Travel Blog for Fredrik and Gunnhild

2013 Vietnam And Cambodia

One week and we’re going to Vietnam and Cambodia

This year we are going east.

We have not planned this trip in detail, but we will fly into Hanoi and travel south to Ho Chi Minh City with a few stops on the way (probably Hue and Hoi An). From there we will go in to Cambodia and up to Angkor Wat. We have a flight back to Norway from Bangkok, so we might spend a day or two there at the end of our 3 week adventure.


Destination Arrival
1 Hanoi, Vietnam 17 November, 2013
2 Siem Reap, Cambodia 19 November, 2013
3 Phnom Penh, Cambodia 22 November, 2013
4 Chau Doc, Vietnam 25 November, 2013
5 Cai Be, Vietnam 26 November, 2013
6 Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 27 November, 2013
7 Hue, Vietnam 29 November, 2013
8 Hoi An, Vietnam 2 December, 2013
9 Hanoi, Vietnam 6 December, 2013
10 Bangkok, Thailand 7 December, 2013

Arrived in Hanoi

After 16 hours we arrived in Hanoi, after a short stop in Bangkok. As Norwegians we should be able to get a 15 day visa at arrival, but we had no idea where and how. A lot of people queued up at the Visa-on-arrival-desk, but we decided to go straight to the passport control instead. A Danish guy confirmed that it should be ok, and he was right. We went straight through in no time, and actually had to wait a while for our bags. After going through customs, we spotted the driver from our hotel, and at the same time Fredrik’s aunt and uncle (Kirsti and Jens Harald), who we had no idea were going to Vietnam at all, came over to say hi. It’s a small world!! We didn’t have much time to talk since our driver were waiting and they where going with a group, but it was a nice surprise to meet them.

It took about 40 minutes to Hanoi old quarter from the airport, and when we got into the hotel (Hanoi 3B Hotel) we were welcomed with a drink and a lot of sorries because our room was not ready (this was before 12 AM). After about ten minutes where they told us about daytrips and sights in the area, we were taken to our deluxe room on the seventh floor. A very nice guy, who spoke no English, were able to show us all the amenities of our room and our private balcony with a great view of the old town.

After a quick change of clothes we were ready to get to know the city of Hanoi. The traffic was overwhelming with motorbikes coming from  every direction (even on the sidewalks and the wrong way on one-way streets). In addition the sidewalks were full of street vendors and parked motorbikes, so it took us a while to relax and especially crossing the larger roads were a bit scary. But after following some locals a couple of times we quickly got the hang of it. Just keep the pace, and stay away from buses and trucks.

Hoan Kiem LakeWe needed some local money, and chose the maximum amount of 2.000.000 Dong (100 USD). After conversion it didn’t seem like much, but after a few local beers and some food we realized it would probably last a while. Hoan Kiem Lake is just a few blocks from our hotel, and was a nice place to relax and get away from the traffic for a while. After a short break, we were ready for the chaotic but very charming old quarter again, and walked up to Dong Xuan night market, where they sold everything from kitchenware to Dolce & Gabbana baby shoes.

 

Dong Xuan night marketIn the evening we had dinner at a restaurant recommended by Dragon (the receptionist at our hotel). We were a bit jet-lagged and didn’t really know the opening hours of the restaurants, so we arrived just when they were closing (9.30 PM). Luckily the Vietnamese people are always helpful, so we got a table and had a great meal. Before going to sleep we shared a beer from the minibar and discussed where to go next. Originally we planned to do one country at the time, but since the weather forecast for the coast of Vietnam is not that great for the next week, we might do something completely different. Stay tuned!!

Hanoi Day Two

One pillar pagodaA long flight, hardly any sleep and 6 hours time differece took it’s toll on us, so we slept in, had a lazy morning and didn’t go out before 1 PM. We spent most of the day sightseeing the main sights in Hanoi, and ended up walking more than 10 km. Since it was Monday museums and some sights were closed, but we still got to see pretty much what we had planned. We walked past the Lenin park on our way to the One pillar pagoda, and continued to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace.

The Temple of LiteratureThe Temple of Literature was beautifully decorated and filled with students celebrating their graduation, which made sense since it was founded in honor of the philosopher Confucius in 1070 and later served as a center for higher learning. We walked around in the Frech Quarter for a while before a short stop at Hanoi’s most important church, the St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

Gammer beerWe had decided that if possible we wanted to go to Cambodia the next day, so we went back to the hotel to ask them to help us book. They found a flight to Siem Reap in the afternoon that was not too expensive, so we told them to book it and we booked a hotel ourselves online. We celebrated our new plan by going to the brewpub Gammer beer. They had 3 beers brewed on the premises, Gold, Golden and Dark. We ordered two different ones, but got quite confused when the brought us two dark ones. Shortly after they brought us two golden ones as well, and explained that it was “Buy one get one free”.

After a bit more beer than planned, we went for dinner at a recommended restaurant (New day) very close to our hotel. It was very busy, but we got a table on the top floor. It was a very charming place, and the food was really, really good. We tried several local dishes like the famous Bun Cha. We took a short walk up to Quan Chuong, the only remaining gateway to the Old Quarter, before heading back to the hotel to do some blogging and planning. We tried to go to bed early, but instead ended up playing music and emptying the mini-bar. Still a bit jet-lagged maybe?

