Đồng Hới

We reached Đồng Hới by night-train. I slept on the floor, on a tarp. It worked perfectly, it was only a six hour ride. Pulling into the station, we elected to simply look for housing in the surrounding area. Well, it didn’t work too great, but eventually we ended up in a 150,000 VND per night room. The entire place STANK of mildew. I can handle a lot of things, but an overpowering aroma of mildew makes it nigh on impossible to sleep, even when you’re completely worn out. After a refreshing nap, I was ready to high-tail it to another place, but we’d booked the room for one day, so it seemed skeezy to just up and out.

Empty Street.

Instead, we decided to walk around the town. From the train station out, the city seems very small. It devolves almost instantly into suburban straights with gardens and houses. We passed one funeral, one wedding, and a bride and groom on a motorbike. Everyone was friendly, and smiled at us, except the funeral goers, obviously. Everyone in that party was wearing a white robe made of either ultra-light cotton, or paper. They also had white strips tied around their foreheads. After they had left, we went to investigate the graveyard.

Tomb.

I probably haven’t mentioned it before, but Sino cemeteries are rather unlike ours. Each family has a plot, and this area is designated by a brightly painted containment wall with a high back. There are many styles, but the main difference is the use of color. Everywhere, chrysanthemums are left for the dead, along with incense, and sometimes small offerings of bright candy or other treats. The wall around the plot is low, and there is a break in it directly across from the high end. However, about a foot in front of this break is a small wall standing alone, with a character written on it. This wall is to keep the spirits from leaving, or any evil creature from entering. In Asian mythologies, spirits can only walk in a straight line–thus, the wall, which necessitates a 90 degree turn, keeps all spirits safely penned inside. This method is also used in many temples.

Fenced Garden.

That night, we ate dinner along the main road (we thought). The price was excessive, 30,000 VND for mien (cellophane noodle soup) and 40,000 VND for chao (rice porridge) and pho (rice noodle soup). However, the proprietor was passing out cup after cup of what I took to be moonshine. It was served from an old gallon oil jug. They called it wine, and it was only offered to the men. Eventually I got a cup of my own; the taste was pure alcohol. Two cups is more than enough for a good time. Then he wanted us to go to karaoke, but his daughter, who was interpreting, told us there would only be Vietnamese songs. I was still down, but after the bill came, I changed my mind.

Edifice.

We were happy to leave the stinky place the next day, and took a taxi down to the water’s edge, where we had found a room for 200,000 VND per night. The room faced the ocean, the windows opened out, and we had a small balcony. Hot showers (if you found the breaker for the water heater), and walking distance from the beach and downtown.

Well, the beach was a pretty far walk, but it was completely worth it. The water was clear teal, with a clean, white sand beach. Olivier found two posts to finally put his hammock up between, with the help of some locals to reset the posts after he began. He was an instant success with many of the young people on the beach, and I left him surrounded by eager friends wanting pictures. I spotted a deserted beach lounger and laid out until storm clouds threatened and I began to feel sporadic rain drops. As we started to leave, we were approached by a boy and girl. They asked for money. For what? Apparently, using the posts for a hammock, and laying in the chair. How much? 200,000 VND. We don’t have any money. They called over a girl from a nearby picnicking party. She began again. You need to pay them, she said, 200,000 VND. We. Don’t. Have. Any. Money. we said again. And anyhow, that’s way too expensive! Eventually, they let us go, with the parting admonition, beaches in Viet Nam are not beaches in America!

Medicine.

Lately, it seems like everybody is out to squeeze some cash out of me. It’s frustrating, because I know I’m being overcharged, but I feel mean to dispute it. Usually, it doesn’t even make a difference. I guess I just always need to ask the price ahead of time, although that feels incredibly petty.

We looked up and down the streets for somewhere to rent a motorbike to go to the Phong Nha National Park the next day. We tried each guesthouse, but they wanted $10 per day for a motorbike; well outside my budget. Finally, we ended up back at the smelly guesthouse we’d started at, where the woman had offered us a motorbike for $6. Unfortunately, this guesthouse was across town–5 km away–right next to the train station. Plan accordingly! You can rent motorbikes more cheaply away from the center of town. Just don’t stay there.

Cows!

The next day, we set out for the Phong Nha National Park. It’s about 30 km from Đồng Hới, but it’s an excellent drive by motorbike. The countryside is beautiful, all green fields, enclosing hills, and little jungle patches. Take a lunch, don’t try to buy anything there. It’s now a UNESCO recognized site, and they’re prepared to charge you through the nose for anything you might need or want.

Phong Nha National Park.

You need to buy your tickets at the Tourist Center. It’s currently undergoing renovation, but is still open. It costs $11.50 to get a ticket to the Phong Nha and Ha Tien Caves, including the boat ride there. The boats are long, narrow “dragon boats”. The river ride is smooth and pleasant–one can see both sides of the shore, and find villagers out dredging the river bottom for water weed (I’m not sure why. Fuel? Food?) in tiny skiffs, and naked children splashing and clambering over sand bars.

Bathing Nudies.

When you arrive at the mouth of the cave, the motor is cut, the roof is rolled back, and someone poles you through the cave. As you enter the first cathedral-esque cavern, bats screech and wheel overhead to the solemn sound of the lapping waves on the boat. The light bouncing off the river illumines the cracks and colors of the ancient ceiling, but as you pass through a narrower aperture, Nature is replaced by Art, and the magnificent formations are handsomely lighted by winking electrical bulbs. There are drooping rock curtains and mushrooming rock growths. The rocks all have a plastic nature that seems in motion, rather than millenia old.

Jade Crystal.

The park certainly does an excellent job with stage lighting; some formations are acid green, others are icy blue. In the depths of the cave, the mirror of the black river doubles and trebles the watery replicas of the awesome pilasters and piles into an unearthly multidimensional labyrinth.

Hidden Lights.

Eventually, you disembark on a sandy bank and are allowed to clamber back to daylight in your own time. Upon reaching the exit of the cave, you are presented with a steep staircase. Going to the Heavenly Cave? Prepare to go through Hell. The stair is long and steep, although the view at all times is a welcome respite if you care to cool your heels. All along the way are small stands selling drinks and snacks. Near the top, you begin to feel a flow of refrigerated air. I believe the path to the second cave lies over the apex of the first, and that the chilled air is issuing through cracks in the ceiling of the first onto the steps of the second. However it happens, it’s certainly a pleasure.

Ugh.

Finally, you reach the second cave. The flood of cold air instantly makes the trek worth it. You descend into the rock mansion via a sturdy industrial staircase, and a path guides you through the belly of the basalt (I don’t know if it’s really basalt). The colors are fantastic, you wouldn’t believe they exist below ground. If there are blind fish in the bottom of the sea, what sees the colors in a midnight cave?

Uprisings.

The trip back is a welcome break, but you’re starving, and all the food is ridiculously expensive. Eat on the road on the way home, you’re better off. But you better be able to order in Vietnamese, or at least name a dish.

View.

All in all, my favorite thing in Đồng Hới was the discovery of Kem Xoi, which is sticky rice with ice cream on it. So good. We departed Đồng Hới to attend the Huế Cultural Festival.

Huế

So, we decided to take a bus to Huế, on the recommendation of a friend of Olivier’s. She was also going, for the festival, and knew a cheap place to stay. Oh wait, it isn’t cheap anymore. Oh wait, it’s full. No, I can’t meet you at the station, I’m doing something with my friends. I’m not sure at what end the miscommunication lay, but either way, it was exceptionally frustrating. The bus ride was 4 hours of hell: packed into the rear of the bus, mosquitos coming out of the seat cushions, poor A/C, an in-flight movie of a bunch of half-nude chicks at raves set to horrible, horrible Vietnamese(?) techno. Then, disembarkation and a bunch of motorbike drivers, “You want motorbike? You want motorbike?” No, for God’s sake, no! I will walk my legs off, so help me!

stiltists

Ended up taking a taxi to a street recommended by the “friend” for it’s abundance of guesthouses. Oh, they’re all full? What a surprise! It’s really too bad we relied on the word of a flakey young miss rather than booking in advance. (It’s weeks later, as I write this, and I’m still mad, as you can see.) We had a disconsolate cold-coffee conference, and booked at a cheapish hostel, Stay Hostel. It appeared to be just a hop, skip, and jump from where we were located, directly across from the Imperial Palace walls.
An exasperating 45 minutes later, we rolled up on foot. Room was $12 per night, but at $6 each it didn’t even out so bad. It had hot water and A/C, so I was happy. We had wanted to be back to the festival grounds (about 20 feet from where we started) by 8PM, but at 7:45 gave it up as a bad job. We asked at the front desk for motorbikes or bicycles to rent. Don’t have ’em, was the reply, try next door. Next door had a great time being completely rude about my attempts to use Vietnamese, as none of them spoke English, and we ended up not renting there either. Straggled over to a restaurant, where it took 5 minutes for me to get my dish (noodles), and 35 for Olivier to get his (fried rice). Maybe they had to cook more rice?

Hidden.

Luck was with us, and we located a bakery on the way home. I bought one of those delicious sweet rolls lined with pork floss that always come in twos. Then blissful sleep.

The next day, we got up early to try to find a means of transportation. Walked the whole way back to the center of town without finding anything, after a huge breakfast of co’m binh danh (broken rice). Also, found a xoi seller I could not for the life of me find again. Delicious and cheap! Oh, it so happened that our hostel was outside the walls of ancient Huế, which means that we had to pass through a narrow, twenty-foot tunnel, and across two bridges. It was pretty cool, unless it was directly after the festival proceedings ended, in which case it was a terrifying nightmare.

