A Travellerspoint blog

Luang Prabang

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For more pictures CLICK HERE

We arrived in Luang Prabang at night, around 8 pm, paid erroneous fees to get through customs and then found a hotel and began exploring the city. Luang Prabang has a huge night market, but because we got there late, it was nearly finished, AND my Visa card wouldn't work in the ATMs so we decided to call it an early night.

The next day we explored around, trying to find another brand of ATM. After 2 hours of walking around in the sweltering heat, we learned that there were no other ATMs in the city and instead ended up just getting a cash advance.

Laos money in hand, we got some food, and then after haggling with a few drivers, settled on a Tuk Tuk to take us to the waterfall with Adam and Adrian.

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Welcome to our primary mode of transport: tractor/truck/moto turned taxi Tuk Tuk. Stellar.

The drive was about 45 minutes or so, and it was really pretty. Laos is such a beautiful country, with so many uninhabited areas, it is a pity there are so many UXO bombs littered throughout the forests so you can't just go aimlessly explore anymore. Keeping with Laos, the waterfall was also very beautiful and we decided to hike up one side to see the view from the top. The hike was not s fun, as it was straight up a mountain, and I was wearing flip flops. Luckily I didn't fall to hard, and we eventually made it to the top.

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Testing fate as we peered over the edge at the falls below

At this point, we decided to try to get down on the other side, which was an adventure in and of itself. We actually started out the right way *shocking, but thought we were wrong so we ended up going a different way for a while. After walking for a few minutes we realized we were just walking away from the waterfall and turned around. Eventually we made it down, and the path was much easier, mainly with steps, compared to the cliff scaling of the other side.

Once at the bottom we walked down the falls a bit and went swimming in beautiful turquoise pools at the base of smaller falls. While it was gorgeous, it was also freezing. I could only stand to be in there for a bit, but enjoyed it all the same. After swimming, we returned to our Tuk Tuk driver, who, slowly, took us into town (we were passed multiple times). It was fine though, it's not like we had anywhere to be. I did however enjoy my first drink in a bag. I don't know if I was just really thirsty, but this was the best shake I think I had on my entire trip. Pineapple heavenliness really. I debated going back up to the waterfalls just to get another shake!

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Beverages served in bags: another fabulous thing about Asia.

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Getting passed... again.

That night we all enjoyed an Indian dinner, which of course, was delicious. Dinner was followed by a walk through of the night market. Luang Prabang has a fabulous night market, that spans down nearly 3 full city blocks, chock full of vendors and artists hawking souvenirs. I found some really cool bamboo guns. They reminded me of the rubber band guns of my youth... oh good times.

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Night market

The next morning we set out to book some sort of Elephant excursion, after looking at many, we decided on a 'Mahout Trip' where we would learn how to drive the elephant as well as just ride it. I was excited, especially since riding an elephant was the main thing I wanted to do in Asia while I was there. We ended up doing little else as it was so hot, and the electricity was cut to the city (something about a big building being built that required the entire city to be without power, "or else the workers will die" they said). We spent another night at the market, buying souvenirs and such, and being disgusted by the amount of flies that were everywhere. I am pretty sure they eat them though, since all the ladies were waving bags and catching the bus, and then later I saw large piles of their wings... tasty? I think not.

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So gross.

The next morning we got up bright and early to feed the monks before we left for our elephant excursion. In Laos (and maybe everywhere) the monks walk around on the streets each morning to get food for the day. Apparently they eat only what they are given and only before 12 noon. Anyhow, Brooke and I had talked to a few people the day before and they had told us to get up around 5:45 and to go to the street and we would be able to buy sticky rice and banana leaves from women to give to the monks as they walked down the street. So that is exactly what we did.

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It was a cool experience, we had only one issue, when a random lady tried to throw a whole lot of food on our tray and then demand we pay her money. It is sad that people are trying to rip off people that are feeding the monks. Seems like a double bad thing...

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Feeding the monks... notice lady #2 about to swoop in and drop all her food...

After the monk feeding experience we got all packed up for our elephanting and headed to the agency to catch the bus. A short bus ride later (less than 20 minutes) and we were at the Mahout Camp. The camp was located across a very dirty river, so we took a rickety looking junk across the river. Upon arrival, we immediately saw the elephants. They were standing in the shade, having a morning snack of leafy goodness. Their drivers (Mahout's) were lazily napping on their backs, and it was definitely a great first view.

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The baskets are secured with multiple ropes...

