Lazy Laos

I’m gonna level with you here. I got too distracted by The Office to blog last night. I’m not even sorry.

Yesterday we bussed from Vientiane to Vang Vieng and spent the afternoon exploring what little there is to explore here. We also looked at tour operators that offer Kayaking which is something that we might do tomorrow.

Its been raining constantly since last night which is something new for this trip. Normally when it rains – it pours for about an hour then it stops. Here its been constant, with huge downpours every so often. This caused a little bit of a change in our plans as we were forced to wait out a downpour this morning and thus couldn’t go tubing. We instead hired a Tuk Tuk for the afternoon to take us to some caves and to the Blue Lagoon.

Even though it was raining, the caves were incredible to explore and I’ve never seen anything like it. It wasn’t true cave trekking though – it was a disneyfied version with paved walkways and nice stairs. Which I’m not complaining about (my feet are super sore from some mysterious rash).

On the way from the Caves to the blue lagoon we took the bumpiest road I have ever been on. Now, you’ve told me 1000 not to use hyperboles. But this isn’t. I flew off the seat a few times it was so bumpy. The ride was beautiful (the views of the rice paddies and the mountains can’t be beat) but it was too bumpy to take pictures.

We survived the bumps and made it to the blue lagoon to meet a giant group of Korean tourists playing in the water (there was a swing and some branches of a tree to jump off of). But first we set off to explore the cave that was close. This one was definitely meant for true hikers – the stairs were little bits of rocks and there was no path! I’m glad I forced myself to get up and go – it was definitely worth it!

Before heading back to the hostel, we decided to swim for a bit in the water. We even used the swing and jumped off the branches. My battered feet weren’t too happy but it was a blast. After drying off we were back in the tuk tuk and headed back to the hostel.

All in all its a great day. I’m just hoping that the wifi signal will hold on for long enough to post this!

The Travel Fatigue Is Real

Last night, after not being able to sleep for a while I hit the travel blog circuit and found out there’s a name for this funk I’m in! Thank god its not just me! Turns out its called travel fatigue and its very common amongst backpackers. There are a myriad of ways to solve it but unfortunately, due our compressed time frame most of them won’t work (ex. slowing the pace of travel down, finding places to volunteer at for months). But, one seems to have worked (this one is probably my favourite) – SPLURGE. I took this one a little bit too far – a little bit is a lie. A lot too far. But, it comes with a challenge for me.

After re-arranging my flight back from Singapore (I now get back to Bangkok at 4pm as opposed to midnight and having to head straight to the other airport), I decided it would be fun to celebrate my last night in Asia in style. So, with my new found travel fatigue information in hand, went guns blazing to the Shangri-La’s website and booked a room (also a limo to the airport because at this point, I really don’t care). This is where I went a TEENSY bit overboard, I cancelled my hostel booking in Singapore (thank god booking.com has free cancellation) and switched it to the Parkroyal on Pickering. Oops.

Now this morning, I woke up in one of those “what the F**k did I just do?” moods. And realized that I spent a little bit more in my hotel frenzy than I wanted to. But at this point, looking at those pictures online are helping me push through the weary end of the trip. Before we left this morning I set a challenge for myself $30 a day for food, activities and lodging for every day until August 15th. If I can do it, amazing. If I can’t, well thank god I have a job interview coming up. I’ve also set some discretionary funds aside for other things. It’s not like I’m running out of money, its that I’d like to come home with a teensy bit of money in my bank account as opposed to nothing. Its amazing, I thought we had been doing things cheaply but it turns out that you can always go cheaper (at least in SE Asia)

With this challenge in mind we headed out to the mean streets of Vientiane. Our first stop was a french bakery for breakfast (so worth it) and then we headed off to the Presidential Palace. Finding a map of Vientiane has been like finding a map of Buenos Aires – we have found a few but all the scales are so different we don’t know where anything is.

On the way we found a Wat (no idea what its called, the translation of the name was nowhere to be found) and decided to make it the only one for the day (we are VERY tired of temples). It was on the smaller side but quirky enough to make it a well earned stop.

After the wat, we stumbled upon the Presidential Palace and were significantly underwhelmed. It turns out we were looking at the back side of it. A+ for us.

We then set off to conquer 2 more of Vientiane’s top tourist attractions (aka the only 5 things to do) – these happened to be 2 more Wats. But, the first one was closed for renovations and the second was closed for lunch. We were able to walk around the courtyard of the second but not enter. Oh well.

