Photo Gallery – Sapa (Vietnam) and Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw (Laos)

I thought it would be nice to focus more on the pictures than words for a change. Also, this is the fastest way for me to catch up on my posts. American laziness combined with German efficiency…it’s so beautiful.

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(Above: View from the boat in Halong Bay. 2 days/1 night of good food, great friends, kayaking and swimming.)

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(Above: The rice patties of Sapa, Vietnam. Also pictured; one very handsome man. He’s hard to see though. He’s behind my giant head)

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(Above : Two villagers hard at work in the rice fields of Sapa)

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(Above: Trekking in the mountains of Sapa. We lucked out and had great weather on the longest trekking day of our 3 day tour.)

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(Above: Relaxing at the end of the day. Half of us went swimming, the other half napped on warm rocks)

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(Above: The view from Phu Si Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s hazy due to the season. It’s the warmest time of the year, and controled burnings of the forest are taking place.)

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(Above: Night Market in Luang Prabang. One of the best night markets I’ve been too.)

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(Above: More night market pictures. Naama loved shopping there, so I had some time to kill.)

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(Above: Tak Bat – the morning collection of alms by Buddhist monks.)

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(Above: Young boys and their offerings to the monks.)

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(Above: Kuang Si Falls, about 45 minutes outside of Luang Prabang.)

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(Above: Naama, myself, Amit, and Noa at the waterfalls. Not pictured: rope swing jumps and horrible belly flops.)

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(Above: A pretty picture.)

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(Above: The previous 4 pictures were taken in Nang Khiaw, Laos. I went on a solo hike through some villages and these kids came out to investigate (aka ask for candy). They thought my glasses were funny, and we ended up taking lots of pictures and just being fools. They then took me swimming and we were joined by about 15 other kids. After I jumped in the river, I was surrounded by the little demons and a massive splash war ensued. I spent the next half hour throwing kids into the water. It was one of my favorite trip experiences so far.)

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(Above: Enjoying the boat ride back to the village of Nang Khiaw, Laos.)

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A Little Bit of Catching Up (Son Trach and Ninh Binh)

I decided to move off the beaten path after Hue, said goodbye (well, more like “see you later”) to my friends and headed over to Son Trach. The north central portion of Vietnam remains largely skipped over by travelers, but that will change soon enough. Enormous caves and parks have been opened to the public in the last decade, and as the infrastructure and accommodations improve, the backpacker trails will inevitably shift to Son Trach.

Still a very sleepy town, Son Trach’s major draw is its location. It’s a perfect jumping off point for day trips into the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and its many cave systems. At this point in time, the world’s largest cave system is still not open to the general public, but I was still lucky enough to spend time in Paradise Cave, a 7km cave which was used for shelter during the Vietnam war (or, as it’s referred to here, the American War). After climbing 518 steps, give or take a few, you find yourself descending into a cool, damp amphitheater, brilliantly back lit by lamps for both aesthetic and safety. Honestly, if you want to feel like you’re on a different planet, don’t bother with space tourism (yes, that’s a thing). Just head down into one of these caves, and you’re no longer on an Earth you’re familiar with. The sheer size of the place, combined with the cold, smooth surfaces and wet, sticky air, gave me the feeling I was transported to a far off world. Either that, or a movie set. I kept waiting for James Cameron to yell “Cut”, but it never happened.

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After the cave I found myself eating a tasty lunch on a stilted bamboo hut with the sounds of a rushing river below me. I now consider those sounds to be an open invitation, so after tastefully shoveling my food into my mouth, I dove into the waters and was soon joined by the rest of my tour group. We spent a good hour or so rock jumping and swimming, which was a welcome reprieve from the humid weather of the region.

With Son Trach checked off my list, it was time to visit Ninh Binh. Many travelers in Son Trach had sung its praises, and as it was conveniently on the way to Hanoi, it wasn’t even an option to miss it. The journey there wasn’t easy. After one missed bus (not my fault, I swear), one overpriced motorbike ride, one 6 hour wait, and one 8 hour bus ride, I found myself in Ninh Binh. Problem was, it was 3am, my guesthouse was closed and no one was answering the front door. I looked for a comfortable bench to sleep on, but the rats had already taken all the good ones. Luckily for me, Vietnam is still a pretty busy place in the early morning. People watching and bowls of pho noodles kept me pretty entertained, and at 8am I was able to arrange a bed for some much needed sleep.

