We have now seen the Mekong River in 3 different countries: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. We also saw where the Mekong acts as a border between Laos and Thailand. I’ve felt connected to this river since we saw the Irrawaddy Dolphins in Kratie nearly 2 years ago. So when we realized that we could see where the Mekong connects with the South China sea, I knew that it was a ‘must see’ destination for Dave and I.
About the Delta
The Mekong Delta is considered a “biological treasure trove” due to its fertile soil and an abundance of wildlife. More than 1000 animal species live in this small area. We didn’t see much wild life, unfortunately, but the plant-life in the area is absolutely gorgeous!!
The Mekong Delta is an area of agriculture. Dragon fruit, sugar cane, corn, sweet potato, and coconut are all grown in the Delta, but the area’s main agricultural purpose is for rice. More rice is grown in the Mekong Delta every year than in all of Northern and Central Vietnam combined! That’s saying something, given that the enormous Sapa rice terraces are located in the north of the country!
Michael, like Dave, loves driving motorcycles, so when we were all still in China, we planned a motorcycle trip out to the delta together. There are many places you can go in the Mekong Delta. My Tho is the most popular because it isn’t far from Saigon. It seemed a bit touristy for our taste though, so we opted to drive a bit further and went to Ben Tre instead.
The drive to Ben Tre was dusty and a bit boring, because we’d mistakenly taken the most direct route, which also happens to be the busiest. Our pollution masks came in handy on the ride there!!
A helmet protects your head…one of these fancy masks protects your lungs
We were thrilled to see the gorgeous pool waiting for us at our hotel. We all washed off the dust from our skin and hopped in to cool down.
In Ben Tre
We only had 1 day in Ben Tre, so we spent it doing the most popular thing to do in the Mekong Delta…we rented a boat (and a captain!) and saw some of the beauty the area has to offer!
Although we found plenty of boats, we had a bit of difficulty finding a tour office that was open during Tet! After some riding around, we managed to find one place that jumped at the opportunity to make an easy sale.
We had a grand time driving around looking for a shop though!
While we waited for our captain, we strolled along the river, admiring the boats and the view.
I noticed that all of the boats had ‘planks’ going down to them, which bothered me a bit. Dave, of course, didn’t care, but I was worried they’d make clumsy ol’ me walk across a rickety piece of wood to get to the boat!
I was right…I did have to “walk the plank.” It wasn’t too bad, and I didn’t fall, but getting into the boat was only step 1 to us getting on our way down the river. Next, we had to get the boat ‘unstuck’ from the muddy Mekong River bank!!
ichael and Dave trying to rock the boat out of the mud
We were finally rescued by another boat. They pulled us out!
Michael, unimpressed with our ‘stuckedness’
In the back of the picture, you can see the railing. We had to climb over that, and then walk along the boards to the boat. I was convinced I’d fall, but it was a pretty uneventful journey!
The boat trip was definitely longer than we’d wanted (3 hours…), but there were plenty of gorgeous sights to see along the way!
This was a coconut farm, I think.
I wasn’t feeling the best, so Dave ended up getting a bunch of these pictures. These 3 are my favourite though (and I no longer know who took which lol! We’ll call it a combined effort!)
The Way Home
None of us wanted a repeat of the trip TO Ben Tre, so Dave and Michael put their heads together and planned a less direct route home. Their efforts paid off, because WOW did we see some beauty along the way!!!
We also stopped quite a few times on the way back. Sometimes we stopped for ferry rides…
Sometimes it was the lure of hammocks that convinced us to pull over…
But the scenic stops were my favourites. As I mentioned, the Delta is home to Dragon Fruit farms, where we stopped for a few pictures.
This is what a field of them looks like
They are grown on concrete pillars
You can see lights hanging between plants
Coconut is synonymous with the region, and we definitely stopped for some coconut candies along the way back to HCMC.
My favourite stop was definitely for the rice fields. They were golden, green and beautiful and it was so nice to stop somewhere quiet and clean.
This particular field (like many in Vietnam) was also a cemetery of sorts. The Vietnamese often bury their dead family members in very specific places, close to the home and in a certain direction, so not to disturb balance in their afterlives. We saw many of these coffins during our trip.
I’ve gotta say, this would be a nice place to be laid to rest
With such a beautiful backdrop, we couldn’t help but take some pictures of ourselves as well, and I got some beautiful ones of my dear friends, Michael and Miya.
That wraps up our trip down to the Mekong Delta! It was a great experience and I’d recommend for anyone in the area to take the trip! Here’s the route we took both on the way there and the route on the way back (the one that’s slightly to the left is the boring route…the one on the right is MUCH better!)
Up next I’ll be writing about Phu Quoc as well as some posts about Vietnamese and the things you realize being in these parts of the world!!
As the 3rd leg of our adventure comes to an end, I am realizing that I have a lot of catching up to do! I’ve been neglecting both my journal and blog, so I figure it’s best I get started now, while I wait 3 extra hours for my delayed flight to depart (at least they gave us access to the VIP lounge!!).
