Vang Vieng: I Watched Too Much Friends

Vang Vieng is a gorgeous mountainous town on a river. It was hot when Finn and I arrived in the afternoon, so we went to enjoy the outdoors right away after finding a $10 room at Milany Villa 2, in the centre of the tourist area. We walked to the river and sat on a platform on the shore below the small, jagged mountains. The geography was similar to northern Vietnam. Colourful hot air balloons were floating high over the rickety, wooden bridges.

Everyone travelling Laos knows Vang Vieng is the place for tubing (floating down the river on tubes). The river used to be lined with bars and filled with drunk tourists all day, but now almost all of the riverside bars have been shut down by the government. They didn’t want Laos to be associated drunkenness and dangerous activities anymore. Every year, drunk people used to die in the river. You can still go tubing, but it’s not as popular without dozens of bars. That may have been why the town didn’t feel very full of people, despite it being peak season. There were huge, empty restaurants everywhere and available rooms in most of the hotels and guesthouses.

IMG_0404.JPG

The day after we arrived it rained for two days. It was too bad, because all I wanted to do was swim, hike, ride bikes and explore the outdoors. A popular rainy day activity in Vang Vieng was watching Friends at one of the many restaurants that play it. They set up their seating theatre-style so people could eat their food and try to figure out what season is playing based on the status of Ross and Rachel’s relationship. Friends isn’t a great show, but we watched it for hours when it was raining.

There was a big party scene in Vang Vieng, so western promoters were everywhere handing out flyers for this or that bar. Some of them weren’t shy about listing off the wide varieties of drugs available at the bar, including opium. Instead of happy hours, most of the bars had free drinks hours. The free drinks hours at different bars were staggered throughout the night so you could go from place to place and get free drinks. Unfortunately, most of the bars played painfully loud, bad pop music from five years ago and I haven’t been drinking much lately, so I didn’t really appreciate it.

Once the rain stopped the weather was beautiful, but I couldn’t enjoy it because I got sick. It was my first time getting ill on this trip and it was horrible. I had a fever and digestion issues on and off for three days. Every day I thought I was better, but by night time I was sick again. For the first time I felt homesick too. I missed being able to make any food I want and having the familiarities of home. All the food in Laos was either fried and sugary or completely tasteless. I wanted tasty, healthy food.

IMG_0769

One day when I was feeling better, Finn and I went on a big hike to a cave an Irish and Hungarian couple. I liked learning about their life in Ireland about how they make their livings creating visual art. The Hungarian is going to Germany to be an artist in resident this year. We hiked for hours and found a cave that was narrow and scary to climb into. We used the flashlight from Finn’s phone to see where we were going, but it was hard to share one light between four people. When we were all inside we turned off the light to see how dark it was after our eyes adjusted and we couldn’t see a thing. The silence was eery.

IMG_0774

Because of the rain and my sickness, we ended up spending way more time in Vang Vieng than we planned. The food was expensive for Southeast Asia and not very good, except the pancakes from street vendors which were cheap and delicious. In the week that we spent there we didn’t do all the nature stuff we planned on doing, but it had been too long, so we moved on to Luang Probang.

Lots of people told me that Luang Probang is beautiful, one of their favourite places in Loas. It’s an UNESCO World Heritage Site because of it’s well-preserved, French-influenced architecture. Finn and I bought tickets to go there on a sleeper bus, but at 9:30pm, right when our bus was supposed to leave, we were told that the sleeper bus was broken down and we would have to take a minibus. This was a big disappointment because I was still feeling sick and Finn was getting sick too, so laying down on the bus would have been great. The minivan was a lot faster than a sleeper bus, so we arrived in Luang Probang at 3:30am.

Nothing was open in sleepy Luang Probang at 3:30am. We fruitlessly wandered the tourist area and tried to find a place to stay, but found nothing. I was so tired and sick and it was a cold night, so it was brutal to not have a place to sleep. We found a small tourist bus without walls parked on the street, so we tried to sleep in it for a while. It was startling when cars drove by us and I was nervous that our bags could get stolen while we slept.

After a while I went to see if any accommodation had opened and left Finn sleeping in the van. I found a backpacker hostel, closed for the night. I went through the gate and tried the door and it happened to be unlocked. It was dark inside, but it seemed to be in some kind of common area of the hostel and there was a platform with two thin mats and pillows on it. It wasn’t that warm or comfortable, but it was far better than the van on the street. I went back to get Finn, and we slept there until morning. The hostel staff were really nice about it and one of them put a thick blanket on us when she came in at about 8:30am.

The hostel was completely full, so we went to try to find somewhere else, but most places were full and too expensive. My initial reaction to Luang Probang was confusion. Why was this place a highly rated tourist destination? It looked like any other small town in Southeast Asia, except it was way more expensive and had fancy hotels. The river was wide and brown, there wasn’t much natural beauty. We sat down in a café and had watery coffee and mushy waffles. It most expensive meals we had eaten in months. I was still a bit ill and I was sick of Laos.

We decided not to stay in Luang Probang and to get on a bus to Chiang Mai, Thailand, that night. It would mean another 24 hour bus ride and there were no sleeper buses, but we were ready to leave Laos.

Advertisements

Cycling & Motorbiking Paksé & Bolaven Plateau

Paksé is the transit hub of southern Laos, so Finn and I went there from 4,000 Islands to rent a motorbike and explore the Bolaven Plateau for a couple days. I read that the area is geographically beautiful and where we could stray slightly from the main tourist track. 4,000 Islands was relaxing, but the developed parts seemed a bit contrived and the food wasn’t great. Every restaurant in 4,000 Islands had the same tourist-oriented menu of bland Lao food and poorly executed western food, neither of which were satisfying. It was fun, but we hoped to find a more authentic experience on motorbikes like we did in northern Vietnam.

