Of monks and Mirabelle

Day 72
Hanoi, Vietnam

A little after 5:30 a.m. this morning, the Tak Bat procession started. Without fail, as dawn breaks each day, the monks of Luang Prabang arrive by the hundreds from the town’s surrounding Buddhist temples to collect their daily alms. There are lines of big monks and “mini-monks” (not my expression) as they wait to receive sticky rice and small cakes — their food for the day.

In their burnt-sienna robes, the monks yield to traffic yet don’t say a word. They are focused and they are solemn. Soon the town is awash in color, complementing the quickly rising sun. And, just as quickly as they are here, they are gone.

This is a part of life in Luang Prabang. While it has become something of a tourist attraction, today was blissfully free of those interfering in a religious ceremony for a new Facebook profile photo. The government of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos has also taken steps to protect this. A memo in our hotel room says: “Observe the ritual in silence, and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and you can do so in a respectful manner.”

We got back to the hotel, rested for a couple of hours and then met Phet, our tuk-tuk driver from yesterday. He brought us to the town of Ban Ean, about 30 minutes away, where we boarded a boat headed down the Nam Khan. Yesterday, our captain belched a BeerLao burp before firing up his rickety engine. Today, our captain couldn’t even get the engine to start. Guess drunk is better than incompetent. Luckily, our destination was downstream, so we had a leisurely float in the baking sun.

After a short walk, we arrived at Tad Sae waterfall, a beautiful and secluded spot, with clear water gushing over many levels of limestone. There, we met Mirabelle, our beast of burden who would be showing us around.

The ride was, well, slow. It was pretty cool to sit in a basket on top of a gigantic elephant in the middle of the jungle. But, at the same time, Mirabelle didn’t seem too happy with her job — after a couple of minutes, we really just wanted to set her free. The guys who run the park would’ve been heated if we pulled a Prison Break, so we could only feed her some pineapple plants and wish her well.

Phet brought us back along the bumpy road to the Apsara, where we showered and rested up. With no other planes at the Luang Prabang airport, our Lao Airlines (motto: “You’re safe with us”) flight to Hanoi was delayed about 90 minutes due to a “technical problem.” We gladly allowed the maintenance men to work their magic on our tiny propeller while playing several super competitive hands of Chinese Uno! and drinking our final BeerLaos. For the record, Derek romped me, 4 – 1. The series is to be continued.

After touching down in the People’s Republic of Vietnam at around 7 p.m., a transfer brought us to the city’s Old Quarter and our hotel, the Hanoi Elegance 2, where we were cheerfully reunited with Burt and Andy. This warranted opening our Lao whiskey wine for a toast.

Burt had gotten rid of his Rangers playoff beard from Dubrovnik and Andy had shed some of his facial hair from Siem Reap. I’ve debated growing a beard, but after watching all those who have furiously scratch themselves all day, am now firmly against it.

We took a cab through this wild city, which at times felt like one big motorbike race. There are four million people in the capital of Vietnam and there might be as many vehicles. Forget about traffic laws or lights. Along the way, our driver sideswiped a BMW, whose owner was less than happy. We got to the restaurant, but it was closing for the evening, so with no clue of where else to try, we hopped into another cab and somehow ended up at a decent place.

After dinner, we raced around in tuk-tuks trying to find a bar but weren’t really feeling any of our destinations. When we asked the drivers to bring us back to the hotel, they had no idea where it was — even when we showed them its location on a map. Ninety minutes later, we’d finally found our way and arrived back at the Hanoi Elegance, whose lobby was now strangely filled with parked motorbikes. (Can we escape them?)

Hanoi is certainly one of the crazier destinations I’ve been to. A well-traveled friend of mine recently remarked, “It’s places like that city which make you happy to get home.”

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