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Trip Report Cambodia and Vietnam Trip Report (November 2012)

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I've traveled a bit in Europe and South and Central America, but until this past November I had never been to Asia (unless you count the Asian side of Istanbul, which I don't). Three friends and I - all North American women in our late 20s/early 30s - spent two weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam. We're do-it-yourself budget travelers. Our price point is probably a bit lower than what is average on this forum. We tend to stay at independent, budget hotels and look for inexpensive local food, with a splurge here and there.

Here's a brief outline of our trip with reviews of hotels and restaurants worth mentioning. A detailed trip report will follow.

Phnom Penh
We were here for less than 24 hours. From what I'd read, most people didn't really recommend much about this capital city, but I really wish that we would have spent a full day here. We stayed at the Velkommen Guest House, which doesn't look like much from the outside, but it was clean and in what seemed to be a good location.

Siem Reap
We stayed at the Golden Mango Inn, which I highly recommend. It's clean and comfortable with a beautiful wood lobby. We arranged tuk-tuk drivers and a guide for the temples through the hotel. We got ice cream from the Blue Pumpkin, which was good but expensive by Asian standards.

Ho Chi Minh City
We stayed at Long Hostel, which is basic and sparce but gets terrific reviews for service on TripAdvisor and HostelWorld. We picked up pastries at ABC bakery (very good) and ate the best pho I had in Vietnam at Pho 99.

Hoi An
My favorite city of the trip. We stayed at the Sunflower Hotel, which was excellent. Wonderful dinner at Morning Glory and great desserts at Cargo Rooms. We did a bike tour with Heaven and Earth Bicycle Tours and a cooking class with Van at Green Bamboo Cooking School - both of which were excellent.

We stayed at the Green Diamond hotel, which was excellent. They were especially wonderful about letting us store our bags at the hotel while we were at Ha Long Bay.

I was looking forward to the Sapa Rooms restaurant, but the food and the service disappointed. We did love Baguette and Chocolat. More on our hotel situation in the detailed report to follow.

Ha Long Bay
We scheduled on the Dragon Pearl III with Indochina Junks through Tonkin Travel. It was excellent. Comfortable, luxurious even. The food was great, our fellow shipmates were interesting, and this was a great way to end our trip.

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    DAY 1
    The four of us arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital city, late Saturday night. My first impression was of the darkness of the city. Capital cities are usually ablaze with lights and high rises and billboards, but there was little of that to be seen here. We took a taxi to our lodgings, the Velkommen Guesthouse, which was nice and clean, and settled in for the night.

    DAY 2
    The next morning we grabbed some breakfast at a restaurant around the corner from the guesthouse, spent a few minutes exploring a market, and then experienced our first tuk-tuk ride. Traveling by tuk-tuk was one of my favorite experiences of the trip.

    We had discovered that there is a branch of our church in Phnom Penh, so we decided to attend the meeting. On the way we passed the Royal Palace and some of the sites of Phnom Penh. The architecture is beautiful and so distinct. Our time in Phnom Penh was really short, and I wish that we would have had time to explore these buildings, but I'm grateful for the scenic ride that allowed me a brief glimpse. We also began to experience the friendliness of the Cambodian people. The kids - usually sandwiched between parents on a moped - loved to wave and call hello to us. If you ever have a desire to feel like a celebrity, just go to Cambodia. In my research for this trip, I read a lot of comments from people who said that there was no need to spend time in Phnom Penh, but I disagree. I would have liked to have had at least a full day to see the sites.

    From my research I had planned to take the Mekong Express bus to Siem Reap. The guesthouse suggested another company that used smaller minibuses and was a dollar or two cheaper. I was skeptical. If the decision had been solely my own, I would have stuck with the Mekong Express plan, but when put to a vote, we decided to use this other company (sorry, I didn't jot down the name). Despite my fears, we got to Siem Reap in the time expected, so everything ended up being just fine.

    I naively thought that we'd get moving on some sort of highway or expressway once we'd cleared the traffic of the capital city. Boy was I wrong! About half the time we were one of a stream of cars on a narrow paved road, and the other half we bounded along dusty, unpaved, potholed roads. Not too far out of Phnom Penh we bounced a bit too high and a bit too low, which resulted in a scraping noise from what sounded like right under my seat. The driver either couldn't hear or chose to ignore the sound until another bump forced us to stop. I had a vision of us having to offload the bus and wait for hours along the side of the road until another bus could rescue us, but luckily the driver grabbed a toolbox, fiddled around for a couple of minutes, and we were on the road again. The bus seemed to function fine for the remainder of the trip, and the driver drove a bit more conservatively too.

    The drive afforded us a good view into life in Cambodia. We saw slit houses and haystacks. In Cambodia people tie their cows to a post in the front yard, just as Americans do their dogs. The landscape was generally flat, but random rocky hills would pop up every so often. We passed a number of beautiful, colorful buildings that I decided had to be monasteries; the large fenced-in complexes reminded me of amusement parks. There were few streetlights and most houses used only one lightbulb or a florescent lantern once it got dark. I'm not sure if the people in these little towns don't have electricity (most likely) or if they just choose not to use it. After about 6 hours we arrived in Siem Reap and our hotel, The Golden Mango Inn. The hotel was wonderful; it had a beautiful wood-furnished lobby, a pool (which we never got around to using), and a garden restaurant out front. Our two rooms were clean and comfortable and cheap, at $25 per room per night, and the staff couldn't have been more friendly and helpful. We arrived about 8pm and the hotel, after some calling around, was able to arrange a guide for us for the next day.

    DAY 3
    The next morning we met Siray, our guide, and our tuk-tuk drivers. Prior to arriving at the temples I had thought that it would be just as well to walk between temples, but once on-site I understood why all of the advice on seeing Angkor Wat suggested using a car or tuk-tuk; the Angkor complex is huge! The temples are situated miles from each other; it's absolutely necessary to have wheeled transportation. During our visit in November the weather was still hot and muggy, but the tuk-tuks created enough of a breeze to cool us down. I can't even imagine what the weather is like over the summer, but if it's significantly hotter than what we experienced, I can understand why some people recommend a car with air conditioning for getting around.

    We started off at Angkor Thom, which is the larger of the two main temple complexes. A row of gods and a row of demons lead up to the south gate. The faces on the gate towers represent both the king and a buddha. Siray gave us lots and lots of information about the history of the structures and the mythology represented in the sculpture. The eternal student in me felt like I should be taking notes!

    From the south gate we entered the Bayon. This is one of the most popular buildings of the complex, and rightfully so. The faces in the towers are really interesting. Siray talked to us for a while and then gave us about twenty minutes to explore on our own.

    We spent several hours exploring the buildings of Angkor Thom, including the Elephant Terrace, the Baphuon with its reclining Buddha, and other buildings than run together and I don't remember because Siray's English pronunciations were not always perfectly clear. (A note to those who may visit in the future: to visit the Baphuon and the top part of Angkor Wat, you need to be dressed in a skirt or shorts that go at least to the knee and a shirt with sleeves.)

