Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Some Photos to Illustrate the Last Post

Morning Vietnamese coffees
Visiting the Forbidden City in Hue
Josh, the hair salon celebrity, receiving a surprisingly round haircut
Breakfast at Pho Hoa in Saigon.  Look at that fried dough.  Perfection.
Leaving Pho Hua a very happy camper
Visiting the Jade Emperor's Pagoda
Happy communists!
Celebrating Vietnamese Independence Day under the smiling shadow of Uncle Ho
Statutes at one of the temples in Saigon's Chinatown
Miscellaneous rice crepe dumplings sold by the woman behind EB.  She deliberated extensively in providing us with the best assortment possible for all of 50 cents.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ho Boy, That Was Pho-un

Sorry readers, but the puns just write themselves. Just be glad there isn’t an audio portion to the blog where you have to listen to me (EB) sing the entirety of Miss Saigon, which Josh has had to endure since we touched down in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) two days ago. I mean, when it is swelteringly hot, it is basically impossible not to say the Heat is on in Saigon. And the rest just goes from there. [Photos to come, btw - we're on a slow and time-limited connection in Bangkok]

To round out our visit to Hue, our last morning there began with a visit to our now regular coffee spot on the corner a couple blocks from our hotel where all the tiny plastic stools faced out to the watch the traffic pass through the intersection. Turns out even Vietnamese people like to watch the amazing things that can be crammed onto motorbikes and cyclos. We then headed over to the Forbidden City, which was the home of the Nguyen emperors in the 19th Century. Filled with temples, houses, beautiful ponds and lawns, all built on a symmetrical grid in a very celestially auspicious location, Hue’s Forbidden City was reminiscent of Beijing’s, though in substantially worse shape having been the site of fires, floods and fighting in the Vietnam War. Our guidebook (which Josh graciously endures my constant reading from – always about learning) detailed for us the many Nguyen court rituals and the great importance placed on the (their words) “haughty” but “meritorious” “Mandarins” – those who had ascended the highest ranks in civil or military society. In the future we intend to strive to be described as both haughty and meritorious.

Back to the hotel to check out and then we had a couple hours of wandering ahead of us before we had to leave for our flight. We stopped to check the prices at a motorbike shop – we are really getting into Vietnamese life but I’m not sure Josh is going to be zipping his way to Hackettstown on a Vietnamese two-wheeler anytime soon – and then found our way to lunch at a Hue beer garden. Lunch was great – noodles with pork and beef with veggies – but probably the most fun was enjoying our new favorite local beers (Huda for Josh, Festival for me) and watch the others around us work their way through cases of their own. Josh gleefully observed his first examples of serious Asian flush in the group of men at the table just behind us. It happens here too!

After lunch we decided that it wasn’t fair for me to be the only one who received a beautifying treatment while in Hue, so we selected a “salon” for Josh to get a haircut. Though populated only by women with no sign they had ever cut a man’s hair before, we chose this spot because it was the only shop we saw where there was any activity at all – one woman had her hair plugged into some very elaborate machine that looked sure to electrocute. Though the haircut may have been a bit shorter and rounder than Josh had hoped for, the experience was great. Lots of women buzzing around the place, watching Josh in fascination, clearly talking about us in not so hushed Vietnamese. After the cut, Josh asked for a shampoo, which resulted in a washing/scalp massage/face whacking with hands held together as if praying while making an amazing noise that lasted twice as long as the cut itself. And once he had paid, the gaggle of women could resist no longer, asking in broken English where we were from, how old we were and, when it was revealed that we are married, jubilant cheers and applause. It appeared we were a hit!

Freshly shorn (at least one of us), we headed back to the hotel and then were off to the airport. And before we even knew it, we had arrived in Saigon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we came prepared for our day and a half in the city with about two weeks’ worth of food recommendations, and we were ready to dive in. And dive in we did. The food in Saigon was terrific! If Hue was a bit of a disappointment (OK food, nothing amazing) Saigon really knocked its socks off. This is a city that likes to eat and we are always happy to oblige.

