A Travellerspoint blog

September 2012

Cambodia - Phnom Penh - The Killing Fields in Mark's words

by Mark

sunny

Those who know me best would probably agree when I say I don't often get emotional about things that don't directly affect me or those closest to me. This isn't because I don't care about what goes on in the world, it's just that I'm very aware of the horrific things human beings can inflict on each other and dwelling on that is just going to bring me down.

So, a trip to the killing fields in Phnom Penh Cambodia was little more than something to do in the morning before going for a nice lunch. I don't mean that to sound heartless but that's about the amount of importance I had placed upon it. I also employed my usual method of hiding any discomfort I feel with a situation by making stupid jokes about it.

A soon as we arrived, I felt that this was going to have more of an affect on me than I'd initially thought. There was a stillness and a quiet calm that seemed to permeate the air and I instantly knew that this place was going to affect me. Just walking through the entrance was enough to bring a lump to my throat and I could see I wasn't the only one feeling this way. People seemed to be in their own worlds, trying to take in what they were seeing and hearing.

The "tour" for want of a better word includes a headset that gives you information about each point as well as some well thought out music and plenty of interviews with survivors and other people who have been affected by the atrocities that occurred here.

For those that don't know, The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. More information here

We we're visiting the main site Choeung Ek where approximately 17,000 people were killed during this period. The tour takes you past areas where the killings took place, where prisoners were held, and the actual gravesites themselves.

As you walk around the site, you are reminded of just how recent these events were. Each time it rains, more reminders are brought to the surface; clothing, glasses as well as human teeth and bones. Looking at some of the clothing, you could imagine these people lives and the horror of their deaths.

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The actual gravesites are now just grass and are roped off. A lot of the bodies have been removed for proper burial but there are 100's still left here in underwater graves. For some reason, one of the graves sites had loads of butterflies on it. Make of that what you will but it did seem to be symbolic in some way.

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As you walk around, you come to the back of the killing fields where this is a very peaceful lake. There seems to be a family living on the edge of it in a shack with a young child. Must be a strange place to be brought up.

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The tour ends at the Stupa monument. This tall tower houses over 8000 human skulls and is perhaps the most moving reminder of what happened here on the whole tour. It's kind of beautiful and draws you into it for quiet contemplation. I found it hard to walk away from.

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Today, the killing fields strangely beautiful. They are a reminder of what happened, a memorial to those who were brutally killed and perhaps most importantly, a place for future generations to visit and educate themselves about how to ensure this never happens again.

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Posted by KtandMark 23:13 Archived in Cambodia Tagged fields cambodia killing reap siem Comments (0)

Cambodia - Phnom Penh/Siem Reaping the rewards at Angkor Wat

by Kt

Mark has been going on about Siem Reaping the rewards for the last week. I hope he'll have it out of his system soon.

So getting from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh was pretty straightforward. We decided on the Mekong Express which was brilliant. Spacious, aircon wasn't amazing but it was v hot out and my seat was broken & I was over the back wheel so I was like a bucking bronco. But they looked after you well, particularly on the border which is organised (kinda) chaos. You stop for a little tea break just over the border. Just over the border was a ton of casinos. Not sure about why this is - I don't think they can bet in Vietnam as there was a casino in Da Nang which we were told the locals couldn't use, it was for the mainly Chinese tourists.
These are not big, grand casinos. The best one was called the 'Winn' - yep!! - in the same font as the Wynn - lush!!!

Then onto Phnom Penh. Worst bit was the ferry the coach we went on - I never like going on them. But it was an amazing drive through the Cambodian countryside. It was really lovely. Stilted houses, paddy fields with sporadic palm trees on edges (not sure what that was about), cattle and water buffalo. The huge hay piles intrigued me - definitely quite old fashioned farming.

We turned up at the back of some market in Phnom Penh and were grateful we'd arranged a tuk tuk to pick us up through the agent in HCMC. The tuk tuk driver was doing this for free apparently but did we want to go anywhere the next day. Well we did (and I know this is the way it works) and he seemed nice enough so we booked him to pick us up the next morning.

The tuk tuks are another new design. They are like mopeds pulling trailers. They look totally unstable but once you're in them and have cornered a few times, you realise they are miraculously balanced.

They even have tuk tuk buses - which is pulling a long flat trailer with wooden benches, which people pile onto.
Tuk tuk lorries have a boxed in back to store stuff in. They're pretty amazing.

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Another country another beer - on our first night we tried some local beer. I didn't like it much.
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After a long day travelling we didn't feel up to a huge amount after getting to our guesthouse. The Khavi guesthouse, I booked after reading story from a couple of travel bloggers that had had this guy years ago as a tuk tuk driver who's dream it was to have his own hotel. Not easy for a tuk tuk driver with low and sporadic earnings. But he made it and a great place it was too. They were so lovely and helpful there. A nice area to chill out downstairs and in a great area. There's a street of places to eat and can walk to both the palace and the river.

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So we explored a tiny bit then headed down the road to a place I'd seen recommended for simple food. Truthfully, I mainly wanted to go because I'd heard they had a pug. Sad but true. And they did. A fatty pug who knew how to charm customers to get fed - hence the poster below.