It took about 5 hours on the boat and bus to get from 4,000 Islands to Paksé, so Finn and I decided to stay in Paksé for the night at a nice hostel called Sabaiby 2 for $10 before adventuring into the Bolevan Plateau the next morning. At the last minute, I thought it would be a better idea to ride bicycles around the plateau instead of a motorbike. We could use some exercise.
IMG_0511.JPGThe river in Paksé

A town called Tatlo, which I read was a picturesque destination surrounded by waterfalls, would be our first stop, 85km away. The next day we would loop around and ride back to Paksé. 85km is a long way to go on bicycles, but a month earlier we rode 50km in a single day to Marble Mountain in Hoi An with time and energy to spare, so it seemed manageable.

After breakfast the next morning we rented bicycles from a shop for about $4 each per day. The bikes looked sharp with their sleek frames and striking paint jobs, so Finn and I thought they would be well suited for our massive journey. We paid for the bikes, packed 3 litres of water, a kilo of peanuts and some bananas in our bags and took off riding.

It quickly become clear that our bikes were of excessively poor quality. My breaks barely worked, one of Finn’s pedals was wonky, both bikes had trouble shifting gears, and they were slow. We didn’t let that upset us and we had a jolly time riding for the first hour, chatting and laughing all the way along. It was less fun on the parts of the road that were being re-paved, because the cars driving past us on the loose gravel and dirt blew dusty clouds in our faces, obscuring our vision and making it hard to breathe.

There were no clouds or trees to shade us from temperatures in the high 30s. The horizon was flat and there wasn’t much nature to speak of aside from some shabby bushes. The chain kept falling off my bike. We stopped for water a few times when we saw a couple trees together that created a bit of shade. There was a slight but unrelenting incline, and after a couple hours our fun chit chat gave way to silence, except for our grunting and panting on the bigger hills.

We pulled over at a restaurant to get some lunch and a break from the heat, but it turned out to be closed. We looked at the map and figured we had pedalled at most 20km in 2 and a half hours, probably much less. Our bikes were crappy, it was sweltering and the constant uphill was punishing. It would take until nightfall to get to Tatlo at the rate we were going. We decided to cut our losses, ride back to Paksé and do the trip by motorbike the following day.

The ride back to Paksé was a breeze on the way back because it was all downhill. I tried shifting gears to increase the resistance, but the chain fell off and landed on the thin plastic disk between the back wheel and the gears and shattered it. At the same moment my front break fell off the front wheel and dangled from the cables. The bike was truly a piece of crap and our decision to turn back was validated. We stopped off at a local restaurant and had some tasty noodle soup. I loaded mine with peanuts and chilli sauce. That was the best part of the bicycle trip.

Back at the bike rental place, I showed the bike shop owner the damages to their pathetic bike, and she said would charge me the equivalent of $3 for the repairs. I told her there was no way I was paying to repair her bike and that I wanted my money back for the rental. After a short debate, she reluctantly refunded the rental cost of my bike. Exhausted, Finn and I went back to the hostel, where the receptionist was surprised to see us back so soon. He laughed at us when we told him we attempted to cycle to Tatlo.

After the rough ride, it seemed like the perfect time to get a massage. We went up the street to Dragon Massage for full body oil massages, which cost about $10 each. First we had our filthy feet cleaned, then we walked upstairs where there were some mats and pillows on the ground and relaxing music was blasting from tiny speakers. I was given loose fitting clothing to wear for the massage, but Finn was allowed wear his own loose fitting shorts.

We laid down and the massage therapists started rubbing our shins with oil. The music was really loud, so I asked if they could turn it down a little bit. It was awkward because they didn’t understand what I was asking so they turned off the lights. I felt bad for my request at this point because it was confusing them and it wasn’t a huge problem. I pointed at the music and then she turned off the music too.

The massage therapist focused mainly on rubbing my shins and belly, which is different than other massages I’ve had . It was funny that while she massaged my thighs she kept grazing and knocking into my vagina. That’s a surprising feeling while getting a massage. Finn told me after that his massage therapist also grazed him the same way. It cheap massage in Laos. What did I expect?

The next morning we woke up for our second attempt at a tour of the Bolaven Plateau, by motorbike this time. We rented a single semi-automatic bike to share for about $8 per day and hit the road. We passed a couple interesting looking villages and ate noodle soup again at a simple, rustic restaurant. We tried M150, the Lao version of Redbull, which Lao men sip constantly. It was tastier than Redbull, extremely sweet and not carbonated.
IMG_0508-0.JPG

We arrived at a fork in the road, so I got off the bike to ask for directions to Tatlo and it turned out we had already passed it 10km back. That was surprising because we didn’t see a sign or anything that resembled a pleasant place to visit. Rather than go back and find Tatlo we decided to just keep going along the loop and see what else we would find.

The geography was more interesting beyond that point, with some hills, valleys and forests surrounding the road. Friendly villagers waved and yelled ‘hello’ to us as we rode by. We passed a stretch of road with about 10 shacks in a row selling huge knives. There were farm animals and dogs on the sides of the road. We didn’t notice any guesthouses, hotels or any development that looked like it would support visitors. At about 330pm we noticed that we had gotten more than halfway along the loop and if we hurried we could turn the overnight trip into a day trip and board a bus to Vang Vieng, our next destination, that night.

