Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Back along the Mekong

VIENTIANE: The little red vespa gleamed in the hot tropical sun. I kept walking on by but just knew that I would have to come back. With the "Jules Classic Rentals" sign hanging above it was just too much of a temptation. How much would cost to fulfill a dream was what I needed answering.

The next day the classic 1967 Italian beauty was still there and so was Jules. $10 for the day Jules told me in a heavy French accent (I guess he is one of those "lotus eaters", that the old French colonialist called the foreigners who stayed on in Laos). And half a day? Enough time for me to cruise with my girl around the streets of Vientiane. Only $5. Sold.

Saddled up and we cruised Vientiane until lunch. Much like our trip through Laos it was at a leisurely pace and (mostly) with a grin. And like learning how to handle the old girl and its quirks (clutch and gears on the left handlebar) our Lao adventure didn't kick off that great. A bit of a stalled start.

Vespa Dream
Living the dream

The nine hour bus trip from Hue to Savannakhet in Laos was quite hellish. Once again the bus was completely packed. But at least we managed to get a proper seat and not like the Japanese tourists who had to sit on the small red plastic seats in the aisle. The major problem for me was that I felt quite nauseous at the end. This was later compounded – although I am unsure if linked – by getting a dose of the ol' gastro in Savannaket. Instead of two nights there originally planned we spent an extra one due to one completely lost to no sleep and rushing to the bucket and scoop toilet. Fun.

Savannakhet itself was a bit a tad boring or "quiet" - it is after all a commercial centre and that's it really - so it was good to keep heading north. We found Tha Khaek, our next stop, was a good place to chill and check out the brilliant karst peak countryside. A day of exploring was required to see some of the very cool caves dotted around in them.

There was an amazing story of how, not far from Tha Khaek, a villager was chasing bats into a cave – a local delicacy apparently – 15 metres up the side of a cliff and as he crawled through the small opening he looked down into a cavern below him he was shocked to see a large Buddha statue inside.

As the villager went to inspect he discovered that there were more than 200 bronze Buddhas littering the cavern floor, varying in size from quite large to small, seated amongst the stalagmites. He didn't breathe a word of his discovery for a few days before finally informing the rest of the village and taking back some others.

It so happens that the Buddhas are believed to have been left untouched in the cave for over 600 years. What is more remarkable is that this amazing discovery by the villager only happened four years ago. I had to see this. Who left them behind I wanted to know and why?

Well my questions are still unanswered, but I have climbed through the small opening and into the cavern. The Buddhas are all still there but of course the locals have turned it into a small tourist attraction. They are at least very reverent in their approach to looking after the site.

Rob was required to don a traditional Lao skirt before entering. We had to remove hats and shoes and adhere to a whole host of other regulations including "no gambling inside". There is now a concrete staircase all the way to the cave entrance and once inside, the cavern has been divided into two with the Buddhas displayed in one half and mats for sitting on in the other. Some old caretakers were there looking after the objects and eager to give us a blessing and tie another coloured string to our wrists.

Under the Buddha cave
The pool underneath the Buddha cave

We ventured into other caves, some also devoted to Buddha and some not, before cruising along up the Mekong to the capital where we are now. Vientiane it turns out is one of the most laid back cities I have ever been too. Not much happens quickly here, which is a shock after being in Vietnam for a while. Whereas things start happening before six in the neighbouring country, you are lucky to see cafes with "all day breakfas" signs open up until after 8 in Laos.

So all this means we are loving Laos. Laid back is for us. Though like my vespa ride it will have to come to end some stage but at least that wont be for another few weeks. There are adventures to be had in the north yet.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Confucius says no more caves

HUE: The bus from Hoi An to Hue hadn't been going more than 20 minutes before they dropped us at the touristy Marble Mountains. Right in front of the bus was a large cave entrance. We had 30 minutes there even though we were just keen to get going. I decided to venture into the cave though Rob opted to stay put. I bought a ticket (nothing is for free here, but it was only $1) for this cave experience and ventured on in.

