A Travellerspoint blog

Mekong Meander

Lazing about in Laos

Luang Prabang is the magnificent old capital of Lao, featuring a cluster of shimmering royal temples and remnants of the faded grandeur of the monarchy. The town (often referred to as jewel like) is compact and tiny. After the capital was moved to Vientiane in 1563 the town flourished as a trading post amongst the people of Northern Laos, Thailand, Burma and China. There was very little contact with non-Asians until French occupation in the mid 19th century. Under French rule a commissiriat was established in Luang Prabang, which led to the construction of french residential houses and buildings. Today the town and its buildings are a world heritage site.

Ok, so now that I have bored you to death with another brief history, lesson let me talk you through our last few days in Laos. To get from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang we had to endure another painstaking drive through more mountain passes that snake, twist and turn back on themselves in hairpin bends with no safety barriers. A sheer drop is what awaits should anyone make a mistake. What makes it more interesting for the drivers is the mountain villages line the side of the road, with livestock, pets and children in the street, not to mention Ngorongoro sized potholes and the constant threat of landslides. It is understandable that our driver never got into 4th gear once on the 8 hour bus trip.
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Exhausted after along day we turned in to get some sleep. I was tossing and turning and couldn't fall asleep even though I was shattered. Eventually around 1am I dozed off. Only to be woken at just after 3am, by what I thought was the end of the planet. It was loud banging and the thumping was making our bed tremble. After getting my wits about me The panic subsided when I realised it was only the massive drum from the temple next door and the lively monks were celebrating a full moon holiday. Soon my heart rate returned to normal and I relaxed enough to snooze again. Later that morning we walked around town and through the day market, where you can buy anything from wasps larvae to python steaks. I have it on good authority that if you get there on the right day you are able to buy any wildlife from sun bears to eagles, dead or alive.
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After the market we went to a silversmith that used to work for the king. I was really impressed with the amount of work these guys put into creating ornate works of art on everyday items such as bowls and goblets. We then went off to temple to learn about the life of monks. Lou went off and spoke to a young monk and it turns out that he had been a monk for 5 yrs already and was only 14. They wake up at 3am, eat 2 meals a day and cannot eat after 12pm(noon). Totally different to what we know as a 'normal' lifestyle.
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We also went to Kuang Si waterfalls by Jumbo (a big tuk-tuk). At the waterfalls there is a rehab centre for bears and tigers that have been confiscated from markets or poachers etc. After looking at the bears for a while we walked up through the jungle towards the waterfalls. Wow, they are even more spectacular then guidebooks describe. The water is turquoise from the white limestone that has been worn away by years of erosion and looks alive - almost fungus like. After a swim and a massage from the pounding water of the falls we headed back into town. The evenings we spent here consisted of walking through the market and eating street food.
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The done thing in the town is to wake up early at around 05h30 and watch the monks receiving alms. Hundreds of monks walk the streets of town every morning and collect food,milk, fruit etc donations from locals and foreigners. This food is then used by these monks for their daily food rations. It is an interesting part of their lifestyle to witness and well worth the very early start. We then went to visit local craft villages. We saw a paper and textile(silk) making village, blacksmiths and also whiskey distilleries. These are more like the moonshiners you see on discovery channel. They cook up the rice wine exactly the way they do it on "Moonshiners" - incredible.