    We had lunch at a touristy but good restaurant within the temple complex. Next up was Ta Prohm, of Tomb Raider fame. Even if, like me, you haven't seen the movie, you'll probably still recognize this temple. Tree roots have grown around and incorporated themselves into the temple, creating some of the most iconic images of the Angkor complex. It's interesting to try and picture Angkor as it was in its prime - our guide told us that some parts would have been painted red and others would have been covered in gold - but there's also something really exotic about Ta Prohm as a temple in a ruined state in the process of being reclaimed by nature. Our visit to this temple was, unfortunately, not as leisurely as I would have liked. Siray moved us through at a faster pace so that we would be able to go up to the top floors of Angkor Wat before they closed for the evening. I really liked Ta Prohm and would recommend planning to spend some time there.

    We entered Angkor Wat from the back, which was a little disconcerting. Where was the pool that reflected the five towers and the long walkway that led up to the temple? We joined a short line that led up the very steep stone steps to the highest terraces of the temple. After exploring the terraces, Siray led us through the hallways and began to explain in detail the history and myth associated with the bas-reliefs. It was at this point that I realized that maybe I'm not a guide person. It was stiflingly hot in the passages and Siray was leading us through so slowly and in such excruciating detail that I felt like banging my head against the wall (and unfortunately, I didn't do a very good job of masking my impatience and irritation, which I fully realized and only served to make me more irritated with myself and the whole situation). I had read Dawn Rooney's book on the Angkor complex before the trip, and while I didn't have a detailed knowledge of the historical and mythological context of the temples, I knew the basics. As much as I love history, when I'm in a place I'd much rather just be there - enjoy and imbibe the atmosphere - rather than trying to capture a bunch of detailed facts that I probably won't remember anyway. I really appreciated Siray's knowledge, and for most of the day the amount of detail he provided was great, but by the end of the day my brain was fully saturated and I was ready for a little more peace and freedom to explore on my own.

    We finally excited the temple from the main entrance and made our way to the moat for the iconic photos of Angkor reflected in the water. We didn't get a colorful sunset, but the view was beautiful nonetheless.

    We had our tuk-tuk drivers drop us off near the market in town. I didn't buy much - just a little statue of an elephant - but it was fun to wander around and see the goods for sale.

    I had done a bunch of research on recommended places to eat in each of the cities we would visit on the trip. The restaurant we chose didn't have a table available, so we wandered over to the Blue Pumpkin to eat our dessert before dinner. The Blue Pumpkin is an ice-cream parlor/bakery/cafe with a modern design that appeals to the tourist crowd. The prices are a bit high for Cambodia, but the ice cream was really good (I got coconut and hazelnut) and the couches were a welcome sight after a long day of walking. By the time we finished our ice cream, there was a table available at the Khmer Kitchen BBQ. Khmer Kitchen was one of the restaurants I had on my list, but after seeing multiple restaurants with some variation of the name, I'm not sure we actually ate at the Khmer Kitchen. I was still pretty full from a big lunch plus the ice cream, so I just ordered a banana blossom salad. It had a really good, fresh flavor, but was perhaps too acidic to be eaten as an entree. It would have made a great side; the light, fresh flavor would go well with a heavier dish.

    One of the things that I was most looking forward to during the trip were the cheap massage and spa treatments. Our hotel offered in-room 60 minute full body massages for $6. After quick showers to rinse off the dirt and sweat of the day, we put on our pajamas and the women masseuses began to pull, push, knead, and press our muscles. I don't know that Khmer massage is what you would call relaxing. The massage is a routine (it's the same for everyone, regardless of where your tension might be) that seems like a full body workout for the masseuse. She used her arms, feet, and knees to give a massage that was part pain, part stretching, and part relief. It felt good, just not quite what I had expected.

    DAY 4
    When friends had told me about seeing the temples at Angkor, they described mind-blowing, life-changing experiences. I have to admit that after our first day at the temples, I was happy but not completely overpowered by what I'd seen. Our second day at Angkor, however, brought the awe that so many people describe. I think it's safe to say that this was one of my favorite days of the entire trip.

    We arose early to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat. We arrived in the dark, about 5:30am, to what felt like a pilgrimage site. I had expected a lot of elbowing and frustration from crowds of people trying to take photos of the sun rising above Angkor, but the experience was surprisingly peaceful. Yes, there were crowds of people gathered at the shore of the moat/reflecting pool, but the mood was pleasant not competitive. A cloud cover meant that the sky lightened gradually, without a spectacular sunrise or blazing color, but the experience was still magical.

    After snapping dozens of pictures, and then stopping to just take it in, and then snapping dozens more pictures to try and capture part of the beauty of the scene, we entered the temple. It was quiet and serene. The morning light gave the cold grey stone a warm hue. The crowds from outside had not followed us in. We split up to sit, write, think. I walked around the perimeter of the temple to the front, where I encountered a troop of monkeys. I knew there was possible danger in getting too close, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to get some close-up photos. I was standing with my back to a ledge, and all of the sudden, one of the monkeys running by jumped on my back. I let out a yell, and he immediately jumped off. I was simultaneously freaked out (what if the monkey had held on tighter when I yelled or had bitten me?) and amazed at the experience.

    I hadn't anticipated monkeys, but one of the things I really, really wanted to see at Angkor were the Buddhist monks. I'd seen gorgeous photos of the monks in their bright orange cassocks against the grey stone walls of the temples. I'd been told that the monks care for the temples and that they'd be at Angkor in the morning, but the only snatches of orange to catch my eye were the t-shirts of other tourists. Eventually we did see some monks at the entrance to Angkor, but they were armed with cameras and accompanied by tour guides - tourists themselves!

    We had a pleasant, leisurely breakfast at one of the little restaurant stands just outside the temple and then found our tuk-tuk driver to make our way to Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei is a temple about 16 miles out from the main temple complex. The drive via tuk-tuk took us about an hour, which was nice and relaxing and allowed us to see more of the Cambodian countryside and daily life. I find it a bit odd that nice, new, big houses pop up alongside thatched huts. Our tuk-tuk was probably the slowest one on the road; I think the only wheeled vehicle we ever passed was a bicycle. That's not a complaint though, better to putter along than to be stuck with a reckless driver. We had to stop once on the way to Banteay Srei to let the motorcycle cool down a bit. We stopped next to one of the many roadside stands where the process of making palm sugar was in process. The people boil the sap of the sugar palm to create a liquid sugar about the consistency of natural peanut butter, as well as palm sugar candies, which they sell in plastic jars or rolled up in palm leaves. We each bought several rolls of the candy. It has a super sweet honey-like taste; as it aged a bit in my backpack over the course of the trip, it developed something of a smokey taste too.

    After that brief pit stop, we continued on several more kilometers until we arrived at Banteay Srei, which is small, made of red standstone, and beautifully ornate. It reminded me exactly of the ruins where King Louis lives in the Disney Jungle Book movie. After exploring the small site, we sat to listen to a landmine victims band that was playing traditional Khmer music outside the walls of the temple. Our driver was parked near the site of a pagoda, so we took a few extra minutes to walk up close to the pretty building.

    We asked our driver to take us back into the market in town and sat back to enjoy our long ride in the open air. Instead of dropping us off at the market, however, the driver (I really wish I had written down his name, he was so nice) took us to an artisanal village in town. This would happen time and time again over the course of the trip. We allowed a guide to give us a short tour of the workshops filled with disadvantaged people making artisanal goods, smiled politely, and then left without buying anything. I'm not sure how I feel about these places. On the one hand, it seems good to teach people a skill and employ them, on the other hand, wouldn't it be better to provide more formal education for these people? Then again, someone has got to do the manual labor, right? Conflicted thoughts.

