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Indonesia: Bali – Kuta Beach & Ubud

Firstly, apologies for the very late post. Indonesia does not have the best wifi in the world and I write this from a comfortable couch in Germany!

We arrived in Bali in the evening and had a private car pick us up and bring us to our hotel (the first of many free nights from all of the loyalty points we had collected). Our room was massive and clean (finally!), and across the street from a few family-run street restaurants called warungs. The owner of the one we visited for dinner spoke no English but a kind young guy helped us to translate our order. He invited us to see him at the beach the following day, explaining that his friend taught surfing lessons.

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After a long sleep and a traditional Indonesian breakfast (lots of noodles and rice, as always), we headed to the famous Kuta Beach,  a surfing hotspot on the Western coast. The beach was one of the most spectacular either of us has ever seen. Without even looking we found the surf shop our new friend had been telling us about, and we spent our entire time in Bali lounging on the sand by their surfboards and beach bar with our new Indonesian friend, his German girlfriend and a great group of local guys.

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On an overcast day, Ben braved the waves and learned to surf from the guys we had met earlier on. It took little effort before he was standing up.

Bali has a wonderful sea turtle conservation program (www.baliseaturtle.org) that collects the eggs laid by mother turtles who have returned to their own birthplace after twenty years, an area that is now full of tourists, surfers and animals who would otherwise destroy these endangered eggs. On the first ‘release day’, we joined well over a hundred other tourists and locals in releasing one baby sea turtle each into the ocean as the tide came in (we took part in the event three separate times over the course of three weeks).

Our time in Kuta was mostly spent relaxing by the pool, swimming in the warm ocean, chatting with our new friends and walking around the very busy town. Bali was the first stop on our journey that we visited during high season, and tourists crowded the streets and Western restaurants. It was difficult not to spend money in the flashy shopping malls and expensive bars, but it was nice being back in decent hotels and it was obvious why Bali has been a tourist favourite for so long.

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After a lazy week in Kuta, we moved up the island to Ubud, a bustling little inland town which was featured in the book and movie Eat, Pray, Love. There was a noticeable difference in the percentage of women versus men, and it seemed as though many of these women had come from all over the world to cleanse themselves with yoga retreats, tropical smoothies and expensive bamboo clothing.

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Not everyone was trying to be Julia Roberts, however, and there was a lot more to Ubud than initially met the eye. Our guesthouse was quiet and fairly central, with a sweet cat and three small dogs to keep us company and fried bananas with chocolate and cheese for breakfast every day.

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Walking the streets of Ubud was so unlike anywhere we had been, and although it was significantly more expensive and touristy than other places, there was a calmness about the city that I loved. While exploring the area we passed soccer fields full of kids, grand Hindu temples, a palace, countless art galleries and jewellery shops.

 

We spent several hours wandering through the beautiful Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, a holy place for Balinese Hindus and a tourist attraction known worldwide. Over 600 monkeys hang from tree branches, run over the paths and temples and patiently wait for bananas which can be purchased at the entrance. Better than any zoo, they have 115 different types of trees to swing around in and despite being so used to people, these macaques live freely in their natural habitat.

Ubud was amazing, and if i’m ever in need of a soul-searching getaway or a spiritual cleanse, I will slip on a mandala necklace and some bamboo yoga pants and head back to the narrow, quiet streets.

Off to Lombok we go!

-Ben and Chelsea

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Cambodia: Siem Reap – Angkor Wat – Phnom Penh

After a five hour trip along newly paved roads in an old van with no air conditioning, we arrived in Phnom Penh for a two hour wait. The dirty, dark city was not somewhere we wanted to spend much time in, and we were thankful for the stopover so we knew what to expect. The next bus picked us up late and no one spoke English (which meant almost missing it), but we made ourselves comfortable (despite being mercilessly stared at by all the locals) and tried to enjoy the seven hour journey with Cambodian karaoke music videos and bizarre Chinese movies blasting in our ears. We arrived in Siem Reap well after sunset and found our way to our hotel near the riverside.

Siem Reap is the most visited city in Cambodia because it is the location of the famous Angkor Wat. We were surprised by the modernity of the city: fancy shops and restaurants lined every street and the entire city seemed made for tourists with its ample transportation options and sidewalks. The two city blocks of pub street reminded us of a fancier Khao San Road, and we spent most evenings with a cold 25 cent beer people watching until after midnight.

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Shortly after arriving in Siem Reap I got quite sick, and we ended up extending our stay from three to six nights. Ben ventured out to walk along the river while I laid in bed, and when I was finally well enough to go out again, I had a personal tour guide to show me the sights. We visited a craft market where local artisans made wood and stone carvings and silk products, and a temple with unique sculptures showing life and death.

