Sunday, April 08, 2007


We arrived at the airport in Hanoi and were met by Huyen's sister, Mai, and her father, Khang holding a sign with our names on it. Her parents barely speak any English at all, so Mai was to be our translator for our stay there. We hopped in her father's van (we later learned that he drives a van for a living) and he drove us through the busy Hanoi streets back to his home. It sure was busy. We asked if it was normally this busy, and Mai told us it was just like this because it was New Year's Eve. Really? It was? We had thought we were coming on the day before Tet, but because of a one day discrepancy between the Chinese and Vietnamese lunar calendars, we miscalculated and arrived right in the middle of the festivities. They sure were nice for picking us up in the middle of all that traffic, and they must have thought we were crazy.

Hanoi streets were really different to us because they were filled with motorbikes. Huyen's father had to honk his horn a lot to maneuver through the crowd.

Huyen's mother met us out by a main street and led us on foot through the convoluted alleys to get to her house. The house was really wonderful.

All the houses in Hanoi are really skinny and tall because at one time there was a tax on the width of your house. Her house was 4 stories tall. The first floor had a living room that didn't really have a door, so much as a gate that opened up into a little courtyard/entryway. Towards the back of the first floor was a kitchen. Upstairs were two bedrooms and a bathroom. The third floor contained what we would call the master bedroom. Then from there the stairs led up to a laundry room, which was basically just a space for a clothes line with a roof over it, and to the roof.

When we got there we moved into our room and Thanh (Huyen's mother) made us chicken Pho and after dinner we moved to the living room for tea and snacks and television. This was pretty much the routine after every meal that we ate in Hanoi. We got to see the Tet festivities all over the country on TV, just like New Year's in the US. Then at midnight, we went up to the roof where Thanh had created an altar with the 5 fruits of Tet (sapodilla, pomello, banana, oranges, and mango in this case) plus a whole cooked chicken. Mai explained to us that the time between midnight and 12:01 was a sacred time because it was a moment between the two years. For that one minute, she lit incense and prayed to her ancestors (its a matrilineal system so the women of the household are responsible for most spiritual stuff). From the roof we could see a similar scene happening on just about every rooftop in sight. We could also see fireworks being set off on all sides of us.

They told us that the next day we would just stay at home and rest and we soon found out why. Tet is a very family oriented holiday and we spent the day being visited by 5 or 6 different waves of relatives. Each time someone came, they seemed to just be dropping by. Everyone had tea, pumpkin seeds, other Tet snacks, and the men all had cigarettes even though Thanh seemed to frown upon the habit. Then they would leave just as abruptly as they came. Our part in all this consisted of smiling, repeating our names, and shaking hands. We also got the opportunity to practice our Vietnamese by saying "chuc mung nam moi" a billion times, which means "happy new year". We could tell that Thanh told everyone excitedly that we were Huyen's friends, that we were from America, and that we ate Pho the previous night.

So sometime in the afternoon we had a special Tet meal.

This was the first official meal of the new year. It's good luck if you can eat the whole thing! In that picture you can see red sweet rice, boiled chicken with salt pepper and lime juice dipping sauce, a type of pork sausage, a type of beef sausage, pickled shallots, and in the lower right corner you can see Nem. Nem are fried spring rolls (called cha gio in the south) and they were amazing. Huyen's mom makes the best spring rolls either Lyndsay or I have ever had ever ever ever. MMMMM. The Vietnamese word for sauce is "cham" which we learned very quickly as it was difficult to keep track of which sauce was for which food. We also had a special Tet food that's not in the picture called banh chung. Banh chung is a square "cake" of sticky rice about five inches across filled with mung beans and pork. It's extremely filling, but delicious. We were excited about this because it's one of Huyen's favorite foods.

