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Trip Report Vietnam and Cambodia - wonderful trip

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I have never written a trip report before but like so many others wrote, I read so many trip reports and they helped me so much in planning our trip, I thought this time I might help others.
I'm 59 and my husband is 62. We're quite well travelled but mostly in Europe which is nearer home and our first trip to Southeast Asia was in March, to Thailand, which we loved very much. We've never been on an organised tour mainly because they travel too fast for us and go to too many places in one trip. We like to travel at a more leisurely pace and as my husband says: I get up early for work every day so why should I do that on my vacation? We usually enjoy a long breakfast and rarely get started before nine unless there's a special reason. we used to travel a lot as a family but since the girls grew up, we usually travel on our own which we prefer, ocassionally taking a cruise or short weekend trips with friends and family.
I do all the planning as my husband likes everything well organised but hasn't the patience to read and plan, so it's a perfect combination as I love it.

As it was January, I decided to do only Siem Reap, central and southern Vietnam and leave the north for another trip in warmer weather. Anyway, we didn't want to rush so this suited us.

For this trip, I really debated with myself for a long time whether to take a local agent or to do everything on my own. But I wanted to choose guides, drivers and so on myself. I do know that sometimes the agents have good prices for hotels so thought of using them for that. But I also know that I often cancel and change hotels if I find a better price or like something better and I couldn't do this too many times with an agent, so in the end I decided to do it all myself.
For all those who are undecided, it's very easy to plan and organise everything on your own to these destinations, provided you love planning like me. There are so many available drivers, guides, hotels and so on that it's really no trouble finding what you want. Sometimes when I wasn't sure about something or wanted extra information, I wrote a PM on tripadvisor to people who wrote reviews and got very helpful responses.

Our itinerary was:
Arrived in the evening in Siem Reap
3 days at the temples
1 day in Siem reap itself with an evening flight to Hoian
3 days in Hoian
1 day trip from Hoian to Hue which took a whole day ( which I will write about)
2 days in Hue
late morning flight to HCMC and spending that day and 1 more in HCMC
leaving in the morning for a trip to the Mekong Delta
2 nights in Can Tho returning in the afternoon to HCMC
2 nights in HCMC with an evening flight home

Siem Reap

We stayed at the Golden Temple Residence which has the same ownership as the golden temple hotel and the golden temple villa, which I read about on the forums and reviews. The hotel opened about 3 weeks before we arrived, so there weren't many reviews but I decided to rely on the many reviews of the golden temple and wasn't disappointed. We absolutely loved it. It's a beautiful hotel, decorated with local features but very modern at the same time. very good breakfast both western and asian. We were upgraded but I'm sure the original room I had reserved was also good.
The staff there is absolutely fantastic. From the moment they came to take us at the airport, to the moment they would'nt let us leave without a picnic box despite our protests. Actually it came in very handy because we arrived in Hoian very late. Perfect service and really charming people. The price also included one dinner which was very good and elegantly served at the poolside, one massage for each at the hotel spa, which we enjoyed very much and transfer to and from the airport.

I had arranged with a guide before we came. We took Hang Borey who spoke good english with a very understandable accent (very important especially for us since English is not our native language). He wrote me a mail with an itinerary and apart from a few mostly minor changes which I asked for, it was very good. He's a really nice guy who knows the temples very well and we also had many interesting talks with him about his childhood and about Cambodia today. He also showed a lot of interest in our country and we had a very pleasant and interesting tour with him. His mail is borey.guide@gmail.com or borey_hang@yahoo.com and his website www.angkorheritagetours.com If you do a few days like us, don't go to the very famous temples first and then do the others because that might be an anti climax. We started with the Rolous group and went "upwards" from there so it worked out very well.

We ate ate at Genevieve's which was very good, the food and the service and also at Khmer kitchen restaurant which was simpler but also good and very cheap.

we liked Siem Reap very much, especially going out at night and seeing all the vibrant life and action on the streets. I strongly recommend the smoothies they sell on the carts, delicious and of course, like everything there, very very cheap.

Next: Hoian

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    Thanks everybody for your responses. It's nice to know someone's reading.
    Crellston, I really put a lot of time and thought into the itinerary, thinking how many days to spend in each place and it worked out very well for us.

