Tag Archives: Indochina

How to Ride a Motorcycle Across SE Asia

Originally Posted on OffTrackPlanet.com

When it comes to Southeast Asia, everyone has the same guidebook and the same itinerary. Chances are you’ve island hopped through Thailand, trekked through Laos, hit a tranny bar here and there and you still haven’t left the crowd behind.

You’re stuck on the Banana Pancake Trail. It’s time to get off…

You need to do something unique; something everyone else is too scared to do. How about buying a Soviet-made motorbike for $300 and riding it from Saigon to Hanoi? Sound crazy? It is – but you can do it and OTP is well-prepared to guide you through one of the wildest adventures to be had in Southeast Asia.

Step 1:

Learn How to Ride

Vietnam is NOT the place to learn how to ride a motorbike. It’s dangerous and you must know at least the basics of riding. If you are still stateside, go to the DMV and take a basic safety course for about $250. Warm up to riding in Asia by renting smaller motorbikes in Thailand.

Step 2:

Make Some Rough Plans (Pick Your Starting Point)

It makes more sense to start in Hanoi if you are coming from China or northern Laos; Ho Chi Minh City if you are coming from Cambodia. Although Hanoi is an easier place to find a bike, either city will work. Buy the bike in one city, ride it to the other and sell it. Simple.

The north-south journey takes a month. If you are short on time, stick to the north and make the beautiful Hanoi-Dien Bien Phu-Sapa loop. Alternatively, you can seek out the EasyRiders, a local Vietnamese crew, that offers short and long-term tours on the back of their choppers.

P6050133 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Step 3:

Pick Your Highway

You don’t want to make too many plans in advance. Relax and give yourself the freedom to make up your exact route as you go along. You can choose to follow the coast for the beaches, swing into the misty mountains or carve along jungle valleys, beside waterfalls and through thatched hill-tribe villages. While most of the rides offer a great mix of scenery, there’s a fork in the road between Hoi An and Nha Trang.

Take the rural route through Dalat and up into the Central Highlands instead of coastal Highway 1. While Highway 1 connects all the coastal cities in one endless chain of life-threatening traffic, rural roads are usually secluded, peaceful, and incredibly scenic. The great north-south rural highway is called the Ho Chi Minh Highway – follow it across almost the entire country. Although there are far less services available along the rural route, the Vietnamese are incredibly warm people and will usually help you however they can. Besides, learning how to get out of such jams puts hair on your chest, don’t it?

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaWhen planning your route, remember that rain in the mountains, means sun on the beach and vice versa. Also, even when you need to travel along the coast, you can easily hop off Highway 1 and putz along smaller side roads. A great way to learn about the sights along the way is by asking the Easy Rider crew for tips.

P5300024 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaStep 4:

Find a Bike…and Make it a Minsk

Once you arrive, the first step is to find a bike that won’t break the bank. This will require a few days, a bit of tenacity and some bargaining skills.

OTP likes the Soviet-made Minsk. It’s reliable, simple, durable, can handle all the dirt roads you will inevitably encounter and will carry all your crap through rain and shine. They’re also easy to find in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Since you’re too broke for a new Minsk (at $700), a used one can be nabbed for $200-$400, depending on how well you bargain.

Search for For Sale flyers in hostels, restaurants, internet cafes and on the street. If you are in Hanoi, swing past the Minsk Club to look for leads. Some people have been lucky and found bikes on the Internet before they even arrived.

Once you find a bike or two, its time to…

Step 5:

…Bargain Your Ass Off!

You’ll likely buy your Minsk from another backpacker – one who has a month’s less money and a month’s more experience bargaining like the Vietnamese. You’ll need to sit at the bargaining table with some tricks up your sleeve.

Find out the strengths and weaknesses of both you and the seller. His strength lies in the limited supply of bikes – so the more sellers you can play off each other, the better. His weakness is time and an immediate need for funds to continue traveling. To knock the price down you must find the weaknesses in the bike: point out what’s broken, how old it is – anything you can find.

