9.28.2011

Luang Prabang, Laos

You may have noticed the delay since the last post.  We've been busy here in Sydney and are happy to announce that we've found a lovely place to live for the summer.  More details coming soon.  

Now back to the SE Asia Trip:

In doing our research on Vietnam, we discovered that we could not pass up the opportunity to visit the neighboring country of Laos.  We had heard great stories about the people and the way of life in Luang Prabang.  

It was easy to relax here.

Peaceful lifestyle Luang Prabang, Laos


The city is famous for the night market and Buddhist traditions.  Every night, the city's main street is turned into a night market offering food, drinks, art, textiles and souvenirs from the region.  You can find temples on many of the streets, woven into the little neighborhoods.  Many of these temples also serve as monasteries and living quarters for the young monks.

We preferred the low pressure selling tactics of Luang Prabang


Temple entrance guard

A Monk's education begins early

Sweeping is a shortcut to enlightenment

Carving outside of a temple

Every morning the monks would walk the streets collecting alms (rice, other food for the day) from neighbors who are honored to give them such gifts.


We even had time to learn some new cooking recipes and techniques at a traditional Laos cooking school.

Roasting peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants

Our fish entree all wrapped up and ready to be steamed

Dinner!

Laos has a lot to offer and we tried to see everything in this little city.  Not all of the attractions are in the city though.  Slightly beating out the booze-fueled lazy river tubing trip, Luang Prabang is also famous for it's Elephant Rescue Centers.  This is fitting since Laos is known as the land of a thousand elephants; we were even lucky enough to meet a few of them!  We spent Anna's 30th "working" at an elephant rescue just outside of town.  Our duties included training, feeding, and cleaning the elephants.

Morning snack

Anything unrelated to elephants is irrelephant

Elephant Trainer


Bathing the elephants in the Mekong river

It was as fun as it looked; the elephants seemed to really enjoy it too.


9.15.2011

Hanoi

With another overnight train, we were back in Hanoi.  This time around, we would have a little more time to explore before flying to Laos.  We did a walking tour of this city and found it less crowded than HCMC, but just as bustling.  We stayed in the old French Quarter portion of town which was centrally located to many of the famed sights that the city had to offer.  First on our list was the Hoan Kiem Lake.  According to legend, an ancient emperor was given golden sword from the turtle god to defeat the Ming Dynasty.  Once the Chinese recognized Vietnam's independence, the emperor returned to this lake and gave the sword back.  Now turtles still live in this lake and are honored and respected.
Embalmed Turtle
Next, we visited the Hỏa Lò Prison a.k.a. the Hanoi Hilton.  The Hanoi Hilton was a prisoner of war compound/jail whose roots go back before the Vietnam War.  Originally, it was a French designed jail used to house political prisoners.  The French were happy to occupy Vietnam French Indochina, but weren't fond of locals gaining an education or independence from their rule.  Later, after the Vietnamese gained independence from France, the prison was used to house American prisoners of war in Northern Vietnam.  The prison is now a museum of hope and peace and has been designed to showcase the hospitality the prisoners received.  Based on these displays and pictures, you would think that this was a enjoyable place to be a prisoner.... oh propaganda!  Again, without staying on the soap box too long, I'll just say that war is ugly and it turns people on both sides into animals while ultimately allowing me the freedom write things like this without fearing for my life.
Anna outside of the Prison

It's almost guaranteed that wherever you go in Vietnam you are bound to find pictures or tributes to Ho Chi Minh.  "Uncle Ho" is considered a national hero and leader of the freedom and independence movement.  To better understand this icon, we visited his museum and mausoleum in Hanoi.  The museum housed many statues and artifacts that documented his upbringing and day to day life throughout Vietnam's history.  Due to bad timing and lacking the appropriate attire (pants) we were not able to see his embalmed body in the mausoleum.  The communist-style architecture of the buildings was still very interesting to see up close.
Me with Uncle Ho. I can't lie, I was trying to strike as cool of a pose as the other guy in the shot. He wins.
The Mausoleum
Wanting to get a bit outside of the city, we did a day trip out to the Perfume Pagoda.  Nestled in the mountains an hour outside of Hanoi is this buddhist temple in the limestone caves.  In order to reach the temple you need to take a row boat ride for about 30 minutes and then a cable car to the top of the mountain.  There was a huge storm that came after the boating segment and temporarily shut down the cable car.  The rain subsided and we finally made it to the top, which was totally worth it.
Trying to beat the humidity
I think it was a 2007 vintage.  Good year for snake whiskey.
Fisherman's Commute


Gondola to the Top
Zac or Raiden from Big Trouble in Little China
Cave Temple Offerings

Temple Bell

9.08.2011

Summer Vacation - Part 2 - Sapa

After acclimating to the city life common to much of South East Asia, we decided to slow things down a bit and head to the countryside.  We flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and then took an overnight train to Sa Pa.
Contrary to this photo, the train was quite comfortable. The A/C alone made the private cabins worth the extra fare.
We wanted to visit Sa Pa for it's slower pace, cooler temperatures, and famed terraced mountainsides.  Sa Pa (map) is located in Northern Vietnam and it is just a few kilometers from the Chinese border town of Hekou. After an early morning van ride that spent an hour navigating the nauseating hilly countryside, we arrived to the beautiful  Cat Cat hotel.  Excited at the slower pace we were already experiencing, we decided it would be safe to rent mopeds and better explore the region.
Road Warrior

First, we visited one of the nearby villages of Ta Phin.  This village is home to the Red Dao people that still live off of the land in very much the same way that their ancestors did back in the 18th century.  While they have been exposed to much of the discoveries of the Western world, they still thrive using herbal medicines and spiritual rituals that have been cherished and handed down through the generations.  They were always very happy to see their foreign guests and loved to compare their lives with our own (How big is your family? How many babies do you have? How old were you when you got married?).
One of the newer members of the Red Dao ethnic minority.
Stream bordered by terraces in Ta Phin.