TUNNEL OF DEATH

Ended up back at No. 64 on what I’m pretty sure is Trần Huy Liệu, but I’ll try to verify, for some more cold coffee from a woman like my grandmother. The coffee was so strong, it looked like black oil, and you had to drink it with a spoon, or be overcome by it’s poignancy. She asked each time, “More sugar? I’ll bring more sugar.” It was a cool $0.75 for each mini-tumbler, but she had a spot right on the moat, and it was peaceful for contemplating where one was going to retain vehicular services. After that pleasing interlude, we walked on and on, following the directions of one person after another, thinking all the while of how far we’d have to walk home after we returned whatever we rented.

Coffee Here.

After arriving at what appeared to be a hostelry for bikes, we were rudely informed that it was for tourists, but not us. I suppose everyone is fed up with tourists in Huế at this time, but there’s no need to be so nasty. We ended up walking to Nguyễn Tri Phương and renting a motorbike from a woman on the corner. Haggled her down to $6 per day, quite reasonable considering the other rates around town. Such a relief to be motile!

No Birds.

On the way, I had dragged Olivier through a street market, buying two dragonfruits and a selection of mangos. Markets are the best. I wish I could have spent more time in this one.

“Market” in Vietnamese is Chợ, and they are generally all marked, so if you’re wondering what that mass of people and stalls is, it’s a market. Go!

I also saw: 1 dragon dance, 1 Polish marching orchestra, a kite exhibition, 12 stiltwalkers (stiltists?), and an open-air calligraphy show-down. The Huế festival attracts multicultural entertainers.

Hot in Here.

We were determined to attend the nocturnal festivities that night, so I quickly showered and donned my “half-off” ai dai. It didn’t look half-bad (ar, ar, ar) with my new nón lá. Then we skedaddled via xe may, hooting at Next Door. We paid the 100,000 VND at the gates of the Imperial Palace and then we were in!

Buddhist Imaginings.

The place was lit up like Disneyland on Halloween. Brilliant lights doused everything in surreal color, while lanterns glimmered and gleamed across lawns and pools. We had arrived just in time for the fashion show! Each Asiatic country was represented either in traditional garb, or in some avant-garde confection. Thailand and Viet Nam were the most daring, with China’s being the most beautiful overall, in my opinion.

Wall of Light.

It was packed to the gills, so I quickly mounted a nearby plumeria for a better vantage. Whether it was the charmant effect of the green light focused upon the tree, or whether it was because a huge foreigner in a skanky ao dai in a tree is a talking point for Viets everywhere, I was soon the source of no small photographic activity. My feet got tired of standing in the notch before the flashes stopped twinkling in the green haze, and after I descended, I was approached by first one, and then another, news network for an interview.

Green Tree.

After the show, I was approached by dozens of people asking for photos, and passing me babies and children. It was certainly an experience to swell the head. And I felt somewhat relieved about my ao dai after two venerable grandmas gently patted my arms and said, “Dep, dep”. I gave my interviews, perfunctory as they were, and we rushed to the next spot. There we saw some wonderful folk dancing. I didn’t know there were multiple events occurring at one time, or I would have ditched the end of the fashion show.

Night Lights.

The dancing included male gymnasts and fake(?) martial maneuvers. There were female fan dancers, as well as “long-sleeve” dancers, the which were thrown out and hastily gathered into the hands whilst in the air. Then we hurried through the ancient gallery, which looked as wondrous as ever, still deep red with gold detailing, somber and majestic, past fairy-lighted gazebos filled with laughing men. We came upon a silent garden full of huge metal lotuses and empty, flower-framed stages. For the fashion beauties before the catwalk? I wondered, but did not discover. We strove through a field high with dewy grass to an amphitheater featuring some European band who seemed to like jokes, which we quickly abandoned. And that was that!

Single Light.

On the way home, I begged to stop by my new favorite haunt, the fresh yaourt seller. This tiny family business operates by making and selling yogurt in little cups kept cold and semi-solid in a popsicle-type freezer. They also sell flan. I’m not lying to you when I tell you, each bite of this yogurt (it’s called yaourt here) is a bite of Nirvana. It’s sweet, creamy, and ever-so-slightly tart. It’s got umami for sure. They probably do put MSG in it. Alls I know is, it’s 5,000 dong a go, and I need at least a dollar’s worth for premium satisfaction. That means 4. It’s towards the end of Yet Kieu, near the aforementioned tunnel. The exterior is teal, and features one small freezer with a faded mountain on it. You will see people eating at small red tables and looking blissful. Please do go.

Yogurt yogurt yogurt!

The next day was an absolute runaround. Don’t do it. By the way, there’s a Big C in Huế, if you’re planning on getting food for your last-minute train ride. Then, night train to Hanoi.

Hà Nội

I arrived in Ha Noi by an overnight sleeper from Hue. I took a soft seat, with air-conditioning. Don’t do this; it’s not worth the extra money. Either take a hard seat and sleep on the floor, or book a hard sleeping berth. The soft seats are like being on an airplane, but with less room and more instability. Anyhow, so I came to Ha Noi.

Holy Items.

The train came in during the early afternoon, and I hustled to the Lotteria next door to find out how to get to the Kangaroo Hostel–where I’d booked a few nights. Google told me I could take a bus; but we all know how well that works. I think I got off too soon, and began wandering through the Old Quarter. Everything looked Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working, but I was too tired, dirty, and stressed to notice. I eventually hailed a taxi and paid him fifty cents to take me to the hostel.

Non Profit.

The Kangaroo Hostel is a really cool place. It’s situated in a prime place near the Old Quarter, and consists of one very tall, narrow building full of ancient furniture, AND a bathtub! The bedding is deliciously light, soft blankets and pillows, and there’s air conditioning, too. The staff is very friendly, and speaks excellent English, and there’s free breakfast.

Secret door.

The other hostel I stayed in and frequented was the Hanoi Non Profit Hostel. This hostel was also excellent, though with slightly less flair. They offer motorbike rental services at VND 100,000 per day, which is a good rate, and also arrange visas, book travel, etc. Essentially every hostel will do this for you, however. I only stayed a few nights in both of these hostels. Then I was lucky enough to move into a homestay with a local family. I’ll try to tell you all about it.

Streetwalker.

In this homestay, I slept mainly on the 5th floor of the home, which is to say the roof. This roof is covered, and features a front and back area which wraps around the central staircase. The back area is used for laundry and horticulture, and the front is an open space left for setting up the children’s pool, sitting out at night, or any other “yard-type” activity. It is constrained on all sides, in the front by another building, on the sides by two other similar roofs. Luckily, the walls are only grated by a sort of open-lattice, so there is plenty of air flow.

More Hearth Gods.

I slept in a hammock, although there was a cot offered. I like hammocks. The mosquitos were the Vaguely Unpleasant part, and as I couldn’t get the net to work under any circumstances, I just regularly burned anti-mosquito coils. These are quite cheap, and efficacious, but also apparently toxic. I only burned them alone, as there were two young children in the household I didn’t want to poison.

Lozenge.

Staying with a family allowed me to learn much about the ins and outs of Vietnamese culture. All the oddities I encountered day-to-day I could come home and ask about. I could also ask words, phrases, and practice them, as well as pronunciation.

In Vietnamese the Rs, Gis, and Ds sound like Zs. C sounds like G, T sounds like D. A terminal Ng makes an M sound, Nh makes Ng. X makes S. Enjoy reading aloud.

So, I’ll go through a normal day. Wake up around 7-8, 8:30 if you’re lucky. Viets are early risers. Stagger down for breakfast, which is usually My–Ramen–with or without an egg. Then coffee, instant or drip via a Ca Phe Phin–a one-serving metal coffee filter. After breakfast, the woman of the house begins preparing food for lunch and dinner. She has usually already gone to the market, so she will sit outside and snap the ends off of vegetables, boil water for household use, cut and rinse meat, etc. while chatting with her neighbors. She also watches the children, aged 1 and 1.5.

Wooden Face.

Childrearing in Viet Nam is very different from what I know of childrearing in the States. Here, children are allowed to do almost anything, a child is rarely chastised. Children never ask before taking or using anything, they are quite loud and boisterous at all times, and are essentially left to their own pleasure. Thus, when a child is told not to do something, he or she usually doesn’t listen. Then comes the heavy–the child is strongly spoken to, and when they continue to disobey, they are disciplined with a brisk smack on the hand or leg, or a chopstick thwack. Children rarely cry from this, however, the tears usually come from the repeated denial of whatever the child seeks to do. All day, all night, you can hear children crying somewhere. To stop a child’s tears, parents have recourse to two methods–distraction and placation.

Lunch!

Besides the differences in discipline, there are also differences in the other habitudes of childhood. Children are fed by hand even up to four, and possibly even longer. At meals, they are generally not confined to a high chair, and thus it becomes a sort of game to keep the child from putting his or her hand in the soup, flinging rice everywhere by grabbing the rice spatula, or putting toys in the entree. Children begin to be potty-trained around 1 or 1.5; this consists of holding them over a bowl, or putting a bowl in front of them if they’re boys, and making a gentle “shh” sound for several minutes. I’m told this method works, I imagine it must work as well as any other. What’s disconcerting is that parents continue to hold their children during their bathroom habits until much older. I watched a mother hold her son between her knees with his pants down as he pooped by the side of the road. I saw an old grandpa holding his 5-year-old granddaughter in the air, knees up, as she projectile urinated into the street, flashing figuratively everyone.

