Three months in Thailand, Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia, April 23th til July 14th, 2002

Bangkok, Thailand

April 25th 16:55

We made it through the grueling flight and are now sitting in an internet cafe in the middle of Bankok in a jetlag daze. So far, we saw that is a huge city as we rode in on the bus, and has all sorts of flowering trees and bushes; a nice break from the thick traffic and monotonous cement slab buildings.

We are staying in Thanon Khao San, which is backpacker central. It seems like there are more Aussies here than Thais, but its an easy place to start. On Sunday, we set off for Vietnam, arriving in Ho Chi Min City then spending the next month working our way up to the North, which everyone says is the highlight, including the Thai women who sold us our plane tickets.

Off now to find some Thai food, shouldn't be too hard, and maybe a Thai iced coffee to keep me from crashing.

Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam

April 30th, 20:18

So we are now in Saigon, which is a vast improvement over our Bankok. Sing it: One Night In Bankok makes a hard man humble... or maybe just melt into a puddle of sweat. There was definitely some cool stuff in Bankok some of the the Wats (Buddhist temples) were quite amazing, especially Wat Po. Even tho there were many tourists there, they avoided everything but the main temple in the vast compound, leaving the rest peaceful and quiet. The Thais that came upon us in sitting by the various gardens and waterfalls looking suprised that we weren't oggling the large gold Buddhas.

But I must say that the food and drink experience in Bankok has been a letdown. We tried hard to get Thai iced coffee and Thai iced tea, but they are enamoured with "modern" things so they mainly serve Nescafe and Nestea. Shudder.... the horror. The food situation was better, but since we were staying in Khao San, an area completely overrun by Aussie Ferals, and tattooed and pierced white people from New Zealand, Israel, UK, etc., most of the places catered to the people looking for a cheap place to party. We did get one quite good meal in a small place not too near Khao San. It was in an very narrow, unmarked place next to some flashier places. The food was served from a folding table in the front with a collection of various pots from the sixties and seventies filled with various recognizable and unrecognizable Thai dishes. We got chili-pineapple shrimp, delicious but flaming hot; and green curry chicken, that was also good and hot. Throw in a bottle of water, and two cups of tea, and walk away for $1 each.

We flew from Bankok on Sunday and are staying at Miss Loi's Guesthouse. The taxi dropped us off on the street right after a scooter carrying a family of four bounced off the side of the car. The son acted tough and looked mean while the father, who was driving, shook his head and motioned that it was okay. The taxi driver then pointed us down a very narrow alley. We found the guesthouse, and opened the gate, and were instantly greeted by a woman who announced, "Hello! Follow Me!!" and she took off running up the curving staircase in the middle of the room. Being a Buddhist country, we had to take off our shoes and put them in the overflowing shoe racks, while losing sight of Miss Loi. We took off running after her, and keep the fast pace up until we reached the fifth floor, where she showed us a room. Swank digs with A/C, a private bath, and a view of the city for $10/night. Miss Loi runs her new 6 story tower by her own rules, which she often doesn't share with you. So the various tourists staying there clued us in on some of them, like the whiteboard where you write down the drinks and laundry services you had. With the quirky and friendly Miss Loi serving as a home base, we set out into Ho Chi Minh City, the center of which is Saigon.

After the brutal heat and chaos of Bankok, Saigon was a much needed change. The traffic here is almost completely made up of small scooters, with occasionaly cars, trucks, bikes, or motorcycles. It was cute at first, all those people on scooters, but seeing as the traffic doesn't follow many traffic rules, the swarms of scooters make it damn near impossible to cross the road without a leap of faith. You just have to start walking into the flow, and have faith that they will avoid you. So far that's worked.

The people here have been much friendier that in Bankok, probably because seeing white people is still novelty here rather than an annoyance. Yesterday we had two quite interesting experiences visiting the oldest buddhist temples in Ho Chi Minh City. The first one was in one of the poorest neighborhoods, according to our guidebook. If that's the worst of Ho Chi Minh City, then things are pretty good here. It wasn't suburban luxury, but it definitely was no slum. We took an small alley off of the main street, aiming for this temple, but not really knowing where we were going, leaving the swarms of scooters behind. After following this meandering street for a few minutes, with the eyes of every person we passed glued to us while we walked by, we began to think we were lost. But a couple of kids who had been playing ran up to us shouting "hallo!" and led us to the temple.

The temple was obviously quite old, I think about 250 years old, but generally in good shape, besides the amazing layers of black soot from 250 years of burning incense. We timidly started looking around as a few more children came out to watch us looking around. A small boy lead us into the temple, so we started slowly looking around. Then seemingly out of nowhere came an old monk dressed in the trademark orange robe and shaved head. He walked straight up to us and took our hands and lead us to a table with waiting tea cups, while welcoming us in broken, meandering English. He served us green tea and delicious little bananas while asking us the standard questions: where we are from, what are our names, etc. He then took us on a little tour of the temple, speaking in a mix of French and English, we later figured out, in a thick Vietnamese accent. He told us the story of how ten monks had come from China to build this temple and then went back to China, leaving it to the Vietnamese monks. After pointing out many details of the temple and guiding us through the gardens, he left us to wander, insisting that we take pictures.

