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Trip Report Back from a Trip of a Lifetime! Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia!

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Hi all. We are now back from a 3 week trip to Southeast Asia visiting Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. We had a spectacular time! I am so thankful to all of the forum members who helped to shape our itinerary, especially recommending Laos and encouraging more time in specific cities. I know I don't have to go on and on about how beautiful, exhilarating, and spiritual Southeast Asia is or how friendly and warm the people are because everyone here knows it. But for us, the whole trip surpassed our expectations or wildest dreams.

Because I know I can't write a breezy, funny, enlightening trip reports like the ones I read before leaving, I will just write about some highlights in each city we visited in terms of food, attractions and activities....and some likes and dislikes...

Background

I traveled with my family that included my kids ages 5, 9 and 11 and our 11 year old cousin, as well as three adult family members. We left June 21 and returned July 10. We flew American Airlines from NYC to Chicago where we transferred to a Asiana flight to Saigon through Korea. We decided to fly out of Chicago after reading reviews on Skytrax and learning that Asiana uses their newer, bigger planes out of Chicago. We had a combination of coach, business and first class seats and everyone thought the service, food and entertainment was first ratein each class. And I must tell you that one member of our group mentioned at the counter in Chicago that they forgot to bring their passport photos for our Visa on arrival and questioned if it eas possible to take photos at the airport in Seoul. After checking, they said that they did not know but would send a message to the staff in Korea. As we exited the plane, there was an Asiana crew member with a sign with our names who told us they were meeting us to personally escort us to a photo booth. What service!

Our itinerary was as follows:

3 nights Saigon
4 nights Hoi An
2 nights Hanoi
1 night Halong Bay
4 nights Luang Prababg
3 nights Siem Reap

We used Aurora/Vietnam Stay and we were very happy with their services. We used them for hotel reservations, internal flights and all activities and tours. They had great suggestions and were flexible with my changes, even the ones I made while in country. And they always got better rates at all of our hotels. I was very pleased.

SAIGON

We loved Saigon. We loved the energy, the motorbikes, the food and the people. Highlights included:

1. Staying at the Park Hyatt hotel. It was a great location with really great service. The breakfast was a highlight with the most amazing selection of fruit I have ever seen. It was so wonderful to try such new, exotic and delicious fruit each morning.

2. XO Tours. You guys there is a reason why it's #1 on trip advisor. It is the most fantastic way to experience Saigon. We took the night tour and went to districts we would have never seen, ate street food, and learned about the way of life of the Vietnamese in each district. And the rush of being on the back of a motorbike among millions of motorbikes. Thrilling! And the female drivers are great. I lost any fear after 5 minutes and just went with it!

3. Cu Chi Tunnels. I thought going to the tunnels was well worth it. The drive gives you a great look at Vietnamese life and the tour gives you an insight that you really coud not get any ther way. As a parent, I was happy for my kids to get a greater understanding of the war and they were captivated by the tunnels and went through every single one one them. One was enough for me as the heat and the claustrophobia almost did me in. There is a lot of debate as to whether you shoud spend a 1/2 a day or full day at the tunnels, but I am one that was glad that we did.

4. Crossing the street. It was so fun. I perfected the "keep my head straight while my eyes looked out of the side of my head" walk. How is it possible that all those motorbikes go around you?

5. Dinner at Hoa Tuc. My favorite meal in Saigon! The restaurant is located in an alley with about 5 other eateries across the street from the Park Hyatt. There is a terrace and indoor restaurant and its open until 2:00 am! I had an amazing chicken clay pot which I am still dreaming of to this day. They have Internet and the service was good. We were also traveling with several food allergies and they got it an were very helpful with menu selections.

We also saw all of the normal sites and spent a day on the Mekong. I was underwhelmed with the Mekong except for a canoe ride and mule drawn carriage ride through a village in the rain. I was glad I did not book sn overnight. Night market did not compare to Luang Prabang or Siem Reap but it was a fun walk to and from.

Visa on arrival worked seamlessly with the letter we obtained in advance from Aurora.

