ADVENTURES IN LAOS & VIETNAM

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September 5, 2006

My son Christopher, who is 26 years old, has invited me to join him on a journey to Laos at the end of December.  His good friend Veomani, who hails from Laos, is getting married on January 2nd, 2007 and is planning her wedding in Luang Prabang.  She has set up her own wedding web page (http://stickyrice.wordpress.com/) to provide information and travel tips for her guests.  For many years, Christopher has had a longstanding fascination with all things Asian, but he has been especially interested in Southeast Asian culture.  He spent a year working as an AmeriCorps volunteer at Boat People SOS and currently teaches citizenship classes to Vietnamese immigrants in his free time.  He and I have traveled together previously, most recently to Thailand and Vietnam in January 2005.  

Based on my prior experience, I know that Bangkok (BKK) is the main hub for travel to Southeast Asia.  Since I hail from Northern California, San Francisco (SFO) is usually my starting point for travel beyond the U.S. Fortunately, with so many airlines flying out of SFO, there is a lot of competition, and with a little persistence I can usually find some decent fares. Once I nail down the flight to BKK, I'll try to figure out the most convenient and economical means of getting to Luang Prabang.

Although there are a number of airlines that fly to Bangkok, the West Coast leisure travel market seems to be dominated by four carriers:  Northwest, United, EVA and China Airlines. The two domestic carriers, Northwest and United, expend a lot of time and effort on marketing, generally offering consistently higher prices for last minute business travelers and lower sale prices aimed (intermittently) at leisure travelers.  Since they both rely heavily on their frequent flyer programs to target leisure travelers, it is worthwhile to sign up for both programs and get on their electronic mailing lists. I have found that many of their bargain fares are only offered if you are signed in to your frequent flyer account.  Northwest also relies heavily on discount coupons distributed by snail mail. (If you need one, e-Bay has a thriving marketplace for discount airfare coupons.)

EVA and China Airlines tend to have consistently lower prices to Asia but don't advertise as much to the U.S. market. You can usually find their best fares by heading directly to their websites: http://www.china-airlines.com/en/index.htm and

http://www.evaair.com/html/b2c/english/

To get the quickest overview of available airfares, I have found that the Orbitz search engine is the most practical. You simply enter your origin and destination, your preferred dates, a range of dates (between 1 and 3 days before and after) and the available fares are displayed on a grid for easy comparison. 

Many travel professionals recommend that you book your airfare as far in advance as possible, however I find this advice to be somewhat misleading.  While there may be exceptions, I've noticed that airlines rarely post their best fares real far in advance, and if you book too far ahead, you will likely pay more. In fact, I think there is a window of opportunity for getting the best fare that is probably 30 to 90 days prior to your departure date.

When traveling to Asia, you automatically lose a day by crossing the international dateline.  Since the flight usually takes a minimum of 18 to 20 hours (including at least one stopover), you arrive two days after you depart. Since Christopher and I need to be in Luang Prabang for the wedding on January 2, 2007, we must leave at least 3 days in advance to be sure we get there on time.

September 8, 2006

Since I haven't yet found any decent airfares to Bangkok, I thought I'd do a little research on how to get from Bangkok to Luang Prabang.  There aren't many easy options since Laos doesn't have much infrastructure, i.e., no rail service, poor roads, etc.  You can fly from Bangkok to Luang Prabang on Bangkok Airways which offers twice daily flights, but its expensive, about $310 U.S. round-trip.  A less costly alternative is to take Air Asia to Udon Thani and then to catch a bus or taxi to the border crossing at Nong Khai, about 30 miles away. The airfare is only about $42 U.S. one-way. Probably the least expensive option is to take the overnight train which leaves Bangkok at 8:45 PM and arrives at Nong Khai at 8:55 AM.  A sleeper doesn't cost much, about $21 U.S.  Since I don't sleep well on trains, and the flight is less than an hour, I'll probably try the Air Asia option. 

From Nong Khai there is a shuttle bus that crosses the Friendship Bridge to Lao immigration where a visa can be issued on the spot. From there, the capital city of Vientiane is about 13 miles north and can be reached by bus or taxi.  Apparently there is also a bus that goes directly from the bus station in Nong Khai to the bus station in Vientiane.  This sounds easier and I'll need to check it out.

From Vientiane, the journey is more challenging. There are regular buses to Luang Prabang that take about 10 hours, or you can cut off a couple of hours by booking a shared minibus.  Another option is to fly to Luang Prabang via Lao Air.  On their website they list a fare of $62 U.S. one-way, but I suspect there are additional fees-- I'll need to check this out also.   

September 10, 2006

I re-checked the availability and prices again this morning for round-trip airfares to Bangkok from San Francisco.  I was surprised to see that EVA is showing no availability for December 28th which is unusually early to be sold out (http://www.evaair.com/html/b2c/english/).  Fortunately, China Airlines is showing a fare of $935 for departures on the 28th and $958 for departures on the 29th (http://www.china-airlines.com/en/index.htm.  Although these fares are a bit higher than I would like, the timing, between Christmas and New Year, is clearly a factor.  United is also showing availability on both dates but the fares are significantly higher, around $1200 (http://www.united.com/).   Northwest is showing no availability on the 28th but for a mere $6000 you can fly first class on the 29th (http://www.nwa.com/).  Now that's a bargain!

One advantage of using Orbitz to screen for available airfares (http://www.orbitz.com/) is that sometimes you can check seat availability on certain flights.  This tells you which flights are filling up and which are still relatively empty. With a lot of empty seats its more likely that the airline will have a sale to try to fill seats.  On the other hand, if the flight is nearly full the price is unlikely to go down.  So I checked the seat availability on United and was surprised to see that the flights on my preferred dates are nearly full.  In fact, one outbound flight appears to have only a handful of seats.

