Sunday, June 29, 2008

Hanoi haven

NINH BINH: There comes a point when you can hit a wall whilst travelling. I have felt it before, when you get to the stage when you think "that is enough, and why are we still going?". This was certainly the feeling a week ago when we walked around the dusty frontier town of Lao Cai.

On the border with China, Lao Cai is about as fun as all border towns can be - not very. Though there should be, there is no romance in these towns; they are just a place where day trippers from across the border come to spend their money on goods they can't get at home.

The place was hot. Extremely hot. And we made the mistake of arriving in town in the morning and then having a whole day to fill before departing on the overnight train to Hanoi. This was a disaster. We walked around and sweated buckets - literally buckets. I haven't experienced a place this hot since Cambodia.

To add to the heat and make us feel sick of the travel, we were scammed into overpaying for train tickets. In our desperation to get out of the place, we went to a travel agent and not the official train ticket office. (The train office was shut for lunch - for 4 hours.) The agent promised only first class was available - but for the A+ price we got the C- seats. Getting ripped off puts you in bad mood.

Then there were the couple of weeks of hard travel getting to Lao Cai. Coming across the mountains of Northern Laos was slow work. After making it to Vietnam there was Dien Bien Phu another boring border town. Then there were more mountain roads to negotiate - including another stint at pushing a bus through mud - to get to the touristy Sapa. And then whilst in Sapa all we seemed to get was hassled by the local hill tribe women throughout the town. After Laos, we had forgotten what the Vietnamese hard sell was like.

Hanoi was a haven. Another holiday from our holiday. but with more things to do than read books.

A lethargic pace descended on us during the five nights there. A couple of sightseeing activities during the day, and the rest of the time rambling about the brilliant Old Quarter - poking our noses into the little cafes, bars and restaurants - was how we spent our time. It was a great break.

A ritual developed while we were there. Although you have best intentions to check out all the good spots, you invariably find a few brilliant places initially and then the other spots don't quite compare later.

For breakfast it was a baguette and omelette combination for a miserly (or masterly) 40 cents from a little woman whipping up these fantastic delicious morsels from a gas burner on the footpath. A nearby tin oven warmed the bread while we munched through them sitting on plastic stools not a hand span high.

Gutter BBQ
Street side dining

An iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk – a Hanoi institution it seemed - was followed after from another little plastic stool place around the corner. These street side cafes do one item, for a pittance, and do it well. We loved Hanoi.

There were of course the restaurants. We didn't even make a dent in the listings of high class, cheap eateries. Thankfully we are going back in a week for some more. Have I mentioned that Hanoi is cosmopolitan? I guess we can thank the French for that. So chic, so Frenchy.

In between eating our way around the city there were things to see. The Museum of Ethnology was high class and could have been found in any western city. The indoor very informative exhibits on the various races to be found in Vietnam were supremely complimented by short docos and, outside, full scale reconstructions of traditional houses which you could wander through.

We also paid our respects to Uncle Ho in his big ugly concrete bunker. Soldiers in full white dress uniform didn't let us linger as we, and a whole bunch of Vietnamese, filed past waxen old Ho Chi Minh lying stately in his glass case. I missed seeing Lenin and Mao when passing through Moscow and Beijing respectively, so it was about time I saw one of the triumvirate. (As a side thought I guess when old Fidel finally passes on there could have a forth Madame Tussuad's contract being worked on in Havana).

Uncle Ho's resting place
Uncle Ho in da bunker

So we now have moved on from Hanoi, but like I said we will be back – we do have a plane to catch from there in a little over a week. In the meantime there are a few sites to see in the vicinity, including a(nother) world heritage natural wonder. Till next time, with batteries recharged and the travel zest back...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Golden Triangle traipsing

DIEN BIEN PHU: The Akha hill-tribe woman approached as we sat eating breakfast. They had approached before and always waved them away with a "no thank you" and a smile to their offer of handicrafts. This old woman in her traditional dress with her hat adorned with bright and shiny objects proceeded to place all her items on the table anyway.

After refusing all the small bags and bracelets she finally came close to me and whispering through her betel nut stained teeth said "Opium?". Excuse me, what did she say? "Opium?" she whispered again, closer this time.

We were in the notorious Golden Triangle. The loose area surrounding the point where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma intersect. The area is a bit of fable now. All the countries have tightened up their drug control but obviously poppy is still being cultivated.

There is no discernible sign announcing that you have entered the triangle, although at some point we must have. I guess we passed into the general area as we travelled up the Mekong on our slow boat and landed at the border town of Huay Xai.

