Monthly Archives: January 2014

Cu Chi Tunnel Tour & Ho Chi Minh City (Day 25)

I was able to sleep in about a half-hour earlier today, but these early schedule wake-up calls everyday is pretty much wired in. I had actually got some random person messaging me about Vietnam because they saw my blog. I felt pretty good about that because I know most of my friends don’t read this at all and have no interest in my travels. Thank you to those that do!!! I eagerly messaged back and then got out of bed and prepared for my trip!

I was joined by my new friends Hannah and Chris, who were both on the Mekong Delta Tour with me the day before and also were staying at my guesthouse. We met up for our free breakfast and before we knew it, were on the bus heading to a major battleground area of the Vietnam War and home to a massive 200 km tunnel system used by the villagers of the Chu Chi area around Ben Dinh, the Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese Army. It was an area that was continuously bombed by B-52 bombers and swept by U.S. forces during the war.

As we went through the tour, our guide showed us a number of tactics used to wound or kill American soldiers. In most cases, the Viet Cong wanted to wound, not kill, American soldiers because when you wound a soldier, two more are needed to help bring that soldier to safety. This cut down on soldiers actively fighting every time a soldier was wounded. Not only were these tunnels very tiny, but very elaborate in construction. For most U.S. soldiers, crawling through the tunnels would have been impossible because of their size. Tunnel Rats, an elite unit of soldiers who where small enough to go into the tunnels and fight, were often used.

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The Viet Cong also used many booby traps to wound American soldiers. We were shown a number of different examples. Also, because up to 30% of the bombs dropped by B-52 bombers did not explode, the Viet Cong used these unexploded ordinances to blow up tanks with road-side bombs or create alternative explosives and ammunition with the gunpowder in the bombs. From here, we then went to the shooting range to shoot a number of different guns, if we chose. I did not shoot anything because a number of the weapons I have shot before and I own an AK-47, that I can shoot anytime I go home.

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The best part of the tour was set for last, crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels. Now, there is only a small stretch of tunnel we went through compared to the 200 km of tunnel. For those that felt claustrophobic and couldn’t make it the entire length, there was an exit about every 20 meters. I was 1 of about 3 people in my entire group that was able to go the whole length. The tunnels were a lot smaller than the ones I visited at the DMZ and twice as big as their original size for us big, fat tourists! I really enjoyed this experience of seeing the perspectives and life of the guerrilla soldier. These people were just defending their home and land. Most guerrilla fighters were just farmers and had no interest in politics. All they knew was that another county was trying to invade their land. This was the case for 100 years before the American’s even came to Vietnam. Most of these tunnels were already created from when the French occupied the country. If another country invaded America, I would be doing the same thing.

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When we were leaving the tunnel area, I asked our guide if we could get dropped off at the War Museum. Well, it ended up being a good idea because all but about 6 people on the bus got off to go there. I sometimes have good idea moments 😉 The museum was laid out really well and showed the war crimes of American soldiers, imprisonment conditions, torture tactics used on Vietnamese POW’s, the affects of Agent Orange and other chemicals dropped on the jungles, and photos taken by a dozen different photographers of different nations throughout the war. There were also a number of U.S. military vehicles and weapons used on display. I felt it told the story from the Vietnamese side very well and tactfully. The museum wasn’t as propaganda filled as some of the others I had already been to in the country.

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After the museum, Hanna, Chris, and I walked around in the same area we had been in the night before.  This time I was able to see the Ho Chi Minh statue, which I could not the night before.

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After a few beers at a nice bar, my day was complete! Tomorrow I plan on renting a bike and riding around town. Ho Chi Minh City is getting really quiet with all the people who have left town for the holidays. I don’t think I am getting the real Saigon experience and I’m happy with that. Until tomorrow!!

 

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Mekong Delta Tour & Ho Chi Minh City (Day 24)

The Mekong Delta Tour was about a two hour drive south-west of town. The traffic was absolutely crazy. Because of Tet, the Chinese New Year which is the biggest holiday of the year for Vietnamese, everyone is heading out of town to go to their home towns.  To give you some perspective, there are about 8 million people living in Ho Chi Minh City and 5 million motorbikes. So when we made our way through the madness of traffic, we got on our boat in My Tho to cross the delta to stop at Unicorn Island.

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On Unicorn Island, we visited a little honey bee farm. We were able to look at some bees at work in their nest. I had an opportunity to hold one of the honeycomb slabs full of bees, but once I got the courage I lost my chance. We then moved over to taste a sweet honey tea that I found really good and a banana wine which I thought tasted like banana tequila. We also had an opportunity to hold a snake. This was pretty cool and I didn’t have any fear about doing it. From here we also tried a number of exotic fruits I could not tell you the names of. I have no idea what I was eating, but I did try everything that was put in front of me!!

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After a little taste testing at the bee farm, we then moved on to some Mekong Delta action. We climbed in our boat, put on our rice patty hats, and went for a little ride. This is pretty much the one thing I was looking forward to on the whole trip.

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After getting paddled down through the jungle, we went to the Ben Tre province to see how handmade coconut candy was made. I also had the opportunity to drink some snake whiskey. For not being a big fan of coconut, I thought the candy was really good. A bit to chewy for me though. It has a texture like taffy. The snake whiskey tasted similar to a rice wine and did have a kick to it, but not to the point of giving me a surge of heartburn.

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From here we got to ride horse-drawn carriages to lunch. As for the lunch, Hannah, an Aussie girl I met from my hostel, and I decided to split the Elephant Ear fish. It was the cheapest thing on the menu, but they charged by the kilo. We didn’t realize this, so we ended up paying more than we originally planned. But the fish really was excellent!!

