Monthly Archives: March 2016


Hoi An

Sunday-Thursday, February 21-25

From one World Heritage Site to another is where we next traveled via a three-hour bus ride from Hue to Hoi An. On the way we drove through Da Nang, a city booming with modern skyscrapers, luxurious hotel resorts and gated communities fronting the sea. Glad we were continuing through this growing metropolis. Forty minutes later we arrived in Hoi An, which was quite a contrast to the newness of its northern neighbor.

But still featured the scooters (incidentally, following a funeral procession seen in the distance)…



A former major port, this prettied-up town appears a bit like a Disney theme park for adults with its clean streets bedecked with ornamental lanterns, picturesque building attractions, foodie restaurants, and silk tailoring shops in abundance.


Yet, it also offered a respite from the urban atmosphere of previous cities partly due to its lack of towering office buildings and more open landscape. Although, resort hotel complexes along the river are changing the low-swept profile located just outside the protected Old Town.

For anyone desiring a relaxing and sanitized excursion in Vietnam, this is the place. It’s also where we enjoyed some of the best meals we had during our entire trip.

We landed at a guest house owned by a wonderful woman named B’Lan. Being welcomed by her and her staff of Mr. Khain and Tam is a bit like being enfolded into a happy family gathering. With hugs and a huge smile B’Lan took us next door to for an early evening beer and chat


where we also met Thuong, a high school mate of hers who reminded us of a friend back home.


With a prosperous tailoring shop and two guest houses and three children studying in the U.S., B’Lan represents the industrious nature of the Vietnamese. She said she’d really like for her children to come home but knows the better job opportunities are in the states; so, B’Lan is resigned to once-a-year visits and phone calls.

While enjoying the view out at the river we noticed a boat setting lights on the river.



B’Lan explained today was the New Year’s first full moon (Tet Nguyen Tieu) and the most important one of all the year’s full moons. Adapted from the Western Chinese Han Dynasty, Tet Nguyen Tieu is a time to offer thanks for good fortune and pray for family and friends. This two-to-three day celebration is also known as the Lantern Festival, which explained the floating candle-lit glow on the river.

Feeling fortunate to have happened to arrive in Hoi An on this particular day, we explored the night festivities as we entered into the spirit of the Year of the Monkey.


But, man, it was packed! Bus loads of Chinese tourists flooded the streets as did locals and westerners such as us. We managed to weave our way through and around throngs of celebrants as we, too, took in the sights and sounds.

We passed by one of the hallmarks of Hoi An’s Old Town, the Japanese Covered Bridge. Constructed in the 1590s to link the Japanese community with the Chinese across the stream, it was crowded with the night’s celebrants. We were happy just to look at it standing in our own mob scene.


Unable to resist purchasing a candle, we opted to buy from someone who was competing with the numerous, hard-to-resist children who attracted the majority of buyers;


and, we set one afloat in honor of some family members.


We passed a play being performed, and I noticed that the wooden ladder-type structure around one woman’s neck was the same worn by some prisoners in “Hanoi Hilton”. Just wish I could understand Vietnamese. Actually, wouldn’t it be wonderful to speak ALL the world’s languages? But, with that sword I assumed it wasn’t necessarily a happy ending…


Another sidewalk vendor whose wares we perused was an artist who stamped a tattoo on Max’s arm.


The image is a bit ironic considering that will probably be the closest we get to owning a little pup due to Max’s allergies.


After about three hours of wandering through the lit city



and a chowing down on a delicious meal accompanied by political art on the wall


we crossed the bridge back to the peninsula and our much-quieter street and guest house.


Monday, February 22

We had heard Hoi An’s environs feature some great day-trip exploring, so we rented a scooter to do just that.

Heading towards the coast we rode through the Tra Que Vegetable Village. Only a few miles NE of Hoi An we spotted rice paddies located between the De Vong river and an alga pond on either side of a dusty, main road. We rode just a bit down a dirt lane between the paddies and pond but decided to turn around because it just seemed more of the same.

Just another mile or so was the beach Cau Dai. Having read about the persistent beach vendors we weren’t surprised to be accosted by waving parking attendants trying to get us into their lots. Finding one close to the sand, we paid the US$1 fee and walked to sea where surf and sun worshippers spread out before us.


There were also these tubby fishing boats that seemed more like kids’ surf toys than fishing boats; yet, these bamboo bobbing boats must be effective because we saw many of these outside family homes when riding back from the coast.


Having to snap a surf photo for my surfing brother and nephews


we also wanted to document the irony of lifeguards sitting behind a ‘No Swimming’ sign while watching tourists frolic in the sea.


Deciding to return the next day with suits, we retrieved our scooter and rode back to Hoi An for more sightseeing.

We thought we’d try once again to find the Vegetable Village since it was a noted attraction. So, we turned back onto the dirt path between the paddies, passed an alga pond,


and were rewarded with the unveiling of a lovely neighborhood.

Growing lettuce, coriander, basil, and other greens used in Hoi An’s special dishes such as Cao Lau, small plots…


and then an expansive one nurtured thriving plants.


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Back to the Old Town to view its historical structures.

As an example of a 15th and 16th century trading port in SE Asia, Hoi An’s Old Town showcases architecture with Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese styles. The integrity of the original buildings–many constructed of wood–remains due to Hoi An’s decline as a port in the 19th century. Similar to Germany’s medieval Rothenburg, another town that escaped modern development, Hoi An’s economic stagnation became its future savior as tourists flood its streets today.

Although they all started to run together without the benefit of a guide’s knowledge, they were lovely to walk into and through.


Many featured gates which ushered us into a sunlit patio, which led into darkened rooms, some with altars for worshiping various gods, such as:  Quan Cong Temple, a confucian temple dating from 1653 and named for a 1st century Chinese general who symbolizes and is worshipped for traits of loyalty and integrity; and, the Assembly Hall of the Fujan Chinese Congregation transformed into a temple to worship Thien Hau, a god from the Fujan province.


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One included an old tale displayed in its original script


and translated for foreigners.
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These old buildings were enchanting with their outdoor areas bedecked with potted, flowering plants and brightly painted surfaces. Again, reminding me of an adult theme park, but one comprised of cultural artifacts as opposed to gaudy rides.



Adding to the floral scenery were bright orange fruit bushes later identified as kumquat. Being a sign of fertility and fruitfulness, many of these miniature trees were carefully tended by nurseries then delivered to homes and businesses for the Tet holiday. Later, they are picked up for another year of professional nurturing: the more fruit, the luckier you are.


Further down the road we toured the Tan Ky (“Progress Shop”, so named by the owner in the hopes of fostering prosperity) House. Built in 1700s by a Vietnamese merchant, this home was inhabited by the same family for multiple generations who lovingly maintained the home’s original features.


One of the most interesting displays was a wall noting previous water levels reached due to flooding. Like many of the Old Town’s structures, the Tan Ky house backed up to the street running parallel to the river allowing for easy loading and unloading of trade goods; hence, the propensity to fill with water on fairly regularly.


The site also featured a boatload of tourists, causing me to quickly scan the interior and exit, soon to be followed by Max.

Just down the street was the market selling the usual exotic (to us) vegetables,






and flowers.


Looking forward to a more solitary experience we opted to explore the Carpentry Village. Located on the other side of Hoi An  we crossed another bridge (one just opened and only available for pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, and animal-drawn carts). The route was suppose to be fairly obvious, or so we thought.

Not so much… of course we got lost and tried to ask directions to get re-oriented. That failed, but, no matter as we just liked riding around on narrow dirt lanes that wound through small neighborhoods waving to people as we scooted past. Eventually we rode out onto an open space where, once again, we were greeted with lime-green rice paddies

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and the occasional farmer and his water buffalo.



Tuesday, February 23

Wanting to actually go swimming we decided to return to the coast and join the other sunbathers R&Ring on the white-sand beaches.

After two hours we’d had enough of lying under a beach umbrella and taking dips in the ocean, so we retrieved our scooter and picked some main roads leading west. With no plan other than to just ride and stop when we saw something interesting, our trail ended up being a circuitous loop with no sight-seeing involved. Just as well as sandy grit and salty skin were playing havoc with our bodies, and showers beckoned.


Wednesday, February 24

Our last day in Hoi And was spent wandering around the Old Town on foot (they actually convert some popular tourist walks into pedestrian-only ways, removing the likelihood of being mowed down by a car, scooter, or bike). The most fascinating part was life at the river as we, along with a perched rooster,


watched women disembarking from a river boat.



