Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

Travellog Part IV: Final Week in Vietnam

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The last week on this stretch of our trip was spent back in Vietnam. We crossed from Laos in an uneventful, if long, bus trip that got us to Hue. As expected, as soon as we crossed into Vietnam, the traffic became noisier (they don’t use the horn much in Laos; it’s used every 10 seconds in Vietnam) and everything just felt more chaotic.
We enjoyed a day in Hue, staying at the very friendly and quirky-named Google Hotel. We rented bicycles for the day and negotiated the thousands of motorbikes to take a look around town and visit the citadel. Hue was the capital of Vietnam for a period up until the mid-20th century, and a palace area was built for the emperor. It was largely destroyed during the war, but is being restored. I had visited Hue on my previous trip to Vietnam in 2006, and it seems that they’ve done a lot of work on the citadel area since then.

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Hoi An: City of Tailors

After a day in Hue, we left for Hoi An, where we stopped for 3 nights. Hoi An is famous for its shopping and its tailors. Everywhere you go, there are tailors who will make any clothing, from suits to wedding dresses to shoes, tailored to you, at a fraction of the cost of home, good quality (if you look for it), and in short order. Many people plan to end their trips in Hoi An, and if we were doing that, we no doubt would have been sorely tempted to do more shopping.
Aside from the shopping, Hoi An was lovely to walk around, with quaint alleys and old buildings. We spent a lovely day on the beach, our first serious sun exposure resulting in the predictable sunburns, despite our SPF 50.
One unexpected delight was experiencing Earth Hour in Hoi An. On March 29, we went out as usual, and saw a stage set up for presenters. We were told that at 8:30, the whole town would participate in Earth Hour, with the police

Earth Hour Hoi An

Earth Hour Hoi An

enforcing the lights-out policy everywhere. And sure enough, at the appointed hour, a siren went off, and every restaurant, shop and business shut off the lights (at least the ones visible from outside). It was quite interesting to watch, and it seemed that all the town’s youth came out on the streets. The pedestrian areas by the river were packed, we were hardly able to move about, and the women selling candles in paper containers, which you release onto the river, did a booming business that night.

Halong Bay

2014-04-02 09.44.52After Hoi An, we took a night train, then a series of busses and a boat to get back to the north and over to Cat Ba island. The town had just finished a festival the day before we arrived, and had the feel of a town-wide hangover. We found our cheapest accommodation yet, in a room with a balcony overlooking the harbour – unexpected off-season bonus!

The reason for going to Cat Ba was to explore Halong Bay, an iconic place that I had always wanted to see. By starting at Cat Ba, we were a bit farther from the tourist throngs of Halong city, and booked a lovely day tour on a boat of Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay. The boat took us around the beautiful rocky islands, stopping for an hour so we could kayak under outcrops, explore small bays, and traverse through mini caves. After a freshly caught seafood lunch, we explored more of the bay, stopping for a swim (which only a few of the braver souls attempted, given the chilly weather). We lucked out with the weather, being overcast most of the day but with decent visibility and even some sun in the afternoon. The trip was a highlight, being a destination on my list for years.

Floating convenience store

Floating convenience store

Heavy rain the next day drove us back to Hanoi for our last full day in Vietnam, where we did a bit of wandering and had drinks with friends. Then, off to the airport – with a one night stay in Bangkok before our next adventure, the Philippines!

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Vietnam and Laos Travellog: Part 1

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Vietnam

Alley in Hanoi's Old Quarter

Alley in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

We started our adventures in busy Hanoi, luckily having the home of a friend of ours as a base to explore and get over our jet lag. Hanoi is kind of a crazy place, with an abundance of honking taxis and motorbikes and few traffic rules (at least the kind that I recognize).

Hanoi is a pretty nice city, with an Old Quarter where you’re as likely as not to get lost in a maze of streets, each with its own theme. For example, on one road, every shop is selling sewing supplies; on another, things made of metal. We spent a few days exploring the city, sampling the noodles and coffees, and nervously negotiating crossing the streets. Interesting, but we were glad to escape the chaos on an overnight train to Sapa after a couple of days.

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Sapa Rice Paddies

Sapa is a mountain town popular with tourists. The fog at this time of year kept the town somewhat socked in, but a trek into the valley villages revealed hills of beautiful flooded rice paddies, as yet unplanted for the season. Local women from the H’mong ethnic minority followed our groups, selling handicrafts and sharing information about their villages and culture.

After two days in Sapa, we embarked on a night bus towards Dien Bien Phu, at the Laos border. This was a main indication of the difference between travelling in my twenties and travelling in my thirties – no more night buses! Although this one was more comfortable than any I took in Africa, being woken up (from a not-real sleep) every couple of hours with blaring Vietnamese music and a good deal of shouting does not make for a good night. Still, we got to our destination and, after a nap, explored the town, with its wide streets, minimal traffic, and bunkers and monuments from the 1954 battle against the French colonial forces.

Laos

Nam Ou River, Laos

Nam Ou River, Laos

About one week after we left Vancouver, we crossed into Laos, a long, tiring (although only about 70km) but fairly uneventful trip. After a quiet night in a border town, Muang Khua, we took a stunning 3.5 hr boat trip down the Nam Ou river, passing tiny hamlets, swimming children and lounging water buffalo, under the backdrop of stunning jungle mountains. In Laos, we’ve finally hit the hotter weather, and the boat trip was a highlight.

We came to rest in the village of Muang Ngoi, a small place with a high proportion of foreign tourists and bungalow guesthouses. It sits by the river, under dramatic mountains and while it seems like it should be a remote paradise but has been somewhat invaded by travellers. We also seemed to have timed our arrival with the funeral of a local monk, which meant all-night celebrations both nights we stayed. Still, staying in Muang Ngoi was lovely, and we did a small trek out to a tiny village, visiting a cave along the way. Although not especially long, about 2 hours, the trek was hot, and a smart woman at the entrance of the village knew what she was about when she saw us and called out, ‘cold beer!’ The villagers, used to white people walking thru, didn’t really bat an eye as we strolled past their bamboo huts.

Laos, in general, is stunning and seemingly remote. The people are friendly, but standoff-ish, and they don’t harass travellers to buy things, which is nice. After hectic Vietnam, it is lovely and relaxing here. But you can see how much has changed over the last 5-10 years, and I was naively surprised at the throngs of travellers we see everywhere. When I went to Thailand 10 years ago, Laos wasn’t on many itineraries, but with transport and road improvements, it has clearly become very popular. A great destination, but not the untouched paradise I’m sure it once was, and I have a feeling the local people wish it still was.