Archive for the ‘2007-12, Laos & Vietnam’ Category

SOUTHEAST ASIA TRAFFIC

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

The motor scooters in Vietnam were so amazingly plentiful, that it was simply a remarkable sight to watch a continuous wave of them driving in traffic. There seemed far fewer four wheeled vehicles here than anywhere else we had been, including Thailand and Laos. We at at one restaurant on the fourth floor balcony and looked out over a fairly major “X” shaped intersection, compounded by having a traffic circle off to one side of one of the arms, and by the middle section being elongated, (with only two lanes for about 50 meters, before splitting off again). It was a completely astounding sight to see, and we found it worthy of several minutes of videotape. There were so many near misses it seemed, but not a single accident. As a matter of fact, with traffic as amazingly crazy as it seemed all around here (less so in Laos, where there’s not quite as many vehicles as Thailand, Malaysia or Vietnam, and certainly less so than Singapore where everything is so strictly orderly), we only saw three accidents. One actually involved Luke and I in a taxi that was following WAY too close in Thailand. The bus in front of us came to a screeching halt, and a few seconds later so did we, barely a few decimeters from the bus I’m sure. Then, to add to our loudly screeching tires, the taxi behind us came to a stop only a few centimeters from us. As would be expected then, the car driver behind him wasn’t so quick on her brakes and caused a three vehicle domino collision. We barely felt it, since the sudden stop a few seconds earlier had been far more abrupt. Our driver however was very distraught, and got out in the center lane of four lanes of traffic whizzing by to check things out. I was worried about the delays and was looking to see if Luke and I could safely exit to the curb and flag down an alternate taxi. Not a chance! Inside the vehicle was by far the safest place for us! Our driver and the other, and the woman chattered for about ten minutes, and then he returned to the car. I insisted we get out immediately without paying when he said we were just going to stop off at the police station, (we were only six minutes away from the hotel after a half hour ride). He quickly radioed the other taxi driver and said he was gonna drop us off first and meet them at the police station to file a report. He was pretty upset, mainly at the woman because she had only caused just under CAN $1000 of damage to the two taxis, yet she was insisting on going through insurance. This created (as it does in Canada) mounds of paperwork and governmental red tape that no one else wanted to deal with. Our taxi only had a small dent in the bumper, and yet he was practically in tears regarding the damage to his baby. At least he looked after it I guess.

Claudette and Luke had also witnessed a motorbike getting hit by a taxi at slow speeds in Bangkok. It caused damage to his bike, but he got up immediately with barely a bruise by the looks of it. The third one we just barely saw in Vientiane, (the Capital city of Laos). It was at an intersection, and we were behind a bus and a couple other cars. A dump truck swerved abruptly to avoid crushing a crazy motorbike driver trying to scoot across in front, but miscalculating the speed of the dump truck. The truck swerved and rode up on a high median ripping apart it’s undercarriage as well as a fuel and hydraulic oil tank. The driver scurried out of the cab and away from the truck in a huge hurry, and went to check on the motorcyclist. When we finally got up to and through the intersection a few minutes later, the bike driver was being attended to and looked like he had some ripped clothing, road-rashed face, and a compound fracture of the lower leg. As we continued driving away we didn’t hear any explosions, so the dump truck’s ignition sources must have been turned off.

All in all though, I would still say that traffic in Latin America is slightly worse, in that there seemed to be way more disorderly conduct, and people constantly and very inconsiderately pushing there way in this way and that. Southeast Asia is still pretty wicked of course, just not quite as bad as what I remember from Latin America, and especially Peru. Our guide in Laos had disdainfully told us how all the nation’s roads had previously been filled with bicycles, but people started buying more and more scooters. Then the Chinese started making and selling really cheap scooters in Laos and sudden no one but kids under ten years old used scooters anymore.

Motor-scooter and motorbike drivers are simply suicidal, or they collectively have the combined fore thinking brain power of a pea. The cutting in and out of traffic, and speeding along in between lanes of cars, (while stopped at lights, or at 80KPH, it don’t matter!) is just nuts. I suppose such crazy behavior is offset lightly by the expanded awareness of the drivers, but they still make me shake my head in horrified wonderment. The car and truck driver’s inherently (generally) know and prepare for the crazy sudden turns and budding in front by the bikes, and drive accordingly. Most Westerners who get behind a wheel in Aisia or Latin America would be very likely to quickly wipe out several bikes since they would not be anticipating the two-wheeler movements without observing for awhile first. On the other hand, if a bike were to take up the center of a lane (as is propper and safe to do) most four wheel vehicle drivers would be cussing and swearing since the motor scooters are quite underpowered compared to even a four cylendar car or lorry.

