Blog: Cambodia & Vietnam Pt. 1 2011 > Six months living out of a small backpack…

As I am continually reminded, I am just a little behind in the blog – let’s say about 5-6 weeks!  I’m planning to get up to date before leaving New Zealand, so that I can really focus on telling you about our new exciting adventures in South America.  Below you’ll find the blog from Siem Reap to Hoi An, please watch this space for more updates over the coming days.

Siem Reap & Angkor Wat

As I already mentioned in the last post, our guesthouse in Siem Reap was amazing.  The building itself was fantastic, a real memory of the French colony, and the rooms were really spacious and lovely.  But the best part was the staff, a self-proclaimed band of brothers.  I felt sorry for the one in the Everton shirt, as not only did I berate him and try to convince him that he should instead support The Mighty Villa, we also had to wake him up at 4.30am when we wanted to take our cycles up to Angkor.  Yes, you read correctly, we got up, got on our hired bikes, and cycled to Angkor Wat at 4.30am so that we could watch the dawn.  By now you will have seen the pictures – if you haven’t, what have you been doing??

It was, and I have Mark’s agreement on this, the best day of our travels so far.  We watched the sun rise over the ancient city, and it was the first time for me in a while.  Apart from watching it while still awake from the night before.  And it doesn’t feel as special when you’re falling asleep against the inside of a taxi window.  To watch the sun rise in a place that was built a millennium ago, to enjoy the same view that the mighty Angkor Kings and Queens would have enjoyed, felt like such a thrill.  It was spoiled just a little bit by all the bloody tourists.  But you can’t have it all.

We spent the entire day cycling around the rest of the ancient temples.  We went from Angkor Wat to Ta Prohm and saw how the jungle is reclaiming the ruins.  On through Victory Gate to Angkor Thom to see the Baphuon, with the most magnificent causeway, pyramids rivalled only by the Bayon, and the head of a huge reclining Buddha, which was started, but sadly never finished.  We explored the Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace Area with its reflective pools, knowing that ancient Kings would have laid their heads here.

All of the temples showed magnificent bas reliefs, but none more so than the Terraces of the Leper King and the Elephants, with carvings depicting the tragedy of the Leper King, and glorifying the Elephants that were so revered in ancient Angkor.  We felt the humanity on the giant faces at Bayon, smiling down on us benevolently, as if to wish us well.  We saw nooks and crannies, many things ruined (but being patiently restored) and many things still amazingly intact.

The whole day felt almost unreal.  The history, the culture, the religion, and the power and motivation behind the people building these temples, is incredible.  We see some incredible architecture in present times, but I do wonder whether the Gherkin or the Shard will still exist in 1000 years.  We finished back at Angkor Wat to watch the sunset.  We had been told that if you are lucky and there are no clouds, you can see the buildings glow red and orange.

We weren’t that fortunate as it was a little hazy.  But I did manage to make an old Chinese lady laugh.  I was wearing my shorts that zip into trousers.  I got to the front of the queue to climb up to the main floor of Angkor Wat, to be told that shorts were not allowed.  I promptly pulled out and zipped on the legs.  The astonishment and laughter from the officials and other members of the queue, including the aforementioned Chinese lady, more than made up for the lack of glow.  I like to think I created my own glow of laughter, at the crazy western woman with the magic trouser-shorts.

We spent one more night in Siem Reap and guiltily enjoyed the western promise of Pub Street, whilst equally enjoying the eastern promise of Khmer Amok, a catfish steamed in a coconut based curry.  The best bits were Angkor, our guesthouse, the friendliness of people, and the food.  The worst bits were the constant touting for business and children begging.  Oh, and we learned that knowing the phrase “No, thank you” is invaluable.  It’s Te Aw Koon if you ever need it.  Another good way to avoid touting from tuk tuks is to hire a bicycle – once they see you already have a method of transport, they tend to leave you alone.

