Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Death of My Resolve Against Facebook

I cracked.

We've been travelling 8 weeks and I was holding out just fine, but then these 2 girls from Australia teamed up against me and held photos of me hostage from the Gibbon Experience that we all did together until I joined Facebook. So you can blame Renee and Sara for this- or thank them- for those of you that have been waiting for this to happen.

But I still hold that I hope I still get personal emails and handwritten letters/postcards from people and phone calls. I feel like communication between people is getting too impersonal and distant with all these networking sites. But it is an easy way to track people you meet briefly while travelling. So I guess it's got both positives and negatives going for it. We'll see how it goes.

Those of you who have my email- friend request away.....

Monday, April 27, 2009


I love bookshops- I could spend hours in these. One in particular worth mentioning is Orn's bookshop in Chiang Rai- we only stayed in this town overnight on our way to Laos- but I went to this shop twice in the 24 hours we were there. You can sell and buy books here- and I can't imagine that he makes much money doing it because he gives you such a great price to buy your books from you, that you hardly spend anything buying books from him. It makes me think that books are just an obsession or hobby for him- and they take over the entire upstairs of his house- so maybe he had to start selling them to appease his wife or something. :) He also recommended another shop in Luang Prabang, Laos (which we arrived in yesterday) that I guess does a straight exchange for books, and you pay $1, which goes to an orphanage- we'll be checking that out soon.
I just finished the first 3 books of the Twilight series in a week- easy reading- which also occupied me while I was sick again in Chiang Mai- my latest guess would be Dengue Fever according to the symptoms listed in the book- but I pulled through alright.
So, I've picked up another 3 books, which I'll add to my Shelfari on here once I've finished them.
There are book exchanges everywhere in Asia, and I think it's such a great idea- I'm not sure that this really exists in the States, I'll have to look in to it more when I get home. But everywhere you go here pretty much has a shop that you can buy/sell/exchange books at, and I love the idea of reading something that so many before me have already enjoyed- props to the recycling factor here!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Elephant Conservation Center

This is one of the coolest things I've done while in Southeast Asia. I did a one day Mahout training course at the Elephant Conservation Center outside of Lampang (about an hour south of Chiang Mai.) I put captions on the photos here to tell how most of my day went so you can look at that. We attempted to learn 15 commands, rode around on the elephant, gave them a bath- which was more I think them bathing us, watched the elephant shows, saw how paper was made from the dung, and fed them. It was an awesome day! You can book more than one day- but be aware that it's exhausting and you get saddle sore after just one day. :) My elephant's name was Jan Pen- which means full moon, and her mahout was Peng. He laughed along with me most of the day. I had a big grin on all day! And I got another thing marked off my list of things to do in life!

This center is also great because they rescue elephants from all over Thailand as well as take in any brought from other countries. They have a huge amount of land for the elephants to wander on, a hospital, and even a seperate center for "retirenemt" for those that are older or disabled. The center has a great purpose and I'm really glad we went to them for this experience!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Food Network- here I come

Okay, so I'm probably over-exaggerating a little with the Food Network thing, but I did take a Thai cooking class with the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School for a day and it was great! We did vegetable carving in the morning, which you can see the results from above, and we made 6 dishes over the course of the day. I was too busy cooking and eating to take many pictures, so there are only a few here. We made:

Clear Soup With Minced Pork(Tom Jued)
Spring Rolls (Paw Pia Tord)
Roast Duck Curry (Gaeng Phed Ped Yang)
Fried Chicken With Ginger (Gai Phad King)
Chicken In Pandanus Leaves(Gai Hor Bai Toey)
Mango With Sticky Rice(Khaaw Neaw Mamuang)

All of it was delicious! This is definitely something worth doing while here, and this school was very good. Skip breakfast- you'll never be able to finish all the dishes either way, but this helps.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Songkran Festival in Chiang Mai Thailand

We returned Thailand on April 12th in time for Songkran- the Thai New Year festival. This is a crazy, city-wide water fight for 5 days straight. I've never seen anything like it- little kids up through grandparents throwing buckets of water at eachother, everyone's armed with a water gun- and there's no mercy. You cannot walk down a street more than 30 seconds without being drenched. The worst is when they have a huge block of ice in their water barrel- this is just cruel to be doused with. Most water is from the moat down the main street- not the cleanest water for sure- so keep your mouth shut.

Now, the tradition behind the water is actually supposed to be a blessing for the New Year- good luck and health and all that jazz. It's a nice idea, that I think has gotten a little lost over the years- but still a good time to be involved in. Kids would love this if you bring them along- and it's safe.

