Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hoi An

Hot mug of coffee in hand after a filling breakfast, compliments of the luxury hotel we are residing in for $25/night. Middle-aged French people waddle around the pool and ramble in loud voices at tables consuming black coffee with baguettes and croissants. Am I still in Vietnam? Who cares! It is a welcome change and retreat from the cool misty North where the people never smiled as they yell "You come buy something" with a cold stone-faced stare. We are in Hoi An, a city that has survived through many wars with architecture and infrastructure intact that date back more than 400 years. It has bee a pleasant city to wander through, especially in the evening when the streets awaken to live local performances all aglow in various shades and colours of oriental lanterns strung in rows between trees, buildings and over bridges. A large dragon, fish and phoenix dance in reflecting light cast on the rivers surface as we gawk in wonder from the waters edge. Vietnam is starting to grow on me and I have found many reasons to enjoy my travels through the country. The further south we move, the friendlier the people become as does the weather.

Yesterday, as I made my way to an empty beach on rented bicycle the Sun broke through the clouds. With a stroll up the beach alongside the crashing waves on soft wet sand I located a premium spot in which I could practice yoga postures in isolation. Saluting the Sun in the humid morning air and welcoming its rays upon my face, forgetting that the malaria medication has light sensitivity as a side effect, I took refuge in the warmth of its glow. Alternating between headstands in the sand and body surfing on the crashing waves for two hours I decided it was time to head back. By 2pm, now back at the hotel, a familiar stinging sensation was making its presence known over the surface of my body. A brilliant lobster red had taken over the normal slightly tanned pink tones of my skin. What a rookie backpacker mistake I think to myself throughout the night as I carefully roll under cotton sheets trying to find a comfortable position to sleep.


I have nothing more to add about Hoi An than Jevin has already written, so I'll just post some pictures to show just how lovely this town is.


River at the tourist front of Hoi An Town

Across the river

Jevin, drawn like a moth to the flame

Our time in Hoi An consisted mostly of drinking coffee and eating desserts like these.

The culprit beach of Jevin's sunburn tale.  Those round things are fishing boats.

One of the old buildings in old Hoi An

Isn't she lovely?

Lunch at our most frequented restaurant, the Cargo Club.  It is where we had those pretty desserts, stuffed sea bass, Camembert Salad and so much more. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Reflections on Cat Ba

Arriving in Cat Ba after a series of bus and boat rides, we discover it is a vacant town. Bussling on sunny weekends this place must be a sought after destination for tourists seeking beaches, climbing, trekking, sailing and kayaking. For us, the Sun never pearced the lingering cloud cast over the island. We were damp the entire duration of our stay, but the weather did not hamper our sense of adventure and we sought to explore the marvels of new place.

Kayaking was the first activity we pursued. From the water's surface we gained a perspective of towering limestone Karsts that appeared as petrified sail fins of ancient titan sea creatures. A cetacean family frozen and eternalized in a mystical landscape. Together we paddled in pursuit of our guide, who with gentle strokes and remaining perfectly dry outpaced our greatest efforts to keep up. At moments I become lost in the solitude of mind. My body now in rythym with the ocean as waves lapped against the side of the narrow craft. The paddle slipping into shallow strokes with a slosh that propelled me gently forward. Slosh, slosh, slosh I glided over the deep grey water. Around me distant forms appeared from within the misty veil that shrouded the horizon. Comforted, as if cloaked in a warm blanket I took rest. Bobbing in fluid sync with the movement of water a moment of awe stuck me about the granduer of the world and the privilage I've been granted to explore it with good friends. After three hours of exploring rock faces and clam farms we headed to our point of departure in search of a warm exchange of clothes.

Our second day of adventuring brought us to Cat Ba National Park and a hospital cave constructed during the American/Vietnam war. Forty-five minutes on the back of a scooter winding around the coastal road of the island delivered us to our destination. Cat Ba was like a gulf island, but in a foriegn land. We climbed a mountain in the national park and gained a 360 degree view of our temporary residence while exchanging travel stories with a young couple from Chili. Dampened to the core we made reservations to exit the island the following day in search of warmer weather.

After a short journey to Na Binh we decided to continue further south, by recommendation of fellow travelers, to the city of Hue. On arrival in Na Binh we were informed of a boat accident that claimed the life of twelve people earlier that morning in the vicinity of the island we had just left. Most of those who died were tourists who had taken an overnight tour on a Junk Boat. My mind raced with the possibility of that being us. If we had agreed with a guide who suggested the same tour to us, we could have been caught in that very situation. By fate or intuitive decision we had arrived safely to continue our journey. My heart goes out to the families and friends of those who were lost. The world is a very small place and we have made friends who we know for only a few days and then are gone forever. To all of you, safe journeys.

Last day in Hue

I've got to say that Hue has really brightened my perception of Vietnam.  I know that it's pointless to try and pigeonhole a country after seeing so little of it, but experience is a more powerful method of persuasion than literature and logic.

Today was truly wonderful.  Our goal for the afternoon was to rent bikes again and make our way south of the city to the elaborate tombs of various emperors.  We took our time getting going in the morning but eventually joined the motorcycle traffic and wound our way through the unexplored passageways of Hue. 

Before arriving at the tombs, we found ourselves biking up to a big concrete wall, behind which we could see tall trees encircling something beyond our vision.  Compelled to enter, we found ourselves leaving the busy city streets for a quiet enclosure.  Rows of tall conifers shielded us from the glare of the sun while the high walls deflected the street noise.  This place was an unexpected but welcome oasis.  We approached the main structure unaware of its purpose.  Breath and movement slowed in the quiet.  Perception heightened.

David feeling the moment
We walked around with an unhurried pace, taking photos and pondering the environment.

Found a friend on a tiny tree

Slow movements
Before leaving, we opened up our guide book and found out that the place is called Nam Giao Espanade and was once the most important religious site in Vietnam.  The three tiers represent Heaven, Earth, and Humanity.  Ancient emporers would make elaborate animal sacrifices every year on the top teir of the Espanade to ensure their ongoing stability and superiority.  In modern times, rituals are still held regularily onsite.