There were several night markets in the city which were all cleaner and more expensive than their counterparts in other cities, but we found some souvenirs to bring home that we hadn’t encountered anywhere else. Every evening we ate at the same roadside stand and ate spicy noodles and fresh fruit smoothies while chatting with other travelers (we met a lovely Mormon family from Utah with seven children who had quit their jobs to travel the world, and a mother with her autistic son who had come to Cambodia to teach).

The rooftop jacuzzi (with no hot water, of course) was the perfect place to relax during the hottest parts of the day reading a book and planning the rest of our journey.

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When I finally felt better,  we found a young tuk tuk driver who would take us to Angkor Wat to see the sunset and pick us up bright and early the following day to continue our tour for only $22 USD. We left our hotel around four in the afternoon and drove to the ticket office, where we waited over an hour for the ticket booths to open. Slowly, the room filled with other sweaty travelers wanting to take advantage of the ‘free’ sunset (you are able to purchase a ticket for the following day but enter the temple complex thirty minutes before closing in order to see the spectacular sunset).

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Angkor Archeological Park is a massive area of over 500 acres and is considered the seventh wonder of the world. Millions of tourists from all over the world flock here every year to explore and photograph the temples and nature. Our sunrise tour started at five in the morning, and the sun began to peek over the trees as we entered the park.

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For seven hours we drove from temple to temple, jumping out to see the amazing and varied architecture while our driver napped in his tuk tuk. The ‘small tour’ included five stops over several kilometres; we opted for the $20 USD one day ticket but it was easy to see how you could spend days exploring every inch of the park.


 

After almost a week in Siem Reap, we hopped back on the seven hour bus to Phnom Penh for a short visit before flying to Indonesia. As we had already experienced, the city was loud, dusty and chaotic, and our hostel was in an odd area (but was chosen because of the swimming pool). We found a jolly driver to take us on a day tour to all the main sights, which unfortunately centered around the horrific Khmer Rouge regime.
I am thankful that Phnom Penh was our final stop in Cambodia because it gave me two weeks to learn more about the tragic history of this amazing country. It shocked me that most tourists weren’t aware of the violence the country had suffered, and how recently it all took place. While the rest of the world was consumed with the Cold War and the horror of the Vietnam War, Cambodia was experiencing a genocide incomparable to anything else I can think of.

The first stop on our tour brought us to the S-21 Museum,  a high school in the center of the city that was transformed into a prison and extermination camp. Here we saw testimony from survivors of the regime (including two S-21 survivors trying to sell their memoires), most of whom were, even today, younger than our parents. The museum does a wonderful job of maintaining the honesty of what happened, and of explaining how and why the West turned a blind eye to what was going on so close to their own war in Vietnam.

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Our second stop was the Killing Fields 45 minutes out of the city. It was here that more than 15,000 men, women, children and babies were brutally tortured and murdered. In total, at the 20,000 mass grave sites across the country, it is believed that at least 2.5 million Cambodians were killed in a four year period. That is more than a quarter of the total population, and does not include those who starved to death. I expected Cheoung Ek, as the fields are called, to be a somber memorial to the people who lost their lives. When I looked down at my feet with the audio tour playing in my ear and saw a piece of fabric sticking out of the ground, my logical brain decided someone had dropped something. How very wrong I was. Cheoung Ek has been largely untouched by the Khmer people, and the mass graves still hold millions of bones and clothing fragments. As we continued walking on the raised platforms, the earth below us began to expose the awful truth. Leg and arm bones protrude from the ground, exposed by the monsoon rains. Children’s shorts and t-shirts have become entwined by tree roots, and there are designated places to put bones and items of clothing that come free from the mud. Looking around at the silent visitors listening to their audio tours, it was common to see tears streaming down the faces of grown men and white faces of nausea that reflected my own. It took all of my strength not to be sick. Ben bravely ventured into the memorial temple which houses 5,000 human skulls while I waited outside. As we left Cheoung Ek, a monsoon began to pound down with unbelievable force, freeing more bones and pieces of clothing from the mud as we drove away, horribly shaken.

Our driver maneuvered us through the wet streets and dropped us off at our final stop, the Russian Market (so called because it was a popular shopping spot for Russian expats during the 1980s). The market was as chaotic as the city and it was fun to see beauty salons tucked between restaurants and shoe shops. Our day was over, and we returned to the hostel to jump in the pool and relax.

Our final day in Phnom Penh was another packing and preparing day. We spent several hours walking around the different neighborhoods and found the Royal Palace next to the river before wandering the stalls of the clean and touristy Central Market.

Our jolly tuk tuk driver picked us up the next morning and brought us to the airport. Our time in Cambodia was coming to a close, and we had both enjoyed the country far more than we had expected. Despite their recent history, Khmer people remain the most genuinely kind we have met in Asia and the country itself left a permanent impression on my heart.
Off to Indonesia!

