March 16 – 23, 2017
So much has happened since we returned to the U.S. in April. Catching up on doctor and dentist appointments, reconnecting with family and a month long road trip to Michigan to spend time with Bill’s brothers and his 94 year young Mother in Michigan.
Of course, on our way there we made stops to tour the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky,
revisit the Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Indiana (Priscilla’s favorite!)
And enjoy (for the second time) seeing 10,000+ street rods drive into the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville!
We did sneak in a tour of the Barton Bourbon Distillery in Bardstown. The sample tasted so good Bill decided he might switch from Scotch so we left with a bottle! We plan to return to explore this charming town in the not too distant future!
Maybe there was a reason for the delay in finishing our Vietnam story. The Public Broadcasting Service recently launched The Vietnam War”, a 10-part 18-hour documentary film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. We watched every episode, saw some of the places we’d visited – like the city of Hue – the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war. We learned a lot from the series, were horrified once again by the violence on both sides and wonder if the human race will ever learn the lessons of history. We hope so.
And now … back to our visit to the Hue Citadel in March.
Our visit to Hue would not have been complete without spending time at the Citadel. Standing guard over the city of Hue, the Citadel is a rather grim fort-like structure topped with a massive flag pole displaying the huge red and gold flag of Vietnam. It was from here that the last of the Nguyen Emperors “ruled” during the 19th and 20th Centuries (under the very watchful eye of their French colonizers who conquered Vietnam in the late 19th Century).
We decided to take a cyclo on the short ride from our guest house to the Citadel. On arrival we showed our entrance tickets and asked for a brochure but the ticket-taker merely shrugged and shook his head. Turns out there are none!
March 16 – 23, 2017
So much History … so little time to take it all in! Fortunately, we had Phan Thanh Vinh, the owner and founder of VM Travel, to make sure we saw the highlights of the city without missing out on the vibrant social scene.
The day after we arrived, we met Vinh at a coffee shop (one of literally hundreds in Hue!) about a block from our hotel. He briefed us on VM Travel and the impressive range of services the company offers. He also recommended an itinerary for us which included the Imperial City and two of the Nguyen Dynasty Tombs. We were ready to start exploring but first, a little information on Hue and the Nguyen Dynasty.
Located in Central Vietnam along the banks of the Perfume River, Hue was the capital of Vietnam between 1802 and 1945 under the rule of the Nguyen Dynasty (to pronounce Nguyen just change the Ngu to a W. That’s close enough!) The walled Citadel and Tombs are testament to the glory and opulence of this period. The last of the 10 Emperors “abdicated” in favor of Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary government.
Unfortunately, the people and buildings of Hue suffered tremendously during wars with the French and, most recently, during the Battle of Hue,one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. Located just south of the DMZ, Hue was overrun for a short time by the Viet Cong who proceeded to slaughter close to 3,000 people suspected of being sympathizers of the South. In retaking the city, the American forces had to use heavy artillery and air support, resulting in extensive damage to the ancient buildings.
Despite this tragic past, we found the resilient people of Hue to be extremely friendly and welcoming.
Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh
And so our first morning tour began when we met our English speaking driver, Son (pronounced Shoon), from VM Travel and were driven six miles (10Km) into the Chau Chu mountain area where the tomb is located. We think this mausoleum is a “Must See” because its architecture and location (on a hillside) is completely different from other tombs.
Khai Dinh was the second to last Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, ruling from 1916 to 1925. A very unpopular Emperor, he was considered a puppet of the French and, more importantly, the construction of his grandiose tomb took eleven years to build, cost a fortune and resulted in a 30% tax increase for his people. This was not well received, as you can imagine!
Son warned us that in order to appreciate the Tomb – and the view – we would have to walk up 127 steep steps to the 4th level but it would be worth it! Built in a combination of Vietnamese and French architectural styles, the black concrete outer walls are somewhat grim and uninviting.
However, as we climbed, the view from each level became more spectacular and once we entered the main building on the fourth level we were mesmerized! The walls and ceiling are completely covered with intricate inlaid porcelain murals (all done by hand, of course), and in the rear of the room, a gilt bronze statue of Khai Dinh sits on top of his grave. Wow! Such extravagance!
March 16 – 23, 2017
So far, so good! Up to this point in our six month journey through Southeast Asia we had been our own travel agents and, frankly, had done pretty well!
No missed flights or trains, no arriving in the wrong city at the wrong time and, in most cases, being able to book accommodation that was well located, comfortable and priced right.
However, when planning our trip from Hoi An to Hue, we decided to use a travel agency that offered a private car and driver service. It had been a long trip and we didn’t relish dragging our bags on and off buses one more time!
Checking online, we found a company called VM Travel and started a Chat conversation with one of the agents. Little did we know that this would develop into a personal as well as business relationship and greatly enhance our enjoyment of the ancient city of Hue (pronounced ‘hway’)
Cham Kingdom Ruins, My Son, South Vietnam
Instead of taking a half day to visit the nearby Cham ruins at My Son while in Hoi An, we decided to incorporate it into our drive north to Hue where we planned to spend a week. It was a bit of a detour but worked out perfectly. At 7:30am we left the Sun Boat Hotel in a very comfortable vehicle with our English speaking driver, Henry, from VM Travel.
The 25 mile (40Km) drive took us over an hour through small towns, farmland and through mountain ranges that surround the ruins. We bought our tickets – 150,000 VND each ($6.50), walked across a bridge to the shuttle boarding area where we were driven to the site. Fortunately, due to our early arrival, there were very few other visitors and we were able to slowly walk among the ruins and get some excellent photographs.
Having visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia, we were aware of the history between the Khmer and the Cham peoples. In fact, we had seen the destruction and defacing of several Angkor temples that occurred during battles between the two powerful Kingdoms.
My Son, the site of Vietnam’s most significant ancient ruins, was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. According to UNESCO.org “During the 4th to 13th centuries there was a unique culture on the coast of contemporary Vietnam, owing its spiritual origins to the Hinduism of India. This is graphically illustrated by the remains of a series of impressive tower temples in a dramatic site that was the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom for most of its existence.”
