Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Permanent Souvenir

When we started our RTW trip last August, we knew we couldn't purchase any souvenirs during our travels unless we were willing to ship them home immediately as we did not have extra space in our backpacks. We have stuck to this with only minor exceptions. However I knew that one way I could have a permanent souvenir of our trip would be to get a new tattoo. I started thinking about possible designs months ago. I was tempted to get one many times earlier in the trip but worried that due to our fast-paced itinerary it would not have time to heal properly. Now that we have slowed down a bit, I decided to get one here in Chiang Mai.

This is not my first tattoo; in fact, it is technically my fourth. Some of you may be shocked to read this, but the reality is I got my first tattoo long before it became so popular for everyone to have one. At the time, I was involved in a complex, emotional relationship. My boyfriend had keys to my apartment and often left me roses to show me how much he cared for me & missed me when we were apart. He frequently would put two roses, intertwined, on my bed. When my childhood friend, Karin, & I took a girls-only weekend trip to the Smoky Mountains in the fall of 1997, we both decided to get tattoos on the spur of the moment. We didn't make an advance appointment; we just walked into a tattoo shop in Gatlinburg, TN late one afternoon, quickly had designs drawn up, and got our tattoos. It took no longer than one hour. We were completely sober but afterward we went to a bar for a much-needed adult beverage!

I do not have any digital photos from that trip and my prints are buried somewhere in storage boxes, but I can tell you the tattoo was of two intertwining lavender roses approximately 1.5 inches tall and was positioned in my right thigh/crotch area. It was meant to represent the love I felt for my boyfriend at the time. In the Victorian tradition of sending symbolic flowers, two roses meant “We are a couple.” Lavender roses meant “love at first sight” and two roses intertwined signified engagement and marriage.

As you've probably already figured out, the relationship did not last and the tattoo lost any of its original significance. Luckily it was in an obscure place, not even visible when wearing a bikini, so I didn't really mind having it. However I wasn't inclined to get another one for over 10 years!

I got my second tattoo, a Great Horned Owl in June, 2009 on St Marks Place in the East Village, NYC. I decided to have it tattooed over the roses so it is also in my right thigh area but is approximately 3 inches tall.
You would never know there were roses here before!
The owl is sacred to the Greek goddess of learning, Athena. It has symbolic meanings of wisdom/intelligence, mystery, and transition. As I had already announced my resignation from my job and was in the process of leaving New York City to start preparing for my round-the-world trip, the owl was a goodbye present to myself and commemorated the start of a new chapter in my life.
showing off my barley tattoo during a brewery tour
My third tattoo, Two Row Barley, was applied on March 11, 2010 by Christy Fish at Adorn Body Art in Portland, OR The idea behind this one should be obvious to any of you that know me well: it's a key ingredient in my favorite beverage! Portland is the beer capital of the world, with 32 breweries in the city limits — 38 if you include the entire metro area. That’s more than any other city on earth! (These stats are from 2008/2009 and I know at least six new breweries opened in the city in 2010.) Whenever we do return to the U.S., Greg & I are planning to relocate to Portland.
My latest tattoo is a leaping tiger. I got it a few days ago, on January 28th. It was applied by "Mr. Eagle" at Naga Tattoo here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It is on my left shoulder and is approximately 5.5in long.

this is the traditional Thai tattoo book from which I chose the artwork

I was born in 1974, the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese lunar calendar. According to the Chinese Zodiac, the Year of 2010 was also the Year of the Tiger, which commenced on February 14, 2010 and ends on February 2, 2011. Thus I wanted to get the tattoo prior to February 2nd!

Eagle sketching my "old school" tattoo on paper

In the Chinese zodiac, the tiger is a sign of bravery. In Buddhism, the tiger is symbolic of the light within; that soulful, inner light that (ideally) navigates mankind. And in the myths of Japan, the tiger is almost always connected with heroism, warriors and victory in battle for its keen intelligence, stealthy mannerisms and undeniable power. Part of the reason for choosing this tattoo, besides the symbolism mentioned above, is that my middle name, Nicole, which is of Greek origin, means "victorious people".
showing off my new tattoo
I have plenty of ideas for future tattoos so it's just a matter of when & where. :)

Monday, January 24, 2011

One week in Siem Reap

While we only visited one part of Cambodia, I enjoyed my time in the country immensely. Since we only had one week, we chose to maximize our activities to try to get a feel for Cambodia beyond the temples. After one day of downtime & planning, we spent three consecutive days exploring 22+ temples and the fishing village of Kompong Phluk. We took another day to rest then did a 4-hour early morning horse ride with The Happy Ranch which I highly recommend. We also splurged ($3 each) and got "fish massages!"
Dr. Fish
Getting our visas at Siem Reap airport was handled very efficiently (way better than Vietnam or Laos) and only cost $20. We stayed at TaSom Guesthouse, which is about 15 minutes walk to Pub Street (the tourist-oriented restaurant & bar area near the Old Market). Our accommodation with breakfast only cost $15/night. Good Khmer food (amok, curry, lok lak, etc.) could be had from a restaurant for approx $3-4, and even cheaper on the street. There were also tons of Western & European restaurants, but dishes typically cost at least twice as much. Beer was pretty cheap, too: $0.50 drafts during happy hour around Pub Street; 12oz cans were about the same price in grocery stores. Speaking of money, the U.S. dollar is king here and we paid for almost everything in cash. ATM's dispense dollars and there is really no reason to get any Cambodian riel, although any change less than $1 will be given in riel which can easily be used for tips or small purchases.
enjoying a $0.50 Angkor draft on Pub Street
Here is my brief version of the history of Angkor: It was the Khmer “Capital City” from the 9th-12th centuries AD. The temples served religious functions but were built by kings. The first temples were Hindu; later construction was Buddhist but reverted to Hindu again. Theravada Buddhism has been the Cambodian state religion since the 13th century CE (excepting the Khmer Rouge period), and is currently estimated to be the faith of 95% of the population (per Wikipedia). For various reasons, the capital moved to Phnom Penh in 1432 and the temples remained active but functions changed; they were largely abandoned for almost five centuries but still 270 survived. Angkor Wat was visited by western explorers between the 16th-19th century but Henri Mouhot is credited with its “discovery” in 1860 (Greg & I saw his grave in Laos on the Nam Khan river near Luang Prabang). Mouhot wrote a book which sparked tourism. Cambodia’s civil war, which began in the 1970’s, did damage to the monuments (bullet holes, looting) and prevented archaeologists from continuing maintenance & repair work. After the war ended in the early 1990’s, tourism gradually increased and Angkor Archaeological Park now sees two million visitors each year. Canby Publications Guide to Cambodia is an excellent source for comprehensive info for traveling in Cambodia. You can also pick up a free copy of their guide-booklets at hotels, restaurants and travel agencies throughout the country.
Angkor Wat at sunset

