Ha Giang, Vietnam

There is an extraordinary place way up in the northern mountains of Vietnam called Ha Giang. It is a big province of mountains beyond mountains, rivers, rice and corn terraces, cultivated valley farm lands, several ethnic minority tribal villages and views so dramatic that one feels “exposure” just looking out at the vastness. Mountains of 2400 meters or 7900 feet that rise up so steeply it seems some greater power pulled them up out of the earth like thick taffy. The narrow and twisty roads seem to hang off the slope sides spiraling higher and higher as they wrap themselves around the mountains.

The pink blossoms of the peach tree just coming into season

We slept in a home stay first night in the foothills of Ha Giang. Our guide, 24 year old Khu, herself a member of the H’mong tribe, guided us through villages of black H’mong and Dao peoples .

Valley floor of Ha Thành , Ha Giang Province

She tried rounding up her water buffalo, now waiting…
Dao women at a nearby market peeling and selling a type of bamboo

We walk along rice paddies, through jungle, to a waterfall and visit another village that takes us into dark. We come home to a veritable feast of local dishes: banana blossom salad, pumpkin leaf with garlic, zucchini and yellow squash, ground pork wrapped in bamboo shoot petals (my personal favorite) morning glory greens, smoked sausage, fried fatty pork, beef with veggies, fish sauce with chilis and 2 scoops of rice. Khu tells us most seriously that taking only one scoop is unlucky. We are introduced to “happy water”. Our driver, Mr. Phon teaches us , “mort, ha, bai, gzo” (one, two three, drink) and we slug a shot of homemade rice wine. After 6 rounds, Steve is hailed as Vietnamese. And we are indeed happy.

We venture further into Ha Giang , through Heaven’s Gate, the highest point of this mountainous province, Meo Vac, Dong Van, small cities with outlying villages nestled in deep valleys or clinging to steep hillsides. The mountains are of limestone origin, the same karst as in Bai Tu Long Bay only earth bound. We watch families work the slopes, planting greens for their livestock and corn for themselves. Some of these folks are so poor, they have corn for every meal, sleep on corn husk mats and drink corn wine. We were invited into this family of five’s home; a small, dark hovel with dirt floor, unvented smoke and no windows; the only light is through the door opening.Young children are caretakers for younger children

Mother and daughter coming down the mountain with greens for livestock

Our guide Khu was a sweet young woman from Lao Cai, in the Sapa region of high mountains, and while she only finished 8th grade she learned English from tourists when she sold goods to them as a teenager. She also spoke Vietnamese and a common dialect of H’Mong. One day we trekked the Skyland Trail and came upon some noisy and colorful activity at a juncture in the path in front of us. Khu says ,”wedding” to us and after a few exchanged words and smiling invitational gestures we were asked to join in the wedding celebration. We were ushered in, to sit and eat sunflower seeds with them, pose and take pictures with them while awaiting the bride and groom. I was elated to not only be part of this H’Mong festivity but to be up close with the local people in their native finery. The area was decorated with a multicolored ruffled canopy large enough to cover a hundred people, tables covered with red cloths, food constantly being brought to the tables in readiness for the feast to come. We watched in awe as villagers came from near and far, some on foot, some on motor bike with gifts and one with a freshly killed pig.

Wedding

Men and teenagers

Boys at game of chance
Ribbons and adornments

The cooks

They’d walk up to the donation table with their offerings, usually cash and have their gifts registered. It is culturally expected to give a donation to the new couple and is recorded so at future weddings a gift can be given in kind. Steve and I also donated and were recorded with date, amount and “Steve and Marian ❤️” which drew happy expressions and hand clasps all around. Now we were legitimate guests.

When the tables were overflowing with food, the bride and groom showed up. Sweet.

It starts with toasting…eggs, then wine, then everything

Then just as swiftly as we blended in, we got up, exited unobtrusively and continued on the path into town. What a morning…

Our guide Khu

Southeast Asia: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water – The Four Elements and my 2 cents or 463 dongs

A commentary on the four elements in Southeast Asia.

EARTH: Ground is everywhere. From the bumpiest roads to modern streets. A piece of country earth floats into the city. There is always dust and particles of some sort permeating the air. In the cities, dirt and exhaust from vehicles is the air we breathe. Almost everyone wears a mask. Me, too. In the mountains, with innocent air, the roads or paths are dirt and get kicked up by motor bikes, animals and field cultivation especially in dry season. By the end of a trekking day, I am covered in a layer of grit, my clothing heavy with silt.