We rode faster towards Paksé and it started getting cold as the sun lowered in the sky. We hoped we would get back before it got dark. We were pushing the weak bike to it’s maximum speed when a little blond dog suddenly strayed right into our path. It didn’t look before trotting onto the road at the exact moment we were whipping by and there was no time for us to change our course. I was scared that hitting the dog would throw us off the bike. We collided with the dog’s head with a thud and the bike stayed steady as we drove on.
IMG_0510.JPG

Finn and I were shocked at what had happened and kept riding as we discussed what to do. We were glad that the bike didn’t topple on impact and that we were okay, but the dog was probably not okay. We considered going back because a hit and run seemed wrong, but what would we do if we went back? Especially since we were in a foreign place where we didn’t speak the language, it didn’t seem like a good idea to go back. Finn suggested that maybe it was our responsibility to put the dog out of it’s misery if it was close to death and suffering. I didn’t think that would be appropriate because it would look very bad if some Lao people saw us stomping their poor dog’s head in. While discussing our options we had already ridden a few kilometres away and we weren’t going back for the dog. I felt bad, but we didn’t have much choice.

We arrived in Paksé before nightfall, returned the motorbike and bought tickets for the next bus to Vang Vieng.
IMG_0509.JPG

Getting to Laos, Relaxing on Don Det

From Hanoi Finn and I wanted to go to Laos, so we had to take a 24 hour bus ride to the capital, Vientiane, the only place in Laos where buses from Hanoi go. We got to the border in the middle of the night, but slept on the bus until the crossing opened at 7am. Once we were stamped out of Vietnam, we had to pass about half a kilometre of nothingness to get to the Laos border. For some reason the five of us westerners were instructed to walk over to Laos, but the locals waited for a shuttle. It was nice to get a bit of exercise after spending so long on a bus anyway. Everyone got back on the bus on the Laos side of the border we continued the journey. I was excited to be in a new country. It was already a lot warmer than it was in northern Vietnam.

I probably should have changed a bit of money into Laos kip at the border because there was still a long way to go before Vientiane and there were no ATMs along the way. In the afternoon the bus stopped at a little restaurant where passengers got off to eat, but neither Finn, our two new British friends or I had a single kip to our names. We were so hungry. After listening to our tummies grumbling and feeling sorry for ourselves and dreading the remaining eight hours on the bus to Vientiane, Finn and I went in the restaurant and looked around for abandoned food. There turned out to be an abundance; a deep fried egg, some spring rolls, cabbage salad and rice was left behind. We brought the food over to share it with the Brits who were grateful for the food, but too proud to scavenge for themselves.

We arrived in Vientiane that night, and the town lived up to its reputation of being nothing special. Finn and I managed to find a hotel for around 10 bucks, where we gratefully slept after 24 hours on a bus, but we were eager to leave quickly. Vientiane was tiny, despite being the capital of Laos. The roads were too wide, considering the lack of traffic, which gave the impression of urban sprawl. There wasn’t much to do and the food was expensive and bland, at least in the tourist area.

We left Vientiane the next day headed to the Si Phan Don, or 4000 Islands, on the southern tip of Laos. It’s the world’s largest river archipelago, a bunch of tiny islands in the Mekong Delta. After being in Northern Vietnam we couldn’t wait to go somewhere tropical on the water. After another 15 hours on a sleeper bus, 4 hours on a minibus and 20 minutes on a boat, we made it to a tropical island.
IMG_0389.JPG

The boat took us to Don Det, the most popular tourist island in 4000 islands. It’s small, you can walk the perimeter in about an hour. There is a mini downtown which divides the ‘sunset side’ and the ‘sunrise side’. Finn and I were dropped off on the sunrise side, where we ate at a little restaurant called ‘Mama and Papa’. The food was okay, the music was great, ‘mama’ was really friendly and there was free wifi. After we ate, we started walking around the island to find accommodation. It turned out that most of the restaurants and guesthouses were owned by couples who call themselves ‘mama’ and ‘papa.’ The bungalows, guesthouses, restaurants and bars which lined most of the perimeter of the island were so similar it was hard to tell them apart.
IMG_0414.JPG

We walked over to the sunset side and found a cute guesthouse called Mr. Man, owned by a ‘Mama and Papa,’ of course. It seemed weird to call people who are not my mom or dad by family names, but most people did. The guesthouse had gardens, a restaurant, a view of the river, hammocks, private bathrooms, wifi and it cost less than $5 per night. It was weird but awesome that there was free wifi everywhere, even in these tiny remote places. It was easy to spend a lot of time there.
IMG_0388-0.JPG

Days on Don Det consisted of lounging and reading, chatting, eating, and wandering around. Long walks past the shops, restaurants, local homes and farms were pleasant. I went swimming in the river every day. It was warm and refreshing, especially during the hottest part of the day.
IMG_0415.JPG

Every restaurant on Don Det had pillows to lay on while eating and it was important to order food well before I was hungry because it could take 45 minutes or longer before it was ready. Once I ordered a fruit shake and I was wondering why it was taking so long to make, then the ‘mama’ came back on her motorbike, with a fresh pineapple in her hand.

We ended up staying on Don Det longer than expected because Finn came down with a terrible fever. I thought it was Dengue Fever based on his symptoms. I went into town to find some medication for him and found at the grocery store little grab bags of pills that a local doctor had out together for sick tourists. I don’t know what the pills were, but Finn took all 6 of them and then seemed to get better. Once he healed we left Don Det and started going north again.
IMG_0413.JPG

Selling Motorbikes in Hanoi

My passport was ready to be picked up when we returned to Hanoi. There was a Vietnamese visa inside, as promised, which expired the following day.

