Sunday, January 30, 2011

Back in Bangkok

We landed back in Bangkok and went to find a hostel. We found it without any problems, and I’m ashamed to admit the first thing we did after that was go to McDonald’s. I had missed “normal” food! We then met up with Andrew’s friend Bobby and picked up the bag we had left with him as we wouldn’t be coming back to Bangkok before flying out to Australia. The next day we caught a bus to Ranang, from where we would be taking a boat to a small island off the Andaman coast.

Leaving Hanoi

We spent the rest of the time in Hanoi relaxing, walking around the city and eating. On our last night we went to some of the food stalls and had some delicious sticky rice with pulled pork and chicken soup. I don’t remember what that cost but it wasn’t a lot. We then found a place where beer cost next to nothing, but it was too cold to stay too long. We needed to pack and get ready for the next day. We had booked a flight from Hanoi to Bangkok as it cost less than it would have cost us to travel overland. I couldn’t wait to get back to Bangkok. Vietnam is a beautiful country but it’s overshadowed by the harshness of the people. We felt like we were always getting scammed and hassled by the locals. The friendly people we met were few and far between and it was very tiring constantly watching your back. The weather also took its toll on us, especially since we weren’t prepared. I just couldn’t wait to get back to warm and sunny Bangkok where it wouldn’t be a hassle to buy food or anything else. It was a strange feeling because when I had first arrived in Bangkok I though the city was crazy and overwhelming, but now it looked warm and inviting. I couldn’t wait!

Halong Bay

We arrived back in Hanoi at 4:30am and took a taxi back to the Vega travel offices where we were storing our big backpacks. A bus would be picking us up at 8am to take us to Halong Bay, so we used the time in between to make use of the showers Vega had available to their customers. We then grabbed some breakfast and went to meet the bus that would be taking us to Halong Bay. To Sapa we took only our small back backs and it turned out we didn’t bring enough clothes to wear; this time we wanted to be cautious so we brought our big back packs with us on the boat. We booked a 2 night trip for Halong Bay where we would be spending 1 night on a junk boat (a large boat in an old Asian style with large sails) and the 2nd night we would be spending on an island called Cat Ba. Halong Bay is approximately 3 hours east of Hanoi and is famous for all the limestone karsts which appear as if out of nowhere in the middle of the ocean. There are lots of different tour companies selling tours to Halong Bay so once we arrived we were definitely not the only ones. Various tours are available from 1 day, to 1 night, to more nights, and most offer food aboard the ship.

When we first arrived we were told that we might not be able to sleep on the ship due to weather conditions. We weren’t really sure what weather conditions they were talking about because it was actually quite warm but since I don’t like any boats I was hoping they would err on the side of caution. But the group agreed that we would get on board, then see how the weather was progressing and decide from there. It wasn’t really our decision to make as the “officials” would make the final decision. We boarded the boat and were assigned to our rooms. There were a total of 10 people on the boat. Some were staying for 1 night and others for 2 nights. We were served lunch and then the boat departed from shore. As we were sailing the first of the karsts appeared. After lunch we all went out on deck to look at the beautiful scenery. Unfortunately it was quite cool on the water but none of us wanted to stay inside. The water was a beautiful blue and it was such an incredible feeling to be sailing amidst these small mountains. After lunch we stopped at a cave which was just massive. I thought I had seen all the caves I cared to see but this one was very large and it felt like it would go on forever. The only downer was the amount of people there. We literally had to wait in line to go from one side of the cave to the other. I was so tired from Sapa that I wasn’t really interested in doing any walking or hiking, but unfortunately there were a lot of stairs in the cave. The worst part for me was that my muscles were so strained from the Sapa hike that I couldn’t walk down the stairs without my legs shaking. Thus it took me much longer than everyone else to complete the tour.

I was very happy once the tour of the cave was finished but then I learned we would be stopping at one of the islands to climb to the top to see some views. We would need to climb 425 steps. It felt like my worst nightmare. Going up was challenging but I guess because most of the hike in Sapa was downhill in mud while trying not to slip and fall, it used up all the muscles I hadn’t really used before and it was going down that was the challenge. We made it to the top and the view was magnificent, but then it was time to go down. I swear people thought I was handicap. I literally had to take 1 step at a time with my legs shaking the whole time. But finally I made it down and I was very happy to be back on the boat. I felt kind of bad because I’m sure this would be a wonderful trip but all I could think about was how tired I was from our hike in Sapa and how I just wanted to rest. At least the rest of the evening was spent on the boat just hanging out with the rest of the tourists and then eating dinner. We went to bed fairly early and the gentle rocking of the boat put me to sleep right away.

We woke up early the next morning for breakfast and right after breakfast the people who were staying for one more night on Cat Ba island were transferred to a smaller boat while everyone else stayed on. At this point I was wishing we could just go back to Hanoi with everyone else, but we had paid for 2 nights so we were going to enjoy it. Perhaps if I would have known what we would be doing that day I would have refused and stayed on the boat. The small boat took us to Cat Ba island where we would be biking around to look at the scenery. After the bike ride we would be getting back on the boat for them to take us to our hotel on another side of Cat Ba, so we left our large back packs on the boat. We got off the boat and got on our rental bikes. It turned out we would be biking at least 10km that day around the island. I wasn’t sure if my legs could handle it. As we were pulling away Andrew said he saw the crew on our boat closing all the blinds. Weird. We biked around 5km to a small town on the island where we parked our bikes, and were then led to a small cave by our guide. I was hoping that was the end but he kept on going and started taking us through some dense forest and down some steep cliffs. Normally it wouldn’t have been that hard but because my legs were not cooperating I took much longer than everyone else. It wasn’t only frustrating to have my legs shaking but also painful. Our guide was happy to point out to us that tourists aren’t normally taken that way and that this was only a local trail. I could see why. We finally made it down, me in a worse mood than before, and sat down to have a quick drink. There was a nice large house being built right across from where we were sitting and our guide informed us it was his house that he was building. At first we thought it was funny but I had seen him earlier going into the house and giving instructions to all the workers and checking the work. His tip got a lot smaller after we saw that. We got on our bikes again and made our way back to the boat. I couldn’t wait to get back. Our tour guide said the plan was to go kayaking but I absolutely refused. I was so tired and it was so cold that I didn’t even want to think about getting wet. Luckily everyone else agreed.

