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Trip Report Four Weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam

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Four-Weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam -- December 2009-January 2010
This will be a somewhat abbreviated trip report. Unfortunately I broke my arm during the trip (in HCMC) and though I continued the trip, I had to have surgery once I returned, then a long period in a cast. Long story short: not great at typing yet but time is flying by so I need to do this…

We (three 60ish but active ladies) left the country on Cathay Pacific on January 14th headed by Siem Reap, via HK and BKK. Once in SR, we settled in to a lovely stay at the Raffles where the staff was super attentive and the grounds beautiful. We had a room in the older part of the hotel and loved it! The hotel food, not so much. It was very expensive (our breakfast was included so we only ate there for our first night’s dinner when we were pooped)…a club sandwich and a glass of wine for about $30! Breakfasts (which were included in our room price) were quite good, with omelet bar and a variety of wonderful fresh squeezed juices.

12/16 One of our party had a meeting with local children’s hospital (she was bringing medical supplies) so two of us headed off (despite mild tummy distress) to Angkor Wat. We discovered that the guide we had hired (Kim San) had substituted a friend, despite several email confirmations. (We posted about this earlier.) The guide we did get was hard to understand and never seemed to understand that we did not want a 20-minute spiel on every legend/story. It was hot but not exhaustingly so and not crowded.

After the afternoon at the temple, we went downtown and made the acquaintance of Dr. Fish! I had a blister on my heel or I would have tried it…somehow I couldn’t get over the idea of having a fish nibble on an open sore. Call me squeamish. I did put my hand in the tank and it tickled. A lot of others seemed to be having their feet nibbled – a lot of men actually, which surprised me.

After the heat and walking, we opted for a sorbet treat at Blue Pumpkin—delicious. We ate out a Sugar Palm which had been highly recommended by some docs who live in SR. We had three dishes (prawns, chicken and basil and fish with ginger plus several beers and it ran to about $40 for the three of us. Very nice ambience as we ate outside on the second story deck.

12/17 We got up at 4:30 to “do” sunrise at Angkor Wat. The serenity was marred by the hordes who had the same idea, but it was still quite an experience. We heard a deep croaking noise and our guide told us that it was a very large gecko whose liver was being eaten by a snake…could we have heard that right? The monkeys – including the darling little babies – were up by departure time and they lined the streets as we rode away.

After breakfast back at the hotel we headed out to Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. We loved the Bayon and climbed to the third level and all around. We walked all over (the Baphuon, Royal Palace, terraces of the Leper King and elephants) -- wonderful carving, but terrible heat! This is likely going to be seen as heresy but the three of us actually preferred Angkor Thom to Angkor Wat. We were so tired that we just walked through Ta Prohm, but it too is quite amazing.

In the evening we walked over to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club for a drink and started getting eaten alive until they brought out the burners…$1 beers (Angkor – yummy) for happy hour, nice! Went via tuk tuk to Khmer Kitchen across from the market, turns out it was NOT the one we thought we were going to. It was OK but pretty bland, which is something we found with a lot of Cambodian food and surprised us all. We had chicken amok among other things and we paid $13 for three dishes, large beers and a yogurt drink.

12/18 Spent the AM at Artisans d’Angkor. They assign visitors a guide who takes you around to see the various skills being learned and there is a shop which sells the wares produced, relatively expensive but nice. e enjoyed lunch at Tigre de Papier downtown, Khmer curry of chicken was good and spicier than other dishes I had tried, which I liked. Three entrees and beer came out to about $14.

In the evening we (somewhat grudgingly on my part) attended the Apsara show at the hotel. The food (set up in stations around the patio) was mediocre and the wine “short ours” at $8 each were expensive, but to my surprise the dancing was kind of neat. There were a couple of quite talented older dancers and kids from a local school. A bit rough around the edges but pleasant and special.

