Tuesday, September 19, 2006

12th - 19th September (Dien Bien Phu - internet cafe undergoing noisy renovations!)

My early impressions of Vietnam are not great; I am dissapointed by the route from Mai Chau, the settlements we pass through are of scruffy concrete buildings instead of the beautiful bamboo hut villages i have been used to in Laos, there is rubbish strewn everywhere and the vehicles kick up dust from the roads. My first impressions of Hanoi are worse;
i get off the bus to a throng of motorbike taxi riders shouting, waving and pulling at my arm - at this point i don't know where in the city i am (as there are a few bus stations) or where i am going (my first priority is to find an ATM). I speak to a bus station official who points me towards the nearest bank, he says 1km so i start walking with my big rucksack on my back. I walk for at least 1km in the city heat with hassle from moto taxis every few seconds, and find a bank, they tell me i need Vietcom bank, 1 more km. After about a km i find another bank, they also tell me i need Vietcom bank, another km. Eventually i get there and to my relief get some money and by this time i know where i am on the map, and am resolute not to take a mototaxi, i have a lot of time to kill as i intend taking the night train out of here so i walk the remaining 4km to the train station hot and exhausted with an occaisional stop for food and cold beer. I arrive at the train station with three hours to spare sitting on a plastic seat reading whilst very loud Vietnamese tv blares out 'who wants to be a millionaire' among other things. The train is six to a cabin and the bunks are narrow and hard, i don't sleep too well.

The train arrives in LaoCai and a minibus takes us on to Sapa and drops us at the summit hotel, a little way up the hill from the main part of Sapa, the rooms are very nice and the view is terrific. 8 dollars. I explore the area, enquire about a trek up nearby Fansipan mountain but nowhere seems to be running this as a group trek, so book a less strenuous 3 day hill trek for 45 dollars and then walk up some nearby hills for good views of the town, mountains and valleys.
It's a lovely hot day but a nice cool breeze in the hills.

Sapa also has an abundance of mototaxis but they are not too pushy.

The trek group are made up of a Spanish couple, an aussie guy and an English guy - they are a decent bunch. Our trek guide is a 19 year old Hmong girl in traditional costume called Sisi, she speaks a strange cockney/aussie english and is very funny. There are several other small groups with young Hmong girls leading them. We do a fair bit of walking, beat some rice out of it's stalks, swim in the beautiful, freezing cold river and then stay with a Hmong family who speak no English but communicate via the medium of raising a shot of rice wine, i get through about 15 shots,
the old man of the family is drunk and can't stop laughing. Sisi cooked up some great food and we played cards into the night.

Suprisingly there was not too much of a hangover although the stomach felt a bit iffy. The rest of the group had only booked a two day trek and left about 2 o'clock in a jeep, leaving Sisi and I to trek some more and stay at another home where we ate and drank but a much quieter affair than the previous evening.

The final day started gently enough with a beautiful ice cold swim, but after that a two hour walk straight up hill in the sun. We ate noodles for lunch then had 17km mototaxis back to Sapa. I got a new hotel room in the centre and showered before phoning mum to wish her a happy birthday. In the evening Sisi took me to a dingy cheap restaurant where the locals eat, there are no menus, just a glass cabinet where the uncooked meat and fish sits looking a bit ropey. We had some fish, chicken and beans with rice and it tasted better than it looked. We watched some rather odd, unenthusiastic traditional dancing and music playing.

The following day was a Sunday so Sisi was off work, we hired a manual motorbike which took some getting used to. With Sisi on the back we went to Lao Cai where i hoped to get some money out of the ATM, apparently not for foreign cards on a Sunday! We looked around some shops and ate noodle soup with some horrible fatty, boney pork in another dingy locals restaurant. Back to Sapa for warm clothes and waterproof jacket before a ride to the waterfall - very cold and foggy, my toes were freezing as i was wearing sandals. In the evening i treated Sisi to pizza and pasta in an expensive restaurant, she had never tried either and loved the penne bolognese, at these prices i doubt she'll ever eat it again. Sisi is really sweet and i think she has a bit of a crush on me (well, she's only human!) I leave tomorrow.

