Thailand, Laos, and One Vietnam

We had planned to revisit Nepal, but after the crown prince shot up almost the entire royal family, we decided that a postponement was in order. We did, however, follow our original itinerary as far as Bangkok. Thence to Laos and Vietnam.

Weather: A constant concern. Throughout the temperature was 90 or so. And so was the humidity (note: this was June). A few civilized steps were enough to start a sweat. It was the rainy season. Except for a few torrential typhoon fragments, however, we had relatively little precipitation. The moisture stayed right there, in the overheated air.

Money: We had to deal with (in country order) baht, kip, and dong. The last two are unconvertible, so you want to monitor the supply. The denominations make you feel rich. The Hanoi hotel cashier counted out the exchange for my $100 travelers check: Nine hundred thousand, one million.... And the cash does go far, with accommodation and especially food costing a fraction of U.S. amounts. Lunch in Hué: two pancakes with peanuts and such; one plate fried noodles; one plate tofu; one large bottle beer (local). Bill: $2.00. (Dollars are happily accepted in many places. Upscale establishments take credit cards.) The hotel in Hanoi referred us to a tailor to have trousers made from material that we had brought from the U.S. Making arrangements in a doubtful mixture of French and English, we were astonished at the high cost: $65.00. But we had misunderstood the decimal point. The charge was $6.50.

Accommodation: with noted exceptions, very clean and comfortable. All our hotel rooms had attached bathrooms; almost all had air-conditioning, and most had a swimming pool and television (although there’s not a whole lot to watch unless you like MTV and violent U.S. movies).Transportation (round trip from NYC): eleven flights (all on time except JFK-Tokyo); three trains; cars; boats; motorbikes; cyclos (bicycle rickshaws).

My impression, perhaps a bit clouded by optimism, was that Bangkok traffic was a little less absurd than during my previous visit in 1992, although driving and breathing on the roads are still contra-indicated. Perhaps the improvement, if actual, is due partly to the sky train, the above-ground local counterpart of the subway. It has only two lines and is pricey by country standards, but it is efficient and has won moderate use.

Otherwise it is the same old overwhelming Bangkok. Not a city for walking. We did hit some museums, plus the Jim Thompson house. No one has figured out what happened to Thompson, the American silk impresario who vanished in the Malaysian highlands in 1967. This lends cachet to his brand name.

We had buffet lunch at the highly historical, now highly expensive Oriental Hotel. Recommended. Then we took an ad hoc boat trip on the Chua, from someone who, right after he pocketed our money, seemed rather shady. Not recommended on the grounds of recklessness, but nothing bad happened. We didn’t mysteriously run out of fuel, as the guidebook had warned we might. The Chao Praya river was its familiar polluted self. The worst was boarding: a rock-climbing descent of a vertical embankment.

Bangkok sights:
Traffic lights that stay red for five minutes;
Noisy tail-boats on the river;
Young Thai women in the company of heavy middle-aged Western men;
Man playing draughts using bottle caps.

We took a night train north to Chiang Mai, the country’s second (and much smaller) city. The train was prompt and the berths very pleasant. Everyone was up by 6:00 a.m. for the expensive ($1.60) breakfast. In Chiang Mai we stayed at the beautiful River View Lodge. In addition to the river, it has a garden, swimming pool, and a large random library--many guidebooks, plus Bridget Jones’s Diary. We took one of our innumerable (seemed to me) expeditions to weaving galleries. With the aid of a map, the taxi driver found it somewhere on the outskirts. The England-born proprietor, who teaches textile art and history at Chiang Mai University and actively promotes local weavers, was in Laos scouting merchandise. Her eldest daughter is a veterinarian, who lives in Australia, as does her father. Daughter number two was in charge. She has lived in the country since age 8, attended public schools and speaks fluent Thai. She is engaged in the weaving business, unlike the teenaged youngest daughter (of Thai paternity), who is becoming a model.

