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Trip Report OUR SEASIA Odyssey

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Gottravel and I spent a fascinating nine weeks in SEAsia. We’ve been home a month and are finally getting it together to do a TR.

We left IAD on New Year’s Eve and returned on March 2. This was our first trip to this area and we tried to hit the main tourist sites. We visited Thailand, including, Bangkok, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Pai, Mae Hong Son and Aonang Beach. We also went to Siem Reap, Cambodia and Luang Prabang, Laos. In Vietnam we were in Hanoi, Halong Bay, drove from Hanoi to Mai Chau to Sapa, Hoi An, Hue, Saigon and the Mekong Delta.

The planning of this trip was helped by so many posters on this board either thru their TR’s or direct responses to posts. I read lots of TR and posts and appreciate all who take the time to post. I especially appreciated the help people gave us as we were travelling and needed quick responses to such burning questions as the best place to eat? I would like to thank all who were so generous with their time.

Now to the boring stuff, logistics, flights and hotels. Gottravel will post on this thread the more interesting details of our long journey.

LOGISTICS – We used the various booking sights, Agoda, Asia Rooms etc to book rooms. Occasionally we found the rates on the hotels own web site to offer better rates. In Vietnam we worked with Nhung at Tonkin Travel and they booked all the hotels, internal VN air and a couple guides and drivers for us in VN. For hotels Nhung consistently got better rates than I could find. Sometimes by just $5 or so, but her rate was always less. Tonkin Travel was very easy to work with, responded quickly and made some great suggestions. She also took any recommendations that I made, researched them and came back with comments and prices for us to consider. I rarely work with a travel agent and found this experience to be easy and quite successful. I must say I enjoyed having the driver or guide walk into the hotel, talk to the reception, get us registered and arranged without having to say a word! I highly recommend Tonkin.

FLIGHTS – International: We were able to book roundtrip from IAD to BKK and rtn SGN to IAD with UA ff miles thanks to advice by mrwunrfl. We flew on UA from IAD to Rome and Thai Airways to BKK. These flights were in first class and really nice! The service on Thai Air was incredible.
Our flights home were on ANA in biz class and I was not impressed. In particular the flight from SGN to Narita on Air Japan had old-fashioned biz class seats and were not particularly comfortable. The flight from Narita to IAD was the newer style biz class seat and far better. Service on both flights was just ok.

Domestic: For internal flights we tried to use the discovery pass thru BKK Airways. I booked online for the Discovery Pass and had no trouble dealing with the agents via email. We flew BKK Airways from BKK to Siem Reap (SR), Lao Airlines from SR to Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai to BKK. We couldn’t get flights to Krabi (Aonang Beach) on the Discovery Pass so we flew Air Asia roundtrip from BKK to Aonang & BKK to Hanoi. We did have some difficulty with the Asia Air website, but finally were able to book our tickets. We also used the site while traveling and upped our baggage allowance. One word of caution when booking be careful NOT to get the travel insurance if you don’t want it. It seems to pop up automatically and is often hard to refuse by merely clicking. In terms of baggage on Air Asia, they did weigh our two bags and combined the weight for maximum weight allowed.
In Vietnam we flew Vietnam Airways from Hanoi to Danang and Hue to Saigon. All the flights were relatively on time and fine. BKK Air was probably the nicest of the three airlines.

HOTELS - I wrote reviews for many of our hotels on Trip Advisor as we travelled and you can find them under dl. Be happy to answer any specific questions about the hotels. I’ll list the cities, name, & a few comments below:
BKK – Adelphi Suites -- great location and comfortable room
Siem Reap – Kool Hotel – hated the room & location!
Luang Prabang, Laos – Apsara -- loved it!
Chiang Rai – La Luna – nicked named it mosquito Ville
Chiang Mai – Pak Chiang Mai B&B – really nice B&B with fabulous owner
Pai – Belle Rive – loved it & 7 PAi River Corner – just okay
Mae Hong Son – Fern Valley – lovely grounds
Aonang Beach – Phu Petra Resort – huge room and nice grounds
BKK Airport – Novotel – expensive, but convenient
Hanoi – Elegance Diamond – what can I say that hasn’t already been said?
Halong Bay – Dragon Pearl III – tiny, but nice quarters

The next 4 are on the drive from Hanoi to Sapa. There is really not much tourist infrastructure, so hotel choices were not great. I pretty much went by Tonkin’s recommendations on these four.
Mai Chau - Mai Chau Lodge – very nice, by far best of the lot on the trip to Sapa
Son La – Ha Noi Hotel – supposedly best in town, but could have fooled us
Dien Bien Phu – Him Lam – the pits
Lai Chau – Muong Thanh – not great

Sapa – Boutique Sapa – pleasant hotel
Hoi An – Vinh Hung Riverside Resort – good location and nice property
Hue – Best Western Indochine Premier Hotel – felt like we were back in the USA
Saigon – Liberty Central – disappointing as our final place, but ok
Can Tho – Kim Tho – fab views from our room
Chau Doc – Chau Pho – basic & boring

Coming Soon -- A Week in Bangkok and discovering the joys of real Thai Food

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    Can't wait to read this report. I'm especially interested in your drive to sapa and your comparison of lai chau to sapa. We took the train. Haven't heard of anyone else making the drive.

    Have you been to guillin in china? If so, I'm also curious how you compare your sapa and Halong bay experiences.

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    dgunbug - we have never been to China, so can't compare that for you.

    rhkkmk -- re: Liberty Central. Location was good. The first room they showed us was on the 4th floor and we could hear the noise from the bar/cafe downstairs. We asked for a room on a higher floor which they took us to, but it was tiny with no reading lamp on one side of the bed which is important to us. Great view though. They had no other rooms except the executive level which was $50 a night additional. We went back to the 4th floor room and thankfully it quieted down around midnight or so. They promised us a better room on a high floor when we returned from the Mekong Delta. When we returned we were given a room that was a decent size on the 10th floor also with a fab view. Compared to many other places we had stayed, Liberty Central was just not as charming or interesting. It was fine, just not great and would have loved a wonderful hotel for the end to our nine weeks..

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    One Night (and More) in Bangkok Well, it seemed like a good idea. And it was in concept: Leave New Year’s Eve and we’d have the first leg of our trip (from IAD to Rome) pretty much to ourselves. We’d planned to stay awake on this leg and then sleep on the longer Thai Airways Rome to Bangkok leg. Unfortunately, the concept broke down in Rome New Year’s Day. Our onward flight to Bangkok via Thai Airways had had a malfunction and the airline needed to replace a part. And all of Italy was on holiday. They had to fly the part in from Bangkok, where New Year’s is not celebrated to Italian excess. End result: We stayed awake across the Atlantic and then spent another four exhausted hours in the Rome airport only to be told that our flight was cancelled and that we’d be flown to Bangkok on a special flight the following day. Thus, we were delayed in Rome while the afore-mentioned part was found in Thailand and flown in. While we were given accommodations and meal tickets, we couldn’t really enjoy the layover. YT’s winter coat was in her baggage - which she’d checked through. As were all of my toiletries. (I ended up buying 10 Euro deodorant at the Rome airport.) Transportation to downtown Rome was unavailable due to the holiday – not that we would have ventured out in sub-freezing cold.

    The Rome airport hotel is actually inside the airport. That is, if you count “inside” as about a kilometer away via a long walkway exposed to the elements. The hotel (Hilton) was nice – it met the basic requirements of having a clean warm room and a comfortable bed. The food was another matter. I’ve always maintained that it’s impossible to get a bad meal in Italy. I was proved wrong. Our first meal – lunch – consisted of some clotted and congealed macaroni with peas mixed in. (The accompanying bread was good.) Dinner was somewhat better: lamb chops, veal saltimbocca and more macaroni, this time not clotted and congealed but instead overcooked and hardened around the edges of the chafing dish. Again, good bread. Both meals were served buffet style in a heated tent full of a mini-United Nations stranded passengers from our flight. Exhausted – and not having any alternatives had we not been exhausted – we went to bed at 8:00 Rome time and slept straight through until 6:00 the next morning.

    Our breakfast was pastries. (Tasty!) We headed over to the terminal to check our flight status and take advantage of the reduced rate wifi in the airline lounge. Our plane’s departure was on time as (re)scheduled – 23 hours after the original departure time. There was something of a comedy of errors and inefficiencies at the gate – lines we were formed, dissolved, reformed and moved without logic or explanation – but we eventually boarded the plane and were on our way.

    We had first class accommodations for the first time on an International flight in our lives due to having redeemed our combined lifetime United and Continental miles for tickets. It was wonderful! We were the only people in first class and had the undivided attention of the flight attendants. Our meal was a delight – an assortment of canapés, then caviar with onions, chopped hard-boiled egg yolks and chilled vodka, and finally two (!) entrees apiece. First lobster, then Thai pork in green curry sauce. I finished with a cognac, toasting the 1% I had joined (at least temporarily). It more than compensated for the Roman macaroni. We then slept on and off (in our new Thai Air pajamas) much of the way to Bangkok. Shortly before our arrival, we had some noodle soup for “breakfast” – I’m not really sure what to call the meal since we were so out of sync with our internal clocks.

    At Bangkok, we made it effortlessly through the Thai equivalents of customs and immigration via what amounted to a first-class fast-track - a uniformed guy on an airport golf cart with a sign with our names. He zipped us through the empty airport to retrieve our luggage and deposited us by the ground transportation area. There were no visible taxis so we awakened some napping employees at the limo counter and hired a car into town, making it effortlessly through the 4:00 a.m. (Bangkok time) traffic. We didn’t even have to set our watches as it was exactly twelve hours off DC time. We arrived at our lodgings, Adelphi Suites, found the front desk fully operational despite the hour, checked into our wonderful 6th floor room and tried unsuccessfully to sleep. We then walked around the neighborhood, then had our first of many hotel buffet breakfasts. We met up around noon with a fellow Fodorite, simpsonc510, who was staying in our hotel and went with her to a couple of Bangkok shopping malls.

    Normally, I would have found the prospect of going to Thai shopping malls every bit as thrilling as that of going to their American equivalents. However, I tagged along hoping to get an overview of Bangkok and how the Sky Train system worked which simpson provided. (Adelphi Suites is two minutes from the Nana Sky Train station.) The Sky Train gives an elevated view of Bangkok - enormous, crowded and almost non-stop. Bangkok is so “on” that it makes NYC or Buenos Aires look like Omaha by comparison. We passed through traffic-choked canyons formed by high-rises and past multi-story video screens with advertising videos – the immense video screens reminded me a bit of those in the futuristic dystopian Los Angeles in “The Blade Runner.” Minus the flying cars of course.

    We returned to the hotel and tried to nap in the late afternoon – YT had some success. I didn’t, perhaps because I was trying too hard. I went out around 7:00 p.m. and ate at the restaurant recommended by simpson, Kinnaree just down Sukhumvit Soi 8 from the Adelphi Suites. I had an order of pork in tamarind sauce there and brought back an order of chicken satay for YT, who was still asleep when I returned. (The satay later became a delicious 4:00 a.m. snack.) And, at last, I finally managed to sleep.

    The next day I had jet lag so massive that we weren’t quite sure what day it was or even where we were when I awakened. Then I remembered – today was our guided tour day for the highlights of downtown Bangkok. We ate a hasty – and tasty – breakfast at Adelphi Suite’s well-stocked breakfast buffet then hurried to the neighboring lobby to meet our Tour with Tong guide. He arrived promptly at 8:00 (in the year-round tropical heat, it makes sense to begin touring as early ias possible). He called himself Chi, which was short for a polysyllabic name of such length that Westerners were unable to comprehend, much less pronounce, it. Or so he explained.

    On our agenda were the Wat Traimit (I’ve also seen this spelled “Trimitr”) the flower market, the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Po (Temple of the Reclining Buddha). Chi was a pleasant and energetic man, albeit with a heavy and almost incomprehensible accent. The driver spoke no English and smiled a lot. Once we arrived at Wat Traimit, the previously overcast skies seemed to partially clear. The ferocious sun, coupled with the jet lag, promised to make an exhausting day.

    Wat Traimit is a recently-constructed temple on the edge of Chinatown well away from the river and other major Bangkok sights. The Wat itself is unimpressive except for the Golden Buddha housed in a side chapel on the temple grounds. We were told that this ancient Buddha weighs five metric tons and is made of solid gold. It had been covered in plaster to hide it from Burmese invaders centuries ago. It was only a relocation in 1955 that damaged the plaster and revealed the gold underneath. (I’d have thought the improbable weight for a plaster statue would have been something of a give-away.) Visually, it has an appealing stylistic elegance. From Wat Traimit, we walked to the nearby flower market, which was large but relatively empty in the mid-morning heat. (The busiest hours are in the cool of night.) We watched some ladies fold lotus flowers into compact blooms that are used in the temples.

    We then drove to the area of the Grand Palace and What Phra Kaeo. My tastes tend towards the minimalist and modernist and I don’t find the excessive ornamentation of Bangkok architecture appealing. And, with the exception of the beautifully simple Sri Lankan style stupa, I found Wat Phra Kaeo nothing if not ornate. It was a maze of stupas, colored glass, shattered Chinese porcelain inlay and odd guardian figurines. Phra Kaeo is also home to the Emerald (actually jade) Buddha, which I didn’t find as attractive as Wat Traimit’s Golden Buddha. By the time we left Wat Phra, Kaeo, the sun and the jet-lag were taking their toll: We were getting templed-out. Fortunately, it was time for lunch, soup (YT) and noodles (GT) and Coca-Cola in a pleasant shaded restaurant.

    Somewhat restored, we went to our final temple, Wat Po, the temple of the reclining Buddha. And reclining he was. All 45 meters of him. On his right side. I was told that is the appropriate side for sleeping – and I have since read that this indeed the healthful side on which to sleep. Although the statue itself was beautiful, I was again struck by the contrast between the simplicity of Buddhist doctrine and the ornate quality of Buddhist architecture in Bangkok. Afterwards, we slowly returned through the crowded streets to our hotel. We arrived with a sigh of relief, went to our room and promptly fell asleep for several hours.

    A YT note about the guide: “We reserved the guide through Tour with Tong in advance. I found him to be overly-energetic and overly-detail oriented. I requested on several occasions that he slow down and try to focus on a higher level of information. At one point, I specifically told him that he was giving me way too much information for me to process. His answer : ‘There’s a lot you have to know.’ I shook my head in stunned disbelief. Out of all the guides we had in our nine weeks, Chi was the least responsive to our requests and, while clearly knowledgeable of the subject matter, incapable of providing information in a way that was comprehensible to me. This may, in part, have been due to the heat and the time difference.”

    That evening, we took the Sky Train to Sukhumvit Soi 38 for a series of snacks in food stalls: Pad Thai, chicken sautéed with cashew nuts, sautéed morning glory, satay – all excellent. That night, we managed, for the first time, to sleep through the night until after dawn.

    The next morning, our third day in Bangkok, we explored the breakfast buffet at length. We were impressed and occasionally puzzled (spaghetti carbonara for breakfast?) by the array of food available. Everything from Thai food – my preference – to omlettes, and Mexican salsa and chips. Incredible. After breakfast, we took the Sky Train to a station near the Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson was a Princeton graduate who served as an OSS agent in World War Two. Having acquired a taste for adventure, he settled in Thailand, where he established a business as a silk exporter and pretty much single-handedly re-vitalized the Thai silk industry in the post-war period. His “house” actually comprises six 19th century traditional Thai homes that he had dismantled, shipped to Bangkok and reassembled into one large rambling structure along side a “klong” (canal). Jim himself vanished while on vacation in Malaysia in the 1960s. Rumors abound, but no one seems to know what his actual fate was.

    The house and grounds are well maintained and are on oasis of peace in a very frentic city. We took the house/museum tour. I would recommend this to any visitor to Bangkok. In addition to the elegant houses, Thompson collected Thai art and antiquities. The house is maintained as Thompson left it and the overall feeling of the tour is that of visiting someone’s house rather than going to a museum. After the tour, we lingered on the grounds and perused the overpriced shop. (Beautiful silk scarves, clothing and weavings are readily available in northern Thailand and in Laos at far better prices.)

    Then we returned to the Sky Train and took it to the Saphan Thisak stop. This stop is adjacent to the central pier for various long-tail (and other) boats that ply the Chao Phraya River and those few connected klongs that are still open to boat traffic. It also has boats that provide free shuttle service to nearby hotels. We were interested in going to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (now known merely as the “Oriental,” perhaps due to the near extinct status of old-school mandarins). The Oriental dates back eighty or ninety years. The original hotel – now a set of suites known as “the Authors’ Residence – is encompassed within a larger hotel constructed more recently. At one point, the Oriental had been considered the world’s most luxurious hotel; it has since lost that status to newer hotels. Still, the entire hotel has an aura of refinement and elegance – and it’s not hard to imagine Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene strolling through the Authors’ Residence in white tropical-weight suits.

    So…we took the hotel ferry from Saphan Thisak and strolled into the Oriental like we owned the place and ensconced ourselves in some comfy lobby chairs for some serious people watching. Half an hour later, armed with directions from the concierge desk, we headed to the nearby Tongue Thai restaurant for lunch. It was a fabulous meal: Green papaya salad and chicken with cashews and pineapple. From there we attempted to walk to the Jim Thompson outlet on Surawong Road. This wasn’t a well-planned walk – our maps were not to scale – and it descended into a miserable trek through the hot and humid afternoon on crowded and polluted streets. We eventually stopped at a Holiday Inn for directions.

    Not only were our maps not to scale, but we had not yet learned to distinguish between a named main street and the numerous numbered sub-streets –sois – that ran off the main street and shared its name. (For example, Adelphi Suites is on Sukhumvit Soi 8; Sukhumvit is a large street that runs most of the length of Bangkok. Sukumvit Soi 8 is a short side street that runs off Sukhumvit. Sois on one side of a named street are even-numbered; those on the other side are odd-numbered. The numbers increase as you move away from the river and the city center. Moreover, there is no correspondence between the numbers on either side – Soi 38 can be across the street from Soi 25.)

    A further complication is the general impassability of streets filled with motorized traffic; major intersections have traffic lights timed on four or five minute intervals, requiring the patience of a sun-baked and sweat-drenched Job. Crossing minor unsignaled intersections, on the other hand, required Moses’ skill set: You waded into the traffic and prayed that it would part. Our prayers worked as neither of us were struck by an errant motorscooter weaving its way through the jammed traffic. At one point, rather than wait out a protracted signal light that would have taken us to the Jim Thompson Outlet, we walked some distance down the road before cutting down the luridly infamous Patpong Street. The bars and clubs seemed sad in the daylight and dancers and sex workers sat outside sharing bowls of noodles. As it turned out, the Jim Thompson Outlet store was a disappointment. It primarily sold silk by the yard (which we weren’t interested in) and had very little of anything else. We returned, chastened, to our hotel and the comfort of our air-conditioned room via Sky Train – the Sala Daeng station was nearby. (Had we honed our in-country senses, we would have taken the Sky Train to the Jim Thompsin outlet in the first place…but it looked so close and walkable on the map!)

    That night we went down the street to the Kinnaree for dinner - pomelo salad, Thai fried rice and lamb curry. (Pomelo is like a larger, milder version of a grapefruit.) The pomelo salad at Kinnaree was delicious and pomelo salad became a recurring favorite for the nine-week duration of our trip.

    The next day, fortified by Thai noodles (GT) and an omlette (YT) at the breakfast buffet, we took the Sky Train to the Saphan Taksin stop to take part in a Bangkok food tour. We arrived half an hour early and wandered around the station waiting for the tour to assemble and embark. Our guides – Kit and Pat – showed up promptly at 9:50 and the other participants materialized over the next ten minutes until we had assembled a multi-national group - American, Australian, Hong Kong Chinese and Thai. We were on our way by 10:05. (On an amusing note, Kit continually pronounced “tasting” as “testing,” giving our expedition a bit of a scientific air.)

    Over the course of the next three hours we sampled:
    • Traditional Chinese roast duck served on rice in Chinatown.
    • “Curry lava on egg” at a thai Muslim restaurant (I have no recollection what this was!).
    • Crispy shredded catfish, green papaya salad and pork with mint at an Isan (NE Thailand) restaurant, Yum Rod Sab.
    • Green custard and BBQ pork buns at Pan Lee Bakery
    • Royal curry at Kallaprapruek restaurant, which had been established by a member of the royal family to serve healthy inexpensive food.
    The food seemed to get better at each location we went to. We particularly enjoyed the superb food at Yum Rod Sab, as well as taking the ferry across the river and walking down a rickety wooden walkway to get there. The royal curry at Kallaprapueck was also great, a kind of minced beef on noodles with curry sauce. (I cannot recommend these guys enough; look for thailandfoodtours on Facebook or BangkokFoodTours on Trip Advisor.)

    We returned by Sky Train to our room for a foot massage (YT) and a nap (GT), respectively. Then to the corner for coffee and people watching.. Later that evening we went out with a former DC native; she’s now living in the Bangkok suburbs and working as a researcher for Defense contractor. We ate (again) at Kinnaree: pomelo salad and duck with tamarind sauce. Superb. After dinner, the three of us walked down Sukhumvit to “Cowboy Soi” near the Asok Sky Train stop. Cowboy Soi revealed the Bangkok sex-for-hire scene in all its lurid glory: A neon-lit block or two of cowboy-themed sex clubs and bars and puzzled-looking Thai girls in abbreviated cowgirl outfits outside waving Western sex tourists – a mix of older retirees and loserly-looking younger men – inside the various establishments. The three of us returned to the Monsoon (the bar/restaurant at Adelphi Suites) for a final drink. At some point we discovered that we’d been talking for four hours and that it was past midnight. My jet lag was gone.

    We slept in the next morning. Then we took the Sky Train to Saphan Taskin stop. We took a brief long boat Klong tour and got off at Wat Arun (on the far bank) instead of returning to the central pier. Wat Arun was our favorite wat. It’s a central stupa surrounded by four other stupas . All are very steep, almost vertical. The central stupa has stairs that are almost as steep as a ladder leaning against a wall. The entire structure is embedded with broken Chinese porcelain arranged in patterns. I climbed up for the views and took great photos of the Grand Palace and other buildings on the far side of the river. YT stayed earthbound. Then I slowly climbed down.

    We took a ferry – 3 baht (about 10 cents) across the river, then an express boat down river to near the Oriental. Then we hit the concierge desk and got instructions to Restaurant Harmonique for a late lunch. We had chicken in pandanus leaves, crab curry, chicken in sesame sauce and pomelo salad. It was our best meal yet of our stay in Bangkok – and we’d had great food at every meal since we’d been here. On our departure, I was surrounded by several older ladies who inquired about the details of our lives. We talked for so long I thought I wasn’t ever going to make it out! Harmonique is a lovely place. Highly recommended. We took the Sky Train back to Nana Station. We both had foot massages and then finally used our free cocktail coupons at the Monsoon. We skipped dinner, stayed in, read and updated our trip notes.

    The next day, Sunday, was our last day in Bangkok. We’d come to like the city over the course of our six-day stay and were a little saddened by the thought of leaving. We started our morning by going to the Chatuchack Market at the end of the Sky Train line. This market is reputed to have about15,000 stalls, covers the major part of a large city park and sells anything imaginable (and, I’m sure, some items that I cannot imagine). We sought out the Thai design clothing section, repeatedly going by the perpetually closed “loaddown me” stall in the hope that it would eventually open. We finally gave up and wandered around the clothing section, buying a few items that caught our eye. As the market got more crowded and the heat and claustrophobia set in, we headed back towards the Sky Train station, stopping off for some wonderful mango and sticky rice. Then we took the Sky Train back to Nana Station and Adelphi Suites and dropped off the few items we’d bought. We went out again later to Pan Lee Bakery and bought the BBQ pork buns we’d loved on the food tour. Then we returned to another food tour stop, Kallapruek, for the royal curry and another curry of pork in green curry sauce. The green curry sauce was the un-Westernized version and was too hot even for me. We fished a small mound of tiny but potent chili peppers out of the sauce.

    Afterwards, we headed back to the Oriental Hotel and parked ourselves in the elegant lobby for some extended people watching and devoted ourselves to eavesdropping on the well-to-do clientele. Improbably, we ran into the one person we knew in a city of thirteen million. The woman we’d gone out with two nights earlier was escorting her aunt and uncle (in South East Asia for an extended tour) back to their room. After she’s dropped them off, she returned for a brief chat.