I woke up around mid-day, ate half of a duck, jumped on a bike and headed over to Tam Coc. Tam Coc, which translates to 3 caves, consists of a scenic river which runs through rice fields, karst mountains and a series of small caves. I hired a rowboat, and as my guide alternately rowed with her hands and feet, I slowly moved across the still water through rich green, rice patties and towering limestone mountains. The 2 hour trip is a unique and affordable way to get close to karst mountains and get lost in their beauty. I’m surprised there weren’t more foreigners there, but with everyone in such a hurry to get to Hanoi (only about 2 hours north of Ninh Binh), I guess it’s understandable. Still, such an opportunity lost!

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A Little Bit of Catching Up (Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hue)

Has it really been almost 3 weeks since my last trip update? Days and time tend lose a little bit of their weight on a trip like this. For the most part, the only dates that mean anything are the ones stamped on your visa. Thankfully I have my horrible memory to rely on, so let’s catch up.

The end of my East Rider journey found me in Nha Trang, a coastal city popular on the traditional tourist and backpacker trails.  However, for me at least, the city lacked something. The city was void of character and charm, and the majority of the locals I met didn’t seem to be enjoying life. Well, all except the tuk-tuk driver who tried to sell me opium. He was pretty happy. That assessment of the city is just my opinion though. I’m sure the throngs of Russian tourists there would tell you different. Truth be told, it wasn’t entirely lacking in appeal. We (Rom, Amit, Naama, and Noa, and I were still together) spent a day on Vinpearl Island. Just off the coast of Nha Trang, this island resort included a water park, roller coasters and adventure sports. We stuck to the waterpark and roller coasters for an afternoon, only taking breaks to fill our stomachs with soft serve yogurt. We screamed, laughed and splashed until nightfall, ending our stay because of a pre-booked bus ride to our next destination, Hoi Ann.

Hoi An is a beautiful town and a favorite among backpackers. You can’t have a discussion with a backpacker in Vietnam without the inevitable “You have to go to Hoi An!” comment slipping in. Once there, Rom played tour guide for our time in the city, and he lead us to the centuries old architecture and temples within the old town quarters as well as on an hour long motorbike ride to the ancient ruins of My Son. Truth be told, the motorbike ride could have been to the city dump, I was just happy to be riding again. We spent the nights eating some of the best food we had in Vietnam, walking the thin cobble stone streets and crossing vibrantly lit bridges. Hoi An is a romantic and relaxed town, one that shouldn’t be missed.

Next on our docket was Hue, another town that just didn’t impress. We weren’t there for very long, but in our short time we did visit some note worthy tombs/burial grounds. Sadly, all of my pictures from Hoi Ann and Hue were taken on my Ipod touch, which is now currently either buried in the seat cushions of a random bus or in the hands of a lucky Vietnamese person. But focusing on the positive, I lasted 75 days without losing something important. Let’s be honest, that far exceeded everyone’s expectations. So…yay for me?

A Four Day Ride

Have you ever met someone and knew, just knew, that you could trust them? That they were genuine, honest and helpful? Meet Mr. Sao (far right), my Easy Rider guide.

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(Above: 3 of our guides enjoying rice wine with us after a long ride)

When I found my way to Da Lat, I knew I wanted to ride a motorbike. I watched thousands zip past me while in Ho Chi Minh, and the itch to get on one myself was just undeniable. Fortunately enough for me, while roaming around the city wide-eyed and lost, Mr. Sao helped me out. 30 minutes after picking me up, I had a comfy (and cheap!) bed as well as plans for four days of motorbiking. You see, Mr. Sao is an Easy Rider. The Easy Riders have been around for roughly 20 years, and they take visitors through Vietnam on motorbike. You have the choice; either sit on the back of an Easy Riders bike and enjoy the views, or take a bike (and your life) into your own hands and ride alone. It was an easy decision.

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(Above: I can get 70 miles per gallon on this hog. Aspen, anyone?)

On a side note, I must say, riding a bike makes you feel infinitely cooler than you really are. I should also say I’m not sure if what I was riding was a bike or a scooter. It wasn’t a Harley that’s for sure.

