Thursday, January 16, 2014

Saigon and Chau Doc, Vietnam

Chào, Vietnam!
Decorations for the upcoming Tet holiday were everywhere in Saigon.
Decorations for the upcoming Tet holiday were everywhere in Saigon.
Monday, January 13
This morning we flew from Vientiane, Laos, with a layover in Phnom Penh, to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.  The city was decorated for the upcoming Tet holiday celebration, which made it colorful and festive.  

Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City-motorbike traffic and Tet holiday decorations.
Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City-motorbike traffic and Tet holiday decorations.

Dane had always said he didn’t get to Vietnam when he was in the Army in the late 1960s, so he was glad to see the friendlier version in 2014.  We found the new generation of Vietnamese has moved rapidly past the war, and indeed were most welcoming.  Also, there seems to be no old-school communism--HCMC is booming and busy with lots of beautiful skyscrapers and lots of traffic, mostly motor bikes. There was a sea of motorbikes all coursing jam-packed along the streets and boulevards.  HCMC has a population of about  12 million, and most of them ride motor scooters, we learned, for we saw few cars, and then mostly taxis,  in all the sea of scooters. 
A sea of motorbikes spread in front of our bus.  Motorbikes with two, three, four passengers, plus taxis, all flowing smoothly.
A sea of motorbikes spread in front of our bus.  Motorbikes with two, three, four passengers, plus taxis, all flowing smoothly.
Though the traffic was certainly dense, there was an orderly chaos to it. First of all it helps that we did not see too many “hotdogging” drivers trying to claim territory on the roadway or speeding.  If  drivers had to switch to the other side of the road (perhaps crossing five lanes of bikes) they just slowly and deliberately did so, and their fellow bikers made way for them, like a gentleman holding a door.  Similarly, when we pedestrians, had to cross a street full of bike traffic, we were told to just step off the curb, and slowly but deliberately, without stopping or making any sudden, unexpected movement, cross, not making eye contact with any of the drivers.  When we looked at the traffic, we thought “no way!”  But we followed the instructions, and wow, it worked!  Now I am not telling you the drivers stopped, but they did weave around us, and their fellow bikers cooperated.  Amazing.  Another culture.  (Never try this in New York City or Philadelphia!)

Bride and groom in front of Notre Dame cathedral.
Bride and groom in front of Notre-Dame Basilica
It was early to check into our hotel, so we had an orientation tour of the city, visiting Notre- Dame Basilica and the Post Office nearby, then a walk through the old French Quarter, finishing at the Ben Thanh Market.

Notre-Dame Basilica, built between 1877 and 1883, is a neo-Romanesque building with two 125 foot square towers.  The church is so picturesque we saw several wedding parties having their pictures taken with it in the background.
Saigon's General Post Office, a grand old colonial building by Gustave Eiffel.
Saigon's General Post Office, a grand old colonial building by Gustave Eiffel.
Right across from the cathedral is Saigon's General Post Office, an early 20th century neoclassical building designed and constructed by Gustave Eiffel when Vietnam was part of French Indochina.  The grand old banks of phone cabinets, with mural-size historic maps above, now have become banks themselves, with ATMs inside.  
The old telephone booths at the General Post Office now house ATMs!
The old telephone booths at the General Post Office now house ATMs!  Note the map above. 
Within eyeshot of the Post Office, with a shining new skyscraper in the background, is the infamous building in the old American Embassy compound from which the Americans were evacuated by helicopter on April 30, 1975

The building in the old American Embassy compound from which helicopters evacuated people on April 30, 1975.
The building in the old American Embassy compound from which helicopters evacuated people on April 30, 1975.
On our tour of the French Quarter we saw Saigon City Hall, with a beautiful park in the foreground,  built 1902-8 in French colonial style.  In 1975 the name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City Peoples Committee.

The French Colonial-style former City Hall of Saigon, built 1902-1908.
The French Colonial-style former City Hall of Saigon, built 1902-1908.
The most central of all Saigon's markets, Ben Thanh, and its surrounding streets comprise one of the city’s liveliest areas. Formerly known as Les Halles Central, the clock tower is the symbol of saigon.  First opened in 1914, it has everything that is commonly eaten, worn or used by the Saigonese available here, and of course there were many fine items popular with the tourist trade on offer as well. We helped the economy a little, of course!
Everything, in every color, is for sale at the Ben Thanh market in the center of HCMC.
Everything, in every color, is for sale at the Ben Thanh market in the center of HCMC.