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After lunch, we then had one more little trip down the delta and headed back to Ho Chi Minh City. Overall, I thought the Mekong Delta Tour was decent for the 345,000 Dong ($16.40 US) I paid. I got to try some unique foods and have some experiences that I would not have had otherwise. The people I was on the tour with were also really nice!

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After we all got back, Chris (UK), Hannah (Australia), and I went to find some food and then walked around to see some sights at night. One stop I had to make was to Hard Rock Cafe- Ho Chi Minh City!!

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I almost forgot it too and thankfully the Hanoi one isn’t open yet, or otherwise I would have been pretty upset to have missed it. We also ran across Saigon’s  Notre Dam and enjoyed seeing all the lights set up for the big New Years celebrations.

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To end the day, Hannah and I got our feet eaten by fish!! It cost each of us 100,000 dong ($4.75 US) for 30 minutes. Afterwards, your feet feel so smooth. I did it in Thailand four years ago and jumped on the chance tonight. After 24 days of travel, my feet needed a little loving!

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I will be heading for a half-day tour tomorrow to the Cu Chi Tunnels used during the Vietnam War.

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Hue, the DMZ, & the Train in Vietnam (Day 21, 22 & 23)

Day 21

I made it off the train and to my hostel fine. I just jumped on the back of a motor bike and the driver took me to the place for 50,000 dong ($2.60 US). I’m really liking this motor bike transportation.  To crazy for those who are not very brave, because there are always numerous times you think you are going to die. I like it because I don’t have to sit in traffic with a normal taxi losing money.

When I got to the place, I checked in and then rented a bicycle down the street. She wanted 50,000 dong, but I talked her down to 20,000 dong ( $.95 US) for the day. I need to work on my negotiating skills. I’m to much of a pushover.

After getting the bike, I headed to the Imperial City. It is similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing, China but not as impressive. It is going through a phase of reconstruction that is still taking place after damage from the Vietnam War. The Battle of Hue was pretty significant and though the U.S. avoided bombing many areas of the city because of the historic and religious reasons, the Tet offense caused many buildings to become damaged. There are still marks on the walls from bullet holes.

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After the Imperial City, I stopped by a War Museum next door. It had a number of U.S. tanks and artillery that had been damaged or acquired during the war. It is interesting to read descriptions of different items on display that refer to the U.S. as the “U.S. Imperialists” or the South Vietnamese as the “Puppet Regime”. Always good to see a deferent perspective, whether you agree with it or not.

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I didn’t feel like biking around anywhere else, so I stopped at the DMZ Bar and had a few beers and a basket of french fries. This pretty much concluded my day. I’ll be getting up to head to the DMZ for a half day tomorrow.

Day 22

I got up early for a 6:30 pick-up to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that once separated North and South Vietnam. This is on the 17th Parallel and is 10 km wide, 5 km split the North and 5m for the South. The length of it is a little over 100 km, running from Laos to the South China Sea, with the Ben Hai River being the geographic divide. For those who don’t know, the North was a Communist government, while the South was a Democratic government.

I was originally only planning to do a half day because I had to catch a train to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). But, I found I would have no problem doing the full day and I would make it back for my train. This was a relief for me. I honestly didn’t want to miss out on anything. The first stop was “The Rockpile”. This was an observation post and artillery base from 1966-68. It was only accessible by helicopter and because of its altitude, the U.S. could send artillery rounds about 40 km. The top was a lot flatter then, from what the tour guide said and the Vietnam flag now flies at the top today as a statement of victory.

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We then headed over to see the Dakrong Bridge. This bridge is now in place of where a secret bamboo bridge of the Ho Chi Minh Trail once was. The bamboo bridge was under the water, so to avoid detection by U.S. B-52 bombers. This was a really quick stop, and just up the road we stopped at a minority village. The kids in the village all rushed to us and seeing how these people were living was pretty sad. The guide talked about how the government helps these people because in a Communist country everyone is equal. But, I’m pretty sure they are not treated equally from a Vietnamese person. Just taking us to this “minority village” clarifies that in my mind.

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After the “minority village”, we then went to the Khe Sanh Combat base. There was a small museum there that described how the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) attacked this base in full force to draw more U.S. troops there to help, and then attack the less defended South during Tet, the Chinese New Year. As with any museum in Vietnam, it is full of propaganda language. I was the only American on the tour, with a number of Canadians and we were having a good laugh at times. One photo showed, ” U.S. Marines shutting themselves in bunkers for fear of their own shadows.”

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When we were done wandering around for a bit we went for lunch before heading to the Tunnels of Vinh Moc. This was a really cool tunnel system that had three levels and took 18 months to make all by hand. This area was bombed nearly 24 hrs a day because the villagers were thought to be supplying the North. The tunnels had kitchen, living, meeting, bathing, and health care areas. Nearly 60 families lived here to shelter themselves from the bombing. 17 babies were even born here. I thought is was a pretty amazing set-up. I can’t believe these people lived down here for  nearly 6 years.

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On the way back to Hue and through the old DMZ, here we crossed the Hien Luong Bridge over the Ben Hai River, which was the center of the DMZ. We made it back to town with plenty of time to spare. I was able to buy a few things and get some dinner before getting on the train, which ended up being an hour late anyways.