The site is divided into sections and we decided to spend time in three temple areas only, due to our long drive to Hue. We knew in advance that these Hindu temple ruins were no match for the grandeur of Angkor, nonetheless, we found them historically and visually intriguing.
Unfortunately, the site has suffered damage from several wars, and the bombing during the Vietnamese War is evident in craters on the site including a huge B52 bomb crater close to the cluster of temples we visited. The surrounding forest area is still not clear of unexploded ordinance so signs are posted to remain on the paths.
As we left around 10:00am, the parking lot was completely full of large motor coaches and literally hundreds of tourists were streaming towards the temple ruins! Tour leaders from every country you could think of were holding up flags, herding their group in the right direction. We looked at each other, rolled our eyes and were thankful for our early start!
We continued our journey north on National Highway 1A to the city of Da Nang, Vietnam’s fourth largest city. It is situated close to a stretch of pristine beach known during the Vietnam War as China Beach, where American soldiers went for R&R. This area is rapidly being developed by international resort hotels and Casinos.
We declined Henry’s suggestion to stop at Marble Mountain, a series of five marble and limestone mountains considered sacred by the Vietnamese. Marble was previously extracted from the area and visitors now tour caves, some with Buddhist Pagodas, as well as climbing up numerous steps to enjoy a view of the surrounding area. Sounded like too much work for us! Instead we stopped briefly at “Marble Village” which is nothing more than a large shop selling stunning marble sculptures of every size and color. Of course, they are happy to ship your purchases home for you!
Side note: the Marble Mountain caves were a base for the Viet Cong fighters during the Vietnam war, a large one supposedly being used as a hospital.
By now it was time for lunch and Henry recommended a seafood restaurant in Da Nang. Vietnam is known for its fresh seafood and we immediately agreed. It turned out to be a restaurant where tanks of different kinds of live fish, eels and shellfish are displayed for your selection. With help from Henry and the restaurant staff, Bill made a selection for our Hot Pot while Priscilla enjoyed a beer at the table, waiting to be served! Bill then went into the kitchen to “supervise” the preparation!
The meal was delicious! There is a special way to eat and enjoy a Hot Pot and Henry and the restaurant staff helped us make a dipping sauce, also cook the various vegetables, noodles and seafood in the right order at our table. It was the most expensive meal we had in Vietnam but worth every dong!
Hai Van (Sea Clouds) Pass
We still had a 63 mile (102Km) drive to reach the city of Hue and although it would have been faster to drive through the Hai Van Tunnel – the longest in Southeast Asia – we decided to drive over the mountains on the Hai Van Pass to take in the scenic views along the way. At this time of year the weather can be cold and wet and unfortunately our panoramic views were somewhat obscured in misty rain. Nevertheless, we could understand why this road is known as one of the most scenic coastal roads in the world.
After winding up and around hairpin bends we reached the summit where we climbed up to the bunkers and a French fort, both of which were used during the Vietnam War. Due to the spectacular view from this point, it’s a popular location for couples to take Wedding photos – even on a cold, windy day!
It was an exhilarating day for us, the only disappointment being that when we checked into our Airbnb property in Hue we found it was, in fact, a hotel! We had been hoping for a great experience like we had in Ho Chi Minh City but there was not much we could do about it as we had paid in advance for a week. We alerted Airbnb about the false advertising, hoping to prevent others from being disappointed.
The hotel was well located and, after settling into our room (75 stairs and no elevator!) we headed for the DMZ, a nearby bar to relax and watch the world go by. We were excited about exploring this ancient city with the help of VM Travel.
Photo Album: https://goo.gl/photos/LuV1hDqhQ1Qxtu2i8
March 1 – 15, 2017
The Reunification Express
The Reunification Express was not exactly the “Orient Express”!
Despite mixed reviews from our online research and a Vietnamese travel agency’s strong advice to “fly instead”, we were not deterred from experiencing the 17 hour train ride from Ho Chi Minh City north to Da Nang, the nearest stop to the ancient city of Hoi An where we planned to spend two weeks.
Here are the Highlights (and lows!) of our Journey. Green on Map.
Boarding the train went smoothly and we found our cabin without any trouble. We had booked lower bunks in a Soft Sleeper cabin which accommodates four people. The top bunks were occupied by a young Vietnamese man and a Vietnamese woman. Unfortunately, neither one was particularly interested in communicating with us although we spoke briefly the next morning with the woman who understood a little English.
Our “soft sleeper” bed was covered with a very thin mattress and a sheet, a pillow and a blanket. After five months in Southeast Asia we were used to a “firm” mattress so we expected it to be hard — and it was! However, it was definitely a step above the “hard sleeper” accommodation which consisted of six bunks per cabin with wooden planks and no mattress! We were thankful.
The train left Ho Chi Minh station exactly on time at 7:30pm and we wound slowly through the city, watching people cooking and eating dinner in front of their homes and stores along the track. Once out in the countryside we settled down for the night.
The train tracks are narrow gauge so the train rocks and rolls quite a bit! Bill didn’t have a problem sleeping but Priscilla spent the night alternately reading from the iPad and falling into a fitful sleep.
Sometime during the night Priscilla became aware of some movement on our backpack on the floor between our bunks and she was sure it was a little mouse looking to share the snacks we had packed for the journey! She zipped the backpack and, keeping one eye open for a while, saw movement again, then nothing. Guess he went away to find food somewhere else!
Watching the sun rise over the rice fields was worth any discomfort and by 6:30am Bill was back in the land of the living and joined Priscilla in marveling at the scenery passing by.
Train staff came by with strong Vietnamese coffee (delicious!) and we munched on our snacks. Vietnamese breakfast (noodle soup – probably lukewarm!) was also offered but we declined. After a few hours, at 12:30pm, we arrived at Da Nang station and were met by our private car and driver, arranged by the hotel, for the 40 minute trip to the Sun Boat Hotel in Hoi An.
Would we recommend this rail journey to others? Yes … but with the understanding that there are a few caveats.
The toilets, although Western type, were not particularly clean to begin with and became more odorous as the journey progressed. Priscilla made sure she used them as little as possible!
Even the “soft sleeper” isn’t soft and although our sheet, blanket and pillowcase looked clean when we boarded, the staff did not change the bed linen when one of our cabin mates disembarked. Anyone joining the train on its journey north will probably have bed linen already used by other passengers!
