India 🇮🇳: Udaipur & Holy Cows

Welcome to Rajasthan

The first part of our journey took us to the state of Rajasthan – one of five we will visit. It is the largest state with 342,000sqkm (10% of India or about the size of Germany) and situated in the North West bordering Pakistan. It goes without saying that a few days were not enough to see it all.

The official languages in Rajasthan are Hindi and English. Hindi is the language most widely spoken in India (44% primary, 57% all-in), but by far not the only.

A few Hindi words to get by

Udaipur – Venice of the East

Having been to Venice and St Petersburg (Venice of the North), it was just consequent to come to Udaipur as well 😉. We stayed in the old town, close to most sights of the former capital of the Mewar kingdom (succeeding Chittorgarh after it was taken by enemies).

Highlights of the city were the Hindu Jagdish temple with its lively prayers, the city palace and breakfast in the Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel with its beautiful architecture and overlooking lake Pichola, one of the two big artificial lakes in Udaipur.

There is a lot more to do and see like the daily cultural show at Bagore Ki Haveli (daily 7pm, come 6.30pm or before to secure tickets), but our need to catch up with sleep and a tight timetable set us certain limits 😉

Holy cow! 🐮 🐮 🐮

Noteworthy were all the cows in the streets of Udaipur. Eating, poo-ing, watching, walking in traffic. There are an estimated 5m+ cows roaming Indian streets. Cows are holi animals in Hinduism (practised by 80% of Indians) that forbids slaughtering cows. A good part of that status relates to Krishna. He also goes by the name of Govinda, which means ‘friend and protector of cows’.

Many farmers hence cut old, unproductive cows loose to save on feeding cost and avoid the risk of cows feeding on crops – a widespread problem in rural India. Cow rescue centers are overflowing despite heavy government investment into new sheds under PM Modi.

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Goodbye Vietnam 🇻🇳 – Hello Laos 🇱🇦

One month in Vietnam was up shortly after we left Dien Bien Phu – a town less than two hours from the border. First up – a big thank you 🙏. We had an amazing time all over the country and yet haven’t seen all of it. One day maybe. For now, we are moving on.

Tough journey

In order to get to Laos without having to return to Hanoi, we had picked out the tai tran border. Not all border crossings into Laos provide visa on arrival service, so watch out which one you choose.

The bus left around 8.30am and would take the best part of 9h to get us to Dien Bien Phu where a connecting bus to Laos left next day. The mountain road was scenic though being squeezed into the back bench ruined most views. Shame really.

Once arrived, we discussed options with Bob from the US who was in the same bus and bought a ticket for the 5.30am to Muang Khua to take us across the border. He looks strangely like the actor Anthony Hopkins and is from Massachusetts, US. Bob travels most years for about 6mth in his off-season (and escaping the cold). He had been to Laos six years before and hence knew his way around better than we did. The night in Dien Bien Phu itself was unspectacular other than our last Pho Soup 🍜🍜🍜

Crossing into Laos

The bus terminal was buzzing already as we arrived. Still, there was time for an omelet for breakfast. Turns out that the three of us were the only travellers. Probably because of the upcoming Tet festival fewer people wished to cross the border.

Clearly, the bus couldn’t go that empty! So the driver drove somewhere and loaded up on all sort of snacks, potatoes and a handful local people. Suddenly the bus was full after all.

The border crossing turned out ok. Laura had overstayed her visa by a few hours and we read online about a U$25 penalty fee. But it was ok. On the laos side, we paid the U$30 visa fee plus the additional U$5 or so in made up charges that go directly into the pockets of the staff.

Welcome to Laos! The kingdom of a thousand elephants 🐘 🐘 🐘

Laos basics

Officially called the Lao People’s Democratic Republic it is the only landlocked country in Asia and has the lowest population density. It is a socialist, one party state with some 7m inhabitants. The ethnic mix is diverse with 53.2% Lao, 11% Khmu, 9.2% Hmong, 3.4% Phouthay, 3.1% Tai, 2.5% Makong, 2.2% Katang, 2.0% Lue, 1.8% Akha and 11.6% other. The prevailing religion is Buddhism for 2/3rd and Laotian folk religion for 1/3rd.

An evening in Muang Khua

It took a further 2h by bus to the town of Muang Khua. The feel of the place was instantly different. Fewer people, less hassle.

1/10th of the population density of Vietnam… And you feel it immediately

We sat down in a cafe and chatted more with Bob before heading to guesthouses for a well deserved nap. 😴😴😴

Late afternoon we had time to take a look around. Late lunch, new SIM cards for Laos and a little stroll. The best part was an unexpected Karaoke show in a restaurant where locals celebrated. They let us sample different kinds of food – quite spicy at times! Laura order some soup. Turns out it was full of intestines and not very much to our liking sadly. So another soup elsewhere before hitting the beds!

Vietnam 🇻🇳: Exploring Sapa hills & tribes; Feliz Cumpleaños 👧🏻 🇨🇴

Our last day in Hanoi was the 28th of January. That meant Laura had only hours left to her 25th birthday. Celebrations began at German style Legend Beer restaurant in Hanoi before we picked up our stuff from the hotel and headed over to the train station.

