2014: Vietnam & Cambodia

[Sandra Lynne]

05 July 2014:  

We arrived safely in Singapore after a long and bumpy flight. After 16 hours on the go, everyone was tired but happy. Luckily most of us managed to get a little sleep on our connection to Hanoi. 

We left wintery Cape Town in scarves and jackets but we got to Hanoi in 30 degree heat. 


And the airport building was not airconditioned! 

After getting our Visas and going through customs (without a hitch but with a twinge of fear... this is a communist country after all), we found our guide, Anh, who helped us get sim cards and change money. 

Naturally we were all delighted with our new found status as millionaires:

The airport was not a good first impressions and I found myself stressing whether or not I would like Vietnam. It all seemed old, slightly run-down and chaotic.

Then there's the traffic. OMG: the driver just D.R.I.V.E.S!  

Apparently the rules of the road are considered "guidelines" as opposed to enforceable laws, and traffic flows in every direction - simultaneously!!! (I will NEVER complain about the taxis back home again.)

We got strict instructions about how to cross a road: paradoxically you don't look; you just walk. You stick your hand up to signal your intention to (multi-directional) oncoming traffic and then you just walk - slowly - across the road. The onus is on the oncoming traffic to negotiate their way around you.   

Luckily almost everyone drives motorbikes - there are over 5,000,000 of them in Hanoi. They double as family vehicles / delivery vehicles / pimp mobiles - all in one. 

The town planning is also odd. 

The communist government gave each family the same sized sliver of land on which to build a house. Not being able to extend horizontally, they extended vertically, so what looks like multi-story apartment blocks are actually very thin, tall single multi-generational houses. 

Most people use the bottom floor as a shop, creating a buzz on the streets. They also gather with neighbours to eat on the pavement outside.

Our hotel - The Chalcedony - is in the Old Quarter. 

It is lovely! 

You can hear the sound of traditional Vietnamese music being played over a loud speaker somewhere in the street. It feels as though you've stepped back in time.

Our first experience of Vietnamese food was, shall we say, interesting. We went to the Cau Go, a stunning restaurant overlooking the Hoan Kiem Lake in central Hanoi. The restaurant serves traditional Vietnamese cuisine some of which was okay, some ... not so much. The bamboo straws were pretty cool, though.

Talking of food, our guide told us that the Vietnamese do eat dog, which are farmed especially. (So Scotty: pee on my floor ONE more time and see what happens to you ... .). 

06 July 2014:  

Our first day in Hanoi was incredible and any fears that we wouldn't like Vietnam quickly dissolved. 

What an amazing city! It has such an old-world charm about it.

Almost every shop and hotel has a shrine on the doorstep. Daily offerings are made to the ancestors for good luck.

Our first activity was a visit to the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh (the Vietnamese Nelson Mandela) in the Mausoleum in the city centre. What could have been a macabre experience turned out to be a touching one. The queue snaked about 1km through the city, but it wasn't made up of tourists as you might suppose. Most of these people were ordinary Vietnamese. Academic results had just been posted and many people from around the country had travelled to Hanoi to tell "Uncle Ho".  

Although it was hot and the queue was long, we enjoyed walking through the streets and interacting with the local people and other tourists.

Just as we were about to enter the actual sanctuary, a Vietnamese father next to me took his young son's cap off and lovingly straightened his clothes. The look of excitement that passed between them was so special. Being a jaded South African, I admired their devotion to Ho and belief in the ideals for which he stood.

The body is kept in a glass coffin guarded by soldiers. Visitors are ushered around a walkway. (It was a bit weird for me.)

The grounds on which the Mausoleum is set are lush and tropical and beautifully manicured! Other sights in the complex include the Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh's Residence. 

Our next stop was the Temple of Literature, an 11th century university complex set in stunning gardens guarded by topiary dragons. I felt awed to walk through the same arches that others have been walking through for over a thousand years! 

One of the buildings houses large stone tablets that record the names of graduates of the university. What a way to be remembered!

The complex also houses a Confucian temple which we took a look inside. Most of us are used to modestly decorated churches: how different to the temple! It was so lavish ... sumptuous ... and evoked an entirely different feeling. It was fascinating to watch local people offering incense and prayers at the alters.

