Phnom Penh

SunsetArriving by boat in Cambodia, we had little knowledge of the country and what was on offer. The city of Phnom Penh was full of Tuk Tuk drivers wanting to drive you around the sights and no doubt their friends’ shops selling tourist tat, thanks but no thanks!

Two of the main attractions are about the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79 and Pol Pot’s horrific acts of genocide. A section of the Genocide museum back in Mexico city covered this but to be honest after spending about the hours in there I was physically and emotionally drained and barely took any of it in.

With our trusty guidebook we headed to the “Toul Sleng Museum”, which was called Security Prison S-21 during the reign of the Khmer Rogue and the evil dictator Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. This former school was transformed in to a horrible set of tiny cells and torture rooms. These were used against anyone suspected to be against the Khmer Rouge, which included politicians, teachers, professionals and anyone with “soft hands”, yikes! Every single one of the 17,000 people detained here was photographed, documented, before they ended up at the Killing Fields.

Baby Killing TreeLeaving S-21, we headed down to the Killing Fields 14k outside the city. A large mass cemetery where the KR brutally murdered the Cambodians. A really well done audio tour is provided, allowing you to walk around taking your time in what is now a nice and peaceful garden, listening to first hand stories on what happened only 35 years ago. One horrible aspect of the KR is how they not only killed who they deemed against them, but also their full family including children to avoid any revenge attack. The “baby killing tree” and nearby mass grave sent shivers up my spine. The central shrine holds an eery collection of bones and skulls sorted by how they were killed.

At the end the KR killed three million Cambodians like this, a massive amount of the total population of ten million. Many of those responsible are still being tried.

Spending a few more days around the rest of the city, we found the Cambodians to be friendly warm people. Plenty of great places to eat and drink, beer was still über cheap and the food was amazing.

I was interested in going to the theme park that we walked past until I read Trip Advisor and the stories of people falling out of the rides, the body being moved the the ride reopening that same day, eh no thanks!

Mekong Delta

Mekong Sunset

The Mekong river has been a constant presence through our time in South East Asia, but it was the delta region we were keen to explore. The delta is a heavily populated area where life is lived on the water – houses, markets and restaurants float on the canals, interspersed with islands that have their own distinct communities and cultures. We booked a 3 day trip which promised to show us the highlights of the area, but at the risk of sounding like cynical travellers, it didn’t really live up to expectations. Whether it’s because we’ve been spoiled by what we’ve seen so far, or if the delta isn’t what it used to be, who knows.

Rice paper drying in the sunOur trip took as to a collection of islands and communities along the Mekong Delta. What I’m sure were once private and natural communities have become giant tourist traps. We were herded from one tradesman to another, being encouraged to buy something, try something, or just give a donation. The purpose of our whistestop tours of a honey farm, a rice paper workshop, and a coconut candy store felt like sales pitches, rather than to give us an authentic taste of life on the delta. Eating fresh mouse was a fun experience, though I’m not convinced the locals eat too much of that, it was more bone than anything else! At one point we were pushed onto some rickety old horse drawn carts, only to go on a pointless loop along the main road. Everyone looked a bit confused as to why. We never found out.

Day 2 started with a trip to the floating markets. I was really looking forward to this as it was the perfect excuse for me to buy ridiculous amounts of fruit and veg. This market is the biggest floating market in Cambodia, but unfortunately there were hardly any sellers, just lots of tourist boats. We had one opportunity to buy pineapples, and then we were off. I guess we got there after all the real action had taken place first thing, and we just saw the tourist dregs. Paul assures me the floating markets in Bangkok are much better, so we’ll have to give them a try.

Mekong BoatsThe highlight of the trip was a row boat trip on Unicorn Island. Because of the jungle like greenery and seclusion, this really did feel like a hidden gem – if you ignored the long queues of tourists to get a boat and being told ‘tip tip tip’ for the final 20 minutes of the ride. Taking a moment to zone out and take in the scenery, it really was pretty beautiful. This was the Mekong Delta experience that I had been expecting, and probably what it was like 10 years ago, before tourism went crazy.

