All good things must come to an end I guess. I don’t know if I really believe that saying, but in the case of our little Asian adventure it’s a reality. We spent our last three days in Ho Chi Minh City and it was the perfect way to say goodbye. Saigon is a HUGE city and just had so much to offer us. It reminded me a lot of NYC or Philly with its noise and crowds, high rises and smells. For some reason HCMC was waaaay more manageable to me than Hanoi. Maybe it’s because we spent more time exploring there, maybe it’s just laid out in a more sensible fashion. Not sure, but it’s a fabulous city.
In fact, all in all, I LOVED Vietnam and, as is the story for most holidays I wish we had more time there. I am really fascinated by this country that has managed to rebuild itself after being absolutely ravaged by war. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I was paying attention the ONE day in school they taught us about the Vietnam war. Visiting here has definitely left me wanting to know more. We paid a visit to the war remnants museum and again, it was a sobering experience. Seeing photos of the chemical warfare that was carried out and the long term effects it has had on the people and environment of this country is shocking. Shocking. But despite this, international war and civil war, the Vietnamese seem incredibly resilient. Strong. Determined. Nearly everywhere we went we were met with laughing, happy faces. And people who were curious about where we were from and where we were going (two blondes and a red head… we kind of stood out).
On my last day in the city I joined a photography tour of HCMC run by an Aussie photographer. It. Was. Fabulous. Essentially, we hopped on the back of motor bikes (piloted by the most trustworthy Vietnamese drivers) and drove around to some ‘off the beaten path’ spots in the city. Mark, our pro, gave us photography tips along the way, helped compose our shots, and offered very constructive critiquing. I had a blast. We found ourselves at markets, a pagoda, and fish selling vendors along the highway! I got lots of practice asking people if I could take their picture and just interacting with the locals (and I couldn’t resist all the fish shots… It was so cool). I can’t say that my amateur photography skills have improved much, but I definitely came away with a few pearls to remember and some fun shots. I have loved photographing my way through SE Asia.
Rooftop pools to escape the heat, shopping, a visit to a Chinese pagoda, walking the city streets, and cocktails with a view… was how we spent the rest of our time in Saigon. I couldn’t be more thrilled with this month long adventure. I had the perfect travel buddies and I think our itinerary gave us a wonderful ‘first taste’ of SE Asia. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
Officially crossing into south Vietnam, we found ourselves in Hoi An via a flight from north Vietnam to Da Nang. We had decided to fly as the train rides can take up to a full day of travel and we had heard through the grapevine that if we value our lives at all we should avoid getting on a bus :) after witnessing the traffic in Hanoi, I believe it!
Da Nang is a beautifully modern city with dramatic bridges and fun restaurants (and we all decided the most comfy beds in all of SE Asia). After a quick trip to China beach, a popular hangout for US soldiers during the Vietnam war, we drove an hour south to the cute little town of Hoi An. For me, this city rivals Luang Prabang for my favorite place on our trip. It’s a fabulous and BUSY beach town, a really good mix of old and new. We spent the entire three days cruising around on bikes exploring our way through the alleys of old town and finding our way to the beach via rice patties and grazing water buffalo :)
Hoi An has an interesting history, it has a very strong Chinese and Japanese influence and the buildings, shrines, and food reflect that melding of cultures. At night, the city comes alight with paper lanterns and floating candles and it just glows. We had so much fun biking through the streets getting lost, people watching, and sampling street food.
Speaking of food… Does it seem like that has been a theme of our trip? Because I do. The food in Asia is so amazing and flavorful. I think one thing I’ve been amazed by is that even though there are many similarities between the countries we’ve visited… They are all so very different. The language, clothing, landscape, history, and food. The food has been unique to each place we’ve been. From the mountains of Thailand to the mountains of Laos, from north Vietnam to south Vietnam. I love it, there is always something new to try. We took another cooking class in Hoi An and had a blast. The class started at 8:30am but the heat was already sweltering. We wore our Vietnamese hats for a bit of shelter during our market tour :) but learned that most restaurant owners go to the stalls between 4-5am to get the freshest produce and seafood! We cooked up some fabulous dishes – soup, spring rolls, BBQ chicken… Num. I am definitely excited to give these recipes a whirl at home, but If you’re the lucky dinner guest I’m not making any promises on the outcomes!
