Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Halong Bay, Vietnam - Rock the boat

When it comes to taking package tours to Halong Bay Caitlin Worsham notices a pattern: no matter how much the price changes everything stays the same


The merits of Halong Bay are endless and have been enumerated elsewhere, but amid the praise, regular visitors may notice a trend: every junk tour, be it $35 to $250 a head, is nearly exactly the same. Here is a recap of what you can expect: You are invited to gape at and photograph residents of fishing villages.

Purchases are foisted upon you by small children in rowing boats. You will marvel at such aggressive salesmanship and feel rather uncomfortable. You will walk to the top of an island or swim on its little beach. You may go kayaking (worth it). You may go squid fishing (sometimes worth it). On the cheaper boats you get karaoke, on the pricier ones, a movie.

You will inevitably trek up and down the stairs through Surprise Cave where, no matter who the guide is, no matter how much you hoped you might learn something, you will be instead regaled with how one rock looks exceptionally phallic (and indeed it does), how another resembles a man, and on and on, until you wish you could explore in cool, simple silence.

Aboard nicer boats, there are added extras, cooking classes or spa treatments (for a steep fee), but the actual tour is the same and there are already enough activities to occupy you – especially when the highlight of the bay is just lounging, taking in the view and diving in. You could argue that you’re paying for the room. Certainly the rooms aboard the more posh junks are excellent – better appointed, with soft beds, shiny floors and large windows. There is a shower with a door and enough room to bend over, should you drop the soap.

There are toothbrushes as well as shampoo and a safe for your valuables. But considering the nine-in-the-morning-check out times and packed itineraries, you spend so little time in the room, this argument holds little water. Recently aboard The Jasmine, I aimed to sidestep this by booking two nights.

But on the day we had planned to kick back and relax, we found ourselves outsourced to a little boat from nine in the morning till four in the afternoon with no aircon, a table that couldn’t comfortably accommodate our party and only two places to stretch out for over 10 guests. It was fun but we were aboard a $30-boat, which we could have easily rented ourselves for the day. I felt like a chump.

Then, the last day, when I tried to sleep in, I was awoken at eight (I was on vacation) to blaring music, presumably making sure everyone would check out on time. This was made somewhat less irritating as I had been sweating all night under the comforter that was deliciously downy but a poor match for the sputtering aircon. Another issue is the beds. To get more bang for their buck, many boats devote basic cabins (still referred to as doubles) to single beds.

Instead of making this transparent (the fault of travel agents, boat websites/brochures and room distributing management alike), guests who have requested “doubles” often get make-shift doubles, i.e. twins pushed haphazardly together – or if lucky, made up so that a sheet will partially prevent an irretrievable descent into the crack. So make sure you and your agent read the fine print.

This has happened to me twice now despite explicitly booking a bed that would sleep two. Aboard another boat, The Bhaya, I was promised remediation several times aboard by the staff and management. It never came, so I emailed the company. They refused even partial compensation for the room because nowhere had they written that I was guaranteed a double. But I booked a room for a couple, I said.

Ah, but you weren’t specific, they continued, and we never said you’d get an actual double bed. It’s true, I sadly discovered. They hadn’t. But at over $150 a head a night, this offered no consolation. The Jasmine was infinitely more professional when the same thing happened and they rapidly addressed the issue.

However, to ensure a bed for two, you must pay more (for a deluxe cabin or suite). Yet if you’re a single traveller, you are also penalised, smacked with a hefty surcharge. Oh and there is still the occasional rodent in the rooms on board. I’ve seen ‘em. These may seem like nitpicky concerns. But when you claim to be the best new thing on the water, you better live up to it at triple the price (or more).

Guides should be well trained and have in depth information and better English skills. The services should be top quality and the expectations clear. Maybe in a few years, it’ll be better. Until then, what most people want from the bay is nothing more than to unwind alongside the descending dragon’s rolling form, and the best package still runs at around $70 a night.

