Floating Down The Mekong

Trying to stay warm on the boat trip!

After our early morning wake up call to watch the alms being given to the monks,  we boarded our own private boat for a 2 day cruise down the Mekong River. It was stunning, but by god it was cold! Huddled under blankets and numerous layers we waited until the sun finally pierced through the clouds and we gently started to thaw out!

After 10 long hours cruising along the murky Mekong, avoiding branches and debris which had floated downstream from the monsoon rains in China, we pulled up along the riverbank. We had arrived in a remote Laotian village, our home for the night. We only had an hour of sunlight left and so scrambled up the riverbank under the watchful eyes of the local children and their parents and were given a brief tour of the village, home to 500 people, most of whom are children. Long gone were our usual comforts of running hot water and electricity. Instead we clung firmly to our torches as we clambered along rocky paths between the bamboo huts desperately trying to remember our way round the maze of buildings.

Our homestay, nestled into the hillside on the banks of the Mekong River

It was an incredible experience; one that completely took us all out of our comfort zones and launched us into the lives of the locals. We were treated to some delicious home cooked food and ate under the penetrating gaze of the village elders who marvelled at our use of cutlery (they traditionally eat with their hands). After trying some home brewed rice whisky (very nice in very small doses) we were ushered outside where the children of the village put on a show for us, singing local folk songs and showing us traditional dances. We of course returned the favour and after a rather pitchy rendition of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” preceded to teach them “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”. With the help of our Laos guide all the children were soon joining in, trying to wrap their tongues round the foreign language.

The local children singing along to “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”

We were woken early by the sound of cockerels (Alarm Cocks as our guide jokingly called them), and by sunrise we were once again on the Mekong heading to Thailand.

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Luang Prabang

Although only a few hundred kilometres north of Vang Vieng the temperature plummeted and we were once again reaching for the layers and flimsy jumpers which we didn’t think we’d need in South East Asia. The weather has been unseasonably cold across the region this year, I’ve even heard rumours that there was snow in Hanoi just after we’d left! And in Luang Prabang it was not only cold but it was raining: Huge, fat, torrents of rain which made me think I’d somehow stumbled back home to England. Once we’d resigned ourselves to the fact that we were all soaked through and there was nothing we could do about it, we headed out for a delicious curry and a few drinks before retreating back to the hotel to try and warm up – no easy feat for Nick as my killer cold had sadly caught up with him (sorry!).

The next morning we set off to the nearby Kuang Si falls; a beautiful park filled with pools of cascading water, which you can swim in, topped by a stunning waterfall. Luckily the rain had stopped but it was far too cold for a swim which was a shame, although it did mean that the park was fairly empty. The park has several enclosures for sun and moon bears which have been rescued from poachers. Unfortunately Laos’ proximity to Myanmar (Burma) and China means that there is a high demand for bears and other protected species on the illegal wildlife trade.

The afternoon was spent simply wandering round the beautiful city. Like Hanoi, the city centre is a world heritage site and houses a number of wats (temples), only one of which we visited. Phu Si: situated on top of a hill in the middle of the old quarter. The climb up the 375 or so steps was completely worth it for the incredible panoramic view.

The highlight of our trip to the old capital of Laos was however, a trip we made very, very early the next morning. Up at 5, we stumbled out into the still dark streets to watch people giving alms to the monks. Luang Prabang’s multitude of temples means that there are hundreds of monks within the city. A long standing tradition in Laos (and now a major tourist attraction!) involves the donation of food to monks each morning. Monks can only eat before 12pm and can only eat food that has been given to them. It was a beautiful and moving procession as boys and men of all ages slowly made their way down the pavement to the small crowd of locals and tourists who were kneeling on the floor with baskets of fruit, snacks and sticky rice. The sun was just coming up as a wave of orange flashed past.

By 7am we were on our way to the Mekong River for a 10 hour boat trip to the Laos countryside!

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Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng; once the party town of South East Asia. The town where hoards of travellers would gather and drink themselves to oblivion before (and often while) floating down the mighty Nam Song river. And I say ‘mighty’ because it is just that; in rainy season, and the months following, it becomes a dangerous and unpredictable force of nature. But alcohol, drugs and swimming certainly don’t mix and after a number of tragic deaths and several horrific injuries, the government swooped in and closed down many of the bars.

