A trip to Laos and Vietnam

July 20, 2006

Departure from Vientiane airport was much as I remembered it. Whilst other flights were announced and lit up, the only indication of my flight was when, about half an hour after the scheduled time for take-off, a forlorn looking individual scrawled the name on a piece of torn paper with a squeaky felt pen and half a dozen of us shuffled down the stairs to the waiting aircraft.

We took off over the Chiang Mai flying club whose sign announced proudly “Air Classics and War Birds of Chiang Mai”. This was what was responsible for much of the noise pollution in the city. Every morning they fly low over Wat Umong temple, though here they do have to compete with the 500w speakers from the temple itself- they would probably be even more powerful except that this is known as a forest retreat for mediation.
Food on the plane hit an all time low. The sandwiches were BR rejects, sold off before privatisation. The fluorescent strip of cake would have been more appropriate as a piece of decoration in Disneyland. One sandwich tasted slightly better than the others until I realised I was eating a paper towel.
The plane flew at a height of about 20 feet which made for a bumpy ride as the pilot tried to dodge the pot-holes in the main road to Vientiane. As we went over the muddy Mekhong we got splashed by kids jumping into the slimy water. It was only when we hurtled over a hedge that the pit of my stomach landed in my jaw. A woman behind me was moaning “I’m going to die, I’m going to die” but it was only the air hostess. The announcement that we were beginning our descent to Vientiane airport seemed slightly superfluous—in fact, I’m sure we actually climbed to reach it. Fortunately there are no buildings in Vientiane over 20 feet high- now I know why- and I was able to note that the corrugated iron roof business out there seems to be doing well. Still, it was all smiles when we got there “You are alive in Vientiane”, the hostess announced.

Another feature of Vientiane is that somebody has stolen half the manhole covers. Walking at night in the mostly unlit streets can be fun.
I mentioned to a guy in the hotel that I had not seen a single policeman in Vientiane. He assured me there was a police station in the main square. Sure enough, I found it, about the size of a large phone kiosk. Inside there was one policeman- fast asleep. If you go into a shop between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm you will find the assistants fast asleep in a corner. I found one group of workers fast asleep under a huge poster that read ‘Hard work wil make Laos a great and glorious country’.
Luang Prabang is ideal for those who cannot take the hectic pace of Vientiane. The main occupation seems to be making fermented buffalo skin, a local delicacy. As this consists of waiting a long time for the skin to ferment, effort is minimal. As a delicacy, it’s also not hugely popular which avoids putting too much stress on those engaged in making it.
Even the monks seem less than diligent. As this was Buddha’s birthday, an occasion for huge gatherings in every Buddhist country, I got up early to witness the splendour of the event. Too early, as the night porter in the hotel who had the key was fast asleep in his mosquito net. Eventually he woke up and I went into the cool grey cobbled streets. I was alone apart form one other tourist with a whole studio set up of cameras. After a while a few disconsolate monks padded out of a temple like a lazy orange snake and a couple of people appeared in doorways to offer them rice. I went back to the guest house for toast and coffee.
There are lots of children about and most of them seem to be up trees. If you look up any tree you’re almost certain to see a youthful face grinning down at you. Young monks also like sitting up trees. After a bit you get used to hearing calls of Haro where you flom, coming from places normally occupied by birds.
CP, the Malaysian woman who came with us, tells me of her excitement on her first flight, which was with Quantas. She couldn’t believe she was actually being served by a white man. CP is large and her limbs stick out in all directions. She walks like an ungainly horse She occupies the whole pavement and breaks things wherever she goes. I decide it is better to walk in the road and dodge the motorcyclists- at least they look where they are going. She tells me that in Cantonese the same syllable, with different tones, means shoe, crab or vagina. I think that’s something I will avoid ordering in Hong Kong. I have the same problem when asking the way to a shop which sells jewelry. Jewelry is the same word (but with a different tone) as ‘sex’ and, untypically, this is not openly sold in Laos.
CP insists on our meeting a friend of hers, a fellow Malaysian, daughter of a Kazakh sultan, very grand, who knows all the expats in Vientiane. We meet most of them in an Italian restaurant there is a huge amount of kissing and catching up with kids’ progress at school. When she goes to open the car, she pulls her hand out of her husband’s pocket with a squeal and shouts ‘Are those the car keys, darling, or are you just glad to see me ?’ Personally, I think he was more interested in the Laotian waitress but I might be imagining it.
The fundamental truth of Buddhism according to the book I am reading, is that nothing at all should be clung to, nothing and no one.
Walking up the main street means going past a group of voracious old Hmong women selling embroidered hats. From a distance they look harmless enough, sitting on a wall toothless and bare breasted waving bits of brightly coloured needlework. But when you approach they turn into a savage horde, snarling at you and chewing your sleeve until you buy some of their goods. The guidebook says that the main security threat in Laos- a number of Westerners have been killed in the last 2-3 years- is form Hmong guerillas. My theory is that the whole Hmong terrorist movement consists of toothless bare breasted old women embittered at not selling their pieces of embroidery.

