Beach and the City

If you’re feeling claustrophobic of small places like Hanoi or Hoi An, Nha Trang is one of the best places to go.

This city offers the best of both worlds for the weary traveller.

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Tran Phu Road

Shop ’til you drop and unwind in cozy dining and sleeping areas on the large complex of maĺls and hotels lining up one side of Tran Phu Road and the small roads behind it.

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one of the many fancy shops

And if you’re feeling warm and dry, you can refresh at the beach which is just a crossing away from the metropolis.

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family bondings on the beach

But don’t miss out on these few extras as well.

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Families and friends enjoy the beach wind along Tran Phu Road. Lotus Building on the background
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Po Nagar Cham Towers
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fishing boats add color to the light blue waters as viewed from Po Nagar
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Catholic Stone Church. Impressive columns and architecture

It gave a wide breathing space with its very open, welcoming area.

If you’re not pressed with time, you can spend a few days here. Since we’re backpacking, we only spent two nights before heading out to Dalat – the city with a lot of hearts.

Hoi An – Vietnam’s Lantern City

I would always remember Hoi An as the lantern and tailor shops city.

We arrived from Hue more than an hour late than expected due to technical problems on the bus that required us to stop and wait in Danang en route.

The moment we stepped out of the bus, we were welcomed by the searing heat at 2pm. Politely declining offers from xe om drivers, we walked around to look for a place to stay, and along the way, I was immediately drawn to the fashionable dresses and suits displayed on shops along the roads!

Hoi An means ‘peaceful meeting place’ but I can’t imagine it being as peaceful during the 15th to 19th centuries when it served as a major South East Asian trading port. Preserved houses, buildings and cobble stone streets dating centuries ago made Hoi An a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This being a historical town gave me reason to include it in our trip as we continued our travel from northern to southern Vietnam.

What to see and do?

Historical Walk in the Old Town

The old town is the main draw for tourists.

You can walk around narrow lanes to admire the old buildings erected on both sides. Colorful, creative lanterns and bright bougainvillas and blooms decorate the streets, giving the old town a daily festive mood.

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You can also opt to buy a ticket (120,000 dong) to visit any 5 of the 18 historical houses and buildings within the old town. Include Tan Ky House and Hoi An Traditional Art Performance Theatre on your list. These two, along with the Japanese Friendship Bridge are the most visited and recommended sites.

tea break in Tan Ky House
tea break in Tan Ky House

You can even meet local women balancing baskets on a pole containing products that they sell on the market. The tradition is carried out until today. The loads on their shoulders are heavy but they walk around with those everyday. Strong women indeed!

Shop

If you want to buy really nice dresses, flowy gowns and powerful suits at reasonable prices, I believe Hoi An is the best place to go in South East Asia.

dress shops near the night market
dress shops near the night market

Shops cater to all your preferences. They have various designs, fabric and patterns that you can choose from. They can customize the dresses and suits to perfectly fit you.

I bought two dresses and had a jumpsuit made. Snaps below.

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I saw the jumpsuit from another buyer and liked it. The owner took my measurements and asked me to come back that evening to fit it so they can adjust if need be. I loved all of it!

If only I wasn’t travelling long-term, I would have bought more.

Visit Hoi An if you want to buy affordable dresses, gowns and suits. A definite recommend!

Swim and Bask in The Sun

If you’re feeling warm due to the tropical weather, the beach is at your disposal.

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Cua Dai Beach is just 7 kilometres away from the centre where you can spread your towel in the sand and relax.

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Check out my previous post on Vietnam beaches here.

Next stop, Dalat.

Vietnam Beaches

Summer in South East Asia is here! And with that, I suddenly missed the beach.

Luckily, we were able to hit three beaches in Vietnam while backpacking from north to south.

Here they are:

CUA DAI BEACH, HOI AN

Located 7 kilometres away from the historical town of Hoi An, Cua Dai Beach offers a great respite from the sweltering heat in the city.

You can ride a xe om (moto), bike or taxi going there. But you can also walk if you want to wander along the streets first heading towards the beach. Just wear comfortable footwear.

