Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang, Laos; Hanoi & Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
Jennifer went with Sabina and Julia to zip-line through the jungle. It was crazy fun!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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