Luang Prabang has become very touristy over the past ten years and it is easy to see why. It is a charming town nestled along the lazy Mekong River full of temples, golden Buddhas, young Buddhist monks strolling in their bright orange robes, cafes, flowering trees, great food. We spent the day strolling and visiting the temples, eating dinner in the food stalls of their famous night market.
There are two ways to get to Luang Prabang, Laos from Hanoi. Thirty hour bus ride through mountainous terrain, or one hour international flight. While we most certainly would have chosen the former 15 years ago, time and wisdom (and a little extra cash) steered us to the latter. We had an uneventful flight over the beautiful and extensive mountains of northern Laos. We landed to nice, balmy tropical weather. The boys loved Laos from the moment we exited the plane and walked across the runway. Our hotel pick-up was in an old Land Rover….they could not possibly have been more excited! We piled our bags in, crammed into two benches facing each-other in the back, and off we went, scooting past all the nice hotel limos and air conditioned minivans. Past the luxury digs in town, down a long, bumpy dirt road to our little huts. We were greeted by the delightful Lao owners, ordered some Lao beers, and watched the boys play soccer with their new Lao friends. I think we are going to like Laos.
Well, our time in Hanoi has come to an end after using it as a home base for a little over a week. We loved Hanoi! We stayed in the colorful, labyrinthine Old Quarter of town, full of narrow winding streets packed full of shops, vendors, markets, food stalls, etc. There are amazing smells wafting around, delicious street food to sample on every corner. And motorbikes!!! Motorbikes rule here. Every street contains a sea full of bikes going in every direction. While surely there are some traffic rules, we cannot ascertain what they might be. Crossing the street is not for the faint of heart as the traffic never seems to stop, and the crosswalks I think are just for decoration. You have to slowly inch your way into the onslaught and move with steady, gentle fluid motion, and voila, the sea amazingly parts around you. The key is staying calm and steady, which is sometimes difficult with my mother-in-law Nanny-Co (and I mean this lovingly) going “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god…” See video below which was taken on our street, gives at least an idea of the chaos.
Our favorite activity in Hanoi, aside from eating amazing food, was simply strolling around this vibrant city. Other highlights included walking through the many markets, visiting the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” which Coalter has already mentioned, touring a temple in the middle of a lake which had an embalmed sea turtle. We also visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and saw an embalmed Ho Chi Minh. This was a very solemn event in which we had to march two by two escorted by Vietnamese military in full military regalia carrying bayonets. “Uncle Ho” as he is affectionately known in Vietnam looked pretty good but apparently he goes to Russia once a year for some “touch up work.” Below are some photos of our favorite activity, eating, and a few market scenes. For more gruesome market pictures, contact Henry and Braxton directly.
The boys have been learning a lot about the Vietnam war (or the “American War” is it is called here), the events that led up to it, and the US involvement. Prisons, guillotines, soldiers, bayonets and embalmed military leaders really help with the education process of young boys!
We visited a wonderful exhibit at the National Women’s Museum. We saw a traditional water puppet show. We went to a performance of traditional Vietnamese music and dance featuring a long dance of the Mother Goddess, who is worshiped by many here. Coco had a Thai massage and was pounded, slapped, pulled and contorted like a pretzel. Sounded a lot like assault to me, but she loved it.
While we had intended to see more of Vietnam, we opted to cut it short as we were advised to get out of the country during Tet (Chinese New Year). During this time the country all but shuts down in celebration. I think it would be fun to see. You can feel the excitement build as the preparations are under way… lights, flags, lanterns and banners are being hung, trees are being planted, flowers everywhere. I’m sure it will be quite a site!
Next stop, back to the countryside, this time in southern China in the Guillin province. This area is known for its amazing karst limestone outcroppings that look like huge gumdrops, and its dreamy, almost surreal landscape. Again, we found ourselves there off-season, but in a way this added to the appeal… being socked in by fog and mist with these huge lush gumdrops emerging from the rivers. We arrived in the night so did not witness the splendor until we opened our curtains in the morning. See following photo taken from our hotel. One of the kids, “This is what I thought China was going to look like.” This was a fabulous week spent biking, hiking, sitting by the fire, meeting fellow travelers, scrabble, reading, home school, ping pong and badminton ( I do count this as PE in our home school as my boys are actually able to turn ping pong and badminton into full contact sports).
Having our fill of China, we next turned our sites south on Vietnam in search of sunshine and Pho.
Our home school officially opened for business in Nanjing. So far we have been very heavy on the social studies, pretty light on the science (but for a lecture on centripetal force and friction as they pertain to lazy susans found on many Chinese tables). We visited the tomb of the first Ming emperor Hong Wu. We also visited a very powerful memorial exhibit on “The Rape of Nanjing” – documenting the atrocities committed by the Japanese against China and specifically the city of Nanjing in 1937. The boys have been learning about dynasties, imperialism, the Opium Wars, the Asian involvement in World War I and II. They also read “The Red Scarf Girl” which documents the life of a girl growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. It’s so much more interesting than spelling and cursive, moderately more interesting than Algebra, which I have secretly found to be really, really fun.