I did not get any pictures of this madness because I feared for my camera, but here is a YouTube link that gives a pretty good picture of the chaos.

We spent close to a week in Chiang Mai just relaxing in an effort to recover from our whirlwind through Vietnam and Cambodia. This effort was well spent and much needed. Chiang Mai is a pretty mellow city and I enjoyed it here. We stayed at YourHouse Guesthouse which was good, basic accommodation.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Water Puppetry

One thing that you should be sure to do while in Hanoi is to go to a Water Puppet show. This is a traditional art form in Vietnam and is entertaining to see. They control the puppets with sticks/strings that are underneath the surface of the water and the coordinated choreography is pretty impressive. There is a live group of musicians playing traditional music, and there are about a dozen puppet masters, who will be shown at the end to take a bow. Book your tickets as soon as you arrive in Hanoi as they might be sold out for a few days. And go for the first class seats.

Beautiful valleys and rice paddy terraces: we must be in Sapa

If you go to Vietnam, be sure you book a trip to Sapa. We booked again with Ocean Tours- though if you have time to get to Hanoi and then book something once you get there you can find much cheaper tours that did the same things we did through many tourist agencies in the Old Quarter.

If you book with Ocean Tours- make sure that they have informed someone to pick you up from the train station when you return- I think they are usually good about this, but they forgot to tell them about us. So we had to call the girl who made our reservations at 0430 in the morning (we couldn't find the phone# to the hotel), which I felt bad about, and she told us to go ahead and take a taxi and the hotel would reimburse us. Well, after asking several times throughout the day for the reimbursement, they decided that they would only reimburse 50,000 of the 70,000 dong it cost us. Now- 20,000 dong is only about $1. So, while the amount itself was not the issue to me- I find it to be poor business practice to not have reimbursed the full amount, especially because we were not told there should be a certain cost to the taxi, and it's their fault for not picking us up in the first place. I think that they should realize the impact of the negative feedback this will create regarding their company over $1. So, due to this, and that the tour we took seemed to be similar to all the other ones that cost half the price- I would not recommend booking with this company.

Now that you've got my recommendation for how to do this trip- I highly suggest booking one. You'll take an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, and then a minibus to Sapa. You'll be met by a guide- who has to be a member of a local tribe- who will guide you on your trek. Note that you are NOT allowed to trek without a guide. Our guide was So, and she was great- her English is excellent and she was very nice and great to talk to. If you can book with a company that books through the Sapa Golden Sea Hotel, try to request her. We booked for 3 days, 2 nights (plus 2 nights on the train getting to/from Hanoi). You spend most of the first day hiking down in to the valley, then you stay in a homestay, and the second day is hiking for about half the day up and over hills, and then you are driven back to Sapa. We had the rest of the afternoon to wander around Sapa and stayed at a hotel in Sapa that night. The next day we hiked through Cat Cat village and then had the afternoon to ourselves, before heading back to Hanoi. You can see everything we saw (except for much of Sapa- though there really isn't much except for the market to see) in 2 days and 1 night, as an option.

We went through the villages of Lao Chai, Ta Van, Giang Ta Chai, and Cat Cat. We saw people from the Black Mon, Green Zai, and Red Zao tribes. The tribal clothing is beautiful- all made from hemp cloth that they create the fibers from hemp and then weave together and dye, then embroider for countless hours. As you start each day, you will be met by a group of women from the next town's local tribe who will escort you the entire way in hopes of selling you items at the end. Now, the nice part is that they will not harass you or ask you to buy anything the entire time you walk with them, and they will help you over hard parts of the path. It can get a little much- I had 2 girls holding my hands on the second day leading me down the path (I looked like the photo above of Yolanda being helped) and sometimes I think it made it harder than if I didn't have help- but it was still nice of them. The bad part it that you will get the guilt trip at your final destination about how they helped you all day and what would you like to buy from them in return- so decide in advance if you are going to purchase something and for how much, otherwise try and avoid any help to avoid the guilt trip. Do not cave to any woman who brings her baby in to the mix for bargaining- it's normal for them to carry children on their backs the whole time they hike. They are persistent until you leave. It can be wearing while you eat- avoid eye contact with any of the women or the items they are selling while you are eating unless you want to be approached about purchasing something.