According to Lonely planet, the public bus to Lai Chau takes 7 hours, in less than 3 hours the bus drops me off at a place called Lai Chau, strange! I ask a mototaxi rider for Lan Anh hotel (in the lonely planet), he double checks my request like this is strange then we ride for 40 minutes out of Lai Chau while i get more confused. The scenery on this stretch is breathtaking. Eventually we get to a Lan Anh hotel where i meet 4 aussies about to leave in a jeep with their driver and guide so i tell them about my confusion. Apparently this is the new Lai Chau, the old one (90km away) in the book is slowly being deserted as it will be flooded by the new dam. There is not much there and not much here either so i take them up on their offer of a ride to Dien Bien Phu as it is further south towards Hanoi but also west towards the Laos border. The ride in the boot is a little cramped and i don't see much of the pleasant scenery.
We stop at a village where the kids huddle around the cameras and giggle at the resulting pictures.
I've noticed that some of the kids are fascinated by my hairy legs and arms as men here are pretty hairless. The 10 dollar hotel room in Dien Bien Phu is very nice, i eat with the friendly aussies, 2 couples about 50 years old (you're never too old to travel!), they give me their details and say i am welcome to visit them in Oz.

In the morning the aussies leave for their guided jeep tour. I walk around until i find the war museum, cemetry and A1 hill where the decisive battle that sent the french packing took place. I'm not really that interested which is why i hadn't intended coming here but ther isn't much else to do.

After 3 months of travelling i have spent about 1900 pounds, 20.90 pounds per day, which with all the travel, diving, climbing and trekking i don't think is too bad.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

10th - 12th September (Sapa)

The border crossing i decided on is fairly new to tourists and there is not much about it in the lonely planet, but i didn't want to head south when my destination is north so i risk it. I get to the border ok where i meet a couple going the other way and exchange my leftover kip for their dong (yes, dong, stop giggling Phil), they told me, as did the Americans that buses don't run from here to anywhere in Vietnam, they say i will have to hitch or get a motorbike taxi.

The immigration is fun; a row of 4 huts, i go to each one in turn, having passport, and visa inspected and stamped several times, filling out a form, going to another office to have it checked and stamped, back to another to check my baggage (not very thoroughly) and finally walk 200m to the Vietnam side where they check my passport and visa again. The official told me that the motorbike taxi is expensive and i should bus 100km east to Thanh Hoa, 200km north to Hanoi, and 100km west to Mai Chau (my intended destination), i am wishing that i'd taken the bus through the crossing to the south straight to Hanoi for 25 dollars which at the time seemed expensive. I haggled a guy down from 40 dollars to 30 for a 140km numb bum 100cc motorbike ride to Mai Chau. It took about four and a half hours. The villages are more concrete eyesores than the quaint little huts of Laos but all the kids shout 'hello' when they see the white bloke on the back of a bike, the young ladies seem excited to see me as well but that is nothing new! I arrive at Lac village in Mai Chau where the staff are friendly and one speaks reasonable English which is always handy. It's a small village of stilt houses with a few tourist guest houses surrounded by paddy fields and mountains with only tvs and motorbikes to detract from the isolation.
I watch some kids having great fun with a cardboard box, i come back an hour later and they are still loving it - who needs playstation? My motorbike taxi adventure has left me with only 45 dollars and i am worried that it will not be enough to take me on my planned route with three stops before i next get to an ATM in Sapa, especially as i want to do treks and see the sights of the places i stop in otherwise what's the point?

Hoa, the woman who runs the guest house telephones her sister and then assures me there are now ATMs in Hoa Binh which i could get to on a motorbike taxi for a 14 dollar, 140km round trip, i'm not too sure but she convinces me.

There is no ATM in Hoa Binh and the banks will only exchange dollars and euros, my plastic, baht and pounds are useless. A waste of time and money and now i have no choice but to take the bus to Hanoi and abandon my route. I fancied drinking but now every dong counts. In the morning i leave for Hanoi having not seen much of what Mai Chau has to offer.
6th - 9th September (from internet cafe in Sapa, Vietnam)

There is only one ATM in Laos, that is in Vientiene. On the morning i leave i take out the maximum amount of kip, approximately 70 dollars. Even if i got more i doubt i would be able to change any leftover kip as it's a currency that nobody really wants. I have about 50 US dollars, some thai baht and some uk pounds that i hope will be of use in Vietnam until i next get to an ATM.

The public bus to Phonsavan is fairly empty and no tourists, the next few places i stop at are not on as popular a tourist route as the previous ones. The journey is hilly and windy with beautiful green scenery, the villages are more frequent htan before but there are not so many satellite dishes but i did see some kids riding pretty decent mountain bikes. My 3 dollar room in Phonsavan smels of damp, there is no ventilation. The town is seriously quiet in the evening - there is nothing going on.