The day I spent in Hanoi wasn’t great because I had three conflicts with local shop owners. It was a perfect illustration of why I don’t like cities in Asia. A motorcycle shop owner accidentally sold or rented out my motorcycle helmet, the woman selling fruit salad wanted to overcharge me and worst of all was when I went back to the shop where I bought my jacket that broke within a couple days of purchase the owner claimed I didn’t buy it from her.

The jacket store owner, a small, middle-aged Vietnamese woman who wore a headband and her hair in a ponytail, was offended at the accusation that she a faulty product, but I was sure that I bought the jacket from there. I didn’t expect a refund for the jacket, I was just showing her what happened. I actually don’t know why I even brought it in. I just wanted the person responsible for me being even colder than necessary in northern Vietnam to know, and the shop was just down the ally from my hostel. Maybe that was petty of me, but her reaction was completely disproportional.

She reacted as if I spat in her face and started pulling jackets off the racks to demonstrate how her products are different than the one I bought. She called me a liar, practically frothing at the mouth. But I did buy it from that shop, there was no mistaking it. I told her that it was fine, she didn’t have to believe me. I gave her the jacket back and started to walk away. She took the jacket and threw it out of her shop and into the street and yelled that I was crazy.

It was time to get out of the city. The last loose strings in Vietnam were our motorbikes, which Finn and I had to sell before we left town. We posted an ad online and put signs on our bikes. The marketplace for motorbikes is very active online and in the streets of Hanoi. In the backpacker districts there are Honda Wins, motorbikes just like ours, with ‘for sale’ signs on them, littered everywhere. There are pages and pages of online ads and many motorbike shops.

We tried to make our online ad unique by including silly pictures of ourselves and offering free driving lessons with purchase. We received a bit of interest, but no sales. It was stressful because I had to leave the country before my visa expired, so if we didn’t sell the bikes quickly then Finn would stay behind and sell them alone.

We were in a hostel using the computers when I overheard some Canadians who I thought were talking about motorbikes. I went over, introduced myself and casually brought up selling the bikes. “Did you say you’re Canadian? I’m Canadian too!” Blah, blah… “Finn over there, and I, we’re selling our motorbikes…”

It turned out the people I approached were not in the market for motorbikes, but some clean cut college kids from Chicago who had just sat down to research motorbikes overheard me. They were on month-long break from school and planned to motorbike to Southern Vietnam.

Finn and I told the guys everything we knew about bikes. We told them about navigating, repairs, oil changes, manual vs automatic motorbikes, mistakes we made, anything that might be useful. The guys were excited like golden retrievers. We talked and talked, then brought them over to our bikes.

We offered to teach them how to drive the manual bikes since they didn’t know how. Finn bonded with them about some Chicago-based sports teams. I hoped that the more we built a relationship with them and gave them help and advice, the more likely they were to buy from us. I just hoped we weren’t laying it on too thick and making them suspicious. It was important to play it cool. I hoped we came off as helpful, eager Canadians, not used car salespeople.

The guys were laid-back and friendly, but nervous about riding motorbikes. They said they were going to do a bit more research and we arranged to meet up in a few hours, at 3pm, when they would possibly buy our bikes. As we said goodbye to them a local man approached them and offered to sell the same bikes for $30 less. Luckily the Americans found the attempted sales poach sleazy.

Finn and I were hopeful that they would buy our bikes. We didn’t get any more responses to our online ad, so they were our best and only shot at the moment. I was going to board a bus to Vientiane at 5pm that evening, with or without Finn. It would be harder for him to sell two bikes by himself.

After wandering around the city and constantly checking if we got any more responses to our ad (nope), we met up with the guys as scheduled. They came down and told us that one of them needed to go to the ATM. I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I asked the remaining guy if that meant they wanted the bikes, and he said yes. Relief and sadness washed over me. The guys gave us cash, we have them the keys and we taught them how to ride. They thanked us profusely. Finn and I boarded the bus to Vientiane together an hour later.
2015/01/img_0606.jpgWe’ll miss you, our beautiful motorbikes!

Hanoi & Hoi An: Tailor-Made Suits, a Tropical Fish-Mobile and a Peeping Tom

Finn and I left Halong City early and quickly rode on our motorbikes the 170km to Hanoi. The ride was mostly unremarkable except for a motorbike on the side of a highway that appeared have bags of water hung all around it. Despite being in a hurry, curiosity compelled us to stop and see what it was. A middle aged man in plain, black clothing relaxed on a log beside his business, which turned out to be a mobile tropical fish shop. He was laid-back and didn’t pressure is to buy anything. Bags of shiny, sad fish hung in circular rows. At first I thought the fish must be for food, because who impulse-buys tropical fish on the side of the road, but upon closer inspection it was obvious that these fish wouldn’t make great meals. They were purely decorative.

The fish were all different shapes, colours and sizes. Different types of fish were in separate bags. Some bags were filled with 30 tiny energetic fish, darting around. Others had 4 large fish in them, maybe a foot long, looking very pathetic laying on top of one another at the bottom of their bags.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/4a2/74215824/files/2015/01/img_0621.jpg

I wonder how many sales he makes on an average day. He was set up outside the city, at least 10km from anywhere. Do people seek out the highway-side fish guy? Or maybe they spontaneously pull over while driving to a suburb and decide, “What the heck, I could use a big decorative fish!”

Our plan was to apply for new one-month Vietnamese visas in Hanoi and have them mailed to Hoi An, where we would ride on our motorbikes before crossing the southern border to Laos. The problem was that the Canadian consulate would only give me a one week visa (which cost $80) since my passport was stolen and replaced in Vietnam. The kicker was that my visa would take a week to prepare, meaning I would have to pick up my passport with the visa inside in Hanoi and leave country on the same day. There wouldn’t be time to send my passport to Hoi An.

