‘Snookyville’ and Koh Rong Sanloem

‘Snookyville’ and Koh Rong Sanloem

Whilst we’ve been travelling, accommodation and food are probably our single largest bills. Finding cheap accommodation big enough for two adults and two young children isn’t always easy. The less we spend the longer we can extend our travels. We easily spend $5-1000 per month in most places.

‘Great!’, we have a house-sit for 2 months in Sihanoukville, saving us $500 USD per month (by Cambodian standards). How wrong could we be!

It was essentially a disaster. From the end of June to end of September is the rainy season in southern Cambodia and it’s not unusual for the rain to pour down for four to five days on end. It also doesn’t help that the property we were in had no A/C and flooded three times including the ceiling collapsing in two of the rooms we didn’t use. Yes, it was that bad!

While spending 2 months there we were constantly on the search for child-friendly places, such as ‘King Fried Chicken’ and ‘Café Awaken’.

I honestly don’t know why people live in such a place, other than to escape civilization because of some secret they have. Many of the people we met had some very interesting story to tell :‑X

We became experts in many different cafes & would recommend the following:

Starfish bakery – they even do free Khmer lessons every Saturday afternoon.

Enocafe – Best coffee & pizza in Sihanoukville

The Bavarian – Best German food in Sihanoukville.

Hugo – I loved this place, run by a couple of Czech gents – the beer & food is cheap & wholesome!

You and Me restaurant – great local food & expat hangout

The Sandan – part of a non-profit charity chain. Expensive but nice for a special occasion

Waterhouse café (Otres)

There are some Vegan options, but I really don’t do cardboard food so can’t recommend them. I’m sure others have a better opinion than I. These were:

The Dao of Life

Yellow breakfast

As a treat get to Sokha beach resort, where you will be spoilt, but at $20 each for a day pass it is expensive. You can sit in and use the restaurant for afternoon tea and dinner for free though.

Otres beach is the main attraction, but the build-up of rubbish, which isn’t helped by the fact that the refuse company stopped removing waste whilst we were there, is making it worse. I believe it has been rectified, but it’s easy to throw rubbish over a wall, hoping n-one will notice.

Living in a basic hut with a fan can be great fun, as you can see from our Koh Rong trip, but some of the places on Otres are far too small.

Otres 1 is plagued by the poor road surface, which means you can’t even get a scooter to many of the places.

Koh Rong & Koh Rong Sanloem

The main attraction for Sihanoukville must be the islands of Koh Rong and its baby sister, Koh Rong Sanloem.

We only stayed on Sanloem for four days & it more than made up for the remainder of the time spent in ‘Snooky’.

I managed to get a couple of dives in Koh Rong Sanloem, but it’s not recommended as the visibility is so poor you can hardly see anything. Even when visibility is good, there’s not much to see as it’s been overfished, like so many places in Asia.

It’s definitely worth staying there for longer to explore the island and the many bars.

One of the highlights is the bio-luminescent algae in the water. As you swim, the trails of your arms and legs light up. One of those rare activities that a photo is almost impossible to capture.

Housesitting:

We will still look for housesits but be more careful about the conditions we are prepared to accept.

Next stop – Kuala Lumpur

Phnom Penh – The troubled capital of Cambodia.

Phnom Penh – The troubled capital of Cambodia.

After Siem Reap, we stupidly decided to transfer to Phnom Penh and extend our visas there which takes a week. In hindsight, we wished we would have extended our stay in Siem Reap and extended our Visas there. (we didn’t do our research very well here for the visa options!, but the not so friendly customs officer in Hanoi, Vietnam didn’t help either)

There isn’t really that much to do in Phnom Penh apart from the Royal Palace, National Museum ( where there are a few original relics from Angkor) and the killing fields. It’s a worthwhile trip, but only for a maximum 3-4 days. As we travel as a family, I would n’t recommend SL21 and the killing fields for the faint-hearted and very young children.

Wat Phnom – Birthplace of Phnom Penh
King Ponhea Yat – the last Khmer King

Royal Palace

The Royal Palace is a sight to behold. The buildings and mausoleums dedicated to the Royal family are tremendous. The monarchy is still held in high regard in Cambodia.

National Museum

When in the Angkor Museum, Siem Reap, there is reference many times to the original artefact being at the National Museum in PP. This is a slight exaggeration, as the museum is very small and many of the artefacts are in overseas Museums, such as Paris.

