Friday, December 7, 2018

Then three days through the Northern Lao mountains, and back to Viet Nam

Written from Dien Bien Phu (Viet Nam) on the evening of December 7th, 2018.
To be specific, that's eleven days before I have to be at the airport outside Hanoi before midnight, and a lot to do between now and then, not least to get back there!
But it's been a fine romp across northern Lao.  There's not much to tell that the photos don't, so I'll move directly the photos, with enough caption (I hope) to make some sense out of them:
These are all from around Luang Prabang
The first order of business almost always when coming in off the road, is to bathe us.  Sometimes I go first, sometimes she does.  She was worse this time and we wandered out north of town until we found this place again.  This is her second bath here in. . .well, a couple of years I guess.

The original bridge joining the peninsula (the French town in the old days) to the rest of the city, all Lao.  Now it's a pure motorbike bridge. . .and a bit tricky to use.  The driving surface is all hardwood planking and it wears pretty well, but not all that uniformly, so the bike wants to steer herself sometimes.  I'm not the only one to wobble, the locals do it too!

The street outside my guesthouse (which is down an alley).  The temple at the top of the hill, Mount Fu  Si (FooSee? Phu Si?) is a major local landmark.  In times past, when lost  I'd ask for directions to "Fu Si" and always got set on my way.  That was otherwise beyond my language skills entirely, but it's a major landmark.  There are something like 350 steps to the top, and some of them are tall steps.  The view out over the hills around is wonderful, and the sun sets over them.  You have to get there an hour before sunset most afternoons to get a place to take a photo.  This year my knee was killing me, so we didn't go up.  I've been there and loved it, but will live without this time.

Just a local market in Luang Prabang

She had just smiled at me then looked down as the camera fired.  Darn.  Timing is everything.

There are a long string of these little drinks shops and restaurants along the top of the river bank along the old town in Luang Prabang.  Good place to book a boat trip!

She was actually crying, crushing really hot chili's.  Yikes!

An up-river "slow boat" (they're not slow at all except in comparison to the "fast boats" which are like 1950's racing hydroplanes with big car engines.  I didn't take a trip this year, I've done it and loved it and wish you could go too, though the trips now are limited to just two one day legs. . .from here in Luang Prabang upriver to Pak Beng, and from there a second day up to Huayxay (pick your own spelling, there are lots to choose from).  Each day will last around ten hours working up river and will result in near total deafness and severe bottom fatigue if you don't insist on getting up and moving around (which isn't always easy. . .).  But you'll never see the Mekong like it really is any other way.  A lot of people cross from Thailand at Huayxay and ride down at least as far as Pak Beng (where you can get a bus to Oudomxay) or even all the way, both days, to Luang Prabang.  It's a marvelous trip, Do it if you possibly can!  

This looked bad for a moment, the lighter boat accelerating briskly, but they knew what they were doing and passed clear.  No paint changed sides.  

Here's a series all shot near the Mekong, in the old French end of town.



A very expensive "boutique hotel" right on the edge of the best of the old French Quarter.  I didn't stop to ask room prices.

The every-night night market is well engineered, takes a whole street for blocks and blocks, and doesn't start setting up until just about sundown. . .an amazing volume of merchandise has to be carted in, tents erected, lighting set up, and displays arranged.  Kids of all ages help mom and dad.  

Well, not all kids help all the time. . .

Sorting T-shirts.  Is she two do you think?  Three maybe?  Good kid!

As in other tourist Mecca's, all lthe old street frontss have been turned into tourist retail centerrs, Restaurants of every degree (some competing for the best Michelin chefs!) and some purely low end "backpacker's" joints. . .travel agents, clothing shops, anything a tourist might want (and pay for)  It's still charming somehow, and it's fun to listen to the wide variety of languages being spoken,  By their sound and rhythm, I can spot Korean and Japaneses,  German, French and Spanish I actually hear a clear word from time to time.  Malay?  Chinese? Hindi?  Oh my heavens!

She wants a steamed dumpling, but somebody is throwing a hissy-fit.  H'mm.  Just wait a minute, it looks like Mom has it under control.

They build this bridge every year after high water and charge you a tiny fare to walk across into the craftsmen's village across from the old town.

This is a huge line of gorgeous new tour vans (diesel powered Toyota 9 passenger rigs).  They stretch for a long ways along the river, having delivered tourists to the base of the stairwell up the Fu Si.



