Travel notes – Laos

Wow… how hard it is to write about the country that stole my heart…

It was easier to write a Love Letter to Laos than to write about the places I visited during almost 3 months there. The moment I started listing places I’ve been to, people I’ve met, things I’ve done, food I’ve eaten, saudade hit me, and hit me hard. And for more than a month I procrastinated and postponed this post – the first part of my travel notes on Laos.

Hard to explain how and why, but I’ll never forget Delilah’s key lime pie and sunset in Nong Khiaw; the winding roads leading to Xamtai and the amazing weaving work I saw there; the caves in Viangxay; my first sunset on the ❤ Mekong ❤ in Thakhek; Bang Fei Cave in the company of the French who meditate; a bungalow, a hammock, and the best hashbrown ever in Don Det, at Mama Mon’s Guesthouse; the ❤ Mekong ❤ and my “secret” beach in Don Khone; waterfalls in the Bolaven Plateau; Captain Hook and all-you-can-know about coffee; visa runs to Thailand (and not from Thailand, as it usually goes); hangover after meeting the South Africans in Vientiane; duck love 60km North of Vang Vieng; Secret Pizza in Luang Prabang; and the slow goodbye going up the Mekong towards Thailand.

There are so many things to write about Laos. So many things other than simple travel notes. Feelings, flavors, colors, faces, roads, valleys, mountains, rivers. But for now: travel notes.

My itinerary was as shown below.

Vietnam >> Muang Khua > Muang Ngoi > Nong Khiaw > Xamneua (via Viengthong) > Viengxay > Xamtai > Viengxay/Xamneua > Phonsavanh > Thakhek > Thakhek loop > [visa run 1] > Pakse > Don Det/Don Khone > Pakse/Champasak/Don Ko > Thakhek > [visa run 2] > Vientiane > Vang Vieng > Ban Chieng (Tao Guesthouse) > Luang Prabang > Huay Xay >> Thailand [In bold the places I’m going to cover for now].

IMG_9337
Exploring and falling in love with Laos

Laos – Part I

I entered Laos from Vietnam. Took a bus in Lao Cai to Dien Bien Phu and from there a minibus to Muang Khua. The border crossing was ok. The visa for Brazilians cost US$30 plus small fees at the border that add to about US$6. Everyone needs a photography. Visa is valid for 28 days. To get a new visa all you need to do is to cross the border (in my case to Thailand) or ask for an extension at the police department (not everywhere, but for sure in Pakse, Luang Prabang, Vientiane); extension costs US$2/day plus admin fees. If the plan is to stay another month in Laos, the best option is a visa run. Or two. Or three 😉

I) Muang Khua – Muang Ngoi –  Nong Khiaw

 >>> Muang Khua is a small village and most people stop there on the way from/to Northern Vietnam. I didn’t do anything special there but heard there are nice walks and hikes to hill tribes. In Muang Khua my love for sticky rice started…
>>> Muang Ngoi is a small village at the riverbank of the Nam Ou (Ou River). From Muang Khua we took a boat (120k kip each) and the journey took approximately 3 hours. The boat leaves when it’s full or you have to pay for chartering it, which can be quite expensive if traveling on a budget. Tip: if you’re the first one on the pier, you’re probably getting a higher price for the ticket. Get there and wait for other people before inquiring about the price.
Muang Ngoi is lovely. Great place to stay for a few days and just relax. There are hikes to local villages where there are homestays as cheap as 10k kip/person. Guesthouses around the village vary from 50-80k kip/person or room. Negotiate and you’ll get a good deal.
The Chinese are building a dam upstream and the project includes a road that will connect Muang Ngoi to other towns in the area. I believe it will impact the peaceful and car-less atmosphere.
>>> The boat from Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw leaves around 8:30am and takes 1.5 hour.
In Nong Khiaw Laos started to steal my heart… I didn’t know it yet.

My favorite place to stay is also where I had the best key lime pie in SE Asia: Delilah’s Cafe. Karen and I offered to help with designing a new menu and were honored by having a pictured of us hanging on the wall 🙂 Let me know if you find it!

What a hard task to put together a new menu with pictures of the delicious dishes prepared by Miss Lie! We had to order the ones we didn’t have a picture yet… and eat! Oh, oh… there goes my healthy diet based on Vietnamese Pho… The highlight of the menu? KEY-LIME PIE! The.Best.Pie in SE Asia! I mean it. Really mean it.

Harps, who manages Delilah’s, also runs Tiger Trails and is a live information desk – he hates it, but it’s true. He knows everything about bus schedules, things to do and see, etc. Tiger Trails organizes tours to the main attractions in the area, including the 100 waterfall. Stop by and spare a few minutes chatting with this unique New Zealander. At first he might seem a bit crazy… but hey! who isn’t?! You can trust his recommendations 100%.

I didn’t do any of the tours despite staying in Nong Khiaw for 6 days – original plan: 2-3 – but I did check out the viewpoint across the bridge to watch the sunset. The view is beautiful! The hike is steep and took me a bit more than 1 hour. If going for the sunset don’t forget to bring a headlamp with you. The trail is pretty closed by vegetation and can be dark even if the sun is not 100% gone. I saw people taking sleeping bags and planning to stay at the viewpoint overnight so they could watch the sunrise. It’s an option – not sure if an officially allowed one – for those who want to get sunset and sunrise but don’t want to hike up twice.

Other places to eat and stay in Nong Khiaw: crossing the bridge there are two Indian restaurants that serve cheap and very good food (Deen and Chennai). No need to feel bad for choosing one over the other; it turns out it’s all in the same family. I preferred the food at Chennai and loved the mint-lime shake at Deen. If in doubt, try both. For accommodation, there are plenty of bungalows with hammock and river view.