In the town itself they were offering day trips to the actual point of intersect and promoting it as "The Golden Triangle". We didn't take the trip but I am betting there would be no opium there though. About as adventurous as we became during our rest day in Huay Xai, where we recuperated from the long days on the boat, was to go and visit the local Red Cross sauna and massage.

For some strange reason spending 10 minutes inside a tiny herbal steam filled room and sweating the last drop out of you is quite invigorating. And sweating is what we did but in a different way when we did a two day trek from Muang Sing to overnight in an Akha village.

Muang Sing is closer to other triangle, the one where China, Burma and Laos meet, than the Golden one to the south. The Akha had originally come across from China and in fact, as we discovered in a leisurely bike ride, the border is only 10km away.

Our trek had been organised through the local provincial government tourist agency. Apparently this is the only legitimate way to do it and in my eyes this can only be a good thing. So unlike similar "treks" that I have seen in northern Thailand and heard about in northern Vietnam, these treks in Laos are less of a tourist circus and more of a this is how we are, like it or not. There were no "long neck village - bamboo rafting trek" here.

A Belgium couple and us were the only ones in the group. Our guide was from the local area and we were joined by another guide who could speak Akha. After a short tuk-tuk ride to an accessible Akha village we set off.

On the way to our overnight stay we were told and shown the culture of Akha. They are Animists and have a strong sense of the spirits that surround them. At the edge of their villages they construct spirit gates to allow spirits and only spirits to pass. We walked around them. They are usually also adorned with items to warn the spirits not to mess with the village.

We were also told how the Akha have their own style of massage. And this later became a blessing after the 7 hours of trekking through rain and personally having to remove two bloated leeches from my legs. We were in need of some pummeling and pummeling is what we got. It seemed Akha style was more rough than gentle. It was intense but felt good afterwards.

A night with the cocks crowing in the darkness and then we said our goodbyes and trekked back to town. We were both struck by how similar Laos, in its ethnic cultures, terrain and landscape, is and yet very different to Papua New Guinea. One thing is for sure PNG just dreams about getting the sort of tourists that visit Laos.

The guesthouse
Our guesthouse and resident pigs in the village

From Muang Sing our plan was to move across the north of the country on roads less travelled and enter into Vietnam via a newly opened border near the town of Dien Bien Phu. For history lovers DBP is better known as the location where in 1954 the French suffered its catastrophic loss against the Ho Chi Minh led communists. This eventually led to the creation of North Vietnam.

To pass this way we finally experienced what we had read and heard about the bus trips of Laos. How bad they can be. The prelude to the ultimate bus adventure was when we were leaving Luang Nam Tha to get to Oudomxay, the major junction town of the north. The bus was full and my seat had had its padding replaced with a plank, which would have been fine expect the roads were some the most potholed in Laos.

On top of that the bus's front right brake decided to lock up and numerous stops were made to bash and convert water into clouds of steam by pouring it on the hot brake pad. But this was only the precursor to a real adventure ahead.

It came after we made it from Oudomxay to little Muang Khou where we had to spend two nights on the banks of the Nam Ou river – the bus for our final leg in Laos through to Dien Bien Phu only runs every second day. To kill time in this small town I had sat and watched the passing of people back and forth over the Nam Ou via little ferry boats or more riveting when two large coal trucks had to be shunted over on a barge.

It seemed that not much traffic actually passed this way - and we were to find out later why. To get the heavy coal trucks over the river involved the use of not only the small tug attached to the barge but five small river boats all attached to one end heaving and straining to push the barge across the fast flowing Nam Ou. It was a sight.

Pushing the coal truck across the Nam Ou

The next day it was our turn to cross over at a very early hour and stake our seat on the bus. After delaying for an hour or so we departed and all was well on the road for a while. True the road was more goat track than autobahn but we were steadily moving.

It was only when there was another bus broken down on an incline in the middle of a very muddy section that there were thoughts as to whether we would get there. It took over an hour to negotiate the stuck bus with everyone involved pulling on ropes. It didn't take long heaving to get a muddy ourselves. The wet season had after all now started.

Mud troubles
Passing the broken down bus on the muddy road

This was only the beginning, around the next corner was one of the coal trucks that crossed the river the previous morning parked in the middle of the road and not going anywhere. A drop off into the steep valley below was perilously close. I have forgotten to mention that this is rugged but very beautiful country and we were driving up the side of a mountain.

After getting the truck to back up we managed to pass it with more rope pulling. But of course around the next corner was other coal truck, and more pulling. By this time I was covered in mud and sweating profusely along with the rest of the bus. Did we get a discount for this? No.

In the end a journey that should have taken 3-4 hours over a 90km stretch of road from town to town, took a total of 9 hours from start to finish. An average of 10km an hour, you could almost walk it. Needless to say we were stuffed and tired by the time Dien Bien Phu arrived.

