Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Back to China

I should've applied for a China visa in the US. Guess I thought maaaybe my work visa hadn't been canceled. It had been. Applying in Vientiane requires a stupid pile of paperwork, it was so frustrating that I had to resurrect my China mantra, the one I retired five months ago: "No why, Leslie. No why..."

I assembled everything Friday and headed to the embassy. There was a sign posted outside the office saying it was closed for Labor Day. All the rage boiled up inside me and I thought I might start cursing the heavens and gnashing my teeth because if the office was closed Friday there was no way I was going to get a visa by Monday and thus no way to make the Tuesday flight I'd already booked, but then I walked inside and they were, improbably, open for business. "Yeah. Sure you can apply for your visa here. Today."

Of course it's not that simple, you file documents at the embassy, but you have to go to a bank across town to pay for it. Ugh. Whatever, China. At this point, I wasn't even surprised, still running on the relief of being able to drop off my paperwork.

I wandered outside and wondered how I was going to get to this bank since there were no tuk-tuks in sight, but then a Chinese guy who was behind me in line stepped out. Maybe he had to go to the bank too. He offered me a ride and was all excited and surprised that I speaka the Zhongwen.

On the way to the bank, he talks to me about a middle-aged Chinese person's favorite thing (or, one of) to talk to a foreigner about: Chengyu. He's a businessman here in Laos. He manufactures hard liquor and charcoal bricks (I had to look up the word for the latter later, I just knew he kept mentioning "wood something"). He explains a chengyu to me about how a poor man is always trying to get rich. Where other people might see poverty as the hand of God, he says, Chinese people see it as something to overcome.

After I'm done in the bank he offers to drive me back to my hotel, it's not far out of his way. When we arrive he says he has a couple hours of work but afterward he wants to have lunch. I've already made it clear I'm not doing anything, so I agree.

The restaurant has views of the Mekong, with Thailand visible on the opposite bank. Since that's where my trip started, it felt a bit like coming full circle.

Over several plates of seafood, we talked about everything. Or mostly everything about China - Xi Jinping, rich Chinese people, nouveau rich Chinese people, the exhausting hurry-hurry culture of Shanghai and Beijing that made him opt to set up in laid-back Vientiane.

At the end of the meal, he says he wants to take me to Sichuan hot pot for dinner. At one point at lunch I'd slipped in the advisory "My boyfriend blah blah blah" anecdote. I got zero creepy vibes from him. He wasn't nervous. He wasn't trying to impress or charm me. And I, once again, obviously had zero things to do. So I said okay.

But back at my hotel, I started to get cold feet. The afternoon sun was so hot and my brain was already exhausted from speaking Chinese for two hours. Plus wasn't two meals overkill?

I try to walk a fine line between being a cautious person and not declining things based on outsized fears. So in this case the fine line was deciding I was going to go to dinner, but I emailed James with my hotel details, local cell phone number and instructions that I'd email him again in several hours after the meal. Plus I wrote down the number for Vientiane police and the 24-hour US embassy duty officer hotline. Like I said, cautious.

Dinner went off without a hitch. I didn't expect to be eating delicious spicy Chinese hot pot - the kind where they give you a separate dish of un-spiced oil so you can leach off some of the fire - in Laos. And I was surprised and pleased with how my Mandarin held up after five months without practice. When we were finished eating he asked if I wanted to join his friends for karaoke but this time I begged off. Then he had a waitress take a picture of us together and said how glad he was to have made friends, that I was the first American he'd really talked to.

Ah-ha. Of course. Here was a fairly educated Chinese guy - living abroad, interested in what's going on in the world - but who doesn't speak English. There aren't so many of us Chinese-conversant Westerners floating around. I guess I forget that after living in Shanghai and Beijing where we're a dime a dozen. That's why I'm two-meal worthy.

He dropped me back at my hotel and we exchanged emails and emphatic invitations to each other's hometowns.

And so, my day of preparations to re-enter China started with the worst of what I've learned to expect from my home of three years (bureaucracy) and ended with the best, good food and hospitality.

On to Yunnan!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Death in Laos

I wanted to write about my kayaking trip first, but I also want to write about something that happened beforehand.

