Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Sapa

The day we returned from Ha Long Bay, we hopped on an overnight train north to the small town of Sapa.  We heard it was a spectacularly beautiful town perched up high in the mountains, but we were a bit trepidatious to go, as we heard the hilltribe women were quite determined to sell you things and will harass you until you buy!  Also, everyone seems to go on a tour, which we were against, and wondered how much we could do on our own.   But all in all, it was definitely worth it to go!

We arrived before the crack of dawn, and caught a ride from the train station in Lao Cai up to Sapa, about an hour drive through the mountains.  We were dropped off at our hostel, and amazingly our room was ready for us!  Hurrah! We snuggled in for a 3 hour nap, before hitting the town.  We found a delicious $2 breakfast at a cute little restaurant with a little cat, who was quite pregnant.

The thing to do in Sapa is 'go trekking' to small tribal villages.  When I hear the word "trekking" I imagine some strenuous hiking through the mountains... in other words, going on an adventure!  Well, the trekking in Sapa is more like walking along paved roads than trekking.  We quite easily found our way to a nearby village, following roads up and down the mountains.  While the temperature is much cooler in the mountains, it was still hot enough to make us sweat (a lot!)!

Walking down to Cat-Cat town.  Gorgeous scenery!

Crops are grown on terraces on the mountainside, like this rice paddy.

As this walk only took us a couple of hours, we returned to town for a cold watermelon juice (I am totally addicted... why do we not have watermelon juice in Canada???).  Later that afternoon we climbed up a mountain practically right in town to get some views from on high.  It was quite tiring but definitely worth it!

View of Sapa from on high.  The tallest peak in Vietnam can be seen in the background (very faintly!)

Our second day in town, we got up for an early walk down the mountain roads, before heading back to the hostel for showers and to check out at noon.  It was very overcast and a bit rainy that morning, and the clouds hovered low on the mountains.  That afternoon, we hung out around town, trying different cafes before catching our overnight train back to Hanoi.

Tribal village.

Dinner at a beautiful spot overlooking the valley.

I have to comment on the tribal women, who wander town and harass tourists to buy their handicrafts.  You cannot go on the street without having women yell at you: "You buy from me?" "Where you from?" "You buy from me later?  Promise?" And they hold you to that promise, by finding you later and harassing you again.  I even had women grabbing my arms and pulling me down the street, trying to get me to buy something.  Most of the time if you don't make eye contact and just nicely say "no thank you" to whatever they ask, then they will leave you alone.  I did end up buying one thing from an older lady who was less aggressive than the other women.  

Some tourists getting swarmed after leaving a shop.  We quickly took the picture then ran away so they could not get us next!

Our train trip back to Hanoi was less than peaceful.  I had a woman and her small hyperactive daughter on the bunk above me, and at about 2am, a couple got on the train and climbed into the bunk above Greg.  I spent the next few hours imaging the bunks crashing down on us from all the people above and crushing us to death.  Not a very relaxing night!  We got back into Hanoi at dawn, and the amazing people at Serenity Hotel gave us a room (someone had checked out early, and they had not cleaned it yet) for a shower, and then gave us a free breakfast too!  Excellent people.  We wandered Hanoi a bit, found a used bookstore and got Greg the final Steig Larsson book, and got ready for another night train, this one south to Hue.  I'll write all about Hue in the next post!

Monday, 29 August 2011

Ha Long Bay

We decided to get out of crazy Hanoi, so we booked a two night cruise in Ha Long Bay.  We're always very reluctant to take a tour since they generally suck and we hate being carted around and being told what to do and when to do it.  But it does seem like the best way to see Ha Long bay is by boat, which does require booking a tour.  We were advised not to book the cheapest tours because there's a good chance there will be rats on the boat (or it'll sink, which happened a few months ago), or the most expensive tour (hah! not a problem) because we will not have a chance to meet fellow back-packers.  We booked a nice mid-range tour through the hotel, and it was quite lovely.

The boat itself was very nice, with an upper deck for relaxing on sun chairs, a middle deck with the dining room and some comfy couches, and a lower deck with the cabins.  The food on board was ridiculous!  There were so many dishes, and I got my own special plates since I don't eat meat.  Every meal consisted of at least 10 dishes, including lots of sea food (clams, prawns, squid, and several entire fish!), vegetables, rice and other types of meat.