As soon as we got back on the boat the first thing Andrew and I noticed was that our bag packs were in a different spot then where we had left them. This was weird because there was only 4 of us on the boat so not like they would need to have been moved because they were taking up to much room. As soon as I opened my bag I saw someone had gone through it. Andrew saw the same thing. It was so obvious because I pack in a very specific way, where I surround any electronics with clothes and I do the same thing with all my toiletries, but now everything was all over the place. Andrew’s straps weren’t even done up so they weren’t even trying to hide it. Of course right away I told our guide to ask the crew why they went through our bags. Andrew followed him and of course they all denied it saying the bags were on board the whole time and no one could have possibly gone through them. That just meant that they went through them and no one else! We unpacked our back packs to see if anything was missing but we couldn’t see anything. Andrew told our guide he would complain but realistically we knew nothing would be done. The small boat is chartered by Vega travel and is not actually their boat so not much could be done. The guide told us to see if anything was stolen and if it was that he would call the police but we couldn’t see that anything had been stolen, even though we checked multiple times. Of course the obvious item would have been our laptop but they weren’t so stupid as to take that. Luckily we had read about this happening so we were prepared by taking all our important things with us on the bike ride. It looks like they were just looking for money, which we didn’t leave behind. Really the only things we had left in our back backs were our clothes, dirty laundry and the laptop. Unfortunately they went through our dirty laundry as well. We felt really violated and it put a damper on the trip. We were served lunch and then taken to our hotel. I was just praying our room would have heat. We were not disappointed. We ended up staying at the nicest hotel we had stayed at to date, and it was all included in the price of the trip! And it even had heating! We got to our room and stayed there until dinner time watching tv and booking our tickets to Australia. I didn’t care about exploring the island, I just wanted to sit in our room and watch tv. But since we had heat in our room I decided to take advantage of it by washing my jeans and cargo pants from all the mud of Sapa and hanging them to dry. Unfortunately around 6pm the power went out (this happened to us all the time!) but it came back on an hour later. I wasn’t disappointed when my jeans were dry at the end of the night.

We went out to dinner with the other couple who were staying for the second night and then went out for drinks. But again we were still tired from Sapa and had to get up early the next day so we went back to our room to sleep. We woke up early the next day, ate breakfast and were met by our guide who would be taking us back to Hanoi. We boarded another small boat, after an hour we were transferred to another large boat, after 2 hours we were transferred to a minivans which we had all to ourselves. That was a luxury as usually we were crammed into a van full of people. We arrived back in Hanoi around 5pm. We would be flying back to Bangkok a couple of days after that.

Monday, January 24, 2011


We arrived at the train station at 5:30am and it was still dark. We walked outside expecting it to be cold but it actually wasn’t that bad. Well, it wasn’t that bad because we were wearing 3 or 4 layers of warm clothing. We got into the van which came to pick us up and started driving toward Sapa. The drive took over an hour and the whole time we were climbing up into the mountains through the thickest fog I had ever seen.

Sapa is known for its beautiful rice paddy terraces but if this fog would continue we wouldn’t be seeing anything. Once we arrived in Sapa the fog was as thick if not thicker than before and it was much much colder. Probably around 5 degrees Celsius. It was cold but we were dropped off in front of a hotel and told we could have breakfast there and a shower if we need to. That made me feel a little better because we could at least warm up. We walked into the hotel and were shocked to find out it was not heated! We ate the buffet breakfast but were freezing the whole time. We wanted to make toast with the bread they provided, and although they had a toaster, it wasn’t plugged in and there was no plug in sight. Andrew looked but we couldn’t find it. After breakfast we asked to take a shower hoping the hot shower would warm us up. We weren’t disappointed. The water was nice and HOT. WE showered, got dressed and went to wait for our tour guide. We would end up waiting for over an hour in the freezing lobby. I was wearing all the clothes I had and I was still freezing. I was worried about the hike because if I was cold inside, how cold would I be outside. Anyway, our guide arrived and I swear she looked like she was 12 years old. As soon as she said she was our guide we started laughing. But this was no joke and she really was our guide. Her name was Ku. It turned out she was 17, so we weren’t far off. She has lived in Sapa her whole life. As soon as we left the hotel about 10 ladies in local clothes started following us. They were all very friendly and were asking our names, how old we were and if we were married and did we have kids, etc. There were 3 other people who were travelling with us from Holland and between the 5 of us we came up with a theory the ladies were all following us and asking all these personal questions because they would try to hook us up with their kids once we arrived in their villages. Most of them were in their 50’s or 60’s but a few were teenagers. I couldn’t understand their purpose there but decided not to worry about it. It was very crowded walking down the street with the 5 of us, our guide and 10 local ladies. It became very hard to walk so Andrew and I tried to stay back to be able to walk freely but some of the ladies would not leave our side. They didn’t really talk much but it was a weird feeling having them following us around.

The fog had not relented and at one point our guide pointed into the fog and said there was something worth seeing there but we couldn’t see it because of the fog. We started laughing but we really thought the rest of the trip would be like this. Although it was cold outside the walking was warming me up and I actually started to get hot. As I said before I was wearing a lot of layers and 2 pairs of pants. I only have 2 pairs of pants on this trip and I was wearing them both. My cargo pants on top of my jeans. We got off the road and went on to a side trail. As soon as we were on the trail a whole bunch of boys approached us and asked if we would like to buy a bamboo stick. Of course we declined. Who did they think we were? Novice hikers? We continued walking on the trail but it became muddier and muddier and slippery. We had to cross one part on these rocks but because it was so muddy and the rocks so slippery I slipped and fell. I was so angry with myself for falling. Now my pants were all dirty and muddy. The ladies who were following us were trying to help me but I refused. I had my pride to keep me going. As we were continuing it became more muddy and slippery and I was having a harder time walking. I was also getting more angry because this is not the type of hike I signed up for. One of the girls from Holland that was hiking with us slipped as well so at least I didn’t feel like a loser, but I was still angry. We arrived at our first stop for lunch and I was debating whether I wanted to go on. At the lunch spot we realized why all the local ladies were following us. As soon as we stopped they wanted to sell us their handicrafts. The ladies were there to help us navigate the muddy terrain and in exchange we had to purchase something. My pride forbade me from accepting their help so I didn’t feel obliged to buy anything. Andrew and I wouldn’t buy any and told them we had no money. But the 3 Hollanders did use their help so they ended up purchasing some bracelets. At least they weren’t trying to marry us off with their kids. The 5 of us started talking and saying we didn’t know it would be this hard and muddy, and should we even continue. We asked our guide if the rest of the hike would be like this and she said it would be worse. Great. Again, we started debating whether we should continue or take the easy road but in the end we decided to continue on the muddy path because that’s what we had paid for and didn’t want to bail out so early. I’m sure if we had known what the future held for us we would have decided to go with the easy road.

After lunch we set off and at first it didn’t seem so bad. But as soon as we left the main road it became muddy all over again. This time the mud was much much worse. After an hour of hiking I lost my shoe in the mud. Our guide had to go and find it for me while I stood with my sock in the mud. Where were those damn boys with the bamboo sticks when you needed them? I would have paid any amount of money for the stupid stick. Our guide found an abandoned walking stick on the side of the road and gave it to me. It was so much easier. It wasn’t just the mud that made the hike hard. We were hiking in the mountains. There were some very steep hills we had to navigate up and down. Going up was hard because you had to strain to climb up but at least the risk of slipping and falling was smaller. It was the going down that was hard. The mud was crazy and we were literally slipping and sliding. At this point I had fallen down so many times I lost track and both my pairs of pants were covered in mud. I was pissed because those are literally the only 2 pairs of pants I have for our whole trip, not counting all the pairs of shorts I brought. My pride still prevented me from accepting help from the local women, but when we reached a very steep hill where we were forced to walk down hill I finally relented. I told Andrew, you either pay this woman today or you’re paying for a bus to come pick me up and take me to a hotel you will have to pay for. The woman who was helping me was at least 60 years old but she was 3x as strong as me. She was the one who held me up and prevented me from falling. Anytime I was slipping, she would put out her foot to prevent mine from sliding down. She did all this while carrying a basket with all her goods on her back. I was amazed and so grateful for her help.