We left, and the two cyclo (pedicab) guys who had stalked us along the main street and down the temple where eagerly awaiting our departure. After hounding us for a few minutes, we decided to go with them. Its hard to turn them down sometimes since it is quite cheap and Saigon is a tough place to walk it. Plus it is not uncommon to see cyclo drivers sleeping in their cyclos at night. But few minutes into the ride, the thick exhaust straight from the tailpipes of the scooters and general grit makes it a less than pleasant experience. So we stick to our feet and try to find alleys for the most part.

Our last adventure of the day started with being dropped off at the next temple, this one with a pagoda. This time, as we walked in, Rebecca was greeted by an old Vietnamese man inside the temple. I heard him greet her as I entered, then he turned to us and asked us quite excitedly "Where are you from! Where are you from!" We answered "America", and he grabbed by red jumpsuit at the waist and jumped up saying "my friend, my friend!" Still holding onto my jumpsuit with one hand, he started asking us questions in good English. Then he asked if I was in the army and where I had gotten the jumpsuit. I said it was a worksuit. He then told us that he had been an interpreter in the U.S. Army from '67 til '75 and that me in my jumpsuit reminded him of his days in the army and that he was tired of being a guide so he wouldn't have asked us any questions if he hadn't seen the jumpsuit. He then showed us around this temple, which was dedicated to a woman Buddha, the first I had seen. Then he invited us to tea and we sat and talked quite a bit more, mostly about his experiences with American soldiers.

We then asked about a lunch spot, and he asked to accompany us. He took us to a vegetarian place around the corner where they have veggie pork, chicken, and shrimp. We ordered a feast for two and a drink for him. The food was quite delicious and we heard a number of stories about his experiences related to his days in the U.S. Army. When the Communists took over, he had been sent to a Reeducation Camp for a year since he had been working for the enemy. At that time he had tried to leave the country but hadn't been able too. He said the "people were stupid back then, but things are much better now." He didn't elaborate, but he said he now doesn't want to leave since his family is here. He also told us of some Vietnamese people who had left back in the day and now have come back with their American earned money to build hotels. After lunch, he told us that he knew a good day trip and he wanted to be our guide, something he hadn't done in two years. Who knew a red jumpsuit could inspire someone so much. So on Saturday, after three days doing the tourist boat on the Mekong Delta, we are setting off with Dat Le Tan for a guided tour of Tay Ninh and surrounding area. We are both very excited to have the local perspective and to hear more of his stories.

Now, off to some excellent Vietnamese food, and early to bed. We have to report for the boat at 7:30 tomorrow. And one last note, the food here had been quite good. And Nescafe haven't made inroads here yet, so we have also had excellent coffee, Vietnamese style, of course.

Hoi An, Viet Nam

May 11th 20:15

So we are now in Hoi An, a small coastal city famous for its old Vietnamese architecture and tailors. The city is quite beautiful, the old buildings have more space in front of them so that there are actually sidewalks in much of the town. But its a tourist town, and a number of the local crafts industries, tailors, woodcarving, painting, and silkscreening, have exploded here, making the competition fierce. Therefore many of the shopkeepers have resorted to harassing people into their shops. It usually starts like the cyclo and motorbike drivers: "Hello! Where are you from?"... "How long are you here?"... Then they put on the hard sell. Ug... luckily they can be dispatched relatively easily, unlike many of the Saigon cyclo drivers who would follow you no matter what you said.

But I must say that the hotels here suck. We are staying in our second in Hoi An, its slightly better, but with a much better, albeit deceiving entrance. The entrance of the hotel is in one of the old style two story houses with a large yard in front full of large bonsai trees and flowers of all kinds. The reception looks like any reception, but then the rooms are dingy rooms in the new building out back, built when Russians where the only white people to be seen in Vietnam, judging by the bilingual Russian/Vietnamese signage. What can you really ask for for $10 a night with A/C?

Well... from our experience in Nha Trang, our last stop, a lot more than we are getting now. Nha Trang is rapidly on its way to becoming Vietnam's Cancun. There is lots of construction going on, from hotels to the water park in front of our beachside hotel (for $10/night, ocean views and breezes...). But the town is nothing special, except for the beaches. The perfect place to build a resort.

Not being a big fan of resorts, I found my perfect one: Monkey Island!!!! Yes there really are monkeys there. All over the island. Its a small island in a beautiful largely uninhabited bay, except for the one small fishing town with the ferry to our monkey infested destination. Its also a mountainous region, so many of the surrounding islands and peninsulas had mountains upwards of 4000 feet high. The island itself has a steep jungled hill on one end, and a beach ringed coconut grove on the other. Across the middle is a large fence built to keep the monkeys on the hill. But since they thwarted that effort, the fence now serves to keep the people out, except for the "dining hall", where humans are lead in by the eager guide, whooping to call the monkeys from the woods. And boy did they come. At first we saw a few on our walk towards the dining hall, then a steady stream came out of the woods in all directions until the three of us we were surrounded by dozens of eager monkeys of all sizes, the babies being about a foot when standing, with the large males being just under three feet. Don't try this at home: the newly matured males were eager to try their hand at charging, muscling their way into all of the food. Our guide was definitely King of the Jungle, all he had to do was hiss and point and the most aggressive monkey ran away. But most of them were quite sweet. The guide gave us peanuts and corn to feed them, straight from our hands. It felt like children grabbing stuff out of your hand. Many of their features were surprisingly human-like. One patient monkey held my thumb waiting for the others to dissapate so it could get some food to herself.

