A Travellerspoint blog

Good Morning, Vietnam!

Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang, Laos; Hanoi & Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Friends!

We have travelled through Laos and made it to Vietnam!

Laos is incredible! The mountains are covered with dense jungle and the landscape is dominated by small villages and beautiful, smiling people. Get here soon, the Laos government recently signed a hundred year contract with China for access to their natural resources in exchange for development.

Evidence of deforestation

Evidence of deforestation

As soon as we crossed the border into Laos, we were lucky to make friends with two super fun and awesome girls from Germany, Sabina and Julia. We sat together on the bus to Vientiane and ended up travelling with them for about two weeks. We found ourselves in the best place to be for New Year's Eve in Laos, Vang Vieng. It is a wild party town half way between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. There is an old U.S. military air strip that was used during the Vietnam War but the main attraction these days is renting an inner tube and lazily floating down the Nam Song River.

Here is a quick video of Jennifer zip-lining into the river!:

The inner tubes and transportation to the river are run by a city co-op that is comprised of over 1,500 families from the surrounding villages. We travelled the few kilometers up river by tuk tuk and floated back to the town. The river is dotted with bars full of wild and drunken backpackers for much of the route--it was also really funny how people would "fish" for us with water bottles on long ropes, to haul us into their bar. The four of us had a blast and raised our glasses in remembrance of 2011 and in anticipation of 2012!

Notice the sign "Drink to Help Children"

Notice the sign "Drink to Help Children"

Sabina, Julia and Jennifer celebrating NYE

Sabina, Julia and Jennifer celebrating NYE

Tubing

Tubing

Robert tubing the Nam Song River

Robert tubing the Nam Song River

There are several cafes/video-bars scattered throughout the town of Vang Vieng. The interesting part is that the majority of them are set up with comfy pillows and tables facing large screen televisions. Some cafes broadcast South Park or Family Guy, but an overwhelming number of them play the TV Show Friends over and over all day and into the night. Westerners travel halfway around the world to watch TV. Sweet.

After recovering from our new year's celebration (and, we confess, catching a few episodes of Friends) we headed up to Luang Prabang for the week. Luang Prabang is a beautiful town located on a UNESCO protected peninsula. It is full of interesting wats and orange-robed monks briskly walking all over the city. We were lucky to meet and make friends with a monk while visiting one of the wats. Monk Long struck up a conversation with us and we sat with him for a while teaching each other words from our respective languages. He invited us to visit him at his monastery.

Robert: "You're handsome.  Monk Long: "No, You're handsome".

Robert: "You're handsome. Monk Long: "No, You're handsome".

Morning Alms for the monks.  Luang Prabang

Morning Alms for the monks. Luang Prabang

Two days later we walked across town in search of his home. We picked up a bag of oranges to bring as a gift for him. The monks live in very meager arrangements and are not allowed to accept money. When we arrived at the monastery we found hundreds of monks. The young men ranged in age from the very young, maybe seven or eight, to the very old. We approached a couple of the monks and asked if they knew Monk Long. We were escorted over to an area and for several minutes stood looking at a group of monks who were looking at us. Finally, an English-speaking monk came over and pointed to another monk and said Monk Leung does not know you. We realized the language barrier was too great, so we got out our camera and showed them the picture of Monk Long. Everyone had a good laugh and we were finally pointed to the building where he lived. It was great to see him again and he was with his English teacher (another monk) who was able to translate between us. We have exchanged e-mail addresses and now we are pen-pals!

Jennifer, Robert and Monk Long

Jennifer, Robert and Monk Long

Here's a quick view of the great food you can find at the night market in Luang Prabang, Laos:

The highlight of our time in Luang Prabang was a challenging two day, one night hike up a mountain to a Hmong village. Our small group consisted of the four of us; Julia, Sabina, Robert and Jennifer, one French guy and two guides. The trek was pretty intense. We criss-crossed a river many times and we spent six hours hiking to the top of a mountain. We ate lunch on enormous banana tree leaves. When we arrived on the top, we had the opportunity to stay in the home of a family from the village. It was interesting to observe an ethic minority tribe living simple and sustainable lives literally on the top of a mountain. We discussed how when the oil runs out these people will be just fine and they appear relatively unaffected by the current financial crisis of our world. It was a fantastic experience.

Sabina took this one of us trekking.

Sabina took this one of us trekking.

Lunch consisting of sticky rice, seaweed, chicken, bok choy, banana, fish and a yummy hot chili sauce on a banana tree leaf.