Here is our temple itinerary including the time frame (century) of building and original religious affiliation. A three day pass which can be used on any three days within one week costs $40, however when the ticket agent printed our passes, she dated them as three consecutive days and when I realized the mistake minutes later, refused to make us new passes! As visiting many of the temples requires a fair amount of exertion (lots of climbing), it's hot & dusty, and understanding the history of each temple & uniqueness of the architecture and carvings can be overwhelming, it's nice to break up your temple touring with other activities if you have the time. I have also included the daily cost for transport. We only hired a guide on the first day and did fine on our own (without a proper guidebook) for the remaining two days. The most interesting thing we learned from our guide, Sophan, was his personal experience growing up during the Vietnam War and Cambodia's civil war. He told us his family was always on the move and that he was terrified when he heard helicopters because they were associated with being shot. He survived a napalm bomb but his brother, who had gone to work for the government in Phnom Penh, was hunted & killed by the Khmer Rouge.
Sophan leads us astray
Day 1 - tuk tuk $12; guide $25
South Gate of Angkor Thom
Central Angkor Thom (Bayon, Baphuon - mid 11th Hindu but large reclining Buddha added much later; Phimeanakas - late 10th Hindu, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King) - all late 12th Buddhist except where noted
Victory Gate
Thommanon - late 11th Hindu
Chau Say Thevoda - early 12th Hindu
Ta Keo - late 10th Hindu (Shiva)
Ta Prohm - mid 12th Buddhist
Angkor Wat - early 12th Hindu
Ta Prohm - site of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie
Day 2 - tuk tuk $28
Pre Rup - late 10th Hindu (Shiva)
Banteay Srey - late 10th Hindu (Shiva)
Banteay Samre - mid-12th Hindu (Vishnu)
East Mebon - late 10th Hindu (Shiva)
Ta Som - late 12th Buddhist
Neak Pean - late 12th Buddhist
Preah Khan - late 12th Buddhist
Phnom Bakheng - late 9th Hindu (Shiva)
Banteay Srey
Day 3 - tuk tuk $16
Roluos Group (Preah Ko, Bakong, Lolei) - late 9th Hindu
Kompong Pluk fishing village - $15 admission includes motorboat ride to Tonle Sap
*We also visited Wat Athvea (late 11th Hindu) during our horse ride.
dry season in Kompong Phluk
We chose to travel everywhere by tuk tuk, which is inexpensive and slow enough that you can enjoy the scenery more. However, as with any “open air” transport, you will be covered in dust and will be breathing a lot of exhaust fumes, especially on the busy main roads. I felt relatively safe with exception of the day we went to Rolous & Komplong Phluk. There were many large trucks, buses, etc. passing us at 90kph (we were going no more than 60kph). Cambodian roads are notoriously dangerous and many people are killed every year. On our way back from Banteay Srey, we came upon an accident involving a pickup truck and a moped. It appeared they had collided almost head on. Only a fraction of people wear helmets, almost never children, and there are usually at least three people on one motorbike. One day I even saw a woman breastfeeding her child on the back of a motorbike! Trucks often carry more than 10 people piled on top of various cargo in the bed, so in a collision everyone flies off the top. After I saw three people lying in the road behind the truck, I turned my head.
our driver for the week, S.B., picks us up from the airport
What I liked about the temples (besides the incredible fact of their existence!) & Siem Reap as a whole:
  • There are enough sites that even with over 25,000 tourists/day you can still feel like an explorer climbing around the ruins.
  • Good (clean & modern), free restroom facilities although not at every temple and usually some distance from the temple site
  • Inexpensive food & beverage, accommodation and transport; lots of options
  • There are far more tourists around Pub Street than locals (with the exception of tuk tuk drivers, beggars, shopkeepers & restaurant staff) which is a negative, however it's a great place to meet fellow travelers (we spent a whole evening chatting with three sisters from Melbourne, Australia)
What I disliked:
  • Tourists’ skimpy clothing - yes, it's hot, but these are religious sites and mini-skirts & low cut tops are not appropriate!
  • Too many children selling bracelets, trinkets, postcards
  • Tour groups at the temples should be limited in size (any group larger than 10 people can easily block narrow pathways or prevent viewing of carvings, statues, etc.)
  • Loved the authenticity of Kompong Phluk fishing village but tourist boats should be smaller and limited in numbers so as not to disrupt normal life; scam with mangrove forest boats rowed by locals - a “handler” takes your money instead of you giving it directly to the person who rows your boat
Finally, here are the links to all of my Cambodia photos:

Angkor Temples
Siem Reap area

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Return to Vietnam

I had planned to write separate posts for “central” and “south” Vietnam but in the interest of time I will combine our final two weeks in the country into one post. My daily log is fairly detailed, so I will just gloss over some of the highlights of these three cities and add my final thoughts on Vietnam as a whole.

Our experience in Hue, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City was a bit different from our time in the north as we did not do any side trips out of the cities. We did visit the royal tombs around Hue on a day trip and I took a cooking class in Hoi An, but otherwise we spent most of our time roaming around on foot and exploring each city at our leisure. The weather wasn’t as kind to us as before; it rained on all but the first day we were in Hue, every day off & on in Hoi An, and it was quite hot & humid in HCMC.

