Reflections on Cambodia & Vietnam

I think it’s time to put a final wrap on our time in Southeast Asia, and what better way to do that than with a ‘reflections’ post!

It’s been 4 months since we hopped a plane from Amsterdam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia (someone needs to step up their blogging speed…) which brings me to my first point.

Double-decker planes would be much cooler if you were in business class.

It was on my lifetime bucket list to fly on a double-decker plane. I’m not really sure why, I think I’m just memorized by the fact that something that large can get off the ground and transport people and cargo thousands of miles. And when I say large, I mean TOO large. Since our trip, it’s been announced that the Airbus A380 will be discontinued. Economy was certainly nice, the legroom a non-issue, and the flight attendants impeccably dressed, but I imagine it would have been an entirely different experience had we been upstairs with full amenities…

But hey, at least I got to see the stairs, right?!

Cambodia has come a long way since the Khmer Rouge,

but they still have a long way to go.

A quick recap, the Khmer Rouge was the name for the communist party, lead by Pol Pot, which ruled from 1975 to 1979. During this time, over 2 million Cambodians died from starvation, disease, or were flat out murdered by the regime.

We learned about this time in Cambodia’s history when we visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, but even more impactful was the Killing Cave in Battambang. Our guide lost his parents at the age of 5 to the Khmer Rouge, and told stories of how kids – his friends – were regularly manipulated into giving information about their (or other) families so they could be tracked down and murdered.

Cambodia has gotten back on it’s feet in the years since the Khmer Rouge was defeated, although you can still see the effects of losing an entire generation of people. Especially so, when the majority of those people were the ones who would have passed down knowledge. You see this day to day in the food (traditional recipes don’t exist like they used to), in the education system (undervalued, underpaid, and corrupt), and in the medical system (the “good” doctors are foreign trained).

But Cambodia does take pride in it’s heritage and you can see this in the care and preservation they put into their temples like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Siem Reap (although, money is tight so other countries sponsor this).

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.
The faces of Angkor Thom.
The Japanese government safeguarding the temple until 2022.

And relatedly…

Cambodia may technically be democratic, but it’s very much a one-party system.

As evidenced by the last general election, where the current prime minister won by a landslide, but when you essentially force the competition out of the running that’s to be expected. And the prime minister makes sure you feel the “support” of his party (CPP) at all times. There are signs everywhere reminding you of CPP.

For instance, notice the sign next to the entrance of the night market?

It’s no surprise that such corruption ultimately holds back the re-development of the country and prosperity of the general public.

Interestingly enough, in Vietnam, despite being a communist country, never once did we feel this looming government presence like you did in Cambodia.

and if you were wondering…

No, the ‘American War’ was not held against us as tourists.

Yes, we (as Americans) know it as the Vietnam War, but in Vietnam (go figure) it’s the American War.

We visited the War Remnants Museum when we were in Ho Chi Minh City, which gave us an entirely new perspective on the war – that of the Vietnamese people. We also visited the history museum while we were in Hoi An, which touched on the war in relation to Hoi An and nearby Da Nang. This was also interesting (and kind of like a punch in the gut) to see how proud the Vietnamese were to shoot down American planes/helicopters and capture the pilots.

The seat from a US helicopter shot down in near Cam An village – found in the Hoi An history museum.

Despite the atrocities committed on both sides and the resentment the Vietnamese people could rightly harbor, never once did we feel unwelcome or an attitude of hostility. At the end of the day, two governments fighting in the past should not equate to individual hatred today. People are people, and if you, as a tourist, act with kindness and respect then that’s generally what you get in return.

on a lighter note…

Same same, but different

This phrase turned into the motto of the trip. And in other words, whatever your expectations are while in Cambodia, go ahead and lower them by about 50%.

And honestly, I don’t think that it’s for lack of trying on Cambodia’s part. I think, especially as a Westerner, you expect payment to equal a certain level of the service. So, if you embrace ‘same same, but different’ and change your expectations then you can thoroughly appreciate the experience for what it is!

