Hue: A city of “perfume and purple”

Hue: A city of “perfume and purple”

By Lorie Ann Cascaro and Jesse Pizarro Boga 

Hue women do their laundry at the Perfume River. MindaNews photo by Lorie Ann Cascaro

HUE CITY, Vietnam (MindaNews / 13 Feb) – Our journey to Hue from nearby city Danang in Central Vietnam had us go through a mandatory discomfort in a small, cramped bus (and being puked on by a seat mate) before finding peace in another old city that lives in the present.

By the time we arrived in Hue, it was nighttime but we drowned our worries of dealing with overbooked dormitels by eating heaps of rice and beef.

We didn’t have to worry, really. Hue City Hostel (40 Chu Van An Street) had more than enough space for two weary travelers. The hotel staff was friendly and accommodating; their chic dorm room (with paintings and red/white wall decals) was unbelievably cheap for its kind.

We rented a motorbike to catch up on our flexible (and Wikitravel-based itinerary). We drove to the Thien Mu pagoda and a temple of literature beautifully located by a river.That’s how we ended up sleeping until noon the next day. Clearly, we were getting too comfortable in a dormitel that was so muchbetter than the crappy ones we’ve had in Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An.

When we could walk around no more, we rested our weary feet.

By the Perfume River, we sat. Until we saw the sun set, marking another day of our tiring travel.

Watching tourist boats that pose a sort of genteel royalty by their designs, anyone couldn’t tell which way the rapid goes. Song Huong, which is translated as river (song) and perfume (Huong), has the calmness of a lake amid the daily traffic of those small sailing vessels under three bridges Trang Tien, Cau Phu Xuan, and Cau Da Vien.

Although river cruises and tours to royal tombs and pagodas keep the food coming to their tables, the locals continue to rely on the river for their everyday life. Fishing boats are still among those docked at the riverbanks. Carrying basins of clothes and detergents, women sometimes do laundry using the river water. The smell of their fabric conditioner did not miss our nose while having late lunch in a riverside restaurant on Thursday. Although its name does not describe the river literally, being there in time for their laundry left us no reason to argue why it’s called the Perfume River. But, some Vietnamese say that “Huong” is a female Vietnamese name.

The river draws a line in the middle of Hue City in Central Vietnam. At the one side, the Imperial City surrounded by moats stand valiant and untouched. Its bricked walls keep the legend of Nguyen dynasty since the 17th Century. The Purple Forbidden City stays protected inside.

It was on top priority of our itinerary and we had to make sure we’d wake up early for it the next day.
Touring the Purple Forbidden City was like attending world history class on June at school. Everything about it is exciting – for the first 20 minutes.

After some time of walking around the ancient, Confucian philosophy-inspired oriental architectures (and after walking under the heat of the sun like students in a Philippine public high school), our curiosity waned.

Exhaustion and hunger started to kick in after we explored the forbidden city of 2.5 kilometers in perimeter and surrounded by moats.

But that’s not to say that we didn’t take notes. We did. And we’re more than ready to ace a pop quiz about the Palace of Supreme Harmony, Thai Hoa Palace, and the Noon Gate.

Tourists pose for a photo in front of Thien Mu pagoda in Hue City, Vietnam. MindaNews photo by Lorie Ann Cascaro

The majestic Noon gate features strong stone brick foundation and five entrances (each for certain kinds of people who reside in the city). The entrance at the center of the gate is solely reserved for the emperor – no one else. That’s why we had to go through the left gate (used by soldiers in the past, and now visiting tourists in the present; the Vietnamese who toured the place pass through the right gate and pay a smaller amount for the entrance fee).

The Palace of Supreme Harmony basks under the sun in its glory: from the Oriental roof decorations, to the lacquered details of dragons in columns, and to the finely crafted gold-plated throne. All these are said to be in harmony of each other, just like the emperor’s relationship with his subjects. Chinese poems about peace and prosperity throughout the Nguyen dynasty can also be seen hung by the ceiling.

