Thursday, May 31, 2012

Down in the Mekong Delta


Of all the places I planned on visiting in Vietnam, I was especially intrigued by the Mekong delta area. To my mind, the Mekong delta conjured up images of floating markets and undulating boats against a backdrop of exotic foliage…completely clich├ęd, I know, but sustained by years of the occasional photo, and the occasional article on a travel website.

Visiting the Mekong delta was THE part of my trip which I was looking forward to the most, and which I was most ignorant about. After all, the Mekong delta is a huge expanse of land compromising the bottom bit of Vietnam, and no single article I had ever read could have captured it in its entirety. I didn’t, indeed, couldn’t, see it all. I did, however, want to connect in some way or other to the area, and understand what life was like in the most exotic location I had ever visited.


I ended up spending 2 days in the Mekong delta, and the truth is, I fell in love. I don’t know why, I don’t know how but the place, and the rhythm of life there just sucked me in.  Of all the places I visited in Vietnam, this was the place which left the most lasting impression on me. In this series of posts, I will try to tell you stories about what I saw, heard, smelt and learned in the rice bowl of Vietnam, and why I would go back again to see more of the area.

***

Minh, a freelance guide arranged by Buffalo Tours, picks me up from my hotel in Ho Chi Minh. I’ve been sick for the last couple of days so I haven’t had time to see much of this sprawling city, I tell him as he asks me whether I like his home town and what I have seen so far. Minh’s eyes are kind and his smile is warm. It takes only a short time for me to relax and start chatting with him, and during the long ride down to the Ben Tre, I get to pick his brains with several questions, all of which he answers knowledgably after tipping his head slightly to one side, squinting a little, and thinking the question over. So as he explains to me the difference between temple and pagoda and tells me about how people in the delta make a living, the landscape starts to change little by little. Roads become wider and wider and lined with palm trees, cities spring out of what I had expected to be endless expanses of rice fields, golden Khmer temples unseen in the North and Central part of the country peep from behind tall trees by the water, and the vegetation grows lusher and lusher, until we’re crossing bridges over great expansive of the Mekong river, only recently built to make travelling across the delta easier.


 
Ben Tre is only the first stop along my short journey around the Mekong delta. From here, we board a little boat which put-puts along the smaller river channels, taking us to little corners of the area where we can observe local life. As I look down at the water and notice its rich brown colour, I can only compare it, in my mind, to a river made of molten caramel, thick, creamy and glistening in the sun.

Seeing what life is like down in the Mekong delta is a humbling experience. There I am slathered in sunscreen and mosquito spray on a 2-month holiday, observing people whose lives couldn’t be more different from mine. I see men and women toiling in brick-making factories, bare-breasted men amongst a sea of coconuts, removing the shell of the fruit by expertly easing it off using a large sharp blade secured to the ground. On and on they go, doing one fruit per 10 seconds, with nothing between them and the blade other than a pair of thick gloves, after which the women take over, further cleaning up the fruit and separating the eatable part from all the rest. I see women hunched over wooden structures working on mats made of thick thread, or seated behind big pots stirring sticky, sweet white substances that will end up being coconut candies.

Then there is the walk in a village with better paved streets and lanes than I had expected, and colourful clothes hung at every household to dry in the sun. There is the sound of proud roosters and the site of napping dogs, the women resting in their hammocks, and the humbly constructed village temples by the river bank. And then, finally a ride on a vehicle which I can only describe as a weird mix between a motorcycle (front) and an open truck (back), on which I whiz on roads bordered by green rice fields under a pale, sun drenched blue sky.

This tailor-made tour was made possible by Buffalo Tours, which operates customised, guided private tours in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.  18 years’ experience and 250 employees in ten offices worldwide (including eight in south-east Asia) offer local expertise and destination insight to create bespoke holidays including accommodation, transfers, flights, cruises, day trips and excursions. Buffalo Tours is a Vietnamese travel company, which means that the profits made stay in Vietnam and the local region.