And then Hanoi hit us like a freight train… Or maybe a speeding scooter?! That city is SO crazy. We passed through for only one day and it was just enough time to get our first taste of Vietnamese spring rolls and nearly get taken out by a scooter several times. Perhaps the number one thing you need to know in Vietnam is that there are NO traffic laws. None. Well, maybe there are traffic laws but no one abides by them. Traffic lights? Nope. Cross walks? Forget about it. In fact, people don’t even consistently pick a side of the road to drive on! This makes crossing the road very difficult. I have opted for the option of just closing my eyes and going for it. The golden rule is once you start walking don’t stop and don’t change direction… the scooters will go around you, in theory.
At any rate, Hanoi was enough to get my pulse racing. So it was pure relief when we made our way four hours southwest by bus and boat to Cat Ba Island. From here we boarded our very own Chinese junk boat for a three day sailing trip around Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay. Tami and I met up with my kiwi friend Cherie in Hanoi so it was just the three of us on our very own boat with our guide, Kai his son and chef, Cong and the captain, Sun. The bays we sailed around are absolutely stunning with heaps of rock formations and caves to explore by kayak and many clusters of fishing villages to visit. I think the pictures in this post speak for themselves, our days comprised of reading, kayaking, napping, swimming, and eating fresh seafood. And repeat :)
Well, I can’t end this post without mentioning the lucky fish and karaoke. Our guide, Kai, was just incredible. So friendly and so excited to show us around the area where he lives. He and his family live on one of the floating fishing docks in Lan Ha Bay and so each day after we were done sailing, we would dock at his place. Literally a house in the middle of a cove! It was wonderful to meet his family and see a little piece of their life as fisher-people. Not only do they have dogs and chickens on their floating dock… They had a lucky fish living UNDER their dock. It is seven years old and weighs 45 kgs! Huge. And of course no day on the water is complete without a little Vietnamese karaoke. The men of the family were just ON FIRE with the microphones… And I have to say, us girls did a pretty mean version of Proud Mary ourselves. I have video proof, just sayin’.
All in all, it was a fabulous three days on the water… And a sweet sweet escape from the hectic city!
The last half of our week in Laos was spent in Vang Vieng. This town sits right on the Nam Song river and the landscape is absolutely stunning. Misty mornings and colorful sunsets make the dramatic karst mountains even more breathtaking. According to our guidebook and friends who have been here before, Vang Vieng is a backpacker haven full of bars, partying on the river, and as Tami’s mom warned us several times, ‘magic pizza’ :)
But we must have hit this little spot in the off season, because it was deserted! No parties or magic pizza to be found… (If you know me at all, you know how hard I looked :). Regardless, Tami and I had a fun and mellow three days just floating on the river, lounging in the sun, and exploring caves. Probably the most exciting part of our time there was the hair-raising, windy, mountainous drive from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. Gorgeous scenery, but terrifying at the same time.
Our very last stop in a Laos was a day in Vientiane. It was a quick visit, but still gave us time to do a bit of sightseeing. We visited the temple Si Saket, famous for its walls lined with miniature Buddhas… beautiful. The most sobering part of the day however, was a trip to the COPE center, a museum and rehab center that supports victims of unexploded ordinances (UXOs). I was shocked to find out that Laos remains the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. More than 270 million bombs have been dropped in Laos since 1964 and up to 30% have failed to detonate. The effects of this, you can imagine, on the people of Laos are devastating still to this day. The COPE center is working hard to educate people on the risks of UXOs and also provides prostheses and rehab for the injured. Difficult information to digest, but it is still such an important part of Laotian life…
Have you ever arrived to a place and immediately fallen in love with it? This is exactly what happened to me when we first stepped foot in Luang Prabang. From the minute I caught my first glimpse out the taxi window I was already wondering how we could turn our three days here into more…
I don’t know if I can put into words why this place is so fabulous. It is just absolutely charming. The city lies on a peninsula formed by the convergence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Laos was colonized by the French and this city is a prime example of the influence they left behind. Crepe carts, wine bars, colonial style buildings, and streets lined and lit up at night with paper lanterns. All with a Laotian twist, of course. The vibe is slightly more laid back than Thailand and the people are all smiles.
Our first day in Luang Prabang we joined a kayaking trip on the Nam Khan river. We had two young Laotian men as our ‘guides’ but really they were just like big kids playing in the water the whole time… Too much fun. At one point I jumped in the river to swim and Tami and the kayak ended up quite a ways ahead. I was happy just floating and chatting to the local fisherman as I passed by. Then, a long wooden boat with three young boys about 8, 10, and 12 years old decided they should help me get back to Tami, so they scooped me into their boat and delivered me to the kayak, what chivalry! We all exchanged laughs and high fives and then said our goodbyes, it was a definite highlight for me.
