Cave exploration by kayak: Xe Bang Fai Cave

Thakhek was our destination after an 11 hours drive (but only about 300km distance, with an estimated time of 6 hours) with a local bus from Pakse (80k kip) . As we already mentioned everything is taking a bit longer in Laos than usual 🙂

Our local bus was stopping at every corner to buy food or either take the opportunity for pass by for something thats close to an outhouse or just stopping for i dont know what!
Anyway we arrived just before sunset and the bus stopped in front of “the” backpacker hostel ever. And we stayed there for a night. It was cheap but everything than clean. The sheets were full of stains, but as i already mentioned it was cheap. The city us not really nice but there is a kind of feeling of lots of adventure when you get there. Many off road cars spread the feeling of departure.From here many travellers are getting ready for ” doing the loop” around the Lak Sao Road, passing by giant caves such as the famous Kong Lor Cave and the tribe villages. So that was actually our itenerary. But arriving at Thakhek there was no way we rent a scooter again (especially after being exposed to pictures of a deadly accident on the road of a foreign couple) and we also did not want to join a mass tourism group to explore the nearby caves.
After some research a found an article about the Xe Bang Fai Cave (Tham Khoun Xe) which is close to the vietnamese boarder

When i first saw the pictures i knew i have to go there no matter what the cost. And in fact there was not much choice. Green disvovery is the only operator. Going by your own makes no sense, as the road is pretty bad (dirt road). You have to cross even rivers and you definitely need a 4 WD. In rain season its even not possibly to access this cave at all. Even if you get there by your own (we met some dudes, which were bagging to share our kayaks) the only thing you can do is see the cave from outside and rent a wooden boat from a local to go for the first kilometer inside the cave an thats pretty much all you can do. Going further you need an inflatable kayak as you go upstream inside the cave. There are 4 significant rapids you will pass and each time you get off the boat and you carry the kayaks along the rapid… .

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But to start the story from the beginning: we asked for information at Green Discovery and a 2d/1n trip was about 380$ us dollar each of a group of 2. Price would drop to 260$ each by 4 people. There was just Melanie and i, so we decided to wait till the evening. Maybe there will come more people for that trip. Unfortunately no one came, but however we managed to drop the price a lot (i ll get in trouble if i tell you how much we spend at the end 🙂 ) by skipping some points of the itenetary.

Cave history: the cave supposed to be the largest river cave in the world with a lenght of 9,5 km.It was first discovered in 1905. Almost 100 years later she was rediscovered and in 2012 (recording the agency and locals) she was opened for tourism. In 2008 the cave received public attention after being explored by the caver John Pollak for National Geographic.

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Day 1: the very next day our tourguide “Dick” and the driver “Phun” picked us up at 8 am. First stop was this big market in Thakek where we bought our food supplies for the next day. Everything was fresh (herbs, fruits, rice,vegetables), so fresh that a few ingredients very still alive (fish) after we left the market.
For the next 3,5 hours we ve been driving mostly a dirt road passing by beautiful limestone scenery of Khammuan province. We ate lunch in front of huge limestones and stoped a few times to make some pictures
Arriving at the river by 3pm we had to get the kayaks prepared and get everything out of the car(tents, lifejackets food…) as we were about to tent on an island in front of the cave. Melanie and i were eager to try to kayaks so we decided to take care of our kayak and paddle alone as it was not far at all. Thats where we realized how exhausting it is to paddle upstream. None of us has much experience in kayaking and none of us was doing a caveexploration before.
After setting up a camp we took a bath in the river, while the dinner was prepared by our tourguide. At least we helped them by making the campfire.

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Imagine you sit at the beach in front of turquise water and a giant black hole in the rocks: the cave, and you know you ll spend the whole day inside without any daylight. Retrospectively it still gives me goosebumbs. Some poeple from the village joined us for the campfire, they couldnt speak any english but they obviously liked the company of strangers as not many come along 🙂 they even slept near the campfire to “make sure” we will be safe. Lovely people. At 3 am i put the alarmclock as i wanted to see the stars, so i woke up and there was this stunning sky with so many stars.


