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Dalat: Finally Some Sun

With the aid of some over the counter “sleeping aids”, the 16 hour bus ride really wasn’t that bad. At 5′ 9″ (175cm) I’ve never had an issue with my height, but I can say traveling Asia has been the first time that I’ve ever been genuinely thankful for it. I can just barely fit with my legs stretched out, with my feet turned a bit, into the sleeper bus beds. I can’t imagine how all the 6′ Scandinavians do it. Oh fun fact, when we got on the bus in Hoi and half the seats were packed with cargo boxes because, hey why not. Anyway after a quick movie and a nice nap I woke up to blaring sunshine, and I couldn’t have been happier. We were 5 minutes out of the Dalat bus station and at some point all of the boxes had been unloaded, and I had been none the wiser. Getting in at 7:30 am we were keen to stretch our legs, so we decided to walk the 30ish minutes to a hostel that had been recommended to us by the Dutch guys in Phong Nha called the Cozy Nook. The weather was perfect and the air up in Dalat is a bit crisper than the rest of southern Vietnam. Immediately along the walk you can tell this place is in Vietnam, but very different than everywhere else. Being up in the mountains and having a cooler climate it was a retreat for many of the French people during their occupation of Vietnam and their style never really left.

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The radio tower in town is shaped like the Eiffel Tower

Like a Vietnamese Luang Prabang the architecture is semi-French influenced and the predominant color is white as opposed to the typical orange yellow of the rest of the country. Sitting in the center of the town is a lake that was initially the accidental product of poor dam management, but now acts as a centerpiece and main landmark in this mountain town.

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The blue lake….and look…BLUE SKIES!

We made it to the Cozy Nook and dropped off our bags, but being too early to check in we got a run down from the owners, grabbed our day bags, and headed out explore. The first stop on our list, which was just around the corner from the hostel, was a place called Crazy House. Rated in the top ten worldwide architecturally wild houses, it really is crazy. Its almost like A Doctor Sues book came to life with a little of Alice in Wonderland sprinkled on top. All concrete the scale and spread of the structure is remarkable and they’re still building! For the insane cost of $50-100USD/night you can stay in one of the hotel rooms built into the house and wander the grounds without the tourists at night.

I just realized that in writing these posts I invariably start talking a lot about architecture and I fully blame my parents. If you don’t know me my parents are architects and interior designers, so from the time I could sit in a car seat weekends were spent “house watching” and now it’s become engraved in my being to notice it where ever I go.

Alas, crazy house was crazy and yet again the pictures explain way better than words.

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Decent into the aquarium

After our crazy time we walked over to the lake and saw they had swan paddle boats that you could rent out. Since it was finally sunny and the lake looked beautiful we splurged the $2 and had a lovely time seeing the town from the water. The rest of the day we walked around and found flower gardens and little parks. It was so pleasant.

We headed back to the Cozy Nook and hung out with some other travelers there before the family dinner at 6pm, which was delicious, copious, and inexpensive. The traveler trifecta. There must have been at least 25 people crammed around little tables and having a great time.  And of those 25 at least 7 or 8 were Dutch. Turns out there are an insane amount of Dutch people who travel to Vietnam and there are about 3 Dutch Facebook groups for travelers, all of which rave about the Cosy Nook. I think there was only 1 time in the three nights we spent there that there wasn’t a minimum of 1 Dutch person in the common room. That being said, its recommended for good reason. The people who run the hostel are SOOOO nice, it’s incredibly clean, the beds are soft, it’s not too big and generally is just a cozy place. 10/10 recommend the Cozy Nook if you go to Dalat.

One of the big attractions in Dalat is it’s canyoning trips. And after reading about them in a couple of places including an adrenaline seekers list of SEA, we decided to splurge a little and enjoy the sun. So the next day we woke up and the two of us and 5 other people from the hostel headed to Dalat canyon for the big adventure. Not entirely sure what to expect, it was a pretty fun experience involving a lot of abseiling (rappelling) down waterfalls, cliff jumping, trekking, and lots of Bahn Mi for lunch (no complaints here). The best part is you get to do the whole thing in a body condom wetsuit and helmet to make you look extra cool. While it was lots of fun and I’m glad I did it, I don’t know if I’d really call it an adrenaline intensive activity. But maybe I’m just used to rope work from climbing and adrenaline from all my other hobbies.

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Adventure buddies forever

We got back that evening and we’re tired so we opted for family dinner again and with a whole new menu it was still delicious. And there were about half as many people. Included in our trip was a drink from the Nooks bar at dinner and their passion fruit “vodka drink” (a local special) was dank! After dinner they had a nice candle lit aperitif for everyone. We started chatting with a New Zealander named Janine from Christchurch. She’d recently finished her studies as a scarfie at University of Otago and after sharing stories we realized we had overlapped when I had been studying there. After a long evening of chillin at the nook drinking beers and talking with other folk we headed to bed and made a plan to rent motorbikes with Janine the next day to drive out to the countryside and find some waterfalls.

The next day we woke up to another amazing breakfast and went into town to find some scooters to rent and right by the central lake we found a couple of places. We headed out of town and dodged a couple of “yellow jackets” or traffic police who tried to stop us on the way out. About 45 minutes out, we stopped out Elephant falls.

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Our new Kiwi friend Janine!

And while it looks nothing like an elephant it was pretty awesome. But we’d heard about an even cooler waterfall another 45-60 minutes. So back on the bikes and the first 3/4 of the drive was fine but then it suddenly switched to the mostly rutted dirt and gravel road, which I was having a blast on, while Janine plugged her way through behind (first time on a scooter in Vietnam). And Thac Pongour, the farther falls, is just breathtaking. Payed our 20k dong entrance and got to hang out down at the base on this really cool basalt flow. It looked like it could have been in a national park back in the US.

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Thac Pongour

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All now starving, on the drive back we stopped at a place in one of the little towns to get some food. Janine said “how are you” in Vietnamese, which they took to mean she was fluent and proceeded a long confused conversations on all sides, which eventually lead to them just bringing us some food. Hot pot style cook your own Pho with all manner of interesting things in it. Random meat bits and blood sausage and other questionable part of things made it an interesting experience. But hey it’s a local delicacy and that’s what travel is about isn’t it.