I had no idea where to go after Nong Khiaw. First I thought of going northwest to Luang Namtha, near the border with Myanmar, cause the original plan was to cross to Thailand in Thakhek – so it made sense to explore the North before heading South. Karen wanted to go to Luang Prabang, but I didn’t feel like going to a “big” city just yet. What to do? Where to go next? Maybe stay longer in Nong Khiaw? I could definitely do that until I met Remigio, a Mexican visiting Laos to learn more about the country’s silk and weaving. Oh… did I say weaving? Yes… and Remigio pointed me to the Northeastern part of Laos, to Xamtai to be more exact, saying the village was known for having the best silk and weaving in the whole country.

That was it! So we headed East!

[NOTE] >>>> You can also go to Phonsaly, going north on Nam Ou (Ou River). I didn’t go but heard it has some interesting hikes and hill tribes to visit,

II) Viengthong – Xamneua – Viengxay – Xamtai >> from Nong Khiaw you can take a bus on a loooong journey to Viengthong where there’s a national park where you can see – if really, really lucky – tigers. I only spent the night in Viengthong (at a guesthouse at the bus station) to break the journey to Xamneua in 2. The ride was very bumpy, winding and I dont know how people can do it in just 1 day! If you get carsick, make sure you have plenty of Dramin pills with you. Also, be aware that the locals get really – really – carsick, so be prepared to having people throwing up in plastic bags next to you. (sorry… was this comment gross? well, if you plan to travel by bus/mini-bus/van in Vietnam and Laos, you’d better get used to it – also to peeing wherever the driver stops as bathroom breaks don’t usually include bathrooms)

Most people go to Viengthong and continue to Phonsavanh instead of  Xamneua.

>>> Xamneua is just a stop for people traveling to/from Vietnam (there’s another border crossing near, could be another option for you). It’s still interesting, but I wouldn’t spend too much time there. NOTE*** if you plan to head to Viengxay, you should take a tuktuk as soon as you get to Xamneua bus station to the other station (it’s far to walk!). Last bus to Viengxay leaves around noon if I remember correctly. You can also take a taxi, but it will be more expensive (150k kip).

Because I was hungry when we arrived in Xamneua, I couldn’t think clearly and was very irritated by the tuk tuk drivers who approached us. I wanted food. That’s all I could think of. Only after finding some sticky rice, we realized the bus to Viengxay left from another station. And we walked, and walked, and walked.

And when we got there, there were no more buses. Luckily we were able to get a ride with a Chinese who’s working in Laos. It was probable the most comfortable road trip we had during all our time in the country. The car was clean, silent, the ac worked, the driver was not “crazy”.

>>> Viengxay is known by the caves where the Lao government hid and operated from 1964-1973, when the country was heavily bombed by the US. Yes… Laos suffered intense bombing during the Vietnam war, even though it was never on war against the US. Still today there are thousands of UXOs (unexploded ordnances) in Lao lands, which prevent the land to be worked and still cause many fatalities.
When in Viengxay, you should visit the caves and learn more about the history behind the bombings. In order to do that, you’ll need a guide (they keep the keys to the caves, so you can’t visit them by yourself). Book your tour at the tourist center. It’s worth visiting, and the visit takes around 2-3 hours.

For food, there’s also a good Indian restaurant in town, called Sabaidee Odisha. Try the Uttapam!

>>> Xamtai is the weaving village Remigio told me about. It was quite an adventure to get there. It’s far. It’s cold. Nobody speaks English. Nobody really understands why two farang want to get there. But the weaving… ah… it’s just AMAZING! I felt the language barrier while visiting Xamtai. I wanted to ask so many questions about the silk farming, the weaving techniques, the history and tradition behind the patterns… But I couldn’t find an English speaker (only weeks after I left, I learned there’s one person at the Culture/Tourism center who speaks English and is keen in showing around).

I left Xamtai with plans to go back. Maybe to stay longer, maybe learn from the weavers. That’s for sure a place I’ll go back to.

III) After Xamtai, we finally started to make our way South, through Phonsavanh, the place where the Plain of Jars are located – archeological sites with huge jars that nobody really knows how/why they got there. If you’re into archeology, you should check it out. Another must see while in town in the MAG UXO visitor center, with videos and photos about the period when Laos was bombarded by the US, and the challenges the country still faces due to existing UXOs.

In Phonsavanh we stayed at Janeeda Guesthouse, and were stuck there one day more than planned because buses to Thakhek only run every other day. And once on our way to Thakhek I opened another chapter of my love for Laos. Soon I would meet, for the first time, the ❤ Mekong ❤

[more about Southern Laos and then my way North again pretty soon!]

Por que você viaja?

IMG_9055.JPGFoi a pergunta feita pelo meu parceiro de remadas, num caiaque perto da ilha de Cat Ba, no norte do Vietnam. Diante do meu silêncio, ele insistiu “Rita, por que você viaja? Qual a sua razão para isso?”

Eu estava sentada na parte de trás e ele não conseguia ver meu rosto – meus olhos de um lado para o outro, tentando encontrar a resposta escondida em algum lugar do meu cérebro. Depois de mais uns minutos em silêncio eu respondi “Ótima pergunta! Eu não sei…”

Eu fui honesta. Nunca pensei ou busquei a razão pela qual eu viajo. Para mim, viajar sempre foi algo mais do que natural. Sempre achei que fosse o meu sangue espanhol, meio cigano. Eu cresci numa família que acha que a ideia de férias perfeitas é dirigir o máximo de quilômetros possíveis durante as férias, fossem 3 dias, 3 semanas, 3 meses ou 3 anos.

Nós continuamos remando, e eu continuei na busca pelo porquê. “Para conhecer novos lugares e culturas? Para ver paisagens diferentes? Para provar novas comidas? Ter novas experiências? Conhecer pessoas?”

“Eu não sei”, eu repeti em voz alta. E eu realmente não sabia.

Por muitas semanas essa pergunta ficou me perturbando. Comecei a perguntar para pessoas ao meu redor. Cada um com uma resposta diferente e eu ainda sem a minha. Até que um dia, enquanto dirigia entre paredões de calcário e observava a mudança de cores no céu antes do por do sol, a resposta veio: eu viajo porque viajar me faz viver o hoje. Porque viajar me mantem no presente.

