Three weeks has never felt so exhausting. In an effort to see as much of Vietnam and Laos as possible, we've been on more buses and trains then on land. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to see it all, but we got a great taste and know we want to come back.
Hmong Village People in Sa Pa, Vietnam.
- Dave is a very popular tourist attraction in Southeast Asia. Men, who normally don't have body hair, come up to him in amazement and pet his arms. One man told Dave that his arms are like an old forest, where as his arms were like a young forest. Another marveled at his built in mosquito protection.
- Everyone in this area thinks I am about ten years younger than I am, which is very flattering. However, when they find out my age and that I am married without children, they are appalled. One hostel owner practically mandated that Dave and I go upstairs to make babies. Sorry, but that will have to wait!
- In full disclosure before you see too many photos, I gave Dave a hair cut with my rounded nail scissor. We thought it was a better option than having a stylist who has never seen curly hair cut it. He actually liked the results, so we bargained for a real pair of scissors for round two. Dave is working on his coloring skills before I let him touch my hair ;- )
VIETNAM - SOUTH TO CENTRAL
HO CHI MINH CITY - a.k.a. SAIGON
Ho Chi Minh City was renamed from Saigon in 1975 to honor the country's former leader. It is bustling like Bangkok and also has a great network of alleys where many off the guest houses and restaurants are located. Most people are very welcoming to Americans and have relatives who fled to the US after the war.
Motorbikes fill the streets of HCMC. Cars are a rare site. If you want to cross the street just go and hope for the best. The bikes and buses do a pretty good job of swerving around pedestrians.
Handicapped Handcrafts was created in 1976 near Cu Chi, Vietnam, to allow the wounded and handicapped to do crafts for compensation. There are a few locations around the country.
The Cu Chi tunnels were built by the North Vietnamese to hide from the US Army. The tunnel openings are extremely small and covered by grass to conceal them. Dave and I were two of just a handful of people on our tour who could actually fit in the tunnel opening and walkway. The space is small, cramped and dark. The tunnels go three levels below ground. The third level, which was incredibly narrow, was used to hide when the US Army entered the first and second levels. The Vietnamese also had the advantage of being much smaller than US soldiers and the ability to squat, which is pretty much the only position to be in underground.
An exhibit at the tunnel site included a propaganda movie that made us feel a little awkward as Americans hearing about the success the Cu Chi people against 'the enemy.' We also found it strange that there was an M-16 firing range for tourists at this historical monument.
Vietnam calls the 'Vietnam War' the 'American War.' The war museum in Ho Chi Minh City gives narrative about the war from Vietnam's perspective. It also includes artwork from children, like this drawing showing US planes dropping bombs. It was interesting to get this view point, although we found the focus to be a bit accusatory, rather than sympathetic that lives were tragically lost from many countries. Not to mention, most of the people in this area of the country fought with the US, so it was clear the government controlled the content in museums. We also found it interesting that it wasn't until President Clinton that a US president visited Vietnam, made amends for the past, and opened talks to work as partners in the future.
At 6 p.m. many women in Ho Chi Minh City join group aerobics in the central park. I decided to jump in, but couldn't understand the instructor, so was always a step behind.
HCMC has a large market selling food and knockoff clothing, but don't expect to just browse. I was literally grabbed by sellers as we walked through. They won't let go until you agree to at least look at their booth.
We were in Vietnam during Reunification Day, April 30. This holiday marks the day the North Vietnamese captured Saigon and declared north and south Vietnam united and liberated from the US. Most locals take advantage of a four day weekend with a getaway to a beach area.
We tried to stay away from the busy areas of Nha Trang and Mui Ne, so opted for an overnight train to Hoi An, a European feeling waterfront town with more tailors than tourists.
The overnight train from HCMC to Hoi An was supposed to sleep four, but a local family of three somehow bought one seat. They were very nice, but the cabin was just too small for all six people! Plus they brought on a box of popular dorian fruit, which is banned in many buildings for its horrible skunk-like odor. Lucky us!
In Hoi An custom-made suits cost about $70-$100. Dave had a shirt made to go with his snazzy blazer from Thailand. What was odd is that every tailor offered the same five items...creativity was definitely lacking in this clothing district. Although, the French village architecture that houses all of the tailors is very charming.