Lunch consisting of sticky rice, seaweed, chicken, bok choy, banana, fish and a yummy hot chili sauce on a banana tree leaf.

Trekking in Laos

Trekking in Laos

Sabina, Julia and Jennifer at our homestay in the Hmong Village

Sabina, Julia and Jennifer at our homestay in the Hmong Village

Jennifer went with Sabina and Julia to zip-line through the jungle. It was crazy fun!

Zip-Lining through the jungle!

Zip-Lining through the jungle!

It was difficult to leave Luang Prabang and to part from Julia and Sabina but after seven days in the town, it was time to move on. Sabina is moving to Frankfurt when she returns home and Jennifer's brother is living in Frankfurt so we intend to get together in Germany. Julia even said she would drive the three hours from Munich to meet up with us too!

We had a pleasent surprise on our flight from Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam. A great guy from Spain, Santi, who we met when we arrived in Luang Prabang, was flying to Hanoi at the same time as us.

Robert, Jennifer and Santi

Robert, Jennifer and Santi

We got together for dinner in Hanoi and enjoyed some interesting food. Check it out:

Hanoi is a fascinating city. Our hostel (well, they call it a hostel, to us it is a fancy hotel) is located in the Old Quarter. The streets are narrow and full of venders, pedestrians, tourists and motorbikes. It is an adventure in survival just to cross the street!

Vietnam (not to scale)

Vietnam (not to scale)

Tet (Chinese New Year) Orange Tree

Tet (Chinese New Year) Orange Tree

Robert being interviewed for an Entertainment TV Show in Hanoi

Robert being interviewed for an Entertainment TV Show in Hanoi

Old Quarter, Hanoi Vietnam

Old Quarter, Hanoi Vietnam

Jennifer enjoying yummy street food--fried Tofu and Vermicelli for $1.15!

Jennifer enjoying yummy street food--fried Tofu and Vermicelli for $1.15!

New Year Flowers

New Year Flowers

It was interesting to visit the Hoa Lo Prison--also known as the Hanoi Hilton. They have John McCain's flightsuit on display in a glass case, and photos of protests against the war from all over the world. We're glad to be here to drop some of our trip budget on this great country--especially because of the atrocities that our government inflicted on this land just a generation ago.

John McCain's Flight Suit at the Hanoi Hilton

John McCain's Flight Suit at the Hanoi Hilton

We found the pedestrian experience a lot different from Auckland. This is what crossing the street looks like in Hanoi:

Vietnamese rice farmers have been entertaining each other for over a thousand years with water puppets. After the rice harvest, when the paddies are still full of water, they would put on shows with puppets. We really enjoyed watching this historical performance:

We joined a boat tour to discover the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay. We were really taken by the beauty of this magical place and its thousands of limestone islets. It was fun to kayak around the bay. We found little caves to paddle through that took us to secret lagoons. The limestone was carved in amazing formations and the water was the color of turquious.

Fishermen in Ha Long Bay

Fishermen in Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Party Boat--our home for 2 nights

Ha Long Party Boat--our home for 2 nights

Kayaking through a cave at Ha Long Bay:

Here is a video of sunset at Ha Long Bay:

We arrived last night in Nha Trang, Vietnam. It's 85 degress F and Sunny! Much nicer weather than Hanoi! We're planning to stay here for at least a few days--to celebrate the Lunar New Year on the beach. We had 2 travel days in a row, and now we're ready to channel our inner koala and just relax. After that we're heading to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and into Cambodia. Our Feb 20th flight to India seems like it's just around the corner!

Sad to hear that now there is no reason for us to make an effort to catch the SuperBowl.

Take care everybody,

J & R

Posted by JennyandRobert 03:26 Comments (3)

Happy New Year from Laos!

Hello Everyone!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! We have a big announcement, if you haven't heard yet, we are so excited to share that we are engaged!

Engagement Picture.  Geez.

Engagement Picture. Geez.

My beautiful Amber engagement ring.

My beautiful Amber engagement ring.

People say that when they meditate and speak to Buddha, that he sometimes has a sense of humor and tells jokes. We had just arrived from the islands on a near-death experience boat ride, and we also spent a few hours looking at beautiful rings with the best jewelry salesman in the world--we didn't get one because they were very expensive, and Robert already had one in his pocket. After that we took our first boat taxi ride in Bangkok, then we sat down for a rest from our crazy day. The music playing at the boat station cafe was romantic, and even though it wasn't the most traditional, nor romantic spot (with laundry hanging all around and crumbling concrete), Robert got down on one knee, and we got engaged. Perhaps Buddha, with his keen sense of humor, was behind all the circumstances that led to our engagement?

