What I learnt in Vietnam and Laos


Taylor Russo – Henley High School

On November 25th, I waited at the Adelaide airport to depart on an epic adventure from Vietnam to Laos. The plane rides were long and exciting as we discussed what may be awaiting us when we finally got off the final plane from Bangkok, Thailand to Hanoi, Vietnam. When we arrived, our expedition leader Ian Knott was waiting for us with a grin, awaiting his team of Australian kids. Although we had gone over the trip a million times, we had no idea exactly how these experiences would affect us for the rest of our lives. The journey ahead seemed both daunting and exhilarating though we did not realise exactly how so these next 30 days would be.

We travelled through a thick jungle of constant traffic from the airport to our bus, watching in awe at the difference of the roads and traffic between the local’s home and ours. With our bags weighing us down, we finally made it to our bus and packed our bags on board and departed, beginning our journey. We arrived with team 1 but we parted ways as we left for our first hotel. Our team – team 2 – arrived at the Indochina Queen II hotel and immediately sorted our rooms and dumped our bags in them. Then we met and decided on a mechanism where a new person would be the team leader of the group each day and decided to head out and explore that night as it was our first night in Hanoi during our acclimatisation stage. We walked through the night markets and indulged in delicious street food and it was a great way to kick off the first night of the expedition.

The acclimatisation stage basically consisted of exploring Hanoi and travelling around to as many tourist places as we could, whilst enjoying the scenery. We went to the night markets every night and had a lot of street food and traditional food from the restaurants that we scouted out. We bought some small souvenirs and visited temples and lakes and architectural wonders.

After some relaxing nights in Hanoi, we packed our bags and prepared for our first trek.  Our guide, Quyen met us at our hotel the night before and told us what would be awaiting us on the trek and what time we would have to be on the bus with him to arrive in Mau Chau. The bus ride there was four long hours and the most of us slept on the bus. Once we finally arrived in Mau Chau, a delicious, colourful meal was waiting for us, freshly prepared by the wonderful locals. We devoured the food after the long bus ride there and then sorted out our bags as there was a slight confusion as to what to bring and what not to bring. After everything was all sorted out, we departed for our trek, taking the bus for another long hour or so. We arrived up in the mountains by a road which was where we were to begin the journey to our first village and homestay. We trekked the long hours of the day, stopping for short breaks and to take photos. The road led to a path up a rocky, green, steep incline which took a lot of effort and team work which then led to another road and a lot of uphill paths. By the end of the first day, our legs were sore and our clothes were drenched with sweat. We reached our homestay and thankfully our homestays were so lovely and had laid out a place for us all to sleep. We crashed immediately, talking, bonding and relaxing getting up only for the wonderful dinner that was prepared for us.

The next morning, the homestays had prepared a lovely breakfast for us with some good old Australian Milo which made us all feel very much at home. We thanked the homestays and went on to complete the rest of our trek. All of our homestays were lovely people who had gone to so much effort to lay out mattresses and mosquito nets for us and had prepared and cooked great meals which left us always feeling very full and happy. On the final day of the trek, we arrived back where we had started in Mau Chau before we left to begin the trek and travelled around the village, shopping at the markets and testing our bartering skills. One girl from our team was especially good at bartering as she was great at acting and using as much sass as possible. Then, we gathered our things and got on another bus and travelled back to Hanoi.

Once we arrived back to what felt like home after the long trek, we thanked our guide Quyen for his kindness and helpfulness and continued on our way. We travelled to our next hotel which was the Rising Dragon Hotel. It was lovely with luxury rooms, free tea and coffee (which we devoured with a good amount of condensed milk) and very kind staff.

The next stage of our trip was rest and relaxation. We had a new guide who’s name escapes me and she met us on the bus to Ha Long Bay which was where we would be spending our first stage of rest and relaxation. We stayed at a huge resort with many villas and a pool. The main entrance was grand, with a piano in the corner and a pool through the glass doors at the back. Unfortunately the electricity wasn’t working for the first four hours and there was a lot of construction work going on. The private beach was also closed which made a lot of the things we were looking forward to doing, not possible. However we made the most of the pool and I thoroughly enjoyed playing the unused piano there whilst my team mates listened to the music as they swam in the clear, blue water. We went out for dinner and visited the night markets the first night there. Then we all travelled back to our luxury villas for a good nights’ sleep. The next morning was unfortunately our last morning at the resort and we helped ourselves at the breakfast buffet that awaited us on the second level of the main building. The first rest and relaxation stage didn’t last very long unfortunately but it was good while it lasted.