Hanoi to Siem Reap

Hanoi Old QuarterWe got up at 10 AM, a bit tired after a late night, packed our bags and checked out of the hotel. We got the tickets for our flight, and booked a taxi to the airport an hour later. We went for an English breakfast at a hostel where most of the other guests seemed to have had more beer and less sleep than us, and spent the rest of our time in Hanoi walking around in the old quarter.

The check in at the airport was very chaotic. There were several large groups at the desk where we were supposed to check in, so we were moved to another line handling all international flights with Vietnam Air. Several of the people there spent a lot of time at  the counter because they had too much luggage or couldn’t find their passports or visas. But we got through security in time, and took off towards Siem Reap, Cambodia at 3.30 PM.

The flight took less than two hours, and we had some nice views at the end, but sadly not of any of the famous temples. We had to fill out several papers during the flight, and one additional one at the airport. Because of this we expected it to take some time, but it was really efficient and we were out  of the airport with our bags in no time. The visa application was a bit funny, because we were obviously supposed to bring a photo (which we didn’t), but if we just paid one dollar extra no photo was needed.

Angkor Secret Garden HotelLucky from Angkor Secret Garden Hotel picked us up at the airport in a Tuk Tuk. His English was really good, and he told us a lot about Cambodia, Siem Reap and his hotel during the 20 minute ride. The hotel was very nice with large rooms, and a cosy backyard with hammocks, a bar and a pool table. We soon decided that we wanted to stay there an extra night (3 instead of the 2 we had booked). Lucky gave us a map and explained what to see and do over a beer in the bar. We booked a trip to Angkor Wat the next morning (leaving at 5 AM!), had some great local food and talked to several of the other guests. We went to our room early to pack, relax and try to get tired, but we didn’t go to bed until 11 PM.

Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)

Angkor WatAt 0430 the alarm went off, playing heavy metal (internet radio) on high level. It was a bit of a shock, but we got up and were ready to leave at 5 AM. Lucky had packed breakfast for us, and gave us tea and coffee to enjoy on the Tuk Tuk ride to Angkor Wat. We bought day passes for 20 USD each, and arrived outside Angkor Wat at dawn. It was hardly any clouds this morning, so we didn’t get the red sunrise we were hoping for, but it was still beautiful. After taking lots of pictures, we sat down and enjoyed our breakfast with a view of the five towers of Angkor Wat reflected in the still water of the moat.

Angkor Wat is the single largest religious monument in the world and was built during the 12th century. It was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, and is shaped like a lotus flower, but several Buddhas can also be found. The detailed carvings of dancing girls, warriors etc was really impressive. And even with a lot of visitors it felt spacious and tranquil.Angkor Thom

Our next stop was the ancient city of Angkor Thom. It was also built during the 12th century’ and was at one time the largest city in the Khmer Empire. In the center of the complex is the temple Bayon, where the towers are decorated with large smiling faces. We also saw Bauphon (built in a pyramidal form to represent Mount Meru), The Royal Palace Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants (300 m long, mainly used for royal reviews of military and other parades) and Terrace of the Leper King.

 

We continued to the Ta Prohm temple complex, which was originally built as a Buddhist monastery. It was used as a location in the movie Tomb Raider, and has crumbling towers, enclosed courtyards, narrow corridors and ancient trees growing on top of and around the ruins. Very cool, and we also appreciated the shade provided by the large trees, since it was 30 degrees Celsius and sunny.Ta Prohm

Our last stop was Banteay Kdei, also known as Citadel of Monks. This was the smallest temple we visited, and it was in pretty bad shape because of faulty construction and poor quality sandstone. At around 10 AM we were warm, tired, full of impressions and ready to go back to the hotel. Everyone were surprised to see us, because most people spend several hours longer on this trip. But we felt that we had a great day (morning), and got to see everything we had been looking forward to for so long. We had a long chat with one of the guys working here over a beer, before heading to our room for a small siesta and some blogging! What a day, and it’s still early!

Siem Reap 2

Pub StreetWe had another great lunch at the hotel before our tuk tuk to the hot air balloon came to pick us up. We only got a few hundred meters from the hotel before the driver got a phone call from Lucky, telling him that they had technical problems with the balloon and that it would be out of service for at least one week. We turned around and went back to the hotel. Bummer! At 7 PM we walked to the city center, and tried to buy a local SIM-card on the way. But the owner was not able to get it to work, even with help from all the other shops around him, so we ended up getting our money back.

When we got to the city center we walked through the night marked (too touristy for us) before we got to the pub street, a street mainly for tourists with several restaurants and of course plenty of pubs (as the name suggests).  We sat down on one resturant and had a beer berfore we finally found a SIM card that worked at a nearby shop. We had dinner at Khmer Family Restaurant, where they had great food and our favourite Cambodian lager (Angkor) on tap for only 0,5 USD.

The tuk tuk driver home wanted 5 USD, but when we said we would walk home instead he agreed on 2. We had a few beers at the hotel bar, sharing travel stories with a retired American living in Equador. After a couple of roundes of pool, we were ready for bed before midnight (long day!).

For our last full day in Siem Riep, the main plan was to relax and really enjoy being on vacation. We had a slow morning, relaxing in the garden and reading our books in the hammock, but soon agreed that we had to find some activity, and we booked a 2 hour quad bike trip.

