We saw this sign each time we walked between our hotel and downtown when we visited Sa Pa, Vietnam. Vietnam is a long, skinny, S-shaped country in Southeast Asia running north-south beside the South China Sea to the east (or “East Sea,” as it is known in Vietnam). By land, Vietnam is bordered by China to the north, by Laos to the northwest, and by Cambodia to the southwest. North-to-south, it measures about 1650 kilometers (just over 1000 miles) and is about 50 kilometers (just over 30 miles) wide at the widest point. In area, it is approximately the size of Germany. Sa Pa is in the northwest, and the cities listed in the first four lines of the bus sign are in the North with Sa Pa. Of the cities in the last line, Hue is about halfway down Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City (“Saigon”) is in the South.
Bus from Sa Pa
This photo was taken on February 16, 2017. Specs are:
This morning, Pati was awoken by the sound of chanting in the street below, and so he and BeeBee rushed out onto their balcony to see a line of 11 saffron-robed monks in front of the restaurant next door, the Three Sisters. When they finished their chant, they glided in a single line down the street toward the same street corner the monks stopped at yesterday. Less than a minute later, another line of 10 monks appeared, their bowls reflecting the street lights. They stopped at the same place as the first group, where a woman sat on a little plastic stool with her offerings. Again the chant was heard, and then this group also glided single-file down the street to join the rest of the monks at the street corner.
Since the guide and driver were not coming until 1 pm to pick them up, Pati and BeeBee took the time to pack carefully and catch up on the internet. The glare on their balcony was too much, so they went back down to the hotel breakfast room (where breakfast was still available) for tea, coffee, ambiance, and internet withour glare. The temperature at home is 24 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit today, while the temperature here is 22 degrees Celcius (about 72 degrees Fahrenheit).
The guide came a few minutes early, and so they left for Wattay airport for their flight to Hanoi. Their guide escorted them right to the airline check-in counter. They all exchanged goodbyes. (Thank you, Mr. Ton.)
The flight departed Vientiane on time and arrived at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi on time. The visa-on-arrival procedure was the same as the Laos procedure, but was executed much more efficiently. Their tour guide was waiting when they exited baggage claim. They arrived at their new hotel around 5 pm. hotel.
Since they had skipped lunch, they took a taxi to a restaurant in a sister hotel to theirs. Since it is Chinese New Year (Tet), most restaurants are closed today, including the one in their hotel. They had the vegetarian set menu, and it was good.
Taking another taxi back to their hotel, they were soon ready for sleep.
When Pati and BeeBee participated in the Living Land experience, they were learning the steps of growing sticky rice. These steps have been followed for thousands of years. Growing sticky rice dominates the economy of Laos.
This morning, Pati stepped out onto the balcony of their hotel room, looked south, and saw the Mekong River and Thailand beyond. The huge Night Market of last night is gone, leaving only a strip of pavement that looks very small now. Across the street, to the east, is a large temple complex. Below the balcony, four floors down at street level, is a small black poodle in a sweater. Such is the morning view of Vientiane.
Pati and BeeBee started their official day at 9 am, meeting their guide in the lobby. This is their latest morning start so far, but they have been told that there is not much to see in the capitol city of Laos (!) and they will spend only half days with him.
The first area they visited included Wat Sisaket (the oldest major sight in the city), a temple with thousands of miniature Buddha statues, and the former royal temple of Wat Prakeo, that previously housed the famous Emerald Buddha. Since the Emerald Buddha has been in Bangkok for many years (taken by Thailand when they conquered this part of Laos), Wat Prakeo is not truly a wat (temple) any more, but is known as the House of the Emerald Buddha.