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Day 23

On the train, I found this one did not have a plug for each bed. I was forced to use the battery power on my devices. The worse thing about this train ride were the people I was on the train with in my car. There was an old lady in the top bunk across from me that had to get up at 4:30 in the morning, was yapping with a few other old ladies, and having no consideration for the people trying to sleep. Secondly, the kid of the couple in my room was a winey little piss-ant. All night winning and kicking all over. You can’t tell me that that mother doesn’t baby the hell out of him, giving him the rule of the house. The mother was just as bad. It’s 6:30 in the morning and she is playing Vietnamese music on the highest level on her smartphone and her husband was talking loud on his phone. When they were all trying to sleep a little later, I decided to FaceTime a couple friends back home without using my headphones or talking quietly, just to annoy them. Was going to watch some TV shows on my computer without the headphones too, but I am just to considerate by nature, it’s hard for me to be rude very long.

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So, this train ride was about 20 hrs long. I met some cool people at different points and survived the idiots in my room. In the morning, all of us foreign travelers were in the hallway area bitching about our Vietnamese roommates and how rude they were with very loud voices while they all were trying to take an after breakfast nap. It was good fun to dish out their own medicine.

In Ho Chi Minh City, I went out to dinner with an Italian guy and French girl. I even tried grilled alligator. The meat is tough, but tastes like chicken. That’s it for today! Tomorrow I will go on a Mekong Delta Tour.

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Ha Long Bay, Vietnam ( Day 18, 19, & 20)

Day 18

I had to get up at about 7:30 for an 8:30 pick-up today for my three day/ two night trip to Ha Long Bay. This trip is supposed to be one of the highlights for me. Everything I have read and heard about this place has been good. Good based on how beautiful it is, not necessarily the boat. That part could be hit or miss. Often what happens is travel agents promise this and that, show pictures of the boat you will be on, but in the end it could be a pile of junk. So, I am crossing my fingers for something that isn’t a total peice of crap. One of my friends mentioned being on a junker and hearing rats in the middle of the night!

I grabbed my free breakfast of eggs and toast before the bus driver picked me up in front of my hotel. I was the first on the bus and I was really hoping I would be in a group of younger people.  Not a bunch of old people or couples with kids. When we pulled up to the next stop, three young and beautiful 23 to 24 year old French girls got on the bus. They were just traveling Asia a bit before they head to China for four months for an MBA program.  I was feeling pretty happy about that and started up a bit of conversation immediately. When we got to the next stop, we picked up two young Aussie dudes. One of them seriously looked like Zac Efron and before he got on the bus the girls said something in French about how hot he was. After living abroad, I pick up easily what people are saying by the way they talk and body expression. “Damn it!! There goes my shot.”, I thought. The next stop was for an Italian couple, that were total hippies. My type of people for sure. She didn’t speak English, but the guy did, so I was able to have a conversation with them at different parts of the trip.

The bus trip took about four hours to the coast. This is where I got to experience Vietnamese driving for the first time. Here they are driving all over the road trying to pass each other, while also playing chicken with oncoming traffic. It would take awhile to get used to their driving style before I could drive here.

Soon after getting off the bus we got on a small boat that then took us to the boat we would be staying on for the night. After having a little lunch on the main boat, which happened to be the best meal I had eaten in Vietnam up to this point, the three French girls got upset with the tour guide about it being the wrong boat. I was also thinking the same thing, but had read this may happen and I was hoping for the best. The cabins were nice and clean, the water was hot, and the food was good. To me, it was living up to what I over paid. After lunch we set sail into Halong Bay. It got more beautiful the furtherout we went.

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Our first stop was The Dragon Cave. It had three main chambers and was pretty cool but heard the other cave that many tours go to are better.  The guide showed us all these things that were in the rocks, like Buddha, a dragon, people kissing, etc. It was a bit annoying, so I showed him a big dog in a rock. The thing about rocks, stars, clouds, or a piece of toast is that you can see whatever you want to see..After the cave we went kayaking.

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The kayaking ended up being a bit difficult for me because the three French girls were not interested in doing it, leaving me to go solo. It was nice being on the water by myself, but the problem was I didn’t have enough power to go very far. Either way, I made the most of it! I had head there were caves I could kayak in, but I guess this tour didn’t take us there.

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Next stop was a beach on an island were we climbed a small mountain to see a the sun setting. There were a lot of people trying to go up and down this small path and I kind of got claustrophobic. Halfway up I did see my monkeys, but they were unfortunately in a cage. When they talked about monkey island I expected wild monkeys. After taking my photos, I headed back down to grab a beer and watch the sun set on the beach.

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From here we went back on the boat and relaxed a little before we had dinner. Dinner was pretty good, but by this time I figured out this small group of mine was not into having a little drinking fun, and pretty much stuck to their groups. I stayed up a bit and had a beer and gave a go at fishing before I went to my very cold room. I had to wear my pants and winter jacket to bed just to stay warm. I thought a hot shower would be great, but when I messed with the faucet a bit, I lost the hot water and couldn’t get it back. Shame!! So to bed I went because the WiFi sucked on the boat and nobody wanted to hang out. Hope tomorrow is fun!

Day 19

We had to get up really early to get breakfast today. The three French girls and I were going to change boats because  we were on the three day tour while the others were only on a two.  Funny thing is, the boat we then went to was the boat we were told we would be on in the first place. After talking to a couple people on the boat, it sounded like they actually did karaoke and had a bit of a good time. Bummer for me! The boat then headed to a pearl farm. We got to walk around and see how pearls are made. There was a station were a couple guys were cutting open oysters when he offered someone in the group to eat one. Nobody wanted to, so I said I would eat it. I have had raw oysters before, so this wasn’t anything new to me. I have come to really like sea food since living in Korea and am way more open to trying new things or throwing raw fish down my throat.