The Rex Hotel, known for its rooftop bar with panoramic Saigon view.  Tet holiday decorations too!
The Rex Hotel, known for its rooftop bar with panoramic Saigon view.  Tet holiday decorations too!
After our tour around the French Quarter, we went to the Asian Ruby 3 Hotel to check in and have dinner. Afterwards, a few of us walked up the street to the Rex Hotel, where the U.S Information Agency, the military and press from America gathered at the rooftop bar during the Vietnam War.  The 5 pm briefing became known as "The Five O'Clock Follies," and now the Rex has a drink with than name.  
Panya with cocktails and beer at the Rex Hotel rooftop bar: Saigon Express, Singapore Sling and Saigon Beauty, plus Saigon lager beer.
Panya with cocktails and beer at the Rex Hotel rooftop bar: Saigon Express, Singapore Sling and Saigon Beauty, plus Saigon lager beer.  
Panya joined us and we tried some more fun cocktails and local beer, though it was weird to think what it must have been like for those fighting and reporting on the war decades ago. Panya taught us how to say“cheers” in Vietnamese:  Một hai ba, yo (one, two, three, yo!)

Tuesday, January 14
Banh trang wrappers drying on reed mats. 
After breakfast we boarded a bus to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, a remnant of what the Vietnamese call the “American War.”

Joan trying her hand at spreading the batter.
On the way we stopped by a little shop where women were making the thin rice paper wrappers with seeds and dried shrimp, used to make spring rolls.  Three women and a cute little kitten made up the staff. They spread the batter thinly over a disk heated by water for a brief interval then let it cool and dry on a reed mat.  They even got Joan to try her hand at it – she soon found it isn’t as easy as it looks to get the batter to spread out evenly on the hot plate.

The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located about an hour’s drive Northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that used to underlie much of south Vietnam.

Our guide, Duc, explaining the Cu Chi tunnels to us.
Our local guide, Duc, explaining the Cu Chi tunnels to us.  
The tunnels and underground chambers were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots, as well as serving as supply and communication routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. They were also the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.  Though an effective wartime strategy, the tunnels were nasty. It is estimated that 100% of the Viet Cong working the tunnels had intestinal parasites, and over half had malaria. 
Guide showing us a hidden entrance.
Guide showing us a hidden entrance.

Steamed cassava root and ground peanuts for a snack.
Steamed cassava root and ground peanuts for a snack.
Our tour started with a good orientation, and then we actually got to go into a few tunnels, and see how traps were set and how entrances and ventilation holes were hidden  None of us got a disease from them though.  We were carefully steered around the introductory video, which was, we gleaned from previous OAT visitors' comments, very one-sided.  We would have been interested in seeing the video, but it was not to be.  We did get a little treat at the end, a taste of steamed cassava root, which we dipped in ground peanuts.  Starchy, but yummy with tea.
Pho-beef brisket and rice noodles in broth with vegetable garnishes ready to be added.
Pho-beef brisket and rice noodles in broth with vegetable garnishes ready to be added.

Back in HCMC, we had lunch at a restaurant that specialized in pho (pronounced fa).  Pho is a broth  loaded with noodles, greens and meat or fish of Vietnamese origin, but lately it has gone global--there are several good pho restaurants in Philadelphia which we have enjoyed.

Our next stop was the Museum of Vietnamese History.  We were on a schedule, so did not have much time to linger in the huge complex. Helpful signs with English translations start with information about the Paleolithic period and go up to modern history, with many beautiful pieces of sculpture and art.
Captions helped us understand the history and migration of the Vietnamese people at the Vietnam History Museum.
Captions helped us understand the history and migration of the Vietnamese people at the Vietnamese History Museum.




