Friday, October 10, 2008

Laos, days 1-2.

We flew into Vientiane after a few hours spent in the Hanoi airport, curiously small for an international airport, with a restaurant upstairs serving sandwiches and burgers and bowls of steaming pho to travelers on their way to or from exotic destinations. By the time we reach Laos it is late afternoon, still light enough to see the endless stretches of rice paddies and clumps of trees criss-crossed with roads and rivers stretched away beneath us as the plane nears our destination. A van and driver are waiting, my mother's name on a placard as arranged, and shortly we find ourselves at a beautiful colonial-era hotel, shaded with palms and decorated in dark woods against white walls. We have an uninteresting dinner in the nearly empty dining room, take a walk around the grounds of the hotel. It is hot and humid, even after night falls, and I worry about the rest of the trip.

The next day we hire a car and driver to explore the city and points beyond. We find ourselves at a park filled with Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, huge, beyond life-size figures of various deities and animals in a grassy expanse dominated by a giant reclining figure of Buddha. We head to lunch at an open pavilion of a restaurant overlooking a courtyard at the rear. It is nearly empty; we are the only foreigners there. We order barbecued duck and beef tongue and some green vegetables, and sticky rice that comes in a lidded woven bamboo basket. It is all unfamiliar and a little strange, and I hope I will come to understand more about Lao cuisine over the next several days.

But first there is dinner, and we find ourselves at a tiny little French restaurant a short drive from the hotel. A genial Frenchman greets us from behind the bar and takes us up a steep staircase to another narrow dining room, decorated in dark woods and local fabrics (and red roses in little vases). We order, cream of celery soup and duck breast for me, duck confit salad and brains for my father, eggplant layered with goat cheese and fish for my mother. The cooking is simple and refined, much better than the dinner at our hotel the night before, certainly equal to most meals I have eaten in French restaurants back in the United States. We finish our meal with a chocolate créme brûlée and a shockingly rich chocolate mouse (more like a pot de crême), and walk down to the river before heading back. A sort of carnival is happening along the river, with stalls of trinkets and clothes and snacks and music, a river of people, local and tourists alike.

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