healthy and nimble older Asian women... they are GOALS!) I walked around at the top to take in this breathtaking 360 degree view.

Photo By: Sonia Azad

On the opposite side of the photo op spot was an identical location! That's where I met Theo from Bali and Roberto from Italy. We talked about the hike up to this spot, took photos for each other and then decided we were ready to head down. Sunset was not far behind, so we had to act pretty fast. The guys were so nice-- making sure I was okay on the way down. They weren't overly doting. They respected my pace. But every once in a while, Roberto would yell back, "Sonia! Are you ok?" It was the perfect amount of generous for me. 
The three of us took a selfie at the bottom before the guys, both solo travelers, rode off together on Robi's scooter. My driver was waiting for me and I was SO GLAD. Just as we pulled out of the parking lot, it started to rain. Again, perfect timing. 
I had exchanged WhatsApp info with Theo and Robi and we made plans to meet up for dinner with a couple of their friends. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
We met at a place that was a 4-minute walk from my hotel, across a bridge, at a place recommended to me by the couple in Malta who I met in Vietnam. (That's one of the craziest sentences I've ever written.) 
The food was less than desirable, and I honestly felt bad for dragging this crew of very sweet guys there. 
But the conversation was LIFE GIVING! 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
Here I am with two Italians (one, a winemaker and another who has quit his job and is now a nomad of the most intense style), a guy from Bali, and one from Uruguay who lives in Spain. We talked about agriculture and geography, economics and culture. These guys were born in 1996-- and 1999 (the year I graduated high school). They had no idea how much older I was (until I told them). And while I sensed they were younger, it wasn't entirely based on immaturity.
This was the most stimulating conversation I'd had with a group of sober guys in a long time! I loved the blend of our cultures and the dynamics of our vibe. We ate and then moved on to a bar where two of the guys could order more food. 
We sat and enjoyed a Lao beer and some weird shots that the Australian bartender made for us. One of the Lao bartenders was celebrating an impending move to Thailand for work. It offered us a sweet moment of connection-- to understand why this move was so important to him, and what it could mean for his future.
The guys and I walked back to our hotels and they respectfully made sure I got back to my place okay. Refreshing. 
The next day would be my last in Vang Vieng. The guys were all leaving for either Luang Prabang or Vientiane in the morning.
When I woke up I thought about walking around the town, touring another cave and maybe kayaking down the river. Then at breakfast, a pivot! 
I overheard an older American woman behind me say that she was going to a yoga class. My ears perked up! Yoga!? Where? 
Shamefully, I turned and asked her. "Sorry, I don't mean to eavesdrop, but I heard you say you're going to a yoga class?" Tami couldn't have been nicer. The class was at 10am, and she invited me to go along to the only yoga studio in town. It happened to be a 5 minute walk from our hotel. Deal! 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
I told her I would see her there after dropping my laptop in my room. 
I was slightly detoured by a really cool couple from the U.K. who happened to be staying next door to me. I swear, all it takes out here is for me to tell someone, "I love your pants!" and several minutes later, we're exchanging WhatsApp and Instagram info. It's literally the best. 
Truly I could've talked to this couple for ages-- but I had to go! They seemed a bit older than me but really chill. The woman, Fi, told me they plan to move to Costa Rica soon. 
The yoga class was good. I thought I was walking into a yin class-- but it was Yang/ Yin. Fine. I needed it. My body feels so tight. My tissues feel constricted, dry, sad. It was nice to move, and nice to have a good teacher leading the way. Jeff is an Ashtanga practitioner -- that was evident to me within about 2 minutes. His class was good- I appreciated a nice sweat and stretch, and his assists were delightful and so appreciated. Gentle-- but firm and effective. 
After class, we talked about teaching yoga in international communities and I learned a lot from him! He described how he and his partner and their 4-year-old are living a semi-nomadic life and loving it.
Again, these are my people!! 
Jeff told me I should enjoy the day-pass access to the pool at this resort where the yoga class was held.
The view was phenomenal! I walked back to my hotel to check out of my room, store my luggage and get an iced coffee. Why rush around to caves and kayaks...?! I didn't really want to do any of that stuff. I would be forcing it.
What I wanted-- was a pool day. As I walked toward the hotel, two guys walking in the opposite direction spoke to me in French. I responded-- then they asked where I'm from. America. They switched to English. Ha!
One guy was from Morocco and the other from the U.K. We had a really stimulating chat about energy, synchronicity and how small the world actually is -- before snapping a selfie, exchanging Instagrams and moving forward. 
I went back to the resort for the pool and saw the same Canadian couple from the hike! The woman and I talked for a long time. Shawn is delightful. She and her husband were puppeteers before selling their business, retiring and traveling the world. I love her vibe. She reminds me of Jessi (one of my favorite yoga teachers and humans in Dallas). She has wild gray hair that was pulled up, and she has an elegance and grace about her that is so chill and inviting. We talked about Iyengar yoga and her upcoming travels to Vietnam and New Zealand (!!) and I promised to send her information on both via email. We really got off on the topic of yoga as it relates to healing (physically, emotionally and energetically) for women over 50. 
The irony is-- the North Carolina based woman who got me to the yoga class, Tami (from Tami's Great Adventure) was also at the pool-- and over 50. She and her college bestie from Boone, NC are traveling together across the world many years later. How wonderful!
Before leaving the pool area, I walked around saying goodbyes to all of my new friends, promising to connect again soon. The yoga teacher, Jeff, was also there with his son. He was reading a book to the child after meticulously applying sunscreen all over his tiny body. The sight of a present father in such a relaxed environment was endearing. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
I made a quick pit stop to a street food stand for a sub-par Nutella crepe. (I had one in Thailand last year that I still dream about.) This one wasn't as good-- but it was $1.25 and the woman allowed me to film her making the snack from scratch. 
My hotel in Vang Vieng was honestly pretty great. It might be the best place I've stayed since Hanoi in terms of helpful and friendly service, breakfast, comfort and cleanliness. They arranged a shared taxi for me to the train station. I quickly changed out of my swimsuit and into travel clothes in the lobby-area bathroom. When I climbed into the cab, I recognized the two guys who were sitting inside! I'd briefly encountered them the day before at one of the lagoons while contemplating whether or not to enter the precarious cave. (Again, I did not.)
Yesterday's interaction wasn't a long conversation, but now we had a whole taxi and train adventure to a new city so right away, this meant we were friends. They're from Poland. One of the guys is a public defender and speaks English. His friend doesn't speak English but understands a little bit and is so kind. These guys helped me to carry my bags into the train station and are very caretaking people. Irek, the public defender, is an organizer, planner, taxi negotiator, and translator/ interpreter for his friend. Poor thing - he's exhausted. It takes a lot of energy to speak in a foreign language all day long. They were on a two-week whirlwind trip to Asia and were moving fast to see and do all the things. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
I got a WhatsApp message from my South Korean friend, Yeonsil, who I met at Blue Lagoon 3 the day before as well. She's at the train station, too! We're all heading to Luang Prabang!
Yeonsil is a 31-year-old polite, quiet, mild-mannered total badass! She's trekked through parts of Mongolia by herself-- and Hong Kong-- and now Laos. She really wants to be a YouTube star/ travel blogger. She films all of her experiences-- including eating, moving through streets, getting on and off the train. I love it! She and I really vibed on this part of the experience. The four of us became a pack as we headed to Luang Prabang via the fast train. 
They all have huge backpacks... I'm rolling luggage. LOL!
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