Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Day 25 - Pig in a Pot

While I did get some sleep on the plastic couch I didn't get much and was awake the next day before anyone else. Ken and Dave got up some time later, I don't think they got too much sleep either on that bed. Throughout the whole night there had been a rooster who seemed determined to disprove that whole sunrise rumor by going on all night. By pretty early in the morning everyone was up including the Uncle's father who had for some reasons put on a suit jacket and pants but was still wearing his incredibly old soccer jersey underneath. We had breakfast, which essentially was the exact same thing as every other meal with the Uncle's family and the teacher. I had tried to go to the bathroom but honestly unless it's an emergency I just have trouble making myself use squat toilets. The breakfast was good and again the teacher said eat until full and with the pretty slow pace of eating I did. We learned that there was some sort of marriage celebration, it didn't seem to be an actual wedding, but it could have been pretty much anything else, going on for some relative of the Uncles and we were invited to join. First though we went back with the teacher to his house where we were promptly made to eat a second breakfast.

It's not that it was totally unexpected that they would try to feed us more than we could possibly eat, but still to go literally from finishing one breakfast to eating another was a bit much. We joked all throughout it with the teacher for telling us to eat until full when another breakfast was just moments away. If I ate until full the first time, this time I ate until stuffed. We wandered around a bit outside the teachers house. bedsides the tons of dogs there were a bunch of chickens and I think even one turkey walking around. They were all followed by a little flock of babies who would just follow after the mother. They didn't seem particularly afraid of people because they let me get pretty close to them. There were some children running around also. We saw a make shift soccer field, made essentially out of a dry rice paddy, that seemed to bumpy to possibly play on. After a while we went over to the house of some other relative of the Uncle's who was the one who was getting, or had gotten married. Out in the yard there was a huge group of women all working to cut up a large pig that apparently was going to be the main course. They chopped the pig up into small cubes which all went with some vegetables into a huge pot which was put over a fire.

We were shown inside and sat down at a table with yet more food on it. At this point there just was no way I could actually eat anything more so I mostly just sat there and looked at the food. It was never really clear why exactly they had put us inside while everything seemed to be going on outside. I think it was some mix of not knowing what to do with us while wanting to treat us well. We sat around for a while with the teacher before getting bored and going back outside to see what was up. All the men were sitting around talking while the women worked to prepare this big meal. After the huge pot was on the fire everyone just sort of stood around in clumps. No one seemed to be paying any special attention to the bride and groom and we had to ask a couple of people before we even learned who they were. It was amazing just to watch that huge pot cook and I have no idea how long it would have taken to fully cook. The other animals just sort of walked around unconcerned about their fate, one chicken was even sitting in a cooking bowl. We had really run out of people who we could talk to and we really didn't want to be asked to eat another meal so we said that it was about time for us to be going. Everyone did try to insist that we stay for the meal but we eventually made our way out.

The Uncle came with us back to his house and asked us, though the teacher, if we had any pictures of ourselves. We had been advised that we needed some passport sized pictures before we came, we really didn't need them in the end there was always some other way if you didn't have pictures, so we all did in fact have several small pictures. The Uncle thanked us and collected them and taped them up in a small section of the wall. So there are pictures probably still are next to the family pictures and beneath David Beckham. We walked back to the main road and just essentially stood their waiting for some bus to come past. It may seem a little odd to just stick your thumb out for a bus instead of going to a bus station, but this is pretty much how it's done in Asia. After about 20 minutes a bug fancy bus rolled by and picked us up for pretty cheap. It was completely empty, it may have just been coming back from some where, and it was actually a lot nicer than most of the buses we took. We found a hotel, a lot of them were booked for some reason and we ended up staying in the same place we had stayed in the previous day in Vientiane.

Dave and Ken decided to go get massages and I was just so tired that I just lay down in the room. They came back a while later and said that they had meet two westerners at the massage place and that we were going to dinner with them. There was a Canadian girl and an American guy who both actually worked in China. We meet them outside a French place that I had actually avoided suggesting to Ken and David because I thought they would say that it was too expensive. The guide book said it was supposed to be the best French restaurant, which in my mind just means best restaurant, in Laos. It was booked though so we made reservations for the next day, unfortunately Ken and Dave couldn't come then. A while ago when me and David had gotten flights from Vientiane to Hanoi, due mostly to time constraints Ken had been unable to get a ticket and instead got a bus, which was supposed to take about 24 hours. Dave decided that he always likes doing things the hippy way, aka the hard way, and wanted to get a bus ticket also. So they were both leaving late the next day. We went instead to this Japanese style restaurant which was also very good. After that we went to some bar that was mentioned in the book where we actually saw some people who had been on the same bus to Vientiane with us. It may be a big world but the backpacker community isn't so large.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Day 24 - You Can Get Pretty Far with only a Picture and a Kindle

The next morning we set out from Vientiane for Lak 52. In college Ken had been friends with a Laotian guy who still had family living in a village not far from the capitol. Lak means essentially village and while I first wondered what happened to the other 51 villages I learned that the 52 was for the distance to the capitol. Most of the people in the village were ethnic Hmong, a group originally from the highlands in south China who now live in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and the US. A lot of Hmong people actually live in Wisconsin so I had heard of them from school. The Hmong have a unfortunate history springing from the Vietnam War. The US seeking to create a buffer state to stop VC soldiers form coming down from the North, armed a huge secret Laotian army containing mostly Hmong people who fought the Vietnamese and some Communist Laotian forces at very high casualties. When the Communist forces took over in Laos after the war some Hmong waged an on and off again guerrilla war for 15 or 20 years. This coupled with the fact that the Hmong grew opium as a cash crop for many years caused a great deal of distrust between them and the Laotian government, who have a habit of blaming them for various social ills.