Quad BikeWe where picked up at 3.30 PM, and went to their garage for a quick training and a short test ride around the block. We both got a hang of it very quickly and went off into the country side with our guide. We met several groups coming back and they were all around 10 people, so we were probably very lucky to have a guide to ourselves. In the beginning there were a little bit of traffic to pay attention to, but we soon got to the country side where we mainly drove on small dirt roads between the rice fields and past small farms. It was quite bumpy, but after a very short while that was just fun! Driving slow was actually the most difficult part. Kids along the road were waving at us, and with some of them we did “high five’s” while driving by.

We stopped at a large monastery in a small village. The old temple was very small, but a new one had been built only 2 years ago. We saw several young kids in orange robes, and our guide told us that for poor families sending their sons to the monestary was the best solution. Fredrik’s bike had a problem with the gear, so a guy from the garage came with a new bike for him. Since our next stop was an orphanage, we decided to spend the waiting time to buy some food to give them. The guide suggested a box of noodles, but we ended up buying that and 50 kg of rice as well.

P1060677At the orphanage a young boy showed us around. It was started by one family and not backed by any organization, but they had  several class rooms, big bed rooms and a large area to play on. They all went to public school, but had language classes at the orphanage as well, and his English was excellent, so they obviously had great teachers. Several of the buildings were donated by tourists who had been there to visit.

We also bought some lollipops while waiting for the new quad bike. The plan was to hand these out to the kids we drove past, but becuase of the gear problem, we were a bit late to see the sunset at the best spot. Our guide said that he had several spots which was good, but since we were more than willing to drive fast he aimed for the best spot. After driving like crazy, having to brake very hard at a few occations (dogs, oxes etc.) we maid it just in time for the sunset over the green rice fields. Beautiful!!!

SunsetWe turned on the headlights, and started our drive back to the city via even smaller dirt roads. Now we had plenty of time to stop, so all kids we drove past got a lollipop, and they were all jumping with joy. Fun! Back at the garage we washed of most of the dust and got in a tuk tuk back to the hotel. We jumped off at the mini mart 200 meters from the hotel, and bought some “fancy” local beer (stouts and dark lager), because we planned to take a shower and go to bed early. But we stopped at the bar for one beer, and started talking to a couple from Brisbane, Australia. We had so much fun that we ended up opening and sharing the beer we bought, and suddenly it was dinner time. We stayed at the bar all evening, but both managed to sneak in a quick shower in between the beers and conversations. A guy from New Zealand had bought some Cambodian whisky that he shared with us. It was actually quite good (but only 23%), and of course we had to go get our Norwegian aquavit to share with him and Mr. Lucky. Great night again, but as usual we got to bed a bit later than planned.

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

After packing, we went down for breakfast at 09.30AM (just 30 minutes before pickup). For some reason everything took a bit longer time than we had planned, so when the tuk tuk arrived, we were still eating breakfast. But as with everything else here no one is in an hurry, so we were told to relax and finish our breakfast. The bill turned out to be a lot smaller than expected. 135 USD for 3 nights, Angkor Wat tour, mini-van to Phnom Penh, lots of food and even more beer! After saying goodbye to everyone, we where taken to  the mini-van “bus station”, and at 10.30 AM we were on our way to Phnom Penh.

P1060702The van was a new Ford Transit, with 12 seats in the back and homemade neck pillows. The car was full, and the driver drove like he had stolen the car (100Km/h in 40Km/h zone). The first 3,5 hours of the drive was on quite good roads with hardly any pot holes, but the last part was bumpy and dusty. It was a lot to see on the drive (crazy traffic, farmers, water buffalos, ox carriages, small villages, markets, whole families on small motorbikes, plenty of temples, trucks with loads twice their own height, people sleeping on home made luggage racks on the back of cars etc.).

The closer we got to Phnom Penh, the more we saw of the flood which was the main reason for the bad roads. Several places we could see trees and utility poles in the middle of what looked as a lake. The traffic into the city was terrible, but soon an ambulance with the siren on caught up with us, and our driver stayed on it’s tail until we were only a couple of blocks from the “bus station”. That way we arrived 30 minutes earlier than expected (4 PM), and took a tuk tuk to the hotel. We were welcomed with a drink, and got a large twin room. It started to rain quite heavily, so we had some food and beer at the hotel before we went for a walk in the neighborhood when the thunderstorm passed. We bought some dark beer at a gas station, and had a relaxed evening at the hotel.

Phnom Penh

Our first goal in Phnom Penh was to get some laundry done. With 30 degrees Celsius, dusty roads and quad biking we were running out of clean shorts. We stopped by a laundry we spotted last night on our way to the Russian Market. The laundry took a bit longer than expected, so we bought a couple of shorts each for almost nothing at the market. They sold pretty much everything there, but it was crowded and hot, so we didn’t stay to buy anything else. We found a nice café close by with huge fans and sat down for a late breakfast/early lunch to cool down.

P1060757In the afternoon we went to see The Royal Palace and The Silver Pagoda. It was a huge area with temples, pagodas and lots of other buildings with the classic Khmer roofs and ornate glidings. We walked from the palace to the riverfront (only a few hundred meters, but hot as hell), and sat down at the first bar we found for a beer. After cooling down a bit, we walked along the entire riverfront and ended up at Wat Phnom (meaning Hill Temple, although the “hill” is only 27 meters high). According to the legend the first temple here was built in 1373 by a lady named Penh to house four Buddha statuse that she found floating in the Mekong. And that’s how the city got it’s name.

