Let me take you on a photo tour of Hanoi, Vietnam.
I spent nearly 3 weeks in the city. It is chaotic and polluted, noisy and huge but at the same time there are pockets of quiet and green, temples and lakes.
I used a compact Panasonic Lumix camera and my mobile phone when I was in S E Asia. I wanted something that didn’t attract too much attention and that could be slipped into my pocket – you can find the same via this link to Amazon
street scene in Hanoi
People charge around like crazy demented ants and then they stop! They take a coffee on a dilapidated terrace or they squat down on tiny low stools for a lunch of the tastiest noodles ….before diving off headlong into the craziness again and continuing with their day.
Water features heavily and life revolves around the park and the lake. Turtles swim in the murky green waters and a temple floats etheral like in the mist. Groups of students gather here and will accost you at every opportunity begging to practice their languages and will proudly tell you about their culture and heritage.
The Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is both packed with tourists yet it also has a serenity about it. Incense burns in huge cauldrons and the vivid red paint has a dusty feel.
The Temple of Literature
Water, flags and lanterns are everywhere, jostling for space in the sky with electric cables, buildings and trees. This is the view of the awesome cable system outside my balcony. i stayed here at See You at Lily’s when I got sick. You can read my article on how to deal with sickness while travelling here and about the entrepreneurial Rezma, one of the owners of See you at Lily’s here.
Everywhere in Vietnam people are selling things on the streets. You can truly buy ANYTHING. But the fruit and veg markets are the best and are always filled with wonderful looking produce.
a typical street market in Hanoi
As well as buying anything on the street you can eat anything on the street. Street food stalls have their devoted followers and set up and are successful in the most improbable places. Any small space. verge or pavement will do.
one of THE best ways to eat in Hanoi
A visit to the mausoleum that contains the (open) coffin of Ho Chi Minh is an interesting experience. Sombre groups of visitors file past, watched by armed guards as they walk through the tomb. The whole complex is huge and is run with military precision to ensure that nobody misses their allocated time slot to view the body.
the memorial to Ho Chi Minh
Even in the chilly foggy spring days, people are out on the streets in Hanoi.
coffee culture Hanoi style
A few hours drive from Hanoi are the spectacular limestone karsts at Tam Coc which is near Nimh Binh. We had a fantastic day out here, arranged through Lily’s Travel Agency. The choice of tours and agencies is overwhelming but we couldn’t fault one bit of our trips that we booked here.
On our day out that we booked with Lily we went on a boat ride down the river. Huge karsts towered above us as our guide rowed us with his feet through low caves and along a magical waterway. Our day included a cycle tour among the paddy fields, lunch and a temple visit in the mountains.
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is well worth the taxi ride out. It is a very interesting museum about the people of Vietnam with the highlight being the reconstructions of some of the traditional houses.
And you certainly should not miss the fascinating Women’s Museum with costumes and insights into the lives of women – from the traditional to the role of women during the war
women are celebrated in the Women’s Museum
St Joseph cathedral was just around the corner from my hostel in the old town. It stood out among the temples and pagodas – and on Sunday evening while the church was packed, the square out front was also packed with an overflow congregation – but they were all sat on their motorbikes.
You would not know half of the little cafes exist unless you happen to glance up. I spent many hours up on this balcony overlooking the lake.
And drinking the spectacular egg-nog coffee.
Hanoi has a strange ambience – like no other city that I have been in. Sadly the traffic pollution is high – and can only get worse if the government relax their rules on the new car taxes.
An oasis of peace in the craziness of Hanoi.
One of the little streets in the old town by my hostel. It was a buzzing, exciting and friendly area.
A group of travellers meeting up for a coffee. I wonder where everybody is now?
If you want to travel with me next year – then drop me a message. I am currently considering returning to Malaysia, exploring Myanmar and maybe getting over to see what Bali is all about.
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Lakes in the Central Highlands of Vietnam
Vietnam has lakes. Lots of them! Two of the most beautiful lakes – Dalat Lake and Lak Lake are in the Central Highlands – yet they couldn’t be more different from each other.
Dalat is a mountain town famous with honeymooners and romantics. At Dalat Lake manicured grass lawns sweep down to the water where boats shaped like swans float around and couples pose for selfies or drape themselves over each other dressed in beautiful wedding outfits.