You can easily get around the museum within a half day.  It’s a worthwhile visit including one of the many not-for-profit cafes or restaurants nearby.

One of the torture rooms – you can make out a picture on the wall of one of the remaining victims left behind after the Khmer Rouge evacuated quickly.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – SL21

If you’re interested in modern history, a highlight (or lowlight depending on your viewpoint), was the visit to the ex-School-turned-prison for the Khmer Rouge in the late 70’s. The history of the Khmer Rouge and a chronicle of the Cambodian Genocide as part of Pol Pot’s ‘experiment’ into collectivist farms and forced labour. He was responsible for the deaths of approximately 25% of the Cambodian population, an estimated 1 to 3 million people.

Bear in mind the Khmer Rouge was in alliance with the Vietnamese Government against US-backed forces so the whole area is linked to the Vietnam War & so-called ‘Communist’ threat raging across Asia at the time.

Of 20,000 inmates of Tuol Sleng, there were only seven survivors, of which two were in attendance, Chum Mey being one of them. It is an uncomfortable experience meeting the survivors of such a camp. What do you say? I was lost for words when Chum Mey smiled and nodded to me. All I could think to do was return his smile, with my hand across my heart and lightly bow to him (as is common across Asia).

Kaung Kek Leu (also known as ‘Comrade Duch’) the prison commandant was sentenced only in 2010 to life imprisonment by a UN war crimes tribunal in Cambodia.

It is a harrowing, unforgettable visit which certainly tests your emotions.

Tuol Sleng Memorial within the gardens

Ghosts of Tuol Sleng

As everyone who has visited Tuol Sleng – I too have been stunned by the photos of the victims staring at me from the past.

“Ghosts of Tuol Sleng” is an attempt to shed new light on the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide, by presenting them in a different way than the usual mug shot, that everyone who visits Tuol Sleng will be familiar with.

By photographing the individual pictures in different light conditions, and with visitors to the museum interacting, my aim is to revitalize the victims, show them as human beings – who like you and I – just wanted to live, but never got the chance, dehumanized by a gruesome regime.

None of the pictures are manipulated, but are reflections of the light cast by the images on the glass that protects the photos.

Photographing the reflection of the image instead of the image itself, a ghostlike feeling passes through the pictures.

According to popular Khmer belief, a person who hasn’t been given a proper burial will have to live on as a ghost, unable to find peace. While shooting the pictures this was unknown to me.

When a person dies in Cambodia, the body is usually taken to the local monastery, where it’s cremated. At the funeral, Buddhist monks will chant prayers, to comfort the family and give the mortal’s soul a safe passage to the afterlife.

The gact that none of Tuol Slengs inmates were given a proper burial after being executed in the Killing fields at Choeung Ek 15km. outside Phnom Penh – is a continuing source of suffering for surviving family members.

Of Tuol Slengs 20,000 inmates only 7 survived.

Contrary to popular belief – we can only hope that the victims of Tuol Sleng have been able to find peace, and won’t have to live like ghosts in the afterlife. It’s hard to imagine that their suffering should continue after what they endured. I prefer to believe that it didn’t.

Yours sincerely,

Stefan V. Jensen

It is worth going to Phnom Penh but for only a long weekend, as then you will have covered most of the sights.

We stayed at the NKS hotel also known as Ny Ka Smy Hotel, which was one of the cleanest hotels we have stayed in. It is in an upcoming area of PP, a short walk away from the Russian market, with many bars. Unfortunately, the open sewer runs beside the hotel and we all fell ill. I assume when it rains the lack of a hygienic drain system means you walk the dirt into your room, even though it is common practice to take your shoes off at the door. Young kids with a severe bout of projectile vomiting is not fun.

It’s not really a place we enjoyed (possibly due to falling ill), but also due the lack of interesting activities.

Why troubled as I state in the title? While we were there the current ruling party declared they could dissolve any other party they wished. It doesn’t sound good for any form of simple democracy that exists at present.

 

Next Stop – Sihanoukville

Gateway To Angkor

Gateway To Angkor

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a backpacker town, dedicated to serving the millions of tourists who visit to see the Angkorian temple ruins.

If you haven’t heard about Angkor Wat and the hundreds of temple ruins then here’s a brief history lesson.

Dating from the 9th to the 16th century, the Khmer empire ruled most of South East Asia (encompassing parts of modern Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand). Setting up its base in and around what is now the most extensive temple ruins worldwide at Angkor Wat.

