A Travellerspoint blog

Party Party, Soak and Splash, Luang Prabang - Laos

Luang Prabang, 12 - 17 April 09

sunny 32 °C
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From the boat in Nong Khiaw, the mass of bodies madly scramble their way to the local bus heading for Luang Prabang. Fortunately we make it aboard, unfortunately we miss out on a seat and have to make do sitting next to the driver, on top of the engine with no leg room. Already cramped and in agony... and then the locals pile on and our sardine can is fit to burst. Let the fun begin... 4hrs later we, with our crew, are negotiating a realistic price into town via tuktuk. True to the tradition of the Laos New Year Water Festival "Bun Pi Mai", we are saturated by young and old throwing buckets of water at us. Being April, the hottest month in Laos, we welcome the drenchings (despite our driver repetitively slowing down to ensure our demise - maybe we bargained too hard?). Finding a cheap and livable room at new years for a group is turning into a fruitless mission. Until we are saved by a guesthouse that is putting up tents to take overflow wherever tents will fit on their property (including inside the kitchen and lounge). We're sold. Slight miscommunication lands us in someone else's tents to start with so we dump our packs and head out to explore (and cop a few more soakings).

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The food stalls here are amazing - whole fish kebabs, vegetarian buffet for about 80 cents NZ (as much as you can stack on your plate), whole stalls dedicated to BBQ'd meat, and a random assortment of local delicacies. Washed down with a delish fresh fruit shake or Beer Lao.

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Tonight the girls run rampant around the fun fair with the intention of watching the Miss Lao competition - yet at US$100 for a table, we'd rather watch from outside the fence (as do most people). Only a few people actually pay to enter and the views aren't any better. We are slowly acclimatising to Laos time, yet after 1.5hrs, many drinks and snacks later, the show still hasn't kicked off so we wander on. Nevermind, we'll see Miss Lao at the parade! Back home tents have popped up like mushrooms, and after a night out at the local garden bar Guido ends up claiming one tent, Alana another... eventually we'll get it right!

The town centre is based around picturesque palace grounds with an exquisite wat (temple), and from the neighbouring mountain top more temples reside with great views over Luang Prabang.

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Colonial villa's and traditional lao abodes make for a pleasant walk to the peninsula where the Mekong meets with the Nam Khon river. But (ashamedly) what excites us most are the baguette stalls - large fresh baguettes chocca with chicken/mayo/salad or Lao style with mystery meat/pork shavings/salad/mystery fillings. The best we've found in SEA!! And given valuable advice from a cheap-ass friend - they advertise the baguettes at the tourist price but accept half that. Another 80 cents well spent! Topped off with a coconut milk and mango shake and we're set until the vege buffets are back in operation. And don't even get me started on our discovery of the "oreo shake" and then the "oreo coffee shake"... heavenly!

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The night market is the best we've seen in SEA - the main street closes to traffic every night, the stalls appear as if from nowhere and unlike the chaos we're now accustomed to - this is surprisingly serene. The Lao people really are a relaxed race and their calmness resonates with us. Stunning handicrafts - so hard to resist but some Khao kam (a local red sweet wine made from black sticky rice) wouldn't hurt the back!

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Back at tent-town we regroup with our border crossing buddies and head to the gorgeous outdoor garden resto - which is very upmarket yet to our delight sells the cheapest large Beer Lao in town, and being a mere 50m from our tents, is very conveniently located. All bars close by midnight so we migrate to a friends riverside abode and drink beer Lao on the balcony, overlooking the river.

The water festival lasts around one week while the whole country celebrates the Lao New Year. On the first day the old spirit departs so people give their homes a thorough cleaning. The second day sees a parade down the main road between Wat's, and the third day is a rest day so people wash their Buddha images at the local Wat. The new spirit arrives on the sixth day, with various other activities in between.

The first day of the New Year sees us swallowed up by the New Years market that consumes the main road. People walk in the appropriate direction of the car lanes and carry banners to celebrate the new year. Stalls line the street to sell food, drink, birds, water-pistols and anything else one may require. Happy vibes, organised chaos. The only downer was seeing all the young kids shooting pellets from toy guns - especially when you get pinged on the forehead by one! Most of the children have these which is rather distressing, considering the turbulent history of the country at least.

