A Travellerspoint blog

March 2013

Laos

Vientiane / Luang Prabang

sunny 30 °C

Vientiane (10th March - 12th March)

We only spent a couple of days in Vientiane, but this was more than enough. The town is nice, and very quiet (especially for a capital city!) but there are not many sights and attractions. Our first day we spent the morning at the Thai embassy filling in visa applications, then headed back into the town centre to look around. Vientiane certainly has more than enough Wats for it's size. We went in about 6, and walked past several more. My favorite was Wat Sisaket which had hundreds of Buddha statues, ranging from about 5cm ones perched in cuby-holes in the walls to 10m high ones in the centre of the temple. Other than temples not much else in the town centre, so we decided to go for a tradiational Lao massage. This was a interesting, if not an entirely enjoyable, experience. Some of it was relaxing, but at other points our bodies were stretched into positions they shouldn't go, and the little Laos lady was sat on top of me digging her elbows into my back...not so nice! The second day in Vientiane we hired bikes to see some of the sights further out from the centre. Our first stop was the COPE centre, which was probably the most interesting place we visited here. It was a visitor exhibition set up alongside a centre which helped disabled people, especially those with amputations caused by unexploded ordance (UXO) from the wars, by giving them prosthetics and rehabilitation programs. The exhibition was very moving, and really highlighted what a huge problem UXO is in south east Asia. After the COPE centre we headed out of town to Wat That Luang, the huge golden temple that is the symbol of Laos, and to the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. Finally we picked up our Thai visas and passports before getting on to the overnight bus to Luang Prabang...needless to say this was another sleepless night!

Luang Prabang (13th March -16th March)

After a morning nap we set out to explore Luang Prabang, and were very impressed by this small town. It has a lot of character and a really relaxed atmosphere, so we decided to stay for a few nights (instead of our original plan to move on after only 2 nights). The town is situated on a peninsula of land between the Mekong and another river, with many temples cafes and restaurants...we had great food throughout our stay here. On our first afternoon we explored the town, going into Wat Xieng Toung which was beautifully decorated and crossing the river to walk around the villages and temples on the other side of the Mekong.

The second day we rented mountain bikes and set out on an epic bike ride to see the famous Kuang Si waterfall. We set off early to avoid the worst of the heat on the 30km cycle through the scenic countryside and villages. However I was not prepared for the amount of uphill on this route, and by the time we got to the last 5km I was exhausted! Although we walked most of the last hill, we jumped back on for the last 100m into the car park just to impress all the other sensible tourists that had taken a minibus out there! The ride was worth it, Kuang Si is probably the most impressive waterfall I have ever visited, with around 60 levels of turquoise water, and a huge fall at the top end. It was amazing to swim in the pools, especially when we first arrived and there was only a handful of other people there. We left quite early to cycle back, which thankfully had a lot more downhill than the route out.

We rented bikes again to visit another waterfall, Tad Thong, the next day, although much closer to town this time. However, after the previous days ride even the 6km to this one (uphill again!) really hurt. Tad Thong was much quieter than Kuang Si, and also much less impressive. In fact there was hardly any water in the falls as we were there in dry season. But I had fun walking along the jungle paths trying to take pictures of the butterflies. I got a few good pics, but the biggest, most colourful ones never wanted to land near the path :( There was also a great cafe at the falls, where we enjoyed a fruit shake sat in a bamboo hut next to the lake, very chilled out! Ended the day with some shopping in the fantastic night market, full of hand made local goods, although I think I enjoyed the shopping more than Dunc.

After our exertions the previous two days we spend out final day in Luang Prabang having a lie in and wandering round town again, with a delicious lunch at Tamarind restaurant trying the sample platters of local food. The different sauces and dips were interesting, and the chjilli paste was especially good. Then back on the road again for our longest trip so far, a 21hr bus ride to Chang Mai in Thailand to meet up with Holly, Rach and Sonia for a few days.

Posted by duncan-alice 07:07 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Northern Vietnam

Hanoi / Sapa / Halong Bay

semi-overcast 20 °C

We didn't think it would take us this long to update you all on our travels but we haven't had (and still don't have) free computer use in any of our accommodation so we have caved in and paid! We are now in Northern Thailand as we meander down to Singapore for our flight to Australia at the start of May. No pictures yet as the internet cafe we are in won't let us upload. But you can find all of our pics (be warned there are 100's!) on Flickr if you are interested.

