Month: May 2014

Hanoi Hustle

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Entering Hanoi after the calm and languor of Luang Prabang was like arriving into the middle of a construction site. If Luang Prabang was a chamber music concert, Hanoi was a three chord punk band.

Motorbikes herd the streets with drivers blaring their horns announcing to pedestrian, vehicle, animal and molecule to get the F** out the way. Everyone in Hanoi is coming. Whether walking down the streets, on a bike or selling food, Hanoi is a hustle of activity that’s constantly headed towards you. The trick, we soon found out, was to learn how to roll with it or, in other cases, do exactly as suggested, and learn how to get the “F** out the way”.

Rose and I arrived in the middle of the night, hungry, not sure where to head to find a bite. The concierge highlighted spots on the map with ease, explaining food was waiting just around the corner. I couldn’t understand how it could be so easy with bikes going both ways on a one way street, food vendors taking over the sidewalk with bikes stacked around them, plus cars heading down each street with a stream of pedestrians (who we’d soon join)- all competing for the same, small piece of road.

I saw a dead rat the size of a Chihuahua on the ground, during the brief walk to our hotel, and I thought: “Rats thrive in cities. If he can’t make it, what are our odds?”.

Regardless, we threw ourselves into the madness and wound up two blocks away in a food and trinkets market that was shut off from traffic. But, being Hanoi, we learned – this really didn’t mean anything, as bikes zinged and honked their way through the crowds anyway, even nudging people with their front tire in case a particularly deaf person didn’t get the point.

We found ourselves on a corner of what looked like a homecoming party in a university town. People lining the fronts of restaurants or bars, sitting on small chairs, all with a beer in hand and food in the other – and one guy, busy singing drunk karaoke in the middle of the street as a crowd of hundreds jeered and laughed at him.

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This only lasted a second as I pulled my attention to the right, after hearing a loud bark, and attributed it to a guy who was laughing so hard with his friend, he’d gone mute and the veins in his neck and forehead got more and more pronounced as he turned darker and darker shades of red.

Things were moving so fast, this impression quickly dissolved as I felt someone grab my arm and ask if I knew where a particular bar was.

“Sorry”, I said looking around with a look of confusion and wonder. “I have no idea what’s happening. We just arrived today”.

“Okay, no worries”, he moved on, quickly getting swallowed by the crowd.

Now realizing we were standing in the middle of an intersection, we quickly looked for a spot with empty seats, sat down and waited to see what happened (that’s Rose on the far left).

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Thankfully, it turned out okay – we got our first bowl of pho, of which I’d eaten enough of in Canada that I felt a small level of comfort from the madness around us.

Honestly, it was beyond anything I’ve ever tasted. So much better than what I’d had in Canada, I couldn’t believe it. Slurping up the bowl and finishing our beer we re-entered the whirlpool of people and waded back through the streets to our hotel.

We soon picked up the cardinal rule of walking in Hanoi – keep walking, don’t hesitate, and bikes will move around you. Easy on paper. But when looking towards a wall of traffic heading your way, and your realize the pedestrian crossing in front of you has no more value than an interesting pattern to look at while bikers stream across it at full speed, it was hard to put in practice.

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However, we had enough practice on some cross streets on the way back, which helped us get enough resolve to, at least, begin to understand how to avoid being that rat.

“I can do this”, I began to think.

And we soon did, as our two friends – Juliana and Matt joined us the next day from Canada for a two week tour of Vietnam. Part deux of our exploits coming soon.

 

 

 

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Strolling along in Luang Prabang

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While Rose got excited about orange robed monks in Vientiane – it was only a warm-up to her ecstatic adoration in Laos second major city, Luang Prabang (LOO-ONG – PRUH – BONG)

Every morning, the monks in this town, get up at the crack of dawn to participate in a ceremony called “Tak Bat”. Townspeople line the streets with alms in hand, usually a rice ball, and as monks pass by they drop it into their basket. In return, the giver hopes to improve their karma.

It’s had a long tradition, but people like us – tourists – unfortunately have steadily been interfering with the ceremony by stepping up to the monks with a camera in hand and flash turned ON, imagining themselves a National Geographic photographer on a self-appointed mission to capture ART or at very least a better photo than the next blog.

Sadly, the result is that it upsets the monks’ procession and the exchange they have with the residents of the town.

It’s even gotten to the point that tourists have started to participate in the ceremony, which fine enough if you’re Buddhist, but if you’re a backpacker passing through, to me it feels like you’re trivializing it, approaching it as if it’s an activity like ziplining.

It’s the notion that: I want to do that myself. I don’t want to watch people do it. In other words, it’s not worth it unless I can join in.

We saw plenty of examples from tourists sticking the snouts of their cameras into a Buddhist temple during a nighttime ceremony only to let their flash fly: once, twice: as long as it takes to ensure they got the picture they wanted while others walked into another temple at night to join a procession of monks who were carrying candles and circling their temple as part of a ceremony.

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Again, fair enough if you’re a Buddhist, but given two of the guys in the procession with the monks looked totally confused and apprehensive about every move they made, essentially giving the impression that they were in over their heads, I had my doubts.

In any case, it was only a small group doing it, and didn’t undermine everything. Ok, rant over. Back to Luang Prabang.

It was originally the capital of Laos, and the home of the royal family who lived in the palace until Communism took over in 1975:

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They also had their very own private temple, which, surprise, surprise was much more elaborate than other temples in the city:

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However, we visited another popular temple in the city – Xieng Thong – and it’s artwork, I felt, seemed a lot purtier than that there Royal guy’s – probably because we actually had access to walk inside them:

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As usual, the heat was intense.