Our drive to the hotel gave us our first taste of the famous Saigon traffic. Otherwise known as absolute, total and complete motorbike-filled chaos in which it is an absolute miracle that families of four riding on a motorbike together make it through the intersection together let alone from point A to point B. The motorbikes feel sort of like a river that is flash flooding its way down the street. When the light goes green, hundreds, thousands-even of bikes swarm all around the cars, pedestrians and buses. They go on the correct side of the street, they go into oncoming traffic, they go the wrong direction down a one-way street. They cannot be stopped – they are everywhere! There is really nothing quite like being in the left lane (the lane for cars) and trying to make a right turn into an endless stream of motorbikes. It feels like the driver just closes his eyes and hopes to God, but somehow it all works out. Crossing the street was a similar adventure, but luckily a bit of the New Yorker mentality combined with good luck meant we made it unscathed.

After checking into the fancy Caravelle Hotel (got a good deal on hotels.com), we headed out to Quan An Ngon, a restaurant with a hip atmosphere that serves sort of shmancier versions of street food. The restaurant was buzzing with people – Vietnamese and tourist alike – and the women who were making the food stood at tables ringing the outside of the restaurant. It was cool, probably the most “scene-y” of the places we visited this trip. (Once again we haven’t done the best job of working our way through the nightlife section of the guidebooks. But now that we’re old and married we suppose it’s OK to be lame.) The food was great – pork and “broken” rice, best springs rolls of the trip, rice crepes – with the only dud being the salad with chicken in which the only green was super pungent Thai basil. Good for adding to your noodle soups in small doses, maybe not for chomping down instead of romaine. After dinner we walked to a multi-story ice cream shop with décor that looked right out of 1950s suburban America for a shake and an ice cream sundae. I kept looking around for Archie to be sharing his banana split with Betty and Veronica at a table nearby. No luck. Back to the hotel and off to bed.

Wednesday began with the quest for the best pho in town. We had heard positive things about Pho Hua in District 3, so we headed there in a cab in morning rush hour traffic. The pho did not disappoint. The place was packed with diners all slurping their soups and I was thrilled to rediscover finally the fried dough sticks we had first enjoyed in Hanoi three years ago. Rip them up, toss them in the soup, and it’s like getting the go-ahead to have a giant french fry for breakfast. YUM. A morning of wandering all around Districts 3 and 1 ensued, with a brief stop for Josh to learn how to make Vietnamese coffee from a helpful shopkeeper. (Turns out, surprisingly easy.) We visited a couple of pagodas and then found our way to lunch at Hong Hahn, another place we had read about in the helpful food blog. We waited out (most of) the torrential rain storm enjoying rice crepes with pork and mushrooms and rice paper wraps of veggies, pork and shrimp.

Thus fortified, we headed to the War Museum, telling the story of the Vietnam War (or American War of Aggression as described there) from the Vietnamese perspective. The exhibits were very sobering and after a thought-provoking discussion about capitalism, communism and the different societies they create (I clearly won the argument, three years of law school must have taught me something about intellectual pontificating about rights and values and other stuff like that, though for Josh’s sake we’ll call it a draw), we then strolled home. A visit to the beautiful central post office, some cookies from a woman making them in a Vietnamese pizzelle maker-equivalent on the street, and a Luxe-guide directed shopping stroll down the street near our hotel were our only final diversions.

For dinner, we hopped a cab over to Com Nieu Sai Gon, a restaurant we had read about that apparently also appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s show when he was in Saigon. The food was all very yummy – eggplant with pork and tofu, spicy grilled pork – with the highlight being the restaurant’s signature grilled rice. The rice is cooked in a clay pot which the waiter then breaks in the middle of the restaurant to free the rice. To cool the rice (and impress the diners), he then flings the puck of rice across the restaurant to another waiter, who catches it on a plate and serves it to your table. It was tasty, and the experience even more memorable. A short stroll and then a cab back home and another day of eating was behind us.