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A night on Fansipan express 🚉

To save a little time, but also for the experience, i booked a ln 8,5h sleeper train service to Lao Cai, the main town in the province. The train, named after the highest mountain on the indochina peninsula, is one of several trains carrying tourists between Sapa and Hanoi. Reviews are mixed with concerns on noise, cleanliness etc. In our case, just noise was an issue as the train tracks and train have come of age. We also had a little trouble with an overly ambitious a/c, but otherwise quite ok.

The cabin was cosy and the ride out of Hanoi very exciting as the train literally passes right through residential and business areas. Flats and shops close up… Just like we witnessed during sightseeing earlier in the day.

Once you leave Hanoi behind you, there are some more stops on the way, but best to sleep (unless partying tourists next door have decided otherwise).

By 6am we arrived in Lao Cai and transferred for 40mins to Sapa. Very sleepy start to Laura’s special day and the windy road to Sapa was also a challenge for our stomachs 🤢. Thankfully the operator of our hiking tour later had organised a hotel room… So 🚿 and 🛏 and 😴

Sapa hills 🏞️, Sapa tribes 🧒🏽👧🏽

By 8.30 we had managed to brew up a pho ga soup and met our guide – a 21y old woman from the black hmong tribe.

She led the way out of Sapa and immediately some beautiful views of the rice terraces presented themselves. Two sisters from her village came along and immediately engaged Laura in conversation.

The whole trek was some 13km included three major villages on the way. The guide even took us to her house where she still lives with her family after studying tourism in Hanoi. Pretty dark these traditional houses that also serve for food storage (mainly for the once annual rice harvest in September and corn). However, good conversation and a little happy water (rice wine) lightened up the house 💦 😊 🏡

Tribes in the Sapa region

About 74 million, out of 90 million people living in Vietnam, are Kinh ethnic group or true Vietnamese. The rest of 16 million are ethnic minorities of Tay (about 2%), Tai  (≈1,8%), Muong (≈1,5%), Khmer Krom (≈1,5%), Hmong (≈1,2 %), Nung  (≈1,1%), Hoa (≈1%) and others.

Hill tribes in Sapa – good read

We learned a few things during the day. I guess the best story was about how the black hmong get married when man set out to kidnap their wifes. Usually this happens around the lunar new year and normally for girls aged 16y to 18y. Our guide, at 21y, already belongs to the older generation in that regards. What a contrast to London or the US where a wrong comment can cost your job or worse.

Men clearly retain a preferred status in their society. In fact, it is completely acceptable to have several women should the first one (ones) not produce a male heir 👦🏼. Should a man find himself drunk, women are expected to take care of them. Heading home alone would be rather upsetting for the husband.

Upgrade 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

We got back to Sapa early afternoon and laura was in for a surprise. I had booked a room in the new Sofitel (which opened 6w earlier) – Hotel de la Coupole. 

So shower, rest, french cafe, swimming pool… Time to spoil ourselves a little. The hotel management threw in a free upgrade and a chocolate cake birthday wish too. Truly 5 star.

Feliz cumpleaños amor. Gracias por el año pasado, por el tiempo feliz y (a veces) triste pero siempre muy especial, por los momentos formidables y malo en muchos lugares differentes, por todos. Eres una mujer increíble! Eres mi vida. Te amo. ❤😍😘

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For dinner we still opted to go elsewhere. It was low season and pretty empty… So more pho soup? Yes for laura while i enjoyed a tasty sapa soup.

For breakfast the hotel had our loyalty back… What an amazing selection. Sadly, we only had so much time as our bus towards the Laos border.

Vietnam 🇻🇳 🏍: 3 days in Hanoi – goodbye ‘La Furiosa’ 🏍 😔

After 2,800km crisscrossing through Vietnam on our beloved motorbike we made it to the capital Hanoi. There were so many beautiful stops on the way… It will take some time to sink in (probably i need to read my own blogs ro recall it all). More lies ahead in the north of Vietnam and afterwards Laos.

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2,800km on 🏍 through 🇻🇳

Adios La Furiosa

We had decided to finish our motorbike trip here and sell La Furiosa 🏍 instead of taking it further to Laos. The market in Hanoi is just bigger and so we advertised it on facebook.

First up though i had to find someone who could remove a broken screw (i broke it) from the cylinder and fix my exhaust again. Right now, i had the loudest bike in town, no power and would find it hard to sell the bike like this.

It was surprisingly hard as none of the normal bike repair guys wanted the job. Eventually a found a welder who did it for USD8. Nice to have the baby back up and running.

Owing to Laura’s persistence, we soon got some interest (vs. none for my original post 🤔… Must be the fb foto). Sadly, the first prospective buyer from the US didn’t like how the bike revved. In hindsight, the clutch slipped a bit which i fixed by simply loosening the cable a tiny bit.

So we ended up selling to a local dealer losing U$220 vs. purchase. Together with the repair cost we had it still worked out cheaper than renting.