It turns out that it was just me and the bats. I could hear them above me as I climbed the steps further into the dimly lit interior. Perhaps no one else went in because it was crap? There was a certain Buddhist or Taoist or the hybrid version people subscribe to here slant about the place with statues of deities peeping out from niches. The further in I went, the darker it got. The cave opened into chamber and a fetid smell around me grew stronger; bat shit.

Steps led down on the opposite side of the cavern. Horrible scenes were depicted on either side and I realised that this represented a path to hell. What have I got myself in to here I thought. I was by myself in the semi dark, with scenes showing torture by demons, and I was having second thoughts. As I paused on the steps to contemplate this I realised that less than a foot from me in the gloomy light there was something worse than the concrete demons. A spindly legged spider bigger than my hand.

Cave dwelling spider
The spider next to my gingerly placed lens cap

This was almost too much. I took a few photos and after a bit further got out. Fortunately the rest of the trip has been nothing as bad my cave experience. And apart from a few crap bus trips it has been an amazing time in central Vietnam. There have been boat trips, bike riding, old world heritage towns to roam, ancient temple ruins to explore and vibrant cities built in a medieval style citadel to see.

Hoi An had been the perfect place to slow down after the journey to get there. We were squished into buses on the journey to and from Buon Ma Thuot, as we made our way along the Ho Chi Minh Road. Along the HCM road (which is named after one of the many routes that guns and supplies were smuggled south during the Vietnam war), we broke the trip at Kon Tum.

Kon Tum is a small town surrounded by various hill tribe groups. Unfortunately, even though Lonely Planet waxed lyrical over the town and said it was the "friendliest in Vietnam", as Rob's sister pointed out that is like the travel of real estate jargon, meaning boring and uninteresting. And she was right - apart from a couple of nice cafes and the chance to wander around hill tribe settlements (not villages) on the edge of town, there was nothing to do. Nasty touts at the bus station weren't so "friendly" either. Instead of two nights there it was hastily rearranged and we were back on a cramped bus the day after arrival.

We were two of five people squeezed into four seats at the back of the bus - but the trip down to Danang, en route to Hoi An, could have been worse. The bus took us through stunning scenery - following the HCM trail, the road wove with a river up and down through mountainous jungle, sparsely inhabited. We also survived the local bus from Danang to Hoi An grinding slowly along and making us pay double - a popular local scam apparently. Finally arriving at our destination was a bit of an anticlimax: we wandered around the wrong part of town in the heat of the day with our packs on looking fruitlessly for a hotel.

Lanterns 2
Lanterns in Hoi An

But that was the worst of it over. We spent four nights in Hoi An, just relaxing and enjoying a place where there were real French style pastries. We also took a day trip out to My Son, a world heritage site of temples built by the Chams in a pre Angkor period. I ventured off also to have a look at the southern end of China Beach to bring back memories of the 80s TV show.

Now in Hue we have been venturing out on bikes through more world heritage sites in and around the city; the tombs are of emperors from the Nguyen Dynasty. The citadel surrounding the city itself has keep us busy.

A plastic bag is a lot of fun
Girls playing in Hue

So even though we have a 9 hour bus trip tomorrow to Laos, we are currently pacing our trip like the Confucian bowl: in a traditional merchant's house we visited in old Hoi An, a Vietnamese lady explained the meaning behind this bowl, which has a hole in its base. If you fill it 3/4 full with water, the water stays in the bowl. If you try and fill it 100%, the water drains away through the hole. If you are too greedy and overfill your bowl, you will end up losing the lot. The good with the bad. The caves, and long buses, with bikes, new foods and cheap beers.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tourism Vietnam

BUON MA THUOT: The Vietnamese man smiled and posed for his friend with a camera. It was a bizarre scene. He was wearing a cowboy hat and sitting on the back of a white horse which had black zebra stripes painted all over it. His friend took the picture and he got off the back of the mournful looking creature and handed the hat to another friend for his turn for the camera. Welcome to tourism Vietnam style.

The location was at the bottom of a mountain. Tourist buses were unloading masses of domestic tourists who then proceeded to jump into the back of a jeep to be transferred up to the top of the mountain. Zebras and Montagnards, or "hill-tribe people", selling handicraps completed the circus that was this place. This place was Dalat - Vietnam's version of a ski resort, minus any snow.