    Before I go on to Vietnam, a few more words about Siem Reap. I had told the guide that we wanted to take our time and not overload each day. As I wrote before, except the day we got up for sunrise, we started out at 9:00 each morning and twice he took us back to the hotel at noon, which we spent by the lovely pool at the hotel and then he came to take us out again.This enabled us to see a lot without being templed out.
    About the sunrise, we decided to get up for the experience and it was quite nice but I would'nt say not to be missed. What was actually the most interesting was the procession of cars and tuk tuks and the crowds waiting for the sunrise. I don't know if my husband took more pictures of the temple or of the crowd. As we are people who once we're up, we can go on the whole day without resting no matter how many hours of sleep we've had, we stayed and went on touring Angkor Wat.

    Hoi An:

    We had 2 flights during our trip both with Vietnam Airlines. It was very easy to make reservations on their website and maybe we were lucky, but both our flights were on time with no changes or cancellations as I've often read on the forum.

    We stayed at Little Hoian Boutique Hotel and Spa, which, while not being as elegant as the hotel in Siem Reap (and the price accordingly lower), was very pleasant and very nicely decorated both the public areas and the room. The staff here was also great. When we inquired about buying a local sim, they immediately called their driver and sent one of the receptionists with us as a translator which was a good thing as the guy in the shop didn't know a word of english.
    But what I liked best about this hotel, was the breakfast. In addition to all the regular western and asian stuff, they had local specialities which they offered and explained about. I loved them and hardly touched the other things, although there was plenty to eat for every taste.

    Hoi an is a charming town and we spent most of the time just walking about. We bought the ticket for the attractions and did some of them and also we did something we rarely do abroad, shopping. I like nice clothes but hate shopping for them, although I have a standard size and have no trouble finding things that fit me, so of course I don't feel like doing that when I'm on holiday. But after reading so much about the tailors in Hoi an, I decided to take the plunge and had some things made. Some copies from things I brought and some from pictures I took from catalogues in the internet. I even had 2 pairs of shoes made. My husband also had a light jacket made and sandals as he had forgotten his at home. It was actually lucky he could have them made as it's very difficult to find ready made shoes in western sizes. The Vietnamese are so small!
    We also had some glasses made. My husband needed new prescription glasses and also prescription sunglasses and I had an extra pair of prescription glasses made. We also made sure they had anti UV and they turned out very well. If you're interested we had them made at VIET QUOC - OPTIC on 106 Ba Trieu St.

    We had dinner at Miss Ly's which we enjoyed very much and also at Red Gecko which is a simple family restaurant but also very good. On the last night in Hoi An, I told my husband we had to eat at Morning Glory as I had read so much about it. It was good but in our opinion no better than the others, enjoyable but certainly not a must.
    We also had some massages including oil and hot stone massage which we experienced for the first time, and enjoyed very much.


    Our trip from Hoi An to Hue:

    I had made arrangements by mail with a driver to take us both from the airport to Hoi An and also from Hoi An to Hue. We had Tien from Happy car tours http://happycartours.com/ mail: happycartours@gmail.com
    He had sent someone else to take us from the airport but for the trip to Hue I asked him to make sure he would take us himself as he came well recommended. he's a very nice young man and we had a really good time with him. His english is quite good although sometimes a bit difficult to understand the accent as with a lot of Vietnamese. But as he was a driver and not a guide, it was alright and we actually had many interesting conversations with him.He was very dependable and punctual and the good thing also about him was that he didn't take to any shop. We went straight up to marble mountain without stopping at the marble statue shops like so many have written.
    I had read about the tombs in An bang village and wanted to see them. As there was very little information about it and not many people go there, I asked around on tripadvisor and sent Tien the driver the map with the route I wanted. This route was sent to me by John on the Vietnamese forum on tripadvisor and it really helped me. I really recommend it, as apart from the usual tourist route from Hoi An to Hue you also get get to see An bang with the tombstones, which is very special and also a lot of countryside and rice fields which is interesting in itself. If someone's interested, you can mail me at gabi1952@netvision.net.il amd I'll send you the map with the route.

    next:Hue

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    I'm enjoying your trip report very much. DH and I are in the early stage of planning a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia for February 2016. We are trying to work on an itinerary that will include staying in Saigon, Hue and Siem Rep with day trips to other areas. I'm eager to read more about your adventures.

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    Thanks bab706, I'll try to write more soon. Just a little tip. Before you set your dates, find out when the Vietnamese celebrate their new year in 2016 because it's around January February. I really recommend being there before but not during. I know nearly everything is closed and everybody's on holiday also many people coming home for the holidays so transport problems. We left saigon on Feb. 8 and the new year was Feb. 19. This was perfect as we didn't feel the effects yet but the streets and malls were beautifully decorated especially at night. It was really lovely.