Dance with a few sellers for a bit, then seal the deal over a few pitchers of bia hoi. Play your cards right and he’ll buy you all the spare parts you’ll need to sweeten the deal. Don’t fork over the cash until everything is to your satisfaction.

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

You get what you pay for. You may not need a brand-new bike, but you don’t necessarily want the cheapest bike you can find. Bargain for a good deal, but make sure the bike you buy will actually make it all the way to Hanoi.

P6060184 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Step 6:

Learn The Minsk

Now that you’ve got your Minsk, lift up her skirt up and see how she works. Tool around the Minsk Club Vietnam website then fine-tune your knowledge by reading our guide below.

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Each Minsk has her own personality, complete with unique quirks. Have the seller explain how to start her when she won’t, fix her when she’s broke, and maintain her along the way. As with everything in nature, the older the bike, the more quirks she’ll likely to have.

Step 7:

Get Some Supplies

You’ll need to prepare yourself for this journey. Every rider should carry the tools and supplies he needs to make roadside repairs. Your bike should come with tools. Some extras you will need: spark plugs, chains, spare lights and brake cables.

As for the belongings you already have in your backpack – shed the junk, keep the basics. You’ll have to carry everything on the back of the bike, so keep it lightweight. Check our Packing 101 Guide for assistance.

Step 8:

Tune Her Up

Wheel her to a mechanic for a full rub-down. Make sure the less obvious components are working as well: namely, the horn, brakes and lights. Spy on how the mechanic systematically checks each part of the Minsk and use what you learn as a guide to fixing her up on your own later.

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Once she is fully tuned, you will have to keep her in good condition. Learn about daily maintenance and you will save yourself a lot of breakdowns.

P6090091 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Step 9:

Rules of the Road

You’re almost ready to take off. The streets of Hanoi might seem like a massive clusterfuck, but don’t stress – there’s a method to the madness. Here’ s the breakdown:

Might is right. Big-ass trucks and tourist buses dominate the center of the road, normal trucks and cars are in the middle and motorcyclists are on the shoulder. Passing is the norm in Vietnam and even the semi-trailers will swing into the opposite lane to pass someone. Stay alert. Typically you drive your bike until you approach another driver from the rear, then honk twice as a friendly signal and pass them on the left side. Repeat all day.

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Getting out of the cities can be the hardest bit. Warm up by hiring a motorcycle taxi and riding around the city to get a feel for the flow of traffic. Repeat until you feel comfortable enough to take off. There is no shame in paying a motorcycle taxi driver $5 to guide you to the outskirts of the city on your first day.

Step 10:

Take Off and Let Go

You now have freedom from itineraries, fixed bus schedules and group tours; you can go anywhere and stop as long as you like.. Just you, the Minsk and the road.

Step 11:

Harness your Chi and Focus Your Zen

There’s something spiritual about embarking on an adventure like this. Here’s a few tips on how to get your Zen on.

  • Slow down. As you plan out each leg of the journey, reign in your ambitions. Remember that you are no longer traveling by bus – driving a motorbike is physically exhausting. You feel every last mile and you are always at the mercy of the weather. The roads are windy, slow and not always paved.
  • Bring yourself into the moment. The constant fear that death lurks around each corner strips away all your distant concerns and brings you to the here and now. You may never do something like this again, so make sure your mind is fully appreciating it and not off in the clouds.
  • Accept setbacks and delays with a smile. When breakdowns happen on the road – and they will – learn to embrace them as a chance to slow down and pause in a part of Vietnam you normally would have sped past. Take five minutes to admire the view of the jungle before getting down to work. Remember, delays don’t exist. You have nowhere to be but here, in the moment. Smile.
  • Open yourself to the endless possibilities of the road. Take as many detours as you like. Check out the small villages, take the road that isn’t on your map and accept the offers to have tea with local families. Vietnamese visas typically last one month, but you are free to extend yours and stay another month or two. And, rumor has it, if you carry enough US dollars, you might be able to use some baksheesh to illegally sneak your bike into Cambodia or Laos.
  • Stick it to Mass Tourism. By taking this bike ride on your own, you have circumvented the middleman between you and your host country. As you journey farther into the misty mountains and away from the tourist trail, you will transcend mass tourism and encounter a more fundamental human relationship with your host country. Differences in nationality, beliefs, age, and income will disappear. While other backpackers are paying $20 a night for “authentic homestays,” your entire journey will transform into one enormous authentic experience.