From Ta Phin we headed to the top of the nearby mountains.  We went in search of views from the summit and to hopefully see some of the many waterfalls of the region.
Riding mopeds in the rain was worth it for waterfalls like these.
The wishing gong at the summit of Hoang Lien National Park.
The Golden Shower Love Waterfall... no seriously, that's its name.
Sa Pa Wildlife.  This guy's wings were about 6" tall.

Summit Pass view towards China.

We had been told that one of the best ways to see the terraces was to hike down to one of the Hmong villages with the help of a local guide.  We made the 8 mile trek with the help of a few Hmong women and ended the trek with a cold beer and lunch next to the river.
One of our Hmong guides. She made awesome figures out of bamboo strips.

It was a popular trek.  Fortunately the humidity and record temps kept the crowds down from normal.

Valley views like these made the tough hike worth it.

Village dinner

Well earned by the end of the hike.

Up to this point of the trip, Sa Pa was definitely our favorite part of Vietnam.  It turned out to be one of the highlights of the vacation too.  We still got to visit Hanoi, Laos and Ha Long Bay, but we'll save those highlights for next post.

9.01.2011

Summer Vacation - Part 1

Before moving to Australia was ever on our radar, we had booked a summer vacation to Vietnam and Laos.  We first experienced Southeast Asia on our honeymoon nearly 3 years earlier, when we visited the beautiful and cheap countries of Thailand and Cambodia.  Based on these memories, we decided to expand our knowledge of the area by visiting these two countries.  After enlisting the help and recommendations of some friends that had previously visited the area, we mapped out our tour.

After endless tips and being somewhat overwhelmed by all that these countries had to offer, we Anna started to plan.  We knew that 2.5 weeks would not be enough time to see all that these countries had to offer and ended up breaking up our trip into three parts: Southern Vietnam, Northern Vietnam, and Laos.

With our house packed up and personal items already shipped to Sydney, we left for Vietnam.  It was a nice reward after getting through the craziness of moving halfway around the world.  We landed in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to start the trip.  Visiting SE Asia is always eye opening, and Ho Chi Minh delivered.  The humidity hits you immediately after you step off the plane.  Next, the crowds have their impact as you realize just how many people can fit into a small area and that no space is wasted.  For perspective, HCMC has about 9,450 people per square kilometer while SF and Oakland combine for about 2,350 = a population that's nearly 4x as dense as what we're used to! The streets are never empty and the din of the traffic takes some adjustment.
Moped mob that's a normal part of the morning traffic
From the colonial style homes to the delicacies of the bakeries, the French influence is easily seen in HCMC.
Fresh Croissant - A wonderful treat and a steal at $0.10 each

Unfortunately, you can also see some of the infamous military influence from the French as well.
The Guillotine - An artifact invented and used by the French in Vietnam
Speaking of military influence, no trip to HCMC would be complete without seeing and recounting first hand the ugliness and long lasting impacts of war.  Vietnam has weathered many battles across its land and there are a ton of other resources on the web where you can rehash those dark times.  During our trip we decided to visit the War Remnants Museum and see some of the artifacts and pictures from various fighting periods in Vietnam's history.

Air Raid - One of the fighter jets used by the Viet Cong
In addition to this museum, we also visited the much less somber Reunification Palace. This palace served as the Southern President's home and workplace during the Vietnam War and it was also the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.  A Northern Vietnamese tank crashed through the palace's gates, serving as the catalyst for the reunification of Northern and Southern Vietnam.  That tank is still on site and the palace was really interesting to walk around.  The palace has been preserved since that fateful day and touring it really allows you to experience the tacky wonderful decor of the 70's.
The Reunification Palace
The Palace's Board Room
Anna in the Tea Room
The President's Rooftop Escape

Our visit to HCMC happened to fall during the 4th of July, which shockingly isn't a big deal there.  We still felt the need to celebrate and while I suggested running down the street in stars and stripes chanting "USA! USA! USA!", we figured that wouldn't be received well.  Instead, we opted for hot dogs and a visit to the local water park.  The park was like an American waterpark, but with way fewer lifeguards/safety measures.  Kids were running everywhere and "rickety" would be the best adjective to describe the slides.  With an entry fee equivalent to $4.30, I guess you get what you pay for.  Despite the questionable conditions, we braved every slide and had a blast (minus the whiplash from one of the slides).

You would think "overworked" would be a reason to go to a pool

The Twister Space Bowl could also be called "Whiplash"

video
Anna braving the Twister Space Bowl

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3.