● For full details on our route, transport info, hotel details, etc, look at our Google Maps page

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Mekong Delta

30th – 31st December

After an inhumanely early start of 7am, we joined the rest of our group and boarded our bus. For once our luck was in and the coach of 40 was in fact an intimate minibus of fifteen, a mixture of ages but all of whom seemed to be fairly independent and similarly like-minded. First stop Cat Be – home to a famous floating market.

The Hard Sell
Our guide introduced himself and after a few
pleasantries and a bit of karaoke (?!) he went in for the kill. The cheapest way to take in a Mekong tour was to spend the night in a mini hotel in Chau Doc (not the alternative floating hotel option) and the slow boat across the border to PP (rather than the express boat). The cost is just $30, versus the steep $60 for a fast boat. We weren’t surprised when we were invited to upgrade our ticket, despite the already hard sell from the travel agency on booking. This was Vietnam after all!

The market was a huge disappointment, but then we’d already been advised by friends to visit in the early morning (having stayed in a nearby hotel), not at 11 o’clock when the tourist boats arrive and the traders leave. We were given the hard sell again at this point, though the price for the fast boat upgrade had been reduced to a more reasonable $10. A few people bought into this but again we declined, both thinking thoughts on how the price might drop again…!

We were taken to see a coconut candy workshop and a rice cake factory
. Both were fun, nothing to do with the tastings (!) and were something we probably wouldn’t have seen ourselves. Back on the boat we floated down the peaceful, beautiful Mekong whilst our guide prattled on about how we could buy Catch of the Day at the restaurant we were going to. Now we realised why lunch wasn’t included in the ticket – they wouldn’t have the opportunity to sell us fish (by the kilo) at hugely inflated prices!

After a typical Vietnamese lunch of soup and rice (of course we didn’t succumb – though it did look good and if we were merely on holiday like many others…), we spent the afternoon travelling towards the border town of Chau Doc, listening to some more singing by our guide and further arm twisting on the fast boat upgrade (no further price drop…yet). At this point we were also informed about the comforts of “floating hotel” and how the mini hotel was now not even in Chau Doc but 10km outside town!! Clearly this was news to us, but we had no desire to spend anymore money with this company, especially when it became apparent we wouldn’t reach the town in time for the promised “sunset on the deck” (for the floating hotel guests).

Dissapearing Slow Boats
The hotel was fine, rough… but we’ve stayed in worse. It
turns out it was located in another nearby town, near several restaurants so we didn’t starve at least. Early the next day we visited a fish farm and a small Muslim Cham village where girls were weaving. Transport at this point was by our “slow” boat, our home for the next 10 hours (versus the 3 hours fast boat!). This morning we were made a final offer for the upgrade; just $5 each and we’d arrive in PP at 1pm, time to find a home and be in the bar for sunset. We were tempted, but there were only 6 of us now travelling by this method, everyone else had joined a much larger group travelling by the speed boat. By this time we’d grouped up with a couple of young Dutch girls who didn’t have any money left at all. We offered our guy everything we had left between us (bare in mind we were crossing a border and had ditched our dong the night before), a little over $10 for four people. He came back a few minutes later and said it wasn’t possible, the deal was $5 or not at all. We explained that we weren’t in a hurry and actually “wanted” to get the slow boat, to see the scenery. Before we knew it we were being ushered to the waiting fast boat (where had our boat suddenly gone?) which would take us as far as the border, from where a slow boat would take us onwards (oh… really?). By this point we were pretty sure we’d won the stand off and thoughts turned to the sundowners!

The slowest border crossing ever followed (normally it takes just a few minutes) – we were all left in a tourist restaurant for 90 minutes, having paid a $2 fee for the tour operator to arrange our visas for us. Unsurprisingly our slow boat didn’t materialise and we were smiling from ear to ear (quietly, a few had actually paid to upgrade and some had paid $20 more for the privilege!) as we boarded the express boat. Across the border and suddenly the truthful Cambodian agent explained how the rest of the journey would take the rest of the day, and that we’d arrive around 4pm. Unsurprised, we were just relieved to be out of Vietnam where people tell you what they think will make you part with your money the quickest!

Top Traveller Tip #11 - If you take a tour from Saigon to Phnom Penh, via the Mekong Delta, don't splash out on the Fast Boat ticket. Save your money and buy the Slow Boat. If you resist all the calls to upgrade during the course of your tour, the chances are you'll end up on the Fast Boat anyway for free - the slow one doesn't seem to exist. NOTE: We were with Delta Adventure Travel - other companies may well have a slow boat!

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Ho Chi Minh City - Saigon

28th – 30th December

Our final destination in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City, formerly and better known as Saigon. So much for the dry weather, the heavens opened just as we stepped off the bus. Bloody typical! Sam watched the bags in the dryness of a café and sent Ady to do the dirty work – he came back about an hour later, having found a room for $10 down some back alley! As the southern capital, Saigon isn’t known for it’s bargains but at least the hotel was dry!

A Chance Encounter
Sometime later, the rain abated and we headed out into the complete madness that is Saigon and caught the end of the Vietnam vs Thailand Asia Cup Final, second leg! (phew!) It was a nail biting climax, Vietnam equalised in the last few seconds of injury time. The bars and cafes where the locals were watching the game erupted, and within minutes chaos descended onto the streets. Everyone mounted their scooters, grabbed their flags, and paraded around the city centre cheering and chanting. Ady took hundreds of photos, the atmosphere was electric – at one point several people clambered onto the roof of a car and jumped up and down hysterically until the roof caved in. People were dancing on the roofs of buses and amongst the sheer madness, Sam walked straight into Gill, a girl who she used to work with 5 years ago! We called it a night at 1am but the party carried on until 3am when the police (thankfully) told everyone to go home!

After a sleepness night we made a slow start the following day. As usual, due to prioritising our stomachs (check out the picture of Ady’s pineapple fried rice) we eventually made it to the sights….if a little too late. The Reunification Palace was closed for lunch between 12.00 and 1.30pm and by now it was 11.50. The nearby War Remnants Museum was also about to close for 90 minutes. Saigon’s Notre Dame cathedral, completed in 1883, deserved a closer look but this too was closed. Surely churches are open for worshippers to visit at lunch time? Frustrated we found ourselves passing time in an expensive shopping mall, trying to avoid the attention of the overly helpful assistants.

The War Remnants Museum
The wait was worth it though. Less fussed about the palace and swayed by Lonely Planets “not for the faint hearted” review of the museum we joined the masses wanting to know more about Vietnam’s 30 years of war. The relics and documentation were extremely thorough and left few questions unanswered. The photographs of and detaile
d stories about the victims were particularly harrowing and after a couple of very humbling hours, we left feeling slightly queasy, yet having learnt more about the country and it’s history than in our whole time in Vietnam.

Wanting to end the day on a lighter note we set off for the Museum of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine, hoping to have thoughts of killing and destruction replaced by knowledge of healing herbs. Turning down offers of a moto ride across town, we struggled to make sense of the useless Lonely Planet map. Over an hour later and way too much pounding the pavements (when they exist and aren’t covered by bikes) we still hadn’t found the place. We were determined to find it but were running out of time and as usual, the weather turned against us…we found ourselves legging it for shelter before we got soaked. It just rained and rained (thought this was dry season?) and we sat nursing a fruit juice as long as we could before hopping on a bus in the vague direction of home.

Which way now?!
Saigon rush hour is completely mental – the bus crawled along the road at snails pace. After about half an hour and still at a loss as to our whereabouts (we were definitely nowhere near tourist-ville) Ady spoke to some kids at the back of the bus. It seems we were on the wrong bus and were heading miles out of town, not a small balls up in this city of 12 million! Damn – should have listened to the local girl who told us which bus was definitely going our way! About 2 hours later we made it back to the hotel, a little weary but at least laughing about our ride into “real” Saigon.

