Let me start my blog by saying this: I LOVE Laos! I seriously do. This country is such a beautiful and peaceful haven for anyone who dreams of an escape from the bustling Hanoi. The laid-back lifestyle here has earned Laos its nickname “Lao PDR = Lao Please Don’t Rush”. Everything is sooooo slow here. No, I am not complaining. That’s just a fact and the more I discover the country the more I fall in love with it..
Last year, after coming back from Saigon, I actually even planned to move to Laos, I tried to send my CV around but unfortunately my attempts didn’t work out. It was also a shame to admit that I had lived next to Laos for almost 30 years but never been there once, until 2 weeks ago.. Read the rest of this entry »
After the motorbike road trip in September to Mu Cang Chai and Sapa, our travel group set off again for the new year holidays. This time our trip covered a famous route in the North of Vietnam: Bac Kan – Cao Bang – Lang Son (Cao – Bắc – Lạng). It was almost a border road trip because we drove mostly along the border between Vietnam and China. Roughly 1,000 km (620 miles) in 4 days! And each of us spent less than 1.5 million VND (USD 75) including petrol, food, drink, guest house, etc.
Day 1: Hanoi – Bac Kan, 230 km (143 miles)
We had an unlucky first day. It was drizzling the whole morning so the road was super dirty. However, we were totally aware that dirt was a certain part of a motorbike road trip so we didn’t bother too much.
We left Hanoi around 8am and arrived in Bac Kan in the afternoon. The destination was Ba Be Lake (Hồ Ba Bể), the biggest lake in Vietnam.
You can take a canoe to go around the lake and explore the small islands. The whole package will take 5 hours. We didn’t have time since it got dark very quickly in winter, thus, we cut the canoeing time real short to only 1.5 hour.
So finally I’ve decided to do that trekking trip to the top of Mount Fansipan, the peak of three countries in former Indochina (Laos-Vietnam-Cambodia), located in the North of Vietnam, in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range.
Trekking up to the top of the highest mount to hug that triangle metal piece saying “Fansipan 3,143m” has become a long time tradition among young Vietnamese people. And obviously, Fansipan is also a kind of tourist attraction since it is very close to Sapa, a famous destination for tourists in the North of Vietnam, and a few adventurous and athletic travelers love to combine their Sapa trip with this Fansipan Mount trekking.
Before the trip my travel mates and I had quite a naive thought about the trek. We thought “it’s foot path and we can literally walk up to the top of the mountain(!), only 15km up and 15km down, will be easy, everyone is doing it, we’ll be fine”. However, the whole trip actually turned out to be an intensive training of physical rock climbing, which no one had told us before.
1. Tours and train tickets:
It is quite easy to organize for the trip. All you need to do is do is to book a package tour, then to buy train tickets. We booked a 2 day 1 night tour from this travel agency for 4 people at the price of VND1,420,000 per person (around USD70). Quite easy, just needed to make a few calls, send a few emails and deposit VND500,000 (USD25) 2 or 3 days before the trip.
The difficult thing was actually the train ticket part. To go to Fansipan and Sapa, you need to buy train tickets from Hanoi to Lao Cai then go by bus from Lao Cai to the town. And Sapa is so popular for both foreign and domestic travelers that train tickets sell like hot cakes, especially at weekends. Thus, you’d better go for them at least 2 weeks in advance, or else you may risk having no places at all. The best scenario is that you can buy tickets directly from the train station, however, they reserve only a small amount here so you should really go early (2-3 weeks to make sure!). If not, then you’ll have to ring the agents and buy over-charged tickets.
I only rushed for the tickets 10 days in advance so it was a bit tough. Of course there was nothing left at the train station and I had to call roughly a dozen agents to finally get 4 places in the hard sleeper class. In fact, Vietnamese trains are quite good if compared with the trains I knew in India or Poland. There are mainly 4 classes: soft sleeper (4 beds in one cabin), hard sleeper (6 beds in one cabin), soft seating and hard seating. Advice is to go for the sleeper or soft seating so that you can sleep a bit on the train (there are only night trains going to Lao Cai). Prices per way per person updated in September 2012 are around: VND 700,000 for soft sleeper (USD35); VND550,000 for hard sleeper (USD27.5); VND270,000 for soft seating (USD13.5). Be aware that the price will change quickly due to the skyrocketing inflation in Vietnam(!)
