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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The team took on the task under the professional tutelage of Master Chef Huang.
Amy Jo demonstrates her patented stuff, fold, roll n hold spring roll technique.
We enjoyed the sweet taste of success!
We are now in Hanoi, Vietnam after a 12 hour overnight train ride from Nanning, 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).
Having our fill of China, we next turned our sites south on Vietnam in search of sunshine and Pho.