We want to say thank-you for keeping up with us; your comments here and on FB, and your emails help to keep us motivated to document our wild adventure! We're always trying to determine what's picture/video worthy to show you. We still have about 6 more months and so much more to experience; we hope you're enjoying the ride too! Thank-you!

Bangkok was fascinating. In this most recent visit, we stayed for eight days. Here is a little peek at Bangkok:

Grand Palace, Bangkok

Grand Palace, Bangkok

Bangkok

Bangkok

Buddhas for sale on the street

Buddhas for sale on the street

143 ft long 50 ft high Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

143 ft long 50 ft high Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Bangkok River Taxi--our preferred method of travel--only 9 baht/person!

Bangkok River Taxi--our preferred method of travel--only 9 baht/person!

Don, our favorite Tuk Tuk driver.

Don, our favorite Tuk Tuk driver.

Buddhas

Buddhas

Democracy Monument - Bangkok, Thailand

Democracy Monument - Bangkok, Thailand

Touching the bell for good luck.

Touching the bell for good luck.

Black Buddha (covered in gold)

Black Buddha (covered in gold)

Here is a video of another delicious meal in Bangkok with Libby, a sweet Australian girl we met:

Our initial plan to was spend Christmas in Laos but we found a nice place to stay in Thailand on the bank of the MeKong River right on the Thai-Laos border. The hostel hosted a Christmas Eve party with a huge buffet and traditional Thai Pot Dancers. The food was scrumptious, many different curries and fresh fish. The dancers were gorgeous! They had several costume changes and the dancing and music was mesmorizing.

Christmas Eve 2011

Christmas Eve 2011

Thai Pot Dancers

Thai Pot Dancers

Robert singing Stand By Me - Christmas Day 2011

Robert singing Stand By Me - Christmas Day 2011

On Christmas day we made a friend named Uma. She and her boyfriend are caring for her father's rice farm on the outskirts of Nong Khai, Thailand. She invited us to their farm and we took her up on her offer. Both of us agreed that spending the day with Uma and Tim was one of our most enjoyable days in Thailand. Uma previously worked as a cooking instructor in Bangkok and Jennifer got to spend some time in her kitchen, watching and learning. Uma gave us a wonderful gift by exposing us to rural life in Thailand and to her generous Thai spirit. She introduced us to her neighbors and we sat and talked late into the evening. Tim and Uma invite volunteers to come and stay with them to learn about sustainable construction, rice farming, growing organic vegetables and cooking! If anyone knows of someone who is looking for an adventure like that please send them our way and we can help them get in touch with these two wonderful people. Here are some pics from our day on the farm:

Uma preparing a very delicious meal for us on her organic farm!

Uma preparing a very delicious meal for us on her organic farm!

Jennifer and Uma with Uma's Tuk-tuk

Jennifer and Uma with Uma's Tuk-tuk


Stack of rice stalks from most recent harvest

Stack of rice stalks from most recent harvest

Tim using local materials, including mud from the Mekong River, to build their house

Tim using local materials, including mud from the Mekong River, to build their house

View of the organic farm from the 2nd story of the house

View of the organic farm from the 2nd story of the house

Fantastic dinner with Uma, Tim and her nephew

Fantastic dinner with Uma, Tim and her nephew

We have spent the last five days here in Nong Khai. We rented bicycles and rode approximatly three miles out to an amazing sculpture park. The sculputers were the visions of one man, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, and were inspired by Buddhism and Hinduism.

Buddha at Sala Keoku, Nong Khai, Thailand

Buddha at Sala Keoku, Nong Khai, Thailand

85 Ft Concrete Sculputure of Naga protecting Buddha

85 Ft Concrete Sculputure of Naga protecting Buddha

Entry into the Circle of Life, Sala Keoku

Entry into the Circle of Life, Sala Keoku

One last thing. We want to share our thoughts on when we plan to get married. We want to be prepared for the cost of the wedding. From budget travel, we have learned the importance of paying as you go, and staying out of debt whenever possible. Since we will return home with little money and no jobs, we won't be having a wedding until we are financially prepared--we'll let you know when that is! Just like this trip, we are certain that we'll enjoy it more if it's paid for in advance.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year! See you in 2012!

Mr and Mrs McGraw

Posted by JennyandRobert 04:19 Comments (5)

Bangkok-Koh Phangnan-Koh Tao-Bangkok

Hey guys,

We've been in Thailand since November 29th. We stayed in Bangkok for a few days to recover from our flight and eat some delicious food, but then we went straight to the beach. We did do some window shoping and Jennifer got a cute dress. We are both really excited to head back and check out the city. Here's a quick video of some pad thai we bought off a street vendor on Bangkok's touristy Koh San Rd.