And so after a long and bendy journey through the mountains we arrived in the now much calmer but equally stunning town of Vang Vieng. Remnants of it’s crazy past remain with the occasional offer of “happy pancakes” and the numerous bar/restaurants with sofas spread round tables rather than chairs and a large tv screen blaring episodes of friends. It’s a strange town which seems to be still trying to rediscover itself but one which we were definitely sad to leave.

We only had one full day there and it was a long one! We started early with an 18km kayaking trip down the river. If you ever want to test your relationship then sit in a kayak together for a few hours, throw in a few small rapids and try not to fall out – or push each other out! It was an amazing morning and, although hard work, a great way to see the beautiful scenery. There were a few hairy moments – Nick hadn’t quite grasped the concept of steering and I, well I still can’t tell my left from my right – but by the end of the trip my cheeks were sore from smiling. We stopped halfway on a sandbank in the middle of the river for lunch where our guides put together a fire and cooked us yummy chicken kebabs. We sat in the sand completely in awe of the mountains around us.

In the afternoon we rented bikes and set off on a 14km bike ride to the nearby blue lagoon and another cave. It was here that we found the shadow of the towns seedy past with drunk and sunburnt travellers stumbling round the edge of an absolutely stunning blue lagoon – the name didn’t lie! We scrambled up the side of the mountain to the cave and fell into the darkness. Unlike all the previous caves we’d explored which were well lit and signposted with clear footpaths, this one had nothing except a reclining Buddha lying in a patch of sun from a skylight. We climbed and scrambled for a good hour before retreating back down the mountain for a cooling dip in the lagoon.

After our bumpy ride back to the town Nick and I set off in search of a Traditional Laos Massage ; we felt we deserved some pampering after our long and thoroughly exhausting day! One hour later we emerged refreshed and rejuvenated, any remnants of aching bones and muscles long gone and only a sleepy and lethargic feeling left in its wake.  Not surprisingly, it was a very early night for us all

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Laos P.D.R (Please Don’t Rush!)

Flying into Laos after the hustle and bustle of Vietnam’s capital city was a shock to the system! Gone were the angry sounds of hooting horns and pushy shopkeepers and instead we were met with the smiles and fascinated eyes of local people. Crossing the road was no longer a game of dodging traffic but was instead a simple act of waiting – exactly as it should be! A deeply Buddhist country, Laos P.D.R (People’s Democratic Republic) relies heavily on the concept of karma and pleasing the ancestral spirits. Hence why the traffic was a lot calmer and the general atmosphere of our arrival so laid back.

Nestled between China, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, Laos is slightly bigger than the UK but home to only 7 million people – a phenomenal difference from Vietnam’s population of 90 million! It is a country of stunning Karst Mountains – the same ones we saw in Phong Nha and Ha Long Bay – and amazing wildlife such as Tigers, bears and elephants.

Our first stop was the Small, capital city, Vientiane. Like most of South East Asia, Laos also endured the colonial rule of the French from the 18th century until 1954. The capital thus retains an air of it’s previous french rulers with crumbling villas bordering tree lined streets. We only had a morning to explore the city but managed to squeeze in the three main sights; Pha That Luong, Laos’ most important national monument; Patuxai, Vietniane’s own Arc de Triomphe constructed in 1969 in memory of those who died in pre-revolutionary wars; and finally my favourite, Wat Si Saket, Vientiane’s oldest temple. Built in 1818 the temple could almost be described as modern in comparison to the likes of Angkor Wat and Phanom Rung. The interior walls of the cloister are filled with hundreds of little niches containing small ceramic Buddhas. The walls of the inner temple are covered in intricate paintings and stories which I am intrigued to know more about. Although relatively small the Wat really is a feast for the eyes with something to be seen round every corner

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Hectic Hanoi and Taking on the Tour

After almost 2 weeks in Vietnam we finally made it to the capital city: Hanoi. Our stay there was broken up with our trip to Ha Long Bay but in total we spent around 2 and a half days exploring the city – definitely long enough!

The main attraction is the old city; a buzzing and manic centre of criss-crossing streets. It is a shopping district and each street, or section of a street, is dedicated to certain items: I bought some new shoes from the shoe section and some t shirts from the t shirt section – it’s a very easy way to shop. However, despite the raving tripadvisor reviews of the area I have to admit that I wasn’t a huge fan. The traffic was dangerous and chaotic and the tooting of squeaky, motorbike horns migraine-inducing. I expected a charming old centre and was instead presented with dust and chaos – most disappointing.

