April 19, 2003

Good Morning (from) Vietnam!


I'm writing this from an Internet cafe in the town of Hue, about half way between Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi. This evening I'm taking a bus the rest of the way up to Hanoi and over the last few days I have spent time in the Mekong Delta, Saigon, Dalat (hill country) and Nha Trang (beach resort). I don't have time to go into detail right now, but a few highlights include fresh strawberries from Dalat, locally made fresh yogurt (in one case combined with the strawberries for an excellent breakfast treat), waterfalls, floating markets and of course the beach.

So far everything here has been great and we have been getting some great deals as the tourist numbers are down due to the SARS media hype. On the down side one of the buses we wanted to take was canceled, but we caught an earlier one last night instead. Due the schedule change we split up with Jonathan the night before we had originally planned to, but it worked out alright. He is on his way back to Phnom Penh where he has to get back to work sooner than the rest of us.

Anyway, I should probably get going so that we can seen a little bit of this city before our next bus leaves. It looks like we'll probably be crossing into Laos later this week.

I hope all is going well and I'll talk to you later!


PS FYI for those who are worried, according to the WHO SARS is now under control in Vietnam.

May 11, 2003

Back in Phnom Penh

Click on the map to enlarge
Greetings from Phnom Penh!

Well, I arrived back in Phnom Penh safely late yesterday afternoon with enough time to unpack, shower and put on some clean clothes before joining my friends for a fun time of visiting and playing games. If it seems like I've been out of contact a bit longer than expected, it's because I decided to take an extra week off at the end of the trip to see more in the country of Laos. I was originally planning to get back here a week ago, but I'm glad I was able to take the extra time to travel instead. I'm having a hard time getting my thoughts in order with so many experiences to report on, but I think I'll try to do a quick summary first, so here it is:

Time spent traveling: 30 days

Route: From Phnom Penh down the Mekong River to Chau Doc in Vietnam, to Cantho (also on the Mekong), to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), to Dalat in the southern hill country, to the beach resort of Nha Trang, to Hanoi with very brief stopovers in Hoi An and Hue on the way, to Halong Bay (beautiful islands in the sea where we slept on a boat), to the hill country of Northern Laos (minority tribes, waterfalls, cool climate, mountain scenery and kayaking), to Vientenne (the capital of Laos), to southern Laos (cheap bungalows, waterfalls and islands in the Mekong), and back south to Phnom Penh via the Mekong River.

Approximate total distance traveled: 6,600 km (about 4,100 miles, a little more than 1.5 times the driving distance from Washington DC to Los Angeles)

Modes of transportation used: 18 buses, 16 boats, 10 trucks (usually with bench seats and a camper-like cover over the back), 9 motorbikes, 7 tuk-tuks (a cross between a motorbike and a pickup), 2 car taxis, 2 vans, 2 bicycles, 1 jeep, 1 cyclo, 1 kayak, 1 train and 1 pair of shoes.

Cheapest lodging: $1 per night for riverfront bungalows in Laos (not counting the 2 nights in a row I slept on buses on the way to Hanoi or the 1 night I spent on the train on the way to Laos)

Most expensive lodging that I stayed in: $2.50 per person for AC and satellite TV with 4 people in a large room 1 block from the beach.

Number of 12.5 cent chocolate and other ice cream bars eaten in Vietnam: unknown

Overall it's been a great trip. I met lots of nice and interesting people along the way and saw some amazing scenery. I still need to sort through all the pictures I took and will also be writing about the trip in more detail.

Today I have enjoyed catching up on email, and this evening I'm getting together with friends for a small farewell party to say goodbye to some of the other volunteers who are leaving Cambodia this week. I'm running out of time for now so will write more later.

Bye for now,


May 19, 2003

Phnom Penh to Saigon via the Mekong Delta

Waiting at Vietnamese Immigration

This is the first in what will no doubt be a series of updates about my recent trip through Vietnam and Laos. For the first part of the trip I traveled with Jonathan, Daren and Sujoya who are also volunteers here in Cambodia.

Thursday night (April 10) before our big trip we had a get together with some friends to watch a movie. Just before watching the movie I drove into town and bought our boat tickets to Vietnam for the next morning. A couple of us actually packed before watching the movie, while others were up late getting packed afterwards. We all managed to wake up early enough to catch motos into town where we loaded our things into a van and headed out of town on the first leg of our trip. After about an hour or so we transferred to a boat on the Mekong River. Normally transportation in Cambodia is very crowded, so we were quite surprised to have a rather large boat shared among only about 8 people. The boat trip to the border was uneventful, scenic and quick.

Ferry in Vietnam to Chau Doc
At the Vietnamese border we first got our exit stamps from the Cambodian officials, which only took a few minutes. We then walked over the border and waited for nearly two hours while the Vietnamese officials checked our papers and eventually allowed us to enter the country. With stamped passports in hand we followed our guide to another boat (this one registered in Vietnam) for the ride to the Vietnamese town of Chau Doc. Even while waiting for the immigration officials at the border checkpoint we already started noticing things that were not the same as Cambodia. For example, more women were wearing what I would think of as pajamas. Upon arrival in Chau Doc we avoided the group of touts who all wanted us to visit their guesthouses and wandered towards the local market. Along the way we changed a little bit of money in a couple of places to check out the exchange rate, then settled on using a jewelry shop that had a good rate to change enough money for a few days. We noticed that the town in general was nicer and cleaner than towns in Cambodia. The market was very well stocked and was also cleaner than markets in Cambodia. After checking out a few different hotels and tour companies we ended up sticking with Sinh Cafe, the company that had ferried us from the border to Chau Doc. We just couldn't find a better deal than the $22.50 per person they were charging for a 2 day, 2 night tour of the Mekong Delta ending up in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and including nice rooms with AC. After dropping our bags off at the hotel we split up and wandered around the local market, mostly buying a few snacks to eat that evening and the following day on our tour. We met back at a restaurant where we enjoyed our first Vietnamese meal, which was very good. After supper we took a long walk around the town and found the people to be very friendly. On the way back to our hotel I had what would be the first of many local popsicles. In Vietnam they have something like a fudge-sicle (it involves chocolate and is frozen) for about 12 cents US. These became very hard to resist, especially after or while walking long distances in the hot weather.