Our trip through wonderful Laos is now finished, and it is a little bit saddening. Laos is a brilliant country and the people are wonderful. It is developing but hopefully not too much. Oh and if you are wondering we didn't touch the opium.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Strangers on the Mekong

HUAY XAI: The woman in the flowing yellow skirt strode up and down the steps, striking a pose to aim her oversized camera up the river or down. She took what seemed hundreds of photos at all different angles and directions. Aiming the paparazzi long lens at the boats lining the river bank, shooting at children leaning out of windows or boatmen maneuvering their craft.

She was joined by a Japanese couple who almost seemed to be in camera competition with her. They pulled out a large Pentax and an even larger Canon and together with the woman ridiculously posed with their photographic equipment on the steps above the boat for a group shot.

The engine started and all three reboarded the slow boat to take up their claimed seats. The woman had got on earlier and managed to claim a soft seat, the Japanese couple had to contend with a hard wooden seat covered with a cushion.

The boat was a long and narrow steel hulled vessel with a decking and roof constructed of timber on top. At the front on top of the prow the captain sat himself at the wheel. He wasn't tucked away in a special cabin just up the front with all luggage and cargo stacked behind him. The passengers lined up behind this, with the comfortable seats first and then wooden benches and then just decking up behind. At the stern the engine roared next to the bucket and scoop toilet and the small area reserved for the owner and family to live.

Red curtains

It wasn't just the Japanese couple who had to settle for wooden benches. A group of three Canadians jocks arrived late. It must have been their partying the night before. They initially sat around chatting but not long after launch two of them were intent to set up their hammocks. Their idea would have blocked the access to the back, so the matriarch selling the snacks and drink told them to take it down.

During the voyage one of the jocks got it in his head to try and erect his hammock up the front. Rearranging the luggage he succeeded in doing so and even lying down before the owners tried to persuade him to take it down for his safety. It was only after his pillow fell in the murky water and floated by out of reach that he gave up.

The river flowed on down past green jungly slopes. At regular intervals large grey black rocks protruded at sharp angles which the vessel proceed to navigate around. The rocks sped up the water and caused eddies and whirlpools to form, fighting against these the boat's engine roared as the propeller briefly churned in nothing but air.

The passengers made the most of each of their locations. The wooden benches were rearranged, and cushions put on the deck. After her initial camera obsession the yellow skirt woman was found lying down with her back on some luggage leaving her comfortable seat. The Japanese couple had rigged up a bed using two benches facing each other and the jocks settled for the deck floor.

An aging hippy with long grey dreadlocks and a threadbare shirt was originally content to just gaze at the scene flowing past him. He took it all in through old eyes framed by thick glasses. Only rising occasionally to go to the toilet and never once speaking. During the middle of day he made himself a bed with a single cushion and laid down to sleep rising after a couple of hours to resume his watchfulness.

Blue window

In contrast four Irish girls made their home on a bunch of comfortable seats. They all had an identical uniform of short shorts and singlets. They were looking forward to Thailand's beaches. Their bare legs caused one villager, who boarded halfway along the river, to gawp incessantly like he had never (and he probably hadn't) seen such a thing before.

For two days the boat languidly chugged against the current. Villages dependent on the river for their transport and protein slipped on by. Gardens were carved into the hillside in close proximity to these villages. Buffalos grazing on the banks or cooling off in calmer waters docilely watched the uninteresting boat pass. Boys playing in the water or throwing nets had seen these types of craft before. Occasionally they would wave. Some passengers might wave back.

The first night the boat stopped at Pak Beng, 10 hours after leaving Luang Prabang. Everyone wandered up the slope to get accommodation. Some following touts offering better rooms than they had, others shrugging them off and searching for their own room. The greying hippy slipped from view and didn't return for the second day. The other westerners all returned.

The second day the scenes of the first were repeated. Yellow skirt took so many photos that she held up the boat from leaving. The Japanese couple fussed about their seating arrangements, hung out their hand washed laundry on some wooden benches and took photos of each other with their own big camera.

A Yunnanese business man decided the best way to travel two full days was to be drunk. He proceeded to knock back Beer Lao on the first day, but on the second he came armed with a bottle of cheap whiskey to attack his liver with from eight AM onwards. He found people to play cards with before making a bed.

The landscape was flatter than the previous day. Not as many rocks were needed to be avoided. Once the Thai border was alongside the river was as wide as it would be further south near Vientiane or Savannakhet.

The Irish girls were bored. Even a copy of The Da Vinci Code failed to keep one interested. By the time another 10 hours was up by reaching the end point of Huay Xai they were jumping at the chance to get off. Thailand would have though to wait as the boat arrived too late for a border crossing this day.

