Thursday, February 26, 2009

Luang Prabang: The French Connection

Royal Palace Museum

A wide thoroughfare like the Champs Elysee? Check. Sidewalk cafes? Check. French mansions and architecture? Check. It's official: Luang Prabang is the Paris of Southeast Asia.

With its abundance of exquisite Buddhist temples and well-preserved French houses, Luang Prabang felt more like a capital city than Vientiane. The constant flow of travelers also created a real buzz to the place that Vientiane lacked. It's much more of a hot destination than the capital.

It also resembles Paris in a less pleasant way. Luang Prabang may have gotten too popular for its own good, as an Australian backpacker commented to me. Finding a guesthouse that costs less than 100,000 kip a night (US$11.78) was a miracle.

You know you've been traveling in Southeast Asia for too long when anything over US$15 a night for a private room seems too expensive. There are so many tourists in Laos that finding budget accommodation can be difficult. You can't really negotiate, because the manager knows that if you turn down his room, there will be another foreigner who will take it.

Most guesthouses in Laos also don't accept reservations, maybe it's just too much work for the clerks. So I was stuck with tramping around from one place to the next, inspecting rooms and inquring about rates. Clean beds tend to be common, but bathrooms vary wildly in quality.

The best advice for finding a place to stay is to time your arrival at around 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon. By the afternoon, all the cheap rooms have been taken and you'll see "Full" signs on every guesthouse entrance.

Eiko, a Japanese traveler, agreed and said that bargain-hunting in Laos was difficult. She said when she usually shops around in other countries, she encounters a wide range of prices. But in Laos, every vendor seemed to charge the same prices. Her theory was that Laotian people don't like to compete. That's plausible, since they're so laidback.

Or maybe prices are set by the government, as Laos is run by a Communist party. Another reason is that Laos doesn't have much of a manufacturing base, so most products are imported from foreign countries. Thailand is a big supplier of goods. With the foreign tariffs, the prices for everything are higher.

Luang Prabang is one of the few cities in the region built for walking. Big cities in Asia tend to be minefields for pedestrians. Potholes, tuk-tuks, taxis, motorbikes, and crowds of locals can turn the shortest walk into the toughest obstacle course. But the city's main drag, Sisavangvong Road, is mostly for pedestrians only. The streets running along the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers are also eminently walkable.
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong

There is also better nightlife to be had. Phousi Road is home to several outdoor bars with green, leafy environments. Ironically, the hottest nightspot is the 10-pin bowling alley. Most bars close at 12 a.m. for the curfew, but the bowling alley stays open until 2 a.m.

Laos has one of the highest retentions rates for foreign expats. Once they're assigned to Laos, they never want to leave. The boss calls and asks if you want to take an assignment in war-torn Africa? Forget it!

After seeing Luang Prabang, I can see why. It's the perfect place to live the bohemian fantasy: living in an exotic land, eating organic food, helping out in community projects and socializing with friendly locals. Everywhere you can buy ethnic handicrafts and go on "ecotourism" trips. Maybe I got it wrong. Luang Prabang could be the San Francisco of Southeast Asia.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Vientiane: Southeast Asia on Silent Mode

Patuxai, Laos' Arc de Triomphe
Patuxai, Laos' Arc de Triomphe

"You gotta go to Laos," backpackers kept telling me. When I asked why, it was hard for them to explain. But they assured me that the country was awesome. It reminded me of when I was in Europe, and travelers kept saying I should go to Prague. There's no one famous thing to see; the whole city itself is an attraction.

Countries acquire reputations. Cambodia has Angkor Wat, Vietnam has its war history, and Thailand has spicy food (and spicy girls) . But at the mention of "Laos," my mind was a blank. There was no preconceptions or stereotypes to fall back on. I didn't know what to expect, and that promised for an interesting experience.

