May 30, 2003

Sword dancing, islands, museums and border crossing to Laos

morning exercise

One advantage of having arrived in Hanoi so early was that we got to see some interesting exercise activities. After losing most of the touts we found our way to the shore of one of the many lakeside park areas of Hanoi. We just sat and watched the many people jogging, walking and doing various sorts of what I can only compare to aerobics. One group of middle aged women spent time doing slow, dance like moves to music using swords. After a few minutes they switched to using fans instead of the swords, and I think they used some other accessories at other times as well. It kind of reminded me of a slow motion karate practice crossed with an aerobic workout session.

business was pretty slow for these street kids
After getting some pastry from a street vendor for breakfast we followed the tout who had quoted the lowest price for a room with three beds to his hotel. The room turned out to be just what he had described, complete with a lake view balcony, cable TV and hot water for $3 per night. We quickly got settled in and all enjoyed the hot water after the long overnight bus ride. After getting cleaned up we headed out to continue exploring Hanoi. I didn't feel like walking very far so spent most of the afternoon sitting on a park bench near one of the lakes. Through the afternoon several people came up and talked to me including a couple of students, some book sellers, some kids spinning homemade tops, a Vietnamese man who had just returned from living in Germany for several years and a young business man who was very well educated and spoke perfect English. The booksellers were having a particularly hard time thanks to the SARS scare. In fact, much of the economy in Vietnam has been affected since so many tourists have cancelled their plans to visit. People say hotels and restaurants are usually fairly full this time of year, but when we were there it was easy to have them completely to your self. Some of the hardest hit people are the street sellers as they usually live from day to day so don't have any safety net to fall back on when sales suddenly come to a screeching halt.

water puppets (photo from internet)
In the evening we decided to go to a cultural performance at one of the traditional water puppet theaters. Unfortunately for me the performance started about 10 minutes before I was hit with the uncontrollable urge to sleep. I guess 2 nights of sleeping on a bus caught up with me, so I closed my eyes after the first couple of scenes and woke up nearly an hour later for the applause at the end of the show. The part of the performance that I did stay awake for was quite interesting. The indoor stage is actually a pond with very murky water to conceal the poles and other devices used to control the puppets that appear to be walking, swimming, and rowing on the surface of the water. The scenes portrayed ranged from boat races to a battle against a dragon which even included some pyrotechnics. Although I enjoyed my nap, the part of the show that I saw was also very good and I wish I hadn't been so tired that night. I did manage to walk back to my hotel after the show, but then went directly to bed.

colored lights and fountain in cave
After a great nights sleep we were up early again, this time to join a tour to Halong Bay. We spent the first hour or so of the "tour" waiting around while our bus filled up with tourists who had all bought tickets with different companies, many for different trips even. The rest of the morning was spent on the road to the coast, with a brief rest stop that just happened to be at a large souvenir store with nothing else around. Upon arrival in the port town we were dropped off at a restaurant where we enjoyed some excellent vegetarian Vietnamese food, which we had requested when booking our tickets. After lunch we took a quick bus ride to the marina area and boarded what we thought would be our home for the next 24 hours.
halong bay
The first stop on the boat trip was at a pair of large caves. The first cave was only discovered a few years ago so is very well preserved, although it has some extra special additions as well. The lighting is done up with multiple colors, there is a nice cement foot path and they have even installed a "natural" water pump powered fountain in one corner of the cave. We were once again reminded of Disneyland, but did thoroughly enjoy the experience. The second cave was more open and had been a tourist destination for much longer so had some graffiti and other signs of the ongoing human presence.

Our next stop of the day was at a floating village situated in a very picturesque cove surrounded by towering rock formations. After leaving the village we headed further away from the mainland and the scenery just kept on getting better as the water color became more and more green.
sunset in halong bay
No pictures I have seen or taken of Halong Bay do it justice, but they at least give you some idea of what it's like to see so many rugged, jungle covered islands in one place. We didn't see too many other boats as we wound our way through the islands, and were completely surrounded in all directions by island after island. Towards the end of the afternoon we met up with another larger boat and swapped some passengers. It turned out that some of the people on our boat were booked to sleep on the boat while others were planning to sleep in a hotel on one of the islands. It seems that all the various tour companies end up combining their customers to save on cost. Anyway, it was a bit confusing but we ended up on the slightly larger boat which was a bit nicer and anchored in a small cove for the night.

