Saturday, September 29, 2012

Sa bai dee!**

**Hello in Lao!

[Before I begin, I'd like to clarify something I wrote in the previous post... the campsite where we ate included the puppy, lunch did not. I still have not [knowingly] eaten dog.]

I have successfully crossed into Laos! My trip from Sa Pa, Vietnam to Odoumxay, Laos went something like this:

7:00 pm - 3:30am: on the road to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam in a mini-bus with a sleeping Vietnamese man on my shoulder and Vietnam's Greatest Hits playing on repeat at ear-bleeding volume

3:30am - 5:30am: at the bus stop, people watching until the ticket booth opened

5:30am - 7:00am: Got my ticket for the 5:30am bus to Muong Khua, Laos which promptly left at 7. 

7:00am - 8:30am: Attempted sleep on the benches in the bus (which should have been retired 20 years ago), but an impromptu karaoke session kept me awake and amused

8:30am: Reached the Vietnam border. Handed my passport to the bored guard playing Galaga (and whose finger never stopped clicking the mouse, even when checking my papers). Over to Laos, an out-door border crossing, where I got an H1N1 test (a gun shaped thermometer pointed at my head and which cost me 3,000 kip), a visa, and some iced coffee. 

9:30am - 4:00 pm: bouncin and bustlin through the mountain roads, watching dubbed versions of American movies (new American movies, I presume. The movies were all dubbed, so I couldn't follow along, but I watched one with James Franco and some chimps that was really really weird). 

4:00pm: Tired, in pain from sprinting down a mountain and then sitting for a million hours, checked into a hotel where I promptly passed out in front of the fan. 

THEN I WOKE UP AND GOT ON A BUS FOR ANOTHER 8 HOURS. And you know what? I kind of enjoyed it. Call me what you will (INSANE), but I have learned to love the bus ride. In fact, the more crowded with people who don't speak my language, the more I seem to like it. I like being with the people, travelling the way they all travel, hearing the roosters calling from the top of the bus, resting my legs on one of the 25 flour bags filled with fruit. I've found I have less to complain about on these rides simply because no one else is complaining. On an air plane I feel entitled. This seat doesn't recline, give me a new one. I'm sorry, this ice cube is not regulation size, take this drink back! But cramped in a bus, with my knees to my chin, my head halfway out the window, I sit there peacefully and think it could be worse. I could be that guy in aisle straddling the chicken between his legs. And if he's not complaining, why should I? Also, as I keep finding myself to be the only foreigner on theses buses, people tend to give me snacks and drinks and often make me hold their babies, much to the babies' horror. So, despite the other options of travel available to me, I will probably continue to subject myself to the craziness that is bus travelling BECAUSE I LIKE IT OK?

Well, after those 8 hours, I arrived in Luang Prabang, a charming town with more temples than houses sitting at the convergence of the Mekong and ... some other river. And it came with 3 of my fellow RPCVs from Mongolia! For some strange reason, I didn't feel inclined to photodocument any of this, but I swear it happened. We hung out, got drunk, went swimming, drank some more, karaoked (as peace corps volunteers are apt to do), and then got our shit together and went on a TREK. 

I hate the work trek. Especially travellers who are "trekking" through Southeast Asia. Shut up, you're just carrying a big backpack onto many different forms of transportation. 

He he, sorry. Most travelers are awesome awesome people, but some you just want to sock in the face. 

The Trek! It was 2 days, we hiked around the mountains the first day, stopping in H'mong or Zau villages, where I wanted to take many pictures of too cute children, but the other folks we were with were snap snap snapping away right in these poor children's faces, so I backed off. Please read this. 

[that blog is written by one of the RPCVs with me in Luang Prabang. She's delightfully sassy and really effin funny.]
I did get a picture! Here is Ryan with his parasol hiking through a rice field. 
The only picture I took in the village. 
Some more trekkin
So we arrived in one of the villages in the early evening, where we put our bags down, cleaned up a bit, and attempted to entertain little H'mong children while we waited for dinner. We failed, by the way. The kids had a indiscernible hopscotch-esque game, which they would not tear themselves away from. I say indiscernable because from what we could tell, the biggest girl, the one with the stick, seemed to change the rules with each passing turn. She'll make a great leader someday. 

At dinner, we hung with out guide, BK (he loves shortening words to JUST their first letter. For example: How was your B? [meaning breakfast] or Today we will W, E and K [meaning waterfall, elephant ride, and kayak]) who shared many a different story. To give you an idea of how different, one story included his life as a monk and the next included a story of a boy in a tree pooping on the head of a dog. Then we drank some Lao Lao (homemade alcohol) and slept soundly in our little bungalows. 

Then next day we prepped for some W, E and K. 

K was by far the most exciting, as the river was wicked fast and full of raging rapids. Both BK and our other guide were flipped by the waves, but our boat remained afloat (huzzah! I was fearful for my camera... )

After all that fun, the 4 of us from Mongolia met up for drinks and dinner and in the morn, we all parted ways.

And that was my time in Luang Prabang! Swimming pools, elephants, and good friends, oh my!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fancy Pants

Greetings from the top of Indochina!

