Cruising Ha Long Bay

DSC03874One of the things we knew we had to do in Northern Vietnam was see Ha Long Bay. We bought a tour from the same company we used for Sa Pa, which included transportion from Hanoi (4 hours in a minibus) and a cruise lasting about 24 hours on a restored Chinese Junk boat through Ha Long Bay. Our cruise actually continued onto the less touristy and less crowded Ban Tu Bay, where we docked for the night before heading back. It is really hard to describe how amazing it was to glide through the emerald green waters of these bays through the 2,000 limestone karsts and islands rising out of them. It was a pretty surreal experience for us and well worth the cost.

DSC03881The karsts in the bay have been formed by the elements for over 500 million years, but the name “ha long” means “descending dragon” and legend has it that the bays were formed when Vietnam was a nascent country and the gods sent dragons to protect it. The dragons are said to have spit out jewels and jade along the coast, which made the karsts and islets that dot the harbor and stopped many ships from attacking. Over 1,500 people live throughout the bay in fishing villages, and we got to visit one out in Bai Tu Long Bay on our second day. It has to be a hard life out there on the water, especially during storms. We learned that teachers come in from the mainland to teach in the small school, and if there are medical emergencies, speedboats can get to them from the mainland in about a 1/2 hour to take patients to a hospital.

Small boat taking us to the bigger boat.

Small boat taking us to the bigger boat.

Aside from the excitement of getting to see this amazing place, we had a great time on our cruise because of the people we met. Kate and Chris from South Africa were on a similar trip route so we ended up spending an evening in Hanoi with them because we were all taking the night train down the coast the next day. We had so much fun with them that we also hung out a couple times in Hoi An. (If you’re reading – hope you had a great rest of your trip!) We also met some of our first Americans on the trip and really hit it off with Holly and Elena, two awesome moms who were traveling together for a short vacation. The six of us had dinner together before our train in Hanoi, and Holly and Elena generously bought dinner for the backpackers on a budget. It was a fun night and it turns out Holly lives near John’s hometown so we hope our paths will cross again. There were lots of other fun folks on that trip, and as we’ve learned along the way – the people you meet can really make an experience so much more fun than when it is just a sightseeing trip.

The Treasure Junk, our home for about 24 hours.

The Treasure Junk, our home for about 24 hours.

limestone karsts in Ha Long Bay Ha Long Bay

On the deck of the Treasure Junk

On the deck of the Treasure Junk


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kayaking among the karsts

kayaking among the karsts

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We stopped at an islet with a beach. John was one of the few people who braved the cold water and took a swim.

We stopped at an islet with a beach. John was one of the few people who braved the cold water and took a swim.


Kayaking back to our boat

Kayaking back to our boat


He also jumped in again once we were back on board the boat.

He also jumped in again once we were back on board the boat.

From the boat

From the top of the boat

Boats we took to visit the fishing village in the bay.

Boats we took to visit the fishing village in the bay.


Nearing the village

Nearing the village


House in the fishing village

House in the fishing village

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Trekking in Sa Pa, Vietnam

View from our hotel.

View from our hotel.

From Hanoi, we took an overnight train to Sa Pa, near the Chinese border. The town looks like a ski town in the spring. At 5,200 feet above sea level, it has beautiful mountains and plenty of fog that provide breathtaking views. Back when the French controlled Vietnam, some used to vacation here during summers and they dubbed it “the Tonkinese Alps.” Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam and the Indochina peninsula, is also here. In addition to the beautiful landscape, Sa Pa is well-known for its concentration of ethnic minorities, of which the largest are the Black Hmong and the Red Dao.

DSC03778Once off the overnight train, we left our stuff at the hotel, put on as many layers as we could, and headed out with our tour guide, Won. This was the coldest place we’d been so far, and our wardrobes weren’t quite prepared for it. I wore my rain jacket over my fleece, over two long sleeved shirts, over a t-shirt, and I still never really got warm!

We were lucky and ended up on a tour with just us and Won, and we also never saw any other tour groups because his company tries to take their customers further off the beaten path for a better experience.

John with our trek guide, Won

John with our trek guide, Won

We were accompanied on our hike, however, by May, a local Red Dao (pronounced Zhao) woman who makes handicrafts and sells them for a living. She was very friendly, spoke quite well in English, and pretty much stuck by my side and chatted me up the whole hike. I learned all about her husband’s health, the fact that she was raising her grandchildren, and that sadly one of her daughter’s had kind of left her when she got married. I knew I was being sucked into her game and that she would want me to buy something, but I really liked her and it would’ve been difficult not to talk to her given we were the only people there. And, since she was walking right beside me, she also kept me from falling on slippery rocks a few times. I did think it was odd how she was interacting (or not interacting, as it were) with our guide, and John and I were both a bit confused as to whether this was part of the ‘tour,’ or what was going on …

Me and May by my side

Me and May by my side

Briefly explaining his views on her presence, our guide stopped abruptly at one point with May beside us to tell us how annoying he and the tourists found the fact that the local tribeswomen did this, because, as he explained, they were just trying to sell you stuff and would push you to buy something at the end. Awkward! He told us if we didn’t want anything we shouldn’t feel we had to buy something. I have to hand it to May, she kept a completely straight face during this whole explanation and didn’t show embarrassment or any sign that this was uncomfortable for her, nor did she walk away or leave us alone. Knowing this was all part of her livelihood, and already feeling a bit of a bond with May since we’d spent several hours with her, I on the other hand was feeling really uncomfortable. I was mentally gearing up for when she started her hard sell. I was really hoping she would have something in that basket that I liked at the right price, because I wasn’t sure how I was going to get out of this situation without buying something from May.