All these beauty are reserved for our eyes only; the museum doesn’t allow visitors to take photos. Bummer.
The second part of the tour had us driving around the Imperial City to get to the Hue fine arts museum. It housed a number of ancient relics: from fancy ceramics from China and France, to ancient weaponry and coins.

Spittoons and spears and books with pages of copper became topics of conversation. Soon after, we drove back to the city for some lunch in a food place that Jesse Googled.

We didn’t take naps after eating lunch. Our last few hours in Hue had to be meaningful. We’ve yet to cross the tomb visits in our itinerary.

We visited Tu Duc where we witnessed more old spots of resting places of important people in Vietnam. Emperor Tu Duc was the fourth ruler of the Nguyen dynasty. The tomb that we visited was constructed in three years with some 50 monuments that used to stand erect around it. The area used to be an alternative city where the emperor would go to for “working vacations.”

Tu Duc tomb is said to be one of the finest in Hue. It is an excellent example of Vietnamese Buddhist aesthetics and architecture. It has a lake, wooden pavilions, and temples dedicated to the emperor’s wives and concubines.
The best part of the visit (other than the thrilling motorbike ride) was dressing up with royal clothes and having our photos taken in a throne. We donned replicas of king and queen robes and posed for the camera like we were Asia’s Next Top Model.

At the end of the day, we sulked in the lobby of our hostel and washed our tired souls with Hue beer. Then we realized something: we missed to experience night life in Hue.

A quick Google search gave a solution: a quick visit to Brown Eyes (56 Chu Van An), just a few meters near where we sleep.

Authors Lorie and Jesse dress up as Vietnamese royalty in an old room in Tu Duc Tomb. MindaNews photo

The small bar/nightclub was packed by mostly young European tourists and some Vietnamese. The interior of the bar isn’t something a partyphile would describe as “cool” but that’s the beauty of it. The hodgepodge of graffiti, lights, posters, and flags of different countries make the bar appealing to anyone who wants a good time.

And while we didn’t have to dress up to enjoy some beer and music (the bass in the speakers were a delight and their playlist wasn’t bad, except for the occasional Gangnam Style and Call Me Maybe moments), Jesse was too worried about being stepped on by people wearing shoes. His solution? Dance next to European backpackers who are also wearing flip-flops.

Lorie spotted a Vietnamese bartender who looked like Filipino actor Polo Ravales too. That, along with the temples and ancient architecture, was another great sight in Hue.

(Lorie and Jesse are both fellows of FK Norway’s exchange program in Asia; they’re currently backpacking from the South of Vietnam to the North. Follow their adventures in Instagram @jesiramoun and in Twitter @kalowrie.)
Hoi An: Old but alive

Hoi An: Old but alive

By Lorie Ann Cascaro and Jesse Pizarro Boga

Lanterns and yellow lights brighten up the streets of Hoi An, which appear bland during daylight. Photo by Jesse Pizzarro Boga for MindaNews

HOI-AN, Vietnam (MindaNews / 5 Feb) – The road to Hoi An, a small city in Central Vietnam, was literally long and winding.

From the south, we took the train to Danang City (where beaches and bridges were the only things of interest), and then hopped on an old bus that drove us to our destination in half an hour.

After the cramped train and bus rides, which we can only describe as blah, we were granted our right of personal space when we reached Hoi An.

When we arrived in the bus station, we found that there really wasn’t much to see. The view from there was an empty Vietnam countryside (with Vietnamese tea and Banh Mi stalls in a corner). We were given the impression that there isn’t really much to see in this small city.

We were wrong. Very.Because as soon as we entered the old town, and as the sun sets, lanterns began to light up streets and corners that appeared bland during daylight.

Hoi An, which means “peaceful meeting place,” prides itself to be hailed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the city (also known as Faifoo), is home to an ancient town with well-preserved houses and trading ports that date from the 15th to 19th century.

It is located by the Thu Bon River in Quang Nam province.