Today, September 2, is Vietnamese Independence Day in which they celebrate the triumph over the French in 1945. There were lots of posters around town with Uncle Ho’s smiling face on them, but sadly no big parades to watch. And so, to truly celebrate Vietnam’s independence, we decided to spend our day with the two nations that had done the most to limit Vietnam’s independence, namely China and France. First off, we headed to Cho Lon, the city’s Chinatown. Though the main market was closed for the holiday, people were still selling meat and veggies on the street, and we were able to sneak in two breakfasts – first miscellaneous meat/fish-filled rice dumplings from a cart and then grilled pork over rice from a small street-side grill. We wandered through Cho Lon’s temples and watched as worshippers came to pray and burn incense before the many gods. Highlight of the Cho Lon temple circuit – when I so helpfully read a description from the guidebook of the temple that I believed us to be in (a description which seemed very accurate and enlightening) only to discover that temple was actually several blocks away and we were instead in some totally random one. It didn’t otherwise seem like all the temples were the same, but I guess that at a certain level of description one could make just about anything work.

Our Chinatown wandering complete, we hopped a cab over towards the center of town where, with a quick stop at a food vendor selling a dessert we had been advised to try – banana stuffed into sweet rice and grilled, then covered with coconut milk and tapioca, good though the description sounds sweeter than it actually is – we transitioned to the French portion of our day for fruit smoothies and a crème caramel at Au Parc, a lovely French café on the Park near the Cathedral. A sweet and wonderful way to end our time in Saigon. Back to the hotel and then we were off on our marathon journey to the next phase of our adventure – this time in Europe.

Right now? Well, dear readers, we write to you while enjoying a 6 hour layover (7 pm to 1 am) in the Bangkok airport. It’s our own “One Night in Bangkok” – unsurprisingly I’ve been singing that, much to Josh’s embarrassment – though really more like half a night in the Bangkok airport. Highlights of our short visit here include having Thai Pad Thai (interestingly enough not called just Pad) and the sign at immigration that asks you to take off your sunglasses, hats, etc. for the picture they take of you upon entering the country. The image of a cap with a line through it? Why it was none other than a Yale graduation hat from 1958! Namely a blue baseball cap with 5Y8 on it. Pretty awesome.

Though we are sad to leave our Asian adventuring behind, fear not blog fans, as we are off for a weekend of fun, marriage and likely a yummy Greek meal or two in the coming days. Let the European escapades begin!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I (Amy) am officially off the continent and back in Los Angeles, and I haven't had a croissant in over 24 hours.  I feel lightheaded.  We were sorry to leave but glad to come home to Harry, and since we now have all sorts of technological gadgets, I hereby present a selection of photos not pirated from the internet.  

The view from the front of Chateau Fretoy. 
Inadequate dogs, Chateau Fretoy, France.
Shortly before French newlywed game at amazing wedding dinner.  Congrats to the bride and groom!
Just a castle and some grapes, whatever.
Vending machine at a deserted train station in Autun, France.  Nicely done, Josh.
Revenue generating use of archaeological site in Geneva, Switzerland.
Jet d'Eau no the wind is changing!
Future home on Lake Geneva
Wondering how an unemployed lawyer affords said future home.
Same, this time in Paris.
Triumphant stairs.
Dear Los Angeles,
Please see above.
Regards, Amy
Inadequate dog, Latin Quarter, Paris, France.
That's more like it.  California, United States
And with that, au revoir for the time being.  Looking forward to more from Vietnam!


Monday, August 30, 2010

Getting Hue From It All

Yay, posts from the Continent! Vive la France! So long as it steers clear of the whole colonialist aggression bit.