May, a Red Dao hill tribe minority who befriended us and followed us for several hours on our hike until we stopped for lunch.

May, a Red Dao hill tribe minority who befriended us and followed us for several hours on our hike until we stopped for lunch. The Red Dao women traditionally shave the front of their hair and their eyebrows, which is considered a sign of beauty.

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Wearing the scarf I bought from May.

I ended up buying the scarf I’m wearing here from May. It worked out because I really liked it, and I was freezing so I could further justify purchasing it. Our guide later told me that at $12, I paid double what I should’ve, but he also said that it was good I bought something because I was helping her out by buying it. To be sure, I haggled hard with her and she really wouldn’t come down anymore, so it wasn’t like I didn’t try. And really, it seemed an ok amount to spend, especially given the amount of time she’d invested in us (even if it was unsolicited). And since the scarf wasn’t something she made (the traditional weaving of the Red Dao took months to complete so those items were super expensive) she also gave both of us a ‘friendship’ bracelet with a Red Dao pattern on it, which we’ve been wearing ever since.

In the end, we trekked through lots of mud, over many rocky paths, all in the midst of amazingly beautiful terraced rice fields on the hills. The lines of the terraced rows seemed to curve endlessly and made such beautiful geometric-looking fields. It was pretty stunning.

terraced rice fields

terraced rice fields


On the trek

On the trek


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more terraced rice fields

more terraced rice fields


hill tribe kids playing hopskotch

we passed these hill tribe kids playing hopskotch on our hike


and some more ...

and some more rice fields …

We had signed up for a tour that included two days of “light trekking” around the mountains and into the villages. By mid-afternoon on our first day, we had hiked about 10 miles in the misty rain, and over muddy, hilly and rocky terrain, all after sleeping less than normal on the overnight train the night before. After getting us back to our hotel, Won asked us if we wanted to meet at 9am again tomorrow — and John and I looked at each other and knew one day of light trekking was enough for us. It was great, but my knees needed a break and we both also wanted to just enjoy the cute little town of Sa Pa since we had to leave on the night train out the next evening. So Won got the day off and John and I relaxed in the little town. Of course, it was gorgeous and sunny the second day we were there, but it made for a great day in the town.
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The main strip in Sa Pa. Very cute little town.

The main strip in Sa Pa. Very cute little town.

Vietnamese chalet

Vietnamese chalet

Watching the fog roll into town.

Watching the fog roll into town.

Experiencing Hanoi

If our leisurely slow boat on the Mekong River into Laos was an appropriate foreshadowing for the sleepy feel of that country, then our frantic-feeling Hanoi Airport taxi pick-up was about the right introduction to Vietnam.

Taking a great city tour in an open air electric bus.

Taking a great city tour in an open air electric bus.


After arriving late Sunday night, we awoke on Monday morning to a voice blaring from the many loudspeakers lining the streets. We stepped out onto our balcony in the drizzling rain and wondered if something was happening that we should know. But no one seemed to be paying any attention and we later learned from a guide that these were government announcements to the citizens; a way they could pass on “helpful news.” We didn’t quite get used to these loudspeakers, but we tried to ignore them like everyone else.

All of the motorbikes get parked on the sidewalks, which makes walking on them a bit more challenging.

All of the motorbikes get parked on the sidewalks, which makes walking on them a bit more challenging.

The eerie big brother speaker system nor the coldest weather on our trip so far could dampen our excitement to be in Vietnam, so we put on all the layers we had and set out to explore. We didn’t plan to stay in Hanoi long, so we wanted to get a feel for it while also figuring out how to get out to see Ha Long Bay and decide whether there was anywhere else we should go in the north before heading south.

It is hard to describe it any other way: Hanoi is the most intense city I’ve ever experienced. All the motorbikes and bicycles and pedestrians whizzing by are enough to make your head spin, then add incessant honking of horns and you can barely walk or think straight. As John described it, imagine a mix of NYC’s Chinatown with New Orleans’ French Quarter, then add thousands of people on bikes and motor scooters. We absolutely loved it.

The frenetic pace actually can be pretty fun. As long as you have your head in the game when you walk around and cross the streets, it all goes surprisingly smoothly. There aren’t any stoplights, or well, traffic rules, but you are supposed to just slowly step out into the street and cross at a steady pace, and the traffic will just go around you. One of the more amazing and surreal experiences I’ve had in my life was that of stepping out into oncoming traffic and watching the motorbikes and bicycles just flow around me like a school of fish swimming around a rock. That is just how it is done, and it works out because there are very few cars. It goes against everything we’ve been taught about crossing the street, but you just have to walk in and keep a steady pace. The first few times of stepping out into oncoming traffic can be pretty daunting. Well, who am I kidding, it was always a little nerve-wracking, but you get used to it going well so it gets easier.

Notre Dame Cathedral (in Hanoi)

Notre Dame Cathedral (in Hanoi)

While it is very high energy and loud, the city is also very beautiful and has a mystical feel to it. I’m sure the misty fog added to that, but there are lovely old vine-covered trees everywhere as well as ancient stone statues and pagodas mixed in with all the modern buildings. Also, I kept having weird deja vu moments of Paris, because of all the French influence.

It turned out that having some planning to do gave us a good excuse to stop every few hours and have food or drinks and just watch the city go by. We also had fun trying some new cuisine and really enjoyed the noodle dishes (Pho), and also had some amazing spring rolls, which were different in Vietnam than those we’d had so far. Aside from the piece of glass that ended up in John’s omelet one morning (and which he luckily found in his mouth before it went too far or did any damage), we liked the food a lot more than in Laos. One thing we noticed right away was how much richer it was than the Lao or Thai food, and we guessed it was from more butter. But we’re not sure. Not really much spice, but that was ok with me.