As in the north, we continued to encounter the often-smiling faces of even non-tourist-dependent locals which definitely makes Vietnam feel like one of the friendliest places in the world you can visit. This is in spite of the relatively recent turmoil and continuing hardships the Vietnamese people face. I would have enjoyed more interaction with them, to learn more about their culture and discuss their thoughts about the future, so I am particularly grateful for the fun times we shared with the staff at the Valentine Hotel in Hue.
lunch with the owner & staff of Valentine Hotel
One of my favorite things to do in Vietnam was to sit at an open air restaurant and watch the world go by. It was very easy to be entertained for hours this way, just waiting to see how many people would be piled on the next passing moped (five was the record) or how much “stuff” one moped or bicycle could transport. Sometimes, just observing the locals interacting with other tourists or predicting who would try to sell us something (and what) was a game in itself.
how many baskets can YOU carry on a motorbike???
Another favorite activity (in any country) is to browse the local markets. Even the smallest towns in Vietnam have a market where meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, herbs & spices, rice & noodles and much more are sold fresh daily often alongside cookware, clothing, electronics, pharmaceuticals, etc. Hue has a huge, very busy market called Dong Ba which is definitely worth a visit. But we randomly came upon a smaller market within the Citadel walls which was much more enjoyable to look around as the locals seemed quite surprised to see us and didn't really try to sell us anything. Hoi An's Old Market has about a 50/50 mix of locals and tourists depending on what time of day you visit and now there are tourist-oriented t-shirts & other souvenirs for sale along with live chickens & ducks. Ditto for HCMC's Ben Thanh Market, which is almost more like a mall (albeit a claustrophobia-inducing one) than a market. Still, it's a great way to observe the locals in action!
carrying a live chicken at the market in Hoi An
Vietnamese food was universally good but often memorably delicious. Our best meals were eaten in Hoi An and were still a fraction of the cost of a gourmet meal in the U.S. While I didn’t get to do very much actual cooking in the class I took, I did learn a lot about the history of and common ingredients used in most Vietnamese dishes. I hope I will be able to replicate some of those tasty treats at home later this year.
16-ingredient barbecued chicken & mango salad by Chef Alethea
That about sums up my favorite things about Vietnam. I would highly recommend a trip here to just about anyone. It is culturally interesting, the scenery is beautiful, the people are friendly, the food is delicious, and the value for the dollar is excellent. Plus there are plenty of accommodation & transportation options to suit all types of travelers.

Here are the links to all of my photos:

Hoi An
Ho Chi Minh City

Daily Log

picked up (by hotel) from station after 13hr overnight train from Hanoi; SE1 was not as nice as the Sapa trains, still 4-berth cabin but didn’t look like sheets/blankets/pillows had been washed or floors & walls scrubbed in years, did have Western toilets with toilet paper
More humid here
Staying at Valentine Hotel per recommendation of Hanoi hotel; room 502
Explored this side of the river - no sights just shops, hotels, restaurants, karaoke bars; lots of cyclos offering to take us to Citadel or on city tour
Stopped by Saigon Morin Hotel to inquire about buffet dinner & show; price is 330000 per person not including 10% tax + 5% service fee + drinks, probably a good value but a bit more than we want to pay
Wandered around Big C supermarket and ate pho + draft Huda beer for lunch in the food court
Dinner at L’Aubergine: had 135,000 set menu but it was discounted 20% since we ordered between 5-7pm, good quality, lots of small dishes - crab soup, spring rolls, shrimp pancake wrapped in banana leaf, squid with green beans, some kind of meaty fish, rice, fresh pineapple for dessert

Citadel might be the must “ruined” sight I’ve ever visited - there’s really nothing left to see!
Wandered around town within Citadel walls, stumbled on a big indoor local market, didn’t see another tourist for a couple of hours, climbed up on one of the Citadel gate towers
Lunch at tiny Lac Thuan - banh khoai (Hue specialty pancake); a Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant, were constantly bothered by people selling paintings, tours, moto-rides, etc. despite the fact we were on a 2nd floor balcony!
Started pouring rain so stayed at restaurant longer, drank another beer and watch pet fish seller and traffic
Stopped at Coop supermarket to buy a few groceries
Walked back to hotel in rain; got soaked so had to take showers
Rested in our room for a few hours
Dinner at Missy Roo - bun bo Hue, Hue spring rolls; had to endure loud Kenny G music throughout dinner

Got up at 8am with no plan for the day due to rainy weather
After eating breakfast, had to scrub Tevas again because they got wet & dirty yesterday; Greg tried to open our hotel room window and one of the panes fell out and shattered
Changed rooms (now in 203); wifi hasn’t been working since yesterday, Greg helped them fix
Talked to reception staff about tours of tombs, pagoda, etc. since the forecast is for rain and don’t want to ride bikes in bad weather; booked day tour by bus & boat for tomorrow
Were planning to leave to go to market but staff invited us to eat lunch with them; ate in dining room with owner, 2 receptionists & 2 cleaning staff - had some kind of fish (maybe smoked?), bitter melon soup, pork (that looked like tofu), eggs, rice, ground peanuts that looked like cigarette ashes, watermelon for dessert; owner wanted us to share his bottle of fermented rice wine - you have to toast every time you drink so everyone drinks together, the 3 of us drank the whole bottle
Sat in lobby drinking green tea and chatting with receptionist; Greg took a nap afterward
I guess they enjoyed our company as we are invited to dinner tonight at 7pm so I’m researching an appropriate gift to bring
Walked to Dong Ba Market (a bit overwhelming as people try to sell you stuff and very crowded plus muddy from rain); bought a pineapple & bulk shelled peanuts as gifts for the hotel staff; then went to Coop Supermarket and also bought a nice box of chocolates
Came back to hotel and went down to dinner at 7pm; just the two of us, plus the owner, one receptionist (Lan), and the owner’s friend Mr Jin(?); ate rice, fried tofu, boiled pork, nuoc mam w/chilis (fish sauce) and, of course, drank more rice wine -- two bottles to be exact! When the owner, Mr Bui Trung Doan, went upstairs to get the second bottle of wine, he came back down in his pajamas!
We had a fun evening (Mr Doan is convinced Greg looks like David Beckham) and they showered us with compliments, said we were now family and also told us we were the first guests to be able to share 2 bottles of the strong wine and not be completely drunk. So much for our clean reputations! ;) They even invited us to eat with them again tomorrow night
Eventually the night security guard came to work and drank a cup or two of rice wine himself; then some random people came over to play cards in the hotel’s dining room
We came up to our room to shower and were in bed by 10pm

