Notes about Vietnam (Part 2)

My first reaction after crossing the border with Laos was – oh my god, it is so green. Laos is abundant with nature, but there is something about Vietnam that makes its different. Blue skies and extreme greenery as far as an eye can see. It all is really beautiful. Rapid industrialization takes its toll though. As everywhere in Asia (minus Singapore) non-biodegradable garbage is all over the place and deforestation is rampant. Deforestation is not evident though, as in Laos, where you see scars left by the slash & burn practice everywhere. In fact I would not know anything about deforestation, unless I was told about it. Hills in Da Lat are covered with fields and plantations, while only several years ago they used to host forests. It even looks pretty with green tidy fields, unless I was not aware of the past. Ignorance is truly bliss sometimes. On the other hand all those strawberries have to come from somewhere.

I entered the country in the central Vietnam right in the hear of DMZ, where most of the fighting took place. Today the area is abundant with graveyards. I saw quite a few on my way to Hue, which made me think about the futility of war. Ten years of fighting, millions dead, devastated industry and infrastructure and all for nothing. United States and other aggressors never paid any war reparations or made any formal apologies. Agent Orange victims have tried to sue manufacturers of Agent Orange for years, but all in vain. How the hell you can attack a country like this and then just pretend the whole thing never happened? Simply mind-blowing. What is even more mind-boggling is that the history is repeating itself today in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is business as usual: both wars are still going on with no attention is being paid to any of them any more, people are getting killed and the war economic machine is going full speed ahead. Anyhow, back to Vietnam. A good thing is that American and other wars are things of the past, even though the aftermath still rears its ugly head, like all the Agent Orange victims. Vietnamese in general and especially younger generation do not seem to hold the grudge against USA or France. US dollars are widely accepted as a currency and you see US branded clothing and accessories everywhere. It works in the other direction too. I have talked with several old American war veterans, who fell in love with the modern in Vietnam and made it their home. It is all water under the bridge. Indeed why cling to the past, when you can live in the present moment?

One of Vietnam’s highlights for me was food, which is just yummy and totally different to anything I have tasted before. Fresh spring rolls, friend wontons, pha, fried frogs, all kind of seafood and myriad of other things I have no name for. The cuisine can be best described as some sort of a fusion of Chinese and Thai cuisine, but in reality is totally unique and just awesome. Herbs as mint, basil and local varieties I have knowledge about are a big part of the cuisine. A nice touch is a complimentary bowl of herbs you get along with your food. Either you chew them as a healthy snack or add to your meal is your choice. My best food experiences were when I was out eating with locals, who knew magic words that brought all those secret delicacies to the table. English menu was often limited to rice and noodles with a couple of add-ons. It was especially frustrating, when I saw locals over a next table having a proper feast on the things I did not see on the menu. Food is very cheap too, even by South East Asian standards. I would love to visit Vietnam anytime just for the food experience.

In a nutshell, Vietnam is awesome. With a rapid economic growth and extremely determined people, I think they are destined for a great future. Next Asian Tiger or even the next mini-China maybe? Time will tell for sure. For now it is a lovely country with rich culture, delicious food, friendly people and low prices. Love it.

Lao Lao (Part 3)

The infrastructure of Laos reflects the national mentality. Bridges are flimsy and shattered or just nonexistent. The quality of roads is not any better, narrow and battered. On a positive side, most of the people in Laos drive slowly unlike Thai daredevils. Many dirt roads are not passable during the wet season. It sill remains a mystery to me how people get from one place to another during this time. Maybe they just do not? There is no sense of aesthetics whatsoever. Villages are dirty and ugly looking. Trash is left on the ground and there is not even an attempt to hide it. Poverty aside, bamboo huts in Thailand are as basic as Lao ones, but there is a charm and a sense of style in them. I saw only one tidy and pretty-looking ethnic village, but it was that way for a reason, namely it was a tourist attraction. Step out of it and walk 20 meters away and you see all the piles of garbage. Lao villages reminded me of Russian ones, in terms of dirtiness and lack of aesthetic considerations. On the other hand, Laotians have one huge advantage Russians lack, namely laid-back and easy-going lifestyle.

Without a doubt Laos’s biggest assets is its pristine nature. Laos is the land of mountains, caves, rivers, waterfalls and the most beautiful clouds I have ever seen. I do not know how Laotians do it, but clouds in Laos are vastly superior in terms of eye-candy to the neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. Some sights are simply stunning and many times after seeing a particularly magnificent waterfall or cave I thought that it cannot be topped only to see an even more beautiful one later. My top experiences in Laos must be Kong Lor Cave, Tat Fan waterfall and Si Phan Don. Kong Lor cave is a huge cave with a river flowing through it. The cave is some 7km long and at times is as 100m as wide and tall. A boat journey to the other side of the cave in the pitch dark with only a couple of torches is an experience I never forget. I have seen some other pretty impressive caves, but Kong Lor is THE cave. I guess if it was in another country, they would market the hell out of it, but since it is in Laos, not many tourists realize that such a wonder exists. As far as waterfalls are concerned, there are many amazing ones. The amazing Tat Kuang Si in Luang Prabang, which looks like a decoration to a fairytale than an actual real-life waterfall. The serene Tat Hang and its twins Tat Lo and Tat Suang on the outskirts of Bolaven Plateau. The massive Tat Somphamit in Si Phan Don breaking the steady of Mekong. The most ultimate one is Tat Fan in the heart of Bolaven with its massive twin water torrents falling down from the height of 120m. The moment I saw it, I realized that all other waterfalls combined are no match for that one. This is the waterfall that alone makes a trip to Laos worthwhile. Nature sights are mostly left in their original form with very little surrounding infrastructure. It is a huge contrast to China, where nature is put under control and brought to safety regulations. There are no endless series of stairs in the mountains, no cable cars, no fences and no safety precautions. If you make a wrong step or trip, the result might be potentially fatal. This is Laos.

The Laos geography is dominated by the the mighty Mekong flowing through the whole country from north to south. It is one of the world’s greatest rivers and is in fact the only one I saw to date. Now I am keen to see more. Over two days of the slow boat journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, I did not see any bridges over Mekong or any other signs of the industrial age on the river itself or its banks. Only light boats and scattered primitive villages on the banks of Mekong. During my travels in Laos I saw only two bridges over Mekong, one in Vientiane and another one in Pakse. There surely must be more, but I suspect they are not many of them. It is truly amazing to see that in this age such a great river has escaped the fate of industrialization. Thanks to the low population density and the rural lifestyle, Laos still sports mostly untouched nature, but it is changing. Hydrodams are being built, there is deforestation going on and slash & burn farming tactics are prevalent leaving ugly scars on green hills. The air in Luang Prabang was full of smoke and ash, which I thought was due forest fires, but only later realized it was a local way to farm land. Sooner or later Laos will enter the industrial age big time, either on its own (or maybe not) or with the help of its mighty neighbors as China and Vietnam (more likely) . If you would like to see the pristine nature of Laos, the time is now. Five, ten years later it might be too late.