Saigon

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Made it to Saigon!  Some say Saigon, some say Ho Chi Minh City.  I say “SIIIIIIIIIIII – GOOONNNEEE!  HIIIIYYYAAA!!!” then throw a karate kick over my head in the mix.  No, not really but it is tempting to say it that way. Think of Saigon as being the center and the main districts of the town and Ho Chi Minh City is essentially the annexed larger area surrounding Saigon.  Vietnam has been adventure, challenging, kicked my butt at times but it definitely rewarded me with some of the most incredible scenery, great new friends, and a new little baby belly from gourmandizing on fried spring rolls, asian noodles, and incredibly cheap beer.  I will be ruminating about this country for a while.  I think as far as traveling goes, it had its highs and it had it lows for me.  Injuries, grueling long dust and exhaust chocking bike rides, very aggressive driving, and plenty of near death experiences. It had a way of poking me at times saying, you are going to earn this.  We aren’t just going to give this to you.  But that is NAM baby!! Nam baby!!

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Vietnam War Museum.  It was definitely an interesting experience seeing what the Vietnamese government says about the war.  There was a little propaganda in the mix.

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This was probably one of the top 5 meals I had in Vietnam.  It was so good.  It cost like $1.36 in USD.

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Round two at the hospital in Vietnam. I got bitten by something and the infected area on my leg swelled up to a half golfball sized welp with sharp pains shooting down my leg. After a couple of ineffective visits to the pharmacy and a google search on horrifying poisonous insects of Vietnam, I decided a visit to the hospital was necessary. They ended up carving into the wound, removing some tissue, and cleaning it out in the most painful way possible. As I was gritting my teeth, he kept asking “are you okay?” “Yes, I am good. Urrrrgghhh! Keep digging that out!”

After a little a research, I found a poisonous vietnamese spider that is attracted to the smell of gasoline.  ahh…that’s not good!  All my clothes smell like fumes and fuel from riding the motorcycle.  I’m sure these hungry predators think of me as a thanksgiving feast!  They are probably like “Gasoline, where is that coming from? Oh I’m so hungry.  I have been craving me some fuel marinated westerner!” Think of taking a bath in blood and jumping into a shark tank or covering yourself in hamburger meat and running through grizzly bear territory.  Nobody would do that, right.  I wish I would have known about that before.  All motorcycle riders of Vietnam should be warned about this.  “WARNING MOTORCYCLE RIDERS: Deadly spiders:  Please take a shower and wash all fuel smells off of your body. Please hang your clothes at least 150 feet from where you sleep.”

I had the pleasure of driving in this before I managed to sell the motorcycle in Saigon.  The “beat up pickle” carried me around the country and did a good job escorting me on her back. In the end, I had my fingers crossed she wouldn’t fall apart before I was able to sell it.  Luckily in Saigon, I found a nice mechanic who was willing to take it off my hands for a good price.  So I took him up on his offer and said my goodbyes to “the green pickle.”  “Goodbye pickle….I will think of you often.  You be good.  Hang in there.  This mechanic will take nice good care of you.  You don’t go changing.  Thank you for everything!  Remember the good times we had.”

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Nice thing about big cities is that they have amenities.  Cup of joe on the Hario V-60.

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I heard about a brewer from Upslope Brewery in Colorado that opened up Pasteur Street Brewing Company in Saigon.  Really?  Colorado beer in Saigon?  You mean I can get an IPA in Vietnam?  A real microbrew? Okay I have been traveling 5 months now and haven’t had an IPA since the USA.  Colorado is home of too many breweries to count and everybody knows a Coloradian loves a good beer.  Anybody who is traveling for an extended period of time is going to say “oh I wish I could have a …….” So I was excited to have this little taste of home.  This is in no way saying I am tired of traveling or ready to come home yet.  That answer is definitely NO.  This trip is my dream and I’m loving it.  But it definitely was nice to sip on that pint of Colorado!

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My second westerner fix in Saigon….a good burger at Chuck’s Burger.  Imported Australian beef.

wpid-img_20150802_101927.jpgMy last village before I Saigon.  A beautiful fishing village outside Quy Nohn.  It was a very peaceful and tranquil place to relax.

 

Goodbye Vietnam!  Next stop Indonesia!

 

Hoi An – Vietnamese Rivera and Custom Suits.

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Hoi An, the “French Rivera” of Vietnam.  This idyllic postcard city is absolutely stunning.  Located on a river and even has a beach only a few miles away, it is perfect.  I can see why so many tourist flock to the city.  The river is lined with beautifully faded french colonial architecture and lots of really interesting shops from custom made taylors, asian laterns, to wonderful Vietnamese art.  Sometimes as a traveler, I have to hold myself back from purchasing a bunch of nic nacs but if I think this would be the place I would come to decorate my house asian style.  On top of that, there is a lot of good food here.  Anything from Tex-mex (close enough) to locally unique Vietnamese noodle dishes.

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I had the honor of being here during the lantern festival which is each month when their is a new moon (no moon showing). They turn all lights off and everyone purchases these candle lanterns and floats them down the river.  The candle lights illuminate the river and makes for some beautiful photography.  It is a wonderful sight!!!

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Beautiful lanterns of Hoi An.