We then went back to the resort area, and bought some coconut cookies, which, as soon as the transaction was complete, was snatched by a monkey which I had barely noticed sneaking up from behind. Excitement erupted, first with the staff chasing the monkey, who promptly ran up a tree carrying a bag of cookies nearly half its size, then as the other monkeys took notice, many of them chased the little thief from tree to tree. We then retired we our replacement bag of cookies to our cabana on an empty beach, only to notice a few monkeys slowly creeping up to us, with innocent looks on their faces. We tried to shoo them, but they ignored us, keeping their eyes on the cookie bag. One even sat in the chair right next to me. At that point, I picked up my sandal and started banging the ground and yelling, and this was effective. Even still I had to chase them to get them to move. After 5-10 minutes of banging and yelling, they finally got the message, and waited in the distance for more handouts. Now we know why this resort was so empty: I don't think most resort goers like to stake out their territory by banging and yelling, unlike this monkey.

Before Nha Trang, we were in Da Lat, a mountain town full greenery with vistas reminisent of San Francisco or Seattle, albeit much smaller since its about 130,000 people. Its also known for its artist, including Ms. Hang Nga, who studied architecture in moscow for many years and doesn't seem to have updated her clothing since the 60's, when she brought a large and elaborate wardrobe. We had the good fortune to stay in her hotel, Crazy House, one of the most awesome hotels one could expect to stay in. It was built from molded concrete and wood in a style reminiscent of Hundertwasser or maybe an organic Frank Gehry, with basically no flat or parallel walls. Even the stairways were curving and organic. Each room had a theme: the first night we stayed in the Gourd Room, which had three giant gourds which served as a covered bed, a fireplace and a planter. There was also the Ant, Bamboo, Termite, Kangaroo, Bear, and more.

The Gourd Room was on top of one of the two swirling towers, with its own balcony and windows on all sides with views of the city and surrounding mountains. We then moved to the cheaper Honeymoon Suite, which was a little hut in the middle of the garden, which had streams with croaking frogs and song birds in organically shaped cages. So we fell asleep to the sounds of frogs croaking and awoke to a rooster's cockadoodle doo and many competing song birds. We've been getting up close to dawn anyway, as the locals do, so the rooster's cry wasn't a problem. You should definitely check out pictures of this place, it is totally unique:

On that note, good night.

May 17th, 21:51

sorry about the typoes, its a very slow connection. But I can't complain since it costs 20 cents an hour. Yup, Vietnam can be quite cheep. We are eating in some great restaurants here in Hanoi, spending no more than $5-6, including desert. drinks, etc.

I'll write more later, but now I am writing to tell you that Rebecca and I mailed a packge to yall from Vietname. We had a bunch of clothing made in Hoi An since it was so cheap. $25 for a suit, $5 for a shirt, $20 for a jumpsuit!@! $25 for a long wool coat!!! We shipped it via sea mail, so it'll take around 2 monthes.

Hoi An and Bach Ma, Viet Nam by Rebecca Granato

May 19th 15:42

Central Vietnam's Hoi An is touted as a place to linger for days. In the past it was a major trading town, but today it's known for tailors that can produce entire outfits in just a couple of hours, anything from exact replicas of vintage clothing to the latest fashions. Our first day in Hoi An we rented bicycles and set out for the outskirts. While biking down the winding dirt roads to the north of the city, a bike full of boys (yes, three on one bike!) caught up with us and decided to take it upon themselves to become our tour guides. They took us out to the tombs of Japanese traders from the mid-17th century in the middle of the rice paddies; a burial practice that is still common in Vietnam today. They spent the morning showing us around the area and telling us many interesting historical facts as well as personal stories. Just when we were about to offer them money for their services, they scammed us... we ended the tour at a restaurant where we purchased three cans of Red Bull(the most expensive drink on the menu) for them which they proceeded NOT to drink. Our guess is that they were saving them to sell later. In fact, the oldest boy was creative enough to claim he was saving his for his hospital-ridden mother. No harm done, though.

Day two in Hoi An: Rebecca entrusted her life to Hans' motorbike-driving skills. Things were a bit shaky at first, but we managed a 40 KM ride unscathed. We took a quiet beachside road to the Marble Mountains, which contain countless shrines and temples within the natural caves of the mountains. While we were expecting a tourist trap what we found instead was a peaceful maze of caves left for the visitor to discover on his own without an outlined path. Giant Buddhas were carved right into the caves from the already-present marble, and were often nestled on ledges that necessitated a bit of rockclimbing to see.

While in Hoi An we also managed to do some damage to our tight budget by visiting the tailors. Upon a recommendation from a Scottish couple we met in the Mekong, we strayed from the main strip to the "Friendly" tailor shop. Hans' request for a silk jumpsuit was greeted with quite an exclamation of pleasure by the "friendly" owner, who showed us a picture of her first-ever, recently-made jumpsuit. She had struggled with the first one, but now she could make one with ease, copying Hans' red one... and apparently with much enthusiasm! The silk one turned out so well, for the bargain price of $20, he also had her make a fleece one that makes him look like a cross between a little boy in feet-pajamas and a fuzzy teddy bear.

I was equally lucky with my major purchase. I had a warm wool coat made exactly to my specifications and size... all for only $25!