    By then, it was after four. We left for the Central Pier under the Saphan Taksin Sky Train stop and capped our day of wandering by buying two tickets - $1 for the both of us – for the up-river “Express” boat. The boat was “express” in name only. It stopped at countless places on both banks as it wound its way up the river, giving us a fascinating view of river life: a parade of wats, grandiose high-rises and stilt houses. In some places, the damage from the recent flooding was apparent – lop-sided riverside houses and buckled decks and docks. We rode all the way to the end – an hour and fifteen minute journey that took us well off our Bangkok map although we never actually left the city. We disembarked at the end and promptly reboarded the down river boat (another $1) in the gathering dusk. The down river boat made better time going with the sluggish current but we were still way upriver when we watched the sun set on the starboard side. We’d hoped to catch Wat Arun in the twilight, but it was night by the time we passed. We disembarked at the Central Pier, took the Sky Train to the Nana station, then walked out for a dinner at the nearby Cabbages and Condoms restaurant. It was a large condom-themed restaurant that had fairly good food and was very touristy. There was a Christmas tree hung with unrolled – and hopefully unused – condoms as decorations and a wheel of misfortune that warned of the various consequences for protected/unprotected/no sex – HIV, syphilis, a real good time, etc. I know their reason for being is educating people, but I thought Cabbages and Condoms was bit like a joke that had been told too often and run into the ground. After dinner, we walked back to our room and started packing for the next day’s departure. Despite all its crowds, chaos and heat, we’d both come to appreciate and enjoy Bangkok.

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    Yestravel and Gottravel thank you soooo much for this vivid and fascinating Trip Report.

    We have never been to SE Asia; now I will say 'not yet'. This TR was so descriptive and useful - now I need to find a Thai restaurant for dinner tonight :-)

    And await the report on the rest of the story.

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    Yes and Go, great report so far. I LIVED on pomelos during our trip, loved them so much that I've researched having some shipped to me from the one US grower -- alas, the pomelos are $18 a box and shipping is $18 a box, a little pricey even for a great piece of fruit!

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    @sf7307 - Have you tried Asian grocery stores? I've seen pomelos there both times I've gone after we got back in early March. Also banana flowers and palm sugar and golden mangoes by the crate for $6.99. (I love Asian, Latin & Ethiopian groceries, never miss a chance to stop at them when I have a chance.)

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    note to first timers... use of taxis can cut down on your heat exhaustion, as does the skytrain which only covers part of the city..

    the jim thompson outlet that has all the mixture of JT merchandise is located on soi 93, sukhumvit rd..

    good reporting..

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    Thanks, all-glad it's interesting.

    Hanuman-what could get interesting is when we have very different views on places. Stay tuned

    Rhkkmk-BKK has great transportation. easy to use and get around. we tend to be walkers so really rarely think to use taxis. Maybe we should have when we got so hot. Wish we had known about the other JT outlet. I like their merchandise, not that I lacked for scarves and textiles by the end of the trip.

    Marnie & Sf- maybe u should give BKK a try...great city with fantastic food.

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    Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, the memories!

    BKK was our last stop on our 9 week trip in Dec.2011 and we just couldn't really taste the food anymore.(sigh).That food tour sounds fabulous....wish we had done it. And HOW creative the two of you are to use the services of the Oriental concierge for those great restaurant recommendations. Way to go!!!!!!
    We stayed at the Chatrium Suites for 5 nights.....on the Chao Phraya River and loved every moment. Would definitely stay there again. AND Yes and Go...we stayed at the Oriental in 1970: $45/night and upgraded to the Presidential Suite.
    GO: Are you putting your 10 euro deodorant on display????????
    And that first class food when you flew to BKK from Rome. WOW.

    For dgunbug......how would I compare Halong Bay with Guilin? Guilin was home for us for 6 months, when DH and I taught English conversation at GXNU.....and in fact, we went back in Oct.2011 to visit. So, Halong Bay was 2005....Guilin teaching was 2006. Our Halong Bay experience was fabulous. We were on a junk for 2 nights, had fabulous weather, went kayaking in the Bay and met a young German couple who ARE our friends for life. Guilin and Yangshuo in 2004 AND 2006 were visually appealing. We took the Bamboo Raft down the river in Yangshuo and loved every moment.We were shocked to see how much more polluted the air was in these areas 5 years later.

    Guess what? You need to do both!

    Looking forward to the rest of your journey. Thanks SO much for taking the time.

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    Holiday in Cambodia We awoke early our last morning in Bangkok, ate a hasty breakfast then caught a cab to the airport. We made good time and arrived early to find our flight to Siem Reap delayed – in this case for a mere half hour. We parked ourselves in a lounge and enjoyed some snacks and the last consistent wifi we would have for a while.

    The flight to Siem Reap took only a little over half an hour. It seemed that no longer had we taken off than we were setting down. We made it quickly through immigration; found that customs was non-existent even though we’d filled out a form. We promptly found a cab and were on the way to our hotel.

    My first impression of Cambodia and Siem Reap was of red dust, dirt roads, hordes of tuk-tuks (a generic term for small onomatopoetic motorized vehicles), motos, bicycles. (We hadn’t seen a single bicycle in Bangkok). Our hotel - the “Kool Hotel” - proved to be somewhat of a disappointment after Adelphi Suites. We’d made the mistake of switching to this hotel shortly before leaving on our trip. We’d mistakenly figured that a hotel with fewer rooms would be more pleasant. And we had not anticipated the difficulties involved in walking to downtown Siem Reap through congested, dusty unmarked streets. Our bed was hard, the furniture was uncomfortable, and the closet/storage space was next to non-existent. The air conditioner was oddly mounted in the wall above the bed and directed blasts of chill air at anyone attempting to sleep. On the plus side, the staff were pleasant, helpful and attentive. A request for a mango and a knife brought us a plate with what had to have been four luscious, ripe – and sliced - mangoes. After our arrival, I lounged by the pool while YT had a massage.

    Later, we took a $2 tuk-tuk into town. This was a literal $2 ride; the Cambodian economy is totally dollarized. The only time we saw Cambodian currency (the riel) was when we received 1000 and 2000 riel notes as change for amounts less than $1; they approximated $.25 and $.50 respectively. We had dinner at Bopha Angkor, a boutique hotel/restaurant. We had a mild curry and chicken amok (amok in this case is a coconut sauce, not a state of murderous frenzy). Cambodian food tasted somewhat like Thai food minus the chili peppers. Before dinner we had wandered the beautiful grounds of the Bopha Angkor, peaking into some of the beautifully furnished rooms. The result was further regret in having booked the Kool Hotel. Bopha Angkor was much nicer for about the same price. Afterwards, we checked out the night market. (It’s not hard to miss given the “NIGHT MARKET” sign lit up in lights and strung over the small river that bisected Siem Reap.) The market was nice, if touristy, but the vendors tended to be persistent to the point of annoyance. After some wandering, we grabbed the Kool Hotel shuttle back to our room. We were touring various Khmer ruins the next day and wanted to be well rested.

    Our next day’s tour was by tuk-tuk. Our driver was Suwan (pronounced "Suvan"), a very pleasant and helpful man who spoke excellent English and had been recommended to us by Moreweird. He showed up at eight and we were on our way. In retrospect, our itinerary that day comprised way too much for a single day. At some point, the multitude of sights, coupled with the stupefying heat, caused my note taking to taper off. Certainly it eroded my memory; everything became a mix of brick, stone, and bas relief. The scale of the Khmer ruins is simply immense. I knew they were large before we visited – but I still grossly underestimated the scale. This is not site to be seen in one day like Machu Picchu or even Teotihuacan. One could easily spend a week here touring various individual sites. I know what we saw, but I cannot assign specifics to individual sites with any certainty. It all began to run together. Further, the scale, particularly of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat, means a lot of walking in brutal heat. I’ve done a partial reconstruction of what from my notes and photographs:
    • Prasat Kravan (brick; relatively small area with five buildings; one of the oldest sites; some nice depictions of Vishnu in one building…they look almost Mayan art, except frontal rather than in profile.)
    • Banteay Kdai (stone; large complex; much later period, very photogenic interiors…I did perspective shots down halls and of dancing apsara bas reliefs.)
    • Ta Ked (no recollection; unless I’ve mixed these up with Ta Prohm, my photos reveal the interior of a stone building with some static bas relief figurines; my guess is that this predates Banteay Kdai.)
    • Ta Prohm (memorable, still partially overgrown, I – and everyone else – made evocative photos of trees covering parts of this temple.)
    • Angkor Thom, including
    o Bayon (an incredible complex of a series of towers with huge stone faces facing cardinal points on each tower; fantastic bas reliefs; this was the highlight of the day and is worthy of a day of its own.)
    o Baphuon (approached via a walkway; a somewhat pyramidal structure of large blocks of stone; I think interior was closed for restoration.)
    o The Elephant Terrace (Just that, a very long terrace decorated with life-size carvings of elephants and other animals.)
    o The Leper King Terrace (My notes – immediately pre lunch – indicate excellent bas reliefs in the process of being pieced together block by block.)
    • Angkor Wat (Vast and crowded; too immense for the entire structure to be captured in one photograph. We entered via a long causeway and passed through two walls to get to the central structure. Our walks through the halls and buildings revealed numerous bas reliefs and apsara carvings as well as statues of Buddha that had been defaced or beheaded by the Khmer Rouge during those miserable years when they were in power. We climbed the steep central tower amid hordes of Japanese tourists. Angkor Wat, like Angkor Tom, is worth a day or two on its own: Start early and stay late.)
    Other comments:
    • We ate lunch in food market outside the Angkor Thom complex. The individual vendors are numbered rather than named and are housed in a large shaded open building. We had fairly good pork amok and so-so spring rolls, but regretted not getting the wonderful (we think) ginger chicken that we smelled at the next food stall.
    • Several of the sites had government-sponsored amputee bands playing traditional music with their feet or what remained of other limbs. (They also sell CDs, which I regret not buying.) Khmer Rouge-planted landmines have taken an incredible toll on the Cambodian population; be prepared to see many amputees or otherwise disfigured people if you travel to Cambodia.

    We returned to the Kool Hotel in the late afternoon dazed and exhausted. We later roused ourselves to take the hotel shuttle into Siem Reap for dinner. We ate at the Blue Pumpkin Restaurant (the upstairs is air-conditioned and popular with backpackers). YT had a salad; I ordered one of the few non-western items on the menu, eggplant stuffed with pork. We again briefly perused the Night Market before taking the regular shuttle back to the hotel.

    The next morning, Suwan again picked us up at eight. This time we went in a car as we had a long (30 kilometer) ride over dusty roads to fantastic Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei was our favorite of all the Khmer ruins. It is both small enough to appreciate and filled with fantastically detailed stonework. Unlike every other place we visited it did not involve going up and down stairs – another reason we liked it. Perhaps it also benefited from not sharing the day with numerous other sites.

    After Banteay Srei, Suwan took us to Pre Rup. Pre Rup is brick and was constructed in an earlier period than Banteay Srei. It comprised several large vertical towers. From the heights of the central temple you can glimpse the distant central spire of Angkor Wat eight kilometers away.

    YT notes —AW had been a dream of mine to see. Like Machu Picchu, its existence was a feat that seemed incredible to me. However, I did not have nearly the reaction to it that I expected – I was not awestruck or even taken by it. The accomplishments of these ruins in the jungle so long ago—and their survival—is indeed incredible. But it did not compare to me with the majesty of Machu Picchu. As mentioned above, Banteay Srei impressed me the most. Perhaps it was the massive crowds that detracted from the structures themselves. I am glad I experienced the Khmer ruins, but they did not live up to my very high expectations. I also was disappointed in Siem Reap itself. I failed to see the charm that many others have written about.

    On our drive out to Banteay Srei, it had quickly become obvious that Cambodia is a very poor country - much poorer than Bangkok (or, as we later discovered, any other part of Thailand). And Siem Reap, buoyed by tourism, was a relative oasis of affluence. In the countryside, housing was extremely primitive, sometimes little more than thatched huts. There were also some houses on stilts, a remainder from the era when livestock were sheltered under the houses for protection against tigers. In this relatively dry section of Cambodia, only one rice crop is harvested each year. The rest of the year was devoted to making palm sugar. Palm sugar is responsible for the nearly ubiquitous stickiness of food in Southeast Asia. It’s prepared from the fruit of the female flower of the palm tree. The people constructed bamboo ladders to reach the fruit; the ladders are literally a bamboo pole with inserted pegs. They’re leaned against the palms and they scramble up to harvest the fruit. The juice from the flowers is then reduced in large roadside vats until the liquid is evaporated. The resulting sugar, light brown in color, is delicious. We stopped by some reduction vats and bought three large packets of palm sugar for a dollar. Since returning to the USA, I’ve made a practice of hunting it down in Asian markets. It’s wonderful with coffee.

    After our palm sugar stop, Suwan stopped at the Landmine Museum. Neither he nor YT would enter it. Understandably, because it was one of the most depressing places I’ve ever been. The Khmer Rouge had mined Cambodia extensively, both to keep the Vietnamese out and the native population in. The Vietnamese had also planted landmines. In addition, there remains a problem with unexploded American ordnance from the Vietnam War era. The museum displayed landmines from the USSR, Czechoslovakia, China, Vietnam and Thailand – and probably other countries as well that I missed. Suwan said that when he was young - he’s in his early 40s now - and his family lived in the countryside, he heard explosions almost every night from livestock or wildlife stepping on landmines. The founder of the museum had personally deactivated over 50,000 mines. However, they continue to be an issue and people continue to be killed or maimed, particularly since there’s a secondary market in scrap metal from the wars.

    Suwan drove us back to Siem Reap by early afternoon. He recommended lunch at a traditional restaurant called Angkor Chey (sp?). It had a very pleasant atmosphere – a shady second story room on stilts above a courtyard with several crafts workshops. We had mango salad with fish and ginger chicken, all of it good although a tad bland compared to Thai food. After lunch, he took us to an artisan complex where all the craftspeople were deaf. They practiced traditional crafts – stone carving, wood carving, lacquer, painting. It had a nice gift shop and we bought some items for friends and offspring.

    Then we went back to the hotel, where we bid farewell to Suwan. Our time with him had been a real eye-opener and we won;ld recommend him to anytraveller to the Siem Reap area (leng_suwan2005@yahoo.com) We went to our room, packed and rested. We went out later to Viroth Restaurant for a dinner of banana flower chicken salad, shrimp salad, and some leaden spring rolls. Viroth restaurant was very stylish, modern with a soundtrack of downtempo lounge music and an attached art gallery, not unlike something you would see in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires. (The latter comparison became particularly poignant when an old 1940s tango canción came improbably floating over the sound system.) We didn’t wait for the shuttle and instead took a cab back to the hotel after a spot of negotiation over the fare; the driver initially quoted twice the going rate.

    The next morning we killed time at the Kool Hotel before our departure to the airport for our Luang Prabang flight. We had lunch at the hotel – what was termed “Cambodian BBQ” (satay) and mixed vegetables. Come our 1:00 p.m. departure, the hotel attempted to send us off to the airport via tuk-tuk. We immediately refused. The idea of bouncing through the dust with our suitcases on our knees was simply unacceptable. The hotel staff relented, loaded us into a van and off we went.

    We cleared immigration promptly and soon were hanging in the tiny departure lounge. Our flight, perhaps a quarter full, was on a smallish prop plane. We left on time and soon found ourselves flying over Cambodia’s flat, tragic landscape on our way to the mountains of Laos.

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    And so the memories continue. We, too, can NOT believe the number of people who return to Siem Reap again and again. (Different strokes for different folks).

    Suwan.........Viroth's.......it doesn't get better than that.

    Our stay on the east side of the river at the Atanue was terrific. yes, we would stay there again.

    Thanks so much for the detail. Amazingly, I don't recall all the temples YOU went to and we were there 5 days.

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    Nice report so far. You really packed in the sights in Siem Reap! We liked it a lot, but we had 7 days there and took a relaxed approach to seeing the temples and other things you can do in the area. Next time you'll have to visit other parts of Cambodia--Battambang, Kep, Kampot, and Phnom Penh were all worthwhile, and we hope to return someday soon to see other places. Love that country.

    Interested in your Laos report--that's also on our to-do list.

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    I first visited SR in 2002, and went back in 2004 because two and a half days hadn't been long enough for the temples. BUT, I didn't think SR itself "charming" even in 2002, I certainly can't imagine that it's charming now! I was lucky enough to see the temples with bearable crowds - in fact when I first visited the Bayon, for instance, it was practically deserted - I loved them, but I doubt I'll be back.

    I do think trying to see the temples in two days is a recipe for overload, and SR is an ideal place for a siesta.

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    The only really big crowds we encountered at the temples last year (in March) were at Angkor Wat and at Phnom Bakheng. Of course, you can't skip the former, but the latter I definitely would recommend skipping - everyone treks up a very long hill to sit on temple ruins to see the sunset. First, I've seen better sunsets driving home from work, but more importantly, I think every tourist in SR was there that day!

    But, at Angkor Thom that afternoon, at Bantaey Srei the next noontime, at Kbaal Spean the next morning, and at Beng Melea in the late afternoon, we hardly encountered any other tourists. Admittedly, except for the aforesaid sunset, we didn't go at particular times of day for sunrise, sunset, or light for photos - we just went when the going was good!

    As for Siem Reap itself, we really enjoyed it for what it was - the newer parts were a dusty big unattractive hodgepodge of day-to-day living, and the old town a lively little town full of bars, restaurants and people (not to mention souvenirs). I definitely agree that it isn't quaint or charming, although walking along the river is very lovely and peaceful and we did that from our hotel to old town a couple of times a day. We had a good time there, though, met some very interesting people, had some good food, too (although we both prefer Vietnamese food to Cambodian).

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    We had a hard time figuring out how much time to spend in SR. We didn't want to spend time in between visiting the ruins with time at the pool and the town and area didn't sound real appealing to us. Also knew that days and days of visiting ruins was not for me. We started out planning 5-6 days there, but the more I read, the more I knew that wouldn't work. I agree we tried to see way too much in too short a time, but for us not sure staying longer would have enhanced our visit.

    We had the least crowds at AW -- we hit it there around the lunch/early afternoon time when we understand many people head back to their hotels to avoid the hot mid day. I think Angkor Thom which we visited before lunch may have been the most crowded of everywhere. In SR agree that walking along the river was nice -- probably the nicest part of the town I thought.

    In Laos we only went to Luang Prabang, but wish we had seen more. Its amazing with 9 weeks there was so much we wanted to c and couldn't fit in.

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    I can't recall imagine anyone saying the town of SR is charming. The temples are impressive, the countryside (during rice season) is beautiful, there are some amazing places to eat, and lots of fun things to do besides seeing the temples. I love Siem Reap, but I'd say it is the Cambodian people that are charming.

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    Down by the River: Luang Prabang

    Shortly after take-off in Siem Reap, our Lao flight attendants distributed a tiny box lunch – a pork roll and some discolored apple slices. What seemed like five minutes later, they began collecting the boxes as we began our descent into Pakse, over the Laos border. We landed, deboarded and were pointed towards a grim transit lounge. Our luggage stayed on the plane. We found ourselves in a sterile room filled with metal chairs and a corner devoted to an unstaffed silk weaving shop that contained marvelous weavings with price tags that seemed to have too many trailing zeroes for comprehension. After about 15 minutes, without any announcement, we – as well as a handful of additional passengers from other flights - were walked back to the plane. I had to yell into the women’s room to ensure that YT made the flight. After re-boarding our flight was one third – as opposed to one quarter - full. We promptly took off. Once airborne, our flight attendants distributed another box lunch, this one with two buns and a muffin. I had a window seat and watched as the landscape slowly became hilly. In a little over an hour we landed in Luang Prabang - half an hour ahead of our scheduled arrival. Back in the U.S., we had completed and printed the on-line form for Visa on Arrival. This put us at the head of the line as our fellow passengers completed their forms in the arrival lounge. We were charged $35 per person + $1 per person administration fee, payable in U$D. The immigration officials gave us an unsmiling welcome and made multiple stamps and written notations in our passports. Once we’d been cleared, I used my ATM card to withdraw 300,000 kip from an airport ATM – it seemed like a lot but it was an absurdly low amount given the 8,000 kip to 1U$D exchange rate. (BTW, contrary to what I read on a travel board, there is no 6,000 kip note – there is a 2,000 kip note and 2,000 looks like 6,000 in Lao script.)

    Outside, the van from our hotel, the Apsara, was waiting. From here on out, Laos was to be all smiles; we never saw another grim official. (Someone had joked that the “PDR” in “Lao PDR” stood not for “People’s Democratic Republic” but “people don’t rush.”) We were quickly taken to our hotel in the old part of Luang Prabang and checked in. The Apsara was a gem: A lobby-restaurant filled with good modern art, Asian lighting, and a 1940s jazz and swing soundtrack – a wonderful east-meets-west lounge ambiance. Our room was on the second floor, large with an enormous bathtub, a great shower, a comfortable bed with fabulous sheets and a great view of the Nam Khan River down the embankment on the other side of the street. However – a minor complaint – we had to go out in the hallway to get a wifi signal. Overall, it was a vast improvement over the well intentioned but uncomfortable Kool Hotel.

    After we had dropped our luggage in our room, we took a stroll through our new neighborhood in old Luang Prabang. We were immediately charmed and enchanted. The surrounding area iseemed to reflect an older Asia that had vanished due to over-population, war and development: Asian and French colonial houses, glorious wats, mysterious stepped alleyways, lanterns strung in riverfront restaurants, relatively few people other than the odd group of Western tourists or Buddhist monks. It was fine with us. We could use the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere after frenetic Bangkok and our rushed temple-hopping in Cambodia. We ate dinner in our hotel restaurant – stir-fried chicken with cashews and pineapple with a jar of chili jam on the side, and “ohm saht” chicken in broth with unidentified “green leaves” and dill. Both dishes were pretty tasty.

    The next morning, we awoke early, eager to further explore Luang Prabang. The Apsara breakfast was good: Fruit, bread and a delicious “masala” omelette made with tomatoes, onions, mild chilies and vaguely Indian spices. Then we set off, a large bundle of dirty laundry tucked under my arm until we found a laundry place – which we promptly did. They charged all of 10,000 kip per kilo – about $.60 per pound – to wash and sun-dry clothing. Our morning meanderings then took us down Sakkaline Road to the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. There we followed a little trail to a rickety narrow bamboo footbridge that spanned the Nam Khan. We paid the 5000 kip toll - $1.25 for the two of us – and took the bridge to the far shore and followed a sign directing us to a Hmong weaving village 600 meters down the trail. We soon found ourselves going from show room to atelier to show room – all of them either making or displaying incredibly beautiful and intricate silk scarves, runners, hangings, pillow slips and other items in an array of colors and patterns. All of it was head and shoulders in quality above the silks we’d seen in Cambodia and Bangkok. We were particularly taken by a workshop/showroom called “Patta Textile Gallery,” which produced particularly exquisite (and modernist-influenced) designs.

    We bought some scarves and some artisan paper bound in a journal with Lao script embossed on the covers. At this point we had exhausted both our limited supply of kip as well as those few dollars we had brought with us, a situation not helped by our habit of popping into every silk, clothing and craft shop we passed. Funds exhausted, we reluctantly bade farewell to the village and headed back to the river, the frail bridge and Luang Prabang. We were looking for an ATM.

    This proved to be quite the quest. We walked down Sakkaline Road until it turned into Sisavanvong Road. No ATM. We continued down Sisavanvong Road past the National Palace. An ATM at last – but out of service! We continued through the night market area and finally found a functional ATM on the far side. We both became instant Lao millionaires as we pulled out 2,000,000 kip – about U$D 250 – using two separate ATM cards.

    We were hungry by now – it was early afternoon. Based on a recommendation we’d read, we set out to find a café called Morning Glory. We retraced our steps back up Sisavanvong Road (which we’d renamed “Sis-boom-ba”) to Sakkaline Road. We’d almost returned to our starting point when we ran across Morning Glory. Lunch was good – Chicken-pineapple-cashew fried rice and a tasty fruit smoothie. Then, based on a friend’s recommendation, we sought out Café Saffron on Ounkham Road on the Mekong River side of town for iced coffees and pastries. The coffees were very good, as was one of the pastries. The other pastry tasted healthy. We returned to our room to rest up.

    Later, we left our room to attempt to climb Phou Si Hill for the sunset. Phou Si Hill is about 400 steps up from the road facing the Nam Khan River and a mere 328 steps if one ascends from the Sisavanvong Road side. Of course we started from the Nam Khan side (it was closer to the Hotel Apsara). We made it about two-thirds of the way up before calling it quits. The overcast gray skies promised little in the way of a sunset and we found the steep climb tiring.

    Dinner that second night was at the 3 Nagas restaurant. We read about this restaurant and its “ambitious” take on Lao cuisine in Food and Wine magazine. There’s actually two 3 Nagas restaurants – presumably making six nagas altogether – on either side of Sisavanvong Road. One specialized in Lao-influenced Western food, the other in contemporary Lao food. We opted for the more purist take on Lao cuisine.