HOI AN

Hoi An was hot. I mean burn your skin, dehydrate you in minutes, sap your energy, sweat poring down your back hot. So my feelings about this town may be skewed by this as I was underwhelmed by a town I thought I would love! I liked it a lot but I did not love it. Highlights included:

1. Cooking with Green Bamboo Cooking School. Van is fantastic and we had the most wonderful day! This is the #1 activity in Hoi An and it deserves it. The day started with choosing 6 dishes to prepare out of about 30 choices. This was followed by shopping at the meat, seafood and veggie markets which was exciting and eye-opening. We then went to Van's beautiful home where she proceeded to teach us to make 6 intricate and delicious dishes. She does a great job teaching and really letting you make everything. She's great with kids too!

2. Entering the night market on the river for dinner. It was just magnificent to walk through the alley ways and enter the magical scene of lanterns, music, performers, and merchants. It was just so scenic and special.

3. Dinner at Ms. Ly. This restaurant had amazing authentic cuisine, a great atmosphere and good service. We really enjoyed it and went across the lane to the Cargo Club for dessert after dinner. Had a great dinner at Mango Rooms as well.

It was too hot to enjoy our bike ride with Heaven and Earth. In fact, I did not go and the rest of the group came back early. It was no fault of the tour. We just should not have booked it with it being so excruciatingly hot. We also did not enjoy the beach like we wanted because of the heat. We enjoyed early morning walks on the beach at 5:30 am and spent the rest of the time in the pool. I also thought I woud get lots of clothes made, but one step into the tailor stores without AC had me running for the hills! I could not imagine peeling off the clothes that were sticking to my body like glue. I did manage to order dresses for my three daughters like a nice Mommy should. And the tailors agreed to come to our hotel for the final fitting which was lovely and cool! The dresses came out beautifully and the girls wore them in a Luang Prabang and Siem Reap.

But most of all, Hoi An was not as relaxing as I imagined. For a small town on the water, I found the traffic and motorbikes to be as aggressive as Saigon -- less of course but aggressive. While it was exhilarating and wild in a good way in Saigon, I did not appreciate it in Hoi An.

I left Hoi An wishing I had stayed 2 days max. And after experiencing Luang Prabang, boy did I wish I had added the extra days there. But more on that later.

I will tell you about Halong Bay and Hanoi next which I loved!

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    <<<We used Aurora/Vietnam Stay and we were very happy with their services.>>>

    We also used them to make our hotel reservations and were very pleased with their service (for us, their prices were better than the hotel's with one exception, where it was the same).

    <<<most amazing selection of fruit I have ever seen>>>

    That's what I thought too. I fell in love with pomelos and ate piece after piece every morning!

    <<<For a small town on the water, I found the traffic and motorbikes to be as aggressive as Saigon>>>

    Wow, that's surprising. We were there just two years ago and we found it to be fairly sleepy. We stayed out at the beach.

    We didn't stay at the Park Hyatt but we walked through the public areas, and it is a gorgeous hotel!

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    Hi all -- thanks for all your comments.

    sf7307 -- after your comment I had to think why the traffic bothered me. This is what I came up with...In Saigon for reasons I cannot answer, when you cross the street the motorbikes just part ways to let you through. Not the case in Hoi An. They act like they might run you down! Also, remember, we were a group of 8 and I was walking with 4 kids. So I might have been more sensitive because of the children. And then like I said before, I was out of my mind with heat, so this could have affected my perception as well. We also stayed on the beach, so I was only referring to going into town. But thanks for all of your comments.

    And now more on our visit below!

    HANOI

    Loved, loved, loved Hanoi. The first thing that struck me was the beautiful architecture. It was a bit calmer than Saigon but was still full of the sights, sound and tastes of the wonderful country of Vietnam. Highlights included:

    1. Trishaw ride. What fun it was on our first day to get into our individual trishaws and proceed to explore Hanoi. You have such a birds eye view of street life as you are being led through the narrow, crowded streets. I have the best pictures of "how many people on a motorbike" and "what can you carry on a motorbike" from this ride. Fun, fun, fun.

    2. Water Puppet Show. You know what, I was a little bored after a half an hour as it got a little monotomous, but I am so glad that I went. When I travel to new country to explore its culture, I cannot imagine missing out on something that is an intrinsic part of the artistic history. It was actually really beautiful and lyrical and I really, really enjoyed the singing and the music. The singers and musicians that accompanied the show were beautiful. It was also exciting to see the people who handle the puppets after the show. The show is only an hour and I think is a must to do.

