Totally addicted to Laos

It would seem that we can’t stay away from Laos for too long.  We have spent the past month longing for several things in Laos; the amazing, kind, gentle, friendly people, the delicious food, walking down any street and being greeted with smiles and ‘Sabaidee!’, and just the general laidback-ness of the place.

Yesterday we spent the day out on the water on another gorgeous cruise through Ha Long Bay, which was totally amazing (and cloudy and freezing!).  On our arrival back in Hanoi we both felt relieved at our decision made a couple of days ago that we are now ready to leave this place.  We are sad to say that with a few exceptions, the local people we have encountered here in Vietnam have really lessened our enjoyment here and we’ve spent the past month listening to horror stories from other travellers about their Vietnam travels.  In fact, the only people we have met that are enjoying their time here are on 2 or 3 week holidays (any holiday is good when it’s a quick break from your normal routine, right?) – no one who is travelling long term has expressed positive feelings about this place, sadly.  At first we were very reluctant to listen to these reports, but as time has gone on, we have realised that for everyone to have the same stories there must be some truth in them.  One girl we met even said that last time she came here 2 years ago it was one of her favourite countries, and this time she has been shocked by the people and scams here and is really disappointed at how much it seems to have changed  (we heard this same story from someone else who had been here 4 years ago).

It is such a shame for a place with so much natural beauty to have this ruined by the behaviour of some of it’s people.  Everyone including our Vietnamese friends told us that Cat Ba island is the most laid back place in all of Vietnam (a few people also recommended the Central Highlands) and although up until a few days ago our intention was to travel south down the country to see for ourselves, we too have had our share of unfortunate Vietnamese adventures so we’ve decided to get out of here.  We are back in Hanoi now and today we fly to Dien Bien Phu on the Laos border, and tomorrow we will begin our overland trek back into our Asian homeland.  From what we’ve heard hopefully Dien Bien Phu will be a nice way to leave Vietnam on a high note!

As soon as we made the decision to follow our hearts and go back to Laos we have both been really excited, so that’s a sure sign that it’s the right thing to do.  We have really enjoyed the beauty of Cat Ba and it’s surrounding bays, but probably for every awesome, friendly local person we have met we’ve probably met 5 that just want to scam us by selling us something that is not real (for example, most of the boats to Bai Tu Long bay actually just go into Halong, plus many, many more stories like that!).

So as much as we hate to say it, it seems that either Vietnam has changed a lot in the past year or two, or maybe we’ve just had bad luck, but either way, this country for us has not been what we hoped for.  We’ve had heaps of fun here and seen some amazing things – Ha Long really is up there with things you must see in your lifetime – but we’ve also had heaps of frustration.  Who needs that when you can just be in places that are fun?

Last day in Cat Ba

We were very lucky on our last day to be given some advice from our favourite dinner guy “Little Man” to walk up to the helicopter landing pad from WW2.  Apart from it being a grey day, it turned out one of the best things we done in our entire 2.5 weeks here.  We had extensive views over Lan Ha, Ha Long and Cat Ba bays which was so beautiful!

It made us comment to each other yet again about how there seems to be Vietnam, and then Vietnam which the locals think the tourists want to see.  This particular walk is only about 30 minutes from the centre of town and is totally spectacular, but it’s not advertised anywhere at all!  We only found out because Little Man had walked up there himself and recommended it, which is crazy since it’s pretty much the coolest thing we’ve done on the island (apart from the Ha Long cruise).