Sadly, this myopically selfish viewpoint of cutting in wherever one can, generally seems to carry over into pedestrian traffic as well. None of the reading in various guidebooks prepared us for the disdainful stepping on our toes, pushing out of the way, budding in front of us, ect, that we constantly seem to be experiencing in Asia so far. China is supposed to be the worst even, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The one cool thing about entering Laos was that the sides of the road that everyone drove on were switched again. This I had mentioned in a previous post I believe. It was still refreshing to see the steering wheels back on the left side of the vehicle again though. We all easily adapted to getting into mini vans on the right side again. This was short lived of course, only in Laos and Vietnam did vehicles use the “right” side of the road again. As soon as we hit Hong Kong, the grand old former British Colony, everything was switched back to the “wrong” side, and we kept going to the “incorrect side to get into taxi’s. That should be short lived again though, since as soon as we get to Beijing in a couple days it will be back to the left side with steering wheels, and to the right side of the road with vehicles themselves.

One other cool thing we’ve noticed in many Southeast Asia countries so far is an extra, smaller sized lanes on the “ditch” side of traffic. These are not wide enough (safely) for a car to travel, and are generally meant for animal carts, bicycles, motorbikes and pedestrians. In Thailand they are almost exclusively used by motor scooters. In Laos there weren’t many except in towns, and they were most often used for parking, or as motor scooter lanes when clear. In Vietnam we actually did see a couple ox-carts and bicyclists using them, even along the side of an 8 lane raised highway. That was certainly quite the contrast!

Vietnam

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Our flight leaving Laos to Vietnam was slightly delayed and we didn’t get in until later in the evening, almost bedtime. We explored a little bit before eating a late supper upstairs at this nice but very narrow little new boutique hotel.

(Mary Jo, Caleb or Connor, if you’re reading before getting to Hanoi on Dec 20 pay attention for some tips! And make sure to see the puppet show!)

Food near the hotel was difficult to find. We could go about 5 blocks one way (South I think it was, but the maps were not oriented to the “standard” North, so it’s difficult to be sure) near West Lake were a bunch, (as well as the nummiest chocolate/pastry shop I had encounered since Cusco in Peru!). Heading East from the hotel a few blocks took us through a major shopping district and various daily markets. A few blcks frther East was a much larger lake, some geat restaurants and the highlight of our trip to Vietnam, the wateer puppet how. I show preface such a grandioise comment with the explanation that we only had tyhe smallest amount of time in Hanoi and in fact all of Vietnam. We flew in late one afterrnoon, got to the hotel in Hanoi in time to have a meal, unpack a bit, walk up and down one road and then pretty much go to bed. With only one free day in the capital city before flying to Hong Kong we weren’t really sure what we would be able to accomplish.

The half day or full day city, countryside, or ocean bay tours all started no later than 8:00 AM! Not our cup of tea at the best of times. Never mind the extremely heavy emphasis towards Ho Chi Min! Good gawd! There was his mauseleum where the body is on display with twice yearly fesh changes of embalming fluid and skin moisturizer. After that was his statue (and park) errected (constructed) to celebrate his life, then there’s another Ho Chi Min monument to celebrate the commie victory in the war, the Ho Chi Min this, and the Ho Chi Min that… The current government is clearly hanging on to him as a strong focal point while letting go of most of his ideals. There was also a visit to “Lennin Park” (and statue) on a tour. We opted for none, and instead I wandered out mid morning and eventually worked my way to the water puppet show box office only able to get tickets for the 9:15 PM show! (There were five shows per day.) The puppets all had elongated horizontal sticks controlling them which were hidden by the water. There was a six piece band adjacent to the water stage as well that were excellent! The puppet show was in 11 stages, or scenes. There were obviously elaborate wires and trigger mechanisms threaded through the sticks and up into the puppets that controlled extra lateral movements, mouth, arms, tails and whatever other apendage individual puppets may have had. It started off with fire breating dragons, complete with lit up sparklers, coming up from under the water and completely captivated us for the rest of the show. (Except for Luke a bit who struggled heavily three-quarters the way through to keep his poor tired little eyes open.) I got some spectacular pictures and video throughout.

After that, we grabbed a taxi home to rest before heading to the airport first thing in the morning. Our hotel was very newly built, and very boutiqeish without being outrageously expensive. This was the last of our second GAP tour, and the booked accomodations were way more extravegant than we would have stayed when booking on our own. This hotel was very narrow, (along with most all buildings we saw in Hanoi) but was 11 stories tall. It only had six to three suites on each floor but was very nice. The restaurant at the top was also amazing, with corespondingly high prices. Gone were the days of ordering a full plate meal (from Thailand & Laos) for $3-$5. Instead we were back to paying $14 for a burger and upwards of $30 for a steak. The view was nice at least!

