As much as I love public transport, the idea of a 24 hour bus ride to Hanoi was more than I could handle. So even though that was the only visa I had actually succeeded in getting before setting off (Australia doesn't count - they give it away), I decided to skip Vietnam (good thinking, Amelia and Rob) and head directly from Laos to Cambodia.
The roads aren't great in Laos, especially in the north. It's 390km from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and it took 10 hours on the bus (even a fancy VIP bus!). It was a beautiful trip, especially around Vang Vieng, but I was happy to finally get to the capital.
I had two days in Vientiane, which is a lot less pretty than Luang Prabang, but also more of a real city - in some ways, more interesting (like the guy snoozing at the construction site).
I heard the museum was good for a laugh, mostly because of the English captions, so I was pretty surprised to find it quite interesting, and full of some really beautiful old Lao art. It used to be the Lao Revolutionary Museum, and there are still a lot of random artifacts in the recent history section, like bamboo spoons used by Pathet Lao leaders while living in the jungle, and guns brought "by American Imperialists to kill the Lao people". Overall, though, I was pretty impressed.
COPE helps people who have lost a limb, mostly due to (previously) unexploded bombs dropped by the US on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Their National Rehabilitation Center is in the city, and the museum is a little heavy but really interesting.
Needing a little zen after all that, I went to Wat Sisaket, where in the cloiser all the way around the courtyard (pictured) there are literally thousands of Buddhas of all sizes smiling serenely down at you. It was perfect.
After Vientiane I headed south on the overnight bus to the Siphandon, or 4000 island, region at the border with Cambodia. It's a delightfully sleepy, bungalow-and-hammock-filled cluster of islands in the Mekong. I stayed on Dondet, probably the most touristy island but still really mellow. The bungalows range from pretty swanky to about to fall down. I chose one that looked a little more solid than the ones above, but without a bathroom - my idea of roughing it! I only had one day there though, so didn't get as much use of my hammock as I would have liked.
The next day I was back on the road, this time to Cambodia, with Kim Wilde ringing in my ears (Thank you, Dominique).