We’re glad we added this train journey to our exploration of Vietnam but would not recommend traveling all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. 17 hours is quite enough of an experience!
We chose to spend two weeks in the charming historic town of Hoi An because we knew we needed some time to relax and regroup before heading north to Hue and Hanoi. By now we’d been traveling for five months and our stamina was beginning to fade a little! Our hotel was located on the river within walking distance of town but out of the hustle and bustle which suited us just fine.
Situated on the banks of the Thu Bon River, the ancient town of Hoi An was an important international trading center in southern Vietnam from the 16th to the 19th centuries, attracting foreign merchant ships and traders to annual commercial fairs. As a result, Dutch, Indian, Chinese and Japanese traders built shops and established their own permanent quarters in the town.
By the end of the 18th Century Hoi An had lost its importance as a trading port due to the silting up of the mouth of the river as well as the fact that the French had developed nearby Da Nang as the new trading port. Fortunately, many of the beautiful old shophouses, pagodas and assembly halls in Hoi An were preserved intact and in December 1999 the town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Hoi An has rapidly become a Tourist town and is known as the place to have clothes made. We did! It seems every second shop is either a tailor or a massage spa and everywhere vendors are attracting your attention to buy! buy! buy! Street vendors even come into restaurants when you’re eating, trying to sell you pop-up cards, paintings, silk scarves, pastries, nuts – you name it! It’s a little aggravating but you learn to ignore it.
We toured the town! We walked the streets, admiring the numerous beautiful old buildings, many with colorful plants cascading from above. We purchased a ticket for 120,000 VND each ($5) that allowed us to enter five designated homes, museums, temples and the famous Japanese Covered Bridge.
We visited the House of Duc An and the old man living there who stamped our tickets told us he was a 6th generation family member. We learned that the floor plan is typical of an original Hoian style shophouse. It had a shop in the front, then a large courtyard in the center and a work space in the back. The pillars in the courtyard were beautifully inlaid with mother of pearl. The living quarters were upstairs.
According to Asian Historical Architecture “The house may have been built as early as the 17th century, but what we see today was constructed from about 1850 onward. In 1908, the house was converted into a shop selling Chinese medicine. It also served as a gathering place for early 20th century intellectuals, particularly from 1925 onward, when luminaries such as Phan Chu Trinh (an independence advocate) frequented here.”
We also visited two Chinese Assembly Halls, the Fujian (with the temple dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea) and the Cantonese, which features amazing dragon statues, among others. These halls are used today for special events and meetings. With each visit we better understood life as it had been in Hoi An’s heyday.
And we ate! Hoi An boasts a wide range of restaurants offering every imaginable type of food! Interspersed with Vietnamese meals, we enjoyed an excellent curry at Baba’s Kitchen, a tasty Italian lunch at Good Morning Vietnam and authentic Thai Food at Thai Kitchen. Also, great burgers, banger and mash, Hoi An’s signature dish – Cao Lau – which we ate at Café des Amis, and much, much more! Eating at restaurants in the old town is pricey but we felt it was worth it for a change. To learn about the legend behind Cao Lau CLICK HERE.
Want some action? Rent a bicycle – most hotels and guest houses provide bicycles either free or for a small daily rental fee. Pack a picnic lunch and cycle through the stunning rice fields or along rivers and beaches that surround the town. Rent a scooter if you can handle the traffic, which can be quite chaotic. Take a day tour to Cham Ruins at My Son or Marble Mountain or the DMZ.
We relaxed! Two weeks flew by and we were soon saying goodbye to our Sun Boat hotel’s staff who had looked after us so well during our stay. We had enjoyed amazing breakfasts, relaxed at the pool, worked at our computers under the umbrellas on the patio and sipped a cocktail while watching the boats on the river as the sun set.
It was perfect! We added Hoi An to our list of places to revisit and headed north.
Photo Link: https://goo.gl/photos/SYDbLxZFdHX6gq878
Feb 11 – March 1, 2017
Neighbors and Friends
We hit the jackpot! Our time in Ho Chi Minh City turned out to be even more than what we were hoping for when we booked an Airbnb property. To be honest, it doesn’t always work out that way, as we were to find out later on.
We did, up to a point, do some of the sightseeing that ‘normal’ tourists do but much of our time was spent becoming part of a close knit community, getting to know our neighbors and learning about life off the main streets of the city. And what fun we had!
At first, as we walked through the alleys to and from our new home, we were met with curious glances. But after a few days, as we greeted everyone we saw, we started getting smiles and even a few “Hello’s”! Soon some people wanted to speak English and started conversations by asking us where we were from. Slowly the bonds were formed.
In the photo above you’ll notice a metal hook inserted into a section of the alley. These are common throughout the alleys and, we assume provide a way to access the drainage system below. The reason Priscilla is wearing dark glasses in some of the photos is because she tripped over one of these hooks resulting in a black eye and facial bruising. Nothing too serious but not very attractive to look at!
Our hostess had planned a trip to Macau for a week and asked if we would like to stay and take care of her house during that time. Well – it didn’t take us a blink of an eye to say “Yes”! And so we became neighbors and friends with people most tourists never meet.
A Very Local Market
Our neighbor directly across from us has a catering business and every now and then we’d see lots of activity there – people helping to prepare and cook large pots of soup and other dishes. She didn’t speak any English although her daughter spoke a little so we were able to connect.
We were keen to visit the market where she bought her food and she agreed to take us there one morning at 8:00am. We followed her down our alley for a short distance and then we were lost! Turning this way and that we came across a very small, local market where everyone greeted our neighbor like an old friend!
She obviously had her favorite vendors because when we pointed at something we wanted to buy she would shake her head and move on to another stall and get it there. She negotiated the price, took the money out of our hands to pay, and carried the bags home for us, all while Bill was busy taking photos! We didn’t keep track of how much we spent but it was way less than $10 for lots of food! It was an experience we’ll never forget!
Before we left, our neighbor brought us a large bowl of delicious crab soup that she was making for an event. We returned the favor just before we left by giving her a plate of devilled eggs – something we felt she would enjoy but not be familiar with.