    We started with “khaiphaen seune,” riverine seaweed toasted until crisp, sprinkled with sesame seeds and accompanied with a chunky, spicy pepper jam. This dish has been billed as the Lao equivalent of chips and salsa, but the comparison is more metaphor than actuality. The seaweed “chip” is crisp and light, the sesame seeds add a nice nuttiness and the pepper jam is both sweet and hot. The overall dish is delicious, if a bit hard to describe. Our entrees were “laaps pedd” and “khanab paa.” Laaps pedd resembles Thai larb without the chilies – minced meat with a lime, cilantro and mint. Tasty, particularly with the addition of chilies created by dicing the attendant ornamental pepper and stirring it into the mix. Khanab paa is grilled river fish stuffed with minced pork and encased in pastry dough that was then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. Presentation wise, it was the culinary equivalent of a souvenir Russian doll. Taste wise, it was less spectacular - the fish was so mild as to be tasteless and the dish as a whole was very dry. We also ordered Lao sticky rice and “jaew het,” sautéed wild mushrooms with herbs. The sticky rice was of the purple variety, but was gummy and tasteless. The mushrooms were great; we used them to add some moisture to the fish. We accompanied the meal with bottled water and a beer called Lao Dark – a delicious discovery and the best beer I was to have in nine weeks in Southeast Asia.

    We decided to skip dessert at 3 Nagas and opted instead for French pastries at Le Café Ban Vat Sene down the block on Sakkaline Road. We had a fabulous lemon tart and a so-so pumpkin tart. We discovered, to our chagrin, that we’d ordered our pastries a mere ten minutes before 9:00 p.m., when all remaining pastries are discounted 50%. Live and learn. Whenever we returned to Café Ban Vat Sene afterwards, it was after the 9:00 p.m. pastry witching hour. After dinner, we wandered around a bit, going down to the Night Market on the other side of the National Museum. We discovered that the ethnicities had changed. By day, most of the vendors were Hmong, selling cotton quilts and mola-style appliqué and embroidery. By night, it was other Lao peoples selling t-shirts, as well as silk weavings, silver work and wooden crafts. Night and day in Luang Prabang, I guess.

    The next morning we had a repeat breakfast at Apsara – two masala omelettes, please. We spent much of the morning and early afternoon wandering the temples and the silk shops of Luang Prabang. YT had an 11:00 a.m. massage – reportedly fabulous – at Spa Garden. We had lunch at a nameless Lao restautrant near the Spa Garden – stir-fried vegetables and minced fish with Lao herbs (watercress, cilantro and mint, I think). Both were good. The fish was like a Lao version of ceviche. We toured the National Museum, which is not so much a museum as the little-altered palace of the last Lao king (deposed in the 1975 Pathet Lao take over of Laos). There was nothing in the way of communist propaganda as I’d anticipated; it was a straightforward presentation of the king’s living circumstances. The place was somewhat opulent, but not particularly large and certainly not excessive by Western mega-mansion standards. After our tour, we repeated our ATM quest.

    Then we started wandering back towards our hotel – a process accelerated by the onset of afternoon rain. We’d planned to go back to the National Museum around 5:30 to see a presentation of Lao traditional dancing in a hall on the grounds. The increasingly heavy rains precluded our planned cultural foray.

    We’d scheduled an 8:00 p.m. dinner next door at the Tamarind Restaurant. We had:
    1) the dipping platter (riverine weed chips and four different dips - eggplant, chili jam, tomato jam and mixture of tomatoes and herbs);
    2) the five bites platter (buffalo jerky, Luang Prabang sausage, and greens); and
    3) lemongrass stems stuffed with chicken.
    Items 1) and 3) were fantastic; item 2) was just OK. We also so had lao lao granitas, one lime and lemongrass, the other honey and ginger. Both were wonderful. I would highly recommend this restaurant, if only for the granitas.

    The next day was Sunday. We again had masala omelets for breakfast. Then we wandered through the produce market photographing fruits and vegetables – some were identifiable to us and some were not. Afterwards we wandered to the sandwich area near the night market. We bought a “Lao baguette” for 15,000 kip. This marvelous sandwich contained a mixture of mayonnaise, red pepper spread, chicken, tomatoes, caramelized shallots, cucumber, long thin mushrooms and was topped with a generous amount of peppery sweet sauce. It was like a Lao version of Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, except larger. (Whatever one’s feelings about colonialism, I want to take this opportunity to thank the French for introducing baguettes to Indochina.)

    The Lao baguette was to be our picnic lunch. We had bought tickets to the 11:30 excursion by mini-van to the Kwang Si falls, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Luang Prabang. We walked to the tour office and hopped into a waiting mini-van. It proceeded to several hotels to assemble our multi-national company: three Swiss, one Irishman, two pot-bellied Frenchmen, 3 Japanese and a truly delightful Thai woman. We learned that the Thai and Lao languages are mutually (somewhat) comprehensible; she spent much of the ride talking to the Lao driver and then translating to us. We drove through some gorgeous green countryside and arrived at the falls around 12:30. Our jaws dropped as we pulled into a car park that had at least forty vans and several full-size buses. The perimeter was a half circle of grilled food stalls and souvenir stands selling everything from t-shirts to crafts to home-made bamboo bongs (used for tobacco in SE Asia). We bought our admission tickets – about 5,000 kip apiece – and started up the trail to the falls. Since it was a Sunday, the park was crowded not only with tourists, but also large multi-generational Lao families. They gathered en masse at picnic tables and the women began an assembly line production of picnic food. The men drank beer, smoked, observed the proceedings and chatted. The huge mounds of lettuce, herbs and other comestibles were soon converted to a picnic lunch. Lao children ran underfoot as the adults ate and drank. Bottom line: If you want the falls relatively unpopulated go on a weekday. If you want to see the falls accompanied with a glimpse into Lao family life, go on a Sunday.

    The falls started with a series of low falls and pools at the bottom. After ascending, there were some photogenic waterfalls at the top – maybe twenty or thirty meters in height. We stopped at a picnic table to consume our Lao baguette…a little soggy but sublime. Then we climbed the path to the very top of the falls. As we neared the top, this involved scampering up some vaguely defined steps carved into the hill, ducking under fallen trees and holding on to the occasional bamboo railing. Not for the faint of heart or out of shape, particularly since the dirt path was slippery from the recent rain.

    After we explored the falls we slowly made our way down. Below, in the pools, tourists stripped down to enormous baggy trunks and skimpy bikinis, much to the evident bemusement of the Lao families, who remained fully dressed. (Signs were prominently posted with words and depictions indicating no bare shoulders or bikinis.) After some time observing the scene, we headed down to the car park. The time allotted for the falls had been over-generous. We weren’t due to start back for another ninety minutes. We wandered slowly through the craft and food stands and eventually seated ourselves at a food stand. I had a beer. We waited. Then we wandered through the stands again. We found a member of our party – the Irishman – and chatted a bit, then wandered some more. After some time we found our van (although not the driver). It was identical to a dozen others and was identifiable only by the license tag, which we’d memorized. (We should have just photographed it.) Our group slowly assembled. The two Frenchmen showed up half in the bag and carrying a large bottle of Lao beer apiece. The driver arrived and soon we were on our way.

    We thought that we were headed back to Luang Prabang. However, the mini-van operating company was “under contract” to visit a Hmong “weaving village.” And visit we did: A roadside stop and a looping concrete walk through groups of small children begging us to buy wrist bands and cloth dolls. This Potemkin children’s village was the one of the few sad things we saw in our stay in Laos. And I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders as one of the Frenchmen loudly proclaimed “un cadeau” as he deposited an empty Lao beer bottle on someone’s doorstep.

    We arrived back in Luang Prabang around 5:00 p.m. The mini-van dropped us on the far side of the night market and we had to make our way across town to our hotels.

    Despite feeling a bit templed out from Bangkok, we managed to check out many of the wats in Luang Prabang including Wat Sene, constructed in Thai style with a yellow and red roof and Wat Nong with its three-tier roof, tiled orange, much like the temples in Bangkok. The roof ornamentation is in the form of parasols ascending to the top. The roof eaves are in the form of descending nagas, something we’d see often in Thailand. One afternoon as YT’s massage at Spa Garden was ending, she heard loud, rhythmic sounds from the gongs at the nearby temple – while we frequently heard sounds of the gongs throughout town, never had it been so rhythmic or continued for so long. She asked the man at the spa what was going on and he consulted a calendar and said it was a Buddhist holiday. YT took off following the sound of the gongs and ended up watching 6-7 young monks jamming on multiple gongs. One excited young monk got so into it that his saffron robe began to fall off his shoulder.

    Dinner that night was at L’elephant, a Lao-French Restaurant a block or two from the Apsara. We were so hungry – we hadn’t eaten since our baguette picnic lunch – that we arrived half an hour before our 7:30 reservation. YT selected from the French side of the menu, I from the Lao. Her choice was duck in mock plum sauce with dauphine potatoes. Good, not great. I had larp gai bamboo shoots stuffed w/ minced pork. Both were very good – the bamboo shoots in particular were excellent. YT had her first glass of wine this vacation – a delicious sangiovese. I had a Lao beer, dark, of course. Dessert was memorable only because YT returned it, not caring for the microwaved tart tatin. I tried a small glass of lao lao, a distilled rice liqueur somewhat reminiscent of low alcohol acquavite. Then back to our room for reading and updating travel notes. We paused in the lobby long enough to pay our bill in cash…bundles and bundles of Lao banknotes with oodles of zeroes.

    The next day was to be our last in Luang Prabang. We had our final masala omelets and wandered the streets and temples one last time. We took the little ferry from the Apsara across the Nam Khan to the other side of Luang Prabang and wondered the neighborhood. This part of Luang Prabang seemed less touristy. After meandering the streets and watching the incredible traffic, we crossed back by the bamboo bridge that connected the two sides of the river. We enjoyed another Lao sandwich (this time vegetarian) at the food stalls near the night market. We wandered to Saffron for iced lattes. We went again to Tamarind for some of their fabulous granitas (lime/lemongrass and honey/ginger, again). Dinner was at Tamnak Lao with fellow Fodorites mr_go and ms_go and their daughter. Delightful company and a fabulous meal…larp moo and pork stuffed banana leaves and big bottle of Lao beer. (Contrary to expectations, “moo” in both Thailand and Laos is pork, not beef.) Then to bed. We had an early departure for our journey up the Mekong ahead of us

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    I am still reading avidly. Keep going with your great and detailed descriptions, particularly the food which is making me want to return to Lao!

    Shame about kuangsi falls. Why tourists cannot respect the local customs and sensibilitiesI just dont know.

    Last time we were in LP we stayed at both the 3 Nagas and The Apsara and enjoyed both but looking at the rates now the 3 Nagas' rates have rocketed - has the place hasd a major refit or something?

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    Thanks for the reassurance -- it can get lonely out there in cyberspace...

    @crellston - yes, i agree. I am always amazed when people are disrespectful of another's culture. Sometimes we may not be aware of a nuance related to a culture, but in Laos signs were posted regularly so it would be hard to plead ignorance of the need to dress modestly.
    LP was rather pricey relative to other places we visited. 3 Nagas has gotten a fair amount of press perhaps that has allowed them to raise rates. Have no basis for comparison and didn't see the rooms there, but the public space was very nice...nothing luxurious, but nice.

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    yes, keep it up - I am curious to see what you think of my adopted country.
    Some comments:
    Tamnak Lao serves good, authentic Lao food; Tamarind does not as the food is dumbed down for western palates. This does not matter if you like this sort of thing, of course, but authentic it is not.
    Le Elephant used to be one of the best western restaurants in this part of the region. My last visit there saw a decline in quality; their wine list is still very good, however. If you are heading to Vientiane, I suggest you try Amphone.

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    Rolling on the River: Mekong Cruise

    Our boat was leaving early. We arose at 5:30 and rolled our suitcases out of the Apsara around 6:00. As fortune would have it, we only needed to go three short blocks on Sisaleumsack Road, which took us from the Nam Khan side of Luang Prabang directly to our pier on the Mekong side. We hung out briefly at Sakkarine Road to watch alms-givers gather and then the beginning of the dawn procession of mendicant monks. (Contrary to what I’ve read, the majority of the alms givers – at least at the intersection of Sakkarine and Sisaleuksak roads – seemed to be Lao people, not tourists.) The monks passed the row of kneeling alms-givers, who dropped small portions of food in their bowls. We took advantage of a break in the flow of monks to continue on our way to the dock where our Luang Say Cruise boat awaited. We rolled down the foggy street and soon arrived at the long narrow boat. This had to be the easiest connection of our trip!

    We’d booked the Luang Say Mekong River cruise back in the U.S. This was a two day trip up the river to Houei Say, Laos. From there, we would cross the river to Chiang Khong, Thailand and begin a twelve day odyssey through northern Thailand. We’d divided our belongings so that we had what amounted to an overnight carry-on with items we’d need on the trip; our two suitcases, containing everything else, were stowed away by the crew. We helped ourselves to some coffee and mini-pastries. The boat pushed off promptly at 7:00 a.m. It was a very chilly 6 degrees C (in the low 40s F) in the foggy morning and the crew distributed Vientiane “ponchos” – black embroidered shawl-like garments – to the passengers. At the suggestion of Kee Lee, the tour director, YT and I eventually relocated to the back of the boat, where the crew quarters/kitchen/bathroom structure sheltered us from the worst of the cold. Nonetheless, YT dressed herself with everything she had brought - two layers of slacks, silk long underwear, two t-shirts, a fleece jacket, gloves and two scarves – in addition to which she layered on three of the Vientiane ponchos.

    YT note- instructions from the boat had requested that people not take their full suitcase to the hotel for the overnight. I packed a few items in a small canvas bag. This was probably one of the few times in my life I followed instructions to a “T.” Many of my heavier clothes were safely tucked away in my 20” roll aboard and inaccessible once the boat took off. Big mistake as I am a cold weather wimp.

    It was the very end of the dry season and the river was running very low. Even so, water levels were higher than they had been in the past few weeks. The Chinese had released water from the dams to aid the water flow. Despite the low water level, it was still tough going against the current in these murky brown waters that had originated on the Tibetan plateau. The shore alternated between rocks and sandbanks; some of the latter were planted with peanuts. A line of jungle started about 15 or 20 feet above the current water level and well back from the current shoreline – an indication of the height and breadth of the river in its rainy season flood stage. By about 10:00 or 10:30 in the morning, the fog burned off and we spent the next five hours removing first one and then another article of clothing. By mid-afternoon I was down to a t-shirt and shorts.

    The river was nothing like the Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory fever dream in “Apocalypse Now.” The first bucolic day of our upstream journey took us between low green hills and past the occasional Lao village. There was a fair amount of boat traffic: Other long boats like ours, the occasional speedboat, large wider boats with two-story poop decks, lines of drying laundry and fronts devoted to open-air cargo space. Mid-morning, we stopped at the Pak Ou caves. We disembarked and took a flight of stairs up to a cave filled with hundreds of Buddha statues in various sizes, stances and states of repair. I found it underwhelming; other passengers found it delightful. YT was too cold to even get off the boat!

    Lunch was cooked on board and comprised three of four nice Lao dishes and rice. After lunch, we stopped at the village of Ban Bo, an ethnic weaving village with an interesting temple with depictions of what appeared to be a truly hellish afterlife that would not have been out of place had they been in a medieval Catholic church. After brief negotiation, we bought a beautiful silk scarf from a weaver for 80,000 kip - about 10 U$D. Between this and the scarves we’d purchased in Cambodia and Luang Prabang, I think we now owned more silk scarves than Keith Richards. Admittedly, most of ours were destined to be gifts.

    We spent that night under mosquito netting at the Luang Say Lodge, a beautiful complex on the banks of the Mekong. We’d arrived at dusk – and a gorgeous sunset on the Mekong – and had been given the key to our stand-alone bungalow. We were warned to keep the lights off and a mosquito repellent device plugged in once we left the room for dinner. Dinner was proceeded by a “traditional dance” and music ceremony that featured the three major Laotian ethnic groups – lowland Lao, mid-mountain Lao and mountain Lao (Hmong). The whole affair had the contrived and artificial feeling of a Soviet-era “friendship among peoples” fest. I sat in the back and had two “Mekong Explorers” from the bar. They were something like a margarita made with lao lao, a local rice liqueur. By the time I’d finished the second, I was indeed feeling friendly toward all peoples. Dinner was a buffet of Lao dishes and was, by buffet standards, excellent. Our fellow explorers were all Europeans, a mixture of French, German and Swiss. Returning to our room, we discovered that the staff had turned down our bed. Here, turning down the bed consisted of lowering the mosquito netting!

    We had a 6:00 a.m. wake-up call, a hasty breakfast and were back on the river by 7:00 a.m. While the river the first day had slipped between sparsely-populated hills, here it became more populous and less mountainous. We had lunch at 11:30 – another shipboard-prepared Lao feast. After lunch, around 12:30, we stopped at the Hmong (aka “Mountain Lao”) village of Houei Lam Pan. It was poorest and saddest place I have been in my life. It was almost devoid of men, most of whom were out working. Women and children tried to sell embroidered bracelets. Pigs, dogs and chickens ran under-foot. It was depressing - nothing we did or said (or bought) could make any improvement in these people’s lives. Our boat guides took some of us inside the people’s houses; I felt somewhat uncomfortable doing this (a feeling that was to recur throughout the trip) and made a prompt return to the boat..

    At some point later in the afternoon, we entered the section of the river that defined the border between Laos and Thailand. It immediately became apparent that the Thailand side (the bank on the left side going upriver) was far more developed than the Lao side: Here there were large houses, roads, well-tended fields. I’m surprised that the folks on the Lao side had not decamped en masse across the river.
    We finally arrived at Houei Sai late afternoon, retrieved our suitcases from the hold, cleared Lao immigration promptly and piled into a six-seat pirogue to be ferried across the river to the bright lights and big city of Chiang Khong. Thai immigration was a lengthy business. We were halfway back in a crowd that slowly congealed into a line that then seemed to only inch forward. We finally made it after waiting the better part of an hour. We had anticipated an availability of ground transportation – tuk-tuks, cars, mini-vans – that could ferry us to our hotel, the Chiang Khong Teak Garden. We had anticipated wrong. There were a some mini-vans to distant Chiang Mai as well as a few sign-wielding representatives from various hotels for people on guided tours, but no other transportation. Eventually, we found ourselves standing on a half-empty street by the river. A kindly Thai woman called our hotel and they indicated that they were going to send a shuttle over. The shuttle turned out to be an electric golf cart. There was barely enough room for the two of us in the back and our suitcases next to the driver. It felt more than slightly surreal to be silently rolling through the noisy chaos of Thai streets!

    GT note - All in all, I enjoyed the trip upriver. However, I’d recommend that anybody taking it bring extra layers of clothing and something to read. The mornings are chilly and some stretches of the river can be monotonous; in the slower moments, I read back issues of “Foreign Affairs” magazine that the Swiss group had brought. I’d also recommend that anybody taking this trip do it downriver from Houei Sai to Luang Prabang; You’ll see the same sights in all their glory and tedium - but you’ll see them at a much brisker pace. <i/>

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    You did it again, Gottravel. You and YT are setting a wonderful example of exciting travel, after careful planning, and great note taking to give us all the details (and cautions) for planning our own journeys to follow. Many thanks for the effort and creativity and excellent travel writing.

    I am curious as to why there has not been much more response to date ?

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    Thanks everyone for your wonderful responses. I'll be posting next leg (regarding Chiang Rai in northern Thailand) later this week. I'm having a hard time thinking of an appropriate song title though!

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    Great reporting, We did the river trip in the opposite direction. Sadly we didn't get to see much because of the smoke due to the burning of the fields and forest! Looking forward to hearing more..

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    Hi yestravel and gottravel, I'm just now getting a chance to catch up on this (work and life have been a little crazy lately and travel/Fodor's have had to take a back seat). Great report and detail--still amazed by all that you did on that trip! I was just thinking about our dinner at Tamnak Lao the other day, as well as the lime-lemongrass granita that I had at Tamarind a couple nights later on your recommendation. Looking forward to more.

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    Hi ms-_go, good 2 hear from u. Just hate when work interferes with ones travel life. That was a great meal @ Tamnak Lao. Been thinking that I need to find a Lao restaurant in DC. There must be one somewhere.

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    There's actually a Laotian restaurant or two in Madison where DD goes to school, but I have yet to find one here. There are quite a few Vietnamese restaurants in the city but nothing good out in our area. Fortunately, we do have a pretty good Thai restaurant in our town, so not all is lost...

    Where are you going next?

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    We've got good VN and Thai restaurants in the suburbs, but haven't found a Lao one yet.
    We r going on a driving trip beginning mid June. we will drive up thru NE to Nova Scotia, and back thru the Hudson Valley in NY. Then in mid September we go to Puglia. How about u all? U mentioned Croatia when we saw u.

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    Northern Thailand #1: Chiang Rai – Dengue by Day, Malaria by Night

    The Chiang Kong Teak Garden Hotel was pleasant. While it was a newly built budget hotel it had everything needed for a one-night stay. Our room had a comfortable bed and overlooked the Mekong River and the Lao shore on the far side. We had arrived somewhat late and were in no mood to explore the city, which was little more than a way stop for us anyway. We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was another tasty meal – this trip was slowly turning into a foodie road show. After dinner we read for a bit and then turned in early. On an amusing note, the next morning I awoke and stepped out onto our river-facing balcony to check the weather. I was dressed solely in my underwear and was somewhat startled to find our neighbors on their adjacent balcony taking their morning coffee. We exchanged murmured good mornings and I hastily retreated to our room. I hope I made a good impression.

    Rather than negotiate the bus station, we arranged with the Teak Garden Hotel for a ride to Chiang Rai. Their driver would take us there for less than 40U$D. Our drive took us through low rolling countryside. Despite it only being mid-January, the first of the fields was already being burned off in preparation for the rainy season and the new plantings. One small town we rode through was engulfed in the smoke from the fields. In a few weeks, the entire countryside would be filled with smoke.

    After several stops on our driver’s part to ask for directions, we arrived at the Hotel La Luna a little after noon. La Luna made a positive first impression - a beautiful spacious lobby and luxuriant grounds filled with flowering tropical plants. Our room was large, had a comfortable king-size bed and the biggest flat-screen TV I’d ever seen. Unfortunately, it also had several mosquitoes. YT sought out the room service while I tried to hunt them down. She came back with a can of spray; we sprayed the room and then headed to the hotel restaurant for lunch. I had a superb ‘northern style’ curry, made with a tart tamarind sauce rather than the previously ubiquitous coconut milk. YT had squid sautéed in garlic and black pepper, which was equally delicious.

    Then I took a nap and YT went to the hotel pool to read. When she returned, the room again had mosquitoes and we embarked on a major mosquito-killing exercise. It turned out that La Luna’s lush vegetation – so at odds with the dry countryside – was the result of frequent watering. There was standing water throughout the grounds, everywhere from pots to the interiors of bromeliads. There were, as well, two plants in standing water in our bathroom. And mosquitoes could enter our room both via the bathroom exhaust fan and the slightly askew doorframe to the outside. (We later discovered that it was La Luna practice for the cleaning staff to leave the room doors open while cleaning rooms.)

    As background, we’d been very conscientious about mosquitoes when planning our trip. Cambodia, Laos and Northern Thailand were all dengue fever and malaria hotspots. The two diseases are spread by different species of mosquitoes: The Dengue-bearing mosquito bites in daytime, the malaria-bearing mosquito is prevalent at dusk and early evening. We’d begun taking the malaria preventive medication malarone shortly before leaving (mosquito-free) Bangkok for Siem Reap. As well, we’d been slathering ourselves with DEET ever since arriving in Siem Reap. However, malarone only protects one from malaria - there is no comparable medication for the extremely painful, if rarely fatal, dengue fever. DEET is an efficient mosquito repellent, but not without its downside – one needs to re-apply it periodically and it dries out one’s skin terribly. By the time we arrived in Chiang Rai, the skin on my fingers was peeling due to repeated exposures to DEET. Our hotels in both Siem Reap and Luang Prabang had had very few mosquitoes due to measures taken by management. Consequently, we’d been rarely bitten during our sojourns there and were not in the mood to begin providing blood meals to potentially infectious insects in La Luna. (I should note that it was the end of dry season and that we encountered mosquitoes nowhere else in Chiang Rai.)

    After our mosquito pogrom, we complained to the front desk. They promised to spray the room. We fled the grounds. Using a bad photocopy of a Chiang Rai map provided by the front desk, we navigated the crumbling sidewalks and unlit streets of Chiang Rai until we arrived at the Night Market in downtown Chiang Rai. It sold some hill tribe handicrafts and Thai silks, but much of it was devoted to t-shirts and tourist trinkets. It sprawled out on side streets around a central square that functioned something like a food court in a shopping mall. Twenty or more stalls lined each of the two sides of the square, selling grilled meats, noodles, stir fries, sushi and some insect dishes that prominently featured large cockroach-like water bugs.

