Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Phongsali, Laos

After our incredible, beautiful, breathtaking 8-hour bus ride from Muong Khoa, we arrived in Phongsali, Laos. Phongsali was a little bit bigger than Muong Khoa, but definitely still had a very small-town, peaceful vibe. 

One thing I learned quickly about Laos is that there are a lot of hills. Both riding buses and walking throughout towns, you will encounter hills to pass through. This can be a little tiring at times, but it also makes for some incredible views (and cooler temperatures--so refreshing after enduring such humid heat in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam).

Phongsali has a decent-sized market and a large stupa at the top of a hill. We loved exploring both of these, including some delicious pound cake and banana muffins from the market!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Muong Khoa, Laos

Laos. Beautiful, peaceful Laos. 

Before we went to Laos, I had no idea what we would be doing there. I even questioned whether we should keep it on our itinerary, wondering whether other countries should take priority. Brad never exactly answered my questions about Laos, but he remained firm that we needed to go there. He had fallen in love with the country nine years ago and was itching to get back. After spending three weeks there, I totally understand why. 

We began our Laotian journey in Muong Khoa, in the north of the country, having taken an overnight bus from crazy, chaotic Hanoi. I was pretty shocked when the bus dropped us off at such a simple, quiet town. It was a night and day difference from all the cities we visited in Vietnam. And it was wonderful. 

{This was the busiest street in town, during the busiest time of day. It's also interesting to see the prominence of both Laotian and communist flags being displayed from peoples' homes.}

{I fell in love with the green mountains of Laos and the way the fog quietly and constantly rolls through them. It is magical and comforting to be surrounded by such beauty.}

{One of several delicious banana pancakes we enjoyed in Laos.}

{This rickety suspension bridge was a little scary to walk across, especially in the middle, but it does a wonderful job of connecting the two parts of town.}

{This is a meal of larb and sticky rice, the national dish of Laos. We ate a lot of this in Laos and it's delicious. Larb is a delicious mixture of minced meat (usually pork), fresh herbs, and spices. Yum!}

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Vietnam: Perfume Pagoda

Northern Vietnam has a lot to offer outside of Hanoi. The most well-known of these attractions and the one I was most looking forward to is Halong Bay. On the morning we were set to depart for this gorgeous natural wonder, we were sitting in our hotel lobby, bags packed, waiting to be picked up. There was a light rain, then the phone rang. The hotel receptionist picked it up and handed me the phone. Our trip to Halong Bay had been cancelled due to the incoming Typhoon Rammasun. We knew about the typhoon and thought we were going to be able to squeeze in before it hit Halong, but apparently we were wrong. I didn't let my disappointment show, but I was pretty crushed. Our 30-day visa expired in six days and we needed to be out of the country before the storm would pass. When you're traveling, things don't always go according to plan and sometimes you just have to accept your fate. 

Halong Bay will not be happening on this trip, but we will go. Someday. Maybe then we won't be traveling like paupers and can do it in style; I'm reassuring myself that it's for the best. 

We decided to book a one-day tour to Perfume Pagoda and it was awesome! Perfume Pagoda is a Buddhist temple built inside a cave in the mountains about 75 kilometers outside of Hanoi. We rode in a non air-conditioned van for three hours to the Yen River where we hopped inside a slow boat. One Vietnamese woman rowed seven of us down the river for an hour before we arrived at the base of the mountain. There we ate lunch and then started the 38-minute trek (our guide timed us) up to the cave. The path was clearly paved with stones and small shops along the way, but there were a lot of steps and a lot of degrees in the temperature which meant that by the time we reached the temple, my shirt was just about completely soaked through. Pretty tiring but so worth it!

The temple itself? So cool! It had a similar feeling to the Batu Caves in Malaysia. There's something about the combination of nature and religious worship that is really beautiful. 

Here are some photos from the trip:

{Riding the slow boat to the mountain}

{and some of the gorgeous scenery around us}

{We spotted several temples on our way up the path to Perfume Pagoda}

{At the entrance to the cave}

{Standing next to some huge cave formations. Unlike what we're used to at US National Parks, there were no rules about not touching the formations in the caves so we both had a little touch and it was cool to feel something so old!}

{The lighting in the cave was so cool and provided for some really neat photo opportunities.}

{This is the main altar where Buddhists worship when they come to the cave.}

{Here you can see my beautiful sweat-stained shirt from our hot trek up. Gotta keep it real!}

{The view walking back up the stairs to leave.}

{On our way down, there was another very cool pagoda that Bradford snapped some great photos of, complete with Buddhist prayer flags.}

{I love this shot.}

After our time on the mountain, we loaded ourselves back on the slow boat and made the hour-long journey back to the vans and back to Hanoi. 

{One last snap of the Vietnam countryside before heading to Laos!}

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is a hustling, bustling city. I hope I don't get in trouble for saying this, but it was probably my least favorite city in Vietnam. Maybe we had been in Vietnam for too long (World Cup matches at 3am led to late starts and extra days), and the relentless street hawkers were just getting to me. Maybe it was the overcrowded sidewalks, forcing you to walk in the street next to motorcycles honking their loud horns and zooming past you. Maybe it was the multiple encounters with travel agents that tried to screw us over.* Or maybe it was the fact that our trip to Halong Bay got cancelled by a typhoon. 

I definitely appreciated the history of this city and learned a bunch about communism and the Vietnam War here, but for anyone planning a visit to Hanoi, I would recommend spending just a day or two to see the sights (namely the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and HCM museum) and then booking it to Halong Bay or Sapa. 

*After a couple of bad experiences where everything went pear-shaped when we asked the agent to write a few more details on our receipt (and thus confirming them), we found Ocean Sun Tours on Dinh Liet Street who we were very happy with.

Here are some photos from our time in Vietnam's capital. 

{One of the most memorable parts of Hanoi was visiting Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. In the same fashion as other famous communist leaders (Stalin and Lenin) in Russia, Vietnam has decided to immortalize Ho Chi Minh as much as possible and put his slowly decaying body on display for all to see- under, of course, the tightest of security and the strict rule of no cameras allowed. It's a simple structure that allows you to walk in a U-shape around Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body lying in a glass case. A summary of my thoughts? Freaky to see a dead body and even freakier that these people respect Ho Chi Minh so much.}

{Entrance to the Ho Chi Minh Museum}

{Hoa Lo Prison, also know as "Hilton Hanoi" where several US prisoners or war were detained during the Vietnam War, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).}

{We stayed in the Old Quarter which is filled with character, overcrowded power lines, and shop after shop that overflows onto the sidewalk.}

{Tran Quoc Pagoda, located on West Lake}

{Lenin Park, a popular place for locals to relax and play sports at the end of each day.}

{We came upon this man meditating on one of the coolest trees I've ever seen.}

{Exploring the Temple of Literature}

{Bradford found the Hanoi Stock Exchange, which was such an ironic sight in a communist country. Over the years, communism has proven ineffective in growing a successful economy and thus reforms have been made to support growth of private enterprises.}

{St. Joseph's Cathedral}

And now, a teaser for the next post. Below is the view of Hanoi on the day we were supposed to go to Halong Bay (cue sniffles).