Vientiane 

I arrived in Vientiane shortly after 6pm and after I got my visa I was met by a pickup from the hotel. All arranged by Dudley, the South African guy I had met in Hanoi and who had told me to go to Cham Island.

When we had discovered in Hanoi that we both were heading to Laos eventually we discussed meeting up somewhere. In the end we traveled the country together.

So that first evening we went for the dinner at a steak restaurant. So no Laos food testing for me since Dudley is quite big on meat.

The next day we started with the sight-seeing and got first a lift downtown from the hotel. We were booked into Rashmi’s Plaza Hotel which had a rooftop pool but was a bit outside the center.

We started with a glance at the presidential palace (you are not allowed to visit it)

and then went first into the Sisaket museum. It was less a museum than a temple with a collection of Buddhas in all sizes. Please note that it was also smoke-free.

     

  

Next up should have been the Haw Pha Kaeo right across from it but due to elaborate renovations the temple was wrapped up like a sausage in a hot dog bun and we couldn’t see anything. Therefore we decided on walking to the Victory Gate which seemed to be only about one kilometer away. In this heat it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been only 500m away. We had to make a pit stop at a shopping mall along the way to cool down. Both of us were sweating profusely. Not really such a great show.

At least at the mall I could buy myself a SIM card for Laos and an ice coffee. Something the hotel with the rooftop pool couldn’t manage. After this short break we started walking again and really the Victory Gate was not that far off. It looked really great from afar, close up it was a bit of a let down. But since we were there we climbed up and took some pictures of the view from the top.

Yeah, it didn’t get any better in Vientiane. So far, so good though. Upon exciting the Victory Gate we took a tuk-tuk (Dudley needed a bit of coaxing to get in one) Pha That Luang, a golden stupa a bit out of the center.We made it there with 15 minutes to spare before lunch break. But it was enough to go inside and take some pictures.

  
There was not really so much to take pictures of. A stupa of course is a closed structure so there was just not more to see. Once outside we saw women selling little birds in cages (and I have no clue what kind of birds) and it was the perfect day to buy some of them their freedom.


Next to the stupa was a temple and a monument for some guy (again no clue who he was or what he had done and Lonely Planet doesn’t say).

  

After the successful visit to almost all the sights in Vientiane we went back downtown with the tuk-tuk.

We had arranged with the hotel that we would take the shuttle at 2pm back to the hotel so we were left with a bit of time on our hands and decided on lunch. Always a good idea to eat something. I ordered a lime mint juice and this is what I got.


Looks quite green, doesn’t it? I later ordered a strawberry mint juice, you really don’t want to know the color of that one.

We also ordered some real food which tasted very good, spicy though. It seemed as if almost everything I ordered on this trip was going to be spicy. So good that I got used to it from the first.

The rest of the day was spent in and around the pool. It was just too hot to do much else in the city and we had decided to leave the next day down south. Which was actually where I wanted to meet in the first place but due to a two day bus ride up from Siem Reap I opted for a meeting in Vientiane. Yours, Pollybert

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HCMC and the Mekong Delta

My train arrived in Quy Nhon with a little over an hour delay. Something I quite liked since my estimated arrival time in HCMC was around 4:20am (this train was actually not my first choice but on the later one the soft beds were fully booked). So whatever delay we could get I was happy with. It just meant I could sleep a bit longer and arrive at a more humane time.

We ended up arriving with a two hours delay. What a bliss to sleep until 6am and have time to brush my teeth. I had arranged for a pickup service and my driver was waiting with a sign for me.

In the Beautiful Saigon 2 Hotel my room was not ready to check in and there was no shower in the communal area. But they had a bathroom at least and before breakfast I could freshen up a bit. While drinking my coffee I perused the tour menu and saw that the city tour and the Cu Chi tunnels could be done at the same day. Since this would save me a day I could spend one day seeing the Mekong delta.

I was not too sure about going there because the reviews I had read online didn’t sound promising. But since I had an extra day I decided on making the tour.

I booked the tour with the reception and after breakfast I was already on my way. Looking out of the bus window this city appeared as crazy as Hanoi. Probably even more so since it had a lot more inhabitants (ok, around 5 millions more, I looked it up).

Once outside the city traffic was less and we soon stopped in My Thon to visit the Vinh Trang pagoda. There was still a slight drizzle but this would eventually stop.

  
   
Back on the bus we drove just a bit until we arrived at the Mekong. Here we all got off and got on a boat that brought us to our lunch destination on Tortoise Islet. Lunch again was not great, so no pictures from there.

