Travel

Trees Of Angkor

By the early 15th century, once mighty Khmer empire was in tatters. In previous centuries it had occupied and vassalised most of Southeast Asia, providing funds for its grandiose building projects. But now Angkor’s irrigation system wasn’t able to provide for agriculture to feed the population, and external enemies sensing their time to come, completed the humiliation in battlefield. Other contributing factors to decline has also been speculated, such as climatic changes, Black Death, and religious schism’s weakening the state internally.


In Ta Phrom.

Large body of population abandoned Angkor in year 1431, once it was considered indefensible against repeated attacks by Siamese Ayutthaya kingdom. Population moved further east to current Phnom Penh region, but some evidence shows also parallel Khmer kingdom’s existing at times in both.


In Ta Phrom.


In Preah Khan.

At its hight, Angkor is estimated of being city of million citizens, largest in the world at that time. However most buildings were made from wood, and had little chance of survival when times got tough. What was still standing after wars, was quickly swallowed by the jungle. Only the largest stone temples had any chance of survival in coming centuries. To witness what massive silk-cotton trees and strangler figs an do over time, Ta Phrom temple has been spared precisely for this purpose. Other temples such as Preah Khan also have them growing on the walls and roofs, slowly but surely twisting, bending and breaking the architecture.


In Preah Khan.


Temple inner yard in Ta Phrom.


Angkor Wat is the largest single temple complex of Angkor.

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Burma West — Arakan Coast and Bay of Bengal

Traveling in western Myanmar spring 2019: Mandalay, Mrauk-U, Sittwe, Pathein and Ngwesaung.

Brief history. For centuries, current day western Burma was an independent Arakanese kingdom, situated in coastal strip at the Bay of Bengal. It was only in 1784 when Burmese conquered the region and annexed it as part of their kingdom. This occupation would last only 40 years, until First Anglo-Burmese War, end result of which was British occupation. Later in century the rest of Burma would suffer same fate as British were expanding their Indian possessions. After independence in 1948, Arakan coast remained as part of Burma as Rakhine state. Today it is one of least developed parts of the country, due to long conflicts between Bamar majority and local ethnicities, namely Rohingya, Kachin and Arakanese.


Burma in 1900’s, left. British annexations in 3 stages marked. Trip to Burma covered by this post, on right.


Mandalay Palace and surrounding moat at center of city. Unfortunately largely wooden palace was burned down during Second World War bombing raids, when Japanese were occupying the city.


U Bein bridge is popular tourist attraction, both local and foreigners alike.


Shopping in Mahamuni Paya.


Mahamuni Buddha image was brought from Arakan to then Burmese capital Amarapura (outskirts of present day Mandalay), along with other war loot (see bellow).


These unassuming bronze statues in Mahamuni Paya in Mandalay have fascinating history to tell. They were originally made by the Khmer’s at height of their power for Angkor Wat temple. By early 1400’s Khmer empire was in decline, and final blow to their former prestige came in 1431, when Siamese (Thai), laid a siege on Khmer capital and managed to conquer it. Along with them as war loot, left the bronze statues west to Siamese capital Ayutthaya. Siamese in turn were defeated in 1563-4 by great Burmese king Bayinnaung, who ransacked Siamese capital. Bayinnaung had Khmer bronze statues moved to his capital Bago (Pegu). Then in 1599, statues were on the move again further west to Mrauk-U, when Arakanese (Rakhine) king Min Razagyi, with help of Portugese mercenaries sacked Bago. Interestingly, there’s another version of events in the plague next to statues in Mahamuni Paya: “…when the Thai King Byanarit attacked Toungoo in 1599, the Rakhine king fought from the Myanmar side. In that was, the Thai king was defeated. As he owed a debt of gratitude to the Rakhine king, the king of Toungoo (Burma) presented the Rakhine king with various treasures including the large Bronze Figures”. Thai King Byanarit is likely the King Naresuan of Ayutthaya, who was with his forces in the region in 1600, had skirmishes with Arakanese, and had eventually to withdraw. And so statues are now in Arakanese capital Mrauk-U for almost next 200 years. In 1784, Burmese king Bodawpaya sent armies led by his son and crown prince Thado Minsaw, to end the existence of Arakanese kingdom. War ended in defeat for Arakanese, and Mrauk-U was systematically looted. Back into Burmese capital Amarapura went the famous Mahamuni Buddha image (see above). Likewise, the Khmer bronze statues made voyage now to eastwards, to the same temple. It is believed that there were originally around 30 statues that were moved from kingdom to kingdom, but last of Burmese kings, Thibaw, was in desperate need for arms when British were annexing Burma piece by piece. Most of statues were melted and cast as canons, and only 6 remains today. Bronze cannons of Khmer origin did little to help Thibaw though. After British reached Mandalay in 1885, they sent him to exile in India and so ended Burmese royal dynasty with him.