We didn't know if anyone in Lak 52 spoke English, and very much doubted it, so Ken got a picture of his friend as well as a picture of the address of his friend's Uncle's address in Lak 52. On top of that Ken's friend had recorded a message for his Uncle which Dave loaded into his Kindle to play for them when we got there. One advantage of having pretty much only one North-South road in the country is that you don't need to have a lot of buses going to each city. Each bus essentially takes people as far up the road as they need to go ending in the northern most city. We told the bus driver where we were going so he could let us off since we would almost certainly miss this town on our own. We road the bus for a little over an hour, which in Laos is pretty fast for 52 km. We eventually got off in Lak 52 which was bigger than I expected it to be. What we could see of the town was a series of shops that stretched at least a km down the main highway. Towns like this were not unusual from what I had seen the previous day, but this one was on the bigger side especially for one that didn't appear on many maps. We stopped in the first store we came to and bought some beer and bananas because we had absolutely no diea what to bring these people.

For some reason this store, and a lot of little stores in Laos, carried a really big selection of Johnnie Walker, and not just the cheaper stuff either. Even though they had all this scotch for sale I also never really saw anyone drink it. We held up the picture of the address to the people in the store who indicated we should go some unspecified distance down the road and then turn left. We walked down the road for a while until we came to an intersection. We asked some people there and eventually were able to find out in which direction to continue. Finally we turned off onto a side road that was not paved and continued walking. We passed quite a few smaller wooden houses, as well as dogs and chickens running everywhere. I still have no idea how they make sure that all these dogs don't eat the chickens. We walked down this side road for a while trying to figure out where to go. We came to what looked like another town nestled further back from the road. The people there seemed to indicated that we had gone too far. Retracing our steps we went up to the people in a house we had skipped before asking where we should go. This time though instead of just vaguely pointing the guy whipped out his cell phone and started making calls.

After a few minutes of this he beckoned us to come to his car and drove us back through town to a little turn off we had missed. We parked near a house that sort of looked like the picture we had of the address. The guy driving us talked to some more people and eventually indicated that we should go up to that house. A man emerged from the house who, we learned later, was Ken's friend's Uncle, and essentially the head of the family. We showed him the picture of Ken's friend and he smiled shook our hands and brought us into the house. His house was a small one story building made of either stone of concrete. It was mostly one large room with three small bedrooms going off at various points. It had a nice tile floor and it appeared that electricity had been added after the house was built with wires more of less taped to the roof. There was a bamboo thatched hut to the side of the house that served as the kitchen and another room for the women, and a outhouse in the front that seemed to be shared between several houses. Dave got out his Kindle with the recorded message and past it around so that in the end maybe six people listened to it. The message was for the Uncle and it told him who we were and asked him if we could stay for the night. It literally asked him to give us some sign if we could stay with him and at the end he just gave us a thumbs up and smiled.

One child reappeared with a man who spoke some English and explained to us the the Uncle was his "grand-father," though given his limited English I'm guessing that was more of an honorific title and he was the Uncle nephew. This man explained to us that he was actually and English teacher and invited us to his class later. Other people kept coming by, some of whom spoke some English, until we meet a good portion of the family. The most interesting person was the Uncle's father, a man in at least his 80's, who never took off a soccer jersey he wore as an undershirt. Oddly enough the next morning when it was colder he put on a suit, though he still wore the soccer jersey. He had been married four times, though it didn't appear that any of his wives were still alive, and the pictures of his wives adorned the walls, along with pictures of various other family members. Actually in all the houses we visited the walls were covered with pictures of family, international movie stars, singers, soccer teams, and quite a few pictures of David Beckham. The Uncle didn't really seem to know what to do with us since we couldn't talk with him so we spent a lot of time with the English teacher who acted as our interpreter.

After a while we went over to near the English teacher's house to see the head of the village with whom we apparently had to registrar if we wished to stay the night. The head of the village was just an ordinary looking man who was sitting in the middle of a group of children and men. He got up regarded us gravely and then took our passports to copy down some information or something. The English teacher said we had to pay 30,000 kip, the local currency, or a little more than $3. It was never clear if this was a fee or a bribe, or if there is any difference there. The English teacher's house was a simple wooden one, up on stilts to avoid the dirt he told us, and we sat in the shade below it. We meet his mother and father. His father was def and read lips. We tried to ask if he had been in the war, but it didn't seem so. No one ever really mentioned the war even when we brought it up except the Uncle who said he had seen some bombing, Laos was the most bombed country in the world. We meet the English teacher's wife, he mentioned that she was his second wife he had been married before but divorced very quickly. He had a cute baby who I didn't even notice for a while was right in front of us covered in a basket hanging from the underside of the house. He said the baby had some spots on his face but he didn't know why.

After a while we went inside a hut made of thatched bamboo where a small fire was still simmering and had some food with him. I don't really know if we arrived at any actual meal time, but he later explained to us the Hmong people like to feed visitors to their house, and indeed I don't think we went to any house without eating a meal. In a pattern that later became more apparent the men would eat while the women would wait and bring more food. The main dish in any meal was a sort of sticky rice. When I say sticky I don't mean that it sort of stuck together I mean the the only real way to separate it was with your hands, which the English teacher explained, was just what most people did. The sticky rice had a taste that was somehow better than standard rice. The only utensil I had at every meal was a big spoon that seemed to be made out of aluminum or some other very pliable metal. The other foods at every meal were various meat and veritable type soups. People would use the spoons to get some of the meat or just drink the broth, with everyone using their spoons in the same bowls. This wasn't necessarily the most sanitary choice and it wasn't really helped by having everyone wash their hands in the same bowl, which I believe was actually the custom at the time of the Roman Empire.

