Random Musings of a Third Year Expat

It is safe to say I have been a terrible blogger this year, but I am still loving my life in Saigon and filled with wonder most days. Currently I am starting this post while stuck in a traffic jam. I am in no rush – just returning home from a day of errands downtown. And, of course the traffic and scenes around me are fascinating. I don’t often type blog posts from the cab because I still spend most rides looking to see how many families fit 5 on a motorbike and trying to figure out how this city fits together. But, today, though not really a day out of the ordinary was filled with so many small moments that remind me I am at home here and so many more that remind me that this land is and always will be foreign and exotic to me. It is a nice mix – conflicting feelings of peace and wonder and surprise and comfort.

I started the day with a bike ride with three friends, a favorite weekend past time. We rode a familiar route, chosen because we hoped that it wouldn’t be too flooded and washed out from all the rain. Of my 3 years, this is by far the worst rainy season I have experienced. I have had to wade home from school through shin deep water, wear a poncho over me and my bike to ride to work (it never used to rain in the morning), and hole up in shelter too many times to count. Even so, we still have lots of hours of hot sunshine each day, and all the rain has made the plants on my balcony so happy.

On today’s bike ride, I got to catch up with a friend who just returned after leaving Vietnam for a couple of months to take her son to university and help him get settled into his “home” country where he had never really lived. I marvel at the resilience of my students and co-workers’ children because they grapple every day with questions of identity and blend seamlessly (it usually seems) into foreign cultures. It was interesting to hear stories of her son’s adjustment because I know that, while my experience is quite different than his, I too will some day face reverse culture shock as I try to fit back into America. (See, I don’t plan to stay here forever – just until I learn what I can from this wonderful life). During the ride, my poor friend began to feel fatigued and lightheaded. It had been awhile since she was on a bike and her abrupt shift back from Australia’s winter was too much for her. Luckily, because we live her and know how to handle some of the things that happen, we were able to call her an Uber SUV to our remote location and the kind driver took her and her bike home.

Today also marked a random first for me. I finally utilized the help of a xe om – a motorbike taxi. Usually I hail a car taxi, but today when I was on a walk doing some errands, I was starting to look for a taxi to take me downtown to do more errands. A xe om pulled up, and I figured why not. I have gotten quite good at riding (not driving as evidenced by my attempts to try on vacation) motorbikes. I negotiated what I think was a fair price using my numbers which was the lesson of the week in my Vietnamese class. It was a lovely ride and much faster than my current ride in a car. However, it was taken during a brief lull in storming. At the end of the motorbike ride, I did some shopping. I am still trying to settle into my new apartment, so I was on the prowl for ways to maximize my space and storage. Purchases included everything from seating for my balcony to almond milk for Kate and 4 pounds of Craisins. Why 4 pounds, you ask? Well, it costs about $3 for a tiny little bag of 100 grams at the store near my house, but at the import store, the best value was a giant bag for about $20. So, essentially, I scored 1,100 free grams of craisins over time. Is the reason that I have to maximize storage space making sense? I am a hoarder – primarily of food.

Hope all is well with you and that you struggle less with the hunt for Craisins and good peanut butter than I do. I will try to post again soon about my delightful vacation to Myanmar – even if I am not stuck in traffic.

Biking Bliss

Last winter when I was home in America for Christmas, I went to visit my friend Melissa who I teach with in Vietnam. As we played games, ate delicious homemade fish tacos, and walked round her farm, I whined that I didn’t want to return to Vietnam. I was feeling the looming sadness of continuing a long distance relationship and nostalgia for life in the States. But, Melissa assured me it would be the best semester ever because we would take up weekly biking. It took us until March to organize a bike outing with our friend Elaine, but since then, it has been an almost weekly occurrence. If you are my Facebook friend, you have seen far too many photos of my crew on bikes, but it is one of my highlights every week. Unfortunately, we only know a few loops, but we love them dearly and never tire of the wonders of Vietnam city and country life. Despite doing the same 40k loop the last two weekends, I was struck this Saturday by how vividly green everything became in just one week. It was thrilling to see that the rice had grown and the water levels had risen.

Despite the fact that it is the rainy season, Vietnam is having the worst drought conditions in a long time. Due to the rains coming late,China building some new dams upriver, and the low elevation of the Mekong Delta region (just south of HCMC), the salt water from the sea has permeated the soil of much of the arable land and polluted the well water. Farmers and families here are facing extreme economic hardship. My sister Megan came to visit, and we went on a tour of the region with a speedboat tour company called Les Rives (highly recommend). Our knowledgable guide explained the current situation, and now, I am advising one of my seniors on her Extended Essay about the effects of the drought on locals. My heart aches for the farmers down south, and we are planning to take a bike ride weekend down to the delta soon. Hopefully, we will be able to find someway to contribute to some families during this rough time. On normal weekends though, we don’t make it to the delta, so we pass farms much closer to the city.