-Chelsea and Ben

So far:

We have taken 6 ferries (+1 Cruise ship & 3 boat rides), 13 airplanes, 36 busses, 6 trains, uncountable subways, tuk tuks, songtheows, 11 motorbikes, city busses and car rides. We have travelled approximately 44447 km in 261 days and have been to 14 countries (including stopovers). We have stayed in 40 hotels, hostels and guesthouses (plus a lot of couchsurfing).

 

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Cambodia: Sihanoukville – Kampot – Kep

In order to avoid the chaos of a land crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia  (including corrupt border officials who insist on any number of bribes), we bought a decently priced flight ticket and flew directly from Saigon to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. This sleepy town is the top beach destination in Cambodia and is home to many expats from all over the world. It was heavily damaged during the Khmer Rouge regime and still has quite a lot of improvements to be made to make it a sought after resort destination. We stayed at a lovely hotel run by a Swedish man and Cambodian woman, and spent five days relaxing and sleeping after our whirlwind trip through Vietnam.

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On the days we ventured out of the hotel, we visited two of the beaches (Ochetal and Independence Beach) which were mostly filled with locals enjoying long days out hiding from the sun and stuffing their faces with seafood. At Independence beach, we lay under a tree away from the burning sun and clung onto our bag every time a group of small, muddy kids came past looking to grab it from our hands. It was hard to believe that such a gorgeous place was home to such astounding violence only a few decades ago.

The Lexus SUVs speeding through the beach town sharply contrasted the little kids selling cigarettes on the roadside at 10pm, and I began to understand the local understanding that Cambodia is home to twelve million people living in complete poverty and a handful of corrupt, wealthy men. We witnessed the prevalent sex tourism industry while drinking a cheap beer at a hostel, and on the last night wandered home through a citywide blackout (apparently a very common occurance).


 

Saying goodbye to the beach, we took a minivan two hours away to Kampot, a small inland town famous for its French Colonial architecture, the best and most expensive pepper in the world, and home to many NGOs (non-profit, non-government organizations).

Traveling in the wet season in Southeast Asia had not been an issue until we arrived in Cambodia; the heavy rain began in the morning and did not let up until the evening (you have not seen rain until you’ve seen and felt the monsoons in Cambodia!). Much of our time in Kampot was spent sitting in cafes and restaurants with soggy shoes and clothes, drinking 25 cent beer or thick iced coffees.

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We did not see much of the famous architecture other than the durian statue in the center of town (durian is a pungent fruit with a taste and texture similar to rotten garlic, very popular in Asia but strictly forbidden in hotel rooms and on public transport).

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I was excited to visit Kampot, but the children being taken advantage of by older white men (the ‘NGO workers’) was heartbreaking and the town itself seemed to have been forgotten by the government. The calm river flowing through brought a few tourists who seemed to remain in their guesthouses and Western restaurants. The night market, usually a spot to bring the community together, was a sad series of clothing shops, unhygienic food stalls and decrepit carnival rides.

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The dreariness of the town aside (and the fact that it poured rain and our hotel resembled a prison, bars and all), we enjoyed the quiet of our time in Kampot and learned one important thing: Cambodia is, thirty seven years after the worst of the Khmer Rouge regime, still a major work in progress.

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Our final Southern stop was a beachside town called Kep, a 25km drive from Kampot. We didn’t know what to expect from Kep (a town used as a retreat for the French during Colonial times, it was the first place in Asia to find women sporting a bikini), but the man-made beach was small and clean, and our accomodation was a beautiful traditional Khmer bungalow with a grass roof and open walls.

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Crumbling Colonial villas dot the streets, and the new road into the tiny town is wide enough for six Cambodian lanes despite the complete lack of vehicle traffic in the area. Indeed, Kep is still a playground for the wealthy; while we were there the police had the entire massive roadway blocked off as the Prime Minister was in town for a fancy lunch at a five star resort.

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Kep Beach is a source of pride for the Cambodian government. White sand from Kampot is brought in every two weeks and the beach is cleaned each morning to maintain its appeal. It will be interesting to see how this little place changes in the coming years.

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For the time being, Kep is a quiet place and is still home to hundreds of monkeys that crowd the streets along the ocean searching for food and trouble. I could have spent hours watching the dozens of monkeys near the beach as they rummaged through trash cans and swung from tree branches and signs.

Kep is known these days as the home of Cambodian seafood, particularly crab (I know many of you are cringing at the thought of eating seafood from the South China Sea or the Gulf of Thailand, since we avoid these at all costs in Canada.  But don’t fret- they export the farmed garbage to us and save the clean, beautiful seafood for themselves!). We visited the famed Crab Market on two occasions: a fancy dinner of Kampot pepper crab (four crab for $10), pepper squid and cold beer with the tide lapping under our feet and a picnic of grilled fish and one kilo of fresh pepper prawns bought from the sea and cooked by a man with a gas burner and wok.