We left the area feeling light and adventurous, ready for the next leg of our bicycle journey.  A few kilometers later, we were at Tu Duc Tomb.   We expected to see a temple with a sarcaphogus in it but we were met with much more.  The site was a huge walled-in space filled with ruins, multiple burial sites, a man-made lake and islet, and various other buildings that were used by Tu Duc for reading and writing poetry; housing his 104 wives, multiple concubines, and slaves; entertaining guests; and whatever else he felt like doing. 

One of Tu Duc's modern slaves maintaing the flowers

Large man-made lake in which Tu Duc leisurely paddle and fished

Ferns growing out of the ruins of concubines' residense

Grave of one of Tu Duc's 104 wives

Pre-enterance to Tu Duc's grave.  The slab directly behind Robyn and Jevin contains Tu Duc's autobiography in which he elaborates on his many faults as a ruler.
The story goes something like this:  The country was in poor shape due to a continued struggle against the French who, at some point, colonised Vietnam and made life generally miserable for its inhabitants.  The situation stressed Tu Duc out too much so, instead of doing something to better the situation for his people, he had this tomb built by thousands of slaves so he would have a place to forget about all the problems he was supposed to be solving.  Instead of ruling his people, he wrote poetry.  I imagine that his 104 wives and as many concubines probably took up quite a bit of his time as well.  In the end, he admitted to his many faults as ruler and is now remembered as a humble and self critical man.  My detailed psychoanalysis is that he was able to sidestep his responsibility to the nation by being the first to point out his own shortcomings.  I've probably messed up some details, but this is my impression of the situation.

Walking around the ruined buildings was quite nice.  Moss and ferns covered everything and it felt like we had the whole royal place to ourselves. 

We left the tomb and headed back into town down a back lane that looked like something out of a movie.  The three of us wheeled down the cobbled street passing ladies in cone hats, old men on rickety bicycles, and children playing games of imagination.  To the west, we could see over the Perfume River to a decrepet old town on the side of a hill.  We slowed upon passing a graveyard, tombstones and shrines piled on top of eachother.  This might be the land of ghosts. 

Back in Hue we joined the traffic.  As crazy as the rules of the road are, it's pretty fun to bike in the thick of it.  We were just three of a thousand bicycles all crossing a bridge.   I feel that this mode of transportation is one of the few ways I can do as the Vietnamese do.  It's a simple thing but it feels good.

A few hours and a bunch of raw tuna later, I decided to break from the pack and hit the night streets on my own.  With no destination in mind, I wandered into an art gallery. I really enjoy the candor of asian watercolors.  The lines, colors, and concepts are so simple but they fascinate me all the same.  I bought a small painting.  The scene is of three people, just taking a walk through an old town.  Simple. 

Feeling mellow, I headed for the river.  I wanted to find somewhere to lose myself.  Across a bridge, I said goodbye to the last white face I'd see for hours and wandered down a side street. 

I stopped when I heard the bell.  Mindfullness.  Is that what it meant to the 20 or so people dressed in white? Kneeling and bowing towards an alter.  Standing.  Hands to the third eye center in prayer.  Back down.

I walked into an alley and listened as the bellsound faded behind me.  Should I be here?  A man followed me.  Did he follow me or does he live here?  I'm not afraid but I'm a little afraid.  There are dogs, voices.  It smells like vanilla.  You could never breathe in this deep in Bangkok.  It might be sweet at first but then you'd get a big whiff of urine and that would just ruin the whole thing.  I keep walking and spot another house full of people chanting and singing.  What does it mean?  They are all women.  Men stand outside.  I am noticed.  He smiles and attempts communication.  Failure, no surprise there.  I decide that it's time for the alley to turn into a road but it doesn't listen and just turns into a dead end.  I've got to go back.  Past the man.  Past the dogs.  Mmmm, past the vanilla.  Deep breathing.  Into the street.  I feel safe. 


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Meditation on a Developing Nation

*Disclaimer:  This post is whiny, opinionated, and not properly researched.  Read at your own risk*

I have a confession.  I have romantisized the lives of Southeastern Asians.  You see, back at home I am fairly concerned about issues of sustainability and environmental degredation, social collapse and the failure of our political system.  I have wrongly assumed that the disconnect between Canadians, their communities, and the environment is a product of a western mentality, a problem faced by Canadians, Americans, and a handful of other nations. 

In Canada, we are draining our natural resources, polluting our air and water, filling garbuge dumps, and burning petroleum at an unsustainable rate with no significant signs of slowing.  While people and polititians pay lip service to the concept of change, the fact is that things are getting worse faster than they're getting better.

The case in the coutries we've visited in the last few months is, I would say, much worse.  The cities are bursting at the seems with a population that isn't prepared to even talk about conserving energy or reducing waste. 

Our first encounter with this was in Bangkok.  We noticed right away that everything came in a plastic bag... or two.  Buy a shirt at a street vendor, plastic bag.  Buy a piece of meat on a stick, plastic bag.  Buy a handmade bag, it goes in a plastic bag.  Buy a coca-cola, they take a plastic bag, fill it with ice, pour the drink in, give you two straws, and then put it all in another plastic bag.  When you try to say that you'll just put something in your pack or you'll just eat it, they get so confused.  Last time I was in Asia, I ate from banana leaves.  Today, it is styrofoam containers.  These bags and containers go almost immediately onto the street where they join piles of rotting meat, engine oil, empty beverage containers, and animal feces among other things.  Some of these are picked up at night by the garbage crews, but much of it is washed into the open drains, to the river untreated, and right into the ocean.  There's a plastic garbage island out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is larger than the state of Texas and I'd be willing to bet that most of trash out there comes from developing nations as opposed to Canada and the States.

It seems that many of the city dwellers are completely disconnected from how their actions affect natural and urban environments.  The only focus is on making a living.  The immediate economic costs are the only costs considered.

The mentality has been the same wherever we have been.  When we took the slowboat down the Mekong river.  The crew would take garbage, tie it up in plastic bags, and then throw it overboard.  We could watch it float along beside us. 

The situtation in rural asia isn't much better.  Garbage lines even the lonely roads of secluded hill-top villages.  Farmers practise slash-and-burn farming where they burn down a chunk of rainforest and convert it to cropland or pasture.  After two or three years, the nutrients have been drained from the soil and another area of forest is cleared.  This practise might be alright if the forest recovered but it doesn't.  The landscape is forever scarred. 