Ho Chi Minh City
Our latest stop has been in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. HCMC is the largest city in Vietnam (but not its capital). Its population is around 8.5 million people, and I’m pretty sure every person here owns a motorcycle and driving them 24 hours a day!!! The bike traffic in this city is nuts!!
It’s difficult to get it on camera, but at this intersection there were probably 50 motorcycles and maybe 2 or 3 cars
The roundabout in front of the market (near our hotel) is absolute mayhem
We stayed in District 1, which is the Back Packer’s district. There are lots of overpriced bars and restaurants in the area and there is a much bigger party scene here than either Dave or I had expected! Liz was telling us that there are bars down that street that are open 24 hours a day!
Our hotel was down an alley off of this street
We did enjoy a few beers down this street, but we had a lot more planned than just Saigon Red and Iced Coffees!!
A few months back, when we were planning our holiday in HCMC, we discovered that our friends Liz and Jeff were going to be visiting at the same time as we were. We made sure to be staying in the same area, and then as we were planning it, a couple more friends decided to join in on the fun! It turned out that 6 of us were all in Saigon at the same time! The best part is that Liz actually lived in HCMC for 4 years, and she was super excited to show us around.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to do a lot of the things Liz had wanted to do, because it was Tet (Chinese New Year). Just like in China, everything closes down during the holiday. The few places that DO stay open, charge an extra 20% too, which was unfortunate. We still managed to have a good time though and we did lots of exploring in the city and also in the area.
The whole city was beautiful decorated for the holiday!
Those balloons are all attached to the back of a bike
BBQ dinner with the gang!!
Delicious, delicious Vietnamese food!!
There are a few cool things to see around HCMC. Dave and I had a day and a half to ourselves before everyone else arrived and we were able to explore the War Reminents museum (I’ll be writing about that in a separate post) and the Flower Street that is set up yearly for Tet.
The eggs were my favourite thing there. It’s now the year of the chicken so everything was sort of Easter themed haha!
This was Dave’s favourite one. He loves desert plants
There is a huge market near the backpacker street where we were staying called Ben Thahn Market. Dave and I explored on our own a little bit and we ended up back there with Miya and Michael later in the week. Our first visit was short and overwhelming, but the second time around we took some time to explore the place. Bargaining is always part of the experience and I learned a new tip from Miya! If you want them to drop the price a bit more, just tell them they’re beautiful!! It actually worked!!!
It’s literally just one shop after another. There’s hardly any room to move around
Dave and I have a rule that if anyone tries charging us more than 2x what the price should be, we walk away and don’t even give them a chance to earn our money. We always try and stick with people who are being reasonable.
Another stop we made with Michael and Miya was the Notre Dame Cathedral and post office, which are actually right next to one another. Both buildings are beautiful. I can now say I’ve seen Notre Dame cathedral in 2 different cities (I also saw it in Montreal). Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see the one in Paris…though one day I am sure I will!
The cathedral from behind
The inside of the post office
Saigon is home to several museums, including the War Reminents Museum (with information about the Vietnam War), an art museum and Reunification Palace. We went to the palace yesterday, mostly to escape from the heat. The building was the center of government for many years and it now acts as a museum where you can see original furniture, decor and even an underground bunker from when the palace was still in use.
Although the palace has a tonne of potential for being a great stop for tourists, there are definitely some key issues preventing it from really shining.
For one, there is a real lack of signage in the museum. On the main floor there are some explanations regarding which rooms functioned as what, but in terms of the smaller rooms, it would have been great to have some stories that tied people to the rooms we were looking at. Without that kind of information, we were just looking at dated desks and chairs.
Overall it was pretty cool. The bunker was interesting enough and I found the kitchen pretty neat to see.
Now THAT’s a mixer!!
The bedroom was also interesting. They had a really cool old hair dryer and for some reason, there were 2 toilets in the adjoining bathroom.
Overall it was a fine way to spend an hour, but I think the War Remnents museum was a lot more educational and it definitely left a bigger impact on me.
We also had a chance to find a Geo Cache while in Saigon. Miya was pretty excited because it was her first chance at this game. I, as always, dragged my heals until we were there, and then got into it. The cache took us to a very pretty fountain where I got some great shots.
I saw Michael trying to take a picture of Miya for her, and I offered to help. It’s nice having a willing model to photograph lol!!!
So that’s what we managed to see in Saigon proper. We also ventured out to Monkey Island, about 2 hours outside of the city. We rented motorbikes for the day and followed Risky and Liz all the way to Lam Vien Can Gio. There, you can see monkeys and salt water water crocodiles.
We had to take a ferry to get there!
Dave and I 🙂
Once more, Tet prevented us from the full experience. We weren’t able to see the crocodiles, and we were given 5 minutes to take some photos of the monkeys before we were shooed of the park so that the guards could go home. To be fair, those guides did stick around and they even called the monkeys over for us, even though it was their holiday. That was pretty awesome of them!
Of course, as is often the case, we made a feline friend along the way….