Kipling Cafe near Mandalay Palace. Famous 19th century British poet was born in India and lived there his youth. During and aftermath of Third Anglo-Burmese War, Rudyard Kipling was a reporter in Punjab and closely followed events as British and Indian troops were trying to pacify newly occupied lands. Telegrams kept coming about the casualties, as Burmese had resorted to bitter guerrilla warfare to fight occupiers, land was lawless and banditry epidemic. Eventually 14000 troops managed to quell the armed opposition. After Kipling left India to move Europe, he visited Rangoon (Yangon) and Moulmein (Mawlamyine), but never came to Mandalay. Great source of information about Kipling in India and Burma, link.

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!” …


Let’s go west. Mandalay alone would warrant entire blog post, here’s where the trip actually starts!

I started my trip to west from Mandalay, by taking a bus to Mrauk-U. Trip was long bus drive at night in roads that were in poor condition. Large parts of road were either not paved at all or only narrow strip that would fit only one vehicle. After arriving next morning, felt like a coma patient and rest of the day went recuperating.


Pagodas in Mrauk-U.

Due to reasons described above, Mrauk-U remains less touristy than better known Bagan. Saw perhaps two other tourists, and oftentimes region is off limits for tourists entirely. At night our bus passed a checkpoint and my passport was checked by military, but luckily this time they let us pass. Compared to Bagan, Mrauk-U is more hilly and silhouettes of pagodas provide nice photo opportunities, especially at dawn and dusk.


Remains of royal palace in Mrauk-U. It was built originally 1430, and improved significantly in 1531. Palace complex had several buildings such as parliament offices, armories etc. Mrauk-U dynasty lasted 354 years with 49 kings.

Visit to Chin tribe. Besides historic sights, nearby Chin villages offer fascinating glimpse how locals are living in their communities.


Portraits of Chin women in their 60’s and 70’s. Old tradition was to tattoo all young girls bellow age 10, with tribal identification. This was to prevent them marrying men from other tribes.


Young man preparing to start an engine.


Although brand new cell tower brings Internet to village, water is still transported in traditional way.


New housing is communal effort.


Mrauk-U boat jetty. Long boat is doing daily trips to Sittwe.

To the coast. Boat from Mrauk-U to Sittwe left around 7.30 in the morning, and arrived noonish. Views from boat were nice, as we progressed the delta. Sittwe is in confluence of the Kaladan, Mayu, and Lay Mro rivers emptying into the Bay of Bengal.


Sittwe is capital of Rakhine state. Its ideal starting point to begin exploring Arakan region, as daily flights connect it to Yangon.


Pathein pagoda at morning mist.

Pathein is further south from Sittwe, westwards from Yangon from where bus takes about 4 hours. Although most tourists bypass Pathein, on their way to coast, I decided to stop for few nights, and have a look the life in the city. Town has lively river front where one can observe life in Burmese provincial town.


Morning mist in Pathein.


Ngwesaung beaches are mostly frequented by Burmese locals, but some foreigners have found them too.


Beach scenes from Ngwesaung.


Sunset in Sittwe beach.

Yangon Old Rangoon


Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset.

This is second part of three part series about Spring 2019 trip to Burma (Myanmar).

Am sitting in a cafe in Bangkok, reminiscing my recent trip to Burma and trying mold materials into something. Am watching outside as Thailand is preparing a week of Songran. Similar works were ongoing in Yangon, for Burmese equivalent called Thingyan. When new year was observed at the time am roughly placing this post, it was modest religious festival, not outlandish water splashing riot of today.


Sule Pagoda at dusk. According to legends, its even older than better known Shwedagon. Being outskirts of downtown, Shwedagon has had room to grow, whereas Sule is in the middle of traffic junction in old town, and surrounded by a lot of buildings.