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After the pearl farm we headed to a secluded beach. We spent about 40 minutes just chilling out. There was a Russian girl that joind us that seemed a little off in the head. She had a different outfit for everything we did and was filming everything with a GoPro Camera.  None of us went swimming except the Russian girl.. I just walked around looking for some shells. I asked the French girls about the outfit changing, and they said Russians are like that. I know a few Russians and have never seen this behavior before, so I may have to look into it more, out of pure curiosity.

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After the beach we headed over to a part of Cat Ba Island. Here we took bicicles into a town on the island and walked a bit into a National Park. I really enjoyed the little bike trip , but there was a  Vietnamese couple who had just got married that ended up hiring a driver back. The couple seemed a bittle off. He lives in New York and she is from Vietnam and did not speak English. The French girls and I figured it must be some kind of arranged marriage and the awkwardness I felt between them was just them getting used to eachother. I can’t imagine being in an arranged marrage situation!!!

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After our bike trip we headed to the main part of Cat Ba Island were we were dropped off at different hotels. This kind of sucked because I was hoping to hang out with the girls that night, but failed! I was at the hotel by myself and was even brought to an empty restaurant to eat by myself. Oh well, I had heat in my room and pretty fast internet. I was able to catch up on some of my TV shows, drink a beer, and upload photos and post a blog. So, probably more productive than just getting wasted 😉

Day 20

I had to wake up at 6:30 to get rolling for my pick-up back to the boat. I went to the same restaurant I had dinner at for breakfast and then got picked up by my bus to go to the boat. I found a comfy mat on the upper deck and laid out to watch the scenery and take pictures as we headed to shore. We did end up making one boat transfer and had a nice lunch before getting off the last boat.

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Once off the boat, we had to sit around for about a half-hour to wait for our bus. I unfortunately got crammed into the back seat. They do not make these buses for Western people that are over 5 1/2 feet tall 😉

After I got back to Hanoi, I hung out at the place I booked my tour while waiting for the train. I also decided to skip out on a few other places in Vietnam because I don’t have enough time. I ended up booking a $50 train ticket for $85 bucks from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City for Sunday night. A bunch of con artists they are here.

When I got to the train station, I found I got to share a four bed room with a Vietnamese family. There were a bunch of other travelers in my train car too that I ended up chatting with at different points, including a nurse from Holland that had come here to volunteer. He works with a lot of kids with disabilities, especially those that are affected from the aftermath of the U.S. dropping Agent Orange chemicals across Vietnam during the war/ conflict/ occupation/ invasion… etc.  Really cool guy.

Well, here I go on my 14 hr train ride! Should be interesting 😉

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Hanoi, Vietnam (Day 15, 16 & 17)

Day 15- Landing in Hanoi, Vietnam

It feels weird being separated from my friends, Daniel, Nadine, and Hsien after meeting and traveling together through Laos last week. When I landed at the airport, I was supposed to get picked up by a hired driver, but he wasn’t there. I found an ATM, got a SIM card, and looked again before heading outside to immediately get asked if I needed a taxi. I guess using a taxi is the best option to get into town from the airport. I asked, “How much?”, and he said, “Meter.” I agreed knowing this should cost about 400,000 dong ($19 US) and depending on how he drove, I could pay more. I told him to take me to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, but when we got down there he tried pulling the whole, this hotel that hotel crap they talked about in the guide books and I ended up paying about 440,000 dong ($21). A couple bucks may not seem like a lot to those in the west, but a couple bucks is a big deal in other parts of the world. And those dollars lost add up over time.

When I got to my room around 11 PM, I was ready to get some sleep so I would be rested for the next day. The staff were super friendly and the place serves free breakfast. I’ll be hitting that up in the morning!!

Day 16

I got up and ate my free breakfast, which included scrambled eggs, bacon, bread, and coffee. It actually wasn’t that bad! From here, I walked around the corner to St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It’s the oldest Roman Catholic church in Hanoi. It was consecrated on Christmas night in 1886 and in order to be build, the French demolished Bao Thien Pagoda, which dated back to the 12th century. I was built to resemble the Notre Dame in Paris and holds services only on Sundays.

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I stopped at a travel agent to book my 3 day/2 night Ha Long Bay boat trip. I ended up paying $135, which I feel is double what I should be paying. She sold me on the quality of the boat and accommodations, so I guess I will find out if I get my money’s worth. I also booked my night train ticket to Hue Friday night. Because of Tet, I need to plan a little more I think.

My next stop was the Old City Gate, built in 1749, and the Long Bien Bridge. This bridge was built between 1899- 1902 during the French occupation. It had been bombed many times because of different conflicts and rebuilt. This includs a number of bombings in 1967 and 1972 by the U.S. army.

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Now I’m off to the Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake. This lake is the center of Hanoi and the temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century. In the center of the lake is a small building called Tortoise Tower. There are no bridges to go visit, it is just out there on a little island.

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From here I was looking for the Museum of the Revolution, but failed in this quest. I could have stopped at the Museum of History instead, but opted not to go. I continued my walk at passed the Hanoi Opera House, that was constructed between 1901-1911 and the Cultural Friendship Palace.

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This next building is the Ambassador’s Pagoda. It is the only part that remains of a 15th century hall that burned down and is often used for official ceremonies.

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Not far from the pagoda was Maison Central, otherwise known as the “Hanoi Hilton”. This place housed U.S. POW’s and Vietnamese revolutionaries. Most of what was shown, in regards to the U.S. POW’s was how good they were treated with propaganda videos depicting this. No different than a U.S. propaganda video of that era. They even had John McCain’s flight suit on display. But, a lot of what was on display focused on how the French treated prisoners there during their occupation.