We’d spent most of the day deliberating on whether to stay in Saigon for NYE or head to Phnom Penh (Cambodia’s capital, we call it PP) directly, or slowly, via the Mekong delta. The Saigonese certainly know how to party, if the night before was anything to go by! Still, unsure of how we’d fill another 2 days before NYE, we found a tour that would take us through the delta and deposit us in PP for the New Year celebrations. The usual time taken to tour the area is 3 days but neither of us could handle this long on a coach with 40 other tourists, yet the price of all the tours was way less than if we’d travelled independently, cobbling together each of the legs. We’d miss visiting the Cu Chi tunnels but if we stayed one more day we’d spend New Year in the border town of Chau Doc, probably with a bunch of old fusties. Keen to see another, slower side of Vietnam where the people are warm and friendly (and don’t try to rip you off!) we booked to depart the next day.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Vietnam Celebrations

Not of the festive kind though... Vietnam won the AFF Asia Cup in a nailbiting football match against Thailand. In the second leg of the final, it was 1-0 to Thailand until Vietnam equalised in the last 30 seconds of injury time, meaning they snatched victory from Thailand.

The streets of Saigon went wild. Tens of thousands of flag toting motorcycles were on the streets and the celebrations went on till the early hours!

We're about to leave Vietnam - we'll be posting the tales of this part of the journey soon!

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Dalat

25th - 28th December

As we travelled by bus into the Central Highlands, we knew we’d definitely made the right choice in cancelling our bike tour. Promises that the rain would lift as we left the coast failed to materialise. A gloomy journey lay ahead and it was only as we got into Dalat that the rain finally stopped. Escaping the ‘special’ hotel that the bus company took us to, we eventually found a hotel that met our high standards! The Peace hotel is one of the main backpacker haunts of Dalat, and offered all we could want, including food that actually had some flavour!

Tandem bicycles were on offer but when we attempted to ride one, we found that they were so poorly maintained that there was no way they would cover the distance we wanted to go. After half an hour, we gave up and wandered round town picking up some bargain bananas, (8 pence for a big bunch!) and having some local food for lunch. We wanted to spend the day looking into a route to ride around the highlands, but as the weather wasn’t improving we questioned whether it was feasible to tour the highlands at all. We decided to wait one more day to see if the weather would lift.

Unfortunately there was no improvement in the weather the following day, just continuous drizzle and our central highlands adventure was not to be. We spent the day sightseeing locally on a Honda Wave. The Crazy House, pictured to the left, was one of the highlights for Sam!

Unable to take any more rain, we booked a bus ticket to Saigon the next morning, keen to find some dry weather for New Years Eve.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Nha Trang

22nd - 25th December

An uneventful but uncomfortable 12 hours later we arrived in the “party zone” of Vietnam, the sunshine southern coast. The usual touts greeted us off the bus, so nothing new here, but to our immense irritation we were stalked by a guy on a motorbike for upwards of half an hour (he was literally curb crawling!) while we checked a few places out. The longer he stalked us, the more insistent we became that we didn’t want to go to “Nice guesthouse”. We ended being quite rude to him, but still he followed us! Eventually we dived into a café for a drink and hid out the back until we were sure he’d gone. Not what you need at 6am, still feeling drugged from a cocktail of sleeping pills and sea legs. We eventually settled on the Kim Tuoc hotel, a definite recommendation if ever you visit.

Nha Trang is definitely a place where you come to “do” as opposed to “see”. Aside from lazing on the beach, you can go to mud pools and a hot spring, take a boat tour to some off shore islands, go windsurfing, wakeboarding or sailing. We were looking forward to spending a few days here, and there were worse ways to spend Christmas. The sun was shining and after a morning recovering in bed we hit the beach, a busy stretch of sand more like Ipanema or somewhere on the “Costas” than we were expecting, but a beach all the same.

We met Ben and Annie that day, a French Canadian couple who introduced themselves and talked us into chartering a boat with them for a private tour of the islands. The alternative is a vessel crammed with up to 40 holiday makers at once, so immediately this appealed to us. Needless to say the price quoted was high, but we hoped to find another few people to split the costs with. We agreed to sail on Christmas Eve, allowing for some more beach bumming and a possible trip to the mud pools in the meantime.

The Biking Plan
As we’ve mentioned before, one of our intentions for Vietnam was to spend part of the time touring by
motorbike. We’d already given up plans to ride the Northern Loop from Hanoi and now hoped to spend time following some of the Ho Chi Minh trail through the Central Highlands. Easy Rider is a concept started by a biker in Dalat (tourist capital of the highlands) whereby a tourist can ride pillion with a rider, who also acts as guide. The original company is still based in Dalat, but in true Vietnam copycat style, “Easy Riders” now stand on every street corner in both Dalat and Nha Trang, touting their tours.

Having already deliberated for many hours on how we could hire a bike for travel through the highlands one way only, we agreed to talk to one of the Easy Riders about taking a tour with their company. As well as tours from Dalat through the highlands, it was possible to start from Nha Trang and travel up into the highlands, ending in Dalat, perfectly placed for onward travel to Saigon. Of course we’d have to relinquish independent travel but in return would overcome the obstacle of having responsibility for transporting a bike back to the rental company at the end of our journey. It seemed like a perfect compromise, and there was the added bonus of having a local guy showing us parts of the countryside we would otherwise have missed. The question is, would they let Ady ride? There was no way he would sit behind a guide for three days!!

We’d suggested our idea to Ben and Annie and found they were actually keen to do the same, but both wanted to ride pillion and take a guide each. Financially this would be perfect for us as we wouldn’t need a guide at all, we could just tag on the back! We negotiated a cracking price with the company Papa Hahn, who seemed to think our request was perfectly reasonable and slashed the price of $60 a day (per person) down to just $35. They’d even promised us some proper helmets and assured us they would fit (we’ll reserve judgement on this one…). Christmas Day was booked as our Day 1, agreed by all as a pretty cool was to spend the day.
And that’s when it all went wrong….

The dull, overcast skies of Northern Vietnam must have followed us. We awoke on Christmas Eve to torrential rain. At least we didn’t get round to booking the boat trip the night before! The rains of the early morning
carried right through the day, and initial thoughts of how Christmas Eve might be a washout were turning to concerns of our pending bike trip.

Christmas Eve
In the vein of our journey through Vietnam so far (a bit of a disappointment)
we were set to be disappointed some more. Christmas Eve was fun but very, very wet. We bumped into some guys we’d met kayaking in Halong Bay and joined them for some drinking games in the Red Apple. This must be the simplest drinking game in the world, but also the easiest to lose! Basically you take it in turns to flip a coin, calling out “stars” or “no stars” (Vietnam coins for heads or tails) and if you call out wrong you get to down the drink. The real downside is that before you call, you have to top up the communal glass with a drink of your own choosing, as much or little as you want, but the concoction of lager mixed with Whiskey, red bull and coke (at one point Ady threw in some Christmas cake too) is enough to make anyone’s mouth water (in the wrong way). Of course if you guess right, you get to pass the glass along to the next person. Sam guessed wrong three times running and downed three large glasses of this stuff in the space of 10 minutes and (not being a lager drinker) had to swiftly declare out before the night was ruined.

The rain held out all night and despite some dancing in the rain (not by us, the rain was freezing and we’d learnt from Brazil that dancing in the rain isn’t as cool as it looks!) it put a real dampener on things. Christmas Day was just the same and our desperate pleading for it to stop wasn’t having any effect. Papa Hahn did their best to persuade us to go anyway, and even pulled out some plastic ponchos, but there was no way we were riding without our Hein Geriche waterproofs! We cancelled and were refunded 80% of the tour fee, deciding to head by bus to Dalat (perhaps for the best with the hangovers we had!) in hope the weather would dry up and we could ride from there the next day.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Hoi An

19th - 21st December

We’d been looking forwards to visiting Hoi Ann, a favourite destination of many visitors to Vietnam. We’d also been assured that our second leg of the journey, from Hoi Ann south to Saigon would be more enjoyable due to the warmth of the easy going southern Vietnamese. So no more hard sell then?!