Due to its long isolation, Burmese old colonial architecture has survived relatively well. Demolition of building blocks didn’t occur as much, but old buildings suffered from neglect and lack of renovation funds over the years. City east-west and north-south grid pattern was laid by British, after the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. However, judging old maps prior the war, city already had layout that supported the design.


Above: old map of Yangon before Second Anglo-Burmese War. “Rough sketch (from memory) of old town of Rangoon, as it existed between 1836 and 1849. Obligingly to the author by a resident during those years, July 1852.”
Bellow: Yangon today from Google Maps. Grid pattern was centered to Sule Pagoda, although map above suggest there was same directional roads to it already in early part of 1800’s (likely the road heading north from Main Wharf).


Something new, something moulding. Yangon downtown.


Streets of Yangon.


More street shots from Yangon.


Yangon River crossing is lively scene of small boats coming and going to Dala side.


Buddhist monks and nuns can be seen every morning doing their alms walks. Pious Burmese consider it their honor to donate food.

The Secretariat

Secretariat is former Victorian style administration complex, and was used by British colonial civil servants and bureaucrats. Its building was long project which completed 1905. In 1937 Burma Province was separated from rest of British India, giving more local authority for people working in Secretariat. Next phase came after the independence in 1948 when British left, giving keys to Burmese themselves.

Complex forms a large square U-arch.

Inside Secretariat. Saloon doors, long corridors that channel winds for cooling effect, long halls with high roofs, these are some of characteristics of Secretariat. Complex is currently empty and is ongoing big restoration program.


Opposing double spiral staircases were a fashionable thing at the time of building.


Secretariat was also location where assassination of General Aung San and six of cabinet ministers took place in this room (above) in 1947. Its currently closed from public (photo taken through window). Aung San is father of modern Myanmar’s prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi.


Saint Mary’s Cathedral (completed 1899) is largest in Burma, and right next to Secretariat. Combining visit to both is easy.

At Shwedagon

Perhaps best known landmark of Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Its in vicinity of the downtown, but walking there takes quite a while. Taxi at the time of writing cost around 8000 Kyats (around 5 Dollars). Shwedagon Pagoda is also well known by Buddhists outside Burma as its considered most sacred religious sites in the country, could hear for example Thai spoken by some visitors. Wikipedia:

Historians and archaeologists maintain that the pagoda was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. However, according to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, which would make it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world.

Snake Temple, Hmwe Paya


Hmwe Paya. Temple is on other side of the Yangon river. Dala ferry takes 15 minutes to cross, then hiring a taxi or motorbike to reach the temple is around 30 minute drive. Locals know about it, so if heading there on your own, they can point you to right direction.


Temple is home of large Pythons slithering among the Buddha statues.

Obviously there’s lots more to explore and see in Yangon, for example the old ring railway, various parks in the city, Chinatown and 19th street bar and barbecue restaurants and food stalls. Hotel Strand is renovated old luxury hotel, nice stop for a coffee even if not wanting to pay for its room rates. Back in 2013 (my first trip to Yangon), Strand was one of few places where stable Internet was available, so times change… And, as they continue to change, city would benefit a lot from developed riverfront, currently occupied by large harbor.

Myanmar Travel Practicalities

Information tidbits about traveling in Myanmar (Burma).

Spring 2019:

Just returned from my third trip to Myanmar in this decade, earlier ones been in 2013 and 2015. In some ways, Myanmar seemed like it always had been for me. People are helpful and friendly, but their English vocabulary and pronunciation is not always easy for a foreigner. Sights, smells, sounds, the whole world of senses has remained much the same. Street infrastructure, railroads, accommodation, food options, while improving, also seemed much the same. Yangon still has lot of molding colonial era buildings desperately in need for expensive renovation. Landmark of the city, the Secretariat was now under big renovation and whole complex was under supporting structures for workers. Security situation seemed similar. Myanmar national army, the Tatmadaw, is fighting in various corners of the country against local militia groups. During my stay, Arakan Army was causing security situation in Mrauk-U region to deteriorate. I heard remote gunfight myself, on evening of March 18th. This prompted guesthouse owner to tell me to leave first thing in the next morning, cutting my trip there shorter than planned. In coming days (when I had already left to Sittwe) news broke that there was shooting also in the town itself. Links [1],[2]. Usually tourists are strictly banned entering these areas, and am sure Mrauk-U is again off limits until situation becomes normal.


Secretariat, Yangon’s old colonial era building.

