As I write this, it’s a very breezy Tuesday evening. Of course I can’t be sure when I’ll get to publish due to the difficulty finding Wi-Fi anywhere near my hotel, although to be honest it’s not been a major drawback so far. It’s pretty amazing how these days we have come to rely on these things so much even while on holiday.
The last twenty four hours since arriving in Havana have been a bit of a mixed bag. I really love Havana itself and I think I could probably do with more time to see everything, however, I seem to invite problems whatever I do and wherever I go. I guess I should get a few of the negatives out of the way first, starting with being over charged last night for drinks in the hotel bar. I won’t go into detail but I think the barman took full advantage of a guy who was a bit tired and quite frankly would have paid anything to get a couple of drinks before going to bed (I think £18 for two vodkas is a bit much. Then this morning came the shower with cold water. This was followed this afternoon by the tour guide I’d booked not turning up. I’d actually made several attempts to contact the company to ensure that they would be picking up at the hotel but c’est la vie, I’ve arranged something else for tomorrow morning instead. All this kind of detracts from the main event of these few days which is Havana itself. In my previous post I did allude to the fact that I’d be much happier wandering about at my own pace and that’s definitely been the case.
I don’t normally bother with holiday welcome meetings and with my welcome meeting taking place at a big hotel about a mile away I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be up for that. That said, I was awake quite early so decided it would be quite nice to take a walk and get a feel for the city. It was actually a really nice leisurely stroll through Havana’ s less tourist centric back streets. Whilst it was warm, it was quite cloudy so just right for walking and thanks to one of my favorite holiday apps, Maps.me, I found the hotel in no time stall and also managed to hook up to the hotel’s Wi-Fi ….I mean I’ve gotta get my fix right? One thing which had been quite noticeable walking over was the lack of convenience stores and when I did find a shop later, my simple request for a packet of crisps was met with blank looks ….it seems my favorite holiday snack is not something Cubans are familiar with. I’ve since found out that, possibly due to rationing, they don’t tend to go in for the multitude of different snack types that we do. In fact the meccanado that I found was quite bare with very limited essentials.
We had a minor rain shower around lunchtime but it was nothing like we get back home ….it lasted about an hour but the temperature remained high so was not much of a problem. I’d be more bothered if we hit rain when I’m in Varadero when I’ll be wanting to be sunbathing but I think the weather is going to improve by then.
I had met a young couple with two young children on the plane over and by chance they were staying at the same hotel so I met them for a bite to eat before having another wander round the old town. I actually love just walking around new places even if I’m not actually doing much ….just the occasional small talk with locals or other tourists and browsing for nic-nacs in local shops.
Anyway, like I say, i really like Havana and I’m looking forward to doing a proper tour tomorrow. Here’s hoping for no rain.
And so to the final full day. Ok it’s true, I’m writing this some time after returning home but you know how it is with these things. Work takes over and I guess sitting down to write a synopsis of the final moments of my trip just seemed less important. Anyway, I digress. I kind of felt weirdly good on this day. We had a fairly packed day to look forward to and ultimately I really was looking forward to getting home. I may have said before that two weeks for me just seems way too long to be away and I was kind of missing some basic home comforts such as sleeping in the same bed for more than two nights in a row. We had been met by our guide for the day in the hotel lobby and all piled onto our tour bus at around 8ish. Our itinerary included a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the oldest university in Hanoi (or was it Vietnam, I forget) and finally Hanoi prison.
I had a bit of a running battle most of the day with our tour guide who didn’t want to give us much time to look round. I know they have to get everything squeezed into a certain time period but it was my last day and I wasn’t having this woman tell me off because I popped into the gift shop for ten minutes. Anyway, I may have been a bit direct but I don’t think I was THAT rude. I just made my point and we moved on. The mausoleum was housed in a huge building which overlooked a large square surrounded by government buildings. If you ever see those big displays of military strength that often occur in many of these communist countries, you’ll understand the size of the square. Ho Chi Minh’s body was at the time apparently in Russia being re-preserved though it is a fairly common belief that it isn’t the real body anyway. Being quite the morbid soul, I was disappointed I wasn’t able to see his dead body as that was certainly my highlight of the day. We next headed round the complex to view Ho Chi Minh’s house on stilts. I was marvelling at what good condition it was in until I was informed that it was actually a reproduction. Next stop was a temple. I was quite glad that you needed long trousers to go in as I was pretty templed out after two weeks spent visiting the things so I just got myself a nice cool fanta orange and waited outside in a shady spot.