At one of their stops to look at a small garden of exhibits, there was a very large jar under a protecting roof. This jar was about 4 1/2 feet tall and several feet across. It had been broken but repaired. On the bottom inside it were coins and paper money, dropped there for luck. The guide explained that this was a jar from the famous Plain of Jars, an Iron Age site which was bombed during the Vietnam War. American soldiers stole the jar and transported it to an airport, intending to load it on a plane and take it home with them. They were stopped from doing that, and so the Jar stayed in Laos. Laos would like the Plain of Jars designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (as Luang Prabang is), but it is still not cleared of fallen bombs, and until it is, it cannot be developed as a tourist site.
Next they drove to see the famous and sacred structure of That Luang Stupa, which contains a bone fragment of Buddha. This huge gold stupa is the symbol of Laos. They also visited the National Cultural Hall, which contained elaborately-painted walls and ceilings illustrating stories of Buddha.
On the way back, they stopped at the imposing Patuxay Monument, which is well known as Vientiane’s own Arc de Triumph. Pati and BeeBee walked to the top (fewer than 200 steps) to take pictures of the city from the top.
They decided not to visit Morning Shopping mall, which, from the guide’s description, seemed more like what they would see at home.
The guide recommended that they eat lunch at Makphet restaurant, which was one block away from their hotel and actually shared a back wall with it. This restaurant teaches its students how to be waiters, and any tips collected go toward helping the students. The guide’s brother is actually a student there, and is learning English also so that he can interact with tourists. But the guide was not unduly influenced by his brother; the restaurant is actually the number 2 restaurant in Vientiane, according to Trip Advisor. Their meal was very good.
Next they caught a tuk-tuk to go visit the COPE unexploded ordinance (UXO) museum. During the Vietnam War, bomber pilots returning from Vietnam to their base in Laos dropped any remaining bombs on designated areas in Laos, because it was dangerous for them to land a plane carrying bombs. More bombs per capita were dropped on Laos than on any other country in the world. (Google “America’s ‘secret war’ in Laos”.) More bombs were dropped on Laos than in all of World War II. These bombs were still live when they fell on villages and farms.
Over the years, many Laotians have been maimed or killed when they accidently set off a bomb by plowing, digging, touching, or setting a fire on top of one. COPE helps UXO victims as well as those injured by accidents or natural causes (e.g., birth defects). Trip Advisor rates a visit to the COPE museum as the number 1 activity in Vientiane.
After some internet time back at the hotel, Pati and BeeBee walked to dinner at Chokdee Cafe and Belgian Beer Bar, which is a French restaurant that is rated the number 3 restaurant in Vientiane by Trip Advisor. They had spaghetti bolognese, an Italian dish in a French restaurant in Laos. It was very good.
While they were waiting for their food, they could hear what sounded like a parade coming down the street. The sounds veered off the street toward the Night Market, and not long afterward they could see a procession heading through the middle of the market. After dinner, they walked over to the Night Market to shop and, hearing the sounds again, followed them to an area in front of a grandstand full of people. There was a circle of people surrounding the source of the sounds. Inside the circle were two dragons dancing around! Pati and BeeBee realized that they were celebrating Chinese New Year.
After walking through every part of the Night Market, Pati and BeeBee headed back to their hotel, just across the street from the market, to rest up for the next day.
When Pati and BeeBee went down to get breakfast this morning, they could see their breath on the air. It was freezing outside! They are very happy to have warm jackets to wear.
Today, they visited the National museum, the impressive stupa of Wat Visoun, and Wat Mai.
The guide explained story paintings found on these buildings in an understandable and interesting way.
In the afternoon, they drove 30 km out of the town to see the beautiful Kuang Sii Fall. First they had lunch, choosing grilled chicken and vegetables. Also, they each drank coconut milk from a coconut and tried vigorously to scrape out some of the coconut meat to eat. Their guide told them that coconut meat scrapes out easily in younger coconuts.
They walked up a wooded path beside pools of clear water until they reached the falls. The water was too cold for swimming, but they waded into one of the more shallow pools for a few minutes.
On the return trip to town, they made a short stop at Black Hmong Village, where hill tribe hand-made handicrafts were offered for sale.