Even though it would seem logical I never really saw anyone combine the rice with the soups, people would eat first one than the other. There were usually two or three things besides the rice, like a green bean soup or a soup with spinach and chicken. Ken noted that they cooked all the food in a bowl with water over an open flame then simply served it without draining the water. I also never saw anyone with a drink during a meal. The other interesting thing was that the two or three dishes would be partitioned into two or three bowls across the table so that everyone had easy access. The women would hover around and refill one of the bowls when it went down a little. I never saw what they did with it when we left but I bet they stored the leftover for another day. Even though there were chickens and dogs everywhere they seemed to know not to go into the houses or to be underfoot. The food was pretty good. I don't know how filling it was exactly since we were so constantly stuffed with food by everyone we meet. The English teacher had the habit of saying to us, "Eat until full" when we'd only find out later that there was in fact another meal to go.

During the first part of the meal there was some sort of religious ritual going on in another part of the bamboo hut. There was an alter that didn't match anything I'd seen before, made up mostly of paper and things made out of paper. A priest, or shaman, or something was wearing a red hat and saying a mantra over a man who the English teacher said had bad eyes. It was odd to see such an unusual looking ritual treated as so normal. When it was over the person being prayed over left and the priest sat down, took off his hat, and had a cigarette. Given the range of religions in this part of the world, and the number of different ways each are practiced, it could have been anything from Buddhism, to Taoism, to Christianity. The English teacher said it was "ghost religion" which I think meant some sort of ancestor worship or natural religion maybe mixed with another larger religion. When we were leaving I finally got up the nerve to pull out my camera and take a picture of the priest and the alter. The priest jumped up and motioned for me to hold on while he put back on his red hat, pulled out a huge knife from God only knows where, and posed in front of the alter. I think it may be my favorite picture I've ever taken. I expected him to possibly be annoyed not to be thrilled to pose for a picture.

After dinner we accompanied the teacher to his school for afternoon lessons. The school was mostly in a long building divided into three rooms. The school had been founded by a guy who doubled as principle and lived nearby. He said he wanted the kids to get a better education in English beyond what they were taught in the regular schools. This school held its classes either early before the normal school or late after them. The classes were very small that day since the students were on break from their normal school. The class was fairly basic with a good deal of call and response from a fairly basic text book but most of the students didn't have much English so the level was probably necessary. If we had been in an English class in a small town in China the students would have gone nuts over us, but here they didn't seem to care much. The quietest students sat somewhat apart from the rest of the class and Dave and Ken later learned that these students were Hmong. He asked if the students didn't get along because of this but the teacher said that they just came from different places. I was a little bored so after a break I stayed outside to have a look around.

I had to go to the bathroom and was surprised and pleased to find an Americas style toilet, though it didn't flush meaning I had to take water out of a nearby bucket and poor it into the bowl to effectively flush it. I talked for a while with the guy who had started the school and he told me which house he lived in and some more about the school. The surrounding area was absolutely beautiful especially with the sun setting. Around besides houses, which in this area were much nicer and muti-story, were a bunch of rice fields, some in use and some not, and some grazing land for cattle. Laotian are famous for a laid back lifestyle the joke being that when a new type of rice production was invented that doubled the yield the Chinese were happy because they could grow more rice while the Laotians were happy since they only had to work half as much. There were cows around also but they seemed mostly to be taking care of themselves. I saw one guy walking behind some cow going back into a yard for the night but he just seemed to be mostly watching them. In fact the only people who I really saw do much were the women who were in charge of all the cooking and taking care of the children.

I wanted a soda so I went up to one building near the school that seemed to be selling snacks and pointed to a Pepsi. The woman took the soda put a bunch of ice in a clear plastic bag then pored the soda into the bag. She was very amused by the stunned look on my face. I gathered that they did this for two reasons. First, all the ice cooled down the soda amazingly fast. Second, the soda in Laos mostly came in glass bottles, which I'm sure had some value, and this way the person selling the soda could keep the bottle. after waiting around for a while enjoying the scenery the classes had ended and the teacher took us back to the Uncle's house. Of course he didn't have a car so we road on two motos with me and the teacher on one and Dave and Ken on the other. They had some trouble getting it to start at a few points but eventually we all got there. Back at the Uncle's house we ate dinner again, I think this time it was actually dinner. Once again all the men ate while all the women pretty much sat off to the side and came and went from the kitchen. I just kept thinking of how much of a problem my mom would have with this place. She had a hard enough time in some parts of Israel with the gender imbalances, but here it was much more extreme. I also wonder what would have happened if one of us had been a woman. Would she still have gotten to eat with the men? I bet that wanting to treat a guest well would have overrode any cultural distinctions, but it would have been interesting.

After dinner everyone sat around and watched TV for a while. I think one of the channels had some English on it and the rest were probably in Thai since Laos doesn't do a lot of TV. Apparently it's not uncommon for Laotian people to speak Thai since it's fairly similar and they do a lot of business with their much bigger neighbor. We saw a music video of some guy who was supposed to be the biggest singer in Laos which looked like it was produced by a high school AV club. After a while people started to go to bed. The bed they had for us would have been literally the exact same size as the tree of us lying shoulder to shoulder. I can't take that sort of clossness and the fact that it wasn't that comfortable anyways made the decision easier. I basically just sat up most of the night reading about two books and watching some TV I didn't really understand. Pretty late I lay down on the couch and got some sleep which was no easy task given that the couches were essentially wrapped in plastic. One of the children came out to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and was pretty surprised to see me there on the couch, but I had no real way to communicate what was going on.