Day 2: We started at 8 am after a great breakfast at the campfire. We paddled to the cave entrance, carried the kayaks and equipment along the rocks and put them back inside the river to finally start the tour. Going further inside the cave meant going into completly darkness. Receding more and more from the entrance means getting used to the darkness. But after a few minutes you get used to it, unfortunately neither my gopro nor my waterproof camera were able to make proper pictures inside the cave. After arriving the first rapids we had to go off the kayak and carry it to the other side, this was very exhausting but necessary. There is no way you can paddle upstream at this point. The rocks very huge and we had to take care of our steps as there were huges descents where you can fall in for a few meters. Some rocks were also slippery and i actually fell one time badly on my wrist. It was also very hot inside the cave, or i felt this way because of the excercise. Any time we got in water i was really happy about the refreshment 🙂


You get hungry quick? You are afraid of not getting enough food on this trip? Dont worry every time you get off the kayak and breath you ll get enough insects in your mouth to fill you empty stomach in seconds.
Continuing to the other side of the river we passed in total 4 rapids, each was the same procedere: get of the kayak, carry it and equipment to the next side. It took us more than 3 h to get to the other side of the cave. According to the agency it must be a distance of about 6 km to the opposite entrance, but inside the cave i totaly lost my relation to time and distance. I was really concentrated to stare at the cave wherever i could. Thinking of being alive just because of a few headlamp pumps so much adrenalin in your blood … living on the edge as we use to kid around at our juvenelity 🙂


Arriving on the other side (of the rainbow) we set a campfire and had a lunch on the rocks. We swam to the rocks, climbed around and explored the area. The knowledge of being so far from civilisation is a feeling you wont forget that quick! Everything depends on you. Heading back was easier as you follow the stream. The first rapid we passed with the kayak which was really fun. The other 3 rapids the same procedere as usual. Sometimes we stopped at some sandbanks to explore the cave and at the last rapid we even kind of lost control of our kayak which ended up being stocked between some rocks. Scary situation but with hard work of our tourguides we managed to pull the kayak out of the rocks again. We stopped for another exploration close to the exit. There is a “balcony” where you have a stunning overview of the cave entrance. After 9 hours of hard exercise we were so happy about us mastering the cave exploration. Dick told us we where the first ones in this season who managed to go to the other side, the previous custumer gave up after a few kilometers. What a compliment.
The drive back we were pretty tired as you can imagine. We stopped for dinner at a local restaurant and after arriving to the hotel, which we havent booked in advance as always, we fell asleep within seconds.

Tips: bring some sneakers which can get wet or proper watershoes, shorts and a sleeve are enough to wear but bring some changing clothes, ask everybody to turn off all lights in the cave…thats so creepy, wake up in the middle of the night to see the stars when the moon is gone and ASK for discount at Green Discovery it is more affordable than you think!

Thx Adelia

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Laos- easypeesy flow meets native countryside

After spending the ultimate days of our Cambodia tour in Siam Reap, we looked forward to arrive in a more quiet and natural surrounding. We chose Don Det as a destination, this is one of the 4000 islands in the southern part of Laos. After we crossed the border, our lao adventure directly begun: Instead of driving in a normal bus, we were “loaded” on a truck with an open passenger hub and drove nearly half an hour to the port of Ban Nakasang. As everything takes a little more time here than usual, the sun set already and with a very small wooden boat we continued to the island.

Happy to finally arrive, we found a nice homestay on the sunrise side of the island right next to the Mekong although we had no reservation and the next day we cycled over the island. The vibe is very relaxed here and you can see some people smoking Marihuana at the riverside. Special attention lay on the citizens as they were very friendly waving and smiling all the time as the islands were not that highly frquented by foreigners until only some years ago. Passing by the waterfalls of Don Khon, we found an idyllic little oasis with a cute café and hammarks right next to the imense falls. There is also a beach to take a bath but as we saw an imense water snake the first day we were not to much into jumping to the waters. Also here, there were not too many people and everything still seemed very original, only a little wooden fence divided the steep cliffs of the river of the walking ground- a nogo for european circumstances but this is what makes the charme of Laos- the nativeness of the landscape and also the people. Another example?  We passed by a house where a father and his son just had dinner at the patio and suddenly the little kid got of his chair, went to the balustrade and peed on the dusty path were we stood- we were lucky enough not to cross his direction:op