When we left the mausoleum complex, we headed by bus to visit the Temple of Literature and National University, thought to be the first university of Vietnam ….yes another temple, but with a university on site. The students were actually having their end of year graduation type thing so there were lots of students dressed smartly taking selfies and all manner of weird group photos. I bought a couple of postcards here. It was quite a beautifully laid out complex (yes, I know I use that word a lot but it just seems to fit) so I enjoyed looking round.
Our final destination on this particular tour was to visit Hanoi prison. The prison was built by the French during their colonization of Vietnam and was later used by the Vietnamese to house American POWs who affectionately referred to it as ‘the Hanoi Hilton’, a nickname that has stuck. Obviously it’s not in use today and only parts of the original structure exist today. The Vietnam war is a subject in history that interests me so I enjoyed this part of the tour, albeit, some of the things we read about were quite harrowing. Of course it was very anti-American but that’s hardly surprising is it.
We got back to the hotel at around 2pm and had a couple of hours free time before we were due to meet up later for the notorious water puppet show. I took the opportunity to get some rest and went for a short walk round to look at the shops. Then onto this water puppet thing. My god this was one hell of an awful show. We walked the few hundred yards to the theatre and had time to get a milkshake and slice of chocolate cake before heading in and taking our seats. What followed was little short of farcical and I am absolutely staggered that locals pay good money to go and see this sort of thing. I mean, maybe it helps to understand what they’re saying but I actually found it a bit of an insult that G Adventures think this is of some benefit to us. I’m all for culture but this was more of a kiddies puppet show. The show was to last for an hour, and I was stunned when after several lifetimes, I glanced at the time to notice that only half an hour had gone. I literally was physically unable to sit there any more without slashing my wrists. Well, that would have been a rather morbid way to end my trip to the Far East so I chose instead to climb over people and get out of the theatre. Honestly, the sense of relief when I got outside was immense and off I went back to the hotel.
A couple of hours later, I went downstairs to the foyer to meet up with the group for ‘the last supper’. I was met by a number of comments about my early departure of the puppet show. A number of people had also got me a programme. I was pleased to see my exit from the water puppet show had been suitably and typically dramatic 😊 …..and so off to the meal which was to be at another hotel about 15 minutes walk away. The rest of the group took the opportunity to raise a glass to me as I was the only one leaving the tour at this point, that was nice. I mean let’s face it I do like to be the centre of attention. A couple of people had indicated that the rest of their trip would be quite dull without me. I’m sure in the event that wasn’t the case but it’s nice to know I had left my mark anyway. There was a new girl joining the trip. I forget her name but she was from Australia. I kind of felt for her a bit as she was only 18 and the rest of the group, lovely as they were, were much older than her. I had a good chat with her at dinner and I really hope she got on ok.
The night ended with Shakil and Vincenzo accompanying me to the bar we’d been to the previous night for one or two last drinks. They had an early start in the morning and so left me around 10ish. I was actually quite drunk by this point so I headed back not long after.
The next day would see me leaving for home. I wasn’t looking forward to the long flight but I was looking forward to getting home to England.
I woke up early this morning, at around 5:30am, just four hours sleep which wasn’t ideal. Once showered and dressed I sat out on the balcony with a cigarette. As the sun rose on the other side of the hotel I could only marvel at the beautiful view of the mountains and the river. If only I could wake up to this view every morning ….it certainly beats the car park outside my house in Portsmouth.
I skipped breakfast as I wasn’t particularly hungry, and just got ready for our departure from Vang Vieng. We left the hotel at 8:00am for our four hour drive south to Laos’ capital Vientiane and our last night in this beautiful country. We stopped briefly on the way to stock up on snacks and arrived at our hotel at around. 12:30pm. On getting out of the bus we were instantly hit by possibly the hottest day since arriving in Asia …I love the heat but this was something else. We soon headed out for dinner at a nearby restaurant, it being too early to check in. I ordered a sweet and sour crispy pork dish but it was possibly the most spicy such meal I’ve ever had and whilst I could tell that it was probably quite nice food, my mouth was burning so much, tasting anything was just eluding me. I think with the heat and the food, I suddenly started feeling mentally drained of energy and needed to get away so I paid my bill quickly and headed back to the hotel with Sam. Most of the rest of the group were off out to do some sight seeing, mainly temples. In all honesty it was probably a good job I stayed behind as they didn’t get back until around 6ish and were all quite tired with John, Shak and Vincenzo all skipping dinner.
