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The new Vietnam

Leaving Laos was really difficult. My last days in Luang Prubang continued to be delightful. I went on a bike ride with the guesthouse owner, his brother-in-law, and fellow guests. We took a ferry across the Mekong, and rode along a bumpy road to a temple. Children plied us with lotus flowers to provide offerings at the temple situated on top of a hill with a spectacular view of the area. After we’d each purchased lotus flowers, the five children could relax, play and just be kids with us (business first of course!). They spontaneously burst into a coordinated traditional song/dance and again I felt so fortunate to be part of this unfolding life of mine. Later, we biked along dusty roads to our destination – a sugarcane plantation. This family runs an amazing operation from start to finish. They grow and harvest the sugarcane. They have custom built a huge gear shift and a water buffalo is attached, walking in a neverending circle to crank the gears while someone feeds sugar canes into the gears to produce the juice. They boil the juice for five hours, stir it, and then pour it into a mold, drying it in the sun to make bricks of brown sugar. We sampled all the imaginable uses – raw sugarcane, sugarcane juice, sugarcane taffy and sugar. YUM!

In 1998, I visited Vietnam for the first time and it was the most unexpected homecoming. Over the years, I’ve built up Hanoi as this mythical place and it’s occupied a very dear place in my heart. So it was completely disconcerting when I left Laos, arrived in Hanoi and was immediately accosted by hotel staff yelling at me on the street and physically trying to grab my luggage into their hotel. I ran away from there quickly, and since it was so late, just stayed in a 6-story walk up (of course I was on the top floor) that was very sparse and left me a bit sad. The next morning, I went in search of a new hotel, found Hanoi Amazing Hotel and it absolutely lived up to it’s name. The hotel staff were just delightful and I felt a bit sad to leave them to go on a cruise to Halong Bay. Halong Bay consists of 1,969 islands and is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I splurged and stayed on a luxury junk (a big upgrade from my last trip to Halong Bay of 2 nights/3 days for $30). We went kayaking through caves, I jumped off the top of the boat, hiked to the top of hills with amazing vantages and met lots of wonderful people. It was the perfect way to spend New Years Eve/Day.

Now that I’ve been in Hanoi for a bit, I’m starting to get the hook-up! I reconnected with my friends who ran the budget hotel I stayed in for two weeks in 1998. Last night, they prepared a huge feast for me and it was so wonderful to eat a home-cooked meal with friends. Tonight, I’ll eat dinner with someone who works for an NGO in Hanoi (PATH, major grantee of the Gates Foundation). Today, I took a tour with the local NGO, Hanoi City Kids, that uses university students as tour guides to improve their English skills. After visiting the major sights (it is really weird to view Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body), we ate lunch at Koto, an NGO that provides culinary training to street kids, similar to Seattle’s Fare Start. This new Vietnam is a bit of a conundrum to me. So hungry for economic growth, but also aware of the growing pains. The university student said to me today, “I hope the next time you come to Vietnam there will be more cars then mopeds on the street.” I asked her why and she said it would be a symbol of economic growth, although she acknowledged with regret the harsh realities (pollution, traffic, widening gap between rich and poor).

I’m taking the overnight train to Hue tomorrow, and am ready to get to warmer weather and Central Vietnam, my mother’s birthplace. Hanoi is a bit relentless, and the Old Quarter is total chaos. There are now 2 million mopeds in Hanoi and I have to remain calm and steady to cross the street. It’s common to see tourists just standing in fear for minutes, waiting for a break in traffic that never comes. Of course, when I am with Vietnamese friends, the women link their arms in mine and they don’t even glance sideways when crossing the street!

I’ll have to post photos next time since the connection is pretty slow. Wishing you all a wonderful new year!

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