That being said, here’s what I felt like when I was riding my bike:

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Here’s what I actually looked liked:

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Anyways, being that this was the first time ever on a bike, and that I’m a total chicken, I was a bit nervous. My first test run in the side streets of Da Lat were best described as “wobbly”. Evidently, wobbly was good enough for Mr. Sao, as we soon hit the main streets of Da Lat for a tour of the city. However, I wasn’t alone. Continuing my streak of amazing luck, I joined a group of four young Israelis for my Easy Rider trip. It was a familiar story. They had recently finished up their time in the military and were taking advantage of their new found freedom to travel. The group consisted of Amit, who is clever, outgoing and playful; Rom, who’s wit and intelligence constantly blew me away; and twins Naama and Noa; both beautiful and warm, with laughs that could crack a smile on even the grumpiest of faces.

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(Above: From left to right: Amit, Naama, Rom and I resting at a temple)

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(Above: Amit, Noa, Rom, I and Naama in front of Elephant Falls)

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The first day of our tour consisted of the city of Da Lat. Sights included waterfalls, rollarcoasters, historical train stations and villages, and religious monuments. The highlight was the Hang Nga Guesthouse, or “Crazy House”, which looks like a building pulled straight out the imagination of Dr. Suess. After studying architecture in Moscow, the designer used the natural surroundings of Da Lat for inspiration in it’s design. The design is very fluid with few sharp corners, and the outside facade often resembled that of an old tree or root system. Some rooms felt as if they were melting, and walkways spiraled around buildings and on top of roofs.

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After the first day dedicated to city driving, the next three were spent on the open road. The guides did an impressive job ensuring we had a full and diverse experience, and we stopped pretty regularly to at various areas of interest. Flower greenhouses (Da Lat is known for their flowers and strawberries), rubber tree plantations, snake farms, coffee plantations (where we drank coffee made from beans that ferrets pooped out. Yum), mushroom farms, silk factories and waterfalls were all on our itinerary. The waterfall was easily the groups favorite stop as it was well deserved after a long day of riding. The water was deep and cool, and there were plenty of rocks to jump from and waterfalls to sit under. We spent a good hour playing. It’s impossible not to play when waterfalls are involved.

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As interesting and informational as all of the stops were, by far the best part of the trip was the ride itself. I was happy enough to just be on a bike, but having my first ride be through the central highlands of Vietnam, I couldn’t be luckier. Riding is very easy, as long as you keep your eyes and ears open. Horns, which are a bane to the sleeping bus passenger, are a god send to the novice motorbike rider. I’ll never forget coasting through the countryside, with lush green rice patties all around me, descending into a lake filled valley at dusk (and yelling out in pure joy because I just couldn’t keep it in any longer), and chugging up the mountains to Eagle Pass, then zooming down the winding roads back into the flat lands. Simply amazing.

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Now, I only have one problem. How the hell am I going to ever be satisfied with a bus ride again?

A Simple Gesture

Yesterday, while walking around the lake in Da Lat, Vietnam, a young university student named Ngoc Lan approached me wanting to practice English. We walked and talked for about 2 hours, jumping from favorite foods to family to school and everything in between. She even became my Vietnamese teacher as I practice greetings on all the strangers who crossed our paths. It was a wonderful evening.

Fast forward to today when I hear a knock on my door. In pops the woman from the front desk with a bag full of Banh Bao (dumplings) with a thank you note to “Mr.Larry” from Ngoc Lan. I was awestruck. Who was I to her, other than a study partner, yet she went out of her way for me.

Such a simple gesture, but one with such impact. I’m a very lucky man to have met her.

Vietnam: A Change of Pace

When I last left off, I was preparing for 2 days relaxing in Kampot. Those 2 days turned into 4 days filled with early morning and late afternoon swims, fresh fruit plates, new friends, bike rides, stuffed Kampot peppers, adorable kittens, stow-away frogs and late night carnivals.

Our bungalows were right on the riverfront, and each morning fellow travelers and I would gather around for conversation and breakfast, each taking turns diving, back flipping or cannonballing into the cool waters of the Kampot River. A select few would make the 25 minute round trip swim across the river, fighting both the currents and our own endurance levels. More often than not we’d take breaks, floating on our backs while the morning clouds moved slowly across the soft blue sky. It was peaceful and serene, other than the occasional passing fish nipping at our toes.

