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    by mkataoka Fodor's Editor | Posted on Nov 28, 16 at 01:31 PM
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Trip Report A redhead in Vietnam and Cambodia

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I started looking at visiting Vietnam and Cambodia because of photos of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. That’s too far to go for a short trip and I wasn’t sure about how I would like the rest of Cambodia so I started looking at what else was in the area. Ha Long Bay in Vietnam drew me in and added Vietnam to the trip.

Overview
Hanoi – 11/22 – 11/27
Ha Long Bay (actually Bai Tu Long Bay) – 11/27 – 11/29
Phnom Penh – 11/30 – 12/3
Siem Reap – 12/3 – 12/9

Hotels
All of my hotels were found via TripAdvisor and Agoda reviews. I was looking for relatively inexpensive, but in great locations, great reviews and with (at least some) English speaking staff. All of my hotels exceeded my expectations and I would recommend any of them highly.

- Hanoi: Essence Hanoi Hotel – Old Quarter
This is the place to stay if you want absolute pampering from a wonderful staff in an excellent location. Everyone on staff was incredibly friendly and helpful and everyone spoke English. The hotel was fairly small so felt very welcoming. It’s right in the heart of the Old Quarter with Hoan Quiem Lake only a short walk away (5 minutes or so) but just far enough away that it felt separated from the traffic there. Breakfast was included with the room and was quite simply amazing. There is a small buffet and then you get your choice off of a small menu. If you want something different then the full menu is available. Everything I tried was awesome… pho ga (chicken noodle soup), french toast, banana pancake… yum!

There was a lift, but you do have to go up one or two shallow stairs to get into the lobby. I would call this tired legs friendly, but not necessarily wheelchair friendly.

- Bai Tu Long Bay – IndoChina Junk Tour
Bai Tu Long Bay is the much more private side of Ha Long Bay. Though they have different names, they’re the same body of water essentially. BTL Bay has FAR fewer boats in it as apparently only one tour group is allowed in, IndoChina Junk (junk refers to the style of boat and is not a reference to quality or lack thereof).

This was a wonderful small boat with 19 passengers. There was a small eating area on the front of the boat, a small dining room with a bar, and then a lounge deck on the top and back. It was a perfect place for basking in the sun (or shade) and watching the beautiful Bay go by. My room was quite tiny, just barely larger than the double or queen sized bed with a tiny bathroom off the end. However, it was just fine as I rarely spent any time in there.

- Phnom Penh: Blue Lime Hotel
Yet again, excellent and friendly staff. The location was just a couple minutes from the National Museum, the Palace and the Quay. The room was enormous and had just enough bright colors (window covers, wall hangings, etc) to make it fun and nice, without being overwhelming. There was a problem with the air con unit the first night so the room was fairly warm. As soon as I mentioned it at the reception desk the next morning they were right on getting it fixed for me. It was fixed well before I came back that day and the room was then perfect. Because the bathroom can be closed off from the rest of the room, and thus the air con, it stays pretty warm in there unless you leave the door open. That was absolutely perfect for hanging clothes to dry!

My only warning about this hotel is that I don’t think there was an elevator (at least not in the section I was in, I think there was another section on the other side of the pool). If stairs are a problem, be sure to check with the hotel ahead of time.

- Siem Reap: Golden Butterfly Villa
What a great place! It’s about a block from the Artisan’s of Angkor shop and only about a 5 minute walk from the market/pub street/night market area. The location was perfect for me as it was a quick and easy walk, but it was far enough away from the crowds and noise. The staff were extremely friendly and welcoming. While breakfast is not part of the room rate, it is available and they do provide a raisin cake for morning take away if you request it the night before. I’m not sure if that is a one time thing or something that is included for every day, I never got around to requesting it.

The room was lovely and large, the bed was ridiculously comfy. I had huge windows (two whole walls were basically glass) and a small balcony. There was a DVD player in the room and a DVD about the history of Angkor. It’s small, but it’s a really nice touch for guests who want to learn more or who maybe just want to play it in the background while they are in the room. They set me up with Saran (pronounced Soren) as my driver.

