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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)

The tale of two cities....

KL and Bangkok

After a few dodgy wireless internet connections at the hotels we have been staying at recently, we decided to pop in to an internet cafe to write a quick blog post. I have now typed out that first line 3 times due to the PC I am on crashing and then the electricity going off. 3rd time lucky, I hope!

So we landed in Kuala Lumpur Sebung airport, 20 km from the city. Apparently all we needed to do was catch a bus from outside the airport which would take us to Chinatown where we were staying. We finally found the bus stop, about half a km down the road. Packed in to the bus like sardines, we continued our journey. Luckily the bus terminated right outside the hostel we were booked in to. Once again we were over the moon that our room had aircon!

We got up pretty early the next morning, had some coffee and toast and set off to explore the big city. First stop was KL City Centre and the Petronas Towers. KLCC was a huge contrast to the rest of the city - smart, posh, clean and a huge shopping centre housing the expensive stores. The sky scrapers are amazing and dwarf everything around them. After relaxing next to the fountains we hopped on a bus to Chow Kit market - local market selling everything from fruit to meat to electronics. We were craving fresh fruit so bought a mixture of fruit for lunch. That evening we explored Chinatown, which is basically 3 streets filled with stalls selling cheap knock off branded goods. Any brand you want, for a tenth of the price. And cheap dvds, cheap dvds!! In amongst all the fakes are food stalls and the odd street cafe. The place is very busy - lots of people everywhere and very noisy. We also found it quite smelly with all of the open drains.

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All in all, we were not overly impressed with Kuala Lumpur - may be to do with the fact that by the time we got there we were over cities.

Next up, was Bangkok. Yes, another city, so we were hesitant after KL. Bangkok traffic is mad! We sat in a taxi from the airport to our hotel for almost 2 hours. Three lanes turned in to five lanes, it is just synchronised chaos! Was actually busier than London rush hour traffic. The next day we explored the area around Khao San Road - the place has such a good vibe to it and very chilled. We did lots of walking and enjoyed a few stops for well deserved cold beers and iced coffee. In the evening we met up with the group we are doing the Intrepid tour with for an introductory meeting. We all went out for dinner and drinks together to get to know each other. Everyone in our group seems nice enough, which is a relief as we are travelling with many of them for 39 days! Ken and I loved Bangkok after the short time we spent there and we are looking forward to going back again after the Thailand islands in November.

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So thus began our Best of Indochina tour through Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos......so watch this space, and we will be back soon!

Posted by louslabbert 04:13 Archived in Thailand Tagged buildings skylines people parties sky night planes temples traffic food city pagodas thai kl sounds bankok Comments (0)

Land of the head hunters...Borneo!

Kuching, Borneo - First stop on our whirlwind tour of South East Asia.

The reason Kuching was on our itinerary was because Ken gave me a list of a few of the things he wanted to see and do during our trip. One of them was to see the Orangutans and so we decided on Semonggoh National Park, with Kuching being the place to stay closest to the park.

The Semenggoh Wildlife Centre was established in 1975 to care for wild animals which have either been found injured in the forest, orphaned, or were previously kept as illegal pets. The centre is situated within the boundaries of the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, approximately 24 km from Kuching. When established, the three main aims of the Centre were to rehabilitate wild animals who have been injured, orphaned in the wild or handicapped by prolonged captivity, with the objective of subsequently releasing them back to the wild, to conduct research on wildlife and captive breeding programmes for endangered species and to educate visitors and the general public about the importance of conservation. As a result of its success, Semenggoh’s role has changed and it is nowadays a centre for the study of orangutan biology and behaviour, as well as a safe and natural haven for dozens of semi-wild orangutan, graduates of the rehabilitation programme. It is also home to numerous baby orangutan, born in the wild to rehabilitated mothers, a further testament to the success of the programme.

After hearing lots of feedback and stories on the number of orangutans which had been seen by other travellers, we were excited about our trip to see them. With two hourly feeding times, 9am and 3am, we opted for the morning slot. We got up early on Monday morning, made our way to the bus station and caught the bus just before 7am, getting us to the park very early. After buying our entry ticket we walked 20 minutes through the jungle to get to the rehab centre. At 9am, along with a large crowd of visitors, we were led to the feeding area. We waited, and waited and waited....and waited. Well, unfortunately for us, the orangutans were not hungry that morning and so did not grace us with their presence. Very disappointing! Good for the park, as it means that they are finding their own food, however sad for us, as we had really been looking forward to seeing them. So heavy hearted, we made our way by bus back to Kuching, where we recuperated in the aircon'd room for a while before a trip to the Sarawak Museum. It was a great insight into the local Iban life and the history of Malaysian Borneo.

The highlight of the day / night was dinner - we treated ourselves to dinner at a place called James Brookes Bistro, on the waterfront. Ken had the yummiest butter chicken and I chose the fish curry - amazing! Definitely a treat as we blew our budget that day!

Another early start on Tuesday and another early bus trip. This time is was to Bako National Park. An hour on the bus got us to the park office, where we had to buy day permits to the park. We joined up with a couple from Canada, and bought return boat tickets to the park, as they were also going for the day and so it worked out much cheaper to share the journey. The park is 27 square kilometers, with secluded beaches, mangrove swamps, cliffs, lowland forest and heath forest. After a 20 minute boat ride through the croc infested estuary, we signed in. There are 17 hiking trails in Bako - we opted for a 5.8 km loop, which was estimated to take 3.5 hours. So off we set on our hike in 36 degree Celsius heat, at around 95 % humidity. Well, were we in for a shock. My idea of a hike was on a straight/level/flat surface. Withing 5 minutes of starting we were literally climbing vertically out of the valley. The hike was tough, up and down using tree roots as steps and vines as ropes. But I survived :-) The jungle was alive with lots of noises, but we didn't see too many animals except for the bearded pigs, fiddler crabs and mudskippers at the start of the hike. We also managed to see the macaque monkeys and the famous proboscis monkeys. Ken was in his element in the jungle!

Once back in Kuching, as knackered as we were, we headed to Top Spot for dinner, which was highly rated in all the guide books/online as the place to eat. Top Spot is a food court on top of a multi story car park. Seafood city!! You walk around, checking out the fresh seafood, deciding what to go for. You choose what you want - they cook it for you and bring it to the table. We had huge prawns, cooked in garlic, chilli and spring onions. Yum yum yum! it was an awesome meal - a fitting end to a great few days in Kuching.

While on the plane from Kuching to Penang, just before take off, Ken realised that our camera had grown legs and walked! Yup, our lovely new camera was missing, along with all of the photos from our day at Bako NP. Talk about putting a damper on the day. We were absolutely gutted. After liaising with airport staff and lost property, the camera was never found. Sob sob sob :-)

Bye Bye Borneo...next stop, Penang......

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Posted by louslabbert 03:05 Archived in Malaysia Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains buildings trees animals birds sky boats temples food markets fishing beach travel monkey river malaysia roads city pagodas borneo funny sights ancient bbq pig deer vendors stalls sounds proboscis_monkey hornbill orangutang shop_houses kutching Comments (2)

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