If you need to unwind, get yourself to Laos.
We had no expectations at all for the country, focussing our planning instead on the upcoming trips to neighbouring Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. However, with every passing day, every hour even, we could feel ourselves sinking slowly into the South East Asian pace of life. And let me tell you, it's pretty good.
After catching the sleeper train from Bangkok, we arrived in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. There wasn't a whole lot to do, so we contented ourselves with lounging around the pool, occasionally mustering up the strength to grab an ice cream from the adjacent shop.
We then moved up to Vang Vieng, the scene of the now infamous tubing - an activity advertised as an all-day booze cruise at bars dotted along the Nam Song river. There used to be 28 bars on its banks, but that number has reduced considerably to just five after a number of drug and drink-fuelled deaths.
We didn't really want to party - happy instead to simply float down the river - and after just a couple of drinks in the first bar, we soon escaped the crowds to join a handful of other tubers in meandering along the water at a snail's pace, drifting in and out of the shade of the limestone cliffs to our left and passing monks bathing in the river.
Going north meant we had saved the best until last though. Ask anyone who's been to Laos and their face will light up at the mention of Luang Prabang, where dozens of French cafes serve oven-fresh pains au chocolat and every evening the main street is closed to accommodate the intimate night market. Then there's the unforgettable experience of the alm-giving ritual at 5am in the morning, when the town's inhabitants donate food to the 200 or so monks who live in the temples littered throughout Luang Prabang.
A short drive outside the town lies Kuang Si waterfalls, a place so beautiful that the sulphur-infused bright blue waters of the umpteen serene pools are scarcely believable.
Although we felt a tinge of sadness leaving Laos, it didn't match the excitement of meeting Jodie, Lianne and Rosie in Vietnam the next day. I'm sure that the most giddy Sophie has been on the entire trip is when we waited at Hanoi airport for the girls to arrive, with a makeshift 'Devonish' sign in hand!
We spent a day in the scorching heat of Hanoi before taking an overnight trip to Halong Bay. The idyllic images of the limestone karsts didn't quite reveal themselves immediately as we were caught in the midst of a tropical downpour as the boat chugged out of the harbour, but when the clouds parted we lowered ourselves into kayaks and paddled around the jungle-strewn islands, which stretched as far as the eye could see. That evening, after a quick dip in the sea, we sipped ice-cold drinks on the deck of the boat with the jet black silhouettes of the islands looming large above us.
That very same darkness engulfed us a couple of days later in the Phong Na-Ke Bang National Park. We'd already marvelled at the giant structures inside the 7km long Paradise Cave in the morning before arriving at the rather ominously named Dark Cave come the afternoon.
To reach it, we had to whizz across a river on a 120m zipline. A pretty classy entry. Within minutes though, we were guided only by the narrow beam of our headtorch as we ventured deeper into the cave. Before long we were knee-deep in thick, gloopy mud feeling like Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In fact, the sludge was so thick that we were able to sit cross-legged with our body floating somewhere between the floor and the surface of the mud!
Our next stop was Hoi An, which is spoken about in the same revered tones as Luang Prabang. It's easy to see why.
We stayed at the incredible Thanh Luan homestay where the owner, Trinh, acted like our mum for three days, taking special breakfast requests the evening before and heading into town on her scooter to get us pineapple, eggs, coffee, baguettes and much, much more.
A 3km bike ride to the right was the beach, where powder white sand runs into the azure waters. A shorter ride to the left lay the Old Town, where the magic of Hoi An really takes shape, with hundreds of delicate lanterns peeking through the low trees to form a mysterious glow over the narrow streets.
It was here that the most magnificent ladies in the world tailor made a suit for me. Despite the fact that they were closing their shop as we arrived, they stayed open an extra hour, plied us with ice-cold water and talked me through a plethora of options. Just two days later, my suit had been nipped and tucked to fit perfectly. Not only did they throw in a tie for free, but they refused to take any more money from me when I then asked them to sew a dozen badges onto my backpack at short notice. To the wonderful staff at Tuong Tailors, I salute you!
After a few weeks in the blistering heat, the cool 20 °C temperature of Dalat were certainly welcome - we didn't have showers of sweat running down our face and we could even wear jeans!
The real highlight of Dalat, though, was canyoning. Once we'd arrived at the river following a mad scramble down a 100m muddy bank, we thought we'd be slowly immersed into the activities. We thought wrong. One by one, the guides flung us backwards and head first down a natural water slide and into the pool below.
Soon after, we were abseiling off a 25m waterfall, the river thrashing down on top of us as we struggled to make a steady descent.
"When you're three metres from the bottom," our guide told us, "just let go and drop into the water".
Yeah, just like that. It wasn't terrifying in the slightest...
We'd only just recovered from this when we came upon two platforms above a pool from where we could free jump. One was seven metres high, the other 11. Everyone started at seven metres, but even this was at our limit. When you have time to think in mid-air, it's a long drop.
Once I'd splashed into the pool below, I was adamant that I was going nowhere near the 11 metre jump. That was until the guide bullied me into doing it (and I stand by that description). This free fall required a run up to clear the seven metre platform below. I'd seen people dilly dally and panic, so I didn't allow myself time to think and flung myself off the edge and plummeted into the muddy waters. The adrenaline left my legs shaking for minutes afterwards.
Our final stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh, where the world passes by in a whirlwind of an estimated two million scooters.
While there, we visited the War Museum. Without going into too much detail, the damage caused not just to Vietnam, but to South East Asia as a whole, is staggering. The effects are still being felt strongly today.
But with just one night left, we couldn't afford to be gloomy so we glammed ourselves up and went for drinks at a 51st floor bar overlooking the city. It was brilliant to travel in a group of five and we crammed so much into such a short space of time. Thanks for joining us girls!
Kristian and Sophie x