 

Viajar me permite viver e focar no presente como nunca antes.

Quanto tempo eu gastei nesses meus 30+ anos pensando sobre o passado! Nas coisas que eu fiz ou disse, nas coisas que não fiz ou não disse; nas coisas que eu poderia ou deveria ter feito diferente.

Quanto tempo eu gastei pensando no futuro! O que eu vou fazer? Onde vou estar? Relacionamentos baseados em “deixa eu ver como você vai ser daqui a um tempo para poder decidir se vale mesmo a pena investir nessa relação” me fizeram perder tanto tempo presente. Sempre esperando por algo melhor, por um futuro que nunca chegou.

Nós tendemos a gastar nosso tempo pensando no passado e no futuro e acabamos por viver o presente como um ponto de transição entre o ontem e o amanhã. Não prestamos atenção ao que estamos fazendo agora porque não abraçamos o agora.

Viajando eu encontrei uma forma de viver o presente, um dia por vez.

As pessoas me perguntam como eu passo meus dias. Bem, eu acordo, tomo banho, decido o que vou comer de café da manhã e o que vou fazer com meu dia. Visitar atrações turísticas, trabalhar, escrever, andar sem rumo, ficar deitada na rede. Eu faço uma escolha e desfruto. Se decido trabalhar, eu sei que vou passar horas em frente do computador ao invés de explorar cavernas, cachoeiras, ou me locomover para o próximo destino. Eu decido e abraço minha escolha. Eu não me julgo se escolho fazer nada. Às vezes, “nada” é tudo o que preciso. Às vezes, o que preciso é me jogar na estrada, pegar um ônibus local que leva horas e mais horas para chegar no próximo destino.

Claro que eu penso sobre o futuro. Para onde essa experiência vai me levar? O que eu vou fazer com todas essas coisas que tenho aprendido sobre o mundo, e sobre eu mesma? A questão é que eu não foco apenas no futuro. Viajar me força a tomar decisões hoje, agora, no presente.

Você pode estar pensando “Ah, mas é fácil falar quando você está vivendo desse jeito, conhecendo lugares e pessoas diferentes a cada dia. Fácil quando você não tem que estar num escritório de segunda a sexta.” É verdade que eu não tenho uma vida de escritório, mas isso não significa que não tenho uma rotina e meus rituais diários. Não significa que eu não questiono minhas escolhas ou tenho dúvidas sobre o caminho que escolhi. Não significa que eu não tenho responsabilidades para comigo mesma ou com os outros. Mas o meu processo de tomada de decisão está baseado no presente.

Quando encontro pessoas novas, eu me permito apreciar e aproveitar as curtas ou longas conversas. É provável que eu nunca veja essas pessoas, por isso eu me permito estar presente e apreciar o momento.

O mesmo se aplica às mudanças na paisagem. Nenhuma foto é capaz de capturar a beleza de se observar as mudanças de relevo, cores e aromas de um lugar ao outro. De montanhas para vales, de rios para o mar, da brisa gelada ao calor sem brisa. Se não me permitir sentir tudo isso, como poderei falar sobre isso?

Por que eu viajo?

Para viver o presente; para no futuro contar histórias sobre o meu passado.

E você? Por que você viaja?

Why do you travel?

IMG_8595Was the question my kayaking partner asked me while rowing somewhere near Cat Ba island, in Northern Vietnam. I stayed quiet and he asked again “Rita, why do you travel? What’s your reason for it?”

I was in the back seat and he couldn’t see my face – my eyes going from side to side, trying to look inside my brain in search for something to say. From me he only got a long silence before “That’s a good question! I don’t really know…”

I was honest. I never really thought about the reason behind it. Traveling for me has always been something natural. I blame it on my Spanish-gypsy blood. For my family the idea of a perfect vacation involves driving as many kilometers as possible in whatever number of days you have off – 3 days, 3 months, 3 years.

As we continued rowing I asked myself “To visit different places and cultures?  To see different landscapes? To try different food? Have new experiences? Meet new people?” “I don’t know”, I said again. And I really didn’t.

For many weeks, the question was stuck in my mind. I started asking people around me, they had different reasons, and I still couldn’t find mine. Until one day, I was driving amongst limestone walls and appreciating the changing colors of a pre-sunset sky, and voilà: I travel because it makes me experience today. Because traveling keeps me in the present.

Traveling allows me to live, experience, and focus on the present as I’ve never done before.

How much time I have spent thinking about the past! Things I’ve done or said, things I haven’t, things I should or could have done differently.

How much time I have spent thinking about the future! What am I going to do? Where am I going to be? Past relationships based on “let me see how you’re going to be next so I can decide if you’re good for me or not” made me waste so much present time, always waiting for something better, for a future that never came.

We tend to spend so much time thinking about the past and the future, that we live the present as a transition point, not as the present. We don’t really pay attention to what we are doing now because we are not embracing now.

Traveling I found a way of living the present, one day at a time.

People ask me what my days are like. I wake up, have a shower, decide what I’m having for breakfast and how I want to spend my day. Sightseeing, working, writing, just walking around or laying in a hammock. I make a decision and enjoy it. If I decide to do some work I know I’m choosing to spend a couple of hours in front of the computer instead of seeing waterfalls or caves, or moving to another place. I make the decision and embrace it. I don’t judge myself for doing “nothing” in a city with so many things to do and see. Sometimes all I need is “nothing”, sometimes I feel like taking a local bus and spending hours on bumpy winding roads just to get somewhere new, where I can wake up and decide how I want to spend my day, all over again.

Off course I think about the future. Where am I going from here? What am I going to do with all the new things I’m learning from this incredible journey.  But I do not focus only on the future. Traveling forces me to make present decisions.

