Fond of Phonsavan
So actually we didn’t go to Vietnam right away. We went on to Phonsavan, Laos for a few days where there wasn’t a consulate, so we couldn’t get our visa there.
Phonsavan is a town in the north of Laos that is known to tourists only for being close to the Plain of Jars site. We planned to stay there for a few nights as a base for exploring this ancient and mysterious landmark.
After surviving our harrowing 6 hour, stuffed, minibus ride over often unpaved roads through the mountains of Laos from Luang Prabang, we ate my favorite phờ of the trip (including from Vietnam) at the town’s Vietnamese restaurant, and went back to our hotel looking forward to a relaxing evening to recover.
But instead we heard some loud party music coming from somewhere nearby. We asked the hotel clerk about it and he apologized profusely saying there is a concert for the town but it won’t last late and it is only one night.
On the contrary, it certainly piqued our curiosity. What would a Lao concert be like?
We went to check it out and there was a whole fair set up around a stage (which was very visibly sponsored by Nestle). Popcorn booths, fair games, a bouncy castle (check out all those copyright violations!), and even a ferris wheel were set up.
Color us surprised.
We wandered around the stands enjoying the quietly festive atmosphere. Here, like India, people seemed very interested in us (possibly me and my freakish lightness). I would see people tracking us when they thought we weren’t looking, sometimes even tapping their friends and pointing. When I glanced towards them, though, even with a smile, they would lower their eyes and look away.
At one point there was a crowd gathering in front of the stage in anticipation of the main act and we wandered up through the throng. A group of young men were obviously excited to see us (me?) and were giggling and not-too-subtly pointing and casting glances our way. I pretended to not see it for awhile but eventually when one of them looked again, I smiled and said hello in Lao. They immediately fell silent and wouldn’t look back. I didn’t follow up.
But unlike India, the people were shy and subtle (more subtle than India, anyway) about staring. In India, a person would stare at you from the time they saw you until you disappeared off the horizon. Even if you met their gaze and stared back at them, they would keep looking. Imagine that happening on the subway in Boston/any American city. There would be altercations.
It made me uncomfortable in India (especially coming from Boston), but the shy attitude of the Laos’ staring made all the difference. I felt that instead of of a hostile stare it was an interested, friendly stare, and who isn’t be fond of that?
This is one of the reasons that, even though guidebooks and travel sites say that Phonsavan isn’t set up for tourists yet, it was my favorite town we visited in Laos. The main tourist strip was dirt paved and contained all of the scant tourist facilities of the town—two tour agencies, a few hotels, two museums related to unexploded ordnance (UXO—more on this later), and a restaurant serving “western” food. I think it was because the town, without tourist infrastructure, was so unpretentious. All of our interactions with the local people were overwhelmingly friendly. It seemed like they were all so pleased to have us in their town and to have our business—a stark contrast to the dour service in tourism driven towns like Siem Reap and Venice.
For instance, one lady who ran a balloon-dart game gave me a second try at the game for free after I missed ALL of the balloons with all five darts. And even when, after throwing twice as many darts as allowed, I only popped 2 balloons (umm, so turns out I’m terrible at this game), she gave us TWO prizes—cans of Vietnamese soda. I don’t know what the burst-balloon-to-prize threshold was since we had no language in common. But the guy who went before me popped all five balloons and also got a soda.
Things like this are such small gestures but can you imagine getting a game for free at an American carnival? Even if you were a bumbling foreigner? And then TWO free prizes for being terrible? No way!
In Phonsavan, people went out of their way to make us feel welcome and comfortable. It was a wonderful experience and if you go to Laos, I would definitely recommend stopping by for a few days.