We rented a motorbike to explore the coastline and nearby local town, and spent 45 minutes driving through local villages (with plenty of smiles, waves and excited greetings from Khmer kids) to reach La Plantation, a twenty hectare farm growing some of the best peppercorns in the world.

During the Civil War and Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s, the doctors, lawyers, religious figures, students, intellectuals and political figures were slaughtered first under Pol Pot’s horrific rule. All hospitals, schools and agricultural areas were destroyed. The once famous pepper farms were abandoned for rice farming during the famine, and were only reestablished in the last twenty years with much foreign help. Kampot pepper was once the only pepper used in the top restaurants in France and is once again surging in popularity. We visited two farms (La Plantation, a massive but new farm and Sothys, a small farm employing volunteers) and learned about the completely organic cultivation of this amazing spice that is so different from the pepper we think of back home.

The countryside and people of Kep were, quite simply, amazing. Nature, ocean and farmland remains fairly untouched and the people were the kindest and friendliest we have met in eight months of traveling. On our final night we went on a bumpy drive on the motorbike through the national park, high up into the jungle overlooking the coast.

Kep was incredibly special, but it was time to leave the quiet South and head all the way Northwest across the country to Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat.

-Chelsea and Ben

 

 

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Vietnam: HCMC (Saigon) & Mekong Delta

We arrived in bustling Saigon just after a spectacular sunset and wandered around through the wet, busy streets until we found our hotel down a dark alley. Upon check in I was electrocuted by the bathroom light and the room reeked of cigarettes. Kindly asking to be moved to a different room, we were brought to one which had not been cleaned in what seemed like a very long time (I won’t mention what was on the sheets but we asked for new bedding immediately!). I felt, for the first time in eight months of travel, that we had stepped into a scene from the Leonardo DiCaprio movie ‘The Beach’ (and not in a good way).

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Ho Chi Minh City  (or Saigon, as it is still referred to) is the largest city in Vietnam with ten million inhabitants. It is vastly spread out and separated into 19 districts. We stayed in District 1, right in the center of all the action and the backpacker area. The city still retains much of its French Colonial architectural influence including the beautiful Notre Dam church (constructed entirely of materials from France) and the old post office, where I starred in more selfies with teenage girls.

We spent much of our time in Saigon walking along the busy streets just taking in the sites and sounds of the big city, including the famous student hangout Turtle Lake, which was more of a pond with no students in sight.

On our first day we made a stop at the War Remnants Museum, and for a very reasonable $1 entrance fee, spent an hour exploring the exhibits which mostly covered the Vietnam War (or as they refer to it, the ‘American Aggression War on Vietnam’). While the exhibits were very biased and full of anti-American propaganda, it was still an interesting museum that created more questions than answers (which every good museum should do!).

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A trip to Saigon would not be complete without a visit to the indoor Ben Than market; we visited on multiple occasions to enjoy a thick cup of Vietnamese ice coffee and meander through the stalls selling fermented fish, handmade clothing, makeup, souvenirs, coffee and teas.

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Saigon was an interesting city. Like much of Vietnam, we never quite felt safe or at ease. The food and accomodation were greatly overpriced, and there was not a lot to actually do. There were gangsters on most corners and it was easy to see how common it is to be robbed just walking down the street. But the people were mostly lovely and there is something magical about the buzz of any big city: young people with opportunities, a sense of community, education, so much action and 24 hour noise.


 

The Mekong River flows from China and Tibet through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and empties into the South China Sea. We traveled four hours to the Mekong Delta as part of an overnight tour, with a brief stop to see a pagoda complex. We arrived in My Tho around noon and jumped on a boat to cross the river and explore the four main islands.

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Like in much of South East Asia, coconut farming is a huge money source for the Vietnamese. The first island offered us (and what felt like 50 other tour groups) a view into the manufacturing of coconut candy. Despite the open air factory being crammed with tourists, it was interesting to see how they prepared and packed the candies with bare minimum machinery and no modern help.
Our next stop was a honey farm that sold fresh honey, royal jelly, pollen and various health drinks. We snacked on banana chips and drank honey tea in a covered garden, and took a quick boat ride to the next island for some local music and fruit.

The tour itself was quite boring, but for the huge price of $25 each including accommodation, we enjoyed the slow pace of the day. The only negative was a horse drawn carriage ride (we have tried VERY hard to avoid anything remotely harmful to animals on this trip), but it led us to a boat ride down the canals used by the locals. A slightly crazy woman guided us along the small streams in a river boat, talking and laughing to herself along the way. It was a serene and silent journey (except for the ranting of our lovely guide).
Lunch came just in time as the sky opened up and the monsoon rains pounded down on the tourist restaurant where all of the tour groups had been placed. We shared a table with two young girls from Bavaria and a middle aged Israeli couple, and I helped one of the German girls devour a coconut grub that her friend had dared her to eat.

