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marianacardoso Sep 19th, 2014 12:15 PM

My SEA trip : 2 months
 
Hi everyone! This summer I went to SEA for the first time and had two months with my boyfriend.
The route we did was the following:
1-Bangkok
2-Vang Vieng
3-Nong khiaw
4-Luang Prabang
5-Chiang Mai
6-Yangon
7-Inle Lake
8-Bagan
9-Mandalay
10-HCMC
12-Da Nang
11-Hoi An
12-Ninh Binh
13-Sapa
14-Hanoi

I researched a lot for this trip, not only in guidebooks but in forums like this one and travelfish. We went like backpackers and spent around 100$ a day for both of us.
We decided to do a lot of places in a short time manly due to us being young and energetic and we just couldn't choose lol.

I'm Portuguese and find it hard to write detailed information in English so I'll give you an idea of my experience in each place:

Bangkok:
We loved Bangkok. It was the only place I felt I could live in and had everything. It was also where we spend most of the time, around 6 days.
Bangkok has it all, especially for food lovers! From great street food (don't be afraid, we never got sick) and great fine dining like Nahm. It was also a great city just to walk around. When I think about it we didn't saw that much for the time we where there. And while I enjoyed the temples what makes the city for me it's the street life and people watching. One thing I want to recommend it's to go to is Thonburi, to Khlong Bang Luang for a slower pace and gorgeous khlongs where there are no tourists at all besides on the boats passing by. I knew this place from travelfish. Getting there was problematic because no taxi driver knew where it was. After a lot of tries the 6th taxi drive knew the street and was one of the highlights of my trip.

Vang Vieng:
This is a weird place. Its gorgeous, I took some of my best pictures there. But the town it's just weird! The restaurants are all for the backpacker tourist. Same menu, same writing on the boards of the menu, same prices, same same. And they consist of basically of burgers sandwiches pancakes etc... To find some place else we had to go further away from the backpacker scene where we found a local man eating, there we had a great noodle soup and a papaya salad (that I will end up loving in Vietnam) that was so spicy that my ears started burning. When they say it's spicy, it's REALLY spicy! We saw no tubing even though I think it on because I saw people with the tubes around town. The best way to love Vang Vieng it's to get on a bike and explore the beautiful countryside and if you do that you'll love Vang Vieng. Blue Lagoon was nothing special only the ride there.

Nong Khiaw:
I liked nong khiaw even if just for the night. I had a blister on the palm of foot that I got from my birkenstock so I could not do the trekking to the viewpoint. I was sad about that and went to Luang Prabang sooner than expected. But I would recommend to everyone, very scenic little town.

Luang Prabang:
Well, I must say I can't say much about Luang Prabang. I heard a lot of good things and I think that if you have some money, you like comforts and pretty places you might like. I did not love it, I did not hate it either. But I ended up spending little lime there. The morning alms ceremony I saw when I got from the night bus and was walking to the hotel. It was nice to see since I was probably in a place far from the tourists and very serene. I probably just got lucky because I know it's not like that. If you like to eat local and good you won't like LP but if you have money and like to go to good restaurants it's good. There are nice temples to see, I did not go to the waterfalls. I don't get the hype, Luang Prabang seems to nice and clean for the rest of Laos and you feel like you're visiting an European village, it was my least favorite place of Laos.

Chiang Mai:
Coming from Luang Prabang and knowing that many people put Luang Prabang Chiang Mai and Hoi an in the same lot, I was prepared for not loving this place. I loved Chiang mai, the night, the food and the markets, I recommend the one in the chinatown of CM, almost no turists, nice vibe and life. Like in Bangkok we did not do much besides eating and wandering around. The temples are nice, I would just walk in when I was passing by. I did not do any tours to see elephants or trekking so I can't comment on that.

Yangon:
Yangon was a bit of a shock to us. My boyfriend did not like the city, I just did not love. I guess it has that rough feel to it that you want to feel comfortable about but sometimes you can't. The city in rainy season it's very wet, dark, old and dirty. The men stare a lot at you if you're a girl and you feel more like I think people might feel in India. Looking back I wish I was a bit more open minded. Having that said, I never felt insecure and the people we talked to were very nice like in the rest of the country. The shwedagon pagoda is unreal.

