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Lovely Dichotomy of Luang Prabang

Lovely Dichotomy of Luang Prabang

Last week Halie had Thursday and Friday off for Makhabucha Day. We decided to use the long weekend to travel to Luang Prabang, Laos. Not knowing much of anything about the city but only hearing great things from friends who’ve been, we we’re excited to see what the mountains and hills of northern Laos had to offer.

As we descended through the surrounding mountains, we could already tell this ancient city bordered by rivers would be different. During the taxi ride to the homestay, a hodgepodge of architecture passed by us. French colonial buildings, wooden homes, temple ruins and thriving monasteries. We quickly checked into our hotel and decided to go explore the city. Right around the corner was the night market so no better place to start.

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So if you notice the title of this post, I called Luang Prabang a “dichotomy”. Before I continue with our trip, let me introduce the first part of the dichotomy since it was the first night there that I was confronted with it. Tourist. So many of them. Half the city is 22 year old backpackers. The other half is wealthy, retired Europeans. Initially, it was somewhat of a turn-off to me. Most cities awash with tourists are structured cultural experiences. There’s a facade put in place to appease the masses and hide the authentic nature of the location. This is common across the world and at first glance, I thought Luang Prabang was another casualty.

Until the second day. Using Backstreet Academy, we were picked up by a translator and brought to a Hmong village to learn the art of embroidery with a lady and her daughter. Backstreet Academy is a company that connects travelers with local craftsmen and women to learn traditional techniques of all kinds of things: embroidery, bow making, brewing beer and wine, cooking and woodworking. The list goes on.

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Halie and I spent the afternoon embroidering with two Hmong women. They begin learning this craft at the age of 7 or 8 and spend their lives making beautiful clothes and accessories to sell at the night market or use in local ceremonies. After finishing, we walked around meeting some of the other men and women of the tribe and learning about their lives and language and culture.

Let me get back to the dichotomy I was speaking of. I’ve never been to a city that had so many tourist but was so integrated into its own history and culture and local tribes. The night market wasn’t a tourist trap to get our money but a life-line for the Hmong and Khmer tribes surrounding the city to continue the crafts and traditions that they’ve been doing for hundreds of years. The well-kept French colonial structures weren’t a facade but an example of a city that appreciates its architecture and history whether it represents colonization by a foreign power, a powerful tribal king and kingdom or the current communist government.

Okay, back to our trip. Getting back to the city, we began exploring around a bit more.

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The city is on a peninsula surrounded by two rivers coming together (Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers). The Nam Khan has a bamboo bridge that is only up 6 months of the year (they take it down for the rainy season). So of course we had to cross it. Who knew on the other side was going to be the greatest meal in my life!?

We were recommended a restaurant named Dyen Sabai by a friend. With benches, chairs and ground level seating all facing the Nam Khan, this place had atmosphere. Reading through the menu, we decided on what the menu called “Lao Fondue,” learning afterwards that this is a popular dish in Luang Prabang called “sindad.” The best way of describing this incredible food experience is a mix between Chinese hot pot and Korean barbecue. You have a pile of hot coals with a grill above. The grill is rounded with a moat for the broth. The meat, vegetables, noodles and eggs all come raw and it’s your job to cook them. Don’t forget to start with the spicy chilis and garlic before adding everything to the broth. Then use the grill to cook the meat (after adding a chunk of fat on top to grease the grill). The broth was the best broth I’ve ever tasted and everything coming out of it was just as good. IMG_9210.jpg

Okay, this is getting too long. Next day, beautiful waterfalls. Afterwards, we walked around to see a few temples and the mountain in the middle of the city. The views were stunning:

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Last day, UXO Museum. This intense museum chronicles the 2 million tons of bombs dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 and the heroic efforts to locate, dismantle and remove the 80 million unexploded bombs left over from the war. A sobering end to an incredibly enjoyable weekend.

Then flight home. Luang Prabang, when can I return?


To see a few more pictures, check out this Google photos album. Thanks!

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Posted by on March 6, 2018 in Life, travel

 

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Our Week in Vietnam, Part 2

Last week I started telling you about our week in Vietnam. I had to stop because it was getting somewhat long so here’s the second part!

