A Travellerspoint blog

Saigon!

going out with a bang....

sunny 72 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

147 days on the road came to an end with four nights in Saigon. If you read my above entry on central Vietnam, you can understand if I was on a bit of downer heading into the city. The end of any trip is always tough, but central Vietnam did little to impress me, so I really was hoping for good things in Saigon (I just dont like the HCMC name).

Saigon delivered big time. As with Hanoi, I got mostly mixed reviews of Vietnam's largest city with many people citing the traffic, pollution, and sheer intensity of the place as negatives. Well, I guess I just enjoy big cities more than most. I found Saigon a perfect blend of west and east. I stayed over in the backpacker distract near De Tham, and while this particular area ranks low on my list of neighborhoods, it is cheaper than everywhere else.

A key ingredient to my enjoyment was that I met a group of local ex-pats my first night in town. They subsequently invited me to dinner parties and nights out on the town, allowing me to see local restaurants, a rather swanky art gallery opening, and a big club on a Friday night. I spent most of my time away from the De Tham area and felt as though I was seeing a good cross section of the Saigon the locals see. My takeaway is that Saigon is perhaps the most liveable town I saw in s.e. asia outside of Chaing Mai. It is a vibrant place where commercialism is starting to take hold, but still competes with old school Vietnamese markets. I found the residents to be a bit warmer than their counterparts in Hanoi, and I thought Saigon held itself out to travelers as a city that is increasingly aware of its place as a key cultural town in southeast asia. The art galleries were impressive, the food was top notch, and the attitude of the residents was generally welcoming.

I did the obligatory stop at the War Remnant's Museum, a sobering and down right embarrassing place to go as an American. I took a day trip out to the Mekong Delta because I wanted to get out of the city on my third day there. The tour was nice, but as with other tours in Vietnam, it held very little in the way of substance. Lots of stops to go 'shopping' or pointless breaks to eat local coconuts. I mean, this is Vietnam's continual problem = the lack of interesting side trips or excursions beyond the main tourist areas.

In the end, I made some good friends and had some eventful nights out in the city. I left the town on a high note. I strongly recommend it and hope to return soon.

Posted by efstein 11/18/2009 14:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

backpacking central Vietnam

connecting the dots.....

storm 73 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

I will not beat around the bush; central Vietnam is a difficult and arguably disappointing place to independently travel. Perhaps my expectations were to high, or perhaps the central area simply paled in comparison to previous destinations in Laos, Thailand and New Zealand. Ultimately, I look at what I did, think about what I did not do due to time constraints, and conclude that the vast amount of opportunities available to you as a backpacker are things you could do when you are traveling later in life. To travel in your 20s and 30s is to challenge yourself and to explore, there is little to do in central Vietnam that rivals the challenges I found elsewhere.

Certain facts are indisputable -

- the geography puts all travels in a north-south or vice versa trajectory. While not a negative alone, the fact is that the feeling of being forced into a stream or pattern of traveling is ominipresent. From Hanoi you go to Hue, from Hue to Hoi An, from Hoi An, Nha Trang -- maybe a stop in De Lat or Mui Ne. I met travelers in Hanoi and would randomly see them in Hue and then 5 days later in Nha Trang. Everyone is doing the same thing, and the question that I kept asking is, why?

- Vietnam is not nearly as developed or 'open' to travelers as one may expect. Call me naive, but I was led through initial online researching and second hand stories from other travelers to believe that Vietnam was open and ready to be explored. It is true that the coastline offers many interesting places, but off the coast and into the hills you see a country that is generally not prepared or perhaps not willing to invite travelers into its less populated areas.

- The tour agencies, bus routes, and general guide book induced travelers are all telling you to do the same thing. I have personally stayed as far away from tour groups as possible during my five months on the road. I generally find that they over promise and the feeling of being held captive in a tour bus all day is not my way of spending time abroad. That being said, you are left with very few alternatives in Vietnam's central area. The DMZ tour was high on my list of to-dos and, although I do not regret going, I am thankful I went on a rainy day, for the tour was essentially a waste. In other areas like Hoi An and Nha Trang the predominance of multiple tour companies offering the same exact itinerary was further proof that Vietnam has things to do, but it does not have variety. You either go on the same tour as everyone else or you sit around in a restaurant all day reading a book.