Along the way back near town we stopped at a cafe that had a view of the valley before and tried a Dalat special, weasel coffee. The coffee beans are eaten whole by weasels whose digestive system does something and then they poop out the while bean and it’s ground into coffee. It taste pretty much like regular coffee to be honest, but now I can say I’ve drank coffee that came out of a weasels butt.

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You might not be able to tell, but that coffee came from a weasels ass!

After the last two nights being so great we did family dinner again at the Nook and afterward went to go explore the “maze bar” with some friends. Maze bar is a building in the center of town built by the same architect who designed crazy house. But unlike crazy houses extravagant outdoor stairways it’s a tight 7 “story” indoor maze with hidden levels and doors you can open and genuinely get lost in for about an hour. All for the entry price of one 30k beer. All the way at the top there’s a little garden that looks out over the city and has a quite fabulous view.

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One of the only photos of Maze Bar that had enough light
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I swear we’re not serial killers….maybe

After a bit of talking and a few drinks we head back to the hostel and hung out in the common area just chatting and having few casuals. Which is much more my speed than the crazy oomst oomst of a party hostel.

The next morning after three good days in the sun in Dalat we decided to head south and catch some beach time in Mui Ne while the sun was still around.

Hoi An: The Town of Tailors

Hoi An sits about 35km south of the much larger city of Da Nang. It’s an ancient fishing village that in the late 2000’s was named a UNESCO world heritage sight. At the time it was known for its small streets, and classic and well preserved architecture. Now however, much like the Hi Van pass, it’s infamy as the local home of Jeremey, James, and Richards extravagant tailored suits the vibe of the city has changed drastically. The small fishing town, which was indeed home to some world class tailors, is not a bustling tourist destination, in which many of the old architecture building have been taken over by either new tailoring businesses or chachki trinket shops aggressively “catering” to the tourist crowd.

When we got there right after there had been some some major flooding which meant the typically picturesque beaches were a bit thrashed. We stayed at a hostel called the lazy bear and got the nicest private room of the whole trip for a smooth $16USD.

If you know me personally or have been following along a while you’ll know Athena and I are getting married next September, and being in a city known for some of the nicest cheapest bespoke clothing in the world (next to Hong Kong and parts of South Korea) of course I was going to get my wedding suit made here. So we did a bit of research because while there are many tailors, and while many use the same materials, not all are created equal. The first day real in town we went walking and along the way saw a suit that we both really liked. We stopped in and before we knew it we were picking out colors and ties and linings and had done the whole process and right as she was giving us the price I remembered all that research I had done and went outside and googled the name of the place. It was #436 of 450 tailors in Hoi An. All the reviews were absolutely terrible! I’m so glad I remembered to do that just before paying the deposit. I slyly showed Athena and politely excused ourselves to “get cash for the deposit”. The woman knew I had seen the reviews and was immediately super hostile about how I needed to buy from her and Athena should wait while I went to go get the money. We said we’d think about it and got out as fast as possible. After that and bad-taste experience and looking around a bit more we just decided to go to the well known, definitely a little pricier tailor, Bebe. Sure I could have found somewhere cheaper but for my wedding suit I wanted it to be nice and the costly $200 for a custom suit and shirt was nothing compared to what it would have cost back home. The shear amount of options from liners to piping to cut and style to materials was truly overwhelming to an ignorant fashion novice like myself. But it was still fun. And the craziest part is that we walked out of the shop at about 11:30am having made all the aforementioned selections, and by 5pm that evening a fully custom suit was ready for the first fitting.

Aside from tailors and trinkets Hoi An also has some fantastic Banh Mi. If you are unfamiliar, you should change that since these Vietnamese sandwiches are the perfect combination of eastern and western cuisine.  French baguette bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, Vietnamese cabbage slaw, chili paste, and your choice of delectable fillings make a mouthwatering explosion of flavor. Anthony Bordain named Banh Mi Phuong, located in central Hoi An his “best Banh Mi in the world” making it a massive success which has a line out the door at all hours. But in our Banh Mi excursions Athena and I found Phi Banh Mi, a very small shop built in the front living room of a families house.  At Phi Banh Mi they make cheaper and arguably better variations on the Banh Mi classic. Athenas deep love for bread and their unbeatable price at 15-20k dong ($0.50-$0.75) each meant we ate a lot of Banh Mi in Hoi An, but I ain’t complaining.

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A picture of the lovely Phi Banh Mi (taken from the google because i forgot to take a picture) Source: http://www.tripadvisor.com

On our second day we went for another fitting of my suit and a secret mystery garment Athena had made (not her wedding dress). Trying it on again the fit was spectacular, but being the prince that I am I just wasn’t in love with the color. I had wanted a reddish/purple color for something a bit different and to look nice in the forest theme wedding. And while it was quite something the suit was best described as “aubergine” or for the Americans playing along “eggplant”. I asked the salesperson to see the swatches for suit colors again and if there was something a bit redder, and first thing she brought out, which I swear they hadn’t before, I flipped open and there it was, the perfect color. I talked to them and being remarkably accommodating they said since they had already made the first suit they’d only charge me for the cost of materials for the second one. And that’s how I now have two extravagantly colored bespoke suits made in Vietnam. Since they already had the measurements off the first suit, the second one was done in record time and both were ready and gorgeous by the morning of the next day. Inbetween our tailor appointments and Banh Mi eating, we mostly walked around the old town and it was both beautiful and sad to imagine what this place must have looked like only 10 years ago before the tourist trade.

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Even with all the tourists there are plenty of fun painted boats in this port town…she’s staring into my soul!

Which brings me to a huge side note:

So far on this trip most long term SEA travelers we talk to have mentioned their favorite country to visit was Myanmar. The very recent opening of the boarders mean it’s in ways the “final frontier” of backpacking SEA. In that it hasn’t yet been hit by the huge commercializations of tourism. That being said you still can only travel to certain areas and I think all travel is still heavily controlled by the government. Anyways while all of this sounds like we should definitely go there is the manner of the ethical question. By traveling to Myanmar, even if you try to stay locally the whole time, you’re still directly financing a government which is currently participating in ethnic cleansing. So what do you think? Is it worth a little ethical compromise to see a spectacular part of the world before it’s “tourized”?

