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Monthly Archives: January 2007

Adventures in Asia, Part 6: Halong Bay, Vietnam

the Halong Bay experience
Halong Bay

The main reason we were in Hanoi in the first place was to see Halong Bay, a few hours away. The bay contains about 2000 limestone islands, which rise straight out of the water and are topped with lush vegetation. Only two of the islands have enough approachable surface area to be habitable, though a few of the smaller islands have little beaches backed by sheer vertical cliffs.

However, the entire bay is most definitely inhabited. Individual houseboats and even entire floating villages are moored between the islands, complete with shops and bored-looking dogs. It’s a really amazing place.

That said, I don’t have a whole lot of Halong Bay adventures to talk about. We took a two-day boat tour of the bay. At night we slept on the boat, and woke up next to a floating fishing village. (I don’t know that I’ve ever slept on a boat before. Guess I haven’t really lived.) We took the cheapo budget tour, which means the food was pretty basic (lots of rice and cabbage), but the people were interesting backpacker-types.

Adventures in Asia, Part 5: Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a wicked case of the flu the past couple of days, and an important paper deadline in less than two weeks. I was trying to work, but frankly I’m feeling too weak and feverish to accomplish anything other than watching about a dozen episodes of Chalinze House, MD, finish up some trivial work for my project with the Vancouver Art Gallery, and write a little bit about Vietnam.

old Hanoi

Laos and Vietnam have so much in common — French colonialism, American bombing, decades of communism — that it’s actually quite shocking how different they are. Laos is pastoral and friendly; Vietnam is crowded, dirty, noisy and unwelcoming. It’s like Vietnam is trying to compress an industrial revolution that took two hundred years in Europe into a couple of decades. Everywhere you look, there’s signs of rapid industrialization — construction projects, insane traffic, and choking pollution.

Combined with this is a culture that treats foreigners like walking ATMs — we only spent a couple of days in Hanoi, but by the time we left, we had been asked to buy hundreds of items and taxi rides. And if you ever do inquire about buying anything, you get slapped with foreigner pricing. It seems common for vendors to charge foreigners five or ten times what they charge locals. And it’s official policy, too — the foreigner pricing on public buses is so high, most travelers take private buses run by tour companies instead, and by government mandate “foreign guests” pay triple the accommodation rates Vietnamese do. Not to mention, scams targeting foreigners are, apparently, rife. Now, I understand that to the typical Vietnamese, even a budget backpacker like myself is fabulously wealthy, but it is pretty disheartening to continually face this “money barrier” between you and the locals, especially after they way we were treated in (much poorer) Laos and (much richer) Thailand.

Hanoi lane
Hanoi alley

But I digress. Back to Hanoi, the most striking thing is the traffic. Little scooter-motorcycles account for probably 90% of the traffic, and you regularly see huge boxes and entire families piled onto them. Our cab into the city flew through them like a hand through a cloud of gnats. Traffic lights in Hanoi are infrequent, and even less frequently obeyed. We arrived on New Years Eve, and the scene in Old Hanoi was chaos. Like most old cities, the streets are both narrow and crooked. The moto traffic was so thick, it resembled nothing so much as hoses firing streams of motos down the streets, flying past each other at the intersections in four different directions. And honking. Gad, is there a lot of honking. Though in Vietnam honking is used differently than in the west. In Vietnam, honking means “I’m going to fly past you as fast as I can, as close as I possibly can, so don’t you dare do anything unexpected”. You hear this a lot in Old Hanoi, because the sidewalks are so full of vendors, parked motos and families cooking dinner that all foot traffic shuffles nervously along single-file in the two feet of space between the gutter and the moto traffic. Crossing the street is a matter of making sure you’re as visible as possible, stepping out into the traffic and praying, while buffeted by the breeze of passing motos.

Old Hanoi actually looks kind of cool. Lots of bars and restaurants and historical monuments. But being constantly hassled to buy things and the noise and traffic and pollution made the whole experience unpleasant. By the time we left, I was acclimating to the whole scene, but I would have had to be there a couple more days before I would have begun to enjoy it.

Janelle (hearts) Hanoi?
Janelle, on the other hand, seems to have liked it whole lot

Adventures in Asia, Part 4: the mighty Mekong, and the Nam Ou, too

the Nam Ou
the Nam Ou

As lovely as Luang Prabang was, I was curious to see other parts of Laos. And so I ended up getting up and dawn one morning and dragging Janelle from her hot showers and bacon-stuffed baguettes to the boat dock on the Mekong. We were going to go up the river.

A poor and sleepy little country, the infrastructure in Laos is minimal. There are few roads, and the power grid doesn’t extend far outside of the two or three largest cities. The Mekong river and its tributaries are the country’s main thoroughfares, and a popular route for backpackers. Popular being a relative term in Laos — the day we set out, at the peak of peak season, about a dozen foreigners got onto boats out of Luang Prabang.