We then moved on to our second trek. There was a lot of stopping over at small places every now and then but eventually we made it to the Mountain View Hotel in Sapa where we were immediately swarmed by locals trying to sell their items in the baskets that they carried on their backs. Exhausted from the constant travel, we were eager for the nice rooms and hot showers and warm food. We devoured our lunch as soon as we arrived there and then set out exploring the town and the markets. A fog had settled down throughout Sapa so we couldn’t see much and during the day we definitely didn’t see the amazing views that we were supposed to see from the Mountain View Hotel. We made the most of the hot water and warm beds the night before we departed for our trek. Once we began, the weather turned against us. It was pouring down constantly, making the muddy ground, even muddier. It was near impossible to climb down the paths without falling, let alone slipping. Luckily the ladies from the village had come to help us down the paths. For some of us, they made a big difference and were a huge help. For others (like me for example), no matter how much they tried, they ended up getting pulled down the paths with the clumsy teens. I fell over so many times that I lost count. By the end of the first day, our clothes were so incredibly muddy and there was a thick layer of mud covering the bottom halves of our pants. We were so concentrated on trying to not slip (unsuccessfully for me) that we didn’t realise how far we had travelled and how difficult the terrain had been. Perhaps it was a good thing that it was so wet with mud because it distracted us from the difficulty of the terrain and paths we had travelled.

The next morning, we awoke to the sweet smell of pancakes and bananas. It was a good breakfast for the day ahead. We had had a taste of what we were about to endure the day before and mentally prepared ourselves for the road ahead. We packed our things, took some photos with our host family and began yet again on the wet and muddy road. I slipped and fell more times than I can comprehend that day. The heavy curtain of white fog had really settled in by now and we could barely see ten metres ahead of us. Although we missed the amazing views that team 1 had seen we still had an amazing time on that trek, enjoying the views that we did have on the valleys below. We had a picnic lunch on a hillside overlooking a green valley and that was a moment I will never forget; the scent of the plants, the view of the valley and the sound of nature. We had ten minutes of silence while we took in the view and rested up. A team mate got sick during this trek unfortunately so the next morning at our home stay, we had to split up so that she could travel safely to the next destination in a taxi while the rest of us had to spend the day trekking there.

We overcame the few bumps in the road that we had during that trek and really bonded as a team; the girl who had gotten sick, got better quickly and rested up so she was ready to join us on the trek the next day. We finished the trek with achy legs and sore feet but when we finally saw the bus that was to take us back home-or back to the hotel that is- we were overjoyed. We went back to the Mountain View Hotel and spoiled ourselves with long hot showers, restaurant food and foot massages to relax fully after the long hard days of trekking and slipping through mud.

The next few days consisted of relaxing and then travelling towards the border between Vietnam and Laos. We made many stops at a few places on the way and spent two days travelling in a bus for around seven or eight hours, or more. We crossed the border and begun our journey of Laos.

Laos was amazing. The weather, the locals and even the traffic was (in my opinion) even better than it was in Vietnam. We arrived at our guest house and spent a night or two acclimatizing to our surroundings. Laos had a lot of tourists and they were all so lovely. The locals were very kind to us and a lot easier to barter with. The night markets were the most amazing night markets I had ever seen; the brilliant colours, the sound of the rush of people, the cool night breeze on your skin all added to the magic of the markets.