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Custom made suit!  On my first trip to Thailand, I bought a couple of custom made suits and I have been spoiled on them ever sense.  A custom made suit fits they way it is suppose to.  The shoulders lines are in the right spot, the sleaves are the right length, the leg width is correct, and there is just the right amount of room on all the right places.  You can’t take any generic off the shelf suit and taylor it to fit like this.  I would rather have one custom made suit than 50 top of the line cookie cutter suits.  Anybody who ever has had a custom made suit will certainly agree with this! So Hoi An is known for excellent custom made clothes so I had to take advantage.  Seriously I had a hard time not dropping my entire travel budget on suits. Would it be practical to wear a suit everyday while traveling or should I say backpacking?  No, not really but the THOUGHT did cross my mind.  I could be the “Suit Backpacker!” I could see it now…”Hey look at that backpacker in a suit.  Is that the Suit Backpacker?  I have heard about him. He’s so cool.  Do you think he will give me his autograph?”  Yeah maybe not.  Probably wouldn’t help me to get good deals on things either. “Okay high roller, that will be $200 USD”  “ah, but the price should only be $2.  Okay, will you take $20?”

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Pacific Coast Highway of Vietnam.  When I was riding the bike to Hoi An. I came to a “Y” intersection. The direction I needed to go was left but I noticed every motorcycle was going right. Motorcycles are not allowed on every road and I couldn’t understand the signs. When traveling, I tend to be very aware of what locals are doing. So I looked at the map and noticed it was longer but it seemed to go to the same destination. So I ended up going the same direction as all of the other motorcycle riders. Through serendipity, I had the most amazing sunset coastal cruise on the bike. I think I found the “Pacific Coast Highway” of Vietnam.

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Bahn Mi Sandwich food cart

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Sorry for the blurry picture.  Camera didn’t focus and this is the only photo I have of the local noodles.

Caves of Phong Nha National Park

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When I first arrived in Hanoi, I met a guy who told you me you have to go to Phong Nha! Caves and Jurassic Park!  Really? That’s sounds awesome!!  I am definitely going.  One of the main reasons why I love long-term travel is that I hear things on my trip about a must do and I just put it on my list and do it!

After my visit to Phong Nha, I will definitely agree my friend in Hanoi.  It is a must do in Vietnam.  Definitely was one of my favorites!!  The motorbike ride into Phong Nha National park was spectacular.  Beautiful limestone mountains with gliding curvy fun roads.  I ended up staying at a wonderful pretty social hostel and made some good fun friends.

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My new friends rented some bikes and we went in search of CAVES!!!

As we arrived to the entrance to buy a ticket, the employees were yelling at us to hurry.  “Hurry Hurry!!!!!”  “huh, what?  What’s going on.  What are we doing?”  We really didn’t even know which cave we were at.  We had just pulled up on the bikes to a sign that said cave. So we replied ,”Yes, yes!”  They quickly took our money and they started giving us zip lining gear.  “Oh yes, this is the zip-lining cave.  I have heard about this one. This is where you zip-line across a river and into the cave.  YES!” The guy quickly threw on my gear without even really double checking anything and pointed to a tower to run to.  They only do tours only when they fill up to a full group and some people wait for hours for enough people to accumulate to do one of these trips.  One tour had just started and we were playing catch up so it was in my best interest to run.  So I started running to the tower and up the circular stairs.  Floor after floor, up and up!!! It was high! When I got to the top, it was a knee jerking elevation.  The guy yelled at me, “stand here!” “Where?? You mean the see-through metal grate ledge where nothing is under me?” “uh, let me think about this” There was really no time, we were in a rush, and there was no way I was going to back out so I stepped up.  He then snapped me into the zip-line.  I asked “do you want to double check my harness?” but without any double checking he just pushed me off the ledge and I was off.   ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ  “I’m zip-lining!!!!!….Everyone look at me!  I’m zip-lining…wooooo!”  I of course, did what anybody who is thoroughly enjoying their zip-lining adventure, I started purposely spinning around and around in circles and throwing my hands up in the air.  “wooooo!!!!!” It was such a rush!  Then I came to the end which was across river.  “ahh how do stop?!!!! Where were the safety instructions!!” There was just a giant sand pit that seem to end with the zip-lining cable going to into a wall.  Then I heard a guy yelling “feet up!! feet up!!!!”  “ah, here are the instructions!! Thank you for the instructions!” “okay, okay! coming in hot!”  After pounding and sliding into the sand landing strip at mach speeds, I was pumped!  “That was awesome!!!” “Absolutely awesome!!!” I’m glad it all happened so fast.  What an adrenaline rush!!! I am spoiled now because I want only enter caves by zip-lining now.

 

 

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After the zip-lining across the river, we swam to a wooden staircase entrance to the cave.  Spelunking into a cave after a grand entrance like that you are totally jazzed.  The whole group was still fixed on their adrenaline junky high as we continued into the cave.  The cave was really cool with stalactites and and stalagmites but that wasn’t the reason you go to this cave.  There’s something unique about this cave.  So we waded into the “dark cave,” going deeper and darker….and then came the other element that makes this cave different.  It was mud.  Not sure why they didn’t call it the mud cave. I would have thought that would have been more marketable.  So as we waded through the crevices of the cave, going back deeper, the mud kept getting deeper.  First our ankles, then knees, then waist, then until we were at the end with a mud pool that was chest high. Most of just floated at that point.  The buoyancy of the mud, made floating very easy.   So we frolicked in the mud and it felt like we were in a scene from “Mr Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”  The ladies started taking advantage of being around this luxurious spa-like slimey brown goo and started covering their face.  Facial spa mud treatment?  Guess so…  but the real fun came when the guide wanted us to experience the true nature of the dark cave.  He ordered us to turn off the lights on your helmets.  Everyone turned off the lights.  Now the mud pool was segregated into two groups, the Chinese tourists and westerner tourists.”  I was kind of in the middle.  So as the lights went off, my adolescent self couldn’t resist but to start a “mud fight!”  So I took a big handful of slimey goo and chunked it in the direction of the Chinese tourist.  I quickly stepped out of the line of fire.  They laughed and retaliated with handfuls of mud at my westerner friends.  I heard people getting plopped in the face and mud firing at a spitfire rate at each other.  The tour guide started yelling in both languages “stop!!! lights on!!!! stop! stop!”  Hahahaha!!!! He might have been victim too. hahah!!! Lights went on and both sides were completely covered in mud.  Everyone except me was completely covered in mud…Well, my face wasn’t completely covered in mud…. I then confessed “it was me!”