Finally after slipping and sliding all day we arrived at the homestay where we would be spending the night with the Vietnamese family. As soon as we stopped we were asked to purchase some goods from the women who were helping us. I told Andrew to pay for a bracelet from the lady. I paid her $5 which is way over what I would have paid on the street but I didn’t care. I wouldn’t have gotten down that hill without her help. As soon as I bought the bracelet from her all the other girls started asking us to buy something from them. They said “why you buy something from her but not from me?” “You told me you had no money but you buy from her”. It was such a guilt trip but we really only had very little left and I only felt obliged to pay the lady who helped me and not everyone. After 10 minutes of this we just went inside to clean ourselves up. I had to take off both pairs of pants to clean them and hang them by the fire to dry, but I literally had nothing else to put on so I had to tie a sarong around my waist and use it as a skirt. I wasn’t worried about being modest but I was freezing. The home wasn’t heated either so it was literally freezing inside. We all huddled around the fire they had going where they would be cooking our dinner. I was also barefoot because my socks were all muddy and wet and were also hanging by the fire. All of us were cold but there was not much we could do about it. Our shoes were not allowed inside the house because they were dirty and even if had cleaned them they were all wet so we couldn’t wear them anyway. As they were making our dinner, they put some hot coals and ashes in a bowl and brought them to the living room so we could warm our feet. Them someone had the brilliant idea of starting a fire in the living room. It probably would have worked if the wood wasn’t wet. The house filled up with smoke very quickly. I was choking. We gave up the idea of trying to start a fire. Then we were asked if we wanted to help with dinner, and with nothing better to do we obliged. We learned how to make spring rolls and I watched them make the cabbage we would have for dinner, beef and other items. Then dinner was served and we ate with the family. Although they couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak Vietnamese they were very gracious. Our guide as well as another guide would translate for us. They served us rice whiskey and were constantly toasting us. So we would toast them back. The food was amazing and delicious! The atmosphere was friendly and even though it was cold the feeling was warm. Soon we finished the bottle of rice whiskey and our host had to go and get another bottle. By shot number 17 I was finished and went to bed. But everyone stayed up and I think I heard them count up to shot #25. By 10pm everyone had dragged themselves to bed. Barely. We were all exhausted after our day of climbing. Thank the lord the covers were thick and warm. Even though it was cold in the house, the blankets were very warm. We woke up in the morning and had breakfast. For some getting up was easier than for others. Some couldn’t remember what had happened the night before, but we all agreed it was a wonderful night.

When I woke up in the morning my legs would not respond. My leg muscles were completely destroyed. I could barely walk up and down the stairs. I felt like a grandma and even sitting down on a chair made my legs shake from the strain. We talked to our guide and asked if today’s hike would be as hard as yesterday’s and she said it would be even worse because we would be climbing some very steep hills. We asked if there was an easy way and she said yes, by the road the cars drive on. So we opted for that. At this point no one cared if we were bailing out, none of us could walk. All of our muscles were shot. We walked the 5km to the restaurant where we would have our lunch and waited for the bus to come pick us up and drive us back to Sapa. Once we got back to the hotel we asked if we could take a shower as we needed to warm up. We each took a shower but were disappointed. The hot water we were expecting was not there. It was lukewarm at best. Oh well. Since my pants were filthy I had to borrow jeans from Andrew. I had no choice, I had nothing else to wear. We found a restaurant with a fireplace and went to grab some food and a drink. In the evening we were driven back to the train station. The fog had relented a little during the day but was back with a vengeance that night. I don’t even know what the driver saw when he was driving because the fog was really thick. We made it back to the train station alive and took the train back to Hanoi. We would be arriving at 4:30am and at 8am a bus would take us to Halong Bay.

View Larger Map


We took the night bus into Hanoi. Although we left Hoi An at 1pm, the drive is 16 hours plus stops so we arrived in Hanoi at 7am on January 2nd. It was a hard drive as we were pretty hung over and we were stuck on a bus which was moving. The motion of the bus didn’t help make us feel any better. But the views were stunning. This was a sleeper bus so instead of having seats, it had small bunk beds. I believe the bus holds around 30 – 40 people. When you book the bus there are no seats reserved so it’s pretty much first come first served. What that means is that you will have a seat but it might not be a very good one. I experienced that first hand on a different bus ride. The strategy is to stick all the tourists to the very back of the bus where the worst seats are, because they know you can’t complain. They’re the worst seats for 2 reasons. 1: You’re right beside the bathroom and it stinks! 2: The whole bus is made up of 3 rows, and an aisle separates you and your neighbor. But the washroom is at the back of the bus and thus eliminates the aisle space, so the 3 seats are literally side by side. So you are lying right next to your neighbor, side by side. It’s not to bad if you know each other, but if you don’t, you’re sleeping next to a stranger. There is nothing separating you from his bad breath, or from him taking up your space. Anyway, the point of this story is that we got on the bus almost last because we needed to place our luggage in the luggage compartment under the bus. But we somehow managed to get okay seats next to each other on the top bunk. They weren’t great but at least we were beside each other and we weren’t at the back of the bus. Under me was a lady from either Canada or the US, and to the left of her, her husband. Then a lady came on the bus and told the couple that they had to move to the back of the bus because someone had those seats reserved. The seats they were being asked to move to were the worst seats on the whole bus. They were on the bottom at the very back and it was literally like a cave because there were no windows and you were under the 3 seats above with the washroom wall on one side. The lady below me absolutely refused and said she had inquired whether they could make reservation and during booking she was told no one could make reservations, so she didn’t believe that these people had reservation. But the bus lady showed them the ticket where the seat numbers were written at the top of the ticket in pen. The Can/US lady was adamant that she was not moving and that if they wanted to they could sit in the back. The bus lady told them to either move or get off the bus. But they would do neither. Finally the husband relented and was moved to the back of the bus but his wife stayed and said she would not move because she was claustrophobic. Everyone managed to find a place to sit and we were off. But the lady below me was pissed off that her husband had to move. She waited for everyone to fall asleep around 11pm and then started yelling to her husband at the back of the bus asking him if he wanted cookies. When she couldn’t hear his response she would yell “WHAT??? I can’t hear you”. This went on for an hour, and she just kept on repeating “I wouldn’t have to yell if you hadn’t been moved”. She was annoying to say the least. But I understood why she was pissed off. The seat numbers had obviously been written at the top of the ticket just to get the tourists to move so the locals can get better seats. I wouldn’t have moved. After she got the yelling out of her system it was fairly quite. The only time we were interrupted would be when one of the locals would decide they needed to clear their throat of phlegm by harking and spitting on the floor of the bus. It was absolutely disgusting and made me gag. I somehow managed to get some sleep but not much. Although you’re on a sleeper bus the seats are made for locals, meaning mine and Andrews legs were way too long to be accommodated comfortably. Needless to say we were happy to arrive in Hanoi.

Just like Saigon, we were weary of Hanoi. We had read about all the scams with people trying to rip you off and steal your money. They say imitation is the best form of flattery, but if that’s the truth Vietnam does nothing but flatter people. Everything is an imitation of something. If there’s a café that’s doing well for itself, all of a sudden you have 6 or 7 cafes that pop up with the same name but not the same food or service. For a tourist it’s hard to figure out what is real and what is a knock-off.