Our days of lounging were drawing to a close but I can’t describe our journey in Hoi An without giving you the names of two foodie destinations that made our mouths drool:  Morning Glory, whose excellent cuisine we devoured for lunch (reservations needed for dinner) and where we enjoyed one of our favorite dishes, sauteed morning glory (similar to spinach); and, Hola Taco, a fusion of Asian and Mexican dishes that may seem an odd choice when in Vietnam but, trust me, it’s oh most definitely not.

And, some Vietnamese coffee and Cau Lau is a must.

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Next, our last destination in our five-week sojourn…




Saturday, February 20

Max left early for an all-day tour of the DMZ (SE Asia:  PART IX), a site covering the Geneva Accords’ 1954 split of Vietnam into north and south divisions. A fascinating experience, to be sure, but one I knew he could aptly describe to me upon his return.

Instead I retraced our route to the Citadel from several days prior and crossed the moat where I, along with tour groups, spilled out into a wide open expanse of red brick pavers and wet greenery with the huge Flag Tower behind us sitting atop stone walls.

(With an old iPhone for a camera , I wasn’t too great using it; but, you’ll get the sense of the place…)


UNESCO (United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture, an abbreviation I should have spelled out before) added Hue Citadel to its roster of World Heritage sites because it’s “an exceptional specimen of a late feudal planning in East Asia.” This encapsulated city showcased Asian aesthetics with a French twist and further fortified when the outer earthen walls were replaced with stone in the style of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), King Louis XIV’s military engineer.

Like many sites around the world, the Citadel has suffered from wars (the latest being the American/Vietnam War), human development, and climate change. Few structures remain from the original dozens….

some wear time’s erosion,


while those restored leave no doubt as to the power that once resided amidst this splendor.

hue interior

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I followed a route, beginning at the Ngo Mon Gate, an entrance once reserved for the emperor alone (the rest entered via other gates), and leading to the Imperial Enclosure and Forbidden Purple City, both straight ahead.


The Citadel is like one of those Russian wooden dolls where the largest is composed of several, ever-decreasing smaller ones.

In Hue Emperor Long decided to create two additional ‘cities’ in the center inside the “Capital Citadel” (whose walls at six meters high, two meters thick, and 10km in circumference enclosed the entire site):

  • the Imperial Enclosure (the “Royal Citadel”) where the emperor conducted his government, ceremonies were held, royals educated, etc. (walls four meters high, one meter thick, and 2.4km in circumference with a small moat).
  • and the Forbidden Purple City (the “Forbidden Citadel”), which is modeled on Bejing’s Forbidden City built in the early 15th century (both created to imitate the mythical Purple Palace in heaven). The latter was for the sole use of the Emperor and his family (walls roughly same height and thickness as the Royal Citadel and circumference of just over 1km).



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Located in the outermost “Capital” citadel were:

  • palaces for princesses and temples (SW);
  • national offices and palaces for princes (SE);
  • and, houses for officials and soldiers along with handicraft works, markets and depots (N).

I have to say this site was one of the most beautiful and most peaceful fortresses I’ve ever visited. Quiet raindrops dripping from the slate-gray heavens muffled sounds of others as  I wandered through pavilions, temples and gardens.




As I strolled through buildings historical photos populated the walls. In one I overheard a guide explaining an odd illustration:  that of a battling elephant and tiger. The elephant, a symbol of the monarchy, always won because the tiger, representing rebellion, was drugged and had both claws and fangs removed. The last fight took place in 1904 at the arena located off-premises. Must have been horrific to witness.


In many official portraits some Mandarins sat regally in their court costumes. This class of civil servants represented just one of the many cultural factors the Vietnamese had absorbed under the 1,000 year rule of the Chinese.

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Speaking of Chinese rule, below is a little more background on how the Nguyen Family came to rule over a unified Vietnam:

  • The Vietnamese cultivated the Red River Delta in the north and slowly started to inch their way further south in search of more land for growing rice, their staple crop.
  • Meanwhile its neighbor to the north, the Chinese under the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), invaded and occupied the Red River Delta. Although the Vietnamese never forfeited their strong identity, they were heavily influenced by the Chinese, especially the aristocracy.
  • With the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in China, the Vietnamese overthrew their occupiers in 939 C.E. and began self-rule; however, there were repeated attacks by China in its effort to reclaim this rich delta state.
  • In 1428 Le Loi, one of Vietnam’s most celebrated heroes, defeated the Chinese once and for all and began the longest dynastic rule in the country’s history: 1428-1788.
  • During this time the Vietnamese expanded further south coming into conflict with the Khmers and the Chams, indigenous people of Cambodia and Champa. The latter were defeated by 1471, and the Khmers in 1749.
  • The Le Dynasty began with strength and reforms… for example, Le Loi introduced the Hong Duc legal code incorporating Vietnam’s recognition of the higher position of women, invested in infrastructure such as rebuilding irrigation dams, and encouraged the Confucian examination system resulting in a golden age of literature and science… a lot of his measures were influenced by the Chinese but adapted to Vietnam’s own cultural beliefs.
  • But, as the country and its population increased in size, the Le Dynasty’s rule weakened and conflict between two noble clans, the Trinh and the Nguyen, led to the partition of the country (similar to what occurred in 1954) with Trinh taking the north and Nguyen, the south by the 16th century.
  • A century later with peasants rioting against greedy feudal lords the Nguyen factor managed to grab power and eventually unified the country under the rule of Gia Long (1762-1820)  whose portrait I found online:

gia long


As mentioned earlier, many of the structures had been destroyed over the years; but, the buildings that were restored included some wonderful chronological displays. One topic particularly fascinated me:  the royal administrative documents. Thousands of these written records offer a detailed record of the social and economic issues facing the 13 emperors who ruled between 1802 and 1945.

A full range of subject matter is covered in these reports:  diplomacy, millitary, society, culture and economy. Like reading any historical papers, you can obtain a real-time glimpse into the life of the Vietnamese back in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Presented to the emperor by local and central agencies, the documents reflect the personality and interests of each ruler measured by both the content and the number of his comments on specific topics. An explanation of the editing marks was included as part of the exhibit.

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On display were documents illustrating Vietnam’s participation in foreign trade, including a list of gifts from the Siamese King to Emperor Gia Long and the resulting thank-you note.

These communications provided proof of an extensive export-import business with Vietnam sending missions as far as the European commercial centers. Below is an 1816 translated letter from England’s King George III to Gia Long.

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Unfortunately, once again in the name of religion, conflict brewed culminating in a battle on April 15 between the French (wanting to protect some missionaries who had defied the emperor’s ban on their living and working there) and the Vietnamese. Not only was trade with the west affected, but the persecution of the Christians provided France with the pretext to attack and colonize the area ten years later.

Included in the exhibit were doctoral laureates or certificates promoting those who passed stringent examinations. The monarchical education system recruited talent seemingly regardless of one’s social or economic status. Not that this period in Vietnam’s history meant everyone was treated equally. During the Nguyen Dynasty rule the elite grew richer and the peasants, poorer (sound familiar?). But, country-wide examinations at least gave many the opportunity to participate and advance through the ranks of civil service.

The focus on education continued through the centuries with one sign quoting “Uncle Ho” who, in 1945 on the first day of school, encouraged the Vietnamese to follow their forefather’s tradition of striving for excellence in knowledge. Throughout our time in Vietnam we witnessed this passion for improving one’s mind, one perfect example being Duyen in Hanoi.

After scanning the display covering the Nguyen Dynasty and its 13 emperors I left for Dien Tho Residence, the apartments and audience hall of the Queen Mothers.

On the way I  I passed by a tennis court installed in 1933 by the last emperor, Bao Dai (1913-97).

IMG_0021Curious about this last Nguyen ruler I subsequently read about this king.

bao dai boy

Born in 1913, Prince Nguyen Phuc Vinh Thuy attended school in Paris starting at age nine. With his father death in 1925 he succeeded to the throne taking the name Bao Dai or ‘Keeper of Greatness’. He went back to France to continue his studies leaving the country under a regent’s rule until returning in 1932 at age 19.

Considering he was awash in French culture it’s no surprise he was a French puppet and cultivated western pleasures becoming known as a bon vivant and playboy.

bao dai smoking

Tragically Bao Dai never escaped the yoke of foreign domination with first the French, then the Japanese, overseeing his governing, or lack thereof.


Reaching the imperial women’s compound I stepped into a bit of a wonderland containing smaller versions of other royal pavilions. In addition to the main house and a temple there was a charming ‘pleasure house’  built for the residents’ use.


Photographs of the more recent Nguyen queens and children adorned the walls inside the main apartments, and I peered at black and white portraits of the last emperor’s queen, Nam Phuong…

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and her husband’s concubine and second wife, Bui Mong Diep. She only recently passed away five years ago in France, a sanctuary for many of the last of the Nguyen line including Bao Dai who died there in 1997.