Source: Timeout

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Friday, July 17, 2009

ATA Guarantees the Best Rate of Conquer Mount Fansipan Tours - Sin Chai Route

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA guarantees the best rate of tour “Conquer mount Fansipan tours - Sin Chai route” with over 15% Discount.



Conquer Fansipan Mountain, Vietnam


At 3143m Mt. Fansipan is the highest peak in Vietnam and the entire Indochina peninsula. This remote trek provides plenty to see and absorb, from the scattered rocks inscribed with drawings and designs of unknown origin, to the French influenced hill retreat town of Sapa with its minority groups, beautiful villas and cherry forests. The trek to the top of Mt. Fansipan is challenging and will be fully supported every step of the way by tour guides, porters and cooks who’s local knowledge and understanding of the different hill-tribe cultures, then pass along the way will add to the uniqueness of this exhilarating journey.

Highlights

Awesome scenery

Great view from the summit

Challenging trails

Fully supported

Night 1: Night train to Lao Cai.

Transfer from your hotel to Hanoi Railway Station for the night train to Lao Cai. Overnight in AC soft sleeper cabin.

Summary

Transfer hotel – railway station: AC vehicle

Accommodation: Soft sleeper in AC cabin

Day 1: Lao Cai – Sapa – Cat Cat Village

Arrive in Lao Cai around 5.30 am. Travelers will take 1hr bus ride uphill to the beautiful town of Sapa. The ride give you a glimpse of the stunning vistas and impressive rice terraces. Upon arrival in Sapa Town, travelers have breakfast in local restaurant. Free time for the rest of the day to explore the town.

Optional walking tour begins at 1 pm to Lao Chai Village, home to Black H’mong people. Overnight in Sapa

Summary

Transfer Lao Cai – Sapa: 1 hr

Accommodation: Hotel in Sapa

Activity: Free at leisure

Meals: Breakfast

Day 2: Sapa – Heavens Gate – 2900m

Travelers travel by car toward the Silver Waterfall where Travelers will be able to take a short walk to the waterfall. Travelers will then drive further to Heaven Gate, the highest peak of roads in Vietnam. From there, travelers can see Fansipan, the highest peak of Indochina mountains as well as enjoy stunning view of Binh Lu valley. The trek will be relatively soft until lunchtime. After a couple of hours of hiking, travelers will have a break at a nice spot in the forest and enjoy a good lunch. With new energy travelers start ascending as well as descending towards the campsite. En route travelers have opportunity to enjoy the scenery and magnificent views to Sapa area and beautiful landscape of Lai Chau province. It will be arrived to the campsite at 2900m ASL in the late afternoon. Now it is time to relax and enjoy a well prepared dinner.

Summary

Trekking: 5 hrs/ascend 2,900 m from 1,600 m (Sapa)

Accommodation: Camping

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 3: 2900m – the top of Fansipan – 2700m

After having breakfast, it is climbed to the top, where travelers can celebrate your victory. From there, travelers can enjoy the best view to beautiful sceneries. Travelers will then start descending. Travelers stop on the way at a nice spot for lunch.

After lunch, travelers start the tough trek, which is all the way downhill through rainforest. This part requires a great concentration to step on steep trail until Travelers meet the campsite at 2700m ASL. Here travelers spend another night in tent.

Summary

Trekking: 6 hrs/ascend 3,143 m and descend to 2,700m

Accommodation: Camping

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 4: 2700m – Sin Chai – Sapa

Travelers wake up in the fresh and pure morning in wild nature, before heading back to civilization. Travelers trek downhill through well protected forest and after a couple of hours of hiking, Travelers stop for lunch. Travelers will then continue descending toward Sin Chai village of Back H’mong minority. On the way travelers will be able to enjoy valley views and beautiful surrounding. Travelers stop at the village for a while before we go by car back to Sapa, where travelers can celebrate our achievement, taking shower and relax until transfer to Lao Cai Railway Station for the night train back to Hanoi.

