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Friday, December 15, 2017

Traveling through this part of you: Vietnam 1

The U.S. singer Nanci Griffith has toured Vietnam and Cambodia with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.* On her first visit, she wrote the song “Traveling Through This Part Of You.” She started writing it for her ex-husband, who is a Vietnam veteran, but then realized that it was in thanks for the service of all the veterans.

I expected to think about the U.S.A.’s undeclared war in Indochina while traveling here. After all, to someone who grew up in America, “Vietnam” means a war, not a country. What I didn’t expect was to spend so much of our Vietnam travels thinking about that recent period of history. It has been a journey through my own  conflicting feelings, as I try to imagine the perspective of first one, and then another person who lived through that time. All my observations are historical imagination and I don’t think that any of them, or the sum of them, is “the truth” about the war. Wars are always complicated, this one more than most.

I’ve been listening to some of the songs, too, which is why I start with Nanci Griffith’s. Sometimes a song tells a story in a way we couldn’t otherwise cope with.

The mountain road from Phongsali Province, Laos, had striking views. When we crossed into Vietnam at Tay Trang, the road got surprisingly bad. Surprisingly, because as an economy Vietnam is substantially more developed than Laos, more at the level of Thailand. I started observing that development in the mounds of trash that seemed to be strewn everywhere in Vietnam. In poor countries, people just don’t have much to throw away.

I also noticed that motorcyclists, who are ubiquitous in Vietnam as well, were wearing helmets. In Laos hardly anyone had. The helmets, as we soon discovered, embolden Vietnamese to ride like utter maniacs. A third difference I noticed was in the language: Vietnamese is the only one in this part of the world that doesn’t have its own written script. Thanks to a French missionary, it uses a phonetic version of the Roman alphabet, which was easier to educate the masses with. So while I don’t know any Vietnamese, it was strangely comforting to see it written in letters I recognize, and be able to sound out words. Like cà phê.

Everywhere we go, the coffee gets stronger. Lao coffee was lovely, but it needed that condensed milk to make it drinkable. Vietnamese coffee is off the charts. They brew it on top of the cup and it drips down, slowly infusing the sweetened condensed milk, which is “downstairs” as one of our hosts told us. T. said it looked like upside-down Guinness. If you don’t like sugar in coffee, you need to find a French place.

And so to Dien Bien Phu, our first stop in Vietnam. Because it was at that siege, in 1954, that the First Indochina War turned in favor of the Vietnamese and led to the end of French colonial rule. If you know nothing else about Dien Bien Phu, that’s good. There is nothing else to know.

Actually, that’s me being sarcastic. It was worth visiting this small town, just to get our feet wet in a new culture—and get used to crossing the road. The motorcyclists, pedestrians, pretty much everyone who saw us shouted “Hello!” It’s their go-to English word, and that was another thing that surprised me: how little English people know. Often, they have nowhere to go after “Hello,” but they keep saying it, gamely. Or sometimes “ça va.”

I’ve made fun (I hope gently) of some Americans before for our tendency to be the loudest people in the room. Well, henceforth I am handing that baton over to the Vietnamese. They shout everything. They aren’t being rude or aggressive. It’s just that they have to be heard over the constant, and I do mean constant, cacophony of honking horns and all the other noise in their streets. You might not believe this without a picture, but in Hanoi we actually came across a large group of little kids on tiny motorized bicycles, riding around a city square. Each was equipped with a horn, and they honked these regularly, just part of turning the handlebars. Start ’em young.

You can’t go far in Dien Bien Phu without seeing this monument. It overlooks the town and the two airplanes per day that leave the airport fly right past it.

We’ve been seeing a lot of communist symbolism, in both Laos and Vietnam. I know how bad this system has been for millions of people. But before I go on, I just want to offer one thought about the hammer and sickle. Not the police states that this flag came to represent, but the original idea behind it.

That idea is the dignifying of labor. It’s a good idea, and one that has been present in capitalist societies. From the 1930s to the 1970s, in the U.S. for example, the reckless excesses of capitalism were fresh in the minds of those who lived through the Great Depression. Both Republican and Democratic administrations presided over the lessening of inequality. The prevailing idea was that ordinary working families should share in the growing prosperity of a society.