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One of the last complexes was the To Mieu Temples with its magnificent entrance gate.

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Miraculously the famous dynastic urns, nine of them, had survived destruction. They dominated the temples’ courtyard, weighty reminders of the early Nguyen emperors’ strength.

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Cast in bronze and representing the nine emperors up to the time of casting in 1836, each urn is decorated with 17 traditional Vietnamese patterns ranging from stars to vessels to valuable forest products.


Covered in 153 illustrations these urns collectively serve as a history of Vietnam during the early years of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Large signs in the Hien Lam Pavilion explain the significance of some of these illustrations. What captured my attention were the depictions of all the boats relating to the emperors’ dominion over the waterways. For instance, the following is a Le Thuyen, a sailboat with 12 oars designed for high winds and fast-running water. Whenever the emperor patrolled the seas, this smaller boat escorted his ship.

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Another one carved into one of the urn’s was the black pirate boat. Used by pirates in the north, this black-sail-black-hull boat was equipped with oars as well, providing it with excellent maneuverability and speed. They were later used for coastal patrols by the emperors.


Claiming liquid as well as land territories, the emperors carved their ownership of the seas on the urns, such as the 1836 illustration below. According to the accompanying explanation, “The east part of the sea belongs to Vietnam’s sovereignty. In the East sea there are the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes…”.


This display also showcased one of the country’s oldest maps:  a 1490 depiction of Hoang Sa Archipelago (aka Paracel Islands, currently claimed by China and Japan as well as Vietnam).

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With a parting glance of this complex,


I finished my structure-touring.

Yet, there was one last area I wanted to roam. I had read about the garden of bonsais and I really wanted to see those. Some friends of mine in Portland use to grow them, and I remembered being enchanted by these horticultural sculptures.

Walking to the other side of the Citadel I finally found them displayed in pots spread throughout a large deserted garden.


In spite of looking a little unkempt, the bonsais were still magical and Tolkien in appearance. And overwhelming in their multitude, purported to be up to 400 (I didn’t count them).



With the phone running out of battery I passed by the Capital Citadel’s eastern gate set in the outermost wall…


and headed towards another favorite site of mine:  a cafe with hot coffee and a dry seat.



With Max’s interest oriented towards more recent history and mine towards older, we each headed off in different directions on our last full day in Hue…
DMZ by Max

Saturday, February 19, 2016

The DMZ is an hour’s bus ride north of Hue. After driving around the city picking up 25 or so fellow travelers we drove north, stopping to meet our tour guide in the town of Dong Ho in Quang Tri province. This is the northernmost province in the former South Vietnam, hence an area of intense conflict and fighting during the “American” war.

A very simplified history of the conflict from a Vietnamese/North Vietnamese viewpoint: the French occupied areas of Vietnam starting in the mid 1800s. During the Versailles Peace Talks after WWI a young Viet citizen now known as Ho Chi Minh and others pleaded unsuccessfully with the world powers for more autonomy from the French, whom they saw as exploiting their resources and over-taxing the country. Within a couple decades Ho formed a guerrilla movement, known as the Viet Minh, which had considerable military success against the Vichy French and Japanese occupiers during WWII (the U.S. secretly provided training and support to the Viet Minh). After WWII Ho Chi Minh repeatedly petitioned President Truman asking for autonomy from the French and a unified Vietnam, without reply. After a tumultuous decade, and with the help of China and the USSR, the Viet Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Geneva Convention of 1954 awarded the land north of the Ben Hai River to the Viets, led by the Ho Chi Minh and the Communists. The land south of the river went to the French, with a Catholic president named Diem. A 10 km wide demilitarized zone separated the two sides. Country-wide elections designed to re-unify the country were to take place after two years.

Vietnam quickly became the epicenter of what had become a greater world conflict between the U.S. and the USSR. Realizing that Ho Chi Minh would likely win the country-wide elections,, and fearing countries falling like dominoes to Communism, the U.S. prevented the 1956 elections. The division of the country forced Vietnamese to take sides, with some supporting the north or south, and others simply supporting reunification. In our very brief time in the country we met folks with pro-north sentiment, and others in the south who are outspoken in their hatred of the ‘corrupt communists’. No wonder the conflict gradually escalated to war.

Our tour guide wasted little time demonstrating where her sympathies lay. She grew up in Quang Tri province just south of the DMZ, which she said was ‘liberated’ in 1972 after military successes by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). After liberation the province was a wasteland of bomb craters and unexploded ordinance, having seen 15 million tons of bombs dropped.


Our first stop was “The Rockpile”, the tallest mountain in the area, accessible only by helicopter. The Americans established observation posts and a radio station here. Later in the war, the Rockpile was surrounded by the NVA, re-supply became difficult, and it was abandoned.


This area of Vietnam is inhabited by an indigenous tribe called the Bru Van Kieu, which came over from Laos about 1,000 years ago. They maintain ancient  traditional ways, and are ‘poor but happy’ according to our guide.


The NVA had soldiers and sympathizer throughout the country. To move men and material to the south, they set up 5 North-South supply routes and 21 East-West connecting routes, which collectively became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One of the 5 North-South routes started at the Dakrong River and ran all the way to Saigon. A cairn marks the start of this supply route.



Khe Sanh, a large hilltop near the Laos border, became an important and symbolic stronghold for the Americans. President Johnson and General Westmoreland decided to make it fortress-like, and believed it to be impregnable. However, the Bru Van Kieu living in the surrounding area supported Ho Chi Minh, and provided significant local support for the Viet Minh troops; this was to become a significant problem for the Americans.

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With the approach of the Tet holiday in 1968, and believing the NVA to be faring poorly, the South Vietnamese army sent home many of its soldiers. The NVA waited for a stretch of stormy, rainy weather, when U.S. Planes and weaponry would be less effective, and launched attacks throughout the country. The strength of the attacks surprised the Americans, and gave lie to the perception back home that the U.S. was winning the war. Khe Sanh became isolated, and the US commenced an extensive bombing campaign, dropping over 100,000 tons of bombs to try to save it. And while they held out for a time, the U.S. abandoned the air base in July 1968 – the first major loss of territory to the enemy in the war. Historians argue, and the NVA General Giap agrees, that the real value of attacking Khe Sanh was to draw American attention away from the main target of the Tet offensive: the populated areas in the south.

The extensive, indiscriminate bombing of civilians, both at Khe Sanh and in many other times and places during the war, helped drive otherwise neutral non-participants to the Communists, according to our guide. This was a common refrain we have heard before, not only in Vietnam but in Cambodia and Laos as well.

Reading about the war, I was surprised to learn that tactical nuclear weapons were urged by at least one American General (John McConnell) in order to save Khe Sanh. From WikiPedia: “A secret memorandum reported by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, sent to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson on 19 February 1968, was declassified in 2005. It reveals the nuclear matter being excluded because of terrain peculiarity inside South Vietnam that reduces the effect of tactical nuclear weapons.” One wonders what the results of the war might have been had General Lewis Walt, the Marine commander of I Corps, prevailed. Walt argued heatedly that “the real target of the American effort should be the pacification and protection of the population, not chasing NVA and the VC in the hinterlands.”

From Khe Sanh we drove over the Ben Hai River, the dividing line between north and south. The original bridge (though often repaired) still stands, along with a Palm leaf themed reunification memorial. Celebrations are held here every April 30 to mark reunification.

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The northern part of the DMZ became an area heavily bombed by the U.S. They believed the villagers were supplying food and armaments to an NVA garrison, which in turn was hindering American bombing runs on Hanoi. Not wanting to leave their land and with no place to go even if they did, the local population went underground – building tunnels and living spaces 12 meters underground. When this proved susceptible to bombs, they dug deeper –  to 15 meters and finally to 23 meters underground. 70 families lived in these tunnels over a period of 6 years, and 17 children were born in the tunnels. Unable to grow their own food, they were supported by outsiders.







Our final stop was one of the many cemeteries that line the coastal road south from the DMZ. Extensive heavy fighting occurred along this road, earning it the nickname “Highway of Horrors.” A majority of the graves in many of the cemeteries remain unmarked, tombs of the unknown.

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We have been told repeatedly not to miss the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which presents the war from the Vietnamese point of view, documenting their hardship and suffering, not least from Agent Orange. We are braced for a sobering experience.



Thursday-Friday, February 18-20

An early morning flight via Vietnam Air brought us halfway down the coast to Hue, another World Heritage Site and the capital of unified Vietnam from 1802-1945.  The cool, gray weather followed us south but didn’t deter us from exploring this city and the environs.