We did visit some interesting sites though including the Women’s History museum; I had no idea what a pivotal role women have played throughout Vietnam’s turbulent history, in particular during the American War. They fought alongside the men and there were even units made up entirely of women. Women who had lost 2 or more children (or family members) to the war were decorated with the title “Mothers of Vietnam”. It was an incredibly powerful and patriotic museum dedicated entirely to the women of the country – a sight which is sadly a rarity in the world.

We also visited the “Hanoi Hilton”, a prison which was given its nickname by the American soldiers who stayed there during the war. It was initially built by the French Colonists and used to detain any opponents to their rule. The museum highlighted the brutal torture routines and living conditions imposed upon the local people by the foreign rulers. In comparison the American prisoners of the war in the 60s were treated like guests; they celebrated Christmas within the prison and there were numerous pictures showing them playing volleyball and receiving letters from home. Or at least that’s what we were told, a quick Google search reveals an entirely different account of the prison! The way these historical sites are portrayed by the Vietnamese is often more interesting than the places themselves!

Our final tourist stop was to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. We walked to the other side of the city and were ordered through security checks and to stand in various queues. Following behind a soldier dressed in dazzling white we were marched to the entrance of the mausoleum. We waited as a more senior officer paraded down the pavement in order to carry out uniform checks on all the guards. In single file we all walked the red carpet round the preserved body of Vietnam’s first president, the father of the people. It was a very surreal experience but a perfect way to end our stay in such a beautiful and mysterious country.

It was in Hanoi that we also joined the G Adventures part of our trip. There is so much to see in South East Asia and our trip is only 7 weeks so we decided that the best way to see more was to join a tour – and I think we were probably both a bit scared that after 5 weeks in each others company we would be desperate to spend time with different people!

It was such a shock to the system: for so long it had been just the two of us deciding when and how to travel and wasting time deciding which hotel we should stay in next etc. For the first few days I felt completely at a loss after giving up all control to our lovely Thai CEO (chief experience officer), Bom. But luckily it was Bom who completely made the trip. With a smile that took over his whole face he never failed to make the journey easy, exciting and completely safe. He always knew the best place to eat, whether we wanted local street food or a 5* dining experience, and the best places to visit, happily organising as much as he could for us. He wasn’t just there to herd us around but often joined us for drinks and meals and made the entire experience so much fun and so interesting.

The entire tour runs from Bangkok to Bangkok with people joining/leaving in Saigon and Hanoi.I was sceptical at first about the tour thinking that it’s not a proper way to travel round a country – it’s too easy! And while I still think that, I also don’t regret it for a second. While the tour wasn’t perfect, we were able to cram so much into 2 weeks which we wouldn’t have been able to do had we been relying on public transport.

And it’s because we crammed so much in that I haven’t had much time to blog. And while I fly back home to England in less than a week I still have plenty to write about!

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Merry Christmas!

A day late because the wifi died but…

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

We hope that you had a wonderfully festive day and wishing you lots of Christmas cheer!

Lots of love,

Molly and Nick xxx

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Cruising Through Ha Long Bay

Everywhere we went and everyone we spoke to all said the same thing; if you’re going to Ha Long bay spend a bit of money and do it properly. So that’s exactly what we did! We booked a 1 night/2 day premium trip through Glory Cruises and began our bumpy 4 hour bus journey to the coast with our appropriately named guide, Happy.

Having heard so much about Ha Long and the crazy party boats and hoards of visitors I was quite sceptical of the world heritage site. Mostly I was wary that we would be just another boat load of people in a long line of tourists. I was so pleasantly surprised; the boat was comfortable and our room spacious and clean. We were with a great group of like minded people and our guide and the crew were always there trying to make the trip as special as possible. It was a small boat, with about 20 people taking part in the tour, and we were able to sail away from the other boats in the area in order to enjoy an unspoilt sunset- it was stunning while cruising through the magnificent bay.

We were also taken to explore a nearby fishing village and what was once thought to be Vietnam’s largest cave. We kayaked around the floating houses and marvelled at the graffiti dated 1945. After learning how to make traditional Vietnamese spring rolls (definitely harder than you think!) we sat down to an amazing seafood feast. We munched on prawns and crab, clams, calamari and tilapia all caught within the bay. I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say that the food was amazing but it was interesting, different and great fun.