Inle Lake:
We loved Inle Lake. It's one of those places I wish I did not go to just so that I could go there again. Nyaungshwe is a great place to walk around. I must say the workshops, even though were not a disappointment since I knew how it was, were the lowlight of Inle Lake for sure. If you are fit, I advise you to rent a bike and search for a biking map of inle lake, there's a route where you go through beautiful scenery to a village where you get a boat to the other side. Our boat driver showed us the fisherman (much more authentics than the ones we saw on the lake tour) and took us to a village on the other side. That village its very nice it has a great day market (make sure it's on the day you'll be there) where we where the only tourists there. It was great to see the little kids going to the school. Then on our way back to Nyaungshwe we stopped in a little restaurant called bamboo hut, near the vineyards. In the main road you see a sign for the restaurant. It was great, we were there alone and the owners picked everything from the garden in front. It was so peacefull and one of the highlights.

Bagan:
Bagan is one of those places you cannot describe. If you go to Myanmar I'm sure you'll go there and you'll know what I mean. I don't think anyone can hate it. If you heard things about the number of tourists, just forget it. They are very little for the dimension and beauty of the bagan plains. The problem is that they all go to the same temple at sunset and sunrise so they look a lot. Again, one of our highlights.

Mandalay:
Mandalay is hot. Is dirty and sunny in comparison to Yangon in rainy season. We did not spent much time there and next time we will visit the surrounding places. We saw the sunset in Amarapura and was the most beautiful sunset I ever saw in my life. But the feeling you get in Bagan is way more special. Even though the bridge was packed most of the people were Burmese.

HCMC:
Ho chi minh city it's a cool city. It's modern and has a lot to keep you interested. The war museum it's impressive and makes you sad and mad at the same time. It has a lot of nice cafes and good local restaurants. We had a map and walked almost everywhere by foot: its a great way to see the city and when you get tired you can always stop in a cool place for a break, there are plenty.

Da Nang:
We just passed by. We were sorry about that, it looked nice and the beach deserted. Everyone said hello to us, it was funny. We would be saying hello nonstop. People were just nice.

Hoi an:
How can I start... Hoi an... It was HOT, crowded and a pretty and ugly place. We did not like it but our camera loved it. I had felt that in Luang Prabang but it was intensified here. Even though it might be even more of a pretty town than Luang Prabang, had SO MANY tourists it was crazy. It felt like Europe in summer. Again not great to eat local but great for people who like comfort and good restaurants for tourists. We went to the beach that was supposed to be the local beach and had no locals at all. I guess they don't like beach lol but there were a lot of tourists even in that one. We went away much earlier than expected.

Ninh Binh:
It was an highlight. For some reason it sticks to my memory even more than Inle Lake and Bagan. The scenery was the one that made me stop and think "how did I get here? I'm so far from home." and all I could think of was that I wish I will never forget what I was feeling in that moment. I wanted to go to ninh binh a lot but heard bad things about tam coc and how touristy it was and full of scams. Since I did not go on a tour I did not experience that and even went to tam coc, but in late afternoon (5pm). I saw only about 3 boats coming back and one going like us. It was beautiful. We also went to Hang Mua or Mua cave (it's not the cave that its special but the view). The ride there was as good as the view from the top. I went to Hanoi in the 3rd class train car with the wind on my face looking to the countryside and felt I did not wanted to end and wished I would go back there and that it was just the same.

SaPa:
Biggest disappointment on the whole trip. I think it was because: 1-I was coming from ninh binh 2-was not prepared for the number of tourists there 3-they all take the exact same routes trekking. We had a 3 day trek with homestays. Our group was of about 10 but we were going on a route with many other groups. There were so many we were always losing our guide. On top of that our guide was so fast that if we stopped to take pictures we would fall behind and had to run to catch her. That made no sense whatsoever because we arrived to the homestay just after lunch! we had no time to appreciate the views just to get to the house where we were supposed to do drinking games. Not what we were expecting at all. That night we saw the most beautiful night sky ever. In the next day we decided to get back to Sapa on the back of a motorcycle. Beautiful views! I wish to come back to Sapa and see it like that.

