A Travellerspoint blog

Sapa

Astonishing Rice Fields

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Just arrived to Hanoi from Halong Bay, and it was time to depart again for Sapa. Our train departed at 8 pm, so we had a couple hours to chill out around the hotel and get some food. We don't know how but we got upgraded and ended in a 4 berth wagon, which was better for us. Our train mates for the night were a couple of Vietnamese students who were spending the day in Sapa and getting back the following night with another train.

The train didn't go directly to Sapa but to Lao Cai, the biggest city in the province. So once the train stopped there, we arranged transport with a minibus and 60 minutes later we arrived...it was rainy and foggy so you couldn't see a thing and the driver just dropped all of the passengers at a hotel that was not ours, so we had to make our way under the rain to our hostel, the Green Valley Hostel. The place was nice and our room had a big terrace facing the mountains. Since we arrived so soon in the morning, we decided to take a good nap in order to have energy and strength to trek around the villages. Around noon we went to one of these typicals mountains cafe to have our rich brunch. Since it was already a bit late to do a long day trekking, we decided to walk to the nearest village named Cat-Cat. The views and landscapes of Sapa captivated us since the beginning. The rice fields are basically on the hills and they create a sort of stair-case carpet that it is absolutely stunning! After about 3 Km walking we finally arrived to the village where we could sit down and admire a very neat waterfall and also see village people's art crafts. Once we got back to our hostel, it was already dinner time so we went to the major street to find a place to eat. Since we couldn't remember the last time we had a decent meal, we decided to go for it and ordered 2 glass of wine accompained by a delicious Vietnamese dinner... we really had a blast!

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The next morning we got up soon to start a proper full day trekking and visit the numerous villages along the way. At first we were offered to do an organized tour but this time we chose to do it on our own. We started by going down following the major street and then took a path that was heading towards the river. The walk down was great and we found absolutely interesting to see the small villages and how people were living. Again the nature and the colors of the rice fields around us made this place a unique one to see. After a few hours walking, we finally reached the river and put our feet in the cold water to refresh a bit after the long walk... at least this is what we thought because the "worst" was yet to come. As a matter of fact after taking some pictures, we decided to try to go back following another path which was going along the river... oh well, this turned out to be quite adventurous. First we went down to a very steep hill which I still don't know how we managed to make it without breaking one of our limbs; then thinking it was a pieace of cake we got lost among the rice fields without knowing which way was leading to Sapa. We kept walking with the hope to find someone to ask and eventually a little Vietnamese kid popped out from nowhere and asked us some money to guide us to Sapa. We immediately refused and try to find our own way to the major street. The rice fields were everywhere and it was quite difficult to find a path to walk. We fell several times in the mud or simply slipped directly into the rice fields. The Vietnames kid kept following us and gave us some hints to find the way to Sapa... probably it was a sort of game for him and resulted to be funny since we had know idea about where to go. We decided to trust him and follow the way he was showing us. In the meantime the hours were passing by and we were walking non-stop without even seeing a concrete road. Finally the kid showed us the way to his village where part of his family told us how to get to the main road. Well, believe it or not, after more or less 15 Km we made it to the main road where we immediately drank some water and rest a little before walking other 3 km to our hotel. We definitely had a very interesting trekking and definitely more adventurous than the one an organized tour can offered. Sapa was memorable!

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Posted by sonianick 21:08 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Halong Bay

Scenery

sunny 35 °C

OK, so Halong Bay is like the must of Vietnam...the "post card" place you wanna visit when you are in the country, and the only way of going there is through a tour, so that's what we did. We arranged everything through the Lucky Paradise hotel and on our 2nd day in Vietnam we got picked up to go to Halong. The actual city of Halong is supposed to be ugly and not interesting...but the bay, oh dear, the bay is definitely something. Our three hour drive ended at Halong's port to embark on one of the typical wooden boats available for the tours, and our sailing started with a fulfilling lunch. Slowly, we were reaching the 2000 islands around the bay...at first it was pissing a bit but the sky finally opened up, the sun came through and it made the whole scenery even more breathtaking.