    Anyway, as we tried to navigate ourselves from the artisanal village to the market we passed one of the spas on my list, which didn't, from the outside, look as nice in person as it had on the website. We ended up stopping instead at the Cool Sense spa just down the street. I was in real need of a pedicure, but my plan wasn't very well thought out; I was wearing close-toed shoes and the pedicure took longer than the other girls' massages, so I didn't sit long enough to let the nail polish fully dry and it got smudged as I slipped my feet back into my shoes. The spa was small but very clean and the pedicure was decent, though not as thorough as what you get in the States. I paid a total of $6, the pedicure and polish being counted as separate charges.

    By this time we were quite hungry so we stopped at a restaurant on Pub Street called Khmer Family Kitchen. The food in Cambodia was so good; we all loved it. I'm not sure that we ate at the best restaurants (I had several suggestions on my list, but aside from Blue Pumpkin we never made it to them), but even at what may have been mediocre restaurants the food was fantastic. Two of Cambodia's signature dishes are amok, which is a curry dish, and lok lak, a beef dish.

    After dinner it was back to the market to pick up a few more souvenirs, on to the hotel to pick up our luggage, and then one last tuk-tuk ride to the airport. I really loved Cambodia - the people, the food, and especially our leisurely approach to seeing the temples on our second day in Siem Reap.

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    I'm copying this trip report from what I wrote on my personal blog, so I might have left out some information of interest to those planning a similar trip. If you have any questions about visas, vaccines, detailed descriptions of hotels, just ask.

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    Very nice report. I felt the same about our guide in Siem Reap...definitely information overload. I tried being courteous, but just wanted to wander and enjoy the sites without so much information that I would never remember. We also loved the tuk tuks and the open feeling rather than driving in the taxis.

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    DAY 4 (Continued)
    At the end of our second full day in Siem Reap we hopped on a tuk-tuk and headed toward the airport. We boarded our Vietnam Airlines flight to Ho Chi Minh City, and after a few minutes updating my journal, I fell asleep for the duration of the hour-long flight.

    We presented our pre-arranged visa documents (which we'd arranged through Tonkin Travel) and were able to pass through immigration fairly quickly. Then we stopped at the ATM, where we all became millionaires. The exchange rate of US Dollars to Vietnamese Dong is about 1 USD:20,000 VND, so taking out $250 from the ATM meant we had five million dong in our pockets. Upon exiting the airport I saw all of the lights and busyness and traffic that I had been expecting when we arrived in Phnom Penh. We left sleepy Cambodia behind and had now entered the world of a million motor scooters.

    Usually when I travel I choose to save a few dollars by navigating public transportation, but since we were arriving so late in HCMC, we asked our hotel to arrange transport for us. We did this throughout the trip and always had an easy time finding the driver with my name on a card. We piled into the car - no more tuk-tuks, sadly - and wound our way through the streets of Saigon. As we carried our bags past a corner cafe and into the alley where our hotel was located, a fight erupted between two or more people at the cafe. It was hard to tell exactly what had happened, but all of the sudden we saw running, I thought I saw the glint of a knife, and one of my friends said she saw someone brandishing a broken bottle. Within a matter of seconds a car full of policemen drove up and set their tazers on the perpetrators. Welcome to Saigon!

    Our lodgings, Long Hostel, were super basic but they were cheap and had gotten really good reviews due to the service. We were only going to be there one night, so we didn't need anything fancy. The one must-do on our list was to visit the Cu Chi tunnels; we hadn't arranged a tour before-hand, so I asked the woman at the front desk for her recommendations. She said that she could book us for a half day bus tour that would start at 8 the next morning.

    DAY 5
    The next morning we chatted with fellow hostel guests from all over the world as we ate our omelettes for breakfast, and then at about 8 we boarded the mini-bus that would take us to the tunnels. Initially I was hesitant to sign up for a bus tour; a big group of people and a guide that would talk incessantly didn't sound appealing. It ended up, however, being great. Our guide, Chi, was a highlight. The tunnels aren't that far from the city, but because of traffic it takes two hours to get there. Chi talked almost the entire time, but because what he said was so interesting, I was fascinated rather than annoyed. He told us a lot about Vietnamese culture and history - i.e. the people look upon white skin and excess weight favorably because these are signs of wealth; the Vietnamese see all white people as Americans, men grow out their left-hand pinkie nail as part of feng shui. Chi is young, 34, so he doesn't remember the war, but he told us some stories about his family's experience in the war and also about experiences he's had giving tours to Vietnam vets.

    We made our obligatory bathroom break/shopping stop at a lacquer workshop, passed through a few rubber tree groves, and then arrived at the site of the Cu Chi tunnels. It's a popular tourist site, so everything is set up for tourists and is well-managed. The tunnels were originally built by the people of Cu Chi as a means of fighting against the French and continued to be used throughout the Japanese occupation of Vietnam in WWII, and then by the Vietcong against the Americans in the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War). We started our tour with a propaganda video that lionizes the brave people of Cu Chi; it's a completely anti-American video, but that was to be expected. The people lived by day in the tunnels and came out at night to forage for food, set booby traps, etc. We also heard from a Vietnamese man who fought with the South Vietnamese army against the Vietcong; he told us about how cooking and sanitation and life was managed underground.

    Chi lead the rest of our tour. We learned the difference between fox holes and spider holes and got to go down a fox hole. We saw an American tank, a B52 bomb crater, and VC booby traps. There was a shooting range, where for an extra couple of dollars you could fire the type of gun used in the war. I'm not completely against using a shotgun to shoot clay pigeons, but I definitely wasn't comfortable with the thought of handling an AK-47 or an M-16, so instead of shooting I bought ice cream. Last but not least, we got a chance to crawl through a tunnel. Apparently some of the tunnels have been enlarged for our big, Western bodies, although they are still quite small. I can't imagine spending hours upon hours in there. There were exits every few meters or so for those who felt claustrophobic, but I made it all 1,000 meters to the end. This wasn't a must do for me when I planned the trip, but it was an excellent experience, and I'm really glad we did it. I'd certainly recommend this tour company (unfortunately I didn't write down the name. I know, that's not very helpful) and Chi as a guide.

    After arriving back in Saigon we bought train tickets for that night's journey north and then stopped in at the ABC Bakery, of which I had read good reviews. Because Vietnam was occupied by France for so many years, Vietnam is full of wonderful bread and pastries. We each bought several pastries to take with us on the train and eat for breakfast the next morning. At the bakery we started chatting with an American woman who had been living in Saigon for 6 months. She recommended that we go to lunch just a few blocks away at Pho 99. That was a great recommendation! The pho I ate there was the best I had in Vietnam.

