For many of you who've never stepped foot in either country (both of which I love), let me explain some of the BIG surface differences:
TRAFFIC- Laos has a lot more cars/SUV/truck type vehicles than VN. Beeping is a normal part of traffic in VN to let other drivers know you're coming, but is considered quite serious and a bit rude in Laos. Traffic patterns are WAY different, but that's something you have to experience- tough to explain!
FOOD- I find food in Laos in general to be more spicy than in VN. Both countries serve some common meals, such as pho or fried rice, and fruit for dessert. Sticky rice is a staple here, but steamed rice was the staple in VN... and therefore many meals are eaten by hand in Laos, and chopsticks are more often used in VN.
BARGAINING- In VN, you could expect to be given at least double the normal price of something as a foreigner... and you could bargain your heart out and walk away if you still didn't get the price desired. In Laos, vendors will raise the price a bit at first, and then bargain down a few times (I've never experienced more than two or three price reductions)... and if you walk away after bargaining- it is VERY rude! Starting to bargain means you plan to buy.
DRESS- In VN, the traditional clothing for women was the "ao-dai"... and the "sinh" skirt is the traditional clothing in Laos. Both are very feminine and beautiful.
COST- Overall, I've been surprised at how much more expensive life is in Laos... due mostly to the fact that so much is imported here. Yet, there are a lot more "foreign comforts" here in Vientiane than in Dalat, VN... a nice advantage of living in the capital city which borders Thailand.
LANGUAGE- Both are tonal, but TOTALLY different... VN tones are sharper, and Lao tones sound more rounded to my ears. Vietnamese is written in a romanized alphabet, and Lao uses a Khmer script (aka "squigglies").
FOREIGNERS- There are WAY WAY WAY more foreigners here... which has its pros and cons... but one interesting effect of that is a major decrease in the amount of attention I attract here- I am quite pleased with this difference :)
WEATHER- I was in a mountain town last year that was quite cold- to the point of needing to wear several layers! The weather here has been very hot and humid overall... although we've had some cooler days recently.
POP.- There are 6 million people in Laos compared to 86 million in VN! This just means HUGE differences for so many aspects of life... streets seem empty to me here, housing seems bigger, life seems calmer and quieter, pollution is not as bad, etc.
RELIGION- In VN, I noticed most people had alters set up to honor their ancestors in their homes or shops, and occasionally would see monks walking the streets and pass a Buddhist temple. However, in Laos, I see monks daily, and every 'village' (i.e. neighborhood) has its own temple- and the name of the village is the same as the name of the temple.
I could go on and on about cultural differences too... Needless to say, starting all over in this learning process isn't easy, but an older/wiser friend pointed out to me one of the big differences in my journey this year that seems to encompass a lot of what makes this transition hard- but really worthwhile. She commented to me that last year, I functioned mostly in English... and invited my students into "my world." It was so fun to share my life with them and have them experience my language and culture- which was also comfortable and easy.
My journey in Laos so far has been more focused on stepping out of "my world" and learning how to join the Lao world. I am learning to speak Lao, lived with a Lao family and now in a Lao neighborhood, and life looks and feels a lot different this year! I think this has been one of the biggest adjustments. It is much more stretching and tiring, yet it is (and I believe will continue to be) very rewarding. I feel that I already know more about Laos, in some ways, after a few months than I did about Vietnam after almost a year. At the same time, I am humbled to realize how little I know and how much I have yet to learn. I feel weak and so inadequate for the long road ahead, "but He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness...'"