We found a hotel to stay in on a small street in the Old Quarter and went straight to sleep even though it was 8am. We woke up at noon and went out to eat. To say Hanoi is busy is an understatement. The old quarter is made up of 50 or so blocks that are crammed with small shops, tourists and scooters. Millions of scooters. There are no sidewalks so you are forced to walk on the street. Crossing the street is an art. If you don’t believe me, google it.

The first thing we noticed besides the traffic is how cold it was. I guess when you travel 16 hours north, the weather is bound to change but we didn’t anticipate how much. Since we were walking however, we were fairly warm. We spent the day walking around the city and going from one tourist office to another as we wanted to book a trip to Halong Bay. Someone told us about a tourist company called Kangaroo Café, which was run by an Aussie. Apparently they had a pretty good reputation. Finding them was another matter. There were at least 6 different “Kangaroo Cafes” which were all knock-offs of the original but we finally found the right one. Their prices were okay but not the best so we continued looking. Andrew had read up online about Vega Travel and we found them in the old quarter and found their prices were the best. While we were in there we were looking at other trips they offered and found they had a trip to Sapa. We had a flight booked from Hanoi to Bangkok for January 10th, so we had about a week to spend in Hanoi. We definitely didn’t want to do that so we opted to book a 3 night trip to Sapa and a 2 night trip to Halong Bay. Sapa is a town located in the mountains in northern Vietnam, and we would be hiking for 2 days in the mountains to see the beautiful views and we would be spending 1 night with a local Vietnamese family in their home. Halong Bay is about 3 hours east of Hanoi and there we would spend 1 night on a boat touring the bay and 1 night in a hotel on an island called Cat Ba. We would be leaving to Sapa the following evening on a night train, but first we needed to get some warmer clothes. In Hanoi the weather was around 12 degrees Celsius and the clothes we had were holding up okay, but Sapa is another 8 hours north of Hanoi so we knew it would be much colder.

We walked around the Old Quarter and found a street that was selling knock off North Face jackets. They were ridiculously cheap but we knew we didn’t want a jacket because we had nowhere to put it after we were done with it, but also because it was still a lot more money than we wanted to spend. We were looking for fleece sweatshirts but again all the North Face or Columbia knock-offs were way out of our price range. We found a few no name jackets and the ladies refused to sell them to us. They kept on telling me they’re not my size. When I inquired the price they would just say “No”. That annoyed me because how did they know I was shopping for myself and not for someone else. Regardless we kept looking and finally found 2 no name fleece shirts for a reasonable price. $7 each. Mine was a bright yellow zip up, and Andrew’s was a navy blue hoodie with two white strips running down his arms. And his was also a little small so that the sleeves ended a bit above his wrists. They were the ugliest sweatshirts we had ever seen but we knew they would keep us warm. Satisfied we went home to pack.

The next day we dropped off our big backpacks at Vega’s offices and walked around the town. Our train was not leaving until 8pm that night. We found a great little restaurant called “Gecko” that was relatively inexpensive, had free wi-fi but most importantly had delicious food. I ordered Spaghetti Bolognese and it was delicious. It was accompanied by a garden salad with a delicious balsamic vinegar dressing. Andrew ordered a chicken sandwich which was accompanied by garlic bread and the garlic bread had actual garlic on it. Not just garlic powder. And of course a couple of beers. This was probably the best meal we had had in a long time. And the price was reasonable as well. We paid $6.50 for everything. We were debating whether we would need gloves for Sapa but decided we should be fine with what we had.

We arrived at the train station later that night and we were hoping to have the sleeper cabin to ourselves. That was not to be but we ended up sharing the cabin with a nice Australian couple who were visiting their friends in Hanoi. We chatted with them for a few hours and then went to sleep.

View Larger Map

Hoi An

We took the early morning bus from Nha Trang and arrived in Hoi An in the evening. I say we arrived there but really nothing is as easy as just arriving somewhere in Vietnam. We were dropped off the bus on the side of a road and we had to take a taxi the remaining 10km. There was a guide who was very willing to take us for $3 but we found a taxi that would do it for half the price. We found a hotel room, which is not easy during the Christmas/New Year peak season and went out to explore the city. Hoi An is an old town with a lot of old French architecture and because of an agreement between U.S.A and Vietnam it did not get bombed. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So the town has a lot of character the unfortunate part is all the old buildings have been turned into either: a tailor, a souvenir shop or a restaurant. But the main street turns into a walking street in the evening and it has a great atmosphere. If you want to have any clothes made, Hoi An is the place to do it. Because we knew we are just starting our trip we couldn’t take advantage of the deals there but maybe before we return we’ll stop in again. You can even buy custom shoes! This is a shopaholics dream. The next day we found a cheaper hotel room at a hostel which had free Wi-Fi. The only downfall was that Vietnam had blocked Facebook (oh no!) so we couldn’t post photos or keep friends and family updated of our whereabouts. But we were still able to Skype. We spent the day exploring the city and had dinner at a restaurant by our hotel. I can’t remember what the restaurant was called but it had the friendliest girls working there of any restaurant we had been to anywhere. The staff was amazing and the food was good as well, and the best part was that it was inexpensive. This was our new favourite spot. We would end up eating there every day, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day. The next day we rented a scooter and went to Danang. There were some Marble Mountains we wanted to explore. The mountains were what the name suggests, made out of marble. All around the bottom of the mountains there are vendors selling products made out of marble. However don’t be fooled, none of the marble used to make these products actually comes from these mountains. It all comes from China. These mountains are purely a tourist attraction. While climbing the steps we quickly realized there was a small Vietnamese man following us. I was suspicious right away, but he didn’t say anything and neither did we. As we stopped to rest he passed us but just a few steps ahead he was resting as well and smiling a big smile at us. I was a little annoyed because I really don’t like it when people try to scam us. As I anticipated, as soon as we reached to the top he started pointing things out to us, such as; he would point at the Buddha statue and say “Buddha”, then he would point at the cave and say “cave”. As you can tell his knowledge was astounding and I knew it would lead to nothing but trouble at the end so I wanted to nib it in the bud right away. We just pretended we didn’t hear him and would walk in a different direction from where he was pointing. At first he kept following us around but then he got the point. We continued walking around exploring, and then we came across a cave where you had to climb up through an opening and it led you to the top of the mountain. Once we arrived at the top the view was beautiful. On one side there was the ocean and on the other some more mountains with the city of Danang around them. There were other people at the top as well and they had guides following them around. Some of the guides were women and some of them were only girls. We heard them demanding payment from the people they had “guided”. One of the ladies had the audacity to say she didn’t get enough and that her “customer” had to pay her more. Her poor customer obliged after some grumbling. I felt sorry for the customers but I wouldn’t have paid. I won’t pay for unsolicited tour guides. After that we went back down, explored a little more and then got back on our scooter. We continued along the coast and were driving along a peninsula with some beautiful views. It wasn’t very cold but on the scooter it was quite chilly and it was overcast. Then as if out of nowhere the sun peeked between the clouds and illuminated a patch of water which immediately turned from a deep dark blue to a beautiful turquoise. It was beautiful and it felt like a beautiful spring day. But then the sun disappeared and it was cloudy and cool again. We headed back to town. That night we just hung around town and had dinner at our favourite restaurant.

