We spent a week in Luang Prabang — eating some seriously legit bagel-egg-and-cheese sandwiches, lounging at riverside bars, nervously approaching monks with my camera (me) and drafting fantasy football players (not me) — before we put our crusty boots back on and headed out into the jungle again. Pictured above is our guide Vong, a 23-year-old Hmong guy who took us up the mountain to stay in his family’s village. We slept at the house of his uncle’s second wife, interestingly enough. Hmong polygamy! Who knew? Not I.
Vong was a capable but somewhat annoying guide, mainly because of his two catchphrases, which were:
1. “Be careful!”
I feel like Ryan and I will be saying this to each other, in our best Vong voices, for many years to come. Mostly because Vong — poor, sweet, well-meaning Vong who I am just throwing under a bus here but whatever — sounds a bit like Elmer Fudd. Be vewwy, vewwy careful!*
Vong was very fond of this phrase. Trekking in Laos in the rainy season is a muddy affair, and every time we came to a particularly slippery incline (which was every five minutes) he would cheerfully call out, “Be careful!” And when Ryan and I would, inevitably, eat it, Vong would knit his brows and say, “Oooooooh. Sorry.” Then, brightening: “Be careful!”
“Okay, Vong,” we’d mutter, wiping our hands on the nearest tree.
* Can you figure out how to write “careful” in an Elmer Fudd voice? I tried for about ten minutes but came up empty-handed.
2. “Poor people”
We were about five minutes into the trek when Vong started talking about his favorite subject: money. First up was a story about how, when he was a high school student, he fell madly in love with a 19-year-old Hmong-American girl who came to visit Laos with her parents. He ditched school and they spent one glorious week together, motorbiking around the countryside and etc; alas, it was not to be, as her striving, upwardly-mobile parents didn’t like the idea of their daughter starting a relationship with some dropout from the sticks. Just in case we didn’t understand why, exactly, they would disapprove of him, he drove the point home (“They think: Our daughter must marry an American. A rich man. But I am a poor, poor boy! So she cannot marry me. I have no money. They don’t like this”).
Next up was a morality tale about a recently-married Lao couple (“very poor”). As the story goes, the husband coerces his beautiful wife into posting her photos online (“because they have no money”). Soon enough, an American man (“very rich”) starts writing her, and over the course of several months he sends lots of money, which the husband uses to buy a new house and a car. The American eventually starts asking when he can visit; the husband tells his long-suffering wife that she will meet the American at the airport and take him back to a hotel, where the husband will be waiting to rob him for even more money. The wife dutifully goes to the airport, but — what’s this? — the American turns out to be a very young, handsome man. And so the two of them fall in love and run away to America together, leaving the conniving husband behind (“He is so sad after that. And: he has no more money”).
Then there was the part when Vong took us on a walk around his village, pointing out things of interest — which, to him, mostly consisted of explaining which families were receiving remittances from relatives in the states, and which weren’t. “They get money from America,” he would say, pointing. “Two thousand dollars. Now they have a new house! They are rich.”
(a pause; he considers the next homestead; we feel it coming and brace for it)
“But they are poor, poor people.”
So by the time Vong launched into what seemed like a well-rehearsed speech about how we, as rich foreigners, may have been feeling quite surprised indeed upon seeing way people live in the mountains of Laos (“Maybe you think people live a different way! Maybe you think they live like you! But no! They do not. They are very, very poor people”), we were obviously ready to set him, and ourselves, on fire.
Of course, we can’t really blame him for any of this. Vong is definitely a bit of a doink, but he probably doesn’t have any idea how uncomfortable Westerners are with direct, unvarnished talk of money and class (especially when that talk is coming from a self-proclaimed poor person). If we were better people we would have tried to explain to him how we felt, although I can just imagine how this imaginary feedback session would have gone. There we’d sit, wringing our hands, our mouths pulled back in desperate, grinning rictuses of embarrassment:
“You see, Vong,” we’d begin, “you talked a lot about…about money on this trip, and, ah, people from the USA don’t really like to…to talk about…ah…”
“…Poor people?” he’d ask.
“YES, YES, POOR PEOPLE, AUGH,” we’d scream, clawing at our ears.
But instead, at the end of the trek, we just gave him a tip and fled. And now I’m making fun of him on my blog! And aren’t I ashamed.
Well. Despite my pretty complaints, Vong still showed us a real good time:
These shots are from the Khmu village we passed through on the first day. This guy may look stern, but he was jolly indeed when he waved over our little group and insisted we have some of the whiskey out of that jug.
We had another of those weird moments in this village, those “ah yes I can feel how Peace Corps has changed my reaction to this situation” moments. During our walk, Vong pointed up the hill and said, “There’s the school. Let’s go have a look.”
“But…aren’t they in the middle of their lessons?” we asked, getting closer to the little two-room schoolhouse. “Aren’t we going to interrupt?”
Then we strolled up. The two teachers, smiling, one with her baby on her hip, came out to say hello and chat with Vong. Some kids watched and giggled from the doorways, some kids stayed at their desks and worked, some kids goofed around in the back of the classrooms, and nobody was even a little perturbed by our unannounced visit. And then we were like: Oh right. Classroom culture in the U.S. ≠ Classroom culture elsewhere.
Once we got to our homestay village, we sat in front of our host’s house, ate cucumbers, and watched a large group of unsupervised children amuse themselves by playing with fire in the street. The boys hacked up kindling with gigantic butcher knives while the girls used a discarded can to cook some kind of hobo soup consisting of flowers and twigs. After a while, Grandma came out and distributed big sticks of sugarcane to everybody, including us. It was all pretty heartwarming, in a Lord of the Flies kind of way.
And once it got dark, we all went inside to let the baby play with Ryan’s beard.
All in all, a good trek indeed! Thanks, Vong. We shall think of you whenever we fall on our asses in the mud.