Hoi Ann is seen as the best example of Vietnam’s yesteryear. The charming old town has been named as an Unesco World Heritage site and is a nice place to wander around both before and after dark, when the lights emitted from the buzzing cafes and restaurants make the narrow, cobbled streets glow. Set upon the Thu Bon River, the town grew up as an international trading port from around the 17th century. As such, the early architecture has been influenced by the Chinese, Japanese and Europeans and remains so to this day, 150 years later.

The usual mission to find a cheap room ensued. For some reason, hotels in Vietnam feel the need to provide a TV, fully stocked mini fridge, free toothbrushes, shampoo and soap. A basic room in a budget hotel will still contain these same “essenti
als” as a 5 star establishment, but starts to scrimp on the quality of the fundamentals (in our eyes) like a good mattress, pillow and clean (cotton) sheets. If you can’t sleep because the bed is like a sack of tatties and the pillow resembles a beanbag I guess at least you can get a beer and a packet of Pringles from the fridge! It was just so frustrating and to us an absolute no brainer of a business opportunity for someone with money to spare to establish a chain of decent budget guesthouses. Hoi Ann was no different to other towns in this respect, but for the yardsticks had been moved significantly and a $5 room elsewhere was more like $10 in Hoi Ann. We begrudgingly handed over our dollars and spent the night breathing in mildew and dustmites.

Hoi Ann is also known for it’s dozens of tailor shops. Apparently, anything you could ever want can be made up here for you, in a matter of days. Being in “the industry” back home, Sam was fairly sceptical as to the quality and workmanship, but the excuse for new clothes of any description led to a morning in a recommended outfit and some fun choosing styles and fabrics and being fitted out. An old All Saints skirt from home was the inspiration. A price was agreed, much more than we’d expected, but I suppose we’re not buying 10,000 units this time!

The skirt was ready just a few hours later – now that was impressive, it normally takes at least 6 weeks! To be fair, the seamstress had made a reasonable attempt and the finished garment was nice, if quite a lot too long. Perhaps she thought the requested mini skirt was just too indecent! Not wanting to miss out, Ady had put in a request for a new pair of prescription sunnies with a local optician. The end result wasn’t quite as attractive as the skirt, but the poor optician had a mission on his hands, making a chunky -6 lens look cool!


Hoi Ann has also grown as a tourist destination due to its close proximity to the ancient city of My Son. Also an Unesco world heritage site, the ruins of My Son are some of the most important remains of the ancient Cham empire. The site is extensive, the ruins beautifully preserved and the jungle setting make for a must-see visit. If you can time your trip, as we hdid, with the departure of a bus load of Hoi Ann day trippers then so much the better – deserted and peaceful is definitely the best way to appreciate the place.

We’d hired a motorbike for the short 35km journey out of town to My Son. Despite assurances from the woman who rented us the bike as to the supposed 1 litre of petrol in the tank, we ground to a halt just outside of town. After walking a short way we managed to hitch a “tow” with a local guy, who tied a piece of rope onto the back of his bike and pulled us along with him, Ady hanging on for dear life to the other end, trying to steer us and not pull the guy over at each corner!

He dropped us at a roadside stall where an old woman sold us a litre of petrol, for a slightly inflated fee. At least it would get us to the nearest garage…if there was one! Shortly after we passed what looked like a makeshift petrol pump and promptly pulled over feeling relieved. Before we’d even spoken the guy said to us $2…!!! How much?!? Aside from the fact that nobody pays for anything in dollars in Vietnam (you can’t get them from the cash machines) We rode another couple of kms to the proper petrol station where we paid about 70 cents per litre!

Top Traveller Tip #10 - Never Trust Anyone! This applies to everyone and everything. When you ask someone the duration of a bus journey, take their answer and add on 2 hours. If they say there is a litre of petrol in the tank; check. There won't be, and you'll run out! If they tell you the room is quiet, look forward to Karaoke all night long. We could go on...

Although Hoi Ann is not famous for it’s beaches, there are a few luxury resorts situated on a nice white sandy beach just a short distance from town. We managed to catch a few rays of sun there that afternoon, the first we’d seen since our arrival in gloomy Vietnam, though we were kitted out in our makeshift “bike gear” and must have looked a sight next to all the bikini clad tourists!

Another overnight bus loomed, this time we made sure it was really a sitting bus before we loaded our bags on. Southward bound, to warmer weather we hoped!

Friday, 19 December 2008

Hue

18th - 19th December

So after a hellish 12 hour journey and just one toilet break we were both pretty grumpy. Ten minutes after passing through the centre of Hue, where we wanted to get off, we were dropped at a hotel. To the amazement of the staff, we refused the kind offers of ‘Room for 10 dollar!’ and set off walking back the way the bus had just been. Our mood definitely wasn’t improving!

Settling for a bargain $5 room, we set out on foot to get our bearings. We were bombarded as ever with offers for tuk tuk and moto, but not really having a destination (the sky was looking stormy and we didn’t want to venture far) confused the hell out of the drivers – ‘just walking’ became our favourite phrase.

Lucy and Rene, our friends from Thailand, arrived at the same hotel later in the day. Since we left them in Pai, they took the opposite route to us - they were heading north through Vietnam as we were heading south. An evening of exchanging notes and recommendations for the upcoming parts of our respective journeys followed. Thanks for the tips guys!

The following day we all headed out together by motorbike, accompanied by Mr Hung, a local guide. We had a whistlestop tour of all the main sights around Hue, and were finished by noon, as we had a bus to catch. We expected to be whizzing between sights on the bikes, but the pace was much more relaxed.

We visited the most important pagoda in the area – Thien Mu, and also a second pagoda. An incense stick making village was also on the agenda, where Sam was able to try her hand at Incense stick rolling and became a dab hand. A new career perhaps?! The Tu Doc tomb was the most expensive part of the day, with admission costing 60,000 dong. Inside we saw the tombs of former Vietnamese royalty. It wasn’t what we’d all expected but was fairly interesting none the less.

On the way back we called at an American bunker used in the Vietnam war (referred to as the American war by the Vietnamese), with a great view of the River Song. It was a bit grim inside the bunkers but we could hardly feel sorry for them! Mr Hung left us to spend the last hour by ourselves so we took off around the citadel in the centre of the city.

After a flying visit to Hue, we were on our next bus that same afternoon; Hoi Ann, thank god just a few short hours away.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Open Tour Bus

Background
Throughout Vietnam, the ‘Open Tour’ bus rules. An open ticket allows you to travel from Hanoi to Saigon, in either direction, stopping at many places en route, at a bargain price. This doesn’t make for very good independent travel – you are shepherded around like a package tourist. The bus companies also have a habit of trying to make more money from you by taking you to a ‘friends’ hotel at your destination and selling you an overpriced hotel room. For the long distances between some places, there was no alternative but to take an Open Tour bus.

Sinh Cafe is one of the biggest operators, but also one of the most copied. There are tens of other companies in Hannoi claiming to be Sinh Cafe. The real one is this one: http://www.sinhcafevn.com/AboutUs.asp

There are 2 types of bus - Sleeping (around 6 rows of 3 bunk beds where you get to lie almost flat) or Sitting (a normal bus with 45 reclining seats). We don’t think the sleeping bus is worth the extra money as the ‘beds’ are tiny for a westerner and it’s a bit like laying in a coffin!

Top Traveller Tip #9 – Think carefully before getting an Open Tour ticket. They can be restrictive in the route they allow you to take. We didn’t buy an Open ticket, we just bought the legs as we needed them, which for us worked out cheaper. Straying away from the coast (e.g. into the central highlands and Dalat) could mean part of your ticket wasted. There are some local buses available, but in some cases even on the local bus you will be overcharged as you are a foreigner.

