Myanmar: Shan of the North

I am glad we are leaving Mandalay division for a couple of days and heading north to the hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin in Northern Shan state. It is at a higher elevation, 3500 feet, and will be cooler which was why the Brits established a military post there and made it the summer capital of British Burma. They called it Maymyo after Colonel May during the British time and up through the 1970’s. Burmese know it as Pan Myo Taw or City of Flowers. It is the current military regime that renamed it Pyìn Oo Lwin. I mention it as the naming and renaming of villages by royalty, the military, the Brits doesn’t erase the indigenous name. No one forgets which is which.

It is generally accepted that the Brits exploited the country’s resources, interfered with their governance and crippled the native economy while making themselves rich. The British occupied from 1824 to 1948. Steve and I both just finished reading “Burmese Days”, George Orwell’s 1934 novel inspired by his experience being in the Indian Imperial Police for 5 years. It profiled the attitude of British superiority that accompanied colonial rule and allowed terrible things to happen setting in motion a systemic break down of the culture that still reverberates today. Myanmar is not peacefully unified. It is made up of various “states” that reflect majority ethnicities. Bamar (Burmese) the largest, includes Mandalay and Yangon. Shan states, where we are now is more central in the east. The Palaung are in northeast Shan and embattled. Some of these states are stable but many others are fighting. Not all parts of Myanmar are open to tourism.

We’ve been fortunate to have real conversation and interaction with our guides, their friends and locals. It gives me some perspective and makes my experience that much richer. I feel like I am a receiver of a long oral history. It is clear they love their individual cultures and country as a whole. Our guide, Sithu is Bamar married to a Shan woman and shares with us some cultural differences with the cautious laugh of a married man.

In this hill town we see Moslem, Indian, Buddhist, Christian. It feels strange to see city streets, sidewalks, a central clock tower, a mosque, and horse and carriage. Ironically, I’ve gotten used to the Burmese village life, food, climate, dirt, toilets and from the outside Pyin Oo Lwin looks like any medium sized town in the States; civilized, comfortable, nondescript except for that mosque across from the clock tower.

An Indian gent

Horse and carriage tradition from colonial time remains unchanged

Novice nuns collecting alms
We visit a nunnery. The girl novices help in the orphanages and take classes. They have 2 specific days of the week where they go into town, collect alms and buy neccessaries. This is one of those days. We enjoy meeting them and feel sad too. They are mostly of the Palaung ethnic group further north where there is ongoing conflict. Many are orphans themselves and some still have relatives but are sent here to keep them safe.
Sithu talks to her and she is homesick . We all feel the tears well up

Pyin Oo Lwin with its milder climate is also known for its gardens. The Kandawgyi Botanical Garden was established in 1917 by the British and architected by a botanist trained at Kew Gardens. Interestingly, the laborers were Turkish prisoners of war.

The cooler temperatures and being among flowers is a pleasant relief. The floral area is nice but not exceptional. I am drawn to the pine forest and its smell reminiscent of home. A twinge comes and goes. It is wonderful to walk through a giant bamboo grove and observe a nesting swan with her mate primping the nest.

Kandawgyi Botanical Garden

See us?

We head to Hsipaw, an old town in northern Shan state where the last Shan crown prince resided. Other than that I know nothing except I like to say the name: “See-paw”. I cannot decipher our itinerary. That, coupled with not having any prior knowledge has me open to all that unfolds. What a nice surprise to have a private bungalow on the Duthawaddy, a cousin of the Ayeyarwaddy. A peaceful spot with our porch facing the river perfect for enjoying the wine our travel agent gave us. Being on the water makes me happy. So does wine.

across the river- early morning view of Hsipaw

Morning mist
There is nothing on our side so we commute back and forth by long boat like everyone else. We meet our trekking guide, Aung Soe across the river. He says, “Call me, Also”. We are used to guides anglicizing their names to spare the mispronunciation. In Vietnam I thought I was saying thank you but the wrong inflection made it “shut up”. Oops.

We ramble through the village of Hsipaw, just walking among villagers doing their lives and as the houses peter out, we walk farm land, acres of cultivated, irrigated fields to the horizon and hills beyond.