We’ve learnt over the past 5 months that organised trips generally aren’t for us. The fact that the Mekong trip got us into Cambodia was it’s saving grace, and arriving into Phnom Penh, we were happy to be free to explore at our own pace.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh (or as the locals all call it, Saigon), is a great city. Compared to Hanoi, it felt far more developed, with skyscrapers and shopping malls greeting us on the way in. Despite being more Westernised, the local way of life was still dominant, with endless street sellers and markets, street bars on tiny seats, and the roads covered by Tuk tuks and motorcyclists. It felt like the city had found a happy medium.

VC TunnelOur first trip was to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Used by the Viet Cong in the war to avoid the US, the tunnels are now open to the public. Although you can only go in with a registered guide, this actually helps, as they explain the many booby traps dotted around and give you a better insight into how the Viet Cong avoided the US, and their dogs. It was amazing to get a better understanding of the planning that went into the design of the tunnels, and the extreme lengths both sides went to avoid defeat. The tunnels themselves were brilliant, getting into a Vietnamese sized one (some have been widened for Westerners) was a tight fit, and very claustrophobic when the lid was down. After volunteering to go in first, the tour guide thought it would be funny to put her foot on the lid and lock me in, quite scary. Overall it was an excellent tour, and really gave you a better understanding of how vicious the war became as the US tried to flush the Viet Cong out.

Part of the tour package was stopping at the nearby shooting range to try some of the weapons used at that time. Paul had had his eye on this for a while, and so quickly signed up to shoot an AK47. The noise coming from the range was unbelievable, and with the bullet casings pinging all over the place, I was keen to move on. Paul enjoyed his 10 bullets and then we were off.

On the way back to the bus, walking back through the tunnel area, we heard singing and music, interspersed with the gun fire. Our guide told us it was a wedding. At a shooting range/war tunnels?! Seemed an odd place to be celebrating, but it sounded like they were having a good time.

Saigon by nightWe were staying in the backpacker area of Saigon, which by day was busy, but by night was absolutely packed. Through the evening street side bars would gradually add more and more tiny little chairs and tables to accommodate the crowds. By the end of the night, entire roads were blocked as bars on either side of the street grew and met in the middle. A street that we, and normal traffic, had easily passed through at 7pm became an absolute battle by midnight, crazy stuff.

We spent a few days soaking up the city before we started making tracks to Cambodia. Aware that we were running out of time, and with 2 countries still to see, we booked ourselves onto a 3 day Mekong Delta trip as the final part of our Vietnam adventure.

Hoi An

Knowing little about Hoi An, we started out dropped off in a tailors shop who were friends of Le Family Riders. We naively assumed they were just making small talk and giving us tea before we paid the bill and headed to our hotel.

Hoi An is famous for it tailors, the streets are lined with shops who will make you anything you want, a suit? Jacket? Shoes? Nothing is too hard for them. We were sat in front of catalogues, I was initially confused with the prices being in pounds until noticing the “Next UK” logo, and asked if we wanted anything. I have no use for a suit, my current suit is only dusted off when someone dies and I really hope I never get a job that forces me to wear one, so quickly dismissed their sales pitch. I was tempted with some form of smart jacket, but decided to stick with we are backpacking and this is far from essential, plus we would have to post anything home as carrying that sort of thing when it’s this hot is just silly. We made our excuses, ignored the hard(ish) sell and moved on.

The colourful streets of Hoi An at nightThe town of Hoi An is simply beautiful, a river runs straight through the middle with streets of shops, restaurants and bars all lit with Asian style lights. The locals sell cardboard Chinese style boxes with candles in them which you lay in the river and watch them float down, charming doesn’t quite cut it. We were once again in oldie travelling territory, lots of groups of people aged 50+ wandering the town, I can see the appeal as it’s all very easy to eat, drink and relax for a few days.