Orchids--lots of them

I know, you can buy them in the grocery stores back home, but this is where they belong!

Okay, the engine casing says it really is a Honda. . .can't find any evidence for the "Harley Davidson" claim.  It feels like an incompatible ancestry really

And now out on the road from Luang Prabang to Oudomxai
Where there is some level ground between the mountain sides the people cheerfully build their villages on it, the alternative, more common in Northern Lao, is the ridge top.  There's often room for the road and a house on one side or the other.

Cleaned up land slide.  Not fixed yet, but you can get through.  In the wet season this  would have been impassable, and it's a little bitty one as these things go.

My goodness, a Chinese caravan of motor homes, filling the parking lot of the restaurant at the top of the high point locally, usually for buses and heavy trucks.  To note:  they appear very well made, with large fiberglass castings, some small slide outs, solar panels on the roofs, outside showers, on and on.  

Note the variety, this doesn't represent an isolated producer, rather, it seems to indicate a well developed RV industry, and Chinese people eager to get out and see the world. . .my kiid of people. . .

A one-house wide village from across the canyon


That's my road those houses are next to.  We're climbing again!


The ridge top villages usually only manage houses on one side, though sometimes there's room on both sides.  

It's a food product I think, about the consistency of wallpaper paste.  They alternate full swing blows into the goo and a third man alternates into the effort.  Note the feet stabilize the the wooden trough.


Is this the same as making hominy I wonder.  There's a lot of bright yellow corn grown here.

How she looks with her new spark plug installed. . .in the yard where I did the work.  Not her fault, I'd left the choke partly closed this morning and running rich, she fouled the old plug,  It was ugly anyway

Another $12 room in Oudomxai.  Breakfast was another two dollars.



The three nagas guarding the entrance to the temple, with a stupa beyond, late afternoon sunlight in Oudumxai.  It cost me 220 stair steps to get up here, and then flights of steps between the structures.  Made it though!

You have to love afternoon light.

This must be about a quarter of Oudomxai, seen from the temple's hill.  It's a substantial town, the capital of the district, and lying at a major crossroads. . .where the road from Pak Beng (the route many foreigners take from Thailand, onto a slow boat at Houayxay, then change to the bus at Pak Beng, which bbrings them here, to the main highway with transport available to all the rest of the country, north or south.

Young monks from the temple

The very pleasant hotel in Oudomxai, though Madame did not remember me. . .heck, it's only been. . .er. . .a while I guess.

Perhaps someday I'll stay in that guesthouse by the river.  

You'll have to make up your own story, I haven't a clue.  Suspicious that they are setting up camp at what is almost a natural ford.  H'mm.

A more serious landslide. . .obliterated the road.  We'll try again.

New motorbike suspension bridge, very modern. . .since my last trrip

A landslide from above, once it's at least partly cleared, doesn't frighten me.  These slides from the road's edge, on the other hand scare me badly.  This one has dirt piled up to warn you , so you're not likely to drive right in, but some have no warning at all, you have to spot the missing pavement.  Worst are when there's a vertical drop right at the edge of the pavement. . .and then a further fall of 100 feet or so to the river (think rocks, with a thin layer of water).  When you pass one of those within a foot or two unexpectedly you'll flinch and your gut will twist.  

Coming into Muang Khua, the last homely town before Viet Nam.

The old ferry crossing in Muang Khua  The bus from Dien Bien Phu would pick you up on the far side of the river at about 0700 and carry you through some hellish un-roads to and beyond the border.  Once I rode the ferry, another time crossed over in a canoe like the one you see.  Three of us just picked the lady up and put her in the boat.  The far side was a lot harder, slippery as can be.  Then began 60 km of the worst road i'd traveled to that point, or at least a solid contender for the title  Dust inches deep, rough rock in places, and scary water crossings.   Now there are two high concrete bridges to start you on your way and 60 km of fine smooth road.  What a difference


All of these are at the old ferry crossing, which lead to the worst road in that part of the world.  There's a fine high concrete bridge now and the road is marvelous.  The local boats (fascinating design and execution) have taken it over and with patience you can hire a boat for a river trip here.  Tourism has multiplied tremendously with the steady flow of buses from  Viet Nam.


Once this was the worst road for many miles.  60 km of unimproved water crossings and dust.  Now it's lovely.


In Dien Bien Phu, yet another $12 hotel room.  I think they have me figured out.

Actually, this one is $12.65, but look at the wall paper and the TV.  I never got the wifi to work though