Since we’ve last reported, a number of notable things have taken up our time, both in Hoi An and lately, up the coast a couple hours in Hue. We’ve spent a long and exhilarating but ultimately tiring day in the sun, though (life is hard in vacation-land), so we’re simply going to list these notable things with the best intentions of going back to fill them in later. A few pics included below to make it a bit more worth your while:

  • Pho on the street across from the hotel, followed up with breakfast part 2 at the hotel proper (street food wins again, but just about everyone around here makes damn good coffee)
  • Tour of one of the Chinese assembly halls. Think that maybe Hoi An hasn’t really changed so much in 400 years. Used to be that the foreign merchants came to town to bring back the goods of the Orient to local markets. Now foreign tourists shop in the same shops for souveniers. Different goods – same basic game? Made me feel better about the tourism, somehow.

  • Stroll around town, stopping for some spring rolls
  • Tailoring, fitting #3
  • Taxi out to the gorgeous white-sand beach (bathwater, wonderful); hanging out under the umbrella with a frightening thunderstorm on the horizon, chatting with but not buying from the persistent vendors (“Son Son is Number 1!”)

  • Tailoring, fitting #4
  • Stroll through a different part of town along the water, very residential. Most everyone is either hanging in the streets or eating together on the living room floor (mostly in front of the TV); run across at least two gentlemen belting out karaoke alone in their living rooms. Houses all painted a kind of teal inside that glows out into the street. We stop for a bahn mi

  • Tailoring, fitting #5. Amazingly not yet feeling like they’re sick of us. Our sales clerks are doing a good job of advocating on our behalf to the tailors, who reluctantly agree to this or that change. To my untrained ear, every minor change they agree on would seem to imply a total reconstruction of the clothes; nonetheless, they seem to have a better way and never need more than an hour or two to turn something around

  • Refresh at the hotel
  • Fancy Vietnamese food at “Secret Garden” for dinner – amazing water spinach salad and Num (fresh spring rolls), grilled pork and fish

  • Bicycles through town, which seems to have the Vietnamese equivalent of a lively Sunday brunch scene (maybe just like this everyday). Stop at a couple of the busiest places for Bahn Mi Op La (sandwich with veggies and spicy fried egg, among other things), and for Pho Bo (Beef soup)
  • Tailoring #6 – all is done!
  • Hotel for breakfast and all-you-can-drink coffee (how much sweetened condensed milk is too much?)
  • Beach, lovely
  • Mystery of the day: when it's 100 and humid, why is it that so many local ladies are wearing not just long pants but sweatshirts and gloves, even on the beach? Only answer we could get: they don't like to get tan. Plausible.

  • Check out of hotel and wait for our bus to Hue, only to be picked up and driven one at a time by scooter – with our giant luggage, to boot! – to the bus station

  • Bus (with stops) to Hue, with storms. Four hours and ~140km later, we're there.
  • Wandered the streets a bit before landing back in backpacker town, where a mediocre dinner was saved by delicious lime sherbet
  • Iced coffees in a covered pavilion, avoiding the torrential rain
  • Walked the morning market, stopping for mediocre breakfast soup, and then for better breakfast soup on the other side of town
  • Joined a crowd of men for street watching and coffee (with the requisite side of green tea)

  • Boating adventure to the Nguyen Emporers’ 19th century pleasure palaces/mausoleums – beautiful places, a bit like touring the Rockefellers? Or the Bush ranch?

  • Headed over to the local market, only a mile away but off the beaten track and a bit closer to the local action. Bought a Vietnamese coffee maker and then a mélange of snacks/dishes at 5 different vendors/restaurants: Potatoes with peanuts and coconut, bahn beo (dumplings), red bean marzipan, pound cake, com hen (salad with chopped mussels), fried rice and sesame crackers, bun bo, some kind of rice mix, two beers. Total: 113,000 Dong ($5.80)
  • Mani/pedi for EB, with three attendants and locally vibrant colors: 110,000 VND +20,000 ($6.70)
Now off to sleep!

Bonjour! (better late and with photos from the internet than never)

The pressure of describing an entire week in France.  Where to begin.  How about by noting that I (Amy) have no ability to transfer photos from our camera to this computer, so I will be populating the blog with photos of others (strangers) because some photos are better than no photos.