One might think “Oh, it’s easy for you, you’re living the life, meeting new people, seeing new places. You’re not stuck in an office five days a week.” Yes, I’m not, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have a routine and daily rituals. Doesn’t mean I don’t question my decisions or have doubts about them. But the way my decision making process works is based on the present.

When I meet new people I let myself appreciate and enjoy the short or long conversations I have with them, people I’ll probably never see again. I allow myself to be present, to appreciate the moment.

Same applies to watching the changes in landscape. No pictures can capture the beauty of noticing the changes of scenery from one place to another, from mountains to valleys, from rivers to the sea, from cold breeze to a steam hot air. If I don’t allow myself to feel it, how will I ever be able to talk about it?

Why do I travel? To live the present so in the future I can tell stories about my past.

Why do you travel?

 

“There are only two days in the year when nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live.”

(Dalai Lama)

Uma Carta de Amor*

[Thakhek – 06 de Março de 2017]

Antes de te encontrar me falaram que você era bacana, mas que eu não deveria gastar meu tempo tentando te conhecer melhor. Duas ou três semanas seriam mais do que suficientes; depois disso eu me cansaria e partiria para outra.

Eu tinha planos de voltar para algo que já tinha despertado meu interesse assim que me cansasse de você. Mas eis que aqui estou, ainda olhando para você, apreciando sua beleza. Completamente apaixonada.

Já se passaram dois meses e você ainda me impressiona e me diverte com suas cores, formas, cheiros e sabores. Você me mantém curiosa e cheia de vontade de aprender mais sobre sua história, suas pessoas, seus medos e desafios. Me diga: como eu posso te ajudar? Como podemos trabalhar juntos? O que eu preciso fazer para continuar perto de você?

Quem me conhece anda dizendo que estou mais bonita. Que meus olhos têm um brilho especial e que meu sorriso está ainda maior. Estão dizendo que irradio alegria e, embora não seja 100% por sua causa – estou alegre porque sinto que estou no lugar certo para meu corpo, mente e alma-, você tem sim um bocado a ver com isso.

Você me ajudou a reencontrar uma antiga paixão: tear; me mostrando  trabalhos lindos e inspiradores, feitos for pessoas talentosas, em cantos remotos.

Você me ensinou a relaxar e seguir a energia de cada momento, inclusive me fez quebrar regras de vez em quando. Me fez provar coisas novas e experimentar mais.

Você me deu amantes e me trouxe um novo amor.

Você me fez sentir anos mais jovem, apesar de eu ficar um ano mais velha ao seu lado.

Nas montanhas, lá no norte, você me mostrou vistas de tirar o fôlego enquanto brincávamos de esconde-esconde durante o por do sol.

E quando seguíamos para o sul eu percebi quanta diversidade você carrega. As montanhas deram espaço a planícies, a brisa fresca a ondas de calor; e quando o ar ficou pesado de tão quente você me apontou águas frescas onde me banhar. E assim encontrei um outro amor: o rio Mekong ❤

Como não te amar?! Por suas redes, seu arroz grudento, suas cavernas, canoas, cachoeiras. Você me surpreendeu com sua diversidade cultural: comida indiana, café japonês, petanque & pastis.

E me surpreendeu ainda mais com suas estradas sinuosas que – apesar do meu histórico de enjôos em longas viagens – me mantiveram sã e salva.

Você também me fez chorar e me deu algumas cicatrizes novas. Ao aprender sobre suas bombas e medos eu não aguentei e não segurei as lágrimas.

Mas acima de tudo você me deu novos amigos, novas inspirações, novas histórias para contar.

Histórias sobre pessoas, lugares, sentimentos.

Histórias de amor.

*Para o Laos

A Love Letter*

 

[Thakhek – March 06, 2017]

Before meeting you, I was told you were nice but not worth the time to get to know you better. Two or three weeks should be enough before getting tired of you and moving on.

I had plans to go back to something else  as soon as I was done with you. But here I am, still looking at you, appreciating your beauty. Completely in love.

It’s been two months and you still amaze – and amuse – me with your colors, shapes, smells, and flavors. You keep me curious and eager to learn more about your history, your people, your fears, and challenges. Tell me: how can I help you? How can we work together? What do I need to do to stay close to you?

People who know me are saying I look great. That my eyes are shining and my smile is wider. They say I irradiate happiness and although it’s not only your fault – I’m happy because I feel I’m in the right place for my body, mind and soul – you do have a lot to do with it.

You helped me reconnect with an old passion: weaving; showing me beautiful and inspiring work made in remote places by very talented people.

You also taught me to be more relaxed, go with the flow, and even break some rules once in a while. You made me try new things and experiment more.

You gave me lovers, and love.

You made me feel years younger, despite becoming a year older while with you.

Up in the mountains, in the North, you showed me breathtaking views, while playing hide and seek during the sunset.

Heading South, I realized how diverse you could be. The mountains gave space to plains, the cool breeze to heat waves, and when I thought I could no longer breath, you pointed me fresh waters to bath in. And then something else to love: the Mekong ❤

How not to love you?! – For your hammocks, khao niao, your caves, and canoes, and waterfalls. You surprised me with Indian food, Japanese Cafe, petanque & pastis.

You surprised me even more with your winding roads that – despite my lifelong history of car sickness – kept me sane and safe.

You also made me cry and gave me a few new scars. Learning about your bombs and fears was very touching; I couldn’t hold my tears.

But most importantly, you presented me with new friends, new inspirations, and new stories to tell.

Stories about people, places, feelings.

Stories about love.

 

*To Laos

Travel notes – Vietnam

Part II

img_7162
First things first 🙂

(Part I here)

We arrived in Hanoi on Christmas Eve, on a full train coming from Ninh Binh. We spent the trip chatting with a smiley 9 years-old girl and her family. Everyone going to Hanoi for the weekend.