The boat took us up the Mekong and its tributary, the Nam Ou (“rice bowl river”) to our first destination, Nong Kiaow. The trip was really spectacular. The rivers wind through mountains like pointed teeth, covered in thick, lush forests. Life in Laos continues along the river as it always has — men out fishing while the women cook and wash clothes and children help their parents or play in the rivers. The people, and the children especially, are amazingly friendly, smiling and waving at the boatload of weirdo foreigners. I’ve heard that deforestation is becoming a problem in Laos, but the forests we passed looked so vast and inaccessible, and the people so dominated by the landscape, that it is hard to reconcile that fact with what I saw.

bridge on the river Nam Outhe spectacular bridge across the Nam Ou at Nong Kiaow

And then, after hours of motoring down the river (and several breakdowns), we rounded a bend in the river and saw the spectacular bridge that runs through Nong Kiaow. We disembarked and climbed the hundred or so uneven concrete steps from the riverbank to the town.

The top of the steps might as well have had a sign saying “welcome to the third world”. A kind of courtyard with a couple of old Chinese trucks and a few kids and dogs playing in the dirt. There was a shack with a “tourist info” sign, but it looked like it hadn’t been open in quite some time, and a little unmanned ticket booth where you can buy boat tickets. The earth the town is built-on is dusty and a striking orange-brown, and covers everything — buildings, trucks, buildings, dogs, kids. To be honest, after the relative luxury of Luang Prabang, it was a bit of a shock.

However, we gamely made our way forward to the bridge to find accommodations, skipping the dodgy-looking guesthouse by the boat dock, and found the rest of the town to be much more charming. The view from the bridge is breathtaking, and while we crossed, we met a couple of foreigners taking pictures and looking quite relaxed. They turned out to be Canadian (and to know one of the profs in my department), and recommended a very nice guesthouse (the Sunset Guesthouse) which featured $3 rooms and a terrace overlooking the river where you can eat delicious food and drink Beer Lao and Lao-Lao (rice moonshine) while you watch the sun set behind the mountains.

Beer LaoBeer Lao, the cheapest, best and pretty much only beer

We liked Nong Kiaow a lot and debated staying there for a while, but I was curious to check out Muang Ngoi, another town we’d heard of further up the river, so the next day we left most of our gear in the guesthouse and headed to Muang Ngoi.

Muang Ngoi is smaller than Nong Kiaow, but attracts more backpackers, and has a few more guesthouses and restaurants. Not that it is remotely overrun, and the folks that make it out this far are generally seasoned and respectful travellers. Muang Ngoi’s only connection to the outside world is the river — there is no road and no motor vehicles, no banks, no phones, no internet, and in fact, no electricity, except for a couple hours after sunset when the town generator kicks in. Just two-dollar-a-night bungalows and nothing to do but get up with the chickens (really, you have no choice — they are loud), eat Lao food, drink delicious Lao coffee, and lie in a hammock reading and watching the river go by. When the generator shuts off around 8PM, you can eat and drink and walk the streets by candlelight, but by 10, it’s time for bed. And then you wake up and do it again. Our bungalow-neighbours were a pleasant Alaskan couple who had been doing just that for weeks. I could easily have stayed a month.

mister wind-up travelleryour narrator, considering staying in Muang Ngoi just a little while longer…

But alas, Vietnam beckoned.

Adventures in Asia, Part 3: Luang Prabang, Laos

Lao catun chat Lao

Well, at the rate I’m writing, it will take me as long to write about Southeast Asia as it took to actually see it. The problem of returning to everyday life after a break is that there are actually things you need to do, deadlines to meet, and, most annoyingly, jet lag to recover from. Plus, there’s the rather severe culture shock of going from the SEA backpacker lifestyle to the fairly adventure-free, routine, grad-student lifestyle. I’m readjusting, but it will be a while before even my beloved Vancouver stops looking crushingly banal.

Okay, enough bleating. I want to tell you about Luang Prabang.

street scenerytuk-tuk taxi

Laos receives only a tiny fraction of the tourists neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam get, and far fewer even than (also neighbouring) Cambodia, which at least has Angkor Wat. The tourists that do come to Laos tend to be either trendy, upscale European (mostly French) professionals and package-tourists, or the SEA backpacker mix of Australians, Americans, Canadians, British and Germans. Luang Prabang is where the two groups meet — it’s as close a thing as the country has to a specific tourist draw.

The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which I gather is quite a good thing to be, as everything written about LP seems to be contractually obligated to mention the fact. It was the capital of both the French Colony of Laos and the post-colonial Kingdom of Laos, until the communists took over the country in the seventies and moved the capital of the Lao PDR downriver to Vientiane. The entire old quarter is made up of old colonial houses, royal buildings and Buddhist temples. We managed to get quarters at the Sensouk Guesthouse, a former colonial mansion across the street from a ridiculously attractive monastery. The location was perfect, though apparently the monks like to get up at 4AM for their daily drum-and-cymbal rehearsal.

by Buddha's beard, that's a lot of monks!7 AM view form the Sensouk Guesthouse

At dawn, the monks put away their drums and cymbals and shuffle down the street to collect alms. Now, I’m not talking about a handful of monks. Pretty much every male in Laos spends some time as a monk, and you can see them all over town, shopping at the markets and surfing the web at internet cafes. So the procession includes hundreds of saffron-robed monks, shuffling slowly down the street while the faithful hand out alms. The procession is popular with tourists, which I has heard was causing problems. Now there are signs posted inviting people to take pictures as long as you keep a respectful distance and actually practise basic etiquette, like keeping your flash off. And most people are pretty good about it, though there are enough asshole package-tourists jamming their cameras into the monks’ faces and hitting them with flash to make you wish these were the ass-kicking “don’t fuck with me” Shaolin kind of monks.