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Next morning we headed off to our first stop, the Killing Fields. This is a fairly long, dusty tuk tuk ride. If anyone does it - def wear sunglasses and sit on the drivers side. I was on the other side so was closest to the many near misses with lorries (so much construction going on here) and other speeding vehicles we had. It was rather heart stopping. I made Mark swap sides on the way back and he concurred it was indeed the dark side.
The roads are pretty bad (some of them are pretty much just dirt tracks). There's lots of bits where the road caves in, so the bike (and big seated area behind don't forget) has to drive around - which either means into oncoming traffic or into the path of pedestrians or buildings. Joy!

As we neared the Killing Fields it became more rural. There's lots of Asian cows plodding around (you know the ones with the humpy necks). They seem to always need to itch their noses - funny seeing a cow scratch his nose on a moped.

Killing Fields

I don't have that much to say about the Killing Fields. It is incredibly well done and I think it's somewhere everyone should go to remind ourselves what so easily gets forgotten. This should not happen. It is strangely one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. Meadows, trees, a pond, orchards, birds.
But this was somewhere that horrific things happened and music was played loudly at night so the locals couldn't hear the screams. One of the chilling facts is that they barely shot anyone. Bullets were expensive so should be wasted. So many people died here that bones and scraps of cloth often comes up to the surface which is sporadically collected by the staff. Most bodies have been collected and put into the remembrance tower but not all and some they have intentionally left, near the ponds edge. There is a audio tour which is free for all which explains everything and you hear he stories from many people. This means that you experience this in your own time, in your own head space. A quiet place where many people ended up walking around alone. You sit on a bench to listen and you look around you and see scraps of cloth which you realise belonged to a some poor soul, taken down here. You stare at the big tree in horror as you hear what it was used for. I won't go into any more detail. But it is utterly horrifying and paralysingly saddening. Something beautiful and slightly spooky, is the abundance of butterflies. I won't go all hippy dippy on you but it was something you couldn't help notice and feel in juxtaposition to the gloom.

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S21 Genocide Museum

There wasn't much to the genocide museum as a museum but it is again the building itself which holds a terrible history. This is an old school which was used as a prison. Crudely constructed open topped cells filled the larger rooms. There are larger rooms with metal beds which were used for torture. A large photo of a body found in those rooms is often on the walls. It's pretty much as it was. This only ended at the end of the 70s so it is tangibly recent. There are photos and information on the people that stayed there. Most died there or were sent to the killing fields. Again, there is lots of information but I will spare you.

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The whole thing is politically alarming - realising how easily people can take advantage of the broken and vulnerable. Like Hitler, Pol Pot took a country, shattered from civil war and sold an impossible dream to the poor and underprivileged. His hatred of education seemed insane as he'd studied in France and been a teacher himself and all the other high up members of the Khmer Rouge had been as well. He'd failed his degree I think - like Hitler, clearly had issues with rejection. There are some amazing quotes from him. My favourite was probably along the lines of 'it is better to kill an innocent than to let an enemy go'. Nice, eh!!! But the alarming side is that no-one stepped in. No-one noticed or no-one looked? It's always unsettling that we pick and choose the troubles we step into. It's just difficult to comprehend all this and quite frankly it takes you to a pretty dark view of the world. You have to cling onto those stories of moving forward. It is startling that the Cambodian people have come across as so 'light'. Not that I expect them to walk around being 'woe is me' but they've had a very recent atrocity and continue to be one of the poorest countries in the world. I have also heard people describe their encounters with Cambodia as hard and etched with trouble. Quite frankly my experience of almost everyone, young and old, has been that they're quite scampish! A little mischievous and full of smiles. And it's not smiley in a 'whatever you say tourist person' way that you get elsewhere - it's them laughing at themselves or at you, or whatever. Like I say 'light' and maybe that's the thing. Life shouldn't be dark and dour - it can be lost or get tainted so easily, it should be enjoyed and made the most of. It took me about a week to go with this one though. It didn't help that I was reading 'The Help' so my faith in the world remained minimal for a while.

Market

We had hours left in the day and felt bad getting rid of the driver but there aren't obviously a lot of other attractions in the city.
I think most people go shooting but I really wasn't up for that. It was something I really fancied before my recent stint in Vietnam and Cambodia remind me horror of war and that's what guns are for.
So we opted for a market which I'd read had great art deco architecture - Mark was excited, I can tell you :) But I figured we could grab some lunch and then finish up. So we walked around - it really was a lovely building and a gorgeous, clean, interesting market. No messiness - no hassle. In fact, I was wondering what was wrong with me - why did no-one want to sell to me. The tuk tuk drivers would offer themselves up and just laugh when you said no. Where was this harsh and harrowing Cambodia that I'd heard so much about?

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That evening we got a little more adventurous and wandered further up the river. This is a hive of activity with lots of games and antics going on on the thick stretch that runs alongside. More great people watching. Further on from here is also where the majority of restaurants and hotels seemed to be. We didn't get to go to our first choice of restaurant - I forget it's name but it's a charity place that trains up street kids - it was all booked up darn it but we found a nice, friendly and surprisingly chic restaurant and tried their Khmer specialty taster menu. This was our last night and we had another early start and another bus awaiting us.

I felt really guilty spending such little time in Phnom Penh. We did the usual stuff that tourists do - pop in, see the stuff of the humanitarian tragedy and then move on. It was a nice laid back place so I would have liked to have spent more time there working it out. If we hadn't (unusually for us these days) had a flight booked on a specific date which meant we had limited time to make it to Bangkok, we definitely would have hung out longer. I'd like to go back sometime. I think this city is definitely one to watch in coming years, I really hope they don't knock too much down and make it middle of the road and boring to wander.