By this time we had only been gone for 30 mins and decided to take on a few more things to make the day worth it (I’ve been feeling guilty for not seeing things lately so this factored in a bit). Our first stop was the Patuxay Arch. Its a 60ft tall archway made of concrete that stands as a big middle finger to the Americans (legend has it that they donated the concrete used to make the arch to re-do the runway at the airport).  We paid less than $1 to head up to the top and were surprised with a great view of the city. It was pretty funny to see the inside as each floor had been turned into a giant souvenir shop, typical SE Asia.

After that we decided to go to Pha That Luang which is one of the symbols of the country. We wanted to stop at a pagoda called That Dum Pagoda on the way as the name sums up how I feel about pagodas right now. But we had read the map wrong and gave up on that quickly.  Upon arriving at Pha That Luang we were significantly underwhelmed at its state (the gold was black in many places and it had lots of cracks) for being so important to the country. We decided that it just didn’t seem worth the cash to go in because it looked so decrepit.

We then headed off to our last stop of the day – the COPE Centre. This was a bit of a hike from where we were but we felt that it was pretty important to see. It took us about 35 minutes to get there (water break not included) and we finished the small museum in less time than that. Oh well.

The COPE centre is run by an organization that provides Prosthetics and Orthotics to those that need them in Laos. It is the number one source of artificial limbs in the country and their exhibit was fascinating to me. It showed why there are so many unexploded ordinances in Laos (#1 bombed country in the world). I found it fascinating that people made everyday items out of scrap metal from the Vietnam War. It also showed that while UXO (Unexploded Ordinances) numbers are dropping, the number of traffic accidents is increasing leading to people needing the centre to help them after their accidents.

We got back to the hostel and rested for a bit (we had done literally all the tourist attractions in the city) before dinner. For dinner we found a Vietnamese restaurant (ironic) that had cheap rice and I managed finish the day 5 cents under budget! For including a bus ticket to Vang Vieng, lunch, dinner, water and admission tickets – I’m pretty impressed.

This evening doesnt have too much planned as we’re off to Vang Vieng tomorrow and want to play some pool at the hostel before we leave!

Sabaidee, Laos!

Again, I apologize for the lack of blogging the last few days. I couldn’t shake a sinus infection and I was laid up in bed.

Tuesday was a bit of a let down as again we couldn’t get a cruise in Halong bay, just an excuse to come back I guess! We both used the day to rest as it was much needed.

Wednesday I woke up covered in what I think was heat rash, with a migraine and a sinus infection. I decided it wasn’t worth fighting and told Katelyn to carry on without me. She had a great day exploring Hanoi, while I rested the whole day. Although I’m not sure if my body could handle the excitement she endured!

This brings us to today, we woke up early this morning and flew from Hanoi, Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos. We went for lunch then checked in at our hostel, and are now resting (early mornings and I don’t mix). Vientiane seems like a lazy city, from what we’ve seen… and the fact that today is a public holiday isn’t helping that vision out.

The plan for this afternoon is to walk along the Mekong River and then dinner and potentially some pool at the hostel. I’m hoping being able to get out and do things will help me shake this illness and it’s associated mental funk.

The Beauty of Having No Plans

Well, today ended up vastly different than how we had planned it.

We woke up fairly early and ate breakfast before we met our van to take us to Halong Bay. As soon as the bus came, we hopped on and (thought) we were on our way to an amazing adventure.

We passed the compulsory tourist take down shake down and were in the van for about 10 minutes before we noticed it pull over. My first thought was that we had a flat tire, or had made a wrong turn. However, the tour company rep turned around and told us that the cruise had been cancelled due to inclement weather. It was a little bit tough to take as we had already travelled about 2 hours out of Hanoi. But, we’re incredibly lucky that we were able to rebook for tomorrow. Stuff like this happens, getting bent out of shape about it won’t do anything. While it sucks, it just comes with the territory.

We got back to Hanoi, arranged the cruise for tomorrow, prayed for good weather and then went off for lunch. We ended up finding two really good and really cheap places to eat today!

After lunch we decided to walk to the Temple of Literature as it was one of 2 things open today. I’m honestly very surprised at the amount of temples/meeting halls in this country due to the political situation. The grounds were immaculately kept, and added to the neat vibe of the city. I’m really enjoying Hanoi as there’s lots of green space which makes the city feel a lot smaller.

We finished up at the temple and decided to visit the other tourist attraction that was open today (they must hate Mondays as much as I do) – the Fine Arts Museum. This was definitely a highlight for me as over the past few years my appreciation of art has increased dramatically. My favourite pieces at this museum date from the 1950s on as I have a fascination with propaganda and art that relates to it!