    3. Fannie's Icecream. OMG! You will never, ever in your life have better icecream in unimaginable flavors as you will at Fannies. It was a joy just to go through the menu. But listen up. The location has changed. It is no longer across from the lake. We went to the orginal location and a restaurent is there instead. After buying a cocunut so that could sit down and use my Iphone to see where it moved, I found it. Lots of posts about it closing for renovation or closing for good, but I finally found a post with the new address and phone number and called. It was about a 10 minute drive away in a large corner building and was well-worth the search.

    3. One-Pillar Pagada. Just beautiful and a joy to see when you know of its history. It was not crowded and we were really able to take our time to observe, take photos, and give alms.

    4. Craft Link. Loved the location across from the Ethnology Museum. Bought lots of nice crafts for friends and family.

    We also visited the Hanoi Hilton which, amazingly, my kids found facinating. The ethnology museum was gorgeous but my dear God, I have never been so hot inside a museum in my life as was during this stop. The museum has no air whatsoever (except on the bottom floor near the entrance) and you know how they say heat rises...well on the top floor it was not even bearable. But as I rushed through determined to see everything, I was struck by the amazing diaspora that makes up Vietnam through the amazing exhibits and photos of the people. We stayed at the Sofitel Metropole, and maybe I'm picky, but our entire group -- kids included -- were underwhelmed by this property especially for the price. The service was hit and miss, the breakfast buffet was the worse we had out of all of our hotels, and the rooms were small and oddly shaped without thought being put into the layout or placement of things such as coffee or plugs. I was pretty shocked to not be impressed based on the reviews and wished I had stayed somewhere else. It was a true case of money does not always add up to the best. And by the way, it was the only hotel on the entire trip that I did not like -- well -- more on that later. But all in all, Hanoi was a highlight. Oh, I had the best steak of my life at La Badidane.

    HALONG BAY

    Okay, so I must say that on this trip, I was most looking forward to Saigon, Halong Bay and Luang Prabang. So I was super excited to finally get in the car and take the long 3.5 hour ride to the bay. We had booked the Indochina Junk - Red Dragon which only has 5 cabins and we were taking 4 (feeling slightly guilty if the 5th cabin was a couple hoping for romance since we had 4 kids!). We did this, of course, after reading a riduclous amount of reviews on Trip Advisor and reading blogs before settling on the boat we felt was right for us. Well, an hour into our trip, our tour guide received a call that the junk had been canceled due to a typhoon in China! What? We aren't going on our cruise? The choices were given to us -- turn around or keep going, get on the boat, eat lunch and canoe before returning to the dock. This was crazy because we had checked out of the hotel and were going straight to the airport the next day to go on to Luang Prabang. Because we were on the way, we chose to do the day trip and then started researching hotels near Halong Bay and new ones in Hanoi. Based on the timing of our flight we decided to return to Hanoi that same night and then check into the Intercontinental Westlake for a change of pace since we knew we would only laze around the pool with the kids before going to the airport.

    Five minutes after making this decision, the agency called to tell us they could book us on another junk. They told us the name and we feverishly looked it up on Trip Advisior. The reviews were not great (I mean really not good) compared to the Red Dragon but we decided to go with it because we had already driven so far and we so wanted the experience. The junk was the Victory Star and it was much bigger as it had about 24 rooms. Highlights included:

    1) The rooms were nice. They were spacious enough with good closet space and my favorite thing - ice cold AC! We had 3 regular rooms and one suite which was not a suite at all as it was one room the same size as the others but had a larger bathroom. They had nice decks with comfy chairs for viewing.

    2) Massage. There was a massage room. It was basic but clean. And most importantly, I had a great reflexology massage for 1 hour.

    3) The GM. A very personable Europeon who was a great host.

    4) The other passengers. They seated us by groups and put a flag to represent our countries on the tables. It was fun to being introduced at lunch by our countries. I enjoyed talking to a single Frenchman traveler and a honeymoon couple representing Italy and Croatia.