Our Journey from Ninh Binh to Hue
We bought the cheapest ticket, 170,000 dong ($10), for a sitting bus with reclining seats. Our bus pulled up at the hotel, and we were ushered aboard. Shoes off and into a plastic bag straight away, we noticed that this was a sleeping bus, and not a sitting bus as we expected. We thought we’d had a result, by paying half what the other passengers had paid, then we found out why! The driver’s assistant ushered Ady to sit on the seat next to the driver – the one that folds away when people are getting on and off – yes, the bolt upright crew seat! Sam was put in a seat in one of the two aisles, jammed between two sets of bunks, which also didn’t recline.

We refused to sit in these places as we’d paid for a reclining seat, and didn’t fancy travelling for 10 hours bolt upright with the chance of going straight through the windscreen constantly on our minds! We weren’t afraid to let them know our thoughts and spent the next 10 minutes ranting and raging at the crew (and under no circumstances are you supposed to lose your rag with another person in SE Asia, it’s an absolute no-no), insisting we were taken back to town, waking the entire bus of sleeping people in the process. Another ten minutes and we were back at the hotel, letting rip at the staff there. They called around and told us that another bus would come to pick us up, this time a proper sitting bus.

Deja-vu as we were ushered aboard another sleeping bus. Shoes off again, but before we pulled away from the hotel we managed to determine that this wasn’t our bus either!

Third time lucky, we squeezed into a couple of seats on the back row of the next bus to arrive. This was going to be a very bumpy journey!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Ninh Binh

16th – 17th December

After 2 bone shaking buses, a taxi and a boat, we made it Ninh Binh (details on the Google Map). There are very few hotels here, and settling into a room at the Queens Mini Hotel, we wondered what else there would be in the town. The answer to that is a short one – not much! After a walk around town searching for food, we ended up back at the hotel eating with most of the other people that were staying there.

The main attractions are in the vicinity of Ninh Binh so we hired a motorb
ike for the day to see the area. The area is know as the Halong Bay of the paddy fields, with it’s spectacular limestone rock formations. It was good to be back on 2 wheels, independent again, although this Chinese bike wasn’t in the best condition – we were lucky to complete the day with it still intact!

First stop was Hoa Lu – the old capital of Vietnam under the Ding dynasty. After a few wrong turns, we happened upon the place, several tour busses hinting that we could be in the right place. We slowed, but the number of women running towards us trying to sell their wares encouraged us to speed up and not stop! What a couple of meanies! Also, the entrance fee was quite steep. Instead, we decided to ride down a road a bit further off the beaten track. We ended up in a couple of villages where, judging by the stares, tourists rarely venture! Ah, the wonder of having your own wheels!

The other major attraction in the area is the Tam C
oc caves. On the way to the caves, we stopped off at the Ban Long pagoda. It is built into a natural cave, and when we arrived there was nobody about. As we walked up the steps, we were joined by an old lady who came out of her house next to the pagoda, and started to turn on all the fairy lights inside the cave. The overall effect was quite comical and we had to hold back our giggles for risk of upsetting her. She gestured for us to follow her as she walked behind the Buddha – pointing out lots of formations in the rocks – you can see them in the photos. We left a small donation, and left much more satisfied than when we visit the larger pagodas where an entrance fee is charged.

Several more kilometres of riding and we thought we wer
e lost. The road turned into a track which was barely wide enough for a motorbike – had it not been for the western cyclists that we bumped into with their guide, we probably would have turned back! Assured that we were heading in the right direction, we continued and arrived at the Tam Coc cave complex.

Paying 30,000 dong per person, plus 60,000 for a boat, we thought we’d already
been cleaned out for the day, but it was only the start. All the places to eat were charging exorbitant prices, so two plates of fried rice were lunch that day. Then 5,000 dong to park the motorbike in the special parking area… we tried to park next to the local’s bikes but were spotted. Our friendly boat rowers, a girl our age and her mother took us for our trip down the river, through the caves. The journey through the caves and back again takes around 2 hours, and the first hour is spent enjoying the scenery with some background info from our rowers. They also strike up conversation about their lives and yours. Then they go in for the kill. We already learned that they only get to row the trip once every 10 days, as there are so many other families with boats. (Really?!) They practically tell us that we are the only chance they get to make some money for the next 10 days… feeling bad yet?

Through the last cave and at the half way point, miles from home, and a fleet of rowing boat mobile shops come over to greet us. “Buy something mister… drink for your rower!” 2 drinks, some oranges and some nuts come to $6… more than a nights accommodation to us! Guiltily we put back the nuts and barter the price down to a still expensive 40,000 dong. How could we refuse to by a drink for the lovely girl and her mum that had rowed us!

Next step on the plan of attack was the onboard sale of tablecloths and other linens, ‘handmade’ by the family. We were sitting ducks. From what we saw on the other boats, it looked to us like every family in the village ‘handmade’ the same goods and packed them just like they had come out of a factory (how cynical are we???!) After declining the offer to buy 23 times, they gave up and we rowed back in silence… that must be it we thought… we’d got off quite lightly.

Not quite, as the request for a tip for the rowing came while we were too far from shore to escape… Another 20,000 dong later, we were back on dry land, feeling bad, but still like we’d been taken to the cleaners!

Traveller Tip #8 – If you visit the Tam Coc caves, buy some Red Bull or other refreshments at the supermarket before your trip. As you get through the 3rd cave, get them out for your rowers and it will save you a few dollars. In conversation on the first half of the trip, mention how you own a large tablecloth and linen company, specialising in factory made goods that look handmade. It may help, but then again they may have a plan B…
Also, visit late afternoon for smaller crowds, but then again you will be the sole focus of all the sellers! You could also jump in a boat with a wealthy middle aged American and let them take all the flack!


On reflection, the caves were OK, but not as spectacular as some we have seen on the trip, and certainly the most expensive cave visit to date.

Back in Ninh Binh, we had a long wait for our overnight bus – it didn’t leave until 9pm. Our bargain price bus ticket, 10$ for a 12 hour journey was on a sitting bus, so a questionable nights sleep lay ahead!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Cat Ba and Halong Bay

13th – 16th December

With more than 3000 islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country's natural marvels. The vegetation covered islands are dotted with innumerable grottos created by the wind and the waves.

5 hours after leaving Hanoi, we arrived in Cat Ba town. The description in the Lying Planet guidebook had us envisage a peaceful picturesque town by a small port. We arrived in Blackpool.* High rise hotels dominated the seafront town and although the island is very beautiful, the town is not.


A kitsch 80’s throwback hotel room, with sea view of course, was ours for $5. We set out to explore and find some food. We didn’t have much success, and all 3 of the dinners we had on Cat Ba were memorable for the wrong reasons – no recommendations here then! The beaches near Cat Ba town were probably once very beautiful, but the mass of concrete and new ‘resort’ hotels, it was all a bit of an eyesore really.

One day, we signed up for a 1 day tour of Halong Bay with a company called Slo Pony. They promised a ‘cooler’ style of day trip than the other companies, offering rock climbing (expensive!), kayaking, and a fun backpacker crowd. We had a good day, but question if it was worth the extra money that it cost over a tour with the other local companies on Cat Ba.

Halong Bay is spectacular, as you’ll see from the photos. It’s just a shame the weather wasn’t better. Grey skies have been a familiar sight through Vietnam so far.

*For our readers not from the UK, Blackpool is a large seaside town in the north of England, famous for its fairground, Christmas illuminations and ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hats!

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Hanoi

11th – 13th December

Our special pre Christmas treat was a flight with Laos Airlines from Vientiane to Hanoi. The alternative bus journey of 24+ hours had a number of horror stories to support it, and we decided that the expense of the flight was worth it. We saw the plane and had second thoughts, however there was no going back by now! We boarded and were faced with the weirdest plane interior that we’ve ever seen. Bright fluorescent seat covers in a blue, green, pink and yellow design – I wish we’d taken a photo! Ady was lucky (or unlucky!) enough to get a window seat. The added feature of this window seat was a view behind the scenes of the plane, as the plastic panel surrounding the window meant Ady could see the metal skin and bolts holding the window in!

