At the top of the steps at Hang Mua

A grumpy day in Ninh Binh

On the car ferry to Haiphong
On the car ferry to Haiphong

I booked a shuttle to go to Ninh Binh from Catba. It was supposed to pick me up from the hotel and, later than expected, a motorbike rider appeared to ferry me to the minivan, 50 metres down the road! I would have walked if I’d known. We drove through a populated area to the western part of the island to catch the ferry to Haiphong. Catba would have been the perfect place to hire a motorbike but I have never driven one. It is difficult to see the island without one and I now realised there was a lot more to investigate.

The bus drove onto the packed small car ferry. The trip was uneventful as we travelled a short distance across the strait past boats of various sizes and condition. I amused myself watching a group of Chinese ladies posing for photographs with a scarf and hat which they shared.

On the other side, we stuck to the toll roads and bypassed the city. We made one stop at a restaurant/shop where I hoped to buy a coffee. There was no sign of one and we all spent half an hour lounging listlessly waiting to leave again. It was a strange place.

Not the most inviting of places
Not the most inviting of places

The weather was miserable, and it was raining when they dropped me off at the bus stop in Ninh Binh. I walked to the hotel where the receptionist greeted me. The Vietnamese hotel staff, I found, were always helpful. As with all my other accommodation, I was shown the tour list before I’d even checked in. They were keen to make sales! I booked one for the next day that included Trang An,Hang Mua and Bai Dinh Pagoda.

Flower arrangements at the market
Flower arrangements at the market

In the afternoon, I wandered around the city. Like Hanoi it was noisy, uninspiring and busy. I found a beautiful flower market and a park that housed a small temple and a pond where swan shaped boats lined up waiting for people to ride them. There was a lot of improvement work underway around the park.

Swan boats at the park in Ninh Binh
Swan boats at the park in Ninh Binh

I wanted to try some local food in the evening but was wary. Ninh Binh’s specialties are goat and dog and, whilst I have eaten goat, I would baulk at dog. I walked around indecisively and opted for a busy cafe close to a food market. The plastic tables and chairs were those used for children at home but I was now accustomed to them. I chose what everyone else was eating which was a good decision!

I was ready early the next day. Departure time came and went and I was still waiting. The receptionist told me they were often late because other tourists weren’t ready at the right time. It was an excuse I had heard before. They must teach it in hotel reception school! She disappeared and returned a while later and bustled me into a taxi with a non English-speaking driver. I had no idea what was happening and was quite annoyed by this stage. We arrived at Hang Mua and I joined the small group. They had presumably forgotten to pick me up.

Hang Mua is a temple complex whose top is reached by ascending 500 steps. It was raining and misty so the views were not as spectacular as they might have been. There were too many people at the peak so I waited and looked whilst the others fought their way onto the dragon. I found the guide’s accent difficult to understand so did not gain much knowledge about any of the sights I visited that day.

Back at the bottom, our ‘seen better days’ minivan was waiting to take us to Bai Dinh Pagoda. We stopped en route and two of the group left and four Czechs joined us. The Pagoda complex was vast. Much of it had been built recently but there was also an old temple on the hill. Electric shuttles ferried us from the car park and we started our tour admiring the 500 Buddha statues lining the side of the temple. We climbed up to view the enormous bell in the bell tower and then our guide shepherded us off for lunch. We were on a strict timetable so didn’t have enough time to look everywhere.

Boats at Trang An
Boats at Trang An

On the way to the restaurant, we passed many stands displaying whole cooked goats. They were rigid but propped in such a way, it appeared they were still alive (almost!) and standing. It was an odd sight! All the stall holders beckoned to our vehicle to stop but our driver continued on until we arrived at a resort where a buffet lunch was waiting. We were late, so the food had been resting for a while. Here though, I tried goat kebabs and stir-fried goat. Whilst tasty, they would have benefited from slow cooking.

Our last stop was at Trang An. Ninh Binh is likened to Halong Bay but on land. Most people visit Tam Coc and I had read Trang An was more picturesque and less crowded. The information was wrong on the latter point. There were swarms of rowing boats on the river. There are three routes and our guide had told us the best one was Route 2. For the next two hours, a lady rowed us around loops and curves in the river. She must have been exhausted at the end of the day. We got off two or three times to look at temples and the set of the King Kong movie. At this last stop there was also a replica tribal village where people with faces painted red and wearing red clothing waited for someone to pay them to take their photo. All the way round the boats were bumper to bumper (if that is an expression you can use for boats) and it was noisy. At the start, one boat had a boom box and the occupants were doing karaoke which the Vietnamese love. It was incongruous in such a beautiful setting and unexpected. I felt as though I was in Disneyland. The visitors were all local Vietnamese having a fun Saturday afternoon out.

