Our 5 week trip to South East Asia began with a 9pm flight from Geneva to Abu Dhabi on Tuesday 12 July, arriving at 6am and then an 8am flight to Bangkok and arriving in Thailand at 6pm. A further 1 hour spent getting through immigration meant we didn’t arrive at our hotel, the Millennium Hilton, until 8.30pm and after checking in, we then had to ask to change rooms because the beds felt damp due to air conditioning being on full blast in the rooms. Not a great start but reminiscent of our first hotel in San Diego a couple of years ago. To save trying to find a restaurant in a city we didn’t know, we ate in the hotel restaurant and the food was excellent, from the satay chicken to the green curry, chicken in coconut soup and chicken and rice. We then went up to the sky lounge afterwards for coffee and some amazing views over the city.
Thursday – We had breakfast in the hotel coffee shop as we got up too late to have breakfast in the hotel restaurant. After a coffee and croissant, we decided to head into the city to explore so we took the hotel ferry boat across the river and then the Skytrain to Sukhumvit Road. We walked along the Sukhumvit Road and were taken aback by the heat despite the overcast day so we headed indoors, frstly to Central World and then into Terminal 21 shopping centre. After a few hours I had suffered enough so we headed back to the hotel for some pool time. We decided against heading back out for dinner so ate in the hotel restaurant again.
On Friday we planned to visit the Grand Palace so we set off early before breakfast to beat the crowds, and took the public boat across the river then the daily boat ferry up to the Palace. Because of the strict regulations regarding appropriate dress, I had to buy some long trousers to get in which I found for about 10 dirhams in a market stall opposite the Palace. We rented English speaking audio guides and followed the designed route trying as best we could to stay out of the sun as it was so hot. We stayed about one and a half hours before going for breakfast and then walked along the Khao San road, the famous backpacker street where lots of street vendors sell food, clothing, suits, tours etc all aimed at a western market, none of which was really our cup of tea. We then headed to Chinatown which, as with every Chinatown district in any city, was very busy and very chaotic and made our way back to the river to return to the hotel to spend the afternoon in the pool. We decided to go out for dinner, albeit locally and ended up at 8020, a new restaurant set up by a Canadian guy specializing in Asian/Western fusion food, using Thai food as a base and changing or adding elements. The dishes were more like tasting plates so we shared about eight dishes between us. It was quite expensive but the restaurant was very nice and the food was excellent.
On Saturday, we had breakfast in the hotel then took a taxi to the airport for our flight to Hanoi. I had to remind the taxi driver about turning the meter on twice and ended up paying less than when we arrived! Definitely a point worth remembering for the future.
Saturday 15 July – Wednesday 19 July, Hanoi, Noble and Swan Boutique hotel.
We arrived in Hanoi on a Saturday afternoon and even from the taxi we noticed how many motorbikes there were and how crazy some people seemed simply walking into the traffic to try and cross the road, not knowing this would be us very shortly! We found our hotel, the Noble and Swan boutique hotel, dumped our bags and headed out to explore the area. Although we were tentative at the start, we started to get the hang of crossing roads and the motorbikes passing in front and behind you at speed. We walked down to Hoan Kiem lake and bought our first Vietnamese coffee from Aha street van, which came black and cold with condensed milk at the bottom to sweeten it up. The atmosphere was very nice as the lake area was closed to all vehicles from 6pm so we were able to walk around the lake without fear of being run over all the time. On heading into the old quarter, and not necessarily wanting to sit at a street corner to eat dinner, we settled on somewhere halfway with seats in the street but in front of a restaurant, called New day restaurant on Ma May street. We ordered a random selection of dishes and ate very well for less than 20 pounds for the four of us before strolling around the night market and then heading back to our hotel for the night.
On Sunday we woke up late, had breakfast in the hotel and decided to spend the day visiting some sights. We wandered aimlessly around the old quarter streets, stopping for coffee and then saw St Margaret’s church before having bowls of Pho for lunch at Noodle and Roll. After lunch we visited Hao Lo prison where American POW’s were kept during the Vietnam war and also where lots if revolutionaries were kept during the civil war in terrible, inhumane conditions until they eventually died, or in some cases, escaped. After the prison we walked to Ho Chi Minh’ s Mausoleum although we could not go in due to the girls not being covered up. Having walked a long way we paused at a garden café for coffee and headed back into the city, initially to find the Red River but when we realized we would have to walk through a slum to get there we decided against it. We headed back to the hotel for a shower and headed back out for dinner but the streets were even more crazy on a Sunday night and because it was late and we were tired we decided to stop for dessert at Little Bowl, which served amazing little desserts using Vietnamese ingredients which was very tasty. The plan was to cycle West Lake tomorrow but after realizing that the bike hire shop was closed on Monday’s we made a call to Ethnic travel and decided to do their day trip to Ninh Binh, starting at 7.00am the next day.