There are so few corners of the world untouched by human development.  People live at the base of every cave, cling to the sides of every mountain, and build cities and farms in every valley.  If the mentality and practises of the people don't progress, the natural world doesn't stand a chance.

With this perspective, it seems like Canada is light years ahead on issues of sustainability.  The following are some attributes that I think have contributed to our advantage over developing nations: a relatively stable government and economic system, the resources to study our situation and propose solutions, the infrastructure to distribute information and educate the masses, and a large resource and land mass to population ratio.

I think I'm going to stop here because this is starting to sound like a really poorly researched paper.  I am not writing this to educate people or to instigate change.  I am writing this because it hurts me to see unhappy people killing themselves and their world when it is possible and in fact necessary to live harmoniously in the universe. 


   I have made two posts back to back and the previous one is all smiles.  Scroll down!

Hue makes me happy

We've made it to central Vietnam and everything seems so much brighter. It is still misty and cool but now everything is alright.

Our clothes are clean and dry and the showers are hot. The Vietnamese of the North were, in our experience, bitter and rude to us. In this city we've been greeted with smiles and patience and even got invited by a stranger over for dinner and drinks (we didn't go fearing poison and robbery).
Hue has a reputation for good food and, so far, the rumors are true. Most of our meals have been so much better than they have been.  Both the Vietnamese and International restaurants have been delicious. Last night we gorged on sushi ($25 for what would've been $100 back home) and tonight we had some very fine Indian food. The Vietnamese food is typically a little cheaper and simpler: chicken soup with rice noodles, stir-fries, and seafood.  When I am able to eat tasty food, life just seems more joyful.
Today we rented bicycles and toured the city.  The main feature of the town is the citatel, a tall and thick wall that encircles the majority of the original land area.  Inside are houses and streets, shops and restaurants, and the Imperial Enclosure which houses the ruins of old temples and the old palace. 

Gate into the Citatel

Bike trouble inside the Citatel Walls
All in all, it's a very impressive structure that is completely surrounde by a moat. 

Gate to the Imperial Enclosure
Once inside the Imperial Enclosure, we were all very respectful in our actions and picture taking...

Nice Angle

Jevin vs. Lucky Dragon

Robyn found a friend
OK, so maybe we weren't as respectful as we could have been.
My camera ran out of juice just as things were getting good so I'll  have to convince Jevin to upload some of his shots.  In the back of the enclosure, we found a lake and made our way onto its island where we were surrounded by overgrown ruins.  Every crack in the walls had a fern or vine growing out of it.  On the island we found a nice quiet spot to watch a fisherman in a tiny boat with a tiny paddle check his nets.  Watching him slowly glide across the water was very relaxing and I can't think of a better way to spend a misty day.
Tomorrow we are planning on checking out the local market.  Maybe I'll get some new undies!  After that, we will tour some emperor's tombs.  Should be a good day.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Halong Bay and Cat Ba Town

This past week has seen our trio bus-boat-bus from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island and National Park.  As we expected, the weather was uncooperative.  Far from being sunny and hot, the sky was grey and we couldn't escape the dampness anywhere. Even in the cold, most restaurants and hotels are open to the air.  What we didn't expect was that we are absolutely no good at dealing with less-than-perfect weather.  We had a hard time staying happy out on the island.

I know that we have no right to complain when all of our friends at home are digging their cars out from beneath 3 feet of snow on a daily basis, but we weren't at all prepared for the change.  Each day we wore almost all of our clean clothes.  I should note that the term 'clean' is being applied more loosely as time goes on. 

The island itself is quite lovely, home to immense biodiversity and a rich geological history.  The entire region is smattered with limestone karst, remnants of ancient coral beds crushed and squeezed together over millions of years.  We explored karst islands by kayak the as our first activity, four hours of paddling the cold paradise.

The sand on the many beaches is made broken coral.  It is also what makes up the limestone cliffs (after a little processing).

Jevin kayaking around one of the many islets

View from the best seat in the house, the back of a kayak
Robyn and I assume ourselves to be up for all manner of outdoors activity, naturally gifted with basic outdoor skills like paddling.  This is not the case.  By the end of four hours, we were soaked in salty water while Jevin and our guide were dry and comfortable.  We had worn almost all of our warm clothes out on the water and were doomed to freeze for the next few days.

Our base for adventure, Cat Ba Town, was composed of two streets that ran parallel to a small harbour.  The street facing the water was only hotels and restaurants (terrible terrible restaurants) and the only Vietnamese people we really saw there were selling things and trying to get us to climb on the back of their motorcycles (harmless, I can assure you).  The merchants here lack the tact of their Thai and Lao contemporaries.  Instead of trying to be nice and hospitable, they point randomly to their wares, expecting money to just fall out of your pockets (which it sometimes does) or yell "Buy something!  Buy something!" at you as you walk by, trying to ignore. 

But, as cold as it seemed and as rude as the locals were, you'd be hard pressed to find as good a view for $6/night anywhere else in the world...

View from Cat Ba Town Hotel Room

View of the harbour through our hotel window.

The day after kayaking, we bought a 'tour' of the National Park.  This consisted of the tour operator flagging down three motorcycle taxis to drive us to the park and wait at the bottom while we walked through the paths.  It was a really nice ride to the park but if we had known what the tour would've been, we'd have rented some motorbikes and cruised around ourselves for a fraction of the cost.  Nevertheless, it was a nice experience.  I just hope that we learn how to stop getting ripped off before we leave this country because it's getting ridiculous. 

Here's some shots from the 'tour'.

Working the fields

View from a watchtower high up in the national park
  By the end of our time on Cat Ba Island, we were ready for some warmer weather.  We got on a boat and travelled due south to arrive in Hue where we could finally wash our clothes, take warm showers, and use the internet.

We've been here for only a few hours and we've already run into multiple groups of people we have known from the last few weeks of our travels.  It's amazing how you keep bumping into the same people.  We're going to get together for drinks tonight with a trio of girls from Iceland and Joel from New York.  Should be fun!

But now, SUSHI !!!!!!


Thursday, February 17, 2011

We Are Alive

There may be some very astute blog followers that realize we were just in Halong Bay, Vietnam, and that there was a boat accident today in which 12 people died.  If this is you, fear not.  We are very much alive which is somewhat surprising considering the dreadful cuisine we've had to suffer through on Cat Ba Island. 