This was the “light bulb moment” I had in Koh Rong on our boat tour around the island. The day started out not at all how we expected, but we stopped trying to fight it and had a great time.

Driving in Cambodia is my father-in-law’s worst nightmare.

Another motto that emerged on this trip was “embrace the suck”, which was most often used during our road travel in Cambodia. Driving in Cambodia felt like you were in real-life Mario Kart. You slam on the gas to get ahead of everyone else, slam on the brakes to take a corner (avoid a scooter, pedestrian, slow car…), and in the meantime dodge all the bananas (potholes) Bowser keeps throwing at you. It’s not surprising that we ended up on the side of the road on the way to Kampot.

Part of the road on the way to Kampot, Cambodia.

And despite terrible roads (at least in Cambodia)…

Scooters are to Vietnam as bicycles are to Holland

They were everywhere in both countries, but more-so in Vietnam. I never stopped being amazed at the sheer numbers of them. Even their ride-share company, Grab, has an option for you to be picked up in on a scooter.

We had good intentions of renting scooters for a day to explore the surrounding areas, but, to be honest, it was a little overwhelming to think about trying to do that in the cities (since we aren’t experienced scooters) and when we were in Hoi An, Vietnam the weather wasn’t in our favor. Scootin’ in the cold rain wasn’t so appealing. We did have a small scootin’ excursion getting to and from our guest house in Ben Tre, Vietnam – I guess that will have to suffice.

Your normal commute in Ho Chi Minh City.

If you’ve seen one market, you’ve seen them all.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t check them out! You can find the typical souvenirs (elephant pants, anyone?) but also less mass produced items. And, it’s a chance to really see how locals shop as there’s generally a meat/produce/food section.

I’m all for the market shopping life (it’s how we primarily shop in the Netherlands), but I did have a hard time with the meat. No refrigeration and out all day…

Oh, and put your negotiating pants on and be prepared to get haggled. It’s just a fact of market life. It can be kind of overwhelming, but you might also end up with a badass shirt for cheap.

Vietnamese food is to die for!

This requires no explanation – just a gallery of deliciousness. My favorite dish? Hands down, Bun Cha – a Hanoian specialty.

The bum gun is a life-saver.

Bum gun?? What is a bum gun??

BOOM. That’s a bum gun!

Not a bidet, but a squirt hose connected to the toilet to uh… clean the boo-tay after well, ya know. Pooping.

I will be the first to admit that this entirely grossed me out and I just could not really see the logistics of it all.

It seemed messy. And wet. I resisted for a long time.

But, when one finds one’s self in some digestive distress the bum gun becomes your best friend on account of the toilet paper can be compared to sandpaper (if it’s even available) and well, there ya go.

Bum gun + Whitney = BFFL

I will freely admit, by the end of the trip, I liked it! I dare say I even miss it back here at home. The boys were such fans that there was a lot of discussion on how to popularize it in America, and the invention of the bum gun addition – a filter of sorts, placed over the top of the spout, that would provide the user with a blast of menthol with the water for a tingly fresh & clean feeling*.

*Patent pending (just kidding).

Bottom line (ha! see what I did there!), bum gun. Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

and finally…

Cambodia & Vietnam are two beautiful countries worth a visit.

I sincerely hope that we are able to go back one day and explore new areas of both.

Temples surrounding Siem Reap, Cambodia.
On the river in Kampot, Cambodia.
Views over Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Riverside in Hoi An, Vietnam.

And, in case you got tired of reading and just scrolled through for the pictures…

You can see our entire trip in video form!

Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3!

See ya later!

Dutch biking skills paying off…

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Video: Southeast Asia 2018/19 – Part 3

After waaaay too long, the final video of our Southeast Asia trip is complete!

Since the first two videos were published some time ago, it might be worth while to check those out first. See them here: Part 1 & Part 2. Personally, I think they flow quite well and really compliment the posts Whitney has written over the past few months.

When you’re ready, here’s part 3!

That concludes the video series of our Southeast Asia (SEA) trip. Whitney has one more SEA-related post, before we move onto other, more recent travel adventures. Expect that in the next few days.