To get the lowest fares possible, its best to be as flexible as possible about one's preferred travel dates.  For example, if we could wait until the second week of January,  I would bet that the fares will be as much as two hundred dollars less.  However since we must get to Luang Prabang no later than January 2nd, waiting is not an option.  China Airlines has a flight that leaves SFO just past midnight on December 29th and gets into Bangkok on the 30th at about 12:30 PM.  Rather than chancing a bunch of sold-out flights, I think I'll go ahead and book it. 

September 11, 2006

Now that the flight to Bangkok is booked, its time to figure out how to get to Luang Prabang.  If we fly to Udon Thani on Air Asia, we can take a taxi to Nong Khai, take the bus into Vientiane, then fly to Luang Prabang.  The on-line airfare from Bangkok to Udon Thani is $42 U.S., very inexpensive.  I contacted a travel agency in Bangkok via their website at http://www.traveller2000.com/ and was quoted a fare of $68 U.S. one-way from Vientiane to Luang Prabang on Lao Airlines.  So the total is about $110 plus the unknown cost of the bus and taxi.  I checked on-line again with Bangkok Airways http://www.bangkokair.com/ and got a quote of $159 U.S. one-way from Bangkok directly to Luang Prabang.  There are two flights, leaving at  9:50 AM and 12:40 PM, taking about two hours.  There is also the Thai airport departure tax of 500 Baht(about $13 U.S) for international flights that must be added to the cost.

If we weren't on such a tight schedule, I would probably be adventurous and take the two separate flights via Vientiane.  However, the more complicated the travel arrangements, the greater the chances of running into problems such as missed flights and other delays.  So after discussing this with Christopher, we've decided to cough up the extra cash and play it safe with the direct flight.  Two years ago when we flew to Ko Samui on Bangkok Airways, we found it to be efficient and reliable.  Since we will arrive in Bangkok at 12:25 PM and the flight to Luang Prabang leaves at 12:40 PM, we'll need to find a hotel nearby for the night.

September 15, 2006

I read in the newspaper yesterday that the new Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport is slated to open next week.  I had heard that a new airport was in the works although its opening had been delayed, so I checked the official website at http://www.bangkokairportonline.com/.  The plan is to rapidly transition all flights to the new airport within the next few weeks.  I don't see that this will affect us, although I will need to do some checking to see what hotels are available near the new airport.  In the past I have made on-line hotel reservations using either Sawadee.com (http://www.sawadee.com/) or AsiaHotels.com (http://www.asiahotels.com/) both of which are reliable and easy to use.

September 19, 2006

Just got an email from Christopher who told me that there has been a military coup in Thailand.  An on-line news report says that Prime Minister Thaksin was deposed while attending the opening of the United Nations in New York.  This is worrisome.  We will have to wait and see how it plays out.  Tourism is such an important part of Thailand's economy, I just can't imagine the military would jeopardize it.

October 1, 2006

Although I've been keeping an eye out, there hasn't been much news about the Thai coup in the traditional media. I've read several reports in Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report, but none were particularly informative or insightful.  Its no wonder Americans are often criticized for knowing so little about what happens in the rest of the world.  I finally went on-line and got a better picture of what occurred.  Apparently the snap election that Thaksin called in April was voided by the Thai courts and the country has been getting by with a caretaker government since then.  Although corruption is the ostensible reason for the coup, news reports suggest that Thaksin was still popular in the rural areas and probably would have won a new election.  However, it does seem that Thais are taking it all in stride, especially since the king seems to be OK with it.  Right at the moment, there doesn't appear to be any reason for us to be concerned. 

October 11, 2006

There are several options for getting to SFO on December 29th , but since our flight departs just after midnight, I think the best bet is to rent a car one-way and to drop it off at the airport.  Leaving a car at the airport for nearly three weeks would cost a bundle, even at one of the nearby economy lots.  If you have a morning flight, there are a number of airport hotels that will let you leave your car for free if you stay with them at least one night, but we won't be needing a hotel.  Taking an Amtrak train and connecting via BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is a possibility since BART now goes out to the airport, but I'm not sure I want to be dragging my bags around on a subway train so late at night.  I checked with Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com/) and one-way auto rentals start at about $59.  I think I'll hold off booking a car for now and see if the price drops as the date gets closer.   

October 17, 2006

Looking at a map of the area, its difficult to tell how much further out from Bangkok the new Suvarnabhumi Airport is than the old Don Muang Airport http://www.bangkokairportonline.com/ but I would say it's a considerable distance from central Bangkok, perhaps 20 miles or more.  The location of the new airport in Bangpli, Samut Prakarn province is relatively undeveloped with respect to tourist hotels.  The so-called "official" airport hotel is the Novotel Subarnabhumi which is supposedly within walking distance of the main terminal. Based on its online description, it sounds upscale but without a firsthand look, who knows?  As far as I can tell, the introductory rate is about $70 U.S., but it looks likely to be double that once word gets around that hotel choices in the vicinity of the new airport are limited.  You can check out the rates by going to http://www.bangkokairportonline.com/node/73.   There are also two other hotels in the area that look to be a relatively short taxi ride from the airport, although again, its hard to judge without having been there.  The first is the Royal Princess Srinakarin Hotel, another upscale hotel with rooms in the $75-$85 range: http://www.bangkok.com/royalprincess-srinakarin/ and the Grand Inn Come Hotel, an older hotel with rates that are more in the budget range (around $30, including breakfast): http://www.hotelthailand.com/samutprakan/grandinncome/index.html Since we are on a budget, we have booked an overnight room at the Grand Inn Come Hotel while we are in transit to Luang Prabang. According to the website, the hotel is about six miles away, so a taxi shouldn't cost much more than about $5.

October 30, 2006

After the wedding and festivities in Luang Prabang, we will head back south to the capital city of Vientiane for some sightseeing.  I am curious to see if there is any lingering French influence persisting from the colonial days.  When Christopher and I visited Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) two years ago, we were amazed that there was virtually no sign that the French had ever been there.  As I mentioned previously, there is a bus that runs between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, but it is miserably slow (10 hours).  So we will probably try to catch a flight on Lao Airlines-- last time I checked, this was around $68 U.S. 

