Trip Journal: Christmas in Vietnam & Cambodia
Saturday, December 20
the Hanoi symphony begins around 5am in the Old Quarter ... lonely cats wail, motorbikes rev, pots bang, public address system blares and horns honk ... now THIS is southeast Asia as i imagined it. i took a stroll through town to Hoan Kiem lake ... the place was buzzing by 6am! motorbikes flow through the narrow streets like blood through the veins ... women hauling fruit to the market on shoulder or head ... the lake shore was dotted with people doing tai chi or playing badminton. you can tell a lot about a city and its people from what happens at dawn ... Hanoi is a hard-working town, steeped in tradition
after breakfast, the four of us set off to explore and spent most of the day wandering the back-streets of the old town. traditionally, the streets of Hanoi were named after the products sold there, though much of this has been lost over time. nonetheless, we walked through fruit & meat markets, past clothing stands and along streets filled with herb sellers and metal workers. Hanoi, more than any other city i have been in, is a complete assault on your senses ... the sights, sounds and smells are so intense ... fascinating
crossing Hanoi streets 101 ... stand at the side of street and face upstream ... move slowly and consistently into the flow of motorbikes ... make eye contact, if possible ... the sea of motorbikes seem to magically part around you ... as you cross the mid-point in the street, rotate head 180 degrees to face upstream in the opposite direction ... breathe when you reach the other side and thank your parents for buying you Frogger when you were a kid
harmony and i hired a cyclo to pedal us around the old quarter in the afternoon ... though we covered many of the same streets, it was a completely different experience ... no longer needing to fear becoming road kill, we could finally sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery. it came as a surprise that Christianity is the 2nd most popular religion in Vietnam and even more of a surprise the amount of Christmas-related decorations and products we saw around town ... Santa suits for the kids and little fake trees at the street side vendors
found a place for dinner where we could try some traditional Vietnamese food ... grilled fish with dill & green onion ... tasty ... early to bed as we must be up early for our trip to Halong bay in the morning. great day of exploring today ... weather cool (60) and partly cloudy
Sunday, December 21
up early to meet our ride to Halong bay ... the drive took over 3 hours and passed rice paddies and small towns along the way ... you really get a feel for the low levels of income in the country ... many dusty roads, moldy concrete houses and mangy dogs ... the country is growing economically, but has a long way to go. we arrived at Halong bay just as the clouds and light rain began to break up ... there would 8 of us setting out on the Red Dragon boat ... beautiful new replica of the junks that sailed these waters in the past ... ship mates were from Johannesburg, South Africa and Cork, Ireland ... nice folks. Halong bay is gorgeous ... hundreds of karst peaks thrusting up out of the sea ... had a great time relaxing on deck and having a drink or three with everyone. the food served on board was fantastic ... a lot of fresh sea food. had time in the afternoon to explore some caves and kayak around some of the karst islands ... amazing
the sun came out just in time to set... beautiful as it fell behind a island mountain. we found a quiet cove to anchor for the night ... so calm & quiet ... what a contrast from the constant stimulation of Hanoi. a young guy named Viet who worked on-board showed me how to fish for squid ... with a light shone on the water, he lowered a line with a simple green lure about 8 feet below the surface ... he showed me how to basically hold the line and yank it up and lower back every few seconds ... up, down, up down ... before long, a squid hit the line and he pulled it onto the boat ... he pulled the hook out as the squid shot black ink everywhere ... good times ... we ended up with 4 squid in the bowl. the only lights on the sea that night came from the fishing boats on the horizon ... they were using commercial-grade lights of their own to lure the squid into their nets
night time on the boat was peaceful ... until the staff 'MC' felt it necessary to make the staff sing for us ... we (and the staff) could have done without that. beautiful cruise today ... mild (70) and partly sunny ... nothing beats a night of sleep on the water
Monday, December 22
had a breakfast as we pulled up anchor ... visited a floating village of fishermen and their families ... an intriguing and unique way of life, with inter-connected 'house' boats, floating school and a fish farm. we pulled back into Halong town around noon for our drive back to Hanoi. stopped into a restaurant for some spring rolls before catching a 'water puppet' performance at a local theater ... the tradition dates back hundreds of years and apparently began as a form of entertainment in the rice paddies ... master puppeteers manipulate the puppets from behind a curtain over the water ... it was quite a show and well worth a visit.