One morning we made our way up these steps to a spot called – Mount Phusi:

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which, at the top, had a wicked lookout on the city with a view of the two rivers that run around Luang Prabang – the Mekong and Nam Khan:

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Plus, more temples, with our friend, ever present (yet impermanent) Siddartha:

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Despite getting up early to walk around in the morning to beat the heat. Already at 9am, it was clear we (I) were deluding ourselves:

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Similar to Vientiane, Luang Prabang had French influences from colonial restaurants:

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to croissant filled cafes:

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But, one of the best spots we found was across this bamboo bridge to a restaurant on the other side of the bridge, which we found out, coincidentally, was owned by a Canadian:

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Since the town juts out into a peninsula, we alternated between sitting on one side of the town to watch boats swing themselves around the Mekong:

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Then to the other side to watch people fish in the Nam Khan:

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It’s an incredibly calm, and slow-paced town with one of the most elaborate craft markets we’d seen until now, which happens every night, and is filled with hand woven quilts, pants, shirts made by Laotian craftspeople along with ¬†trinkets of all stripes:

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Plus, during the day, a regular food market with all kinds of fruit and local spices:

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After four relaxing days, we moved on to a more active schedule in Vietnam where we met up with two friends from Toronto, who came out to visit. Next stop, dodging traffic in Hanoi.

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Buddha & Butterflies

 

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Laos is often referred to as the “Land of a million elephants”, because the majority of Laotians are obese.

I’m kidding. The complete opposite is true.

Laos is one of the most undeveloped countries in the world, and many Laotian children suffer from malnutrition. Excess calories and XXXL clothing remain our North American privilege.

However, in non-metaphoric terms, Laos wins out.

Elephants in Laos were abundant in the 11th Century, and were often bedecked with gold decorated saddles and used as modes of transport by the Royal family.

While there are tourist packages available to see and ride them today, their numbers are not what they were, largely a cause of human encroachment or industry (slight as it is) and while not cited as a direct cause, I can’t help but think that 2 million tons of dropped bombs had an effect on their habitat.

So, given their declining numbers, I thought of tweaking Laos national motto to reflect a view, albeit limited from two cities: Vientiane and Luang Prabang, of the most common sights we saw: “Land of a million Buddhas and Butterflies”.

Both are ubiquitous. The majority of Laotians are Buddhist (60%) and it’s expected by many young men to spend time in a monastery before they enter the world or decide to stay on with the order.

The result is that on the streets of Vientiane (and in Luang Prabang – which I’ll get into in a later post), we passed tons and tons of monks, wearing their orange robes, who, after staring at them in awe, wondering what mystical journeys they were on, we later found out, were just on their way to school, the dentist or any other errand that you and I have. Even the path to enlightenment crosses banal street.

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Regardless, this didn’t dampen Rose’s love affair. Whenever we passed any of the many Wats (temples) in the city where there were crowds of the orange robed savants, Rose would almost squeal with excitement staring at them while extending her hand out to me, able only to say one word: “Camera. Camera. Camera” or “Look. Did you get it.” asking me to take a picture:

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Some of the most popular Wats were a couple near the national emblem; a stupa named: Pha That Luang – which also included a museum where we sweat in silence, next to a series of Buddhist statues, big, small and doll-size:

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Then, outside the stupa, a huge Buddha, sitting how Rose and I wished we could, given the heat and our diminished electrolytes:

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Still unsure what the dominant religion was? Hey, what’s on your left:

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Now, your right:

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Confused, still? Even this cat was happy to give us a big hint:

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Through the course of a day here, it felt like living inside a Buddhist kaleidoscope. Wherever you look, there he is:

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Now, that brings us to the other side of the new motto: butterflies. Also, along with Buddha, they are a majority, as it seemed, any vista or view of the middle distance contained a fleet of the erratic bunch of flyers in all colours: monarchs, white ones, brown ones.

While, I did look closely, I didn’t spot anyone painting butterflies with a hammer and sickle. They appear to fly naturally, free of outdated propaganda.

The effect of Buddhas and butterflies everywhere, kind of created this blissful worldview, where I wandered around in a semi-dream state, half-expecting to see a unicorn gallop across the road.

Unfortunately, it turns out, we came across something much different.

On our trip, I’ve learned that I have a talent to use my imagination to sabotage any peaceful scene: (i.e. while enjoying a quiet day in a cafe in Laos listening to birds chirp I said to Rose: “Ya know in the Vietnam War this would be the kind of cafe in Saigon where a guerilla fighter would run in and drop a few grenades”).

So, I was having one of these peace busting moments, walking down a stretch of road, and I thought to myself: “Ya know. In Borneo, there were vipers in trees. There must be snakes here”.

That moment, I heard a big clang across the road, turned and saw a guy throwing a rock at the wall.

At first, I thought he was a local nut, but then I looked, and in an insane coincidence, saw he was throwing the stone for a reason, (though a very unBuddhist-like reason) to kill a snake:

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Apparently, it had fallen out of a tree above, and the guy thought it better to kill than let it go free. After employing another burgeoning talent, miming, I asked him through hand gestures and acting if the snake was dangerous, and he nodded vigorously.

Okay. Shit. There’s snakes:

And, as Rose will agree, that pretty much set the tone afterward every time we sought shade under a tree, went to a public bathroom, or, in my paranoid case, got into bed in our hotel room.

Thankfully, this was the only appearance of a snake in the flesh, though versions of serpents appear all over Buddhist temples:

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I still preferred butterflies.

Next stop: Luang Prabang where Rose continues her crush on Buddhist monks, and we drift away the days between the cities two rivers: the Mekong and Nam Khan, and good coffee and croissants.

Talk soon

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