Monday – We breakfasted early and met Nga, our Ethnic Travel tour guide outside our hotel at 7am. It turned out we were the only ones on the trip! It took us about 3 hours to travel the 96km to Ninh Binh province and we were headed for Trang An, which was less touristy than many other places in Ninh Binh. We arrived in the area thinking we were lost but we found our way to a house at the end of a lane which was owned by a couple who provided lunch for guests and also stored some mountain bikes, used by Ethnic Travel for these tours. We cycled for about an hour, seeing the Hoa Luc temple where the previous capital was based and a few local villages in the pouring rain before heading back to the house for an amazing lunch, with so many dishes that plates just filled the table. The quality if the food was outstanding and a kit of it had come from the land around the house. After lunch we ride the minibus to …..where we took a Sampan boat trip along the river to see the Karadzic, jagged limestone peaks reaching up into the sky so we could see why thus area is called the Halong Bay of the land. We even got to row through a cave which was cool. After the boat ride we walked through a local village and Nga explained the general outlay of a typical Vietnamese village, which is comprised of a well, a banyan tree and a community hall as well as some basic houses which can range from sheds to concrete structures.
After our tour we were dropped back at our hotel and we headed out for dinner at Green Farm restaurant, an organic, non MSA restaurant rated in the top 5 on Trip Advisor. It lived up to its hype with excellent tasty food at a very good price, even with drinks included. After dinner we went to Cong Café, a chain of coffee shops all with an interior and exterior reflective of communism, painted in a dark green and brown, and built over 3 or 4 stories with balconies outside for people watching.
Tuesday – I got up early to go and book our boat trip to Halong Bay with Indochina Junk and then we headed up to West Lake to hire some bikes from the Hanoi Cycle Collective. We paid the equivalent of 2 pounds per person to rent bikes for half a day and headed off clockwise around the 15km lake to get some idea of another part of Hanoi. We passed the ex-pat area where a few international schools were based and done fancy new hotel and apartment developments which were not in keeping with the rest if the city we had seen. We stopped at Chops for a burger and chips lunch and continued around the lake to the Tran Coc pagoda and then all the way back to HCC after about 4 hours of riding. Our taxi dropped us off at the Opera House and from there we walked towards the bottom end of the lake, stopping off for matcha ice cream at Scoops. After showering, we went for dinner at green farm again and then headed home to pack our bags for our Halong Bay trip tomorrow.
Wednesday 19 July to Friday 21 July, Halong Bay, Dragons Pearl, Indochina Junk.
We had breakfast at 7am and were picked up outside our hotel at 7.30am by a minibus and guide from IJ. The minibus was a luxury minivan with 7 seats, all in leather, with wifi! On board were one other couple, from Copenhagen, and we headed off towards Yen Duc where we would see a water puppet show and have lunch. We arrived there about 11.30, watched show which was performed by local people and the show reflected all aspects of a Vietnamese persons life, from working in the rice fields with the water buffalo to protecting the herds of animals and plants they survive on from predators. We were then served a 5 course lunch, which was very good and then got back in the minivan for the short ride to Halong Bay to meet the boat. At the harbour we were met by Chung, who would be our guide for the next 2 days in board the boat. We finally boarded the boat at about 1.30pm and after a safety talk and receiving information about our itinerary we were able to relax and look at the amazing scenery before our first activity of kayaking at 4.30pm. The boat headed into Halong Bay and once it reached the point where it would moor for the night we were able to kayak around the karsts and then swim by the boat. After the first person who jumped in was stung by a jellyfish no one swam for too long and everyone was happy to go and shower and get ready for dinner. Dinner was a seafood feast with about 7 or 8 courses, all of which was excellent and very tasty. The plan for the following day was explained by Chung and then we were free to relax until bedtime. We retired quite early as we were all very tired after a long day. The next morning, after the boat had set sail at 7.15, breakfast was served at 7.30 as we were off kayaking again at 8.30am to a quiet lagoon in Bai Tu Long Bay, a less touristy part of the bay. We kayaked for over an hour and ended up at a beach where we could swim and relax. The water was very warm and salty although knowing jellyfish were around made us a little less inclined to go in the water then we would otherwise have been. After we had headed back to the boat, we had time to relax while the boat set sail again, this time heading for …. cave, where we get to explore the cave and have lunch on the beach. The cave was protected by the local police, only allowing so many visitors per day as it was quite small, and we then had a BBQ on the beach, which was the preserve of Indochina Junk boat trips only, which was amazing with gorgeous fresh shellfish and meat and salads and fruit, expertly cooked by the chef. After relaxing a little on the beach we headed back to the boat and relaxed on the decks while the boat cruised back to its mooring point. Dinner was preceded by a cooking demonstration by the chef, where we got to make Vietnamese spring rolls and he then presented some models of birds and a boat that he had carved out of fruit and vegetables which were amazing. Dinner was another feast of seafood and meat with salads which filled us up and we were soon retiring to bed. The next morning after an earlier breakfast we visited a local fishing village and pearl farm by rowing boat to see how Vietnamese fishermen spend their time out at sea catching the fish to supply to restaurants in the north of the country and beyond. This was really interesting to see as their villages did not seem to contain much beyond a tin shed, a boat and a dog! We had an early lunch before heading back to the harbour to end our fabulous trip. This was a great experience, made so by the quality of the staff and the itinerary.
We got back to Hanoi at 6pm and having eaten like kings for three days, none of us was too hungry so we headed out for a Banh Mi, a Vietnamese pork sandwich, from the best place in Hanoi to get it, 25 Hang Ca. This sandwich is the perfect street food, nothing better to eat sat on a crate with a cold beer watching the world go by. Another thing we had promised ourselves was an egg coffee so we walked to Cafe Giang on 39 Nguyen, well renowned for its egg coffees and clearly not its interior, which meant walking along an alleyway into a courtyard and then up some stairs where some random chairs were laid out in a room with peeling paintwork. However the egg coffee was very good and worth the find. After ‘eating’ the coffee, we headed home to finish packing for our flight tomorrow.
