Siem Reap Part 1

We took the bus from Kampong Thom to Siem Reap. We were on the local bus which was an interesting experience! Every long distance bus we took in Cambodia had Khmer music or films playing the whole time – at top volume. Thank god for ipods!

After the inevitable mobbing when we got off the bus with our bags at Siem Reap we managed to squeeze on to a Tuk-Tuk and went to our hotel. It was a great little place with a lovely pool and super-friendly staff and was on a quiet local street just 5 minutes walk away from ‘the action’ in town. We went for a quick stroll and were pleasantly surprised to see that Siem Reap was nothing like Phnom Penh. It was just a small town really, that happened to have one of the 7 wonders of the world (the Angkor Wat complex) right on it’s doorstep. And the people were really, really friendly with none of the edginess that we’d felt the whole time in Phnom Penh.

It was bloody boiling though and we soon discovered that most people were hiding indoors if they could between the hours of 12 – 3pm as the sun was so vicious. We realised that we had indeed arrived in Cambodia at the hottest part of the year and that it was gonna get even hotter hitting 42/43 degrees most days.

We decided to buy a 7 day pass for Ankgor Wat as opposed to a 3 days pass as it cost only $20 more and we had the time to spare. This turned out to be the best thing we did as it meant that we were able to see the temples at our own speed thus avoiding temple overload and fatigue. We grabbed a tuk tuk and went to go and get our pass and then climbed to the top of a hill to see the famous Angkor Sunset. Frankly it was a bit rubbish and my first impressions were that it was more like being in the sacred space at Glastonbury – i.e busy and full of fake hippies staring out at a sunset that never arrived. Hoping that not every temple was going to be like this, we climbed back down the hill and chatted with our Tuk Tuk driver about the best plan of action with regards temple spotting over the next couple of days.

We spent the next couple of days visiting lots of temples. Angkor Wat (the most famous) is just one of many in what is a huge national park and temple complex. Cambodians still live and farm within the national park and there are cattle wandering around and people selling their produce at the side of the road. Our Tuk Tuk driver Keo (more about him later), was absolutely invaluable in taking us to a particular temple just as the crowds left or before they arrived and he spoke enough English to tell us a little about each temple.

I was surprised at how different each temple was and how many there were. They were all in varying states of repair/disrepair too. It was a shame how badly some of them had crumbled/collapsed as a result of them being clambered over by too many people for too many years and of course, being over a thousand years old, they had weathered pretty badly. But similarly some of the reconstruction/preservation seemed to give some of them a bit of a theme park feel which is only likely to get worse – so get there and see them for yourself as soon as you can! Our favourite temple was Bayon (the one with the smiling faces carved into all the buildings). It was really amazing and was like a warren of temples within a temple that had a really amazing feel to it.

In the hot weather, it was really, really hard work clambering over the temples and we both soon were packing flannels with us to absorb the vast amounts of sweat that were pouring off us every day! We quite quickly realised that it was enough seeing 2 or 3 temples a day. Any more than that and the thought of climbing up more stone steps was pretty unappealing and you’d spend more time hiding from the sun than appreciating the carvings.

Likewise, the hawkers at some of the more popular temples were really quite exhausting at times. They weren’t allowed inside the actual temples so we’d get mobbed as we got out of the tuk tuk and walked towards the temple and would be mobbed as soon as you started walking back to the tuk tuk when you left. They were selling everything from bracelets to fans to t-shirts to carvings to books to drinks to snacks to musical instruments (pan pipe or violin anyone?!) and they were the most persistent hawkers we met anywhere! The usual patter would begin with ‘where are you from’? upon whichever nation you replied, you would be regaled with the Prime Ministers/Presidents for the last 20 years. This would move on to the football players of their favourite team all being shouted in your ear as you tried to walk along and fend them off, repeating ‘no thank you’. The children were the most persistent. They’d just go into some sort of a robotic trance repeating ’3 bracelets $1′ in a slightly pathetic voice, over and over and over and over again whilst clinging onto your hand… We quickly found that if you asked them a question, rather than just said ‘no thank you’ it would have the same effect as administering a slap to someone having histrionics i.e it would stop them for a short while whilst they thought of the answer to your question and would give you enough time to jump into your tuk tuk and drive away…

As well as temple spotting we took a day trip to Tonle Sap lake to visit a floating village. Unfortunately we didn’t plan and research this as well as we should have… As it was so hot and the dry season, the level of the water in the lake was really, really low. This we expected but what we hadn’t thought about was how low the river flowing into the lake (and where the boats left from) would be. We got into our boat for what should have been a short boat ride out onto the lake. This actually turned out to be an hours crawl into the lake whilst boats got stuck etc. We should have guessed that perhaps the trip wasn’t going to be much fun by the fact that all the tourists coming in the opposite direction, seemed to be grimacing slightly.