On the way to Festival

Beginning of the irrigation line

We walk through another village…

I can’t get enough of the childrenBanana blossom
Going to Festival having come a long way already

Most everyone we meet is going to the Full Moon Festival at Bawgyo Pagoda several miles away outside of Hsipaw. I think the Buddhists have worked out their religious practice to celebrate as many events as possible. This is the biggest festival in Northern Shan state, an extravaganza that lasts 3 days and happens only once a year. Bawgyo is one of the most well known in the entire country and we are itching to go.

As we walk, Aung Soe keeps filling in history and current events of this Shan province including the rapid change in farm rights vs. land rights and the illegal means that trick local farmers to sell their land for development. We feel fortunate to see this countryside now before the inevitable. It is a great, long walk and it is really hot. We are heading to the river to catch a boat for a trip up the Namtu where it meets the Duthawaddy.

Water buffalo waiting for us at the boat launch

Laundry, bathing, boating, fishing, playing in the Namtu

We finally cool off in deliciously cold, clear water at the confluence

A surprising and initially startling thing here is how often we get pulled into a photo op with the locals. As soon as I climb out of the boat and go up the hill an older woman latches onto me, puts her hand in mine and pulls me aside for a picture. Aung Soe says it is a pride for them to be photographed with a westerner and that often the picture is posted in their home like family. It is a new experience and very sweet.

Our new best friend

Myanmar: The Ayeyarwaddy-river of life

The Ayeyarwaddy or Irrawaddy is a river, the lifeline and liquid thread that stitches the country together. It runs north to south for 1350 miles through the entire country. Villages sprouted along its bank, dynasties were launched and crushed along this river, fishermen net its marine life, tradespeople transport goods, fields are irrigated, people clean and wash everything in it and tourists enjoy the flow of history and local life.

The heat is very strong today and when we say, “it’s really hot” and locals agree then we know it is the start of the Burmese summer. School children are on break for 3 months. April gets so hot that farmers are idle ; harvest is over, fields are furrowed and dotted with manure piles in readiness for May planting. The rains come in June and then crops start growing.

For now people are in high spirits anticipating Water Festival, the celebration of the Buddhist New Year in mid-April. It is 10 days of holiday. Families reunite, eat communally, visit the pagodas and most importantly, enjoy the water rituals. Think of thousands of people publicly splashing and dousing themselves enthusiastically while cleaning their karma, washing away the sins of the year. A brilliant concept: public holiday, great food, staying wet during the hottest time of year and cleaning up one’s act.

We are headed to the Ayeyarwaddy and pass by the ” brown village” home to the black market for opium, gambling, drugs, prostitution in Mandalay district. It is on both sides of the river and is predictably a slum, an entrenched poverty that stains generations. Sadly there are children here. We pass by numerous small shacks that house people who have migrated into the city from their farms, finding work in the city outskirts making bamboo walls, mats, industrial sized baskets.

Two girls
Their homes

Girl scraping bamboo slats smooth

Weaving, hammering slats in place for walls

Everywhere I look, there is something that catches the eye. Sithu and our driver cooperate with my photo inclinations and open the sun roof while I stand up and shoot.

We finally get to the boats, no dock, just down a sandy hill, across a few rotted boards and climb aboard one boat and walk across the bows of two other boats to get to ours.

Shoving off

We get on the Ayeyarwaddy and are blessed by the breeze of boat travel for the hour to Mingun about 10 km north of Mandalay. The river is very shallow and we pass dredgers and the temporary villages that house the workers and their families. The light is clear and sharp and we are drawn to a stunning white shape in the distance.

Hsinbyume Mye Thein Tan Pagoda modeled after Mt. Meru

King Bagyidaw built this pagoda in 1816-1819 to show his love and to memorialize his first wife’s death in childbirth. Her name was Hsinbyume (white elephant queen). The second name of Mye (emerald) Thein Tan (100,000) references the 100,000 emeralds used to complete the pagoda. Not too shabby for the Konbaung dynasty. At the top it is so white and the sun so brilliant people cover up to avoid eye strain. Others choose covering to avoid darkening of their skin, Chinese women are the most committed.I am intrigued and overwhelmed by the foreign names, stories, history and legends that surround what we are physically seeing. I feel I am inside a fairy tale, i.e., like hearing the true story of Cinderella and simultaneously touching the pumpkin coach and her glass slipper. The way I remember places is often by what I’ve bought or eaten. While resting after walking up and down the Pagoda steps and drinking a glass of watery iced coffee I notice the colorful umbrellas nearby. It is so hot I bargain for one and am immediately gratified and shaded by my purchase. I now remember Mingun as where I got my grey flowered umbrella with tassels.