    We were struck by the hot pots a Thai family was eating and were directed to the appropriate stall, where we ordered one pork (“moo”) and one chicken (“gai”). We chose a nearby table - the center of the square was a sea of tables – and they brought over two charcoal braziers on top of they placed clay pots filled with bubbling broth. They also brought two small plastic trays of meat as well as two large trays containing a raw egg, various herbs, noodles and lettuce. The general concept – as it was explained to us by hand gestures – was to add the meat to the broth, crack the egg in, wait two minutes, add everything else and then enjoy at leisure by spooning small amounts of the resulting soup out to some provided bowls. One could also add a potent chili paste to one’s taste. Our two soups, although conceptually similar, ended up tasting very different. I had the pork and added all of the provided herbs, which included copious amounts of ”holy” basil, cilantro and mint, as well as a small dollop of chili paste. YT had been more restrained in herb and chili usage. Both approaches resulted in a delicious soup. Incredibly, given the precarious balance of our metal table and the potential spillage while spooning out soup, we both managed to complete our meals with neither spill nor stain.

    We took a songthaew back to La Luna. A songthaew is something like a pickup truck covered in the back with a low roof; seating was on two added benches on either side of the back of the truck. Before we’d gone out, we sent an email to a gentleman named Jermsak (jermsak_cei@yahoo.co.th), a tour guide/driver recommended on Trip Advisor and by “Moreweird,” in regard to potential tours over any of the next three days. He’d replied by email giving us his cell number. With some assistance from the La Luna front desk, we managed to call him on his cell. The only day he was available was the very next day, Friday. We agreed and he sketched out a possible itinerary and agreed to pick us up at 8:30 in the morning. We then killed another mosquito or two, moved the watery plants from the bathroom to our front stoop and retired for the evening.

    The next morning, we went to La Luna’s very good – and very large – breakfast buffet. Jermsak showed up promptly at 8:30. Out itinerary for the day was to be the ruins of a “pre-Thai” wat, the White Temple (Wat Rong Kung), the Golden Triangle/Hall of Opium, Mae Fah Luang Garden at Doi Tung Palace, the 101 Tea Plantation and two hill tribe villages, one Akha and one Yao (Chinese). We stopped only briefly at the pre-Thai wat. It was somewhat interesting - but promptly forgotten once we arrived at the White Temple.

    The White Temple is a contemporary Buddhist temple and is still under construction. (I think six or seven of nine planned buildings have been completed.) Although the architectural design of the central temple is in accordance with other wats we’d seen, it is nonetheless extremely unconventional by traditional standards. White is used instead of gold and the interior incorporates contemporary images such as Batman, Spiderman and rocket ships. The bridge leading to the temple arcs across a ghostly white sea of sculpted upraised arms and hands, some holding bowls, some holding skulls, and one – with the middle finger bearing bright red nail polish – making an obscene gesture. Coupled with the designer’s art (on view in a separate building) the complex as a whole is stunning and one of the most striking and memorable sights we saw on our trip. The White Temple is a definite “don’t miss” if you’re in Northern Thailand.

    Even the formerly infamous Golden Triangle turned out to be a bit anticlimactic after the White Temple. There’s a spot where your view incorporates Thai, Lao and Burmese territory. We passed on a quick entry into Burma. Our crowded schedule didn’t permit it and we felt uncomfortable visiting a country run by what was then one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. The Hall of Opium was something of an attempt at a narcotic entertainment complex. It coupled a history of opium cultivation and its impact around the world with special effects that attempted to recreate the effects of smoking opium. Overly large and somewhat cheesy at times, the Hall of Opium is worth visiting only if one is in the area. (I understand that there’s an Opium Museum in the area that’s both more compact and more interesting.)

    The Mae Fah Luang Garden at Doi Tung was another highlight of the day. This is a ten-acre hilltop garden sponsored by the late “Princess Mother” (that is, the mother of the current king of Thailand). The purpose of the garden was twofold: Firstly, to reuse land previously used for opium cultivation and, secondly, to give Thai people the opportunity to enjoy a temperate flower garden. (The hill where the Mae Fah Luang garden is situated is much cooler than the lowlands.) The garden is essentially western in design, immensely popular, and ranks among the most pleasant we’d ever visited. We highly recommend a visit.
    The opium aspect was interesting and I discussed it at length with Jermsak as we drove. Opium had been cultivated and consumed in Thailand for centuries. I understand that while it is still cultivated and consumed, particularly among hill tribe peoples, this is now to a much lesser extent than previously. The current king, who has been on the throne since the late 1940s, had initiated an effort to end opium use (and, later, cultivation) in Thailand. Such was the degree of his popularity that the Thai people, for the most part, complied. As unlikely as this seems, I can vouch that it would be very hard to understate the esteem that Thais hold for the King.
    Tea cultivation has also replaced opium production. We visited the 101 Tea Plantation, owned and operated by Taiwanese Chinese. We found the grounds appealing – beautifully terraced thigh-high hedgerows of tea bushes running up hills and down into valleys. However, neither YT or myself are a tea drinker and the subtleties of the tea tasting there were absolutely lost on us. I’d say that this stop was for tea lovers only.
    As we drove through the hills it was hard to miss the effects of slash-and-burn agriculture practiced by the hill peoples; hillsides and hilltops had been denuded of vegetation. Columns of smoke rose here and there. Last year’s fields, harvested of crops, looked like brown dry scars. It was also hard to miss the presence of a number of evangelical Christian churches, which led to one of the more interesting conversations we had with Jermsak. Most of the hill tribe peoples had traditionally been animist. Animism required the periodic sacrifice of animals to appease resident spirits (in trees, rocks, etc.) when someone became sick or the community suffered a run of bad fortune (e.g., a drought). For people living a marginal and impoverished existence, animal sacrifice is a substantial cost and people had begun to convert to evangelical Christianity for what were, in part, economic reasons. Christianity doesn’t believe in resident spirits and vehemently opposed their propitiation via animal sacrifice. Hill tribe people who converted could keep their animals and have a (slightly) higher standard of living. So why, I asked, didn’t they simply convert to Buddhism? The answer was interesting. People who converted to Buddhism also remained animist and still had to perform the sacrifices. (Apparently Buddhism, at least as practiced here, was a syncretic religion – people were “85% animist and 15% Buddhist,” I was informed.) Some of the hill tribes tolerated conversion and the convert remained in the village. Others did not and converts had to leave. We stopped at both an Akha village and Yao village on the way back to Chiang Rai. The standard of living in both was noticeably lower than that of Thai people in general. We particularly liked the Akha village and the elaborate headdresses worn by the women.
    We’d had a busy day, seen a lot, skipped lunch –Jermsak had thoughtfully brought along snacks - and returned late, after 7:00. I would recommend Jermsak’s services to anyone visiting the Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai area. He’s a pleasant and intelligent man, a knowledgeable guide and an excellent driver. As well, he speaks superb English.
    We ate dinner in the hotel restaurant, which was turning out to be La Luna’s best feature. Our huge delicious repast – we were starving! - included:
    • Curry puffs,
    • Chicken satay,
    • “Stuffed minced pork” (aka sausage),
    • Chicken with cashews, and
    • A banana fritter w/ ice cream (which unfortunately included a heart-stopping mound of whipped cream and a garish maraschino cherry).
    We returned to our room to squash mosquitoes. After the day we felt that we’d pretty much exhausted Chiang Rai’s possibilities and opted to leave a day early to escape the mosquitoes. We checked in with our Chiang Mai lodgings and confirmed that they had an available room the night after next.
    The next morning, we again visited La Luna’s superlative breakfast buffet. I’d taken a liking to the fried rice and the spicy sauté of vegetables and chicken. We started the day by taking a songthaew to the local office of the Thai Post. We arrived only after a brief misadventure. The driver had interpreted “Post” as “plaza” and had attempted to deposit us at a largish shopping center. I guess there are not a lot of tourists who go to post offices. Thai Post was wonderful. It supplied a box and tape, and we prepared a six kilogram package back to the USA (via surface airlift) for about 5U$D. It arrived at a friend’s about three weeks later – what a deal! We left the post office and walked down to the nearby bus station and bought first class tickets for the Chiang Mai bus for Sunday ($12 for the two of us). Then we had coffees at the nearby “Concept” café – with some free wifi on the side. Then back to the hotel. We did some preliminary packing and then took a songthaew to the “Black House,” a kind of anti-Buddhist counterpoint to the White Temple. We had the driver wait while we wandered about.
    The “Black House:” consisted of something between ten to fourteen buildings. Some were huge, Lanna-style halls, others as small as garden sheds. The best way to describe the overall concept is to conceive of a series of different-sized buildings (all black) that housed various art installations and furniture constructed of animal bones, horns, hides, teeth, shells and skins. The animals were from all over the world – I even saw a couple of old-school moose heads that would not have been out of place in the Maine woods. The artist was so whacked out conceptually that he made Salvador Dali look grounded.
    After our visit to the dark side, we had the driver deposit us back by the Night Market area. We were somewhat amazed to find it totally abandoned by day. We went to a bakery/cafe a couple of doors down from the Concept Café for iced Thai coffee, a banana smoothie, a cinnamon roll and some marzipan. Then another songthaew back to La Luna where we spent the afternoon packing, updating Facebook and killing mosquitoes.
    We left at 7:30 for the Jermsak-recommended restaurant Tohng Tung, down the block from La Luna. It had great traditional Thai dancing and truly superb food: Thai sausage, fried pork, sautéed mushrooms, shrimp with vegetables in oyster sauce, fried rice and, improbably, orange cake. It was a true feast for about $15. We walked back to our room at the hotel and watched TV for the first time since Bangkok. The only English language station was Al Jazeera. The news consisted of wars and murders from Nigeria to Afghanistan and almost everywhere in between. And Newt Gingrich was declared the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary, cementing that state’s status as the least lucid in the USA. Then lights out. We had a bus to catch the next day.

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    Very nice and excellent taste! Going back up to Chiang Mai this weekend but it's way too hot to enjoy Pai or MHS and maybe even Chiang Mai. Can't wait till it cools down again!

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    yestravel - you were here during our winter time and around the Northern area of Thailand where it was the coolest! Right now it's over 104 everyday with very hight humidity and when you were here it was just above 70 with very low humidity. Another month of this heatwave and then things should be better!

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    I can attest to what Hanuman is saying about the heat. My visit (Apr 18-May 1) was the hottest I've ever experienced, for sure. Weather in December/January is MUCH more pleasant!

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    hi simpson! I guess we hit hotter than usual weather in CM -- it was in the 90's most days which is nothing compared to 104 that's for sure. I think the sun was much stronger than what I'm used to, so the heat felt more intense to me. Anyway, it did not detract at all from CM.

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    Oh wow ! What a report. I agree with Cigalechanta.. for some of us who may never vist, this report is great. Thank you so much for sharing... and I look forward to reading the rest.

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    Simply one of the best reports I've read on this board! Beautufully composed, with a wealth of helpful detail. Love the dual points of view.


    I shared YT's feelings about my Bangkok tour guide and even wonder if we had the same person!


    Eager for more!

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    Thank's so much! Glad u r enjoying it. I always feel if i won't be going some place, its always good to read a TR about it.

    @eks -- I think we r outliers on this board re the guides with Tong.

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    Northern Thailand #2 – Chiang Mai and on the Road

    We slept in our last morning at the hotel La Luna, then killed time until we took a songthaew to the bus station for our 12:15 bus to Chiang Mai. We arrived at the open-air station – clean, modern, efficient – about 45 minutes early. We piled our luggage and ourselves on a bench for some extended people-watching. Our bus arrived about ten minutes before our scheduled departure time. We checked our larger suitcases, climbed aboard and were soon rolling through a countryside that was at once both overgrown and desiccated. The ride was fairly smooth except when the bus labored over the small mountains separating Chiangs Rai and Mai. Once our pace slowed to a near standstill; I thought for a while that everyone would have to get out and push. The far side of the hills was somewhat greener due to the flooded rice patties – beautiful but, after our stay in Chiang Rai, my thoughts inevitable turned to mosquitoes.

    Our bus arrived as scheduled in Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, perhaps because it was a Sunday, no ground transportation was in sight of the station. Eventually a tuk tuk driver motioned us to his vehicle out on the street. We followed him out of the bus station parking lot only to return immediately due to too little room for both our modest luggage and ourselves - and, as well, an absurdly high asking price. The driver did not take our refusal graciously – it was probably the only time we had a rude interlude during our entire stay in Thailand. Finally, we ran across a songthaew that could take our two suitcases and us to our hotel, the Pak Chiang Mai. The Pak Chiang Mai is located just inside the central moated old city of Chiang Mai, on the southern side near the Chiang Mai gate. It was fabulous, a small hotel behind an old surrounding wall. The interior courtyard was beautiful; our room – one of two upstairs suites - was large, had beautiful furnishings, a designer bathroom, a king-size bed on a raised platform and its own computer. (For the duration of our, stay there, I didn’t have to share YT’s iPad.)

    After we’d unpacked a bit we set out to explore the town. Chiang Mai holds an immense night market on Sundays. It was just setting up on Phrapokklao Road near the hotel. We stopped for some ice coffee, then headed up to Ratchadamnoen Road, where the market was in full swing. The variety of items offered was just incredible: t-shirts, designer clothing, traditional clothing, silks, jewelry, crafts, carvings, antique items, traditional musical instruments, CDs of traditional music, all kinds of food. The quality of many of the items was head and shoulders above anything we’d seen previously or were to see for the remainder of the trip. We started making our way west on Ratchadamnoen Road towards the immense Wat Phra Sing complex. The streets, almost empty an hour previously, were now jam-packed with people. A little before 6:00, without any prior notice, a voice came over a loudspeaker system and every Thai person froze in place almost immediately as the Thai national anthem started playing over the loudspeakers. It was an incredible scene, almost like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie, a crowded street filled with motionless people, some of them in the middle of sales transactions. After the music ended, everybody resumed his or her business.
    We bought a few gifts and some snacks, and then asked for directions to the Morradoke Restaurant, which we understood to be on Ratchadamnoen Road. No one knew at first, but a kindly woman at a travel agency looked it up for us. And it was on Ratchadamnoen Road - at the very east end, almost at the Tha Phae Gate, about as far from where we were as one could get while remaining within the confines of the old city. It took us over half an hour to make our way about half a kilometer down Ratchadamnoen Road towards the restaurant. We paused to see blind singers, traditional musical groups lined up behind one another in the street, various vendors and, in an oddly anachronistic scene, a young Scotsman in a kilt who was attempting to play a set of bagpipes but being stopped by the police before starting. (I believe it was a matter of prohibited foreign competition, not of taste; we saw him two days later outside the Tha Phae Gate, playing to a crowd of puzzled, bemused and/or appreciative Thai and foreign listeners.)

    I finally spotted the sign for Morradoke, at almost the very end of Ratchadamnoen Road. We made it through the crowd to one of the better meals of the trip: Pork with holy basil and duck with pineapple in a coconut curry sauce. When we left, rather than again brave the impossible and impassable Ratchadamnoen Road, we took the road inside the moat around the city back towards the Chiang Mai gate. (Old Chiang Mai is a square, bounded on all side by a moat; this actually made it easy to find one’s way around.) Our route, down Mummuang Road took us past several bars with a clientele of older American and Australian men paired off with young bar girls.

    The next day was the start of Chinese New Year’s. We devoted it to touring wats, first on Phrapokklao Road and then Wat Phra Sing on Ratchadamnoen Road. It was a bit overwhelming. After the first four or five, it was difficult for us to tell which wat was what. Fair to say that we were stupa-fied by the sheer excess of wattage. After we visited the Wat Phra Sing and the nearby Rachamankha Boutique Hotel (exquisite!), we walked down Rachamankha Road for lunch at Huen Phen restaurant. We had pork in local curry sauce and fried spare ribs. I loved it. YT did not. After lunch, we returned to our room to escape the heat (~35 C) and napped.

    That evening we took a tuk tuk to Chinatown for New Year’s festivities. After some meandering, we arrived at the Chinese Night Market. It was very crowded and the stalls sold imported plastic trinkets. The New Year’s fireworks didn’t start until much later. We gave up and left, taking a tuk tuk to Aroon Rai restaurant by the moat on the eastern side of the city. Tasty meal on a rickety table: Curry noodles, pork curry with ginger, papaya salad and a beer – all for less than 10 U$D. We walked back to our room, avoiding Mummuang Road on the other side of the moat.

    The next morning, we left our packed luggage in preparation for a move to a new room – our wonderful suite was booked that night. (It felt like a demotion…as we later discovered, the new room was small and exposed to external nights and street noise. Stick to the two suites at Pak Chiang Mai or, failing that, the upstairs rooms away from the street-facing side.) The previous day, at Wat Phra Sing, we’d been solicited by a taxi driver to take us out to a variety of craft factories and showrooms on the road towards Bosang. The price was a rock-bottom bargain, so we agreed. We were bit surprised when the cab showed up – we had a different driver, the cab driver’s son, who appeared all of twelve years old. He looked so young that we had the management at Pak Chiang Mai confirm that he was of an age to drive legally. He was and we spent the morning being ferried from factory to show room to factory. At a silk factory, I found a perfect fit in the sale rack – a double-breasted iridescent purple silk jacket with contrasting black peaked lapels. It cost the mere equivalent of 33U$D. I couldn’t resist: I had YT snap several photos of me modeling this shiny ready-for-Vegas creation. Then I returned it to the sales rack. I hate peaked lapels.

    After buying yet more gifts, we had our youthful driver return us to Chiang Mai and drop us off by the Tha Phae Gate (it was here that we finally saw the improbable Scottish bagpiper in action). We had lunch at the nearby Morradoke restaurant, our newfound favorite in Chiang Mai: Pork with holy basil (again), shrimp in sweet/sour sauce, and shrimp ravioli – very good, all of it, although I would have preferred it a little spicier. While waiting for our food, we struck up a conversation with a regular, a French-English businessman. He was nailing a framed color photograph of a young Thai King and an even younger Elvis Presley to the restaurant wall – “Two Kings” he called it. It looked only a little out of place amidst the existing profusion of old black and white photos of Chiang Mai. I’d had some concerns about tomorrow’s planned activity – driving the curvy Mae Hong Son loop in a rental car on the left hand side of the road. He reassured us that we’d love it.

    Afterwards, we started walking back to Pak Chiang Mai to flee the intense sun. On the way back, I finally took up YT’s ongoing dare and stopped at a “fish spa.” Fish spas involve inserting one’s feet into a tank with hungry minnows that then proceed to nibble the dead skin off your feet. The process begins with a lengthy cleaning and rinsing of your feet – don’t want to give the hungry little critters foot and mouth disease, I guess. It was such an odd sensation, having these ravenous little minnows nibbling at your feet. It felt like a mild electric current. We returned to our (new) room and napped until YT had to leave for her spa adventure. Throughout this trip YT felt it her responsibility to sample the array of spa services offered. This particular spa was recommended by the owner of our B&B and was fabulous. YT was picked up by a driver and delivered to a paradise. It reminded her of the attempts in N. California to emulate Asian spas, but this was the real thing. She later said her experience was sheer pleasure, but she was gone so long I was pacing outside the B&B by the time she returned many hours later. While she was gone, I went out again to take photos at “Baan Phor Liang Meun’s Terra Cotta Arts,” right across the alley from Pak Chiang Mai. This terra cotta shop had an extensive garden filled with plants and various terra cotta objects – mostly pre-stressed reproductions of images from Hindu and Thai Buddhist mythology. They photographed beautifully in the late afternoon sun. Later still, I went out solo for food while YT sprawled in lassitude in our room. Everything nearby was closed, perhaps for the Chinese New Year. I finally ended up far from our hotel at Jansom Restaurant – not quite sure on what street - to have a quick dinner of yellow noodles and mussaman curry. It was superb and extraordinarily inexpensive.

    The next day was to be the beginning of our Mae Hong Son loop drive. We bade a temporary goodbye to Pak Chiang Mai and its wonderful staff and took a cab to the Chiang Mai airport to pick up our rental car. As it turned out, Budget, where we had a rental reservation, was not in the airport proper, but somewhere nearby. Instead of dragging our suitcases around trying to find the Budget office, we canceled our reservation and opted for an Avis rental at the airport location for the same amount. Within minutes, we were in our car and nervously finding our way around the exterior of the old moated city to the northern national highway. (Fortunately, road signs are in both Thai and Western scripts throughout Thailand.) Thailand drives on the left hand side of the road – and it had been almost thirty years since I’d driven a right hand drive vehicle. I did well except for continuously cutting on the windshield wipers whenever I wanted to make a turn – their placement on the steering column was reversed from what I was used to.

    After perhaps an hour, we turned west (left) on route 1095. The road was in great condition. We made good time and stopped at a roadside stand for delicious Thai coffee and had a lengthy conversation with the proprietress. She asked about our origins and ages and pronounced YT a “beautiful, young” woman and me a “strong” man (who presumably should still be working rather than retired.) We bought some wonderful spiced plantain chips and snacked on them as we drove down the increasingly curvy road.

    We arrived in Pai about three and a half hours after leaving Chiang Mai. The drive turned out to be less nerve-wracking than I’d feared, in part because of the absence of traffic. I found Pai to be a pleasant and prosperous riverside town that was a backpacker haven filled with youthful Australian and European travelers dressed in a colorful mix of denim, hill tribe and Thai garb. I understand that some older travelers dislike backpackers with a passion, citing their fashion sense, party-hearty sensibilities and cannabis use as alienating to their hosts (and their elders). I do somewhat dislike their insularity – they largely congregate together and eat in restaurants that serve familiar western fare - pizza, pasta, salads and tons of baked desserts (baked for the baked?). However, I believe that they play the same role in travel as urban pioneers did in revitalizing run-down urban neighborhoods: By their presence they ensure the eventual development of an infrastructure to support the visits of the less adventurous who possess an aversion to truly primitive and uncomfortable conditions (e.g., YT and myself). Some people view Pai as inauthentic, corrupted by backpackers. I find it difficult to understand the concept that efforts on the part of a previously impoverished rural people to escape a life of penury and privation somehow have rendered them inauthentic. In my view, if anything is inauthentic, it is the belief of certain types of western travelers that they can achieve a vicarious authenticity via interactions with people living “authentic” traditional lives that reflect a living standard only slightly above mere subsistence.
    YT Note – While not disliking Pai as strongly as some people GotT described, I did not care for it. I felt it was overrun by foreigners and we could have been in any town on any continent in any country. I loved our hotel (misnamed in the logistics portion above – it was Hotel des Artists Rose of Pai) and thought the area beautiful, but could have done without the inhabitants of Pai itself.

    When we’d arrived, we’d inadvertently driven past our hotel on the main road through town. We stopped at another hotel and were cheerfully given a map and directions to our hotel, “Hotel des Artists Rose of Pai.” We arrived at this riverside hotel by slowly – very slowly - driving down what the map identified as a “walking street,” a narrow one-way street filled with backpackers, vendors, motos, bikes, dogs and the occasional monk. Hotel des Artists was at the very end, overlooking the River Pai and a bamboo footbridge. The stylish but traditional hotel was a former nobleman’s house, which accounted for the solid construction of old growth woods. We had booked a “River View” room. It was fabulous. The room was filled with antiques, crafts and silks. We could lay in the king size bed and watch foot traffic across the bridge and on the far shore. The bathroom was spacious, nicely appointed in a style that I can only describe as Thai modern. There was an immense orchid by the sink. This room (and suites at the Pak Chiang Mai) were the most pleasant rooms we had in Thailand.

    After unpacking, we left and wandered the streets. YT stopped at a hair stylist’s and they recommended a restaurant called “Na’s Kitchen” for dinner. After some more wandering, we went there for an early dinner (we’d skipped lunch). It was superb: Curried egg noodles with chicken, chicken with cashews, and a kind of local sausage as an appetizer. (We liked it so much, we returned the next night for a meal of curried noodles with shrimp, chicken curry and a tofu appetizer.) After our dinner, we walked down the night market on the “main street” per the map. As we arrived, we heard the call to prayer from the local mosque; it sounded something like the wail of a trapped wounded animal, a perception reinforced when a local dog began howling in counterpoint. The night market had loads of food vendors, t-shirt vendors and craft sellers. We returned to our hotel, our room and our fabulous bed. Across the river, lanterns mounted inside balloons slowly ascended into the night sky.

    The next morning, we had breakfast at our hotel and then drove to a local park (I didn’t note down the name and the admission ticket is written in Thai). We walked around for a while. A viewpoint had spectacular views across the Pai valley. From there we went back towards town and headed out to Mae Peng waterfalls. Mae Peng had some unspectacular falls, but it was a fun place to spend a few hours. After parking we chose a path that led us to the top of the falls. We watched as young backbackers slid their way down to the bottom of the falls. We figured - why not, give it a try. We gingerly made our way down the slippery rocks and somehow made it to the bottom without either of us taking a fall at the falls. YT was quite proud of herself as she blazed a path that was followed by many of the young frolickers. Guess age pays off sometimes. We returned to our room in the afternoon for joint massages; YT has always liked massages and I was slowly becoming a convert.