Our friend Carol whom we met in Luang Prabang had provided us with several recommendations for restaurants, so we unpacked our bags and went on the hunt for one of them, the Golden Rice . And, we weren’t disappointed. Like the other ones she suggested in Luang Prabang, this one also offered delicious meals. So much so, we went back for dinner that night.

With full stomachs a walk was in order so we headed down to the Suong Huong (Perfume River) and checked out the main draw of Hue:  the Citadel, where the emperors ruled from the early 1800s until 1945 when Ho Chi Minh convinced the last emperor, Bao Dai, to abdicate.

Located on the southern side of the river our hotel was only a few blocks away from the waterfront. The broad avenues and large parks bordering the river were deserted except for the occasional hawker for dragon boat rides and sellers of pet birds and fish from sidewalk stalls. We crossed to the north via one of the large, connecting bridges and made our way towards the Citadel.

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As in most of the cities we’ve explored in SE Asia entrepreneurs beckoned us into their shops. Loads of branded merchandise covered tables and hung from walls… from North Face jackets to RayBan glasses to Kipling bags, someone interested in picking up bargains would be in heaven; yet, in spite of Vietnam manufacturing many products sold internationally, you can’t always be certain what you’re buying is authentic. But, hey, if it looks good, feels good, and the price is right, who cares?

Thinking we didn’t have enough time to actually explore the Citadel we did a u-turn and crossed back to the south side of the river via another bridge.

hue bridge

Friday, February 19

Yahoo! Sun was out, which meant warmth and sunscreen and a motor scooter adventure. We had arranged to rent one the night before, and at 9am we donned our helmets, mounted the bike and headed northeast towards the coast. A narrow island several miles long serves as a barrier between Hue and the South China Sea, and it was this stretch of land we rode down with a lagoon on one side and the sea on the other.

Hue environs Map

Passing shrimp farming framed by wooden fences

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and vegetable gardens carefully plotted out


we came upon a boat yard. Seeing two other tourists wandering around we opted to stop to do the same.


Allowed free rein to roam we did just that, peering at the various stages of boat building and repairs. Not speaking Vietnamese and the builders not knowing English, we pantomined our interest and were received with smiles and chuckles.


The yard was pretty self-sufficient, including its own sawmill.



Marveling at how much work is done by hand with limited mechanical tools, we watched the the use of fire to shape planks…


the fitting of a plank to a new hull…





and an old woman cleaning up the yard.


We also noticed a stand with remnants of burnt incense by the launching area. I don’t know if this was left over from a Tet celebration or if the ritual related to the launching of boats.



Having  poked around the yard enough, as we headed towards our scooter Max noticed some numbers written on a door. They appeared to be some sort of measurement conversions, yet we couldn’t figure them out. But, every time I see construction, whether for boats or buildings, it reminds me of my brother’s and sister-in-law’s (Cam and Carmen’s) business, and the adage measure twice and cut once. Just wish we spoke Vietnamese…


We had read religion doesn’t play a part in most Vietnamese’ lives, especially since the communist government declared the country an atheist state. For those that do practice, the folk religion, a blending of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, is the most predominant. Whatever the belief, it obviously involved pink incense sticks.



As we rode down the small backbone of this coastal island, we passed a large number of colorful tombs nestled in and on top of the dunes on the ocean side





Having someone explain the significance of the carvings and illustrations, such as the one espied inside,


would have been great but just seeing the elaborate architecture honoring the dead made a strong impression.

The only way we really got a sense of location was watching for schools since they included the village name; yet, even then we weren’t exactly certain where we were but felt content just to be lost as beeping scooters overtook us and we overtook bikes (a definite pecking order to the traffic around here).


Throughout our ride we got a feel for country living as we saw farmers planting crops in orderly rows


and water buffalo bathing in the lagoon…


then crossing the street to feed on hay.


A side road took us to a fleet of fishing boats, which we most definitely had to inspect.


Continuing on we began searching for a lunch spot and finally found one where we inhaled the traditional, beef noodle soup:  Pho Bo, crouched on surprisingly comfortable in plastic chairs.


Waving goodbye to the family who cooked and served us lunch,


we got back on the bike for our return to Hue. (FYI:  this is how we were welcomed during most of our travels in SE Asia. Pretty wonderful.)

But, we weren’t going to leave the coast until we at least touched the ocean, which supposedly was lined with “stunning sandy beaches and dunes” as per the Lonely Planet guide. Since the dunes block one’s view of the ocean we finally found a little lane through a few houses that led to the beach and our anointment by the Gulf of Tonkin which flows into the South China Sea.


With butts getting sorer by the mile, it was definitely time to get back and enjoy more tasty Vietnamese dishes. Our adventure in the countryside ensured we wouldn’t be leaving this country without an appreciation for the beauty and the warmth of the coastal-scape and people, a scooter ride  we will remember for a long, long time.








Monday-Wednesday, February 15-17

A mini-bus picked us up Monday morning for our three-hour ride to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprised of over 3,000 limestone islands jutting out of the Gulf of Tonkin. Having heard others rave about the dramatic scenery we knew we’d be remiss not to add this to our destination list. So, we signed on for a two-night sleepover on one of the multitude of wooden boats or junks carting tourists around and about this bay.

About halfway to the coast we halted at a rest stop, which happened to be a factory store for crafts and souvenirs manufactured on the premises by disabled Vietnamese. The most impressive were the huge stone monoliths created outdoors…

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out of a huge junk pile of stones.


Marveling at the techniques we also understood that regulations regarding workers’ health didn’t appear a huge priority as we watched jackhammering without ear protection


and grinding without eye protection.



Wondering how on earth they expected foreigners to purchase one of these statues for their homes, we noticed a large display board listing shipping details to major destinations per country. And, no, we didn’t buy a jovial Buddha for our garden…


Arriving at the cruiser port at Halong City we joined the other tourists milling about as skiffs exchanged their loads of previous boaters with new ones such as us. Within fifteen minutes we landed aboard our ship and headed out to cruise around the impressive vista of rugged rocks, many studded with green vegetation.


What we hadn’t really counted on was how cold it was. For some reason I kept expecting the weather to be hot and humid because that’s been my perception when contemplating traveling in SE Asia. Even knowing there’d been unprecedented freezing temperatures in northern Vietnam’s mountains I still held onto my expectations of heat and sun. It’s also how I made a mistake in telling Max there was no need to pack his long underwear…

But, just as our time in Laos proved my climate prediction false, so did our boating excursion. Not only was it not hot, it wasn’t even warm. And, throughout our cruise we found ourselves huddling with others in the seemingly unheated lounge ordering hot coffee and hot tea. Fortunately our rooms had heaters with our tour leader instructing us on how to turn them on and up.

Yet, the views were mesmerizing, in part due to Vietnam maintaining the pristine nature of this site. Other than the large number of cruise boats, the bay’s occupants consisted of a few floating fishing villages, oyster farming for food and pearls


and persistent women selling snacks and souvenirs to tourists.


To keep passengers entertained the cruising company organized several group events, one being a visit to Hang Sung Sot (Cave of Surprises). Discovered in 1901 the cave’s first tourists were allowed into the space 1993 after the constructing of safe paths and openings. The large interior, secure walkways, and lighting ensured this was my kind of spelunking.


Yet, I’m always thankful to be out from under rocks; and, like the other tourists we posed for a backlit portrait looking out over the bay (you had to climb a bit to get to the cave opening):


When asking our guide how Halong Bay was created he said it was complicated. He tried to make it as simple as possible, which I’ll relate here:  over the past 500 million years the sea ebbed and flowed with underlying teutonic plates pushing and shoving, causing flooding, erosion and mountainous limestone build-up of over 3,000 feet thick. From 67 million to 9,000 B.C.E. mountain-forming and erosion created the features seen today in Halong Bay including the caves caused by water seeping through cracks in the mountains.

In the past 1,000 years the water’s become saltier and coral grew with the end result being a karst topography, which I’ve since read is landscape formed by the withering away of soluble rocks. If only time-lapsed video was available 500 million years ago… or, our friend Joanne U., a geologist who could explain all of these wonders.



The next day those who were staying for a second night went kayaking. Thinking of getting into a tipsy watercraft on a cold, gray day didn’t exactly engender feelings of ‘oh boy! what fun!’; however, since this was one of the primary reasons we signed on for two-days, I knew I’d regret not doing so. So, our great guide (Dan Dang Tran, who had taken over from the first one), Max, two honeymooners from New Zealand, and I plopped ourselves into two-person kayaks and pushed off from the mothership.