Once we’d finally got out onto the lake, it became apparent that the ‘floating village’ wasn’t what we were expecting. It was actually a very primitive camp for Vietnamese refugees who lived there in terrible conditions and were totally dependent upon handouts from the tourists. First stop was to the floating ‘school’. The school was a large houseboat with one room full of children running around. There was one ‘teacher’ and there was very little evidence of any teaching going on. As soon as we walked in, the kids flocked over and posed for photo’s.

On the way out, our guide informed us that the next stop was the local shop, where we could buy some much needed pens or books for the school kids. Whilst at the school, Steve had spotted a cupboard bursting with packets of unopened pens and books that clearly weren’t being used. Once we got to the shop (which didn’t appear to be run by Vietnamese) we were told the proce of said pens and books – this was about ten times more than you’d pay in the UK. We smelt a fish. Declining to buy any of these and pointing out that they had hundreds already at the ‘school’ we were told that we could buy some noodles instead – again at vastly over-inflated prices. Again we declined.

Next stop was the floating crocodile ‘farm’ and floating ‘fish farm’. Here our guide announced that we should stop for 30 minutes. We got off the boat and found the said ‘farms’ consisted of one crocodile in a cage and a couple of sad looking fish in a net. Oh and there was of course a HUGE gift shop and cafe. Again we declined.

We finally persuaded our guide to take us back and as we left, we saw the desperate sight of boatloads of tourist handing out money and food off the back of a boat and being pursued by hundreds of women and children in small rowing boats.

This really was tourism at it’s ugliest and I’m certain that the Vietnamese were not benefiting from this in any way at all – especially the children, who were effectively being treated like animals in a zoo and who certainly were being allowed to receive the education that they deserved.

When we finally arrived back at the dock our guide demanded money for his services over and above the whopping $20 each we’d already paid and which we found out was going straight into the pockets of the Korean investors who ran the whole sorry show. This was another example of how both the Cambodians and the Vietnamese were being exploited without really realising it. Thoroughly depressed, we set off in our tuk tuk to our next stop, the Landmine Museum.

Now, as depressing as it sounds, this was actually a fascinating though incredibly sad place to visit. It was basically a sheltered home out in the countryside with the aim of raising funds to look after the young people who were being supported by the organisation. All of these young people had either been injured, displaced or orphaned by landmines. As a result of the civil war, the Khmer Rouge regime and the American bombardment of Cambodia, he country is littered with them and thousands of innocent civilians are killed or injured every year by these as they try and go about their daily business. It is not thought that Cambodia will ever be fully ‘cleaned’ of landmines or UXO (unexploded ordnance).

The museum is run by a guy called Akira. He had a very sad but quite inspriring story (link to film here). A former Khmer Rouge child soldier who experienced and inflicted so many horrors at a young age, he had used his skills and experience in laying mines for the Khmer Rouge, to become a kind of landmine vigilante; clearing landmines with his own hands all around the country. Eventually, the UN had taken him on board and trained him to do this properly ensuring that all the areas he had cleared were logged properly etc. The museum was full of examples of the landmines and UXO that he had cleared over the years and to show the horrors that they inflict.

Whilst visiting the museum, we were chatting to Keo our driver who we had become good friends with and he started to tell us more about himself and things he’d experienced and witnessed, including being orphaned, public executions, bombings and killings all carried out by the Khmer Rouge. He is 28 years old. This was happening in the first 13 years of his life at for least 13 years after the Khmer Rouge regime supposedly ended. I felt completely ignorant that I had thought all their problems had ended in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge regime ‘officially’ ended.

During our first week in Siem Reap we were getting to understand Cambodia and the lovely but damaged people a little better.

24

05 2010

Kampong Thom, Cambodia

Kampong Thom is a small town on the East Side of Tonle Sap lake, about half way between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Most visitorstend to miss most of the towns and villages in this part of Cambodia as they take the express bus between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap which takes about 6 hours. We didn’t really fancy doing the journey in one go (Cambodian roads are even worse than Vietnamese roads!) and we wanted to see some of this part of the country so we decided to break our journey in Kampong Thom.

After a bumpy three hours on the bus (with the Killing Fields being screened for the passengers?!) we alighted at Kampong Thom a bustling but dusty market town. We were supposed to stay for 2 nights but the hotel had cocked up and only booked us for one night, so after a slight detour to check out another place to stay for the 2nd night (grim) we arrived at our hotel to find that we had a really lovely typical Cambodian bungalow surrounded by trees and flowers and birds. It was so peaceful!