This is the last day I have in my hand written journal from the trip so the last four days may be a little different in tone from these.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Day 23 - I Didn't Know that Rednecks Traveled

Savankhet is a very pretty is very quiet town. At night a lot of the streets didn't even have lights which gave the whole town a very sleepy feel. In a city that was supposed to be the second or third largest in the country there was no building more than three stories tall. In the morning we found out that buses left all day for the capitol, which was somewhere between a seven and eleven hour ride north. I was feeling a little under the weather with a cold or something that bothered me on and off for the rest of the trip. Actually I was glad I wasn't in China when I got sick since I just end up thinking that it was bird flu. Getting some strange illness that they talk about on TV is not something I usually have to worry about in the US. We got over to the bus station and got tickets for the 9:30 bus which gave us about 45 minutes to hang out at the station. I was writing in my journal when I saw two other Americans walk by. One of them sat down next to us and immediately asked if we, "wanted to smoke?" Now the younger people reading my blog will already know that he wasn't talking about a cigarette, and of course he happened to be wearing a wacky tobbacy t-shirt. I turned down the offer of drugs in a country whose legal system I didn't understand. We exchanged the usual traveler pleasantries of where are you form where are you going. He and his friend were from Houston and were headed to a town North of where we were going known for its tubing and its partying.

I mostly ignored him and went back to writing stopping to ask Dave what day we had seen Obama's speech on. The guy from Houston immediately cut in with, "You don't like that nigger, do you?" The three of us were so stunned at hearing someone just so quickly drop the N word that we just sat there for a second until someone asked him if he was serious. He said something about there never being a good black president and that we, I assume here he ment white people, should have our own president. He said all this while using the N word maybe five more times. Dave, who had just finished a book on the civil war, added something like you already tried that once and lost. What was really amazing was that he seemed stunned that we could possibly like Obama. His friend came over and dropped the N word about eight more times in a few sentences. It seemed so over the top that I thought that they had to be joking, but they seemed perfectly serious. By this point we were all just saying that this was horrible, but they kept right on at it until their bus was called. I'm still not 100% sure that they were serious. I know there are people who think like that I just didn't think that they traveled. What's some one that racist doing in a mellow little country like Laos, Hell, what are they doing being surrounded by foreign people.

Our bus for Vientiane, the capitol, left not long after. At first it was pretty empty, but within one or two quick stops it was more than full. The bus was very crowded. The was so little space overhead that I had to sit pretty much with my feet on my bag. The seats were also thin enough that I couldn't avoid resting against Dave. The bus was full pretty fast, which meant that even though the trip was about eight hours there were people sitting on little plastic seats in the isle the whole way. The people on the seats didn't seem to mind too much. I saw whole families leaning together on the seats so they could rest without falling over. There were a few quick stops for some people to go to the bathroom or where you could rush off and get some food, but it only stopped briefly. I wasn't feeling well so I didn't eat much. People would come up to the windows selling all manner of food. They had strange fruits, eggs, corn on the cob, and some sort of dried fruit like thing that I had some of which tasted vaguely of banana. The woman sitting next to Ken was wearing heavy woolen clothing despite the fact it was so warm I was sweating in my shorts and t-shirt. Ken said that the wool rubbed up against him the whole way.

He didn't really like her until she offered him some of her corn on the cob. The bus was hot and sticky the whole way and even after Dave managed to partially close the blind on the window, which came mostly at the expense of the person sitting in front of us, it was jsut too hot. Since the blind was closed I also didn't see much the whole way besides the occasional tree and red ground. We were on what was supposed to be the main highway for the whole country but we still ended up on unpaved roads for long stretches. People got on and off the bus so that for most of the ride there were only a couple of people in the isle. One little boy slept for a while laying across two of the stools. It was late in the day by the time we got off at Vientiane and by that time the bus also reeked. We were all pretty tired so we just went to eat at some Thai place and went to bed.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Day 22 - At Least We Only Tipped Him Half of What He Wanted

The next morning we arranged a really early us to a town called Dong Ha right below the old DMZ. Dong Ha was right in the middle of the country until it woke up one morning to find itself right in the middle of a war zone. We wanted to get their early so that we could see the DMZ and still get to Laos that day. Our bus was the usual 45 minutes late and when we came down that morning we found the guy who had taken us to the fireworks the other day asleep on a little mattress in the lobby. It seems in these little hotels someone still has to be on duty all the time so they try to grab some sleep when they can. Outside before we got on the bus there was someone selling early morning baguettes, which were good though not exactly Europe good. The bus ride to Dong Ha was quite short and we got there early in the morning. We went to a place the book recommended to get motos since Dave and Ken thought that we should get our own motos and explore the area ourselves. We turned down one guy who was on us right as we got off the bus about all the services he could provide. He spoke the best English I had heard out of one of these hotel people.

The hotel the book recommended was out of motos even this early on the morning and the guy at the counter, or I should say sitting watching a TV near the counter, mumbled something about it being Tet, which apparently lasts about three days. "It's Tet" was the excuse we heard all day for everything. Where is everyone? "It's Tet." Why is this so expensive? "It's Tet." Why are there potholes in the road? "It's Tet." We eventually had to go back to the first guy who had come up to us at the bus station since he did actually have motos to rent. I had never driven a moto before and didn't really want to start in Vietnam, so Ken and Dave just rented one and Dave, who used to own a scooter, did most of the driving. I had a bunch of time to kill so I asked around about a place where I could get my pants, which were badly ripped during the bycycling, fixed. One guy there offered to take me to a place where I could get them fixed and back for about 50,000 dong or a little more than $3. Since it was Tet we could exactly go to a shop so he took me some distance off the main road into a residential neighborhood to someone's house. My moto driver had about 10 words of English and the people at the house had even less so I ended up just sitting in the living room with the moto driver, the father of the house, and his two kids while the wife went and got out a foot sowing machine, which are common in Vietnam and antiques in America, to fix my pants.