One of the highlights of the Vietnam History Museum.
One of the highlights of the Vietnamese History Museum.
Next we saw the fascinating Golden Dragon Water Puppet show, entertainment which originated in the 11th century and emphasizes the importance of water in Vietnam.  The stage is fitted out to look like a temple, and its terrace is really a pool of water.  The puppeteers work from behind a bamboo screen and manipulate the puppets by using poles and string under the water.
A performance at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet theater.
A performance at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet theater.
Very much like Punch and Judy, and of course lots of splashing water.  The program, with wonderful accompanying music, included such folk tales as Lion Dance, King Le Loi on boat tour, or the legend about “Restored sword,  Dance of the Four Holy Animals,  and On a Buffalo with a Flute. Seats in the first row are not recommended, but kids loved it.
The puppeteers take a bow after the performance.
The puppeteers take a bow after the performance.
Taking a picture while riding on a cyclo, or pedicab in HCMC.
Taking a picture while riding on a cyclo, or pedicab in HCMC.
After the show, we climbed aboard yet another mode of transportation, cyclos, or pedicabs,  to go to dinner.  The ride was scenic, great fun, and we got a feel of what it was like to be in the flow of traffic.
Joining the fray: what it looked like as a passenger riding a cyclo in the motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City!
Joining the fray: what it looked like as a passenger riding a cyclo in the motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City!
Ted learning to chop with several knives at once.
Our destination was Mai Home “The SaigonCulinary Art Center.”  We had a simple cooking class, including some tips on knife skills using three knives at once to chop, and we learned to make a traditional braised chicken dish with ginger, Gà kho gu’ng.
Chicken ready to be marinated for our cooking class.
Here's the recipe:  
200 g chicken breast, sliced
10 g fresh ginger, julienned
2 teaspoons caramel syrup **
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon powder
1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon chopped spring onion
1 teaspoon chopped shallot
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

**To make caramel syrup, in a heavy saucepan stir 2 tablespoons white sugar in 1 tablespoon cooking oil until dissolved.  Heat over medium heat until the sugar is caramelized and then add 1 tablespoon water, being careful as it will splatter and burn.  Keep stirring until the liquid is a smooth syrup, and then remove from heat.

Pretty fresh fruit salad dessert at MaiHome.
Pretty fresh fruit salad dessert at Mai Home.
In a saucepan marinate the chicken pieces with fresh ginger, caramel syrup, chicken bouillon powder, pepper, fish sauce, sugar, spring onion, and shallot for about 15 to 20 minutes. 

Bring the ingredients in the saucepan to a simmer over low heat.  When the sauce is very thick, add 1 cup of water.  Simmer for a further 5 to 10 minutes until the sauce becomes thick again. Serve with steamed rice and fresh cucumber sliced thinly. 


After we cooked our braised chicken with ginger dishes, we enjoyed it in a delicious meal including steamed shrimp dim sum, lotus stem salad with pork and shrimp, sour soup with seafood, steamed rice with papadam leaf and a pretty variation on our usual fresh fruit dessert, always with local beer, of course!


Dramatic ultra-modern skyscraper in Ho Chi Minh City.
Dramatic ultra-modern skyscraper in Ho Chi Minh City.
The ride back to the hotel at night showed us the beautiful skyscrapers of HCMC.  We would like to return and spend more time in this interesting city and country.


Wednesday, January 15
Hammocks at a "hammock coffee" stop
 Individually brewing coffees with sweetened condensed milk.
Individually brewing coffees with sweetened condensed milk.
Our stay in HCMC was far too short; we packed up and boarded a bus for the day-long ride to Chau Doc.

Showing us the spurs put on the beautiful fighting cocks in Vietnam.
Showing us the spurs put on the beautiful fighting cocks in Vietnam.
En route we stopped at a “hammock coffee” rest stop along  the highway, one of many we saw which caters to motor scooter travelers who stop and let their overheated motors cool while they rest in a hammock and have a coffee on their journey between cities.  Seeing the cocks the owners raised for fighting was another glimpse into a different way of life.
Beautiful green rice paddies south of Saigon, Vietnam.
Beautiful green rice paddies south of Saigon, Vietnam.
We enjoyed watching the passing scenery, including many towns and villages, lots of rice paddies and other fields of agricultural products.  The Mekong Delta is a very fertile area, we came to understand.
Water lilies, rice and sugar cane in the fields of southern Viet Nam.
Water lilies, rice and sugar cane in the fields of southern Viet Nam.
A rice warehouse in southern Viet Nam
A rice warehouse in southern Viet Nam.
Rice paddies were everywhere.  We saw warehouses filled with rice, barges carrying rice down the Mekong, and rice for sale in the markets.  Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice after Thailand and the seventh-largest consumer of rice.

We crossed many branches of the Mekong river, by small and beautiful large bridges,
View from a bridge over one of the branches of the Mekong River.
View from a bridge over one of the branches of the Mekong River.
Rạch Miễu Bridge, a cable-stayed suspension bridge over the Mekong River.
Rạch Miễu Bridge, a beautiful cable-stayed suspension bridge over the Mekong River.


