A Travellerspoint blog

Mong Neua and Luang Prabang

Laos is completely different to Vietnam. On arrival at surely the smallest international airport in the world – Luang Prabang – we were greeted with smiles. People were friendly and when we didn’t have any money for a visa at the airport they let us walk through security on our own to go and get money out. For a visa they charge different amounts of money to people from different countries. Being from England was good as Canadians were charged $10 more to get into the country! This is a pattern all over the world with Australians, Americans and Canadians being charged more to enter countries for some reason.

We headed straight out of Luang Prabang and managed to catch a bus going north to Mong Neua. The word ‘bus’ here is a very loose term. It’s actually an opened-out jeep with 12 people crammed into the back. Foolishly we had left the airport in Luang Prabang with what we thought was a lot of money. Wehad no idea of the conversion rate so withdraw 1 million Laos Kip as this sounded like a lot of money. Surely a million of anything is a lot of money! 20 minutes later we did the conversion whilst we were on the bus to Mong Neua and came to the conclusion we were far from millionaires. We then realized where we were going had 3 hours of electricity a day and the nearest cash point was at the airport we’d just left. We hastily changed our plans a little and chose to stay 3 nights instead of 2.

We then had to catch a 1 hour small boat up to the village of Mong Neua. The ride was stunning. Again, limestone cliffs were the main feature. It was like Halong Bay but on land. For pretty much the first time on our travels we arrived at a place having nowhere booked to stay. How people do that eveytime is beyond us! We walked around in the hot sun with our big bags trying to find a bed for two nights. Initially we had no luck whatsoever with people telling us they were full. Luckily, after half an hour we found a little bungalow with an amazing bed and duvet that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Harrods. For 4 pound a night we snapped it up. The shower and toilet are a bit simple. There is a bucket to use a flush and as a shower head when having a shower. I went to the toilet on the first evening to ‘drop the kids off at the pool’. A day and a half later my bum bomb was still floating around at the bottom of the toilet despite my best efforts to poor bucket after bucket of water on top of it! On check-out we quickly gave the key back to the unsuspecting lady owner and legged it to the harbour. We’re sure she wouldn’t have appreciated the little surprise that we left in the bungalow!

disposing of the evidence

disposing of the evidence

Mong Neua is undoubtedly the most laid back place on Earth! It is so chilled out with the most amazing setting overlooking the river and surrounded by limestone cliffs. We had a whole day just drinking 30p cans of fizz and reading our books. There are loads of cool cats and dogs wandering around the restaurants and we made friends with a puppy called Norm. The laid-back vibe of the place attracts a certain kind of traveler – the hippie traveler. We saw loads and loads of these hippies with countless piercings sporting the same dodgy ‘traveller trousers’ – baggy pyjamas that elasticate round the ankles. They look terrible and people only buy them as they think they are a traveler immersing themselves in the local culture. The funny thing is none of the locals wear clothes anything like the trousers so the result is lots of silly looking people in funny trousers walking around trying to look cool! We really loved the village though and could have spent more time there had we not had the money issues we forced upon ourselves. Instead we left after 2 nights and went back to Luang Prabang the day before Hannah’s birthday.

Hannah chills at Mong Neua

Hannah chills at Mong Neua

Most relaxing place on Earth!

Most relaxing place on Earth!

Luang Prabang is a town with a very good reputation. We’ve been told the whole way round South East Asia that it’s a brilliant place to go. The town has loads of atmosphere and we’re having a great time here. I managed to convince Hannah I was going to get cash out when really I went to buy her some birthday presents. I found an elephant village activity day so booked us on that day as a surprise for Hannah. She was really pleased with the surprise when I told her on the morning of her birthday. It turned out to be one the most amazing days of our 7 months travelling.

First, we got trained in how to get on and off an elephant and how to ride on it’s neck without falling off. Basically you say “Soeng Soeng” to the elephant and very conveniently she bends her leg forming a step for you to lever yourself up. You then pull yourself up onto it’s back by pulling on it’s ear. This sounds a bit mean for the poor elephant but the keepers assured us their ears (the elephants not the keepers) were strong enough to withstand the force. We had a ride around on the neck for a while and then went for a longer ride later in the morning. It’s a really cool feeling on the neck of the elephant. Once you get your balance sorted it’s surprisingly comfortable and very sturdy and safe.

Hannah's birthday surprise

Hannah's birthday surprise

amazing elephant village!

amazing elephant village!

