Category Archives: Natural Beauty

Vietnam: Ha Long Bay

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Aside from the Sunderbans in India, Ha Long Bay was probably the most disappointing destination for us. Considering that it tops many “must-see” lists (it was also named one of The New York Times top destinations for 2012), we were pretty excited to see the UNESCO World Heritage site.

And yes, it is beautiful. The 1,600 limestone islands and islets rising out of the Gulf of Tonkin waters into craggy towers are certainly a haunting site to see. I’m not sure it is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World…but it certainly is magical.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

So why were we unimpressed? Well, for one, we had crappy weather. This made for some atmospheric fog, but in general it’s not that fun to be on a boat on a cloudy, cold, and rainy day. Or two days. But the main reason we were so disappointed in Ha Long Bay is the available ways to experience it. It has become so commercialized that almost the only way to experience it, and certainly the easiest way, is via a tour company. While we are generally not ones for tour companies, it is possible to have a good experience on one. But that unfortunately was not the case at Ha Long Bay. As far as we could tell, the only trip on offer was virtually identical from all the companies. If you walk into any hotel or tour company in Hanoi they will happily set you up on one. After searching around and finding little difference (although we did hear stories of getting stuck on crappy boats) we booked through our hotel with Christina Cruises. This means that the bay is full of identical-looking boats and each group goes to one of two caves (which are super cheesy–we went to “Surprising Cave”), rents kayaks from the same few companies in the same place, and then heads to Cat Ba Island for a hike–it was pouring during ours–and a night at a subpar hotel. You’re also stuck on a boat for two days with a bunch of random people–could be great or could be annoying. In our case, it was mostly annoying, although we did chat a bit with some Vietnamese tourists visiting from Ho Chi Minh City. And did I mention the food is very average?

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

I know, I sound like an anti-social grump. But Ha Long Bay really is a special place and the tourist industry is turning it into a Disneyland of sorts, which is really so unfortunate. I would happily pay good money to go out on a small boat with a captain who could show me some sites that aren’t full of a bunch of other people. But that just didn’t seem like an option. If anyone has done Ha Long Bay this way, please let me know!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

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Filed under Natural Beauty, Sites, Transit, Vietnam

Laos: Mong Ngoi and Ban Na

At the end of our long and crowded boat ride the charming village of Mong Ngoi awaited. Only accesible by boat, Mong Ngoi is a small village consisting of a few dirt paths–no cars allowed. There are numerous guesthouses though as the popularity of “getting off the grid” rises with travelers. Because we arrived on the last boat only one place had an open cabin left, but the next day we moved to a cute bungalow with a hammock on a porch overlooking the water. I was still nursing my foot so we took it easy, lounging in the hammock, enjoying the cheap and popular all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets, and taking short walks.

Sheets of seaweed with sesame and tomatoes drying in the sun. This is a popular Laotian snack.

Rice cakes drying in the sun.

Woman doing laundry.

View from our second guesthouse.

Perfect sticky rice.

Fresh fish curry.

You can find US bomb casings like this one decorating homes and restaurants all over Laos.

They come up with some pretty creative uses for them…

The village Temple.

Young monks.

A very pregnant pig.

We became friendly with a couple from Canada who had gotten there a couple days before us and they recommended walking up to some caves near the end of the village. I hobbled along the path to the caves but decided to wait down at the bottom while Manor scaled the steep cliffs where the caves were. No one mentioned that the caves would be pitch black, but luckily Manor met some explorers up top who lent him their flashlight for a few minutes. The caves housed a large stone phallus and were atop a mountain with a beautiful view.

When we got back to the village a pig was being roasted, which although it smelled delicious we did not partake in.

As usual, Manor woke up super early and managed to get some nice shots of our view.

 

 

 

 

I was feeling much better so we decided to make the hike to the next village, Ban Na. At first we followed a defined path, passing bamboo dams and kids on bikes and walking over several bamboo bridges. But soon we found ourselves in a large open field. After wandering around for a few minutes we almost decided to turn back, but then a young Laotian man walked up and when we asked him how to get to Ban Na he said we could just follow him.

Crazy insect we saw…still have no idea what it is!

Oh you know, just walking some pigs.

Criss-crossing the field, which is likely impossible in the wet season, Ban Na was on the other side. Upon arriving we immediately sat down at the small (and only cafe) and ordered food and drinks–we had worked up quite a sweat! We also enjoyed some relaxation time in their hammocks before walking through the tiny village (you can walk the whole thing in about 15 minutes).

Fixing a fishing net.

Ferns drying to be used as brooms.

Basket weavers.

We walked back to Mong Ngoi and enjoyed the peace and quiet there, knowing the next day we would return to Luang Prabang, one of the biggest cities in Laos (which still means it’s pretty small…but still).

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Filed under Accommodations, Culture, Food, Hike, Laos, Natural Beauty, temples, Villages

Laos: Another Boat Ride

After spending a night in Luang Prabang we decided to head off again and postpone our time in Luang Prabang for a few days. We decided on Mong Ngoi, following a recommendation from a friend who was there last year. Mong Ngoi is only accessible by boat so after a several-hour van ride to a small town called Nong Khiaw we managed to get on one of the last boats going to Mong Ngoi, which happened to be full of children heading back to their river-side villages after school. It was great to experience some local culture and beautiful scenery–and we got to make use of the cushions we had bought for the Mekong River ride, as these seats really were just thin wooden slabs!

