Lunar New Year Trip of 2008

Lunar New Year Trip of 2008

(—to Laos and Vietnam, Feb 2008)

 

There are many things to tell about this trip, so I waited for a while to relive the experience. I guess by now what was left on my mind must be the most impressive essence of the trip. For this writing, I am trying something different—I will post a few pictures to go with my words. Let’s see how it goes!
 
This is actually a continuous trip from my international new year trip of 2008. As I was at the departure hall in Siem Reap airport, I saw throngs of tourists were heading to Luang Prabang, Laos. I thought to myself, it must be a great place to visit. I ought to taste the culture in Laos, too. And it didn’t take long, I made it! After the traditional family reunion during Chinese New Year, I flew to Luang Prabang, Laos via Bangkok and spent four nights at this amazing UNESCO World Heritage site. Then, I moved on to have a one-day glimpse at Hanoi, capital of Vietnam. In the end of the journey, I stayed at the largest city in Vietnam, namely Ho Chi Minh City for three nights.
 

Luang Prabang is a city located in north central Laos, on the Mekong River about 425km north of Vientiane. The city was formerly the capital of a kingdom of the same name. Until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos. That I first heard of this town was from my travel column about traveling down the Mekong River. And the most fascinating “Cultural Parade”—the term is my creation—belongs to the monks collecting morning alms in Luang Prabang. I was fortunate to be at the scene on my third day visit. Luang Prabang was made a World Heritage Site because it is a well preserved and outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. The air of intact ancient history is so heavy that I could feel it right upon my arrival, and I immediately said to myself, I gotta return to this town to stay for a month so as to totally immerse myself in the traditional ambiance.
 
I arrived in time to see the sunset of the famous Mekong River. Gosh, I had read so much about this river since I was a schoolgirl. Now seeing is believing. (See Picture)
I walked along the river while looking for a decent restaurant for my first meal in Laos. Luang Prabang is the heaven for backpack travelers. There are guesthouses one next to another in town. And they are the European tourists’ favorite. I guess it’s probably the fame of WHS that has drawn a numbers of tourists to this town, particularly of those with big noses and blond hair.
 
My first meal in Laos was “really” memorable. Besides slow service I encountered black out for about 30 minutes in the restaurant. Of course I was well packed. I had my flashlight on and later a candle light was in my company. After supper, I walked along the “Night Market” where peddlers, mostly women, were selling their goods on the streets under the bright light bulbs hanging above their “territories.” (See Picture)
I must admit Lao women are very good at finger work. Most of souvenirs I saw on the streets were handmade. Even little kids learned how to drum for business—“One dollar, miss. One dollar, miss,” while showing me key chains made from Mekong stones. I was attracted to those beautiful scarves…Oh speaking of shopping, I should stop here.

 

The next day I joined a small group to take a boat ride along the Mekong River. Along the way, we stopped by a riverside village where I tasted the homemade whisky and bought some scarves as souvenirs. Our destination was Pak Ou Cave where tourists could see lots of small and big Buddha images, mostly donated by local people. (See Picture)

There are two levels. The lower cave is clearly visible from the river while the upper cave can be reached after climbing 239 steps—I counted myself! My flashlight once again did a good job when I was in the pitch dark upper cave. In the afternoon, we went to Kuang Si Waterfall which is a beautiful multi-tiered waterfall outside of Luang Prabang. As it was close to the dry season, the limestone staircase appeared. Yet the main fall was remarkable. Many tourists even took their risks to swim in the lower levels. (See Picture)

I saved the rest of my time in Luang Prabang to savor its unique culture. I had walked around the Old Quarter for a number of times. You will not get lost in this town as all the side streets lead into the main road. The highlights of my visit were watching an authentic Lao royal ballet, touring around the Royal Palace Museum and a couple of old temples, climbing up to Phousi Mountain for a bird’s-eye-view of the town, seeing monks collecting morning alms and of course shopping! You’ll find more from my online photo album. The last photo taken in Laos you see here is when Nam Khan River joins Mekong River.
 

Luang Prabang is definitely a place for city dwellers to escape from the stress of modern life and step into the tranquility of a world dominated by Buddhism.

 

Vietnam—a world of motor scooters

From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, there was not a moment that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the hustling and bustling traffic, among which were hundreds of thousands of motor scooters. According to the locals, many Vietnamese even have two or more motor scooters for one self. The power of these little engines can really alter the directions of the four-wheels. When I was in the cab, all I could see were scooters surrounding me and horns from the cab kept blaring from the minute I hopped on until I got off the cab. Whenever the auto came to a roundabout, the scene was even more spectacular. Everyone on the motor scooters seem to be anxious and feisty, coming from different direction all meeting together while it was out of the question for autos to make a beeline for the right direction. It was like a vivid picture of wildlife rampage. Well, that’s Chinese heritage, isn’t it?

 

I was mistaken for a Vietnamese a few times after I arrived in Vietnam. Vietnam is the country where I find the most similarities to China, except the food which caused me a very unhappy ending of the trip. In Laos, I taught Chinese to a 21-year-old boatman while in Vietnam I realized quite a few of Vietnamese pronunciations are close to Cantonese. So during my visit, I did my favorite language learning—whenever I saw signs I tried to pronounce them. With the introduction from the guide on my second day visit, I knew better about many aspects of Vietnam, including its language.

 

In Hanoi, I joined the long queue in the early morning to pay a respect at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The solemn communist atmosphere had enveloped the entrance which was 2km far away. “No camera, no drink, no mobile phone…”the guards yelled in Vietnamese while directing the long line. I felt like an obedient sheep, having the no-crossing-the-line-or-you’ll-be-in-trouble kind of feeling. Yes, for a Cantonese who was brought up in an open government control environment, I really felt tense to follow suit in line. After the mausoleum visit, I visited the Hanoi Prison which is now a museum. Called Maison Centrale by the French, most of the prison was destroyed for the construction of Hanoi Towers, a skyscraper that houses apartments and offices. Most of the exhibits in the museum focus on the years when the prison was run by the French and housed Vietnamese prisoners, as well as the American prisons of war during Vietnam War. I think it has bought to the greater attention to the Americans as the prison was where the president candidate John McCain was put into for five years. Later in the day I took a long walk from the church to the famous Hoan Kiem Lake, and to the Old Quarter where I visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum by accident, the site where Uncle Ho made the Declaration of Independence in 1945.

 

In Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, I took a city tour to one of the big markets, Binh Tay Market, in China Town, the Chinese temple, the War Remnants Museum which focuses on the Vietnam War, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the central post office whose exterior looked like a train terminal to me, and the Reunification Palace. The highlight of the day was the fascinating water puppet show. I should have seen it in Hanoi where the art originated. The next day I took a Mekong Delta tour, traveling with three Hong Kong women. We had a good chat in Cantonese and savored the folk culture. Cruising along the narrow waterway in a sampan was quite an adventure. The water palms growing on both sides created a spectacular Hollywood war scene. Not only did we saw how the local people produced coconut candies and coconut handicrafts, but I also tried the milk apple for the first time. Mekong Delta is full of vibrant colors. It’s so wide, so fertile and so hospitable. On my last evening in Vietnam, I visited the City Hall and the Opera House. These giant architectures are so French that it seems the Chinese heritage is blank in this part of history.

 

I don’t know if it is the Chinese heritage or the war history in Vietnam that attracts the West, particularly the American. Maybe both. Whatever the reason is, I had a good time in Vietnam. And I saw things that I did not see in another communist country. This trip to Laos and Vietnam is an eye opener to me. Thank you for reading!

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