So that was a brief encounter with Luang Prabang. We now had 2 1/2 days days of travel ahead of us, via slow boat down the Mekong. The morning started with me rushing to the market to get us some chicken, bacon and avo baguettes and some fresh fruit whilst Louise stayed at the hotel to book our flights from Chiang Mai to the islands. I rushed back to the guest house, ordered breakfast and then headed off to buy us some beer for Pat and myself. I made it back in time to inhale my hot coffee and omelet. The boat departed around 8am for the 8-9 hr journey to the riverside town of Pakbeng, marking the half-way point of the voyage from Luang Prabang to the Thai border. I’d feared hard seats and a long, uncomfortable ride, but was pleasantly surprised by the ‘car seats’ installed in the boat, which provided some much appreciated cushioning for our large buts. And the first day, although it was long, provided us with more than enough beautiful scenery of enormous jutting, crumbling rock and jungle-clad mountains to keep our child-like attention spans at bay. This was also helped by the 2 cases of beer we brought with us in our polystyrene cooler box. This box was a very good investment and had been with us since the first night train in Vietnam. It was indeed a smooth, peaceful ride, the boat open on all sides, allowing a cool breeze as well as the odd shower to aerate/humidify the cabin. The first day was spent playing cards, drinking beer, writing diaries, napping, reading and chatting. I would take this trip over a bus anytime as at least here you can walk around, lie down, jump around or even use 1 of the 2 toilets.
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The day ended with us docking at Pakbeng. This tiny place is a stopover for people heading between Luang Prabang and Thailand. The town is built on the hills overlooking the Mekong. If you are so inclined you can get hold of weed, opium and I am sure other drugs here. On all of the menus in the limited choice of eateries, there were happy shakes, happy pancakes, happy pizzas etc etc. there was even a bakery offering opium pipes to smoke. Every person we walked past in town offered us narcotics in some form or another. The following day was spent pretty much the same as the day before except we ended in Thailand once we crossed the border at Chiang Kong.
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Chiang mai here we come!!!!!

Posted by louslabbert 20:41 Archived in Laos Tagged laos monks luang_prabang pakbeng alms slow_boat chiang_kong_border Comments (0)

The Ho Chi Minh trail

Step back and chill

The Laos leg of our tour started in Hanoi. To get to Laos we had 2 very long bus journeys ahead of us. The first one was leaving the next morning down to Vinh - still in Vietnam. But first we had to meet the new guys joining us on the Intrepid tour. After our meeting a bunch of us decided to go find beer junction and then have dinner. Beer junction is an intersection in the old quarter of Hanoi. Each corner has a bar (if you can call it that), with stools on the pavements that spill out onto the street. Now sitting on a stool in the road, drinking a nice cold, cheap draught, praying that you dont get hit by a scooter or a taxi, might not sound like fun but it was grand. Beer junction is the one place in Vietnam where you will see locals and tourists sitting side by side laughing and having a good time at the same place. It has an amazing atmosphere and the beers are around 50c US, with amazing snacks to add to the great evening vibe.
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After a few drinks we all went in search of food. We walked up and down a few streets until we found a busy street stall filled with locals and tourists alike. The place looked septic with rubbish all over the floor, bones and leftovers in amongst the litter under the low tables. But that is the norm in Vietnam. Most places we went to on the street was the same with people just chucking the scraps and serviettes under the tables. They cleared a table for us by literally wiping everything onto the floor adding to the pile of trash on the pavement. Now as anyone knows after a few drinks you really need to use the toilet, so my 2 swiss friends and I asked where the toilet was. The one waiter showed us an alley down the street. It was about 60cm wide and we followed it with trepidation. Once we got to the end, about 5 meters, it was pitch black and the rotting corpse type smell eminating from the darkness was making us wretch. Nils had a torch attached to his belt and Ronny took it and went into this 'cubicle' first. Once the torch was on we could see the sewage piled up and the toilet overflowing. The floor was covered by a few centimeters of excrement and urine and could be the single most unpleasant moment of my trip - or life for that matter. As the light revealed more of our situation Ronny discovered that there was a fresh coil steaming on top of the already overflowing pile of poo. Don't ask me how the person managed to squat there without getting it all over their clothes. Anyway we hurriedly did our business and went to eat back at the street stall, laughing at everyone else gagging when we recounted our most recent experience of SE Asia. My meal was the best fried rice I have had on my entire trip. It was a great evening and everyone had lots of fun.

The next day we spent on a bus bound for Vinh playing dodgems with traffic and potholes down the crappy roads of Vietnam. 8 hours of bus later we arrived in Vinh-the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh. Vinh is a port town with nothing to offer these weary travellers. We ate dinner at a place that looked like a sushi bar with a conveyor belt that transported plates of raw fresh food tantalisingly close to our noses. In front of us at our stations was a hole for a soup pot. We could control the temp of our soup(stock) with a little controller in front of us. This is such a great idea. Its basically a hotpot and the food that comes past is placed into your pot and you cook it till you are happy that its done. Boy did I eat - clams, prawns, crab, pork, veg, noodles, steak. . . . . I think the place was called Kiwi-Kiwi. a great concept and for 159 000 Dong for all you can eat, a real steal!

