What is it about travel that leads people to things they would never consider in their “normal” lives? There is no chance Nagu would get on my motorcycle back home (even with helmet, protective jacket, gloves, traction control, ABS, and no traffic on the roads…) yet here in SE Asia she hops on the back of Scoopy, a 125 cc Honda scooter, Aidan tucked in front of me and Kiera squeezed between her parents on the narrow seat. Then off to visit the falls along some beautiful twisty roads, over a mountain pass and through small villages with their rice paddies terraced out of the hillsides. On our return traffic had picked up, and though nothing remotely like the chaos of Saigon, there were still roundabouts and junctions to weave through, picking lines between oncoming and turning traffic without benefit of any form of road signals. Yet Nagu and the kids loved it. What gives?

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View from the moto in Laos

On the motorbike tour

On the motorbike tour

Kuangsi Falls is reputed to be one of the most beautiful (and most visited) waterfalls in Laos. It has a bear rescue centre located on the short walk in to the first pools, where Asian black bears have been rescued and nursed to health after crossing paths with poachers. The babies were pretty interested but appalled to learn about how the bears are caged for life to extract their bile.

The azure/turquoise colour of the pools is all natural, the result of the limestone and the mineral content of the water, which also provides the substrate for the incredible rock formations that look more like some kind of living carpet under the flowing water than mineral deposits. This is an example of a travertine waterfall, characterized by these unique limestone deposits and calcium carbonate in the water.

Kuangsi Waterfall, Laos

Kuangsi Waterfall, Laos

 

Kiera in the pools

Kiera in the pools

Aidan up high in Laos

Aidan up high in Laos above the waterfall

Kuangsi Waterfalls

Kuangsi Waterfalls

Kuangsi Waterfalls

Kuangsi Waterfalls

Kiera just had to swim in one of the pools, and after generating a thick coating of sweat and grime hiking to the top of the falls, she found me to be a willing partner. This ride and hike day was one of the highlights for all of us.

Pac Ou caves had been our “cultural” experience the day before – we had taken a smaller longboat up the Mekong for 2 hours to get to a couplet of caves containing hundreds of Buddha icons (and perhaps as many tourists – we had arrived at the same time as some much larger tour boats). The docking procedure was to strategically cut and restart the motor while aiming the very long and narrow boat into a half metre gap between its peers tied up to a floating bamboo wharf, itself loosely anchored to the base of a huge vertical cliff. The skipper would alternately push away the boat on one side then its neighbour on the opposite side  as we eased in, gradually opening up a berth. We then scrambled across the longboats between us and the bobbing pier, watching the twins closely and ready to grab them if they slipped off into the swirling water of the Mekong. The Buddhas lining the ledges in the caves are gifts from pilgrims or icons put out to pasture – we couldn’t determine which but the end result is both a tourist attraction and a site of pilgrimage. Across the Mekong from the caves is a village of the same name, and we had arranged with our boatman to drop us there for a lunch after exploring the caves. He dropped us instead at a floating restaurant on the edge of town, but after our quick meal the babies and I escaped from the lunch raft and jogged down the beach to look up at some very impressive limestone cliffs that no doubt would provide challenging rock climbing routes.

Pac Ou village

Pac Ou village

Pac Ou caves

Pac Ou caves

Buddhas in the caves

Buddhas in the caves

Exploring the caves

Exploring the caves

At Pac Ou caves

At Pac Ou caves

Kids boarding the longboat

Kids boarding the longboat

The twins stretching their legs

The twins stretching their legs

Longboat on the Mekong

Longboat on the Mekong

The trip back downstream was much faster than fighting the rapids and swirls of the uptream journey, though our boatman was clearly a veteran and was taking narrow, fast flowing channels away from the main course and passed many boats on the upstream leg.

Evenings in Luang Prabang are lovely – perfect temperatures, gorgeous light, the night market coming to life and the many restaurants starting to fill up.

Monks crossing the Nam Khan river

Monks crossing the Nam Khan river

Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang

Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang

Rice paper drying

Rice paper drying

Riverside restaurant

Riverside restaurant

One day we had superb lunch at Tamarind, on Kingkitsarath Road running along the Nam Khan River side that makes up the other sideof the peninsula that makes up Luang Prabang. Service was excellent, and I had a taster plate with 5 classic Lao dishes, including Sin Savahn (sweetly flaviured dried buffalo meat) and Sa Mak Keua (minced pork, eggplant, banana flower, bamboo and sesame seeds). Delicious!