The most fun came after lunch when we got on one elephant each. This time we rode them down into the river for some elephant bathing time! We weren’t sure what to expect when the elephants started getting into the river but the keepers encouraged them to go deeper and deeper with us still riding their necks. We ended up with the elephant completely submerged in the water with only our necks above water! It was brilliant fun! The keepers gave us a brush each and the elephants loved being brushed and scrubbed around their ears and trunk. My elephant however was having too much fun because it seemed intent on drowning me. While the other elephants dipped their riders once or twice, my elephant spent the whole time making me ride an elephant version of the buckin bronco! It went in and out of the water loads of times and wasn’t afraid to fully submerge us both. At one stage it looked like I was giving the elephant a lap dance whilst I tried to maintain balance on the elephant’s neck and not swallow a floating poo that Hannah’s elephant had kidly produced! Hannah was in hysterics and it certainly made for a memorable day.

Boy gives elephant a lap dance

Boy gives elephant a lap dance

Who has the biggest snozz?

Who has the biggest snozz?

We made great friends with the rest of the group and went out for dinner and drinks with them that evening. They are two couples from Canada so my first question was about trying to get an invite to go curling with them! We had a great night and enjoyed some water buffalo for eats and some ‘pink gays’ for drinks!

New friends

New friends

On our last day in Luang Prabang we went to the waterfalls with one of the Canadian couples – Colin and Deidra. Although the ride to the waterfalls was incredibly vomit-inducing it was worth it as the falls were really cool. We ‘manned-up’ by getting in the very cold water. In fact, Deidra showed us the way by getting in first and making the men of the group look weedy and foolish.

Kung si waterfalls

Kung si waterfalls

It was sad leaving Luang Prabang as we’ve had an amazing time here and could have easily spent more time here but we are on a tight schedule as we enter our last week of traveling so it was off to Vang Veing…

Posted by Phildean7 02:30 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Halong Bay

After the very eventful time in Sapa we headed straight to Halong Bay. We bussed it over to Halong City and then got on a 4-hour boat cruise that took in the amazing sites in and around Halong Bay. There are literally thousands of limestone karsts of varying shapes and sizes coming out of the water. The water is very calm and peaceful and we loved the laid-back pace of it all. The boat dropped us off on Cat Ba Island where we found our hotel and were very impressed with the view overlooking yet more limestone karsts.

halong bay

halong bay

We had a much needed rest day the following day before cruising around Lin Ha Bay on another day tour. The tour was really nice and we met another couple from England and wound each other up about by talking about Western foods we were both craving! Bizarrely, Richmond sausages seem to be the item we are craving the most. Must be due to the fact we were having them for BBQ 3 times a week before we left England! We got to do an hour’s kayaking as part of the tour. Kayaking seems to me to be a sure fire recipe for divorce as it always seems to end in arguments and disagreements. We spent the hour trying to get our kayak to go in a straight line with me paddling hard while Hannah sat in the front and took photos!

Vietnam has some absolutely amazing natural places and the area around Halong Bay is definitely one of our favourite places in the whole country.

more halong bay

more halong bay

After two nights on Cat Ba Island we headed back across to the mainland and then back to Hanoi. When we arrived back in our guesthouse they’d given our room to others but arranged us to stay at a hotel across the street. I bit my tongue as we were knackered and just wanted a nice room. Luckily the hotel they moved us to would have cost us double the price and was easily doubly as nice!
We flew out of Vietnam the following day heading into Laos. Vietnam has been a very interesting experience. It has some amazing places like Sapa, Halong Bay and Hoi An. Most of the country is a frenzy of activity with the motorbike ruling the roads and the pavements. With the exception of a few people, the majority of Vietnamese people seem less than pleased to have tourists in their country and there is a lot of aggression when haggling for prices. This makes it a little less appealing than some of the other places we have been but we’ve still loved the time we’ve spent here.

Posted by Phildean7 01:28 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Sapa

From Hoi An, we flew to the capital Hanoi. There is not much to do in the city and everything closed down for Tet (Chinese New Year). We had a day walking around an eerily deserted city doing nothing before catching the night train 10 hours north to Sapa.

Sapa is about 2000m above sea level and is home to stunning mountains in the clouds. We completed an amazing, very surreal three days climbing the highest peak in IndoChina - Mt Fansipan!

Mountain... conquered

Mountain... conquered

From the night train we were transported to a travel agent where we met our guide for the 2 night / 3 day adventure to climb Mt Fansipan (fancy-pants). We thought the guy was having a laugh when he introduced us to our guide who looked about 12 years old and spoke about 2 words of English! However it seems that he was actually our guide and together with a porter who spoke no English at all we set out nervously into the mountains.

The hiking, trekking and climbing took 3 days and was great fun, apart from at night. The terrain was varied throughout as sometimes we went through woodlands, sometimes bamboo forests and other times we climbed cliff faces. We trekked up to 2800m on the first day. It was a mix of steep uphill and downhill trekking as well as some parts you could only describe as hardcore climbing.