Hanoi:
Hanoi was a nice city, we were thinking we would love it much more than hcmc but looking back we are not convinced on that. Again, it's great for food lovers and also if you like shopping. If you go there you have to go to the newday restaurant. Great food, very affordable, a mix of tourists and locals and the best green papaya salad ever.

That's about it. At the end of our trip we had to start planning the next so we did not get so sad lol! I took a lot of pictures and when I put them on the internet I will post a link to share.

progol Sep 19th, 2014 01:41 PM

Fabulous trip report -- thank you! I appreciate your perspective, too. And I love the writing, too:

<<I went to Hanoi in the 3rd class train car with the wind on my face looking to the countryside and felt I did not wanted to end and wished I would go back there and that it was just the same.>>

Beautiful! I want to feel the same when I travel.

simpsonc510 Sep 19th, 2014 01:51 PM

Thank you for posting your trip report. It was a very interesting read. Your opinion on the various places is much appreciated. You have visited some interesting and unique places.

Bangkok is my favorite city. I agree with you that it isn't really about the temples. For me it is the people. I love sitting at an outside cafe watching the busy street scene.

I look forward to a link to your photos when you have them ready for viewing.

sartoric Sep 19th, 2014 02:25 PM

Yes, thanks for your report and opinions on the places you visited.

Glad it all went well !

Vientianeboy Sep 19th, 2014 05:54 PM

"The restaurants are all for the backpacker tourist."

This is totally incorrect. There are a number of very good Lao restaurants in town. There are also a number of good quality western restaurants that do not cater to backpackers.

"If you like to eat local and good you won't like LP but if you have money and like to go to good restaurants it's good."

Again, I do not know where you ate, but this is also totally incorrect. There are many good Lao restaurants around and they are cheap. Sure there are some high quality western restaurants that are expensive by Lao, not western, standards but there are also a lot of decent cheaper ones.

Vientianeboy Sep 19th, 2014 05:56 PM

", Luang Prabang seems to nice and clean for the rest of Laos and you feel like you're visiting an European village, it was my least favorite place of Laos."

I guess you have no interest in History, culture and architecture? I have never seen a European village with wats by the way.

marianacardoso Sep 20th, 2014 01:58 AM

Thank you all!
@Vientianeboy: In the main streets of Vang Vieng, when I say they all look the same I'm not exaggerating. They are all copy cats of each other, the menu has all the same stuff and even the writing it's the same, it's insane. I'm not making stuff up and that was my experience. If you keep reading my report you would have read that I did find a local restaurant but it was far from the main roads and I did like the food there. But I can't generalize from the restaurants that were far and fewer when the majority are not like that at all. You don't have to get so offended by my report, I did like Laos and the people. I personally did not like the vibe of Luang Prabang and I'm sorry if that makes you offended. Luang Prabang is very beautiful, the architecture is fantastic and the setting is extraordinary. But to me it felt weird being there. You don't see harmony between the tourists and locals and it feels like it does not fit the rest of Laos. It was very hard to see Lao people daily lifes there because they are not integrated in the city as much as in other places. It lives from the tourists with many pizza places and wine and souvenir shops. I don't think it's bad they take advantage of the town being tourist friendly but it was not what I was looking forward. I'm sorry I'm not in line with your opinion but if I was it would not have been my trip report but yours. Maybe I just have no interest in history culture and architecture if that's what it takes to like it.

crellston Sep 20th, 2014 03:16 AM

Great report Mariana. I enjoyed reading of your perspective on these places. I know what you mean about Luang Prabang it has steadily got more touristy and less Lao over the last 20 years. You are of course entitled to you opinion even if others disagree!

Good to hear you loved Ninh Binh. We plan on staying for a few days there in December. Where did you stay?


We were planning on spending a week in Sapa before heading further north but it sounds as if it has got a lot busier since we were there a few years ago. May have to reconsider.