Last you heard from me, I was in Hanoi, waiting to board YET ANOTHER overnight bus to go to Sa Pa, Vietnam. 

[A small digression on overnight anythings in Vietnam... As a cheapass traveller, overnight transportation is about as good as it gets because a. you don't waste any precious days on your already too short visa and b. it acts as transportation and accommodation all in one and don't have to spend more money on a hotel. BUT, and that's a pretty big BUT, it sucks. A lot. The first overnight bus I took, I paid 25 extra cents for a toilet (who wouldn't?) which ended up as luggage overflow and was then locked for the entirety of the trip. When I climbed into my snug little bed, I learned that it was just that... snug. And little. About a foot too little.  As I drifted into a semi-sleep like state, I started to smell something horrible only to discover that something... and I still don't know what... was dripping all over my blanket and it smelled heinous. When I told the driver, he just shouted at me in Vietnamese, threw a pillow at me, and pointed at the aisle. Guess where I slept that night. 

The SECOND overnight, I thought... ah hell no, I'm not doing the bus again. So I opted for the slightly more expensive train. However, the lady behind the counter refused to sell me the sleeper bed on the train and I was forced to sit in a "reclining" chair. For a while, it was fine, apart from the two countryside men across from me that were drinking a questionable brown liquid from a Fanta bottle. Then around maybe 3 in the morning, we hit a bump or something, the train lurched and the air con vent snapped open, dumping me in air conditioner fluid. Not a drip or two, but a lovely waterfall came crashing onto my head. On the bright side, it happened to NO ONE else and everyone on the train who was awake had a good laugh at my expense. 

The THIRD overnight was inevitable, as I was racing to get to Laos so I didn't overstay my visa in Vietnam and everything about it was wonderful. The vents were on the side, the beds were long enough, and no one was snoring. I was finally relieved to be on a bus that wasn't going to suck when I noticed the empty bed next to me was crawling with cockroaches. 

And now. I'm in Laos. Trying to get to Huayxai. And I have just been informed the ONLY bus that goes there is overnight. Sigh...]

But anyway, SA PA! 

Sa Pa is in Northern Vietnam and it's home to a bunch of lovely hill tribes and gorgeous step rice fields that if you are interested in seeing, I suggest you google it. Because the entire time I was there, it rained. I couldn't see anything because the whole town was in a cloud. 

But I booked a trip up Fanzipan, the tallest point in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, hoping it'd clear up. 

It didn't. 

The day with the best visibility. 

Oh, that dude is Alex. I met him in Sa Pa and he accompanied me on our hike up Fanzipan. Oh, and also, it sounds like Fancy Pants, hence, the title of this post.

Alex and I attempted to do things around Sa Pa, but the rain and subsequent mud foiled all our plans and we just played pool all day.

The climb up Sa Pa is a 2-3 day trek and even now as I write, I do not know what this mountain looks like. I was told you could see it from Sa Pa, but only on clear days. Even as we were climbing it, the peak was always in clouds and we didn't see it until we were ON it.

So, we hiked, ate lunch around 2200 m at camp, which included this delightful pup:

the camp

Then continued up to 2800 for some dinner and sleep. It was a pretty challenging climb. There were very few gradual inclines, instead we go up 200 meters, down 75, up another 200, and so on and so forth.

The porters had no problem at all though.

Stupid fat American hurry your ass up!
 About halfway up, the clouds broke for a glorious second!

 And then, the summit!

Amazing view from the top
After all was said and done, we had to wait for the other members of our group to reach the summit before going back down. We waited. And waited. And waited. I had a bus to catch at 7 pm and I was guaranteed back at 4. As 3 o clock came and went, I decided to go back down with the porters. However hard the ascent was, descending with the porters was 1242353256309x harder. It took us 2 days to climb the damn thing and I raced down it in 3 hours. I arrived in Sa Pa a half hour before my bus and I was a sweaty smelly person. LUCKILY most bathrooms have a shower in them (even public ones!) and I managed to scrub 2 days of jungle off me. You are very welcome dude next to me on that bus.

Anyhow, like I said, I'm overnighting to Huayxai, Laos next and I hope to update y'all on my time here in Luang Prabang soon!

Till then, Yay White Sox!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Sorry for being so Hanoi-ing last night"

- awesome punny drunk guy in my dorm 

Hanoi! It's where I'm at RIGHT NOW, which means for the first time since my trip started I'm not 2 weeks behind on posting. 

So Hanoi is pretty nice and chaotic... like a smaller Ho Chi Minh City. There are lots of lakes around, which I explored via bicycle. I even saw a water puppet show that was pretty entertaining (the art was created when the rice fields would flood. They made really elaborate puppets that float in the water and the scenes often depict daily life). There are also tons of war remnants - downed B52s, missiles, grenades, etc and this also happens to be the place of Ho Chi Minh's final resting. 