Also fun was wandering around Nanjing University where Coalter studied in college. It was barely recognizable to him given the immense changes in China over these years. While he experienced bicycles everywhere and total darkness and silence after 8 pm since there was little electricity in the city, we experienced a city with skyscrapers and neon which felt like Times Square as we were driving in at night. One of the kids, “It’s like New York with Chinese letters.”
As an aside, I will point out that Coalter’s Chinese is really good, even after 20 years. He would contest this. But we thought he was only able to show off ordering Dim Sum in New York and to flirt with waitresses. Turns out he is able to converse quite comfortably and was able to get us out of a few scrapes, albeit ones he got us into in the first place 🙂
Next we headed back to the city, Nanjing, mostly as a means to get to our next non-city destination. This was my first true Chinese train experience – crowded, smoky, dirty, only one cheek able to fit on the seat. While I am by nature a pretty calm, easy going person who doesn’t mind being dirty, I am battling a mounting germ phobia, what with all the respiratory secretions flying around. I’ll leave it at that. This mere six hour train ride took some serious deep breathing and meditation. But overall, trains are really fun. Full of life… chatter, hawkers, music, food, strange smells. There are lively exchanges going on between total strangers, a far cry from the quiet, isolating, almost sterile train experience at home.
We have seen so much since leaving Shanghai. When we had our fill of large city, we headed out to Moganshan, a small mountain village retreat, originally established as a European hill station. It was quite a journey getting there (as are all travel days in China) but well worth the effort (which included a cab, a train ride, haggling in Chinese for a second cab (Coalter) to take us the rest of the way when no nobody seemed to know where it was, an irate taxi driver who had no idea he had to drive us all the way to the top of the mountain, vomiting child in the back seat). We finally arrived to find the whole village was shut down for the winter. We were almost the only people in the whole town, the only guests in our large hotel. Very eery. While we had peace, solitude, stunning views of mountains and bamboo forests, we had no heat (sleeping in down sleeping bags in the hotel, eating in front of a space heater with long underwear, hats, gloves, down jackets), one dining option, no way to get cash (which was running out and the bank closed for the winter). But we had beautiful hikes through bamboo forests, sunshine and fresh air ( a real commodity in China if you have been reading the news about the pollution – which is staggering). All in all, a funny adventure that we are sure to remember forever.
After sleeping for about 15 hours, we awoke fresh and ventured out to explore Shanghai. I have never been to China so had no expectations. I was not very hopeful after our cab ride in from the airport on about 40 miles of highway elevated over modern, industrial sprawl through thick, white haze. However, I was greatly surprised by how walkable and charming the city is, at least our section in the French Concession. Coalter, who spent a significant amount of time in China 20 years ago, is having a hard time reconciling all the changes and development which have occurred here over this time (I’ll let him expound on this). For example, Starbucks. Yes, I am ashamed to admit that we had our first meal in China at Starbucks. But we were starving and jet lagged and actually were having a hard time finding any other eateries that were open in our posh little area of town. For those of you who know my husband, this was nothing short of a crime (he initially refused 100% so I bought a coffee to walk around with and he kept stealing sips of it, completely conflicted by his high morals and his desperate need for good strong coffee). Sweetie, it’s the new China, just go with it.
The highlights of our urban hike included an outdoor market with lots of very interesting things to eat, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way. Also fun was watching a courtyard of elementary school children doing their morning exercises, marching in elaborate patterns as you might imagine they did during the days of the Cultural Revolution, only this time it was to Lady Gaga or Brittany Spears or someone like that. Henry was wondering if they knew that one of the lines said, “hell yeah, I’m a mother f…ing princess.” It’s truly a global village. It did give me the idea of incorporating morning calisthenics into our homeschool. Eating lots of greasy food and more sedentary than usual. Something’s gotta give.
Well we are finally here and I am finally writing my very first blog entry! What a process, extricating yourself from your life for a while. We had a hectic week of packing and preparing the house for house/dog sitters, preceded by many months of methodical planning (not to mention years of just talking about a “big trip.”). Predictably, I was awake all night the night before leaving thinking, why am I doing this??? 24/7 family time for five months. No job. No routine. No school or soccer practices. Homeschooling, my God. Also predictably, about half way through the flight, flying somewhere near the Arctic I thought, wow, no school, no routine, 24/7 with my people, I’m flying over the Arctic to China…. how amazing!! For better or for worse, the adventure has begun.
The boys, now ages 12 and 9, are doing great, they are already turning into pretty seasoned little travelers. And what’s not to love? They get unlimited screen time on airplanes in contrast to our pretty strict screen time rules at home. They watched 14 straight hours of movies on the plane ride over, no lie. It was a site to behold. But they are troopers. They take the hassles of travel in stride, they view the world with fresh eyes, they are infinitely open to new experiences, and they are able to see the humor in some of the ridiculous situations one finds themselves in while traveling to new places. For instance, we all had a big laugh on day 1 after making our way one by one to the living room of our Shanghai apartment at midnight, completely awake due to the time change, in our underwear, eating Luna bars thinking “this is weird.”