The traffic was considerably light in the streets of the city. There were no cars (except for the Mai Linh brand taxis that occasionally appear out from a corner; they’re from Danang City).

Everyone, locals and tourists alike, rides their bicycle and motorbike. We didn’t have that option just yet from the bus station when we arrived; that was why we were forced to walk a kilometer with our heavy bags.

We didn’t mind, really – because as soon as we found our accommodation (another shared dorm room), we started getting comfortable and found thrills and charms in every corner.

Night life
Hoi An seemed dim and is unlike the bigger cities in Vietnam. Other than the relatively few number of street lamps bathing old buildings in yellow, the only source of light were the lanterns hung like banderitas on the streets.

We didn’t need a tour guide to take us around the city. Curiosity, Google Maps, and our weary feet took us to places in this city of 120,000 people.

We followed the lights and were led deeper into the old town where there were old houses and shops and old houses made into shops (Jesse saw an ancient house that was made into a “Converse” store).

Somewhere by the riverside, we experienced what night life was like in Hoi An. The city comes alive at night in unique ways.

There were bars playing Western dance and pop music, but these were somehow overshadowed by the collective local vibe in the atmosphere.

The floating restaurants, for instance were a refreshing change of dining experience. A traditional Vietnamese river boat is docked into the river bank and is filled with wooden stools and chairs.

Tourists follow the cue of the tour guide to enter one of the old houses in Hoi An. MindaNews photo by Lorie Ann Cascaro

Faint music from across the river can be heard by anyone in the boat; but the sounds of a guitar played by a local, singing in his language, felt more compelling to visitors. After all, no one travelled all the way here to listen to JLo’s On The Floor. Although we found it disturbing that the river subtly smelled fishy and pungent.

A hand written piece of paper with a list of food items was handed out to us; it’s a typical Hoi An menu. There were Vietnamese specialties like noodle dishes Mi Quang, Banh Bao Vac, Cao Lau, Pho; a filling Com Ga (chicken rice) was also available to order. List of drinks is pretty standard and are the same everywhere: beer, fresh fruit juice, and Vietnamese coffee.

The old ladies selling paper flower lanterns (hoa dang) nearby were also worthy of notice. They were old and their wrinkles were highlighted by the shadows cast from the candles inside the lanterns.

But that’s not to say they’re not strong. If there is someone who defines aging with grace, it’s them.

Locals bought lanterns from the ladies and gently made them float on water after making a New Year wish.

These scenes of old houses, floating restaurants, and dimly lit lanterns follow a repeating fashion throughout the riverfront.

The Old Town continues to brim with European tourists as the night goes on. There were water puppet shows in one corner and a Vietnamese version of Pukpok Palayok; these are probably only a part of the Lunar New Year festivities.

A French photographer, Tardivo Richard, who looks 60-ish, has been in Hoi An for the first time. He expressed his gawky feeling to see how much French influence the city has preserved, such as the baguette bread for sandwiches and architectural designs of old houses. Imagining how the French government tainted a not-so-good memory in this country, he said, for him the Vietnamese seem to have erased that part of their history. “It’s a bit weird feeling to be here,” he said and rubbed his arm to get rid of goose bumps.

At about 11 p.m., something magical happened. The discreet buzzing in the old streets came to an abrupt stop. The crowd literally disappeared as the stores closed, leaving dimly lit alleys empty and almost lifeless. We could clearly hear cicadas like they were the only ones around us.

That was our cue to dash – no, wait – sprint to our dorm. We were too scared to be victims of thieves again.

The beach life

Playing ball at the Cua Dai beach is a favorite past time of the locals at this time of the year. Photo by Jesse Pizzarro Boga for MindaNews

The next day, we rode our rented bicycles to Cua Dai beach, about 4 kilometers from the Hoi An’s old town.
The stretch of the beach was animated by jet skis, parasailing activities, European tourists sun bathing, and Vietnamese playing ball.

There were also Vietnamese hanging out by the shore and clad in their winter sweaters – a beautiful contrast against all the other beach lovers who were dying to take off their underwear just so they can enjoy the sun rays (despite the unusually cool breeze).