When the western world was still living in the middle ages, massive empires were being built, what was an utterly alien land. The equivalent of finding a martian empire today!

The site was lost, or ‘hidden’ after the Siam empire overthrew the Khmer regime in the 16th century. Angkor Wat was re-discovered by Henri Mouhot (albeit controversial) in the 1860’s

https://www.aboutasiatravel.com/cambodia/guide/angkor-temple/angkor-wat/angkor-wat-temple.htm

Brilliant detail on a door lintel

Banteay Srei – Citadel of the Women

We also got to see another of the magical sites at Banteay Srei, which although small has some fantastic carvings. The best of the Angkor sites?

It is a small site, but very informative with separate buildings housing an explanation of the site. It is one of the most intricately carved places and makes for some great detailed shots

Look at this fella’

Look at this fella’

Cambodian landmine musicians giving a recital

Oversaturated? I know, but best to bring out the detail!

Phnom Kulen

Phnom Kulen (P’nom Koo’Lun), AKA Mountain of Lychees, is the location of K’bal Spean riverbed. We didn’t make it here, as it’s a trek which we didn’t want to do with the young girls. We did get to the animal sanctuary here – although a trek, we’d recommend this and the landmine museum on return to Siem Reap.

Particularly harrowing painting of the effects of mines

Apopo Humanitarian Demining – on the way to Angkor Thom: Mine detection using Rats

Roluos Group

The area of the Roluos group of temples was the starting point of the Khmer empire, where Jayavarman II from the mid 9th century built. These are Bakong, Lolei and Preah Ko.

If you go here, then some people also make an excursion to see the stilted houses and floating villages on the coast of Tonle Sap lake, a 30-minute drive south. It is only advisable during monsoon season. Otherwise, the water level is too low.

Figure 1 Bakong and Wat

Bakong Peak from the wall

Bakong Wat Fauna

Preah Ko

Preah Ko

Ancient and New

Ancient Khmer script is similar to Sanskrit

Lolei

Most disappointing due to being under cover

Lolei Buddha within temple on grounds

Angkor Wat

 

Angkor Wat became the capital of the Khmer empire and is the largest religious temple in the World. Built as a Hindu temple by Suryavarman II in the 12th century, it later became a Buddhist temple or Wat in the late 12th century, which it remains today.

It is a temple within a temple, as the inner temple resembles Mount Meru, the kingdom of the Hindu Devas (Gods). A 3.7km wall & moat surround the outer galleried temple built later.

It is a fantastic site and well worth spending a couple of days viewing and exploring.

Apsara Dancer

Ancient and New

The reality of crowds

Apsara Dancer

The churning of the ocean of milk

The Galleried temple holds a series of detailed Bas-reliefs dating back to the 12th century. It shows the king Suyavarman II going into battle. It is amazing that such a site still exists, even though it has gone through an extensive renovation project.

We spent the best part of a day just browsing through here.

Vishnu is surrounded by the Asuras (demons) and Devas (Gods) and fortunately the heavenly Apsara dancers providing much-needed encouragement obviously proved too much for the hot-blooded demons and the good willed out.

From the churning of the primordial soup was nature created

Vishnu

Battle of Kurukshetra

The signpost states: “The reliefs sculpted on the southern section of the western gallery represent the concluding episode of the Mahabharata, a renowned Indian epic tale. The Battle of Kurukshetra, when the Pandava and Kaurava clans meet in final deadly combat. Interestingly the Mahabharata is virtually unknown in modern Cambodia. Unlike the Ramayans, which continues to permeate all aspects of Khmer culture, the Mahabharata would seem to have faded from cultural practice and memory with the decline of the Angkorian Empire.”

Heaven & Hell

The sign-post at the entrance to Hell reads, “The reliefs sculpted on the eastern section of the southern gallery represent the 37 Heavens and 32 Hells derived from Indian traditions. The Hells on the lower registers are pictured in greater detail than the Heavens above. Each hell is in fact identified by an accompanying inscription. Thius we read “Avici”, “Raurava”, etc., names still known and feared in Cambodia today.”

It’s also suggested some of the graphic scenes were used as models for torture by the Khmer Rouge.

Heaven Hell

Hell for the poor buggers!

Ouch!

Graced in Heaven

Passes, what to see, when to go

I won’t go into so much graphic detail with any history lessons. This has been one of the highlights of our Asian trip. Enough information exists on the internet which is better suited for research. I hope you like my photo gallery of the site.