 

Paradise Cave – Thiên Đường Cave

This beautiful cave is nearly 20 miles long.  There’s another cave in the region that is larger but it costs $3000 for a 6 day trek into the cave.

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Karaoke and Cruising Northern Vietnam

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Driving the north was fantastic!!! Really off the beaten path and definitely an experience few venture to have.

The nice thing about not being on the tourist circuit is that it feels “authentic.”  No locals wearing costumes for tourist.  No menus serving western takes on dishes.  You eat as the locals, you see the locals in their natural environment, and you experience the true friendliness of the people who aren’t english speaking touts trying to sell you something. It really is a beautiful and wonderful experience!  Challenging at times but very rewarding.  

For me, eating in northern Vietnam was definitely a challenge.  Many restaurants are only open for a couple of hours a days.  Some are open only for breakfast, some only for lunch, and some only for dinner.  Some look like a person might have decided that they were going to open a restaurant out of their house at one time and then decided not to do it.  I guess they just never got around to taking the sign down. For a westerner it is impossible to ask or know. During the day, I would drive through multiple villages looking for something open and would see “com pho” signs but they definitely weren’t open.  And in the evening, I had to wait until around 7 pm for dinner and walk around searching for something open.  Even walking into an empty restaurant doing the hand to mouth gesture for food, often times got a really confused look back. The locals never really understood that one.  It was much easier if someone was eating and I just pointed!

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Pictures of the “Green Pickle” never get old!  He is so photogenic I must say.  Look how happy he looks in that picture.  Exploring Vietnam on motorbike has just been incredible.  It is definitely the way to go!  Everyday I have pinch myself so I know it isn’t a dream.

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Ca phe den – Vietnamese coffee.  Takes about 10 minutes to drip if the beans are fresh.  I actually own one of these devices back in home.

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One of the challenging roads.  Notice the 18 wheeler stuck on the road. Major highways haven’t been built yet in Northeastern Vietnam so 18 wheelers cruise on the same roads.  Often times it became very precarious encountering one of these on a muddy steep switchback.  The “Pickle’s” name switched to the “Muddy Pickle” that day.  I still haven’t washed the bike but don’t worry, he’s had plenty of rain showers to clean off a little.

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One the villages where I stopped for a rest stop and breakfast.

In Ha Giang, I went out for dinner.  As I sat their eating alone, a table next to me drinking beers and invited me to join their table.  I accepted the offer and ordered myself a beer.  They didn’t speak english and my vietnamese is minimal but I have to say it is getting better.  Google has a wonderful app, called google translator which has been a life saver in Vietnam!!!!!!  So armed with my google translator and lessons from my new friends, I learned a bunch of new words. I also tried some more local dishes that were awesome!  One of the dishes was like beef stick wrapped in leaves then dipped in a spicy sauce.  Interesting and savory.  After a few beers, they asked if I wanted to join them for some karaoke.  “uhh, YES!!!!! KARAOKE IN VIETNAM!!! I WOULD LOVE TOO!!!!” I have been talking about this ever since I got to Vietnam.  Karaoke bars are everywhere here and it is a big deal here!  So what better way to get a local experience than to karaoke! In Cat Ba, some travelers and I went to one but got really confused, intimidated, and walked out.  So Karaoke bars have private suites what lots of buttons and a mission control station which is not in english. It definitely takes a little knowing what you are doing to get the ultimate experience.  There are all sorts of snacks and drinks laid out like in a football suite for the taking.  I was really excited that my new friends were going to give me a lesson on how to karaoke correct way.  As we walked into the room, there was a serious multitude of lights which you can control to make any type of feel that you want.  Disco ball, no problem…flashing lights, okay.  Did you say want more flicker on the lights?  Ok, no problem…turn it up.  But not too much.  We don’t want everyone to be sent into epileptic seizures.  So one of guys went strait for the light mission control station and cranked on the lights until we were all about to be convulsing on the floor. One of the other guys armed the karaoke cockpit and grabbed the mic!  “Here we go!  Lets get this party started. KARAOKE IN VIETNAM!!!”  The mic reverberated and echoed in the room, the words and video showed on two screens according to what direction you wanted to be standing or sitting.  It was so much fun!!! I had a blast!!!!  We sang in our own private club for the rest of the night.  After me trying to sing one song in Vietnamese, we realized that wasn’t going to work, so I just watched the serenades and cheers’d with them a loud “Yo!!!” which is cheers in Vietnam! Vietnam bucket list item – Karaoke with locals – CHECK!

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I would like to add that they refused to let me pay for dinner or anything.  They actually angrily refused when I strongly insisted.  This is Vietnamese culture! There are certain rules about who pays, such as who just got paid, who is the oldest, who is the host…so forth.  So the one guy who just got paid that day picked up the whole tab for everyone.  I snuck out of the room to buy a round of beers and paid without them knowing.  Like I have said the Vietnamese are wonderful hosts!!

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Seriously, I was definitely blown away around each corner at the scenery of northern Vietnam.  After a while, I had to stop taking pictures and just drive on.

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Pho 

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After following the Chinese border around from the east to the west, my last stop before heading south was Sapa.

Sapa is an incredible trekking town and very much reminded me of Nepal in a sense.  It is located in the mountains and actually gets a couple weeks of snow each year. It is filled with numerous outdoor knock-off shops selling plenty of North-Face gear.  There are beautiful hill-top tribe ladies that fill the streets selling guided tours and weaved items.  It is definitely touristy with plenty of coffee, english menus, and western dishes.  I will admit it was a nice break to be able to order a food easily and to eat when I was hungry.