The children were playing with some small toys and watching some dubbed American movie I had never seen. The moto driver and the father sat down to have a nice Tet beer and even after three or four refusals I ended up with one. Again in Vietnamese style we all only drank when toasts which thankfully was a lot less frequent than with the young people. It was just a very odd feeling to be sitting with this family, who I could not really communicate with, on a holiday while they worked, or at least the wife did. I had no idea how to react so I just sat there half watching the movie and toasting. Eventually the beer was finished and the pants were repaired. When the pants had originally ripped I thought that they were damaged enough that even with some repair I wouldn't be able to wear them much anymore, but they were actually fixed well enough that they may last for a while. We left but instead of going back to the hotel the driver mumbled something about Tet and drove me back to his house. He sat me down near a TV in his main room by maybe his six children, or at least there were six children sitting there, gave me another beer and, for reasons that never quite became clear, left to change into a suit.

He reappeared when his wife brought both of us a bowl of Pho for lunch. W little bit later two other guys wearing suits showed up and we all drank and they talked for a while. Again I mostly watched the TV with the kids, which this time was Power Rangers. As strange as going to the first house was trying to figure out why he took me to his house was even harder. There are times like that when I just feel lost trying to figure out a set of cultural contexts that are very alien to me. I can make a few guesses but it really could have been anything. I'm usually pretty good at figuring out what people are thinking, but I had no idea what was up. After the beer he did finally drop me off back at the hotel. I paid him 60,000 instead of 50 but it did include some surprise meals and beers. I wandered around a little and just mostly sat and read for another hour or two before Ken and Dave returned. They said the tunnels they went to see were interesting but almost no one was around. I thought the best way to go into Laos was just to start by getting a bus to the border, but the guy who had rented the moto to us popped up again and called someone who said he could get us a pretty good price on a ticket to Savankhet, the city we were going to in Laos.

We paid about $15 a person, which was about what the book said, and we were off toward the border. The person who had rented us the motos wanted a 40,000 dong tip for making the call, and we ended up giving him 20,000 which was too much anyways. Oddly he never wanted any collateral for the bike so Ken and Dave could just have disappeared with it. The bus to the border took us up into the mountains through poorer and poorer looking towns. The houses were soon all made out of wood and built up on stilts to either avoid mudslides or provide a shaded area underneath. The scenery was still beautiful as we went up full of cute little towns and towering jungle. We passed the famous town of Khe San where some of the heaviest fighting of the war was. The only marker there was another statue of a heroic looking guerrilla soldier. We stopped and picked up two women dressed in the more traditional cloths of some of the poorer areas, only to drop them off again about 15 seconds later for reasons that were never explained. Maybe they lacked the money or as Dave speculated they might have smelled bad based on some hand motions the driver made. We reached the border town and the woman on the bus offered to do some black market money exchanging for us but we refused.

It was about then that we learned that the bus driver had no idea about going to Savanakhet and this was as far as he drove. The guy back in town had ripped us off. His phone number was on the back of the receipt he had given us so they called him and talked for a while, probably about how they were going to split the money, then Ken talked to him for a while, eliciting a string of ridiculous promises. He said at one point we should go across the border and try to use his hand written receipt there. If we had more time I would have been in favor of going back to town just to yell at him, not that it would have done much good, but we needed to go across the border before it closed. At least we only tipped him half of what he wanted. The border wasn't exactly closely guarded, as the Vietnamese people, who I guess didn't need a Visa, just rode though on their motos with only a nod to the guard. We were sent over for a Visa inspection and stamp from the guards but spared any fake fees. The Laos side was so lax that it would have been possible to miss where you were supposed to get a stamp, which might have been a problem later. On the Laos side there were a couple of goats just sitting around chewing on some grass.

There was though no one anywhere near the border offering a ride so we just started walking with our thumbs out. Most of the cars just passed us with maybe a wave until one fancy looking truck, which Ken had seen going up to the border only a minute earlier gave us a ride for a pretty good price. He was some Thai guy who said he had just dropped his brother off at the Vietnamese border and was going back to Thailand though the town we were headed for. He drove a nice new truck and said he worked at some sort of duty free shop, which very well might have been code for smuggling. He liked to drive quite fast on what was probably the best paved road in Laos until he would come to one of the numerous strips where the road was torn completely up, which would slow us to a crawl for a second. Laos is a country almost the size of Vietnam with about 6 million people to Vietnam's 90, and no railroads in the whole country. The few highways are two lanes wide and look completely demolished at points. The towns we passed were very poor looking like the ones closer to the border at the other side. The country was also much more dry with a very red ground that Ken compared to Oklahoma. We were still pretty high up but it seemed fairly flat and I missed the green rise of mountains that seemed ever present in Vietnam. It certainly had its charm, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Vietnam was prettier. Our driver was friendly and had some English, though he never talked much. He let us off right in Savanakht and we were able to find an OK hotel and some quick dinner.