Our next visit was to the Tran Quoc Pagoda, a 1,400 year old Buddhist temple (pagoda). It sits on a small island surrounded by the Ho Tay (West Lake). The gardens contain a bodhi tree which was grown from a cutting of the original tree in Bodh Gaya, India, under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

We were fortunate enough to arrive while a prayer session was in progress and watched as the devotees chanted. It was about as authentic an experience as a tourist could hope to have.

On our way out, I purchased a turtle. A live one. The idea is to release it into the lake to bring good luck. Live long and prosper, little fella.  

We were all a bit nervous about lunch - after last night's traditional fare - but needlessly so. It was great, especially the potato and leek soup and the duck, which were delicious. 

I love how food is served in Vietnam. Instead of separate courses, the food platters - which are packed with fresh veg - are brought out one after the other in a continuous feast. 

Our evening started with a water puppet show. This is a traditional form of entertainment that reaches back centuries. Farmers would entertain their families with puppet shows staged in rice paddies. (This was necessary to help carry the weight of the large wooden puppets.) 

The show was delightful. There was no dialogue. Instead the vignettes were set to traditional Vietnamese music. 

The performance was nearly spoiled by an inconsiderate couple who passed loud comments the entire time. I took it like a champion for half the performance but then, well, you know me ...! They got the message, no matter what language they were speaking!!!

We rounded off the evening with a walk through the Old Quarter and a lot -- a LOOOOOOOOT -- of shopping. 

Each street is dedicated to a product, so the shoe street contained shop after shop after shop of shoes. I bought Converse takkies for R300 each!!!!!!!!!!!  I'm still smiling! 

And it was so safe. No looking over the shoulder in our usual state of South African paranoia.  

At one point during the meander I was overjoyed to smell a braai. I thought there might be a chance of a lamb chop. Unfortunately, they were braaiing frog. So much for that.

07 July 2014:  

My lucky turtle really came through for us. We were halfway into our three hour journey to Halong Bay when we were informed that we'd been upgraded to the luxury liner. Five star, baby!!!

Everything about the trip was sublime: the scenery ... the food ... the wood panelled rooms ... the en-suite spa bath (with colour lights, no less) ... the cooking class ... the tai chi ... everything.

Up until the cruise I'd been on 'tour' but for that brief 24 hour period I felt like I was on 'holiday'. I just relaxed - so you'll have to ask the others about the trip to the beach, the walk to the caves and the water sports.

It was bliss.

On the way from Halong Bay, we stopped off at a craft co-op. Such beautiful items on sale.

08 July 2014:

After the trip we went straight to the airport. It was horrible and hot and chaotic and disorganized ... and people kept pushing in front of us - so I didn't have high hopes for the journey. 

It turned out okay: at least the seats were comfortable.

The difference between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is immediately apparent. (The airport is airconditioned.) 

While Hanoi feels like you've travelled back in time - which I absolutely love - HCMC is fast-paced, slick and modern - which everybody else absolutely loves.

We had a quick dinner at a traditional restaurant and then checked into our Hotel.

I will be honest: after the four star Chalcedony and the five star Starlight Cruise, the three star Elios Hotel was somewhat of a let down. (Parents: good luck taking your children on holiday in future. "What - no spa bath??") The airconditioning didn't work so I had to change rooms in the middle of the night, and the hot water was in short supply. 

But at least the restaurant gave up great city views.

09 July 2014:

Ho Chi Minh City is a stunning city! 

Everywhere you go you see beautifully landscaped green spaces and an crazy mix of historic and glitzy contemporary buildings. 

The reason why I chose Vietnam as a travel destination is because of my Grade 9 history teacher, Laura Washington. Her instruction on the Vietnam War made such an impression on me that it's always been in the back of my mind to come here one day. So you can imagine how special it was for me today, 29 years later, to walk around Saigon (as HCMC used to be known) and see sites like the Rex Hotel, American Embassy and the Reunification Palace, and to visit the War Remnants Museum. 

It was a bucket list moment.

We had a quick look around the Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception, a stunning French cathedral built in the 1880s (at which I bought a lovely pearl rosary).

Then we walked over the War Remnants Museum.  

As we wondered around, we learned a lot about the American War (as the Vietnamese call it). 

The photographic exhibits were thought provoking and moving, and important for our understanding and appreciation of the country. 