Three weeks ago, we resumed our weekly trips and started with a little loop that we call the bridge loop because we get to bike over about 30 bridges along the way. Bridges are the only sort of elevation change happening in southern Vietnam, so it gives us a little challenge. Along this route, we have a lot of traffic through a developing neighborhood called Nha Be, but eventually we reach some rural land. The past 2 weeks we have done what we call the double ferry route. It starts by biking up the biggest bridge in the city (feel the burn), and then takes us through some of the outskirts of the city to a ferry. We take a big ferry over to some rural land and bike to another ferry that returns us to District 7 about 25 minutes from our neighborhood. I love being part of this biking community which grew from about 5 to a record 16. What a great way to start one morning of each weekend!

 

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First bike ride of the year!

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Chilling on the bridge

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Everyone is so friendly

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Our favorite spot for coffee

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Despite being afraid of heights, I climbed up the bridge for a good shot, but I wasn’t going to do it twice just because Heidi was doing a selfie in a selfie. 

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Sometimes we stop at temples and pagodas we pass. This is a Cao Dai temple which is a combination of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. This is the smallest Cao Dai I have been too, but not the most colorful. 

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Drinking coconuts on the ferry. 

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hardworking rice farmers

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Boats in Vietnam have eyes to ward off evil spirits. The ones down south have rounder eyes than the ones up north. 

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There is a many paddling a circle boat in the top left corner. I love watching river life from my bike. 

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Melissa waves as she approaches the second ferry. 

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Sharing the ferry with some motor bikes. 

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I loved the explosion of colors on this bridge thanks to a pinwheel seller. 

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Until next time…

Spring Break!

In 3 hours, I leave for the airport to fly to Taiwan to meet Eli and some friends from home. I am pretty much jumping-out-of-my-skin excited. This might be one of my most needed vacations ever. Despite my mostly perfect life of spending February in Australia with my beloved cousin, living in paradise, and being surrounded by loving friends, the past 8 weeks have beat me up a bit. Before you feel too bad, look at a few of the highlights of my trip with Christyn. I will have to write about the magic in more detail soon.

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Christyn overlooking Melbourne while we wait for the sunset and the arrival of the penguins.

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Some of the adorable fairy penguins we saw.

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The Opera House and Harbor Bridge stunned us.

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Getting close to the Apostles (rock formations).

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Such a great cousin-cation!

Unfortunately, I returned home from my lovely week with Christyn to learn that a student had passed away over break. After a weeks of mourning, life was starting to return to normal, and then I got the plague. Not the real plague. Just a virus that spent 3 weeks ripping through my body and making me a shell of a human being.

Now that my body is mostly mended, I am ready to tackle 10 days of fun with my boyfriend and some dear Baltimore friends. Life couldn’t be better…unless my errands and packing were complete.

A land of English!

Last weekend, Shelley and I went to a posh new cafe across from school to grade papers. We sat in a sunlit corner sort of near an older Australian couple. We were hungry and excited to order, but despite the English menu, we encountered some difficulties. They didn’t have my first choice entree, and they told Shelley they were out of hot tea. Out of hot tea? In Asia? Not a thing. Shelley pushed the issue, and after about 4 staff tried to explain, it became clear that the Australian woman was using the cafe’s only teapot. They couldn’t make Shelley a pot of tea because they had nothing in which to serve it. The Australian lady, obviously overhearing all of this, kindly offers Shelley her teapot because they are leaving soon. The staff isn’t down with this plan. We all shrug our expat shoulders in bemusement and go on with our days. Shared understanding and lots of essays to grade.

After they have left, Shelley has had some tea, and I enjoyed my second choice entree, a pair of 20something Australian kids come in and sit at the table next to ours. It is a big place, but our corner is clearly the best. They are also hungry and eager to order, and it is hard not to hear that the young man has picked my first choice entree off the list. I want to tell him it is a no go, but it is rude to eavesdrop, so I keep grading. The waiter comes over, and they have a very similar, linguistically frustrating conversation. Shelley and I are definitely listening. They are unsuccessful in ordering food.