  

With the boat we went to the next islet where we visited a family that made coconut candies. The coconut is first shredded, then cooked, in a next step molasses is added and cooked some more and finally the mass will be spread on a board, cut into stripes, cut into squares and wrapped individually. Quite a lot of manual labor for a candy that didn’t taste great.

After the visit we were put on a hand-rowed sampan in pairs and I ended up with a rower who looked like Freddie Kruger.

The boat ride was no longer than ten minutes, but it was enough to get three new mosquito bites. Next stop was a honey bee farm where we sampled lemon tea with honey and got entertained with local music.

For the music please click here, it was interesting in an awful way.IMG_5402

And that was basically it. After that we got on the bus and drove back for two hours to HCMC. While still on the bus I got a text from Willemeijn that she was already at the hotel. I had met her at the Farmstay in Phong Nha and then again in Hoi An. Only this time we had decided to share a room.

So when I arrived at the Beautiful Saigon 2 Hotel she was already waiting for me. We shared our travel stories and then we walked for dinner with people she had met in Dalat. And with walked I really mean we walked. Forever actually!

The taxi wouldn’t take us because the street was right around the corner, but the place we were going to was at ‘district’ 9. I don’t really know how the numbering worked but after a while numbers were starting over with a different ‘district’ number. And we started at ‘district’ one….

I am just glad it was worth it. Her friends were really nice and the food was amazing. The place we had walked to was outside the usual tourist area since the couple who discovered it was renting an apartment around the area. At 11pm or so we called it a night. I had another tour planned and she was meeting her friends at the War Remnants Museum. You’d, Pollybert

Final days in Hanoi

I shared the night train from Sa Pa to Hanoi with an English guy. While talking we discovered that last November he had been to the caves and the same hotel where I was headed. He told me it had been his best experience during his month in Vietnam. Sounded really good to me!

We only stayed the two of us for the first minute of the train ride. Once the train moved our compartment door opened and five people stood in the door. Not for long though because the grandmother and the oldest soon were sitting already on my bunk before I could say hello. The mother with the youngest on her arm and the middle one next to her kept standing but asked in halting English if we could move up so that the she and kids could stay on the lower bunks.

Of course we acquiesced in the move, what else was there to do? Once on the upper bed though I noticed that the AC was so cold that I got a brain freeze just from lying underneath it. I had to move my pillow from the window to the door with the result that I now had the light in my eyes. But it was at least less cold in my face. The mother apparently felt cold too and got the conductor to fix the problem. This was done by taping some paper over the AC outlet. The conductor though must have also done something else because within 10 minutes the compartment had sauna temperatures.

We removed the paper from the AC again but with no success, the heat wave continued. The little one didn’t like it either and started crying which she did continually during the short night. The AC finally decided to work again about 30 minutes before our arrival in Hanoi. Then it was again on frost modus.

The night from hell ended at 4:30 in the morning with our arrival. I couldn’t have been happier than when I saw the face of the bell boy who had also accompanied me to the train station. He put me in a taxi and I was back in no time at the Golden Sun Suites Hotel, installed in a room that had been vacated sometimes during the night and fast asleep.

I missed breakfast that morning but this was also managed in grace by the hotel. I left the room with all my luggage after 10am and the staff got me some coffee and fruits while I waited for my room to be ready.

While sitting in the extended breakfast area/lobby I met Dudley again, a South African I had seen and talked to shortly before going up to Sa Pa. He basically followed in my footsteps and was going there this evening.

We started talking about good places to see in Vietnam (I find this is the easiest way to decide on where to go. Talk to other travelers if you are as lazy as me and don’t want to read the guide book). He had a couple of suggestions, later even brought his notebook down, showed me the pictures and provided me with contacts. So when my room was ready we had agreed on a dinner date before his departure to Sa Pa.

I spent most of my day in my room and just loved it. With the AC on low it was cool but not cold while outside the heat and humidity made tourists look like puddles of sweat. I worked on the blog and restored some pictures on posts from Nepal (I had a lot of trouble with the blog on my trip so far) and while there are still pictures missing on some posts from China, I am getting there. I also uploaded a couple of new posts, all in all a very productive though lazy day.

Around 5pm I eventually left the hotel; it’s really bad if one doesn’t get outside at all, and strolled around a bit. I was unsure if I wanted to buy something; I had been eyeing some loose pants but in the end I decided against it. I really had enough stuff with me already, there was no point in adding more.

Shortly after 6pm I met Dudley and we settled on the highest building around the lake to have a great view with the dinner. I chose Bo Luc Lac, a dish I knew from Vienna. What came then had nothing to do with the dish I knew and also nothing with the original (at least according to Google). Again I had landed in a tourist trap around the lake. At least it tasted good, that was already more than at the last place.