After Vientiane we will catch a flight to Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital.  Vietnam requires that you obtain a visa in advance of your arrival, so I contacted the Vietnam Consulate in San Francisco for instructions and to find out their requirements for a visa.  This information is also available at their website:  http://www.vietnamconsulate-ca.org/home.html

The site has a single page visa application that you can download, complete, and then mail to them.  You must also submit two passport-size photos, your passport, a stamped self-addressed envelope, and a money order (or cashier's check) for $45 U.S., after which they will return your passport and visa to you. On the application you must specify the exact dates you intend to visit Vietnam.  Since you cannot enter the country prior to the date you've specified, and you must depart by the end date you've specified, advance planning is imperative. (As an aside, I should note that it is OK to arrive later and depart earlier than your visa states.) The fee has gone down from the $65 U.S. we paid two years ago, so it's a bit less of a deterrent, but if they really want to encourage tourism, they need to develop a system for issuing a last-minute visa at the border or airport.  By the way-- the visa fee varies depending upon your country of origin, so be sure to double-check if you are not American.  

From Hanoi we will continue on to Hue, the former imperial capital.  Hue is close to the infamous DMZ (the demilitarized zone during the Vietnam War) and definitely warrants a side trip.  Despite the cost, about $70 U.S. (as best as I can determine), its likely that we will fly from Hanoi to Hue on Vietnam Airlines, since the bus takes about 14 hours and the train is not much faster.       

November 9, 2006

Getting around inside Vietnam is quite easy.  There are buses that run to virtually every destination and are inexpensive.  The only problem is that they cannot go very fast because the roads are choked with huge numbers of motor scooters, the primary mode of transportation for most Vietnamese.  Buses average no more than about 30 mph and bus drivers honk incessantly to warn everyone that they are coming through.  (Earplugs are a good idea if you plan on sleeping.)  For longer north-south trips there is the Reunification Express train that runs between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi.  It takes about 40 hours to cover the entire distance and is supposedly quite comfortable although an overnight sleeper is a must. 

Since Christopher and I have only about a week to spend in Vietnam, we have decided to get around by air.  Vietnam Airlines has a monopoly on domestic air travel, but if you purchase your tickets locally, the prices are very reasonable.  Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) costs $118, while Hanoi to Hue and then Hue to HCMC is only $70 for each leg.  I contacted the airline's office in San Francisco to inquire about buying tickets, and was told that they do not sell directly to the public.  In other words, you must book through a travel agency.  Furthermore, Vietnam Airlines does not issue e-tickets so you must somehow have your tickets physically delivered to you.  Apparently they are developing an on-line interactive website for purchasing tickets but this is not yet up and running.

I booked tickets through an on-line travel agency that is physically located in HCMC. I requested that the tickets be delivered (at no charge)to my hotel in Hanoi, which I do not yet have.  A more expensive but convenient and reliable alternative is to use Expedia http://www.expedia.com/ which lists international flights to and from Vietnam as well as domestic flights on Vietnam Airlines.  Although the booking fee is only $10 per order (on top of the ticket price), Expedia also charges $20 to deliver the tickets physically within the U.S., so the fees add up fast.

To get from Vientiane (Laos) to Hanoi, I found a Vietnam Airlines flight on Expedia for $118.  The total was $266 ($133 each) including the fees. (Picking up these tickets in Hanoi was clearly not an option.)  At the same time, while I was logged onto Expedia, I came across an Internet-only special from HCMC to Bangkok on Air France for $163.  With the booking and delivery fees, the total was $178 each.  (Oddly, when I looked up the same flight on the Air France website, the fare was higher.) 

If we had another week, it would be nice to take an overland bus tour from HCMC through the Mekong Delta and on to Phnom-Penh in Cambodia.  These tours can be purchased on short notice from Sinh Café in Ho Chi Minh City http://www.sinhcafevn.com/ and really provide an intriguing close-up look at life in the Vietnamese countryside. 

November 26, 2006

Now that we have finalized our itinerary, the next step is to arrange lodging. For travel to Thailand and Vietnam, this does not generally require much up-front planning as you can usually get a decent room at a reasonable price as little as a day or two in advance.  Although it's possible to just enter a hotel or guesthouse and ask for a room, you will likely pay more as a walk-in.  In fact, even if you simply go around the corner to a nearby travel agency and ask them to book you a room, you will do much better since they often have prearranged access to discounted hotel rooms.  However, especially when one is seriously jetlagged after a long flight, it's reassuring to have a reservation.  At the airport you can simply hop into a taxi, tell the driver the name of your hotel, get there, then get settled in with a minimum of stress. 

For long-distance Asia hotel bookings there are several websites that I have used previously with good results, including http://www.sawadee.com/http://www.asiahotels.com/ and http://www.asiarooms.com/.  Its tough to know in advance what you're going to end up with, so its best to book no more than a night or two at any unknown hotel.  Although there are a variety of hotel rating schemes, they tend to be inconsistent and unreliable.  After you evaluate the hotel and its location, you can then go back on-line (at a nearby Internet café) or drop by a local travel agency to book additional nights.  When I find a hotel that I like, I try to make a note of it for future reference.  For example, when Katie and I were in Bangkok last January, we stayed at the Viengtai Hotel--only one street over from bustling Khao San Road but quiet at night. So Christopher and I plan to stay there again when we return to Bangkok at the end of our itinerary.(http://www.viengtai.co.th/

December 6, 2006

Although I'm not usually a fan of organized tours, when you're on a tight travel schedule, a group tour can often get you to the main tourist sites with a minimum of planning or effort.  An added benefit when traveling in Asia is that organized tours tend to be very inexpensive and often cost less than if you made your own arrangements.  When considering a tour, its important to evaluate the amount of time you will be spending on the tour bus getting from place-to-place.  Some tours try to pack in so many destinations that you end up spending most of your time on the bus, and this gets old very quickly. 