I will say that options such as guided motorbike tours for a few days into the hills were the exact thing I should have done if I had more time. It seems like there are a few ways to get off the beaten path, and this was certainly one of them.

I enjoyed Hoi An and Nha Trang where I was able to get a week in between floods and typhoons. Hoi An certainly has that comfort level thing down, with abundant cafes, art galleries, and markets, I thought it was the easiest place to enjoy yourself for an extended period of time, although it felt very western. But even in Hoi An, if you do not want to shop, there is little else to do.

In Nha Trang I was most surprised by the wonderful professionalism I encountered with Rainbow Divers, on a morning two dive session. Their boat and dive team far out-performed anything I saw in Thailand, if only the actual diving was a bit better. Nha Trang is a nice place, but as with other areas in Vietnam, the westerners are herded to one area of the city where you can find your english breakfasts and western bars. I rented a motorbike for two days and motorbiked over 100 kilometers in the surrounding areas as I was getting annoyed by the feeling that I was not seeing the 'real' Vietnam. My advice - do it. Get on a bike, take a map, and get away from all of these quasi-western areas within the tourist towns. I met locals, was invited into a private lunch in a farm town, and felt more satisfied with my experience by getting away from tourist land.

I saw the communities that are located in between the tourist destinations. They are poor, english is non-existent, and generally there seems like little going on in these places apart from a rural agrarian life style that offers little in the way of tourism opportunities. From a backpacker standpoint, its a shame you cant explore these areas with a bit more confidence, but I really did not see or hear anyone say they did extensive traveling in these areas and that includes the bearded backpackers right on through the lonely planet packs of 4 girls.

I am happy I saw what I saw, but I wont be coming back anytime soon.

Posted by efstein 11/18/2009 13:48 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Hanoi, Vietnam

semi-overcast 80 °F

I flew into Vietnam with very high expectations. Thailand and Laos were good warmups, and now I wanted to finish off the trip with a memorable 3 week run north to south in Vietnam. Hanoi was the starting point, and in short, I really enjoyed Hanoi. Most people I meet hedge their reviews of Hanoi - its too busy, too smelly, too dirty - you get the point, and I guess in a way it is all of those things. But Hanoi is also this very strange place that has seen countless empires rise and fall, foreign colonization rise and fall, and is home to a continuing interplay between communism and the country's modern balance with capitalsim. The underlying amalgam of hardships and political posturing is written all over Hanoi - on the walls, in the decaying old city, and especially on the faces of its residents. This gives an American like myself a lot to chew on.

I stayed in the old city which is one of the oldest preserved 'old cities' in any asian country. Its streets are narrow and the shops all moonlight as homes for the shopkeepers. During the day the sidewalks are filled with merchants, motorbikes, and food stalls - walking requires frequent detours into the street. The street. Wow, well Hanoi trumps everywhere I have ever been in terms of street chaos. Seemingly endless numbers of motorbikes twist and turn with little regard for traffic laws, which I have learned are loose to non-existent in Hanoi. But in all the chaos, I found an endearing order to the old city. Old alley ways were lined with food stalls and the locals sit on tiny chairs and eat their Pho (Vietnamese Soup). I was not harassed by too many touts, scammers, or street vendors, at least no more than what I am now accustomed to in southeast Asia. And as you move through the old city to the Hoan Kiem Lake the choas opens up into a more modern city with larger streets and a city plan that uses the lake as a central point.

From the lake I walked through variously nice and not so nice neighborhoods to view the french inspired colonial architecture, the "Hanoi Hilton" known here as Hoa Lo Prison - famous for holding American POWs and before that used by the French to hold Vietnamese socialists and communists - a scary place. I walked through a mediocre Botanical Gardens, saw the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (sadly, Ho was getting cleaned up this month so I couldnt view him). I took in the Fine Arts Museum which held a nice collection of art, even if the building reminded me of a portion of my high school, and I also saw a memorial to John McCain, the American senator who was shot down in central Hanoi when he was a fighter pilot in the war. He is actually revered in Vietnam for his eventual pro-Vietnam stance regarding the war.

Enough with the little details, the big point is that I think Hanoi is great. Its not western its not really that beautiful in a conventional sense. Nor is a hard city to learn or get around, as some people suggest to me. I found it largely walkable, and with the proper choices, transport never put me in a risky or fraud inducing situation. One night I ccoordinated to meet my friend Sophie, who was part of my group when I lived in Wanaka, New Zealand. She is traveling with her husband and we all met up for drinks and dinner. Apart from that I was solo the whole time and due to Hanoi's sensory appeal in terms of sights, sounds, and food....I thought it was a good place to travel solo.