Since around the end of the Vietnam war, perhaps coincidentally, a different ideology has prevailed. The income of ordinary working men and women has become decoupled from the economic growth of a nation, and most of the gains have gone to a few people at the top. This has happened whether the president was a Republican or a Democrat. As Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have pointed out (The Spirit Level), massive inequality is bad for societies in many ways, because it is linked to so many problems and our inability to address those problems. When inequality is not addressed, people may turn to socialism, or they may turn to Brexit and Trumpism. 

I just wanted to mention this, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since the 2016 presidential primaries. Communism has offered the world some big lies, but it is also a lie that the only other possible basis for organizing human society is pure greed. There are ways of organizing our societies that reduce inequality, and we have got to find them, for the whole planet’s sake.

So much for the hammer and sickle. The other image we’ve been seeing a lot of is Ho Chi Minh.

Ho, as he’s best known by this nom de guerre, is everywhere in Vietnam. Like the king in Thailand. He’s on every bill of money, and there’s a cult of personality that I find ironic, given how communism is supposed to be about no one bowing to any superior man. We were told this, unironically, by our guide in Laos when we asked about the king. “We used to have” a king, but more than six centuries of Lao monarchy were ended in 1975. 

Before Ho Chi Minh co-founded the French communist party back in 1920, he was an admirer of the U.S., and petitioned several administrations for help in resisting colonial rule, starting with Woodrow Wilson’s. “Self-determination” of nations was an ideal of Wilson’s, and the precursor of the C.I.A. seems to have agreed, as during the Second World War it provided Ho’s Viet Minh with weapons and training. I find this fascinating, because we tend to forget that the U.S. was not always the superpower of the late twentieth century. For most of its history, it was the underdog, the colony that had stood up to the British Empire and won. 

It therefore makes sense that Ho would admire the U.S. (he lived and worked there for a while) and that the U.S. was okay with Ho as long as he was more nationalist than communist. Alas, he turned out to be quite committed to communism, so things were never going to work out. In the Cold War era priorities shifted, and Ho's letters to President Truman got the same response as from Wilson. The U.S. opposed the dire regimes of communism, but as we know, was sometimes guilty of backing dire regimes of other kinds. It is doubtful that the military dictators of Thailand would have been around long enough to commit the 1973 massacre, had they not been useful in the struggle against North Vietnam.

We visited the Museum of Dien Bien Phu Historical Victory. The ground floor was given over to a display on Võ Nguyên Giáp, the general whose name is almost as familiar as Ho’s. Giap made his name by defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu. I found the museum interesting not so much on the level of the displays as on the level of propaganda. What are these displays trying to tell us?
General Giap waiting for a train. Really
Museums in Vietnam are dreary collections of mannequins that reminded us of the fake Maasai village in Tanzania, but the story Dien Bien Phu tries to convey is that there was a single Indochina War, running from the First (when the French lost their colonies in 1954) through the Second (which ended in 1975). At every opportunity, connections between the two imperial powers—France and the U.S.A.—are made. Thus, there are pictures of tanks that we are told the U.S. supplied to the French, and pictures of Vice President Nixon who, we are told, was in Dien Bien Phu to encourage the French colonialists.
Now, I know that’s a picture of Richard Nixon, but I automatically question whether the caption is accurate, and not just because I was taught that communism was all lies. Here’s the problem with communist storytelling: They never know when to stop. You can’t blame Vietnamese communists for being proud of resisting the Japanese invasion during World War II, and resenting the French for coming back after the war and reoccupying. So far, my sympathies are with them. But then they caption everything with all these emotive words. No one in the museum ever just did something; he (or often she) was a “joyful” conscript, or “cheerful” receiving the news about Land Renovation. Really? That’s what they’re excited about?

Intriguingly, there are French captions along with the English, and they don’t match. I’m not good at French and have no idea what the Vietnamese captions say, but I can tell when words and whole phrases aren’t there. The French captions said things like “Vietnamese soldiers received reeducation in the countryside.” The English would say “Our soldiers liberate…” The our, constantly present in the English captions, was absent in French. I began to wonder who translated these and why this proprietary, emotive version was particularly being aimed at English readers.

