Luang Prabang, Laos

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.

Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang

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Strolling Monks
Strolling Monks
Reclining Buddha
Reclining Buddha

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Eating at the Night Market
Eating at the Night Market
Night Market Selections
Night Market Selections
Eating at the Night Market
Eating at the Night Market

Laos

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.

Our Bungalows in Luang Prabang
Our Bungalows in Luang Prabang

Our Ride

Our Ride
Temporary HQ Sovereign Geographic
Temporary HQ Sovereign Geographic

Coco has landed

My mom touched down in Hanoi this evening to join us for a month of traveling in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  Coco is a seasoned traveler having joined both of her kids on their adventures starting with me in China in 1989 and followed by Ecuador, Malawi, Namibia, Botswana, Haiti and etc with Eva over the years.  We’re looking forward to sharing the adventures across three generation.  They started today with a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.

Coco and the boys at Uncle Ho's mausoleum
Coco and the boys at Uncle Ho’s mausoleum

Hoa Lo Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton)

The front gate and a small section of the original Maison Centrale (Hoa Lo Prison) are still standing and now house a museum exhibiting the history of this prison perhaps best known in the US because John McCain spent some time there after being shot down during the Vietnam War. (The Vietnam War is here referred to as the American War to distinguish it from the preceding 80 years of conflict.)  A new high-rise hotel has been built on the grounds of the demolished portion of the prison.  It is not a Hilton.

As horrific as the treatment of US servicemen may have been (the Hoa Lo exhibits claim otherwise), one comes away from the museum with an appreciation of the length and intensity of the Vietnamese people’s struggle against foreign aggression.  Built in the 1880s-1890s by the French, Hoa Lo was first used to house, and in some cases to execute by guillotine, Vietnamese insurgents.  The prison was used in this capacity, mostly by the French, but also by the Japanese during World War II, until the mid-1950s.  The prison’s relatively short period of use during the Vietnam War to house US POWs felt like a mere footnote in its long and gruesome history.

Ha Long Bay

We spent the day enjoying a quintessential northern Vietnam experience: riding a junk through the karst gum drops protruding from Ha Long Bay.  We’ve been on Cat Ba Island off the port of Haiphong for three days appreciating the off season in a place that apparently is a tourist hot spot when it’s warm and dry.  Our first two days were overcast and rainy, so we spent them doing homework and hiking through the national park.  Today’s forecast called for temps in the high 70s (the warmest we’ve seen so far) and a low chance of precipitation.  The weather did not disappoint.  We booked a day-long boat ride that included scenery, kayaking, a seafood lunch cooked aboard, and some swimming.

Fishing boats Cat Ba Town harbor I
Fishing boats Cat Ba Town harbor I
Fishing boats Cat Ba Town harbor II
Fishing boats Cat Ba Town harbor II
Cave kayaking
Cave kayaking
Aboard ship Ha Long Bay
Aboard ship Ha Long Bay
BB sunbathing on Ha Long Bay
BB sunbathing on Ha Long Bay
Three boys on a boat, Ha Long Bay
Three boys on a boat, Ha Long Bay
Three boys off a boat, Ha Long Bay
Three boys off a boat, Ha Long Bay

Hanoi cooking class

We took a cooking class this morning which consisted of a visit to the market for ingredients followed by instruction, cooking and eating.  Green papaya salad, Hanoi spring rolls, and lemongrass chicken were on the menu.

Fresh produce (Hanoi)
Fresh produce (Hanoi)
Rice and beans (Hanoi)
Rice and beans (Hanoi)
Dried shrimp, dried bamboo (Hanoi)
Dried shrimp, dried bamboo (Hanoi)
Baked rice (looks like pork rind) (Hanoi)
Baked rice (looks like pork rind) (Hanoi)

The team took on the task under the professional tutelage of Master Chef Huang.