Hanoi

11/22/14 - Saturday
I arrived in Hanoi and spent just enough time at the airport to hit the ATM and get a SIM card for data. I might have been able to save a couple dollars if I had got the SIM card in town, but there’s something to be said for getting it from someone who is used to dealing with idiot foreigners and being done with it. From the second the taxi arrived in front of the small hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter I was treated like someone special by the staff.

Since I arrived around 12:30 my room wasn’t quite ready yet so I left my bags and went wandering for a short time. I had a lovely bowl of pho bo (beef noodle soup) at a tiny little place. It was very hard to take photos in the Old Quarter since I was so busy watching traffic. There aren’t really sidewalks as the space between the storefronts and the street was taken up by seating, motorbikes and cooking. The streets are both very busy and very narrow so it’s a good idea to watch where you’re going and what’s going on around you.

After lunch, I wandered into a large market and was absolutely overwhelmed by the tight corridors, the sounds and the truly awful smells. The corridors between the stalls are only wide enough for one person to walk through at a time and even that is sketchy in some areas. Shop girls were climbing over their stock constantly grabbing stacks of items to pack into giant plastic bags to be taken out to the shops throughout the city and region. There was fabric everywhere, both made into clothing items and also in enormous rolled bolts. The smell from the fabric permeated the entire warehouse sized building. I wandered around a bit before getting too claustrophobic and aiming for an exit. Fortunately or unfortunately, I picked the exit to the food stall areas. There were all kinds of fresh fruits and veggies, and every kind of fresh poultry, fish and meat imaginable. Western standards for food safety are worlds away from this market. There were flies sitting on bloody meat as they carved up sides of meat right there in the market onto large wooden tables to be chopped into smaller pieces.

For all that it set my squeamish bells ringing the meat didn’t really bother me too badly. Then I wandered into the dried stuff section and wanted to hurl. Dried mushrooms, dried chunks of this, that and the other, dried fish, etc were stored in huge open cloth barrels lining the narrow walkways. I had no idea that dried items could smell like rotting death, but apparently they can. Once I wandered my way out of that olfactory mess, politely turning down the shop ladies trying to sell me dried mushrooms and whatnot, I wandered around the streets for a bit and ended up at Hoan Kiem Lake.

Hoan Kiem Lake seemed like the heart and soul of Hanoi. There’s amazing history here, it’s where the elderly go for their morning and evening exercises, where courting couples go for dates or for their engagement and wedding photos. It’s a beautiful small lake with enormous trees, an island in the center with a small temple on it and a second island with a temple with a bright red bridge leading to it. The legend goes that in the 15th century Le Loi, who became emperor of Vietnam, was given a magical sword from the Golden Turtle God. Then one day, soon after the Chinese accepted Vietnam’s independence Le Loi was out on the lake and a great turtle surfaced, grabbed the sword and dove back into the water. He decided that the sword had been returned to the Golden Turtle God and renamed the lake. Hoan Kiem Lake means “Lake of the Returned Sword”.

Even with my luxurious travel in Cathay Pacific’s business class (yay airline miles!!) it had been a very long trip and I ended my lovely first day with a visit to a tiny supermarket for a couple snacks and then back to my hotel for bed.

11/23/14 - Sunday
Back at the lake, I visited the little temple across the red bridge and continued wandering around the lake and then around the Old Quarter. Around the lake, there were a handful of young girls in traditional outfits having photos taken in groups or individually. There were also multiple wedding parties taking photos at the lake, at the opera house or meeting their families and guests for fancy meals in large party tents on the sidewalks.
I made my way down to the opera house and then to the History Museum. By the time I got to the museum it was almost 10am and I was already hot and tired. I stopped in the small restaurant café and had a bottle of water and chocolate ice cream. Nothing quite beats sitting in a nice place out of the sun and enjoying a dish of chocolate ice cream. The museum was nice, but somewhat blah. There were English translations of the descriptions of most things but not nearly enough info for my tastes.