Renting some bikes, we headed down to the beach side where Annie got cornered by some guy who wouldn’t let her go down the road. We couldn’t quite figure out who he was employed by, as he was insisting that we park our bikes in the parking lot whilst letting tons of other cyclists past. When asked why they were allowed through he replied he knew them, they lived there – this was big groups of tourists and locals – ridiculous. Instead of making a scene, we just went around the back of his car park and continued on our way, you ain’t scamming us! A little secluded bar and beach area made a fine way to spend the afternoon.

Booking in for a local farming and cooking day just outside of the town in a small village, we hired a couple of bikes again and headed to the local market, Helen from the tour showed us the local fruit, veg and seafood before we headed to the farm to get stuck in.

FarmersStarting with farming, we were handed local clothes to put on and headed out to collect seaweed from the the water. Taking the seaweed we then went though the locals’ method of plotting, planting and watering. All good fun, the family really seem to enjoy what they do. I doubt our pitch was going to be great – I suspect they will dig it up for the next set of visitors.

Next up was Water Buffalo Riding, animal rights over here are non-existent, I do my best to avoid all activities where they are used, previously Annie fancied going to an Elephant “Sanctuary” but from experience these places should be avoided as most are just animals dragged around for fat western tourists, though we have our eyes on visiting a proper sanctuary in the future. For the buffalo I was undecided as they are used in farming here and appear to be in okay condition. Annie asked one of the owners “does this hurt the animal?”, language barrier kicked in and we got the usual reply when you haven’t been understood of “yes”, um… We ended up going on for a quick trot around the paddock, it wasn’t comfortable or an enjoyable experience at all, I’ll stick with my gut instinct in future.

Annie Making Rice PaperThe final part of the day was cooking some Vietnamese dishes, we went through the process of making rice paper; grinding the rice down to flour, cooking the flour on a thin cotton sheet, then rolling them into spring rolls filled with herbs and eating fresh. By this point I was so hungry and would have eaten anything, turns out they were superb, really tasty. Will try and recreate the method at home for sure. After them we were shown how to make various other Vietnamese dishes which turned out rather well.

A great experience and a really lovely town, glad we stopped here on our way south.

Heading for Hoi An

Sunset

Hue turned out to be just an overnight stop, after our longer than expected journey we wandered the hotels looking for a deal. The going rate seemed to be $15 a night but the standard was a bit low, we walked in to a posh hotel after the friendly concierge guy outside said they would do us a good deal, $75 a night was way out of a backpackers budget, though funny when you show no interest at all, they rapidly drop the price to $30. Probably ended up an amazing deal but we stuck to our guns and wandered on – we still have quite a while to go, no point squandering cash on accommodation

Biking To Dong HoiA random motorbike taxi was touting for business and showed us to a $10 a night hotel around the corner, after the lovely hotel on Hanoi we were disappointed but it was only one night so paid and got on with it (dropped our bags, went to the pub).

The next morning we had arranged to be picked up by ‘Le Family Riders’ for a motorbike journey down to Hoi An, the route is famous and now seems to be publicised as “as seen on BBC Top Gear”. Personally I’ve seen the episode but couldn’t really remember much about it, though was up for the journey none the less as it makes a change from buses, damn buses.

Jump!An very friendly meeting started the day as we joined in with another few, getting on the backs of the bikes and beginning our journey. Stopping at a waterfall gave us time to play in some cracking water, a large rock made a good jumping point in to the deep water below. Lunch was provided at a seafood restaurant on a pier above the water, walking in they had a market area filled with live fish, crabs and prawns, fresh as it comes!

The afternoon provided some epic views as we headed over the Hai Van Pass, cars go through the tunnel leaving bikes to go up amd over the hill. Sitting on the back of the bike whilst the driver wound around the corners as we got view after view, was really something special.