    The next day, Friday, we drove to Mae Hong Son. There are, if the t-shirts are to be believed, 1,864 curves on Route 1095 between its intersection with Route 107 (the National Highway) and Mae Hong Son. Most of these are between Pai and Mae Hong Son. By now acclimated to driving on the left (if not to using the turn signal), I enjoyed driving the sinuous serpentine road. Contrary to some statements on the travel boards, I found that Thais drive in a remarkably cautious style for a people who share a near-universal belief in reincarnation; perhaps they were worried that their cars would not be reincarnated with them.

    The road to Mae Hong Son took us over several mountain passes with lookout areas, through the roadside town of Saphong, and finally down into a valley. Mae Hong Son is less tourist-oriented than Pai, an actual Thai working town. We found our hotel (the Fern Resort) by the now standard means of stopping at the first hotel we saw and asking directions; we always found the staff to be unfailingly helpful. Fern Resort was a bit out of town up a side road. It’s sited on a now-converted rice farm and comprises a series of terraces surrounded by converted bungalows. The effect is strikingly beautiful, albeit a haven for mosquitoes due to the half-flooded fields. Unfortunately, our room proved to be a bit down at the heels: hard beds, thin small towels, dim lighting, a general air of slight decrepitude coupled with the overwhelming wintergreen scent of a cleaning fluid that reminded me of the smell of a urinal mint. We left and drove around a bit, going into a park that that took us up a hill on a road to nowhere…the road became progressively rutted and then turned into a dirt track. We turned around and headed back towards Mae Hong Son. After a great deal of puzzled driving on side streets, we eventually found the central lake and its two wats. We found it attractive but a bit underwhelming. We’d skipped lunch again, so we had an early dinner at the nearby restaurant Salween River, which served Shan-style food. We started with crispy tofu strips (called “pappadom,” I think) and a dipping sauce; it was reminiscent of chips and salsa. Then on to pork salad and a chicken dish. It was all pretty good and the restaurant was the highlight of the little we saw of town. (In retrospect, it’s odd how one can be away for nine weeks and still not have enough time for a given site.)

    We returned to the Fern Resort for a cocktail (a beer, actually) and a sunset view from the bar. Then we sat in the lobby to catch the Wifi signal, soaked in DEET and being dive-bombed by mosquitoes that veered away, confused, at the last minute. After some debate, and a lot of time on-line, we decided to cut our visit to Mae Hong Son short. If we stayed there a second night, we’d have to drive all the way back to Chiang Mai in one go – a drive of six plus hours by the shortest route. So we made a reservation in Pai for Saturday night and notified the Fern Resort that we were leaving a day early. Later that night, as we lay in bed, we heard laughter and voices as someone tried to insert their key into our lock before realizing their mistake. Readers of our earlier report re traveling in Chile will be pleased to know that I had my pillow at the ready to repel these intruders.

    We left quaint Mae Hong Son the next morning, first driving up the hill to Wat Phai Doi. This is a large white temple that overlooks the town. We admired the view from the overlook – we were so far up that Mae Hong Son Lake looked like a puddle. YT then vigorously rang the temple bells by beating on them with a large wooden paddle. (She had been harboring a desire to do this since first encountering temple bells in Bangkok.) Then back down the hill to the curvy road. We stopped at the Fish Caves, bought a bag of mixed fish food and hiked to the cave to feed the fish. They seemed especially partial to lettuce leaves and large water bugs.; had I known in advance I would have prepared insect lettuce wraps.

    We arrived in Pai without incident and headed down to the river edge via the “walking street.” This night’s lodging was at the Pai River Corner, across the street from the Hotel des Artists Rose of Pai. We had room 16, with a lovely view of the river and the footbridge, although the room itself possessed what had to be one of the world’s oldest, saggiest mattresses. One took care in turning over in bed to avoid impaling oneself on the springs. Otherwise it was a nice room in a nice hotel with attractive grounds. We walked out to town to find YT an air-conditioned massage place…the one we were familiar with was unfortunately situated next to a bar hosting a mid-afternoon performance by the world’s worst funk/reggae band.

    That evening, based on a recommendation by Hanuman on this board, we went to dinner at Baan Benjarong. It was a long walk up to Route 1095 and the outskirts of town past both 7-11s (they’re ubiquitous in Thailand). Our greeting was less than cordial.; “indifferent” comes to mind. (The owner is something of a notorious curmudgeon.) The food, though, was superb, some of the very best of our trip: Banana flower salad, crab “dip” (more like a soup), shrimp in tamarind sauce and pork with crispy herbs. It was all very good, but the banana flower salad was outstanding. A Thai diner told us that this was “old” Thai cooking, from an era when cooking oil had been prohibitively expensive for most people and used only rarely and sparingly. We accompanied our meal with tamarind and fruit juices and finished with banana fritters with ice cream. As we were finishing, we struck up a conversation with a British couple that’d just arrived. They were part way through a yearlong trip around the world. They’d spent several months in an ashram in India and were now exploring Thailand. After that they planned to visit Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Los Angeles, Costa Rica and New York City before returning home. I had a serious case of travel envy, a condition I had not known to previously exist. The guy worked/works as a (sound, I assume) engineer for the Who/Peter Townsend. I asked him to give my regards to Mr. Townsend. Unfortunately, I didn’t get their names.

    We walked back to town by Route 1095, better lit and safer than the side street we’d taken most of the way out. The night market was in full swing and much more crowded than it had been earlier in the week. We listened to traditional music, and saw Rastafarians of various nationalities, including Thai, some unfortunate mimes, a fellow who was dressed like Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” tattooed backpackers and a Muslim food vendor dressed in full jihadi regalia including a suicide vest with tubes of bamboo in place of the traditional high explosives. He was carving meat off a standing spit with an enormous sword. We slowly made our way back to our room. Once there, we listened to the woman beneath us in the two-story bungalow smoking pot with a friend - interlaced coughing and giggling.

    The next morning we left early – for us, that’s any time before 10:00 a.m. – to return to Chiang Mai. We stopped again at the roadside coffee lady’s. She didn’t remember us, but again pronounced that YT was “beautiful” and that I was “strong.” We finished our coffees and got some more of the fabulously spicy plantain chips to take with us. We were soon back on Route 107 and barreling towards Chiang Mai. Traffic was at first light, but became increasingly heavy as we approached the city. I found driving in that traffic with lane changing cars and darting motos to be far more harrowing than the curves and ups and downs of Route 1095. Once in Chiang Mai, we made it directly to the airport without getting lost once, quite an accomplishment given the unfamiliar streets and some of our past epic misadventures. We turned in our rental car, bundled ourselves and our baggage into a taxi and returned to our previous lodging at the Pak Chiang Mai. We again had a suite, a different one (#32 versus #31), although our planned early departure the next day precluded us from unpacking and strewing our stuff around the place, as was our customary practice.

    Later, we walked down to the Sunday night market as the vendors were setting up. We stopped for a half hour foot massages (about 2U$D apiece) and then wandered the market for a while. (It reconfirmed my opinion that this is the best market in Thailand, beating out even the overly large Chattachuk in Bangkok.) We decided on an early dinner - we’d skipped lunch once again – and first tried Huen Phen then backtracked to Morradoke. Both were closed. (I was particularly disappointed in not being able to photograph the “Two Kings” picture at Morradoke. I couldn’t help but wonder at what set of circumstances had brought together Elvis and the slightly appalled looking King of Thailand...I later learned that the photo was taken on a Hollywood movie set.)

    We had neglected to bring any information with us regarding restaurants and walked from the closed Morradoke to the nearby Hotel Amora to try to get on the Internet to research Chiang Mai dining. Then we remembered the Chedi. The Chedi was an ultra-luxurious hotel with a high-end restaurant recently built on the banks of the Rover Ping just outside the old city. We took a tuk tuk there. The hotel was architecturally spectacular, a fusion of Western modernism and Thai style. The grounds were beautiful and the open-air restaurant atmospheric in the candle-lit twilight. Dinner was superb, but very expensive – about 50U$D – for Thailand. We lingered briefly and then took a tuk tuk back to the Pak Chiang Mai to end our last night in the north.

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    Excellent report! We stayed at the Hotel des Artist as well and thought of it as the best accommodation in Pai. Your trip report will serve as a good guide for anyone wanting to visit area.

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    Great to continue reading such a detailed report. I had to laugh at gottravels comment:
    "I did well except for continuously cutting on the windshield wipers whenever I wanted to make a turn – their placement on the steering column was reversed from what I was used to."
    I thought it was just me! I was still doing this as we drove back into CM after a week.

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    Thanks for the terrific report! It's like reliving our own trip (in part). The only let down is that you didn't label the last part Postcards from Chiang Mai ;)

    And the dual viewpoints really has made it a particularly interesting report.

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    At the Beach: Southern Thailand

    We took a cab early to the Chiang Mai Airport for our two-leg/two airline (Bangkok Air and Air Asia) trip to Krabi Airport in southern Thailand. The trip turned out to be less problematic than we’d feared; in fact, it was completely painless. We checked our bags with Bangkok Air for the first leg, retrieved them in Bangkok and rechecked it with Air Asia for the Krabi leg. We arrived in Krabi in driving rain, rain so thick we could see sheets of water swirling across the parking lot outside the Krabi airport. We’d arranged in advance with our hotel for a driver; he deposited us at our hotel, the Aonang Phu Petra, about forty minutes later. Phu Petra proved to be pleasant choice – enormous rooms, a comfortable bed, fabulous staff and a stunning setting beneath immense karst cliffs. It only had two drawbacks: 1) the rooms had lighting that was too dim to read by, and 2) it is popular with “family” travelers. (We had a room next to a couple with the world’s crankiest baby for our first three nights; the third night we were serenaded in stereo when another couple with another crying baby moved into the room on our other side.) The Phu Petra had an aggressive spraying schedule – a noisy treatment of the grounds with billowing clouds of foggy insecticide at regular weekly intervals. It kept mosquitoes to a minimum, although I was leery of the spray itself and we left the grounds immediately the day the spraying started.

    The Phu Petra is outside of Aonang town, but within walking distance. However, part of the road is dimly lit and we generally relied on the hotel shuttle for travel to and from town. The shuttle had a somewhat perplexing schedule. It went into town every hour in afternoon and evening, but only offered return trips every two hours.

    We’d come to the south of Thailand because we’d read that the landscape of eroded karst hills and cliffs is spectacular (it is) and the beaches beautiful (they are). But we’re not really beach people; neither of is have the inclination or patience to lay in the sun. Not that it mattered at the beginning - it rained pretty much constantly our first evening and then intermittently on our second day. Aonang is something of a tourist beach town, with lots of Europeans and Australians and lots of drinking. After the great food we’d had in northern Thailand, the food in both the town and the hotel seemed overpriced and mediocre by comparison. (Prices were roughly three times what we’d been paying in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.) Some of the better restaurants were:
    • Aonang Cuisine (good satay, although small portions);
    • Laelay (great view – we saw the best sunset of the trip there – expensive, high quality food); and
    • Baan Lay (fantastic clams with garlic and very good grilled seafood).

    Mornings arrived with the sound of roosters, monkeys and a call to prayer from the nearby mosque (much more melodic than that in Pai). We typically ate breakfast at the hotel, which offered a buffet of Western and Thai choices, spent a little time at the pool and then headed into town. On our third day, we took a crowded long tail boat to Railey Beach, which was spectacular under huge cliffs. We explored a bit, talking a path towards the interior. About three hundred feet from the beachfront, on a trail in the jungle, we found the shattered remains of three boats that had been thrown there by the 2004 tsunami. Our final day we spent touring four islands in the Andaman Sea with Elizabeth from Andaman Camp & Cruise recommended by rhkmk, www.anadamancampandcruise.com. All of the islands were spectacular, typically with the high cliffs characteristic of the area. The water was clear and there was an abundance of brilliantly-colored tropical fish. It was pleasant being on a boat with a grand total of five people: Elizabeth, her young son, the pilot and ourselves. Elizabeth, originally Australian, lived in Thailand and related amusing stories of her life there. Over the course of the day, in comedic repetition, we would arrive at an island in time to do a little sightseeing, snorkel a bit and then flee to the next destination after one or more long tail boats carrying twenty plus passengers apiece showed up. We had a great onboard lunch and took a lot of photographs. We returned the next day to Bangkok for an overnight stay before heading on to Hanoi. And that was our week in the south – arriving to the sound of babies and departing with a snorkeling sunburn across my shoulders. We stayed six days in Aonang and should have only stayed four at most. Sorry, if I make it sound dull. Aonang is a great town if you like beaches. But, as I mentioned before, we’re really not beach people.

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    Very funny -- we're considering either Ecuador or Colombia or perhaps a combo of both. Have just started looking at info on the 2 countries. Everyone loves Ecuador. I can look forward to your planning questions and hopefully a TR before we take off, probably in January. Yes, we need to meet up -- u come up to DC ever?

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    You are always a week or two after us on the trips. Ecuador looks beautiful and we have a friend who lives there now. We jumped on a low fare. Yes--we do come to D.C. from time to time (NoVa, actually). I will let you know the next time so we can grab a drink.

    Are you going to post any pics from your SEA trip?

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    Northern Vietnam #1: Hanoi and Halong Bay

    Hanoi rocks. And Hanoi annoyed. The air was a miasma of exhaust fumes, charcoal smoke, and smoke from cigarettes and the burning of “ghost money” for the Chinese New Year’s. And we heard more horns honking in our first five minutes in Hanoi than in all four weeks in Thailand. But I like towns where there’s life in the streets – it was impossible for me not to like the Old Quarter of Haoi.

    We’d taken a 6:45 a.m. flight from Bangkok to Hanoi and were somewhat sleep deprived when we arrived. Our hotel, the Elegance Hanoi on Lo Su Street, had, per arrangement, picked us up at the airport and given us our first exposure to the chaotic Vietnamese traffic. The hotel, located in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, was modern and comfortable, one of our favorites of our trip. We had an upper floor junior suite. After our luggage had been deposited in our room, we began to wander the crowded streets of the Old Quarter. The sidewalks were periodically blocked by parked motos or businesses and restaurants that had expanded to the curb. (The restaurants had small low plastic tables, and tiny chairs the size of the plastic folding stool that I use for gardening.) Traffic seemed to be a constant flow of motos and bicycles, with the occasional four-wheeled vehicle – inevitably a ridiculously large SUV. We’d had the procedure for crossing the streets – termed a “leap of faith” – explained to us in advance. One simply waited until there were no four wheeled vehicles oncoming and then strode into the sea of motos and bicycles. And it worked. The sea not so much parted as flowed around one. One had to maintain a constant speed and direction so that oncoming traffic could anticipate your movements and avoid you. We did our first few practice runs downstream of Vietnamese people crossing the streets, but soon we were confidently crossing on our own.

    We explored the Old Quarter, noting the various items for sale on the streets. At one time each street in Old Quarter of 36 streets had specialized in a different good. Although not strictly adhered to, some streets still contained shops of a similar nature. We ran across a shoe street. And a street that seemed to have nothing except silk stores. We eventually stumbled across Madame Hien’s restaurant on a less-trafficked side street. The quiet courtyard appealed to us and we stopped for lunch – rice crepe appetizers, bun cha (grilled pork w/ rice noodles) and squid stuffed with pork and sautéed with clams. All very good.

    Then more wandering. We discovered Ginkgo fashions, a somewhat upscale t-shirt store. And several retro Communist propaganda poster shops – they sold both vintage and reprinted revolutionary posters (some quite good as far as design went) for those possessed with both a sense of irony and an indifference to tragedy. There were numerous art galleries – most of which specialized in generic genre scenes that inevitably featured women wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical hat. Some handicraft shops. Cheap t-shirt shops, many featuring the alternatively avuncular and serious visages of “Uncle Ho.” It seemed that every building was flying the Vietnamese flag – a gold star on a red background. Some also flew the Communist Party flag – a gold hammer and sickle on the identical red background. We got lost repeatedly in crowded warren of streets; I found myself referring to our map on every street corner, more often than not finding myself at an unanticipated intersection.

    We returned to the hotel at 4:30 or so for a nap (GotT) and a massage (YT). Much later we had dinner at New Day Restaurant on Ma May Street, negotiating our way there one block at a time by constantly referring to the map. Spring rolls, bun cha, Singapore noodles and beer for U$D9. Good. Then on to dessert at Green Tangerine, which we’d passed on the way to New Day. We had a passion fruit tart and lemongrass cake and port in an elegant courtyard of a charming old house. Then back to our room.

    We awakened to patriotic music and a morning harangue coming over a nearby PA system. We took the elevator up to the rooftop dining room and had breakfast. I had pho, YT toast and fruit. Then down to the lobby. We’d scheduled a tour with “Hanoi Kids” today. Hanoi Kids is a university group where they pair English speaking tourists with Vietnamese college students who want to practice their English. It’s nominally free, although the tourist does pay for lunch and any admission fees and taxis. Our kids were “Vinnie” and Ban (sp?). Vinnie was a twenty-one year old student in business. Ban was a nineteen year old studying economics. We started our tour at Hoan Kiem Lake and the Ncog Son Temple, on a small island in the lake reached by an arched red footbridge. Afterwards, we walked around the lake, ending up on a street of bookstores. We turned off to go to an old ice cream store, which sold one flavor, coconut. Then we proceeded to the old French section, going by the Opera House (very French in appearance, recently restored) and the Metropole Hotel. We passed several high-end stores; bridal shots were staged both there and in a nearby park there were at least a dozen brides (and an equivalent number of sullen-looking grooms) being photographed. Then we went back into the Old Quarter for “egg” coffee at an ancient upstairs coffee house (didn’t catch the name). Egg coffee is coffee with egg whites whipped in and is actually pretty tasty. Recaffeinated, we moved on to an old merchant’s shop house on Ma May Street. This house had been carefully preserved and now functioned as museum. The front had once served as a shop. The back and the upstairs had been living quarters for the shop-owner’s family. Next, we went to Saint Joseph’s Cathedral. It had just closed and looked like a miniature version of Notre Dame. There was a horde of people on motos in front of the cathedral. They were parents waiting to pick up their children when the Catholic School let out. We watched, fascinated, as school ended, the children flooded out and were hauled away on motorbikes, typically perched in front of the driver. Then we cabbed it to Quan An Ngon (18 Phan Boi Chau) for lunch. This was a large, very crowded restaurant with both interior and patio seating. We sat outside. The kids ordered for all of us: Papaya salad with seafood, fried rice with seafood, a crepe dish with seafood (banh xeo), shrimp cakes, and that old standby, bun cha. It was a fantastic meal. It was hard not to like Vinnie and Ban. They’d been born into a world where the “American War” was a distant memory – far more distant than World War II had been to YT and myself. They had also lived their entire lives in an era subsequent to the economic reforms that had changed Vietnam from a Stalinist basket case to an exported-oriented economy that welcomed foreign investment and seemed to thrive on sidewalk entrepreneurialism. They both revered Bac Ho – “Uncle Ho” – and supported the reforms (as did everybody we met). Otherwise, their concerns were typical of young people of their age group: school, the loneliness of moving from a small town to the big city, etc.

    After lunch we bid goodbye to the Hanoi Kids and walked to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum on Thuong Kiet Street. It was a great museum. It gave an overview of “ethnic minority” dress, women’s roles in minority ethnic societies, and women’s roles in the two Indochina wars (with France and the USA). Then we walked back to the Elegance Hanoi with an intermediate stop at the Vietnam Post headquarters to buy stamps as gifts for the son of some friends. At one point I stopped to take a photo of a large, deco-style government building - but was loudly warned to refrain by passers-by. By the time we arrived back at the hotel we were exhausted. We rested, read for a bit and then ordered a superb bun cha from Elegance Hanoi room service.

    At 7:30 the next morning, the a.m. harangue and patriotic music were repeated. And I opted for a repeat pho at the hotel breakfast. After breakfast, we took a cab out to the Tonkin Travel office in the West Lake district of Hanoi. We met Nhung, with whom YT had been in communication for over a year as we’d planned, aborted and then re-planned our trip to Southeast Asia. Rather than booking flights, hotels and drivers/guides individually as we’d done in the rest of Southeast Asia, we’d used Tonkin Travel to book all of our hotels, internal flights, tours, guides and drivers in Vietnam. Nhung was young, friendly and spoke excellent English. We reviewed our itinerary and then got down to the business of paying for our three and half weeks of travel in Vietnam. (This consisted of twenty-two nights hotel lodging, three guided boat and land tours, covering a total of ten days, two internal airplane flights, an overnight boat cruise on Halong Bay and an overnight train from Sapa to Hanoi, all for less than $4,000 for the two of us – an incredible bargain, particularly given the hours and hours of research and potential on-line aggravation we avoided.) We handed over 700U$D, and 20,000,000 Vietnamese dong – a stack of banknotes over half an inch high – and charged the balance.

    After meeting with Nhung, we walked along the lakeshore for a bit. We were simply astounded at some on the sumptuous new lakeside houses that had been recently constructed. Were it not for the raggedly dressed lakeside fishermen squatting on piles of rock with jerry-rigged fishing poles, we could have been in California or Florida. We eventually tired of the only modernist architecture we’d seen since Bangkok and took a cab back to the old quarter and its crowded sidewalks and narrow “tube” houses. We had a late lunch – we’d had a series of twists and turns while trying to hunt the place down – at Bun Bo Nam Bo (67 Hang Dieu Street). This second-floor restaurant serves only one dish: bun bo, rice noodles with grilled beef and vegetables, topped with a mountain of herbs and peanuts. It wasn’t quite as tasty as the previous night’s delectable bun cha, but it wasn’t too shabby either. The tab for two (with a Heineken and a bottle of water) was less than 5U$D.

    After our lunch, we walked some more in the Old Quarter (and then walked to the “Temple of Literature,” a thousand year old series of buildings once devoted to Confucian education. Our Google-mapped route took us there via the filthy and ill-maintained (albeit rhyming) Nguyen Khuyen Street, a decidedly unpleasant walk one block south of the much nicer Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. The Temple of Literature turned out to be an enclave of superb Chinese-influenced buildings surrounded by a low wall. Outside the walls, calligraphy, art and al fresco haircut vendors (haircuts U$D1, photos of haircuts U$D2) vied for clientele. Inside (entry was 20,00 dong – about a dollar – apiece) was a peaceful, if crowded, oasis that harkened back to another time. One enters from the south off of Quoc Tu Giam Street. The grounds consist of a series of courtyards. The first two are lawns and gardens with pools on the sides. The third courtyard has a large central pool with Chinese buildings on either side. The fourth courtyard is an open plaza with buildings on either side. The complex terminates in the fifth courtyard, a plaza surrounded by buildings on three sides, including a large temple against on the north wall. The overall impression was of an harmonic whole, a pleasing symmetry. We enjoyed it a lot despite the crowds. Afterwards, we cabbed back to the Old Quarter and, after the usual twists and turns, made it to the water puppet theater. There, with the serendipitous help of a Hanoi Elegance staff person already in line, we bought third row tickets for the next night’s 9:15 show.

    That night, dinner was in the Green Tangerine on Ma May Street, where we’d had desserts in the courtyard two nights earlier. We’d liked the desserts so much that we’d returned for a full meal. This time we were seated in the second floor interior of the elegant colonial-era (1928) mansion. The Green Tangerine features what can only be described as inventive modern French cooking with a slight Vietnamese influence. This was to be the first non-Asian meal – other than desserts or items at breakfast buffets – that we’d had in over six weeks of travel in southeast Asia. For a starter we had “bacon flowers” with tiny mushrooms serving as the pistils; it came atop a bed of pureed tropical fruits. Delicious. Then came the main courses. I had duck breast with roasted mushrooms and tamarind sauce with an accompanying cherry tomato tart. YT had a boneless chicken leg stuffed with currants, almonds, black mushrooms and “spices from the market” with a side of lotus and artichoke. We had a glass of wine apiece and later shared a glass of port. YT also had the “five treasure dessert, which, we were advised, “you don’t want to share.” (We didn’t, but I’m not a dessert person.) It was the most expensive meal of the trip, even more than the Chedi in Chiang Mai – about U$D75. The same meal back at home in DC could easily have cost twice as much.