A short walk brings us to the world’s largest unfinished pagoda. The base was finished at 50 meters but the entire structure was meant to be 150. It is colossal. King Bodawpaya had the workers ferry the stone and brick across the river to this location even though the materials were available close by. His insistence exhausted the local resources and laborers. The King lost interest. 50 years later an earthquake damaged and split the structure. I can imagine the populace repeating “what’s comes around, goes around”. Our guide comments that his many “eccentricities ” and demands made him greatly disliked.

Pahtodawgi Pagoda constructed for King Bodawpaya in 1790

We head back on the river and its glorious cooler air. We have a date with a cart and donkey ride around Ava, the ancient imperial capital of 5 centuries of successive Burmese kingdoms also located on the Irrawaddy. Steve and I are a bit squeaky about doing such a tourist thing and it turns out that the roads are also ancient and besides walking, bicycling, and the occasional motor bike it is the local taxi. It is a bucolic setting, our cart is quite charming, our donkey and driver around the same advanced age.

We see remains of an old kingdom in a field of sunflowers, a golden spired stupa in a banana field, a leaning tower and a cute baby. At one point I got out of the cart to photograph a road sign and unbeknownst to me a bullock cart was coming up fast behind me with the driver tsk,tsk-ing me out of the way.

The road sign

I feel I am time traveling, between the information of centuries ago and what remains standing today. As the day draws to a close, we drive past rice paddies til we come to Bagaya Monastery, a 400 year old large wooden structure not far from Ava.

Door carvings of celestial beings

It is 200 feet high and 100 feet wide built with 267 huge teak posts (one is 9 feet in circumference). Loads of ornate carvings recently coated in crude oil for preservation. I didn’t know and touched a carving and I was done for the day.

Myanmar, An Introduction

I had really wanted to write about our trip chronologically but long periods of no WiFi, loss of power, bumpy roads and boat rides have kept elongating the process. It’s been a couple of weeks since we’ve left Vietnam, having had a wonderful time in both Hue and Hoi An before we took off for Mandalay, Myanmar a week ago. We are having such an eye opening experience that I didn’t want to wait any longer to write about it. This is epic.

As true for all the Southeast Asian countries we’ve visited, it seems each has a long history filled with conquests, being conquered, monarchies, political upheaval, civil wars, colonialism, (excluding Thailand) division and unification, tribal hegemony, nationalism, advanced civilizations and their destruction, cultural literacy and rice. For most of the countries there has been severe growing pains to reach a national identity. Myanmar is still engaged in that fray.

We land in Mandalay and it is 35C (96F). We console ourselves that baking in dry heat is better than melting in moist heat. Our guide Sithu immediately teaches us, “Mingalabar” which is hello (actually “auspicious to you all”) in Burmese and “Chey zu ba” for thank you (or kyei zu ba). “We accent the first syllable”, he tells us. Don’t ask. Money is now kyat or “ch-yet”. Bye bye to remnants of Vietnamese rolling around in my brain and to my feeling of accomplishment handling dongs so well ( that’s Vietnamese money not anatomy). No time to lament. We are off to the royal palace but can only see a corner being restored, the rest hidden beyond a huge brick wall and the moat.We are underwhelmed. Mandalay, capital of kings 170 years ago, is a large, sprawling city without an apparent center . Not especially beautiful along the avenues we traveled but a lot less motorbikes and cars than Vietnam. Centuries of treasured history are alive here. We ask Sithu tons of questions, about the Rohingya crisis, the government, Burmese history. We are swimming in facts, dates, numerology, and the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism within minutes of flight fog and dehydration. We don’t know anything about Myanmar. We are absorbing as much as we can as we drive to Amarapura, the ancient capital before Mandalay. It seems the “penultimate king” moved all the royal buildings from Mandalay to Amarapura, stayed a few years, received a prophecy of his death and moved them back to Mandalay much to the people’s consternation.