It was the first time since Livia joined me that we were not attacked by tuk tuk and taxi drivers on the way out of the train station. Point for Hanoi! From there we took a bus (more points to Hanoi!) and walked a few blocks to get to our hostel (Old Quarter View Hanoi), in the heart of the Old Quarter. All we needed after getting settled was to find a place to have our Christmas dinner and enjoy the French wine we bought in Hue.

img_6931
Christmas in Hanoi

Just like the other places we visited, we walked, walked and walked around Hanoi. Well, not really “around” Hanoi; maybe around the Old Quarter is a better description of the area we covered. From the hostel to the lake. Around the lake. Back to the hostel. Back to the lake.

It was interesting to see how the Vietnamese people use the public space on weekends. The streets around the lake were closed for cars and bikes, and were packed with people; mostly families with kids. They organize games such as tug of war, jumping rope, and crafts. In addition to the games, many Christmas decorations, lights and this song everywhere [play at your own risk] – even though only 8% of the population is Christian (Vietnam is one of the least religious countries in the world where 73% of the population declare themselves irreligious).

In Hanoi we visited the Hoa Lo Prison, also known as Hanoi Hilton by the American prisoners kept there during the Vietnam War. And we tried to visit the Ho Chi Ming Museum and the Citadel. “Tried” because we picked the wrong days to go to each of them. Sunday and Monday respectively. They were closed. (If you go to Hanoi, go to the Citadel on Sunday and vice-versa).

Also in Hanoi I saw a friend who I met in 2010, in Berkeley, CA. I remembered Dang as this funny guy who thought us a funny warm up exercise to keep us awake throughout the day, despite all the party from the night before. He picked us up at the hostel and took us out for dinner. “No snakes, Dang, I’m not ready for that”, “Chicken, then”. And this is how we tried the traditional black chicken from Vietnam. We were skeptical at first, but pretty amazed by the taste after we tried (until I found the chicken’s head in my bowl and had to covered it to continue eating. Still: delicious). Dang also took is for a coffee with view to the lake we had circled a couple of times. We laughed a lot and had a great time with the Vietnamese hospitality. Thank you Dang!

On December 27th Livia left and I took a bus to Cat Ba island [200K VND], northeast of Hanoi. No goodbyes because neither of us like goodbyes; but also because I didn’t want to think how my next days would be without her. I’d be traveling alone after a month.

I ended up in Cat Ba for a few reasons; rock climbing one of the (i.e. the great time I spent in Tonsai, Railay). There I stayed at Mr. Zoom’s (5 USD room with private bathroom), who also owns Cat Ba Climbing.

The island is a great place to take a break from the busy Hanoi or the touristy Hoi An. And it was all I was looking for: sea, mountain, rock climbing, nice people, and the best Pho Bo I had in Southeast Asia. At first I thought I’d stay 3-4 days there, and ended up staying 6 days, and celebrating the New Year playing pebolim with a group of Italian, Dutch, Mozambican, German, and a Brazilian from Sao Paulo who knows people from the climbing gym I used to go to.

img_7159
Best Pho Bo EVER!

In Cat Ba, I strongly recommend rock climbing. Talk to Mr. Zoom or the super helpful people from Asia Outdoors, and ask about the climbing areas (an entrance fee is charged) and/or deep water soloing (DWS). Take a boat trip too (14USD) – unless you go DWS, because you kind of see the same things – and get the impressive and scenic landscape of Vietnam take your breath away. You can also hike to a view point, on the way to hidden valley, where you have an amazing 360 degrees view of the island.

After staying almost a week and starting the new year surrounded by the sea (literally) and good people, I took a bus to Hai Phong (140K VND) and from there to Cao Bang (260K VND) This time with another travel partner: the Brazilian of Japanese descent.

I’m not really sure how we chose Cao Bang. We had no idea what we would do there, but we went anyways. The bus dropped us off at 4am and we walked about 2km to the hostel owned by a lovely Vietnamese family who, despite not speaking English, were great hosts. It was the first time in Vietnam when I felt like “the different” one, mainly because of my height – and traveling with a Brazilian Japanese doesn’t make me less tall.

We walked around town, enjoyed great Vietnamese coffee, and rented a bike to visit Bang Gioc, a waterfall (40K VND) located at the border with China. As in Cat Ba, my breath was taken away by the scenic limestone formations, this time joined by winding roads and rice fields.

From Cao Bang we started a bus adventure to Ha Giang. We left on a van at 5:30 am and arrived 12 hours later, changing to a mini-bus in Bao Lam (120K + 80K VND). The roads were bad because of the rain. Still worth it.

Ha Giang was my alternative destination to Sa Pa, where most of the tourism in Northern Vietnam is, and I was happy with the decision to go there instead. We stayed at Kiki’s House Hostel where we also rented a bike. There I finally completed my process of falling in love with Northern Vietnam.

I can’t find words while writing here to express the beauty of the Ha Giang loop. The mountains, valleys, colors, people, rice fields, roads. Just: astonishing. And cold, so take your winter jacket and/or windproof with you.

Must see/visit in the Ha Giang loop:

Lung Cu – the most northern point in Vietnam, from where you can see China!

Street Market. I was there on the weekend and went to two Sunday markets (in Dong Van and Meo Vac). It is nice to see the people on their best clothes, carrying their best products ranging from rice to cattle, from corn to huge pigs. Women wearing very colorful outfits, while men were mainly wearing black.

Lung Tam – impressive weaving and dying techniques

We were lucky that in the only moment we were hesitant to take a right or left, a local guide told us to follow him. We took the left then.[1] We then took a newly open road through the valley, with spectacular views of the mountains playing hide and seek with the sun.

Back in Ha Giang we took a day off before moving towards Laos, where I fell in love. My Vietnam visa was going to expire in 2 days and I didn’t want to risk dealing with the officials at the border. At 5:30 am we got on a mini-bus to Lao Cai (130K VND, arrives at noon). From there another bus at 5:30pm to Dien Bien (215K VND), and from there 6am to Muang Khua (120K VND in Laos.

[1] When in doubt, always left!