We didn’t venture too far outside of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, and we stayed about three days total after leaving and coming back twice on trips out to Ha Long Bay and up to Sa Pa in the north. We had a great time, and given how intense Hanoi is, seeing it in a few short doses seemed just right.

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Pagoda (Turtle Tower) in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake.

Pagoda (Turtle Tower) in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake.

Huc Bridge to Jade Island in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake.

Huc Bridge to Jade Island in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake.

Having a cappuccino lakeside.

Having a beer and a cappuccino lakeside.


Another stop at an outdoor cafe.

Another stop at an outdoor cafe.


And of course, trying the local brew.

And of course, trying the local brew.

Old Quarter street

Old Quarter street

Typical nighttime scene of folks eating Pho (noodle soup) at one of the many sidewalk eateries.

Typical nighttime scene of folks eating Pho (noodle soup) at one of the many sidewalk eateries.

One of the many kitchens that open right out on the street in Hanoi

One of the many kitchens that open right out on the street in Hanoi

We were really impressed with the sheer quantity of things the Vietnamese loaded onto bicycles and motorbikes.

We were really impressed with the sheer quantity of things the Vietnamese loaded onto bicycles and motorbikes.


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A Delicate Balance

Hanoi traffic

Hanoi traffic


In order to get to Vietnam, we decided to forego what sounded like a 30+ hour bus ride and a difficult border crossing and took a one hour flight from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam.

We’d also read a lot and even heard firsthand stories about Hanoi taxi scams (especially at the airport), so we arranged for a taxi pick-up through our hotel. After waiting about an hour for our driver we were worried he was not going to show. Another nice taxi driver noticed our anxiety and walked up to help us. Using charades and props, he pointed to his phone and we showed him the number of our hotel and our names. He presumably called our hotel and confirmed that a taxi was on the way.

Shortly after that, a taxi driver came running up to the guy who made the phone call and then came over to us. I have to say I was very unsure whether he was really our driver or if this “helpful” guy had called a friend to either help us out and get the fare, or, to scam us. Anything seemed like a possibility. So, we had a very unclear conversation (still no common language) with the new taxi driver, but we didn’t really know what else to do so we followed him.

Not really even waiting on us to decide what to do, he quickly grabbed my back pack and put both straps on and took off walking very quickly outside the airport. It didn’t necessarily feel like he was trying to lose us, but he certainly wasn’t paying attention to whether we were still behind him and we actually had to run to keep up with him. We wouldn’t have thought it so weird if it was a short walk and we weren’t already nervous something wasn’t right. We were really going quite far from the airport and we kept yelling to get his attention and ask him to confirm he was from our hotel, but he ignored us and just kept fast-walking away from the airport and passed all the cars lined up outside. It is fair to say that my suspicions are escalating at this point.

Hanoi Old Quarter.

Finally, we got to a taxi where someone else was idling behind the wheel, and I immediately worried that he was going to throw my bag in and speed off without us. So, naturally, I aggressively grabbed my pack from him and made sure that didn’t happen. Once in the taxi, we took some deep breaths. Of course, we’re still not sure this guy is the one we arranged, but at least we’re in the same taxi as our bags.

After a short drive, we did a quick U-turn at an opening of some concrete barriers in the middle of the road. This was confusing, but again we have no idea where we are and which direction we should be heading. We then drove back past the airport and where he picked us up and started to pull over into a dark, empty, gravel parking lot with a closed fence around it. At this point, I’m mentally freaking out with visions racing through my head of being mugged and stranded deep in this empty parking lot. The car stopped at the gate and in a flash of activity the driver hopped out and ran across the street, our guy crawled over to the driver’s seat, turned the car around, and we were driving off in the other direction again.

Ok, that could’ve gone so much worse and now we’re breathing more calmly. I’m happy to report that nothing else happened and we made it to the hotel just fine. To summarize what actually happened here: the ‘helpful’ taxi driver who made the phone call for us at the airport was, in fact, helpful. Our taxi driver was really late to get us, so he had a friend of his who works at the airport sit in his car in an ‘illegal’ parking spot so he could run in and find us. But then he couldn’t drop him off in the correct spot without backtracking because of the concrete dividers in the middle of the road. Really not a complicated scenario at all, unless you are arriving after dark, tired, unable to speak a word of the language, and on guard against nefarious taxi drivers from the beginning because your head is full of stories of scams. To be fair to us, there was a lot of weird and confusing stuff that happened here, and I’m sure there truly are some terrible taxi scams. I’m not sure we could’ve or should’ve done anything any differently in this situation, aside from learning Vietnamese (though I was certainly embarrassed about the mistrustful way I grabbed my pack from him). It turned out that no one was trying to hurt us or even scam us. In fact, everyone in this story was helping us get where we wanted to go.

DSC03720This is probably one of my least favorite parts of traveling – the art of finding the right mix of being smart and cautious in the face of seemingly endless stories of theft and scams, while also trying to maintain a little trust in humanity and not approach every person or situation with suspicion. It is a delicate balance. We’ve been extremely lucky so far and have met so many wonderful and helpful people, yet we try to always remember to keep our wits about us. The Hanoi airport taxi pickup was probably one of dozens of examples we have on our trip of how something so simple can be downright unnerving when there is no communication and we don’t understand what is happening.

I think this taxi experience was also one of many reminders we’ve had (see also our Shanghai airport layover experience) that things usually work out in the end because most people are genuinely trying to help us get where we want to go. When you’re traveling around on foreign soil and unable to speak the language at all, things are bound to feel confusing and downright scary sometimes. It is all part of the experience.

Exploring in Vang Vieng, Laos

Heading to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang

Heading to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang

It’s about 100 miles from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. Most of it is through rugged mountains, looping back and forth along high ridge lines and around immense limestone karsts. So the 100 miles takes about 6 hours.