We took a tuk tuk to Hamiwari microbrewery, located in a 5 star hotel by the river. The service there was kind of slow, but we had a comfy couch, great views of the river, good food, and very good beer. We had a sampler of all four beers available, and were pleasantly surprised with the quality. While we were trying to find the Munich beer garden a new thunderstorm came along, and we jumped into a tuk tuk to go to a microbrewery closer to our hotel instead. When we got there they told us they stopped brewing a year ago, so we took another tuk tuk to the pub street. It wasn’t quite what we expected, and most of the restaurants served western food. We ended up at a small local bar, with European tables and chairs but the kitchen on a cart by the road. Great food!

On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a mini mart and bought all the dark beers we could find. The tuk tuk driver didn’t know where to go, but it turned out that we did. 🙂 We enjoyed our beer in the “lounge” at the hotel, while catching up on blogging, reviews, news etc.

Phnom Penh 2

Yesterday we decided that we didn’t want to rush the sightseeing, so we booked an extra night at the hotel. Our room (twin) was already booked though, so we had to move to a double room instead. After sending an inquiry for a 3 day Mekong river tour ending in Ho Chi Minh City, we packed our bags and left them in the room. We found a tuk tuk to take us to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (S-21), and actually confirmed the tour from the tuk tuk a bit later (we have bought a local sim card for internet access).

P1060790First we drove the 14 km to Choeung Ek, where the most famous of many, many killing fields in Cambodia are located. We had read some history before we arrived, but it was completely different to walk around the area where it all happened, and listen to the stories of the survivers on the audio guide. There were quite a few visitors, but hardly any talking. People walked slowly around the area, taking in the stories, looking at the mass graves and the remains found. Several people left colorful bracelets around the mass graves to show their respect for the victims. We were also told to stay on the paths and watch where we were going, because when it rains clothes and bone fragments are still coming to the surface.

P1060818From 1975 to 1979 the Communist Party of Kampuchea (known as Khmer Rouge) was the ruling party in Cambodia. Their goal was to transform the country into a peasant-dominated communist society, self-sufficient even in the supply of medicine. This led to a widespread famine, and thousands of people died from treatable diseases like malaria. Around two million people were forced to leave the cities to become farmers in labor camps, where several died from hunger and exhaustion. In addition the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed “intellectuals” (everyone with an education, all English-speaking people and people wearing glasses), suspected capitalists, city-dwellers, people with connections to the former or foreign governments, minority groups, anyone participating in religious rituals, possible traitors, people trying to escape and anyone not following the rules (by picking wild berries for instance). The leader, Pol Pot, said “It’s better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.”. Around two million people (of a population of 8 million) died during the regime, about half from executions.

Several people were killed instantly, while the rest were taken to killing fields where they often had to dig their own graves before being killed. To save bullets they used farming equipment, sharpened bamboo sticks etc. as weapons. In some cases the children and infants of adult victims were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of Chankiri trees (to stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents’ deaths). In the killing fields in Choeung Ek mass graves containing 8895 bodies have been discovered. The area has been made a memorial, marked by a buddhist stupa filled with more than 5000 human sculls, many shattered or smashed in.

P1060819We continued to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime.
It was one of at least 150 interrogation centers in the country, and as many as 20,000 prisoners there were killed. Most prisoners were held there for 2 to 3 months and tortured into naming family, friends and neighbors, who were then arrested, tortured and killed. In the museum we saw the tiny cells the prisoners were held in, pictures of hundreds of prisoners (several of them just kids) and lots of terrible torture devices.

The torture system was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments, cut with knives, suffocated with plastic bags, got their fingernails pulled out etc. In the gallows they hung the prisoners upside down until they passed out, then dipped their head into a jar of fertilizer water to wake them up and continue the interrogations. In addition sleep deprivation, hunger and diseases helped force them to confess to the most absurd accusations. For the first year of S-21’s existence, corpses were buried near the prison. But they soon ran out of burial spaces, and the prisoners were sent to the killing fields of Choeung Ek instead.

After an emotional day with lots of impressions to process, we needed a few hours back at the hotel. They had moved our luggage into a new room which was more or less a suite with a separate lounge area. They had put an extra bed in here, so it almost felt like we had our own bedrooms. After booking a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, we went to the central market to buy a few things before the trip. The only thing we were not able to find was sunscreen. They only had sunblock and skin whitener… We had a couple of beers at the Frangipani Sky Bar, and then a great dinner at Khmer Saravan. For our last dinner in Cambodia we had to order our favorite Khmer dishes, Amok and Lok lok.

Phnom Penh to Chau Doc

In the morning we went to the laundry to pick up our clean clothes. The tuk tuk driver turned out to be the same that took us there last time, so he knew where to go. When we got back we had breakfast, and checked out of the hotel. We were picked up by a tuk tuk at 11.45 AM, and after some paperwork at the dock we left Phnom Penh in a speedboat at 12.15 PM. We shared the boat with an Australian couple and Portuguese couple.

