Happy New Year from Hanoi!

Chloe and Allan continue their usual New Year’s Eve tradition by staying in and watching Doctor Who (resolved to warm to Matt Smith Doctor more), eating pizza and generally ignoring the festivities.

It was by necessity this year as Allan is feeling a bit ropey and we are both in need of sleep. However, we are optimistic that we will be back to 100% by next year…see you all in 2011!

Hanoi rocks…and bangs…and clashes

After escaping the rogue street vendors and their illegal stall outside our window, we enjoyed a night of blissful peace in the suite at the back of the hotel we were kindly offered instead.

But it was only to be one night. With Tet New Year (Year of the Cat) coming up on 25 January, the race is on to finish building as many hotel rooms as possible in Hanoi to accommodate the wave of revellers expected. This now involves construction work going on throughout the night, and one entrepreneur cutting metal sheets until 4am.

We’re now in the basic room at the side of the hotel. With its lack of balcony, tiny frosted double-glazed window and alley view, it’s rapidly become one of the most desirable addresses in the city!

From Vauxhall to Vietnam

Sleep deprivation gang

Quite appropriately, for the name of the strapline on the website, we have now reached Vietnam exactly half way on our travels. 81 days down, 81 days to go. Also, our financial spreadsheet is showing that we have spent almost exactly half of our allocated funds. Only £1 per day over budget. Not bad considering a few extra flights, 2 suits and a wedding has been paid for out of our £75 per day budget.

Lao airlines delivered the goods again with only a couple of slightly bumpy bits on the flight to Hanoi then the taxi from the airport showed us exactly why we should never drive in Vietnam. Unfortunately a very very loud street stall right outside our hotel window with motorbikes driving up almost all night, loud banging of pots and pans and music meant only 2 hours sleep. This (impromptu) stall was known to our hotel and we really should have been warned about it, along with a known bathroom problem that resulted in us being locked out at 4am this morning.

Before we had the chance to complain, our hotel did redeem themselves by offering half price for last night and to upgrade us to one of their suites for the rest of our stay. We accepted hoping that this new room doesn’t have any surprises in both inside and outside tonight. None yet but there’s still all night yet.

Here’s hoping for a good nights sleep as it would very nice to be awake enough to see some sights of Hanoi!

Goodbye Laos and photos

Slightly cheating here as we’re already in Vietnam.

Photos of our time in Laos are available in the Photos menu items or a link is available here.

Let’s start with the good. The plain of Jars was one of the most amazing sights we have ever seen, Allan fulfilled a travel ambition to see the mighty Mekong, the sculpture park was spectacular, the French food was unbelievably fantastic and the hospitality was generally very warm and genuine.

However, Laos as a travel destination was a challenge. It beat us. We left for Thailand for a few days during our allotted 30 days. Infrastructure, particularly transport was very difficult. A “simple” 150km bus ride can take 10 hours, airplane tickets (for tourists) are relatively expensive for those on a budget, tourist sites are often only accessible by car/driver, hotel standards – except the wonderful Ban Sufa – aren’t in the same standard as Thailand or Bali and the food is not as varied or tasty. A special mention must be made to the damn restaurant in Luang Prabang that made Allan ill for a week, although this could happen anywhere in the world, so slightly unfair.

All this must be taken in context. If we had been on a 3 week holiday and on our normal holiday budget, I’m sure we would have had a great time. We must also remember that Laos is a very poor nation, it has been dealt a horrible deal in the all too recent past and wasn’t even open for any visitors until around 30 years ago. We hope that Laos PDR reaches it’s full potential and UXO becomes an acronym that no-one knows the meaning of.

An Original vision in Concrete and a new one in Glass

Our last full day in Laos and we made an escape out of the capital for a day trip to the original sculpture park and also to the makers of the fine amber nectar that we have been drinking for the past month – Beer Lao.

We did the 30km journey including a quick shout of hello across the Mekong to our previous hotel in Nong Khai and a last part of the journey where the poor tuk-tuk had to weave to find any tarmac on the rapidly disappearing road. If anything, this park was even more spectacular than the one over the water. A huge reclining Buddha was the centrepiece but was enough to keep us fascinated for over an hour. Click on the picture for Chloe and the Buddha.

Next was a trip to the Beer Lao factory. We had heard there was tour of the factory. There is not. However, in true Lao hospitality, they decided to give us a free beer each as a compensation. Very nice, however, would have definitely preferred to see the whole factory.

They really are missing a trick here; Charge all the tourists a fair price, show them around for an hour and give them a beer. Everyone seems to like Beer Lao, it would be on the list on the must do things in Laos!

Allan’s mum ChALLANge (Part 1 and 2)

Here it is. The final result of Newcastle vs Man City, it ended 1-1 as I saw 2 goals – 1 for each side. At least that’s what I saw after turning the game on after 5 minutes. There was some rumour that something happened in the first 5 mins – I choose to ignore that. Honestly, well played lads, but still no points. And Jonas, well…

And the second part (slightly delayed due to a dodgy Internet connection). I’m sure I got the score right for the Spurs match, 11-10 to us. Although this could be entirely wrong. Back to reality, it sounds like we were lucky to get nil. At least Maggie from KCC will be happy!

Christmas Day in Laos

Here’s what our “busy” Christmas Day consisted of:

1. Up at 7am with the dawn

2. Pressies! A strict 125,000 Kip limit (£10) was imposed. Chloe gave Allan a huge fabric stuffed Gecko and bag of sweets. Allan gave Chloe a small stuffed Gecko, cinnamon soap, Thai cookbook and some caviar. You may wonder why Geckos – well they are our favourite animal of the holiday so far as they seem to eat or try to eat the nasty flying things that want to eat us. Something about your enemy’s enemy I believe.