Then there is some of the most gorgeous earth on the planet.

WIND: The wind determines how much and how fast the dirt will travel. It also contributes strongly to my well being. A breeze is so welcome on these brutally hot days. The soft wind brightens my mood and dries my sweat. The air carries the news of my surroundings; what’s cooking and what to avoid. Jasmine or BBQ wakes up the olfactories and pulls me towards the source. A food market may be a visual cornucopia but a whiff of offal and putrescence may shorten the visit. And when I’m in the mountains or on the sea I fill my lungs up with the pure goodness of forest and brine.

The air and sun dry the rice noodle, the rice cracker, the shrimps for fish sauce, the chilis for everyday seasoning, the bamboo for weaving baskets, sleeping mats and basically everything for home and livelihood.

Noodles drying by the Thu Bon River, Hoi An, Vietnam

And it dries the nets.FIRE: Fire is integral to SE Asian life. In the cities there are countless street food vendors cooking fabulous dishes. That’s a good thing. That they sometimes let their charcoal fires smolder is not such a good thing. Wafting smoke fills the air and we have to move out of its way or choke. In the country, farmers burn fields to make way for new planting. In Laos, when people smell smoke they know it’s February. It is now illegal but as most things go, tradition surpasses regulation. The air remains eye watering smoky for miles. In villages and smaller cities, people burn rubbish, plastic and all, anywhere.

Dry season is also fiery hot. 35-38 C (95-100F) with 100% humidity. I become so sticky that I stick to myself. My hair has curled so tightly it has knitted a frizzy nest on top of my scalp. My clothing feels like band aids, adhesively attached to my skin. On a bicycle tour my shorts became so glued to my skin that I couldn’t bend my legs. I had to hold the cloth off my skin so I could pedal. Last night I bumped into a woman in the crowds and made contact with her bare arm. I could feel my skin peel away from hers as we moved apart, like separating two pieces of bologna. My clothing has been cyclically soaked in perspiration and evaporated by wind so many times that they are perpetually cloying and damp. Most things have not been able to regain their shape even after washing. It has caused me to shop for replacements (how is that for a rationalization?). Yesterday was our last day in Hoi An, Vietnam and we elected to skip the beach and relish the hotel A/C. Heaven.

WATER: is a double edged sword in a region that has only 2 seasons; wet and dry. It brings the necessary rains to a parched land and makes the rice flourish but in lowlands rainy season rivers can swell upwards of 5 meters causing serious destruction. Entire island villages outside of Hoi An have been swept away in storms. In Hoi An, there has been disastrous flooding depending on how potent the typhoon is. We’ve seen marks on buildings showing the height of the water and photos of people paddling through the streets where only the top floor of buildings were visible. In wet season, temps are cooler, the countryside is lush. But in dry season, water irrigates the newly planted paddies, washes the motorbikes and cultivates fields. Bridges are rebuilt, construction booms and foreigners kayak and hike and enjoy watching the fishermen at work.

We also drink a lot of water as dehydration is a real threat. We refill as often as possible but bottled water is usually all that is available. Bottled water creates a tremendous plastic problem on land and water. The volume has exceeded the infrastructure for removal, recycling or introducing other technologies. Our kayak guide Lùng , created a clean up Hoi An volunteer program 3 years ago that removes plastic but hasn’t resolved how to get rid of it. He dreams of creating a rubbish museum besides improving the environment,

Watching rubbish TV
Lung and the beginnings of the Rubbish Museum

I toast him and others who do the work to clean up their villages. We hope responsible tourism will take hold wherever we travel and in the rest of the the world. There is after all, only one Earth .

Vietnam: Bai Tu Long Bay on the Dragon Pearl

We spent 3 days in one hotel in Hanoi, changed hotels for a night, left our extraneous stuff, souvenirs and the like and took off for a voyage on the Dragon Pearl. Think Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean. Instead of a tall ship, this Pearl is a 3 story handmade junk. 10 lucky folks and us boarded the Indochina Junk for a 3 day cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay. We left Hanoi euphoric that we still had all our body parts, a little concerned about our malaria meds not showing up and excited about being on the water for 3 days. Hanoi weather had been cool and cloudy with morning drizzle so the hope of seeing the famous karst formations in the sunshine was fading. We told ourselves it will still be great on the water on a beautiful boat. And it was.