It was also fascinating to listen to the American tourists as they responded (unfavorably) to what they saw. They lost the war, after all.

Next we went to the Jade Emperor Pagoda. 

Our guide, Ziangz (pronounced Young), gave us some fascinating insights into the traditions and workings of the religion. 

Although we had already visited a pagoda in Hanoi, this one really stepped it up a notch in terms of the extravagant decor. I really appreciated the exquisite carvings. Such amazing craftsmanship!

We received a blessing from the monk - a tiny piece of money wrapped in red paper - to keep in our wallets.  [2018: I still have mine.]

On the way out, I bought a little bird to release for good luck so a note to my boys: buy us a Lotto ticket coz I feel LUCKY tonight!

We had lunch at Nha Hang Ngon - a stunning restaurant with an indoor garden that's a favourite with the locals. We cooked our own seafood soup right on the table. 

We love the healthy Vietnamese cuisine but every time the dragon-fruit-desert comes, conversation turns to chocolate brownies and malva pudding. For some things, there's no place like home.

Once we had re-fueled, we headed for Ben Thanh market for the shop of our lives. The market is housed in a huge warehouse. Inside is a maze of narrow passageways with stall after stall after stall selling anything and everything.

The stall owners start with a high price and when you object, they shove a calculator in your hands and ask: "What you pay?". Negotiations are tough and sometimes necessitate walking away. 

Our bargaining skills improved as the afternoon wore on but it was tiring, always haggling to protect ourselves from being ripped off.  

We walked away with bags of clothes and gifts for our loved ones.

In the evening, some of us went to the night market before all meeting up at Burger King.

One of the things that I love about Vietnam is how safe it is. It seems that life happens outside the home - maybe because of the heat. The streets buzz and people meet and play in the parks without fear. I envy them.

10 July 2014:

Today was a relaxing day. We woke up late :) and left for Dam Sen Waterpark at 11h00.

The park was great fun and had a selection of rides that varied in intensity from the gentle (which I did) to the insane (which Taryn did ... and lost something along the way).

Starbucks was on the agenda for the evening, and then an early night ahead of an early start. 

11 July 2014:

I have to ask: what is it with men and microphones? Our guide spoke for an hour NON-STOP on the bus and then just as we got to our destination and were celebrating our anticipated break from his voice, he whips out his portable microphone and continues!

(I think the frustration went both ways because we kept imitating the way he said "ghoooo-cheeeeee tooooon-nelllllls".)

Don't get me wrong though: we love Ziangz and appreciate his enthusiasm!

We continued exploring Vietnamese history with a fascinating visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This forested area was a Viet Cong stronghold from which attacks were launched against the Americans during the Vietnam War. 

As you walk through the forest you can climb into parts of the network of underground tunnels that the Viet Cong used ... enlarged for westerners. 

Included in the Cu Chi Tunnels area is a gun range at which some of our group fired AK47s. Just hearing the sound of one gun reverberating through the forest is overwhelming and we could imagine how terrifying it must have been in a firefight, not knowing from which direction the shots were coming.

After the Tunnels experience - which included the best propaganda movie I've ever seen (yes, I bought a copy) - we had lunch at a charming village restaurant overlooking a waterway. 

Our guide told us that we'd be eating real Vietnamese food (i.e. snake). We were a little disappointed to find out he was only joking. Still, the food, which included the bizarre looking elephant fish, was really delicious.

After lunch it was off to the airport for a quick 45 minute flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia. 

We breezed through the visa application process and customs in a matter of minutes only to take forever buying sim cards! Finally we made it to our yellow bus in a refreshing shower of rain.

I am very happy to report that we're back in Princess mode with the choice of hotel. The Angkor Holiday Hotel is lovely. 

The Angkor Holiday Hotel pool is even lovelier!!!

Dinner was followed by a colourful introduction to traditional Khmer music and dance on the stage of the Koulen Restaurant - the biggest restaurant I've ever seen! (There were easily over 1,000 people there.) I just wish we weren't quite so tired.

I ended my day with a traditional Khmer massage. (Actually it was my second massage for the day. My first was at the HCMC airport courtesy of a over-zealous female security guard who "massaged" my bum during a very thorough and robust frisk search!!!)