But while lot has remained same, some things have improved significantly. Dodgy 3G and WiFi networks I reported (bellow) earlier, had changed to quite reliable and well covering 4G and wireless networks. SIM cards are sold and people dabble their phones like everywhere, something that was unheard of in 2013. Guesthouses and cafe’s also have better WiFi networks. Dollar dependency, which was already vanishing in 2015, is all but gone. Sometimes prices are still quoted for convenience in Dollars, but one can pay with Kyats fine. Number of ATM’s has also increased still, although in small townlets its still better carry enough cash just in case. Accommodation has improved somewhat, and can also be booked online, but its still not where Thailand is for example. Visa is easy to arrange online before coming, in two or three business days. On, and new Indian made tuktuk’s have entered streets everywhere. Earlier it was mainly tricycles and motorbikes with sidecar, which ofcourse are there still.

TL;DR: Myanmar still quite an adventure and my favorites in this part of the world, but many uncertainties and inconveniences experienced before have reduced or disappeared altogether. I will make another post later of 2019 trip, bellow are my travel notes from two trips earlier.

Summer 2015: Am just back from my second trip to Myanmar. Its over two years since my previous trip.

— Accommodation: to my feeling had remained mostly the same (only exception being Bagan, where new hotels and guesthouses have risen). My previous and this trip were both on low season and no guesthouse was never fully booked when walking in. I paid generally 10-15 USD for one night in non-ac, fan, shared bathroom option.
— Money: Dollar dependency is disappearing. People seem to start trusting their own currency, and wasn’t at any time situation where Kyat would have been totally rejected. Dollars can still be used, and often prices are quoted in USD. But multiply the amount by thousand (or 1100 to be exact) and you got your price in Kyat’s. If using Dollars, better still, use only brand new ‘big head’ ones. New ATM’s of Burmese banks that accept MasterCard and Visa are more common, not just in bigger cities.
— Transport: roads and busses are improving as well, but only just. Smaller roads are in bad shape still. Rail transport is still same, trains are late for hours, and when desperately trying to catch the schedule, going old tracks can be gravity defying experience! Flight connections to and from Myanmar have increased a lot, Yangon and Mandalay being most easily accessible from direct flights outside the country. At the time I studied options, direct flight Chiangmai (Thailand) to Mandalay wasn’t available, but no doubt that won’t take long anymore. Mandalay – Bangkok is there, likewise Chiangmai – Yangon.
— Internet and calls: street landline telephone booths seem mostly vanished, and smartphones are glowing at faces of young and old. Liberalisation of the telecom industry was in the news back in 2013 has gone forward on full force, and teenagers are taking selfies just like in Thailand and everywhere. Brand new neon signs of Samsung, Oppo, Huawei are shining everywhere, in small towns that barely have any street lights. 3G prepaid cards are widely available for tourists as well. Often guesthouses have least some kind of WiFi available as well, although exceptions were and when working, very slowly.
— Military restrictions: Unlike two years ago Mrauk-U and Sittwe (north west Myanmar near Bangladesh border), was now open for tourists. Met a couple who had done the arduous bus journey there and back. North east corner near in Kachin state challenging to travel, now for several years. Popular Irrawaddy boat trip Myitkyina – Bhamo – Katha – Mandalay is still not possible. River boat to Mandalay can be done from Bhamo, but one can access it by boat or fly in. Road access requires special permits, usually out of reach from tourists.

Spring 2013:

— WiFi and Internet access. Generally hard to find and when available, snail speed. Power breaks interrupt net access often, so even if cafe advertise Free WiFi, check does it work before buying your drink. Power breaks can also damage electronics, so careful not to leave your device charging too long periods.
— ATM’s. Yangon and Mandalay are no problem anymore, especially former. Yangon Airport and many city shopping malls have Visa/Mastercard compatible ATM’s.
— US Dollars. Only brand new (no wrinkles), “big head” notes are accepted. Train tickets, hotels are usually paid with Dollars. Bus tickets, meals and other things with local money Kyat. Street money changers in Yangon offer lucrative rates, but tourist should be careful and count money carefully. Their hands are fast. Banks and official money exchange booths gave also good rates, and are safe.
— Accommodation was no problem. Prices for A/C-dorm, or single room with a fan and shared bathroom, were generally 7-12 Dollars. Higher than Thailand, but not astronomical like some high season traveler stories tell. Rooms were also always available.