Saturday 22 July – Tuesday 25 July, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, Sy’s Homestay.
We arrived at Sy’s homestay in Phong Nha at about 1.30pm on Saturday afternoon and Sy’s wife had kindly cooked us a lunch of noodles and chicken and vegetables. After chatting to Sy about trips we could do whilst we were staying here, we headed out on the bikes he had to go and explore the area. We headed into Phong Nha town and ended up at the Easy Tiger hostel for a drink and also to get some more information on some of the tours they run too. This looked a really cool hostel with a big communal area, kitchen open all day and night and a swimming pool at the back surrounded by trees. It was also centrally located making it easy to get into the National Park and the caves. We picked up a map and then headed out to the river following it back past Sy’s place and towards the Phong Nha homestay. We ended up doing a loop of about 15km along lanes, past barking dogs, cows and lots of motorbikes, as usual! We had dinner at the hostel after declining against heading out into town along streets with no street lights and chilled out until bedtime.
Sunday 23 July
We woke late and decided we would head out on bikes again along the Bai Long Valley towards the Wild Boar Eco Farm. Along the way we stopped at the Duck Stop, a little place where we were served peanuts with salt and pepper and Guava along with our bottle of water, all for 20vnd! We continued to follow the track, passing the Pub with no Name, to the Wild Boar Eco farm where we tubed, ate home reared chicken with homemade peanut sauce and chilled in the hammock for a few hours. We returned along the muddy tracks, passing cows and loads of little children shouting ‘hello’ and offering high fives and stopped for coffee at Mr Dai’s coffee place near the Phong Nha homestay. Back at Sy’s place, we chilled out for a few hours before dinner, and had an early night before our trip to the caves tomorrow.
Monday 24 July
On Monday we left sys place at 8am to head to Paradise Cave, the most ethereal of all the caves in Phong Nha. At 31km it is not just the longest cave in Vietnam but in the whole of Asia. We met our guide Loc at the entrance and waited for the rest of our group to arrive. There were 10 of us in total and at 9.15am we headed off from the entrance area towards the cave. This involved taking a golf course style buggy and then climbing 500 steps through the jungle to reach the cave entrance. Anybody can walk the first 1km of the cave, for a small fee, but we had paid about $85 each to do a 7km trek through the cave to the light shaft which included guides and lunch. The first 1km is on a boardwalk and is week out so you can see the sheer size of the cave and all the natural formations within it. Even if you only walked the first km it would take your breath away. After 1km we descended to the cave floor, put our head torches on and headed off into the depths of the cave. Our guide was fantastic, and talked to us all the time about the cave formations and explorations. We played musical tunes on the stalactites hanging down from the ceiling, we learned about how the different minerals cause different shaped and coloured formations, like calcium, lead, quartz etc. Parts of the cave were so big you could probably fit Wembley stadium inside there but after about 4km we came to a very shallow part of the cave where we had to wade and swim through water for about 100m or so, in some parts 6ft deep but it was cold and rocky underneath. For those who couldn’t swim the guides had two kayaks for all our clothes and bags and followed us down the tunnel. After swimming we hiked for a further 3km until we caught a glimpse of the light shaft until finally we made it to the giant hole in the cave where the water and light pours through. It felt quite amazing to be in the cave at that moment when all life was outside. Our guides prepared lunch whilst we all had photos taken and then we feasted on rice, pork, morning glory and eggs which tasted really good and was needed at that time! After about 45 minutes we headed back and retraced our steps roughly the same way as before, taking a few little diversions to see things we didn’t see on the way. At about 3pm we got back to the cave entrance, said thank you and goodbye to Loc and our other guides and headed back to Sy’s place. We rode the bikes into the village and had coffee and ice cream at the Bamboo Café. The banana ice cream was to die for and was the perfect way to finish off a great day. We packed our bags back at Sy’s place, had showers and dinner and went to bed ready for the next part of our journey tomorrow.
Tuesday 25 July
We took a 7am bus to Hué from Phong Nha which turned out to be a sleeper bus with full reclining seats layered one on top of each other. We each had a seat/bed and it made the 5 hour journey pass by very quickly being able to catch it on some sleep. After boarding the bus the rain started and did not stop all day. We arrived in Hué and it was pouring down and we were wading through water ankle deep pretty much all day. We dropped our bags off at the hotel and went for some lunch in a nearby café. We then went for coffee before the rain eased a little and made our way to the Citadel, the former home of the Nguyen dynasty. At 150,000VND for adults and 30,000vnd for kids it was pretty inexpensive and there were plenty of indoor areas with informative displays that we could look at and read. The grounds were enormous but in need of some updating and modernisation, after a couple if hours we headed back to the hotel to check in and then went to check out the pool. The pool area was really well designed and the water was a perfect temperature. We ate at Nina’s place, a 10 minute walk from the hotel, down a little alleyway but what a find! Local Hue specialities, as well as other dishes, and the food was beautifully presented and SO tasty! We had plates such as fresh spring rolls, yellow curry, chicken in caramel clay pot, banana leaf salad and a steamed banana cake for dessert, all for less than $20. Incredible!