The tour with the boat included a stop to visit some natural caves in one of the islands and after that we went kayaking for a while to explore by ourselves the area. Everyone does the same thing but it's still beautiful and it's something you don't want to miss. Before the sunset we had the chance to swim and all the people in the group jumped from the boat´s tallest point, around 6m high, quite fun! We were a sweet group in the tour, we met a couple from Scotland who are touring the world, Craig and Claire, and Kevin from Indonesia...we hope to meet you guys again at some point!! There was also a group of English students and we joined them for dessert meaning drinks on the deck...as the drinks in the boat were quite expensive we bought them from the "floating ladies"...at least that's how Nick baptised them. There are a couple of women who come to your boat with a kind of kayak to sell alcohol, cigarettes, general food and drinks, at cheaper prices but you can even haggle a bit to get a better deal. The only thing is that you're not allowed to take in any drinks from outside into the boat, so if they discover you, there's a fine per drink...well, that's what happened. One of the employees said that we would need to pay a fine per drink...but in the end we managed to leave the boat without an extra charge...pheeew

By talking to these guys, we discovered we had been ripped off by the hotel. When we booked the tour they strongly recommended us to pay a higher price, as "what you pay is what you get", so we thought that if we paid anything that was cheaper, we would end up in a boat with rats and horrible food. It turned out in the tour though, that we were the VIP guests as we paid more than anyone else, and the only difference between our tour and the others' was the food; we got crab and prawns and they didn't. We felt really stupid, as the seafood wasn't even that great and we could have saved up some money, but it was our fault for not spending more time going around the travel agencies...

In the end we did enjoy our stay in Halong Bay. The following morning we slowly returned to the harbour to make our way back to Hanoi, while other people stayed in Cat Ba island for some trekking. It's definitely something that cannot be missed...one of the wonders of the world.

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Posted by sonianick 05:44 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (3)

Hanoi

Good morning Vietnam

sunny 40 °C

Leaving Myanmar was definitely not easy, we got really attached to all the people and the atmosphere...but on the other hand we were also ready to enjoy Vietnam. Everyone we met so far in the trip that actually visited Vietnam before told us the same; you will love all of it, especially the food. Before flying to Hanoi, we spend a whole day at Bangkok International Airport, and that was also great, as there is no better airport than Bangkok's (well, terminal 5 in Heathrow really does it for us as well). Free wireless, bathrooms with flowers, amazing food and shops...beautiful architecture...anyway, whatever, let's get back to the point...Vietnam.

We had a request for a visa on arrival for Vietnam, like the rest of people flying to Hanoi, so we had to queue up for a while to get a new stamp on our passport. Second thing was exchanging money, we had some US Dollars from Myanmar so we used them to get Vietnamese Dong...we think it must be the most devalued currency in the world as we handed 300 USD and got back more than 6 million Dong...exchange rate 1 USD = 17800 Dong / 1 EUR = 24000 Dong...no wonder we don't get Vietnamese tourists in Europe!. As soon as we got out some illegal taxi drivers were offering their services, but a European man who knew his way around told us to go for the legal ones. We hopped on and after a half hour ride we were in our hostel, called "Lucky Paradise Hotel" in hostelworld.com but it actually had other two names on the door...weird. Anyway, it was too late to care and we just did our check-in and went straight to bed.

We realised we had not planned well our trip as 10 days in Vietnam is definitely too short, but we could not change our flight ticket to Beijing, so we decided to get the most out of it and be selective. We sat down with the lonely planet guide from the hotel, which later on decided to "borrow" for the whole trip, and started brainstorming. After a while and some advice from the hotel we managed to create a plan of what we wanted to visit and could start touring Hanoi.

Coming from quiet Myanmar, Hanoi reminded us of India (but cleaner!!); crazy traffic, people bumping into you all the time and it took us a while to re-adapt to the modern world. People in Hanoi don't care if you're in their way, they'll just run over you with their motorbike so you have to be really careful...but I guess after some time in Asia you learn how to become "one of them", the proof is that we're not missing any body parts, quite thankful for that! Anyway, Hanoi is all about the Old Quarter...everything's concentrated there, from hostels, to restaurants, shops, markets...so you don't actually need to leave it unless you want to visit Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. The street names refer to the trade of the shops located in it, so you have specific streets for blacksmiths, spices, food, silk, wooden furniture, horrible buddhas, coffee etc...the competition must be fierce there...and Vietnamese are all about business and money. We started by visiting the central lake in the city, which has a sort of Chinese temple in the middle. Vietnamese people gather all the time around the lake, it's quite fun to watch them in the morning, around 7 am when they all do exercise, follow aerobic classes and get ready for the day.