We didn’t want to stay in Hanoi for a week to wait for the passport to be ready. It’s noisy, the city people aren’t very friendly or welcoming and there isn’t much to do. The cities in Asia are pretty similar to each other and they don’t appeal to me.

We had to spend at least one night in Hanoi, so we went to one of the cheapest hostels in Hanoi called Green Hanoi Backpackers and negotiated a dorm bed to share for $5, instead of $4 each, with free breakfast for one of us. It was an adequate place to stay. They had free cold and hot water. The young staff were always streaming Kung Fu movies dubbed into Vietnamese or blasting terrible Vietnamese pop music from the computer speakers in the common area. One of them showed off his new jewel-encrusted, fake Omega watch he had just bought online. I couldn’t stand to be around him when he was eating though, because he smacked his lips and opened his mouth wide with every bite. I could hear his chewing and slurping from across the room.

We decided to stick to our plan to go to Hoi An, despite the visa trouble. We took a bus since there wasn’t enough time to motorbike there and back within a week. We wanted to go to Hoi An because it’s the best place to buy cheap tailor-made clothes. It’s what the town does. Tailors outnumber other businesses in Hoi An 2-1. Since Finn’s friend is getting married in the summer, we offered to have suits made for all seven males in his wedding party. We had already passed through Hoi An, but went back to get the suits made.

The bus ride to Hoi An took almost 24 hours. It wasn’t supposed to take that long, but on the way our bus hit a car with a huge bang and then we didn’t move for about 6 hours. This sort of thing doesn’t even surprise me anymore. There is trouble every time we go a long distance. It happened at night, so Finn and I slept through the whole affair, other than the bang.

Long bus rides don’t bother me anymore. I can sleep, read, play iPad games, and listen to audiobooks and podcasts without noticing a day go by. It’s a great time to think and reflect. The seats recline to almost flat and we don’t have anywhere to be, so it doesn’t really matter when we get to the destination. The only exception is when it’s uncomfortably hot. Usually the air conditioning keeps buses cool, but some days it doesn’t and then it feels like a cruel punishment that I can hardly wait to escape.

Hoi An wasn’t as sunny as it was the first time we were there. When we finally arrived, around dinner time, it was pouring rain and pitch dark. We didn’t know what part of town we were in, but we were right beside Grassland Hotel, so we went in and asked for directions. The hotel staff said we were a 10 minute bike ride from the old city and encouraged us to rent one of their rooms. Since rooms cost $10 and included a patio, bicycle rental and a big swimming pool, we stayed there.

We spent the week relaxing a lot. We ordered room service to our hotel room every morning. Pancakes, eggs and a baguette cost under $4, and we didn’t even have to get out of bed. There was also a vegetarian restaurant on the same block as our hotel. I swam in the pool a few times for exercise, but it was shockingly cold. The staff said Finn and I were the only ones to use the pool all season.

Our room was on the ground floor, so we were visible to anyone standing outside in the little space between the hotel and the fence. I like to let natural light in so I leave the patio doors open, but it was weird that one of the middle-aged male staff would sometimes hang around outside our room, obviously spying. First he saw me when I was exercising in the room, and then he went away. Then again he was outside staring when Finn and I were busy together. I looked over and saw him, and we made eye contact before he quickly turned away. He was gone for a while, but then he came back again. Other people would probably be really upset by that, but I just thought he was a harmless creep. I’m going to request hotel rooms on upper floors from now on.

Finn and I hate shopping, so we dreaded looking around for the best tailor to buy all the suits for Finn and his friends. We went to a few places and then came across Kimmy’s Tailor, which was recommended online and by some Canadians we met in Dalat.

The owner was Vietnamese-Canadian so we talked with him without any cultural or linguistic confusion. We were ignorant about tailoring, but he spoke convincingly about fabrics, quality and style and he looked sharp in his own suit. He was about 30 years old and spoke fast, with a calm smile. He showed us pictures of suits that he thought would be the perfect style for the groomsmen. “Small lapels, thin ties, narrow legs, very youthful,” he told us. The suits in the pictures looked stylish and he seemed to understand what we wanted.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/4a2/74215824/files/2015/01/img_0642.jpg

We decided to buy all seven groomsmen suits from Kimmy’s, for about $200 each, as well as wool jackets for Finn and I. Everything would be shipped to Canada when it was ready. Kimmy’s also keeps a record of measurements so more clothes can be tailor-made and shipped to Canada any time. We were satisfied with the suits and happy to stop shopping.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/4a2/74215824/files/2015/01/img_0646.jpg

Except we didn’t stop shopping. We casually walked over to a shoe tailor and were convinced to buy three pairs of tailor-made leather shoes for ourselves. And then we walked to another store and bought two pairs of hippy pants and a pair of shorts.

We hadn’t done any shopping on our trip, but Hoi An threw us into consumerist frenzy. We were sucked in by the promise of the highest quality products made to our personal specifications. We were shown examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ quality products and were sucked in by how cheap everything was compared to Canadian prices. We described or showed pictures of anything we liked and they turned it into a physical product within a day. They were good at what they do.

When all the orders had been finalized, our shopping trip finished, we boarded a bus for our third trip to Hanoi, poorer than we were before.

Limestone Islands in Halong Bay

Finn and I woke up early in a tiny town called An Chau before riding the last 80km to Halong City. When we arrived I was relief to be somewhere warmer where we would relax for a few days, but first we searched for a travel agency where we could extend our Vietnamese visas before they expired.