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Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

In my last post I talked about our incredible stay in Ho Khan’s Homestay, however the real highlight of the trip was our tour through the beautiful Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park. We had booked ourselves onto one of the tours with the local Farm stay and, although not cheap, it was worth every penny!

After being picked up early in the morning by minibus we made our way along the winding road of the Ho Chi Minh trail and highway 20 – so called because it was built by 20 year olds – and into the national park. The karst mountain views were absolutely stunning with a vast array of flora and fauna carpeting the surrounding mountains. I mentioned in a previous blog the different weather systems in the north and south of Vietnam and, because of Phong Nha’s central position in the country, it encounters all of these weather patterns from north and south. With six varying seasons throughout the year the park boasts nearly all the wildlife and plants that Vietnam has to offer.

The history of the area is fascinating as well; the skinniest part of Vietnam and relatively close to the DMZ, the area was bombed to oblivion by the Americans during the war; they figured they were more likely to hit their target! Nestled between Laos and the coast it was also a vital part of the supply chain; supplies shipped in from Russia were transported to the south along the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail. However the damage that the Americans caused was phenomenal with vast chunks and holes still showing in the mountain scenery. During the height of the war only 10% of the troops and supplies that the North Vietnamese were sending survived the perilous journey. So how did the North win? They sent 1000% of whatever they needed.

I won’t give away too much of what happens on the tour; what happens in Phong Nha, stays in Phong Nha and you really have to experience it yourself! Our first stop was to the privately owned Paradise Cave which was only discovered in 2005 and opened to the public in 2010. Stretching all the way to Laos, it once held the record for being the largest cave in Vietnam. It is a beautifully presented cave set up in such a way as to protect and preserve all that it has to offer (such as rare helactites!).

After a delicious lunch we headed to the appropriately named Dark Cave – don’t think I need to explain that one! Armed with life jackets and head torches we kayaked to the entrance of the cave and preceded to swim by torchlight through the rest of it, spotting fossils hidden within the mysterious black limestone as we went. There were a few other surprises as well which I won’t mention but it was all such an adventure and I loved every second of it!

Enjoying our tour with the Phong Nha Farmstay

Our second and final day in Phong Nha involved getting off the beaten track thanks to Howard and Deb’s fantastic hand drawn local map. We set off on our bikes for an 18km bike ride round the local villages. There were smiles and waves from the locals round every corner and at one point my bike was even overcome by school children desperate to practice their English. It was hard work but totally worth it! Our journey also included a boat tour of the nearby Phong Nha cave – another cave which once held the record for being the largest! After cruising down the river, and past our homestay, the engines were switched off and we floated through the beautiful cave, only the sounds of the water against the rocks accompanying us.

One of the boats which floats through the Phong Nha Caves

It was a magical few days and I did not want to leave. Phong Nha’s stunning scenery and array of activities are becoming more and more well known and, rumour has it, the Lonely Planet are including a much larger section on the park in their next edition (at the moment it is only briefly mentioned). I just hope that the growing influx of tourists continues to have a positive impact on the area and that it remains a stunning paradise with something to offer for everyone.

Getting off the beaten track

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Ho Khan’s Homestay

Nestled within the thinnest area of Vietnam, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has, without doubt, been our highlight of the trip so far. I will explain more about the stunning park in my next blog but first I want to tell you about Ho Khan’s Homestay – an absolute must if you are visiting the park! It had been recommended to us by another hostel owner in the area and, fairly new, we were unable to find much information about it online. It was pitch black when we arrived and we had no idea where we were; we had been through the village and out the other side and were completely unaware of the landscape. In fact, it had been such a last minute addition to the trip that we didn’t really know where abouts in Vietnam we were. Having not seen any pictures of the area,we had no expectations, unlike Siem Reap and the other big tourist destinations that we had visited. Tired and hungry we were directed by the lovely owner of the homestay, who spoke very little English, to the bicycles which came with our room. Swerving round dogs, cows and the occasional water buffalo we made our way along the dark country roads hoping to come across a shop or restaurant – it looked unlikely. We stopped at what appeared to be a local cafe to ask where to go: After much mumbling and giggling, as none of us knew what the other was saying, a young boy drove up and, with impecable English, informed us that it was a local breakfast cafe. Unfortunately it was too late; despite being closed the family had already prepared a huge bowl of beef and noodle soup for us which we had to guiltily try and get through. It was definitely an experience and testament to the incredibly friendly and welcoming locals!

