It only took an hour to fly to Hanoi from Bangkok. After disovering that we'd left our pre-arranged visas in our involuntarily-checked luggage, we sacrificed a few hours to the travel gods and applied for visas on arrival with the other unprepared commoners. The city, always on full-blast, was particularly abuzz with pre-holiday excitement. The crisp, late-December air accentuated our joy as we walked around the city discovering festively adorned churches and groups of carolers singing "Silent Night" in Vietnamese. We were surprised at the extent to which Vietnam still reverberates Catholic flavor, though it makes sense after decades of Western (mostly French) colonization.
We sipped strong, sweet cafe trung (Vietnamese egg coffee and OMG is it good), and slurped bowls of warm, savory pho every morning before heading out to marvel at the chaotic mix of ancient and modern that is Hanoi. Narrowly avoiding speeding motorbikes, we ducked into alleys and meandered down tree-lined streets, stopping occasionally to buy fruit from a traditional stand or watch a fashion show set to very loud house music (really though- if there is a park-there is a fashion show). We cried with fellow Americans at the Hoa Lo Prison museum and let middle-school students practice their English on us in Hoan Kiem Lake park. At night, we prayed to an arsenal of gods to end the inhuman snoring of that very large stranger two beds away (yay, hostels). Truly, Hanoi was magical and we both long to return.
Eventually, we found ourselves on a beautiful, old boat cruising with a small group of strangers into the emerald-green waters of Ha Long Bay (non-sponsored company recommendation linked below). Other than somehow being roped into serving as the on-board counselor for the well-meaning Canadian lady who got sloppy drunk and a little sad at night, the cruise was amazing. After sleeping staying in a hostel in Hanoi, I relished our private cabin with mahogany-clad walls, hot shower, and silky robe thing that Jonathan refused to let me go to dinner in. Still, my heart swells remembering how it felt to wake up, step out my door and be witness to an UNESCO World heritage site. The views and history of Ha Long Bay were breathtaking. All-in-all the cruise was a little touristy but I'd do it again in a heartbeat (minus drunk Canadians).
Ha Long Bay Cruise: https://www.indochina-junk.com/
Much to my surprise, we survived the bus ride from Hanoi to Sapa (nothing against the bus company-I just hate wheel-based transport). In Sapa, we experienced the pièce de résistance of our entire trip: an overnight trek through the mountains and rice paddies of Northern Vietnam. Lead by Little Chi, a young mother and Blue Hmong, we traversed some of the most beautiful terrain I have ever seen. We learned about how development is degrading the cultural integrity of Sapa (and everywhere, really). We talked about family, culture, values and food. We spent the night in a rustic homestay with really interesting people from all over the world. We got muddy and sun-burned and twisted our ankles. We had no cell reception or wifi. We were quiet. We were humbled. We were so. damn. happy. Non-sponsored company recommendation linked below.
Trekking in Sapa: https://sapasisters.com/
We landed in Luang Prabang, Laos on Christmas Day. The dual-propeller plane from Hanoi was an experience but the free in-flight bahn mi was bomb. We checked into our hostel and immediately it began to drizzle. The hostel had a relaxing, jungle-feel with a great view of a Mekong tributary. While Jonathan caught up on work, I settled into a hammock on the porch with my Kindle (yes, books are more fun but minimalism wins over nostalgia on this one). As the rain pit-patted on the metal roof and the hammock swayed, something magical happened- I took a nap. I even woke up once, read another chapter and FELL ASLEEP AGAIN. Some of you may be wondering why a nap is blog-worthy. Some of you know that I'm as tightly wound as a Melania Trump non-disclosure agreement. Anyway, it was f****** awesome.
Luang Prabang was relaxing and beautiful. We enjoyed a few Beer Laos (Beer Lao Dark is where it's at) at the Pinterest-famous Utopia bar and ate enough laarb (spicy meat salad served in Lao and Northern Thailand) and sticky rice to cause weeks of gastric disturbance (more on that later). We successfully fought off selfie-stick carrying tourists and enjoyed the absolute stunning-ness of Kuang Si falls. We happily hiked muddy terrain on top of the waterfall toward a cave which we never found and still do not believe actually exists. There are lots of ancient temples and sites in Luang Prabang but living in Thailand means that temples have become more of a backdrop to everyday life rather than a site-seeing activity. We tried to immerse ourselves in cultural experiences but straight up- we really enjoyed that one night drinking imported craft beer at the trendy spot with wifi downtown.