Otherwise, stay tuned for more!

Until next time,

Shane

Hanoi, Vietnam

Well friends, we’ve made it to the penultimate stop on our Southeast Asia journey: Hanoi!

After saying goodbye to Sis and Terry in Hoi An, Shane and I found ourselves back at the airport for another hour flight north to the capital city.

Looking at the map this way makes me feel pretty satisfied with how much we saw in Cambodia, and pretty disappointed in how much we saw in Vietnam… guess there’s gotta be a next trip!

Anyway, back to Hanoi.

We only had about 36 hours here, so I thought I’d go though some do’s and don’ts for a visit of this length.

Do: Stay in the Old Quarter.

Staying here, we instantly fell in love with the city.

I think I can speak for both of us when I say that cities which combine the old and new are particularly attractive. We used to live in Pittsburgh, PA, which was a modern downtown city surrounded by pockets of older, homey feeling neighborhoods. I think this is where it all began. And if I think back on the cities I’ve enjoyed the most – like Rotterdam in the Netherlands – they all have a blend of old and new. Unlike the stark new-ness of Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi had me at hello.

And, if you stay in this area then most everything you need is easily accessible by foot. You’ll have to travel a bit to reach some of the main attractions, but you’ll be set for food, night markets, and nightlife.

Hanoi street.

Do: Find the Hanoian specialties.

Like bun cha.

I DREAM of bun cha.

Rice noodles, grilled pork, fermented cucumbers, THE MOST DELICIOUS BROTH, fresh herbs, and a side of spring rolls.

and Bia Hoi!

Bia Hoi is Vietnam street beer. Brewed fresh daily, you can only find it on a the side of the road in makeshift cafes. 5000 dong (~$0.25) will get you a draft beer to enjoy on a tiny stool.

Shane got to practice pouring his own bia hoi.

and relatedly…

Don’t: Skip out on the egg coffee!

Egg Coffee.

Another Hanoian specialty. I know, it sounds gross but it was delicious! Egg coffee’s origins date back to 1946 during the French war. Normal Vietnamese coffee consists of condensed milk & coffee, but since milk was scarce an alternative was born! It’s frothy, creamy, sweet, and tastes nothing at all like an egg!

The true egg coffee recipe is a family secret, so don’t be fooled by imitation egg coffee. Make sure you go to the real deal on egg coffee lane!

which brings me to…

Don’t: Miss the alleyways

You might just miss out on the best bun cha of your life!

Dramatic, I know, as that was exactly my 2nd bun cha, but whatever. I liked it a lot, OK!

Don’t: Do a walking tour in the morning.

You’ll find that all the main attractions, like the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and Tran Quoc Pagoda, have funny hours.

For instance, a quick google search will tell you that the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is open from 8am – 5pm every day, when in reality it’s open from 8am – 11am, and if you don’t want to wait in a huge line you should prepare to be there by 7am. AND! Beware, for the mausoleum is closed for renovations from June – August each year.

You can certainly see it from the outside, like we did, but I must say I was quite disappointed to not be able to go inside.

Keeping with the “Ho Chi Minh – Closed” theme, we were also unable to go in the museum as it closes for a few hours over lunch…. ya know. Exactly the time we were there.

Do: Take a walking tour in the afternoon!

We love a good walking tour. Since we were staying in the Old Quarter, we booked a free walking tour with Hanoi eBuddies, a student run organization whose volunteers want to show visitors the city while improving their English skills. We were warmly greeted in the morning by our guide buddy Alissa. I say buddy, because the tour guides really want you to feel like a friend and show you the city through their eyes.

So, we spent the morning with Alissa wandering the streets of the Old Quarter and learning a few things along the way. For instance, streets in Hanoi are set up in themes. You have the cooking supplies street, the coffee street, the spices street, the clothing street, etc. I can’t imagine trying to shop here – it would take you hours! At one point we ended up on the (essentially) gravestone and memorial street, which only felt a little morbid…

We also saw Hoan Kiem Lake, which is smack in the center of Hanoi, home to a mythical golden turtle, and – until 2016 – home to (so the legend says) the reincarnation of the golden turtle: Cu Rua, a Yangtze giant softshell turtle whose species is nearly extinct. Unfortunately, in 2016 she died of old age.