Amazingly, We made it to Hannoi and were now a world away from Laos. From the moment we walked through the arrivals doors, we could sense something different. Where in Laos, people had to be woken from slumber to serve you in a shop or bar, here in Vietnam, people were very much in your face, daring you not to buy their wares!

Top Traveller Tip #7 – Make sure you get a ticket for the airport minibus at Hannoi to ensure you are paying the right price. We paid double (50000 dong) what the locals were paying! Pay no more than $2.50!

Within an hour of landing we were in the city centre. After finding a hotel, we strolled around the city centre to get our bearings. It’s impossible to walk 10 feet in Hannoi without someone trying to sell you something or get you onto their moto or into their tuk tuk. The concept of wanting to walk around is alien. Even if we could afford to take tuk tuks everywhere we’d still have a problem in that most of the time we aren’t heading anywhere in particular – try and explain that to a driver! They have an answer for everything and will “show you city for good price” if you want.

Part of our plan for Vietnam was to hire a motorbike for around 10 d
ays and to head into the far north of the country. We were soon aware that this wasn’t going to be an easy task. The rental places we found were not what we expected and the helmets on offer didn’t make us feel comfortable. We’d be riding over 1000kms and with little more than a badly fitting building site hard hat to protect our heads we decided that this bit of our trip wasn’t going to happen.

With little to keep us in Hannoi, apart from the delicious Fanny (see photos) we had to move on. Getting a bus to the next destination should be simple. It isn’t. Firstly we need to explain about the ‘copy culture’ in Vietnam. When a business, for example “Sinh Café Transport” does well, all of a sudden many other businesses open up, and use the same name. In Hannoi there must be over 20 different travel companies calling themselves Sinh Café. This makes it difficult to find a company that isn’t a dodgy operator using someone elses success to give them a reputation!

We decided to go to Cat Ba Island, so we could visit Halong Bay independently instead of joining a tour from Hanoi. There are many ways to get to the island, we found what we believe to be the cheapest and easiest way, the number of locals on the bus normally lets you judge this, and we were certainly in the minority for this journey. Hoang Long sells a Bus-Bus-Boat-Bus ticket to get you from Hannoi to Cat Ba in 3.5 hours, this is what we used.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Vientiane

9th – 11th December

We arrived at 6pm, slightly chilled. Checked into the Wonderland 2 guest house – it was one of the few affordable places in the city. Had a curry. Ady got sick and spent the day in bed, Sam acting as reluctant nursemaid. We think it was the same thing that Ally and Jonny had a few days before!

The main reason to stay in Vientiane for a couple of days was to get our Vietnam visas. Mission accomplished and it was time to jet off to Hanoi. We treated ourselves to a 1 hour flight with Laos Airlines, instead of a 26 hour bus journey. When we saw the plane, we weren’t sure if we’d made the right decision. This would be a fun flight!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Merry Christmas and a Big Blog Update

First of all Merry Christmas to everyone! We've been busy typing up the past couple of months worth of news, and finally we're up to date again. You can read about the time we spent in the north of Thailand and then what we got up to in Laos. We are now in Vietnam, far enough south for it to be beach weather. We'll be heading off on Christmas day, for another mini adventure in the Central Highlands.

The updates we've just posted are linked below in chronlogical order, or you can just scroll to the bottom of this page and read from the last post upwards!

3rd - 5th November - Bangkok
5th - 6th November - Sukothai
6th - 15th November - Chiang Mai
15th November - Road to Pai
15th - 22nd November - Pai
22nd - 24th November - Chiang Rai
24th November - Into Laos - Huay Xai
25th - 27th November - Luang Nam Tha
28th - 29th November - Nong Khiaw
29th Nov - 1st Dec - Muang Ngoi Neua
1st - 5th December - Luang Prabang
5th - 9th December - Vang Vieng

Once again we'd like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, and if we don't speak to you before, a Happy New Year!

Ady and Sam

Vang Vieng

5th - 9th December

Vang Vieng is touted as lying in a valley alongside the Nam Song River with the
spectacular backdrop of jagged limestone karsts. Had we not already been up close and personal with this type of scenery in northern Laos, we would have been blown away. For us though it was a bit of an anticlimax. This wasn’t a problem however, as you don’t go to Vang Vieng to admire the scenery…

We knew what to expect, but to the uninitiated it could be a different story. Arriving in the mid afternoon, the town was quiet, and only the number of bars containing lounging sofas an TV’s showing friends hinted that this place could be a bit different to the Laos we had seen so far. As the time passed, staggering bikini clad girls and topless guys emerged onto the streets. Throughout Laos, there are posters everywhere telling you the do’s and don’ts in Laos. Keeping covered up is one of the basics, but this doesn’t seem to apply in Vang Vieng. Before long, we heard a familiar voice, it was Tony who we had first met in Muang Ngoi Neua. He was slightly drunk, or more accurately, battered. He raved about the adventure he had just had on the river, and swore he’d be back for more tomorrow!

That evening we met up with Ally who’d left a sick Jonny in bed. Having arrived a day earlier, she gave us the low-down on where to eat and drink and before we knew it we were in a pizza restaurant ordering a regular Hawaiian pizza, accompanied by not-so-regular garlic bread! Let’s just say that in a fairly short space of time we were very “happy”! We did say that VV was a law unto itself!

As the weather was much warmer than we had become used to, we spent the next day relaxing in the sunshine by the river. We met up with Jonny and Ally – and agreed that we head off tubing the following day.

Tubing in the Vang Vieng (well, the Nam Song actually!)

As we said earlier, you don’t come to VV for the scenery. Tubing is the age old art of floating down a river on a tractor inner tube. Tubing in the Vang Vieng adds a certain dimension to the art, involving riverside bars that wouldn’t look our of place in Ibiza. Add some trapeze style swings, zip wires, buckets of Lao Whisky and Coke and you kind of get the idea. Ady was brave enough to take his mobile phone camera with him in a waterproof case so there are some great picture of the action here!

We started quite early, and were at the first bar by 11am. The Mojito Bar at the Organic Farm marked the start of the tubing, and we were encouraged to have a ‘drink for the children’ here. 4 Mojitos later (not each!) we set off on our tubing journey. Not 50 meters downstream, we were hauled out of the river by the next bar. Buckets were order of the day, Whisky, Coke and Red Bull being our favourite! The bar soon got busy and as the drinks kept flowing, so did the bravery of the boys. The swings were too tempting, and after a couple of pencil dives, a bomb by Ady had the crowd groaning in sympathy as he flopped on his belly.

Several more bars, drinks, free shots, swings and limbos later, it was getting late and almost time to head back to the town to get our tube deposits back. We’d left an hour for the float back down the river. It wasn’t long enough and after a lot of frantic paddling, we decided that we’d never make it in time. As it got darker, we worried that we had even missed the town, as there were no lights to be seen! After another 30 minutes, just as drunken panic was setting in, we finally saw the lights of the bars in town and de-tubed. Ally bailed out to bed, but the rest of us needed food and Jonny and Ady carried on at the party island until late. Lets just say that a day sleeping it off was needed… we spent the next day comatose on some sunbathing decks by the river!

Kayaking to Vientiane

As if our last experience kayaking together wasn’t enough, we agreed to join a tour whereby you part kayak, part ride to Vientiane. I think perhaps it was the lesser of two evils; neither of us was keen to get back on the bus and it seemed like a good alternative to make a day of it. Loaded onto the back of a truck with 7 other budding kayakists, we set off on the journey. Halfway into truck ride, we ground to a halt. The clutch on the truck failed, and the driver couldn’t get into gear. After 10 minutes, the driver was stumped and it looked like we were going nowhere. Ady stepped in and tried to explain how they would be able to get going again using a little trick he learned once in the Polo!