Come noon the market clears out and super soakers consume the streets to soak all. We run the gauntlet down to the river, getting drenched from buckets, water pistols, hoses, even ute's that patrol the streets with teens on the back to pour water on those below. This is a serious water fight that you can't beat, so you have to join! People come from all over the country in their hordes, matching shirts, endless supplies of water, and endless energy. Teens dance on the ute's to "Akon" and other bad mainstream western music. This is a water fight of epic proportions!

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We take a boat over the river to the "beach party". Piled in like sardines, we're lucky not to collide with other reckless boats hooning back and forth to shuttle for the party (unfortunately the same can't be said for all the boats). Alana falls out of the boat at the other side but chooses to embrace it - after all, this party is essentially a knee deep mud pit with more water, flour, and paint to add to the carnage. Flour bombs! Alana unsuccessfully takes on a 5yr old for practice - but he has friends! Local music pumps and beer Lao is on sale at every stall. Interestingly this seems to be a real local affair and it's mostly the locals getting their groove on at the dance floor (aka mud pit). Alana gets acquainted with some friendly locals when they start pouring beer down her throat and skewered meat in her mouth - who needs conversation! G and A happily join this crew for drinking games and more spoon-feeding - these people sure know how to party! We go nuts on the dance floor to Lao music - and are thoroughly amused by their dancing which is essentially a bum dance to bump other people aside for more space. Once back ashore we stumble up to a vege buffet but our munchies are uncontrollable and we think we must've overstayed our welcome here - will have to try a new stall tomorrow...

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The second day of the New year and the water-fights are still in full swing - all day. High anticipation for the grand parade and when the parade pours through, they get poured on by trigger happy water pistol wielding spectators. Music, marching, martial arts, monks and gorgeous costumes galore. Not even the monks are spared from the water blasting. The newly crowned Miss Lao arrives on a float, astride a pig - for some reason we'd expected it to be a real pig but it was still entertaining. On our way to meet friends at the garden bar we pass a bunch of uniformed cops drinking beer Lao - it seems everyone is in the festive spirit!

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The third day of the New year and after a 2am bed time the 5am alarm is not appreciated! Yet we drag ourselves down to the palace grounds to observe the alms giving to the monks. Well presented women (mostly) kneel down on mats with their offerings on display. Live percussion serenades the monks from the palace and they do the rounds, their urns getting filled up with sticky rice and assorted sweet treats, with the occasional kip note thrown in for good measure. Street urchins race for the overflow and their baskets get topped up also. An interesting blend of give and take, a distribution of wealth so it seems. And unsurprisingly, once the sun comes up, the waterfights continue. Such endurance!

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Posted by beefnlamb 10:22 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Maybe Muang Ngoi Neua - Laos

Muang Ngoi Neua, 10-12 April 2009

sunny 31 °C
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Once in the Laos hinterland everything shifts down a few gears, and Lao time soon becomes our best friend. It's been an arduous journey but at least our driver wasn't the typical 'homicidal maniac on speed' that haunt the chaotic streets of Vietnam, duly taking his time skirting along the dusty gravel road that fringes the mountain ranges of the far Laotian North. Just as well, judging from the few burnt-out truck wrecks that solemnly but staunchly resist the ages of time at the bottom of the ravine. Besides, the scenery here is way too fabulous to rush through.

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Primary rain forest chocka with lush vines and branches that clamber their way down the cliffs. This is Phongsali province, one of Laos' most remote which few roads, none tarmac, penetrate. Home to about two dozen ethnic minorities who inhabit its undulated hills. Many of the hill tribes remain firmly animist and shamanist, believing in all manner of house spirits or ghosts. The clock wound down centuries, their encounters with the West are few. Though driving past a 'poppy replantation reserve' sign we figure the H'mong must also be among them. Historically opium plantations have always thrived here, being their prime cash crop but by all appearances it seems to make way for the next best thing - leafy tea plantations. At least if the government would have you believe! Anyone fancy a cup of Earl Grey? Aside from a brief lunch stop in an otherwise non-descript village where we subsist on watery noodles with chicken ass bits, the journey trudges on uneventfully otherwise.