View along the route from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. This was probably our most harrowing bus ride yet.

View along the route from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. This was probably our most harrowing bus ride yet.

bathroom break on our bus ride from LP to VV

Bathroom break on our bus ride from LP to VV

Vang Vieng sits on the Nam Song river, a beautiful stretch of clean, cool water that flows at the feet of large karst mountains. Rock climbing is becoming a major business and there are quite a number of caves to explore. It also has a reputation for being a party town. If you’ve heard of bars where episodes of Friends or Family Guy play on endless loops and dazed backpackers stare on inebriated – this is that town. Or at least it was. Over the last decade tubing down the Nam Song river has become one of the main draws of the backpacker set. Run by a collective representing each of the towns in the area, a good deal of the money actually goes back to locals. It starts about 7km outside of town and up until this summer, most of the route was lined with bars, dancing platforms, rickety zip lines, rope swings, and “water” slides. Mix in a liberal drug policy and you can see why one of the largest concrete slides was nicknamed, “the slide of death.” But after 20 deaths in under a year (and perhaps the untimely death of an official’s niece), in September 2012 the government came in and literally tore down all the bars along the river.

The town’s reputation was enough to keep it off our list but after talking with some fellow travelers and hearing about the changes, we decided to give it a try. Tubing down the river on our first day was the perfect combination of laziness and sightseeing. On our second day, we decided to go slightly farther afield and rented motor bikes to go explore the caves dotting the surrounding area.

sunset over the Nam Song river the night we arrived

Sunset over the Nam Song river the night we arrived

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One of the bridges on the Nam Song river crossing over to a small island that had a few bungalows/guest houses

One of the bridges on the Nam Song river crossing over to a small island that had a few bungalows/guest houses

Getting ready to go tubing down the river on old tractor inner tubes

Getting ready to go tubing down the the Nam Song river on old tractor tire inner tubes

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 getting ready to climb lots of steps to see the Xang Cave, just on the edge of town

Getting ready to climb lots of steps to see Xang Cave, just on the edge of town

view from the top of the steps at Xang Cave

View from the top of the steps at Xang Cave

area at the  base of the stairs to Xang cave

At the base of the stairs to Xang cave

in the middle of a MUCH more strenuous climb to the second cave, Tham Phoukam

In the middle of a MUCH more strenuous climb to the second cave outside of town, Tham Phoukam

At the mouth of Tham Phoukam

At the mouth of Tham Phoukam

decked out in the headlamp

Decked out in the headlamp

inside Tham Phoukam

Inside Tham Phoukam

large Buddha altar inside Tham Phoukam

Large Buddha altar inside Tham Phoukam

taking a break on our motorbike ride back into town

Taking a photo break on our motorbike ride back into town

 Sharing the road.

Sharing the road

Don't worry Mom, I was very careful when taking photos while driving!

Don’t worry Mom, I was very careful when taking photos while driving!

A few more scenes of the river, in the morning

A few more scenes of the river, in the morning

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Kuang Si Falls, Laos

There are several waterfalls near Luang Prabang, and after reading up on them it seemed that Kuang Si falls was the best one to visit during the dry season, when some waterfalls all but disappear. Even after doing our research, nothing prepared us for how amazing this series of cascades and pools would be. I’m pretty sure the pictures don’t do it justice, but they come closer than words can.

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Minerals in the water made some of the more shallow pools an iridescent light turquoise-y blue-green color. As a side bonus, the minerals made a fantastic natural cleanser for our travel weary (and dirty) feet.

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There was a line of folks to jump off of a rope tied into a tree about 15-20 feet above the water, while what seemed like hundreds of people watched. Too much of an audience for me, but John took a jump.

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And next, John bravely jumped off one of the ‘smaller’ waterfalls, that was about 10 feet high. But even at that shorter height, I still didn’t get up the nerve … maybe next time.
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Lovely Luang Prabang

View of the Mekong from Mount Phou Si in the center of LP

View of the Nam Khan River from Mount Phou Si in the center of LP


Luang Prabang is a charming little city in the center of northern Laos on the Mekong River. It is nestled in a valley and surrounded by rolling mountains. The Mekong and Nam Khan rivers hug the peninsula of the city on either side. So it has a misty natural beauty going for it, and then when you walk around the Old Quarter of the city, it almost feels like you are going back in time. Or at least like time slows way down.

This was partly due to the fact that Laos is just really different than all of its neighbors. The Lao people are known for being very laid back and don’t like to do anything if there isn’t an element of fun. (This is apparently in stark contrast to their very industrious Vietnamese neighbors.) They are also more religious and traditional than their neighbors. We generally found the Lao people we interacted with to be friendly, but more reserved. On the occasions when we got more insight they did seem very fun-loving. In any case, Laos definitely had a different feel than Thailand. It was far less developed and more rural, less populated, and in general more difficult to travel in than Thailand. For all these reasons, we liked it more.

Sunset from the city over the Mekong

Sunset over the Mekong, taken from Mount Phou Si

Walking through Luang Prabang also made me feel like I was in a very different place than any I’d been before because there were so many Wats, or temples, and active monks and monks-in-training. It is customary for most young Lao boys to spend some amount of time in the monastery for training. It seemed like this could be anywhere from 7 days to several years, and while some of them stay in the monastery for life, most of them go back out and continue on with the next phase in their lives. It is here that many learn to speak English and get to practice it, allowing them to work in tourism.

