Monday, February 17, 6:40 a.m., Vientiane
Yesterday in Vientiane was largely a day of temples. They all seem active, with a community of monks living within. All the buildings are brightly colored, with lots of yellow, gold, red, and occasionally some purple and green. The larger buildings have multiple gables, with snake-like extensions at the corners, somewhere between a decoration and a gargoyle. Even the least interesting of them is beautiful, even though a little monotony could settle in as one looks at many of them (not with me, of course, but I could imagine it).
Our excursion began at Phra That Luang, the Great Temple Stupa, a huge golden complex in front of which we got a nice group photo taken. Built in the sixteenth century, Phra That Luang is one of the symbols of the country, showing up on t-shirts and other paraphernalia. By the way, I continue to try to make a habit of using the country name heard here, Lao, rather than the westernized Laos which one almost never hears.
Next was the Patuxay Victory Gate Monument, more or less the Arc de Triomphe of Lao, and known as the Gray Monster among many here. Built with concrete that had been given to Lao by the United States for an air field, the Monument is already dirty with age but nevertheless imposing.
Climbing the seven flights of stairs to the top offers an impressive panoramic view of the city.
Wat Sisaket was next. Over 6,800 statues of the Buddha can be seen there, from various places and in various states of repair. They lined the interior walls of one building.
While there we had a chance to talk briefly with a young novice monk. He was a general science major in school and hopes to return to school after leaving the monastery. Spending periods of time as a monk is extremely commonplace here – even R and T, our guides, have done so. It might be a few weeks spent in penance for bad deeds, or a couple of months, or a year or two. Relatively few make it their lifelong dedication.
After lunch, I went back to the hotel and did some laundry in the sink. We’ll soon find out how successful that was! For my free afternoon I started at the Lao National Museum, which had some very interesting information on the country’s early history, including the Plain of Jars. The timeline of Lao’s history, the different empires and the different countries that ruled over it, aren’t exactly clear in my head, although the Museum tried to help with dates and the chronological organization of its rooms. Clearly I need, and want, to read a history of the country. More recent Communist times were handled in a “patriotic,” or one might rather say jingoistic, way. But it was still all interesting, and I wish I’d set aside more than an hour for it.
After that I walked by the various Wats in our general neighborhood – Wat Hai Sok, Wat Mixay, Wat Ong Tou, Wat Chan, and Wat In Pong. While most of them had their gates unlocked, I didn’t feel quite comfortable just walking in, especially when the monks were about. So I contented myself with just a few pictures.
A quick trip to Swensen’s – for ice cream in Vientiane! – wrapped up my day.
Now I’m back in the hotel room after breakfast, about ready to pack up for the flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. When I look back on this trip, I will have very positive memories of my time in Lao, particularly Luang Prabang and environs, but also Vientiane. I truly plan to return one day. Ho Chi Minh City is likely to be quite different – perhaps I’m ready for it?!
8:25 p.m., Ho Chi Minh City
Travels for the day are done, and I’m in my room in Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City. Nothing much to report in terms of the actual travel – Vientiane to Phnom Penh for 90 minutes, a brief layover, then back on the same plane for a half-hour trip to Ho Chi Minh City. I had a cute young Chinese girl of perhaps sixteen sit next to me for the second leg of the trip – very friendly, and she spoke reasonable English (as opposed to my nonexistent Chinese). At the airport, we saw a series of signs advertising coffee using the likenesses of famous artists – Beethoven, Hemingway, Bach, and others. I’d probably be a little put out save for the delight of having these faces, of all faces, be among my first visual impressions of Vietnam!
Then we met our new guide, D, and drove around Saigon for awhile. Its pace is pretty darn frantic, with motorcycles by the hundreds weaving in and out of traffic. There are traffic lights, but attention to either the lights or the pedestrians is inconsistent. We saw a number of downtown sights, like Notre Dame Cathedral, the Opera House, the Saigon River, and the huge Post Office building designed by Eiffel himself.
The Cathedral, D said, was maid of materials about 95% of which were shipped from France. At that time, the 1870s, Vietnam’s infrastructure and technology were not at high levels.
Later we took a short walk through the bustling, odoriferous Ben Thanh Market; one can get almost anything one could want there, from food to clothing to technology. You can choose to barter from a family vendor, or buy at a fixed price from the government, which also has many little shops there. Oddly enough, and to my surprise, I’m finding the pace of life here kind of exhilarating. I probably wouldn’t want to live here, but at the very least I would like to become skillful at negotiating the traffic – even crossing the street requires some skill and chutzpah.