More spots on the tour included St. Joseph’s Cathedral and Alissa’s favorite place for ice cream!

Which brings me to my next point…

Don’t: Forget your jacket!

Go figure, the weather in northern Vietnam is drastically different than the weather in southern Vietnam! And in January, it’s still winter (relatively speaking, of course) in Hanoi.

If you don’t have a jacket, don’t stress. There will be plenty of shops where you can buy one, and that’s exactly what we did. When you want to spend time outside – walking tour, ice cream, bia hoi – a hoodie just doesn’t cut it this time of year.

Do: Visit the Temple of Literature

Built in 1070 to honor Confucius, it became Vietnam’s Imperial Academy; a prestigious school for academics. Inside the walls are 5 courtyards, where the scholars would study, have exams, or simply relax, but the importance increased with each courtyard. For example, Ph.D.s were honored in the 3rd courtyard, Confucius himself in the 4th courtyard, and the actual Academy building was located in the 5th.

It seemed only fitting that my soon-to-be Doctor should have a picture with Confucius.

and finally…

Do: Plan more time in Hanoi!

This was a great city, and we barely scratched the surface. If I could do it over, I would have at very least 3 full days here.

And with that, there’s only one stop left on our Southeast Asia adventure that’s not even in Southeast Asia!

Next up, the City of Gold – Dubai!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Hoi An, Vietnam

Vietnam is a big country. Well, a long country I suppose I should say.

To make our way from Ben Tre to Hoi An, we needed to bus, plane, and cab to get there.

Sis, Terry and I were in a row together. Shane felt a little left out…

Hoi An was going to be special: we were to spend New Year’s Eve & my birthday here, it was our last stop as a foursome, and it’s the home of the famous basket boats!

Toot toooot! All aboard the basket boats!

Now, I will go ahead and tell you that I almost didn’t want to participate in the basket boats despite being the one who insisted that we find them. I had read a lot online – travel blogs mostly – about how much fun they were with great pictures of a single basket boat surrounded by lush coconut trees. I had this picture in my mind of an authentic Vietnam boating experience.

That ain’t what it is, ya’ll.

It’s a damn tourist trap.

Should have known better when we got out of the cab in Cam Thanh village (where the boats are) and we were instantly bombarded and steered to the “best basket boats in town”. We ended up here…

I had two thoughts walking up.

1) This reminds me of the water ride “Rip Roaring Rapids” at our hometown theme park, Carowinds.

2) I am NOT getting in a damn basket boat with a pink life vest.

Needless to say, I was thoroughly disappointed by what I was seeing. To top it off, there was top 40 pop blasting and they wanted 400,000 dong per person (~$17 USD). My authentic Vietnam boating experience was crumbling.

But, we were already here so Shane and Terry start negotiating. After convincing the guy to let us go for 100,000 dong per person and then convincing me that it was going to be fun – “just think of it like the gondolas in Venice” – we were on our way (sans pink lifevest).

At least the ride came with a hat, right?

You know what else the ride came with? Dancing.

Do you see that party happening behind Sis? They had 2 workers stationed there with speakers, blasting more top 40 hits, and (if you wanted to) you could swing by for a dance party. We stopped long enough to watch – these people were having a grand time, good for them! – but opted out of the dance party ourselves.

Your ride experience also greatly varied depending on your boat driver. Boat paddler, I suppose is a better term? Whatever you want to call it, it was hard work to paddle those round boats in a particular direction, and it was windy that day too! Shane and I ended up with an older guy who was a more subdued ride-giver.

He even had an umbrella handy for when it started raining.

Sis and Terry had a little different experience…

And this wasn’t just a photo-op…

Their boat driver thought it was HILARIOUS to make them paddle, and paddle they did – in the rain – for probably 20 min of the 40 min trip.