We're heading south to Hue and hope to have a little more time there to fill everyone in on our adventures.

David, Robyn, and Jevin

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Leaving Hanoi

It's been a welcome comfort to be in a city for the last week.  Public washrooms, shopping malls, diversity of food.  It's been a real treat and we've been pretty much blowing our budget every day.

The day before last we went to the Fine Art Museum which was really nice.  It was three floors of Vietnamese fine art from 10,000 years ago, up through the various wars, and into the modern era. There were some really nice pieces and it was especially nice to leave the chaos of the streets behind for the serenity and pace of the gallery.

Ancient Head in Fine Art Museum

Fine Art Museum, Hanoi

Fine Art Museum, Third Floor, Hanoi
After the museum, we stopped for lunch at a nice bistro.  On the menu was a lentil salad on lettuce with slightly roasted cubes of pumpkin, all served with a light balsamic drizzle.  Robyn had grilled chicken on a salad with fresh tomatoes, sliced mangoes, and a Dijon mustard vinaigrette.  For dessert was a poached pear in a red wine reduction served with creme fraiche and mango slices.  Delicious.
Site of Ho Chi Minh's Embalmed Corpse, Hanoi
 Our time here has been spent wandering the streets, at once soaking in the culture and avoiding rogue scooters.  This is one of the few places we've been where we haven't been catered to as tourists the entire time.  The shops along the streets are frequented by the locals and, unlike the poorer regions we've visited, all of the restaurants are patronized by both locals and foreigners.  This includes everything from street noodle stalls to high-end Japanese restaurants. 

Last night we watched an aerobics class take place in a city center.  I decided to join in and see what the fuss was all about:

.  It was about as invigorating as it looked.
View out over one of the many inner-city lakes, Hanoi
 Alright, I've got to eat up and jump on the bus to Cat Ba. 


Oh Boy Hanoi

Oh boy Hanoi you are so coy before the break of dawn, but at first light your streets bring fright to anyone greater than one meter tall!

Just arrived back at the guest house after a full day of museums, war education and an evening water puppet show. All were great fun, but the anxiety of walking the streets here is something to experience first hand. What we would consider a close call back home between pedestrian and motor vehicle occurs an average of every ninety seconds in Hanoi. On edge every minute with no safe place to walk, because logically it makes sense to park every scooter on the sidewalk, one is constantly dodging traffic in every direction. Beware Saskatoon we are picking up some worldly driving habits!

Its been a good city to visit and tomorrow we will be on our way to Cat Ba in Ha Long Bay, which is designated a World Heritage Site.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Rockin' Paksan & the Cave of Kong Lor

The bus from Phonsavan to Paksan was a lengthy journey but not for dangerous bumpy roads as much for a countless number of stops in the many villages en route. At first I rejoiced in the empty mustard-yellow Russian made bus, thinking I would be one of only a few passengers. It was a cool misty drive for fifteen minutes before the first stop was made. After an hours wait the bus was soon full and not only with happy Lao faces. Loaded into every niche and crevice were peoples personal belongings that included canisters of diesel, chickens (alive) in cages and boxes, bags of dripping meat, machine parts, etc. With every seat now filled, including the makeshift wooden bench balanced in the center isle, we headed onward. I thought again naively that we were at capacity and would head directly for our final destination in Paksan. I was wrong! We stopped and loaded twice as many passengers at every stop as the number that had just gotten off. People were piled on top of one another, not me, and we continued our journey down the yellow dust roads. With scarf tied around my face, like a Western cowboy in films of old, I entered hibernation and swayed to and fro with the dance of the bus. Nine hours had passed and we reached the terminal in Paksan. With intuition as my only guide I headed left. After forty-five minutes of wandering with pack on back I came across BK Guesthouse. It was a clean room, small in size, but had a fan and hot water and was all mine for the night.

With a hot shower and a few minutes stretched-out on white linen sheets I re-clothed and headed in search of some delicious Laos sticky rice. Finding a promising location I ordered the aforementioned dish with a course of stir-fried veggies. Salivating in anticipation of my long awaited meal I apply mosquito spray, organic, and watch my server walk to the table. A basket of sticky rice is placed before me along with fried lettuce in oyster sauce. OK, it must be what is in season and I devour it all. While basking in the moonlight along the river with stomach now full my attention is drawn to a distant lyrical thumping. Curious, I pay my bill and head off in discovery. At this moment I notice a spotlight making its elliptical path in the dusty evening sky. I follow my senses and arrive at a pop rock concert hosted by Nestle with at least 500 locals in attendance and one white guy (me). I felt as famous as the performers on stage as I strolled through the crowds, at least eight inches taller than everyone else, receiving starry gazes from giggling girls and "hello's" from the men with large smiles. It was a worthwhile night and I had arrived on the right evening.

The next morning I made my way to the crossroads where I had been told the local bus would pick me up at nine. At ten-thirty the bus arrived and I was on my way to Kong Lor. I overshot my destination by two-hours, which I discovered from a fellow traveler from Spain and had to backtrack. Four hours of unnecessary travel, but I met a travel companion for the next few days whose name I did not properly store. We headed to Na Hin where we split accommodations for the night and in the morning headed for the village of Kong Lor.

The 45km trip took two hours, which I have now become accustom to because of the many stops and we arrived at the park entrance by noon. We set out to find a home stay and with little effort we met Buun Homme and his family who set us up. We ditched our packs and headed to the cave entrance. The boat can fit a max of three people and my new travel companion wanted to wait for a third person to save us each a dollar. After about twenty minutes no one arrived and I insisted we make our journey through the cave. We were provided life vests and made our way into the darkness before boarding a long slim wooden canoe. With headlamps lit we puttered on the shallow waters into the depths of an immense subterranean darkness. A feeling of absolute isolation overcomes you as you advance into the shadows that absorb the light beaming from your brow. We stop on a rocky shore and are instructed to hike up an incline. A few minutes pass as I continue in solitude, my travel partner now far ahead of me, before my surroundings light up in eerie blue glow. I am surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites. An alien landscape before me, perhaps I have traveled through space to some distant planet. In amazement I walk forward through the glowing humid cave; the air never moves here. France had embarked on a lighting project for this area in an attempt to bring tourism to Kong Lor. We re-boarded the canoe and made our way further into the darkness. An hour had passed in nearly complete sensory deprivation before light again entered my eyes. We made it to the exit and an adjoining small village. With a short stop we headed back. The round-trip through the 7.5 km stretch of cave took almost 2.5 hours and was well worth the arduous journey through rural Laos.

