Southeast Asia: Part 1

Vietnam and Laos

12 months ago
And so we spent a short time bathing the elephants. They were pretty excited to get in the water - Elephants can't sweat, so getting in the water is the best way to cool down. I particularly enjoyed the water-spraying antics of my elephant. We left with a newfound appreciation for these humble, peaceful giants.
Hanoi, Vietnam
As we dismounted in camp, our elephants were treated to a pile of sugarcane. Notice how dexterous those trunks are! They have a dedicated 'finger' at the tip of their nose that allows them to grab at the sugarcane.
From Hanoi, we took a short 3-hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay, a big bay filled with hundreds of limestone 'kharsts' - emerald rock formations that jut out of the sea. We went on a 3-day tour that took us to caves and beaches and included a short kayak trip to an isolated cove. Not pictured here is the giant thunderstorm that visited us on that first night we stayed on the tour boat.
Cycling To Ban Na
We spent one day cycling around on the *other*, less-developed side of the Mekong. We rented some mountain bikes and took the morning ferry across to the Chompet district. Rather than take a guided tour, we consulted our map and followed the tour itinerary to Ban Na village ourselves. Biking through these rural villages was pretty eye-opening. It was amazing how different life was just across the river.
On day 2, our tour included a trip to the biggest island in the bay, Cat Ba Island. When our boat docked, we hopped on some bikes and rode through the nature park, ending our ride at a village located within the park. There we noticed some crazy-big spiders near the bungalows we were supposed to sleep in that night. Luckily for us, we had changed plans the day prior and got a boat ride back to Cat Ba Town to stay there for the night. The sunset-view from our hotel room was much preferable to the spider-view of the bungalows.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Pak Ou Caves
Our first trip took us to Kuang Si Falls. The limestone-infused turquoise water and multi-leveled pools (formed by massive tree roots, covered in limestone sediment), made for an eerie setting.
On our last day in Luang Prabang, we hired a boat to take us upriver to the Pak Ou Caves, which serve as a home for discarded Buddha statues.
Elephant Village
We landed in Hanoi on June 3, after a pretty terrible Aeroflot flight from London. (The passengers seated around us were all smoking in the bathroom.) We spent a couple lazy days just walking around Hanoi, seeing a few temples, eating street food, exploring the market, and seeing a water puppet show.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Luang Prabang's Temples
In between our day trips, we spent our time exploring the temple-filled streets of Luang Prabang.
Cat Ba Island
Kuang Si Falls
We were happy to see how well-treated these elephants were. We'd read some elephant abuse horror stories before our trip, and it was important for us to pick a place like Elaphant Village that had a good reputation. So instead of riding atop wooden saddles (that eventually ruin elephants' spines), we rode bare-back. And instead of goading the elephants along with beatings from a stick (or, worse, other sharp instruments), our elephant handlers used only verbal commands. And while the tourist activities were held at a camp on the western side of the river, the elephants spent most of their time in their own dedicated habitats on the eastern side of the river.
We also greatly enjoyed the bamboo bridge connecting central Luang Prabang to the town just across the Nam Khan river. Constructed by a single family once every year, the bridge gets taken down once the rainy season brings the water level too high.
From Vietnam, we took a flight to Luang Prabang, a smallish town located on a promontory where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong. A sleepy town nestled amongst the hills of Northern Laos, Luang Prabang was a wonderful place to relax after the leaving the bustling city streets of Hanoi and the exhausting activities of Ha Long Bay. We spent our days taking trips out to nearby sights. In the evenings, we would enjoy the fantastic restaurants, walk through the night market, and occasionally indulge in a $5 massage.
Super-cheap and super-delicious, the food in Luang Prabang was the best of our trip. Once we discovered the eggs and french toast at Cafe Ban Vat Sene, we ate breakfast nowhere else. (Thank you French colonialism.) But our favorite dining spot was Tamarind. Founded by a Laotian chef and his Australian wife, Tamarind puts a gourmet spin on authentic Lao dishes. We liked our dinner there so much that we signed up for one of their famous cooking classes on our last day. Some ingredients/fruits of our labor can be seen below on the left.
Food
Our trip to Elephant Village, an elephant sanctuary funded through tourist visits, was the highlight of our trip. When we arrived, we signed up for a 30-minute elephant-bathing session. After mounting the elephants in camp, we ventured down to the Nam Khan river, where we were given brushes and instructed to start scrubbing.
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