Though of course, they’re not. They are the gentle, tolerant kind of monk. Kind of like the rest of the Lao people. In fact, this was the thing that made Laos so enjoyable. Everywhere you go, people are friendly and welcoming. Thai people are very nice, but the people of Laos, at least everywhere we were, are so pleasant you can’t help but be charmed and won over by them. Laos is a very poor country — one of the poorest in the world, in fact — and I’m sure that when times are bad, they can be very bad indeed, but on a day-to-day basis the people we met were almost universally happy and friendly, proud of their country and traditions, but curious about strangers and always helpful. Unlike Thailand or (especially) Vietnam, you never feel like you’re being treated as a walking ATM. We were never accosted by scammers, overcharged by taxi drivers, or faced foreigner pricing (foreign food and luxuries are expensive, but that’s as it should be).

sabaideelocal kids will often insist on posing for you and giggling over the pictures of themselves on your camera viewscreen

Anyway, as you may have picked up with my subtle hints, I really liked Laos. And I haven’t even gotten to my favourite parts yet.

Adventures in Asia, Part 2: Pai, Thailand

a two monkpower bikestreet scene in Pai

From Chiang Mai, we took a bus trip to the scenic little town of Pai. We took a rickity old bus where we got the extra-cramped seats in front of the rear door, which were several inches shorter than the rest. The bus driver laughed when came to collect our tickets and he saw that the two farang had been given the smallest seats. I was cozy, but long-legged Janelle was not comfortable, and the bus was in no hurry. It took from 9:30AM to 2:00PM to traverse the 135km to Pai. On the way, the bus stopped to pick up and drop off people, who wedged themselves into the center aisle. We picked up a family of hill people in tribal costumes, who packed the aisle even fuller with 35kg bags of rice. At one bus stop there was an entire teenaged soccer team, and we began to get nervous. Fortunately, only one got on — the rest were just there to see their teammate off. The scenery was lovely — forest-covered hills and steep inclines. Not the jagged high mountains of Western Canada or New Zealand. More rounded, older.

transportation to Paithe bus to Pai

Pai is a bit of a hippie theme park, but really a charming town. Something like 3000 residents, but at least as many backpackers and tourists. A very high percentage of the travelers are blonde-dreadlocked suburban kids living out their sixties fantasies despite being born in the eighties. The town is happy to cater to them, with cheap guesthouses, western-style restaurants, tattoo parlours, dreadlocks-specializing hairdressers (‘perk up sad dreads! only 50 Baht!’), reggae bars and coffee shops. The town is also a center for trade with the local hill tribes, who line the streets selling handmade clothes and bags.

Farang (foreigner) breakdown of Pai:

  • 1/3 white people with dreadlocks
  • 1/3 white people without dreadlocks
  • 1/3 Japanese hipsters and lesbians (without dreadlocks)

we be jammin'Pai, Thailand. Where dreadlocked white kids fly halfway around the planet to listen to reggae.

The night we were there, the power suddenly went out. Business continued pretty much undisturbed. We asked one of the locals about it and she told us it was common, and “sometimes” the lights come back on. The market and shops and restaurants and bars paused briefly to light candles and then continued. A lot of people, we noticed, had produced flashlights from their bags and pockets. It was all very lovely and charming. As we walked out of the main village, we saw people lighting giant floating lanterns which drifted out over the valley. They looked very pretty, but I couldn’t help worry about what would happen if they came down on somebody’s thatch roof.

giant floaty lantern balloon thinggiant floaty lantern balloon thing

We had to try a few places to find a place to sleep. Eventually, we got a little bamboo bungalow by the river. Shared bathroom, but the price was right — about $8. I fell asleep breathing cold night mountain air under about ten blankets.

In the morning, Janelle woke me, her face lit up, telling me I had to look outside. The bungalow village was filled with thick fog. Honestly? It looked magical. I know that sounds gay, but I’m gonna stick with the adjective. Bamboo huts and thatched roofs drifted in and out of white mist. Creaky little bridges into town became mysterious walkways into ghostly and surreal landscapes.

shapes in the mistdawn in Pai

We both liked Pai quite a lot. I could have happily stayed a week, wandering the markets, eating delicious cheap Thai dishes and espresso and sleeping in a little thatched hut by the river. Even though the town is pretty touristy, it has a friendly, almost innocent vibe. It has charm and character, rather than the soulless tourist towns like Queenstown, New Zealand or Whistler, BC, which exist mostly to strip rich tourists from their cash. Everything in Pai is cheap and served with honest smiles. Even the hippie kids failed to get on my nerves — I’ll take good-vibe poseurs over yuppies and Eurotrash any day.