Leaving Nong Khiaw, my original plan was to take another slow boat farther south. I headed down to the dock, but there were only five other people who wanted to go, two Laotians and an American family, which wasn't enough - boats only depart when they have a big enough group.

I waited around with the others for a couple hours. One of the Americans, a guy from Minnesota, noticed people gathering down by the boats. A massive crowd made its way up the stairs from the dock. A dozen men were carrying the limp body of a young, thin Laotian man.

My first thought was, "oh maybe he's really drunk." I think I thought this because it was the least sinister explanation for a man to be incapacitated. But no one was smiling and it wasn't even noon yet. Sick then? I said a little prayer that he would get better soon as all the men let him down onto the bed of a truck converted for passengers, then piled in on the benches on either side.

The American guy was more inquisitive. He asked the boat ticket seller and he said the man was dead. An electrical accident with the engine. My stomach dropped.

"Was he a worker?" was my first question. This man was coming off the same kind of boat I was supposed to board. Yes, he was a worker. He'd been working on the engine when it happened, the American guy told me. Even still, I felt afraid. I don't want to die in Laos, I thought to myself. There are people I haven't spent enough time with yet.

A group of European girls, who'd planned on taking a boat north, left the dock and went to the bus station instead. And actually, all the boat men left on the truck, so there were no boats leaving Nong Khiaw that day. I headed back to the guesthouses.

Later I learned from a villager that when the man was working on the engine he had an old cord coiled around his neck and it electrocuted him. I didn't do much for the rest of the day. Everything seemed strange and trivial. I had a delicious chicken salad with mint and lemongrass for lunch, the waiter was warm and friendly, I got a cheap oil massage, I Googled "death in Laos" and "electrocution, Laos" trying to make sense, searching for context... I felt out of sorts but also acutely appreciative to be alive when someone else was not.

There wasn't any reason to avoid the slow boats. It was a bizarre accident and accidents happen all the time wherever there is water. Still, I was happy not to get back in one when the opportunity came up that an outdoor company was looking for people to join a kayaking trip. And although ultimately this incident had very little to do with me, I guess I can say, now that my trip is almost over, this will probably have been the scariest and saddest moment of my journey.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Northern Laos

I've been slacking on the blogs. I got up this morning and headed to a cafe to catch up, but when I opened Facebook for some pre-writing procrastination, I learned my brother had a bad fall pole vaulting at a track meet. A few minutes of all-consuming panic followed. I called my Dad at the hospital and he said Billy was moving his hands and feet. The x-rays came back with nothing broken. He was released from the hardboard they had him strapped to and able to go home, albeit in pain.

A few hours later, I'm happy and relieved. Although left wondering, in the wake of a brief but draining panic, how I will ever have kids when life with them can be so scary? "You just kind of live through it," was my Mom's answer. But what if your natural inclination in times of crisis is to recoil into an inoperative ball of anxiety? Oy. A small comfort is that - if genetics have anything to do with it - my children will probably be wildly nonathletic. Pole vaulting? I doubt it...

So Laos!

Presently, I'm in the capital, Vientiane. After northern Vietnam, there was a grueling nighttime bus ride (the highlight of which was a Polish couple, my heroes, shouting "DON'T SMOKE" at a Vietnamese guy who lit up on our little, packed-to-the-gills bus immediately after a pit stop. The Polish couple was like, "We are also from ex-Communist country..." by way of sheepish justification for their stern rebuke).

After the mountainous, curvy, not-totally-paved journey, plus a couple hours at the border processing, I spent an afternoon drinking beer with fellow travelers in a do-nothing stopover town. The next day there was a six-hour slow boat ride down the Nam Ou to Nong Khiaw, a beautiful little village with a relaxed backpacker scene.
Nong Khiaw                                            
More child labor! Another hiking guide.
She asked me if she could have my binoculars and tried to pull money out of my wallet. Then asked if I wanted to buy a beer, or if I wanted to buy her an ice cream. I appreciate the moxy.
I wound up staying a couple days, it was just so pretty. Unfortunately, my hotel was the buggiest place I've stayed yet. I left the light on at night so if I felt them I could see them. I also hoped they wouldn't be so bold when denied cover of darkness...

I couldn't get enough of the limestone cliffs and green riverbanks, so I decided to spend three days immersed in it on a kayak trip down the Nam Ou to where it meets the Mekong - a 123-km journey.