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Sapa – Beautiful view from the hotel where I was staying at.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to throw this on the blog or not.  Traveling has been one of the best experiences of my life.  I haven’t regretted doing it for a single moment.  Unfortunately sometimes bad things happen but that doesn’t change my desire to travel any less.  I love it!! But travel is about experiences.  Some good, some bad.  It is all part of it.  While in Sapa, I was hit by a taxi driver from behind while talking to a friendly hill-tribe lady.  The car knocked me down and then he proceeded to drive over me with the vehicle.  I’m not sure why he did this and he couldn’t speak any english to answer my questions. In my opinion I was not in his way or blocking the street.  I never heard a honk to get out of the way. I was standing on the very side so I am pretty sure this was a deliberate and unprovoked attack. Also I would like to add, I didn’t have any prior experiences with this driver either that could have provoked such an attack.  And also I don’t think this was a case of crazy driving.  Maybe he was disgruntled on life, angry at westerners, bad day, road rage? Who knows, but he decided to swerve and cowardly run over a tourist from behind.  The beautiful thing about this ugly situation, is that all the locals came to my aid and stopped the driver from leaving.  Everyone was very helpful telling me the Vietnamese protocol.  Most of the people didn’t speak english but the english speakers were telling me “He pay you injuries! Bad people!  He drive you hospital, drive away, no pay. You watch him!” “Okay I got, it!  This guy is paying for my hospital bill! I’m going to watch him like a hawk!” I have been warned from locals that there are good people and bad people in Vietnam.  I can honestly say, that I have had nothing but wonderful experiences with good people in Vietnam.  I have been amazed how good the people of Vietnam are here.  Very big hearts, very welcoming, very caring, and very generous.  So please don’t judge this country by this one bad apple.  We can’t judge the US for the maniacs who do public shootings.  There are “bad people” in every society.  I am sure this was a very isolated experience.  As I travel, I learn that things are different in every culture.  In America, a person would go to prison for attempted manslaughter for such an violent act.  In Vietnam, the guy was forced to take me to the hospital and pay my bill which literally was $5 for x-rays and examination.  He wasn’t very happy about that but I wasn’t going to let him get away without paying for it. I don’t feel like it was justice for the crime but fortunately nothing was broken.  I am still pretty sore and I am hoping something isn’t torn in my foot. Hopefully it heals quickly! I am able to walk on it but feel an annoying discomfort and pain if I bend my big toe. Anyways, I am still very stoked on Vietnam and traveling here!!  Still a great place!  And yes, I would still recommend Sapa!

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Sapa is a really beautiful and wonderful place.  Due to the incident, I didn’t get out for any trekking or real photographs.  Here’s the street where it all happened.  This is the main tourist street of Sapa.

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I have the say the hospital was very nice.  I was the only person there which was a little erie!  There was a staff of only three which didn’t make sense for such a big building.  The building was huge, much like a hotel.  They parking lot didn’t have a car parked in it.  I was there in the evening so I’m not sure if it was closing time or not.

Motorcycling Northeast Vietnam

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Grabbed the early morning ferry from Cat Ba to Ha Long.  As I left the ferry, I was uber stoked about seeing some more of Vietnam. Especially Northeastern Vietnam, most people head south and this area is unspoiled by tourist and visitors.  Off the beaten path and what I’m looking for!  No english menus, no tourist touts, no changed culture, and no western food! A truly authentic experience! I put my headphones on, snapped the bike into gear, and started my journey northeast towards the Chinese border.  I hit the road playing a little Creedence Clearwater Rival “Long As I Can See the Light”, chill bumps on my skin, and a grin about as big I can possible make on my face. There is something that feels spiritual about riding a motorcycle.  You feel connected with your surroundings.  You feel the wind blasting your face, the subtle temperature changes from each passing river, the texture of the road beneath your tires, and the smell of all of the sweet floral vegetation. You feel everything!  You are exposed to take it all in.  The IMAX style panoramic views on a motorcycle are incomparable to anything that can be experienced in a vehicle, bus, or any other form of transportation.  That is why people who ride motorcycles absolutely love them!  My Vietnam motorcycle journey has reminded me of how much I love cruising on two wheels.  There is something that says “freedom” on a bike. You get into a groove on a bike as you are gliding around each twisty corner and you just lose yourself.  You see an interesting road, you just turn.  Why? You just want to see where it goes.  And then you find some unexpected surprise but it was really never about the destination anyways. It was about the journey….just riding, observing the surroundings, and enjoying the moment. That is why a motorcycle is the best form of transportation for travel. Especially for someone like me doing long term travel and has the time.  If I stay in some random unexpected village or someone’s house, that is cool.  I’m on no schedule or strict plan. I just want unforgettable experiences.