Anyways back to Hoi An. By this point Athena and I were both just so incredibly done with the riding in the rain and it didn’t look like it was going to really stop anytime soon so we opted out. We found a motorbike shop in Hoi An and ended up selling the bikes and taking a decent, but not terrible hit on them. The next bit of sun was 16 hours south in Dalat and it would have cost about 1.5million dong ($75USD) to put them on a bus down there and after the problems with Don-key there really was no guarantee we’d be able to make any more on them once we made it to Ho Chi Minh. So alas, the motorbike portion of the Vietnam trip came to a rather depressing end. But Vietnam, you can’t get me down. I’ll be back to conquer your glorious roads someday.

After selling the motorbikes we rented regular old pedal bikes to take a little tour of the country side surrounding Hoi An. In comical fashion the day after we sold our bikes…it stopped raining. Oh well. The countryside ride was beautiful. Through vegetable gardens, palm groves, small villages and this one dude chillin on a buffalo.

After collecting our wares from the tailor and sending them 3 month seamail home, with a variable 50/50 they actually get there, we decided to head out of Hoi An and got a night bus 16 hours south the the mountain town of Dalat. As was true with every bus we have gotten on in the country, it was late. So I passed the time playing with a new puppy friend I made at the bus stop.

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Athena with “the goods”

Vietnam: The North to Hoi An, it was wet

Premature apologies for the lack and poor quality of photos. Believe it or not nice, mirrorless cameras don’t love torrential rain.

So after Cat Ba things changed a bit. Our beautiful sunsets disappeared and were replaced with grey, cold, and a truly continuous rain. The quote from Forest Gump says it the best. “One day it started to rain, and then it didn’t stop for four months”. Even in all this wet Athena and I still managed to cover some 1200km, riding through mountain passes along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, and make it down to Hoi An in just about 8 days.

Coming out of Cat Ba we took the much less scenic route through Hai Phong. Being a MAJOR port town the roads were pretty beaten up, and endless streams of big-rig trucks rolled through the streets. Luckily the rain hadn’t quite started yet and we got through the city and out to the countryside without any incident. 220km later we pulled into a nice little hostel (Trang An Eco hostel) in Trang An. Just outside Ninh Binh, Trang an is an area surrounded by limestone cliffs akin to Ha Long Bay on land. In the last 25km we had traded passes back and forth with another traveler on a Honda Win. Right as we turned down the little road to the hostel he happened to pull in behind us. We both had come from Cat Ba that day and decided to chat and grab a beer down by the little lake next to the hostel. And that’s how we met Chris from Holland. He’d just done the northern loop and was also heading south. We spent the evening playing pool with our new friend and enjoying one last good sunset before the clouds began to roll in. At dinner that night we started to hear the light pitter patter of doom.

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Final sunset before the rain started 
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Athena Chatting with our new Danish friend Chris
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The “Chang” of Vietnam

The next day we decided to check out the sights around Ninh Binh in between intermittent drizzles. But even in the grey it’s quite a beautiful place. The limestone cliffs are a beautiful backdrop to the many pagodas that are littered through out the outskirts of town.

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Pagodas for days

The Bai Dinh pagoda, which is really more of a complex of old Chinese inspired architecture, was pretty impressive. After our swearing off of temples for a while, the pagodas and houses around them were a nice change of pace. Later that day we went into town to get the oil changed in the bikes and got $2 Vietnamese haircuts. Definitely not the best but it was nice to get some hair off the old brain case when it’s hot. (Little did I know it would be very cold the next few days).

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Struttin’ my stuff in front of the Ancient Capital in Trang An

The next morning we saddled up and after 10 minutes of me trying to start Athena’s bike anyway I could think of, we finally realized the kickstand kill switch was still engaged (I tried starting it on the center stand so I’m not a complete idiot). And that was the beginning to the coldest wettest day so far. 200+km down to a middle of no where village where we got in stripped out sopping wet cloths off and sat in the shower as long as it would stay warm (about 5 minutes max). And that was the routine for the next 3 days. Gorgeous mountain roads and we’d get to the top and it would just be grey. We’d bypass anything slightly out of the way in favor of getting to the hostel faster to warm up. Needless to say there’s not many pictures from this part of the trip. And while it was a shame for sure at least we have an excuse to come back and do it again.

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Learning to embrace the wet

After 3 days we finally made it to Phong Nha national park which is world renown for it’s MASSIVE caves. We stayed at a little guest house called BFF homestay, which had a lovely family style dinner every night and an interesting crowd of people, including more Dutch people (more about that later). We decided to spend two whole nights there to try and dry off a little and not have to endure the onslaught again. So in our “day off” we rode only 45 minutes in the wet, to Paradise cave which is just gigantic. The entrance is this hole in the side of a mountain with a small staircase going down and suddenly it opens up to a gargantuan main chamber. Pictures really don’t do it justice, especially since I lost the ones from my camera so all I’ve got are cellphone shots.

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And then you walk down the main stairs to the bottom of the main chamber!!

We were debating doing a bigger “caving trip” but many involved hiking a few hours through the jungle (while it was raining) and were quite expensive. So for the sake of our wallets and sanity we instead grabbed a few drinks in town and watched the semi finals of the Suzuki cup between Vietnam and the Philippines. (A football match where the Vietnamese usually suck but were doing quite well this year).

Sidenote: BFF hostel in Phong Nha had a tiny puppy named Bia (beer in Vietnamese) who I immediately became best friends with….or at least that what I’d like to think.