We got a seven-day pass, which is the maximum you can get without having to buy again. We made this last two weeks, as it is easy to become ‘templed out’ if you visit every day. The mid-day heat in Cambodia is not forgiving. As we had Amelie and Soraya, we went early morning for 8-9am or mid to late afternoon.

There was a lot of debate over the 70+% price increase before we arrived, as the prices had not increased in 10 years or so. The main debate surrounds who benefits from this.

Cambodia is struggling in many areas, such as the hospital which relies largely on charity donations. It would be ‘criminal’ if the proceeds only go into an offshore pot somewhere!

However, regardless of the politics surrounding this subject, the price is well worth it and makes the seven-day pass even more value than the one day and three-day passes.

My recommendation is have a quick guided tour of many of the main sites then drill down into where you want to concentrate more. We spent an extra day each at Bayon (The face towers) and AngKor Wat and tha Bas-Reliefs.

The tour guide is useful for $15 for two hours (a rip-off for Asia, but that’s the problem of USD pricing), but it’s also worth reading up a bit in advance.

Not forgetting we have a young family, they weren’t completely bored with the history lessons,

Ta Prohm

One of the other most famous sites is Ta Prohm, due to the ravages of nature, as creeper vines, strangler figs and other local fauna, strangle the temple ruins. They certainly make for some atmospheric shots.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom, sited just north of Angkor Wat is the site of the central city of Angkor. Built in the late 12th century under the rule of Jayavarman VII and housed up to 750,000 people at the height of its rule. The capital of the Khmer empire.

Main Gate

The main gate is approached, with the Devas (Gods) and Asuras (Demons) each pulling the head of the mythical serpent, Naga, in a battle against good versus evil.

The head represents King Jayavarman VII in Buddhist ‘bodhisattva’ or enlightened pose.

 

 

Bayon

Following on from the main gate is the famous temple known for its Buddhist pose heads on every column, Bayon. The centre of Angkor Thom.

It is another of those sites we could spend days touring around. It also shows a Bas-relief on the outside wall as well as the hundreds of heads facing the cardinal directions on each tower.

As Soraya says:  Enfenfants!

Break time as it’s getting hot!

Amelie studying something….?

Amazing Window surround of Apsara dancers!

 

Terrace of the Elephants

The Terrace of the elephants, built by Jayavarman VII as a viewing platform for the King to review his returning armies. Attached to the palace of Phimeneakas, which is in ruins now, the Elephant bas-reliefs make for some great pictures.

The Terrace of the Leper King

The Terrace, named after the state of the discoloured and moss-grown statue on it. It is rumoured that it was also a tribute to King Yasovarman I who had leprosy.

Recent problems

The water level around the moat is what keeps many of the monuments from collapsing, as the water table supports the mass of many towers.

As with most of Cambodia, people are impoverished, so they congregate rapidly around this site. The level is under threat from over-use and unregulated pumping, which could cause a collapse of the temples. There are mass re-locations of built-up dwellings away from the area every few years.

Recommendations:

If you have time, then definitely get a seven-day pass. If not a three-day pass, so you don’t get ‘templed out’ and visit the temples over a period with half days or so.

Visit the Angkor National Museum for some much-needed respite and research.

Amazing!

We also visited many places in Siem Reap, which is a Backpacker town serving visitors to Angkor Wat. There are enough highlights in Siem Reap to keep you busy during the evening.

From Pub Street, the Buddhist temples, such as Wat Bo to the locally made concerns training staff in skills (Senteurs d‘AngKor). We even went to a brilliant circus show. Phare – the Cambodian Circus, which gives Cirque du Soleil a run for their money!

Giving Blood!

While I was here, I gave blood to the local hospital. Something I’m always conscious of doing (being ‘O’ Rhesus neg). The hospital and other medical services rely on much-needed charity. The Swiss founder of the Hospital Dr. Beat Richtner, puts on his ‘Beatocello’concerts as a fundraising effort, but this can’t last forever. I would recommend visiting his site: http://www.beat-richner.ch/

Wat Bo – 100 Buddha’s

Amelie and the Cats (Wat Bo)

Kulen Apsara dance

If you plan on spending longer than one month in Cambodia, you don’t need to visit Phnom Penh directly. Get a local travel agent to organise it for you. We found out to our cost; it wasn’t any quicker to visit Phnom Penh.

