Vietnam & Cambodia 2007

Vietnam & Cambodia 2007

November vacations

Seeing that I got to choose the last destination for our vacations, it was now Paula's turn come up with her choice holiday location. She has been wanting to go to Vietnam for as long as I have known her, so it came as no surprise to me that this was her pick. I was able to talk her into including a short trip to Angkor, and there it was - our winter vacations in Indochina !

We tend to plan were little ahead of our trips, and this time was no different. We had no accommodation booked in Hanoi, and even before we got off the airport minibus in Hanoi, we were hassled by hotel touts. It took some stamina to outwalk the touts, but finally we escaped the hassle and on our own found a "luxury" guest house in the old quarter. As our luck would have it, the owner was throwing a birthday party at night and we were promptly invited. The first day in Hanoi was spent soaking up the atmosphere and trying to adjust to the new traffic "rules". Actually, they are more guidelines, I think ! During our time in Hanoi we would spend several hours at street side cafes, just watching the traffic. There seems to be no pattern, no rules but somehow there were no accidents either. It was fascinating !

I found this on the internet:

We pretty quickly booked a trip to Halong Bay. This is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the north of Vietnam - maybe in all of the country. Ba(y)sically it is a bay dotted with limestone islands of all shapes. We had once again splashed out and bought two berths on a luxury cruise, spending one night on a wooden junk in the bay. It was a really nice trip, where we got a chance to kayak a little around the islands and enjoy a sundowner in the junk's comfortable restaurant. The bay itself reminded me a lot of the lagoon of Palau, but without the clear water. Unfortunately, there was no diving here in Halong Bay.

Back in Hanoi, we had a day to explore the cathedral, the Maison central (the old prison - both for the Vietnamese during the French regime and for the Americans during the American war), the lake and the markets in the old quarter. Hanoi still shows a lot of French influence and the city is quite charming once you get used to the noise. And coming from Korea we were delighted by the selection of restaurants and food ! Next day we went on a tour to the Perfume Pagoda. I still don't know why it is called the Perfume Pagoda, because there seems no obvious reason. On top of that, the pagoda turned out to be a cave ! What made the trip worthwhile was the trip there. We were rowed upriver for an hour to get to the cable car, which was to take us up to the pagoda. The river trip was really nice. Paula surely enjoyed it more than the cable way ! (she suffers from vertigo!)

At night we caught the night train to Lao Cai at the foot of the northern highlands. Arriving at 5 in the morning we jumped on a minibus and were taken to Sapa. We had booked a trip to this pleasant mountain town through an agency, but as it turned out it would not have much of a hassle to do it on our own. Still, we got lucky with our group and we really couldn't have spent a better time if we had planned it ourselves. Anyway, arriving at the hotel in Sapa we were greeted by a bunch of local girls. At first they just wanted to talk to us but we suspected that they had a hidden agenda ! Sure enough they pulled out various handcraft after a while, but they were all so nice about it that they soon became our friends. After breakfast we went on a short walk to an old French power station. We were a little surprised to have a following of local women on the walk, thinking that it was all a sales scam. I guess it was, but in such a subtle way that nobody really cared. They were great sources of information local traditions and life. Even language !

Next day we started out on a two day walk in the surroundings of Sapa. Again the women followed us. They were going the same way to get to their village after the morning sale in Sapa. Of course they also hoped to sell us some goods at the end of our walk, but again it was all very subtle, and as we were walking the subject never came up. The landscape in the north is very pretty. It is probably the picture most people will have of southern China, with lots of terraced rice paddies and green mountains. Very picturesque. That night we spent with a local family in one of the villages. This family offers homestays for some of the many foreigners who come here. It is a great way to see how these very kind and open people live. They do not have all the commodities we have, but they do not seem less content ... No matter how cold it got in the evening, we all felt the warmth of these strong people.

Sapa was the highlight of our trip, but we had to move on, so after two nights in Sapa we took the night train back to Hanoi. Paula's birthday was spent on the cafes and restaurants of Hanoi !! We were enjoying the mild weather and great food once more. After 9 days in Vietnam it was time to say goodbye and move on to new adventures. We were off to Cambodia ! Destination Siem Reap - the home of Angkor. The place became (even more) famous when Angelina Jolie put on a ... well, not much ... and went on discovery in the Khmer ruins of Angkor in the movie Tomb Raider. This has led to a huge tourist boom, and the town Siem Reap was nothing what I had expected. It was all a bit too much, though very comfortable ! The ruins themselves were of course very spectacular. 800 years ago over 1 million people lived here. Now only the temples - which were the only buildings made of stone - are left, but spread out over a huge area. Our first day there we went for a full day in a tuk-tuk (a scooter with a trailer). The temples are often several kilometers apart and the outer sightseeing tour is over 30 km long. All the temples are covered in elaborate sculptures. In some cases the jungle has taken over and you can see huge trees growing right out of the rocks. We spent 3 days touring the ruins in tuk-tuk and on bicycle. This was partly due to the size of the area and the ruins but also due to the humidity and heat at midday, which made the pool even more inviting at this time of day !

We decided to take a boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. It's just over 300 km, so we had a long trip ahead of us. In the end it wasn't all that bad, as the scenery was amazing. As taken out of Apocalypse Now. We came across some floating villages and other very poor villages. On top of this misery a lot of the locals have fallen victims to the land mines, so the violent history is much more evident in Cambodia than in Vietnam. Phnom Penh retains some of the French charm that Hanoi had so much of, but we didn't feel as comfortable here as in Hanoi. It is warmer and dirtier here and the exceptional Vietnamese kindness is not as evident. We did not dislike Phnom Penh - we just liked Hanoi better ! The Royal Palace was the exception, though.

Well - enough rambling ... now it's time for some photos !