Until several hours later, we get to Muang Khua - focal point of our cross border trip and end of the line for now. A thriving trade town with a rather split personality bearing the name of the Nam Ou river. Wooden shacks sell noodle snacks, car and bike parts, seemingly indicating that not many peasants plan to stop here for long. A thoroughfare more than anything else we still somehow manage to grow a beard while our attempts to get out unfurl at snails pace.

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Chartering a boat to Muang Ngoi for $80 means we have to resort to pooling our resources and try to up the size of our crew substantially. Many long bus journeys have made us as patient as the monks themselves and finally we get together Bettany 'the talkative American', Simon the German 'wannabe' hitcher, Canadians Brent & Sierra, and a Belgian couple who cannot seem to make up their mind as to their plans. Ultimately though, we reach cohesion and head off. Ten of us strong plus packs and gear, our boatmen pushes off into the current and revs the car engine contraption of his feeble long-tail.

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We're in for a 4 hour sojourn downriver to a picturesque riverine village Muang Ngoi Neua, passing some of the most superb rainforest on the way, interspersed by mud-shack villages and fishermen who attempt to pawn off their catch of the day. Our boatman came prepared, scale, knives and all - some good deals to be had here!

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Our first encounter with Lao village life. A one street affair stretches out in front of us, flanked by bamboo thatch huts raised on stilts along the riverbed. Some of which employ cluster bomb casings as makeshift fences or vege gardens - yep, this must be Laos. True, there is also quite a few falang guesthouses and the ubiquitous 'sunshine' resto franchise around so perhaps it's not the most rural village.

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But then again these niggles are momentous and quickly brushed aside as the town, hemmed in by steep mountains on all sides is undeniably beautiful while relaxing by the river has a lure not to underestimate - don't tempt me! With little else to do but people watching, napping and swinging in hammocks its ample opportunity to adjust to Lao time. The infamous sticky falang roll also leaves lingering memories in shape of peanut butter, jam, sticky rice and sesame seeds which stick to the roof of your mouth.

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Alana and Bettany go exploring to visit the caves and a picturesque remote village where animals roam free and the gardens are caged up - a novel idea! We've found our rural village and soak up the atmosphere at a peaceful resto overlooking the mountains. We snooze in the hammocks while we wait an hour or so for some buffalo salad (Laap) - maybe they had to go catch one first?

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Leaving the town is another challenging proposition with half of the town's fleet sunk after last night's storm. By far the worst we've had here and even sent the locals running with their pots and pans (a preemptive warning should you need one in the future). At least our bungalow held up, just, and didn't slide down into the river. Which is more than what could be said of some other places. Still, the carnage is surprisingly temporary as soon crews that consists of half the village bail out most of their fleet, allowing us to set sail for Luang Prabang to celebrate Laos New Year. Hooray!

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Posted by beefnlamb 09:21 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Adieu to Dien Bien Phu - Vietnam

Dien Bien Phu, 9th - 10th April, Vietnam

sunny 47 °C
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Leaving Sapa for Laos we choose the what appears to be least problematic border crossing at Tay Trang through Dien Bien Phu. Most of such border crossings in the North are fraught with difficulties, materializing in the form of bribing, overcharging, seriously un-roadworthy conditions or forced renegotiation of the fare halfway up the mountains at the risk of abandonment. Horror stories of travelers abound, and this was also the area where that girl we met in Cuc Phoung crashed with her bus. Not a pretty spot to be in and we'd rather not get stranded in the Tonkinese Alps for that matter.

Normally such bus rides are incredibly mundane and most uneventful occasions so at the risk of boring you we won't elaborate on it for too long. Yet, if anything the closest impression we can give you is the striking resemblance with a game of Tetris. A game of Tetris, in which the driver skillfully inserts bags of rice, chickens and backpacks under the seats of his van and then craftily proceeds to fill up the remaining space by folding the passengers around the baggage. He did well all things considering; 21 people in a minivan in a 5, 5, 3, 4, 4 configuration. The only issue being that this game is going to last 9 hours.