Halong City is on the coast of the popular tourist destination, Halong Bay, where hundreds of limestone islands poke out of emerald water. The city itself isn’t much; it has a small town feel with a few main streets of shops, restaurants and hotels. There weren’t many tourists because most go to the islands in Halong Bay right away rather than linger in Halong City.

Our visas would expire on Sunday and it was already Thursday, so we wanted to our apply for visa extensions before the government offices closed for the weekend. The trouble was that there were no proper travel agencies in Halong City. We found a couple of makeshift offices, but they didn’t do visa extensions.

It was surprising because other tourists had extended their visas in more obscure places and told us the process was easy. We realized we would have to go to Hanoi, which was about 170km away, and do it ourselves. We still had a few days before the visas expired, so we figured we would make the best of it and stay in Halong a couple nights before going back to the big city.

Meanwhile, Finn realized he didn’t have his motorcycle proof of ownership card that we would need when we sold his bike. He searched his mind and figured he must have left it 80km back at the last hotel. Instead of relaxing in the sunshine for the afternoon, Finn got back on his bike and drove the 160km to get the card and come back. It was a rough morning. While Finn was gone I checked us into a nice hotel with a balcony called Nha Nghi Tuan Dung which cost $10.

My friend Laura taught English in Halong City a few years ago, so she connected Finn and I with her Vietnamese friend, Huy, who lives there. He met us our first evening in Halong City and took us to a great local restaurant for dinner.

Huy ordered dinner for us in Vietnamese, which was a nice break from the usual meal time struggle to communicate food preferences. We had tofu, vegetables and local beer with ice. Huy is 27 years old, works in tourism and was friendly, fun and welcoming. Finn and I asked him lots of questions about Vietnam since he spoke such great English.
/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/4a2/74215824/files/2014/12/img_0667.jpg
Dinner with Huy.

As we finished eating, a young Vietnamese man approached us and asked without any trace of an accent where we were from. When we told him we’re from Vancouver he responded, “No fuckin’ way! I’m from Vancouver!” We asked him where in Vancouver and he told us, “Surrey, bro! I’m a city boy!” Surrey is a suburb of Vancouver. He was so excited to meet people from home in Vietnam, where he visits regularly because his family is from there.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/4a2/74215824/files/2014/12/img_0507.jpg
Finn with Surrey bro.

This guy was a classic Surrey dude. He described himself as a ‘Nammer.’ He was super friendly and invited us all to join his table. We went over and he introduced us to his friends, who were local Vietnamese men. I looked around the restaurant and noticed that, as usual, most of the customers were men. Apparently local women in Southeast Asia don’t eat out very often. I’m commonly the only female in a restaurant.

All the men were nice and merrily shared shot after shot of rice wine with us, shaking our hands after each one. One man at the table had grown his pinky and thumb nails extremely long. I had heard about Vietnamese men doing this, but it was the first time I saw it in person. His nails extended about 1.5cm away from his fingers. He didn’t want me to take a picture of them.

After dinner, Huy took us to a wide grassy median between roads where tables and chairs were set up and men were hanging out under a makeshift shelter of tarps. We sat down and had some tea and sunflower seeds. Some men were playing a variation of the card game ‘Big 2’, which Finn knows how to play. The winner of each round won around 5 thousand Dong, equal to about 25 cents. Finn asked to join the game and put his 5 thousand Dong on the table. Huy helped Finn play and they were doing pretty well. When a cop car drove by everyone hid their cards so they wouldn’t get busted for illegal gambling, and thankfully the cops didn’t approach us. Finn got on a winning streak and walked away with about 80,000 Dong, enough for a fancy dinner for two in Vietnam.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/4a2/74215824/files/2014/12/img_0508.jpg
Finn winning big.

The next morning, Finn and I woke up early to take the ferry to Cat Ba Island, which cost $2 each and an extra $1 for each motorbike. The ferry was about an hour late, but it was a beautiful ride once we got going. The limestone islands looked similar to the mountains we saw on our motorcycle ride in the north, only submerged in water. We met some tourists on the ferry who had paid $30 each for a boat tour the day before, which sounds like a rip off since we saw pretty much the same scenery from the ferry as they did from pricey boat tour, though maybe not quite as close up.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/4a2/74215824/files/2014/12/img_0542.jpg
View from the ferry.

When we got off the ferry, we rode our bikes 20km to Cat Ba Town through more spectacular scenery. Cat Ba was natural and mountainous, one of the biggest islands in Halong Bay. It was a perfect warm and sunny day for the little ride.

Cat Ba Town was right on the coastline and we found a row of hotels that overlooked the beautiful bay. Because it was off-season there were ocean front hotel rooms for $5 – $10. There was a spectacular, fancy hotel room for $9 which we considered renting, but decided to be frugal and get a room that still had an ocean view for $5.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/4a2/74215824/files/2014/12/img_0561.jpg
View from our hotel room.

We couldn’t stay on Cat Ba long, unfortunately, because we had to deal with our Vietnamese visas in Hanoi. We hiked around a bit and soaked in the view before heading back to the ferry the next day. It turned out we had wrong information, however, the ferry didn’t run every hour, it only ran at 7am and 4pm, and it was about noon when we got to the ferry terminal.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/4a2/74215824/files/2014/12/img_0588.jpg
Playing on the beach on Cat Ba

An American man approached us right after we learned we were four hours early for the ferry, and asked if we knew the bus schedule because he and his partner were trying to get to Cat Ba Town. We didn’t, but I had read in the Lonely Planet that sometimes there were no buses from the ferry terminal and tourists were forced to pay an extremely high taxi fare to get into town. Finn and I offered to take the couple into town on our bikes and they accepted the offer, so I took the female on the back of my bike and Finn took the male on his.