A ferry across the Mekong River.
A ferry across the Mekong River.  
then finally by ferry to Long Xuyen, where we had a hotel lunch and visited a Cao Dai temple.
Colorful Cao Dai temple in Vietnam.
Colorful Cao Dai temple in Vietnam.

Exterior of Cao Dai temple in Vietnam.
Exterior of Cao Dai temple in Vietnam.
Panya was excellent at finding interesting places for us to visit on the spur of the moment.  We stopped the bus along the route to visit a nursery full of plants in flower ready for sale in Sa Dec City, the "flower kingdom" of the Mekong Delta, and to see bricks being made at a family brickyard.
Flowering plants ready for sale in Sa Dec City, the "flower kingdom" of the Mekong Delta.
Flowering plants ready for sale in Sa Dec City, the "flower kingdom" of the Mekong Delta.
A riverside brickyard in southern Vietnam.
A riverside brickyard in southern Vietnam.


Rose apples (green with pink inside) and jackfruit (yellow hunk in read) at the Chau Doc market.
Rose apples (green with pink inside) and jackfruit (yellow hunk in read) at the Chau Doc market.
We arrived in Chau Doc in time to tour the local market, where we saw and sampled more unusual fruits, including guava, roseapples, jack fruit and tamarind.  The jack fruit was especially delicious.  OF course there were lots of fresh and preserved fish for sale, as well as many many different varieties of rice.
Learning a bit about the wide variety of rice for sale at the Chau Doc market.
Learning a bit about the wide variety of rice for sale at the Chau Doc market.

Dried, salted, pickled, preserved, fresh: fish in many forms at the Chau Doc market.
Dried, salted, pickled, preserved, fresh: fish in many forms at the Chau Doc market.

Beautiful purple yam soup!
Beautiful purple yam soup!
Finally we arrived at the Dong Nam hotel in Chau Doc just before dinnertime.  The hotel was rather new, but dreadful, really the worst of all the places we stayed, but we understand there was little choice in this riverside town.  The highlight of the day was dinner with a local family, where we had delicious, interesting food including purple yam soup with ground pork, which was very glutinous, a peppery pork fried spring roll and a delicious shrimp, scallop and squid noodle dish.
Delicious seafood and noodles dish for dinner at a private home in Chau Doc, Vietnam.
Delicious seafood and noodles dish for dinner at a private home in Chau Doc, Vietnam.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Laos

 Sabaidee, Laos!  (Hello!)

Chinese and Laos flags flying in Luang Prabang, Laos
Chinese and Laos flags flying in Luang Prabang, Laos
Wednesday, January 8
Upper Mekong River from the Grand Luang Prabang Hotel
Upper Mekong River from the Grand Luang Prabang Hotel
The next day, we flew to Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital of Laos, located on the thin peninsula between the Mekong and Khan rivers, with green mountains all around.  Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang is considered one of the wonders of SE Asia.  The quiet street-side cafes, ancient temples and beautiful scenery were quite a contrast from bustling Bangkok.  

Our room at the Grand Luang Prabang Hotel-lovely!
Our room at the Grand Luang Prabang Hotel-lovely!



While most in our group loved our hotel, the Grand Luang Prabang, built around the former palatial home of Lao Prince Petsarath.  High on a hill at a wide bend of the upper Mekong, the view was fabulous, but the location 15 minutes outside of town, meant every time we wanted to see anything, we had to take the hotel shuttle into town.  While many in our group enjoyed the beautiful grounds, pool and spa (Dianne and Joan enjoyed massages one afternoon), we spent our free time in town instead. 


Loading up the jumbo tuk tuks for our ride into Luang Prabang.
We took jumbo tuk tuks to the center of town where our charming local guide Dao led a walking tour of town including many charming 19th century French Colonial villas mixed with traditional Lao-style homes.  
Charming French Colonial-style houses in Luang Prabang
Charming French Colonial-style houses in Luang Prabang