The following day was New Year’s Eve. We had bought tickets at a bar called “Before and Now”, I know, it’s very deep. The tickets were for a buffet dinner which was being held outdoors on the river followed by live music and a dj. We arrived at the location about a half hour after the suggested time. Before we arrived we chatted with family on skype to wish them a Happy New Year, although they wouldn’t be celebrating for another 12 hours. When we arrived the place looked empty. There were some people but for the size of the location they just weren’t filling the space. And the buffet wasn’t open yet. So we sat around, encouraged by all the staff to purchase drinks, because they were not included in the ticket price. Once we saw the prices we knew why we were so strongly encouraged. The prices were 5x what we would have normally paid. Andrew purchased a beer and I was sipping on my Jagger & coke which I received for free on entry. Apparently Jaggermeister was sponsoring this event. We had to sit and wait for the events to officially to begin. Nothing starts in Asia without an official opening. The organizers of the event had to get up and thank all the sponsors for their support, including the Mayor of the city. Then the Mayor stood up and made a long speech in Vietnamese. You would have thought we were at the Olympics. And then out of nowhere he yelled something very loudly and a translator came on and said “I now declare the buffet open”! So we were finally ready to eat. The 40 people or so who had been waiting to eat were relieved. We went to grab some food, which was actually pretty good. We had Pho, shrimps, beef & chicken skewers, spring rolls, pastas, and other good food. During dinner the local artists were performing on the stage. By local I mean traditional dance and music. It was going to be a long night and it was only 8:30pm. We were talking about if we should start drinking now or if we should wait closer to midnight. At these prices we would blow our budget in an hour. We decided to leave the “party”, go to a local bar, drink for less and then come back right before midnight. And that’s exactly what we did.

We went to a bar a few blocks off, and bought a couple of whiskey & cokes and received 2 vodka & redbull drinks for free. We knew we had come to the right place. The place wasn’t busy but had a few people in there. We started talking with them and they were from all over the world. Some from Australia, some from USA, and others from various places in Europe. The alcohol started pouring and there was no DJ but just a computer and you could put on any song you wanted, so we started racking our brains. We You Tube-d a whole bunch of different songs, the alcohol was flowing and pretty soon we were all drunk and dancing. We had the best time! All of a sudden the time was 11:45pm so we got all our new friends and invited them to our “party”. But we don’t have tickets they said. Andrew told them not to worry, he would get them in. Sure enough, as we were walking through the gate, our new friends were stopped and asked for tickets. Andrew just said “Yeah Yeah Yeah”, pushed our friends in and that was it. We were all in. By this point the party was in full swing so we joined everyone on the stage. At 2 minutes to midnight Andrew was convinced it was midnight, gave me my new year’s kiss and went to get another drink. At midnight I was standing by myself counting down. He came back stumbling and we just continued to dance. By 2am it was time to go back. Andrew could hardly walk and he kept telling me he loves me. Yup, he’s the “I love you” drunk. The next day my dad called and woke us up at 10:30am and Andrew asked me what we did the night before. He obviously didn’t remember anything. I gave him a summary of the night but we didn’t have time to sit and reminisce. We had a bus to catch at 1pm which was taking us to the capital, Hanoi.

View Larger Map

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Nha Trang

We arrived in Nha Trang in the evening and found a place to stay. The first thing we noticed was that the weather wasn’t as good as it had been in Mui Ne. We had travelled up the coast and I guess I just didn’t think about the fact that the weather could change that much. It wasn’t cold but it was cooler than Mui Ne and that night it rained. That is something we hadn’t experienced since Bangkok. We walked around a little bit and found a German restaurant. I had a bratwurst and Andrew had a schnitzel. Not like real German food but it was good enough.

The next day we walked around a bit and discovered the beach. It was beautiful and long. Unfortunately the waves were extremely large and there were red flags all over the place warning you not to get in the water. This was apparently not the right season. The weather wasn’t really hot enough for sun tanning so it wasn’t too much of a problem for us. We had read there were some ruins to see in Nha Trang so we walked to them. It took us most of the day to get there and back. On the way there a motorbike hit me. Well, almost hit me but it did hit my water bottle just as I was about to take a sip and splashed my water all over me. It happened as we were crossing the street. I was looking left to see if there was any oncoming traffic and slowing inching out on to the street. This guy was driving against traffic and since I wasn’t looking for motorcycles moving against traffic, I almost got creamed. In his defense he was honking but everyone honks all the time in Vietnam and you just become immune to it. At least I was ok.

We went to see the ruins and part of the rules of seeing them was that you couldn’t show your cleavage. Phew, lucky I was wearing a shirt that covered me. The ruins were nice but because we had just come from Cambodia and Angkor Wat, it was hard to impress us. Apparently they were very lax with their rules there because there was a girl who was wearing nothing more than a teddy. Well I guess you could call it a dress but her boobs were not as covered as they should have been and her ass was almost sticking out from underneath that thing. Am I getting old?
We got back to “downtown” Nha Trang and went for dinner. Since the weather wasn’t that great there really wasn’t that much to do here. We would leave to Hoi An the following day.

View Larger Map

Mui Ne

We took an early morning bus and arrived in Mui Ne midday. We went looking for a place to stay but because Christmas was 2 days away a lot of the places had overpriced all their rooms or were booked. I was looking for beachfront. The rooms we did find were beachfront but the beach had eroded and was replaced by a concrete “beach”. I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted beachfront and if I couldn’t have it then I wouldn’t be paying these ridiculous prices. Finally we found a guest house across the street from another beachfront resort for ¼ of the price the other places were charging. This way we could just cross the street and pretend we were staying at the nice resort. No one would know because unlike in the Caribbean, you don’t actually have to wear a bracelet here.

As soon as we checked in we went to see the beach. The beach was big and beautiful here. There weather was great so everyone was on the beach, but what really stood out was the number of kite surfers. All you could see in the sky was hundreds of kites, and below in the water all the kite surfers being pulled by them. Mui Ne is known as the kite surfing capital of Vietnam perhaps even the world and every year literally thousands of people visit Mui Ne just for the kite surfing. We figured since we’re here we might as well give it a shot. We started walking around looking at lesson prices and realized very quickly that it’s quite expensive. The cost is $50 per hour and you need at least 5 -8 hours to learn. Way too expensive for us. We met a girl from Romania and she was regretting not learning at home during the summer as apparently it cost half as much.

The following day, December 23rd, we rented a motorbike. It was an old 2 stroke Russian Minsk. It looked pre-war but Andrew was so happy he was almost peeing his pants. He thought it was the greatest thing that could happen to us. I was doubtful this thing could run but it started and we were on our way. Our destination was the sand dunes. There are 2 different sand dunes in the area around Mui Ne; the red and the white dunes. Apparently the white dunes were the best to see. After getting out of the city we were on our way but the awesome bike we were on was just not performing. It could barely get us up hills until it finally died and would not start. That was not a good sign. The weather was blazing hot and now we were stranded in the middle of a highway with a broken bike. You would think on this big beautiful 4 lane highway there would be more traffic but there were absolutely no cars on the road. After some kick starting the bike got started again and we turned around and went right back to the shop where we rented it from. We were provided with another crappy bike but better than the Minsk and much more comfortable. We were off again! The scenery was breathtaking. We were driving along the coast and it was an awesome, but very windy, ride.

