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Into Cambodia

Posted: December 13th, 2012 by Scott

We left Vietnam by bus to Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh.  It was a long 6-hour bus ride including a ferry crossing on the Mekong, but mostly pleasant as the bus company assisted us with the 2 border crossings (exit in Vietnam and then about 1 km away the entry to Cambodia).

We took a Tuk-Tuk from the bus station to our hotel.

We arrived to our boutique hotel, which was a little oasis in a busy, dusty city.  We were surprised by the amount of very trendy boutique hotels and restaurants in the city, especially because it didn’t seem like Vietnam had any.

The furniture in our room was cast concrete and was kinda simplist-chic.

Scott lazing in the pool.

We soon got into the habit of waking up with the locals (as you can hear animals, motorbike and all kind of noise at about 6:30 in the morning), go for a swim, have a lazy breakfast by the pool, then head out to see some of the sites, then back to the pool in the afternoon, before heading out to a nice restaurant for dinner.

There are quite a few Monks around the city.  And some monuments too.  And some sunsets too.

Some of the sights around the city focused on the truly fascinating and heartbreaking history of the Cambodian people and the Khmer Rouge.  One day we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us out of the city to see the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was a former school turned Khmer Rouge prison.

At the prison, they installed barbed wire netting so that desperate prisoners would not commit suicide by jumping off upper level balconies.

Between 1975 and 1979, over 2 million Cambodians were violently killed by the Khmer Rouge, including innocent men, women, and children.   The Killing Feilds outside of Phnom Penh is just one of many such sites, but houses the largest memorial to the tragedy.  It was both informative and very tragic to visit the memorial.

Some of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.

Another day we spent touring the Silver Pagoda and Royal Palace.  Unfortunately we could not go into the Palace, with the recent passing of the former King.

I’ve always loved the architecture of SE Asian Wats.

The intricacy and detail of the carvings are just fantastic.

We also were impressed with the amount of international and national programs to support young and poor families and as a tourist you can make a difference by dining at one of the many training restaurants, buying local fair-trade handmade products, taking tours with local sustainable companies, as well as, volunteering.  As we immediately saw, Cambodia is a very poor nation and many families are still struggling against poverty.   In Phnom Penh we found a lot of great places to support including:

  • Dinner at Romdeng, part of Friends International that supports street kids and provides education and vocational training in their training restaurants.
  • Handmade crafts at Daughters of Cambodia, which supports victims of sex-trafficking and sex-exploitation in Cambodia by providing them with alternative jobs, education, and health/support services.
  • Traditional performance by Cambodian Living Arts, which supports young artists and young people to learn about their traditional culture, arts, and dance.  And as we found out, 90% percent of Cambodia’s artists were specifically targeted for execution by the Khmer Rouge, which was a devastating blow to all of Cambodia’s cultural traditions.

Part of the Cultural Show which depicted a traditional Khmer wedding.

It’s nice to know that even just a few things we can do as a tourist can help local people.
More photos of Phnom Penh, Killing Fields Memorial and the Cultural Show. Enjoy!

 

Is it Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon?

Posted: December 6th, 2012 by Scott

Well its actually both!

HCMC is the official name of the entire metropolitan area but Saigon is the name of District 1, which is the central area of the city and both railway and flight tickets will most likely refer to Saigon.

For the final stop on our North to South tour of Vietnam, we stopped in Ho Chi Minh City. Even though I think we would have preferred taking the train because its a bit more relaxing and romantic way to travel, but the journey from Hoi An would have been about 24 hrs by train which didn’t really sound like fun when we could take a 1 hr flight for about $60 instead.

This sounded like a great idea, until our airline, Jetstar, cancelled our flight and told us by email while we slept the night before our flight. Luckily we checked our email that morning before going to the airport. After a morning of hassling with re-arranging our hotels and arguing with the airline customer care. We ended up sorting ourselves out and flew to HCMC the next morning for the last time we’ll ever fly with Jetstar! Bitter? Me? Nah…

Since we arrived in the morning, we had most of the day still to tour around, so we made the most of it by checking out the War Remnants Museum. This museum, like in Hanoi and Hue had some military relics (mostly American uniforms, weaponry and vehicles) but also housed an extensive collection of very confronting photography showing the the tragic side of war including some very disturbing photos of victims of Agent Orange and malformed children which were attributed to the chemical’s use. It was a thoroughly depressing place and though one could infer a biased view of the events, it nevertheless painted a very thought provoking picture of the conflict.

This statue is part of the War Remnants museum collection and is made from bomb fragments.

Afterwards, we wandered around to a couple other tourist sites including the Reunification Palace, where the war ended. But nothing else was as interesting as the Museum.

Reunification Palace was pretty uninspiring.

As it turns out, there is really not a lot to do as a tourist in HCMC, as such, we were at a loss for what to do to occupy ourselves the next day. Until we read about the Saigon Hash House Harriers.

The group was glad to get off the bus after we were detoured by about 30-40 minutes because of construction.

What is that you ask? Well, its a group of ummm, runners? Yeah we’ll call them runners. That get together every Sunday afternoon in Saigon, take a bus out to some more remote, natural area outside the city. And run (or walk for some). But not just any running. Its kinda like a game. Its a bit like orienteering, but instead of maps and compasses, there is just shredded paper on the ground as markers that you’re going the right way. Sometimes you get fooled and stray off on a side road until someone finds the right way and calls you back. Its actually quite fun, and was a great way for us to get a bit of exercise. Afterwards, the runners turn into drinkers and there was beer and rice wine aplenty to go around, including “punishments” for just about anything they can dream up, which basically require you to drink a bit more.

Enjoying a post-run/walk beer

We all headed back into the city for dinner and some more drinks. It was a really fun afternoon and evening and we will probably be looking out for a Hash in other cities in the future. Apparently there are quite a few around.

The next day we decided to check out part of Saigon’s large Chinatown.

It was nice to get out away from some of the tourists, we got to see parts of the city that you just wouldn’t see if staying only in the central area, some good but some less so, but all interesting.

A creek running through an area near Chinatown which seemed to be heavily polluted.

We made our way back to our hotel for the evening by motorbike taxi, as you do in a city so full of motorbikes.

Our motorbike drivers

We enjoyed HCMC and I think we were able to make the most of our short time there.

Some downtime in Hoi An

Posted: December 5th, 2012 by Scott

Hoi An turned out to be one of favorite little towns in Vietnam so far.  It had a cute historic center with pedestrian only streets, a pretty riverfront, great nearby beach, and lots of cute restaurants.  We were originally planning on staying 4 nights, but that turned into 6 and we could have stayed a few more days and not been bored.

Along the river in Hoi An

We spent our day visiting the tailors shops to get a few things tailored for an upcoming wedding, relaxing by the pool at the hotel or lounging on the beach.  In the evening we had a walk on the riverfront to select a local restaurant to dine at.  After dinner we take a long walk around the historic center or head over to the local patisserie for a desert and nightcap.

The ladies fussing over Courtney’s collar in the tailor shop

Lounging by the beach

Evenings were lit by lanterns

One morning we took a fantastic cooking class.  Our host, Van took us on a market tour where we bought all our ingredients for the day.  Then we went back to her house to prepare everything from start to finish.  We learned how to prepare 8 different dishes and had a feast in the afternoon after we were all wiped out from the cooking.  We’ve taken many cooking classes during our travels and this was by far the best.

Buying our ingredients at the market

Learning from Van

Scott cooking up a Vietnamese rice pancake or Banh Xeo

Amazing salad that Courtney made

Here are all of our Hoi An and cooking class photos.