Laos & Vietnam – Part 6

Laos & Vietnam – Part 6

My last excursion in Vietnam was to Ninh binh. It is a mountain system similar to Ha Long Bay, but instead of bay, it is in the river.

Our guide for the day, Ant was extra enthusiastic, and he made our day memorable. He started with some basic language lessons for us. The Vietnamese language uses Roman script but they do have lot of accent marks and that makes it difficult for us to read and pronounce it correctly. Each letter has five different accent marks and those many different pronunciations and of course those many meanings too.

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The journey, as usual in very comfortable mini bus, took about two hours. We reached an ancient palace. Well, it could hardly be called palace, but whatever was that, it was well maintained.

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Later on we went to our main attraction, a boat ride. The place is very well constructed and the small boats are rowed by young ladies. Each boat can accommodate 4 persons apart from the lady. There are various roots to choose from. We had opted for route no 3, which would take about two and half hours.

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The young ladies, I guess may be in their forties, look very fragile. But when they did row slowly but steadily, continuously for two and half hours, I did salute them.

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Once we enter the system of mountains and rivers, it is another world altogether. The mountains are greener and the water is crystal clear and calm. There were many spots, where I felt, I could spend my entire life. I did help the lady with rowing but when there was too beautiful a spot, I would drop it and start clicking.

This route passes thru three different caves of various lengths. I had to bow down as the roof is too low, but inside those caves, it is cooler. The caves are adequately lit up. To sum up, it was a fantastic experience.

We then had our lunch. The food was awesome as usual but the place was lovely too. The way Vietnamese, decorate the table, the dishes is just beautiful.

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Our net mission was an eco park.  Everything about this place was very romantic. The lotus lake and the pathway. The hotel, the mountain peaks, which I climbed. ( There are two peaks actually, I climbed the higher of the two.) The hike is bit challenging, but not very difficult. The view from top is fantastic. The surrounding area was so beautiful, that I felt like spending few days there. (Maybe next time.)

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On the way back, our guide Ant took us to his family home. His father and uncle played traditional instruments for us and his wife served us with tea and goodies. This was not part of our tour program, but this is how hopelessly sweet those people are.

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Net day, I left the country. The Hanoi airport is vast, beautiful still very simple. Truly in the line of Vietnam.

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Concluded…

 

Laos & Vietnam – Part 5

After having early breakfast, we started for Ha Long Bay Cruise. A comfortable mini bus was arranged for us, and the journey took around two hours.

For more than 25 years, this area is producing cultured pearls. On the way, there is a huge showroom of these pearls. You can see the whole process of making these pearls here. Also you can buy Pearl Jewelry there.

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The famous sea mountains f Ha Long Bay were already visible. The words Ha Long means “descending dragon”. This area features thousands of limestone karsts. There are around 2000, but out of them 775 islets are concentrated in an area of 334 square kilometers. These are geographical wonders and are UNESCO world heritage site now.

The locals believe that the dragon from heaven had come to their rescue and when requested, stayed back for them. These tiny mountains are part of dragon’s tail. (Well, they do look like !)

We soon reached a vast wharf created for the cruise liners. I really liked the arrangement of welcoming the guests at the wharf. They soon collected our bags and carried them to our designated rooms on the cruise.

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The cruise and rooms were super cool. Nothing less than a star hotel. The water was calm and the sailing was smooth. The crew consisted of many young girls and boys and they knew their jobs well. (I notice this in almost all the establishments in Vietnam. The young attendants are smart, efficient and always smiling.)

A lunch was arranged very soon and it was 5 course affair !  A printed program was handed over to all of us and it was flowed punctually for next twenty four hours.

Soon we were passing by the beautiful karsts. Each one had unique shape. Most of them ad caves at the bottom. There were many ships of different sizes in the area, but still each one was following the designated route.

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In the afternoon we reached a Pearl Farm. Here also there was a small showroom of pearls and the in calm waters the actual pearls were “cultured.” Self help kayaking was available there.

Then around evening we reached Tip Top island. This conical mountain has a small beach at its base. We climbed to the top (110 meters) of this island (around 450 steps) and the view from top was fantastic. We did spend some time there and returned to the cruise for dinner. It was again a multi course affair and some movie screening was arranged on the deck. I preferred sleeping in my room.

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Got up early next day and went to the deck. The morning was very pleasant. (Did not even notice, if the cruise was moving or was still, during night.)

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After breakfast, we went to see Sung Sot caves. This is a huge cave comprising of various formations. There is a sweet water pond inside and it was known to fishermen for centuries. This cave have a very well laid pathway and adequate lighting. The tourist facilities are great !

