Thursday, November 20, 2014

21 days in Vietnam and Cambodia 2014

A rain storm greeted us as we touched down at Vietnam’s largest airport, Tan Son Nhat International Airport in HCMC to begin our 21 day tour of Vietnam & Cambodia.

Almost to a stand-still

 As our transfer bus inched its way through the chaotic horn tooting traffic made up mainly of poncho wearing kamikaze motor bike riders and their pillion riders (often 2-3), Ty, our local guide gave our group of 10 their first and most invaluable lesson on how to cross a road in Saigon.  Firstly he pointed out a ‘suggestion’, in our world this is called a pedestrian crossing!  “Never think traffic will give way to you on a ‘suggestion’ Ty stressed in perfect English.  “Do not wait for the traffic to clear, otherwise you will never ever cross a road in Saigon, just walk slowly and steadily, do not hesitate or stop until you reach the other side and the traffic will go around you. The amazing thing is that it works, the vehicles and bikes miraculously manage this very well!!!  No abuse, no yelling, but many smiles as they narrowly avoid running you down!
A 'suggestion'
Who wants to be an instant millionaire?  Easy - just visit Vietnam where one Aussie dollar buys approx 1825000  Vietnamese Dong!   Working out the exchange rate and sorting out the local notes caused much confusion.  One had to be on their mettle, particularly when having fun bargaining in the lively Ben Thanh Market or with one of the many street vendors.  During the next two hot and humid but rain free days we toured the sites of the vibrant metropolis, Saigon and listened attentively to Ty and his lessons on Saigon and its turbulent 300 year history and their many fights for freedom and national independence liberty and unification and their culture and way of life now.

Reunification Palace.The official handover of power took place here on 30 April 1975. It is a monument to that historic date
The Ambassadors Chamber
The Presidential Office
One of the  radio rooms in the fortified basement

The American war (we call it the Vietnam war) ended on April 30, 1975, when the entire southern region was liberated.   Now this beautiful country is unified after years of resistance against French and American invaders. 
Notre Dame Cathedral- build 1877 with materials imported from Francee

Saigon Central Post office built 1886-1891
Inside the working Post Office

About the two names – HCMC and Saigon.  In 1976, after the reunification, the National Assembly unanimously decided to rename Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City. Many locals and tourists still refer to it as SaigonWhatever you call it, this bustling city has many architectural contrasts and a very tasty cuisine. It is steeped in tradition with a proud culture, a blend of harmony and chaos, heavy traffic, a population of around  9 million (many think over) and growing.  5 million own motor bikes and only about half of these bike riders wear helmets as they pillion up to 4 others, from babies to oldies. 

Many buildings are tall and narrow. Buildings are taxed on their width not height.

The river houses are slowly being removed and the riverside beautified. This is the last strip.

We enjoyed many really tasty traditional Pho (soup) dishes for lunch

One of the colourful gardens in the park opposite our hotel

Locals are surprisingly lay-back and congregate at street-side cafés or stalls watching the passing parade. Saigon has a tropical climate with two seasons, wet and dry. The wet season runs from June to November and is not a bad time to visit to miss the crowded tourist season.
The Opera House in HCMC

Here we are, waiting for the performance to begin
As we said goodbye to Ty, he told us we were 'travellers' not tourists, his distinction is that tourists compare, complain, judge and frown while a traveller absorbs,enjoys and smiles. Fantastic our group fell into the latter category. Not surprising though, I have escorted all but one of these persons on previous tours and each one (including our new gal) fits Ty’s ‘traveller’ bill to-a-tee.  This makes my role on the road not only stress-free but enjoyable.

RV Mekong Pandaw
Embarking on the smart ship-shape RV Mekong Pandaw for our 3 night cruise up the Mekong to Phnom Penh in Cambodia brought a complete change of pace.  This luxury river cruise ship is finished in brass and teak by traditional craftsmen. 

