28 Mar

Halong Bay

Halong Bay Tour-24 I’d been looking forward to seeing Halong Bay since we left home. Visions of limestone islands rising up out of the sea seemed, to me, to be one of the quintessential Asian scenes… vibrant green rice paddies, women wearing conical hats, and wrinkled old men being some of the others.

We had been warned that Halong Bay was losing its luster. That pollution and tourists  were taking over and that maybe it should be skipped. I couldn’t skip it though and, although it is polluted and touristy and the weather pretty much sucked, I’m glad that we saw it because it really is amazing.

There are nine million, five hundred and twenty two thousand, three hundred and forty seven travel agencies in Hanoi (seven hundred and thirty three of them are named ‘Sinh Cafe’) all trying to sell tours to Halong Bay. With the adage that ‘you get what you pay for’, we opted for a mid range three day/two night option that would have us stay on the boat one night and on Cat Ba Island for one night.

We bussed out to Halong City to join the throngs of tourists at the dock all trying to get to one of the hundreds of junks in the harbor. I knew there must be hundreds of boats that ply the waters of Halong Bay (based on the number of travel agencies offering tours), but I didn’t expect them to all be in the harbor at once!

Halong Bay Tour-9 We were soon herded onto a boat and it jostled  its way out of the dock. As it jostled, we wandered around the decks of the boat marveling at how different promotional pictures can be from the actual product. The boat was nothing like what we’d been sold and I had already started to Halong Bay Tour-16compose my complaint email in my head when we pulled up next to another junk and were led to our actual boat. This was much better…we had our own small cabin with a private bathroom, there was a small dining room and a deck up top for viewing the scenery.

The weather was not the best…cloudy, foggy and a little misty too…but the scenery was still stunning…I can’t imagine what it would be like if the skies were clear and the sun shining. The fog lent an ethereal quality to the scene, and the karsts seemed to touch both the sea and the sky at the same time.

After about an hour of sailing we arrived in the bay we were to spend the night…along with about 30 other boats. With more than 2000 islands in the area I would have thought there would be more than enough coves to settle into but, no, we all stayed in the same bay…so much for solitude! It was pleasant enough though and other junk boats added to the view.

Halong Bay Tour-4 That afternoon, after the requisite cave visit (it seems, in Asia, there is always a cave, a waterfall, and an ethnic village to visit), we all hopped in kayaks to get a closer look at the islands. It was pretty neat to kayak so close to the karst islands, under the overhanging cliffs and, in one case, through a tunnel into a serenely quiet grotto surrounded by steep, high hills. We returned to the boat to enjoy an afternoon on the deck enjoying a beer and looking out onto the water.

Halong Bay Tour-13 Later on in the evening, after dinner had been served and a few beers been quaffed, the karaoke came out. Karaoke is very popular in this part of the world. Everyone is a singer, and they like it LOUD…it’s as though every karaoke machine only has one volume setting and it’s well past the distortion level. We are not singers but joined in for the chorus where we could…even on the Vietnamese songs much to the delight of the crew on board. It was a lot of fun but I’m sure it didn’t add to the peaceful time that people on other boats were trying to enjoy.

The next day we were transferred to Cat Ba Island. The idea was to do a short hike through the national park, but it turned out  to be a climb up a steep hill to a tower that offered amazing views of the area. The climb was pretty tough in parts, especially considering we were wearing our flip flops, and would have been made extremely slippery if it was really raining. I was amazed at some of the older tourists that we encountered – turns out some of them had been sold a ‘quiet, flat, walk through the rainforest’ – they were not happy campers!

We spent the afternoon cleaning up and wandering around Cat Ba town before meeting our group for dinner. We went out with the group for a couple of beers….that inevitably turned into a couple more…but we headed home before the gang headed to the karaoke bar to finish off…enough is enough!

The journey back through Halong Bay was even mistier the next day and visibility was pretty poor. It was still a sight to see though and I’m glad we didn’t miss it – sometimes a place is popular because it really is just that fantastic – this is one of those places.