They also spun you around in the boat, this happened to Sis and terry a lot, and made you fun rings out of banana leaves so all in all it ended up being a win. If you’re interested in the basket boats, I’d say do it. Just go into it with an open mind…

Basket boats aside, Hoi An was a great town. With only 150,000 residents as opposed to Ho Chi Minh City’s 8.5 million, it was a nice change of pace. The city was large enough to have plenty to do over our 3-day stay, yet small enough that we could ditch the maps and navigate ourselves.

Streets of Hoi An.

It’s also famous for two things: hand-made clothes and lanterns.

I’ll start with the clothes. We heard from the interwebs and a few others who had traveled to Hoi An that tailor-made clothing was A THING here. That it was good quality and that it was inexpensive. We both thought – Ok, good to know, but we didn’t come all the way to Vietnam to shop for clothes.

So, what did we do? Came all the way to Vietnam and shopped for clothes.

Ya win some – ya lose some, right? This time we won big!

Shane being fitted for one of his new shirts.

Once it occurred to us that Shane needed a new suit for his Ph.D. defense we decided to check out the hype. And with over 400 tailors to choose from, it was a hard decision. There are shops for all budgets, so thanks to some Tripadvisor reviews and a few backpacker blogs we settled on one that was supposedly mid-level price range with glowing reviews: FaiFoo.

We were warmly welcomed and the next thing you know Shane is picking out the fabric, lining, and style of his very own suit and I was choosing the fabric and style for a new dress (gotta look good at the defense, ya know). You make your selections, they measure you, and then off you go with instructions to come back in ~24h for your first fitting.

So, funny story. We ended up going to two different tailors while we were there. On the way to FaiFoo, someone got distracted by banana pancakes.

When we stopped, there was a man already at the stand who started talking to us. Turns out, he and his sisters own “the #4 shop on Tripadvisor!” and he was just so friendly that we ended up going to his shop as well. The picture of Shane being fitted in the bicycle shirt? That’s from our 2nd tailor – Ba-Ri.

You’ll have to wait until the Ph.D. defense post for the final products, but less than 48 hours later Shane was the proud new owner of a black suit, 2 long sleeve shirts, 2 short sleeve button-ups and I, a dress and 2 blouses for a grand total of $240.

The price was INCREDIBLE, but I think what was most impressive to me was the talent of these ladies. They work so hard and quickly to give you a perfectly fitted, quality product in a time-frame that SUITS (see what I did there) your travels. And, they literally have books and books of ideas – you just skim through the books and say “I like this one” and seemingly with a glance they know exactly what you want and how to make it.

Shane is convinced that the next time we make a trip to that side of the world we will make a stop in Hoi An with a list and a dedicated clothing budget.

The 2nd thing Hoi An is known for: lanterns

They are everywhere and they are beautiful! My pictures won’t even do them justice.

Part of the fun of Hoi An was walking around at night, enjoying the lights. Which brings me to a very special night – New Year’s Eve!

New Year’s Eve started out kind of wet. Go figure, you go 950km (~600mi) north the weather changes. We were on the tail end of the rainy season in central Vietnam, and we definitely experienced that. The first day, we kind of dealt with it or happened to be inside during the heavy rain. We did pass a lot of people wearing ponchos though, and kind of snickered to ourselves… HA! Ponchos!

Guess who bought ponchos the next morning?

Tourists, am I right?!

Obviously, this required a photo shoot.

We spent the morning walking around, seeing the sights. One of which was the famous Japanese Covered Bridge which was built in the early 17th century. The bridge was originally built by the Japanese community in Hoi An to create a link between the city and the Chinese community across the stream.

Lunch that day was a sandwich that required a 45 min wait in line.

The line for Bahn Mi.

Oh bahn mi – how delicious thou art. From what we gathered, bahn mi is just a baguette-style sandwich with whatever toppings they choose, generally a few meats, some veggies, and a few sauces.

We heard about this particular Bahn Mi place from our cousin, Rehana, who had traveled to Hoi An before. Turns out, she visited here BEFORE Anthony Bourdain did and, well, it makes the 45 min wait make more sense.