P1060847It was a lot to see on the trip down the Mekong river to Chau Doc. Temples everywhere, small boats, big boats, daily life along the river, farmers and fishermen. We had to go a shore twice to pass the border, first to leave Cambodia, then to enter Vietnam. We were lucky, and were the only ones there, so it didn’t take much time at all. We arrived in Chau Doc at 4.30 PM, and left the boat at Victoria Hotel’s private dock. The other passengers had done some more research than us, and booked cheaper hotels. We just accepted the suggestion from the travel agent, and didn’t know that we were staying at a luxurious colonoial-style riverfront hotel. But since Fredrik had a flu, it was nice with a bit of luxury.

P1060888We were welcomed with cold wet towel and a cup of tea, and told that we had been upgraded to a room with a view over the river. It was large, stylish and very comfortable, with timber floors and a French balcony. Our guide book said that they also had the best restaurant in town, so we didn’t bother to go anywhere else. We ordered Okra hot pot, which turned out to be fish and vegetables cooked at our table. Very good! After dinner we had a beer at the terrace, watching the lightning all around us. It was blinking almost constantly. So Gunnhild went out to find an ATM and get some Vietnamese money, and got back just before the rain started. We packed what we needed for the boat trip in a backpack, since we didn’t expect our cabin to have room to open two suitcases. We were right.

Chau Doc to Cai Be

P1060900We got up at 6.15 AM. Gunnhild went out to buy some crackers for the road, and some tissues/handkerchiefs for Fredrik. That was a bit harder than expected, so she returned with potato chips and cute princess tissues. 😉 We were picked up by a brand new and luxorius car at 7.30 AM’ and started our drive towards Cai Be, where we would start our cruise. We expected small villages, farmland and small roads, but were surprised to also drive through large citys, over fancy bridges and pass big factories. In this area we also saw more churches than temples. At one point we took a ferry across the river, and it seemed to be imported from Denmark since it was named VietDan and had a Danish flag on the side.

We arrived in Cai Be at 11 AM, and were welcomed at the dock by several very friendly guides, but with difficult Vietnamese English. We arrived a bit early, so one of the guides offered to take us to the local market instead of just waiting, but we politely declined. Instead we watched large groups of tourists going on sightseeing trips on the river. A German couple going on our boat was a bit delayed, but finally we all got into one of the sightseeing boats that would take us there.

P1060914We were welcomed onto Mekong Eyes, and after some juice and information we were showed to our cabins which were nice and with huge bathrooms (for a boat). Mekong Eyes have cabins for 16 passengers, but we were only 8 and would have plenty of space. We were served a 5 course brunch in the restaurant at 1.15 PM, and then had a beer with the others (2 from Australia and 4 from Germany) on the sun deck. All great people!

We had a little bit of rain in the afternoon, which gave us time to unpack and do a little bit of blogging. But by 4.30 PM the rain had stopped, so we all went a shore to visit a small village (pop. 1200). We saw all the different types of fruit they where growing, a farmer planting rice, school kids on their way home etc., and in the only store we saw, we were able to refill our Vietnamese SIM card. It was really hot and humid, but still we sat down for a cup of hot tea (!!) and some fresh fruit before going back to Mekong Eyes.

Besides the 5 course dinner at 7 PM, the rest of the day and evening was spent on the sun deck watching the life on the river, getting to know the others, sharing travel stories and drinking a few beers. Great night!

 

Cai Be to Ho Chi Minh City

P1060947We both woke up when the boat started around 5 AM. Fredrik soon gave up falling asleep again and got up. He took pictures of the sunrise and ate breakfast, while Gunnhild stubbornly tried to get some more sleep. At 8 AM we had showered, packed our bags, paid the bill and were ready for another excursion. We were picked up by a small boat that took us to the Cai Rang floating market in Can Tho city. The main items sold there are farm products and specialties of the area. Sellers tie their goods to a tall pole so that buyers can see from a distance what they are selling. Larger sized boats anchor and create lanes that smaller boats weave in and out of. Small boats that sell beer, wine and soft drinks go among the other boats to serve market-goers and visitors.

P1060959We also visited a small rice noodle factory where we got to see the whole process and to taste rice noodle cakes. On the way back we bought fresh pineapples and a different kind of rice cake from the boats at the market. Back at Mekong Eyes it was soon time for lunch, and at 11.45 AM we were picked up by a van that took us (and two of the Germans) to Ho Chi Minh City. We checked in at PP Backpackers, where we got a large but a little bit shabby twin room with a nice balcony. The staff was really helpful and the location was great (in a small quiet street just one block from the main backpacker street).

We went for a walk in the area. It was kind of a shock with all the noise, traffic and people after quiet days on the Mekong, but it was also nice with all the options. We got to taste the Vietnamese mini-pancakes we had been recommended, did some window-shopping, and ended up up with real shopping (computer- and cameras-bags). We walked to the night market, which was a bit too touristy and a lot less impressive than the markets in Phnom Penh. So we ended our evening with a beer at the hotel instead.

Ho Chi Minh City

We were picked up at our hotel at 8.15 AM. Our street is too small for busses, so we walked out to the main road and picked up more people on the way. Buying a cheap backpacker tour has it’s disadvantages. It took more than an hour to pick up everyone, and we ended up in a group of 23 people on a crowded bus. Lots of great people though, so we didn’t get bored, even though the trip took a lot longer than expected. On our way to the Cu Chi tunnels we stopped at a workshop where people with disabilities made and sold all kinds of art. Especially the pictures made of egg shells were impressive, but we spent our time there eating breakfast instead of shopping.