We were interested to see circles of sticky rice drying on wicker mats in the sun along the streets. 
Sticky rice cakes drying on wicker mats in the sun in Luang Prabang.  A traditional Lao food.
Sticky rice cakes drying on wicker mats in the sun in Luang Prabang.  A traditional Lao food. 
At Wat Xien Thong, the premier wat of Luang Prabang, we toured the temple and then were treated to the monks ringing the drum gong. Saffron-robed young men were everywhere in Luang Prabang.
Saffron-robed young monks in Luang Prabang at one of the many monastery/schools.
Saffron-robed young monks in Luang Prabang at one of the many monastery/schools.
Saffron-robed Buddha statues at Wat Xien Thong.
Saffron-robed Buddha statues at Wat Xien Thong.
At the conclusion of our walking tour we climbed Phou Si Hill in the center of the old town where we climbed the 328 steps to the top to enjoy a view overlooking Luang Prabang at sunset.
Spectacular Sunset over the Mekong River from Phousi Hill in Luang Prabang.
Spectacular Sunset over the Mekong River from Phou Si Hill in Luang Prabang.
Setting up for the Night Market in Luang Prabang.
Setting up for the Night Market in Luang Prabang.
At the base of the hill, vendors were setting up in the street for the night market, where we browsed a bit before heading off to our group dinner. 

A new country, a new beer!  Lager and Dark Lager were our only choices in Laos.
A new country, a new beer!  Lager and Dark Lager were our only choices in Laos.
Thursday, January 9
  Ted & Dianne with our travel companion Fred at the breakfast terrace overlooking the Mekong River. Foggy early mornings.
Ted & Dianne with our travel companion Fred at the breakfast terrace overlooking the Mekong River. Foggy early mornings.

Mulberry-paper-making demonstration.
Mulberry-paper-making demonstration.

After a wonderful breakfast on the terrace overlooking the Mekong, we were treated to tuk tuk rides to the local mulberry-papermaking village of Ban Xang Khong, where we saw paper makers and weavers and were impressed with the beautiful products, including many dyed in vibrant indigo.
Dying fabric indigo in Laos.
Dying fabric indigo in Laos.

Boarding the motor boat for a ride up the Mekong River.
Boarding the motor boat for a ride up the Mekong River.
Local woman and child in Baan Xang Hai village
Local woman and child in Baan Xang Hai village

Dane checking out the Lao whiskey at Baan Xang Hai village in Laos
Dane checking out the Lao Lao whiskey at Baan Xang Hai village in Laos

Next we boarded a motor boat to ride upstream on the still-huge upper Mekong to Baan Xang Hai, a local rice whiskey-making village, where we had tastes of the potent stuff called Lao Lao,  then wandered around admiring the local handicrafts and watching the local people.

Young monks sharing a meal in a Laotian village.
Young monks sharing a meal in a Laotian village.  Our local guide, Dao, told us he was a monk for 5 days, and almost starved.

Buddha images in the Pak Ou cave.
Buddha images in the Pak Ou cave.
We continued to the mysterious Pak Ou cave, in the side of a limestone cliff.  
Boats lined up for visitors to the Pak Ou caves on the upper Mekong River.
Boats lined up for visitors to the Pak Ou caves on the upper Mekong River.
The sanctuaries of Pak Ou consist of two large caves which house thousands of Buddha images ranging in size from mere centimeters to two meters in heights.  An amazing sight, and the view out across the Mekong to the mouth of the Nam Ou was beautiful too.
View from the Pak Ou cave across the Mekong River to the mouth of the Nam Ou River in Laos.
View from the Pak Ou cave across the Mekong River to the mouth of the Nam Ou River in Laos.
We enjoyed the scenery from the riverboat, including views of locals growing food and water buffalo grazing along the sandy banks that are washed away regularly by the rushing waters.
Water buffalo along the bank of the Mekong River.
Water buffalo along the bank of the Mekong River.

Lunch on the Mekong River boat.
On the boat ride back downstream we were treated to a delicious on-board lunch of tempura perch and eggplant, a soup with greens, pork larb, a minced meat salad that is the national dish of Laos, and interesting fruits for dessert including saponilla and papaya, plus a delicious pumpkin/taro soup.  Of course Beer Lao was our beverage of choice.
Monks crossing the Kahn River on a rickity bamboo bridge.
Monks crossing the Kahn River on a rickity bamboo bridge.
Rather than going with the group by tuk tuk back to the hotel, we decided to stay in town and explore some more of the charming area on our own.  We found an outdoor café at the confluence of the Mekong and Kahn Rivers, where we sat and enjoyed cocktails while we watched monks and locals cross the rickety bamboo bridge across the Kahn River.
Singapore Slings, Gin & Tonic, and Mango Smoothie at the View POint Cafe of the Mekong River Hotel in Luang Prabang.
Singapore Slings, Gin & Tonic, and Mango Smoothie at the View Point Cafe of the Mekong River Hotel in Luang Prabang.