Other highlights were:
– pedaling through the city on bikes.
– hiking up to the Phousi temple for sunset.
– learning how to play the favorite national sport, pétanque … A game similar to bocce ball.
– incredible Laotian meals for $1.50
– watching the locals construct paper boats for a light festival on October 31st where they place lanterns in their boats and float them down the Mekong river.
– exploring the food markets and spotting roosters, silk worms, toads, leeches, chicken feet and many other exotic and edible creepy crawlies.
But maybe the most magical thing about this town are the glimpses of orange we saw around every corner as the local monks went about their daily life. They shop at the market, they ride bikes, they play games, and hang their laundry. But there is something so peaceful and reverent about them at the same time. I often found myself awestruck watching them as if I had spotted a celebrity! By far my favorite thing in Luang Prabang was observing the daily collection of almsgivings. Each morning at 6am the monks file through the streets to collect their alms from the local townspeople. The locals kneel on the sidewalk before the monks and remain silent as they give gifts of food and other offerings to each monk in line. And the men young and old, barefoot and shaved head and in their golden robes, collect the alms quietly and graciously. What an amazing tradition to witness, it made for an early morning but it was so worth it.
If you haven’t added Laos to your travel ‘wish list’ yet… I’m telling you, this place cannot be missed!
Besides our day with the elephants, we had tons of time in Chiang Mai to just explore the beautiful city. Chiang Mai is much smaller than Bangkok, it’s still a city by all means, but more like a Denver compared to Bangkok’s New York. So as you can imagine, it was right up our alley. And we stayed at the most charming hotel with the best host, Mr. Khem. He greeted us everyday with a smile, spoke perfect English, and directed us to all the best spots in town. What a gem.
The city is surrounded by foothills where the local Hmong villagers live. We managed to escape the heat one day by taking a tuk tuk to visit a Wat on the mountain, Doi Suthep. This may have been my favorite temple so far. The setting was gorgeous with views over looking Chiang Mai city. And again, the Buddhas and twinkling wind chimes were mesmerizing. Tami and I both received a blessing with water by a monk, wishing us good fortune, health, happiness, long life, and luck (and winning the lottery??). We then had white strings tied around our left wrist as a symbol of the blessing. Monks are not allowed to touch women, so he had an assistant tie our strings on. Each temple visit leaves me wanting to learn more about the rituals and beliefs of this culture.
I just had a feeling that Ben would have loved this temple, so I bought a wind chime and wrote a message for him, then left it twinkling right under a dragon figure. Made me smile. And to top it off, as we were leaving we saw a guy selling waffle wrapped bananas on a stick… Dip that sucker in syrup and you’ve got Ben’s ideal breakfast! It was too perfect.
In addition to all of our Wat visiting, we took a cooking class! We had a blast, and hey, our food turned out pretty tasty (and don’t we look cute in our aprons??)! Our teacher took us on a market tour first to tell us all about local foods, produce, and herbs. Thai cooking is traditionally very healthy, fresh, and often vegetarian. They use chili, lime, garlic, basil, ginger, sugar and many other ingredients to create the explosion of flavor in their food. Our class learned how to make stir fry, curry paste, Thai snacks, and mango sticky rice. Nummmmmm. It was so good. Now we just have to remember everything so we can recreate it at home!
And I can’t finish this post without mentioning the night markets. Tami and I got sucked in. Are you surprised? We’re pretty good shoppers :) and I love bartering! I was pretty rubbish at first (just ask Tami)… But I have to say, I’m quite the pro now. And as a result, our backpacks may have gotten a little heavier here. Oops! But never mind that, the markets are a sight to see. Crowded, loud, chaotic, and so fun. Chiang Mai is definitely on my favorite list so far.
Well this is a tough one, pet lambs or pet elephants? Do I really have to choose? Either way I’m beginning to think I missed my calling as an animal whisperer :)
Yesterday we visited the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center outside of Chiang Mai. This incredible place was established by a brave woman named Lek who is on a mission to save the domesticated elephants of Thailand. The crazy thing about this country is that elephants are a very sacred animal and believed to bring good fortune. BUT, since the animals have been domesticated and used for labor and tourism they have been dying off in rapid numbers (there’s only about 5,000 Asian elephants left in Thailand). Lek is lovingly caring for these rescued elephants, training elephant mahouts to treat the animals respectfully, and has opened her reserve to visitors and volunteers.