Because we had booked the Mahout package, we had to change into fabulously hideous elephant driving clothes, which were quite stylish to say the least. It beat getting our regular clothes all gross though.
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Of the 12 people who had rode with us to the camp, only 5 of us were doing the Mahout portion, with the remainder doing only a day trip. Since there were only 6 elephants, we doubled up and started back across the river, this time in the basket on top of our elephants.

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Crossing the river was an adventure, it felt like we were going to fall off some times though, which would have been less than enjoyable. After riding for about 10 minutes, our Mahout, perched on the elephants head, turned around and said to me in broken English, "You drive now." I was a bit taken back, as we were moving and I didn't really know how I was going to get out of the basket and onto the head of the elephant without falling, but not to be outdone, I nodded and haphazardly maneuvered myself from the basket to the head. Now this was cool. A bit freaky, but really cool. Or Mahout was teaching me the words to use to get the elephant to go, "Bpa" or something meant GO, "Qua" meant right, "Sai" left, and "YA" no. I really don't think the elephant listened to me at all, as the driver just kicked from the basket, but it was still cool nonetheless. After 'driving' for about 15 minutes, the driver turned to Brooke and said "Now you drive." I thought getting into the driving position was difficult, but it turned out to be much harder to get back into the basket from the head. Pretty much the Mahout ended up just picking me up off the head and placing me in the basket... good thing I am so little.

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Brooke drove us to the lunch area, where we had a meager and mostly tasteless lunch.

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At least the elephants enjoyed their lunch

After lunch we went back to the elephants, this time starting on the heads as the drivers, each of us on our own elephant. We ended up driving the elephant back all the way to the camp, through the river, and bathing the elephants in the river... or were bathed by our elephants, which was more of the case with Brooke. Fun though.
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Brooke had a submarine elephant
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Exiting the bath

After getting soaked we took tubes out and floated down the river. It was more like we paddled down the river since it was so calm, but it was pretty hot outside, so it actually felt pretty good. I just had to not look at the water, or think about how all of the elephants had poo'd in it as we had crossed... so nice. Dinner was amazing, again, when local people are cooking you the food, it is so tasty! Of course I gorged myself nearly to the point of pain, but it was so worth it. Because the bugs were out in full force and we were nearly out of our bug spray, we decided to turn in early for the night, and avoid getting completely eaten.

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The next morning we got up bright and early to eat breakfast before we drove the elephants back to the lunch area. Driving the elephants was fun again, but my legs were getting sore as the elephants rough skin and prickly hair were rubbing them raw.

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Chillin on the elephant, trying to keep my legs off of the prickly skin.

I was happy to be off in the end, but it was worth it for sure. After we dismounted our elephants (which was also an adventure, as I was trying to get off mine without falling in a river of pee from the elephant in front of me, it could have been tragic, but somehow I managed to not fall in the pee) we went out 'bamboo rafting'.

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See the pee river?

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Look at me! I'm on an elephant (note the enthusiasm, this photo was taken early in the day)

While bamboo rafting sounds cool, it turned out to be not so great, as we were stuck on a tiny raft that didn't go very fast with tons of spiders. I don't know if the spiders were just living in the raft and then when we put it in the water they all came out or what, but for the first 45 minutes of the rafting we kept getting bombarded by huge nasty looking spiders. Gross.

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Rafting was followed by another bland lunch which was followed by a 2 hour trek through villages, across rivers, through fields and finally through the forest. It was a beautiful trek, albeit scorching. I wrapped my sarong around my shoulders to avoid getting burnt, and sometimes I actually had it over my head as well.

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It was definitely a sweaty experience to say the least. After the trek we were taken by bus back to Luang Prabang, where we randomly ran into Leigh (he had come up through Laos and had just arrived from Vang Vieng) and had dinner and did one last pass through of the night market.

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Our hiking trail

I really enjoyed Luang Prabang. Granted it is very hot, but the people are fabulous, and they make a mean smoothie (unlike the crappy ones of Vietnam... but I'm not bitter). I would have liked to spend more time here, but as it always goes, time is always short and we had to fly out from Bangkok one week later, so we weren't really able to stay any longer. It is definitely a must see though for any SE Asia trip for sure though.

Posted by court_7 04.07.2008 12:45 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Sapa

Beautiful despite the rain

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For more pictures CLICK HERE

After returning from Halong Bay, because we only had a few days left in Vietnam, we quickly found a hotel and booked a trip to Sapa. After quick showers and dinner, we were on our way to the train station. Our high class sleeper train awaited, a big metal very grungy looking box. In our room were 6 beds topped with an old blanket and small rock hard pillow. Don't go thinking we were in the ritz, oh no. These beds were hard as tables, and the over zealous air con and piercing florescent lights only added insult to injury.