    5) The excurions. The first one was on a boat to explore the bay. You could decide to kayak at this time as well. My 11 year old daughter did this with our tour guide (who ended up coming on board at the last minute as the tour company wanted us to feel comfortable with the sudden change. We really liked him and it was good to have him on board as he was very helpful). We then went to the beach. The kids had a blast. It was too crowded for me and gave me the slight heeby jeebys because of the amount of people in the water. It was also too short. 45 minutes! By the time you get off, buy a few chairs, get your kids in the water, sit down to relax, it is time to get back on board. I have to assume it is this way because the the amount of different junks who use this beach. If were on Red Dragon, we would have not had this issue as Indochina leases all of their own beaches. With that said, the kids were happy and I got great pictures of them playing with kids from all over the world.

    The next day we went to the largest cave on the bay. It was outstanding, truly memorable and awe-inspiring. The visit was truly my highlight! I also enjoyed the women who paddled up to my balcony and sold me sour cream and onion pringles(which I do not eat) and passed them to me in a net, which I reciprocated with a dollar.

    All in all, the Victory Star was okay. It was not the small, intimate junk that I had booked, but it was not bad and I ended up being very happy that we went through with it. The rock formations on the bay are just breathtaking and not to be missed. It is also well worth the drive. Oh, and yes we stopped at the shopping center that is a must going and coming back. But I did not mind as the bathrooms and spotless (remember I had 4 kids with me) and I bought a needle work piece made by kids who were affected by Agent Orange and have been trained to produce art and make a living wage.

    Up next, the life-changing, I want to move there, Luang Prabang!

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    Great report so far. I think the quality of your stay at the Metropole depends on whether you are on the Club Floor in the Opera Wing or not. We found the service there to be outstanding, especially in the lounge. Our room was quite comfortable with our complimentary 4 bottles of water replenished twice a day. I do agree that the room layout is rather odd...

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    Fantastic report, keep it coming. You are not alone in in being underwhelmed by the Metropole. We stayed there twice on one trip, once on the club floor and once in the standard rooms, the service was just not up to 5* standards. The restaurant service and the food were pretty poor really. There are much better places to stay in Hanoi.

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    LUANG PRABANG

    After Halong Bay, I was most excited to go to Luang Prabang. I am eternally grateful to the forum members who told me that I would regret only spending two nights in the city. Because of that advice, I added another two nights and we spent 4 nights, 3 full days in the city. Honestly, I could have stayed an additional 2 nights, and in hindsight, I would have taken 2 nights off of Hoi An and added it to this wonderful city. But even so, all of us had an amazing time exploring the sights and sounds and interacting with the beautifully kind and remarkable Lao people. In fact, when we polled the whole group, kids and adults alike, everyone chose Luang Prabang as our favorite destination on the whole trip. Highlights included:

    1. Visting the Temples and Wats. The city has beautiful temples and wats that you can walk to from the downtown area. We spent an afternoon visiting them slowly and thoroughly, highly impressed with the architecture and history.

    2. Dinner at Tamarind. The restaurant lives up to its reputation! We had a highly enjoyable meal at this restaurant. The food is really traditional Lao (without any French or American food added in). The waiters are a joy to talk to as they are eager to talk about where you are from and their experience coming from their villages and working in the city. The menu is also fun, as besides the food selection, they have filled it up with meaningful information about Laos, philanthropic information and other fun and interesting facts.

    3. Alms giving. It is really as special as it seems. All of us were extremely excited to wake up at 5:00 AM, leave the hotel at 5:15 AM by Tuk Tuk to go in front of Joma Cafe and wait for the procession to begin. There were a lot of women selling baskets of rice and fruit to be given to the monks as they passed. I bought both fruit and rice for 3 of the 4 kids to give out and I went across the street to watch and take photos discreetly. I read lots and lots of posts about rude tourists who get into the face of the monks and take photos in a disrespectful way. While I did not want to be lumped into that group, I must admit that I did want to take photos, especially when I saw how much my children were enjoying taking part in the ritual. The monks are of all ages and just so physically beautiful and filled with light. By being across the street, I was able to take photos from afar and pause and take it all in myself. I mentioned to another mom from Austrailia who was standing beside me that I felt bad for taking photos at all, but we agreed that we could not help ourselves as she was taking photos of her 5 year old daughter participating as well. I will say that the tourists who were standing directly in front of the monks as they passed were troublesome as they blocked the view of those of us who were across the street and I felt that they were way to close to the monks. With that said, it is a miraculous and spiritual experience and we were grateful to start our day that way.