Mangoes.

There is much less genital shame here, it seems, or child nudity is not considered an issue. I watched a neighbor blithely feel and pat the genitals of his son, and when I commented on it later, was assured that this was his way of showing his love to his son, and not something to worry about. It seemed to me to be very strange, but apparently it’s culturally acceptable. So that’s my spiel on kids in Viet Nam.

Work starts at 8AM in Viet Nam, so most of the household is gone during the morning. They return around 12 for lunch, which is served on a large round platter. Multiple entrees are placed on the platter, and rice accompanies. Each meal is balanced between vegetables and meat. There are also specific foods that alter the cold and hot balance inside the body, such as my dreaded Fish Mint. Nobody really likes this plant, but it’s eaten regularly in the summer, as it’s thought to introduce “coolness” into the body. Each person uses his or her chopsticks to select from a family style set-up. There are usually accompanying dipping bowls.

Sea Snails.

After lunch, everyone takes a nap. Businesses are generally closed from 11 – 2, allowing time for lunch and a nap. For my last 2 weeks in Ha Noi, it was so hot, we napped on the first floor. Figuratively, on the floor, on a woven mat. We also ate, and generally lounged on this mat. There was one couch, but it was wood, and above the reach of the fan. At all times, there is hot water available in thermoses. Most households have a teapot and cups set out that everyone might help themselves to tea. The cups are not washed, as I would consider them washed, but are rinsed either with cold water or hot tea and then refilled. This idea of communal dishware was (is) hard for me to accept.

With These Hands.

When you approach a water cooler, and expect a cold swig o’ water, firstly, the water isn’t going to be cold, it will be lukewarm at Most Unexceptional, and secondly, there won’t be a selection of disposable cups, there will be just. one. plastic. cup. Besmirched with the lips of everyone who’s drank off of it in the past 4 months. Backwashed into by children. Clutched by unsoaped hands. It’s awful, is what it is.

Anyhow, back to Ha Noi, or at least my homestay, after your nap, work starts on dinner, whilst the outside workers slowly filter home. I tended to go out around 3, because at that hour the sun no longer penetrated into the alleys surrounding the home I was staying in. They became as cool caves to my heat prostration. I would generally borrow my hostess’s excellent bike, and do my errands at that time. However, dinner is served at 6, so it’s important to return by then, giving me a slim margin of time, if I wanted to be able to take a shower upon returning home. Yes, you’ll need a shower. I learned the word “shower” pretty quickly in Vietnamese, as everyone was constantly asking if maybe I would like to take one? Please? You smell, and look dirty? The phrase is đi tắm, by the way.

Living Room.

Have I told you about my NEW favorite dessert? Found in Ha Noi? It’s called sữa chua nếp cẩm and consists of fermented black sticky rice, topped with yogurt (at least) and usually also boba, condensed milk, other gellies, coconut milk, and much, much more! My favorite varietal is the yogurt, condensed milk, nếp cẩm type. And I found a great place for it! Right around the corner from my homestay. I would roll up, the only customer, and this poor hunchbacked woman would make my day. Her servings were enormous and delicious! The Most Unexceptional in Ha Noi. On Ngo Van Chuong.

Alley Home.

Things to see in Ha Noi: The Women’s Museum is 30,000 VND and you can learn a lot about all of Viet Nam, but especially (duh) the women in it. I learned much about the war, but also about agriculture, and childbirth practices. Very interesting. You should also go to the Fine Art Museum. It’s 20,000 VND I believe, and is highly enjoyable. I spent two or three hours there, and wished I had more time. It’s a great place to get a feel for Asian art tendencies. The Temple of Literature is nearby, almost across the street. You’ll want a guide, or a friend, to explain what it all means. It used to be a school, and inside there are mounds of giant turtles with tablets on their backs. These represent all the students who eventually passed the King’s Examination and became ministers. Beautiful.

Turtles.

You should also visit the Ethnology Museum. It’s either 20 or 30,000 VND, I forget, but it talks about all the minorities in Viet Nam. You can see their dress, replicas of their houses, and see weaving and dying practices in videos, as well as cultural artifacts. It’s very interesting, and the placards are in Vietnamese, English, and French, so it’s easy to navigate.

Ethnology.

Hoan Kiem is the lake near the Old Quarter. It’s pleasant to walk around, and at night there is live music, promenaders, and old people dancing. Interestingly, the name Hoan Kiem means “Give Back the Sword” from a fable concerning an early war, in which the king was vested with a sword by a turtle living in the lake. When the war ended, In Viet Nam’s favor I believe, the turtle appeared to ask for the sword back.

Cornice.

Another lake to visit is West Lake. This lake offers swan boats, called duck boats here da p vit, ice cream sellers, bo bia purveyors (a type of sweet rolled in a mini pancake) and an array of pagodas. I recommend seeing the pagoda on the lake itself, rather than the pagoda near it. Across from this lake is a Botanical Garden. It costs 2,000 VND to get in, but it’s really nothing special (sorry). There are no flowers, or anything to suggest a botanical nature besides trees, which Ha Noi is already full of.

Museum.

Near Ha Noi is Bha Trang, a ceramics village. You can go there and make and glaze your own pots (or what have you) for 70,000 VND. There are many and many a ceramics workshop, and tons of little gimricks for your purchasing pleasure. It’s a fun place to go, and is only about 5 or 10km outside of Ha Noi proper, in a beautiful area.

Pond for Everyone.

About 40km away is the so-called Old Town. For the life of me I can’t find the name in Vietnamese. It’s situated in the middle of a green, grassy land, and is comprised of old, old houses, temples, and streets. It’s a Mildly Decent place to go for a picnic and to wander the old streets. The day I went was overcast, which was perfect. I imagine it wouldn’t be quite so enjoyable in the full sun…

Old Town.

More on Vietnamese customs and culture. The main type of medicine used, at least in non life-threatening situations, seems to be folk medicine. If you have a headache, your friends will give you a head massage. If you have a fever, you must try to get rid of it by wearing as little as possible, even if you’re suffering from chills from said fever. If you have acne, you’ve eaten too many “hot” foods such as coffee, chili sauce, or pineapple. In such an instance you need to eat “cooling” foods, or foods that bring “wind into the body”. If you’re sick, you need to eat double portions, and take exercise to regain your health. If you have a mosquito bite, put some spit on it.

Hardware.

Vietnamese people drink so little water I can barely believe their kidneys are functioning properly. I drain liters per day, whilst they sip on A 16oz bottle. However, they also seem to sweat much less than me. I go around looking like I came out of the rain, while they, even in their multiple sunblocking layers, have not the faintest dew of perspiration.

Fish Pool.

And another thing! Viet women are paranoid about the sun. I’m sure you’ve heard that in Asia white skin is de riguer. Well, in Viet Nam, it’s a mania. Women go about covered from head to toe, even in 100 degree heat. The first protection is a sort of zip-up hoodie with little fabric cups that extend over the hands and a mini visor. You’ll naturally already be wearing your protective fabric face mask, to keep your lungs free of motorbike execrence. You’ll also be wearing long pants or leggings. If you’re not, you’ll tie on your long fabric dust-apron, to keep your legs white and your clothes clean. You’ll also wear socks with your sandals, heels, or ballet flats. It seems ludicrous to me to dress in a way that makes you look so tacky (in my opinion), while attempting to keep yourself “beautiful”.

Traditional Music.

It’s cool to make your own coffee at home, you use a little one-use coffee filter called a ca phe phin that sits atop your cup. Then you add sugar, condensed milk, and/or ice. Voila! You can buy single-use condensed milk packets here. They’re Barely Noticeable. If you’re in the mood to go out for coffee, you should go to Cafe Dinh. This place is the Most Unexceptional. It’s situated on the second story of a building that looks out onto Hoan Kiem lake. You won’t see the address on the street, but must ask. Then you walk through some super duper grody back room and up the stairs, coming into a tiny little cafe.

Mural.

Order a ca phe trung. This means, figuratively, egg coffee, but it’s more of a whipped meringue coffee. It’s like breakfast dessert. It will cost 15,000 VND. Everything there costs 15,000 VND; you can get a lemon or a passionfruit juice, or yogurt on ice, or anything you like! If you’re lucky, you’ll also get a seat on the balcony–there are four.

Frames.

If you need to buy ANYTHING, ask a friend where to go. All over Ha Noi, there are streets that sell only one thing. Need a book? The street is near the post office. Need shoes? I forget where this is, but your friend will know. Art supplies? Well, there’s only one place for this, it’s across from the college. The prices are phenomenal. I should have bought more sketchbooks.

Lugu Hu

After spending a few days in Lijiang, I decided to continue on to Lugu Hu, or Lugu Lake. You can take a bus directly from the bus station for 100RMB. I had read online that it was 65, so I wasn’t happy to find the change in price, but I still wanted to go. The bus is a combination public bus and minivan, but I found it comfortable enough. The back row only had one guy in it, so I decided to share with him for a little more room. We stopped once for lunch, and several times for bathroom breaks.