We arrived in Paris a week ago today and headed immediately for the Gare de Lyon train station (above), where thankfully both croissants and english-speakers abounded.  A highlight from the hour or so we spent there was my attempt to translate for a man who spoke only spanish.  As he told me in spanish, his problem was that he didn't have enough money to buy a train ticket to Barcelona.  Specifically, he had one-half the price of a train ticket.  I dutifully explained this in english to the information clerk (who, like just about everyone here, claimed to speak little english but spoke fluently), and together she and I tried to come up with a way to explain "you're SOL" in spanish.  Hopefully he made his way to an autobus.  Moments later, we were on the TGV to Le Cruesot, which is sort of like the maglev in Shanghai but slower and frencher.

Upon arrival in Le Cruesot (a little town in Burgundy) our friends (the bride and groom) picked us up, and we were off to the Chateau, where we stayed until yesterday.  What's that?  You'd like a photo of the Chateau?  Ok:

Yes, it's as awesome as it looks, and yes, it's haunted.  We were met by a fantastic spread of vin and fromage at le chateau, and later went to a nearby town for a truly incredible welcome dinner: foie gras (3 ways, who knew), boeuf (Matt), fish (me, and no my french hasn't substantially improved), chocolat (as if I'd fail to learn that one) and of course, again, fromage.  They're really onto something here.  And by "onto something" I mean my pants no longer fit.  Literally.  I hope there's such a thing as a "welcome cleanse" in Los Angeles, which, now that I think about it, is a pretty good business idea.  Employment may be in my future yet.  Anyway.  Following the great dinner, we all went back to le chateau, where I woke in the middle of the night to a thunder and lightening storm that could not have been more cinematic or terrifying: doors and windows opened and slammed shut, our room lit up and then plunged into darkness, ghosts appeared, etc.  The week included innumerable references to the forthcoming horror movie "The Chateau" (and of course, since we were there for a wedding: "Chateau Deux: Le Marriage").

Aside from the initial terror, the french countryside was (surprise) absolutely spectacular.  The wedding took place on Tuesday at the Chateau (gorgeous), with a fabulous dinner at an 11th century restaurant in nearby Couches (cleanse me).  A real highlight (among many) was a sort of newlywed game played at french weddings: the bride is blindfolded and then must select, based on feeling a single body part (here, knee), which of five men is her groom.  The game is then reversed, and the groom must do the same based on the noses of five women (or, here, four women and one hilarious friend of the groom's).  Luckily the newlyweds were able to identify one another, hooray!  And no, I wasn't one of the four mystery women, at the specific direction of my adoring husband, who said "you're not playing."  Funny.

The remainder of the week was a combination of chateau-ing and touring around, with day trips to Autun and Geneva.  One piece of advice for those of you visiting Geneva: going under the Jet d'Eau is fun and worth doing, but keep an eye on the way the wind is blowing -- we found ourselves under a wall of water when the wind turned.  Oops.

The final day at the Chateau we went on a wine tour in Burgundy, on which I learned lots of things about Burgundy wines.  Interesting tidbit: they use no irrigation or additives of any kind, so the wine can change dramatically year to year, whereas in California many (if not all) of the vineyards manipulate the wine by irrigating and adding acid (or something).  When asked what she thought of California wine, our host said "I think California wine is not just wine."  Zing.  

Overall, the week could not have been better -- we were thrilled to be there for the beautiful wedding, and it was such a privilege to be at the chateau.  Merci boucoup to our hosts!

And now, we're in Paris.  We spent yesterday walking to, um, everything in the city: started in the Marais (where we're staying, love it) to the Louvre, then on to the Arc d'Triomphe (and up its 287 stairs to the top), over to the Tour d'Eiffel (no idea how my spelling is working out here), a stop at a neighborhood brasserie over there somewhere, back along the river by the Musee d'Orsay, over by Notre Dame, and back.  My legs hurt this morning.  As does my head, as a result of a vin-filled dinner with some of our chateau friends last night.   So I'll leave it at that for the moment.  No, I'll paste a picture from the internet of the Arc (just pretend it's me instead of her in the photo) and then leave it at that.   Au revoir!