The following morning we ascended to the highest point in the country. Not much of an accomplishment, because we were in a car with guide and driver the whole way. Thence to a small Karen village. Although there was a tiny shop, no effort was made to sell to passing tourists. The guide had to ask whether there were weavings for sale. There were; Susan added to her previous purchases. Thence to the big stupas of the King and Queen, whom Thais regard with the greatest reverence.

That afternoon we took a (very) short flight to Chiang Rai (yes, Chiang means “place”). We spent two nights in the Wangcome Hotel, described by the Rough Guide as “chintzy, not quite up to international five-star standards.” A real come-down for us. Dinner was at the local variation on a diner, busy and open to the street. Much food for little money. and a lot of drinking.

Morning brought a stop at the Hill Tribes Museum, followed by a visit to some of the tribes.. Then to the border of Burma (not known as Myanmar in Thailand), which had just be re-opened after a 5-month closure to discourage drug trafficking. Trading had resumed with verve. Not in controlled substances, I hope. Getting caught with drugs in Thailand is contra-indicated.

Back in town we each had a very muscular massage and logged on at an internet café. Both services are everywhere in the three countries we visited.

We were off at 7:00 the next morning for a 90-minute drive north to Chiang Khong. After border formalities, happily handled by our guide, we crossed the Mekong river into Laos, where we changed $20.00 into a whole lot of kip.Then we headed downstream in a crude wooden boat with seats for at least 20 passengers. There were, however, none but us.

It felt very strange to be puttering down the Mekong, a name notorious from the Vietnam war. But all was peaceful. There waters were wide and muddy, the rain intermittently heavy. Along the heavily-forested, hilly shores we spied a couple of elephants doing agricultural work. There was little visible habitation. We stopped at intervals to walk through impoverished villages (with, however, the occasional satellite dish). We had been told that Laos is Thailand 35 years ago. If so, Thailand has made a lot of progress. Not that Laos has been completely ignored: The U.S. dropped 1.1 million tons of bombs there, more than in all World War 2, mainly on the Ho Chi Minh trail bear the Vietnam border. A vast amount of unexploded ordnance makes rural areas hazardous.

After a night in a lovely, highly ecological tourist lodge (we were the only guests, though a second dinner table was mysteriously set), we continued past the cave of 5000 Buddhas to the country’s second city Luang Prabang. The population is only about 16,000, but situation among rivers and forested hills is gorgeous. The city consists mainly of wats (temples), restaurants serving delicious fruit shakes, and internet cafés. We checked out of the latter, brightly-lit and air-conditioned at 8:30 p.m. Very busy--we had to wait for a machine. Customers were tourists and local monks. The monks can also be seen at 6:00 a.m.; ages eight to eighty, they descend on the town with begging bowls to be given sticky rice by local women. Susan was up every morning to visit the nearby market and have breakfast of Lao coffee (very strong and sweet) on the banks of the Mekong.

We spent three consecutive nights (our longest stay) at the Hotel Souvannaphoum (named after the prince. Final “a” had been dropped for reasons royal or religious). Much of the time we were in charge of Mr. Noe--not an Ian Fleming character but the very friendly guide who had accompanied us on the boat trip. He took us to a series of waterfalls and pools south of town. The terrain was treacherous, hence the signs: “Do not swimming here”; “What’s out, slippery.” The lower pools were contaminated by (other) tourists, but they did not venture to the top. On the drive back, Susan directed us to a weaving co-operative, which turned out to be in Mr. Noe’s village. In what we found to be typical Lao non-commercial manner, he had never mentioned his personal knowledge of weaving, although he knew about Susan’s interest. Some forty women, competitive but not aggressive, displayed their wares, which Susan purchased in abundance. The women were fascinated by photos of her loom that Susan had brought. She was delighted that women in Laos and Northern Thailand wear hand woven clothing.