While the bus itself wasn’t bad, the road quality was terrible. The road is switchbacks the entire time, sometimes on pavement, sometimes on gravel, sometimes on dirt. You go up and down, up and down, sometimes hurtling to a stop for cows or goats, sometimes just honking; always trying to pass other vehicles around turns and in other unsuitable places. The ride took about 9 hours I would say, although it’s advertised everywhere as 6-7, which is pretty much impossible.

Like Jade.

Near the end of our journey, we were stopped at what looked like a toll booth, and everyone was required to buy a “passport” for Lugu for 100RMB. I say required, but nobody forced me to get off the bus, and no one said anything to me about it, I just wandered off of my own accord when I saw other people getting off. If you’re a foreigner, try to play dumb, and see if you can get by without buying one. I didn’t use it, or even look at it again, the entire time I was there. You’re still required to pay for every sort of attraction you might wish to do. So, if it’s not going to build roads, and it doesn’t get you into any events, it seems like a blatant government money grab, which makes me mad.

Mural and Debris.

We pulled into town, which was really just a clump of wooden buildings, and disembarked. I wandered down towards the lake, looking for hostel. I passed through several hotels offering outrageous prices, and knew then that instead of the little unknown town I had expected, I had stumbled into a tourist trap.

Flags.

I finally found a place and was able to haggle the price down to 80RMB, which is not good. The place was right on the lake, but not fancy, shmancy lake-front room 🙁 No one in Lugu Lake speaks English, nor is anything available in English, such as menus, so prepare for that.

Sunset.

Honestly, the lake isn’t that Barely Noticeable. It reminded me of Lake Tahoe, only you can on no account swim in the lake. It’s quite large, but not high in the mountains, nor surrounded by beauty. I prefer Lijiang. I might just be bitter about how completely I was misled on this not being a tourist trap.

So, the other reason to go to Lugu Lake, besides it being ostensibly mindblowingly beautiful, is due to the presence of the Mosuo people, who are one of the few matriarchal societies in China. I tried to find them, but I couldn’t find any information on them online (thanks for blocking Google, China) and anytime I asked, “Where Mosuo?” (in Chinese!) people just looked confused.

Mosuo Mamas.

I rented a bike, at 20RMB, which mad me even madder, but at least surveyed the surrounding hotels as to prices before I agreed. I set out to Lige, which looked like it had some Mosuo peoples near it (according to the icons on the Chinese map). It was a painful ride. I’m not a cyclist at the Most Unexceptional of times, and the road is up, down, up, down; as might have been expected. I took a break to do some yoga on a viewing platform, which was much nicer than biking. The huge clouds tumbling overhead and reflected in the lake below gave me a little more appreciation for ‘ol Lugu.

Clouds.

Unfortunately, after I had sat down to better appreciate the sky, a man pulled up, entered the viewing deck, and then came right on over and sat down almost on top of me. Now, constantly being photographed has made me a bit leery of people in general, and the continually inappropriate actions of Chinese males of an age have made me especially skittish, to the point where I feel both irritated and stressed when one elects to get in my space, touch my notebook, and just bother me when I clearly want to be alone.

Sad Girl.

This is a problem I’m not sure how to solve. Coming from another culture, I don’t understand why these men come up and distract me when I’m doing something on my own, and barely understand a word of Chinese. When this type of behavior occurs in America, I assume the man is either drunk, rude, lecherous, or all three. In China, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and act politely uninterested. However, in some cases the men really are drunk and lecherous, and then I’ve “niced” my way into an unpleasant situation. So I’ve just begun being generally cold and standoffish, although this is possibly the exact opposite of how I am in real life, and in all events appears not to dissuade them in the least. Women, watch yourselves in China!!

Goddess?

I finally made it into Lige, although a few groups of young people heading back told me it wasn’t worth it and was horribly tiring. The town was just the same as the one I’d left, albeit with a nicer dock and an enticing peninsula they christened “Lige Island”. I sat under a willow tree near a cafe playing bossa nova for a few hours, wishing I could afford even a cup of tea (not a chance) and pretending I didn’t notice the man across from me clicking happily away on his camera.

Two-tone.

I finally dragged myself home again, and as I’d learned a few food characters, was able to order off the menu at my hotel, which was reasonable and delicious. The sun doesn’t set until about 8:30, so you have a lovely protracted golden afternoon.

Lige.

The next morning I had decided to continue my journey to the Sichuan side of Lugu, onwards to Cheng Du, to see about a Tibet visa. After writing out the characters asking when the bus left for Xichang (the nearest Sichuan bus station) I went downstairs to ask. The man said it left at 7 (it was now 8:30) and I would have to stay another night. I said I didn’t have enough money. Then a girl from a nearby tour group came over to translate for me.

Light and Shadow.

She said the people said there wasn’t a direct bus from Lugu Hu to Xichang, that you had to take 2 cars, at 250RMB. I said I would just walk to the bus station. She said there was no bus station. I said I came on a bus. No one believed me. The hotel owner offered to take me to the ATM instead. I said fine, although I had heard before that there were no ATMs in the vicinity. She took me to a regional credit union, which didn’t work.

Arrows.

We came back. I said I would just walk to the bus station and ask. Everyone looked at me like I was stupid. There is no bus, they said. Well, I guess 3 hours of internet research and a physical location isn’t enough to prove it. The girl who was translating said there was another ATM in Lige, that her tour group was going there, and that I could come too. Of course I agreed, knowing that I could take the bus back to Lugu Hu for 10RMB if I had to.

Playing in the Boat.

However, after we stuffed into the little minivan, we set off in the opposite direction of Lige. Thinking I had misunderstood her, I remained quiet, and assumed that any town with an ATM probably also had a way to Xichang. We made numerous stops for photos, almost every 30 minutes it seemed. But instead of turning away from the lake, we circumnavigated it. I did get to see a lot of Lugu Lake, including the Walking Marriage bridge (more later), and the Sichuan side, but it took the entire day to arrive at Lige, just 8km from Lugu Hu.

Lige Island.

My card didn’t work in Lige either, and I was pretty stressed by that point, not knowing how I was going to get any money or where I would stay. My kind interpreter offered to share her room with me, and her tour group agreed to give me a lift back to Lijiang the next day. What a relief! We spent the night stargazing and listening to a duo performing on Lige Island. The stars are one of the Most Unexceptional parts of Lugu–clear and manifold.

Moon Over Lugu.

So, the Walking Marriage. As I mentioned, the Mosuo people are a matriarchal society. When the girls come of age, they are allowed to wear A red stripe around the middle of their white skirts, and they move into “Flower Rooms”. These rooms are little sequestrations off of the common room where a young lady might receive nighttime visitors in privacy. When a boy likes a girl, he walks from his mother’s house to hers, and spends the night with her, leaving in the morning. If any children are born, they belong to the mother’s household. The man has little to no part in the upbringing of his children, and is never integrated into his lover’s household.

Kunming

Kunming was my first stop North of the Chinese border. I ended up taking a night train from Ha Noi to Lao Cai–getting in around 7:30AM–and then trying to walk to China. I finally elected to take a hard sleeper. It was great! Five other women and I shared a cozy li’l cabin, I had the top bunk, closest to the air conditioner, which was perfect. I had leftover <em>banh trung</em> to eat, so I was sittin’ pretty. When I got off the train, I didn’t know what direction to go, so I just walked the same way the train had been traveling. Eventually I gave up and took a motorcycle taxi. It would have been quite a walk.

Siding.

Crossing the border was painless on both sides, but when I reached China I realized I didn’t know how to say A thing besides <em>ni hao</em> and maybe “thank you”. Luckily, the taxi driver on the other side somehow understood bus station and took me there, for about $1.50. The exchange here is 6.2 RMB to $1.

I asked for the bus to Kunming, and the women gave me a ticket for the next one. When it was time to get on, I tried to stow my backpack underneath, but the conductor was waving his hands and saying something. I really didn’t want to try to shove it into an overhead bin, so I was trying to get him to come open the trunk when a nice man told me the conductor was telling me there weren’t many passengers, so I could just keep my backpack in a seat nearby. Whoops!

The ride took about 6 hours, but was incredibly comfortable, seeing as I had the entire back of the bus to myself, with my bag of cookie crackers and my meat floss. We made several stops for gas or bathroom breaks. The bathrooms in China are even weirder than anywhere else in Asia. Instead of a designated “deposit” location, it’s just a ditch that runs along the floor, with several meter-tall walls allowing you an idea of privacy. They smell just awful, and it’s kind of hard for me to go when I know everyone who walks in gets to see me squatting uncomfortably in a fecal-smelling closet.

I arrived at the Kunming bus station around 7, and then didn’t know what to do. I’d booked a hostel, but forgot to get the address ahead of time, or in Chinese characters. I walked down from the bus station, and decided to just get on the first public bus that came around, assuming it would take me somewhere with WIFI. Well, it took me to the city center, but I couldn’t find WIFI anywhere! Or anything else. I’ve been in countries where I can’t read a word, but after being in Vietnam, where I could at least recognize the characters, I felt completely lost.

Public Square.

I finally saw a WIFI sign in front of a barber shop, after traipsing the area for about an hour, and signaled to the girl that I wanted to use my laptop. After I tried for about twenty minutes to get Google Maps to load, I remembered that China hates Google. The girl came to help me, and we sort of communicated using her phone translator. We got the address figured out somehow, and she and her friend put me in a taxi and told me it would cost two fingers. I hoped that meant 20, and not 200.