Thoughts on Cambodia at this point...
There is a lot of building going on in PP which is great as it means progress but they are not holding onto heritage buildings and apparently great buildings are being knocked down all the time. Some are well looked after like the palaces and the market as per above. But in particular buildings from the 50s and 60s which with some loving care could be fantastic attractions, are being bulldozed and dull un-inspiring samey buildings are going up. Shame.

The other side of the countries development is I think it's the hugest void of rich and poor I've seen so far. Cars which you even raise an eyebrow at at home - like Hummers and Bentleys. Bit weird.

The people seem to like colourful clothes here. I noticed this early on. Lot of bright reds, oranges and yellows - even their shoes. The boys in PP are very into their hair. Dying bits of it and sticking it up as high and bouffant as possible. It's v sweet.

On to Siem Reap...

We booked our hotel through our guesthouse in PP as we liked them so much, and we also booked our bus ticket through them.

It was the Mekong Express again but the bus wasn't as comfy or modern as the one from HCMC. It was OK though. The journey wasn't so far anyhow.
We got dropped off in what was like an agricultural trading estate type place in the middle of nowhere. Our arranged tuk tuk driver wasn't there so we went with a sweet, enthusiastic young lad. Same deal - we booked him to go to Angkor Wat etc but left it a day so we could have a bit of down time the day after as we were getting pretty knackered with so much moving about.

The hotel we stayed at, the 'New Riverside' was amazing. Please note that it was nowhere near the riverside but who cares it was fab and a bargain. Big, comfy rooms, a great breakfast included and a nice pool area. The staff were all also lovely there.

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There was two things I loved there totally -
Their shrine in the foyer had a light up plastic pineapple - I want want so bad!!!

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Pumpkin, ginger and coconut milk soup with garlic bread. I had this about 4 times during our stay - sooooo good.

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Pretty much all day, until about 8pm there was a free tuk tuk to take you into town, which was fab. Mark hated this as the tuk tuk had to go down a very steep curb to get out and it always seemed it would tip.

The centre of Siem Reap is amazingly easy as it's been turned into a tourist haven. This has occurred over the last 15 years or so, so it's not really a representation of real Cambodia but it's nice and easy for weary travellers. There is a central street called Pub street (yes I know, sounds awful) but I think it's just about creating back packer type areas. We were generally only there early evening so was always tame but am sure got crazier and louder later on.

Our first stop was the Angkor What? pub (see what they did there!) this was the first pub in Siem Reap circa 1998 - history lesson for you there folks.

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They also had a rather posh Irish bar but as we stayed longer we explored further and went to places on the outer edges. My recommendations here are the Khmer Kitchen as mentioned above, Molly Malone's again as above, but the food was v good, Sunflower restaurant (Chinese & Khmer) & everything in our hotel was good!

Begging and dodginess

Now let me start by saying that this was no where near as bad as I was expecting. Not even close. But it is there so am gonna talk about it now and get it over and done with. It's obviously hideous to watch/deal with the kids sent out. My first experience was a girl after the Killing Fields who kind of just half heartedly loped after me mumbling money for school. I think after lots of people of course feeding them if they say this, they have mainly cotton'd on that education gets guilt ridden westerners a good'n. I just told her firmly no - always useful to learn that word in a language sadly. But that was the way it generally was; a kid kind of just following you and muttering unenthusiastically. I have heard however of people being chased down the street by hoards of children. This does seem to be when that person has stupidly given in and given one child something - so of course the rest think why not me and so the chase begins. I've always been very away about the evils of begging and got firm early on in life but I think Mark was feeling very uncomfortable and it's easy to throw money to remove your guilt but it helps no-one. You don't want to create the industry of begging as per India for example. I mean it's everywhere - beggars in the UK usually have a dog rather than a child at least but in Spain, Greece and Italy I've experienced toddlers launched at you in the street. I feel sorry for anyone who feels they can do nothing but beg but using children is so bad and we're told time and again that usually where the children are there, it's a scam/a business.

