Tet Arrives Early

The most important celebration in Vietnamese culture is Tet, or Vietnamese New Year. The word is a shortened form of Tết Nguyên Đán meaning “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”. The holiday is an occasion in which people dress in new fancy clothes and reinvent themselves. They get new haircuts, earrings, shoes, accessories. Parents and relatives also give money to and buy stuff for children. Tet’s timing is based on the Vietnamese lunar calendar and usually falls in January or February.

When we set out on this trip we tried to be disciplined about what we brought along with us. Some advice we received was to pack half of what we think we’ll need and bring twice as much money. After researching other travellers’ packing lists, we made an inventory of everything we would bring. Anything that wasn’t on that list didn’t make it into our packs.

As an example, here’s a shot of Nigel’s clothing for the full eight months. Missing from the pile are shoes, two shirts and a pair of shorts.

We knew that we could pick up most things we needed along the way and that Da Nang would be the place to do so. Da Nang is 20km from Hoi An, a town full of bespoke tailors who can create any article of clothing that one could desire. Hoi An tailors enjoy a reputation as master craftsmen, able to copy any design they see, based on a picture, within 24-48 hours.

We could use more clothes. We have enough clothing to make it through a four-day period. Four days are fine if we have a washing machine but if we’re cycling through hotels and cities, it’s better to have extra shirts, dresses or shorts. Off we went to Hoi An yesterday.

It took us 90 minutes to choose material and get sized. We either left our clothes as design examples or the tailor sketched out the designs.  None of us has ever had custom clothing made, so it’s a sweet indulgence. And, Saga can ask for improvements on the design of the dress that she is getting: her current dress is too tight around her ankles and she hasn’t been able to skip and jump as much as she needs to.

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Louise and Nigel could use new eyewear. Our lenses are scratched and our frames are old. Not surprisingly, Da Nang also boasts top notch opticians. We went to a family run place operated by a father/ 2 sons team: Viet (son) Nam (father) and Ho (other son). Easy to remember. We’ve had glasses made for us in 48 hours. One of us has an unusual prescription and the optician needed to get a lens shipped from Hanoi.

So Tet came early for us. New fancy clothes, earrings for the girls (look at Ida’s and Saga’s ears above), and accessories for the parents. Now we just need to find a barber!

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Da Nang Dispatch

On Friday night we arrived in Da Nang.  We’re staying in a two bedroom apartment, in a tower located two minutes from the beach. We’d just spent three weeks traveling through Laos and Vietnam, staying in hotels and visiting some amazing places: Luang Prabang, Hanoi, Halong Bay. At this point we’re ready for the pace of living a normal life in a big city in a developing country.

Which brings us to Da Nang: one of the few places in Vietnam that offers mountains, beaches and city, all in one. If you take a map of Vietnam, Da Nang is located on the eastern coast, at the midpoint between the north and south.  With a population of about a million people, it’s the fifth largest city in Vietnam. There’s a lot of hustle here; Da Nang has a young, entrepreneurial population that have made the city the third largest economic hub in the country, after Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It is is also close to three UNESCO World Heritage sites: the Imperial City of Hue, the Old Town of Hoi An, and the My Son ruins.

Back in September, we booked our flat through airbnb. Our apartment looks onto the beach and yet is just a five minute taxi ride (ten minutes by bike) from the downtown core. Da Nang is booming and hotels are popping up like mushrooms along the beach front. Below is the view from our window at night (all the buildings with lights on the top are hotels):


And here’s a shot of Ida on the beach in the afternoon.

Since arriving in South East Asia we’ve been at a loss for preparing local vegetarian dishes. We’ve eaten delicious noodle soup, curries and banh mi sandwiches but have no idea of how to make them. We don’t even know where to get the ingredients. We’ve felt a little lost, searching for sand in the desert.

On Tuesday, Louise and Ida cracked the South East Asia food code (or at least part of the code). They took a cooking course that showed them not only how to make noodle soup, green papaya and mango salad and Vietnamese savory crepes but they also went to the local market to source the ingredients. The cooking class included a trip to a local garden, where Ida and Louise transplanted lettuce (Vietnamese farmers like their straight rows) and harvested herbs. To get the right ingredients, Louise now brings to the market pictures of the fruits, vegetables and sauces she wants to get and shows them to vendors. Or she’ll write down the Vietnamese words for some of the products she wants to buy: sugar, salt, etc.