Our cabin

Relaxing on the side deck
The attentive and friendly crew ensured life on board was not only comfortable but relaxed and casual. The dinner gong got the gastric juices flowing as the cuisine prepared from local sourced supplies was varied, delicious and exotic.  

Making rice sweets

We enjoyed daily shore excursions to see the local life and activities along the mighty Mekong visiting local villages, floating markets, a floating fish farm and the a village where  coconut candy, pop rice and rice paper is produced. The samples were yummy!  

  Life and activities on the Mighty Mekong and  in the small canal of Sadec.

Mr Huyn Thuy Le's ancient house which featured in the movie L'Amant (the lover) a semi-autobiographic novel by the the famous French novelist Marguerite Duras. This film was shown on the Pandaw. It details the illicit affair between a teenage French girl and a wealthy Chinese man in 1929 in French Indochina.  It is hot and just as boring as 50 shades of grey in my opinion!!! Top makes to the actors though, they were brilliant.

The Pandaw's head chef gave a expert fruit carving and cooking demonstration as we enjoyed the daily special cocktail on the sundeck before watching the brilliant sunset. After dinner one could just relax in the comfortable lounge and bar, mix with some of the other 30 or so passengers, play board games such as chess or go to the movie theatre.  The Quite American,The Killing Fields and The Lover were the featured movies….how apt!  This cruise was like a lovely mini holiday in the midst of our tour. Would thoroughly recommend it. Everything was easy, including the border crossing. Our passports were collected by the Purser as we neared  the border and returned in Phnom Penh. We did not have to worry about a thing.   

The barman & his best customer
Relaxing in the lounge on the MV Mekong Pandaw

All good things come to an end but in our case there was plenty more adventures and sites to look forward to.  As our group disembarked in Phnom Penh we waved goodbye to the rest of the passengers who were all continuing on the cruise to Siem Reap after a day sightseeing on cyclos in Phnom Penh; boy they must have felt the heat.  It was such a hot day and we were grateful to board our air-conditioned bus with Kim, our local Phnom Penh guide and transfer to our hotel and its rooftop pool.   
Located on the banks of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong River, Phnom Penh is the capital and largest and wealthiest city of Cambodia with a population of 2.2 million.  It has a sort of provincial charm with French colonial mansions and tree-lined boulevards. Among the touristy sites we visited was the splendid architecture of the golden Royal palace and silver pagoda, the amazingly well organised the yellow art deco central market (Phsar Thmei).

 Phnom Penh , as we cruised in


Part of the Palace

We made a sobering visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum or S21 as it is known.This complex was a high school taken over in 1975 by Pol Pot’s security force and turned into a prison. It was the largest centre of detention and torture in Cambodia. Over 17000 people held at S-21 were taken to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek (known as the killing fields) to be executed.  We visited the killing fields about 15 km SW of Phnom Penh where those poor tortured people were killed and buried in mass graves.
The memorial septa

The area is a well kept memorial site now with a 17 story glass stupa which houses 8000 skulls exhumed from the graves, a chilling reminder indeed of the crimes and brutalities of the Khmer Rouge regime.

On a lighter note, from our hotel rooftop garden bar and restaurant overlooking the palace, we witnessed the fireworks, floating balloons, celebrations and pageantry of the 10th anniversary of Cambodia’s devoted Buddhist King Sihamoni‘s coronation.

The palace and gardens from our hotel rooftop

Phnom Penh was also full of excitement preparing and practicing on the river for the annual water racing festival, a traditional 3 day festival which attracts Cambodians from various provinces to the capital to celebrate day and night.
A must do when visiting Phnom Penh is have a meal at Friends,a famous restaurant which is a NGO training restaurant established  to help build the futures of former street children/youths. Behind the restaurant is a shelter providing medical care, training and educational facilities for over 1800 homeless, vulnerable or abandoned children each day. The restaurant itself is bright and cheery with fab paintings hanging on the walls.  The menu is extensive and the food is excellent. They have many branches in other cities. 