I used my tried and true method to find a place for lunch (see people eating, walk in and try to look friendly rather than ravenously hungry, tired and grossly sweaty) and ended up at the Ciao Café across from a ridiculously high end mall. They had Dior, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, etc. Each store had a young man posted at the doors to open the doors for any of their guests and to discourage rabble like me from entering their stores. On the suggestion from the waiter, I ordered a chicken and rice hotpot. It was quite good yet very simple. Unfortunately the insanely hot black pottery dish it was baked in came out nestled in a small wicker pot holder. The wicker pot holder is unfortunate because it held bugs. Lots of them. They were just innocently hanging out in the pot holder when some waiter put this giant hot thing in the middle of their new nest and put it on a table. What could they do except scurry across the table? I didn’t know if that was an aberration or if it was normal and expected to have bugs go scurrying out of the pot holders so I tried to be subtle as I squished them or brushed them off the table. Nobody else seemed bothered by their pot holders so either mine was the only one with bugs, or bugs were expected.

After lunch, I returned to the lake. As there are many tourists who stroll past the lake, university students who wish to practice their English wander the walkways in small groups or alone. Unlike the ‘students’ in China who really just want to invite you for an extremely expensive tea that you’ll pay for, these students really do want to practice English. They don’t try to sell you anything, they don’t try to get you to go anywhere. If you’re walking they’ll walk with you for a bit and if you’re sitting then they’ll sit with you. Because I was traveling alone and a young woman, I was very approachable for the students. I don’t know how many times I sat and chatted with pairs of young women or young men during my time in Hanoi but it was actually one of the best parts of the visit. I did learn at one point that Vietnamese women can marry at 18, but the boys have to wait until age 20. The two young women who told me this wisely said that boys need more time. I could only agree with them.

During my stroll along the lake I came to a small crowd around a young man working on something in his lap. He was taking plain chopsticks, cutting/whittling them with a razor blade wrapped in tape and super gluing them together into a little man on a bicycle. I was fascinated to watch this young artist! His fingers practically flew and as I watched a bicycle vendor took shape. The figure was only 80,000 VND which is approximately $4 US and it takes him right around an hour for each one. He said that after he finished this one he had to leave for awhile but he would be back again the next day. It was starting to get late and my feet were seriously ouchy so I headed back to the hotel and made a bowl of soup (yay for instant noodle soup bowls and a tea pot) while I soaked my tired feet in the tub.

11/24/14 – Monday
After a walk past St Josephs Cathedral (it wasn’t open to tourists until after 2pm), I paid the balance of my bill for my upcoming cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay. Then it was back to the lake for a rest and time to decide where else I wanted to go for the day. I sat in the lovely little outside café at the lake and ordered a dish with two scoops of chocolate ice cream (screw you ideas of being skinny!) and another water. It’s a lot of fun to just sit and watch traffic and watch people as they go about their daily lives.

This was where I realized that I had been wrong about the traffic rules. I’m pretty sure the Vietnamese learned how to drive from the Chinese, where the only traffic rule is “don’t hit things”. However, they improved upon the system and added a second traffic rule of “honk first and you can do whatever you want”. Want to go the wrong way down a one way street? Honk and go! Want to cross the intersection even though traffic is already crossing the other way? No worries, honk and go!

After my ice cream it was time for a visit to the Temple of Literature. I loved this place. There were groups of students all over in formal dress (traditional for the girls, suits and ties for the boys) and graduation robes. They were all having photos taken together so everyone was happy. The history and architecture here is amazing, and reminded me of a far smaller version of the Forbidden City from Beijing. In one room they have players set up with traditional instruments and they play very short excerpts as a demonstration.