    Next we braved the crazy traffic to go and see some of the sites. The wide streets of Saigon are packed with scooters. Cross walks are few and far between, so crossing the street is perilous. The key is to start walking and not stop. The scooters are, in theory, used to pedestrians and will weave around them. We saw the Reunification Palace and the famous gates that were knocked down by North Vietnamese army tanks when Saigon fell in 1975. The building is open for tours, but we arrived too late in the day, so we just viewed it from the outside. We also walked past the Notre Dame cathedral and, after some confusion, came upon the People's Committee Building, which is a French-style building and one of the prettiest edifices in Saigon. I was excited to visit the Ben Thanh market in Saigon, but when we arrived at about 6pm, many of the stalls had closed and most others were pulling in their wares and preparing to go home for the night. We were there too late for the day market and too early for the night market. Disappointing.

    In my research I had seen many people write that people tend to like either Saigon or Hanoi, but usually not both. I felt like I would probably like Hanoi better, but I was prepared to be wrong. I wasn't. I realize that I didn't see much of Saigon, so that could certainly be a factor. It's just a big, busy city. The people aren't antagonistic but they aren't exactly friendly either, and while that's typical of most big cities around the world, after the warmth of the people of Cambodia, it was kind of a let down. One thing I will say about Vietnamese people is that they are very industrious. Everyone always seems busy doing something or going somewhere. Vietnam is a rapidly developing country, and it will be interesting to see how it grows over the next couple of decades.

    We crossed more busy streets on our way back to the hotel, and after finally finding the correct ally, we crashed on the couch in the hotel lobby for about an hour until it was time to go to the train station. We were going to take a sleeper train up the coast to Danang, the central Vietnam town closest to our next stop: Hoi An. We had planned to buy tickets for a soft-sleeper (4 bed) compartment; however, there were no compartments completely empty, so we opted for hard sleeper tickets. The hard sleepers have thinner mattresses, and - I didn't realize at the time - 6 beds per compartment. When we boarded the train and found the correct compartment, I was horrified. It was filthy and there were six beds where I thought there would be four. It was going to be a 16 hour train ride, and there wouldn't even be room enough to sit up. I may or may not have freaked out a little. I've taken sleeper trains in other (non-European) countries, and I guess I was expecting something similar, so I wasn't prepared for this. But there was nothing else to do, so we climbed onto our beds, trying not to think about how long it had probably been since the pillow, blanket, and sheet were washed.

    I may not have fallen in love with Saigon, but our guide Chi was a highlight, the Cu Chi tunnels tour was interesting and better than expected, and the pho was delicious.

    DAY 6
    Despite my reservations about the train, I slept quite well. Our train journey would last until 2:30pm, so I spent the morning updating my journal; looking out the window at rice fields and the beach; reading; and dozing lazily. I've never been one to feel motion sickness, but a combination of nauseousness I had felt the night before (before we even got on the train) plus a lack of fresh air had me feeling a little sick toward the end of the ride. Luckily we had brought Dramamine, so I took some of that, which helped.

    We got off the train in Danang, which is a popular beach city about 45 minutes from Hoi An. We had the option of negotiating the price of a taxi to take us to Hoi An or use the public bus. It was raining, we were carrying our heavy bags, and the bus station was about 2 miles away, so we decided to just take a taxi. The taxi drivers were tough and wouldn't come down to the price I'd seen recommended ($15), but we eventually agreed upon a price a couple dollars above what we wanted to pay, and with that we were on our way to Hoi An.

    Beautiful Hoi An! Hoi An is lovely and charming and, for those reasons, totally touristy. We stayed at the Sunflower Hotel, which was one of our favorite hotels of the trip. It was clean, the service was great, and they also had an ample breakfast buffet. It also seemed to be pretty popular; there were always a bunch of people in the lobby and breakfast room. We had the family room, which had four twin beds and a bathroom with lots of hot water. We weren't in a huge hurry to get moving, so we took our time getting settled into the room.

    There was a spa in town that I had read great reviews about, so we figured that would be a nice low/no-effort activity for the evening. The Hoi An Day Spa was immaculately clean, and while not upscale, nicer than many of the others we saw. The other girls got facials, while I opted for a wrap and massage combo (80 minutes, $18). The wrap was really relaxing; basically the girl smeared this clay lotion all over me and then I was wrapped up in a plastic sheet. After a little while, I was instructed to shower and then come out again for the massage. Somewhere between lying down on the massage table and the start of the massage, the girl that had done my wrap was exchanged for a guy. I had my face down, so I didn't see this happen and I wasn't expecting it. This made me a bit uncomfortable, mostly because I was under the impression than in the reputable establishments massages are only given by a person of the same gender.

    By the time we were finished it was raining pretty hard, so even though the distance back to the hotel wasn't great, we took a taxi. We ate dinner at Solo Restaurant, which was right across the street from the hotel. Hoi An is supposed to have the best food in Vietnam (I agree!), and I was excited to try something new; however, my stomach wasn't exactly sure it wanted food, so I settled with ordering spring rolls to share and boring old fried rice, which was the blandest thing I could find on the menu. The spring rolls were some of the best fried spring rolls I had in Vietnam; all of the other fried spring rolls we had were super oily, but these were perfectly crisp without being greasy.

    After dinner we skipped back across the street to the hotel and settled in for the night.

    DAY 7
    Breakfast was included at our hotel, so the next morning, before we went out to explore the town we went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. The breakfast was buffet-style, with an array of choices from the savory beans and noodles of a traditional Vietnamese breakfast to more familiar Western options like omelettes, fruit, and baguette and jam. I cannot get myself to eat savory foods in the morning, so I went with fruit and bread. I had my second taste of dragon fruit here (the first was breakfast the the Golden Mango Inn in Siem Reap), which confirmed that while the fruit is pretty, it doesn't have much flavor.

    Hoi An is known for textiles and tailoring. There are dozens upon dozens of shops that can make clothes for you in a day or two. I had looked for recommendations on shops to go to for tailoring, but other than a few repeated recommendations for two shops that are notably more expensive than the rest, I didn't find anything. There are just too many to choose from. As we walked to the main part of town, we stopped in at shops, asked about prices, and collected business cards to come back, if we so chose. The shops all have sample dresses, skirts, and shirts out, but most of the samples are the same, which doesn't make choosing a shop easier.

    One of my travel companions and I ended up in a shop where we both liked a sample of a grey business-type dress. The woman working in the shop pulled out a curtain from the corner and handed us the sample, which we took turns trying to squeeze into. The dress didn't fit either one of us, so we couldn't exactly see what the actual fit would look like, but the design of the dress was cute, so we each commissioned one. I also tried on a dress with a pleated skirt that was made of an iridescent silk-like fabric. Again, it didn't actually fit, but I liked the sample, so I decided to get the dress made in a different color. The price originally quoted for the dresses was $15 each, but then, of course, once you choose your fabric and add lining the price suddenly shoots up. We bargained pretty hard and ended up settling on the price of $50 for all three dresses. We were measured and told to come back that evening for a fitting.

    While we were being measured and bargaining for our dresses, our other travel companions were doing the same thing at a different shop. While waiting for them we wandered through some of the stalls of the market, which was right across the street. I paid too much for a set of chop sticks and then bargained at another shop for two bead necklaces. While in that shop I saw several tea sets that I liked. I asked about prices and then said I'd think about it. In Vietnam though, when you say "I'll think about it," they think you're just playing the bargaining game so they continue to bargain and don't want to let you walk away. The thing is, I wasn't sure whether or not I truly wanted the tea set, so I really did want to think about it. After a lot of pleading from the woman at the shop, I bought the necklaces and told her I'd be back if I decided I wanted the tea set. Once the sale was complete, she happily told us that we were her first customers of the day, a sign of good luck.

