A River, a Pagoda and Karst Mountains in Ninh Binh

So we skipped Ha Long Bay.  Skipping Ha Long Bay when you have a month to see Vietnam is probably the equivalent of going to Paris for a week without ever setting eyes on the Eiffel Tower or something, but we gave it a pass anyway.  It was cold and drizzly and a long boat trip just didn’t sound like fun.  Instead, we took the train few hours south of Hanoi to Ninh Binh, which is supposed to be the inland equivalent of the Ha Long landscape.

When we woke up in Ninh Binh, we fortified ourselves with a massive jolt of caffeine and sugar via Vietnamese coffee at the cafe next door, while enjoying a very strange TV program.

Vietnamese coffee

Many (if not most) cafes in Vietnam also serve as the owners’ homes, which is why it looks like we’re hanging out in someone’s living room.

TV program

Remembering our great times in northern Thailand on a motorbike, we decided to rent one from our hotel instead of getting a taxi.  It was actually just a spare bike owned by the woman next door, who sloshed a Pepsi bottle full of gasoline into the tank and pointed us in the direction of the nearest petrol station.

It was cold and the road was full of deep potholes. Parts of it were under construction and there were lots of heavy trucks on the road which added a challenging element to the usual traffic patterns (marked lanes merely a suggestion, two way traffic in both lanes and shoulders, turn signals and mirrors irrelevant, right of way belongs to the biggest vehicle and/or whoever begins honking first and loudest, etc.). We quickly learned the difference between the normal “hey guys, coming through” courtesy honks and the urgent blasts that screamed “you are about to die, fool!”

Railroad safety gate

When we finally found Tam Cốc (which means “three caves”) after some backtracking, our nerves were a little on edge and our fingers were stiff with cold.  We bought a boat ticket down the Ngô Đồng river, and it wound through some amazing karst scenery and caves. Our rower used her feet the whole time and sometimes talked on her cellphone.  Most of the other rowers we passed used their feet, too.

Our boat rower

Woman rowing with her feet

First cave


Boat approaching the first cave

Cave interior


Cultivated river bank

A dog and a house

Through the second cave

Other tourists being rowed by foot

Vietnamese women fishing

Through the cave

Large white bird

Vertical face

At the turnaround point, we managed to resist the concession stand flotilla ladies who tried to sell us drinks and snacks.

High-pressure concession flotilla

Back on shore and tip delivered, we headed for the nearest cafe to thaw out.

After we recovered, we got back on the bike and motored just up the road a bit to Bích Động pagoda, which is a temple complex of three different pagodas set up the side of a mountain.

Tony at the entrance to Bích Động pagoda

This place is not for impolite visitors

Corner of a roof

Mossy roof tiles

Glowing altar

Dragon painting


Alicia taking a group photo

Small shrine

Bare frangipani trees

After reaching the final pagoda, a path continued up the mountain and we followed it through jagged karst and over boulders and were rewarded with a spectacular view.

Jagged rocks on top of the mountain

Our feet in sharp rocks

Us at the top

Flooded fields below

But we quickly realized that we wouldn’t have much daylight left to get back to town, so we hurried down.

Hurrying down

A huge flock of large white birds were restlessly settling in the marsh as we walked back to our motorbike.

Flock landing

We pulled off the road to take a few last photos before the cold ride home.

Tony on the bike


The area around Ninh Binh was beautiful, but we craved warmth.  We also missed the sun, which we hadn’t seen since we left Laos two weeks prior.  Although we usually stay for several days in each area we visit, we bought train tickets south that night and left first thing in the morning.

Train ticket

Ninh Binh train station

Feb 2013



Slow Boat Down the Mekong

Longtail ferry at the border

Ferry carrying large trucks

On the very last day that our Thai visa was valid, we got our exit stamps and ferried across the Mekong River to the border town of Huay Xay, Laos.  We loaded up on essential boat supplies: water, Pringles, chicken sandwiches wrapped in banana leaves, mandarin oranges, oddly flavored sunflower seeds, butt cushions.  We needed some local currency, too, and became millionaires when we found what might have been the only ATM in town and withdrew 1 miiiillion kip (about $125).