When we left, he was sitting at the reception desk
He didn’t seem keen on our departure lol!!
The best part of this trip was the small detour we made on the way back. We stopped by the ocean to see where the Mekong mixes in. The water isn’t exactly clear, but it was a gorgeous way to see the sun start to set.
That’s about it for Ho Chi Minh City! Next, I’ll be writing about our trip to the Mekong Delta, which is one of the most lush and beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life!!
Traveling has its difficulties. Living out of a suitcase can get pretty old. Arriving at a hotel to discover that it smells like sewage can be pretty depressing. Travel days are exhausting. But the worst part of traveling is traveler’s diarrhea, or as I like to call it ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’
This is a special kind of ‘food poisoning’, where your gut bacteria decides that it doesn’t like a new cuisine and proceeds to evacuate everything from both your stomach and intestines at such a violent pace that you end up with sore ribs.
I spent the first 24 hours of our 3 days in Luange Prabang wishing for death…or that at least the smell of sewage in our hotel would subside. Luckily, this never seems to get me sick for more than 24 hours, and by day 2, I was able to go out and explore the city. I quickly fell in love.
The Mekong River
I definitely wouldn’t have lasted 2 minutes on these stairs!!
The bamboo bridge across one of the town’s two rivers
Luang Prabang’s History
Luang Prabang is located in North-Central Laos. The main city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage sight due to its many Buddhist relics and well preserved historical buildings.
It’s a small city, but has a tonne of history. Because it was the capital during Laos’ French Colonial period, there is a tonne of really cool architecture in the town. The mixture of colonial and traditional Laos buildings make it a great place for taking photos!
A great picture Dave got of an old French government building (which is now an ice cream shop)
The alley behind our 2nd hotel (we left the first one because of the terrible smell of sewage!!)
The owner of our 2nd hotel, and his son. These people were awesome!!!
Buddhism in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang translates to ‘The Royal Buddha Image’. I imagine this is because this is the town to see if you want to see Laotian Buddhist Architecture. We saw countless temples while we were there. I actually lost count of which ones were which, so I apologize that I can’t properly label them.
Some temples were extra interesting. Dave found one that had this really interesting rock jutting out in front of it. Another is said to have Buddha’s footprint in it. Buddha was apparently HUGE!!!
A temple at the top of a hill in town
These steps went up to the temple with the weird rocks
Luang Prabang is also known for a daily ceremony of local monks. Each day, at around 6am, monks walk the streets, asking for alms (donations). We never actually saw the procession, because as far as I’m concerned, 6am doesn’t exist when I’m on vacation, but it would be pretty neat to see. We did stop at one monastery, though, where I followed a cat around and got some really neat shots of it, with the Monk’s robes drying in the background.
This cat was also at this temple, but it was terrified of me and ran away ASAP
Handicrafts in Luang Prabang
As interesting as temples can be, they aren’t the only things Luang Prabang has to offer. There are several craft villages around the city. We attempted to visit 2 of them, but only one of the trips was successful.
The Pottery Village seemed to be closed down by the time we got there
The ferry trip across the Mekong, and cruising around on the roads in the area was a nice experience though!
We had better luck in the Paper and Weaving village, where we bought more than one souvenir!
I wish I could have bought of these magnificent blankets. Unfortunately, our cats would probably destroy them, and if we bought every piece of beautiful work we saw…we’d never be able to afford to travel!
On Our Way to the Waterfall
The best part of our trip to Luang Prabang though, was without a doubt, the trip to Kuang Si Falls.
There is more than one way to get to the falls. Most people take a tour with a group or with a Tuk Tuk driver. We opted to rent a motorbike instead, and found our own way, which was half the fun!
Animal friends we met along the way
This dog darn near came home with us! I loved his little fox face!!!
The first thing you see when you enter the park, is actually a bear sanctuary. Asiatic Black Bears (also called Moon Bears) are incredibly cute, but are also becoming incredibly endangered. They are captured all over Asia for use in Chinese Medicine.
Look at his cute bear face!!!
The sun is just too much for this one…
Bear Bile has been used in Chinese medicine for over 1000 years. The bile is mostly used to help with gal bladder and liver conditions. Fortunately, there are herbal options that are equally effective as the bear bile; unfortunately, people in China still think the bear bile is better. As a result, Asiatic bears are captured and literally tortured for years for the sake extracting bile from their gal bladders.
I was happy to see this sign, teaching people about alternatives
This is the size of the cages that are used to keep the bears at bile farms
The bear sanctuary has saved their bears from these farms. They also rescue bears who have been injured in traps. We saw one bear lumbering around clumsily because it was missing one of its front paws He made me think of my sweet Hugo, and how adaptable animals can be.
If you ever want to get me a Christmas or Birthday present, but aren’t sure what I’d like (and don’t want to pay outrageous shipping fees), please donate to ‘Save the Bears’ or any of the other organizations I’ve mentioned in past posts.
