A Travellerspoint blog

Overcoming tragedy - Phnom Penh

sunny 31 °C
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After traveling 3 hours by boat through the Mekong, crossing the border to Cambodia, then another 4.5 hours on boat and an hour and a half by bus, we finally arrived in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital city. We were pleasantly surprised when we got there; I guess not having any expectations helped. Phnom Penh was much more built up and modern than we thought it would be.

Our first day was fairly depressing as we learned all about Cambodia’s history. We hired a “tuk tuk” (a motorcycle pulling a little trolly that you sit in) for the day, who took us to all the attractions. It was very cheap and quite fun to ride in! Our first stop was the Killing Fields, where an estimated 20,000 Cambodians were massacred during their leader Pol Pot’s regime from 1975-1979. To summarize, Pol Pot lead the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian revolutionary movement, to transform Cambodia into a giant peasant dominated nation. This means that all professionals, intellectuals, foreigners, teachers, and their entire families were systematically wiped out. Even something as simple as having glasses was enough to get you killed. The goal was basically to create a slave labour society where people did not question leadership and merely did as they were told. It is thought that two million people (one fourth of the population) were killed. Needless to say, it was a horrible atrocity and very sad and infuriating to learn about.

the sign just before you enter the mausoleum monument which holds the remains of many of the deceased

to this day, clothing and more remains surface when it rains

As another part to the Killing Fields, we visited Tuol Sleng (S-21 Prison), a former elementary and high school that was converted into one of the prisons where people were detained and tortured before being murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Out of the thousands and thousands of people who were kept at the prison, only seven survived. They basically let you roam free everywhere we visit, so it was particularly haunting to go though the cells and imagine what these people went through.

prison cells

After a very sombre afternoon, we also visited the Russian Market, a place where we got some very real knock-offs as well as actual real brand names for ridiculous prices. Unfortunately, these places are like furnaces, and we all know how well George does in heat. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “I’m so hot right now. I’m drenched. I can’t stop sweating. So much for my clean shirt.” You would think he’d be used to it by now??? We also headed down to the waterfront and went to the night market where we bought some food and ate with many locals sitting on the ground on mats. That moment was somewhat ruined by a huge bug that flew directly into my face. I eventually got over it though. The prices are so cheap that we try everything we can, like sugarcane juice (25 cents), although that one we didn’t really like.

our sweet ride

waterfront area (where George is a little cooler)

when in Rome...

So another city that absolutely surprised us. A lovely place that both of us really enjoyed. Next on the list – Siem Riep and Angkor Wat!

Posted by jgjourney 08:16 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Sailing Through the Mekong Delta

sunny 30 °C
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As we write this we’re riding a boat just inside the Cambodian border so our time in Vietnam has come to an end. Before we got here, however, we traveled along the Mekong Delta, a river that starts in Tibet and flows through seven countries.

We did this as part of a bus/boat tour so we got to see many things that we might not have by doing it on our own. For example, the first day we stopped in a small village and saw how coconut candy and honey is made. We also visited a temple with huge Buddha statues in front of it and saw a traditional Vietnamese folk band. The second day we took a boat through the biggest floating market in the Mekong. This is where our camera batteries died and we started panicking. Luckily we found a little tiny shop in a village and bought some. We saw a fishing village, learned how Vermicelli noodles are made, took a little boat ride through some canals, visited a crocodile farm, and saw another temple where Monks and Nuns live overlooking Vietnam and Cambodia. Our guide was quite entertaining - his name was JJ (actually Vu...don't ask how he got renamed JJ. It's a bit like how Vasiliki becomes Alyssa :))

another temple...I wonder if we'll get sick of them at some point

this is the scale we use to compare George's size to the Vietnamese

can you say tourist?

So far today we’ve travelled by boat for 3 hours to the Cambodian border (wait until you see pictures of these boats), stopped for lunch at the border, are on another boat for 3 hours until we get to land, and then a bus for an hour to Phnom Penh. Although it will undoubtedly be longer since their time estimate is usually about 2-3 hours off and they like to stop and linger.

when George said "we'll take a boat to get to Cambodia" I was picturing something a tad different

parts of this trip have definitely made us appreciate what we have

the locals in this Muslim minority village thought it would be fun to play dress-up with us. I think we look smashing!

