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.

Back in Ha Noi

After our van-train-taxi day we were quite pleased to be back in our hotel in Ha Noi.  Even the constant beeping and noise of Ha Noi seemed OK after that.  We had planned to spend just a day here but decided to make it two, just to have some time to chill.

The highlight of being here was seeing a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show.  It was much better than either of us expected, not only did we get to sit in a quiet hall in the second row (no beeping for an hour was worth the ticket price alone!) we also got to hear some live Vietnamese music which is very calm and beautiful, and see the water puppets.  The tradition was invented centuries ago by rice farmers during the rainy season for entertainment.  They would make puppet shows in the flooded rice paddies and all the other farmers would come and watch.  The scenes depicted all sorts of things – from water buffalo fights, a young couple falling in love, dragons fighting, horse races, rice planting, coconut harvesting and the coming of prosperity.  It was very entertaining and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

Now that we know all our local restaurants, coffee places, street food vendors etc it has been easy to navigate Ha Noi and spend as little time on the streets as possible.  We went to the lake again, spent a frustrating hour in the post office (doesn’t pay to be a foreigner if you want to get anything done!) and basically just chilled in our hotel.  Tomorrow we are going to the famed Halong Bay, and will hopefully stay on Cat Ba island for a while if we like it.  We will report back soon :-)  Our photos are here.

In the clouds

View our location map in Sa Pa

Our time in Sa Pa was very different to how we thought it would be.  We had been told that it would be cold and misty, and that there would be  a lot of hill tribe ladies hassling us, both of which we were mentally prepared for.  We didn’t really have any comprehension though, of how intense both of these factors would be.  Although we booked the hotel with the best view in all of Sa Pa, we got to see the view of the mountains and rice terraces for maybe a few hours in the entire week we were there – the mist was just too thick.  We also realised that it wasn’t really mist, we were actually in the clouds.  This turned out to be more beautiful than we could have known, watching the clouds move and change shape – often taking seconds to entirely change the view – was really amazing.

The hill-tribe people in the town were intriguing.  We have encountered many hill tribes in our time in Asia so far although none of them have integrated themselves into the town as they have in Sa Pa.  Hundreds of Hmong and Dzao people roam the streets just waiting for tourists to pounce on.  Their interaction with tourists ranges from pleasant, very friendly conversation, to hard core “Buy from me!  It’s not fair you don’t buy from me!  You are very bad person!  I think your country ashamed of you!”  It was a lot more full on than we were prepared for and at times quite unpleasant being endlessly followed and harassed.  In saying that, we also had beautiful Vietnamese, Hmong and Dzao friends within a few days of arriving and our best times in Sa Pa were spent sitting at the local market, drinking many teas and coffees with these lovely ladies.  It got to the point where our friend Bich would make us tea and coffee and refuse to let us pay because “We are friends, and if you pay me then we are not friends” and our lovely Hmong friend Mor and her baby Hoi would sit and talk with us for hours at times, explaining life in the Hmong tribe and asking about western life.  Mor is a beautiful 17 year old, who has a 11 month old baby which is very normal in the hill tribes.  Many of the girls are married at 14-15 years old and have several babies while still in their teens.  Then by contrast our Vietnamese friends would make us passionfruit tea (freshly scooped out passionfruit pulp and hot water) and happily talk about how they were very old (both 30 years old) and hopefully one day they would get married.

The main topic of conversation was always marriage and babies and the whole week we had people telling us we should have a baby and wondering why we hadn’t already had one or many more – it is incomprehensible here to be married for 5 years and not have children.  One funny night after explaining why we did not yet have children, we ordered a bottle of local Black Hmong Apple Wine – the lady asked us if we were sure and we said we were prepared to give it a go!  It arrived in a plastic re-used water bottle which had us laughing at ourselves and pleasantly surprised as it was actually pretty nice.

We were both very pleased and surprised at the warm hospitality of the people and sadly disappointed at the harshness of others.  We knew Viet Nam is meant to be the land of scams but could not comprehend before coming here how much this affects your time in the country.  It has hit home pretty hard how very very different this country is to any other we have visted in Asia.  We have not been able to leave our hotel without being harrassed and it’s very sad to think that the huge presence of these scamsters tarnish the enjoyment of a place so much – especially when the majority of the people we have met are warm and kind – it’s just so hard to really appreciate this when the others are so hard core.