The next stop on the backpacker route was supposed to be Hue, the capital of Vietnam from the early 19th century until the French took over in the 30s. However we decided to take a break from backpackers, cities and smog, and hop off the bus in the tiny town of Phu Loc at the base of Bach Ma National Park. When the bus came to a screeching halt in front of some ramshackle huts selling a variety of goods and Hans & I collected our stuff and proceeded down the aisle of the bus, the looks the other travelers gave us were priceless- complete and utter amazement that anyone would dare descend the bus steps at an unplanned stop!

The guidebook says that Bach Ma is difficult to reach, but the second we stepped off the bus we were surrounded by locals, two of whom were motorbike drivers wanting to take us down the dirt road to the base of the mountain. The most difficult part of the journey was convincing the bus company to let us off at an unplanned stop!

After checking in at the visitor's center and arranging for our room and food for the next 24 hours, we hopped an old Russian 4WD vehicle for the 45 minute drive up to the top of the 5,000 foot mountain. The view could not have been any more stunning... or terrifying. The road was built in the 30s by the French when the mountain was a retreat for the rich and powerful French officials. Needless to say, it was only about one car-wide with no guard rails and the mountains were incredibly steep. Anticipating a peaceful evening, interrupted only by the sounds of cicadas, we were instead greeted by a large group of partying university students. After suffering through a night of them gathered around a bonfire, with their teacher yelling through a megaphone, we discovered that they were students from a tourism college traveling around Vietnam on a similar track that Westerners take. For that reason, we were quite the object of interest.

Over dinner that first night we befriended one of the rangers, Ming, who told us a bit about the animals in the park, including frequently spotted snakes and many species of birds, as well as the less frequently seen tigers and monkeys. On our first treks through the forest, we saw hundreds of gigantic butterflies with intricately patterned wings as well as eagles and other interesting birds, but no tigers or monkeys! These butterflies, with brilliant colors and patterns, were a non-entity to him because they were so common.

The hiking in the park was quite an experience, unlike any either of us have seen. Embarking on the "Five Lakes Path" we expected a quiet stroll through the breaktaking scenery. What we got was a terrifying (at lest to Rebecca who was in tears much of the time!) rock climbing experience, with only a thin wire to grasp onto in parts of the trek. Even Hans admitted that it was "very trecherous." Alas, we made it through the first four lakes relatively unscathed and the scenery WAS worth it. The fifth lake lay at the bottom of the famous Rhododendron Falls- a mere 1,000 foot drop. In spite of the ranger's warning that a monsoon was approaching we set off for the path, which we were told was significantly less trecherous. While the trail to the TOP of the fall was in fact a basic hiking trail, the descent to the bottom was again unlike anything either of us had experienced. The sign at the top of the staircase warned: "This staircase contains 696 steps: only attempt if you are physically fit and have sufficient time." What the sign should have said was only attempt if you do not experience vertigo and are mentally fit! Each leave-covered step was bigger and steeper than the next, and the sky continued to darken with the approaching monsoon. When we reached step 250 it suddenly turned from staircase into ladder with approximately a 70 degree angle, and the thunder began. I absolutely refused to go on which we later agreed was for the best. The wind was whipping as we tried to race back up the 250 steps before the rain started. The second we reached the top, the sky opened up over us. As we huddled under a tree we were enveloped by the low flying storm cloud; thunder was booming all around us, lightening was strking the trees in the surrounding forest and we were completely drenched. It was absolutely terrifying. We tried to wait it out, but finally decided to begin the 45 minute walk back to the guesthouse. As we walked we could feel leeches crawling through our sneakers. After several attempts to remove them, we realized new arrivals were impossible to prevent. Upon arrival at the guesthouse, I was lucky enough to have a little sucker embedded in the side of my foot; he just didn't want to let go. There were many more left behind in the shoes.

When we decided to stay a second night in spite of our rain-soaked adventure, the ranger offered to move us to a quieter , but very simple, location also owned by the national park at the very top of the highest peak so that we could get away from the screaming university students. We spent the night on the floor of a circular building with views of the ocean to our east, the border of Lao to the west, the city of Hue to the north and countless stars in the sky. This building was perched on top of a very narrow ridge which fell off at an almost cliff-like angle, although the mountain sides were covered in jungle. This made it feel like you were in an airplane 5000 ft in the air when we looked out from the windows in our little round bedroom.

The next day one of the rangers dropped us back in the tiny town so we could flag down a bus to take us to Hue, a little over an hour north. Our wait was short; we hopped on a bus full of karaoke-singing university students. We spent the afternoon on a whirlwind motorbike tour of some of Hue's key sights, all of which were outside of the city surrounded by rice paddies. The locals were in the midst of the rice harvest, so it was an incredible experience to watch them as we sped through their villages. Our speedy tourguide showed us the Royal Tombs, which date back to the 19th century, Bunker Hill and a couple of very beautiful temples. One of the temples was founded in the 17th century by a poor man who wanted to escape the noise of Hue, and live in tranquility where he could cultivate his own inner peace. He chose an empty plot of land and built a small bamboo hut for himself and his elderly mother. The Emperor at the time recognized his goodness and provided him with materials to build the temple that stands there today. In spite of our tour guide's hustling nature, we managed to linger near the shrine where the saffron-robed Buddhist monks were chanting their melodic evening prayers.

That evening we boarded an overnight train to Hanoi...