The same goes for food.  Every day we see Vietnamese eating amazing looking foods, with many vegetables and fish, but you just cannot order that stuff on menus.  They have a very limited range of Vietnamese food that some powers that be must have decided foreigners would like and it is very much foreigner food.   In light of that, we were estatic when Mr Tuan, our hotel manager invited us to dinner with him and the hotel owner for our last night, since we had already stayed with them for 18 nights so they wanted us to have a farewell dinner.  Real food!  How exciting.  In every place we’ve been in Vietnam there are always a few people in town that go out of their way for tourists and try to make up for all the other people who are unfortunately doing their best at scamming tourists.  Mr Tuan is definitely one of them and we have been so lucky to stay with him and have him look after us.  When we arrived for dinner, which was an awesome, delicious fresh fish and vegetable hot pot, Mr Tuan also brought out a bottle of french wine for us.  We were pretty pleased about this, and then when it progressed onto honey liquer shots we just went along with it.  Before we knew it we were all having a great time and lets just say the restaurant was very vocal with the four of us laughing and talking.  It was a really good night and made us feel good about having been on Cat Ba for so long.  Vietnam really does have some amazing people and the views here are definitely worth seeing in everyones lifetime!  Our photos of our last day in Cat Ba are here.

Happy New Year!

The past week or so on Cat Ba island has seen us celebrating a fair bit!  We have accidentally become sort of like travel advisors for other distraught travellers who have made it through the gaunlet to Cat Ba.  As we mentioned before we came here via Halong Bay so were very lucky – it seems the stories of why not to come via public transport were true and heaps of people arrive here in not-so-happy states.  The upside of this for us is that we have made quite a few friends here!

We have spent a lot of time on the beaches, and coastal cliff walkway and have also motorbiked around the island and visited the national park again also.  We really have been very lucky to stay here for a couple of weeks and getting to see the beautiful bays of Ha Long, Bac Bo and Lan Ha and Cat Ba every day.

Our time in the National Park was particularly fun because we were the only ones in the spot we chose to hang out in and there were millions of butterflies around us so it was really cool.  We took the bike on the path that was meant to take us to the lake in the park, funnily enough though the neither the map or the guy we rented the bike off mentioned that after a few km’s the path became stairs – not so bike-friendly.  It turned out to be a really nice afternoon though to just sit amongst the trees in the sun for a while and also ride along the pretty coastline.

One crazy phenomena here is that because it’s the middle of winter, there is a lot of mist/fog/cloud around and it means that most of the time you can look directly at the sun and it is sort of just like looking at the moon – not bright, and ranging between white and dark red depending on how high it is in the sky.  The photo above was the last sunset for 2010 which was pretty cool!

For Dre’s birthday we pretty much just chilled, ate, drank and spent time seeing the beautiful bay.  We saw yet another awesome sunset and then went to dinner with some of our new friends Mike (from USA) and Dykla (from Israel) which turned out to be a hilarious and really fun night.

New Years Eve was much of the same, we got our hopes up early in the night because the Vietnamese set up a stage with lights and flags and massive speakers, and at about 5pm started playing some really cool music – like actual western music that is cool and not just the stuff you usually hear in Asia… so we were getting all pumped that we would have awesome music for New Years and were really enjoying listening to it… and then it finished at 9pm!  What? – it’s NYE!  So many people were mystified as to why it would finish so early, but hey, that’s just part of the fun of being on this crazy continent!  We ended up finding our Canadian friends again that we’d met the day before so welcomed in the new year with them and Mike and Dykla.  Our hotel showed us the Sydney fireworks on TV and we were sad to have missed them after the awesomeness of last year, but then reminded ourselves that we are here in Asia which is still pretty fun in itself!  We are really looking forward to 2011 and seeing more of the world, re-visiting Luang Namtha and seeing our families and friends again.  We miss you guys!  Our photos are here.

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay throroughly exceeded our expectations.  Everyone has seen pictures of Halong before and so everyone knows what they will see.  What can’t be anticipated though, is the pristine beauty in the serene silence – the majestic setting is just something pictures cannot capture.

Kayaking around the bay by ourselves and watching the sunset was one of our best experiences to date.  Every direction we could see was just karsts, calm water, the ever changing sky, and just the two of us.  It was so amazing and we’d do it again in a heartbeat!

We swam in the lovely warm water in the bay, visited the largest cave and walked up high on the island to look down over the bay, and had some fantastic food onboard our boat.  We got up to see the sunrise and were just in awe of the beauty for the entire days we were there.

All in all this was an utterly fantastic experience and no words can really describe how amazing it was, so here are a few photos which don’t do Ha Long Bay justice.  If you get the chance, you really should see this place.