Friday, 16 October 2015

Vietnam - South and Cambodia

The day dawned with overcast skies and drizzle and our hopes of seeing much on our way to Hoi An looked dashed. Maybe the train would have been a better option after all. So we are collected from the hotel room and set off southwards in a full mini van. First stop is a small village and local market, though the thought of getting out of the van and trapsing through the rain to see yet another market is not enticing, but we do it. It is only a quick stop as we are all keen to re board the van and head off. Except the van won't start. Trying and trying to turn the motor over to no avail, we are soon asked for volunteers to give a push start - in the rain!! This is not a good sign - maybe we should have taken the train after all !!


                                   Here's how you buy your ducks at market - so cute !!!


                          Having to push start our mini bus after our market stop 😩😩😩 

Our next stop was at a beach, but the view was likened to a cyclone approaching so we didn't linger. Up and over the Hai Van Pass and 20 mins at the top to take in an amazing view looking southwards to DaNang and the coast. Our driver had parked the bus on a downhill slope this time as a precaution and sure enough the van needed a jump start. Down into DaNang and lunch at Marble Mouñtain, one of the five marble and limestone hills in what is other wise flat coastal area. The area is famous for its stone sculpture and the most amazing marble statues I have ever seen. Then a short steep climb to the top of the mountain after lunch for a view across the water.


                                             The view from the top of Marble Mountain 


                            Some great laughing Buda marble statues - too big to bring home.


                                      Pics from our climb to the top of Marble Mountain

From there it was only a short 20 mins south to Hoi An, our coastal stop for a few nights. It has an 'ancient town' that is cut by canals and street upon street of tailor shops as well as the usual array of lacquered artifacts, ceramics, luggage and clothing. The town has quite a sleepy atmosphere by day, but It is at night that it really becomes alive, with coloured lanterns lighting every street running both sides of the canal and the bridges lit like Xmas. Everywhere are small children to old ladies selling candles which you set adrift on the canal and make a wish. The bars and restaurants are wall to wall, all touting for your custom. We found a great one that served fried wantons with a prawn/salsa topping and we made this our 'entree' stop each night, the mains usually being somewhere else. 

Our hotel offered a free shuttle bus daily to the local beach where they had sun lounges reserved for hotel guests, so we took advantage of a lovely sunny day and spent the day swimming and relaxing. Hoi An is a great half way stop when travelling the length of the country and although it was touristy as expected,  we really enjoyed this little coastal place.


                                                  The sleepy town of Hoi An by day


                               Then by night the streets of Hoi An all decorated with lanterns


                     Shops selling lanterns.                                  Canal side decorations by night


                      Elderly Vietnamese woman selling the candles to set afloat on the canal


                      Dinner - The sun setting and the town starting to light up for the evening.

Here's where we detour from Vietnam and fly to Cambodia for a week arriving early evening into Siam Reap. As we descend, we can see that the skies are darkening and we are heading into a massive storm. Oh great! Thankfull to be on the ground as the lightning bolts and thunder start, we are met by a young man who gets us to wait while he brings our transport around. The rain is torrential instantly flooding the streets and the thunder and lightning simultaneous overhead and up comes our little man in a tuk-tuk with plastic roll down sides. Cramming the pair of us and 4 pieces of luggage in, we are off into the storm. It was a slow trip but we eventually got to the hotel - and dry!!


                               Our driver was all smiles as he packed us in to our tuk-tuk

After a shower we take a tuk-tuk to Pub Street, the equivalence to Kao San Road in Bangkok. Many of the restaurants are advertising 'Barbecue' as their speciality where you choose 4 types of meat and they are served with Asian vegetables, all of which you cook yourself similar to a 'Steamboat' Dinner. I baulked at the frog legs, ostrich and kangaroo (just a child of the 'Skippy' age) but did opt to try crocodile. Along with that we played safe and had chicken, prawns and squid. A very tasty meal but not exactly cheap for the amount of meat we ate.

Next day was temple touring and although you could spend days trapsing over the thousands of temples in this area, we opted to hire a tuk-tuk for the day and take in some of the main ones. Starting of course with Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century, it was originally a Hindu temple then later becoming a Buddhist temple. Just to think how old the stones are gives an almost surreal experience as we clambered up, down and over them for hours. Bayon temple was next, followed by Ta Prohn - made famous in the Tomb Raider movie. Massive fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over the stones, walls and terraces - an almost possessive grip on the land.