Ha Long Bay borders on the Gulf of Tonkin and is a major tourist destination. All boats depart from its harbor and the scene is so congested it resembles a water version of Hanoi traffic. We read about a bay further north which was far less travelled, the karsts only slightly less dramatic and claimed minimal tourist and environmental impact. We signed on and took a breather from Hanoi.

Our posh little cabin

We were absolutely in love with our boat. Weather, schmeather, we could hang out anywhere and pretend we were members of an Emperor’s entourage. Drinks on deck, delicious chef prepared meals, big windows, fresh sea air and incredible views.

We also met 10 other delightful people from Brisbane, Winnipeg, and Stockholm. We were on a 2 night- 3 day cruise that allowed us to go out the furthest from Ha Long Harbor. We played making fried spring rolls, kayaking, swimming, caving, sleeping on a beach after BBQ, and drinking as previously mentioned.

Felt tiny paddling among the karsts

Our cabins came equipped with silk robes and we developed the camaraderie

The fisherman is rowing with one foot on this rig
This sad dog is marooned here, fed daily but he barks so cannot go on the fishing boat
I am fascinated by the nets and the fishing world

The dragon and it’s pearl on Bai Tu Long Bay

Vietnam: Hanoi, Good Morning Vietnam

What a shock coming into Hanoi following the somnolence of Don Khong island in Laos. The traffic went from water buffalo to Formula 1. I tucked away my 10 words of Lao and exchanged kips for dongs. Temps went from 35 degrees Celsius (94 F) to 12C (54F ). It was cloudy, drizzly and cold. I had to buy gloves, a jacket, wear all my clothes and cover the bundle with the raincoat. And still surprisingly humid. Had to open the pit zips.

And here I was in Vietnam. I didn’t anticipate how my college anti-war experience would intersect with my current travels. Pinch me, I am in North Vietnam. Haiphong, Da Nang, Sai gon, Hanoi, Hue, the Mekong Delta, My Lai and the DMZ; names I associated with atrocities in an illicit war. I felt the dissociation of time collapsing. I expected thatched huts and jungle villages where guerillas fought our troops. Instead there are high rises, a booming economy, gigantic billboards, fancy hotels and crazy traffic replete with motorbikes, SUV’s and tour busses. The population is overwhelmingly young, all post war. The American war, as they refer to it, was their victory. It is weird to see the captured US tanks, various artillery and bombers next to a UNESCO tourist site. Vietnam has a long turbulent history; 1000 years of Chinese occupation, 100 years of French rule and the seesaw expansion and loss within the peninsula for thousands of years before that. I feel a shadow of shame being an American and remembering our country’s machinations in this region. Interestingly however, at first blush, people seem more apt to highlight the Viet victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when they kicked out the French than the Vietnam war. We see banners, posters and pennants everywhere in cities and towns commemorating their 65th year of independence.

Hanoi’s is like an enormous village that left home and went to the city. If you could banish all motorized vehicles and mingle with what’s left, it would look very similar to country life; families, friends, neighbors congregating on sidewalks to eat, drink, shop, gamble and banter.

5000 dong for a “fresh” beer – about 22 cents a mug

We walk around these human clusters often becoming wedged between active traffic and motorbikes parked on the sidewalks. Our first rickshaw ride was suspenseful with some eye popping near misses. Hanoi rules of the road: one way streets are only a suggestion, traffic lights are also a suggestion and sidewalks are also roads. Crossing streets requires declaring your intention and guts. Once you step into traffic, the whole organism operates like a school of fish, flowing around obstacles (like you) in its path. Unnerving yet after your initiation becomes commonplace.

Hanoi is very noisy, music so loud your chest thumps, smells so strong you either salivate or gag, dirt, fumes, pushy Chinese (sorry, it’s true) and the damn motorbikes. It is also colorful, stimulating, and beautiful with its tree lined streets, french influenced architecture, and vendors selling their goods off bicycles and carts. Fruits, flowers, fish, clothing, junk.

I am fascinated watching the women in conical hats hauling 2 heavy baskets with the wooden yoke over a shoulder. They walk quickly, the yoke bends and bounces while the woven baskets sway with their stride. How could you not love a culture that still delivers goods this way? I have seen a wok, oil bubbling in one basket and the condiments, dishware, cloths and bags of food in the other being carried while moving down the street. As it happened one of these women set up a pop up food venue on the sidewalk in front of me and filled the air with what’s cookin’. I point at the patties in her wok. She smiles and nods. Her friend grabs my arm and pulls me down while pulling out a tiny stool for me to squat on and the woman hands me a scalding freshly fried sticky rice and bean cake on a thin napkin. Sweet, greasy and I couldn’t stop smiling.