The approach of Huay Xai prompted yellow skirt into action after hours of playing solitaire on her iPod. She shot off megabytes worth of worthless photos, pointing it in everyones face before finally packing it away in the jumbo sized bag she was lugging.

Everyone disembarked and slowly wandered up the slope and dispersed their own separate ways. The muddy brown Mekong had been slowly traversed and had thrown together these strangers and was now throwing them apart.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Up and around and down northern Laos

LUANG PRABANG: "I'll be there for yooou ...". Welcome to the strangest town in Asia. The surreal Vang Vieng where walking the streets you will bombarded, at any time of day, with the sounds of Friends blasting out from TVs in the lounge restaurants scattered amongst this small town.

I am not sure if the producers of Friends realise, but there is a spot on earth where their show is still being watched 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Backpackers lying up on cushion covered plinths in a small town in Laos glued to a TV showed that ended years ago. I counted over six of these restaurants all loudly playing various repeats over and over. Bizarre.

We had come to Vang Vieng from Vientiane. It was the logical next step north on highway 13, the only real way to get to the northern provinces. For us the attraction of the place wasn't crap TV, but a beautiful surrounding countryside and yes yet more caves to explore.

Over the two days which we were there we headed off on bikes to stop and be amateur spelunkers. Some of these caves extended some distance into the hills and with the caverns opening up it was hard not to see similiarities to childhood weekend matinee watchings of Journey to the centre of the earth. Except there were no claymation dinosaurs in these journeys, just a stillness and the drip drip dripping of water.

Painting the walls ..
Cave exploration

Venturing further north on route 13 we got our first taste of the roads of Laos to come. Up until this point our journey was along realatively flat countryside, following the Mekong valley. Now, however, we got to experience some of the windiest roads I have ever encounted. For our 7 hour road trip to Phonsavan, covering only 200 odd kms, we twisted and turned up and down and up and down endlessly through the mountainside. There was never more than 100 metres of straight road and more hair pin turns than I could possibly count.

We eventually made it into Phonsavan, though it was in the dark, and more 5 hours later than we thought – our first bus choice was full, so it was a 5 hour wait until the next one. The town is nondescript, but it wasn't the town we came for, instead the ancient attractions nearby. The Plain of Jars.

A day trip tour was needed to get out to these mysterious relics. The reason these jars of stone and ceramics were made and then scattered across the hillsides of this region is still a mystery. Were they, as local legend suggests, made for making whiskey? If so, the more than 500 littering the area and their giant size means that those ancients were having one hell of a party at some stage. More likely is that they were made as burial urns which were subsquently looted in their 2000 year history. One thing is for sure is that they are an amazing sight and it is a crime that there aren't more - 30% were destroyed by American bombs.

Ancient jars
A few of the Jars

Phonsavan is a nondescript town now because in the 1960s and 70s this region was the scene of some of the heaviest bombing in the history of the world. An average of one plane load of bombs was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. And nobody outside the country knew.

We stuck our noses into the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) exhibition to see the good work they are doing in removing the bombs that didn't blow up. The entire countryside is still littered with unexploded bombs and it's taking years to remove them. In all the guesthouses in Phonsavan there are large collections of bomb bits lining the walls. In one cafe they have even turned small cluster bombs or bombies into ash trays. Deadly souvenirs of a past most are trying to forget.

From Phonsavan we had to backtrack for 4 hours back up and down and around the mountains to get to route 13 and then more around and up and down for another 4 hours as the road north of the turnoff junction became yet more curvaceous. Hill tribe villagers build their grass huts right alongside the roadside. These roads really are quite incredible - 8 hours of travelling for 220kms. But again the travel was worth it, as it landed us in Luang Prabang.

This town is a UNESCO world hertiage site and a damn fine nice little place. It was the seat of Lao royalty – in days prior to the communist takeover. And it has the old world feel, which Hoi An in Vietnam had. A feeling of this is the way old Asia was. It is the premier tourist destination in Laos and deservedly so.

We have spent our time here in relaxation mode. There are sights to see, more so than there have been in other parts of Laos, but we are more in a mode of soaking it up. The days have been revolving around the weather as well. Now is the rainy season and there has certainly been more of it than before. But with all the cafes, wats, markets and cheap eats, it is easy to forget about the rain.

And so from here on for the next while the trip is possibliy more about the journey than the destination. We have two days slow boating up the mighty Mekong, then go up close to the Burmese border. And there will be a hell of a lot more rough roads in the back of beaten up trucks over mountain passes to experience. Eventually, before our Lao visa expires, the goal is to get back into northern Vietnam. Somehow I think the least of our worries on this trip will be having to watch crap TV repeats.