The next day we sullenly saddled up again and decided the HCM highway just wasn’t worth the extra time when it was so wet so we made our way to QL1A, the main coast road. Along the way we were going along a decently main road and came across some water buffalo walking on the side/in the road. Not an uncommon sight by any means in Vietnam. I slowed down and gave them a good berth on my pass. I then turned around to see how Athena would fair. She had also given them a good amount of space, but for some reason one of the male buffaloes decided he didn’t like Athena. Right as she went past, he jumped out in front/at her bike and she went down. I managed to see all of this in the split second I had my head turned around. Athena now in the middle of the opposite lane was stuck under/attached to her bike by the big ponchos we were wearing, which go over the bikes mirrors. I putted around and blocked off the road from any oncoming traffic, but even before I could get over to her, like 5 Vietnamese people appeared out of literally nowhere and started helping her up and getting her off to the side. Luckily she walked away with just a scrap on the ankle. Don-key on the other hand didn’t fair so well. The side the bike fell on was fine, but the side which the buffalo attacked was completely and utterly obliterated. But after a second of letting the motor unflood Don-key started right up (with a slight offset on the steering column). By the time we had this all figured out, the whole heard of buffalo had disappeared. And this was one of those moments where its clear Athena and I are very different people because my thought was, “well fuck that buffalo!” And hers was “well I hope it didn’t get hurt”.

As soon as the bike started back up Athena was back on and saying let’s go. Sometimes I think I unfortunately underestimate the badassery of my future wife. That night we stopped in Dong Ha where I had some of the best phó bó (beef pho, I’m talking to you Mr. Water Buffalo) at this random hole in the wall, of the entire trip.

The next morning we got oil changes again as we’d done over 700km since Ninh Binh (the standard recommend maintenance interval for scooters here). Yet another long wet ride south we finally made it to Hue when Don-key decided to not want to idle anymore. After dying multiple time whenever we stopped, and draining the battery so I had to ferociously kickstart it to life, I climbed aboard and rev-ed the living crap out of it like an idiot on a Harley for the next twenty minutes until we found a mechanic to fix the idle screw which had come very loose. We got some lunch for a respite from the weather and headed south again to the infamous Hi Van pass. Well known for its glorious exhibition on the top gear Vietnam special, this pass connects Hue to Da Nag/Hoi An and is well frequented for its Big Sur-esc view out over the water. So we took the minor detour and saw a little ocean and mostly grey hairpin turns all the way up, which once again Athena killed.

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The beautiful Hi Van pass

Once over the top the rain suddenly stopped for the first time in 4 days. We pulled off to the side of to take in the view and when we wanted to start up again Don-key didn’t want to start. I tried all the tricks I’d picked up from the Vietnamese people along the way and got it to barely fire but not stay running. A Vietnamese guy stopped and tried to help but when he couldn’t do any better he recommended just coasting down and trying to charge the battery which at this point was dead.

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Hi Van on the other side (The view where Don-key died)

So Athena rode the 8km down hill with no power and luckily just barely coasted into a mechanic who ended up replacing the battery (unnecessary) but it still wouldn’t start. He opened up the air intake and as he took the bolts off, a literal gallon of water came flooding out. Somehow the gasket had failed and in all the rain, water had gotten into the engine…OOOPPPSS!! No fear, shotty mechanic work is here. He cleaned out the intake with compressed air and did Don-keys second oil change of the day (since the oil was now a pinky watery mixture). Sure enough, with a few revs she fired right up. Way overpriced but effective, we were back on the road to Hoi An just a half-hour south. And we made it about halfway there…before it started to pour again.

Hanoi to Cat Ba On Two Wheels

Hanoi was cool. It’s a wildly interesting city were everything is simultaneously super fast paced and also very laid back. Of course traffic is the craziest thing to a new comer to Vietnamese cities, but after a day or two the at first madness due to complete and total lack of rules becomes a beautifully symbiotic dance. If you need to cross the street, just start walking and people will make their way around you. It’s arguably ALMOST better not to look in the direction of traffic because then they know you don’t see them. If you’re driving stay right and go your own speed, and dodge and weave. Of course I’d head about the liberal use of horns in Vietnam but the city is a literal symphony of horns of all types from bellowing truck horns, to incessant beeping scooters, to the glorious doppler effect busses that simply don’t care who’s in their way. And on top of all the auditory stimulation you’l suddenly see a motorbike fly past hauling 10 mattresses on the back being held on by maybe a bungee cord if you’re lucky. Needless to say it’s definitely a little different from Thailand and Laos. Unfortunately I was to preoccupied with staying intact to remember to take any pictures of the madness.

We spent the first couple days in Hanoi seeing some of the sights like Ho Chi Mihn’s mausoleum, the war museum, and Hoa Lao prison “the Hanoi Hilton”. While I could explain each of these day trips in detail I think its easier to let the photos do the talking.

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The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is open in the mornings where you can go inside and pay respects to the great embalmed leader. *Fun fact: every year his body is shipped off to Russia for 2 months where it undergoes, restoration. Even the dead need a vacation from time to time.*
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The Vietnamese Government loves this orangey yellow color on all their buildings
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Soldier train outside the Presidential Palace
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The placard tells you these are the wreckage of American planes the “Vietnamese freedom fighters shot down in the defense of the nation”
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This tank was originally American but after being repurposed with the communism star after its capture during the war

One place definitely worth mentioning on its own is Hoa Loa Prison. At the time of its construction in 1886 it was the largest prison in  the Asian continent. It was built by the French during their occupation of Vietnam to house political prisoners and revolutionaries. It tells an interesting story from the perspective of the Vietnamese prisoners, some of whom were able to escape, but many more of whom died from poor prison conditions or the “French Oppressors Guillotine”. Later during the Vietnam-American War it was used to house American POW pilots, including John McCain. The museum makes sure to portray how well kept the American Pilots were during their time there earning it the name “The Hanoi Hilton”.

 

 In addition to sight seeing around town we spent some time near our hostel to explore the narrow streets of the old quarter indulging in delicious treats and on the hunt for motor bikes. Being backpacker central there are motorbike rental/ sale stores every block and numerous bikes with for sale listings on them parked in from of hostels.

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A small Cafe in the old Quarter on an, I hope, abandoned train track?