Floating Village
The next morning we were up early for our free (included in the tour price) breakfast. After eating we followed our guide on foot through town to the local river pier where we boarded fairly large rowing boats. Each boat was rowed by a standing Vietnamese person (mostly women) while around 8 of us tourists sat on benches to enjoy the ride. We slowly made our way through the local floating village composed of several different styles and types of floating house boats. We were told that the poorer people live in the houses built on what look like regular boats while richer people can afford more of a square shaped house floating on a bamboo platform. The area under the square houses is usually used to raise fish in an enclosure. The fish are fed and taken care of until they reach a large enough size to be sold. We also passed many small store boats with all kinds of goods for sale. On the other side of the floating village we arrived at a pier and walked ashore to a Cham village. The ethnic Cham people in the Mekong Delta area (and in Cambodia) are usually Muslims so in this village most of the women wore head coverings. In the village we watched a weaving demonstration and then walked around the local mosque. Young children filled many classrooms around the mosque and many of them were studying the Koran. After successfully resisting several souvenir vendors we re-boarded our boats for the trip back to Chau Doc.

View from Sam Mountain
Back in town we walked to our hotel and loaded our gear and ourselves into a tour bus which took us a few kilometers out of town to a local "mountain". Sam Mountain is mainly called a mountain because everything else in the nearby area is flat. It isn't particularly high, but we did get very warm climbing up the many stairs during the hottest part of the day. It didn't help that it was the peak of the hot season either. At the top of the mountain we enjoyed a great view of the surrounding countryside and could even see into Cambodia. A couple of us also enjoyed drinking coconuts while relaxing in the shade before walking back down the mountain to our waiting bus. We then made a quick stop at a temple before heading to a restaurant for lunch. At the temple we got our first glimpse of one of the religions practiced in Vietnam, which seems to be a mix of all other religions. Some of the deity statues are quite unusual with elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism all thrown in. At this particular temple people were making offerings of roasted pigs and fresh fruit. Our guide told us that the temple often just sells the offerings back to the vendors who in turn sell them to worshipers again. The place we ate lunch was situated out of town in the middle of a small man-made pond. The food was alright there, but we mainly ate snacks we had bought the night before instead of ordering very much food.

Splitting Bamboo for Incense Sticks
After lunch we drove to a village where incense sticks are made. We watched the women skillfully splitting bamboo to make the sticks, and then rolling them in a concoction that appeared to consist mostly of sticky scented sawdust. A couple of the tourists even got a chance to try their hands at making incense, to the amusement of the rest of us. Incense plays a big role in religion for the Vietnamese. They burn incense everyday at the temples and in their homes. After learning more than we ever wanted to know about incense, we rode in our bus for about an hour before boarding another boat. This boat was motorized and took us through some very narrow, overgrown canals to a stork sanctuary. One of the local landowners found that lots of storks were roosting on his land and has taken advantage of the tourist potential. His property is now an official sanctuary and is very full of storks. Seeing so many large birds in one place (and not in cages) was very impressive, and the boat ride to and from the sanctuary was also very scenic.
The way back from the stork sanctuary
By the time we took the boat back to our bus most of the villagers along the canal were bathing or washing clothes/dishes. They do all of this in water that I wouldn't even want to go swimming in because it is very dirty. Back on the bus we traveled the remaining few kilometers to the city of Cantho where we checked into our hotel. After getting settled we headed out in search of food. Jonathan and I decided to eat "buffet style" from the local night market and found all kinds of interesting things to try. Along the way we sampled dried banana fruit rollups, plain waffles, egg sandwiches, potato cake, sugar cane juice and waffles filled with sugar and rice. We both enjoyed the meal and I'm happy to report that neither of us had any stomach problems afterwards either. Back at our hotel we took advantage of a coupon to use the sauna for 15 free minutes before enjoying a good night's sleep in our cool, air conditioned rooms.

Floating Market near Cantho
In the morning we were up bright and early for another free breakfast before taking a quick bus ride to another boat. The boat first took us to one of the larger floating markets in the Mekong Delta. Many of the vendor boats had samples of their fresh produce tied to bamboo poles and hoisted high into the air so that you could see what they were selling from a distance. After passing through the very colorful and lively market we stopped at a rice noodle factory. In the factory we were able to watch the workers at various stages of production before re-boarding our boat. The next stop was at a rice mill from which we walked along the river through some tropical fruit orchards. Our guide pointed out several different types of fruit trees and we even got to pick some fruit ourselves before enjoying a picnic snack of fruit provided as part of the tour.
Making Rice Noodles
After we finished eating fruit we traveled by boat back to Cantho where we enjoyed lunch at a rooftop restaurant. After lunch we ate some ice cream and then boarded yet another boat which took us across one branch of the Mekong that does not yet have a bridge over it. On the other side of the river we boarded our bus again (it had come over on a car ferry) for the ride to Saigon. We skipped one of the scheduled stops on the way to Saigon, mainly because we had another tourist along who had been hit by a motorbike.
Downtown Cantho
He was doing pretty well, but had injured his leg and needed to get to a proper hospital. We did have a brief stretch break during which a couple of us enjoyed some fresh coconuts. One advantage of skipping the scheduled stop was that we got in to Saigon a little bit earlier than planned, so had a little time to look around before dark.

I think I'll post this now and continue the trip report soon in the next update.

Until then,


For more pictures from this part of the trip see my Mekong Delta album. You can also click here to view a map of my route through Vietnam and Laos.

May 22, 2003

War history, music and massage on the street

As we neared Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) one of the most obvious things I noticed was the quality of the road. The road was quite good for the entire trip, although by the time we reached the outskirts of Saigon itself it was very wide with several lanes, including some narrower ones on the sides for motorbikes and bicycles. As we drove into the city I couldn't help but notice how many more motorbikes and people there were when compared to Cambodia. Saigon is a large city complete with tall buildings, shopping malls and lots of entertainment options. Upon arrival in the "backpacker area" of Saigon we were immediately surrounded by people who wanted to take us to see their guesthouses. We're fairly used to this by now so spent the first few minutes waiting for the other tourists to disperse, and then started comparing prices among the various touts. We eventually went to have a look at one place which was a bit pricey at $10, although it was a very nice hotel with extras like AC, fridge and TV. After a little while we found a friendly older lady who said she had rooms "just around the corner" for $4. We followed her through several narrow alleys lined with residences to a narrow guesthouse with just one room on each floor. It was clean and family run so we decided to take it for our two nights in Saigon. After getting settled in our rooms we met up with some fellow travelers from Holland. We had first met on the minibus on the way out of Phnom Penh and had gotten better acquainted on the way through the Mekong Delta. After meeting up we got some supper at a place filled with Vietnamese people for about $1 per person. They did at least have a vegetarian section on the menu, although there were no descriptions of the dishes so I just ordered the first one on the list which turned out to be great.
Japanese musical performance
After supper we went to the second half of a free musical performance by a traveling Japanese group. They played both Asian and Western classical music, but used traditional Asian instruments the whole time. They also had an award-winning guest soprano who wasn't screechy and did an excellent job. I must admit that a couple of us weren't that excited about going to see a musical performance, but Sujoya (who teaches music) really wanted to go and it turned out to be great. Also, the auditorium was very cool compared to the muggy weather outside, thanks to the air conditioning, which made the show even more enjoyable.