We were late arriving back and one of the group was getting anxious as she had an overnight train to catch. Her hostel had told her one time, and the guide said another so there were many phone calls whilst we waited for our mini bus. I was relieved to be back in my room. It wasn’t one of my better days.

The next day, I left early to catch the train to Hue. This was a 12 hour trip. I love trains and the journey passed quickly. I read, admired the scenery, enjoyed the coffee that came around and waved and smiled at a baby who came to sit next to me. She screamed the train down which was a little embarrassing!

It was dark when I arrived in Hue. I ran the gauntlet of the taxi drivers and walked to my hotel. It was in the central area and the streets were closed to traffic at the weekend. The noise from the bars and cafes and people in the streets was deafening. All I wanted was to get to my room and have a beer. But first the hotel owner had to explain the tours. After the previous day’s experience, I declined and retired. It was wonderful to be in the warm again. I had been cold for most of the previous week.

On the way to Catba

Not quite luxury cruising in Catba

I was not sorry to leave Hanoi. In fact, I couldn’t wait and have no desire to return. The next day, I walked to the cafe that was the meeting point for the shuttle van I had booked to Tuan Chan, the port near Halong. My fellow passengers were all joining cruise boats there, but I was getting the ferry to Catba Island. The ferry information online was ambiguous, and I wasn’t sure when the ferries ran so caught an early shuttle hoping the 11.30am boat was going.

Leaving Tuan Chau
Leaving Tuan Chau

The journey was smooth and luxurious (by my standards!). We passed many rice fields and, as we approached Tuan Chau, the scenery changed to mangroves, lumpy hills and fish farms. Tuan Chau is a developing town with many hotels and resorts being built. In fact, wherever I went in Vietnam, hotels were being built in every available space. The driver dropped the cruise passengers at their respective boats. He looked blank when I asked for the ferry so I got off at a large terminal where they directed me down the road to the right place. As I approached, the ticket lady shouted at me to hurry as the ferry was just leaving. What perfect timing!

Heading towards Catba
Heading towards Catba

It was a small car and passenger ferry that arrived at the north end of the island where a local bus met the ferry and transported passengers to Catba Town. The 45 minute journey was stunning and I’m sure, as good as any expensive cruise. We sailed past the iconic limestone karsts for which Halong Bay is renowned and through sounds boarded by hills. The sun had appeared which added to the experience.

The bus on the other side was elderly but fitted in not only tourists but the school children it picked up along the way. It was a tight squeeze! At one point, the schoolboys staged a singalong. I don’t think it was for the benefit of the visitors but it was very amusing.

On the bus to Catba town
On the bus to Catba town

The trip took about 30 minutes and I had a short walk to my hotel along the waterfront. As I had suspected Catba is a backpackers haven. There were major roadworks in the main street but this didn’t deter the street vendors setting up around them. Some guests had to walk across a gangplank to get to the entrance of their accommodation. Health and safety was of no concern in Vietnam!

The hotel was new and my large, cheap room on the 8th floor had a fantastic view over the harbour. After checking in, I spent the rest of the afternoon familiarising myself with the small town. There is a busy fishing port besides the tourist area so was an interesting combination. Later that evening, I walked up the road away from the centre and ate in a local cafe. I have now eaten enough noodle soup to last for some time!

I spent the next day on a boat trip booked through the hotel. We were a small group of assorted nationalities. The bus delivered us to the harbour where we boarded our small boat. Luxury this was not! It was soon clear that two crew members spoke no English and our ‘guide’s’ was not substantial. Most of us went onto the roof deck to look at the view as we cruised.