P1060997We finally arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels (Ben Duoc) at 12.30 PM. They are part of a network of up to 250 km of tunnels and played a crucial role in the Vietnamese war. They served as hiding spots and routes for communication, supplies and escape for the Vietcong. They were too narrow for most non-Vietnamese, and were also heavily booby-trapped. While most tunnels were fairly small and simple, the major ones had three levels, and could be up to 10 meters deep. They contained everything needed, like cooking areas, meeting rooms, infirmaries, warehouses and even underwater entrances from the river. They had a ventilation system looking like ant hills, and the smoke from the cooking areas were led several kilometers away. The ones thin enough (like Fredrik) were allowed to climb down one of the original entrances to the tunnel. He had to hold his hands over his head to get in. They also had a tunnel that was widened so that it was easy to get in and possible to crawl through for most tourists. If you went all the way you would exit at the fifth exit. We made it to exit number two. It was just too warm, dark and narrow down there.

The sights were really interesting, but the way they had organized it was very touristy and there were way too many visitors in the park. We walked around like sheep, the group was too big for everyone to see and hear and we always had to wait for other groups to finish. It was also very focused on how smart the Vietcong were and how many Americans they killed, not about the history, the civilian sufferings and the long term consequences. Half way there even was a shooting range we could try if we wanted, so we could hear shooting in the background during our entire visit. Completely different from the Killing Fields in Cambodia where it was very quiet and respectful.

IMG_0886We got back to the city center at 3.30 PM, and since it looked like it could start raining any minute, we stopped at one of the first restaurants we found for lunch. We ordered pizza and beer, and then the rain started. Lots of thunder and lightning and the street got flooded in no time. It was fun to sit and watch wet tourists running around, locals in ponchos pretty much continuing as before, and the restaurant across the street putting all his plants on scooters on the sidewalk for watering. Back at the hotel several employees from the places around us were running around saving floating shoes. It seemed to be a custom here to take of your shoes before entering hotels and stores. Our hotel had a shoe rack, so our shoes were safe.

Since our half day tour took most of the day, we didn’t have time to see everything we wanted, so we booked an extra night at the hotel and also arranged a flight to Hue and booked a hotel there. We also got some other things done, like refilling our SIM card, handing in some laundry and finishing a couple of blog posts. In the evening we had dinner at Cyclo Resto, a resturant that have cocking classes during the day and serve a simple, but very good 6 course set menu for only 6 USD. The staff was very sweet and seemed so proud of the place, and we had much fun reading all the greetings written on the walls. At the end of the meal it was time for us to write on the wall as well.

Ho Chi Minh City Day 2

IMG_0894We had a great start of the day with breakfast at Sozo. It’s a restaurant hiring only people from the streets, mainly with disabilities. Their motto is “Restoring hope, changing lives”, and both the food (western) and service was great. We continued to the War Remnants Museum, which is focused mainly on the American phase of the Vietnam War. The exhibitions here were a lot more balanced than the Cu Chi tunnels, and showed the sufferings and histories from both sides. Outside there were several tanks, planes and weapons, and inside there were 3 floors with different exhibitions. What made the biggest impression on us was the before-after photos, and the terrible stories, photos and long-term effects of the chemical weapons used.

IMG_0920After this we needed a break, and stopped at a nearby brewpub, inspired by German beer. Better than tasteless lagers, but nothing special. We walked past the Saigon Opera House (French colonial architecture) and the Notre Dame (built in red bricks imported from Marseilles). We made it up to the skydeck of the Bitexo Financial Tower (49th floor) just in time to take some photos while it was still daylight. We enjoyed some very expensive drinks in the bar on the 52nd floor, before taking some more photos of Saigon by night.

We really love the Vietnamese food, but needed a little bit of variation and had a Mexican dinner and some gin tonics in the pub street. There’s so much going on here, that we could probably sit here for hours watching whole families on small scooters, food being cooked on the sidewalk, locals selling vegetables, souvenirs and photocopied guidebooks and have fun spotting which tourists just arrived and which that have been here for a while (big difference, especially when crossing the street).

Ho Chi Minh City to Hue

P1070036It was a slow morning since we had a late flight to Hue. We checked out just before noon and went back to Sozo for breakfast. Since we had a few hours we walked up to the old marked and Fredrik ended up with two new shorts. At 2 pm we were picked up by a driver who took us to the airport.

The flight with Vietjet (a lowcost airline) was perfectly fine for the ridiculously low price we paid. The airport in Hue was very small, and we were out of there in no time. The temperature took us a bit by surprise. It was a lot colder here than in both Hanoi (north) and Saigon (south), but after two sweaty weeks it was actually really nice. We were picked up by a nice driver, and were fascinated by how little traffic there was and how polite everyone were driving. Since the hotel was in an alley where the car could not drive in we were escorted by two young men with umbrellas (it was drizzling) to the hotel. The welcoming was warm and friendly and they served us juice, tea, coffee and fresh fruits while taking care of the paperwork.