Public telephone booth for local calls. Liberalizing the mobile phones from state control had begun, so these booths are probably disappearing sight. When I arrived to Yangon Airport, none of my sim cards (from Europe, Thailand) connect to Myanmar mobile operators.

For traveler on budget (money is not used to pave the way), Myanmar can be rough experience. Roads are generally in poor condition (except new highway between Yangon and Mandalay & Bagan), so night busses are no sleeper busses. Seats are for small Burmese, large/tall Western person must fit in or cry and fit it. State controlled railway prices are double to busses and tracks are even worse condition than roads. Burmese are very friendly and helpful, but speak little to no English. Found personally their accent hard to follow, even basic words had often to be repeated few times.

Photo Essay — North of Northern Vietnam

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, last of the three part posts.

North Vietnam is mountainous forested eastbound extension of Himalayan ranges that protrude deep into Southeast Asia. For many years now it has fascinated me, and been prowling region in neighboring Thailand [1], [2], and Burma [1], [2], [3]. Region was for a long seen by foreigners as difficult and even dangerous backyard. French geographic surveys, colonial administrators and Christian missionaries gradually begun entering and recording the area at the turn of 20th century. Only after conflicts died down and road networks improve during the last decades of century, it gradually started to open up for wider world.

Found useful summary of hill tribes people living in Southeast Asia (source bellow):

long before there was a Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Thailand, there have been people of distinctly different cultures living in the mountainous areas that make up those borders today.

Each group has a separate culture and speaks mutually unintelligible languages. What the different people do share is a probable origin to both their language and their animistic/elder-worship religions.

Each of the peoples’ languages originate in the Sino-Tibetan linguistic group, so they share some phonology.

All of these aspects make the Hill Tribe languages similar to the roots of Thai, Burmese, Khmer and Laos, but the differences are much greater. Most importantly, none of the Hill Tribe peoples have an authentic alphabet (many of their languages have now been romanised). This oral tradition was an isolating factor during the important intermingling periods of the previous millennia that brought together the different peoples who make up the Southeast Asian Peninsula. While the lowlanders were homogenising, intermarrying and strengthening bonds through blending language and culture (perhaps most importantly the acceptance of Buddhism), the highlanders kept apart, not only from the mass of people, but from each other as well.

Source: link.

Sa Pa

Sa Pa is popular for doing treks and visiting local villages. Scooters are plenty for rent in tourist agencies downtown. Weather in Sa Pa changes constantly and now in winter its been quite foggy for several days on row. Views in mountain sides down to valleys are great, rice terraces add their own flavor into mix. Its easy to go also to Fansipan, the highest mountain of Vietnam at over 3000 meters with stunning views (first 3 photos in this post are all taken in Fansipan). There is modern funicular taking visitors all the way to the top, a trip that in earlier would have been exhausting endeavor can now be done in half a day.


Sa Pa youth in town square.


Hmong people. Both men and women wear black dress that can be recognized easily.

Sa Pa population census was done ten years ago, which recorded 52899 people living in the region. From this 52% were Hmong (including sub groups), 23% Dao, Kinh 18%, Tay 5%, Giay 1%, Phu La 1%. Due to their isolation, tribes managed to preserve their culture, language, arts and traditions, while modern times entered populous lower lands.


Dao women wearing red head scarf.


Selfie time while heading to Fansipan mountain.


Sa Pa in the mist. In winter time mist often covers the region for several days. Best time to visit Sa Pa is on spring when weather is clear, and rice fields are on fresh green. A lot has been done to improve infrastructure in region, but at my time of visit late 2018, roads were often still in poor condition.


Sa Pa town at night, seen from Fansipan mountain.


Rice terraces in Sa Pa.

Cao Bang. Roads on border town are dusty, heavy traffic keep it in air. Many people still do “honest manual work” and families have first babies in their twenties. Vietnam is a young nation, even compared to some neighbors like Thailand and China. Arriving for first time to remote town, at sunset just as light dims and stores close. Not knowing where to sleep, or indeed where exactly are the hotels and hostels. Just as bus nears, blue dot on a mobile map is moving painfully slow and at the same time too fast. It’s getting cold, smell of burning firewood is flowing low and traffic lights are peering through it. Then, after arriving and finding a place for the night, a sense humble gratitude. Opening the bed with thick blankets, getting ready for asleep and watching river Song behind the window. It is coming across the border from China. Tomorrow watching the scene the magic is gone, but least for a while it’s still there.