Hoi An's river front is thriving with souvenir shops, street vendors, a Japanese Bridge, and little French influenced restaurants. Similar to the cookie cutter tailors, many of the restaurants had the same photocopied menu.
Dave and I both caught colds, likely on the train, so stayed put for about five days in Hoi An, which really only deserved about two days. Next up was the bus ride from hell from Hoi An, Vietnam, to Vientiane, Laos.
To sum up .... 3 buses in 27 hours. One bus drove away with our luggage. They came back, but took Dave's Oakley sunglasses as a parting gift. One flat tire. No air con (more than 100 degrees outside and in.) No windows to open. Not enough seats. People in the aisles. No room for bags, which also ended up in the aisles. One woman vomiting. Major body odor. Driver decided to pull over to a hotel for a two hour nap. No toilet and little food.
We're told Laos is the most undeveloped country in the world, but it seems to be moving forward with infrastructure and there is an emphasis on education that we didn't find in Cambodia. We also didn't witness extreme poverty on the streets. Most of Laos is influenced by the French, giving the architecture a flare and the food a sweet addition. With our daily dose of noodles and rice, we enjoyed pastries, baguette sandwiches and crepes. Interestingly enough, people from Laos seem to be the only Southeast Asians with curves.
The capital city, Vientiane, is lovely. Streets are wide, paved and clean. There seemed to be equal amounts of cars and motorbikes, but with little honking. The city seemed so quiet compared to the major cities in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
Laos students on a lunch break.
This monument, resembling the Arc de Triumph, is called Patuxai, but is better known as the vertical runway. It was built in 1969 with cement donated by the US, which was intended for an air strip. When the US gives our tax dollars, don't they mandate where the funds are being used?
We saw a sign for free salsa lessons, so we popped inside this bar. Turnout was low as salsa is new to the area. The teacher said he learned his moves from the German embassy in Vientiane, which we can't really figure out.
We took a five hour bus to Vang Vieng. Again, no air con, but the view was worth the ride.
Picture MTV spring break Cancun, but cheesier. Travelers go to Vang Vieng to tube down the Mekong River with as many stops at riverside bars as possible. All of the bars come with make shift trapeze ropes, adding to the show for senior citizens D & E who just watched and took photos.
To Luang Prabang we took a six hour mini bus with a sleepy driver who had to be continually nudged to stay awake, even though he took breaks every hour. We could have spent a week in this area, but were short on time due to all of the bus rides.
After a few drinks with friends from the bus ride, we went to the night market, which was huge, but only sold about five items. Duvet covers and pillowcases seemed to be everywhere.
We rented bikes to toot around town.
Cyclists get a little help from a friend with a motorbike.
School boys walking home from class.
Not a great photo, but all school girls and women wear this traditional skirt.
The fruit shake girls gave us our daily dose of bananas and funny conversation!
We would have liked to visit the Pak Ou caves, the Tat Kuang Si waterfall and do a trek in the surrounding mountains, but we just didn't have enough time. We left with a warm feeling about Laos, it's people, and it's beautiful mountain scenery. We will likely return with more time to explore the countryside and to get to know the people.
We initially planned to bus back to northern Vietnam, but after learning our route would take five days, we splurged on a plane ticket to Hanoi.
A few Laos laws to keep in mind:
- Don't smuggle drugs. One woman from England is currently in jail awaiting a trial. If found guilty she will get the death penalty by firing squad.
- Don't do more than flirt with a Laos man or woman. It is illegal for them to date foreigners with penalties for everyone involved.
VIETNAM - THE NORTH
Our first stop in northern Vietnam was the picturesque Sa Pa Valley. Sa Pa is a beautiful French influenced town built into the side of the mountains.
Sa Pa village.
Sa Pa is home to the friendly Hmong hill tribe people. The Hmong have cultivated most of the mountain sides in the valley to grow rice. Interestingly, the rice is not used for trade, rather each family is granted land to grow just enough rice to feed themselves. We took a two day trek through the rice fields and stayed at a Hmong home.