    4. Elephant Trekking, Village Visit and Waterfalls. We spent a full day with Tiger Trail Fair Trek Day Tours and had a fantastic day. We were picked up promptly at 9:00 AM by a driver and two tour guides. One person was the head tour guide and the other assisted on all. After a 45 minute drive, our day started with a visit to the Elephant Village. It is a really nice facility with animals that seem well-cared for, nice guides, beautiful landscape over looking the river and across from beautiful mountains, clean bathrooms, two restuarants and bars, and lots of nice sitting areas overlooking the scenery. There is even a hotel for people who wish to spend more than one day with the elephants. We had a blast riding the elephants! We had 3 elephants for our group and everyone loved it -- even the 5 year old! But I must say, the first part of it had me praying and reciting the Lord's Prayer as we went down a steep hill before going into the river. You could not tell me that we were not going to tip over and go crashing into the river! But we didn't and once I was down the hill, I could breath and take in the fact that I was riding an elephant in Laos! The ride also goes through a small village before returning to the Elephant Village. One of my daughers then had another experience feeding the elephants as we enjoyed a drink overlooking the river. The guides had picked up lunch from one of the restaurants and we then set out for the next phase of our day.

    I need to stop and tell you that we were supposed to follow the elephant ride with a 3 hour trek to the waterfall, stopping at a few villages along the way. The website listed this as an easy trek that everyone could enjoy. I am happy to say that after our guides got to know us and the temperatures rose to 95 degrees, they told us about another option that we happily took and enjoyed immensely. So, instead of setting off my foot, we went down to the river and got into a very long but skinny and shallow canoe with a motor and set off down the river. This was fun and exhilarating as we passed villages and people fishing in the river. After half an hour we stopped and hiked up a hill to a mixed village of the Hmong and Lao people. This was facinating as the two cultures had very diverse ways of life and their houses were built very differently. Our guide was really fantastic during this visit as he was very knowledgable about the two tribes and shared lots of information as we strolled through the village. Our kids were able to interact with the kids that we met and it was a very enjoyable. We got back into the canoe and were taken to Tad Thong Waterfall. It is smaller than Kuang Si, but still beautiful and was full of flowing water for our visit. We sat down to lunch of a delicious chicken fried rice and then decided to take a dip. We did not have swim wear but were able to buy it there for everyone including towels. They had a basic changing room and after changing, we were in the water! The older kids quickly started climbing rocks, swinging off ropes and jumping into the waterfall! I stayed in the lower area enjoying the cold water with my youngest. After about two hours, we dried off and went back to the elephant village. We had another drink and bathroom break and then returned to our hotel. It was a great day.

    5. Strolling Through the Streets. Luang Prabang is a strolling town. It was a joy to spend an entire aftermoon walking in and out of the many unique shops with crafts, clothing, and furniture and accessories. We bought traditional purses, scarves, and bowls and chopsticks. I even bought a few sets of the most beautiful salt and pepper shakers from a man who is a British expat, opened a store in Hanoi and married a Vietnamese women, moved to Hoi An and has finally made Luang Prabang his home and has a beautiful store with home accessories and jewerly. We were taking our time, so we could enjoy chatting to folks and learning about their lives. We stopped at a restaurant that had big comfy chairs outside and had ice cold Lao coffee. I must say I was the only one who liked it as it is very creamy and very sweet! But the people watching was fun for all. We stopped at Big Brother Mouse and each of the kids purchased a bundle of Lao books and put them in the bin to be donated to kids who lives in villages outside of LP. They take the donated books to the villages twice a week and there are other opportunities to give back if you so wish as well. We had lunch at Green Bamboo, which we also ate at on our first afternoon. Green Bamboo is very good and has a mix of a traditional Lao menu and American options. This was good for the two kids in our group who do not have an adventurous palate and for those of us who only wanted Asian options. And for my gin and tonic lovers, they make a mean one! We just had a really nice day and I think this is what makes Luang Prabang so special. It is slow and spiritual, but there is still enough to see, do and take in at the same time. We went back to our hotel relaxed, happy and satisfied.

    6. The Night Market. Luang Prabang has a really great one! It is not to be missed. In fact, we only went our last night and wished that we had gone at least one more time. It is huge -- much bigger than anticipated and has some really wonderful crafts. Everyone in our group found things that we wanted for ourselves and gifts for friends and family at home. It was by far my favorite night market of the whole trip!