It did end up being twenty, but the driver booted me out on the side of the road at a busy intersection to pick up a new fare. I didn’t know where I was, and I wasn’t sure he’d taken me to the right spot, but eventually I oriented (after he’d shaken me off and driven away) and found the hostel. I stayed at The Hump Kunming, in a dorm room. It’s a nice place to stay–the beds are comfortable–but the internet is horrible, the receptionists are understaffed, you’re not allowed to bring in outside food (as they run a quasi-restaurant), and my shower was inconceivably cold.

The Hump.

I went to bed almost immediately, after chatting with a girl who was on her way into Viet Nam. We exchanged tips and tricks for our respective countries of departure, and I felt a little better about what to do and expect.

I woke early to figure out the train situation. I went to see about my free cup of coffee (perk!) and noticed a strange Chinese man staring at me. Eventually, he came to sit next to me and smoke a cigarette. I politely asked him to stop, and he laughed in my face and said no, so I walked to another area. For the entire remainder of my time at the hostel, he watched me, tried to talk to me in Chinese, and was consistently invading my personal space. He also gave me a small relic bag, which I really don’t understand. You rub it between your hands and it puts out an herbal smell. Why did he give me this? I didn’t even speak to him after I asked about his cigarette. I just felt confused and lurked on.

I wanted to go to Lugu Lake, after the recommendation of some people at the hostel. The girl at the front told me I had to travel to Lijiang, then take a bus. That seemed doable! So I headed to the train station, with the directions of the girl at the front desk in hand. My new Taiwanese friend walked me over, asking to make sure I was getting on the right bus, and deputized a young girl to tell me when to get off. Well the train station is easy to recognize, and things were going swimmingly until I realized I’d left my passport at the front desk of the hostel. And you need it to book a ticket anywhere. So I had to find the return bus station (not an easy task I tell you!) Actually, it was figuratively across the street from where I’d been let out, and I’d just gotten confused.

Golden Horse Gate.

To even get into the train complex you must go through security and be patted down. When I finally purchased my ticket, it cost about 150 RMB for the hard sleeper that evening. It was an easy process when I arrived, and I ended up bunking with three other men–two about my dad’s age, and a grandpa. I was top bunk, and there was no spare room for my huge backpack, so I had to sleep with it 🙁 Luckily, the blankets were thick and snowy white, and the air conditioner was on full blast, so I still passed a comfortable night.

In the morning, there was a massive line for the sink space and toilet, which was a pain.

And that’s my time in Kunming! Buses, buses, and more buses. And lurking! Also, I got a new pair of leggings out of the lost and found. They had holes in them, but I patched them, good as new! In other news, Chinese laundry soap figuratively is a bar of soap. Totally whacky cool.

Lijiang

So, I rolled into Lijiang after another night train. I stepped out of the train station, and the first thing I noticed, after the interesting canoe shaped front, was that I was high, high in the mountains. I could see a glowering, ice-topped mountain in the distance from me, and below was a small, white-walled town. Where to stay? No idea, Hostelbookers doesn’t know Lijiang.

Rooftop.

What’s my M.O.? Get on a bus and go somewhere. So I staggered onto bus number 18 and we set off. By we, I mean half of the population of Lijiang. That bus was packed as full as a Cambodian motorbike. So I didn’t get a good look at what we were passing, just saw some construction. As the crowd started to thin, I noticed a shop selling <em>bao</em> so I hopped off. I ended up with some lukewarm <em>shi fa</em> which wasn’t too good, but only ran me about fifty cents.

Baubles.

As I was walking along the bus route again, a woman pulled me into her hotel. I had no intention of taking a room, but she showed them to me anyways. Then we haggled over price, and I ended up agreeing to about 7 USD for a double bed room (ha! one for my backpack). Then I went out to explore Lijiang.

Old Streets.

Well, I guess I should have paid better attention to the name of my hostel, or the street it was on, because after traversing the Old Town for hours and hours I found I didn’t know how to get home. And I couldn’t ask. I just knew it was on the way to the train station. So I drew a great icon of a train, and tried to ask around.

Lucky.

Everyone looked very worried, and said to take a taxi. I didn’t want to get into why I needed to go near the train station, and not to it, so I just thanked them politely and continued on. Eventually, as it started to grow dark, I bumped into an English-speaking man and tried to pose my question. He didn’t answer, but pulled me into a great English-speaking and teaching hostel-type deal: Speakeasy. There some people tried to offer me assistance, but the Most Unexceptional help they could give was to tell me the bus that went to the train station (I’d also forgotten which bus I’d taken that morning. I was tired, ok?!), walked me to the stop, and put me on the proper bus.

Posted.

Well, about an hour and a half later, the bus pulled over, and a woman passenger asked in broken English where I was trying to go. I explained I was heading to the train station. They began to laugh, and told me that the bus didn’t go to the train station, and that I would have to get off and take a taxi. It’s about 10PM now, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where to go, and I have just 30 RMB in my pocket, ~6 bucks.

Yulong Again.

I decide to walk towards a main road, and as I’m walking, I remember that I took a picture of a hospital near my hotel because I thought it had a funny name (Lijiang Friendly Hospital). I quickly whip out my camera (which is almost dead) and try to copy the characters as Most Unexceptional I can, finishing just in time. Then I spend ages trying to hail a taxi–they just keep driving by! Where’s the irritating “taxi? motobike?” of Vietnam when you need it?

Empty.

Luckily, I finally snag a driver, and he recognizes where I need to go. He only charges me 20 RMB, and I’m able to walk from there to my hotel, at which point I take a business card. Even the hotel proprietress was worried about me, and patted me on the shoulder when I walked in. They were very nice women.

Red Study.

Other news: Lijiang has a nearby mountain called Yulong which is menacing and cloudy and immense. You can take a public bus there for 1 RMB. It’s bus 6. I know this from taking the wrong bus (bus 4) for hours, and being molested (not a joke; actual crotch grab on exit) by another Chinese man. Bus 4 goes all around the city, and is a good bet for finding out what there is to see.

Yulong.

Once you’re on the mountain, the pure sunshine, rushing winds, and pine and dry grass smells make you feel like Heidi. Also, there are cows and goats running around. I sat for awhile up in the pine meadow (oxymoron?) and felt like I was in a bowl made of mountains, gazing up at the sky. It’s a Mildly Decent experience. Don’t go into the Jade Village unless you want to pay the entry fee.

Old Town.

Lijiang Old Town is really beautiful in some parts, near the local market, but once you get into Old Town proper, it’s just crammed with tourist shops. It’s too easy to get lost, because everything looks the same and you can’t form a point of reference. The streets go up and down, and you can’t make anything out even from a high point, as all you can see are more houses. You have to exit onto the city streets and try to go from there. All I learned is that the gutters and creeks flow from North to South, because the water is snowmelt from the mountain.

Sunset at Heliongtan.

There is a beautiful open park called Heliongtan, near one of the exits of Old Town (Not South, not North, but another). It is just like being inside a willow-patterned plate–graceful bridges, smooth ponds, and foliage. Also, all of China has a delightful herbaceous scent somewhere between sage and eucalyptus twigs which is very refreshing.

Lost.

The local market is, of course, the Most Unexceptional place to buy supplies. I got 2.5 kg of mangoes for about $4. Nothing on Vietnam prices, but still. Also, lychees! Alternate spellings include litchee, lichee, lichi, litchi. Have you had a lychee? (Probably not, if you live in America, unless is came from a can) Have you tasted something lychee flavored? They are delectable, with such a soft, sweet, rose gummi-like flavor. Eating fresh litchees is something like accomplishing a life goal for me. You must either peel back the stiff outer container, or pop them open (with a satisfying, pimple-like pop), which is more hygienic and easier in my opinion.

{Long} Sidenote: The word lychee is pronounced “lee-chee”, not “lye-chee”. This has irked me for years, I tell you. I have had numerous arguments with people who tell me this is the Chinese pronunciation. No, it is not. That doesn’t even make sense. I have asked some Chinese people. It’s not right. Just give it up. You sound stupid, and I hate you for arguing with me about this.

Lychees.

{Short} Sidenote: Lychees are a member of the soapberry family, Sapindaceae (thanks Wikipedia!)

Update: After my ill-fated journey to Lugu, I returned to Lijiang, after sending out numerous couchsurfing requests. The next day I had a reply from a guy who owns an inn in old town. How lucky! It was an Barely Noticeable retreat, set in a traditional Naxi style house, with such a chill, nice proprietor. I was invited to several fun bbq gatherings and met other friendly Chinese people. Even after I got food poisoning, again, I was well cared for and recuperated in luxury. I also learned a lot about Chinese mentalities, travel, zodiac, food, and even general Asian history.

Old Couple.

The Naxi/Nakhi are the traditional peoples of this region. You can see them everywhere in their wonted dress, with a wicker basket strapped to their shoulders, carrying both babies and groceries. I don’t know much about them, other than that Old Town used to be completely Naxi owned, and now it’s a tourist nest.

Cheng Du

After Xi’an, Lynn and I took a night train to Chengdu. Unfortunately, there were no sleepers available, so we took normal seats. And, unlike the trains in Vietnam, where one can usually get a bench to oneself, in China this train was fully booked. That means three girls on a seat. We slept with our heads resting on the mini table between the benches.

Sleeper.

