Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Laos: Timeless Luang Prabang

   Above and left: Theravada Buddhist monks go out at dawn every day to solicit alms from the faithful, such as the seated woman above. Handfuls of sticky rice are thrown into the monks' baskets.
    We were told that the monks don't  eat the rice, so perhaps this done for the sake of tradition and maybe for  tourists.  Most visitors get up early at least once during their time in Luang Prabang to see the procession.

      Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos, which was a kingdom for centuries before being overrun by the Khmer, Siam, Vietnam, China and finally the French, which made it a  colony in the late 1800s.  In 1904, the French built a new palace in Luang Prabang for the king. It's now the Royal Palace Museum.  The capital of today's Laos, a nominally communist country, is Vientiane, which we didn't visit.   The Laos that visitors experience, at least in Luang Prabang, is one of active and spirited commerce in the shops and street markets, active and spirited expressions of religious faith in the number of temples and in the respect with which monks are treated, and a joie de vivre in daily life.
     Here are some snapshots from our time there in December 2012.

Right: Steps leading to the top of Phousi, the sacred hill in the center of old Luang Prabang.  These steps are just across the street from the Royal Palace Museum.  At the top of the hill is That Chomsi, a Buddhist stupa whose golden spires can be seen for miles.

Below: The view from That Chomsi.

The old part of Luang Prabang is a peninsula created where the Khan River flows into the Mekong. The Khan's flow varies greatly with the season.  During the rainy season, a ferry crosses it between the old town and a more rural district on the other side.  Each year during the dry season, the family that operates the ferry builds a bamboo bridge at the same point and charges pedestrians a small fee to cross.  On the other side is, among other things, a restaurant called Dyen Sabai, which consists of a number of bamboo huts overlooking the Kahn River.

Left and below: The bamboo bridge over the Kahn River.

Below:  Dyen Sabai has a lengthy two-for-one cocktail hour, which can make the walk back across the bridge a bit more challenging. This is just one of several huts.

Although Laos is controlled by a communist government, we saw what appeared to be a lot of free enterprise in Luang Prabang, which has three major street markets:  a daytime Hmong market that seems to focus on T-shirts and other mass-produced goods; a morning market that focuses on vegetables, meats, and other food products; and a night market that has a lot of handicrafts as well as T-shirts.  We bought hand-embroidered cloth books for children and some other craft items at the night market.  Below are some photos of commerce in Luang Prabang.

Left: Sausages are sold from a rack in the street.

Below: A young woman in the very early stages of weaving a silk scarf on a loom.  Handwoven silk scarves and other items are sold in the night market and in shops all over town.

Right: A woman pours batter from a kettle to make coconut pancakes at the morning market in Luang Prabang.  They're about the size and shape of madeleines.  Six cost about 25 cents. Piping hot and slightly molten in the center, they're better than Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Below: No crowd at closing time at  the night market, which sets up every night on the main street.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Vietnam: Cosmopolitan Hanoi

        Hanoi is a busy, busy city.  Like stereotypical New Yorkers, the people on Hanoi's crowded streets and sidewalks have no patience for gawking tourists, tend not to return smiles and do not apologize if they bump into someone.  We were there for most of the last week of December 2012.  It was chilly but not cold, the air dirty with the exhaust of tens of thousands of motorcycles, motor scooters, cars and trucks.
        We stayed in the old quarter, which at first was incredibly confusing.  Fortunately, most buildings have posted not only their number but the name of the street.  This is handy in an area where street names can change every block or two.  
       Here are some photos from our time in Hanoi. 

Above: One of the few intersections in Hanoi where everyone stops for a red light.  Face masks are used by a lot of pedestrians as well as motorcyclists -- we think to protect against pollution rather than germs.

Right: Sidewalk produce vendors.

Below: No cars or trucks are allowed on this narrow street in the old quarter.

Left: Meat and various other animal parts at a street market.  I'm pretty sure that's liver in the middle.

Below: More foods laid out at a street market.

Left:  We stumbled upon some sort of ceremony at the One Pillar Pagoda near Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum.