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Yeah, I was on the top. Right next to the ice machine of an air con.

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"Staff Cabin"- we were in the worst of all seats... maybe they ran out of tickets? That's what you get for trying to save money on tickets I guess.

The best was when Brooke tried to find a bathroom. A staff member kept pushing her back into our room and shut the door. Apparently we are so low we are not allowed out...

Needless to say, when we finally arrived, 12 hours later, I was frozen (I was wearing everything I brought... which wasn't much, since we left our packs in Haoi with Allie), tired and grumpy.

After a bit of craziness, we got onto a van with other tourists and began the drive to Sapa town. The drive was pretty, but was an hour long, cramped, and very windy. Of course, with our luck it was foggy and looked like it was going to rain. When we finally got to Sapa, the bus started dropping various people off at different hotels. We were dropped off last with a couple of other tourists, at a really nice looking hotel... but no, this was not the hotel we were staying at, and after trying unsuccessfully to check in, then waiting for 20 minutes and finally being picked up by 2 motos, we were at the right hotel. Still tired, grumpy and hungry, we were irritated to say the least... oh, and it had started raining, and of course we didn't bring our rain jackets... no those we had left in Hanoi. After breakfast of ramen with a fried egg, we left to go trekking. Our tour consisted of our guide, Ha, and two other tourists, Maily, a girl from Canada and Leigh, a guy from Wales. Ha was very concerned about my lack of appropriate shoes (what, Vans are not muddy trekking shoes?) and since we had no rain jackets either, we stopped in the town to pick up some cheapo-jackets.

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As we were walking through the town, women dressed in all sorts of colorful outfits began to follow us. Ha told us they were villagers who would walk with us and try to be our friend and then at the end of the trek try to sell us something.

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Even with the haze, the trek was beautiful. Rice patties were everywhere, and the rain was mearly a trickle. The village women kept trying to talk to us, but they all asked the same 5 questions: 1. Where are you from? 2. How old are you? 3. What is your name? 4. Do you have a boyfriend? 5. How long are you in Sapa? I, getting tired of the same questions, started making up crazy answers, saying I was from Zimbabwe and other ridiculous places. In the end, the four of us travelers just ended up talking with each other the whole time, a welcome relief from the banter. For lunch we stopped at a little hut where we ate loaves of bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, and bananas. Simple but good. As if on cue, the village women tried to sell us many things but we said no. I really didn't want the purses and bracelets they were trying to sell. Instead, Leigh gave our leftover lunch to them and they seemed very grateful.

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Full, we kept walking along the trail. After another 1 1/2 hours we came to a village. We had chosen to stay at a village house instead of at the hotel. After a quick tea break, the little girls who had been following us since lunch started to talking to us again. We asked Ha what we were supposed to do for the rest of the day, he just smiled, shrugged his shoulders and went inside to take a nap.

With that we decided to have the girls show us around. First they took us down to the river (apparently you go swimming when it isn't so cold). One of the little girls, Chee had "allowed" her 5 year old sister, Coo, to come along which was "very lucky for her." Coo was so cute, and could barely speak any English, and instead she just stood there, watching everything.

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Brooke with Chee and Coo

After the river, Chee said she wanted to take us go to her house. Since we had nothing else to do we went. Getting there was a bit of an adventure as we walked through rice fields, up steep hills, in between houses, and around trees to get to her house.

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Trekking out to their home.

When we arrived we saw her dad chopping wood. There were 4 foreigners and 5 girls which looked like quite the arrival party. He smiled and motioned that we could go in. We went into her very small, dark, damp house that had no lights and dirt floors. The house consisted of one large room with a television, another room with a hole in the floor for a cooking fire and a curtained off area for their parent's 'room'. On top of the main room, they had built a loft type area, where bags of rice were stored and the girls slept.

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It was interesting to see their house, but I felt a bit odd, and kind of intrusive. After viewing the home we trekked back down to the homestay. Again, the trek was super steep, and it is shocking I did not fall in the mud. The views of the rice fields were amazing though and made up for the slightly treacherous conditions. When we arrived at the homestay the girls started asking us to buy something from them. Since they had been our tour guides and entertainment for the past 4 hours we each purchased a little something equaling $1-2 a person. One of the girl's got very upset because no one bought anything from her. She started crying and didn't leave for an hour and a half. We tried to ignore her as to not promote that kind of behavior. Leigh tried to explain to her that he had given her sister double the amount of money so she would share with her. She didn't care. She just kept crying. Finally, after her mother came, she left, and we put our cards away and went inside for dinner.