The most popular tours in Thailand can be booked in Bangkok a few days in advance, and there are a plethora of travel agencies on Kao San Road that will be happy to make your arrangements.  Two years ago Christopher and I booked a three day tour to Kanchanaburi (to see the infamous bridge on the Kwai River and several other historic World War II sites) and stayed at a primitive floating hotel on the river next to an elephant training camp.  Jungle trekking in the area around Chiang Mai is also a popular adventure although its best to hold off on making your arrangements until you arrive.  Again, the accommodations are quite primitive, i.e., a thatched hut, but the experience is truly memorable.  For the less adventurous, there are inexpensive overnight tours from Bangkok to the beach at Pattaya, or to the fancier resorts in Phuket or Ko Samui.  Note that although these tours can be arranged through online travel sites, these tend to be considerably more expensive and don't offer much more other than the convenience of online booking.

In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), one of the best known travel organizations is Sinh Café (http://www.sinhcafevn.com/). Sinh Café is geared toward budget travelers but is reputable and reliable.  The only caveat is that there are a number of fake Sinh Cafés that have appropriated the Sinh Café logo, so its important to be sure that you are dealing with the real McCoy when making arrangements.  Christopher and I previously booked a tour to the Mekong Delta using Sinh Café and we were amazed at the authenticity of the experience.  When we arrive in Hanoi, we are planning an excursion to Halong Bay (a UNESCO designated World Heritage site) which we will arrange through Sinh Café, and in Hue, we intend to take a tour of the DMZ (demilitarized zone), also using Sinh Café.

December 19, 2006

We are counting down the days!  Christopher got a telephone call from his friend Veomani, whose wedding in Laos we will be attending. She and her fiancé continue to update the guests on their website http://stickyrice.wordpress.com/.  She has arranged for us to stay at the Tum Tum Guest House in Luang Prabang where we will be joined in the festivities by a number of their other guests.  The wedding has been moved up to the first day of the New Year, so our plan to arrive by the 31st should work out well.  We will be departing San Francisco on December 29th at 12:15 AM via China Airlines (http://www.china-airlines.com/en/index.htm) and will arrive in Bangkok on December 30th at 12:30 PM local time.  We'll try to get some rest overnight staying out by the airport, then catch the final leg to Luang Prabang on Bangkok Airways (http://www.bangkokair.com/) departing at 12:40 PM.  (For additional details, check out my September 11th and October 17th entries.)  Using Orbitz http://www.orbitz.com/ I booked a one way rental car from Alamo for $59 U.S. which we will drop off at SFO prior to our departure.

December 28, 2006

We are on our way!  We checked in on-line to ensure that we would have aisle seats across from each other.  The first leg of the flight, San Francisco to Taipei, is 14 hours and there's nothing worse than being trapped in a middle seat, especially if you have to use the restroom and your seatmate is sawing logs!  The second leg, Taipei to Bangkok, is only 3 hours.  The wedding festivities should be well under way by the time we arrive in Luang Prabang on the afternoon of the 31st.  

December 30, 2006

We made it to Bangkok yesterday and spent the night by the airport.  We managed to stay awake until about 7PM here then crashed, waking up at 5 AM. We went to breakfast at 6 AM and are now back at the airport.  It is brand new and in the middle of nowhere. Our flight leaves for Luang Prabang at 12:40 PM.  There is a rehearsal dinner tonight, New Years Eve at 7 PM and the wedding is at 10 AM New Years Day with a wedding dinner at 5 PM.

December 31, 2006:  Luang Prabang

Big problem with the accommodations!  When we got to Luang Prabang, Veo told us that one of the guest houses where she had booked 12 rooms for her guests gave them all away this morning, so she has been scrambling all day to find alternatives.  I think someone may have offered more money for the rooms for New Years Eve!  We ended up in a dumpy place with only one bed and a shared bathroom for all six rooms and only one shower for the entire place!  Regardless, the wedding rehearsal dinner was quite beautiful set out in an open restaurant surrounded by a canal and rows of flickering candles.  The buffet dinner was delicious although I wasn't quite sure what I was eating but it was very good.  We spend the evening meeting Guido's family and I was introduced to Veo's family whom Christopher already knows.  They were very welcoming toward Christopher.  I guess not many of their friends could get here from Sacramento.  We left at about 10 PM as we were beat and walked back to our guest house which was nearby.  As midnight approached the noise levels got higher and higher with sounds of loud partying, karayoke and fireworks at midnight.  The racket finally subsided after about 2 AM but it did not make for a good night's sleep. The wedding is at 10 AM tomorrow and will begin with a procession to the UNESCO Heritage House where the ceremony will take place.

January 2, 2007

Yesterday was a very long day!  It started with the groom's slow procession from the Tum Tum Cheng Guest House (where Guido and Veo are staying) to the UNESCO Heritage House, about 2 km. away.  The male guests slowly marched to a steady but slow drumbeat down the main drag.  At the main entrance, Guido had to offer bribes to the younger female members of Veo's entourage to gain entry.  For a moment it appeared that he might run out of cash as apparently he was offering much too little for the bride's hand in marriage.  However he finally coaxed them to let him (and the rest of us) in, and the ceremony began in earnest, lasting about two hours.  It was presided over by a local luminary who I am told, is the eqivalent of the town's witch doctor.  (I may be wrong so don't quote me on this!)  

Toward the end of the ceremony, after a lot of chanting in Laotian, pieces of white yarn were passed around and each guest tied it around the wrists of the bride and groom to wish them luck.  Several village women also tied them to the wrists of the guests for good luck.

After the ceremony, there was a delicious buffet luncheon in front of the Heritage House with an assortment of Laotian dishes.  We sat and ate at rows of decorated tables out on the lawn with the other guests, finishing up at about 2 PM. 

