Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Vacation in Vietnam and Laos!

Greetings from Seoul!

It is cold and cloudy, and I am sitting at my desk for the first day of the new school year.  It's my first day back to routine after two and a half months of essentially traveling around Asia, visiting home, and not working.  Lucky me, I know.  After returning from Cambodia, I spent 10 painfully wintry days in Seoul and keeping my desk warm at Gil-Dong Elementary School before heading to Vietnam on February 12th.  My friend Sam and I arrived in Hanoi that night, checked into our hostel, and were up and ready to explore the next morning.  Hanoi is a lovely city with beautiful architecture, and despite the chill (and lack of warm clothing), we spent the day seeing several markets, shopping, touring the city's old gate, checking out Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum (Is Uncle Ho real or wax?), and meeting up with friends at our hostel.  There was a palpable energy in the air- the Vietnamese were getting ready for Tet, and after a delicious dinner we joined in the festivities.  There is a large lake in the middle of Hanoi, and people crowded around counting down to the new year with music, talent shows, baloons, and lanterns and lights strung up in trees and on the streets.  At midnight there was a bright fireworks display and thousands of people crowded the streets.  Despite the fact that I was freezing and a mere 3 blogposts ago I said I would never, ever stand outside for another new year's eve, celebrating Tet was an experience I will not ever forget.

The next day Sam and I- with multiple old and new friends in tow- headed out of Hanoi for a three day tour of Ha Long Bay.  We boarded a large wooden boat where each of the 30 or so backpackers with us were given rooms with bathrooms, a good lunch, and a tour of the floating accomodations -complete with a sundeck and a fun common area surrounded by windows so we could watch the limestone cliffs and green islands float by us.  There are about 4,000 islands in Ha Long Bay and the sharp limestone cliffs, emerald water, and lush vegetation is absolutely spectacular.  Moreover, all the boats in the bay are regulated to be the same old wooden style - something I will refer to as pirate ship style.  Although it was cool and cloudy, the mist around the islands seemed only to dramaticize the scene, and I was constantly expecting Jack Sparrow to come sailing out of the fog.  We spent a little time that afternoon kayaking to a lagoon and then on to a small fishing village, but unfortunately, the cool drizzle wasn't that inviting so we stayed inside most of the time.  Luckily, this did allow for lots of bonding time with our fellow tourists, and we spent the rest of the day playing cards, drinking cheap beer, and making new friends.  The next morning, part of our group headed back to Hanoi while the other half of us boarded a small boat that was to take us to Castaway Island where we were to camp for the next night.  Sam and I have a friend from our TESOL course in Thailand who works there for the hostel running the tour, so we were excited to see a familiar face.  That afternoon, the boys wakeboarded (Sam and I were going to tube, but who wants to tube in the cold?!) and we just hung out on the island and the boat.  Late afternoon, our friend, Anderson, took me, Sam, and Sam's boyfriend back out on the boat and we headed over to Cat Ba Island where we rented 2 motorbikes and toured the island.  We stopped to tour the Hospital Cave there - a surprisingly large and secret cave high in a mountain that was used during the war.  The cave, although long vacant, was impressively complete with a swimming pool and a screening "room."  After heading back to the island, we spent the rest of the evening staying warm, bonding with our group, and drinking more cheap beer.  When a nightly swim was suggested, I wasn't going to join in this freezing madness, but I wanted to see the electric blue glow and bioluminescence of the Bay's water at night.  When disturbed, sparkling blue specks shine up from the bottom and wash up on the sand.  Although it was cold, the blue sparkle was worth it, and Ha Long Bay proved to be stunning both day and night.

The next day, our group headed back to Hanoi, and my friends and I spent the next 24 hours indulging in fantastic (and most importantly cheap!) local street food, touring a temple (although it was quite packed due to the holiday), and stocking up on drinks and snacks for our upcoming 24 hour bus ride to Laos.  After one more day of Hanoi, 5 of us boarded an overnight bus headed to Vientiane, Laos.  We entertained ourselves with a box of wine and tried to get some sleep even though we were on terrifyingly windy roads going through mountains and what appeared to be dark, foreboding jungle. It wasn't that bad - my biggest issue was with the fact that there aren't reststops in 3rd world countries. If you have to go, you have to get out of the bus in the dark (that is, when the bus decides to rarely stop), crawl over to who knows where and pee next to everyone else who gets off the bus to pee. It's really awkward.  In the best of situations, there are "bathrooms" that normally look like something akin to a portapotty.  They never have a light and consist of only Turkish toilet (a ceramic bowl on the ground).  To add to their unpleasantness, they smell horrible and everything in the small room is usually inexplicably wet.  

Our bus arrived at the Laos border about 5am, but we stayed on the bus dozing for a couple more hours waiting for it to open.  The border is freezing because it's so high in the mountains, and it was also really windy and drizzly.  After waiting in the longest line ever to get our passports stamped, we were motioned another direction outside to get the tourist visa. The next building was at least a quarter of a mile away down a "road" that was mostly slick mud.  Large animals kept appearing at us through the mist (cows, water buffalo, roosters, you name it.)  When we finally got to the next building, it didn't have electricity so I got a visa by candlelight by two little Laotian men in a cubby.  Although I was freezing and exhausted, I was so entertained by this entire spectacle that I could not stop laughing.