12 July 2014:

First on our itinerary today was a visit to the Cambodian Cultural Village. It was a pleasant and peaceful walk among the traditional ethnic villages, built on a miniature scale. We also took a stroll through the Cambodian version of Madame Tussauds.

(I was a bit disappointed that we didn't get to see the cultural shows since they were the reason why I put it on the itinerary.)

None-the-less, I was fascinated to hear our guide's personal experiences during Cambodia's tortured past. 

After that we travelled to the Bom Thom Home Stay for lunch. The hour drive gave us the opportunity to appreciate the countryside, which is more beautiful than I could hope to describe. 

The houses are so different from those in Vietnam. They're built on stilts to avoid the monsoon rains. The restaurant was built in this style and afforded us a stunning and unique view.

Again we suffered from the "man-with-the-microphone" syndrome as our guide, Porn (snigger) gave us a statistical analysis of corruption in Cambodia. 

He kept asking us questions ... which turned into rhetorical questions because no-one answered. Everyone was pretending to be asleep.

As in Vietnam, the major mode of transport - for the whole family - is the motorbike.

After lunch we had a quick shop around town ("What you want laaay-dee? I give you discount.") we headed back to the hotel for a swim and massage. 

Even though we ate dinner at the hotel, it seemed not to have satisfied some people, who filled up with fried grasshopper and water beetle (a close cousin of the cockroach). Gross.

13 July 2014:

This tour has been so amazing that it's hard to pick favourites, but if I had to, today would be it. It was absolutely magical!

We were out of the hotel door at six in the morning to form a motorcycle gang of tuk-tuks.

We drove in convoy to the Angkor Archeological Park to visit Ta Phromh, a temple made famous (to us anyway) by Angelina Jolie in the first Tomb Raider movie. Nestled in the ancient forest, it's hard to believe that places of such magic and serenity still exist.

One of the chambers provides a test for how clear your conscience is. You thump your chest and if a booming sound resonates through the space, your soul is free. 

My soul is free.

We reformed our biker gang and rode back to the hotel for breakfast. Then we were out again, this time by bus, to the Angkor Thom temple.

What better way to view this majestic temple structure, looked over by the many faces of Khmer ruler Jayavarman II, than on the back of an elephant. 

I had to laugh: the elephant rider has a pocket at the back of his shirt for tips - WITH MONEY IN IT. Wonder how long that would have lasted in South Africa ... !

After our ride we explored the ruins.

One of my best moments was our Eat, Pray, Love experience at a terrace in Angkor Thom. Ms Bosman and I were blessed by a Buddhist nun at a 12th century temple in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. Super special. [2018: I still wear the red string bracelet she tied on my wrist.] 

We then hopped on bicycles and rode over the bridge of Angkor Thom and through the forest to Angkor Wat - the largest and most famous of the ancient temples.

Not being terribly athletic, I was ditched by the rest of the group who raced off without me.

No matter ... I was accompanied on my solo-cycle by a guide in front and a support vehicle at the back (aka the guys from the cycle company - who clearly thought I needed help - and whom I initially mistook for kidnappers).

After lunch we explored the magnificent Angkor Wat temple complex, which is still in use today. I felt a great sense of peace walking about the gardens and buildings. It is a very spiritual place.

We headed back to the hotel having shared an unforgettable experience!

14 July 2014:

We started off the day by packing our bags and loading them into the bus. We had one stop to make - the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake - and then we were headed for home.

The drive to Tonle Sap was absorbing because we got to see the real Cambodia. The only thing that spoiled it was yet another incident of "man-with-the-microphone". This time the subject was the fishing industry with year-by-year comparisons of prices. "Who can tell how much fish is now? ... [silence] ... It is five dollar. FIVE DOLLAR. Ha ha." 

I felt a strong compulsion to say something very, very rude!!!

We cruised onto the lake and saw the floating village, complete with floating school, floating police station, floating medical facility and floating shops. 

No floating toilets, though, which made me wonder about the brown water.

I think we were just tired and ready to go home but we just weren't feeling today. 

And then on the way back we ran out of petrol. 

On our way home:

I'm at Singapore airport now after having completed our travels. While I'm really looking forward to seeing my boys, I'm sad to say goodbye to South East Asia. 

I've loved every minute of it. 

It truly has been an experience of a lifetime. 

I will be back!