Editor’s note: Buffalo Tours ( www.buffalotours.com) sponsored my Mekong delta tour, but as always, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

-Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @www.theartofslowtravel.com. All rights reserved -

Monday, June 27, 2011

Phang Nha Bay Cruise, Thailand

Located 788 km from Bangkok, on the Andaman coast of Thailand, Pang Nga is a perfect Hideaway destination not only for summer but year round.

It is blessed with natural wonders and known internationally as James Bond Island as it was the setting of the film, The Man With the Golden Gun. A vast area in the province was declared national parks due to the the diversity of nature on land and prolific marine life.

James Bond Island and Koh Pannyi are just two of the more famous spots in this bay. By far the best means of enjoying the spectacular scenery, with only brief encounters with the tourist crowds as James Bond and Koh Pannyi, is to take one of the boat trips from the northern end of Phuket.

A leisurely day trip cruising through the dramatic limestone islands, occasionally stopping to enjoy quiet beaches, is far more rewarding than the standard bus-boat tour.
Pristine beaches are common sights and there are many other islands and islets dotting around in the blue sea. They are the sources of hundreds of activities apart from unwinding on the serene beaches such as trekking, cruising in Phang Nga Bay, watching birds, snorkeling and diving


Phang Nga is one of the world’s most spectacular sites ranked by many organisations and publications.

Matt Dworzanczyk our flim maker had recently joined in the trip to Pang Nha Bay with Buffalo Tours to bring you the best footage of the scenery. Thinking about Island hopping and sailing, just contact our Sales staff at info@buffalotours.com. We will carter all your needs

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Biking in Cambodia, extreme to easy

By Guy De Launey
-BBC Travel with Lonely Planet -
Angkor Thom

Cycling toward the South Gate of Angkor Thom in Cambodia. (Felix Hug/LPI)


We had just emerged from the jungle when my left crank fell off.

A cyclist really does not want this to happen, even in the best of times. The crank is the arm which connects the pedal to the bottom bracket of the bike. No crank means no go.

But this was not the best of times. We were in the middle of nowhere, Cambodia’s Srepok Wilderness Area in Mondulkiri province, to be precise. The wildlife ranger station was 40km back through the leopard-populated forest. And the nearest town was almost twice as far – up a hilly road – in the other direction. When things go wrong while mountain biking in Cambodia, help can really be a long way away.

Moire O’Sullivan knows this feeling as well. Her recent four-day trip to the Cardamom Mountains turned into a litany of mishaps – from impassable rivers and unrideable tracks to broken bikes and – ultimately – bodies. Her four-person guided tour survived trips over the handlebars, kinked chains and gear cables so clogged with mud they had to be replaced. They dangled themselves and their bikes from zip-wires to cross fast-flowing water and, with the rainy season arriving early, battled the leeches to string up tarpaulins and hammocks between trees in the forest. The undulating, cratered terrain proved too much for the suspension on one of the bikes, causing one rider to pull out. And another had to be evacuated after cutting his foot to the bone while crossing a waterfall.

But a hair-raising experience in the Cardamom Mountains is a more extreme option for those who want to see Cambodia under their own steam. The country is mostly flat, so the terrain is ideal for novice and leisurely cyclists.

It is possible to ride fifteen minutes from the bustle of Phnom Penh and find yourself pedalling through small villages, surrounded by shimmering rice paddies. Local children rush from their homes to shout hello at the passing riders, often adding “What is your name?” as they laugh and wave.

Meeting the recent demand in pedalling tourists, several companies now offer half- or full-day trips around Phnom Penh, often using ferries or vans to spare riders doing battle with the traffic on the main roads.

“Cycle tours have grown up very quickly over the past two years,” said Prum Raksmey, the owner of Phnom Penh’s Offroad Cyclery, which offers bikes for sale and rent as well as organised tours.

Smey, as he is known, is something of a legend in the Cambodian cycling community. He has pioneered bicycle tourism in Cambodia for the best part of a decade and been heavily involved in organising races and supporting Cambodian competitors in international events.

There is a twinkle in his eye as he describes the Cardamom Mountains as a “hard adventure”, but Smey said there are other options.

“You can do leisure rides, family trips, a soft adventure or up to 14 days’ cycling through Cambodia. You can combine it with journeys through Thailand and Vietnam. But for a short ride I like to go to Kirirom National Park – it’s a wonderful track, 960 metres elevation, with a pine tree jungle providing shade for the riders.”