The following morning saw us up early again for another day of bussing. The first 3 hours was spent driving up winding mountain passes to get to the Laos border. Here we left the safety of our bus, crossed the border and climbed onto a new bus. We continued on our journey through the mountains with a long drive to look forward to. The first noticeable difference between the 2 countries are the roads. Laos roads are in better condition. Its cleaner, quieter and full of toyota 4x4s. We stopped for a few scenic photos and some lunch and a drink. Beer Laos is a great beer, in fact most beers in SE Asia have been great. After lunch we drove and drove and drove. We eventually arrived at our Hotel in Vientiane some 13 hours after we had started the day - roughly 333km away. Crap that's slow going.

Vientiane, capital city of Laos and home to roughly 210 000 people is a stunning city. It is clean, quiet and is located on the banks of the mighty Mekong river. We had a guided tour of the capital in the morning. We took in a temple and then walked up a road resembling the Champs Elysee in Paris. This even has its own version of the Arc de Triomf too. We climbed the steps to the top of it for the amazing 360 views across the city. After climbing down the 300 steps to get down, we headed off to COPE Centre. The COPE Centre was set up to help people who have lost limbs or have been injured by bombs that did not explode during the american war. It also helps children with clubfoot and people needing orthotics. Whilst at COPE we were all shocked to find out that Laos is the most bombed place ever, YES ever. Around 30% of these cluster bombs never exploded and people regularly get injured when one of theseunexplodedbombs does explode. The US ran, on average, a bomb run evry 8 minutes for 9 years. That works out to almost 600 000 bombing sorties in Loas. This was because Laos was letting Viet Cong use the Ho Chi Minh trail to get supplies to troops on the front lines.The USA dropped more bombs on Laos than were used in the entire second world war. That is shocking. Still today their bombs are killing innocent people. I have learned so much about the USA that most people dont know and it is sad to know that most people on earth will never find out the truth. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and the evening saw us having sundowners whilst admiring the sun disolving over the far bank of the magnificent Mekong.
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The next day we were heading to a place called Vang Vieng. Any person that has heard of this place will know it for its reputation as a hedonists paradise, where you could get high on drugs and as drunk as a skunk while having a whale of a time floating down the river in an old tractor tube. The Laos government has shut down all the pubs along the 4 km tube route because too many tourists were losing their lives on the many slides and zip wires into the river. It was a painless 4 hour bus ride(160km) from the capital. Vang Vieng is a tiny village set against a backdrop of a dramatic limestone mountain range. It is extremely picturesque and sits on the bend of the Song River.

The town is a tourist place between Luang Prabang and Vientianne so everything is geared towards people like us. Souvenir shops, restaurants and bars and then the normal bike hire and tour shops all dotted amongst the many hotels and guest houses. All the restaurants play reruns of Friends or Family Guy non-stop and the pace of life is slower then slow. I timed the one waitress with my beerlao and it took her around 40 seconds to drag my beer a full 30 meters. I challenge anyone to drag their feet like this lady and cover that distance in that time. It is almost impossible to crawl that slowly, but that lady made it look like life was in slow motion. our favorite pub/restaurant was called Other Side and was a great place to watch time elude you as you lazed about the benches overlooking the river.