You can hardly turn a corner in Luang Prabang without seeing many orange-robed monks walking in pairs around the city. It is a really lovely and peaceful sight. DSC03408 LP is also well-known for a daily ceremony that involves the Buddhist faithful giving alms [often high-quality rice balls] to hundreds of monks who walk around the monasteries every morning at sunrise. It is supposed to be beautiful. Sadly, we read that so many tourists now line up to watch and take photos that locals feel it is ruining their experience. Given this ratio of tourists to monks, we thought watching this ceremony might not hold the same appeal it did a few years ago.

On the main drag of LP. Very cute town with lots of obvious French influence from when from when they controlled it from the late 1890s to 1954.

On the main drag of LP. Very cute town with lots of obvious French influence from when from when they controlled it from the late 1890s to 1954.

The Indian place we went to a few times served my amazing butter chicken with  heart-shaped rice, and my coke with a pepsi glass.

The Indian place we went to a few times served my amazing butter chicken with heart-shaped rice, and my coke with a pepsi glass.

The city is also very charming because most of the buildings are a French colonial style. While thinking about how all that influence originated reminds me of an unfortunate history, it is hard not to appreciate the remnants. I have to admit, I also really loved getting to have cappuccinos and lattes if we wanted them, which was not the norm for us in Thailand. They also had lots of bread in LP, and Laos, generally, which was awesome given they didn’t really have bread in Thailand. A common street food on offer in LP was baguette with Nutella, so naturally, this city holds a special place in my heart. As far as the rest of the food went, we didn’t like the Lao food as much as Thai food, and I guess the best dishes I had were at an Indian restaurant. (My Lao food experience may be jaded by the bout of food poisoning I picked up about a week into our stay, see more below).

There were some interesting culinary experiences, though, like going through a street food buffet which had probably 20-30 large wok-sized bowls overflowing with various Lao dishes. You could fill up one plate (no seconds) for about $1.25. But, as with everything in SE Asia, there is always something unexpected in every transaction. In this case, after you went through and carefully picked out the food you wanted and precariously arranged it on your plate to maximize the food you got on your one trip, but also to keep things that had really different sauces from mixing too much … well, then you hand your plate to the the woman running the buffet to pay, and she then dumped it all in a heated wok and mixed it up in order to warm up the food! So, that was a bit at odds with actually tasting anything in particular, but it was a pretty good smorgasbord and for that price, what a great deal!

One of our daily activities, looking at menus and finding food.

One of our daily activities, looking at menus and finding food.


I really loved LP, but it was also here that John and I got several different types of sick, including a nasty head cold for me, a more mild cold for John, our first relatively minor stomach issues throughout our stay, and then a majorly bad case of food poisoning for me. Suffice it to say that all is well that ends well, and after several hours of feeling about as sick as I can remember, John convinced me to take a Cipro and the worst of it was over soon after that. (In case you are wondering, this was several days after the street food buffet, so that wasn’t the culprit. I think it could have been some sliced fruit I ate at our hotel breakfast, but who really knows.) I still wasn’t able to eat or do much of anything for a few days afterward, so we lost some time in LP, and I think John got a little bored there. He got out a bit on his own, but mostly we just slowed down and did a lot of reading and recovering and listening to the rats scurry around in the ceiling of our rustic bungalow. I guess doing not much of anything was kind of appropriate for such a lazy-paced city. There were a few things I really wanted to do before leaving, so we ended up staying longer than planned to fit everything in.

We were staying at a bungalow right on the other side of this bridge, which only allowed motorbikes and bicycles. We rode our bikes on it once and it is harder than it looks to stay on the planks! There was a pedestrian walkway on the side, see below.

We were staying right across this bridge, which only allowed motorbikes and bicycles. We rode our bikes on it once and it is harder than it looks to stay on the plank! There was a pedestrian walkway on the side, see below.

This is the pedestrian walkway on either side of the bridge. The boards weren't all nailed down or even, so there was a lot of banging around when you walked. And, it was pretty high over the water below. It was mostly fine during the day, and pretty terrifying at night.

This is the pedestrian walkway on either side of the bridge. The boards weren’t all nailed down or even, so there was a lot of banging around when you walked. And, it was pretty high over the water below. It was mostly fine during the day, and pretty terrifying at night because you couldn’t see very well.

 It may have been rickety, but at least it was well lit!

Alternatively, we could get to our place by walking over a bamboo bridge that was rebuilt every year after it got washed out during the rainy season. It may have been rickety, but at least it was well lit! (Unlike the other bridge)

Bamboo bridge by day

Bamboo bridge by day

Statues on Mount Phou Si

Statues on Mount Phou Si in the center of town

Large sleeping Buddha at Wat Phou Si

Large sleeping Buddha at Wat Phou Si

Wat Phou Si

Wat Phou Si

At Wat Phou Si

At Wat Phou Si

Sunset on the Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong

Lanterns in the courtyard of a restaurant

Lanterns in the courtyard of a restaurant

Top of the tents making up the night market. The center piece of the town every night and a great market for shopping!

Top of the tents making up the night market. The center piece of the town every night and a great market for shopping!

umbrellas for sale in the night market

umbrellas for sale in the night market

tuk tuk

Lao tuk tuk

Slow Boating Down the Mekong in Laos

After heading northeast on a 6 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, Thailand, we were at the Laos border. This ride went through some really beautiful scenery with lots of mountains and karsts. At the border checkpoint, there are several options for moving on through Laos once you cross the river (no entry by road that we saw). Following the Mekong River east through the country takes you to Luang Prabang, where most people head from the border. You could go north first and do the Gibbon Experience, which we’ve heard great things about, but it is popular so was fully booked for the whole time we would be near there. So on to Luang Prabang for us. We’d read some horror stories about the two-day public slow boat, which included overcrowded boats of near to 100 people with no food/drink, and sometimes nowhere to sit the whole time. We really wanted to avoid that scenario.