Top Traveller Tip #6 - If your clutch cable snaps, switch the engine off, put the vehicle into first gear, and start the engine. You ma
y need a push from some friends to help, but the vehicle should move forwards. Once the engine is running, in first gear, get everyone back in the truck, as it is moving. Build up speed, and change gear without the clutch – it is possible if you ‘feel’ your way into gear! If you have to stop, do so facing downhill so you can set off using the starter motor more easily. This obviously works better on deserted roads than in the city, but it can help to get you home if you get stuck!

The trip downriver was great, and the BBQ at lunchtime was delicious.
We picked up some survival tips such as how to BBQ food without a real BBQ! Our only concern now was whether or not our luggage (still on the truck) would make it to the end point of the kayaking for our onward journey to Vientiane. An hour late, the luggage did arrive, but it was now getting dark. We still had an 90 minute ride on the back of a dusty truck and once the sun goes down, the temperature drops…

Friday, 5 December 2008

Luang Prabang

1st – 5th December

Having survived the 6 hour boat journey, with only one moment of panic (even the driver looked worried!) over some rapids, we made it to Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang (LP) is nestled on the sacred confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. It is an Unesco World Heritage city and possibly the most photogenic city in the whole of Southeast Asia.

Some more haggling got us a room in the Seng Phet Guesthouse for 100kip, a bargain for a nice room in upmarket LP. We spent the next day wandering round the town, taking in the sights and enjoying the culinary delights that were on offer. Eating at Tamarind restaurant, we tried their tasting platter of real Laos food. Sticky rice, combined with Jeow set our taste buds racing and persuaded us to try another cooking course to expand our Asian repertoire further. We signed up for a class in a couple of days time. Continuing our meander through LP, we saw how a strong French influence remains. From the architecture to the food stalls on the street, you could be in rural France - instead of selling noodles and rice, there are baguette sellers galore, giving us a taste of home for 10000 kip!

We met up with Guy and Jo again in LP, and together with Jonny, Ally and Tony we decided that a curry was in order. A proper Indian curry that is, with naan bread, tikka masala and all! Highly recommended, although maybe ask them to go easy on the chillies, Neesha’s Indian restaurant is less well know than the ‘Nazim’ chain in Laos, but the food was superb. Guy and Jo recounted their day – they hired mountain bikes and cycled to the nearby (35kms one way!) waterfall. They gave us the idea to do the same the following day – how hard could it
be!?!

Cycling to the Waterfall

Up bright and early (10am!), the search for a bicycle began. It was quite a mission – nowhere was willing to hire out a mountain bike for the day without us joining a guided tour! Countless offers of gearless shopper bikes came flooding our way, but there was no way we were going to cycle 70kms on one of those! We had wanted to hire a scooter for the trip, but motorbike rental to ‘foreigners’ has been banned in Luang Prabang Provice due to the high number of accidents involving foreigners. We won’t mention the number of Laoations that we have witnessed falling off their scooters and the number of spray painted outlines of motorbikes on the roads (marked by police every time there is a crash!). Eventually we stumbled upon a couple of half decent (we thought) Trek mountain bikes parked outside a guest house. The lady was willing to rent them out for 50000kip a day, but told us that if we were stopped by the police, we had to say that they were our own bikes and that we had brought them from Thailand! It turns out that you’re not supposed to be able to rent any form of 2 wheel transport as a foreigner, (city shopper bikes excepted) and the police like to empound bikes they find in the hands of tourists! Crazy!

After picking up the bikes, getting a couple of baguettes made up for lunch, we set about finding a way out of town that avoided the police checkpoint… seriously, we had to sneak out of town like criminals, all because we wanted to cycle! After 2 hours of more ups than downs, we made it to the waterfall. Out of puff, Ady almost lost it when a man told him to pay 2000kip to park the bicycle against a tree!!! We didn’t swim in the falls as it was quite chilly, and the thought of another 35kms in wet shorts wasn’t appealing. The scenery was spectacular however and worth the ride.


Setting off back towards LP, we realised how much uphill we had ridden on the way there. We coasted the first 4km without needing to pedal! After stopping off at a local village to give away some pencils and erasers to the children, we had picked up an escort for our journey home. Somehow, the local children managed to fly past us on the uphill stretches, even though their bikes had no gears!

By 5pm we were home, saddle sore and tired, but at least we hadn’t been impounded! Our arrangement to meet Ally and Jonny in the evening couldn’t rise us from our bed – we had a quick bite to eat from a food stall then crashed out for the night.

Tamarind Cooking Course

Lao food is quite different to that of the other countries that we have visited so far. Sticky rice is the staple, and it is eaten with all kinds of dips and sauces. We learned about the ingredients and delicacies during our trip to the local market.

Jeow is a spicy salsa type sauce, made with roasted chillies and a variety of other ingredients depending on what type of Jeow you want to end up with. Ady used red chilli, tomatoes, garlic and shallots to create a fiery paste. Sam used green chilli for a milder flavour. After we made the Jeow, and cooked the sticky rice, it was time to eat!

After our snack, we made a number of other dishes including steamed fish, lemongrass stuffed with chicken (yes, you read it right – check the photos!) Buffalo Laap, and a tasty Lao stew. All the dishes were delicious and by the end of the day we almost needed to be airlifted out of the school! A big thanks to Joy at Tamarind for sharing his knowledge. We’d recommend the course to anyone interested in Lao Cuisine.

The next day it was time to move on to Vang Vieng, what we discovered to be a little bit of Ibiza in the heart of Laos.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Muang Ngoi Neua

29th November – 1st December 2008

Back on terra firma Sam and Ally sought out the best bungalows in town. We struck gold in the Nicksa bungalows – a row of four impeccable wooden huts with verandas and hammocks set high on the riverbank, with views to die for.

Despite the early hour of 4pm we headed to the sunset bar to meet Guy and Jo (and watch the annoying early sunset), who’d arrived on the earlier boat. They entertained us with tales of how a rat, trapped in their hut had kept them awake the night before… and then went on to scare us about Muang Ngoi Neua aka “ra
t city”!

After dinner, we left Jo and Guy to have an early night with their rat friends and were enticed down an alley by the glowing lights of what turned out to be a newly opened bar. Although there was a fire built outside, no one could be bothered to light it and everyone was stood inside freezing. Ady rose to the task of getting the fire started, and before long there was a crowd of people surrounding the glowing embers, staring at the flames. After an hour of thawing out, it was time to head back to the fridge that was our room. After scaling a fence to get back home (curfew was 10pm!) we wondered what would be waiting to greet us!

Thankfully the Nicksa bungalow didn’t let us down. In any case our Achilles heels are mossies or cockroaches but definitely not rats! Once the couple next door had finally quietened down, we lay in the quiet still dark room. There was a noise. Was it a rat? Wa
s it a cockroach? Was is Johnnie and Ally?! After 10 minutes, Ady had to get up to investigate and discovered that it was dew dripping off the roof onto the ground at the sides of the hut. Now with a plausible explanation for the bumps of the night, we could both sleep easy.

Kayak Adventure

To fully appreciate the amazing limestone karsts along the river, we thought that a kayak trip would be a peaceful way to drift down the river admiring the scenery. How wrong could we be…!? Jonny and Ally had the same idea, so we all signed up for the trip which included a short walking trek, visit to a local village, visit to a cave, and of course a kayak.

A 60 minute boat ride upstream with kayaks in tow ended after 30 minutes. The clunk of broken metal signalled the end of our propeller shaft. We drifted to the bank and our ‘guide’ gestured that we would paddle upstream to get to the next village – the intended start point of our trek.

