Tuesday (Nov 29) We were off to Luang Prabang. I had decided to add Laos to the itinerary simply because it was there. I had originally thought to visit Vietanenne because it is the capital, but several folks suggested Luang Prabang instead. We left mid afternoon, having a morning at leisure to pack and generally lounge around. I think I used the time to catch up on my journal. We arrived at the airport and got through with no problems. The plane stopped in Preske and we deplaned. One American man came up to us and said asked if we were staying here. We said no and he responded that he didn't know why he had a transit sticker and card when he was staying here. We had the presence of mind to ask where here was and he said Luang Prabang. We explained that Luang was not here. We arrived just after sunset and we to our hotel which was next to the Xiemn Thong Monastery. We ate dinner at a nearby restaurant Tum Tum Cheong. The major difference between what I've seen of Lao and southern Vietnamese cooking is Lao has less lime and much, much more lemongrass which I have decided I am not terribly fond of in great quantities.
One of the things I had forgotten to mention is the funeral procession we saw in Siem Reap. We were returning from our first lunch when a policeman stopped up. Instead of turning and going down a different road, we stopped. The procession was led by some policemen, then ranks of school children in uniform. The ones in the first row carried wreathes of white chrysthanthemums with yellow trim. Next were ranks of enlisted soldiers, then the funeral brier. It was a tall structure like a baldacchino with the casket underneath. It was on a motorized cart like a parade float, but 20 or 30 uniformed enlisted men went before it, their hands on ropes as if to haul it. Behind was a tall carriage carrying a lone boy, whom I assume was the son. I did not see women who looked like close family, so I don't know if there were not any or if it is not the custom for women to attend. Behind that was a huge portrait of the deceased. He was an army officer and from the portrait appeared to be in his 50s. Following the portrait were ranks of uniformed officers and then a few Buddhist monks. Behind them were a disorganized, fairly large group of mourners. Our guide said the average life expectency of people in Cambodia was about 60. I realized that I had not noticed a single old person in Vietnam. It was only once at Angkor Wat that I saw an old man.
Wednesday we had a free day in Luang. We wandered among the temples, taking pictures. We ate at Tamarind with local food. Tamarind's menu contained info about local NGOs. One Brother Mouse funds libraries in villages and helps Laotians learn to speak English.
Thursday was kayaking day. We drove to Elephant Village, a tourist trap started by a German. It provides a home for old elephants. One could ride elephants up the river. We got into a boat loaded with our kayak and then motored upstream. We debarked and then got in the kayaks and drifted to a local waterfall. The water flowed freely down the hill. We debarked and then climbed up the hill to the waterfall. It spread over a wide area and flowed down different levels. It looked like something out of Disney or Avatar. The water was aquamarine and the stones of the waterfall were smooth and pale cream colored. After a bit, we clammored back into the kayaks and continued a lazy paddle downstream. We passed Elephant Village and folks riding an elephant in the river. Along the banks of the river, people farmed and set fish traps. The traps are conical and have a door set with a rock on top If a fish enters, the trap is triggered, the rock falls off the door and the door falls over the opening. At lunch we went through one rapid and then stopped at the grave of Henri Mauhout who “discovered” Angkor Wat. The site was littered with trash, lots of plastic. We walked up a hill to a clearing and the grave. Evidently, he remarked to a local guide at one point that if anything happened to him, that's where he wanted to be buried. He got malaria and so he was. We continued downstream on the Nam Khan river until we came to the big bridge. From there we debarked and climbed up the hill. We waited a bit until the van came for us. We went to L'Elephant for dinner which was quite good. From there we went to the night market.
Friday. We arose early to go see the monks on their begging mission. At one corner, a couple from probably Japan waited cross legged. In front of each was a basket of fruit and a huge basket of sticky rice. As the monks walked by, each opened his begging bowl which was surprisingly large. We then walked to street our hotel was on. A group of tourists knelt in front of one of the picturesque temples waiting for the monks to walk by them. It felt a bit awkward and strange as if it were a tourist attraction, not a religious event. Further up the street, a group of residents sat, the older people on chairs or stools, the younger ones kneeling.
A dilemma for me always is photographing religious events. In one sense, it takes away from the sacredness of the time for the participants. During the almsigiving for the monks, though, there were so many tourists with cameras lining the streets that one more seemed to make little difference. And, to some extent, it seemed a bit like a tourist exercise anyway. At least there seemed to be more tourists participating in almsgiving than locals, other than along one block. And so I took pictures.