At 'Friends' restaurant
A short flight took us from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in northwest Cambodia. Siem Reap is well known as the gateway to the well preserved ancient temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, the gem of course being the amazing Angkor Wat plus many smaller fascinating ancient temples. This is shutterbug heaven, particularly at sunrise and sunset. 

Sunset at Angkor Wat - photo taken by Betty L.
Climbing steps at Angkor Wat
Some of our group with Angkor Wat in the background
One of my favourite places is the Phnom Bakeng temple for the best sunset view. These day you need to get there early to snag a temple top viewing spot, it is so popular and now much easier (although still a little challenging) access with steep wooden steps mounted over the original narrow steep and deep crumbling stone steps. The same with Angkor Wat, steps have been erected to allow visitors easy access to the upper levels. 
Waiting for the sunset on Phnom Bakheng temple

Here comes the sunset

Siem Reap is no longer a quaint village. It has reinvented itself as a major tourist epicentre.  However it is still a pleasant laid-back place to visit with new hotels and excellent world class restaurants.  It is easy to get around in tuk tuks, on bicycles or motorbikes or taxis.
John cycling around Siem Reap

Others let the Tuk Tuk do the work
Next we fly back to Vietnam to the charming and elegant capital Hanoi where we  stayed overnight.  The next day Tuan, our wonderful local guide for the next eight days, took us on a leisurely walking tour of the old quarter of Hanoi with its narrow lanes, traditional shop houses and markets. We returned to explore more of Hanoi after visiting Sapa.  
To get to Sapa we took the overnight train to Lao Chi which is on the Chinese Border and about 38 km from Sapa. The Livitrans Express train was a pleasant surprise having heard varying reports. To be fair, we did book and pay for 4 berth compartments for every 2 persons in our group which of course ensured more room and comfort. The compartment was clean, as was the bed linen, pillows comfortable and toilets passable. A trolley lady came around selling tea and coffee and all types of snacks.  We had dined before we left Hanoi and had breakfast on arrival at our hotel in Sapa.  All in all the train was a much better than anticipated experience both ways.

On the Livitrans Express to overnight from Hanoi to Lao Chi then by bus to Sapa.

Of course John and his uke entertained everyone on the train.
We arrived in Sapa by bus. It was cold, very misty but beautiful. Our hotel was situated in the Sapa village overlooking the valley with spectacular views from our room balconies to the Hoang Lien mountains that kept disappearing in the mist then magically reappearing. 

Our Sapa hotel lost in the mist

Tuan let us have a short rest, the mist cleared then our bus took us toward Muong Hoa valley to begin our light  trek into the valley and walk from Lao Chai village through rice paddy terraces from Lao Chai village to Ta Van Village where our bus waited to take us back to the hotel.  It was such an interesting and scenic trek, all the way we were accompanied by the happy Hmong women who spoke perfect English. They were happy to talk about their activities and daily life-style and asked questions about us and our families and of course tried to sell us their wares, mainly needlework.  It was a leisurely easy trek that lasted 4 ½ hrs.  Didn’t seem anything like that, although we were all pooped that evening. 
Setting off on our 4 1/2 hr trek with our Hmong escorts

A Hmong Woman
She is 8, her brother on her back is 8mths
She said him carried him all day while she
sold goods to visitors

Beautiful countryside

Dzao women in Ta Phin village
The remains of a Roman Catholic Church

Buy mine, buy mine...

Water Buffalo

Tending the vegie patch

The next day was raining and  colder.  Everyone reneged on the scheduled harder trek with many steps and instead enjoyed a relaxing day wandering the village shops, trying the local restaurants and having yet another fantastic massage before boarding the overnight train back to Hanoi

The Sapa markets

Some real bargains in outdoor gear hers

Main street of Sapa
Looking from Vietnam (Lao Chai) across the Red River to China
It was an early morning arrival in Hanoi. Tuan took us to visit the wonderful early morning flower market on our way to our Hanoi hotel base where we breakfasted, repacked our overnight bags and then boarded our bus to our next exciting destination.