Wednesday 26 July
We spent the morning by the pool and then took a private car at noon to Lang Co beach as we were staying at Lang Co beach resort for the night. Our rooms were not both ready when we arrived so we went for a walk on the beach and found a restaurant with wooden cabanas on the beach do we had some fresh clams and mussels and chilled out for a couple of hours before heading back to the hotel and to try out the pool. The layout of the hotel was pretty cool, lots of villas split into 3 or 4 separate rooms, each with a terrace outside its doors facing either the pool or gardens. We struck lucky and ended up with two rooms facing the pool, and the closest rooms to the pool too. We had a swim and stayed by the pool for a while and ate dinner at a restaurant across the road from the hotel called Minh Tam, as recommended on Trip Advisor. When we arrived we were the only ones in there but the place was clean and the host was very polite and friendly and we ate well for less than $20, even buying a packet of Oreo cookies to eat with our coffees!
Thursday 27 July – Sunday 30 July, Belle Maison Hadana Hotel and Spa, Hoi An.
Thursday 27 July
The next morning we headed down to the beach after a good breakfast in the seaside restaurant and played in the sea as well as trying to keep our ‘feather’ in the air unsuccessfully. We had a car booked at noon to take us to Hoi An via he Hai Van Pass so we checked out and headed off. The sky had cleared a little but as we climbed the pass we headed into the cloud and at the top the cloud was all around. I went and had a look at the Hai Van gate which was used to separate north and south Vietnam and stumbled across a couple having their wedding photographs taken overlooking the Pass. Thus us the same toad that featured in Top Gear and has been named one of the best driving toads in the world apparently. Personally I quite fancy cycling it but that’s for another time! On arriving in Hoi An we dropped our bags off at the hotel and were immediately struck by how amazing it looked. It was classically decorated in white and black with a beautiful pool area, bar, restaurant and spa and we also had two connecting rooms which was perfect. As it was after lunchtime we headed into the town, stopping to check out a couple of tailor shops on the way as there are so many, and went to Banh Mi Phuong for a specialty roast pork sandwich. It was easy to see why it is so popular as our four sandwiches cost less than $4 and there were hordes of people both in and outside the restaurant eating wherever they could find space. After our sandwiches we wandered the streets more peering into numerous tailor shops and lantern shops which seem to be everywhere. In fact joy almost can’t go more than one shop front without being faced by a watermelon or banana print shirt for sale! We headed to Cargo, renowned for its amazing cakes and had coffee and cake while watching the world go by. It was nice to sit and relax and chat as we neared the halfway point of the holiday. We talked about some of the things that we would see in Ho Chi Minh and especially in Phnom Penh to forewarn the girls. We then decided that we would head back to the hotel to use the pool and afterwards the girls were not hungry at all so they stayed in the room whilst me and Bex went down to the hotel restaurant for some food. It started absolutely pouring down with rain so it was a good job we didn’t go far. I tried the local speciality Cua …. which is thicker, doughy noodles, bean sprouts and roast pork with lettuce and chili in a broth and it was amazing, especially for $4.
Friday 28 July
We had planned to take some hotel bikes into the town but there none left so we walked, had a stroll around the market and headed to Vy’s market, over the river which is a big indoor eating area with lots of ‘stalls’ selling all different kinds of Vietnamese food. Vy is a local institution apparently and has her name to several cafes and restaurants in Hoi An. We had coffee and signed up for a cooking class on Saturday evening from 6-8pm where we get to make a few Vietnamese dishes and then eat what we have created. It should be good fun and something different anyway. As it was a nice sunny day, our first one in Vietnam(!) we decided we would go to the beach so after collecting our swimsuits and towels from the hotel we caught a taxi to An Bang beach, a little further up the coast from Cua Dai beach, the main beach area serving Hoi An, although An Bang was busy too. However we bathed and swam for a bit and then went for lunch at Soul Kitchen, a really cool big beachfront restaurant with loads of tables and chairs and cabanas for lounging around. We got a big table in the shade, had a nice lunch and just chilled out for an hour or so. We went back to the beach for a little while and then headed back to the pool. The girls were all having spa treatments at 8.45 so we ate in the hotel restaurant and they went off to be ‘treated’ while I chilled out in the bar area. We were all tired so we went off to bed.
Saturday 29 July
We took some bikes from the hotel and headed through the town towards Cam Kim island, which is reached via two bridges from the mainland. This island seems a world away from the centre of Hoi An with its rough roads and huts for houses. We did a little tour then headed back into Hoi An for coffee at Cocobox. As the girls were tired we decided to head back to the hotel for some pool time and we stayed there all afternoon before heading out at 5pm for our cooking class at Vy’s market which started at 6pm. Our guide Tan was excellent and showed us lots of different local foods which were all prepared at the market and explained how they were made. We were able to make some of them and taste them too. Dishes we made were crispy pancakes, fresh spring rolls, dumplings and a papaya salad. We ate everything we made and at the end we were able to try some more ‘exotics’ dishes that the restaurant serves like duck embryo, pigs ear, snails, frogs and offal. The whole experience was fantastic and all in the middle of an operational restaurant with guests being served their dinner at the same time. The course lasted two hours and after we walked around the night market to see the lanterns, had coffee and then headed home.
Sunday 30 July
We had quite a lazy day although it didn’t start too well with Maisy needing to see the doctor due to having a rash on her arms and constant stomach pains. Bex’s fears that she might have dengue fever were dismissed by the doctor who said it was a gastro bug and prescribed her some medication for the next few days. Following that scare we decided to take it easy and went to An Bang beach again, spending some time on the beach and in the sea. We came home about 5pm to collect our clothes that we had had made at Duna tailor and then headed out for dinner at Morning Glory restaurant. The grilled squid filled with pork was one of the best meals I have eaten although bizarrely for its name, it’s the only restaurant that didn’t have any morning glory available to order! We stopped at Cargo for coffee and cake and then headed home as we had an early start in the morning.