Alicia all ready to go

Boat supplies

Chicken sandwiches

Choco-bacon seeds

Maggot in love

Juicy friend animal land

We found the pier and bought our tickets for Luang Prabang.  There are three public transportation options to get to Luang Prabang from the Thai/Laos border.  The cheapest option is a 12 hour bus ride.  The fastest and most expensive (and potentially lethal) option is putting on a helmet and crouching in a wooden speedboat for six hours.  The other, much more appealing option is a two day boat journey down the Mekong River.

Huay Xai pier

Green boat at Huay Xai pier


Two days on a boat is perfect for reading.  One of my favorite quotes from Thor Heyerdahl’s Fatu-Hiva, related Thor’s feelings as he and his wife were caught in a rainstorm while hiking through the jungle on a South Pacific island.  “[We were] uncertain of whether we were suffering or whether we were having a grand time.”  That is a perfect way to explain some of our days this year, but the boat trip was definitely much more of the latter.

Fatu-Hiva quote

small burn

Mood smoke

Mood smoke + rocks

Looking back upriver

Loading rice

Riverside settlement

Fading light

Side of boat

People on sandbar

Rock silhouette

After the first day, we unloaded at Pakbeng.  Here we are having dinner with a bunch of our boat buddies.  Our group was from Sydney, Brisbane, Toronto, Alabama, California, Amsterdam, and Thailand (via New Zealand).  You may recognize the fellow with the moustache.  It’s our friend Kevin from Chiang Mai!  He decided to join us for the trip and we were glad to see him again so soon.

Boat buddies


There is not much to Pakbeng other than restaurants and guest houses ready to receive people halfway through their boat trips, so we were more than ready to go when 9 a.m. rolled around.

My wife is a very good cook

Alicia and Kevin at Pakbeng

Pakbeng pier

While we were waiting for our boat to be loaded, we saw some elephants working on the far bank.

Elephants at Pakbeng

We also saw a Pakbeng resident giving his goat a bath.  How sweet!

Pakbeng goat bath?

Pakbeng goat bath? 2

Not a bath

Day two on the boat was much like the first.  More jungle, more villages, more giant sandbars and goats and water buffalo.  Someone brought out a guitar and two Australian sisters, Jemma and Ruby, serenaded us.


massive sandbar

Cliff near LPB

Boat interior

Boat engine


back of the boat

green and brown



Late in the afternoon, Luang Prabang’s pier came into view and we were ready to look for dinner and a place to sleep.  We later met other travelers who had been placed on boats with bad seats, loud engines and twice the amount of passengers.  We were fortunate to have a perfect two days on the river and to have made many new friends along the way.

LPB pier

colorful boats at LPB pier

Our pretty boat

LPB pier

(Watch our short video of taking the slow boat down the Mekong and motorbiking in Northern Thailand.)

Jan 2013



Loi Krathong

King and Queen of Thailand honored at parade

November is a great month to be in Thailand. The rainy season is over, the weather is cool(er), the holiday crowds haven’t arrived, and since the rice harvest is over there are festivals to celebrate. After the euphoric lantern release at the Yi Peng festival is the Loi Krathong festival.

Krathongs for sale

Loi means “to float” and krathong means… well, the internet says a lot of different things and we don’t know Thai. But a krathong (“kra-TONG”) is a tiny raft usually made of banana leaves and flowers. You stick a few candles in it, along with some small offerings, set it in the river on the full moon of the 12th month and watch your bad luck float away.

On Loi Krathong, the river is choked with these little creations, parades full of bored-looking young people in glittering costumes crawl through the streets for several nights in a row, the sky is filled what seems to be thousands of glowing jellyfish, and firework enthusiasts (every male under age 30) run amok with zero regard for public safety. It’s glorious.

Pink lanterns on parade

White Elephant on parade

Riverside chaos

We roamed the streets with our Couchsurfing host, Kevin, and some fellow Couchsurfers from Portugal, Holland and China (Kevin has a big house).

More khom loy were launched.

Amber with lantern

Maria's lantern

Thai guy's lantern

We laughed at the small dangers and fled from the larger ones.

Throwing fireworks off the bridge

The street clears for a large firework

Fried bugs were eaten.

Fried crickets and grubs

Amber is concerned about the bugs

Amber is very concerned about the bugs

Amber holds up a bug

Amber's reaction

Ole's grub

Tony's reaction

Strangers’ photos were enhanced by our sneaky and uninvited faces.

Tony prepares photobomb

Sneaky Tony


Best photobomb

Our photos and words don’t quite convey what it really feels like to be there… So we made this video.