Posted by efstein 10/27/2009 02:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Laos - random events without a guide book

87 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

My short but sweet eight days in Laos provided two welcome changes from my trip so far. First, I crossed into Laos with a rough idea of what I could fit into a week's worth of travel but I had no information, no guide book, and no idea what I was really doing. I sort of wanted to just let things happen after using guide books as security blankets in Australia, Thailand and New Zealand. Secondly, I finally completed a rewarding and extended amount of travels with a group of random backpackers; this coming after a few mediocre travel mates and my conclusion only a few weeks ago that I was best suited to travel solo.

Laos is a unique place. Now with both Thailand and Vietnam under my belt, Laos leaves the impression of a lost or forgotten world set between two countries that have a ton of history. The small villages I spent my time in were easily the most third world places I have ever been to....I say this in a good way. Unlike dilapidated third world countries, Laos is simply not developed. Thatched roof huts, rustic toilets, wood stoves, few electronics - its just an undeveloped place that to the naked eye, is in no rush to join modernity. The locals either ignored us or tried to help us when necessary.....again this is a good thing, compared to the hassles you encounter from over-zealous sales persons and touts in Thailand and Vietnam.

Some travelers will conclude that there is very little to do or see in Laos, and in a way I have to agree. Forty percent of the country remains prone to unexploded land mines, and the rest of the country has minimal to zero modern infrastructure. The backpacker highways are commonly known trips running north/south from the border town of Huay Xai on a two day boat cruise on the Mekong to the french colonial town, Luang Prabang. From there its an 8 hour bus ride to Vang Viene for a notorious day of tubing on the Mekong from one bar to another ending the day in a drunken stupor. There are trekking opportunities in between, there is the weakly reviewed capital of Vientiene, and there are a few other activities like the Gibbon Experience (see below entry) which can keep you in the country longer.

That being said, after I opted for the Gibbon Experience I had basically a week to get myself to Hanoi without sacrificing too much of Vietnam in the process. While living in the treehouses I befriended four other travelers. There was Daniel and Hannes, a German and Austrian, who were old university friends and now were both in the corporate world and taking a three week vacation together. I actually met them on my overnight bus from Chaing Mai, and we talked briefly about the Gibbon Experience. The next morning I crossed the border on my own and ran into them in Huay Xai. We went over to the Gibbon Experience office and lobbied to get into the group that started that morning....we missed the company's charter van north by thirty minutes, but with three people offering to sign up, they got a pickup truck and loaded us in so that we could meet up with the rest of the day's group. In the jungle the three of us were placed in a five person tree house with two girls from Canada, Ally and Courtney, and from there the team of 5 was in place for the next week in Laos.

A bit of bad luck led to our first tip. Ally had her camera taken from the treehouse. Possible theories ranged from curious giant squirrels to the local village drunk, but the reward came in the form of the company owner Jeff, a forty something Frenchman who talked with us in an attempt at damage control. (NOTE: I really dont know what happened to the camera, it was a piece of garbage and we all had our wallets in the treehouse unguarded, and the guides and owner were earnestly distraught, so its loss was not really logical.) Jeff advised us to avoid the two day Mekong boat ride, which consists of sixteen hours spread over two days on a slow rather uncomfortable boat, with a layover in a dull town that everyone is forced to stay in. Instead he advised us to bus it to a small village called Nong Khiau. To get there would require a simple ten hour bus journey, or so he said. From there it was a day's boat journey down the Ou River which flows into the Mekong just north of Luang Prabang. It was off the beaten path, and it was only one day on the boat. All five of us were excited to have some insider information and an alternative to the standard route.

