May 7th, 2003
Well, we're in Phnom Pehn, and we've been very lax in our updates over the past month or two. Obviously I've been feeling very guilty about that, so I'm spending my hard earned Riel in a cyber cafe to bring my message to the world. How much is this costing me, you might ask? 2,000R per hour. What's that in "real" money? Well, one US dollar = 4,000R. I'll let you do the math. Internet access is also dirt cheap in Vietnam, but the connections are so slow that it doesn't end up that cheap. I mean, it's great that you can get internet access for about $0.40 an hour, but when you can olny send about 1 email every 20 minutes it doesn't equate to such a great deal. But I digress.
I believe that I have already updated everyone on the end of our travels in Australia, and our week in Bangkok following, so I'll attempt to remember something about what we've been doing for the past month.
Our first trip with Intrepid was from Bangkok to Hanoi via Laos. We went through Chaing Mai, and then Chaing Rai, and crossed the border into Lao by crossing the Mekong River in a small boat. We then went through the border formalities and boarded a larger boat, on which we floated down the Mekong for 2 days to arrive at Luang Prabang. There were a total of 10 of us on the trip, with a nice mix of ages, personalities and countries of origin. We spent the first night in a tiny town called Pak Ben, where we stayed in a really cool guest house with a huge balcony overlooking the Mekong. Had waterbuffalo curry for dinner, which tasted like beef and the curry was sort of like thai, but more mellow and rounded. It was very pleasant to kick back with a Beer Lao on the deck after carrying our bags up from the boat. The boat trip itself was great - very relaxing, and beautiful scenery, and we bought a really nice weaving from a woman in a small village along the way. There was even a hammock at the back of the boat that I utilized for a bit of a snooze on day 2.
We had three days in Luang Prabang, which was nice after spending most of the previous three days travelling. We were left pretty much on our own to explore the town. I really liked the format of the trip - it wasn't really a "tour" per se, it was more like backpacking with prearranged accomodation and transport. For the most part Carol and I did our own thing. The accomodation, I should add, was excellent. I doubt that we would have come up with such nice digs had we simply chosen something at random from the LP. Luang Prabang is the where the Laos people go to celebrate Pi Mai, so the market on the biggest day of the festival was full of people from the countryside, lots of ethnic minorities. They were very interested to see us westerners, moreso than the locals. We wandered the town, the market and the wats. We said hi to many people and they returned our greeting with a big smile. And we had amazing food.
We flew from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, where we spent two days. More wandering and wat looking. The most memorable thing about our time in Laos is the activities surrounding Pi Mai, which is the Laos New Year. We were there smack dab in the middle of it, which was very cool. Pi Mai is a water festival, so, for several days, we couldn't walk the streets without getting soaked with water. Which isn't too much of a problem when every day is mid to high thirties with humidty to boot. You got it worst when you were riding in a songthiaw (basically a truck with two benches running down the back) because then the people along the streets would be hurling entire buckets of water at you (not to mention plastic baggies full of paint (washable) and coloured tapioca pudding (not particularly washable). Just walking down the street it was mosting sprinkling, pouring, and the occasional water pistol. Many people would ask you if it was OK, or even if they didn't ask, if you indicated that you didn't want to get wet they'd leave you alone. Of course, once you were soaked through, there was little need refuse extra watering.
We were also invited to attend a Baasi ceremony, being held in honour of Pi Mai, which was cool and interesting. One of our favourite parts of Pi Mai was going to the Wats and watching the people washing the Buddha statues, which is also part of the water festival. We spent over an hour in one wat in Vientiane, watching people, wishing them a happy new year, and having water sprinkled or gently poured on us. We spoke to them in Lao, and, without exception, received a huge smile in return. They all seemed so pleased and surprised by our greetings, and they really enjoyed sharing their water with us.
Our last night in Laos was spent in a small village called Hin Boun, where we had a "homestay". We all slept in the same room, with members of the family in rooms behind us. It wasn't the best sleep I've ever had, with a very hard floor, crying babies, and a bunch of roosters that must have been blind (why else would they have though it appropriate to crow throughout the entire night?). I didn't even hear the crying kids! We had another Pi Mai experience there - we went down to the river in search of our travel mates. There was a huge party going on, and one of our friends, Kim, was sitting with a bunch of locals and she was soaking wet. Apparently one of the stronger young women had thrown her in the river. We avoided that fate, but we did drink a lot of Beer Lao offered to us in small green cups by many of the locals, and even got up and danced with them for a bit. A group of them wanted us to come back to their town with them to continue the celebration, but we had to decline, not the least reason being that their bus driver was the drunkest of the bunch. The next day we crossed the border into Vietnam.
Our first stop in Vietnam was in Vinh, which is a really unfortunate place to acquire your first impressions of the country. Carol was terrified of having to spend the next two weeks in the country, and I wasn't too keen either, but was keeping an open mind. The town was loud, dirty and ugly, and our hotel had rats in the restaurant and one A/C remote for the entire hotel (if you wanted your A/C adjusted you had to ring down to the front desk, who would send someone up to adjust it). The next day we drove to Ha Noi and, luckily all of our fears were assuaged. We were in Ha Noi for 3 days, and were very sad to leave. It's a beautiful city with lovely old French architecture, tree lined streets and a lake in the middle. The food was also amazing. Our best dish, on the entire trip (since leaving Canada) was had at a restaurant called La Brique. It wasn't even on the gourmet tour, which was to start the next day. It was actually the last night of our Laos trip, and we went out with our soon-to-be-ex travel mates. We had a dish of fish, greens and noodles called Cha Ca. I can't really describe it to you other than to say that it was possibly the best thing I've ever tasted. It was a Frenchified version of a traditional Ha Noi dish, the original of which we were to have two days later, which was good, but nothing in comparison to the French influenced copy.