In our strolls nothing was really jumping out at me until we were just walking down a street and I saw these three travelers on scooters with racks but no bags. I stopped and asked them what there plan was and that’s how I met Jason and his two late teenage kids, from Portland OR, who had just ridden up from Saigon (HCMC). Originally they had bought knock-off Honda Wins, the only real manual option, which I had very much wanted to do, but after breaking down more than 4 times in three days and loosing out on their vacation the scrapped them and got scooters that went the rest of the ride up without a hitch. I’ve always said it’s more about who you’re buying from than the actual bike because you can polish a turd and it’ll sparkle for 10 minutes. After a quick test ride and some planning we figured they wanted a few more days of travel around and we wanted to check out Sa Pa so I got his number and said if we didn’t find anything better in the next few days I’d message him and we could meet up after we got back from Sa Pa. (more on that awesome experience a different time) And that’s how it went down. The day after we got back to Hanoi they came by our hostel at 11am we exchanged blue cards for a remarkably fair price as they were leaving and were willing to help out some fellow PNWers and we were on the road.

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Old owners say goodbye as we claim our trusty new set of wheels

We grabbed the last bits off our supplies list and hit the roads east towards Ha Long Bay. Athena did great for her first time on two wheels (with a motor). She was a little wobbly and overwhelmed at first by the Hanoi traffic but once we got on the “highway” it’s was smooth sailing into Ha Long. We missed the last ferry over to Cat Ba island so we stayed at a hostel in town and got some dinner. We explored around “sun world”, an amusement park with a view of the bay. It was dark so we missed the roller coasters but sill a cool place. There is an astounding amount of development going on in Ha Long and after the hustle of Hanoi it was nice to be somewhere that while still a bugger place wasn’t so energized.

The next morning we rode over and caught the ferry to Cat Ba. An hour long ferry ride through Ha Long Bay to get to the island was spectacular. We talked to another traveler on the ferry who said he had done a cruise the day before but preferred the ferry ride since it wasn’t as commercialized and overcrowded. On the ride over we decided the bikes needed names so keeping in spirit of my previous bikes Athena had the honors. Thus our steads became “foreign bae”, a running joke with all of my bikes, and “DON-KEY” (which must be pronounced like you’re in shrek).

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Waiting for the ferry with a not half bad view
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DONKEY (left) and Foreign BAE (right) make their first ferry crossing with us as owners
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Athena made form friends from the Ukraine along the way
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Who need a cruise when you can just take the ferry?

Satisfied with their names our bikes took us across the island to Cat Ba town where we found a hostel, dropped our crap and headed to a beach for our first encounter with the Pacific Ocean in this side. And man the water was warm!! And the view wasn’t to bad either.

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Sunset numero uno, through the high-tech camera filter known as “my sunglasses”

We stayed there till it started getting dark and we found a good spot to watch sunset over the limestone cliffs. We grabbed dinner, and in a last minute choice decided to book a climbing trip for the next day since Cat Ba has such amazing limestone climbing. All set to start at 8:30 the next day we headed off to bed.

We woke up the next morning to go do our safety check and headed to Hidden Valley, a crag which the climbing guide Mr. Zoom has set up himself 4 years ago so he could start a business and also benefit local climbers who can come for free if they have their own gear. I had said I could lead, which I used to be able to do, but now after some 2 years not actually leading a route I was a little nervous. But the routes themselves started pretty easy so I figured why not give it a shot. It all came back and we had a great day of climbing. By the end I’d lead a (semi sandbagged) 5.10- Not bad for a 2 year break. We had a great time chatting with our fellow climbers and enjoying the beauty of hidden valley from the top of the routes.

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Gotta love when the crux is the last bolt and you’re leading
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Hello down there!

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Mad Monkey on a vine

We didn’t get back to the town till about 2:30 so we grabbed lunch at a spot recommended by one of the guides and went to check out Hospital cave. This was a cave that had been turned into a bunker during the Vietnam-American war and was used as….surprise a field hospital. Pretty wild. We got back into town right at sunset and grabbed a beer from one of the bars overlooking the bay and saw another KILLER sunset. Vietnam is spoiling me.

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After beers we headed back to the hotel and planned our route to 244km down Ninh Binh for the next day and hit the hey to wake up nice and early.

Sa Pa: A Two day Tour

We arrived in Hanoi and after serendipitously seeing an old friend’s (actually a previous professor’s) insta post that he was traveling SEA for 2 weeks we were able to meet up with my old pal Frank Cirioni and his betrothed for a beer and some dinner on our first night. We spent the next day and a half seeing the sights of Hanoi and checking the old quarter for motorbikes to buy (more on that later). I had really wanted to get up to Sa Pa, way in the north to see the mountains and terraced rice fields it’s famous for, but figuring the 10hr motorbike ride on mountain roads would be a trying introduction to our two wheeled travel for Athena I thought we should take the bus up instead. For reasons to later become evident we only had 2 and a half days before being back in Hanoi to check it out so we opted for a tour being sold through our hostel. A first in this trip! So we woke up the next morning and got on the 6 hr sleeper bus up to Sa Pa. the bus takes much less time than a motorbike or the train because it goes on the newly built highway that runs north, then about 25km away in the town of Lao Cai it turns west up a crazy twist mountain road with incredible views up to the mountain town of Sa Pa.

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Even after all the rice has been harvested this place it spectacular

We got off and had 100% no idea what to expect. Like I said this was the first tour we’d done and we’d booked it in a hurry, “2 day, 1 night sounds good”. We were met by a person with a sign of Athenas name, then got in a taxi to a hotel.  We went into the wrong hotel because the taxi driver didn’t know, and were then found and collected to go to the right place and served hot tea and lunch. After lunch we were told the trekking tour would start at 2:30 and we had 20 minutes till our guide arrived and we met our fellow trekking companion, Rink. Rink is from Holland and was quite a funny dude for our later travels. Eventually our tour guide showed up and standing tall at about 4’10” Chee, pronounced like “smile, CHEEse!”, was awesome.

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“Say CHEEse!!” Please forgive the terrible iPhone autofocus.

 

She asked us to guess her age and rink said 11, and I swear I almost said the same thing to, SHE WAS TINY!! But no Chee is 17 years old! Over the next two days I got to know her better and she has a very similar story to many of the Hmong people around Sa Pa. she went to school (sometimes) through 7th grade but her family couldn’t pay for high school so she would regularly hike down into town to sell handmade goods to tourists there. You see these kids everywhere in Sa Pa working to bring home even the tiniest amount to their families. It was selling trinkets that she learned to speak English, and quite well. Thus allowed her to become a trekking guide and she was able to move out when she was 16, but still sends most of her income back to her family. I learned that many most Hmong people marry young and if you are a woman and not married by the time you are 18, you likely never will be. But Chee didn’t have any interest in starting her own family. She was to work for the next 10 years as a guide so that by the time she was 27 she could have saved up enough to go visit “the wonderful country of Australia!” She was so funny and kind and her story more than anything else of our quick trip to Sa Pa is what stuck with me and gave the most perspective on the daily struggle of the minority people who live here.