We had booked a twin room that they didn’t have, so we got a large double room with an extra bed. After changing to clothes that were suitable for the temperature (trousers and shoes!), we went out for dinner at Golden Rice Restaurant that was highly recommended by our hotel. And what a dinner! We had Chicken in a bamboo-tube, caramelized pork and pancakes for dessert. We ended the evening with local beers and (mostly) good music at DMZ bar.

Hue

P1070054It was raining when we woke up, so we had a lazy morning. We had breakfast at DMZ bar, where the waiter taught us some Vietnamese. It was warmer than yesterday, so we felt fine in short sleeves, and were looking forward to sightseeing in a bearable temperature. But the locals were freezing, and were wearing winter coats and large wool sweaters. Funny!

Between 1802 and 1945, Hue was the imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty and the capital of Vietnam. We walked over the Parfume River (named after the aroma of the orchard flowers falling into the river in the autumn) towards the Citadel, the seat of the Nguyễn emperors. It occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the river. Inside the citadel was a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines, and those close enough to them were granted access. This area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although it was considerably damaged during the Vietnam War and was neglected for a long time after the war.

IMG_0974We found an English-speaking cyclo driver with a lot of knowledge about the area, so he and a colleague took us to a couple of less visited sights before we continued to the Forbidden City. There are seven gates to the Citadel, one for each king, and we visited one of them and were able to climb to the top for some nice views. We also stopped by Ho Chi Minh’s humble house that now had an alter with photos of him and his parents.

The forbidden city was quite different from what we expected. It was built up similar to the forbidden city in Beijing, but because of the neglect it somehow felt more authentic. Since it was raining a bit in the morning there were not many visitors, and this probably enhanced that feeling. Several places we could see bullet holes in the walls, and sadly parts of the area were completely ruined during the war, but the rest was restored or under restoration. Because of the resent typhoon, it was very wet and slippery in some areas, but that was just part of the experience.

P1070091After booking a private car (and four stops) to Hoi An and a hotel there, we went to Nina’s Cafe for dinner. This was a very cosy family restaurant hidden away in the end of a small alley. Definitely not a place people stumble upon, but because of their good reputation and amazing food several people had found their way there. We had to start with a local speciality, where you roll pankakes and various vegetables in thin rice paper and dip it in a very tasteful peanut sauce. Their Chicken curry and Pork in clay pot was also delicious, and we even had some pancakes for dessert.

Hue to Hoi An

IMG_1024At 10 AM we were picked up by our driver and started our trip to Hoi An. Our first stop was just outside the city of Hue, where we visited the impressive Khai Ding Tomb. There are 6 royal tombs in the area, but since we had seen quite a few tombs in China, we decided on visiting only one. Khai Ding Tomb was built from 1920 to 1931 and is a blend of Western and Eastern architecture. It is located on a steep hill, has several forecourts leading up to the tomb on the top and statues of guards, elephants and dragons. The tomb itself was quite a sight with mosaic, gold, statues and decorated walls and ceilings. As planned we arrived before the tourist busses, and had the place almost to our selves.

IMG_1039We continued for about an hour before we stopped for a 30 minute break at Lang Co Beach, a 10 km strech of white sand and a beautiful turquoise lagoon. In this area we could really see evidence of the resent typhoon, with quite a bit of damage to roofs and light structures (like lounge areas at the beach), lots of driftwood and sandbags on pretty much every roof along the road. Instead of driving through the Hai Van Tunnel (the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia at 6.28 km), we took the scenic route over Hai Van Pass. It was steep and curvy, but we passed several nice waterfalls and had great views. The pass forms a boundary between the climates of northern and southern Vietnam, sheltering the city of Da Nang from the “Chinese winds” that blow in from the northwest. At the top we could see the old gate from the border crossing and some French bunkers, later used by the Americans.

IMG_1066In Da Nang we visited the Marble Mountains, five marble and limestone mountains named after the five elements; Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). We climbed the 156 steps to the top of the biggest mountain (Thuy Son, or Mount of water). We stopped at Da Loi Tower, Linh Ung Pagoda and three different caves. The most impressing one was Huyen Khong Cave, with several Buddha statues and alters, and light coming in through holes holes in the ceiling. The area around the mountains is famous for stone sculpture making and stone-cutting crafts, and there were thousands of statues in all sizes for sale.

P1070183At 3.30 PM we arrived in Hoi An, a city known for it’s hundreds of tailors. The old town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were told that the hotel we stayed in had over 1 meter of water in the lobby (flooding) just one week earlier, but everything looked perfect when we arrived. We went out for a small lunch, before checking out some of the many tailors. We quickly realized that we were not prepared at all and had no idea what we wanted, how much it should cost etc. And how do you choose which tailor to use? We decided to postpone the problem until the next morning, and spent the night walking around the old town, eating dumplings at a local restaurant and drinking beer while watching the life on and along the Thu Bon River. It looked like they had some sort of celebration, with lots of incense everywhere and hundreds of paper lanterns floating slowly down the river.

Hoi An

Hoi An

P1070226Hoi An is a small city with around 120.000 inhabitants. The old town is car-free, there’s a beach just outside the city, and it’s possible to go scuba diving on Cham Islands. These (in addition to the tailors) were the main reasons we decided to stay here for 4 days. Although the weather was a bit unstable, so we didn’t go scuba diving or to the beach, and the car-free old town had plenty of motorbikes, we’re very happy we had more than a couple of days here. The city is a lot more relaxed than most other places we visited, the people are very sweet, the local food is delicious and the old town is picturesque with it’s beautifully restored historical buildings.