The other thing with Vietnamese folks is their non-existent awareness of proximity, that little area we call personal space. So the constant slobbering that ensues, draping heads over your head rest, and coughing in one's neck is something you quickly grow accosted to in Nam. This time we wanted to see if this might work the other way too, with Guido hugging shoulders and draping himself over the poor guy next to him - it did not go down well. The wild rugged scenery of the Tonkinese Alps is once again astounding but with your head tucked into the next person's armpit its magic tends to fade after a while. Hence most of the journey passes us by in a sleep fogged blur interceded by shards of memory of a truly astounding place.

Dien Bien Phu - what to say about it. Allegedly, it's famous as the site of a truly decisive battle where the Vietminh turned a 13,000 strong French garrison into mince pie, effectively ending French colonial control over Vietnam. Strategically, with the French stationed in town at the bottom of a soup bowl shaped valley with the Alps towering above, this slaughter is easy to imagine. Especially when our bus descends onto the rice fields from the mountains above. Yet our encounters with this battlefield of old are brief. Our next 8 hour game of Tetris awaits tomorrow - 5:30am.

Ps: the crossing itself was a breeze and, once in Laos, pace of life slows down a few gears.

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Posted by beefnlamb 04:29 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Sapa ever after - Vietnam

Sapa, 4th - 9th April 09

all seasons in one day -50 °C
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Arrive in Lao Cai at 5am after an overnight train journey, deluxe class. We take a minivan the remaining 38km to Sapa. The sky is brewing up a storm, complete with fork lightening and thunder directly on its tail. Flooded roads, swollen rivers, landslips and drowned steeply terraced rice paddies. The closer we get to Sapa, the worse the carnage that ensues. And this is the dry season! We arrive amid torrential rain which floods the square and pours over the stairs at this steep French hill station location. Power is out so we seek refuge at the closest hotel and have hot pancakes by candlelight for brekky.

We settle in and resume sleep until the sun is beaming and the power resumes. A change of night and day. Hill tribe minorities from nearby villages are heading through town en-route to the Saturday market, carrying baskets full of handicrafts and dressed in colourful traditional garb, their different costumes representing the different tribes.

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The instant we step out of the cafe we are accosted by a throng of H'mong women who accompany us on our walk and try to entice us into a sale with their impeccable English and friendly dispositions. You will not see a lone traveler in Sapa - the local minorities attach themselves to foreigners like flies on meat. They pounce on you when you leave the resto's - not missing any opportunity to commence a sale. That said, it's a real pleasure!

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The main street is surrounded by hotels dotting the periphery of the misty mountains, with views of the terraced rice paddies stepping down into the valleys below. At the local market the Montagnards all trade with one another - the largest ethnic groups being the H'mong and the Dzao people with their billowing red headdresses.

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We appreciate the cool air and are drawn to the activity at the town square where we engage with a couple of young H'mong girls. The talkative one is 20yrs old and is married with two children. It takes us a while to notice the little babies strapped to their backs hidden from the elements by blankets. These girls walk for 2hrs every morning to come to Sapa to sell their handicrafts (luckily their husbands pick them up to return home but many others walk). We're amazed at how low maintenance the babies are here - they just hang out on their mother's backs all day. Girls marry at around 13-15yrs old. The parents of both families have to approve the match. Potential husbands are chosen based on their assets e.g. how many water buffalo they possess.

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We head up to the 'microwave station' to receive intermittently spectacular views of the valley (in between engulfment by mist). The mist chases us through the valley where we explore through a maze of caves, karst, rock gardens, and the best views of Sapa town from "cloud yard". Sapa is the coldest place in Vietnam and we freeze up here once the sun sets.

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"Smile Resto" for dinner where we order exotic fare such as goose and deer, whilst sampling the cheap Sapa wines on offer; fruit, cherry, and plain rice wine for less than $1 each! A free traditional hill-tribe cultural performance provides a good excuse to sample the plum and apple wines at a local bar. We befriend some local teens who give us lucky trinkets and before we know it we get pulled up to dance and participate in the show with a bamboo stick game which is like elastics but using bamboo poles instead (ouch).