Future model? Lao girl in the village where we homestayed the first night                                            

It was great to see the river slowly. The guide pointed out things I would've never otherwise seen: a shaman performing a sacrificial ceremony for a tree spirit, dozens of villagers gold panning, a pair of hunters smoking an iguana out of a tree so they could shoot it with their extremely long-barrelled rifles. There were rapids on the river so my camera spent most the journey tucked in a dry bag. Sorry about that.

I did get a few shots, like of this gang of 10-year-old monks splashing in the river.

Getting ready to dive in                                 
Fun in the river
This was the second night. After we pitched our tent on the riverbank, I put on my swimsuit and joined them. They laughed a lot, mimicking me and practicing their beginner English ("Hello my name is..." "1,2,3,4,5,6,7!").

When I got out, I didn't want to track my sandy feet into the tent to change, but the sun was going down and the boys were lingering on the shore. After standing around a bit, I turned shrugging to my fellow kayaker, a Swiss woman, and said, "Well, if I were Scandinavian I would've already changed a long time ago." As anyone who's been in a dorm with a Swedish girl knows, those ladies don't give a hoot about getting nekkid. I think this is a cool testament to the gender-equality achievements of northern Europe. Guys think it's cool too, maybe not for the same reason...

So I went around to the side of the tent blocking their view, but as soon as I did, wouldn't you know, all the orange-robed brats started scurrying up the bank.

"You all should be ashamed of yourselves, I know exactly what you're doing - NAUGHTY! NAUGHTY!" I yelled and pointed (not really mad).

"Naughty! Naughty!" some of them parroted. There was also a "THANK YOU!" and an "OH YES!"

Lesson? Boys are the same everywhere. Even the orange-robed, shaven-headed ones.

The kayaking was tough enough I had the beginning of callouses on my fingers and palms and was totally exhausted every night. But in the end 123 km felt like an achievement. And navigating some of the rapids was pretty cool. Back in the US, I want to learn to Eskimo roll.

This view...
Pro Tip: If you stumbled across this blog looking for info on kayaking in Laos, I recommend Green Discovery. My guide spoke great English and was eager to explain everything along the way. He was trained in first aid and knew his kayak stuff.                

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Goodbye Vietnam

This is my last full day in 'Nam. Tonight I take a night bus to the border, then tomorrow afternoon I take another bus across the border and tomorrow night I'll be sleeping in Laos.

I'm leaving all of one day before my visa runs out. The month went by quickly. There's a lot to see here and I even skipped over several of the big tourist hubs (beach towns of Mui Ne and Nha Trang, ancient ruins at Hue), but then I also lingered for about a week on Phu Quoc.

I booked my flight home today and have just under a month left before I'm back in Oregon. I plan to split the time between Laos and Yunnan (southern China). Since I've seen the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia, I think I'll stick to northern Laos as I really don't want to shortchange my time in China. 

What I'm Reading

Just finished

Loved it. It's a family drama/love story set in Britain just before and during WWII. It's also a movie with Keira Knightley and has won a lot of accolades, so I probably don't need to waste time explaining. I love historical fiction, but this is more than that since the main point is the narration. A post-modern classic, for sure.

A family drama with surrealist elements, mainly that the daughter/narrator can taste people's feelings in the food that they bake. I don't love surrealism, but this was well written, all the characters were compelling, I appreciated it.

This was up for a Pulitzer last year when the selection committee was like, "Nah, none of these will do." It's also surreal/fantastical and is about a family falling apart on a Floridian island where they run an alligator wrestling show. Karen Russell is really funny, she's a great stylist. Again, anything surreal probably wont ever make my list of favorites, but I liked this enough I've put one of her short story collections (St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves) on my ebook lending list.

Pretty, pretty grim. Faulkner. That guy. He could write a sentence that was a giant paragraph or an entire chapter that was only, "My mother is a fish." (No really, that's in the book.) Who gets away with that? He told people that he wrote this book in six weeks, knew ahead of time it was going to be feggin' awesome, and that he never changed a word. That's not entirely true. He wrote it in about eight weeks, and there were some edits. Also, when he couldn't get into the military in the US during WWI, he ran up to Canada and snuck into the RAF. The war ended before he saw action, but he still went home and bragged about his exploits. As someone who plans to sit down and write a novel this summer, I find it comforting that one of America's most acclaimed writers was, quite often, completely full of shit.