Ha Noi, Viet Nam

May 19th, 15:42

We are now in Ha Noi, feeling like our trip in Viet Nam is winding down, even though we have more than a week left. Starting on Monday morning at 5 am, we set off on two back-to-back tours: a 3-day trip to Ha Long Bay, and a 4-day trip to Sa Pa, in the mountains near the Chinese border. Yes, yes, we are actually doing tours, but they are really the only way to get to see these areas without a lot of time. Next time I come to Viet Nam, no more group tours. Especially since we just met an amazing guide and are kicking ourselves for already booking a tour.

We went into a book exchange/store, common here in travellers' streets, and as we left, a man sitting at the desk there asked if we would do him a favor. He wanted us to read some things that he had written in English and correct them to make them read better. They were little descriptions of various tours. After we helped the man with a few, we started talking. Khanh, the man at the desk, said that he was a guide and that these were things he was working on for a website to advertise his services. He comes from a small town about 150km from Ha Noi. He is a guide for hire and generally waits in this bookstore to meet people and offer his services. He is trying to get business via word-of-mouth so that he can get people through referals.

What impressed me so much about Khanh was that he has a very carefully thought-out philosophy which he follows when leading tours. His specialty is tours through rural villages and nature. But rather than just showing up on the scene in a small village and unleashing the hoards of camera toting Westerners, with fat wallets and certain expectations, Khanh stops the car outside of the village, walking into it as the locals do. I must say that after a few such experiences to the contrary, where we were just driven up to the 'site', then herded to the where someone was selling the obligitory crafts or drinks and plastic junk, hearing about Khanh's approach definitely struck a chord with me.

But now, back to Ha Noi. Its definitely a nice city, an interesting mix of French colonial and Vietnamese styles. And its definitely a food city, something Rebecca and I have been having trouble resisting. There are so many really good restaurants here, the most expensive costing no more than $6 for a whole spread including wine, dessert, etc. etc. But we have been going over budget recently so we are trying to resist. For example, for lunch today, we went to 'Seafood Road', an alley way along the shore of one of Ha Noi's many lakes. While sitting 6 feet from the shore, we ate a delicious bbq, battered trout topped with chilis, onions, garlic, and a subtle sweet and sour sauce. In true Vietnamese style, the meal required quite a bit of assembly using the variety of fresh ingredients on a plate between us: dill, lemon weed, cucumbers, pineapple, and green bananas. It was all held together by a piece of rice paper sealed with a hot pepper/apple sauce. Yes, a world of flavors in one bite, but it actually worked quite well, with each bite having a different balance of flavors. Together with two beers and rice: $6.60.

In the past two days, we ate at two restaurants started by Vietnamese who emigrated to other countries and came back. Both of them were started with the purpose of training street kids of Ha Noi to work in fancy restaurants. Apparently there are many street kids in Ha Noi who are either orphans or children of poor rural families who where sent to the city to make it on their own. The first place, Hoa Sua, specialized in French and Vietnamese food and full on service, with flashy dishes cooked at your table by one of the trainees with a chef overlooking. I had an amazing Vietnamese combo dish and the others, Rebecca, Josh and Claire, two Canadians we met on our travels, all raved about the food. The bill for four: $17.50.

The other, Ko To, toned down the 'fancy' service down a bit, but the food was also delicious. The guy who started this one, Jimmy Pham, is quite ambitious, planning on opening other restaurants with the same purpose in all the major cities of Vietnam. For more info on Ko To and the related charity, Street Voices, go to:

Ha Long and Sa Pa, Viet Nam by Rebecca Granato

June 10, 16:29

Northern Vietnam...

Three days in Halong Bay were definitely not enough, if only because the ferry ride was so very torturous! We boarded the hydrofoil expecting a lulling 2- hour ride of novel reading. About one hour into the trip the currents changed and we were suddenly being thrown around like an inner tube in the open sea. At first, the Vietnamese tourists, who were the only people on the boat besides our tour of nine, were screaming like little kids on a rollarcoaster. And then... silence... as everyone bent there heads and puked into little plastic bags the captain was spunkily distributing.

After the ferry we boarded a luxury wooden boat where we would sleep for the next two nights and from which we would kayak for the next three days. Halong Bay is like no other place in the world. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the bay is riddled with jungle-covered limestone cliffs that jut out of the water everywhere you look. Without a guide, it would be quite easy to get lost in the maze. Some of the larger structures contain long caves that only kayaks can manuveur through in order to reach pristine, enclosed bodies of water at the other end of the tunnel. Our guide took us through two of these tunnels, both of which were filled with stalagmites, stalagtites and bats napping on the ceiling just a few feet above our heads.

Few people live in Halong Bay, only a couple of floating fishing villages. The maze-like appearance of the cliffs also made it so we saw very few tourist boats.

At the end of our three day kayak trip, still coated in salt water, we left on an overnight train to Lao Cai where we would catch a minibus up the mountain to Sa Pa. Little did we know when we signed up with this self-proclaimed adventure tour company for these two trips, that half the adventure would lie in the transportation TO the sites! This particular bus ride was only 17 miles to the top, but it took 2 hours. We arrived in the midst of major repairs being done to the one-lane road, originally constructed in the 1930s by the French. Now, in the States, this wouldn't have been such a big deal; it probably would involve some traffic as cars waited for the bulldozer to get out of the way. In Vietnam, this meant mountains and mountains of mud through which our minibus had to slip and slide at the height of monsoon season! Like any mountain road in a third world country, there were some amazingly sharp curves (with no side railings, of course) accented by breathtaking cliffs.

Alas, we made it to the top physically unscathed, albeit somewhat shaken by the hair-raising ride. Yet again, a destination to linger in order to put off the return trip.

