A touristic experience

Luang Prabang is the westerner’s fantasy of a perfect city. Peaceful, atmospheric, green, clean and abounding in restaurants, entertainment and culture. A small taste of Laos in civilized conditions. In this wild and non-commercial country, a tourist can feel good and safe among the hotels, French bakeries, English-speakers and infinite opportunities for spending money. This UNESCO historic heritage site is a sightseeing magnet because of the exotic setting with countless temples and orange-shining monks. There are museums, concerts, courses and craft galleries. This time, instead of complaining about such places being not entirely up our alley, we decided that when in Rome, do as the tourists do, and gave in to consumption.
We wandered among the temples and colonial architecture, along the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, splashing out in restaurants and cafes.

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Visited an interesting mini-museum of ethnic minorities with a gift shop where you can easily spend a few days’ budget (which we gladly did).

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We had a meal in the museum restaurant (closing soon), where we tried ethnic treats from various tribes. The idea is brilliant but the execution rather bland.

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We went on a obligatory trip out of town to see the local bears, butterflies and waterfalls. It was beautiful and crowded – the paths beaten badly.

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We took part in a cooking class. For the first time, we went to the market armed with a human guide. The school itself was set in a beautiful garden with a pond. For those who can cook it is much more fun than learning, but in the end it’s hard to call that a drawback.

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We got up at dawn to see the monks’ alms procession. In the dim morning light, in quiet, the march of barefoot monks must be a mystical experience. But not in Luang Prabang, where the retarded tourists along with photographers circled around the monks like vultures, trying to find the best shot, flashes right in the eyes or putting tablets with dangling covers in front of monks’ faces. The more ambitious decide to buy rice and take part in the ceremony. Then they have a chance to fit themselves in the photo as well. This is probably one of the worst tourist experiences we had. After regaining our conscience at this early hour and seeing the nature of the event, we wanted to curl up and die, ashamed of the Western, picture-centered culture.

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We tried some quite well-promoted specialties like the dried Mekong weed, local sausage, jeow sauce with buffalo skin and the bael fruit tea. Maybe we came too late in the evening, but the praised Cafe Toui that offers tasting platters of these treats disappointed us in both taste and freshness.

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I couldn’t help but wonder if there even are any volunteers to try these “controversial” dishes? In front of another, nice looking restaurant where a lady in a white apron was grilling fish, we overheard a conversation: – What fish is it? – It’s from the Mekong. – Eeew, I don’t want it. So, if you’re looking for some Atlantic salmon in this hard to cross, landlocked country, we can give you a piece of advice: don’t bother.

A waterfall that wasn’t there

“When you’re in a hurry, take a detour” – it’s a useful motto. Sometimes I fall into the “more, further” trap and find myself planning visits to new cities, regions, countries. A journey like that loses it’s meaning and becomes a festival of greediness. In Central Laos we were in a hurry to go to Vientiane. First in Tha Khaek: “We’ve already seen caves in Vietnam, Kong Lo is a bit out of our way, maybe skip it?”. Then in Kong Lo the direct bus to Vientiane tempted us with a promise of a hassle-free connection. But Marcin found out about Nam Kading national protected area (NPA) that we’d pass by and my plans got snubbed. “One of the cleanest rivers in Laos” sounded like a promise of another paradise and was enough to reshuffle my priorities. All the more so, since for me splashing around in basically any body of water is a top attraction in droughty Laos.

We thus take the direct bus from Kong Lo to Vientiane but stop along the way in the little town of Pak Kading. The only motel here is pretty bad and over-priced but a Lao restaurant on the other side of the street makes up for the inconvenience. A real restaurant with traditional Lao food is a bit of a rarity, as Laotians tend to eat at home, while stalls and eateries usually specialize in either grilled items, appetizers or soups. National dishes, like the meat salad laap, are typically prepared for important events. There are tourist restaurants that mainly serve standard Asian fare such as fried rice, curries and stir-fries plus approximations of western dishes. In many such places it’s difficult to find unadulterated Lao food. The restaurant in question though, is not only clean and pleasant, but also serves only local dishes, serves them right, the menu is calligraphed in two languages and the food’s delicious! Win, win, win! For two days we eat only there: great soups, including foe (Did I mention it’s AWESOME?), hellishly spicy green papaya salad, koy paa, which is an especially good laap made of fish, fresh herbs and crunchy veggies. All these are served with Lao sauces (jaew) – made to dip sticky rice and raw veggies. The Laotian cuisine is about harmony – there’s a little bit of dry, a bit of wet, some cooked and some fresh. The raw balances the spiciness of sauces and salads. Laotians appreciate the bitter taste (found in tiny raw eggplants, bamboo shoots or leaves) that balances the sweetness of dishes and activates digestive juices. After a closer look, the cuisine turns out not as primitive as we first thought, instead, it’s ingenious in its intuitive approach to composition of tastes and textures.

