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Bill and Patty back from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia

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Nov 2nd, 2013, 04:14 PM
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Bill and Patty back from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia

Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia---with thanks to all the fodorite experts who helped me transform our journey from a brief trip to Vietnam to include all three countries at a good pace. We learned some things, made some good decisions, and lucked out a lot--almost as if we had some providential help! Some parts of the trip, though, were a bit more adventuresome than I had imagined.

Note: We used the anti-jet lag diet plan which has worked like a charm for us for over 25 years--arriving without a trace of jet lag. However, we didn't follow it very well on the way back and have been a bit tired this week.

We left LAX Thursday afternoon, flying Asiana through Seoul to Hanoi. Only a one hour layover, but it worked. Economy class--leg room was adequate and my husband is over 6'1". Two carryon suitcases and my camera bag and we were good to go.

Arrived Hanoi about 10 PM, picked up by a prearranged driver (I know, we could have found a taxi ourselves, but we both kind of like being picked up with no worries. That was one luxury we chose at each location and had no regrets about that.) Drove straight to the Hotel Elegance Diamond (thanks to your trip reports). We were greeted with watermelon juice in a goblet with a curvy straw. In our room, orchid petals were sprinkled on our white comforter. The bathrooms were great, pebbled floor, granite counter tops. Service was lovely. Breakfast on the 12th floor was delightful, with fabulous coffee, pho, dragon fruit, melons, and other fruits, croissants, cheese, etc.

Our schedule may seem hectic to some, but it worked for us. Day one in Hanoi started with a walk around the Old Quarter for two hours. The traffic was wild, but only about 10% as intense as traffic in Mumbai. Thao, a guide arranged ahead of time through Tonkin Travel (we used them for most of our arrangements), met us at noon and took us first to Tonkin's office to pay the remainder of the cost. Huong at Tonkin Travel was lovely. The arrangements she had made after several consultations by email worked extremely well for us. When two flights were changed later on, she quickly called us and FAXed us the revised tickets at the hotel.

We visited the Temple of LIterature, the Jade Temple--the usual--and had a one hour cyclo ride in separate cyclos around the Old Quarter. A bit of shopping at some very nice stores followed and then had dinner at a prearranged (by Tonkin) restaurant. The soup that night was to die for -- with a topping of small fried sticky rice balls, that melted in your mouth. Traditional music was played as we ate. A great calm intro to Vietnam, since the rest to follow was not always calm.

Since I wanted to go to the Bac Ha Market, we had to leave that night for the overnight train. I'm afraid I read too many horror stories about that train and was quite anxious about the whole event. My cousin had also travelled on it and told me that the bathrooms were disgusting, so I was having nightmares about how the trip would go. The worst actually had to do with how you get on the train! Our guide took our vouchers up to the counter and had to wait on tickets. Then we sat for quite awhile until a lady started checking tickets. Hanoi train station is busy and I don't think we could ever have found that train on our own. Crossed several tracks, walked a long distance, found our car and waited again. We booked a two-person cabin, which worked great for us and was definitely worth the price. Sapaly. Our room was tiny but clean and neat. The silky satin bedsheet-sleeping bag type thing we had brought never left its package. The sheets and pillowcase were freshly washed and there was water and snacks on the small table for us. We slept in our clothes, so we could get up during the night without worry. Well, I didn't really sleep, but I rested. The train was rickety and rolling like everyone says, but that added some charm. The bathroom turned out to be clean and was sprayed with water periodically, which I think some people had mistaken for something else. I did, however, sleep on the return trip. I talked to an Australian family of three who had shared a cabin with a German stranger and they said it worked out fine.

AT 5:15, we could hear people talking loudly so we hopped up and got ready for the day. There was an outlet (FYI) in the cabin so I was able to charge my iphone overnight. The cloud cover broke and we arrived at 7 AM and the bathroom was still pretty clean. Worries in vain. T______ was our prearranged guide (last one arranged by Tonkin for the trip) and walked us across the street to a friend's restaurant for pho for breakfast before our drive to Bac Ha.