Almost every day we would hear the voice of the “Bread Lady” who wheeled her bicycle down the alley. The basket was filled with freshly baked baguettes, still warm to the touch. We looked forward to the sound of her voice!
Phuongdong Garment Factory
Vietnam is known for manufacturing many different items for export around the world and Bill happened to mention to our Hostess’ friend that we would like to visit a Factory. No problem … he had a friend who knew someone who … well you know about the Six Degrees of Separation!
So within a couple of days we set off to the Phuongdong Garment Factory where we were met by the Merchandising Manager. She escorted us first to the Show Room where shirts, blazers, men’s suits and sports wear were displayed. These items are exported primarily to the U.S. and the European Union and their customers include Ralph Lauren, Kenneth Cole, TJ Max, JC Penny, Marshalls, Sam’s and Kirkland.
Next we toured two production lines, one where items were stitched and another where the fabric was cut. Both production areas were well lit and at a comfortable temperature. The employees were focused on their work and barely noticed we were there! We learned that the employees work from 7am – 5pm with an hour for lunch. A six-day work week is standard throughout Southeast Asia.
The company operates six factories, five of them in the Ho Chi Minh area and continues to seek new markets. We enjoyed our visit and were impressed with what we saw. So grateful for the opportunity to experience another aspect of this city.
A Note About the Money
Currently there are 22,753 Vietnamese Dong (VND) to a Dollar which means that a 1,000 VND note is worth 4 cents US! All purchases are made in cash, particularly for local Vietnamese. So people walk around with millions of Dong in huge wads of notes! The newer notes are made of a polymer rather than paper so they are more difficult to counterfeit and last much longer than paper notes. There are no coins. Supermarkets and some Restaurants accept credit/debit cards although some also charge a fee so cash is the main form of payment.
Next Stop Hoi An
The week flew by and our Hostess returned which meant, sadly, that it was time for us to move north to the ancient town of Hoi An. For this trip we chose to go by train – a 17 hour journey leaving Ho Chi Minh City at 7:30pm and arriving at 12:30pm the next day in Danang where we are to be met and driven the short distance to Hoi An. We could easily have traveled by air – at around the same cost – but decided to experience a train journey instead.
In preparation for our trip, our Hostess cooked a Farewell Meal consisting of all our favorite dishes – spring rolls, chicken soup with noodles, chicken and sweet potato curry with rice, and – for dessert – mango and sticky rice. Delicious! We packed some fruit and snacks for the next day and we were all set.
Farewells are never easy and we were truly sorry to leave Ho Chi Minh City and, in particular, our Hostess and the lovely friends we had made in her neighborhood. But for now, it was a “Grab Car” to the Railway Station on our way to explore the ancient historic city of Hoi An, a major trading port in the 16th and 17th Centuries and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Feb 11 – March 1, 2017 – Ho Chi Minh City
Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Suddenly it struck us! One more country to explore – Vietnam – and then our six-month journey would be over! We had one Big Question … Where had the time gone?
We traveled from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City by bus, a journey that takes about seven hours. Two different bus companies drive this route and the one we chose was OK but Bill found it very cramped. One reason for our decision was that there was an English-speaking Tour Guide on board who would give commentary along the way. It was helpful that he spoke English at the border crossing but we only had two brief announcements enroute! The journey was uneventful and the border crossing, which took about an hour, went smoothly.
The first thing we noticed was the Hammer and Sickle flag flying next to the Vietnamese flag. The brilliant color is quite eye-catching and reminded us that – Yes – we were in a Communist country!
Ho Chi Minh City
By now our arrival time was delayed an hour and our Airbnb Hostess was meeting us at the bus station so the guide kindly phoned her with the new arrival time. Expecting a regular bus station, we were taken by surprise when the bus drew alongside a Park and bags were unloaded (actually more like ‘dumped’) on the sidewalk! With the help of our hostess and a friend of hers, we retrieved our bags and walked across the park where she called for a “Grab Car” (more on this later) to take us to her home.
We were in store for a very special welcome to Vietnam!
We had booked the Airbnb for three nights, with plans to move on to a guest house or hotel after that. Our hostess decided to meet us at the bus station because her house is located in an alley away from the center of the city and, knowing that we were ‘older’ she felt that we would have a difficult time finding it. She was right!
The car left us at a point where the road narrowed so only scooters and pedestrians could navigate! We continued on foot for some four minutes turning right and left several times down the alleys until we came to her lovely, new (3 months old) house. She served us tea and cake then told us to go upstairs and rest until dinner was ready. This is not part of the service of a B&B and we felt very spoiled! That evening we enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal and slept soundly in a very comfortable bed. We immediately felt at home here in Ho Chi Minh City.
Not surprisingly, we bonded quickly. Our hostess spoke perfect English and has worked at upscale hotels in Macau. She is married to an American who is currently in the U.S. She and her friend helped us get a Sim card for the cell phone and explained how the Grab Car system worked.
Grab Car is similar to Uber and a little cheaper than a taxi. When you order it you receive the plate number of the car on your phone and also have to confirm with the driver. This proved a little difficult for us since most of the drivers speak no English. We did use Grab Car on a couple of occasions but had to get help from other people due to the language barrier. The cars looked brand new and were spotlessly clean! Using their GPS they can get you wherever you want to go. You can also use Grab Bikes (scooters) to get to your destination but we decided not to try this!
We were pleased to learn that our room was available for additional nights so set about exploring and doing some sightseeing. We quickly became familiar with the neighborhood and spent time in different coffee shops – just like the locals! There was so much to see on the streets and sidewalks of this hectic, noisy city!
War Remnants Museum
When in Ho Chi Minh City we think it’s important to visit to the War Remnants Museum https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Remnants_Museum (originally named The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes). Be prepared for a one-sided view of the war, known here as “The American War”.
The horrors of the war are shown in displays of weapons and vehicles used, as well as photos – some of them from Life Magazine – and with which you are probably familiar. Many of the photos are graphic and moving, in particular photos of the results from the use of Agent Orange and cluster bombs. Obviously both sides of the conflict were guilty of terrible acts, however, the actions of the Viet Cong are not covered at this Museum.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Taking package tours is not our favorite way to travel, however, it is the best way to get to the Cu Chi Tunnels, some 29 miles (46.2km) from the city. We decided on VietFun Travel for the tour and were at their offices across town bright and early for an 8am departure. After stopping at a couple of hotels to pick up other passengers we threaded our way through heavy traffic to the outskirts of town.
