Sunday, March 29, 2009

Phnom Penh

On a whole, the capital of Cambodia has very little to see. By the time we arrived after the boat/bus ride, it was about 6pm and we were exhausted. We took a tuk-tuk into town, a motorcyle with a trailer, and found a Khmer restaurant, recommended by Lonely Planet--delicious-rice with pork and vegetables and fruit shake. Afterwards, we walked along the river to the Royal Palace then found some beautiful ancient Khmer art--read: glowsticks being sold by the old woman with one eye! The next morning, Jeff and I arranged Mr. Smalls, a tuk-tuk driver, to take us to visit the Killing Fields, S-21 prison and the Royal Palace. It was an emotionally draining day, but everyone said to understand Cambodia, you have to know what happened. The Killing Fields are about 8kms outside of town and the place where about 3 million Khmers were killed between 1975-1979. Pol Pot, the regime leader, was trained in France and began his extreme Marxist beliefs there. When he arrived back in Cambodia, he began to find Cambodians that had fled to Vietnam to encourage them to fight for their country with him. April 4, 1975, Pol Pot and his army raided Phmon Penh and forced everyone out. People were slaughtered if they were educated, wore glasses, refused to wear red and other ridiculous reasons. He did not discriminate against age, children were murder and tortured. The Killing Fields were heartbreaking, I began crying as soon as we arrived. A monument was erected 5 years ago in honor of the deceased, but within the monument, thousands of human skulls were behind a glass wall divided into sex and age looking at me. As we walked through the fields, we could see pieces of clothing still in the ground, we saw a tree that was indented on one side from where they would pick children up and throw them against it. The most chilling part of this experience was next to the field is a new elementary school, we could hear and see children playing in the schoolyard.
Next, we went to S-21 Prison within the city. Prior to the genocide, these buildings were a high school, but during the evacuation of the city, Pol Pot transformed the school into a torture prison. Four separate buildings each with 3 floors looked as they did when it was in use--the torture devices were still in the rooms, the photos the people hung on the walls, the cells were still intact, and the gallows still had the ropes. Each room showed more into the twisted minds of the Khmer Rouge, each floor more graphic. The most upsetting part was how they forced the children to kill and torture the poeple, so they wouldn't have to do it. Other news, a member from the Khmer Rouge was still on the UN council until 1996 and none of the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge have ever been prosecuted.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

updated photos!

Mekong Delta

The most difficult part of this trip is trying to find a reputable travel agency to arrange excursions--there are 10 on every block selling the same thing and various prices. We tend to walk around and look for one with other foreigners there, probably not the best way but what can you do?! We opted for Sinh Travel to take us on a 2day and 1 night on the Mekong Delta to Phmon Penh, Cambodia. We left early in the morning on March 16th and went to watch ladies make coconut candy, rice popcorn and a traditional taffy candy. Next, we took a boat through the floating market, old men and women on boats selling fruits, mainly watermelons. For lunch, we went to Sinh Travel's private island for lunch, Vietnamese spring rolls, fried pork cutlet (hopefully it was pork) and vegetables. But the best part of the day was feeding the crocodiles! The first picture is Jeff, Brandon and I will cow liver on sticks fishing for crocodiles! There were probably 25 crocs in the water and were quite hungry! Brandon had to help me when the crocodile almost pulled my stick in! We stayed the night on Chau Dac, the border town with Cambodia and watched some children practicing taekwondo for awhile...adorable.
The next day, we went on little boats through the Delta to the another island, the second picture is of me on the boat. After about an hour of paddling, we hopped on a slow boat for Cambodia...strangely enough, our visa cost about 20$ with a $2 custom officer fee. Interesting!

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Surprise Peace Corps Reunion!