12/19 We met the rest of the passengers and the guides for our Pandaw cruise down the Mekong River at the Raffles. A five-hour bus trip was tedious, though we did see a lot of the countryside…and the poverty. Palm frond walls on houses, skinny oxen and children everywhere waving at us. Got to try fried crickets (country not city species we were told) at a rest stop in Kampong Cham, not bad but clearly an acquired taste. Cambodian Peoples’ Party banners all over, usually next to some rural development project to remind folks where the money came from. Huge rubber tree farms owned by the rich. Welcome lemonade by smiling crew who toted all the heavy bags down dirt hills on their shoulders to be boat. The boat is not full but there is a good mix of nationalities: lots of Aussies, a group of French, several Brits and four Americans (us and a man from TX).

12/20 – 12/26 Will compress the trip on the river and give highlights and lowlights:
Very friendly and customer-oriented crew (even dressed like Santa on Christmas!)
Comfortable cabins, nice showers
Guides were knowledgeable and English serviceable if not fluent
Friendly guests from many countries
Food was mediocre
Shore Excursions: We did at least one every day and in general they were very interesting and varied. I think they padded a couple on the last few days but not total wastes of time. Things we did included:
Wat Hanchey, 300 steps us to see 7th century pre-Angkorian wat and new compound with lovely river views…and the most darling gibbon who took bananas from us.
Trip to two holy mountains of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srey to see new temple complex with Hung Sen’s name all over.
Ecotourisn village of Choeungkok supported by French NGO Amica. Saw rice harvesting with oxen and walked all over the village of 160 families in the company of a small girl who adopted me.
Orphanage supported by Pandaw where we donated shoes, pencils, etc we had bought earlier at the local market.
Kampong Chhnang, a floating village at the edge of Tonle Sap, where the mostly Vietnamese families have lived for decades. Loos hanging off the sides of the houses, dumping raw sewage into the river.
A fish village to see the fish paste making process
In Phnom Penh cyclo drivers took us to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. We couldn’t enter the Palace because of a visiting Chinese dignitary but marveled at the looonnng red carpet and the white uniformed royal guards rehearsing the upcoming event.
After a visit to the National Museum we ate lunch at Friends, a local NGO for street kids. Very good food but not cheap -- $20 for two entrees and beer. But a good cause…
Undoubtedly the most disturbing day was the visit to S21 and the “genocide museum” and Choeumg Ek, the “killing fields.” A former school turned into a detention and torture center, S21 was eerie, affecting and haunting with “VIP” rooms that still sport iron beds, manacles, excrement boxes and, worst of all perhaps, large sepia photos the room’s prisoner during detention. Several rooms of new arrival photos showed faces of terror and tears, knowing the next steps. The “killing fields” are about 10 miles outside of PP and there a tall stupa is made of 17 levels of skulls. There are several plots of sunken land, surrounded by wooden fences and identified with signs listing the numbers and sorts of remains filling each mass grave. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. How odd…
Trip to Khmer Kor Dea Chor village famous for its produced of rice noodles which we saw being made from A to Z, including cooling in the brown Mekong river at the end.
At the riverside village of Chau Doc we took a rickshaw trip around then to Cho for usual market scenes, then a small boat to a floating catfish farm (wow they can jump!) followed by a visit to a Muslim Cham village and mosque. The Cham dress is very different and the women do wear head coverings, but they are very visible and seem to be running all the markets and businesses.
A Christmas day excursion via sampan to Sa Dec town for a fascinating market walk where we saw skinned rats, lots of snakes and long strings of live frogs for sale. In the town we also visited the Marguerite Duras (The Lover) house, which was very ornate.
A rice husking factory and brick making factories with huge kilns making an economic circle: farmer grows the rice which goes to the rice factory, where the husks are sent to the brick factory which sends burned husks back to the farmer for fertilizer and the farmer sends clay to make bricks.
Sampan trip to a factory where they make puffed rice and coconut candy (yum) and to Cai Be floating market where they hang whatever they are selling on a pole out front, melons, etc.

12/26: We arrived in HCMC after a two-hour bus trip from the Mekong Delta and spent the afternoon at the Cu Chi tunnels, which was worth the 1 ¾ hour trip each way. The propaganda film at the tunnels featured American “crazy devils” and our official guide seemed none too thrilled to be working with yanks…the only such reaction we experienced in VN. You have to admire what was done here, it is truly amazing! Our car guide from the former So VN army was very pro-US, however, and told us stories from the war. We ate dinner at the lovely Temple Club (curry, Peking duck, spring rolls and French wine) and spent $64 for three people.