The next day we went out with Mai and her father to see the city. We took the bus which only costs 2,000 dong (16,000 dong = $1). First we went to Hoan Kiem Lake, which means restored sword lake. It is called this because one day the Emperor was walking past the lake with the magical sword given to him by the gods to defeat the French when along came a gigantic turtle who snatched the sword and sunk back into the lake, thus restoring the sword to the gods. We walked over the famous Huc bridge and got to see a temple and a taxidermied giant turtle.

These guys apparently really exist in the lake.

After that we told our guides we wanted to go see the big market in Hanoi, Cho Dong Xuan. We got there by bus and walking just to see that it was closed.

In fact, everything was closed.

Throughout Vietnam, most businesses close for at least 5 days after Tet. All the temples and other lucky places were open and very busy though. Next we went to what our guide book called the Temple of Literature and what Mai called the first university of Hanoi. Everyone there was rubbing the heads of these turtles.

These turtles supported stelae, which from what I gathered are stone tablets that describe the academic accomplishments of Mandarins. I think it is something given at a graduation of sorts. By rubbing the heads of the turtles, you can get some of the intelligence from the Mandarin whose stela is on the turtle's back. Bill Clinton did just this!

Next they took us to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex, which turned out to be closed.

We thought it was maybe because his embalmed body was off in Russia to be repaired, but later we learned that it's just not open in the afternoons. It's okay though, we weren't dressed properly anyway.

We decided to go home for lunch and on the way back Mai insisted that we stop for ice cream. We said no thanks, so they just bought it for us. The cone was like a wafer cookie and the ice cream was really light, more like ice milk. We were glad they bought it for us. After lunch we decided to call it a day, since everything was closed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Vang Vieng

It was great to get out of Vientiane finally. Vang Vieng feels like a world away from the capital city. This place was really beautiful. While Lyndsay was concentrating on all the practical things, like how to find our guest house, I was just spinning around in circles going , "WOW."

We stayed at Maylyn Guest House across the river from the main part of the town. They had a partnership with Mut Mee in Nong Khai and had the same system of doing a lot of things. They took us to our private bungalow and I immediately sat down to enjoy the hammock and the wonderful view.

That night we got to see how weird of a place Vang Vieng is. The city abounds with restaurants that all have the same food. I mean, exactly the same food--they photocopied their neighbor's menu. Most of the restaurants also had TVs and cushions and pillows. During the day they all showed episodes of Friends, and at night they showed different movies. A few of the shadier looking places served things like "happy pizza" and "happy tea." We caught a pretty awesome sunset on the way to dinner that first night.

The next morning (after eating an amazing banana pancake at the guest house) we rented mountain bikes and rode 13 km to go see some caves in the Tham Sang triangle. The view on the way was great.

It was a lot of fun riding through the town because everyone was very friendly and all the kids waved at us and said "hello" to which we replied "sabaidee." We payed a lady to watch our bikes and crossed over a small stream to go check out the caves. First we went to Tham Sang, or elephant cave. It was named this because of a stalactite that is supposed to look like an elephant head. This cave also had a Buddha footprint, but was very small.

Then a guide too us to Tham Hoi, which means snail cave.

The guide took us on a 3km hike inside this limestone cavern. Lyndsay had a big flashlight that he let her borrow and I just had a little LED light on my pocket knife. It was a lot of fun. Nothing was protected in any way. We climbed all over limestone formations, played drums on stalactites, and swam for a little at the end even.

Next we went to Tham Loup with a different guide. This cave was smaller with about 4 rooms. I think one of them was pretty large and impressive.

Finally we went to Tham Nam, the water cave. To get into this cave, you have to get into an inner tube in the water and pull yourself in on a rope. Then you park your tube and crawl around the rest of the way. We had to get on our hands and knees and fit through some really tight spaces. It was worth it though, because we saw cave crickets and a big cave spider.

We got back on our bikes and rode about halfway back to a restaurant at an organic farm. They also have a restaurant in town that we had been to. They were out of the mulberries they are famous for, so no mulberry shakes for us. Instead we tried this beer made with palm nectar or something like that. It didn't really taste that much like beer, but it was very good.

