I’ve made it to Hanoi on a French airplane. I flew Lao Airlines and there were no Chinese YUN-12s in sight. Maybe the last of them exploded in mid-air. I was feeling under the weather today. I definitely didn’t enjoy the hour-long mini-bus trip from the airport to the City. Try explaining in Vietnamese that you might have to ask them to stop in the middle of the highway for a biological event. There were some twisted charades that caused real animation in my fellow passengers. In any case, it’s the first time I’ve had any trouble here at all and the people were very concerned and helpful.
For the last couple of days, I’ve been in hotels with English language television. I’m really just now getting the scope of the devastation in Thailand and elsewhere. When I arrived in Bangkok, I made the somewhat arbitrary decision to go north first instead of south. It looks like once again my bread hit the floor butter side up. Thanks for all of your concern and support, I’m blown away.
It was cold and dark on the way to the airport in Vientiane at 5:30 this morning. I wish I’d brought my long johns, or maybe put on the fleece or jacket that were in my pack. Amazingly, a tuk-tuk driver was waiting outside my hotel when I walked out the door. The hotel night attendant was sleeping across two chairs with a blanket and pillow in the lobby and there was a padlock on inside of the front doors. I felt badly because I’d woken him up once already three and a half hours earlier when I came in. After going up to check the room, he came down and unlocked the only obvious exit with a key from his pocket. When considering hotels in Laos, should we choose ones with a small tv in the lobby that we can throw through a window to get out in the case of a fire? Should that be in the guide book?
I didn’t notice it but there was an empty antifreeze bottle tied to the back of the tuk-tuk driver’s seat. He wanted five dollars to drive me to the airport, but we settled on 15,000 Kip–the equivalent to US$1.50. It was my second offer and the correct amount according to the travel agent in Luang Prabang. Some of the Lao people I’ve met seem to have trouble keeping a straight face when they give you a tourist price which is hugely inflated and very often paid. After less than a mile we pulled up to a corner where there was an old woman sitting behind a table in front of a shop. There were a couple of other tuk-tuks and drivers waiting for something to do. The woman came over with a funnel and 1-liter glass pepsi bottle filled with red fuel. It didn’t put much of a dent into the empty antifreeze bottle behind the seat which must have been rigged up as a gas tank. The driver gave her 5000 of my Kip.
The day before I’d had lunch in the morning market in Vientiane with a couple of Belgian guys who were five weeks into a year-long trip. It’s a huge flea market where local people buy clothing, jewelry and electronics. Every time I walked by a stand I was offered a Beer Lao t-shirt, nothing else. It’s as if this was the only thing westerners ever buy here. As I was walking by some tables I was intercepted by a young Lao woman who showed me were to sit. I hadn’t eaten in almost twenty-four hours due to bad planning, so was hungry and didn’t put up resistance. Her baby was on a blanket on the dirty concrete a few feet away playing with an old man. She was stacking things around the child to keep him from chewing on the electric cord to the fan. He was pretty resourceful, and she finally moved the fan.
The Belgian guys were going to be having a few beers down by the riverfront later for New Year’s Eve, but I never found them. I ended up drinking until two with an Australian English teacher who had a writing problem. There was an old woman working at the morning market who fried up the egg, vegetables and rice for my lunch over a crude propane stove. I was a little embarrassed to cough at the smoke. There are people cooking on the streets all over southeast Asia, very often with charcoal. The smoke gets thick and in this case had coated the cob webs overhead in black soot.
While I was eating, a woman came through the morning market dressed in the traditional clothing of one of the hill tribe minority groups of Laos. She had a baby in a loop of cloth hanging from her chest and a small boy followed her. They were very dirty and their embroidered clothing was on its way to rags. She had her hands out, but nobody seemed to notice them. They were ghosts and they kept moving. Looking back, I could have bought her lunch, but she moved on too quickly for me to figure out if the people working around me would think I was encouraging her. I guess instead I encouraged her to go hungry.
I haven’t seen a lot of beggars on this trip. Other travelers have said that the Lao people have a strong social network, and that there are no orphans in Laos. The few homeless people I have seen have been in very bad shape, many are disabled. I talked to somebody a few years ago whose friend had to cut short a trip to India because she gave away all of her money, extra clothes and backpack. When she then emptied her bank account and gave away her shoes, her parents wired her some money to complete the trip and she gave that away. This morning I understand.
By the time we got to the airport the fuel level in the antifreeze bottle had dropped significantly. I gave the tuk-tuk driver an extra 2000 Kip and it put a smile on his face. It was still dark and cold and I waited in the wrong terminal until the information desk opened up and pointed me to the international terminal building for my flight to Hanoi.
It’s weird to be a tourist here right now. A big part of me thinks I should have flown to Phuket to help with the cleanup, but I’m afraid I’d just put more strain on the resources that are there. I’m excited about Vietnam and hope to get out in the countryside later in the week. Things are going very well.
Happy New Year,