Summary

Trekking: 6 hrs/descend to 1,600m

Accommodation: Night train back to Hanoi

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch

Day 5: Back to Hanoi

Arrive in Hanoi early morning. Tour ends

More details at http://www.activetravelvietnam.com/tour.php?op=detail&tourId=59

Monday, July 13, 2009

ATA Kicks Off "Mekong Delta and Angkor Wat" Tours in Vietnam and Cambodia

ATA aims to introduce the great combination of the two exotic lands and cultures. Travelers will experience great boat trip on the mighty river and walk on village roads, visit to local houses and take ferry to cross the Mekong River and colorful market of Mekong Delta. Cruising up to Phnom Penh, travelers start the journey to the majestic beauty of Angkor Wat.

Mekong delta and Angkor wat tours

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

First and second day, travelers take a city tour to see the different faces of this bustling city on a full day tour with extensive visits to the Re-Unification Palace, the Central Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Jade Emperor Temple and the Ben Thanh market. Then travelers drive to the famous Cu Chi underground tunnel system to experience how the Viet Cong lived and fought during the American War.

Third day, travelers drive to Cai Be. Travelers board a boat for a journey through the town’s floating market. Travelers see how river life goes on, trading between merchant ships and local farmers and cruise through secluded canals and over the Mighty Mekong to island where travelers stop to enjoy seasonal fruit.

Fourth day, travelers take a boat trip to Cai Rang floating markets, one of the most lively and colorful markets in Southeast Asia. After the market travelers cruise back to town. Travelers will try a xe loi, the local colonial-era cab pulled by motorbike, to see the town.

Fifth day, travelers go head Phnom Penh. The boat approaches Vinh Xuong border gate where passengers complete entry procedures. Continue to Cambodia cruising on Tone Le Sap River, travelers would reach Phnom Penh International Port (Sisowath Street) around 12.30. Travelers take a short city tour of Phnom Penh visiting to the National Museum where travelers would see the world’s most wondrous collection of Khmer sculpture.

Sixth day, travelers take an excursion to Tonle Batie, which is 40 km from Phnom Penh, visiting to a pair of old Angkorian-era temple of Ta Prohm and Yeay Poev. In the afternoon, travelers visit the harrowing Tuol Sleng Museum before continuing to the Killing Field of Choeung Ek where prisoner from Security Prison 21 travelers re taken for execution. It is grim afternoon, but essential for understanding just how far Cambodia has come in the intervening years.

Seventh day, travelers take a short fly to Siem Riep.Then travelers visit to the world wonder of Angkor Wat include Southern Gate of Angkor Thom and the unique temple of Bayon. It is a collection of 54 Gothic towers decorated with 216 coldy smiling, enormous faces glaring down from every angle. Travelers continue to the Baphoun temple, which would have been one of the most spectacular of Angkor’s temples in its heyday. Travelers move on to the Terrace of Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King. Complete the day with sunset watching from Phnom Bakheng Hill.

Eighth day, travelers continue to the enchanting temple of the Banteay Srei, the travelers in the crown of Angkorian art. Banteay Srei means ‘Citadel of the Women’ and it is said that it must have been built by a women, as the elaborate carvings are too fine for the hand of a man.

In the afternoon, travelers visit the Banteay Samre, which dates from the same period as Angkor Wat. The temple is in a fairly healthy state of preservation due to some extensive renovation work and continues to visit the monuments of Rolous, which served as Indravarman I’s capital.

Last day, travelers continue to discover Angkor Wat. In the morning travelers visit the fabulous Ta Prohm embraced by the roots of enormous fig trees and gigantic creepers and Pre Rup temple, East Mebon temple, and Neak Poan temple. In the afternoon, travelers visit to Krovan temple, Royal Bath of Srah Srang and Banteay Kdei temples.

This Cheaper Option is offered to those who seek for good travel experience at an affordable budget. Travelers offered the finest 2-star hotels instead of 3-star hotels in all destinations. These 2-star hotels are chosen for good location, clean, comfortable room and nice staff.