And, what a great way to spend time on this bay! Because our cruise took us a bit further than most other boats and due to our guide’s getting us up and out fairly early, our paddling took us through open-ended caves into deserted coves and back out again.


In one we spotted monkeys (later found out to be macques) foraging for their breakfast and sea eagles riding thermals.


Eventually we were joined by other kayakers enjoying splashing about as we all tried to coordinate strokes with our partners. After several hours it was time for our next jaunt, which was visiting Halong Pearl Farm, a saltwater pearl grower.

I was interested in seeing just how cultured pearls were created, especially since a friend of ours, Leighton Reeve, started a jewelry company featuring a range of beautiful items using pearls and semi-precious stones ( Pulling up to a floating platform



we were led through the process for saltwater pearl farming:

A two-year-old oyster is harvested…


seeded (implanted) with a small shell bead,


along with a piece of donor mantle tissue (the organ which makes the shell) from another oyster…IMG_5691

and, returned to the water inside a net (protecting it from predators), which is when the real waiting starts. For the oyster to graft (grow) a pearl can take from 18 months to five years depending on the size; and, this farm raised three different sizes (two shown below).




Basically, a foreign body (parasite, fish scale, piece of shell but never grains of sand) gets into the soft oyster’s body, which causes it to protect its soft innards by forming a blister or sac around the irritant. The oyster begins secreting nacre (a mineral composed of crystalized calcium carbonate) and conchiolin (a natural proteinto adhere the first layer of nacre to the foreign body). As the oyster grows, more nacre layers are added until you harvest the oyster and remove the pearl.

Okay, I’ll stop with the nature lesson but I do love the fact that mother-of-pearl is literally nacre, which is the birth mom of a pearl.

Even with this careful planning and planting there’s no guarantee a cultured pearl will form or be round enough for sale. Considering how rare a natural pearl occurs (roughly 1 out of every 2,000 oysters), being able to fake an oyster to produce a pearl is pretty good. Even then it’s only about a 10% success rate with the remaining sold as food.

This delicate process obviously requires a deft touch by a trained technician.


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To get an idea just how delicate, check out this site:  grafting oysters. No need to read it, only scroll through the list. No wonder they call it surgery.

Naturally there was a store as part of the tour, and Vietnamese are exquisite salespeople. They just don’t take no for an answer but keep coming up with reasons for purchasing their products.

And, they have all the displays ready to ensure you’re getting top quality:


These natural gems have popped up in other travels we’ve done. In Hyderabad, India, when we were fortunate enough to join one of our friend Noel’s tours ( and in Doha where they use to pearl dive before SE Asia began their pearling.

And, no, we didn’t purchase any pearls to go with the un-purchased grinning buddha; but, Max did insert a light bulb being the tallest one around. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in trade for a big fat pearl… :)  Leighton, here I come!


During our day we got to know and enjoy our guide Dan and the young couple from New Zealand.



The Kiwis had just had a huge wedding in Auckland three weeks prior (we know about Indian weddings now thanks to Noel’s tours to India) and were returning home at the end of the week. In speaking with them we discovered the airlines (Malaysia Air) had lost her luggage on the initial flight from New Zealand. What a trooper! She’d been wearing almost the same items for two-weeks straight; no trousseau, simply sweatpants, teeshirt, flipflops (with socks), and a jacket she’d fortunately been wearing. She travels lighter than Max, which is saying something. It was only later that night they heard her luggage had been located.

In addition to the Kiwis we met another couple back on the mothership. They hailed from northern India, and the six of us had wonderful conversations–from engineering a marina on a remote Fiji island to establishing long-term care philosophy in India–


as we watched the chef create a sculpture out of an apple


then produce a dramatic cloud when steaming fresh prawns for dinner.


Another six-degress-of-separation moment occurred when the Kiwis and Indians discovered each had ties to Fiji with the Kiwi bride’s family hailing from Fiji and the Indian doctor’s nickname derived from her spending some of her childhood there.




Returning the next day to the mainland we passed by some ships waiting for smaller boats to unload their cargo. Whenever we see tankers and freighters we think of our friends Joanne and Rod who are involved in the shipping industry. They also had just been in this part of the world recently; and, some other friends from home, Sharon and Dave, we’d actually rendezvous with with later. Halfway around the globe and we see familiar faces. Pretty amazing.


The day also happened to be the one sunny sky of our three days on Halong Bay. Isn’t that typical?

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But, no matter, because what really counted is rarely affected by weather, only by one’s company. The connections we enjoy always give me hope that conversations begun out of curiosity about others’ worlds will lead to a broader exchange of friendship and understanding. And, in Halong Bay as in all of our exploring, the people–hosts and fellow travelers–have been spectacular.

Soon to come, a step back in time to Vietnam’s Imperial court.







Thursday-Monday, February 11-15

Figuring the celebrating of Tet would be winding down we entered Vietnam to begin exploring this country north to south. Flying on Vietnam Air, now a favorite of ours due to its reasonable fares and efficient service, we landed in Hanoi Thursday night and walked into an airport sparkling with newness and the buzzing stream of travelers.

Thanks to a recommendation from our friends Marcia and Steve we had arranged to stay in the same hotel they did, located in the Old Quarter and close to many key sites. We felt immediately immersed in the culture as we stepped out of the cab onto a sidewalk populated with numerous small storefronts, stalls selling street food, and the ubiquitous scooters zooming through the streets. Yet, as soon as we walked through the hotel door, a calmness settled around us and we knew we’d find a welcome oasis upon our return from upcoming days of touring .

Friday morning we had arranged to meet with a friend of Laurie’s. Duyen (the ‘D’ pronounced as ‘Z’) had met her when he attended graduate school in St. Louis. With a background in finance, which he had parlayed into tourism, he helped us plan our trip through Vietnam. In addition to giving us practical information we also learned how he came to study in the U.S.

With the Vietnamese government recognizing the value of tourism, jobs in this industry offered an opportunity to earn a decent living. Duyen wanted to practice his English, and one of the simplest and cheapest ways involved speaking with English tourists. Seeing a foreigner in a park, he approached her and asked if she’d speak with him. No money or gifts were wanted, only the opportunity to learn a language that promised a better living. From that initial meeting, Duyen made a lifelong friend. They communicated over the years and eventually Duyen, having completed his studies in Vietnam, travelled to Missouri for graduate school. His story – consequential foreign connections developing from chance encounters – is one we heard several more times, including from an Austrian staying at our hotel.

After meeting with Duyen we left for our first destination:  Hoa Lo Prison Museum, known as the “Hanoi Hilton” by Americans.



I don’t know too many people of my generation who haven’t been touched by the Vietnam War; but a lot of my contact with this war was through the media and campus protests. Walking through the doors of this complex changed that. And, throughout our time in Vietnam I felt the echo of this war trailing us as we toured other sites associated with the deaths of so many on both sides.

First used as a prison by the French beginning in the mid-1800s, there were displays of Vietnamese men…


and women…


incarcerated for crimes against the colonists. A guillotine used for executing prisoners added to the gruesome feeling one got walking through these rooms.


Other visitors had told us about Vietnam’s framing of the war, which positioned it from their eyes. No surprise considering it’s their country and, as another friend said, winners write the history books. However, the displays at this prison and elsewhere turn fiction into ‘facts’.

We saw the ‘rescue’ of John McCain from Truc Bach Lake along with his flight suit…

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and a pensive portrait of captured pilot Jeremy Denton (someone I remembered from growing up in Va. Beach) who had alerted the U.S. military of POWs’ treatment by blinking ‘TORTURE’ in morse code during a 1966 Viet Cong propaganda film.


I’m not saying the U.S. is innocent of atrocities or Vietnam is alone in demonizing their enemies. Far from it. All one has to do is turn on the evening news or browse articles by credible journalists reporting from around the world. But, in watching a film on continuous loop amidst the photographs taken at this prison I had to stifle my disbelief. It was then I began snapping shots as words appeared on the screen:





To clear our minds of the horror found in the now-sanitized cells of Hanoi Hilton we exited the building in search of much lighter fare. Walking towards Hoan Kiem Lake, which was close to our hotel, we found a restaurant perched above a rotary and treated ourselves to refreshments as we gazed down on a typical Hanoi view of today.

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Saturday we opted for Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, which was an easy cab ride from our hotel. We hopped out only to find ourselves being directed to a very, very, very long line that streamed down at least a half of a mile from the entrance. Being the last weekend of Tet, this revered figure’s grave attracted a lot of tourists, us being only two amidst tons of others, the majority being Vietnamese.