We witnessed slightly more hard core (and heart wrenching) incidents in Siem Reap. This definitely fell into the category of organised and calculated. We actually ended up staying in Siem Reap about a week which is fairly unusual so we could see the usual suspects at various times of the evening. They seemed pretty connected. I think it was likely one extended family. The older guys who hung out opposite Molly Malone's looked like they were just tuk tuk drivers but then realised there was only one tuk tuk and a few of them. Then I noticed they talked to the beggar kids. Then I noticed them talk to people and people blank them walking by. Now some people are that rude, but most would just say no thank you, not totally ignore. Then later when they approached us, realised they were selling drugs. They weren't pushy or anything but I wouldn't trust them as far as I could throw them away from a well lit, busy street.
So they then seemed connected to the woman with the baby hanging off her. And the very young kids who'd run around the street at other times of day with said baby with no mother insight. Seriously - it was about 3 months old being held by a 4 year old running about and playing. Heart attack!! The kids would come up to you and put their arms around you and ask for money. It's a strange tactic as it's so full on, but maybe people feel so guilty having to literally unpeel a child from themselves that they give them money to go away. We barely got bothered - I hate to think that I have developed such an uncaring vibe or a cold un-moving stare but at the same time, I hope I have - makes life easier.
There was one main culprit who I think was part of this clan but was on his own most of the time. I say culprit but someone has done this to this kid but I fear unless he gets out of this pretty sharpish his life is heading in an unpleasant direction. He must have been 7ish. He was full on with the arm throwing and did this from late afternoon, all night from what we could see, along the Pub Street area. There's lots of places with balconies which is how we watched him so often. It was quite funny at times to see the reactions of the foreigners. I particularly was impressed when the boyfriend/husband in a couple, siddled off leaving his other half to it. Helpful!! But then one guy firmly removed the kid and I think he may have then gotten a few choice words from the older, nasty guys. There's no winning here. It was bad to watch but the chilling part was the way this kid would turn. When he got turned away - which was inevitably most of the time, we've seen him 'play' kick the girl from behind and spit at people as they walked away. This poor little kid has been doing this for god knows how many years and he's now fighting back at the rejection he faces everyday. I can see this escalating to being more violent. He really does carry himself with a scarily aggressive demeanour (understandably). Sad to think of his fate :( But as I say, this in no way defines Cambodia. As in all poor countries (and not so poor countries) people will use scamming and begging as an income.
Of course it's on a whole other level when you have the landmine victims - the no legged man being pulled around on a cart by his very young daughter. Much more respectful but still, when you watch, very organised. The guy goes around on his own for much of the time - they let him 'skate' for want of a better word, around some restaurants as he's docile and not aggressive. But the mother turns up with the little girl for her to do her shift of ferrying him around for a bit before he goes it alone again.
I think in Cambodia they are aware and do not like this reputation as there's signs up in some businesses and about the place saying 'we want to work' and things like that. As the country develops, hopefully more opportunities will become available to people and especially kids and people with disabilities but in the mean time if tourists just stopped giving the guilt money, this problem would not be something that could potentially grow and hurt more people than it helps. There are always people there running charities that will welcome that money to help them help people properly. Although that is a bit of a minefield - have read that the 'visit an orphanage' type trips aren't really helping, it's kind of bringing the kids up with a bizarre viewpoint. I think you should be happy to invest in charity without wanting the 'payback' of a child smiling at you and some cute photos, but then if it provides much needed money - tricky one.

My name is Katie and I didn't go to Angkor Wat

So, yep I was in Siem Reap and I did not see Angkor Wat. I didn't see a simple temple or ruin. On the day we were supposed to go I felt really ill and so Mark went on his own. He saw Angkor Wat and some of the other amazing sights. He enjoyed it, he photographed, he learned some interesting facts about the history (for instance most of the Buddha statues don't have heads as our old friend Pol Pot sold them all).
We stayed in Siem Reap for a fair few days after so I could have gone. Thing is, the $20 dollar entry to the park seemed a bit steep for something I didn't really care about seeing. And it felt liberating to acknowledge this. I didn't want to go. I'm getting bored of temples and ruins have never been my thing. I've been to Greece countless times and have never been to one site. I am a history lover but more recent history. Pretty much anything from the late 1880s onwards and I'm in. But I truly would only have been going to tick it off a list. So I didn't. Ha! So there! I'm sure those of you who haven't yet been, who long to see this amazing wonder of the world, unesco heritage gem, want to throw things at me. But hey, maybe you've been to LA and haven't sought out the Randys Donut's building, been to Florida without worshiping at the art deco shrine of South Beach or you've gone to Japan without going to 'Hello Kitty World or you've never been to a Tiki Bar or you walk past concrete block buildings not realising it's 60s architectural masterpiece. Those would be scandalous to me!!!

Anyway, here's some pics from the ruin I missed :)

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Apparently these steps were really, really high - ha ha!!

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Previously mentioned missing Buddha head

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The monks carry gold umbrellas in Cambodia which always looks pretty stunning

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Highlights

Food

The Khmer food was a surprise. I'd not heard great things about the food but it turned out to be pretty good. Quite hearty food. Things like stews and potatoes! Totally not what was expecting. There is a place called the Khmer Kitchen which has 4 or 5 little cafes sprinkled about the place and is good to try.

Burning pots/witches cauldrons

These will always remind me of Cambodia now. They are sat out on the roads outside houses and businesses and are used to burn rubbish. They were being pushed as some kind of 'eco' initiative (it's probably more about keeping Siem Reap looking pretty for tourists - but either way it's a good thing).
They reminded me of the kids books 'Meg & Mog'

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People

I know it's cheesy and written and said too much when talking about a place but tough. Coz it really is a big thing. My heart is with the Vietnamese the most - I've fallen for them good and proper but Cambodia is a close second. They weirdly seem to have the closest to a British sense of humour. I loved the guy in our Siem Reap hotel who told Mark to look for a blue sack that someone had dropped in the bottom of the pool. Threw Mark for a while. Not used to cheekiness and sarcasm. It's great. Obviously there are plenty of miserable, mean, rude and grabby people but on the whole people were just genuine.

Posted by KtandMark 23:12 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh City & a quick trip to the seaside

by Kt

So, flying down from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City as again the buses didn't look too tempting. The roads around the mountain are pretty hairy and the journey to do just a few hundred kilometeres was going to take 7 hours. Vietnam airlines are just too good and cheap not to use.