1/6 Rain, rain, rain
Ate breakfast at 7am
Hue city tour not clear who operates but the brochure they gave us when we boarded the pink bus said AIIZ and Kim Office I & II; $10 tour to Citadel, Garden House, Thien Mu Pagoda, Buffet Lunch at Stop-n-Go Restaurant, Minh Mang Tomb, Khai Dinh Tomb, Tu Duc Tomb, Conical Hat & Incense Stick Making Village, Dragon Boat cruise on Perfume River; included hotel p/u, English-speaking guide, lunch buffet (no drinks); must pay admission to each site - approx 175,000VND per person total
Picked up for our city tour at 8:15, rode around this side of river picking up other tourists for another 30 minutes, bus microphone didn’t work well - guide was constantly adjusting the connections
Realized we were going to Citadel first so had to waste the first hour of the tour b/c we’d already been and didn’t see a reason to pay to go in again (the itinerary at the hotel had the Citadel near the end of the day)
Bus parked in lot outside Citadel walls so a long walk to Imperial Palace
Left Citadel almost 30min late due to some of the Vietnamese group members “disappearing”
Despite timing that tour guide gave us at start of tour, we always stayed at least 10-20min longer at each place we stopped except lunch, which was shortened to 30min which is not enough time when you have to wait in line 10min for the buffet
Felt rushed the entire day
Tired after fighting the rain all day and walking around the tombs (lots of slippery pathways & steps) so skipped Tu Duc Tomb and conical hat & incense making village
Dragon boat ride is very slow, not worth extra money in my opinion (it was included in our tour)
Drop off at your hotel was NOT included; had to walk from boat dock; brochure mentions watching the sun set from the boat and viewing a fishing village but we did neither
Decided to eat dinner on the way back to the hotel; L’Aubergine again - had crispy battered chicken pieces & fries, Greg had stuffed squid & stir fry veggies
Valentine Hotel review

Hoi An
It rained all night; got up at 6:30, ate breakfast at 7am, ready & checked out in lobby at 8am, waited for bus p/u until 8:40
Small van transferred us to bigger bus; not as luxurious as advertised - old, broken seats, no legroom, no seatbelts, no toilet, load your own bags - but what do you expect for $5 per person?!
Stopped once for 30min break during 3+ hour ride
Arrived in Hoi An but “bus station” is actually a hotel (An Phu); no one there from our hotel to pick us up so eventually had to call and they sent a taxi
Hoang Trinh hotel staff greeted us with hot tea & coconut cookies, settled into our room then ate lunch at the hotel (cao lau)
Went for an exploratory walk in the rain for a couple of hours, stopped on the way back at Lame Café to try the cheap draft beer (3000VND per glass)
Returned to hotel to research restaurants; selected Ly Cafeteria for dinner
One of the best meals we’ve eaten in Vietnam: white rose, wontons, stir fry rice with beef, stir fry noodles with squid & shrimp; also the most we’ve paid for one meal: 290,000VND but that’s still only $15

Slept better than I have in a long time but still not great; the bed is more comfortable than many (and it’s just a foam mattress on a wooden frame)
Excellent breakfast - 3 pages of options, huge fruit plate
Bought Old Town ticket, walked to Handicraft workshop to watch 10:15 music & dance performance
Toured Quan Cong Temple, History & Culture museum; it started raining
Looked at French Colonial houses on Phan Boi Chau street
Crossed bridge to Cam Nam Island, browsed at Randy’s bookstore
Drank beer & rum shot at Sleepy Gecko, watched water buffalo grazing
Ate lunch at Lighthouse Café: bo bittet (steak, French fries, salad); it was excellent - cooked with lots of garlic, rare, almost sweet taste
Started raining again
Walked back across bridge, toured Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, bought bootleg books at 2 different stores
Toured Tan Ky house - short (2-3 minute) presentation about history of house & family, offered complimentary hot tea (gave us less than 1 minute to drink it) then tried to sell us zodiac pendants for 25,000VND
Walked back to hotel, relaxed, ate dinner at the hotel - quang nam noodle (mi quang)
The Vietnamese have a habit of saying “same same but different” to refer to things that may be similar in some ways but different in others

Got up at 7am, ate breakfast, walked to Morning Glory Restaurant for cooking class, drank tea
Toured market, then demonstration/cooking class (Program 3 - Cooking for Special Occasions 3 hrs) - pho, fresh spring rolls, crispy pancake, green mango salad, barbequed chicken; minimal hands on, what was most interesting was Ms Vy’s talk
Back at hotel after 1pm
1hr Aroma healing massage at Hoi An Spa ($15)
Drank cheap bia (the local draft beer) at Lame Café
Dinner at Ganesh - fantastic Indian food: lamb samosas, Ganesh special chicken, palak paneer, tarka dal, steamed rice, garlic naan

Got up at 7:45, ate breakfast
Called Grandmother Smartt on my mobile and talked for about 30min
Checked out of hotel (received small gifts & bottled water); private car took us to Danang airport (45min drive from Hoi An)
Checked in for Jetstar flight but it was delayed by 30min due to late arrival of aircraft
1hr flight to Saigon
Had to wait 20min for taxi company recommended by our hotel; drive to hotel took 30+min in heavy traffic but still only cost $5
Very hot/humid here
Checked into room 503 then went out in search of late lunch/early dinner; our hotel is on a busy tourist street so we made a loop around before settling on a more local-looking restaurant (Saigon 24hr café) with lower prices than many of the tourist-filled places; meal was decent & cheap
Bought beer at convenience store; think the cashier tried to give us fake 10000VND bills so made him swap
Took showers; power went out for about 10min while Greg was finishing his shower (blackouts mentioned in hotel info book)
Noted during dinner that we have seen more overweight Vietnamese people in the past couple of hours than in all of north & central Vietnam

Got up at 7am; ate breakfast (beef pho) w/iced coffee to combat heat
Walked to Thai Embassy to get visas
War Remnants Museum - no lack of anti-American sentiment in descriptions; many photos of people affected by Agent Orange & other chemicals, section titled “Aggressive War Crimes”
Went to Notre Dame church (but it was closed), main post office
Ate lunch at Lang Nuong outdoor café - stuffed squid
Went to Reunification Palace - free 1hr English tour included with admission fee
Walked back to hotel area
Beer & spring rolls at Dunes Café; good people-watching at intersection, negative is being bothered by street vendors who come into restaurants selling sunglasses/lighters, photocopied books, international magazines & newspapers, misc toiletries, knockoff wallets, etc. also beggars
Saw 5 people on a moped
Dinner (pulled pork, cole slaw, potato salad, corn on cob, baked beans) at Wayne’s Texas BBQ (Greg‘s request) - most expensive meal we‘ve eaten in months!
Spotted Karl (whom we trekked with in Sapa) walking on street so he sat down and drank a beer with us
Went to bed at 9pm with migraine (seems to be due to heat, pollution), took Zomig