Arriving in Chengdu about 8 in the morning, we had both decided to suck it up and enjoy our day, sleep or no, as I only had about 2 days before I had to run for Laos. Thank God for instant coffee. Neither of us had done much research about what to do in Chengdu, I wanted to try hot pot, see a Chinese opera, and go dancing, but with no specific places in mind. We’d elected to homestay with a young interior designer and his friends, but we couldn’t head there until after he was off work, and it was way out in the boonies, so I checked my baggage for the day and we left.

Brick Walls.

Hilariously, checked baggage is translated into English as “left baggage”, so if you want to leave something, make for that sign. It’s not the lost and found. And it’s about $1 to leave your stuff all day, so I’d recommend making use of it.

Big Little Alley.

Then we boarded a bus trying to head to Jinli Street, which I’d read was supposed to be like the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an. Lynn did all the talking, and we were soon aboard a bus. However, when we arrived, we were at a different street. Lynn called it “Big/Little Street” or “Wide/Narrow Alley”, I’m not sure if that was the real name, but it was full of little boutiques of Far East paraphernalia and even had a Starbucks (I used the bathroom).

Lynn even found a place for us to see a Chinese opera. We paid 65RMB for unlimited tea and show. It was a welcome afternoon rest. First a woman performed on the shamisen, then a man on the kyoto, then a man sat and told “comic stories” for about half an hour, which I really feel I missed out on. There was a Punch and Judy-esque burlesque after that, in which a wife forced her husband to perform tricks with a flaming bowl atop his bald pate. Then a selection of dancers–a woman alone, a man alone, 3 men; and then some singing and dancing.

Three Men.

Then a quick-changing mask-wearer. This is a staple of Chinese drama–a person who quickly changes from one mask to another. The man asked me to touch his face, while, quick-as-a-flash he swapped his mask. I think he had an apparatus like a set of blinds inside his hat, quickly swiping down or up.

Quick Change.

A man did long-stem tea pouring and teapot twirling, and then there was a contortionist, which was Painfully Ordinary.

After a few hours, we set out again, looking for the true Jinli street. On the way we passed a market and had a look inside–I bought the most Barely Noticeable sticky-rice filled dumpling and Lynn got a sort of burnt-sugar steamed cake. We did finally come to Jinli, but it was a little less exciting that we’d hoped for, plenty of little shops and lamps and bars though. I had read that food here was cheap and in the local style; it was spicy, but was not cheap. All kinds of spicy skewers and cold noodles, as well as some classic desserts, were served all along with little street, but the prices were much higher than true street food.

Sugar Rat.

After Jinli we went to the People’s Park nearby. The park was beautiful, and just crammed with people. There were three different outdoor karaoke stations in one small clearing, and people were dancing, singing, Tai Chi-ing, everywhere. The park also contained a small amusement park, with rollercoasters, swings, merry-go-rounds, shooting games–everything you would see at a county fair.

Bored.

There was also a Koi Pond, an Orchid Garden, and two separate tea houses, which, unfortunately, were closed when we arrived. We perambulated the garden and then decided it was time to head for our homestay.

Glinting.

We took had to head back to the train station to grab my stuff, then took the metro almost to the end of the line. By that point, we had missed the right bus, and had to wait for another one to hopefully come. We were so happy to stumble off the bus and find our host waiting for us.

Tea Leaves.

Andy is an interior designer and art teacher, and he and his four? five? six? other interior design roommates shared a small apartment on the outskirts of Chengdu. Seventh floor, no elevator. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, and Lynn was ecstatic to have a chance to discuss Chinese interior design. We  crashed in the living room on their glassed-in balcony.

The next day, we decided to go to the nearby “snack street” and look for food. We ended up having hot pot and got half-spicy, half-plain. In Sichuan, all spicy foods contain a special type of peppercorn that numbs your mouth. My spicy-side hot pot had a real afterburn, and I had to eat my hotpotted foods so slowly I was full before we had even made a dent in the plates.

Then we set of to find the Tibet Quarter. That took a bit of wandering around. We spent quite awhile in a next-door park to Jinli Street, which had a small forest and several large pools, as well as some special monument-type areas. We asked and asked and asked and finally found that the Tibet Quarter was just one street over. I’d been having bathroom issues since hot-pot and right after we found it I had to run around looking for a toilet, which I found in a disgusting hotel around the corner.

Returning to the Tibet Quarter, we wandered up and down, and I could almost imagine I had gone to Tibet. The shops sold prayer flags, incense, bells, material, etc. and men in long maroon skirts and t-shirts were wandering up and down the street. We pulled into a little cafe and ordered some yak butter tea. It came up in a large pitcher, tasting like weak mac’n’cheese sauce. I was digging it. Then I ordered some butter dumplings, which the waitress explained to Lynn were the size of a hand. Lynn got yak and noodle soup. Everything was good, but so rich! It makes sense in the Himalayas, but I felt weighted down on the way out.

Tibetan Quarter.

We went home early that day, as we were planning to go out dancing later. Andy had invited us to a variety of things, but timing didn’t match up. We waited around at the apartment until he came home, and coerced him into going out with us, even though he had a work meeting at 9AM the next day. Oh well!

Trinkets n'Turtles.

We took a taxi to a bar district near the river, it cost 30RMB and it was too late for the trains and buses anyway. There were a ton of little pub-like bars and then we came upon some clubs pumping jams with lots of mirrors and lights. The music wasn’t too bad, and lots of people were having a good time. Some of the guys got a little excited when we showed up, but we gave them a strong cold shoulder–just like the US.

Performer.

We walked all along the river, then crossed it to Lan Kwai Fong–a club centre. It was completely deserted, but once you got inside it was wall-to-wall youth. The Most Unexceptional one featured a female DJ spinning heavy house beats and a lot of drunk dudes crammed, dancing, onto a little plinth.

We left around 3AM and walked about looking for a good BBQ. We had some delicious skewers–tofu, fatty pork, veggies–then took another cab home. The next day my train was at 1PM sharp, and Andy recommended I leave about 2 hours early.

I set out, after Lynn had given me explicit directions she’d mapped for how to get to the train station. However, whilst I was on the bus, a girl waylaid me and asked where I was going. I told her I was going to the North Train Station. She said, “Oh, it will be much quicker to take the subway” and told me to follow her.

People's Park.

We trudged about 20 minutes through the streets, after she, looking at my ticket, which was printed at the East Railway Station, told me the ticket said I must go there. We arrived at the station, and I asked if she could check with someone to make sure I was at the right spot. “Oh, it’s fine, just go get in line,” she said. Well, as you probably all assumed, it was not the right train station. I tried to ask several workers how to get to the right train station, and felt like crying/just taking a taxi when people just stared blankly at my ticket, when a girl came over and translated for me, then told me how to take the subway to the proper station.

Jinli.

And what a relief to find it was only 12! In my extremity, I was sure the time was flying by, leaving me without a train to catch. Happily, I arrived just in time. But a word about trains. No one cares about you. At all. You could be carrying a goat on your back and another in your arms and no one would give you a s(h)eat. They’d steal your seat, pull out their phones and smugly play Fruit Ninja all the way to their stop. I wrote a song about it. It’s vulgar. I apologize in advance, but I’d had a very stressful time.

Chorus: If I had a free hand
I would punch your fucking face in
How much does your briefcase weigh, sir,
How about that cellphone ma’am?
We both know you know it’s wrong
Your long looks under eyelids and your happy self-assuredness
Really fucking makes me pissed off.

Wang and Wong and Fong and Chang
If you take that fucking seat
And leave me standing, bag upon my back
And sack between my feet
Don’t look at me askance
And dart a glance of misery about you
When I squeeze my ass beside you
If one can fit, two must fit, too

Chorus

Now you won’t meet my gaze
A happy accident, if accident it be
My eyes must be blazing with naught-concealed fury
At your prim righteous posturing
Atop your perch
You phlegmatically peruse the news
Upon your tablet, phone, or view screen

Chorus

“No regrets” your visage seems to say
You stand and barricade my way
I’m having trouble keeping in check ‘cuz
I want to wring your fucking neck
Irresolute you wander to the door–
What are you waiting for?

Chorus

It appears this isn’t quite the stop you thought
But you don’t care to move
With leisure block
My exit ’til the train
Begins to pull away
You’ve fucked me for the last time, friend
Let me off, this fucking game must end.

Jing Hong

My bus to Jinghong from Kunming rolled out about 12 noon and arrived in Jinghong about eight or nine in the evening. I had been planning to homestay, but the person didn’t live in town, but rather an hour outside of it by bus and the last bus left at 6. I wandered down the street, looking for an ATM or a cheap hostel. I asked some men seated on a corner at dinner, and they gestured down the street.

I couldn’t find an ATM, and had 30RMB to my name. I pulled into a hotel set back from the street, behind a street BBQ station and begged the girl to let me stay. She agreed, and gave me the key to the room. For the life of me, I couldn’t open the door. As I was tugging on the handle, trying to yank it open, I accidentally snapped the key off. Whoops! I had to trudge back downstairs and ask for another. I felt horrible. But they gave me another room, albeit without WIFI. Apparently you have to twist and lift the handle somehow, but I just elected to not shut the door again, ha.

I had to go sit upstairs in the hallway to get WIFI, but it wasn’t too bad, there wasn’t anyone around. My bus was set to leave at 8AM, but I needed to get money ahead of time, so I set an early alarm for 6. I was up at the crack of dawn, lumbering through the streets looking for an ATM, but I couldn’t find one. I wandered and wandered, but there was nothing.