After our first night we hired bicycles and headed to Tham Phu Kham. This cave is about 7km from town. First up we payed 4000kip to cross the bamboo bridge with a bike, then we made our way with a basic map towards the caves. This was a very scenic ride as we passed rice paddies, streams and villages. We passed cowboys tending their buffalo, kids playing in the roads, farmers harvesting crops of rice all in the shodow of this spectacular mountain range. Once we got to the cave we were greeted by a chrystal clear stream that is turqoise blue and very deep. The first thing I noticed were the branches hanging over the stream, so I promptly climbed to the 5m(roughly) and jumped into the refreshing cool waters. We all had a dip here to cool off before tackling the 200m or so almost vertical climb to the cave. Once at the top we were rewarded with a large dark cave with a reclining buddha inside. Like many caves in SE Asia it ad been turned into a place of worship. The descent down the side of the mountain was much more difficult, especially with wet flip flops. We all had another long swim before heading back to town. The night on the town was spent at Other Side again, but heck it was so nice to sit there and chill.
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The next day was tubing day. We payed our cash, grabbed a tube and hopped into a tuk-tuk(jumbo) and enjoyed the ride 4 kms upstream where the guy dropped us off and left us to it. T-shirts stuffed into the dry bag we set off bobbing down the river like giant corks. The river was stronger then it looked. Relaxing on the tubes, we floated past incredible scenery and the remnants of bars, with slides and zip lines that peppered the banks of this river. Apparently the barstaff used to fish tubers out of the river and ply them with free booze. But that part of Vang Vieng doesn't exist anymore because of this. We had avery relaxing few hours on the water and ended off the morning with lunch at our local.After lunch I went to see the cock fighting, which I didnt find all that interesting, but it was one of those things I had to see once in my life. They do not fight to the death and there is a vet on hand to stitch up wounds if any cocks should get injured.
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That pretty much sums up our time on the Ho Chi Minh trail. We had an amazing time in an incredible sleepy town. Very memorable indeed, Vang Vieng you will never be forgotten, the 3 days of buses to get to you, your beauty, peacefulness and charm pulled all the right strings, thank you!

Posted by louslabbert 19:30 Archived in Laos Tagged landscapes waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains bridges buildings parties trees animals birds sky boats food rain street travel bus river roads vietnam rice laos vientiane wat monks forest sights time border ancient stalls hours vinh ho_chi_ming ho-chi-minh-trail Comments (0)

Hanoi and the long haul to Ha Long Bay

Hanoi, Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba Island

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With the city of Hue logged into the memory banks we boarded our last night train of our Vietnam trip. So, you might have heard some horror stories about overnight trains in Vietnam, but the previous two overnighters were bearable, if not alright. So I reckon you need to try things a few times before you really form an opinion about things. Take my dislike for tomatoes, for instance. I have tried to eat them on several occasions, often not even on purpose and I still despise the red fruit that so many people love. Anyway, enough about fruit and let's relive that edifying train trip to Hanoi. This is the first train trip that Lou was feeling normal, so we had bought a few drinks and sandwiches for the trip. First up, the train was almost an hour late, not really an issue in this part of the world. We boarded the train and this took a while because in our carriage there was another tour group with massive bags and bicycles to boot. Eventually we found our cabin, opened the doors and there it was a 2 inch long cockroach scuttling along the floor heading under the bottom bunk. No problem. We settled in to our cosy room chatting to Gordon and Kaye while we ate our dinner and had a beer. Now this train was squalid, it reeked of what can only be described as a sewer. and the loos were faecal - it was on the seats and the putrid smells that came from within them. I have never understood how people manage to miss the bowl when they have to go. It's incredible to think how many public toilets have poo on the toilet seats. (keep an eye out in the future.) So as per normal we headed to the party cabin for a few more beers and some card games. At one stage I swatted a cockroach off Lou's back, it was gigantic, around 4cm long and she didn't even know it was there! It really is nice chilling, playing cards, drinking and chatting on the train. It takes your mind off the decayed train and helps the time whizz by. At around 11pm we called it a night.

After an interesting nights sleep, which was not too long, our guide knocked on our door at around 5am to wake us up. After gathering our belongings we climbed off the worst, fetid train ever, thank goodness for that. We chucked our luggage into the 2 taxis kindly provided by our tour operators and walked to our hotel in Hanoi. Check-in was only at 12pm, so we left our bags at the hotel and went for a pho ( Vietnamese beef noodle soup, which is a staple breakfast) which was by far the tastiest I have had so far in Vietnam. So after breakfast and coffee, our guide was going to give us a walking tour of Hanoi, his home town.