    The next morning, the harangue was mercifully short and the patriotic songs were skipped altogether. I made amends for last night’s French food by again having pho for breakfast; I’d come to appreciate this dish and its popularity. It was at once light and filling. We left in a light rain for the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Unfortunately, despite explicit instructions from the hotel, as well as from my guidance with a map of Hanoi, the driver nonetheless took us to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum instead. (We’d decided early on against viewing the dried-up old Ho – the potential spectacle was too reminiscent of Spanish Catholicism and the dusty “santos secos” we’d encountered in old Spanish churches. Besides, there were lines.) After some moments of mutual incomprehensibility, I managed to show him our destination on his map, which must have differed from mine in some unknown manner. Five minutes – and an additional ninety cents in taxi fare – later, we were there. The Ho Museum was a trip. It was an odd mixture of straightforward documentary (old photographs, newspapers, documents, etc.) on the second floor and a truly surreal tableau on the third, which featured an Edsel crashing through a wall, large, distorted furniture, and Dali and Picasso reproductions. Older Vietnamese from the countryside – I’m guessing based on their drab clothing and old military medals – seemed to be utterly perplexed by this decidedly post-modern scene.

    Afterwards, we walked to the Hoi Lo prison, the former “Hanoi Hilton” of the era of the US intervention. Hoi Lo had originally been built as a prison back in the French colonial era. The focus was on the depredations of the French back in the day. If only a fraction of what they depicted was true, then French colonialism was one of the sorrier chapters in Western history. The cells were overcrowded, the torments were sadistic, malnutrition was prevalent, firing squads were busy and the guillotine had its work cut out. One room, the last one on the visit, purported to show, by comparison, the humane treatment meted out to captive American airmen by the Vietnamese. Knowing that they were actually treated with considerable brutality, this misrepresentation made me question the veracity of the French colonial era history presented elsewhere in the museum.

    After leaving Hoi Lo, we walked to the Metropole just to see the luxurious lobby of this restored colonial-era hotel. (I believe that Graham Greene wrote part of “The Quiet American” here.) After catching up on the world via the International Herald Tribune, we headed towards the impassable sidewalks of the Old Quarter. We snacked while we ate: We first had mangoes with chili powder, under-ripe, but tasty nonetheless. Then a “doner kebab” banh mi sandwich, the best meal I’ve ever had for a dollar. Then on to Bun Cha Dac Kim (1 Hang Manh, my favorite street name in the Old Quarter) where we had the best bun cha we’d had to date – grilled pork, grilled pork patties, and spring rolls served over rice vermicelli with mounds of greenery (mint, cilantro, other herbs that I couldn’t identify) and fish sauce. Fantastic! Two huge servings – neither of us could finish everything - and a Coca-Cola cost less than 10U$D. We explored some more in the Old Quarter and then returned to the Elegance Hanoi for a nap and some repacking – the next day we were heading to Halong Bay for an overnight cruise.

    We ate in at the Hanoi Elegance – a small late meal of bun cha and banh xeo – before leaving for our 9:15 water puppet show. The stage was a pool with a kind of set behind it. The show was accompanied by a small orchestra playing traditional music. The puppets are manipulated by sticks held under the water. Despite others’ opinions, I didn’t find it cheesy at all. It was a peek into Vietnam’s old rural history and humorous in a slap-sticky way at times. The only modern touch was in the instrumentation – splashy cymbals and microphones. Otherwise, this show could have taken place five centuries ago.

    We awoke early the next morning, had a quick breakfast, did our last minute packing, and were picked up and on the road by 8:00 a.m. The route alternated between rice fields, industrial sites and small towns. I marveled at the Vietnamese ability to fit three lanes of traffic onto a one-lane road. On a less marvelous note, we passed a moto with a large wire cage on the back filled with live dogs piled atop one another. And, as we passed through the outlying towns, we noted several restaurants specializing in “thit cho,” including one that actually depicted a dog’s head on its sign. We stopped part of the way to Halong Bay for a bathroom break at a huge shop that sold every kind of Vietnamese craft available…silks, clothing marble sculptures, furniture and bottles of rice wine that contained a preserved snake and scorpion, seemingly in battle. We’d poked our heads in and then stepped back outside by the entrance and waited for our driver. Unbeknownst to us, we were supposed to walk all the way through the shop and then exit on the other side to meet our driver, thus availing ourselves of the opportunity of perusing the full array of merchandise for sale. We had a bit of a wait before we began to search for our car and ran across our puzzled driver.

    We arrived at Halong Bay before noon. It was cool, foggy and beautiful. After a bit of a wait, we, and the rest of our fellow adventurers, were ferried out to the “Dragon Pearl” junk. Soon we were on our way. Halong Bay is renown for karst islets, which seem to rise almost vertically out of the sea. There are as many as 2,000 of these islets in a relatively small area. The resulting scene – leaden skies, pewter seas, sheer rocks, wifts of fog - was stunningly atmospheric. It was hard to describe and impossible to forget. It was also cold – so cold that we passed on the chance to kayak when we arrived at one of the larger islets…we’ll stay in here where it’s warm, thank you. Our cabin, below decks, was small but had a comfortable bed and serviceable bathroom. We didn’t need much room as we’d only brought a bare minimum of luggage, having left most of our stuff back at the Hanoi Elegance. The food at dinner was OK. Afterwards, the kitchen crew dazzled us with a series of carvings they’d done…a pumpkin carved into a phoenix, a watermelon combined with a pumpkin and carved into a replica of the Dragon Pearl (the watermelon was the hull). We met a couple who were some of the very few Americans we saw on this part of our trip – most of the tourists we met in Vietnam, particularly in the North, were French.

    The next day was still cool but a bit less cloudy. We stopped at a floating village and were ferried about in a small boat by a villager standing in the back with a long-handled paddle. The village was set amongst karst cliffs and the houseboats were painted different shades and combinations of blue and green. We rejoined the Dragon Pearl and sailed back towards port, arriving a little after lunch. Our driver – the same as the previous day – picked us up and we were headed back to Hanoi. We had a bit of a role reversal at the obligatory bathroom stop at the big store. We couldn’t find our driver; it was only a while later that we noticed him eating having a hurried late lunch in the restaurant section.

    We arrived back in Hanoi around 4:30. We went out much later to Madame Hien’s for an excellent dinner: a tasty rum ginger fruit juice cocktail, rice pancakes, a delicious duck “three ways,” shrimp with garlic sprouts, broccoli in oyster sauce. We walked back to the hotel in a light fog. The arched red bridge to the temple on the island in the lake was lit; it was beautiful, duplicated in the water below. Back at the hotel we went to the 12th floor for dessert and gran marnier. Then to room and to bed. The next day would be the start of a new adventure: The road to Sapa and the mountains of the northwest.

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    Northern Vietnam #2: Six Days on the Road

    Our Tonkin Travel guide (Manh) and driver (Vung) showed up promptly the next morning and we were on the road a little after 8:30. Our destination for the day was the town of Mai Chau. The first hour of our drive took us through Hanoi and its outskirts. At one point, we were on the Vietnamese equivalent of a superhighway. The city eventually thinned into industrial parks – huge factories with acres of sheltered moto parking lots outside. Then rice paddies appeared, many flooded with farmers replanting rice seedlings or plowing with mud-slicked water buffalo. It seemed that every flat space had been pressed into use. As we approached the foothills to the mountains, the fields were terraced.

    The weather, when we had left Hanoi, had been cool and overcast. As we arrived in the foothills, cool and overcast became cool and foggy. Eventually the fog became so thick that it reduced visibility to two or three car lengths. This was a blessing – in the clearer moments, the sheer drop-off by the side of the road was vertigo-inducing. At one point we stopped for coffee. Later, as we passed through a village, we saw a large tent that Manh said indicated a wedding in progress. We stopped the car to observe (so we thought). The bride’s car – festooned with flowers – arrived immediately behind ours and we watched her making her appearance amid a cloud of glitter tossed by the spectators. We soon became the recipients of Vietnamese hospitality. YT was enticed into dancing to some thumping techno music with a very young woman. Meanwhile, I’d been dragooned into meeting the father of the bride, who took me by the hand and half-waved, half-dragged us into the tent. I was seated at a table with him and three older women. They offered a little plate with betel nuts and cigarettes. I avoided the cigarettes – I quit many years ago but am still subject to temptation – by taking a betel nut and the accompanying leaf of an unknown plant and chewing the two together. It tasted incredibly bitter and was something of a topical anesthetic. It reminded me a bit of chewing coca leaves in Peru, except that this was more bitter, far more numbing and much faster acting. Then out came the chilled rice wine – YT snapped photos as the father of the bride and I toasted each other and then downed the liquor. It was mild, not unpleasant and a good excuse to rid myself of the betel nut residue. I managed to politely refuse further drinks and, with the assistance of Manh, we managed to slowly extract ourselves from the web of Vietnamese country hospitality via apologies, claims of prior commitments, congratulations and rounds of handshakes. (Throughout Vietnam, we found people to be very friendly and hospitable, even those, like the father of the bride, who were veterans of the Indochinese war; it’s almost as if the war had never occurred.)

    By late morning, as we passed higher into the mountains, the fog burned off. By the time we started making our way down into the valley where Mai Chau was located, the fog was completely gone and we found ourselves enjoying the perfect sunny weather. We arrived at our hotel, the Mai Chau Lodge, a little after noon, checked in, dropped our luggage in our room and walked to the nearby village of Lac for lunch. We ate at an unnamed restaurant under a large stilt house. We were the only customers except for a nearby table of British tourists and another table of Vietnamese. There was no menu; we were just brought food. It was delicious…fried pork cutlets, stir-fried broccoli, chicken with mushrooms, fish steamed in bamboo. After lunch, we walked around Lac for a bit. It was a somewhat self-conscious “ethnic minority” village devoted to the production and sale of silk weavings. It seemed like every wooden stilt house had a loom underneath and a variety of textile items, mostly scarves and appliquéd wall hangings, for sale. Somewhat unusually for rural Vietnam (as we later found out), almost every street was paved in concrete.
    After a while Manh joined us in our wanderings and we walked out to the vegetable gardens – some covered in chicken wire - and the recently flooded rice paddies. We exchanged helloes with the inhabitants and their children. Then YT and I walked back to the hotel and admired the view from our upper story room – rice paddies and small fishponds and distant hills. We took a nap that consumed much of the remainder of the afternoon.

    Dinner was included in our lodging. It was a mix of so-so Western and Vietnamese food…shrimp wrapped in bacon with tamarind sauce, salad, chicken curry, beef in red wine sauce. After dinner, we wandered downstairs for the advertised “ethnic minority” dancing. The band – drum, percussion, flute and accordion – was great. They sounded at times like a mix between Irish and Cajun music. The dancers – who were young enough to be in high school – were good and seemed to be enjoying themselves. They constantly changed clothing as they performed dances by the various local ethnic groups. It ended with an ensemble dance that involved stepping between moving bamboo poles held slightly above the floor, inviting the audience – all eight of us - to participate. The ultimate finale was a ring of handholding kids and travelers stepping to “Frere Jacques” – I guess the French are an ethnic minority too. I regretted having left my camera in the room. Something in the way the kids had enjoyed themselves performing had made it seem more authentic than our evening in Laos almost four weeks earlier.

    I awoke the next morning to find myself, if I ignored time zone differences, a year older. It was my birthday. I celebrated with a breakfast in the hotel – all western, as it turned out, bacon and fruit and a croissant. Then we promptly hit the road. Again, there was morning fog in the highlands. After a while, we stopped at a village was set amid flowering peach trees (a symbol of the Chinese New Year’s we were told). It was a beautiful village of weathered wooden houses. We exchanged “hellos” and “goodbyes” and took photos at the kindergarten then moved on again. Our next stop was a tea plantation. We strolled through the miniature hedges for a bit and then hit the road again. We stopped for a roadside lunch we shared with Manh and Vung…fried pork, two kinds of steamed vegetables, beef sautéed with greens, a tofu and tomato dish, the inevitable rice and the equally inevitable beer. All good. The cost for the four of us was about 10U$D. Then on through the mountains to the Moc Chau plateau and Son La. The fog had again burned off.

    We arrived at that night’s lodging, the Hanoi Hotel in Son La, at around 2:00. This hotel – a last minute change from our scheduled stay at the Cong Doan Hotel – ranked as one of the worst of our trip. It was a soulless Stalinoid hulk. The bed was hard; only the Kool hotel in Siem Reap, with its concrete slab bed and polystyrene sheets, rivaled it in the abysmal bed category. Moreover, the furniture had cigarette burns and hot water was non-existent. We amused ourselves by reading the hotel regulations. I particularly liked Article 6: “Social evils are strictly forbidden in the room.” In its way, the Hanoi Hotel was a perfect reflection of Son La, a singularly soulless town.

    Around 3:30 that afternoon, we went out again on foot with Manh to the French prison overlooking the town. We went through town and up a hill. The prison was mostly in ruins, although enough of it remained to provide a picture of the rough treatment of Vietnamese prisoners. Some of the cells were tiny, maybe five by two feet. We also visited the adjacent museum, which was, oddly, devoted to the costumes of local ethnic minority women. We walked back through town. There was a large red and white sign of Ho Chi Minh and accompanying communist slogans that I momentarily mistook for a Colonel Sanders KFC advertisement. Later that evening I went out for a birthday meal that was simply revolting, the first bad food since we’d had in Southeast Asia. The grilled pork fat was tough. The stir-fried socialist chicken product included a bonus of vegetable oil due to the glorious achievement of the people in having overfulfilled the quarterly vegetable oil production quota. (Perhaps we should have instead tried the “pepper with pork discharge” on the menu.) We couldn’t finish the meal. In fact, we could barely start it. We returned to the hotel and our hard beds.

    It was foggy again the next morning. We had a quick and loathsome breakfast. Even the coffee was bad, a first for Vietnam. Soon, we on our way through the mist-wrapped mountains and before long Son La became nothing more than a bad memory. We stopped for an early lunch in Tuan Giao, a pretty valley town. Vietnamese cuisine redeemed itself. We had stir-fried greens, fried tiny whole fish, stir-fried tofu and chicken with mushrooms. All of it was tasty. We took a post-lunch walk through town. YT bought a facemask for protection against dust and air pollution. (I’d been rolling old school with a Jesse James style bandana.) We photographed a school built with USAID funds to send to a friend who works as a contractor at USAID. We took several photos of people wearing traditional tribal garb and were again amazed at the friendliness of everyone we had met in Vietnam. We returned to the restaurant and Manh and Vung and were on our way again.

    A little ways down the road we stopped at a market. I checked it out while YT stayed in the car. I ran across a moto with a wire cage filled with miserable-looking goats. The owner saw me, strode over and proudly posed next to the moto - it wasn’t the reaction I’d anticipated. We definitely seemed to be in goat-eating territory. The market was filled with ethnic women selling deconstructed goats in bowls and on mats. There seemed to be hundreds of vendors – some selling a few vegetables from their garden, others with an array of vegetables and fruit, some of which I didn’t recognize. I looked away as a woman cut up a fish so fresh that it was still thrashing. Most of the market people were so-called black Thais. The women wore their hair in large buns piled atop their head. It made me think of the old saying, “the higher the hair, the closer to God.” I thought of telling Manh this, but wasn’t sure if it would translate well. Required by law to wear helmets while riding motos, they carefully perched their helmets atop their hair a good six inches above their heads. Manh called some of women “TV Thais” because of the little metallic rectangular hairpieces they wore; I have to admit that they did resemble tiny TV screens.

    Each day’s scenery had become more attractive as we’d moved further into the mountains. We drove through terraced rice fields being worked by farmers with hoes or water buffalo. Then we ascended further into the hills. The roads were lined with stilt houses. Red floral quilts were being aired out on the railings or in the yards. Almost every woman seemed to be in the traditional dress of the various ethnic groups. Harvested cassava was being dried by the side of the roadway. Young men played pool in impromptu poolrooms set up under stilt houses. Motos were everywhere. Sometimes whole families – four or more – road together on one moto.

    We arrived at our next night’s lodging, the Him Lam Hotel, outside of Dien Bien Phu at around 3:30. It had beautiful grounds and the buildings seemed impressive until closer examination revealed that they were poorly constructed or in disrepair. I stayed with the car while YT rejected the first room she was shown in a concrete stilt house – tiny and dirty. We instead took one at the “villa,” a massive Italianate edifice planted at the top of a small hill. We didn’t notice at first, but the room was a dump: Discolored walls, abused furniture, a moldy bath tub, discolored bathroom floor and absolutely wretched towels – thin, miniscule, stained bath towels and missing hand towels. We fled the room and walked the grounds. Everything had seemed beautiful at first glance. However, it didn’t stand closer scrutiny. The complex seems to have been relatively recently built as a resort. However, the construction was shoddy and everything was either dirty or in disrepair. The entire place had an aura of cheesy communist kitsch. (Contrary to reports we’d read on Trip Advisor, the pool was clean, though; it was probably an oversight.) I went to an open-air bar – totally empty – for a beer but decided to try a mango lassi instead - it was great, the high point of our stay. YT, meanwhile, had spotted Manh in the reception area and requested to move our departure time the next day to as early as possible.

    We ate dinner early in the enormous and empty dining room. Some tables had not been bussed from lunch and were covered with old dishes, glasses and mounds of paper napkins. We moved from table to table, unsuccessfully trying to find one without a grease-stained tablecloth. Our meal consisted of spring rolls, fried rice and grilled chicken, all of which bordered on, but did not quite cross into, the inedible. We returned to our room for the night and ran the air conditioning to keep the mosquitoes at bay. At least there was hot water. In the morning, I took a shower in my flip-flops and stood in front of the AC to dry. We had had little sleep that night. On top of everything else, the bed was hard. For breakfast, we were offered cold fried eggs and a baguette. We skipped the eggs and ate the baguette with some jam. Manh and Vung showed up and we were on our way.

    This morning’s agenda focused on the battle of Dien Bien Phu – we climbed hill A1, where the Vietnamese had dug under the French lines and detonated a massive bomb. The enormous crater is still there. After this we walked through an ethnic minority market to General de Castres’ bunker; de Castres had been the French commanding officer. It was a very large bunker, befitting a general. After our time at the French prisons and the Dien Bien Phu battlefield, I slowly came to a realization of why the Vietnamese government constantly flogged the French and American wars to its largely indifferent citizenry. More than half the population had been born after Vietnamese reunification in 1975. They have no memory of the war. Moreover, the Vietnamese population had suffered another fifteen years of privation and near starvation after the end of the war due to the government’s incompetent statist economic policies. The government’s victories in the two Indochinese wars – particularly the achievement of independence from the French in 1954 – are, however long ago they occurred, the only real achievements of which it can boast after almost sixty years in power. Further, given the uniformly friendly reception that we received on our trip, as well as conversations that we had with individual Vietnamese, I believe that there is a striking lack of rancor towards Americans (or the French, for that matter). The “American War” came to an end almost forty years ago. Yet it seems to loom larger in the American psyche than it does in the Vietnamese. I think that, for the Vietnamese, it represents only one of the more recent of the numerous wars fought over the past thousand or more years. Their major concerns now appear to be China (with whom they fought a war in 1979) and creating a decent standard of living.

    After de Castres’ bunker, we passed on further battlefield nostalgia and soon were on our way to the new town of Lai Chau. Our route took us through the most rugged and spectacular terrain yet. Unfortunately, the road was as rugged as the countryside. Roadwork was omnipresent. Vietnam seems to be undertaking a massive effort to develop and populate the provinces bordering China. We passed through a “new town” and then were repeatedly delayed due to roadwork. Everywhere there seemed to be construction: Housing, bridges, dams, entire cities. We stopped for lunch at an anonymous roadside café overlooking a river and the four of us had little shrimp, tofu with tomatoes, boiled chicken, greens and rice. Due to all the roadwork, we did not arrive at Lai Chau until 6:00 p.m. We checked into a room at a cavernous new hotel that was a vast improvement over our prior two nights’ lodging despite a paucity of hot water. Dinner – we again ate at a hotel – was good: grilled chicken, grilled pork and spring rolls. Manh and Vung were eating at a nearby table and invited me over for rice wine toasts. I’d passed on previous offers and didn’t feel comfortable refusing again so I shared a toast. As it turned out the rice wine was not only tasty but also somewhat tame – 17.5% alcohol, more like rice water than firewater. They then tried to induce me into joining them in a drinking contest. That I did pass on. We waved good night and returned to our room. Exhausted from the day and the previous night, I was asleep by 9:00 p.m. YT stayed up a bit and read.

    We awoke early, skipped breakfast and were on the road before 9:00. We stopped by a market of mixed ethnic groups – flower Hmong with their green/pink or blue/pink headdresses, TV Thais and Zao people with large headdresses. We waited while Manh undertook some lengthy negotiations with a Hmong man to purchase five kilos of rice for about 120,000 dong, about 6U$D. We stopped again to buy sugar cane on the side of the road and I was soon gnawing on this watery treat as we rolled down the highway. The road was good again except for a short section where we drove on a flattened stretch of bulldozed dirt by the side of the landslide-blocked road. We stopped again and walked up a hill to visit a Hmong village. Compared to other hill tribes with their elegant stilt houses, the Hmong villages seemed impoverished and poorly constructed. Manh took us into a Hmong house, which was exactly like the Hmong house we’d visited on the Mekong Cruise. Dirt floors, stacked bags of rice, open fire without a chimney or ceiling hole, loft space filled with dry foodstuffs (corn, mostly). I again felt uncomfortable about just strolling into someone’s home; it seems obtrusive to me.

    We were approaching what Manh described as the highest pass in Vietnam, about twenty meters outside of Sapa. The mountains on our right hand side were magnificent, although too hazed in fog to photograph. We stopped at the top of the pass, 2,000 meters above sea level, and strolled through some stalls selling handicrafts, snacks, sodas and waters to take in the beautiful, albeit hazy, view. Then we were on the move again, rolling into the valley where Sapa was nestled. We caught views of cascading terraced rice paddies through the encroaching fog. We drove by the so-called “Silver Falls,” now reduced to a silver trickle by the dry season. We drove through town, noting the central soccer field and the Catholic church before arriving at the Sapa Boutique Hotel a little before noon. There we said goodbye and gave tips to Vung, our wonderful, taciturn driver and Manh, our nice, if young, under-informed and repetitive guide. We’d come to enjoy their company.

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    Yes. Wonderful description of a trip very similar to the one we took (also 3 1/2 weeks, also arranged by Tonkin). The hotels in the Northwest are pretty sketchy--I so agree with your description of the Him Lam Hotel (though I didn't think the Hanoi Hotel in Son La was quite as bad as you did). You really captured the essence of what appeared on first glance to be a lovely place but was spooky and poorly maintained when you scratched the surface. Consider yourself lucky that your Lai Chau hotel wasn't the Muong Thanh, where we stayed--air con didn't work, lots of mosquitoes so we couldn't open the window, hard beds, middle of nowhere, marginal food. A nightmare. We complained to Tonkin and I'm glad to see that they took that one of their list.

    I appreciate all the detail you are giving. It's like reliving my trip! Looking forward to more.

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    A couple more comments: Did you see any other Americans while you were traveling in the Northwest? The only other Western tourists we saw during our circuit there were a group of 6 French people who were on virtually the same route--we kept running into them at the hotels and at some of the restaurants (we also bumped into them later in Hue--we greeted one another like old friends). The only Americans we saw were at the hotel in Son La--I conversed with a pod of U.S. military guys who are part of the unit that goes around the world digging up remains of military personnel who are missing in action – from World War II to Korea to Vietnam to whatever. They were staying in Son La for 5 weeks, trying to find the remains of MIA air force flyers who crashed in the area in the Vietnam War. The team leader was a 30-year-old from Pennsylvania, about 10 miles from where we live. He said he hadn’t seen any others since he’d been in Son La and was thrilled to talk American English to someone again.

    Your comment about feeling uncomfortable strolling into a Hmong home resonated with me. We had the same experience--the home and lifestyle we observed were fascinating and the people were very welcoming, but I wish I had had a gift to give them--might have made it feel less obtrusive. I kept wondering what I would feel like if a couple of foreign tourists and their guide knocked on my door and asked to look around. On the one hand, it would be extremely strange, but on the other it would be fun to show a foreign visitor what small-town life in New Jersey is like. So I'm not convinced it's a bad thing.

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    @aprillilacs - We saw more French than Americans all through the north. There were, however, a fair number of Americans in Sapa. I'm going away for a long weekend, will resume narrative when I return. For one reason or another, it's taken much longer to write this than I'd anticipated. Longer then the trip was, in fact.

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    @aprillilacs-I remember your posts on Tonkin before we left and reading your blog. Apparently your complaints to Tonkin were listened to. We're racing to finish this report b4 we take off on a road trip in June. We'll c if we can finish what remains, Hoi An, Hue, Mekong Delta and Saigon...whew!

    I meant to add in about Tonkin related to our negative experiences. I emailed Nhung the evening of our stay in Him Lam Hotel not because I thought she could do anything for us given that it was a one night stay, but to forewarn her about it. She got in touch with Manh, our guide, and he was very solicitous of our rooms after that. Checking them out and making sure they were ok with us. Eventually Nhung emailed me back and thanked me for my comments and inquired as to our other accommodations and the guides and drivers. At the end of our trip I did email her a complete review of all the hotels and drivers and guides. I thought it was good that she wanted to hear the feedback.