Of course, we saw many hill tribes people, but the sun was already bright--not the best conditions for photography. Wandered for over two hours. Wish I had done more talking to people. We had lunch on the third floor of a restaurant nearby that seemed to serve every tourist here. Not great, but it was definitely time for a break.

After that, we drove around, to a Tay village, walked through it and took a ride there. Stopped to photograph a long cascade of terraces. On to the hotel in Sapa.

Sapa Boutique Hotel. Huong suggested it and we loved it. The owner was a lovely lady--actually Vietnamese although she dressed as Red Dzao. We had a room on the third floor (no elevator) right on the patio with tables and chairs. Since we wouldn't be seeing our guide again, he wrote us notes as to how to connect up with the return train (although he did later find us and instructed us which way to go). We weren't very hungry, so went down to the restaurant--after showering and changing--for Happy Hour drinks and snacks. Tried a taste of their apple wine (30% alcohol) and had delicious fresh spring rolls with a beer. Still hungry, we split a pizza. The following morning, the breakfast was excellent, a very good pho, fruits, including a crisp pear, watermelon, passion fruit, pineapple...with a large mug of Vietnamese coffee.
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Nov 2nd, 2013, 04:46 PM
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I'm already noticing that if I put in so many details, this will take forever to read!
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Nov 2nd, 2013, 05:09 PM
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Details are good!

Glad to hear that the train worked out for you.
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Nov 2nd, 2013, 05:10 PM
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I enjoy the details! Looking forward to more.
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Nov 2nd, 2013, 05:24 PM
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Enjoying your report. Bring on the details!
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Nov 2nd, 2013, 05:44 PM
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Sapa Sisters. I had read about the Sapa sisters-a group of young Hmong women-- in LP and people on TripAdvisor raved about them, so I had emailed them and set up treks for both days we were there. Giao was our guide both days and was a delight. 23 years old with a baby (not with her on the trek) and her English was some of the best we heard. That was definitely a very good decision.

Treks both days were about 12 km. Giao asked us if we wanted the easy, intermediate, or difficult trek. We thought we could handle the intermediate trek, so started off. (Did I say we are 65 and 66?)

Of course the usual Hmong ladies attached themselves to our group and walked most of the way with us, but they were quite nice, including the 11 and 15 year-old girls, and were a help in tricky situations along the path. The trek started out easy and then moved on to a rougher path. Gradually the path became more rocky, hilly, up and down, past terraced hills--beautiful--even though the rice had been harvested and only short stubs remained. Gorgeous vistas. And then I saw the ravine ahead with only a log across it. At first I thought, "Oh no!" but with the Hmong ladies helping from one side, a few steps on my own and my husband on the other side I made it. So glad I wore tie shoes with good grips. We passed pigs, an occasional docile mud-slicked water buffalo,.... We walked from 9 AM and finally stopped at a village for a lunch of pork, fried rice, tomatoes, cokes, a green vegetable--around 1:30. Before we ate, the Hmong ladies laid out their embroidered wares and we did buy a few for gifts.

Forgot to mention one incident. We saw the young Hmong girls with us slashing at an older bamboo stalk ahead and appearing quite excited. When we got closer, Giao showed us what they had found--caterpillars inside. They continued hacking away and Giao helped them until they had quite a stash inside an empty water bottle to carry home to fry for later on. I was so happy they didn't eat them raw right there!! But their enthusiasm was fun to see. Still I just couldn't photograph the critters.

After lunch we trekked on to the next village and Red Dzao women followed us there even though we insisted we would not buy. Bill bought only three simple bracelets and they seemed happy although our guide said they could only buy a piece of candy for their children with that amount of money. As we continued on, Giao grabbed a nearby stalk and cut a walking stick for me.

Saw an elementary and secondary school with kids dancing and exercising. One blond boy stood out. "Yes, It's very hard for a blond boy in our culture," Giao confirmed.