There were mixed emotions when we finally made it through.

But, it was worth the wait because it was delicious!

I mean look at that face…

The rest of the evening was spent eating sushi and hanging out with the New Year’s Eve crowd in the streets! We found a street party, and rang in the New Year with fireworks, sparklers, and dancing!

Oh, and light up bunny ears. Can’t forget those. Even the boys got in on the action.

For those who don’t know, New Years Day is my birthday! After the festivities of the night before we took it easy, but I was surprised by the fantastic people at our homestay, Pebble Homestay, who legitimately surprised me with a birthday cake and flowers!

And I say legitimately surprised because I never told them it was my birthday. No one in the group told them it was my birthday. The only thing we can figure is they saw the birth date on my passport when we checked in and remembered it, which is such a lovely gesture!

I will say it all went down a little awkwardly though. We were staying in essentially a 2 bedroom apartment within the homestay. As you can see from the picture above, there was this glass partition between the dining area and the bedrooms. We had just come home from lunch and picking up Shane’s suit from the tailor, so everyone had gone to their separate spaces for a bit. Me – to the bed watching TV, Sis & Terry for a nap, and Shane to the …uh…toilet (sorry honey).

The lady who was working, with whom we’d had the most contact, poked her head into the glass partition shortly after we all dispersed holding a cake and flowers in her hand. Thoroughly confused, I had to round up everyone, including my indisposed husband, whilst trying to be polite and excited and secretly figure out who arranged this.

As I said before, the homestay did and it was truly a nice birthday surprise!

We did manage to make it out for one more final Hoi An experience, the water puppet show!

The show itself was in Vietnamese, but there was a short English description before each scene. Water puppetry originated in Vietnam in the 11th century and was a really neat tradition to see. Wooden puppets tell various stories about the life of Vietnamese people and Vietnamese legends. There was the tale of the water buffalo, farmers catching frogs, and the dance of the dragons.

And that about wraps up our time in Hoi An! Unfortunately, it also wrapped up our time as a foursome. We started as six, down to four, and now down to two as Shane and I were heading to Hanoi and Sis and Terry headed a short distance to Da Nang. We asked our homestay host to take a picture of the four of us which started out happy, turned into a “pretend you’re crying” cause we’re sad and evolved into real “sisters sobbing while the host awkwardly looks on”.

And with that, I’ll get a little mushy. I couldn’t have imagined doing this with anyone other than this crew. My sister and I were spoiled for a few years and actually lived in the same place where (in my opinion) we forged the bond that we have today. This trip was the most consecutive time we’ve spent together since that period 7 years ago.

To (kind of) quote the old Mastercard commercial.

Round-trip plane tickets to Southeast Asia: 800 euros (+ credit card points).

A month with my sister, Terry, and Shane in Cambodia* & Vietnam: priceless

Sis – love ya, mean it!

*and, of course, two weeks with Michelle and Steve!

Riverside in Hoi An.

And for everyone else, next up is our penultimate stop…

Hanoi, Vietnam!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Ben Tre, Vietnam

After a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, it was time to escape the hustle and bustle and head to our next stop: Ben Tre.

Ben Tre (both a province and a city) is about 2 hours south-west of HCMC in the Mekong Delta. There was no way we were coming to Vietnam without seeing the Mekong River.

We were keeping the bungalow streak alive and staying at Quoc Phuong Riverside Homestay which was chosen for much of the same reasons as Battambang – it just looked so pretty! And when we arrived, we were not disappointed.

How did we get there? Funny you should ask.

I was having a hard time finding information online about how to get to our homestay. There were some public buses to Ben Tre city, but the homestay itself was on the river about 15km (~9mi) away from the city center. Finally, a few days before we were due to arrive I messaged the property (thank you Booking.com!) and received some instructions on how to get there.

  1. Go to your hotel reception and ask them to call this phone number and ask for 4 people on the bus.
  2. Go to this address.
  3. Get on the bus, show the driver the name of my homestay. He will know where to drop you off.

ahh… ok.