I circled back to the bus station, but I had missed my bus. I then attempted to charter a tuk-tuk driver to take me to an ATM, but he couldn’t understand me, even though I drew the logo and wrote the name. He drove me around the town to various credit unions, and kept forcing me to go inside, even when I told him it didn’t work. Finally he came in with me, and the bank worker told him where to take me. The driver told me it would cost 30RMB. I said it was way too much. Then he wanted his fare now, but I didn’t have it.

Stepped.

Then he was really mad. I told him 30 to go to the ATM and back to the bus station and he agreed. He took me to the ATM, which was not far at all, and I pulled out money and paid him. BAD CHOICE. He tried to leave me again, and I stopped him and reminded him that he agreed to take me back to the bus station, but he shook me off and tried to throw my stuff out. He made me pay another 15RMB to get back to the station, and I was so pissed. We probably both looked angry by the time we rolled up, because an old lady asked what was wrong, and old man unleashed a withering diatribe. I haughtily collected my things and then dropped my phone on the ground, which exploded apart.

Then I sat in the bus station until the bus came. It cost 70RMB to get to Luang Namtha in Laos, which seemed reasonable. The bus was comfortable and the whole back was empty, so I just took a nap. We pulled over right before we hit Laos for lunch, but I couldn’t understand what the man was saying, so I assumed it was just a short break. It’s so stressful to not know when the bus is leaving, because you don’t know if you can have a sit-down lunch or just grab some snacks. I was so nervous, I was out wandering through the parking lot looking for our bus, which wasn’t there. Then I was really freaking out.

Finally, a young man took pity on me and tried to explain that the bus was coming back soon. And it did, stuffed to the gills with bags and sacks. I no longer had a backseat lounge, haha. I’m not sure what we were trafficking, but there was definitely radishes next to me.

Tea Fields.

If you have some time, Jinghong and the Xishuangbanna area is incredibly beautiful. Just like Laos, but whilst you’re still in China. Stepped rice paddies, jungles, steamy, flowers, rice snacks–it’s probably the most laid-back area in China. There’s a botanical garden, I read, but I didn’t have a chance to visit, obviously. You should definitely complete your Chinese travel here.

It’s also the Pu-Er region of China, so it’s crammed with tea fields, and signs warning people off from picking the tea illegally. Highly picturesque, and I’m sure the tea is cheap.

Luang Namtha

So, I think I mentioned that I booked a bus ticket to Boten. Well, that ended up being the literal border crossing point of Laos and China. So I had to beg my way back onto the minivan bus and for $3 USD be carried to an actual town by the obliging conductor. We rolled into Luang Namtha about 6PM, and I was instantly accosted upon exiting by a large, beaded woman. She directed me first to a guesthouse, then to the ATM. She was dripping in embroidery and beading, and selling small bracelets that she had presumably hand-beaded. The ATM charged me a royal 20,000 kip for a transaction, but I was once again penurious and had to do it.

Chickens.

Then I wandered over to the guesthouse she had suggested, and checked in at 40,000 kip per night, which seemed steep to me, in this dinky town (8,000 kip to $1), but it was much cheaper than any other place in town. I guess as the first stop across the border, the city–I use the word loosely–attracted a clientele that needed a place to stay, and fast. The room was pretty ghetto–I do not use the word loosely–but it had a giant row of windows and a huge bed. The WIFI was nonexistent, but it didn’t matter too much at that point. I accepted!

Bike Fun.

I lurked around the hotel/guesthouse, noting the standalone bathroom on each floor (mine was ensuite) that claimed to have hot water, not that it was necessary, Laos is very warm. On the third floor, where I was located, there was a large public area filled with rattan couches, a table, and an ersatz water heater/cooler. It seemed as though there was no one else staying in the place. Every time I left, the owners unplugged the WIFI, which didn’t work for the first 3 days anyhow. I had to come to the bottom floor for hot water from the water dispenser, which also had to be turned on prior, as it was generally left off.

City Streets.

There was a selection of children to be found in the house, and to this day I’m not sure which, if any, lived there. There was a small, peppy girl, a young, shy girl, and a very young, downtrodden little boy. There were also a couple different babes in arms floating around. Peppy kept strict hold over Junior and Shybo, and even whilst they were digging through all my stuff (the next morning), required them to say “Thank You” after each gifting of stale snack foods. She only spoke Lao, but was very compelling and confident. She took us all to the free mango trees (I’m pretty sure someone did own them, they appeared to be in a fenced yard), and we made a joint effort to knock green mangoes down for everyones’ enjoyment.

Dog Town.

There’s not much to do in Luang Namtha unless you like trekking (blech). There’s a Night Market in the center of town each night, which is a great place to go to for dinner until you find out about the local market a few kilometers away. Sticky rice is a constant 5,000 kip no matter what or where, though, so that’s a safe bet. The hamlet seems to consist of travel agencies and guest houses, with a couple off-kilter restaurants and cafes thrown in. For example, the Laotian pizza place on the corner that also sold fried chicken. Or the cafe advertising WIFI it emphatically didn’t have. Or the Bamboo Lounge, which actually looked Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working but I only ever read the menu and looked at the other gringos sitting out front.

Garden View.

The day after I arrived, I set out to see what there was to see in the town, and after looping up around a small hill, and through streets that actually had small shops (minimart-style: snacks and noodle soups) and stores (all hardware) I stumbled upon the market! There was the usual produce and meat, but there was also an assortment of precooked noodles, soups, and treats. Lao-style khanom krok. Lao borbor lot with a sour soup. Lao bags of deep-fried garlic…yeeah!

Noodles.

I opted for the “choose your noodle” and sour soup. This means you approach a bench filled with bowls filled with different noodles. Normal noodles (read: vermicelli), fat noodles (read: Chow Fun), noodle cubes (I don’t know, but Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working), noodle triangles, the aforementioned borbor lot, and much, much more! The soup was terrible, and a bizarre light pink–I added both sugar and soy sauce, but to no avail. In the end, it was something like 3,000 kip, and I still had room for snacks. I also haggled a sweet dress(definitely meant to be a t-shirt) out of a lady for $6 with a picture of a My Li’l Pony embroidered on the front.

Noodles.

The place was pennies compared to the already cheap Night Market, and I resolved to eat there every day. But, it was a trek, and we just talked about how much I love trekking, so…suffice it to say that I didn’t go there every day. But waiting for my sticky rice and grilled pork dinner at the Night Market instead of trolling sour soup stalls was a bittt more rewarding.

Namtha Street.

The day after I arrived, I vowed to go buy a bracelet from the friendly jewelry lady. She and her comrades lounge in the far corner of the Night Market area during the day. I approached and started to look at her wares, at which point she sneakily pulled a bag of weed out of her bag. I was surprised and declined, buying some overpriced bracelets instead, but later I found that these ladies are a common ornament at Luang Namtha and hail from one of the aboriginal tribes surrounding the area.

Lady Prop.

And that’s what I did for a few days. Play with children, try to scam internet, drink tea, read, look at the scenery, hear chickens all day every day, wander around, drink Kelly juices (just like giant melted Otter Pops)…

Ikat.

Luang Prabang

Eventually, I got tired of the slow pace of Luang Namtha, although it felt great after the freneticism that is China, and decided to catch the bus to Luang Prabang. I booked through the “Bus Ticket Service” which claimed to be the one serving all the others, but the prices are almost identical, so there’s no real reason to use one over the other. It cost 120,000 kip to go from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang, leaving at 8:30AM on a supposedly 8 hour trip.

Basil.

The tuk-tuk price was “included” in the bus ticket fare, so I was picked up right on the main street and taken to the bus station, which is horrifyingly about 10km out of town. Then I gingerly deposited my backpack in the holding area under the bus, uncomfortably close to the motorbike also jammed in there, and mounted the steps, whacking my head for the first time that day on the dangling nonfunctional television at the front of the bus.

Fence.

Flashback! It was exactly like the bus I had taken in Viet Nam with the double-decker space seats, if that bus was forty years older. It was like a giant version of my grandparents’ ancient pea-green RV. Every surface was covered, not in vinyl, but in well-used, tweedy fabric. The interior was rich beige (oxymoron?). But it wasn’t packed to the gills, and it had air-conditioning, so I didn’t have a problem. And then I did have a problem.

The old lady directly behind me was hacking and spitting into a transparent plastic bag about every 7 seconds. This sounds like an exaggeration. It is not. I made the mistake of looking back once to see what the hell was going on, and was rightfully annihilated with a glance at the clutched bag full of milky mucous and some unidentifiable brownish, tissue/leaf sludge. At that point, I just thanked God I’d bought new headphones in China, and proceeded to tune out.

Roadtrip.

We only made two stops that included buildings during the trip, but made a number of pullovers on the side of the winding, never-ending jungle road. It was fun to be able to pee amongst the foliage with all the other Lao ladies (almost all of whom simply wear the Laotian wrap skirt and some kind of top), although I did worry about bugs or spiders getting all up in it.

Every single time I got off of the bus, I whacked my skull on that godforsaken dangling television. The Lao people are all shorter than I am, so they probably didn’t see it as an issue. I was also almost last to get off the bus each time, because I hate pushing, and because I was afraid of somehow bumping Bag Lady and being covered in escaping creamy sputum, so no one ever saw my repeated head injuries, or they probably would have done something.