Upon exist I swam in the lagoon at the caves entrance and made my way back to the family's home for dinner. We consumed a lovely meal with three other travelers from a local guest house and we danced with a group of children until their bedtime at ten. The first night I tossed and turned until one-thirty and was awoken at three by the calls of the many roosters. At five am the whole family was awake and so was I. Spending the day in exploration of village paths through the forest and along the river I came back to the lagoon and had another refreshing swim. My two-night home stay in Kong Lor was by far the most enchanting experience I have had in Laos and it took forceful effort for me to move on to Vietnam. New developments of guesthouses and even a resort were underway in this small village and I fear that it will not be the same if ever I were to return.

In Vinh

It is a misty afternoon in the city of Vinh. It was a long day of travel crossing the boarder from Lak Xoa, Laos to Vietnam, but no issues were encountered and I made it to the city unscathed and in relative comfort compared to the cramped conditions of the public buses in Laos. Arriving in my first Vietnamese city alone and tired I pointed myself in a direction and started to walk. The weight of my pack, although it is relatively small, felt like an elephant and I was eager to find a place to unload, wash-up and find some fine cuisine. A few days of swimming and bathing in a lagoon with the addition of many hours of traveling dusty sun baked roads had added a thin film of rugged roughness to my appearance that is uncommon in the demeanor of the neatly dressed and well manicured Vietnamese people that I have encountered thus far.

My first approach to a hotel was in hesitation as the building looked to be crumbling and the room price was far too high. Drearily I trekked on through the throngs of bikes and scooters. Walking many more blocks and believing I was near the train station I spotted a clean hotel with reasonable prices. Viewing the room, I unloaded my pack and without hesitation agreed to stay the night. After a hot shower, feeling refreshed, I set out on the busy streets in search of a good meal. Passing many hawkers toting unidentifiable shredded meats and unfamiliar dishes that sent my appetite running I finally came across a restaurant crowded with locals. Finding a seat inside I started to browse the menu all of which was written in Vietnamese. After a few minutes of bewilderment and hard staring at the unfamiliar characters, hoping if I just looked long enough that it would all make perfect sense, the waitress waded through the bones and debris of past meals scattered about the floor to hand me a limited version of the menu written in English. Uncertain still about the dishes I made a meal of steamed rice, broiled green leaves and two fried eggs. With hunger suppressed I ventured on to find the train station.

Standing in front of a poster board of times and trains at the station, with the same bewildered expression on my face as in the restaurant, a local man who spoke some English approached me and provided some instruction on reading the board. With a time and train written on paper I made my way to the counter and handed them the sheet. In response, some confused looks and a reply I did not comprehend. Eventually, after a few drawings and some vigorous hand movements, my attempt at sign language, a ticket was booked for the sleeper train the following evening to Hanoi. Success by virtue of kindness and patience! Fatigued, I took a taxi back to the hotel and crashed on the bed with the television tuned to Asian teen music videos. The same teen angst exists the world over. I drifted off to sleep and found comfort there in dreams filled with friends and colourful cartoon birds; a perfect retreat from a long days journey.

P.S. Facebook is blocked in Vietnam so for the next few weeks we will be unable to upload photos there or receive your messages. If you would like to send me a note at I would love to hear from you!


Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Streets of Hanoi

This post comes pretty soon after the last one so make sure to read about our journey from Laos into Vietnam (scroll down).  Also, although we know that our beloved family and friends are reading this blog, we don't know what you think.  If you are reading this and find it interesting leave a comment, ask a question.  It'll be a fun way to interact!

Hanoi, Day One

Robyn and I rode into this town feeling a little run down after a long bus ride.  We needed a day to recharge so we took it easy on day one... and it was awesome.  We didn't leave the hotel before noon.  Long hot showers (even a bathtub), laundry service, complimentary breakfast. This is a different world.

It's hard to believe that we drove by a bunch of villagers hulling rice and feeding chickens because this city has all the modernity of New York (I've never been but I can speculate) including giant cinemas and shopping centers, expensive cars stuck in traffic jams, iPod stores on every corner, coffee shops, and old men playing their version of checkers around a beautiful urban lake (in which we saw one man catching his lunch: tiny catfish he would grab out of the water with scissors.  I refused to believe that he would be eating bottom feeders from a lake full of garbage but we asked him and he said the fish were lunch.  I just hope that I'm not buying those fish from his restaurant.).   

Robyn and I wandered the streets for hours with the dim goal of finding Megastar Cinema where we'd take a load off and watch an English-language movie. We weaved our way through the winding streets, lost from the start.  We had walked around for almost 6 hours before we actually found the theatre.

I thought that walking across the street in Bangkok was risky.  It doesn't compare to Hanoi.  Here, everyone drives scooters and with scooters, there are no rules.  You can drive backwards, forwards, through red lights, on the sidewalk, anything.  To cross the street, we had to just walk slowly through heavy traffic, hoping that the drivers would see us in time to avoid us.  In the scariest case, we walked across a street in rush hour and came within about 1 foot from maybe 30 motorcycles.  I took a video of one uncontrolled intersection where four busy lanes of traffic all squirm through each other while rickshaws pedal through, pedestrians try to pass, and a Vietnamese man tries to sell balloons.  Check out the short video.  Saskatoon is going to seem so clean and tame by the end of this trip.

 Love love

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Phonsavanh, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam

Robyn and I parted ways with Jevin at Phonsavanh.  He wanted to boat through a 7.5 km cave, Tham Kong Lo, while we wanted to avoid long and bumpy bus rides and take a more direct route to Hanoi.  We also wanted to experience some more of rural Lao life before we left the country forever.