We were impressed with the lovely looking small hotels and wish we had been staying in one, rather than at a resort so distant from the interesting town.  There were also shops full of beautiful textiles, ceramics and arts.
One of the interesting shops in Luang Prabang.

Lao Coffee and assorted fripperies in Luang Prabang.
Lao Coffee and assorted fripperies in Luang Prabang.
A stop for some refreshment resulted in a delicious Lao coffee, with sweetened condensed milk on the bottom of the glass, before we met our group for dinner at a restaurant in town.



















Friday, January 10
Ted giving alms of sticky rice to young monks at dawn in Luang Prabang.
Ted giving alms of sticky rice to young monks at dawn in Luang Prabang.
Our alms-giving station in Luang Prabang.
Our alms-giving station in Luang Prabang.
We rose before dawn for an interesting experience, the alms-giving ceremony.  Buddhists believe that by giving rice in this life, one is “making merit” and thereby ensuring they will not go hungry in their next life.  The many monks of Luang Prabang depend on this tradition; we removed our shoes and sat on the little stools provided for us, then waited in silence until the long row of monks in their saffron robes walked slowly in front of us.

We put a small knob of sticky rice in each of their containers, sneaking glances up at the young and old faces in front of us.  The event has become a tourist draw in Luang Prabang but we were impressed with the sacred ritual.

Joan shopping for what turned out to be fresh cilantro.
Joan shopping for what turned out to be fresh cilantro.
As the misty skies lightened, we walked to the local farmer’s market, where our tour guide had us shop for the ingredients for our lunch that day, asking the vendors in our awful accents for things we had no idea what we were saying.
 An interesting adventure.  Seeing the unusual things for sale in the market was fun-everything from fermented fish to defeathered little birds to skinned rats, plus lots and lots of interesting, sometimes identifiable vegetables and fruits.
Chilis, chilis, chilis, and baby crabs in woven baskets for sale at the Luang Prabang morning market.
Chilis, chilis, chilis, and baby crabs in woven baskets for sale at the Luang Prabang morning market.

Roasted rats and papayas right next to each other in the local market at Luang Prabang.
Roasted rats and papayas right next to each other in the local market at Luang Prabang.

What a variety of fresh herbs!

De-feathered baby birds for sale in the local market. 
Local markets are our favorite thing to visit, and we lagged far behind the rest of the group, though we eventually met to go back to the hotel for a late breakfast, in spite of having seen raw unrefrigerated meat and fish, and rats and baby birds.

One of the features of Overseas Adventure Travel is the “Dayin the Life” Visit to a local home and school.  We enjoyed our visit to the Hmong village of Baan Tin Keo and spent some time in the classroom with the cutest possible children.
Children lined up with marigold necklaces they had made for us.
Children lined up with marigold necklaces they had made for us.
Our Hershey kisses were a big hit, as were the little toys we brought for the children.
Little imp pleased with her Hershey Kisses.
Little imp pleased with her Hershey Kisses.

Afterwards we visited the home of the local Hmong hill tribal shaman, and listened while he answered our questions about his life.

Next was the obligatory "shopping opportunity", which was actually great, as we bought things directly from the village women who had made them.
The village leader's beautiful wife with her goods.
The village leader's beautiful wife with her goods.




































We watched as the ingredients we had purchased that morning in the market were turned into a dish for our lunch.
The ingredients we had purchased at the morning market, soon to be our lunch.
The ingredients we had purchased at the morning market, soon to be our lunch.
Interestingly, Joan was handed a banana leaf filled with the most flavorful food.  When she asked what it was, it was snatched away from her, as it was given to her by mistake-it was the local’s lunch, and in exchange she got the blah, flavorless packet everyone else was eating. We did get to try one treat: fried water buffalo skin, which puffed up amazingly when it was fried, and tasted like pork rinds.
Water buffalo skin puffs up as it is fried-tasted just like fried pork rinds!
Water buffalo skin puffs up as it is fried-tasted just like fried pork rinds!