Currently reading

I picked this up in high school and put it down when it got to the weird sex, which, yeah, is kind of tangential to Ayn Rand's whole point, but still - ew. Actually that's what I said last night, out loud to myself, when I re-arrived at the rape-y sex. After a lot of the books I've been reading, the characters seem clunky and the conflicts lack nuance. On the other hand, I like Dagny's whole build-and-be-great credo. There's a reason this book remains relevant.

I didn't pay for any of these books. I borrowed them all from the Oregon Digital Library Consortium for my Kindle, which is a super awesome reason to have a library card. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Three down, one to go...

Today I visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, bringing my grand total of embalmed Communist viewings to three (Ho, Mao, Kim Il-sung). Now all I need is Lenin! It's a bit of a shame Kim Jong-il died, mostly because his son is a huge jerk, but also because I feel like that's one more pickle that requires my attention, but I can't very well justify a trip back to North Korea for one dead dude. Actually, it would be hard to justify any trip there at the moment.

I may write more about today later (I also paid a visit to the Hanoi Hilton and saw what is supposedly my man John McCain's flight suit), but I have a night bus headed north to Sapa that leaves in half an hour. Laterz!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Highlands Recap

While waiting to change buses two nights ago, I noticed a portrait of Lenin and Marx hanging over the ticket counter – the first indication I’ve reached the north. Since then I’ve noticed more hammers and sickles and Uncle Ho’s face seems to be more ubiquitous than down south.

In the south when I told people I was American, I mostly got smiles. “Ah, the land of opportunity,” one lady said. In the handful of times I’ve been asked up here, my reply has mostly been met with a neutral nod, as in “I understand what you’ve said,” as opposed to “good for you!” One young guy responded with what sounded like “Nhhaa, Vietcong!” Yesterday I was scootering around and stopped to ask for directions. The gentleman holding my map asked where I was from and when I told him he shook his head and laughed, “Canadian!” For you, guy who is about to tell me where I am going, I’ll be whatever you want me to be.

Currently, I’m in Ninh Binh, which is a nondescript town a few hours south of Hanoi, but the surrounding countryside is all brilliant green rice fields dotted with beautiful limestone formations. I’ll have photos of those to share later, but first I wanted to finish recapping my Easy Rider tour.

So when I said in my last blog my guide used to be a hunter, what I meant was poacher

Here he is lighting a cigarette off a flaming plate of rice liquor
He’s been a tour guide for 20+ years, but before that, and before the Vietnamese economy opened up, he used to go into the forest looking for “whatever Chinese people want.” Tiger, monkey, elephant, various plants. I didn’t have the guts to ask him if he actually ever killed an elephant. 

He studied history and English in college but was discouraged from continuing to study because his teachers told him it was pointless: he had family that fought for the south, so there was no way he was going to get a good job. He was angry. And didn’t have any good options. So, in an ostensibly Communist country, he went where the market matched his qualifications.

My guide has a big family, and had relations fighting on both sides. He had an aunt who carried supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail. And his brother was a helicopter pilot for the south who flew over that trail, and told him how “the jungle looked like it had come alive,” because thousands of people carried foliage as camouflage.

The brown hill in the distance was deforested by Agent Orange.
Surrounding hills are just now being replanted.
An old bridge in an area close to a major battle zone.
He told me about how soldiers from the north would hike through the night in groups of three, taking turns with one sleeping in a hammock while the other two carried him onwards. He told me how they dug long tunnels for their cooking smoke so as not to alert planes overhead where they were camped. 