Back to the hotel to pack and then a walk along the river to yet another temple. A young monk was washing dishes in the yard, using a hose to rinse the stack of dishes. We then walked along the river back to our hotel. Then we decided to go to L'Elephant for lunch. The food in Luang is quite delicious.. We then left for our flight to Hanoi. The waiting room was a crush, with two flights to Hanoi leaving within five minutes of each other. We were a bit late taking off and then arriving. We missed the long line of visa on arrival folks, but then had a long wait for our luggage. We finally collected the luggage and met our ride into Hanoi.
We arrived at the Hilton to a scene of such chaos I couldn't imagine what was going on. Small children thronged the lobby. Parents stood sipping wine and beer. The clerk explained, it was the annual Christmas tree lighting and arrival of Santa. We went to our rooms. Because it was dark and we were tired, we planned to eat at the hotel. As we waited at the elevator, Christmas carols wafted up. We alit on the floor with the restaurants and found a high school choir singing Christmas carols in English. The entire hotel was decorated for Christmas. We ate dinner in the Vietnamese restaurant listening to carols in English. At times I sang along.
Saturday. Off to Ha Long Bay. A long drive, four hours. We waited about 45 minutes in a depressing building until the rest of our boat arrived. Then we boarded and were off. Ha Long Bay is even more beautiful than the pictures. The limestone karsts rise out of the sea, straight up, covered a bit in vegetation. The weather was perfect, sunny and warm with a cooling sea breeze. We settled into our rooms, had lunch and then arrived at an island owned by the company running the boats. We climbed up to a cave with stalagtites and stalagmites. We then went down to the beach and found our kayaks. It was lovely kayaking around the bay, but the guide went much too fast. I was concerned about being lost among the karsts and so I paddled much faster than I would have liked to catch up. I kept stopping for pictures which kept me further behind. When we returned, we sat on the beach for the sunset and then dinner.
Sunday. Off to a fishing village. This cruise is a bit Disney-esque. An island owned by the boat company, a fishing village supported by the company. We got on our tender and then were put on typical fishing boats for a row around the village, then off to another. The company has built a school, funded in part by an australian high school. Three teachers teach there. Each is paid $100 a month and five days a week they share a small room with one double bed.
Ha Long is beautiful and just sitting on the boat watching the scenery is fantastic.
Back to Hanoi in the afternoon. Dinner at Pane e Vino an Italian restaurant.
Monday. First thing, the laundry. So no one spoke English. The sign said the laundry would be back “tomorrow”, but we needed it today. I kept wr iting the time down and the woman lowered the price by a little less than half. Then another woman came and saw the amount and shooed us out. I wrote down the original price and kept pointing to the clock. Finally the woman pointed to the 11 and to the 4. Then off to the Literary Garden. A long walk. On the way, we stopped at a small store to buy a rain jacket for me. Of course, for the 85th time I hadn't packed a rain jacket. The Literary Garden was a bit farther than I had thought, but it wasn't terribly hot, so the longer walk was fine. The Literary Garden is a large park where the first university in Vietnam was situated. It was a Confucian academy founded around 1100. There are four courtyards. The first one is mainly an entrance way. Through a gate is a large central pool with arches. On one side are steles with the names of the graduates. A group of high school students were having pictures taken. The girls were wearing their best dress/pant outfits and the boys were all in too-tight shiny black suits. There were professional photographers, assistants with bouquets of roses and reflectors. As the group of girls lined up, a couple of (I think) Korean male tourists lined up with the girls for pictures. Everyone was taking pictures of the girls and guys. In the third courtyard is a temple honoring Confucius facing the gate and gift shops on the two sides. The final courtyard has a two story building dedicated to other ancient Vietnamese teachers, along with a giant bell tower and a drum tower. We walked back and then went to lunch at a Japanese restaurant. Walking through the alley way, I kept looking for a stall for lunch. No one was serving exactly what I wanted. So, it was the Japanese restaurant.
After lunch, off to the Old Quarter, which was a bit more than I could handle. Traffic and scooters everywhere. All of the honking their horns. I didn't pay any attention to the honking which made it really useless because I continued to walk directly where the motor scooter wanted to go. Along the way is Hoan Kilm Lake. There is a pagoda at the end of the lake with a picturesque bridge. The students from the Literary Garden were there with their photographers. We continued to walk, dodging traffic.