For bargaining- mind you I'm not great at this, and I hate doing it- I'd rather be told a fair price and just pay it. But this is the way of markets in Asia. So, I'd start with at least 1/3 of the price they ask and work from there- do not pay more than 2/3 of the original asking price at the very most. The easiest way to get the price you want to pay is to stick to it, and if they don't come down, walk away- this always works in your favor. For prices- I think the following is about what you should pay: a pillowcase-50-60,000, a wall hanging- 80,000, a blanket- 200-300,000 dependent on size,a purse- 30-60,000 maybe. We found out later that the market in town is much better to buy at- prices tend to negotiate more in your favor as there isn't a guilt trip attached.

So anyways, this is part of the deal when you do this, so be prepared for it. You do not have to buy anything-you'll just have to have a very good ability to ignore them while they stand next to you and guilt you.

The other thing to be aware of is that it can get cold and wet here very fast- this is the only place we suspected of possibly getting a little cold at, but we were surprised how cold it could get. Make sure to have some layers and a rain coat- there's quite a market for these items in Sapa for unsuspecting tourists. Bring good walking shoes and pack light- you'll be carrying it all.

The rice paddies and fields are beautiful. We had clear mornings and misty, foggy afternoons. Both were beautiful scenes- and I loved being in a quiet, peaceful place for a few days.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Halong Bay

We did a 3 day, 2 night tour in Halong Bay. This is one of those touristy must-do's.
The bay is beautiful, we had very misty weather and some rain, but it just changes the atmosphere in to a different sort of ambiance. We stayed on a private beach in a bungalow for both nights, though there are several different tours to pick from that involve different activities and sometimes accommodation on the boat for a night.

They transport you from Hanoi to Halong by minivan, then you get on a boat which takes you to the island they have the bungalows at- this is right across from Cat Ba which is a good sized town (more a tourist spot filled with hotels) on Cat Ba Island. On the way we also went kayaking through one of the floating villages and around some of the islands. There were some strong currents and the paddles were heavy old metal ones with straight crummy blades (don't expect good equipment here) so this was pretty tiring. I was so excited when we caught a current going the direction we wanted through this cave above- until we got through it and I realized that we had to paddle BACK through it. But, this turned out to be one of the funniest moments. All of us in kayaks got through the cave and were realizing at the same time we had to get back through it against the current, all the while watching this small boat of people having a hard time getting through it. So, you see all of us starting to line up our kayaks to go back through, and it's like someone fired a gun for the start of the race, because the moment Jim and I decided to get paddling with all our strength to get back through, so did everyone else. So now there are about 10 kayaks headed towards this opening, that is only going to fit about 3 of us at the most to get through at a time, so some start to slow down, others pull ahead, and Jim and I are in a pretty straight line to go straight through the middle of this cave, when all of a sudden one of the boats ahead of us gets caught in the current and goes sideways, now there are about 3 kayaks trying to avoid this one, including us, which are now playing bumper-kayak in the cave, and some of us are getting pushed back out by the current while the next wave of kayaks is starting to try and get through, and then another kayak is sideways. At this point- I start laughing uncontrollably- it's one of the funniest things I've seen- made worse by the fact that I'm in it, and there's hardly anything anyone can do about it. People are trying to figure out a way around the current, trying not to run in to each other, and, trying not to waste paddle energy at the same time. It took us 3 or 4 tries to get a clear path in front of us and to get through finally. And we were some of the more consistent paddlers- those with no experience were having a much harder time. So while it was tough, this was so entertaining. Once on the island we had a BBQ dinner- this trip involved more food than I could ever consume. Each meal was like 7 courses, except breakfast, and all of it was good.

The next day we went to Lan Ha bay by boat and hiked inland til we got to a village there which we had lunch at. We were set to hike up to a peak for a view out over the bay and Cat Ba park, but it had been raining and was very muddy and slippery, and it was overcast so we weren't expecting to be able to see much, so we decided to skip the hike and head back to the island for an afternoon of relaxing on the beach. This sort of turned in to an afternoon of reading in the cabin since it was raining pretty hard but that was good too.

The last day we went to Cat Ba and saw a little of the town, and then took a minibus up to Hospital Cave and took a tour through that- this cave was used as a makeshift hospital during the wars and was never discovered by outside parties. We then picked up Mountain Bikes and biked about 12 kilometers up and down some steep hills til we got to the place we had lunch at. Another boat ride and then a bus back to Hanoi.


We flew from Hue to Hanoi, which is the main city to book trips to Halong Bay and Sapa out of. A couple we met in Cambodia recommended a company called Ocean Tours that we booked both tours with, which for the most part was a good company- I had one qualm which I'll go over in my post about Sapa.