cathedral at night
Our next destination was also not particularly exciting to some in our group, but Jonathan really wanted to find the Hard Rock Cafe so that he could buy a t-shirt to add to his collection. As we wandered around town looking for the Hard Rock Cafe we enjoyed seeing a couple of nice cathedrals which were illuminated. We also got a chance to see a little bit of what our guidebook referred to as "Sunday night live". Basically, on Sunday nights people like to cruise around on their scooters and motorbikes and there is one street in particular where we could watch lots of young people "cruising". Another sight that we found a bit surprising was that of couples "parking" on their scooters in the park areas of the city. It's certainly not Europe or the US, but they definitely have more public displays of affection in Vietnam than in Cambodia. While still more or less searching for the Hard Rock Cafe we wandered into one of the very fancy 5 star hotels to look around a little. We rode the elevator to their rooftop restaurant, but decided it was out of our price range when we saw the menu. Even a soft drink was something like $3 which I suppose isn't that unreasonable when compared to western prices, but seemed high to us. We started to get a little suspicious about whether or not there really was a Hard Rock Cafe in Saigon because most people we asked didn't know where it was. Finally, we found someone who could give us directions and walked about two blocks around the corner to what was labeled as the Hard Rock Cafe. Inside they had decorated it with the usual musical instruments, records and posters but it just didn't feel quite right. Perhaps it was too small (it really wasn't very big and had a low ceiling), or perhaps the pool table in the corner just didn't fit. The shop did in fact have t-shirts and other souvenirs for sale although the menu was the dead give away that this place was not really part of the franchise, but was instead just a blatant copy. The actual items on the menu were even pretty close to the real thing, but the design, quality and frequent English mistakes made it obvious that things were not what they seemed. We decided not to stick around, but Jonathan went ahead and bought himself a nice copy t-shirt (which cost less than the real thing probably would have) on the way out. Back out on the street we explored a little more and definitely saw plenty of places where you could get anything you wanted with the right amount of money. Vietnam may be a communist country with stricter control of "social vices", but they certainly haven't been eliminated. This sort of thing is however much more discreet than it is in Phnom Penh or of course Thailand.

massage on the street
We did do one more interesting thing before catching a taxi back to our hotel that I should write about. We had read and been told about some interesting street vendors in Saigon. The first type goes around making a distinctive sound with spoons which seems a bit strange if you don't know why they are doing it. These people are in fact advertising soup which they will deliver to you from a nearby restaurant upon request. The second type of vendor rides around on a bicycle shaking a string of bottle caps rigged up to form a shaker similar in design and sound to a baby rattle. These guys (and they are all men) are offering massage services. They carry a small case with a mat and will give you a massage right on the street, or in your hotel room if you prefer. After hearing about this Daren and I decided that we should try it out for the cultural experience, if nothing else. Once we indicated a slight interest to one of the massage vendors, he actually followed us around for the better part of an hour before we decided to go ahead and try it out. We decided to split an hour between the two of us for a total price of $2. The massage itself was very good although there are probably better settings. One thing is for sure though, there's definitely nothing like lying on the side walk at night in a busy city watching cockroaches scurry across the side walk a few meters (yards) away from your face while having a massage. It was a great and unique experience, even though we turned down the option of hot glass suction cups which was also available.

tunnel entrance
The next morning we were all up bright and early to catch a package tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. These tunnels were used by the North Vietnamese troops during the "War of American Aggression", as it is sometimes called in Vietnam. It was very interesting to learn how they would hide in the tunnels whenever the American patrols came by. They even had rigged up a system of filtering the smoke from cooking fires to that it wouldn't be noticed from above ground. Most of the tunnels were quite narrow so that the typical American soldier with all his gear would have a much harder time getting through than the typically smaller Vietnamese people who didn't carry much more than a weapon, ammo and a little food/water. The tunnel entrances were camouflaged very well, some were even underwater in the nearby riverbank. Some of the tunnels were very close if not actually under American bases as well, which made quick escapes possible after night time raids.
booby trap
There were also lots of booby traps on display, most of which looked quite lethal. Some of these traps were originally used to hunt wild animals but were adapted for war use. We went through one stretch of small tunnel that was about 400m (1300 feet) long where we had to crawl most of the way. This stretch of tunnel seemed very long, but was only a tiny fraction of the length of the tunnels used during the war. After crawling through several tunnels we sampled some rice and tapioca root, which tastes a bit like potato. Apparently the soldiers would plant this type of root along their supply routes and then come back to harvest it after a few months. It grows very quickly and easily in this part of the world so was a low hassle food source. We also watched a craftsman make a pair of shoes using old car tires for the soles and old strips of inner tube for the straps. A couple of other tourists on our tour had large feet and had ordered some custom sized "Ho Chi Minh Trail Sandals".
choose your weapon
The last stop on our tour was the firing range. Another person in our tour group decided to take the opportunity to fire several of the available guns at the cost of $1 per bullet. I wasn't very tempted to try it out myself, but it was interesting to watch and hear.

$1 per bullet
Upon arrival back in Saigon the 4 of us decided to hire two cyclos for a 1 hour tour of the city. Cyclos are basically bicycles with a big seat in the front for the passengers and are usually operated by middle aged or older men. I've read that many of these men fought along side the Americans and haven't been able to find any better jobs since the war. In many cases former members of the South Vietnamese army were sent to re-education camps as well. Anyway, we enjoyed our daylight tour of the sights in downtown Saigon which included several cathedrals, parks and skyscrapers. We ended our tour at one of the large local indoor markets. We browsed in the market for a while before spending the rest of the afternoon walking around the downtown area exploring various stores and side streets. We also got a chance to check email and I got a much needed haircut for $1. In the evening we met up with our Dutch friends again for an excellent meal at a reasonably priced vegetarian restaurant. They even had some Mexican food on the menu which I couldn't resist ordering. After supper we bought our open bus tickets to Hanoi and booked seats for the morning bus to the town of Dalat. Jonathan and I then wandered around the city a bit more before heading to bed.

