March kicked off with several stops around Central and Northern Vietnam. We found it difficult to avoid the tourist track up the coast….. and, impossible to bond with the local people. Sapa promised a village getaway, but we found that it was super touristy and spoiled. In a sense, we wish we had alotted time for Southern Vietnam where the people are supposedly more cordial. In the end, we found positivity in Vietnam through meeting several new friends kayaking at Cat Ba Island.
Top 10 Vietnam Scams:
10) Woman puts heavy basket on our shoulders in hopes for a tourist photo and tip
09) Taxi driver tries to charge $15 instead of the $1.50 on the taxi meter for a simple 2km ride
08) Paying $.25 to pee outside on flat concrete flooring
07) Paying $1.00 for a wet towelette without telling us before the meal
06) Masseuse ends 60 minute massage at 45 minutes after changing a friends’ watch 15 minutes ahead
05) Paying for 2km taxi ride after charging us for 5km
04) Tuk tuk’s sending us walking in wrong direction so they could follow us hoping we’d change our minds and hire them for a ride
03) Trying to sell a friend only rotten bananas for double what they should cost…. while the good bananas sit nearby. Then telling other vendors not to sell bananas to the guy because he wanted the good bananas
02) Bus driver won’t stop to let Brett pee in an emergency situation
01) Bus driver pulls away from transfer stop leaving Brett and a woman in the bathroom area
Life on the Road:
Life quickly evolved from a series of amazing tourist attractions with good accommodations to feeling like we were wasting our precious time on this earth in Vietnam. Life then got better as we made hard decisions to cut short our Vietnam visit and focus more on Laos and Northern Thailand.
While planning our trip, we read several books related to our lifestyle change. Vagabonding and The 4-Hour Workweekboth discuss how times will get tough while traveling for extended periods of time. Vietnam definitely forced us to answer some hard questions related to our reasons for doing this trip. We started wondering if it was normal to make bad or wrong choices and if a few would ruin the overall journey. We asked ourselves if it was right or wrong to cut a stop short if we weren’t happy. Did we not give it enough time? Should we have visited more remote places where we could more easily integrate with the people? Should we have spent the ridiculous tourist prices they wanted or be happy we resisted the temptation? Why do these people flat out not like us? In the end, we went with our guts and jumped bail when necessary. It turned out that we weren’t the only people that would never recommend Vietnam to another human being (hear Nomadic Matt). Life is too short and we can’t travel the world forever! Or can we?
Towards the end of March, we began planning our trips to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey. Unfortunately, Australia didn’t make the cut. We were super excited to visit the Barossa Valley wine region, but accommodations were ridiculously expensive. It turns out that a big contributor is the rising value of the AU dollar. It is now right on par with the USD. We’re excited to meet a few business friends in Singapore and hopefully find some local culture. Singapore will be our first AirBNB experience staying with a nice couple in the outskirts of Singapore (at a fraction the hotel price).
It was such a relief to unwind with friendlier hosts in Laos. Luang Prabang has a beautiful backdrop with hills and temples. The town is wedged between the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers with bridges everywhere. Although the town is built around tourism, it showcases enough local residents to keep things authentic. Life is just wonderfully comfortable in Luang Prabang. With so many French visitors, we wondered if the French ever work! The weather gets warmer in March, although the villagers begin to slash and burn their farms…. causing pollution in the hazy skies. This theme would continue into Northern Thailand and Chiang Mai. We toured the main temples including Wat Xieng Thong. Lao cooking class was a highlight, plus all the good restaurants in town. Another big highlight was our day at the Kuang Si Falls and Bear Rescue Center outside the town. Read the Luang Prabang full post
Before our trip to Laos, we discovered a gem written by Brett Dakin. Brett worked and lived in Vientiane, Laos (capital city) during 2000 – 2001. His book is called Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos. He helped plan Laos’ Tourism strategy with government employees and officials. His book is as much a character study of the people he interacted with as it is also a carefully thought out diary and analysis of his experience as a young American in Laos. Like other “newly independent” Southeast Asian countries, Laos has struggled to create a sustainable model. Most people are poor with few rich mostly affiliated with government. NGO after NGO come in with funding and plans to save the country. In the end, the culture is lazy and happy to cater to westerners instead of highlighting its history and traditions. Lao people follow Thai pop culture and Buddhist teachings. Brett questions the influence of both America and China in Lao affairs and provides a unique glimpse into one of the world’s last communist countries.
Our favorite town thus far is a toss up between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai. With endless comfort cuisine, community events, sporting activities, shopping and religion…. falling in love with Chiang Mai is inevitable. We immediately bought a Nancy Chandler map, leased a flat, and committed to Muay Thai Boxing training for a month with Team Quest. We biked 2-3 km/day and trained 4 hours per day. We felt alive in every way possible. Unfortunately, the local villagers were slashing and burning causing awful air pollution. This was on top of the super hot and humid weather. Christie caught a respiratory infection and we decided to leave a week earlier than expected. Apparently, the king openly allowed the burning as a way to make up for lost rice crops during the floods a few months earlier.
Our most memorable moments in Chiang Mai include spending time with our friends Neda & Jeff at salsa night and Baan Hom Thai Massage School. The Sunday Night Market and Night Bazaar offered opportunities to pick up nice gifts for family. Oh, and we learned Thai cooking and did a silly Thai Royalty photo shoot as well! Read the Chiang Mai, Thailand full post