We continued to the Kuang Si waterfall, where we hiked up the road to the beautiful waterfall (more striking before its recent collapse in 2003 when the tower of champagne-glass limestone fell in on itself, apparently.)
Water buffalo skin puffs up as it is fried-tasted just like fried pork rinds!
Kuang Si waterfall.
Still, the beautiful limestone formations and milky water coursing through the shaded grounds was interesting, especially the young tourists swimming in the deeper pools.
Swinging and swimming in the Kuang Si waters.
Swinging and swimming in the Kuang Si waters.
The Asiatic black bears, with white Vs on their chests, at the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center were great fun to watch.  
Asiatic Black Bear with white "V" on it's chest.
Asiatic Black Bear with white "V" on it's chest.
We returned to Luang Prabang and with an evening free enjoyed one of the best meals of our trip at Les 3 Nagas, an open air restaurant connected to a hotel of the same name, both beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings.  The local Lao food was presented beautifully by a very pleasant staff.  Lemongrass mojitos were just the start, followed by a highly recommended betel-leaf soup then  . . .
Fresh spring rolls at Les 3 Nagas reastaurant in Luang Prabang.
Fresh spring rolls at Les 3 Nagas reastaurant in Luang Prabang.

Banana leaves stuffed with shredded chicken, and fillet of Makohng fish with ginger sauce.
Delicious desserts included sticky rice with banana and home made ice cream. 
Saturday, January 11

Rice noodle manufactory in Luang Prabang
Rice noodle manufactory in Luang Prabang
Right next to our hotel was a workshop that made rice noodles.  Our guides arranged for us to make a quick visit.  Yowsa.  We thanked heavens for the USDA and the FDA! The batter was mixed in pots in the open air right on the ground, the the sheets were dried on wicker mats outside right next to our dusty road.  We had second thoughts about eating noodles after that visit!
The elephants and umbrella are part of the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Laos.

Next we visited the Luang Prabang National Museum, consisting of the Royal Palace for the Kingdom of Laos, built from 1880 to 1909, and royal residence until 1975 when the Pathet Lao seized control of Laos.  (The king and his family were exiled to a remote northern region and never heard from again.) (Sorry, no pictures allowed inside.)
Vendors outside the Luang Prabang National Museum
Vendors outside the Luang Prabang National Museum
The palace’s treasures were rather scanty but still interesting. The central throne room is done in colorful glass mosaics and there is a compound of large Spartan bedrooms with the little finery left after the departure of the king.  The temple at the entrance, like a gileded wedding cake, includes a replica of the golden standing Buddha called The Phra Bang, which translates to “holy image” which gives the town its name.The temple at the entrance is a gilded wedding cake!
The temple in the National Museum complex which houses a replica of the Phra Bang
Mulberry pie for lunch in Luang Prabang.
Mulberry pie for lunch in Luang Prabang.
We had a light lunch on our own then flew to Vientiane, small and quiet for a capital city, is located on the north side of a bend in the Mekong; to the south in Thailand.  Because it was a Sunday, we saw more tree- lined streets than traffic.  Our hotel, Sabaidee @ Lao, was a centrally located, modern hotel, great for groups and next door to a great coffee shop, Ban Mai Coffee.
Riverside Park in Vientiane, Laos
Riverside Park in Vientiane, Laos
Our guides, Panya and our local Lao guide Dao, took us on an orientation walk around town, including a new park at the edge of the Mekong River, and the Presidential Palace, a white house.
The Laotian Presidential Palace
The Laotian Presidential Palace
Then the four of us took a stroll to check out the Settha Palace Hotel and La Belle Époque Restaurant.
Singapore Slings and Mojito at La Belle Epoque bar at the Stteha Palace Hotel in Vientiane, Laos
Singapore Slings and Mojito at La Belle Epoque bar at the Stteha Palace Hotel in Vientiane, Laos
We stopped in for some  civilized drinks, checked out the menu, and made a reservation for the next evening when we were on our own, looking forward to some elegant French food in this former French protectorate.

Sunday, January 12
That Dam or Black Stupa in Vientiane, Laos
That Dam or Black Stupa in Vientiane, Laos
Within a few blocks of our hotel was the That Dam or Black Stupa,  one of the few ancient stupas that remains after the Siamese occupation. Since it has not undergone any renovation, vegetation has started to grow out of it which adds to its charm.  Many Laotians believe it is inhabited by a seven-headed nāga who tried to protect them from an invasion by the Siamese army in 1827.
Scene in the Morning Market in Vientiane, Laos
Scene in the Morning Market in Vientiane, Laos

Also nearby was Talat Sao, the Morning Market.  We enjoy wandering around markets. What struck us about this market, in addition to the merchandise, was that we could see the shopkeepers living their lives, much as they do in the street-side shop-houses.  Accommodation were made for day care; one shopkeeper was having her hair done, perhaps by another tenant paying a house-call;  other tenants were bringing refreshments or food to their fellow merchants.  It was quiet a community, not just shops.
Pre-packaged gift baskets of essentials and foodstuffs to give to begging monks at Talat Sao morning market.

