Buffalo Run part 2: Explosions, hot springs, and Top Gear

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On Day four of the Buffalo Run, it was time for us to do some serious reflection on the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s named here). We arrived at Vinh Moc, a deep tunnel complex in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The tunnels were dug right at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and the waves crashing onto the shore created an eery feel. Looking around, it was surprisingly easy to imagine thousands of bombs being dropped as families hid inside the tunnel system during the war. There were still craters left in the ground and black on mountain sides to remind you where the missiles and bombs had hit.

The cramped, damp, dark tunnels were home to over 600 people, and 17 babies were welcomed into the world down there between 1965 and 1972. Barely able to stand up inside, families lived in cramped alcoves that left you wondering how they could even lie down to sleep. When the Americans found out about the tunnels, they created bombs designed to penetrate deeper. The Vietnamese’ response was to simply tunnel deeper. At its deepest point, the colony was living about 30 meters below the surface. Talk about resilience.

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The explosives we detonated.

After lunch, we visited the Mine Action Visitors Centre in Dong Ha, which housed Project RENEW. This was a nonprofit organization dedicated to clearing up explosives from the American War days that still remain scattered around the countryside. During the war, the US barraged Vietnam with an estimated 15 million pounds of explosives, and roughly 10% of it never exploded. That 1.5 million pounds has been killing farmers, livestock and children ever since.

We were able to join them on a bomb disposal run, as there had been a report of explosives found in a farmer’s field the night before. When we arrived, the team had unearthed two M33 grenades, two 61mm mortar shells, and two 37mm anti-air projectiles. All of this had been lying in the farmer’s field since the war, buried deep in the mud. Cows roamed all around, farmers were working, and children were in the schoolyard next door laughing. It was an unsettling sight to see.

The reason these bombs didn’t go off forty years ago is not that they were duds. Rather, their trigger mechanisms didn’t activate properly. Bombs that needed to spin a certain amount of times before detonating landed several spins shy. When a child finds it and tosses it to a friend, they can end up dead. Or a bomb that needed impact to detonate might be waiting for a farmer’s plow.

While the realities of the post-war plight are sad, the act of disposing of the explosives can be a little fun. After the team herded the cows away and signalled an alarm for the children, Luke was given instructions and the detonator switch. Rather than describing what happened next, see for yourself (spoiler – the look on his face after is the BEST):

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Day five

We arrived in the lovely town of Hue (pronounced hway) with storm clouds that really didn’t want to let up. Luckily, we stayed at Hue Backpackers. It was a busy party hostel with lots of things to do. We got to fight off the rain with a trivia night and a two-for-one pizza special. Ourselves and our Scottish friends (with a little bit of cheater’s luck) won trivia night! Woohoo.

IMG_20141104_144309Since it was still cloudy and rainy long after arrival, we changed plans from the original beach activity to zip-lining and the natural hot springs at Alba Thanh Tan. While the zip-lining was a tad anti-climactic (but, still fun) and the rope course was geared more towards teenagers, the hot springs were perfect. We floated around all day, even in the rain, in pools up to 45 degrees Celsius. They had built a lazy river leading away from the source, and each segment was progressively cooler.

Day six

It was the moment Luke had most been waiting for: the Top Gear motorbike journey through the Hoi Van Pass from Hue to Hoi An. If you haven’t seen the episode, you should! It perfectly describes our new life here in Vietnam and shows the beautiful scenery and crazy roads we travelled.

We biked through fishing villages, mountains, farmland, cityscape, and beaches; the journey was much more than we expected. Children waved at us as we drove by and dogs moved out of our way. We even had to swerve around massive water buffalo that wandered across the middle of the road! They’re beautiful creatures, to say the least. And in spite of their size, they seem quite unthreatening to be around.

Overall, the bike trip took us about six hours. It started with a cruise down to Cua Tu Hien first thing in the morning, followed by the Phuoc Tuong Pass for 20km before hitting the Phu Gia Pass. Then, after driving through Lang Co we stopped for some lunch (if all the names are confusing, don’t worry – we didn’t get it either… we just followed our tour guide down the coast). Our tour guide had heard tell of a waterfall/swimming spot that the locals went to, so he asked our waiter.

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Fifteen minutes back up the road, followed by ten minutes of navigating a dirt path through the thick forest, we reached a
house with an old lady who waved us in. We stepped out onto a stunning series of waterfalls that originated from way, way upin the mountains. The water was crystal clear and crisp, and the views incredible. It’s gems like these that make hiring a tour guide worth every penny! The group swam and explored for an hour or so before it was time to hit the road again.