As you pull away from Saigon, you’ll taste true freedom. As you chase the sunset along Vietnam’s golden coastline, you’ll arrive in the present moment. As you slip into top gear and rip alongside endless fields of rice paddies, you’ll discover what it feels like to be young and alive. That is, of course, how we should feel all the time. But sometimes it takes a bit of old-fashioned adventure to remind us.

Swingin’ Through Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Saigon – Economic powerhouse – The Vietnamese work ethic – Regional differences – The American War – “Motorcycle for Sale”…

I entered Saigon by bus, snuck past the motorcycle taxis and tuk tuk drivers, and caught a local bus to the center of town.  I passed through the sprawling city into its center and jumped off the bus in the heart of old Colonial Saigon.

I was surrounded by the monuments of the French Colonial Era – magnificent administrative buildings, luxury hotels and cultural centers.  From the Post Office to the reproduction of Notre Dame Cathedral, the old buildings were an elegant adornment on the vibrant city.  I explored these buildings by day and at night I had drinks with friends at the base of the Saigon Opera house, stunningly illuminated with blue and white lights against the dark sky above.

Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, was the jewel of French Vietnam.  The French built a beautiful city, installed electricity, sewers, and infrastructure, and developed Saigon culturally, economically and administratively along Western lines.  The French influence, followed by that of America, created a strong culture of consumerism that Ho Chi Minh’s socialism could not eradicate.

Today, the capitol might be in Hanoi, but the capital is in Saigon.  The economic policies modeled after Gorbechev’s Perestroikia, called doi moi in Vietnamese, are in full swing twenty years after their adoption in 1986.  The wide French boulevards may be decorated with the red and gold sickle and hammer, but they are lined with capitalist enterprises.  Five minutes of bargaining in Saigon’s markets is enough time to convince anyone that this place is anything but communistic.  Like China, Vietnam is a hybrid economy – communist in name but capitalist in reality.

Between 1995 and 2005 Vietnam’s GDP doubled and Vietnam positioned itself to join the top ranks of Asian economies.  The government is privatizing state enterprise and everywhere you can see joint stock companies, that is, businesses created from foreign investment.  Much of the foreign investment comes from what the Vietnamese call V.Q.’s, or ethnic-Vietnamese born abroad in the US or other nations.  They bring with them capital and business acumen and they are propelling Vietnam’s development, but the global economy has drastically affected Vietnam – foreign investment is down 72% from last year.

In 1994 Vietnam joined ASEAN and normalized relations with America, and America responded by lifting the trade embargo in place since the end of the Vietnam War and restoring full diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1997.  In 2000, Vietnam created its first stock market and President Clinton became the first American President to visit the country since its war with America.

Nine years after President Clinton’s historic visit, I made my own less publicly celebrated appearance in Saigon.  I was surprised how welcoming Vietnamese are towards Americans; I expected resentment but instead every other person just smiled at me and talked about how they have family in California.  Most Vietnamese want to put the past behind them and focus on the future.

The Vietnamese impress me.   They are very industrious and work all day, six or seven days a week, carry themselves with the pride of a self-made country, and give excellent value and service.  It is impossible to find the dingy backpacker dives of Cambodia or Bangkok here: every hotel has air condition, television, comfortable beds, and a private bathroom with hot water.  All of us backpackers in search of the most basic accommodation are forced into relative luxury!