Back in town, they had an hour free to visit a cofee shop for coffee, coconut ice cream, and coconut cake. And to use the free wifi.
At around 4 pm, they were taken to the airport for a short flight to Vientaine. They said goodbuy to their guide and driver, who had taken good care of them in Luang Prabang. (Thank you, Mr. Phew.)
At Vientaine, they were met by their new guide and driver and taken to their new hotel. They walked through a small part of the night market at the end of their street, and then had a quick dinner at a restaurant (Beerlao Gold) between the night market and their hotel. (Actually, the name of the restaurant was Papao Restaurant & Bar, but “Beerlao Gold” was in much larger letters.) They had drunken noodles with chicken and seafood. It was apparently karaoke night at the restaurant. A large group of South Koreans sat at a long table in front of the screen; one of the ladies was quite good at following the prompts.
Just after 3 am this morning, BeeBee was awoken by the sounds of chanting by nearby monks. Chimes joined in, matching the chants as their frequency and volume increased. Around 4 am, roosters also joined the symphony, even though sunrise was hours away. Finally came the smell of burning rubber, which might have been incense and part of the ceremony or might have been merely the city’s sanitation department at work. When BeeBee’s alarm went off at 5 am, only the roosters continued their ageless ceremony.
After breakfast, Pati and BeeBee met their guide and were driven to the Living Land Lao Organic farm at Pung Van village. (See http://www.livinglandlao.com/index.php/en/riceexperience.) Upon arriving there, they joined other participants for a half day of the rice experience, which included hands-on participation in the 14 steps of rice production. The tour participants were also shown many rows of organic vegetables and herbs.
The rice experience was followed by lunch in Luang Prabang.
After lunch, they visited the Traditional Hll Tribe Ethnology Art Centre, a very nice exibition of informations about Lao Hill tribes, their food and their traditions. Especially interesting to BeeBee was the exhibit on women’s work, both traditional and modern.
Following this, they climbed to the top of Phousi Mount to see the sacre gilded stupa and to enjoy the beautiful views of the city and the two rivers meeting in Luang Prabang.
Near the top of the mount was a cave containing a Buddha (of the Happy Buddha variety) and other religious artifacts. Also, oddly, there was a fortune-telling game spread out in front of the Buddha to encourage donations to maintain the site. The procedure is (1) place a donation in the large white box, (2) shake the red cup containing numbered red sticks until one falls out on the large patterned red mat, (3) from the large red box with numbered compartments, select the fortune from the compartment with the same number as the stick, and (4) ask someone who can read Laotian to translate the fortune for you. Fortunately (pun intended), their guide offered to interpret. Their fortune was travel-related and very positive.
The top of the “mountain” is 150 meters above the street level below. They climbed up the 300 steps on the river side of the hill and down the 150 steps on the Night Market side.
Very near the bottom of the steps, as they were leaving, was a lady selling tiny birds in tiny bamboo cages. For 20,000 kip (about $2.50 USD), a visitor to the mount could buy two birds in a cage, take them to the top, and set them free. BeeBee didn’t really want to climb back up the hill, but their guide said it was o.k. to set them free where they were. Spreading the bars on the tiny cage, BeeBee and the guide set them free one at a time. They both flew to branches on a tree high above them. Their spirits were free.
The guide then returned Pati and BeeBee to their hotel. After some quality internet time, they set off walking to the old town section of Luang Prabang to find a restaurant that Pati had read about on Trip Advisor. They didn’t find that restaurant, but after a long walk ended up back at the Night Market. Here they found a Western-style restaurant (full of Americans) in a very nice outdoor setting, and they indulged in American comfort food (a.k.a. pizza) as a break from tasty but unfamiliar Laotian food.
Following dinner, they speed-walked through the Night Market on their way back to their hotel. After internet time (including blogging) was bedtime, for rest for the next day’s adventures.