where is the change?

When Marc and I took our first trip together in November 2005, I had never traveled anywhere exotic. I'd been to Merida and Cozumel in Mexico; Toronto and Quebec City in Canada; and Paris, London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow in Europe. Nowhere that pressed on me in any direction, nowhere that was outside my comfort zone. What a way to initiate me into leaving my comfort zone: Vietnam, all on our own. No guides, no group, just Marc and me in Hanoi, Hoi An, Nha Trang, and HCMC. I vividly remember hitting some kind of wall on day 2, partly due to jetlag but mostly due to being so foreign. There wasn't a word written anywhere I could read. There wasn't a word spoken anywhere that I could understand. The money made no sense -- 148,000 dong to a dollar? I'd never had such a shock of Otherness and when I hit the wall with that, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to stay. A nap and a couple of hours later and I was OK. I still couldn't read or understand anything, but it was OK.

That whole first trip I felt my Otherness, but it was interesting. A few years later when we were planning our second trip to Vietnam, I wondered: would I hit that wall again? Would I feel impossibly Other? I imagined that I might not, for the simple reason that I was so very different the second time. We had traveled to India, Peru, Croatia, Honduras, Laos, and Cambodia between the two Vietnam trips, so I thought it likely that I would not -- maybe could not -- feel so Other again. And I didn't. I looked around Hanoi, familiar to me now, and took pleasure in that familiarity. We relished going back to familiar places, seeing new ones. We took a 3-day boat ride through the Mekong Delta, no Otherness to be felt in me. But the familiar was sweet, the place didn't feel disappointing at all because of the familiarity. We leave for Hanoi later this afternoon and my pulse is quick, anticipating that jolting smell of the air when we step out of the airport. Ah, Hanoi, I love you so. After Nong Khiaw, Luang Prabang felt so fast, like such a big busy city. Hanoi will probably feel shocking, like New York City.

In the years since our first visit to Laos, I have held Luang Prabang in such a close spot in my heart. And a vivid, red part of that experience involved eating in the night alley, drinking fruit shakes (or Oreo shakes or coffee shakes). Gosh, how often I've thought about that, and how much I looked forward to going back. I specifically wanted to eat Thanksgiving dinner there, for a purely sentimental reason of . . . well, thanksgiving. Marc said that perhaps we should eat there both nights, since I was looking forward to it so much, but I felt like one more dinner there would be enough.

We left our hotel on the early side and walked down Sisavangvong Road as the Hmong Night Market was being set up. It must be some kind of holiday in Laos because the big square has a stage set up with VERY loud music playing, and occasionally we see kids dancing -- and last night at least two songs were about Luang Prabang, and one was the same song we heard in Nong Khiaw when the students were dancing. So it was very loud, much more than usual. We made our way to the alley and negotiated getting our dinners. Lining the alley are a series of stalls, most selling a buffet -- a couple of dollars buys you a plate and you can heap it as full of food as you want. A drink costs a few kip extra, and water and BeerLao are roughly the same price. Marc bought spring rolls at one stand and grilled chicken at another, and then joined me at the buffet stall I'd picked out, the same one we'd eaten from years before. I had to pick through the piles of plates to find two that were not greasy, but I just decided not to think about that.

The price went up, and the plates seemed smaller. The food was just cold. Marc's spring rolls were cold and one was somewhat interesting. The grilled chicken was pretty good, but the plate of food from the buffet was disappointing to say the least. The air was thick with charcoal smoke from the grills lining the alley, the tables were dirty, there were no rolls of toilet paper (the usual supply of napkins), and the whole thing just felt sad to me. We quickly finished and headed out to soothe ourselves with shakes, which we had loved the last time. Mine was an icy disappointment. We bought small cakes, as we'd bought last time, and they were spongy and dry and not very good.

Excited before we started....

my plate in front, Marc's behind

Marc's plate and his chicken, held between split lemongrass
Such a good sport about it
behind the scenes of a shake vendor
a Hmong vendor not under the tents, selling silk scarves

she was making those delicious coconut rice puffs, like we ate in Nong Khiaw

so very glad to be here, even if the dinner was disappointing

one small segment of the blocks of Hmong vendors -- this in front of the LP Natl Museum

Monks everywhere, always monks. We saw one with a giant camera with a long lens and a tripod.


Where was the failure (to call it such)? Was it in my too-high anticipation? Has it really changed? Or was my pleasure last time due entirely to the surprise and novelty of happening into that impossibly exotic (to me) place, to successfully navigating an encounter that felt confusing? Maybe my memory embellished the experience over the years, or maybe my newness gave the earlier experience the full joy I remember.

This is our last day in Luang Prabang; this afternoon we leave for Hanoi, for a very short visit just because we can't not go since we're this close. I can't wait to smell that air; I know it will not disappoint. One of the wondrous things about traveling is the surprise, the way something will be better than you ever could've imagined, the way your anticipation can fail to match the experience, the way the familiar can be precious or boring, and for me anyway, there is no way to know which it will be. Laos stays in our heart, but I think for both of us the locus has shifted farther north, to that beautiful small village of Nong Khiaw. Farewell, sweet Laos of orange-robed monks; of brown rivers; of languid sabaidees; of Hmong women crammed underneath red and blue tents selling cheap t-shirts or handmade textiles; of soup for every meal if they had their way; of quiet backstreets and bougainvillea draped over doorways; of giggling young Lao men practicing their English; of papas walking kids to school and mamas picking them up; of slow boats and lovely smiles.

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