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5′ tall Athena for scale

We started our 9km trek to our homestay walking along dirt roads and through rice fields and we learned from Chee that the fields were all empty now since harvest was in September. A great time to go as all the rice fields are a gorgeous golden yellow. Sa Pa, and the surrounding villages, can only plant and harvest once a year unlike the rest of Vietnam due to the cold (sometimes freezing at night) temperatures is gets in the winter. This means many of the local people (almost all who are farmers) have very little income and must find alternate ways to provide during the cold months. Luckily the tourism industry is strong, but even then it is important to make sure your money actually goes to the people and not just the booking companies who arrange the tours.

After a beautiful day of trekking and now that it had gotten dark we made it to our homestay in a small village down in the valley. We met up with 4 other German guys who were also staying at the homestay and talked and ate dinner. After dinner our host brought out bottles of traditional Vietnamese rice wine. Which is some strong, terribly flavored stuff. After being introduced to the Vietnamese way to take a shot (a chant that I still can’t remember…wonder why?) we proceeded to finish one bottle after the next that they brought out. Then we took the long arduous walk to the bar…next door to play pool and listen to music over a few more beers. Chee had made sure to remind us we had to wake up early before heading off to bed right after dinner.

The next morning wasn’t nearly as hard as I though it’d be. We had pancake/crepes for breakfast and many cups of tea and managed to be up and hiking by 8:15. We hiked for a bit and talked more with Rink (who almost didn’t make it in the morning) and Chee and had a great morning watching the sun break through the clouds over the valley. Honestly great weather the whole time considering it regularly pours in Sa Pa valley making the dirt hiking into treacherous ankle snapping mudslides.

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Rink and Chee leading the way through our Homestay’s village
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Rink handing out candy he bought in Hanoi to share with the locals

We eventually got back to the main road where we waited for a van to bring us back up the mountainside to Sa Pa town. A t1n sprinter no less (a vehicle near and dear to my heart). We were now cutting it a little close as our bus back to Hanoi left at 1:30 and we needed to get back and have lunch before our trip. The van left and climbed up the steep extremely and rocky road and got us about 2.5km away from town when in a particularly steep part the driver stalled. Ok not bad just start it up…but no go. We waited like 20 minutes but it was now about 12:15 and we needed to get back for lunch! So we got out and started to walk. And the whole rest of the van, whose tour guide had left them joined us. And power to tiny Chee for taking charge and trying to figure out how else to get us back in time. So many phone calls along the way and eventually the tour people told her to just get a taxi for the 3 of us back to our hotel. She even tried to help the other group who didn’t have their guide but they didn’t know what there hotel was called, who they’d booked through or where to go. That and suddenly one of them decided it just wasn’t ok for Chee to leave them, even though we she had nothing to do with their tour company and was hired as our guide. And while I understand their frustration if I was in a similar spot getting mad at not your tiny tour guide when you don’t know where to go as if all Vietnamese people in Sa Pa who speak English are working for the same company isn’t cool. But luckily right as we got in our cab the van from before appeared around the corner and was able to pick up the other group. Things just end up working out like that. We got back and had lunch with Rink and said goodbye to Chee who I had to demand accept my tip to help her dreams of travels before she ran off before Rink could give her any more. Just such a sweet, kind person who is making the most out of a very hard life she’s been given, living vicariously through the travelers she meets and someday dreams she could be.

After our speedy lunch we were put back in a cab and sent back too the bus station and were pointed in the direction of a bus office which had tickets for us under our names. We had about 5 minutes before the bus started loading so I took the time to get a couple shots of Sa Pa town.

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Women in traditional dress walk up and down the streets selling goods and offering trekking guide services.
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I like the giant burnt down building in the background.
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The center market is part tour bus parking lot, part market, and part landfill

Suddenly we were ushered into our sleeper bus and we were off back to Hanoi.

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Athena enjoying her seat in the top level of the sleeper bus

UXO LAO

I preface this with the fact I am not a perfect Vietnam war scholar and am sharing information as it was presented to me at the UXO LAO visitor center. If anything below is incorrect and you have more knowledge please email me and I will look into it further. Thank you.

I’ve mentioned before the visible impacts the varying changes in governmental structures over the last 100 years have had on Laos, but by far one of the most drastic events to shape current Laos was the second Indochina war. Known to Americans as the Vietnam war, this period of time had devastating impacts on vietnams neighboring countries. The primary supply route for the north Vietnamese was called the Ho Chi Minh highway which stretched all the way up the eastern edge of Laos along the Vietnam boarder. In an attempt to cut off the main supply chain network of the north Vietnamese the US tried many tactics to get rid of the route. Most notably bombing runs. Between the years of 1964 to 1973 the US government dropped some 400 million explosive devices on the country of Laos. Giving it the unwanted title of most bombed country in the world. Because the US was not in a declared war with Laos many articles of the Geneva convention did not apply including those controlling the use of explosive ordinance near non-military areas including villages and religious landmarks. As such bombs were littered across the country in all regions without significant regard for targets hit. Many of the exact locations of bombing runs was not disclosed until 2000 when bill Clinton declassified the US Air Force bombing records. However even these did not include covert runs, non-documented strikes, and most disturbingly payload dumps. Air Force literature indicates pilots were frequently sent out and told not to return with any ordinance left in their bays. This lead to numerous payload dumps where upon completing a mission, with no further specified targets, pilots would freely drop the rest of their bombs over random areas before returning to base.

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Each red dot indicates a published bombing site. These do not include the many undocumented air strikes.

Of the 400 million bombs and cluster bombs dropped in Laos it is estimated roughly 1/3 of those did not explode on impact. This means there are 10s of millions of explosive devices littered all over the country ranging from large bombs the size of a sofa to tiny cluster bomb “bombies” which are no larger than a tennis ball.