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Coo, eating sticky rice at her house.

At the homestay, a woman and her son lived, and served as the cooks for the evening. Oh my goodness, the dinner was amazing! It was a delicious spread of rice, vegetables, meats (which I didn't eat) spring rolls, and beans. I ate so many spring rolls, and loved every minute of it. After dinner we played some more cards, watched a bit of soccer, chatted and then went to bed at 11pm... not much to do in a quiet village without electricity at night...

The next morning, we had a very sweet breakfast of crepes with honey, lime, sugar, and bananas.

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Notice they are all just hovering, the only way to get them to not try to sell you things was to completely ignore them. I felt bad, but they are intense and it is the only way.

After breakfast we headed out trekking to a waterfall. It had poured rain all night, making the trail awful, muddy, wet, and dangerous. Again, we had our village women guides, but this time we needed them, as each basically held our hands as we made our way down the super slippery trail through and between the rice fields. It turned out that my trekking Vans served me well, as I didn't even fall (not because of me, but because my little lady held on tight, and caught me from falling multiple times)- Brooke did take one tumble, which Leigh stealthily caught on film, but for the most part, the trek was uneventful.

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Lunch consisted of another bowl of ramen with an egg and cabbage. Simple, but it was warm, so it was good. We saw the waterfall and then took about a 20 min trek up to a main road where a van took us back to our hotel.

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After a warm shower (it was more eventful for Brooke, as it broke, and she had to just use a hose) we went downstairs and had a disgusting dinner. The first dish they brought out looked like pieces of dried chicken coated in something. Brooke and Leigh tried it, very chewy they said... because it wasn't chicken, but fried frog. Yummy! Yet again, another reason I am glad I am Vegan. Brooke ate a few pieces but I don't think she liked it all that much. Everything they gave us was gross. I ended up eating rice with soy sauce.

After our dismal dinner, a bus came to take us back to the train station. A woman on the bus got sick, and threw up (gross!) LUCKILY, she threw up right as we were pulling into the train station. Since we arrived over an hour early (another common thing about booked tours, they always drop you off super early in front of a restaurant in hopes you will buy something) we walked around a bit and bought some snacks for our trip.

Because our trip there had been so comfortable, we tried to upgrade our tickets, but were told we would have to pay $15 to be in a VIP class because all the seats were sold out (doubtful, but since we can't speak Vietnamese, we couldn't really say anything). Not wanting to spend that much, we resigned ourselves to another crappy ride, and at 7.00 we met up with the man who was to get us on the train. Some of the other foreigners in our group were getting very anxious as they wanted to be holding an actual ticket to know they would get on. They were yelling and arguing with all the Vietnamese men and everyone was getting frustrated. We decided that as long as we got on the train it would be fine, since we knew our seats sucked anyways, and they wouldn't be giving those away. It did seem though that the men gave our tickets to the angry foreigners, but the man came over to us and said, "Stay here, no worries, no problems." Again, we decided getting frustrated would get us no where, so we did. We really weren't worried anyway, since it was 20 min before the train left and lots of people were still waiting to get on. Finally, he walked us over to the train, discussed with a conductor the situation, and we were put on a much nicer car. Nice beds, only 4 people to a room, and soft blankets and pillows. We did have to move once which was a bit of a scare because we were obviously in someone else's car, but after moving, we settled into a car that was pretty much empty -- so much for all the other classes being "sold out" -- There were tons of open beds. We made friends with the Vietnamese man in our car who was a little to friendly and an hour and a half later once we could get him to go up to his bed, we went to sleep.

We arrived in Hanoi on Monday morning at 4.45am and took a moto-taxi to our hotel which we had prepaid for. They told us we could check into our room at 8.30 and that we could sit at a table and wait. The whole day we did pretty much nothing. Which was nice... though our room was crazy, as the ceiling was leaking, and we didn't have hot water until 2 pm. The hotel people were not to helpful, and kept saying everything was fine... which it wasn't. We got some extra towels to catch the water spots... which quickly soaked full of water. At one point the cleaning ladies saw that we were using towels on the ground and got angry and stole the towels, seriously what else were we supposed to do? I promptly re-stole the towels from them and placed them back on the floor.

Brooke wanted to see the water puppet show, so I went out and got tickets. The show was interesting to say the least.

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Water puppetry at it's best. I think he is chasing a frog in this one...

