March 2010 Archives


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Melissa - After all the idyllic villages and rice paddies of Laos and northern Vietnam, I was not mentally prepared for Hanoi, which is basically a big city. The streets were choked with motorbikes and various other vehicles, and crossing streets involved a mixture of wild hope and apathy. You pray that you'll make it to the other side without being clipped by one of the motorbikes, cars, trucks, or busses that whizz by, but you have to cross the street at a steady, even, predictable pace so that the vehicles can anticipate your movements and avoid you. The pace basically belies your fears--your general demeanor must be "I can't even see these cars going by me. I didn't notice that Vespa that almost slammed into me. This is exactly how I would be walking across the street if there weren't anything speeding right towards me."

Halong Bay

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Melissa: The next morning we picked up our local guide Hung and drove another four or so hours from Ninh Binh. On the way to Halong Bay, we stopped by some sort of emporium where you could purchase bottles of alcohol with strange pickled animals inside. We saw an enormous glass bottle with a giant king cobra inside, and another with a mid-sized armadillo. We also saw a bottle with what seemed like a badly decomposed skull inside, and the skull seemed maybe monkey- or ape-shaped. Ulp. Rich bought some cookies.


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After a long night we were awoken by roosters first thing. I was convinced they started around 2AM, but was assured that they didn't start until after 5AM. We had a quick breakfast and loaded up our supplies for the drive to the Vietnam border. The border crossing (at Lao Bao - Dansavanh), was everything you want in a Vietnam border crossing: morning fog so thick you can see about three feet in front of you, young men in uniforms barking orders, and even drama as some German woman started crying over some passport related issue. As we waited for our paperwork to be processed we soaked in the fairly dramatic changes between the quiet and laid back Laotian people and the more aggressive Vietnamese. After about 45 minutes we were back on the road, with our entry stamps to Vietnam.

I was not prepared for just how much busier Vietnam would be than Laos. The traffic was the first thing you notice; it was similar to China where 2 lanes basically become 5-6 lanes accommodating tractors, motor bikes, cars, and semis. However in Vietnam it was even more pronounced. Our bus driver who looked a bit like a Vietnamese Steve Buscemi really appeared to enjoy his job. He made great time, stoically crossing over into the oncoming traffic lane while most of the passengers grabbed their seats and in some cases let out audible gasps. Driving in Vietnam has its own set of not so obvious rules. As we rocketed down the highway I attempted to develop some sort of framework for these in my head. Here is what I gathered:

Homestay in Laos

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We packed up early and said goodbye to the comfort and slow pace of Vientiane. We knew the next couple of days were going to be the most challenging of our stay in Asia. Today consisted of a long bus ride towards the Vietnam border, ending about halfway there with a homestay in a Laos village. I have to admit, as much as find the idea of traveling to foreign countries and getting an authentic taste of the culture appeals, I am perfectly comfortable imagining a life with squat toilets and sporadic electricity. In either case we hopped on the bus and made our way towards Vietnam.


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I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive about a domestic flight in Laos. It turned out my fears were all for naught. The airplane and flight far exceeded the quality of most of the (non-Virgin American) flights I have taken in the US. After the 40 minute short hop to Vientiane we checked into our hotel for the next two days, Family Hotel. Both Melissa and I had some concerns about our accommodations; the only "family" hotels I have had good experiences in are from the Hilton family, and our last couple of hotels had been more of the Thatched Roof Inn variety. Once again we were pleasantly surprised with our new digs. All of the trappings of a three star US hotel were ours! A shower at least somewhat cordoned off from the rest of the bathroom, flush toilets, in-room Internet, and nice linens; we were in heaven.

Luang Prabang Day 2

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After the long trek and waterfall trip yesterday we decided that the best thing left to do in Luang Prabang was a visit to the Elephant Village. The village is a small non-profit that cares and maintains nine Elephants that have been abandoned or found abused. The majority of these elephants were previously owned by logging companies that use elephant labor extensively (I believe about 1/3 of the elephants remaining in Laos are used for this purpose). We were picked up at our hotel around 8:30AM and joined five others for a day riding and training elephants. The group consisted of two younger Australian girls (Asia is lousy with Australians) that were killing some time before a friend's wedding in Vietnam, a mother and her daughter from the UK, and one lone girl from Australia.