5.10AM - at the early morning Hanoi flower market

Stunning flowers at the market

This two day adventure began as we embarked on the oriental style Bhaya vessel to overnight and cruise through hundreds of limestone islands of many shapes and sizes in the stunning UNESCO world Heritage site Halong Bay. Although the sky was overcast most of the time and the water not as emerald green as I have seen it previously, it did not detract from the breathtaking vistas of the islands or the charm and enchantment of cruising the bay.  The wonderment of Mother Nature never ceases to surprise.  
Embarking on the Bhaya vessel

Our comfortable cabin

Some of the limestone islands in Halong Bay

 A tender took our group to a fishing village and next day to the beautiful and colourful Sung Sot (The Surprise) cave before we were back on the bus to Hanoi. 

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and I love it. I find Hanoi rather romantic with its own stylish character.  It has a completely different feel to HCMC. I love the historic monuments, the French architecture and colonial ochre coloured houses, lakes and street markets where visitors are welcome to sit around on tiny plastic stools, drinking tea served in tiny glasses while chatting with the friendly locals.  I love the Old Quarter and could spend days just strolling through the pedestrian only market area and the entire streets dedicated to the one merchandise. Total retail therapy. I can tell you it was so easy and rewarding to do some credit card damage in the shoe street!

Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex

One of Ho Chi Minh's car - for my Peugeot mates

A house where Ho Chi Minh lived for a few years

The old quarter of Hanoi

Our next and final stay was in historic Hoi An, the city of lanterns. This gorgeous historic river- side town is definitely my favourite spot to visit in Vietnam.  Tourism has made it one of Vietnam’s wealthiest towns but tourism has not spoilt its easy-going provincial old town character. Hoi An is well known for its colourful lanterns  which are an absolute picture at night plus numerous tailor shops that can produce a tailored garment to order in just a few hours as well as for its cooking schools. The town is a mixture of well preserved impressive architecture including Chinese temples and ancient tea warehouses and Japanese merchant houses. It is a perfect walking town and also easy to get around on a bicycle. Just a short ride, about 4km I think, to the lovely  Cua Dai beach with palm trees, powdery white sand and warm water.  
An unexpected entrance to our room in Hoi An Ancient Village Resort

Along the river front in Hoi An

The Japanese covered bridge pagoda constructed in 1593

Hoi An at night

Our group took a half day cooking class at The Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School.  A lot of fun. Firstly we were taken though the extensive food market to see the local produce available, then a 4km cruise on the river to the school where the very amusing Vietnamese chef used quirky Australian idioms and slang as he demonstrated each dish which we then strived to reproduce at our individual cooking stations.  As I said, it was a lot of fun and at the end we got to eat what we cooked and I must say it was all rather delicious!

At the market


Chooks for sale

A peaceful cruise to the Red Bridge Cooking School

OK now to our cooking stations

Hard at work

My effort at fruit and vegie decoration. Did not look much like what the Chef did.

Our last port of call on our way to the airport was the beautiful China Beach . So peaceful. Hard to imagine that in March 1965, 3500 US Marines, the first US combat troops,  landed at this beach to defend the American air base at Da Nang.  

China Beach

Our check-in at the Da Nang airport signalled the end of our tour in which I believe we visited the very best of Vietnam and Cambodia.

 There is a wonderful Vietnamese proverb - 
   A day of travelling will bring a basket full of learning 

Our travel baskets are well and truly full of many fantastic experiences and sights, a better understanding and knowledge of the culture and astounding history of two absolutely amazing and beautiful countries and their welcoming peoples.  

An enormous thank you to our wonderful local guides for proudly introducing and sharing with us their spectacular countries, their tumultuous history, their unique culture and their religious beliefs;  many times innocently reminding us to pause and take a reality check on what really is important in life.