Giao talked at length (when I asked) about her childhood, how long mothers nurse their babies and where kids sleep (with their parents). She told stories about her 90 year-old grandfather whose wife was weak and he was trying to call her spirit back to her--much like I had read in the book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

Since Giao gave us the choice, at the end of the trek, we took a van back to the hotel instead of a motorcycle. We also decided to modify our next day's trek by starting out with a van ride to the first village--although it was still a long trek. My calves were aching after this walk, so we chose the easier trek for the next day.

A light dinner of a curry and a glass of the local wine at our hotel restaurant and we headed back to our room. Met an Australian family at the outdoor patio who had come to Vietnam to celebrate their daughter's 21st birthday. They had made last-minute arrangements to add Sapa to their itinerary and had had no trouble finding the train after a guide gave them directions, so maybe we would have been okay too! They also were able to get last-minutes flights from Hanoi to Hue, which surprised me.

Day 2 trekking. Started out with an excellent breakfast, two cups of the great coffee, and rain! The sun started peeking out pretty quickly. We decided on the easy route this time. Cloud cover made better light and there were no tourists on our path today--all day long. I attached my 3 pound 70-200 lens and we began a leisurely walk. Bill graciously carried the rest of my backpack since my back started hurting yesterday. The rice fields glistened and my camera clicked away.

Giao was in rare form, totally at ease and the stories flowed. When her grandparents were living in the area, they had talked about the tigers that lived in the land then and how a tiger might be accompanied by a small monster with a type of magic. She had heard a story about how a guide many years ago had been put under the spell by the magic of the monster.

Lunch was at a guesthouse set up for home stays. We met Barry, a guest who started an NGO with his sister and today he was giving out 15 thick, warm red flowered blankets to families. He had asked a prominent man in the village who to give the blankets to. "I don't believe in charity," he said, and had each chosen family bring him something--from 200 Dong to a Christmas ornament.

Later back on the trail-which had now changed from cement to rocky dirt and occasional mud, Giao began to talk about "how" Barry was helping. Although he saw his efforts as good, she felt the blankets should only go to the very poor. Others might be jealous, "Why didn't we get one?" leading to discord in the village. She pointed to a family on the hill who were very poor. The husband had something wrong; one son appeared to have Down's Syndrome: and another had a disability. She said, "They are a very sad family and could use help."

Back to the hotel to get our bags and meet our driver. The hotel owner handed us bags filled with waters, bananas, cookies made in the kitchen and lovely postcards of the area.

Train left the station at 9 PM and we both slept a few hours until there was a knock at the door at 5:15. We stumbled out and found a "Group" taxi (one of two recommended to us) and made our way for 100,000 Dong ($ 5.00) to the Elegance Diamond Hotel where we promptly had breakfast after showering and changing in their spa room, since our room was not ready at that early hour.
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Nov 2nd, 2013, 06:18 PM
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Fantastic report pattyroth. Great detail. Keep it coming..
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Nov 2nd, 2013, 06:27 PM
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Welcome back!
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Nov 2nd, 2013, 11:08 PM
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Great report. Our vn trip was one of our favorites and sapa was definitely a highlight. Agree that the train was not so bad.
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Nov 2nd, 2013, 11:29 PM
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Hanoi again:
After breakfast, we took off walking to try to find the Ly Club near the Metropole Hotel and then wandered around the French Quarter towards St. Joseph's Cathedral. Lots of shopping. Bought some lacquer trays, bowls, in brilliant colors from one of the stores featuring crafts made by disabled people. Stopped for green tea in a cafe and hubby was disappointed that it was made with a tea bag. Shared a "cake" with chocolate. Wandered through the Metropole which is my cousin's favorite hotel in the world. Nice gift shop.