Friday, August 27, 2010

Ciao, Laos; hola Hoi An!

Greetings readers. Or as they say here in Hoi An….oh wait, we don’t know how to say hello in Vietnamese. After becoming great experts in the Laotian word “sabaidee” which means hello, goodbye and just about everything in between, we are at a total loss to learn any of the 6 tones of the Vietnamese language in order to communicate. Fortunately nearly everyone we have encountered thus far in Vietnam has spoken substantially more English than we speak Vietnamese, so all is OK.

To re-cap the past couple of days, yesterday we started off our last day in Luang Prabang with another pre-6 am wakeup to watch the procession of monks receiving alms one last time before we left. It was really a sight and something we wanted to catch once more before leaving Laos behind. Then we wandered to the morning market, a somewhat smaller version of the giant market we had gone to with our cooking class.

There we succeeded on two fronts – we bought none of the live ducks, blue chicken feet, or whiskey soaked eel that was on offer AND we had delicious “nem kao”, rice pancakes with pork and mushrooms covered in fried shallots, from a vendor that we had read about online. An excellent Lao treat to kick off our last morning. Back at the hotel after a stroll through town in the rain, we naturally sat down to second breakfast of waffles and homemade pastries. With that on offer, who could settle for only one pre-9 am meal?

Eager to see a bit more of the surrounding landscape, we then headed down to the Mekong River, where we negotiated with a boat man to take us down river a bit for a cruise and to visit a nearby village where they make pottery. Turned out the boat, which was surprisingly nice, was also where the man lived, so his wife and young son joined for the adventure. Cruising on the Mekong was lovely, with the occasional rain only adding to the scenery of clouds hanging low on the rolling hills. We stopped at a little village known for making pottery and though we were only 10 minutes away from Luang Prabang it felt like another world. The village’s dirt roads (more like road) were totally muddied from the rain and it seemed like a car had never been there – it’s not clear a car could even travel the bumpy terrain. Chickens and children roamed freely in the mud with the occasional adult scurrying them along. The houses were very modest and there wasn’t much going on – though we did see some people making pottery and were offered fried chicken feet for sale. Like every good village in Laos it did have a monk and a temple which we briefly visited before heading on our way. Sobering to get a sense of life in Laos even just outside the main cities.

Back in town we did one last swing through one of the more elaborate monasteries, grabbed a quick lunch and were off to the airport for our flights to Hanoi and then Da Nang. The flight to Hanoi was uneventful (except for a cute little Italian kid in the seat next to us looking out the window and saying, "Ciao, Laos!"), though the tiny Luang Prabang airport was buzzing with excitement because apparently the King of Thailand was about to land just after we left. The flight from Hanoi to Da Nang was much more exciting as it seemed that other than us, just about everyone on our Thursday night flight was decked out in their best clubbing attire for a big weekend of going out in Da Nang. Our driver to Hoi An sort of confirmed it for us (moderate translation difficulties), but it seemed like Da Nang is a place for trendy types to hang out at resorts and maybe casinos. In any case, everyone on the flight looked very chic and walked right off the plane when we landed, having checked no bags for a weekend of partying. We adventurers looked a bit scruffy as we waited nearly alone at the baggage claim. A 40 minute drive later and we had arrived in Hoi An.

Friday morning began with a walk to the morning market, filled with women selling fish, veggies and meat and delicious Vietnamese breakfast. We opted for Cao Lao, a local specialty of rice noodles, pork, veggies and pork skin croutons.