We, along with two Canadians, two Quebecois and our guide Huong, immediately set off from Sa Pa (5,300 feet) for our three day trek through the Hill Tribe villages. The first day was mostly downhill for about 7 miles, through several Black H'Mong villages. The H'Mong people constitue about 70% of the hill tribe population outside of Sa Pa, and are also the poorest of the lot. According to our guide, they are dirty, don't take care of their houses or children, and spend their money on drink instead of taking care of their homes. Not exactly a rave review. The people would invite us into their homes to look around and our guide would point out the cob webs in the rafters and the dirty children running around. Although none of the adults spoke English, it made us a bit uncomfortable to be insulting these people in their own homes. Some of the children we met, however, spoke amazing English. One little girl that I bought a bracelet from* spoke fluently, asking us all sorts of questions in addition to "what is your name, where are you from?" According to her, the children do not learn English in school, but only from the backpackers that come through.

(*I was later reprimanded for doing this. Apparently we should not buy from the children, as it then encourages them not to attend school but to spend their days peddling their wares to the tourists. In spite of my little saleslady's claim that she went to school from 7-10 that morning, I rather doubt it.)

After spending the night in a loft area of one of the tribe's homes, we set off in the midst of a downpour for our second day of trekking. Navigating the steep hills of the second day's 8 hour hike resulted in some amusing photographs. Hans definitely took the cake for the most dramatic falls. At one memorable point of the trek, while 8 of us waited at the top of an incredibly steep muddy decline for our guide to collect rocks for us to step one, Hans decided he would give it a go without any traction aids. One step into his descent, he was off- on his butt, sliding through the bright orange mud. Halfway down, he managed to stop and get to his feet. As he turned toward to top to tell the rest of us, who were nearly in tears from laughing so hard, that "it isn't so bad here, I think I can walk," his feet gave out and he slid the rest of the way down at lightening speed.

There were many more mud accidents that day. By the time we reached the home where we were staying for the second night, our clothes, shoes and bodies, were nearly completely coated in the sticky orange mud. We stayed with an incredibly welcoming family that evening. At the beginning of dinner, our host poured all of us shots of his homemade rice wine and wished us all good health. A few shots later and the three girls decided it was time for bed, while Hans, Josh and Jean Pierre joined the men of house in polishing off another liter of the rice wine. Needless to say, hangovers were in attendance at breakfast the following morning.

After a third day of trekking through mud, we arrived back in Sa Pa town, where Hans & I would spend another night in a quaint guesthouse perched on the side of the mountain. Wandering around the town that night, we concluded that there was a definite alpine character to the buildings and the scenery. The highest peak, Fansipan, just opposite our hotel, was shrouded in clouds during our entire visit, and clouds hung low throughout the valley we overlooked.

Sa Pa was a highlight of the trip to Vietnam; a perfect ending to our one- month trip.

Bangkok, Thailand

May 31th, 19:17

So we have left Viet Nam. We are back in Bangkok and though we were dreading it, it seems that rainy season has set in, breaking the incredible heat and humidity that we were so glad to flee from only a month ago. Leaving Viet Nam, we were presented with an odd little occurance which made the trip seem almost circular. Upon our arrival in Saigon, we had briefly spoken to an American couple while trying to figure out the taxi situation. We talked a little about our travels, and then took separate taxis, never running into each other again. As we on the Air France line in the Ha Noi airport, we saw two familiar faces: that very same couple. We said hello, and decided to take a cab with them this time, just to honor the coincidence.

They turned out to be very stoned, burnouts who were living in Taiwan. The most conversation they could muster in the 45 minute cab ride was a response to my questions about travelling in Cambodia and whether it has changed. "Oh yeah, my friend was just there, and he said that they no longer have those bowls of free marijuana at all of the bars. That really sucks." So we decided that the cab ride was enough time spend with them, and happily got out at our hotel well off the tourist strip, leaving them to venture further on into the heart of Khao San, where backpacking gringos outnumber Thais 2 to 1. But our beautiful hotel which we booked before leaving bangkok, Villa Guesthouse, did not answer their bell, so we had to trudgingly make our way to the outskirts of Khao San to find a room to sleep in. Luckily the next morning, Villa answered their bell, and we are happily situated in a original Bangkok-style teak house, furnished completely with Thai teak antiques and 50's vintage fans. It is literally a house, with two bathrooms shared among 6 rooms and the entry was a kind of sitting room and lobby, decorated with all sorts of antiques and pictures seemingly of old family members hanging in between the slightly dishelved bookshelves. We haven't had a chance to nap in the hammocks in the yard, with lush vegetation, a couple of papaya trees, and a small shrine in the corner which are so common in Thailand.

We are still adjusting to culture shock here. Not because Bangkok is so foreign, but rather familiar as compared to Viet Nam. From arriving in the airport, taking a taxi along a large expressway filled with new Japanese cars, lined with modern buildings that could be found in Dallas or LA, it seemed that we could be arriving in just about any American city. But Banglampu, the old city area, feels different because there are still mostly 2 story buildings and many old-style teak houses, like the one we are staying with. Plus a large section of it, known as Khao San after the small street in the center of it, is swarming with the backpackers, grungy people from all over Europe, Australia, and a few from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan as well. Unless you are looking for cheap alcohol, dreaded hair weaves, or 'special' massages, this is not a charming area to be in. But after wandering around this enormous city, I think there are only small pockets that have any of the old Thai feeling.