The next day it was time to head north to Pakxe. It took us approx. 4 hours by minibus (when we hear this word, there are some really bad experiences tied with this kind of transportation because it is very common that the operators promise a pickup at the hotels… at the various hotels… so pretty often you spend the first hour just driving from hotel to hotel watching the bus get fuller and fuller). Trying to organise a tour to the numerous waterfalls nearby, we were disappointed because as there are only a few operators every tour was quite expensive and we missed the good travel infrastructure of Vietnam a bit- but if you want to visit the abandoned places, of course there are not too many providers what turned out to be our luck: we rented a semiautomatic motorcycle, initially for one day, grabbed a selfdrawed map and started our private tour to the Bolaven Plateau, famous for endless coffee plantations, beautiful landscape, native villages and- surprise- waterfalls! After a short introduction of how to drive the semiautomatic transmission (pretty easy), we dared the adventure! Driving north, our first stop was Tad Pasuam- a little bit of a tourist trap beacause the waterfalls were not that big at this time and in the village itself was not idigenous at all. Following the recommendation of the scooter rental, we took another stop at Mr. Vieng, an organic café . It was our luck that a group of dutchies, italians and kiwis arrived there at the same time because from then on, this was our lovely travel entourage and what was planned to be a day trip turned out to be a 3-day- discovering tour!! At the end of day 1, we ended up in Tad Lo, about 80 km away from Pakxe. Our homestay there was one of the cheapest we ever stayed in, for 1,5, we had a 16-dorm, veerry basic with just a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net. We had some beers and went to bed early to be prepared for the next day as we had about 100 km on our way to the next destination- wich we didn´t know by then:op

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Tad Pasuam waterfalls

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Tad Pasuam waterfalls

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Cock fight at Mr Viengs cafe in the backyard

So after breakfast we went east to Kok Poung Tai, the town of “Captain Hook” according to our motorcycle rental. Not sure what to expect we entered the village and immediately we were surrounded by many (half-) naked children who begged for food or little presents. Meeting captain Hook, we found a small guy in his 30s, showing us his selfmade tattoo (the writting Captain Hook of course!) explaining that many years ago americans came to his town to do some research and teaching english to him. Walking around the little village and visiting the coffee planttions and herb gardens, he explained us many facts about his town:

Consisting of 724 people, the leaders of Ko Poung Tai are the guru and the shaman. The villagers stay for themselves and it´s not allowed for other people to constantly enter there. Men can have several women and if a woman gets a baby, she leaves to the forests around. After some days, she brings the newborn to the shaman who decides if it has a good or bad spirit (based on the dreams of the woman). In case of a bad spirit, she has to return to the forests:o/ ear, a little puppy is sacrafied to keep the bad spirits away and as a reward, the villagers get a new water buffalo. As everybody in this world sees the same sun, differences in time are a lie- if the sun shines in Laos, it shines everywhere! And differences in skin colour appear because of drinking too much of “blue” or “red” waters- so I drank too much blue water, Captain Hookwas explaining.

A little confused, we left the town and continued to the next waterfall in Tad Faek.

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these needles are used for tattoos

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Captain Hook in his coffee fields

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a venomous spider on our way- omfg!

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playing

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our posse

After a short lunch break, we continued to Tad Tayicsua, the most beautiful part of our trip as the landscape was overwhelming! We even saw the sunset… wait, the sunset?? We still had a little bit of a way upcoming to the waterfalls and… one moment. was this tiny path over there the actual way to the waterfalls?! Okay, no excuses- let´s go! We found ourselves on a dirt road, it was about to go dark and we didn´t even know if we´ll find a homestay but we were keen enough to try- and we had no other options:o) luckily, we found a nice stay in a natural hut and had the best preconditions to explore this beautiful area in the early morning next day!

Waking up in the middle of nowhere we were very excited to leave. After an 20 minute hike, we found an awesome waterfall and even a place to swim! It was so worth th go there and we got in some kkind of an adrenaline rush. I even could enter the water right under a waterfall and let myself float in the river for some meters, that was really huge!! Energized by this adventure, we continued west to finish our 340 km loop by the end of that day. At Tad Yuang we took another brief stop and saw two enormous waterfalls.