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(Above : Relaxing afternoon on the river)

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(Above: One of 5 bungalow kittens. This one’s name is James Brown)

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(Above: Found this frog in my bag after a few nights in Kampot. He was originally in an unzipped pocket, nestled deep in my bag)

As much as I would have loved to have stayed longer, I had to keep moving. I have a self imposed deadline to get to Chiang Mai, Thailand again by mid April for the Songkran festival, which means some semblance of a schedule must be kept. With that in mind, my friend Amy and I hopped on a bus destined for Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). One extremely smooth border crossing and two Banh Bao (ball shaped dumplings filled with meat/eggs/onions and other good stuff) later, we rolled into HCMC, the largest city in all of Vietnam.

I was actually very excited to get back into a big city. I’ve been bouncing around from sleepy town to sleepy town, and it was refreshing to feel the energy that comes along with 6.6 million residents (and roughly 6.6 million motorbikes by my guess). We didn’t prearrange any accommodations, so off we went for another late night hostel search. As always, it’s easy enough. We talked up some fellow travelers who lead us down alley ways full of hostels and hotels eager for our business. We decided on a modern looking youth hostel, hauled our over-sized bags up 6 flights of stairs, and hit the town.

As most travelers are want to do, we ended up staying in District 1, which is the hub for foreign travelers in HCMC. The streets are filled with youthful backpackers lined up in small red chairs, drinking the night away. Couples walk hand in hand, transfixed by the sea of neon lights all around them. A never ending stream of motos weave in and out of traffic while locals do everything in their power to get your attention in the hopes you might, just might, buy their wares. The city is alive and electric, and you can’t help but feel excited for the possibilities to come.

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(Above: Not the most efficient way to help a friend move, but it works)

For the first two days of HCMC, we decided to hit up the historical museum and take a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, a preserved area of the Viet Cong tunnels in which guests can learn about the war, see various booby traps, and actually crawl through a portion of the Viet Cong tunnel system used during guerrilla warfare. The War Remnants Museum was well organized and accessible, broken down into numerous sections ranging from agent orange, war protests around the world and war atrocities, just to name a few. It definitely peaked my interest in learning more about the war and I found myself on Wikipedia searching for more complete and balanced (to no surprise, the information you receive here is ripe with propaganda) history. All in all though, the museum is informative and a must do for anyone traveling here.

The second crash course in Vietnamese War history was the Cu Chi tunnels. Our guide was a former captain supporting the U.S. Navy during the war, so our tour was peppered with true stories about his time in the war. In fact, he fought at the very location he was now giving tours, so often his stories were about where we were currently standing. He did a fantastic job both detailing the positive and negative aspects of the Vietcong, and his admiration for their tactical warfare skills was obvious. He broke down how the tunnel systems worked, with their multiple levels, air vent systems and various escape routes. We discussed the Viet Cong’s abilities to hide their true numbers in battle, to blend in with the villages, and their ingenuity when creating weapons from scrap parts. It was truly fascinating.

The big finale (unless you count the chance to fire AK-47s as a big finale) is crawling through the tunnels themselves. There is a 100 meter long section of tunnel that has been preserved for this experience. Well, preserved might be the wrong word. They actually had to alter the size of the tunnels so westerners could fit in. Our guide said something about our fat asses not being able to fit otherwise. I can confirm this, because there was a point where I got stuck for a few seconds or so. Whatever, I’m big boned.

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(Above: Learning about the Cu Chi region near Saigon during the war)

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(Above: Our guide, mid story)

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(Above: Testing out the tunnel sizes in which Viet Cong would pop out and attack U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers)

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(Above: A tunnel entrance)

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(Above: Down we go into the tunnels)

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(Above: my favorite shot of the trip. I’ve only been in the tunnels for 5 minutes, but it looks like I’m coming out after 5 years of no food or exercise.)

On a lighter note, the food here in HCMC is fantastic. After discovering a website run by local residents on the best street foods in the city, I’ve been roaming the neighborhoods in search of recommended food stalls and nameless restaurants. Everything has been delicious, but the fruit cocktail mixed with yogurt, crushed ice and some sort of mystery orange sugar juice has captured my attention. More than likely, you can find me down an obscure alley way, sitting amongst 20 or so young Vietnamese, feverishly slurping down dragon fruit, mango, coconut, avocado, guava, watermelon, and strawberry. It doesn’t get much better than this.

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