Luang Prabang Day 1

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I may be wrong about this, so please don't cite it as fact, but I believe I read somewhere that Luang Prabang is the second biggest city in Laos. This is probably completely wrong, as the city felt pretty small to me--really just a crossroads. Then again, we didn't make it out too much in the city, outside of the main street and the street that ran along the Mekong. On the other hand, according to our maps and our local guide, the city itself is really only made up of three main streets, and we saw most of two of those streets.

Mekong to Luang Prabang

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Today we were excited to take a house boat down the Mekong River from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang. For some reason the only images or association I have of the Mekong is from the numerous Vietnam War movies I watched growing up. I guess I imagined this relatively narrow river surrounded by dense foliage and palm trees. I now realize that most of those movies were probably not filmed in the middle of the dry season. The river itself is relatively calm, and only about 40-100 feet wide in most places. What was quite interesting was to see markings where the river is during the monsoons, its probably 5-6 times higher. We slowly floated our way down the river taking in the sights, which consisted mainly of water buffalo taking a break from the heat, and small groups of Lao people milling for gold. Lunch was served on board, and I even learned a new card game from our guide on the boat, although I am convinced he was making up the rules as he went.

Huay Xai and Laos Villages

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We left Huay Xai pretty early to get on the road. The Mekong River has been fairly low lately, due to lack of rainfall, there is also some belief that a dam that the Chinese have constructed has greatly restricted water flow further down the river as well. Although we were scheduled to take a two day boat ride down the Mekong, our plans were changed--we would now drive partway through Laos, and take a boat only the second day.

Crossing into Laos

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The next day we took minivans to the Thai border, with a stop at an incredible Buddhist temple. The temple was a gift from the Chinese to the Thai, and it's unlike all the other temples that we had seen. Instead of porcelain tile, the exterior is made from the cleanest white concrete I've ever seen, and studded with pieces of mirror, which make the entire edifice shine. It is completely covered in fanciful whorls and swirls, every inch of it, and there are many demon statues around, presumably to protect the holy place. In front of the temple is the depiction of a pond from which arms and demon faces protrude. I was very, very impressed. We had lunch at a roadside stall across the street from the temple, then moved on to the Thai/Laos border.

Overnight to Chiang Mai

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The overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai was a fairly comfortable way to travel. At first it was a bit off-putting, there are about 20 beds in each car, with no real separation. On each side of the aisle, at intervals, two seats are positioned facing each other. A removable table slots in between these seats, so the occupants can have a meal. As we found out, these tables are very removable; one errant foot (mine) resulted in the wobbly table between Melissa and me crashing down on us. Thankfully this was a lesson learned before dinner when we had about 8 large bowls of food and drinks sitting on the table. They serve you beer or soda, and also provide a three course (sort of) dinner. Our courses were made up of a number of choices consisting generally of soup, some sort of meat with rice, a curry of some sort, and finally some fresh fruit. The food was decent for a train, but still not as good as you can find at even a basic restaurant in Bangkok. After dinner a very diligent team came through the train taking beer or soda (emphasis on the former) orders, and offering chips for those still hungry.

Bangkok and beyond

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Today we took a boat ride through the canals that connect different areas of Bangkok. While most of the people riding the actual boats appeared to be farang (foreigners) the people that we observed were definitely Thai people performing their everyday activitites. We saw a number of people fishing, swimming (I wouldn't recommend it) and going about their daily rituals. At one point we stopped and purchased some bread to throw to the catfish, which was relatively entertaining. A small loaf of bread was devoured in seconds as large schools of fish suddenly appeared everywhere around us.

One night (well two) in Bangkok

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Yesterday we arrived in Bangkok, with a little trepidation about arriving at 12:55 AM. Our worries were for naught as the arrival and trip to the hotel was pretty uneventful. The flight was a bit harrowing, as they made us all disembark during our stopover in Sydney, go back through security, and then get back on the plane. We saw a little piece of Bangkok, which still had many markets going at full strength even though it was 1:30AM by the time we got on the road. The next day was ours to plan, and we decided to investigate the markets around our hotel.