The other message of the Dien Bien Phu Museum is that the French were fops. There are displays of wine bottles and of the French commander’s bathtub, found in a trench. The implication is clearly that the Vietnamese were men of the people, hardily bathing in cold streams, as Southeast Asians do. Again, like other parts of the story, it’s true as far as it goes.
General Christian de Castries's tub
I wonder what French visitors make of this museum. On the way, one of them started speaking to me; he saw my Kilimanjaro T-shirt and asked about my climb. Turns out he climbed it too. I told him I almost made it and he credited me with reaching Stella Point, although I had to admit it was only 5,200 meters. I was just glad to be able to have the conversation in French!

We returned to our guesthouse to the constant accompaniment of honks and “Hello!” A gal in a grocery store, who spoke no more English than that, gave us bananas for free (this happens a lot in Vietnam). A little boy in a pho shop played with a butcher knife while we ate the noodle soup. Then back at the guesthouse, the proprietor’s toddler kept offering T. his favorite toy to play with. “Lovely,” she said, “a full box of matches.” 

We’d originally intended to travel overland the whole time we were in Asia, but we couldn’t face more than eleven hours in a bus to Hanoi. So we took the midday flight on Vietnam Airlines.
Crew in conical hats, Dien Bien Phu airport
That was where I discovered that the emotive “joyfully” thing is not just propaganda. The safety video on the plane showed passengers looking over the safety instruction card in the seat pocket in front of them, like all airlines’ safety videos do. But in the Vietnamese one, the passengers are exclaiming to one another in ecstasy, while the flight attendant looks on with, er, attendant joy. You have never seen anyone do anything with more enthusiasm than actors reading a safety card in the Vietnam Airlines video.

So yes, there are moments of humor, and discovery, such as the brown robes on Vietnamese monks (a different form of Buddhism from the one in which orange robes are worn). And there are moments, like when I was walking in Laotian jungle or missing my American family at Thanksgiving, that I couldn’t help but think about those young men who were sent over here. Boys, really, the age of my cousin who is a freshman. Treated, then and thereafter, as if their lives were expendable. 

More from Hanoi.

*“Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) is dedicated to global security through programs that support and promote justice and freedom, as well as reduce the worldwide threat posed by war and conflict. Their Campaign for a Landmine Free World is VVAF’s public outreach program that addresses the international landmine tragedy.” 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

An interlude: Hong Kong

Our plan was to go around Southeast Asia by land, but you know what they say about plans. We ended up taking a couple of hops on Vietnam Airlines. The number one reason was that a friend of ours lives in Hong Kong, and invited us to stay. I’ve always wanted to visit Hong Kong, particularly as we know someone living there, and it seemed unlikely that we would ever be “passing by” nearer than north Vietnam.

Hong Kong represented a stepping back. From our travels in southeast Asia and into a world that was more familiar. As strange as it sounds, Hong Kong seems as British as it is Chinese, not least because we were visiting Watty, whom we’ve met up with when she lived in London. There were English place names, English stores, and English prices!

So while we were traveling to Hong Kong and back, I thought a lot about the contrasts with what we’ve been doing for the past six months. It’s too early for me to write about Vietnam, because I haven’t made up my mind about the country yet. In fact, part of this stepping back has been me examining my reactions to certain things, feelings that have sometimes surprised me.

Did you ever spend months at a time not seeing a single familiar place or anyone you knew, not even a passing acquaintance, except for one other person? It isn’t natural. T. and I adore each other, but come on. There have been plenty of challenging days and I haven’t really written about that, which is fine. We have gotten better about handling this particular kind of stress. But I want to acknowledge it at least, because otherwise, it might sound as if we’ve been on one endless vacation. 

Having a “holiday” in Hong Kong, seeing a familiar face, just emphasized this for me. Our local friend showed us around and took all the work out of it. I know how ridiculous it sounds to call traveling “work,” but there are aspects of other countries that I don’t like, or that clash with my values. Of course, no one wants to see pictures of litter, disregard for animal welfare, social control, or corruption! So I’m balancing the picture I paint here with photographs of Hong Kong, a place I loved.
Watty's map of where we went to in Hong Kong
When you’re in a culture, you have to understand the reasons things are the way they are, and whether you can affect the system or not. A mild example from my own culture is tipping. In North America, unlike in the rest of the world, tipping wait staff is mandatory. They are taxed on the basis that they receive a standard percentage tip, whether customers give them those tips or not; and as I understand it, their employers don't even have to pay minimum wage. This changes the meaning of “tips,” which people around the world understand to mean a voluntary extra payment to reward especially good service. The problem is that if you visit North America, it’s not fair to register your protest at this system—ridiculous though it is—by failing to tip individual servers properly, because it is not their fault.
Cantonese restaurant full of locals. Thanks for ordering, Watty!
So I think back to the occasion in Tanzania when we were stopped and searched at gunpoint by military personnel. I still feel detached from that experience, even though it is over and I should be feeling outrage—having done nothing wrong and not being given any explanation. Maybe it’s because I didn’t really feel that I was in danger, or felt that my behavior would ensure I wasn’t in danger. But I think it’s really because I am not a citizen of Tanzania and for all I know, Tanzanians are stopped and searched like this all the time. Certainly, constant police checkpoints are a fact of life there. Mostly they don’t affect visitors; they affect drivers, who have to pay a “tax.” I think I’m not outraged because I was just visiting the way Tanzanians live.

