With the initial intention to work teaching English in Hanoi, I found myself free-pouring Lao whiskey into plastic buckets in a wooden makeshift bar.
Southeast Asia is by no means an undiscovered destination for young travellers, but my two-month trip there was one that could never have been planned, predicted, or even imagined.
Stepping off of the plane in Hanoi, I instantly felt how different it was to home: humidity, unlike anything Britain has ever known. With naturally curly hair I surrendered to the 24-hour top knot: Vietnam 1- 0 Sophia. The first thing we saw on the ride to our hostel was a man driving a motorbike with two baskets of live pigs stacked on top of each other nestled on the back. This sight, though surprising at first, became a regular feature of our time in the city. It is completely swarmed with motorbikes. Not just motorbikes, but whole families on them, women in heels and dresses perched elegantly, bikes that are taxis; motorbikes here were like Pokemon cards in the 90’s—inescapable. The traffic was something we had to get used to; there is a skill to crossing the road that encourages you to walk slowly and confidently into oncoming traffic. Seriously? This may sound mad, and it was, but the drivers swerve around you and everyone continues on their way without stopping or even slowing down.
Not only was the law of traffic bizarre, but the food was another amazement: who would have thought that people wake up to a bowl of beef and noodles for breakfast and not Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut? Pho Bo was the classic dish on the street, made up of tofu, beef, ginger and noodles—it was refreshing and delicious. We ate this every day, until one day we cracked and found a burger at the renowned Kangaroo Café. Eating street food was an unforgettable experience; at night time everyone is crouched on tiny plastic stools, your meal would cost the equivalent of £1, and the coolest drink on the street is fresh ‘Beer Hoi’ from a keg. My favourite memory has to be when we started talking to some Vietnamese men and taught them how to ‘cheers’—something they thought you had to do with every single sip.
T is for teaching
Having known some friends who had successfully moved to Hanoi and worked as English teachers, we thought it a feasible idea to go and try ourselves. It did not take long to realise that we had underestimated the time we needed to dedicate to the job, and with only two months to explore, it seemed a waste to spend it working. However, we had taken a rather optimistic amount of money to last us, and we knew it was not enough. We loved Hanoi, the manic winding streets of the Old Town, the sophisticated French Quarter, and the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake that offers a moment of peace in such a fast-moving city.
In search of employment
We turned our attention to our lack of money and thought of various ways to save while we were out there if earning were not an option. It may go without saying that the tubing river in Laos—rubber tyres and buckets galore—is quite infamous amongst travellers who have visited Southeast Asia. People had spoken of Vang Vieng and said that we could find unpaid bar work there in exchange for free meals and a discounted hotel room. Tubing to me sounded bizarre: a river running through a jungle with hordes of floating drunken tourists in tyres. This legendary bar crawl consists of wooden makeshift bars dotted down both sides of the Nam Song river, offering seaside-style buckets of whiskey and lemonade for next to nothing, along with games of beer pong, rope swings and constant music to dance to. We found ‘jobs’ on the first night and thus began what was to be three weeks of mayhem.
Working on the tubing river
Suddenly I felt like if I wasn’t wearing a bikini and tubing vest then I was hideously overdressed. Working on the river meant we met new travellers every day, each with another tale from afar, and were never short of hilarious stories and drinking games. The lifestyle was fun but tiring: not something I could have kept up with for long. Taking a step back from it all really shows how dangerous it was; there were no health and safety regulations on the river, and no one to keep an eye on intoxicated people in the water. Horror stories of drug-induced accidents haunted this strange town. Though I am lucky to have never witnessed any of them, with the combination of drinking, drugs and the river, it is not surprising that these things have happened there. Recent news has stated that the tubing river is now closed. I am glad to have experienced it but thankful that some law has been put in place to make it safer.
Beyond the booze
Tubing seemed to be the main source of tourism for Vang Vieng, but its closure should not put people off visiting this beautiful country. It is abundant in waterfalls and jungles, offering trekking, caving and kayaking. The capital, Vientiane, is a strangely serene place where you can visit some of the most stunning temples and religious relics whilst seeing masses of monks adorned in orange walking by. Laos may have lost its hedonistic appeal but is an unmissable spot for those who wish to experience the authentic natural beauty and history of Southeast Asia.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to work in Hanoi or Vang Vieng? Let us know in the comments below.