My cruise boat
My cruise boat
Stop for kayaking
Stop for kayaking

At the start there was little conversation but as the day progressed people became more chatty. The weather was dreary and cool. Our first stop was at a bay to kayak. A dock area housed the kayaks, there were some tanks with assorted fish in them (one weighing 80kg!) and a boat with a lady selling snacks. Other boats had also docked. The kayaks were double ones, so I shared mine with an Ukranian man who was also travelling solo. This was fortunate as I might still have been paddling without his strength, kayaking not being my forte although I enjoy it. We followed the line of kayaks and went round the inlet and through a cave with stalactites hanging from the roof. On our return trip, there was a distinct smell of marijuana, something which did not escape my companion’s attention as he traded online in marijuana products!

Back at the boat, the crew were undertaking repairs on the engine. We had lunch whilst we waited and then waited a bit more. In the meantime, we pottered on the dock and attached ourselves to a guide doing real tours. There was little information forthcoming from our crew! I also amused myself listening to an argument between a guide and an Indian tourist who had broken his paddle. The kayak owner wanted a substantial amount of money to replace it and the Indian wasn’t happy. The guide was negotiating.

Our crew fixed our engine eventually, and we set off again. Next on the schedule was a swim at a tiny beach. The boat dropped anchor a little way off it and we had to brace ourselves for the cold water. It was further than I thought. There was some hesitancy among the passengers as someone had spotted a jelly fish next to the boat!

Monkey Island was our final stop before heading back. There were so many boats and people here that the boats had to drop passengers and wait offshore. There were monkeys, some of them aggressive as they were accustomed to being fed. Some of us scrambled up a hill to admire the view (and because it was there!). There were too many people at the top so I didn’t go all the way up and the climb was more difficult than they had led us to believe. Back on the beach, we waited for our boat to return whilst keeping a wary eye on the monkeys. I didn’t trust them.

Back at the harbour, the minivan met us and returned us to town after an enjoyable day. I appreciated the small group and the novelty of a local tour rather than a luxury cruise.

That evening, I had a walk around the port and stood and watched a boat unload an enormous amount of jellyfish. One of the other observers mimed it was ‘chow’ for the Chinese market.

The following day I spent strolling around the town. I went out late and walked along the waterfront and around the headland where there was a beautiful cliff path to the next beach. Big hotels were being built on both the beaches I saw. I then hiked up to Canon Fort which sits high on the hill above Catba. At the viewpoint, there were empty tables, chairs and a small bar awaiting people who went to watch the sunset. The view today though was murky.

Back down below, I was starving so bought a fried potato ‘thing’ from a street stall. It wasn’t enough, so I made my way to the local market hoping to find something else there. The noise in the fish area was phenomenal with the ladies calling out to each other as they worked. They were shucking oysters, splitting tiny fish in two and shelling clams. The variety of fish being sold was huge. I bought a corn fritter which came highly recommended by the cook’s mother! So much for eating fish…..

For dinner, I had thought of going to a restaurant at the port but decided they were too expensive. I went back to the cafe of last night and ordered fish. It was off! I had shrimp noodles instead which wasn’t quite what I was craving.

Street mural

Good Morning Hanoi!

Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake

My visa was running out, and it was time to leave Laos. I departed on an early morning flight bound for Hanoi. It was a beautiful day in Luang Prabang but after an hour’s flight I landed in rain and murk in Hanoi. It was cold.

I had bought a letter of introduction but had to queue for my visa. It was slow because of the volume of tourists entering. Outside the terminal, I searched for the express bus stop. There were signs for the buses but not that one. I eventually discovered it across the road from the terminal entrance!

In the old quarter, I walked to the hostel I’d booked. I found the street but the lane in which it was located was not on Google maps so it took me some time to find. Motorbikes and scooters were everywhere. I trusted they would avoid me. It was too early to check in, so I left my bags, had an egg coffee which was very rich and a speciality of Hanoi, and went walking.

Traffic chaos!
Traffic chaos!
Motorised children's vehicles
Motorised children’s vehicles

It was Saturday so the streets around the Hoan Kiem lake were closed to traffic. Loud noise emanated from the traffic and music, and there were crowds of people. My senses struggled to adjust after the tranquility of Luang Prabang. I strolled along the lake to the other end where children were enjoying rides on miniature motorised vehicles in the empty street. My grandson would have loved it! My destination was the Vietnam Women’s Museum which displayed the diversity of women and their historic role in the family and society of the many ethnological groups around Vietnam. I spent two hours wandering around the floors of exhibits before returning to my hostel for a rest before that night’s street food tour.

