July in Vietnam: The Good at Ha Long Bay

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I’m going to start off with the good stuff that happened at Ha Long Bay. It was a fairly typical package tour where we were packed into minivans and trucked off in the direction of Hai Phong, stopping at the expected craft centre on the way. After being herded up to my junk and getting my passport confiscated for “safekeeping,” we headed out to Ha Long Bay proper. I was rather underwhelmed, mainly because I’d already been to El Nido, the “Ha Long Bay” of the Philippines. Of course El Nido beat this place hands down. However, taking a look at my photos again, Ha Long Bay is undeniably beautiful. It’s just a pity about the greeny-brown water.

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Our first stop was at a cave complex of sorts. I imagine it would’ve been really pretty on its own. Too bad about the garish spotlights in pink, purple and green. I really didn’t appreciate the suspect taste of whichever tourist association that put up those lights. Needless to say, my already bad mood blackened further at that point.

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At least the mood was lifted slightly by the Fun with English signs. Don’t you think it’s cute how they made sure that there was symmetry in the use of phrasal verbs. I know it’s not allowed, but I’d sure like to see how someone could write down a stalactite or draw into one!

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There were plenty of boat vendors trying to sell us wares at obviously exorbitant prices. They made for nice pictures though.

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There was also a completely pointless excursion to catch a glimpse of some local village after which they extorted money from tourists by insisting on a donation to the local school. I wouldn’t have minded donating if I actually got to see the school and meet at least a teacher, but not being let off the little boat till money changed hands was going too far. This was the one time being an inconspicuous solo traveller helped on this cursed tour. I quietly slipped back onto the boat while the others quarreled. At least the gloomy stalactite formations were vaguely picture-worthy.

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The best thing was probably the weather. It was fine for most of the time and even if the water wasn’t clear, the sky was a lovely blue that contrasted against the foliaged cliffs nicely.

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With the cliffs in the distance, it was almost reminiscent of a Chinese watercolour painting. Very pretty indeed.

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We had a little time to canoe in the bay, a nice prospect in the sunset if not for it being horribly dangerous (more later). I bring you this last photo having survived unscathed from nearly being run over by huge junks at the jetty and single-handedly steering a two-man canoe all by my little self back from the sunset.

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Enjoy.

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March in Laos: Up the Mekong

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Siamesecat and I took a trip up the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou caves, famous for its retired Buddha statues. We took one of these wooden boats and put-putted slowly up the river.

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On the muddy banks grew the occasional pair of majestic banyans, roots entwined in a charming embrace.

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We passed by typical idyllic scenes of daily life, here appearing to be quite authentic and not a show for the tourists.

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Ours was the true blue experience as we pulled up alongside a petrol shop-boat to top up the fuel tank.

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We stopped at a flight of cement stairs leading up to a little village that specialised in local whisky.

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Glutinous rice whisky (lao lao) of all sorts of interesting flavours was laid out for sale.

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There was the usual scorpion one for virility…

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… and snake too for the same. There was also the less common centipede which was so big we wondered how it got stuffed into the bottle.

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They gave out samples of the regular version. We tried out shots of the mild stuff that was quite pleasing as it was sweet and light, then progressed on to the full strength (40%) stuff that was smooth but not quite worth lugging around the country, especially considering the makeshift distillery it was made in.

We were somewhat taken aback when the villagers proudly showed us their distillery shack. This setup is it: three barrels, a wood stove and a bunch of earthenware jars. We soon moved swiftly on.

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Spirits of another sort awaited us at the Pak Ou Caves where old Buddha statues were deconsecrated and put out to pasture. It was behind an amazing cliff face, looking rather like it came out from a movie set.

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Inside were Buddha images in various stages of age and wear. Some didn’t look quite that old and others, well, had seen far better times.

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There really were hundred and hundreds of these images. I wonder if anyone’s ever done a count.

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There were statues in every nook and corner of the cave, all of them crowding even to the edges of the rock shelves. I think that was the most Buddha images I’ve ever seen in one place. Crazy stuff.

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