There is an Old Quarter of Hanoi that has been around about 2000 years and still operates much as it always has. It comprises “36 streets” (really 54), a net of narrow streets each representing a craft or function. Our second hotel was on Hàng Ga or chicken street. We didn’t notice any poultry except cooked carcasses hanging on hooks. Easy to get lost in this twisty nest of alleys until we realized we were near the intersection of bamboo and silk streets.

I really liked party goods and flower streets while kids gravitated to toy and candy streets. There is jewelry and baby streets, upholstery and shoe making streets and around the corner from our second hotel was metal and hardware accompanied by a cacophony of banging, drilling and welding.

And then there is Railway street with a train or two that comes through in the evening but otherwise a quiet respite with homes, cafes and food stalls along the tracks.One of the nicest places in Hanoi is Hoan Kiem, a large lake with 2 Buddhist temples on small islands. Beautiful walkways surround the lake and buffer pedestrians from traffic. Our first hotel was across the street and we enjoyed the serenity of the lake.

Artists, caricaturists, musicians and food vendors line the promenade. it’s almost like being in Paris. The architecture and the cafe’s…Having coffee at a Hanoi cafe ( or street stall) is an experience. You can do the barista, latte, cappuccino route or do Vietnamese. Grab a stool, enjoy the street scene and settle in. It takes a long time to filter, brew and drip the coffee and it is worth the wait. Vietnamese coffee or “milk coffee” is rich and deep. Make it with espresso and it becomes “Ca phe fin”, the brew floating on a layer of condensed milk. 3 glorious sips.

Or try the iced version, “ca phe sua da” on a hot day, which is everyday. Lastly there is “egg coffee”. Steve thought it was a typo and meant coffee with breakfast. Egg coffee is a delicate, smooth yet dense concoction made with whipped egg white on top of Ca phe fin. OMG.

It doesn’t get any better than this
Couldn’t resist

On weekends, vehicles are exiled from the lake and roads become “walking streets” . It is an amazing transformation from stress to joy. It is like a Carnival came to town with games, street food, free play, dance, marionettes, juggling, hackey sack, flash mob, acrobatics. We hear music everywhere as we stroll around the lake. So much laughter, children and adults playing, making art, building block towers, picknicking and dancing. We see a huge crowd and hear loud music. A teen dance competition is in progress. It seems each song has its own choreographed routine and they know all the moves. The song segments come on more quickly each round, people drop out and the winner is the last one dancing. It was great. Hanoi teen culture is huge. School, work, family, cell phones, motorbikes, make up, and fashion ( which is hard to believe because they wear a lot of “Hello Kitty” clothing and accessories), and SELFIES.

i

We walk home in the dark filled to the brim.

Laos-The little things

While it may seem that we are having adventure after adventure there is a whole lot of in betweens. Travel days are usually a wipe out, complications, delays, gate changes (we almost missed a flight), layovers, no A/C or toilet paper and cramped buses on really bad roads.

Not having a set itinerary grants us freedom but invites a few restless nights. At the end of January we had nothing in place except 2 months of imagination. We have since spent considerable time “puzzling” what we want to do and where, literally and figuratively. Booking things often involves lots of circular miscommunication, dead ends and correcting assumptions. Credit/debit cards don’t automatically mean you can pay a bill or use an ATM. I am useless and cranky after 11 pm. Steve may still have his phone on researching and emailing. There have been frustrating moments. We can’t always agree. Hopefully the pieces fall into place. So far we’ve been fortunate.

There are little mechanical things like plumbing anarchy that occurs in every lodging. Like a “bum gun” so powerful it could ream a new orifice or a trendy sink that doesn’t drain or has no room for your face. Then there is the shower-toilet combo; two functions sharing the same space. After you’ve taken your shower the floor is wet and if it drains poorly or not at all then you are sluicing through water every time you use the commode. Gross and slippery.