Even more than that, I was looking forward to meeting up with Colin and Brynn, the two friends I missed before I moved out of Taiwan. In a pleasant surprise, they greeted me at the airport with cardboard signs! I was so happy to see them. Ken, a long-time traveler we had met in Taiwan, orchestrated our grand summit.

Colin, me and Brynn at a baguette restaurant in Vientiane
Reunited, it feels so good: Colin, me and Brynn at a baguette restaurant

It's the best possible way to start a trip: meeting up with friends who also love traveling, in a country that you're eager to visit. We piled into a taxi and went to the Syri 2 guesthouse, where Colin and Brynn were staying.

We were so excited to see each other, we talked really quickly to try to catch up. They filled me in on the trials and tribulations of cycling through Malaysia and Thailand, and I told them how Vietnam was a living experiment in Chaos Theory. Ken talked up how great Laos was, pointing out the delicious food and the relaxed atmosphere of the place.

When we got out of the taxi, it hit me that our taxi was the only car on the road. The street was stunningly quiet and dead empty. And this was one of the main thoroughfares! Ken laughed at my confusion and said, "That's what passes for traffic around here."

Honking horns, roaring motorbikes and ear-pounding construction are all part of Asia's soundtrack. It's like some god aimed his remote control at Laos and hit the mute button. Where was all the noise?

Vientiane is such a sleepy town, it's hard to believe it's the capital of an Asian country. It could have been a provincial town in Thailand. The language and culture of Laos have a lot in common with Thailand, except Laos feels more untouched.

Altar in Wat Ing Peng

It was one of the few places I've been to that had absolutely no foreign chain restaurants. American ones like McDonald's and Starbucks, and not even Japanese ones like Mister Donut and Yoshinoya.

I used to take it for granted that foreign restaurants have taken over the world in a way that Alexander the Great could only have dreamed of. Thanks to its French colonial past, Laos had better coffee and pastries anyway, as well as other food.

To illustrate, I had my first meal in Laos at Joma Bakery Cafe. The hardest part was deciding what to get! Everything looked delicious. In the end, I got a ham-and-cheese croissant, two large chocolate-chip cookies, and a mango smoothie. No regrets. If Joma opened up in America, it would be the coffee chain that could kill Starbucks.

Vientiane has a really perplexing dining situation. For a town of its tiny size, it shouldn't have any Western food at all. But every restaurant had baguette sandwiches and European cuisine. The French influence was much more prevalent here than in Vietnam.

Ken explained that a lot of diplomats and NGO workers operated out of Vientiane because it was the capital. As one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, foreign aid was a big part of Laos' economy. Laos was also a popular destination for French travelers, so the eateries cater to their tastes (read: high standards).

Similar to Vietnam, Laos has a mandatory curfew, so everything shuts down by around 11:00 p.m. to midnight. In Hanoi, police would barge into every bar at the stroke of 12 and stand around menacingly until everyone left. There were after-hours clubs, but they always appeared closed on the outside. I've heard the nightlife in Laos was even more underground, so you had to know friends who were throwing private house parties to get any action.

This had a positive effect. Laos had far fewer of the drunken dumbass foreigners you find in places like Thailand (the exception being Vang Vieng). Or if they're in Vientiane, at least they're sober most of the time. In any case, the slow pace of the country has a way of seeping into your DNA. Even tourists seemed to walk slower and talk quieter.

I really cherish being in places that don't have obvious sights. I can be free to just wander around and relax. Vientiane was perfect for this, as it had lots of great restaurants and no big-draw attractions.

Every afternoon, we would all head to one of the riverside restaurants along Fa Ngum Road. The important business was simply to lie down on pillows, sip fruit smoothies and watch the sunset. Relaxing is a lost art in the modern world, but Laos has perfected it.

Note: My beloved red Casio camera broke upon my arrival in Vientiane, so I wasn't able to take any pictures. Colin and Brynn kindly donated their photos of Laos to me. Thanks guys.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hanoi: The Chinese Connection

Quan An Ngon restaurant
Quan An Ngon, my favorite restaurant in Hanoi.