Bangkok is a sprawling metropolis, quite impressive actually, with my layers. When taking the bus through the streets here, it always felt as though there was some parallel road or bridge above us. The streets are very wide, often 5 or 6 lanes on a side, with many elevated intersections and expressways. The buildings tend to be large, modern buildings, with 15 stories seeming to be about average. There are 7-Elevens and McDonald's everywhere, and a few competing chains from other parts of the world. It feels like Bangkok's very rapid growth of the past twenty years was too fast to be controlled, overwhelming any Thai influence that might of crept in. In the most modern areas, there is even a preponderance of the Roman alphabet instead of Thai, which for me is a sad development since the Thai script is quite beautiful. And its how their language is written after all. Pretty much everyone agrees that there isn't really a reason to linger in Bangkok, but the rest of Thailand is supposed to be quite contrary, very laid back and almost completely Thai.

Returning to Bangkok after a month in Viet Nam really gelled my impressions of that country and culture. Many people seem to malign Vietnamese culture, saying that they are greedy or unfriendly. For the tourist, it is easy to get that impression because of so many people trying insistently to sell their wares to the tourists. Thais are seemingly much more laid back, but I think the difference can be more attrbuted to relative wealth rather than culture: Thais earn an average of $6,700 per year, Vietnamese, $1,950. But whenever we got off the beaten track and where able to interact with Vietnamese who weren't involved with the tourist economy, we found them to be very hospitable, friendly, and welcoming.

Its time to go fine me some tasty Thai food. I'll definitely be back with more thoughts on Viet Nam as they form in my brain.

Chiang Khong, Thailand

June 12, 23:03

I am sitting here in Chiang Khong Thailand, counting the geckos on the wall in front of me. This is a new record: 9. This town lies acorss the Mekong river from Laos, our next destination, which as we have heard, is not the tourist mecca that Thailand is.Taking our bus ride up from Chiang Mai to here, we remarked that it really looked quite a bit like Copnnecticut orVermont, except that its tropical There are U.S. style gas stations, 7-Elevens, good roads, and black-on-yellow road signs that look like they could have been lifted from any American highway. One big difference is seeing the ornate Thai script.

This similarity got me thinking about Viet Nam again. The architecture here in Thailand seems to be more utilitarian. Or maybe all of the architectural energy is spent on the plentiful and very ornate Buddhist temples which are everywhere around in often stunning density. So most of the rest of the buildings are very functional, straight up concrete slab constructions which are comfortable enough, but have this tendency to get covered in mildew and look particularly ugly.

In Viet Nam, individual buildings seem to have much mnore importance since they look carefully designed, with many decorative elements on even simple one floor, one room buildings. There are three styles that have most invluenced the builders of Viet Nam: Art Deco, 50's modernism, and Vegas-style Baroque. Unfortunately, the latter style has almost completely taken over, with almost every new building having columned railings and many neo-classical cues.

But what has stuck in my mind is the Vietnamese mix of Art Deco and modernism which is prevailent throughout the country, in both urban and rural areas. Most of the buildings are very simple cinder block contructions covered in stucco, but attention was always paid to the placement of the vents in the walls, making them look ornamental, and various shade structures were cantilevered off of the front, usually concrete beams artfully arranged.

Taken with the colors used, a palette reminiscent of Miami, the Vietnamese have formed a distinct style of their own. The crowning achievement of this style was the Presidential Palace commisioned by one of South Viet Nam's U.S. supported military dictators: Diem. He was overthrown and killed by his own officers before it was completed, so he never got to see it. But the North Vietnamese recognized it as an truly Vietnamese creation, so they honored its architect and renamed it Reunification Palace.

Upon first glance, the building looks like one of those standard sixties modernist buildings with a screen of patterned concrete blocks in front of the windows. But upon approaching it, it begins to reveal its more unique qualities. Those screens serve to delineate the building since there are no walls or even windows throughout most of the building. It was built for the tropical climate, therefore only shelter from the sun and rain are required, the breezes are allowed to blow through, and the noises of the city filter it quite nicely.

Inside, a Chinese influence becomes apparent, with the interior decoration being a mix of rather traditional chinese rugs and paintings, modern versions of Chinese furniture, and many very modern designs on the walls, curtains, and table tops. It has aged much better than most comparible buildings built in the early sixties and still retains a feeling of comfortable and stylish dignity.

But the recent economic boom in Viet Nam has made many people there yearn for western things and try to imitate the west in many ways, like in so many developing countries. But luckilyin Viet Nam, there are still signs that Vietnamese will remain true to themselves. One perfect example is the recent demis of KFC and Burger King in Viet Nam. The Vietnamese didn't like them so they didn't go there. McDonald's never even tried to enter that market.

I have gotten a bit behind in writing, since I have just spent 10 days in Berlin for an arts fest. (yes Germany) you can get some info here: Look under Madagascar Institute. More on that later. Tomorrow we head for Laos, where supposedly, email is sparse and few people speak English and many people still come out to check out the funny white people. Its only a matter of time before they too become jaded then annoyed at the influx of tourists. Time to make a good impressions, since we will hopefully have a few opportunities to make some first impressions of Americans for some Lao people.