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These are cluster bombs. The main shell separates in air and disperses the “bombies” to rain down below. Thanks to work by the Laos government cluster munitions are now illegal under UN Law.

These devices pose a massive threat to Laotian people who come across them in their daily lives. Frequently, and not like once or twice a year but on a weekly to daily scale unsuspecting farmers using hand tools, or children playing in the forest, or mothers building fires to cook food for their families inadvertently trigger one of these set devices anything from mutilation to death. One of the hardest parts at the UXO LAO visitor center is when they sit you down for a movie presentation which interviews 5 people, four of whom are children who have been severely handicapped by UXOs going about their daily lives. One story follows a young boy who was out shooting bird with a slingshot when he ran out of rocks and came across a bombie which to him looked like a rock so he smashed it on the ground to break it into smaller pieces. The explosion blew shrapnel into his eye and his family not having the money to go to a doctor used homeopathic medicine ending resulting in a 7 year old being blind in one eye and with out three fingers for the rest of his life. One farmer they interview discusses how after loosing his arm his three children had to leave school in grades 7, 9 and 10 to help the family farm rice because they could no longer pay for food or repairs to their already bare home. It was seeing the impact of destruction caused by foreign interests some 40 years later still wreaking havoc on the lives of already impoverished peoples that really hit me.

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People are injured on a weekly to daily basis by UXO’s in Laos

But its not ALL bad. UXO LAO is a non profit organization partially funded by the Australian and Japanese government which attempts to catalog known bombing sights and defuse and remove any un-exploded ordinance (UXOs) they can find across the country. In addition to known sights they comb over areas near schools and villages with potential UXO’s to hopefully keep locals safe from hidden dangers right below their feet. In addition to UXO removal the organization also goes out to many rural villages to educate children and elders alike what to do if they find UXO’s and ways to go about daily chores in a safer, more vigilant way. They have put through school programming across the country such that most children by the age of 10 know what UXO’s look like, how to avoid them and report to elders for future removal.

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Geophysics in action! Trained personnel sweep potential UXO areas using electromagnetic detection equipment. (Fun fact: I did similar things for the US government on military bases for my job last year)
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This map shows sites of UXO’s and whether they’ve been cleared un the Luang Prabang province alone.
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Significant funding for UXO LAO programing and equipment come form the Australian and Japanese governments. Notably little comes from the US.

All that being said it is a slow going process. Each removal requires teams of people and significant amounts of equipment. Not to mention q very specific set of skills required to handle these devices. Luckily many Laotian people want to work toward clearing their country and are being educated to assist in the non-profits mission. Even with growing volunteers money and supplies are limited and even more than 40 years after the bombing of Lao ceased, UXO LAO estimates it will be another 100 years until the country is fully cleared of the effects of the Vietnam War.

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An unfortunately well known logo all over Laos

All in all this was a drastically humbling experience that I recommend any western visitor to Luang Prabang experience for themselves. None of this is taught in American schools and unless you specifically go out of your way to find it, there is no reason most Americans would every be exposed to the reality of the things our country has done. And while in this case it was definitely the fault of the American government, and of that I am remarkably ashamed to call it home,  I’ve learned something important to remember for all of life on  this trip. Having talked to many other travelers from countries all over the world, no one is proud of their government. They’ve all done horrible things at some point or ignored the needs of their people and while it would be nice if they would own up to their failures and fix their mistakes, it is not the fault of the people who live in those countries for the things their governments do behind closed doors. But still, Laos I’m sorry.

Luang Prabang: The French City on the Mekong

Laos has an interesting history. The country was under French colonial control from up until peace conventions disbanded most European colonies in 1945 at the end of World War Two. The French influence is definitely still present in this city in everything from the small quite streets and their architecture to the French style baguette breads found all over the city. Interestingly one of the cheapest meals to find is a Laotian sandwich of tofu, fried egg, and veggies on French bread for around 10-15,000 kip.

However even after the end of French rule the 73years since have had many different twists and turns for this land. Multiple regime changes, from an essentially a monarchy to today the Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic), enduring through foreign interference along the way (namely the second Indochina War, more on that later), and on top of all of that the country has only been open to international tourism for approximately 7 years. All of this means Laos is an interesting place with rich history, resilient people, and a truest trashed economy and all together quite different than its neighbor Thailand.

We got into Luang Prabang after the tuk tuk from the slow boat and got to our hostel and pretty much crashed. If you’ve read my last post you’ll know I got off the boat after a rather good time with some folks on the back of the boat and now I just needed some calories and a nap. A long nap.

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Stumbling off the slow boat outside Luang Prabang

We woke up the next morning an gathered our thing a to head to our next hostel. The place we stayed wasn’t bad but we typically only book for one night when we get to a new place to decide if it’s in the right area/right vibe and if not we’ll find something else. We were about to check out when they asked us why we didn’t want breakfast? 1st difference, many of  the hotels and hostels in Laos come with a complimentary breakfast unlike in Thailand. So we stayed and it was a feast! We walked over to our next place “Chill Riverside Hostel” which was very funky, set back in these little alley streets and had a great view of a river. It was also right next to this pretty epic bar/early morning yoga/fire pit hangout area called Utopia.

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Aka backpacker heaven…too bad I forgot to take a picture of the inside. You’ll just have to go check it out yourself!

That and tempur-pedic mattresses meant we were there for a bit. It’s astounding how hard the mattresses have been at some of the places we’ve stayed. But when you’re paying like $5usd a night you don’t really complain.

The first day in the city was just spent walking around and seeing some of the main sights. We stopped by the old royal palace. Used in the 1700’s when this was the capital but the building and grounds has been preserved even after the royal family left.

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Drive way up to the old royal palace

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In the Laotian flag, the red represents the blood spilt from revolution, the blue the Mekong river which flows the length of Laos, and the white the full moon rising over the river and the reunification of Laos after its civil war. 

We hiked or more climbed the straight up staircase to the top of Phou Si mountain and got some absolutely incredible views of the city over the Mekong and the surrounding mountains. While northern Thailand is definitely mountainous there’s something about the shear limestone hills here in Laos that are spectacular.