Lowlights. Or how not to get scammed

We all want a bargain when on holiday. Western, wealthy visitors make easy pickings for Cambodian scam artists. Although the majority of people we’ve come across in Asia have been great, there’s always one rotten egg.

For a Tuc-tuc, ask the hotel/hostel you are staying with. The drivers should be English speaking to a basic standard. The hotels charge them a commission for pushing customers their way. After a couple of days, we took our driver & paid him the difference, less a discount, so we both won. The prices were $15 while the hotels kept $5. We paid $12 or $13 direct. We walked around the corner of the hotel to meet him.

 

Don’t ask the Tuc-tuc rider to take you somewhere for dinner. It will be at western prices, albeit reasonable quality but there is no need to spend $10 on the main course anywhere in Cambodia!

Be ready to politely and firmly say ‘No’, to the Tuc-tuc drivers as they do hassle you quite a bit. After living in the Middle East I’m not particularly ‘fazed’ by hassling hawkers, but others of a more delicate disposition might be.

In Asian terms, Cambodia (and anywhere which charges in USD for that matter) is expensive. You can still look around for some cheap, good quality food and lodgings.

We stayed at the ‘The Villa Siem Reap’, booked via Agoda. Great location, large family style rooms and a pool to cool down in. Good location for the town, but not too close that you suffer from the partying.

Next stop – Phnom Penh

After our visit to Angkor Wat & Siem Reap, we went to Phnom Penh. This was a hit and miss visit. See you next time!

 

A Cruise Around Ha Long Bay

A Cruise Around Ha Long Bay

I am so behind with the blog posts, but hey, ‘Shit happens’ so they say. After a serious Motherboard failure on my PC which couldn’t be repaired and bootstrapping my other business, Phythian Limited, both time & technical resources seemed to be working against me.

After two months The PC got fixed, after no DELL service in Cambodia, DELL agreed to a free under-warranty repair in Malaysia, which I’ve just got back. I have so many things to write about.

Here is the final blog post on our visit to Vietnam. The very popular & beautiful Ha Long Bay.

With the excellent assistance of Tony, from aptly named ‘Tony’s tours’, a small shop on the north side of Hoan Kiem lake (details below) we chose Cristina Diamond cruises.

What to expect

As a family of four, two young children aged one and three, travel is not always easy. We have a lot of luggage. Originally two large suitcases, easily weighing 30Kg plus, has now been split into three. A changing bag, stroller and two PC equipment rucsacs mean we don’t do boat cruises easily.

We get around this by staying when possible for extended periods in apartments for a month or so at a time. We did that in Hanoi in a great new-build 2-bed apartment (AirBnB) where we could leave our stuff and just take the essentials to Ha Long Bay, meaning one bag for us to share for the one night, two-day cruise.

The coach pick up from Hanoi centre takes approximately three hours to reach the Hon Gai port for embarking. Once arrived we wait for the cruise ship to arrive and we’re on board one hour later via small ferry boats. We sailed off at about 1 pm with the necessary safety briefings over a buffet lunch.

There are a number of excursions during the cruise, which allows you to see more of the area which makes up Ha Long Bay.

Street food for $4

Floating Village

The first day after lunch is a visit to Vung Vieng floating village and Pearl farm.
We heard there were many more people who originally lived in the floating villages but were re-settled in Hanoi and the surrounding regions to conserve and beautify the area. The remaining farmers live in the huts for months at a time.

Pearl farming has been a staple industry here for hundreds of years. Because of the previously closed business environment, it was little known in the West. A tour of a Pearl farm and (obligatory) shop finalise the tour.

Beach and Kayak

After the Pearl farm, the boat takes you to Ban Chan beach for a swim and optional kayak session. This is a nice relaxing finish to the day’s activities before returning to the cruise ship.

Thienh Can Sonh Cave

After an early rise to view the sunrise, breakfast and a visit to Thienh Can Son cave. Up a steep and slippy walkway, the views were brilliant of the boats moored in the area.

Dalat Railway station

Food demo

Once returned and for the return back to port the on-board chef does a demo of some food preparation and the group take part in making fresh spring rolls.

Lam Vien square, Dalat

Amazing Views

We were lucky with the weather as it made for a beautiful view. As we arrived back in the port, the heavens opened and the squall meant you could barely see 20metres ahead.

We would definitely do this again and recommend this as an essential part of a Hanoi trip. We were concerned from reports beforehand that the area was overcrowded, but that was never the case. We were moored at night with only 3 other boats so felt relatively isolated.