Victoria Harbour from "the Peak" viewpoint. The depth of the harbor contributed to Hong Kong's importance in international trade, when it was a British colony and still today.
It is much less dramatic when, driving near the U.S. border with Mexico, we’re required to stop and asked questions about our citizenship. But that I find outrageous! Why? Because I am a U.S. citizen driving near—but not crossing—an international border, and damned if I’m going to carry my “papers” around in my own country. I have never actually had to produce proof of my citizenship, but isn’t that likely to be a privilege of how I look, or sound, or what my name is?
I'd had no idea there were so many walking trails in Hong Kong. 3/4 of it is countryside!
My being stopped and searched in Tanzania was a one-time thing (I hope). There are young African-American men who are repeatedly stopped, and even endangered, perhaps because some other young black man has been reported to have done something, or for even less of a reason. And I know that during the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland many ordinary citizens were hassled in this way, by police or the armed forces. I know what they were looking for; the fact remains that for these ordinary citizens, not wrongdoers, it’s not only unjust, but it affects the community’s relationship with the force, which becomes antagonistic rather than there to help people. 
Northern Chinese for lunch today. Yum!
So the fact that the Tanzanian soldiers might have been conducting an exercise, or might really have been looking for something or someone, does not excuse them. They were treating ordinary people unfairly, and we let them, because they could. If I’m stopped and searched, or asked for a bribe, it’s a one-off for me, just an annoyance in a country I will soon leave. But for whole populations, and citizens in our own countries, this type of unfairness is an everyday hassle, not a novelty at all.
Cruising the harbor over to the Kowloon side. The Kowloon peninsula is still part of the "Special Administrative Region" of Hong Kong, but we can now say we went to the mainland of China.
Another thing that is significantly different in other countries is the expectation of safety. In Laos, for instance, nearly everyone rides motorbikes, sometimes with their whole family aboard, and rarely with anyone wearing a helmet. We constantly saw children, babies, and adults in all sorts of combinations zooming through traffic, where one slip or bump in the road could wipe out an entire family. Probably the most outrageous of countless examples was the mom who had a baby strapped to her back, facing backwards, and a child facing forwards behind the baby. While she drove, they were playing pat-a-cake!

I understand that mopeds are what Laotians can afford and that this is their culture, but that doesn't make it any safer. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the safety of these children. All we can do for our own is walk very carefully, and avoid ever getting on a motorcycle ourselves.

Dragon boats, village of Sai Kung, New Territories. The "New Territories" are the parts of Hong Kong that were built, or rather occupied, later.
It was such a relief to walk around Hong Kong, because we had just flown from Hanoi. I have really never seen anything like driving in Vietnam, especially its capital. Traffic is mostly motorbikes and they go wherever they want to. I mean as many abreast as is physically possible; I mean the wrong way down a one-way street or a “lane”; I mean on the sidewalk if they feel like it. Might means right. The smaller vehicle yields to the bigger, and pedestrians have no rights. In fact, we have no sidewalks, because if they’re not actually being driven on, they’re full of parked motorbikes.
Yet another delicious meal--family-style restaurant that hasn't changed in our friend's memory
Of course, there is a system, another one I can do nothing about. As much as I hate it, the system is that you just keep walking. They all seem to be driving straight at you, but they aren’t. They’re driving around you, and if you just keep walking, around you they will go. There’s also zero margin for error, so heaven forbid you should slip, trip, or lose your balance. On one occasion T. actually had to help a motorcyclist up who’d lost his! 