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We walked all day long through the Old Quarter and ended up bumping into a street market...and that was different to any of the food markets we had seen so far, as the animals are alive. Fish dance around baskets until someone buys it and sentence arrives, chickens sit in cages, prawns, crabs and snakes swim in small water tanks and toads just lie in a net...we actually bumped into a boy who was driving a bicycle whilst carrying a big fish in a basket and when he turned the fish ended up on the pavement jumping around!!! The fish is definitely fresh, but anything that is red meat does not look very tasty, maybe due to the hundreds of flies around it...

Following the street market, we went inside the biggest market in Hanoi, which is basically a version of the "Chinese" shops we would find in Spain where you buy really cheap stuff, but at massive scale. There was nothing worth there, were already a bit tired and thought that heading back to the hostel was the best option for us. For dinner we wanted to try one of the crappy food stalls that are around the area, thinking we would save up some bucks, but it turned out that the food wasn't really that great and we paid quite a lot for Vietnamese standards. Hanoi is also famous for having 4 corners where you can get beer for 3000 Dong, but we never found that area... :-(

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Posted by sonianick 07:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

Inle Lake

Floating tomatoes

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Bagan is all about the pagodas and Inle is about relaxing on a boat and talking with locals...probably these two places are the most peaceful we have ever been to...but before getting into details about that we must explain you our "fantastic" journey in bus from Bagan to Inle Lake.

Well, as we had already taken the bus to go up to Mandalay and didn't want to overspend with flight tickets, we thought we could take a bus to Bagan. Departure time was 4am, so at 3.30 we were ready to go. To our surprise, what picked us up was not a regular air-con bus, but a local bus. Well, the local buses are made for Burmese people, and Burmese do not stand out particularly for being tall or big size...so the seats were so tiny that both Nick and I could not properly fit in two seats...Nick could not fit his legs so he just sat sideways stretching them towards the aisle. The bus kept stopping every 100 metres picking up anyone who would just shout or place himself in front of the vehicle, so it kept filling up to a point where there were no more seats available. People could not stand so they would just sit on boxes or lie on the floor. The critical moment came when they started using the aisle, placing some plastic stools so that people could sit there...that was when Nick lost his patience as he was physically compressed so he decided to go up and sit on the roof for the rest of the journey. Concrete barely exists in Burmese roads, so the ride was very bumpy, so Nick's butt ended up sore with a lump...now that we think about it we laugh, but at the time we were regretting not having booked a flight...

Around Inle Lake there are not many places to stay and they are quite up-market, so we decided to overnight in the closest village, Nyaunschwe. We found a room at the Gipsy Inn for a few dollars and felt like home. The next morning, after the best breakfast ever (eggs-pancakes-coffee-orange juice-fruit salad-bread and butter) we went walking towards the Inle Lake. We had been told that it was not possible to reach it by foot, but either way we decided to give it a try and get lost in the countryside. Effectively, after a long hour walk along the main canal and passing by a couple of Pagodas and villages, we found out we could not continue and got stuck in a village. We started to converse with a man from the area and he invited us to have some tea in his bamboo house...he also offered us to take us around on a canoe trip and we accepted for 1 hour, which was enough as the sun was killing us...

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We walked back to the hotel and decided to book a boat tour for the following morning with a Japanese girl we met that morning, Haruka. The owners of the Gipsy Inn invited all the guests that same evening to have dinner and taste the typical Shan food...it was delicious and very kind from their side! Since we finished really early, we decided to go out for a drink with Haruka and Ellie and her son, who we met in Bagan and shared the great bus journey with. We randomly sat in a bar, bought a bottle of local rum, a couple of sprites, lemon and sugar...it came out to cost us less than 2 USD to have two drinks each! We loved that!

On our way home the streets had no lights so we used our pocketlight to illuminate the road...unfortunately Haruka still stepped on a mud pool and lost her flip flops, so we started to look for them using our umbrellas. After a few minutes and no success a man came by asking us what the hell we were doing, and as soon as we told him he did not doubt for a second, he put his arms in the mud and started searching for the shoes. In the meantime more people gathered around with torches and helped searching until the flip flops appeared... a woman suddenly showed up with pans containing water and started to clean Haruka´s feet. We were impressed by the kindness of Burmese people, if this had happened anywhere in Europe the locals would have probably laughed at you and not even cared, but in Myanmar people are genuinely nice...unbelieveable.