Cao Bang region: Ban Gioc waterfall is shared by Vietnam (left side of photo) and China (right bank).


Nguom Ngao cave is another natural wonder near Ban Giog waterfall, both can be visited easily in a same trip.

To the low lands: Cat Ba Island and Hua Long Bay. Cat Ba island is holiday island, only half an hour speed boat from Haiphong so its with easy reach from Hanoi as well. Island has large natural park isolated from traffic, but main attraction is close proximity Hua Long Bay, with its magnificent limestone rocks and isles, in various shapes and sizes. Most tourist visit Hua Long Bay using package tour and stay overnight in a boat cabin. Cat Ba is another good alternative, if feeling like visiting places on own pace and sleeping in hotel room. Island has good infrastructure and plentiful accommodation in different price ranges. Winter time is not warm, actually sea water felt warmer than air above it.


View from Hua Long Bay and Cat Ba island.


Monkey business, Hua Long Bay.

Ninh Binh is often called Hua Long Bay on land, with high steep karst formations, caves carved by the water, and fantastic natural scenery. There are some historic sights for instance Bai Dinh temple complex.


Low lands in Ninh Binh. It is sometimes called “Hua Long Bay on-land”.


Bai Dinh complex in Ninh Binh.

Temple has new large section with impressive architecture, but behind are the caves from where it all begun.

Vietnam’s culture, traditions and fortunes through the history are heavily influenced by one direction: China in the north. For a full millennia, Annam (Vietnam’s earlier name) was a Chinese province. Even during the independence, rulers often chose to show respect and nominal vassalage to Chinese emperor, just not to give him funny ideas such as sending new occupying army south. Mongols tried to conquer Vietnam on three occasions (AD 1258, 1285, and 1287–88), but jungle warfare in tropics was too much for even Mongol warriors and campaigns ended badly for them. Champa culture in southern side of the tall country differs ethnically from north, and was more connected to Khmer’s in Cambodia as well as Javanese and seaborne cultures of Southeast Asia.


Viet youth.


St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi downtown around Christmas time.


Famous Turtle Tower, in Hoan Kiem lake. Hanoi downtown.


Young students often circle the Hoan Kiem lake next to Hanoi old quarters. They approach foreigners to practice their English skills.


Rainy day in Hanoi downtown.

Hanoi. Old town of Hanoi still has its charm, with its bustling markets, street vendors and side streets, small shops, old French colonial buildings. Vietnamese have quick eyes, paying a shop or cafe they somehow always manage to gauge notes in my wallet in a second and telling me which notes to use. Living costs in Vietnam is still bellow Thailand for instance. I visited Hanoi 2012, and while city obviously has developed fast during this time, street scenes do not differ much to 2019. Most rapid pace of change occurred 1986 and afterwards (Doi Moi reforms).


Scenes from Hanoi downtown.

Downtown is photogenic spot, with always something new to observe.


Sa Pa valley view from Fansipan at sunset.

Ha Giang Loop — Scenic Ride in North Vietnam

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, second of the three part posts.

Ha Giang is famous for its “loop”, which actually consists of several different loop’ish routes, some shorter some longer. Route is best explored on two wheels by riding yourself, although local traffic police require international driving license for Vietnam. If this is a problem, consult travel agencies (often working as part of guest house) in Ha Giang town for options. Shorter route (described bellow) can be done in 3 days, in longer loops one can spend around a week. In many ways, Ha Giang loop, its idea (ride motorbike to mountainous border region), stunning vistas, and hill tribes people living the region. It all reminded me the Mae Hong Son loop in northern Thailand.


3-4 day Ha Giang loop and northern border of the country. Trip is usually begins from and ends to Ha Giang town (south-west in picture). Town that has good selection of rental vehicles and tour agencies. Route can be made clockwise or counter, but best views are on northern portion. If I would do it again, I’d go counter clockwise. A on map is Yen Minh, which can be used as first night stopover although it takes only half a day reach it from Ha Giang. Rest of day can be used for exploring the surrounding region. B is Lung Cu, most northern place in the whole country right next to China. It also can be reached in half day (from A), and book to a guesthouse around mid day. C is Dong Van, after Ha Giang, largest town in the loop. From B to C, it takes only 2-3 hours, so either can be used as a base for night. There are plenty of guest houses and some scooter rentals in Dong Van. D is Ma Pi Leng pass, that has the best views in the loop. Narrow emerald green river snakes deep in the valley bellow! Because road zigzags in mountain sides at this part, there are not much infrastructure like guest houses here. D best explored when leaving or arriving to Dong Van (C). E is Na Phong, one of many smaller villages along the way. Scenes are still nice, but best part of trip is now behind. Its not too much of a stretch to drive from Dong Van all the way back to Ha Giang, if in a rush and starting early.