For most of my time in Asia, I've lived and traveled in what I call "The Chinaverse" (Chinese universe). By this, I mean China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, and arguably Malaysia. After visiting Hanoi, I wondered whether I should add Vietnam to the list.

As I rode the cramped "airport minibus" (really a minivan) from the airport into downtown Hanoi, I was struck by the dirty and dilapadated countryside. I saw filthy street markets, broken buildings, and swarms of motorbikes violating every rule of traffic known and unknown to man.

The last time I saw that kind of poverty, it was when I took a public bus from Shanghai to Qingpu, a squalid industrial suburb bordering the city. Vietnam was already seeming more like mainland China than any of the other places in the Chinaverse I'd been to.

Indeed, pundits like to think of Vietnam as a mini-China, or even "the next China." A hardworking, highly entrepeneurial people coupled with a government that's embracing the free market is a recipe for fast economic growth. There is talk of corporations that are developing a "China plus one" strategy, to have Vietnam as a backup supplier if things go awry in the mainland. Translated: if workers start demanding--and getting--higher wages.

Despite the economic slowdown, Hanoi seemed as busy as any other city, with lots of building going on. For me, that's lost its novelty, because it appears like half of Asia is under construction at any given moment. I got my fill of hearing the sound of drilling, welding and sawing when I lived in China.

My interest in Vietnam came about in a strange way. I didn't have a Vietnamese girlfriend, I wasn't a war-history buff, and never really got into the Vietnamese scene in Hawaii. It wasn't until my friend Thomas introduced me to Madame Jill's, a Vietnamese restaurant in Taipei, that I started down the road to Hanoi. The food was great. Like Chinese food, but less oily.

I couldn't wait to try the real thing in Hanoi. The reality was a bit disappointing: street food really lives up to its name in Vietnam. People eat on low plastic tables and sit on small plastic stools on the cracked sidewalks. Everything just seems really unsanitary, compared to street food in places like Malaysia.

Atmosphere can make a big difference in the food. Madame Jill's has a terrific ambiance, so my expectations were probably too high. When I travel to less modern areas, sometime I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that the term "developing country" means that it still isn't finished, so I need to give the place a break.

Then I heard about Quan An Ngon. The idea behind the restaurant was to hire the best street vendors to be cooks, and move the setting to a pleasant courtyard. Sounded like a winner to me.

Two Canadians, Jaime and Jaime, a couple from Toronto, joined me on my culinary quest. I happily ordered my favorite dishes. Here are a few of them:

Fried Vietnamese spring rolls
Vietnamese fried spring rolls

Rice rolls
Rice rolls

Fried meat buns
Fried meat buns

Fried noodles with beef
Stir-fried noodles with beef

All the food was amazingly good. The spring rolls were divine. They practically melted in my mouth, it was like I barely had to chew. I'm addicted to those things.

The atmosphere was also fun. The chatter of conversation and the clatter of bowls was balanced with the elegance of the polished wooden tables and a white overhead canopy. The staff were attentive and sported neo-traditional uniforms.




The other highlight of Hanoi was the Temple of Literature. While the temple itself and the surrounding grounds were nice, my favorite part was the sidewalk market just outside it. Artists and calligraphers had set up shop on the street to sell their wares.



Many of the old men were drawing Chinese characters. That and the Chinese temple nearby made me feel like I was back in Beijing. Although Vietnam did exhibit some French influence in the "tube houses" and baguettes, I couldn't shake the Chinese connection. Makes sense, since Vietnam was a French colony for about 70 years, but it was a vassal state of China for 1,000 years.

I feel like a cultural surgeon nowadays. I always try to dissect a country to find out which parts of its culture came from other countries. Every new place seems to remind me other destinations I've been to.

To end this blog post, here are more photos of local people:

Streetside barbershop

Having a chat at Hoan Kiem Lake

Old woman watching Hanoi street life
Old woman watches Hanoi life go by