Getting to the Hai Van Pass was simply icing on the cake at this point. The views just kept getting better. Swerving back and forth across the mountain roads, you could look down and see beaches and a skyline the seemed endless. We pretty much had the road to ourselves as well, so we could take all the time we needed before finally cruising into Da Nang.

Finally, with sore bums and a slight sunburn, we reached DK’s House in Hoi An and settled in for some BBQ burgers. Saying goodbye to our tour guide, we were happy to have made some new friends and see some things we definitely wouldn’t have been able to on our own.

– Samie & Luke

P.S – Photos from the trip can be all be seen right here. 

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The Buffalo Run part 1: Monkeys, caves, and rowboats

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We stumbled upon a group tour called The Buffalo Run, a 7 day haul from Hanoi to Hoi An, and decided it would be a good idea to let someone else do the planning for a change. We did a TON over the 7 days, so we’re going to have to split this post up into two episodes!

Oh, and we also uploaded a whole bunch of pictures from Vietnam to our Flickr, so you can check them out here.

Day one

We got up a bit too early and headed to Hanoi Backpackers Hostel for pickup at 6 AM, excited to meet the other people on our tour. We were greeted by Tom, our tour guide, another Tom from the UK, and a Scottish couple, Ryan and Amanda, before hopping into the van.

IMG_20141031_105403The first stop was Cuc Phuong National Park, where we got to see a bunch of endangered monkeys at the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, and turtles at the Turtle Conservation Program. It was feeding time at the centre, so the primates were flying around their cages, stoked on life. Little baby gibbons played with their families and the langurs groomed their friends.

The centre has over 150 primates, which they breed and try to reintegrate into the wild. For some critically endangered species, they don’t reintegrate them as their numbers are so drastically low. Of the critically endangered species, they have the grey-shanked douc langur, Delacour’s langur, Cat Ba langur, as well as the “Endangered” Hatinh langur, black langur and Laos langur. It was really sad to see some beautiful species which were so close to extinction.

After we had lunch we biked an extremely hot 20km, stopping to see the cave of the prehistoric man. This guy’s remains were found and his bones are dated at roughly 7,000+ years old. Truth be told, the cave he was settled in would have made an incredible home.

In Cuc Phyong, there were bugs everywhere – in our room, on the paths, at the dinner area, and in the bathrooms. I suppose it was to be expected, since we were in the middle of the jungle, but it’s definitely not ideal for a person who hates being outdoors. Luke got two nice big kisses from leeches on his foot, leaving quite the murder scene in our room. We made the best of this wilderness insanity, however, by doing a midnight safari into the jungle. With our flashlights and headlamps, we tried to see how much disgusting insect and animal life we could stumble upon. Due to the season, it was mainly stick bugs, massive spiders and assorted oversized crawlers.

Day two

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Up nice and early, we started with breakfast and a trek around the park to see the 1,000 year old tree. It’s important to note that it’s been the 1,000 year old tree for years, so we’re not sure how accurate its name is anymore. The tree was somewhat anticlimactic, but the scenery leading up to it was well worth the hike.

Once we were dripping in sweat once again, we hopped back into the van PANO_20141101_095936to head to Trang An in Ninh Binh. Here, we took a beautiful row boat up a clear river, through caves and between mountains (see top photo). A journey lasting almost three hours, this one local woman rowed the entire time, sometimes switching things up by rowing with her feet! Quite impressive. Navigating through dark caves where we had to bend right down to get through, it was a really gorgeous (and sometimes scary!) boat ride. Some of the best views on this tour were, not surprisingly, adorned with picturesque temples. All in all, it made for a very relaxing and beautiful journey with tons of photo ops.

Not long after that, we were off again for a 10 hour overnight bus to Phong Nha National Park. I wasn’t mentally prepared for such a long bus journey, but it was fairly manageable. You get seats that recline almost entirely down, with places for your feet, plus pillows and blankets. Luke, unfortunately being 6’3″ and size 14 feet, couldn’t really fit… but of course, he still slept like a baby.

Day three

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Up nice and early once again, we were off to Paradise Cave. The cave is 31 km long and can reach up to 100m high and 150 wide at some points. While we were only allowed to enter one of the chambers (not the record setting areas), what we got to see was breathtaking. In Luke’s words, it seemed like we were in the dwarven cities you see in Lord of the Rings. Standing inside something so big, damp, and cold was surreal. The colourful rock formations grew up from the floor like creepy alien spires. We took pictures, but they didn’t do justice to what we saw.

