For a little over a month, I traveled through a part of Southeast Asia with a deep and complicated history with the United States. And in complete honesty, I realized how little I knew about that history outside of what I learned in school or pop culture.
I first spent a week in Luang Prabang, a magical town in Laos, a small country located between Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. There are some places where I felt this immediate and inexplicable connection and Luang Prabang was one of those places. It’s surrounded by mountains and the famous Mekong and Nam Khong rivers through the town where you can find locals swimming, bathing, boating, fishing and it feels like the life source of the community. And it’s just remarkably beautiful. There are the common sights of the region, monks, Buddhist temples, outdoor markets and what I’m certain is the highest concentration of roosters I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Luang also has a lot of great cafes to just chill out, including spots that allow you to take in the hypnotic sunrises and sunsets behind the mountains and over the rivers. The temples aren’t as massive and impressive as those in Cambodia or as glitzy as Thailand and the true appeal (at least to me) of this town is wandering around and watching and rewatching the beauty of the natural surroundings.
My most adventurous day was going on a hardcore day trek through a couple of villages and then up the mountain that would eventually lead us to one of the most famous sites in Laos, Kuang-Si waterfalls, the largest waterfalls in Laos. When I signed up for this tour, the description was fairly innocuous and sounded downright leisurely. The excitement of these type of tours in developing countries is that “truth” or accuracy in marketing is not exactly what’s to be expected. So when I was on hour 4 of the trip perilously inching down a rocky vertical descent to reach the falls, it’s really my bad for thinking this could possibly be an easy nature walk. But the sweat and death-defying climbs are rewarded with water so turquoise that it looks like the entire area has been photoshopped. And there are a ton of tourists here most of whom took a bus up the mountain to the falls (ummm… that’s an option?), but it doesn’t detract from the appeal of this place. And after hours of sweat and dirt, my new Norwegian friend and I decided to jump into the icy blue waters that we were told have some magical healing powers. I’m not sure about magical healing, but it definitely sent a shock and awe to submerge body in 35 degree water. I’m going to assume it’s the fountain of youth and that I’ve just added a few extra years to my life.
One of the other most memorable experiences in Laos was learning about the history of the U.S.’s “Secret War” in this country. From 1964 – 1973, the U.S. dropped 2 MILLION tons of ordinances in Laos. This was during the period when the conflict with the Soviet Union was escalating and the two super powers exerted enormous influence, money and military in these southeast Asian countries in a battle of “Good vs Evil”. Here are a couple of really fascinating, terrifying and in my opinion nearly silent facts about this war: Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the entire history of the world. Bombed by the U.S. in its attempt to block the Communist regime from the Ho Chi Minh trail. In fact, there are so many bombs that remain undetonated that Laotians continue to be killed and maimed, including many children because they haven’t found so many of the bombs. The other fact that I learned was that this was the first time that CIA began its practice of covertly militarizing foreign armies to influence political agendas (i.e. “Protect Democracy”). And despite the cost of so many lives and its failure to “win” the war, the CIA would continue to use this tactic of militarization of foreign groups which has lead to US connections and conflicts in Central America, South America and the Middle East.
Despite all of these recent ravages of war and bombs that continue to explode, Laotians are just the nicest people and I did not personally feel anything but welcomed as an American. In fact, I had more than a couple of locals talk to me about how much they love President Obama and how his visit to Laos meant so much to them. This is almost always followed by a look of disappointment, pity and anxiety about the new President.
I left Laos by going on a last minute sunset boat with a hilarious man who literally pulled me off the street and insisted in his limited English that I join him and a few other foreigners for sunset. The six of us including my new friends Anna and Brian with the captain, who encouraged us to drink our BYOB while he began an impromptu “jam” session of drumming on a bucket and improvised songs, we all clapped our hands, laughed and watched another glorious sunset together.
After Laos, I headed to its larger neighbor Vietnam. My first and last stops were in Hanoi to visit Amie, a good friend from William & Mary whom I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years, a phrase we both kept using whenever we’d meet her friends. Amie lives in Hanoi with her husband Todd and their two adorable and energetic kids Oliver and Julia. They’ve lived in Vietnam for 7 years and were all home from work/school for “Tet” the Lunar New Year holiday, which is also the biggest holiday of the year and everything shuts down so people can be with their families. I stayed in their beautiful house in the city and I got to celebrate the Year of the Rooster with Amie’s family and their friends. After months of traveling alone and being so far from my family and friends, I didn’t realize how much I missed everyone until I got to spend time with Amie and her family. It was a gift to be in a home; to eat meals at a table with a family and talk about school, work (OK, just Todd and Amie talked about work), politics; to drink wine with a friend you haven’t seen in 20 years and pick up like we had drinks last week; to do laundry in a washing machine (major!); and Todd and Amie laughed as I gushed about how awesome their guest room was and that “the bed even has a TOP SHEET!” Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen one of those?!” They were so generous and welcoming to me and spending time with them was the highlight of Vietnam. It’s also awesome to have friends who can point you to where to go and what to see in Vietnam — soooo nice not to have to make a decision about those things every once in a while.