Got up at 8:30; ate breakfast (omelet) with iced white coffee
Dropped off laundry down the street - priced per kilo there vs. per piece at hotel so much cheaper
Worked on Thailand itinerary for a few hours
Walked to Thai Embassy to retrieve passports
Walked to Jade Emperor Pagoda, then Museum of Vietnamese History - similar contents as Hanoi’s Natural History Museum
Took taxi back to hotel area
Couldn’t find Lotus Café (recommended in To Asia With Love book)
Ate dinner at Cafe333 - massive banh xeo for only 70000VND; there was a commotion on street (not sure what initiated it but sounded like a moto crash), two Vietnamese guys started fighting, police appeared from seemingly nowhere in seconds, all the locals came out of shops/restaurants/homes to watch

Slept in until 9am; ate breakfast (pho w/chicken + iced coffee)
Walked to Ben Thanh Market, then Ton That Dam street market
Lunch at Le Vang - sizzling pork w/vegetables & fried rice
Researched Bangkok hotels - overwhelming number of options and more expensive than we would like
Picked up laundry, had to cut little I.D. tags off of each piece
Dinner at Saigon 24h Café - Vietnamese curry w/chicken

Woke up with migraine in middle of night so took a Relpax and stayed in bed until 9am
Ate breakfast (omelet, iced coffee)
Requested late checkout (1pm instead of noon)
Booked Bangkok hotel and sent inquiry for overnight train to Chiang Mai, researched Chiang Mai accommodations
Took taxi to airport; arrived at 1:30pm
Cleared immigration & security, wandered around for 15min trying to find lounge with Priority Pass access
I stayed in the lounge for an hour, eating pho & other snacks; Greg waited in the departures area then I smuggled him some sandwiches, chips, and a can of beer from the lounge
Flight departed late (as has been the case with all of our flights in SE Asia)
Short 1hr flight but still got sandwich, water & moist towelette

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Spending the holidays in Laos

Christmas present from Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel
Due to geographic proximity and reasonably priced flights, we decided to do the Laos portion of our Southeast Asia itinerary after visiting northern Vietnam. Because we were traveling over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, we made our hotel reservations prior to arriving in Laos. While I did look into a two day trip up the Mekong, the boat I wanted to take only operates a few days per week and there is no easy way to travel from Houi Xai back to Luang Prabang. Ultimately we decided to spend Christmas in Luang Prabang and New Year’s in Vientiane. Of course, that meant we would only visit the two most heavily touristed cities in the country which does not really give one a fair impression of all that Laos has to offer. In order to rectify this somewhat, we booked an overnight excursion and village homestay with an outfitter called Tiger Trail that was favorably reviewed in a travel magazine.
Louang Prabang is an easy place to spend a few days or even weeks. Prices are reasonable, although they are much higher than what they were only a few years ago. There are tons of activities to keep you occupied: cooking classes, elephant camps, hiking, biking, etc. and you can easily organize day trips to caves and waterfalls or longer excursions to minority villages. But it’s just as tempting to pull up a chair at one of the many outdoor cafes and watch the world go by. While I would have preferred to see fewer tourists as well as less development related to tourists, one can still find serenity in the sound of monks chanting in one of the wats that dominate the town’s landscape. After walking from one end of town to the other, first along the Mekong river then back via Chao Fa Ngum/Sisavangvong Road and then around again via Kingkitsalat/Phousi Road, I was glad that I booked a hotel in the Ban Phonheuang neighborhood just a few blocks from where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong. The area feels more authentic because it is still populated by locals going about their day-to-day lives. There is a heavy concentration of wats in the area and one can quietly observe the monks receiving morning alms. It only took us about 15 minutes to walk to the main part of town (ie, the National Museum).
Ancient Luang Prabang hotel review
Souk Lan Xang Guest house review

Greg & Mae Buakham after our elephant ride
After three nights in Luang Prabang including a fairly quiet Christmas, it was time for some adventure! Tiger Trail offers numerous itineraries involving all types of activities so it can be a bit overwhelming to pick one. I primarily wanted to visit the Elephant Village but also wanted to get out in the country to see how the minority people of Laos still live. We settled on an overnight trip that included a 13km bike ride, one hour elephant ride, short boat ride to Tad Sae waterfall,  3km trek to a Khamu village, overnight homestay in the village, trek back to the Elephant Lodge, and 4 hour kayak on the Nam Khan River. All transfers, entrance fees, equipment, English-speaking guide, bottled water and four meals were included in the $129 per person price.

Just as in Vietnam, we concluded that this special excursion was well worth the additional cost. I’m glad we tried so many different activities although I didn’t enjoy the mountain biking very much because it was on a heavily trafficked, rocky dirt road and we were covered in dust by the time we reached the Elephant Village. Also, it was Greg’s first time to kayak so he had a bit of a learning curve to overcome; we took a double and I sat in back and did all the steering through the Class 1 & 2 rapids.
approaching the Khamu village where we stayed overnight
We found the Khamu homestay to be much more authentic than the Vietnamese version near Sapa. The village had not been overdeveloped in order to accommodate tourists: no western toilets, no hot water, no attempt to sell us anything. In fact, the villagers basically treated us as if we had been there for months; they even allowed us to observe and participate in a shaman-led ceremony that was in progress when we arrived. The Khamu lead very simple agricultural-based lives; nightly entertainment comes in the form of Thai movies which everyone gathers to watch in one of three thatch houses with dirt floors that are hooked up to generators.
a shaman uses his powers to extend an old man's life
After our excursion, we spent one more night in Luang Prabang before continuing south to Vientiane. To save money (it costs $150 per person to fly from Luang Prabang to Vientiane versus $17 by bus), we opted to travel overland. Despite selecting the “VIP” bus, which offered more creature comforts compared to the Express or Regular busses, we did not have a good experience. The bus left right on time at 9:00AM. However, it took us two hours to drive 50km! Within 10 minutes of leaving the bus station, the road started winding into the mountains. As there were no seatbelts, I used the luggage strap I’m carrying solely for that purpose. You can read more about our harrowing ride in my trip notes below, but suffice it to say when we arrived in Vientiane we were happy to be alive!
beautiful scenery on a scary bus ride
Many people we’ve met during our travels who have already visited the city had told us that there wasn’t much to see or do there. After spending four nights in Vientiane, I would have to agree. You can knock out all of the “attractions” in less than one day and there is very little in the way of Laotian culture on offer other than talking to the monks at the wats. For me, it turned out to be a good place to enjoy some downtime and to catch up on writing and photo editing.
We stayed in the Ban Mixay area which has a nice selection of local & international restaurants offering food & drink at fairly reasonable prices and is about a 30 minute walk to Pratuxay Monument. We ended up celebrating New Year’s at Nam Phu Fountain with an interesting mix of locals and tourists. The party was free and beer was cheap (640ml Tiger for 12,000KIP or about $1.50). We listened to live music, chatted with a couple from Quebec and eventually rang in 2011 five minutes early (for no apparent reason) with bubbles, silly string & firecrackers. The next day we wanted to get massages but soon discovered practically the whole town had shut down until the 2nd which is when we were leaving!!
Sinnakhone Hotel review

The link to all of my Laos photos is embedded in this post's title.