After frolicking in the beach, it was time to ride back to the old town before the sun sets.

We were ready to take on the long and winding road to our next stop: Hue City.

(Lorie and Jesse are both fellows of FK Norway’s exchange program in Asia; they’re currently backpacking from the South of Vietnam to the North. Follow their adventures in Instagram @jesiramoun and in Twitter @kalowrie)

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Saigon: The city has two faces

Saigon: The city has two faces

HO CHI MINH CITY, Viet Nam (MindaNews/3 February) — The towering buildings, bars, tour agencies, and hostels lined up like sentries can give visitors the impression that Ho Chi Minh (formerly known as Saigon), is a place ahead of every other city in Vietnam.

The fast-paced life in Viet Nam’s financial district, where most of the businesses in the country thrive, is reflective of the towering architectures like the tallest Bitexco building, and franchises of international brands such as Starbucks, Domino Pizza, Dairy Queen, and more recently, McDonald’s.

But this side of the world is not what it seems.

However modern the city appears, it still remains a symbol of unity among people who were once divided by the US during its war of aggression.

Beyond the bright lights and vibrant energy that blanket the city center at night lie forces that bring Saigon’s history back to life. These are best experienced in the iconic landmarks and museums nearby
that walk tourists down a rather rough memory lane.

Museums, museums

The Reunification Palace (in Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street), for instance, gives visitors a glimpse of then South Vietnam’s presidential palace in the 60s. The five floors of the palace feature the president’s office, bedroom, recreation room, conference halls, and banquet chambers in their exquisite (a tad bit, though) glory.

The palace’s basement has an eerie atmosphere: it is full of communication paraphernalia like phones, radios, and office equipment. These are said to be arranged exactly the way it was back when the
Northern forces took over.

And as if reliving Saigon’s history is not enough in the Reunification Palace, visitors can also check out the War Remnants Museum in Vo Van Tan Street.

It is home to various exhibits and installations that tell stories about the US military, Agent Orange, and life during the Vietnam-American War.

Tanks and jets can be seen in the open area of the museum outside.

Cruelty in the war is also vividly depicted in a makeshift of the “tiger cages;” these are accompanied by lists of torture tactics that were used in prisons back then. They lend a spooky feeling of the gruesome experiences of political prisoners in the hands of the South Vietnamese government.

Photos of war journalists and deformed fetuses that are a result of Agent Orange (a chemical used in an herbicidal warfare program) are also on exhibit on the third floor.

The tunnels in Cu Chi District (of the same name) showcase the ingenuity of the Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. The network of small passages served as their underground homes, medical
hubs, and communication and weapon routes. According to our tour guide, the design of the tunnels could withstand several attacks by the Viet Cong’s enemies: it has defense mechanisms against water, bombs, and poisonous gases. The tunnels are also embedded with traps for the clueless enemy who attempts to enter.

An interesting breather for visitor would be the newly opened museum dedicated solely for the traditional Vietnamese dress. We sincerely regret to have not visited Bao Tang Ao Dai Museum; it is located in 206/19/30 Long Thuan Street, Long Phuoc ward, District 9.

A brochure promises visitors that they can see the history and influences of the dress; modern renditions and collections of various designs are to be the delight of anyone interested in style and Vietnamese clothing history.

After a long day of exploring the heritage of South Vietnam, travelers can be whisked back to the present by heading back to the busy street of Bui Vien for some drinks, music and shopping.

Night life

As streetlights incorrigibly chase the fading sunset, Pham Ngu Lao in District 1 continues to welcome all backpackers who enter the city by bus. More and more international bus lines hit their brakes at the side of Zen Plaza as the night creeps in.

Famous for backpackers, the district is always packed with foreigners seated on arrays of Vietnam-style small chairs. They are lined up at both sides of the street in front of closed shops as if spectators of an open theater. The actors are the passers-by either strolling or in motorbikes, and food vendors on bicycles.

