Saturday, March 14, 2015

Luang Prabang Love

It's confession time! I write for a living, but I know I will not be able to adequately convey what is so special about Luang Prabang. The photos might help, but you really just need to visit in person.

From the moment of our airport pickup, we could sense the friendliness of the people here. The driver was excited to see B's Valencia football shirt and we'd find repeated evidence of the love of European football.

We arrived late, so we took in a drink and bite at our hotel's restaurant overlooking the Mekong. This is also the spot for the amazing complimentary hotel breakfast each morning, where we snapped the pictures below. Any day that starts out with this view cannot be a bad one. The landscape is dotted with the orange of monks' robes and people going about daily life along the Mekong. The real beauty is radiating from these people.

Despite a thriving (and growing) tourist scene, you see signs of locals' everyday life everywhere you look and can easily find peaceful moments and secret corners. The entire town is a protected Unesco World Heritage Site.

Across from our hotel, monks pause before starting their upkeep of the local land
Genuine sun-dried rice cakes
The town is lined with temples. You can see the importance of Buddhism to the people, but it also adds an intangible feeling to the place.

In the morning mist, the town takes on a whole different type of magic (stay tuned for the next post on the almsgiving and morning market). Things start out busy quite early and then quiet down as the heat builds (and big vans of tourists from the larger resorts outside of town leave for excursions).
The National Museum in the morning light

In the evening, the market lines the street and the restaurants and shops get busy again. The sellers offer a large array of handicrafts, especially the fabrics for which Laos is well known. The food market runs along a narrow alley, offering snacks as well as all-you-can pile on a plate buffets of Laotian food. 

Stay tuned for more from Laos. We have too many pictures for just one post.

Oddly enough, we found ourselves drawing comparisons between Luang Prabang and Visby, Sweden (Denia, Spain a bit too). This may seem an unlikely comparison, but there is a certain light and magic that these places have in common despite being culturally and geographically worlds apart. You'll just have to visit to see what you think, because I just can't find the words to do it justice!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cruisin' on Halong Bay

Ha Long Bay (literal translation in Vietnamese: descending dragon bay) is a Unesco World Heritage site and massively popular tourist destination. Some would say it is ruined because of this, and there is no doubt that the heavy boat traffic carrying tourists must be destroying the natural environment. However, it remains a beautiful site and the cruise can be a great part of a trip to Vietnam.

Our hotel arranged a cruise for us on the Paradise Luxury. Paradise is a large company with several ships of varying sizes and their own terminal area as well as a hotel at the port.

We were picked up (bright and too early!) from our hotel in Hanoi and taken via a small shuttle van to the port. It was comfortable, though the ride is a bit long and occasionally bumpy. The annoying part is the 45-minute stop along the way at a large shopping place (all the statues you could ever wish for!). It's necessary to have a bathroom break and you can grab a cup of coffee and stretch your legs, but I'd vote for 15 minutes extra sleep and a shorter stop. Fortunately, there was no pressure to buy, the coffee was tasty and the bathrooms were sparkling.

You arrive at port for a short wait in the lounge; the boarding process was truly efficient and the whole cruise is quite well-run. Being that you're on the ship less than 24 hours (for the one-night cruise), the time is maximized. Yet, I felt like it was still low-key and allowed us to relax.

I loved our deluxe room, with extra sitting space, large windows and its own deck. The deck was accessible from public parts of the ship, but we quickly angled our chairs to discourage wandering passengers (we saw several of the large tour group members climbing up on our neighbor's balcony and peering in the doors). We also had a nice tub and you could open up a little portal window to take in the view while soaking.

The cruise begins with a hearty lunch full of tasty Vietnamese specialties. Shortly following, is the first excursion opportunity to a cave. They give you fair warning of the 900+ steps, but it's a good way to work off that lunch. The cave had a very "Indiana Jones" feel (minus a lot of fellow tourists) and beautiful views of the cove below.

We skipped excursion #2, Titop Island, since the weather remained quite overcast (the most appealing activity there for me would have been climbing to the top for the view). You can also pay a little extra to kayak or simply relax on the beach there. We chose to relax with spa services instead and enjoy the views.

After some downtime, they start happy hour (drinks on board are extra, two-for-one during this period) which includes a cooking demo. I've made spring rolls before, so it was not especially enlightening, but it was fun to hang out with the group trying their hand at it while sipping a drink and enjoying the scenery.

Later, we enjoyed a nice dinner (with a surprise "hongbao" for lunar new year...the red envelopes traditional here and in China given out with cash gifts...a nice touch). We chose to settle in for the movie after dinner, which was Indochina, an old but quite apt film to show on a trip to Vietnam. The younger guests tried their hands at squid fishing, while others retired to their rooms or had a massage.

The morning starts bright and early with tai chi on the top deck and coffee, before the morning excursion. I didn't make it for tai chi, but was really glad I got up for the excursion on the row boats (you could also kayak). Hang Luon cove was beautiful in the morning light and we were treated to quite a show by the monkeys, swinging down the rock face on the vines (unfortunately, my camera phone wasn't up to the task of capturing them).

No motors here
Entering the cove

The monkeys (you can see them, right?)
Perspective of the tiny entryway
Lastly, it was back to the boat for breakfast and our final views before departing.