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We embark on a two day trek through minority villages, complete with tour guide, Lauren from the states, Linda from Canada, and an ethnic minority entourage. We start from the rural Cavan village of the Dzay minority, sloshing along the muddy paths past ox, chickens, pigs, children and bamboo shacks.

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First stop is to visit some families along the way where cute grubby kiddies play in the dirt with spare bike parts for toys. As we leave the villages to walk through the terraced rice paddies, our entourage of women and children hold our hands to prevent us from sliding over when it gets steep and muddy. Every time we lose our balance little hands appear to support us - so sweet!

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We emerge from the bamboo forests to a cascading waterfall. This is the end of the line for our entourage who live in the nearby village. Our new 'friends' try guilt us into buying trinkets - poor Lauren gets H'mong cursed for not buying anything. We cross the river and head through the Giang Ta Chai village - home to the red Dzao. Quyen our 23yr old guide, who walks in jeans and a leather jacket, takes us on a shortcut towards our destination of Ban Ho, through a construction site for the dam that's in the pipeline - a total eyesore to the otherwise picturesque valley. Yet, this valley is supposedly under National Park protection. What do they actually protect?

Ban Ho is home to the Tay minority, who we'll be staying with tonight in a traditional stilted house. We soon realise that this experience will be just as 'authentic' as the Mai Chau homestays as every house in this village has been converted to a homestay. We are left to entertain ourselves so we drink beers and play cards (not exactly the minority experience we'd envisaged). Although the seasoned hot chips go down a treat! Quyen, who isn't too enthused about trekking is in his element as he cooks us dinner (he wants to own a resto someday). Servings of many tasty meat and vege dishes, with copious shots of "happy water" (rice wine) to wash it down.

Quyen admits to being a few rice wines ahead of us and an emotional outburst follows - he dramatically throws his promise ring onto the table and tells us his girlfriend woes - poor boy. He's cheered up somewhat by breakfast and after lots of banana and honey pancakes we head to "The Lavie" waterfall, now signposted as "The Deathtrap" since a tourist drowned here last year. We're soon joined by a German couple, their guide, and an entourage of Dzao women. The German guy takes instant develop photo's of the Dzao and gives them pics of themselves to keep. The rapture they gain from these "magic pictures" is priceless - a technology that we don't even use anymore. The irony does not escape us. After lunch we head back up the hill to the road, as Quyen doesn't want to walk the 9km road (not quite the 15km per day of trekking we'd been promised yet Vietnam and false advertising goes hand in hand), where we wait for our old army jeep to pick us up. Our trusty dog 'Mic' who follows us everywhere, entertains us and pisses on the Thit Cho (dog meat) sign of the local resto.

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Back in Sapa we indulge in divine apple tarts and chocolate tarts at the local bakery, then it's back to "Smile" for dinner and wine with Lauren. We are soon joined by Beka, then Brady, and make the most of having a drinking crew. We end up at a bar - feel like we've been transported to Texas (the fact that we are with 2 Texans may have something to do with that!) as this is where all the tourists drink (too expensive for the locals). We have a curfew at our hotel but want to carry on drinking so Lauren and Beka 'borrow' some expensive looking Italian wine and we carry on back home on our balcony, making good use of the teapot set. Good times until our neighbor comes out in her undies and complains. We proceed to whisper (about her undies), yet this seems to anger her further "I can hear everything you're saying" she whines. Sigh...

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We meet up with Lauren and Beka for brekky at Smile, then say bye to Lauren who leaves today. Later on the power in the whole of Sapa dies - right when we're in the middle of writing online and Beka is online to her boyfriend.

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We admit defeat and drink fruit wine at Smile... a good excuse. Then it's time to celebrate again - our neighbor moved out so now we can drink and be loud in peace. Red wine and chocolate tarts on the balcony while looking out over the misty mountains around us. Special times in Sapa!