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    Foggy Mountain Breakdown: Sapa

    When we arrived at the Sapa Boutique Hotel, our room wasn’t ready yet. We added our luggage to the small mountain of suitcases accumulating in the lobby and went out for a stroll. Sapa is as much vertical as it is horizontal with beautiful views down terraced hillsides. Having pretty much skipped breakfast, we went looking for some lunch. Both of us had tired of the mediocre Vietnamese food we’d had during the Son La to Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau section of our drive. For the first time in almost seven weeks of travel in Southeast Asia we deliberately sought out Western food. A local bistro named Chocolate and Baguettes hit the spot. YT had smoked salmon quiche. I had a toasted open face sandwich of ham, cheese, tomatoes and olives. We both had coffees. It wasn’t Paris – but it wasn’t bad. We returned to our hotel and checked into our “deluxe” room. It was large, had a nice bed, a portable heater, heated blanket, a small balcony and a great view across terraced fields. The first item on the agenda was a shower – a treat after the cold-water sponge (actually, hand towel) bath that morning at our hotel at Lai Chau. Then we went through our clothing and accumulated a 3.5-kilo load for laundering at the shop adjacent our hotel. At 40,000 dong per kilo, we were paying less than 1U$D per pound. After I’d dropped our clothing off, we spent some time in our room reading up on Sapa and watching the fog slowly creep up the hill; it was the first room since the Hanoi Elegance that we felt comfortable sitting in. Then we went downstairs to the lobby, planning to wander the town a bit.

    The lobby was in one of its chaotic moments as a group of muddied trekkers was just returning from a guided walk to nearby Cat Cat. These chaotic moments occurred periodically throughout the day, particularly in the morning as people convened in the lobby for trekking or in the evening gathered in small groups for pickup to the overnight train station in Lao Cai. The mountain of luggage in the lobby grew and then shrank on a regular basis. After a day or two, one could distinguish the nationality of the trekkers by what they wore: Californians in tennis shoes, shorts and hoodies; French with expensive safari gear and silk Vietnamese scarves; everyone else (including the Vietnamese) in jeans and North Face jackets.

    The streets of Sapa were lined with sporting gear shops. In deference to the damp chill, I bought a bright red waterproof North Face all weather coat (most likely counterfeit) at store down the street. After bargaining, it cost about 50U$D. Since I planned to pay in cash (we’d gone onto an all cash basis since arriving in SE Asia), I needed to go to Cau May Street to make a withdrawal from an ATM. Although the storeowner had advised me to avoid the “dirty” market by taking an overhead walkway, my curiosity got the better of me. I noted a table in the meat section offering twelve dog paws for sale. I refrained from photographing this sad display.

    As we’d dropped off our clothing almost immediately on checking in, I picked it up about five hours later. I took the three and a half kilogram plastic bag of clothing to our room, sat it on a chair, opened it and savored the glorious aroma of fresh clean clothing. On a comic note, we discovered that a pair of YT’s panties were missing when we conducted our post-wash inventory. I returned to the store – a combination laundry and massage parlor – and explained the situation as best I could, emphasizing “small” and “undergarment” with my hands, much to the hilarity of the watching massage girls. The owner placed a call, left on a moto and returned shortly with the garment in question wrapped in a piece of paper, which he ceremoniously presented to me for inspection. Giggles all around as I slowly opened the tiny package and inspected the contents.

    Dinner was at the superb restaurant down the street at the Sapa Rooms Hotel. We kind of over-ordered:
    • Banana flower salad;
    • Fresh mango/chicken spring rolls;
    • Fish in tamarind sauce
    • Pork meatballs w/ rice vermicelli cilantro and mint, with rice paper wrappings and dipping sauce.
    The first three dishes were heavenly, the last merely excellent. We accompanied our meal with a glass of torrontes and a Tiger beer. Dessert was a mango lassi and cookies with taro root ice cream. It was one of our best meals since arriving in Vietnam. We walked out into the enveloping fog and returned to our room.

    We awakened to a grey wall of fog, incredible, thick, almost solid. Visibility appeared to be limited to twenty or thirty feet. (Unfortunately, it didn’t lift all day.) The lobby was again chaotic in the morning as a large group gathered for trekking. My faith in Vietnamese cuisine restored, I ordered pho for breakfast. It was delicious – once I removed the chili peppers I had injudiciously torn into pieces and added to the broth. Shortly thereafter, I made the mistake of putting my chili-stained fingers to my eyes and had to run to the bathroom to wash hands and eyes, alternatively laughing and crying at my stupidity. After breakfast I dropped more clothing – jeans and a couple of t-shirts – at the neighboring laundry/massage parlor. We returned to our room and took our time dressing for going out. It looked like we were socked in and were in no rush since we could see little besides grey.

    Our first stop was a nearby Buddhist/Taoist/Confucian shrine, excessive even by the standards of South East Asia. It had enough flashing lights to put the tackiest of Christmas crèches to shame. Then we made our way up the street towards the market and center of town, avoiding interaction with groups of Flower Hmong vendors, who tend to be annoyingly persistent in hawking their textiles, jewelry and post cards. Their motto, or mantra, seemed to be “what you buy from me make me happy.” We found the Catholic Church. The inside was very plain and came almost as a relief from the excessive Buddhist ornamentation we’d been seeing for the previous seven weeks. Then more wandering. I took a lot of photos – very atmospheric - of hill tribe people in the mist. It was hard to identify which group they belonged to. The streets were so shrouded in fog that even the Flower Hmong looked grey from twenty feet.

    We stumbled across the Petit Gecko Coffeeshop, went in for coffee but switched to mango lassis instead. We – and everyone else in the shop – were briefly accosted by a tribeswoman of undeterminable origin (black clothes, shaved eyebrows and partially shaved head). It was the first time that a vendor had actually been aggressive enough to solicit inside a shop. YT struck up a conversation with a woman at the adjacent table. I went to the store computer that I’d seen the woman use to access Facebook and successfully logged on to Facebook for the first time since we’d been in Vietnam. (The government blocks the site, with a great deal of success, particularly in Northern Vietnam.) It was probably the slowest computer I’d ever been on in my life, perhaps due to whatever workaround they used to aloow access to Facebook. I checked my status and found no less than thirty-three happy birthday posts. The computer was too slow to do much else. We left and went to the Chapa Hotel for a light lunch. It had beautiful grounds and public areas. We’d initially planned to stay here, but the tour operator had switched us to the Sapa Boutique Hotel – a good decision as it worked out. The Sapa Boutique hotel was less expensive and had larger rooms and king size beds, important features as we were destined to spend much of our time in Sapa in our room. After visiting the Chapa, we walked back to our hotel and spent the afternoon reading, emailing, catching up on notes and staring into a gray infinity of fog.

    We stayed in until way past the dark grey dusk and nightfall. Then back out through the cold damp empty street – all 300 feet of it – to Sapa Rooms for dinner. We didn’t repeat the prior night’s excess and shared some steamed vegetables, fish in tamarind sauce (a repeat) and pork stuffed with limes, scallions and peanuts. Torrontes and beer with the meal. Cookies and ice cream dessert for YT. Then back to our hotel.

    We slept late the next morning. Then rose and drew back the curtains to reveal that the featureless grey expanse of fog was still with us. The view was a bit like looking at an active TV screen without input. We went down to the lobby for breakfast. I had tasty pho ga – I didn’t know that chicken-flavored pho existed – and coffee and part of an omelet. We conferred with the front desk: Checkout time was noon, but our transportation to the train station in Lao Cai did not arrive until 6:00 p.m. Was there any way we could stay in our room until then? (It wasn’t so much that we reveled in cabin fever – the room was a good 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the chilly lobby, which suffered from the continual opening and closing of the doors due to the influx and outflow of staff and trekkers with their copious gear.) We were told that, yes, one could normally rent the room for $20 for the afternoon, a kind of hot sheet special, but that this wasn’t an option for today as the hotel was fully booked. The lobby it was to be.

    We took our bags down around 11:30 and walked around town for a bit. Coffee and more illicit Facebook at the Petite Gecko. Some time in the elegant (and warm) lobby of the Victoria Hotel. An unsuccessful search for a bathroom with a “bum gun” for a humorous email to a friend. The only place we found was unphotogenic (and unhygienic to boot). A snack – apple, onion and coconut bread at Highland Coffee. A stroll through the market. Then we returned to our hotel lobby for our interminable wait for our 6:00 p.m. pickup. We figured we’d have an early dinner at the hotel – around 5:00 - as we were uncertain of the situation in Lao Cai and the train station. We’d no sooner begun eating than our “guide.” Mee, showed up. Mee was very young, very small and both a sparkling personality and excellent English. Mee was one of Tonkin tours guides and she was going to meet the train in Lao Cai to pick up her tourists and had come along with the driver. Thus we were rewarded with the pleasure of having Mee talk about the area and the culture. We quickly finished our meal why she played with the hotel cat and chatted with another traveler awaiting pickup. Soon, we were introduced to our driver, Mr. Quin, and packed our luggage into the waiting automobile. We left Sapa with mixed feelings. Other than the afternoon of our arrival, when we had briefly glimpsed the fabled terraced rice fields, we had been fogged in our entire stay. The market – the textile section excluded – had been singularly filthy. The hill tribe vendors and been overly persistent and annoying on occasion. Trekking to tribal villages – which some travelers engage in even when visibility is limited – didn’t appeal to us. All that said, Sapa is an oasis of good food and comfortable hotels (as well as some of the best handicraft and textile shopping in Vietnam). It came as a relief after our final three days on the road there. (Admittedly, this something of a circular argument as we had only gotten on the road for the destination.) And Sapa would have been a visual delight had we not had persistent fog.

    So it was with mixed feelings that we left. As we descended from Sapa, the fog thinned and we caught glimpses of terraces through the mist. Mee and Quin kindly pulled over at spots to allow us to photograph. The dimming light made for poor photography, although I propped the camera on rock walls to allow long exposures. Our friendly driver deposited us near the ticket office at the train station Lao Cai. Despite our lacking the voucher for our compartment on the Livitrans train, Mee promptly secured our tickets on the overnight train to Hanoi. Given that we had over two hours before our departure, we and Mee adjourned to a nearby café to kill time until our departure from the Northern Vietnam highlands.

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    I am greatly enjoying your trip report, gottravel and yestravel. It is excellent! I am in the midst of planning our trip to SE Asia for January. We already have our airline tickets. I appreciate all the advice from this forum.

    Did you book your Dragon Pearl trip on Halong Bay through Tonkin? Was the transportation to and from Halong Bay by private car? We plan to stay at Hanoi Elegance Diamond too.
    Were you in Vietnam during the holiday Tet? (If so, how did it affect your plans)? Just found out about the dates of Tet.

    Thank you for all your advice and for a wonderful TR.

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    @wkwb-Thanks! glad you're enjoying our report. I recall a post about your planning.

    Yes, Tonkin booked the Dragon Pearl III for us. They booked most of the VN portion of our trip. We did use a private driver to get to Halong Bay, but I don't think I would necessarily do that again. I had thought we would save time with our own driver, but that proved not to be true. Also of all the drivers we had he was the only one who wasn't great. He was ok, but tended to drive really fast & honk constantly.

    The staff at the Hanoi Elegance were just fabulous. We arranged for their driver to pick us up from the airport and was a great driver.

    We arranged the trip so as not to be in VN during Tet.
    This forum is great for assistance with planning.

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    Central Vietnam: Hoi An & Hue

    The café – across from a broad street from the train station in Lao Cai - was packed with westerners waiting for the train. Mee insisted on staying with us while we waited. She talked about her life…she was of Hmong origin, the youngest of five siblings. While she worked for Tonkin Travel, her father and all of her siblings were farmers. She was 21, unmarried and lived with her parents. As she talked, I had a Coca-Cola and YT had some fried rice. After a great deal of conversation – and Mee bouncing over to the café computer to check her email – we paid and left, rolling our suitcases back to the train station. There was a huge crowd, mixed Vietnamese and Western, waiting around the closed doors for the Livitrans overnight. Mee proved masterful at scooting through to the front of the crowd with YT’s suitcase. I did my best to follow her. Eventually, the signal was given, the doors opened and the crowd swelled forward. We rolled down the platform to Car Eight. I heaved myself and my suitcase aboard, we found our cabin and said goodbye to Mee.

    The cabin was small – the per person square footage approximated that of the French prison cells in Son La. (Fortunately, we’d rented all four berths in the cabin.) The cabin – and the entire train – had a somewhat down at the heels feeling. I heaved our suitcases onto the upper bunks, allowing a little floor space. The bunks were less than two meters in length – stretched out, my head touched one end and my feet the other. The mattress was thin and hard. We left the cabin door open initially and had a moment of schadenfreude as two westerners attempted to maneuver two absurdly large rolling suitcases sideways down the aisle outside the cabin. We half-closed, then closed, the door as we seemed to have become an object of curiosity to every passing Vietnamese person. Eventually, the train lurched into motion with a chorus of shrieking and grinding metal. This sound was to accompany us all the way to Hanoi. Shortly thereafter, we donned blindfolds, turned out the cabin lights and attempted to sleep, fully dressed, on the bunks.

    YT Comment – The bathrooms on the train were disgusting. Given how clean much of Vietnam had been, this came as a bit of a surprise and made any trips there less than pleasant.

    We arrived in Hanoi around 5:00 a.m. and were picked up by our Tonkin Tours driver for the drive to the airport. Our flight to Danang left and arrived more or less on time and we were again picked up by a Tonkin Travel driver – Huy – for the final leg to Hoi An. He dropped us off at our hotel, the Vinh Hung Riverside Resort, at around ten thirty. We’d been dreading our travel from Sapa to Hoi An, but Tonkin Travel pulled it off without a hitch.

    Our room at the Vinh Hung Riverside Resort turned out to be really nice – very large, well lit, a comfortable king-size bed, modern bathroom and a great river view. After we’d checked in, we’d dropped off our luggage in our room and walked to nearby old town Hoi An. The old quarter of Hoi An was a delight. The buildings were a beautiful architectural confluence of Asian and French style. Shops sold handcrafted lanterns, silks, art and handicrafts. There were also numerous tailor shops. We stopped for lunch at the Morning Glory restaurant in the old quarter and had a delicious banh xeo crepe and wonderful “white rose” dumplings. After lunch, we returned tour room for a nap. We were exhausted, having slept little on the noisy, lurching Sapa to Hanoi train.

    We went out again in the evening. There were lanterns everywhere. People were floating candles in the Thu Bon River that separated the old quarter and our lodgings on An Hoi Island. YT stopped at a tailor’s, thumbed through the fabrics, picked out a silk fabric and ordered a pair of slacks fit to her measurements for a cost of about U$D14. We were to return the next day for a fitting. We sought out the Secret Garden Restaurant for dinner. Unfortunately, they were fully booked for dinner; we made reservations for the following evening and returned to Morning Glory for more banh xeo. It was crowded, but they eventually found a table for us. We shared it with two friendly Englishwomen who were also touring Vietnam. They’d been to the USA once, for a tour of Civil Rights sites in the American South and had been to places in Mississippi and Alabama that we’d never been to (or ever thought of going to). They seemed singularly unimpressed with my one bit of trivia about Montgomery, Alabama – that it’s the burial place of pioneering Country singer/songwriter Hank Williams. YT and I have never been to the UK together and asked them when the best time to go for good weather was. Their laughing answer: never.

    The next day, we had some more wanderings. While YT had a foot massage & pedicure I went to the neighborhood on the far side of the Japanese Bridge. It had a lot of nice arty stores: A bookstore, a nice t-shirt shop and numerous galleries. After YT’s massage/pedicure, we visited an old merchant house, a ceramic museum, the old Japanese bridge and glanced into a couple of Chinese Assembly Halls. We walked the length of town to go the cloth market. I stopped on the way for an impromptu hair cut that included a neck massage (3U$D); the results were great, despite my ending up with the shortest hair I’ve probably had in forty plus years. At the cloth market, we bought some silk fabric and engaged a lady to make us a pair of pillow covers, using an existing pillow cover we’d brought as a template for size. YT returned to her tailor shop for a refitting and liked the results so much she ordered a second pair of slacks. (They were a little less than 14U$D for the second pair.) We had a riverside lunch at Brothers Café, set amid some beautiful gardens and restored houses. We had yet another banh xeo and a pomelo salad - both were wonderful, albeit much more expensive than at Morning Glory. After lunch, contacted the Tonkin driver and arranged for a ride to My Son the next day.

    I think the time right after lunch hour in Hoi An shows the old quarter at its best. The stores close up for a siesta, the traffic thins, the pedestrian street is empty. The constant solicitation from the tailor shops disappears. It’s quiet. That, in combination with the old houses and fading paint, creates an atmosphere that speaks of another era. Once, we walked down the pedestrian street hearing nothing other than a scratchy old tango record being played on the upper floor of one of the houses. Just wonderful.

    That evening, we picked up our newly-made pillows, revisited YT’s tailor shop and went to the Secret Garden for dinner. This restaurant is well-named – it’s accessible only by alleyways off the larger streets. They lead to a walled garden courtyard reminiscent of the grounds of a Mexican hacienda. The food was fabulous. We had sour beef, grilled eggplant and grilled calamari. There was guitarist playing, whose repertoire varied between Spanish classical guitar, Beatles covers and “Hotel California.” We went to nearby Tam Tam Café for French desserts – passion fruit mousse and a lemon tart.

    The next morning, the arranged car and driver took us to My Son. (We’d wanted to go early to avoid the mid-day heat.) My Son was one of the great tragedies of the Vietnam War. Once an intact temple complex, it had been used as a staging area by the Viet Cong and had been bombed into ruins by American forces in the subsequent fighting. Only the Temple B group was reasonably intact; much of everything else was vegetation-covered mounds of rubble. Unlike the Chinese–influenced antiquities we’d seen earlier in Northern Vietnam, My Son’s architecture was Cham- and Indian-influenced, not unlike the architecture at Angkor Wat. Many of the surviving sculptures had been removed from My Son and taken to the Cham Museum in Danang. We were back at the hotel by early afternoon and, for lunch, made a fruit salad of mangos, bananas and oranges.

    Later that evening, we picked up YT’s tailor-made slacks and wandered some more. We paused outside the House of Traditional Music to listen to a trio play excellent Vietnamese traditional music. The instrumentation – if not the melodies - sounded a little like bluegrass…their classical Vietnamese instruments sounded much like a violin, a mandolin and a dobro. Oddly, when we looked inside the House of Traditional Music, we found it totally empty except for a couple of parked motos. Later, we had a sunset dinner at Sakura; the food was Vietnamese despite the Japanese name. This is a second-story restaurant with a good view of the Thu Bon river and the bridge to An Hoi Island. Unfortunately the food – we had white rose dumplings, mango salad with seafood, shrimp “ravioli,” and stir fried vegetables – was not nearly as good as the view. After dinner, we went to the Tam Tam Café for passion fruit mousse and cointreau, then moved on to the Cargo Club for vanilla, lemongrass and cinnamon ice cream with mango sauce. Then we headed back to our room to pack for the next day’s departure. Out of every place that we had visited, or were to visit, in Vietnam, Hoi An was my hands-down favorite. I’ll always remember Hoi An as lucky chicken charms, a melancholy tango on a deserted lunchtime street and nighttime reflections of glowing paper lanterns in the river.

    YT Note – While enjoying Hoi An, it was not my favorite place in Vietnam. I thought it an adorable, but. in many ways, a made for tourism, town.

    We left the next morning by car for Hue. On the way we stopped at the very empty Marble Mountain – we took the elevator up and walked down. There’s a great view from the top and a nice Chinese-style temple complex by the stairs on the way down. We drove through Danang – parts by the ocean seemed to be one huge construction site, with wide streets and apartment complexes that, judging by the English signage, appear to be marketed to returning American veterans of the Vietnam War. There were names like Surf City, Sunset Villas and the Tides. It looked a lot like southern Florida. We stopped at the legendarily beautiful China Beach and then went through the Cham Museum. The Cham Museum is small and wonderful, a two story building filled with Cham statuary. (The Cham were an Indian-influenced civilization that had originally settled in Central and Southern Vietnam fifteen hundred or more years ago and had been displaced over time by the Chinese-influenced Vietnamese civilization to the north.) I much prefer Indian art to Chinese art that we saw everywhere in Vietnam, so I found the museum to be nothing short of delightful. After leaving Danang, we passed through beautiful, foggy mountains separating Danang from Hue to the north. The driver stopped near Hai Van pass and we looked at an old Chinese-style gate and some bunkers from the Vietnam War era before moving on.

    We arrived at our hotel (the Celadon Palace) in Hue around 2:00 p.m. It was a large multiple-story modern hotel. Our room looked out over the city. The one flaw was that our thermostat appeared to be broken, stuck at a constant 80 degrees Fahrenheit. We were to call the desk five times over the course of two days – the end result was a thermostat permanently locked at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. That first afternoon, we took a cab to La Residence, a luxurious hotel/restaurant complex in a kind of Deco Indochine style. The fixtures and furnishings look like they had been transported straight out of the 1930s. We had an early dinner at Le Parfum, the La Residence restaurant…an appetizer platter, some fabulous rice noodles sautéed with turmeric and crab meat, and delicious shrimp and broccoli with lemongrass and tamarind sauce.

    The next day thanks to the recommendations by sf7307 we took the Hue Riders tour, a guided tour on the back of motorcycles of sights in Hue and the nearby countryside. We’d booked this directly with Hue Riders on line at http://www.hueriders.com. Hue Riders does both one-day and multiple day tours; we’d opted for the one-day “Best of Hue” tour. Our drivers/guides were Mr. Quy and Mr. Dung. (Despite both being billed as English-speaking, only Mr. Quy, YT’s driver, spoke comprehensible English – but one English speaker was all we needed.) They showed up promptly after breakfast and off we went! It had been years since either of us had been on motorcycles, but both of us adapted instantly. We started by going to a Buddhist monastery (the Tu Hieu Temple, I think) and then to a scenic Perfume River overlook that had the remains of old French and American bunkers. Then we went to the lush green countryside to visit the tombs of Vietnamese Emperor Tu Doc (fascinating) and the imposing tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh with a courtyard full of mandarin statues that looked like a giant chessboard. Then back towards town. We hit the beautiful Thien Mu Pagoda, then had lunch next door to the Hue Riders office at the Phuong Nam restaurant/café…rice pancakes with shrimp and bun bo Hue, a delicious beef noodle dish. We had mango smoothies for dessert. Then back on the road to the Hue Citadel. The Hue Citadel is simply immense. Much of it is still in the process of restoration. Some of the fiercest fighting of the American War had occurred here in Tet Offensive in February/March 1968 and the Citadel had suffered extensive damage. After the Citadel, we again left the city for the countryside. We stopped and briefly visited Mr. Cuy’s spacious house, which he and a friend had built by themselves, funding the construction via his Hue Riders job. Lastly, we visited a beautiful covered bridge out in a country village. We were returned to the hotel around 4:30 and I tipped both drivers. This had been a great adventure, informative and fun. We had been lucky to have nice weather if a bit hot in the early afternoon. I would highly recommend Hue Riders and any of their tours.

    Much later that evening we sought out the Mandarin Café, about five or six long blocks from our hotel. We had grilled pork with coconut, stir-fried “morning glories,” sweet and sour shrimp with tomatoes, onions peppers and pineapple, and steamed spring rolls. All except the morning glory dish were very good. We talked at length to Mr. Cu, the owner, and he gave us directions and a map to the Hue’s garden houses.

    The next morning, after sleeping in and hitting the world’s largest breakfast buffet, we took a cab to garden house “Nhanh Tung Vuon An Hiem.” It was a roundabout route to our destination. The cab driver took us out Le Duan street along the Perfume River. (The street probably changed names several times as we drove away from Hue.) He then turned down a one-way road next to a canal, then turned crossed the canal to head back on a one way road on the other side to arrive at a garden house. It was perfectly executed, but, unfortunately, we had arrived at the wrong garden house. This one had been converted into a restaurant. Furthermore, the staff advised us, it certainly wasn’t open at 9:30 in the morning. Oops. We piled back into the cab, drove back to the road by the river and drove a little further to arrive at the garden house we sought. We entered the grounds and there was a large square pool in front of a house. No one seemed to be around and I took a few photographs. Then the owner, an older woman, came out to greet us and give us a tour. The house was a “mandarin house,” spacious, beautiful and constructed almost a hundred years ago without nails. The woman was the granddaughter of the original owners. She showed us around and was particularly proud of a plaque that had indicated her grandmother’s membership in the Viet Minh, the organization that had led the fight against French colonialism. The grounds were planted with various tropical and semi-tropical plants, most of which we were unfamiliar with. I had my first encounter with a cinnamon tree. I crumpled some leaves between my fingers and smelled that faint familiar fragrance.

