After my unexpected extra day in Phnom Penh, I flew out on Tuesday afternoon. I knew my fight was really two flights with a short transit stop, but hadn’t clued in that the transit stop was in ANOTHER COUNTRY until I got my boarding pass – from Phnom Penh to Vientiane.
We flew to Wattay International Airport in Laos for a brief transit stop on the way to Hanoi. I’ve never been to Lao and up til this point had never had a particular desire to visit. The city’s name “Vientiane” took me on a funny memory trip, though – just thinking it took me back to 5th grade, playing “Bushbuck” on the new family computer. It was a Carmen-Sandiago style world-wide treasure hunt game, with lots of clues to figure out. That game was how I learned my world geography (and why my knowledge of countries/cities that came into existence after 1992 is poor in comparison to the rest).
Flying out of Phnom Penh I marvelled once again at how different SE Asia is to anything I’m accustomed to. Australia is a very dry place, and Beijing no better. But Cambodia is GREEN and there are wide brown rivers everywhere. It’s a totally different sort of place. There’s an endless cultivation that looks so alien to me – the land is supposed to look empty from above! After all these years, my Australian heritage (and assumptions that go with it) is still strong at times.
As we flew toward Vientiane I noticed changing scenery. The land was more heavily forested – with a darker, bushier sort of vegetation than I expect to see around Cambodia. As flew descended toward the airport I looked closer – there were tall trees with pale, narrow trunks and softer plants that looked like soft bamboo stands, but not many of the palms I expect in SE Asia.
The houses I could see from the air were mostly 1-2 story separate houses with small yards, not so many of the taller concrete terraces all through Phnom Penh. I suppose that being by the airport could mean a difference to the city itself, but I was still surprised. Once we landed the size of the tall trees I’d noted earlier was apparent – there was a stand of them on the edge of the airport and they were easily twice the height of all the other trees, including the palms that stood taller than the roofs I saw poking through.
By the time we left the sun was setting. Above the cloud cover I saw thunderheads out the window, the tops of which were pink, catching the last of the sun. It was dark when we descended over Vietnam, and I was surprised at how little light there was – patches of light, but no streetlights. I’m used to the brilliance of Beijing, I suppose. I had no trouble working my way through immigration and taking a taxi to the place I was staying was pretty straightforward too.
I was quickly struck with how language-less I am here. I’m not used to that! I have enough Thai to do some basic things and to sound out signs, in Cambodia I have Christina and I’ve learned the basic directions and counting, in China I’m near enough to fluent… In Vietnam I’m lost. It’s so strange to not know a single word!
I was graciously offered a place to stay, housesitting a foreign family’s home while they’re away, along with a Vietnamese family recently returned from 4 years in the Philippines. They have been wonderful to me – including me in family meals (homecooked Vietnamese food – all of it very tasty!) and giving me lifts on the back of the family motorbike a few times.
The family’s young daughter in particular is really struggling to adjust to “home” – she was 4 when they left, is more comfortable in English than Vietnamese, and her local Vietnamese school is very different to the small Christian school she attended in the Philippines. Her classmates in the advanced English class can’t understand her fluent English and she can’t express herself as clearly in Vietnamese yet. To her, Vietnam is a foreign country and Vietnamese a foreign language – which is difficult for her parents to understand. I’ve been able to talk to them about what she’s experiencing and how they can help ease her transition. They were encouraged to hear that what their daughter is feeling is normal, and to have a chance to discuss the situation with someone who could help explain their kids’ perspective.
Today I’ll see something of the city, and then tomorrow morning I’m off again – I’ll land in Chiangmai, Thailand, tomorrow evening.