This is the rambling narrative of our North Vietnam/ Yunnan, China/ Lao trip!
We planned this one to be a relaxing one, staying in place several days and doing day trips out from there, and this worked well. Vietnam: Hanoi old town is such fun to roam around in, hair rising to cross the street though. Motorcycles everywhere and coming from all directions. We learned you must just close your eyes and go at an even pace. NEVER make eye contact with a driver ! this seems to place accountability for avoidance on you. They just weave around you if you walk steady. The nerve it takes to do this the first time is the monumental.
There are these small shop streets, all named in Chinese for their specialty from the old guild days. So, there is silk street, hat street, sunglass street……………..it goes on and on. What fun. Some good eating all around. We went to the orchestra there in the old Opera House and it was excellent. It was the piano recital for a lady obtaining her PhD in piano performance. What a contrast to the hectic busy noisy dusty streets!
We took an overnight train up to the Sapa area in the far NW……………………..old ethnic hill tribes and hiking area. The beauty of this area is so impressive. Huge mountains and little villages. He hired motorcycles for our travel around. We, unfortunately for our waistline, are in the hotel next to a French bakery………………..need I say more!? We had the spectacular view from our room. What joy and peace. The ladies still all dress in the old cultural clothes, even out in the rural area. Beautiful, colorful hand woven and embroidered garb……………….I fell in love with all the textiles here.
It is a very poor area, and they are selling their old pieces for peanuts……………….I went to the big Sunday market in a small town and bought a few things. It was so painful to pay so little, I found myself weeping at their need to sell at these prices………………I had to just move on the livestock area where there may be less pain, or so I thought, till I saw these little pigs in plastic bags with just their noses out to breathe. It was a three hour bus trip to get here one way with incredible scenery both ways. When we left on a bus two days later to get to the China border, 8 of these elaborately dressed ladies hopped on our bus and sat with us. The one next to me checked out my jewelry……….which gave me permission to check hers out. We had such fun together with not one word understood by either of us.
The border crossing went well except for a delay in Immigration for Jim …………..he was politically incorrect in choosing that am to wear his Tibet T shirt……………………… but we go through. We had a LONG 15 hour bus ride ahead of us. What a long day…………..0730 t0 2230 hotel to hotel. It was a local bus…………like a 1 star bus with us as the only western souls aboard. NO English here, and no way to figure out when the break stops would be or for how long, so we made these mad dashes each tie the bus stopped and ran to the toilet……………and then to find some food. The first break was long enough to find the worst toilet ever……………..and a few warm hard boiled eggs…………….at the second brief stop we found biscuits……………….the third was a 15 min stuff down a meal stop!. We have by now learned how to titrate fluid consumption to toilet availability. A critical skill in bus travel. There is only one more train ride ahead, then all local buses. We have christened this “THE TRIP OF THE BUS”
These are the city names in China that we visited if you wish to look any of them up. Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, Sangri La, Jinghong. Dali and Lijiang had incredible old towns that were fun to browse around, although a bit touristy, it was good to see that China now values the old culture………………a financial trigger value perhaps, but at least it keeps it preserved. Lijiang is a city of waterways, there are little streams running all over………… this has been a village/ town for about 4,000 years! It was a hub in the Tea and Horse Caravan road, an off shoot of the southern Silk Road. We did some hiking in all these areas. Lijiang is an USECO city, with cobblestone roads, romantic waterways and little bridges…….there are no cars allowed in old town! The Naxi society here is matriarchal and once we got off the main streets we saw life as it was many years ago. Fascinating.
We did get to the infamous Leaping Tiger Gorge………..one of the three deepest gorges in the word. The rushing water is ominous to see, the beauty spell binding. The Yangzi is one of the greatest waterways in the world, and this is one of the most spectacular places to see it’s awesome force.
Shangri La, our next stop north has this marvelous Tibet feel to it, prayer flags and faces and culture and architecture that made our hearts beat strong with memory and fondness for these people. Each area we have visited has its own house/building type and dress code and it is fascinating to watch the differences. We are at over 10,000 feet elevation up here.
Communication is such a challenge, and takes lots of energy every day. For example: In the old town tourist area in Lijiang, we stopped at over 10 tourist agencies and found NO staff that spoke English. Our hotel was a small Chinese one that we had to speak with in sign language. We are quite fluent in this method by now. When we find someone who looks like us we always stop and talk, it is just so god to hear English!
We cheated on our “trip of the bus” and flew to the southernmost area of Yunnan and saved ourselves about 2-3 days of bus rides. This area is called Xishuang banna……………….which means “those that ride elephants”. There are a couple places here to see them, but it is watching these poor noble beasts perform……………….and we cannot bear to see them so humiliated. The capital is where we are now, Jinghong. This is a lovely town with wide streets, palm trees and trendy youth.
We rented bikes to be able see more of it and some of the country side. Rice fields and small villages! Yunnan province is where 1/3 of the indigenous minorities of China lives, and the geography goes from snow clad mountain peaks to tropical rainforest. It is the site for more than half of the plant and animal species of all of China!
We are staying in the Banna College hotel……………………about a #2 on the boutique scale. It takes so much energy to change hotels…………..and this one sort of grew on us and so we just stayed. The population here is 94,000 so it is a very walk able town. They put on this grand cultural performance, very professional …………………..what an excellent evening that was. It is now 2 days until China’s 60th anniversary and we are starting to hear and see small fireworks and long runs of firecrackers. We decide not to stay in the capital of Xizhuangbanna, but go on to a small town south toward the border with Laos, our destination. This next little place is dusty, full of construction and we think not one English speaker.