We reached Vientiane about 4:30 that afternoon.  A group of seven of us decided to go ahead and try to reach our final destination of Vang Vieng so we quickly rented a van and spent the next four hours still in transit.  Although our trip was exhausting and excessively long, Vang Vieng made it completely worth it.  Vang Vieng has stunning scenery -  limestone cliffs and vibrant green vegetation line the Nam Khan river, cows and water buffalo roam the backroads, and the town is full of cheap food stands, guesthouses, exciting riverside nightlife, bungalows, and young backpackers.  The highlight of Vang Vieng, and what has put it on the Southeast Asia backpacker's trail, however, is tubing the river.  Lining the river are bars (more like bamboo platforms jutting out over the river), ropeswings, mudpits, and ziplines.  Our first full day in Vang Vieng, we decided not to tube but just hang out around the madness.  We spent the day just hanging out at the bars and watching the boys zipline and ropeswing.  The weather was nice, and we had a great time just being outside and meeting new people.

Another highlight of Vang Vieng is the caves and blue lagoon on the outskirts of the city.  The following day, our group headed out to the lagoon.  The water is shockingly blue and surrounded by lush green plants, mats to sunbathe on, and a ropeswing.  We spent awhile just lounging around the water and jumping in and out of the crystal water.  High into the mountain behind the lagoon, there is a large cave popular with tourists.  We climbed up the rocks behind the lagoon (not an easy feat in flip-flops).  There was a little light around the entrance, but I did not have a headlamp and had long abandoned my shoes in favor of being barefoot.  Anyway, by the luminous glow of my iTouch, I slowly made my way into the cave.  At the part where it gets really dark, however, the girls turned back (we were convinced caving headlampless and barefoot could only lead to injury - and we certainly didn't want to seek medical attention in Laos), and the boys went into the real cave part.  Obviously, it took me about twice as long to get down the steep rocks as it did getting up to the cave.

We spent another day on the river in Vang Vieng and another day at the lagoon (the second visit renting a motorbike to get out there - much more exciting than a tuktuk).  Our last day in Vang Vieng we also rented a little longtail boat and took an hour trip up the river which was lovely.  Water buffalo walked along the river and we passed kayakers (obviously all wishing they had a motor too).  The river was very shallow (it's the dry season) so we dragged the bottom in several instances, but luckily we made it up and down the river.  

As much fun as I had in Vang Vieng, some of my friends had already headed up to our next destination in Laos- Luang Prabang- by the time I decided to head up that way. I said good-bye to my little bungalow by the river and reluctantly boarded an all-day bus for Luang Prabang.  I spent the next eight hours nauseous as our charter bus slowly worked its way through the steep and winding mountainous roads of the Laotian countryside.  Just like Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang was completely worth the trek.  The town is a well preserved World Heritage site with beautiful French architecture, dramatic wats, and a plethora of orange robed monks walking around under large umbrellas only adds to the city's unique charm.  The town is surrounded on both sides by river - on one side the Nam Khan and on the other side the wide Mekong makes its way past the city.  The relaxing atmosphere was a nice change from the parties of Vang Vieng.

The first full day in Luang Prabang my friends and I took a tuktuk to the main waterfalls that are about 30 kilometers outside of town.  After passing through a bear sanctuary and spying on some black bears, we headed to the bottom of the multi-staged falls.  The falls have clear crystal blue pools at the bottom of each stage and all of them are great for swimming.  At the highest point is the tallest waterfall which is quite spectacular.  We spent the day splashing around the falls and jumping in and out of the ice cold water.  The rest of our time in Luang Prabang was spent just relaxing, shopping in the town's fantastic night market, touring the wats, eating (like the delicious riverweed and the not-so-delicious buffalo skin), and I spent an entire day just sitting at a cafe looking at the Mekong while writing postcards.

We left Luang Prabang on a night bus a couple days before our flight to Seoul.  We headed to Vientiane (the capital) on another charter bus full of terrifying windy third world roads.  After a leisurly breakfast in downtown Vientiane, Sam and I headed to the airport to catch a flight down to Saigon (so much for our plan to do Vietnam top to tail!) Once we reached Ho Chi Minh City, we got a guesthouse and spent the rest of the afternoon at the War Remnants Museum (which is quite moving and well done.  I highly recommend this if you are visiting Vietnam).  Unfortunately, our vacation came to an end the next morning and we flew out early the 28th to get back to Seoul. Getting home turned into a small fiasco starting with our check-in process in Saigon.  China Southern had an issue where they could not check my bag or give Sam and I boarding passes past our layover in Guangzhou, China.  Due to more ineptness on their part, my boarding pass to Guangzhou identified me as Ming, Tao.  Despite my gigantic backpack and the full sized bottles of liquids it held (including a bottle of snake wine for Dad), I coaxed my way through Vietnamese security without any problems (probably not a good thing.)  Unfortunately, upon landing in China, we had to stand in line at immigration (Guangzhou airport is apparently poorly planned and all connecting passengers must be escorted to their gates since it involves passing through immigration and technically entering China without a visa).  Immigration took our passports and made us wait in a designated area.  Other passengers kept passing us and heading with escorts to their respective gates; however, here I was with lack of onward boarding passes, the fact that Tao Ming and Andrea Vaughn obviously didn't match up between my one boarding pass and passport, a backpack about the size of one of my fourth grade students full of liquids that I had somehow squeezed past previous security, and proving to be a customs nightmare due to the fact I was holding a cobra in a bottle.  Anyway, none of this impressed the Chinese, and they held our passports from us for about two hours.  Luckily, Korean Air held our flight for us, but I ended up boarding the flight in Guangzhou after literally running to the gate (obviously it was the last one in the terminal) while being paged.  As if all the passengers on the waiting plane didn't already hate me, I was "that" passenger with the big bag that didn't fit in the overhead bin, so my backpack had to sit strapped in a seat behind me strapped in like a person.  It was so nice to finally get home. 

Despite our trip home, I had the experience of a lifetime on this vacation, and I cannot wait to go back to Southeast Asia.  I've been lucky to see so much of this region of the world, but so much of it is still unexplored territory for me, and I will definitely be back one day.

Have a great week everyone!

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