friends from all over
After sunset we sat around visiting with the other travelers from various countries including England, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany. There was even another American on board who had been traveling for over a year. While continuing to visit we enjoyed an excellent vegetarian dinner cooked and served on the boat (others on the tour had some fresh seafood as well). After supper a bunch of us jumped off the upper deck of the boat into the water and enjoyed a night swim. As we swam around we could see some phosphorescence sparkling, which just added to the already magical experience. After hot freshwater showers we sat on deck chatting under the stars before eventually heading to bed. Since our boat was fairly full, I ended up getting to sleep in the pilothouse at the very top of the boat with only my mosquito net to obscure the open air view. Everyone else slept in small hotel like rooms on the lower level of the boat which were apparently quite hot during the night.

this is the boat we spent the night on
The morning came rather quickly as the tide was down and our boat captain started the engine early in order to help a nearby boat that had run aground. I didn't really mind being awakened early though because the scenery was so amazing. As we motored towards the marina on Catba Island the sky was cloudy, but gradually became brighter and brighter as the sun rose behind the clouds. At the island we picked up some fresh baguettes which were served to us with our breakfast and then changed back to our smaller boat from the previous day. On the way back to the mainland we continued to enjoy the gorgeous scenery, which was especially beautiful when the sun came out.
another scene from halong bay
We also passed some oyster farms and were given the chance to purchase locally grown pearls from a girl who worked on our boat, but used to work at the oyster farm. Another passenger on our boat was a jeweler in Europe and he said that the quality and prices of the pearls were quite good, although I still wasn't really tempted to buy any.

Back on the mainland we enjoyed another meal at the same restaurant from the previous day before driving back to Hanoi via the same large souvenir store.
halong bay panorama
I can't really blame the tour companies for trying to save money and make a little extra on commissions here and there though. We thoroughly enjoyed our tour and got to do everything we had been expecting to do and the entire trip including entrance fees and 4 meals cost a whopping $12 per person. The company we booked with also provided free, unlimited use of their Internet cafe for the duration of our stay in Hanoi, although they didn't have a very good connection.

adra vietnam
We arrived back in Hanoi early enough that we decided to call up the local ADRA office since Daren needed to meet with them. Sujoya and I were also interested in seeing the staff and office, so after making contact by phone we hired a taxi to take us across town to the office. Most of the staff (including all 3 of the people I had met previously) were out of the office, but we still enjoyed our visit. We met two of the staff members as well as the very fat office cat. I also got a chance to burn my pictures to CD again, which was very nice since I had taken so many in Halong Bay.

one of hanoi's many park areas
We decided to walk at least part of the way back from the ADRA office to see the less touristy side of Hanoi, but ended up spending a couple of hours to walk the whole way back to our hotel via the train station (where we bought tickets for the next day). Along the way we visited many very friendly vendors who didn't try to rip us off nearly as much as the ones in the more touristy areas. We were able to stock up on snacks for the next days trip and also found some nice bakery treats for supper. Unfortunately you really have to be careful when buying things in the touristy areas of Vietnam as the vendors will not only quote very high prices (10 or more times higher than normal), but will even try to cheat you when giving change. Several times they tried to give me 1000 dong notes instead of 10,000 and almost always would give part of the change first, then wait to see if I asked for the rest. Anyway, it was nice to get away from the touristy area and experience a friendlier side of Vietnam.

history museum
In the morning we slept in for a change and then lounged around the hotel room until checkout time. It was nice to relax a little bit after being constantly on the move for several days. In the afternoon we walked around town a bit more then visited the history museum. The museum was fairly interesting with all kinds of artifacts from this region. Over the years there have been several major dynasties centered in Vietnam, although the Chinese influence can also be seen through most of the region's history. From the history museum we caught motorbike taxis across town to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. Unfortunately we were too late to pay our respects inside, but still got to see the honor guard and monuments. From what I have read the mausoleum is similar to Lenin's tomb which we visited several times in Moscow.
military museum
For the remainder of the afternoon we split up to see different things. Daren and Sujoya visited the museum of musical instruments while I checked out the war museum. It was nearly closing time when I arrived though so I only walked around the grounds, where they had tanks, artillery and even a couple of planes on display. Most of the heavy equipment was used in the Vietnam War, some by the North Vietnamese and some (including several downed planes) by the Americans. From the museum I caught another motorbike taxi back to the old quarter of town where I visited a restored merchant's house. The house had been restored and furnished to look like it would have before the turn of the century, if I remember correctly, and was fairly interesting to walk through. Nearby the museum I also saw an old tower and a statue of Lenin in a park area which reminded me of the many that were toppled in Russia.