Goodbye New Zealand

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Just a quick post before we depart, its our last day in New Zealand. We depart at 5pm tonight on Emirates Air (419), and arrive just after midnight in Bangkok (that should be fun). In the meantime I have posted all of the pictures so far (I culled it down to 130) and even left captions. Just click the link to the right, and feel free to leave comments - we like to hear from you.

Franz Josef Glacier

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After quite a bit of driving (3 and a half hours from Wanaka) we have made our way to the Franz Josef Glacier. As you can see from the picture its not exactly the most impressive glacier ever conceived of, but its a destination none the less.

We stayed in a rather nice motel called "58 on Cron" which, like all of our favorites so far, was equipped with a kitchen - including a hot plate and a microwave. After eating out for so many days in a row, I think we both actually miss making ourselves food, even if it is some easy like pasta.

Wanaka, and beyond

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Today we made our way out of Manapouri and up to Wanaka, a small town about an hour north of Queenstown. There was no real reason we chose Wanaka, other than at four hours from Manapouri, it is approximately halfway to the Franz Josef glacier which is our next major site. Like almost all unplanned excursions it turned out to be much more than just a spot on the map. The trip took us over the Haast pass which included some pretty dramatic views of the Southern Alps of New Zealand and Queenstown. We arrived in the early evening and made our way into Wanaka for dinner.

Doubtful Sound

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Well, technology just keeps getting better, I am proud to announce an first - embedded video (I can't edit the video however, so give it until at least 18 seconds in). While I was busy with the technical innovations Melissa wrote this post.

After the excitement of Queenstown, we headed off to the southwestern corner of New Zealand, known as the Fiordlands. This is an area that is very sparsely populated, but completely majestic with craggy mountains and cliffs surrounding long, fingerlike bays known as "sounds". Milford Sound is the area that attracts the most tourists, but after a little poking around we discovered that Doubtful Sound is vaster, more rugged, and less clogged with people. Rich worked his internet voodoo and found us a highly rated overnight cruise, a yacht run by a company known as Deep Cove. The yacht sleeps a total of twelve guests, but we were lucky enough that only three other people had signed up for the cruise with us.

Queenstown! Day 2

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OK, getting caught up with some posts today, although we are still about four days behind, we will have to work harder or do less I suppose. I do blame New Zealand to some degree for this, the average cost for Internet is about $15/day, and they cap you at 300-500MB, not cool.

For our second day in New Zealand Melissa and I were dying to get out on the water. We thought about rafting, but the rivers here are only class III and a few class IV, so we decided to try something we have never seen in the USA, river sledging.

Queenstown! Day 1

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View of Queenstown from the hilltop.JPG

We are a couple of days behind in posting due to spotty Internet and time, but here is a quick update. We arrived in Queenstown on the 8th and checked into our hotel, The Oak Shores. Its quite nice and located on a walking trail to Queenstown. On Melissa's birthday I gave her some of the little gifts I had squirreled away, and then we went on what turned out to be a very strenuous hike up to the top of Queenstown "Hill". I don't have time to write much right now as we are already getting a late start heading to the dock to board the boat for our overnight Doubtful Sound cruise, more to come later. In the meantime I labeled and uploaded all of our pictures so far.

Mt Cook, Oamaru and Penguins

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Security is a breeze when you're flying domestically in New Zealand. I asked the guy manning the security line whether I should take off my shoes and run them through the scanner, and he didn't bother even looking at my shoes to see if there were any obvious fuses sticking out before saying "Nah."

Bay of Islands and thievery

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Today we decided to head north to the Bay of Islands, about 275km north of Auckland. The drive itself was not as nice as the one to Rotorua--the views were not as scenic, and there was a lot of construction going on, which on a single lane highway meant lots of stopping and waiting in line. We did make it eventually up to our destination, Paihia, and our accommodations for the night, the Pickled Parrot Hostel. We were greeted by the parrot himself as we attempted to check in. It was our first encounter with thievery on the trip, as he attempted to steal Melissa's watch, her ring, my watch, and then my bag, and just about anything else that was shiny within his line of sight.