We decided to get off the public bus in a nowhere town called Nam Neun, our first objective being to find a suitable place to sleep and store our backpacks.  After a brief jaunt around town, we came to a building with an english sign out front that said "SaynamNeun Guesthouse".  We were in luck!  The tall and dusty building stood alone along the shores of the Nam Neun river with a conspicuous presence.  We approached it and knocked... no response.  Pushing on the door, it creaked open to reveal a large open hallway with dirty floors and dim light filtered in through dusty windows. 

"Sa-bai-dee? Hello?"   

No response.

Venturing inside, our footsteps echoed dully off of blank white walls and the high cobwebbed ceiling.  A slow drip-drip-drip could be heard coming from a back room.  Backing out, we went to sit on the front step, hoping that someone would notice us and come to our aid.  It was about then that the bus we had come in on passed us on the road.  We were here for the night whether it meant lying in the ditch, squatting in an abandoned hotel, or imploring a local to let us sleep on their floor and eat their sticky rice.

We weren't in town for long when we discovered that there were about zero other english speaking people in the vicinity, and that Robyn and I aren't nearly as good at body language as we had thought.  Out of ideas for a guesthouse, we opted for lunch at one of the three little stalls in town: fried vegetables, four whole fried little fish, and sticky rice.

Our plan of looking conspicuous eventually paid off as the innkeeper became aware of our presence and led us back to the haunted mansion where we paid ~$7 for a dirty room with no electricity.  That's when things started getting good.

It was a hot day, so we decided to join the locals in the river, bathing and washing our clothes among the villagers.  It was quite refreshing, but a real challenge to bathe without revealing oneself.

Being the only "falang" (foreigners) in town, we got a lot of looks.  All of the children would shout "Sa-bai-dee" and wave frantically when they saw us.  Nam Neun clearly gets few foreign visitors.

Later, we took a stroll through the village observing the Lao people through their open doors.  They busied themselves with their simple daily chores, stopping briefly to watch us as we passed.

Aesthetically, the town was quite lovely, set in a valley surrounded by mountains and on the edge of clean, quiet stream.

Nam Neun

Nam Neun

The sun went down around 6 pm and, as the only electricity came from a small diesel generator, there wasn't a lot for us to do.  Some of the locals sat around fires, but as we had failed to communicate several times already, we decided to retire to our room to read by the light of our flashlights, asleep by 9.

Although we couldn't be sure, we had the impression that our bus wasn't arriving until around noon so we allowed ourselves to sleep in, catching up from days previous.  Breakfast the next morning was fried noodles, ichiban style.  We then went to wait at the bus stop.  There was no way we would miss our next ticket out of here.  The bus came two hours later and we were off on a four-hour mountain hopping ride on some of the most serpentine roads I have ever traveled.  But what a view!  Miles and miles of unspoiled jungle-covered mountains.

So happy to see our bus arrive

View from pretty much any bus trip around Laos

We arrived in Sam Neu which our guidebook described as "brimming with frontier authenticity" and "worth the long and arduous trek on the public bus" but was actually a dirty town with terrible food and more air pollution than could be accounted for by its small population.  What saved us was the company.  We found the only decent restaurant in town and shared a meal with every other foreigner in Sam Neu, all nine of them.  We shared stories from home and heard all about Iceland, Denmark, and Czechoslovakia.

The next day we hopped over to Vieng Xai, a beautiful little town surrounded by limestone cliffs that house countless caves.  During the war in Vietnam, army officials built fortresses inside these caves massive enough to house entire armies and villages.  Each official family had their own cave-house and there was even a cave used as a theatre for entertaining the troops.  At the height of the Vietnam war (called the American war here), the region was bombed nine times a day every day, but due to the protection afforded by the caves, the people were able to withstand the constant bombardment for 9 years.

Cave where armies hid out during Vietnam (American) war over Laos

From Vieng Xai, we flagged down a bus bound for Hanoi, Vietnam.  The trip would take 14 hours and our driver was raving mad.  He used his horn instead of discretion or brakes and barreled through villages and traffic at incredible speeds.  Everyone had to hold the seat in front of them with two hands for the duration of the trip or else risk flying out of the seat at every bump and corner of which there were many.  But we made good time!

For the last 4 hours our bus was crammed full.  46 people in 26 seats.  But we made it to Hanoi.  We don't know why we're here, what we're going to do, but we made it. 
46 people in 26 seats
The end.

David Parker


Just heard from Jevin and expect to meet up with him in Hanoi in one or two days.  Here's some pretty pictures.

Sunset over the Mekong, Luang Prabang

Tree at Plane of Jars Historical Site

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Now let me tell you about Loas..

Hey guys. Whats up? Yeah? Thats cool...
Anyways, we have been in Loas for about a week now, and I am loving it so far. I know the boys have been keeping everyone up to date on what we have been doing, so I'll just talk about all my favourite things about Loas

Number 1 - The landscape. As soon as we got onto the slow boat to Luang Prabang, the scenery went from awesome to totally amazing. The Mekong river is fast moving water, with a shore of giant rocks, perfect white sand and small peanut crops. Scatterd through the two day boat ride would be families fishing, bathing, or panning for gold, along with water buffalo and cattle. Every time we have been on the road here, although winding and bumpy, it has been beautiful! Thick jungle covered mountains, with small communities fitting in where they can.

Number 2 - The Children! I think that Loa people started the saying 'it takes a village to raise one child'. Children grow up here with a huge number of family and friends to love and trust. I have yet to run into a shy kid. Biking around Luang Prabang little kids will run up to you "sabadie!! Sabadie!!", shake your hand, want you to pick them up, or have a race down the back alley. The parents are trusting too, they see me playing with their kids, and they smile, laugh and wave. Having a kid here, however, is no excuse to slow down. You see women working full force, in the market, or on their farm, with their babies in a snuggly on their back. And if the mom can't hold the baby, there is a grandpa, grandma, brother, sister, neighbor, or friendly face to take care of the child. I love it. I love being around such trusting people, and such a community!

Number 3 - The smiles. Loas is a place that has been, and continues to be, devastated by the 'Secret War', the war is fresh in everyones memory, and yet, everybody is so happy. I'm pretty sure that a bright big smile is a physical trait of Loa. It makes me so happy to walk around and see so many happy smiling faces. My type of people!