Sorry for the long time between posts lately I got a little burned out with transcribing all this from my journal.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Day 21 - Hue was Bombed on Tet

None of the commanders in the US army during the Vietnam War thought that the VC would even consider attacking on Tet. "It's like your birthday, Christmas, and New Years all rolled up into one," one commander remarked, but 40 years ago hue was attacked and captured by VC forces which leaving most of the city in ruins for years. We had originally planned to go somewhat further north that day, but since non of the buses seemed to be running, we had stopped even trying trains, we stayed put. We decided to see the Citadel, which is supposed to be the main tourist attraction for the city. Inside the large walled Citadel is what is left of a palace for one of the ancient kingdoms of Vietnam. The Vietnamese can go to these sorts of sights for free on Tet, and up to a few years ago so could tourists, but I guess they realized that the tourists would pay anyways. I've seen ruins before, but this palace is not that old and what is left is not that well kept up. Some parts near the were pretty well kept up with big statues and huge iron relics, but the further we got in the more it became half restored buildings and empty fields. There weren't even really many signs. Sometimes we'd just end up walking off a path with no idea if we were really supposed to be there, the lack of guards was also apparent. We saw an elephant at one point that they seemed to be giving rides on, but when we came back to the area it was gone. I'm not sure where since it's hard to hide an elephant and I'm not sure I even saw a gate that was big enough to fit it. It didn't have anything to do with the place besides them thinking, hey we have some space how else can we make some money.

We walked around for maybe half an hour at one point without seeing anyone looking official or in charge. Some of the palace area was pretty interesting, but most of it was just similar looking old walls. Apparently there had been another fortified section in there, a Citadel within a Citadel within a Citadel, but it had been totally destroyed in the war, ancient walls just don't compete with modern bombs. The most interesting thing there were these windows on a playhouse whose outside was done in a series of tile coverings. Each tiny tile had a different painting on it creating a sort of mosaic effect. We walked form there back to the hotel as we were still tired from the previous day and there wasn't really anything else we wanted to see in the city. As we left I looked at all the motor bikes streaming past us on the street. Rarely did I see one with only two people on it. The average one had two people, and at least a third had more than that. Whole families would ride on a single moto. One little child would be in front wedged in between the driver and the front; another child would be sandwiched between the driver and another adult passenger on the back. Some even managed to get five people on. Steve says hes seen seven people on one moto in China, and while I can't imagine how that would work I believe him.

People in Vietnam seemed to treat the moto more like a family car, they'd just pile everyone on and take off. I saw old women riding side saddle on them, and people with a months worth of shopping. The street there are so filled with them it can be surprising to see and actual car. We got back to the hotel where the owner and his son were stringing up lights on this small orange tree. We had seen them all over as they have some sort of connection to Tet, along with these bushels of yellow flowers that were out in force. The father was happy to let me take a picture of him with this little tree, it's in the last entry, which he barley came up to in height. He insisted on taking a picture of me with the tree as well, though me and the tree are only in the lower left hand corner of the picture. Dave joked that he wanted to make sure the name of the hotel featured prominently in the picture. We decided to go for dinner at some place that the book said had live Vietnamese traditional music.

The food at the place was pretty expensive, especially for sort of average quality. The most fun thing on the menu had to be the "thinkly sliced meat." Half way between thinly and thickly, there was no real way to tell what they meant. I ordered it and I'm pretty sure they were trying to say thinly since it wound up being a hot pot. We had gotten these before the show was supposed to start so we were more than half way through our meal when they came out to preform some music. There were a variety of people playing instruments that seemed to only have one or two strings. The two women who did the singing were playing what were essentially a pair of chopsticks and a set of tea cups. The tea cups seemed to take some skill as she could make some interesting sounds with them. The music was OK, mostly it was just soft and unremarkable. Some of the other tourists there swarmed around to get pictures, though I'm still not really sure why. Honestly the only way the place could have had a more Disney world tourist vibe is if they had started singing "It's a Small World."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Day 20 - The Real New Year's Eve

We woke up late the next day and went down to the street to get some breakfast. The hotel receptionist mentioned some sort of Tet party but was hazy about the details. Since it was still raining we just had breakfast somewhere close by and then came back to the hotel. When we asked again about when this party was she said that it was going on right then at this sort of open room right above us. We went upstairs to find a table full of food and about six Vietnamese guys and one western guy sitting around drinking. The western guy got up said something about having to use the computer than disappeared downstairs never to return. At the table was the guy who had convinced us to come to the hotel yesterday along with the guy who drove us. There were a few people we had never meet before, one had his wife there as well, and there was a guy who had been advertising a different hotel yesterday. They said that even though they worked at different hotels they were friends and spent time together. In fact it was sort of like that everywhere, cab drivers and such would negotiate prices, but they wouldn't directly undercut each other. In River Town the author describes an arrangement like that among the people whose job it was to carry stuff all over the town, life, he noted, was hard enough for them without cut throat competition to top it off.

We sat down to drink with them, swearing off any food since we had just eaten, and were immediately given beers. Like in China, in Vietnam no one seems to drink unless they are toasting. They would hold their beers up, maybe clinking them once, then shout something like "One, two, three, drink! One, two, drink! One, two, drink!" though in Vietnamese. Then they would talk for another minute or two before they started drinking again. They were ruthless about the drinking too. If they thought that you were drinking too slowly they'd pick up your beer to see exactly how much you had drunk, which also meant they knew when you were out. The beer kept coming from seemingly never ending cartons of beer they had with them. They drank continuously but weren't a versed in American beer drinking skills. At one point after Dave had just finished a beer one of the Vietnamese guys challenged him to a race finishing off the next one. Dave, with some egging on from me, agreed and beat him handily. The downside of this was that the guy spent the rest of the afternoon seeing how much Dave had drunk with each toast and trying to drink more.