3. Breakfast with said caviar. Yum.

4. Lie down, sleep.

5. Listen to Xmas playlist including Jona Lewie, Slade, Wizzard, The Darkness, Olivia Olson and obviously, Kirsty MacCall & the Pogues. Plus some Adam & Joe for some reason.

6. Xmas lunch. Simply the best food we have had all holiday at a heavenly French restaurant called Le Central. Vegetarians look away now; Foie gras, scallops in wasabi, the most tender lamb known to humanity, chocolate and mango cake, and coffee & hazelnut ice cream that reminded Chloe of holidays in Brittany as a child – all very Proust. Washed down with French Rose, water and coffee. Thanks Yves for the wonderful food and also recommendations in Hanoi.

7. Lie down, sleep. In a massive way.

8. Quick drink

9. Call Allan’s family. Skype seemed to fixed enough to do this although a few “over” at the end of every sentence helped. Glad to see that the presents bought back in September all arrived safely and seemed well received! Allan managed to say Happy Xmas in Lao to complete what was a very generously easy chALLANge from his brother – Hohoho.

10. Did a video call to Chloe’s family. The wonders of technology still amaze us sometimes. Although the video quality was pretty poor it was still possible to tell that Doug was doing some Dad-dancing in the background and Eli trying to “chair” the chaos. Sound was ok and a totally free experience except Chloe discovering that her head was being projected onto a massive screen whilst her struggling to make out the tiny faces the other end.

11. Watched the first part of Dr. Who Xmas special. Unfortunately last year’s one, this year’s will have to wait until March.

12. Lie down, sleep.

13. Allan laughed at the Oz Cricket score (oh, sorry, that was actually the 26th Dec)

SEASONS GREETINGS TO ALL – PEACE, LOVE AND MINCE PIES FROM ALLAN & CHLOE xx

And he’s REALLY looking

Today is a day like any other in Vientiane, this lowest of low key South East Asian cities. Chloe desperately tries to wake the Christmas spirit by insisting on a £10 present challenge, watching Scrooged on Christmas Eve and downloading Slade from iTunes. Meanwhile, Allan revels in the lack of festivities and strips the holiday down its bare bones purpose – an excuse for eating unnecessarily rich food and then sleeping it off.

Vientiane is not a shopping mecca, and we both buy each other patchwork stuffed gekkos (the most beloved animal of the holiday so far, for its ability to eat six-legged crawling things). However, Allan goes for the smaller gekko option and somehow also manages to find lumpfish caviar and cinnamon-flavoured soap. So we have Christmas smelling showers and eat caviar on toast for breakfast. That’s Allan, channelling the Spirit of Christmas Present whilst muttering ‘bah humbug!’ under his breath.

Here’s the most Christmassy image we could find of Vientiane – a spooky lifesize Santa outside the hotel opposite. It watches us.

A vision in concrete

Up early this morning to visit the Sala Kaew Ku sculpture park, just outside Nong Khai. Built by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat to express his Hindu-Bhuddist vision, it contains dozens of enormous concrete depictions of gods, Buddhas, myths and people.

It’s somewhere between a park, a temple and a playground. There were plenty of Thai people visiting while we were there, including some monks, but it was hard to tell whether their motivation was spiritual or they were there for the spectacle.

Finding a forest of bizarre statues in such ordinary surroundings is part of the delight. The seven headed naga (a snake-like creature) rises 25 metres above the surrounding village, its ornate carved tongues sinuously licking the air. Meanwhile, you can literally walk the circle of life around a path of statues, entering through a narrow tunnel (can you see where he’s going with this?) and moving through childhood, work, love, family and, finally, death, after which you exit through the tunnel again into the realm of the gods.

He actually started a similar sculpture park on the other side of the Mekong in Laos in the fifties, but fled the revolution in 1975 and started a bigger, better, badder creation in his new Thai home.

Click on the photos to see the full image.

Thai another day

Dear readers. We tried our hardest, but Laos finally beat us. Coming to the capital, Vientiane, a little earlier than expected due to our previous illnesses messed up our provisional schedule. This rescheduling, coupled with the fact that Laos is very tricky to get around (either it’s an expensive flight or 11 hour intercity bus journey), meant that we were left with a choice of 2 weeks in the capital or hopping off to somewhere nearby.

Nong Khai in northern Thailand was our chosen destination. Only 1.5 hours away from Vientiane, hotel overlooking the mighty Mekong (the border of Laos/Thailand) and with a well known Vietnamese restaurant to boot. There’s nothing much to do here except just watch sunsets, eat excellent Thai/Vietnamese or German food and catch up on our reading, so don’t expect amazing photos or posts in the next few days. Attached is the view of the mighty Mekong from our balcony.

Special mention to the hotel we are staying at. Travelfish website summed it up by saying that it is comfortable and clean but with “chronically confused staff”. They seem not to understand the concept of booking rooms in advance, but are lovely with it. This morning we asked whether we were leaving today (on only day 2 of 6 booked) but were also were offered sticky rice fritters, sweet and sour rice and tasty local sausages for breakfast. All freshly BBQed by the edge of the river at sunrise, unexpected, totally free and very tasty. 700B will hopefully, possibly and maybe get you a nice clean river view room with balcony at  Baan Mae Rim Nam,