We borrowed a couple of bikes and set off along the river to take in the Cambodian countryside. It was, very, very hot again and as Cambodia hadn’t seen any rain for over 6 months, everything was totally scorched. The red soil was red dust and the fields were empty. With thin cattle grazing on the non-existent grass, it looked like what I imagine Africa looks like and I could suddenly see how the country could have had a drought that killed 1000′s of people only a matter of years ago.

The river was about a quarter of it’s normal height and people were trying to pump water up to the river bank so that they could water their crops and have water to bathe in. In the rainy season conversely, the rivers usually flood and their is so much rain that the majority of rural Cambodian houses are built on stilts, to protect their property. This shady space under the house was now being used by most families as somewhere to hang their hammocks and escape the heat or to tether their livestock. Most houses had either a pig or a cow and for most families this will provide their livelihood. It really is subsistence farming.

We cycled around the town and were met with curious waves and glances by the locals – I don’t think they see many tourists in these parts! Again, I was really surprised by how many buildings appeared to be occupied by NGO’s and international charities providing a variety of different healthcare/education services. Kampong Thom (like most of Cambodia) is still incredibly poor and due to it’s relatively close proximity to Vietnam was bombed heavily by the Americans for years and years (a chapter in the American Vietnam war that no-one ever really talks about) and was also a Khmer Rouge stronghold until the late 1990′s. As a result there are many orphanages in the area. The children either orphaned as a result of landmines still in the fields, or simply abandoned by their parents in the hope that they might have a better life in an orphanage than the one that they would get at home.

Back at our hotel, I got chatting to an American lady who turned out to be a Doctor working for a charity in the town. Her charity (which she was funding herself from fundraising by running marathons etc) was trying to set up a clinic at a local school to ensure that the children could receive basic health care. Healthcare is not free in Cambodia. This is a major problem for the majority of people who are simply unable to raise the funds to pay for medicine, doctors fee’s, operations etc. If you earn only $2 a day, how are you supposed to find the $’s to buy medicine for your sick child? Likewise, if you are ill and you cannot work, you don’t get paid. This is the vicious cycle of poverty that we saw all over Cambodia; in stark contrast to a very small proportion of the population who are very, very wealthy.

The Doctor had been working with a local orphanage and they had invited her and her medical students to the orphanage that evening where they were going to perform a series of traditional Cambodian (Khmer) dances to say ‘thanks’. She invited us along with her. Having never been to an orphanage before, let alone a Cambodian one, I didn’t really know what to expect. When we arrived, we were met by the Director and his staff and by loads of gorgeous happy and healthy looking kids. The Director of the orphanage was a lovely man and very humbly admitted that the orphanage had won ‘Best Orphanage in Cambodia’ several years on the trot.

The children and young people were aged between 18 months and 21 years of age. Their circumstances were all different but a high percentage of them had been brought there by their parents in the hope that they’d have a better life. They lived in comfortable houses with a ‘mother’ to keep an eye on them and lived like a family unit. They received an excellent education in English and French and some of the students had even gone onto to study at University. The orphanages’ existence is totally dependent upon donations.

The older children performed a series of traditional Khmer dances which were more or less wiped out (along with most Khmer art forms) during the Khmer Rouge regime. During the Khmer Rouge regime dancers, musicians, artists and writers were particularly despised by Pol Pot (the Khmer Rouge leader) and were killed in their 1000′s taking most of Cambodia’s culture with them. As a result, there is a real desire in Cambodia to retrieve these arts and reintroduce them as part of every day popular culture.

It was a really interesting and humbling evening and one of mixed emotions. Whilst it was so sad to see these young people without their families, it was comforting to see that they had a safe and secure place to live, but also saddening to think that many, many children all around Cambodia wouldn’t infact be as fortunate as these orphans…

24

05 2010

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We got up early to take the speedboat up the Mekong Delta from Chau Doc in Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After 5 hours on the boat we finally crossed into Cambodia and docked at Phnom Penh.

As soon as we stepped off the boat we were mobbed by motorbike/tuk tuk/ taxi drivers. Some of them were really rude and quite aggressive but we eventually managed to find one who was friendlier. We came to learn that this aggression was actually desperation. With an average income of $2 a day, our fare was REALLY important to them and may have made the difference between their family eating that day or not.

After dumping our bags at our hotel, we set off to explore the city. What we’d read in the slightly outdated Lonely Planet painted a picture of guns, bag snatching, poverty and corruption so we slightly nervously took to the streets!

First impressions were of a slightly crumbling city on the river with some amazing old colonial villas alongside open sewers and children begging. It felt a bit edgy until you got the riverfront which was thick with restaurants and bars – most of which were hostess bars.

We went for a drink in one bar and had a constant stream of children selling books, people with severe physical disabilities and many people with limbs missing – which remained a constant reminder of the awful damage that landmines continue to cause in Cambodia.