Vientiane, our next stop, was the country’s metropolis, population 133,000; it feels like a small, dusty town without the charm of Luang Prabang. A pleasant place nevertheless, with good restaurants. We splurged at Le Provençal--$12.00 for two, drinks included. Also visited the shop of Carol Cassidy. She is an American married to an Ethiopian and has done much to revive the Laotian weaving trade. She has 48 Lao employees and two years ago had an exhibit at the Fashion Institute Museum in New York. In her visitors’ book we found entries by a woman from Susan’s town (Highland Park, N.J.) and by a Fieldston (high school) classmate of my brother’s. This was the closest we came to meeting someone we knew or even someone who knew someone we knew. Many of the tourists came from Australia, a mere eight-hour flight away. Plus French, British, Japanese, Italians and a couple from Sri Lanka.

We arrived at the Hanoi airport in a huge downpour the next morning. It did, of course, feel strange to be in a country that we knew as the site of bloody jungle warfare and hideously misguided U.S. policy. We were discomfited by references to the “American War” (what else could they call it?) and by several testaments to the conflict. But no one called us Yankee war mongers or even mentioned the fighting, unless pressed. 60% of the population are under 30 and have no war memories. Signs of the current communist regime are few--some flags and Ho Chi Minh statues. The tight control that the regime does impose on its citizens is barely visible to an outsider. Yet in the Herald-Tribune one can read an “official media report” that since 1976 “the People’s Security Force of Vietnam has arrested 23,000 ‘reactionaries’ for attempting to overthrow the government.” For descriptions of how harsh the country has been , I recommend Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala, about an attempt by a returned Vietnamese to bicycle from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi; and Kien Nguyen’s The Unwanted, a memoir by a “half-breed.” You need strong nerves for this one.

The big risk in Hanoi is crossing the street, which must be done frequently. Cars are still few, but battalions of bicycles and motorbikes flow down the avenues, oblivious of obstacles like pedestrians and red lights. Drivers would prefer not to hit you, but hesitation baffles them. The correct walking technique is to proceed at a uniform pace, regardless of what may be bearing down upon you. Considerable nerve and practice are required.

Taxis (abundant) are a transportation option. Make sure that the driver turns on the meter and has enough English to understand where you are going. Also bicycle rickshaws. We tried one of them on returning from a restaurant on a windy night. All sorts of vehicles wheeled at us through the rain drops, but all missed. (Hint: close your eyes until you reach your destination.)

The city has a number of bookstores, where I acquired inexpensive paperbacks of local favorites like James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Lovely lakes dot the area. (John McCain ditched in one of the larger ones during the war.) Don’t miss the water puppets. They perform in a theater, with the water in front.

Common sights in Hanoi: badminton games at 6:00 a.m.
People sitting on low stools, eating at street-side restaurants from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Hanoi is quite a lovely place, with museums and a bustling old quarter full of markets. But we wanted to see the countryside as well. The first tour agent, a very young woman, suggested that we were too old for hiking. “We’re out of here,” Susan declared. Buffalo Tours was more congenial. After half an hour and $1000 of credit card money we were set for hotels and travel for the next week. First: another overnight train, north to Lao Cai, near the Chinese border. Though less comfortable than the sleeper from Bangkok, this one arrived early by two hours (5:30 a.m.). 90-minute bus ride took us to Sapa, a resort in the mountains. (Unlike Thailand’s, Vietnam’s highest point has no road. It is a rough, jungly climb of two or three days. Heat and rain made it an unappealing objective.) We spent the day in town, finishing with dinner at the Auberge. The usual menu of rice and noodle dishes. Also an extensive cocktail list. I ordered a pink lady, but she turned out turquoise,

Although he didn’t tell us at the time, our guide, Mr. Linh, was wondering how we elderly folk could manage a trek into the hills. In fact it was very easy--following a river downstream. Heat and wet were nothing new. We sweated our way down the muddy paths. The terrain reminded us of Nepal, but was far less remote: a motor road curved up the other side of the valley. We saw many hill tribe folk, including Hmong in their black hand-woven costumes. The women’s hands are permanently black from indigo dyes. Home for the night was a small lodge, illuminated, but barely, by a few fluorescent lights powered by a tiny hydro generator. Other guests were an Austrian couple and their Hmong guide. The guide was only 16, but on her way to tourism success. She wrote down every English word (not many) that she did not know.