Stunning mountain scenery, Fansipan, Sapa

Stunning mountain scenery, Fansipan, Sapa

When we reached our camp it was a bit of shock to the system. We'd been expecting tents but instead we were shown towards a massive corrugated iron shed where they had laid out 2 sleeping bags on top of dirty wood. The shed was full of rubbish and had hundreds of gaps for the wind and other critters to get in. Meanwhile, the guide and porter slept in a different part of camp with a log fire! That night we slept about 1 hour in total. Seeing as it got dark at 7pm, we had to lie there for 12 hours listening to the ridiculously strong wind battering the shed. It was a very scary experience as the gaps meant the wind got in and made everything move. Hannah was in charge of the solitary head torch we owned. Every other minute we would hear something, react and scream to the other person to turn the torch on. At one stage we saw a rat scurrying across the floorboards whilst there were countless other noises and movements that we had to just lie there and cope with until it got light again. We crossed our fingers that it wouldn't be as bad the next night.

Sweet dreams

Sweet dreams

On the second day we set off early after turning down the bizarre offer of noodles for breakfast. Our guide wasn’t feeling well so the porter who spoke no English led the way. It was a hard slog from 2800m to 3140m to reach the summit.

Nearly there... last burst to the summit

Nearly there... last burst to the summit

Fansipan Mountains

Fansipan Mountains

Clouds and mountains!

Clouds and mountains!

It was a white-out when we reached the top but as we went lower the cloud cleared and the views of the surrounding mountains were spectacular. In fact, the entire time we were doing the trek the scenery was as good as what we'd seen on the Inca Trail or in New Zealand. For some reason though the guide and porter were always in a mad rush and so in the end they left us on our own to go at our pace and take photos. Even though we were going very slowly we still finished the second day's trekking at 3:30pm which left us nothing to do in camp all evening. Our second night's sleep was even worse than the first. This time the sleeping arrangements were the same with the guide and porter cosying up in front of a log fire. They extended their kindness enough to give us a solitary candle for the night! It lasted about 20 minutes and so, like the previous night, we lay on the hard, wooden floor fearing for our lives as the wind nearly took the roof off over our heads. We reckon we managed about 2 hours, very patchy sleep each.

Ain't no mountain high enough!! Mission accomplished

Ain't no mountain high enough!! Mission accomplished

On the third day we trekked down to 1700m passing amazing rice paddies and also visiting a minority village. Again, as you can see from the pictures, the scenery was stunning and despite of our sleeping issues, the trek was well worth it.

Rice paddies

Rice paddies

We returned that evening to Hanoi on the night train and were absolutely exhausted when we reached Hanoi at 4am. We then waited 4 hours until getting picked up to begin our trip to Halong Bay...

Posted by Phildean7 05:06 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Hoi An

Firstly, the night bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An…

It was our first experience of a Vietnamese night bus and it certainly was an interesting experience. The beds are like hospital beds with half of them raised 2 metres off the floor. It’s described on the ticket as a sleeper bus but I wouldn’t call it a sleeper bus as we didn’t really manage to get much sleep. This was because my bed was 6 inches shorter than everyone else’s bed! So, whilst the ‘gigantic’ Vietnamese people stretched out snugly in their seats, I arranged myself in the fetal position for the best part of 13 hours.

Night bus... hospital style

Night bus... hospital style

Moaning out of the way; the journey was definitely worth it as our destination – Hoi An, is a fantastic little town. It’s unlike any other place we have seen in Vietnam. It has character, is picturesque and is calm and relaxing. You can walk around the street freely without the fear of being run over by a motorbike. Every other shop is a tailor shop and so during our time in Hoi An we got some clothes made. They can basically make any item of clothing for you and you just have to choose the fabric and style you require. Hannah was in her element and the Vivienne Westwood in her came out as she designed herself two dresses. They were ready hours later and we were really impressed with the outcome. Whilst Hannah was designing her dress I was haggling with the shop owner over the price of some amazing lounging pants I’d seen. We saw them a couple more times later in the day and it turns out I was actually haggling for a pair of ladies trousers for myself!

We took the opportunity to get a made-to-measure suit each. At one stage Hannah considered getting hers done using the same colours and materials as mine but I managed to persuade her away from this idea as we may have ended up looking like a pair of lesbians at a prom! The suits came out brilliantly. The most impressive thing being the silk lining you could choose. I opted for electric blue whilst Hannah went for a bright red. Other the three days we went back and forwards for fittings and the final results were very good. We are now looking for an opportunity to wear them as soon as we get back to England. We are so desperate to wear them that we’re even considering wearing them for the plane journey home! Whilst in Hoi An we also managed to complete a cookery course. We had a brilliant Vietnamese teacher who managed to overlook our incompetence and show us how to make beef noodles, chicken in banana leaf and vegetarian spring rolls. We found an amazing curry house and were so impressed we ate there every night during our stay!