It was REALLY hard to say no to everyone; particularly the kids who spoke brilliant English but buying from them only encourages them to work on the streets and makes them more vulnerable.

We visited one area of the city where Nokia had a break and street dancing competition which was really popular with teenagers and was quite funny to watch. Whilst at the market we had some street food but as we sat there a group of ragged children emerged from the shadows and nervously swarmed around the empty tables and the bins and picked through peoples leftovers and then disappeared as quickly and silently as they’d arrived. The poor little things were obviously starving. Some of them were as young as 5 or 6 years old. It was heartbreaking – and it was at this point that we realised that Cambodia was going to be emotionally challenging.

Later that evening, we got chatting to a young girl working in a bar and her story made me really angry. Again, this type of story would become familiar. Old Western ‘boyfriend’, young Cambodian ‘girlfriend’ being treated like some exotic commodity.

Feeling a bit depressed by what we’d seen of Phnom Penh thus far, we went and had a happy pizza (extra happy please!) and went to bed.

We spent the next couple of days exploring the city. It was seriously hot and soon as you stepped outside you were a big sweaty mess, so we hired a tuk-tuk one morning and went on a drive around the city. We crossed the river where no tourists go and by chance stumbled upon a harvest festival at a local temple. The Buddhist monks had been served food by the locals to say thanks and pray for a successful harvest. We were watching from a distance and before we knew it we’d been invited over by on of the older monks and asked to join them! He didn’t speak much English but did speak some French (which was their second language before the Khmer Rouge occupation which practically wiped it out) so as I dusted off some very rusty French speaking skills, he proceeded to explain the celebration to me. The locals insisted that we sat with them and ate their food and it was a really lovely cultural experience.

Phnom Penh is home to hundreds of NGO’s (Non-Government Organisations) from all around the world, who arrived to ‘help’ Cambodia during the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime over 30 years ago. Unfortunately Cambodia is still an extremely poor country whose people have pretty much been left to their own devices by a corrupt government. As I said earlier, the average daily wage is $2 per family. The majority of Cambodians still live by subsistence farming but tourism is growing and more people are coming to the cities to find the ‘streets paved with gold’. Unfortunately, typically many people arrive in the capital city completely unprepared or in desperately vulnerable situations. This means that huge numbers of children live on the streets or are left to their own devices whilst their parents try and find work or more commonly, send their children out to work on the streets to fund their drug and alcohol problems. Sex tourism is still commonplace in Cambodia though efforts are being made to try and stop this.

There are a number of charities and NGO’s who work tirelessly to help the 1000′s of vulnerable young children and their families in Phnom Penh and we went to visit one of these projects to lend our financial support and to find out more about how we could help whilst in Cambodia. One of these projects is Childsafe and also the Friends project. We were really impressed by the work they do and met some of the young children that they’re trying to help in the city. It was a privilege to meet these people and to find out how we could become Childsafe travellers whilst in Cambodia.

Unfortunately Steve was really sick one day and was bedridden, so I took myself off to the Genocide Museum (recently bought by some Japanese investors who pocket all of the entrance fee!) which was the school in the centre of Phnom Penh that was turned into a prison where 1000′s of innocent Cambodians were taken to be tortured to confess to being spies/intellectuals/opposing the Khmer Rouge regime. After they had ‘confessed’ they were taken to the Killing Fields just outside the city where they were brutally executed by the Khmer Rouge. It was a sobering and moving experience and the full horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime suddenly became very, very clear. Whats more, this was happening the year I was born and as we were to find out later on in our travels, the Khmer Rouge continued to rule with terror in parts of Cambodia up until the late 1990′s. It was not ‘just’ the 4 years of horrors that I’d been led to believe it was. The poor, poor people of Cambodia.

We felt like we’d seen enough of Phnom Penh after 4 days and decided to move on. Next destination Kampong Thom.

Here’s a few photos:

24

05 2010

Photos of the Mekong Delta

24

05 2010

Mekong Delta, Day 3

We were up early the next day to get a boat along the river to the famous Cairang floating market where all local wholesalers of fruit and vegetables bring their produce by boat to sell their wares to ‘middlemen’ also in boats. The boats were laden with produce and in order for people to know what they were selling, they all had a long pole sticking up in the air which had the produce attached to it so people could see what they were selling. Once they’d run out of something, they simply took that item off the pole. Simple but effective! It was very atmospheric cruising amongst the boats seeing all the hustle and bustle.

The last day’s cycling was the longest and when we got on our bikes in the morning we were knackered! My legs were still fine but my bum was really sore and the thought of 50+km that day was a bit daunting! the first stretch was a breeze though as we cycled right along the river under a green canopy of trees and flowers which was a welcome relief. We went through some really pretty villages and as with the first two days, were always accompanied by kids on bikes and hellos and friendly waves from everyone we passed!