We arrived at the white sand dunes about an hour later. The road was literally just sand. There was a big sign that said “White Sand Dunes” so we knew we had arrived at the right place. We parked under the canopy and were handed a ticket. It turned out they wanted us to pay for parking. We said no and were kicked out. So we parked on the road. There was a kid trying to rent us a couple of plastic sheets so we could slide down the dunes. But after being told they were $1 each we said no. We told him we would pay $0.50 each. He agreed but after we told him we only wanted 1 he said no and we refused to rent anything so he left us alone. The dunes were amazing. Valleys of perfect white sand. It felt like we were in the desert. It was a very odd feeling being surrounded by all this sand. I started making sand angles. I was thinking that kids at home were probably making snow angels and here I was doing the same thing but in the sand. Walking on sand is not that easy. We did some serious trekking to the top of the valleys. But once we got there we weren’t disappointed. The view was amazing. At the bottom of one of the valleys was a lake. A beautiful blue lake with hundreds of lily pads growing in it. The fact that there was a lake right in the middle of these dunes was beautiful in itself but the contrasting of the different colours, the blue of the water, the green of the lily pads and the white of the sand, was striking. I decided I didn’t need a plastic sheet and that I would just slide down by myself. I just ended up with a lot of sand up my shorts. By the end we had so much sand in our shoes that I could pour it out and watch it flutter away.

We left the white sand dunes (our bike was right where we left it on the side of the road) and headed for the red sand dunes. When we arrived there were kids trying to sell us plastic sheets again. We didn’t get any but another couple did. Once at the top they were trying to slide down but with little success. Apparently there’s a trick to the sliding. It made us feel better that we didn’t spend the $2. The red dunes were just as large as the white but because they are closer to Mui Ne they receive a lot more visitors and therefore have a lot more litter. After seeing the white dunes we weren’t as impressed with the red but it was still great to see them especially during sunset. It looked like the colour of the sand was changing the deeper the sun set.

When I woke up the following morning I was sick. My throat was hurting, my sinuses were stuffed up and I had absolutely no energy. There was no question about it, I was sick. I stayed in bed all day while Andrew ran errands. I was very disappointed because this was Christmas Eve and we had bought tickets to a beautiful buffet dinner which I had been looking forward to. But Andrew would not let me stay in bed for the dinner so I got up, showered and we went out for Christmas Eve dinner. And I’m glad he dragged me out because the food was amazing. We had pesto pastas, fresh seafood, seafood pasta, bruschetta, fresh fruits, grilled skewers and real salads! This was the food we had been dreaming about for 2 months. It was delicious! But I think the most exciting part for me was the bottle of wine we purchased. I have learned that no matter where we are in the world, wine is just as expensive as it is at home. The difference is that at home I don’t mind spending the $15 on a bottle but while backpacking it’s just unrealistic that I spend that much. It’s crazy that we can buy beer for $0.50 but wine prices remain the same. We splurged that day however, because it was Christmas Eve. And we continued to splurge throughout the night. Some of us more than others. By midnight I was exhausted and ready for bed. The wine had taken its toll and even though I was able to forget I was sick for a few hours with the help of some good pills, my body was in need of a bed. Andrew however had other ideas. He thought it was a good time to start dancing. To put that in perspective, Andrew NEVER dances if it can be avoided. I can’t even remember the number of weddings we have been to and have ended up in an argument because he wouldn’t dance, so for him to want to start dancing all on his own told me how inebriated he was. I indulged him for an hour but then it really was time for bed.

We woke up the next morning and I was still sick but I crawled out of bed to skype my parents at home. Andrew could have been better but he also got out of bed. We were excited because this was the first time we could skype in a while. A lot of places we had been to did not have fast enough internet access for us to skype. After we finished chatting with my parents and some friends we went to the beach. The weather was beautiful and I didn’t want to spend one more day in bed. We were leaving for Nha Trang the following day so I wanted to enjoy the day as much as possible. It was Christmas after all.

View Larger Map


We left for Saigon (which is actually now called Ho Chi Minh City but nobody calls it that except for government officials) early in the morning but after taking a ferry and a bus we didn’t arrive until 6pm. As usual we didn’t have a hotel booked so the first thing we needed to do was find a place to sleep. We needed to get to the “backpacker” area from the bus station and opted to take a taxi versus a local bus because Lonely Planet had literally made us paranoid about all the people who would be trying to rob/scam us. It was already dark and we didn’t want to experience anything negative on our first night. The taxi took us to a guest house we found in lonely planet and we were able to get a room. We went out that evening to take in the city. We were very cautious since we had read a lot of negative things in Lonely Planet. I was constantly on alert and I suspected everyone of trying to steal our bag.

The city is very busy. There are 8 million people who live here and 5 million scooters. Traffic is crazy and crossing the street is an art. We learned there will never be a break in traffic and to cross you just need to start walking. But do not stop at any point or you will be hit. Just keep walking at a normal pace and the scooters will go around you. Since Christmas was approaching the city was decorated in Christmas lights. Stores and malls were decorated with Santa Clause and Christmas trees, and people were going crazy over this. There were literally hundreds of people taking pictures with the various displays. We were in one particular section of the city where there were a lot of people and a lot of Christmas lights, and it just became very congested with people. I was trying not to lose Andrew in the crowd and was walking behind him when I saw a lady reach her hand into his left front pocket. I went to slap her hand away to prevent her from stealing his wallet but Andrew was on alert as well, felt her trying to take it and grabbed his pocket. Right away she retreated and was lost in the crowd. We were shocked! Not only because someone just tried to pick his pocket but because it was such a blatant attempt and it happened on our first night in the city! We were shaken. Not scared or worried but we did realize just how easy it would be to have his wallet stolen. I wasn’t a target because I literally don’t carry anything with me. Andrew had all the money and all our documents. We went straight back to the hotel and adjusted our strategy. We left any important documents and credit cards well hidden in our room and only carried some cash with us. This would prevent someone completely wiping out all our resources. I would also carry some money in my pockets. The idea was if someone picked Andrew’s pocket at least I would still have money and vice versa.

The following day we booked a tour of the city. With our new plan we felt fairly secure but still quite alert. The tour did not live up to our expectations. The first stop was the war museum which in extremely gross detail outlined the American/Vietnam war. Some of the pictures were extremely disturbing. One was of an American soldier carrying ¼ of someone’s body. All you could see was the torso and a hanging arm. After that we were taken to the Chinese market where we spent 45 minutes walking around by ourselves. Then lunch at a pre-arranged restaurant where Andrew didn’t get served his lunch until everyone was already sitting on the bus and they all had to wait for us. Then we went to see the Reunification Palace which was probably the biggest disappointment of all and was nothing but communistic architecture. The disappointment was the lack of trying to actually put any context behind the palace. It was just full of old rooms with nothing really interesting to see. After that we went to see their Notre Dame and post office. These two sites were on the itinerary because they were the oldest buildings in the city and were built by the French. When I say the tour did not live up to our expectations, we have a couple reasons. 1) This was supposed to be a guided tour. Meaning our guide should show us around the site. What actually happened was our tour guide would give us a brief history on the bus or right in front of the sight and then set us loose by ourselves and then meet back up with us in an hour or so. 2) A lot of the sights were not sights at all. A museum? A Chinese market? Really? It’s not like the guide explained any kind of cultural significance or historic value behind these sights. It felt like they were there to fill the day. The Notre Dame and post office had great architecture but nothing with a wow factor.

