Our Grand Finale Tour of Southeast Asia
The words, “This is our last year in Vietnam” clearly struck fear into the hearts of my family members. Before you could say, “Tien’s your uncle” suitcases were packed, tickets bought, visas ordered and – lo and behold – they came, they saw, they loved it. For JD and me it was a chance to see them, to show off our city and to revisit our best spots.
So where did we go?
Duh. Ok, yes, this one’s obvious. But besides the fact it’s where we live and where we wanted to introduce family to our lives, our friends, my beautiful blue scooter, Danang is, in fact, a top spot in Asia. Here there is beach, city, nature reserve, culture oozing from Lady Buddha and the fishing village. Danang is the complete embodiment of old and new Vietnam. Danang, thy name is Progress.
Oh wow, Kath! You managed to take them to The Next Town Over. Well done. Hey there, cynical blog reader! Hoi An may be our friendly neighbor to the north (Canada?) but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site from yellow building to nearly identical yellow building (no wonder I always get lost). Vietnam’s Disney Land is a real lady killer. Cue lanterns strung poetically o’er ancient streets and traditional boats cruising quietly past the Japanese Bridge and you’ve got yourself a recipe for Charming.
This was our first domestic destination and it seemed fitting to make it one of our last. Sapa takes Hoi An’s charm and upgrades it with steep terraces. It was busier, more under construction and more insistent on selling scarves than we remembered, but it was every bit as breathtaking. The Christmas market and hustle of town were perfect for a pretend Midwestern Christmas. The small surrounding towns, complete with never-ending terraced rice fields were just plain showing off what greatness can be made when Man and Earth work together. It was impressive visually, engineering-ly and culturally.
The Wow of Laos only grows. Luang Prabang rang in our final Asian New Year and made us never want to leave. Here is a beautiful time capsule of an Asia older than Danang’s new. Laos is a size of Vietnam with roughly 7 percent of the population. There is room for quiet. There is room for animals. There is room for monks to walk peacefully along and for the Mighty Mekong to meander. Here is where you find a tranquil Asia in all its poetry.
Speaking of space – how ‘bout a (nearly) deserted tropical island? With a side of fresh seafood and coconuts, please. Here we arrived with a boat of snorkelers but were left to our own madness by afternoon when all but JD, my siblings and me returned the mainland. The four of us were spoiled to camping on a pure white sand beach, lighting a bonfire that served as the night’s lighthouse and realizing in our midnight swim that phosphorous phytoplankton had come to visit. Bliss.
Only one percent of visitors to Vietnam see Phong Nha. Be the one percent. Even Michael Moore nods his grubby baseball cap in approval. Here is the real Vietnam. Until recently one of the poorest regions in the country, caves put her on the map. Here we revisited the world’s third largest cave and met some of the most amazing-est. We altered between sleeping in the jungle and sleeping in a luxurious farm stay surrounded by rice fields. We met water buffalo and dogs who expected us to move out of their way (sleeping in the road was a thing, apparently) and we complied happily. We scooted, biked, rice wined and watched contentedly as Vietnam carried on as normal around us.
Seeing Vietnam and Laos again as a visitor reminds me what a special corner of the world this is. Of course, the Philippines is another Great, but there wasn’t quite time this round. JD and I are lucky to be here and lucky to be accepted and welcomed by those who call this permanent home. I can only appreciate it – and recommend visiting to you.