We visited a Taoist temple and a crane sanctuary where there were literally 1000′s of cranes nesting in the trees. We had the option of having a Crane lunch (!) which we declined…

After a non-crane lunch we drove onto our next destination. The road we were supposed to take was closed as a bridge had collapsed so the one we had to take was ridiculously bumpy and busy and at times we were driving so close to the edge of the river that it felt like we were going to topple in. You wouldn’t want to fall in to the river as we later found out that during the typhoon earlier in the year, the waters had risen to high that one of the local crocodile farms had been flooded and approx 20,000 crocodiles had escaped into the river. Quite a few children had been killed by crocodiles in the villages that we past through, as they played in the water.

The last stretch of cycling that afternoon was about 45km and included one pretty big mountain to get up which looked even bigger than it was against the flat landscape of the rest of the Mekong Delta! As we were approaching the Cambodian border, the area that we were cycling through had a large Cambodian population as people had fled from Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge atrocities and the borders had been moved several times. They were obviously very, very poor. They people looked very different to the Vietnamese people we’d met in the rest of the country. They were really dark-skinned and their dress was different with many people wearing traditional Cambodian scarves. A lot of the elder women had shaved heads which I later found out was because they shave their heads when they are widowed.

We had all sorts of kids cycling along with us and talking to us as they came home from school or for others, from work. Some of them had to cycle 10Km to get to the nearest school and they’d do this journey twice a day. It made me realise as we cycled along for pleasure, just how important having a bike is to people in rural areas. for most, it’s their sole mode of transport and means the difference between going to school and getting an education or not. Without a bike, they can’t get an education and end up working the fields with their families to try and earn some money. We saw really young kids on massive bikes that were way too big for them, pedalling along or having a backy on someone else’s bike.

Despite being knackered, we pushed on and ended up covering the distance pretty quickly and even managed to make it up the mountain in one go – a downward slope has never felt so good!!!

It was really beautiful with huge fields full of palm trees stretching as far as the eye could see and as dusk fell it looked really magical.

We arrived in Chau Doc our final destination and had some well earned beers with Loc our guide who was a really nice guy. We then went and got some street food. It was so sad though as there was a very young boy on his own wandering around the market late at night trying to sell lottery tickets. He was looking hungrily at the food and hanging around the stalls so Loc bought him something to eat. He wolfed it down and gave us a big smile and it nearly broke my heart. What we didn’t know then though was that the poverty and hardships that we’d seen people facing in Vietnam as a direct result of the American Vietnam war, were almost going to pale in comparison to the situation in Cambodia and the stories that we’d hear.

The cycling trip was absolutely brilliant and was one of the highlights of our time in Vietnam and was the perfect way to scratch a bit deeper, get away from the more touristed Vietnam and see rural Vietnam in all it’s beauty.

24

05 2010

Mekong Delta, Day 2

After only a couple of hours sleep we woke up early and prepared ourselves for the next day’s cycling.

We were due to be picked up by our boat to take us further along the river to meet the van and our driver but the tide was so low that we had to wait as the boat couldn’t come and get us. When we eventually got on the boat it took us ages to move a relatively short distance as the water was only a foot or two deep in places. Luckily we had a very experienced boatman who steered through the canals. Some boats we stuck and simply had to wait until the tide rose before they could move. It was a great experience though and was really interesting to see the river villages and the boat life from the water.

Once we arrived in VinhLong it was back on the bikes. The legs felt fine but my bum was a bit sore and we’d both caught a bit of sun the day before. Because we’d set off later than planned due to the tides, it meant that we were cycling in the midday sun and it was much, much harder. The temperatures were pushing 40 degrees and the sun was really fierce. To help matters we were also cycling into the wind. It was hard work and we had a long way to cycle that day (about 40km) so we just had to get on with it and kept stopping for breaks. We discovered that sugar cane drinks that you could get at little shacks at the side of the road were the ultimate energy drink and really refreshing – freshly squeezed sugar cane, freshly squeezed kumquats poured over some crushed ice. Delicious!

The area that we cycled through that day was much, much poorer and we saw many people who lived in what were literally shacks at the side of the road. The scenery was lovely and very rural. We had to negotiate cows crossing the road, kids on bikes on their way home from school, tractors filled up with tropical fruits and the produce from the area. There were also lots of paddy fields with water buffalo grazing at the side of them and people tending to their crops wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical hat.

The sun got hotter and hotter though and we were all really pleased to eventually reach our destination which signified then end of the cycling for the day. Exhausted, we fell in to the van, and drove to Cantho where we had lunch and then went to the hotel and had a long bath! Cantho is a lovely Mekong Delta town and that evening we sat on the riverfront and had a delicious dinner and a couple of beers before falling into bed and sleeping like babies!