The Kuang Si Falls
The falls themselves are well worth the trip, no matter how you decide to get there. They go on for ages, and the final view of the big falls is absolutely stunning. I’ll let the pictures do the talking for me…
The first set of ‘mini falls’ we saw
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the plants for acting as a gorgeous border for my photo :p
As you continue up the hill, there are places you can actually swim at the falls. Dave and I both regret not bringing our bathing suits, as this would have been a gorgeous spot to go for a dip!
As we continued on, the falls got bigger and more beautiful.
The scenery around the falls was very nice as well. Even the garbage cans were cute, and there was an old water wheel as well.
There were lots of spots for pictures!
Finally, we arrived at the big falls, which are even more beautiful than the little ones! I hadn’t actually looked at the pictures online, so I wasn’t expecting anything this gorgeous, so it was a rather awesome surprise when we arrived at this point.
So that’s it for Luang Prabang. I’ve got plenty more to write, as we are now in Ho Chi Minh City! Stay Tuned!!!
South East Asia has a reputation for bad drivers. I’m here to clear some things up about Laos, as well as to show off some of the gorgeous views I saw on my way to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.
1.) Your Options
There are a few different options for tourists in Laos. Currently, there are no great train options in South East Asia, but it looks like soon, that will change. For now, taking a bus is the best way to get around in both Laos and Cambodia.
There are 3 types of buses. The first kind are standard, long distance buses. Think of a Grey Hound bus, but add in more people, more luggage and less air conditioning. Some tourists report that some of these vehicles are so old, they have difficulty climbing the steep hills on the way to Luang Prabang. We decided to avoid that option…
The next option is a miniature version of those buses. They are smaller and more narrow, but they are a bit roomier than the mini vans. We took one of those to Vang Vieng. It was pretty comfortable and I even managed to get a bit of sleep on the way…that is until our driver started showing off his driving skills….(more on that in a second…)
The last option is a minivan. This choice is slightly bigger than the mini-vans your parents drove you to soccer practice in at home, and they sit about 15 people. They’re usually pretty cramped, but they ride low and make for a smoother ride. They’re also usually in better condition than the buses. We took a mini van to Luang Prabang.
2. The Drivers Drive…Differently….
It’s common to see drivers pounding back energy drinks and trying to stay awake and alert throughout the long trips. This is terrifying. More than once, Dave thought of offering to take over for our driver, who didn’t seem to be affected by the M510s he was emptying and throwing out the window.
Our drivers didn’t speak much English, but it didn’t really matter because it was obvious from the first kilometer…their only concern was getting us from Point A to Point B in as short a time as possible. This often meant speeding, weaving in and out of traffic and slamming on the breaks at the last second to avoid rear ending someone who has slowed down in front of them.
If you’ve driven in Asia, or have lived in Asia for a while, don’t worry. It’s not too much worse than everywhere else. If you’ve only ever driven in the west…prepare yourself. You’re in for quite the ride!!
3. The Passengers Suffer
Some blog posts I read said that passengers were throwing up from all the winding roads in the countryside. Others described anxiety during the trip and pure relief upon arrival. My experiences weren’t this bad. I felt a little car sick once or twice, but I get car sick even on the best of roads!
Luckily, many of the regular pit stops that these buses make, have stores that sell motion sickness patches and pills! You know it’s a problem, when…
4. It’s Worth The Ride
Having said all this, I’d like to finish this post on a positive note. South East Asia is beautiful!! The landscapes here are simply stunning, so although you might feel sick, and you’ll probably be scared out of your wits once or twice, it can be worth the trip to take the ride. Remember, these drivers may seem crazy, but they have some of the fastest reflexes I’ve ever seen on a non-cat!!!
We were so high up in the mountains, we were surrounded by clouds!!
5. Final Tips from the Kinetic Canuck
Don’t take the trip on a full stomach. It’s just not a good idea.
Don’t take the trip on an empty stomach. Some routes only have 1 or 2 stops with questionable food choices
Bring some music to enjoy. It can help keep your mind off of your stomach if you’re feeling sick.
Don’t worry too much! Enjoy the views and remember that these drivers take these roads every day! (and if they are falling asleep…offering to drive for them usually shakes them up pretty good and gets them to pay attention to the road a little better!!!)
I’ll be back soon with a blog post about our final stop in Laos; Luang Prabang!!
In about an hour from now, we’ll be on our way to Luang Prabang, our last stop in Laos. Vang Vieng has been everything we’d hoped for, and more. I can’t remember a time when I loved a landscape this much. It even rivals my love for Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Vang Vieng is lush, raw and it has everything I love: trees, mountains, animals and gorgeous winding rivers.
The view of the mountains from our hotel
There is plenty to do here, and although the main draw for tourism is tubing down the river, I much preferred our first day here, when we rented a motorcycle and spent the day cruising around the countryside. My former student, Ivy, said it best: a beautiful landscape can calm anxiety and help you relax. With scenes like this, I was finally able to unwind from my stressful fall term:
We spent 4 hours cruising around. I feel like it was impossible for me to take a bad photo! Even on the back of a moving motorcycle, I was in a photographer’s paradise!