Having had all afternoon to myself to just relax, I was able to join those who were going to dinner in the lobby at 7pm. We headed out to a lovely restaurant opposite the National Museum where we were presented with an incredible choice of dishes in their menu. I had a delicious Caesar salad and yes I know that’s not very traditional Laos fare but to be honest, I needed something not too heavy tonight after ‘death by sweet and sour’ at lunchtime. After dinner a few of us headed down to the river bank where the night market was situated, somewhat larger than the one at Luang Prabang and slightly less touristy I’d say. Most stalls seemed to be selling clothes and I bought a couple of items for a friend. After about half an hour of browsing, the rest of the group decided they wanted ice cream so headed off in the direction of an ice cream parlour we had seen on the way to the market. I hung around for a bit longer before eventually deciding to head back having probably browsed every nook and cranny of every stall. On the way back I saw Shak and Vincenzo having a drink outside a bar so I joined them for a quick vodka. It was still exceptionally hot though I chose an unconventional way to cool down by tipping a half full bucket of water over myself in the toilet ….I guess that’s typical me. As we headed back to the hotel, we were propositioned by a couple of girls, well to be honest we weren’t sure what they were. Either way, though very flattered, we thanked them and declined. I think the day I start paying for it is when I’m too old for it 😊 ….I was glad of the later departure in the morning though as it was quite late by the time I eventually got into bed.
We said goodbye to our hosts at around 8:30am as we headed into the town centre for our second night in Vang Vieng. Today was a free day and I did consider just taking time out to relax but I knew I’d end up getting bored so I ended up joining Ida, Chris, Angela, Bob, Ruth, Robert and Ellen for a selection of activities including caving, tubing, kayaking and a visit to the nearby blue lagoon.We started off with a forty minute drive to a remote location followed by a fifteen minute walk and complete with life jackets and waterproof bags, we waded into a river where the plan was to sit in some big inner tubes and use a guiding rope to float into these caves. There wasn’t really anything in the caves but as simple as it sounds, it was actually quite good fun and obviously, in that heat, it’s sometimes nice to get a bit wet. When we came out of the caves we were given our lunch of rice and chicken kebab plus some water melon and a banana. It was quite a nice lunch really …and not too filling.
After lunch we headed off to walk back the way we had come and to where the trucks were parked, and this is where I may have misunderstood the plan. We had two guides and our main guide told us to follow this other young guy so I did …literally. Now Bob, Robert and their wives are farmers so if they see anything vaguely related to farming they forget everything else and want to know how it works. Of course this is of no interest to me so when they saw a thresher in a paddy field, they stopped and headed into the field to take a closer look. Ida and the Swiss couple stood there and waited. I just shouted, got irritated and then followed the guide back to the trucks where we waited ….and waited ….and waited. Eventually around forty five minutes later they all appeared. A few little remarks were made and a bit of banter ensued and off we went. Well, it was only later that I realised they had been taken by our other guide to look at some more caves which was part of the original plan so I kind of missed out as these caves were probably of more interest. Anyway once we were in the trucks we headed off to where the kayaking was to start and this activity was another highlight. I haven’t done kayaking since I was a teenager and I wasn’t sure whether I’d still be any good but I joined with Ida in our two man canoe and I think we made a good team and had an absolute blast. The only slip up was when we were miles ahead and turned around to wait for the other canoeists mainly Chris, Angela and our guide. At this point we hit some fast flowing rapids and got our canoe caught in a low lying tree. As we started taking in water, I got out and managed to free the canoe …..the river was quite shallow so it wasn’t a major problem but was quite funny.
We stopped at a couple of bars along the river and eventually ended our run not far from our hotel. In fact, the truck we were in stopped outside the hotel to drop some stuff off so, feeling a bit skanky from the river, rather than go to the Blue Lagoon, I jumped out and headed up to my room to freshen up.
At around 8ish we headed out for dinner to a nearby restaurant. I’m not sure they were ready for such a large party as the poor restaurant owner had to go and buy extra groceries. Once dinner was over, Shak, Vincenzo and I headed to a local Irish bar for a drink before eventually heading back to the hotel. All in all a good day.
Today we were due to leave by bus for the long seven hour drive south to Vang Vieng where we had an overnighter planned with some local families. Bags were repacked and after an early breakfast we all met in the lobby. We left the hotel just after 9am on a minibus with minimal leg room ….this was not going to be the easiest of journeys. I was in with Sambo, Vincenzo, Shak, Chris, Angela, Chuck and Reina.
Sam informed us that we would have three stops on the way, the first being at the hour point. We pulled up at the side of the road to be met with a stunning view and perfect photo opportunity. What was less appealing was the site of a baboon tied to a post. The poor thing would try to come and chat with us and as he did, the rope would get tighter round his middle ….to me this wasn’t a cultural thing but animal cruelty, however I won’t dwell.