We ate pumpkin soup and some noodles with stir fried vegetables (including mulberry leaves) with fish. It was going to be dark soon, so we headed back to town.

The next day, we had planned on going inner tubing down the Nam Song, but Lyndsay wasn't feeling so well, so I did it on my own, just to see what it was all about. Tubing is probably the most popular tourist attraction in Vang Vieng because it is basically a pub-crawl on a river. They let you in and you float at your pace past make shift bars with people yelling "Bia Lao!" and fishing tourists out of the water with a bamboo pole attached to a rope. It looked like it would have been a lot of fun if I had been there with friends. There were a few really big river side bar areas and they all offered free volleyball and a free rope swing. The rope swings were huge!

When I got back from tubing, Lyndsay and I went for a sunset walk towards some other caves. About five minutes into the walk, a couple of kids started following us and asking to be our guides. We told them no a million times and that we weren't going to the caves. We even tried stopping to skip stones and going down side paths to show them that we didn't really care where we went. They still wouldn't leave us alone, so we just had to turn around and go back. That night we went back to town and ate dinner while watching some awful Ben Affleck movie.

The next morning we took a minibus back to Vientiane where we hung out at the market near the bus station fighting off tuk tuk drivers for an hour or two before we took a bus to the airport and headed off to Hanoi.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


After weighing options, we decided that the best way to get to Vietnam through Laos was to cross over in Nong Khai to Vientiane. We had originally planned to spend more time in northeastern Thailand and to then cross over from Mukdahan to Savannakhet, but we were uncertain as to whether or not we needed a visa in advance or if we could obtain one at the border. Also, all of the land routes through Laos sounded awful, so we decided to take a plane from Vientiane to Hanoi instead.

We spent the afternoon being shuttled through the border crossing. Unfortunately, we crossed through on a weekend so Laos was able to charge us overtime fees for everything including the bus ride to the border. We took a tuk tuk into the city from the border passing by several goats and cows along the streets.

Vientiane turned out to be a very dirty city. Most dirty cities are dirty due to traffic and air pollution, but Vientiane has actual dirt in the streets. Every other street seemed to be under construction and the piles of dirt were often surrounded by sewage water.

The city had a wide variety of eating options. There were several trendy cafes and shops that almost reminded me of restaurants back at home. There were also a few European bakeries and lots of Vietnamese restaurants. We stopped at a place that had a huge menu of baguettes, noodles, soups, and Lao dishes. Because I was still attempting to convert money from baht to dollars to Lao's kip to figure out reasonable prices, Eric ended up getting something better than me. He had a dish of stir-fried chicken with large slices of ginger, green onion, in a caramelized sauce. I had a plate of papaya salad with Lao noodles which were cold, thick vermicelli. Later that day, we had delicious Vietnamese sandwiches from this place along the river. In search of something to eat with them, we walked along the Mekong. Vendors had set up grills and coolers of beer along the beach and as we walked by they all tried to shove menus at us. We were persuaded near the end of the line and had a beer, but we didn't stay long because of the mosquitoes.

The next day we saw pretty much all of Vientiane's major sights. The most interesting of them was Wat Sisaket, the oldest temple in the city. The temple housed many Buddha images taken from other temples that had been destroyed. Here are some photos.

We also stopped at Wat Ho Prakeo which formerly housed the emerald Buddha now in Bangkok. This temple was less interesting.

We walked from there to the city's largest market near the bus stop. This market had pretty much everything you can imagine including watches, appliances, souvenirs, and food. The snack foods in Laos seemed to always be to heavy or to come in too large of servings. We bought some tempting purple-colored balls which looked similar to kanam krog, but one seemed to fill our stomachs for the afternoon. We continued walking to the Patuxai, a large unfinished concrete structure which is meant to look like the Arch de Triumph in Paris. This thing looked nice from far away, but up close, there was not much to see. We climbed to the top, past souvenir vendors, like everyone else to see the view of the city.