May 25, 2003

Strawberries, waterfalls, cool weather and the beach

choosing a guesthouse to look at

The bus we took from Saigon to Dalat was the first leg of what they call an "open tour" from Saigon to Hanoi. Basically, travel companies in Vietnam will sell you a ticket that allows you to get on and off along the way as you travel between Saigon (in the south) and Hanoi (in the north). There is always at least 1 bus per day, sometimes more, so you can pretty much decide how long to stay in a place as you go along. These open tours also advertise various sightseeing stops along the way, most of which sound pretty good on paper beforehand. Our first such sightseeing stop was at a floating village on a small lake. The stop was only for a few minutes and since we had just spent two days looking at much larger floating villages we weren't too excited by this one. It was at least a nice stretch break though. As we wound our way further north and inland, the terrain gradually became more hilly and before long we were climbing up a mountain pass. At our lunch stop we were able to purchase some fresh, ripe avocados (which can't be grown in the hotter climate of lower elevations) for about 25 cents per kilo from a roadside vendor. Avocados combined with baguettes (also purchased from roadside vendors) made for an excellent lunch.
aren't they cute?
The last few miles of the trip to Dalat were very scenic with lots of switchbacks and a constant climb with pine trees and good views along the road. Dalat itself is situated in a valley around a lake, although the elevation is fairly high (1500m, nearly 5000 feet) and you feel like you are climbing most of the way there. Upon arrival our bus was yet again met by at least 10 different people all wanting to show us to a guesthouse. We met a couple of other travelers on the bus and eventually negotiated the price of $20 for three rooms for two nights. The rooms were really nice with hot water (much appreciated because the weather was cooler), TV and balconies. We also arranged to rent motorbikes from our guesthouse for the next day, for just over $3 per bike. This brought the total per person for 2 nights lodging and a motorbike to $5. As an added bonus there was a day care directly next door to our guesthouse, and we enjoyed visiting the smiling Vietnamese kids who were very cute and friendly.

paddle boats on the lake
After getting settled in to our rooms we headed out to explore the town a little. We had read in our guidebooks that the local market had vegetarian food stalls, which we definitely wanted to check out. On the way to the market we walked along the shore of the local lake and some in the group were actually cold, even while wearing sweatshirts. I wore a long sleeved shirt and was comfortable for a change. On the lake they have all kinds of tourist attractions that are mainly geared towards local Vietnamese tourists including swan shaped paddle boats. Along the lake we found a vendor selling hot soy milk which a couple of us decided to sample. It was the first time in quite a while that I actually enjoyed the "hot" part of a hot drink! The market in Dalat was very interesting to explore as they sell all sorts of dried fruit, nuts and candies which made for great snacks. Strawberries were also in season and were priced quite reasonably. Although the size and quality didn't really compare to what we get in the States, they were still great and I really enjoyed getting some fresh berries.
snake wine anyone?
Other less appetizing "delicacies" such as snake wine were also available. The snake wine is rather expensive but is purportedly an aphrodisiac, the effects of which some compared to viagra. We eventually found our way to the food stall section of the market where we were delighted to find cheap vegetarian food. The small stands had a normal Vietnamese style menu, complete with meat dishes listed, but all of the "meat" products were actually made from vegetables. Rather than trying just one dish we all got to sample a variety of dishes (all of which were good) at a cost of about 50 cents per person. After supper we wandered through the market a little bit and then a couple of us went on another long walk. We basically just wandered around town, but ended up in a University neighborhood where we met and visited with several students. A few of the students were majoring in English so were excited to get some practice with us foreigners. Back at our hotel I was really glad for hot water in the shower and had an excellent night's sleep curled up under a thick blanket.

enjoying vegetarian food in the market
The next morning after a bit of confusion due to some miscommunication we eventually got our rental motorbikes and headed out of town. Our first stop was at a monastery situated on the shore of a very picturesque reservoir. The monastery gardens had lots of flowers and pine trees while the water in the reservoir had an aqua tint to it which added to the beauty. After wandering around the gardens and lake we found a vegetarian restaurant similar to the food stall we had eaten at the night before, only this time the price was 25 cents per plate of food, and it was even better. It was good enough that most of us had a second helping in fact. After lunch our next stop was a waterfall which we reached by hiking down into a ravine. We had the area almost completely to ourselves so enjoyed climbing up to the top of the waterfall and explored some other trails in the area as well before hiking back up the hill to our bikes. A few kilometers down the road we arrived at yet another waterfall, only this one was more built up as a local tourist attraction. In the area surrounding the waterfall they had set up paddle boats, a cable car ride, a small zoo (with bears, crocodiles, gibbons, monkeys, etc), a raft with a sail on it (photo spot), a rock garden, a tribal gift shop with weaving demonstrations and an area where you could try "tribal sports" like archery. They also had plenty of food available and the whole area was landscaped with several statues, a couple of fountains and lots of flower beds. It certainly wasn't the typical waterfall setting, but was interesting in its own way.
weaving traditional hill tribe textiles
The Vietnamese definitely have an affinity for all things kitsch. After spending some time exploring the waterfall area (think gaudy Disneyland), we drove back to Dalat and got a few snacks before heading out of town in a different direction. This time we didn't really have a destination in mind, but enjoyed exploring the countryside. Much of the area surrounding the town is used for agriculture, with many crops being grown that thrive in the relatively cooler climate. We ended up on a very nice road that had probably been built recently as part of a hydroelectric power generation project. The road wound through the countryside away from any villages and even followed a reservoir for much of the way. On the way back we enjoyed the sunset and arrived in town just in time to see the moon rising above the local replica of the Eiffel Tower. For supper we bought some more fresh strawberries, and afterwards took another walk around town (with more than one ice cream stop) before heading to bed.

dalat agriculture
Bright and early the following morning we began the next leg of our open tour. We were headed for the beach resort town of Nha Trang, so the first part of the drive was very scenic with a winding road full of switch backs and a stop along the way to enjoy the view. Once we reached the base of the mountains the rest of the trip was fairly flat. We had two more stops, one at some ancient ruins and another for lunch at a restaurant, before arriving in Nha Trang. Upon arrival we got sick of the touts and decided to leave all our bags near the beach with part of the group while a couple of us searched for a room. When you walk around town with a backpack on you are automatically followed by several people trying to take you to hotels, but without bags it is easier to go to a hotel on your own.
this road was fun since it was so nice and new
In some cases touts will try to get a commission from a hotel that you go to on your own, just by following you and showing up at the same time. If you can manage to arrive without touts, you sometimes can get a lower price on the room since then the hotel does not have to pay a commission to anyone. We ended up with a room that was a bit more "expensive" at $10 per night, but it had AC, a fridge and TV. It also had enough beds for the 4 of us, so it was still just $2.50 per person and we only ended up staying one night. Without AC we probably could have had a similar room for $6 or less, but electricity is expensive, and AC uses a lot of it. After dropping off our bags we changed into swimming suits and headed to the beach for a relaxing afternoon enjoying the sand and surf. In the evening we met up with some other travelers and ended up eating at an amazing restaurant called the Cyclo Cafe. It is run by a man who used to work in a fancy restaurant, but now has opened his own place with excellent home cooked Western and Asian food at great prices. For example, a large pizza was $2 and a large hot pot meal cost about $1. After supper we went for a long walk, coming back along the beach.

there's nothing like fresh strawberries!
In the morning we took a while to get up and out of the cool (thanks to the AC) hotel room but eventually made our way back to the Cycle Cafe for breakfast. I brought along the last of my strawberries from Dalat and ordered some frozen (slushy) homemade yogurt, which combined with the strawberries to make my favorite meal of the entire trip. After breakfast we decided to reconfirm our open tickets for the next leg of the trip, but discovered that the bus we were planning to take had been cancelled. After much discussion we finally decided to take the night bus north instead of leaving the following day as we had originally planned. The decision was a bit harder to make since it also meant that we would be leaving Jonathan about 12 hours earlier than we had planned. He eventually decided to catch a night bus to Saigon, so left Nha Trang an hour or two after we did, but going in the opposite direction. He didn't take as much time off from work as the rest of us so needed to get back to Phnom Penh. After getting our tickets sorted out we had a few hours left to spend on the beach, getting massages and relaxing a little bit. Just before catching our bus we ate one more excellent meal at the Cyclo Cafe.