Map of the wider region, town of Ha Giang marked center.

Preparations. During winter time around December-January, wind proof jacket, long sleeve, jeans, good shoes and preferably glows and helmet with a wind mask help keeping warm. T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops are definitely not enough, and obviously not safe either. For someone not used to riding motorbikes on mountains, its best to practice first on somewhere with less traffic. On the loop, getting used to ways of local traffic needs special attention. Always riding on side of road and especially in curves. You never know if there is overtaking bus arriving head on your lane. Learning how to engine breaking, when going down hill is also good to know. Before starting the trip, make sure tires are OK, breaks grip well, and lights work! There are gas stations all along the way, but some are far apart. If knowing ride ahead can be long, its better fill up just for peace of mind. Oh, and remember to buy a rain poncho, riding around on wet clothes gets old very fast. These don’t take much space and good place to keep them is under your seat (not bottom of your backpack).


My trusty Honda road warrior and locals walking by. Somewhere by the loop.


Ma Pi Leng pass views at dusk.


Typical small town in the valley in Ha Giang region.


While driving around Ha Giang and elsewhere in north, locals were often traveling on foot. Oftentimes they were carrying heavy loads such as firewood or hay for cattle. Could not avoid thinking of how long that will it last? Will younger generation be willing to endure such hardships, while watching scooters and cars buzzing by?


Early morning. Old lady working by the road side.


Viet youth in Ha Giang region.


Morning in Dong Van. Family preparing to head out for the day.


Vistas in the loop.


Hmong “Royal Palace” is nice brief visit along the way, approx. 15km from Dong Van. Without a guide, museum is pretty empty experience though.

Hmong Royals can be considered as their tribes head headmen, local warlords with small militia under their command, and opium traffickers to nearby China. This link provides some insights to two men who were the royals of this palace.


Ha Giang downtown. Town is split into two by small river. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and guest houses, but not major attractions with center itself.

Traveling in Northern Vietnam — War Years and Independence

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, first of the three part posts.

What a delight to have real keyboard. Been traveling in Southeast Asia and piling up material, now lets blog some!


Scenery in Lung Cu at Chinese border, at northern tip of Vietnam.

Sparsely populated northern regions of Vietnam have often been safe heavens for groups having trouble with the established order, such as revolutionaries, smugglers and militias groups. In mountainous and forested Cao Bang, right next to Chinese border, revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh first setup a shop 1941 in a cave.


Cave in Ho Chi Minh jungle camp in Pac Bo, near town of Cao Bang, where he was hiding Japanese troops and organizing movement in the country. Decades later when Chinese troops were occupying the region, they vandalized it with explosives, knowing the importance to Vietnamese.


Memorial temple in Pac Bo. Location has long been pilgrimage like destination in Vietnam.

Ho was on a mission to build an movement that would evolve into a regime fighting first the Japanese occupiers, then wrestle control from French colonialists (Chinese troops were also in country because of Japanese, complicating things further), then thwart American advances and their bid of independent South Vietnam, and finally Chinese again because of Vietnamese war with their Red Khmer ally in Cambodia. Wars also spread to neighboring Laos. All this while building new nation in a process. Ho Chi Minh was a Communist icon of twentieth century much like Lenin, Tito, Mao, Castro. Like them, Ho Chi Minh didn’t hesitate using also ruthless and coercive methods, as he deemed required. When wars finally had quiet down, Uncle Ho was long embalmed in a mausoleum in Hanoi downtown. Today he is important historical figure in Vietnam, his statues, posters and flags can be seen everywhere.