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So exploring Northeastern Vietnam has been more incredible than anything than I could have imagined.  I’ll let the pictures illustrate the glorious scenery but the overall experience has been indescribably wonderful!  The people have been very friendly and welcoming even though my attempts at Vietnamese have been pretty poor.  I have no choice and try not to butcher their language too bad but english is not an option.  Even the word “yes and no” is not known here.  As I have said before just saying the word is not enough.  You have to say it with the correct tones.  I have found that I have to wave my hands up and down like an orchestra conductor to help me get the tones correct on pronouncing words.  I’m sure the locals are like, “okay Beethoven, got it, you want a bottle of water.”  I have to say this method works for me no matter how idiotic I look.  Even showing written words doesn’t always work here.  So yes, I will make a fool of myself for a bottle of water.  Don’t judge. 🙂

Back to the point, people are very friendly in Vietnam.  My first day in Hanoi, my dinner and beer tab was picked up by a local who wanted his son to learn english and just talk to me.  I have had too many numerous affable experiences with the people to list and describe how awesome they are. On the bike, I roll into a village and everyone waves, smiles, and yells “hello.”  Guess people know that word.  Believe me, they don’t know any other words.  So I yell back with a huge smile and wave, “sin chowwww!” which is hello in Vietnam!  I’m addicted to the welcoming warm smiles and hello.  It lifts me up every time someone does that to me.  In Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” he states that how to win people is by smiling and being happy to see them.  Well Vietnam, it worked, I think I love you!  Also on the bike, a motorbike will pull up next to me cruising down the road, they’ll stay even with me looking over and smiling, and then give a friendly wave.  I mean the friendliness is everywhere in North Vietnam!  I stopped for a rest at a roadside store and the shop owner started giving me fruit and crackers.  She kept offering until I was sickly full and I tried to communicate “no more!”  When I tried to pay, she angrily refused.  I am often shocked how nice people are here.  It just seems to be a part of their culture which I am still trying to understand.  I have to say it seems to be a very courteous culture.

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Drive to the Ban Goic Waterfalls

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Ban Goic Waterfalls – The Niagara falls of Vietnam and is the border of China and Vietnam. The 4th largest waterfall in the world.

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One of my stops for a little rest while on the bike.

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Exploring Mount Mau Son.

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Cao Bang

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Click here to listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival “Long as I can see the light”

 

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

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Leaving Hanoi via motorbike was about as much as fun as one could think.  I couldn’t help but to be thrilled, thinking “I did it.  I bought a motorcycle in Vietnam and touring around the countryside!”   This has definitely been a dream of mine and it is coming true.   As you can imagine there were few hiccups leaving but I got those sorted. But I finally got on the road.  Trying to navigate through busy streets and highways all the while looking at my phone GPS which is in a semi-waterproof case around my neck is a challenge.  From researching online, I knew that there was a ferry from Hai Phong to Cat Hai Island and then there was another from Cat Hai to Cat Ba Island.  I didn’t know the schedule or how long it would take me to get there but I knew I would manage.  So after a few wrong turns, my journey set out to the unknown.  I didn’t know how long the ride was going to take me so I was prepared to stay anywhere along the way.

Most of the way to Hai Phong was highway after the city.  Cruising on the green machine felt good.  The engine was running smoothly, my bags were bungeed in, and I was on a mental high.  It took a majority of the day to reach the destination and I stopped for lunch along the way.  A local asked me to join him for tea for lunch but I needed to get moving.  I politely declined and as I am learning the Vietnamese are very friendly and have a very welcoming culture up north.  After Hai Phong, I had to cruise through an industrial area similar to the Houston ship channel, dodging huge trucks who undoubtedly could not see me.  I felt like a gnat that was ready to be squashed at any moment.  When I finally arrived at the ferry station, I told the ticket agent “Cat Ba! Cat Ba!”  She nodded and pointed to the boat.  Then a progression of other locals started pointing….everyone in Vietnam helps you!  I drove the “angry pickle” in the direction of the pointing locals onto an empty ferry platform.  The boat hurriedly launched off.  The boat was empty.  Hmm…”okay am I on the right boat?  I said Cat Ba.  She nodded.  Did she understand?  Where is everyone?”  When traveling, your mind seems to always have a lot of questions.  So I rode my private boat and luckily it docked on Cat Hai.  I didn’t know if Cat Hai was where I was going to be staying for the night or if I was going to make it to Cat Ba.  I was prepared for anything.  The nice thing about this island is that there is only one road so I knew that the ferry was at the end of the road.  So I cruised the angry pickle through the island and received a lot of friendly waves from the locals.  I really really like this!!!!  I have to wonder if Americans would be so nice as to wave to a strange foreigner cruising through their island on motorbike like this? I would certainly hope so.  As I reached the other side of the island, the next ferry was waiting.  “YES, I made it!!!”

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I really had a good time on Cat Ba.  I stayed at a really cool hostel with a bunch of good people.  It is always nice to make new friends.  The hostel also had AC and really comfy beds which was a huge plus.  The town itself is a big Vietnamese tourist destination so I thought it was kind of fun to see what the Vietnamese tourist are like when they are on vacation.  There were literally hundreds of tandem bikes (2 person bicycles) cruising around with sometimes 4 people on them.  It was hilarious to see these tandem bicycle gangs cruising the streets with Vietnamese yelling and laughing everywhere.  It cracked me up.  Unfortunately I did not have any travelers who would take me up on my offer to share a bike.  I’m sorry I didn’t get a picture of these bikes for the blog.  I did get some video though.

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Ha Long Bay

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Monkey Island.  A day trip Vietnamese touristy destination.   I think there was only one monkey…hahaha.

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Here the Vietnamese were playing some game.  I never understood what they were doing or saying but it was funny to watch.

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Hanoi, Vietnam

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Vietnam!  Nam baby!  Well, I finally made it here.  Vietnam is somewhere I have been intrigued with for a while.  When I was in Vientiane, there were a couple of travelers were in the hostel where I was staying. They came into the room jazzed about Vietnam.  They had just spent two months in Vietnam and said that they weren’t ready to leave.  Yes, that is what I am talking about!!! They were excited and that contagious excitement quickly spread to my bones as well.  Most people I talk to seem to love Vietnam!  From the moment, I came into this country, I could see why.  There is an energy, exoticness, and a deeply Asia feel to it.  It is very different from the western world!  I mean they serve things like snake, rat, chicken feet, fried coachroaches, and any other household pet you can think of.  They eat everything here and every part of the animal. They don’t waste anything. Also the people seem to be very friendly and welcoming so far which is really nice!