2. Tips before the actual trip:
This is the second time I’ve hit long distances by motorbike, but compared with the previous trip from Saigon to Phan Thiet on perfect roads (400km two ways, plus 70km to and from the white sand dunes) this trip to the northwest mountainous area of Vietnam was much more difficult and challenging. And it was even more memorable because we, two girls, could ride a manual bike up and down the mountains and race with the big trucks on halfway built roads under thick fog and heavy downpour. It was our 3 days “living” on the bike riding through roughly 850 km (510 miles). Well, Vietnamese people do love adventures and “risking their lives”, even too much, if you ask!
Seven people joined the long journey and we planned to combine charity with our road trip. The ethnic groups in remote areas of Vietnam live in very poor conditions and their kids often don’t have enough school supplies. Thus, we prepared 30 little gifts for the kids before their new school year, each of which included 5 notebooks, 3 pens, 1 small towel, 1 soap, 1 toothbrush and 1 toothpaste.
My friend and I did most of the shopping for the charity trip. The shopping part was easy until it came to carrying about 30 kilos of stuff out of the supermarket on one bike back to my friend’s place. It was quite tough for 2 slim girls like us but we managed to make it at last. And.. that was only the beginning of a tiring and challenging trip to come.
Normally in a backpacking motorbike road trip girls don’t take the drive and only sit at the back. However, one guy quit before the trip, so my friend and I decided to go together and take turn to drive. We never knew what the mountain roads looked like..
Day 1: Hanoi – Mu Cang Chai, 310km (192.6 miles)
We left Hanoi at around 7.30 in the morning. All 4 bikes were manual ones. Basically each bike looked like this, with a big bag of gifts at the back or in front and 2 people on it, each with their luggage!
So in the previous post, I said that I would pick 3 love stories which I think were the most beautiful ones in the ancient Greek Myth. I already started with my favorite romance of all time, Psyche and Cupid, now I continue with my 2nd pick..
2. Orpheus and Eurydice:
Orpheus was a a very unusual type of character in the Greek Mythology. While most of the tales were about immortal gods or muscular heroes who built their glories upon killing and conquering, Orpheus appeared to be the most peaceful male character in the whole legend. He was a musician, a mortal human being, who used his 9-string lyre and his amazing music talent as weapons, and actually those turned out to be invincible weapons. It was him, Orpheus, not Heracles, Ulysses (Odysseus) or any other famous heroes, that could tame the vicious Cerberus guarding the gate to the Underworld and defeated the Siren‘s bewitching songs to save the life of the Argo sailors. (Sirens: the mermaids in Greek Mythology that lived on three islands in the sea. They often floated on the water singing the praise of the ocean’s beauty to seduce sailors. Their voice was described to be irresistibly enthralling, and if sailors didn’t cover their ears when passing this area they would jump out of the ships to follow the sirens and end up drowning in the sea).
Generally speaking, the legend about Orpheus’s triumph over Sirens as well as the taming of Cerberus and other fierce animals shows the supreme power of music. Sometimes music has the might to enchant, to lure, to kill but in the end it’s still the healer, the peace maker, the conqueror without killing or blood. And that made Orpheus become one of the most influencing characters in the whole Greek Myth. Even now in this modern world we can still see and feel his power whenever we cry or smile with a melody that touches our heart and soul, because that was also what Orpheus did during his time on Earth: to touch deeply within people’s heart, and no, not just people but every creature, from the birds, the tigers to the trees, the rocks and the water.
Orpheus got married to a Nymph named Eurydice. The legend didn’t say how they fell in love, so again I guess the part about how they kept their love alive was more important. They had a happy and harmonious life together. Orpheus loved Eurydice with all his heart and together with music, she was the reason he lived for. They often went together to the wood where Orpheus played his lyre and Eurydice sat by him putting her head on his shoulders and listening to his songs with admiration and certainly, love.
Just 50km away from the central Hanoi, Quan Son Lake is a perfect place for nature lovers to enjoy a weekend out of the city’s dirt and noise. Quan Son used to be a part of Ha Tay Province. However, since the whole province was merged with Hanoi (which made Hanoi now become one of the largest capitals in the world) Quan Son Lake has been turned into a part of the capital itself.
Generally speaking, Quan Son tourism is still under-developed. Almost no services or activities yet, not so many people know about it either, and I guess only locals are going here because this place is nowhere to be found in any English materials. Up to now Quan Son is still wonderfully non-commercial, there is no hawkers, no beggars and no English language(!)
A lot of people refer to Quan Son as “Ha Long inland” because of its numerous mountains arranged beautifully on the surface of the water. It is said that the lake is about 850 hectare large with more or less 100 limestone mountains. Read the rest of this entry »