The entire country, more or less is Theravada Buddhist, with strong discipline and worship peppered with varying local cosmology, e.g., the formation of Magic Lake in Pindaya was created when celestial beings helped a hunter-prince kill a humongous spider that had sequestered seven princesses in the cave after capturing them bathing in the lake. This is told with integrity and belief as we drive by the lake. Everywhere there are Jatakas, the Buddha life story, manifested in painted murals, bas-relief sculptures in wood, gold, or sandstone in countless pagodas, stupas, monasteries and temples.Shwenandaw Monastery jataka in gilded teak 150 years old

Stupas are solid stone, brick, or stucco structures, basically mimicking the bell like shape of the Buddha with his statue in a niche along with other holy relics. Temples are open inside so people can worship and can be quite large and unbelievably embellished with gold, glass mosaic, jade and gems.

Jade inlay bordered by gold and lacquer

Pagodas can be both open or solid depending upon which part of the country you are in. Monasteries are where abbots, ordained monks and novices live, eat, teach, study and sleep. We visit the Maha Gandayon Monastery, our first, in Amarapura outside of Mandalay. It houses over 1000 monks and novices. Twice a day they queue up and walk this particular street, always barefoot, in their red robes holding alms bowls to receive food, cash and gifts from the multitudes that line the streets. At the final spot, donors spoon out mounds of rice, an honor they sign up for a year in advance. It provides them great “merit” according to Buddhist belief. Building a stupa provides even more merit. Building an enormous temple , even more merit. There are two benefits to acquiring merit; one is in the teaching of the path to nirvana and the other is to offset your non-meritorious behavior in hopes of reaching nirvana. As we get further into the country and deepen our understanding we really start to appreciate the significance of merit. It is a core belief.

Our guide found us a good viewing spot until a group of Chinese tourists inserted themselves into the same space nearly knocking me over. All this tumult on the steps, jockeying for position, shoving and noisy, juxtaposed with monks walking solemnly gathering all the food that will feed them this day.

The crowd awaits the procession of 1000 monks
They wait too

They come in all sizes

We stay til the end and the crowd disperses quickly and we roam through the monastery. The purple robed novices are perhaps 5 years old. They too collect alms daily and learn the discipline. This monastery is known as the most abiding of the scrolls. The head abbot was known for his generosity, wisdom and protection (he provided shelter for villagers during the many war years). Over time he became renowned and the monastery grew exponentially. The monks are from all over the country and most come as orphans from those wars.

We go from the monastery to arts and crafts. I enjoy these workshops. We’ve seen how it can help keep an artisanal skill alive through tourism though honestly sometimes I feel captive to the demonstration and follow up gift showroom. Here in Myanmar it’s not only about extracting dollars from tourists. These crafts are part of the local economy and trade and is really how they still do things. We visit a gold leaf making workshop where they beat a paper thin piece of gold into an even thinner one with a heavy mallet hitting precisely in the correct spot for a specific time measured by a gourd filling with water. It worked hundreds of years ago and the same family continues the business. This place is the supplier of gold leaf for all the country’s temples, pagodas, Buddha images and palaces. That is a lot of gilt. We had no idea what this meant until we went to Maharmuni Temple. The application of a sheet of gold leaf onto the Buddha image brings merit to the wielder. Additionally, it is hoped that placing it on a specific part of the body may grant your wish for healing that part. In all temples this is a male only honor. Of course the more gold leaf the more merit.

Chubby Budda with a buddhacious headdress covered in gems and gold medallions

As we are exiting the temple we hear commotion and see an explosion of color. Sithu gets excited and steers us toward the activity. A novitiate procession of 150 children completing the rite of passage ceremony that will bring them into the Buddhist community is in progress. We follow them through the temple and just stare at the beauty of these faces in their regalia in this amazing place.