Some of the locals, like our guide Kou, have found an alternative to the difficult farming lifestyle. Kou is guiding a variety of hikes and is the family cook when she's at home.
During our hike Kou collected greens for dinner. Most Hmong are married before 18, but Kou is a bit of a rebel at 20, unmarried and independent. She finds boys to be too much trouble.
Like many older Hmong siblings, Kou didn't go to school, rather helped her mother raise two younger siblings while her parents farmed. It is common to see children carrying children in this area.
We visited a Hmong school where Elizabeth helped a few kids with some math equations. When we arrived at this classroom the kids were left alone without a teacher. They were incredibly well behaved doing their work!
We handed out coconut candy to children in the villages.
Kou gave a great back rub!
Sunset at our home stay.
Many Hmong women make and sell handicrafts in Sa Pa. Elizabeth bought a bracelet for $1 from this woman - a 28-year-old with three children.
Our first ride on a motorbike was up from the Cat Cat waterfalls in Sa Pa.
- Skip this story (which is etched in my memory forever) if you get queasy and don't like toilet humor. I hope you have a vivid imagination.
On our trek through the rice paddies in Sa Pa we happened upon a young boy as he was taking a poop in nature's toilet behind his home. I felt like we were invading his privacy, but our guide chuckled and told us to keep walking toward him. What unfolded was like watching a train wreck . . . I know I should have looked the other way, but I couldn't help myself. Unfortunately, the boy's large poop wouldn't fully come out even after some wiggles, so he grabbed the nearest machete, which I suspect was used to farm rice, and sliced it off. But the best part, he then stood up from the squat position and got on all fours with his tush in the air. At this point his dog came up to him and licked him clean! Then he went about his day ; - ) I guess when you have man's best friend to help out, there is no need for toilet paper.
This shirt (and about three others) was made in Vietnam and disposed of in Vietnam. After some shopping in Sa Pa and Hanoi, my wardrobe has been upgraded with a few new tees to carry me through the next six months.
HA LONG BAY
After Sa Pa we went to Ha Long Bay, which is known for its limestone karst mountains and junk boats (junk is the Vietnamese word for sea.) The sails don't do anything on the motorized boats, rather just act as an advertisement for the different companies. We enjoyed the accommodations and the pretty area, but were sad the area was packed with tourists.
Kayaking is a great way to explore the caves in the area.
Jumping off the boat into a sea of jellies.
Hanoi is like Bangkok on crack. Utter chaos is the only way to really sum it up... major traffic, constant noise, rancid smells and raw behavior.
Ho Chi Minh rests in this Mausoleum in Hanoi. (Cameras not allowed inside.) We visited on his birthday, which explains the line of thousands of people in front of us to view him. This was probably one of the most annoying lines we've waited in as the Vietnamese haven't really grasped the concept of lines or waiting with patience. We were pushed, passed and stepped on for about two hours. And to make things even better, school children on a field trip just dropped their pants to go the bathroom while in the quasi-line, opposed to walking to the proper toilet, which was in sight.
Hanoi is known for its water puppet show. Small wood puppets dance in water to Vietnamese folk music. It was very bizarre.
Vietnamese men (and some women) frequent sidewalk restaurants. They sit in little plastic chairs that we buy for children.
Traditional Vietnamese hats are always for sale. Too bad we couldn't squish one into our suitcase.
Cyclos are a popular way to get around town or at least a good way to scam a few bucks from the tourists.
City traveling in the rain isn't fun!
We leave Vietnam with mixed feelings. The countryside is beautiful with some very loving people, but the cities knocked us down. They are fast paced, dirty and full of scams. Locals have acquired both of our sunglasses, two socks and some underwear (laundry thieves) and most of our patience. Even though we understand the scams to some degree - people are just trying to make an extra dollar to live - it is frustrating and sad. Tourists are targets with rates for food, transportation and living double what locals pay. Customer service is also lacking in many establishments, especially once they have your money.
We're now in Tokyo, Japan, enjoying a dose of westernization. So far we love it. There is order, sophistication, warm people and a sense of zen. More to come!
- Elizabeth and Dave