Another not quite small thing is steps and stairways. Every country, city, village brings different edges, ledges, walkways, and rules of the road. I thought steps were generally standard but in SE Asia they are often at different heights and pitches within the same staircase. When “steps” are carved into trails, down embankments, or ancient ruins foot placement becomes a conscious consideration.Hiking a good section of viewpoint trail, Nong Khiaw

Steep and deep. The steps up Wat Phou, a sacred site from 9th Century

My hiking sandals have worn out their soles so I slip and slide a fair amount. The locals fly down the mountain. One day we hear lots of laughter and movement above us on a particularly narrow, steep section. We quickly jump aside as 70 Lao teenagers come into view, descending posthaste in their flip flops.They stop to practice their English. They are bubbly full of questions. We chuckle when they all ask, “How old are you?”. We tell them and think this is unusual, a bit forward and obvious; Steve has white hair. We find out later that it was a real question of respect; greetings in Lao differ according to age. A little big thing.

What stands out is the genuine kindness and generosity of the people. Not just towards us as foreigners, but with their village, families, friends, elders and each other. A really nice big thing.Pheang and Phe, Sopjam

There have been countless spontaneous connections with wonderful people. Helpful, enjoyable, informative, funny. At some local swimming spot a Cambodian man says hello and offers some of his sugar cane. His English is welcome and we keep talking and he pulls out more of his lunch for us to try. Our drivers, guides, hotel staff have gone out of their way numerous times to arrange things and intervene as interpreters even while not officially at work. Keo took us to his home village on his day off. When I was sick in Battambang, Robert and Morrison, the proprietors of Bric a Brac hotel, personally made me tea with a home remedy and literally held my hand while we commiserated about getting sick in Southeast Asia. It helped. When I thought a manicure at a nearby salon would up my mood one of the male staff volunteered to accompany me. He had never been and he did his best to describe a French manicure. While his awkwardness was obvious, he told me that this experience might make him a better husband someday and he thanked me.

The best of the little things are the children. All ages. There is so much laughter, giggling and playful engagement. Even when they are not smiling, or tussling, or have snotty noses and dirty clothes they have captured my heart.Ban Hin Sio village

Tad Lo waterfall
Houy Hoi Village
Kuang Si Village

Our pilot on the Mekong River

Today our 31 year old guide, Phet, took us to his family home. We biked 9 km away to an island village in southern Lao. It was a first for him to bring foreigners home, too. When we arrived, sticky and hot, he brought us palm sugar juice (an acquired taste) and a glass to an aged neighbor. He introduced us to his mother. She and I had a laugh as we recognized we were the same age, smiled knowingly and we clasped hands in pleasure.

Then his nephew boated all of us across the river to his sister and brother in law’s beach place to go swimming and hang out. People generally swim in their clothes. I did too and it brought a sweet revelation. I transitioned from labeling myself “tourist” to “foreigner”. The veil between local and foreign became more transparent, less separating somehow. It may always require working through a language difference but the humanity part is the same. My philosophizing for today.

The platforms are built for January -May. The water in dry season is 2-3 feet deep here.
This is PhetCoconut water, breeze and shade

Phet ‘s family fed us and when it was time to go, they insisted on a family photo with siblings, grandchildren, cousins, baby, mom and us. What a delight. It is the little things…

Laos – In the jungle….the mighty jungle…Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw

Sometimes, somehow, as it happens when a traveler meets another, a conversation begins that beckons a detour from an intended itinerary. We hear of a few remote villages further north on the Nam Ou that sound intriguing. We let go of traveling to Vang Vieng; its tales of stunning beauty and its dark side of crowds, partying and noise. We point north to Nong Khiaw and further upriver to Muang Ngoi for the next 4 days. Au revoir to Luang Prabang. We leave our luggage at Moonlight Champa and I cram shorts, bathing suit, head lamp, toothbrush, long underwear, sneakers, fleece jacket, camera, water bottle and my beloved cashmere scarf into my day pack. While it reaches 95 degrees between 10:30 and 4 , it goes down to 45 at night which feels downright chilly.

I feel kind of liberated. I pretend I am a full-on backpacker with my little overstuffed nylon zippered bag. I kid myself that people will assume I’ve left the big pack at a local guesthouse. While I fantasize this youthful distortion, in reality we get sealed into a packed minivan for a 4 hour intestine twisting bus ride north. When we peel ourselves out of the van we are greeted by the immense beauty of the jungle covered karst mountains of Nong Khiaw. We have definitely made a great choice.

Looking north from Pha Deng peak /viewpoint
Looking south from Viewpoint trail -Nong Khiaw

We are staying on the river, a brown slit made narrow by slopes so steep that daylight is filtered out by the morning mist until 11 and the sun’s setting at 5:30. Nong Khiaw is a moderately small village, dirt roads, some Tuk Tuks, some motorbikes and a couple of cars.