Dinner: Ly Club. Walked through occasional light sprinkles of rain to the Ly Club where we had reservations at the right time to hear the traditional music. (About $ 82 for a set menu with wine by the glass.) For those interested, we had: "Peeled fresh ginkgo nuts soup with cubed free-range chicken, braised tender bamboo strips and ginger; Steamed artichoke salad with sauteed clam; baked rolls and potato cake; Crispy snapper fillet on earthenware platter with sauteed spring onion, Vietnamese herbs, crushed peanuts and red chili peppers; Grilled marinated beef fillet with honey sauce; Sauteed eggplant and minced beef in soybean-chili sauce, spring onion ad chili peppers; Fresh bok choy, halved and lightly sauteed with garlic; Steamed Hai Hau fragrant rice; and Sago and longan in coconut cream." Our taxi back to the hotel cost $ 1.00! We repacked for a 7 kilo carryon on our next flight on Vietnam Airlines. Huong called to say our flight to Danang had been delayed so she booked us on an earlier flight.

The typhoon. Of course we were concerned. The typhoon had hit Hoi An just a couple of days before we were due to fly in. But we went and were so impressed with how quickly people just got to work cleaning up. Large trees were uprooted, streets flooded, and tourists had been confined to their hotels for two days. We arrived the next day and could walk most places, only a street or two were still flooded. And then we got the news that a Lao plane went down into the Mekong River because of extreme weather--killing all aboard. It was the same plane type we would be flying in days. I hoped our adult kids would not see that news.

Hoi An. Knowing the different views on Hoi An and Halong Bay, I hoped we had made the right decision. Our hotel, Little Boutique Hoian, was modeled after old river houses and located right on the river close to a bridge. For dinner, we walked to MIss Ly's, as recommended by Bobby, my cousin, and had delicious fried wontons--unlike any we'd ever had, Beer Lao, and spicy cooked fish in a delicious sauce in banana leaves (recommended by the young Aussie couple next to us). Yum! We split an order of each.

Clothes. I had packed a favorite floaty crinkled silk skirt that was falling apart--it was so old--to have a copy made. But even Yaly couldn't do that. Apparently it was sewn on the bias with very wide silk that would wrinkle, but no one had any like that.

Shopping. We did enjoy the shopping and had three lanterns made. Two were small ones that sat on a block of wood to be used with a small candle. Colors are exquisite. Later days, we found a silver shop only 6 months old where everything was handmade and designed by them. Den Long Bac at 120 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. Spent the most money there of anywhere. First of all, I bought lovely dragonfly necklaces, designed by the owner, of silver and mother of pearl. Dragonflies mean freedom. Then we bought brass bookmarks that had been hand cut (we saw them being made) for Bill's secretaries and so many of our friends. Cut into charming lantern patterns of their unique design.

Photography. Got up at 5:30 to wander the streets in the morning light. The hotel supplied ponchos and umbrellas for the rain. We walked along the river front, crossed the bridge and meandered--taking photos of old houses and people by the covered market--fruit and vegie stands. We tried to walk in predictable ways to avoid being hit. Most cyclos are continually honking, so you know where they are. Bikes not so. Twice I turned left as I slowed and was almost hit by a bike. Met a man leaving the temple on his motorcycle, a place he goes everyday to meditate. "Buddhism helps us. Life has so many troubles. We meditate and feel peaceful--calm inside our heads. Buddha is a teacher and we seek to follow his teachings to be a good person. He doesn't do miracles--we do it for ourselves--but we can follow his ways." Then he invited us to contact him when we came back.

Breakfast at the hotel was nice. Had a local specialty of a type of eggy pancake filled with a little meat and vegetable, with lettuce, wrapped in a rice paper and rolled up, dipped then in a spicy red sauce. Also pomelos (now I know why you all love them), pineapples, rambouton, sticky rice,.....