Hanoi (1st March - 2nd March)

We arrived in Hanoi from an overnight bus but thankfully we were able to get into our room at 8am in the morning after a complimentary breakfast so we slept in the morning before checking out Hanoi in the afternoon. We visited some museums about the war and the Hoa Lo prison (aka Hilton Hotel) where American pow pilots were held hostage during the war (including ex US presidential candidate John McCain). Museums in Vietnam have lots of interesting artefacts but lack a narrative to them so we didn't spend long looking at them as Alice's appetite for war related museums has been exhausted!

On our second day we ate breakfast in the restaurant and spoke to some other travellers who made us jealous of their travel stories and made us want to change our plans! We wandered round the old town in Hanoi including the small Hoan Kiem lake which is in the centre of the city. The old quarter was quaint and full of narrow streets which were interesting to walk round. That evening we were on the move again with an overnight train to Lao Cai, a town in the northwest of Vietnam near the Chinese border. As we were only able to book our train the day before we had to take hard seats. This was the most uncomfortable form of transport we have taken so far and it was 9 long hours on the church pew like bench from 2200 to 0700 the next morning. The train started off in Hanoi very quiet and Alice and I thought we might get a bench each but we weren't so lucky. The seats layout was two benches (enough for two people) facing each other with a small by the window. Within an hour the train was packed. There was another travelling couple on the train who we spoke to who were travelling on a budget and hard seats was their preferred choice but they found it difficult to buy said tickets - they were told they could only buy the more expensive ones. Anyway, their plan for the night was to drink through it which in hindsight might have been a good idea. Alice tried to sleep by resting her head on the bag on top of the table and had little success while I didn't even bother trying to sleep - the train was incredibly noisy, we were (un)lucky enough to have the bench beside the toilet and the carriage door so people were continuously walking past going for a smoke. It was quite an experience watching the other people in the carriage, especially the old couple who got on and the man took the bench to sleep on while the lady pulled out a plastic sheet, lay it on the ground and slept under two benches facing each other.

Sapa (3rd March - 6th March)

From Lao Cai we took a taxi to Sapa which was about an hour away along a steep and winding road into the hills. Again we got lucky because at 0930 we were able to get into our room after buying some breakfast. We had a nap in the morning and then ventured out in the afternoon. The area around Sapa is famous for its range of ethnic tribes and mountain views so the majority of people come to do some trekking. On our first day we wandered down into the valley to Cat Cat village, an ethnic village only a couple of kms away. We had to pay to get in which I thought was cheeky as there wasn't a lot to do or see.

For the next two days we splashed out a bit and hired a private guide to take us on a two day trek with a homestay included. She met us at a hotel in the morning and she was from a Black Hmong tribe. She spoke very good English despite only learning it from tourists. We walked out the town and into the mountains and another tribe lady with two kids quickly tagged onto us. As we climbed up into the hills, it started to get a bit muddier and stickier so we were relieved we weren't climbing in rainy season. As we climbed up the valley, the mist began to clear and the impressive views visible. Lee, our guide, explained to us about the way of life of the tribes people and was very informative. We stopped for lunch at a local house (if you can call it that) and then continued to a village where we would stay the night. When we got to our accommodation the woman and two girls who had followed us all day asked us to buy some of their handmade products. I hate this form of tourism as they were trying to make us feel guilty given they had followed us all day. I wouldn't have bought anything if it was me but Alice gave in to their sales pitch and bought a bag (which in fairness she has used a lot). We gave the two little girls a packet of sweets we had carried but the lady then gave the two girls some money so we think it wasn't even a mother and her daughters which was even sadder. It was labelled as a homestay but it was really the equivalent of a barn with beds upstairs and a plain communal area downstairs. There was a Spanish couple also staying so we stayed in and played cards as we had been warned about the local dogs who can smell foreigners and will go for you so there was no way I was leaving the four walls of the room. The owner's son watched us play cards and then proceeded to win almost every game of Uno we played which was very impressive.

