Vang Vieng

After our more than interesting journey up north to Vang Vieng, we were glad to find our guesthouse easily. Champa Lao The Villa was an amazing placee, a little bit outside of the bustle of the village and definitely not in the middle of the backpacker party zone. When I told my brother that I was heading there I had to hear that last year 22 people died due to the rapids of the Mekong (and probably heavy inhibitions of LaoLao). But since I am not 20 anymore but a responsible adult, I didn’t foresee any problems.

After checking in we went first for lunch to get some energy and then I convinced Dudley to book a tour for the next day.

Since we had made such good experiences with Green Discovery Laos I wanted to book with them and they offered us a three caves visiting tour with kayaking in the afternoon. After finalizing our plans for the next day Dudley went back to get some rest while I sat down to write some postcards and to get a pedicure (so not worth it).

The next morning we had breakfast at the guesthouse where they served an amazing soup.

  
Right on time our pickup arrived with two girls from South Korea already in it. Minnie and Jinnie were way better prepared for the rainy weather than us. With rain coats and shoes which could get wet they were perfectly adjusted for the day. I of course didn’t bring neither but was at least wearing my bikini underneath.

  

We had a 14km drive ahead and when we finally arrived near the first cave it was raining even harder. I decided to remove my T-Shirt and just walk around in my bikini top. Really no point in getting everything wet.

IMG_7176IMG_7174From the Elephant Cave we trekked for a while through the rain. The first couple of hundred meters I still tried to save my shoes but eventually I gave up and waded through the pools of mud. There was just no other way through.


By the time we reached our lunch place I looked like a drowned rat. Since we would visit two caves before eating I put my T-Shirt on again, no need to get cold in the caves.

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We left all our things at the table and started with the snail cave (Tham Hoi cave). After the caving experience in Vietnam the caves in Laos were of course disappointing. Nonetheless we walked through the first one for about 45 minutes and the second one maybe 10 minutes. The formations were better in the first one but still insignificant. In the second one was a large Buddha at the cave entrance though.IMG_7461.JPG IMG_7375.JPGOnce we finished with the second cave we went back to the rain shelter and had our lunch. Now this was a tasty affair, Laotian BBQ at its best.

IMG_7183 It was still drizzling when we left for next cave. After a short trek we arrived at Tham Nam (water cave) where I shed my T-shirt again because as the name implied this cave could only be accessed swimmingly or as in our case with tubes.IMG_7295.JPG IMG_7323.JPG IMG_7285.JPGThus we explored the last cave for the day. As with the others there was not much to see but it was fun tubing inside, using a rope to not get dragged along by the current. When we exited the cave the sun was out and all of a sudden it was hot again. We had another trek ahead of us to visit a Hmong village passing through some rice fields.IMG_7233.JPG IMG_7258.JPGIMG_7270.JPG IMG_7273.JPG IMG_7467.JPG IMG_7483.JPGIMG_7275.JPGWhen we finally crossed the bridge we were all hot and sweaty and ready for the last leg of our tour. The tuk-tuk truck was waiting for us and with the canoes we made our way to the Mekong. We had a good two hours of kayaking ahead of us and we all wanted to get into the water.IMG_7262.JPG IMG_7245.JPGIMG_7201.JPG IMG_7204.JPG IMG_7205.JPGWhy Dudley was mostly taking pictures of me when I was not rowing, I really don’t understand.IMG_7291.JPG IMG_7476.JPG IMG_7391.JPGBut at least we didn’t capsize due to my unwavering support. Eventually we all made it to the last bar along the river before the village. Here we stopped for some sustenance in form of chips and beer. That “happy water” was served along the beer we didn’t know before but it had the desired effect.IMG_7184.JPG IMG_7189.JPG IMG_7190.JPGIMG_7191.JPG We stayed a while longer and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere with our guides and Minnie and Jinnie. What difference a little “happy water” could make, suddenly we were not strangers anymore.