Our guide was very pleasant, quite funny and did a good job explaining the history of the city. The bus was modern and clean and the drive was comfortable. A short black-and-white propaganda video was shown on the way showcasing how the people of the region fought against the aggressors – the Americans.
One look at the parking lot at the Cu Chu Tunnels and we knew the crowds would be huge! Two large groups of students from the International School in Ho Chi Minh City were waiting to get tickets and we soon found tourist groups milling around with tour guides talking to them in different languages in loud voices or on loudspeakers. There was virtually no chance for us to be on our own with our guide.
We saw some of the tunnel openings and learned how the Viet Cong brought air and water into the tunnels and hid the smoke from the kitchens. We also saw samples of the traps the Viet Cong set to catch and kill US and Vietnamese enemy soldiers. The traps had previously been used to catch large animals such as tigers and bears.
The entire scene was far removed from what Priscilla remembered on her visit here several years ago and we learned that this new location was opened in 2000. Unfortunately, it has taken on a Disney type atmosphere with one of the “attractions” allowing visitors to pay extra to shoot AK47 guns.
Those who wish can go into tunnels – which have been enlarged and fortified for tourism – and Bill did this. He had to crawl on his hands and knees and even then his back scraped the roof. Priscilla chose to sit this one out!
We feel it’s important to see the tunnels since they played such an integral role in the war but we were not enthusiastic about our experience.
Our tour, like most others, included a stop at a Lacquer Factory on the way to the Cu Chi Tunnels. A guide explained the process which entails working with egg shell and mother of pearl to create intricate, beautiful pieces. At this ‘factory’ the items were being hand made by individuals injured during the war by Agent Orange, cluster bombs and landmines.
The way out, of course, was through the shop where we were followed closely by a very aggressive sales lady who changed from being sweet and polite to hostile when she realized we were not big spenders! Some of the bigger pieces go for thousands of dollars which, of course, “Madam, can be shipped anywhere in the world at very little cost” !
A friendly welcome awaited us when we returned to our comfortable home in the afternoon. Next time we’ll share with you our unexpected life in the alleys of Ho Chi Minh City.
Links to Photos: https://goo.gl/photos/7GXrm4ov9wBM1PYA9
Jan 28 – Feb 11, 2017
Love it! Or hate it! We got both these reactions when talking to other travelers about Phnom Penh! We actually liked it and wished we’d spent more than a week there.
There is a sense of energy and excitement in the city and yet along the riverfront life takes on a slower pace during the day, with coffee shops and restaurants inviting tourists like ourselves to sit a while and watch the boats along the river. At night the street turns into a backpackers party mecca!
It was here, one lunchtime, that we met an interesting couple from Chicago who had sold their home and all their possessions and had been traveling since 2015, house-sitting as much as possible. They gave us the name of the agency they used to find house-sitting “jobs” and had our heads spinning with great ideas about our possible next adventure!
Situated on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers, Phnom Penh has been the capital of Cambodia since the French colonization in 1867. Today it’s the center of commerce, government and diplomatic missions, attracting international business travelers as well as tourists.
Once known as the Pearl of Asia due to its beautiful French colonial buildings, today you have to search them out amidst the new buildings and traditional Cambodian houses. Everywhere we looked we saw cranes rising into the skyline erecting yet another skyscraper – either a hotel, apartment complex or office center.
As in most Southeast Asia cities, markets and street food stalls abound offering food that is inexpensive and delicious.
A note about Visas in Southeast Asia
The first thing we needed to take care of when we arrived in Phnom Penh was our Vietnam Visas. Vietnam requires that visas be obtained prior to arrival so we used Facebook Messenger to contact about a dozen travel companies in town to see who could assist us. Within a few minutes we had a reply from 2World Travel and arranged for a Tuk Tuk to take us there, fully expecting to spend about an hour filling out forms, producing passport photos, etc.
Much to our surprise, the agent took our passports, gave us a receipt for payment ($60 each for a 90 day visa) and said the visas would be ready in three days! No paperwork or photos required! We had taken copies of our main Passport page with us so we had identification while we were without our Passports. Three days later, as we were enjoying breakfast at our hotel, a courier arrived with our Passports duly stamped with our Vietnam Visas! Wow … we were impressed! This was the most painless Visa process we had experienced on our trip!
2 World Travel also offers tours within Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia and if their tour service is anything like their Visa service, we feel confident their clients will be extremely satisfied.
Unlike Laos, where the Royal Palace is used as a Government building and not open to the public, the Royal Palace compound in Phnom Penh welcomes visitors. The King, currently His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni, lives in the Palace which is also used for Court Ceremonies.
We decided to have a 45 minute guided tour and, although our guide spoke good English and was knowledgeable, we think it would have been better to use an audio tour instead so we could take it at our own pace. The Palace closes at lunch time so it’s important to get there early to avoid being forced to leave!
The grounds and buildings are beautifully maintained and, in fact, reminded us of the Royal Palace in Bangkok. Within the Palace grounds are several Stupas, the Throne Room and the spectacular Silver Pagoda, so named because the floor is inlaid with 5,329 solid silver tiles! It contains priceless treasures including the Emerald Buddha made of Baccarat crystal dating back to the 17th century and another Buddha statue decorated with 198lbs (90kg) of gold and over 9,000 diamonds!
Shoes off and no photos in this building! Although it was quite crowded inside, we were still able to appreciate the splendor of the building and its treasures.
We were fascinated with the mural on the inside of the compound wall which, we found out, was the Khmer version of the Ramayana. Restoration work was in progress and, when finished, will add greatly to this superb Royal Residence.
What Else Did We Do in Phnom Penh?
After traveling through three countries and twelve cities, each one claiming to have the most famous Wat (Temple), one gets a little leery about visiting yet another! Wat Phnom, located on the only hill in the area, close to Riverside was worth a quick visit to see the temple sanctuary and grand staircase guarded by lions and nagas (snakes). An event was about to take place and many monks were arriving which made an interesting scene.