Phonsovan is not so quiet in the morning, my guesthouse is on the main road and the traffic gets going about 0500. I go on a tour with a Japanese couple to the plain of jars. There are several sites around this province with a total of over 5000 large stone jars scattered about the hills.
We go to the largest single site with about 340 jars, the reasons for them are uncertain but it is possible that the dead were placed in the jar so that the soul could rise up to heaven, the body would later be removed and cremated. I prefer the story that they are whiskey vessels for the gods!
Much more entertaining was our afternoon visit to Hmong villages where some of the kids looked like they had never seen a camera before, i took some great pictures of the kids and also my favourite one of an old woman.
We saw temples and stupas bombed by the U.S. Saw how rice is produced, how swallows are caught and fermented to be sold as a delicacy and some silk worms for silk production.

With no brekky, a real bone shaker of a public bus with uncomfortable bench seats to Sam Neua. The engine sounded awful, it drowned out my music and the driver kept stopping to repair something. The whole bus rattled and creaked. We were held up for 30 minutes by a broken down lorry in the middle of the road. The highlight of the journey was trying to communicate with Monica, a cute 20 year old Laos villager, her English was only a little better than my Laos. Again i was the only tourist on the bus. All the cows and buffalos live on the roads and grass verges and they look pretty healthy - i kept expecting a 'me, myself and Irene' moment!

I found a nice 5 dollar room from the lonely planet and spoke to four friendly Americans in a restaurant, they were going the opposite way to me so we exchanged information. 2 canadian lads showed up going the same way as me. We all drank beer and some shots of the rice wine that makes you blind!

While in Sam Neua, i got a bus to Vang Xai caves where i had a personal (as nobody else was there) guided tour of 3 caves converted into living accomodation / strategic headquarters where some of the top brass hid from the Americans during the Indochina war (Vietnam war as the Americans call it). The guide spoke little English and i would have been interested to hear more about the caves but it did only cost 3 dollars. Met the canadians back at the restaurant where we all had a great steak and chips for 25,000kip, bargain. Over several beers, i taught them shithead and they taught me a good game called Yanif.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

1st - 5th September

In the morning i walked up Phou si hill to get a good view of Luang Prabang, it's bigger than i had realised and the view was clear, on the route down the other side there were several buddahs and a monk who i chatted to - he let me take his picture.
I wondered why there are no buildings here on the banks of the Mekong unlike in other parts such as Pak Beng. I checked my emails and found my mate Darren had booked his flight to Hanoi for the 23rd September for a 2 week holiday so now i am spending a lot of time thinking about how best to spend the next three weeks and arrive in Hanoi. However i do it i'll either spend a fortune on flights or a long time on the bus. An Aussie bloke told me there was a public bus that takes 26 hours from Vientiane to Hanoi which would most likely be pretty cramped. I'll see if i can make a number of smaller journeys but that may mean stopping off in some pretty remote places.

At 12.30 i got on the public bus to Viang Viene, a halfway point to Vientiane. The aile is knee high with big bags of sugar and there is no air conditioning, but everyone has a double seat (my luggage takes up one seat) and the wide open windows make it quite cold. The views from the roads through the mountains are so much more spectacular than from the Mekong. We could see for miles and miles of unspoilt green valleys and mountains, we stopped at the occaisional roadside village where the thais on the bus would buy fruit and veg, hardly any of it i recognised but i think there was sugar cane and tiny colourless corn on the cobs. Other villages we passed through filled with kids playing in filthy raggy clothes, people washing at the one communal tap or kids carrying back water along the road. It looked like poverty but the land had provided plenty of food, and they had huts with satelite dishes and the glow from the television inside and all the kids looked happy.

After about 7 hours the bus stopped and everyone got off so i checked into a hotel and went for food where i bumped into the Aussie from the bus who told me this was Kasi, just a food stop and we still had an hour to go. I fetched my bags and handed the key back to a bemused girl who spoke so little English that i didn't even try to explain.

In Viang Viene i had food and Lao dark beer whilst sitting in one of the many tv bars showing 'friends'. I slept well in my 3 dollar room smelling of paint. In the morning i looked around; Viang Viene is a cluster of guesthouses, travel agents, restaurants and internet cafes at a t-junction surrounded by mountains, a real blot on the landscape. Nothing great about this place but there are a lot of backpackers passing through. I booked a bus to go at 13.30 today to Vientiene but the chap for some reason booked it for tomorrow, he apologised and told me there were no more leaving today apart from a pick up truck where i would be standing the whole way, could have been an adventure but i booked an air con bus for tomorrow morning and checked into another hotel without the smell of paint. At least i have plenty of time to kill by catching up on my blog. I went to an internet cafe to burn a cd of my pictures but the computer had a virus and corrupted my memory card, i spent a lot of time trying to recover lost pictures but with no luck. Later i found a guy who copies albums onto mp3 so i now have 9 new albums to keep me happy for only 9 dollars.