After so much exercise we were really hungry that evening and Dudley managed to eat the biggest burger available in Vang Vieng. Yours, PollybertIMG_7200.JPG

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National Park Tour

I arrived in Dong Hoi relatively well-rested (it’s loud and bumpy on the train) and ready to start my day. With just a 10 minutes delay the train was also remarkable on time. Something that changes the further South the train travels (as I have noticed the last couple of days).

My pre-arranged driver was waiting with a sign for me. Since I was the only one arriving it was quite expensive (500k Dong = 20€) for the 45 minutes ride. But I was not in the mood to wait for the bus only to later pay for a taxi after all to take me to the Farmstay. It’s so far out that there was just no public transportation.

Around 7:30 we pulled up in front of the Farmstay and there were lots of people already milling around. I got greeted by Guillaume, shown to my dorm room and had a quick shower.

I had booked a dorm room to save a bit after spending a lot up North and due to the expensive cave tours. I would be sharing the room with an Australian guy and a German couple. My first mixed dorm on the trip and I liked it a lot.

The tour I had booked for the day started at 8:30am which left ample time to get accommodated to my new surroundings and have breakfast. At the breakfast area I saw one woman sitting alone and asked if I could join her. And sometimes chance plays a wonderful trick on you. Veronica happened to be the mother of Ben, the owner of the Farmstay. Furthermore she had worked for seven years in Vienna and lived just around the corner from me. And during our morning talk she mentioned that she would make a tour with the Easy Riders to Hue and the other woman who had initiated the trip was going to Hoi An. If that would interest me? And since I had been wondering how I was ever going to leave from here, I said yes. I had really no idea what I had agreed to but it sounded like a plan. Plus I liked Veronica from the first and felt comfortable around her. If she could climb on a bike, so could I.

Eventually my national park tour started and we drove into Phong Nha and picked up some more people from the Backpacker hostel in the village and then drove into the National Park. We had a couple of stops where a local guide explained a lot about the karst formations and some flooding that had happened just a couple of years ago. Apparently the water went as high as the bridge we were standing on.

      During the Vietnam War the Americans would bomb this area to achieve road blocks. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was going right through the Park. Here you can still see where the rock was hit.

Next stop for us then was a cave where 8 young people looked for shelter during one of the attacks and were buried alive.

After that it was on to the Paradise Cave, a cave that really deserved its name. The first kilometer into the cave is open to the public and perfectly illuminated.

                  

I am not a religious person (and even less so after reading the Zealot book; review is coming soon) but this cave was awe inspiring and I could almost start believing again. Truly a spiritual experience.

Once outside it was time for lunch (again not great, really don’t know why the food was always so bland on the tours since Vietnam offers so much good food) and then we were off to the Dark Cave.

No pictures from there because we started our tour in bathing suites and nothing else. First there was zip lining over the river (a first for me and it felt hilarious! When was the last time I did something for the first time?), then we had to swim into the cave. We had all been given life jackets and helmets with a lamp. These were switched on upon entering the cave, the cave after all was not called Dark Cave for nothing.

The trail started to get muddier and narrower as we walked along. In the beginning I really tried to stay clean but after a while I had no choice since it was slippery and I had to hold on to just not fall. I had wanted to keep a pristine butt, which was alll for nothing in the end because we ended in a mud bath; and the shrieking and laughing told me there was no escape. The mud felt as dense as the Dead Sea. I could float on it without going under.

We all closed our head lamps and tried to shut up for a minute but that didn’t work. When your group consists mostly of girls in their early twenties there is not a chance for a minute of silence. Especially not when every movement in the mud produced a fart sound.

Eventually we left the mud pool and walked back, cleaned ourselves in an underground river and then had to swim through it for about 10 minutes just to be told on the other side that we would have to turn around and swim through it again but without the light. Oh, and yes there were eels and other animals in the river. Great, we all had to do it since the exit lay in that direction. Once done, it felt good though, very liberating.

Outside the cave we kayaked back to the zip lining place. I was placed together with Christiane, a girl from Germany also traveling alone after finishing her PhD in neuroscience. There were always some very nice people on the road with me to share a day or more.

