Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vang Vieng, Laos.

On the 21 hour bus ride from Hanoi, Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos, Judy and I met two girls from the UK. The four of us became quick friends and decided to travel to Vang Vieng and later to Luang Prabang together. So on the final morning of our brief stay in Vientiane we made our way to the bus station and boarded a beater local bus. We were the only foriegners on the bus as most tourists pay a high price for a mini van to drive them up North. The local bus had tons of character and I am glad we decided on this mode of transport. There was one passenger who very obviously was staring at us for the entire 4 hour ride. He seemed curious about Judy, trying to figure her out because she looks Asian but sounds North American. I gave him a smile but he just briefly averted his eyes and then went back to staring. Eventually I managed to get a head nodd out of him, but not even a hint of a smile crossed his lips. Our bags were thrown on the roof, along with live chickens, gasoline tanks and various bulk grocery items. The bus managed the whole trip without breaking down, which is remarkable! It seems most bus drivers double as mechanics in Laos because the busses regularly have issues during trips.
Vang Vieng is nestled in a stunning mountainous region along the Nam Son river. It is a small town that is host to a huge influx of tourists during the dry season. Tourists strut around town in binkinis and swim shorts , drinking beer and smoking. They clearly did not read the section in their Lonely Planet travel guide that addressed Laotian cultures discomfort with public nudity. Or perhaps they just don't care enough to respect the local culture of the country they are visiting. There are even signs around town in shops and on menus telling tourists what is appropriate and what isn't appropriate attire.
Vang Vieng is famous for its river tubing adventures so the four of us rented some tubes and gave it a go. A tuk tuk drove us out of town where we launched our tubes on the river. The riverbank was full of half naked foreigners taking shots of whiskey out of super soaker water guns and handing out tickets for free whiskey buckets to be consumed at that evenings party. Bars, slides and swings line the river bank for several kilometers. The bars all play music at full volume creating obnoxious mash ups. Surely this isn't what we paid $8 for, is it? Luckily we floated through the party zone and found ourselves virtually alone meandering down the slow moving river. Most of the tubers were too intoxicated to enjoy the entire ride and got out where the bars ended.
It seems many transient westerners find themselves in Vang Vieng long term, working at the river bars where they heavily promote buckets. Buckets are served for free until 9 pm and then they are sold for $1.50. The party goes all night until the sun forces the redbull and whiskey saturated patrons to crawl back to their rented beds to sleep off their hangovers. As you might expect, the local youth were not in attendance.
We rented a four bed dorm for one night. It smelled of vomit and no amount of air freshener could tackle the stench. The toilet oozed water out of every crack when it was flushed. Soap was not provided. I suspect the bedding had not been washed since the previous tenants had slept there. It was the most unpleasant place I've stayed in so far on this trip.
Vang Vieng could be compared to a never ending sorority party and I wanted to get away from it, and quickly. We bought bus tickets to Luang Prabang for the VIP bus leaving in the evening. Laos gauges tourists for absolutely everything and we dished out $20 a peice for the 8 hour ride.
The best part of my Vang Vieng experience was when we went for a walk along the river. The water is cooling on hot skin. The surrounding mountains are stunning. Women and young girls were busy fishing and doing the washing along the river banks. I observed some girls looking under rocks and catching tiny fish with their hands, which were then placed in a basket. I tried to mimick them but my fishing skills are not honed like theirs are. Not only did I not catch any fish, but I didn't even see any fish. One girl thought I was funny and flashed me a big smile. I offered her a beaded necklace that I got in India. After taking a close look at it she stuck it deep in her pocket. I waved goodbye and listened to them singing collectively as I walked away.

Vientiane, Laos.

Vientiane could likely take the crown for being the quietest capital city in the world. Most restaurants close their doors by 10 pm with a few bars staying open a bit later. Despite its slow pace and general tranquility, the city is teeming with prostitutes who pound the pavement wearing too tight and too short mini dresses and stilettos. Although prostitution is prevalent all over Asia, just as it is prevelent globally, it is much more obvious in Vientiane compared to other Asian countries I have visited. In Vientiane, the men and women working the streets wear clothing and makeup that is over-sexed and exagerated. I saw both local and foreign men paying for sexual services, however, they conducted themselves differently while in public. The local men had the prostitutes walk a few paces behind them after requesting services. The foreigners walk beside the prostitutes, often touching them suggestively or holding their hands as though it was a romantic union. Police officers are an obvious presence but turn a blind eye to many illegal activities including prostitution and drug trafficking.
I found the Loatian people in Vientiane to be very uninterested in foriegners. They want the money that tourism brings but beyond that they largely ignored me. I did not feel welcome to take photographs of people here. And unlike many other tourists I will not shove a camera in an unwilling subjects face.
The riverside is under excavation as it is being prepared for massive amounts of construction. I imagine the river will be lined with expensive resort hotels in the next couple of years. This seems in line with the high costs I have encountered in Vientiane but I hope it does not create more harm than good for the local people by interupting their use of the land and its resources. Laos is by far the most expensive Asian country I have been too, which is surprising considering it is also one of the poorest. I expect tourist pricing is in effect. I feel it is fair for tourists to pay higher prices than locals but the level of inflation here makes it difficult for a backpacker on a small budget to get by.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. Approximately 30% of the bombs remain dormant and hidden. There are daily occurences of these bombs being disturbed and exploding across the country causing injury and death. This keeps Laotian people in poverty because they cannot use much of their land for agriculture or developement. I visited a museum run by an organization called MAG who removes and deactivates these bombs. They have been in operation for 16 years and there is still so much work to be done. This is a reputable organization who does invaluable work to improve the livelihood and safety of Loation people. To learn more or to make a donation please visit Every dollar counts!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Capital City. Hanoi, Vietnam.