We continued onwards along very twisty, windy mountain roads which were very bumpy. I wasn’t sure how the rest of the group were going to survive as many of them were feeling quite travel sick, with Shak actually throwing up at a toilet stop two and a half hours into the journey.
At around 1pm we arrived at our lunch stop at an eatery perched high up in the hills with beautiful panoramic views of the countryside and valleys below.
With dinner at someone’s house tonight I didn’t really want to eat too much so although I ordered a beef phad Thai, I ended up eating very little of it. However, I did find some room for a couple of bars of chocolate. I hadn’t eaten chocolate since leaving the uk so had been getting withdrawal symptoms. This was good chocolate, I mean my first for eight days was always going to be good 😊. We headed off at around 2:10pm for the last three hours of our journey. I have to say at this point that our driver was doing a sterling job as the rainy season had caused a number of landslides which had made the already difficult roads quite tricky to negotiate.
We finally arrived at Vang Vieng at around 4:30pm and turned off the main road that led us to the small village we were to be staying at. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was a wonderful experience. We were met by a number of local children eager to come and say hello and they were keen to show us that they did understand a smattering of English, mainly ‘What is your name?’ and counting up to ten, I guess the basics of any initial English lessons.
The group were split off into seven different local villagers homes and I was shown to my room, a comfortable annexe off of the village chief’s house. We were then taken on a quick walk round the village with many of the villagers stopping their work to watch us while the children danced around us giggling and laughing, occasionally stopping to interact and communicate. When we returned to the chief’s house which was our central point, we were all adorned in traditional Laotian clothes and seated for dinner and I have to say they really know how to serve a decent spread for their guests. After dinner we were taken out to a grassy area by the children and spent the next hour or so watching them demonstrate traditional dances before several of the children came and collected each one of us to teach us the dances. The girl who picked me out must have been about 8 or 9 and was called Pan. She clearly took her dancing very seriously but I think I got the hang of it and we were soon laughing and joking despite the obvious language barrier. Eventually all the children joined in and chaos ensued as we tried to dance with around forty young children. Once the dancing was finished, the children formed a circle and a few of us went in the middle to distribute the presents we had brought for them, mainly notebooks and pencils. It was all thoroughly entertaining and a lovely way to spend our first evening in Vang Vieng.
Today was officially a free day but I had arranged to meet Ida, Shak and Vincenzo at breakfast at 6:30am so that we could climb the 328 steps to the top of Mount Phusi which was supposed to give some great views of the towns, villages and countryside round about. The idea of the early start was to avoid the crowds and also the heat as it’s fairly cool at that time.We headed off walking in the direction of the river and ended up walking in circles as the entrance to Phusi was only a short walk the other way from the hotel. We walked the first hundred or so steps to find a little seating area. Shak looked visibly shattered and the rest of us weren’t much better but the walk to the top seemed much easier. The views were pleasant but not what I was expecting. There was a small temple at the top Wat Chou Si which housed a stupa which our guide said may have probably been dedicated to royalty at some time. Luang Prabang had once been the capital and the seat of the king of Laos. We took a few photos up there and then headed down. I actually found the walk down harder mainly because of my fear of heights.
Once down on the ground, we headed across the road to the Royal Palace which had been built in 1904 during French colonial rule for King Sisavang Vong. The others went in while I waited outside. I was feeling quite hot by now as the morning sun was showing its face ….it was only around 9am.
I debated going back to the hotel to catch up on sleep but when the others came out, after a brief walk round the grounds, we decided to hire a tuk-tuk and go and see three temples in Luang Prabang. I was probably more tagging along than anything as I sometimes feel that you can see too many temples on these trips though that’s just my personal opinion and I’d never knock anyone else who wanted to see them all. Architecturally they are pretty magnificent so I can understand the attraction. After seeing all three, and yes you’ve guessed it I can’t remember which ones they were, we decided to walk back to the hotel aware that there were a number of shops on the way so we could try and find a stationery shop and buy pens and notepads for the kids we were due to visit at the homestay in Vang Vieng the following evening In the event this proved fruitless as the one shop we found, the old lady didn’t speak any English and couldn’t operate a calculator to tell us how much things were. Shak was getting quite frustrated and we were all a bit too hot so just decided to leave it. At this point I headed off a different way. I got back to the hotel around 12:30 and went upstairs to cool down. I lay down on the bed and next thing I knew four hours had gone by. I must have been so tired but this heat really does that to you.