Our next stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – this imposing structure was built to commemorate the first president of Vietnam. It was in the middle of a giant square which made it all the more imposing. Another thing that added to the interesting feeling of the place was the giant hammer and sickle flags that were flying. This was probably the only place on the trip that has given me culture shock as I find the whole political system quite foreign and to see flags like those up close was a little eerie.

After that we stumbled upon the One Pillared Pagoda – which dates from 1045. This was really cool to see, and also quite small so we didn’t venture in.

After finishing up we walked back through the chaotic streets of Hanoi to the hotel. I honestly can’t count the number of times that I’ve almost been run over by mopeds. They’re everywhere and pop out of nowhere. Its insane.

Ok, back to hoping for good weather tomorrow. Well, not even good weather. Just not bad enough that our cruise gets cancelled again because that would suck.

Hammer and SICKle

Seems like I’ve done a lot of apologizing for not blogging over the last two days… and here’s another. The Wifi here is even worse than in Myanmar and I couldn’t even upload my blog yesterday. Also I’m still sick… so thats another reason.

Yesterday was a bit of a long day, we flew from Da Nang (the closest airport to Hoi An) to Ha Noi. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity for our bags, we were on our way to the Hotel. We ended up arranging a car to pick us up as we had heard horror stories about brutal cabbies from the airport.

As soon as we dropped our bags we noticed that the beds had been pushed together, and as we had shared a very tiny bed in Hoi An promptly asked for them to be separated, much to the confusion of the front desk staff (“oh, are you brother and sister?”).

We got organized for the day and decided to take a walk down to Hoan Kiem which is a lake close to our hotel. It kind of reminded me a little of Central Park although not as isolated from the city. We ended up walking from there to the Vietnamese History Museum which was a little misleading to me as it glossed over the period from French Colonialism to the present. Don’t get me wrong, I love learning about ancient history but theres only so many pots you can look at.

After that we (I) decided to find a Starbucks to fill up my mug collection. I ended up finding the Ho Chi Minh City mug here, and bought that along with the Hanoi and Vietnam ones to fill my collection. The lady working the cash surprised me as they were “celebrating Starbucks coming to Hanoi” and gave me a tumbler for free (well, almost free..she charged me for it instead of a mug)!

After that we ditched the mugs and chilled for a bit at the hotel as we had had a late lunch and weren’t exactly hungry. We ended up going for Pho later which was much needed.

This morning we ended up getting up a tad late and spent the morning organizing our budgets and the like. It was a little scary looking at how much I had spent, and ended up putting myself on a budget for the rest of the trip (although that was to be blown out of the water by the cruise we’re headed on in Halong Bay).

We ended up hitting a few of the major tourist attractions in the city, and I managed to stay under my $50 CAD budget for the day. The first stop was the Vietnamese Women’s museum which was really cool. It was interesting to see the traditional roles of women in Vietnamese society, along with their roles within the traditional cultures of the country. Within the museum there was a cool exhibit on vietnamese religious beliefs (they believe in the Mother Goddess) and an interesting movie on female street vendors in Hanoi. It really put my funds situation in perspective. Some of these ladies were making $20USD every 12 days – making my situation absolutely trivial.

After the museum we headed to the Toa Lo Prison – infamously called the Hanoi Hilton. This was definitely more of a prison compared to Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh – although I’m not sure if a valid comparison can be made between the two. It was really interesting to see the positioning of the Vietnamese with respect to the history of the prison (and the Vietnam War). I won’t get into too much detail here (as this is probably being monitored… Hello Vietnamese Government!) but you can ask me all you want in 5 days!

After that we headed back to the hotel and stopped for a quick snack along the way. We found a cool café and I had a passionfruit yogurt, pain au chocolate and a fresh pressed juice. So much for that budget.

Feeling full we made it back to the hotel and relaxed (and bitched about the Wifi) for a bit before dinner. We had decided to eat at a place that was billed as “cheap and cheelful [sic]” but upon seeing no tourists there immediately changed our minds. We ended up eating at 69 restaurant, and I had the “69 Style Fried Rice” (no comments from the peanut gallery).

Now, we’re back at the hotel and headed off to bed. Our bus to take us to the boat in Halong Bay will be here at 8:30 am… pray for my soul please. I haven’t gotten up before 9 this trip (except for that one day in Angkor).