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After Maison Central I headed over to the Temple of Literature. It was constructed in 1070 first to honor Confucius and now to celebrate scholars of Vietnam.

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Lastly, I headed to the Statue of Lenin. I was hoping to also go up the Hanoi Flag Tower and visit the Vietnam Military History Museum, but that will have to wait for tomorrow!

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After the first day of Hanoi, I was tired of walking around and ready to leave. Everywhere you go, someone is asking if you need a ride or wants you to buy something. Plus, it is so noisy and smoggy with millions of motorbikes driving around constantly. Now, I am in the old district and can’t say what another part of town is like. It could be very different. Plus, I may just be oversensitive after coming from laid back Laos!

Day 17

I got up early today to see Ho Chi Minh’s body! I saw Mao in China a few years back with my friend Nicole and since then I have made it a mission to see all the dead dictators. Lenin in Moscow and the Kim family in North Korea would complete the Dead Dictator Tour, unless there is another somewhere I wasn’t aware of.

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I got up at 6:30 in the morning to I could get there by about 7:30. It opened at 8am and I figured there would be a huge line, like when I went to see Mao, but there wasn’t.  In and out I went. Like everything I read, he looks like he is asleep and a bit waxy. After seeing Ho Chi Minh I headed over to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which was pretty interesting. Another item on the must see list was The One-pillar Pagoda. Fortunately for me, it was just outside of the museum. It was originally built in 1049.

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I was looking for the Ho Chi Minh Residence after the museum, but later found out that it was next to the mausoleum exit inside the grounds. I was not about to go back through security, because the lines started getting longer now. After making a number of attempts to get back in an alternative way, but getting busted by guards continuously, I walked past the Presidential Palace and headed to West Lake, Hanoi’s largest fresh water lake, to see the Tran Quoc Pagoda. It is regarded as the oldest pagoda in Hanoi and has a history that dates back 1,500 years.

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My legs and feet were killing me at this point, because of  all the walking the day before. But, I was heading to my last stops, the Hanoi Flag Tower and Vietnam Military History Museum. Of course when I get there they are closed again, this time for lunch. I waited around at a coffee shop right next door. The place looked like a great place for coffee, but it tasted horrible. I didn’t even finish it. I also bought a sandwich, but had to force it down. Over the last two days, I just have not found anything good to eat. Making me miss Lao food!

While I had some time to kill, I went across the street to chill out in the sun near the Lenin statue. While there, I ended up talking and hanging with a British traveler. When the museum opened, we had a pretty good chat about Mongolia and Russia, my next possible destinations this summer. I love hearing about other peoples experiences and enjoy sharing mine.

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The first picture is the Hanoi Flag Tower. Another symbol of Hanoi, it was originally built as an observatory in 1812. The second picture is surrounded by military vehicles, Vietnamese and American. As you can tell, they are very proud of the wreckage from planes shot down. There was another park that had the wreckage of a B52 Bomber and I guess the Air Force Museum had a number of military vehicles and wreckage that had been acquired during the Vietnam War/ Conflict/ Occupation… I was just a little to burned out to make it anywhere else. I had seen pretty much all I wanted to see in Hanoi to this point.

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That was the end of my day. I negotiated a ride on the back of a motorbike and chilled out at my hotel the rest of the afternoon/ night. Tomorrow, I will be getting up to take a three day/ two night tour of Halong Bay! Should be beautiful 🙂

 

Resource: Ho Chi Minh Photo. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-03-08/north-vietnamese-leader-ho-chi-minh-lies-in-state/4560074.

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Vientiane, Laos (Day 14 & 15)

Day 14

We took the 9 AM bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane today. When we got into town, Daniel, Nadine, and Hsien booked a night bus south to Pakse, Laos. I will be sticking around until Sunday night to catch a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Daniel, Nadine, and I did have time to go to the Buddha Park outside of town. We grabbed some lunch first, and then worked our way to the bus stop. Many tuk-tuk drivers were trying to offer 150,000 Kip ($18.70 US) to take us there and back, but we chose to take the bus for 6,000 Kip to the Thailand-Laos boarder. We then ended up paying 10,000 Kip each to get to the park. Boy was that a bumpy ride!!! I was not expecting much at the park, but when I walked in it was like a Buddha grave yard. I was really impressed. Here are a few shots.

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After the park, we had to make our way back. Our options were limited because the park was closing and our tuk-tuk guy was our only means of transportation. We ended up paying him 40,000 Kip each to take us right back into town. In the end, we probably should have got a tuk-tuk from town, but that is the art of travel. As a traveler, we often rely on our guide books and word of mouth to avoid getting ripped off. Plus, many of us travel for long periods of time, so we look to find cost effective ways of doing things, most often. In the end, ya win some and ya lose some of the travel cost battles. Always a learning experience though 😉

When we finally got back, we had about 30-45 minutes before the bus picked my new traveling friends up. My entire trip through Laos, from the boarder to Vientiane, has been an awesome traveling experience. If I did it on my own, as I had planned, I would have missed out on so many moments. To Nadine, Daniel, and Hsien… thanks for the wonderful time traveling with you guys. I hope the friendship we made will continue and hopefully allow us to cross paths again soon!! Boo ya^^

Day 15

I’m stuck here in Vientiane, Laos all day waiting for an 8 PM flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. While I was looking at pictures of Laos in Google, I saw a few places I had not been to yet. One of them was right here in Vientiane and probably considered the “iconic” building of Laos, similar to the Eiffel Tower in France or Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. So, what do I do? I rented a bike and headed over to take some pictures of things in the area.

The first stop I made was at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Monument.