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Food aside, we’ve stopped here to make a trip along the river, to a waterfall, to be exact. We catch a bus going to the next village and there, right away, meet a grandpa who’s offering to take us in his boat. I would like to know if in the dry season the river’s not too shallow and if the waterfall, well, even works. We don’t have a common language and such questions are impossible. Soon, we’re out in a little boat skimming over the wide river. It is very shallow and buffalo roam here and there, in no hurry whatsoever. Slowly, the riverbanks start to rise and form rocky mountains covered with pristine jungle. Supposedly, some elephants, tigers, gibbons, bears, slow lorises and other rare animals live here but encountering any is next to impossible.

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The river narrows down and a small cascade appears in front of us. A few hundred meters upriver a larger one is visible as well. The grandpa tells us to get out and points to the next cascade. In Kong Lo we’d go out and the two “rowers” would pull the boat over, but here grandpa is not up to such tasks. Instead, he takes a nap in the shade of a crevice. See you later! In the distance we see a gleeful, Beerlao-equipped group of local youths, who did not mind pulling their boat over. No choice. We put on our flip-flops and get ready to go along the rocky riverbank. I wonder if the upriver cascade even qualifies as a waterfall… It’s very hot. My face is the color of beets as we slowly traverse over the rocks. No glorious waterfall in sight. Be it as it may, Lao heat has a way of putting great ambitions to rest. It is beautiful and we’re not going any further. We’ll settle for a swim in the clear water and a mini-picnic with butterflies.

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On the way back, we’re silent. I keep thinking that I want to stay here forever. A long journey offers time and opportunity to understand oneself. I needed five months and the help of a life-partner: “Marcin, why am I a zodiacal bull, if I love water so much?”. Marcin takes a look along the river and answers: “Because you’re a water buffalo.”

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Bucolic paradise found

In our travels, apart from food, we search for what Lonely Planet likes to call a “bucolic paradise”. A perfect countryside. Beautiful landscapes, peace and quiet, far from the cities. Everyday life. We found it on Sumatra, we found it in Laos. A narrow strip of central Laos, route no 8, between Vietnamese Vinh and Thailand. An hour off the highway. On the tourist trail but a bit out of the way, still peaceful and without crowds. Here we found our first Laotian paradise, and we can tell you already: there are many of them! Long story short – we are in love. Too much of a good thing can be as hard to process as too much bad luck. I want to scream: You have to come here!, while wanting to keep the place only for myself. The modest promotional slogan of Laos “Simply beautiful” has got it nailed.
We’re constantly overpowerwed by a mixture of beauty, peace and authenticity. It comes on all of a sudden and leaves us wondering — Is this for real?!
When we arrive, the sharp mountains stand guard while tobacco fields stretch around.

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When we walk to a nearby organic farm, behind the tunnels full of herbs and a cabbage patch hides a surprise – a river, a mountain and buffalos in bath.

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When we go for breakfast, another stretch of the river is visible from the terrace. It’s turqoise, there’s ducks, geese and people swimming. We get into a slow conversation with a local elder. A lady washes her laundry and then herself.

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When we approach a cave hidden beaneath a mountain and pass an incredibly green and clear lagoon, it’s impossible not to immediatly jump in, with clothes on.

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When, after an hour-long boat journey through the completely dark cave, we emerge on the other side into tropical greenery and see kids horseplaying on the beach and jumping from trees into water.

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When we sit on the terrace of our guesthouse and watch the villagers and everything they do is in slow-motion – preparing tobacco for drying, repairing buildings, guiding the cattle home, cooking, chatting. This serenity shows us what “peace of mind” and “accepting reality” mean.

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People may say that it’s only appearances and bullshit naive tourists say, that the view is beautiful but only from afar, Laos is in the top fifty of the poorest countries, education and health-care sucks, these people would surely want to change places with us, inside, in reality, they’re bitter etc. Dear cynics, partly you’re right, but come and watch the kids swimming in the river, put a hand on your heart and say that happiness doesn’t shine.

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Every once in a while I wonder if i’m not intoxicated, if everybody sees the place the same way I do. Cathy, with whom we lazily pass our time, says that it’s these scenes that brought her to this part of world. Wandering around the village we stumble across an odd-day bus from Vientiane. A few people jump out and they seem incredibly overactive, even agressive. Three of them start bombarding us with questions: where, how, how much, why, which way… Do Laotians experience tourists this way?
The next day we meet a girl from that trio. The village had done it’s magic and she’s changed. The kind of smile which can be seen in the eyes does not leave her face. Marcin says it must be something in Beerlao. I think that every overachiever should pay a visit to Laos. Just to remember that there is an alternative. It works on everybody. Well, almost everybody, since the next day we meet the other two, teeth gritting, jogging in the 35 degrees of heat. Is something chasing them? Give ‘em some Beerlao!