  

For the next morning I had booked a city tour, again very lazy of me since the afternoon program was around the Hoàn Kiém Lake and the Literature Temple. Both things I have seen. But the morning was at the other end of the city, at the West lake and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. As it turned out it was a brilliant idea after all since I met some Indian guys who had great tips for Saigon and Cambodia.

We started at the West Lake with the Tran Quoc Pagoda. In front of the entrance you could buy small turtles to let them free in the lake.

  

After a short visit to the temple inside and a closer look upon the pagoda we left for the Ho Chi Minh Complex. Not only can you visit the mausoleum but also, his house on stilts, his cars, the One Pillar Pagoda and the president’s palace. All for the price of one ticket and a line up for only 45 minutes. Inside the mausoleum there was no lingering allowed, one had to be quiet and respectful and just move along. No pictures were allowed of the great man.


Our guide let us line up alone but waited for us after the mausoleum. The rest of the complex was done in group modus again.

I missed the president’s palace while I was talking to the Indians but at the garage we caught up with the group. The cars in his garage were all gifts from communist countries I think.

 Moving further into the complex we passed the house on stilts and the pagoda.

Next stop after the Ho Chi Minh complex was a 20 minutes halt at a handicapped workshop right across the street. It really annoyed me that we went there, it was the same as at the tour to Ha Long Bay. After 10 minutes I was bored and asked to be taken to the bus. I rather wanted to sit down there and read my book. Almost all other passengers followed my lead and eventually we left earlier. (Maybe I should start a revolution?)

After this unscheduled stop we went to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups and a lot of them were introduced here. The museum had also a large outdoor facility where the different housing structures could be visited.

                

Then it was already time for lunch which we had somewhere in the old quarter and was again not great. After the meal I said goodbye to my group, lots of valuable information in hand. I spent the rest of my last day wandering around in the sweltering heat, hopping in between in cool cafes for a refreshment stop.

My train south left shortly after 8pm and sometime in the early morning I would arrive at Dong Hoi. I was praying for a quiet night and no kids in my compartment. Yours, Pollybert

Bac Ha market

My last day in the Sa Pa region was a Sunday. And the reason I stayed the extra night was a big local market in Bac Ha. Pick up was suddenly way earlier and at 7:30 After I had my usual Pho for breakfast

 I was downstairs waiting for the guide. I met Marsha from the long trek in front of the hotel and the off we went, collecting other tourists along the way.

It was a three-hour ride to get to the market and once we arrived at Bac Ha it was clear that it was very popular.

Our guide led us through a side street to the market and walking there we passed the horses and the birds.

    In this busy side street was our restaurant for lunch and from here on we explored the market by ourselves.

Marsha and I walked around together and we had our first stop after two minutes to a bean drink/dessert. It’s basically ice with red beans and then all kinds of jelly, shredded and toasted coconut, peanuts and more, topped with bean juice. Very tasty!


Other impressions from the market.

                

Look at this variety of greens/herbs.

  

When we passed the fish market we saw a customer choosing a fish. So if you’re squeamish please look away.

                    

And here is one who got away. I didn’t know if we should say something but then I could see that the sales lady had already noticed the runaway. When we left the stall it was still alive.

At this market you get everything from buffalo to your next dress.

                     I tried one of these fried balls, it was not overly sweet and filled with a yellow bean paste. Yummy!

And other food stuff I didn’t try (so far).

  

Then we went back for lunch which was boring and bland after everything that we had seen at the market. So let’s just forget about it.

After lunch we stopped at a local minority village to see how the tribal families lived in the area. The house that we visited had one room, the sleeping area was quartered off by curtains but the rest was one big space in which they worked and watched tv. There was a small table, probably for the meals and homework, but only one chair.

 

 

Here child safety was not an issue.           

A short bus ride later we got off at the Hang A Tuong Palace just north of the market in Bac Ha. It was swarming with the tourists but you still see the beauty of the building. Designed by a French and Chinese architect and built according to Feng Shui guidelines, the palace was the home of the ‘Kings of the north’. Father and son from a Tay ethnic people ruled the north with a 70% H’mong share. They exploited what the could but at least the palace is still left, now for everyone to see.

      

There was a small shop in the palace where I saw an old woman weaving.

Back on the bus we made our way to Lao Cai to catch the train. One last stop in Lao Cai for all though. What I hadn’t realized when I had arrived here three days ago was how close the Chinese border was. It was just across the river.