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One really nice thing about Vietnam is that letters are recognizable english style letters which a westerner can read.  Genius idea Vietnam!

One thing I have learned about Vietnamese language is that tones and afflictions are very important.  The letters “BO” can mean father, lover, trash, avacado, and half a dozen of other things.  Sometimes it is the context and sometimes it is the tone or stresses in the accents.  No wonder when I go to a place that serves sandwiches and ask for a “bahn my” which is sandwich, they look at me confused as I’m probably saying something like “shoe face.”  I keep repeating until I decide to point at something and do the universal “one” sign.

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For my non-facebook readers:

Starving, I walked past this place and pointed to the bread and said one. What I got was a most excellent meat sandwich. When I tried to find out the exact name of what I was eating was, it resulted in them bringing me a menu. Then it resulted in them thinking I wanted one of everything on the menu. I had to physically stop them pulling out everything to cook for me. I quickly paid and gave them a thank you before I had one of everything from the menu.

 

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Cheap beer! Vietnam is littered with places selling 5000 dong beers.  How much is that in USD, you ask?  Well that is about 25 cents.  So beer is cheaper than water which costs 9000-10,000 dong.

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Vietnamese Iced Coffee

wpid-20150703_140040.jpgMy new ride! A Honda Win 110 made in Indonesia.  After searching and searching, I found a motorbike. I think having a little motorbike experience really helped me in picking this baby out.  Brakes in good condition – check, no oil leak – check, good tires – check, lights – check, no funny sounds – check, straight frame – check, no rattles or vibrations- check, smooth transition into gears – check…. There were seriously a lot of really crappy bikes, I tried out.  I think I can safely say that a majority of Honda Win bikes for sale here are pretty bad.  The most fun part of my quest for a non-lemon bike was the test drive.  Actually test driving motorbikes all day in a Hanoi was a hair raising experience.  There are mostly no traffic signs or lights at intersections and if there are, only a few abide them.  So at the intersection, the idea is to keep moving while looking at the crossing traffic and trying to dodge them….I’m still alive..so I guess I’m pretty lucky or I am a really good driver ;).  After completing the intersection experiences, I needed to make sure to run through all the gears to test the transmission and high speed vibrations. You don’t buy a bike without fully testing it so that meant driving fast!  I had to weave through traffic on roads where nobody seems to care which direction or lane they are supposed to go or be in.  It is common to see someone going full speed into oncoming traffic here.  So in my adrenaline fueled game of “don’t wreck or die,” my future bike purred like a kitten and smoothly transitioned from gear to gear.  It was that moment that me and the bike bonded. I test drove the bike 5 times and even made it to the highway before purchasing.  After my test rides, I had them change a few things, do a few minor tweaks, and then we finally agreed on the purchase price of $290.

Another bucket list item checked off!  Own of a motorbike in Vietnam and tour the country!!!

Next stop Cat Ba Island!

 

 

 

 

Vientiane, Laos – Coffee in Laos

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Vientiane is the capital of Laos.  To me it felt like a laid back and smaller version of Chiang Mia with a small city vibe.  It is definitely the kind of place where one could be an expat. It is comfortable, small, and seems to have all the must have amenities one could need except for maybe high speed internet. I liked this place and maybe perhaps it was one of my favs in Laos.  Most travelers get a little bored here but I liked being able to walk down the street and get a great cup of coffee.  I don’t have to be zip-lining or going on some sort of tour every moment of the day.  I think as I get older, I get more comfortable with just enjoying life and observing things in more detail.  I like feeling the vibe of a place and really appreciating the ambiance of a location.

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The highlight for me in Vientiane was definitely finding Le Trio Coffee Roasting Company.  If you have been reading my blog, you know that I have a little obsession, okay maybe a big obsession with coffee.  I @#$ love it!  Now when I get into any town, I always research to see if there is a coffee shop in town? Actually I look for a coffee roaster.  One that pays particular attention to the minute details of perfection.  One that puts love and passion into each cup…okay this is getting weird…but you get the idea.  I really am particular about my cup of joe.  I will drink crap coffee too just like a beer connoisseur will drink not-so-great beer but there is something that emotionally excites me about drinking a blooming cup of coffee.  Finding excellent coffee on the road has been somewhat a difficult task.  Unfortunately, someone who I will say is the worst person in the world, invented instant coffee for the military way back when, and it caught on in Asia.  Thus far on my travels, instant coffee seems to be the major type of coffee that is available in Asia. My constant quest for finding my caffeine fix in each town leads me to places with an espresso machine. Often times the operators of these machines have little or no training how to use it and blast out the most nauseating over extracted bitter tasting espresso.  If you are covering up the taste with milk and sugar, then maybe it is tolerable.  For me, who likes my coffee pure and black, it is stomach churning.  Given that, many times that is the best that is available, so I do my best to choke down the cup.  Traveling, I have been drinking Americanos which is espresso and water.  It gives the feeling of a cup of coffee and is typically my best option but it is not my preferred brewing method.  I drink the Americano because I know they will or I hope will grind the beans.  The coffee beans go stale within 30 seconds of grinding.  If I order black coffee in Asia, many times they serve me instant coffee if I don’t order the Americano.