May 28, 2003

Coastal bus ride, war remnants and two more bus rides

japanese covered bridge (I don't know the people in the picture)

The overnight bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An was long, but not too crowded so we were able to spread out and get some sleep. During the night we had a couple of quick snack/toilet stops but didn't see anything of particular interest at the stops. For part of the trip when I was still awake we drove along the coast, winding in and out of small coves surrounded by rocky cliffs. This was all illuminated by the nearly full moon, which reflected off the water to help produce a very beautiful night time view. It was quite early when we arrived in Hoi An so we took our time waking up and getting off the bus. We were planning to spend several hours in Hoi An before catching our next bus to Hue, but found out that the later bus didn't include any sightseeing stops while the earlier one did. Based on this new information we changed our plan and took the earlier bus, which only left us with less than an hour to explore the city. We still managed to walk several kilometers around town and even got to see an old Japanese covered bridge. Hoi An is a very quaint town with narrow streets and well preserved colonial architecture. The town is also known for its tailors who can make clothes to order for very reasonable prices, although we didn't have a chance to test them out on this trip.

coastal mountain pass
The first stop on the way to Hue was at a complex of caves, which was quite impressive. Most of the caves were inside a small mountain and it was also possible to climb to the top of the mountain for a view of the surrounding countryside. We had a little less than an hour to explore the area, in which time I speed walked through around 5 caves and also made it to the top of the mountain before heading back to the bus. Many of the caves had Buddha shrines and statues and some were used during the Vietnam War as bunkers. In one place you could see bullet holes in a gate that was part of the defense structure from that time period.

pillbox and other fortifications
From the caves we drove further north to the top of a coastal mountain pass. The drive up the pass was quite interesting with our bus passing the many slow trucks on a very windy road. At the top of the pass we were treated to excellent views up and down the Vietnamese coast. We also saw some more remnants from the Vietnam War including pillboxes and other fortifications. At the moment they are working on a tunnel that will go through the mountain that we had to drive over. When completed, the tunnel should save quite a bit of time, especially for the many large trucks that ply this route.

empty beach
Our next stop was at a beach resort area located on an island-like peninsula. We spent most of an hour snacking and listening to the surf, although we didn't end up swimming this time. The beach was nearly empty as far as we could see in both directions, and would have been a great place to spend a few days relaxing.

symbolic cannons to defend the city
Upon arrival in Hue we were yet again greeted by numerous people trying to take us to their guesthouses. This time we completely ignored them however since we were planning to keep on traveling north that same night. While making the rough schedule for this trip we had decided that we would rather have more time to spend in the north of Vietnam and also in Laos, so opted to rush through the central region of the country. We had several hours between buses in Hue, which is a rather large city with some ancient historical sights. My first priority however was to find a good and reasonably priced Internet cafe where I could record my digital pictures to a CD since my camera memory was nearly full.
moat around the citadel
The place we ended up using charged me the bank breaking sum of about 30 cents for the hour and a half I spent reading email and saving my pictures. After leaving the Internet cafe we walked around the old citadel and moat. On the way we saw some old cannons that were set up as symbolic defenders of the city, with one cannon for each season of the year on one side of the main citadel entrance, and one for each natural element on the opposite side of the entrance. We also stopped to take pictures at a couple of monuments and enjoyed eating some ice cream before catching a motorbike taxi back to our next overnight bus.

The bus ride from Hue to Hanoi turned out to be one of the more grueling rides of the trip, mainly because it was a very full bus. They stopped early in the trip and picked up a number of Vietnamese passengers, who certainly were not part of the tourist ticket crowd. I had a Vietnamese construction worker sitting next to me, although I was lucky enough to have a window at the very back of the bus.
supper on the bus
In this seat I had plenty of leg room and was also able to lean against the window to sleep. It was still fairly difficult (but not impossible) to sleep since the back seat was full and there wasn't any shoulder room left. We had a few stops along the way before arriving bright and early (before 6 am) in Hanoi's old quarter.

I think I'll stop writing now to select some pictures to put online. I'll continue the trip report in the next update.

Until then,


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.

June 14, 2003

mountains, remote villages, waterfalls and kayaking

leaving nong haet

It has been a couple of weeks since I wrote the last update about my Vietnam and Laos trip, but I'll try to pick up where I left off.

Although we had a pretty good idea ahead of time of the route we would take through Vietnam, our time in Laos was a bit less planned in advance so the first evening in Laos we sat down with the guidebook and came up with a rough plan. There had been a couple of bandit attacks on one particular highway in Laos over the months leading up to our trip, and I found out online that a new one took place the weekend before we entered the country. This information helped to shape our travel plan as we decided to avoid the highway where the attacks had taken place. The route that we eventually settled on took us through beautiful mountain scenery to several out of the way towns that don't see very many tourists.

one of the jars
The first bus of the day from Nong Haet (where we spent our first night after crossing the border) to our next stop of Phonsavan left without us. We were used to Vietnam and Cambodia where a bus or taxi driver will try his best to get more customers, especially foreigners, before actually leaving. However, in Laos they are much more laid back and after driving past us and honking briefly (we didn't really show any signs of wanting to board the bus), the bus left town without us. The next "bus" was a pickup taxi with seats in the back and left around 3 hours later. While waiting we kept ourselves busy by buying and eating food from the local market.

jars from a distance
The taxi ride to Phonsavan was one of many very scenic drives in Laos. I found that I could enjoy the view better by riding on the very back of the pickup, where there is a platform for people to ride standing up. Besides the numerous hills and mountains, we also passed many hill tribe villages before eventually arriving at our destination.