The day train back to Hanoi was scenic as promised, but eleven hours were more than enough. The following day Mr. Linh and an air-conditioned-car driver took us east to Halong Bay. It is surpassingly beautiful: nearly two thousand tiny rocky islands dotting the blue ocean. The afternoon culminated in a swim at a quiet, sandy beach. (The bay--and, I think, this very beach--are featured in the Vietnamese film, The Vertical Ray of the Sun.) After such sites the town of Cat Ba island was a disappointment, an agglomeration of tawdry hotels rushed up for the tourist trade. More than the usual number of hawkers and such. But the food was good, as everywhere.

Notice in hotel: “Please don’t bring any inflammables, explosive, corrosive, poisonous, radio active materials to influance the people’s safety. Please don’t drug, gambles, prostitute and other illegal activities.”

The next morning’s hike to a forested high point was also our high point for effort. It was like an Adirondack peak under tropical conditions. After we recovered with a soft drink, we visited the Quan Y cave, which would have been impressive merely as a cave. But during the war it was transformed into a hospital, with lighting, water and concrete floors. Not a cheery place to recuperate, but safe from bombing, as well as a testament to local ingenuity. After lunch we took a noisy, crowded boat to Haiphong, a name notorious from calls to mine its harbor during the war.

After a week in the Hanoi area, we flew down to Hué. This was the one place where I sensed if not hostility, at least abrasiveness. It seemed more like soak-the-tourists routine than anti-Americanism. The foreign presence was at its most intense here, especially at our hotel, the century-old Saigon Morin, reputedly the best in town. Large groups frequented the lobby, waiting for their piles of bags to be moved in or out.

The Perfume River is small and less muddy than the Mekong. Our boat trip was made mysterious by our young female guide, who probably knew where we were going but lacked the English to tell us. She was, however, a very aggressive saleswoman, complete with bags of textiles and carvings to entice us. I bought a couple of teak pigs in a futile attempt to keep her quiet. She was relentless. The word “no” made no impression on her, but she was quick with the affirmative: “Will we return by boat?” “Yes.” “Are we going back by car?” “Yes.”

That afternoon we were driven south over the wooded and spectacular Hai Van Pass to Da Nang. As in so many places, we found it hard to imagine it as the scene of bitter fighting not so long ago.

Our most vivid sense of the war came in Saigon, which we reached that night by air. It is now Ho Chi Minh City, twice the size of Hanoi and without its charm. The traffic has a greater mix of cars and is a little better behaved. Vehicles do stop at red lights a lot of the time. We saw many birth-defective children, as well as young Western couple with adopted Vietnamese infants.

We steeled ourselves for the War Crimes Museum. True, it has been renamed the War Remnants Museum, but it’s still pretty harrowing. Captured American armor and planes are the prelude, like sculpture in a garden. Inside are photographs if destruction and intimidation that compel one’s comfortless attention. A travelling exhibit of pictures by wartime photographers, all killed, is likewise gripping. The next afternoon, seeking enlightenment, I picked up Robert McNamara’s apologia, In Retrospect. He says it was all a big mistake. The copy, which I bought from a street for $6.00, was pirated, so there will be no royalties.

Cholon, the city’s Chinatown, teems with markets, a few temples, no tourists. In the marker we encountered neither hostility nor interest.

We had time for one more massage--my second, Susan’s sixth. Mine was in a private room and characterized by Asian mysteries. The attractive young masseuse pointed to my stomach and said, “Bir.” Later she reached beneath the towel, held a finger to her lips and said, “Not tell your wife, okay?”* What could she have meant?

We flew into Bangkok that night and home the next morning, via Detroit. It seemed to be a very exotic place.




*This phrase has since been immortalized in the name of a rock-climbing route in the Adirondacks.

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