Monday 31 July
We were up very early as we had a 7.40am flight from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City. Considering we were in a taxi at 5.45am heading to the airport, I didn’t expect to see anyone but the beaches and parks in Danang were full of people swimming, exercising, running etc! It was amazing to see. Clearly the Vietnamese are early risers and get their exercise in early when it is cooler and probably sit around laughing at us westerners who get up late and then go and sit on the beach in the hottest part of the day and promptly get burnt!
Our flight got us into Ho Chi Minh about 9am so after collecting our bags and taking a taxi into the city we arrived at the Cinnamon hotel about 10.30am. Ms Jenny had already contacted me via email before our arrival to make initial contact, which was nice, and she was morw than welcoming, always on hand if we had any questions and really wanted to make sure that we had the best time possible in Ho Chi Minh. Her customer service was faultless throughout our stay. We were able to check in so we dropped our bags off and went off exploring the city. We were all a little hungry so we had an early lunch at Runam Bistro, opposite the Ben Thanh market. This was a really nice place with a bistro occupying the lower two floors, a food market in the third floor and a restaurant on the 4th floor. We had some local dishes for lunch which was well presented and tasted good. We then decided to spend the day walking around the city wherever possible so our first stop was independence palace, where Vietnamese independence was agreed after Saigon was taken by the Communist rebel forces. The palace was originally built as a government palace and subsequently rebuilt after being bombed in the Vietnam war. It is quite a unique building, reflecting the era in which it the war it was still nice to walk around and learn a little more about it. After visiting the palace we went to take a look at the old post office, which dates back to…..and is one of the oldest remaining post offices in the world. It still remains possible to buy and send postcards from the post office so we sent two home to grandparents for a dollar each. Opposite the post office is the Notre Dame cathedral built with red bricks from Marseilles. It was not possible to go inside but it sits at a distinct point in the city where it can’t be missed from a lot of directions. We went for a snack at M2C café, a cool café with two floors, good music and lots of sofas so we rested for a while with drinks and cakes and a few games of Uno! The highlight was a banana wrapped in sticky rice with coconut ice cream. Our use walking trip then took us to the opera House, which stands in Lom Sen square, along Dong Khoi street and is an imposing building itself. Across from the Opera House was L’ Usine, a converted warehouse housing a café, bistro and shop so we had an early dinner and then made our way back to the hotel for an early but well needed sleep.
Tuesday 1 August
We had breakfast of omelettes and pancakes at the hotel and decided to go and explore some parts of the city we hadn’t seen yesterday. We headed first of all to the riverside, which we hoped would be a nice area to walk yet was anything but. Clearly the Ho Chi Minh government have not considered that people might like to walk around the city and especially the riverside area and this to me is a serious oversight of what could be an amazing development. We had a drink at the Myst Dong Khoi hotel, the hotel we originally booked to stay in, to see what it was like, and the restaurant and pool area were certainly well done and looked cool but we were happy with the choice we made to change our reservation as or hotel was more central to a lot of the major sites in the city. We then headed along Pasteur and the streets running parallel with Dong Khoi that we hadn’t explored yesterday and booked ourselves tickets to a show at the Opera House this evening called Teh Dar, a show similar to Cirque du Soleil but reflective of Vietnamese culture and music. We had a late lunch at Chau Ngon, a really beautiful looking restaurant set in a garden with ponds inside and the menu was very varied, offering Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and Korean dishes. In the afternoon we wandered around a little more taking a look into some of the independent stores selling communist merchandise, books, fashion etc and headed to the Opera House at 5pm for a welcome drink and a tour of the building before the show started at 6pm. The show was spectacular and the story they portrayed in their dancing and musically was clear and very well thought out. Whilst not exactly Cirque du Soleil it was certainly an excellent show and worth seeing. After the show we ate BBQ at a restaurant near the opera house, called 5KU station, an open air restaurant serving either pork, chicken, shrimp meat which you cooked yourself on a little portable stove. It was cheap and cheerful and did the job although I’m not sure how much pork meat was actually on the pieces of pork, as it seemed to all the fat! Clearly beef is a better option here although seeing some of the cows in the countryside you wonder how they get any meat from them either. As we felt we had seen all that Ho Chi Minh had to offer, we arranged, through the hotel, to do a trip on the Mekong river the following day so headed home to get some sleep ready for that.