Reluctantly, without showering for many many hours we followed "Hitler"( the name I had given him because he was always telling us what to do.) We walked past the temple of literature-Van Mieu, Vietnams 1st university was founded here in 1076. We then went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. It is here, against his wishes to be cremated, that his embalmed body lies. It was closed due to him being re-embalmed, so I got a picture of the building. We also went to the museum and one pillar pagoda. We then followed Adolf to the old quarter before we fled the scene in a taxi headed for our hotel. After a long, hot and disinfecting shower we had a long nap and relaxed for the rest of the day.
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The following morning, after a quick pho we boarded our bus and headed up the long road to Ha Long Bay. A 4 hour drive seemed to last days, but man it was worth it. Ha Long Bay is around 1500km2 with a 120km coastline. The name means descending dragon. It is another world heritage site. The bay consists of a cluster of almost 2000 monolithic limestone islands which rise out of the ocean like tombstones. Each island is topped with thick jungle and many are hollow with massive caves. After arriving at Ha Long City on the mainland we boarded a boat for a trip to Cat Ba island where we were due to spend the night. The boat took us to some caves which were spectacular, then we chugged around the bay anchoring at one stage for a dip. This must be one of the most magnificent places you could ever wish to swim, it really was surreal. After around 20 mins of swimming and tom foolery we reboarded the boat and completed our journey to the island. Just in time to watch the sun dissolve behind the hills.

The next morning at 6am the boys and I went fishing with a local guy. Now it was not much of boat, but it was almost sea worthy and still great fun. When leaving the harbour we stopped at a large fishing boat where our skipper grabbed a bucket of bait. Then we headed out. We eventually stopped next to a massive tombstone of a rock and we dropped anchor. Now the whole time(around 40mins) on board I hadn't seen any fishing rods,line,sinkers or hooks. I was really starting to think our 20 000 dong trip was going to be a waste of time, when our skipper pulled up a loose deck plank and grabbed a chopping board, knife and a bag full of sinkers and hooks. Relief. I was starting to feel better about my 10 US$ fishing trip. So he blissfully chopped up the fish into bait sized pieces while we eagerly waited to drop a line onto the reef below us to catch some big fish. So our non-English speaking captain finished preparing the bait and then lifted another deck board to grab the gear. To my utter amazement he pulled out 3 plastic 1/2 litre bottles with some line wrapped around them with a hook and sinker on each one. We had been done in and were only going to fish for small reef fish. None the less it was still fun pulling out some fish with hand lines in the amazing surroundings of Ha Long Bay. Our fishing trip was cut short by the now daily monsoon rains that plagued us everyday in Vietnam. We had caught some fish but nothing massive. The storm hit us by surprise and we sat out the worst of it before we headed back to land. Dripping wet we went back to our hotel for a shower. The rest of the day was spent exploring the islands beaches and sampling the delicious food. We also decided to get massages, but I will let Lou explain her feelings about that story.

Ken decided he was going to have a foot massage while I opted for a back massage as my back had been hurting quite a bit. The massage started downstairs in these massage chairs, with Ken in the chair next to me. I had a male and ken had what could only be described as an elderly lady, probably my masseuses grandmother. After around 5 minutes of this guy prodding around he discovered my back pain and suggested we go upstairs so he could do me properly. Recently our group had been discussing happy endings with massages in SE Asia and I was immediately weary about this guys motives on getting me upstairs away from prying eyes. I gingerly followed this guy upstairs and lay on the massage table. So with my nerves shot and imagination running amok, the guy continued with his massage. I was waiting for the inappropriate gestures or touch which never happened, until the guy climbed up on to the massage bed and straddled me. now I thought it was my time for this well documented happy ending and my heart almost stopped. There were tiny beads of sweat collecting on my forehead, my mouth was dry and my hands clammy as my adrenaline pumped. My mind was working in overdrive deciding weather to fight or flee. As the guy straddled me and got into a good position, he gleefully clicked my back and told me the massage was over. All the stress for nothing because he was really good and worked my lower back that was aching. In fact it was one of the best massages I have ever had, amazing.
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So with an exciting afternoon over we boarded the ferry to begin our long drive back to Hanoi. The ferry took about an hour and a half and we were treated to a glorious sunset to finish our trip to an amazing landscape called Ha Long Bay. The The 4 hour bus trip to Hanoi in the dark was interesting to say the least but I will leave stories about road travel for our next blog post. Our return to Hanoi signalled the end of our Vietnam leg of our trip with a new group starting the next day for the Loas adventure.
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Posted by louslabbert 16:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises beaches art skylines people animals birds sky boats trains temples traffic food markets fishing fields street bus city vietnam sights hanoi thai ancient bbq vendors hue sounds halong_bay ho_chi_ming Comments (0)

Hoi An to Hue

...Vietnam continued....