We jumped back on the bus after our boat day was completed and drove to the city of Can Tho, a huge hub in southern Vietnam and the largest city on the Vietnamese Mekong. Approaching 4pm, the rain clouds gathered overhead and hundreds of motorbikes began to fill the narrow streets. We were stuck just outside of the industrial park, a compound of factories that look remarkably like prisons filled with young Vietnamese people sewing our underwear and H&M t-shirts.  We had passed areas like this before, but the swarm of people leaving their low paying jobs all at once was overwhelming. The streets were packed with thousands of motorbikes, and the rain came down hard.

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As things go in Vietnam, we were promised one thing and delivered another: a bright, shiny new hotel in downtown Can Tho near the night market which turned out to be 4km from anything, located in an industrial area near the highway. We decided to join the rest of the group at a one star hotel downtown, and spent nearly an hour walking back and forth in torrential rain searching for the elusive night market. In our search, we stumbled across a restaurant that smelled like the best bbq in the world. With not a word of English spoken, we sat down and stripped off our dripping ponchos and were greeted with a taster plate of rice cake, chicken wing, pickled vegetables and an entire quail. We happily devoured our plate and continued on in our search for the market.

The rain was only getting stronger and when we stopped to ask for directions, we were greeted with smiles but no English. One girl jumped off her motorbike to try to help us, and when she saw us walking in the opposite direction half an hour later looking defeated, she pulled out her phone to translate for us. We ended up having an amazing bowl of vegan soup (foraged mushrooms, homemade tofu, mekong weed, rice noodles and bean paste) at her food stall as the rain poured down and, through an online translator, we had a whole conversation. I feel lucky to be traveling in a world where communication is so easy; my first time in Thailand at eighteen meant visiting internet cafes every few days and stumbling along. An entire world is open to people now that is so exciting; we are all the same at the end of the day and technology helps us realize that.

We never did find the night market; our new friend informed us it was much too far away, so we went back to the hotel to get a few hours of sleep before our 5:45am wakeup call.
A quick breakfast and off we went to the highlight of the tour: the Can Tho floating market. The largest floating market on the Mekong, it is an accumulation of boats from all over the country that have come together at a crossroads in the river to sell their goods. Families live and work on the boats until everything they brought with them has been sold. As a wholesale market, each boat has a large pole attached to the front which shows off the goods they have for sale. There were boats with pumpkins and pineapples and yams, watermelons and lychee strategically hanging from the poles making it easy to choose which boat to buy from.

A fifteen minute ride down a side canal brought us past homes perched over the river to a small island with a catfish pond and bamboo bridge (we were far too heavy to attempt to cross). A leisurely walk through an orchard brought us past cocoa, papaya, durian and dragonfruit trees.

The last stop on our trip to the Mekong Delta was a rice noodle factory where we learned the complete process of how the rice paper sheets and noodles are made, and we were able to try a delicious fried rice noodle dish. One man had spent 42 years working at the factory on the small island.

Our organized lunch stop in Can Tho was a dirty, overpriced restaurant that just happened to be near the market, so we left to explore the area ourselves. We found a wonderful little place to eat and enjoyed an ice cold coconut, spring rolls and noodles (with some fried bananas to take on the bus).

Our journey was finished, and it was almost time to leave Vietnam. We drove back to Saigon (to a much nicer, cleaner hostel) and braved torrential downpour to visit the tiny night market, making a stop at Baskin Robbins for an overpriced ice cream (a famous brand in Canada that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, I have dreamed of their chocolate peanut butter ice cream for twenty years and found it in Vietnam, of all places).

Vietnam was a wonderful adventure. We visited twelve cities and traveled from the complete North to the complete South in four weeks. Each city was unique and beautiful; there is not a single place we didn’t enjoy at least a little bit.

Off to the beaches of Cambodia!

-Chelsea and Ben

So far:

We have taken 6 ferries, 1 cruise ship, 3 boat rides, 12 airplanes, 32 busses, 6 trains, uncountable subways, tuk tuks, songtheows, motorbikes, city busses and car rides. We have travelled approximately 42,970 km in 243 days and have been to 13 countries (including stopovers). We have stayed in 35 hotels, hostels and guesthouses (plus a lot of couchsurfing).

 

 

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Vietnam: Dalat & Mui Né

The journey from Nha Trang to Dalat should have been short and easy, but Vietnam is never easy. We were picked up late from our bus station and transferred to a city bus (an old van) and shoved in the back with a young Russian couple and several wet boxes of fish. We spent four hours driving high up into the mountains (Vietnam is nearly 90% mountain range) while our driver swerved around large trucks and texted on his phone. I had a panic attack, tears streaming down my face, while the poor girl beside me vomited into a plastic bag (again, please avoid the roads in Vietnam!).