                                                    Entering the impressive Angkor Watt


                                                      Amazing buildings and tombs 


                          Some of the great old trees from Ta Prohn - 'Tomb Raider Temple'

                                   Root systems that anchor their great heights to the ground

From Siam Reap we flew south to Phonh Penh with Basaka Air (never heard of them!) Not a lover of flying in the first place, it was with trepidation I boarded the flight. I need not have worried. Smooth as silk, 32 mins flying time and a relatively new'ish plane and an English captain! It saved 6 hours by road and was so worth it. In PP, we did a day trip to S21 jail, originally a school that was transformed into a prison where atrocious torture methods were practiced under the Pol Pot regime. Only 7 survivors out of 20,000 prisoners - we have just about had our fill of the depressive history of the Vietnam war. Not a lot to do in Phonh Penh so glad we only had 2 days there.

                                              A poignant reminder of the life of a prisoner

Finishing with Cambodia, with boarded Qatar Air and flew back to Vietnam and out last stop of Ho Chi Minh City, though many still refer to the capital as Saigon. And I thought I had seen streets filled with motorbikes - I was not prepared for the sheer volume of bikes here. With a population of 18 million, there are 6 million motorcycles and they all appeared to be on the streets at the same time. 

Our hotel was a 5 minute walk to the Ben Thanh markets -  a huge undercover area with aisle upon aisle of clothing and shoes, wood carvings, lacquer wear, hardware, auto parts, food stalls and more, and where we did the last of our Xmas shopping. I would like to say that I got some great bargains. The truth is I am hopeless at bartering whereas Pete has it down to a fine art. I end up walking away appearing to loose interest and saying we can always look elsewhere - magic words to ensure Pete gets the bottom price. And we know they are still making a profit, maybe just not as much as with other tourists. 


                                           Imagine trying to find a car part here ...... !!

We spent a day traipsing  through the Reunification Palace and the War Memorial - both excellent attractions and easy walking distance from our hotel. In the evenings we wandered up to Bien Vui, the main area for hostels and backpackers ensuring an abundance of bars and restaurants where food and drink prices were much cheaper than our hotel. Often we would end the evening with a  massage for Pete and a mani or pedicure for me, then wander back to the hotel and a good nights sleep.


                                             In the grounds of the Reunification Palace

We did a day tour to the Cu Chi tunnels where we were amazed by the labyrinths used by the Viet Cong. The size of the small openings that the Vietnamese squeezed through were definitely not designed for the larger European body sizes. There was the opportunity to follow one of the underground tunnels for 100 meters with an exit every 20 meters for those who found the going too tough. Imagining that claustrophobic feeling, I chose to walk the above ground path with the guide waiting for a minute at each exit in case some of our group opted out. One by one they did, Pete making it to the 80 meter mark and only 2 young Asian guys made the full distance liking it to being in a 2' square sauna. Pete also got a chance to fire off some rounds on an AK47.


                                              Cu Chi tunnels -  Oh so squeezy ......... !!

We left the city for a few days to go to Mui Ne, a resort town on the SEcoast 3 hours drive away. We opted to travel down by 'sleeper bus' and it wasn't a bad run at all. Air conditioned buses with 2 levels of almost fully reclining seats with room to stretch out the legs. Our short trip was over in no time, and we were arriving into Mui Ne. A long palm lined beach popular with wind and surf kiters, a huge choice of hotels and restaurants and obviously catering to the Russian tourists with alł signage in their language. It was a lovely few days of long beach walks, hours spent lazying around th pool reading and just chilling out.


                                Gettiing comfortable on our 'sleeper bus' for our trip to Mui Ne


                                                      A roadside stall selling dragon fruit 

                                                  A perfect place to chill for a few days 

One more place to see before we leave the country and that is the Mekong Delta. Our accomodation was a home stay on the river, basic amenities, good local food with a fun night afterwards sitting around the table playing cards with our group. The loser of each hand had to drink a shot glass of home made rice wine ...... ugh!! That was reason enough to try your best.

Our next day was a boat trip down the Mekong and included the floating markets, a bee farm, a rice noodle factory, a coconut candy factory, lunch and a ride in a sampan along the canals under the canopy of water coconut trees. It was a day of experiencing the agricultural heartland of Vietnam and seeing how the locals live.


                      That's one big Budha                                             Pretty coloured Python


                                                   Our Sampan ride in the Mekong Delta 

                                                .......... and our overnight homestay.


                              Drying rice paper in the sun before it is shredded into noodles

Back in Ho Chi Minh and time to sort out our bags for the flight home. It has been a wonderful month crossing from North to South. We have enjoyed the mountains and caves in the middle of the country then the beaches and towns on the coast, the 5 star hotels to the farm and home stays. Vietnam - another country ticked off our bucket list and now it is time to fly home for some much overdue family time.

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