Dien Bien Phu. From the valley floor, one can awe low mountains surrounding plateau from both sides. Looking easygoing life in this small provincial town, sun setting behind western hills and people minding their businesses, it’s hard to grasp the role it has to play in the country’s history. Old Japanese built airfield is still in same place, and has flights to Hanoi, pretty much as it did in late 1953…


@Dien Bien Phu museum: General Navarre, Commander-In-Chief of French army in Indochina, inspected Dien Bien Phu fortification group (29th of November 1953)

Couple days go fast visiting in war memorials, museum and cemetery and looking the scenery, although they can be done easily in a one day if in a rush. Many travelers en route to or from Laos simply treat Dien Bien Phu as a bus transit point. There are couple low hills in the valley, that became French only strong points, a far cry from what their enemies had. Unbeknownst to French, Viet Minh (Communist led independence movement of Vietnam), after realizing the base building deep in the mountain region, had started their own concealed effort to counter it. Arduous work of transporting artillery pieces, mortars and anti-air weapons to region, hauling them to mountains, digging them to positions in tunnels. When all was said and done, guns could be pointed downward to valley and shot with direct fire.


French trench system in strong point Eliane and large crater made by Vietnamese mine detonated under defenders.

Judging the valley scene, it is perhaps around 5-10 kilometers east-west, but is longer north-south. If they had wanted, Viet Minh could have shot from one side to another, over the valley, with their bigger guns. French, when eventually realizing something big was going on, underestimated the its scale and overestimated their own abilities. When Viet Minh guns finally opened up, they soon cut the only lifeline of French garrison had, the airfield unusable. French could not get out and could not defeat the surrounding forces. Their air-power and artillery proved useless against camouflaged and well defended enemy, artillery commander made his own conclusions and committed suicide after his earlier confidence had been shattered by the reality. Patrols to mountains were facing an enemy of 2-3 times of their own size. With a benefit of time its easy to be armchair general and make all the right decisions, but one cannot still help but wonder what went on in the heads of French military leaders (Henri Navarre in Hanoi, Christian de Castries in the valley). War museum in town can give some insight. By looking how primitive weapons Viet Minh were known to have, what chances they would have opposing WW2 veteran troops from all across the French empire, equipped with modern weapons and technology.


@Dien Bien Phu museum: Viet Minh air defense system (assumed by French)

What was less well known was the level of Soviet and Chinese material and advisers. Combined with cunning of Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap, and endurance of Viet Minh soldiers and workers, French surrounded after bitter deference in a hopeless situation. A mere decade later US forces led by William Westmoreland would face similar problems and eventually, the same end result for Americans.


@Dien Bien Phu museum: Viet Minh air defense system (actual, on transport)


French command bunker where Col. de Castries isolated himself, once the situation had become evident for everyone.


Clips from movie Jump Into Hell. Cel. de Castries in the center right.

Jump Into Hell movie now on YouTube was done soon after the actual events. Watching today, it’s quite comical experience and shows how movies have changed. French commander is depicted as gentleman with a strong will and admiration of his men. Movie also offers a glimpse of Red Scare mentality in American experience of Cold War.

After French left Vietnam in mid 1950’s, Americans would enter almost a decade later in increasing numbers. Their presence in North Vietnam was limited to using air power. Historic sights and places are further south and central Vietnam.


“Dien Bien Phu in the air”. Poster from 2012 (my first trip to Hanoi) is an allusion to earlier victory over the French.


@Museum in Hanoi. Much to dismay for Americans during late 1960’s, latest Soviet surface to air missiles were available for their Vietnamese comrades. Americans would later turn the favor, by providing missiles to Afghans when Soviet Union tried occupation there.

Old American TV series Wings Over Vietnam can be found from YouTube. Series show how different branches of American air-force evolved during to war, from mid -60’s to end of war in early -70’s. It also has distinct Cold War ethos and is interesting to watch from this perspective. More contemporary conversation about Vietnam War is on Foreign Policy Research Institute (American think tank based in Philadelphia) YouTube.


Road sides in Vietnam are full of surprises.


Street scenes in Hanoi.


Haiphong downtown, kids playing football at old opera house.


Haiphong downtown.

Haiphong. Air feels moist with a tiny tinge of salt in it. Actual Gulf of Tonkin starts from pretty far from downtown, at the mouth of Red River. Haiphong is main port of North Vietnam and Hanoi. During the Vietnam war it became lifeline to arms and supplies from China and Soviet Union, and was thus heavily bombed especially in 1972 when Nixon administration tried to force reluctant Vietnamese leaders to negotiating table (Paris Peace Accords). Today it still is a large port city with lot of industry and businesses. There are not many sights for travelers, but nearby Cat Ba island and Hua Long Bay are must see for everyone in Haiphong.


Tanker heading to Haiphong port. Seen in nearby Hua Long Bay.