So we've said a sad goodbye to Vietnam, a country we will remember for its tragic past, smiling (and small) people, and outrageous drivers. Although it was a genuine culture shock when we first arrived, we grew to enjoy its charm and uniqueness. Cambodia has a lot to live up to!

Posted by jgjourney 08:16 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Sad to leave Saigon

rain 30 °C
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Well, we've learned that people have an affinity for this city for a reason. We ended up really enjoying our time in Saigon (it's renamed Ho Chi Minh City but almost everyone still calls it Saigon). Our first day there we took our guidebook and followed the route for a walking tour. There is so much interesting history to this country and this is the first city that actually goes into depth about it. Besides being caught in thunderstorms and wading through puddles (throw in some temper tantrums followed by a silent cooling off period), it was a wonderful time.

Some small highlights of our first day were the French Colonial Post Office (they were occupied by the French for a while), the former Opera House, and the Jade Emperor's Pagoda (I took George on a major quest to find this one...it was more out of the way than anticipated...oops!). The city is a huge mix of old and new, with tall modern buildings next to old charming ones. We were worried since everyone said it's crazier than Hanoi, and with a population of 9 million, that's what you would think, but we actually found it much easier to manage. There are more street lights, wider sidewalks, and just a newer, more well-kept feeling to it.

site of the famous picture taken of the makeshift helicopter landing pad used to evacuate U.S. citizens during the fall of Saigon

actual famous evacuation photo - 1975

The thing we most enjoyed on our first day was the Reunification Palace. This is where the former President lived, and where the famous
picture was taken of the tank crashing through the gates and into the palace towards the end of the Vietnam war. We had a guided tour of the palace and learned all about the history of the war and the country. These people have been through a lot of war - to recap: they were at war with the Chinese for 1,000 years, with the French for 100, Americans for 13, and some shorter conflicts with Cambodia and Laos. Over the last few years, they have finally experienced being war free and you can tell the people are very happy to finally have some peace.

View from Reunification Palace - complete with rainbow and all

The second day we took a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, an area of Saigon with a huge network of underground tunnels that were used by communist guerrillas and made a huge impact on the war. It was almost like an underground city that even had hospitals, kitchens, army bunkers, and even a tunnel that led straight to the American base, which they used to repeatedly attack them through. We got a chance to actually go through a section of the tunnels and it was not for the claustrophobic! George could barely squeeze by!

cu chi tunnel entry - how did they do it???

don't let the smile fool you, I wanted out, fast!

To cap off our visit to Saigon, we went to the War Museum, which was completely unlike any museum we had ever been to. They definitely don't hide the brutality of the war with the Americans. There were many moments that we both felt sick to our stomachs. Although brutally graphic (and one sided, as can be expected) we both felt that those are the images and stories that the general public of the world should be exposed to, not those glorified images of hero soldiers fighting for "freedom". It was truly disturbing and enraging to learn about what happened to innocent civilians of this country.

boys and their machines

some American soldiers donated their war medals to the museum, one with a message "I'm sorry, I was wrong."

So to conclude, we really enjoyed our stay in Saigon. It's rich in culture, history, and tons to do. We were sad to leave but are starting our new adventure through the Mekong Delta!

believe it or not, they are actually standing side by side. I wonder if they think he's a giant??

Posted by jgjourney 07:36 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Thank goodness for Hoi An

sunny 26 °C
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Before getting to Hoi An, our last day in Hanoi was spent visiting the Hoa Lo Prison, otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton to the U.S. pilots that were held there. This is the same prison John McCain was held captive at. It was interesting to see how much better the U.S. soldiers were treated than the Vietnamese political prisoners, or so they tell us. Information is severely lacking in the tourist attractions so we usually don’t know anything about what we’re seeing until we google it afterwards.