On the second day of the hike we didn't walk as far. After breakfast, we walked towards a waterfall which was impressive but had little water. We had to walk through a bamboo forest which was really slippy and not much fun to walk through. From the waterfall we walked to our lunch spot and then it was a short stroll to where we were picked up. Today some ladies tried to follow us but I quickly made sure they realised we weren't buying anything. To compensate for our horrendous journey to Lao Cai we had soft sleeper beds back to Hanoi. That was a much more pleasant experience!

Halong Bay (7th March - 9th March)

From the train we stopped off quickly at our hotel to change our day bag and then went to the tour office to be picked up for our Halong Bay tour. From Hanoi it is a 4hour journey to the port which we both spent trying to sleep. At the port we quickly boarded our boat along with 7 others and set off to the Bay. The boat was really nice and massive for only 9 guests. We had decided to pay a bit more for this tour as we have heard horror stories about the cheap tours and we were glad we did. As we sailed out of port we were served a lovely seafood meal and then had time to relax before we kayaked to an island which we could climb to give amazing views of the Bay and swim on the beach. For "big attractions" we sometimes feel disappointed when we see them for real but Halong Bay definitely met our expectations! At night we ate on the boat and had an early night as we were still recovering from our overnight train.

On the second day we visited the (unimaginatively named) Amazing Cave along with most of the other tour boats in the bay (there are something like 150 of them and 500 day boats). We then sailed to Cat Ba island where we would spend our second night and cycled around to see some of the island. In the afternoon we kayaked and swam again. At night we stayed in a plush hotel and went to a local bar with the rest of our group who were good company.

Our last day entailed an early start at 0700 and travelling most of the day back to Hanoi where we arrived at 1700. In the evening we had a fresh beer (less than 20p a glass - can't go wrong) when a young boy of 12 approached us and asked to practise his English while his dad also had a beer. He had only been learning for 3 years but was incredibly good and it was a nice way to spend our last night in Vietnam before I went to watch the rugby while Alice had an early night.

Hanoi (10th March)

On our last day in Vietnam, we got up early to go and see the area around West Lake which we had deliberately left for today. We had thought about going to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but the endless queue put us off so we had a look in the museum beside it and went for a wander around the lake before taking the bus to the airport where we will fly to Laos.

Posted by duncan-alice 06:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hue

sunny 32 °C

Our travel to Hue did not start well. We were up and ready to leave at 7.30am...but we never got picked up. After an angry conversation with the travel agents, who said they had come but we weren't there, we finally got booked onto the bus leaving early in the afternoon. So we spent the morning playing pool, reading and generally lazing around the hostel. Thankfully the driver did turn up in the afternoon, and we arrived in Hue by the evening. We had a little wander round, and then went for Indian food, needing a change from South East Asian cuisine after almost a month.

The next day we were up early again for our Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) tour. This was a 12 hour trip around the area North of Hue which marked the border between North and South Vietnam during the American war. We were picked up at 6am on the back of a motorbike and taken to a cafe for breakfast until 7.30am. This was a little frustrating as it was only a 2 minute walk from out hotel and we would both have preferred the time in bed! Eventually we were on the road heading North, in a very full bus. The tour included highlights of the Khe Sanh combat base and the Vinh Moc tunnels. Both of these were interesting, but on the whole we were a little disappointed by the tour as there was a lot of travelling (~9hrs on the bus) with not many sights to see along the way, and only 5 minutes stops at each to take photos. I'm sure even just being in the DMZ and at these places would have had more resonance for the members of our tour who were slightly older...one man on our tour was a US Vietnam veteran, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the day.

Our second day in Hue was spent exploring the citadel, across the river from the main part of town. This included the Imperial City, where the Emperor used to rule from. The citadel reminded us of the Forbidden City in Beijing, but was far more run down - largely due to bombing in the war - with restoration work currently being carried out. Nevertheless it was interesting to walk round the remaining buildings. It was a particularly hot day though (around 34oC) so were suffering a little, but treated ourselves to our new favourite beverage, ice cold fresh sugar cane juice, and then had a big lunch, opting for Western food again.

At the end of the afternoon we hopped on to an overnight bus to travel North to Hanoi where we are now. We are off to the far North tonight to do some trekking and then onto Halong Bay after, so will update you on those adventures and Hanoi when we return. Sorry for the lack of photos (i.e. anything interesting to look at!), the camera cable is in Duncan's ruck sack which we have stored at the hotel in Hanoi for the week.

Posted by duncan-alice 02:42 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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