Yet, the line moved quickly and within thirty minutes we were being ushered through security (dropping off our camera and knapsack). Becoming part of a hundred-leg centipede we shuffled under a covered walkway into an open space and finally spotted the massive gray structure hosting the embalmed hero of Vietnam’s independence from foreign powers.


We continued as part of the procession, snaking our way up the steps and into the darkened room featuring Ho Chi Minh.

We were fortunate his body was actually on display. Evidently he’s sent to Russia for several months of maintenance each year (and that’s as much detail as I need on that topic). No photos were allowed so we happily took some shots of the white-clad guards both standing and goose-stepping.


Max being Max had to defy the regulations by dipping a toe into the no-entry zone.


Must say the site was lovely with its gardens, grandiose buildings (including the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Presidential Palace along with Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house where he lived off and on from 1958-69). Instead of touring those we left the square and headed back to retrieve our checked backpack*.

*The camera surprisingly was perfectly timed to match our exit from the mausoleum; as Max pointed out they must have some conveyor belt sending visitors’ cameras underground to this specific checkpoint; pretty impressive.

On our way we noticed a woman recycling all the plastic water bottles discarded by visitors. We were thinking what a great example of being environmentally conscious. We didn’t realize just how much they were into saving the earth’s resources until we saw she was actually emptying out the water from the individual bottles into one giant jug.


In search of more war remnants we walked down tree-lined boulevards past relics of French colonialism.

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Our meandering path took us to Truc Bach Lake, site of John McCain’s crash, where we saw folk enjoying the afternoon paddling swan boats.


Continuing on we found Huu Tiep, another pond in which a B-52 had crashed during the 1972 “Christmas Bombings”. Another sobering casualty of the war.


Grabbing a cab we headed across town to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. We’d heard this museum was well-worth a visit and we totally agree.

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Yes, it was overwhelming in the amount of information provided on three levels (how could it not be with 54 ethnic groups?); but, strolling through the displays, we couldn’t help but absorb some knowledge of this country’s rich tribal heritage. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed so we just meandered and peered until our eyeballs glazed.

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We had heard one of the best ways to see some of the country’s traditional lifestyles is to visit Sapa, a former French hill station close to the northern border.  Boasting stunning country vistas and offering beautiful trekking, this mountainside town is home to several tribes still dressing in traditional clothes and melding traditional lifestyles with modern ways. Our friends Jack and Zdenka (who just finished their sailing circumnavigation this spring!) gave us the name of a Hmong guide in case we made it to this town. We wish we had but not enough time and the forecast of continued cold and damp weather kept us heading south and along the coast.

By now we were ready to rejuvenate ourselves in A/C and some liquids–which we could at least pretend hadn’t been slurped before–so back to our hotel.

Sunday was our day of simply walking around Hanoi culminating with watching a Water Puppet Show, an art originating in northern Vietnam and dating from the 11th century. With communal ponds a common feature in many towns and villages, this puppetry provided entertainment for locals.

The lacquered wooden puppets are manipulated by puppeteers standing in waist-deep water behind the curtain. It’s confusing to envision just how these puppets work, but here’s a site that explains it a bit more:

In spite of the narration being in Vietnamese, the show enveloped you in its playful drama. As Max’s son Chris told us the music alone is worth hearing even if one can’t understand the puppets’ tales. (You can just make out the narrator and musicians and singers on the left and the puppeteers in the water stage after the hour-long performance.)


That night we wandered once more along the lake becoming part of the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists. We had learned how to cross oncoming lines of scooters with steady determination, thanks to Marcia and Steve’s advice.

Our time in Hanoi was coming to a close. Not having known what to expect from a country where we were once considered an enemy, we rarely felt animosity or resentment from the Vietnamese. Just the opposite. Only government propoganda, a common communication tool of most countries, appeared to stigmatize foreigners. However, the Vietnamese are focused on looking ahead, not backwards; and, their strive for excellence thrummed throughout a country striding purposively into the future.

Next, our first glance of the coast!













Heading North


Sunday, February 7

I had mentioned sharing information among fellow travelers, which is how we ended up on a side-trip to Nong Khiaw, a four-hour van-ride north of Luang Prabang.

This riverside village had quickly grabbed onto tourism, and the result exploded into guesthouses and restaurants popping up like mushrooms to capture backpackers, trekkers, and tourists wanting to see the more remote areas of Laos. Of course, because there were backpackers, trekkers, and tourists flooding the area, I can’t say it felt remote, more like a fairly rugged holiday spot alongside the Nam Ou River, a river one guide called the most beautiful in SE Asia (another reason we headed north).

After a fifteen-minute walk from the bus station and across a bridge connecting the older and newer town areas we located our guesthouse. In spite of no heat (and, it was freezing at night), light hot water, and gruff hosts, the best thing about our room was its location: river views and porch neighbors Sandra and Chris from Ottawa. These inveterate adventurers were taking sabbaticals from their government positions to explore this part of the world. We agreed to meet back for the sunset view from our perch along the river bank, which we did,


being welcomed back with cold Beerlaos compliments of our friendly Canadians (actually, I don’t think there’s any need to add ‘friendly’ to ‘Canadians’ as aren’t they all?).


As the temperature dropped we decided to find a restaurant with heat, if possible. Sadly, there was no heat and almost all eateries were open-air. At the most, they had one side enclosed. But, the company and the spicy Indian food we inhaled helped stave off the chill. We trundled back to our rooms where warm blankets and wearing all of our clothes enabled us to get a toasty sleep.

Monday, February 8

Waking up to mist rising from the river…


and a woman’s scratchy voice over a loudspeaker. We later asked the owner of a tour office what she was saying. The young man said he didn’t really listen; however, he mentioned it was some government propaganda (my word not his) but every now and then he learned something. Don’t know if that was for my benefit in case speaking totally against the mornings’ speeches wouldn’t sit well with any authorities. We were careful not to probe as, unlike them, we can quickly exit. Later, we heard others speaking out against their government’s communism; however, this was more so in southern Vietnam.

We had signed up at this tour guide’s office the day before since we wanted to see some more of the countryside. The day trek promised a knowledgeable guide, river rides, village visits, and a stroll in another backpacker haven, Muang Ngoi, that had sprouted further up the river.

As we left our room we looked across and saw boats loading up with Chinese tourists here for the Tet holiday week. Throughout our five weeks we ran into Chinese tourists; and, at our guesthouse we noticed parked cars with China license plates. It was a du-uh moment when we realized we were only a car-ride away from that huge country to the north.


Helen, a solo traveller from France, accompanied us and the three set off with our guide. He had grown up in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.  His father had worked in the US embassy office hence our guide and his siblings studied and learned English. After working in the city he ended up in Muang Ngoi running tours, which is where he met and married his wife. He said he still missed this smaller town and was obviously well-known and liked measured by the greetings he received when we were there.

The temperature was still brisk as the three of us huddled in the wooden skiff as it motored up the shallow waters.


Laos, like Vietnam, has a wide variety of ethnic tribes. Our first stop was Ban Houahoy, a village set aside by the government as an example of a traditional tribal ______ .


At first it seemed more like a display for tourists but not to the extent where we felt we were in Laos Disneyland. As we walked down the dirt road our heads swiveled as we absorbed the traditional sites.

While heading towards the primary school a little boy left his mother’s side and ran towards us.


Before I knew it a wee hand crept into mine and hung on as Helen showed him photos she’d taken of him and his mom spinning. We continued our stroll to the school where we peered into a classroom.



Back to the boat where it was docked among smaller fishing boats


and motored further up the river where we began a two-hour walk through rice paddies and bamboo forests to Ban Phayong. Here, two former warring tribes, the Hmong and Khmu, have been co-existing peacefully for a long time. Each tribe inhabits its own neighborhood within this small hamlet; and, instead of one chief, there are two, one per tribe. Decisions for the village are discussed and decided within a community house. Hmm… dialoguing in a group to arrive at a consensual agreement. Sounds like a good way to govern.

We stopped here for a Laotian lunch. Our meal wasn’t quite as expansive as the bike trek one but nourishing nonetheless and a welcome repast.


Max opted to try the local firewater (my term), and our host only too happily enjoyed dosing him several shots from the bottle.


We saw some young girls using the local water source as we walked through the village.


Being a larger village we saw more prep for commerce, such as produce being weighed and loaded


and stretches of drying brush.


As we started our walk back we met a young girl with her pink cell phone carrying a bundle. She posed for us before turning and continuing her trip home.

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We spotted this brush gathering and scattering in front of homes all over Laos.



Gathered by locals it’s dried and shipped to China for manufacturing into brooms.