12/27: Our guide took us to the Reunification Palace which was a “moment in time” experience since everything is pretty much the way it was when the north VN army broke down the gates in April ’75. It was almost eerie to see the president’s office with its rotary phones and all the very “ancient” communications equipment, not to mention the very 70s avocado rugs, etc. Our guide for that day was a young man who, when looking at a large bust of Uncle Ho said “I hate him, he is the enemy.” He also castigated Ho and the VC for breaking the truce with the Tet Offensive. We said nothing but were somewhat surprised by his honesty. Our visit to the War Remnants Museum was a gut wrenching affair – more tanks, copters and hard-to-see photos of the war, the effects of agent orange. There was also a very interesting collection of images and bios of the various foreign correspondents killed in the conflict. Not an easy place to visit, but instructive for Americans who lived through (and protested) the VN war, as we had. After a stop at the Emperor Jade Pagoda – we especially loved the hundreds of turtles in the pool outside – we went to Quan An Ngon for a lunch of banh xeo (stuffed rice pancakes) nem nuong cuon banh trang (pork balls with greens in rice paper) and beer – all for 156k dong or less than $9. Yummy! The day ended badly, unfortunately – I broke my arm in the Majestic Hotel! OSHA-hell bathroom had a 6-inch platform around the huge bathtub and I backed off it without looking…bam, snap! Hotel was kind enough to send one of their young front desk women with me to the international emergency where they x-rayed and casted the arm (my right of course…) and gave me meds. Really, really not what I needed…but the trip went on!

12/28: Put my broken arm in a sling and went for some retail therapy. Loved one store especially: Saigon Crafts (74 Dong Khoi Street). They have lovely and unusual lacquerware that we didn’t see elsewhere. Treated ourselves at the Opera Café at the Park Hyatt that night where we ate lobster ravioli and carbonara with a luscious, and expensive, ripasso wine.

12/29: More shopping and dinner at Lemongrass which was really wonderful. For 410K dong (about $22) we had coconut batter prawns (delicious!), grilled pork and sesame with vermicelli, beer, etc. Really lovely food!

12/30: Flew VN Airlines to DaNang and checked in (after a very long wait) at the Victoria Resort Hoi An. Dinner at Brother’s restaurant was very lovely – sat by the river. We had clay pot pork (just OK), “white rose” ravioli (VG), wonderful wonton and giant tiger prawns, + beer and wine but paid $74!

12/31: Went in to Hoi An for a tour around and had a wonderful pastry at the Cargo Club. After reading so much about Hoi An, we were definitely underwhelmed. It is so touristy, and the scooters barreling down every street are dangerous and noisy. Yes some of the buildings are lovely and historic but this was our least favorite place in VN. That night – New Year’s Eve – there was a banquet at the hotel, which was very expensive and so-so…had to pay extra for wine, after paying well over $80 each for dinner! But it was a beautiful and warm night, so that was a consolation.

Jan 1: Stayed at the hotel and read on the beach, then went into town for dinner at Morning Glory which we loved! We sat on the upstairs balcony and had delicious wonton with crab, braised beef, grilled prawns with garlic and a bottle of American wine (for $52!) but we loved it…and loved the geckos that kept us company all night. The food was only $12…

Jan 2: Had a guide and driver take us over the pass from Hoi An to Hue, a drive of about 4 hours. We stopped at the Cham Museum in Danang – very interesting relics but not a lot of explanation or context IMO. Also stopped at Marble Mountain which was a waste of time. I couldn’t walk up the mountain because of my arm, my meds, and my general unsteadiness on my feet…and I did not need a marble elephant, turtle or Buddha so didn’t see much point. We arrived in late afternoon at La Residence in Hue, which is a lovely refurbished French art deco hotel, which we loved. We ate dinner at Y Thao Garden, in an old villa. The setting was quite tranquil and beautiful, the fixed menu food less than wonderful though the presentation of the spring rolls in the peacock was photo-worthy.