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    I am a Vietnamese girl so I understand so much to my country. In Vietnam, there are 10 places that you should come, these are: Hoi An, Hue, Da Nang, especialy NHa Trang, Phu Quoc and Ha Long....

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    I'm thoroughly enjoying this! I really appreciate the slower pace you've set and feel the relaxation coming through in reading it.

    Vietnam is definitely on my short list, and your report will be saved for future planning!

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    progol, Im glad you think so because all the people I know who went to Vietnam abd Cambodia travelled to the north as well in the same space of time, so I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing. But it worked very well for us and we plan to go back and do the north. Also we did meet a few people who said it had been very cold in Sapa and we prefer a warmer season.

    I wanted to recommend again on passing through the city of tombs on the way to Hue (or the opposite direction) as it is really quite amazing. A very big area covered with elaborate family tombstones, some of them I would say almost mausoleums apparently done with money sent by the families who have left Vietnam and are well off living in other countries.

    Hue:

    we stayed at the Eldora which is quite new, operating only a few months. I don't know if that's the reason but they had a very good price in terms of price value ratio. It's in a sort of louis Quatorze style. Although it's not our usual style, it's very elaborate and elegant and we enjoyed our stay. The breakfast had a huge assortment of things as usual and it was here I decided to try the Pho-Vietnamese soup with rice noodls soup and meat which is eaten for breakfast and sometimes other meals too. Now you have to understand what a big step it was for me. Although I do eat bacon and sausage for breakfast when we're abroad and have even been known to eat haggis in Scotland (my girls remind me of that sometimes), our traditional breakfast is a lot of fresh vegetables, diary products, all kinds of bread and coffee. The only cooked item would be scrambled eggs or an ommelette and no meat in any shape or form, so you can see why soup for breakfast seems very strange to us. But it was delicious! and I ate it for many mornings to come.

    In Hue, I planned to do one day with a driver to see the tombs and one day on our own. As we liked our driver Tien very much and he wasn't available the next day, we arranged to meet him the day after. So after our usual leisurely breakfast we set out for the Citadel which was about a 15-20 minute walk from the hotel. But we decided to go to the Dong Ba market first. We stayed there much longer than we thought because it was so interesting. It's a very big indoor market both local and touristic. I've never seen a market with so many things in a place this size. Stalls and stalls next to each other packed with stuff with very narrow alleys between them. The stallholders hardly have a place to stand and would sometimes sit on a little space on top of the stall. We could hardly pass in the rows in between, it's designed for the small and very slim
    vietnamese! Some of the market area is more spacious.

    After that we walked to the Citadel and spent a few hours there. We had the eye-witness guide book and it was quite good. When we came out we went into a restaurant which I read about- Lac Thien on 6 Dinh Hoan St. quite near the citadel. There is another restaurant next door with a very similiar name which might be as good but I had read about this one. I's a family restaurant serving locals as well with the kitchen practically in the street. I don't think I would have thought of going in if I hadn't read the recommendation, but we were very glad we did. We sat at a table on the balcony on the second floor and watched the world go by. Hue was the first place where we saw real motorbike traffic as Hoi An was much quieter.There were hordes of motorbikes since it was an hour when people finish work. We were especially fascinated and appalled at the same time by the whole families on bikes. We understood that it was the family vehicle but just wished the children would wear helmets which most of them didn't. We could watch them for hours, which we sometimes almost did. The food in the restaurant was good too and dirt cheap.

    The next day we visited Than Toan bridge which is worthwhile mainly because you get to see the country and village life. The local market was interesting and nothing like the markets you see in the touristic cities. We went to Ming Mang, Khai Din and Tu Duc tombs.Of course you don't have to see all three (there are more) but we had time and they were all interesting.

    On the evening we arrived we went to the Hahn on 11 Pho Duc Chinh St. which is a cafe restaurant very near the hotel which our driver recommended and I had also read about. This is also a very simple place and we had, hands down, the best meal on this trip. We had a set menu of five local specialities at 100,000 dong each (5$) and the whole meal with a coke and beer cost less than 12$! The waiter showed how to roll and dip in a sauce and so on and it was so good we still fantasize about it.
    We also went to the Golden Rice which also came recommended. It was good but not exceptional and anyway, for us nothing could compete with the Hahn.
    We arranged with Tien to take us to the airport the next day and flew to Saigon.

