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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

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Vietnam: Hanoi & Halong Bay Cruise

A quick flight and a ride arranged from the airport later, we arrived easily at our hotel in the Hanoi Old Quarter and spent the evening walking around the crowded, narrow streets and indulging in the Vietnamese food we had been looking forward to for so long.

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Hanoi is the 1,000 year old capital city of Vietnam and is home to almost 8 million people. The Old Quarter is made up of narrow, winding streets, each of which specializes in a certain trade (ie-Silk Street, Coffee Street, Camera Street, Sunglasses Street, Beer Street, etc). The center of it all is the beautiful Hoàn Kiếm Lake, where tourists, locals, scam artists and North American stores come together in total organized chaos.

My initial impressions of Hanoi reminded me of stepping foot in Bangkok for the first time: the overpowering smells, open fires burning directly on the sidewalk, the constant loud honking of horns. We quickly realized there was no order to the roads, either. Cars, busses and the thousands of motorbikes drive against traffic carrying hundreds of eggs and entire dining room sets all at once. After the structure of tourism in Thailand and the mostly untouched beauty of Laos, Vietnam was starting to feel like the Wild West.

Our first days brought us buckets of warm monsoon rain and a walk through the city to the Ho Chi Minh compound, where we visited the mausoleum area and pagoda. Vietnam is a Communist state which was led by Ho Chi Minh as Prime Minister and President for many years, and he is still highly regarded in Vietnamese culture. We posed for some photos with curious teenagers (it soon became clear that our white skin and Bens hairy face were worthy of many stares and photos!) and headed towards the Hanoi Prison Museum.

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Hoa Lo Prison was built and used by the French colonists to imprison the Vietnamese, and later during the Vietnam War by the Vietnamese to imprison American POWs (including US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney). The prison was refered to as the “Hanoi Hilton” by the POWs and still stands as a museum in memorial to the prisoners who were tortured and killed there. It was a sobering and informative visit which taught us a lot about two very different periods of struggle in Vietnam.

Canada Day fell during our visit to Hanoi, and we spent a couple of hours enjoying free Bia Hoi (fresh light beer made each morning without preservatives which must be consumed within 24 hours, enjoyed over ice for about 20 cents per glass) at a nearby hostel chatting with fellow Canucks. A quick walk through the weekend Walking Street ended our last evening in the capitol.

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Hanoi is a big, loud, crazy city that operates in a kind of chaos that makes it hard to believe anything ever gets done. The Old Quarter retains the architectural charm of the French colonial days while packing in as much action as you can imagine, but the outer city is blossoming into something metropolitan and young (they even had a MAC store!). Our few days in Hanoi were a great intro to a country new to us both; we had initially planned to spend only two weeks here, but we have stretched out our stay in Vietnam to a full month.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site about four hours from Hanoi city on the coast of Vietnam. We had read a lot about the various tours available which ranged from broken down boats for $30 a day to luxury ships offering three night cruises for upwards of $3,000. After checking online, we found a last minute deal for an all inclusive three day/two night cruise with a well known company. We ended up being upgraded to a larger ship, and set sail with cloudy skies and a good bit of that charming Vietnamese chaos.

The company we had booked with turned out to be one of the more luxurious cruises available, and our cabin was clean and large, with a lovely bathroom, fruit basket, and a bottle of local wine waiting for us. Our sliding doors opened to fresh ocean air and amazing views of the towering limestone mountains. The food was extravagant, with seven course menus for every meal and plenty of seafood and traditional Vietnamese dishes.

Three days on the ship left us little free time. We visited a very crowded island for swimming (which we avoided because the water smelled awful) and a hike with amazing views,

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squid fishing after sundown with some great kids from Malaysia,

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cooking classes (making traditional spring rolls – Ben won first prize),

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some stunning caves,

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and swimming in an area of open ocean (to avoid the raw sewage beiing dumped by the nearly 200 boats filling the bay each day!). Ben kayaked alongside dinner plate-sized jellyfish, and we visited an over-water pearl farm where we learned about the manufacturing of farmed pearls that we could later purchase (which we chose not to do because of the insane prices).

We met a lovely couple from Dubai and shared some sunset drinks overlooking Halong Bay; for what we paid, this was a ridiculously luxurious experience and I definately enjoyed being able to read my book in silence (no wifi and no TV for three whole days!).

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The luxury cruise was a welcome break from cheap hotels and backpacking, but it was once again time to pack our bags and continue South on to the inland city of Nihn Binh to check out the rice harvest.

-Chelsea and Ben

 

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Laos: Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane

The bus took us from Chiang Rai towards the newly opened Friendship Bridge in Chiang Khong. It was a decent bus trip (we were even given a snack pack!) despite the seat in front of us being broken and the bus being a few years past its prime. The border was simple and quick, and in no time we were back on the broken bus in beautiful Laos!

Laos is a country of only around 6 million, with a rising number of tourists that still only numbers around 4 million per year (compared to Thailand, with a population of 68 million and around 23 million yearly visitors). Badly damaged during the Indochina War, this gorgeous country is often passed over by backpackers on the typical tourist trail. The journey deep into Laos was one of the most amazing things we had ever seen, passing dozens of poor villages, livestock, children as young as two running alone down the road, and no stores or cities in sight.