Today we took our first substantive road trip to Rotorua, about 250kms south of Auckland. The scenery was amazing, fairly mountainous with lush green fields everywhere - given that most people have told us the South Island is the more beautiful of the two I am even more excited. I think I am finally getting the hang of driving on the left hand side, although driving in the cities is still a little nerve wracking. It doesn't help that we went with a cheaper car rental company and our rental car has over 250,000 km on it. That being said the fact that the entire car starts shaking violently around 110km/hour really cuts down on the speeding tickets.

Our first stop in Rotorua (and primary reason for going) was the Zorb ball hill. You have two options: they either strap you into a "dry" Zorb ball and you roll straight down the hill, or you can just jump into a "wet" Zorb ball and roll down a more zig-zag course. We were not prepared for the wet option so we chose the former. You start off facing backwards strapped into the ball, and shortly after they push you on your way. The rest is pretty much a blur of ground, sky, ground, sky, ground, sky with very little idea of where you are going or what is happening. I was in the ball by myself and was pretty much laughing out loud the entire way, more so than any fear or adrenaline - rolling down a hill in a hamster ball just seems to inspire you to laugh.


After that we drove around aimlessly for a while, trying to decide what to do. New Zealand is really fun and beautiful, but also fairly expensive. Rather than take an expensive tour of some geysers and hot springs, we opted for a free walk through the Government Gardens, which featured various sulfur springs and geysers and, not surprisingly, smelled godawful. The Government Gardens also includes what appeared to be several lawn bowling courts with senior citizens dressed in white playing. We also wandered around downtown Rotorua and encountered lots of black swans with fancy butt feathers. We had Tunisian Kebabs for lunch, then we drove back to Auckland. On the way, we saw more cows than I've ever seen before in my life, deer, lots of sheep, and some alpaca. No kiwis spotted yet.

Last night we hit the trendy Ponsonby district for dinner. It was crammed with hipsters. The eighties are back (Rich claims they never left New Zealand) in a major way with the young people of Auckland. We grabbed some dinner in a noodle joint, then headed back to the hotel. Today it's off to the Bay of Islands, which is supposed to be all about beaches, sailing and snorkeling.

We made it!

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Well, I tried to write this last night but ran out of gas. Its now the morning of our 2nd day in New Zealand and we are heading down to rotorua to do something called zorbing, and also to check out the hot springs.

The trip was for the most part uneventful, the worst part was probably the 5 hour layover in Los Angeles. We were exhausted from the last minute packing, rushing around to the airport, and then the flight from DC to LA. This was not at all helped when I found myself surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of Canadian retirees gloating rather audibly about their Olympic win.

In either case we arrived safely in Auckland at 9AM ready to start the day. When picking up my car I encountered my first experience with just how far technology has come since the last time I traveled. I foolishly didn't bring my driver's license, and they wouldnt rent us the car without it. I texted our friend Doug (thanks Doug!), with whom I had left my wallet, to see if he was home, as luck would have it he was. Within about two minutes he had texted me a picture of my drivers license and we were one our way, pretty amazing.

New Zealand (so far) is very much like California, except they drive on the wrong side of the road. Auckland reminds me a lot of San Franciso (we are near Albert Park and there are a lot of hills). We checked into our hotel (The Quadrant) and grabbed lunch.

It was later in the evening when I had my next brush with modern technology. On previous trips calling home to let people know we were safe was probably my least favorite thing to do, as it usually involved buying a phone card and then dialing roughly 75 numbers, crossing your fingers, and then sometimes getting someone on the other end. Once you were connected you were usually able to speak for about two minutes before you were prompted that your $20 phone card was running out of minutes. Today
it involved connecting my iPhone to the WiFi connection in the hotel, opening Skype, and dialing home, total cost about 4 cents a minute.


The weather in New Zealand is very lovely and warm. I don't remember large parts of yesterday, as I was delirious with exhaustion, but we had pizza for lunch at a wine bar (Rich must also have been out of sorts, as he ordered us a pizza with about twelve kinds of meat on it) and we had Korean food for dinner. The food is quite nice, but pretty much the exact same as the food in DC.

We're headed out to go zorbing today. I am already sick of all the clothes I brought for the trip, which is problematic as I will be wearing these clothes for another three months.