Still, for a 3-4w trip i would probably rent next time. Didn’t like the uncertainty of selling at the end. Am pretty sure that some people get really bad deals as they have to catch flights.

Bye, bye La Furiosa!

Hanging out in Hanoi

I like Hanoi, probably more than HCM even though both have crazy traffic. On our first night we headed to the night market, but there were just tourists so that you can hardly move… Dont go!

So we made it over to beer street with more locals about enjoying the extended opening hours (until 2am in w/e & no traffic). So spring rolls, pho soup and Saigon special it is!

There is a lake right in the center of hanoi with some mystery to it – the lake of the returned sword. Legend says that the sword given to the emperor to defeat the chinese ming now rests here. At night it is particularly nice to watch.

For our first full day, after a massage, we booked a walking tour with local students around old town and talked a lot about all sort of things – after all it is not easy to communicate here.

Highlight was the french style train bridge and the art street with dog roast vendors – something i saw for the first time and Laura is disgusted by being dog lover and born in the year of the dog.

Chinese Zodiacs

The Chinese zodiac is a classification scheme that assigns to each animal and its reputed attributes every 12-year cycle. The 12-year cycle is approximating to the 11.85-year orbital period of Jupiter.

I am born in the year of the goat. Depending in which part of the 12y in 60y cycle the goat is born it is classified by element – Metal (gold), wood, fire, earth, water. I am an earth goat 🐐 – so i am ‘Righteous, honest, straightforward, and will never harm my friends.‘ Well,

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Talking of Chinese zodiacs, the upcoming Tet festival or lunar new year was ever-present. Markets were loaded with all sorts of chinese decoration ahead of the big party on 3rd of February. Around that time Vietnam enjoys two weeks holiday. Sadly, we will miss it. At least we now know what the meaning of all trees is – kind of a xmas tree for lunar new year.

Having managed to sell the bike by day 3 in the morning, we had time to visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum. Sadly the former is closed all Mondays while the latter monday afternoons. So just a peep from the outside.

Back in the center it was time for a little shopping, dinner and off we went to catch the night train north towards Sapa… The final big stop on our Vietnam itinerary.

Vietnam 🇻🇳 🏍: Halong bay – Extremely scenic, extremely touristy…

Distance this section: 220km |Total distance: 2,800km

We arrived in Halong city after riding all afternoon from Ninh Binh. The sun had already set. We checked into the hotel and headed to a local market for a hot-pot dinner amidst locals. Tasty. It was also full moon adding a bit of extra ambience.

All aboard!

So far we hadn’t booked a boat trip hoping to cut a decent last-minute deal. Well, we didn’t and barely made it on time to our cruise that we arranged last minute through whatsapp. To locate the boat amidst thousands of others and with directions in broken english turned out to be a real challenge. But… We made it!

Fingers crossed no-one steals the motorbike that we left short notice at the staff parking spot of the official ferry terminal of the Tuan Chau marina 😱

Halong Bay Basics

Halong Bay is an area of extraordinary natural beauty, situated in Vietnam’s Quang Ninh Province, close to the Chinese border. Declared world heritage in 1994.

Comprised of a multitude of karst limestone islands and islets rising from the sea, in a variety of sizes and shapes and presenting picturesque, unspoiled nature.

Total area of around 1,553 sqkm & 1,960 islands and islets, mostly limestone.

The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments.

Less than half of the islands have been named.

Decent itinerary

Titop island: Named after a Russian general that helped train the Vietnamese army and visited the island withHo Chi Minh. Super scenic, but completely overrun.

Cu Van floating village by kayak: Local fishermen life on boats in sadly dying communities. Tourism and still fishing keep them going. However, only existing habitants can stay in the floating villages. New ones aren’t allowed to protect the world heritage park. All very interesting, especially the traditional wedding song performance.

Surprising cave: No match for the caves you find in Phong Nha Ke Bank (Vietnam 🇻🇳 🏍: Phong Nha Ke Bang national park & Paradise cave) national park, but still quite huge!

Pearl farm: Pretty similar experience than we had in Phu Quoc (Vietnam 🇻🇳: Phu Quoc island)

Kayaking Luon Cave: Pretty scenic and good to do some activity for a change.

Fun time on the boat & Spanish practice

The time on the boat was never too much given the host of activities. In addition, there was the nightly welcome drinks, spring roll cooking class and of course lots of time eating.

Food was average, but that may have been down to me not liking seafood that much. On the other hand, we shared our table with two Spanish guys. They are crisscrossing Asia on their tour (eg Halong Bay and a night in Hanoi is their Vietnam experience) and were fun to hang out with.

Motorbike not stolen, but not working 😕

Back at the marina i checked the bike right away. It was still there, but for some reason the ignition didn’t work. I just couldn’t turn the key 🤷‍♂️. Damn!

In the marina area there are also no bike repair shops. So i pushed until i found a shop selling all sort of tools and hardware – presumably for ships. Using a screwdriver and some force helped to close the electronic cycle and start the engine… Just it kept switching off.

That way we made it out of the marina and to a shady bike shop. He replaced the ignition and off we went to Hanoi.