So if anyone read the last post, our next journey was the overnight train from Nha Trang to Danang. Now this train was slightly worse then the previous train and no where near as clean. Unfortunately we were not given another complimentary upgrade. We had to walk to the next carriage to find a useable loo and there were a few cockroaches that were enjoying our cabin with us - not too many though, thank goodness!
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Claire, an Australian who was on the Intrepid trip with us had just turned ??...... um anyway it was her birthday so our guide had organised a lovely cake for her and we had a little party. At around midnight, I ( Ken ) went to my top bunk. All was going so well until around 3am when I woke up with a pain I don't ever recall having in my short life so far. It felt as if someone had put a branding iron into my guts, man oh man I knew I was in trouble. I sat bolt upright scrambled off the top bunk,careful not to wake anyone and found my flip flops (very necessary for where I was off to). Running the risk of dirtying my shorts and a dribble down my legs, I sort of walked to the closest toilet. Imagine walking quickly on your tiptoes with a book between your legs? That was me. Oddly enough the state of the toilet didn't bug me anymore. Needless to say, the rest of my night was spent wearing a track on the carpet between our cabin and the dodgy loo. Eventually at around 6h30 everyone started to wake up and I got pills from Lou.

Enough dirty stories, now back to our travels. Once off our train we bussed it to Hoi An. It was very interesting to see all the big resorts being built around Danang. Big golf estates and hotels. All the usual course designers. In a few years this place will be a 5* strip of beach resorts a bit like in Cancun, Mexico. When we got to the hotel we got our room straight away, which was great because Louise was still ill and meant she could climb into bed. Our guide took us on a walking tour of the town and we had lunch at 'Mermaids', the first restaurant in the town. I refrained from eating and had a black Lipton tea. Ok so Hoi An- A UNESCO world heritage site- is a magical old town and it is like stepping back in time or on to a film set, Its simply stunning. We spent the afternoon walking around ancient temples, historical houses and the markets. I managed to get Lou a birthday pressie and myself a hammock. There are hundreds of tailors and shoe shops here and it's quite unbelievable what they can make in a couple of hours.
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Still not feeling on top form, I wandered back to the hotel to check on Lou and have some rest. The evening consisted of me heading into town for a wander and a cuppa tea and Lou staying in bed. I hated the fact that she was sick because she would love this place. After a good night sleep I was up early and we went down to the beach via a few villages on bicycles. About half an hour of body surfing in the rain was a great way to wake up. Lou was feeling better, but not well enough to cycle. When I got back she was AWOL. I found her down the road from the hotel having breakfast with Gordon and Kaye. I must admit, I was so happy to see her up and looking better.The rest of the day was spent being tour guide to Lou and absorbing the charming little town, taking in the sights, sounds and smells together. Wonderful. It's a very overpowering place and easy to fall in love with. So it was full moon and a lantern festival awaited us that evening. On the festival night, streets are decorated with colorful traditional lanterns lighting the whole town while soulful folk and opera music and lyrical poetry chanting wafting from every corner. The centre of town is closed to traffic and all the lights aRE turned off. This is one of a few exotic festivals around the world which does not require a season to visit. It happens on the 14th day of the lunar month.
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Usually on this night, tourists leave their hotels and flood the street walking the peaceful street, lit by hundreds of colorful lanterns, listening to the music floating in the air and enjoying an enchanting moment back in ancient time. For us it wasn't as romantic and dreamy as portrayed. It was wet, overcrowded and the rain basically put a damper on a good night. We walked the street dodging people and dancing dragons until we were soaked through, then we called it a night.