Halong Bay Tour-22

19 Mar

Hidden Hanoi

Today we took a walking tour of ‘Hidden Hanoi’ and learned how the history, culture and architecture combine to make the Old Quarter of Hanoi so vibrant, mysterious and interesting.

Hidden Cafe, Hanoi The tour started in a hidden cafe…behind a shop, down a lane, through another shop, up the stairs, and up the spiral stairway to a balcony overlooking the lake…I have no idea how people know it is even there, never mind how they would ever find it. Our guide led us and it was the perfect place to start.

Here we had a short history lesson while sipping tea and watching brides compete for the perfect photo-op in the park Too Many Brides, Hanoi around the lake. We had noticed these bridal photo shoots the day before – the bride and groom, decked out like models, and their photography teams would slowly circle the lake, all looking for that perfect location to take their photos. The dresses were all poufy and brightly colored – pink, purple, red and gold – and the grooms outfits were just as elaborate. Anne explained to us that couples marry on an auspicious day, linked to their birthday and the phase of the moon and told to them by a fortune teller. She said that, traditionally, a bride would wear a red Vietnamese suit to marry in but that recent fashion is taking hold – hence the brightly colored fashion dresses.

Hanoi Scooter Traffic And then we were out onto the street competing with the scooters. Hanoi is completely overrun by scooters… scooters on the street, scooters parked on the sidewalks so tight you can’t squeeze between them, scooters driving down the sidewalk, scooters squeezing through the market…you get the picture, scooters everywhere. So we walk on the street, with the traffic, very carefully. Crossing is fun…just bravely step out and go, slow and steady…make eye contact with the oncoming driver and they will go around…no eye contact, then we have  to dodge…just keep moving. We pretty much had the hang of it already, but Anne took it up a notch, heading right into the middle of a crazy busy intersection…and we survived! It’s actually fun and isn’t nearly as dangerous as it sounds!

Hidden Hanoi-5 One of the first things I noticed about Hanoi was that people seemed to be living in the street. I don’t mean ‘street people’ who have no home…but that people seemed to be living their lives in the street in front of their buildings, ‘on the stoop’ so to speak. Everywhere I looked there were people sitting on low stools drinking tea, playing cards, reading the paper, and playing with their children. Some were minding their small shop or tending to the street side ‘restaurant’ but many were just passing time.

Beer Shop Owner, Hanoi Today I learned that people think of the sidewalk outside of their building as an extension of their home. Due to old tax laws buildings are extremely narrow and long. Due to an increase in population these long, narrow buildings no longer have any natural light – the old courtyards, once open to the sky, have long ago been filled in to allow for another story or two to be added. Buildings that used to house one family now house up to 6 or 7 families with shared kitchen and washroom facilities and very little private space. They are dark, dank and smelly. People sit outside because it’s more pleasant, more social, and likely they have a business to run.

Hidden Hanoi-7 Generally the person who owns the building runs the business that is the storefront of it but a building with 6 or 7 families can support many more businesses than just the one. Next to the main storefront of every building is the laneway – this laneway is perfect real estate to set up a small  shop or street food stall. Some laneways support multiple street food stalls owing to the schedule of meals that Vietnamese After Work Snack Stall, Hanoikeep. In the morning the Pho stall sets up warming up patrons with steaming bowls of noodles and beef, in the afternoon perhaps a small barbeque will be sparked up to sell meat skewers as snacks, and in the evening it’s time for seafood for the dinner crowd. Each business is owned by a different family and a strict schedule is followed – this explains why we can walk down the same street at different times and not see the same thing twice!!

Bun Bo Shop, Hanoi We found the last hidden hideaway of the day on our own while searching out some lunch. A small shop advertizing ‘Bun Bo’ (beef with vermicelli noodles, greens and herbs…yummy!) looked inviting and so we stepped inside. It was crazy busy but we could see that maybe there was a back room so we pushed through…it was full too but there was a set of stairs, so up we went to find an entire second floor filled with diners enjoying Bun Bo. We sat down, ordered and enjoyed a fabulous, hidden lunch.