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    I visited Vietnam and Cambodia is 2000 but am dying to return. Your well-written report just makes me want to go sooner!

    Thank you for posting and carry on,
    Sandy (in Denton)

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    I'm so loving your report! I get such a wonderful feeling as I read it -- love that you sat and watched life as you sat on the balcony of the local place. And I definitely noted Hahn-- my favorite kind of place!

    Thanks for writing this up!

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    saigon:

    we stayed at the Liberty Central Saigon Citypoint hotel which is the latest addition to the liberty central hotels. This is a anything but Louis Quatorze! A very modern hotel with a lovely rooftop pool which we didn't get to use this time. If you stay there at least go up to the pool after dark, it has a wonderful view of Saigon at night. And of course the usual huge very good breakfast buffet.

    Here we understood that the motorbike traffic in Hue was just the prologue. DH went really crazy with the photos and I think we have pictures of the traffic from every angle possible. It was really amazing to see what they can load on one motorbike. We also noticed that the girls were covered from head to toe while riding, even having gloves and socks when wearing flip flops. Apparently they all want to maintain a fair skin as dark skin shows you are more common while fair skin is considered high class. Funny how we in the west always try to be as tanned as possible. We come from a country with lots of sun but we put sunscreen, not cover ourselves, as we want to prevent skin cancer, but we do want to be tanned.

    In the day and a half we had in our first stay in Saigon, we did all the sights. The reunification palace, Notre Dame church, the post office, the war remnants museum. Although it doesn't seem so from the outside, we found the reunification palace quite impressive and interesting inside and we spent some time there looking at all the rooms and reading about them. It's important to notice the opening times of the palace, also of the war museum as they both close for lunch and I think it's recommended to leave enough time for both.
    We thought the war museum interesting and sometimes both touching and shocking. The museum is very one sided and the americans are the "bad guys" here, it even used to be called the american war crimes museum. For our generation not everything was new as we knew of some of the atrocities done by both sides. As we all know, war is usually more complicated and both sides are not saints but maybe their point of view here is understandable. From purely a "museum and artistic" point of view (if you can call it that), we didn't think it was done very well but it is something everybody should visit as it does show the horrors of war and reminds us of how many innocent victims there always are.



    The mekong delta:

    This is the place which was the most difficult for me to decide about. I had read a lot of reviews and trip reports of people who weren't happy with what they did or saw there either in a group tour or private tour. What everybody also wrote is not to do a trip from Saigon and back on the same day unless you really didn't have time for anything else. In the end I decided to stay 2 nights in Can Tho as it's the obvious place to do the floating markets from and also we'll have time to see other things there.

    We stayed at the Kimtho hotel which was ok for the price but we wanted to stay near the river promenade and for the 2 nights we were there it was good enough. From reading a lot about transport to and from Can Tho, it seemed as if it was a 4 hour boring and not so comfortable journey. So based on a trip report (thank you dgunbug for the idea) in this forum, I decided to try and do what they did by taking the Sinhtourist 1 night tour but part company with them when arriving in Can Tho as they stayed in a hotel a bit far from the river and had a motorboat trip to the floating market while I wanted to do that in a small boat.
    so when we arrived in Saigon, we went to their office and like everywhere in Vietnam, they were very flexible and we arranged with them to take part of their tour for a price a just bit lower than the price for the whole tour but still amazingly cheap. It's true that the tour which included a visit to Ben Tre area was very touristic, ride on the river,ride on a motorcart honey, coconut candy and rice paper makers and even some songs sung by a local family which were clearly all done for tourists. But as it was our first time here it was quite a pleasant day with a nice lunch included and a more interesting way to get to Can Tho than just hiring a driver.
    I must also say it was very well organised and when we arrived at their hotel in Can Tho we took a very short taxi ride to the Kimtho hotel.

    next: our stay in Can Tho

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    A few days before we arrived in Can Tho, I had arranged by mail for 2 guided tours with Echo Tours, which is a group of students working as guides. On the first morning we took a motorbike tour (riding pillion of course) which was very interesting as it was mostly riding along small lanes by the river where a car can't get in. You really get to see what life on the river is like.
    The next morning we got up at dawn to take the long boat ride (7 hours) to both floating markets, Cai Rang and Phong Dien. The advantage of being in a small private rowing boat is you get into small places where a big motorboat can't get in.
    Both evenings we were in Can Tho we went out to dinner and walked along the river and about the town which was already decorated with lights for the Tet. All in all I think we had a good trip on the Mekong.