Then it was time to walk over past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (closed) and all over the botanical gardens there, then over to the Hoa Lo Prison. The prison is better known to Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton”. It was definitely interesting to see this from an American’s perspective as everything inside was very skewed and glossed over (which you would expect). It was a short visit and not very exciting or interesting. Only a tiny portion is open for the tour so it didn’t take very long. From there I wandered to the One Pillar Pagoda. It was originally built in 1049, but had multiple renovations before it was destroyed in 1954. It has been rebuilt and the area is under renovation currently. This is where the small group of Chinese tourists found me and asked for photos. No matter how hot, red faced or sweaty I am, it seems like the Chinese always want photos of me. It always makes me feel like a fat, sweaty, unfashionable, hulk and like a supermodel at the same time.

Then it was back to the lake, and the young man making the chopstick art. I chatted with him for quite awhile. His name is Lum, which he said means friend in Chinese. I’m always amazed when people can speak multiple languages. Lum was quite funny and I think he was entertained that students kept coming up to us to chat with me.

It was getting dark by the time Lum finished making the two little characters for me so I wandered around the lake towards my hotel. On the way, I saw a photographer with a bride and groom in full wedding finery. She seemed a bit unsure about it when the photographer slowly pushed her into the street while traffic was stopped at a light. His assistant held up a light to illuminate her big white dress and then traffic was flowing behind her. I took a photo of them and I love the shot that he set up with them standing still together with the world flowing past around them. I hope their photos turned out!

11/25/14 – Tuesday
I mainly spent this day wandering around the streets of the Old Quarter and lazing by the lake again. It was nice to have so much time in the city so that I really felt that I could just laze about and people watch and chat with students for much of the day without feeling like I was missing out on something big. Cathay Pacific gives out socks in business class and there’s something in their detergent that I’m apparently allergic to. I had huge red welts all over my ankles that stopped exactly where those socks stopped so I was definitely in a mood to just have a slow day rather than walking from morning until evening.

11/26/14 - Wednesday
Today it was back to my normal schedule of walking all day so off I went to the Citadel for a visit. I was apparently one of the last visitors they let in for the day as they were getting ready for a gala that night. There were a few bridal couples taking photos and lots of students taking photos as groups and individually. Think of high school senior pictures, and then ramp it up by a factor of 10. There unfortunately isn’t much that is visible at the old Citadel, mainly just a single wall and large gateway. From the Citadel, I headed off to the Tran Quoc Pagoda by the large lake on the north side of the city. By the time I got there I was really hungry so I stopped into a restaurant and ordered a small pizza. It was fun to see their take on pizza and it was yummy. A quick visit to the pagoda (kinda boring, really just a very tall narrow pagoda).

I had a somewhat early pick up scheduled for the next morning for my trip to Bai Tu Long bay so I returned to my hotel to pack and get ready. After that, I decided to take in a water puppet show as it is an ancient art form that is fairly unique to Vietnam. God I’m dumb sometimes.

The water puppet theater is right by Hoan Kiem Lake so my feet already knew the way. I got to the front just at the time when the show was to be starting and bought a ticket. They were either very nice, or very mean, and gave me a ticket right in the front row. That meant that even when the couple next to me (they were on the end) quietly got up to leave, I couldn’t do the same without feeling bad. Water puppetry is an ancient form of entertainment that should have stayed in the ancient world.

The puppeteers stand behind a curtain and run their puppets on sticks that are hidden in a small pool of dark water and they do a handful of short skits in each performance. Musicians are on small platforms on either side of the small pool. I hoped it would get better after the first puppet was out there. He reminded me strongly of one of Jeff Dunham’s puppets, but without the humor. There were two brightly colored bird puppets that thrashed around a bit and had puppet sex. There were two dragon puppets that thrashed around and squirted water at each other. There were farmer puppets that were behind oxen. My question was why was one of the farmer puppets wearing a thong and the other was fully dressed? In with the farmer skit were female puppets harvesting rice. The next skit was a bunch of women puppets. I’m not sure quite what was going on here but it was two giant fancy women and 6 or 8 smaller fancy women. I never did figure out if they were princesses, concubines or teachers teaching rich girls how to curtsy and such. Thankfully before long the show was over and the puppeteers came out for a bow. I’m glad I went, but I think it might be more fun if you either understood what was going on or if you were stoned. Very stoned.