We hadn’t ridden these bikes with anyone else on the back of them, and it was a big workout for our bikes to take two people and their big bags riding uphill, but we made it. I had fun talking to the woman I was riding with and realized I hadn’t had much social interaction with women while traveling.

I thought about why I hadn’t hung out with more women on this trip. Upon reflection, I realize I find it more intimidating to approach women than men. Men almost always react positively to me talking to them or asking for help, even if it’s completely non-romantic. Women can sometimes be cold or neutral. Also, there are more male travellers so numbers-wise it makes sense that I’ve met more men out here. I appreciate interacting with females once in a while. It feels different, in a pleasant way. I will keep that in mind next time I subconsciously approach men instead of women.

We caught the ferry back to Halong City that afternoon and spent another night there before riding to Hanoi the next day.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/4a2/74215824/files/2014/12/img_0606-0.jpg

Northern Vietnam by Motorcycle

The motorcycle trip started off slowly. It took us a while to buy the warm clothes we needed and run some final errands in the city before we left Hanoi, and then on the way out of town we made a couple of wrong turns and had to check directions multiple times. After our first day of riding we made it to a small city called Thai Nguyen, directly north of Hanoi. It was not a beautiful ride. It had a suburban feel and a lot of traffic. We managed to find a hotel room for $10 and a restaurant that served delicious tofu and egg dishes with rice. I managed to communicate that I am vegetarian through pointing and hand signals since none of the staff spoke English. I had almost learned how to say “I eat vegetarian” and “without meat” in Vietnamese, but because I had trouble with the tones local people usually didn’t understand me.

The next day we had a late start because we slept in until 10, had a mechanical issue looked at, and bought headphones so I could listen to audiobooks while I ride. We didn’t get on the road until about noon, which proved to be an unwise decision because it got dark so early, at about 6pm. We also made a wrong turn at some point, so by the end of the day we had only made it about 85km. Once it was dark it was too dangerous to ride anymore. We were still 75km from Ba Bé National Park, where we had hoped to reach that day. It was a lot colder than we were used to and when I tried to order vegetarian food at a restaurant they didn’t understand me and I felt frustrated with everything. It wasn’t feeling like a fun trip anymore. I felt annoyed and grumpy.

Finn saw my frustration and helped solve the vegetarian communication issue by going online, translating a phrase explaining that I’m vegetarian and writing it on a little piece of paper for me. We decided we should wake up a lot earlier from then on to make the most of the sunlight and stop to check directions more often so that we didn’t get off track again. It wouldn’t be until a couple days later that we would discover the highway numbers were written the edge of the road signs, not visible from the front. After that discovery it was much easier to navigate.

The reason it was stressful to fall behind schedule was that our Vietnamese visas would expire on December 14, which gave us about a week to tour the north before getting to a Halong Bay, where a travel agency could extend our visas. The fact that it was so cold in the north also put pressure on us, because we knew we would want to get back into warmer weather soon.

The next day was much better. We made it to Ba Bé National Park in the morning where there was a big lake, limestone mountains and a farming village. We rode our bikes through the park in awe of the natural beauty. Some of the local families in the park invite visitors to stay with them as a “homestay”, so we found a nice family who charged us $7 for a room. They were just about to sit down for lunch when we arrived and they invited us to eat with them. They were excited to host us, even though we couldn’t communicate verbally with most of them. One family member, a 25 year old journalist, spoke broken English, so we could talk to him a bit. He and his sister shared some of their rice liquor with us, poured into shot glasses from a small plastic iced tea bottle. We each had about 5 shots, and at first it tasted horrible, but, like most liquor, it was easier after the first couple shots. We all shook hands after every shot and we weren’t sure if it was a Vietnamese thing to shake hands after taking a shot or just what these people do.
IMG_0372.JPG
After lunch, we hung out with the young man who spoke a bit of English and we used google translate to communicate better. He brought out his computer and we typed messages back and forth through the website. It didn’t always make perfect sense, but it was great that we could communicate. We told him that we were going to the waterfall, Ban Gioc, which is right beside the Chinese border, and he said, “No! In Vietnam, not China!” He thought we were saying the waterfall was in China. It was funny how suddenly insistent he was and he almost yelled when he was so calm otherwise. We agreed that it’s in Vietnam and he calmed down. I guess it’s a controversial point in the region.

After lunch, we rode our motorbikes around the park, marvelling at the bright green lake. We hiked a path that lead to a big cave. The little village, local homes and farms were cute and rustic. Most of the homes, including where we were staying, did not have any glass over the windows and the walls did not keep the wind out. Everyone wears big jackets at all times during winter.
IMG_0378.JPG
The next morning we woke up at 6am and explored more of the park before getting back on the highway. We road our motorbikes 7km on the tiny park road through the villages and hiked to a waterfall. We thought we woke up really early, but the family we stayed with and the villagers were already up and at work by the time we got on our bikes at about 630am. We left the park and started towards the biggest waterfall in Vietnam, called Ban Gioc.

IMG_0339.JPG
All day we rode through spectacular scenery. Many small, skinny, tree covered mountains pocked the landscape. Being from British Columba, I am used to seeing mountains, but these limestone formations were different because they were many, small and lumpy, stabbing upwards all over the place instead of the gigantic ones I’m used to seeing at home. The area is sparsely populated with agrarian communities. Chickens often cluck around on the roads and sometimes as we ride by them they panic and run right in front of our bikes, causing us to narrowly avoid hitting them. The chickens almost seemed suicidal by the number of times they jumped in front of us. We also passed lots of pigs, including herds of cute piglets. There were plenty of buffalo, cows, goats, horses, and a wild boar with horns coming out of it’s mouth that childishly reminded me of Pumba from The Lion King.