Hanuman Sep 20th, 2014 03:41 AM

Nice report marianacardoso.

marianacardoso Sep 20th, 2014 04:38 AM

@Crellston
Thank you very much

Ninh Binh is beautiful, and there is a lot to see and at the same time, you don't have to do much to like it.
I stayed Anna Tham Hotel View first, the setting was beautiful and family run, we told the girl on the reception we wanted to go to tam coc but we did not want to buy any souvenirs (there's a scam at the end of the boat ride, when you reach the end there's a place you can buy overpriced drinks and food for your boat lady that wont consume the product but give them back, there are reports they don't take you back unless you buy something) so her grandfather of took us to tam coc at 5pm, he went cycling with us there and talked a bit with our boat lady. He did not spoke English at all so we don't know what he told the lady but the boat ride was brilliant, she was always offering to take pictures of us and at the end she only asked us if we wanted to buy anything without insisting. Very calm place and beautiful if you're able to do it right.
We decided to change hotel because even though the setting was really nice, it's in tam coc, not ninh binh and has a major flaw that it's in the middle of nowhere and at night the streets have no light whatsoever so you have to have dinner there everyday. We stayed in Ngoc Anh Hotel after, that has great value for money and was in Ninh Binh. Also, the owners were very friendly. If you have some money to spare on accommodation there are nicer and more beautiful places to stay, of course, but if you just want a place that it's comfortable and clean you can't get much better value than this one.
Don't skip Mua Cave the views are breathtaking and the ride there through the rice fields was one of the most scenic places I've been to. But be prepared, you will get tired and make sure to bring water, try to go in the afternoon so you can climb when there's shadow.

Sapa was very busy when I was there. Even though it was disappointing the views are great and I wish to see more of the northern Vietnam. Just won't be trekking like I did last time, it has to be a better way to experience the area. I hope you get a better experience if you decide to go there.

Vientianeboy Sep 20th, 2014 05:56 PM

"You don't have to get so offended by my report"
Not offended at all. I just think you should not post inaccuracies. Others planning to go there will be confused when they see it is nothing like your reports.

I go to Vang Vieng with my family about 2x per year for a few days r and r. As my family is Lao we generally eat in a Lao restaurant, though not always. There are a number of good ones around which serve dishes with river weed and sorry, but they look nothing like the "Friends" places which are to be found on the main street only.

As far as LP is concerned, you seem to forget that 90 percent of the inhabitants are local people following their normal way of life. Tourists are an addition, hardly the life blood of the town.
"It lives from the tourists." It actually does not. According to the latest Department of Tourism figures published a few weeks ago, about 20 percent only of LP income is derived from tourism. To be fair, the D of T is investigating ways to increase this.

marianacardoso Sep 21st, 2014 12:18 AM

"There are a number of good ones around which serve dishes with river weed and sorry, but they look nothing like the "Friends" places which are to be found on the main street only."
I'm not saying there are not any local restaurants. Again, if you read my report you'll see that I say I did find a restaurant that i did like. If you go there with your family twice a year I don't know why you are so surprised with what I wrote. You must know that the BIG majority of the restaurants are as I describe and for someone that does not know Vang Vieng and gets dropped in the main streets it will be hard to find a local restaurant without having to walk away from the central area.

""It lives from the tourists." It actually does not. According to the latest Department of Tourism figures published a few weeks ago, about 20 percent only of LP income is derived from tourism. To be fair, the D of T is investigating ways to increase this."

I reported my experience. The feel of the town is touristy and I'm not the only one who says it, I'm sorry. And there are no harmony between the tourist and local people like in other places and that was, again, MY experience. I've been there about 2 months ago and that is all I can say. I am from Lisbon and sometimes I read reports about my city that say it is too touristy. And for some parts, yes, I agree, it is. The income does not all have to come from tourism for the experience to feel like it. While I do know Lisbon well enough to know that it is possible to get away from that I also know that, like in everywhere else, people experience places in different ways. And I respect that.

"I just think you should not post inaccuracies. Others planning to go there will be confused when they see it is nothing like your reports."