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Jewel in the dust

So far we’ve avoided renting motorbikes. For one thing, we’ve been simply afraid and for another, worried we don’t have a motorbike license. Which, in fact, doesn’t amount to much in Asia. In Laos, without your own means of transportation, some interesting places can be difficult (read: expensive) to get to. The Laotians are calm and the roads empty. It was now or never. So, we gather our courage and walk across the yard of the guesthouse, to the rental agency. We make sure about the driver’s license: “In Lao no problem.” Marcin gets the hang of things (the trick is to trust the automatic clutch and NOT give throttle from the start) and off we go. I can finally feel the wind on my face, while the helmet, instead of a hat, is shielding me from the sun.

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Most visitors are drawn to the caves in the surrounding area but we’re after the country and the scenery. Dwarfed shrubbery, empty riverbeds and red dust everywhere are sure signs of the dry season. We take in the hairy mountains as we pass by herds of cattle. The animals in Laos seem to look after themselves. Small herds of cows, buffalo, goats and pigs roam around the villages and along the roads without human guidance.

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We visit two caves: one is uninspiring, with kitschy lights and concrete walkways, but the other is darker and wilder. We traverse over rocks and wade through water almost losing a shoe but making it to the other side. High walls and lush greenery surround us. There’s a pool in the middle and butterflies skitter in the air. A group of young folks made the area their own. Maybe they have a tent nearby and now they’re climbing the rocks. Looking at them – sunbathing, swimming, eating and taking turns at the rock-face, we feel envy. After four months of journey we thought we were pretty relaxed but now we’re faced with a new level of mastery. The atmosphere is incredible. A profound connection with nature, deep peace and freedom.

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After the cave, we head to a French landing by a nearby river. The guy from whom we rented the motos instructed us to leave them in the village, so now we’re walking. The heat is overwhelming and several times we’re on the verge of turning back. When we get there, the view makes the tiresome walk worthwhile. People are picnicking, fishing, or just laying about on the rocks. Asian meals are a social affair, with great atmosphere, and I always enjoy watching them. Right away I want to picnic as well but all we have are some tangerines and sweet tamarind. On the way back, a friendly Chinese working in Laos gives us a lift, saving us from the 40 degrees of heat. He also recommends we visit a beautiful lake nearby, Khoun Kong Leng.

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The next day we don’t feel like moving our bruised buttocks off the bed, but the motorbike and the lake are waiting. Marcin doesn’t let me check out the pictures of the lake on the internet. He says I’ll see it soon enough. He’s right. Off we go again. The landscape along the highway is monotonous, only after taking a dirt road things get more interesting. The few vehicles that pass us by leave a lenghty plume of red dust behind. The water buffalo, much abundant in Laos, managed to find the only wet spot in the area. As soon as we approach, they are ready to flee. I love cows (!), but these timid, sweet creatures, with their weary looks and sad faces flattened on the ground really melt my heart. And if that wasn’t enough, they’re called bubalus bubalis.

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The road is decent, apart from one steep approach with deep ruts. Here, I get off the bike and make the climb on foot. A truck carrying gravel can’t go up. The worker unloads some cargo and the driver tries again.  We both make it.

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We’re riding pretty fast in the dust and heat, and soon we start to wonder if we haven’t lost our way. Suddenly, in the middle of this dusty nowhere, we see a mirage – an edge of blue lake, intensely orange flowers and green trees.

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We get off the motorbike and try to understand. I’m speechless. A rowdy group of teenagers finishes their swim. They take the last few selfies and ride away. I’m very happy that I didn’t look at the internet pictures because never in my life would I expect something so beautiful to exist in these barren surroundings. A surprise supreme. The lake is considered sacred by the villagers, so swimming is only allowed in a fenced off section, in an outgoing stream. I follow the Laotian etiquette and get into water in my clothes. The dust, sweat and tiredness are cleansed off me. It feels divine.

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Describing happiness without falling into banality is a most difficult task. I can only focus on details. The blossoms smell so powerfully, I feel faint. The lake has a deep blue hue we doggedly attempt to reproduce on camera. The water is so clear, I can see fish and my own body. The swim is the perfect remedy for the heat. Black butterflies flutter their wings. The mountains surround us. The buffalo graze. It’s quiet.

First taste of Laos

It’s afternoon when we manage to head out for dinner. The choice between skewered roadkill and soups and curries from the morning, standing in great pots along the street is an unappealing one. Determined to have something more civilized, we sit down at a closing restaurant and persuade the staff to serve us. Next day, we set off for Tha Khaek, the base for touristic exploration of Central Laos. We’re traveling in the back of a songthaew, a small, converted flatbed truck, with hard benches and a canvas roof. Along the way, a woman next to me pulls out a bundle with food and our noses are assaulted by the smell of rotting organic matter. I think to myself: there must be a landfill nearby. A dozen or so miles further, she pull out the bundle again and this time I can see it’s some grilled meat and glutinous rice, while the pervasive smell of smoked fish and a dumpster returns. My doubts vanish. At the same time, an extended family sitting opposite us is sharing Thai-made biscuits. The grandma, in an unaffected way, pulls off bits of biscuits, chews them and feeds the paste into her grandson’s mouth. It takes a while for my initial repugnance to be displaced by notions of naturality and harmlessness.

