Saturday, August 30

Hue & Hoi An, Vietnam

(see map) trin: In the spirit of backpacking, we decided to take a night bus to Hue about twelve hours south of Hanoi.

"Oh #*%#! I am going to be on this bus for how long!?" - The bed was about a foot too short. The driver laid on the horn throughout the night. It was extremely claustrophobic as extra passengers rolled out straw mats and slept in the aisles. At one point, Mike awoke to a guy climbing over him on his way to the bathroom. Even with my personal space preferences/issues, I was able to get over all of this.

But, I could not get over the low quality, close to porn, video that played several times on the bus' television monitors. On what planet, is unattractive bikini clad women moving around seductively to awful music appropriate? All of the backpackers were baffled!

To recover from the hellish bus ride, we locked ourselves in our air con hotel room and watched US television on cable while eating Oreos from the mini bar. We emerged later that afternoon to see the Citadel, a walled imperial city that was nearly destroyed during the war. There has been some restoration but progress is slow.

To see the sights, we took a boat tour along the Song Huong River. Unfortunately, our camera battery died shortly into the trip. Someone (not me) forgot to charge it. We saw the Thien Mu Pagoda, Tu Duc Tomb, Minh Mong Tomb and Hon chen Temple. To be honest it was so hot that day, we were just going through the motions.

The sole photo of the tour - The bows of the tour boats along the river shore.

On the boat we visited with a couple from Humbolt who were finishing up So. East Asia and returning home to drive down through Mexico, Central America and perhaps into South America. It's funny, we've been a lot of places but I was still intimidated by their itinerary. This happens a lot. I think an unknown place is going to be scary or hard to navigate. Once there it's like, what was I so worried about?

Next stop was Hoi An where the main tourist attraction is custom-made clothing. I am not kidding. It's in Lonely Planet.

The picture doesn't lie. I was excited! I wasn't the only one. Mike got into the spirit and ordered a new suit and several shirts.

How it works: First, you pick the design. You can bring in a photo or choose from their photo binders and pattern books. Next, they take your measurements and ask your preference on length, buttons, pockets, etc. Then you pick out the fabric. The quality of fabric determines the price. The next day you return for the first fitting. The final fitting is either later that day or the following day. We shipped our new clothes home but a lot of people end up buying another suitcase. People get seriously carried away. While waiting for Mike, I eavesdropped on the following conversation -

girlfriend - I don't think they wanted to sell me anymore.

boyfriend - What else did you get?

girlfriend - A few more dresses.

boyfriend - How many is a few?

girlfriend - Like five.

This was in addition to the number of things I saw her trying on the day before.

During our stay in Hoi An we alternated between the beach, pool and tailor shop. The town is charming and walking back and forth was enjoyable.

Monday, August 25

Halong Bay, Vietnam

(see map) trin: Halong Bay is a must for anyone visiting Vietnam. The unique sea/landscape is a pleasant retreat from the busy streets of Hanoi. We decided not to rush and stayed two nights on a "junk." The boats are not authentic junks but have been fitted with sails to give tourists the illusion.

Embarking from Halong City.

We had read that the bay would be overcrowded. While there are a lot of boats (500 on any given day), it certainly didn't feel that way once we left the harbor.

Mike cooling off after climbing to the top of one of the islands. I was still nursing scabs from my accident (it takes forever to heal in this climate) but the heat won out and I jumped in too. The European tourists were probably thinking, what the heck? as I was floated on my back while Mike propped my injured feet and ankles above sea level.

Several of the three thousand islands in Halong Bay.

A massive cave filled with stalactites where Vietnamese hid during US bombing of North Vietnam.

After the cave tour, Mike and I moved to our own junk. Cruising around we couldn't help but feel environmentally guilty. It was just us on a giant boat with a crew of five.

We should have been king and queen for the day but Mike preferred the role of pirate.

Local fishing village where the people live in floating houses. Most of the homes have fish farms where Californian Ranchers have manicured lawns.

A fisherman hauling in his net.

Back on our original boat, with a new set of passengers, Mike worked his way up to the top deck where he finally took the plunge.

Early evening in the cove where we kayaked through a cave into an area completely enclosed by the giant karsts rising around us.

The sunrise on our last morning in Halong Bay.

Friday, August 22

Hanoi, Vietnam

(see map) mike: For us, visiting Vietnam was just another country to experience. After emailing home to let our parents know the plan, we realized they have a very different perspective:

"It still seems strange to me that you are going to some of the places I went out of my way to avoid when I was young. Time changes everything."

"When I hear all these South-East Asian names, it takes me back to the 60's and the ongoing Vietnam War."

"Coming from a different generation, the idea of going to Hanoi sort of boggles my mind!"

We hoped our time here would help us better understand its history and gain perspective on our involvement in the region.

Vietnam Airlines from Laos to Hanoi.

We got our first taste of crazy and intense Hanoi on our taxi ride from the airport to our hotel in the old quarter. We found out later there are 1.7 million motorbikes in the region (source). It did not take us long to accept this number as reasonable.

The energy of the narrow streets is indescribable, dwarfing that of any SE Asia city we've been to thus far (Bangkok in 2nd). Since the sidewalks function as motorbike parking lots or curb side restaurants, pedestrians, bikes, cyclos (bike taxi, below), motorbikes, and cars all try to get to their destination utilizing the same very limited space. The combination of motorbike whine, relentless honking, yelling only add to the experience.

Yield rules are based on size. So buses yield to no one and pedestrians yield to everyone. Stop lights are very rare, we came across two. There are painted crosswalks but you could stand there all day without one person stopping.