The waiter goes to make their drinks, while they plot how to get what they want. Apparently, they know the executive chef of this chain of cafes. He is downtown and no good to him, but they call Joe and confirm that they should be able to order this tofu sandwich even though it is on the breakfast side of the menu because they serve breakfast all day. So, when the poor waiter gets back to the table, they are finally able to convince him that Mr. Joe is ordering him to give them what they want or there will be hell to pay on Monday. It was heavy handed, but that sandwich did look delicious. Shelley and I sort of laughed at how involved we were in the drama and how actively we had eavesdropped as had the older Australians there before them. Then, we went back to grading.

Today, as I am packing to head to the airport to meet Christyn in Australia. I got an email from her about how a convention of old Australian ladies working for some sort of Mary Kayish company have checked into our first hotel. Christyn was amused because one proper old lady told another she was “going to spend a penny,” as she headed into the restroom. Suddenly, Christyn’s email clarified things for me. I love hearing English around me, so I do actively eavesdrop on every English conversation I can. Also, I have done this my whole life, not just now that I am English deprived. This made me nostalgic for all those crazy interactions you have with people you don’t know because you will understand each other’s language, even if you don’t understand each others ideas or life choices. I think my journal the next few days will be full of conversations I listen to surreptitiously. Get me to the land of English speakers, so I too can learn to “spend a penny,” find things that have “gone walkabout,” and avoid appearing as if I’ve got “kangaroos loose in the top paddock.”

Vacation!!!!

A Fitting Tribute

2016 has been cruel to my friends already. Two of my closest friends here have lost a grandparent since we returned from the holidays. One friend is home in Canada with family, but the other opted to mourn here. Ricki was also generous enough to let us celebrate the life of her grandfather with her, in a way that would earn his approval.

Her grandfather was an Irish Catholic family man who had worked as a pharmacist in Wisconsin until he was able to retire to a sailboat in the Caribbean. To honor him, she decided to rent a boat, make his favorite drink, and live her life to the fullest. She opened the boat ride with lots of hugs and a toast to her grandfather that made me cry. Ricki is one of the most open, honest, and loving people I know. I admire her ability to recognize her feelings and share them with others. She talked about the life-changing magic of meeting her grandfather after her mom married into the family, and it made me adore a man I never met because he offered the child version of my friend the acceptance and stability that she deserves.

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about a moment before Graeme’s drink showered Jeremy

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wonderful granddaughter and stunning scenery

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It is amazing how fast you can leave the city behind on the water.

Once we toasted Grandpa Phil and her wonderful memories, we were off on a trip down the Saigon River to reach a floating temple. The day was sunny and hot (winter doesn’t understand how much we want a hint of it), but the “Get Friendlys,” the special drink, were iced and free flowing. The boat was full of people who love Ricki, a couple of whom had just lost parents of their own and needed a reminder that our community is awesome and that life is for the living. Grandpa Phil had named his boat Vivimus, from the Latin phrase Dum vivimus, vivamus, which means while we live, let us live. And, without ever meeting him, I know he was proud of Ricki for choosing to live while she lives, even though it meant experiencing the whole range of human feeling. She laughed and cried, and those of us lucky enough to be on the boat with her got to witness a real triumph of loving expression. Ricki is good at life and love.

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the temple in the water

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a lot going on

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Elaine and Brooke admire the dragon made of old dishes

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Shelley looking adorably nautical

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loved this dragon

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Greg really loves modeling

When we reached the temple, Ricki wanted to light a candle for her grandfather. While the temple didn’t have Catholic candles, there was some incense and some sand pots that you could place the burning incense in to honor the dead. The boat captain and our friend Lucinda, the only Buddhists on the boat, helped Ricki say some prayers and light the incense. Then, she bought some bracelets for her brothers and released some fish in a Buddhist ceremony about releasing the lives of others. Another Catholic teacher who just lost her mother participated in the ceremonies too, and she and Ricki got to share how important faith was to their family members and how much they would have liked the ceremonies of the temple, even if it wasn’t exactly Catholic. It was really great that Ricki got this chance to meld the familiar and her new world.

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helping to light the incense

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Ricki taking over

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getting some directions from our captain

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saying the prayers

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telling some stories about a life well led

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placing the incense

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lots of supporters

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praying with Angie

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placing the last incense

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a great place to remember Grandpa Phil

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even a chicken came to pay his respects 

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buying some fish to release

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small fish

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biggest fish

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letting go

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swimming away

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beautiful smile

Then, it was back to the boat. We finished up the pitchers of Get Friendlys that Ricki had lovingly mixed and we all had time to enjoy the company, the sunset, and the city skyline. When we returned to the dock, a few of us ventured out in the Tet decorated streets of downtown to find an Irish pub and raise a pint. Then, we returned home, exhausted but glad we had lots more days to practice dum vivimus, vivamus.