The brother who was a helicopter pilot for the south had a standing invitation to move to the US, but declined and instead spent 8 years in prison. This brother had American friends he kept in touch with, and they pitied him for having a tough time in Vietnam while they got back to their regular lives. But in recent years, coffee has taken off in the highlands and the brother is doing very well now with a sizable farm. 
Lots of coffee farming in the region.
Requisite silk factory stop
Waterfall. And bad hair. I'm too cheap to get a haircut, so
I will just remember myself as having bad hair on this trip.
Big Buddha
Hill tribe boy with puppy
Fishing homes on lake created by giant dam
More hill tribe kids 
This is a tomb. So, when Mnong people die, that pipe sticking out
of the top? My guide tells me it goes to the mouth and family
members continue to feed the newly deceased for several weeks and then also
on special occasions for years to come. I find this, not to put too
fine a point on it, horrific. 
Pretending to drive the ferry
More hill folks 
Brick factory. Would not want to work there.
Then we made it to the coast!
Halong Bay and Hanoi are all that's left on my Vietnam itinerary. Next week, I'm proooobably going to Laos.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Hill Tribe Night


I'm in Hoi An now, finished my motorcycle trip the day before yesterday and night-bused here.

Before my driver was a tour guide, he was a hunter. And one of his old hunting buddies (who is just a farmer now) is a Mnong guy. The Mnong people reside in the Vietnamese central highlands, though there are some in Cambodia too. Their culture is matriarchal, so when my driver's friend was married his wife had to pay a dowry in livestock to her husband's family and then he went to live in her village.

We spent a couple hours in their longhouse knocking back homemade palm beer. Before deciding this was a good idea, my inner monologue went something like this: You're going to go blind...People have been fermenting alcohol for thousands of years...nah, you'll be fine.

Mother and son collecting palm leaves 

Topping off the fermentation jar with fresh leaves
Adding water to get the party started
new friends
final preparations 
The drinking begins 
At some point a lot of my pictures started to look like this...
Then this lady sang me a song about not having a husband yet
Even the best drinking nights usually don't have very compelling narratives. Suffice it to say, I had a great time. Everyone was warm and friendly, and I had to keep track of myself - if I'd drank as much as I was encouraged to they would've had to carry me out. Eventually I turned to my driver and said with deepest sincerity, "I really can't drink anymore." And we sped off to our hotel.

What's matriarchy like? No one besides my driver spoke English so there was only so much I could glean in a couple hours. All the women in the room seemed to have a sense of self that they didn't have to apologize for or think about too much. I couldn't imagine any of them using a hand to cover their mouth when they laugh. Quite often in Asia femininity is equated with 'cute' and girlishness, so it was refreshing to hang out with a bunch of women who don't feel like they have to act or look like children.

At one point the singer started shout-yelling some sort of animated story (my driver told me it had to do with farming). The man sitting next to her nodded, half-smiled, tittered lightly. And I thought to myself that was a pretty telling gender role reversal of a social interaction I've seen at bars and house parties many, many times.

I know when my trip is all over I will count this among the best of experiences.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


Greetings from the Central Highlands. What Pin Oo Lwin was to Burma, Dalat is to Vietnam. Except of course it was Frenchies instead of Brits who came here to cool off back in colonial days. And now I am cooling off! Which is good because after a brief stop in the Mekong Delta, I can actually attest to the physical sensation of "melting."

Last night's bus was not quite as terrifying as the one I took down south. The driver didn't seem in such a rush. It did smell like durian though. For the folks back home, durian is a pungent fruit with a delightful custard-like texture that smells like a garbage can full of rotting fruit. I've overcome the smell, I like it. However, bringing one on a bus, especially one people must sleep on, is super not cool, signs like this are common in taxis and other public spaces in Malaysia and Thailand. There was a Chinese family on the bus and the mother started repeatedly, desperately yelling at one of the attendants, "NO DURIAN! NO DURIAN" as we took off, but the guy couldn't find the durian. No one fessed.

I got in at 4am and crashed. I woke up and had a delicious lunch at the central market and walked around taking pictures. At dinner, I got to cross an item off the fantasy-gluttony bucket list (i.e. a whole pint of ice cream, the whole tin of fudge...). I went to barbecue by myself because James recommended a restaurant. I ate a whole plate of beef. I may never need to eat meet again. 

It was one of those cook-your-own places. This one you cooked the food over coals topped with a ceramic tile. Or in my case, a waitress cooked my food for me, presumably because I was alone and looked like I might poison myself. 

Tomorrow I'm starting a three-day motorcycle tour of the highlands with this outfit (another activity that came highly recommended by friends and fellow travelers). Vroom, vroom... (Don't worry, I'm not driving.)