Much of these differences between Vietnam and her neighbors can be attributed to the religious divide between Theryavada and Mahayana Buddhism.  Many Laotians are content to sit in a hammock all day, certain that they have thousands of lives ahead of them, so why rush to reach nirvana in this life?

Not in Vietnam.  Since the 1940s, Vietnam has fought in five wars (against Japan, France, America, Cambodia, and China) and they understand how much can happen in one life time.  Unlike Laos, they strive for perfection in this life.  There is an old saying that sums it up well, The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laotians just listen.

Saigon was an interesting city.  I rendezvoused with expats I had met through friends and from the Couch Surfing website (for more information, click here or view my CouchSurfing profile).  I would like to thank Viet Nuygen for an illuminating conversation and Nichali and Kelly for taking me out on the town!

I went to the American War Remnants Museum and the underground tunnels at Cu Chi and tried to see the war from a Vietnamese perspective.  I met former soldiers from both sides of the conflict, I saw pictures of bloody battles, and I read personal accounts of the war.  In particular, the museum was a horrible showcase of the atrocities of war.

Thus far I have studied each country I have visited and explored histories of wars and dynasties of which I was ignorant.  But Vietnam is different.  I studied the Vietnam War in university, and I felt that, like most Americans, I had a preconceived idea of Vietnam before my arrival. Would it be like the ‘Nam from Platoon or Apocalypse Now? 

I knew there was more to Vietnam than that bloody war between our countries.  The Vietnamese are willing to put the war behind them, and so am I.  The Vietnamese do not hate Americans, and they will probably become one of our country’s close partners in Asia.  So though I will comment on the “American War” as appropriate, I hope to show you another side of this country, a Vietnam with no battles, no bombs, and no bad memories.  It is time to move on, time to see what else Vietnam has to offer.

I started with food.  I sampled everything from snake curry, to pho noodle soup, and snake wine.  At night, I sat on plastic stools in the street and drank bia hoi (literally, raw beer), which is home-brewed beer that costs about 60 cents a liter!  For about $2 I bought almost everyone I met a round of beer.  If only it was the same back home!

After four nights it was time to move on.  Shrewd Vietnamese businessmen sell “open bus tickets,” which take you all the way from Saigon to Hanoi for about $30 and allow you to get on and off in pre-selected cities along the way as you please.  The catch?  The bus drops you off at 5 AM right in front of their hotel, so you are too tired to search for anywhere else.

It was a good price, but I was weary of the commission culture and the inflexible pre-determined route, and I knew I would never get off the tourist trail.  Still, I was tired of bargaining with bus drivers and it seemed like an easy way to go through Vietnam.  I decided to buy a ticket.

But as I walked to the ATM to withdraw cash for my bus ticket, I came across an interesting flyer advertising the following:


A damn good question.  I wrote down the seller’s phone number and arranged a meeting that same night.

Good Morning, Vietnam! (Cambodia/Vietnam Border)