Anyways, they also have a hotel called Hanoi Star Hotel which we stayed at because we got a promotion with them when booking our package, and this hotel was good to stay at- no matter where you book- make sure you stay in the Old Quarter- this was recommended by a few people, and it's a neat area to stay in. Very busy streets all the time, and it changes at night with people cooking on all street corners and it's busy very late. It's central to most things- shopping, bookstores, the water puppet show. There's a lake nearby as well, which is a nice walk around in the evening. There are women doing group jazzercise around the lake which is pretty funny to see in the evening.

Beware that there are several scams going on in Vietnam, in particular revolving around Taxis. We used a company called Hanoi Taxi for the most part and they were fine- it's one of the recommended and also the one that places will call for you when you need one. Many taxis have rigged meters that will jump up in fare too fast, so be aware. Also, while in Halong, we heard of someone getting mugged by a driver of a taxi from the airport to Haiphong. The odd part of this is that he had booked a driver to take him from the airport to Haiphong, and when he was in the taxi the driver told him he would not accept US dollars and that he would have to go to an ATM to pull out Dong. So they stopped at an ATM, the guy was punching in info and before he knew it the driver had punched in the max amount (4 million dong- which is only about $240) and grabbed the money. He said he'd hold on to it for the guy. Since his bags were in the taxi, he wasn't sure what to do and so got back in (this was probably not the smartest move either) but the wierd part is that the driver still took him all the way to his location to be dropped off as if this was normal. The guy fought with him the whole way telling him to give the money back, and apparently got in a scuffle once they reached the destination and was able to grab about half the money back (again- not so smart). So strange, but that's what happened.

Also, while you are in Vietnam- try to coffee. It's so good. I don't drink normal coffee because it's too acidic or something and I don't like it- but I can see why people get addicted to Vietnamese coffee. (Thanks for the recommendation Kate- I'll be coming off this addiction for weeks- oh wait- I bought some to mail home!!) The flavor is smooth and very nice with some milk and sugar. Jim's not allowed to have it much since he pings off the walls if he does. And I have a hard time shooting a moving target. :)

You can purchase bamboo dishes here very cheap- I bought some rice bowl sets that are pretty cool looking. There are also tons of other things- Chaco's and North Face Bags are everywhere and cheap- neither of which I need- but if you're looking for that- here is good.

We went to the Museum of Ethnology which was interesting- a lot of information about the hill tribes of Vietnam. There are several- so be warned that it starts to blur together after a while. There was an interesting exhibit funded by the Catholic Church about the introduction and presence of Catholicism in Vietnam- it's funny how much of a huge thing that the exhibit made out of Christmas in the commercialized sense- it seemed more like an Ad campaign for the Catholics than an informational exhibit.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

That's why it's called a "guide" not a "detailed, accurate, up-to-date description"

A brief note about the travel guide we are using- it's a Lonely Planet guide from 2007 for the Greater Mekong area- Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and parts of China. This book is not old- but it's got a lot of misinformation and a lot has changed since this was published. More than half the restaruants we went looking for in our time in Vietnam no longer exist, some of the accomodation is not up to par with the standard Lonely Planet recommendations, and the prices are grossly inaccurate- double and triple it all to get a more current price. I wouldn't blame Lonely Planet, it seems that Vietnam is particularly fickle and changes businesses like clothing, so it would be hard to keep up with anything here. Just realize that when you buy a guide for these areas, it's more of an outline rather than a detailed guide. Use to check out places to stay. And I recommend calling ahead to businesses to see if they are still there before walking all the way to them.
Let's just say it's a good thing I've got comfortable walking shoes and that it wasn't too hot...

Friday, April 3, 2009


We had a couple days in Hue to wander around the city. We spent one afternoon going to the Imperial Enclosure and the Forbidden Purple City and wandering around the complex- most of the buildings were destroyed over the years, so there's really not a whole lot to see. Jim spent the afternoon trying to decide how many concubines he wants to have when he becomes king of some unknown land (more like planet in all likelihood.) :)

Then we went looking for the Citadel- which we found according to the map and what we were told- but it turns out that this is really just an area from what we can tell and was turned in to a university at some point. So there's not really anything to see from what we could find. So we walked a lot and then had dinner at a restaraunt that had traditional music playing while we ate- the food was okay and the music was entertaining.