Crazy House - Dalat

We booked with Tony’s Tours: 116 Cau Go (Next to Cong Caphe), Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. Www.halongtripadvisor.com / tonystour.com Email: vnsinhcafe87@gmail.com

We sailed with http://cristinadiamondcruise.com/

Crazy House - Dalat Gourd room

Next stop: Cambodia, Siem Reap and the gateway to the Angkor temple complex.

 

NhaTrang from Po Nagar

SaPa – The village of Tribes

SaPa – The village of Tribes

SaPa is a Vietnamese frontier township in Lao Cai province in the far Northwest of Vietnam, bordering China in the North.
It stands in the shadow of Vietnam’s largest mountain, Fansipan (locally known as Phan Xi Pang). Also the largest mountain in Indochina (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) at 3,143 metres.
Its population is approximately 60,000. Consisting mainly of indigenous highland tribes such as the H’mong and Dao (D’zao or Yao). It’s estimated about 15 percent of the population are Kinh Vietnamese(lowland or native Vietnamese).

SaPa was a French colonial town until WWII complete with its military barracks. Most colonial buildings have been bombed, either by Viet sympathisers in the 40’s or by the French in the 50’s in the first Indochina war (fighting for independence from French colonial rule). For those with some knowledge of military history, Dien Bien Phu is a tortuous 7-hour road trip but only 270Km.

SaPa had a sleepy existence after the independence of 1954. There was a brief spell in 1979, when the Chinese invaded for a month during the Sino-Vietnamese war, in retaliation for invading Cambodia.
It has become a magnet for tourism since the early 1990’s.

Unfortunately, this means that the number of tourists is pressuring the town to such an extent that it will be unrecognisable in ten years time as high rise hotels get built. It already has the World’s largest three wire cable car will take you up near the summit of Fansipan, a span of over 6km.

The Black H’mong

make up one of the majority tribes within SaPa. The women dress all in black and generally live in wooden huts tending the rice fields. As with all H’mong tribes, they come from Southern China, where they have moved from to find Arable land and over the years escape persecution.
They don’t speak the traditional Vietnamese language and are famous for their dyeing of clothes with Indigo, hence the black clothes.

The Red Dao

(Yao or D’zao) women wear a distinctive red head dress with tassels and ornaments hanging from it. Their clothes are very colourful with both men and women usually dressed with a square of embroidered cloth on their back. The symbolism is such that they believe they are the Children of God. They believe in a mix of Confucianism (the majority Buddhist sect in Vietnam) Taoism and Buddhism.
Again they speak a different language to the Vietnamese called Mien based around the ‘Kim Mun’ language. A dialect spoken by approximately 200,000 people in Southern China.

Bac Ha Market

We went to SaPa at the same time the annual horse racing festival was on during the Sunday market at Bac Ha, a three-hour drive. This is a once a year event where the leading horse race breeders race their horses by bareback riders. It’s an amazing spectacle.

The Flower H’mong

are similar to the Dao and Black H’mong, living in other villages such as Bac Ha. They are named because of their brightly coloured costumes. However, they speak similar languages to each other and are also derived from Southern China.

The history of the H’mong peoples is a potted one across South East Asia, as they were persecuted in Southern China, have been persecuted in Laos and Vietnam, as part of some of their tribe siding with the US during the ‘Secret War’ in the 70’s in Laos. There are many refugees of H’mong descent across the World with the largest in California, USA, as well as the Thai/Laos border.

Bac Ha annual horse race

Bac Ha has a Sunday market. Possibly the most colourful market on the planet! Once a year they have the annual horse racing, which makes for a great day out.
Bac Ha and the surrounding areas were originally an area where war horses are bred, so the area has a long heritage of breeding famous horses.
We didn’t really understand what was going on, and I think more often than not, having two young blonde girls made us more of a spectacle than the horse racing. We were probably one of five or six westerners we saw on the horse racing circuit with one thousand plus spectators.
The racing was fast and to see these riders at breakneck speed with only a bridle was brilliant to see.

Tourism in SaPa

The small town of SaPa is under pressure from over tourism. Its small population, which is very poor gets spoilt by the estimated 2.7m visitors per year.

What do I mean by spoilt?