Arriving back in Pakxe we enjoyed a last common dinner with our new travel buddies before we continued our journey further north on the next day. Our new destination was Thakek, where we went with a local bus- again it was very intersting to watch some local habbits: every half an hour we stoped in small villages and about 5-7 roughlooking women entered the bus with food, mostly speard on a stick: whole chicken, fish or sweet sugar balls… and if some of these touched a seat or a shoulder, nobody even cared… it seams like the 3-second-rule is also locally adabtable and in Laos there is a very flexible interpretation of it:oP

We really enjoyed our stay in Laos, the silence at night and the calm spirits of the people.

Read in our next post how we nearly drowned in the Xe Bang Fei cave and how we made it from Laos to Thailand in just half an hour.

 

Cambodia,dark background and present beauty

“The Killing Field (1984)”, a movie i watched when i was a teen was the first time i heard about this country and i recommend to watch it when you’re about to go there or if you havnt heard about the Khmer rouge yet. If you re travelling from Vietnam take one day off this horrible party mile in HCM, get yourself a hotel with good WiFi connection and watch The Killing Field and if you havent seen Heaven&Earth (1993, Oliver Stone) yet, by the way, just do it, but get yourself enough tussues though.
We took a sleeping bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh. A two days history tour began. First we took an audio tour through the actual killing fields, make sure you dress yourself proper with long pants and at least a tshirt.I cant describe how you feel by passing the mass grave and hearing the history and be aware of the meaning of a killing tree.No expression for it. I guess my travelmates were pretty shoked (they were not prepared by watching the movie) and there was such a silence through the whole place. Reflecting the killing fields we visited the genocide museum, a former shool which turned into a torture prison during the Khmer rouge regime. Not many handle to enter the former prison cells as they remained untouched. There are also tours offered to tunnels and shooting range compared to Cu Chi in Vietnam. But i really cant understand why people would make funny pictures with weapons in theier hands and shooting selfies while coming out of a tunnel with a smile close to a mass grave? Maybe there is something wrong about me…

To remember is the only thing we can do about the past.So we left Phnom Phen behind a headed to the South. Kep, a small village by the sea with a sweet National Park. We ended up staying there for three days. And it was worth it! Yasmin and i managed to organize a DIY tour to Kompong Trach caves. We took a local bus to Kompong, the bus driver stopped at the market where we asked for a driver to go to the caves. Of course we did it the cambodian way. Yasmin, me and the driver on one scooter 🙂 He did not speak english but apparently he knew where we wanted to go. 4$ and 10 minutes later we arrived at the caves which were completly flooded due the rain last night. But our 8 year old tour guide Rita showed us as much as she could untill she had to go to her school classes. We decided to take a walk around the limestones and climbed up a hill for some selfies. Always in mind not to leave the path because of the landmines. On the way back a friendly farmer passed with his selfmade carriage filled with grave and gave as a ride back where our driver was waiting. That was a lovely experience which a travelagency cant offer!

 


Next day we did a mountain bike tour without mountain bikes though. How is that possible? Well we rented some kind of “bicycles”, tiny little wheels, no gears and no proper breaks. Its a miracle that this bikes didnt fall apart on the tour. However we managed, again, to start at an unfavorable time such as noon. Too hot to cycle uphill on a rocky road. But as you see we also survived that. On the way a sign made us stop: cold drinks and monkeys, Gibbon valley.We left the bikes at the street unlooked, would be a surprise if anyone would have stolen it by this heat. We walked the short trail to the Gibbon Valley which turned out to be a kind of a small hotel with a few bungalows in the middle of the jungle. Nikki an australian women runs it since a few years, she also helds some rescued monkeys which are addicted to everykind of jewellery or sunglasses as i can tell you by experience. We liked it so much that we decided to overnight at this place. We got a spacious cottage in the middle of the jungle for 15$, a crazy night with some crazy people from all over the world and a beautiful sunrise uphill in the morning.

A contrast to Kep was Otres Beach close to Sihanoukville.We stayed at Everythung hostel, 10 metres from the beach for only 3$ a night in a very simple dorm. If you want to party for a few days and get drunk or change however your mental condition, thats the place to be. The beach is nice, not the best i ve seen so far but ok to relax a few days. Melanie and Yasmin liked it a lot, especially Melanie, so on the last day i had to pick her up after a party at 8 am in the morning to catch the bus/boat to Koh Rong Samloen.