It was an excellent way to start the day and we mostly avoided embarrassing ourselves in front of the Vietnamese women, except when Josh trying to be helpful passed fish sauce to a woman to put in her glass of water. Not quite what she was looking for. Interestingly, a walk through the market (while enjoying a delicious avocado shake) quickly revealed distinctions between Vietnam and Laos. Everything looked just a bit more prosperous in Vietnam. The veggies were presented in baskets rather than simply in piles on a tarp. The fish was packed with ice to stay fresh. The women fearlessly chopping meat sat on stools rather than on the chopping block itself. Little differences, but definitely noticeable. (Interestingly/dorkily, the stats we [Josh] dug up suggest the difference isn’t as much as it feels – GDP/capita of $1040 in Vietnam vs. $860 in Laos: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=per+capita+gdp+vietnam+laos.)

The town of Hoi An is absolutely charming – filled with two-storey mixes of Vietnamese and Chinese architecture. The homes are built with dark wood interiors, open stone courtyards and are painted beautiful (now faded) tropical yellows and blues and whites.

We strolled in and out of some of the historic homes and met the current occupants who taught us about the advantages of sleeping on flat wooden beds. They did not look comfy. Virtually all the buildings in the old town are of the same, beautiful stock – whether they’re currently put to use as homes, museums, tourist shoppes (many), or in one case, the very official-seeming “Hoi An Department of Managing and Gathering Swallows Nests” (really).

Our big excitement for the day was tailoring and we spent some time in the morning picking out fabrics and patterns for shirts, jackets and nearly anything else we could imagine. Somehow, we ordered what we wanted at 11am and just a few hours later we were back for fittings with many of the clothes taking shape already. Things happen fast here. In between fittings and wandering through town (in the unbelievable heat - it is really warm!) we stopped for some street food and a long-sought meal eaten on the sidewalk on tiny stools. Here they had upgraded to small plastic chairs, but the joy of making our own chicken rice paper wraps was much the same.

We were offered a tour of Vietnam on easy rider motorcycles (we sadly declined) and then headed back to the hotel for a two-wheeled adventure more our speed – bicycles. We rode through town joining the rush hour crew of motorbikes and other bicycles, though they almost always had two to a bike so we didn’t qualify for the HOV lane. Turning off the main road we ended up on some tiny streets which alternated between being paved and dirt and occasionally taking us through a rice paddy. It was nice to get a bit outside the tourist center, though an impending thunderstorm eventually encouraged us to head home to the hotel to wait out the rains.

An hour or so later the torrential downpour was over and we headed out for a nighttime walk through town and dinner. I had grilled pork, Josh the Vietnamese sampler with two kinds of dumplings, more cao lao and some rice paper wraps of his own, and we called it a night.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Stay…Just a Little Bit Luang-er (Wish We Could)

We’d been worried a tad bit about our flight on Lao Airlines, but for naught – and after all, not much could top our 2008 Costa Rican adventure with a 6-seater landing on a dirt patch in a town with no electricity, right? Anyway, for the record, our flight was on a spanking-new, 100+ person prop plane with full beverage service and even a bag of chips (banana, mango, taro, etc…top that, JetBlue!), and after a quick 40 minute hop over rice fields and jungle and a lot of amazingly brown river, we touched down without incident and began a lovely time in Luang Prabang (Pronounced roughly “Luah Phah-b(ng)ah.” Does that not make it clearer? Neither did asking the locals several times a day.)

We’d decided to splurge and put ourselves up at the swish 3 Nagas hotel just to the end of the main old-city drag – in the executive suite, no less, though we were hard pressed to imagine anyone doing too much serious business in this or any other room in Luang Prabang – and we’ve been well waited-on since we arrived. As for the city itself, we love it – it seems to have retained everything good about French Colonialism (Was there anything good about French Colonialism? If nothing else, how about baguettes, petanque, strong coffee, and elegantly aging villas?) alongside a heavy dose of Laos charm. The old town is a string of temples, each a riot of mirrored glass and gold paint and graceful slanting roofs, each swarming with young monks in bright orange robes either chanting or texting. While most of the old city outside the temples is now dedicated to tourism, the town still feels very much alive, and the setting – on the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Kahn rivers – is amazing.