We were prepared for chaos in HCMC as some people had said that the traffic there was crazier than Hanoi. Not true. It's definitely still crazy in places but there's way more traffic lights and crossings so walking into swarms of traffic was pretty rare. I was a bit disappointed - I've become a real adrenalin junkie for walking into the road! It's still got the traditional sights and sounds though and Mark wasn't overkeen but I loved it.

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It's a much more modern city and seemed much larger too than Hanoi. We were staying in the backpacker area as that's where pretty much all the accommodation was. It was great when we first got there as everything is on your doorstep but it wore a little thin pretty soon as most places to eat or drink were a rip off and not that good. Eventually we found some good ones, hiding down lanes or leaving the area.

There was a small cafe in our alleyway called the Asian Kitchen which was great and while on a touristy day we stumbled across an amazing restaurant called Nha hang khoai (near the war remnants museum at 3a le quy don)
We'd stopped for a cold drink after a long hot walk and seeing the interesting menu and the prices, made sure we came back. Simply not being in the middle of tourist trap meant this v modern, stylish and tasty restaurant was great value. The food was central Vietnamese I think.
Mark was very adventurous and ordered sea snails - now these were nice but they were huge and there was tons of them so I think unless you were gonna share between 2 or more people - not great idea for a wussy westerner. It was a lot of snail to munch through.

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The sea snails:

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We also had crispy pancakes, which I wish I'd had more of in our time in the country and I won the smug award by ordering crab glass noodles which was mind blowingly delicious.

Another good feed, back in the touristy area was Le Pub (one of 2 in the country - the original being in Hanoi) - fantastic Bun Cha there and we went to my first ever ice-cream cafe, 'Fannys'. I so wanted to order the ice-cream that looked like sushi but went for taste instead of style.

The best part of our stay, and is what returned us to the backpacker area even though I wasn't that keen on it, was our guest house. The Vietnamese family that ran it were lovely and sweet. They had an 18 yr old poodley dog that hung out at the front not up to much, bless him and there was another one in back room that we never saw but he did yap like crazy when heard us. Apparently he only does it for foreigners - just doesn't like em!!
The place was called Ly Lyon and I can highly recommend - they are lovely people, it's very safe and cosy and comfy. Nice little homey touches. Great price too.

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My favourite thing about HCMC is the green spaces. There are large park areas in the city centre where all life goes on.
People walking circles around the park to get their exercise, little fitness areas setup with things to step on/swing on etc, aerobics classes, teenagers practicing dance routines, people sitting with guitar singing, the soccerish game involving kicking a shuttlecock high in air - that was super popular. Sundays were best - the park was bursting with life.

People watching is fun in HCMC - sitting on a street corner watching the crazy traffic and comings and goings. Although when in the backpacker area you of course have a lot of idiots. It seems to be a real hub for people coming and going at the starts and ends of their trips. Huge buses turning up all the time.

One of the first things we did was go to the War Remnants Museum. Not a cheerful day but an important one none-the-less.

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Out the front of the museum are some tanks and planes, including ones abandoned by the US army. You can see most of the blokes around like this bit in the way that boys do, but once you move into the museum any excitement and enthusiasm they had for war is quickly dispelled (unless they are complete pyshcos). It is the quietest place I had ever been to as people walk alone contemplating what they see.

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It is also a very fair museum. There is no condemnation for the US troops, only for the war itself. It was fascinating to see information on the extent of the opposition around the world which I'd never realised the extent of. In fact there are many instances of acts of bravery and of stand out acts of humanity from US troops and it also highlights the many US children of soldiers who have been affected by the horrors of agent orange. Kids with extreme deformities with smiling faces. I think my biggest shock was that there's so much contamination still out there, these children are still being born - I naively thought it was only kids from the 70s affected - not now still. In a happy coincidence the day after we visited, it was announced that the US government was going to pay millions (not in compensation - haven't got there yet!) but to remove a huge load of agent orange contamination in central Vietnam near Da Nang.
It was an interesting visit but of course very hard and depressing. It's the recentness of it all and the pointlessness (as is most war) - fear of communism and then fear of losing face. It's amazing how Vietnam has bounced back from a devastated country to be thriving as much as it is today. And they are still communist - threatening? hardly!

So, after I'd picked my sad heart up off the floor we needed a little light relief so I found out about a place called the 'Up Cafe'
This is a cafe out near the airport used mainly by locals which is based on the film 'Up' in that it's designed to look upside down.

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It was a fab little place - service was a bit odd but food was simple, tasty and it was just cute sitting with a piano hanging over your head.

We went to an art gallery that we stumbled on which was in a stunning old building and had some great modern works. Vietnamese art seems to really have taken it's own route and has some very unique styles.

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Vung tau - off to the coast
We knew that it didn't have the most amazing beaches as there are lots of oil rigs and stuff off the coast but at an hour and a half by a cheap hydrofoil - thought would be a nice mini-break!!! The journey was really good - a little choppy at the end but took you off on the Mekong and past lots of Mangroves to the sea.

We stayed on Back Beach so we weren't on an area pointing at the oil rigs/boats anyhow. Immediately the beach looked nice but it was initially a bit strange as it was almost 100% Vietnamese tourists only. It would get incredible choppy. Was quite nervous when went Mark went out a couple of times and he did say it was a little bit scary at times. Surfers would suddenly appear from time to time!