Since Trin was still recovering from her motorbike accident in Chiang Mai, crossing the street the first day was a little gut wrenching for both of us. Our hotel clerk made it sound easy, "just walk slow and steady while crossing and the bikes will go around you". Yea right!! When possible we tried to cross next to a local functioning as a bodyguard.

The first floor of many homes have been converted into stores often carrying only one type of merchandise. Imagine a series of seven stores selling just boxes, bubble wrap and tape. We also came across the party supply block, muffler lane and door knob alley.

We made it safely to our first meal at Cha Ca La Vong. The raw fish in sizzling oil was served along with a clay pot full of hot coals. Rice with chopsticks definitely gives us a hard time. Our neighbors (rear of photo) make it look easy. I still feel self conscious lifting the bowl up the my mouth and scooping it in though this approach definitely seems to work best.

We opted for a cyclo to make it home. Trin commented how she wished she had horse blinders to minimize of the shock of oncoming vehicles on a collision course.

One of the must do activities according to guide books is the Vietnamese water puppet show. I had my doubts but in the end enjoyed it, even though the entire production (minus intro) is in Vietnamese. The entire show takes place on water, as the name suggests. The puppet masters stand behind a curtain and bring life to these wooden characters connected via a pole. Check out this youtube video to see for yourself.

On a day tour we checked out some pagodas (equivalent to a Wat in Laos or Thailand) and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho (more info) seems to be the George Washington of Vietnam so when he died (against his wish to be cremated) North Vietnam preserved his corpse and built this resting place. USSR actively participated in construction we read it is similar to Lenin's Mausoleum.

All visitors are lined up in twos and instructed to march through the viewing area. It was a strange experience. The guards strictly enforce no speaking and hands at sides etiquette. The interior consists of a high-ceilinged, dimly lit, room with marble walls. The cranking air-con had the room at least thirty degrees cooler than outside. His body is encased in the center, with a guard at each corner. No lingering is allowed so you are in and out in under a minute.

One Pillar Pagoda

Tran Quoc Pagoda

After day four, finally comfortable with navigating the old quarter on foot, we were off to Halong Bay for some R&R.

Monday, August 18

Muang Ngoi, Laos

(see map) - trin: While waiting for our Vietnam visas we took a trip north to Muang Ngoi Neua, a secluded riverside village. Due to all of the heavy rains in the region the rivers in Laos were a the highest level in thirteen years. This only added to the sense of adventure.

To get there we rode in a mini van with fifteen people for four hours to the village of Nong Khiaw. Then we hopped on a small slow boat and headed up the Nam Ou to Muang Ngoi. On the way up river we passed by jagged karsts, dense jungle, remote farmlands and plenty small naked children bathing and playing on the shores.

The village has a small network of trails between properties. There is one main road but everyone including the local livestock travel by foot.

We spent a lot of time on the deck at our guest house which overlooked the river where we enjoyed epic sunsets followed by evening lighting storms.

We tried to walk to a local cave but it didn't work out. I still can't wear boots or shoes and we quickly got into deep mud and muck. An old woman in her rubber boots came along and started laughing at us struggling through the mud in our flip flops. After that, we headed back to the village where all of the small children yelled out Sabaai-dii (hello) as we passed by.

Like the locals we washed up in the river.

We felt like the visit to this village was the first time we were off of the well worn backpacking trail. It was so peaceful and beautiful. For me, Muang Ngoi stands out as a highlight of the trip.

On the way back to Luang Prabang we rode in a sawngthaew (a covered pickup bed). We actually preferred it to the mini van. Riding with the locals and their animals was much more memorable. At one point, I heard a splat. I turned my head to discover the chicken on the lap of the woman sitting next to me had laid an egg. The egg broke when it hit the bed of the truck. It surprised us all and everyone had a good laugh.

Sunday, August 17

Luang Prabang, Laos

(see map) - trin: Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage City and now that we've been there it is easy to see why. In addition to the Royal Palace and the network of hilltop temples, it is a charming town where the main street is lined with cafes and boutiques. At night the streets fill up with locals selling textiles and fresh foods. I'd recommend this quaint town to anyone touring So. East Asia.

A daily fruit shake at the food stalls. Fresh mango and pineapple with a little coconut milk to make it creamy. Mmm.... At a dollar a pop these ladies have Jamba Juice beat.

The corner market area and tuk tuk.

The tree-of-life mosaic on the back wall of Wat Xieng Thong. The temple was built in 1560.

The monks chanting in the early evening.

One afternoon we headed out of town to Tad Sae Waterfalls. Our tuk tuk could only take us part way because the road was flooded. We hired a boat to take us the remainder but boarding the boat was a challenge. The river had started to drop and the mud on the banks was knee deep. Thankfully, we managed not to sink. An Italian lady who shared the boat back with us wasn't so lucky. She had a hard time just getting her shoe back out of the mud.

The little boy a the bow was adorable. He cracked up when he heard Mike say "jeeze louise" in response to an inflated fare to cross the river. Then he sang to himself in the front of the boat on our way down the river. You could tell he was so happy to be helping his dad on the river.

The trail to see the upper waterfall got a little sketchy. I got use to the water rushing by my feet. I was mostly afraid of slipping on a loose log and losing one of my favorite flip flops.

There were also elephants at the falls. They are so sweet. I feel so bad when I see them chained up for peoples' entertainment.

But, they did seem to enjoy bath time below the falls.

The colorful night market where along with the local handy crafts westerners can buy communist paraphernalia. T-shirts sporting the hammer & sickle or Che's portrait seemed to be popular items. But, Che is everywhere. I think we've seen him in almost every country.

On our last night, we enjoyed the French influence at one of the local wine shops. Mostly French and Australian wines but they did have one bottle from California.