This day we headed out after breakfast and didn't return until past 4:30. Shopped and photographed. Lunch at Miss Ly's. Later, heavy rain started so we ducked into a restaurant for green tea and sat in chairs under their balcony until it stopped. 5-ish we started out again, looking for Morning Glory and had a delicious meal. The appetizer was barbecued pork on split chopsticks--satay style--served on rice paper-with slices of green banana, cilantro and lettuce. Rolled up and dipped into peanut sauce and then a spicy sauce. We both had prawn dishes after that. Bill thought it was possibly the best food we had had. Walked around afterwards as this was the full moon lantern festival. Didn't seem to have more lanterns than last night but there were more people selling colorful paper cups with candles in them to light and float on the river.
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Nov 2nd, 2013, 11:31 PM
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And thanks for your responses, crellston, marija, thursdaysd, lcuy, Kathie, and dgunbug. Keeps me going. You'll probably think all we did was eat and shop!!!
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Nov 3rd, 2013, 12:27 AM
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Finally have a few spare moments to enjoy your report (we are in Kyoto right now). Keep it coming.
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Nov 3rd, 2013, 03:39 AM
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Loving this and saving for the "someday" trip to Vietnam!
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Nov 3rd, 2013, 03:44 AM
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So happy to see your report. Can't wait for the next installment!
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Nov 3rd, 2013, 06:17 AM
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Nice report Patty and I am looking forward to seeing your pictures!
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Nov 3rd, 2013, 10:32 AM
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Please keep the details, I love them. Planning same countries , so all very helpful. Looking forward to the pictures
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Nov 3rd, 2013, 12:59 PM
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Wow Craig, even from Kyoto!Thanks too progol, sum, Hanuman and absolutkz for reading along! BTW, I still use the packing method you showed me, Hanuman, for my photography gear!
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Nov 3rd, 2013, 01:04 PM
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Last day in Hoi An. Early morning walk. Breakfast. Decided to take a taxi out to the Golden Sands Resort, have green tea while it rained and then walk to the fishing village Bobby had told us about. A delightful adventure. 1 km to the village by the water. We walked/strolled through, photographed. Fishing boats were lined up at the other end of the village with villagers repairing nets.
Taxi back to Miss Ly's for another lunch. After lunch, Bill talked to Nathan, the owner, about Vietnam investments, while the girls (waitresses) wanted me to photograph them and send them the photos, which I happily did. Learned interesting statistics: 65% of Vietnamese are 35 years old or younger and Danang is being built now as a commerce center with direct flights to other countries. Plus a 50 square meter house opposite the restaurant is selling for around $ 350,000!

Walked blocks and blocks to find a mini-mart to buy coffee for our son-in-law and then back to our favorite silver shop to make final purchases. Dinner at Morning Glory again. The table out front was reserved at 7 PM, but it was 6 and we assured them we could be gone by then. While waiting, the entire block went black--no lights. No one missed a beat. Candles were brought to each table. The front guy gave us his cellphone to use as a flashlight so we could read the menu. Again, excellent food, but messy. Then back to our silver shop--we were becoming friends and I took photos of them and they took photos of us! Walked around the night market and took photos. Bill liked one man's brush painting of slogans, : "Love, Laugh, Life."

Sunday Surprise! October 20 was a shock. During breakfast, we heard the music turned up with their lively version of Happy Birthday. Four girls came to our table carrying a lovely decorated birthday cake with my name on it and a candle "66." They were so excited. Very sweet and a huge surprise since it wasn't my birthday!!! (They had the day right--wrong month,)

Flight day. Hanoi and then Hanoi to Luang Prabang. Saw the concrete bunkers or quonset huts left over from "the American War" as they call it, on our way to the airport.
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Nov 3rd, 2013, 01:12 PM
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Luang Prabang. Hotel Apsara. No problem getting visas, but I felt like I was filling out forms all the way there. We arrived to a noisy and fun festival. Two flower and candle crowns awaited us in our room to float down the river in celebration. The descending steps were quite uneven and it was dark. A young father and his son were about to light and launch a large lantern, so Bill helped them send it off. It got caught in a palm tree but they laughed.

Apsara breakfast was again lovely and big. Coffee first with fruit: mango, melon, pineapple, watermelon, papaya..., followed by toasted baguettes with jam, followed by an omelette for Bill and pho for me.