Big waves reach the shore with strong intensity that may excite especially the water sports people. Strong winds match the equally warm weather, thereby tempering the heat from the sun.

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Resorts line a short stretch of the shoreline, offering umbrellas and lounge chairs for vacationers. Food and beverages populate the shaded area where coconut trees provide free shade to customers. You can sit on small stools as you wait for your orders. You can also share some conversation time with locals who come here to picnic with family and friends. Local women also walk around selling souvenirs, food and drinks.

Sadly though, the strong waves continue to claim parts of the shoreline that makes swimming dangerous on those areas. Signs were put up to inform tourists of the ‘no swimming’ zones. Resort owners are also at risk as they try to protect their properties by building walls of large sandbags to fight off the waters’ strength.

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But if you venture further away from the shaded area to the left, a resort-free stretch of shoreline is available for your much-needed R&R. You might also chance upon the round boats that fishermen use for their daily fishing.

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NHA TRANG BEACH

Nha Trang is the so-called beach city of Vietnam. The city is 4-5 hours away from Hoi An to the south.

It is called the beach city mainly due to the long stretch of shoreline along Tran Phu, offering locals and tourists free access any time.

Tired of shopping on posh malls? Feeling warm from the hot weather? Hit the beach, which is easily accessible by foot. Just cross Tran Phu Road from one side and voila, the beach!

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It welcomes locals and foreigners to its wide expanse of sandy shoreline and foamy, blue waters.

Umbrellas and lounge chairs are also offered by nearby hotels and business establishments but really, you can bring your own umbrella and towel and just lie in the sand.

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The nice thing about this place is free access to the beach. No resorts that restrict access. So you can comfortably relax and be at your own pace.

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MUI NE BEACH

This beach, 4-5 hours southwest from Dalat, is for the more adventurous traveller.

The strong winds and waves makes Mui Ne the go-to place of surfers and water sport dudes.

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Kite and wind surfing are the popular activities in this coastal town more than just lazing on the shore.

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Since its a beach resort town, many resorts ply the shoreline, thereby restricting access to vacationers.

The central shorelines are rough. Space and access are the main downsides as the priority are the water sport activities.

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But walk further along the only main road of Nguyen Dinh Chieu to the west and you’ll find public entrances. Take a taxi or xe om or bike further to the east if you also like to have freer space to get a tan or swim.

My top pick is Nha Trang Beach. It offered the best free stretch of sand and sea where you can get a good tan and swim all day long.

Wherever your beach haven is, be mindful of the heat and wear sunblock. We don’t want to get overly-baked and get skin cancer, don’t we?

Happy Summer!

Last Two Weeks!

We’re in Singapore!

I can’t believe that my backpacking trip with my brother is coming to an end.

Upon touchdown in Changi International Airport, I immediately felt the change in atmosphere and am slowly accepting the fact that I’m already back in the city jungle. Only that this city jungle is way more advanced than those we’ve been to.

map umbrella in Garden by the Bay. hot, hot, hot Singapore
map umbrella in Garden by the Bay. hot, hot, hot Singapore

Singapore has lots of parks and spaces that allows for some alone time to reflect and write. At the same time, it offers various sights and activities for the traveller.

Despite its small size compared to its neighboring countries, it has one of the most regulated, systematic way of governance. You can see it from the MRT that connects all areas to CCTV cameras on every street corner to sustainable housing for locals and expats to high-rise business buildings and many more.

I can’t help but compare how different city life here is with the other countries we’ve been to. And I’m already missing the highs and lows of backpacking versus the comfortable life here in Singapore.

Meeting employees walking along the Marina Bay area made me reminisce about my corporate life before. The corporate suits, fashionable outfits and shoes. I didn’t think it would stir mixed emotions as I start thinking about what to do next after a few months of being a turtle and living by a backpack.

But I’m still travelling. This is still part of it.

I hope to draw more inspiration while staying here as I catch up on my writings for the next two weeks.

It’s been a while since I wrote about our travels. Yes, our excursions in Hoi An, Nha Trang, Dalat and Mui Ne Vietnam are coming up! Watch out for it :-)

Feeling Princess for a Day

Empires, monarchies, kingdoms, warriors, knights. These all inspired fairy tales that captured our imaginations as kids, especially girls.