The remainder of Tranquil Laos

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

The rest of Laos was very enjoyable. We started seeing the same other caucaision tourists at different temples and museums, and then again in the next day or two in different towns. It was as if there was a standard itinerary that all tour companies followed. The capital city of Laos, Vientien, has less people than Red Deer, at around 100,000. That province (one of seventeen provinces in Laos) has the highest population of all provinjces in the country at just barely over one million. I think that the total population of Laos is just around six million. WIth few people in the cities this means that there is an unnatural amount of rural population still living along waterways, in the abundant backcountry, and all stretched along the highways and roads. Urbanism has yet to explode here.

One very cool thing we saw throughout Laos (but no other Southeast Asian country, including our future visit to Vietnam) were the tractors. They were not traditional ride-em tractors as we are used to. Instead they are a direct replacement for oxen or water buffalo. I have a couple of pictures on our web gallery already. Essentially, they are a big engine, with a visible, open clurtch, on top of two larger, fat drive wheels. Extending out the back is a long arm with two handles that house the controls. Think of a large rotertiller with two big wheels at the front instead of the tines, and then extend the control handles to an overall length of about 2.5 meters. This allows the “driver” to still sit at the front of a wagon and hold the handles just as if he were almost still controlling water buffalo by reigns. We saw lots of these things plodding along the side of highways, or going through town. Most had families riding in the four-wheeled wagons, but some had huge piles of cargo. This could be crops, to huge bundles of bamboo or wood, or even furniature and other goods going to stiores to be sold. For crop work I suppose that the farmers would merely replace the wagon with wahtever field implement they needed at that time.

Our guide told us that several years ago the goveernment decided to subsidize these mechanical animal replacement beasts, and pretty much every one in the country jumped at the opportunity. Originally they just offered a little money for villiagers to help them build fences for their animals OR a little more money in exchange for the animals in order to get a tractor. Our guides strong impression was that the people thought that the building of fences (even with a little monetary help) was just WAY too much like work and they opted en mass to get modernized instead. I asked how these subsistence farmers (about half of the people that have these walk behind tractors) could possibly afford gas!!! The guide said that they just adapted and learned to make or grow more goods to buy fuel. He said that there are barely any beasts of burden in the country at all anymore. To partially substantiate this, none of the five of us saw an oxen or water buffalo anywhere along our route. This naturally leads me to be highly suspicious of restaurants that have water buffalo on their menue’s. I can only presume that they were really offering dog meat from the abundance of local strays…

In Vientien (the Capital City of Laos) we met and visited over two days with a family from Sydney, Australia. The two boys were almost exactly the same age as Alex and Luke and they had a blast visiting and swimming in the hotel pool. On the second day, us three parents even consented to the four kids having a “sleepover” in our kids room. Us adults also shared a few bottles of wine and many great stories during and after supper. The next morning we had a leisurely schedule of sleeping in and packing up before needing to leave just after lunch.

The night before we were to fly out, we went by ourselves to a Lao Traditional Dance show. It was pretty inexpensive and very cool. The restaurant at the hotel we stayed at in Phalong Pabang also had a nightly show of Lao Traditioanl dance, but it was free and slightly more ametuerish. Before going to the airport, we had time for one last tour about a half hour away to the “Buhddist Park”. It was really nice with all sorts of Buhda & friends statutes and sculptures in a grassy park area. At the opposite end from the parking lot was a restaurant beside the Mekong River overlooking Thailand on the other side. There was some sort of large (about three stories high) round concrete climbable sculpture with a wild concrete tree at the top that I took pics of Claudette, Alex & Luke on from below. We’ll get those uploaded to the gallery as soon as we find a computer with DVD to extract them from…

Enjoyed Laos and very fast visit to Vietnam

Friday, December 14th, 2007

Hi all, I know I’m not as prolific a writer as Rick is but here goes anyway. I really enjoyed our time in Laos. The descriptions of the tour books is accurate when they describe the pace of life as slow. No one or thing moves fast, especially the transportation, but this was nice as we had a lot of time to watch the people and the countryside go by. Firstly I really enjoyed the 2 day slow boat ride down the Mekong river, the city of Luang Prabang, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, was nice with it’s very old temples, the king’s former palace, and the great waterfalls we saw just outside the city. The 5-6 hour drive to Vien Vieng was a little more stomach moving as we had to cross the top of several mountain ranges, back and forth around the corners (you get the picture I’m sure). But once in the valley near Vien Vieng and into the capital, Vientiane, it was much better. The hotels we’ve stayed at have been great. Our tour guide, Phanh, was really good as he had many stories to tell us as he had spent 12 years (11-23) as a novice monk.