24

05 2010

Mekong Delta, Day 1

We were picked up in the morning by our driver and our guide. It was just the two of us and them cycling through the Mekong Delta for three days and then taking the boat up the river and crossing into Cambodia.

We were a bit nervous as we didn’t really know quite what to expect in terms of distances and how we’d cope with the heat as it was very, very The bikes were pretty new hybrid bikes and our driver would take all our gear whilst we cycled. It was like having our own support team – brilliant!

After driving for a couple of hours we stopped and started cycling towards Mytho. It was great once we settled in to a steady pace and we passed through villages with everyone waving and saying hello and loads of children running out to see us and say hello. They were so excited to see us it was hilarious and sometimes we’d pass a house and hear a chorus of hello’s but not be able to see where it was coming from, only to spot some kids up a tree/in the river/in their house and they wouldn’t stop saying hello until we waved back.

After a couple of hours, we arrived in Mytho for our boat trip on the Mekong Delta where we visited an island and saw sweets being made out of coconut and tasted many different types of tropical fruit and we took a sampan (a rowing boat) back along small canals. The Mekong Delta is simply massive – it was more like being on a huge lake than a river at times and the geography of it was a bit confusing as it splits off into many tributaries etc so we weren’t really sure exactly which bit we were cycling on at any one time.

We stopped for lunch and then took the boat back to the van and drove on for an hour or so before stopping and cycling on to CaiBe. This was really good cycling as it was totally flat and we went down dirt tracks, crossed lots of monkey-bridges and passed through some really rural villages. It was lovely cycling at dusk and was so peaceful. We took a couple of local ferries across more tributaries on the river until we arrived at CaiBe where we boarded a boat to take us to across the river (where it was 1.5km wide!) to BinhHoaPhuoc and AnBinh island to a guesthouse.

The guesthouse was a very basic traditional building on stilts at the side of the river. It was beautiful but it was boiling – there wasn’t a breath of wind at all and it was stifling. We had some well earned beers having cycled about 25Km, watched the sunset over the Mekong and had some delicious dinner before falling into our camp beds and pulling down the mosquito nets.

It was at this point, that the evening river noise started! First of all it was the incessant cockerels crowing, then the local dogs barking and fighting, then the insects all started and so it continued…

24

05 2010

Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

We flew from Nha Trang to Saigon (the locals mostly still call it Saigon despite it’s name officially being Ho Chi Minh City now). Flying within Vietnam is cheap and very easy. Vietnam Airlines seem really good! It’s only an hours flight but we didn’t really have time left on our visas to stop anywhere else in between as we wanted to leave enough days to explore the Mekong Delta too.

Saigon is a proper big, international city! Nothing like Hanoi, which is quaint and very Asian feeling. Saigon has tall buildings, international company headquarters, a high population and also all the problems that go with being the capital city in a country which is still developing fast.  The traffic was terrible though – just an endless sea of motorbikes and cars none of which were going anywhere very quickly…!  In our short time there it was pretty obvious that the infrastructure in Saigon is in dire need of updating. The sewers, drainage, cabling and roads/pavements all need major investment. In such a busy and populous city it’s hard to see how that can happen though as they really need to dig up the roads, fix the sewers, put the myriad of electrical/phone cables underground and sort out the pavements (which at times are non-existent). There’s a lot of money being invested in Vietnam but it mainly goes on tourism and business. If they don’t sort out the infrastructure too then it may be too late to do it without causing major disruption which will obviously impact their tourism potential. The country and government face a bit of a dilemma which could cause real problems if not addressed! That said the Vietnamese seem a resourceful people and I’m sure they’ll work it out.

We treated ourselves to a nice hotel in Saigon. We felt like we deserved a bit of luxury after all our travelling. The 5 star Sofitel had a sale on which made it affordable although still the most expensive place we’d stayed to date… Have to say the service was some of the best I’ve ever experienced in a hotel and the rooftop swimming pool was brilliant!

Saigon has some amazing architecture, a lot of the old government buildings were built by the French which gives the city a fairly cosmopolitan feel. It’s pretty easy to walk around most of the main sights and restaurant/bar areas. And that’s pretty much what we did during our time there; walk, stop to see a building, walk, stop to eat or drink :-) There are some great restaurants and bars there although some of the nicest food we had in the city was at a fast food place called Pho 24 which serves just Pho (delicious noodle soup). It’s dirt cheap and as good as the Pho you get anywhere.