Luang Prabang was a slower-paced part of the trip but we really enjoyed exploring the old and the new of the city. We enjoyed ourselves so much that on our last night in Laos, we thought we'd celebrate by sneaking some snacks into the hostel room and having a little picnic. The hostel had a strict no-food indoors policy (bugs) but hey, it was just a one-time thing, right? Besides, we didn't think we'd ever get caught (sometimes we are painfully American). Of course, our picnic ended in a very embarrassing showdown between us (with Oreo crumbs all over our faces) and the hostel staff. Eh. You live and you learn, amiright?
Early early early the next morning, we boarded a long boat headed up the Mekong River toward Chiang Rai, Thailand. I don't even know how to describe this experience except for: DO IT. PLEASE, PLEASE if you ever come to South East Asia and you have 3 days, take this boat ride. You can easily book tickets through any tour group in Luang Prabang. It was basic. It was slow. It was everything. We saw small villages and herds of animals along the river. We talked with locals and expats and backpackers. We ate not-really authentic Indian food in the small delta-town of Pak Beng . We stayed a night in a very basic homestay where the inkeeper hardcore mothered us and we watched elephants bathing in the river while having breakfast on the balcony. I took more naps and...I pooped my pants. Sorry to end it like that, but it's true. I didn't mean or want to but I totally pooped my pants on the boat. I'll spare you the details. Just know the situation got handled and I learned a very important lesson about my limits with spicy food. The end.
Onto Chiang Rai...but FIRST some Luang Prabang and Mekong pictures:
Chiang Rai is a fairly small town in Northern Thailand. Oddly, while having our Visas checked at the Thai border, we felt an overwhelming sense of being back "home." The bus driver dropped us off at a random gas station in Chiang Rai and waved toward the direction of the city center. Thanks to Google Maps, we found our hotel. We dropped our stuff (which now includes one small backpack each) and immediately began exploring. Quite frankly, the "famous" golden clocktower in the center of town was underwhelming but we DID accidentally run into the annual flower festival and that was mind-blowing. There were rare flowers from all over the world gorgeously displayed in every corner of the sprawling city park. I think we had missed a parade or something because the streets surrounding the park were lined with traditional wooden and jeweled carts which were topped with Buddha statues and emitting fragrant curls of incense smoke. We ate traditional strawberry dessert thingys and tried to speak to the locals in Thai, thankful to be back in a less-foreign, foreign country. It was New Years Eve and later that night, we watched fireworks in the middle of the street with smiling locals. Our hearts were full.
We had the great privilege to stay/volunteer at Elephant Valley Thailand. They're a true rescue-meaning the emphasis is on actually saving elephants first and catering to tourists second (in a good way). We had the opportunity to feed elephants, assist in clean-up of the property (it was formerly not very well-cared-for farm land). We only spent a couple days here but let's just say this place is definitely included in my retirement plans.
Elephant rescue: http://www.elephantvalleys.com/
Side note: DO NOT RIDE ELEPHANTS!
We did visit the "famous" Wat Sri Suphan, or the silver temple in Chiang Rai. Again, underwhelming. It is unabashedly a tourist trap- there are pictures of Deadpool and Daffy Duck on the walls. It's cool I guess if you're into that sort of thing. Meh.
Finally, it was time to head back home to BKK. As we boarded our overly air-conditioned bus, I noticed something was different about the staff. I'm pretty sure all the bus attendants were ladyboys (I know that's not PC but its a widely-used term in Thailand and I don't know how else to say it in a way that accurately reflects this culture). It was awesome. I don't understand why this was the case but I gotta say-we were very well taken care of. Our bus ticket included a meal so we didn't eat dinner before boarding. That was a mistake as we were starving, wide-awake and cold as corpses for the first 6-7 hours of our 12-hour overnight bus journey. Finally, a little after midnight, the bus stopped at a random rest-stop where we got off the bus and followed a group of people into a cafeteria. There were little Thai lunch-ladies serving up big pots of I-don't-know-what with rice. The Thai people were eating so we did too. It wasn't the best but our bellies were full and we were finally able to sleep a little. At least I didn't poop my pants.
And that is the story of Vietnam, Laos and Chiang Rai.
Hearts and Stuff,