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The steps just kept going…and most were much steeper than these.
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Once at the top there’s a small temple (of course there is) with this pretty dope steeple 
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The town over the Mekong. View from the top of Phou Si

 

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My lovely lady in her natural self with the city and mountains making an excellent backdrop

We took the way down on the backside which meanders back and forth and crosses a few temples and Buddha figures along the way. Including the infamous Luang Prabang giant buddha footprint. What do you think? Worth of the infamy?

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The teeny tiny gateway to the mystical “giant foot”
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Sadly no banana for scale, but its about 10 feet across

In our long walk that day we made it down to this place called Ock Pop Tok, a free weaving museum and restaurant. The names means East meets West and for the last 14 years this riverside vista has been offering classes in traditional Laotian weaving  and giving tours explaining the processes behind harvesting silk, creating dyes, and the cultural meaning of weaving in Laos. It was a pretty cool place about 1.5-2km south of the main city and a great spot to grab lunch.

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Lunch with a view at Ock Pop Tok
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River boats cruising by at Lunch

Back in the city we decided the top of Phou Si had such a great view of the city during the day we should go check it out for sunset. So we grabbed a beerlao to split at the top and started the climb up. Near the top we realized we and everyone else in Luang Prabang that day had had the same thought. The top was PACKED!! But the view was incredible and the sunset spectacular. A prefect place for a beer and a moment to relax after a long day of walking around.

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Sunset from the top is just magical

That night we went to the main night market in town and got some cheap food and did some light shopping, it’s crazy how even small relatively cheap souvenirs for family and friends can take up so much space in a tightly packed 35L bag.

The next morning we woke up and ran into our friend Jimmy, an Australian lad we’d met on the slow boat. He was talking about how yesterday he’d gone up to the Kuang Si waterfall and it was a great place to swim so we decided to rent a motorbike and check it out. This was our first interaction with Laotian road and let me tell you, boy are they sh*t. I had taking the well paved roads of Thailand for granted because here potholes popped up at every corner, and straight, and turn. And they were all like half a meter deep (1.5 feet for those playing along in the backwards mother country). Dodging and weaving across busted roads was a hoot. You’re never going very fast because the next one could pop up at any second or better yet the whole road would just turn into a gravelly mess for a couple hundred meters at a time. 25km and about 45 minutes later we made it to the falls. We parked, got our tickets, since you need tickets for literally everything in this country and made our way in. I had done a little research before hand so knew what to expect but right as you enter before you get to the falls you walk through a moon bear sanctuary. And these guys are like the much derpier cousin of NA black bears. They saunter around and chill in trees all day. These bears are also known as singing bears and are routinely captured by poachers in the wild were they’re sold to live the rest of their lives in cages singing in front of businesses in Russia or being exploited for “bear bile” a huge thing in eastern medicine. But here they get to live and be happy. We got the chance to see two of them playing/fighting? just inside the chain link fence that blocked us from them. Hands down the least intimidating bear I’ve ever come across.

But then the falls. Oh man the water is this wild blue from all the CaCO3 (calcium carbonate AKA limestone) dissolving as the water flows over it. There are multiple tears that the water beautifully cascades over. The picture do I more justice than words could.

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The main falls is some 30 meters tall

The main pool (biggest and best for swimming) was packed when we went past so we continued on up to the main falls and then climbed up about 100m straight vertical to the top. On top there’s a smaller pool with a cool rope swing and much fewer people. We decided to take a second and enjoy a beerlao and take a dunk.

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So peaceful
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Just coolin down from the Laotian heat

Before we left I’d heard about a cave about a 3km hike in from the top of the falls. Many people opt to take a mini bus from the city to the falls but that was only like 10,000 kip ($1.17) cheaper than renting motorbike. And when you take the bus you’re on a fixed time schedule meaning you can’t explore, and so most people don’t get to make it all the way back to the caves. The hike there was pretty flat and pretty through back dirt roads and once you get to the cave and pay you 10k kip entrance fee they give you a head lamp, and a banana and say go. So we went down a little hole and explored around in this cave by ourselves for a bit. It was pretty cool I got to say. After that we headed back down to the waterfalls and since the main pool had cleared (a minuscule amount at best) we went swimming there two. There was a log that you could climb up that protruded over the pool and was super fun to jump off. Athena had fun the with action sport setting on my camera and got some hilarious pictures.

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After all of this it was already 4:30 so we headed back to our motorbike and navigated our way back to town before it was dark. That night we went to utopia bar where we grabbed a drink and ran into our friends from the slow boat. A merry lot but when they tried to convince us to keep up and move along with them to the next place we decided in favor of being able to move the next day.

Also at utopia we ran into some friends we’d met way back when at Juno hostel in Pai. Alex and Alie are from the U.K. and we’re taking a year to travel the world now about 7 months in they were doing SEA. And while I said we ran into them at utopia bar, that’s not really fair….we’d run into them at least once every single day for the last two and a half weeks from Pai, Chiang Mai, Chaing Rai, on the slow boat, and now here in Luang Prabang. It became the running joke of tag, your it. I think by the end of it they were getting sick of us but more importantly it illustrated a remarkably important fact of traveling (at least here) to me. Back home before we left so many people would say “oh wow, you quite your job!? And you going to travel…for 9 months!?! Wow you’re so adventurous and wild”. But the simple fact is traveling the world isn’t that hard to achieve. You just have to get out of your rut and do it. And to the “you’re so adventurous and unique” people out there, backpacking especially in SEA has become so easy and routine that frequently you’re just running out the motions of a similar itinerary as the 50+ other people who started at the exact same time as you and who you’re bound to run into a few times over. None of this is to say it’s not fun, or there aren’t hard times, or definitely not that it’s not worth it but just that traveling in our day and age has become sooo much easier than it ever was for our parents or the generations before them. So if you can take advantage of that and get out and explore.

We decided we’d had a good time in Luang Prabang but wanted to head south the next day so we woke up and booked a 2:30pm mini van ticket to Vang Vieng. Having the day to kill we decided to take a slow morning and walk over and check out the UXO Laos visitor center but that will have to wait for now because that truly deserves a post of its own.