    We met up with our friends, and, using our inadequate and not-to-scale map, began looking for the office of the Heaven and Earth bike tour company. Along the way we saw the most pictuesque parts of Hoi An: the river, the yellow houses, the lanterns, the Japanese bridge, Vietnamese women in their conical hats. It was lovely. We didn't have time for a restaurant lunch before the tour (service in Vietnam is leisurely, we were continually underestimating the time we would need), but we did stop for ice cream. I had coconut and a particularly good passionfruit flavor.

    We were the only four who signed up for the 1/2 day countryside bike tour with Heaven and Earth Bicycling Tours, so by default we ended up with a private tour. Our guides were My (pronounced "Me") and Be (pronounced "Bay"), two young women about our age. First we took a private boat to cross the river to an island. We walked for a bit, My explaining a little about the traditional handicrafts and way of life on the island. We stopped at a house where two women demonstrated straw mat weaving. The people use bullrush and homemade wooden looms to weave straw mats used for sleeping. We got a chance to "help" with the process. Next we went to a traditional house, where My told us about the architecture and religion of the people. Outside the house, we picked up our bikes and the biking part of the bike tour began. We rode around for a little while, and then stopped again to learn about how basket boats are made. Next we had an opportunity to actually use a basket boat. An older woman from the village demonstrated how to row and then set us off in the river in the little boat. We biked a bit more and then stopped at a workshop that does inlaid mother of pearl. Finally, we took our bikes on the public ferry boat and bit farewell to My and Be.

    Despite the fact that there wasn't an intense amount of biking involved, the bike tour was great. We learned about local traditions and economy and were never pressured to buy anything. My and Be were especially great. Perhaps because we were all close in age, we had fun talking about culture and politics and religion. The half-day tour was only $15 and well worth the money. I'd definitely recommend a bike tour with this company (they have several tour options).

    For dinner we ate at Morning Glory, a popular and highly recommended restaurant. I got this amazing sauteed pumpkin as an appetizer that might have been one of the best things I ate the entire trip. For my main dish I ordered Cao Lao, one of the traditional dishes of Hoi An. It has pork, thick noodles, lots of herbs, and crispy wanton chips on top - kind of like pho, but with a regional twist. Morning Glory is considered to be somewhat of a pricey restaurant, but it's still cheap by US standards; entrees range from about $5-15.

    By this hour it was time to go back to the dress shop for our fittings. We got there and were told that the dresses weren't ready because there had been a power outage at the factory. I thought this was highly doubtful and was afraid that we'd been scammed. They asked us to come back tomorrow for the fitting. We continued down the street to the shop where the other girls had commissioned clothes. Unlike our shop, theirs did have the clothes ready. I had been wanting a Chinese-style shirt, so while we were there I began the bargaining process. The lady there wouldn't budge on price ($15), but the fact that they had the clothes ready on time and were much friendlier than the women at "our" shop made me decide that it was worth the price (the women at our shop became noticeably less friendly and accommodating once we'd commissioned our dresses and paid our deposit).

    With the fittings (or at least half of them) completed, we headed back toward Morning Glory to its sister restaurant Cargo Club. Cargo Club serves Western-style food, which at this point didn't interest us, but I'd read great things about their desserts. We each ordered a dessert to share with everyone else. My chocolate truffle cake was so rich that even the four of us couldn't finish it.

    DAY 7
    We woke up to rain. It proceeded to rain - to POUR - the entire day, which made us really grateful for the beautiful weather we'd had the day before. When we were planning the trip, we debated about whether or not to visit Hoi An. November is monsoon season in Central Vietnam and flooding is common. We knew that the weather probably wouldn't be good enough to visit the nearby beaches, but it seemed like there would still be enough in Hoi An to keep us busy, rain or shine. The cooking class we'd scheduled turned out to be the perfect activity for a very wet day.

    This was one of the few activities we booked before leaving on the trip. I had read about Van and her Green Bamboo Cooking School in an online trip report. After booking, Van sent us a list of dishes and we each got to choose one that we wanted to make. On the morning of the class, Van picked us and another group (a Canadian mother and her two young adult daughters) up from the hotel and took us to the market. There she told us about the market, introduced us to typical Vietnamese cooking ingredients, and identified and let us try fruits that we were unfamiliar with. Once we finished up the market shopping we went to Van's house to proceed with the cooking class.

    Van's house is beautiful; she has a kitchen with a huge island, perfectly outfitted to conduct a cooking class for several people. I'm guessing that her family - which includes her Swedish husband and two children - is probably one of the more well-to-do families of the area. Van had two assistants to wash and prep some of the ingredients, but we were also put to work chopping, slicing, and grinding. We got along well with the other women in the class and had a great time chatting as we prepared the food. Van told us that Vietnamese dishes try to incorporate many flavors (spicy, sour, sweet, bitter, salty) in order to create a balanced and satisfying meal. We spent a couple of hours prepping the dishes - which sounds like a long time, but it was really fun - and then everything was ready for final assembly about the same time. While we had done some sampling along the way, we took the final dishes out to the table for a sit-down lunch. Although we had each chosen our own dish, we ate a bit of everything, and there was waaaay more food than we could eat. We made vegetable curry (my selection), beef salad, pumpkin soup, fish barbecued in banana leaves, some kind of shrimp, beef stir-fry, Vietnamese crispy pancakes, and green mango salad.

    We had such fun with the cooking class and left feeling that we were all old friends. Van sent us away with a cookbook of all of her recipe options, cooking chopsticks, and this neat grater/cutting tool that was really handy for chopping vegetables. The class was $30 each and totally, completely worth the price. There are a lot of cooking classes in Hoi An, and while I haven't experienced the others, I really like the class we did because it was small and completely personalized. Plus, we were in a real home, which added a degree of comfort to the experience. Van even gave us plastic ponchos to wear since it was still pouring when the class finished.

    After the cooking class we made our second attempt at a dress fitting. The dresses were ready (thank goodness), but my grey dress was too tight and they had forgotten to put sleeves on my blue party dress, as I'd requested. I asked for alterations, emphasizing that they had to be finished that evening, since we were leaving early the next morning. At another shop one of my travel companions had commissioned an ao dai, the traditional costume of Vietnamese women. As she tried on the costume, I suddenly really wanted one and wondered if the seamstress could have one done for me by that night. I ended up deciding against it (I didn't even ask), but I minorly regret that I didn't have one made. It's not something I would use a whole lot, but it would be something nice to have on those off occasions when I need to pull out a costume. I did, however, buy some fabric from this shop, which I intend to make into skirts.

    I had decided that I wanted the tea set that I'd seen the previous day. I had looked in other shops to see if I could find it for a better price. I only saw one other like it, and the price was higher, so I decided to go back to the original shop. I trudged through rain and puddles - and was really glad I'd chosen to wear a skirt and flip flops that day - hoping that the shop would be open. It was, I got a good price for the tea set, and the woman was amazed that I had actually come back like I said I would.