One of the guys there was an English students and the son of the owners of the hotel who basically worked there when he wasn't at school. They all worked for hotels so they all had pretty good English, which made talking pretty easy. Drinking wasn't quite so easy as it was still early in the day and I had just eaten a big lunch. We were all drinking pretty hard for quite a long time. Every time one case of beers was exhausted some women, who still seemed to be working, would appear with more beer. They were all incredibly nice to share all this with us and never accepted any money. People in Asia can be a little strange and sometimes stand offish, but they also have been incredibly nice to me during my whole time here. At the end the guy whose parents owned the hotel agreed to take us to see the fireworks later. I'm not usually a big fan of naps. My students love to nap. They rush off to the lunch room after class to scarf down their lunches so that they can rush off to their rooms to catch a little sleep in between classes. I don't usually like them though, it just takes me too long to fall asleep and once I do I don't like to get up again. But after all that drinking in the middle of the day it was pretty easy to take a nap. By the time I finally got up it was pretty close to dinner time.

We went to grab a quick bite to eat at a little restaurant that was still open on this big holiday. We were joined by this really nice Vietnamese couple who lived in southern California but had come back for Tet. The person who took our order, and seemed to be in charge of the restaurant as well, said that she hadn't taken a day off in 17 years, and they would be open tomorrow as well since the fact that many restaurants were closed meant great business for them. There was also some white guy around who seemed to work there. I had seen westerners who seemed to be working at Vietnamese restaurants or bars before but it was always an odd sight. We stayed at the hotel until around 11:30 when we started to make our way over to the Citadel, which the Vietnamese guy said was the best place to watch the fireworks from. We were joined by a guy from southern California who used to be an X-ray technician before he got feed up, sold his house, and started traveling all over the place. He was the person who had excused himself from drinking with the Vietnamese guys before. He explained that he had some medical condition that made it especially bad for him to drink too much. I talked with him a bunch about traveling and he made the interesting point that we were lucky to be young since when you are young and you travel and have no money people just think it's cool, but when you get past 30 people start to ask you when you are going to get your life together.

We came to a big field covered with people and parked motos to watch the fireworks. The fireworks started at 12 but with no real interersting fan fare like a count down or anything. The display was pretty interesting, though I'm not sure fireworks in the US produce so much smoke. As soon as they were finished, as if some one flipped a switch, everyone filed out to leave. Ken said that at the concert he had gone to in Changzhou people had left before the last act even though he was by far the biggest star. I wonder if the fireworks in China were better since they set off a ton of fireowrks at the drop of a hat.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Day 19 - The Citadel

We had another bus the next day this time to the ancient Vietnamese capitol of Hue, pronounced "way." When this trip was first conceived I thought three weeks was too long to spend in Vietnam, but almost everyone we met was spending longer. It could get boring spending that much time in one place, but Vietnam is surprisingly big and there was a lot of stuff not on our itinerary, and a lot of places we could have spent more time. People were telling us the whole time that they were spending weeks or months more in the country. We had also been hearing from everyone who lived in Vietnam what great weather they'd been having recently and how lucky we were. Since it was supposed to be the dry season I figured it was just always that sunny in January. But our luck finally gave out and when we got to Hue it was raining and it didn't let up really all day. It wasn't hard tropical rain, like you might expect in the wet season, but it drizzled on and off all that morning and throughout the day. The bus trip to Hue wasn't as long or as eventful as some of the others. We were on a bigger bus, which basically meant that it went slower, and the rain dampened some of the views. Sometimes though when we just come around a corner I would catch a glimpse of a tall green mountain its top enclosed in a ring of clouds leading up to the gray sky. Driving around Vietnam, despite the constant risk of a sudden and fiery death, was amazing.

We arrived at Hue during one of the heavier raining periods of the day and were immediately beset by about 10 people with little brochures trying to get us to come to their hotels. These people were especially annoying and insistent not even letting us thumb through the guide book in peace without poking over our shoulder trying to point to their hotel. Eventually since it was raining and they all had cars we relented and went with the one who annoyed us the least. Every city seems to have these people who more or less mob tourists trying to push hotels. I've seen some pretty push street vendors before but some of these guys are on another level. They don't seem to be put off by anything. They don't care if you say you have a hotel or even if you aren't even stopping in the town. I've had people try to get me to come to a hotel as I'm clearly on a bus out of town. The hotel we came to was fine and we got a room and spent some time surfing the internet. Since it was still raining no one really wanted to do anything during the day and soon it was night. We looked in the book and found one semi-French restaurant with a fixed price seven course meal that looked interesting. It was pretty far away but it had basically stopped raining so we decided to walk.

Hue is famous for its Citadel a large walled area that used to be the whole city. Nowadays inside this wall besides the ruins of what used to be the palace it is mostly residential. Hue was captured during the Tet Offensive and held by VC forces for several weeks as the US commanders believed the whole Tet Offensive was a diversion to attack froward bases like Khe San. While the Communists held the city they executed nearly 3,000 people because of their class or their connection to the South Vietnamese government. When the US eventually decided to retake the city the ensuing battle damaged much of the historic city and after the war the Communist government saw no point in fixing it up for decades. Eventually the government realized its value as a tourism sight and some restoration has begun along with the construction of the countries biggest flag pole holding a huge government flag. The restaurant was inside the Citadel in a small residential neighborhood. By the time we got to the restaurant we were pretty wet, this combined with our already shaggy appearance would have been enough to keep us out of a lot of restaurants in the US or Europe, but here it was no problem.