Kampot – Vietnamese Drivers – Distinct Culture – S. Vietnamese History – Fortunate Son
My Lonely Planet guidebook described Kampot as being a pleasant riverside town with “fine French architecture.” I now know that “fine French architecture” is a euphemistic phrase that really means, “There is absolutely nothing to do here.” Therefore, I did nothing for a few days.
Like so many Cambodian towns, Kampot has seen better days. And like much of former Indochina, her crumbling French villas are steadily being converted into posh coffee shops, complete with L.A.-priced WiFi and Parisian-priced café-au-laits. One must give credit to the ambitions of these entrepreneurs, who expect, at these prices, annual revenues exceeding Cambodia’s GDP!
After a few days in Kampot, I was ready to leave Cambodia. Other travelers had told me, ‘two weeks is enough time for Cambodia.’ I agreed now agreed with them, but for different reasons. My visit from Athena had renewed my sense of purpose and Hera’s message pushed me forwards towards my new life in Spain. I was no longer an aimless wanderer – I had a job waiting for me halfway across the world.
I made my way out of Kampot to the border and caught a motorcycle taxi into Vietnam, then hopped on the first local bus heading towards Saigon. The bus sped along the banks of the Mekong, honking the horn incessantly and playing Vietnamese pop music at full volume. Our bus was at the front of a six-bus convoy that drove down the middle of the road, plowing through a sea of motorcycles with hundreds of bikes going each direction.
About twice a minute our convoy would encounter another line of buses also driving down the middle of the road, but going in the other direction. I gripped my seat with white-knuckles and watched my life pass before my eyes each time. Then, moments before collision, the bus drivers would flash their hi-beams and honk their horns in some South Vietnamese Morse Code unknown to me, and at the last possible second they would swerve to the side of the road – literally, within inches of the Mekong river – narrowly dodging water buffalo, children, and bikers, and then cut back to the center of the road, as if nothing happened.
But beyond the crazy bus transportation, there were other distinct aspects of Vietnam. I had entered a new part of Asia, for Vietnamese is culturally closer to China then of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. While the other SE Asian countries were influenced by Hinduism and subsequently Theravada Buddhism, Vietnam was dominated by China for 1,000 years, so the Vietnamese adopted Confucian beliefs and follow the Confucian and Taoist-influenced Mayahana Buddhism.
The Chinese imparted many of their values on the Vietnamese, particularly a respect for hierarchy, an emphasis on an individual’s social obligations, intense family loyalty, and a reverence for education and scholarship.
Despite the strong Chinese influences, Vietnam has retained its identity. Though Laos Thailand and Cambodian cultures blended together in many ways, the same was not true in Vietnam – immediately upon crossing the border I knew I was in Vietnam.
The first part of Vietnam I entered was the Mekong Delta region, one of two major civilizations built around river deltas in Vietnam, the other being the Red River Delta in the north. The Mekong Delta was taken from the Khmer kings of Angkor Wat, something the Cambodians will never forget.
The original Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta arrived as settlers from the overcrowded north in search of land. These settlers were exposed to other cultures and religions and became increasingly independent from their more conservative northern brothers. In the 17th century these differences came to a head and the country was split between the Trinh dynasty in the north and the Nyugen dynasty in the south.
This division became more pronounced during the French colonial period, as the French broke the country into three administrative regions, put most of their energy into developing the economy of the south (Cochin China), while they neglected the north (Tonkin and Annam). Through irrigation, water control, and land reclamation, the French transformed the Mekong Delta from a lightly populated swamp into one of the world’s leading rice exporters. The French claim to have boosted rice production by 420%, but many of the farmers still remained sharecroppers and the economy become increasingly dependent on rice exports.
Meanwhile, the northerners were suffering from over population and heavy indebtedness. By the time the French colonial period came to an end, the divisions between the struggling north and prosperous south had become deeper and the stage was set for the conflict that would eventually divide the country during the American-Vietnamese War.
But enough facts for now, the history lesson is finished for the day. If you want to watch an interesting movie illustrating the end of the French colonial period in southern Vietnam, I recommend IndochineSo let’s just say I was in Vietnam, a place culturally distinct from the rest of her neighbors, deep in the Mekong Delta, a place culturally distinct from the rest of Vietnam. Distinct was the theme for a few days.
After a few hours of riding along the Mekong on that crazy bus, I alighted in a small city called Can Tho and searched for a place to sleep for the night. I had endured enough of Vietnamese public buses for one day. It was time to sleep.
As I walked through the streets of Can Tho, I smiled at the irony of my situation. In 1969, Vietnam was the last place a 23-year old American wanted to go – as the Credence Clearwater Revival song said, only the college-educated Fortunate Sons were able to avoid the draft. But in 2009, this fortunate college-educated kid was on his way into ‘Nam with a huge grin on his face. Oh, the times they are a-changing, are they not?