In addition to chill time with the family, I also had to go to the U.S. Consulate to get a new passport. Although my current passport doesn’t expire until 2019, I actually ran out of pages from all of this travel! When you’re going through Europe you don’t worry about visas (although that’s looking like that may change. Another exciting gift from this new Administration), but once you leave Europe, those pages go fast with each country. And before I headed to the consulate, the news of the travel ban was flooding my social media feeds and stories as well as rumors intensified about people trying to get in to the U.S., as well as those abroad renewing visas and passports. I was so fired up about how horrifying this ban is in principle as well as this anti-immigration policy that I was prepared to be extra belligerent if I had anyone at the embassy asking me questions about my political affiliation, being an immigrant, etc. And as I stepped to the consulate window after hours of psyching myself up to the point where my shoulders felt like they were parallel to my earlobes, sharpening my tongue for an epic verbal battle, the consulate officer could not have been nicer, nor more helpful to make it easy for me. I laughed at myself for a good while after this pleasant encounter and reminded that there are still really good people in the government.
I spent the new few weeks traveling all around Vietnam from Halong Bay all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City fka as Saigon, spending time in Danang, Hoi An, and Hue. Being in Vietnam, it made me think about how many friends I have back in the U.S. who are Vietnamese Americans and I couldn’t help but think of them as I traveled through their beautiful country. There is so much to love about Vietnam. The food is probably my favorite in all of the Asian countries I’ve been to so far. There are unforgettable natural settings, crazy busy cities with mopeds, cars and pedestrians competing for dominance, beautiful and tiny women (my guide said Vietnamese people are genetically the smallest among Asians. I haven’t fact checked this but my Vietnamese friends who have big personalities are generally petite), a fascinating history of foreign colonial powers vying for control over the country, wars both civil and foreign and eventual independence into a unified country.
Some of the other highlights of my time in Vietnam:
A street food tour in Danang with a great family from the UK who are originally from Nigeria and experiencing the intense but friendly attention of being with a black family. People literally reached out to the women to touch their hair, both the mom and daughter had their hair in long braids. It’s funny, I get a lot of attention traveling through Asia, much more than I thought I would, but it turns out that I don’t exactly blend in here either.
Hoi An seems to be everyone’s favorite city in Vietnam and it’s probably mine as well. It’s hard not to fall in love with this city of lanterns, canals, old boats and picture perfect cafes. It feels like the Venice of the east and like its western counterpart, it’s crowded and a bit chaotic, but so pretty that you don’t mind bumping into people. I also got to enjoy a little beach time in Hoi An until the weather turned cold and then I enjoyed warming myself with some seriously soothing clam congee (rice porridge).
Hue is another popular place for tourists to visit, but candidly, it wasn’t my cup of green tea. It was probably also that it was freezing rain every day that I was there and it’s hard to really get into something when you’re cold and wet. There were also a heavy presence of a young, backpacking crowd aka white dudes with dreads, which is also not my scene. But I did think the Imperial City and Palace were super impressive and I loved learning about the history of these royal dynasties.
Saigon (I didn’t meet anyone who called it Ho Chi Minh) was a busy, chaotic city, but I really enjoyed it, especially my tour with my new young Vietnamese friend Tu. She’s a university senior studying English and tourism and she took me all over the city on her moped and taught me more about Vietnam than AP History class. I went to the War Museum, which for some reason had their air conditioning off that day and was super crowded, but it somehow felt more appropriate to revisit the history of this devastating war under more uncomfortable conditions. So many lives lost in this war and so many lives still affected by the horrors of injuries and illnesses from bombs and poisons, as well as the trauma. They have powerful photographs of the war featuring everyone from soldiers (US and Vietnamese) and civilians, including the famous Napalm Girl photo that became one of the iconic images of this tragic time. The photos of all of the children and babies born with major defects from the toxins of Agent Orange are burned in my memory forever and should not be forgotten. But Tu and I also had fun/light moments to enjoy, including an awesome meal of Vietnamese pancakes, stuffed snails and other delightful new dishes that I hadn’t tried before. It was great to spend time with a smart, somewhat shy, but incredibly insightful young person who reminded me of my sister Sylvia.
I left Vietnam feeling like I gained a good perspective on this diverse and special country and people and it was good for the soul to spend time with friends and reconnect. I wish a very lucky Year of the Rooster to all of us.