Luang Phabang, Laos

June 26th, 13:12

Anyway, we have been in Laos now for two weeks. All those cool people who come back from the SE Asia circuit call it 'Lao'. This is not just some affectation, its the actual name of the country (Patet Lao), people (Khon Lao), and language (Paa-saa Lao). 'Laos' came from the French, Le Laos, named thus since there are many Lao ethinicities, not just one, so the French called their colony 'The Laos'. But since the 's' on the end is silent, the French call the country 'lao' as well. Its just us poor sods who trusted the French spelling, forgetting that they abuse the alphabet, and so we call it Laos.

I think that we both agree that its our favorite place yet, for many reasons. First off was the relaxed pace and amazing lack of traffic. Our first stop was Ban Luang Khon, a small village 6km south of the big city of Luang Nam Tha, meaning Big River Tha, which, like the city, was not really so big. The city's population is roughly 29,000.

One of the first impressions is almost total lack of traffic. Yes, Laos is a poor country, so not many people can afford motorbikes, let alone cars. The average yearly income here is about $1400. Through the city is a four lane thoroughfare, but most of that road's occupants are sleeping dogs, strolling cows, pigs, water buffalos, chickens, etc. , a few bicycles, usually loaded with all sorts of cargo. And occasionally, a motorbike or a sawngthaew, a pickup truck with two benches and a roof on the back which serve as buses all over Laos, will wander through this collection of traffic, rarely even disturbing those dogs sleeping in the middle of the road. Yes, Laos is a relaxed place.

And the Lao people are proud of this. A couple Lao people have told us 'Lao people are lazy." This was not meant to be a disparaging comment, but rather a point of pride. We saw it in the Lao rice fields, especially when compared to Viet Nam. In Viet Nam, people were working the fields all day, seemingly without break. In Laos, little huts dot the rice fields. They are too small to be houses, instead they are built for people to take a nice afternoon nap when the heat peaks and the thunderstorms dump rain for an hour or so. There is a little saying we've heard in Viet Nam and Laos: "Vietnamese people plant the rice, Cambodians watch, and Laotians listen." Probably from those little huts which make such lovely oases from the afternoon heat.

Laos is a fortunate country is a couple ways, which seem to allow this approach to life. First and foremost, it is one of the few countries in Asia, perhaps even the world, that could be considered under-populated. Its a little bigger than Great Britain, yet has only 5-6 million people. The largest city, Vientiane, is only 120,000. And it is a lushly forested country for the most part, with many animals and even wild fruits such as bananas, mangos, rambutans. And the rivers are still relatively clean and full of fish.

All this makes it quite beautiful, especially in areas where limestone karst formations surround the village, as with Muang Ngoi, a village of a couple thousand with no roads to it, no motor vehicles whatsoever, or even bicycles for that matter. The only way to this village is via a large motorized canoe- like boat. About half of the village just got a generator about 6 months ago, so they now have electricity for 2-3 hours a night. But these are not naive villagers hailing white people as strange gods. But rather friendly, laid back, yet tourist savvy people, who are smart in their laziness. What used to be a farming village has become populated with about 15 very low key guesthouses. Why work the fields when you can earn a better living hanging out in a beautiful setting and chatting with tourists.

We stayed with the Sangaloun family, actually a newlywed couple of about 21 years. They built three bungalows from wood and bamboo, and a toilet/bathroom, squat toilets of course, and what we started calling a 'bucket shower', basically a large bucket of water with a large ladle to pour the water over you. Then the best part, they built a little sitting and dining area on stilts overlooking the river and the incredible mountains which surround Muang Ngoi. So half of the time there, we spent walking around to other villages, often through knee-deep mud on the only 'road', a footpath really, to the other villages in the area. And the other half, we spent sitting in the stilt house, taking in the scenery and talking with the Sangalouns and their 10 year old niece and nephew who liked to hang around.

There was only one other guest there, Steve, a biology professor from Chini, Washington who after a year sabatical in northern Thailand had learn much Thai and married a Thai woman. Since Thai and Lao are as close as Spanish and Italian, he was always the key to conversation beyond our very limited Lao, and the Sangaloun's limited English. We got to see their wedding pictures too, which was a huge, elaborate celebration lasting a full day involving about 250 people and numerous festive processions through the town. They were very proud to point out that they had many guests from Vientiane, which is only about 150 miles away. But when you think that it would have taken those guest at least 36 hours of travel time to get there, through a combination of bus, sawngthaew, and motorboat, then you can truly appreciate how big a deal it was.

Now Laos is indeed a poor country, and it would be easy to call its lack of development 'quaint': all of the grass huts, dirt roads, towns lit by candlelight, and farm animals running freely everywhere, both village and city. But what is so infectious about this place is that the people mostly seem to really enjoy their day-to-day lives. Yeah, sure, it would be nice to have a TV, but it'll come in due time. A flushing toilet would be convient, but it really isn't such a big deal to flush by ladling water from a bucket. That is the attitude that most Laos seem to have. There aren't big cities because the Laos don't really like them.

So now after so many years of war, the Laos have a chance to develop at their own rate, and in their own way. The U.S. reeked appalling havok here, dropping more bombs on Laos, than on all of Europe in WW II, razing many villages and forced a large part of the population to live in caves for 10 years, farming only at night to avoid the saturation bombing. As one Lao farmer put it, 'they dropped bombs on us like a man sowing seed." But more on that topic later, its time for a spicy Lao meal, with khao niaw (sticky rice) of course.

$Id: 2002.04.23-southeast_asia.html,v 1.6 2006/11/26 23:26:26 hans Exp $