    7. Hotel de la Paix. This hotel is just beautiful. It is a converted prison that has been turned into a magnificent small and intimate hotel. Each room is designed beutifully and has fantastic amenities. The rooms surround an amazing pool and there is a wonderful restaurant and spa. We really enjoyed breakfast, lounging by the pool and our spa treatments. The hotel has a very serene and comforting vibe. And I must say, though it is not on the main street, it is literally a 5 minute Tuk Tuk ride to the main strip. And when the hotel calls one for you, be ready to go as they come in about 1 minute. You can also walk to town in about 15 minutes. We never found it to be a problem and really enjoyed coming back to the sanctuary of the hotel after a day out -- especially by cooling down at the pool.

    I would be remiss if I did not tell you that we were originally booked at the 3 Nagas, which is the Hotel de la Paix's sister hotel. The 3 Nagas is right in town and lovely with a wonderful staff and restaurant. Dinner there our first night was delicious! However, it was not for us. Our rooms were in the back and did not overlook the street as I would have liked. Additionally, because of the traditional home that houses the hotel, the dark wood makes the rooms really, really dark, and for me, a bit claustrophobic. We also soon realized that we wanted a pool. So the next day, we told our tour agent and they quickly made the change and handled the additional charge efficently for us. The staff had our suitcases brought down and a car transfered us and by 3:00 PM (after breakfast and a bit of touring) we were happily checked into our new hotel and stayed there the remaining 3 nights. I do want to stress that the 3 Nagas is a lovely small hotel. If you want to stay in town, it is a great choice. I would ask for a room over looking the street, however, so that you can enjoy a balcony while also people watching. We were really happy that we moved and equally happy that we went with our instinct and called the agent right way instead of thinking about it and wasting time.

    As you see, I wrote the most about Luang Prabang. We really, really loved it. I was literally online looking at properties dreaming that I would move there in another life! Before I move on to Siem Reap, I must tell you that another great, great meal was at L'Elephant. It is a beautiful indoor/outdoor restaurant with wonderful service and a highly diverse and sophisticated menu. There is also a great wine menu. We really enjoyed it. We also enjoyed our Tuk Tuk driver who was working with his young son who looked to be about 5 years old. He came back for us after dinner and returned us to our hotel.

    Thank you Fodor members who told me to extend my stay. Our whole group is grateful!

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    Thank you Lolazahra!!! Loved reading your report and am now anxiously awaiting out trip to V, C and Laos in October. Very helpful to read your descriptions of your highlights.

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    Thank you for your report. I was thinking on going on a cruise to Vietnam for me and my husband but your trip sound more tempting.

    Would it be better to go in April as far as the weather ? when is the best time to go there ?

    Thanks for your response

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    Madi,

    I honestly don't know the best time to go. The weather in Vietnam is so diverse north to south, plus you want to avoid the monsoon season as well. Because I was traveling with kids who also have summer camp schedules my dates were not flexible and I chose destinations that worked for June. We had only 2 days of rain in three weeks in three countries. But honestly, the rain in Cambodia was a welcome relief. In Vietnam, it only made it hotter!

    I've read amazing trip reports from people who took cruises, so don't rule it out. Choose what's best for you! There are also good threads on whether here and on Trip Advisor.

    Good luck.

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    Sorry about the delay. Life really gets in the way! But I just had to finish this report because I had so much assistance reading other reports and from those who responded to my questions. So here is the last of it....

    SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA

    Something surprised me. I knew I would love our hotel La Residence d' Angkor, I knew I would love Angkhor Wat and the other temples, but nothing prepared me for my absolute adoration of Siem Reap, the surrounding villages, and most imporantly, the beautiful people of this special country. Cambodia got under my skin in a good way and I will tell you why. Highlights included:

    1. Volunteering at the Ponleary Ly Foundation. Ponleary is a tour guide and an angel. She is a Cambodian woman who is dedicated to educating the most vunerable children in her country, hoping to raise a generation of young people who can overcome this country's brutal history by becoming economically self-sufficient. Ponleary is a past CNN Hero of the Year, who has built a Foundation that offers many ways for those traveling in SE Asia to give back. We chose to give back at the Knar School by providing a donation that allowed food to be bought in advance and distributed to multiple classrooms and taken home by the children to ensure adequate nutrition at home. When we arrived at the school, we were able to distribute the food directly to the children in 5 different classrooms. As a mother, I allowed my 3 children and their cousin to take the lead distributing the food, only helping out when necessary. They were excited and performed their acts of service beautifullly. The students were so polite and sweet and I caught my kids bowing to them, smiling, touching hands and communicating only like kids can do. There was much more food left over which was to be given for children who come to school in the afternoon. We then did an art project with about 15 children. We brought two choices -- tie dye and jewelry making. Because of the timing, we chose to do jewelry making and leave the tie dye kits for another time. We had great fun showing the students how to paint mosaics and then make a bracelet out of their artwork. We also brought canned fish, soap, toothpaste and bicycle lights for the evening students, as a staff member told us they were in need of these items in advance. We bought everything easily in Siem Reap. Ponleary then blessed us with a complete tour of the school, telling us its history and goals for the future. I am looking forward to supporting her efforts in the future.

    2. The Landmine Museum. We visited this important museum prior to going to the Knar School, as they are 5 minutes from eachother. What a special place. It is so important to learn about how these vicious weapons were planted, killed so many innocent people, and continue to kill and maim to this day as there are still approx 5,000,000 landmines in the ground today. The museum was founded by Aki Ra, a former child soldier who has dedicated his life to removing landmines and uplifting kids who have been victims of the war. Though we can't meet them of course, the site also houses and educates the most vulnerable victims of the war. A highlight of our visit was a tour by Bill Morse, an older, gruff, and sweet man from Los Angeles, CA who visited the country about a decade ago and had his life trajectory changed by meeting Aki Ra. He and his teacher wife now reside in Siem Reap and he leads the fundraising and promotional efforts at the museum, dedicating his time and personal resources to the cause. He is my kind of guy. I love picking the brain of people who change their entire life in the name of serving others. And the great thing abot visiting this museum is that it is really close to Banteay Srei, which is a small, sweet and less crowded temple to visit.

    3. Pub Street. Its just plain fun -- lots of restaurants and bars and lots of shopping with great bargaining. And my kids did the craziest thing that I had seen on TV but never in person. They had a fish pedicure! Yes, a fish pedicure. It was so gross but they thought it was the most fun thing to do. Basically, you put your feet in a large fish tank with thousands of small fish which swarm around your feet and eat the skin off of your feet especially your heels. Gross right? My kids loved it and sat there for one hour and we had to force them out! I've never seen anything like it and really I never have to! We also shopped and bargained! You don't pay close to anything what the original price is so have fun and get into it! I bought t-shirts, dresses, sculptures, paintings, and handbags. We also ate and had drinks and just walked around. We got stopped by locals who wanted to talk which was lots of fun and it was easy to get a Tuk Tuk back to our hotel, La Residence d' Angkor, which was only the equivalent of $4. So don't miss out on Pub Street -- it was fun for the whole family.

    4. Angkor Wat. It really is a little bit hard to take in. It really is a little bit hard to believe you are actually seeing it. In fact, it wasn't until we had toured the entire complex, taken humdreds of pictures, and stood in front of the lake facing the complex that I was able to take the whole thing in. It is extraordinary and I feel blessed to have been able to visit this one-of-a-kind monument. I was also taken with Banteay Srei as it was just an exquisite small temple which was not crowded and allowed me ample time to ramble around. Bayon Temple was also a highlight for me. We went also went to three other temples and they were all extraordinary, and of course, this is why we go to Cambodia ... but not the only reason!

    5. The Cambodian People. Really and truly, the highlight of Cambodia is the people. They are just sweet, kind, resilient, remarkable people. And even though they have gone through so much they have such a sense of humor and a zest for life. I had such a good time talking for hours to our tour guide who lives during the week in a room in Siem Reap and in his home village with his wife and kids during the weekend. He explained to us the immense cost his family took because of the war, such as his father who lost his life because he was an educated head master and the fact that he was forced to fight as a child and lost touch with his family for 12 years. But on the other hand , he told me amazing stories of how his village comes together to celebrate their beautiful faith and the joy that they derive from their deep traditions. We talked about the scars of the past and their hopes for the future. And being Americans, people talked to us at every turn and I ate it up as I love to gab. As many questions as they asked me, I asked them and it was truly enjoyable. I was able to really get a sense of the beautiful people that make up this extraordinary coountry. It got under my skin. It left me with the same feeling after I left the continent of Africa. I felt changed knowing that I would return.