Phnom Penh

We arrived into Phnom Penh late at night after one of the bumpiest bus journeys ever from Siem Reap.  The roads are a little bit rough and ready to say the least.  And I was still enthralled by the every-day scenes that we saw all the way along our 6 hour journey.  It was as if there were a non-stop town along the road side for the majority of the way.  We saw lots of cows and buffalos bathing in ponds to try and cool off from the heat.  There was a huge area of watery marsh land around the southern part of lake Tonle Sap, and we were lucky enough to watch the sun setting on it and turning the whole area golden.

Our hotel had organised a tuk-tuk to collect us from the bus station, so we were able to avoid the scrum of drivers all trying to get fares from the bleary eyed tourists stumbling out of the bus.  But unfortunately this was the only good thing about the hotel.  We’ve since learned from another traveller that it’s quite likely that it is a sex hotel.  Nice.  I got bedbug bites.  The walls were mouldy.  The sheets were not clean.  And we should really have realised from the sheets that it was not the best place to ask for a laundry service.  Our clothes arrived back dirtier than they had been to begin with!

I didn’t enjoy our time in Phnom Penh.  I think that a big part of that was the accommodation, but there were other things that were disappointing.  We went to get some food on the first night and it was disgusting.  We went the next day, on the recommendation from Lonely Planet, to find all of the good food places in Central Market, only to find that it had been completely refurbished and only housed clothes, jewellery and souvenirs.  We actually really struggled to find any decent food which, I’m sure you will have gathered by now, is quite important to us.

There were big shopping malls but obscene poverty.  A lot of people sleep out on the streets.  Begging and touting was ramped up compared to Siem Reap, and it was very persistent.  Tuk tuk drivers were especially keen to sell trips to the killing fields, which are open graves where the bodies of all of the dead and massacred victims from the Khmer Rouge were discarded.  A friend told me that it is most likely that they want people to remember this part of their history, but there seems something quite macabre about making money from it.  I do however understand that it’s because of this event, and the slow recovery from it, that people are driven to make money in this way.

We did however enjoy walking around the city through the small quiet side streets, with small businesses and housing showing how the communities have rebuilt themselves.  The National Museum was very informative, mapping out through antiquities the time from before the great city of Angkor, through to present day.  There was a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism used in Angkor, because the early kings believed in Hinduism through the Indian influence within the country, and subsequent rulers began to study and become sympathetic towards Buddhist influences.  The various Hindu and Buddhist statues recovered from all over Cambodia were magnificent.

The most difficult part of our stay here was a visit to Tuol Sleng Prison Museum.  It is a former school, which was transformed into a prison, where any dissidents to the Khmer Rouge regime were sent for torture and ultimately to die.  There were few survivors.  The dissidents were intellectuals, artists, anyone connected with the previous government, and anyone who was fighting for the Peoples Republic of Cambodia.  This has been preserved since Vietnam took control of Phnom Penh in 1979.  The torture chambers and tiny cells have been left exactly as they were.  There are rooms filled with pictures of each person who was imprisoned, and stories from the few survivors, and also from soldiers who worked for the Khmer Rouge.  It had a most desolate feel to it, and I couldn’t help but cry as I looked at all of the anonymous faces staring back at me with a mixture of fear, defiance, or calm acceptance.  There were visitors books dotted throughout the complex, and the outpourings of emotion and support from across the globe contained within did help to re-establish my faith in humanity, but not before it had been sorely tested.

We left Phnom Penh after two nights on a bus heading for Saigon in Vietnam.  I felt that we had not seen the real Cambodia as we did not have the time to go to more rural places, which I would like to visit again another time.  But after the experience in Phnom Penh I was glad to be leaving.  I have since been told that we should have tried the Happy Pizza.  This is pizza sprinkled with marijuana.  It would have done one of two things; blocked out the bad memories, or given me such bad paranoia that it would have seemed a hundred times worse.  As there is no control over which of these side effects would have occurred, perhaps in the end we were better off avoiding it.


Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) & The Mekong Delta

Saigon conjures up for me multiple images from the Vietnam, or as the Vietnamese call it, the American war.  I remember my Dad being very interested in it as it was not a million miles away from his home country of Singapore.  More recently I have recognised it in films such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Good Morning Vietnam”.  It was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, although only in official records – most locals still call it Saigon.  The new name was given for Ho Chi Minh, affectionately called Uncle Ho by the Vietnamese.  He was a key leader in the Viet Cong resistance against South Vietnam and the USA, until his death in 1969.

There has been huge investment in the city recently, and I was stunned to see the change in the cityscape in only two years, since I was there last visiting my cousin Elliot.  It is the most heavily populated metropolitan area in Vietnam.  More and more high rise buildings are being erected in the CBD, and the city has a very cosmopolitan feel to it, whilst retaining in parts the French colonial style.  I find it a very beautiful city with lots of Asian, classic European, and modern influences.

This never, ever happens.  After an eight hour bus journey from Phnom Penh, we had arrived in
Saigon, and we were anxiously trying to work out where our guesthouse was in relation to the bus stop.  We spotted the guesthouse, and about 3 metres later the bus pulled up.  We had only to walk across the road to check in and get comfy.  This was a welcome respite from our usual arrival, which normally includes being scammed by a tuk tuk or taxi, or walking for 20 minutes with our backpacks, by the end of which I can no longer feel my hands.  I think I need to loosen the straps to stop the blood supply being cut off.  The guesthouse was lovely, the staff were very friendly and helpful, and it was modern and most importantly after our stay in the sex hotel in Phnom Penh, it was clean and had a distinct lack of prostitutes.  We were staying just off Pham Ngu Lao, which is the main backpacker district in Saigon, with lots of guesthouses, restaurants, bars, and plenty of life and atmosphere.

We spent the first day roaming the streets to see all the tourist destinations.  Ben Thanh Market is perhaps one of the most famous, where you can haggle over pretty much everything and get good bargains.  I however managed to get fleeced for a fan.  I was mostly annoyed at myself as I should know better, but it was very hot and I couldn’t be bothered to look around and compare prices.  I paid Vietnamese Dong 90,000 and had actually haggled down to this price, but then saw the exact same one in a stall around the corner for VND50,000.  To put it into perspective, this is the difference between £2.78 and £1.54 – but it sounds much more in VND.  I love being in Vietnam because it’s most likely to be the only place that I will ever be a millionaire, VND1,000,000 equating to £30.

You have to be very careful not to wander into the very narrow walkways, as the stall holders will surround you and try to force you to buy each of their wares.  I had forgotten this, and Mark and I spent a good five minutes just trying to extract ourselves and get out onto the wider paths.  We left the market quite quickly because we can’t buy much stuff anyway.  I am happy to say though that the fan has come in very useful in hot climates, so although I was ripped off, at least it was for something that I’m actually using.  We walked the wide boulevards and avenues in the scorching heat, and admired the green lushness and beautiful architecture, both old and new.

We visited the Reunification Palace, which the Vietcong captured from the Southern Vietnamese and American soldiers on 30th April 1975 signalling the end of the Vietnam (American) War.  It is so named because it was the site in which the reunification of North and South Vietnam was established after years of war.  It’s magnificently preserved with the fittings and furniture that were in place at the time the Palace was captured.  It therefore has a very retro 1970s vibe, and would probably be a good model for retro décor in present day architecture.

You can also go into the basements from which the war was coordinated, containing all of the original war maps and radio equipment.  The final room is a photo gallery of the time leading up to, during, and after the war.  I had a moment with a Vietnamese lady while looking at one of the photo books.  We turned to a page showing the famous scene of the American soldiers fleeing from the captured palace, and we both did a mini celebratory dance!  Joking aside, it’s quite a humbling feeling to visit somewhere that played such a key part in Vietnamese history.