The following day on the bus to Vientiene, i started reading 'A short history of tractors in Ukranian', listened to my great new music and met Angela and Emma, sisters from Sheffield who must get on really well as they do a lot of travelling together.

Vientiene is a lot more spread out than Vang viene and if you find the right cafes and bars is pretty chilled out but there doesn't seem to be all that much to do in the day.
I hired a bike for a day and cycled around in the scorching sun (with a bit of a hangover!) and sweated like a scouser in a idendity parade. I spent the evenings with Angela and Emma and had a very good time. The only problem was that the hotels have curfews so we went back to our hotel, took some beers and played shithead.

I found a fuji shop that managed to retrieve my corrupted photos which i was very glad of because they included the long neck women. I took a local bus, packed with locals to the Buddah park; a bizarre collection of huge concrete buddhist and hindu figures and a giant concrete pumpkin that you can walk around the 3 levels inside where there are more small strange figures; you'd just have to see it to believe it!

The girls left before me so i spent one more evening in a bar where i watched a 60+ rat faced, grey pony tailed man with a local girl on his lap maybe 18 years old - nice one fella!
31st August - The waterfall adventure!

Had booked up 2 trips for today. The morning boat trip was to some boring caves which had become temples filled with buddahs and concrete steps. The highlight was stopping at a small village on the way back where they make Lao whiskey. After some tasting i took a small 1 dollar bottle of the stuff that doesn't make you blind. The trip was due back at 12.30 but got back at 13.20, giving me just 10 minutes to find a street vendor for noodle soup which i scoffed down as quick as possible and a small portion of sticky rice wrapped up in a banana tree leaf to take away.

The afternoon bus journey was to a big waterfall, i took some photos from the bottom but there were steps to the top which i started to climb. People coming down said that the views were great and you could swim up there. I got to the top, where the path ran out and got to the edge of the big waterfall but couldn't see where the views were from or where to swim, so i tried to go around the fast flowing water through patches of mud, smaller streams and jungle, after a while i realised i was getting nowhere and a lot of the streams were too deep or fast and the mud too boggy so i decided to go back. I walked in so many directions that i got lost and the fast streams and mud kept stopping me from going where i wanted to. The straps of one of my shoes broke and i lost it in the mud. I tried to follow the flow of the water but i would get cut off and so many streams seamed to be flowing in different directions. I would listen for the waterfall but kept getting to smaller ones. I was starting to worry, i found a pomelo tree and picked one just in case i was stuck here for a while, i started calling out but nobody could hear me over the roar of the water. My minibus was due to leave at 16.00 and i wondered wether they would just go or tell someone. I wondered how long, if at all, it would take to send someone to find me. I started thinking about how to survive a night in the jungle. I know all of this must sound really melodramatic, but i was trying to think clearly whilst being scared out of my wits, and i felt like i was getting weaker with every step. I felt homesick. Eventually i got back to the edge of the waterfall and down the hill wearing my one shoe. I was 30 minutes late and the minibus was still waiting. I pulled off the leach that was feasting from my foot and went back to my hotel for a shower, where i found blood on my bollock, the cause of which was a hole a leach had left on the adjacent inner thigh. I went out for a drink in the evening and it felt like nothing had happened. I went to bed at 22.00 and went straight to sleep, at about midnight there was a knock at the door, Tom and Eimer had come to say goodbye as they were leaving the next day, they're a nice couple and i hope i bump into Tom in Oz.

Friday, September 01, 2006

25th August - 30th August

On the 25th i woke up thinking of leaving for Laos, but at breakfast i bumped into Janna and Cathy who i had spoke to briefly before, they were going to do a thai cooking class so i decided to tag along.
It cost 800B and was excelent fun, we had to eat everything we cooked, which was a lot, spring rolls,green curry, massaman curry, veg fried rice, ginger chicken and fried bananas in coconut toffee for desert which dad would love. I booked up a trip with the girls for tomorrow who, like me felt a little disappointed by the hill tribes, then went for a quick afternoon drink with them which turned into a bit of a session as we were al chatting and having a good time.