The Bui Vien Street is alive with a mixture of tourists and locals who mingle over glasses of Bia Hoi (Vietnamese draft beer) and Muc Chien (dried squid). Blasting music from various western bars add to the din of the street.

But the entire city turned into a spectacular theater last January 30, the eve of Tet (Lunar New Year). Bright lights shaped like flowers in pink with green leaves hovered the Le Loi Avenue stretching to the City Opera House. Its adjacent Nguyen Hue Street had been completely closed, giving space to floral exhibitions. It was led by effigies of running horses in freeze and a big clock behind them.

Some flowers were formed into words like the huge letters traced in bright lights on the facade of a posh hotel, saying, “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” (translated as Happy New Year). A fireworks display of at least ten minutes near the Saigon River signaled the start of the year of the horse.

The city of 10 million people has six million motorbikes, said a tour guide. But only 20 percent of the total number of motorbikes in Saigon was present during our visit. The rest of them had gone to the provinces to celebrate the festival with their families, said a Sudanese businessman, Mr Hassabo Alwahaido.

The relatively low number of people and motorbikes on the streets made it easy for us to rent a bicycle to go around the city without worrying about being run over.

The persisting soundtrack of buzzing motorbikes as they swarm like giant ants in a pack had been overcome by loud music from a kid show in Sen Hong Theater and a concert at the city park as a part of the festival.

Some families who still hold traditional values decorated their houses with various plants and prepared feast to be partaken by close members of the family. Others prefer to go out and party with their friends.

And, some even only hung out in one place and play video games while drinking.

“This is how we celebrate Tet,” Sean Nguyen said; he was with his friends in a video game shop playing Tekken when Jesse met up with him. There were bowls of Vietnamese candies and drinks on the floor, next to a PlayStation 3 console.

Mr Falah Alazmi from Kuwait told Lorie that this year’s festival was a lot bigger and more fun. He has been in and out of the city for business prospects on Agar wood, whose oil is used to produce perfume for Arabic and Indian people.

And no trip to Sai Ngon is ever complete without experiencing theft before your eyes and sometimes literally on you. On their way back to the dormitel after a long night of drinks and chats with new-found friends, Lorie and Jesse were caught off-guard by Vietnamese guys riding in tandem. Their motorbike drove passed Lorie almost hitting her. Jesse thought they were just being drunk.

Relieved that they were not hit nor injured by the motorbike, Lorie and Jesse leisurely walked to their dormitel; their destination was less than a minute away. Surprisingly, the same motorbike riders drove passed Lorie from a corner and this time snatched Lorie’s stringed purse. The swift snatching caused her a minor cut.

Aggression after all still permeates in the street; robberies are just another day in this city. (Lorie Ann Cascaro and Jesse Pizarro Boga/MindaNews)

(Lorie and Jesse are both fellows of FK Norway’s exchange program in Asia; they’re currently backpacking from the South of Vietnam to the North. Follow their adventures in Instagram @jesiramoun and in Twitter @kalowrie)

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Cold Christmas away from home

Cold Christmas away from home

By Lorie Ann Cascaro on December 24 2013 4:57 pm

VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews/24 Dec.) — In a small country where majority are Buddhists, Christmas is definitely not elusive.

Back in my home the Philippines, Davao City is already teeming with Christmas decorations. The façade of the city hall, for example, shimmers with colorful lights at night. Almost all buildings and houses are embellished with plastic pine trees and lanterns as early as September.

But in Vientiane, Christmas decorations are barely seen.

Since the beginning of this month, a few restaurants and apartments which are occupied by expats have modest Christmas trees with blinking lights in the evening. Seen along Dongpalane Road are shops selling packages of “Christmas” food ingredients and bottled wines, wrapped in shiny water cellophanes with golden or red ribbons and greeting cards. Garment shops display mannequins in red Santa-inspired costumes.