Prep cooks hard at work on spring roll filling
Prep cooks hard at work on spring roll filling
Braxton grates green papaya and carrots
Braxton grates green papaya and carrots

Amy Jo demonstrates her patented stuff, fold, roll n hold spring roll technique.

Stuff
Stuff
Fold
Fold
Roll
Roll
Hold
Hold

We enjoyed the sweet taste of success!

We made this (with a lot of help from Master Chef Huang . . .) (Hanoi)
We made this (with a lot of help from Master Chef Huang . . .) (Hanoi)
Final product
Final product
Proud certificate holders
Proud certificate holders
"Best meal so far"
“Best meal so far”

 

Yangshuo, China

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).

View from Hotel in Yangshuo
View from Hotel in Yangshuo
Amy and Boys in Yangshuo
Amy and Boys in Yangshuo
Tandem Bike Riding
Tandem Bike Riding

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Crossing the River
Crossing the River
Getting Bikes Across the River via Bamboo Raft
Getting Bikes Across the River via Bamboo Raft
Chillin' By the Fire
Chillin’ By the Fire
Taking a Walk
Taking a Walk

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Having our fill of China, we next turned our sites south on Vietnam in search of sunshine and Pho.

China 20 years on

I spent over 12 months in China during the period 1989-92, mostly in Nanjing, but also in Beijing and traveling throughout the southwestern part of the country. When I first visited China as a student in August 1989 (a couple of months after the May and June events in Tiananmen Square), I found a country dominated by bicycles, with few foreigners and few foreign products. McDonalds would open its first China outpost that year. English was not spoken. The only motorized vehicles on the roads were tractors, trucks, public buses and the occasional government sedan. There was no highway system. There were no subways. (Beijing had a limited system from earlier years.) The cities were dark at night; devoid of street lighting. In the winter a haze of smoke from locally burned coal (for heating and cooking) hung in the air.

What a difference 20 years can make. China is on the move and has been since I left in December 1992. There have been huge infrastructure improvements to roads, trains and subways; communication improvements that come with cell phones, the internet and computerized train ticketing systems; and changes to consumption patterns that come with the creation and growth of a middle class.  If you want to see where most of the world’s steel and cement are ending up, visit China.

In terms of the physical landscape, I would put the advent of the personal automobile at the top of the list of changes. The streets that were once designed for more bicycles than motorized vehicles are now dominated by cars.  Bicycles have been sidelined.  The “bike-only” lanes are narrower than they were and bicyclists now compete with motor scooters in those lanes.  Parking bicycles on the sidewalks was a common practice, now it’s cars on the sidewalks.  And the chaos of bicyclists bending traffic rules pales in comparison to the chaos and hazards that come with automobile drivers bending those same rules.

In terms of the non-physical, I find the biggest changes in the service industry.  First, there is one now.  The tender shoots of entrepreneurship were just breaking the surface in the early 90s, but the idea of customer service was still dormant. “Mei you” (which translates as “can’t do it” or “don’t have it”, but which really means “piss off”) was the common response to any question at a train station ticket booth, hotel front desk and even at restaurants.  During our recent two weeks in China I did not hear “mei you” a single time.  Hotel staff were courteous, and the train ticket sales people (although they never smiled) were very helpful.  Still, I’m happy to report, China’s service sector retains a certain “Chineseness” that those of us who’ve spent some “quality” time there have come to know, and, if not to love, at least to expect.

For those who have not yet visited China, but who want to see one possible version of the future, visit China.  For those who want to appreciate what the US Environmental Protection Agency and our Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have done for our environment, visit China.  For those who want to witness growth that took us 100 years unfold before their eyes, visit China.  For those who want to see what living under Big Brother feels like (internet censorship, license plates photographed at every opportunity), visit China.  Just be careful crossing the street.

Nanjing

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 🙂

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13th Century Animals Guarding Ming Tomb
Animals Guarding 14th Century Ming Tomb

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View of Nanjing Through Polluted Skies
View of Nanjing Through Polluted Skies