On the way, it’s empty and beautiful. From the airy songhtaew we watch the surroundings – villages, shrubbery, rivers and mountains. Four hours and one transfer take us from cool Lak Sao to sunbaked Tha Khaek. My dreams of heat came true two hundred per cent. After the previous weeks of getting cold and re-warming myself, the heat is a new shock for the body. We adapt slowly, beginning with lazy walks around the town.

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Along the way there is a multitude of watermelon stands – funny how these balls filled with sweet water always appear in hot and dry places. Many women still wear traditional sarongs. Nodoby calls hello, so we learn to say: sabaidee! Passing by a school-yard, we notice guys playing ka taw, a kind of volleyball with a rattan ball but players are using feet, knees, chest and head instead of hands.

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At first I’m doubful if the local cuisine has much to offer apart from “game” grilled on a stick. But quickly enough I find we don’t have to play it safe at the guesthouse. We walk by stalls with huge mortars used for making a delicious salad. It’s back to Thai tastes and spiciness. After the delicate cuisine of Vietnam, I must get used to chilli again – my first salad with noodles contains three chillies and the tears are coming down my face. At another place we try the classic version with green papaya – this time I ask for only one chilli. The fresh, green flavor fights for primacy with the intensive taste of fermented fish paste. This results in a surprising combination, one that both tempts and repels at the same time.

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The town’s center is situated by the Mekong. You can have lunch with  the view of Thailand, at one of the eateries on the bank of the river. Initially we avoid them, like the rest of the few foreign guests here, but in fact they’re nothing to be afraid of. Instead of the usual birds, frogs, or some other bats, you can order a fish stuffed with lemongrass. It’s grilled over charcoal and the flies can’t get near it. The owner of the stall can prepare a nice salad of long beans and sun-scented tomatoes. It all goes well with sticky rice and beer. The dinner’s delicious, fresh and varied, and costs but 5 dollars.

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This is how we make our acquaintance with the Laotian cousine. In Thailand we were already happily crunching on fresh vegetables served with salads and those half-raw, stir-fried just for a few seconds on the wok. I have the impression that love for raw veggies is even greater in Laos because here cabbage and other leafy greens are eaten fresh constantly, along with other vegetables, ones that few would dare eat raw in Poland, like green beans or tiny eggplants. Sticky rice, or glutinous rice, is a staple and the base for most meals of the country. I think it’s delicious and I’m happy I’ll be eating it all the time. The rice is served in bamboo baskets, from which you scoop up a serving, make it into a ball and eat it between spoonfuls of a dish or dip it in a sauce. The rice in a covered basket cools slowly and does not dry up. Beerlao is a national pride and maybe the only export of the country. It’s a really good beer.

For breakfast, the choice is easy – every stall offers foe, the local variation on the Vietnamese classic. I hope that we won’t offend any Vietnamese readers, because I must admit that I like the Laotian version better. In the morning, I’m happily slurping it up and I just can’t get enough. Maybe I should have another bowl? The noodles are drier and more narrow, while the broth is more bitter and there are bits of tomato floating in it. It tastes very fresh. Laotians, unlike the Vietnamese, eat greens between spoonfuls but I stick to my old ways and have them in the soup.

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The atmosphere of the town is sleepy and relaxed. Still driven by the Vietnamese energy, we need time to get used to Laotian slowness. In the beginning it’s hard to get into the mood. The Laotians are followers of Theravada Buddhism, the oldest type of the religion, same as Cambodians and Thais. According to the guidebook, Laos is one of the most relaxed countries on earth. We expected cheerful energy but we keep seeing stagnation and indifference. The snuffing of emotions is in accoradance with religious teachings but to us it appears past reasonable borders. While extreme catholicism glorifies suffering, Buddhist avoidance of extremes seems to lead to apathy. In this regard, the Laotians remind us much of Khmers and we may well have fallen into the same trap that most Westerners do. While watching a documentary on Cambodia, I heard a statement that the Khmers are “docile and passive” people. Such an interpretation brough great hardship to them. Meanwhile, the absence of the cult of personality and being active can be very refreshing. It maybe even have a therapeutical effect, especially on the over-ambitious and expectation-oriented Western minds. Slowly, we seep into the atmosphere and begin to appreciate the more subtle emotions, peacefulness and equilibrium, and we make first, shy attempts at connecting with these gentle people. Sincerely, we can’t wait to explore the country further. The first taste of Laos makes us hungry for more.

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The Limits of Control

Checking the information on the nearest border crossings to Laos gives the impression of having a choice between bad and worse. We’re not ready to backtrack hundreds of kilometers just to settle for bad. And anyhow, remote borders are a source of some very fond memories. Setting off towards a new country always makes me think of life and vitality, that the border-zone will be a booming business. Yet these regions are usually completely empty: austere mountains, prairies and vast spaces. It’s… divine.