As we grow up, we learn that these classical tales are indeed real. We read about castles in Prague, princes in Wales, royals in Jordan, and fantasize about prince charming. We watch movies like Red Cliff or War of the Arrows, and learn about battles won or lost for the glory of a kingdom.

Such is the grand citadel in Hue, Vietnam – a UNESCO world heritage.

This is the best preserved evidence of the Nguyen Dynasty’s rule under Emperor Gia Long. It was patterned from the Forbidden City of China, although the main palaces face different directions with China’s facing south and Vietnam’s facing east. A walled outer court, with several entrances, served as the citadel’s first defense. This was where the people lived. Its walls are 2 meter thick and a moat surrounds the citadel. The inner court (Forbidden Purple City) served as the residence of the king and his family. Only the royal family’s servants and king’s eunuchs were allowed inside.

Before its current state, as can be seen in the photos below, bombing during the American-Vietnam War caused severe damage not just to the palace but to the entire former capital (Hue). Add to that were problems caused by termites that invaded the wooden structures and cyclones that are common to South East Asia.

Restoration continue as locals put their best effort to regain the former beauty and culture of their place. They hope to finish by the end of 2015.

Imagine how many ceremonies and gatherings happened in this courtyard. Walking on palace grounds felt like walking with the rulers and the masses during that time.

This is the second palace I visited after Bayon in Cambodia. King Jayavarman VII’s flamboyant, ship-like palace in Bayon was striking especially as you walk the long catwalk-y bridge towards it. Vietnam’s was also imposing through its enclosed, colorful, Indochinese architecture. It was more private and conservative in this aspect.

Check out some of the photos. Enjoy!

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main gate of the Forbidden Purple City
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main palace
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wooden columns supporting the main palace
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the main gate to the Forbidden Purple City reserved exclusively for the king and his noble men
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golden dragon inside the inner court
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outer courtyard. Hue Citadel
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one of several old tanks. outer courtyard.
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Ngo Mon Gate – the main gate on the outer courtyard that also served as a watch tower
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newly-restored red panel doors that open to one of the gardens in the inner courtyard
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a former garden fountain covered with wild plants. Forbidden Purple City
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one of the inner courtyard gates
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inner courtyard garden gates
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one of the inner courtyard gardens viewed from the ruins
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moated inner courtyard garden
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view of one of the structures from the moated garden
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moated garden
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a Forbidden Purple City gate
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view from one of the structures being restored. Forbidden Purple City
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a side gate in the outer courtyard
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closer look at the details of the gate

 

 

Lao Bao and Hanoi: A Tragic Tale in Two Places

Oh, Lao Bao and Hanoi.

The moment we crossed the border from Laos via the Dansavanh-Lao Bao Border Crossing, I didn’t expect a rough start that continued until we arrived in Hue. I call it our series of unfortunate events.

I’m spilling the beans, hoping everyone learns from our misadventures and try to avoid these.

Lengthy post ahead :-)

Case 1: The Hatien Exit Miss

We were the last foreigners to cross the border at 530PM. I had a positive feeling that passport review will be smooth and we’ll exit in a few minutes… It wasn’t.

The Vietnamese Immigration Officer in Lao Bao saw a technical error on our Hatien Exit (last December 2014!). Since he can’t speak English, he called a colleague to talk to me. He needed to talk to a superior about the situation. Apparently, the Hatien Immigration Official stamped an entry on our passports instead of an exit.

It took some more minutes before he called me again to talk to the woman on the phone. He needed to make a report about it so that border immigration officials won’t take time on our next Vietnam entries/exits. Good thing, this is the last leg of our Vietnam trip so we’ll just worry about our exit in Saigon.

Finally, he let us sign the report he made. I was hesitant at first because the report was in Vietnamese and we had all our details there. But I clung to the woman’s explanation on the phone so we signed. My first to sign something I didn’t understand!

It took us 1.5 hours in the border before moving on, just in time for the border closing at 8PM.

If we boarded a bus from Savannakhet to Hanoi stopping on the border, we might have delayed the other passengers who might eat us when we returned. It was an event that didn’t happen, which I was thankful for, but we never thought it would lead to another misfortune.

