September 9, 2000:
With only a vague concept of what to expect, we arrived in Laos. Despite occasional reports of recent bombings, we discovered a wonderful country filled with friendly people and many natural and historical treasures. We spent most of our time in and around the Buddhist holy city of Luang Prabang, drinking tea with a few of the hundreds of saffron-robed monks.
On our first morning in Hanoi, Vietnam, lingering jet lag woke us early. We took advantage of the time and wandered through the winding streets of the Old City, and around Hoah Kiem lake. Vietnamese filled the sidewalks and parks doing their early morning exercise regimens or playing badminton. It was a wonderful cultural introduction to Vietnam.
We headed to the north which is populated with ethnic hill tribes, most of whom still wear their traditional dress. We hiked over 60 kilometers into the hills from and stayed two nights with families in their thatch houses. The days were hot, so we cooled off in serene pools below waterfalls filled with cool river water from the tops of the surrounding mountains.
At the end of the valley we visited a terribly poor community. Our trekking guide brought them medicine. As they surrounded us to receive the medicine it felt as if we were in a UNICEF infomercial with bloated bellied children in tattered clothing, if they were wearing anything at all - a sobering experience, to those of us who often take such things for granted.
In Hanoi, we paid respects to Ho Chi Minh whose embalmed body is laid out for viewing by hundreds of patriotic schoolchildren every day. Then we traveled to picturesque Ha Long Bay where we paddled kayaks around the limestone towers and through the natural arches. We swam in the water at night creating trails of light from the bioluminescence before sleeping on the beach under the stars.
As we arrived in Hoi An the skies opened and the rain poured down. We hid from the raindrops in many of the town's tailor-shops where they made us entire new wardrobes. The rain lifted during our train ride to the beach resort town of Nha Trang. We went scuba diving in the South China Sea with beautiful corals and lionfish.
In Can Tho, on the Mekong Delta, we visited one of Louisa's friends from Columbus, Peggy, who is in her third year of teaching English at the local university. She introduced us to many of her friends and students, complete with a visit to a night club, but we missed out on the karaoke. It was such a change to relax with friends!
In Saigon (as most citizens prefer to call Ho Chi Minh City) we visited the attractions, but a highlight was finding the childhood home of one of Tom's friends, Thuan. We chatted with his friendly relatives who currently live there.
Our guides throughout Vietnam laughed heartily at our attempts to pronounce the six-tones of the Vietnamese language. We did manage a few greetings and the numbers from one to 99, but little else. Attempts to convey ideas from our phrasebook met with particular laughter.
We capped this part of the trip off with the spectacular ancient temples of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, Cambodia. This area is as impressive as any of the other ancient civilizations we have seen, including Egypt and Machu Picchu.
The best part was having a wonderful guide who shared historical stories and contemporary reality in Cambodia. He was interested in learning about the internet, so we spent some time in internet cafes teaching him some basics. We did not learn as much Cambodian as Vietnamese, but our few words were received well and opened doors that would have otherwise been shut.
Look for us in the crowds at the Olympics!
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Revised: February 12, 2001 on