The restaurant had a table with a reservation card on it, the hotel had called ahead, for "Davids party of 3." I just thought it was nice that they split the difference between mine and David's name, though the person at the hotel had tried to read out Davis letter by letter. The food at the restaurant was really interesting especially the first course which was spring rolls delivered in a chicken made out of fruits and vegetables. The head was a carefully carved carrot, while the body was a hallowed out pineapple with a candle in it. The wings were the spring rolls on tooth picks, though you had to avoid burning your hand near the candle when getting them. I was curious what they would have done had I eaten the carrot head of the animal, but having no idea just how long they had been using it I passed. The desert was also interesting made out of some condensed been thing covered in a semi-sweat glaze to look like a flower. The been thing didn't really taste very good, but it looked fantastic.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Day 18 - I Want to Ride My Bicycle (Not Really)

We got up pretty early the next morning to go down for the bicycle tour. We got down to the bar where Steve, our British tour guide, got his Vietnamese wife to make us some breakfast. She was a really good cook, and even though it just was essentially toast with jam it was fantastic. Most of the ex-pats who hung around the bar seemed to have Vietnamese wives, though it felt a little weird to press about this. We were joined by an Irish guy also named Steve. Ken made quite a row by commenting that since he was from Belfast he wasn't really Irish, though Irish Steve was very funny and good matured about it. They day didn't exactly start auspiciously as when we left the bar I got my jeans stuck in the gears of my bike and ripped a six or seven inch tear along one end from near the bottom to about my knee. For the rest of the day I had to stuff what was left of my jeans into my socks so it wouldn't catch again. I was mostly annoyed because it's hard for me to find cloths in Asia since I'm so much bigger than all the locals. We biked to the center of town than got on a ferry to another island.

The ferry was a little boat with two levels created by essentially putting a tarp over part of the boat. These little ferrys seemed to be everywhere and they could fit an amazing amount of stuff unto them. Our boat had quite a few motos on it, which also meant it had a number of people wearing moto helmets. People in Vietnam never seem to take off their helmets even if they don't plan on going back to their bike for hours. British Steven pointed out one guy on the boat with a Ho Chi Minh style haircut, " And you thought he was dead," Steve added. We got off the boat and continued bicycling until we came to this place where they made wood carvings. British Steve told us how there were often gaps at the bottom of doors so that when it flooded the water could just wash in and out without getting stuck inside. After that we really started biking. It wasn't that it was uphill that made it hard, the whole thing was pretty flat, but it wasn't exactly on paved roads either which made the going more difficult. In the end it was just too tough for me. I could only barley do it by giving everything I had. If people waved at me I didn't have the strength to wave back at them. I was just miserable most of the time since I was just dead tired the whole way. Ken and Dave liked it a lot more, and I may have too had it been a little easier.

We came pretty soon to a bunch of rice fields with dirt paths between them. The trick was that a lot of the paths were muddy, and if you hit a deep patch of mud you'd come to a sudden stop. I navigated the first few OK, but then on one I hit a patch of deep mud and went down right into the mud so that I was pretty good and covered. For the next few hours until it dried and some came off every person we passed pointed and laughed at me and people passing us would slow down to take a good look at my mud covered backside. After some more ridding we came to a restaurant where we had some more food along with some beer and rice wine. I think if I could do it over I'd have skipped the drinking since it was tough enough already without drinking all this stuff. Irish Steve was right in his element telling long stories that ran off into no where and jokes that weren't all that funny. Irish Steve somehow managed to lose a cup over the edge of this restaurant into the river. And Ken for some reason decided to go in after it. He striped down to his bathing suit and climbed over the side of the restaurant trying to reach the cup without going in. Eventually he fell completely over into the water, managing to retrieve the cup but he had to swim all the way around to get back out of the river.

After that we biked for quite a way somehow managing to lose Irish Steve who had a habit of biking off ahead of everyone. We passed a Buddhist cemetery, but didn't really stop, and some water buffalo wallowing in the mud. They looked like they were having a good time, but the mud was impassible as Ken discovered almost getting stuck in it trying to take a picture. After that I had to navigate my bike over a narrow bamboo bridge. This was tricky enough than people started coming up in the other direction. I bumped into someone and would definitly have gone in the water if it wasn't for some railing type supports on the side. We rode for a while longer after the bridge until we came to a bar where Irish Steve had been hanging out. He had absolutely no money on him, but some of the locals had bought him some beer and he was just hanging out shooting the shit with some of them. He had also decided that the bike tour was a little much and was going to make his own way back despite not having any money for the ferry. We heard later that he had made his way back by chartering his own boat at about 15 times the coast of the ferry and having the guy who drove the boat accompany him to the bank.

We stopped there for a while while I tried to rest. I was so quite there that one of the Vietnamese people asked Dave if I spoke English. After that we rode for a while longer until some Vietnamese guys who were having a big late lunch invited us over for a drink. I was against too tired to say much but we learned that they might be in some sort of gang. One guy had three big cuts across his arm which he said were from a machete. The cuts were also remarkable in that all nine or so total inches seemed to be held together by about six stitches. We biked on for a while more and turned down toward a beech. At the beech I was so tired that I couldn't stand the idea of biking any more and walked my bike back a good distance toward the boat. Eventually everyone else caught up and I biked the rest of the distance to the boat. Back at the bar I was so tired I could barely move out of my chair. British Steve's wife made some really good barbecue, including potato salad, which I haven't had since I was back in the US. I think my favorite part of the day was back in the room where I took what must have been close to a two hour bath. My but was so soar that I could barley sit down for the next couple of days.