A few random Laos notes:

Loung Prabang
Best meals at Tamlak (orlarm) & Tamarind (lemongrass stuffed chicken, pumpkin/coconut/ginger soup, pork skewers)
Young monks in internet café, carrying loose cigarettes
Sound of monks chanting in temple
Significance of giving/receiving alms every morning
More tourists than locals
Tuk tuks, mopeds & bikes are primary transport
640ml Beer Lao avg price 12,000 kip
Indochina Spirit “Laos platter” (55,000kip) = Mekong seaweed (kai pen), fried chicken wings, salad Lao, fish soup (gang som pla), deep fried bamboo shoot stuffed with minced pork (na no ma sai muu), sticky rice (kau niau), fruit salad (mak ma luam), tea or Lao coffee
Cats & dogs everywhere
Charged entrance fees for everything: average 10-30k kip pp
Restaurants average entrée 35k
Average price of 1 hour Lao massage 40k
Laundry service ranged from 5-15k per kilo
We booked our accommodations last minute over a holiday so less expensive places were already full but average cost is $40+ per double room per night including breakfast versus what we paid at ALP ($55)
Night market seems to go on forever (size) and very colorful
Lots of street food available at all hours
Che Guavara on mudflaps, tuk tuk windows

Tiger Trail excursion
Ate rat soup, water buffalo stir fry, water buffalo “pork rind” (dried skin)
white water buffalo=farang (foreigner, same word for tourist)
Shaman - tying white string around wrist of old man who wants to live longer + his wife & baby chicken, burning string, roasted whole pig, blood, flower, rice offering…
Drinking rice wine straight from jug with tube straw, playing bamboo flute
3 generators in village to power 3 tvs; everyone, especially children, gather around to watch Thai movies
Differences between Khmu & Hmong people - kitchen location outdoor vs. indoor, style of house woven bamboo with thatch roof vs. bamboo or wood poles with metal roof
Khmu are very clean people - we observed lots of bathing, women were modest and wore sarongs to cover themselves
Animals (chickens, goats, pigs) roam free but know owners/feeders by sound of voice
Khamsing is missing the top of his left index finger because he cut it off accidentally when he was 8 chopping sugar cane; shaman healed him; it was dark so they did not find remainder of finger until next day and then too late to reattach
Hmong typically have to walk 3hrs one way to fields as they live in the mountains; get up at 3-4am, use sun to tell time; no watches so in rainy season use shadows or cicadas noise in afternoon; lightening is their flashlight or when dry can make bamboo torch
Speak different language than Lao people so hard to find teachers; Khmu must pay to go to school, free for Hmong
Saw river snake from motorboat, not poisonous, eaten by locals; saw another snake at Tad Sae waterfall
Tiger Trail equipment not in good condition (bike brakes not working, helmets very worn/straps broken, kayaks used/have holes)
Homestay was more authentic than Sapa/Ta Van; more remote (no road access), no electricity, squat toilets, no hot water, raised woven bamboo dwelling; there were a few other tourists but didn’t feel like a hotel
Villagers went about normal activities and basically ignored us except kids wanted to play; no one pressuring you to buy anything
White tape on forehead?
Most kids seemed to have sinus infections, dirty
Lots of smoking & drinking
Chinese water buffalo = tractor; difference in cost is only about $700-800 but time to plow field is one day vs. one month
Dogs everywhere, barking, whining; roosters crow at all hours
Rubber trees 3yrs old but need 10yrs to mature/harvest

VIP bus
vs. Express bus: a/c, toilet, bottled water, duration, lunch included; ticket says “snack, drink, wet tissue are provided on trip” but we only got one bottle of water for two people and no snack; were only given 30min for a late lunch break; price of ticket was 115,000kip but travel agency charged 130k; no seat belts so used luggage strap, driver’s cell phone ringer was squealing pig and he talked on it several times while driving plus smoked while driving - it was a nonsmoking bus; 2 helpers who handled luggage but didn't really do anything else other talk to driver, random stops: @ 11:15 (fruit stand with no toilets so everyone went in tall grass), finally ate lunch @ 2:45pm - we ate pho-style soup instead of meat & veggies w/rice to lessen risk of getting sick; driver almost ran off road while trying to take off shirt, no guard rails/vertical drop, beautiful scenery if you survive the trip!; supposed to take 8 hours but took 11, bus speedometer didn’t work, speed limit 30kph, narrow switchback roads with no shoulder, took 2 hrs to drive 50km, passed small villages - driver had to watch for people/animals in road, drying plants for thatch roofs, one robed monk on bus who smoked and had tattoos, double-decker style but only luggage stored below - sits high so sways more on curvy roads, driver nor attendants spoke English, Greg said mileage markers look like tombstones

International restaurants - French, Italian, Tex-mex, Turkish, Scandinavian, Indian, British pub across street
Cheap beer avg 10k for large bottle Beer Lao
Laundry 8000kip/1kg
Tuk tuks sound like their moniker
Shared taxi from bus station 20k per person
Everything closed on international New Year’s Day
Forgot to mention this earlier but Laos Airlines plays one particular Kenny G song as their boarding music on all their planes

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Halong Bay & Sapa excursions from Hanoi

After five nights in Hanoi, we decided to further explore northern Vietnam. We booked two excursions through the Hanoi Old Centre Hotel. The first, an overnight trip to Halong Bay, was operated by Halong Phoenix Cruiser. There are countless companies offering various package trips and it’s a daunting task to choose the “best” one. Our hotel, based on their connections with particular travel agencies, only offered itineraries on five different ships. They showed us fancy promotional books published by the tour companies so we could look at pictures of the boats and see what was included in the package price. Of course, I also looked online to read reviews of other companies & boats, but as there are so many and there isn’t one specific website that covers every boat, it quickly becomes overwhelming.