When we woke up I wished Louise a HAPPY BIRTHDAY- The big 30, and I handed her present wrapped in newspaper. She wasn't expecting anything as we had said no pressies this year because of this trip. It was a carved box, with chopsticks inside. We went and had a birthday breakfast upstairs at a restaurant overlooking the river and then found a tailor to get a skirt made for her to wear on her birthday night. It didn't stop there, next was a cobbler to get custom sandals made to go with the skirt. I did say Lou would love this place! We hired some bikes and rode around and then went for coffee and cake at the Cargo Club. Lou spent the rest of the afternoon getting her nails done while I buggered off towards the beach to fish with the locals for about an hour. Caught nothing!
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Then began the rush. Get to the tailor for a fitting of the skirt at 17h00, too big so it needed adjusting. They promised to deliver it to our hotel by 18h30 after I paid for it in full. Racing against the light we headed back to return our bikes (which are only US$1/day) and to pick up Louise's new shoes. She also wanted to get her hair washed and straightened before we met everyone at 19h00 for a group dinner to celebrate the birthday. I showered and got dressed and waited and waited and waited............... Eventually Lou got back at 18h40, frantically did her make up, chucked on her new gear and we went off for dinner. Wow she looked good! Lou got given a lovely bunch of flowers and a cake by the group. It was a good day.
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The weather over the last few days had been really crap, but today, 1st October, was the worst, it was dumping down in Hoi An. This was not a problem as we were moving on to our next destination, Hue. The best part about Hue is the road that takes you there and not too much else. The road to Hue is a must do drive in Vietnam. The views are breathtaking. We stopped at China beach and watched fishermen pulling in their nets, then headed through the port town of Danang, across a lagoon and started climbing the pass. The drive is stunning and anyone who saw Top Gear Vietnam special will know what I mean. After 4 hours we arrived in Hue.
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"Hue- The intelectual,spiritual and cultural heart of Vietnam. Palaces and pagodas, tombs and temples, culture and cuisine, history and heartbreak- There's no shortage of poetic pairings to descrtibe Hue" One of our guide books.
"Just another dirty Vietnamese city, with lots of the unnecessary tourist traps" - Ken Erler, 2012

Our time in Hue was spent writing our Cambodia blog, chilling and checking out the Imperial Citadel - which is very fascinating. It was constructed on the Northern bank of the perfume river, started in 1804, as the royal residence for kings of Vietnam. During the Indochina and American wars many of the buildings were destroyed. But most have been or are in the process of being restored. We did spend a lovely time exploring this amazing place. Also worth a mention is the Mandarin Cafe. The owner is a Vietnam war veteran, also a photographer. The staff are welcoming and very friendly. The food is mouthwateringly great and time will pass you by as you immerse yourself in the albums of photographs the owner has taken over the years. He sells postcards of his work and also gives each customer a free one. Time spent here is time well spent.
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After 2 nights in Hue we headed to the train station for our last sleeper train to Hanoi........

Posted by louslabbert 22:27 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mountains temples fishing beach train river vietnam pagodas funny hanoi ancient hue hoi_an overnight mandarin_cafe Comments (1)

Good morning, Vietnam!

Our time in Ho Chi Minh City and Southern Vietnam

32 °C

"So the weary travellers climbed off the bus after an 8 hour drive from Pnom Penh in Cambodia at the bus station in Ho Chi Minh City.........."

Ok so this place was like nothing we had ever seen before. The city is frightening to see first hand. There are so many scooters and the traffic seem to ignore any road rules that anyone ever taught us. It is like a well choreographed free for all, hooters going off all around us. This was daunting to say the least. So taking our lives into our own hands we stepped out into the oncoming traffic - seemingly taking a step closer to the bright lights at the end of the tunnel. The secret we were duly informed, is to walk slowly, one step at a time and never to stop. The bikes and cars avoid you and by walking slowly you give them the choice of which direction to go around you.

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After a great night on the town in the former Saigon, Lou awoke with the trots. So she opted to stay in bed for the day while I went around town with my two Swiss mates. After a delicious pho for breakfast, we walked around the Ben Thanh market, and then headed to the War Remnants Museum for a shocking education on the war and the US's genocide of the Vietnamese people. The emotions you feel whilst here are so varied that its hard to explain, but I will try. The first thing you see are the fighter jets, cannons, tanks(US and Viet), large bombs etc, typical war museum. Its all fun and games standing behind the guns, pretending to shoot, for the perfect photo. Its a happy childlike feeling. Then you explore some more and see the camps and prisons used by the Thai people. Then you head inside and start looking at the photographs, reading the captions and you get re-educated. some of the pictures almost make you spew in your mouth and others are just mind numbing to think about. Rage, horror, pity, sadness, fear and helplessness are just some of the emotions that I felt in those hours walking through the museum. People deformed, by chemicals used in the war by the US, sit at the museum every day to raise funds to help families who suffered the same fate. Agent orange and other chemicals continue to destroy lives of the people who came close to them( US soldiers too). It is a day I will never forget.
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So our Cambodian group had split up and in the evening we met new people joining our tour for the Vietnam leg. We all went out for dinner and a few drinks, Lou stayed home ( at the hotel ) again to try get well. Now after walking around the city for a day, I could negotiate the streets with confidence, cockily giving pointers to the new people on our tour.