December is perhaps the best month to visit Kirirom. The temperature is relatively cool, and the annual Mountain Bike Challenge gives riders from across Southeast Asia the chance to test their skills on a track which has just the right mixture of technical challenges, taxing climbs and rapid descents in a picturesque setting.

Cooler winter months are also a good time to cycle around the ancient temples of Angkor, whether that means a leisurely exploration or entry in the annual December bike race for a more rapid “grand tour” of the monuments.

To meet locals, join one of the groups which set out from Phnom Penh every weekend. The pace of the rides ranges from leisurely to competitive, and increasing numbers of young Cambodians are taking part, attracted to the shiny new GT, Giant and Cannondale bikes which are now available in several shops around the city.

A machine like that would probably never have suffered a detached crank, like the vintage – and self-maintained – mountain bike which came to grief in Mondulkiri. But then we would have missed out on the fun of reattaching it armed with nothing more than the pliers on a Swiss Army knife.


Source: http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20110613-biking-in-cambodia-extreme-to-easy?OCID=twtvl


Experience it yourself with Buffalo Tours on 3 days 2 nights cycling Siem Reap: http://www.buffalotours.com/Cambodia-tours/short-breaks-cambodia-tours/Cycling-Siem-Reap-3412.html

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hoi An so rightly offers


Departing the city of Hue I was intrigued to find out what may be in store for me when I got to my next destination of choice, Hoi An.

Greeted with a friendly smile I curiously wondered out of my hotel in to the authentic rumbled road along Hoi An’s charming promenade. The architecture was nothing short of spectacular, and amongst the traditionally carved wooden buildings, hoards of tailor made boudoirs aligned the pathway of one alleyway to another.

The restaurants on offer were catered to every individuals own specific desires, whether Vietnamese, Italian, French or Indian, Hoi An was able to provide. The temples situated in various locations in the centre of Hoi An’s bustling old quarter are defiantly worth visiting too. With rich historical background and cultural significance to Hoi An’s former past, paying the small entrance fee to each building was most defiantly worth it.

Overall, Hoi An impressed on all accounts for the average tourist looking to experience something new, and it isn’t a surprise that the reputation this old fishing town upholds, draws visitors from all over the world to experience the charismatic beauty of a town rich in culture and history that Hoi An so rightly offers.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Discover Vietnam highlights with Buffalo Tours

Explore major cities and other Vietnam highlights including Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa, the Mekong Delta, Hue and more in a single tour at Buffalotours.com


“Luxury tours to Vietnam have become better than ever, thanks to Buffalotours.com”

Explore major cities and other Vietnam highlights including Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa, the Mekong Delta, Hue and more in a single tour at Buffalotours .

This tour is designed for you to discover the culture, beauty, sights, style and the best of Vietnam combining local charm and luxuries. Indulge yourself in the immense geographic and cultural diversity of Vietnam and the country’s assorted climate with a Vietnam highlights tour. Visitors can choose to travel at various levels of comfort, staying in anything from budget to deluxe accommodations, using public or private transportation, and dining local style or in the finer Vietnamese and International restaurants by customizing their Vietnam tours.

Begin your tour in Hanoi, and travel south to Ho Minh city, or vice versa by covering a selection of the following places:

Hanoi and Sapa

Known as the cultural heart of Vietnam and ‘Paris of the Orient’, where the incense filled pagodas stand next to art deco French colonial style villas, Hanoi is the beginning of your Vietnam highlights tour. Next, navigate small paths in the beautiful city of Sapa. This former French hill station is perfect for hiking in pristine scenery and to enjoy adventuring through ethnic minority villages where hill tribes wear intricately embroidered traditional clothing.

Halong Bay and Hue

A UNESCO World Heritage region with thousands of limestone and jungle covered peaks rising out of the Bay, Halong Bay is widely considered to be one of the natural wonders of the world. After that Vietnam's regal past can be revisited in the former capital city of Hue, where the Citadel and Royal Tombs represent an era of cultural renaissance.

Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City



Hoi An possesses beautifully preserved architecture, white sandy beaches, hundreds of tailor-shops, and fantastic restaurants and cooking schools. It is quiet, romantic, quaint and a must for any visitor!

Ho Chi Minh City is the cosmopolitan hub of Vietnam and a gateway to the historic Cu Chi Tunnels system and Mekong Delta.

Mekong Delta

Explore the heart of the Mekong Delta on a traditional sampan cruise in Cai Be. Enjoy floating markets and get a feel for a way of life that has changed little for centuries. You can also enjoy a delicious lunch at a superb restaurant on the banks of the river and explore the beauty of Mekong Delta.

With Buffalo Tours you can book various tours to Vietnam and also customize tours as per your requirements. The rates vary frequently so please e-mail at info@buffalotours.com for all enquiries and to get the best possible price based upon your travel period and specific touring needs.

Established in 1994, Buffalo Tours has been providing the best Vietnam tours that are customized to suit all your needs. They consistently push the boundaries by creating unique and authentic travel options and innovative itineraries and provide every facility that customers need to make their tour better. From the customization of Vietnam tours to personalized tours to hotels, flight bookings and more, they provide it all.

Along with tours to Vietnam highlights, you can also book adventure tours, luxury tours, cruise tours, day trips and more to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand at www.buffalotours.com.

About Buffalo Tours:

Buffalo Tours was originally founded as a small adventure tour operator in 1994 and has grown to become an award winning inbound tour company, with licensed offices and operations in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. The company currently employs over 150 full time and 200 part time staff, hailing from Indochina and Thailand, Australia, England, the USA, Nepal, France, Denmark, and Germany. For information please visit: www.buffalotours.com

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sapa Home stay



Having heard such incredible stories and planning to go since arriving in Vietnam I couldn’t wait to visit the Northern Vietnamese mountainous town of Sapa. I was looking forward to relishing the fresh air in my lungs, witnessing the ethnic tribes’ lives and seeing some truly unforgettable views. Leaving on the Friday evening from Hanoi train station we boarded upon the sleeper train that would take us to Lao Cai Station. Settling into the bunk beds we watched out the window as we left Hanoi city centre and hit the outskirts of the buzzing city. Falling asleep on the bumpy tracks I slept through and was awoken as the train came into the sleepy town of Lao Cai.

Bustling through the station we were greeted and taken onto a mini bus and off we took to head through the mountains to Sapa. Upon reaching the bottom of the mountain the bus drove up the winding roads and hit the foggy mountain side. The views were something to marvel at, the greenery was luscious and dense. After an hours journey we arrived in Sapa town, passing the town square where the ethnic tribes and tourists together combed through the market for a bargain. Upon arrival at the hotel we got our first real view over Sapa and the surrounding valley. It was break-taking, and everything I desired it to be.

After breakfast we were introduced to our tour leader, a 17 year old identical twin called Vang. She spoke fluent English and explained to us that she had learnt it all from tourists. Walking along we were suddenly presented with the most incredible views over Sapa, miles and miles of rice fields and towering hills and path ways looking like fine lines on the mountain sides. She taught us about how the ethnic people make their own clothes from the plants in the valleys and their tribes’ traditions.

Walking further we were given the option to take the ‘off the beaten track’ pathway to the home stay. Of course we jumped at the chance to witness what other tourists don’t and off we set on the challenging terrain that makes up Sapa. The H’Mong women guiding us are something to marvel at, not once did they struggle whilst carrying 40kg packs on their backs and flip flops upon their feet. When I asked if they had even fallen over into the rice paddies they laughed at me claiming never to have fallen over. After walking 12km in the glorious scenery we arrived at the home stay late afternoon and watched the sun setting and night arriving upon the valleys. We enjoyed a true Vietnamese dinner, with rice wine setting the evening off.

Awaking in the morning we were guided through more of the land, ending our trip over a waterfall looking out over the amazing views. The height over the valley meant we were able to see for miles around. It was a truly memorable sight for all of those doing the trip.

We arrived back in Sapa as the fog began to set in, clouding all the views and showing us how lucky we were to have the weather on our side. The sunshine had shone all weekend and given us an unforgettable trip in Sapa.