In my head, I’m drafting a list of impressions from backwater border crossings:
- Beautiful Greek mountains and scorching heat. We get there in the afternoon but the buses to Sarande had already left. No taxis either. There is a lonely driver though. “Perfect” conditions for negotiating. Driver doesn’t speak a word of English and Albanian is an enigma to us. Marcin steps up and conducts a most courageous bargaining. Out goes a calculator and a map. Luckily numbers are still numbers. The distances are calculated, gasoline prices taken into account and profit margins accepted. After half an hour of calculator warfare we’re driven over picturesque serpentine road. In the end, we agree that haggling was half the success, the other half was that the driver just wanted to go back home.
- From Turkey there was supposed to be a bus. There wasn’t. At the border… only mountains and truck drivers. No taxis. The truckers tell us that there is one but it’s just left for the town. Have to wait. It came back.
- Nothing around and miles on miles of real off-road. Couldn’t find a hotel. Deep Romanian backwater. After getting the car searched we make it over no problem. But it’s night already and on the Moldovan side it’s completely empty, no street lamps either. This time we’re in our car and with friends, so it’s easier and safer, but still our heart’s were thumping.

The Asian escapade is punctuated by trouble-free borders. Now, we unanimously agree on the second worst crossing in the region, maybe because we miss the adrenaline and we’re subconsciously thrilled with the idea of adding another entry to list. Either way, we want to visit Central Laos and that’s the way to go. After two shitty days and another one in coma, I’m healthy but very weak. I dream of the Laotian heat. I want to bask myself in the sun… We have to go.

Lonely Planet warns: you’ll get ripped off on this route. But we already know this. We’re back in our favorite Vinh. The night before, Marcin goes scouting to get a sense of the situation. It’s not that bad, the ticket to Lak Sao should cost 2 or 3 hundred thousand dong. Very expensive, since it’s only 130 km, but not astronomical. In the morning we get up before sunrise to catch the 5 o’clock bus. At the station it turns out that a new piranha wants 500 thousand. There is discussion again but we’ve learned how to deal with these absurdities delicately and with a smile. Any other reaction causes the exploiter to loose face and it’s all over. We settle for 300 thousand. We’re offered a choice, but don’t care if it’s a sitting or a sleeping bus, as long as it will get us over the border. The local rattler we’re led to is maybe worth 100k. There is some space in the back, on the baggage platform. We sit there and we’re off. The faces of the people around look particularly forlorn, I wonder where they’re from.

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Along the way, there is an obligatory stop for breakfast – everybody flocks to an eatery and starts slurping pho. My stomach’s not ready for this, so I just walk around to stretch my legs and eat a bit of the white rice I have with me. That’s when the bus drives away. Great. Our backpack with the computer and the camera got left on board. We’ve been warned so many times about getting robbed in Vietnam that now I’m having a major face-palm. The other passengers’ cartons of beer and bags of vegetables drove away as well, but they don’t seem to be worried. I know, however, that foreigners are a different category and if something will be missing we can as well as leave our written complaints under the Ho Chi Minh’s statue. The bus does not come back for a surprisingly long time. Even the local people start to get a little shifty. We’re worried now about not only losing something but maybe getting something extra. Finally it arrives, with more cargo on the roof. The backpack’s untouched, nothing’s missing, nothing new. I sigh with relief. We go on.

We’re carrying a serious payload and the bus is drudgingly making its way over the steep mountains. It’s getting colder and the landscape’s more beautiful. Some twenty kilometers from the border, at a sharp curve, the driver mismanages the gears and we hear a grinding noise. The bus abruptly comes to a halt and smoke rises from the gearbox. It croaked, I think to myself, and in that moment regret not eating earlier. As it usually happens is such circumstances everybody gets out. Either to play the experts or have serious telephone conversations. It’s wet, cold and dreary. I eat the last bit of a cold apple and get the shivers. Another bus, coming from the border, doesn’t make the curve and a mirror’s broken.

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There are no other tourists, nobody speaks English. After an hour, it looks like no substitute bus is coming because people start unloading their stuff and catching alternate transportation. An amazing variety of goods is hauled out, including boxes on boxes of tetra-packed drinks, sacks of vegetables and innumerable cabbage heads. Some of the passengers are put on a bus that’s as full as ours was, while we’re directed to an elegant stationwagon. I’m suspicious that it will not take us all the way to Lak Sao, so I’d like to get on the bus, but nobody’s asking my opinion. We get inside leaving nasty red mud marks on the beige carpeting. I’m thoroughly cold but the other passengers open windows to have a smoke. This alternates with the driver putting the air-con on. The surrounding landscape of mist-shrouded mountains is amazing but my mind’s occupied with the cold and the hunger. At the border my suspicions turn out true as we’re unloaded with the backpacks and left to fend for ourselves. So much for our luxury-price tickets. There are no other white faces but the locals are present in their hundreds. Strange types, they’re amazed by our sight, pointing at us, commenting and laughing out loud. Hungry and pissed off I want to give them the finger. There’s just too many of them so I can only make ugly faces. Meanwhile, Marcin is trying to make his way to the passport control to get the exit stamp. The Vietnamese are mercilessly pushy and encroach the window from every which side trying to pass the guards their bags with dozens of passports each. It looks hopeless but with some a little bit of oomph our passports make it inside. The official has a hearty laugh when he see us. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t seen foreigner for a long time.