The French who meditate

[Or how to pick a new habit]

I met this French guy on Tinder.[1]

He asked me out for a beer (I don’t drink beer, but I said yes) and then he brought his friend along.

Weird, I thought at first. Maybe it’s a French thing? But after a while I didn’t mind. It was fun to be around them.

Papo vai, papo vem,[2] we realized we had exactly the same plans for the next few days: go on a 5 days bike ride.

“Wanna do it together?”

“Sure! Why not?”

And there we went.

It caught my attention that the French really liked to meditate. Several times a day.

Sometimes in the morning. Always in the evening; usually after taking a shower.

And so I joined them. In the evenings only. In the mornings I prefer to exercise.

For six days all we did was to ride on dirt and/or winding roads, visit caves, swim in cold springs, play petanque while drinking pastis, and meditate.

On the 5th day, we decided to do it before our ride back from the cave. I was so relaxed that I fell off the bike a few hundred meters before arriving at the guesthouse.[3] Nothing serious, no worries. I guess I was so relaxed that even the fall was smooth.

On the 7th day traveling together the French left. But the practice stayed with me.

As they continue to meditate around the world so do I.

Merci et à bientôt!

 

[1] No worries, my mom knows I’m on Tinder.

[2] One word leads to another.

[3] Can someone explain to me the whole mindfulness thing again?

Travel Notes – Vietnam

In 4 weeks in Vietnam I experienced different ways of traveling.

First I had the company of a very good friend who decided to spend her holidays with me – well, actually she decided to spend her holidays in SE Asia and I happen to be here, but it’s nice to think the other way around. Because she only had 25 days and wanted to visit Cambodia (travel notes here) and Vietnam. The first two weeks were a bit rushed – 2 days here, 3 days there, and a lot of long distance traveling. Still, it was completely worth it and enough to surprise me in a very positive way. The first part of these notes covers the first half of my Vietnam trip, from Ho Chi Ming to Hanoi. The second part (coming soon) covers Christmas in Hanoi, climbing in Cat Ba island, and falling in love with the landscape in the northern part of the country.

Part I

img_7011
Citadel, Hanoi

First, I need to confess I wasn’t very excited about traveling to Vietnam. Not that I’ve never thought about it – it’s actually on =e item of my bucket list to do a bicycle trip in Vietnam. Now I want to do it even more. I’m glad she insisted this was the one country she really wanted to see and we ended up taking the bus with Mekong Express from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Ming City (Saigon).

Wow! Saigon is… Saigon. I mean, tons of motorcycles everywhere. And by everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE! On the streets, on the sidewalks, on pedestrian crossings, inside stores. There’s no such thing as looking left or right when crossing a street in Saigon. You have to look all sides, many times, and look again. Oh, wait! AGAIN! I stopped at a crossroad and took a 2 minutes video with non-stopping traffic, 99.9% two-wheels vehicles.

img_6790
Vietnamese breakfast!

On my first morning in Vietnam I had Pho Bo for breakfast.My first Pho ever was at a Vietnamese restaurant in the US and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to finally try it in Vietnam. I was not disappointed. During the next four weeks I had Pho for breakfast, lunch, dinner. And I’m proud to say that my first breakfast in Vietnam was a delicious Pho accompanied by Vietnamese iced coffee. Yummy!

In Saigon we walked, walked, walked. To the train station, to the Cathedral, to the Post Office, to the War Remnants Museum. The latter, by the way, is a very interesting place to visit. The museum tells the story of the Vietnam War from the lenses of the East. It’s a very impactful and sometimes disturbing place, with war pictures I could not look at. It was super interesting to learn about history from a perspective that is not widely publicized in the West. I highly recommend a visit to the Museum.

On our second night in Saigon we had to change hostels and by chance ended up finding the brand new “Cozy House 160”, very good price with delicious breakfast (plenty of fruits included).

From noisy and busy but delightful Saigon we got on a train to Da Nang and from there a bus to Hoi An. The train ticket cost 623k VND on Soft Seat coach – there are sleeper options for a higher price. The soft seats were pretty comfortable for an overnight in our opinion. From Da Nang to Hoi An there is a local bus (#1) and it costs 20k VND. The ticket collector will try to charge you more and because we knew that I had the exact amount with me plus 5k VND just in case. When he passed collecting the money I handed him 40k and he asked for 40k more “20 for each bag” he said. We said “no way” and despite the pressure we did not surrender and he ended up accepting 45k. Tip for those planning to take that bus: pay attention to what locals pay, have exact change, and a little extra if you feel like paying a bit more. I guess in the end it all depends on your travel budget and willingness to corroborate with this kind of practice.

Bus ride from Da Nang to Hoi An takes approximately 1 hour.

Hoi An is cute little historic town recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Hoi An was an important trading port in the Southeast Asian region from the 15th to the 19th century, and its architecture shows strong influences of the Japanese and the Chinese.

During the 3 days we spent there we bikes to the beach – to reaffirm my certainty that there are no beaches like in Brazil, we walked and walked around the old quarters full of yellow houses, shops, restaurants and cafes, and saw (and bought) beautiful handmade scarfs.

I want to say Hoi An is a place not to be missed. It’s charming, it’s architecture is beautiful, but it is pretty touristic, and by that I mean, shops, restaurants, cafes, shops, restaurants, cafes. We didn’t have enough time to get off the beaten path, and I’m sure there are plenty of tiny alleys to explore.

Ah, I was almost forgetting! Hoi An is known by having amazing tailors. People from all over the world go to Hoi An to have their clothes tailor made. Not only clothes but leather shoes too. We didn’t get anything tailor made there but met a few people who did and were pretty happy with the quality and price.

A few tips if going to Hoi An:

Bus Da Nang > Hoi An (read above)

Bicycles on the beach: we were charged 10k VND to park our bicycles near the beach. We were told bicycles were not allowed… we even had someone blowing a whistle at me. The trick is to go around and access the beach from another point. We saw plenty of people walking their bikes on the beach.