There's probably more...but thats my top three forsure.
Tomorrow Jevin is headed in a different direction than us for the first time! He is going to southern Loas to see an amazing cave, while me and Squid are going to stay north and make our way through some small towns and see a bit more of the local culture before moving on to Vietnam. We'll meet up with Jevin again in Vietnam in a little bit more than a week. I'll miss my coffee drinking buddy. You'd think we would all get sick of eachother, but I love our traveling trio. It'll be fun to meet up in a week and see what adventures we got up to.

Peace and Love to all! (I know its cheesy, but I really mean it)

Love love love love love love

Friday, February 4, 2011

Winding & Grinding, what a beautiful view!

Embarking on the journey from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan is not for the ill hearted or motion sick traveller. Caution, states the sign, "sharp curve ahead" an understatement for the six hour drive on the scarred serpentine trail winding endlessly through the undulating peaks and valleys of Laos topography. Beautiful vistas fogged in black plumes of exhaust billowing from the diesel bus five meters ahead. Confident, choking on the same soot filled air as the myself and the other nine passengers, the driver's first attempt to overtake the lumbering mechanical giant is thwarted by a large oncoming truck. We tuck quickly behind the bus, tight on its tail and attempt the same manoeuvre again. Success! To no avail the road ceaselessly winds and turns as the van grinds and churns around countless mountain outcroppings. Luckily for me I am the sole rider in the front passenger seat and witness to the many obstacles to cross and quickly dart out of our path. No school zones or speed limits exist here for the safety of the inhabitants as we gain speed through every village. Beep beep, beware! A quick honk of the horn notifies the children at play that we are not going to slow down nor stop. Please do not cross our path I chant as a silent mantra in my mind with jaw clenched and four limbs bracing against the perpetual thrashing of the vehicle.

Strange enough I close my eyes, better not to see what I cannot control, and slip with a tense comfort into half sleep. Aware of my bracing limbs and bobbling head, like the black and white stallions pasted to the front dash, I rock deeper into an acute mode of hibernation that has developed after many years of travel and road trips. The light is on but offly dim, to paraphrase Uncle Steve whose use of the saying is completely derogatory in nature. Safely, a loose sense of the word, we arrive in Phonsavan. The character of the town is reminiscent of Medicine Hat, Alberta. Only, there are no large dinosaurs peaking over buildings or hiding in sculpted stasis. Instead, we find MAG (Mines Advisory Group) and tour through the centre where we learn about the ongoing efforts of this humanitarian group to disarm or destroy the UXO's (unexploded ordinance) that continue to plague Laos since the "Secret War" that was waged by the US from 1964 - 1973. During this period more than two million tons of ordinance was dropped on the country making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the whole world. Of this indiscriminate bombing, it is estimated that at least thirty percent of the bombs did not detonate and continue to kill villagers, including many children who find and play with the materials. Unfortunately the people of Laos are unable to further cultivate land, out of fear from injury or death, and most cannot produce enough food for their families and villages and are held captive in poverty due to a war that was wagged in secrecy over thirty-five years ago.

Tomorrow we are visiting a few sites unique to this area including the Plains of Jars, a bombed-out cave, and to finish the day off a dip in local hot springs. Hooray!

The Road to Phonsavan

Driving in Laos, I've discovered, is not as simple a process as I previously thought.  It is at once dodging children, livestock, and other motorists with no care whatsoever to speed limits, human safety, the well-being of the vehicle, or the stress levels of the passengers.

Today we left Luang Prabang on minibus (10 passenger van) to Phonsavan.  The first hour was spent driving continuously up a mountain which had literally no straight sections.  We would pass big trucks blind around hair pin turns at high speeds.  Villages lined the highway along its length so children and animals were constantly out on the road.  Our driver's response to these obstacles was to honk and maintain his course.  Every few kilometers a road sign in the shape of a tombstone marked the distance to the nearest town, an omen, I thought.  I imagined every sign as a life lost over the side of the road.

We spent six hours in the van.  We made it to Phonsavan safely and I'm amazed that no one was sick as we were jostled about constantly on the way.  We have two options now.  The first is to maintain our course and experience at least three mor nail-biting drives like we had today.  Or, we could blow our budget and fly out of here to the capital and then into Vietnam.

I'm tempted not to post this for the benefit of our mothers who have enough stresses in their lives without worrying about their children endangering themselves on the other side of the world.  Sorry moms.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Luang Prabang Finale

Completely satisfied with my last day and evening in Luang Prabang. Today started with a bike ride around town and an amazing last breakfast at our favourite restaurant Utopia. As it was a cloudless day and the sun was making it's presence known by noon, we were easily convinced that visiting the Kuang Si water falls was the best option for the afternoon. Thirty kilometres later, a forty-five minute trip by tuk tuk, we arrived at our destination. The entrance to the falls had a moon-bear rescue and rehabilitation centre. Apparently these small black bears are poached and milked for their bile, used as a traditional medicine, a process that is painful and living conditions are dreadful. However, the bears at the sanctuary looked happy and playful. Approaching the falls we saw the first of the beautiful turquoise pools and cascading falls. Further up we found a steep path that lead to the summit of these amazing falls where we could cross and climb back down the other side. Completing a circuit, we all stripped down to hour bathing suits and plunged into the cool and refreshing water. There were a series of pools and after paddling around in one for a short period of time we progressed to a lower pool that was equipped with a rope from which to swing.

On arrival there was a young man preparing to take his first timid swing. After a few moments of hesitation he leaped, but could not hold his own weight on the rope and made a vertical drop from the tree that the rope was tied around. With a big plop into the empty pool an expectant crowd waited to see the man come to shore. However, all he did was bobble with his head below water while flailing his arms in the air. Soon after, two men jumped in and rescued the sinking man. All was fine, but it was hilarious. Makes you wonder the thought process of a man who cannot swim and what reason could cause him to swing out on a rope into a deep pool of water with no apparent exit strategy? Crazy!

David and I took our turns on the rope with no difficulty and towelled off in preparation for our ride back to town. Once in town, we three jumped on our bicycles and crossed a commuter bridge to a residential area yet unexplored. There was not much to see so not much to report, but the bike ride was nice.