Our place is owned by a Mr. Mang and his wife, Chen. She manages the guests while Mr. Mang runs a tour company down the road. It is a simple lodging that suits us fine. The view is dramatic from the veranda. We catch up on laundry and emails and enjoy the sense of timelessness. People motor their “long boats” to deliver goods, or to fish or to transport family or tourists and it is a pleasure to simply watch. We wander past homes, simple bamboo and cement structures, cooking fires outside their doors, men weaving baskets, women tending children and talking to each other.

The villagers go about their lives, sometimes we or they say, “sabaidee” (the catch all for hello, good day, good to see you ) and it is friendly. In this place, so far it seems tourism has blended into their culture and not the other way around.

We go to see Mr Mang to consider some tours. He is quite a jovial and persuasive salesman and we find ourselves signed up for a 2 day guided trek before we even think about it. He describes a long boat upriver for an hour to a small village, Houy Hoi; trek 4 hours to the next village, Phayong; trek another 2 hours to a boat and go upriver another hour to visit the weaving village of Sopjam, his home village, and stay overnight there or hike another 30 minutes to a homestay in a hut on a farm. Our eyes widen. He immediately tries to rescind the hut idea, citing we may be too old to be alone in the hut, but we are hooked. Then some more trekking the next day but with the promise of a swim at the base of Mok waterfall. The deal is clinched. Then he adds we can kayak back to Nong Khiaw. I take an Advil.

Houy Hoi, a Khmu village of 46 families

Hibiscus drying in sun for tea

We trek the initial 6 miles. It is blistering hot. Steve has wrapped his krama around his head, “do rag” style, to keep sweat out of his eyes. I think he looks like Sinbad the sailor. Our guide Pheang and his girlfriend, Phe are wearing jackets, hats and gloves to keep from burning. I can’t believe I, too, am putting on my fleece jacket over a t-shirt. Just a few hours ago I was wearing it to ward off the cold on the river and now the jacket is the only protection I have from the sun. Pheang gives directions and distance, “jungle, sun, left, farm, jungle”. We long for jungle.

Jungle
Sun
Farm
One more hour…

We will be staying with a farmer and his wife, plus Pheang and Phe. The farmer couple’s son is guiding us, carrying a huge bag on his head filled with mattresses, blankets and mosquito netting for us all. It’s a sleepover. Pheang is throwing sticks at starfruit and grapefruit trees and carrying the retrieved bounty. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other and counting minutes. We pass several unused huts as we go up hills, through mud and jungle. As the mist comes in we finally…

Reach the hut

We take off our sandals, greet the farmer, drop our packs and stare in wonderment at what we’ve walked into. It is a half wood, half bamboo hut perched on several acres of now dried rice paddies. There’s a smoky cooking fire in the corner. Outside everything is free range. We are happy with the barnyard concert of peeping, clucking, crowing, oinking, meowing and barking. The chirping is the best and noisiest. No English is spoken. I smile a lot, use gestures and point. We don’t quite know how to be of help; Pheang and Phe are helping set up dinner. The farmer who is 95, stooped but spry, heads out to the far reaches of his fields to gather greens.

The wife heads to the river for water. We hang out with chicks and pigs. I’m delighted by the hand made baskets of all shapes and sizes for fishing, seating, collecting and carrying stuff: wood, spices, sticky rice. 40 kilo bags of dry rice from Thailand are stacked against one wall. We are treated to starfruit dipped in chili sauce and herbs. The temps keep dropping. We hang by the fire.Inside, the old man brings us low benches for sitting while they use well worn cushions. He stacks another bench on top of the first, adds a cushion and invites Steve to sit. We laugh; Steve is a veritable giant next to them. The old man pulls out a whiskey bottle half filled with herbs and offers first swig to Steve. Ultimately we are all laughing and warming up, drinking this libation until dinner. The 7 of us sit around a low board about 18 inches by 24. Our knees touch as do our hearts.

They teach us how to ball up the sticky rice and sop up the meal. We have a soup with greens and freshly killed chicken ( I watched Pheang and Phe pluck the feathers). They encourage us to eat everything. My bone marrow sucking is admirable. I do however refuse the head. Nothing is rushed; many rounds of offering more and more food, whiskey, rice and good humor. We are full and warmed and outside is now very dark and cold. The peeping has stopped, it is totally quiet. We use the head lamps; put on long Johns, roll out the stuffed mattresses; the cushions we sat on now converted to pillows; mosquito netting demarcates our bedrooms. I’m hoping the lorazepam I’ve been hoarding works.We wake with the light and the cold, warm ourselves by the cooking fire and make ready to go. We say goodbye.