One afternoon/evening we went to visit a Vietnamese friend of Em’s parents who they’d met when they were in Vietnam a couple of years ago. Phong and his family live in the suburbs and they very kindly treated us to a great afternoon where Em got to try her hand at rolling spring rolls and we played with their lovely daughter (who’s western name is apparently Emily). They cooked us an amazing meal – enough food for about 15 people (!) and we had a great time.  As ever meeting locals on their own territory is always the best way to get a better understanding of the culture and how friendly they are. Thanks Phong, Van and family!!!

We discovered the backpacker area of the city the next day. It’s full of cheap hotels, small bars (most of which were full of very young Vietnamese girls and old Western men) and eateries (we had an amazing  Southern Indian meal here). It’s also full of tour companies who can book you trips to the Mekong and beyond. We had been thinking about trying to organise a cycling trip, although we weren’t sure as it was so hot. We went into one shop, Asiana Travel Mate (great local travel company dealing in really good tours), and sat down with the sales person. Her name was Thu and she proceeded to give us so much useful information about a cycling tour to the Mekong Delta which included boat tickets up the river to Cambodia that we ended up booking straight away (more on the cycling trip in the next post). We stayed chatting with Thu for some time and explained that we really liked getting the chance to meet locals in their own environment so we could really experience the culture. At this she got extremely excited and asked us if we wanted to go and visit her parents with her the next day. Of course we said yes!

Thu’s parents live in a small village about an hour outside Saigon towards the Mekong. They have a small farm where they grow a huge range of tropical fruits. We went there by car and stopped off at the village market to buy meat, fish, vegetables and noodles to take to her folks house for lunch. We arrived to a huge welcome from her parents and fresh coconuts ready for drinking. Following that was a massive platter of fresh fruit from their own trees which we tucked into as we all chatted.

Thu and her Mum disappeared to prepare lunch so we chatted with her Dad. He’s a lovely guy with a really interesting background; he was well educated and worked with the Americans during the war in a senior role in the South Vietnamese army. Because of that, when the war ended, the newly formed communist regime sent him to be ‘re-educated’ as a farmer. This meant he was separated from his family at times. He’d also spent some time in a prison, not for doing anything wrong, just as a result of his circumstances during the war – i.e working for the losing side; very unfair.  We were saddened to hear his story but (not for the first time) amazed at the resilience of the Vietnamese.

He hadn’t used English for many, many years and as the day wore on he became more confident and by the end of the day we were discussing pretty much anything with him. It was quite amazing to see a language come flooding back to someone like that!  Thu was particularly touched and amazed to see her Dad speaking so fluently in English and taking such pride in telling us his side of the story.

He also took great pride in taking us to see how the locals farmed the area and to see his fruit plantation. We learnt all about the farming techniques they use and how hard they work to keep soil fertile and well irrigated (a backbreaking, never-ending task). He even took us to meet other relatives who lived near by. We had a great lunch with Thu and her parents, their hospitality was amazing and the day was one of the highlights of our time in Vietnam!

We spent the rest of our time in Saigon mooching about and seeing a few sights and an inordinate amount of time trying to cross the traffic-clogged roads. Oh and wondering whether we’d done the right thing booking a cycling tour in 35 degree heat and humidity (more on that in the next post) :-)

Here’s a few photos from in and around Saigon.

02

05 2010

Nha Trang, Vietnam

We got another private car and driver to travel to Nha Trang. The stretch of coastline between Quy Nhon and Nha Trang is particularly beautiful with mountains, cliffs and lovely secluded bays. On this journey we had our first sign that dog is still eaten in Vietnam. We’d been told that the Vietnamese only really eat dog in the second half of the lunar month and hadn’t seen any sign of it so far. We stopped at a petrol station and a truck pulled in full of small cages each of which were packed with dogs. The driver got out of the truck to fill up and saw me staring. He looked over, smiled and then ran his finger across his throat and pointed at the dogs… We didn’t see anymore sign of dog being eaten however this day would henceforth be known as the ‘day of the dog’…

Nha Trang is quite a big town but generally as a tourist you only see a very small bit of it. As you drive in from the north you can see many small, ramshackle wooden houses for fishermen. Then you get to the seafront and it’s mostly western tourists everywhere. There’s about 5 blocks of the town that tourists frequent. We found our hotel then headed don to he beach to find some food.

The beach front is nice, some cool bars and restaurants all with loungers and watersports available. The sand is beautiful, the sea is clear and pretty clean. The beach gets a little dirty though in parts. We lay on the sand in the afternoon and this is where the ‘dog day’ hit us. Em looked over and found we’d been lying not 2 metres from a dead puppy that was washed up on the beach! I’ve no idea how it could have died but that was enough to make us move down the beach quite a way.

We had some great western food in Nha Trang. After pretty much nothing but Asian food for nearly 2 months it was actually really nice to have access to expat owned restaurants. Very near our hotel (which was lovely by the way) was a place owned by a guy from Mississippi. He prided himself on having the best smoked ribs in Asia and they were amazing! I have never had meat so tender, the hours of smoking really do the trick!