As soon as we neared the mountain town of Dalat and the pine trees came into view we began to relax. The climate was about ten degrees cooler than along the beach and the town seemed small and charming. We had some great food before settling into our very damp, old, uncleaned room and walked around the bustling night market in the evening. Everyone was bundled up in winter clothes and the market sold things that we had not seen in months: massive avocados, strawberries, plums, grapes and cherries. Young people dressed up in costumes to make money with photos, and every street was packed with clothing markets selling hats, scarves and thick jackets.


To explore the surrounding area we rented a bike and drove first to the ‘Crazy House’, a strange building modeled (by a vietnamese architect) after the Gaudi houses in Barcelona and the Hundertwasser Haus in Vienna. The building itself was not much to see and looked to be a dangerously built guesthouse more than anything, but it was interesting to see nonetheless.


A short drive out of town led us to a lookout point with a cable car which, for $4.25, brought us over the mountains to a beautiful pagoda complex. We made it just before the usual two hour Vietnamese lunch break when everything stops working while everyone goes for a nap, which left us plenty of time to explore the gardens, pagodas and stop for a coffee. Ben found a gigantic spider which occupied most of his time, and I admired the unique tropical flowers before taking the (Austrian made) gondola back to the mountain.

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Continuing on into the woods brought us to the Prenn Waterfall. Unfortunately, like many places in Asia, this tourist attraction featured a zoo with elephant and ostrich riding. It was sad to see so many tourists eager to hop on the back of an animal for their own amusement, and it is always difficult not to say something. The best we could do was not give them our money, so we drove back to the Dantala Waterfall which turned out to be much better and had zero animal exploitation (unless you count the man dressed up in a monkey suit).

 

The most interesting part of the waterfall was not the small waterfall itself; the entire forest had been turned into an adventure park with a zipline course, waterside and manual roller coaster (all of this without destroying the land).

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Our time in Dalat came to a close with a sunset drive around the man made lake and a stop at the Domain de Marie church (Dalat region is mainly Christian). It was a lovely, friendly little city and was different than anywhere else we had visited so far in Vietnam.


 

Mui Né was a five hour drive in a comfortable bus with a safe driver (it may have helped that an old nun was sitting in the front seat with a basket of puppies in her lap-no joke). We made a stop halfway and Ben got out to take photos of some garbage-eating pigs in a ditch and the nuns puppies playing in the grass (I was quite sick and regretfully stayed in the bus).

Arriving in Mui Né to more boiling weather, the bus driver tried to leave us 5km from the normal bus stop but we refused. Hopping back on the bus, he drove us where we needed to be and we found our hotel after a very hot 30min walk. With a combination of fever and 40 degree weather, I promptly passed out and woke up several hours later just in time for some medicine and a sunset walk on the locals beach. We rented a bike and drove outside of town to a food market and snacked on a variety of spring rolls and sausage.

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Our day started bright and early; we had planned to visit the famous white sand dunes 35km outside of Mui Né before the sun became too hot. Thankfully for us I had read an online post about the corrupt Communist police bribing tourists on that stretch of highway.  Unlucky for us, they pulled us over a third of the way to the sand dunes. I told Ben not to speak any English, and we spent the next ten minutes playing ‘dumb German tourists’ to the group of cops demanding $30 USD from us or they would take our motorbike. Smiling away, shrugging and pretending not to understand a word of English obviously exasperated the cop. We were actually making him work for his money! Eventually Ben started talking (in German) about calling the Tourist Police, which somehow made the cop think that Ben was a German police officer. Oh my. Knowing he was not getting a penny from us, he let us go and we drove off with a smile and a wave (one of many examples of why it’s beneficial to speak two languages!).
Unfortunately for us the police detour meant no white sand dunes, but we drove to the smaller red sand dunes to take some photos and watch the locals slide down on plastic mats giggling like little kids.

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The afternoon brought us to the fisherman’s village to take in the ocean filled with boats, to a neighborhood producing fish sauce (drying small fish on bamboo sheets), and to the ‘fairy stream’ in the evening for what we hoped would be a lovely walk along a shallow cool stream.

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As I have said before, nothing in Vietnam is easy. The ‘fairy stream’ quickly showed itself to be a series of sewage outfalls running into a small stream that led to a very small, dirty waterfall. Walking ankle deep in raw sewage while children and Chinese tour groups splashed about was one of the most disgusting things either of us have ever done. The scenery was stunning, but it was difficult to get past the fact that you are walking through urine. Not to mention the monkeys on chains along the stream and ostrich rides on offer, we couldn’t wait to get back to dry land and a hot shower.

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Feeling much better and ready for the next city in our whirlwind trip through Vietnam, we prepared for our long journey to Saigon.