Hanoi is a big, busy city. Walking through the streets provides constant stimulation for the senses. Although the traffic can be overwhelming I figured if a crooked elderly woman and an elderly blind couple could navigate through it then so could I. I managed okay but did just barely manage to escape from being sandwhiched between a big bus and a motorbike at a busy intersection.
The night life is fun as the city has many options for entertainment ranging from dancing, live jazz music to beer corners. Beer corners are everywhere in the old quarter. Locals and toruists alike sit on child size plastic chairs on the streets and drink Hanoi's own draft beer. At six beers for an $1 it is a cheap and social way to spend an evening.
I would have loved to have stayed longer in Hanoi to explore the surrounding areas such as Sapa and Halong Bay but our visa's were expiring after a spending a full month in Vietnam. And so we boarded yet another bus and heading to Laos.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hue, Vietnam.

Judy and I have been in Hue for the past few days. It's been raining most of the time but it isn't cold. Lovely town. It's quiet here, which is a nice respite from the noise pollution that exists in most of Asia.

No explosives. Hue, Vietnam.

I wish I'd known this before packing all those explosives in my day bag!

Friday, January 22, 2010

New Hair. Hue, Vietnam.

I had my hair dyed back to my natural colour when I was in Nha Trang at the beginning of January. However, two weeks later it turned orange. Ewwwww so gross, right? Anyways, I went to have it fixed while in Hue. I went to a nice salon and chose a colour. The stylist went to work saturating my hair with colour. Shampoo, rinse and blow dry.... et voila! Oh no spoke too soon.... my hair was blue. I looked and felt like a troll doll. The stylist barely blinked an eye before remixing colour and re-saturating my hair. Okay, so maybe she was just stripping the old colour before adding the new colour? Shampoo, rinse and blow dry... and GREEN HAIR? Now I was really worried. The stylist looked at me and asked "you like colour?". "umm no, it's green" I said. She mixed some more colour while I contemplated shaving my head and investing in a wig. Shampoo, rinse and blow dry... et voila! Dark brown locks with no trace of orange, blue or green. Sigh of relief. My hair is, of course, fried. And two days later the colour has lightened. I expect it will be blonde within a month. Colour never seems to take to my hair properly.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Everything is coming up fishsauce. Hoi An, Vietnam.

The busses that bring people from one town to the next double as cargo transport. My bag must have been placed beside a leaky box of fishsauce under the bus while in transit to Hoi An. How else can I explain the strong odour eminating from my bag and seeping through to my clothing? Oh well, it beats having someone vomit on my bag, which is what happened to Judy last week.
Hoi An is a small town that is full of colour. It remained mostly intack during the Vietnam War so the buildings are ancient. It is nestled along the river and is quite charming, despite the obvious desperation of many people living in extreme poverty.
Hoi An is widely known as Asia's tailor capital. There are more tayloring shops here that there are restaurants or hotels. The level of skill to copycat clothing designs is incredible. You can show an image cut out from a magazine and the next day be wearing a custom taylored imitation.
We stayed in one of the oldest hotels in Hoi An, and it showed. Dust clung to broken light fixtures, the paint was faded and the toilet struggled to flush. However, the linen was clean and the location was prime. I certainly did not feel any need to complain when I saw that people sleep in the open market after closing time, with the rats. The rats do very well for themselves here.

Disneyland! Dalat, Vietnam.

We spent a few days in Dalat. It was very very cold, which I found surprising. We went from shorts and flip flops to pants and layered sweaters. The first night I curled up in fetal position and shivered. The second night I requested an extra blanket.
Dalat is a small town with plenty of kitsch, although they prfer the term romance. Much of the town is modeled after Paris because of the french colonial history here. The radio tower is fashioned after the eiffel tower and lights up the city center after dark. There is a man made lake where tourists can rent swan paddle boats. They even have horse drawn carriages, although they are prohibited on the busier main roads. One tourist destination is the 'Crazy House' that is described as an example of unique architecture. In reality it is more of a funhouse that gave me flashbacks of toonetown in Disneyland. You know, where Mickey Mouse lives.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dunes day. Mui Ne, Vietnam.

We are passing through the small highway beach town known as Mui Ne. It is also home to famous sandunes. So at 5 am this morning we headed out in a jeep to see these marvels at sunrise and they didn't dissapoint!
Two young girls, who proudly told us they study english on Saturdays, showed us their sand sled. They are, of course, there to rent the sand sleds to tourists. We weren't interested in sand sledding but the two girls still spent some time chattering away with us. They grabbed our hands and we all ran across the dunes enjoying the morning. After, we bought them fresh coconut juice! They happily sipped their coconut juice and waved to us as we drove away down the highway.