14 Mar

Same Same…But Different

I don’t know why but, for some reason, when I cross a border I somehow expect everything to change dramatically right away. Shouldn’t the landscape, the people and maybe even the weather be different? I mean we’re in a different country for crying out  loud!

I guess it’s because, previously, when I’ve crossed into a different country it’s been by plane and the distances have been huge and so, therefore, are the differences. Crossing borders by bus is much less dramatic, the changes are subtler, and it takes time for the differences to sink in.

And so it was with Laos as we crossed over from Thailand. The two countries share a border, part of their history and some of their culture. On the surface they can appear very similar, but it doesn’t take very long to realize that they are same, same…but different.

Thailand Bus The landscape is definitely similar. After spending so much time in northern Thailand we could easily see that northern Laos looked the same. It was the getting around in that landscape that was different. The roads in Thailand were surprisingly good – even the route to some of the smaller, out-of-the-way, places we visited were very good, wide, paved roads and the buses would stop regularly for meal and pee breaks. The same cannot be said of Laos. Most of the roads we have traveled on are broken up, twisty and windy, making for a bumpy, dusty, uncomfortable ride. And the pee breaks happened when the driver needed to  go…he would just stop the bus and we would all Laos Road Workerspile out and find a cubby hole in the roadside brush to drop our drawers (as a side note, I have no idea how Laos women manage to pee out in the open showing great modesty and not peeing on their clothes…I can only manage one, or the other). There is a lot of work happening to improve the roads but the labor is manual and the Laos are famously laid-back so progress is slow. We saw this worker on the side of the road, taking a break and smoking his bong…three guesses as to what was in it in this opium rich area of the world.

One other notable difference was the vehicles that are driven in Laos. Being that Laos is the poor cousin of SE Asia countries, and that it has only been ‘open’ for 10 years or so, we thought that the vehicles would be small and of an older vintage. I was shocked to see so many brand-new, full size Toyota trucks on the roads. More than just a handful, not driven by Westerners and not only in the cities…how was it possible, in a country that struggles to feed its people, that so many can afford these vehicles? I don’t have an answer but it was suggested to me that corruption, bribery and greed were part of the reason. There is obviously money to be made in this Communist land of brotherly love and equality for all.

P1080980Rural Laos, like rural Thailand, is made up of small villages that are teeming with children. Distances between villages  are filled with farm fields and rice paddies, scrub brush and dry (at least at this time of year) forests, but approaching the larger centers reveals the differences. Thai cities, while larger and more modern than the outlying villages, still maintain their ‘Thai-ness’ – street vendors and local markets don’t look out of place – but Laos cities seem to lose their national flavor and become something else entirely. Entering the cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane is a little surreal – the dusty roads and villages quickly give way to grid patterned cities with tree lined streets and French cafes on every corner. A  throwback to the time of French rule for sure but a little weird none-the-less. Vang Vieng, on the other P1090049hand, is just trying to make the biggest buck it can from the backpacker trade. A dusty little town on the Nam Song river, someone at some point decided that tubing down the river was the thing to do here. In no time themed bars and restaurants opened up along the banks drawing drunk backpackers in to party hard and swing like Tarzan on the trapeze swings out over the river. The music is extremely loud, the drunken-ness is alarming and there is nothing ‘Laos’ about the whole experience.

Saturday Walking Market, Chiang Mai-1 Food in both countries has been great with Laos definitely stretching our tolerances a little farther. With few exceptions the food in Thailand was recognizable and familiar, although often very spicy (I have stared, open mouthed, more than once at someone as they fill their meal with chili sauce while munching on a whole, raw chili…ouch!). The food in Laos is less spicy but often also a little more ‘ick’ inducing, especially in the markets where we saw stews of congealed blood, barbequed skewers of small song birds and bowls of frankly unidentifiable concoctions. On the other hand, the French left a lasting legacy of great bread and baguettes that we have been heartily enjoying – a little taste of home without the guilt of not eating ‘local’.

People in both Thailand and Laos are wonderful. There is always a smile, a polite bow and a greeting where ever we go. We learn how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ and are grateful that most people know a little English to help us get by.