From there, we took a tuk tuk to Vientiane's more important monument That Luang. This was another monument which looked good from afar, but was rather dull up close. Rather than an actual walk-in temple, this is just a large concrete structure painted gold. Paying the admission fee to enter the grounds was not really worth it.

We spent one more unplanned day in Vientiane as Eric was not feeling well. That allowed me to explore the city on my own for a while and I was able to find delicious spring rolls and partially green mango. Later that night, Eric was feeling better and we had delicious cake at a Scandinavian bakery, a great way to end our visit to Laos's capital.

I have added another entry right before the Chiang Mai one on the food there. Be sure to scroll down to check it out.

Nong Khai

From Loei to Nong Khai we stopped in Udon Thani just to see an orchid farm where they produce a special hybrid
orchid used to make perfume. The orchid is called "Miss Udorn Sunshine."

They also have a special plant called "dancing tea." This plant, in the pea family, has young leaves that respond to sound by moving up and down. Supposedly, the plant especially likes smooth jazz. Unfortunately the plants did not have any new growth and were too weak to dance for us.

In Nong Khai, we took a tuk tuk to the most popular guesthouse in the city, called Mut Mee. This place was really great. It was run by a community of American and European expats and it was really nice to be around native English speakers. One girl even knew where Walnut Creek is! The guesthouse has excellent food and loads of atmosphere. One night, one of the neighbors named Pancho played an acoustic guitar set at the bar on the river. It was lots of fun with singing along and audience participation on the percussion section. We can't recommend this place enough. In fact, our guesthouse was so nice, we really didn't do much in our nights there.

The thing to see in Nong Khai is the Salakaewkoo Sculpture Park. The story goes that this man was walking one day and fell in a hole and onto the lap of a hermit. He stayed in the hole for 3 years where the hermit taught him about the gods, the underworld, Buddhism, and all things mystical. When he emerged, he wanted to display these teachings in a visual way and chose sculpture. The park was full of bizarre amateur concrete sculptures (that was the cheapest material to use) of Hindu and Buddhist gods and all sorts of other things. Some of the sculptures were huge-- one of the Buddha meditating under the naga was probably 6 stories high. The sculptor died in 1995 so several sculptures were unfinished. I'll let the pictures below do the rest of the talking.

Nong Khai also had an interesting market that sold a lot of Vietnamese things like jackfruit chips and other dried fruits, as well as Vietnamese pork sausages wrapped in banana leaves. Cheap Chinatown-style toys, knives, and china could be found there as well. We ate a salted grilled fish at the market. Lyndsay had been craving this since the first time we saw it in Bangkok.

It was stuffed with a bundle of herbs consisting mostly of lemongrass and was served with a lot of different sides that we failed to take a picture of. The sides included a basket of basil, mint, coriander, lettuce, and cabbage, as well as a plate of lemongrass, garlic cloves, shallots, ginger, lime slices, and pickled cabbage. It was served with noodles and rice.

In terms of street food, the highlight was this Chinese inspired dish.

We have no idea what it's called but it has a thick broth similar to the broth in sizzling rice soup but thicker and with egg in it. It came with your choice of chicken or pork, a hard boiled quail egg, shitake mushrooms, and your choice of pan-fried sen yai (wide noodles), pan-fried sen mii (thin noddles), or deep-fried egg noodles. I picked the fried ones and Lyndsay chose sen yai. We got soy milk to go from the busiest stand on he block. He was so busy because his freshly made donuts were delicious-- some of the best we've had to far. He also had more soymilk options than anyone else we had seen including black sesame soymilk, yellow corn milk, add-ins like coconut jelly, basil seeds, grass jelly, tapioca balls, and palm seeds, and even the option of iced soymilk.

Next stop, Laos.