Amid a bright sunny sky, the temperature sometimes goes down to 12 degrees here. A much colder breeze than the yuletide seasons in the Philippines! Sweaters, scarves, gloves and socks are far more saleable this month at Talat Sao Mall and Quadin Market. Foreign tourists and expats wear their winter clothes. Some begin fixing their hot showers, while others decide they need heaters, which apparently are not available in most accommodation rooms here.

“The cold temperature right now is making me feel at home,” says Ms Suzie Fairley, a volunteer for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) from the United Kingdom of Great Britain. It will be her first Christmas away from home. She misses her family and friends, “all the Christmas parties”, and the food and drinks, especially mulled wine and minced pies.

“Last Christmas season here was not as cold as now. I’m still wondering,” says Mr Giovanni Solano Villafuerte, a Filipino VSO volunteer and adviser of a non-profit association.

He will not be home again for the holidays this year. He confesses that he is still trying to choose which one to buy: a trench coat or a pair of boots.

“There’s no big celebration here like how Filipinos do it,” he says, adding he misses Noche Buena (midnight meal), with a special mention of fruit salad garnished with keso de bola (cheese) and pancit (Chinese yellow noodles).

“Unlike here, I can feel the spirit of Christmas in my country. Even if you say it’s already commercialized, but it’s still there. Something there that pinches my heart, which I couldn’t find here,” he says.

Somehow, others had done gimmicks to feel the season. For one, a group of young falangs (Lao term for foreigners) in Santa Claus costumes or red clothes accentuated with small bulbs were hopping from one bar to another. They “painted the town red” that night!

Since last month, a few Filipinos who belong to the Sacred Heart Parish choir have been caroling at hotels and other establishments. The Philippine Embassy held last December 11 a little party for kids, dubbed “Mano Po Ninong, Mano Po Ninang”, which is a tradition of gift giving for the children from their godparents.

Despite donating more funds to the survivors of typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda in the Philippines), the embassy still found a way to give joy and hope for the kids.

Last Thursday, the British Embassy hosted a public film showing of Wallace and Gromit. Kids squat inside a tennis court where a pedal-driven projector flashed on a big white cloth. A Lao guy dressed like Santa Claus, minus the big belly, was giving lollipops to everyone, young and old.

Mr Andrea Caletti from Italy has been hosting a party for three years now in his restaurant, Soul Kitchen, in Vientiane. His friends, both expats and Lao, usually share a lot of pizza, pasta and overflowing red wine on the Christmas Eve. He says he’s never been back to Italy since he came here.

In Laos, December 24 and 25 are not official holidays. But Mr Souksakhone Vaenkeo of Vientiane Times says they seem to be treated as holidays by the younger generation. “Pubs and night clubs are always packed with teenagers at night,” he said.

Anyone can take vacation leave if they want. Even Lao journalist, Mr Phonsavanh Vongsay, who is a Christian, will take time off work to spend Christmas Day with his family in Champassak province. He says sharing time with his loved ones in a nutritious dinner and singing – as they are a talented bunch of individuals – makes him feel the essence of Christmas.

But both Australian editors of Vientiane Times, Mr James McDouglas and Mr Dan Riley will spend Christmas in the newsroom, working. “I’ll probably cover my desk with fake reindeer and bottles of Beerlao,” jests James.

Also from Australia is Mr Thomas Gadsen, who works with Lao Ministry of Education and Sports. He will be working in Luang Prabang province on Christmas day to collect education system data. It will be his first Christmas in Laos and first time working on a day that is a holiday in Australia. He adds that he has recently converted to Buddhism “as part of a process of experiencing different religions”.

Ms Fairley will also be working on December 25. “I will work all day but a friend has invited me for a quiet Christmas dinner in the evening at her house,” she tells MindaNews.

For Mr Villafuerte, a bunch of case study reports deserve his attention during the holidays.

Aside from the cold breeze, the yuletide season here is different from what it’s been in Davao City. Somehow, there is no sense of commercialism here. No midnight sales. No panic buying. No countless Christmas parties and exchanging of gifts.