Find Part 1 Here

After the two day tour with Hoi An Express, they dropped us off at another homestay in Hoi An. This one wasn’t along the beach but on a small island named An Hoi opposite of the old city area. As soon as we dropped our backpacks off, we headed back into Hoi An to walk around and find something to eat. Since it was a weekday the city was a little less calm but no less beautiful.

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The next morning, we walked around the daytime version of Hoi An for the first time. The old city isn’t blocked off from traffic during the day so there were a few more cars and motorcycles to dodge as we headed down to pick up some tailored clothes we had made. Halie was picking up 3 dresses and I a blazer. We ate lunch at what Anthony Bourdain has dubbed the best banh mi in Vietnam (it was really, really good but the only banh mi I had in Vietnam so not sure if I can make the claim). Then we grabbed a taxi to head back into Da Nang.

So Da Nang is an interesting city to visit. It’s fairly large. The third largest in Vietnam at 1.5 million people or so. But in the world of tourism, it’s not a hot destination. If you look up things to do in Da Nang, everything listed is outside the city (Hoi An, Hue, Ba Na Hills, etc.). After dropping our backpacks off at our AirBnb (down a quiet alley where an old man screamed “xin chao” at Halie so she screamed it back [the old man responded with a giant smile]), we started to walk through the city. If you read anything about Da Nang, rule number one is to not walk around. It’s hot, nothing is close together, sidewalks are sparse, motorcycles are crazy and cars are even crazier. Sounds like a perfect time to walk. We ended up at the beautiful Dragon Bridge, Cau Rong. My picture doesn’t do it justice for multiple reasons but mainly because I’m behind the dragon and the dragon is almost too big for the pic:

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We were walking across the bridge as it became dark. Suddenly, the dragon was illuminated! Then it changed colors! Then again! We looked like little children as we walked across the bridge awe struck at a few lights on a dragon.

A few kilometers of walking (and being looked at like purple aliens) and a few drinks later, we met up with some friends who work at Halie’s school. After dinner, we found a bar next to the beach and spent the rest of the night drinking to the alternating sounds of waves, a singer-songwriter performing, hip-hop and dance music, an incredibly drunk party and a small girl that sang “Let it Go” for some reason.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Next morning we hit up a few markets around Da Nang, ate lunch and had a few more drinks along the beach with our friends. Then it was time for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City. As I talk about this city, I didn’t want to go through a chronology of events like I’ve been doing but wanted to focus on a few cultural takeaways.

First off, Ho Chi Minh City has one of the coolest vibes of any major city I’ve ever been to. It’s young and active and communal. There’s coffee shops, tea shops and bars everywhere you look and at all hours of the day you’ll find crowds sitting inside and out. If they’re sitting outside, the patrons will grab one of the short stools stacked by the door and use that as a perching place to enjoy their beverage. And side note, the coffee I had in Vietnam was some of the strongest and tastiest coffee I’ve ever had. If the sidewalks weren’t covered by people sitting on small stools, they were used as parking for the millions (and millions) of motorcycles. Our AirBnb was actually above a coffee shop (behind the torn sign):

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Morning Coffee in Ho Chi Minh City

Quick story about our AirBnb. The place was watched over and taken care of by the owner’s uncle. He was an old Vietnamese man that lived next door. Had absolutely no English skills but was incredibly welcoming and happy. So welcoming that each morning, as Halie and I were leaving the apartment, he insisted we take a shot of his moonshine from a clear plastic bottle. We couldn’t say no! The second morning, as we had drinks at the coffee shop and after our now customary shot of moonshine, he also offered us some fruit to eat. It complimented the shots well!

While we walked around Ho Chi Minh City, we saw the footprint of French colonialism, American intervention into war and politics and Vietnamese communism. We visited the War Remnants Museum, which consisted of gut-wrenching photography and military tools of destruction leftover from the Vietnam War. Although I was well aware of the propaganda-driven nature of the story the museum was trying to tell, it was still emotionally moving and heartbreaking to see the destruction the war cause in Vietnam. Whether it was photos and stories of citizens still dealing with the affects of Agent Orange dropped by American planes or the heroic stories of journalist who lost their lives to make sure people back in the states knew the horrors of war, it was all difficult to take in.

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War Remnants Museum

Alright, I guess that’s about everything I wanted to talk about. We had a great trip, we’re ready to go back. Next time we plan on hitting Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam. As last time, check out a few more pictures:

Google Photos album for Part 2

 
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Posted by on November 8, 2017 in History, Life, travel

 

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