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:

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.

1 comment:

Ron H. said...

In Ho Chi Minh City please take a photo of Jane Fonda Plaza so that we back here can continue to take joy in her good work!