Detail itineraries: Mekong Delta and Angkor Wat tours

Other Vietnam tours: Vietnam tours
Other Cambodia tours: Cambodia tours

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Vietnam's Easy Rider

On a Motorcycle Tour, He Became One With the Road -- and the People

We can sleep here if we have to, my girlfriend and I decided as we stood on the side of a dirt road in Vietnam's remote border region with China. We were stranded: Her motorcycle was coughing instead of starting, and we hadn't seen anyone in hours. Dark storm clouds had begun to crowd the low, round peaks overhead, and the locals had warned us that rain would make driving impossible. In Vietnam, a road can be anything; in this instance, it was a rough dirt and rock trail that had been carved out of the side of a range of deserted hills. We had been bouncing along it for more than three hours. Our bodies were exhausted and our bones were achy.



On road - Northwest Vietnam

Surveying the emptiness around us, we settled on a soft patch of grass between some boulders. We could park our bikes there, throw a plastic tarp across the handlebars and take shelter for the night, we figured. The next morning, we could drive the working bike the remaining 20 miles to Xin Man, the next village on the map. This would take us several hours in the best of conditions -- or all day in the mud.

In truth, neither of us actually believed we were stuck for the night. We had been contemplating worst-case scenarios in the week since we had left Hanoi, transforming ourselves into pessimists when there was never any real need to be. In Vietnam, salvation always arrives.

This time, it was announced by the high-pitched roar of a struggling two-stroke engine, a sound that eventually materialized into three people from the Hmong tribe, one of the largest of Vietnam's 54 ethnic minority groups, squeezed onto a motorcycle. We waved them down and pointed to our stalled bike. I passed out cigarettes while Naomi distributed peanuts and dried fruit. Although we spoke no Hmong and they knew only a few words of Vietnamese, the driver, his dark indigo tribal garb concealed under glossy rain gear, quickly comprehended the problem. He crouched down and dutifully went to work, scarcely acknowledging us. Twenty minutes and a new spark plug later, we were off again. Our Hmong saviors didn't even give us a chance to offer payment.

Such is life for an independent foreign traveler in Vietnam, a developing country where the abundance of snags and inconveniences is outnumbered only by a population of willing and uncannily omnipresent Samaritans. The locals are always quick to help out a Tay (Westerner), if for no other reason that they think we're incapable of helping ourselves. Considering the level of success foreigners have had in Vietnam in the last 50 years, it's no wonder this view is so widely held.

Forget wars, though, because those are history.

Vietnam is one of the most beautiful and inviting places in the world to visit, especially its northern provinces. You could argue that the best way to see them is by motorcycle, for easy access to grand peaks -- some of the highest in Southeast Asia -- and ethnic minority villages. Other than the former French mountain retreat of Sapa, an entrenched and well-equipped stop on the tourist trail, most of the north is off the sightseeing circuit. Even the Vietnamese consider it too dangerous and remote to travel there. Many of the region's residents have seen only a handful of Westerners.

If you're willing to live with the occasional hardship, though, a drive through the north is the best way to appreciate the profound transformation this Communist country -- one of the few left in the world -- is undergoing.


Escape From Hanoi

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Naomi and I had been working in the capital of Hanoi as editors on state-controlled English-language newspapers for a little more than a year when we decided to cap off our stint in Vietnam with a two-week tour on Belarus-made Minsk motorcycles. (We owned one and rented another from a local mechanic.) Minsks are sturdy, uncomplicated machines, so we weren't worried about riding them nearly 1,500 miles along the vague route we had sketched out in our tattered road atlas. In any case, nearly every Vietnamese male above the age of 30 knows how to repair one, the legacy of Cold War trade arrangements that ensured the Minsk would dominate Vietnam's roads for decades. If anything was going to break down, we thought, it would be us -- we weren't sure how we would deal with spending eight to 10 hours a day on the road.

Leaving behind the traffic-clogged, European-scale streets of Hanoi's central districts, we dodged pedestrians and trucks to emerge into the booming exurbs, ground zero for Vietnam's recent economic explosion. Industrial parks, where local workers stitch and assemble the goods that fuel the global consumer economy, lined the road on vast plots that had been scratched out of the dust. The stench of vehicle exhaust gave way to a mixture of burnt brush, overheated metal and soggy rice paddy -- the unmistakable odor of progress in Vietnam.

