Made it back to Vietnam! Though I'm at the opposite end of the country this time. Haven't seen much of Hanoi yet--I arrived late last night and stumbled into my hostel dorm room, which was full of dudes who aren't quite old enough to have figured out that cologne is not an adequate substitute for bathing. But don't worry: today I move into my Airbnb, where I'll have my own room--with a balcony, no less! And there I shall stay for (nearly) two glorious weeks, hiding from the world and writing. After more than a month of constant socializing, I'm excited for some alone time.
How was Luang Prabang, you ask? I have mixed feelings. I honestly believe it could have been one of the best stops of my trip--if it hadn't been for the particulars of my hostel and the particulars of the weather.
Luang Prabang is so beautiful that I'm surprised it hasn't inspired infinite tomes of poetry. Maybe it has. Set in a valley surrounded by lush, misty mountains, the entire town is designated a world heritage site. Though it has existed for thousands of years, it's the only city I've visited in Southeast Asia where I got the distinct impression that they must have had to carve it out of the jungle in order to create it. The plant life creeps in everywhere.
And so do the mosquitoes. I took every precaution I could, but I still got bit a few times. They were relentless--even in my hostel dorm, which was problematic for sleeping.
Actually, everything about my hostel dorm was problematic for sleeping. The mattresses were so hard that we may as well have slept on the floor (and I typically like a firm mattress!), and though there was an air conditioner in the room, it didn't really work. One night I had--not a panic attack, exactly, but more like a fit of frustration and hopelessness. I was SO hot and SO sticky and I couldn't remember the last time I had felt comfortable and I nearly started crying. Thankfully, it passed after a few minutes.
On the bright side, I met another wonderful bunch of travelers in my hostel--mostly from the UK, but one from the States and one from Canada--and we had many adventures.
The highlight of my trip was our trip to Kuang Si Waterfalls, which is about an hour away from Luang Prabang along a winding, rural road. This jungle oasis paradise looks too gorgeous to be real, the type of place that should only exist in movies. We swam in the clear, cold water and sunbathed on top of the washed rocks. You know those fish baths they have at spas? Where the little fish nibble away your dead skin? Droves of those fish live in the falls, and it was very funny to watch the shocked expressions of those who had never experienced such a sensation before.
Other highlights: climbing Mount Phou Si to watch the sunset over the Mekong River, visiting the night market (which features more actual handicrafts than most Southeast Asian markets), stuffing our bellies with too much street food, eating a truly delicious meal at Khaiphaen (seriously--if you ever go to LP, don't miss it), examining the intricate glass murals at Wat Xieng Thong. Oh, and the first night we got a little tipsy and broke the government-imposed midnight curfew to go to the secret bowling alley? That was fun.
One evening we went to a free screening of this silent film from 1927 called Chang. About a tribal family from Laos, it's considered one of the first documentaries--though it seemed awfully staged to me. The team of American filmmakers who produced and shot it eventually went on to make King Kong. I figured it would probably be racist--which it was, of course. But what I wasn't expecting was all the animal cruelty. I'm sure Kru's family really did have to kill animals in order to survive in the jungle in 1927--but I'm also sure that the filmmakers killed many more animals just so we could see it on film. And they didn't kill the baby elephant...but yeah. I walked away disturbed. Watch Chang at your own risk.
We spent another evening at a bar called Utopia, which is only accessible by navigating through several alleys. But once you arrive, there's a sprawling, wooden structure lit only by candles, and the floor is spread with soft beds for reclining. I imagine it must be what opium dens were/are like, but without the opium. Actually, some people probably did have opium--multiple tuk-tuk drivers tried to sell it to us. They were uniformly unhappy when we declined. At any rate, it was a lovely bar, even if it was a fire hazard.
Despite all my wonderful experiences in Luang Prabang, I was happy to leave--if only to focus on my writing for a while. And air conditioning. And swift wifi connections. Definitely want to focus on those wifi connections.
At the same time, I am sad--returning to Vietnam means that I have less than a month left in my trip! How did that happen? I suppose I'll just have to make the most of it.