Ready, steady, cook!

Ready, steady, cook!

4 curries in 4 nights!

4 curries in 4 nights!

The Chinese New Year is celebrated here on 3rd February so Happy New Year to everyone! It gives us a chance to turn over a new leaf and re-start our original New Year’s resolutions that we set a month ago and lost our way with. There are colourful Chinese lanterns everywhere and random fires burning on the street sides. There doesn’t seem to be that much boisterous celebrations going on however. Everything is shut and it seems that people tend to spend the time indoors with family. We have just about managed to find the last few shops that are open and have stocked up on the essentials to keep us going over the holiday shut down - Snickers, coca-cola, crisps, etc…

Posted by Phildean7 14:39 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Dalat and Nha Trang

We successfully cycled from Dalat to Nha Trang a few days ago.

The bike ride was great fun. We started with about 30km of what the tour company described as 'rolling hills'. 30 minutes later i felt like suing the tour company under the trade descriptions act since the hills were certainly not 'rolling'. They were actually steep and rapid descents followed by even steeper, back-breaking climbs up a hill / mini-mountain. Describing them as rolling was like describing Everest as a small mound.

Happy at the beginning of bike ride

Happy at the beginning of bike ride

All the way through the first 30km they had warned us about the 5km solid uphill ascent that awaited us. I wasn't sure i was even go to make it that far. The clouds closed in and the temperature dropped and before long we couldn't see more than 2 metres in front of ourselves. After a short, Oreo-filled break we set about the steady 5km climb to the top. I had taken up a steady position as the back marker by now as the others, including two 55-year old's, set the pace up front. Whenever we do these physical excursions there always seems to be a ridiculously fit older person either with knee or hip replacements. On first glance i always assume that i won't be the most unfit in the group but then we start and all of a sudden the bloke who i thought resembled Compo from Last of the Summer Wine suddenly transforms into Daley Thompson!

I did actually make it to the top of the climb, finishing ahead of Hannah who persevered and powered her way through the climb to the top. I was helped a little by two very welcoming words - 'support vehicle'. The whole way through the ride a support vehicle had been chugging along behind us and become my faithful companion at the back of the group. When the driver of the support vehicle decided that if he went any slower he would go backwards, he ushered me inside the vehicle for the remaining 2km. Myself and the support vehicle had started a relationship that must be close to how a blind man feels towards his labrador.

After a quick lunch we then set out on 30km solid downhill riding. It was more like sitting than riding though as the hills were so steep you didn't have to do any peddling and could just enjoy the stunning mountain scenery whilst pelting downhill at 50mph! It was amazing and i'm not sure we'll ever expereince riding such a long downhill again. The newly laid road helped as did the abscence of traffic. On reaching the bottom it was nice to clench my hands together again as for the last hour they had been permanently ready to apply the brakes. One thing that refused to clench however was my bottom which was bruised and battered and provided me with a comedy John Wayne walk.

Dalat mountains

Dalat mountains

The secret to recovering after a long bike ride is very simple. A nice curry and some beers in the evening and then a day at the spa the following day. We enjoyed both of these. The day at the spa was fantastic. First we went in the mud baths. It was like being covered in thick chocolate but felt really good. It wasn't as thick as we thought it might be but still clung on to your body and supposedly was good for the skin. Next we enjoyed a mineral bath in a private, heart-shaped pool. I got in first and then Hannah jumped in a few moments later. For some reason when Hannah got in a load of water overspilled out of the pool. They had obviously over-filled the pool, there could be no other explanation!

Mud baths!

Mud baths!

Mineral baths

Mineral baths

Our last treat at the spa was a 1 hour, full-body massage. This is something that i've never experienced before and it certainly was an eye-opener! We were ushered into seperate rooms where we changed into scummy, communal shorts that you might expect to wear if you'd forgotten your PE kit. Then we were asked to lie face down and for the next hour the masseuse used every one of her limbs to alieviate all of your aches and pains. At one stage she was walking up and down on my back using a pole attached to the ceiling for support! Ten minutes later i could feel her knees pressing against my shoulder blades as she attempted some sort of crab maneouvure and it all finished with some bizarre popping thing on the toenails. It felt really good though and we both came out feeling very relaxed with no aches or pains.

We are moving on tonight (Thursday) as we get our first taste of a Vietnamese sleeper bus. We move to Hoi An for 4 nights and then fly to Hanoi. One month left now but we are trying our best not to think too much about home and enjoy every last second of our adventure.

Posted by Phildean7 21:36 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

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