During the break between the wedding and the evening wedding reception, Christopher and I made arrangements to go on a guided one day trek (tomorrow) into the hills surrounding the town to visit several villages .  We also found that all flights out of Luang Prabang to Vientiane are totally booked up for the next several days, but one travel agency placed us on a waiting list.  If we don't get a seat, its a 10 hour overnight bus ride instead of a 40 minute flight. Our fingers are crossed!

At about 4:45 we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the location of the reception, the Grand Hotel Luang Prabang, which is about 4 km. outside the town down a very, very rough road.  I don't know why they built a resort out there, but its truly spectacular, the main hotel and a group of satellite buildings with an outdoor stage and dance floor adjacent to the river.   There were about eight banquet-style round tables with white linens and place settings surrounded by a gorgeous tropical garden.  After the appropriate toasts and photos of everyone (including all the guests) we sat down to dinner.  Again, it was a beautiful buffet with servers in attendance to refill our wine glasses.  Once again, I didn't have a clue as to what I was eating, but at the risk of repeating myself, it was delicious.  Christopher, who is a connoiseur of Asian food, was in full agreement. Following dinner, there were more toasts, then dancing to a live band, followed by several games played on the stage involving the guests (organized by several of Veo's younger relatives).

At about 10 PM, a chilly mist began to slowly creep over the hotel grounds creating a bit of a damper over the celebrations.  Christopher and I were exhausted and ready to take our leave, so we bade our farewells and hired another tuk-tuk to take us back to the village.  We were dressed lightly and the mist had chilled us to the bone by the time we got back. As bad as our accommodations were, we were out cold as soon as our heads hit our pillows!

January 3, 2007

We arrived in front of White Elephant Adventures at 8:30 AM as instructed and rode in a small open-air pick-up for about an hour to a small village.  It was very chilly at first due to the lingering overnight fog, but this slowly cleared. There were five of us including two women who work for the US Embassy in Hanoi and a young man from Singpore, plus our guide.  We hiked mostly uphill for about an hour and arrived at the first of several villages we would encounter.  The village consisted mainly of thatched huts and reminded me of the villages Katie and I had visited in northern Thailand last year. 

We stopped for lunch (provided by our guide) and were surrounded by a dozen or more village children who entertained us with their curiosity about our cameras and gear.  What a different life it is for them growing up in a poor rural village. I could see no evidence of either electricity or running water!  

Over the course of the day we stopped at several other villages representing various Laotian hill tribes whose names I cannot recall.  Christopher took loads of pictures.  The hike turned out to be far more challenging than what we had anticipated.  There were some very steep grades both uphill and downhill and for a long stretch we followed a small creek, becoming quite muddy in the process.  At end of the day we arrived at a series of cascading waterfalls that were quite magnificent.  We were then taken by boat along the Mekong River back to our starting point.

Needless to say, by the time we got back into town we were beat!  We stopped by the travel agency where we had been waitlisted for the flight to Vientiane and were ecstatic to find that it had been confirmed!  No 10 hour bus ride!  We would be able to relax tomorrow!

January 4, 2007

Since we had a break in our schedule, we decided to visit the Pak Ou Caves which are advertised as a half day tour on just about every street corner in Luang Prabang.  The group tour leaves at 8 AM for a 2 hour boat ride up the river to the caves.  Since we had not made advance plans, we decided to book a private car for $25 to drive us directly to the nearby village, about a 45 minute ride,where there a short ferry ride across the river to the caves.  There were actually two large grottos, both of which were filled with a variety of Buddhas large and small.  All-in-all it wasn't much to write home about.  It seems there are a lot of caves scattered throughout the Asian countries and mostly they are an over-hyped tourist attraction.

We spent quite a bit of time at the night market. Its amazing. At about 5 PM hundreds of small vendors spread their blankets along the streets and curbs of the main street for about a mile.  They then lay out their wares, each sellers merchandise illuminated by a single light bulb. 

Today we caught an uneventful flight to Vientiane and checked in at the Inter City Hotel, an older but well-kept "boutique" hotel that appeared to be of French colonial vintage. Christopher started to complain last night that he was feeling sick and is looking quite pale.  Too much strange food I suspect. 

January 5, 2007:  Vientiane

Vientiane is a rather dry and dusty old city without much charm, at least not when compared to Luang Prabang.  There are only a few worthwhile tourist sights, the main one being the Pha That Luang, an enormous golden temple with numerous soaring spires that can be spotted at a distance of several miles.  Another interesting site is the the Patuxai arch, sort of a pale Asian imitation of the Arc d'Triomphe that was built in the 1960's. However, climbing to the top is worthwhile just for the spectacular view of Vientiane, while the interior has a variety of stalls selling local crafts and fabrics.  This evening we will catch a flight to Hanoi. 

January 5, 2007:  Hanoi, 11:20 PM - Big problem!

Well, here we are in Hanoi--arrived about two hours ago.  We are down to our last $10.  (There are no ATMs in Laos.)  Christopher tried to get cash from the airport ATM and it flashed "transaction unsuccessful"!  So I tried as well with the same result.  It's odd because the ATM recognized us, i.e.,  "Hello Scott Rose!"  I was going to use my Visa card to get an advance instead but I can't remember the password--I've never used it at an ATM before.  I checked online with our bank and there is an instant messaging feature, but no one is available yet--its only 7:20 AM in California.  If I had thought to bring some checks, I could go to the American Express office and cash a check using my American Express card.  I guess we will have to find a local bank and get a cash advance in person, but they don't open for another 7 hours (its 11:20 PM here).   Stay tuned!    