Case 2: The nightmare guesthouse

We were already tired and sleepy by the time we were done on the border. We arrived from a dusty 5-hour trip from Savannakhet to Dansavanh and then waited for another 1.5 hours in the border.

There were no more buses bound towards other places so there was no choice than stay overnight in Lao Bao. We asked in the border if there were cheap accommodations around. They told us of hotels in town worth $50. I read ahead about this border – the easiest border pass so they say – but there were no previous experiences nor other accommodations online other than Sapa Hotel.

A man handed his phone for me to talk to the woman again. She informed of a place just near the border exit.

Finally, we can take a good shower and sleep well in preparation for another day… Again, we weren’t able to.

There were 2 guesthouses near the border exit but the first one was inside a compound with no street lights so we didn’t bother. The other guesthouse was the one the woman suggested.

We went in to ask and an old lady greeted us. There were men in the open living room. She only spoke Vietnamese so we did our best to tell her what we were looking for. She led us to a room downstairs that seemed okay when she turned the lights so we agreed for 200,000 dong (~ $10). Then, she asked for our passports for safekeeping. Our passports are our most precious items during travels, besides money. There is no way I will surrender it except on border crossings so I asked if we can give her photocopies instead. She said “no” and called her husband. We tried explaining again but we got the same reaction. Then they told us, along with the group of men, that they can’t accept it and were asked to leave, motioning to look for another place further in town. Fine, so long as our passports were with us.

We were about to leave when the old lady came again and told us “okay”. They were fine with the photocopies, gesturing that the other accommodations were expensive.

After registering, we went to our room, hoping to take a shower but the bathroom was very dirty. It seemed like they didn’t clean up after the previous tenant. Since we were tired with all that happened on the journey, we just decided to sleep. But then, I found the bed also unclean. Even the beddings weren’t changed! We had no more power to argue so we did what we can to have a decent sleep.

Then, the power went out on our level, and the men next door played loud Vietnamese music at 2AM (!!!). It was really a nightmare!

The guesthouse is 30/4. Do yourself a favor and look for another guesthouse or hotel in town in case you get stranded in this border. We found out the next day that there were two more guesthouses further in town (30-minute walk) but we didn’t ask the prices nor checked it anymore. It is even better to take the direct Savannakhet-Hanoi bus to save you effort or better yet, fly.

I wouldn’t recommend staying in Lao Bao, even just for a day. Accommodations are extreme from the horrible (cheap) to the nice (expensive). The weather is also hot.

And transportation? Read on to case 3.

Case 3: The overpriced sleeper bus with discriminating drivers

We were told on the border that the only bus schedule to Hanoi is 3PM daily.

The following day, we woke up early to have breakfast and reserve a seat on the bus station. The food was fine but apparently, there was no bus station in town.

We asked around hoping anyone can help us book a ticket. Minivan and minibus drivers kept insisting there was no Hanoi bus. They suggested we had to go to Dong Ha (priced at 100k dong) then get a ride to Hanoi. That was our next option but we held on to the information we got that there was a 3PM bus.

Note: They know a foreigner because we walk. Locals use motorbikes even on short distances.

Language became a barrier because majority didn’t know how to speak English and we didn’t know Vietnamese language. It was a blessing in disguise that one of the employees in the bank, where I exchanged money, knew English. She helped us contact someone who helped us book the ticket, but I believe the bus drivers overcharged us (450k dong/ ~ $21). Even so, we took it just to get out from there. The lady who helped us said that the direct bus is cheaper than the Lao Bao – Dong Ha- Hanoi connection.

I thought we were already fixed. When it was time to go, the conductors and drivers told us to sit at the rear seats. It was a sleeper bus for the 16-hour drive.

I read in travel forums that other foreigners also had the same case as ours. It felt like they didn’t like foreigners so even if we paid a more expensive price, we had to sit at the back end. I tried transferring seats at the beginning but the conductor saw me and told me to move back.

I’m not sure if this is only isolated to Lao Bao and Hanoi bus operators.