At Koh Rong Sanloem we found cheap huts in front of the beach for 20$ a night ( Homestay resort, to the right of the harbour). This Island was super expensive compared to the mainland. If i would known that before i would have brought some wine and cigarettes with me :). Also taking a boat to beaches you cant reach by foot, was so high that we decided to walk only the few trails on the island. Lazy beach was very quite, you feel like robinson crusoe for a moment. There is only one hotel with some bungalows. There is also a two hour hike to a light house which is pretty nice, make sure you carry enough water with you as the are no restaurants or anything else and at least one dollar to pay the entrance fee for the lighthouse.


One of my highlights was a glowing plankton tour for 8$ with the owner of the homestay resort (actually it has nothing to do witha resort, there are just a few simple huts!). He took the three of us for a private tour at night to swim with the plankton. It is like you swim in the sky and above you is a second sky. I tried to capture this moment with all my high technology photographic equipment, but apart grabing darkness and some voices screaming:” holy *** something touched my feet” there is nothing left than indulging in memories.

Last stop: Angkor Wat, in Seam Reap, 40$ for a three days pass, holy water! But if you realize how huge this terrain is, 40$ is nothing to keep all the temples for eternity. So the first day we arrived, full of energy, desperate to see Angkor Wat, we decided to rent bicycles and “do the small loop” DIY. Great but very painful idea. We ve been driving for 7 hours this day. By Sunset we’ve passed just the half of the temples we wanted to see on this day. Luckily we met a local who was working at the temple. He was amused by the idea us cycling all day long. He offered us a tour for the next day starting with sunrise at Angkor Wat, ” doing the big loop”, the kings wife temple of Banteay Srei and waterfalls for 10$ each. Great deal and a long 12 hours day. There are many rumors how to avoid the crowds, apart from Ta Prohm, which is apparently crowdy all the time, we kinda manage to stay away from the crowds. Of course there is no way to be alone by the lake in front of Angkor Wat at sunrise or sunset. So after sharing the sunrise with millions of people we decided not to go inside, we drove straight to the Bayon temple which was very empty as it opens at 7 am. We visited Angkor Wat on the third day by noon, compared to the days before it was empty.


Apart from Angkor Wat we visited the Angkor Hospital for Children, which offers free treatment to the cambodian children. There is a small visitor center which takes donation.
The last day in cambodia was sad in many ways: i ate a one kilo dragon fruit, which was apparently to much for my stomach, we had to leave this beautiful country and also say goodbye to our travelbuddy Yasmin. We spend 6 weeks together, day and night. It was bound to happen, sooner or later. Last evening we spend drinking expired red wine and we enjoyed our first khmer massage in kind of a pyjama 🙂

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Crossing the border to Laos was very easy.Early in the morning there are a few minivans driving to the border (no nightbuses as the border closes at 5pm). In total in took us 11hours to get to 4000 islands in Laos, after changing the minivan for a bus and a public transporter. We paid around 42$ for the visa on arrival.

Adelia

Vietnam-or the place where adventure lurks at every (street) corner

After spending the most comfortable 2 weeks of our journey so far in Kyoto, it was time for the next destination. Having a short intermezzo in Teipeh/Taiwan where we met an old friend of Adelia who showed us around the biggest night market in Asia and the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, we arrived in Hanoi. Meeting 2 friends who started their world trip from Amsterdam (see their route and adventures on www.around-the-blog.com) and my boyfriend combined the arrival in Vietnam with the feeling of coming home actually and the first thing we did was having some beers in the old quarter of Hanoi, probably one of the busiest places I´ve ever seen. Sitting in the narrow streets on some tiny plastic chairs watching the colorful mix of street vendors, musicians and backpack-loaded tourists brings a special atmosphere, as if you become a part of this colorful mosaic just by sitting there and having a Pho. Thrilled by this unique mood, we took a walk from the Hoan-Kiem-lake to the Temple of literature passing the Ho-Chi-Minh Memorial and end at the (smaller than expected) Tran Quoc pagoda. Not so easy in the hot, humid climate-especially walking along streets makes you recognise what a regulated vehicle inspection like in Europe can procure. So we longed for some more nature and decided to visit Halong Bay, one of the 7 natural world wonders. This breathtaking landscape originates from a dragon, winding his way through the cliffs and rocks of this bay according to the vietnamese myths. Here we also made the first experience of masstourism, meaning that this bay was full of big boats and also our tour operater was just rushing through his program without any consideration of individual needs but anyway- we had a great time visiting a cave, paddeling out with a canoe and having a mini-party on the rooftop of our boat.