Here again, I don’t like this and I don’t think it’s safe, but I’m just visiting the way Vietnamese people live. I didn’t want to stay in Hanoi, nor did I have to. That’s another of my many privileges. 
The cable car that goes on forever, Lantau Island
At the end of the day, though, I think that travel makes me realize how much people have in common. As T. said back in Hungary: “People all over the world hold a baby the same.” At least for me, I'm more idealistic the more I see of the world, not less. Sitting at home with the TV (fun as I remember that being) can make you worry about all the bad things that happen in the world. Traveling among so many people makes me aware of how many of them are nice, and how things go right most of the time.
Triple Lanterns Cafe, Tai O. Photo by Watty

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Laos to Việt Nam

It used to be possible to take a riverboat up the Nam Ou from Luang Prabang. But Chinese-built dams made that impossible a couple of years ago. So we made our way to our next stop, Nong Khiaw, in a minibus. This wasn’t the most comfortable. They put the seats up and stuff every bit of space under them with luggage, and the bus can’t leave until all fifteen seats are full. We did eventually leave, fifteen foreigners and the driver all crammed in, with the last gal’s backpack held in the well of the sliding door. We stopped a couple of times in three hours, which was a mercy, because the roads are rough. Luckily, we each had a window seat. I don’t think the folks in the middle could see any of the scenery.

It was worth it getting to Nong Khiaw, though. The village is joined with the other side of the river, Ban Sop Houn, via a bridge, and standing on it you can see some of the most spectacular mountain features of northern Laos.
Morning mist from the bridge

We got a little bungalow whose starring feature was a balcony with
View from the hammock
a hammock. Probably the best view I’ve ever had, and certainly the most relaxing place to stay. And we needed it. Because the day hike to the viewpoint above Nong Khiaw, which was supposed to take an hour and a half, was the toughest we’ve done.

It was relentlessly uphill, steps cut into the jungle, and I was just pouring with sweat. I know that’s an expression, but I’m not sure I’ve ever poured like this before. It was just possible to imagine how the heat and humidity felt to servicemen fighting in the jungle for the first time. Only they were wearing and carrying all that war equipment, plus, the obvious danger of death. At the best of times, it is a punishing, hostile environment.
That's pretty much how we experienced it!

In about two hours, though, I did make it to the top. 
View over Nong Khiaw and the Nam Ou
Unaware that T. was right behind me, I started to go back. I was encouraging a young man to finish that last rock climb, when here she came! I guessed, correctly, that the guy was from Ontario—who but an Ontarian would ask if I meant London, Ontario, or London, England? He charmed us right from the start by calling T. “miss.” 

We got to talking to him about Australia, where we’re all eventually headed, and T. was recommending the possibility of renting RVs. “Are you over twenty-five?” she asked him.

“Twenty-eight, but thanks for that,” he said. T. explained that he is very young compared with us, and he professed to be shocked. “I would have guessed you were thirty-five!” 

“God bless you,” T. said. We have met many friendly folks on our travels, but this young Canadian has got to be one of our favorites! 

When we left the trailhead we passed an older North American man who asked us how hard it was. T. ran out of superlatives, but explained that she had done it, and the 360-degree views were worth it. He high-fived her and said he’d see us later. Which he did, several hours later, when we were sitting at a halal restaurant and he walked by on his way back from the hike. Yes, it was hard!

Another friendly guy we kept bumping into was a New Zealander who’d been on our minibus. We saw him when we went for a “nightcap,” which involved free shots of lao-lao, rice whiskey or wine. This is what Laotians who can’t afford Beerlao apparently drink. Infused with passionfruit, mine tasted pretty good.

Nong Khiaw boasts two ATMs, which is big for a provincial town. Unfortunately, neither of them was working during our stay. We were reduced to going into the bank. Remember when going into the bank was a normal way to get out money? They photocopied my passport and my credit card and ostentatiously made me fill out a form. I remarked that it still wasn't as time-consuming a process as depositing a foreign-currency check at our home bank, which requires a longer form and carbon copies in triplicate. T. was not amused. 

This set the tone for the next stage of our journey, which made the minibus seem comfortable by comparison. We got tickets for the riverboat up the Nam Ou to another two-ATM village, Muang Khua. Unbeknownst to us, only one of the boats leaving that morning continued all the way to Muang Khua, and we almost didn’t get on it. The boatman took our tickets and we never saw them again. Since our tickets had been demanded repeatedly on the Mekong River journey, we kept asking for them back; even one of Apostle-looking Guy’s friends tried to help us, since she spoke a little bit of Lao. Eventually, they found us a place in the stern of the boat. One of us was to sit on a can of diesel, and the other on top of someone’s shoes.