Vietnam Women's Museum
Vietnam Women’s Museum
Street food
Street food

The guide met me at the hostel. A French couple were also on the tour. We visited half a dozen places, and I disgraced myself by eating too much (again!). I hadn’t had lunch and was starving. Our first stop was for a delicious dish of grated green papaya served with meat, basil and fish sauce. Of all the dishes we tried that evening, this was my favourite. Fried spring roll, Vietnamese baguette with pate, noodle soup, rice pancakes and a dessert of sticky rice and ice cream followed. The French couple were amusing, and it was an entertaining evening. When I tried to find the food stalls the next day, they were nowhere to be seen but Hanoi streets are a jungle and I was probably not in the right ones.

I took my time the next day. After breakfast, I set off for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I walked and walked. There was much to look at in the streets, especially the motor bikes. The number of people and variety of goods that could be transported on the back of a bike was incredible! I hadn’t looked at the map carefully enough and walked much further than necessary. There is only one entrance to the Mausoleum, and I emerged outside the enormous grounds as far from it as possible. The queue to visit stretched out of the complex and down the street. I decided I didn’t need to see the embalmed body of a dead person no matter how famous he was.

House at the Ethnology Museum
House at the Ethnology Museum

I walked on, this time aiming for the Ethnology Museum. The road I followed was long, noisy, and the pollution disgusting. I was not appreciating Hanoi. Feeling weary and sick from the traffic fumes, I reached the museum and spent some time inside looking at the exhibits from the different ethnic groups. In the gardens were examples of houses from each group. There was also a Water Puppet Theatre but if I stayed for a performance, I would not have been able to get to the Temple of Literature before it closed. Museums, like those in France, close on Mondays so I only had a day. Also in the grounds, was a modern building that had a well-presented exhibition of cultural artifacts from around the world.

Having had enough of walking in less than ideal conditions, I intended to catch a bus to the Temple of Literature. It went sailing past! I was at the wrong bus stop. I started walking again, but soon decided to cross the road and wait for a bus. Two ladies with some small children were also crossing, so I used them as a shield to traverse the busy street. (Small children sometimes have their uses!) That road was too much for me to manage on my own!

The Temple is dedicated to learning and Confucius in particular. There were several courtyards, leading to a High Temple. I wandered around, along with the crowds, until I decided I was hungry, exhausted and had had enough. I walked back to the hostel buying some sweet doughnuts from a vendor after some hard bargaining. Whilst I was searching for change, she removed some from the bag. I didn’t have the energy to argue. They were revolting and probably the cause of the ensuing stomach upset.

View from my balcony
View from my balcony

After a rest, I needed dinner. The cafe next door sold duck noodle soup and was famous in Hanoi. There was always a queue outside. However, it was also only open at lunchtime so I settled on noodle soup from another street stall. It was cheap but smelt strange. The day finished with a short walk by the lakefront where activity was in full swing.

The next day, I continued my meanderings around the city. From my hostel I headed to the Long Bien Bridge, passing an extensive market on the way. I hadn’t intended to cross the bridge, but this is what I did. It is long, spans two rivers and is used solely by two-wheeled vehicles and the train. The smog over the city was much in evidence. Between the rivers was a stretch of agricultural land although I wouldn’t have wanted to eat anything that grew there.

The pedestrian way had some gaps between the boards, and the railings looked unstable. There were some fruit vendors part way along. I went over on one side, did a loop around the houses and returned on the other.

Back in the city, I looked for the murals painted on the railway arches. They weren’t immediately evident, so I strolled instead to another large lake, stopping for coffee on the way. I thought I ordered an iced one, but they served a small brown one with a glass of brown water on the side. Vietnamese coffee was a puzzle!

View over the lake
View over the lake

I wandered around a small loop of the lake, sitting down for a rest in a quiet street. The murky water resembled boiling mud in places. On closer observation, I realised there were tons of catfish in the water. People fished there but I would not have wanted to try that fish!

I had another attempt at finding the murals, and this time was successful. They depicted historic scenes of old Hanoi and were close to a well-photographed spot where the train runs close to the houses twice a day. I wasn’t there at the right time though.