We eventually settled on the Halong Phoenix for $99 per person. That price included round-trip transfers from our Hanoi hotel, one bottle of water during the approximately 4 hour, 165km one way mini-bus ride from Hanoi to Halong City, tender to & from the ship, overnight accommodation on board the Halong Phoenix 1 in a private ensuite room, 2 lunches/1 dinner/1 breakfast, tour of Sung Sot cave, kayaking, trip to Ti Top Island, short cooking class on board the ship, complimentary glass of wine before dinner, welcome juice on arrival, and hot tea at breakfast. All other beverages cost extra and ranged from $1.50 for a small bottle of water to $4 for cocktails.

The minibus picked us up on time at 8am but we spent another hour driving around Hanoi to pick up people from other hotels. Then it was a fairly straight but slow drive along a two-lane road through small villages and agricultural land. Interestingly, the guide that accompanied us on the bus ride to Halong Bay chose to introduce himself by saying he was single and giving us details of his 3 failed relationships! There is only one scheduled pit stop at around the halfway point of the drive and it’s at a designated center where handicapped people make silk thread “paintings” & pottery and there is a massive souvenir shop, small café and toilets. For some reason we were dropped behind the shop and our guide only vaguely pointed in the direction of the toilets so we all used the very basic (squat, no toilet paper, no soap) version and then later realized there were much cleaner Western toilets near the front of the store!
We finally reached Halong Bay after noon and then stood around at the port for about 30 minutes waiting for instructions from our guide. We were eventually divided into several groups (day trippers, 2 day/1 night, 3 day/2 night, etc.) and herded down to the docks to board our respective tenders to the ships anchored in the bay. After drinking our welcome juice, we were given our room keys so we could drop off our bags before eating lunch as the ship motored out to the bay. After about 2 hours of cruising, we dropped anchor and soon boarded a tender to Sung Sot cave. We walked around inside the massive cave for about 45 minutes, then took the tender a short distance to where the kayaks were stored. Only 8 people wanted to kayak and Greg wasn’t one of the them, so I convinced our guide to let me take a single and he went with another guest. We paddled around fishing boats and a few of the karst features of the bay for about 45 minutes before returning to the dock and the waiting tender back to the ship. We had been told there would be a “party” on the upper deck before dinner but that never materialized and instead we were served our complimentary glass of wine in the dining room. Dinner was served at 7pm; afterward many of the guests retired to their rooms. It was still fairly early and a few people had indicated they wanted to sing karaoke. Unfortunately the sound system didn’t work very well and the songs were listed only by title, not by artist. Eventually, after a few songs sung in Vietnamese by the young bar staff, Greg & I started things off with “Take This Job and Shove It” (keep in mind we had each only had one glass of wine and one bottle of beer)! Soon enough, the other guests were searching for their favorite songs, and we sang along for a couple of hours until the staff told us it was quiet time around 11pm.

The next morning, breakfast was served at 7:30 and then we took a tender to Ti Top island for an optional swim at the beach or a short but strenuous hike to the top of the island. We opted for the hike and found it funny that western music (Hotel California was played repeatedly) was piped all the way up the walking path. Then we returned to the boat to check out of our room and participate in a short cooking class on how to prepare Vietnamese spring rolls. The guests were only allowed to assemble the rolls (ie, wrap the rice paper around the filling), but we also got to eat the finished result as well as the extras that the chef had already prepared. Lunch was served at 11:00 as the ship started motoring back to port. From there it was the same as the previous day: stand around 15+ minutes waiting for instructions, then board the minibus for the ride back to Hanoi.

All in all we enjoyed the trip and would recommend it to anyone looking for a relaxing way to spend a couple of days outside the city. I wouldn’t bother with only a day trip due to the long drive each way. As I expected based on the online reviews I had read, there are many boats of varying levels of luxury. After seeing the outside of our sister ship, Halong Phoenix 2, I was happy we had specified the Halong Phoenix 1 which appeared to be a much better design as well as a nicer ship overall. However, despite our boat being fairly new, the furniture was well worn and the sails were faded & torn (and they were never raised anyway). Be sure to tell your travel agent if you want to party, prefer a more mature crowd, etc. as we heard other boats playing loud music in the early evening hours and saw younger guests jumping off the top deck.
There was a seeming lack of organization both at port and on the ship; our guides (we had a total of 4 different guides in 2 days) did not know the timing of meals & activities and the times differed from what was on the itinerary. It was also confusing because guests on the same boat were on different itineraries (end of 3 day/2 night, beginning of 3/2, only 2/1, etc.) so we were often divided into smaller groups for various activities. The guests on our boat were a diverse mix of nations: U.S., Canada, Australia, Taiwan, U.K., France, Germany & Iceland; which made conversations at meal times very interesting. Most meals were served family style, with assigned seating and a table of six people sharing all the dishes. The food was very good and cooked fresh with lots of seafood & vegetables, some beef and chicken, and fresh fruit for dessert. An alternative to paying the higher drink prices on board was to purchase supplies from the local people who came up to the ship on rowboats selling just about anything: drinks, snacks, batteries, cigarettes, socks, fruit. Prices are negotiable; we got 2 large beers for 30000VND. One final note about Halong Bay; the travel agents should suggest a minimal packing list depending on your itinerary (e.g. you will get wet if you kayak so you need suitable shoes, spare clothes, etc. and a swimsuit if you want to swim at Ti Top beach) and also should advise guests to store the excess luggage at their hotel in Hanoi as there isn’t extra room on the minibus or in the ship’s cabins.

Our other side trip from Hanoi was to Sapa, 380km to the northwest. Again we booked the excursion through our hotel. The prices they quoted us for a 3 day/4 night trip ranged from $99-139 per person. This included 2 overnight trains, 1 night in a Sapa hotel, 1 night village homestay, all transfers, 1 short trek to Cat Cat village with a guide, a longer 2-day trek to multiple villages with a guide and 3 breakfasts/3 lunches/2 dinners. As I understood it, the price difference was primarily for the class of sleeper on the train. We opted to pay the package price of $139 per person to include a first class sleeper; however when they called to make the reservation, the best first class train cars were not available so we were booked in a standard first class “Green Train“. They initially were going to put us in the Sapa Summit hotel, but online reviews were not very good so I asked them to suggest some alternatives for the same price. We ended up staying in the Sapa Eden hotel which was a decent choice (TripAdvisor review of Sapa Eden hotel).