The worst thing about this journey, though, was how loud it was. What we thought might have been a basic toilet was just the engine room, and there was nothing cutting it off from where we sat. I was very thankful for my noise-canceling headphones on this particular occasion. As for T., she lent hers to some young parents who were having a terrible time getting their baby to calm down.

"First class," with the insouciant French guy 
As in Tanzania, locals had grabbed all the seats. Fortunately we kept getting “upgraded” as the boat stopped at villages and people got off. When we got to stretch out on the deck of the stern, a Frenchman who got on even after we did said we were now in “first class.” By the last two hours of the journey, there were only foreigners left, and we got the car seats! But overall, it was not a journey for enjoying the scenery. And that’s a shame, because we saw dams being built by the Chinese even as we passed, and soon this journey too may no longer be possible.
It looks nice when you can't hear the boat!
We disembarked at Muang Khua, where the Nam Ou meets the Nam Phak. It was our fourth river and last stop in Laos. From Muang Khua, we were to get a direct bus to Điện Biên Phủ, in Vietnam. Each town is some distance from the border, but there’s nothing but border posts there, so the daily bus was our only option.

In this part of the world, buses (and boats) always transport other things. If there’s any room on the bus, it will be filled with cans, mail, pigs, whatever needs delivering to some town or village down the road. The type of bus I mean is more like a little old school bus than a modern coach. We showed up at 7:00 like the guesthouse lady had told us, knowing that the bus would not leave until 7:30, at least.
Our bags on the bus
The mountainous journey up to the Laos-Vietnam border was very beautiful. It was high and very winding, but the road was in pretty good shape. I kept seeing things like a woman standing in her laundry tub on the side of the road—the kind of tub our laundry had been washed in only days before. And chickens, goats, even buffalo making their way along (or across) the road. I knew I was going to miss Laos, even at exit immigration when the officers asked for (and got) an illegitimate 10,000-kip fee “because it’s the weekend.” The other passengers on the bus, a European couple, promptly coughed up the equivalent of a pound each. What were we supposed to do, hold up the minibus in protest?

I had no idea how much I would miss Laos once we reached the other side of no-man's-land.
Our bags on the boat

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Slow boat to Laos

Before researching these travels, I knew only one thing about Laos: a kid from Laos and his sister started coming to my school. I didn’t know anything about him or his family, but most Laotians who settled in the U.S.A. were Hmong refugees. That is because the Hmong were on the losing side when Laos finally became communist in 1975. Insurgent against the Lao ethnic majority, Hmong were recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for a “secret war” against North Vietnam. It was so secret that I never knew Laos, like Vietnam and Cambodia, was part of the war known to Americans as “Vietnam.”

In Vietnam it’s called the American war. It is more accurate, from historians’ point of view, to refer to the Second Indochina War, in which Laos was officially neutral. Its neutrality was recognized as far back as the Kennedy administration, but Laos also has a geography that made interference by the warring parties inevitable. When the Viet Cong started running troops and supplies through neighbouring countries via the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” the trail became a target. Just wrap your head around this official statistic: the U.S. spent $2 billion per day, for 9 consecutive years, dropping more than two million tons of bombs just on Laos. One third of the population was internally displaced, and no one knows how many people died.

Careful where you step--hiking trail in Ban Sop Houn
Unexploded ordnance is still an everyday danger in parts of Laos today. People who weren’t born during the war are regularly killed and maimed. And after all that, Laos is communist, in fact the first communist country I have visited. Well, in the sense that China is communist. For cultural reasons I can’t begin to know, Laos has a history of dependence on the latest foreign power: first France, then the U.S., now China. China seems to be communist in the sense of an authoritarian, one-party state, but capitalist in the form of rampant development paying no heed to human or environmental concerns. Seems like the worst aspects of both, to me. But if you travel in Africa or Asia you quickly realize that China is building the roads, railroads, and dams. It isn’t constrained by the concerns of the West, and the U.S. isn’t investing like it used to, when development was a proxy Cold War. 