Wednesday 2 August
We were picked up from our hotel by our guide from Luxury Group Travel who were taking us on the tour of the Mekong river. After picking up the rest of the group from their respective hotels, we headed out of the city to Vinh Trang to see the temples, where monks lived and worshipped the Buddha that existed there. On the way our guide gave us a lot of information about the places we were going to visit as well as about Vietnam and the Mekong delta which was interesting although he did talk a little too much especially considering it is was quite early and a long bus journey! At the temple we were able to watch the monks at worship and also at the start of their mealtime and see the statues of the happy Buddha and reclining Buddha, which have significant meaning to the people of Vietnam. After twenty minutes at the temple we headed to the waterfront to take our boat and the first stop was Unicorn island, where we watched some traditional singers and had a plate of local fruit. Following this we were taken by sampan boat to an eco bee farm where we were able to put our finger into the honeycomb surrounded by bees. Unfortunately the boat ride was tainted by elderly women asking for tips and almost expecting to be tipped, which I would have gladly given voluntarily but refused on principle due to their expectancy. This might seem harsh when these ladies are not paid a lot but with the amount of tourists flooding these areas on a daily basis, there really is no need to aggressively search out tips from them. We then took another boat to another island to see how coconut candy was made, and we were shown the whole process starting with the coconut to the candy pieces being wrapped and packaged which was really interesting. We could also see the equipment that was used to break the coconut down and told what other things the remaining parts of the coconut could be used for such as brushes and oil. We bought some coconut oil and explained to our guide that we use coconut oil for cooking whereas in Vietnam they use it primarily for the skin. We were then taken, bizarrely, by horse and carriage to a local restaurant where we had lunch, a big spread of fish wrapped in rice paper, shrimp, spring rolls, soup, rice and papaya salad. After lunch we were able to spend some time looking around the farm where there were crocodiles, frogs, snakes and lots of hammocks, of course, for us to rest in or take a bike and cycle around the island. However the weather had changed and the rain started so we decided to make use of the hammocks. Then it was time to board the boat to take us back to our original boat and we headed back to the mainland to take our bus home. Back at the hotel I needed to change some money ready for our entry into Cambodia the following day, to pay for Visas and also food in the journey and researched a place near Ben Thanh market where I could do this. I went along and the place was packed with people exchanging dollars for dong or vice versa and foreigners changing all sorts of currency. I bought enough dollars to pay for the visas plus some more in case as I had heard that you could spend dollars in Cambodia a lot more than in Vietnam, and also because the currency centre would not sell me any Riel, the Cambodian currency. All sorted, I headed back and we went down to Pho Ngam Lao, the backpacker district to have dinner and check out the area. On the way we passed a father and his two kids doing their homework in the street. They had set up two small tables and stools with a lamp and they had books and pencils it, yet this was a reasonably busy street and clearly they did not have enough door space to do this, or else it was just cooler to do it outdoors. Either way, you see this and think it is real life, it shouldn’t be like this but that’s the way it is here. We had dinner at a street café and then stumbled across Eleven café for coffee and the best banana cake ever! We stayed here a while chatting and resting after a long day and then headed back to finish packing ready for our journey to Cambodia tomorrow. Another journey begins…
Thursday 3 August
We took an 8.30am bus to Phnom Penh to cross the border into Cambodia, the next stop on our journey. An expected 6 hour trip turned into 8 hours with border crossings and a random stop for lunch at a restaurant halfway between the two borders although the Tom Lam soup was excellent! We arrived in Phnom Penh at around 4pm and took a tuk tuk to our hotel for the next three nights, arriving at Villa Langka at about 4.30pm. We changed into our swim stuff and had a swim and a drink by the pool before finding a local Italian restaurant within walking distance for a pasta, pizza and tiramisu fix! The restaurant, Luna, was not too busy but the food was good and we were home not too late so we could catch up on a bit of much needed sleep.
Friday 4 August
We decided to explore the city in the morning but were too late to visit the Royal palace, as it had already closed for lunch and then the entrance fee for the National Museum we felt was too high so we headed instead for the Friends shop and restaurant to see the products that had been made by disadvantaged youths in Phnom Penh. The food in the café was excellent, scotch egg and fish cakes, and the green mango and mint smoothie was amazing. We then went to the central market, as it was recommended, but did not stay long due to the unappealing smell and general atmosphere inside. We took a tuk tuk back to the city and visited the Daughters of Cambodia shop/restaurant to see products that had been made by the girls who worked there and had some lunch. We spent the rest of the afternoon at Villa Langka by the pool and booked a tour to Phnom Tamao wildlife rescue centre with Betelnut tours after reading about it on the internet. Partly also because we didn’t want to spend another day in Phnom Penh as we really did not like it. We found a local restaurant called Eleven, which served local food all msg free. The food (fish amok and mango and coconut cream cake), service and price were all amazing!