Below: The Huc Bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake, the lake of the restored sword.
Legend is that the 15th century hero Le Loi found a sword in his fishing net here, a sword he used to chase the Chinese out of Vietnam. The sword later flew out of his scabbard and into the mouth of a giant turtle in this lake.

Right: Bridal couples flock to Hoan Kiem Lake to have their photos taken.  This couple was posing on the Huc Bridge.

Below: Neckties and scarves in a silk store in the old quarter.

Right: Containers of butter cookies are among the offerings at a shrine near the Huc Bridge.  Elsewhere we saw offerings of Pepsi bottles, cigarettes and a milkshake at shrines like this. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Vietnam: Two-Night Junk Cruise on Ha Long Bay

We spent two nights in the last week of December 2012 aboard a junk motoring among the stony islands of Ha Long Bay, on Vietnam's northern coast a few hours' drive from Hanoi.  The junk, technically a sailing vessel, did briefly raise its sails (above), probably just a photo opt for us and the 17 other passengers who were returning from an island visit. Our voyage was powered by diesel fuel.

We were on one of Indochina Junk's three identical "Dragon's Pearl" vessels.  The company picked us up at and returned us to our hotel in Hanoi.  Click HERE for the company's website.

Left: The weather was chilly and overcast for our entire trip, sometime adding a mysterious quality to the huge rocks that are the islands of Ha Long Bay.

Right:  Small fishing boats like this darted around the bay.

Below:  It wasn't sunny, but people still used the sundeck. Temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit meant everyone had to dress warmly.  On the plus side, no one suffered sunburn.

Left:  This boat is a twin to our boat, operated by the same company.  The little red flag with the yellow star is the flag of Vietnam.  All the Ha Long Bay junks are now painted white -- so decreed by a government official who must have a relative in the white paint business.  On websites you may see older images of the boats in their traditional colors.

Right: Women in boats made of woven bamboo picked us up from our boat and took us to a floating village, a collection of moored houseboats and other structures where fisherman and their families live.

Below: Part of the floating village. It appeared that residents made no use of the island behind the village other than, perhaps, as a windbreak.

Left: A fish farm at the floating village.

Right: The dining room aboard our junk.  Meals were all several courses with a lot of seafood.  The small wine list was mostly Australian; a bar sold beer and  basic mixed drinks.

Below: Our last dinner was an elaborate affair.  The galley on the junk provided the food, which porters took to a cave high up on one of the rocky islands. The table was about 60 yards into the cave.  Indochina Junk is the only outfit that does these dinners, and only on its two-night trips.

The highlight of the cave dinner was not the elaborately crafted centerpieces carved from pumpkins and various vegetables, nor was it the grilled giant shrimp or other food.  Toward the end of the dinner, the English-speaking guide on the junk ("Call me Sonny," he said) asked for everyone's attention for a special event.  He then announced that one of the passengers -- a couple from the Upper West Side of New York -- wanted to ask his girlfriend to marry him.  The woman (that's her in yellow, above, seated across from her boyfriend) looked absolutely shocked, though I don't know whether she was shocked by the idea of a marriage proposal or that she heard about it first from a Vietnamese guide.  The guide then directed them both to stand and  the guy started to pop the question before the woman told him to get on one knee.  He did. Finally, she said yes.
Left: The cave.  On the left side of the picture you can see votive candles that lighted our path to the dinner table. There was also a generator producing some electric light.

Below: Centerpieces, mostly carved from pumpkins, were presented with great fanfare. Hearts, such as the one here made of rose petals, appeared all over the cave, doubtless in anticipation of the marriage proposal.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Vietnam: Tailors, Cooks and History in Hoi An

Hoi An, a small tourist-filled town a few minutes south of DaNang, is known for two things: food and tailoring.  It's filled with restaurants and tailor shops.  While there we ran into two young couples from Perth, Australia, whom we'd met elsewhere on the trip.  Both of the guys had suits and sports jackets made to order in Hoi An.  Most things, apparently, can be made within a day or two, so people who order clothes when they first arrive can leave with them.  These two said that the shop, A Dong Silk, had filed their measurements so they can order more clothes in the future.