Although we didn’t know it at the time, the tour company that organized our entire trip was Sapa Pathfinder Travel. While our Hanoi hotel staff arranged the transfers to & from Hanoi train station, everything else was arranged by the travel agency. Our train was at Hanoi station one hour prior to departure so were able to board early and settle into our 4-berth sleeper instead of sitting in a smoky waiting room. Our sleeper car was not as nice as the ones we took in China, but we did see better cabins in the other cars. Still, it was more than fine for the 8+ hour ride to Lao Cai. The train left exactly on time at 9:10PM and arrived at 5:30AM. What we weren’t as prepared for was the 1 hour ride on a windy mountain road from Lao Cai to Sapa in a cramped minivan.
Our original itinerary had us doing the long trek and village homestay the first night but upon arrival at our hotel we were informed they were switching the days so we could rest more on the first/arrival day and just do the shorter trek to & from Cat Cat village, then do the longer trek & homestay on the 2nd & 3rd days. This actually worked out fine and, in retrospect, think it might be better to organize your trip this way.

We left our bags at reception and went upstairs for breakfast; by the time we finished eating they gave us our room key. As our trek was scheduled for 9AM, we had about an hour to freshen up before meeting our guide in the lobby. The hike to Cat Cat was a total of 6km round trip with a gradual descent into the village and a corresponding ascent via a different route back to Sapa. While in Cat Cat, I met a 22-year-old Hmong woman named Sa, who was trying to sell souvenirs but I persuaded her to talk to me for awhile after all the buying & selling was done.
Traditionally, Vietnamese Hmong people meet their mates at the “love market” which occurs every Saturday night. The boys dance & play an instrument and the girls observe. With no words spoken, the boys & girls eventually pair off. Once the selection is made, the girl accompanies the boy to his family’s home where she remains for three days, to meet his relatives and see how his family lives. Still, there is no verbal communication or physical interaction between the pair. After the visit, if the boy’s family approves of the girl they will go to meet with her family and agree on a wedding date. Then, for the next few months or even a full year, the preparations are made for the wedding (gathering food for the feast, making special clothes, etc.). During this time, the boy & girl do not meet.

Sa met her husband at the love market when she was 16 and was married the same year. She now has two boys, ages 2 and 4. The boys stay at home with her mother while she sells souvenirs. Her husband works at the market in Sapa. I asked Sa if she would have any more children and she said no. Later I asked our guide about this and she said the number of children, while people are encouraged by the government to only have two, is decided by the husband. Despite this, many Hmong families have more than five children, partially to support their agricultural lifestyle.
Later that afternoon, Greg & I explored the town of Sapa. It was just a short 5 minute walk from our hotel to the market where we saw lots of fresh fish, meat & produce for sale, including a recently slaughtered water buffalo. Shops selling trekking gear were everywhere -- all the name brands were represented (North Face & Columbia in particular). The quality seemed to be very good and I wasn’t 100% sure if the products were knock-offs or authentic. We wandered around town for about an hour and then picked a place to have a drink. Most restaurants were offering multi-course menus for an average of $5 per person but dinner was included in our package, so we chose a cozy restaurant with a fireplace to try the local Lao Cai beer.

Our second trek started the following day at 9:30AM. Our 24-year-old guide, Anh, picked us up at our hotel on a moped. Yes, Greg & I with our daypacks and Anh all piled on a tiny moped!!! Luckily for all of us we only had to drive about 5 minutes into town to meet up with our trekking companions, Monica (from Bucharest, Romania) and Karl (from Munster, Germany).

One thing about Sapa: the villagers come into town every day to sell their goods and the women come into town to accompany trekkers to the villages. Thus, no matter where or how far you are walking, you will never be alone! At first we were surrounded by no less than 10 girls & women asking us to buy things from them so they could “go home“. Yes, they would actually say that to try to get you to buy something out of sympathy! Gradually the crowd thinned out and only three women stayed with us all the way to Lao Cai.

About 1 or 2 km outside of Sapa, Anh asked us if we wanted to take the short route to Ta Van, the location of our homestay, or the longer, more scenic route via Y Linh Ho . He said the difference in time would be at least a couple of hours. Of course, our adventurous quartet opted for the scenic route! We turned off the main road and started descending amongst the rice terraces. We quickly discovered the going would not be easy as the trails were very uneven dirt & rock. After a few hours, we stopped for a break alongside the river. It soon started drizzling and the trek got even harder as everything turned to mud. After a steep ascent and another descent we finally reached Lao Cai where we stopped for lunch. Only the next day did Anh tell me that many tourists had been injured on this trail (sprains or broken bones). If it hadn’t been for the Hmong woman who held my hand for most of the 15km, I might have been one of them. Luckily, we all survived unscathed but with very muddy shoes & pant legs and sweat-soaked clothes. I also haven’t mentioned that the temperature was only around 10C!
From our lunch spot it was just a few more kilometers on a dirt road to Ta Van and our homestay. We soon discovered that “homestay” is a relative term here as the dwelling we stayed in, although built similarly to a traditional home with an enclosed wood-fire kitchen (read: smoke smell on everything) and communal area on the bottom floor and open sleeping area on the top floor, had electricity and a Western toilet. We spent most of our time sitting around waiting for dinner or breakfast to be prepared and didn’t really learn anything about the local culture. However we did enjoy chatting with the other guests: a couple from Paris, France, and a couple from Lavarone, Trento, Italy.
The following day we all trekked a relatively short 4km, mostly on paved road, to Giang Ta Chai and a waterfall. Again it was overcast and damp so we had to walk cautiously on the dirt trails. After lunch we all parted ways, and Greg & I rode in an old army jeep back to the Sapa Eden hotel. Thankfully, they gave us a room so we could take a shower prior to leaving for the train station at 5PM.

All in all, I really enjoyed the side trip to Sapa despite the disagreeable weather. It was well worth $139 even though we probably could have done it cheaper on our own as we saw rooms available in Sapa for $3/dorm or $8+/private. But sometimes the reduction in hassle factor is worth the minimal additional cost! My only wish is that we would have more opportunity to learn about and interact with the people we encountered at the various villages (Hmong, Dzay, Red Zao, etc.).

Here are my photos for both excursions:
Halong Bay & Sapa photos