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Laos: Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

One of the most popular activities in Laos is to take the two-day boat ride along the Mekong River from Huay Xi by the border with Thailand to the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. While in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after much deliberation we decided to go with a tour company rather than cobble together the itinerary on public transportation ourselves. The company took us from Chiang Mai to Chiang Kong, via Chiang Rai and the White Temple. We were then put up at an extremely average hotel in Chiang Kong for the night, and the next morning made the border crossing into Huay Xi, Laos, without much assistance. The price included the ticket for the two-day slow boat ride to Luang Prabang from Huay Xi and for this part we were glad to have the guidance as things were rather confusing. There are dozens of companies offering this package in Chiang Mai and we investigated quite a few–as far as we could tell they all seem basically the same for the same price, which is only a little bit more than if we had done it ourselves via public transportation.

Mother and child in Huay Xi.

Liquor bottles with snakes and other creatures were for sale in Huay Xi–a little apertif for the boat ride!

Once in Huay Xi, we and our new Norwegian friends were determined to get to the boats early–we had all read many accounts of how uncomfortable the slow boats could be and that if you didn’t get there early you’d get stuck sitting on the floor in the back next to the very loud engine. We had even bought cushions in Chiang Kong in anticipation of the wooden seats we had heard were so uncomfortable. But all our rushing across the border (which is done by boat across the Mekong) and beating the lines were for naught; we then simply had to wait on the other side for the rest of our group.

When we finally got to the docks, we saw that there were multiple boats with not only plenty of room but real, cushioned seats! Upon closer inspection, these seats turned out to be car seats that had simply been lined up inside the boat–they weren’t nailed down to the floor in any way. We quickly grabbed seats and moved them as far back as possible to give ourselves maximum leg room, and also realized the cushions we’d bought in Thailand were completely unnecessary. Nice racket they got going, though.

The ride itself was smooth and pleasant and there was some very beautiful scenery along the way. Beer and a a few simple snacks are for sale on the boat, but all in all there’s not much to do besides read, chat, and play cards–our Norwegian friends introduced us to the game 500, which quickly became a staple of our trip. At the end of the first day the boat moors in the small town of Pak Beng. There’s really not much to see or do there except have dinner and find a cheap and not too disgusting place to spend the night!

The boats leave very early the next day to complete the journey to Luang Prabang, the beautiful ex-capital city. These boats are a great way to relax and take in the Laotian scenery along the Mekong. It was perfect for us because my foot was still healing so it gave us an excuse to stay still for a few days–something that’s not so easy for us!

There are definitely fancier (and more expensive) cruises you can take, and there is also a fast boat that will get you to Luang Prabang in a few hours, but we read multiple accounts of the danger of the fast boats. These simple slow boats are affordable and a comfortable enough way to travel down the Mekong, a classic activity when in Laos.

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Filed under Laos, Natural Beauty, Transit

India: The Nature of Kutch Inspires

For our last week in India at the end of January we decided to venture to the Kutch region of Gujarat. Not highly touristed, most visitors to India don’t make it to this desert area known for its exceptional textiles and handicrafts. (Although they do have an aggressive ad campaign with Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan touting “the silvery sands of Kutch.”)

We were excited about visiting small villages and seeing beautiful handicrafts, but we had no idea that the area had so much natural beauty. We arranged an autorickshaw driver to take us to some of the villages surrounding Bhuj, the largest city in Kutch (which means it was still pretty small). Our driver, Bharat, turned out to be excellent, taking us to villages and areas we surely would not have seen without him. As we drove away from Bhuj and into the desert outback, we soon realized we would be driving through one of the most beautiful areas in India.

Castor oil plants are abundant in Kutch and treasured by the population.

Bharat soon taught us about castor oil, whose fields we kept driving by. Castor oil is produced by drying out the flowers (the spiky green things) and then crushing them to release the seeds. The seeds are then crushed to reveal a waxy, oily substance–castor oil–which as you probably know can be used for myriad medical treatments, lotions, and other remedies.

Dried castor oil flowers.

Bharat shows us the castor oil seeds.

After some more driving we came upon a watering hole, surrounded by camels and water buffalo. It really was beautiful and made me want to go to Africa even more!

We also drove through some gorgeous marshland filled with exotic birds.

On our second day Bharat took us to this gorge he knew about. Honestly, I don’t even know where we were, but suddenly he had us climbing down into a canyon!

I certainly had no idea something like this exists in India! Did you?

We also some interesting birds nest and had an adventure getting our autorickshaw through some water.

But the grand finale was seeing the “White Desert”–those silvery sands that Amitabh touted. Kutch is home to the Great Rann, reputed to be the largest salt desert in the world. It takes up a large portion of the Thar desert and goes straight across the border to Pakistan. Bharat told us the only way to traverse the white desert is via camel and after seeing it–and walking on it–I believe him. Some of the salt is dry and hard but the further in you go the more marshy it becomes and soon you find yourself sinking into the desert.

Doesn't this salt chunk look like the shape of India?!?

Check back soon for posts about the villages and handicrafts of Kutch!

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Filed under Animals, India, Natural Beauty, Transit