On the hillsides above Dalat Lake you can catch glimpses of luxury villas which hail from another era. They are painted in subdued pastels and sit safely behind walls and gates. Dalat is sophistication rising above the chaos of a busy Vietnamese town.
The traffic spoils the peaceful looking views as it circles the main road around the lake. Lorries heave themselves out of the town coughing grim grey smoke into the air and motorbikes are a constant buzzing nuisance until you get used to them and then you hardly pay them any attention any more.
I had arrived at Dalat Lake on the night bus from Hoi An, breaking for a couple of hours at five in the morning at Nga Trang and switching to a mini van for the journey up into the mountains.
Not long out of Hoi An our bus hit something. It swerved and rocked violently and I was almost shaken from my precarious perch – top bunk in the centre. The driver slowed right down but never stopped and I do still wonder what we hit.
night bus experience
There is a problem in many countries in S E Asia with hit and runs. I am never too sure if it is an urban myth although there is stuff on the internet to support it. The rule tends to be that if you injure a person you are responsible for their medical fees and for the support of their family which can obviously run into thousands and thousands of pounds whereas if you kill somebody you get a one off fine of maybe five thousand pounds! Many stories circulate of drivers reversing over bodies to make sure of the fine rather than a lifetime of debt.
At night time the central square below the main market and close to Dalat Lake comes alive with street vendors selling food of all descriptions. The bars and clubs thump out their beat and spill backpackers and locals alike out onto the pavements and everybody promenades around the town just waiting to be seen
There are rooms here to be had for the taking, from hostels to luxury pads. Many places are advertised as homestays although in reality they are family run hostels.
Dalat Lake in the sunshine
Vietnam is a country with a coffee culture and everywhere vendors serve the best coffee in the world from tiny little shops or street stalls. People perch on their little plastic chairs while the caramel, smokey flavoured nectar drips tantalisingly slowly through the filter and into their cup.
There are many things to see and to do at Dalat Lake. There is of course the lake itself, there is the Crazy Hotel which a labyrinth of weird. Here tourists pay to wander around the grounds, tunnels and passages have been constructed throughout the building and across the roof stairways designed by goblins curl up to tiny little snooks in something that reminded me of Gaudi on acid. Outside the town there are a riot of waterfalls and beauty spots waiting to be explored. You can easily pick up a guide from one of the touts or tour operators in town and go off on an organised tour or hire a scooter and ride out yourself.
In total contrast to Dalat Lake, this vast expanse of water at Lak – the largest natural body in Vietnam – is edged by paddy fields, reeds and forest. The villages that surround Lak Lake are populated by some of the ethnic tribes who still live, for the most part in their traditional communities.
Long wooden communal houses on stilts turned silver in the strong sunshine blend with the trees. Buffalo and pot bellied pigs live underneath the homes, wandering along the dusty mud street looking for scraps while chickens squawk and chase each other, avoiding the elephants which wander along.
elephant crossing Lak Lake
Yes, you did read that correctly. Elephants are owned and worked here – sadly now for tourists to ride, but they have owners who commute on them and who ride them to their homes, tying them under a shady tree while they go and have their lunch.
Here the noise, depending on the season, is of the primitive looking tractors which plough up and down in the gloopy muddy water as the villagers prepare to plant the rice, the wind makes the ears of rice hum and the lake water shiver, the occasional ‘plosh’ as the fisherman quietly throw their nets from their wooden canoes and the grunting of contented, happy animals settling down under the wooden homes to sleep.
peace and tranquillity at Lak Lake
There is a tiny restaurant for when you want your coffee fix, or you could go to the local shop where the owner will drag her little table over to the edge of her patch and you can take your coffee with Lak Lake as a backdrop.
There is a lodge here which offers rooms – private and in a shared dormitory, a small guesthouse and there are homestays. These homestays are in the communal longhouses on their wooden stilts. You may end up in a large room with simple mattresses on the floor and mosquito nets all by yourself or you may be sharing with 10 other people and with the family sleeping behind a curtain at the other end of the room.
traditional communal homes at Lak Lake
There are a few bicycles for hire so take yourself off into the surrounding countryside. You won’t be bored as you cycle through the different villages each with subtle differences in housing and the people, through the rice fields where the workers always jump up and wave a cheery hello, along the forest paths or across the river on one of S E Asia’s floating planks ferries.