During both visits we felt welcomed and unintrusive in spite of standing out as obvious foreigners. The children greeted us with shouts of ‘sabai-dee!’ (Hello!).  Whenever we asked the people graciously allowed us to take photos, including all the kids.



An hour hike back to the riverside through more gorgeous countrysides,


including Max’s pose,


brought us to our boat where we carried on to Muang Ngoi, a village with a hippy-ish feel.

Helen had arranged to be dropped off here, so after strolling up and down the one-street town we said our good-byes


and returned down the river to Nong Khiaw and our Canadian Beerlao friends, passing local fisherman along the way.


After another with the Ottawans we stopped at a bar showcasing a glowing fire. Ahhh! Heat! Then we heard a shout of ‘Max and Lynnie!’. It was Meghan, our Coloradian singlehander. She had arrived earlier that night. It was so great seeing her as we hadn’t really had a chance to say good-bye in Luang Prabang.

After twenty minutes of standing in the still-cold outdoors, we exchanged hugs and wished her best of luck in her continued travels.

Just a side note, our guide and others have told us this has been the coldest winter in history in northern SE Asia. Devastating freezes have killed people and livestock, created uncertainty regarding growing seasons, and contributing to concerns over the enroaching effects of climate change. We heard this repeatedly through our journeys around this part of the continent. And, only recently we read that the Mekong Delta is experiencing the worst drought and salt water intrusion in 90 years. Not good for those relying on their annual crops for a livelihood.



Tuesday – Thursday, February 9-11

Back in Luang Prabang after arranging for a shared van with eight others, we checked into a different guesthouse, one we had found before we left for Nong Khiaw. Being Tet, the Chinese New Year, SE Asia was loaded with Chinese vacationers. We had purposely stayed out of Vietnam where we had read a lot of the country shuts down for the week, which is why we opted to stay in Laos.  What we hadn’t counted on were those celebrating Tet would travel to neighboring countries such as Laos. The only issue we had was when looking for rooms.

Which is how we ended up in a guesthouse on the fancier side of town (closest to the tip of the peninsula). In spite of this, our room was similar to the less-expensive one the previous week, only this one would occasionally run out of water. However, the balcony view was lovely. It’s here we met Carol, a former US citizen whose first husband worked in the diplomatic services in Cambodia in the early 1960s. Currently living in France after having lived and travelled throughout SE Asia, she’s authored quite a few books on Vietnam, the most recent for Hue’s 1,000 anniversary.


Another place we were looking forward to experiencing was the Elephant Village about 15 km outside of the city.  Instead of taking a formal tour, Max had discovered we could just catch a ride out there and explore on our own. So, we hailed a tuk-tuk and left for communing with these ancient animals.

Upon arriving we paid a small entrance fee and then another $1 per bunch of bananas to feed the elephants. And, man, can they eat! No sooner had we snapped a banana off a bunch, placed it in the groping trunk, than the elephant was back for more. I swear the animal ate ten bananas in less than two minutes. 

Billboards educated us on just why these animals are so magnificent, and we perused the facts as we made our way around the compound. Below is just a sampling.

  • Elephants don’t sweat except around their toes.Because of the flexible lower lip, which holds food and passes it into the mouth, makes them appear smiling.
  • An average adult elephant’s four molar teeth are each about the size of a brick.
  • The reason why they stuff their mouths at every opportunity is because they absorb vegetation diet poorly and must eat hundreds of kilos a day.
  • They can communicate over long distances often using a pitch too low for humans to hear.
  • There are only about 35,000 elephants in Asia versus approximately 500,000 in Africa.
  • and, one of the more interesting:  Thailand’s King Mongkut offered President Lincoln elephants to use in the civil war battles.

I may have mentioned this book in a previous blob blog but, if anyone would like to delve more into the magic of these animals, read ELEPHANT COMPANY by Vicki Croke, recommended to me by our friend Carol W.

We decided to look for the baby elephants across the river. With a short ferry ride and walk down a path we found two babies age 2+ years.


Once again we enjoyed feeding these animals and, once again, were amazed at their food capacity.


This village was begun by a German, Markus Peschke who, like Holgar of Hillside Resort, fell in love with Laos and settled, first opening restaurant in 1998, then “Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures” (which we used for several of our day tours) in 2001, followed by the “Lao Spirit Resort” in 2003. It was during this time he opened an elephant camp due to the plight of working elephants who were losing their habitat as the jungle diminished and losing their value as the logging industry declined. In 2008 he sold his shares in Tiger Trails and the Resort and expanded the camp into Elephant Village.

In addition to his efforts regarding elephants Peschke wanted to preserve the virgin valley surrounding the Elephant Village, and in 2009 he received government approval on a proposal that protects the valley as well as other locals an alternative means of earning a living in a sustainable way. Since then this endeavor is a private business led by Germans and managed by Laotians.

The motto of the camp is simply “Saving elephants is our mission”, a perfect fit for a country once called Land of a Million Elephants.

Back in Luang Prabang we enjoyed pizza at an excellent French cafe (sometimes one just craves a good, crusty disc :)…


visited some Buddhist temples, some buildings storing a parade of statues…


and later listened to monks chanting (please excuse the horizontal viewing; I haven’t done any editing on it).

Contemplating our leaving Laos, I realized I would miss it. Here is where we first interacted with fellow travelers, explored the countryside, shared fabulous meals, and absorbed the tranquility exhibited by a Buddhist outlook.


I had fallen under the spell of this lovely country, and I promise:  I will return.



Laotian Countryside

Friday, February 5

With several more days in Luang Prabang we signed on for two more tours with the next one involving waterfall climbing. Thinking this could be a bit unnerving I wore my bathing suit under my clothes and took an extra set figuring a big body splash was in my future.

We joined three young women from London at the tuk-tuk pick-up stop for our day’s excursion. Soon Holgar arrived to escort us to the waterfall. Turned out Holgar, an expat from Germany, was our host for the day. Having arrived in Laos nine years ago he decided to stay after being seduced by this country’s natural beauty. He married a local and soon purchased a lodge about 15 km outside of town. He and his wife converted the lodge into an eco-retreat and settled into life with their son amidst the hilltop lushness surrounding their inn.

In exploring their surroundings Holgar happened upon a waterfall, which is kept as a secret location in an attempt to maintain its pristine and unspoiled nature. This was our destination followed by trekking to his hillside retreat.

Hopping out of the tuk-tuk we began our waterfall walk.


It was lovely. And, surprisingly easy to stride straight up the limestone rocks. The sensation is a bit like defying gravity. With water rushing over our feet and knowing we had to scale some steep inclines I thought for sure I’d be tumbling down into the falls. But, no. Only a few slips occurred and those happened during the foraging of muddy streams.

Because it was winter (the dry season in Laos) the water level was a lot tamer than during the rainy season.

In spite of the sun beginning to peek out from an overcast sky, it was still cool enough to discourage all but one from diving into the milky blue waters. Yep, Maxman was at it again as you can see from the action shots.






We all posed for photos…


with Holgar doing the honors, proving just how grippy the limestone rocks were…


After three hours we made it to the top. But, here is where the untouched wilderness lost its purity for on one side of the falls the land had been stripped and the other had construction in the treetops. Another change were dams being built to provide hydroelectric power, one right above this waterfall causing the water to flow over land, which had been clear-cut.


Holgar explained the land had been sold to a guy who professed wanting to support the environment; yet, his plans for the land were to build an eco-lodge complete with swinging bridges between the tall trees and luxurious treehouses as cottages for wealthy visitors.

Some of the bridges were already there along with preparation for future construction based on the trunks and stubs of vegetation we saw. I’m certain it’ll be thrilling to be staying in a treehouse but seeing how the owner was going about it didn’t inspire much confidence in his professed concern for the environment and eco-tourism.

At least the five of us with Holgar’s guidance had been amidst the splendor of a Laotian waterfall prior to reaching the top. And, having been the only ones around during the hike was truly a gift. Over the few years Holgar’s been in Laos he’s witnessed the influx of tourists. The country is building its tourism and endeavoring to promote it as environmentally sound; yet, seeing the construction and later reading a NYT article about the corruption and lax enforcement of conservation laws throughout Laos and neighboring countries, being able to monitor and maintain the country’s natural sites seems challenging at best.

We then trekked to Holgar’s lodge along a dirt road with school children returning home and the occasional scooter loaded with provisions keeping us company.


Once at Holgar’s Hillside Resort we entered a hidden paradise complete with a tourquoise swimming pool set at the foot of wood, glass and stone buildings perfectly set amidst the lush foliage. After changing out of suits and into dry clothing his wife catered a typical Laotian meal, which we all devoured. With sated bellies and spirits we spread ourselves on the grass outside and conversed with Holgarin a desultory manner as butterflies floated by and Buddy, the family pup, kept us company. Ahh, life is good.