Weird, and slightly creepy may have been a better way to describe it. It was funny though since Brooke had been talking about it for 2 weeks and it turned out to be so weird. The most exciting part of the show was when a giant rat ran up the wall and the crowd got a bit excited. Regardless though, it was good to see, I'm sure we would have regretted it if not, but if you visit Vietnam, I would probably skip it...

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The puppeteers....

Posted by court_7 04.07.2008 09:41 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Crazy travels through Vietnam

Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay... all in one straight shot

When we arrived in Hoi An at 6 am, the regular touts were there, ready and eager to take us to their hotels. These guys were more aggressive than others however, as they actually boarded the bus trying to get us to go with them. They seem to get crazier the further we get into Vietnam. After a bit of a struggle, we found a decent guesthouse and head out for the day. Hoi An is famous for its cloth shops. Over 200 different shops try to get you to come in and get clothes tailor made for cheap. We were starving from the bus ride and found it difficult to walk from our hotel to a restaurant without literally getting accosted by the different shop owners. Eventually we did find food however, I sampled one of Hoi An's specialties, Cao Lao. A noodle dish authentic only in Hoi An, it was delicious, along with the Lemon Juice (actually Lime, but they call it Lemon) for 1 USD total I was very satisfied. After lunch we decided to look in a few shops. This turned out to be our first mistake. 3 shops and 2 days later we had 13 dresses, 3 pants, 3 shirts and one belt. Oh yeah, and no money. I think the main reason I spent so much money was the first day was slightly overcast but the second day it just poured. So OBVIOUSLY, there was nothing to do except go in the cloth shops and spend money... that is my excuse anyway...

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Hoi An Market

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Attempting to escape the rain in Hoi An

Because we had spent so much time (and money) in Hoi An) we opted to skip Hue completely and booked ourselves bus tickets straight through to Hanoi (not before we mailed home all of our purchases however... my pack is so little, there is no way they would have fit even if I had wanted to carry them around...). Again, the bus was mostly uneventful, aside from the crazy drivers, but that is to be expected by now. 5:30 am brought us, tired, dirty and sore to Hanoi. Our plan was to see Halong Bay and then return to Hanoi for our flight out to Laos. In the travel agency we met a girl from the UK who was also looking into a trip to Halong Bay. Because the tour agent would not sell us a ticket for the trip leaving that morning the 3 of us decided instead to head out to Halong City ourselves and book a tour on our own.

This trip turned out to be very exciting. First, when we arrived at the bus station, everyone was yelling and we got pushed inside some random bus. Our saving grace was a boy who spoke decent English in front of us. He served as our translator and told us we were on the right bus to Halong City. We did have a brief dispute about fare once we were already on the bus, but eventually it all worked out alright. Since we were on a gov't bus, the driver was very determined to pick up as many passengers as possible. Apparently he got more money the more people he had? I don't know... What I do know was that half way through the drive we came up on another minibus to Halong City and the craziest (read insanely terrifying) game of car chase ensued. We actually ran through 2 different toll booths, and on one occasion the driver drove through a lane that was closed, having another guy jump out and move a large iron fence to plow through and pass the other bus. It was hysterical, albeit scary; watching the buses scream through the cities, with the guys hanging out yelling at people to get on there bus to Halong City. Needless to say, we arrived to our destination earlier than we had thought.

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Driving in Vietnam at it's prime, We are trying to pass the other white gov't bus, with that big yellow truck in the on coming lane...

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Again, trying to pass, while the guy is yelling out the door trying to get more passengers... A bit further, after blowing through a toll booth, we passed the other bus.

Once at the dock, we went about trying to get a tour. This turned out to be harder than we had anticipated. There was only one guy selling tours, and he was more expensive than had we just booked from Hanoi. Though slightly annoyed, we were able to eventually get him down to the price in Hanoi and got on a boat heading to Cat Ba Island.

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On my moto en route to Halong bay

The all inclusive tour included a visit to a cave and stay over in a hotel at Cat Ba Island for the first night and a night on the boat with kayaking on the second day. The caves were cool, though a bit dramatized with colored lights, and I enjoyed the walk through. I don't know how they were formed (our English speaking guide spoke pretty poor English), but the caves were discovered less than 15 years ago, so they are still in pretty good condition.

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After the caves, we docked and disembarked for Cat Ba Island. Looking to save money and gas, one minibus showed up to transport 15 passengers and all of there bags. It was so crazy squished, and the 30 km drive to our hotel was less than enjoyable.