-Chelsea and Ben

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Vietnam: Da Nang – Hoi An – Nha Trang

The trip to Da Nang only took a few hours, and we had booked a hostel in the center of town which we found after a sweaty 30 minute walk from the bus stop. I will not go into what happened from noon until 6pm, but our check-in experience was a complete nightmare which will likely enrage us both any time we remember it. We eventually ended up leaving and finding a different place to stay which turned out to be a much nicer and more comfortable hostel located in a new mansion that included a traditional Vietnamese breakfast.

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Da Nang is a city on the East Coast which was used as a major port by the French. Halfway down the long country, Da Nang is the fifth largest city in Vietnam and is home to amazing beaches, seafood, and the country’s main universities. Everywhere we went we were greeted with smiles and hellos by people our age excited to practice their English skills.

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We enjoyed Vietnamese coffee overlooking the river, walked around the city checking out the sights, and watched the famous dragon bridge blow fire and water at the sunset light show.

It was much harder to find a motorbike in Da Nang as there are far less tourists than other places, but we met a group of Canadians who returned theirs and set one aside for us. With a full tank of gas and a thick layer of sunscreen on, we drove towards Monkey Mountain. The panoramic views were incredible from every stop, and the drive down towards the beach was similar to the Sea to Sky highway in Vancouver.

There was a massive Buddha statue and pagoda complex on the way down where we stopped to take photos (and star in selfies taken by teenage girls), but a storm was coming in and the sky was quickly turning black. We jumped on our bike and tried to outrun the rain but got caught in the heaviest monsoon yet, pulling into the first restaurant we saw as the roads flooded more and more. We had a warm coke and watched the rain come down so heavily that we couldn’t see the beach across the street until it had passed enough to continue back to the hostel.

On our way back to the hostel we tried to find a restaurant we had visited on our first night but the streets were so confusing, we ended up at a residential dead end. A man and his son were talking, and the son asked us where we were going. After explaining we just wanted good food he kindly offered to show us the way to his favorite restaurant. Speeding through winding streets, we tried our best to keep up. We ended up at a small but busy spot on a side street that specialised in local cuisine. Our guide ordered us his favorites, shook our hands goodbye and off he went to meet his friends (late because of us, but happy to have practiced his English and help us out. His dad looked so proud as we drove off together).

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After changing our soaked clothes we drove to the beach, which was filled with locals enjoying the cooler evening after the storm. The sunset was spectacular as we drove over the dragon bridge back to the hostel.

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Hoi An was a one hour drive from Da Nang, and we found a perfect little hotel on Chum Island with a sweet owner who expressed her love for me every time we saw her. Hoi An is known as  the city of lanterns and is a well preserved heritage town with a mix of Chinese architecture and French Colonial influence. The night market was a hive of activity; it had been a long time since we had been anywhere so full of tourists and the swell of people in the muggy air was a bit overwhelming. The river was filled with the glow of homemade lanterns and visitors on boat rides. The actual market left a bit to be desired but the city itself was beautiful at night and we ate a traditional dinner at the side of the river.

The hotel gave us bicycles to explore the city, and despite the heat we spent an hour riding around the back roads and stopping for a bowl of phó. As the afternoon grew hotter we rented a motorbike and drove to the beach to jump in the cool ocean, hiding under a lifeguard stand to stay out of the direct sun. It was close to 40 degrees so we drove home to rest in our air conditioned room and went back in the evening, when the locals once again crowded the sand and all of the action started.

On our final day in Hoi An we checked out of our hotel, and with five hours to kill, walked into town for a coffee. We had avoided the famous Japanese bridge (the main attraction in town that led to the old city) because of the $9 it cost to cross the ten foot stretch. Not wanting to miss out on any part of the city, we snuck down a side street and passed into the old city without paying a dime.

There were far fewer tourists and no cars,  and we walked under the shade of the flowering trees until it was time to make our way to the bus station.


 

The busses in Vietnam are notoriously dangerous. There are around 350 traffic fatalities every single day in a country of 91 million, most of which occur on night busses where the drivers sleep very little and stay awake with a mixture of Red Bull and methamphetamines. Our busses so far had been bearable but terrifying, and I was not looking forward to the twelve hour journey to Nha Trang. Twists and turns around steep mountains with no barriers and sheer cliff drops, passing a few bad accidents, driving against traffic at 100km an hour. We arrived in Nha Trang at 5am, muscles tense and genuinely happy to be alive. If you ever visit Vietnam, please choose a different mode of transportation. It is just not worth it.

