While we were on our 24 day adventure, we didn’t find many other Asian backpackers. Backpacking in SEA, or what is known as the Banana Pancake trail is easier than one thinks.
We decided to start in Hanoi, and end in Bangkok (Reason: Most shopping will be done in Thailand).
I’ll be covering where we went, giving any potential backpacker out there an overview on overland transport, border crossings, accommodation and what we did in each of the 9 places we went to, which included Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, Sapa, Mung Khua, Nong Khiaw, Luang Prabang, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Bangkok (in this order).
If you’re lazy to read through my blabbering look for the bolded texts, and the transport guide at the end of the post.
Gorgeous photography by Dawn, who was holding on to her DSLR even while climbing limestone karsts. Bad pictures by me, who survived on an iPhone which had half the LCD spoilt the entire trip. (Same limestone karsts).
For Hanoi, think Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. A hostel/ guest room around these area will serve you well. Most places/ attractions can be reached by foot.
The main highlight of Hanoi for us was the pedestrianisation of the area around the lake from Fridays to Saturdays. No more crazy traffic. There were many street performers and community activities – the locals were engaged in games like dog and bone and tug of war on the streets! The lake area is also beautifully lit up.
The cafe culture in Hanoi is also not to be missed. Our favourite was The Notes Cafe.
Cat Ba Island
Instead of doing a day tour to Halong Bay, we decided to stay a few days on the island which also features similar limestone karst scenery. To get to Cat Ba Island, we spent 170,000 VND for a bus by Hoang Long Bus Company. The trip took around 4 hours, with a bus to Haiphong, then boat transfer to the island before another bus to Cat Ba Town from the port.
It’s hard to get lost on the island – Cat Ba Town (the touristy part, not where the locals live) is mainly a long stretch of restaurants, shops and accommodation lining the beach.
Our favourite cafe (which we went to every day, sometimes more than once) is the charming Like Coffee, with a very kind owner. Food-wise, Cat Ba Commons serve pretty dope fried rice.
Boat tours to see the bay can be found all over the island, but they are mostly the same. We booked our tour with our guest house Cat Ba Hostel for $17SGD, which is quite a steal. The tour included a hike on Monkey Island (no safety precautions, attempt at your own risk), one-hour kayaking around the karats, snorkelling and a very delightful lunch. The scenery itself would have been worth it!
We also did a tour to Cat Ba National Park and Hospital Cave with the guesthouse (though we would recommend you hire a motorbike driver to get you to those places instead to save money – we had to catch a bus so didn’t want to risk it). The former is a challenging but short 1-hour hike to the peak with rewarding views. The latter is an small but interesting cave (it was used as a hospital during the Vietnam war) with a guide that has his lines memorised very, very well.
We would also recommend Cat Ba Hostel for its cheap $7.50SGD tidy, spacious double room and friendly owner.
Unfortunately, we found Sapa very touristy. The constant clamouring by the hill tribe villagers starting with the similarly voiced “Where you from?” made for quite an uncomfortable stay. Nonetheless, the views were not too bad, from Sapa Lake in the wee morning, to the waterfalls at Cat Cat Island and of course, the famous rice fields.
To get to Sapa, we booked a 380,000 VND trip from Cat Ba, which included transport to Hanoi before a sleeper bus to Sapa, which was very comfortable despite the weird neon lights.
Sapa town is again, very small and very walkable. Use Sapa Lake and the Church as a way to orientate yourself – it is near impossible to get lost.
The hike to Cat Cat Village (50,000 VND entrance fee) is easy and takes less than 4 hours (expect some incline though). It does however, feel rather artificial. Nonetheless, there are some nice views along the way. We booked a Bac Ha market tour for 12 USD, which also brought us to the Lao Cai – China border, and the Ban Pho village.
We also booked a homestay in Hau Thao Village via AirBNB, called Zizi Homestay. The village is very small and simple, just what we liked. We also met fellow travelers there. It kept raining though, but we did manage to do a small hike to the top of the hill, and a short one to Ta Van village on the other side of the valley.
We stayed at Sapa Stunning View 2 Hotel, which was basically a 3 star hotel, with warm showers, nice beds and good view of the mountains ($20SGD per night).
Mung Khua is a village with practically just two main streets. It is really just a transit town for one to ease into the laid back vibes of Laos and do the five hour river boat ride down the Nam Ou, which is what we did.
We asked a couple of tour agencies to get a sense of the price for the bus to Mung Khua – the cheapest we found was 400,000 VND. This bus ride will not be comfortable. It is overbooked and there will be many locals squeezed onto the bus, the bus drivers will blast music, it will be chaotic.