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When we finally did arrive at our hotel we found that it was the only hotel outside of the city. It was 2 km from anything, a bit of a drag if you want to do anything. Another added 'bonus' was that Cat Ba Island is run by a generator and therefore has no electricity between the hours of 5 am and 6:30 pm. This translated into no internet, and no messages back to home, yielding in apparent terror from the Beijing earthquake (which I don't really understand as I am in Vietnam and no where near Beijing... China is a huge country...). Anyways, the next day we trekked up a mountain... Literally. We actually climbed up rocks for a bit. Slightly ridiculous, but it resulted in a decent view of the Island (I would have been fine without it, but I didn't know that until AFTER I had completed the trek...).

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After the trek, we returned to our hotel for lunch, a nap (me)/beach time (Brooke and Allie) and were picked up to be taken to the boat.

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Nice to see some things never change and I am still a blanket hog

The van took us back to the same dock, but when the tour guy said, "I'm sorry, there is no more room on the boat," we were not so happy. The whole reason we had come on this tour in the first place was to sleep on a boat, and dang it, we were going to sleep on a boat. We calmly told the agent this, he went away talked on his phone and came back and said we could all (the 3 of us) share one bed. Again, we explained to the man, that while we knew it was not his fault that the boat was overbooked we were not going to pay full price to all share a bed. We said we would consider this option if we were refunded part of our tickets, since we had paid to each get our own beds on the boat. The magical thing about Vietnam and booking tours is that, all you have to do is say you want your money back, and, as if by magic, things appear. After we asked for a refund, magically 2 full rooms opened up and we were able to stay the night in our own beds (Allie actually had 2).

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After the bed fiasco we immediately went out Kayaking. Brooke and I kayaked around a big island thing, which from far away looked smaller... it was fun though, and we returned to the boat, had dinner and played cards with some girls from the Netherlands, and France. Allover an enjoyable time. The next morning found us cruising back to Halong City where we had lunch and then returned to Hanoi. As a side note, our driver went SO SLOW! Well, maybe just normal speed, but having grown accustomed to crazy drivers, it made the trip seem to take forever... just a side note...

Posted by court_7 19.05.2008 21:07 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Nha Trang...

Monkies, motos and mountains

9 °C

The sleeper bus arrived from HCMC at 6 am, and, after an unfortunate episode involving me forgetting a bag on the bus, and having to pay nearly half of its worth to get it back (don't worry, it wasn't worth that much), we had a hotel, all our belongings, and a map of a new city to explore.

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Our splurge of the trip, a 2 star hotel.

We set out on foot, exploring the beach, finding food and overall having an enjoyable time in Nha Trang. The weather was beautiful, and the smaller city was a welcome relief from the craze that was HCMC. Nha Trang, apparently a big area for Vietnamese holidays, was very tourist friendly, with lots of little shops and food choices. Dinner found us at an awesome Indian restaurant where we gorged ourselves on tasty Nan, curry and rice. Needless to say, I practically had to be rolled back to our hotel I was so stuffed.

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Beach down the street from our hotel

Since we were only spending one night in Nha Trang, we wanted to get an early start on our next day and started out the next morning at 7 am. We rented our first motorbike, from a man on the side of the street named Mr. Lam. It never ceases to amaze me how trusting these people are with tourists. We showed up, wrote down our names, told him our hotel name, paid him 6 USD and were given a shiny black bike with 2 helmets. We didn't show any ID, give him our passports or anything. For all he knows we could drive the bike to Hanoi and never return... lucky for him we are honest...

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It was funny though, when we got our bike, both Brooke and I looked at it, a bit apprehensive, Mr. Lam asked, "You drive before?" Brooke confidently said yes (she had driven one twice, more than my once), and after he showed us how to start and brake we were off to a fabulous, albeit wobbly, start.

Our days itinerary consisted of Monkey Island (which, after searching the Internet in vain for directions, I eventually got the hotel to write down what it was called in Vietnamese) followed by waterfalls. Mind you, we had not researched the waterfalls, but Mr. Lam, when we rented the bike said, after "Monkey Island you see waterfalls, just go 3 km more." With those stellar directions we headed out. To be fair, we had a map with an arrow in the direction/road to initially drive and the receptionist, though surprised we were going to go on our own, did say you stay on HWY 1 the whole time. Once we did stop to ask directions... well ask may be a stretch, as we stopped at a fork in the road where at a small shack, turned make shift convenience store I was able to beckon to a woman, who though she spoke no English, when I showed her the Vietnamese words and looked confused (something I have perfected) she pointed to go right... Eventually we made it to the boat dock (18 km outside of town, 17 km off the map... go us huh?). Since we can't have all the luck, we had just missed the boat, and 15 minutes later, after staying off the package deal offers and eating a distasteful pistachio popsicle (green, I thought lime, not so much... I don't recommend it), we took the short boat ride that brought us to Monkey Island.