The rich visitors (they aren’t all western any longer) want to see these attractive indigenous tribes in their primitive environment with beautifully decorated dresses.
Do they embellish their costumes more than is traditional for tourists?
Will they continue their animist beliefs with the village witch doctor?
Are they kept here by the Government on purpose as a social attraction?
Food for thought, as I don’t know the answer to these questions. Unbridled tourism cannot be good for the future of small social groups in return for earning tourism dollars.

We stayed at the SaPa Vista hotel as part of a package put together for us by Tony’s tours. A small tour operator we found on Lao Cai, underneath the ‘Cong Caphe’ place, just next to the roundabout from Hoan Kiem. Tony was good at giving us options and deciding on rooms etc. We caught the early morning 0700 coach to SaPa on Friday morning and arrived at 1330.
On our return, we caught the Pumpkin express train from Lao Cai to Hanoi on Sunday evening. We arrived after a ten-hour journey to Hanoi at approx 5.30am. We then had to deal with the taxi mafia at Hanoi station.

If you do visit, I would recommend staying 3 or 4 days to explore some of the other sites around SaPa, such as the cable car.

The end of Vietnam – Hanoi

The end of Vietnam – Hanoi

Hanoi is a big city so my review can only cover what we did and where we stayed as a family. I can imagine there is definitely something for everyone here – families, teenagers and hedonistic ‘Kidults’.

Our travels started in Vietnam, in Saigon. We stayed initially for 3-4 nights. Great if you want to burn-out within a few weeks: Packing and unpacking, travelling with all the stuff we carry and only just getting to know an area. We only venture for half days because with a three-year-old and one year old; they need their rest. We ended staying at each place longer and longer and finally in Hanoi for one month as a base.

We stayed in a new apartment 15 minutes south of the centre surrounded by shops with a shopping mall in the basement (Times City Megamall). The apartments each had children’s play areas with swings and slides between each of the blocks. It gave us the freedom to go out when we wanted, unlike a hotel and eat when we wanted.

Taxis cost USD $3-4 to get to Hoan Kiem Lake, which I class as the centre. Uber and Grab both operate in Vietnam and are very competitive. I wonder how people make a living when they charge $2 for a taxi journey but illustrates how cheap living can be in Vietnam.

Hoan Kiem or ‘Central’ Hanoi

Hoan Kiem lake or ‘Lake of the returned sword’. From the legend of Emperor Le Loi returning his sword after defeating the Ming Chinese to the turtle king who lives in the lake. The lake is surrounded by the main centres of Hanoi. To the east is the French quarter. The north and west are the old quarter, and the south is the University, embassy and main department store shopping district. Further afield are other areas such as the Presidential palace and mausoleum, again surrounded by more embassies.

The Old Quarter

is relatively easy to navigate. A rudimentary understanding of Vietnamese will help you find your way around. Each street is named after the goods originally sold. What is interesting is to see such narrow shop fronts, originally based on how much they would be taxed. Hence the houses are called Tube houses, which could be as little as 3m wide x 60m long.

The old name was ‘36 streets’ after the ‘guilds’ or groups who set up in the area. It is thought there were originally 36 streets making up the Old Quarter. Many start with the name ‘Hang’, meaning merchandise or shop.

Hang Bac – Silver
Hang Ca – Fish
Hang Bo – Baskets
Hang Bong – Cotton
Hang Chai – bottles
Hang Da – Leather
Hang Giay – Shoes etc., etc.

These were the names from approx. The 13th century, so it‘s no surprise the shops sell different items today. You can still see many commonplace items sold along the same street though. Another example of regional working groups benefiting each other on a local basis.

While Hoan Kiem and the Old Quarter are generally where tourists visit. The expats regularly frequent the Tay Ho area surrounding West Lake. The more affluent side of town. A large freshwater lake with approximately 17km of shoreline. Attractions include the Ho Chi Minh museum and Presidential Palace area, a short walk south of the lake.
Visit the oldest Buddhist Pagoda in Vietnam (Tran Quoc) on the causeway separating West Lake and Truc Bach. See the Bodhi tree (Religious Fig tree) planted from a seedling donated by the original tree from India. The tree the Buddha sat under and found spiritual enlightenment (or Bodhi).