We also visited the National Museum of Cambodia, just north of the Royal Palace. The striking traditional style building sets the stage for what is considered the finest collection of Khmer sculpture in the world. It’s a good idea to have a guide here to explain the many different pieces otherwise they all look alike after a while!
Of course there is plenty more to see and do in Phnom Penh – more wats, more markets, river boat cruises, etc. but we also needed time to relax so these will have to wait until next time!
Cambodia has a long and at times violent history and we expected it to be obviously Communistic. However, we learned that it is a Constitutional monarchy governed under a Constitution enacted in 1993. The Monarch is chosen by the Royal Council of the Throne from among members of the Royal Family, and the Government is headed by a Prime Minister. It’s interesting to note that the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is an ex-member of the Khmer Rouge!
Cambodia is also listed in the top 20 most corrupt countries in the world although, as visitors, we were not aware of this. The country has much to do to fight widespread poverty, lack of political freedom, damage to the environment and low per capita income, however, it has the fastest growing economy is Asia and the tenacity of the people leads us to believe that – with time – these challenges can be overcome.
As is so often the case, it’s the People who leave a lasting impression and, for that reason, Cambodia is definitely a favorite of ours!
Photo Link: https://goo.gl/photos/Ncd4jZdDanQSVNNs6
Jan 28 – Feb 11, 2017
As expected, our time in Battambang was relaxing and refreshing. We’ve learned that we need time every now and then to unwind, get laundry done and catch up on computer work. This was the perfect place!
Pronounced Bat/dam/bong, the town is the second largest city in Cambodia, surrounded by scenic rice fields which produce enough rice to feed the entire country!
Woken early one morning by the sound of cymbals crashing, drums beating and firecrackers exploding, we realized we were there for the Chinese New Year Celebrations! Hurrying downstairs we watched the Lion Dance, a traditional New Year dance performed for Good Luck.
This time of year is also the Wedding Season and one afternoon and early the next morning we were bombarded by chanting and loud music blaring out from a loudspeaker strategically placed on the street under our window!
We didn’t do much in the way of sightseeing during our stay but the highlight was our visit to a Buddhist University located on the grounds of Wat Damrey Sor. Having walked around the town in the heat of the day, we sat on a bench under a shade tree and two monks stopped to talk to us. They pointed out that the building behind us was a Buddhist University and asked if we’d like to see the Library. First they had to eat a meal because it was getting close to 12 noon and they cannot eat anything after that time.
We waited comfortably until they returned, removed our hats and shoes and spent 45 minutes in the Library which contained dictionaries in hundreds of languages, thousands of books about the Life of Buddha, students’ theses and the teachings of a famous monk called Maha Ghosananda known as the Buddha of the Battlefield. We’ll talk more about this experience in a later blog.
Phnom Penh, Capital of Cambodia
Our plan was to experience all the different modes of travel during our six month journey so we chose a Minibus to take us from Battambang to Phnom Penh. The trip would get us there faster than on the large buses and, other than being a little cramped because a lot of the luggage had to be shoved under the seats, we were satisfied with the trip. 180 miles (290 km) for $12 per person including a bottle of water each.
We had read on line about crazy drivers and the potential for accidents but our driver didn’t take risks and we had no close calls! A tuk tuk took us to our hotel on arrival in Phnom Penh and we set about exploring the area and find a place for a late lunch.
There is another sinister and deadly aspect to Cambodia’s past, and a visit to Phnom Penh brought this home to us in an unforgettable way. From 1975 to 1997, after years of conflict, the country was under the unbelievably violent rule of the Khmer Rouge headed by Pol Pot.
A warning: what follows is hard to read and comprehend but we hope you’ll stick with us.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
You cannot fully understand Cambodia until you’ve visited the Tuol Sleng Prison (also called S-21) and witnessed the terrible work of the Khmer Rouge under the rule of Pol Pot. This prison was one of nearly 200 prisons across the country where people were tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng alone and there are only twelve confirmed survivors. We saw two of them on our visit. It is estimated that around 3 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge – one in four Cambodians.
The question is: why did this happen?
We are not historians and our information comes from tour guides, the Internet and what we witnessed so we recommend you check out History http://www.history.com/topics/pol-pot which we think does a good job of explaining the events leading up to Pol Pot’s rise to power and the atrocities authorized by him. Wikipedia is another good resource.
The first people to be detained and interrogated at Khmer Rouge prisons were the lawyers, doctors, teachers, religious figures and those who wore glasses – anyone who was, or looked, educated and professional. From then on, everyone was at risk for being arrested and interrogated. Books were banned, as was religion.
As a result of U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, people fled to Phnom Penh from the countryside. Pol Pot seized that opportunity to put in place a forced evacuation from the city to the countryside where people were required to work in the rice fields for extended hours, with one meal of porridge a day to sustain them. Anyone who failed to work as hard as the Khmer Rouge guards expected was arrested and taken away – never to be seen again. Untold numbers of people died from malnutrition and illness.
Link to Photos: https://goo.gl/photos/U9Qpjfr3ffy6N6sb6
A Survivor’s Personal Story
One morning at our hotel we met a Cambodian couple from Vancouver, Canada, who were bringing their teenage daughter to Cambodia for the first time. The husband explained to us that when he was a young boy he, his parents and his siblings were forced from their home in Phnom Penh and marched out to the countryside.
At some point his father decided to go back to the house for rice and other supplies and the rest of the family continued to their destination. It took his father many months to find them and by that time he had aged so drastically it was difficult for them to recognize him.
During their time in the rice fields, he told us his younger brother developed a wound on his leg. There was no medicine and not enough food and it soon became difficult for him to work. The Khmer Rouge guards said he was lazy and took him away. They never say him again.
When the Vietnamese Army overcame the Khmer Rouge Forces and the family and other workers were released, they returned home to Phnom Penh to find people living in their house. With no title to the property, they were forced to seek accommodation elsewhere. Eventually, after living in a Refugee Camp for many months, a relative in Canada sponsored them and they moved to Vancouver.
We are sure harrowing stories like this are not uncommon and it will probably take many more years before Cambodia can completely recover from the damage caused by Pol Pot on the people of Cambodia.