IMG_0377.JPG
By 4pm that day we had made it within 50km of the waterfall, Ban Gioc. We had accidentally taken a different road than we planned and had gone straight north instead of east, but it was okay because there was a northern route to Ban Gioc so we didn’t have to back track. With less than two hours of sunlight left, we thought we could make it to Dam Thuy, a town right beside the waterfall, and stay there for the night. We started on the northern “highway” that paralleled the China / Vietnam border, which was actually a bumpy dirt road. It was the roughest road we had ridden on yet, so we had to go a lot slower to make it over all the bumps and potholes. It started getting dark when we were in the middle of nowhere.

We past tiny villages, but none of them had hotels or guesthouses, of course. We delicately rode along bumpy mountain passes and stopped to admire the moon, which was deep orange that night, hanging above the silhouetted mountains. Our headlights were weak and got weaker when the engine wasn’t revving, so I constantly held the clutch lightly to keep the engine working and the headlight lit. I was scared of driving at night because the lack of light meant I couldn’t see obstacles until the last minute. We went slowly and cautiously and hoped we would come across a town soon.

Finn was ahead of me on a steeply inclined part of the road and got stuck in a big pothole. I was riding a bit too close behind him and didn’t see him stop until it was too late and I crashed into him and fell. Finn did not fall, but he saw me fall so he stopped to help. Because the road was so steep, he couldn’t hold his heavy bike in place so he fell too while trying to check if I was okay. Then we were both both struggling to lift up our bikes and get up the hill to flat ground. I was dropping my stuff and couldn’t see what I was doing in the dark. Finally we got to the top of the hill and checked our bodies and bikes for damage. We were fine except a few scratches and the bikes were fine except the right turn signal on Finn’s bike. We urgently needed to get off this ridiculously rough road in the dark. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything we could do but keep going. We had to find a place to sleep.

I suggested we approach random homes to offer a family money and signal that we want to sleep, but we were shy to ask without understanding the language. It was too cold, my hands were numb and I was hungry. Finally, at about 8pm, after two hours of riding in pitch dark, we came across a little town that had a couple hotels. We were finally somewhere. I was overcome with relief. Finn and I had both been mentally preparing to sleep in the cold outdoors. We checked the map and saw that we had traveled 30km since the last town, and it happened to be the roughest stretch of road we would travel in northern Vietnam. We vowed not to ride in the dark again.

None of the hotels we stayed in had heating, and they were very cold. By the end of each day of riding I was exhausted and couldn’t wait to have a hot shower and get under the thick blankets. At least there was hot water. The beds were hard and uncomfortable, but it was hard to pull myself out of their warmth into the cold air every morning. More than once I questioned my decision to visit this region when there are so many warm places in Southeast Asia. The climate made everything more stressful. It didn’t help that the zipper on the jacket I bought in Hanoi broke the day after I bought it, exposing me to the wind as I rode.

IMG_0335-0.JPG
We made it to Ban Gioc the next morning and spent about an hour hiking around and marvelling at the powerful waterfall. We were right on the border to China, as far north as we would go on our trip. We enjoyed a Chocopie, the Vietnamese version of a Wagonwheel, took a bunch of pictures, and then headed out. I was excited that we were going south and it would only get warmer from there. You may find my whining about the cold annoying if you’re reading this in Canada, but being outside all day on a motorbike and sleeping in a cold hotel room was getting to me.

IMG_0294.JPG
When we were on the road, riding through breathtaking scenery, it felt worth it to be in northern Vietnam, despite the cold. There were so few tourists coming through the small towns so people were thrilled to talk to us, even though we couldn’t understand what they were saying. We felt bad for not learning more Vietnamese, but we managed to communicate a little bit without words.

IMG_0343.JPG
One night, we sat down to eat at a pho restaurant when a couple local men greeted us, so we sat with them at their table. They were so friendly and we communicated with one another like it was a game of charades. The men kept pointing to things, the shot glasses, the soccer game on TV, the food, everything, and saying “Vietnam, Vietnam.” They shared with us a whole bottle of the same rice liquor we drank at the homestay. We must have had at least 6 small shots each. The men checked with us first that we weren’t getting on motorbikes after, and we assured them that we would be walking back to our hotel.

IMG_0449.JPG

It was convenient that there were motorcycle shops everywhere and it only cost a dollar or two to fix anything. When we had to fix something on our bikes we could call Phung from Phung Motorcycles, who sold us our bikes and ask him to explain the problem in Vietnamese to the mechanic over the phone. At one motorcycle repair shop the people were really nice and we hung out with them for a while after our bikes were fixed. It seemed like there were one or two mechanics who worked there, one of which was wearing a sharp business casual outfit with a collared shirt and pull over v-neck sweater. He was the fanciest dressed mechanic I’ve seen. A few other men were hanging around too, but it didn’t seem like they worked there, maybe they just like motorcycles. They shared some of that rice liquor with us too.

On the last day, we rode the final 80km to our destination, Halong Bay, and I was relieved to arrive somewhere warmer where we could relax for a couple days after the fantastic but exhausting motorcycle trip. In the rest of Vietnam there was delicious fresh coffee, but up north there was usually only the instant kind, which left me with powerful cravings that I was excited to satisfy. My butt was extremely sore from the long day before, when we rode about 240km, and all the days before that. It felt amazing to wash my clothes and lay down in a comfortable bed in a warm hotel room.