On the way back to my hostel, I bought a piece of banana loaf and enjoyed it with a cup of tea in my room whilst listening to the hammering and drilling from the building site next door. I forced myself out in the early evening to go to the Night Market and to find some dinner. The choice of cafes and restaurants is enormous, making decisions difficult. I boringly settled for another noodle soup. This one was far tastier than the previous night’s though and definitely smelt better! On the corner of my lane was a dessert stall which I had been told was also famous. I investigated. Next to me on my small plastic chair were two ladies who advised on what I should order. This famous dessert was fruit with jelly and yoghourt. It was a throwback to my childhood!

House in Khmu village

Trekking on intrepidly

School time
School time

The following morning I was up early. It was only then I realised a heavily pregnant woman had been sleeping in a room off mine from which there was no other exit. Guilt set in, particularly as I had suspicions I had displaced some family members in the enormous room. Ai had slept ‘outside’ and assured me this was not the case.

I had coffee and watched the children get ready for school. The two cheeky boys I had noticed were my host’s grandsons. They each went off clutching a handful of sticky rice. Once the kitchen was free, Ai cooked our breakfast whilst the old lady went back to sweeping the leaves. She obviously liked a tidy compound as she had spent most of the afternoon sweeping and burning the day before. Breakfast was omelette and toast with the toast cooked over the fire on a grill made of bamboo sticks. Afterwards, Ai went to find food for lunch. I had visions of him knocking on people’s doors to see if they had any spare food but he went to the shop!

Once he returned we set off. Walking out of the village we passed several houses under construction. These belonged to Khmu. The Government had decreed that people from the next village had to move to this one as there was insufficient water and useable farm land in their own. It provided land, but the villagers had to build their own houses. It was interesting to see the different styles. We passed through their village and it appeared poor by comparison. Ai stopped again in search of food. He bought eggs from the headman’s wife and carried them in his pack until lunch. I was astonished he didn’t break them! Whilst we were chatting to the lady, he spotted a large black scorpion in the road. She became very excited and rushed to get a container to catch it. Its destiny was death by drowning in her whiskey bottle! It gave the imbiber strength (apparently!).

Having started chilly, the day became hotter and hotter. At one point, Ai gave me a choice of routes. There was the easy way on a track up a steep hill in full sun, or the hard way, climbing up rocks and in the shade. When have I ever taken the easy way?

We continued on over said rocks and climbed up the side of a waterfall. At the top he let me have a rest. It was easier after that. I was relieved when he said we would stop at a hut for lunch. The ‘hut’ was a shady platform with a rural view and refreshing breeze. On the way, Ai had collected a hollow bamboo stick and some water. He stuffed the ends of the stick with leaves put the eggs and water in the middle and built a fire to boil the eggs. Very ingenious! Once the eggs were cooked, he placed strips of buffalo skin (minus stiff hair) in the ash to cook. The lunch menu comprised hard-boiled eggs, the ubiquitous sticky rice, crispy pig skin, which was like fatty hollow pork scratchings and chewy buffalo skin which was a challenge to the teeth. It wasn’t as bad as I expected from its appearance though. Afterwards, Ai suggested having a nap. I think he was more tired than I was as the cockerels and people talking into the night had kept him awake! I didn’t object as it was a lovely place to stay and rest.

Ai cooking our lunch
Ai cooking our lunch

It was only 20 minutes to our next homestay village, but the route was uphill. The house was more substantial than last night’s. Our room was upstairs, and we shared with the family, which comprised Mum, Dad and two small boys. They slept in one corner of the large room and Ai and I had separate mattresses and mosquito nets in another part. They could accommodate a number of people, judging by the pile of mattresses and blankets. The bathroom had a dividing wall for the squat toilet (non flushing), toilet paper and a bucket for its disposal. I deemed this the height of luxury given the environment! There was a concrete water tank and a shelf for storing food. They also used the room for washing dishes.

We took a walk around the village which was much larger than the previous day’s. It had a population of 1,000 people, comprising both Hmong and Khmu. There was a large grassy area in the middle where girls were playing skipping games and the men petanque, watched by their sons. According to Ai, women have too much work to do to play and the girls don’t want to! This information could not pass without comment and I was almost diplomatic in my response but I suspect not enough!

Animals roamed freely but a few large cows were tied up. These were the fighting animals. Gambling is popular in Laos and everywhere they keep prized cockerels in bamboo cages. I hadn’t realised they used cows too. A house was being built at the far end of the village and several men were on the roof whilst others watched from below giving advice. Everyone was getting involved in the project. Many children were having showers under the communal taps, it being washing time. There was also a collection of small shops that almost constituted a shopping centre!