Friday, March 09, 2007


Loei (pronounced a little like lery, or if you speak German, its like an o with an umlaut) is the coldest city in Thailand. It is in the northeast, and they were clearly not as used to tourists as other places in Thailand. This was one of the first places where people asked us (in Thai) if we could speak Thai. We had really good banana roti here and also some really good pork with rice. The pork tasted like it was slow cooked with soy sauce, molasses, and lots of anise.

The big story of this city was Phu Kra Deung. Our Lonely Planet told us that this park was fairly easy to get to and had a nice, paved, 6 km hike with stops for food along the way. This sounded like a perfect day trip for us and we decided it would be worth the steep 400 Baht entry price most national parks in Thailand had. We had to take a bus to a bus stop a few kilometers outside of the park and then take a songtao (pickup truck taxi) the rest of the way. The lonely planet told us the bus would cost 30 baht each and the songtao should cost 10 baht each. The bus ended up costing around 60 baht each and the songtao ended up costing 40 baht each. We weren't too surprised, since the lonely planet is pretty much always wrong about prices and distances.

It turned out that it was a 6 km hike one way straight up a mountain along a sometimes rocky and sometimes slippery dirt path. It had makeshift stairs in some of the steepest places, but I would hardly call the path paved. We stopped along the way to drink some young coconut juice and the lady seemed to be telling us that there was no way we could just hike up and back down, that we had to camp up at the top. There were tents and bungalows available, but you had to make reservations at the bottom, plus we didn't have time or equipment to stay at the top. We realized there was no way we could make it and we were both very angry at our guidebook. It was a cool park because as you hiked up you could see a transition in vegetation with the altitude change. It started off as dry, deciduous, dipterocarp forest and slowly became greener and cooler. At the very top of the mountain (more like a plateau I guess) was pine oak savanna and lots of beautiful waterfalls. Unfortunately we did not have time to make it to the top and had to turn around. Our legs were very tired and sore for several days after rushing up and down that trail. Here's what we did see of the park, from bottom to top.

On the way back, we figured all the transportation prices would be the same, or less. We got on a songtao, but they didn't leave right away. We figured they were waiting for more people. They told us it was 200 baht for 10 people. Some people who spoke some English came over and talked to us. They talked to the songtao people and we told them we needed to leave soon so we didn't miss the last bus at 6pm. Our translator told us the last bus left at 2pm and that they would take us all the way to Loei for 200 baht. This seemed like an okay deal to us. About the same price, just a bumpier and windier ride. The songtao instead took us to the same bus stop and let us off just as a bus back to Loei was pulling it. Lyndsay and I were very confused. It was past 2pm. Obviously there was some miscommunication. So the songtao still wanted 200 baht, but we couldn't pay that because we wouldn't have enough money for the bus then! We gave him what we could and I think he understood (plus he was overcharging us). We had no money for food until we could get to an ATM. We literally only had 10 baht in our pockets (enough for a drink or some green mango, but not for a meal). We found a bank, but neither of our ATM cards worked. We tried two more banks with the same result.

We went back to the hotel and with some skillful pantomiming to a girl that didn't even make an effort to understand us before, we explained that our ATM cards didn't work and that we had to call our bank and pay her tomorrow. Then we couldn't figure out how to call our bank. There was an emergency number on the card, but we had to figure out how to make an international collect call and how to dial a number outside of our hotel.

We went back downstairs and three of the employees all tried their hardest to understand us. They even called English speaking friends on cellphones, but I think "international collect call" is a difficult concept to explain, plus even if someone asked you in your native language, would you know how to do that? I mean, I would have no idea how to call Thailand collect from the US. We eventually had to give up and went to spend our last 10 baht on an internet cafe which really didn't help us at all. We decided to try the ATM once again on the way home and miraculously it worked! Woo!

This was our second very scary moment in Thailand. Thank god it was just a temporary problem with the ATM.