We saw plenty of animals along the way. Cows, chickens and pigs roam freely in the area. Everyone watches out for everyone else’s livestock. And here, like India and everywhere else I’ve ever been, cows rule the road.
We gave this water buffalo LOTS of room!!!
Baby buffalo posing for me!
We passed countless children on their way home from school. I know that poverty is a real problem here; Laos is a 3rd world country and is on the UN’s list of the world’s ‘least developed countries’ (along with Haiti, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and others). Still, the people who live here have a sort of wealth that I envy. They may not have flat screen TVs, but they have a pretty spectacular view. They may not have Xboxes and Macbooks, but they play football with the world’s nicest backdrop. They are wealthy in their own way.
A little girl on a tractor, smiling and waving at us as we passed them on a dirt road
Boys playing soccer after school
Some young kids swimming in the river near their home
Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’d trade my life for the life of a Laotian. As I mentioned in my last post, 300 people per year die here from UXOs from the Vietnam war. Laos’ GDP accounts for only 0.02% of the world’s economy, and as a result, people live in extreme poverty. They rely on donations from other countries to do things like build bridges or fix roads.
This is Vang Vieng’s best bridge. Only one vehicle can drive across at a time and it creaks and squeaks like nobody’s business.
Another small bridge
Dave realized he took the wrong way, and we ended up going over this bridge a total of 4 times……looks safe, hey??
Tourism is important in these parts, and I always take that into account when I pay more than locals for food, drinks and pretty much everything. I have the money. I don’t mind paying a bit more. Luckily, Laos does have incredible attractions for people to enjoy.
Have I mentioned the scenery?
This cave was small and terrifying so I never went into it. There are more caves than I can even count around Vang Vieng. Dave braved his way up this terrifying ‘staircase’ and was at the top before too long, exploring. I stayed down below and took some pictures of the area.
Those aren’t stairs. They’re just really really sharp rocks…
The steps on this VERY rickity bamboo ladder are so far away from one another that I could barely reach with my short little legs
I gave up long before the platform, but I did try. Mostly, I just wanted a picture from up there. Alas, I value my life too much.
This is hardly recognizable as a path…
Blue Lagoon is one of Vang Vieng’s most visited locations. Unfortunately, it are very popular with the crowds, so we never went swimming. It was crowded and they were closing soon after we arrived, so we never bothered to try.
Instead, while the rest of our group swam, we explored the area a little bit.
First, I saw this chicken and I thought it was being stupid…as chickens tend to be…..
Then, this little head popped out from under it
Then, LOTS of little heads popped out! She had her whole brood out and about with her
We saw some people giving elephant rides, which was discouraging. There are so many attractions around these parts that there’s no reason to include elephant rides. The tour guide tried getting us to come over, but I snapped a picture and turned away. Mostly I just wanted a chance to remind my readers again how awful elephant rides are.
The Blue Lagoon did end end up providing us with some entertainment at the end of our stop there. A Chinese man had decided to jump off the high trunk of a tree. It was about 20 feet up, and he had climbed up, but didn’t want to jump. We watched him for more than 20 minutes. He jumped just as we got on the bus. It was pretty funny. I felt bad for the guy, but at the same time, I KNOW I’m a wimp, and that’s why I didn’t go up there in the first place.
His friends were all below, counting down for him. He looked like he was going to jump about 10 different times, but chickened out at the last second
Finally some girls went up and showed him that THEY could do it lol.
I’m not going to go into much detail about the zip lining because I decided to write a short story about our experience. My major focus in all of my writing classes was creative non-fiction, and it’s been ages since I wrote a non-fiction story, and our trip out into the mountains had everything that a short story needs: humour, suspense and a clumsy and terrified protagonist. I’ll link that story here as soon as I’m done. For now, here are some pictures.
Tubing on the Nam Song River
Tubing down the river is the main reason people visit Vang Vieng. A few years back, the tubing experience was wild. People were getting drunk, getting high and dying on the river. In 2011 alone, at least 27 tourists died in Vang Vieng (the number is actually higher because many of the injured are sent to Vientiane, where they later die). Tourists hurt themselves jumping off of trees in shallow areas and many drowned after drinking shot after shot of Lao Lao (a local whisky) before hopping back on their tubes. It didn’t take long before Vang Vieng became known as South East Asia’s party town.
In 2012, things began to change. South East Asian tourism was suffering because of Vang Vieng’s bad reputation, and the Laotian government was pushed into making changes. I’m happy to say that the river is now a lovely, relaxing place where there are still bars (but fewer of them), but, for the most part, the environment is controlled and safe.