With rain hammering down and Louise feeling a little better the next morning our tour took us to the Mekong delta. After boarding a boat, we were shown how the locals live on the various islands in the delta. We stopped and had Thai tea with a family who gave us local fruits to taste and sang folk songs with local instruments providing the tunes. After that we headed to another island where they make coconut candy, very tasty indeed and interesting to see how they made rice paper at the factory too. After the factory tour we were shepherded onto little canoes and were taken down mangrove lined canals to a village. We ate lunch here, it was a welcome respite from the relentless rain. After a relaxing lunch we went to another village where we were staying for the night - another home stay. This was a totally different thing to the last one in Cambodia, it was more like a school camp. Dorm rooms, separate toilets and cold water showers around the back of the building and the dining area about 40m away up a concrete path. No hot water but at least we had facilities. The afternoon was spent playing cards and relaxing on the veranda - we had planned a countryside bike ride which was cancelled due to the rain. For dinner we were shown how to make spring rolls and ate them together with pork, veg and fish. eventually we hit the sack after a few beers and a bottle of rice wine.
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The following morning was spent cycling and eating breakfast, baguettes, eggs and coffee - my old man would love the coffee here, no fresh milk, just condensed milk. We then bussed it back to Saigon for an afternoon of markets and sightseeing because Lou had missed it the other day. With our first SE Asian overnight train to look forward to, we bought ourselves some food and drinks for dinner on the train.

Overnight madness- Sleeper train, 4 to a cabin. Lou and I were paired with Gordon, in his eighties and Kaye from Australia. They were on the trip with us through Vietnam. We sat chatting for a while, eating and then I headed next door to the party cabin. Nils ( one of the Swiss guys on tour ) and I had bought a bottle of rice wine each from the family at home stay the previous night and Eugene ( from Ireland ) had got a case of tiger beer. A polystyrene cool box with ice had been purchased at the station before departure, so it was full steam ahead to Nha Trang. The train was much better then we had expected and was pleasant enough - could be down to the fact that our group was upgraded to 1st class for the journey - bonus!

At 5am the train pulled into Nha Trang station and we caught cabs to our hotel. Exhausted from lack of sleep - have you slept on the top bunk of an old train lately?? We dropped our bags at our hotel and hit he beach. Nha Trang was the place the US soldiers used to come for R and R during the war. Its a lovely sandy beach with a great view of a few small islands just off shore. By lunch time we were all beached out and went to check in. Louise was feeling rotten again, but this time with flu! We had a nap in the afternoon and spent the evening strolling along the promenade watching the locals, playing soccer, badminton and running. We settled for Bratwurst for dinner, Oh boy what a refreshing change from Asian food. Yum yum yum. We turned in early and got a really good nights rest. The following day Lou was feeling worse, but we were getting on another overnight train that evening, and to be honest, I think she was dreading it. After walking around the market we got Lou to bed. We payed extra to keep the room because we were meant to check out at 12pm. This meant Lou could sleep and I could shower after the beach. Which is exactly what happened - I body surfed for around 3 hours then showered, packed and left for the station. Nha Trang could've been any beach resort in the world. Overpriced, neon signed bars and restaurants lined the main street near the beach. It is nothing special, but it does have a great beach. We enjoyed our few days here and loved the sunshine.
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Next destination - Hoi An.......

Posted by louslabbert 21:51 Archived in Vietnam Tagged temples traffic food bus train city museum usa sights saigon thai war genocide sounds ho_chi_ming Comments (0)

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