Me on upper boat deck.  The scenery was awesome!

The first day, we paddled around a floating village in a two-person kayak.  I even let Greg captain the boat this time, and thank goodness he did not capsize us as the water around the village was quite dirty (we even saw a dead rat floating by....).  We explored a couple of 'lagoons', a bay of water totally surrounded by rocks, except for a small entrance.  

Entering a lagoon through a small hole in the rock.

Some homes in the floating village, sheltered by islands.

Floating village.  We saw cats and dogs living on these platforms, which was quite sad as they had very little room to run around.

Our second day, we cruised around the bay, stopping for some more kayaking and swimming.  There were only 5 of us staying for a 2 night stay (all others were just there for a 1 night trip), so it was an awesomely empty boat.  It was an incredibly relaxing day; there was nothing to do but nap and watch the scenery for most of the day.  We stopped at Monkey Island to enjoy the beautiful beach.  But we saw no monkeys since it was so ridiculously hot, they were all hiding out in the caves where it's cool. 

Greg trying to hide from the heat.  

Late afternoon swimming off the boat: exquisite!

Sunset from the boat, night 1

I tried my hand at squid fishing, which was strangely fascinating.  We had lots of squid circling our hooks, and a few bites, but they all got away... Except for the guy that spontaneously exploded off the hook.  He sprayed his ink, and then literally blew himself apart.  crazy!

Our last day, all herde30 of us on the boat were herded on a trip out to visit a cave.  This cave was very touristy: all the floors were paved and there were coloured lights all throughout, which completely ruined the fun of going in a cave!

Ridiculous cave

Our boat!  

Sunset, night 2

All in all, it was a great trip and we didn't mind being on a tour too much at all!  The bay is absolutely gorgeous, and it was a wonderful break from the craziness of Hanoi.  The day we returned to Hanoi, we immediately jumped on a train and headed north to Sapa, which I will write all about in the next blog!

Friday, 26 August 2011

Hectic Hanoi!

Oh, crazy, mad, insane, frenetic, mind-boggling Hanoi!  I think I was in shock when we first arrived from lad-back Laos.  I was warned by several people that Hanoi traffic is insane, but I did not fully grasp this concept.  The ride from the airport to our most excellent hotel was my first taste of the madness.  The sheer number of scooters on the road is overwhelming.  I honestly do not understand how there aren't more accidents... in fact, I don't think we saw a single one the entire time in the city.  And in the old quarter where we stayed, the sidewalks aren't actually for walking.  They are for parking scooters, setting up shop, seating for makeshift restaurants and bars.... which forces all the pedestrians to walk in the road.  Madness!  Finally, the horns.  There is a constant symphony of car, scooter and bus horns at all times of the day and night.  From what I can tell, a honk means "get out of my way, I'm coming through" and is used quite liberally.  A red light is merely a suggestion to stop, most vehicles simply go right through, leaning on the horn.  Again, how does this city function???

A typical road scene in the old quarter: cars, bicycles, scooters and pedestrians all sharing the same narrow roads.

Yes, children, you'd better run when you cross the street!

Ok, enough about the traffic!

View of the city from our hotel room... all the way on the 7th floor (and no elevator!)

Our first full day in Hanoi, we wandered the city by foot.  Walked over to one of the small lakes scattered around the city, and found a neat temple to explore.

Tree growing out of a pile of rocks at the temple.

Requisite picture of me in pretty scenery.

Greg found a barber on the street, charging $2.50 for a haircut, so he indulged.  All the Vietnamese people walking past thought this was quite an amusing sight.

We got up bright and early one morning to visit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum.  It's open for only a few hours each day, and closes at 11am.  We arrived at about 9:30 to a giant line-up, but it moved quite quickly.  We had to pass through numerous security checkpoints, and drop off our camera as they not allowed inside.  When we finally got to the mausoleum, we joined the slow procession of people silently walking inside.  They were soldiers dressed entirely in white, with large rifles with bayonets stationed all around and throughout the building.  Entering the main chamber, the first thing we noticed was the cold blast of air.  The room was dimly lit, but the coffin was brightly illuminated.  Ho Chi Minh himself looked very peaceful, lying on a pillow and under a blanket, beard and hair neatly combed.  On the wall behind him engraved in red on two large panels were a giant red star and a large hammer and sickle.  The atmosphere in the room was very solemn and reverential.

Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

We also visited the Temple of Knowledge, which is an ancient university, founded in 1040 and dedicated to Confucius.  The grounds were very peaceful, and the place looked like a park with a few temples scattered throughout.  It was a great respite from the craziness of the city!

Temple of Knowledge

Ha Noi draught beer is hugely popular in Hanoi.  It's typically served by the glass to patrons sitting on these tiny plastic chairs on the sidewalk.  We decided to partake in this experience, and found a small bar on the sidewalk serving the beer.  Two Vietnamese men sitting at the table beside us started talking to us, and insisted on buying us beer for no reason at all!  It was very nice of them.  It was very difficult turning them down as they were quite insistent!  So where we intended to stop only for one, Greg ended up having 3 while I had 2.  The beer itself is very light tasting, and refreshing on a hot day (but still does not compare to Beer Lao!)

Enjoying cold beer on the sidewalk.  Note the mini tables and chairs!

Good ol' communist artwork.

Through our wonderful hotel (thanks for the recommendation, Philip!), we booked a 2 night stay in Ha Long bay.... stay tuned for details of our adventures there!

Friday, 19 August 2011

Serene Vientiane

As far as capital cities go, particularly Asian ones, Vientiane must be the quietest, most peaceful one.  We had an excellent, relaxing time here strolling around town and seeing some sights.  And to be honest, we really didn't do very much during our 3 days in Vientiane because there really didn't seem like there was much to do!  Which was just fine with us :)

Sunset over the Mekong river.  There were pathways along the river that became crazy busy in the evening, with Laotians out jogging, walking their dogs, going on a bike ride, playing pick-up soccer.... 

A statue of a very important, respected man.  Don't ask me who as all the signs were in Lao, and our guide book sucks.

A really bad picture of an outdoors aerobics class.  Every night from 6-7pm there were multiple free aerobics classes down by the river.  They were very popular!  

We took a trip out to Buddha Park, a park full of statues of, you guessed it, Buddha.  It was created by this wealthy, religious man and he hired lots of local artists to make the sculptures.  There were also statues of many other religious figures including many of Indian gods.  I honestly have no idea what most of these sculptures represented (again, terrible guide book) but it was still a beautiful place to spend an afternoon.

Strange, strange sculpture.  We went inside and climbed all the way to the top to get a good view of the park.

View of the park from the top.  There is a large reclining Buddha statue on the left of the picture.

There were lots of statues inside the sculpture as well.  The bottom floor had many disturbing scenes, and I can only assume it represented some form of hell.  It was very creepy, especially with all the cobwebs, the dank musty odour, and the lack of natural light.  

Another sculpture in the park.

Wait a second, I thought I was in Laos, not France.... Yes, Laos has its own version of the Arc de Triomphe.  The concrete for this was donated by the US government to be used in building an airplane runway.  Instead this was built.  Oh, and it's just slightly larger than the Parisian version, just to annoy the French.  A plaque on the side of this structure actually calls it a "concrete monster."

Well, that's about all I've got for Vientiane!  It was a pretty mellow few days.  We did also check out the National Museum, and it had some very interesting photos from the revolutionary days, many with very colourful captions about "evil Americans and their puppets."  I also made sure to check out the quality of the goods at the many French bakeries in town.  All in all, a relaxing time in Vientiane, and time to prepare ourselves for the chaos of Vietnam!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Wacky Vang Viang

After a harrowing 7 hour bus ride, we arrived in possibly the oddest town in Vang Viang.  It's a *very* popular tourist destination due to its location between Luang Prabang and Vientienne (the capital of Laos), and also because of the magnificent limestone karsts which surround the town.  We were a bit hesitant to stop here, but a stay here nicely broke up the bus ride to Vientiane, so we booked a 2 night stay.

The most popular activity in Vang Viang is tubing down the river while ingesting ridiculous amounts of Lao whiskey (aka moonshine) and beer.  The drunk tourists roaming the town every night were quite a sight.  Fortunately, there are other awesome adventures to be had around the town, so we decided to do those instead of tubing.