There is still ziplining and places to jump into the river, but they are in safe, designated zones and locals are there to make sure everyone is doing it safely
There are still bars with loud music and drinking, but the drinks are expensive (putting a limit on how drunk people will get), and if drugs are still sold there, it’s not advertised and I didn’t see any signs of it
Vang Vieng has definitely found a great balance between the two lifestyles: They toned down the partying, but have still kept it a fun place to have a good time
One thing worth mentioning though, is that if you book your day of tubing with the wrong people, you may not have the best time…
We had planned to take the North river on own own. We figured that if we didn’t go with a guide, we could take our time on the river (which is very lazy and slow moving) and meet up with like-minded people along the way. Instead, we ended up going down the south river with a guide, along with 6 European 20 year olds…
We were definitely not happy with the fact that we were made to stay at the first bar for nearly 90 minutes. Eventually, we told the guide we were going to leave with or without him. He realized that we weren’t there to get sloshed and assigned us a different guide and let us go ahead. That hour and half was gorgeous. I actually fell asleep once or twice because the river was so comfortable and relaxing.
Our tour guide also fell asleep on the way down. He realized quickly that he didn’t need to worry about us, so he enjoyed the ride down.
I wish we’d had a couple of hours of this and that we hadn’t had a guide at all, but still, we made do and had a very nice time on the Nam Song River.
I took a video at one point down the river. Notice the silence. This sort of serenity is exquisite for someone who lives in China 10 months of the year…
When we reached the end of the tour, we found at ourselves at another bar…this time it was for 2 hours. You can’t exactly go flag down a tuk tuk in the middle of nowhere, so we were stranded and stuck waiting until our guide let us leave. We found out later that people who had started 2 hours later than us were leaving at the same time, because they hadn’t gone on a tour with a guide who forced them to stay at bars in the hopes of making extra money.
Travelling does something strange to nomads like me. When you visit all these different places, certain ones really stick with you. Kratie in Cambodia, Chiang Mai in Thailand, Goa in India… These places somehow manage to steal a piece of your heart, and they leave you feeling homesick for them, even if your time there was short. Vang Vieng is now a part of that list. I will always remember it and always feel drawn to it.
A little girl on a tractor, smiling and waving at us as we passed them on a dirt road
I hope one day we can go back and see Vang Vieng again. Until then, I have plenty more to look forward to!
South East Asia is one of my favourite places in the world. Cambodia and Thailand were both such fantastic experiences and Northern Vietnam lived up to the high expectations those experiences set. Now that I’m in Laos, I am sure: South East Asia should be on everyone’s bucket lists!
Where to begin???
Laos and the only landlocked country in South East Asia. Though it is poor, Laos has been gaining popularity with tourists due to it’s beautiful landscapes, fascinating history and its vast cultural treasures.
Vientiane is Laos’ capital city. The Mekong River flows through the city, dividing it from neighboring Thailand. Vientiane is a small city, with a population of less than a million (tiny by Asian standards!). Although many tourist blogs tell people not to bother visiting Laos’ capital, both Dave and I have really enjoyed our time here. There’s been lots to see, great food to enjoy and the people have been just awesome!
Some of the best fried rice I’ve ever had!
This is a basil and pork dish. Fantastic!
Egg and bitter gourd. It was delicious
One of Laos’ most important exports: beer!
Patuxai Victory Monument
The main complaint people have about Vientiane is that there is ‘nothing to do there’. I disagree. As I’ve said countless times in the past, my favourite thing to do on holiday with my handsome husband is to rent motorbikes. We rented one for Vientiane and boy did it pay off!
Because it runs on gas, we can go much further with it than we can with our e-bikes back in Suzhou
See here: handsome husband
Our first stop was the Patuxai Victory War Monument. This beautiful monument was built to commemorate all the people who died in Laos’ fight for freedom. Laos has been occupied on more than one occasion; most recently by France. That’s right…Laos was a French colony! You actually see French architecture and road signs all over the city.
The ceiling from the bottom of the tower
The monument took 9 years to build, beginning in 1957 and the materials to make the structure were donated by the USA. China also donated a musical pond and Indonesia donated a Peace Gong for the park as well. It’s a nice place to take a stroll.
The Peace Gong is located at the entrance of the park
Musical Ponds are very popular in China
Inside the building you find a small market where you can buy souvenirs. Everything is very overpriced (35,000 kip for something that sells for 15,000 in a regular market), but nobody chases you down or tries pushing you into buying things, so it was a fine little place to take a break between flights of stairs.
One of the columns from the top of the tower
Another little break on the way up. This tower has all sorts of details
The view from the top. Our hotel was right down this road, and at the end of the road, the Palace is located
A fancy building nearby
Once more, my handsome husband
Laos’ National Museum
Our next stop had to be indoors because the heat was pretty much unbearable. We head down to the National Museum where we learned about Laos’ ancient history and modern history. It was very interesting to see propaganda posters from the other side of the Vietnamese war!
Ancient Lao Tools
I swear, China still uses baskets like these for construction!
I was a little bit surprised that the museum didn’t have anything about the bombing Laos endured during the Vietnam war. It’d be great if the museum offered information on that, and the gift shop would do well to sell trinkets made of UXOs. You find bottle openers, key chains and magnets made of these old bombs in the markets and proceeds are suppose to go towards disarming the nearly 78 million bombs that are still killing people in Laos every year. (Don’t worry Mom…the areas we are going have been thoroughly checked!!)