After the Cu Chi Tunnels, I opted for a pedicure/manicure spa treatment for the grand total of...$8 including some nail art consisting of sparkling flames of glitter. During this, Brandon was off to the internet and making contacts with Jeff Crosby, a very good friend of ours from Peace Corps, who happened to be in Saigon, just a few blocks away. Completely unaware of this, I left the salon and walked outside to find Jeff and Brandon waiting for me! Quite the surprise! We went to dinner, reminiscing about Peace Corps for hours and before you know it, it was almost 2am! The next day, we postponed our tickets for the Mekong Delta boat trip into Cambodia, and hit the waterpark with Jeff! His friend is from Vietnam, so she knew all the ropes and we were lucky enough to get a tour on motorcyles throughout the city. The waterpark was a blast! Haven't been to one in years, but we had such a great time and it was nice to be out of the tourist center for a day--there are only so many wandering backpackers I can handle. I did, however, get a nasty scrape on my back from the tube slide and Brandon, a bruised tailbone. Afterwards, I found my new favorite drink, sugar cane and lime juice. Pure sugar cane with a splash of lime to balance the sweetness for about $.25!
Before I arrived in Vietnam, I knew I wanted to buy a jade bracelet, I remember seeing one on a family friend years ago and loved it. I dragged the boys on a shopping mission, and found a beautiful bracelet. Then, we wanted to be a bit daring and try some different foods. The fertilized duck egg was first on our list, we cracked the top of the egg, drank the juice and I used a spoon to try the feathered body of the duck. The eyes, head and bill were visible, which made for a great photo but not a meal. I would not recommend this, but when in Vietnam... To continue on with this trend, we went to another restaurant, specializing in different foods, we walked past the caged reptiles and mammals to our table. I could not believe this, it was so terribly sad. We opted for insects, and because, I was recently stung by a bee, I decided a plate of bee larve would be delicious. With enough soy sauce and crackers, they were managable. Fortunately, over dinner, we had convinced Jeff to join us to Cambodia! The next day, the three of us left for a tour of the Mekong Delta and into Cambodia!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Motorcycles, crowded streets, flashing lights and people galore were my first impressions of Saigon. The first night we found a nice guest house on the sixth floor, which was really the 8th floor--their motto "you get free breakfast, free internet and free exercise!" We had a great view of Pham, also commonly referred to as "District 1" or the backpackers area. The streets were crowded with foreigners and sellers, we were wandering the streets trying to take it all in when we found a popular street bar, sat down, had dinner of anything that was being sold by the women and children (peanuts, bananas, some sort of banana flavored rice cake), and had a coke for about 20cents. The next day, we went to Cu Chi Tunnels (almost sounds like Gucci) about 60km NW of Saigon where the Vietcong held their position during the "American Agression War," as it is referred to here. We saw the booby traps they made, metal spikes underneath a grassy trapdoor, but we decided the worst was "the armpit trap," where when if you walked over the trap, you would fall down and be caught by the rusty spikes in your armpit. Ahhh...
We were able to crawl through a 150m tunnel, which was made larger because, as our tour guide said, "of those large American tourists asses." It was tiny, hot, dark and right when I started crawling there was an exit--I crawled about half way through the tunnel! There was also shooting range with Ak47s, M16s, M30s, frankly, those are all the ones I remember, not much of a gun person. I was way too nervous to go any where near the shooting range, but many people in our group jumped at the chance. As for prices, to shoot an AK47 with ten bullets was about $20.