We soon left for our project. We got there via bus and once we arrived, we were welcomed immediately. The chief thanked us for coming and welcomed us with open arms. Our translator helped us to understand everything that was going on around us and we all adjusted well to the village. We stayed in the main hall of the village with nothing but sheets to use as the walls, so they obviously weren’t very sound proof. We were excited to get started as this meant that we could finally use more of what we had packed and actually take out our sleeping mats. We spent our days in the village helping them fix their water filtration system, digging trenches to place their pipes, and helping them mix cement to create a lidTRusso02 for the tank further up in the mountains that collected their water. We also spent some time teaching in the school and bonding with the children of the village. Every day and night we spent with the kids, playing with them and watching them goof around. They were adorable and hilarious and I think we can all agree that we will never forget their smiles, their laughs or the way they joked around and danced. They were unforgettable. On the last night in the village, we knew that we would be heading back to Luang Prabang and then that would be it. We would then spend our time travelling to Vientiane only stopping at places to stay the night and then once we arrived there, we would be travelling to the airport and would be going home. It was a lot of a wakeup call, our last night in the village. We realised that everything had begun going by so fast and we didn’t want it to end. However, with that sad realisation we awoke the next morning, packed our bags, and headed to the closing ceremony that the villagers had prepared for us. We all sat around a tall, extravagant shrine with foreign foods and leaves arranged on it. There were candles on the shrine too and the three chiefs were there, along with most of the adults in the village. They all began chanting in their language and wrapping string around our wrists as they did so. It took about ten to fifteen minutes maybe for every person there to wrap a piece of string around each wrist whilst chanting. Then, we were all handed food from the shrine. There were rice desserts wrapped in leaves, sweet bananas, strange yet sweet cakes and prawn crackers of many bold colours handed out to all of us and when we turned around, every student from the local school that we had taught came to us and handed us each a bouquet of flowers. We thanked them and gave the children and the chief our gifts to the village and they returned the favour with a certificate thanking us for what we had done over the few days we were there and then we sadly parted ways. We donated 900 dollars to them to help them finish their water filtration system. The project was I think one of the most moving stages of the challenge and is definitely one that I will never forget.

After we arrived back in Luang Prabang, we made the most of our time there by sightseeing and exploring but all of it was done with a slight sad air about it as we knew the trip was coming to an end. Whilst we were overjoyed to be going home to our own bedrooms and warm showers every night, we were a little disappointed that the trip was going to come to an end so quickly. However we still mad the most of the markets every night and the delicious foods and drinks and then departed on the bus that was to take us to our final stop. We stopped over at Vang Vieng on the way to Vientiane and then continued on our way. We passed the airport that we would be departing from on the way to our stop which was like being hit by a huge horrible wave of realization that this was it, this was our last stop.  We placed our bags on the side of the road, leaving two people to look after them while the rest of us split up and scouted out hotels and guesthouses. We ended up staying in a nice hotel for the two nights that we were in Vientiane and on the final night we splurged with our left over money at Swenwens, a delicious dessert bar and then on the day we departed, we sadly left our guesthouse, but not before stopping at the Dairy Queen that we found there.

The next two nights were spent on a plane. We travelled from Vientiane, Laos to Bangkok, Thailand to Melbourne, Australia and then back home again in Adelaide, safe and sound. Even then I couldn’t believe that it had all ended. I think I speak for all of us when I say that I had mixed feelings about being back home. I was glad to finally be able to enjoy the comfort of home but I would miss the exhilaration of travelling every day and walking everywhere. I didn’t realise how much I would miss the late night talks and all the friends I had made, or the long hard treks that reduced some of us to tears, or the constant jumping from house to house, never staying anywhere too long. All of it hit me at once. As I walked up the platform from the plane to the inside of the airport, and my brother wrapped his little arms around me, I realised how much I had missed him but then I also realised how much I would miss everything else that I had endured for the past 30 days.

I have learnt that although some of us may think that we have nothing, or next to nothing, I have seen firsthand these people that actually do have almost notTRusso03hing. However there is a difference. While we may complain about not always having the amount of money that we want, or the house that we want, they have so much more to complain about. But they are happier and they make do with what they do have. They are happy with what is really important and they share their love and generosity around openly. We need to appreciate what we do have more and complain less about what we don’t have because these humble people that I have met have shown me the real meaning of appreciation. And this doesn’t apply to only me or you. It applies to all of us. We all need to be more appreciate with what we have and focus less on taking but more on giving.

The world will never change. We all know that. The perfect image of the world is one where everything is fair. No one starves, no one suffers and no one is lost or sad. But the world is not that way. Nor will it ever be. But if we all do our part in trying to live better, share our love around and try to treat everyone equally, perhaps we can take a step forward and make a difference.