Next we wandered to the Central Post Office and Notre Dame Basilica.  The Post Office is still the central post office, but it is also a great example of the French Gothic architecture in the area.  Notre Dame was also established and constructed by French colonists, and is a very much scaled down version of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  After this we walked back to the guesthouse via my cousin Elliot’s old apartment on Nguyen Hue, so I could show Mark where I stayed on my previous visit, the site of much drunken Windows Messaging between us.  By this point we had started to become concerned by the dark clouds gathering above us, so sped up our pace.  The light from the heavy clouds with the sun setting behind them was very surreal, like the colour of a 1960s B-movie set in outer space.

We found great food and a great bar to have a few drinks.  Essentially it looks like a shop front with lots of little seats and tables out on the pavement, but every time we walked past it was absolutely packed, and we couldn’t work out why, until we managed to find a seat and sit down to order beers.  They were VND20,000 – I would guess the cheapest beers in town!  We had a little tete a tete with a French guy, who was very unhappy to learn that Mark was from New Zealand, as he was an avid rugby fan.

The next day we took a tour to the Mekong Delta, the region in south western Vietnam through which the Mekong River runs via many distributaries into the sea.  Unfortunately it isn’t easy to find your own way around this area, otherwise we would have organised it ourselves.  Our worst fears  about the tour were confirmed when our boat took the same direction as every other boat on the wharf.  It was a typical touristic tour, being herded into one venue after another, and encouraged to buy all manner of things, from snake wine with a dead bird floating in it to coconut candy, which admittedly was bloody delicious (the candy, not the wine).  I had to force myself to not buy any, for fear of gorging myself and ending up feeling very sick.

The highlights were the group of people we were with, all down to earth backpackers sharing their experiences, the free time we had in which we could take a cycle around one of the local villages, and the traditional Vietnamese music served up with tea and fresh fruits.  There is a video you can watch in the See Us section.  Yes, you may laugh, it does at times sound a little like I did at 8 years old trying to learn to play the violin.  Maybe it was the setting, or maybe I’m just an old romantic at heart, but I found it really moving.  The funniest part was the tour guide telling us that we must all stick together, because we’re all foreigners so to her we all look the same.  I assumed that she was not referring to the very tall African American gentleman.

We left Saigon to travel to Hoi An on the most delayed sleeper train ever.  We boarded and left at 7pm, at which point we were very glad to find that our bunk mates in our four sleeper berth were not two ladies with a baby, who had mistakenly got into the wrong berth, but an English mother and son, Ben and Ben’s Mum (sorry Ben’s Mum if you’re reading, I’ve been delayed in writing and have misplaced your name in my head somewhere).  We were settling in and chatting when the train stopped at about 8.30pm.  We then sat there until 9am the next morning, with no explanation whatsoever.  This meant that our ETA to Hoi An changed quite dramatically, from 2pm the day after boarding, to 2am on the second day after we set off.  This was rather irritating, as we lost an afternoon in Hoi An, and when we eventually arrived at our guesthouse the night guard, an elderly man sleeping on a cot in the reception area, was not at all keen to let us in, until we basically barged our way inside.  We collapsed into bed as we had ironically decided not to sleep on the sleeper train, but to get drunk instead.

Hoi An

Continuing with our tendency to follow the bad weather wherever it may go, Hoi An had been suffering from severe flooding for several days before we arrived.  But the town seemed back to normal when we awoke, tired and hung over.  Mark popped out to go and find a tailor to make his wedding suit, whilst I, feeling very sorry for myself, gradually got into the shower, got dressed, and tried to make myself feel vaguely human again.  Mark came back, and we headed out for what should have been breakfast, but at 2pm I think you have to call it lunch, or perhaps even high tea.  It’s not difficult to imagine how the town would have looked a century ago, as it has retained its charms steeped in the influence of Chinese, Japanese and European cultures, due to it once being an international trading port.  All the buildings preserve the architectural style, and it gives a great feeling of old Vietnam.