Upon arrival we checked out several guesthouses before eventually settling on the cheapest one, which also had hot water and reasonably priced bicycle rentals. After dropping off our bags we rented bikes and rode them out to the closest of several archeological sites on the Plain of Jars, which is the main tourist attraction of Phonsavan. The Plain of Jars site that we visited lived up to it's name pretty well with a bunch of ancient stone jars strewn around a couple of fields.
slash and burn
It was fun to wander around the place wondering who might have carved these jars and why. Before riding the 8 km (5-6 miles) or so back to town we waited out a brief rain shower while snacking on fresh watermelon and mangos. In the evening we visited a traditional style sauna and massage place which was very relaxing and helped prevent us from getting any sore muscles from the day's bike ride.

one of our pickup taxis
In the morning we caught another pickup taxi for the 7 or so hour ride through the mountains to the village of Sam Neua. On the way we passed through hill tribe villages and long stretches of scenic, unpopulated hill country. Near the villages we also saw plenty of slash and burn going on, with some good sized fires burning next to the road. In Sam Neua we found a guesthouse and then browsed through the local market. The market in this town was pretty well stocked since it is close to the border with Vietnam. Although the nearby border crossing is closed to foreigners, local people are allowed to cross and bring all sorts of goods with them. The market was filled with all kinds of fresh products ranging from small plums, to bananas, to oranges to live chickens and also had plenty of prepackaged goods. After browsing in the market we found a small restaurant where we enjoyed a tasty Laos style meal of vegetable soup with tofu and rice before heading to bed.

hintang archeological park
In the morning we decided to splurge and hire an old Russian jeep with a driver so that we could explore the countryside surrounding the town. It took a while to find someone willing to take us, yet another sign of how much more laid back the people are in Laos. Our first stop of the day was at some ancient stone monoliths which were compared to Stone Hedge in England by our guidebook. We didn't think they were all that close to Stone Hedge, but it was rather bizarre to see a clearing full of upright carved stones. Nobody really seems to know who put them there or why, which only adds to the oddness.

rice paddy field
Our next stop of the day was at a waterfall which was quite tall with many levels of smaller cascades. I hiked up to the very top of it and was surprised to discover rice paddy fields and a calm looking river just above the steep waterfall. It was a nice hike and I got back in the jeep just as a tropical thunderstorm hit. I stayed relatively dry in the jeep, although it was pretty old and had several leaks that let in a little rain.

ordering food by pointing
On the way back to town we stopped to check out some hot springs. After driving a few kilometers off the main road we walked out across the rice paddies to the hot springs. We were quite surprised to find that there were several individual rooms, each with a modern style bathtub and faucet. I think the bathhouse had been built by the UN at some point and you could fill your tub with water from the hot springs. We were hoping that we could just relax in some warm pools in a stream, so were a little disappointed to find the bathtubs. We decided not to take baths since it was daytime and the weather was still fairly warm, but we did enjoy the trip there at least. The walk across the rice paddies was worth the trip on it's own with several small bridges and narrow mud paths to balance on along the way.

flat tire
In the evening I wandered around town checking out various shops and things. I took a long walk and was invited into a local house where someone who was studying English wanted a little practice. I yet again noticed how laid back the people were in Laos as the other people in the household hardly gave me (the foreigner) a second glance. In the same situation in Cambodia the entire household would probably crowd around and stare if a foreigner came to visit.

river gorge where I tried to catch a boat
After a good nights sleep we packed our bags and boarded another bus. Daren and Sujoya decided to buy tickets all the way to the town of Luang Prabang, while I opted to stop a few hours sooner in Nong Khiaw where I hoped to take a boat the rest of the way to Luang Prabang where we agreed to meet up the following day. The bus ride was rather long but very scenic with still more mountains and hill tribe villages along the way. The place we stopped for lunch was one of the larger towns and only had 2 restaurants that we could find. By the time we arrived in Nong Khiaw it was well after dark. The village seems to have electricity normally, but the night that I arrived they only had candles burning in the restaurants and guesthouses which made it extra fun to locate a room. I was really glad to have my flashlight along since the hotel I ended up staying in was completely dark when I arrived and I even had to wake up the owner. I shared the room with a German guy who had been traveling with us, so we split the cost of $1.50 between the two of us.

on the way to luang prabang
The next morning (Tuesday) I spent a few hours trying to catch a boat down the river to Luang Prabang, but eventually gave up and took a taxi instead. I had heard that the river trip was very nice, but couldn't find enough other tourists to share the boat cost with. There were some planning to go the following day, but I needed to catch up with Daren and Sujoya so caught a taxi instead. The taxi was completely full of foreigners which was a bit of a shock since I had only seen a couple of other foreigners over the previous few days in more remote areas. The scenery along the road was nice as it followed the river for part of the way.

In Luang Prabang I met up with Daren and Sujoya and we went to an all you can eat vegetarian buffet for $1.50. Luang Prabang is a fairly small and quaint town, but it is extremely touristy with lots of restaurants, shopping, travel agents, internet cafes and of course tons of tourists. It was kind of nice to enjoy some more familiar food and email access after spending about a week in small villages with only Lao food. In the evening we wandered around town and eventually ended up at the local Red Cross office where we got some decent 1 hour massages for around $2 each. We also spent some time exploring the bustling night market where you could buy everything from banana stuffed crepes, to all kinds of hand woven textiles.

sunset on the mekong in luang prabang
Wednesday morning we were up bright and early to go kayaking. The tour we took was led by a guide, but Daren, Sujoya and I were the only tourists. We were dropped off at the river where we boarded our two person sit on top kayaks and started paddling downstream. The river trip was very nice and we enjoyed a couple of stops along the way. The first stop was at a waterfall, although there wasn't very much water in it because we were there during the dry season. We were still able to swim in a small pool at the waterfall, but didn't really see much flowing water. The setting was still very nice and we could imagine how beautiful it would have been with more water.
door to one of the temples
The second stop (which also doubled as a lunch stop) was at the burial site of a French explorer who was the first European to discover the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia among other achievements. We really enjoyed the kayak trip since it was through a fairly unpopulated area and we got to go through some rapids. We also swam a little bit along the way before arriving back in Luang Prabang where we ate out at an inexpensive Indian restaurant.

On Thursday morning we walked around town and saw a few old temples before Daren and Sujoya caught a ride to the airport. They decided to take a short flight from Luang Prabang to Vientenne (the capitol of Laos) in order to avoid the stretch of road where the bandit attacks had taken place. I, on the other hand, decided to extend my trip by an extra week so had enough time to take a longer overland route around the bandit area to Vientenne. Daren and Sujoya needed to get back to Cambodia for work, and by flying they were able to save enough time to stop in Bangkok for a couple of days on the way.

one of the many temples in luang prabang
After saying goodbye to Daren and Sujoya I walked around town some more and visited a family run sauna and massage place where I got the last and best massage of the trip. Next I visited a few more temples and then wandered over to the night market for some snacks before heading back to my hotel.

night market
In the morning I started the next leg of my trip which I will write about in the next update.