    Cambodia was simply a highlight of our Southeast Asia journey!

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    Thank you Lolazahra!!! Loved reading this and feel better prepared for our time in Siem Reap in October. Love that you had your kids so involved in giving. Very sweet and meaningful.

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    Hi there, I am a 63 year old woman living in San Francisco and planning a trip similar to yours,but alone, leaving 9/12/13 and returning 10/2/13.
    First, I want to tell you how MUCH I enjoyed reading your posts..so full of amazing information. I 'm definitely doing the XO night tour of Saigon, thank you!
    Any additional advice for me would be appreciated. Trying to decide what type of clothes to take, I'm thinking light sundresses?
    Comfy shoes, covered up, it seems. Why do they care about that if they make you take them off???
    Look forward to your reply, Judith.
    PS I'm also taking Asiana, glad to hear you liked it, although my flight looks somewhat not full, maybe due to their recent crash here.

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    I have read many reports about Vietnam and it’s blatant.

    The nightlife in Hoi An is more interesting than Hue, except, of course, have a drink next to the perfume River and go for a quiet walk, I don’t know what to do on the evening.

    Every reports describes Hoi An like a living and breathing city:
    as you have written: night market, delicious dishes, lanterns, music, performers, merchants…

    Thank you

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    What a great report. Thank you so much for posting so many details to keep in mind should I ever go to Vietnam or Luang Prahang. We also are involved with the PLF in Siem Reap and understand your feelings about these people.

    I will be forever grateful for the recommendation here to visit the foundation. We also stayed at the 7 Candles Guesthouse all week. It was a wonderful experience all around.

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    Glad to see this topped again.

    Lolazahra, I was back at Knar school in Sept/Oct. Did you leave behind those BIG Tulip dye kits, shirts and bandanas? We made good use of some of the shirts as somehow I ran short of the tiny sizes as I had younger kids this year. With all the dye, I was able to do more tie-dye with the dorm kids at Srayang, and still there is enough dye to do another few classes in the future. They (and I) appreciate your generosity.

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    Great trip report!

    I hope u dont mind me telling u the truth about riding Elephants. As I only found out myself last year...

    Elephants backs r not for riding!There back r full of bones no fat to protect them with the weight.Its all about money.
    At the Elephant nature park in Chan Mai Thailand there r a couple of rescue Elephants with broken backs due to riding!! Very sad!!
    Just trying to Inform!!!
    Ellen

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    Hi all. I haven't been back to this trip report for a while, but still filled with joy about Southeast Asia. Thanks for the recent comments.

    Zoos, I did not know about the elephants. Of course, you always know that horses, donkeys, camels and any animal would probably not want to be ridden by humans if they had their choice. But if treated humanely, it is a source of transportation and livelihood for so many people all over the world. Cruelty to animals, of course, is an abomination and I don't think any of us on Fodor's would ever do anything cruel to animals should we have knowledge in advance. So I don't mind your comment and will do more research next time. Thanks.

    Lcuy - yes I did buy the Tulip dye kits, bandanas and t-shirts! I'm so glad you used them. I can't wait to tell my kids as they purchased them. They will be thrilled. The fact that you were able to share it with another school is just fantastic. I just loved Ponleary, the school and the kids. Cambodia is lucky to have you. Thank you for your service.

    Lincasanova - how lucky for you and them that you were able to spend so much time with extraordinary people and kids.

    JudithLmsss - sorry I missed your questions. I hope you had a fabulous time! Did you do XO Tours?

    I recently read and commented on a post about trip reports. It said people were not writing them as much. I hope this is not the case as they are so very valuable. I literally cannot imagine planing and finalizing a trip without reading them first and then asking questions. And I admit, I never wrote them in the past. But after asking a million questions to plan Namibia, a country I knew little about, I knew I had to write one to give back. Same for Southeast Asia. So I'm thrilled that anything I wrote was as helpful to someone as other reports have been to me.

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    Great report ! I were in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh too and really much like Saigon. I have a night spent with A O show which I think you may have missed. Will come back some day for Saigon.

    Thanks

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