After that, we went for another lunch by a clear, fresh river, which rumour has it originates all the way from Laos. Probably the coldest water we’ve felt, but it was a perfect aqua blue and a nice refresher on a hot day.

Sunset yoga and cascading waterfalls in Luang Prabang

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After arriving in Laos, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Despite it being close neighbours to Thailand, we still experienced a bit of culture shock yet again.

We touched down from the slow boat and slugged it from guesthouse to guesthouse until we found one that was up to par. Lately, this has been our go-to method for finding a lodging, as booking online has proved to be more expensive and crappy. Going door to door is simple in most places, since most hostels are often clumped together. Owners are used to backpackers asking to see the rooms and haggling prices is not uncommon.

On our first day, Luke wasn’t feeling the best due to our malaria medication so I went solo to sunset yoga. Ock Pop Tok offered sunset yoga right on the Mekong River for 60,000 kip ($8.50 CAD). Jenn was my teacher and she was incredible. The hour and a half class was challenging, but the best part was being able to glance up and see the sun setting over the water. Being a huge yoga fan, it was a surreal moment — I never dreamed I’d be doing yoga on a river in Laos. I’d highly recommend yoga in the great outdoors, wherever you can experience it.

The next day, we headed to Tad Sae Waterfall. Brian and Jane caught back up to us sooner than we expected, which was awesome. We all split the cost of a tuk tuk to the waterfall, costing us about $2 each. He drove us 30 minutes to the falls and waited three hours for us to get back and drive us home.

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Tad Sae Waterfalls – well worth the trek!

The waterfalls were stunning. The aqua blue water was like nothing we’ve seen, and the way the water cascaded through the trees made it look like the jungle was flooded. We trekked up the falls until we found the perfect place to go swimming. There was a peaceful patch of water right after a bunch of falls that was refreshing as it was beautiful. We had brought Laos sandwiches (baguette with cucumber, carrot, lots of onion, tomato, and Laughing Cow cheese) for lunch.

There were elephant rides at the falls as well. We felt pretty bad for the animals, since they were chained up and had big wooden chairs on top of them so they could offer rides all day. It’s frustrating to see them abused for profit so often here in South East Asia. Nonetheless, getting a chance to see the herd swimming and walking through the falls was pretty fascinating.

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$1.75 = soup for two

The night market in town proved to be the best place to grab food. Luke and I bought a soup for $1.50 CAD and she split it into two filling bowls for us. The food is so fresh, you actually pick your veggies and they fry it right in front of you. There was also a buffet where you filled your plate for $1.75 CAD and the cook would fry everything together with some seasoning. In the morning, you can get smoothies, sandwiches, and crepes all for $1.50 CAD each. It’s insanely delicious and cheap.

We stayed for four nights in Luang Prabang. Overall, the city was definitely underwhelming. While the travel books glamorized the Luang Prabang as a world heritage site, the quaint city was overrun by Westerners both backpacking and on vacation. So, if you want to get a true taste of Laos, Luang Prabang isn’t the place to seek it. Also, it wasn’t very easy to get around. Tuk tuk’s were the priciest we’ve seen, and scooters cost five times the usual Thai rate to rent. There were a lot of packaged tours available, but the value seemed lacking.

If we did it again, we would have cut our trip in half. Regardless, we can’t wait to see what Laos has to offer.

– S & L

P.S The wifi is terrible in Laos. Sorry for the sporadic updates. We’re safe and loving life in Vang Vieng, so don’t worry!

How to: Two day slow boat from Thailand to Laos

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(An assortment of slow boats just like the one we took)

Reading online about the journey from Pai (or Chiang Mai), Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos was quite daunting. We had read many horror stories and began to dread our prospects. There were several options, and each had a long list of complaints and critiques. At the end of the day we chose the path most traveled, and we bought a ticket for the 3-day slow boat.

On Saturday, we headed down to aYa travel agency in Pai and grabbed a packaged journey to Luang Prabang. For a five hour bus ride to Chiang Khong, one night’s stay (breakfast included), and two days on the slow boat, it cost us 1750 baht ($61 CAD) each. On the second night, we would have to spend a night in Pak Bang on our own dime, which was not included in the price.

Sunday evening we left at 6:30 PM for our second round at the 762 curve drive to get out of Pai. It was pitch black and Samie was struggling a bit with the curves this time around (she hates night driving, let alone speeding around twists and turns). After about two hours, we finally mastered the hardest part and were on a straight away to Chiang Khong.