Saturday 5 August
We had breakfast then took a tuk tuk to the Lazy Gecko café to meet our tour guide. Sam arrived soon after and introduced the tour to us and we then boarded a minibus for the one hour ride to the park. Outside the city the road was really bad and bumpy and we passed some real broken houses and families hanging about on the side of the road and lots of old women selling nuts or bananas or frogs on sticks! When we arrived we were accosted by kids selling bananas but having already bought some on our journey we didn’t need to buy more. The first animals we saw were the monkeys and we hand fed them nuts one at a time and made sure to give them all one so the greedy monkeys didn’t get them all! We then passed some deer and fed them nuts too. The monkeys kept following us but were not aggressive and gently took the nut from our hand, some ate them and some stored them for later! On our journey through the park before lunch we came across more deer, gibbons, iguanas, otters, boar and talking birds. We had lunch on a sheltered platform with hammocks fixed to all four sides and there were hundreds of these dotted around the area as the park gets really busy at weekends and holidays apparently. Lunch was a mix of curried chicken with coconut and peanuts and sweet and sour vegetables, with noodles and rice and was really good! We had time after lunch to relax and we chatted to the other family who were on the trip who lived in Hong Kong. After lunch we travelled around the park by minibus as the animals we wanted to see were quite spread out. The first impromptu stop was the elephants as one was walking along the road in front of our bus, so we jumped out and had a good time feeding it bananas and stroking it. We then went to see one of the other elephants on the site, who has a prosthetic leg after getting its left front foot caught in a snare when it was young. It is one of only two elephants in the world with a prosthetic leg. After spending some time feeding it bananas via a long stick, we jumped back in the bus to go and see the tigers. Fortunately one of the tigers was wide awake and was prowling around its enclosure so we were able to get some good close ups of it. Next stop was the leopards and again we struck lucky with one of them getting up for a stretch and walking over directly to where we were, almost close enough to touch, but not too close! From here we spent some time with a gibbon, who loved having her legs massaged and her back scratched…but only by men and not Asian men, possibly due to maltreatment at the hands of her previous owners, which applied to a lot of the animals in this park. We then spent some time learning about the bear project at the park, which looks after up to 150 bears, a mix of sun bears and moon bears, a lot of whom who may have been abused previously, such as bears who were kept in the back of a restaurant and had their paws sliced off a piece at a time to make soup. As hard as this is to believe, this is a reality in these parts, much like the Chinese kidnapping monkeys and smuggling them out of the country to kill them to eat their brain as it has supposed intellectual effects on the eater. We also saw some pythons and Maisy was able to race the lions who followed her every stride as she ran up and down outside their enclosure. In this instance, the male lion was separated from its cubs as it had recently tried to kill them due to jealousy. After seeing the lions it was time to head back so we jumped back in the minibus and passed the hour journey by looking at life outside the window, including stall after stall selling the same produce, tin huts which were clearly houses for these people, and a lorry full of about 100 people, most of whom were kids, heading out if the factory grounds to drive two hours or so to where these workers lived. We also passed the International School of Phnom Penh, a brand new gleaming oasis with a Mercedes garage next door on one side and a big urban slum on the other. The road to the school was paved yet no more than 50 metres after the school the road turned to dust and kids were out playing in the street with no shoes on and in all likelihood no clean clothes on either.
That evening we met Donna and her kids for dinner at Ngon, a local Vietnamese and Khmer restaurant, as she recently started work at one of the international schools in Phnom Penh. She had been there for four weeks and was really enjoying it and I hope she continues to love it when the reality sets in that she is there for good and not just a holiday. Dinner was great and it was nice to see Donna and wish her good luck for the year ahead.
Sunday 6 August
I decided to visit the Tuol Sleng genocide museum on my own in the morning as the girls and Bex were not keen on going, I took a tuk tuk there for a couple of dollars and paid for an audio guide as well my entry. The tour was pretty harrowing as some of the scenes and photographs are pretty graphic but it did not affect me as much as I was expecting it to. It was interesting to listen to and look at people’s stories, especially from those who survived which was amazing considering how many people were slaughtered in those grounds alone over the two years the Khmer Rouge were in power.
At 1pm that afternoon we took the Kim Sen Express minibus to Mondulkiri and, after arriving at 6.30pm, we got picked up and taken to Tree Lodge by Mr Tree in his pickup truck where we were staying for two nights whilst we did the elephant project. We checked in to our tree house, which was very cool and completely organic, had a nice dinner in the on-site restaurant of local homemade curry and were in bed by 10pm ready for the excitement of the next day…or maybe it was because Bex couldn’t stand the mosquito’s any longer and just wanted to hide under the net until the morning!
Monday 7 August
We had breakfast at 7.30am as our tour was due to start at 8.30am. We were transferred by pick up truck to the forest and our guide Tam introduced himself and the project and told us a lot about the area, the local people, the Mondulkiri project and his own life, all of which was very interesting and a good introduction to the day. We then hiked down to the forest floor, armed with lots of bananas, and spent the morning feeding and stroking the elephants we saw. It was truly amazing to be able to get that close to these huge animals in their own environment and watch how they move and understand the work they do to provide a living for their owners. After a nice lunch of rice, chicken in banana leaf soup and sweet green corn, we rested in the hammocks for about an hour before heading back down to the forest floor with a different guide to take the elephants into the river and wash and feed them. Our guide told us some interesting things about plants that grew in the forest and also how men make resin from trees by cutting into the tree and making a fire which draws the resin out. This can then be used to seal the bottom of boats, as glue or sold to provide more income for the family. We were able to wash three of the five elephants and took turns using the brush or the water scoop to try and get them clean. However I think we ended up dirtier because every time the elephant shook the water off it, it went all over us so we spent a lot of time in the river trying to get ourselves clean and not just the elephant. The afternoon passed quickly and at about 4.30pm we headed back up out of the forest to take the pick up trucks back to the Tree Lodge. We showered, cleaned our shoes as best we could, and had an early dinner of much the same as the previous night before organising our plans for the next day.
Tuesday 8 August
We woke reasonably early to have breakfast as we wanted to go to the Bou Sra waterfalls, about 38km east of Sen Monorom before our bus departed for Phnom Penh at 1pm. We had a tuk tuk driver take us to Bou Sra, which took about 45 minutes and because we were there quite early the falls were quiet and there were not that many people at all. We walked the paths to the top of the falls and then to the mid section and they were very impressive although the current was too strong for us to swim in them unfortunately. We chanced upon a random couple who were either celebrating their wedding or some other reason for they were both dressed in bizarre outfits, him looking like a fluorescent Tarzan in bright coloured mini shorts and headscarf. We stayed at the falls for about an hour before our tuk tuk driver picked us up and on the way back we stopped at a coffee plantation to see how the coffee was planted and how. It was interesting to see that the coffee beans were grown in plants alongside banana trees, avocado trees and durian trees, making a full fruit farm and maximising possible revenue for the business. The fertile red soil couple with the changeable climate obviously allows all these plants to grow and flourish. We had lunch at the tree lodge then took the bus back to Phnom Penh. Our driver was clearly in a rush to get back to the city because he spent more time on the wrong side of the road and overtaking than in the correct lane. Fortunately we made it back in one piece but this was one journey where getting back safely was not assured. Now I know what those reviews on the website were referring to. Fortunately we had booked another night at Villa Langka so we had a swim and a much needed shower at the hotel before eating and heading to bed for a much needed rest before another early start tomorrow when we head to Siem Reap.