The city behind us, we stopped for a break and watched tourists wander around a rice field packed with farmers wearing conical hats. Sights like this are common in Hanoi, but we were surprised to see such a scene in the countryside, where few package tours venture. Crouching down on elevated paths that crisscrossed the paddy, the tourists aimed their telephoto lenses at the doubled-over farmers, who didn't look up from their backbreaking, repetitive work. Naomi tried to chat in Vietnamese with some nearby kids, who only stared back.

Rebuffs like this are rare in Vietnam, but as Naomi noted, the farmers can't be very happy to be tourist attractions. We snapped some photos of the tourists snapping photos of the farmers.

At the end of the day, we faced our first major decision. We had been on a mostly flat road for five hours. Naomi, who had learned to drive the motorcycle only a week before we left Hanoi, had frayed nerves from the traffic. Ahead of us, the road climbed steeply through a pass before descending into Mai Chau, our destination for the night. We had been cautioned about rock slides on this particular stretch of road, and half the sky had been smothered by a blanket of black, swirling clouds. The few motorbikes coming at us carried drivers with rain-soaked ponchos, and the only guy going our way abruptly executed a U-turn. We wondered if we should turn around, too.

We didn't. Up and over the incline we went, oil-soaked exhaust pouring out of our tailpipes, then down into the valley containing Mai Chau. We took the descent slowly, weaving our way between boulders the size of kitchen appliances and dents in the road left by their impact.

We arrived soaked but relieved in Mai Chau, a clump of Tai-minority stilt houses surrounded by a sprawling checkerboard of rice paddies. We stayed on the floor of a stilt house, where a Tai grandmother cooked us a dinner of sauteed pork and vegetables, followed by stiff rice wine called ruou to wash it all down. As we drifted off to sleep, we heard muffled applause and the sharp crack of sticks hitting a wooden floor -- the sound of small troupes performing ethnic dances for the handful of tourists in the area.

Roadside Chats

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As we headed west toward the Lao border, the people became friendlier and the terrain more treacherous. Outside of Son La, our destination for the second night, a trucker called us over for tea at a shack on the side of the road. His name was Than and he'd been stranded for a week because of a broken axle. He asked us how much money we made, how much we paid in rent, whether we were married -- standard opening queries among strangers in Vietnam.

"How long until your truck is fixed?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a week. Who knows?" he said with a smile. As we stood up to leave, he told us to be careful.

Nearing Son La, about 250 miles from Hanoi by our circuitous route, the narrow blacktop road widened into an eight-lane highway. We zipped by empty storefronts and deserted front lawns -- rare sights in a country where life usually unfolds out in the open, on the streets. Perhaps the residents were driven indoors by the superhuman scale of the highway, we thought. Later, a tour guide told us that the road had been widened to accommodate vehicles for the construction of a nearby power plant, but the only traffic we saw that day were some cattle grazing listlessly on the shoulder.

We had had a similar experience earlier in the day, at a war monument halfway between Mai Chau and Son La. After clearing a small peak, we saw poised on a bluff three granite soldiers looking heroically into the distance. Surrounding them were a vast, empty parking lot and some tattered wooden houses. We parked and rested, watching as some locals buzzed by on their motorbikes, not one of them looking up to acknowledge the white behemoth dominating the landscape. In the coming days, we would see many monuments like this one, plopped down in the midst of poverty.

The next day, during lunch at a com pho -- one of the dark roadside shacks where customers crouch over greasy wok food and pints of beer on tiny plastic tables -- we met a Vietnamese guy in his thirties who said he had worked for an oil company in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. "I stayed until the Americans came," he said. "Boom! Boom!" he shouted, frowning as he wiped his hands, the universal gesture for having had enough of something. It was poignant to hear a Vietnamese man talk about American bombs falling halfway around the world three decades after his own country had felt their impact.