After a quick trip out to collect my laundry and purchase the notebooks and pens we’d been after earlier, I met up with Sandra and John in the town centre for dinner. Now, having lived on stir fries and the like for the last week or so, I finally succumbed to my desire to have a burger, accompanied by french fries and onion rings. It was delicious and made a nice change. By coincidence we spotted Chuck and Reina and then Bob and Ruth so they also joined us for food. It was nice to all eat together by chance like that.
Once we had paid our bills we all headed off in our separate directions. I decided to go for a few drinks down by the river and ended up searching out the local backpackers hotspot, Utopia. This was such a cool place with an amazing vibe about it. Tables and chairs over looked the river and big cushions sat on the floor all over a kind of chill out area where people could just lounge out. It was a fantastic place though I only stayed for a couple of drinks before heading back to the hotel. As I sat outside having a cigarette, two guys from another GA tour were returning so they joined me for a beer.their group was heading off the next day in the opposite direction to us. Eventually I headed up to bed around 00:30 to get ready for tomorrrows departure.
I went down to breakfast at around 7:30am with most of the group already there. I had a lovely omelette and a toasted baguette which set me up nicely for the day ahead.We had a number of activities planned and left the hotel at around 8:30 for our first stop, the nearby ethnology museum. This was a small place and was set up mainly as a place for the younger generation to learn about their heritage. Most Laotians have a specific ethnic origin and this museum just detailed the lifestyle and general way each of the main ethnics would wear. It only took around twenty minutes to have a look round. I had wanted to get some authentic costume from the gift shop but prices were quite high comparative to general Laos goods.
We next headed to a textiles and craft centre where we were given a tour of the process for obtaining and weaving silk including showing the weavers at work with their machines. I’m sure big factories have far less primitive machines but this industry and the methods currently used in Laos are fairly traditional in this less developed country. I found this surprisingly interesting although once more the goods in the shop were very expensive.
We next headed some way out of town to the Kuang Si waterfall. This place was absolutely beautiful and one of the highlights, consisting of an area of wooded parkland containing a bear sanctuary for rescued bears with this spectacular waterfall and lagoon as its centrepiece. It took around ten minutes to walk up the path to the waterfall and it was indeed a beautiful sight. As we walked round we were met with a number of smaller falls that led to a number of small lagoons. We stopped at one of these for some people to go swimming. I had brought my stuff with me but wasn’t going to swim in the end. However, I went in for a paddle and tripped over a large rock so then converted it to a swim. Some Chinese girls helped by splashing me with water as I got yo my feet. The water was actually quite nice so I was glad I went in. After a short while I came out and dried myself off. Whilst waiting for the others, I got chatting to a couple of Irish girls who had been travelling for about six weeks and were destined for Australia where they were planning on spending Christmas. They had both left their jobs to take to the road and I sometimes wish I had it in me to do that. Once everyone was out of the pool and dried off, we headed off eventually reaching the bear enclosure. They had been rescued from ‘bile farming’ which was a process of extracting bile from the bears liver for medicinal purposes and practiced in various parts of Asia, something the authorities are trying to outlaw. Finally we reached the end and stopped for lunch which we had pre-ordered earlier. I had ordered fried egg and pork. That came in the form of an omelette which I suppose in essence consisted of egg (fried) and pork so I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Eventually we were headed off on the bumpy ride back to the hotel, arriving back at 4pm. We were given a couple of hours to relax before our next activity which was to visit a local home for a Laotian meal. This was to be just a short walk away from the hotel. When we arrived we were ushered in and sat on mats on the floor around a ceremonial decoration of sorts. We were all blessed individually which took the form of the three elder women of the family toeing small pieces of white string round our wrists. This seems to be a tradition in Laos. After this initial welcoming ceremony, we were then presented with a number of delicious food dishes ….papaya salad, seaweed, sausage, deep fried eggplant, a vegetable soup and a pork Laos lum with the obligatory sticky rice. It was a lovely spread so when we thanked our hosts for their hospitality, we meant it.
Following dinner, we all went our separate ways. I headed to the market with Shak and Vincenzo. After having a quick drink at one of the many bars along the main street, Shak and Vincenzo headed back to the hotel while I went for a walk down by the river. I eventually made it back to the hotel around 11pm this time without getting lost 😊
I should add that over these two days in this town I had felt so relaxed and really loved the place. It seemed so much more chilled out than Thailand and the local people, without exception, were some of the friendliest I’ve met on my travels. Laos is a fairly new destination on the travellers map of the Far East. I only hope it retains some of its beauty in years to come as I will certainly miss the place when I fly to Hanoi in a few days.