We had a cheap but treacherous bus/ferry ride from Bangkok to the island of Ko Phangnan. The bus driver seemed to be unsure of the directions and had to stop a few times to let the bus cool down from overheating. Our original destination was Koh Tao but we got off the ferry at Koh Phangnan on a whim to check it out for a few days. A "few days" became 9 days. We settled into a terrific little bungalow on the northwest beach of Haad Yao.

Haad Yao Beach

Haad Yao Beach


Corona Picture, minus the Corona

Corona Picture, minus the Corona


Bungalows

Bungalows

We did some solid relaxing with help from a few Thai massages and some really fanstatic BBQ fish from the sea. We made good friends with several of the other guests and staff.

Sandy Bay Resort Beach Bar

Sandy Bay Resort Beach Bar

On the evening of the full moon we attended the world famous Full Moon Party on the southern end of the island and really had a blast. First time either of us had seen people eagerly waiting to jump rope while the rope was on fire--the immediate area near the rope smelled like burned flesh and hair.

Feel like jumping a rope that's on fire?  Neither do we.

Feel like jumping a rope that's on fire? Neither do we.

People were drinking buckets of alcohol, dancing everywhere on the beach. It was total mayhem. There were 20,000 partygoers; we were glad to have a good group of about 10 friends to take care of each other.

Jennifer and Boom at the Full Moon Party

Jennifer and Boom at the Full Moon Party

It was difficult to leave Haad Yao. We met a lot of really great friends at Sandy Bay Resort and and we loved having our own little bungalow on the beach. In hindsight, it might have been nice to stay there a little longer, at least until the sea calmed down a bit. The ferry ride to Koh Tao was a disaster. Jennifer was taken down with sea-sickness along with the majority of the passengers. Five of the 8 passengers in our immediate area vomited. Robert, who was in the minority of passengers that didn't puke, was busy trying to establish our escape route if the boat actually did capsize. A ferry ride that was scheduled to take about 1.5 hours ended up lasting about three and half. Here's a pic of what we now refer to as the "death boat"; its staff must have picked up a lot of puke bags:

Death Boat

Death Boat

On a brighter note, today we took a full-day boat cruise around the island of Koh Tao to do some snorkeling at various dive/snorkeling sites. It was a beautiful day and we had a lots of fun. Here's a short video of Jennifer taking the plunge:

Also, we wanted to share a funny thing that continues to happen when we meet someone new. Other travellers and English-speaking locals often assume that we are Canadiens when they listen to how we speak. "What part of Ontario are you from?" is a phase that we've heard more than once. When we reveal that we are from the United States, people seem a little shocked (there aren't that many of us over here) and then ask which part of the States. When we say we're from Wisconsin, we usually get a puzzled look and have to explain we live north of Chicago and that our state borders with Canada. It would be a lot easier to just say that we're from Chi-town, but then, we'd rather people think we're Canadiens than Flatlanders. What's a Wisconsinite to do?

We did the full day snorkel tour since it was the same price as the half day

We did the full day snorkel tour since it was the same price as the half day


Small islands off the coast of Koh Tao

Small islands off the coast of Koh Tao

Tomorrow we're leaving Koh Tao and heading back to Bangkok to sink our teeth a little deeper into the city than we did last time, and figure out what we're doing for Christmas. We've got a few errands to take care of; stopping by the Vietnamese and Indian embassies for visas and clothes shopping. The main thing we're trying not to forget is that we have to leave the country no later than the 28th (when our visa expires) or we face fines and jail time. So, we'll likely be in Laos, or possibly Vietnam for the holiday.

Sunset from Koh Tao

Sunset from Koh Tao

We're still having fun, still staying on our budget. Staying away from small boats from now on.

We miss everyone back home; love to hear from you guys,

J & R

Posted by JennyandRobert 11:22 Comments (5)

G'Day Mates!

Summertime in Sydney!

Friends,

The reason we were not able to link videos properly was because of previous poor internet connections. It's sad that developed countries like Australia and NZ have terrible (and expensive!) internet.

First, here is the video of what it's like to be a pedestrian in Auckland:

Second, we just wanted to say that we are very thankful for many things. To be healthy, to have great family and friends, to be able to follow our dreams. We also love to hear from people from back home!

