Over the summer, I had the amazing opportunity to take part in the World Challenge expedition to Vietnam and Laos. My team was a mix of year 11 and 12 students, with 13 girls and one very lucky boy. Prior to the trip, none of us knew each other very well; however this swiftly changed as soon as we departed on a tedious 8 hour flight, with only each other for company.
Once we had finally arrived in Bangkok, we quickly got to the hostel, dumped our bags, and began to explore the lively city. It only took a five minute walk down the street to see things ranging from barbecued spiders to beautiful hand-stitched clothing. We decided to settle in a busy restaurant with upbeat, local music and an incredible view of the city at night. We took this opportunity to try some local food whilst admiring the string of neon lights that were suspended above the whole street. Here, we had the chance to chat about the trip ahead of us and assign people to different teams: accommodation, finance, food, travel and extra activities. Although our travel and accommodation had been pre-booked for our first few nights, it wasn’t always going to be like that… The next morning we took another flight from Thailand to Vietnam, to eventually arrive in the city of Hoi An, where we would spend the next three nights. In my opinion, this was the best city of the whole trip. It was an area brimming with culture but maintaining a relaxed energy. We were amazed by its stunning markets and quaint temples, whilst also having the chance to take a night boat ride along the river, surrounded by glowing lanterns.
Our next destination was Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. To get there, we took the overnight train, which was something I had never experienced before. As you walked down the train there were cabins with six beds in each compartment, three stacked up on each other. The next 24 hours went surprisingly quickly while we admired the Vietnamese countryside and talked to locals in the cabins next to us.
Our first day in Hanoi was exciting but hectic. This was the first day where we had to find our own accommodation and travel, which was a lot harder than expected. Despite this, we managed to find an amazing hotel to stay in, within budget, and began exploring the city. After walking, for what felt like miles, we finally found the perfect place to eat: a little restaurant right at the top of a high rise building, which had a stunning view of the whole of Hanoi. This was a lovely way to spend our last night before the trek.
The next morning, thankfully, the coach we had booked turned up and we started our journey to Quynh Son. The next three nights were a shock, but in a good way. The trek was very challenging, especially in 38 degree heat, whilst carrying a rucksack containing a lot of unnecessary kit. Despite this physical challenge, our team managed to keep up morale as we enjoyed many breath-taking views of mountainous peaks, sprawling rice fields and sweeping valleys. One of the best bits of the trek was the home stays. This was where we stayed in houses in small villages with local families. It was amazing to talk to the villagers about their daily lives and to bond with the families. By living like the locals in these villages, it allowed us to fully immerse ourselves in their culture. After a very tiring few nights, we finally got back to Hanoi to relax and discover more of the city. Additionally we booked a trip to Halong Bay, a beautiful natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we spent the day on our own boat, admiring the amazing caves and beaches.
Our next stage was a three day journey to Luang Prabang, Laos. On the second day of the journey, we celebrated one of our team member’s birthday with a karaoke night. The whole team, including the leaders, came together and performed songs for the whole evening.
Once arriving in Luang Prabang, we didn’t waste any time before we were out exploring their renowned night market. It definitely lived up to our expectations and possibly exceeded them. The food was incredible, with barbeques to buffets to smoothies to waffles; everything you could imagine. The markets are where we spent most of our evenings, after working at the bear sanctuary. Our community phase in Luang Prabang, was based at a bear sanctuary with the charity Free the Bears. In Laos there is a huge problem with people capturing bears and using them to extract their bile, which is used as a medical remedy. The charity takes in these bears and looks after them until they are ready to go back into the wild. We helped by cleaning out the cages, feeding the bears and even building a wall for a new enclosure. It was amazing to see the work they had done for the bears and that they were expanding their sanctuary to take in other animals, like monkeys or red pandas, which are also in danger. Additionally we visited another bear sanctuary at Kuang Si Waterfalls, and had the chance to swim in the beautiful waterfalls.
As we were coming towards the end of our trip, we went on trek in Luang Namtha. Using our previous experience, we packed at lot more lightly and were much more prepared. This trek was a lot cooler, as it was mainly based in the jungle and rice fields. We visited another village called Nam Ha Village and stayed with members of the Khmu tribe. We spent most of the second day with all the families and played games with the children. In the evening we were treated to a dance show put on by the locals and we even joined in towards the end!
To end our trip, we went to the Manda Lao Elephant Sanctuary, which also focused on taking care of animals. This was an insane experience to get so close to the elephants, stroking and feeding them all together, whilst knowing they were being taken care of.
Despite the challenges I faced whilst being there, I definitely would do it again and it has given me the confidence to go travelling in the future. I have also come out with a whole group of new friends and acquired skills that I would never have gained without going on this trip. I would definitely urge you to sign up to next trip to Nepal, you won’t regret it!
Alicia Fautrero-Sayer (Year 13)