We stayed at a place called New Time Hotel and it was fantastic (probably made all the better by the less than okay places we have just stayed at while in Vietnam.) Mr. Duy who manages the hotel was very helpful, picked us up from the bus, made any arrangements that we needed. The room was big and clean and they even had fresh mangoes waiting in the room for us. :) And as I mentioned before- an elevator which was a plus. :)

We also took a day tour the next day and went to see some of the tombs of past kings, as well as a boat ride down the Perfume River- and we didn't know this- but the tour also went back to the Imperial Palace- so I'd recommend skipping this on your own and doing it with the tour. The tombs were pretty- the grounds are quite extensive. It's been raining a lot while we've been in Vietnam- but I don't mind- it keeps the temperature cool. But that's why most of our pictures look a little soggy...

A short note- I had a massage while in Hue, and it was at a hotel a few doors down from our hotel. I'm not sure if it's like this all over Vietnam, and the massage was fine itself- but it was an odd experience. There is not much covering while you are on the table like most people are used to, so I would say this is probably not the place to get a massage. And the woman I had talked so much- which for those of you who know me- I pretty much prefer to just go to sleep during my massage while I have the knots beat out of me. And the language barrier made it very difficult- she was either telling me she loves me or she's looking for a boyfriend that loves her since the last one I think beat her- I'm not sure- it gave me a headache. At least my calves felt better afterwards I guess.

My Nemesis

I am so tired of stairs.

I must have climbed more than 500 stairs alone at the Marble Mountains and my legs hurt today. But this is not the only place with stairs- they're everywhere! We arrived in Hue and I was SO excited to see an elevator in our hotel- it's the first one we've had on our trip!! And we've been anywhere from the first to the 5th floor so far.

If you plan to travel in Asia, be prepared to climb a LOT of stairs. It's at least the equivalent of an hour on a stairstepper machine each day. I should have calves of steel by now.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Well, first thing, when you arrive at the airport, it's a somewhat more difficult task to get a taxi in to town than you'd think. That's because this is the main airport for all those wanting to go to Hoi An, which is south of Danang, and thus taxi drivers will earn a higher fare for taking you there. So we had to negotiate a taxi into town at more than we should have payed, but at some points you don't feel like bargaining anymore. I tend to justify these moments with "Well, we would have payed this much more if we were in the States." Oh well.

So upon arrival at the hotel, the gal at the desk was very helpful, however we had already payed for a night online, and she didn't seem to understand what I was talking about, which eventually resulted in me finding a printer and internet to get the voucher email to show her. Our room was smaller here than anywhere we've stayed- and upon a closer inspection- not so clean either. I wrote the online agency and let them know that the expectations were not met, as well as I'll be notifying Lonely Planet as to the inaccuracies in their description. So when you are booking hotels in Vietnam- go with mid-range places and look them up on Trip Advisor. Oh yeah- the name of the hotel was Binh Duong.

(a follow up to when I started writing this- the booking agency has pulled the hotel from their site and will not use them anymore.)

Anyways, so we chose to go to Danang so that we could make our way out to the Marble Mountains to see this area. This was an interesting place to visit. We took a taxi to the mountains- it's about 12 kilometers from the city. There are 5 peaks that are clustered together, which used to be islands, when this area was surrounded in water. There are carvings of Buddha images done inside several caves throughout the area that are carved right out of the rock that is in the caves. They're quite impressive.

There are also several dozen marble carving shops along the way to the entrance to the site- each one claiming that their old grandfather is the one who carves each of the items in the shop. I don't know how much truth is behind this, but if you're looking to pic up a small marble buddha, or you know- that gigantic front yard lion guard you've always wanted to haul around with you- then this might be to your liking for a look.
When the taxi drops you off, you will be met by one of the women from these shops who will be very helpful, giving you a map and everything, but she'll want you to visit her shop afterwards- and low and behold- she was waiting with her sister on motorbikes at the exit to meet us. We turned down the motorbikes, and said we prefered to walk, which was a mistake as well since we were looking for a taxi and someone pointed us down the street- which we later realized was a ploy to get us to walk down the main shopping road. Oh well, so we end up at the shop that the helpful woman is at, we tell her we need to get a taxi, she says- my sister will call one for you, come inside while you wait- we say that's very nice and thank you but we are not going to buy anything- she says it's okay- just come look- we tell her again okay, but not buying anything. We get in the shop, and the showcase of items begins, everything you can imagine carved from marble, and my only thought it- I am not carrying anything that heavy for the next 2 weeks. So after many "No thank you's" and "Sorry" the taxi does show up, and we pile in and get the heck out of there.

We also went to the Cham Sculpture Museum which is the largest collection of it's kind anywhere.

We spent 2 days in Danang, you could do both the items we saw in one. We took a bus to Hue from here.