    We were too full from lunch to eat dinner, but there were desserts at the Cargo Club that we still wanted to try, so we headed over. The previous night I had made a comment about wanting to try the hot chocolate but it not being cold enough. While the rain hadn't made the day cold, the night was significantly cooler. So my wish came true, we ordered hot chocolate (which was very good). I also wanted one of their ice cream desserts, so once we had finished our hot chocolate we ordered a dessert that had scoops of cinnamon, caramel, and lemongrass ice cream. Maybe that seems like an odd combination, but it was so good. I loved the lemongrass ice cream; it's next on my list of flavors to create at home.

    We made one more trip back to the tailor shop, and luckily my dresses were finished. The grey dress fit, but just barely; if I even so much as look at a cookie, it will be too tight. The Chinese-style shirt that I ordered from the neighboring shop had been taken in and fit perfectly. The tailoring in Hoi An is a great opportunity to have clothes made, but the quick timeline can work to your disadvantage. One of my biggest regrets of the trip was that I don't feel I made great decisions about clothes to have made. In order to wear the grey dress, I'll need to pick apart the seams and make it a bit bigger. The blue dress is pretty, but I think it's kind of young-looking. I'm not sure how often I'll actually wear it. I wish that I'd taken my favorite pair of jeans to have copied. A lot of people have suits made in Hoi An, and while I don't like nor do I need to wear suits for my job, I could have printed off a picture of a cute ruffled blazer I'd seen at H&M and had that made. For a while I considered having an Asian-style dress made, along with the shirt, but I decided against it. I wish I had gone ahead with that plan. This is one of those situations in which I'm just not good at making snap decisions. Had I thought about it before traveling or had I had a few more days in Hoi An to mull over my options, I probably would have been more satisfied with the experience.

    Between the bike tour, cooking class, shopping, and eating, we didn't get a chance to visit Hoi An's many historical sites. This is another regret of mine, but I enjoyed so much the things that we did get to do that I don't feel too badly about not getting to everything. If I ever have the chance to revisit Vietnam, Hoi An will definitely be part of the itinerary!

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    I'm really enjoying reading about your experiences. Looking forward to reading about the rest of your trip. Vietnam sounds great.

    Did you feel the climb to the top area of Angkor Wat was worth it??

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    christ45ny Oh yes, climbing to the top of Angkor Wat was worth it. It's not so much that I found the view spectacular, it's just the effort wasn't so much as to make it not worth it. Does that make sense? On our second morning there the top of Angkor Wat was closed for cleaning, which was actually really nice because the temple was uncrowded and very peaceful.

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    DAY 8
    We got up the next morning, ate breakfast, loaded ourselves and our expanding luggage into a taxi, and headed to the Danang airport. After another short flight on Vietnam Airlines, we landed in Hanoi. Our plan was to spend less than a day in Hanoi before continuing on to Sapa, and then to come back to Hanoi to experience the capital city. After stopping at the ATM to replenish our cash supply and the tourist desk to obtain a map, we hailed a taxi and made our way into the city proper. The taxi dropped us off at The Green Diamond Hotel, which would be our lodgings when we came back to Hanoi. The hotel was great and let us store our bags there for the day.

    Next we headed to the train station to buy tickets for that night's sleeper train to Sapa. We were disheartened to find that there were no soft sleepers and only two hard sleepers available. Our only option for staying together was to buy tickets for the hard seats...for an 8 hour train journey...overnight. It was going to be completely miserable, and I was not happy. (Normally I would have bought all of the train tickets before the trip, or at least as soon as we arrived in-country, but my travel companions wanted to wait so that we'd have more flexibility.)

    With immediate business taken care of, and this being Sunday, we attempted to get to church. We grabbed a taxi, showed the driver the address, and started off. After a ways I noticed that the meter had suddenly jumped by about $10. I knew that taxi scams in Hanoi were common, so we immediately demanded that the driver stop and we got out. We gave him about what we thought the meter had read before the jump (which was still too much), and walked away despite his protests. I knew that we needed to beware of taxi scams and I had a list of reputable companies, but between the frustration of the train tickets and the clamoring of the taxi drivers outside the station, we hadn't been diligent. We wouldn't make that mistake again.

    We met some great people there, including some young people who were excited to practice their English with us, an expat American woman who has been living and working in Southeast Asia for over 20 years, and an American missionary couple who are in Vietnam to do humanitarian work. When the missionary couple found out that we were going to Sapa and that we had had train ticket troubles, they encouraged us to get in touch with Sean, a member of the congregation who owns (or manages, we weren't quite clear) a hotel in Sapa. He's from California but speaks Vietnamese fluently. We didn't technically need his help since we could still get to Sapa, but if he had any insight on how to get there more comfortably, we were certainly open to his suggestions. We called him up (he was briefly in Hanoi before heading to Sapa that night himself), and he arranged to get us sleeper bus tickets to Sapa. Although we already had a hotel reservation, we were able to cancel our existing reservation and make a reservation at his hotel as a thank you for his help.

    I couldn't envision the layout of a sleeper bus until I saw it. There are three skinny, two level rows of what is basically a reclined seat. The seat/bed is long enough to stretch out but only wide enough to lie flat on your back. We all grabbed seats on the top level and tried to settle in. (An interesting note, all of the Vietnamese people chose the bottom-level seats, while all of the tourists chose the top-level seats. It must be a cultural thing, since tourists and locals were mixed while getting onto the bus.) We had put our backpacks in the compartment under the bus, but I wanted to keep the bag with my breakable tea set with me. The bag started out in the compartment at my feet, but after a while I wanted to stretch out, so I spent most of the trip with the bag on my stomach. It wasn't the most comfortable way to travel, but it wasn't too bad. After getting home, I - out of curiosity - got online to look at reviews of the sleeper bus. They were horrible. But in my opinion, after riding the filthy trains, I'd take the bus any day.

    Despite the fact that there was a TV blaring, which made it hard to fall or stay asleep, the bus ride felt really short. We left sometime between 7-8pm and arrived at the Lo Cai train depot at 4am. At one point the man in the bottom bunk to the right of me started to dry heave, which made me think that I might vomit if he continued, but aside from that it was a relatively clean and non-eventful experience. Once we disembarked at the train station, we had to wait for a couple of hours until the hotel's shuttle came to pick us and other hotel patrons up and drive us about 45 minutes to Sapa. (In hindsight I wonder why Sean didn't book us tickets all the way to Sapa. The bus went to Sapa and the shuttle made a pickup there. Oh well.)

    DAY 9

    Sapa is way up in the highlands of northwest Vietnam. We left behind 80 degree temperatures in Hanoi for lots of fog and temperatures that must have been in the 50s. Upon arriving at the hotel we were at first told that our rooms wouldn't be ready until 10, but a few minutes later they said that one of the rooms was ready. When we got to the room my heart sank. It was clean but old and dingy. I regretted having given up what - according to online photos and reviews - looked to be an attractive, comfortable room for this, even if we were trying to do someone a favor. Not too long after that, though, the staff moved us to two rooms at the other end of the hotel. While the paint and bones of the room were still the same, the beds had stylish headboards and nice linens, which made a world of difference. My room also had a magnificent view of the mountains.