Zebra Vietnam style
The "Zebra" of Dalat

Dalat, with an altitude of 1500m, is nice and cool and has a spring climate year round - a lot like Goroka in PNG, but without the dusty streets and frontier feel. Local Vietnamese flock here now for the same reason as the French who originally came and built the place in the 20s - for the nice climate. What that means is that the sights to see in the town itself are a bit minimal, unless you like looking at old French villas or nice lake. The only thing left to do is the kitsch touristy day trips around the town.

The climes were a bonus for us as well after the month long sticky heat we have wadded through in the Mekong and Cambodia. It was fantastic to be able to get back under the covers of a blanket without needing a fan whirring overhead all night. But all good things must come to an end and we have ventured back into the heat now.

Getting out of Dalat showed another side of Vietnam's tourism, the one geared towards foreigners. You can hardly walk around Dalat without bumping into an "Easy Rider". These are a band of initiative local guys that offer customised multi-day tours on the back of a motorbike. We were given the hard sell on a few occasions, being shown former testimonials from tourists of all nationalities and photo albums. Even a pair of Kiwis came up and sat down opposite us in a cafe to extol how wonderful their trip with a couple of the guys were. The Easy Riders are the "real deal" apparently.

And while getting shown the countryside on the back of a motorbike sounds appealing, unfortunately the guys have realised they can charge a good deal more than any other tourist activity in the country. After travelling for month averaging $25 a day each for everything; accommodation, food, transport and sightseeing activities - the $60 per day sans food or accommodation is why most of the Easy Rider guys can afford to live it up in the cafes and bars in Dalat - drinking and smoking.

So we decided to have our own real deal Vietnam trip and got the $5 bus out town north to Buon Ma Thuot. It was on this that we saw a new side of tourism in Vietnam - and it wasn't the shite bus that was worse than a Lae to Mt Hagen one. It was Dzung, a student from Hanoi, who was travelling independently around his own country using the English language Lonely Planet because there is no equivalent written in Vietnamese.

Meeting Dzung, we jumped off the bus, not a moment too soon (it was one of those trips where they have 20 seats and they pack in 30 people), 50km before Buon Ma Thuot and wandered around a natural lake in called Lak Lake. Dzung became our own little free guide - although it was the first time he had been there as well, but at least he could speak the language in a place not so used to tourists yet. After lunch and a few hours at the lake we headed into BMT on a local bus, and were sad to say goodbye to our new friend as he had to hightail it back to Hanoi for the start of his semester at RMIT (needless to say when Rob gave him one of her old cards from RMIT he was pretty impressed). He has promised to take us out to the student bars in Hanoi when we get there - student price in a country where beers are 75cents!

So Buon Ma Thuot is the heat again, previously before Dalat we had managed to survive it at the coast for the first time on the trip. It was our holiday from our holiday. A little bungalow 20 paces from the white sandy beach was a tough gig. Every morning I got up and wandered down to jump into the warm surf and watch the locals fish from their strange round boats. Afternoons were reading books and napping. Luckily I picked up a battered copy of War and Peace from a guesthouse in Phomn Penh and am currently making good headway through it.

In between the beach and the Angkor temples there was some backtracking through PP and Saigon. I am loathe to backtrack but this did enable us to visit a couple of places which we had missed in these cities. The Cambodian National Museum with its vast Angkor period artifacts could be appreciated more since we had been to the temples and the Chinese district in Saigon, Cholon, was interesting to visit with its numerous pagodas.

Joss sticks
Smelling the incense in Cholon

But back to the circus mountain. After purchasing tickets to enter this place, we were not sure if the jeep ride to the top was included, so we jumped in the back of one and then discovered that you actually had to pay extra. Being the tight-arses that we are we said bugger that and decided to hike up to the top of a peak away from the rest of the hoards. After a certainly more sweaty ascent than the other tourists in their jeaps, we descended three hours later and the buses were all gone. The zebra was still there though, tied up to a post, looking mournfully at the ground.