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After the cave visit, we returned to the cruise. A brunch was served and we were requested to check out of the rooms. Our luggage was delivered at the wharf.

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The office at wharf had a print out of pick up arrangements for all of us. Thanks to the meticulous planning of Jindo, we never felt helpless. Though I was the only vegetarian on the tour, my food was taken care of on the cruise also.

 

We returned to Hanoi.

To be continued…

 

Laos & Vietnam – Part 4B

Our next attraction was, Mount Fansipan. This is the tallest peak in Southeast Asia. With its 3,146 meters peak, it is also called Indochina’s roof.

In the past, it would take two days hike, to reach the peak, but thanks to the engineering marvel, it takes less than an hour to reach there. Sun group is the developer and when it was completed, it qualified for two Guinness records. Firstly the 6,282-meter cable car as the world’s longest and secondly it is the biggest ascent by a cable car, rising 1,410 meters throughout its journey.

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But before we reach the cable car base, there is a train journey of few minutes. The Sa Pa station is beautifully designed. The mini train journey was fantastic. Due to heavy fog, it seems that we were travelling in space.

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When we began the cable car ride, the visibility was still very poor. After 5 minutes, we were above the clouds and the beautiful valley was visible. At the base of the valley there are rice fields and then on the slopes, there is thick forest.

The cable car itself is very spacious and comfortable. After few minutes, it started swinging, but there is nothing to worry. The three cable system is absolutely safe.

At the cable station, there is a huge restaurant. Also a souvenir shop. But we still had not reached the peak. There is an open terrace and there are few pagodas there. It was a great experience just to be there, with minus 2 degrees centigrade temperature and strong winds which would not allow you to stand, without holding on to something.

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From the terrace, you need to climb 600 steps to reach the peak. But nothing to worry, there is another transport system, funicular to take you there. This slanting train gives a thrilling ride to the top.

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The view from above is literally from above the clouds. (You cannot climb the actual peak as this is a sacred spot, and you are not supposed to set your foot on that.)

In spite of wearing warm clothing, it is not possible to stand there for long time. I took the funicular ride down and reached the upper cable car station.

This place is very well designed and when we were there, there were lovely tulips all around. There is a huge restaurant there and I had fantastic vegetarian food there.

Then we tool the cable car down. The visibility was better, but still we had to go through the clouds to reach SA Pa. SA Pa town itself is small and romantic. It had some lovely hotels too.

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It was time to return to Hanoi. So we started 4 hour journey back.

To be continued..

 

Laos & Vietnam – Part 4A

I had a wonderful night sleep and had very tasty breakfast in the hotel. The morning was cold and misty. Our guide was already waiting for us.

Our first spot was Sa Pa Garden. Just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel, there is this beautiful garden. Other members from our group were not too keen to climb the steps. But I insisted. So our guide accompanied me.

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The climb was worth the efforts. It is very well maintained garden with lovely landscapes. But the problem was, as we reached some height, the visibility became very poor. We could not see beyond 50 meters. So, we decided to turn back. On the way, I purchased some chestnuts. Chestnut biscuits are a local delicacy and had that too.

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To be continued!

Laos & Vietnam – Part 3

I had obtained e-visa for Vietnam. Hence I was under the impression, that there won’t be much of a formality on arrival. But that was not to be. You have to hand over your passport and print out of e-visa on a counter and wait. Wait, patiently I mean. After so and so minutes, your photo is displayed on a TV monitor and your name is called by some pre-programmed reader. You realize that there is one more way to pronounce your name, which you should be trying henceforth. A pink receipt is handed over to you, along with passport, and you pay USD 25 (for 30 days) and there you go. I mean go and join one of the long queues for actual visa stamping. This may take several hours. The queues do not seem to move. I changed couple of them, but the actual stamping takes just 10 seconds I wonder, why the queues were not moving !

Folks, this is the only somewhat funny experience, I had in Vietnam. The moment I set my foot in the country, Ms. Jindo of Rubicon tours (https://rubicontours.com/ ) had taken care of each and every detail of my stay. ( I really do not have words to express my appreciation for her efforts. She constantly kept in touch with me. Kept me updated for each and every arrangement, in advance. Had chosen lovely hotels, for my stay. Had arranged super enthusiastic and young guides for me. I will not mention this again and again, in my posts, but must mention that due to her, I had a dream like holiday in Vietnam.)