After refuelling we discovered that had we continued a little further we would have reached the town of Phong Nha where we stayed for the evening playing cards with some people at the local hostel who, it turned out, were booked onto the same tour as us the next day. By 10pm the half a dozen streetlights had been switched off and we once again made the slightly scary route back to the homestay only to find that our room was occupied by what my family would refer to as an FBS – a flipping big spider! Both complete wimps we flapped and we jumped and eventually managed to chase the giant spider out of the room. By this point I was not happy; there were potentially poisonous spiders in our room, we were in the middle of nowhere and no one spoke English. I was rapidly running through escape routes in my head! However, after a fitful and rather sleepless night (not helped by the onset of a really killer cold), the sight we woke up to completely made up for all the trivial dramas of the night before and I was quite literally in awe of where we were staying.

Above is a picture of the two rooms at Ho Khan’s homestay

The gorgeous sunrise which we woke up to

The view from our room towards the national park

After a delicious and huge stack of freshly made pancakes we met the lovely couple next door who quickly informed us that you don’t get poisonous spiders in in Vietnam – phew! It then emerged that the couple, Howard and Deb, were in fact the people who had explored Sơn Đoòng Cave in 2009, the world’s largest cave – after it was discovered by Ho Khan, in whose house we were staying. Having moved to Vietnam in 1990 the couple have led numerous expeditions throughout the area and assisted in the preservation of the national park. It was such a privilege to meet them and hear all about their amazing adventures – one of which included the discovery that Tigers have returned to the area! Although sold out next year, the couple and Oxalis Adventure are now offering the chance for tourists to explore the cave, an incredible once in a lifetime experience! However,  as grateful as I am for the fascinating stories and insight into the area one of the best bits was their restaurant recommendation; Vung Hu, a small family owned restaurant in Phong Nha served the best food that we’ve had throughout the trip! Thank you!

If you’re in the area and want to escape the tourists and do something a little bit different then head to the website and get in touch: http://phong-nha-homestay.com/ the location is incredible and the hospitality beyond anything you will find at a conventional hotel. I’ll be the first first to admit that this homestay isn’t for everyone but don’t let that stop you visiting the area as there are a number of other hostels nearby with fantastic reviews (Easy Tiger, Pepperhouse Homestay,  Phong Nha Farmstay being the 3 main ones!).  Wherever you you stay you will be met by fantastic scenery and amazing and friendly locals- it’s a must!

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From The Delta To the DMZ Part 2

The further up the coast we went the more wintery it became. Vietnam’s fascinating (and confusing) weather patterns are something that not many people seem to know about; the south simply has two seasons, wet and dry, the latter of which has just begun. The north has the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter; we have arrived in the start of winter. Though if you’re reading from frosty England then I won’t complain about the chilly 18 degrees temperature because that’s just cruel!

The old capital city of Hue sits almost midway up the coast of Vietnam. We only made a short stop there and so had little time to explore but what we did see was great. Until indepedence from the French was achieved in 1945 Vietnam was a dynasty with the emperors residing in the Royal Citadel of Hue. Heavily bombed in the war the Imperial City is slowly being reconstructed but is a beautiful and massive space around which you can wonder – a peaceful escape from the city outside.

Exploring the Old Citadel in rainy Hue

Exploring the Old Citadel in rainy Hue

The other main attraction in Hue is the Royal tombs. Scattered in various locations outside of the city centre are grand and impressive complexes housing the remains of past emperors. Tight for time we were only able to visit the tomb of Tu Doc; set beside a lake it was a glorious one to see. Despite the previous day’s rain the sun sparkled atop the water and the majestic ruins were reflected back at us.

In the afternoon we headed north to our next stop via Vinh Moc, a town just a few miles north of the DMZ (demilitarised zone). During the war the town was so heavily bombed that the entire village moved below ground. Unlike the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon which were used for hiding and military strongholds, the tunnels in Vinh Moc became their homes. As deep as 22 metres in some places there was up to 350 people living there at one point. 17 babies were born in the tunnels, many of whom still live in the surrounding area. Scrambling through the dark and damp tunnels it was incredible to think that people had spent large portions of their lives eating, drinking and sleeping down there. P

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