For Christian expats, attending a morning mass and having dinner with good friends are enough to celebrate Christmas. Perhaps, an online chat with my family and short greetings from friends who remember me in the middle of parties can bring the “spirit of Christmas” here from home.

From the cold, foggy karst hills in Laos, Merry Christmas to everyone!

Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.

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Another Day: A story about living in Vientiane’s wasteland

Another Day: A story about living in Vientiane’s wasteland

By Lorie Ann Cascaro on November 22 2013 7:39 pm

VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews / 22 Nov) – Welcome to “Disneyland”! It is a mosaic of blue, black and white polyester unevenly blended with brown soil surrounded by green shrubs and bushes. It was a gloomy Monday morning and the air is redolent of putrid residues or whatever people in Vientiane would call “waste”.

In a vast land of piled up rubbish that form like small hills, a tiny village hides behind the bushes at the side of a paved road inside the Km 32 landfill in Vientiane Capital. It is as colorful as a playhouse as shanties are thatched with used tarpaulin, posters and plastic curtains that used to be big grocery bags.

A man in his 40s, clad in a camouflage coat and faded black pants, is burning scrap electric wires near his hut. The smoke has blended with the gray sky. His hands are black with soot as he removes the plastic coverings to reveal the metal wires. “I earn 1,000 kip for every kilo of these metals,” says Mr Lumsy Sipanya as his eyes, shaded by a dirty whitish cap, are fixed to the flame.

In front of every house in the village has a black portion on the ground that is a mixture of ashes and burnt soil as a remnant of burning. Their income is quite sustainable for a bachelor like Mr Joy, 30, who has been living inside the wasteland for a year now. They can earn 100,000 kip a day, or at least 2 million kip in a month, for selling used electric wires.

“I don’t want to go back to the city anymore. No job can suit me. Here, I can earn enough for my own needs,” says Joy while fixing his motorbike. He is wearing fake gold bracelet and earrings.

Most of the houses are empty. Smoking cookstoves and soot-coated pots are left on the ground. Some packs of salt and other seasonings, used plates and plastic cups seem to tell that the inhabitants had to hurry after breakfast.

Over 200 individuals are working in a dump site not far from the village, according to Mr Bounkham Luangparn, 35, who is hired to manage a total of 30 households living inside the landfill. Most people who collect recyclable rubbish are outsiders. Some of them rummage plastic bottles, scrap metals and cellophane bags. At least 200 tons of garbage are dumped in the landfill everyday, a garbage collector told Vientiane Times while taking a break outside the small management office.

Children also play in the “Disneyland” in a purposeful manner as they help their parents, who taught them how to scavenge and help gather the collected rubbish that can be sold. It was almost noontime when two boys arrived on a motorbike towing a steel cart full of plastic cellophane. One of them, wearing a Spiderman-inspired sweater, detached the cart from the motorbike, and then the other boy drove away.

A seemingly three-year-old boy walked barefoot while eating a pack of uncooked instant noodles like some chips. When he finished it, he went to an old lady’s house to buy refreshment. He handed a thousand kip bill to the vendor while receiving a plastic bag of brown liquid and ice cubes. His mouth immediately caught the straw and indulged in delight.

Mr Bounkham, who has lived and worked in the landfill since its inception about six years ago, says their children have not had any serious diseases such as malaria, dengue nor diarrhea. The residents get free potable water. A doctor visits them regularly to conduct medical check-up, he says as he sits in a straw hammock tied to a manzanita tree beside his humble abode.

Separated from his wife, Mr Bounkham does not have any plan to live somewhere outside the landfill. He hopes that his kids will get a good education to have a chance to choose another kind of life. But, for the kids who work and live here, they do not go to school. “They’re not interested,” he says.

The sun never comes out but “bor pen yang” (it does not matter). These villagers continue to live each day, seeing hope for survival where most people would find as an utterly stinky and filthy place in Laos.

[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]

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Lao tourists ride “Korean wave”

Lao tourists ride “Korean wave”

The Republic of Korea has become a tourist destination for Lao people who want to see and experience being in a megacity as they indulge in Korean pop culture.