Final afternoon stop was at a pagoda and caves, getting a bit fed up with temples and pagodas, there is only so many you can see. These were quite nice and the caves had lots of extra exploring if you were up for a rough climb and scramble, but enough was enough, back to the bikes for a final cruse along the beach coast and in to Hoi An.

Hats off to the tour group, they pulled out every stop to make us feel so welcome, fed, watered and smiled their way through the day.

Hanoi to Hue

Hanoi is a city to be experienced outside. Shops, restaurants and bars don’t bother with buildings and base themselves on the street, and even museums spill out into the gardens. Scenic lakes and temples are dotted around the city, to be experienced in the fresh air. Which made it difficult for us to enjoy, as the horrible weather in Sapa had followed us to Hanoi. We had hoped that moving South would bring us sun, but we arrived in Hanoi to find rain, clouds, and lots of grey.

Water Puppet ShowTrying to stay optimistic, we spent our first couple of days visiting museums, trying street food, and generally getting lost wandering the streets of the Old Quarter. We met Paul’s friends, Lisa and Paul, and they introduced us to Bia Hoi; super cheap beer brewed and sold in ‘pop up bars’ (read tiny seats on the pavement). At about 11p a glass, I liked it. I thought it tasted a bit like Brewdog, Paul disagreed…

One thing I didn’t want to miss was a Water Puppet Show. Based on traditional Vietnamese song and dance from the rice fields, it’s been transferred into theatres for tourists to enjoy. It is cleverly done, the stage is totally submerged in water, with the band perched on the side. The puppeteers are waist deep in water the whole show, hidden by the set. The fables were lost on us, as they were sung in Vietnamese, but it was interesting to see.

UntitledWe had planned on visiting Halong Bay, but the clouds refused to budge, and keen to avoid another Sapa situation, we decided not to take the risk and save our days for the sunny south. Before leaving Hanoi, we signed up for a day trip to Tam Coc, which translates to three caves. You hop on a row boat and row through endless paddy fields and then the caves themselves. I think in sunshine it would have been beautiful. As it was, half our attention was on trying to keep warm – maybe we should have offered to row and work up a sweat! Saying that, I don’t think we’d have been up to the challenge, their strength and technique (some use their feet, others their hands) is impressive. And the ladies are just as strong, one even ended up giving a tow to another boat when their oar snapped. A tiny Vietnamese woman hauling 2 boats and 4 big Westerners along was a sight to be seen.

Our next stop was Dong Hoi, and for a break from buses, we took the night train from Hanoi instead. This was definitely a step up, as we went for a 6 berth room and managed to get a decent night’s sleep. The cheapest option is hard seats – think park bench comfort level -, but for an 8 hour journey, that wasn’t going to happen!

Dong Hoi was picked due to its proximity to Paradise Cave. Yet another cave that I dragged Paul to, this is one of the biggest dry caves in the world. Instead of taking an expensive tour, we decided to hire a motorbike and travel the 70km ourselves. For 180,000 dong (under £6) we got a decent bike for the day. After answering our very novice questions – how do you start the engine? How do you change gear? – I think the bike owner might have twigged we weren’t experienced bikers. Any doubts were confirmed when, after finally managing to get the bike to start, we watched Paul wobble and jutter off on a practise ride. The owner turned to me and said ‘If he can’t ride, it’s not safe’ Yep, thanks for that.

But all was well! We quickly became expert riders, or at least competent, though I think I may have given Paul a few more grey hairs when accidentally driving towards oncoming traffic on a couple of occasions. After Paul navigated the city and the crazy drivers that come with it, we had a lovely ride out on country roads. The cave itself was amazing; absolutely massive and brilliantly lit. They’ve set up excellent wooden walkways in the cave that take you 1km in. We were lucky enough to have the cave to ourselves when we arrived, and the silence was eery. Definitely a highlight.