  

To help the girls keep up with their schoolwork, we want to get them into an environment where they are speaking French on a regular basis. Through the Da Nang French Institute, we connected with a local French conversationalist, Felix. He lives here with his partner, the general manager of an international NGO based in Da Nang. Felix spends two hours with the girls on weekday mornings, talking with them in French. Here they are playing Scrabble together. Next week they’ll probably go to the beach together and maybe the French library in Da Nang. They are really enjoying it (Ida, two minutes ago: “I really love our French tutor!”).


So here we are. We’re staying in a flat with a kitchen. We’re learning how to navigate the markets and prepare delicious meals.  We’ve got an excellent French language program for the girls. We walk on the beach together for evening sunsets. And we’re thoroughly enchanted by Da Nang. It’s the perfect recipe for a great stay.

Luang Prabang Wrap-Up: Storytelling, Music, Museums, Temples and Cobras

As our visit in Luang Prabang wraps up we’re enjoying some final attractions here.

Just around the corner from our guest house is the Traditional Storytelling Theatre.

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Everybody loves a good story and here, the audience is treated to many of Luang Prabang’s myths. We learned how Phousi Hill was created when the monkey god Hanuman (who was searching for mushrooms) carried a mountain back from Sri Lanka and deposited it in the center of Luang Prabang. Or about the Naga (water serpent) that lived where the Nam Khan river drains into the Mekong at the north east end of town. The girls were +riveted+ and hoped that the stories changed every night so they could come listen to more of them.

The stories were accompanied by music played on a traditional instrument called the kan. We were interested in learning more about music here and found a small local music school called Music for Everyone. It’s an impressive resource for the community; local kids love the place. Saga strummed one of the ukuleles. We admired (in addition to the music) the clever use of egg cartons on the ceiling to improve the acoustics.

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The Vipassana Temple and Park is located just outside of the old city center. It’s visible from afar (the picture of the temple below is not mine) and is probably the most beautiful temple in a town that seems to be built of beautiful temples.


In 1975 the Pathet Lao took control of country, abolished the monarchy and sent the King and Queen to a remote reeducation camp. The royals are believed to have died there but there has been no public discussion of their deaths. The Royal Palace in Luang Prabang has since been converted into a national museum. It is replete with artifacts from the royal family including decorative walls, coronation regalia, and royal clothes. It didn’t take long to see it all and was worth the visit.

No visit to Laos  would be complete without a mention of Laotian cobra-and scorpion-whiskey. This white rice whiskey is fermented in clay pots for more than a year along with scorpions and cobras, pictured here:

  
The animal spirits are said to infuse the whiskey and their strength confers to the drinker. One wonders about the cobra population but the whiskey merchant we spoke with assures us that the snakes are fine.

We leave for Vietnam on Friday and will spend a month in Da Nang, close to Hue and Hoi An.

Letter from Laos

We’ve come to realise that water is a bigger feature of our trip than we’d expected. We stayed along the Kampot River with its soundscape and temperaments; then the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh; the central lake in Hanoi; sailed through Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin; all along experiencing the rain that, when it falls, feels like it will crush everything beneath it; and now the Mekong River in Luang Prabang.

Staying this close to the Mekong feels like being with a celebrity. The Mekong  influences all aspects of life in South East Asia- economic, cultural, political and has been in the media forever. It originates in the Tibetan Plateau in China and runs through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Here, the Mekong forms the northern boundary of Luang Prabang and the road running alongside it is replete with guest houses boasting “riverside view”. The Mekong makes a good landmark to orient oneself in Luang Prabang. It’s also great eyecandy for those of us that like to watch the river from the shore and see whatever takes place in and on it.