The mists engulf the mountains, everything is wet and alive.

Pheang and Phe head towards the jungle

Luang Prabang and one more day…

Luang Prabang is a northern province in Laos and seat of the old capitol. The town is very charming, colorful, lush with gardens and tropical plants. The streets follow the river and many are one way so it is easy to misplace oneself. It boasts a stunning royal palace and ornate Wats (temples). Many buildings are preserved and gently renovated with balconies and wooden shutters repurposed as guest houses, restaurants, shops and residences. It is a UNESCO site and opened to tourism in 1989. Laos has a very complicated history of French colonialism, constitutional monarchy, take over by communist Pathet Lao, civil war, economic struggles and the site of massive bombing by the US during the Vietnam War. 45 years later Luang Prabang sits peacefully high above both the Nam Kahn and Mekong rivers and their confluence.

The Mekong

Our hotel sits over the Nam Kahn and we breakfast every morning facing the water and opposite shore. We have a crowing rooster who comes from a property on one side and meets with his hen sweetie who comes from a property on the other side. We are amused.

And very relaxed. We ride bicycles, get lost, shop, eat, visit museums and enjoy river life. We walk over a bamboo bridge that washes away during wet season and is rebuilt in the dry. We climb the steep 355 steps up Mt. Phousi to the temple perched on top to view the sunset. I let my caged birds go; a bit of a weird concept of buying small caged birds to offer for prayers of long life and freedom when you reach the temple top and release them. It seemed an easy plan but I struggled opening the bamboo slats and really was praying for their freedom and forgiveness for my culpability in delaying their captivity. It all worked out.

Very early on we decided to stay an extra day and felt genuinely pulled to stay another. Our wifi password really was: “1moreday”. Our dear friend Fred, used to comment about Fire Island, an idyllic 25 mile barrier beach off southern Long Island that, “There’s nothing to do and not enough time to do it”. That sums it up.

Of the lovely time spent in LP, the highlight was a day spent with our hotel manager, Keo, his girlfriend, Phop and fellow traveler Andrea from Switzerland. Keo had been suggesting various tourist spots and I was lukewarm but when he mentioned he could arrange lunch at his sister’s home in a village near the Kuang Si waterfall and then visit another sister’s rice paddy nearby, I was enthusiastic. I suggested he come with Steve and me. He graciously decided to host and we had a magical and heart warming experience spending a day with this generous young man. He brought us inside his life: sweet childhood memories of working in the paddies with his dad and the water buffalo, being the youngest of 9 siblings and preparing and eating all meals together , the hard time of losing his mom and having to leave his village to be cared for. So when we went to market and bought the day’s vegetables and he taught me how to chop papaya with a small machete, I was overjoyed. When his sister, brother in law, the driver and the 5 of us sat down to eat and his nieces and nephews were running around, being cute and distracting it was a piece of family life that was good for everyone. Walking through his village and giving away clothes was an act of goodwill and connection. The children followed us, his sister meeting with neighbors, gentle women, mothers, weavers, grandmothers. We were made part of Keo’s life by his love of place and family.

Steve, Andrea and I went to Kuang Si falls. A natural phenomenon made into a tourist attraction in the 90’s. The land on top of the waterfall was actually the original site of Keo’s home village. The government decided to make the falls a commercial enterprise and moved the village into the valley. Keo hopes someday to live and farm up there where they have ancestral land rights.

Keo and Phop finally have some time to themselves. It is, after all, their day off they are sharing with us. We meet them in a hidden area with small waterfalls and pools and a restaurant-bar and am glad they have had alone time together.

We go to his other sister’s rice paddy. The bright green is startling against the dark green of the surrounding hills.. We walk on the narrow dirt paths that rise above the flooded paddies. From a distance they create a beautiful design in the fields. Acres of family owned farms, each with a hut like shelter on stilts. Here the workers stay for the month of planting. They fish in paddies and nearby ponds. They collect the snails that breed and eat them. The work is hard, precise and time consuming. We meet Keo’s eldest brother who also owns a section. Keo loves the land and I am thankful for this gift of a day.