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We know that not many westerners visited but it was unusual to see in a beach resort. It's proximity to HCMC means that lots of people from the city go for the weekend. This was very noticeable. It was incredibly quiet all week then when the weekend came, bus loads came in and it was packed!!

We did discover that the westerners tend to prefer the side near the ferry terminal. We went over there to buy a ferry ticket in advance and headed for a lovely looking bar to get out of the torrential rain. It was a cool looking bar - Kurt Cobains face was carved into the brick and there was a lovely pool table so Mark was happy. Only downside was a couple of drunken idiots being loud and annoying - one English one Oz. When they disappeared we were relieved but when it got to 6pm the whole place changed.

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The lights went down, the music went up and a bunch of girls with dresses as short as possible appeared, as did some unpleasant, sad western guys. The guys were very delighted to find these girls loved talking to them *coughs*. I was sat on my own while Mark was playing pool and he quite quickly came running back over as he was a bit scared. The girls had thought he was on his own so had descended on him. So we left & were so happy we didn't stay in that part of Vung Tau. There did seem to be older guys with younger wives sprinkled about in other areas - but that's not unusual anywhere in South East Asia. Most hotels don't allow Vietnamese girls to stay in room with anyone unless married so it can be a real pain for genuine couples.
It is by all accounts a small area/part of the town and easily avoided so I would still highly recommend this town for a chilled out visit.

We did move from our hotel after a few nights to a super cheap, better one up into town as there was a fair ground setup opposite the hotel. Well, opposite a really wide road and a few hundred yards up the road. But from 7 until 10pm this was so loud it not only shook the room, it shook your eardrums and your brains. We are not usually fussed about noise but this hotel was pretty pricey and so it was ridiculous to put up with having to stay out all evening to avoid the noise.

We did venture into the fair one night on our way back from a little beach bar we frequented. Mark was a little 'happy' and so very enthusiastic. Zero foreigners so we were a bit of a spectacle. Mark had a couple of the games which were so blatantly fixed that it was just funny. Throwing a ball at a can in the hope it'd fall off - but it just ricochet'd off the solidly stuck can (and after hitting someone behind us - I decided it was time to leave!).

We had a bit of a splash out on most days paying to stay by the pool at the Imperial Hotel. This was a great pool on the beach and most of the time we shared it with only one or 2 sets of people. It was well worth it but we learned early to bring water with us - what they charged was extortionate! We also ventured to eat in there one day, only to be horrified that in this plush hotel, the 'chefs special spring roll' was like a potato croquette crossed with a findus crispy pancake. Hideous! So we were happy that we were enjoying the pool by day, while paying a pittance to stay in a guesthouse down the road.

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Something that I noticed a lot in the food in Vung Tau was there was a lot of use of black pepper in the food. It was so good - the Pho here was way better and cheaper than most of HCMC.

The beach area we didn't venture into until near the end of our trip was much busier and you could really see the 'localness' of it all. There were tons of deck chairs, shacks and small food sellers. It burst into life at the weekend. It reminded me of Brighton on a sunny weekend - when it seems like the whole world descends!

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We also met one of my favourite people of the trip. The incredible laughing old lady. We went to buy some water from her and she just rabbited on and giggled and chuckled her way through the encounter. I think she'd initially told us it was one price and realised her mistake and then told us the correct price but was tickled by her mistake. Have to say - most people wouldn't have corrected themselves or even given us the 'real' price she did in the first place. It was the way that she was rambling on that made me laugh the most - just a really sweet encounter. She was like a nice, Vietnamese verson of Catherine Tate's 'Nan'.

We did have one sticky moment - we were attacked by a huge (and heavy) floor standing umbrella. We weren't quite sure how it happened - there was no-one near it and no-wind but it had been raining so whether that had weighed it down somehow. It just pretty much fell on us as we walked past but luckily didn't hurt too much. It landed on our backs rather than our heads!

Back to Ho Chi Minh City....

Reunification Palace

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This place was built in the late 60s when the previous one had been bombed (I think) and was to be where the South Vietnamese government would sit. But when the North Vietnamese tanks rolled in, marking the end of the war, it stopped being used and has been preserved pretty much exactly how it was. So for me - a vintage lover - this place is not only a blinder in terms of architecture but the interiors and the little bits and pieces were just amazing.

There were conference rooms and a very cool retro lounge and underneath the whole place were the enforced rooms in the basement where the big wigs could flee to (these were creepy). There were map rooms, office and even a cinema and a party space on the roof. There was some interesting taxidermy and artwork.
The 'state of the art' industrial kitchen of the time was cool too.

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I could have hung out in the this place for days on end but after many hours Mark had had enough. He was particularly getting annoyed with my insistence on photographing every instance of vintage phones we'd see. I must admit, in the end, even I gave up as there were so many - but we got plenty - for the record!!!

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This made me laugh - the kitchen equipment generally needed a description - but thought that 'table' was a given.

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Highlights & Notable

"You're knicked!"

One of the Vietnamese TV channels seemed to show daily episodes of The Bill from the 80s. For those who don't know The Bill is a recently cancelled London based police drama. A classic - especially these old episodes with Bob Cryer, June Ackland etc. It was dubbed over in Vietnamese but the weird thing with some of the dubbing here is that they don't blank out the original speaking so if you listen really hard...