Bus Trip Along The Coast

For the past 10 days, we have been traveling non-stop and trying to see the highlights of Vietnam and allowing enough time for the rest of the countries on our itinerary. We decided on An Phu Open Bus tours and 4 destinations to stop en route to Ho Chi Minh, though everyone calls it Saigon here. After leaving Hanoi, we took at 13 hour bus ride to Hue. Remembering our days in Peace Corps, we decided to save $5 and take the sitting bus, not the sleeper bus--it hasn't been that long since we completed Peace Corps, but I just don't have that in me anymore. We slept on our bags for pillows, curled up in little balls in our seats and managed the ride to Hue. I love this city, charming, European feel and was the capital of Vietnam during the 19th century. Also, stayed in a lovely guest house with a balcony overlooking the streets (it also had satellite tv!) We left early the next morning for Hoi An, about 6 hours south. The city was picturesque, the building were yellowish tint and old, the streets were dirt and lanterns hung in all the shops. We found a book exchange store owned by an American who fell in love with the place 20 years ago and never left- he was able to recommend some places to go. We watched the sunset over the river and listened to traditional music played by a group of older men. The guest house we stayed in was cheap, $10 a night, but it was a single room, no windows, and a place where I wore shoes everywhere. I was also able to find a cafe to skype, which is becoming more difficult. Many of the internet cafes refuse customers to use internet phone calling because they are losing money.
The next day we took another overnight bus to Nha Trang, the scuba capital of Vietnam! Finally, the weather was hot, very hot! We swam in the ocean, clear green waters, white beaches and surronded by small mountains. We found a great local bar, sat on the street and drank a small pitcher of local beer for less than $1 and tried a local favorite: fried tofu with a meatball inside dipped in soy sauce. Strange but delicious.
Wanting to stay longer, we knew we had to keep going--by the time this trip is finished, I'll need another vacation. We took a bus trip that was 200km south, but took over 5 hours to get there. We would stop for gas for 30 minutes, travel for 30minutes, then we stopped for lunch, then shortly after, the driver had to stop for a smoke. So annoying, but finally we made it to Muine, another beach town, very relaxing and isolated. We stayed at the opposite end of the tourist resorts, at a beachside bungalow for $15 a night. Out of our window we could see the beach, we laid in beach chairs underneath a bamboo umbrella for hours, the ocean was like bathwater. We splurged and went to the nicest restaurant yet, I had tuna and Brandon had a steak--total $12. The next morning we left for Saigon, another 5 hour journey, though our last in Vietnam! So far we haven't planned or reserved any places to stay, we show up and find one. Our luck ran out a bit in Saigon, we wandered the streets for almost an hour looking a different guest houses, walking to the 8th floor and finding a little closet of a room--but we eventually found a lovely room for $14 a night. Between Hanoi and Saigon, Saigon wins. But more later, off to dinner.

Monday, March 9, 2009

HaLong Bay

I apologize for the delayed entry, but internet is becoming more limited. Perhaps in 2 weeks time, even more so. Currently, I am slipping on a banana and pineapple fruit shake at an open air cafe in Hoi An, the cultural capital of Vietnam, still haven't found my fancy drink with an umbrella yet. HaLong Bay was an adventure, we opted to go with Ocean Tours, the company totally sold me with green tea, cookies and pictures of their private beaches! In our group of 10, we were the only North Americans, which we have been finding very common in Vietnam, and set out on a Junk boat through the bay. The weather was not in our favor, thick fog and rain kept us mainly inside the boat but it did let up enough to go kayaking. Amazingly breathtaking--kayaked through the islands, passing in a dark tunnel and reached an enclosed pool. We could only hear the paddles of the kayak, almost everything stood still. It was also a sad realization with so much beauty around us, the presence of pollution. I put my hand in the bath warm water, only to realize when I pulled my hand out, the black stain on my hand from the diesel. Single shoes, nets, styrofoam (the boats are made of styrofoam and bamboo) pieces, bottles and cigarettes butts floating around. We kept thinking, if we were in America, the national park would be constantly patroling and only government boats would be allowed in the park. With being such a profitable venture, I wish they would maintain the area for the future.
After another boat ride to the private island, called Sunset island, we arrived to the bungalows! Amazing, we even forgot about the weather. We had a watermelon welcome drink and settled into our rooms. We had a nice seafood bbq dinner, played pool and feel asleep to the sound of the ocean. The next day we took a boat over to Cat Ba Island and rented a scooter to visit the National Park. It was quite cold, so our trip was interrupted with several stops to warm up with tea. We noticed quickly how similar the villages were to Ghana, small houses with open doors, children running around half clothed, women with stands selling powdered milk, but the most surprising was the amount of karaoke rooms! There was a little boy in ratty shorts singing some song at the top of his lungs with a microphone in front of his tv! Love it:)
We returned back to the bungalows late afternoon, enjoyed a relaxing evening on the beach and left early the next morning for our long journey back to Hanoi. It took about 8 hours between the Junk Boat and van to arrive back at Ocean Tours, only to arrive with 1 hour until we caught the night bus to Hue. My favorite city in Vietnam, so far...more later.