A French school teacher sits on the guest house terrace writing up her adventures in a huge diary. As I saw her one evening disappear into the darkness with a young Lao boy, they might not be quite as dull as I thought at first.

Last night I cracked the water problem in the hotel. Every day I had been trying to get the tap marked ‘Cold’ come up with hot water and had failed. I had reasoned that in Laos they were unlikely to be able to connect the pipes properly and this was my best chance of a warm bath. It didn’t work and I had to make do with rushed cold showers, until the last evening when I tried the alternative strategy of turning on the tap marked ‘Hot’. Instantly it came to life with gushing hot water and I was able to enjoy one hot bath before we left.

Departure for Saigon was not as smooth as it might have been. The plane was due to take off at 6.30 am and we were told to be at the airport 2 hours beforehand. I decided that one and a half should be plenty and asked for a wake-up call for 4.30. At 3.30 precisely the telephone screamed in my ear and the eager voice of the hotel night porter announced that it was 4.30. ‘No, it’s not’ I growled and, making sure my alarm was set properly pulled the sheet over my head and tried to get back to sleep again. After about ten minutes the phone rang again.’ I am sorry. Not 4.30. 3.30” I drifted into sleep again. Another phone call. ‘You still want me to wake you 4.30 ?’ Yes, I said. 4.30 my alarm went off and the phone didn’t ring but I was awake anyhow. We went downstairs and woke the porter up. ‘Ah’, he said’ memory good, eyes no good’.
The airport is still closed but there’s a hopeful group of a dozen people or so waiting outside. After a while we discover that the plane is not due to take off until 10.30. A fat little American businessman spits out his cigar and snarls ‘I will not be back’. A wizened Frenchman paces up and down like a caged tiger muttering ‘Enfin, c’est pas possible’. I occupy myself reading the guidebook on Vietnam. There’s a group of ten Vietnamese opposite conducting a nonstop conversation at the top of their voices. The guidebook says there are 75 million Vietnamese- if 10 of them make this noise what do 75 million sound like ? I was soon to find out and it exceeded even my worst fears. The guide book also says there are over 1 million motorbikes in the country, which makes one for about every six people. This is more or less the usual number of people you see sitting on one.
The flight was uneventful except that no one seemed to know where we were going. The pilot, who should be fairly reliable, said we were going to Phnom Penh first. The hostess said we stopped at Saigon. The co-pilot announced that we were coming down over the Great Barrier Reef but I may have misheard. As we descended I was sure there too many houses to be Phnom Pen and none of them were obviously brothels so I decided it was Saigon. Half the people who boarded the bus to the terminal had to rush back when they discovered where we were.
The French apparently said the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians sit and watch it grow and the Laos listen to the sound of it growing. I would say, rather, that the Vietnamese scatter seeds of rice everywhere in the hope that some will grow; the Cambodians squabble over who should get the rice, while the Laos, yawn, roll over and murmur ‘what rice ?’.
The amazing thing about Vietnam is that wherever you are all 75 million people seem to be on the same street and half of them are riding their motorcycles straight at you.
We chickened out and got a guide to take us to some of the more secluded spots. Anywhere in Vietnam where there are fewer than 100,000 people per square kilometre is considered secluded.
Our guide had an idiosyncratic form of English all his own. Some of the facts about Vietnam we learned from him were:
Vietnamese people make fish socks, using one fish and four socks.
Vietnam makes atomic bombs out of coconuts.
Vietnamese people like to build a chicken behind the house. They bury their dead in a meatery.
They grow giraffes and make giraffe honey. ‘Where’ I asked. ’There,’ he said pointing to some grape vines.
To break the journey he would say ‘Now you stop to scratch your leg.’
He was quite curious about England and asked ‘In the UK has the crazy cow stopped ?’.
He liked to used the word ‘force’ which he pronounced ‘fock’. So he told us that Vietnamese people forced deer, parents forced their children and the Government forced the minorities. The Government also encouraged people only to have 2 children but didn’t force.
The Vietnamese are also convinced that you catch AIDS by eating durians as the posters depicted the virus with prickles exactly like the fruit.
He also told us about the Champa people who built small brick temples some of which the French decided not to build roads through. They surround their houses with wooden fences. The slats in the fences are about 9 inches apart ‘ to keep out Champa monsters, who have their insides on the outside’. The Champa also have a strange marriage custom. The intended couple are locked in a room together for three days. Family members pass food through holes in the walls and occasionally spy on the pair to make sure there isn’t any physical contact. This, our guide told us, is a ‘check-in time.’

Still the most memorable moment for me in Vietnam was when the girl in the massage parlour cut my ingrowing toenails for me. But that is another story ….

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