The actual journey provided what we wanted -- no tourists, no backpackers, isolation in a small town, and picturesque scenery. The initial 'bus' ride turned into a private minivan ride when we found out that the only option on our travel day was the local bus...an estimated 16 hour drive with live chickens, pigs, and babies on board. No thanks. Our minivan was pretty flash, we all had full recliners and a lot of room for what turned out to be an eleven hour drive. The total distance less than two hundred miles! The roads in Laos are mostly paved, but every mile brings occasional dirt road patches, pot holes, mud slides, or reductions to a single lane. You have to just give it all time because you can not get anywhere fast....unless you fly. We got to Nong Khiau in the dark, exhausted, without any idea where we would sleep. The driver took us to a guesthouse that was kind of clean and remotely comfortable, but it was all we had and despite the whining of some of our troops I put my foot down and said that there was no way I was going to look at various guesthouses at 8pm in this town, we were staying put. We caught an amazingly starlight sky, ate at a bizarrely fantastic Indian food place, and got pulled off the street by a drunk local to finish a bottle of Laos whiskey with his family. All in all, a good night.

In the morning we awoke to the enchanting location that puts Nong Khiau on the map. Its stationed on the Ou River in between various jungle green mountains. With more time it would have been a choice location to do some trekking, but we all had a tight schedule and yearned for some society in Luang Prabang. The ensuing boat trip was nice, but coming off the heels of an 11 hour van ride, 7 more hours in a boat put everyone on edge. We dodged the rain this whole time, but apparently a storm had led to a swollen section of the Ou north of the merge into the Mekong. We had to wait two hours while the boat captains examined the section and determined a navigation route. The boats in Laos are all wooden and are closer to big canoes than boats, a bad current or any type of swell could be exciting in a bad way. So that was an unfortunate delay, but we still got into L.P. before dark and were all fully satisfied that we'd chosen correctly with our travels.

Luang Prabang is a strange place. After several days living in jungles and in small backwoods villages, L.P. was a shock, as its easily the most western place I have been to in southeast asia. There is certainly a large local community and local Laos restaurants and universities are everywhere, but the old city is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is presently home to a large westernized neighborhood of french patisseries, cafes, travel agents, and nice hotels. The issue I have is how cut off the tourist and local areas seem to be in L.P. It is a very nice place and I enjoyed resting there for a few nights. Certainly, it is on all tour packages as a location not to be missed, and it attracts a very sedate western crowd of middle to older age tourists, along with the obligatory backpacker scene. Its just a hard place to feel as though you are in a country like Laos.

So much writing, I'll stop now. I had wanted to do the land crossing from Laos to Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam, but after experiencing the pace of the roads in Laos, I booked a flight into Hanoi. I skipped the drunken revelry of Vang Viene and missed out on some trekking. I could have easily put in another week in Laos, if not more, but I am thankful to have seen a good cross section of what the country has to offer. And I'll add that I got the sense that Laos remains outside the investors' eyes, it does not look like a place that will be all that different in ten years, hopefully I'll find out for myself.

Posted by efstein 10/22/2009 05:26 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Gibbon Experience - Bokeo Nature Reserve, Northern Laos

http://www.gibbonx.org/gibbon_project.php

sunny 86 °F
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I'll get right to the point on this one. The Gibbon Experience will surely be one of the highlights of my five months abroad. The story of how I ended up living in a treehouse in the Bokeo Nature Reserve in northern Laos is deserving of its own blogpost. But basically, after crossing the border into the Laos town of Huay Xai, I wandered up to the Gibbon Experience office and after a few odds and ends were ironed out, I was en route in a pickup truck for an hour's ride north to a river crossing. At the river crossing we changed vehicles to an all-terrain vehicle that navigated through the two feet of river water and proceeded for about an hour on a 'road' that was more suited for donkeys than automated cars; it was bumpy and steep. The end point is a village, which I think is called Lao Loom. It consists of a few thatched huts and a vendor or two selling drinks. This was the last I would see of civilization for 72 hours. A quick note on the village - in Thailand or in other over-visited areas villages try to exploit the fact that a western tour goes through their village, you see native garb, or children begging for food and candy, the 'long necked' women in northern Thailand come to mind.

In Laos, you do not see this. The villagers acknowledge you, but there is no rush to beg or hawk crappy items in your face. There is no attempt to guilt trip you into offering children candy or money. It is a welcome change from what you occasionally see in Thailand and, from what I hear, in Cambodia.

From the village we walked for about an hour through rice paddies and into the native jungle. The weather was humid with overcast sun. I was drenched in sweat after a few minutes on the trail, but at this point, the sheer curiosity of what awaited us was more than enough to propel our group to the base camp. At base camp you find the guides' accomodation and a kitchen where the daily meals are prepared, thats about it. We were given our harness and glider systems for use on the ziplines and proceeded to break up our group of nine into two groups of 5 and 4.