January 6, 2007   Hanoi to Halong Bay, Day 1

We had booked a three day two night tour of Halong Bay,so promptly at 7:45 AM, our tour guide from Sinh Café arrived (as promised) at our hotel to pick us up.  Despite having only nine dollars in hand, we headed off. Our guide explained that we would first drive to the port at Halong City (about three hours) and then board our junk for the tour.  When we arrived, the docks were bustling with tour groups and there appeared to be at least twenty or so boats waiting to be boarded.  The scene was tumultuous, with all the boats sandwiched together alongside the docks, and passengers crossing over from one boat to the next.  While we dragged our bags our guide shepherded us onto our assigned junk.  The boat had two levels, with cabins on the lower deck and a large lounge and dining area on the upper deck. Stairs led to the top of the boat which afforded a fantastic view of the surrounding area.  There were a dozen passengers plus our guide, Zak, and another half dozen crew members.  Almost as soon as we had pushed off, we were seated around two tables and served a generous lunch which consisted of a variety of dishes freshly prepared on board in the small kitchen.  Beer or soda was available for the modest sum of ten thousand dong (about 60 cents), but we chose to conserve our meager hoard of cash.

By the time lunch was done, it was about 2 PM, and after another 30 minutes of sailing, we arrived at our first stop, the Hang Sung Sot cave.  It was an enormous colorful grotto of hidden rock formations, with a small exterior that overlooked a spectacular view of the bay.  Inside, we followed an extensive walkway that twisted and turned alongside the various formations.  After another short sail, we made a second stop, a small island with a sandy beach and a steep set of stone steps that we hiked to an overlook and another great view of the bay.

After we returned to the boat and set sail, we were assigned to a cabin.  As I anticipated, it was small with two twin beds, but the presence of a private shower and commode was unexpected. A communal dinner was again served just as it began to get dark, and after dinner, Christopher and I accepted a generous offer by our table mates to indulge ourselves with a few brews. Sitting around the table in the lounge, with the darkness outside we could view the twinkling lights of all the other boats in the bay around us.  Finally, about 9 PM, we headed to our cabin, sleeping remarkably soundly until Zak banged on our cabin door at 7:30 AM to get us going again. 

January 7, 2007: 

To:        Teresa & family

From:      Scott & Christopher

Subject:   No cash

Christopher and I left Hanoi yesterday morning for a pre-paid all-inclusive tour of Halong Bay and Cat Ba carrying a grand total of  nine dollars in cash.  We spent last night on a junk in Halong Bay and we are now in Cat Ba, a small town which is on a small island by Halong Bay where we will stay tonight.  Fortunately this tour is all inclusive, so we have managed to squeak by for two days on nine dollars and our good looks!  Surprisingly, several people have offered money to help us out, just like on the Amazing Race!  (You know, when they take your money away for finishing last.)  However, we politely declined except for one offer to buy us a couple of beers which we accepted in desperation! 

Unfortunately there have been no banks anywhere so we have been unable to get a cash advance.  However, this afternoon, the manager of the small hotel where we are staying directed us to a small jewelry shop that serves as the quasi-bank for the locals, and he advanced us $100 on my Visa.  That will go a long way here since everything is very inexpensive.  We will be back in Hanoi tomorrow evening and should be able to find a bank to get more cash the following morning.  We used my credit card to pay for the hotel in Hanoi before we left and we will be returning to the same place.  I spotted a Citibank ATM at the airport when we arrived, so I know that other financial institutions are providing ATM services in Hanoi!

Other than being broke, we are doing well and the tour has been great!  Halong Bay looks just like it did on Amazing Race and is spectacular-- it feels like you are on another planet.  And we are more relaxed now that we have some cash in hand!  I guess the lesson to be learned from this is that you should always have a back-up plan.  Technology is great when it works and worthless when it doesn't.   I recently read somewhere that many travel experts think that with the widespread use of debit cards, travellers checks are now obsolete.  But considering what just happened to us, I don't think so.  They may be low tech but they have been around for a reliably long time. x

January 7, 2007:  Halong Bay, Day 2

After breakfast we hustled to get our stuff together while the junk headed to the island of Cat Ba.  Once there, it was a short bus ride to Cat Ba National Park where we set out on a vigorous (mostly uphill) hike.  After about an hour we got to a steel girdered open observation tower where we climbed several hundred feet straight up a series of catwalk-like steps for an amazing 360 degree view of the park.  

Later, back on the bus heading toward the town of Cat Ba, we stopped briefly to tour the interior of a mountain in which an elaborate but well-disguised military hospital had been carved out of the rock during the Vietnam war.  Although only bare walls remain, a uniformed military veteran enthusiastically showed us around, describing the facilities that had been built to treat injured northern soldiers.  I must admit that Christopher and I were both a little creeped out when he began to loudly serenade us with a northern battle song!

Around noon we were taken to an older but well-kept cinderblock- style hotel with a great view of the water.  There, we were assigned a room on the sixth floor. Yikes!!  There was no elevator!  A bellboy offered to carry our bags up all six flights of stairs, but there was no way that I would let him knowing that we had no money for a decent tip.  So we dragged them up ourselves! 

After lunch, the hotel owner was emphatic in advising us that there were no banks in town.  But he directed us to a nearby jewelry shop and assured me that the proprietor would give us a cash advance on my Visa card.  It was a hole-in-the-wall, very shady-looking, but after the jeweler examined my card he pulled out a thick wad of cash from behind the counter!  I quickly signed the credit slip and we finally had some cash.  Beggars can't be choosy!   

Returning to the hotel, we were shepherded onto the bus with our group, then taken back to the harbor for a guided tour of the bay via kayak (self-propelled).  Despite the setting we were no longer easily impressed, probably because of fatigue- the past two days had been a whirlwind!  In the evening, after dinner at the hotel, we spent some time checking e-mails at a local Internet joint 

January 8, 2007:  Halong Bay to Hanoi

Despite the lack of an elevator, it turned out that the room was one of the nicest we've had so far.  It was spacious with two comfortable twin beds and the heat worked! After a light breakfast we boarded the bus for the short trip to the harbor and the return boat ride back to Halong City.  We arrived at noon and were escorted into a cavernous restaurant where we were seated communally at several tables with our group.  Lunch was excellent - its hard to believe that the Sihn Cafe tour price has included all our meals! Afterward we were loaded on to several (packed) minibuses for the 3 hour ride back to Hanoi. 