11/27/14 – Thanksgiving Thursday
A polite guide from IndoChina Junk arrived at my hotel exactly on schedule and 5 people rode in the luxury 7 passenger van for the few hours out to the bay. We met our guide, Wang, there and took the small boat out to the small ship that would be our home for the next two nights. We started out of the small bay area towards Bai Tu Long Bay and had a lovely lunch to start with. There were tables set up on the front deck of the ship and then a dining room inside. I really liked the outside seating as it was a long table up the center and then two tables of four on the sides. As we had two family groups of four, that was the perfect setup for our group.

The food was always AWESOME, though half the time I didn’t know what it was. It was a very seafood based menu. There were also a lot of salads with cucumber, tomato, carrots, etc in various light sauces. I was a little icked out by the prawns still having legs and eyes but once you yank those off (ew!) the prawns were just like large shrimp and quite good. The one evening they served mantis prawns which were a bit too much seafood for me but the Aussie gentleman next to me was happy to have my second one.
After letting lunch settle by basking on one of the many lounge chairs on the upper deck, we went kayaking. I was with the Aussie who was traveling on his own, Mick. It was great to be able to see such a beautiful area from the quiet and calm of a kayak, but that’s hard work when you’re not used to it! We were out just long enough to see the sunset and then back to the boat and dinner. It wasn’t family and a big turkey dinner and sleeping in the living room with football playing, but it was a great way to spend Thanksgiving.

11/28/14 – Friday
A great breakfast, cruising through BTL Bay and basking in the sun (under an umbrella for me of course), followed by kayaking to a calm beach and swimming, then back to the boat for lunch. More cruising, an option for more kayaking and a fancy dinner in a cave followed lunch.

Swimming at the small beach was fun. There was so much salt in the water that you just float without even thinking about it. That afternoon there was another chance to kayak but only a few people took the offer, most of us were happy to just bask in the lounge chairs. We saw a few other cruise boats but they were all part of IndoChina and they were still few and far between for the most part. We did anchor in a small protected area both nights for safety. That also means that there wasn't the engine noise or movement to keep people awake.

The owner of IndoChina Junks apparently owns one of the tiny islands and expanded a large cave to be a fancy dining room. There is a walkway in on one side and then a walkway out the other way to a small area where the staff were grilling. Apparently there was also a bathroom up that way as well. After dinner it was time to head back to the boat for our last night.

11/29/14 – Saturday
After breakfast, we headed to a tiny ‘village’ on the water. They grow pearls and run a shop for tourists. They also took us around in small boats. It was interesting to see these tiny women moving the boats with a handful of tourists around the bay, they made it look easy! They definitely know how to use leverage as the women were standing and moving from their hips rather than just using their arms. A few of the guys in the group asked if they could give it a try and they kept trying to just use their arms. They eventually got the hang of it somewhat.

It was interesting to see how they start the pearls in the clam shells and then let them sit underwater for a couple years to grow. Of course there is a jewelry salesroom there. From there it was lunch on the way back to the dock and then we split up into different vans and headed towards Hanoi and home. Unfortunately, IndoChina Junks sponsors a town, Yen Duc, and everyone stops on the way home to see a water puppet show and a demonstration of how they make rice. The water show was the exact same as what I had seen in Hanoi and it was somehow even worse.

Once I finally returned to Hanoi it was time to repack my bag for the very early flight to Phnom Penh. I absolutely loved my time with IndoChina Junks and would very highly suggest them to anyone in the area. I would also recommend the two night option if you can. One night means that you spend half a day getting there and half a day getting back, with only a night and two short half days on the water. That’s a lot of time on the road for little time on the water. However, if you’re truly short on time then that’s likely better than nothing.


Next up: Phnom Penh!

Photos are started in a public Facebook album: http://tinyurl.com/kpngmza

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