    While checking in one of my travel companions hadn't been able to find her passport. Once we got settled in the room, she emptied her backpack and went through all of its pockets and pouches. Still no passport. Here's where meeting Sean turned out to be a huge blessing. We let Sean know about the situation and he let my friend use the phone to call the embassy in Hanoi. She was told that she needed to file a police report. Also, since we were leaving in a handful of days, and since the embassy would be closed one of those days for Thanksgiving, she was told that she should get back to Hanoi sooner rather than later in order to get a new passport and visa. Sean took her to the police station to file a report and also helped us exchange our train tickets (we had bought soft sleeper return tickets in Hanoi) for a day earlier than we had originally planned. It would have been really hard to do all of this without a fluent Vietnamese speaker, so having Sean there made things infinitely easier.

    While my travel companion was doing all of this, I took a long shower to clean up and get warm (it was freezing, the hotel didn't have heat!), flooded the bathroom, spent a good hour trying to bail out the bathroom, relented and notified the hotel staff which quickly made the problem go away by unclogging the shower drain, and finally crawled into bed for a nap. During my baling efforts I decided that I've definitely become a more high-maintenance traveler as I've gotten older. The bare-bones backpacker style doesn't quite do it for me any more; I also decided that my next major vacation will be a cruise. I admit, I wasn't in the best frame of mind this day

    I slept for several hours and even then had trouble pulling myself out of bed. I wandered down to the hotel restaurant, where the other girls were finishing up lunch. I ate and then three of us headed into town while our friend and Sean went back to the police station. We saw some of the Hmong women in their traditional dress selling goods in the town square. I was on the lookout for a knock-off North Face jacket. I paid $37 for a Gore Tex jacket with a zip-in fleece lining.

    For dinner we went to the restaurant at the boutique hotel Sapa Rooms. I had read great reviews and viewed an extensive online menu, so I had high expectations for this restaurant. We were, unfortunately, disappointed. The actual menu didn't have as many selections as what I had seen online, but I certainly wasn't at a loss to find something that looked good. I ordered pumpkin soup and lemongrass chicken satay. Two orders came promptly, but we continued to wait and wait and wait for the spring rolls that the two others had ordered. We finally had to remind the waiter. He proceeded to bring out one, not two, orders of spring rolls, so we had to wait even longer for the second order to be made. The food was fine, but not great. Upon leaving, we found that the bill was wrong, so we had to wait again while it was recalculated. Additionally, we couldn't help but overhear the party next to us order dessert after dessert, only to be told that just about all of their selections were not available.

    As we hiked back up the hill to our hotel, we stopped in at the Baguette & Chocolat bakery, to pick up some pastries. Back at the hotel we ate our pastries and watched some TV before falling asleep.

    DAY 10
    I awoke the next morning refreshed and in a much more positive mood. The fog had partially lifted, and we had gorgeous views of the mountains and hillside. Rather than eat the hotel restaurant's mediocre breakfast, we traipsed down the hill to Baguette & Chocolat. I chose an option that included chamomile tea, thick rich yogurt, baguette with Sapa honey, and pain au chocolat. Lots of carbs but man was it good! Once again we had to eat quickly so that we could get back to the hotel to start the day's trek. Our original plan was to do a two-day trek which included an overnight homestay, but since we needed to get back to Hanoi, we had to do a one-day trek instead. I had been really excited about the overnight trek, but once we actually got to Sapa and felt how cold it was, I wasn't at all sad to give up the homestay (although it did turn out to be an exceptionally warm day, so we would have been fine). Anyway, we were introduced to our guide Ping, a 20 year old mother of one and member of the Black Hmong tribe.

    Our trek took us down into the valley and villages where the various ethnic tribes live. Ping told us that she had learned English because she had tourists stay in her home for homestays while she was growing up. Not too far into the trek, we were joined by 6 or so Black Hmong girls who walked with us. They all carried baskets or even babies on their backs. Ping didn't have any sort of set narrative, but we asked her and the other girls lots of questions, so we got to learn something about their culture and way of life. The Hmong are one of five ethnic hill tribes, and among the Hmong there are villages of Black Hmong, Red Hmong, and Flower Hmong - so named (by others, not themselves) for their traditional dress. They farm terraced rice and indigo paddies and the women make textiles. The experience felt more South American than Asian. I've never been to Peru, but the terraced landscape and the traditional clothing of the people reminded me a lot of pictures of the areas around Cuzco.

    After we had hiked for a couple of hours, we stopped at an area with several restaurants where all of the trekkers stop to eat lunch. It was here that the girls that had been walking with us pulled out various wares from their baskets and tried to get us to buy things from them. My travel companions were surprise that the girls weren't walking with us for fun, but I had figured that something like this would happen sooner or later. Before lunch the trail had mostly led us through the rice paddies; the part of the walk we did after lunch took us through a couple of villages, where we were able to see a bit more about what life is like for these people.

    The trek was one of the highlights of the trip. I really enjoyed talking to the girls about their culture and seeing the unique landscape of this part of the world. We were also blessed this day with really great weather. Sean said that it was unusually warm for November.

    After the trek we had a bit of time to kill, so we went into Sapa town, where one of my friends bartered for her own North Face jacket. Then it was time to bid farewell to Sapa. We took the hotel shuttle bus to Lo Cai and ate a mediocre dinner at a restaurant near the train station. I had expected the soft sleeper compartment to be a big improvement on the hard sleeper, but despite the fact that the mattresses were thicker and it was just the four of us in our compartment, this compartment was even filthier than the last one. My bed had hairs on it, so I spread out my jacket and scarf. We couldn't figure out how to turn the light off, so we had a florescent light shining in our faces all night long, which enabled me to see the mini-roaches that would crawl along the walls from time to time. Now you can see why I didn't think the bus was all that bad. I know my complaints about the train might make me sound like a prima donna to some people, we were in a developing nation, after all, but trust me, I've spent time in various developing countries, and this was really bad. When we got off the train, I could see - from a distance - into the tourist class cars. They looked significantly nicer. I'd be interested to hear about the experiences of those that have paid for the tourist cars. Is it worth the expense?

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    Thanks for your report. How much was the 1 way soft sleeper train? I think the tourist train is $35 to $45 1 way. I will be going there in March, so thanks for your report. And do continue!

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    From Hanoi to Sapa the cost for one way on the soft sleeper was about $20. We took the train from HCMC to Danang on the hard sleeper, which was a bit more. I don't remember exactly how much.

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    DAY 11
    After our less than pleasant train ride, we arrived back in Hanoi at about 4:30am. We took a taxi to the Green Diamond hotel, hoping that we could at least hang out in the lobby for a few hours. When we arrived there was a grate over the door, but after ringing the bell, a guy opened up for us and let us use a small room, where we slept and showered. I can't say enough good things about the Green Diamond; they were so accommodating.

    Our first order of business for the day was to head over to the American Embassy to get the lost passport situation sorted out. The embassy would only let the holder of the lost passport inside, so the rest of us went to the building next door and sat on the steps. After a while our friend came out. It was going to be a while, so she urged us to go ahead and start our site seeing. We agreed to meet back at the hotel in the afternoon.