At Mung Khua, we recommend Saibaidee Bar, a delightful cafe run by a French-Lao couple (try their grilled pork and eggplant with sticky rice, but stay away from their fried rice). It is one of our favourite cafes for its laid-back ness. We even met the boatmen at the bar, who was very interested in Singapore, so say hello to him if you meet him there too!
The lonely planet recommended Saifon Restaurant seems to only serve rich tourists – they were reluctant to take our orders twice!
We stayed at Nam Ou River Guesthouse for 50,000 kip. It was basic and quite dodgy, but it did have comfortable beds. We heard better things about other guest houses though (such as them including wifi), so ask around.
Mung Khua is so tiny you will end up meeting the other tourists/ backpackers who will join you for the five hour boat ride, so ask around and chances are there will be enough of you for the boat ride. Turn up before 9am and get a ticket for 135,000 kip, and wait around for another hour before the boat leaves.
The five hour will make your butt hurt, but it is great change of pace from the bus rides and human jams. The boat ride is on a typical Laos long-tail, which is not very comfortable. The view gets better towards the end, where you get to see large limestone karsts.
If you do not make this boat trip, we would still recommend staying at Nong Khiaw (instead of taking the vastly overpriced bus from Sapa to Luang Prabang). Ask a local where to catch the bus to Nong Khiaw.
Nong Khiaw is similar to Cat Ba. Quite tourist-centered, but dotted with local cafes and guesthouses which makes it quite enjoyable. It is small enough to walk around. There are two main parts to the town connected by a beautiful bridge with wonderful views of the Nam Ou.
We recommend you check out the local morning market west of the river, which is near Alex 2 Restaurant, a nicely decorated cafe. There is a very tiny cave 3-4km away, east of the river, which you can either cycle or walk to. Go into the cave with a large staircase, avoid the other where you will likely be scammed by 2 young girls (up to 40,000 kip) (Yes my friend got scammed).
Walking/ cycling will take you through several villages as well. Expect some curious stares because they aren’t that used to tourists yet!
We tried several restaurants/cafes, and we would recommend Alex Restaurant, with its homey vibes and moms-cooking like dishes. We also enjoyed our food at VongMany Restaurant.
We would skip CT Restaurant, again lonely-planet recommended, for its overpriced, meh food. The backpackers hub will be Delilahs, but we didn’t enjoy it too much either.
Best wifi was at Riverside Lodge. It may look posh, but the food is only slightly more pricey. Expect great service, great views by the river and the best possible wifi in Nong Khiaw. The security guard is very, very friendly – say hi to him too!
Luang Prabang is quite a classy tourist destination. As comfortable as any city, but as laid back as any Laos place – perfect for holiday!
To get to Luang Prabang, walk to the bus station west of the river (past the morning market) and get a ticket for 37,000 – 55, 000 kip (depending on comfort and timing). Buses run from morning to afternoon.
When you get to Luang Prabang after 3-4 hours in an overpacked mini van, get your ticket to Houy Xai immediately (it is Bokeo on the board). You should arrive at the Northern Bus Terminal. We were too shook when we arrived – it was in the middle of the day, super hot, super dusty – and ended up paying 40,000 kip more for the ticket from a company in the city. Arrange your own songthaew (mini-van) to the bus terminal to save the money.
There are so many cafes in Luang Prabang. We would recommend splurging a little at [chocolate croissant] place for the French Vibes. For good wifi try Indigo Cafe (pricey food, but you can always get some of the more affordable pastries). We also tried [expensive cafe] which was again pricier, but was pretty empty and quiet with good wifi to boot. Croissant d’or was not too bad either. My friend liked Coconut Luang Prabang for its drinks and wifi. We enjoyed Poko Loco for its unique garden setting, but it is definitely quite pricey too.
We didn’t try the night market buffet, but hygiene is a little questionable. We did try the crepes stand, and they weren’t great but they were just fun to try. A must eat would be the coconut pancakes at the night market – so delicious!
The main attraction of Luang Prabang is definitely the night market. The goods are unique compared to those in Thailand, and the sellers are so chill it’s not stressful to look around at all.
People usually visit Kuang Si and Pak Ou Caves, but we were too stingy and tired (transportation would cost up to 50,000 kip and take some time). Instead, I crossed the Bamboo Bridge (5,000 kip ticket) to the less bustling side of Luang Prabang and visited some wats. We also observed the morning alms ceremony, which was a nice quiet affair although we did see some tourists who posed as they participated in the ceremony, which I didn’t really agree with. You can also climb Mt Oudang very easily, but we are not sure if the view will be very rewarding.
We stayed at Heritage Guesthouse (200,000 kip/day), which was a little old as well. But accommodation seems to be lacking in Luang Prabang, and prices were very high for the backpacker, so that was the best we could find.