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thankful for these ladies

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Emma snuggled with Ricki

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the kids and Ricki play fruit charades

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front of the boat

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Vietnam

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stunning sunset

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the scenery 

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the city appears

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it is a fast growing town

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into the heart of downtown

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walking toward a final beverage

Rest in peace, Grandpa Phil. Thanks for teaching us how to live. Because she knows how to ask for what she needs, Ricki is in good enough hands.

Still Dreaming of October Break

Somehow, I still haven’t finished recording the wonders of my amazing fall break in Laos. If you can believe it, there was even more fun and beauty after our trip to the northern mountains. We were lucky enough to enjoy a few more days in Luang Prabang, a must see city!

Despite my very recent recovery from being horribly ill, I made it through the bus ride with as little discomfort as I could have hoped for give our situation. Luckily, I ended up sitting by Robert who was positively entertained by to Laotian woman talking loudly to each other. The humor derived from the fact that both stared straight ahead the entire time and talked over each other about half the time. I was amused by how easily entertained he was.

When we got to Luang Prabang, we took a tuk tuk to our respective hotels. The 5 of us (Ricki, Jason, Pierre Luc, Robert, and I) shared this tuk tuk with a random Laotian man. Partway through the ride, I said that I heard a dog. Soon others stopped thinking I was crazy and heard it too. Finally the man picked up a small burlap bag and tore a small hole in it to show us his puppy. It was surreal that he fit in such a small space and was so well behaved. The man thought we were crazy for wanting to hold him.

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Ricki holding the puppy in a bag.

Ricki and I had splurged and booked the only hotel in town with a pool. It was luxurious. Even better, we were upgraded to a suite. So, two dirty, road weary travelers landed at Kiridara; it might as well have been heaven.

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our room at the Kiridara

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half of our bathroom. the couch was necessary due to the weakness induced by food poisoning

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Ricki expressing a fraction of our abiding love for the beds at the Kiridara

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view of our pool from the balcony 

While Ricki headed into town to meet up with the boys (Pierre Luc and Robert decided to spend a few more days with us), I napped and enjoyed the pool to recover. Eventually I made it downtown for dinner with the crew.

 

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The boys and Ricki enjoyed delightful bbq, but I stuck to some broth

The next morning, I had another slow start to enjoy the pool, but made it to town by lunchtime to enjoy my first and only plate of laap, a famous Laotian dish. Then we had a day of museums and a night of marketing. Tummy feeling so much better.

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This might help you understand why I wasn’t super eager to leave the pool.

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Tofu laap…and a coconut! I am obsessed with coconuts.

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temple at the museum 

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Museum – home of the former King

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After the less than amazing exhibit at the palace museum, we found the museum about ethnic minorities. Fascinating. A must stop on your visit to Luang Prabang.

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The Hmong are also an ethnic minority here in Vietnam, and I am obsessed with the embroidery. 

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if textiles are your thing, Laos is your country

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baby carriers

After the museums, everyone else started marketing a little earlier than me. I, of course, NEEDED to check out the spa scene of Luang Prabang. A week without a massage is unacceptable. Especially when that week is a vacation. Then, our plan was to meet at a bar that Robert wanted to go to all week.

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The Frangipani Spa

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When I arrived at the bar, there was a surprise fashion show happening.

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Both Jason and Pierre Luc were late, but when Jason arrived first, Ricki played a brilliant prank. She convinced Jason that Pierre had been invited backstage to participate in the show. Every new set of models, Jason searched for Pierre’s face. Amazing.

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My travel companions

Throughout our time in Luang Prabang, we had befriended the staff of a local cafe. They decided that they must take us out on Friday night. So we danced at their cafe until it closed, and then we went to some clubs where we were surrounded by locals. It was fun, but I was extremely paranoid that we were breaking the tourist curfew. Also, my stomach was not ready for all the shots of Lao Lao, homemade whiskey, that everyone wanted me to drink.

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Our new friend

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Out at the club

 

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Ricki convinced the staff of the club to give her a waiter’s shirt.

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another club – this one was darker

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new friends are great!

After an extremely late night, we had a lazy last day in the city before heading home to our real lives.

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the Kiridara has its own tuktuk! Heaven.

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Ricki and I reading on the gorgeous deck of Utopia

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Just lounging

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Laos = Utopia (but also, check out this cafe when you are in town)

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See you later Kiridara and Luang Prabang

Essentially, fall break was amazing! I returned and had to make a decision about returning for a 3rd year or not, and Laos pretty much made it impossible to say no. So magical.