Following the disappointment of day two you think we would have learned our lesson and not book anymore tours. Unfortunately that’s not the case. We booked a tour to see the Cu Chi tunnels for day #2. The tour guide was much better and actually took the time to describe most of what we saw, but the movie we were made to watch left a lot to be desired. It was literally made sometime in the 1970’s and had not been updated since. In addition, we had to watch it on a 30” in a room the length of 30 feet or so. It was total propaganda aimed at the Americans with the narrator explaining how heroes were given medals of honour based on how many Americans they killed, or how many they attempted to kill etc. So if a soldier killed 3 Americans, he received a medal, and if he attempted to kill more, he received another medal, and so on. Part of the tour was to visit a shooting range which I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone, Andrew was super excited for. This time he got to shoot an AK47 (because according to our tour guide that is the best gun and the guns the Americans had were shit). I was once again the picture taker. I was annoyed however because as opposed to the first shooting range we visited, there were not a lot of precautions taken. The guns here were bolted down so there was no danger of someone turning the gun and shooting a person by mistake, but the guns are extremely loud and no one cares if you have ear protection or not. For the first 5 or 10 minutes while waiting I had to stand with my fingers plugging my ears and my ears were still ringing. I finally got a pair of ear muffs when someone was leaving. The other annoyance was the # of people there. There were a lot of people and it was tight. There was zero organization. Finally it was Andrew’s turn and he was quite excited, but as before the 10 shots were over very quickly.

The highlight of the visit is to actually tour the tunnels the Vietnamese had dug underground during the war. Needless to say the Vietnamese are small people and could fit into much smaller spaces than most of us. I didn’t realize how small the tunnels would be. We entered the tunnel and right away I had to crouch and bend at the waist to fit. The tunnel we were touring goes on for 120 meters. After 15 meters I was tired, in pain from the crouching, very sweaty, and becoming very claustrophobic. It was completely creeping me out that I was underground in a very tight space, and the soldier which was supposed to be leading us took off at the front and was nowhere to be seen. In addition, these tunnels were only lit very sparsely. The good news was the tunnels had been provided with emergency exits every 15 meters specifically for the tourists. At the first exit another soldier was crouching with a flashlight rushing me along. I stopped beside him and saw there was a set of stairs behind him leading to the outside. I told him I wanted to get out. He made it seem like he didn’t understand me (you want to get out?) and I repeated myself and told him I needed to get out. He moved out of the way and let me out. Andrew followed behind me.

At that point the tour was over and we headed back into the city. The next day we were leaving Saigon and heading up the coast for Mui Ne. We would be spending Christmas there.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Happy New Year!

Hello Everyone! Happy New Year! Vietnam has been tricky with internet access so we post when we can. We hope everyone had a great Christmas! We will post more about Vietnam as soon as we can.

Phu Quoc, Vietnam

We woke up early the next day and grabbed breakfast in our lobby. The interesting part was when we had arrived 3 days before the lobby was under complete construction. The tiles on the walls were being laid down, the wooden parts of the walls were getting varnished and the floors were still being put in. But by the time we were checking out, everything was complete, cleaned up and the restaurant was fully functional. It was amazing to see the transformation in a matter of 3 days.

The bus picked us up at 8am and we arrived at the border by noon. Even though we obtained visas beforehand (as you need to do because they are not given out on arrival) this was by far the longest border crossing yet. It could only be attributed to the man who was on our bus and did not have a visa. Technically you can get a visa on arrival but the restriction is that you must enter and exit through the same border crossing and you can only go to one destination. In this case, since our final destination was Phu Quoc, we could only go there, stay for 15 days, and then come back through the same border crossing. For this reason most people apply for a 30 day visa before hand, as then none of those restrictions apply. This man, who was at least in his 60’s, did not have a visa, which would not have been a huge problem had he not told the border officer he was planning to go to a few destinations. Of course the border officer denied him a visa, which understandably upset the man, but he complicated the matter further when he told the border officer that fine, he would only go to Phu Quoc. This wouldn’t really be very frustrating for us had not had a boat to catch. There was only one boat at a specific time and it was scheduled for 1:30pm. We were not the only ones getting frustrated. The older man kept talking to our driver, who kept telling him there is nothing he can do. After an hour he was somehow granted a visa and we could all go on our way. We made the boat with no issues.

We arrived in Phu Quoc with no issues and since we didn’t have a room booked the taxi driver took it upon himself to take us to his favourites (or the ones who paid him commission). We were not the only ones in the taxi however so we weren’t too concerned. We ended up finding a nice room and a couple from Russia who was in our taxi decided to stay there too. We ended up as neighbours. Although our guest house was not on the beach it was a very close walk. The only challenge was that Phu Quoc was not yet very well developed for tourists and therefore a lot of places we needed to get to required a scooter. That in itself wasn’t a problem but we didn’t have any Vietnamese Dong to pay for a scooter. We did end up finding a bank machine however and renting a scooter.

The next day we went for a drive around the Northern side of the island. The island was actually quite big and the ride north took around an hour. As I said before, this isn’t a developed island so most of the road was a dirt road. The advantage is there are a lot of deserted beautiful beaches. The weather was beautiful but we kept heading north as we had been told there was a light house we could see. We never did end up finding the lighthouse but the weather was turning cloudy and cool so we started heading back. That day we didn’t get the opportunity to take advantage of the nice beaches. That night there was a power outage. It would turn out to be something common in Vietnam. It lasted about an hour but it was literally pitch black.

The following day we went up north again but this time our only intention was to sit on a beach. The weather wasn’t as beautiful as the day before but not cold or raining. We found a beach which was around 5km long and completely deserted. For a few hours we just hung out, swam, read and played with some local crabs. During this time we didn’t see anyone except for a family of tourists who stopped by, took a look and kept on driving. It was paradise. That evening we had dinner at one of the food stalls at the night market. We had a fresh tuna which was grilled fresh for us, along with some steamed rice and veggies. It was great. After that we went for a coffee at a local café and once again experienced a power outage. It wasn’t a big deal however since the café had a generator. We booked our tickets from Hanoi to Bangkok for January 10th with Air Asia. It’s actually cheaper for us to fly back to Bangkok than to travel over land.

Phnom Penh

We took an early morning bus to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap. We had made reservations at a hotel which was owned by the brother of the guest house we stayed at in Siem Reap. We arrived at the hotel and realized it was still under construction. The reception area wasn’t even finished and the temporary reception was located on the last floor. We were told the room would cost us $6 per night but it turned out to cost $8. Maybe not a huge deal but we have been trying to keep our budget in check. We decided to stay there as they would be taking care of our visa to Vietnam. Everywhere else we would have to wait 3 days to get the visa but the hotel manager was able to do it in 1 day for us.