Wednesday 9 August
We took the Cambodia Post bus to Siem Reap, leaving from the main post office at 8.00am. This was recommended as being a cheaper and slightly faster option than the large giant ibis buses that run the same route. We paid $9 each and in return we got a brand new Toyota Hiace minivan with leather seats, air conditioning, a bottle of water and a driver in an official uniform. We stopped once for twenty minutes and arrived in Siem Reap an hour earlier than expected. A short tuk tuk ride to the hotel and after dropping our bags off we went out for lunch. We had read about Artillery café and as it was around the corner from our hotel we walked there. Although it wasn’t far, we must have been asked if we wanted a tuk tuk about twenty times. Clearly no-one walks anywhere in Cambodia! The menu at Artillery was very good with a range of options, all organic and mostly vegan although it was not a vegetarian restaurant. After lunch we walked around the old market area, picked up some presents and souvenirs and then made our way back to the hotel to relax. Having seen a proper machine wash laundry on our way home we decided to put everything we had into the wash the next day so we had some clean clothes to wear for the last few days. We went to the King’s Road for dinner, a restaurant and shopping ‘complex’ nearby and ate the speciality roast chicken at Rohatt which was excellent. We took a tuk tuk to the market area after dinner and we wandered around the stalls which were termed ‘hassle free’ which made a very nice change after the last few markets we had visited.
Thursday 10 August
We had breakfast at the hotel, which left a lot to be desired, dropped off the laundry, and then went to a ceramics class at Khmer Ceramics centre from 10am until 12 noon. Our guide was deaf but she made the most amazing things from clay and she was a very good teacher, always showing us how to hold the clay and when and where to press to create different styles and textures. We all made a few pieces and then had to choose one to go to the kiln to be ‘cooked’. This would be the piece we could take home for free. Aayn other pieces cost 5 dollars. This was a great way to spend the morning and thoroughly enjoyable. We stopped off at Sister Srey café for lunch, another café giving disadvantaged people a chance to work in the catering and service industry, and had some excellent food. In the afternoon we went to Artisans D’Angkor, a craft factory and shop where everything was made on site, from clay models to paintings to silk goods, and must have created jobs for a lot of people in the local region. I was persuaded later that afternoon to have my first ever spa treatment, in Lemongrass Spa, and a full body scrub later I was wondering why I hadn’t done this before! To relax, we headed back to the hotel and lazed by the pool, collected our much needed clean clothes from the laundry and went out later that evening to Haven, a restaurant owned and run by a Swiss couple from Zurich who established it after visiting the country about ten years ago and wanted to return to help in some way. After selling all their belongings they travelled back to Cambodia, set up a school and training restaurant and developed that into the restaurant they have now, with an intake of 15 new students each year who are trained in the hospitality industry, either as chefs, waiters, servers or front of house welcomers. An inspiring story although with a new election on the horizon it will be interesting to see what happens in Cambodia in the future and whether tourism will continue to grow or be frightened away.
Friday 11 August
Got up at 4am to meet tuk tuk driver at 4.30 to go to Angkor wat. Bought tickets at 5am went to see sunrise over Angkor wat, onto bayon then ta Keith and ta prohm , home of tomb raider, then back to hotel for rest and lunch then back at 3 to go see Angkor wat. Home at 6 then dinner at Marum, part of Friends group of restaurants.
Saturday 12 August
Picked up to go to mini golf at 10.15. Boulangerie for breakfast, golf, vibe cafe for lunch, bought presents for family, pool time, circus phare, coffee at blue pumpkin
Sunday 13 August
Breakfast at sister srey, airport, flight to Bangkok, long queues at security, taxi to Siam@siam, checked in about 2.30pm, went to Siam Center mall to have late lunch, walked through malls to check out shops, headed back to hotel at 6 for a swim until it closed at 7 then chilled out in room until about 8.30 when we headed back out to go bowling at Siam Paragon mall. 1 game, kitty and me won by 5 points. Went for some food at Garden Market opposite from our hotel, street food, had roast park and noodles, kitty spring rolls, Maisy a mango smoothie. Went back to hotel for coffee before bed.
Monday 14 August
Woke up at about 8.30am had breakfast at 9.30 and then packed and checked out of the room. Left all our bags in left luggage except for rucksack. Realised I had left my hat in the taxi that dropped us off at the hotel yesterday so concierge called taxi company and they said they would try and contact the driver to see if he found it. Didn’t hold out much hope but I was to see him later to see if he found it. Went out to Terminal 21 mall which is laid out like mini villages, all villages specialise in different things, like menswear, ladies wear, accessories, beauty etc. After a couple we headed back to Siam and went for lunch in Siam center mall. Had squid ink burger