The streets in the Old Quarter are narrow and lined with shops. We entered the covered market where there are no motor scooters, but the aisles were narrow and barely passable for one, not the people loaded with merchandise who wanted through. Back out on the street beside the market was even more impassable. A van was parked in the narrow street, parked and moving motor scooters lined the street. An SUV was trying to get by the space which was too narrow by at least a foot. People wedged themselves through the passageways, wandering from one side to the other as they could find the suggestion of an open path. Horns blared at driverless cars, willing them to move themselves. On the next street, it was no better. Several cars filled with notables were stopped at the market, in the middle of the street, blocking the way for other cars. We crawled through the maze and found our way to an only slightly quieter street. Exhausted and overwhelmed with the noise, we stopped at an outdoor restaurant by the Opera House and I had a glass of sangria. The greenery muted the traffic noise and the late afternoon was warm and sunny. We then rescued our laundry. I got a bit of a scolding from the old woman who did the laundry. She had scrubbed and scrubbed one of my T shirts and the mud still didn't come out. I had a yearning for western food, so we ate pizza at the hotel.
Then, off to the overnight train for Sapa. Not exactly the Orient Express, though we did have a compartment to ourselves. The berth was narrow and I think we were directly over the wheels. The train was noisy and several times during the night, I was jolted awake when the car slammed into another car. I assume the train was adding cars at various stops. Morning came none too soon, though had I had a stable, quiet bed, I would have slept more.
Tuesday. First off to a local market with the Flower Hmong. The women wear pleated, flowered skirts and leggings and jackets adorned with sequins. Other than stalls selling lots of Hmong dresses (being mostly bought by the Hmong) and tourist geegaws, it was pretty much the normal market. A few water buffalo and pigs were being sold outside the market. Lots of stalls selling food to eat and a few selling offal. Nothing more appetizing than looking at intestines and other innards.
After the market we had another tourist experience, motoring down the river. Actually, the river was lovely with towering walls along each side. We saw several waterfalls. The vegetation was tropical rain forest like. It would have been a great kayak.
Then off to Sapa. The day was foggy. We had been upgraded to a mountain view room, but we couldn't find the mountains. We thought perhaps there was something off in the distance through the fog. We ate lunch at Sapa Rooms, Vietnamese dishes. We had a vegetable soup and then spring rolls, fresh spring rolls wrapped in rice paper with some greens (not as many as southern Vietnam), an eggplant dish and the a fantastic pork dish. And garlic vegetables. We walked for a bit. Sapa is covered with stores selling North Face. Since North Face are made in Vietnam, I'm not sure whether these were genuine or knock offs. Lots of massage parlors, too. And restaurants. And Handicraft stores. Just like Gatlinberg, or at least the Gatlinberg I remember. Then it was nap time.
Wednesday. We woke up to a sunny day. We looked out the window and there were high mountains in every direction. (Our driver told us that this was the first sunny day in a couple of months.) We visited three minority villages in the morning. We walked down a steep hill for about a quarter mile. A coterie of women met each group of tourists, hawking their wares and continuing to follow them. I was surprised to learn that one of the women had only two children. Evidently that is usual for her ethnic group. Usually, women are surprised to learn I have only one child and view me with a bit of pity. Not here. We walked along a river. The hillsides are steep and terraced for rice, though they have only one crop a year. Buffalo, ducks and geese were foraging in the rice paddies. One of the women with me was twisting hemp fibers into thread for weaving. Another had green hands from the organic dye. A different ethnic group lives in each of the three villages. Their dress and religion differ, too. They do not intermarry. Fortunately we didn't have to climb out of the valley. Lunch was at a Vietnamese restaurant and was quite good. Our afternoon excursion was to Cat Cat village. We didn't see much of a village. The way down steep and long is lined with shops selling handicrafts. We reahced the bottom and a waterfall and then was the trek up. I had asked the guide if there was up hill on the way back and he said no. but he lied. There was about a half mile of quite steep uphill with some level ways. Did I mention how much I hate going up hill?
Then it was time to go to Loi Cai for the train back to Hanoi. Before we got to the train station, we stopped to see the border with China. I'm not sure why, but it's a tourist attraction. There is a temple at the park overlooking the river border. On the bridge were people pushing carts laden with chinese goods for sale.
We had a day room at a small seedy hotel. We walked over to the nice hotel next to the train station and had coffee and watched the sunset from their 10th floor coffee bar. We walked around a bit more, trying to decide on a place to have dinner. We went back to the hotel and rested and then went out for dinner. As we descended the steps, the order of sizzling beef and onions wafted up and so we ate at the hotel. The beef with onions was fantastic. I wasn't too fond of the vegetables but the spring rolls were good, filled with warm egg. We had banana fritters for dessert and as with any dough fried in grease, they were good.
We were in a four berth compartment on the train which was larger than the two berth we had had on the way up. We weren't sharing, so it was quite roomy. The night was a bit easier than the way up. We arrived in Hanoi at 5:30 am and went to the hotel where they found us a room rather early.