Travel and Escape : Asia Pacific
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Travel Time:
September

Reviewer Background:
This was my first visit to Vietnam.
Review:
I spent a week in Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Sa Pa and Halong Bay) traveling with a guide from HandSpan and checking out the area for a potential tour. The beginning of my trip was an overnight train to to the SaPa region. The train journeys itself was an experience. Fortunately I was moved to the new Tulico Carriage and avoided sharing a small train cabin with 3 men. I guess I'm getting a bit spoiled and prefer some level of privacy or at least to share with people I know or other women grin. Most higher end western tourist book the Victoria Express (Orient) carriages. However, you need to stay at the Victoria Hotels (the package is for the hotel and the train (and very expensive).

SaPa is a wonderful area though I realize the term "eco-tourism" is used a bit too lightly. There are many issues to consider around homestays and touring local villages to "visit" some of the fifty-four distinct ethnolinguistic minorities recognized in Vietnam. The walks, through local paths used to connect villages and rice fields, are great as long as you jump out of the way of motor-scooters which make their way through even the muddiest of trails and have become the mountain bikes of the hill country.

My homestay experience was good though I am not confident that this is an experience my guests (generally boomers) would enjoy. The family was wonderful (the mayor of the village and his wife hosted me for dinner). The accommodations very basic. What I find lacking is the education around what to expect and what is appropriate behavior while staying at these homes. How to use the bathrooms, eating protocol, greetings etc. The EcoLodge I stayed at for one night was lovely yet had it's own issues to deal with: how are they really interacting and supporting the local community and the environment? Is building a spa and offering European food (the bread was great!) appropriate?

The people in the area really are lovely....and the further away from the villages you get the more authentic the experience.

The Red Dzao is one of the ethnic groups that live in the north of Vietnam. Their name denotes the use red to decorate their clothing. There are two unique features of this tribe. The first is that you can know how rich a woman is by the size of her hat. The second is that to be beautiful it is thought that women should have as little body hair as possible...thus they often shave their hair and eyebrows.

Black Hmong and Red Dzao live in neighboring villages in this region. An interesting feature of Black Hmong women is to bind the calves with material and leather string to hold it in place. This is thought to prevent this area from growing large and muscular. Small calves (and feet) are a sign of beauty for women. Black Hmong like to wear their hair over the crown of their heads. Often wigs made of horse's tail are used to add more body to the bun and then wrap it to form a tall “pin box” type hat.

It was told to me that women generally marry around the age of 16, at that time men often “steal” these young women and bring them to their homes. If the woman refuses to eat for three days she is let go to return to her home. Should she take food, she is “accepting” of the man and will likely marry.

This minority group is also said to pick up languages very quickly. Many of the women selling textiles in town have picked up English and possibly French from the tourists and may end up becoming local guides.

I met this woman during a walk to the village of Ta Phin,Ta Phin, a lush valley nine miles out of Sapa near Sapa and spent the morning with she and her friends, visiting one woman’s home and watching the rice harvest.
Best Time to Travel:
During the Rice Harvest...I hit it just right!
Operators:
HandSpanTopaz Eco Lodge
Finally...:
Lodging Details:


In Spa I stayed at Chau Long Hotel (new wing) in Sapa before heading out for my homestay experience in the Tay village. I then on to the Topaz Eco Loge (aprox one hour drive from Sapa).

Reviewed by Kathy Dragon

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Thursday, November 01, 2007
Travel Time:
October 15-23, 2007

Peripheral Information:
This is the beginning of the dry season as well as the middle of the rice harvest (which last approximately 2 weeks depending on how many family members help with the harvest).
It can still be hot and humid with occasional rains.
The Full Moon festival at the end of Oct. offers candle lit bamboo boats built by the monks which are floated down the Mekong!

Laos has two seasons; the wet season runs from around May to October, and as with many Southeast Asian countries, the wet season is characterized by a downpour for a few hours a day rather than all day torrential rain.
The cool dry season runs from November to February and the hot dry season from March to April.
Mid-October through December may be the best time for active travel as the rivers are still higher and good for river travel and the air is cool and days are relatively clear.
Reviewer Background:
This was the last week of a month trip to SE Asia which began with PATA in Bali, then on to my International OD program in Singapore, then 10 days in Northern Vietnam. I hesitated to even go to Laos and am so glad I did!! I spent the entire week in Luang Prabang and loved it.

Review:
I arrived back last night from a month in Bali, Singapore, Laos and Vietnam. I spent a full week-a lifetime-in Luang Prabang, Laos and loved every minute of it.


Each morning I woke at 6 am and went to my guest house porch to watch the monks passing with the alms baskets. Daily morning fair-trade coffee at a cafe along the muddy waters of the Mekong river. Days were spent biking to local villages or nearby waterfalls and Wats (temples). Afternoon massages and evening conversations with monks and listening to 5:30 pm chants before enjoying tasting local Lao dishes wrapped in banana leaves, accompanied by sticky rice and a big beerlao.


While in Luang Prabang, I stayed at AMMATA GUEST HOUSE 37 KHUNSUA Rd Phonheung village tel (856-71) 212175 or 020-7607304 .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (tell them Kathy Dragon says hello!) which I LOVED for $15/night..room 4 on the 2nd floor is a corner room with a nice view of the monks each morning from the lovely porch. Simple rooms have AC. No fridge or tv (or safe...see below!). Great little staff...wonderful pots, flowers, plantings everywhere and outdoor tables to relax at. No breakfast (really, what do you want for $15??. Make sure to go to Saffron Cafe along the Mekong for the best fair trade coffee in town. In the evening try the Big Tree Cafe (smile@bigtreecafe.com) for lunch or dinner. Mi Ja just opened the restaurant and it is very good. Her husband is a photographer so check out the gallery.


My first two nights I had booked Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel across from the night market on the main st. Beautiful rooms and great staff as well as wonderful bakery/mac cafe attached..downside was the rooms on the front are VERY noisy though they offer a private balcony. All rooms have AC, fridge, tv. No safe (why would you need it in LP??). Rooms online are approximately $40 plus booking fee.


Other great places for dinner include Tum Tum Cheng (or Tum Tum Banboo-they have two restaurants now) and Tamarind, both which offer great Lao food as well as cooking classes.The Three Elephant restaurant and Blue Lagoon Cafe (best service in town) are both good. I loved the Sala Cafe...I was the only customer and enjoyed a Lao BBQ (you must experience this...you cook the food on your table with sort of a BBQ/WOK contraption that allows you to steam the veggies and cook the meat/fish.


Other places to stay: For a lower budget, I looked at the Lao Wooden Housee (brand new and very nice) at $30+/night and the Senesouk House (opposite Vatsene temple) at $25-35. The Sayo Guest House has large rooms with very high ceilings (one of the old french houses) and now has two properties, one on the water and one across from one of the Wats (temples). Rooms are from $30.


A must is the SPA GARDEN (they also own the Aroma Spa on main street) which offers more upscale massages than us generally found in LP (fyi: $3/hr Lao massages are not for me...I tried one!). For $15 the aromatherapy massage was excellent and I added another hour of back and shoulder for $5 more.
Best Time to Travel:
Dry Season beginning Oct.
Operators:
North by Northeast Tours
Finally...:
I would definitely go back and spend more time in Loas, heading to the North and visiting the hill tribes in that area as well as the eco resorts.

Reviewed by Kathy Dragon

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