We make a late afternoon visit to the magnificent wooden Schwenandaw monastery, last standing vestige of Burmese royalty in Mandalay. The building had been moved to Amarapura along with the entire royal city and shortly thereafter it became inauspicious to remain and the entire city was moved back to Mandalay. However, because the prior king had died in this monastery, the son, now king, was fearful of daddy’s spirit so he relocated the monastery to Mandalay hill outside the royal city gates. Interestingly, 2 Anglo-Burmese wars sacked and damaged the entire Royal Palace and bombing by the Japanese in WWII destroyed it completely leaving just this monastery intact 175 years later. Karma.

The intricate finely carved detail is extraordinary

Amarapura is a pretty area, quieter than Mandalay with narrow streets, the chosen site for the ancient royal capital. It is now most famous for the U Bein bridge built in 1850 to span Tuangthaman Lake. At 1.2 km, it is the longest teak wooden bridge in the world. U Bein was the Mayor at that time and loyal to the king. There is a sordid history filled with suspicion and superstition that explains the execution of U Bein by the very king who asked him to build the bridge. We find over time that there are many similar type stories woven throughout the Burmese royal lineage, the government, the military and in tribal culture.

Happily, Amarapura is also known for a particular kind of silk weaving, wood working and tapestry making. This city is representative of these works that are only made here and circulated through the rest of the country and for export.

Called “150 weft weaving”-150 bobbins of fine silk and gold thread make heirloom garments

I try to find a longyi, a bolt of cloth wrapped and knotted worn by both men and women of Myanmar. Anything that could be cooler than pants in this heat is desirable. It is also a modest country so while bare flesh is tolerated it is not respectful. So if a longyi is climate proven I want to try to find one. Part of the bummer of being on a tour, even a custom one, is that there is no time to “schmy”. I am briefly let loose in a textile warehouse, fabric from floor to ceiling creating bands of color that entice and tease as I view helplessly without language and time.

We head to Kuthodaw Pagoda the site of the world’s largest book. I’m imagining a giant book complete with pages and spine. What we see is 729 marble tablets inscribed both sides with all the teachings of the Buddha written in ancient Pali language, each protected in their own stupa. The King built the Kuthodaw to leave a great work of merit for future generations. It also created an opportunity for a beautiful woman to apply thanaka cream to my face. Wearing thanaka face paint is a 2000 year old practice in Myanmar. The tree is ground to a powder, mixed with water and brushed on daily for health and cosmetic reasons. Children of both sexes wear it as well. An organic sunscreen. It seemed strange at first but every Burmese woman wears it and while I might notice, it is just how it is.

Our guide has arranged for a sunset gondola trip by the U Bein Bridge. In rainy season, the water is up to and sometimes over the bridge but for now it sits high on teak and concrete stilt like posts.

The pier is surrounded by hawkers and food vendors. It is a summer carnival type atmosphere with tacky decoration, kids screeching for treats and foreigners walking over pieces of wood to avoid the muck as we find our boats. I’m loving it and still can’t believe we are in Myanmar.

A boatman near by, reminded me of Alex

We are one and 1/2 days in, exhausted and blown away by the intensity of our immersion. I am visually overstimulated and awed. I am sponging up the history and trying to bring it into the present. We question the human rights issues with Aung San Suu Kyi, whom they call “Lady” or “She” and are glued to the explanations of the military regime, British colonization, the effects of the three Anglo-Burma wars, the present fighting, corruption, how the government is set up and the tenets of the national constitution. People openly talk with us about the state of the union and all seem in agreement. All are hopeful that the civilian government will gain power and the military regime will stop attacking and provoking the different ethnic groups. Myanmar has 135 ethnic groups, each protective of their varying customs and territories. There is active fighting going on in various parts of the country now and only certain areas are open to tourists. Aung San Suu Kyi heads the civilian branch administering the economic, agriculture, education and immigration ministries while the ministries of defense, border, and home affairs belong to the military. In essence, she has little to no power but to the people she represents hope and a deterrent to outright military rule. There is hope and fear for their nascent democracy.

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.


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

Earth, wind, fire, water – 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 a 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 .

Now to Escape

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 was 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 had organized play time like making fried spring rolls, kayaking, swimming, caving, beach 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

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, wear all my clothes and pull out 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.


We walk home in the dark filled to the brim.