ABC bakery

Found this gem of a place a little too late. It was 30 seconds from our guesthouse but we didn't go in until our return to HCMC where we only had a day to play.
The food was amazing - lots of great cakes but for savoury toothed me, the pizza slices and savoury bakes were my thing.
Funnily enough when we caught our bus to Phnom Penh, our provided breakfast box was from there - so that was a thumbs up!!

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Weddings

As I have seen elsewhere - weddings are big news. I saw some more fantastic brides and I also liked this sweetly decorated car:

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French bread

Something that is synonymous with Vietnam are the streetcarts filled with french bread rolls.

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The independence anniversary artwork

This was slightly different to that in Hanoi but still really cool.

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Chewy Cream Puff

This amused Mark immensely - simple things eh?

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iPho

Still funny :)

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Hammocks

These were used all over the place, but the funniest thing was how often they were setup over an entire path, so you have walk into the road to avoid them.

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Sleeping on mopeds
You see this all the time - impressive!

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Masks

Common all over in South East Asia but in HCMC they seem to take this to a whole new level. There is the ones with wings out to the side. And they wear them on the beach ???!!!!! Each to their own but the point of this drives us mad. I mean - sweaty face.

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Our stalker

This is the Vietnamese airlines life size cut out lady. She stalked us all over Vietnam. Everywhere we went. Sinister gal!

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Posted by KtandMark 05:58 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam - Central Highlands, we liked it Dalat

by Kt

So, we set off early from Hoi An to fly to Dalat from the spanky new Da Nang Airport. It was a fun waiting time as the electricity in said spanky new airport kept going out. Oh well - another cheap and super efficient flight from Vietnam Airlines. We then got a cheap bus from the airport into the city (just to show we're still backpacking and despite electing for flights sometimes, are generally still good budget kids).

Dalat is up in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. A totally different location and climate than we have been used to for so long. Meaning it was cold. We knew this and I had frankly been looking forward to it. Just to feel cool for a while seemed nice after being in the heat for so long. However, upon arriving we couldn't check in for ages and as we walked about to find somewhere to have a hot drink, the wind kicked in and that cold didn't feel so great. Mark had his usual - new location moan but by the late afternoon we'd sussed out that our hotel was in good location and the room was great and we'd eaten an amazing 'mystery' meal of rice and pork at the place next door and had dug out some warmer clothes (but not much warmer - we were gonna have to go with layers!

This is a place that not many foreigners go to - it's a holiday destination but mainly for the Vietnamese and funnily enough for Honeymooners. The big lake near us had swan pedalos and there were a few kitschy things about town which had drawn me to it.

There's a busy market in the centre of town and one of the things I loved about the area, which sounds strange, but they had the most amazing vegetables. The Pho there was stunning because the produce was just so good. Everything with vegetables in was just so amazing. They were also big on milk which is unusual for South East Asia but I never really got into what that was about - I had milk in my tea but it was like the fullest cream milk ever - too creamy and too sweet. Too strong for limp, weak Lipton teabags.

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Crazy house
The first place we visited on day 2 was the Crazy House which was in walking distance and I'd been dying to see. I'd stumbled across an image on Pinterest about 6 months ago of this crazy, twisted tree looking building and on further investigation discovered this was in Vietnam. This was part of the reason for putting Dalat on the itinerary. And I wasn't disappointed. In fact - the place was more crazy/bigger than I had expected and they're still adding to it. It is the brain child of a lady architect who's father was apparently very high up in government so she managed to get around the usual strict building regulations and create this twisty, curvy, kitschy building extravaganza.

There's round rooms with build in beds and funky little bathrooms. Chambers with glittery, drippy looking walls.
There was an incredibly high, narrow bridge over steps over one point which Mark tentatively climbed. I stayed at the bottom and took his photo - I'm not afraid of heights but this was v narrow and v high!

I loved the cute enchanted garden with sunken lounge, ponds and hidey holes. I started to daydream about building my own crazy house one day.

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Valley of Love
This was a kind of theme park or gardens on the edges of town. It is set in a stunning valley and just has funny plastic sculptures sprinkled around the place. Big with the honeymooners obviously.
Our first impression was interesting to say the least as we had been there for about 5 minutes when we noticed a scuffle or should I say a full on fight going on. Some bloke was fly kicking someone and it was all a bit crazy - we weren't sure what was going on. The guy doing the kicking - which looked full on martial arts was literally landing on this skinny kid and we assumed he was the aggressor but then someone told us that that guy worked there!! and in fact the young bloke (there was also another one about somewhere) was a 'gangster' and had been punching people indiscriminately. We wandered off a bit further away but then saw a policemen come in with another lanky 'yoof' (with black eye) hand cuffed to him and picks the other kid off the floor (he'd pretty much decided to play dead at this point - wisely i would say). The policeman picks the other one up and cuffs him and drags them both off. We made a mental note to not mess with anyone in Vietnam!

So, that over and done with we wandered over to look at the child's caterpillar roller coaster and at all the silly statues scattered around. It was great just to watch all the couples taking pictures of each other in front of EVERYTHING! It was such a funny little place.

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As is the way on most of our excursions, it poured down after a while so we had to dig out the ever attractive ponchos. We went down the bottom of the valley and ended up traipsing past a huge group of teenagers, on a school trip presumably. Wow, now did they ever stare!! And laugh!! And it was pretty much at me - Mark was in the back being amused by the whole situation. At one point a couple of them even asked to have their picture taken with us. By this point I was getting really paranoid.

