Golden pagodas sparkling in the sun. Colorful lanterns lighting the night. Bas-reliefs carved in the walls of a great sandstone city. In Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, my husband and I explored ancient cultures, ate a lot of delicious food, and discovered the complex beauty of the region. We encountered the incredible friendliness, warmth, and hospitality of these welcoming people and their cultures.
At the start of our journey, classical Lao dancers welcome us to Luang Prabang with an intricately choreographed performance. The slow and subtle movement of their hands, the quiet steps of feet, are as riveting and beautiful as their ornate costumes and golden pagoda-like headdresses.
Luang Prabang, once the capital of an ancient kingdom and the home of the Lao king as recently as the 1970s, is now a World Heritage Site known for its many temples (wats) with their gold-leafed Buddhas.
Before dawn each morning, saffron-robed monks walk barefoot along city sidewalks to collect alms of sticky rice from residents and visitors.
One morning we visit a Hmong village high in the mountains. As the rest of the group enter a home, a young woman tugs my arm. She points to my camera, then to herself. I follow her to her house where she dons her special occasion finery, complete with silver headdress, necklace, and a belt that wraps twice around her waist. The image I’ve been longing to capture.
In Hanoi, Vietnam, the approach of Tet brings kids from nursery schools decked in their holiday best for photographs at the Confucian Temple of Literature.
Later that afternoon, I’m a kid again myself, delighting in ancient Vietnamese water puppetry. The puppeteers train for years to perfect their craft. In this story, two birds court and produce a golden egg from which hatches a beautiful chick.
Then, on to beautiful Hoi An, situated by the East Sea. Each evening colorful lanterns light up the city center, including the ancient Japanese bridge.
Young and old alike ride along the river in boats lit by lanterns that are eventually set upon the water to float away.
Throughout Indochina, people erect “spirit houses” and offer “service” in honor and remembrance of their ancestors.
In the countryside surrounding Hue, there are seven royal tombs, each beautiful in its own way. I find the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc exquisitely tranquil with its lovely gardens and pine trees.
At the tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh, these two women, dressed in the traditional red and yellow of Tet, catch my attention.
Arriving in Cambodia, we begin our exploration of ancient temples and palaces at the Victory Gate to Angkor Thom with its enormous Bodhisattva sculptures.
Then, on to see intricate carvings of dancing Apsaras.
With their elegant costumes and jewelry, these classical Khmer dancers bring the bas-reliefs to life.
We finish our journey with a visit to a secondary school in the countryside where the students sing to us in English “If You Miss the Train I’m On.” On a sweet note, instead of singing “Lord, I’m five hundred miles from my home,” they sing “five hundred smiles.” And that is exactly how I feel about this trip. Everywhere we go, people greet us with smiles. So many smiles.
—Text and photos by 11-time WT adventurer Jeannée Sacken, Indochine. Read her other blog posts about the Great Elephant Migration in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and spending a Morning With Leopards in South Africa.