I posted my experience. If it is different than yours, I'm sorry. If everyone had the same experiences there were no trip reports needed and it is impossible that everyone has the same experiences. If you had a different experience please make a trip report of your own so that people can read a different side and experience of those places. Maybe next time, I have a trip report that will help me appreciate and see another side of LP. Vang Vieng I liked.

crellston Sep 21st, 2014 01:09 AM

Well said MarianaC. I wouldn't take it personally. For some reason this forum member seems to take exception to even the slightest criticism of Laos. I guess everyones perceptions of places are different.

Thanks for the additional info regarding Ninh Binh really helpful. i will almost certainly stay in Ninh Binh at least at the beginning of our time there. Ngoc Anh Hotel seems to get rave reviews from a lot of people so we will probably start off there and maybe try and incorporate homestays else where. trying to sort out the logistics of getting from there to Mai Chau.

marianacardoso Sep 21st, 2014 03:01 AM

Thank you crellston!
I would if I were you look into Pu Luong nature reserve for trekking and homestays, everyone who I heard that have been there rave about it. I looked a bit into it but skipped because I had no time.
I think there's a possible route from Ninh Binh to Moc Chao that goes through Pu Luong nature reserve and Mai Chau.

shelleyk Sep 22nd, 2014 12:29 PM

Thanks for your interesting perspective on the places you visited. I enjoyed reading your TR. Sounds like you had a wonderful trip.

Guenmai Sep 22nd, 2014 12:52 PM

Interesting report.

Happy Travels!

crosscheck Sep 22nd, 2014 04:53 PM

Thanks for this report. This is a fresh, enlightened point of view and reminds me why I travel. Ninh Binh now high on my list.

yammerjammer Sep 22nd, 2014 06:14 PM

Great report! Bookmarking for next year when I hope to travel through SEA.

I am interested in hearing how you traveled between each place/city? Did you fly local or use land travel? Any tips would be greatly appreciated. Also, what did you think about the pace? I'm looking to travel for the same length of time and would love to visit these places, however, energetic I am not!

Thanks for such a great report.

marianacardoso Sep 23rd, 2014 05:11 AM

Thank you all!

@yammerjammer, I took local transports mostly by night and some flights.

1-From Bangkok I took the night train from Bangkok to Nong Khai. I went on the 2nd class air conditioner car and it was great. It was an exiting trip and with some great views of the countryside arriving in the morning at Nong Khai. From there I took a tuktuk to the border and from there to the bus station in Vientiane. I had not heard great things about Vientiane so I did not stay there but looking back I would probably have liked to stay there for a day or two. I took a minibus to Vang Vieng right after I arrived there, all the passengers were local. We stopped many time for them to buy food from roadside markets. I bought there my first huge Lao style baguette for less than a dollar. I arrived in Vang Vieng early afternoon.

2-From Vang Vieng to LP we took a nightbus because we wanted to stay a bit longer there. I heard the journey has beautiful views so if you got the time I would advise you to look into it. As we had heard that the bus would go through some winding rough roads we took some pills for motion sickness. I'm not sure if it was because we had never taken those kind of pills before or because we were so tired from the biking that same day, but we slept the whole journey and were so confused when we arrived because not only we did not remember any part of the journey but we had a blanket on top and we did not remember anyone putting it there. The bus had mattresses instead of seats one for two. It looked old and not very clean but we were too tired to care. When we arrived in Luang Prabang it was still dark and we decided to walk around trying to find our hotel, best decision ever: it was when we saw the morning alms ceremony.

3-To and from Nong Khiaw we took minibuses in the morning, great views.