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From here I then made it to the Pha That Luang! In front of it is a statue of King Settathirath (1534-1572). “He is considered one of the great leaders in Lao history. Throughout 1560s until his death, he successfully defended his kingdom of Lan Xang against military campaigns of Burmese conqueror Bayinnaung, who had already subdued Xieng Mai (Chiang Mai) in 1558 and Ayutthaya in 1564. Setthathirath was a prolific builder and erected many Buddhist monuments including Wat Xieng Thong in Louang Phrabang and the That Luang in Vientiane.” (Wikipedia).

The Phu That Luang is believed to have been originally built in the third century as a Hindu temple. It has been destroyed or damaged numerous times over the centuries because of invasions. The last reconstruction took place after WWII.

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I’m glad I made the short trip, just because it bugs me if I learn about a place I could have seen when I was somewhere and didn’t know about it. I guess that’s what I get for not researching much and flying by the seat of my pants. Pretty much the way I have been traveling the last two weeks.

Well, that’s it for Laos!! I’m just sitting around at a coffee shop waiting for my flight and doing a “little” planning for the next two weeks in Nam. Trying to work out the timing I need to do a three day/ two night boat trip in Halong Bay and see Ho Chi Minh’s body in Hanoi, because there is no viewing on Monday and Friday. He is part of my Dead Dictator Tour. Saw Mao in China a few years back. Ho Chi Minh will be #2. Lenin and the Kim family will make a full house!!

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Vang Vieng (Day 12 & 13)

Day 12

Today is our first day in Vang Vieng. Our plan is to check out the Blue Lagoon and some famous caves in the region. There are five caves the guide books recommend checking out. First though, we started by renting three scooters. Filling them up with gas cost about 30,000 Kip each ($3.75 US). Each bike cost 80,000 Kip ($10.00 US) for the day.  But, we ended up taking one bike back because Hsien wasn’t feeling comfortable, mostly because in Australia they drive on the left-hand side and the steering seemed loose on the bike. So, we got the 80,000 Kip back and she jumped on my bike.

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This was the first time I had road a scooter in my life. Fortunately, I have ridden a bike when I got my motorcycle license years ago! After about 5 minutes, I was good to go. The scenery heading to the first cave, Tham Pou Kham Cave, and the lagoon was spectacular.  Of course we paid 10,000 Kip ($1.25 US) to cross the river and then another 10,000 Kip to go to this cave. We hiked up the mountain trail and checked out the cave a little. After that we got some beers and hung out at the lagoon. We all jumped in a couple times. My first jump in was with a rope from the shore. The second was from the highest branch of a tree hanging over the water. That was freaking scary!! But, I did it and that is what matters. The water was so green and beautiful.

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After this place, we headed to another cave, Tham Khan. To get to this place, we first paid 10,000 Kip ($1.25 US) each and  walked through a field. At the caves entrance, there was a nice little natural pool we could have swam in. We all went into the cave together and went in until we felt we had enough. Of course we had to take a fun picture. Here is one of us freaking out because we are “lost” in the cave!! Haha

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After this cave, the sun was going down even faster than we anticipated, so we busted through a field to see another cave/ outlook area. Unfortunately, Daniel and Nadine’s scooter battery failed on us. We tried getting the guys giving tickets to the cave to help us, but they could not fix the bike. Daniel walked the bike back to a mechanic and we sat around drinking beers while the bike got fixed. We paid him 30,000 Kip ($3.75 US) and let him drain the gas out of our tanks so we would not return them full. I figured there must be a little scam going on because the bikes are empty when you rent them. It’s obvious they cipher the gas for themselves from all the bikes every night. We rather give to someone that had helped us.

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After dropping off our bikes, we headed to a nice restaurant with amazing food. I ordered a lovely chicken, vegetable, rice, and egg stir-fry. We also ordered a whole grilled fish (head, tail, and skin included) to share between us. Tasted magnificent, but the way my friends “carved” the fish was strange me.  This is just because I live in Korea and have experience eating “Asian style”. If I step back in my perspective, I totally would have cut up the fish the same way if I did not have my current background of Korean living!!!

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Day 13

Today was a beautiful day tubing down the Nam Xong River here in Vang Vieng, Laos. I woke up in the morning to join my German friends, Daniel and Nadine, for breakfast. Hsien had already headed over to a restaurant for coffee and to write in her journal. When we sat down for breakfast, Nadine was not feeling right in the stomach. She thought it could have been the grilled fish from the night before, but Hsien and I were feeling fine. So, Nadine went back to the guesthouse to sleep while Daniel, Hsien, and I headed off to go tubing down the river. The cost was 55,000 Kip  ($7.00 US) to rent the tube, 60,000 Kip $7.70 US) for a deposit, and 15,000 Kip ($1.95 US) to rent a wet bag.

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When we got to the river, we stopped and bought a few tall boy Beer Laos for the river. The sun was shining and the temperature was just right. I of course wish the water was warmer, because I hate cold water and don’t always feel comfortable in the water. I had heard that all the bars on the river were closed down because of some deaths, but there were three bars open for business!! We skipped the first, not really realizing that was one of the stops. The second bar had a big sign that said, “Free Shots!!” Well, anyone that knows me knows that will be the place to stop. We got reeled to the shore by the helpful staff and walked up to a lovely setting with a volleyball and basketball court, places to layout in the sun, and picnic tables. All of this nestled next to a beautiful mountain cliff in the jungle. We drank here for about an hour or two and had our free shot of Lao-Lao moonshine whisky! The same stuff I had bought in Phonsavan.