Handing in our bikes and settling room payment at the guesthouse we headed market bound and made our separate ways. As I was full from the two steamed buns at the falls and not interested in eating just yet, I opted to go for a massage. Lemon Grass Tradition Massage Centre is absolutely amazing. I spent an hour in-and-out of a herbal steam room while enjoying tea between sessions. The steam room was a prep for the best Lao massage I have had, perhaps the best to date. Two and a half hours later I left the Lemon Grass and headed for the night market, which at this time was closing down. Famished now from all the strenuous work of walking back and forth to the steam room I was on the hunt for food. Restaurants were closing their doors and dito the crepe stands. Fortunately I came across a noodle soup vendor and devoured a brothy bowl.

Luang Prabang was a very pleasant stop on our travels and will be missed. We spent many evenings wandering markets and I was wounded with two scraped knees after a vigorous game of beach volleyball one evening at Utopia. David, Robyn and I were on the all Canadian team with Three others from Winnipeg, Calgary and Golden. We rocked the court, as Robyn dropped bomb after bomb on the opposing team. Unable to keep stride with Robyn's lofty serves we gained point after meaningless point. No score was kept and players switched teams at will, sometimes with 7 players in opposition after a quick beer refresher. After a days rest, we headed out on our epic kayak adventure.

Originally we thought we were well equipped to complete three days of kayaking. We shortened it two and after the first day of continuous paddling for 5 hours we cut the second day to an hour and finished our river ride at the local whiskey village. Good times were had but we are definitely not kayak champions.

It is getting late and we are off early in the morning. I have neglected to pack my bags so I must still do that tonight.

Farwell all until the next update.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Kayaking on the Nam Hou and Mekong Rivers

The last two days have been spent drifting down some of the mightiest rivers in the world, from the Nam Hou into the Mekong.  The Mekong is in the top ten rivers of the world in terms of flow rate.  It is wide and swift with rocks jutting out everywhere.  We had to navigate rapids at various points of the trip.  Don't worry mom, they weren't too scary.

Scary rocks along Mekong River, Laos
We spent five hours paddling on the first day until we got to a towering limestone cliff that threw its shadow over the river.  It was such a powerful spectacle.  Jevin has some photos so go to facebook and see it once they're up.  There were trees growing right out of the rock and points where it seemed to be raining from their roots.  There must have been some sort of cave or crack that water flowed through but it looked like the tree was leaking like a wet sponge.  

From the cliff, we paddled across the river to the Pak Ou caves.  The upper cave was about 54 meters deep with a 25 meter high ceiling and stalactites hanging from it.  It was packed with Buddha statues of all sizes, from 3 meters high to only a few centimetres.  The lower cave was similar, less deep though, and more statues.  There were a few locals there burning incense at the altar.  

Our last stop for the night was an elephant camp.  A family of elephant trainers lived here along with three elephants.  The elephants weren't there when we arrived because they are taken into the jungle every evening where they get a couple hours of sleep and spend the rest of the night eating eating eating with the predictable result...

It's not hard to tell what's in an elephant's diet.
Supper was served Lao-style and prepared by the family.  We all ate together, sticky rice, buffalo, mixed veggies, and a few other things I couldn't identify.  The Lao style of eating is to take sticky rice from the communal basket, form it into a little ball, and then add some meat or vegetable to it and eat it with your hands.  There are no personal plates so I had to come to terms with sharing microbes.  I enjoyed the meal thoroughly, tasting all of the dishes.  I scooped up a mouthful of random paste and put into my mouth, only asking what is was after I swallowed.  This was a mistake.  It was raw seasoned buffalo.  Now, I've been pretty lucky so far health-wise.  Most travellers have to stay close to the toilet for a few days at some point but Robyn, Jevin, and I have all been so-far-so-good.  It's been almost 24 hours since I've eaten the buffalo and I still feel fine but I am worried now about parasites and things (Theresa, please advise).  The situation is complicated further by the fact that we are not planning on being in a country with a decent hospital for over a month.  Hope for the best, I guess.  *Gulp*

Other than the risk to my health, the meal was very enjoyable and it was nice to see an honest Lao family at meal time.  Lao people typically eat at home and since all we do is eat out, we don't have many chances to interact.

We slept well at the camp, the three of us lined up under a mosquito net.  The jungle around us was alive with activity at night.  It sounded like a legion of frogs were all lost and trying to find each other in the dark, we could hear bats above us, and the night isn't the night without thousands of crickets playing their creaky one-stringed violins in the dark.

The next morning heralded the return of the elephants!  I heard them before I saw them, tromping their way through camp and down the hill on their way to bathe in the river.  At the time of their return, Jevin was down by the river, doing yoga, getting zen.  He was also directly in the path of the elephants and didn't know that they were coming.  The first one lumbered along alone, being sent ahead by his trainer.  I watched as it got closer and closer to Jevin until he noticed and they came face to face.

Jevin stares down an elephant.
They stared at eachother for the better part of a minute until the elephant decided it was thirsty and continued along.  When I thought it was safe, I followed behind.  Jevin and I watched as the trainers shouted commands and the elephants bathed.  It was neat to see.

View from the elephant camp across the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves

We left the camp just before noon and continued downstream.  Soon, we came upon a group of women panning for gold.  We stopped to watch the process and they showed us what they had collected in the last few days, a few small nuggets formed from the bits of gold flecks found in the sand.  The process is interesting.  They put loads of sand in buckets and bring them down to the water.  A bucket is emptied into a sieve and the rocks are discarded.  The remaining sediment is swished around in a pan.  Muddy water is removed and the heavier grains remain.  After about 20 minutes you can see many gold flecks in the remaining sand.  This is poured into another container to be sorted carefully later.  A whole day's panning might yield about $14 worth of gold, sold at market.

Our last stop was the Whisky Village where we saw the process by which sticky rice is made into Lao-style moonshine.  Rice whisky, 110 proof.  It is cheap and horrible.  We didn't buy any but it was good to try.  Some whisky bottles had creatures stuffed inside of them, snakes, scorpions, centipedes, and some even had bear paws, a pile of geckos, cobras, elephant penis.... we didn't try those ones.  As we left the village, we saw old ladies making blankets and scarves on looms.  Jevin bought a nice scarf, handmade in the village, for $1.35.

Survived the kayaking! I'm not sure where we're going to go next, but I'll keep you posted!


  The spiders here are so scary, I could die.

Spider bigger than my hand...just hanging out near an old wat.