Right:  Silks are displayed at A Dong Silk.

Below: Another tailor's shop.

Left: The waterfront in Hoi An.  Vietnamese  boats traditionally have "eyes."

Hoi An's signature food is a steamed dumpling known as a "white rose,"  made by a few families in town and available at almost every restaurant. Each family's version is different, filled with a whole shrimp, ground shrimp, or ground shrimp and ground pork.  Restaurants add their own sauces.

Right: The Japanese covered bridge.  It was supposedly built after an earthquake in Japan that was caused by a restless underground serpent whose head was in Japan but whose body was in Vietnam.  The bridge was built in the 1590s to put a stake into the serpent's heart. It's unclear how much if any of what we see today is original.

Left: Where do you want to go?  This Hoi An travel agent's sign shows he can sell you a ticket to other major cities in Vietnam as well as Laos.

Below: The coast from DaNang to Hoi An is lined with large hotels and gated resorts.  Hoi An is a mile or so inland from the beach shown below.  During the first week of January 2013, the water seemed cold to us but a few people were spashing in the surf. The weather was certainly warm enough for shorts and sunbathing. Cafes and bars along the beach mean that you're never very far from a cold beer or a tropical-themed drink.

Right:  Those aren't giant baskets on the beach.  They're round fishing boats made of woven bamboo.  We didn't see any in use, but we're told that they are propelled by a single oar or paddle that the fisherman moves back and forth, much like a fish's tail fin.  The bundles inside the boats are nets.

Below: One last shot of this clean and very pleasant beach.

My Son is a complex of Hindu temples from the 4th through the 14th centuries, about an hour's drive west of Hoi An. They were built by the Champa Kingdom. The Cham people are one of Vietnam's many distinct ethnic groups. During what the Vietnamese call the American War, the ruins were bombed by U.S. planes.  Today's visitors can still see craters created by the bombs. 

Left and Below: Snapshots of the ruins.

For more information on My Son, click HERE.  

Visitors at the My Son ruins are warned to stay on the well-defined paths to avoid stumbling upon unexploded bombs or landmines. 

Left: Bits of the feet are all that's left of the statue that once stood here.  

Like similar ruins throughout Southeast Asia, My Son has been subject to looting. Thieves have decapitated statues to sell the heads to collectors in Asia and in the West. It's impossible, though, to say exactly what happened to this particular statue.

Right: A shady path takes visitors several hundred yards away from the centuries-old temples and toward the 21st century.  It leads to a parking lot.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Cambodia: Kep, Coastal Crab Capital

We spent a couple days in Kep, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive south of Phnom Penh.  Most people who want to go to the South China Sea coast in Cambodia go to Sihanoukville, a much more developed vacation area.  The beach there, we're told, is much nicer than the narrow stone beaches of Kep.  What persuaded us to choose Kep is its reputation for crabs.  We live on the Chesapeake Bay, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and we're serious about blue crabs.  The blue crabs in Kep are quite similar to ours, though they don't turn bright red when cooked. They also are meatier than Chesapeake crabs, with big chunks of backfin meat in even small crabs.  The meat, however, isn't as sweet.  The unseasoned crab meat isn't particularly flavorful.  Fortunately, it isn't served unseasoned.   The Crab Market in Kep is an oceanside strip of maybe two-dozen crab restaurants, some offering almost 30 different crab dishes, often seasoned with Kampot peppers, the locally grown peppers.

Left:  A large crab sculpture stands in the water along the coast in Kep.  The sign (below) describing it shows how complicated the Cambodian calendar can be.

Above: A boat off the coast of Kep.

Right:   Our hotel was only a couple of hundred yards from the Crab Market if we took a shortcut, which took us by this cow and this fisherman's family.  Most of the local wooden boats were painted turquoise.

Below: Grilled chicken and squid at a Crab Market restaurant.