The town itself is a very strange place.  There is virtually no Lao culture there, and the whole town caters to the inebriated tubers.  Every establishment on the main street is either a hostel, restaurant/bar playing reruns of Friends on a constant loop, or a store selling "Tubing on the Vang Viang" t-shirts and tank tops (ridiculously popular).  After an unfortunate first dinner of greasy pad thai, we managed to find some decent food in town, including a tasty Indian restaurant.

Our first full day, we rented mountain bikes and headed off to a cave outside of town.  There had been a lot of rain recently, and so the dirt roads were absolutely riddled with mud puddles.  We ended up getting quite filthy by the end of the day!  We rode through some absolutely gorgeous countryside though, with huge limestone cliffs rising out of fields of bright green rice paddies.
Some of the gorgeous scenery: rice paddies and limestone karsts.

We had to share the road with lots of cows, and the occasional motorbike.
More mountains and rice paddies.

When we arrived at the cave, we paid our admission fee, and were asked if we'd like to hire a guide to take us around.  Sure, we thought, why not, it was only $6 CAD split between 4 people.  Well, the guides all looked pretty comfortable lounging around playing cards, and their ability to speak English seemed quite doubtful, so no guide for us!  After a slippery steep climb up the rocks, we found the cave entrance.  It was quite a large cave, and we were able to explore it for a good distance before deciding to turn around.  

Inside the cave, looking out towards the entrance.  It is very difficult to take good photographs in a pitch black cave.

Aren't we quite the dirty, sweaty sight?

Snack outside the cave.  I bought what I thought was a bag of ketchup chips, but instead turned out to be a bag of crispy "french fries" and ketchup packets.  It was actually quite tasty... why do we not have these in Canada?

One of the reasons we decided to visit this cave and not one of the many others in the area was presence of a swimming hole called the "blue lagoon."  We were more than mildly disappointed to find out that it was instead a brown, muddly, trickling river.  

Worst "blue lagoon" EVER


Local form of transportation. I don't even know what to call this thing.  It's like the front of a lawn mower connected to a wagon.  Bizarre.

Since we were having a great time with Tim and Asher, and because the scenery was so gorgeous, we decided to stay an extra day and do some kayaking!  We also had time to visit an organic mulberry farm with goats!  I got some good ideas for our goat farm, and their goat cheese was incredible.  We also tried sun-dried bananas (not very good), crispy mulberry leaves (odd) and mulberry tea (delicious).  

Cute (stinky) piggy at the goat farm!

Cluster bomb left over from the Vietnam war.  Laos is actually the most heavily bombed country in the world, and there's still lots of work to be done to de-mine it.

That afternoon, we went kayaking.  We were given a 2 person kayak that you sit up on (not inside).  After a 2 minute lesson on paddle strokes and steering, we were heaved into the river by our guides.  Greg insisted that he would be great at steering, and then promptly guided our kayak into a giant clump of bushes in the middle of the river and capsized us.  Ooh, I was mad!  We had literally been on the river for less than a minute before we were swimming.  After that, Greg was relegated to the front of the boat and had all his steering privileges revoked.  I must admit that it was quite nice to be wet for the rest of the trip, as it cooled us down quite a bit.

More gorgeous scenery.

Love the clouds!  Wish I had a picture of us swimming, but I was more concerned about staying alive than recording the moment.  

As part of the kayaking trip, we visited a cave on the river.  We had to swim into the cave, which was a bit creepy.  The cave was called "Sleeping Cave" because Laotians used to sleep in this cave for safety during the Vietnam war, to escape from the air raids.  It was quite disturbing to imagine sleeping in such a dark, dank, creepy place.  Shudder.

Asher and I about to head into the cave.

On our last night with Tim and Asher, we went for a nice dinner and enjoyed our last Beer Lao together.  We were heading off for Vientienne the next morning, while Tim and Asher were staying behind in Vang Vieng as they still had a week until they flew back to Thailand.

Greg and his Beer Lao having a quiet moment together.

I think my vodka watermelon shake was quite strong, as I started to get goofy with the camera settings.