    We took a taxi to the Temple of Literature, the first university in Vietnam. The university compound isn't laid out like western universities. There are a couple of courtyards with nothing but pools and gardens. They are beautiful, and had it not been so crowded when we were there, there would have been numerous places to sit and relax. There aren't many buildings. One courtyard housed a number of pagoda-like structures with stone slabs listing the names of those who had received doctoral degrees. The names went back to the 1400 or 1500s. Another building contained several colorful alters. The Chinese once ruled Vietnam, and you can definitely see a lot of Chinese influence in the architecture of the buildings.

    As I mentioned, it was quite crowded when we were there. It was graduation day. There were groups of students all around. The girls were wearing fancy ao dais, and it seemed like each student had a professional photographer taking photos. There was also this group of dancers or actors. They seemed to be rehearsing rather than performing, but they were still interesting to watch.

    By this time we were hungry, so we walked to an area that had been marked as a food district on our map. It turned out to be more of a food district for locals than one for tourists. Usually I'm more than happy to eat street food when I travel, but in Vietnam I didn't want to chance it. There really weren't many actual restaurants around, so once we found one, we couldn't be very choosy. We ended up at a French-themed restaurant that was good but not great.

    Next we went to Hoan Kiem lake, a pretty lake in the middle of town. A Vietnamese legend says that one day a king was in his boat on this lake and the turtle god came and snatched his sword and carried it down into the lake. The tower in the middle of the lake, Turtle Tower, was built in honor of the event/legend. There is also a small island, Jade Island, in the middle of the lake. There's a pretty temple on the island and a red bridge that connects it to the shore.

    We walked and then sat, then walked and sat some more. It was a pretty hot, humid day, and I had to remind myself to enjoy it, since I'd be returning to winter weather at home. It was nice to just sit and relax and people watch. On Jade Island I watched this group of men playing some kind of board game, which they were really into.

    We walked a few blocks above the lake to see the opera house, which was modeled after the Paris Opera House. Along the way I bought this coconut popsicle that cost the equivalent of about 10 cents but was so good that it's worth mentioning in this trip report. I tried to find another one the next day but to no avail.

    By this time it was late afternoon and time to meet back at the hotel. We cooled off inside for a bit and then headed out to find a restaurant for dinner. We came across Gecko, a restaurant that some other tourists in Sapa had recommended. Actually they recommended it as a good place to get a drink, but the food menu looked good, so we decided to eat there. By this point I had been eating pretty much the same thing every day, and while I really liked the food at Vietnam, I was starting to tire of it. Gecko serves a lot of western-style food, and I was super tempted to get a hamburger, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it, so I ordered spring rolls. The other girls shared this pizza that had broccoli and banana - among other things - as toppings. It sounded disgusting to me, but I tried a bite and it was actually pretty good.

    DAY 12

    After breakfast at the hotel we took a bit of a walk over to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Walking through different neighborhoods allowed us to experience the different parts of Hanoi. Our hotel, and most of the small independent hotels, are located in the Old Quarter, where the streets are narrow and winding and what few sidewalks exist are filled with vendors, forcing you to walk in the street, which is usually super trafficy. Hanoi is just as busy as Ho Chi Minh City, but there seem to be more cars here (in addition to the many scooters and bikes), so being a pedestrian requires all of your attention.

    The Mausoleum is located in what must have been the French quarter, back when Vietnam was a French colony. There are wide boulevards and pretty parks. Today's embassies are housed in what must have once been French officials' homes, which are incredibly beautiful. I kind of feel bad saying it, but this was my favorite area of Hanoi.

    In Vietnam Ho Chi Minh is remembered as someone with god-like status. The procedure of entering the mausoleum to see his remains is extremely strict. We stood in line to go through security, then we stood in another line to enter the mausoleum. There were lots of school groups there, and the little kids weren't shy about trying out their English and French on us. When we finally reached the front of the line, we entered inside the building and climbed a set of stairs. You have to have your arms down at your sides (I had my arms crossed in front of me and a guard motioned for me to put them at my sides) and be absolutely silent. We filed around a big glass case that houses Uncle Ho's body, then exited the room - there is no stopping - and the mausoleum building. The building is huge, but the tour visit lasts only a couple of minutes.

    Seeing the Hoa Lo Prison, or Hanoi Hilton, was high on the list of things to do, so next we walked back across town to the prison. The exhibits focused mainly on the mistreatment of the Vietnamese under the French, but there were also a few rooms dedicated to the American POWs during the Vietnamese War (they call it the American War). The information in these rooms talked all about how well the POWs were treated. It was, of course, a lot of Vietnamese propaganda, but I guess a country has the right to tell it's history from it's own viewpoint, even if it is totally wrong (in this respect, what the POW's suffered there is well documented).

    We saw what is said to be John McCain's flight suit. I also learned, and found it very interesting, that Pete Peterson, the first US ambassador to Vietnam was held at the Hoa Lo prison as a POW for six years.

    I really wanted to see the Tran Quoc pagoda, the oldest pagoda in Vietnam, so we walked back across town (we did a ton of walking this day). We slowly walked around Truc Bach lake and ended up at the pagoda while it was still closed for the lunch hour. We waited for about half and hour before the pagoda opened up again. It was smaller than I had imagined (the symbol on the map made it look huge) but pretty. I realized that most of the cultural, cool-looking stuff in Hanoi was the stuff with a lot of Chinese influence. Make of that what you will.

    Next we made our way to the Presidential Palace, right next to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The palace itself is gorgeous, but we ere there to see Ho Chi Minh's stilt house. When Ho became the leader of North Vietnam, he refused to live in the French palace. He first lived on the palace grounds in a worker's/servant's house and then in a stilt house built especially for him. I found the palace grounds and buildings beautiful and peaceful. The stilt house reminded me a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright's aesthetic.

    Next up was the One Pillar Pagoda, a pagoda built to resemble the lotus flower. The other girls were kind of disappointed in how small it was, but I thought it was cute. While we were resting and looking at the pagoda (it was hot, we did a lot of resting), this small group of Korean adults came up to us and asked if we would take a picture with them...yes with them, not of them. They were super nice; they bought us watermelon and bananas. Only the woman spoke good enough English to communicate, but the men shook our hands and gave us their business cards. One of the men was apparently a mixed martial arts champion back in the day (according to his business card). For some reason we didn't think to get any of the group shots with our own cameras, which I regret now.

    When we were in Hanoi for one day before heading to Sapa, we met a woman at church named Anita. She invited us to spend Thanksgiving with her when we came back to Hanoi, so that was where we headed next. We walked back past the Tran Quoc pagoda to the area where most of the expatriates live. (We really didn't see much of this area, so I can't comment on how it differs from other parts of Hanoi.) Anita had various people gathered at her house. She had cooked a turkey and made really good mashed potatoes, stuffing, and sweet potatoes. She also found the ingredients to make pumpkin and pecan pies from scratch. It was a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner in Vietnam!

    When we planned to take this trip over Thanksgiving, I was perfectly okay with the fact that we'd be eating spring rolls and noodles instead of a turkey dinner, but having a traditional dinner outside of the country ended up being really fun. I loved listening to the stories of the senior missionary couple. They told us about some of the interesting people they've met and strange experiences they've had. I could have listened to them for hours.

    After dinner Anita suggested that we walk around West Lake, but we were all too full and tired, so we hired and taxi and crashed back at the hotel. It had been a great day, albeit a hot one with tons of walking!

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