So as far as developing nations are concerned, China is the world’s superpower. Anyway, we’re not going to mainland China. We're in Hong Kong, and I’m only typing my Laos post up now that we’ve left. It's still the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and I am still The Discreet Traveler.

I loved Laos. It was the biggest unknown of our travels, and I’d recommend it to anybody. That doesn’t mean I’d like to be an ordinary citizen there, never mind a journalist or an opposition figure. But it’s stunningly beautiful, and the people we met made us feel at ease and very welcome. I didn’t have a bad meal. Unlike in Thailand, where there was an A&P supermarket on the border with Myanmar, I didn’t see any chains (shops, restaurants) anywhere in Laos. Is this good? Well, it’s different!

We took the slow boat from Huay Xai, just across the border from Thailand, to Luang Prabang which is in the center of northern Laos. It’s a two-day journey with an overnight stop—that’s what makes it “slow.” It’s motorized, as are the speedboats that make the journey in half the time, but you wouldn’t catch me on one of them. 

The boat is supposed to leave Huay Xai at 10:30 but we were told it might not leave till 11 or 12. We also heard, from various sources, that there would only be wooden benches on the deck, and we’d have to pay if we wanted a cushion; that the toilet would only be a hole in the deck; that there might not be a toilet at all; and that there would be no opportunity to buy drinks or food all day, so we needed to buy them beforehand (preferably at the stall of the person telling us). All of this turned out to be grimly true of riverboats on the eastern side of the country, up the Nam Ou. But on the Mekong, we were seated at a table (opposite the two U.S. couples we’d shared a tuk-tuk with), under cover, with cushioned benches. There was not one but two toilets—“Western” toilets, by no means to be taken for granted in Laos. And there was a bar.

From this, and the fact that a full slow boat runs daily, it’s evident that this is a major attraction. Yet one of the measures of how big the world is, is that something dozens of people do every day is still an experience most people will never have. 

The scenery was gorgeous, from beginning to end. The people all seemed to be hippies, whether aging originals or twentysomethings who just wore their hair long. Apostle-looking Guy sat on the window ledge and smoked various things. There were books and card games, but few phones. It really did feel like a trip back in time, an effect that was only enhanced when we got to Luang Prabang and constantly heard ’60s and ’70s music (in the Aussie bar where we spent most of our time).

I understand that Luang Prabang also has the country’s first openly gay bar. We couldn’t find it, but then nor could we find the bar it was supposedly across the street from, the most happening place in town. Guess we weren’t destined for nightlife. I hope the bar is there for Laotians who need it, though, because homosexuality was illegal until very recently in Laos. In general, southeast Asia is probably the best part of the world to be queer in outside the West, and Laos is as laid-back as a communist country gets.

We kept seeing people we recognized from the boat, and this continued all through Laos. Whereas Bangkok and Chiang Mai are big cities, we very much felt like we were on the same country trail in Laos. Apostle-looking Guy turned up at our guesthouse, then on a moped (wearing a helmet at least), then on the day we went trekking, and then further along when we stayed in Nong Khiaw. We last saw him there (boarding our hideously loud and crammed riverboat) where he was wearing a Hebrew T-shirt. There were lots of Hebrew signs in Nong Khiaw, almost as many as Krakow. I haven't been able to discover the Israeli connection. 

But back to Luang Prabang. We shared a tuk-tuk with a Dutch couple, two Americans who were afraid we were going to ask them about elections, and a Chinese woman who assured us “this looks like China.” After disembarking and finding the Dutch couple’s guesthouse for them, it transpired that we were nowhere near our own…We traipsed through the night market with our full backpacks, getting madder and madder, then finally had to get another tuk-tuk “to the other side of the mountain.” This sounds dramatic—it’s just that Phu Si hill is in the middle of Luang Prabang, and you either have to walk (or ride) around it, or walk up it to the temple. We did that on another day.
Sunset over the Mekong, from Phu Si
The First Indochina War was fought to liberate what are now Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam from France. No doubt there were many terrible things about being a French colony, but there is one good legacy: having been French. What this means is that fresh bread and other wonderful foods are available everywhere. Bread is not something you see much of in Thailand, other than the odd guesthouse that offers white bread for toast in the mornings. 