When we got to Hoi An, we were so incredibly happy with our hotel! It’s amazing how much the little things excite you, like a bathtub (not just a showerhead in the middle of the bathroom that sprays water over everything in the bathroom every time you take a shower) and a blowdryer (mine broke the first day). Seeing as how this city is about two percent of the population of the major cities we’ve been in, we were grateful to be able to walk around the streets without the massive congestion and the overwhelming fear of being hit by a motorbike. It’s pretty touristy, but we needed that for a few days. At night, the city lights-up and is quite pretty, so we’ve enjoyed our stay immensely.

our hotel...heaven for 3 nights

smoking gecko! our hotel staff coaxed him into it.

pretty city at night

Another thing we’ve enjoyed is getting tailor made dresses and suits in a matter of days! Hoi An has the largest number of tailors per capita in the world, so everywhere you look there’s another tailor shop calling you in, “Buy something? Come see my shop.” We got 2 suits, 2 dress shirts, 1 pair of shoes, 3 dresses, 1 jacket, and two linen pants tailor made for us for $330! All of which we are incredibly happy with except for George’s shoes. Hey, 10 out of 11 items isn’t bad! George particularly enjoyed the tailoring process, probably because the idea of personal space is foreign to them and the girls patted his behind consistently.

our lovely tailor ladies. "you buy more? maybe one more suit?"

Our first full day here we met up with our U.K. friends again and had lunch...we’re really starting to get sick of rice and noodles so last night we actually found a restaurant that had pizza and it was the best pizza we ever tasted! We also biked to the nearby beach on what seemed like ancient bikes and enjoyed the coastline for a while. All in all, a great experience here in Hoi An. Now we’re just waiting for our ride to the airport to move on to the next city – Ho Chi Minh, formerly Saigon. This will be the biggest city in Vietnam so we’re trying to mentally prepare for the chaos we will undoubtedly experience. Wish us luck!

our first beach of the trip

i wonder how many toes have been lost...

big beer $0.30, little beer $0.15, George's face when he realized this...priceless.

Posted by jgjourney 07:31 Archived in Vietnam Comments (5)

Sapa - the Vietnam we've been waiting for

overcast 10 °C
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Relieved to get out of busy Hanoi, we took the night train (George has done it before but my first one) 8 hours to Sapa, a town in the mountains containing several minority hill tribes. We were told that once we got there out tour operator would be waiting for us holding a sign with our name. However, we step off the train but can't seem to find our name anywhere. We do pass a sign that said "Mantan Kos Geoge" and thought, maybe Mantan is the bus or tour name and they mis-spelled George. After all, how many George's could there be? After questioning the guide we were told, no, that was the name of the person he was waiting for. He checked our travel slip and of course the names did not match. After wandering around for a while, the light bulb went off - George was Mantan Kos Geoge! Mantan Kos and Diamantakos were the same thing! Hey, it's better than being called "Church" in Costa Rica. And so the petrifying drive up the mountain began (there seems to be a pattern developing).

king kong George is no match for big mountain

After an 8 hour train ride and a 45 minute bus ride up the mountain at 5:30am, we were told our 6 hour trek through Sapa would begin at 9:30am. Of course, our hotel room wasn't ready so we just hung around and layered up for the hike (it's about 8-10 degrees in the mountains). It was a good thing we rented boots and didn't use our own because we were ankle deep in mud the entire way! We were slipping and sliding but miraculoulsy didn't fall! Although George did have a close call and also banged into a garbage can while taking a picture but still didn't fall. In the words of our guide "why you no stop? You walk so dangerous!"

that's a lot of rice!

That being said, Sapa is easily the best place we've gone to so far. It was pretty foggy so some mountain top views weren't visible but the fog cleared in most places and the scenery was spectacular! Rice paddy fields on the sides of mountains for miles, running waterfalls...it was beautiful. And to add to the experience we trekked through a`minority hill tribe village and got to see how they actually live. They are like people that have come out of the past, dressed in colourful, traditional costumes. Our tour guide also belonged to a neighbouring tribe and was cute as a button! As she so eloquently put it, "my stomach telling my legs keep going!" before getting to lunch.

notice our muddy shoes, and Janet's lovely rain boots

Lan, our cute as a button tour guide

Lao Chai village ladies

her life in the hills

The second day of our tour brought us to some even more remote villages off the tourist path and that's where we saw some very humbling images. Tiny wooden shacks, muddy barefoot children (it's cold up there), probably some of the poorest people in the country. At the same time, the people are welcoming, the children run around playing, and after staring at you for a bit (since they probably don't see foreigners very much) smile and wave to you as you walk by. Still...it definitely makes you appreciate what you have.

showing off their climbing skills


bad buffalo! bad!

All in all, a great experience in Sapa. We're now in Hoi An, a smaller town near the beach and from what we saw driving in from the airport tonight and our spectacular hotel (we splurged and got a luxurious room for $50!) it's going to be great! We'll update soon...

Posted by jgjourney 08:57 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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