We had a blast! We spent the whole day just watching these incredible and HUGE creatures, bathing them, feeding them, and learning about each of the 32 elephants that live there. We even got elephant kisses! It was wet, slobbery, and kind of like the suction of a vacuum (joe perry never gave me kisses like that). I think the pictures explain themselves :)
A few more fun elephant facts:
Elephants eat 200 kg of food a day! We fed them bananas, watermelon, pumpkin, and sugar cane… They’ll do anything for sweets.
Every domesticated elephant is trained and cared for by a mahout. The relationship is similar to a parent and child. They go everywhere together. We never saw an elephant without it’s mahout. And it’s a lifetime relationship. All of the mahouts at the reserve are Burmese, so that’s the language the elephants speak too!
Thai people believe that elephants have a sixth sense of feeling. They intuitively read emotion, sense danger, and interpret the actions of those around them. It’s this quality that helps them choose and bond with their mahout and makes them fiercely loyal and protective of family.
Elephants can hear for up to a 5km radius. They also sense through their feet and trunk. After bathing in the water, they typically take a mud or dirt bath. This keeps them cool and protects them from the sun. A little counterproductive if you ask me though.
Elephants are pregnant for 22 months (sounds miserable) and can have as many as 8-10 babies in their lifetime. They typically live to 70-80 years old.
Our guide, Gong or ‘Gongster’ as she wanted to be called, was full of information for us… And all smiles. It was a day well spent. Definitely worth the trip next time you are in Chiang Mai.
After a blissful week in the island sun, Tami and I headed north to Bangkok. Sunday morning we hopped on a long boat from Railay beach and after twelve hours and more bus, plane, train, and taxi rides… We arrived in the capital city. We were exhausted, but thrilled to be in this HUGE city with new sights, smells, and sounds.
We had our first introduction to Thai Wats, the amazingly beautiful and intricately detailed temples that are scattered throughout the city. The Wats are often multi building compounds that include temples, community centers, crematoriums, monk living quarters- a place where people can pray, gather and live. They are absolutely stunning buildings, like nothing I’ve ever seen. The tiles, statues, gold leafing are so colorful and ornate. The temples are full of all different Buddha statues and the roofs are lined with wind chimes that twinkle in the breeze. I have to admit, before we left I wasn’t sure that the Wats would be a highlight of the trip for me. But after visiting the first few I am so excited to see more and learn more about these incredible places.
To make things more exciting, we took a historic bike tour through the city. Grasshopper Tours is the company and they market this trip as the ‘not famous Bangkok tour’, a way to see the real Bangkok … And believe me, it was not for the faint of heart. :) We rode through traffic, narrow lane ways, markets, floating bridges, and people’s back yards. It was tight, and hot, and a LITTLE nerve wracking. But we had such a blast. It was a fabulous way to see the city, interact with the always smiling Thai people, and learn more about Thai culture.
The rest of our brief stint in Bangkok was spent pounding the pavement, sampling food, browsing markets, sipping bubble tea. It certainly wasn’t enough time in this city… But enough to get a taste of it and know that I want to come back some day.
** side note – all of the Thai people we meet here ask us where we’re from and when we say the good old US of A they tell us they hope Obama is re-elected. Just sayin. (But in all honesty I can’t wait for this election business to be over).
I am totally energized after spending a half day rock climbing in Railay with Tami. The scenery is spectacular here, like nowhere else I will ever climb again. The limestone walls just loom overhead emerging straight out of the clear blue water.
Tami and I are both pretty novice climbers but we had such a blast! It was a day filled with tons of cheering, laughter, and high-fives. The routes were challenging but totally doable… And there is something SO exhilarating about getting to the top of a climb, don’t you think? The vibe on the climbing beach is very fun and mellow. It’s just a bunch of people, beginners, experts, and everything in between there to enjoy the climb and catch the view at the top. And our guide, Jay, was so good to us. He was patient and encouraging, relaxed and happy. We would definitely climb with Railay Rock Climbing again!
One of the best parts of the whole day for me though was knowing that so many of our friends had been climbing at this very spot before us. Such a special place, and so very far from home. And also knowing that although Ben didn’t physically get to visit this place (he would have LOVED it here), he was definitely with us all day. Tami and I totally ‘rocked’ our BCD shirts :)