Time for a haircut
Time for a haircut

Back at the house, I watched the boys (aged 6 and 8) playing whilst I waited for dinner. Earlier they had been wielding a large knife, and I now realised they were modifying a crossbow. They spent hours shooting into the bank below the road and making adjustments to the weapon. The dog, intent on chasing the piglets, and anyone who passed on the road risked being shot. Meanwhile our host sat on a stool having a haircut by someone who had arrived on a motorbike.

Ai was relieved of cooking duties tonight as our hostess prepared our food. When it was ready, we sat on low stools around the communal pots of sticky rice, cabbage soup and more buffalo skin, this time cooked in a stew. It wasn’t any more tender though! The conversation was in Laos so I didn’t understand it. It was dark in the room, with minimal light coming from the cooking fire and a single bulb charged by solar power.

My hostess in her dark kitchen
My hostess in her dark kitchen

Afterwards, the family sat around a small laptop and watched a film. I went to bed and read on my Kindle for a while. Everyone was tucked up on their mattresses by 7.30pm. It’s a long time since I’ve had such early nights!

The following morning, our hostess was up before 5am lighting the fire and preparing for the day before she went to work in her fields. We arose early as Ai wanted to do the bulk of the hike before it got too hot. Like the previous day, it was cool first thing. We had an omelette and toast for breakfast before we left. Ai had mentioned that eggs from the market were expensive and produced in battery farms. I felt guilty that I was eating them whilst the children just had sticky rice. He had also expressed surprise that a) eggs were nutritious for children and b) he could use the eggs from the chickens he had at home. I wasn’t sure if this was nationwide ignorance or just his.

School field in the early morning
School field in the early morning
Climbing up through bamboo
Climbing up through bamboo

Our walk this morning was uphill through a bamboo forest to a hilltop village empty of people but full of cows, pigs and chickens and the odd turkey. Ai was searching for food for our lunch but there were only one or two ladies about and no shop. I watched and waited whilst he chatted. After the village we descended steeply towards the river and the village where we were due to meet the driver. Unfortunately, the bridge had been damaged in a recent storm so we couldn’t cross. Ai attracted the attention of a boatman on the other side and he ferried us across, one by one, in a leaky boat. The village had suffered extensive damage with roofs being blown off and one house had collapsed completely.

Whilst I sat and waited for our driver I was the object of some interest to the children returning from school and two or three came to stand in front of me and stare shyly. Talking English to them met with bursts of giggles!

On our trip back to Luang Prabang, we stopped at a noodle soup shop for lunch. It was tastier than buffalo skin but took me a while to eat with chopsticks so Ai and the driver had to wait. They dropped me back in town and I walked back to my guesthouse.

The trek was a personal challenge for me. I knew the heat would be a problem, but I was also anxious about the homestays. I needn’t have worried. They were basic but much as I expected. The fact I didn’t stress whilst I was there was a big achievement and I was glad I had stepped out of my comfort zone. I felt like a real intrepid traveller!

Village houses

On an intrepid adventure!

Weaving loom under the house
Weaving loom under the house

I had come prepared to go for a trek in the countryside. Given the heat, I had had second thoughts but knew I would regret it if I didn’t go. I booked a group tour with Tiger Trails and arrived at their bus depot early one morning. It became a private tour when the two other participants re-scheduled because they were sick. I was dubious about being the sole trekker but, with hindsight, I think my experience was enhanced.

My guide introduced himself as Ai and we set off with our driver to a village en route to Pakxeng. The road looked familiar. At one point, we had to wait as there had been a slip. I assumed the people on the road ahead were workers but when they removed the barrier a little while later, everyone piled back into the tuk-tuk in front of us. They were all still trying to squeeze in as we drove past!

Our transport for the river crossing
Our transport for the river crossing

On arrival at Pakkens, we walked down to the river past houses which had looms set up outside. As it was so dry, the cloth must have been full of dust before they even finished weaving it. A boatman took us across the river past two men who were fishing. They held a net between them, both wore dive masks and took it in turns to submerge to check for any fish in the net. It was an intriguing method!