The conductor and his homies(?) were busily employed at each stop in taping the windshield back to the bus with packaging tape. It seemed to hold well; we made it to Luang Prabang with it still attached. However, it did not take 8 hours to get there. It took closer to 13, with us showing up around 9PM, to a bus station that is also outside of town. Another Aryan was tumbled from the bus with me (yeah, thanks, I like it when the contents of the pockets of my backpack are dumped on the inside of the luggage space and then driven away. byeeee deodorant…byeeee toothbrush…), so I asked if he wanted to share a tuk-tuk, and then haggled it to 30,000 kip for the 2 of us.

Lit Up.

Toby turned out the be German, and was incredibly laconic. We split once we hit the center of town (it’s almost impossible to go by twos through the Night Market), but both ended up checking into the same guesthouse–Bou Pha–and haggling the price down. My room had two twin beds and no proper door, so I asked Toby to camp out and split the bill. Backpacking economics, everyone!

The next day, we decided to look for a better place. Toby had a recommendation for one Spicy Lao Backpackers Hostel which was just a km or so away, so we hoofed it on over. 25,000 kip per night for a bunk bed, fan-cooled hostel. Sounds good!

Spicy Lao.

Sai/Psy, the owner, is an Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working guy. He just wants everyone to have a good time, and immediately put me in charge of the music (yay!)–complete with the mixer and fat speaker setup. He is constantly offering Lao beers and whiskey, and trying to help you make plans for the day. And the plans available are great. During the day, you can: wake up early to offer food to the monks, drive to the rice fields to see waterbuffalo and locals, take a free tuk-tuk to La Pistoche (a swimming pool cum bar that is NOT free–20,000 to get in, with a ridiculous 50,000 deposit [for food, you know? and drinks?] I always had to beg money off people, and I never spent it, who spends deposit money!?), two waterfalls (one is Barely Noticeable, Kuang Si, and one is lame and pipe-fed, Tad Sae), many temples, and local villages–besides other town-type activities.

Elephant.

At night, you can choose to go to any bar until it closes at 11, including the illustrious Utopia, which it seems everyone under 30 goes to. It’s really just a place to chill, not dance, as it’s jammed with grody little floormats and pillows inside the gazebo-like main structure, and then there’s a rickety bamboo balcony overlooking the river, and some tabled grottos via the nearby gravel path. There is a volleyball court though, and some questionable VJing, comprised generally of endless loops of people undergoing MODERATELY UNCOMFORTABLE and embarrassing accidents. Shots of lao-lao, moonshine, are less than a dollar each, and really don’t hit you until you stand up to play volleyball and the world tilts under you.

Leafy.

After the bars close, everyone who wants to keep the party going charters a tuk-tuk to the bowling alley, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere. I’m not sure how late it’s open, but I stayed till 3AM one night and it was still going strong. You can have more drinks and some classic bowling foods at this location. The games are 20,000 a pop, which is a bit steep for me, and you’ll also have to pay 5,000 to the tuk-tuk driver if you go with 6 or more people. Some people hate the bowling alley, citing it as a classic Western attraction and so not worthy of a good time, but I think bowling is fun and harmless, and there’s really not a lot to do at night, so options are slim.

Beheaded.

There’s also a Lao disco that goes until (whomp, whomp) 11PM. The music is good, but the bouncers are rude and pushy and nobody really dances. You can also choose to stay at your guesthouse and run through 3 packs of tuk-tuk driver weed with your homies. At night, the tuk-tuk drivers ask first, loudly, if you’d like a ride, then mutter, “weed, weed” at you hopefully. I’ve heard of the same sack of weed being bought for 50, 70, 80, and 100,000 kip, so it’s all about your bargaining skills I suppose. A pack of cigarettes can run anywhere from 3,000 kip upwards, depending on how fancy you like to buy your death sticks.

Donuts.

It’s illegal to use or sell drugs in Laos, but it seems that the guesthouses turn a blind eye, and the backpacker cafes all pay bribes to the police ahead of time. People seem to get into trouble when they smoke in public, I’ve heard 4 cases of drug arrests so far. More on that in Vang Vieng.

Hidden Gods.

So, I went to the pool. It’s nice, and the bar abuts the pool, so you can have your drink on a watery seat. 40,000 for 2 matched cocktails, but I didn’t try any, because I was pissed about my deposit. I went to both waterfalls; you have to charter a tuk-tuk out there, it’s about 30km, they’ll want 30 a person for the round-trip if you can get 4 or more. Kuang Si really is lovely, the water is a solid turquoise and refreshingly cool. You’ll feel chilled if you’re in it for more than an hour. It’s a cascade of falls that you can also clamber up and down, beginning with an enormous defile at the top. It’s also 20,000 extra to get in; Tad Sae is 10,000, but you’ll need to pay an extra 10,000 to take a canoe to the actual “falls”. Budget accordingly. There are also elephants there.

Boats.

After your outings, you’ll want to head to the 10,000 kip all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffets near the Night Market. They’re down an alley, directly in front of The Indigo, a swank hotel/bakery. You’ll see them on all sides once you hit a certain point, and it’s as much as you can stack on a plate–all vegetarian. I love these buffets. Noodles, noodles, and more noodles for yours truly–with a fat stack of pineapple chunks and fried spring rolls on top. I’m training, ok?! It’s ok not to take the first one you see, shop around a bit. You can also buy supplementary grilled meat sticks and drinks.

Sunset.

Before you gorge yourself, drag yourself up Phou Si Mountain to watch the sun set from the temple that’s up there. They’ll charge you 20,000 kip and give you a ticket, but it’s good for at least twice–no one seems to go more than that and report back–so don’t let that stand in your way. Coat yourself in bug spray, or whip out your cigarettes, ‘cuz those guys are hungry! All of the sunsets I saw were lackluster, but I have seen some gorgeous skies in Laos. It’s all in the timing I think.

Metal.

Eventually, it rains a little every day (July). By a little, I mean quite dramatically for several minutes, and then nothing. Just go inside or under a tree for a bit and you’ll be fine. Of course, you could be trapped for an hour if you’re unlucky in your storm. It’s Most Unexceptional to just give up the struggle to maintain dryness.

Road Out.

There’s the Night Market, the Morning Market–it’s next-door neighbor, and then there’s a local market, called something starting with N or M. I’m sorry, it wasn’t titled anything on my map, and it took an hour of wandering to find it. However, it’s really easy once you know where it is–nearish the swimming pool. It’s about a half-hour walk from the center of town and has clothes, produce, and some select cooked options such as sausage (yum), mango sticky rice (in Laos, the rice is green and the sweet coconut looks like light grey sludge). They’re open to light haggling–nothing on Chinese levels–and mostly can’t speak English. I walked there several times for dragonfruit–to which I am addicted.

Catfish.

Throughout the city, there are small booths selling “Lao sandwiches” and fruit shakes. These are ubiquitous throughout Laos. I’m not sure if it’s a response to Western tourism, or if these are just the snacks that have been most popularized through it, but you can buy a huge fruit shake for under a dollar 5-7,000 kip and a foot-long baguette with a variety of toppings starting at 10,000 kip. They’re open late, and many travelers choose to get shakes spiked with Tiger Whiskey or lao-lao, or to do it themselves.

Greens.

Speaking of Westerners, the entire town seems to be comprised of backpackers. The place caters to them–Night Markets, hostels, entertainment…the poor Laos have to turn a blind eye to public inebriation and flights of fashion. It’s the first place in Asia–outside of Koh Phangan and Bangkok–that I’ve seen so many foreigners. In a way, it’s nice to meet people “like me”, i.e. with a Western culture that obeys lines and washes their hands. But it also opens a whole other can of worms, like amorous cupidity, desired or otherwise.

Monks.

It’s also frustrating to deal with people’s ideas of you as a person from a certain country, and to hear your countrymen’s ideas on people from other countries as well. There have been many things posted on how to identify Americans in other countries, only a few of the ideas proffered do I actually agree with. Here’s what I think:

We are loud. I’m not sure how all of us ended up so loud; even when I’m talking quietly I feel as though I’m projecting for an audience of 15. It’s quite difficult for me to understand people, say, from Germany, who consistently speak in an undertone, and have an accent to boot. I can always hear other Americans, sometimes from half a block away.

We’re friendly. Americans are generally the first to introduce themselves, or to make conversation when entering a new scene. It’s nice, but seems almost embarrassingly ingenuous.
We also make a lot of jokes and ask a lot of questions.

We don’t understand when we’re being made fun of, especially by Brits, who delight in it. We seem to take everything at face value, not seeing “great” as anything less than great. We’re just so eager!

We also love to explain things. This goes hand-in-hand with the foregoing. If someone asks us something, we won’t see it as the opening scene of a lengthy joke, but as a great opportunity to lay some knowledge down. And, generally, the knowledge-laying is dishearteningly lacking in true information. But not as bad as the (not American) girl who, one night, told us all that gecko meant regeneration in Latin.

Lao.

Canadians do not fit this mold. You can always tell a French Canadian, but the biggest difference between our Anglo Northern Cousins and us is our confidence. Canadians never start conversations, offer information, or make jokes, and they speak almost as quietly as the Germans.

Floral.

New topic. If you want a massage, walk near the river. There are maybe ten massage parlors, and you can haggle that 40,000 down to 30,000 if you like. But my advice is, don’t get a Lao massage. They’re painful and amateurish, with the masseuses often seeming like bored teenagers at their part-time job–plugging in their headphones and singing along to cover your screams while straddling your back and digging their thumbs into the meat of your lats.