The South East Asian region is huge, and we’re seeing only a small part of it, but already we can see the small differences that mark one country, and culture, from another. It will be interesting to see how Vietnam and Bali are similar or different.

07 Mar

Almost Fearless

One of the first things I did after we came up with this crazy sell our house and car-put our jobs on hold-store all our stuff and travel the world for a year idea was to search the web to find other people who were doing the same thing to prove that we weren’t that crazy.

That’s how I ‘met’ Christine. She was a little farther ahead of me in her plan to ‘Quit your job. Travel the world.’ and I liked her temerity, her honesty and her move forward attitude. She encouraged me in those early days, and I like to think that I encouraged her too.

Now she is a successful ‘digital nomad’, making a living remotely as she writes about her experiences and shares advice, tips and stories of her travels and her move from corporate hack to freelance author. She is an example of how we are all One Giant Step from making our dreams come true and she inspires me to keep reaching beyond my comfort zone.

Today, I am super excited to have a guest post on her blog AlmostFearless. While you’re over there checking out my Travel Days post, have a look around – Christine writes for more than just the traveler and has plenty of good advice to help you ‘Redesign Your Life’.

01 Mar

Nine Month Check In

We are now past the nine month mark of our trip. Time for another look at how we’re doing:

I think about home more often than I thought I would. I don’t miss home as much as I miss having a home. I thought I would be going home kicking and screaming, wanting to stay on the road forever, but actually I am looking forward to going home. I dream about routine, about sleeping in the same bed night after night, about cooking and cleaning, about running and riding my bike, and yes, even about going to work! I’m sure that within a few weeks of being home the tables will be turned and I will once again be dreaming of the freedom and adventure we have had while away.

Travel fatigue has set in. I have been following travelers blogs since first thinking about this trip 2 years ago. It seemed that they all ‘hit the wall’ at about the nine month point and, sure enough, I think we too are suffering from travel fatigue. The constant work of having to find a room, or a meal, or a bus/boat/train is wearing. We have gotten used to not quite knowing what’s going on and not being able to communicate as effectively as we would like, but it’s tiring to always be trying to figure it out. And, after being in a region for some time, sightseeing loses it’s appeal…we don’t try as hard to go visit another temple, or museum, or waterfall as we do when we first enter a region.

We know now what we need to travel. We may be tired and looking to home a bit more than we thought but we also now know what we need to make us happy. We have realized that the number one thing that affects us is the quality of our accommodation. We like to have a nice room in a nice guesthouse that has space to hang out in and maybe meet other travelers and, if it has wi-fi, all the better. It should have a double bed, it must have a private bathroom with hot water, it should be near enough to everything so we can walk but off the main area enough so it is  quiet. We like to use local buses to get around (and actually prefer them to the tourist minivans that run all over SE Asia), we love to eat at street stalls and markets, and renting a scooter to see the sights (rather than going on a tour) is one of our favorite things to do, but we have learned that spending the money on a good place to stay is more than worth it.

SE Asia is definitely the easiest place to meet people. NomadicMatt told us early on that SE Asia is the place to meet people and he was right! There is a well worn backpacker trail through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia and there are travelers everywhere. We have met countless people on buses and cooking classes, in guesthouses and pubs, and then just keep running into them at various places along the way. I run into more people that I know here than I ever did back home. My favorite though was when Damien and Kara of RunningTowards stopped us on the street in Chiang Mai to ask if we were the folks from OneGiantStep…fame at last!!

Blogging is getting harder. Maybe you’ve noticed that it’s getting a little longer between posts. I don’t know why but it’s getting a little harder to write all the time. Maybe it’s because our time here has been much more laid back – we’re not doing ‘stuff’ all the time and are spending more time just relaxing…not good blogging material. We should be moving more now though and in a few weeks we enter into Vietnam where, I’m sure, there will be lots to write about!

Nine months in and we’re still learning about this travel stuff and how it affects us. Every phase is different and we try to take it all as it comes. We seem to be trudging over a bit of a hump right now but I think we’re almost at the top of it now and will really enjoy the next few months and what they bring.