There’s a fee to enter Hoi An Old Town. Well, apparently there is a fee but how compulsory it is is debatable. We paid the 120k VND at one of the check points, however there were a lot of people coming and going without showing tickets and depending on the checkpoint there was nobody really checking. Again, it’s up to you to pay it or not. If you believe it’s benefiting the town, go for it.

Don’t forget to try the Banh Minh sandwich at the Chef’s restaurant. It’s a bit more expensive than the ones you find on the streets, but it’s delicious!!!! And the view from the rooftop is great. Totally worth going out of my gluten-free diet.

If you appreciate handmade scarfs – like I do – check out Viethands’ (12 Bach Dang) scarfs. Beautiful work with silk, cotton and linen.

From Hoi An we took a bus to Hue (USD 6), another historic Vietnamese town with ruins from the palace where the Nguyen dynasty emperors lived and was also the national capital from 1802-1945. It was the first time in Vietnam that we had heavy rain. A lot of rain. So much that we had to wait for a few hours before taking a walk around the city. By the time we left the hotel we were starving! So we headed to the market hoping to find some delicious local food. Well… not this time. I won’t go into details on what I saw there – my travel partner knows – but for the first time since I started traveling and eating in local places I was the one asking to leave because I wouldn’t eat anything there. We went to the big supermarket next door.

Things to do in Hue include the Citadel (150k VND) where the Imperial City used to be, as well as the Forbidden Purple City, the emperor’s home. There are also a couple of other places to see and visit, including tour on the Perfume River, but we only saw the Citadel this time.

img_6883
Rainy Hue

The hotel where we stayed was one of the best in Vietnam. The location is also great with a couple of good restaurants a few steps away.

At our hotel we bought a bus ticket to Ninh Binh (200k VND). The bus ride started with the wrong foot. I did not know about the apparently common rudeness of bus service towards foreigners in Vietnam. After a smooth train ride from Saigon to Da Nang, including onboard service during the whole trip, I was not expecting the treatment we received on the way to Ninh Binh. I explain: despite being half empty, the driver sent us to the back of the bus. I asked if we could stay in the front because we didn’t want to stay close to the toilet and we were getting off before most people. If I can recall correctly, I was pretty polite when I asked him, who replied shouting at me something like “go to the back or get off”; I asked why and he just shouted “get off” and ordered someone outside to take my bag out of the trunk. Seriously, I was paralyzed. What have I done to piss him off to that level? No idea. But later, talking to other foreigners I found out it was not an isolated incident, and it’s more common than we think.

Also after that, Livia and I were quite concerned with being yielded at by angry Vietnamese men. From that moment on I can say we started to read all the signs two, three, four times – even though we had no idea what they were saying.

The ride to Ninh Binh was very unpleasant: the initial stress + infinite horns + a driver who smoked one cigarette after the other [thanks for sending us to the back – at the end], that we did not bother getting off in the middle of nowhere at 3 in the morning.[1] We started walking and at the end of the street we arrived at the Ninh Binh hostel [check name!] where a kind security guard allowed us in and showed us couches + blankets where we were finally able to rest.

In Ninh Binh we rented a bike and drove around the region. The landscape is very scenic, as it is in the whole country with huge limestone formations,  a lot of green, and charming roads.We could had explored more, but honestly we were tired and didn’t enjoy Ninh Binh as we could have. One thing that tired me about Vietnam in general is having to pay to see everything. I had an expectation that in Ninh Binh we could explore the area without having people running after us asking for money or charging to park, to look, to whatever. Or maybe we were just tired and wanted to stay in one place longer.

For whatever reason, we decided to go to Hanoi earlier and spend Christmas there. After making sure the hostel would give us the night we had already paid back, and confirming a place to stay in Hanoi, we rushed to the train station and were able to buy a ticket for the 1pm train. And so we left Ninh Binh towards Hanoi.

[1] When buying the ticket we were told the bus would arrive in the morning… “around 6am”… ahn ahn…

Travel notes – Cambodia

I made my way to Cambodia from Bangkok, where I met a friend who came to SE Asia to spend her vacation with me. We took a flight in BKK and landed in Siem Reap 50 minutes later (Nok Air, USD55). It’s possible to do it by bus or train, you just need to be aware of the visa and border-crossing scams at the border. More about Poipet famous’ scams here. Because we spent more time in Bangkok than previously planned[i], the flight seemed a better option for us.

img_6698

Siem Reap is a lively city with its economy based on the tourism around Angkor Wat. It’s quite busy, but nothing compared to Bangkok. Despite being pretty touristy, it’s the #1 “must visit” place in Cambodia, and I’d add, in SE Asia. Lonely Planet features Angkor Wat as #1 travel destination, and most people go to Cambodia only because of the temples. That (temples, not LP) was also the main reason we wanted to visit Cambodia.

We spent 4 days there. First day was a rest day – to recover from all the walking around Bangkok and to plan our visit to the temples. The ticket is not cheap and there’s talk around town that it will increase significantly in 2017. In December 2016 it cost USD20/1day and USD40/3days. I don’t think 1 day is enough to see everything.

We visited most of the temples in Angkor complex + three others located 30-40km away from the city. We were speechless most of the time. Personally, I’m not sure if I found Bagan more impactful. The style is very different and I keep thinking whether it would change my impression if I had visited Angkor Wat first. I really don’t know. Still, there were moments where my jaw would literally drop.

Ta Phrom, for example, is magical. All those trees hugging the ruins in such a delicate way, as if they were put there at the same time. The silence… well, silence until the arrival of hordes of Chinese – IMPORTANT: get there as early as possible! And don’t stress too much about the Chinese. They do outnumber everyone else and stressing about their loudness, selfie-sticks, and lack of “simancol” won’t change the way they behave and will just ruin your day.

We chose to do the long circuit first (on our 2nd day) and leave the short circuit, which include Angkor Wat, for the following day. On the 3rd day we visit the Lady Temple, a tiny but extremely impressive building with incredible details everywhere you look. So delicate and so powerful at the same time.