Yesterday we hired a boat-taxi to take us for a 90-minute ride on the river. As mentioned in the last post, the boats are 40 foot long and 5 foot wide. The captain sits up at the front controlling the boat with a steering wheel and a throttle that is simply a wire running the length of the boat, connected to the motor. Not easy to steer but our captain controlled his ship effortlessly.

Our captain also provided excellent commentary during the journey. We saw many fishing nets. When we asked what the fisherfolk catch, we learned: “big fish, small fish, no shark, no crocodile”.

The Mekong has a ton of traffic on it. These large cargo ships can move 200 tons of goods. They run mostly between Laos and China. Apparently there are no big storms on the Mekong, all the better because the “house” part of the cargo ship looks like it would get ripped away by a stong gust.

There are also larger sized taxi-boats that are used to take travellers to China or Thailand. This kind of boat is shown in the next two shots:



The trip takes two days and passengers are put up in guest houses along the way.

For those in more of a rush, however, this boat will take you to the border in eight hours.

Eight hours

Interestingly, the river has also provided something of a social pressure relief valve for Laotians. The Pathet Lao took control of the country in 1975 and has ruled the country through the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) ever since. Laos is thus a single party socialist republic and the only legal party is the LPRP. One of the explanations for the relative lack of civil unrest during the LPRP rule is that people can simply cross the Mekong into Thailand if they get fed up with Laos. Culturally the two countries are very close. Linguistically, someone speaking Thai can make herself understood in Laos and vice versa.

At the moment, it’s the dry season and the water level is low. We were struck by the number of gardens that are planted on land that’s reclaimed during the dry season. People grow all sorts of fruits and vegetables on land that is otherwise submerged during the rainier months.

This morning we climbed Phousi Hill to visit the Chomsi pagoda. “Phou Si” means sacred hill and rises about 100 meters above the center of Luang Prabang. It offers 360 degree views of the Mekong and the town. Chomsi is a golden pagoda that was built in 1804. The pagoda glitters on a sunny day for all in Luang Prabang to see. Here’s Chomsi from the inside and the view:

  

Getting to Chomsi was a nice climb. There are lots of steps (more than 350!) and partway up it started to rain (Ida caught some raindrops).

Catching raindrops

Luang Prabang has about 36 pagodas and is not a very big town. A lot of pagodas and a lot of monks.

These monks were on their way to school, next to another golden pagoda. That pagoda was tucked away around the corner from a stretch of the main street that we have walked by countless times, never realising that such a  beautiful building was hidden away.

Off to school
At School

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a city of about 50,000 people in Northern Laos, at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It is roughly 100 miles from the Thai border and 150 miles from the Chinese and Vietnamese borders. Luang Prabang is known for its many temples, or wats, and every morning hundreds of monks walk through the streets collecting alms. The old centre of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As we planned our trip, everyone we spoke to suggested that we would want to spend more time there than expected. So we set aside two weeks to enjoy the location.

Luang Prabang does not disappoint. It is truly a beautiful place. Our guest house is squeezed between  three wats; all magnificent, the oldest of which is from the 16th century. The wats occupy both the landscape and the soundscape. At 4 in the morning and at 4 in the afternoon, the monastery next door sounds its drums.

The drums sound like this:

Listen to Luang Prabang drums.wav by User 666885694 #np on #SoundCloud

Chanting follows the drumming, like this:

Listen to LP chant.wav by User 666885694 #np on #SoundCloud

The drumming is recorded literally outside our bedroom window. The chants are from a wat a few blocks away.

Yesterday afternoon, Ida and I went for an evening stroll in our neighbourhood to catch the sunset. We walked down some steps to the Mekong river and met a group of boat-taxi pilots. They single-handedly maneuvre these 40-foot boats up and down the river. Not an easy task. The stairs bear the scars of numerous taxi-boat encounters.


  

Our daily routine consists of excursions in Luang Prabang, schooling and daily tasks- exercise, food and everything else. We’ve learned that encouraging Saga and Ida to plan our schedules has been really helpful for getting their buy-in. (It’s interesting… after learning participatory mehodologies in grad school for international development, we’re finding that the same participatory methodologies work for managing a household).