After that we walk the last kilometer to the Laotian side, passing more hordes of enthusiastic locals. The other side is much nicer. Almost pleasant but still cold as hell. The official here is making rounds to process our visa, yet nothing seems to come out of his walking. By that time we’re skipping around and making little dance move to keep warm. Our breath condenses into vapor in the cold air. After another half an hour the visa’s ready. Next up is the final battle – getting the transport to Lak Sao. There’s plenty of buses outside, but they’re full, just waiting for their passengers and none will take us. We walk a bit down the road but there’s nothing there. My fury reaches it’s apex. Marcin orders me to sit down at an eatery and goes off to change some money. This time I devour the pho without as much as batting an eyelid. Other people around me are doing the same, only standing up, because the benches are too cold for them to sit on. As I calm down, Marcin manages to find a minibus and at a moment’s notice we’re on the way to Lak Sao. We made it to the great beyond, where two empty streets cross and the red dust dances in the air. The next day, after 13 hours of sleep and two hot soups, we feel almost human again.

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Halong Valentine’s

The Vietnamese are big fans of the Valentine’s Day. At an English-language bookstore in Hanoi we meet a young fellow choosing a novel about love for a potential girlfriend.  The whole affair must be important because he did a thorough internet research on love books. The nominees are “Pride and Prejudice”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Since he hasn’t read any of them, he overcomes shyness and asks for advice. The choice is a bit difficult since we know nothing about the girl. I’d pick Bronte but that might be too depressing. Dealing with the aftermath of divorce in “Eat, Pray, Love” is fit for a different age group, and “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a 50-50 kind of thing — it can get the action going or end the date with a knuckle sandwich. In the end, it’s Jane Austen; we hope the British classic will manage to put a smile on the girl’s face.

Valentine’s Day is last year’s snow to us. Yet, ironically, our next stop will involve romantic karst rocks “rising majestically from the sea”. We’re talking the biggest Vietnamese attraction: Ha Long Bay. Two Hungry People break the mood though and decide to make a detour. Foregoing the “2 day 1 night luxury junk cruise” shenanigans we opt for a plain passenger ferry. This involves going way north-west, to Cai Rong, and taking a boat to Quan Lan island. The next day it’s another ferry back to Ha Long City. The route is completely different from the package tours and focuses on the adjacent Bai Tu Long Bay, which is equally beautiful but less popular. The weather’s awful, so we’re not counting on the scenery anyway, at least not all that much. During the trip to Cai Rong we change the bus two times, which is a commonplace practice here. When there are only a few passengers left, the Vietnamese drivers co-ordinate with local colleagues going in the given direction and transfer the travelers, presumably to finish the day early. It does not involve more money (it’s always safe to ask) and works reasonably well. We get on our final, very local bus after sundown. It’s cold, dark and gloomy. The bus smells of vodka. We haven’t seen any tourists for a long time. A few tipsy passengers are already on board. Some elderly drunk starts making a raucous but he’s rather quickly dealt with by a younger, yet much more aggressive woman. After a couple of exchanges, she gets up and in few short words puts the fellow in his place. The next sounds he allows himself to produce are that of vomiting.

We reach our destination safe and sound. The town, actually an island connected to mainland with a bridge, seems to be at the end of the world. Further are mostly mountains, then China. We already very hungry when we encounter an eatery. Even though it’s closing, the owner invites us in, while being overly nice. It rouses my suspicions but I don’t object. This appears to be the last chance to have a civilized meal after a very long bus journey. Even though the owner doesn’t speak a word of English, we proudly order in Vietnamese: hello – hot pot – shrimp – calamari – vegetables – rice noodles – beer one – thank you. The atmosphere’s merry, and after we’re served the owner is on the phone telling a colleague how the foreigners came to his place. He describes everything in detail – I can hear Ba Lan (Poland) and the contents of our hot pot. But when it comes to paying, the royal guests deserved a royal bill and we’re charged 500 thousand dong. It’s the equivalent of $25 or the average daily budget of a backpacker in Vietnam. The situation is awkward. We manage to get the price down to 300 thousand, which is a bit more than a hotpot would cost in the capital. It’s our first resto rip-off. In the end a quick comparison to prices back home lets us put the unappetizing experience in perspective.