Unfortunately, when we got back to our hotel we were told they were overbooked so we got bumped to another nearby hotel.   But it seems to be OK.  Then our  air tickets to Hue and Saigon didn't show up as promised.  They were supposed to be delivered three days ago!  Something new to worry about.   We called the agency and they said they would be sending them TOMORROW from Saigon.  What the heck?  We paid for them and they were confirmed two months ago!  Why aren't they here?   They tried to explain what they were doing but I couldn't understand a word the woman was saying so Christopher took the phone.  He's used to the accent and hears better than me (which isn't saying much). She told him that the tickets would arrive in time for our noon flight!  Only problem is it's supposed to be a 5 PM flight and we have a city tour of Hanoi booked at 8 AM!  She told Christopher she would call back. So who knows?  Will the tickets arrive?  Will they be for the correct flight?

One of Hanoi's better known attractions is the water puppets, so after getting directions we took a short stroll over to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre to check out the show times. We discovered that the evening performances were already sold out, but that the performance set to start in 30 minutes still had seats available, so we made a snap decision to buy two tickets.  I have to say it was very odd.  The performers stand waist deep in the water behind a curtain so you only see the puppets moving along the water's surface.  At the same time, several brightly dressed Vietnamese women situated to the far right (in clear view) vocalize the narrative.  Its all performed in Vietnamese of course, so we didn't understand a word, and quite frankly the vocalizations sounded to me like ducks quacking!        

January 9, 2007:  Missing tickets

The missing airline tickets for our flight to Hue showed up this morning at the last possible minute. But they were for the wrong time, 12:40 PM instead of 5:20 PM, so we had to cancel our city tour of Hanoi for today, and we left early for the airport.  But when we got there, the airline told us that their records showed that one ticket was for the 12:40 flight and the second ticket was for a 7 PM flight!  That Saigon travel agency really screwed us good!!  At least the tickets were valid and we didn't need to repurchase them!  I thought we might be out $300.

We put Christopher on the waitlist since his was the later ticket, and I waited in the boarding area, hoping that he would show up before the flight left but worried that he would not.  What a relief when he appeared at the last minute and got on the flight.  Anyway, we have a tour to the DMZ that starts at 6 AM  tomorrow morning so we will hit the sack early tonight.

We wandered over to the Dong Ba market in central Hue -- what a zoo!  They tried to sell us everything in sight and were delighted when Christopher spoke to them in Vietnamese.  We had an early dinner and Christopher ordered duck.  It took so long I thought they had to go catch one to cook.  Several local restaurants are advertising dog, so he is thinking about trying it. Eew. Gross.

This trip has been interesting so far, but extremely stressful. I think I will need a vacation from this vacation when we get home.  Vietnam is definitely not for the faint-of-heart!  At least we have plenty of cash now after getting a cash advance on my Visa. 

January 11, 2007:  Hué

We are in the old Vietnamese imperial capital of Hué.  Surprisingly, everything here has gone according to plan.  The Binh Minh Hotel, which was recommended by Lonely Planet, is more than adequate and even has laundry service. On our first full day we went on an all day bus tour to the DMZ, the former demilitarized zone.  Its just south of the former border between the north and the south, along the Ben Hai River.  It turns out that there's not much to see 30 years later, just a bunch of rice paddies.

We visited the former US base at Khe San, located about 20 miles from the Laotian border and close to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  I think the intent of the US military was to block the northern troops from getting around the border via Laos.  Not much left to see, just a few rusty helicopters.  Its hard to believe that this was the site of a massive battle in 1968, and that the US just abandoned it after the loss of so many lives on both sides.  Our tour bus also made a side trip to show us the Ho Chi Minh trail-- its now a paved road-- the Ho Chi Minh highway!

We also visited the Vinh Moc Tunnels just north of the former border.  They are much different than the tunnels in Saigon which were used to infiltrate the south.  They only served as underground quarters and a bomb shelter for the nearby village.  The tunnels are much larger and more accessible than the Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon .

All in all, we spent a very long day mostly on the bus.  The DMZ tour is not one I would recommend.  Most of the physical scars of the war are long since gone!

On our second full day, we toured the landmarks of the Imperial capital.   This was far more interesting.  I was starting to wonder if Vietnam had any history prior to the war, and in fact, it does!  In the center of Hué is the Citadel, the former imperial grounds and palace.  Much of it is still in the process of restoration but overall its quite an impressive expanse.  I will post some pictures when I am able.  The last king, who was a puppet of the French government, abdicated after WW II and spent the rest of his life exiled in France.

The last Vietnamese king who actually held power before the French took over, died in the 1880's.  He designed for his burial site a beautiful park-like setting that includes the tomb where he was buried after his death.  We actually toured the tombs and grounds of three different Vietnamese kings, Minh Mang, Tu Duc, and Khai Dinh.  They are now designated as World Heritage sites and are in the process of restoration.

Tomorrow morning we head to Saigon.

January 12, 2007:  Not ready for prime-time!

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) uneventfully and took a taxi to our hotel.  About an hour later, just as we were getting settled, Christopher suddenly realized that his knapsack was missing.   He quickly realized that he had left it on the front seat of the taxi and had forgotten to take it out when we arrived.  Fortunately the hotel concierge had written down the name and number of our taxi and quickly called the taxi company who said they would look for it.  Unfortunately, an hour later they called back to say that  they could not locate it.  The taxi driver denied having it -- an implausible denial to be sure!  We are now convinced that this was deliberate!  Thief!  The manager of the hotel tried to help to no avail and we were escorted to the nearby police station to file a report.  What a (bad) joke!  A handful of lazy police sitting around doing nothing could not even be bothered to talk to us or even take a report!  No pretense of concern whatsoever!  It looks like it will take a small miracle to recover the knapsack.  Aside from the various gifts and souvenirs Christopher bought in Laos and Hanoi to take home, his Kodak Z730 is now missing, along with the 1 GB memory chip and the Dublin sweater he just got for Christmas.   Fortunately he had just switched out the 500 MB memory chip and still has the pictures he took in Laos.