Our first errand in Luang Prabang was to get our visas for Vietnam, which has a consulate in the town. Many countries, such as Thailand and Laos, issue visas on arrival for our nationalities (Laos for a fee), but Vietnam requires a visa in advance. People kept telling us that we could apply online, but this depends on one’s passport, length of planned visit, and most importantly, point of entry. As far as I was able to determine, the online application is only useful for airports. We planned to enter by land.

The consular staff were friendly and efficient, at least by the standards of immigration officers. Unlike the loud gentleman who wanted the officer to “look it up on the computer,” etc., we were prepared with passport-sized photos and the correct fee (in U.S. dollars). I guess, if China really were the world’s superpower, we would have needed yuan. 

From there we hit the bamboo bridge, built anew every dry season by a family that charges a few kip for the privilege of crossing it. By “a few kip” I mean a few thousand. The Laotian currency is worth very little per unit; one can easily get a million or two out of the cash machine. The river is the Nam Khan. Luang Prabang is on the peninsula where the Mekong and the Nam Khan meet.
Bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan

The most beautiful temple, or at least the one we visited, is Wat Xiang Thong. It has a striking “tree of life” mosaic and some quite unusual details on the exterior of the wat.

The night market was very laid-back, once we weren’t carrying our backpacks through it anymore. It had buffets where we could fill a bowl with whatever we wanted, and little coconut “pancakes” which were a dessert we’d discovered in Thailand. Best of all, Laotians are partial to sticky rice, which comes in little baskets. They scoop up all kinds of food with it, not just mango for dessert. 

Overall, Laos was kind of like I’d imagined Thailand would be. I was eating better than ever, plus, there was the French thing. At least, until a stomach bug laid me low. I don’t know if it was unwashed lettuce from the night market, or my failure to eat local yogurt on a particular day. Did I mention our neighbor’s excellent advice to eat the yogurt everywhere we go? That way, we’re supposed to pick up the “good” cultures that keep our guts healthy. Anyway, it took six months for either of us to get sick.

There was something else we picked up in the night market: souvenirs made by the villagers of Ban Na Phia. Theirs is one of the most heavily bombed areas of Laos, and they’ve taken the aluminum of the ordnance and made it into bracelets, earrings, etc. It’s a way to make some positive thing out of a terrible legacy, and adds a small amount of income to what are otherwise subsistence agricultural lives.

I was surprised, and impressed, by how many of what North Americans call “senior citizens” were roaming around Laos. No sooner had I recovered from my down time than I saw the Dutch couple from the slow boat (and our tuk-tuk)—biking around Luang Prabang, of course. T. was less impressed by our Hmong guide, Sa, who took us trekking from a Hmong village down to the Kuang Si waterfall. Not that he wasn’t a good guide, but he clearly hadn’t been versed in “senior citizen” terminology. When T. was huffing and puffing in the jungle heat, and complained of being “very old,” Sa just nodded and said “Yes, I know”! (To be fair, his age guess was still ten years too young.)

Kuang Si waterfall
Down at the waterfall, we had a chance to swim, which felt absolutely glorious after our hike in the jungle.

In the tuk-tuk back to Luang Prabang (our minivan having not materialized), Sa saw my wedding ring and asked if I was married. I was saved from this rather indiscreet conversation by T., who asked Sa if he was married. Thereafter it was nothing but pictures of his wife, son, and everyone on his phone. Which goes to show that the best way not to answer a question about yourself is to ask the other person to talk about himself; he’ll never stop.

In the Hmong village, Lao Lao, they were just getting ready to skin a pig. I could see this wasn’t just for show, as we were the only visitors. At least this pig was marginally better off than those we’d seen on the way to market, “hog-tied” but not yet butchered. Maybe I should try vegetarianism again.
Jungle hike from Lao Lao village

There are phenomena in Laos I wish I had pictures of, like the guy in the post office, slumped over the D.H.L. desk asleep. When told I needed to buy an envelope he roared to life and very carefully taped my parcel shut, whacking off pieces of packing tape with a huge knife. 
Or the showers in guesthouses. Maybe now’s a good time to mention that, in Thailand as well as Laos, a shower is usually a showerhead hanging off the wall in the same space as the rest of the bathroom. It may or may not splash the toilet—everything just drains away in the floor. So put the toilet paper away safely somewhere.

Don’t flush the paper, though. We learned that, wherever you go in the world, if there’s a wastebasket next to the toilet it means the plumbing can’t cope with toilet paper, so throw it in there. And always, always, carry a supply of your own.

Really? Nothing?