We got into Chiang Khong late at around 2 AM and checked into a less-than-ideal hotel. We were exhausted, so it didn’t matter that much to us. A lot of reviews online complained about the hotel but really, for a few hours it’s not bad at all. We had our own room with an en suite bathroom. It wasn’t entirely cleanly, but we closed our eyes and pretended we were at the Hard Rock Hotel and drifted off.

The Laos border

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(The shuttle bus at the Laos border)

In the morning at 7 AM, we got free scrambled eggs and toast and took some passport photos for 100 baht ($3.50 CAD) before jumping into the back of a truck and heading to the border. At the border, we needed to pay 20 baht for the shuttle to cross the friendship bridge into Laos.

Once at the border, it was pretty painless. Again, we’ve heard that the visa process can be a nightmare but luckily it wasn’t busy at all when we arrived at 8:30 am. We had to go to a counter, get our visa ($42 USD for Canadians — we’re the only country that had to pay that much!), and give them our passport. After about 10 minutes, they called our name and we got our passports back. I can see how easily this could be a big mess, but again we were lucky.

The slow boat – Day one

After we had our visas, we headed to the slow boats 10 minutes away. Once there, we grabbed some sandwiches from a local café and boarded the slow boat. The guy running the tour told a few fibs, such as ‘the boat wasn’t even at the dock yet’ (when it was, and already almost full 20 minutes prior), and that he had booked reserved seats for us at the front of the boat (it’s actually impossible to reserve seats). Thanks to him, we were all pushed to the back of the boat right next to the engine, which was extremely loud.

Luckily, there was a lot of floor space at the front of the boat, and we went up for fresh air and sat on the floor with a bunch of other travellers. The view was spectacular and the breeze was perfect. The locals on board had cute toddlers playing with everyone and the captain let some people sit at the bow of the boat outside.

The boat had old van/bus seats throughout for passengers to sit on, which was nicer than other boats which have wooden seats. We heard most of them are being upgraded to these sort of seats.

For a five hour journey, it was a really nice way to go. The views were unbeatable, and we got to see water buffalo, stray dogs, goats, and locals clear-cutting and farming the mountainous hillside. The Mekong River winds through some incredibly lush, dense jungle forest – the kind of stuff you expect to only see while watching Jurassic Park.

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(Sitting on the bow – the view was alright…)

Pakbang

When we arrived in Pakbang, we stuck with some travellers we met and walked up to the town. Avoid the tuk tuk offers — you won’t need them! It’s a short 5-10 minute walk into the city where there are tons of guest houses to choose from, ranging from about 30,000-50,000 kip/person ($4.25-6.25 CAD).

We found a private room for 50,000 kip called Vassana. It was clean with wifi and cold showers. For the price and location, we were happy. The power went out a few times (but we heard this is normal for Laos), only lasting for about 20 minutes. We went to dinner with some American friends we made and went to bed early since the boat was leaving at 9 AM.

Slow boat – Day two

The boat was scheduled to leave at 9 am, but it didn’t leave till 10 am (but, we’re on Laos time, so this is to be expected). We got to the pier at 8:30 am to get a nice seat right up front. Once we got moving, it was an eight hour trip to Luang Prabang.

A note to anyone thinking of taking the slow boat: bring food! We only brought a few sandwiches and were pretty hungry by the end of it. They sell ramen noodles, beer, pop, and chips on board, but nothing of substance.

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(A village on the Mekong River)

We arrived in Luang Prabang around 5 PM, and the boat didn’t take us to the proper pier. We had heard this was a common scam happening these days. There is a pier downtown, but the boat instead takes you to a shoreline 10km outside of the city claiming that the downtown pier doesn’t allow for passenger boats to dock. A woman on our boat was getting pretty mad with the captain, but he didn’t seem to care.

This part sucked a bit, but we had expected it. We walked up a huge sandbank to the road where the tuk tuk’s were offering obscene prices (20,000 kip/person, or $2.50 CAD) for a ride into town. Considering tuk tuks usually charged no more than $1.50 total for a ride, and these tuk tuks were filling up with 6 people at a time, it was a pretty clear cash grab. Some friends and us decided to walk a few minutes before we finally found one we were comfortable paying. We payed about 10,000 kip each, 60,000 total ($7.50 CAD) to get into town. We wouldn’t advise walking all the way into town, since it was definitely a hike.

Overall, we really enjoyed the experience. If you come into it with no expectations, it’s really not that bad. Yes, the sleeping arrangements weren’t five star, but who cares? On a shoestring budget, the slow boat provided the best views, time to relax, and opportunity to meet some new friends.

– L & S

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