Sunrise on the Mekong River (from Thailand). Also our first glimpse of Laos across the river.

Sunrise on the Mekong River (from Thailand). Also our first glimpse of Laos across the river.

Speed boat on the Mekong River.

Speed boat on the Mekong River.

You could also take a speedboat that got you there in 6 hours, but we’d read some unpleasant stories about that AND the guidebook strongly recommended not taking this option because it was so dangerous. We saw a few of these boats on our trip and most of the passengers were wearing motorcycle helmets, either because of the noise or the high risk of hitting a rock and flying out of the boat (or both). Either way, no thanks.

And, there is a public bus option that I think takes like 20 hours or so on very poor roads. In the end, we got a great recommendation from a friend (thanks Em!) for a private slow boat with food, drinks, and cushions (something public boats don’t have), as well as a guide to help you cross the border and show you through a couple villages along the way. This option was a bit of a splurge for our budget, but booking ‘The Nagi of Mekong’ turned out to be so, so worth it.

View from our boat as we approach Laos from Thailand. The Mekong is murky.

View from our taxi boat as we approach Laos from Thailand. The Mekong is murky.

And the view of the entry point from the Laos immigration "office"

And the view of the entry point from the Laos immigration “office”

We crossed the river that is the Thailand-Laos border, went through a very hectic Lao immigration, and then glided along the Mekong River for about 8 hours each day and stopped over night half way in a tiny village called Pak Beng.

John filling out Laos visa paperwork. Even with a guide to help us through, it was a very chaotic and stressful experience. Really  glad we didn't have to do it on our own.

John filling out Laos visa paperwork. Even with a guide to help us through, it was a very chaotic and stressful experience. Really glad we didn’t have to do it on our own.

On the Laos side of the Thailand/Laos border.

On the Laos side of the Thailand/Laos border.

What a fantastic introduction to Laos! This trip along the Mekong River was so peaceful, relaxing, and gorgeous, that we just laid back and soaked it all in. Best of all, we had two days to get to know the other 18 or so folks on board and had a great time hanging out. I could see where this leisurely pace of getting to Luang Prabang could be too slow for people who were on a tighter time frame or didn’t have the good fortune to hit it off with their fellow passengers. But, it was really great for us.

Lori, across from our new friend, John, who is Californian but has been teaching English for 12 years in S Korea.

Lori, across from our new friend, Jon, who is Californian but has been teaching English for 12 years in South Korea.

John and John enjoying some beers. The three of us were the only Americans and we happened to also get along great. It was funny to learn that several of the other passengers assumed we were traveling together because we were having such a good time. We also hung out a couple times in Luang Prabang before John headed south.

Jon and John enjoying some BeerLao. The three of us were the only Americans and we happened to also get along great. It was funny to learn that several of the other passengers assumed we were traveling together because we were having such a good time. We also hung out a couple times in Luang Prabang before Jon headed south.

Getting off the boat at the midway point in Pak Beng, Laos.

Getting off the boat at the midway point in Pak Beng, Laos.

Pak Beng. All slow boats are actually required to stop here overnight for some reason I didn't catch, but I think it had something to do with it being the only stopping point between Thailand and Luang Prabang and it is dangerous to be on the water after dark.

Pak Beng. All slow boats are actually required to stop here overnight for some reason I didn’t catch, but I think it had something to do with it being the only stopping point between Thailand and Luang Prabang and it is dangerous to be on the water after dark.

Our guide told us that it is customary for a Lao host to offer any guests a welcome shot of Lao Lao (homemade rice whisky) upon entering their home. Further, most bars and restaurants give guests free shots. So, while our boat crew was having dinner in Pak Beng, the guide passed around a bottle of Lao Lao and most of us partook. A few in the [smartly] group shied away from this cultural experience so John offered to drink the extra shots. I love the look the woman to his left is giving him.

Our guide told us that it is customary for a Lao host to offer any guests a welcome shot of Lao Lao (homemade rice whisky) upon entering their home. Further, most bars and restaurants give guests free shots. So, while our boat crew was having dinner in Pak Beng, the guide passed around a bottle of Lao Lao and most of us partook. A few in the group declined this cultural experience, so John offered to drink the extra shots. I love the look the woman to his left is giving him.

I would later wonder if sharing the same shot glass with 20 people had anything to do with the massive head cold I came down with in Luang Prabang

I would later wonder if sharing the same shot glass with 20 people had anything to do with the massive head cold I came down with in Luang Prabang.

Pak Beng at sunrise on day two of the slow boat journey.

Pak Beng at sunrise on day two of the slow boat journey.

On the second morning, it was REALLY cold and windy.

On the second morning, it was REALLY cold and windy.

Peeking in on a school in one of the hill tribe villages in rural Laos (which is where much of the population lives). I'm sure having tourists stop by and snap pictures of them is not disruptive at all. In our defense, the guides were encouraging us to take photos, and everyone else was doing it ...

Peeking in on a school in one of the hill tribe villages in rural Laos. Much of the population lives in rural areas. I’m sure having tourists stop by and snap pictures of them is not disruptive at all. In our defense, the guides were encouraging us to take photos, and everyone else was doing it …

A little girl from a hill tribe village stopped crying to wave at us.

A little girl from a hill tribe village stopped crying for a moment to wave at us.

 

Laos hill tribe woman making Lao Lao (moonshine or rice whiskey)

Laos hill tribe woman making Lao Lao (moonshine or rice whiskey)

Lao man on the side of the Mekong River

Lao man on the side of the Mekong River

 

View along the Mekong River in Laos

View along the Mekong River as we neared Luang Prabang. We only occasionally saw any sign of humans for the entire two day trip.