By Lorie Ann Cascaro

SEOUL, Republic of Korea (MindaNews/20 November) — While many Koreans visited landlocked Laos to take a break and find “healing” from buzzing Seoul, nearly 2,000 Lao tourists came here from January to October this year to see for real what they saw in Korean dramas.

More Lao people have become attracted to Korea because of Hallyu or the Korean wave, which refers to the growing popularity of Korean culture, Ms Maniksahone Thammavongxay, head of the Culture and Tourism Unit of the ASEAN-Korea Centre, said while sipping her coffee at Starbucks in Intaewon district. It is also known as “Western Town” where many international restaurants and shopping centers are located.

Amid the increasing number of Korean tourist arrivals in Laos, Korean culture has been promoted in Laos through Thai channels showing Korean drama series and popular bands, also called K-pop, she says, citing the dance fever “Gangnam style”.

In the past most Lao visiting Korea were government officials and students, who availed of the Korean Government Scholarship, said Consul Sungwon Hong of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea to Laos.

As of October 2013, the Korean embassy in Laos had issued 1,789 tourist visas for Lao nationals. The figure increased more than six times from that of 2008 when only 237 tourist visas were issued. This trend, Mr Hong said “is expected to maintain for a while in the future according to the economic development of Laos.” Based on the embassy’s total visa issuance, 2,934 Lao people had supposedly visited Korea this year.

He attributed the increasing number of mutual visitors between the Republic of Korea and Laos to direct flights launched last year by Korean Jinair and Lao Airlines. He also cited Korean travel agencies for their “vigorous marketing promotion that must have added fuel to the trend”.

However, Laos’ Tourism Marketing Department has put more emphasis on promoting Laos to Koreans than encouraging more Lao tourists to visit Korea, according to its Director General, Mr Saly Phimphinith. Since last month, there have been three direct flights to Seoul every week, he said, adding that he had noticed an increasing number of passengers. He has yet to collate the data.

Among four tour operators in Vientiane that offer packages to Korea, the Santhiphap Travel State Enterprise has a growing number of customers flying to Seoul since the direct flights have been regularized. The company’s Managing Director, Mr Amnong Phomphiboun, told Vientiane Times the number of Lao tourists who booked tour packages in Seoul rose from 21 customers in September to 34 in October. The travel agency began organizing group tours in Korea in August this year with a total of 28 tourists.

The tour packages usually cover five or six days and costs from 6,800,000 kip to 8,500,000 kip (US$856 to US$1,000), Mr Amnong said.

Lao tourists visited mostly the big cities Seoul and Suwon, traditionally known as “The City of Filial Piety” and is the only city that has remained totally walled in the country. Most of them also visited Nami Island or Namisun in Chuncheon as it has become famous through the Korean drama “Winter Sonata” in 2002. It is an imaginary country called Naminara Republic and visitors have to pay for their imaginary passports that serve as admission fees.

But, after seeing the megacity, Seoul, and indulging in consumerism at Korea’s shopping districts, most Lao people might not want to visit again. They would not mind taking the trip only once in their lifetime, Ms Manisakhone said and smirked.

“They are not used to big cities and it is enough for them to see for themselves,” she explained. According to some of her friends who also visited, their tour guide took them to a shopping area and subtly forced them to buy cosmetic products.

Others plan to visit again after some years, like Ms Noy from Vientiane, who went to Korea with her family this year. Her favorite places were the public parks and Nami Island. She said she might return to Seoul when her children have grown up. But for now, she plans to visit other countries like Singapore.

For some reason, Lao people are now riding the Korean wave because, Mr Amnong said, they love watching Korean dramas. As the number of Lao tourist arrivals in Seoul will continue to rise in the coming months, more and more Koreans will fly to Vientiane to avail of “healing tours” or to volunteer in schools, hospitals and other organizations in Laos.

(Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is a fellow of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange programme in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.)

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