 

Another beautiful Lao evening found us walking to a highly recommended Indian restaurant which seemed to have disappeared. An expat Frenchman standing outside his gallery solved the mystery and explained the Indian place had just moved across town, but he suggested the  Coconut Garden, another restaurant that would also be top class in any city.

Earlier while strolling along the banks of the Mekong we came upon 3 large jars containing a potent concoction of fiendishly strong home-distilled whiskey in which were floating cobras, scorpions and other critters (one jar apparnetly had a puppy in it but thankfully I never saw that…) Well my timing was off and there was a young guy from California who was contemplating a shot, so of course I joined him. Wow! Talk about cleaning out the pipes! The first taste was delicious but that was chased by a powerful, venomous afterbite. We spent the next 24 hours worrying about side effects every time I felt the smallest twinge in my tummy…Babies thought it was pretty funny but they were a bit worried too.

Cobra Whiskey!

Cobra Whiskey!

 

Well my first impressions were only partly correct. This place is more beautiful and more mellow than I first thought. And I’m happy to see that the art of bargaining can still prove useful here. We were mislead by our failed attempts to bargain by starting at the most popular baked good stand in the whole market – no haggle pricing there! One of the guidebooks calls the main street market in Luang Prabang the most laid back in Asia and I believe it. Very enjoyable to squeeze our way through the narrow passageways between the stalls and joke with the young moms and their babies who seem to do most of the selling. Children are adored here in Laos as in the rest of SE Asia.

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Night market baby

House in Luang Prabang

House in Luang Prabang

Buddhist icon

Buddhist icon

The numerous Wats (Buddhist temple or monastery) are part of what gave Luang Prabang its UNESCO World Heritage status, but to me most interesting is how they are integrated into the fabric of the town and are lived in by the many monks who create one of Luang Prabang iconic images. The dawn Alms giving ceremony however brings out the ugly side of tourism; in spite of the impossible-to-miss requests to respect the ceremony (along with very clear instructions on the observation protocol), some travellers persist in following the procession of monks, snapping away with flash bulbs firing continuously. Shameful actually. I tried my best to respect the guidelines but still felt a little dirty being part of the spectacle.

Wat Mai Luang

Wat Mai Luang

Alms giving ceremony

Alms giving ceremony

Shining Buddha

Shining Buddha

Alms giving ceremony

Alms giving ceremony

Giving alms

Giving alms

Alms giving ceremony

Alms giving ceremony

One of the enduring dreams I’ve had has been to travel along the Mekong – there is something very romantic about the idea for me and getting in the longboat for the first time was something special. We were fortunate to be on the river three times and (If we could ignore the flotilla of other boats) appreciate the way life has probably been on the shores of the Mekong for eons. Fishing of course, vegetable gardens along the shore and the occasional temporary looking rice field planted right on the mud flats lining parts of the river, babies being washed and older children playing in the glow of the setting sun. Awesome stuff.

Mountains and the Mekong

Mountains and the Mekong

 

Fish at morning market, Luang Prabang

Fish at morning market, Luang Prabang

Buffalo on banks of the Mekong

Buffalo on banks of the Mekong

My kids playing along the Mekong River

My kids playing along the Mekong River

Long boat on Mekong

Long boat on Mekong

Wow.

Interesting few hours. This will be a quick update as it is late and the internet here is very slow. The best first impression we can give of Luang Prabang is that it is stuck between being an undiscovered gem and full on commercial tourism. There still is a bit of magic in not knowing what to expect, and meeting people who are still new to the tourist thing. Unlike Hanoi or Krabi or Jaisalmer there in’t yet enough history of tourism here to have healthy competition or seamless tourism infrastructure, and that is part of the charm. Again, first impressions…

Luang Prabang International Airport

Luang Prabang International Airport

From the airport in tuktuk - Luangprabang

From the airport in tuktuk – Luang Prabang

On the other hand it is very relaxed. I have been in no better place to have a beer and watch the sunset than in Luang Prabang on the banks of the Mekong, taking in an unbelievably beautiful sunset and watching the river boats ending their journeys up and down the great river.

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Sunset on the Mekong

Even the night market had its unique spin. Much bigger than expected it began with a long, almost claustrophobic line of tents making a kind of frenetic food court, packed mainly with independent travellers and a few locals. This alley then opened onto the main street where two very long rows of market tents were set up down the centre of a the normally busy road. There is very little heckling, and little ability to bargain on price, at least in certain items. The supply-demand ratio is in favour of the seller here it seems.