4-We took a nightbus from Luang Prabang to Huay xai and that journey was probably the worst, still I wouldn't lose the time and do it by day bus but would consider the slow boat. That bus did not have mattresses, it had like reclined seats and even though it looked more clean and new that the one from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, it was far more uncomfortable. It stopped many times to pick up local passengers even though the bus was full. It got to the point where an old man sat on my seat leaning his back against my legs. He did not speak any english and would just look back at me and smile. I felt sorry for him but at the same time did not seam fair that I would have to share my seat. It did not stay there long though and just lay down on the corridor between seats like many other local people. It's bad that they keep selling tickets even though they have no seats left but there's nothing you can do about it. We crossed the border and then took a bus to Chiang khong and bought a ticket to chiang mai at the bus station. We had a little time to kill and went to a market. It looked a nice town to hang out. Arrived after lunch at Chiang Mai.

From Chiang Mai we took again the night train. This car looked newer but it was not so comfortable and freezing cold. There are at least two types of cars from AC 2nd class sleeper. The first one and better, at least to me, is when you have two seats facing each other and at night those seats became a bed for one and there's another one on top. The second was what we had for this trip and it's a cabin for 4 people and the setting for the beds is always done. 2 people seat at the lower bunk facing the other 2 in the bed in front. I prefer the first but i guess the second is better for families.

From Bangkok we took a flight to Yangon with Airasia.
From Yangon we took a night bus to Bagan with a company called JJ express: great company, great staff and very comfortable new buses. Worth the extra money compared to other companies.

From Bagan to Inle lake we did not went through JJ express, not sure if they don't do that route or we just did not found it. It was in a normal bus (not sleeper), very cold AC (and I was prepared for the cold) but as we are pretty good sleepers we always end up sleeping a bit.

From Inle lake to mandalay we went with JJ express again, and was a nice journey again! I really recommend everyone to use this company.

From Mandalay we went to HCMC with Airasia via Bangkok (two separate flights)

From HCMC we took a flight to Da Nang with Jetstar and arranged a private car to Hoi an and back to Da Nang.

From Da Nang we took a night train to Ninh Binh. Very confortable nice journey. Great views in the morning!

From Ninh Binh we took the train in the morning and went in the 3rd class and it was great. Beautiful views with an open window. Even though the seats are hard (wood) it's a small journey and it's a different feeling from being with the AC. I cannot describe why I loved that journey so much I think it was a bit personal and from my mind being in such a good place after Ninh Binh. The views for me were breathtaking and seeing peoples' life from the train was great. I was seeking in my trip at that moment at felt very lucky to be there. It's a feeling I will remember and treasure forever.

From Hanoi I went to SaPa by bus because it was a bit last minute and the train was almost full. Anyway, since the trip went well we came back by bus again.

I probably did not always chose the best transport but I don't really regret any of our choices.

marianacardoso Sep 23rd, 2014 05:34 AM

Regarding my pace: I did not feel rushed but I cannot tell you that you won't. I'm young and so is my boyfriend and even though we did have days we did not do much of anything (mainly in Bangkok and Hanoi) we had the explore mood on. I would also add that this trip we wanted to get a feel of the area but we intended to comeback to explore the parts/countries we loved the most.

I can say that when I was leaving Bagan on the third day for the night bus I got very sad. There was the most beautiful sunset with the orange sky that unfortunately I did not get to experience in the other days and I wished at that moment I could be in Bagan plains and almost felt like crying lol. I would leave some time extra for this things not to happen.

Also, there were some places I wished I stayed, like Nong Khai, Vientiane, Chiang Khong and Da Nang but I had no time and again, you have to accept that you won't be able to see everything. Not to have that feeling you have to restrict to one country only for example but I preferred it like this for my first time in Asia. This trip gave me an idea (even if not as profound as if I had more time) of the countries where I have been and even though I was afraid I was rushing now looking back I wouldn't change anything but going to Hoi An altogether and Sapa at least on a tour. Next time I will leave a lot of time more to the places I know now I will love.

What I advise you to do is to have some flexibility. For exemple, if I planned everything I would stayed a lot of days in some places(like Hoi An) and a lot less in other (like Ninh Binh) and would have regretted it. If you think you're packing too much in your trip, just be sure that you'll be able to change your mind last minute and spend a little more in one place and just cut another you were thinking of doing. You can do this if you book your hotels and transportation on the go, we did that and turned out but we were in low season (July-Aug-Sept) so I can't say if this is a good idea for high season.


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