The Gibbon Experience is a very simple concept. Two Frenchman began the project about 7 years ago. The basic idea was to find away to curb the local 'slash and burning' of the jungle and the endangerment of the local species by giving the local villages an alternative way to profit from the jungles existence. The concept of forest conservation through eco-tourism is not that original, but I must say that I think this may be the best example of this strategy that I have ever witnessed. You speak to the guides and hear how they are basically the biggest earners in the entire area. Other villages want to get help build tree houses and extend the project. And even with expansion, the project does not bring in more than about 12 people per day.

Today what was once one treehouse and a few ziplines is now 7 treehouses that span 7 kilometers, interconnected by an array of jungle tracks and about two dozen ziplines. Tree House 1 was the first tree house built, and its where I stayed. It is a trilevel complex set about 175 feet up on a 300 foot high Ficus tree. The only way in and out is through ziplines. The tree house had a living room/kitchen area on the second floor, two 'bedrooms' and a bathroom with outdoor shower on the first floor and a third bedroom in the third floor. I felt completely safe and secure in the tree house as it seemed very sturdy. After dropping our bags off upon our arrival, our guide took us out for an afternoon of learning the safety precautions for the zip lines.

The whole zip line thing is absurdly easy. After a standard climbing harness, you are given a safety rope that you always attach to the line followed by your roller which is also attached to the line. One hand goes on top of the roller to push down on it if you need to break. For the other four people and myself who constituted our gang and zipping partners, I would say it took about 10 minutes for us all to be very comfortable with the system. By day two we were filming each other and going off on solo missions to find the newly built tree houses which were about a 2-3 hour zipping and trekking journey away.

The ziplines vary in length and height but figure the average length is about 200-400 meters with a height of about 100-200 meters. Crazy. You are literally soaring above the jungle as most of the lines are positioned to guide you over a ravine and connect you with two equally high points above lower jungle. The vistas are unbelievable. In the mornings, you zipline through mist and fog, disappearing into nothingness and re-emerging at the landing areas.

The entire experience is completely hands off. After the first day, you return to the tree house for dinner. The sunsets, candles are lit, cards are played and eventually the noises of the jungle at night take over. We had some visitors at night. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers, and giant squirrels which look like lemurs, and fortunately very few mosquitoes. In the morning, our guide came at 6 am sharp to lead a gibbon spotting expedition. Gibbons are only active in the mornings and usually only for a short period after 7 am. On both mornings we heard their extremely loud cries, but only on the second did we get a fleeting glimpse of one. After this planned activity, you have the entire day to yourselves. The Gibbon Experience is not educational, scientific, or cultural. It is simply a program that allows you to pay to live in the jungle canopy, view the native species that are hopping and swinging around and hang out with fellow travelers. If you have the good fortune of lodging with interesting and motivated people, you end up zip lining as much as possible and trekking deep into the jungle.

In the other tree house one of the guys could not handle living so high up and had to spend most of his time at base camp with the guides. The remaining three guys were all under the age of 22 and two of them were whiny Americans. I can say that because I am an American. On our second day we saw a new group head past us for some of the more distant tree houses. One of the ladies was over weight and got stuck in the middle of the zipline (you do need a small amount of physical strength as sometimes you do not make it to the end and have to pull yourself a few feet to the landing platform). She was clearly traumatized and had to go back to the base camp to do nothing for two days. Her husband continued on. My point is that the experience depends on having a good group as you have the jungle at your fingertips and do not need to have fellow travelers pointing out how lumpy the pillows are. Our group consisted of myself, two Canadian girls and a German and Austrian guy. Everyone was flexible, athletic and relaxed enough to embrace the zip lines and aged similarly 27-33. It was just a great group and our card games turned into nightly competitions.

The program is not fine tuned. Its still a work in progress, there are things that can be improved and from what I read about the program from a few years ago, you can tell things are getting a bit more organized. Food was not exactly deluxe, guides were far from informative, and the lack of any organized itinerary could piss off people who expect to learn things. I personally would have liked some more maps of the zip lines and trekking trails, but on the whole I loved the experience. Rough around the edges and complete freedom to choose your own adventure. If you are in Laos and you think this sounds interesting, just go, hope for sun, good people, and gibbons!

Ive been terrible about adding pics as I just cant make the time. But this guy's pics more or less show the story

Posted by efstein 10/15/2009 12:02 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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