Across the bay from Nha Trang is Vinpearl Island resort. The island has a massive Hollywood style sign on it saying Vinpearl in huge letters. It’s basically a single resort hotel with a water park, theme park and aquarium. We decided to go for the water park as our hotel didn’t have a pool and at that time of year the sea on Nha Trang beach is very rough.

To get to Vinpearl you have two options; ferry or a cable car. We chose the cable car. It’s the longest over-water cable car in the world at 2.5km. Amazing views, but also extremely scary as Nha Trang is a windy place and the cable car rocks about all over the place. Not good 100m up over the sea! Em decided she wanted to get the ferry back after the outward journey, unfortunately the ferries weren’t running all day so she had to grin and bear the return cable car trip.

We enjoyed our 4 days in Nha Trang mainly as it was such a change from where we’d been before and our hotel was so nice. Nha Trang isn’t the sort of place I’d go back to for a holiday though! Much better and quieter beaches all along the Vietnamese coast although sadly I reckon a lot of these will get overdeveloped like Nha Trang pretty quickly.

Here’s a few photo’s from Nha Trang.

02

05 2010

Quy Nhon, Vietnam

Our next stop on the Vietnam leg of our tour was a relatively untouristed coastal town called Quy Nhon. To get there we travelled by car with a private driver. This journey was probably the worst of our driver experiences in Vietnam. He played non-stop euro techno hits the whole way, drove too fast and overtook everything he possibly could. There’s so many motorbikes and bicycles on the roads in Vietnam that we constantly thought he’d hit someone or something. He didn’t, luckily.

We booked he driver through one of the many tour agencies you find in every town in Vietnam. The guy in the shop told us that we’d be passing the famous site of the My Lai massacre and that it would be ‘very nice’ (not the way I’d have described it) to go and see it. So we got the driver to stop there en route.

The My Lai massacre is the site of a village where the U.S. Army essentially murdered many innocent civilians and torched their village. A very moving monument and museum are at the spot. Particularly moving are the messages from ex GI’s who weren’t involved in the massacre but have since gone back to visit it to pay their respects to the people affected by the atrocity. A very sad and needless waste of human life!

Quy Nhon is a smallish town situated on a massive bay. Our hotel was right on the beach and was really nice although the person who planned it wasn’t too clever as the swimming pool faced the sea and was in the shade of the building for most of the day…

There’s not a great deal to do in Quy Nhon. We were only there for three nights so took the opportunity to chill out and have a rest. The beach while lovely wasn’t too clean but just down the coast are some amazing small coves with crystal clear water and white sand. We got a taxi to one of these beaches one day to swim and catch some sun and there was only us and a couple of other travellers there.

Every time we visit somewhere new I tend to check online to see what’s been happening there in the local news. I did that for Quy Nhon and read a story about a man being bitten by a shark at the small cove we went to, I didn’t tell Em until after we’d had a swim :-) Anyway, no sharks the day we were there, just lovely weather. It wasn’t until we got to our next stop a few days later that we read in the local news that there’d been a series of shake attacks in Quy Nhon just before we got there. The local government had offered fishermen a reward to catch the shark and one had caught a massive shark, around 5 metres long, just after we’d moved on (here’s the local news story! I’m really glad we hadn’t heard about large sharks off the coast of Vietnam before we got there. Apparently it’s very unusual but they sometimes come into the coast in search of food. Scientists believe that pollution in the sea attracts them, so sadly I think Vietnam may see more sharks given the infrastructure issues they have and that the South China Sea is full of sharks.

The rest of our stay in Quy Nhon was pretty uneventful. We had some great seafood one night and lounged on the beach a lot. One day we were lying on the beach when we suddenly heard a lot of excited screaming and laughing. About 40 children ran down onto the beach and started paddling and generally parking around in front of us. After they got over their initial excitement of the beach and sea they turned their attention to us and all started saying hello. One even took photos (which made Em put something on over her bikini to hide her modesty).

Em went to speak to an adult with the kids who turned out to be their teacher. The children were from a school about an hour inland from Quy Nhon. Most of them hadn’t even seen the sea before (which explains the excitement)! Em’s chat turned into an impromptu English lesson as all the children gathered round. Vietnamese kids are so friendly and can be very, very funny too. Photos were taken and much shouting of “hello goodbye”.

We liked Quy Nhon a lot. The surrounding beaches are amazing, the people are lovely and if they can clean up the main bay it will be an amazing destination. I’d expect it to be firmly on the tourist trail in the next 5 to 10 years!

Here’s a few photo’s of Quy Nhon, we neglected to take many while there…

02

05 2010