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Now, when we grabbed some tubes to get back on the river, with a beer in hand, Daniel found he grabbed a tube with a hole. We tried getting down the river a little faster, but were forced to get off a bit earlier, which cost each of us 20,000 Kip ($2.50 US) each. I was a bit upset not to finish the river, but when a friend is in trouble, you just can’t leave a friend behind. Unfortunately, Hsien also started feeling sick. We started to think the LAP they ate last night could be the issue, not the fish. I ate the fish and am still fine for the moment. Hopefully that continues. Tomorrow we plan on heading back to Vientiane. From there, I will fly to Hanoi, Vietnam Sunday night.

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Vientiane & Vang Vieng, Laos (Day 11)

Day 11

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The sleeper bus trip to Vang Vieng would have to be rated my number two worse transportation experience I have experience, next to my train trip from Beijing to Xian, China. I ended up finding a bunk that was not being used, so I grabbed my stuff and moved. The only benefit I acquired would be space. They had the roof doors open, causing cold air to blow on me the whole night. I was freezing and was bundled up in my winter jacket, fleece, scarf, and wrapped in a thin blanket. Another really screwed up thing was that the bus driver was blasting what I believe was Indian music throughout the bus. This makes no sense on an overnight sleeper bus. The worst part was that they didn’t even let us know when the stop at Vang Viang was. We ended up in Vientaine, three hours south of out target. We were a bit upset about this and when we asked the driver why he did not wake us up, he just smiled and laughed. I think the music and all the other BS was just a good laugh for him. There was even one point in the trip where the drivers stopped the bus in the mountains and built a bonfire on the side of the road. Overall, a messed up experience.

We went into town and got some breakfast to reassess our plans getting out of whack. We decided to rent bikes from another guesthouse for a few hours, see Vientiane, and grab the 2:00PM bus back up to Vang Vieng. We figured, we may never be in this part of the world again, so we might as well back-track and see all the things we planned to see.

On our bikes we go!! We found the layout of Vientiane was very easy to follow. I pulled up the map and GPS on my phone and we first went to the statue of King Anuwong. He led the Laoatian Rebellion (1826-1826) and was the last monarch of the Lao Kingdom of Vientiane. Behind him is the Presidential Palace.

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Sort of behind the palace was an old looking temple called Haw Pha Kaew. It was built specifically to hold the Emerald Buddha, which is now on Bangkok. I actually did see this statue on my trip to Bangkok 4 years ago!! This place has been destroyed and rebuilt three times for different reasons.

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After taking in this temple, we went across the street to Wat Si Saket. It was built in 1818 and survived the Siam army sacking the city in 1827. This is the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane.

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As we were biking around we the spotted Patuxai (meaning Victory Gate or Gate of Triumph), an archway that reminds me of the one in France. It is a war memorial, built between 1957 and 1968, dedicated to those who actually fought for independence from France We rode to it and went up to the top to get a view of the city.

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After this we headed back to the guesthouse we rented the bikes from and got on a bus back to Vang Vieng. Hoping this back-tracking is worth it!! We also found out that our friend Hsien will be taking the sleeper bus that night also. So, because she will arrive at 4 AM, I’ll hopefully be able to let her know where I’m staying so she doesn’t have to find a place and pay full price anywhere! Until tomorrow 🙂

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Phonsavan, Laos (Day 10)

The day began with an early 8am start. The Germans and I worked out a tour that covered all the different areas we wanted to see in Phonsavan. It was a little pricier than I wanted to pay at 215,000 Kip ($26.77US), but when I assessed all that we were doing to cover in one day, I realized we negotiated a good deal. Sometimes when throwing around so many ideas and wants around, it can be confusing. After the day I’ll describe, I am definitely satisfied.

We met our driver and jumped into his nice Toyota pick-up truck. It was so nice to be in a truck again. They don’t really have them in Korea at all. Once we jumped, in we headed to a field that was littered with craters from American bombing in the region during the Vietnam War. We were also walking in an old mine field. The field was riddled with holes from dug up mines. “From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.” (http://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/). “American B52s and other aircraft dropped more bombs than fell on all of Europe during World War II. Up to 30% of those bombs failed to detonate.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/1100842.st).

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The next place we went to was the Crater Village because it was near this location. Here you can see the people used the old bombs to make fences and elevate their homes. The picture on the right is a bird house. Interesting the alternative use for these devastating weapons.

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As we were leaving the village, we also saw a market with freshly hunted deer, squirrel, and other critters. My mouth watered for some wild meat. I have not had venison in so long and there laid a hind-quarter of a deer ready to be made into steaks for me. We attempted to see if we could get them to cook it up, but it was only for buying:-(

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We moved on to a couple of caves, The Tham Xang Caves, that were used to protect people from the bombing of American jets that basically housed over a thousand people at that time. We had to pay 10,000 Kip ($1.25US) each to see the caves. The driver and man showing us the caves were about two years old during the war and went there to escape certain death. We hiked pretty far into the main cave before turning back.

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The second cave was used for medical supplies, revolutionary fighters, and the wounded. There were remnants of medicine bottles and supplies (above). Many people died here because of wounds sustained from the bombing. Another interesting part about the second cave was the ability to walk from one end to the other. Nadine found she was getting a little freaked out about the caves, but we made it through. We did rent a head light for 4,000 Kip in the first tunnel, but realized my phone did a fine job lighting the way and did not pay for more. I found the caves very interesting I imagined being in there while bombs were being dropped above and all around my place of refuge. Also to imagine the intense heat of napalm rushing into the cave making it like an oven and sucking out the oxygen. I should note that this is part of the Ho Chi Man Trail supply line the US was trying to disrupt during the war.