White Water Rafting in Chiang Mai

Seeing this elephant through the window of our taxi was as close to one as we got in Chiang Mai.

Seeing this elephant through the window of our taxi was as close to one as we got in Chiang Mai.

While we were in Chiang Mai, we also went white water rafting and had a great time. The 2 hour drive up to the top of the river took us through the beautiful mountainside where we got to see the elephants at the elephant camps and some glimpses of life in the local hill tribes.

An added perk to the day was that our tour company forgot to pick us up with the group, so we ended up riding comfortably for two hours in the back seat of a taxi (instead of in a crowded minibus), and got a generous discount on the rafting trip, and a free CD of their professional photos! This was a big boon for us given the rafting excursion was putting us over our budget that day!

The river was pretty low given it is the dry season, so the rapids were only class 3 (out of 5). This was good since it seemed pretty intense to us! I was slightly nervous as we headed up to the river and wondered if the trip would feel safe, how good the guides would be, etc. I have to say, I was extremely impressed with the company we used – Siam River Tours. There was a safety tutorial beforehand, and everything seemed very organized at the launch point. Our guide spoke really great English, so it helped that we could quickly understand and respond to his commands. There were also quite a few extra guides going down in “safety kayaks” in case anyone fell out, and at every rapid there were even extra guides on the bank watching and waiting with ropes, just in case. Apparently it is common for people to fall out every now and then, and there are rocks everywhere, so better to get out of the water as quickly as possible. So, even though the rapids seemed fairly big and the rocks all around us were even bigger, I felt very good about the trip. And, no one fell out in the rapids, so that was good.

Waiting at the top of the river.
Waiting at the top of the river.
I started out sitting behind John, but at the very beginning, our guide made me switch with the other woman in our group. John and I decided it must have been because we were such strong rowers that one of us needed to be on either side! Or ... it could've been the opposite.

I started out sitting behind John, but at the very beginning, our guide made me switch with the other woman in our group. John and I decided it must have been because we were such strong rowers that one of us needed to be on either side! Or … it could’ve been the opposite.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Preparing to go over some rapidsPreparing to go over some rapids

In the rapids!

In the rapids!

Another one in the rapids

Another one in the rapids

Our boat high-fiving after going through some rapids.

Our boat high-fiving after going through some rapids.

At the very end, another guide tricked us all into leaning far right and then he tipped us. They caught this photo with both of John's feet in the air while he was under water. My left leg is still on the boat and I'm in the water behind John. Fun day.

At the very end, another guide tricked us all into leaning far right and then he flipped our raft. They caught this great shot with both of John’s feet in the air while his head was completely under water. My left leg is still on the boat and I’m in the water behind John. Fun day.

We ended up spending more than a week in Chiang Mai and loved it. It took us a few days to get into the town, but once we did we could see why so many people rave about it. Because our 30 day entry visas were going to expire while we were there, we even spent half a day in the immigration office getting extensions. It was a bit of a hectic morning with many different forms to fill out, lines to stand in, and officials at windows to approach, but it all went well in the end and was one of the many, many times on this trip where we were both really happy to have a traveling partner to help with the logistics.

Overall, we stayed longer than we meant to in Thailand, but I think it worked out for the best. By the end of our first five weeks on the trip we were excited for our second country. Next up was getting ourselves to the Thai-Laos border and slow boating it along the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.

Lori’s SE Asia trip packing list

This is bit of a random post, but I put this together early on and decided to go ahead and comment on how the packing list has held up so far, while I’m thinking about it.

Here is all of our stuff on a king-sized bed. As you can see, there is a lot of stuff.
stuff in both our packs
And below is a list of everything that is in my pack. I found other traveler’s lists of what they took on long-term trips extremely helpful, so I put this together in case it could help someone else. John’s list is similar but he took some of the extra hardware that we only have one of (i.e. pocket knife tool, gorilla tape, crazy glue, HDMI cable for hooking the computer up to a tv, etc.). He also has the same day pack but the larger Porter 65 back pack so we can stuff souvenirs into it at the end and also so he can carry a bit more along the way if needed. So far we are extremely happy with our large pack choices – they are amazing and we highly recommend. I don’t think I’d recommend the daypacks, though. They have been fine, but slightly larger ones would be better. I’ve put notes about things where I think of them, but if you are packing for a trip and would like more detail on anything, feel free to ask.

stuff in Lori's pack
Lori’s trip packing list:

Back Packs:

  • Osprey Porter 46
  • Osprey Daylite day pack

Clothes:

  • 2 pair of pants; one that snapped into capris and both with good zip or snap pockets
  • 1 pair of prana quick drying shorts
  • 1 pair of comfy yoga pants [super happy I brought these 'extra' pants for lounging around the hotels]
  • 1 travel skirt with cargo pockets [haven't worn this as much as the pants]
  • 3 tank tops
  • 3 short sleeved t-shirts
  • 1 long-sleeved thin black shirt [only wore this in Northern Vietnam or on the planes]
  • 2 sports bras [maybe would have brought one more, but 2 is ok]
  • 7 underwear
  • 1 pair of cotton pajama shorts
  • 2 pair smart wool crew socks [one would have been ok]
  • 1 pair of Keen water shoes
  • 1 pair of comfy flip flops [bought some plastic Havianas on the beach and wear them almost exclusively]
  • 1 pair of Tom’s canvas slip on shoes [haven't worn much but happy to have]
  • 1 bathing suit [wish I'd brought two]
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 lightweight fleece jacket [mostly wore this in Northern Vietnam, on the planes, or in the evening. Very glad I had it]
  • 1 lightweight scarf [didn't need to bring this since I bought several here]
  • 1 baseball cap [haven't used this yet]
  • 1 bandana [this has come in really handy for various things]
  • 1 pair silver hoop earrings [have bought some earrings and rings along the way]
  • 3 mesh packing cubes hold all of my clothes and shoes (except the bulkier Keens which I usually wear on travel days)