We stopped twice to go to the toilet while the drivers went to eat. That was a relief compared to the worst experience two other travellers we met in Luang Prabang had on their 38-hour, $50 journey from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. They only had one toilet break and the drivers packed the bus that there was no way to pass, according to them.

Case 4: The dodgy taxi meter at the bus station

Finally we arrived in Hanoi. Tired from the entire trip that started in Dansavanh to Hanoi, we took the taxi the driver offered when we landed in the station. WE SHOULDN’T HAVE!

The flag down was 10k dong then at every 200 metres, the taxi meter adds 2,400 dong. Bus station to the old city took 25 minutes for 400k dong (~$20)!!! We tried asking him on the way if that was the normal flag rate but everytime he says he doesn’t understand despite the fact that he asked some English questions at the start.

I believe we were sooo nice to pay him the entire amount while cursing under our breath on why we had to undergo all these.

Advice: Get a reliable taxi like Mai Linh (green taxi 38.61.61.61 | 38.222.555), Ha Noi (38.56.56.56) and Ha Noi Tourist (38.53.53.53). Flag them down OUTSIDE of stations. You’ll save yourself a lot of mullah.

I was already disappointed with Vietnam due to our worst encounters. With the experience with the Hanoi taxi driver, I was also expecting the worse in Hanoi.

Case 5: Crazy motorcycle drivers

Saigon was our first South East Asian stop from the Philippines. Motorcycle drivers were all around but at least, there were traffic lights to control the flow of traffic from different directions.

Hanoi was also the same as Saigon in that almost everyone, including students as young as grade school, own motorcycles. The difference was on traffic.

We stayed in the old city with its criss-crossing narrow streets, alleys and roads. There were no traffic lights inside so riders were free to go to any direction they choose. The problem was on crossing the lane if you’re a pedestrian. You think it’s already safe to cross then suddenly, a rushing rider goes past behind you just a few inches away. You had to look in all directions even if you’re already in the middle of the road.

There, everyone’s in a rush. Riders even meet on the narrow alleys with only a few inches from each other, their motorbikes nearly almost always kiss. Accidents may happen anytime. We actually saw one while we were there. She only had a few scratches but still. The scary part is when children get involved because parents ride with their kids and babies everyday.

It was a crazy scene! I felt stressed everytime I went out due to the daily road scene.

Case 6: The overloaded train to Hue and public smoking

Because of our bus experience, we agreed to take the train. Also, to try one of Vietnam’s transports. Given the fare is more expensive than bus fares, we thought we can get the cheapest so we booked a hard seat for a 16-hour ride from Hanoi to Hue.

At first, it was nice. I was impressed by the organized flow from attendants checking tickets before you can get to the platform to the staff waiting at each car to check on seats.

empty seats
empty seats

We started with almost empty seats so we assumed we’ll pick other passengers on other stations. Our seats were the last two for the hard seats.

Even before we started, two men behind us started smoking INSIDE! We thought any of the staff will stop them but they just passed by the men. Unable to tolerate it, we moved in the middle to get some fresh air.

After a few hours, passengers started building up. By 9pm, people and baggage already filled the car.

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overcrowded and overloaded

I was surprised that the cheapest seats at $16 could get this crowded! It was way different than in Thailand where a hard seat costed less than $16 for the same distance and way more comfortable. It also defeated what I thought was the craziest train ride in Myanmar. There were also people who laid down blankets to sleep for the night but it was not like this.

yes, that's a grandma and grandson sleeping under the seats
yes, that’s a grandma and grandson sleeping under the seats

The Myanmar Train, despite its age (since WWII), had wide space in between seats where anyone can sleep on the floor.

Add to the agony were officials of the train – in their uniforms – smoking inside. They walk by each car – cigarettes in between fingers – like there were no babies, kids and those not used to smoking.

I'm sure that's a 'No Smoking' sign but largely ignored
I’m sure that’s a ‘No Smoking’ sign but largely ignored

It was so bad that we sat there, windows fully open, hoping the night ended.

We should have read in advance to have prevented some from happening like case 4. Some were brought by circumstance and we had no choice than to yield (case 1, 2 and 3). Some are just plain herd mentality by insensitive people (cases 5 and 6).