American Bombs (Luang Nam Tha, Laos)

At the crossroads – Trekking – Development Challenges – Luang Nam Tha – Laos’ Future, Past and Present – American Bombs

I crossed the Mekong at dawn.  Instantly I felt the subtle differences between Thailand and Laos.  The pace of life was slow in Laos: the border guards had not yet stumbled into work when our ferry arrived.  All the official signs and hotel advertisements were in French, linguistic holdovers from the colonial era when Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam formed the French colony of Indochina.

The challenge to get off the tourist trail continued.  We landed in Huang Xai and most of us were immediately herded from the border crossing to the docks and loaded onto the “slow boat” down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, a two-day journey on a 70-person barge crammed with 120 people.  No thanks.

Instead I opted to go north, from the border with Thailand to the northern border with China.  I spent  five days in the eastern corner of the Golden Triangle between Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing, attempting in vain to organize a trek into the nearby national park.  I hesitated a moment too long and missed my opportunity to go trekking, but it’s worth mentioning unique nature of the treks in Luang Nam Tha.

Unlike the exploitative manner in which most guides bring tourists to small hill-tribe villages, the companies in Laos have developed profit-sharing partnerships with the hill-tribes.  Whereas a trek in Thailand visit a virtual human-zoo where the locals “dress-up” in their traditional attire and sell tourists souvenirs and opium, the hill-tribes in Laos are genuinely happy to welcome tourists into their homes.  Because the trekking companies share around 1/3 of their profits with the tribe, the villagers do not rely on selling souvenirs and drugs to make a living.  My friends that went on such a trek were ecstatic afterwards.  They ate a traditional meal with the villagers, drank laos laos (the local moonshine) with the village chief, and then handed a blunt knife and asked to decapitate a chicken.  So the treks might be eco-friendly, but they are not quite PETA-approved.  This innovate approach to tourism is representative of Laos’ choice to develop along a sustainable path.  Hordes of NGOs are helping the receptive government develop their economy while preserving the Laos’s natural beauty.

But there is still much work to be done.  Laos’s people are in desperate need of education, infrastructure, and business opportunities.  Thankfully, the one-party socialist government has opened itself up to the world after disastrously flirting with collective agriculture and nationalized industries.  Laos has buried the past and is looking keenly towards the future, so if you are a recent grad looking for opportunities in development work there are plenty of opportunities here.  Check out www.directoryofngos.org for a starting point.

Though I missed out on the trek I had an enjoyable time in the north of Laos nonetheless.  I wandered through the towns, sampled incredible Laos coffee and French baguettes in cafes, rode through farmland on a motorcycle, and watched barefooted opium addicts stumble through the streets.   There were few tourists, the weather was cool and comfortable, and the scenery was enough to keep me in Luang Nam Tha for a few days.

Luang Nam Tha lies in a low, wide valley surrounded on east and west by green mountains stretching for miles into the distance.  The mountain ridges were shrouded in dense gray clouds that transformed as the day progressed, darkening and thickening into ominous rainclouds that poured sheets of rain through the afternoon heat.  Come midnight, lightening pierced the sky and thunder fulminated through the valley with a fury that made me sit upright in bed.

The valley was beautifully serene during the day.  Rice paddies spanned the width of the valley, each small plot partitioned by thick grassy ridges of earth that formed irregular patterns of squares and rectangles in the soil.  I rode a motorcycle through the farms and villages surrounding Luang Nam Tha, marveling in the beauty of it all and admiring the reflection of the mountains in the yellow waters of the flooded green rice paddies.  Old women knelt beside the river; some fetched water in woven baskets, some washed clothes on its banks, and some bathed their wholly covered bodies in the muddy waters.  Hours passed as I watched this lazy rural life trickle by to a soundtrack of buzzing crickets and chirping birds.