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Night market

Aidan at Wat

Aidan at Wat

Along the Mekong

Along the Mekong

And the hotel .. though run by an extremely friendly fellow, it doesn’t have many of the things offered in its description online (no airport pickup as we requested, no free shuttle the 4 km to town, no restaurant to speak off), leaving us with no choice but to take a tuktuk into town at pretty inflated prices even to eat. Finding a driver to take us from the airport was a struggle, then the challenge was to find the actual hotel with it being located so far out of town and with many places sharing similar names (very common also in Hanoi’s Old Quarter). We were left with no choice but pay more for the tuktuk driver to try and find it. We think an early change of location is in order if we can swing it.

Pics to come.

 

Like much of Vietnam Hanoi is steeped in history and at the same time rushing headlong into the future.

From the Old Quarter, a millennia old trading centre, and the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest centre of learning also dating back a thousand years, to the newest electronics and fashions sold in street stalls and European style department stores, Hanoi is a study in contrasts. The French Quarter has its wide boulevards lined with Parisian style cafes and elegant hotel fronts, and the Old Quarter where we are staying has narrow streets fronted by the tube houses and shops, and even narrower alleyways that disappear between the dark walls of the houses and tantalize with a blush of light coming from the turn which may be the other side or may be a courtyard. Like centuries ago when each guild had its own street, there are sections that sell only metalwork, or toys, or rope, or anything else you can imagine.

Fresh vegetables

Fresh vegetables

Street scene

Street scene

Joan Kiem lake

Joan Kiem lake

Street urchins!

Street urchins!

Joan Kiem lake at night

Hoan Kiem lake at night

Happy as usual at the Temple of Literature

Happy as usual at the Temple of Literature

Wedding pics at Hoan Kiem Lake

Wedding pics at Hoan Kiem Lake

 

The days are madness, but it all makes sense after a while and quickly becomes a sensible way to live in this place. But at first it is like the the big burly American traveler with the mohawk I overhead saying: “This is f***g crazy!”

Always motorbikes...

Always motorbikes…

And yet this morning I went for a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake at around 5:30. The Vietnamese were out exercising and walking around the lake; strange forms of calisthenics, a series of weight-lifting machines along one section of the lake, and even (as I found out after following ’70s disco tunes coming from a park) couples ball-room dancing under a pergola behind a monument to Ly Thaito, founder of the Ly Dynasty who moved the capital to Hanoi in 1010.

Joan Kiem lake

Hoan Kiem lake

The Hoa Lo prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton (built by the French and later used by the north Vietnamese), was a sombre place that lead to endless questions from Aidan. Timely that I had just read John McCain’s account of being shot down very near the prison and then seeing his flight suit and photos from his capture. Also interesting how the accounts of the history of the place vary so much between the sources … that is perspective I guess.

The graceful curves and beautiful of the low slung pagoda in the Temple of Literature contrasted dramatically with the square, almost severe (but equally regal) shapes of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum only a long city block away. One can really get the sense of the role of the state here.

Bonsai

Bonsai

Interesting place.

We just touched on its charms in our few days here, and will without a doubt be back (perhaps in the warmer, drier season!). The twins were obviously shocked by the seeming chaos in the first day, but after that they got a real sense for how to move in these narrow and bustling streets; they are aware that bike mufflers can be hot and that sudden movements can be dangerous as the bikes pick a path around you, that showing too much interest to a vendor can bring unwanted attention, and especially that the Vietnamese love children.

Many more pics to come. Slow wifi in the airport…

I’ll post a few pics here. There is so much to say about Hanoi that I’m still trying to get my head around it all. We are spending an extra day here but could easily spend another week (or another month if Sapa, Halong Bay and other regional treasures are counted). The cold rain hasn’t dampened our spirits; clothes are a different story.

Old Quarter in the rain, Hanoi

Old Quarter in the rain, Hanoi

Tomorrow we are off to Luang Prabang, the gem of northern Laos. Our return to Ho Chi Minh City will be via Bangkok. There are some overland options that sound incredible, but overland travel in this part of the world takes much longer than expected and we don’t have that luxury this time.

Old Quarter, Hanoi

Old Quarter, Hanoi

Bia Ha Noi

Bia Ha Noi

Stoves, Old Quarter, Hanoi

Stoves, Old Quarter, Hanoi