In the evening I met Daren and Sujoya and we got some supper and more ice cream before catching motorbike taxis to the train station. At the train station we boarded our night train to Vinh and were sleeping soundly on our wooden bunks within 30 minutes of departure. We opted to take the night train since we would be traveling back south along the route we had already covered a few days earlier. Also, the sleeper train tickets were only about $1 more than the tourist bus tickets on the same route and we could sleep comfortably for 8 hours.

small town on the way to laos border (lunch stop)
We woke up about 30 minutes before arriving at our destination of Vinh. In Vinh we first walked around a little bit and then took motorbike taxis to the bus station where we quickly located the one bus headed for our next destination of Muang Xien, located near the Laos border. After waiting for more passengers to slowly trickle in to the station for about 2 hours we finally headed off on another 7 hour bus ride. The scenery along the way gradually became more and more hilly as we followed a river up a long valley. Towards the end of the trip there were some steep and rocky cliffs rising up from beside the road. As the bus pulled into the small town of Muang Xien several motorbike taxis started following it after spotting us foreigners on board. They knew without asking that we were headed for the Laos border and by this time it was getting fairly late. The Minsk motorbike taxis agreed to take us the 30 minutes to the border for $2 per bike so we climbed on and headed out of town towards Laos.
view from the back of the motorbike taxi
The road to the border was extremely scenic with switch back turns and stunning views of the valley all along the way. We climbed for nearly the entire drive, only leveling off for the last couple of kilometers. There weren't many people living along the road, although we did pass through a couple of hill tribe villages. It was nice to finally get off the tourist circuit for the last leg of our trip in Vietnam by using local transportation and taking a route that isn't very well traveled by tourists.

At the border we filled out all the right forms and were allowed to leave Vietnam after the border officials spent plenty of time double checking all of our paperwork. It was a bit after the official closing time of 5 pm when we walked through no mans land to Laos, and the border official was in the middle of a volleyball game. At the request of the official we waited a few minutes until a break in the game, then he stamped us in to the country. It was quite a contrast from the fairly rigid Vietnamese officials to the very laid back Laos official who was still wearing his sweat soaked tank top while he looked over our paperwork. There wasn't really any place to stay (other than the border guard barracks) on either side of the border itself, so we were quite glad to hitch a ride to the nearest town of Nong Haet in a private car.

at the border with my taxi driver
In Nong Haet we were dropped off at the only guesthouse in town (at least the only one with a sign) where we were shown to our very basic rooms. We also were able to exchange some money with the friendly guesthouse owner and arranged for a vegetarian supper consisting mostly of cooked asparagus. Before enjoying our supper however we followed the directions we were given to the "shower" which was actually a water pipe several blocks down the road where the entire village showered together. I'm not sure if the water came from a stream or a well, but there were a couple of spouts and everyone just crowded around them to soap up and take turns getting wet. We joined right in and were a bit surprised by the fact that nobody really seemed to take much notice of us. We found that overall in Laos the people are much more laid back than in Cambodia or Vietnam, and seem almost indifferent to foreigners. They are certainly very friendly, but it's possible for a foreigner to walk down a main street or through a market without being the center of attention. The last time I took a shower at a village waterspout in Cambodia, nearly all of the kids in the area took turns shouting "hello" while everyone else stared. While showering in Laos most people didn't even give me a second glance, and only one or two even said hello. It was actually a nice change.

During supper we watched a little bit of TV, much of which comes from Thailand in Laos. The languages of Laos and Thailand are similar enough that the Laos people can understand Thai TV, so in most areas they have satellite dishes and watch television from both countries. After supper we enjoyed a short walk under the stars before heading to bed. The weather was pleasantly cool thanks to the higher elevation, so I slept soundly under a blanket.

nong haet market in laos (entire produce section show)
In the morning we bought a few things from the small local market for breakfast and started looking for transportation to our next destination of Phonsavan, which I will write more about in the next update.

If you want to read even more details about this part of the trip take a look at "Hanoi to Phonsavan via national road 7 (Muang Xien to Nong Haet)" on my travel tips page.

Until next time,


For more pictures from this part of the trip see my Hanoi to Laos photo album.

Posted by andrew on May 30, 2003

Wow! We sure do enjoy the narative along with the gorgeous pictures. You will certainly have a bunch of memories to this trip. We'll keep looking for more.

Posted by: R&D Schwartz on June 1, 2003

great page! i was looking for adra pictures and saw your page. browsed through some updates and you did a great job posting the pics and the narrative.


Posted by: n1ss1n on August 24, 2005
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