Saturday, February 6

I had mentioned it was in Luang Prabang that we finally met some kindred spirits, one being Laurie who was staying at the same guesthouse in Luang Prabang. She stopped her job as president of non-profit organization Children of the Eternal Rainforest in the fall and has been making her way around SE Asia. With her background in environmental projects she arranged to volunteer in some locations throughout her journey.

Traveling independently including taking motor scooters through northern and southern Laos, Laurie is what I call a singlehander, a nautical term for sailors who do solo sailing (not the easiest). We were lucky to have met her and even more fortunate to hear that she has strong ties to Maine since her mother grew up in Fryeburg. We’re hoping we’ll eventually meet up again once we’re back in the states.

We met other travelers throughout this trip who voyage the same way, many of them women of all ages. Another was Meghan who wanted to change jobs (she’d been working the past ten years in an NGO raising funds for breast cancer research). And Romney, a young Dutch woman who was taking a break from school. Through her we met Lisa from Germany and Celeste from Canada. Romney and her two friends had just met on the grueling thirty-hour bus ride from Hanoi, one we’d heard about but thankfully avoided.

All of the above joined us for a Japanese dinner and traditional dance show one night, recommended by a friend we met in Ipswich. Travelling really does feed the soul considering how many wonderful folk we meet along the way. But, I digress… back to our Saturday excursion.

During our morning conversations Laurie had mentioned a bike trip on Saturday. It sounded fun, so we signed on especially when hearing the route featured relatively flat roads and just a few hills. My type of biking.

There were five of us along with the head guide and his assistant. The guide was gentle, kind, and knowledgeable. He couldn’t have been more earnest in his desire to impart information about what we were seeing during our trip. The only issue with two of the stopovers (representing two tribes, the Hmong and the Khmu) was either no one was really around or they were enjoying quite a few beers at the little cafes dotted along our route. But, no matter, as we still saw silkworms munching away on their mulberry leaves (Laos is known for its beautiful silks)…


and the traditional Sa paper being made, a paper made from the bark of a mulberry tree by beating the bark into pulp, wetting it, and pressing it onto a screen to dry in the sun. Dyes and sometimes flowers are added.


Another Laotian product, one Max and I devoured anytime we saw it, was Kaipen or riverweed. This green algae is plucked from the northern rivers during the low-water season, enhanced with some seasonings including sesame seeds, tomatoes, and garlic then dried on screens. It was delicious, especially when lightly fried and served with a salsa.


Just down the path from the drying riverweed was the Mekong River. To cross it we were paddled across by two women, one carrying our bikes and the other us. I could have done with a longer boat ride. Matter-of-fact I wouldn’t have minded taking it all the way back to Luang Prabang.


Speaking of sumptuous tastes, when we were ready for lunch our guide led us to a mounted picnic table and then cut some huge banana leaves as a table cloth. He then proceeded unveiled a Laotian spread (some still warm and wrapped in banana leaves) from his backpack. Watching him reach in and pull out dish after dish was like Mary Poppins with her magic carpet bag from which she kept hauling out items that now way could fit inside a tote bag.


All of us dug into some of the best green beans I’ve ever had as well as a tomato salsa, sticky rice (it really is sticky), fried egg mix, potatoes, and finished off with clementines for dessert. (Our friend Laurie is in the middle.)


Mounting my trusted steed of a bike wasn’t very appealing after that feast. But on we went.

Seeing some little boys fishing by the side of the road we stopped to watch. It was only then we noticed how they were catching the fish:   with home-made bows and arrows (!).


One of the kids proudly held up their catch while the others returned to the stream. Although how they shot those tiny fish I don’t know, but their bow and arrow resembled the handmade one at the Living Land Farm.


By now my butt was getting extremely sore and, once again, I was the caboose. I couldn’t believe how out of shape I was, and many times throughout the trek I would fall further and further behind with just the poor young assisting guide treated treated to my sighs and “I can’t believe I’m so slow!” exclamations.

The last 10 km entailed roads crowded with trucks wheezing fumes and motor bikes scurrying past. To say I was ready to hop off this tin, two-wheeled torture vehicle is putting it lightly. Finally we reached the city limit and I saw an end in sight. Hallelujah, I’ve been saved.

What we discovered after the fact was we should have read the full description of the day trip, which said “This tour has been designed for fit cyclists wanting to ride a long distance to see a lot of countryside.” And, it was a “circuit of 60 km, approximately 65% paved, 35% dirt roads…”.

End of my cycling experience in Laos!  But, must say, like previous tours, the guide was wonderful meeting and I saw sights I probably wouldn’t have on my own.

Next, a trek using a boat and two legs versus wheels.



Rice Ballet

Wednesday, February 3

We had heard that Laos was a favorite for many visitors to SE Asia, and we understood why having stayed just briefly in this landlocked country. In Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage city located in northern Laos, we had our first experience of meeting fellow travelers. After whipping through two cities in two countries in six days, Laos began our slow-down traveling.

But, it’s also here we began a diverse group of daily tours, one of the most interesting being a half-day of learning about rice agriculture.


The Living Land Farm was formed by two brothers, Laut and Si Lee, as a community enterprise suppling organic produce to local area restaurants. Employing Laotians who lack higher education and/or are from remote tribal areas, the farm grows chemical-free crops using traditional methods including their own hand-made tools. Our half-day rice tour provided a glimpse into this activity similar to one of those films where months are collapsed into minutes.

To actually experience rice from seed to table was amazing, primarily because I’m so removed from agriculture. And, to literally see brown husks transform into the kernels I purchase in the store was magical.

One of the co-founding brothers was our guide, an excellent and exuberant teacher who told us just to call him ‘Lee’ since he obviously realized most foreigners butcher the pronunciation of his first name, ‘Laut’.


I’ll just run you through the 14 steps so you, too, can experience the transformation:

  1. Lee demonstrated the traditional seed selection method using an egg, salt, and pail of water. Tossing in salt until the egg began to float, thereby achieving the proper water density, Lee then poured some grains of rice from a previous year’s harvest into the pail. Those that floated like the egg would be used for feed while the heavier ones would sink. The latter are denser and filled with healthy matter, not just air.


2.  Next, seeds are placed on wet mud where they germinate after 3-6 days.

3.  We moved to irrigated paddies where we tried our hand at tilling with Rudolph, one of the farm’s water buffalos. (You may recognize the guy behind the plow.) During plowing, the previous crop’s detritus is plowed into the soil to provide nutrients.


4.  Then accompanied by Lee’s lilting song we planted seedlings. The field is kept flooded with water in order to help prevent weeds from growing (but not so deep as to cover the the rice shoots).

5.  The paddies are weeded, including picking snails to keep them from eating the crop. Northern Laos (where we were) generally has one rice crop a year while southern Laos’ rainier and hotter climate allows for two crops.


6.  After about 10 weeks the paddies are drained and the stalks, heavy with ripe grain, are cut with a sickle then left to dry in the sun.


7.  After 4 days or more the green stalks have dried to straw-colored branches. We then tried our hands at thrashing them to flush out the individual grains. This entailed repeatedly hitting a bunch of stalks against a slanted board forcing the grains to scatter across the ground.


8.  To remove stray bits of debris from the thrashing the grain is fanned then swept into piles.


9.  Showing how rice is transported for storage, Lee paraded three different carrying baskets as developed by different tribes. Seeds can be stored for two years and used either as seeds or in cooking,


10. To extract the kernel from the thrashed grain a foot-powered sledgehammer is used for husking.



11. To finalize the separation of kernel from husk, we tossed the wicker tray resulting in billowing beige husks wafting from the creamy rice kernels.


Out of this winnowing process any broken kernels are milled into rice flour using a granite grinder.


Lee’s movements were so graceful and rhythmic watching him was akin to viewing a ballet. We all tried to mimic his actions but couldn’t even come close to his style. Think Mikhail Baryshnikov to Bullwinkle and you’ll get the picture.

12 & 13. To create Laotian sticky rice, the kernels are soaked before cooking…


then steamed over a charcoal fire.


As we watched we sipped fresh sugar cane juice extracted using a beautifully carved rosewood mill, still in use after 100 years.


While waiting our final step we tried our hand at shooting arrows at a bulls eye.



14. The end of our tour was a repast of various rice items including a potent saki that was surprisingly smooth in spite of smelling like nail polish remover.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat a spoonful of rice without remembering the ballet Lee danced. His tutoring represented one of the richest learning experiences I’ve had in awhile. Rice ballet is definitely worth savoring.