Sunday, March 1, 2009

Vang Vieng, Vientiane and now Vietnam

We did manage to get some tubing done in Vang Vieng, for what is was worth. I don't know if it was because we were there at the end of the dry season, or if the whole thing is just one big scam, but it was a total let down. We were expecting a fast moving river with a few mini rapids and maybe being thrown out of the tube every now and again. What we got was a river that was smooth as glass, hardly flowing/moving at all and in parts it was so shallow you had to keep your bum up to stop it banging off the ground. We even got stuck on the river bed in some places and had to get up and lift the tube a bit. Not what we were expecting at all. It seems all the hype and excitement is just to do with the drinking scene along the first 100m of the river. When you put your tube in at the start there's pubs on both sides of the river and they all have swings/ziplines/slides into the river. So as you go along you get pulled into each pub and that's all there is to it. We weren't mad to be drinking in all the pubs so we just stopped at one.We couldn't believe it when we got to the end of the main section. It only took about 20 minutes to do. And after that there's nothing just drifting slowly/paddling downstream. So really the whole thing is just a glorified pub crawl for a whole 100 metres or so along the river. You don't even need a tube to do it. You could half walk, half swim all that part, and after that there's nothing. It got quite boring and a bit strenuous trying to paddle/swim yourself along. Oh, and because we thought we'd be in and out of the water we just put suncream on our face and shoulders, so we got absolutely roasted because we were just lying on the tubes in the sun. And of course Fossie didn't just get sunburn - he got MANBURN. Much worse than mine naturally. His whole belly has peeled and his arms and legs are following suit.
Anyway besides the tubing there's not much else to Vang Vieng. We had planned to do it for 2 days but the first day put us off as you might have guessed so the second day we took it easy (Fossie's manburn wouldn't let him do much) but we did hire bikes and cycled out to the Organic Farm. It was nice enough to see, something different anyway and good to have a relaxing day.
The next day we left for Vientiane. We didn't fancy another cramped bus journey so we did a kayak trip instead and really enjoyed it. We drove for about an hour and then got into the kayaks. We kayaked down river,
had our lunch barbequed for us on the riverside by our guide,
went through mini-rapids,
jumped off a 'cliff' into the river (we only jumped from the lower bit about 3 metres high but some of the others in our group jumped from about 15m)

and then we drove another hour and a half to Vientiane. We had a great day and it was nice to be able to mix transport and having fun. It meant we didn't just waste a whole day getting from A to B but we got to do something along the way. Anyway we had a fierce hard time getting accommodation in Vientiane because we arrived so late and ended up spending the night in a room with no aircon, only a fan. Considering the temperature in Vientiane was around 33 degrees, and our room was in the roof of the building, it was like being in a boiler house. The next day we moved to a guesthouse across the road to a room with aircon and just spent the first hour sitting in the room enjoy the coolness of the room. We did a little bit of sightseeing but it was too hot to really enjoy. I think the best thing we did was go to the COPE visitor centre. Laos is most bombed country per capita in the world and about 30% of the bombs dropped never exploded (UXO's)so they're just lying there in the ground waiting to be disturbed.

So many people lose limbs because of disturbing bombs either accidentally, or while looking for scrap metal to sell. It also means that it's dangerous to expand farms into unused land because you never know what's under the ground. COPE makes protestics and orthotics, and helps rehabilitate people who have lost limbs because of UXO's and through disease and accidents. The whole set up there was excellent. The displays were brilliant, they had a DVD and  podcasts to listen to and other interactive and photographic exhibits. We both really enjoyed it, even though it's such a sensitive topic. I'd really recommend it.
It was so hot in Vientiane that Foss went and cursed us by wishing for some rain. The last night in Vientiane we had a thunderstorm. Luckily we were already back in our guesthouse or I would have strangled him. We flew to Hanoi, Vietnam the next day and guess what? Is was raining when we arrived and it's been raining on and off since then. It's quite cold here too. The first morning we got up and went out in our shorts and t-shirts and we weren't long running back into the room to change into something warmer. Today I even put on the ski socks I wore on the plane coming over, a long sleeved fleecy top and my rain jacket. Well Fossie did ask for it!
Besides the weather, Hanoi is a really unusual and quirky city. At least the Old Quarter is, and that's what we've mostly seen. It's a warren of narrow streets filled with motorbikes, women like you'd see in postcards carrying two baskets balancing on a stick on their shoulder, wearing cone hats, pedestrains trying to weave their way along and the odd car thrown in. There are so many little streets that you can't walk for more than a minute without coming to a junction. And at every junction the streets change name. So you might be on a street that could be 2kms long but everytime another street cuts across it, the name changes. Just a little bit confusing.
Yesterday we went to see Ha Lao prison, which was initailly a prison for Vietnamese revolutionaries and later for American pilots who were shot down and kept as POW's. It's where John McCain (the American Senator who ran for President) was kept when he was a POW.

Foss with John McCain's flight suit.

Last night we went for a few drinks with Kate and James, a really nice Australian couple we met. The'pubs' here are so funny. It's like someone who has a room that has street frontage just sets up a keg with a tap or sells bottles or cans from there and you sit out by the kerb on little plastic seats made for kids. We had great fun last night drinking pints that only cost us 3000 VDN, which is only 15 cent in Euros. Talk about a cheap date!

Today was a bit of a disaster but funny at the same time. We met with Kate and James again to go and see the Museam of Ethnology here. Apparently it's not to be missed. So we got in a taxi whose meter was turning faster than his wheels, the driver didn't understand us when we pointed it out, but when we were saying to each other that it was cold his English was good enough that he wound up the windows straight away. Anyway we got out of the taxi just as it was starting to rain only to find that the place is closed on Mondays. What's worse is that it was written right there in the guide book that we had had open in front of us the whole way there. Needless to say we cursed the taxi driver to the high heavens for not only ripping us off on the fare but for dropping us off at a place that he must have known was closed. We laughed about it too though, at our own stupidity. When we were there we met a French crowd who hadn't realised it was closed either but they had just been to the Pagoda of Literature and said it was amazing so we got another taxi (one of the companies recommended in the Guide Book this time). We pointed out the address in the guide book and off we went. No problem until he went to drop us off. No Pagoda in sight. We pointed out the address again and he pointed to the little alleyway that he had stopped by. So out we got and wandered down this tapering alleyway with nothing resembling a Pagoda in view. When we got to the end, we managed to find a lady who spoke English and gave us directions to the Pagoda. Eventually we found it, but it must have been a different Pagoda to what those French people saw. There wasn't very much to it. Five courtyards, some ponds in the first one and a few statues in the building at the end.

Plus at this stage the mist had turned into a heavy drizzle, we were freezing and it was well gone lunch time. After we found our way back to the Old Quarter and got fed we saw the humour in the whole thing.
Anyway after all that, we've booked a tour to Halong Bay for tomorrow. Unfortunately the weather is set to stay the same (I'm holding Fossie fully responsible for that) but hopefully it'll be clear so we'll have a good view of the bay and all the islands at least.
That's all the news really,
Jan and Paul

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