An adventure to Vietnam and Cambodia
I have always wanted to visit Angkor Watt. And the Valley of the Kings. We spent a week for my 40th birthday in Luxor and spent our time visiting tombs and soaking in the wonderful sunshine and light of the Nile. This year, we decided it was time to fulfil the next ambition and visit Vietnam and Cambodia. We escaped from the madness (and excitement) of a British Christmas and flew to Ho Chi Minh on the 23rd for December, with Vietnam Airlines.
I hadn’t thought writing about South East Asia would really be relevant on our Papadeli website, but a friend asked today if I’d written a blog as she wanted to know what we got up to. So I thought, why not – it might be useful if you’re planning a visit.
Wow, Ho Chi Minh! We had visited this city 20 years ago when the government controlled tourism. We had to travel by government bus and there were few places to eat, let alone places that were geared for tourists. The roads were awash with elegant women in white on bicycles with their conical straw hats to shade their faces. Crossing the road was a challenge, but generally they peacefully wove their way around you. Today’s Ho Chi Minh is completely transformed. Every bicycle (and some more) from twenty years ago has been replaced by a motorbike.The noise, the pollution – it hits you when you arrive (especially with jet lag). It was so hot, and the traffic frenzied and the smell – a good smell, a very definite smell of spiced warmth. It’s an incredibly exciting city, with elegant French style boulevards as well as 21st century architecture.
We stayed at Liberty Central, a hotel in District 1, and within walking distance of the Reunification Palace and the American Museum. A short walk doesn’t necessarily take a short time, as crossing the road was something that you have to prepare yourself for. And hope for the best. We would take our hearts in to our mouths and just cross in front of the sea of motorbikes and hope that they would swerve to avoid us. They just don’t stop. We had foolishly believed that on the reaching the other side, we would be safe, until we realised that the bikes will happily mount the pavement to avoid the traffic.
Into the Reunification Palace. Vietnam’s history is so complex that I won’t even try to go into it now (I definitely won’t do it any justice), but I would recommend a visit here. It gives you a flavour of how things were during the war between North and South Vietnam and you can see some rooms where important meetings were held, along with the underground bunker. Out of the cool peace of the Palace, we took our lives into our hands once again and found our way to the American Museum. A horrific exhibition of the horrors of war and captivity, hammer home how much the country suffered.
As we had slept but a few hours on the plane and it was now 12pm, we were starting to stagger a little in the heat. At times like these we usually resort to food. So we went to Ngon restaurant. Housed in an elegant French colonial house, we gratefully sat down and ordered. Lots. Noodles, curries, salads, rice dishes and Saigon beer. All wonderful and delicious.
That evening we visited a local market near the hotel and ate at a hidden restaurant that was down a dark alley way on two or three floors. That’s all I can remember of its location! The boys’ dishes arrived and they loved it. Mine? It was placed on the table and Tom observed, “there is a smell of cat poo here”. Thinking there might have been some cats in the alley behind I invited Simon to try my salad. I wish I could remember what it was called so that you could make sure you avoid it should you visit. But I can’t. Simon was nearly sick. It contained jack fruit and a large amount of fish sauce. We are very into weird and unusual dishes, but this one will be one we will actively avoid!
Ho Chi Minh is a very happening city (and fast growing) – next door to our Jack fruit restaurant was a micro brewery and bar full of Vietnamese and tourist hipsters. Anyone with a beard would feel at home.
We retired to our hotel and installed ourself at the rooftop pool and drank Saigon watching the sun set over the sky rise. The faint noise of motorbikes still going. A l ovely way to end the evening.
The next morning we took our hotel packed lunch of boiled eggs and banh mi (filled baguettes) on the train to the coast. Nearer the coast, there were field upon field of short, succulent plants, that looked a bit like small pineapple trees, with bright fuchsia fruits growing at the end of each arm. These are dragon fruit trees! So beautiful.
Four hours later we reached the coast and Phan Thiet. We were staying at Blue Ocean Resort which was a small hotel with chalets on the beach. A proper paradise beach with palm trees and white sands. A good place to spend Christmas.
On Christmas Day we visited a local mud spa. Housed in a large communist style building, we paid $6 for the day including lunch. Staff with no English pointed us to small round pools which they filled with runny, warm mud. Then we were pointed to an ice cold shower, before dipping into small pools of water filled with scented petals. Another ice cold shower before time at the pool followed by lunch in a large, almost empty cafeteria with views of the sea below. It was us and a table of four locals whose mountain of beer cans had been hidden under their tables, but there were so many they were escaping onto the floor in every direction. Deeply and happily drunk, two men came over and welcomed us to Vietnam and sang a song. (Their sober friend translated).