The Killing Fields
Unfortunately, Tuol Sleng was not the end of the road for most of Pol Pot’s victims. When they had been tortured almost to the point of death and forced to admit to whatever the guards wanted to hear, they were packed into trucks and driven some 24 miles (15km) southeast of the city to what is the most well-known of 300 Killing Fields throughout Cambodia.
The area is peaceful today but the horrors of the past are clearly visible. An audio tour leads you through the grounds, from the arrival point where the victims, barely alive, were hit on the head with hammers, hoes, palm stems or anything hard and thrown into mass graves. Bullets were scarce and too expensive to waste on killing the victims. Toxic material such as DDT was sprinkled over them, many of them still living, and the grave covered over with soil.
Loud music played from the “Magic Tree” to cover the groans of the dying so no one in the surrounding area knew was what going on. Babies and young children were killed at the “The Killing Tree” and thrown into a mass grave as well.
Starting in 1980 the remains of nearly 9,000 people were exhumed from mass graves, leaving 43 of the 129 graves untouched. As you walk through the site you see bone and cloth fragments which rise to the surface as the soil is washed away by the rains.
A Memorial Stupa was built on the site in 1988 and is the resting place for 8,000 skulls and bones of the victims. The remaining victims rest where they are, with no plans to disturb them. We did not enter the Stupa but sat on a bench under a tree and tried to make sense of what we had seen.
Photo Link to Killing Fields
It may seem morbid to visit these two places but it is a key part of Cambodia’s history and a reminder that we have a responsibility to prevent this type of activity ever occurring again.
Phnom Penh is a vibrant city and we found the people of Cambodia to be very welcoming and friendly. Many spoke English, and the dominant currency is the US Dollar so we felt right at home! There’s still more to see in Phnom Penh including the beautiful Royal Palace and the spectacular Wat Phnom. We’ll share that with you next time.
Photos: Travels Battambang to Phnom Penh
Ancient Angkor – Our Trip Highlight!
After a cross-border flight from Vientiane, Laos to Siem Reap, Cambodia, we spent three days exploring the Temples of Angkor a few miles north of the town of Siem Reap. We think it is safe to say that this experience will be the highlight of our six months in Southeast Asia!
The history of the Khmer people in the region of Angkor is fascinating, however, unless you are an archeologist with particular interest in this era, the facts are too numerous and too complicated to try to explain here. Suffice it to say that the Khmer ruled from the 10th Century to the middle of the 15th century and, at its peak during the 11th and 12th centuries, Angkor was probably the largest city in the world with around 700,000 to one million inhabitants!
Trade with India introduced the Khmers to Hinduism and Buddhism which can be seen in the architecture and decoration of the temples of Angkor. Some of the temples were built as Hindu temples, only to be defaced and changed to Buddhist temples by subsequent rulers. Invasions by the Chams and Siamese, among others, also resulted in plundering and destruction of the temples. It is quite remarkable that so much of this ancient kingdom remains for us to enjoy today.
Frankly, pictures do more justice than words, to the temples of Angkor, the largest religious and architectural site in the world, covering an area of approximately 400 acres. We visited seven of the temples, all of them spectacular in their own right, and all of them different.
Nothing prepares you for your first sight of the centerpiece of the complex – the majestic Angkor Wat! Whether you see the temple emerge from the dark of night at sunrise – or later in the day – you are filled with a sense of awe at this superb religious monument, the heart of the ancient Kingdom of Angkor. Built in the early 12th Century, Angkor Wat is not only a pagoda (temple) but a city in its own right.
We bought a 3 day pass for $40 each, which allowed us to visit any of the temples for three days. (A few days after our visit the prices were increased to $37 for a one day visit and $62 for three days!) We decided to spend the first day with a driver and guide. The guide was very good, explaining the main points we needed to know, getting us to the right place at the right time and showing us the best places for photos. Instead of doing the advertised “short” or “long” tours which most people follow, we planned our own itinerary so that we could – hopefully – avoid the worst of the crowds.
We started at Angkor Wat, the best preserved and most famous temple, at around 8:00am, entering through the East Gate while most people entered the West Gate after seeing the sunrise. This helped us avoid the biggest crowds although we had to queue for about 20 minutes to reach the top level, where only 100 people are permitted at one time.
After some gentle persuasion, on the third day Bill agreed to get up at 4:30am to see the sun rise at Angkor Wat! Despite the crowds, it is something not to be missed.
Exiting through the west gate we took time to enjoy the reflection of the temple in the lake before continuing on to The Bayon, known for its numerous towers decorated with Buddha faces. Built a little later than Angkor as a Buddhist temple it is a complete contrast to Angkor Wat. A few decades after it was built, the new king reverted to Hinduism and many of the Buddhist faces were destroyed or turned into Hindu images.
It was interesting to study the well-preserved intricate bas reliefs depicting scenes from battles, historical events and life in Angkor as well as the dancing “Apsaras” on the gallery pillars. According to New World Encyclopedia, in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, “Apsaras are supernatural beings who appear as young women of great beauty and elegance that are proficient in the art of dancing. English translations of the word are “nymph,” “celestial nymph,” and “celestial maiden.”
Some 18 miles (30km) from Angkor Wat is the beautiful small Hindu style temple of Banteay Srei, also known as “Citadel of Women”. Built primarily with red sandstone, the walls and lintels are exquisitely decorated, depicting mythological stories and events.
After a break for lunch, we arrived at our last temple for the day – Ta Prohm. This is one of the three most famous temples due, in part, to the huge Strangler Fig and Silk cotton trees that have grown in and above the ruins. Priscilla remembers this temple overgrown with more vegetation when she visited years ago, however much of this has been removed to prevent further destruction of the temple. Nevertheless, the large trees and their enormous roots remain, creating the perfect photo opportunity.
Ta Prohm was featured in Angelina Jolie’s movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” which attracts even more crowds so it is best to visit this temple around 7:30am!
Make no mistake, exploring the temples is hard work, even though we were driven to each one! There is lots of walking, steps to climb (some of them very steep), slabs of stone to clamber over and few places to stop, sit and ponder what has to be one of the greatest wonders of the world. Anyone who plans to “do” the Angkor temples in one day is completely missing the magic of the site.