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Posted by beefnlamb 07:05 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Sink or sail? Halong Bay - Vietnam

Halong Bay, April 1st - 3rd April, 2009

overcast 25 °C
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After many visits to the travel agents and reading too many horror stories online about Halong Bay tours gone wrong (esp. the post about the tourist whose boat sunk in the bay and they had to swim back to shore), we commit ourselves to a two night, three day trip with VEGA Travel. Fingers crossed this will be a memorable experience for all the right reasons! A three hour journey from Hanoi, and we arrive at the docks, swarming with tour groups.

Our "junk" is a lovely wooden three level boat (quite alike all the other boats) with sun loungers on the top level (pity it's cold, overcast and drizzly).

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We cruise through the bay, through the forest of magical and mysterious limestone mountains emerging from a sea of 3000+ islands, take in the scenery while getting acquainted with our crew and enjoy an impressive seafood banquet for lunch.

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Shortly after this we dock up to visit "surprising cave" (Hang Sung Sot) - an elaborate and gigantic cave system with a disco vibe thanks to the imaginatively illuminated chambers showcasing some interesting "natural" rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites.

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We leave just as hordes of boats arrive.

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To obtain a panoramic view over the islands we climb the 734 steps up to the summit of Titop Island, the only island in Halong bay that has white sand beaches (brought over from the mainland though).

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We anchor at Bai Tu Long Bay where we'll stay overnight. Next up - sea kayaking through caves, lagoons and around the karsts. Our cruisy guide decides to head back to the junk and leave us to it. A chilly paddle, rewarded by hot showers in our en-suite.

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Another great feast materializes of seafood, meat, veg, fruit, wine... Great chats with our new mates while Dang our guide passes around the notorious rice wine and shares valuable info with us - why do Vietnamese eat chicken feet? "cos it's a fun snack, nice and crunchy". Right. We get rocked to sleep and are fortunate to be on a rat free junk (luck's on our side). Our bedroom is on the lower deck, complete with stunning morning karst and sea views from our bed.

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Unfortunately the rest of our crew is heading back today so we jump aboard another boat with Dang and head to Cat Ba island for some hiking in the national park. The three of us trek through lush forest while a 70yr old local keeps up with us (despite being laden up with fishing gear and wearing gumboots). We hear a strange noise - is it the endemic yellow headed langur only found on Cat Ba? No, wild dogs advises Dang. We expected an easy walk in the park but the track is pretty rugged with branches for steps, vines for hand holds, and many slippery rock slides. We stop at the old mans hut for a green tea - he is allowed to live in the park because he's been here so long. We then carry on, eventually meeting up with the road - surprisingly void of activity. Amazing for Vietnam!

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Back aboard our boat and among the karsts for yet another feast. We dock up at a floating house with six guard dogs aboard - there goes our excuse of not having room for a dog back in Auckland! We sea kayak from here past some floating fishing villages - all nicely painted green shacks with red roofs and guard dogs to watch over the fish and shellfish suspended in underwater cages.

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Back at the floating house, Alana is fascinated by the cuttlefish (squid family) in pens. Even more so when Dang prods them with a broom handle and they instantaneously change colour - these guys have many costumes; red, white, mottled, iridescent blue flashing along their edges as a signal for danger (like space invaders), followed by ink explosions. When Dang puts live fish into the mix the cuttlefish switch into predator mode and home in for the kill in packs. The poor fish have no chance.

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Alana has to be pried away from the action so we can head to Cat Ba Island where we are to farewell Dang and settle into a 3-star hotel "Holiday View" for a night of luxury. Once there, we venture out for dinner and a brief stroll along the waterfront, then hibernate with movies, oreo's and coffee in our swanky room.

Big buffet brekky to start the day, then meet up with Dang, take another junk through the bays and back to the mainland for yet another huge feed. We then head back to Hanoi, via the obligatory rest stop at a souvenir gallery selling everything you could desire at not so desirable prices. Nice try though. One of the tourists inquires over the high death toll on these roads "it's ok, Vietnamese make many babies", advises the guide.

All in all, a fantastic trip - made so by Dang, our crew, and the natural beauty of Halong Bay.

Posted by beefnlamb 05:27 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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