A memorable Christmas day.
After four days at the beach, we flew to Hanoi. Hanoi is a beautiful, colonial city, with incredible markets and an elegant central lake. We took a cycle tour through some of the food markets, witnessed live frogs twitching having lost their heads, live turtles, all sorts of unidentifiable carcasses and meats. Mountains of dried shrimps and spices. The smells, sounds, sights were just remarkable. I would definitely recommend this.
What I was less enthusiastic about was the water puppetry show. Our guide raved about it and said tourists loved it. An hour of Vietnamese music, singing and puppets in water. Tom and Sam enjoyed it (they spent their time watching the two female singers chatting, doing anti ageing facial gymnastics and generally fooling around in between choruses) but it was the longest hour of my life.
Lunch was at La Verticale, a beautiful restaurant housed in an old French colonial house with stunning old tiles and shutters. A great wine list (I don’t even remember seeing wine when we visited twenty years ago) and the food was a fusion of French and Vietnamese. Gorgeous.
I do feel like I’m rushing on, but I wouldn’t want to bore you. So here’s a short version of the next week….
We’d been warned of the overcrowded nature of this world famous site. Actually, it was very well managed and although there were a fair few boats, they staggered them so we didn’t feel as if there were lots of people around. We spend the night on a boat, sailing up the coast. Highlights? Kayaking, learning how cultured pearls are made (really interesting!), a cookery class on how to make spring rolls (mine got rejected and I had to make them again) and a Tai Chi session on the top deck at sunrise. Loved it all. Oh, yes and the incredible seascape of giant rock formations rising out of the sea. Superb.
Back to Hanoi for a flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia where we spent the New Year.
I had thought Cambodia would be less developed and Siem Reap is certainly not a high rise city like Ho Chi Minh. However it is a city that has grown because of the tourism to Angkor Wat and therefore is fairly Westernised and geared to tourists. But I have to say it’s been really well done.
The country has been through so much hardship and atrocity, which only came to an end twenty years ago. Most adults will clearly remember the poverty and suffering. We can’t even imagine it. This is something that I thought a lot about during our visit. I do wonder what they think of us Westerners, but from our experience there, we were treated with nothing but respect. There are some countries in the world where tourists are seen as fair game, but we felt completely relaxed and at home here (as we did in Vietnam.)
Angkor Wat. The whole reason for us coming half way across the world. What I didn’t know was that there are hundreds of temples. Angkor Wat is one of the biggest and is on an enormous site. Some of the ruins were cities to up to a million people. I think the biggest civilisation in the world at the time. (Do check the fact as I sometimes make things up). Spectacular. Really. We visited the main temple at Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm where trees and their roots are like giant aliens holding up the temples (and famous thanks to Tomb Raider and Lara Croft), The ladies’ temple, Banteay Srei, all pink, ornate and delicate, Angkor Thom with its giant faces. All a maze of stone corridors and steps, some with small shrines curated by silent nuns with their incense and colourful flags.
Siem Reap is an absolutely lovely town with a choice of cafes and restaurants that would rival Bristol. From the Peace cafe and Olive leaf which are not for profits supporting local charities, to high end Viroths and Mahob. Olive leaf deserves a proper mention as it is a charity, so profits go to training local people in the hospitality industry as well as insisting on locally sourced produce. Food is excellent as is their “Cambodian espresso martini”. Their menu has lots to offer, and a favourite was for me banana flower and green papaya salad. So fresh, sweet and hot. Loved it. Cambodian food is not dissimilar to Vietnamese food, with Pho, noodles in broth, mild curries. Lots of fresh ingredients but lighter on the chilli heat than Thai food.
We stayed at Hanuman Villa, a little hotel with black lacquered floors, raspberry coloured straw mats and large Buddhas everywhere. It’s a short tuk tuk ride from the hotel to town, along the river. Judging by the amount of building going on along the way, there will soon be a big selection of boutique hotels. Mostly low rise and very beautifully designed, it looks like the city plans to grow gracefully. And grow it must, as the temples have seen visitor numbers increase from 125,000 in 2000 to around two million more recently. The government plans to further increase numbers substantially over the next decade.
New Year’s eve and we were in bed by 10, that’s the sort of rock and roll lifestyle we have. 6 am starts to see temples at their most peaceful had taken it out of us. The hotel staff all went down to Pub Street (yes really) to join the buzzing tourist scene for countdown.
Sad to leave Siem Reap, we flew back to Ho Chi Minh, had a 4 hour wait at the airport before our 14 hour flight back. We felt surprisingly ok when we landed at 8am the next morning and got back to Bristol full of sunny memories.