And so we headed back to our hotel, the Golden Mango, a little oasis just a $3 Tuk Tuk ride out of the town of Siem Reap. A swim to cool down followed by an ice cold Angkor beer relaxing poolside gave us enough energy to enjoy dinner at the open air dining room before a well-deserved night’s rest. Tomorrow we relax, perhaps go downtown and prepare for our next day of temple excavating!
Karst Mountains of Vang Vieng
After ten days in Luang Prabang we boarded a VIP bus for a 6 hour drive south to a town called Vang Vieng where we planned to spend a few days before continuing on to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, known as the City of Sandalwood. This was our first bus experience and we found it to be reasonably comfortable except that Bill got dripped on occasionally from the roof hatch!
The scenery would have been spectacular had we been able to see it through the rain and mist. For most of the journey we traveled up and down mountains, with a couple of ‘comfort’ stops at remote villages. Priscilla made sure not to drink too much water to avoid having to use an Eastern style squat toilet!
This is the main road running north/south in Laos and we encountered quite a lot of traffic – large trucks, buses, cars and motorbikes. The driver was good and drove slowly, navigating the potholes and mud that appeared on a regular basis. At some points the road was being slowly washed away and, of course, there are no guardrails.
After stopping for a Lao lunch of soup and rice we arrived in Vang Vieng (in the rain!) around 4:15pm. A short Tuk Tuk ride to our Guesthouse took us across what was once an airport runway and now just an empty space of broken up asphalt. We were curious so checked it out. Here’s what we found on TravelFish …
“from the 1950s to 1970s Vang Vieng was used as a base and airfield for Air America, a cargo and passenger airline secretly owned and operated by the CIA. The airstrip, known as Lima Site 6, was used to support covert paramilitary operations in Southeast Asia. In spite of an international agreement at the Geneva Conference that Laos would remain neutral, 1965 marked the start of the CIA directed Secret War in Laos that amassed a death toll upwards of 50,000 people and ended when the Americans beat a hasty retreat after Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975.”
Interesting the things one learns when traveling!
Again, rain curtailed our activities here in Vang Vieng but we walked around town and soon saw that we would not be going hungry here! Every second place seemed to be a café, bar or restaurant featuring western as well as Lao food.
Loud music continued well into the midnight hours but things have definitely calmed down since 2012 when the Government intervened in the partying and drug scene that had resulted in 22 deaths in 2011. Along the Nam Song River travelers would party at make-shift bars then participate in wild water antics and tubing – a recipe for disaster.
The main features of this area are the Nam Song River, the beautiful karst mountains that surround the town and several caves within easy distance. We managed to enjoy a walk along the river one afternoon when the sun finally emerged from the clouds but overall our three night stop here was for R&R.
Vientiane, City of Sandalwood
We decided to try a Minibus for our 4 hour drive to Vientiane, the Laos capital, and were picked up promptly at 9am. Our two bags were hoisted up on the roof (covered with a tarp!) and, being the first stop, we had our choice of seats. After stopping at several more guesthouses the minibus was ready to set off for Vientiane with 12 passengers. With the mountainous terrain behind us, our drive was more enjoyable although the driver lost no opportunities to pass other vehicles when he thought he had sufficient time and space!
We knew we were nearing Vientiane when traffic became congested and we saw our first traffic light! Originally known as “Wiang Jan” meaning “City of Sandalwood”, the French translated it to “Vientiane” and so it is known today.
We opted for accommodation out of the city center on the Mekong River and found an Airbnb that seemed to suit us. We booked two nights, figuring we could always find another place if necessary and once we were settled in, we decided to stay.
The owners are French Cambodians who returned to Vientiane after 35 years in France. They are both talented musicians and most evenings we enjoyed listening to the two of them – and guests – playing the electric piano and singing Lao and popular western songs! We just felt like family!
Across the street – and right on the banks of the Mekong – was their open air restaurant and we had several dinners there. Our host brews very good craft beers and has a collection of 1000 bottles of French wine! He suggested dishes for us to eat and they were superb! Eating outside under the stars and watching the moon reflected in the water adds a very romantic touch to a dinner!
We were not too far from the Night Market and walked through it one night but, to be honest, Night Markets are pretty much all the same and unless you are looking for something in particular, we feel we’ve done enough of them!
Keeping in mind that we are not on a “Sightseeing” tour but actually living in Southeast Asia for six months, we are pretty selective as to how we spend our time. The first thing we do is check Blogs and TripAdvisors online for the “Best Things To Do” wherever we go. Here’s what we chose:
COPE Visitors Center
COPE Visitors Center is a small museum dedicated to educating the public about the effects of cluster bombs dropped on Laos by the US during the “Secret War”. Many of the bombs did not explode and are causing death and injuries to people even today. The museum raises funds to finish the work of removing remaining UXO’s and help the injured. The exhibit is well laid out and we took our time to learn the history as well as the individual stories from those whose lives were affected. The videos leave a lasting impression of the dreadful consequences of war on the people of Laos. There is an opportunity for visitors to contribute to this important work either by buying something in the Gift Shop or leaving a donation
Lao National History Museum
The Lao National History Museum is housed in an old colonial building that used to be the French Governor’s Mansion, built in 1925. Although it has a run-down appearance and needs major renovations and updating, there are several interesting historical exhibits including the Lao ancient Kingdoms, the various foreign invasions and Lao ethnic people and culture. The display featuring the Plain of Jars was very interesting. Researchers are still trying to discover the purpose of the jars. One theory is that they might have been used by Bronze age people as burial urns, another for brewing alcohol.
As we expected, there was a lot of propaganda about the Imperialist Americans and the glory of the Communist Party which rules to this day.
Before leaving Vientiane we climbed to the top of this Arc de Triomph “look-alike”. The views show the contrast between beautiful buildings (probably Government departments), Wats and Monasteries and the older, crumbling, Colonial style buildings as well as the small Lao style houses and stores.
Set in beautiful gardens, the monument is dedicated to those who fought for Independence against France. Apparently, the United States provided funds and cement to construct an airport, however, the monument was built instead! The Laotian design sets it apart from the Paris monument.
And so our week in Vientiane, Laos, came to an end and we boarded our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor.
Ling to Photos: https://goo.gl/photos/omdXefDmHX1aJJSi8