Our next excursions by tuk tuk was to the Phra That Luang, or Great Sacred Stupa, which is the national symbol of Laos. 
Phra That Luang, the preeminent stupa in Laos, is the Lao national symbol.
Phra That Luang, the preeminent stupa in Laos, is the Lao national symbol.
Truly spectacular, 144 feet high, but what we saw is not the original built in 1566 on the ruins of a 3rd century Hindu temple, but a recreation from 1930, restored after being bombed in WWII.
The huge golden reclining Buddha was a special sight in Vientiane!
The huge golden reclining Buddha was a special sight in Vientiane!

Haw Phra Kaew,built to house the Emerald Buddha.
Haw Phra Kaew,built to house the Emerald Buddha.
Haw Phra Kaew,  a former temple, now houses a museum and small shop.  Originally, in the mid 1500s it housed the emerald Buddha which is now in Bangkok.  Like Phra That Luang, the temple was subjected to Siamese invasion, and rebuilt by the French.  Confession time:  By this time in our OAT trip, we were beginning to call it "Oh, Another Temple."  Lots of interesting things to see, but they sometimes blurred one into another.  
Some of the thousands of Buddha images in the cloister around Wat Si Saket, Vientiane, Laos
Some of the thousands of Buddha images in the cloister around Wat Si Saket, Vientiane, Laos
Wat Si Saket was built in 1818 in the Siamese style of Buddhist architecture with a surrounding terrace and an ornate five-tiered roof.  This may have kept it safe as the armies of Siam that sacked Vientiane in 1827 used the compound as their headquarters and lodging place. It may now be the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane, and also houses a museum and features a cloister wall with more than 2000 ceramic and silver Buddha images.  We had fun finding the different unique Lao Buddha poses called mudras, from praying for rain to stop fighting/call for peace and calling to mother earth for wisdom.  
Patuxay, or Victory Arch, built using American cement intended for the new airport in Vientiane, Laos.
Patuxay, or Victory Arch, built using American cement intended for the new airport in Vientiane, Laos.
The most prominent landmark of Vientiane is Patuxay, or victory arch, [pix 2824-2836] was built in 1957-68 using American cement intended for a new airport. Originally built as a memorial, the Pathet Lao renamed it to celebrate their victory.   The Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the design incorporates typical Lao motifs.  Most of us climbed to the top of the monument, which gave us excellent panoramic views of the city.
View from Patuxay monument over the city of Vientiane, Laos.
View from Patuxay monument over the city of Vientiane, Laos.
This evening Panya took us on an off-schedule jaunt to a nearby café for local beer and spirits and to sample some local specialties: fried grasshoppers, fried silkworm larvae, and roasted eel skin.  Many of our group tried the exotic crunchy snacks. 
Fried eelskin
Fried eelskin. 


Fried grasshoppers.  Tasted just like CRUNCH!
Fried grasshoppers.  Tasted just like CRUNCH!


 Afterwards we went back to LaBelle Époque for a traditional French meal of vichyssoise, duck with cherries, sweetbreads and French macaroons for dessert that was excellent, an equally interesting but very different experience and a lovely end to our visit to Laos.  
Duck Liver Terrine with Onion Jam at La Belle Epoque restaurant in Settha Palace Hotel, Vientiane, Laos
Duck Liver Terrine with Onion Jam at La Belle Epoque restaurant in Settha Palace Hotel, Vientiane, Laos


Feuillete de Champignons du Laos: creamed mushrooms in garlic sauce on puff pastry.
Feuillete de Champignons du Laos: creamed mushrooms in garlic sauce on puff pastry.   
Bœuf Bourguignon sur son lit de tagliatelles fraiches; Slow cooked beef brasied in red wine sauce served with homemade noodles.


Duck Leg Confit with Garlic Mashed Potatoes.
Duck Leg Confit with Garlic Mashed Potatoes.


Raspberry Macaroon with homemade gelato.


Molten chocolate cake and homemade ice cream.  Yum!
Molten chocolate cake and homemade ice cream.  Yum!