A busy highway bisected the lazy river and the hum of a thousand Chinese lorries overpowered the gentle buzz of the crickets.  China built this highway to connect Chinese exporters with the growing economy of Thailand.  This highway is one of many springing up across Laos, criss-crossing the country and connecting her neighbors with each other.  Dirt roads are still the norm in the countryside, but China is paving a smooth highway from Beijing to Singapore.  Laos’s future lies in her connecting freeways.

Her past is not so cheerful.  Laos is famous for being the world’s most heavily bombed country, a title earned during the American Secret war of the 60s and 70s.  Never heard of it?  Neither had most Americans at the time.

In the 60s and 70s Laos was a mess.  Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam had formed the French colony of Indochina since the 1800s, but the hasty departure of the French in the 50s left chaos in its wake.  Internal power struggles eventually descended into guerilla warfare between a US-supported government of right-wing elitists and the popular communistic Pathet Lao party.  The Pathet Lao party allied themselves with Ho Chi Minh’s army in North Vietnam, the US supplied the government with money and arms, and the CIA began training the Hmong hill tribe villagers to fight guerilla warfare.

Eventually the war in Vietnam spilled over the borders into Laos when the North Vietnamese Army established the Ho Chi Minh Trail along Laos’s eastern border.  The Trail was a vital supply route allowed the communists to circumvent the US military in central Vietnam, one that the Pentagon was determined to eliminate.  In 1965 the US began secretly carpet bombing Laos without approval from Congress and continued until 1973.  The bombing campaign created 750,000 refugees in Laos, and to this day the presence of unexploded ordinances (UXOs)  has retarded economic growth – essentially, it is too dangerous to farm in much of the countryside because unexploded American bombs are still buried in the soil.  Tourists are strongly advised not to wander off the trails, lest they step on bombs.

Luang Nam Tha was not spared from the destruction.  The Chinese highway linked the Chinese-owned hotels in the new town with the American-bombed ghost of the old town.

I visited the local Buddhist temple in the hills above the valley.  Like the town itself, there was both a new and an old section of the temple.  The old temple was a crumpled ruin of brown bricks while the new temple shone proudly like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the past.  As I paid my $0.30 admission fee I asked the groundskeeper what happened to the old temple, but I already knew the answer.  “Bomb,” he said, “American Bomb.

I did not know what to say to him.  I wasn’t alive when this happened and I had no part in this war, yet I was panged with guilt.  This was the first time I had witnessed the aftermath of an American war firsthand.  I had written research papers on Vietnam in university, but in Laos my paper’s carefully crafted arguments and well-researched statistics crashed to the ground when the abstract met reality.  That was all irrelevant, years in the past high up in an ivory tower halfway around the globe.  Where was The Domino Effect now?  No, the truth was staring at me in the form of a crumbled temple, a crushed village, a cold reaction to my stated nationality.  I’m from America.  The brief pause, the forced smile, then Ohhh, America…yes, yes, yes.

Yes, indeed.  What dark memories hide within those three ‘yes’s?  What other truths lurk in these small villages, in the soil of fallow pastures and the memories of the old men who watch me from their porches?  How many more times will I have this experience?  How many more times will I learn the history of a place, only to say, “Yeah, well…shit.” No explanations, no arguments, just guilty speechlessness.

What am I supposed to do?  This question remains unanswered.  The temple’s groundskeeper told me the history of the temple, but what could I say?  Sorry for blowing up your innocent Buddhist temple? I dropped a few pathetic dollars in the donation box and walked away in silence.

After five days it was time to move on.  Luang Nam Tha had been a beautiful place to learn a horrible history, but the Lao Lunar New Year was approaching and I wanted to be in a good spot for the festivities.  I packed my bags and headed south to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO Hertitage Site and purportedly the best place to bring in the New Year.