So when I searched for a coffee roaster in Vientiane, Laos, I found Le Trio Coffee Roasting Company.  Finding the name of the place and then finding the place is always a challenge.  It is not as easy in Asia where GPS and addresses don’t always match.  After knowing the name, I typically have to go on a mission to find it.  So when I finally found Le Trio, it was closed.  Another thing is that many coffee places in Asia don’t always open in the morning time so you have to wait later in the day. Rough for a morning person like me who prefers coffee early.  On this particular day, it was closed due to being sunday.  So I had to wait for another day and get my caffeine fix elsewhere.  Nevertheless, I came back the next day, and when I walked into the door, I saw some of my favorite Japanese coffee devices sitting on the counter.  Now the reason I look for coffee from roasters is that there is a better chance that they are obsessive about perfection like me.  They pay attention to every detail of a fine cup just as winemaker does in producing the finest bottle possible.  Every step of the way has a drastic influence and can alter the cup significantly.  How the coffee is grown? The soil? Shade grown or not? The type of bean?  How it is processed?  How it is shipped?  How it is stored? All these things affect the coffee! Coffee is complex!  And it is very easy to ruin a cup.  After the process stage, the brewing stage is equally complex and there are many factors.  Grind size? Water temp? Water to coffee ratio?  The pour?  Bean to water contact time? Method? The actual bean? and most importantly the love! A lot of things have to come together harmoniously to create a truly excellent cup of coffee. It is a science and art.  Getting back to the story, as I walked into Le Trio, and after I noticed the Hario devices, I looked up and saw a Probat roaster which is a favorite in the coffee world and much more expensive that most roasters.  I could go into detail of why it is a fav but let’s just make it simple, it makes an even roast.  The wall had a sign that stated the optimal temperature/humidity range with a thermometer and hygrometer.  Yes, this is what I am talking about!  Attention to detail!  Eyes childlike and wide open, I immediately screamed, “I want that!” and pointed to the Hario V-60 pour over device.  Now, I have numerous coffee devices at my home and love experimenting with new coffee devices.  Each one tastes different.  One makes the coffee more bold, one makes more crisp, one makes more clean, one makes more oily.  Each one brings different characteristics to the cup. I hate to hear I don’t like strong coffee or I like strong coffee.  Coffee measurements should be meticulously measured. Adding another scoop is a sign of not knowing proper coffee techniques.  Many do that and I use to do it to before I become a coffee-fanatic but it is wrong.  Over extracted, bitter, and strong should not be the goal. You want to bring out the correct coffee flavors of the beans.  The caramel, the nuttiness, the chocolate, the cherries, the fruitiness…like I said coffee is complex and you want to be able to taste these flavors.  Then using a particular device, you can adjust the style of the coffee but these measurements, temperature, gind size, and timing must be carefully balanced.  It takes a lot practice to master and one must know the taste of a correctly brewed cup to be able to replicate it. It really is an art and science, that must be carefully brewed with feeling and love, all the while paying attention to the science behind it. So one my favorites brewing methods, is a pour over coffee brewed on the Hario V60.  I have a few favorites.  This pour-over device takes a little more to master than some.  The cyclone funnel has grooves to keep the paper from the edge causing a vortex and that allows the water to permeate through the entire surface area of the paper by trickling down the sides.  The paper filter itself is unique and imported from Japan.  It feels almost clothlike to the touch and allows the oils to seep through into the cup creating a bold complex cup of coffee.  The bottom of the funnel is a larger hole to allow the paper and the bean to be the governor of speed of the pour.  That is why it takes a little more to master than most.  The pourer needs to have a feeling where they are at on the pour and keep the correct water to coffee contact to complete the brewing process at the correct time.

When I finally got my cup of coffee, it was everything that I was hoping for.  Halfway through the first cup, I immediately ordered another.  I would have kept ordering but my body physically can’t handle that much caffeine.

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The Hario V60 is the glass cone on the righthand side.

As I kept revisiting the place, the girl asked me what I thought of her cup and to be honest.  She said she is still trying to perfect her cup. I told her I could show her how I brew a cup and she said, “that would be great.” After nearly 4 months of travel and missing brewing beans, I got to brew a cup. It was really fun to show them my technique and it was even more fun to brew a cup again!! People ask me what I miss when traveling. I say friends, family, and coffee.

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The Laos and Communist flags flying over the boardwalk of the city.

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The nightly market here was a lot of fun.  This was the Laos shopping mall.  You could everything from shoes, underwear, phone accessories, and the lastest Lao fashion.  It wasn’t setup for tourist as there really weren’t too many walking around.  I find it so interesting and it really gives a feeling of what the styles are cool in the country.

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I love the tuk tuk.  As I travel, I meet interesting people.  In Myanmar, I met a guy who bought a tuk tuk in Laos, sooped it up with speakers and neon lights, and was driving around the country.  He said he would roll up to a small rural Laos villages blasting the latest Lao pop music with neon lights on.  The locals would all come out to check out what the heck was going on and then as you could imagine it turned into a wild party with the locals.  This is not his tuk tuk but I thought I would share his story.  3L3A2909

A view of one of the main streets in Vientiane.

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3L3A2987Everyone was exercising here.  Here’s a bunch of people doing some group fitness outside.  There were actually multiple groups working out. There is actually a lot of gyms as well in town.

 

Okay, so goodbye Laos.  Next stop to Vietnam where I will try to buy a motorbike and cruise around the country.

Vang Vieng, Loas

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The drive from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was really beautiful.  Guidebooks will tell you don’t go to Asia during the rainy season but I disagree. I love how green and lush everything is.  The sacrifice for this verdant scenery is a dealing with a few showers.  Hmm…doesn’t bother me any.  As I am learning about Laos, I had no idea that this country had so many illustrious mountains.

So Vang Vieng, once the party capital of Laos, maybe still is but it has so much to offer outside that.  The party people sit in the bars all night and then campout all day in front of a TV watching episode after episode of “Friends” at one of the restaurants. These pizza only eating people are missing out.  Coming to SE Asia to eat pizza and watch TV?  Sounds real fun.. I say rent a motorbike, eat some delicious Laos noodles, and go explore!