One thing that irks me is dishonesty. It is hard to trust a person or a group when that person or 1 or 2 in the group act the opposite like overcharging on travel tickets or tours.

These are some of the downsides of travelling on a budget. One thing that they advise travellers is to be open minded. If you are on a budget, you consider all possibilities. But sometimes, even if you read in advance and believe that you did all the planning needed, there might still be some things that will happen. Learn from experience.

The upsides were, despite the bad experiences, you meet people who help you and you learn from observation. You get new perspectives on how things are done in different places compared to yours.

I was thankful for the small things:

  • For the immigration official who gave us water while we waited, and who gave us 3 extra days on our Vietnam pass.
  • For the two ladies who helped us buy a bus ticket in Lao Bao.
  • For cheap delicious street food along Ta Hien Street and the sweet treats of Bui Cong Trung along Hang Bo
  • For the relaxing atmosphere in Hoan Kiem Lake
  • For the historical Maison Centrale Prison
  • For the Hanoi Hotel who changed our towels everyday, and who had the friendliest, helpful staff

Vietnam is the last country on our backpacking adventure. I told myself I’ll give it another chance. Who knows, after Hanoi, everything will be fine.

We’re now in Hue. By far, I like the place. Hope it goes smoothly from now until the end.

Has anyone also experienced misfortunes anywhere while travelling? Would love to read them. Share in the comments below. Let’s learn from each other. Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

Dinosaurs in Savannakhet

I saw dinosaur bones!

True, they thrived eons ago,  but I never really felt it real until I saw evidences in the humid town of Savannakhet.

I mentioned in my post about Lopburi’s artifacts in Thailand how I’m into archaeology. When I learned about a dino museum, I immediately wanted to visit.

The Dinosaur Museum (10,000 kip) in Savannakhet is located in the Department of Science and Technology compound. Fitting location.

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We entered into a small building that looked more like a government office. Employees gathered inside as one of the bosses discussed something in Laos language. We excused ourselves and entered the small museum.

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Luckily, Monsieur Bounxhou joined us as we walked around. He was part of the archaeology, paleontology and geology team that dug the bones of the Tang Vay Lizard (Tangvayosaurus hoffetti) who once roamed the Savannakhet plains.

actual size of the Tang Vay Lizard (3 large walls!)
actual size of the Tang Vay Lizard (3 large walls!)

Imagine if we lived during that time. It might have been a power play between humans and these humongous beasts. The loser becomes prey. The Tang Vay Lizard, though, was a herbivore so it wouldn’t have been a problem.

According to Monsieur Bounxhou, his team in Laos found evidences of large bones in a site. He sent the data to France – who took interest in the discovery – and agreed on a joint digging. For about 4 years, they uncovered pieces of the bones in a large area of Savannakhet. The results were the dino’s bones on display in glass cases in the museum.

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remains of the gentle giant

There were evidences  also of two other dinosaurs but due to lack of funds and interest, digs were discontinued.

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the carnivorous Spinosaurus (click here for details)
the herbivorous Ornithopoda
the herbivorous Ornithopoda (click here for details)

The local scientist let us in on the process. He discovers an unusual find say, a bone or even a piece of ceramic. He studies it in his lab and when he finds that there’s something there that can be explored, he sends all the details to another in his field; in his case, Thailand or France. If the two countries see an opportunity and takes an interest on it, they meet with Mr. Bounxhou and discuss logistics, funding, etc. to start the project.

The Tang Vay Dinosaur Project was a successful joint intitiative with France; although, some of his proposals were discontinued or not pursued due to lack of interest.

He showed us a drawer containing what he believed were bones of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. He sent it to Team Thailand but the reception wasn’t positive. “No interest, no dig,” he said smiling then closed the drawer. After all, he can’t do it alone and with no funding.

It was already lunch time when we arrived so after some Q&A, he left us with one of the students doing apprenticeship in the museum who was also trying to improve his English.

Aside from dinosaur bones, there are also other interesting articles on display like pieces of a meteor, petrified trees and fossils embedded on rocks that were all discovered around the small town.

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fossilized fish

And this cute toy! :-)

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Science continues to amaze me!

 

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