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Highlights

Woolly hats
I think this was possibly the holiday makers, but although I said it was cold, it was only because we didn't have coats or any normal attire. But, loads of people were kitted out with thick, knitted, woolly hats. I mean it was cold, as in an April day in England (or an August day for that matter). Just chilly but not thermals time by ANY means!

Yoghurt
People seem to eat yoghurt as a snack. A lot. Like they'll go into a cafe and have a coffee and a yoghurt.

Racing cars
On on of our first nights we found a bar that was up the hill and overlooked the road below and over to the market beyond. This turned out to be a great decision as it was Sunday and in the evening they shut the road off to traffic. Then we had people racing remote control cars - really fast remote control cars - Mark, typical boy, was in raptures. We also had teens coming down the (very steep) hill on blades and skateboards at a great speed holding on to each other in a train stylee. We also had people shooting down, fast, on the tandem bicycles that you can rent in the city (ideal for honeymooners of course). Cute kids in woolly hats (see above) watching all the goings on and maybe going down on their own little trikes. Was just a really lovely, relaxed scene. Kind of reminds me of Italy when the kids are out late in the evenings and everyone's just having a nice safe time. I don't think it would occur to anyone there to be paranoid about hovering over their child in the way we kind of have to (or maybe we don't - but better safe than sorry) in the West - was just nice.

A sweet exchange
One night we met a guy who was with a group of his family and was trying to keep his little toddler boy happy. The little boy was quite taken with Mark and although neither of us could converse a single word, this man was delighted at the idea of us and his little boy. He kind of gave him to Mark to hold at one point which Mark did looking slightly uncomfortable but the little boy just giggled at him. Put him near me and he just looked rather concerned/freaked out.
Anyway, this went on for a good hour or 2 while we had drinks but was just a really sweet, genuine encounter and it makes me realise why people get so much from getting off the beaten track sometimes.

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Chain Realisation
My suspicions from the first 2 weeks of Vietnam were confirmed here - there are no McDonald's in Vietnam *does a little happy dance* Burger King has snuck in at airports and Starbucks will weasel its way in soon apparently. KFC is in but haven't seen one yet. It's weird going to cities without these places. Very jolly nice. Think they should b restricted to airports (we do have an odd Burger King at the airport. It's a habit we've developed).

Interesting architecture
There was a lot of interesting looks to buildings in the city. It very much had the feel of somewhere European - Swiss or French alps for instance.
Then there were houses painted in quirky colours - I guess fitting in with the kitsch, honeymoony feel.

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I found a house which is absolutely my style - from an era I adore.

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This sign
Just odd!

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Lowlights

Being the centre of attention
So it started slowly and at first I really thought I was imagining things but by the end I was properly paranoid because I kept getting stared at!! Totally gawped at. Not just an interested glance - someone on a bike looking at me, so cycles into a lampost type staring. And the younger one's would say hi as they wanted interaction with this strange girl. I mean it wasn't everyone but it happened enough that I kept questioning what on earth it could be and once Mark clocked on, he of course found it hilarious. I wondered if it was my size - but then there's a fair few Vietnam big girls about. I wondered if it was simply being foreign but I then began to study other western tourists I spotted and it didn't seem to be happened to them. So maybe my penchant for bright coloured eyeshadow and my leopard print cardigan? At one point I thought I saw someone point at their head while blatantly talking about me so I am going to satisfy myself that it's my curly hair - and think no more about it!! Because I really hate being the centre of attention and I now realised what it must be like if you go really, really off the beaten track, into remote villages etc and there's no way you could prevent being the focus of everyone's attention. It occurred to me that I don't think I'd like that very much. Anyway, that was me - famous for a week!

Sharing our shower
We weren't in a hotel with shared bathrooms, we had our own lovely room with our own lovely bathroom. But one night we came home after dinner and drinks to find someone was in our room - the hotels keyring was in the door. A young lad came out and kind of pointed at his shower gel and kind of said sorry and headed off. We were dumbfounded to be honest. We didn't know what to do really other than just laugh. It made us feel a bit concerned and a little insecure but we couldn't really do much about it except go to sleep. I did a check that all our stuff was still where it should be. Thank god we lock our decent stuff in our 'packlock' rucksack lock contraption. I was a bit worried when I found one of the windows unlocked but I think it had been like that before and it just made no sense - who would come in and steal or unlock windows for someone else and then have a shower!!??? And he clearly worked there. Oh well!!!
Next day, we did mention it to the owner when we went down in the morning and as we did, said 'culprit' walked along looking sheepishly and raised his hand. I just laughed at him as he did look rather guilty. They had a bit of a convo and then the guy explained that they were having problems with their hot water and the lad had wanted a shower. Oh ok then!!! I mean it is a homestay guesthouse in that the family live in the middle floor but this was our own room with our own bathroom and I just can't believe they did it. It was ok though, we weren't freaked out and felt safe there as they were nice people. Plus we got to tease the lad for the duration of our say, so it wasn't really a lowlight :)

Overall, Dalat is a lovely place with lovely people (fighting and room invasions aside). I'm glad we went somewhere a bit different, even if it was because of my quest for some kitchiness!

Posted by KtandMark 01:44 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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