Jan 3: We spent four hours at Thien Mu Pagoda and three of the emperor tombs, those of Minh Mang, Khai and Tu Duc. At Thien Mu we observed monks in training at a school and working in the kitchen. I adored the Khai Dinh tomb – fantastically over the top adornment of mosaics of ceramic and glass, life-sized seated statue of the king embellished with gems, etc. The Minh Mang tomb was quiet and quite austere in comparison. That of Tu Duc was surrounded by forest and had a wonderful, working theater. It was a wonderful morning and we would recommend all those sights! We ate lunch at the much ballyhooed Lac Thien where we spent about $2.50 per person, with wonderful Huda beer, one of our favorites on the trip. We ate banh khoai (very greasy), bun bo Hue (good and spicier than so VN version), nem lui with meat and one with chicken. Dinner was at La Carambole, about a C in terms of food but quite a lively atmosphere and friendly staff.

Jan. 4: Flew from Hue to Hanoi and checked in to our club level room at the Metropole. We loved this hotel, as does everyone apparently. We had a wonderful dinner at the Spice Garden restaurant where the solicitous hostess took pity on me and literally cut my food for me! Very good bun cha, scallops, wine, water = $98!

Jan. 5: In the morning we took a car to the HCM Mausoleum and his residence, the stilt house. We loved that as it was quite evocative, with bedroom and study left pretty much as it had been when he was alive. Later we visited Hoa Lo prison (the “Hanoi Hilton”) where the brutal French treatment of VN prisoners was starkly contrasted with the fun/genial atmosphere among US prisoners seen at play, decorating Christmas trees, opening gifts from home, etc. It was all more than a bit incredible but an interesting visit nevertheless. In the afternoon we did a walk through the lovely Temple of Literature, a monument top Confucian studies and learning for the mandarins. Lunch was at the popular KOTO (Know One, Teach One) an Aussie effort to teach street kids the hospitality trade. We had really nice food, including bun cha, an appetizer tasting plate and Tiger draft beers for about $12 – again relatively expensive for VN but for a good cause. We had a bad experience on the way back – one that I should never have let happen…a revved up meter on the cab (and I wasn’t looking at the meter…wrong!) that charged 10X for the trip to the hotel. The driver was very nasty and yelled at us…I yelled back and told my traveling companion to get out. Instead she pealed off 500K dong -- I could have killed her! Lesson learned: check the meter constantly to see that it isn’t jacked up to high speed. We finished the day with an elegant dinner at the Opera Club across from the hotel. With a decent bottle of AUS wine and three entrees (chicken on lemongrass skewers, stir fried beef with peppers, large shrimp, we paid $120 – Metropole neighborhood prices.

Jan. 6: In the AM we took a tour with two darling HanoiKids university students, Trang and Thin, to the Museum of Ethnography which we found fascinating. We took the two girls to lunch back at the Metropole and they were awestruck – both deciding that their hospital majors would help them get jobs there. In the evening we ate at the Press Club which was just OK.

Jan 7: Our walk through the Old Quarter was quite an experience. We got our very first bit of rain that morning but it had stopped by about 10AM and the weather was just chilly – and the ground muddy. We found Bun Cha Dac Kim which I had read so much about on this forum. I know this is also probably heresy but it wasn’t what I expected – I felt we had better bun cha elsewhere. We paid 110K dong for two without any beer. That night we went to the lovely water puppet show which we really enjoyed, except for the large rat that ran over our shoes before the show started. .

Jan 8-9: We had a driver take us to Halong Bay for our overnight cruise on the Ginger junk. The boat is quite nice4 and was only about half full. We did the usual cave and floating village stuff and were blessed with darn nice weather which was surprising since it had been foggy and rainy all the way there. The food on the boat was pretty awful, though the crew and guides were very nice. Back to the Metropole (we had left our big bags there) for our last night…ate at the Italian restaurant at the hotel which was so-so…and left early the next morning for BKK. We stayed at the airport Novotel which was quite nice, because we had an early flight home the morning of the 11th. We did manage to race into town to see a few sights because my companion had never been there. But it was way over 90 degrees and shops were closed because it was a Sunday.

All in all a wonderful trip, despite broken arm! Wonderful memories that will indeed last a lifetime!

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