At the hotel in Vientiane, Luke introduced himself to another family, mother, Mary Jo and 2 boys, Kaleb (13) and Conner (11) from Sydney, Australia. The kids had a blast together swimming in the hotel pool and we even let them have a sleepover, as all 4 kids stayed in Alex and Luke’s room for 1 night. Unfortunately they are also coming to Hanoi, and funny enough booked to stay at the same hotel as us but we leave a day before they arrive.

As it turned out with the tour package we booked, we are only staying 2 nights in Vietnam, and since we flew in late last night and have spent the morning on the internet I’m not sure we are going to get a chance to see a whole lot. We are planning to walk around the Old Quarter and take in a water puppetry show today, and then we are off for 4 nights in Hong Kong.

Have to run, take care for now. Claudette

First Impressions of Laos

Monday, December 10th, 2007

After a night at a small Inn in Chaing Khong right on the Mekong River we took a long tail boat Ferry ride accross to Laos. Communism is the rule of law here, and it was not overtly noticeable, (not like I expect it to be in China anyways…). People can easily go from one country to the next accross the river and walk right past (or around) the immigration office to spend as much time as they want doing whatever in the other country. The only (minimal) catch is that all hotels on both sides require registration of your passport and in Laos they also take careful note of your VISA number. The injustice of the VISA for us was extroirdinary and hurtful. Most all Aisian, European and South sea countries were charged US$30 for a tourist VISA. Americans are charged US$35, and Canadians are charged US$42. Ogh! the injustice… The first thing we noticed after clearing all that stuff up was a left hand side drive vehicle! Way cool! Back to the side we are used to from home, even though it took some getting used to again, getting into a vehicle from the opposite side as Australia, Singapore, Malaysia & Thailand.

On our first night in Laos, luke was playing with a pet monkey. It crawled on his head and the owner took it off. When it satrted climbing up Luke’s leg again, the owner pulled it’s tail to prevent uit from climbing up onto his head again. Not enjoying being pulled off, the monkey held on to Luke even more, and then eventually bit Luke’s leg to get a better grip. So, we added a new Top four list entry to account for all of these “encounter’s” we seem to be having. It is available from the links at the top left of any blog page, or directly from:
http://weblog.jamesworld.ca/top-4-lists/

As soon as we got VISA’s and passports straightened out, we took a ride to a steel hull long boat on the Mekong River. We were going to another town, about 14 hours drive down the river. It was broken up into two days of travel on the boat by ourselves with four relaxing reclining chairs and amazing vies out the sides of the boat. Pictures of our boat (and some other larger tourist transport boats) probably won’t show up in the online gallery for a another week or two yet, once the camera DVD is finalized. It was quite nice and relaxing though at six hours one day, and eight hours the next. In between we stayed at a pretty delux hotel in the middle of freak’in no where.

Once we got to Luangprabang, (where we’re still at now) we did several tours of various temples which sadly being to blend together. The cool part of our tours here however is the guide. He grew up about a four hour drive from here in a small farming villiage, but left home at age 11 to join a temple as a buddist Monk Novice. Apparently the learning and lifestyle prospects in his villiage were pretty slim, so he decided to enter into the “novicehood”. It would typically take a boy about 20 years as a novice before becomming a monk. He spent his first six years here at a temple in Luangprabang, and then went to the capital city of Laos for another six years learning pretty decent English along the way. So, when we toured his old temple where he lived as a child (and another where he walked to school each day) the insights and stories were incredible and much more interesting than the standard tourist explanations given to everyone else. We had several others at different times leaning in to our small group of five to overhear his recollections before they were admonished by their own tour guides for falling behind.

Tomorrow we have a five hour (150km) bumpy bus ride to the next town on our tour stop. In the end we won’t be going through Vietnam much at all other than flying directly to Hanoi from Vientiane (the Laos capital city) and staying there for two nights before our Dec 16 scheduled flight to Hong Kong.

Laos (Le country de Francais thats not France)

Monday, December 10th, 2007

We are now in Laos (I was spelling it louse ) It’s really a nice place. 5000 kip ( kip is their currency) is about 50 cents. Here I’m a multi- billoinare :). I think I’m adding this to places I want to come back to. Now I really wish I was in Mary Poppins, (our Fort Smith skating carnival theme show). Oh well the carnaval might be better next year :). Miss you all!
Alex