In  the morning we walk to the picturesque Cai Rong harbor. The rocks rise up right next to the boats and there is plenty of action on the pier. Baskets full of oysters are being carried around, maybe containing pearls that are grown in the area. Being in a bit of a hurry, we mistakenly buy tickets for a speed boat instead of a lovely wooden ferry. On board the landscape passes by us very quickly and the cold wind on the deck limits the photo-taking potential.

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On Quan Lan it’s out of season, we see only two western couples there. The electricity is out and our room’s very cold. Luckily the sun comes out and we go for a walk around the village. There we see an old temple made of old timber blocks that are coming apart with age. It has heavy shingles on the roof making it a bit concave. At one of the houses the owner is running his power generator and listening to karaoke songs full-blast. I think the whole village can hear it. He’s home alone, right in front of the TV. My strategy for surviving a shower in the cold bathroom equipped with a tiny hot-water tank is to wash in stages. I have to put my clothes back on to wash my hair. The evening of Valentine’s Day is spent under two quilts and a sleeping bag. The heating does not work, the electricity is out for the night anyway. It’s turned on only for a few brief evening hours.

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In the morning there’s no breakfast because we’ve overslept a little and the owner doesn’t want to hurry and serve us. We get on the speedboat (this time there was no choice) still hungry and the cold wind chills us to the bone. In Ha Long we have a lukewarm bun cha but later find a very pleasant tea-house to warm up. I’ve gotten chilled so many times that my immune system’s weakened. When we reach Ninh Binh I get the stomach flu. Maybe it’s Ho Chi Minh’s revenge. Or Saint Valentine’s…

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Northern blues

It’s no secret that the south of Vietnam dazzled us. Beautiful, friendly, exotic and surprisingly free of tourists. The fact that the winter temperatures are ideal is also well worth mentioning. But the further north we travel, the less enchanted we feel. It’s becoming colder, the landscape’s turning industrial and grim, and people are more reserved. It’s getting expensive as well, and the difference between the local and the tourist price is more evident than ever. If we compared the south to a cheerful yet feisty puppy, the north would have to be a serious-looking, black Doberman. You’re never quite sure if it will run up waggling its tail or rather bite off half your head. Obviously, this is an unjust generalization — we’ve met wonderful people here as well and I bet some Dobermans are really friendly — but truth be told we’re just much more on our guard.

As far as the largest cities are concerned though, the situation is the complete reverse. Hanoi beats Saigon hands down. The streets of both cities are full of life, but in Ho Chi Minh City this means mostly motorcycles. The tourist district is awful and we were not able to find redeeming qualities elsewhere. Hanoi however, even though cold and cloudy in February, has its own style, a mixture of Vietnamese chaos and colonial elegance. The streets of the Old Quarter, though often architecturally uninspiring, are full of people and steaming pots of soup, while the tourist traffic, apart from a few streets, blends perfectly with local life. The city’s full of beautiful trees — smaller in narrow side-streets and huge old-timers on representative avenues. During the bleak and cold winter, Hanoi reminds us a bit of Warsaw and we wonder if it’s the same for the large number of the Vietnamese in our capital.

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The northern cuisine is less green and more warming. There’s the nasty Hanoi beer, but also vodka makes more frequent appearances on the scene. Maybe because we’ve already eaten a phở too many, in the homeland of the soup it lacks any allure and we focus on the novelties. Rather unknown in Poland, yet originating from Hanoi, is bún chả, or grilled pork served on rice noodles. We find a mention-worthy instance using our favorite method — strolling along unknown streets and encountering a random eatery, where we’re lured in by the wondrous smells and numerable patrons. The food does not disappoint, on the contrary, it’s delicious. A similar dish, bún thịt nướng, is popular in the south: meat, spring rolls and greenery are served on cold rice noodles with accompaniment of fish-sauce based nước chấm sauce. The dish is very tasty but also heavy and we’re not thrilled with the cold rice noodles. Bún chả consists of the same ingredients, so we’re not really sure what’s the difference. The northern version was served in a nước chấm “soup”, but in Hanoi I’ve seen dry bún chả as well. Either way, it would be an ideal cold-morning meal if it wasn’t form the luke-warm soup and cold noodles, but hey, it’s the Vietnamese way.

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We’re very fond of local DIY eateries where sitting at a table on the side-walk we grill various foods. In Hanoi we found a place with the greatest multitude of stuff to choose from: meats, fish and seafood, veggies and even mushrooms. We pick the things we like ourselves and place them in a plastic basket. Unfortunately, next they are grilled by the staff, while our table-grill’s suppose to keep food hot. The staff does not skimp on oil and our morsels reach us soaked in fat.

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To warm ourselves we also try the local version of fish with turmeric and dill, or chả cá, and the nationally popular claypots. Since we’ve had about enough meat, we choose versions with eggplant and tofu.

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One of our favorites is phở cuốn, a “dry pho” appetizer, made from unsliced flat noodles rolled into spring rolls with beef and herbs inside. This dish can be found in the pleasant area by the Truc Bach lake.