These are some of the surpirse ingredients in our bowl of soup on day!
It took us one hour and three different helpers and finally a phone call to our English speaking friend from Jinghong to find out that we cannot buy the bus ticket for tomorrow today, that it leaves at 8am…………………the lady at the china mobile phone shop made the call for us and took us back to the bus station, our third attempt. Yikes………………..this was a struggle. We ate again at the street stalls because we can point to what we want there, being totally unable to read a menu. There seems to be NO special celebration here for the 60th anniversary of China. We are enjoying the live coverage on our room’s TV. CCTV9 is the “china station” that promotes itself. The celebrations were a stunning, amazing and fantastic performance as only China can do. It is interesting to hear the political line………………..communist China who has a socialist government for the democratic peoples. All is one sentence. GO figure. The information the people get is quite controlled. Much on TV today about how pleased the Tibetans are to be liberated……………..the oneness of all the ethnic minorities. Most citizens we think have no idea of what really goes on.
Crossing border into Laos from China was a riot of chaos. SO many Chinese travelers on their long holiday week and the border station was overwhelmed. Pushing and edging our way in the lines to get forms, fill them out and get back to the front to pass them in and repeat that process at the next window, more forms and more money and after about one hour we had it all done and were again on the bus to our final destination for the day. YES!
Some beautiful faces in Lao!
We found a very nice room in this dusty little town that is only a staging point for other places. We are now in LAOS ! Figuring out the next set of buses was easy and we left first thing in the am for two 4 hour bus rides.
Ended up at the scenic Nam Ou River that will be our “road” for the next few days. We get to ride this river for two days! Our yacht is a flat 50 foot wood boat with motor and we sit on hard benches for 5 hours each day, fortunately under a sun roof. In-between days we stopped at this charming dusty backwater village filed with backpackers here for the hiking and visits to hill tribes. There is electricity only from 6pm to 10pm and not an electrical outlet in sight, just a bulb hanging from the ceiling. We found one of the few rooms with a bathroom IN our own room………………..complete with a great view of the river. Life happens on the river here, this village has NO road access. We ended up staying here for three days! Did hikes to a cave, swam in the streams………..walked the rice fields, watched a soccer game. This game was played in a lumpy rocky field filled with cow plops. Not all the kids even had shoes! After three days we are getting ready for civilization again. The toilet paper here is like crepe paper……………
Our last day on the river shows us karsts and shear rock walls and rapids with a strong 5-6 knot current. What a great day !........we end at Luang Pabang. Neat quant little handicraft shops, antiques, restaurants and guest houses……………..and temples all over( called Wars). Hot water in the shower, English news and movie channels and outlets……………AND AIR CON ! ! !……the food is great.
Laos has a strong French history and the culture remains. We are eating like kings. Sitting overlooking the Mekong in balmy breezes. This is like a vacation after our days “off the track”. It is also one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, and tourism is a major income for them. These people are of small frame and graciously tolerant of all of us. The young tourists that we see do not seem to be respectful of their culture……………..the local ladies wear long sarongs and look genteel. Some of the tourists march around in skimpy attire…..and look so loud and crude by comparison. Sort of embarrassing at times to watch them. Not sure if the tolerance of the locals is apathy or tolerance for the $$. We found we really enjoy the foot massage and the laid back nature of this place. We have met some interesting tourists along the way. It is amazing to us the number of young people traveling from different countries for long periods of time. Most countries have twice or 3 times the amount of time for vacation as does the USA. Just mingling with all these different cultures would so shape your life!
We just heard that President Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize! ! ! Good for him. One of the runners up was the man who wrote THREE CUPS OF TEA. If you have not read this, we encourage you to! He is building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He finds that education is the key to reducing Taliban recruiting! Apparently the Jihad guys must have their mothers permission to be a suicide person……………and educated mothers rarely give this permission. He is treating the cause, not the result. Check his web site……………….what one person can do!
Our 7 hour bus ride to Vang Vieng is one of the most beautiful ones we have ever had……………….glad we took the VIP bus with big windows and great seats. This is our first and only non local bus ride. We see the small poor villages clinging to the mountain side…………………….deep gorges and shear rock walls. Children carrying cooking wood and water in back baskets………………and a few 5 yr olds carrying their younger siblings in pouches. This is the real world. We saw these baby slings and back woven carriers in the museum…………….here they are a part of daily life.
We stayed in this “backpacker town” called Vang Vieng to enjoy the huge limestone karsts that grace this area. The best way to see these is tubing down the river with them all around you. What fun. We left early before the “youthful beer drinking group” and had the river to ourselves! Peace……… just us and the fishermen. This whole little town is about tourists and has precious little charm. One restaurant we ate at asked if we wanted to see the “special menu”, we of course said yes! And received the drug and opium menu, composed of drinks! Interesting.
We ended our trip in the capital of Vientiane…………………….our best hotel yet, great location and we are pampering ourselves a bit. The city is busy and rushed and we find we are sticking close to our little city center area. I write this on our last day in Laos, calculating the last of our KIP, Laos’s money. NO one outside of Laos will take this paper, so we will try and use it all. We always are sad to end the trip, and at the same time, eager to return to Nepenthe. We have been gone 48 days in all, but not feeling rushed made it wonderfully relaxing. We fly back to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia in the am……….. but cannot make a flight to Langkawi in time to catch the lst ferry to the island where Nepenthe is in the marina. I seems best to stay overnight in KL and return to Nepenthe in daylight…………. and be more refreshed and ready to restart all the systems on board.
Thanks for coming along…………….Carole and Jim