Walked around--the river walk to the confluence of the two rivers and back to the main shopping street. Stopped at a Mekong Restaurant to have lunch. Found several of the recommended shops: Ock pop tok, Caruso, Naga Creations.... I did buy eventually--a lovely silk and silver necklace from the designer himself--at Naga Creations. Loved that shop and it was fun talking to the artist in French. Caruso is lovely but most of the wood is quite pricey. Bill bought only a paperweight there. We stopped and made reservations at the 3 Nagas.

3 Nagas. We loved it--even more than Tamarind. Had a dark beer with an appetizer of dried buffalo and buffalo jam, followed by curry for Bill and stir-fried chicken with lemon grass, with sticky red rice for me. Returned to the Apsara and had a glass of wine as we sat on the chairs directly in front of our room, riverside. Lovely.
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Nov 3rd, 2013, 01:29 PM
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Tuesday. Up at 5:20 to see the monk procession. Scores of low stools with containers of rice lined the sidewalk. Darkness--and my first shots were blurry. Stood across the street and was surprised at how many photographers got right in the monks faces.

Breakfast--same same. Afterwards made reservations at the Tamarind Restaurant which was almost next door. Shopped around lazily before our boat trip. "Bun-mi" our boat driver met us at the hotel and walked us to his boat (arranged through the hotel). Walked down the stairs and across the muddy waters onto the boat. He gave us seat cushions and informed me, "Madame, there is a toilet there." We traveled towards and past the Ou Pak cave with the Buddhas, but did not stop there, as we had heard the ride was the goal. He took us past it to a very steep cliff that was dramatic. We did stop at a weaving and paper village (I wanted to.) and bought some inexpensive silk shawls for friends and a paper journal for my granddaughter. Stopped at a whiskey village and I made sure to take photos of the primitive still and fermenting rice for my son who recently started a spirits company -- in case they wanted to add rice wine! We bought only a small bottle of wine (which tastes more like a port or Vermouth), not the high octane whiskey. At one of the stops, the boatman pointed out a snake right by the steps, which he quickly scared away. The mud looked slippery but wasn't.

Tamarind Restaurant: make reservations! Lots of people were turned away. However, the nearby 3 Nagas was equally good, we thought. We tried the tasting menu--dipping balls of sticky rice into various sauces, fried river weed with sesame seeds and of course the granitas! We loved them and returned another afternoon just to have them with a snack. For my dinner, I had stuffed lemongrass--with minced chicken and a peanut dipping sauce and Bill had skewers of barbecued pork with tamarind sauce and sticky rice. I would never have guessed that you could stuff lemongrass, but I think I want to try it. Later on we bought their small cookbook that had recipes for both.

The next day we took a tuk tuk across the old bridge to a handicraft village which had a cooperative type place with several women at tables, one asleep under some shawls. I bought several silk shawls (great gifts for friends and for me!), 2 fabrics for Lao-style skirts, a table runner, and then across the street to look at more silver. Later on as we walked in new areas, I found a very cool warm poncho/shawl type thing. (This is beginning to sound like we bought a lot, but we really didn't. We did break out a duffel bag we had packed though, as our carryons just wouldn't handle all of this. Had lunch this day at the Tamarind of granitas and the snack plate. Some items were surprisingly good.
Around 4:30--better light time, we headed out for LP's treasured wat: Wat Xieng Thong, built in 1560. Ended up getting some surprising photos of novice monks heading into the temple. Dinner was at 3 Nagas: spring rolls served in a "bowl" made of a thin sweet potato pancake with a sour peanut sauce. I had grilled marinated chicken with green papaya salad and black sticky rice. Bill had the wok stir-fried chicken with shallot, kafir leaves and spicy buffalo jam. Talked to the Croatian manager who had previously worked in Dubai.

Thursday, 10/24. 5:30 for the monks. After breakfast, it rained pretty hard--the first time that rain had interfered with our plans at all. Grateful! Met Ian, the owner of the Apsara and talked to him awhile before leaving for the airport. Really liked the Apsara! Almost a 2 hour flight to Siem Reap.. We had our visas, so we sailed through.
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