The next day, after a nightmare trip on a local bus, we found ourselves on a bike again, but in slightly less happy circumstances. We were dumped off the bus 10km away from our destination – the city of Hue – and in the middle of nowhere. Refusing to pay the amount taxi drivers were demanding, we ended up taking the option of getting a lift on one motorbike between us, mainly out of curiosity as to how it would work. Paul’s big bag went between the driver’s legs, then me with our two small rucksacks, and then Paul clinging on at the back, with my big backpack on. The fact the driver only had 2 helmets was a clue that this wasn’t right, another being that we only made it halfway before the driver gave up. Not the most effective means of travel, but an interesting experience. What a memory, I’m just disappointed we didn’t take a photo!

The Bumpy Road to Vietnam

Leaving Laos with Visas in our passports, we had a rough plan to cross the border just after Oudomxai over two days. Having booked our ‘VIP air conditioned’ bus, we arrived to find a rusty old local mini bus full of Chinese people heading towards their border. We struggled to figure out where we could sit, eventually getting one proper seat and one piece of junk that folds down to the isle, sitting at an angle with no back support for six hours was never going to be fun. Those who say “the journey is the adventure” are idiots, this sucked.

Arriving in Oudomxai , we quickly realised it had absolutely nothing to offer, we picked a hotel close to the bus station, grabbed some food from the only place that looked like it may have something we could handle, picked an early bus and moved on.

The border crossing was basic and a little bit messy, the Laos side worked reasonably smoothly, we expected a “checkout fee” but did not have to pay, result. Moving over the border, we went in to the Vietnam office and left our passports in what was a foreigner pile. I noticed the other westerners had taken their bags from the bus, but none of the locals. Not wanting to be the odd ones out, I went back to get ours but was unable as the bus was locked up and the driver was no where to be seen, I’m sure it’s not an issue I said to myself.

The immigration officer was working though the Vietnamese passport pile, as more and more locals pushed in, he continued to ignore any others. One bus driver dropped a pile of passports in, slipped him some cash which went straight I’m to his pocket, welcome to Communism! After a while I started to get concerned, especially as I saw our bus move around the building and start to load the locals on. I tried to have a word with the driver but was not allowed outside without my passport, frustrating to say the least. Eventually when there was nothing else for the immigration numpty to do, he started slowly to stamp ours. We were glad to get through and back on to the bus, who was tooting his horn as if to say “hurry up”, we are trying!

Welcome to Vietnam!Arriving in the North Vietnam town of Dien Bien Phu, we checked in to a nice hotel and left ourselves a full day to relax and explore, this was needed as two full days of buses wears you down. The city has not a lot to offer, the views coming in of the rice paddies was nice, looking down from the Victory Monument which celebrated their win over the French was lovely, running up it was hard on the lungs!

We were undecided where to head next, at dinner with some other backpackers we discussed the northern mountain town of Sapa. Sapa was first recommended to us in South America, ask anyone and they say “Sapa, beautiful”, “Sapa, oh you must to there, beautiful”, “Sapa, highlight of my trip”. When pressed on what there is to do, not much came back.

Happy to take on the recommendation and adding that Annie said she would regret not going since we had the chance, we booked on to the 06:30 bus and headed further north.

Sapa TownThe bus journey was indeed scenic, driving though valleys and local villages it was nice until the bus headed up to the mountains surrounded by grey fog. Arriving at Sapa in the late afternoon, it was dark and dingy. You couldn’t see five meters in front of you, “Beautiful” eh? With the temperature at night being about 3c, it felt like a ski resort without any snow. Being aware of the cold nights we booked a hotel which had electric blankets and a electric heater. I don’t think I’ve been so cold since I left Scotland, it was hard work.

There seems to be two things to do in Sapa, trekking and hiring mopeds/motorbikes. Neither was an option with this fog, we eventually stayed two cold nights, spending one day kicking around, putting up with locals trying to sell you all sorts of shite before leaving for Hanoi on another early day sleeper bus. The buses over the last week have been a mix of crazy and crap, this one was all fully reclining seats and made the journey so much easier, surely heading south would be warmer…