The next day we were picked up at 07.30 and most of the day was spent inside an air conditioned minibus with an eratic driver and a chinese sounding guide called Art. The main objective of the day was to see hill tribes, particularly the 'long necks', in traditional costume. We ended up in a tourist market where 3 diferent hill tribes, in traditional clobber had lots of stalls, all trying to sell us pretty much the same stuff (mainly hand woven scarves, necklaces, bracelets and shit).

Managed to take some good photographs but it was a pretty dull day really. In the evening i wanted to go to the Thai boxing but found it is on every night except Saturday.

Took the 13.00 bus to Chiang Khong, first class was all that was available, with air con and a really loud tv playing thai music videos and films the whole way, i could even here it over my mp3 player on full blast.
I met Tom and Eimer, both from Cork university. Spoke to them for quite a while, they are here on holiday and Tom will be going out to Oz around November as well so could meet up somewhere. We arrived at about 20.00 in the pouring rain where a woman persuaded us all to stay at her guesthouse. My room and shared bathroom was a bit dingy but it was only 120B. We ate there and the guy who runs it, a frenchman from Taihiti showed us a load of photos on his laptop. Taihiti looks like the nicest place in the world (bit of a honeymoon haven).
In the morning we paid 1600B for our Laos visa and crossed the Mekong to get the visa stamped, then with Tom and Eimer and a german couple, onto a long boat bound for Pak Beng. The boat was crowded with wooden benches seating about 100 passengers (mostly tourists) and it stopped at various places along the way where people
would either come on the boat to sell us drinks and snacks or load on cargo which filled the roof of the boat and gradually filled the aisle (big bags of rice or sugar). The Mekong is tea coloured with lots of swirling eddies littered with debris, mostly logs but we did see a bloated dead dog. The boat swings from side to side to avoid the debris. The scenery is nothing but green hills and the very occaisional village. Despite my blow up cushion (thanks for that piece of advice Richie B), my arse was numb and i was glad to get off in Pak Beng at 17.30 but geting the bags off was chaos and i lost my rag at a local when after waiting for ages and then searching the back of the boat in vain for my bag, found he had taken it off for me and wouldn't let me take it until i paid him - after some choice words i took my bag and he got nothing. During this time i had also been harrassed by blokes selling various guest houses and all kinds of drugs - amazing in such a tiny village. We all checked in at a nice hotel, and i haggled my room down to 250B while the guy who works here was still trying to sell me weed. Tom, Eimer and myself found an excellent Indian restaurant. The currency here is the kip, it suffers from massive inflation (from 11,000 to the pound in 2001 to 18,000 now) so the US dollar(10,000 kip:1 dollar) and Thai baht (260 kip:1 baht) are widely accepted and preffered, but whenever you get change it is in kip.

We were back on the boat at 08.30 the next morning bound for Luang Prabang, there were less seats this time but an empty space at the back where we could lean against the sides of the boat and stretch our legs. A couple of stops on the way and we were huddled into a tiny space with our knees under our chins. I was very glad to get off at 17.45, and this time i managed to get straight to my bag and the reception committee was much less intimidating. We found a really nice guest house 5 minutes walk from the main street for 200B - apart from some tiny ants making a constant march through my room this could have been a room in a 3 star hotel back home. Laos was colonised by the french (for most of the 19th century i think) and Vientiane has lots of french buildings. It was awarded a world heritage site status in 1995, has a very laid back atmosphere and has a night market which doesn't sell fake designer gear but mostly hand made fabrics, clothes, lampshades (made from the local paper with flowers pressed into it) etc. There is very little hassle from the traders here, just a 'Sawadee' (hello) if you show some interest. Beer Lao has given Tom and I both slightly dodgy stomachs, now I have discovered Lao dark beer which is more expensive and tastes like Newcastle brown ale, it's not available everywhere but it's bloody lovely.

The next day, i went walking around Luang Prabang with the sun burning my head and neck, loads of temples (Wats) and buddah statues. The place is swarming with monks and the younger novices all wearing orange shawls and often carrying umbrellas, i spoke to a couple of them. A popular game for the local boys is throwing flip flops at a stack of picture cards, whoever hits the stack wins, i watched this for a while until the boy who lost all his cards started crying and the others left counting their spoils. Had lovely tomato soup with french bread for lunch and watched local men play boules in the afternoon, there is lots of cheering, barracking and laughing and the games are played for money from about 6000kip (35p) upwards, doesn't sound like much but probably is to them. In the evening i ate a nice rare buffalo steak in garlic sauce (garlic is nothing like as strong as back home) and drank while watching Wigan beat Reading. Tom and Eimer popped in for a drink.