Christiane and I made it back to the start not with a lot of help from my side though. As I told you I am just not made for kayaking. But once there we tried another round of zip lining only this time I jumped into the river during it.

We finished the tour off with refreshments next to the river while we waited for the rain to abate. It had been the perfect first day in Phong Nha.

Back at the Farmstay I had an early dinner (kitchen was only open until 8pm) and went to bed. I was exhausted after all my adventures. Yours, Pollybert

Cruising around Ha Long Bay

A wonderful sunny morning greeted me when I took my shower. Imagine waking up to such a view every morning…

Most people onboard had booked the two-day – one night tour in Ha Long Bay. Since I had time and wanted to relax I had booked the 3 day tour. An Australian couple and I were the only ones who stayed on board after everyone else left for the morning program. While waiting for our day ship to pick us up, I went on the observatory deck and took some pictures.

      

The day ship would be our “home” until the late afternoon. We met our lovely guide and started with an excursion to a pearl farm. She showed us the different types of oysters used for farming with the Akoya being the smallest and the most common.

 Since they die when the pearl is removed they also breed them.

From the breeding station we walked to the “operating room” where they implant a small ball made from mother-of-pearl with a piece of membrane into the oyster. After five weeks the oysters get checked if they survived the operation. The success rate lies by 70%.

    

Before going into the customary shop she opened one oyster ready to be harvested and voilà:

The pearls can develop different colors depending on the mother-of-pearl inside the oyster.

The rest of the day was spent with relaxing. We went to one cove for swimming in the morning then spent the time until lunch reading or sleeping. Lunch was wonderful again and after that more sleeping, reading, swimming.

Mid afternoon we went kayaking where I noticed that I have no hand for it. I shared the kayak with the guide and she was definitely drenched by the time we returned. Nonetheless she abode with me and we went through a cave to an inlet where we saw lots of jellyfish. They just stayed in the inlet and didn’t go out in the ocean. I touched a couple and they felt very slippery. Also when you took them out of the water they dropped their long tentacles. But when you put them back into the water they could still swim. So no harm done.

On the way back to day boat we saw monkeys climbing overhead and jumping from tree to tree. I felt a bit like in a documentary. Such near contact to wildlife is usually not part of my daily life.

Upon our return to the cruise ship we found it empty. All the newcomers must be swimming at the beach. At dinner that evening I shared the table with the Australian couple but later I couldn’t be bothered with squid fishing. I already knew it would not be successful.

The next morning I woke early and got ready. We had a cave visit on our program at around 8am. The Surprise Cave was just a short boat ride away.

  Since most cruise ships were stopping here before heading back it was slow going to the cave entrance. But the view remedied it.

  

Once inside the cave I couldn’t stop taking pictures. It was divided into three chambers with the first one being the smallest one, getting ever bigger along the walk. The cave was set up for a one way visit with another view over the bay waiting at the end. Also a very clever thing with the amount of visitors here daily.

              

  

Back on board of our ship we had to check out of the room and get ready for a cooking class of fried spring rolls. The ones we were doing were filled with minced pork, onions, spring onions, coriander and a bit of chilies (probably more ingredients went in, but I can’t remember anymore). The chef was mixing the filling and we had to roll them tight, glueing the end with egg white to fix the paper in place.

While waiting for the chef to finish lunch I took my last pictures of the bay.

      

Shortly afterwards we had lunch and then we were back in the harbor, getting on mini bus that was packed to the last seat (here some of the smaller buses have an aisle in the middle which can be closed in case of necessity with an extra seat).

We had another stop at a shop with a bathroom on the way back to Hanoi where I saw this fruit vendor in the back. They sliced the fruits freshly in front of you and you got them in a small bag with a large wooden pick to eat.

Finally we were back in Hanoi on the way to the hotel.

I had time to re-pack my small backpack and look for some dinner. I decided on noodles with beef and herbs.

  

For dessert I had a plum lemon tea which had some jelly at the bottom.

I had just enough time left to take a shower, update the blog a bit and was then already on the way to the train station. Tonight I was going to Sa Pa. Yours, Pollybert