Luckily, our Airbnb was in a serviced apartment building so there was actually a reception area and a person who could help us. He called, reserved our spot over the phone, and the next day (with nothing but a verbal confirmation) we were in a cab to the bus stop.

‘Bus stop’ is a very loose term. It was a restaurant.

Waiting for the bus.

We hesitantly walked up, looking thoroughly confused I’m sure, showed one of the people working the message and the address, and were immediately given small stools and told to sit & wait. So, we were in the right place!

Correct bus stops make for happy sissys!

We waited 15-20 minutes and low and behold a bus shows up, there’s a lot of exchanging of goods (rice, vegetables, drinks, etc.) and then we’re motioned to get on with all our luggage and we head for the last remaining open seats on an already packed bus. Somehow, Sis ended up with the good end of this deal. The rest of us were a little squishy.

We knew we had about 2 hours on the bus and we weren’t really sure where we were going so we kept double checking Google maps to make sure we were at least heading in the right direction. To our surprise, we stopped about 30 min before our final destination at a roadside shop for what we determined was a snack break; evidenced by the random woman who came on the bus selling snacks…

There was also another lady who kept coming on the bus and talking to people. Then, she would make a phone call and like magic, a minute would go by and food would appear! We weren’t really sure what was happening so we didn’t try an get any snacks.

After the break, we were on our way again and quickly approaching where it seemed we needed to be. Shane went to the front of the bus to remind the driver – “Hey, we need to get off here.” with our homestay’s name.

“No, no, not there yet!”

So, we anxiously watch Google maps, watch the driver, the bus stops, we try to get off… “No! Stay!” So we stay.

We stop again and this time “You (points to us). Here!” Off we go at an intersection in what feels like the middle of nowhere. As we get off the bus, we noticed 4 men on scooters but didn’t really think much of it until one of them (nicely) grabs Sis’ bag, puts it on his scooter and then pats the seat for her to get on. So, we all followed suit and off we went, each of us on the back of a strangers scooter for the last 2km to the homestay!

IT WAS THE MOST FUN THING EVER!

Technically, this is our way back out. But you get the idea.

And, when editing the video I found this screenshot worthy gem…

Hey there mirror Terry!

The directions may have seemed a little sketchy, but in reality, they were accurate and we had a smooth trip. Once we arrived, we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing by the river.

There was a fun bridge to cross the creek that ran through the property.

We arranged a tour with the property owner on our night of arrival, so the next day we were up early to leave for our essentially private boat tour of the area. Surprisingly, we were on the tour with another American family! We hadn’t run into many other Americans on the trip so far, so it was a nice surprise and we had a great day on the boat as the 8 of us.

The start of our Mekong River boat tour.

First stop, the fish farms. The aquaculture industry in this part of the country is huge, which makes sense given the proximity to the rivers and sea. We saw two types of fish farms: floating farms and pond-style farms. The floating farms are for tilapia, which require/prefer flowing water; the pond-style farms are for catfish. We also learned that a lot of thought goes into how the fish are raised and what they eat to ensure they meet the requirements for export to the US and EU, as well as acknowledging what the consumers in those markets want.

Next up, a honeybee farm!

Here, we tasted the honey (so delicious), had some tea (with honey) and some homemade honey snacks. To taste the honey, you had to stick your finger in the middle of the bees to poke through the honeycomb. Only slightly nerve-racking and, outside of jumping in the black water in Koh Rong, probably Shane’s worst nightmare.

He did it, but he wasn’t happy about it. Ha!

Our trip to the honeybee farm also included a pet snake. Apparently, this is a common pet in (at least this part of) Vietnam. I passed on holding it…

After the honeybee farm, we headed down and across the river to see how coconut candies are made. We were able to have a taste test here too, along with some cobra whiskey. Ah yes, just like Battambang, whiskey made with snake. I mean, our whole group tried it (minus the kids) but I can safely say none of us liked it.

Cutting and packaging the coconut candy.

And finally, probably my favorite part of the tour that day. We transferred to a small wooden boat and were taken through the small tributaries connected to the main Mekong River.