One driver was waiting for me outside and he took me to the hotel. The airport is little far away from the city and took about an hour to reach the hotel. http://www.ladolcevita-hotel.com/  . There was a young caretaker by name, Harry was already waiting for me. He arranged the quick check in and offered me to take out for dinner. (I had informed Jindo that I am vegetarian, and my food was taken care of, throughout my stay.) Harry took me to a restaurant called “Vegan”, and we had a wonderful dinner there. That was the last thing, I expected in Hanoi, but then I had many during my stay there. The streets of Hanoi, were very busy and alive. There was an unending flow of bikes and a newcomer would wonder how to cross the road. You just have to walk across all the bikers will move swiftly around you, without even touching you. That is Hanoi. While, I was there, Vietnam was looking forward to Chinese new year celebration. As a part of this celebration, they were carrying a blooming peach tree or a fruiting kumquat tree, on their two wheelers.

The hotel itself was wonderful. Each and every detail was taken care of. (Like toothbrush with toothpaste, razor with shaving cream, comb, earbuds, shower cap was provided, free of cost.)

Next day, I had a wonderful breakfast at the hotel, then we started our journey to Sa Pa. A super comfortable minibus was arranged and the 4 hour journey was completed in time, with suitable breaks in between. The roads are just fantastic and there wasn’t too much of traffic on the way. The bus stops were clean and had a good choice of food. The other tourist buses, which I saw there were ultra modern and super comfortable. It is customary in Vietnam, to remove the footwear, while entering the bus. To move around at the bus stop, the bus staff provides temporary footwears.

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At Sa Pa there was another young girl waiting for us. She checked us in hotel Sa Pa Relax & Spa. https://www.saparelaxhotel.com/ . Due to road construction activity, our vehicle could not reach the hotel, but the staff came forward to receive us. The hotel is fantastic and we had wonderful lunch there.

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After a quick nap, we started our tour to Sa Pa village. The visibility was less than 50 meters, and I was wondering, what we would be able to see. But the village is in a valley and we started climbing down the steps.

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This was a wonderful journey and the village crowd was dressed in colorful costumes. The dresses were available for sale and also for hire.

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We walked down for about 4 kilometers and reached a stage set against backdrop of a waterfall. There was a lovely show of folk dance on that stage.

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And to our surprise, we did not have to climb back to the point from where we started, a vehicle was arranged for us.

After reaching the hotel, another wonderful dinner was arranged for us. I never thought a vegetarian version of this do it yourself on the table delicacy could ever be made.

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To be continued.

Laos & Vietnam – Part 2

We then went to see some Buddha temples. There are couple of them, concentrated in ne area. One of them was named as “smoke free”. There is a nominal entrance fee. Most of them have a central temple, with large statue of Buddha. Then a rectangular boundary with more Buddha statues. Surprisingly, I did not see any Hindu reference there. Chinese dragon is present everywhere though.

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Also, the faces of Buddha were not identical. Each had different features. I did not understand, if that was because they were made by artist from different countries. There wasn’t much written information in English. (And you know, I did not have guide.) Some of the building, were repaired and restored, as recently as year 2016.

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But all establishments were spotlessly clean. There wasn’t much crowd. Or maybe, I was there at wrong time. There was somewhat a modern building, with modern style paintings about Buddha. There were lovely painting on sale too.

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Then we went to Victory Gate. This gate was constructed in year 1962. It is written there, that it was not completed. I did not feel, anything like that. This is a sole structure there. It also does have some elements of Hindu mythology. Today it is a leisure park.

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In front of it there is one unusual sculpture made entirely with porcelain dishes, cups, spoons bowls etc. It looks good, but I think it was a temporary display.

We returned to the hotel, much later in the afternoon. The hotel gives unlimited free tea and coffee for it’s guests. Had 2 cups coffee there.

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Later in the evening, I went to another Indian Restaurant, by the name, “Taj Mahal”. The food was great and as spicy as any Indian would love it.

Then I went to their “night market”. This is an open area alongside river. It has lot of shops selling garments, shoes and such things. It has a separate food court too. The place is very lively for few hours in the night.

The garments on sale are very reasonable price. The local currency is KIP. And one USD can get you, 8,869 Kips. Hence even if a thing is priced at say, 10,000 Kips, when you convert to Dollars or Rupees, it is negligible amount.

The sellers, mostly girls, are somewhat shy. The prices are written on board in bold letters and they give up very easily, with your little haggle. I selected two Tee shirts, and the lady gave me good discount. But, I was taken aback when I came to know that the original price already included a short and hanger too !  I finished most of my converted money there. As I had already eaten, did not eat there. The fresh fruit juices were, very tempting though.