Tam Coc, Ninh Binh Province – ‘The Old capital’

Ha Noi wasn’t always the capital of Vietnam. The capital of Dai Co Viet (Great Buddhist Viet), as Vietnam was formerly known was originally in Hoa Lu province some 100 km south of Ha Noi.
The Emperor Ly Thai To the founder of the Ly dynasty, (see pic) moved the capital from Hoa Lu in Ninh Bin province to Thang Long. The original meaning Ascending Dragons (modern day Ha Noi) was far more exciting than Interior River!
The terrain was naturally defensive surrounded by the small but steep limestone mountains making the area almost impenetrable to invasion.
As well as the Hoa Lu temple complex Tam Coc village is a beautiful river setting where you can take a river cruise by a rower controlling the boat by their feet. (see photo)

The Temple of Literature

was originally built in 1070 by King Ly Than Tong to educate the bureaucrats and scholars of Dai Viet. It is a temple dedicated to Confucius where students still come to pray and make offerings in return for good results in their exams.
Each student had to read the four books and five classics as part of the traditional Confucian reading material. The books were all written by Confucius disciples and tested on each.
As the Brits have Oxford University, the Italians Bologna, Vietnam’s first university pre-dates or was built at a similar time in the 11th Century.
Unfortunately, it’s not a continuing University. It was a French war hospital during Tonkin times and has undergone some reconstruction.
It still doesn’t claim to be the earliest whose accolade goes to the University of Al Quaraouiyine, in Fes, Morocco from 859.

Hoa Lo Prison (AKA The Hanoi Hilton)

Hoa Lo prison was initially set up as a French prison for Vietnamese political prisoners in the heart of Ha Noi. Nicknamed, the Ha Noi Hilton (allegedly due to the soft treatment of its US inmates) is famous for holding many US PoW. Most notably Governor (and former Presidential candidate) John McCain, after his plane was shot down in West Lake during the Vietnam War.
I still wonder what they call the Hilton hotel nearby?

In the area next to the citadel lies the Ha Noi Military History Museum. The Museum explains (from a Vietnamese viewpoint) the recent wars from the time of Dien Bien Phu. The lead-up to Vietnamese independence and the fall of French colonialism in 1954. There are the many US, French and Soviet built aircraft and military equipment confiscated after the Vietnam war. Many (defused) unexploded ordnance and guns confiscated after independence in 1975. It’s always interesting seeing the terminology, ‘American Imperialism’ on write-ups.

Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he’s affectionately known, died in 1969 aged 79. Against the wishes of his will, his body is on display at the Mausoleum in Da Binh square. Allegedly to allow all of Vietnams citizens to pay their respects after reunification in 1975.
Behind the Mausoleum are the one pillar Pagoda and his home, a modest stilted house. He chose not to live in the Presidential palace, preferring to live amongst his people.

The Museum of Ethnology

If the many tribes of Vietnam are of interest, but you don’t get a chance to visit any of the villages such as SaPa, then the Museum of Ethnology is well worth a visit to understand the genealogy, culture and language behind the many tribes which make up many of Vietnam’s people.
There is also an excellent photo gallery and mini museum by the French photographer, Rehahn in Hoi An worth visiting.

Get a Tour Guide

We stayed a month and still didn’t see many of the sights. I would recommend getting a tour guide for a day to take you around Hanoi area and to explore the various sites. It’s easy to get lost in the myriad streets. We used a free tour guide service for students who want to practise their English (http://hanoifreetourguides.com).
The girl provided, Huyen, was brilliant and explained so much about the area. The local cultural meanings behind the placement of altars (Feng Shui), gift offerings and general Buddhist practice was well received. Worth it for 1/2 day. We paid her meals & taxis as well as an extra tip for the day.

Our stay in Vietnam showed us a fiercely proud nation, with a willingness to embrace all nationalities.
We have never once felt unwelcome and often got mobbed by young children practising their English. Westerners including French and American are welcomed with open arms. Unlike the, often joking, animosity between French (Frogs), British (Le Rost Boeuf) and Germans (Krauts) which prevails across Europe.
The Vietnamese have an innate curiosity of everything Western and seeing a family with two blonde girls was no exception.

It is rapidly developing, which in some areas it needs to. It needs to balance this with retaining some of its historical and cultural charms. Too many high rise towers are being built, which the infrastructure cannot cope with. Traffic, especially in Saigon and Ha Noi can be a nightmare to navigate. The increased air pollution is a problem, while the overflowing drains during periods of heavy rain need urgent attention. An anti-litter campaign might also be useful as many areas are spoilt by the overload of plastic bags, which has become an ecological threat in some areas. This is the same so far of everywhere we’ve been in South East Asia.
The warmth and smiles of the Vietnamese people are addictive. I will certainly be looking to return in the future.