The road to Vang Vieng and beyond
by Tran Mai Huong
|The evening market in Vang Vieng
|A bridge crossing the Nam Song River.
"We shall go to Vang Vieng tomorrow, shan't we?" Kham Xeng, general director of the Laos News Agency (KPL), asks me after dinner. "The road is not good, but when you reach it you will understand why so many tourists flock to the place."
We started our journey when Vientiane was just waking up. After the hustle and bustle of Ha Noi, I was struck by the capital's amazing tranquillity. There are few high-rise buildings, almost no cars, no hooting, and residents walk peacefully along wide boulevards. A cool breeze comes off the mighty Mekong River, and the air tastes fresh and fragrant. This, I wonder, is what life must have been like in Ha Noi in the distant past.
On the way to Vang Vieng we passed by expansive paddy fields and verdant forests unspoilt by urbanisation. In the distance, I glimpsed the roofs of stilt houses through gaps in the leafy canopy. We were barely out of the capital, yet the scenery was reminiscent of rural Viet Nam.
Vang Vieng lies on the main north-south highway, Route 13, that extends from the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang to Vientiane.
Vang Vieng was used as a US Airforce base during the Second Indochinese War. Ironically, Bu Pha, who is head of KPL's international news department and speaks good Vietnamese, says Vang Vieng was also used as a Vang Pao rebel base.
As we pass through the pristine forest, Bu tells me that she was a child during the hostilities.
"In 1968, I was 12 and the fighting was fierce. Our lives in Xiengkhuang were in constant danger," she says.
"My parents sent me to Viet Nam for safety. I and other young people from the region walked more than 200km to the Viet Nam-Laos border."
Bu eventually found herself in Thanh Hoa Province, where she attended boarding school.
"Vietnamese teachers and neighbours treated me like their daughter until I left for Russia to go to university.
"I was not an isolated case. Many people from Laos were treated like me. Viet Nam is my second home."
Kham, a thoughtful, quiet man, brought along fruit, drinks and ice for the long 160km journey.
The day before, during a book launch to introduce works written during the war by news agency staff from Laos and Viet Nam, Kham introduced me to every Lao person present, most of whom were elderly and retired. We discussed life during the war, and the memories came pouring out. Yet the narrators' eyes shone and they smiled at what must have been bitter memories.
Bu whispers to me and my colleague, photographer Vu Khanh, "Kham Xeng is not very well. He's receiving medical treatment. But he was keen to accompany you to Vang Vieng as you are friends."
I was told about the great love KPL's deputy general director Khem Thoong had for a Hanoian girl and efforts to find the father of KPL's Keothida Xixane. Keothida 's father was a Vietnamese soldier fighting for Laos's independence. Father and daughter had been separated from the time she was born until reunited in 1975.
Eventually we passed by Nam Ngum Lake, through more jungle and then turned to a small lane, before Bu pointed ahead excitedly and shouted: "There is Vang Vieng." Turning to a small girl sitting next to her called Khien Di, she explained that this was her hometown.
Khien could not speak Vietnamese, but did study in Uzbekistan and could speak Russian. She left to study in Uzbekistan when she was very small, but her mother and sister still live in Vang Vieng.
Turning once again to me, she says: "You'll stay for a few days so I will try to arrange the schedule in order for you to see most of the area."
When we arrived in the town, which is still in Vientiane Province, we stayed in a hotel on the banks of the Nam Song River. From the window, I could see small wooden houses nestled under tree canopies. In front of the hotel, the river ran very fast because we were in the wet season. On the far river bank, tree-covered mountains rose tall and proud.
After a quick lunch, we climbed aboard small wooden motorboats to explore the town from the river. The boats were so small and narrow that they could carry just two passengers, who had to sit perfectly still so as not to capsize the craft. And we headed upstream, with the small outboard motors noisily struggling against the strong current.
With my hands gripped on both sides of the boat, I surveyed the scenery, which quickly distracted me from the precariousness of my position. Ahead, a small suspension bridge hung over the river like ribbon floating in mid-air. A group of tourists and Lao women dressed in pink were crossing the bridge on their way to see ancient limestone caves.
Meanwhile, small hotels and wooden houses sandwiched between trees lined the river banks.
We passed by an eco-tourism park offering various water activities. I saw some Westerners lying on life buoys drifting downstream, while others were kayaking. Everyone was smiling.
Some foreign guys were sliding down water chutes into the river, shouting and cheering. There was also a spring diving board on the river bank.
"Tubing" is also a hit with foreign visitors (floating down the river on inflatable inner tubes), as is relaxing on large wooden rafts.
Away from the water, trekking through the jungle and rock climbing are also popular.
Some tourists like to camp out in the forest, where they sing, and drink and eat barbecued meat.
Many tourists refer to the region as a 'a little heaven', I am told by my guide.
In the late afternoon, we returned to the town. I was taken aback by all the noisy activity in what is in effect the middle of nowhere. Fast food stalls were doing a roaring trade; restaurants, sandwich bars and souvenir shops were heaving with customers in a colourful cacophony. It was like a street carnival.
Khien, through a translator, told us that the former name of the region was Mouang Song. It was established in 1353 after the body of King Phra Nha Phao of Phai Naam was seen floating down the river from Nam Song. It was renamed Vang Vieng in 1890 during French colonial rule.
In the evening, we followed Khien to her sister's house, which was on the edge of a highway. When we arrived, the occupants were preparing food for us. There were wine, sticky rice, grilled pork and local cakes made from rice and green beans.
The image of that dinner will remain in my mind forever: eating outdoors in a small yard in the moonlight with Vietnamese and Lao friends, drinking wine out of glass jars and reminiscing about life.
We learnt that the lives of the local people had improved markedly over the last few years, with many earning a good living from tourism.
Before we left, Khien's sister's mother-in-law took my hand and says: "Once you come to our home, you become a family member. Do come again whenever you are in the region."
I have no doubt she would have said the same thing to the voluntary Vietnamese soldiers who fought for Laos's independence many years ago. Even though so much time has passed, her love of the Vietnamese people remains as strong as ever.
Next morning we visited Ban Vieng Xay pagoda. When we arrived, worshippers were taking part in a ceremony known as Haw Khao Padap Din, to remember the dead. During Haw Khao Padap Din, people make offering to the monks who chant Buddhist scriptures and pray for the dead.
Traditionally, the dead are cremated and their ashes buried in one of the country's 5,000 pagodas.
The interior of the pagoda was very simple and the atmosphere solemn. Visitors young and old, were dressed in elegant costumes. They sat on mats, while listening to the pagoda's Zen master chant Buddhist scripts. Every member of the congregation had brought something to offer, ranging from steamed sticky rice to fruit, sweets and money.
Khien gave each of us a small basket of offerings. When I sat down next to other worshippers, I felt that we were one. It was a moving moment.
When the chanting and prayers were over, we queued to make our offerings, which were placed on a large table in the middle of the pagoda yard. As I left a bowl of sticky rice, I prayed for love and peace. — VNS