Siem Reap is definitely more expensive than other places in the country. If you get there from outside the country, you might have an impression that things are pretty cheap. Hold your consuming impulses though and buy your scarfs in Battambang or Phnom Penh instead.

You can visit the temples by bycicle, motorbike, tuk tuk, car/van/bus, but we didn’t even consider the latter. It’s a great feeling to feel the wind in your face while moving from one temple to another – and it’s also a nice way to recharge and get ready for more walking around ruins.

We found a nice tuk tuk driver and decided to stick with him during our stay. It was great. He had a really good vibe. He was so nice that – our mistake – we didn’t realize he was adding things to what was agreed and would charge for it later. So, as a piece of advice, you don’t need to change drivers if you like the first one, but don’t forget to agree on the price before you leave for the day and ask him over and over again if what he’s suggesting is included in the previous agreement. I know, I know, very basic thing, won’t happen again (so I hope).

Food: we rediscovered the meaning of “fresh fruit juice” with creamy and incredibly tasty smoothies for USD1. *** avocado + passionfruit is an awesome combination! I also loved Nom Krok, a rice-coconut pancake (gluten-free!) that you find everywhere.

Before heading to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, we decided to visit Battambang. Capitol Tours sells tickets for USD4.5 if you buy at their office (~1km from the old market). Hotels sell it for USD6-8. Important: call to confirm pick up from your hotel if you buy the ticket directly with the company. They “forgot” us and we heard it was not the first time it happened. Luckily our host called them and thanks to the delayed departure we were still able to catch it.

Battambang is the 2nd largest city in Cambodia but it feels like a small town in the countryside. It was founded in the 11th century by the Khmer empire.

It was a nice surprise after busy Siem Reap and before even busier Phnom Penh. In Battambang we rented a bike and rode along the river. Every kid in town would wave to us and say hello. When passing in front of a school where kids were going home we almost caused an accident because they’d look at us instead of at the traffic!

“Hello, bye-bye” was our motto in Battambamg.

Food: Domlong An or Noum Domlong Barang. Delicious sweet potato cakes for only 500 riel (USD 0.12)

From Battambang we took a bus (USD5) to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, situated on the Mekong River bank.

It was the first time we were shocked with the traffic and amount of motorcycles (it was certainly an anticipation to Ho Chi Minh/Saigon in Vietnam, but that’s another post…). It was also the first time we hated the place where we stayed and maybe it influenced the way we visited the city. Yes, there were better options but they were also more expensive; we just stayed out for as long as we could so we’d fall sleep as soon as possible.

The Royal Palace (USD6.50 > price will increase to USD10 in January 2017) deserves a visit according to Livia. I didn’t go inside but she loved – and I trust her, so you should go 🙂

On our last day in Phnom Penh we rented a bike and drove to Choeung Ek (USD6), a killing field during the Khmer Rouge regime, in the 1970s. It’s a very disturbing place. I felt a peaceful atmosphere in the area but then, listening to the stories of atrocities that happened there… it’s so sad to realize what the human being is capable of. It was the first place in Cambodia where I witnessed total silence among visitors (including the Chinese!).

From Phnom Penh we bought a bus ticket with Mekong Express to Ho Chi Minh, in Vietnam, for USD12. The trip took us about 7 hours.

It was a short visit to Cambodia and I’m sure there are many other interesting things to do there. What we could notice is that people are extremely friendly, food is similar to Thai food in many ways, and the Khmer culture is present everywhere we visited. For next time we’d love to visit the mountains and the coast. One more thing for next time… I guess I’m never leaving SE Asia 😉

 

PS-You can pay pretty much everything in American Dollars throughout Cambodia.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Because I had to get my visa to Vietnam and thought that it would be easier at the Vietnamese Embassy in BKK – oh, make laugh! First I tried in Yangon, Myanmar, and they wanted to charge USD70 for the visa. I knew it should be cheaper so I tried BKK… but no. They wanted to charge me USD61. I ended up getting my visa in Siem Reap, Cambodia, through an agency recommended by the guesthouse where we stayed. I paid USD41 and got the visa on the same day. I had no problems getting into Vietnam with it.

The monk who collects stamps  

The monk approached me at the U-Bein Bridge[i] near Mandalay. We chatted and he asked for a picture. We chatted a bit more.

He’s 64 years old. He’s been a monk for 11 years. Widower for 16. He has a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren. He was imprisoned for 5 years for protesting against the military government in mid-2000’s.

He is a teacher at the local monastery and practises vipassana meditation daily. He wakes up at 6am and goes to bed at 11pm. Every day he watches the sunset from the bridge. His English is impressive; he learned the language in his childhood when he studied in a Christian school.

He believes the country is better with the new government and will only improve. I checked if I could ask more political questions and despite saying “sure” he was pretty monosyllabic in his responses about the conflicts going on in Rakhine (Muslims) and Kachin (Christians). I then changed the subject.

Most important: he collects stamps! He gave me his address in the hope I’ll send him (mom!) some stamps from my country. In case anyone else wants to mail him stamps, send me a message and I’m happy to share his contact information.

Living and traveling in the Americas and Europe never really exposed me to what “being the different one” is. In Myanmar, although you find quite a bit of western tourists, I was the different one in many places I visited.

While I stared at the local traces and beauties, people stared back at me with curiosity. When I smiled back they returned an even wider smile.

Most people who approached me asked where I’m from. They tried to guess but never mentioned a developing country; only when I played my “Football card” they’d say Brazil, followed by “Neymar!” And then they’d look confused, check my skin color, think of Neymar again, and continue saying “I thought Brazilians had darker skin.” Well, apparently not and in fact we can have all skin colors and facial features.

A couple of times people asked if they could take pictures with me, to what I always answered yes, and then asked if I could take a picture with my own camera. I’d say it’s a mutual exchange of admiration and curiosity 🙂