We walked up from the river and proceeded through farmland where animals, mainly buffalo, wandered loose. There were few people about but we chatted to one man who was stripping bamboo in preparation for making a basket. Hmong traditionally carry their baskets on their backs like our backpacks, whilst the Khmu use a head strap attached to their baskets that wraps around their forehead. As this places a severe strain on their necks they are gradually changing to the Hmong way of transporting their goods.

We stopped for brief rests here and there and for lunch in a river bed. In the rainy season it would have held a raging torrent but for now there were just dry rocks. It was early for lunch but Laos still adheres to French timings and lunch begins at 11.30am come what may! Ai presented me with an enormous pile of noodles wrapped in a banana leaf. I couldn’t eat it all and saved some for later (although later never came and he gave them to our host’s pigs the next morning).

Noodle lunch
Noodle lunch

We meandered along following the course of the river for the rest of the afternoon. It was so hot that Ai cut large palm leaves for us to hold over our heads for shade. It was a relief to approach rice fields as this meant we were nearing the village that was our destination for the night. There was no rice planted as it was too dry. In the hills, there is only one crop per year as, without irrigation, there is insufficient water. It can therefore only be planted in the rainy season. The approach to the village was up a steep hill. My back pack had surely got heavier! There were two fish ponds beside the track. These were well fenced and privately owned. They certainly did not welcome trespassers!

My hostess with her indispensible broom
My hostess with her indispensible broom

In the village, Ai had a long discussion with an elderly lady (or maybe she just looked old) who showed us a large room in which I was to sleep. A mattress was placed on the floor for me. It didn’t look inviting, but I wanted the homestay experience and that was what I was getting. The bathroom contained a large concrete tank of cold water and a non flushing, knee challenging squat toilet. If I wanted a shower, I could do so in the bathroom by throwing bowls full of cold water over myself or I could stand under the tap outside that served the surrounding four or five houses. I opted for the former.

I ‘showered’ and wrote my diary and read whilst Ai went in search of a pumpkin for dinner. Some small boys came to scrutinise me closely and more passed by on their way home from school.

A little later Ai accompanied me on a tour round the village which was larger than I thought. Most of the houses were made of wood rather than the bamboo I had seen elsewhere. One house was very incongruous. It was constructed of stone and appeared unoccupied. Ai was scathing. Why would anyone spend so much money ($30,000 U.S. in his estimation) to build a house in a village without electricity and a dirt road most of the way to Luang Prabang? Whilst there was no electricity, houses displayed satellite dishes which puzzled me until I discovered that many, including my homestay, had solar power. There was no switch in my room though. It was outside somewhere and controlled by my elderly hostess. I discovered later that 7.30pm was lights out!

We walked through the village and up to the schools. These covered all ages from pre-school to secondary. Several students were playing soccer on the playing fields. It was a beautiful setting surrounded by hills. There were several dormitory huts next to the schools. Parents build these for children who have to go to another village to continue their education. Usually this is at secondary school age but sometimes much younger children are sent away. They have to cook and look after themselves when staying in the huts so become independent at a young age.

When we returned to our homestay, I had free time to wander as Ai cooked our dinner over the open fire in the room that served as the kitchen. Pumpkin soup (not as I know it), cabbage and sticky rice was on the menu. Meanwhile, I sat and watched the comings and goings of the village and took a stroll to watch the children playing in the mud on the banks of a murky looking pond. It was the perfect place to play with plastic diggers, trucks and stones. One boy climbed to the top of a jackfruit tree and proclaimed there were no ripe fruit whilst another wielded a large knife to whittle a stick. I learnt that the boys are required to make brooms each week to take to school to use for cleaning. They are given marks on their accomplishment. The girls do embroidery. One poor lady, with a baby strapped to her back, and an assortment of other children, ground rice, using her foot to operate the contraption we had used at Mr Lee’s. I knew how hard that was and felt sorry for her. She looked weary. There was no husband in evidence and he was probably working in the fields with other men (and women). There were few around.

It was almost dark by the time dinner was ready. It was plain but good. By that time, I was starving! Whilst we were eating, Ai told me the population of the village was 240 comprising 44 families of which four were Khmu and the rest Hmong. Families all lived together and one house was home to 15 people.

It was straight to bed after dinner. I read by torchlight and listened to the night sounds. There was lots of chatter and the cockerels could compete with those I had experienced in Rarotonga. My room was next to the bathroom from which interesting noises emanated! My night was disturbed.