Chiang Rai is another charming little town with nice cafes and local street life.
Bus to Chiang Khong for the border crossing is another half-nightmare. The bus is again overpacked, with stools lining middle part of the bus. Music was again blasting. The roads are not too paved either. You will be dropped at a bus terminal. Try to make some friends – helpful for arranging a tuk tuk to the border. Opt for the later, pricier 7pm bus. We arrived too early and froze in the cold for 1 plus hour before the border opens.
The border opens at 7am, but they will charge you a ridiculous overtime fee, so wait till 8am! From there you can take a 24 baht bus across the border, get your passport chopped and take a 40 baht bus into Chiang Khong. From Chiang Khong we just walked aimlessly till we found a nice restaurant run by a super nice lady, who helped us flag down the bus to Chiang Rai, which cost us 35 baht.
Chiang Rai doesn’t have any high rise buidlings, but you start to see chains like Watsons and The Pizza Company. We stayed at the marvellous Orchid Guesthouse, with aircon, strong wifi and wonderful bathroom ($20 a night).
The night bazaar is worth a visit, though if you walk further away from the main tourist street you will find the local night market, which has more food. We found the choices lesser than that in Chiangmai, but the prices were cheaper too (100 baht for 4 pairs of socks!)
At Chiang Rai we cycled to White Temple, which took about 3 hours one way. The temple is impressive, but doesn’t take much time to cover. Spend some time in the artist’s gallery huddled near the temple though, it is worth a tour.
Chiang Mai is like an upsized Chiang Rai. It’s growing as a tourist destination, but you wouldn’t find that many international chains away from the Chiang Mai night market.
We took a bus from the bus terminal for 429 baht, which took 4 hours. Chiang Mai is definitely much bigger than Chiang Rai, but still walkable. Plus, It is easy to navigate as well, with the city gate boxing up the main tourist area. I spent most of my time just walking and exploring, and even wandered to the ‘wet market’ where the locals go to.
I did a simple walk from the Phrae Gate to Wat Chedi Luang, passing by the Architecture Museum before reaching Wat Suan Dok for really delicious food at Pun Pun Organic. All you need to do it walk the main Ramchedron Street. I also passed by The Workshop, which is a beautiful cafe and cat house. All drinks are 65 baht and you get to play with the cats!
The wats are usually quite packed with tourists though, so I would recommend getting templed out in Laos instead.
My friend did a cafe hopping tour, and loved Graph Table. We also had good food at Diamond Cafe, though it was quite packed. Our favourites for food will however be the Salad Concept., with Cedele-like food but supersized and much cheaper. 69 baht for a giant salad with 5 toppings, and only 6 baht per extra topping. They also have plugs and wifi. Win.
The Chiang Mai night market was also thoroughly fun to explore. The goods are no longer too touristy which is good in a way. We did buy some fruit soap, which smell amazing and look adorable. We recommend trying the Bingsu near Hard Rock cafe.
There is also Pasa-Bellar like food market at the night market area, with food stalls and hipster seating, and a live-band. The food we tried didn’t impress us, but the grilled seafood looked enticing.
Do also check out the Warorod Market in the morning to pick up some food souvenirs. Very busy with some local vibes! I managed to snag some 70 baht hair dye from here, which actually worked very well.
We stayed at Chiang Mai Inn Guesthouse (250 baht a night for a double room), which was honestly quite old and unimpressive. But the staff is nice and responsible, and the location was right outside the Phrae Gate, which is quiet yet near to the major attractions.
We didn’t spend much time in Bangkok. Again we booked our tickets when we arrived at the bus terminal, for 488 baht. It took around 10 hours because of a massive jam in Bangkok. From there, we took the city bus to Mo Chit BTS to avoid the expensive tuktuks/ taxis (follow the signs, or see where others are walking), and went to Central World Mall via BTS.
We used the Aero-Link to get to the airport, where we slept overnight before catching our flight back to Singapore.
So yes, that’s it! If you are interested to find out more about the transport details, I’ve done a transport + border crossing guide in a google docs file accessible by this link.
- Factor in fact that bus stations are usually not too close to where you stay aka central parts of each place. This is why I recommend buying tickets for the next destination once you reach a particular place. This also means you may need to get a tuk-tuk into town/ walk for some distances.
- Safety: We didn’t worry too much about human trafficking – though I heard stories of that for the Cambodia / Vietnam Border
- The table above doesn’t include crossing borders
- Factor in the timings too: buses in Thailand and Vietnam tend to have more timings compared to buses in Laos. The buses we took in Laos were also public buses, compared to the ones run by tour companies in Thailand and Vietnam.