I Made Pho, and it was Pho-king wonderful

I apologize for not blogging yesterday, I was super under the weather and stayed in bed and watched Celebrity Big Brother all day. Luckily, I had brought antibiotics with me and am starting to feel better!

Today was a pretty relaxing day, we went to the Thuan Tinh Island Cooking school to learn how to make some Vietnamese food. We booked the afternoon tour, and so slept in a little bit. At 11:30, our guide Thuy picked us up from our hotel and took us to the local market. We walked around the market and bought everything we would need for our cooking class later. After the market tour, Thuy told us that we would be the only 2 people at the cooking school for the afternoon which was awesome.

We went down to the dock to wait for our boat. Thuy told us that it was “broken” and needed to be fixed – which didn’t bother either of us as it was a beautiful day and the scenery was beautiful. Thuy was an absolute gem and surprised us with vegetable graters because she felt bad that the boat was taking so long.

The boat showed up and we were soon off to the cooking school! Upon arrival, we were shown how to make rice milk and each got to try using the mortar. Its easy to see why the Vietnamese ladies are so strong!

As soon as we got to our station, we were given passionfruit juice (the first of many of the day) and were soon learning how to make fresh spring rolls! They were definitely easier than I thought they would be, and I’ll definitely have to make them when I get home. Also, the peanut sauce was incredible. Just saying.

Next up was Vietnamese Pancakes or Bahn Xai. These were a little bit intimidating for me due to the flipping of the pancake (I’m an absolute Klutz in the kitchen) but they came off without a hitch! My only gripe with these was the amount of oil used to fry them (but we’ll chalk this one up to the fact that my parents are the the cleanest eaters around).

We then tackled Beef Noodle Soup – a simple yet super tasty dish. This one was definitely the toughest for me as the chef (Tuy) wanted us to decorate our plates with vegetables. Not my cup of tea. Hell, I can’t even draw a stick person how do you expect me to make something with vegetables.

Finally, we made some Pho. This was by far the highlight of my day and was easier than I thought it would be! The most difficult part was by far getting the spices just right for the broth! Everything was downhill after that.

After a long day we were taken back to the hotel, and we immediately crashed for a bit. After that we headed out for “dinner” (as we were still quite full from earlier) and ice cream. I finally tried White Rose – a local specialty, its a type of pork dumpling, and it was so good! I also had a Banana Pancake which was supposed to come with Nutella but didn’t, oh well. I finished it off with Pineapple and Passionfruit Sorbet. All in all it was great.

Now, I’m off to pack as we’re off to Hanoi tomorrow. I don’t think its set in that we only have a little over 3 weeks left as it still feels like an eternity, but will go by so quickly.

Good Morning Vietnam

Forgive the pun – I had to make it at least once.

After a long travel day yesterday (Phnom Penh, Cambodia –> Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam –> Da Nang, Vietnam then a short drive to Hoi An) we slept in a little and then hit the streets to explore the Ancient City of Hoi An. By the time we headed out, it was already very hot, thank god the hotel has a pool.

We spent the morning wandering around and hit a few of the museums in town (ex. The Pottery Museum) and a few gathering halls/pagodas. By noon we were both starving and headed to the Mermaid Restaurant for some Pho. It was arguably the best Pho I’ve had but the portion size was probably the smallest I’ve seen.

After lunch, we headed to a few of the old houses in town that I can’t remember the names of because they’ve all blended together in my brain. We also went to the Japanese covered bridge and walked down by the river. The highlight of my day was finding a store that sold vintage Vietnamese propaganda posters. I probably bought way too many (they’re postcard sized) but I’m over it. They’ll make cool decorations.

We were both pretty wiped from the heat so we headed back for a nap. On the way we stopped at a tailors beside our hotel. Hoi An is famous for its tailor shops so we figured we’d see what the fuss is all about. While I would love get a suit, I just don’t have the room for it.

After our nap we headed for dinner. We had read about a place called the Secret Garden and decided to try there. The food was excellent (we had beef and betel leaf) and the setting was really quite serene. After dinner, we walked around town to see it all lit up at night. It was really beautiful and reminded me of a town on the French/Italian Riviera.

We stopped at a mini mart for snacks (I’ve probably eaten by body weight in Coconut Oreos over the last 2 days) and Katelyn popped into a tailor to get a dress made. While she was doing that I headed back to the hotel to relax and work on my scrapbook.

I’m thoroughly exhausted, and these hard beds are killing me. As much as I hate to say it – I’m almost ready to come home. Watch me backpedal when I actually start heading  home…