Unfortunately this vacation has turned into a real downer-- too many problems, too much aggravation, even for experienced travelers.   I am becoming convinced that the many problems we have had here are more than just bad luck.  It seems that Vietnam's tourist industry is just not mature enough to support anyone but backpackers and a few other determined explorers.  

January 14, 2007:  Saigon is chaotic

We are back in Bangkok.  By comparison to Saigon, it is peaceful here!  Saigon is the most chaotic city I have ever seen.  The moment you step out the front door of your hotel, you are swarmed by street vendors trying to sell you anything and everything you never wanted or needed!  There is no sign of the police anywhere, except in the tiny police station where they appear to sit around all day smoking and doing nothing.   We were told that the police would not lift a finger to assist you unless you offered them a bribe!  There are no traffic laws, and if there are, they are not enforced.  You take your life into your own hands when you try to cross the street as the scooters come at you from every conceivable direction.  None of the drivers is willing to stop to let you cross.  You simply walk out into the traffic and hope for the best!  There is some safety in numbers-- if you wait for several other people to cross at the same time, they are forced to swerve around you! Thousands upon thousands of motor scooters crowd the streets and sidewalks going in every possible direction.  The sidewalks are virtually impassable, filled with parked motor scooters and the locals cooking meals on open grills and eating outside on the crowded sidewalks.  It is literally an obstacle course and you are often forced on to the street where you must dodge the scooters!   On one occasion, as I was standing at an intersection trying to cross, some lunatic scampered up to my feet and tried to oil my Teva's!  When I dodged him, I just about got hit by a taxi--luckily Christopher grabbed me and pulled me back just in time!   

Unemployed Vietnamese men hang out by their scooters and if you glance in their direction, they immediately badger you with offers to take you wherever you want on their scooters for a dollar or two. 

We went shopping at the Ben Thanh market, the  main market in Saigon, where Christopher was hoping to replace some of the items he lost.  He is a bit downcast because of losing so many of the souvenirs and gifts he bought earlier on the trip.  He was able to replace a few, but many of the items that he bought in Laos and Hanoi are just not available in Saigon.   Once again, the moment you made eye contact with anyone, they wanted to sell you something whether or not you were interested.  It was actually a deterrent to buying anything since you immediately wanted to get away from them.  

Now that we are in Bangkok, we will be visiting the weekend market later today to do some more  gift shopping. 

We are staying at the Viengtai Hotel in the heart of the tourist area.  It is a conveniently located tourist hotel and I would recommend it for anyone considering a Bangkok visit.  A more upscale alternative is the Grand China Princess, a five star hotel located in Chinatown. (Christopher and I stayed there two years ago.) Its less convenient and a taxi is needed to get anywhere, but taxis are quite inexpensive, most rides costing less than three dollars. 

There is no doubt that Thailand is infinitely better equipped to deal with large numbers of tourists.  Safety is a relative issue and you can get robbed anywhere if you let your attention lapse -- I haven't forgotten about Katie's passport!  But it definitely feels safer and more tourist friendly than Vietnam! 

January 15, 2007   Heading home

Today is our last day.  Our flight leaves Bangkok at 6 PM.   I think both Christopher and I are ready to head home.  He has been able to replace most of the stuff that was stolen.  Clearly he has mixed feelings about Vietnam.  He's especially down on the government for contributing to such a chaotic mess.  Of course, most of Christopher's  Vietnamese  friends and acquaintances back home are from the south, so his attitude and perceptions are biased.   Thankfully communism is an ideology that's well past its prime throughout most of the world.   We should get home Monday night after crossing back over the international dateline.  That's it for now!

February 7, 2007   Aftermath

Its been three weeks since Christopher and I returned from Laos and Vietnam and enough time has passed to gain a little perspective.  It was a difficult trip, no doubt, but there were still a number of highlights:  the wedding festivities in Luang Prabang and the Halong Bay tour quickly come to mind.  In the end, despite our travails, we made it back in one piece-a little worse for wear, but nothing that a few days of rest couldn't cure. 

In retrospect, I think trying to cover too much ground in too little time was probably my #1 mistake.  My mantra for overseas travel has generally been that longer is better.  When you try to pack too much into a limited amount of time, there's little room for error.   When plans go awry and problems start to accumulate, you quickly get worn out and don't have the time to recover.  And everyone knows that things seem worse when you're overtired!  So I think its a good idea to include several free days in one's itinerary to allow for unanticipated events. 

It wasn't long ago that tourists had to rely on travelers checks and currency exchanges when traveling abroad, and planned accordingly.  Its hard now to imagine life without debit cards-they are the result of some pretty amazing technology!  But as we learned the hard way, its not just the infrastructure that must be reliable, there is also the unpredictable human element that must be factored in.  I'm alluding, of course, to the fact that our credit union chose to block our ATM access in Vietnam, ostensibly due to a recent surge in foreign ATM fraud.  Its not surprising that some of the poorest countries have the greatest incidence of fraud-having nothing really motivates people to do whatever is necessary to survive.  We may not consider ourselves rich but its easy to see how others in the Third World might think otherwise and target us.   Even though Christopher lost his camera we still brought back more than six hundred photos!  Because so much of what we experienced is difficult to put into words, I'll try to post some of our more interesting shots on this site. 

By the way, Katie left last week for France.  Teresa and I plan on catching up with her in Cannes during Easter break.