We spent Monday afternoon wandering around by bike and getting our bearings, ducking into temples and stopping near the river to join a crowd of twenty guys watching another four play petanque. All the businesses did double duty as people’s houses, and we stopped for a late lunch (fried noodles, chicken soup) outside someone’s living room. We chatted up a monk (he told us he wanted to practice his English, but he didn’t need much practice) – one of seven children, eight years in the monastery, studying accounting on the side and planning either to go to Bangkok for Buddhist University or into tourism here in LP. We joined our fellow foreigners for a short trek up the big hill in the center of town to watch the sun set over the mountains and the Mekong (nice) and finally settled down to dinner at our hotel. Dinner was delicious – the NYTimes had judged it the best place to try Lao cuisine. This being the low season though, we were the only people in the room, waited on with great formality by no less than eight people, and both the hotel manager and the chef found time to stop by our table. We slept well.

And briefly. We woke up just before 5am to take part in the daily alms-giving ceremony that takes over the town. I (Josh) still haven’t quite figured out the time, I guess, and so we’d gotten up, found our way out of the hotel, and wandered pretty far through unexpectedly empty streets before we realized that it was actually just shy of 4am (oops). A short snooze later, we tried again and seated ourselves outside one of the big temples, armed with a bowl of fruit and another of sticky rice to give to the monks. There was plenty of chanting and drum-beating, and we got to see the town slowly wake up (roosters and soup vendors first), and then around 6, a line of ~300 monks from all the town’s temples began a slow, silent march through the city’s main streets. Tourists, locals, and country folk waited on the side of the road to place a small ball of rice and whatever else we had into each monk’s bowl – this, along with other cooked food donations from villagers, is what keeps the monks fed, and has historically been a way for families to “make merit” (religious credit), as well as to sustain the temples. For us, it was a bit intimidating (nothing quite like being stared down by the hungry horde) but very cool.

After another nap and delicious breakfast at the hotel (I had the nem kao, steamed rice pancakes with pork etc.; EB had two perfect waffles; we both had a fruit plate with mangosteen and dragon fruit and a cup of jet black Lao coffee), we went to the day’s main event: Lao cooking school. Start to finish, a great time. Our guide took us and our fellow students on a tour of the local market (20+ kinds of eggplant, innumerable greens and herbs, glue made from red ant larvae, pungent fish sauce from fish left to soak for a full year), and then off to an outdoor classroom where we were schooled in the art of jaew (a spicy eggplant based dip), fish in a dill sauce steamed in banana leaves, buffalo stew, and the improbable chicken-stuffed lemongrass. When we heard the latter, we assumed they’d got it backwards – lemongrass is a long, hard stock not much wider than a straw, so we couldn’t imagine stuffing it with anything – but we were wrong, and happily so. All in all, a great day – and it ended in a feast! We rounded out the day with a tour of a few more notable temples – particularly enchanting around 6pm, when the monks gathered in each one to say the nightly chants. We found our way down to watch the end of the sunset along the edge of the Mekong; had a quick, delicious dinner of Lao BBQ surrounded by Lao teens on their Lao cell phones; and drifted off to an early sleep.

If Tuesday was all (mostly) about food, today was all about elephants. We were a bit skeptical about the elephant riding thing (OK, maybe just me, pathologically afraid to admit that I’m a tourist), but it was great. We drove 30km out of town and through villages and jungle (thanking ourselves throughout the bumpy ride for having decided against the 10-hour bus ride from Vientiane), finally landing at a picturesque camp along the Nam Khan and surrounded by foggy jungle hills. We spent a couple hours in a small group with as many elephants and trainers (“Mahouts”) and got a few really memorable rides – including one right into the river on the elephants’ backs!

After lunch, we took a longboat up the river to a locally famous waterfall and spent an hour scampering up the falls, amazed that we could keep our balance with the water rushing around our feet. We spent the afternoon relaxing and wandering through the markets around town, and finished with a tasty meal at one of LP’s poshest restaurants (dinner for two with wine, US$55 – about 10x last night’s BBQ feast). Great day! Now just one more morning left to soak up the Laos vibe, and then off we go to Vietnam.