Arriving in Nha Trang was surreal; at 5am, the streets were crowded with locals coming and going from the beach in swimsuits, people were exercising on the outdoor gyms, men were slurping on noodles before heading off to work. The city was bustling and we were lost, wandering the streets trying to find our hostel as the sun rose and everything became hotter by the minute. After some bad directions and a few circles, we found our hostel and decided to wait until we could be checked in for a nap after a very sleepless night. A street restaurant outside was busy and smelled beautiful, so we left our bags and walked out to order a hot bowl of crab noodle soup. A Vietnamese woman struck up conversation with us (a nurse at the hospital next door, her son was living in Australia and she was going on a tour to Europe in a few weeks time). She kindly bought us our breakfast and took us across the street for a strong, thick coffee before running off to work. It was the kindest moment we had experienced in seven months of traveling.

After a nap in our cozy little room, we walked around the city and noticed more than anything how many Russian people were there, both as expats and tourists. Many of the store and restaurant signs were only in Vietnamese or Russian. We joined the hostel BBQ on the rooftop patio and met some great local girls, a cashew exporter from China and an Australian guy who wanted the link to this blog so he could steal our writing for his magazine. Nha Trang was turning out to be full of friendly, happy people, and we extended our stay for another night.

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A trip to any city would not be complete without a motorbike, so we rented another and drove 25km to the Ba Ho Waterfall on a busy highway away from the coast. The tourist destinations in the country had proven to be random and bizarre attempts to make money and this was no exception. After scrambling up sharp rocks and large boulders, we made it to a small waterfall only to be greeted by a Russian woman using it as a toilet. We chose not to go swimming for this reason, and relaxed in the peaceful jungle on a large rock under the shade of a tree instead.

The rest of our time in Nha Trang was spent swimming in the ocean and relaxing on the gorgeous white sand beaches. It was a unique city with so much to offer (although the food could have been better, but you could always find a bowl of borscht! ), and we were so happy we chose to visit a place that many backpackers overlook.

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-Chelsea and Ben

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Vietnam: Ninh Binh & Hué

Three restful days on Halong Bay came to an end too quickly, and we took a taxi to the local Bai Chay bus station to see if we could find our way to Ninh Binh. The bus station was full of curious Vietnamese kids and it was only a 30 minute wait until a bus was set to leave.

Arriving in Ninh Binh, we were accosted as usual by hoards of taxi drivers and guesthouse workers trying to grab our business, but we had booked a new hostel nearby which used to be the old train station. Our room was crowded but clean, and we gave ourselves the evening to get our bearings, have some dinner nearby and figure out what there was to see in this slightly sketchy little town.

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Ninh Binh is a tourist destination with few tourists, and the surrounding area is full of rice paddies and national parks. It is a perfect escape from the chaos of the bigger cities but leaves little to actually see or do in the city itself. We rented a motorbike on our second day and drove out into the country to check out the rice harvest and see the surrounding nature. The national parks were nothing special and the boat rides on the bodies of water we passed were nearly $30 (an absurd amount of money in Vietnam), so we chose to drive along the narrow, silent roads taking photos and saying hello to the goats and water buffalos.

A storm was on its way, so we ducked into a roadside restaurant to have some pho and mountain goat soup (a local specialty). The food was awful and the storm was long and dumped an unimaginable amount of rain, but the experience was saved by the group of 50-odd Vietnamese people waiting for their tour busses who spent half an hour staring at us and trying to find the courage to say hello. A cool young guy introduced himself in his best English and insisted on taking some selfies with the pale girl and the big guy with hairy arms. By the time we jumped back on our bike, still hungry, we had made a full restaurant of new friends.

The storm was not over, and we ended up driving for what felt like forever on empty, flooded roads up to our shins in muddy water and pounding rain. Lucky for me I had the best driver in Vietnam, and despite not being able to see a foot in front of us, he got us back to the hostel dripping wet but safe.

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After planning our route through the country we purchased an open bus ticket which would bring us to every city we wanted to see, from Ninh Binh in the North to Ho Chi Minh City in the South. We had some dinner at the same nearby restaurant and took our first night bus to a city thirteen hours away called Hué.

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Hué is an ancient city located along the Perfume River which was the capital city of Vietnam for 150 years and still houses the Imperial Palace We spent a few rainy hours exploring the many temples and buildings on the grounds.

Hué seemed to be a popular place with Vietnamese people on summer holidays, and the wide river was always full of boat tours. The small night market was mostly indoors, but we came across some industrious teenagers who had built an outdoor art studio and bought some unique souvenirs to bring home.

As always, we rented a motorbike and headed through some small villages to a completely empty beach. White sand stretched for kilometers,  and we gladly jumped in the cold water after driving around in 38 degree heat.

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Continuing along the roads,  we stopped at the Imperial Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh and took in the beautiful view from the top.

Hué is known for having some of the best food in Vietnam, and because of its location, the cuisine has very little outside influence unlike other regions which take elements from Chinese, Thai and Western cuisines. We spent an evening wandering around trying different local specialties before going back to our hotel to pack up once again.

-Ben and Chelsea