The centre of town is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, with the charming buildings housing an almost ridiculous amount of tailors, with art galleries and restaurants taking up any remaining space.  The old town area is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and you are supposed to pay VND75,000 to enter.  But we managed to get away with it – ooooh, naughty us!  There is an ancient Japanese Covered Bridge, which was built in 1593, and has a small temple built on to one side of it.  We could see why the town had been flooded, as the river water level was still extremely high and was lapping up onto the streets.  It’s fun to wander round the market down by the riverside, but beware of overly friendly people who start chatting to you.  They will most probably eventually try to drag you through many side streets to a manufacturing warehouse, and try to get you to pay them to make clothes for you.

Mark was in a quandary choosing a tailor for his suit from the many on offer, but in the end, as anywhere, you get what you pay for.  So although his suit wasn’t the cheapest possible, it is very well made, and should last longer than just the wedding day.  The ladies working in the tailors were really friendly and excited about our wedding when I went back with him to collect it.  When he came out the fitting room they all swarmed round him to a chorus of “Look at the handsome man” and “Oooh handsome man” and “Ahhh, look how handsome he is”!  I’m not denying that my husband to be is extremely handsome, but I had to calm them down so that he doesn’t end up getting a big head.

We hired bikes to cycle out to Cua Dai beach about 5km outside of the town centre.  It’s a very long stretch of beach that goes all the way to Danang further north, and it has golden sand, blue ocean, thatched huts and beach loungers to relax under and on, and if you’re lucky blue sky.  The blue sky part was 50/50 for us.  We did spend probably half our time running to a nearby restaurant to shelter from the rain.  The rest of the time the sun was out briefly, and in the end when the rain did come we decided, what better way to avoid getting wet in the rain, than to stand in the sea.  And it worked, we hardly noticed the rain at all.

At night time the old town really shines.  Along the riverside all the restaurants and bars reflect their lights, which are atmospherically ambient.  No neon signs here, just low lighting accompanied by a smattering of fairy lights.  Walking through the dark narrow streets makes me think of how London would have been in the 19th century.  We found traditional music being played in a bandstand down by the river, with people taking it in turns to play instruments and sing.

Again we had to make calls on whether we would buy things from street sellers.  In the main we didn’t, but there were some very persistent and clever ladies that approached us, and some that just really needed money.  I decided to buy some peanuts from an elderly lady on the beach, because when she begged me to please help her, I could see she in her eyes that she really meant it.  The Vietnamese really struggle to earn any decent amount of money on which to live, and the government will take as much as they possibly can.  There are some instances where you feel that buying something that is totally affordable to you will make the difference between someone eating or not.  Another lady approached us in a restaurant, and when Mark already showed her that we had the things that she was selling, she smiled and replied “That’s OK, just buy another one”!  This made us laugh so much that we really wanted to buy something from her.  The persistence and quantity of these sellers can become an annoyance, as they are allowed to enter restaurants and bars, so you don’t feel you can really escape it anywhere.  And again I end up questioning a government that forces people to do this just to survive.

Hoi An is a beautiful town, the people we encountered were really friendly and helpful, and we both enjoyed it immensely.  We left after two days to continue north to Hanoi, along a stretch of train track that had been recommended as some of the most beautiful scenery available in Vietnam.  This was absolutely true.  Between Danang and Hue, we weaved our way across cliff tops along the coastline, where we could marvel at the greenery and golden beaches, and the sea crashing against the rocks below us.  When another train passed us in the opposite direction, we spotted three people clinging to the back door.  One of them waved at me to my horror, as I didn’t want to be responsible for them falling off, but they held on tight with their other hand.  That made me realise why the guards often wander round the whole train, looking between and under each carriage.  I would guess that for some people, that’s the only way they can afford to travel.

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