Sa Pa really is very beautiful, and we would both like to come back here in summer when we can fully appreciate the natural beauty of the area.  This time, we decided to leave Sa Pa much earlier than planned and try to find somewhere more to our liking.  We arranged for a van to pick us up at our hotel at 7.30am to catch the day train back to Ha Noi and when it still hadn’t arrived at 8am we were told by our hotel that it was most likely that they would have just taken our money and would not turn up.  Several phone calls later another van arrived, packed with furniture and many Vietnamese, and we proceeded to be driven at ludicrous speeds through the clouds, down the winding roads edged with sheer-drop cliff-edges that we were both thankful to have arrived at the train station alive (seriously!).  We were then pushed and shoved in the line at the station, finally made it onto the train with maybe 1 minute to spare, and then stared at the whole 11 hour journey by the Vietnamese we were sharing the carriage with.  We were harassed by people putting their feet on us (think, crusty yellow toenails, skin blackened with filth, toes digging into arms…) playing with Karen’s hair (I’m not even blonde, people!) and laughing at us for not liking this.  There were also kind people who would offer to share their food with us and try to look after us.  A reminder of the vast contrasts once again.  On arrival back in Ha Noi we waited for 15 minutes outside the train station to get one of the two recommended taxi companies that wouldn’t scam us.  Finally when one did arrive, we agreed on a price of 40,000 Dong with him, and showed him on the map the route of the 5 minute journey back to the safe haven of our Ha Noi hotel (a well researched place that is one of the few that looks after tourists instead of scamming them!).  25 minutes later, after much conversation where we would ask him why he was not taking us where we wanted and he would yell back at us in Vietnamese, we arrived at the hotel and quickly took all of our luggage inside the lobby so that the taxi guy would have to come in if he wanted to be  paid.  Of course he wanted 70,000 Dong because the journey had taken much longer than we said it would.  Funny how that happens if you drive around the entire lake and then do circles around the old quarter before stopping at the hotel.  After a heated debate between our hotel reception staff and the taxi driver, where they told him they were friends with his manager and they would report him if he really tried to charge us 70,000, the taxi driver left disgruntled and they explained to us that basically, even though we had used one of the only 2 companies in Ha Noi that would operate without scamming tourists, we hadn’t phoned the taxi company to make a booking, so the driver was at his discretion to do whatever he wanted.  Apparently it is completely acceptable for the drivers to still operate their own personal scams when the booking isn’t made through their head office.  The whole day left us wondering what on earth we are doing in this country????  We consoled ourselves by remembering we are lucky to be here, after all we are the only people we have met that haven’t had some of their stuff stolen in Ha Noi.  Lucky us.  We have been assured by other travellers at our hotel that it gets better in the south, so we’re gonna give this country a chance.  We really want to love it here.  We really do.  We have booked a Halong Bay cruise through our hotel (the only way to be sure that what you are actually booking is real!) because we know the scenery there will be amazing, and we hope to find some peace on Cat Ba island and be able to stay there for a while.  We’ll see.

Although we have talked a lot about the intenseness of this place, Sa Pa was truly beautiful and we imagine Halong bay will be too.  We have had many good times here so far and it’s hard to comprehend how we have met some of the best and worst people of the trip here.  It is such a shame that the baddies have such a strong presence here and it makes the good people seem far fewer.  We can only hope that the beauty of this country will shine through for the rest of our journey here.  Our photos are here.

Good Morning Viet Nam!

View our location map in Ha Noi

Almost 4 months after we entered Thailand, and got into a Thailand-Laos-Thailand-Laos-Thailand-Laos-Thailand loop, we have finally managed to come to a new country!  Yippee for us!  We arrived in Ha Noi early yesterday morning and spent our first day here eating new and exciting foods, dodging motorbikes and cars (literally!) and generally being in awe of this crazy, crazy city.

Actually, we had expected Ha Noi to be even more intense and chaotic than it really is, and we are both quite glad that we have managed to spend 2 days navigating our way around and survive the traffic.  Our plan to avoid Ha Noi and go straight to Sa Pa didn’t quite work out when we had to get a ludicrously early flight and were both shattered from basically no sleep the previous night due to trains, subways, more trains and the airport.  So we decided to give ourselves a break and stay here basically just to rest.  It was kind of novel to arrive in Bangkok airport after travelling for so long, and yet we haven’t seen an airport for 4 months.

So we spent our first day wandering around Hoan Kiem Lake and seeing all the craziness of the streets.  They actually sell heaps of cool stuff here and we wanted to buy lots of things!  Our second day we spent mainly in parks and more wandering.  Dre has had many, many Vietnamese coffees and reckons it is the best coffee in Asia.  Now he has lost all concept of what not talking constantly might be like, so Karen has banned him from having more coffee until tomorrow!

We have been pleasantly surprised by the people we have encountered, all reports from friends and other travellers had led us to expect that we would be in for a bit of a shock in terms of the lack of friendliness from the Vietnamese people.  We have only met and dealt with truly lovely people and have been amazed at how a simple ‘No Thankyou’ makes street vendors just smile and immediately direct their attention elsewhere, instead of the constant hassling we had been prepared for.

Overall we have had a lot more fun here in Ha Noi than we imagined we would, it’s not so big and scary as we thought it might be, although it’s funny to think that it’s our first major city of the entire trip so far.  We are both pleased to be going to Sa Pa tonight on the train though, mountain goodness here we come!  Our photos are here.