We took it easy in Melbourne. We walked to the zoo to check out some animals our first full day there. We especially enjoyed the Australian Bush section of the zoo, which featured koalas, wombats and what was essentially a kangaroo petting zoo.

Koala at Melbourne Zoo

Koala at Melbourne Zoo

Kangaroo at the zoo

Kangaroo at the zoo

Here's a short video of our visit with the kangaroos:

We are thankful to have met some great friends in our lives. Two of whom, Olaf and Serena, inspired us to be in Melbourne for Thanksgiving--we enjoyed Spanish Tapas with them for our Thanksgiving Feast!

Sydney has been great for the past few days. Yesterday we did a walking tour through the city, and today we took the ferry out to Manly Beach to enjoy the sun and surf.

Sydney's Opera House

Sydney's Opera House

Opera House Design

Opera House Design

We hope you all had a great Thanksgiving. Have a safe Holiday Season. We miss you!

Tomorrow we're flying from Sydney to Bangkok. Awesome food, beaches and affordable cost of living, here we come!

J & R

Posted by JennyandRobert 04:08 Comments (4)

Auckland-Sydney-Melbourne

Goodbye New Zealand, Hello Australia!!!

Hey Guys!

It's am almost 3am here; our flight to Sydney leaves in 3 hours. Jennifer is catching some zzz's while Robert is staying awake to make sure we don't miss the flight! We have had a good week up here on the north island of New Zealand! Auckland is a fun city; we found a great hostel in a nice neighborhood and made some good friends.

View of central Auckland from Ponsonby

View of central Auckland from Ponsonby

Big Baby Volcano!

Big Baby Volcano!

We went to the cultural show at the Auckland Museum, where we watched a Maori performance of the Haka. The first time we saw the Haka was during the world cup final. The All Blacks perform this dance before games. It is based in tradition of the native people of New Zealand, the Maori. Before battles or upon infringement of territory, this dance was performed by warriors in order to intimidate their foes from other tribes. Sticking out your tongue is only done by men, and is the ultimate way to communicate defiance. They all had intimidating face tattoos as well. It's cool to watch in general, but even more interesting when you consider the historical relevance and the immediate aftermath of the Haka just over a century ago--if you saw this performed, it probably meant that you were about to die. Check it out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jaWYF2nXNc

We went to Hamilton to visit our friend Matt at his awesome villa in the countryside, complete with a herd of deer living next door in a big gated area. It was great to see him and have a BBQ and spend the night playing jungle speed with him and his roommates!

Jennifer and Matt!

Jennifer and Matt!

After that we drove up to the Coromandel Peninsula to check out Hot Water Beach---Amazing. 2 hours on each side of low tide the water recedes just enough so that you can dig your own little hot tub in the sand directly above the heat vents! There are 2 geothermal vents about 30 yards apart that provide water up to 146 degrees Farenheit! The surface of the sand starts steaming due to the contrast of the cold ocean water and intensely hot sand. In one spot in our tub you couldn't dig your toes deeper than about 2 inches without burning yourself. Definitely the hottest tub that either of us have ever sat in. The day we were there low tide was at 8:45pm. We got there at about 7pm, the sun went down about 8:30; we stayed longer than pretty much everybody else who was there--probably 9:30pm when it was totally dark.

Jennifer at Cathedral Cove

Jennifer at Cathedral Cove


Glad we brought the spade!

Glad we brought the spade!


Diggin'

Diggin'


Our first tub!

Our first tub!


The seawall held!

The seawall held!


Happiest girl in the world!

Happiest girl in the world!


Hot tubbin'

Hot tubbin'


Fush and Chups!

Fush and Chups!

A couple of hours from now we are off to Australia! We're only going to be Down Under for 7 nights due to the high cost--we hear that in Sydney it's actually cheaper to eat street food in Chinatown than it is to purchase your own food at a grocery store and cook for yourself! For example, we booked a dorm room in Sydney for 36 USD/night/person. Then we booked a private double in Bangkok for 15 USD/night/person. We're going to do our best to have as much "no-money fun" as possible, but then, we always try to do that--it's the best kind of fun.

Hope we can find a turkey to cook up on Thursday with our friends Olaf and Serena in Melbourne!
We had a great time attending Kim's Friendsgiving via Skype!

Enjoy the short workweek and Happy Thanksgiving!

J & R

PS--The internet connection is free but terrible at this hostel; we'll include the Auckland pedestrian video next time!
PPS--The next time we find decent, affordable internet will likely be in Bangkok--that's where we'll post from next. See you in December!

Posted by JennyandRobert 05:36 Comments (1)

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