    We exited the garden house to find the taxi that had taken us there parked under a nearby tree. We cabbed back into Hue city, onto a side street off Hung Vuong, a major street. YT had a hair appointment at a stylist’s shop that we had noticed in our previous wanderings. I went to the nearby Phuong Nam café for a mango pineapple smoothie. I returned to the stylist after an hour to find the hair appointment still a work in progress. Afterwards, we walked to a spa for foot massages, but cancelled our plans due to the unpleasant heat and humidity and a mosquito sighting. We had a small lunch at Phuong Nam Café and then returned to our hotel room. We spent the afternoon in our room reading and on the Internet. It was too hot – about 95 degrees Fahrenheit - to go out.

    That evening, our last in Hue, we went to a restaurant, Hang Me Me, that had been extensively written up and lauded on Trip Advisor. Hang Me Me serves only six dishes, all based on variations of glutinous rice. We ordered five, all small plates. I liked four of the five. YT disliked all five due to the gelatinous texture, essentially leaving me to eat a dinner for two – fortunately, they were very small plates. After our – or, more accurately, my – dinner, we went down the road to our old stand-by Phuong Nam for steamed spring rolls. We both agreed: delicious.

    We walked around some and then, on a lark, took two cyclos – think bicycle-driven rickshaws – back to the hotel, perhaps half a kilometer away. Always negotiate in advance. The drivers had repeatedly ignored my questions regarding price and tried to charge me 100,000 dong apiece (about $10U$D total) on our arrival. I managed to get the price down to 90,000 dong total – still high for Vietnam - by claiming that that was all the money I had on me.

    The next morning, at the breakfast buffet, I startled the waitress by adding sugar to my bun bo Hue. I was only half awake. She must have thought that Americans have truly peculiar culinary tastes until I explained that the sugar had been intended for the coffee, not the noodle soup. We returned to our room, packed and then read until a little before 11:00 and then took our luggage down to the lobby for our ride to the airport and our 1:00 p.m. flight to Ho Chi Minh City (almost universally referred to as “Saigon” in Vietnam). The Hue airport was miniature – all of one gate. Our plane shook so much on take-off that I thought for a moment it would fall apart mid-air. Then it turned over the ocean and we were on our way south.

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    Now I know why you titled this your odyssey--it's a true epic report! Really nice selection of pictures, too.

    Wow, Hoi An sounds so wonderful. Is that the same Hoi An I spend 2 nights in? I'm with Yestravel, though--not my favorite place in Vietnam. Too many tourists, too many tourist shops. But it does have its charms, as you point out--the lanterns and lights at night and the many good places to eat and drink among them. Wish I had known about Hue Riders because a day touring by motorbike sounds like such a blast. We visited many of the same sights by boat and car, which was not nice but not nearly so fun.

    Thanks again for taking the time to write up such a detailed report. It's chock full of great information.

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    Thanks! Glad you're enjoying it. We're almost at the end -- Saigon and Mekong Delta and that's it, at long last. Should be posted next week. At this point not sure its helping anyone due to the length. I thought maybe we should have broken it into segments by country for easier access. Oh well.

    Yes, Hue Riders was so much fun-a great way to see the sights. Highly recommend them.

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    YT & GT, I'm loving this report! You have provided a treasure load of information about so many different places in SEA. I'll be saving a link to your report in my travel folder. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thorough report.

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    The End: Saigon & the Mekong Delta

    The cab ride from Tan Son Nhat airport to our hotel, The Liberty Central, took the better part of forty-five minutes. Saigon - as everyone I spoke to in Vietnam called it - seemed to be one enormous traffic jam. Our first impression was of a modern city with towering buildings and streets filled with four-wheeled vehicles and motorbikes. We’d noticed as we traveled south from Hanoi that Vietnam seemed increasingly prosperous the further south we went. Newer buildings, more cars – even the people seemed to be taller.

    Our room at the Liberty Central was small but pleasant. We’d undergone a bit of a mini-odyssey when we first arrived at the hotel, checking out several rooms to find one that was both quiet and well-lit. After checking in, we checked out our neighborhood. The Liberty Central was indeed central. We were mere blocks from the center of Saigon. We went by the Rex Hotel, the Opera House and the Continental Hotel. We had cocktails on the Rex Hotel rooftop, then moved on to the Caravelle Hotel rooftop for the sunset views. We returned to our room to research restaurants, but ended up going the enormously popular barbeque garden down the street. We cooked our own food at a gas burner on the table – peanut pork skewers, five spice beef, vegetable skewers. It was fun and our amateur efforts turned out some pretty tasty fare. With drinks, dinner was all of 12U$D.

    Liberty Central had a nice breakfast buffet. It had pho “ga” (chicken), but no pho “bo” (beef). I’d never heard of chicken pho before. I tried it. Not bad, but not bo - and “if it ain’t bo, it ain’t pho.” After breakfast, we visited the nearby Ben Thanh market and, after numerous test runs and considerable bargaining, bought an additional wheeled suitcase, allegedly Kipling, but assuredly a counterfeit given that it cost ~U$D13. The additional suitcase prompted further gift, spice and t-shirt purchases at the market. We wandered down neighboring Le Loi Street to the Coffee Terrace House at Saigon Plaza. We had the house special, iced coffee. It was good, but overpriced and undersized.

    We then went to Tan That Thiep Street to check out the Temple Club, where we planned to have dinner. I promptly detoured into the nearby Hindu Temple, for which the eponymous restaurant had been named. I immediately fell in love with this serene and understated space devoted to one of the world’s gentlest, yet most persecuted, religions. The temple is located within an aquamarine-colored compound. The interior wall is lined with photos of Hindu savants and depictions of Hindu deities. Within is a shrine. The walls of the shrine are patterned ceramic tiles not unlike Spanish azulejos. Children played within the compound. The lone guard, awakened from his dozing by my arrival, lazily waved me towards the shrine. I was enraptured. Had YT not returned to extract me, I probably would have spent the rest of the morning there. The Temple Club, across the street, was a second story space filled with Chinese antiques and rugs. It possessed a charmin ambiance of an earlier era. We checked out the menu and made dinner reservations. Never have I had to provide so much information for a simple reservation! We had to prove who we were and where we were staying.

    We went on to the central Lam Son Square to revisit the attractive “Bac Ho” (“Uncle Ho”) statue and admired the ornate former Hotel de Ville, now romantically re-named the “People’s Committee Hall.” Then we went on Paris Square and the Notre Dame cathedral – it looked like the entire edifice had been transported brick by brick from a mid-size northern French city and then reassembled here. The adjacent General Post Office was a large, beautiful beaux-arts building. The interior was light and cool, an oasis from the heat. We noted with subdued amusement the large painting of Ho Chi Minh with a decidedly lop-sided beard. Incredibly, the post office had a USPS presence – a small counter, closed at the moment, but with the familiar logo and signage. Near the entrance, on either side there were two large old maps, one of French Indo-China and another of old Saigon. (Our guidebook described their survival after the Communist takeover as “miraculous.”) This building is not to be missed.

    We returned to the Temple Club that evening at 7:30. Unfortunately, despite impeccable service, the food nowhere approached the ambiance. The fresh spring rolls were unremarkable, saved from complete blandness only by the accompanying peanut and fish sauces. The fish in tamarind sauce and the spare ribs in orange sauce were both over-sauced and cloyingly sweet. The sole highlight of the meal was a perfect “Peking duck with young papaya” salad. YT also had a stir-fried vegetable with a spicy caramel sauce that she liked – I disliked it, one of the few times that our tastes in food have diverged. Lastly, we had the house dessert, a “Hue crepe” in a sweet “secret” sauce. YT disliked its gelatinous texture; I thought it was so-so. We eavesdropped on a British couple at an adjoining table. They seemed to have the same complaints about the food – over-sauced and overly sweet – as we did. With cocktails – kir royal and a delicious “Temple punch” – the tab came to almost 1,500,000 dong (75 U$D), placing this among the most expensive meals of our trip. On the way back, we stopped by a bakery on Le Loi street for a replacement dessert for YT; she finished it off in our hotel room.

    The next morning was our departure date for our two-day Mekong excursion. We arose early, showered quickly and headed down for breakfast. There was still no pho bo, so I made do with pho ga, bird flu be damned. We returned to our room and brought our luggage down to the lobby; we were leaving all of our luggage other than one shared bag behind and would retrieve it two days hence. Our guide, the charming, fluent and out-spoken Duy – not sure about the spelling, his name was pronounced like “Dwee” – showed up promptly. He introduced us to the driver Hong, (“hero” in Vietnamese), loaded our bag into the car and we were on our way.

    Duy was recently married – all of one month. (He’d gotten married during the Tet holiday.) His wife was a primary school teacher and a member of the Communist Party. He’d met her while studying with her father, a policeman, and also a Party member. Duy was not a Party member and his take on the current political and economic status came out over the next hour or two as we made our way south and west into the Mekong Delta. He disliked government corruption and didn’t talk politics with his father-in-law. He also disliked northern Vietnam, agreeing with our perception that it was poorer and dirtier than the South, and adding his own, that visitors from southern Vietnam are routinely overcharged and cheated in the north. He attributed the difference in outlook and income primarily to the climate – the south was vastly more productive agriculturally due to a benign (albeit hot) climate. The cold and rainy North produced one rice crop a year; the warm and sunny south could produce three. Had we been inclined to argue with him (we weren’t), it would have been difficult, surrounded as we were by a vast green and yellow sea of flowering rice fields. He indicated that the economic reforms begun in the late 1980s had had a profoundly favorable impact on the country. Once perennially on the verge of food shortages, Vietnam was now the world’s second largest rice exporter. Duy seemed to favor the continuation of the current situation – the government concentrating on large infrastructure projects while allowing extensive private initiative. Duy indicated that there had been some political as well as economic reforms – people can write (and have published) letters to local Party authorities. He followed this with a denunciation of government corruption and Party incompetence and meddling. The subject then changed to eating. Duy said that, during the hungry times before the economic reforms, Vietnamese ate anything: rats, cats, dogs. Some people still do. He said rice field rats are tasty when hot off the grill, but shouldn’t be eaten cold (they stink). And, although he had eaten them in the past, he did not eat dogs. Indeed, his entire family didn’t eat dogs. He said that Vietnamese people as a whole certainly do not eat their pets…(pause)…they eat other people‘s pets. He also found our use of the phrase “okey-dokey” amusing and kept repeating it periodically through the trip and giggling. We couldn’t help but like this passionate advocate of Vietnam, personal freedom, linguistic caprice and pet ownership.

    Our first stop after leaving Saigon was the Vinh Trang pagoda, home of a large outdoor sculpture of a happy Buddha and a leaner, remarkably photogenic Buddha inside the temple. (The lean Buddha had a multi-colored neon halo.) After the temple, we went to My Tho for a bumpy boat ride across one of the many branches of the Mekong to Ben The, manufacturers of honey, coconut candy, and tasty rice cakes. We stopped for honey tea, candies, coconut strips and an array of fruit: mango, pineapple, jackfruit, longan (not unlike lichees) and dragon fruit. By now we’d started to like dragon fruit – inherently bland, it becomes quite tasty with a squeeze of lime juice.

    Then we went on a horse-drawn cart trip to a canal where we traveled gondola-style down the canal to a river and a landing that took us on a hike to a pond-side restaurant. The restaurant specialized in coconut-coated deep-fried “elephant ear” fish. Our fish was accompanied by spring rolls, fried rice, soup and a banh xeo crepe. All of it was good, but it was way too much food, particularly given the platter of fruit we’d eaten only half an hour earlier. After our lunch, we returned to our car by boat, again lurching across the choppy river. We were on the road again, this time to Can Tho. There are a number of bridges funded by foreign aid in the Mekong Delta. We first crossed the “Australian” bridge. Forty-five minutes later, we crossed the “Japanese” bridge outside of Can Tho. One lane on the Japanese bridge had collapsed shortly after opening, killing 54 people – an event that Duy attributed to government corruption and incompetence.

    We arrived at Can Tho around 3:30, in the hottest part of the day. Duy and Hong dropped us off at the hotel Kim Tho, where we ensconced ourselves into the largest room of our trip. It was an immense ninth floor suite with sweeping views north and west of the city and the river. The beds were low and comfortable. Stunned into exhaustion by the heat, I promptly fell asleep and only roused myself after 5:00. We went up to the roof top bar, where we ran into the British couple that had been seated at the next table at the Temple Club the prior night. (Incredibly, they’d also stayed at the Liberty Central back in Saigon.) We saw a spectacular sunset from the roof, chatting with the British couple and a gentleman, also British, who lived in Bali and worked on Vietnamese infrastructure development projects for the World Bank. The male member of the British couple was, like me, a recent retiree. They’d decided to come to Vietnam after their daughter had traveled here for three weeks. The British couple and I lamented the sad state of Asian beer; there are some fine lagers, but no ales whatsoever. Both travelers and natives are forced to subsist on food and lager.

    We walked to the riverfront after dark. It was a pleasant stretch of town along the river. We ate at a corner restaurant named Nambo, recommended by Duy. We actually managed to get a table right on the sidewalk by the street corner where we could watch the world pass by. We had spring rolls (better than the Temple Club’s), papaya salad and caramel pork. We had a dessert of Kahlua ice cream and a lemon crepe. As we were finishing our meal, a female French tour group, all about our age, arrived in a minibus. Every woman in the group had on silk scarf, elegantly wrapped around them, as only French people seem to be able to do. I wondered whether they brought their own scarves to Vietnam or were bused, on arrival, to a silk shop to purchase scarves. Later, when I went inside to find our waiter and pay our tab, the table of eight French women seemed to be watching me; I think I might have been wearing my bandana wrong. After dinner we went for a brief riverside walk and then returned to our room. We liked the view. And we had to get up early the next day.

    The Kim Tho hotel had a good breakfast buffet with a local variety of pho made with pork and a different kind of noodle than I’d seen previously. We left with Duy and Hong at 7:30 sharp – for all of a two-block drive to a dock. From there, we took a boat to the Floating Market. People pile their boats up with produce and then sell it on the river. They indicate what they’re selling by sticking whatever they’re selling atop a tall pole that rises from their boat. Even pineapples and watermelons were advertised in this “hoist high the pineapple” way. We stopped by the coffee boat for some delicious Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. Then we went by the pineapple boat and bought a pineapple; the vendor removed the skin, cored it, cut it into edible slices and dropped it into a clear plastic bag. The entire operation took about thirty seconds. We enjoyed the floating market and the vivid river life. There were a lot of colorfully painted houses riverside on eucalyptus poles, reminding of us of the palafitos that we’d seen in Chile. On our return, we had some minor engine troubles that caused us to lose power and drift into a barge at a sand and gravel loading site. A worker from the site jumped off the barge onto our boat and ran to the stern. Assistance? No. He was flagging a passing market boat to buy cigarettes. Our boat crew – of one – managed to fix the engine after some tinkering. We backed away from the barge and resumed our return trip to Can Tho, although at a slower speed. Pretty soon, we were back to the dock and back to the car and on the road.

    We drove through a succession of towns, canals and rice fields, making our way around and through the swarms of motos beeping, honking, changing lanes and carrying beds, coffins or families of four. Our next stop was the crocodile farm. The crocs are raised for exportation of the skins. They were held in stinky, size-segregated fenced ponds. Had I any interest in smelly reptilian carnivores, it might have been interesting. I don’t and it wasn’t. We had lunch there. Fortunately the restaurant was up-wind and far from the croc pens. The food was good – fish in orange sauce, prawns with black pepper and a beef dish. Then we were on the road again – more towns, bridged canals and rice fields. Dazed, we dozed in the afternoon heat.

    We arrived in Chau Doc a little after 2:00. We had the sensation, abetted in part by Duy’s assertion that Chau Dac’s sole purpose was as a layover spot for people traveling up the Mekong river to Pnomh Penh, that we had arrived at nowhere, a place without interest at the end of all roads. Perhaps we were just traveled out – we’d left the USA for Asia over eight weeks earlier. But we were figuratively scratching our heads - why had we come here? – as we entered Chau Dac. Duy and Hong dropped us off at our hotel, the very pleasant Chau Pho, with a promise to return to see the sights – such as they were – at 4:30 when it was cooler. I napped. YT strode the hallways with her iPad, trying to get wifi reception.

    At 4:30 we drove to the nearby Hotel Victoria, a beautiful old building with beautiful grounds by the riverside. There we boarded a low boat and went to a local fish farm. We fed some fish, caged in a large pen under a floating dock. Then we travelled on to a floating Cham village. This was another of Vietnam’s ethnic minority peoples; they looked like Thais or Cambodians and were darker than Vietnamese people. Many of them – entire families – lived on half-covered, half-exposed boats that were no more than twenty feet long and four feet wide. We walked across some unsteady wooden bridges, dodging vendors all the while, and visited a pretty blue and white mosque. As we rode back down river to the Victoria Hotel, our earlier mood of finality returned as Duy told us of the “House of Bones” and cross-border atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge against Vietnamese villagers in the late 1970s.

    After we returned to the Hotel Victoria, we drove to the top of a 450-meter (a little less than 1,500 feet) hill. It wasn’t much of a view. The landscape below was flat and hazy, the sky filled with plumes of smoke from people burning rice fields post-harvest. We were so close to Cambodia that it was visible on the horizon – or would have been visible on the horizon if not for the smoke and the haze. We left the hill shortly before sunset and Duy and Hong dropped us at the Restaurant Bay Bong near our hotel. It was a good dinner – clay pots of fish (YT) and pork (GotT). We strolled – if that word can be used to describe dodging traffic on a busy street with incomplete sidewalks – back to our hotel. We had desserts there. Then back to our room for the evening. We had barely forty-eight hours left in Southeast Asia.

    We left to return to Saigon about 7:30 in the morning. A bit down the road, Duy pointed out cigarette smugglers coming from Cambodia on high-speed motorcycles. First would come a scout moto, followed thirty seconds later by a second moto loaded with crates of cigarette cartons. They sped through the traffic like people possessed. Due to our early departure, we made good time and arrived at a normally crowded ferry crossing by 10:00 a.m. and only had a short wait. We took the ferry across a river to a highway that was largely free of two-wheeled traffic. We stopped at one point at a “café vong,” a business concept indigenous to southern Vietnam, where one reclines in a hammock while sipping one’s beverage of choice – iced coffee for YT and me, Red Bull for Duy and Hong, our hero driver. Then on to Saigon. We made it to the Liberty Central Hotel a little before 1:00, in large part due to skipping lunch. We tipped Duy and Hong and wished Duy the best of good fortune in his marriage to the Party girl.

    We recovered our luggage and were taken to a wonderful room on the tenth floor – pleasantly cool and with great views of the Saigon skyline. We had a quick lunch of banh xeo and papaya salad, and then wandered over to the Reunification Palace, South Vietnam’s former presidential palace. This was a nice, somewhat modernist building designed by a South Vietnamese architect and constructed in the 1960s. It had been preserved more or less intact and offered a glimpse into that era. We enjoyed touring the enormous premises. Afterwards we returned to the Liberty Central to escape the heat and slept almost until sunset. We’d had the desk make arrangements for us to eat at Xu. This was a superlative meal, far better than the Temple Club. We started with a glass of rosé (YT) and a ginger mojito (GotT). We ordered the six-course tasting menu for one and added a coconut-crusted pork belly with cabbage and daikon radish. We shared everything as it arrived. Both the pork belly and the tasting menu – prawns with pomelo salad, pork and snail spring rolls, beef with sesame, sea bass with lemongrass, a mushroom dish and dessert – were heavenly. The bill came to almost 90U$D – our last, best and largest blowout meal of the trip. Back in our room, we found the view to be even better by night.

    We slept in a little the next morning, our final day. Down at the breakfast buffet, I discovered that they finally had pho bo! It was wonderful. We ate quickly and went to the War Remnants Museum. This had once been called the Museum of American Atrocities, but had been renamed after the USA and Vietnam established diplomatic relations. The lower floor was devoted to exhibits condemning the United States’ intervention on behalf of South Vietnam. The upper floor documented the careers of various war photographers, including Robert Capra, and was both fascinating and free of the heavy-handed 1st floor propaganda. Recommended.

    After the museum, we returned to the hotel for showers and packing. We killed time until 1:00 and then dragged our luggage and ourselves to the lobby to check out. They stored our luggage for the afternoon. We wandered down the street to Cosmo (aka 86 Bis) for mango/passion fruit smoothies – the best we had in Vietnam – and noodles with grilled pork and spring rolls. We followed that with a round of coffee. We loved the white furniture, blue glow and lounge atmosphere of this place. We lingered there for two hours taking advantage of the wifi and a/c. Then it was back to the hotel for massages and then for our cab and our ride to the airport and our evening flight home.

    And thus ended our odyssey.

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    Fantastic report! There is such a wealth of great information that I am in awe!
    I'm hoping to return to SEA in the not-too-distant future so this will be a big help.
    A million thanks. And I've not even seen the photos yet!




    For the record, I also thought Temple Club was vastly overrated; one of those prettified spots where the decor trumps the food.

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    Much appreciated. We used one of your TRs when we were in SEAsia and look forward to using your Puglia trip reports as we travel Puglia this fall, so glad our info will be useful to u.

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    You may appreciate this :)

    Allie is home from school this weekend. She is taking a SE Asia cultures class this semester and said the professor did a slide show of Laos in class earlier this week...and there was a picture of Tamnak Lao and the same table where we had dinner. After the slide show, the professor asked if anyone in the class had been to Laos, and Allie responded, "Yes, and in fact I know that restaurant and ate at that table in your photo."

    Wish it was easier to get there, because that sounds really good right about now!

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    Hi! Too funny! She must have felt very cool. That was a good restaurant and it would be great about now. We've played with trying to go to LP again in 2014. Jut not sure if it will work out or not.

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    I don't know how I missed this report before today. Maybe because he had been several times to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia in the last ten years. But now, after reading this...we must go to Laos. I thought we were finished with long haul trips.

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    I just reread the parts of your epic that centered on the same locations we will be going. Thank you so much for your careful exacting descriptions. I took lots of notes and will look for the same places as we wanderer Hanoi, Sapa, Hoi An, and Luang Prabang.

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    Thanks guys for writing this out in such entertaining AND useful detail. GT, you're quite the writer.

    I've been having a read over the last several days of the Vietnam bits (North and Central) for my planning. I'm sure I'll be coming back as time allows just to read the rest for the fun of it.

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    Thanks for the great trip report - it's incredibly helpful.

    My boyfriend and I are starting to plan an April trip to Vietnam and are considering using Tonkin to simplify making the arrangements. We are torn, however, between going it alone or joining a G Adventures tour for the companionship of other travelers, which we'd enjoy - plus they have an itinerary that covers exactly what I'd like to do: http://www.gadventures.com/trips/timeless-vietnam/AVHC/2014/. (Hanoi, Mai Chau, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, and Saigon in 13 days for $2099 per person.)

    But we also like the idea of more independence and the ability to choose our own hotels. It looks like, based on the price you mentioned, we could do it more cheaply on our own.

    Did you think you had a reasonable amount of interaction with other people? And did you feel well taken care of by the various guides?

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    We definitely were well taken care of by the guides that we had. They were very solicitous and always helpful. We met lots of people along the way, but can't say we were looking for companionship from others. It's easy to talk with the people in VN, many of whom speak English esp younger folks. And we always meet fellow travelers as we travel. I've never done a group tour so can't really make a comparison to the travels we do on our own. In terms of costs I do know that when I have looked at tours I could always do the same for much less $. And as you say, you can pick your own hotels and go at your pace.

    Glad you found our TR helpful and have a great trip.

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    Thanks Althom for reviving this thread.

    GT & YT, I used some of your informative and entertaining report while planning our current journey through Thailand and Laos, to the extent that I changed the initial plan around in order to go downstream on the Luang Say cruise.

    Today we had lunch at Morrodoke (admittedly we stumbled across it) the meal was fantastic.

    Thanks for being so generous with your time to write !

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    We'll be in Chiang Rai then, a shame as I would have liked to shout you a beer.

    You might know of a beer bar in Soi 11 off Nimmanhaemin Rd where the owners will only serve beers from breweries that are over 300 years old. Some fine ales as well as pilseners and lagers.

    Happy travels.

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    I'll had my thanks, too, to both of you for this wonderful TR. I used it regularly during our recent trip, and found it invaluable. Having just returned, I'm amazed at the detail you were able to recall in writing this report.

    The restaurant & food descriptions were right on target and your daily itineraries were so helpful in guiding us in our wanderings.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to do this!

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    @satoric, sorry we'll miss you. Enjoy CR...don't miss the White and Black Temple.
    @progol-always nice to hear we've been helpful. We take notes as we go along, thus the details. Actually it can be amusing, notes are done when time permits, so even a day or two after something, we can't always recall what we did or ate. It gets pretty funny at times trying to remember.

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