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At the pier, waiting for the boat to take us out to the island

Monkey Island is a small island that is less a Monkey sanctuary as it is a commercialized establishment, home to tons of monkeys that, due to all the tourists constantly feeding them, are mostly tame. The island boasts showing monkeys in their 'natural habitat', which is a stretch for sure, but was pretty cool. The monkeys are really smart though, and right after they sold the 'monkey food' the monkeys jumped up on the tourists, scaring them and causing them to drop their bags of food, resulting in the monkeys getting all the food. I, stupidly, was eating an orange, and had a hungry entourage of monkeys, begging and jumping up on me trying to get my fruit. Selfishly, I slurped up the entire orange, faster than I would have liked, to avoid getting attacked by all of the crazy monkeys.

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Completing the commercial extortion of the monkeys was a 'Dog and Monkey Show'. Dogs walking on 2 legs, monkeys riding the backs of dogs and racing, goats walking on balance beams and monkeys doing all sorts of tricks (my fav was the bicycle riding, complete with a Tuk Tuk driver and passenger). In the end though, the whole thing was pretty inhumane. All of the monkeys were wearing collars with leashes and when they came out they would hold the leash so their handlers wouldn't pull so hard and hurt their necks. I can't imagine the trainers are that kind to them, 2 animals tried to escape, and the man did not yell happy sounding words at them... oh gosh; my PETA is showing, sorry...

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Leashes aside, this was my fav: Tuk Tuk driver with passenger, notice how the monkey is crossing 'her' legs??

Having had enough of animal cruelty we caught the boat back to the dock and set off in hopes of finding waterfalls. Much to my shock, we did eventually find the falls, whether they were the ones Mr. Lam had spoke of is debatable, but it was an enjoyable adventure finding it anyway so all was well. (To actually find the turn off we had to ask 3 different people, and got our point across by drawing a picture of a waterfall... I am quite a gifted artist... pointing to our water bottle and making ridiculous hand motions... regardless we got there in the end).

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Ba Ho, the waterfall area, was a forest area with 3 different waterfalls you can visit by trekking up to them. After paying the entrance fee we set off on the trail. Apparently we looked like we may drown, as a young Vietnamese forest ranger followed us and helped us find our way their and back from the waterfalls (which turned out to be nice, as we may not have found the falls on our own.)

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Though not overly spectacular, the falls were pretty, and the best part was being able to swim below the falls in the natural pools. After the falls, we returned to Nha Trang, almost crashed into a parked bike (don't worry, all was well in the end), and prepared for yet another 12 hour bus ride to Hoi An...

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Posted by court_7 19.05.2008 20:17 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam: HCMC

-17 °C

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For more pictures CLICK HERE

Following our bus ride from Hades (i.e. Siem Reap to PP), we were determined to enjoy our ride from PP to HCMC. With this in mind, we booked our tickets in advance, requested the front row and hoped for the best. 7 am came and we were picked up for the bus, driven less than a block and told to wait. A major irritant I have with this area is that they pick you up and force you to sit and wait for at least an hour every time you catch any sort of public transport. Also, generally no one speaks any English so it is hard to know which bus you should actually be getting on! After waiting for 15 minutes or so with no idea of what to do (people kept looking at us and saying 'wait here'), we talked to the guy with the megaphone (megaphone = importance, he must be in charge of something right?) and he said to wait here (shocking) and that the bus would be the next one. After waiting another 20 minutes, another bus pulled out, Mr. Megaphone waved at us and we got on the bus, in hopes we would arrive in HCMC later that day. Conclusion, I've said it a thousand times, but being patient, looking confused and asking loads of questions will get you far. I for one am shocked I have not gotten on the wrong bus by mistake through my different travels. I think my only saving grace is the fact that I ask so many people questions that I eventually get turned back around into the right direction.

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Finally on our bus, our ride turned out to be fabulous. There were only 6 people on our bus, which was a bit ridiculous, especially when we took a ferry across a river, parked right next to another bus going to HCMC that was also quite empty. You think they could have coordinated and put us all on one bus... It would definitely save a lot of gasoline that is for sure, but who cares about conservation. The rest of the ride however went over without much of a hitch, with good seats, good music volume, and slightly cold... but much better than any other ride we have had. Ironically, with nearly the entire bus open, Brooke and I stayed in the front seats. We could have each had 4 seats, but whatever. All the books had warned of corrupt Vietnamese officials scamming money at the border crossing, and after the fiasco in Cambodia, we were prepared for the worst. In actuality however, it turned out to be fine, easy actually, well all except the part when the bus almost left me at the border of Vietnam when the guard could not find my entry stamp. I walked out of the building just as the bus was pulling away. Flashbacks of Florence ensued; this time however, Brooke was able to convince the driver to stop. (You would think he would have noticed though; there were only 6 of us on the bus in the first place! Again, whatever.)