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The next morning we woke up early for the boat tour, and found out that two Korean girls were also taking part in the excursion, which was great as the total price per person for the whole day turned out to be 3USD. We visited the floating market, all sorts of showrooms (silk, silver, cigars), a couple of floating villages and the floating gardens...yes, people in Inle Lake grow tomatoes on the water which is really cool! Inle Lake is very different from any other area we have seen so far, as people actually live on the water, have floating schools, move around with their canoes and row with their legs (yes, they have this special rowing technique that involves using one leg instead of the arms)...so it is a definite must-see in Asia. The landscape around it is beautiful, as it rains frequently it is green as Ireland and there are all mountains...you really feel you can forget the world here. Even in Nyaungschwe life is very calm, people wake up very early in the morning but sunsets and evenings are for chilling by the canals, playing the guitar and singing...let's hope it will never change!

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After fabulous 4 days in Inle Lake, we headed back by bus to Yangon...this time it was a regular (pheeww thank God) and it only took us 14 hours to get to the former capital. On a regular bus journey in Myanmar you will always receive a free bottle of water and a plastic bag. At the beginning we thought the plastic bag was to be used for trash, however later we found out that it was used for spitting! We still cannot understand why people in Asia hock up so badly when they spit, it´s the no.1 mystery in our Asian discovery!!

Our last day in Yangon was invested in finding a guide for Vietnam (which didn't work out) and vaguely wandering without direction...as if for once, we were back home and didn't need a map to find our way around :-)

Posted by sonianick 20:17 Archived in Myanmar Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Bagan

The City of Ruins

sunny 35 °C

The 12 hour bus journey to Bagan was tiring but turned out to be quite funny anyway. During the ride they played a Burmese movie; obviously we could not understand a word they were saying but the film itself was a sort of Romeo and Juliet story... too cheesy!!! We pretented to understand and dubbed the main protagonists... now you understand how seriously "crazy" we are getting. Joking aside, once we got to Bagan, we went straight to our accomodation, the Ma Kha Lay Hostel in Nyaung. Since the beginning we felt that Bagan was quite different from the major cities we visited previously.

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The atmosphere here seemed really authentic and the town itself has practically one main street where everything is going on. After having a good night sleep, the next morning we decided to rent 2 bikes and explore the main archeological sites. Biking around Bagan was definitely a cool experience and we enjoyed a lot doing it our own way and skip the organized tours. The owner of the guesthouse gave us some tips on which Pagodas to visit: Htilominlo to start, Bupaya for the river views, Bulethi for the sunset...there are more than 800 temples, so the whole scenery is absolutely breath-taking. The pagodas are everywhere and it was actually unbelievable to see how well kept the Burmese people preserve this huge city of ruins.

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After a long ride, the heat was striking pretty badly so we decided to take a break and have lunch to one of these typical Burmese restaurant in the village of Myinkaba and have some noodles to recharge our batteries. The owners of this little restaurant brought us so much food that we still don't know how we managed to get back to our bikes afterwards. Since we were the only clients left, they started to talk to us and we had a great conversation despite the poor english of these people. We tried to speak with them about the political situation in Myanmar and how the government seems to rule over everything but they made us understand that they could not talk about this issue because of the consequences they might face if the they get caught. We were also so astonished by the generosity of these genuine Burmese people; we found out that it was the owner's wife birthday and she gave us a handmade necklace and some candies... apparently in Burma, the people celebrate their birthdays by giving presents to the others (the exact opposite of what we do). We felt a little bad because we wanted to give this lady a little present but since we were riding a bike we left most of our stuff in our hotel room. Finally we pulled out a lipstick and gave it to the woman who seemed to appreciate a lot the gift. After this wonderful time spent with these wonderful people, we decided to get back to our bikes and finish our tour around the archeological sites. We ended up seeing the sunset on the top of a temple... Bagan was definitely a magical city.

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We also got to try Mandalay Rum in the restaurant "A Little Bit of Bagan" (highly recommended), prepared by Burmese; rum, sugar, lime and ice...mmmm yummy!

Posted by sonianick 04:47 Archived in Myanmar Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

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