There are plenty of Temples to see in Vientiane. So many, in fact, that we didn’t even try to stop at all of them. We did see 2 though. Dave noticed right away that the architecture is quite different from temples in Thailand, Cambodia and India. I, of course, didn’t notice haha! They sure are pretty though!
Our first stop was Wat Si Saket
This temple was right near our hotel, across from the Palace
There are both new and old structures here, which I really liked
The second ‘temple’ we saw was actually called the ‘City pillar’. I asked Dave why Winnipeg doesn’t have anything this cool…he reminded me that the snow and the cold would destroy it…
The Buddha Park was definitely my favourite stop in Vientiane. Located 25km south east of the city, we would never have been able to see this cool place if we hadn’t rented a motorbike. The drive there was half the fun!
The Mekong River. Across the water you can see Thailand
Some cows 🙂
A little girl on a motorcycle
A Lao Stop sign
The Thailand/Laos friendship bridge. It goes across the Mekong, into Thailand
We entered the park and realized we were starving, so we began by eating a local snack. I have no idea what it’s called, but it had some sort of coconut in it. It was delicious!
My best bet is coconut, egg and onion..
The first thing you see when you enter the park is the giant reclining Buddha. He’s beautiful. We were there just before the sun started going down too, so the light reflected off of his face, making him look like he glows.
There are various other statues around. The buddhas are made to look old, but they are actually quite new. The park was built in 1958, and it has mythology from both Hinduism and Buddhism. I personally enjoy Buddhist art more, as it’s less extreme. Hinduism is sure spectacular, though!
Hindu Art. The large thing in the background is holding a dead body…
It’s really neat seeing the mixture of cultures. Buddhism and Hinduism actually have quite a few of the same roots, which is interesting. An hour in the park is all you really need, and I’d say it’s well worth the trip out there. It’s definitely one of the most bizarre things we’ve experienced in Asia!
Without a doubt, the strangest thing in the park is the gourd, or pumpkin.
It’s suppose to represent Heaven, Earth and Hell…I’m not sure about the first 2, but the 3rd one is definitely depicted. The inside is full of creepy art and scary staircases. I actually hated it in there and got out as soon as I could. Dave made it up to the top for some pictures….
Notice the skulls….
Me, at the bottom, hoping Dave would return alive
Dave, at the top…still alive
The ride back was also beautiful. I really enjoyed the parties that were going on everywhere! Lao people like loud music and dancing, we learned! When I’m back home, I’ll be sure to stitch together some videos, but for now, some pictures of the parties will have to suffice!
The sun was setting on our drive home, but we got back to town before it was dark. It was timed perfectly!
Dave found a Geo Cache while we were here, which was pretty cool. It was in at an old stupa that reminded me of ruins of Ayutthaya. The sight is called That Dam or The Black Stupa. It’s said to contain relics of the Buddha and legend has it that it was once covered in gold. Unfortunately, it was attacked and pillaged by Siam in this legend (which some say is history…the line can be blurred) and that the Thais stole all the gold, leaving behind this black mound of brick in its place.
Vientiane really is a charming place. From the night market, to the Mekong Exercise clubs, it was all a very nice way to spend a couple of days. I definitely suggest renting a motorbike and I absolutely suggest that you try as much Laotian food as possible, because WOW it’s fantastic! And of course, enjoy some BeerLaos when you’re here!
The first leg of our holiday is coming to an end. At 5:20pm today we fly to Vientiane; the capital of Laos. I must say, I’ve fallen deeply in love with Northern Vietnam. I just finished the best bowl of soup of my life; Chicken Pho to rival grandma’s best noodle soup. The rice noodles are light and delicious, and the fresh lime sits at the top of the soup, too light to sink, and coats every noodle in delicious fresh flavour. Now, I’m ordering my second Vietnamese coffee for the day. Dave pointed out just now that it tastes like Baileys, without the alcohol. He’s right. Motorbikes are zooming past us, and we’re eating on a balcony on some little side street of Hanoi’s old quarter. Life is good.
Halong Bay – History and Modern Uses
Last night we returned from 3 days in Halong Bay. Translated, it means ‘Descending Dragon Bay’, and it’s located in Northern Vietnam, about a 3.5 hour drive from Hanoi City. It’s famous due to its karst limestone landscape, 2000 islands and its many fishing villages.
Historically, Ha Long Bay is significant. People have been living in the area for more than 20,000 years. The bay has also saved Vietnam from Chinese and Mongolian Invasion on more than one occasion. Now, it’s known for its beauty and tourists flock to Northern Vietnam to experience its gorgeous views.
Halong Bay Cruises
The primary way people choose to see the bay is through cruises. There are hundreds of choices to make when taking a Halong Bay cruise, we decided to go with a mid-range, 2 night trip with a night on Cat Ba Island. There are also day trips, 1 night trips and some people choose to spend the night on Monkey Island or other places in the area. 1 night on the boat was enough for me. I don’t know if it was because I was reading Life of Pi, or if the boat noises kept me up, but either way, I didn’t get much sleep during our night on that Vietnamese Junk.