30 minutes and 100 meters upstream later, we were both not speaking. Not having kayaked together before it seemed that we were incompatible in more ways than one. Sam complained that Ady couldn’t listen to orders, and Ady maintained that he spent the whole time correcting Sam’s sense of direction (although Sam is the more experienced Kayaker!) After going round in circles and doing a slalom around a course that didn’t exist, we caught up with the others who had been resting on a beach for some time. We threw our paddles onto the beach, and stomped over to where the others were waiting. The guide then told us it would be another 90 minutes upstream before we got to the village… The general consensus was that paddling upstream was no fun at all, and we would head back to where we started and try to get some of the money back as we didn’t really get the trip that we paid for!

The scenery we saw was spectacular, and the 20 meters of minor rapids were fun, but the trip would be much better had it been wet season!

Room Service

Our final evening was spent on the balcony of Jonny and Allys hut, warmed by 2 large bottles of local Lion whisky and Coke. We ordered food from owners of our huts, and after a ‘Lao’ wait, our feast was delivered to the balcony! Top service and great spring rolls! 9pm passed and the electricity went off, as is the norm in rural Laos. We continued drinking under torchlight and eventually crawled back to our own hut.

In the morning, we were bundled onto another sinking ship for the 45 minute journey downstream, back to Nong Khiaw. After some expert bargaining by Jonny, we secured ourselves first class seats on the boat to Luang Prabang. 6 hours of winding river and breathtaking scenery stood ahead.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Nong Khiaw

28th – 29th November

We mentioned earlier that a popular way to travel in Laos is by riverboat, the most famous of which is the cruise down the Mekong. A lesser known and equally stunning trip is to travel down the xxxx river from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang.

We travelled via Udomxai to Nong Khiaw with the intention of taking this trip downstream, as well as the opportunity to spend a few post-trekking days relaxing by the river. Nong Khiaw and it’s neighbour, Muang Ngoi Neua, one hour up river and completely void of vehicles are the ideal places to do this. We stayed overnight in Nong Khiaw at the Riverside bungalows, watching the sunset and enjoying some Beer Lao with Jo and Guy and another couple we’d met, aussies Jonny and Ally. There wasn’t a lot to do in Nong Khiaw other than watch the world go by. The scenery is completely out of this world, but when the sun drops behind the limestone karsts around 4.30pm the temperature suddenly plummets and you’re left wondering how to keep warm!

We took refuge in what looked like a warm café. I think we were fooled by the posh glass doors, the cosy leather sofas and candlelit ambience. Oh how wrong we were… the place had no side walls and even our hot chocolates were cold by the time the cups touched our lips! The saving grace was the best piece of cheesecake ever !

The following day there were two boats scheduled to Muang Ngoi Neua. We took the later 2 o’clock boat and spent most of the morning waiting for the warmth of the late rising sun to thaw out, before exploring a nearby cave. The cave was interesting enough but we spent more time on the journey home where we stopped at some neglected lily ponds watching dragonflies, Ady camera glued to eye, after the elusive “money” shot!

In hindsight we probably should have taken the earlier, quieter boat. A boat normally used to ferry 8 people was packed with 22 well fed westerners and their big backpacks, each the size of an average Laoation alone! Unsurprisingly the waterline rose alarmingly close to the top of the boat! As soon as we moved there was seepage. The seepage turned into a trickle… how long would we stay afloat!? It was a tense journey and we were all fearing for our cameras, laptops and bags, if not ourselves!

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Luang Nam Tha

25th – 27th November

After an afternoon of research we agreed on a two day/one night trek to the Akha village of Ban Phouvan. Tourism in Laos, though still in it’s infancy is extremely highly regulated, with strict, ecologically sound guidelines set up and enforced. In addition to protecting the national parks, the Laos government quite rightly is keen to avoid the exploitation of the Hill tribe people, or the “human zoo” effect, as is the unfortunate case in some parts of Thailand. The frequency of visits to hill tribes are restricted, as are group sizes. Other rules include not handing out gifts directly to the children, so as not to promote a begging culture, but instead passing on to the village ch
ief or teacher who ensures fair distribution.

We were under the impression that the total trekking distance over the two days would be 35km, possibly the longest we’d both ever walked under our own steam. The itinerary was to spend the first day walking through dense jungle, climbing steadily to the village, and the second through open countryside and agricultural fields.

Perhaps Laos methodology of measuring distance is as warped as that used for time keeping, but after just two hours of b
risk walking through the forest we stopped for lunch, Laos style. Nobody was really hungry, having eaten our fill of slow burning carbs at breakfast. Still, the food was delicious; sticky rice, barbequed meat and lots of very spicy Jeow (a bit like tomato salsa but with 10 times as much chilli), served on banana leaves.

A couple more hours of (not so!) hard trekking and we arrived at the village where we’d spend the night. The adults were all working in the fields but the children were happy to say hello and keep us entertained with their antics. A large packed heap of soil, dried out in the sun had been furnished into a mini slide, the plastic containers used for the kids to sit on polishing the surface to a high sheen and providing an even more slippery run! It didn’t take long for Ady and Guy to get involved,
though only able to fit one arse cheek onto the small piece of plastic, they didn’t look quite as graceful, nor land quite as softly!

Towards sunset, our guide took us for a full tour of the village. Some of the adults had returned, but not that many. Either that or they were hiding out in their houses. Of the few that we said hello to, it was difficult to gage whether or not we were welcome, even though we’d been told by our guide that visits by tourists were seen as a good thing – whether this was solely for monetary gains (a percentage of what we’d paid for the tour goes directly to the village) we’d prefer not to know. The gifts our group had brought along were given out – marbles and animal masks seemed to go down particularly well.

After dinner, a game of cards and the obligatory shots of Lao Lao whisky, the young women from the village arrived to give us a massage. It was a nice touch, but after the expertise we’d experienced from our massage teacher Joy, we probably didn’t appreciate the poking and prodding as much as we should and were quite relieved when it was over!

As our hut was next to the village school, we spent another hour or so with the children the following morning. There were two sessions each day, so that each child attends either morning or afternoon classes. Sadly only the boys are educated; the girls are sent to work in the fields with their mothers as soon as they can work. At least this is the explanation we were given; we only saw three girls in the whole time we were there, in contrast to the hundred or so boys. When you look at the photos you’ll see how letting the kids take control of the camera meant that we got some great shots of the locals, very close up.

Top Traveller Tip #5 – Get a different perspective in you photos by being brave and handing over your camera to the local children.* Some have never seen or used a digital camera and they love to take close up pictures of their friends. It also avoids you feeling bad for exploiting the locals! *Disclaimer – we will not be held responsible for stolen cameras as a result of this idea!

Our return hike passed down through a valley and then up a long, very steep climb, the months without regular exercise finally taking toll. We passed over the summit and followed the path of a river, crossing it many times via fallen trees, makeshift rudimentary bridges or slippery stepping stones. Amazingly no one fell in, but our trainers were pretty soaked by the end of it.

All in all it was an enjoyable and rewarding trek and gave an insight into another culture and way of life, in a very untouched part of the world. Long may it stay that way.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Into Laos - Huay Xai

24th November

We crossed the river which constitutes the Thai/Laos border in minutes, and breezed through immigration, encountering none of the expected “fines” or pleas for dollars. Huay Xai is nothing more exciting than the border town it is, unfortunately the earliest buses or boats to other destinations are all cunningly scheduled for the following day, meaning that we and every other traveller has to spend the night there. Every cloud has a silver lining; we met Guy and Jo from East London and feasted on curry from Nazim, a great Indian restaurant - we later found this to be a chain and to feature throughout the whole of Laos.

The usual route from the border is to take the two day slow boat directly to Luang Prabang. To do so misses out some of the more beautiful and untouched parts of the country. We decided to head to Luang Nam Tha in the far north, home to the Nam Ha national park and it’s clouded leopard, elephant, gaur and tigers. We also looked to take in a trek to one of the minority hill tribes. It turned out that Jo and Guy were set to do the same so we agreed to link up and trek together and hopefully force the costs down too.