stopped into 'Le Pub' for a cold Hanoi beer ... advertised as serving the 'coldest beer in Hanoi', Le Pub came through as promised. cooling down today ... cloudy and in the 50s
Tuesday, December 23
met up with a couple of local university students today who offered to show us around Hanoi and some of its history ... they were really nice and planned out a full day ... morning spent touring the Ho Chi Minh complex (including mausoleum) ... "Uncle Ho" is a hero to the Vietnamese and seeing his body frozen in time elicited a lot of emotion. after a lunch of pho ... a national dish and staple of the Vietnamese diet, we were off to Ho Lao prison ... site where countless political prisoners have been held over the years ... also where US pilot POWs were held during the Vietnam War ... including John McCain. it was a pretty chilling look into the recent past and a reminder of how much things have changed in 40 years. the tour finished up back in the old quarter ... thanks to Kim & Tao for a great day. ended up back at Le Pub for 'quiz night' ... finished a respectable 3rd and had a great time with the local expat crowd
another cool day today ... 50s and cloudy ... have been lucky with no rain so far
Wednesday, December 24
last full day in Vietnam ... decided to take a day trip 100km south to Ninh Binh province ... aptly described as the Halong bay on rice paddies ... after touring the ancient capital of Vietnam (before it moved to Hanoi 1,000 years ago), it was on to Tam Coc for a boat ride through the paddies, karst mountains and caves ... an older women took the oars and guided us on a great 2-hour tour ... amazing scenery. back to Hanoi for some last-minute shopping and a Christmas eve dinner at a great local restaurant ... local specialty of snake head fish grilled over charcoals was excellent ... a lot of excitement in town with Christmas festivities and football match between Vietnam & Thailand ... Vietnam won and there was celebrating in the streets
off to bed early tonight ... have to catch an early flight to Cambodia in the morning ... was an eventful way to spend Christmas eve, though thinking of family back home ... no white Christmas here, but feels pretty cold
Thursday, December 25
Christmas day and we were off to the airport at dawn ... flight to Siem reap went through Luang Prabang, Laos ... arrived in town by early afternoon ... stark contrast from Hanoi ... small town and very quiet ... staying at a little boutique hotel called Golden Banana ... beautiful place with rooms that hang over a small pool ... set inside a local neighborhood, as are most of the places we usually pick. Spent the afternoon wandering into town ... stopped for a beer or three ... walked through the old market. traditional 'amok' for dinner ... fish blended with Khmer curry spices steamed inside a banana leaf ... delicious!
much warmer here than in Hanoi ... partly sunny & 80 ... beautiful
Friday, December 26
off to see some of the ancient temples today ... $13 got us a tuk-tuk for the day. first stop Ta Prohm ... wonderful example of man conquering nature only to have nature re-conquer man ... tree roots snake through the ancient walls ... trees soar out of the temples ... an amazing sight ... also known as the "Tomb Raider" temple, after Angelina Jolie filmed part of her movie here.
next stop Angkor Thom ... a large area containing multiple temples and historical sights ... walked along the Terrace of the Elephants where King Jayavarman VII once viewed public ceremonies ... further down the road was Bayon temple ... an amazing structure with 200 large stone faces carved out of the walls ... very surreal ... my favorite so far.
back to town for some great Indian food at a place called Kama Sutra ... then back to the hotel to cool off after a hot afternoon of temple exploration ... the pool was chilly but felt great. Harmony & Lee were done for the day, so Chuck and i walked back to town to sample the night life ... Angkor beers at Angkor What? bar and Temple Club then split a pizza before heading home
Saturday, December 27
morning came early ... up at 4:30 in order to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat ... rather touristy but still worthwhile. we were among the first to arrive but there was eventually quite a crowd ... $1 buys you a plastic chair and a cup of coffee from a local vendor ... not a bad deal. cloudy morning with a little drizzle didn't make for a brilliant sunrise, but still was a great experience. harmony & lee crashed back at the hotel ... i walked into town to buy some music and a couple of books ... finally reading Carl Sagan's 'Contact' ... lazy day today ... ordered pizza and hung out at the hotel ... caught up on sleep.
still great weather ... 80 and sunny
Sunday, December 28
last day of real vacation ... hired a tuk-tuk again to take us further out of town off the beaten track ... was an hour ride out to Beantey Srei ... passed villages & fields along the way ... people here seem so happy, despite what we would consider a really tough way of life ... always waving & smiling to us as we ride by. Beantey Srei is a small temple, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in intricate detail ... the three dimensional carvings were just amazing. stopped by the temple of Pre Rup on our way back ... steep steps take you to the top of the temple where you can look out on the surrounding rice paddies. back to town for one last meal before we checked out of the hotel. flew to Phnom Penh for the night before heading home first thing in the morning
it has been a great trip with great friends ... good combination of city & rural life, old & new ... some tasty food & fun nightlife ... what travel is all about!