Evening entertainment for us was being invited to see a traditional dance and music presentation, sitting on a log by Lak Lake and watching the stars, wandering into the local town for unidentifiable but excellent street food and, on one very blurry night, being dragged into a local wedding party.
Every day a new tent would be erected outside a groom’s family home (or the bride’s, depending on whether the village people were a matriarchal or a patriarchal group). The basic marquee with brightly coloured curtains of fabric would then host a few days of serious drinking and partying and karaoke turned up at full volume which would blast across the lake.
Gosia and I were stood listening to a live band which was playing in one marquee and we were commenting on the numerous plastic water bottles which were on the tables when the drummer broke off his playing and came outside to drag us in.
the bride and groom
Sitting us in the thick of the celebrations we then became the attraction with the bride and groom and their family lining up to have photos taken with them, they brought us plates of food and people kept insisting that we drink the water.
Eventually, frustrated by our reluctance to just drink water at a wedding party, one guy on our table grabbed some shot glasses and handed them to us. Oh well, water shots was a new one on me but not wanting to offend I downed it in one.
Water? Seriously, this was rice whiskey at its roughest. Choking back tears as the liquid burnt my throat the ladies then brought over the gourd from which you drink from a shared straw. Rice wine, rice whiskey and lao cao, I’m not sure which was which by the time we staggered home but I woke up the next day with a hangover from hell.
Returning to the home with a tin of biscuits as a thank you present, there was no sign that there had been a party; just a family of the hairy black Vietnamese pigs snuffling about where the marquee had stood.
Which lake is the best?
I am going to sit on the fence here and advise you to visit both Dalat Lake and Lak Lake. They offer totally different experiences and the bus ride from Dalat to Lak is worth it just by itself.
Do stay in one of the communal longhouses in Lak and do go and get your breakfast at the local market. You really should cycle around the countryside and dodge the herds of cows which wander up the main street on their way to and from their grazing and you should certainly sample a Vietnamese pizza from one of the ladies cooking on the steps at the night market in Dalat.
bringing the cows (and the elephants) home
The minibus ride to beat all minbus rides
It seemed every minivan ride that we had taken in Laos and then Vietnam was squashed and oversubscribed so when we got into our fifteen-seater for the five hour ride back to Dalat and there were spaces to spare Gosia and I were overjoyed.
Just twenty minutes into our journey we stopped at a local ethnic community where three teenage girls were waiting with, we thought half of of the village gathered to wave them off
The three girls got on – and then the rest of the village until it was physically impossible to push anybody else in through the door. They were sitting in the foot-well, lying in the aisle and standing behind each row of seats holding on tight, occasionally collapsing onto the knees of the people behind them.
And then we continued, swerving around switchbacks for four and a half hours, my camera was passed around for hundreds of selfies and the plastic bags came out as just about everybody started to vomit.
There were THIRTY ONE people in a minivan for fifteen but not one person complained moaned or was miserable despite the vomiting and the cramped conditions. It is a lesson to us all – be grateful for what you have. The alternative was no ride to the town.
There is a transport challenge in the Smash the Pumpkin Project. I certainly think that this minivan ride would fit the criteria for that challenge.
Check out this page and discover how you can build your self confidence with a series of motivational challenges. I have also decided to plan my travels a little more so that I can give some of you the opportunity to travel with me (click here for more information).
I would love for you to join me later this year in Spain or early next year in Malaysia, but in the meantime, you can continue to get your travel fix by signing up for regular updates to my blog in the box on my website www.scarletjonestravels.com
I look forward to connecting with you. Thank you for taking the time to read my article.
After nearly a week in Luang Prabang we decided that it was time to move on. I was heading north into the mountains, together with my Polish friend Gosia and Marc from Catalunya.
Simply getting there was eventful. The three of us were split up between a pair of minibuses and the backpacks strapped to the roof, then my driver decided to race everything else on the road, skidding around corners as I buried my head in a book and hoping that I wasn’t about to die (thanking the stars that I had travel insurance) …and then I had over an hour’s wait for the others at Nong Khiaw.
