Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 23 February 2007

From chaos to calm

We rounded out or time in Vietnam with a two-day tour of Ha Long Bay…probably the MOST touristy thing we could have done. But hey, you can’t travel all this way and NOT see Ha Long Bay. Sadly, cloud cover plagued our trip, and hordes of other tourists tainted the vista, but the bay was truly stunning despite it all. Hundreds…thousands of limestone formations jut out of the water, protecting the port from the harsh open waters of the South China Sea. Karst geology is something I know very little about, and our tour guide was too busy running around shouting orders at other people to explain much to us about where we were. So, that was a bummer, but I already plan on a date with my dear geologist friend, Kristin Felker La, to sit down and have her educate me once I get home. (Thanks, Kris!)

A misty morning on Ha Long Bay. This is the stuff a good horror film is made of…

Karst formations at their best. Ha Long Bay, UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Jess and I out kayaking in Ha Long Bay. Because it’s winter and the sunsets early, we only had about 30 minutes to really explore, but it was better than nothing! We were able to get up close to some of the islands and see all the coral and seashells that help to make up the geology of the bay.

On the boat at night. A generator provided us with electricity for a few hours at night. After it shut off around 10pm, we were gently rocked to sleep.

We returned to Hanoi for one more night in Vietnam and stayed in the only legitimate Backpackers’ Hostel in all of Indochina. It was pretty fun to be in such a social place after a few weeks of hotel rooms. Big night out in Hanoi, followed by an early morning departure for the airport. It was a comedy of errors in the Hanoi airport as we tried to change our remaning dong back into USD and as I accidentally brought my leatherman in my carry-on bag. The guards were so nice, and let me go back out, (past immigration!) and put it in my checked bag. If I had done that in the States, I would have certainly been held for questioning!

We arrived in Luang Prabang on Tuesday afternoon, and immediately felt the difference. The air was much warmer…nearly 100 degrees (but as it is the dry season, the low humidity makes it bearable). It is much calmer. It is possible to cross the street without 127 motorbikes honking at you and narrowly missing running over your flip-flopped toes. Lao is also a tonal language like Vietnamese, but people speak so much slower and without so much shrill in their voice. The Mekong River rambles through town at a turtle’s pace and there are only two major streets in the whole town.

It took a while to find a place to stay, but once we were settled in, we headed down to the river to catch the sunset and to have a delicious meal of Indian food (you can eat only so many bowls of noodle soup in a row, so this was a nice break!). We have not done a whole lot since arriving in Lao. We have spent much of our time enjoying cold drinks and watching people go about their business at a leisurely pace. We have explored lots of temples, woken before dawn to give alms to the monks, engaged in impromptu English lessons, enjoyed museums, gotten a Lao massage from the Lao Red Cross (all of the proceeds go towards community health outreach programs), watched children play in the river and in the schoolyards… But mostly, we’ve just been wandering around, absorbing the tranquility and peacefulness.

Amazingly, Lao, which is often touted as the world’s most bombed country, has the friendliest people I think I have encountered so far in all of my travels. There are wonderful people the world around, that much is sure. But in Lao, the phrase “Kawp Jai Lai Lai”, meaning essentially “Thank you very much” is sung–not spoken–and their smile reaches clear through their eyes. It is the rule here, rather than the exception.

Like Cuba, Lao seems to be teetering on the brink of change. Only the change here will be driven by the relaxation of travel restrictions even further and the influx of larger scale tourism, rather than the death of a dictator…Nevertheless, I am glad to be able to experience places like this before whatever change is pending.

Loads of tourists pour into Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng (only backpackers here) and Vientiane, but few, it seems, venture much further afield than that–although it seems to be changing. Just a year ago, when my friend Hadley Robinson was in Lao, there were reportedly no ATMs. Now, there are at least two. There is one that was installed in Luang Prabang just 3 weeks ago! Right now, it only accepts MasterCard, but I imagine the streets of LP will soon be flooded with them. It is rumored that there is an ATM in Vientiane as well. Clearly, the winds of change and modernization are blowing into Lao, despite the country’s resistance to it for so long. It’s hard to say if it is a good thing or not. I feel so lucky and am so grateful to have the opportunity to be here, but I often question whether or not I should be here. Traveling and tourism are tricky things. Things for which I don’t have an answer yet, but traveling is also something I feel is important, if done respectfully and with learning intentions. Respecting the people, the land, and the customs of a host country are of the utmost importance. That said, I am proud to consider myself an ambassador of a culture that is invariably misunderstood and prejudged around the world. Travelling goes both ways…

But, I digress…

We, regretably, will miss most of Northern Lao, and will have to begin making our way southward tomorrow. We will travel the length of Lao, snaking southward along the banks of the Mekong, and plan to cross the border into Cambodia just south of the “Four Thousand Islands” on the Mekong River. I will just have to return one day to experience Northern Lao…

Be well, wherever you may find yoruself reading this…

Sunset over the Mekong River on our first night in Lao.

Tuk Tuk. The main method of transportation in Lao. These 3-wheeled vehicles will take you 4km to the airport, or, if you’re feeling adventurous (or just missed the bus!), 250km to Vientiane. Anything goes (for a price), it seems…

The Night Market. Luang Prabang. Every night, 6 blocks of the main street in town are blocked off to vehicle traffic and a handicraft market springs to life. For sale are Hmong textiles and blankets, beautiful silk scarves, jewelry, t-shirts, books and loads of other kitchy stuff. However, there are great finds and bargains to be had if one has the patience!

Believers gather on the streets at dawn to give alms to the monks each morning.

This mural on the back side of the Wat Xieng Thong main temple depicts the “Tree of Life”. It was painstakingly crafted with colored glass chippings and is very typical of the Luang Prabang decorative style.

Dragon heads adorn the ceremonial boats that are stored here at Wat Xieng Thong. The boats are only used twice a year: in April for Lao New Year and in for the Water Festival in November.

Buddha, honored here in the main temple, or Sim at Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang.

Monks are in the process of gold-leafing this Buddha bust, which sits in front of a rare Reclining Buddha. Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang.
That Chomsi sits atop a 100m peak in cental Luang Prabang. It is visible from most points in the city.


  1. Hi Helen, Loved your latest blog and the wonderful pictures. Vietnam looks much like areas we saw in Thailand where we, too, experienced the tuk tuk! Bob has his toenails done at a place owned and staffed with Vietnamese ladies that are so nice and so very kind to him. I’ll ask them what city they are from the next time I’m in..perhaps I’ve seen a picture of it! Have fun…travel safe. Love, Kathleen R.

  2. I can’t wait to talk about Karst geology!! Just name the time and place, and I’m there! Any other takers?? 😀 I love seeing your pictures and reading your stories… can’t wait to hear more when you get back! Travel safe!

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