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The sun set just as we started to notice the steep mountains we were climbing in our rickety old bus, and we tried our best to catch a few minutes of sleep while being thrown around with every corner (thank God the speed limit is 30!). At 4:30am, we arrived in Luang Prabang and slept until sunrise when the driver kicked us off. While the sun came up over the city, we walked through the streets to our hotel, passing the famous Alms ceremony performed each morning when the monks collect their food for the day from the locals. Our hotel allowed us to check in after a 9 am bowl of noodle soup and a quick walk over of the morning market (featuring frogs, live birds, mice, bloody meat and streetside mani-pedis), and we rested until the midday heat had died down.

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site, and is a beautiful small town on the banks of the Mekong river. The French influence is left over from the 19th and 20th century when Laos was annexed by France, and the rows of colonial style homes and French restaurants still remain. Our hotel was at the foot of Mount Phousi, where we were able to watch the sunset from a temple overlooking the city and then explore the night market.

We spent a couple of relaxing days exploring along the Mekong River, admiring the architecture and trying to find a boat to bring us to a cave a few hours away. Unfortunately, traveling during low season is sometimes not the best thing as prices were far two much for just the two of us and we had to pass. Instead, we wandered the Palace Grounds, donated some money to the local kids library, and watched another gorgeous sunset while snacking on spring rolls.

Our final day brought us across the Nam Khan River over a bamboo bridge which only stands during the dry season and is then dismantled until the next year. We strolled along the quiet streets without a tourist in sight and enjoyed the silence and greenery before heading off to Vang Vieng the following day.


 

Vang Vieng is a small town directly between the two major cities in Laos, which is filled with tourists on stopovers and young people wanting to tube down the Nam Song River. Tubing has made the town a must-stop on the Banana Pancake Trail, and basically involves very drunk kids renting inner tubes to float down the river, making stops along the way for drugs and beer. Sounds fun until you take into account the sharp rocks and rapids waiting for you in the river; during high season over a hundred people die every year by drowning or sheer stupidity, and the locals avoid the water because they believe it has become cursed.

I can’t say we loved this town. Our guesthouse was away from the noise and chaos of the main strip and we had amazing views of mountains and goats and cows munching on the grass outside. But the town itself was dusty and felt like a bubble of negative energy, and we only ventured out to eat and to check out the famous Sakura bar, which offered free drinks for an hour every night and a great chance to people watch.

The nature surrounding Vang Vieng was spectacular, and we took an afternoon to visit the Jang Cave in one of the mountains we could see from our window. The cave was a popular spot for local kids to swim in the water and picnic, and was a very cool spot for us to escape the negativity of town.

Fortunately and unfortunately, we both got sick in Vang Vieng, and I spent an entire day fighting a fever in bed. It was a good spot to relax and watch the cows while recuperating, but I don’t think we would ever return (unless for some reason we had a craving for bad food, opium, shrooms and watching Friends reruns in every restaurant and bar!).

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The last stop in Laos was the capital city, Vientiane. We had booked the cheapest bus which apparently didn’t include proper seats, but got us to our destination safely and on time. Our hotel was close by and after dropping off our bags, we went out to explore the city. Like everywhere else in Laos, the capital city is usually only a stopover for people who require a new Thai visa or are traveling onwards. There are a lot of government offices and UN headquarters, which means plenty of Western restaurants and fancy wine shops.

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We spent the afternoon visiting the Patuxai Gate (a memorial monument which is literally described as a ‘concrete monstrosity’), Pha That Luang (a temple and building complex), and the night market where we enjoyed a spectacular sunset over Thailand and the Mekong. On return to our hotel, we found that our bed was covered in ants, but that’s a story for another time!

The Buddha Park seemed like a great way to spend a sunny day, so we walked over to the bus station and grabbed a baguette sandwich from the busiest vendor and wandered around until we found the right bus to bring us 25 km out of town. 25 km in Laos takes around 45 minutes, but the park was worth it. We stopped in a bamboo hut for our picnic and spent an hour amidst the 200 Buddhist and Hindu sculptures.

I had wanted to make a quick stop before leaving Laos at the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) center, which was created to bring awareness to the deaths and injuries caused since the Indochina (or Vietnam) war. Laos is the single most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Around 270 million mini bombs were dropped during the war, and 80 million failed to detonate. The Laos people struggle with injury and death caused by these shrapnel filled mini bombs on a daily basis; something as simple as cooking dinner can cause the decades old bombs to heat up and explode. We visited the center to learn more about how worldwide communities are assisting in the creation and distribution of inexpensive prosthetics for people injured from bombs, disease and traffic accidents. It is an amazing foundation and was an important look into a war that continues to cause so much damage.

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Ten days of bland food, upset stomachs, astounding nature, bizarre cities, kind people and a couple of great wood fired pizzas brought our journey through Laos to an end. Overall, our time here was an eye opening experience and despite the few negative points, it was in many ways one of my favorite destinations so far.

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Away we go to Vietnam!

– Ben and Chelsea

So far:

We have taken 6 ferries, 11 airplanes, 19 busses, 6 trains, uncountable subways, tuk tuks, songthaews, motorbikes, city busses and car rides. We have travelled approximately 39,775 km in 214 days and have been to 12 countries (including stopovers).