P1070246Hoi An has been a major international trading port for more than 2000 years, and the architecture has plenty of foreign influences like the Japanese covered bridge,  the Cantonese Assembly Hall, several temples, and hundreds of Chinese-styled shophouses. Nowadays these are mainly used by shops selling art, jewellery, ceramics etc. – and of course Hoi An’s famous tailor shops (nearly 400!!).

After reading several blog posts and lots of reviews on Tripadvisor we ended up with three tailors we wanted to check out. The first one was very large, looked very high-class, and seemed quite expensive and impersonal. The second one was smaller and felt more our style, but the staff was very pushy and started out on very high prices. The last tailor we wanted to check out was Red Rubik. We got a warm welcome from Trâm, who showed us around. They had fixed prices on everything, and these were lower than the other two tailors, even after bargaining. They had a great selection of fabrics, lots of nice designs on display, and their tailors were working upstairs so it was easy to have small adjustments made. Trâm was not pushy at all, and had no problems with us wanting to go for lunch before deciding on anything. She even showed us a few tricks on how to check the quality, in case we decided to go to a different tailor.

After a nice lunch at Secret Garden Restaurant, we of course went back to Red Rubik. We had a few ideas about what we wanted, but pretty much decided on everything there and then. We had no idea there were so many decisions to be made (fabric, lining, angle of pockets, buttons, fitting, trimming, lapel style, length, number of pockets, vents, cuffs etc. etc.). Gunnhild even designed a couple of dresses and a jacket (with a lot of help), based on photos taken in other shops and designs found in their catalogs and magazines. After a while we had more than enough, and spent the rest of the evening by the river, having dinner, a few beers and just watching life go by.

P1070258We thought we would have plenty of time to enjoy the rooftop pool at our hotel, maybe rent bikes and go to the beach take a cooking class etc., but instead we ended up shopping at two more tailors, one leather tailor making shoes and handbags and one making travel clothing from microfiber materials. And with daily fittings at three tailors, there’s not really much time left for other activities. The fitting process was very smooth. At Red Rubiks they made adjustments while we were trying on the rest of our clothes, which probably saved us a fitting or two. The shop where we bought our travel pants used a tailor that was located a couple of blocks away. When there was a small problem with one of the pants at the second and final fitting, the owner asked Fredrik to look after the shop, and took Gunnhild to the tailor to fix the problem. Sadly it was lunch time, so Fredrik was not able to sell anything while he was in charge. 😉 We were really pleased with all our clothes, and after trying them on we even ended up ordering more. In total we bought 2 dresses, 3 suits, 1 west, 1 skirt, 3 jackets, 2 t-shirts, 4 blouses, 7 shirts, 8 travel pants, 2 handbags, leather sandals and a pair of boots! Phew!

Between all the fittings we did have time for a bit of sightseeing, a lot of relaxation, loads of amazing local food and even some local wine (the white one was good, the red one not so much). We had fresh seafood at a small restaurant by the river, lunch at Streets (a restaurant training street kids and disadvantaged youth for careers in hospitality), and dinner at the famous Morning Glory Restaurant. We played pool at the bar across the street from our hotel, made travel arrangements for the rest of our trip, and even bought some christmas presents.

Hoi An – Hanoi – Oslo

P1070286Because of the unstable situation in Bangkok, we decided to spend one last night in Hanoi instead, since we were able to get a connecting flight all the way home from there. We booked a car from our hotel to Da Nang airport, and the driver spoke very good English and had a lot of knowledge about the area, so we had a great trip and learned a lot. Our flight was 30 minutes late, but we arrived at our hotel in Hanoi at 7 pm. We were welcomed by Dragon, who we knew from our stay there at the beginning of the trip, and were upgraded to an even bigger room than the one we booked.

After several days in relaxing Hoi An, it was again a bit of a shock to arrive in Hanoi. Lots of traffic and noise, but this time we knew how to handle it. We went for dinner at our favourite restaurant, New day, where we had duck in orange sauce, shrimps in tamarind sauce and of course some spring rolls. We went to the night market for some last minute shopping, had a beer in a very local bar, tasted and bought coffee at a small coffee shop, and spent the rest of the evening with gin tonics and good music at Rockstore. At midnight they suddenly closed the bar, and we tried to find another bar instead. But it seemed that the entire old town was closed down, and police were walking around making sure everything was quiet. So we ended the evening with a beer in our room instead.

The next morning we packed our bags, and with all the shopping we had done, we were actually able to close the suitcases and even had some space left in our hand lugguage! So after breakfast at Le Pub, we did some more shopping at silk street and Hang Da Market. 😉 We also had time for a massage at a posh massage clinique just next to our hotel, before we had to go to the airport at 5 pm. We had our last springrolls for a while, and spent the rest of our Vietnamese dong in the airport shops. We had more time in Bangkok than expected, so we figured that we had time for another massage. Not as posh and relaxed as the last one, but still a great way to spend the waiting time. The flight home was long, but both of us were actually able to sleep a little bit. Still we were quite tired when we landed in Oslo at 6:02 am (45 minutes early, and just 2 minutes after opening time). We were welcomed home by the first snow of the season. Luckily we had new jackets from the tailor, but our shoes were not really fit for winter.