At this point it was about midday and we went to eat some lunch and then continued on our tour. The next stop was a little couple house where they brewed Lao-Lao whisky, otherwise known as moonshine! We saw how it was made and had a small shot. It had an initial burn to it, then a sweet taste I merged before a sigh and smile arrived. It was pretty good! Our driver bought a bottle for home and we then headed to see a bombed out Russian tank. Now, my two German friends are from Eastern Germany. Daniel was a kid when the wall came down and remember life before and the transitions in Germany. Understandably, there is a dislike for Russia, so this was a bit of a highlight for him and unique for me. It’s not everyday I am able to see a military vehicle destroyed from a wartime action.

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The second Plain of Jars site cost is 10,000 Kip ($1.25US) each to enter the grounds. We made our way up a trail to them, nestled in the woods at the top of a hill. The Plain of Jars is dated to the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500). From my understanding, there are a number of suggestions for what these jars were used for, some believe for burial, others to collect monsoon rain water, or maybe food processing. It is still a bit of a mystery. There are over 90 sites, but because of all the bombing only 3 are available for the public. We then walked further down the trail, thinking there were more, but we ended turning around and heading back.

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Now, I started thinking I really wanted a bottle of that moonshine for the rest of my trip in Laos, so we asked the driver to make a stop back at the house to buy some from the little old lady. Now, I was not sure how much this stuff was, so I gave her 10,000 Kip ($1.25US) to fill my empty water bottle. She then started pouring more in another. Ottos. I stopped her and indicated 1 was enough. She seemed very thankful, so perhaps I paid to much! Oh well;-)

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The last place on the tour we visited was Site I Plain of Jars. This is where he largest jar is located. The are is so interesting and all around were more craters from the bombing and even a trench line. There was also a cave which is believed to have been used for cremating bodies for the jars.

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One of the uses the area people have found for the scrap metal from the bombs, mines. And munitions is melting it down to make flower pots, bowls, barbwire,  and even utensils. I bought some spoons for 15,000 Kip ($1.87 US) as a reminder of the destruction and devastation my home country still is causing in this place 40 years later. It’s hard to wrap my head around that so much farm land can’t even be used because the soil is contaminated or has not been cleared as safe.

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If your interested in more information in Laos or other bombed places, check out http://www.maginternational.org/where-mag-works/laos/#.UtgLOWQW01U .

When we got back to the hotel, we were chillen out with a cup of coffee and taking a break when suddenly our Aussie friend, Hsien popped around the corner!!! She had just got in and heard our voices in the lobby. I love these traveling moments!!! Daniel, Nadine, and I needed to eat before we caught our night sleeper bus, so we all went for some Indian food down the street. It was so good and I pulled out the moonshine. I figured these may be the coolest people I will meet in Laos, so I want to share with them. When we finished dinner, we had just enough time to grab our bags and say our goodbyes to, Hsien.

When we headed to he sleeper bus, we were a bit excited. We had seen a few and they looked comfortable. But, when we got to our bus, it was not as nice. As I’m sitting here typing all of this on my iPhone, I’m pretty much sitting upright and fitting in my foot and a half space next to some guy who conveniently fit perfect from head to toe. I guess this is made for someone close to 5 feet tall. I don’t really think most of my friends back home would fit in this space comfortably. It may also suck being on the top bunk area. Oh well, I’m making the most of this. This bus cost me 160,000 Kip ($21 US) and cuts down on my usable travel time! Plus, it’s a new experience!!

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Luang Prabang (Day 8 & 9)

Day 8

The night before, I started feeling like I was coming down with a cold. During dinner I had started losing my voice and this morning it was mostly gone. I joined my German friends for breakfast, which turned out to be noodle soup with chicken and vegetables and green tea. Hoping this combination would help a bit. Luckily I brought Day and NyQuil incase something like this happened.

The day was pretty relaxed. We just walked around and looked at a number of Buddhist Wats. The city of Luang Prabang is sort of a hub for Buddhist monks. But unfortunately, because of all the tourism, many monks have left the city to go to monasteries further outside town where there is less distraction. I suppose having people taking pictures of me all day would not help me meditate and live a quiet life either.

Because there are so many temples, I’ll just highlight a couple of them. First was Wat Sen. It was built in 1718 with 100,000 stones from the Mekong River.

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The next important one was Vat Xieng Thong. This is one of the most important monasteries in Laos. It was built in 1559-1560. Until 1975, it was a royal temple and the pale where Lao kings were crowned.

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From here, we walked along the river. The scenery is amazing and there are many restaurants and guest houses that run along here.

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Finally, the last place we visited was on top of Mount Phou si. What Chom Si is at the summit and looks over the whole city.

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After walking around all day, we headed back to our guest house to grab a nap and then head back out to watch the monks sing and pray. We also bumped into our Aussie friend to grab dinner. We went to a place were we could grill our own food. We had a mixture of beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, squid, and veggies for dinner. So delicious!

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After dinner, we went out for a bottle of wine allowing us great WiFi internet, power plugs that worked to juice my devices, and great conversation. Amazing the friendships that are made while crossing paths with others traveling the world like you!

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Day 9

Today was just a travel day from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, Laos. The trip took about 7 hours through the mountains of Laos. It was a very bumpy and turny ride. I felt fine, but I think a lot of people would be afraid they would die while trying to pass trucks around bends and avoid hitting anything that crosses the road. Good times for sure! Here are a few photos I was able to take on the drive. IMG_1620

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Looking forward to seeing what’s in store tomorrow! I have an 8:00AM start with a day packed with places to see and then I’ll be taking a sleeper bus to Vang Vieng.

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