Safely on the bus, we arrived in HCMC around 3 pm, got a hostel (after bargaining, and climbing many sets of stairs to see different rooms), and set off to see the War Remnants museum and Reunification palace. Because we didn't have much time, we opted to just look at the Reunification palace and not go through it. Before the war, it was the seat of the South Vietnamese govt, and it was here that the North Vietnamese tank broke through the gate, taking Saigon and officially ending the war. After looking at the tank for a bit through the gate (fixed to my dismay... it would have been way cooler if it was still broken... not practical mind you, but cooler) we went to the War Remnants museum.

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The War Remnants museum was very interesting as it was information on the Vietnam War from the perspective of the North Vietnamese. It was very different to how I had learned about the war, as the 'enemy' talked about in the displays, was actually America. One of the areas of the museum was completely dedicated to the atrocities of war, focusing heavily on Agent Orange and napalm. The thing that was the most horrible about these was the lasting effects they had on the people of Vietnam. Birth defects, disfiguring burns, the signs from these weapons are everywhere. I would like to hope the USA did not understand the lasting effects these weapons would have... I hope. One thing I learned from the museum was that, of the 3 mil casualties from the war, 2 mil were civilians... I don't know, devastation of war is awful to say the least.

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After the museum, we walked by HCMC's version of Notre Dame Cathedral, apparently a smaller version of the original? I wouldn't know as I've never been. We also walked by the Opera House, which, just as in America, is surrounded by all of the uppity shops like LV, Burberry and other ridiculously priced labels. Dinner was a fabulous experience, as HCMC has many veg restaurants. Zen, was just that: delicious veg food with no more mystery meat.

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Our posh veg place, so fancy, but still cheap.

The next morning, after booking air tickets to Laos and making our tour bus wait for us, we went to Cu Chi tunnels. As is standard with nearly all set tours, we had a stop over at a handicapped artisan factory, where again, the driver almost left some people... A simple act of counting how many passengers are in the van before you speed off would save a lot of heartaches.

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The Cu Chi tunnels were an extensive system built 3 levels deep, very tiny and dirty and showed how the Vietcong got around and lived underground in Cu Chi near Saigon. The tour guide for the other group was really good and I think he may have fought in the war, as he was very knowledgeable and anti-American (not in a mean way, but you could definitely tell his side).

The tour guide explained that the Vietcong men women and children all fought against Americans, setting traps, shooting from fox holes underground etc. The most interesting thing was that they used anything we left behind to fight us: tires for shoes, old bombs to make new ones and land mines, any can (tuna, soda etc) they could find they converted into land mines etc. Children and people to old or young to fight would help by laboring in the fields to get food to feed the soldiers. There was definitely a community wide effort in this area to rid out the Americans.

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Notice I am getting out of the hole by myself. The tour guide definitely doubted my strength and abilities to do so... I am so buff though and easily got out of the hole.

At the end of the tour, we were to walk/crawl through about 40 m of tunnels. The first section of the tunnels was greatly enlarged for tourists, while the latter half not as much. 2 large American men could only fit through the first section, and for some parts of the later sections I had to crawl it was so narrow. For the tourists, they had installed lights in parts of the tunnels, but in some parts there were no lights and it was SO dark. It would have been so scary during war going through these tunnels, especially since the VC planted traps within the tunnels ("welcome to Vietnam" as the tour guide laughed), and since it is pitch black (you cannot even see your hand in front of your face) it would have been near impossible to be able to miss the traps.

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After the tunnels, we tasted tapioca root, a staple for VC troops during the war... It actually wasn't that bad, bland, but ok. But then again, I like some pretty weird things, I am sure it got old day after day though.

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Another thing they had us try was Rice Whiskey with snakes and other vile creatures in it. I passed, but others in the group tried it... mostly I thought it just looked really disgusting.

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After our tour, we returned to the city, did some shopping in the crazy busy market, picked up some snacks for the bus, ate dinner at another (more classy) veg place, got our plane tickets to Laos and got on the sleeper bus. Next up, Nha Trang...

Posted by court_7 09.05.2008 04:03 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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