Until recently the journey between Huay Xai and Luang Nam Tha was possible only by two day boat or an 8 hour bone cruncher of a ride on dirt tracks. Now the road was sealed and a comfortable 3 hour ride was promised.

We were woken by loud banging on our door at 7.15am; someone was telling us that our bus left in 10 minutes. Confused (we weren’t due to leave until 9) we found the mini van outside waiting. Other travellers equally baffled but clearly the driver wanted to get somewhere quick. Just ten minutes out of town we pulled over and the driver took a bundle of papers into a nearby building, leaving us by the side of the road. Around an hour later he returned and found us milling around the roadside like a flock of sheep, having evacuated the van. No explanation was given, but then I guess his English was as good as our Lao. Or maybe, in his eyes, none was needed – after all …this is Laos! After this delay, we were on the road by 9am and heading east.

Chiang Rai

22nd November – 24th November

With Laos in our sights a stop over in Chiang Rai was in order to break the journey and allow us to check out the famous Golden Triangle. 70kms north east of Chiang Mai, it was an ideal opportunity for us to rent another motorbike and spend a day on two wheels.

After carrying out some research on the area by visiting tour operators, we cobbled together a plan for where we could visit in a day. It was difficult trying not to look too shocked at the 1500 Baht price tag (per person) for the day trip in a minivan!
Top Traveller Tip #4 – If you want to save money on a day trip, go to the agents and get them to tell you where you can see in a day, then hire a motorbike and follow their route!

Our plan was to head to fish and monkey cave, Mai Sae (the northernmost point of Thailand), The Golden Triangle, The Opium Museum, Chiang Saaen, a long neck village and then head back to Chiang Mai.

As you’ll see from our pictures, we accomplished all of our plan, apart from the Long Neck Village, which we couldn’t find. Still, we saved ourselves nearly 3000 baht by doing our DIY trip!

For further details on the route we took, look at our Google Maps in more detail!

A border crossing into Laos loomed, so an early night was called for. This was the last we would see of Thailand for a while and from what we had heard, things would only get tougher as we cross to one of the poorest countries in South East Asia.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Pai

15th November – 22nd November

We moved in alongside Lucy and Rene at the Unicorn 2, just a little way out of town.
Once again they’d done the hard work for us and sussed out the best value huts in Pai. An added bonus was that included in our room rate of just 150 baht, we could use the swimming pool, sauna and wifi facilities at the newer, much posher Unicorn 1.

Saturday night was very lively in Pai. It turns out that the town, whose permanent population is just 3000, is a growing weekend destination for Thai tourists. We heard it had something to do with the a popular Thai film being set here? The streets were thronging with tourists and traders and we filled our faces on street food before enjoying some delicious thai veggie curries at a nearby restaurant.

For the first couple of days we chilled by the Unicorn pool, waiting for our war wounds to dry out in the sun, and to warm our aching “post-massage school” bodies. We checked out a couple of cooking schools and settled on “Lets Wok with Tee”, a informal set up in Tee’s home. It was a different arrangement to the traditional cooking class whereby you would spend the whole day cooking and leave by 5 o’clock. At Tee’s, we started the morning session at 10am and cooked Thai curries until lunchtime at 1.30pm. The afternoon was spent sleeping off our excesses by the pool before starting the evening session and preparing soups and stir-fries for dinner. As with all cooking schools we got to eat everything we made; with Tee we also cooked with lots of beer at hand and the company of his very cool friends, listening to his tunes. All in all a very “easy, easy” (Tee’s mantra!) day. The food of course was awesome and an added bonus was we got to return the following night to cook another recipe, for free, and join the party again!

Another fun day was spent riding to Sappong, half-way to Mae Hong Son. The road was a continuation of what we experienced on the way to Pai and again the views were stunning. We visited a cave and after travelling aboard a rickety bamboo raft on the river into the cave, spent an hour exploring the vast underground caverns of limestone stalactites and stalagmites.

Other highlights when in Pai are said to be the various hot springs and
waterfalls, though if you’re feeling tight you’d do far worse than to check out the Spa Exotica hot pools for half the price, and you can actually swim in these! We went at dusk, after spending time watching the sun set over the picturesque Pai Canyon. There was a film shoot taking place at the canyon when we were there, which was an added bit of entertainment! On that same night, we’d seen flyers for a bonfire and mini festival at a nearby art gallery. We popped in to warm ourselves on the fire, and were treated to some live music by a local band – funnily enough the same band we’d seen just the night before and one with an unforgettable lead vocalist – a woman with the deepest, most unusual voice imaginable (now I know what you thinking, but it was a woman for sure!) with the hugest head of thick backcombed hair. I guess the voice matched the hair quite well…

Despite our little mishap we’d enjoyed our ride to Pai so much that we wanted to take a bike back to Chiang Mai rather than endure the local bus. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be; the company we’d hired from plants a 500 baht surcharge onto the one-way rental from Pai to Chiang Mai, reasoning that there are more tourists wanting to ride this direction than towards Pai, and therefore they have to pay to bring the bikes back. We didn’t really believe this was the case but couldn’t get them to waive this fee, even though the bike we’d brought up from Chiang Mai was still sat in the forecourt! And so the bus it was. At least it was downhill!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Road to Pai

15th November

Despite our enthusiasm for going to Pai, we were both daunted by the prospect of the potential six hour bus ride into the mountains, a journey notorious among travellers for being particularly gut-wrenching! At the eleventh hour we had the inspired decision to travel a motorbike and take advantage of the service offered by Aya travel whereby we could collect the bike in Chiang Mai and drop off in Pai, whilst they transported our backpacks. Perfect, all this for less than the price of two local bus tickets.

Well, it wasn’t quite a “motorbike”, but one of the popular Honda Dream step through models we’d been using all week to pootle around town, complete with a front shopping basket! Unsure of how quickly (indeed, if at all) we’d make it up those mountains, we set out on the road to Pai. At least we had all day…

We actually made good time out of the city and in just over an hour started the slow climb into the sky. The scenery was absolutely spectacular and we pulled off the road on numerous occasions to check out the view or an interesting landmark (usually a temple!). Satisfyingly we also passed several local buses travelling the same route, whilst still managing to stop at the sights and for some lunch. The road was in surprisingly good condition and remained so for the entire journey to Pai. It turns out that the loop via Pai and Sappong to Mae Hong Son and back to Chiang Mai is one of the great driving roads of the world and one we’d like to return to in the future to complete. A better bike would be a must though!

The ride was going beautifully and the weather was perfect. With just another 60km to go we spotted a sign for some hot springs and so pulled off the main road to take a closer look. No sooner had we done this the condition of the road deteriorated quickly and dirt and gravel suddenly replaced the smooth tarmac. Not wanting to blame the road surface, the giant potholes, the rider* or the scooter with balding tyres, we hit a sharp bend after a steep descent and skidding on a heap of gravel, took a small tumble off the bike! The initial shock warded off the forthcoming pain of grazing knuckles and elbows – the dangers of riding without proper gear and something we know more than most…

*The rider came off much worse than the pillion so we can’t blame the rider too much either, even though the said rider has loads of off-road experience in far tougher conditions than this!

We turned the bike around and set off back to the main road, feeling a little sorry for ourselves and trying not to dwell too much on our oozing cuts and bruises. Though the bike was completely unscathed after our fall, Ady had badly ripped his trousers in several places and the biggest concern was now how to deliver the bike back without loosing our deposit. Not a good look for one whose journey was without incident! Fortunately our good friends Lucy and Rene were waiting for us in Pai, patched us up and leant Ady spare trousers to return the bike in.

Top Traveller Tip #3 – Without wanting to sound like your mother, cover up bare skin and feet when hiring a motorbike or scooter abroad. Even at very slow speeds there’s so much blood!

Visitors Since 19th May 2009...