I spent my time watching the tuk-tuk drivers play boules in the field in front of the bus station whilst staring at the limestone mountains which towered overhead until Gosia and Marc finally caught up with me and we hiked the twenty minutes along the dusty lane and into the tiny town of Nong Kiaow.
This town (also called Muang Ngoi Mai) is REALLY sleepy. The main road crosses the river via a stone bridge which for 75% of the day has absolutely no traffic on it. A bevy of ‘restaurants’ cluster at one end of the bridge and little wooden cabins nestle among the trees on the riverbanks.
We knew that there was just one backpacker hostel in town and that beds were allocated on a first come first served basis so before looking at any of the log cabins we checked out Delilah’s. We struck gold as Delilah’s Hostel truly is a slice of home and there were just three beds left in the cosy dorm which we quickly claimed for our own. If you have missed out on Delilah’s check out other accomodation here at Agoda
After checking in, Marc and I set off to climb a mountain. It took us almost an hour of very steep, hot and sweaty uphill climbing but boy was it worth it. We arrived at the lookout point an hour and a half before sunset.
We sat and cooled down on the little platform at the top and then we clambered around on the peak with the other travellers who had made it up there; whilst the sky turned to a delicate shade of apricot and the river changed colour to a romantic smoky blue far below us.
After coming down the mountain safely just before dark we were delighted to discover that they serve Amazing (with a capital ‘A’) cakes and desserts at Delilah’s. They also do rather good coffee too. Whilst there are plenty of places to stay in Nong Khiaw, Delilah’s is really the only place if you want to go anywhere social and it has does have a lovely atmosphere.
Delilah’s in Nong Khiaw
As I have already mentioned the desserts are always popular and the little wooden tables outside usually have plenty of people gathered around chatting; while inside big squoosy floor cushions and mats invite you to relax. A DVD is shown each evening on the TV (the social area is open and very popular with non-residents) and it has a wood burner for the colder nights and plenty of beer to drink.
The dorm is really cozy with a double bed in one corner and bunk-beds – each with its own privacy curtain, mozzie net and nice big lockers underneath for security. The whole building is an original (renovated) wooden house. Bathrooms have HOT showers and believe me, a hot shower in a backpackers’ hostel in Laos is a luxury.
Rural village life
After a comfortable night’s sleep Gosia, Marc and I hired bicycles and we set off to see the surrounding countryside. We pedalled along the main road passing through traditional villages of minority groups – some smiled and waved, others grabbed their children and dragged them inside hissing ‘Farang’ (foreigner) at us. For our part we didn’t stare, we didn’t rudely stick cameras in anybody’s face and we didn’t stop and peer into homes but I suspect that some travellers may have done so in the past and made people a little suspicious.
The majority of the homes were built of wood or woven bamboo or canes and as far as we could see, contained little furniture. Most had earth floors and women cooked over earthenware pots of burning wood and outside there were chillies, rice or peppers drying in the sun.
When the local school day ended, streams of children in their spotless white shirts pedalled their bikes along the road narrowly avoiding the huge trucks which rumbled through at breakneck speed on their way to construct the dam a few kilometres away.
These kids were far more friendly than some of their parents and were quick to yell ‘hello’ and ‘where you from’ at us and two cute little girls even ran over to present Gosia and I with some wild flowers.
On our way back to the town as dusk fell we came across the most rural rustic market that I have ever seen. Just a few wooden tables were set up under tarpaulins and the local ladies were selling a really poor selection of sad looking fruit and vegetables, some dodgy looking bread and …rats on sticks!
There was also the remains of a corpse that could have been anything. Sign language failed – but we understood that it came from the forest. If you can hazard a guess, please post your suggestion in the comments box at the end.
I always like to support a local market but we were hard pressed to find anything that looked like it was fresh but on a table in a corner we found some of those tiny bananas which had to do.
We stopped to watch a group of boys playing the traditional game that is played all around Laos. Played with a raffia ball it’s a mixture of keepy-upsy and volleyball, agilely played with the feet and head (no hands) and fascinating to watch. We also stumbled upon a cute little mountainside temple where the friendly monk spoke very good English and I arranged to return the following evening and listen to the prayers and the chanting.