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I really liked motorbiking here!  The roads were really muddy and precarious but it was a great way to see some really cool scenery.  At one point, I was behind a tuk tuk carrying a load of tourist all hanging out the back smoking cigs.  I felt their plumes of cigarette smoke were blasting my face and filling my lungs with toxic fumes, so I decided to pass this tourist carnival.  I gave my bike engine a rev, tooted the scooter horn, and gained some speed to pass.  As I passed, the tuk tuk driver looked at me, and wanted to race.  I gave a little wave and ducked my head to gain some more speed and flew past him.  I won the race and got in front the tuk tuk but as I was trying to make distance there was a slippery hill.  I admit I was going too fast and I’m normally a very cautious and safe driver.  So coming down this steep slope, I couldn’t do anything but try to coast and ski the bike down the wet clay and muddy decline.  Before I knew it, the bike tires slipped out from from underneath me, sending me and the bike crashing down.  We slid for a bit on the muddy “slip and slide” and finally came to a stop. Everything was in slow motion and I was like “noooooo” and then “oh no I am going to have to pay for a new bike”….and then “oh no!!!, I don’t want to go to hospital in Laos”….As me and the bike stopped sliding, I quickly did an assessment, and picked myself up.  “I’m okay”…a few minor bruises and a little banged up, I pulled myself and the bike up.  I knew I had to getup and get out the tuk tuk’s way.  I got up and then noticed one side of myself covered in mud.  I rolled the bike to the side of the road and then saw the tuk tuk approaching.  Trying to save my ego and pride, I turned my clean side so that it was visible only to the road to try hide my muddy half.  I hoped that they didn’t see the fall.  I thought maybe they will just think I am stopping here on this muddy slope for a rest stop.  As the tuk tuk passed me, everyone rubber-necked and stared at me.  Humiliated, I gave a friendly wave and tried to convince myself they didn’t know.  I’m sure they probably knew and thought “what an idiot.”  Good news on the bike too!  A wash in the river, a mirror bent back in place, and a foot peg bent back, it was good as new.

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This was definitely one of my highlights of Laos.  I absolutely loved this!!! So one day exploring the blue lagoon on motorbike, I saw this “cave” sign.  I knew there was a cave somewhere around there but I didn’t really know what it entailed.  So I walked over to where the sign was and their was a lady renting headlamps for $1.50.  “What is this?” I thought!  “This sounds fun!”  So I immediately threw the lady a $1.50 in Lao money and started climbing up the trail to the cave.  It was about 10 minutes of climbing steep boulders before I reached the cave entrance.  I met 2 guys walking down on my way up and asked them how far it goes back.  He told me 5 minutes.  Hmm.. Okay.  As I later found out on my own you can spend an hour and a half exploring.  When I got to the entrance, I flipped on my light and started to enter the dark cavern.  I will admit it was a little creepy walking into a dark cave alone but somehow I was filled with excitement of walking into an actual cave by myself.  I felt like an explorer and adventurer!  There is no way that they would allow something like this in the US.  It would be filled with lights, manmade walkways, railguards, and warning signs.  It would feel more like a disneyland attraction than a natural wonder.   As I continued through the labyrinth of dark cavernous corridors, I kept looking back to make sure I could find my way out.  I didn’t want to get lost but I was way too curious to stop either.  I kept walking, climbing, and spelunking into this cave. There were some huge incredible corridors that were 4 stories high and hazardous holes in the ground that dropped off hundreds of feet.  Water was dripping from the ceiling onto the petrified mud that made some of the steps very slippery.  I definitely didn’t want to fall into one of these holes. Stalactites and stalagmites were everywhere and some stretched from the ceiling to the floor. I of course had to yell just so I could hear my voice echo off the walls. The beautiful spookiness of being by myself down there was really peaceful but it looked like something off of a sci-fi thriller.  While I was on my way out of the cave, I ran into some lost travelers that couldn’t find their way out.  Thankfully I paid careful attention and was able to direct them to something that looked like a wall which was actually the way out of the cave.  I’m sure it is terrifying getting lost down there.

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This was like some kind of homemade ramen noodle dish with pork and dumplings.  wpid-20150625_102334.jpg

Typical Lao soup. So tasty!!!!!  I guess it is Lao style Pho.

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Sandwiches in Laos are really good!!!

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Town of Vang Vieng

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Luang Prabang, Laos

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One of the reasons why I wanted to come to Laos was because I absolutely knew nothing about it.  I knew it was north of Thailand but that is about it.  Well after the two day slow boat ride from Thailand, my first stop and introduction to Laos was Luang Prabang.  Located on a confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang is a small town of 50,000 people and is the 4th largest city in Laos.  France had once annexed Laos which influenced and created a beautiful French-Asian fusion.  The French also left Laos with the gift of colonial architecture and incredibly delicious French baguettes and croissants.  Even a Frenchman told me they were good so I will take his word they are the real deal.  Apart from getting mouth watering sandwiches, Laos has plenty of extremely picturesque mountains, waterfalls, and rivers.

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Khaoung Si Waterfalls – Notice the size of the people at the top of the waterfall.  That will give you an indication of scale. It was a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride from Luang Prabang.  The cool turquiose waters were a quite refreshing respite from the day’s heat.  I found myself making it out here each day.  There are plenty of beautiful hiking trails and numerous pools to soak in.

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Downtown Luang Prabang Main Street.  Luang Prabang didn’t feel too big.  A 20 minute walk and you felt like you walked the town.

wpid-20150623_113014.jpgSeriously ridiculously good sandwich on one of the best french baguettes I have ever had.

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wpid-20150620_190444.jpgLao Kao Soi – A spicy pork noodle soup.  I was told in Thailand that this dish was only available in Chiang Mia.  Now I am finding out that Lao has it everywhere too.

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