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But what really gets me going though, are the desserts (chè). They’re completely different from desserts in the west, full of nutritious ingredients and combinations we’d never think of. The Asian desserts occupy our random access memories since Malaysia, though we still feel completely at loss when it comes to understanding them. In Hanoi many are served hot, with taro (the “Asian potato”), lotus seeds, longan fruit or corn, all swimming in sweet syrups. I like desserts that are not too sweet and can fill my stomach and Asia offers me many choices. Some are yummy, and some… freaky. When it’s warm, the cold versions with yoghurt make sense, going by the catchy name of sua chua. It’s worth to break the habits and try these curiosities, especially when you get the northern blues.

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Angels and piranhas

We choose Vinh, “there’s nothing there” kind of city, to break our journey to Hanoi. Since we’re tired of haggling for bus tickets, we’ve become fond of fixed-priced “hard seats” on the trains. These are very merry and incredibly cheap. Numb buttocks aside, the only downside are the barred windows that separate us from glorious mountain views.

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The sights in Vinh include crumbling remains of a citadel, a Ho Chi Minh statue and the nearby town of his birth. Few foreign tourists stop here: we meet only two representatives of the Western culture.

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After two days of R&R at a pleasant hotel we make our way to the bus terminal, where we have our first encounter with true Vietnamese piranhas. The Tet is still haunting us, now in the form of buses full of people going back from homes. “Happy new year!” is a magical phrase that makes tickets incredibly expensive. The lady at the counter is mean and does not want to negotiate. We remain unfazed and walk, with backpacks, the two kilometers to the train station. There, it turns out that all the tickets for the day have been sold out. Well, what can you do? We decide to swallow our pride and dish out for the bus. Since we’re already a bit tired, we wait for a city bus. It starts raining. The bus doesn’t come for a long time. Finally, at the bus terminal, the woman, now in bitch mode, has come up with an extra charge for our baggage. For all we care she can go and stuff herself. We’re staying another day and going tomorrow on the train. Yet, after we make the walk again, check in to a hotel near the station and make our way to the ticket office again, all the seats for tomorrow are sold out as well. Luckily, we’re such a nuisance that the lady dealing with us calls her colleague at another counter, who “maybe has something”. After a long wait in an immense queue, we put on smiles again for the final encounter. The woman, when she looks up, makes a face that makes me want to pull her head out through the small opening and twist it. Instead, I keep my smile on and within minutes we receive tickets from a mysterious envelope, for the most expensive sleeping berths on the train. What can I say… Survival of the fittest?

The waiters in Vinh are a completely different breed. Somebody helps us every time and never quotes unreasonable amounts of dong. When we first arrive in the evening, we are really tired and not in the mood for extensive culinary explorations. We find a soup stand close to the hotel and decide on rice soup with a mysterious meat, which we assume could be snake. By imitating snake’s movement with his hand and hissing, Marcin tries to confirm our guess with the lovely stall owner. She nods her head in approval and smiles. We admit a certain extent of excitement with the exotic new delicacy, especially since the “soup with snake” is very tasty. Later, in another place, it will turn out that chao luon is a popular local version of rice soup with eel. Well, I guess Marcin’s hissing was too shy.

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The next day, at a Korean barbecue restaurant, when we try to inquire what can be ordered the waiters are having a hard time understanding us. Luckily, the owners’ son comes to rescue. The fellow is studying in Saigon and came back for a few days to his hometown for Tet. He knows a bit of English and after a short consultation brings the electric grill with food and drinks. He proceeds to grill the morsels and shows us how to roll them with kimchi and papaya salad. He does not leave the table until he’s sure we know how to operate all the ingredients properly. 

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Marcin’s thoughts still revolve around the night stall where next to steaming cauldrons of soup lay rows of goat skulls, which, per clients’ requests, would be cracked and opened, to be served with fresh baguette. Long time ago, in the Greek mountains, we found ourselves in a village having a breakfast from the previous night’s party. The night before, a few sheep had been grilled for a baptism ceremony. In the morning, we joined the family who prepared the party for some grilled goat. One of the “uncles” kept asking for skulls, cracked them with his big hands and ate out the brains. At that time it seemed so exotic and alluring that at the same time Marcin was disgusted and really wanted to try, too. He did not get up his courage to ask. Since that morning he always complained about not trying the baked brain delicacy. This time he vows to try the brain with baguette.

But in the end it doesn’t happen. A terrible craving for Western food overcomes us before we leave Vinh. The closest we can get to the familiar tastes turns out to be the only fast-food joint in the town — KFC. Despite the initial excitement, the meal is more repulsive than soothing. Interestingly enough, Marcin doesn’t complain about not eating the brains. The previous time, in Greece, he was too shy to ask. Now it becomes clear that what bugged him was not the taste of grilled brains but the missed chance. This time we made a choice and the spell is broken.  

In the end, we spend whole four days in the “nothing there” city, because we also overnight here on our way back from the north. The piranhas attack again but the waiters save the city’s face once more.

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