The minority tribal people
After another comfortable sleep, the next day Marc left to go south and Gosia and myself went for a walk along the river bank where we knew there would be some minority tribe people living in their traditional villages. It turned out to be a VERY long walk under a VERY hot sun but we found the villages where people were luckily more friendly than the previous day and we also passed a very tired, sad looking elephant and its owner on their way back from working somewhere in the forest.
Stopping at what was to all intents and purposes a shop we were joined by a little old lady who was totally intrigued by us and after just a little persuading she accepted a drink from us. This is where I filmed my introductory video for the course – you can see it here – but what you can’t see is the little old lady opposite who was trying so hard to make me laugh.
After arriving back in the town, I went to the little temple. I sat quietly at the back while the monk prepared himself and then he began his chanting. For forty minutes I was mesmerised as he was joined by the younger novices and their voices ‘sang’ the prayers. In the peace of the mountains the chanting echoed around the temple raising the hairs on the back of my neck. I walked back to the hostel in the dark among houses where the women were all cooking their evening meals on coals outside the doors, and felt an incredible peace.
To accompany this series of articles on Laos, I have published a comprehensive 28 page travel itinerary of my month-long route around Laos. Simply enter your details in the box below to get your free guide.
The journey from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw
Buying a baby
That evening, I chatted to Hamps (Hamish) the owner of Delilah’s who has a fascinating history.
Hamps, a New Zealander, originally came to Laos in the year 2000 when roads were no more than dirt streets, and then he later returned in 2010 as a volunteer English teacher.
While working in Luang Prabang he was approached by Tiger Trails and asked to run branch of Tiger Trails in Nong Khiaw. After arriving in Nong Khiaw Hamps took over Delilah’s and completely transformed the building: repairing the balconies, the shutters and restoring the wood from which the building is constructed. One of the key attractions at Delilah’s has to be the bakery – all desserts and bread are homemade, as are the jams and chocolate.
Another attraction are the films that are shown each evening but also on many afternoons there is a showing of the documentary film ‘The Secret’ which always attracts a large audience. Delilah’s is a slice of home. If you want to watch The Secret you can buy it at this link
But there is a darker side to Hamps’ history and one which obviously troubles him.
A few years ago, his then French girlfriend bought a baby from a hospital in Laos for $500.
When she and Hamps split up she left the baby with the then owner of the hostel. Although struggling with his own work Hamps continued to share the care of Mimi with the hostel owner but then found himself in a fight for custody when the ex-girlfriend decided to return. She attempted to remove Mimi to France, although as far as Hamps is aware they are currently living in Thailand with her boyfriend.
Hamps has since tracked down the baby’s birth mother. She gave her baby away to the hospital believing that the baby would have a better life, but here is the mystery that Hamps is trying to solve. Who authorised the sale of the baby? Was it the hospital acting as an official adoption agency or a member of staff acting independently and under the table?
Hamps obviously misses Mimi but he is not letting that stop him as he forges ahead with creating his welcoming hostel and working with the local guides at Tiger Trails.
Many things are alien to us as we travel and learn about different cultures and customs but things involving childeren are always hard to understand.
Can you relate to Hamps’ story?
I certainly can. I have been estranged from my own children for nearly eight years. Before I left my marriage I didn’t know any parent who had been separated involuntarily from their children thanks to the actions of the other parent, but now I know of many people; men and women of all ages and from all around the world who have had their contact cut.
These parents go through a process. Maybe in a different time frame or in a different order but they each feel despair, anger, sadness, hopelessness until finally there is some acceptance and it comes full circle to hope. My aim while I am travelling is to inspire other people who may be feeling stuck in a downward spiral and show them that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I do this through the stories that I write about the people who I meet or via my mindset coaching business and the Smash the Pumpkin Project.
I will leave you here in Nong Khiaw with two questions.
- Travel puts difficult things into perspective and can help you organise your thoughts easier.
How do you deal with the really bad stuff and move on?
2. What on earth is the animal that was on the table at the market? (I apologise if you are a vegetarian or a vegan or if you are eating your dinner while you read this article!)
Put your answers to one of both of these questions in the comments below – and if you haven’t already done so, sign up and receive updates and future articles and opinion pieces from my blog and website.
Disclaimer: I received a discount off my stay at Delilah’s hostel; however this did not influence my article in any way – and all opinions are, as always, my own.
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