    I had intended to arrange a private transfer to Saigon through the hotel. I had read many negative reviews about the bus, people wrote that it's complicated because nobody knows english, that the drivers drive like maniacs, bumpy ride, loud vietnamese music, coughing (I didn't know that was a vietnamese speciality) and so on.
    But our guides told us not to worry, they would book us bus tickets and it would be very easy and comfortable. In the end we decided to put our trust in them and give it a go. We thought, at most, we would chalk it down to experience. They gave us instructions in english and wrote under each sentence the meaning in vietnamese so that we could show it to a staff member if we needed.
    I must say we were very pleasantly surprised! A shuttle took us from the hotel to the Phuong Trang (the bus company) depot. We went into the ticket office which seemed chaotic but was actually very efficient. Your ticket (marked seats) has the bus number on it and a staff member takes you to the right place. The bus stops halfway though for a toilet/coffee break in a big bus depot which belongs to the company. It says Can Tho in large letters so it's easy to find the bus (contrary to what people say). It's true we didn't understand a word of what the the bus attendant said but I saw him counting the passengers when we got on so I don't think he would have left anybody there. When we got to the outskirts of Saigon we again had to take a shuttle to the main bus stop which is in district 5 or 6 (this is where our little paper with the english/vietnamese instructions came in handy) and then we took a short taxi ride to the hotel. We had left our luggage at the hotel in saigon so only had a backpack and everything went very smoothly. Even the vietnamese music was like any pop music and anyway they shut it of after half an hour. There was wi-fi on the bus and I think anyway most people slept through (so they didn't have time to cough). It wasn't especially bumpy and I don't think a car would have been any different.

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    Back in Saigon:

    As our tour with Sinhtourist was well organised we decided to take their afternoon tour to the Chu Chi tunnels. Although it comes with quite a lot of sometimes downright stupid propaganda, it's still an interesting tour especially for people our age who heard so much about the dreaded vietcong. We found the ride there and back also interesting because it's through parts of the city which you usually don't get to see.
    The next day, our last in Vietnam, we took a taxi to Cholon district which is the chinatown in Siagon. Maybe it's not a big deal for people who have chinatown at home, but for us it was new. We did a tour of the temples with our eyewitness guidebook and went to the market and the streets around. As it was just a short time before Tet there was a lot of activity sewing costumes and making and selling decorations which were mostly different than the ones we sold in other places being more chinese.

    in the evening we took a taxi to the airport having a nice last ride through all the lighted and decorated streets, and flew home to Israel.


    Weatherwise we were very lucky as Siem Reap and South Vietnam weren't too hot and the central region was cool and pleasant only having a few showers on one of the days.

    The date was also good as the Tet was on Feb. 19 and we left on
    Feb. 8 so that the hotels wnd transportation weren't busy with the holiday yet but the streets and malls were decorated with lights, more and more each day and it was really lovely.
    We also happened to be there on the day they celebrated 85 years to the foundation of the communist party (Feb. 3) and also this is the 40th year of what they call the reunification of Vietnam (april, the end of the war). The whole city was covered with posters which reminded us of the posters we had seen from the USSR. The doctor, worker, sailor, the girl holding a bunch of wheat (shouldn't it be rice here?) and so on looking towards the bright future, above them the sickle and hammer, the only difference being vietnamese faces instead of russian and the picture of Ho Chi Min instead of Stalin. For us it was quite amusing and seemed so old fashioned (the style of the posters I mean, not the meaning).

    We found the Cambodian and Vietnamese people to be very friendly and even if we had to do some haggling once in a while, it was mostly done in a good spirit and with a lot of laughter.

    Maybe we were lucky but we didn't encounter any of the scams, thefts and harassments I had read about. In fact we felt safer then a lot of places we've visited. It's true that the moment you looked at something or stopped for a minute in the street, some vendor or cyclo driver or taxi would pounce at you, but except for one or two especially annoying incidents, we thought of it just as people trying to make a living in a country where it's not so easy. We understood that the number of tourists has decreased recently due to the rise in prices and the world economy and specifically in Russia where many of the tourists come from. It actually saddened us to see so many shops,cyclos, taxis and so on empty. In everyday life you tend to forget that you belong to a small part of the world who lives comfortably in a democratic society (not perfect but still better than the alternatives). Although their economy is growing fast, it seems they still have a very long way to go.

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