We went out walking and soon discovered there is no real charm to Phnom Penh. Mainly because there is no specific area that you could pinpoint and say “you should go there”. There is a section by the waterfront which has a lot of small restaurants but that quickly loses its charm when you are constantly approached by tuk tuk drivers even while you are eating. We were craving something other than rice and decided on an “Italian” restaurant, by the waterfront. Even as we were trying to decide where to eat there were tuk tuk drivers asking if we needed a ride. The difference between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is that at least in Siem Reap they listened when you said no. Unfortunately in Phnom Penh they didn’t. They just kept following you around. This one tuk tuk driver continued to pester us even after we had received our food and were eating. He wanted to know where we were going tomorrow and that he could take us there. Finally I said “we’re eating” but he continued. I repeated myself a couple more time and finally he said “I know you’re eating but tomorrow I can take you where you want to go”. He was quite annoyed with me, but so was I. At least Andrew was calm so he just told him “no thank you, we don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow”. Somehow he got the hint. All this would have been enough for an experience but the meal itself was interesting as well. We ordered Spaghetti with meat and tomato sauce. What we received were spaghetti noodles with a ketchup/sweet chili sauce topped with some ground meat. Needless to say we were disappointed in our spaghetti. We spent the rest of the day walking around searching for a McDonalds. We were convinced they must have one since it’s the capital of Cambodia. We were disappointed once again. We did find a mall which had some restaurants in it, mainly BBWorld which is Cambodia’s answer to McDonald’s. The food wasn’t great but at least they had wifi, which is something we have been unable to find in Cambodia. We went back to our hotel, bought a couple of cold beers and watched some TV.

The next day we hired a tuk tuk to take us to visit the school which was converted to a prison during the war with the Khmer Rouge in the mid 1970’s. The Khmer Rouge was the name of the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, who were the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, led by a man by the name of Pol Pot. Pol Pot studied in Paris in the 1950’s and it was at that time when the Khmer students organized their own communist movement. Some of those students would return to Cambodia and end up taking control of the communist party, and eventually rename Cambodia to the Democratic of Kampuchea. By the 1960’s Pol Pot had risen to the rank of leadership in the communist movement. The Khmer Rouge goal was to eradicate any kind of city life as they believed it corrupted society, and for all citizens to essentially become farmers. Of course they wanted to achieve this through a communist government. They were successful in wiping out almost the whole city of Phnom Penh. Their view was that engineers, bankers, business men as well as any other educated people were corrupting society. And they wanted to eradicate the corruption and control the country. Imagine someone with the ideology of Hitler except his ideology was aimed towards the corruption of city life.

The school we were touring is in the middle of Phnom Penh and was renamed to S-21. It was used to house and torture prisoners. Anyone who wasn’t killed was brought to the prison to be tortured for the purpose of obtaining information about other traitors. As we toured the facility it was almost like walking through the Auschwitz camp in Poland. Of course the genocide done by Hitler was on a much larger scale, but wiping out a whole city, the capital, is no small feat and requires a lot of sick individuals to do some bad things. The pictures hanging on the walls were very graphic and showed in detail the different forms of torture used in the school. One of the most disgusting ones shows an officer standing under a tree while holding a baby by its legs. The “soldiers” killed babies by smashing their heads against a tree. And just like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge documented every single person who was imprisoned at the S-21 prison. The walls are hung with thousands of mug shots of the prisoners. Many of them children. What annoyed me were stories posted in one room from people who used to be soldiers. A lot of them said they joined the Khmer Rouge because they were afraid for their lives. That I can understand, but to torture people for me is unimaginable. A lot of those soldiers are now living normal lives. As I said before, it’s easy to say I was made to do it after the fact. I won’t get into the history too much but the Khmer Rouge was removed from power in 1975 after it was invaded by the Vietnamese. During their time in power, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.5 million people; 1/5 of the total population of Cambodia. Their motto was “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” I would like to encourage everyone to learn more about this horrific history. What I describe here is a very brief account and I am by no means an expert in this area or a historian. What got to me was this is very recent history. The Khmer Rouge continued to operate as guerrillas in Western Cambodia until 1996! We all think about Hitler and it all seems a distant memory. Most of us weren’t alive back then. But 1975, and 1996 are very recent events, and most of us don’t know about them. We can’t imagine letting Hitler to live freely after 1945 if he hadn’t killed himself. Pol Pot died of natural causes in 1998 never having been put on trial.

After the S-21 prison we went to see the Killing Fields. These are fields which were discovered after the Vietnamese invasion and they were and continue to be mass graves for those killed during the Khmer Rouge reign. We experienced a couple of dramatic moments while there. The first one is the monument which was built to commemorate all those who died. It’s a 7 storey glass building which holds the skulls, bones and remains of those who were killed. It’s obviously not everyone who was killed, but it does put into perspective what the number 1.5 million actually looks like. The display also has the skulls segregated into sections of male and female as well as male/female children. It describes how based on the size of the skulls they can determine the sex and the age. The second dramatic moment we experienced was standing in front of a tree. It looked just like any other tree there. It’s hard to get emotional about large holes in the ground because it’s hard to imagine them being filled with human remains. But this tree was different. This was the tree which was used by the soldier to kill the babies. Standing in front of that tree I actually got goose bumps. I was standing in front of the exact tree which was used to kill hundreds if not thousands of babies. I could picture the soldier standing there. I could see the picture from the prison clearly. I felt sick. It was hard to believe the tree was thriving even though it had seen all this death around it. I don’t want to suggest trees have feelings or that the tree should have died with those kids. But when we picture death and such horrific acts we picture them to be carried out in horrific and bleak places, not a park like setting. Needless to say we were in dark spirits when we left. We spent the rest of the day walking around the city.

The plan was to leave the next day to Vietnam. We had obtained our visa’s and all we had to do was book the bus. Unfortunately by the time we made the decision to book the bus it was already sold out. We could have gone somewhere else in Vietnam but we wanted to go to Phu Quoc Island in South Western Vietnam. So we were stuck in Phnom Penh for one more day. That sucked because we really didn’t know what else to do there. We decided to find a nice café with wifi access and just hang out there for the day. That was easier said than done because wifi access was not easy to come by nor was a nice café. But we did end up finding one and just hung out there until mid-afternoon. After that we went for a walk to the riverfront, but until most days we headed to a different side of it. A nice hotel was there and they had a nice casino. Right behind the hotel was a bridge which took us to a small island. We weren’t sure what was there as it looked like a modern Exhibition Place; a few large buildings with some smaller ones. We were walking around and noticed a sign for an Import/Export show. We decided to check it out and learned we could get in for free. We made up a fake import/export company when registering and walked right in. It was a typical trade show but with all the different things you can import. The funny thing was how seriously people took us. We were literally the only white people there so everyone thought we were investors from the US. Most things you could find in our dollar stores, but we did come across one cool item. It was a water filtration tower, just like you would have in your kitchen, except it was also a dehumidifier. It used the water collected from the room or apartment and turned it into drinking water. At first I thought it was kind of gross but they gave us a sample straight from the machine and the water was really good. We thought this was a fantastic idea especially since fresh water is such a scarcity in a lot of countries and it will be a big problem for the world one day if we don’t come up with some ideas soon. We spent a good 40 minutes talking to the inventor and his sales staff. The catch was that the machine currently cost $9000. Apparently they had a big market in Singapore. We explained we were just travelling and weren’t interested in an investment but they were happy to talk to us anyway. One other cool thing we came across was a booth which was showing how they make silk. We got to see how the silk worms were boiled in a liquid and the silk extracted from the worms and then spun. We were excited because tours were sold in Thailand and Cambodia to see how silk is made and here we had a free show all to ourselves. Other than that nothing of interest caught our attention. We left the show and went to pay for our tickets, which were not sold out as we had reserved them over the phone the previous day. We found a grocery store, bought some Johnny Walker and got drunk in our room.