Until then,


For more pictures from this part of the trip see my Nong Haet to Phonsavan photo album.

June 19, 2003

taxis, waterfalls and returning to phnom penh


Friday morning I got up early and caught a tuk tuk to the nearby taxi station where I learned that the taxi I wanted would be leaving in a couple of hours. I decided to get a little breakfast at a nearby food stand while I waited. The owner of the little restaurant spoke great English and talked to me while I ate. He informed me that he had told the driver of the taxi I was hoping to catch to let me know when it was ready to leave. I guess there must have been some miscommunication though because when I went back over to the taxi it was just leaving and was already overcrowded. I didn't realize it was the taxi I wanted until it was too late, so had the pleasure of spending another few hours waiting for the next one.

The taxi I finally caught took around 3 hours to the bank of the Mekong River. Upon arrival I crossed the river by ferry and then caught another taxi for the 1 hour trip onwards to the town of Sayabouri. In Sayaburi I spent a few more hours waiting for another taxi to my destination for the day of Paklai. The taxi to Paklai left fairly late in the day and dropped off all of the other passengers along the way before we reached Paklai itself. We also had a flat tire just after dark, which made our arrival time even later. On arrival in Paklai I found a guesthouse and pretty much just went directly to bed. It had been a long travel day on dusty dirt roads, but some of the scenery was very nice with mountains towering above the Mekong. I also saw some heavily loaded cargo boats on the river and enjoyed an excellent sunset from the back of my pickup taxi.

In the morning I walked a few hundred feet from my guesthouse to the bank of the Mekong where I boarded a ferry bound for the city of Vientenne, which is the capital of Laos. The ferry ride was a nice change of pace from riding around in the back of pickups and it was also interesting because the water level was quite low. Some parts of the river were flowing quite swiftly as we sped down the river and in other areas we zigzagged back and forth to follow the barely marked deep water channel. Most of the time the "channel" was marked with pieces of floating bamboo which were anchored to the river bottom somehow. I sure wouldn't want to be a boat pilot trying to find my way through the many sandbars and barely submerged rocks during the dry season, but our captain seemed to know what he was doing.

monument in vientenne
We arrived at a boat pier several kilometers north of town early in the afternoon so I had plenty of time to find a place to stay after catching a tuk-tuk in to town. I ended up getting a bunk in a dormitory style hostel and spent the rest of the evening walking around town. The main highlight of the evening was the wide selection of good food available at the night food market. I tried several things including corn on the cob, cooked rice cakes of some sort and drinking yoghurt, which was imported from nearby Thailand. I also enjoyed spending a little time catching up on email at an Internet cafe before heading to bed.

temple in vientenne
In the morning I decided that I had seen enough of the city the previous evening so rented a motorbike so that I could get out of town. I first drove to a couple of famous sites within the city (a temple and an Arch monument), then headed north to a large hydroelectric dam and reservoir. I missed the turnoff initially as it wasn't really labeled, but enjoyed the drive since the wrong turn took me through some hills to a scenic river. I eventually found the reservoir where the water was a very pretty aqua color and there were boats available for trips out to some of the islands. There were also quite a few lakefront restaurants catering to the local Laos crowd, but I didn't spend too much time at the lake since there were other places that I wanted to visit.

hydroelectric reservoir
My next destination was the one and only national park in Laos. I didn't have a very good map and there weren't any road signs along the way, but I somehow found a back entrance to the park after passing the local Zoo. The scenery along the way was nice enough to be worth the drive on it's own with a winding river and rolling green hills. Near the park entrance I drove through a village where they were having a rocket festival. The area was packed with people, and many of them were carrying or launching home made rockets of varying sizes. Most of the rockets were constructed out of PVC pipe (for the "engine") which was attached to a long bamboo pole. I watched several of the rockets climb hundreds of feet into the clear blue sky while others fizzled and never left the ground.

national park
I eventually made it to the park entrance gate where a party complete with music, dancing and plenty of beer was in full swing. One of the party goers informed me that they were there for the rocket festival, but I didn't see any rockets around at the time. After talking to the party attendees for a bit I followed the park access road up into the mountains. After about an hour it leveled off on a plain with groves of pine trees scattered around. On the plain I followed a sign to a waterfall which turned out to be some rapids without any water in them since it was the dry season. I also saw a nice looking visitor's center, but it was closed and didn't look like it had seen much use in recent years. I also noticed quite a bit of logging activity on the way to the waterfall, which was disappointing since I was still in the "national park".
logging in the national park
Before heading back down the hill I followed a rather rough road a few miles towards a view point, but decided the road was getting too bad and the hour was getting too late so headed back down the hill towards town. The only other traffic I saw on the road inside the national park was a few logging trucks. I made it back to Vientenne well before dark and went to the home of the ADRA Laos director for an excellent Western style supper. It was nice to eat some more familiar home cooked food after several weeks of trying new things on the road. I also enjoyed getting better acquainted with the ADRA Director and his family before heading back to my guesthouse for the night.

unloading a motorbike from our bus
Monday morning I was up early yet again, this time to catch a 16 hour bus to the south of Laos. After reading in my guide book I had decided that there were more things I wanted to see in the south, so I opted not to stop in the central part of the country since I was running out of time. The bus ride was pretty comfortable until the last few hours when they picked up some extra passengers and had people sitting in the aisles on stools for the remainder of the trip. We got in fairly late to the town of Pakse where we (I had met a couple of other American travelers on the bus) found a guesthouse and went to sleep at about 1 am.

16 hour bus ride before it got crowded
The following morning I got up and caught yet another bus, but this time I only traveled for an hour or so before getting of at a waterfall resort area called Tad Lo. At Tad Lo I got a bungalow within earshot of the waterfall for $1 and got settled in before spending the rest of the day relaxing in a restaurant overlooking the waterfall. Once the sun had dropped low enough not to give me a sunburn I went for a long, refreshing swim in the waterfall. In the evening I relaxed in the restaurant again and visited with some other travelers before heading to bed.