So, our second Intrepid trip, called the Vietnam Gourmet Traveller started immediately after the first trip ended, in Ha Noi. This trip turned out to be different from the first in many ways. Our group leader, named Long, was born in Vietnam, left in his 20's, moved to Australia for a couple of decades, and is now back in Vietnam leading tour groups. Most Intrepid guides don't speak much of the languages in the countries through which they're travelling, but Long, of course, is fluent in Vietnamese. This meant that he could accomplish just about anything. For example, one person on the trip, who worked at a prawn hatchery in Australia, wanted to visit a prawn hatchery in Vietnam - so Long arranged it. Anytime we needed anything, from yoghurt to a cigar, Long just spoke to someone, someone else took off on a motorbike, and a few minutes later we were presented with whatever it was that we requested. As you can probably tell, this trip wasn't much like backpacking. The accomodations were also much more luxurious, with swimming pools in two of the hotels, we flew 3 times (to avoid wasting time and comfort on long bus rides), and there were a lot more included activites (like a cyclo tour in every single city). The main downside to this was that there was much less free time - less time to explore on our own, but we do feel that we got to see a lot more of Vietnam than one would normally be able to see in two weeks.
And, of course, there was the food. Almost every dinner was included, and each one ended up as a banquet with Long ordering all of the local specialties and specialties of the house. Our first meal, at Indochine in Ha Noi, was one of the best on the trip, our second, which we had after attending the water puppet theatre (which was truly amazing), was the original, authentic Cha Ca. It wasn't as good as the French copy (as I believe I've already mentioned), but it was in a very authentic restaurant. It's the only item on the menu, they've been serving it for over 100 years, and even the street that the restaurant is on has been renamed to Cha Ca street. The next day we flew to Hue, which was the captial of Vietnam under the last few dynasties. We visited the citadel, which encompasses the Imperial City, which, in turn, encompasses the Forbidden City. Most of the latter had been destroyed during the many periods of war in Vietnam's past. Our first dinner in Hue was on a boat on the Perfume river. It was the only bad meal we had (the only one chosen by Long, anyway) on the trip. Our second dinner was a royal banquet, where the group dressed up in the garb of the royal family and the mandarins and were treated to a 10 course banquet. We had a cooking demonstration first, where we learned how to make a Phoenix.
After two days in Hue, we drove to Hoi An, where we had three days to relax. This was the one time that there was a reasonable amount of free time, but we seemed to spend a lot of it in tailor shops having dresses, trousers and shirts made, at ridiculously cheap prices. We also spent a bit of time relaxing by the pool. We fed ourselves dinner two of the nights, with the third being another Long banquet. He also fed us lunch the first day, which was Cao Lau - a type of noodles that can only be found in Hoi An, and they were delicious. On the last day we had a cooking course, which was loads of fun, and the results were fantastic - it ended up being one of the top meals of the trip.
We flew from Hoi An to Nha Trang, a beach town, which is kind of like the Myrtle Beach of Vietnam, where we stayed in a hotel with not only a pool, but also a pool table, which we used nightly. One night we went to a Vietnamese BBQ joint, and the next night we tried to find food on our own, but failed miserably and ended up having to eat pizza with Tony and Lucy (our new friends) in our room while watching HBO. During the cyclo tour in Nha Trang, which took us into a smaller village, Carol played soccer with some local kids.
We drove from Nha Trang to Dalat, a hill station, which meant that it was much cooler. We continued an Uno craze that swept through the group a few days previous, while sitting by a roaring fire (quite unneccesary).
We flew from Dalat to Saigon, which we were not particularly fond of, and our trip ended there. We're now on day 4 of our current trip, but I'll leave that for next time.
One of the major differences of Vietnam to Thailand and Laos is that the people in the market and in the street are much more aggressive. There was much more pressure to buy postcards, photocopied books, and at every bus stop or scenic lookout about 15 people were there trying to sell you a drink. They never actually boarded the bus but they did knock on the windows and doors. In Thailand and Laos there was none of that. Even in the market, no one actually pressured you.
Also the traffic in Vietnam was unbelievable. There are very few cars in the country, read in the paper that for the first quarter of the year there were 7300 cars sold (subject to a 200% import tax!) There are still some bicycles around but mostly the motorcylce is king. They ride 2-5 people per bike, 125cc engines. They transport everything by motorcycle, including sheets of glass, corregated iron, metal doors. To cross the street, the pedestrian steps out into a gap in the traffic, and then walks at a steady even pace to the other side. There was no point in looking to see if it was clear, because the drivers fill all available space, lines are superfluous, and traffic lights are ignored. Being on a cyclo put you even closer to the action, Bob had a few trucks flash his life before his eyes a few times.