  

After the last stop three other girls and I got off at a small hotel near the train station, shared dinner and then took the night train back to Hanoi. Yours, Pollybert

PS: The food tasted how it looked, boring and bland again.

Cat Cat and Sin Chai

I was booked on the overnight sleeper from Hanoi to Sa Pa in a 4 berth soft sleeper compartment. When I arrived in my compartment three people were already there but only in two beds. I was ok with that since the two little girls were really quiet and shared their bed. The fourth one was a Spanish girl who partied next door.

Since it was already late and estimated arrival time was 6:30 with a full day of trekking ahead, I just relaxed in my bed and fell asleep in no time. At our arrival in Lào Cai we met our driver who took us up to Sa Pa which was a 45 minutes drive away.IMG_3810 IMG_3812

The train station looked really modern, but I don’t know what it was used for. Because neither at my arrival nor at my leaving was I anywhere near this new building. I got on and off at the old part.

On the way up it was raining lightly and when looking out of the window the scenery was very different from Hanoi.IMG_3814IMG_3815

At the Panorama Hotel we were greeted by a woman who told us where we could take a shower and have breakfast. Our guide would pick us up at around 9:30. Enough time to get ready. While walking up to the hotel the difference to Hanoi was even more pronounced. I was now in tribal area.

While eating breakfast the rain kept on going steady, not a really good sign for todays trekking. But I also noticed that the houses had a European appearance. IMG_3818

By the time our guide came I was fully awake and ready to go. I took off with 2 women from Singapore and a couple from Norway. Our guide, called Mù (or so) was 21 and accompanied by her mother who carried her nine months old son. The mother by the way was 49. More important than that, please check out the shoes. This will be very important for tomorrows trek!

IMG_3824 IMG_3826

Todays program consisted of two village visits, first Cat Cat and then Sin Chai. Even looking back now on the pictures I am not sure where exactly the second village was, but we must have been there because I asked the next day and was told it was around the rice fields.

Anyway we started directly in Sapa going down to the tourist village of Cat Cat where there was one shop after another. Shop is maybe too hard, but since the area is living mostly from tourists everyone wants to sell you something.IMG_3822 IMG_3823 IMG_3827 IMG_3830 IMG_3832 IMG_3834 IMG_3842 IMG_3843IMG_3844IMG_3845IMG_3846IMG_3848

Slowly we made our way to a waterfall within the village which had a small theater.IMG_3849 IMG_3850 IMG_3851 IMG_3852 IMG_3861 IMG_3864At the theater we saw some typical trial dancing that didn’t really impress me much after the long hair village. On we went in the direction of our lunch when we found some indigo plant along the way. Nils was brave enough to explore the qualities of this color giving plant.IMG_3876 IMG_3877 IMG_3878

And here the result which of course showed only a while later. Mù said that after two hand washes it would be gone. Cannot confirm it, he still had it the next day during our trek (and his wife confirmed the washing).

IMG_3890Through the rice terraces we went up, nearer and nearer to our lunch stop. The going was very steep from time to time. Living here seemed to be very exhausting.

      

The highest peak in the region was the Fanisipan with 3.143m, not that we went up there. And anyway, after Tibet the altitude wouldn’t have been a problem.

When we finally reached our lunch destination some of the group were completely spent while I felt we had done a long walk. But it felt good to sit down at this very simple place where the food had been brought in from the hotel. Never on this trip before when doing a tour had food been delivered to a lunch destination (I really wonder why this was done here in Sa Pa). Anyway, what we got was good and enough for me. Helena from Singapore asked for seconds which were not available.

After lunch Mù asked if we wanted back to the hotel or trek some more. I was all for trekking and Nils and Fenella came along while Nils wife Randi and Helena stayed behind.

What we did was not really trekking again but for about 45 minutes Mù led us through the rice fields. Walking on the narrow ledge was a tough balancing act. So when we turned back to our missing group members even I was happy.

        

To get to the van we had to walk some more and after another 20 minutes going up we finally could rest and wait for the car.

Back in the hotel I had a shower and a power nap. Eventually I felt restored enough to visit the town. From my window I could see a church so I headed there first.

The church was right in front of the main square and from there I walked to the lake (also called in the local tourist map the lake).

        

As you can see clouds moved in again and later a fog came over the town. While I was having dinner at the hotel I saw the church vanishing before my eyes. One moment there and in the next gone. Since that also happened the next night it seemed like a regular occurrence.

Dinner at the hotel was bland and not worth mentioning, but I met Nils and Randi in the restaurant and we had a nice evening. Yours, Pollybert