After two days there, we continued down south by night train (btw there is no possibility to go directly- you have to go back to Hanoi)  to the National Park Phong Nha-Ke Bang where the biggest cave in the world was just discovered some years ago. We found ourselves in the middle of highly-flooded fields, rivers and streets! As there was not much to visit these days due to former heavy rain falls, we rented a bicycle and entered the wideness of the rain forests and its beautiful views. We visited the botanical garden being welcomed by some monkeys (probably macaques) and saw a waterfall. Due to the weather we directly continued to Huế, former capital of Vietnam.Visiting the citadel and discovering the city by bicycle we had a very good time here. A big surprise was the concert of Vonwegenlisbeth in a university where we could enter for free. It was so sweet to see all the (still very young vietnamese) students sitting in their seats and we decided to take this concert “the german way” and started to dance in front of the stage! After a while more and more people joined us and the singer Matthias announced that this was the first time that people danced on their Asia-tour! This was an unforgettable moment on our journey for sure as it was a nice local experience to watch the vietnamese guys go crazy and dance and smile with us.

Our next destination was Hoi An, the city of thousand lights. Right by the river, this city is definetly worth visiting as it has this leaned-back atmosphere with many delicious restaurants and sites to see. We entered the japanese bridge, the most beautiful temple Quan Cong and the cultural museum (the view from the roof top is very recommendable!). Worth tasting is the mango cake sold in the streets, reminding us a little of the japanese mochis and has a peanutfilled-core but actually nothing of mango. Walking through the ancient town feels like a journey back in time because the buildings are so well-maintained and especially at night thousands of candles and lanterns cover the city in a cosy light. Talking about walking, we made the experience that from 3pm there are no scooters allowed in the old town- our scooters were removed from where we parked them and brought to a hall what nearly caused us a heart attack as we didn´t know about this! But we were lucky to not pay anything for this mistake, in general we didn´t make any bad experiences in our two weeks in Vietnam!

 

Our next stop Dalat we reached by flight from Na Trang due to time-saving measures and it was a nice surprise to go from the shores of Hoi An to the mountains and the coffee plantations of Vietnam (worlds 2nd biggest exporter after Brasil, sooo delicious with a trace of chocolate) in just one hour. Visiting the national park, we encountered a waterfall and enjoyed a nice trail through the wildness. We ended up being stuck in the rush hour with our scooters and got into a bad traffic- so now we are ready for the next step to drive in a bigger city also:op

Did you ever hear about “canyoning”? Me nether; so this means that you climb on top of a big hill or waterfall and abseil yourself only secured by a rope. It was such a thrill to climb up the waterfall and then abseil down in the pouring water, I never experienced this mixture of hights, physical power control and adventure before! Rasmus and Selma even jumped down an 11 m high mountain into the refreshing water.


 In the night we went to a very cool bar, the 100 roofes that is consisting of an enormous, self-made labyrinth on more than 6 floors with the sweetest roof garden!  This was the last encounter of our tour before going to our final destination Ho-Chi-Minh-City.

Here, we visited the war remnants museum and were deeply moved by all the horrible memories of Agent Orange, the war and the many faces of the vietnamese (and american) victims.

After this 14 days we visited 6 different cities and drove more than 2000 km. Maybe this is the reason why I don´t really got deeper in touch with vietnamese culture or habits- unfortunately. The most special experience was meeting the family of Sang, one of Rasmus friends who helped us a lot. Even dining together was very special because we got the best vietnamese food we tried in this 2 weeks. 


Still, our journey through Vietnam was absolutely recommendable for the adventurers of you.

In our upcoming post we tell you everything about our experiences of crossing the border of Vietnam and enchanting Cambodia and how we persived the lovely Khmer culture.

 

Stay inspired by our journey,

many pre-christmas regards,

Mella