Some of the other boats in the bay
A recently added regulation in the bay forces all boats to be painted white, to lessen the chance of accidents. As a result, some of the individuality of these tours has been lost
Our boat was comfortable enough. We had a comfortable bed and a nice little bathroom to ourselves. The cabin was small, but space isn’t something I expect in Asia, so that was no surprise. We had a fan that worked and an air conditioner that didn’t, and all in all, it was a cool way to spend a night in Halong Bay!
Activities During The Cruise
I feel like we spent all 3 days getting on and off boats for different activities. There were a variety of things to do, including kayaking, exploring a cave, visiting a Pearl farm, visiting Monkey Island and floating past a fishing village. All were interesting in their own way.
Kayaking was probably the most beautiful of all our stops, but the weather made it less enjoyable than it could have been, but still…being on the water was very nice. This activity made me very happy that I still have a water-proof camera 🙂
We visited a huge cave shortly after kayaking as well. It was beautiful and had some pretty spectacular views.
Vietnamese uses the Roman Alphabet. The little symbols above letters indicate tones
Dave and I just outside of the cave
We took this little bridge back to our boat
Day 2 began at a Pearl Farm, where locals have found ways to get oysters making pearls in a sustainable way. It was an educational stop! We learned how pearls are artificially implanted to produce real pearls. This is much better for oyster populations, because before this process was discovered, oysters were found in the wild, opened up and killed just on the off-chance they were carrying pearls.
Oysters are kept in these cage thingys
They are opened up carefully, and 2 things are put inside
This is a piece of donor oyster that helps create the pearl
This is a bead that the pearls will grow around
2 years later, a pearl is ready for harvest!
Monkey Island was our last stop before Cat Ba Island. There’s no surprise regarding what we found there…Dave also went hiking up a steep mountain. He didn’t take any pictures (because, of course he didn’t :p), but he did scrape up his leg on the jagged rocks. Vietnam doesn’t baby its tourists the way Thailand and Cuba does. They let you decide for yourself if you can do something. As a result, Dave saw 60+ year old grandparents hiking up the mountain on his way down.
Cat Ba Island
As I mentioned earlier, our second night of the tour was not spent on a Junk. Instead, we went to one of the only islands in Halong Bay where people live: Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba island is home to about 13,000 residents, and its main purpose is hosting Ha Long Bay tourists.
Docking at Cat Ba Island
It’s a lovely little town
Like everywhere in Vietnam, Motorbikes are the primary means of transportation
As we came into the area, we passed a floating village, home to about 1000 people. These villages are an incredible sight, even when you’ve seen them before. We were able to see a floating village in Cambodia during the dry season. It was very cool seeing one completely afloat!
Fishing villages like this are found all over south east Asia. The most famous ones are Vietnamese
They have everything a normal little town would have; including pets!
Once we checked into our hotel, we rented a motorbike and headed for Cat Ba’s most famous sight: Cat Ba National Park.
The road to the park was stunning
It was about a 30 minute drive, and it was gorgeous the whole way!
Of course, we passed overloaded motorbikes along the way!
The park itself is quite nice. We didn’t see much for wild life, but I made some canine friends! Mostly, we were just happy to be out in the wilderness, enjoying the fresh air and the peace and quiet. The hike up was hard work, but it felt so good to get some good exercise in! I’ve been too busy this year to get to the gym, and my body was definitely not happy with me on the way up, but it was well worth the trip!
The steps were pretty slippery at times. We had to be careful not to fall
A friend of the canine variety
Some random deer we saw fenced in on our way to the mountain
Near the peak we saw this sign. We didn’t go any further because we couldn’t find the way, and when we did finally figure it out, it was time to leave (so we wouldn’t have to drive home in the dark!)
My handsome husband, enjoying the hike!
We stopped at a little shop at the end of the hike and ordered some iced coffees. We figured they’d probably be instant, given the location of the cafe, but this lovely Vietnamese woman made us fabulous Vietnamese iced coffee with fresh grinds and sweetened condensed milk!
We spent the evening walking around and enjoying the town. I think my favourite part of this whole tour was Cat Ba island. I never really feel like I’m on a holiday with Dave until we’ve rented a motorbike! It was also nice not to have a guide following us around. We both enjoyed the freedom to explore the things we were interested in, at the pace we wanted.
One of Cat Ba’s beaches
Dave insisted we take this picture. My helmet hair isn’t as bad as I thought it was!! haha!
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and before long, we were on our way back to Hanoi. We met some very nice people on the way back and it was great chatting with them and hearing their stories. We also learned how to make spring-rolls, which was fun.
Spring Rolls are a traditional Vietnamese food. In the north, they enjoy deep fried spring rolls and in the south, fresh.
This was our guide for the second half of the trip. I kind of hated him…he was always angry!
It was a lovely trip and I’m very glad we made it! Halong bay is definitely a must-see for anyone travelling through south East Asia.
Next, I’ll be writing about our time in Vientiane, Laos! Exciting things are yet to come!!