[sidenote: all my links generally take you to wikipedia because a. it's the first thing that pops up when I google things b. I like wikipedia and c. I'm too lazy and technologically out of date to doing some real good internet surfing so deal with it]

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. Uncle Ho wished to be cremated, but those less concerned with such matters erected this elaborate mausoleum to use him for propaganda purposes. Oh, also he isn't there right now. He's vacationing up in Russia, as he does every year at this time, for reasons that could not be articulated to me.  
Ho Chi Minh Museum
 Next to the mausoleum is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which is the weirdest museum I've ever been to. The bottom floor has pictures and whatnot of Uncle Ho and an exhibit on Lao-Vietnam relations and looks the way you'd expect a historical museum to look. The top floor, where a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh greets you, is something else entirely. It would appear (few labels were in English, so I must guess here) that whoever designed the exhibit was had in interest more in modern art than in Ho Chi Minh. Included were informational tidbits presented like this:

Or this:

An explanation (if you can call it that) was next to this:

Weird, right? Overall, I learned virtually nothing of Ho Chi Minh's life or importance, but left rather stunned and confused. It was interesting, to say the least. There were also a few other fun surprises I found in the museum, too:

ahaha shat down. Yay maturity. 

I know this man well! This is Sukhbaatar, the famous Mongolian Hero who my province was named after.  This pin was a gift to Ho Chi Minh from the country of Mongolia. 
Anyway, to continue on my walking tour, I went over to a small lake in the middle of seemingly nowhere, where a B52 was shot down and nearby to a museum that was not quite constructed yet that will house EVEN MORE war remnants. What a mess we made.
B52 (or part of it at least)
Wreckage soon to be on display at the new museum
 After all that, I dipped off for a little cruise to take a vacation from travelling. I tell you, travelling is exhausting. I haven't stayed in any one place for longer than 4 days and I felt like I deserved a little relaxin. The 3 hour tour (just kidding, it was three days), took me to Ha Long Bay, a geological wonder in northeast Vietnam. The bay is made up of thousands of  "islands" of limestone, which most actually are less like islands and more like the peaks of mountains. Besides the stunning mountain range in the middle of the ocean, there are caves, national parks, and sandy beaches, to boot.

Day 1 included amazing food, a trip to the largest cave, some kayaking, and some socializing on the boat.

View from my room on the boat. Not too shabby. 

The boat, herself! There were 10 others on the boat from a variety of places: Holland, Spain, England, and Vietnam
The cave was a little goofy in that they had decorative lights everywhere, but it made for some pretty cool pictures. 

On our second day, we went to Cat Ba National Park, where there were some trekking options available. Most people said no, because it looked like rain, but me and a few other youngins, who haven't accepted our own mortality yet, thought they were wusses and went up anyhow. 

Oh dear god. 

The trail quickly disintegrated and became, more or less, straight rock climbing. No one could go in without a guide and our guide truly believed he was a monkey. As we teetered perilously on what he assured us was the trail, he grabbed vines and swung in front of us or, worse, jumped from rock to unstable rock in order to help us climb through the jungle. 

Very soon, it started to rain. Very soon after that, it started to pour. Very soon after that, we were drenched to bone and lost virtually all visibility. But did we turn around and go back? Oh heck no. Monkey Man wouldn't allow it. After 30 minutes of scaling slick wet boulders, we arrived at the top - which was glorious, as you can imagine. 

That weird hump on my side is my camera, which I was protecting with my life. 
 Remarkably, we survived the descent and upon waving goodbye and thanking our guide, he turned and disappeared into the Jungle.

Back on the boat, we cruised in and out of bays before docking at an AWESOME private island, complete with bungalows, buffets, kayaks, sunsets, and vicious monkeys.

Forgive me, but almost all the islands in the distance reminded me of the Ocean Temple in Majora's Mask. 
Ha! Look at that!
Pure Evil. 
Top of the Boat
In case you were interested in taking such lovely trip (which it was lovely), 3 days and 2 nights, with everything included but the beer, cost me $105. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Good Morning Vietnam!*

*that should exhaust my pop culture references to Vietnam.... 

After spending a few days in the cool misty mountains, I came down Nha Trang, Hoi An, and Da Nang, where all intentions of sight-seeing were immediately foiled by this:  

In each of these cities, I walked around a bit at night and got to know the town, but the overwhelming majority of my time was spent being a beach bum. A very happy beach bum. 

 In Da Nang, I got the tip off that there was a resort in town that was looking for Westerners to swim in their pool.


Since I had the necessary qualifications, I sought out the resort with great eagerness and, alas, the rumor was true. As a new resort, they were having trouble appealing to the foreign crowd, so they happily invited foreigners in to show the rest of the world that this was, indeed, an international resort.

Infinity pool!
Hoi An by night
So, after completing an entire novel in 3 days, I decided I had spent too much time on the beach and headed North to Hue, which is just about smack dab in the middle of Vietnam. Hue offered quite a bit to see and do, including the old Imperial City and some pretty tranquil tombs. 

Incense drying in the sun

There was a museum in the Ciatdel that contained old war machines. If you can read it, the small white label in the upper right says "Rocket Launcher"
 And here's a preview of Hanoi:

Water Puppet Show!
Until next time!