[simage=770,200,n,left,]We were inspired to take a non-traditional Christmas and New Year holiday this year, mainly because we were invited to the wedding ceremony for Tom and Dtik in Vientiane Lao PDR (Tom being my boss from Hatfield in Canada).
The holiday actually started with the first of our two New Years, because Islamic New Year fell on the th of December and is a national holiday in Indonesia. We took this as an auspicious sign to finish work earlier for Christmas and leave for Laos. We decided to fly via Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, partly because its the home of Air Asia and cheap flights to Vientiane, but also for a chance to see the city and eat some decent Indian food. KL is OK – Petronas Twin Towers are interesting architecture, and compared to Jakarta the (semi-integrated) mass-transit system and sidewalks/pavements are a pleasure. The city is quite green, but quite boring; perhaps it’s better to live there than visit, so two nights and one day was enough although we did enjoy a a particularly excellent reflexology session.
After that we arrived in Vientiane and hung out for a few days – it was nice to be there and not be working, so a daily ritual of morning run, breakfast, stroll for coffee, coffee, lunch, read book/newspaper, sunset drink and dinner quickly developed. Must review the retirement plan because this was the good life. Tom and Dtik’s wedding was great, including the “street tent” pre-wedding party where there was a chance to practice Laotian dancing (it’s all in the hand movements). For the wedding, we did our best to represent Tom and support his efforts to get passed the bride’s “guards” barring his way into the ceremony. This appeared to involve Tom drinking some shots of Johnny Walker. Then came the Basi, Mekong sunset, dinner, drinks and more dancing, we were thoroughly drunk quite early.
After the wedding, we flew on to Hanoi on Christmas Eve – a new place for Gill and a place where I had not done too many of the tourist sites. The highlights included: being whisked into a free Christmas Eve mojito party by our boutique hotel the minute we arrived; seeing the crowds spilling out onto the street outside the cathedral for midnight mass; Christmas Lunch at Cha Ca La Vong (Viet Nam’s oldest restaurant); Christmas afternoon drinks at a streetside beer Hoi place where we made new Vietnamese “friends”; Boxing Day lunch at KOTO; visiting Uncle Ho at the mausoleum; and Gill would have you believe the water puppets was a highlight too. Hanoi is a GREAT city. Too many highlights.
Ha Long Bay
Next we booked in for a 2 day 1 night trip to Ha Long Bay, about 3 hours drive from Hanoi. Ha Long is famous for its Karst / limestone landforms; there are several hundred islands rearing up out of the azure blue sea. Unfortunately the only way to go on a tight schedule is on a tourist boat with a bunch of strangers who in our case turned out to include some rather annoying characters. The weather was also rather bad, it was pouring with rain on the day we had our kayak trip and not very warm at all. The sea was not very azure blue. Still, we enjoyed seeing the numerous caves and the landscape, which is pretty spectacular.
Hue and the DMZ
We returned to Hanoi and flew down to Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, to see the Citadel. Much of it was destroyed during the American war, although some parts have since been rebuilt and more work on ongoing when we were there. The city itself was completely flattened and is mostly modern. We also went on a day trip to Vinh Moc tunnels in the ironically named Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The DMZ spanned the border between the North and the South during the war and became one of the most militarized zones in the world. Vinh Moc is a village on the north side of the river that acted as the border. Here the villagers moved underground the evade shelling; they did not evacuate so that they could maintain a presence in the zone. The tunnels are tiny and damp, in places 23m underground. It was not really pleasant inside, and hard to imagine the villagers living here for 5 years during the war.
After Hue it was off to Hoi An, a World Heritage Site of old shop houses arranged over several streets along the river. It used to be a major trading port until it silted up in the 19th century. The houses are built on one or two floors and have aspects of both Chinese and Japanese architecture, influenced by the traders who came to Vietnam. There are also several interesting temples as well as meeting houses built by Chinese merchants according to the province they came from. While Hoi An is really touristy, the houses are well preserved and many are tailors and restaurants, but most are shop house. At night, it is especially atmospheric after the shops and restaurants have closed up and the street is returned to a more original look. We spent New Years Eve sitting out on the street drinking wine until the early hours. We also paid the obligatory trip to the tailors to have clothes made, and spent quite a bit of time in and out of the shop for alterations.
Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon
Our final port of call was Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) where we had about 24 hours to see the sights. We visited the war museum (which was a bit disappointing due to the badly displayed photographs taken during the American war) as well as had a good look around the city streets and eating some excellent vegetarian Vietnamese food.
Then it was time to catch our flight back to Indonesia.