1,500 Miles Traveled
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Twenty-four hours later, on a dizzyingly high mountain pass, the sky began dumping sheets of rain on us, and we took shelter under a makeshift roof with a pair of Vietnamese teenagers headed home to Dien Bien Phu. We talked with them as a family of Nung people looked on suspiciously from across the road. Like most Vietnamese, the two 19-year-old boys didn't share our interest in the minorities on the other side of the highway. During the wars against the French and Americans, many people from the hill tribes fought against the Communists, opening up a vast and persistent gulf of mistrust between ethnic Vietnamese (called Kinh) and the minorities.

We spent a couple of days recuperating in Dien Bien Phu, a provincial capital that was the site of the French army's defeat in 1954 at the hands of Viet Minh guerrillas led by Vo Nguyen Giap. Considering its historical importance, present-day Dien Bien Phu is a bit sleepy, although we did see some French tourists wandering the town's streets and the halls of the shabby museum commemorating the battle. There, visitors can view old weapons, letters and maps, along with a plastic diorama of Ho Chi Minh discussing strategy with Giap. Tellingly, every French soldier depicted in the many photos lining the walls is frowning, while every Vietnamese guerrilla is beaming.

Rested, we set out north along the Laotian border. Dropping from the cool mountain air into the Da River valley's scorched fields felt like throwing open the doors of a flaming kiln. We stopped for gas on the outskirts of what, according to our atlas, should have been the town of Lai Chau. "No, Lai Chau is 100 kilometers up the road," said the gas station attendant. At lunch, we heard otherwise. "You're already in Lai Chau," said a plump woman manning the wok in a com pho. "No, no," interjected a young guy from the shadows. "Lai Chau is 80 kilometers from here."

They were all partially right. In 2010, a reservoir is scheduled to submerge Lai Chau. Depending on whom you talk to, the name of the town has either been reassigned to one of two other towns or it will be swept away under the coming floodwaters. Sometimes, change occurs so rapidly in Vietnam that the maps can't keep up.



Sapa field, Vietnam

At the uppermost tip of the map is Ha Giang province, one of the strangest places in the north. In one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, it is inhabited only sparsely; coats are worn year-round; and the money and optimism that permeate the rest of Vietnam are scarce here. In Ha Giang city, we secured the necessary guide and permit, which the government requires of foreigners because of the province's proximity to China and past unrest among ethnic minorities. After meeting our guide, we headed out into the fog-draped moonscape on narrow mountain roads that looked like ribbons tacked to a felt board.

Along the way, we bumped into a Dutch couple who were plying the same route in an old Russian military jeep. Their guide, an outgoing 28-year-old named Thanh, advised us to visit a weekly outdoor market near a town called Lung Phin. "Most people don't know about it because the ethnic minorities are trying to keep it secret from the tourists," he said.

The next day, we drove the short distance to Lung Phin, where we found ourselves in a sea of colors -- thousands of Hmong, Dao and Tai people hauling their goods up a hill. Here you could buy anything from a mound of tobacco to a water buffalo. As the crowd began to take notice of the two Tays wandering the grounds, some people spotted our camera and wondered what it was, while a group of girls insisted on posing for photos. One of the girls checked our work and, disapproving of the image on the camera's display, insisted that we take another.

Our hearts sped up; we felt like rock stars, or aliens. Living in Vietnam for a year and a half had conditioned us to accept -- sometimes even dismiss -- culture shock, but this time it felt different, more total. We strained, with no success, to find something familiar in the blur of colors and unfamiliar languages engulfing us. This was what we had been searching for when we'd set out on our motorcycles two weeks and 1,500 miles ago -- an experience we could never hope to duplicate. Nor would Vietnam be capable of duplicating it for much longer, we knew.

Picking our way through the stalls, we began to feel dizzy from it all. Collapsing in a heap, we found ourselves once again exhausted and helpless on the side of the road. Before long, Thanh appeared, rescuing us with a joke and a smile.

By Dustin Roasa
Special to The Washington Post

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