Toiletries:

  • 1 4 oz. Dr. Bronners soap and a 4 oz of the REI brand [haven't used this except for to do laundry in sinks, most hotels have soap]
  • 1 travel sized shampoo [have been able to pick up lots of small shampoos at hotels]
  • 1 travel sized liquid face soap [was very happy to have this as I like the brand I use]
  • 1 travel sized hair spray [the only hair 'product' I use and I ran out half way, so I bought some Vietnamese hairspray, but definitely haven't seem much in the way of familiar hair products aside from shampoo.]
  • 1 razor and a few extra blade replacements
  • 1 nail brush/clipper/file/tweezers
  • Qtips
  • 2 travel sized deodorants [this wasn't enough and I should've brought a regular sized one since they don't carry US deodorant in many places we've seen]
  • eyelash curler/mascara [this is the only make up I've used]
  • 3-4 chapsticks
  • tampons
  • toothbrush/toothpaste/floss
  • small packet of ponytail holders and hair pins
  • comb
  • 1 cloth hair band
  • Several Mesh toiletry bags

Electronics:

  • Macbook Air
  • Nexus (E-reader w/ wireless, GPS and video capability)
  • iPhone
  • Point and shoot camera
  • Lots and lots of chargers and converters and cords! [it turns out most of our plugs work in the countries we've been in thus far, which is great since I left our converter at one of our first hotels]
  • Headphone splitters
  • Small flashlight
  • Headlamp
  • Digital sport watch

Medicine/First Aid [we haven't used every single item here, but we used most at least once and have run out of some. Don't skimp on the medicine/first aid kit!]:

  • Anti-malarial pills
  • Cipro
  • Ambien (sleeping pills)
  • Anti-diarrhea/Anti-constipation meds
  • Tums/Pepto tablets
  • Dramamine
  • Advil
  • Vitamins
  • Potable water tablets
  • First Aid kit: Neosporin, anti-bacterial spray, band-aids, hydrocortisone cream, Burt’s Bees mosquito bite relief, and a few other odds and ends here
  • Sewing kit w/ scissors
  • 1 ace bandage
  • Electrolyte tablets
  • A few EmergenC packets

Miscellaneous:

  • 2 pair of sunglasses
  • Hand sanitizer/Hand wipes
  • Mini Tissue packs [could've used more of these, but I just stock up on toiletpaper from hotels.]
  • Earplugs
  • REI Camping Spork
  • REI Platypus 1 liter water bottle [we loved these for the first two weeks but then mine ripped so we just started using water bottles and trying to refill them when we could by buying large things of water to leave in our hotel.]
  • 1 Silk Sleep sack [I've used this more than John but was SO glad I had it. You often don't get a top sheet even in a nicer hotel, and I like having a sheet]
  • 2 bottles of suncreen (we didn’t bring enough at all – also should’ve brought some aloe)
  • 2 types of bug repellent (1 all natural Herbal Armor, and one w/ Deet just in case) [we love the Herbal Armor and should've just brought two]
  • 1 REI travel towel [have used this a lot]
  • 1 travel clothesline (the braided kind with Velcro on the ends is handy)
  • 2 travel locks from REI
  • 1 small bike lock cord, just in case
  • lots and lots of zip lock bags (snack size, quart, and gallon)
  • several waterproof compressions sacks
  • waterproof sleeves for laptop, iPad, etc.
  • 1 journal with lines
  • Pens
  • Playing cards
  • 4 packs of my favorite gum
  • a few extra carabiners
  • Moneybelt/Neck case for passport [one of these is enough]
  • Small passport sized Sherpani ‘purse’ for valuables and to keep in safe while wearing money belt
  • Small wallet and change purse to drop in day pack
  • 1 SE Asia guidebook, cut into chapters so we can toss a country after we’ve been there (we are downloading country specific books on our e-readers) [we HATED the Lonely Planet e-book, and ended up buying a new hardcopy guidebook for every country at an English bookstore in Bangkok]
  • 1 small guidebook called “Point It” for traveling when you don’t speak the language

Along the way, I’ve picked up a couple new t-shirts, a long-sleeved shirt I wear a lot at night, some loose capri type pants, a skirt, a dress or two, a sarong, scarves, a few small change purse type bags which have been very useful, and a large purse that I wear everyday. I also bought some fake Birkenstocks, fake Raybans, and had some clothes tailored and mailed home from Hoi An, Vietnam, including a wool winter coat. I’ve picked up a few souvenirs along the way, but we’re trying to hold off and buy things in Bangkok at the end. Other things we’ve needed and bought here include: sunscreen (though it is expensive), zip lock bags, deodorant, hairspray, aloe, gum, and a float for the pools/ocean.

John reminded me that I should mention that we’ve wished we had a flask, and it certainly would’ve come in handy. The local beer is pretty cheap, but if you like cocktails – the liquor drinks are pretty expensive. As it is, we’ve resorted to putting bourbon and vodka (separately) into old water bottles and buying a mixer at the bar. Classy, I know, but pretty much all decorum flies out the door when you travel like we are, so maybe a flask was unnecessary after all. In the end, we’ve had everything we really needed and in some cases, it was really fun to be creative and improvise with what we had. For example, this happens a lot when figuring out how to hang our laundry line to dry clothes/swim suits. John also resorted to using our sewing kit scissors to saw off the bottom of a large water bottle to use as a cup for his vodka tonics because the glasses that sometimes come in the hotel rooms were too small. After all, when it is something you need to live, you’ll figure out how to get by with what you have.