tad lo waterfall
It would have been nice to spend a few days just relaxing at this waterfall area, as it was situated in a very small village with nothing around besides the waterfall, some lodging and a couple of restaurants. I was running out of time however, so headed on to my next stop after just one night. I had decided to visit another nearby waterfall that I had seen postcards of, but the route there was a little bit tricky since no taxis were going directly there. I first caught a ride with a road construction crew a few kilometers up the road to a junction where I waited for a taxi headed in my direction. While waiting I sat in a local restaurant and watched several people take turns drinking shots of a home brewed alcoholic concoction of some sort. My taxi eventually came and took me about an hour up the road to a town where I changed to a bus. I rode the bus on through the town of Paksong before getting off at the waterfall resort area called Tad Fan. This area was different from the place I had spent the night because it only had one upscale hotel and there were no cheaper lodging options available nearby. The waterfall was also very different in that it was a dual cascade which fell over 100 meters (around 300 feet) while the earlier waterfall was a much shorter but wider cascade. The view from the hotel was very good, and a short hike through the jungle brought me to another lookout point which offered an even better view. After snapping a few pictures I explored the trail a little bit more. The guys at the hotel told me that it went all the way to the base of the waterfall, but that it would take 4 hours to get down and 5 hours to get back up the hill. I was a little skeptical at first, but after following the trail for a while I realized that their estimate was probably quite accurate. The "trail" degenerated considerably and turned into a slippery climb through thick tropical forest. I enjoyed hiking around some, but definitely didn't have enough time to go all the way down to the base of the waterfall.

tad fan waterfall
After my hike I walked the 1 kilometer back to the main road and caught another taxi back to the town of Pakse. In Pakse I caught yet another taxi headed south to Don Det, which is an island in the middle of the Mekong River. On this part of the trip I rode inside the vehicle for the first time (not counting buses), sitting next to the driver and one other passenger in the front of the truck. The other passenger decided to buy some large beetles that had been cooked shish kabob style. He kept offering them to the driver and me but I politely declined to try them. The driver on the other hand seemed glad for the treat. By the time I got to the Don Det ferry crossing it was well after dark and the boat operators wanted to overcharge for the short trip to the island. It took nearly an hour of waiting around but they eventually came down to a price I was willing to pay (about half of the original asking price) and I enjoyed the moonlit boat ride to Don Det. On the island I quickly found a waterfront bungalow with a hammock on the balcony for $1 per night before enjoying supper in a restaurant overlooking the river.

abandoned railroad loading dock
After sleeping in a little I visited with some other travelers who I had met earlier in my trip and we swapped stories about what we all had been up to since we last met. Early in the afternoon I rented a bicycle and set out to explore the island. I couldn't believe how many restaurants and guesthouses there were stretched out along the shore of the island. They went on and on for several kilometers and there were even more on another nearby island which was connected to mine by a bridge. The bridge was built by the French as part of a railroad designed to bypass a series of rapids on the Mekong. They used to transport goods and sometimes entire boats past the rapids by train. Now the train tracks are mostly gone, but you can ride through the jungle on the old railroad bed.
dolphin viewing area on the mekong
I spent pretty much the whole afternoon biking with stops along the way to explore the old train loading platform, a dolphin viewing area (I didn't see the rare Irrawady freshwater dolphins on this trip) and some waterfalls. I talked to some other tourists who went by boat to see the dolphins and were able to see quite a few very close to their boat, but I had seen them before in Cambodia and didn't have enough time to do everything. In the evening I relaxed with other travelers and tried to cool down from a long day of biking in the tropical heat. I must have overheated a little bit because I felt extra hot the entire evening and didn't feel normal again until I woke up in the morning. Thankfully I was able to get some cold drinks with ice at a couple of the restaurants which helped some.

mainstreet on don det
The next morning I met up with two other travelers who wanted to share the cost of transportation to Cambodia. We had originally been planning to let a local tour guide make the travel arrangements for us, but since there were only three of us he raised the price beyond what we wanted to pay. I convinced the other two people that we could just go on our own and pay less than what the guide was asking. We did manage to save several dollars by doing it on our own and we also got to stop and at a large waterfall on the way to the border checkpoint. The waterfall was on a branch of the Mekong and was much bigger than I had expected it to be.

my $1 per night bungalow on the river
At the border itself we ended up having to pay the Laos immigration officials a little bit extra in order to get them to stamp our passports. I'm pretty sure that it was an unofficial "fee" but we managed to get a receipt and photograph of the people who collected it before actually paying. Next we spent nearly an hour trying without success to bargain down the price of a speed boat to the town of Stung Treng in Cambodia, we finally agreed to pay the inflated price of $10 per person for the 1 hour trip. I'm pretty sure that most of the money for this trip never actually made it to the boat owner, but was instead pocketed by the local "police". The speed boat first took us across the river to the Cambodian immigration checkpoint where we were delayed for nearly two hours while the officials tried to locate the proper stamp to use on my special type of Cambodian resident visa. They eventually got the proper stamp and we were on our way to Stung Treng. There were quite a few long waits and delays on the trip into Cambodia, but we knew that we would have to spend the night in Stung Treng anyway, since the boat we needed to catch from there onwards only departs early in the morning.
"rapids" on the Mekong
Knowing this, we weren't in a hurry so took our time to bargain and at least try to save a little money along the way. With all of the delays and waiting it ended up taking around 8 hours to cover the 60 miles or so from Don Det to Stung Treng, with actual travel taking less than 2 hours.

The boat ride to Stung Treng was an experience in itself. There were six of us passengers crammed into a small speedboat all sitting in rows with seatbacks, but no raised seats or leg room. We had an interesting ride down the river, as our boat pilot steered around rocks and through small rapids, mostly at high speeds. The scenery along the way was quite nice with very little sign of people living along the river banks for most of the trip.

mekong sunset in stung treng
In Stung Treng I found a hotel and got some lunch. It was nice to be back in Cambodia where I could use my limited Khmer language skills to order from street vendors and negotiate prices. After purchasing boat tickets to Kompong Cham for the following morning I walked around town a bit and then sat and watched a magnificent sunset over the Mekong River. After sunset I got something to eat and then went to bed.

The trip back to Phnom Penh was fairly uneventful with a smooth boat ride to Kratie. The river was quite low so in some places we actually doubled back upstream to follow the deep channel, but the boat captain seemed to know what he was doing and we had a safe trip. In Kratie we transferred to another slightly larger boat for the ride to Kompong Cham, presumably because the remainder of the river was a bit deeper. From Kompong Cham I caught a bus onwards to Phnom Penh and arrived early enough to drop off my stuff and get cleaned up before meeting my friends for a fun night of visiting and playing games.

channel markers on the way to kratie
Well, that concludes the report on my 30-day trip through Vietnam and Laos. It was a very fun trip overall and I certainly got to see a wide variety of interesting people, unique places and gorgeous scenery.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this travelogue. Feel free to post a comment or email me if you have any questions or want any more information about my trip. Otherwise, stay tuned for a report on my short visit to Thailand and Korea on my way back to the US.

Until next time,


PS Before writing in detail about this trip I first wrote a short summary with some statistics and a map of the route, which is available in an earlier entry if you haven't seen it yet or want to look at it again. Also, if you want to read more details about the border crossing from Laos to Cambodia take a look at the relevant entry on my travel tips page, which is linked from my home page.

Photo albums from this part of the trip include Southern Laos and Mekong in Cambodia.