Here’s a copy of Sunday’s schedule (any guesses for what is the favorite book these days?):


Luang Prabang has a beautiful butterfly conservatory, waterfall and bear rescue sanctuary nearby. We went there today  with a friendly retired British couple. At the conservatory we learned about local butterfly species, their predators, and some of the survival techniques that the butterflies have developed over the years.

Here’s a picture of a butterfly chrysalis that is perfectly camouflaged (look at the slightly darker green  “leaf” at the top left that has some light brown marks on its surface; it’s a chrysalis):


The conservatory also had some little fish that eat the dry skin off our feet. In fact, these fish are all over SE Asia; we saw them in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Here’s a picture of the fish at work on Ida’s feet and the look on Ida’s face as the fish toiled away.


The conservatory is run by a Dutch couple.  They have built a remarkable public education/ conservation space. They are not without a good sense of humor (probably required to be successful). See below for their explanation of how the local water’s copper nitrate would affect a person’s shoe:


Uphill from the butterflies is a bear sanctuary. The girls learned about the forest ecosystem and the role that animals big and small play in it. And of course the moon bears, rescued from Vietnam, where they had been used to provide bile for herbal medicine.


Further uphill from the bears is the waterfall. A great place to cool off in the turquoise waters or just enjoy the natural beauty.


  

Hanoi and Halong Bay

We  arrived in Hanoi on Saturday night and immediately had very positive impressions of the city. Modern international airport. Wide avenues leading into the city. A general buzz all around us as people convene at all hours for coffee, conversation and company. We are staying in the old quarter for the week and enjoy walking through the streets and taking in all the sights.

Here are some of our big impressions:

WATER PUPPETS

The water puppet show was a riot. Beautiful puppets, live music and singing and racous stories. Fire breathing dragons. Tiger-chasing duck farmers. A fisherman that nets his wife. Below are some of the puppets followed by the puppeteers.

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MOTORBIKES

The streets are filled with motorbikes. They travel like schools of fish. Surprisingly good at avoiding pedestrians.
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COFFEE

One of the legacies of French rule is that Vietnamese drink +a lot+ of coffee. Cafés abound and are always full. Another manifestation of the French influence is the architecture: narrow, tall buildings with balconies overlooking the streets. The Vietnamese have invented egg coffee (google “egg coffee Vietnam” for details). Here, we combine the cafe culture with the architecture.  An egg coffee, served on the balcony of L’Etage, with a gorgeous view of Hanoi’s central lake.

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On the coffee theme, most streets are lined with small chairs and tables outside cafés. We really like this.
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FOOD

It’s all completely and utterly delicious. Think fresh rolls, banh mi, vegetable noodle soup…

MUSEUM OF ETHNOLOGY

Taking the recommendation of another traveler to heart we spent the morning at the museum. We vistied the longhouses and other types of housing used by different Vietnamese ethnic groups. The tactile experience was particularly good for visiting with kids; the girls could walk through the houses, climb stairs, look into rooms, teeter on bamboo balance beams.

Here’s a 42m long boat:

This traditional community house has an elegant and ridiculously high thatched roof (19m!).


And here are some ancient water puppets, not unlike what we saw at the theatre.


VARIOUS

Our hotel is next to St Joseph’s Cathedral. In the mornings we hear singing at 5h30  that presumably emanates from there. It’s beautiful.

HALONG BAY

We spent a night on a boat in Halong Bay, a collection of thousands of limestone islands that juts out of the sea. Halong Bay is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its outstanding aesthetic value. Here’s a shot of some of the islands from our boat.
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The scenery is absolutely stunning. We took kayaks through the caves near one of the islands and saw monkeys. We had an evening cooking class on board the ship and learned to make spring rolls.

This a night shot from the boat. The bay filled up with boats, similar to the one we were on.

Here are the girls at sunset.
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And the photographer.

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We explored a massive above-ground cave.
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And the ship’s captain brought along his puppy.

The girls have started the Harry Potter series. We can understand why the books are so popular!  And tomorrow we’re off to Luang Prabang. The internet connection – and the pace of life – is supposed to be significantly slower there. In preparation for our two weeks in LP, the girls have already downloaded the next several books in the series.