 

Next morning, I had my breakfast and had still some time, till my flight. I went for a short walk alongside the river. (The actual river is little away.) It was a very lovely morning. Many of the locals, were out for a walk. The Champa flowers (Frangipani) were blooming everywhere. (This is the national flower of Laos.)

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I had booked a Taxi to airport and he dropped me. The Vientiane airport is small but very efficient. I had booked a flight on Lao Airlines and you will be surprised to know that, there is not a single adverse review of this airline. My experience was not different. Even for short flight of less than an hour, they served me with a vegetarian meals.. With all sweet memories of Laos, I left for Hanoi.

 

 

To be continued…

Laos & Vietnam – Part 1

This time for my bi annual trips, I selected Laos and Vietnam. Both these countries issue e-visa for Indian passport holders and this was the main reason, for selecting these two countries.

I got a very good ticket deal on skyscanner.co.in. I applied on their official visa site and got both the visas, in time. I was planning to stay in Laos, just for two days and I wanted to visit their National Park. Phou Khao Khouay National Bio-diversity park has a waterfall which can be considered as mini version of Pamukkale. The other attraction was Laotian orchids, which grow in this area.

I tried to contact many tour operators for this excursion, but only one of them responded. The price quoted was too high, so I thought, I  would try again, after reaching there

I took Thai International flight from Mumbai to Bangkok and then Thai Smile flight from Bangkok to Vientiane (Capital of Laos.) Both the flights were pleasant. The immigration procedure at Vientiane, took just two minutes. I had not made any prior arrangement for airport pick up, but I had booked the hotel. (Hotel VKS.) I took a taxi to the hotel.

I have been to thirty countries so far and my intuition does not let me down, when I make some judgements from the first ride, in that country. Laos seemed very easy and laid back to me, and I was not wrong. After a brief nap at the hotel, I started moving around. I requested the hotel to look for a tour for me.

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I really loved the aimless strolling on the streets. The famous night market, was just two minutes away. I spotted few Indian restaurants too. When I came back to hotel, the quote they got for National Park was not so good. (I was a solo traveler and secondly this is not the rainy season, hence the water fall had dried up.) The other option was a day tour of the capital. I haggled for the price and what I could manage to get, was a tour with taxi and driver but without guide. I booked it for the next day.

I visited the night market just to get the feel of what was on display and the prices. The stuff was interesting, so I decided to come back the next day. Then I went to an Indian Restaurant “Rashmi”. The food was excellent and the price was fine.

The next day, the driver came on time. He took me first to Buddha Park. This park as some unusual statues of Buddha. I can call them somewhat modern, compared to the traditional poses, we see. The garden has many statues of Hindu deities. The style of these deities is similar to what we have today. (This park was built in 1950s or so.) The entire area was once part of greater India and followed Hinduism. It seems it is still followed there.

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The garden has a domelike structure. It has three layers inside. The entrance is very narrow and the steps inside are tricky. It takes some efforts to enter and climb. (It is clearly written there, that “Old age and illness do not climb.”) There are some statues of Hindu deities, but I could not identify them. I could not understand the meaning of the three layers, either. (Remember, I did not have a guide)

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The statues in the garden are somewhat damaged over time, but the garden around it is very well maintained. It has some lovely flowers too. This garden seems to be very popular among the locals. While I was there, there was a picnic of cute young school children. All were very eager to shake hands with me. Of course the pleasure was mine too.

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Later my driver took me to COPE center. This is an organization, which helps bomb victims, to move on. America dropped some 260 million bombs in this area, out of which 80 million are estimated not to have exploded and they may be still alive and buried underground. The innocent people become victims of these bombs even today. One bomb shell may contain up to 680 individual cluster bombs and has ability to affect an area equivalent to three football fields.

This center has a small display area. (The actual rehabilitation activities are not for exhibition, and I think that is very sensible of them.) There are no photos of injured victims, on display.

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I was appreciating the artistic value of  a display but after reading I came to know, they were the actual cluster bombs. I felt ashamed and could not hold myself back. I sat down there, and let my tears flow. That is all, I could do for these innocent people, though I know, in no way, it is going to ease their past pain and suffering.

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When you walk on the streets, you can feel the simplicity and politeness of these people. Not only the look innocent, they ARE innocent. Later, when I talked to the owner of Indian Restaurant, he said that, these people are not even aware what dishonesty and cheating is all about. I really wish, they remain like this, for ever.

 

To be continued…