After that, we had about an hour on the boat back to the homestay!

Lucky for us, we were back just in time because a massive rain storm came shortly after we were back. Unlucky for Shane and I, we needed to go find an ATM in the village since the place was cash only. This wasn’t really a big deal since the homestay provided free bikes and a map. We’re used to biking, and there was a break in the rain so off we went.

In the beginning, we honestly had such a nice ride. It wasn’t raining, it’s so fun to see the local village, and we passed so many friendly smiling waving kids along the way. But, as one might expect, the above map is not to scale. And our in-person directions from the owner of “two lefts then a right” wasn’t as straight forward as one might think. And then it started raining. And then the chain came off of Shane’s bike – three times. Nothing better than fixing a chain on a red dirt road in the rain.

We did eventually find the ATM, but we were soaked through by the time we got home. Sis and Terry made the smart decision to stay home and take a nap. We probably should have followed suit.

You can’t tell in the picture, but it was raining hard.

Unfortunately, we only had 2 nights in this amazing place. If I were to do this trip over, I would definitely have stayed here at least 2 or 3 full days. You could just relax, do the boat tour (like we did) or, with more time, an all-day scooter tour through the countryside. We were very disappointed to be leaving so quickly.

Plus side of leaving? We had to take the bus back and the bus stopped for snacks again! This time we knew what to expect…

The real-deal-not-7-11 version of the most delicious bánh bao! This time I remembered to take a picture before I ate it.

This little bundle of joy is filled with spiced ground meat and an egg.
Now that’s the unattractive face of a girl who loves a good bus snack.

With full tummies, we made it back to HCMC, said goodbye to our American friends who were also on the bus, and prepared to go to the airport and our next destination…

Hoi An, Vietnam!

Varied enthusiasm. It was going to be a long travel day.

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

After spending about 2 weeks in Cambodia, it was time to change countries!

Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City!

To reach Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, for short) from Koh Rong required a ferry ride back to the mainland, a 5-hour bus ride to Phnom Penh where we stayed overnight so we could catch a bus for another 6 hours to HCMC! Luckily, we took a different road on the way back to Phnom Penh and the journey was smooth sailing!

We were up bright and early to catch the 7am bus which would take us across the border to Vietnam. Can you guess what fantastic company took us on this journey? If you guessed Mekong Express then you guessed correctly! They were particularly helpful as they guided us through customs at the border.

Fun fact: You can’t get a visa on arrival in Vietnam if you enter via land. We knew this ahead of time, so it wasn’t a big deal (and the eVisa process was super easy), but just in case that information might be useful to anyone…

I will also say: this is the first time where I’ve been noticeably (I won’t say discriminated against because it wasn’t that) more ‘scrutinized’. As a white, American girl let’s face it – no one pays attention to me. I understand this is a privilege many others unfairly aren’t given. But, when I looked around and the only 6 people who haven’t made it through customs yet are white (the 4 of us and 2 (oddly enough) Dutch), it gave me pause. All the other passengers were Asian and were quickly called through while our passports and visas were sent elsewhere for extra checks. No one at customs was rude or disrespectful, and before too much longer we were through so it was certainly not anything monumental, but it was a moment that made me think and caused discussion amongst ourselves later on.


Not entirely sure why we needed to include one dollar with our passports & visas, but Ok.

We stayed in an Airbnb in District 2 of HCMC, which was about a 10 – 15 min walk to District 1 that houses many of the main attractions. This Airbnb was AH-MA-ZING. Maybe it was because we just spent a week without air-conditioning or hot showers, but between the view, the water pressure, and the strong air-con, we were living the good life. And, our stay included access to the neighboring building which had a 33rd-floor rooftop garden and a view over the city. It was also prime viewing spot for the Bitexco Financial Tower, which I hear some like to call “the Stark Tower” if you’re into the Avengers…

We arrived in HCMC on Christmas Eve, so I unpacked the Santa hats and off we went. First stop… PHO!

Our pho spot.

Pho is probably the most famous dish in Vietnam and comes in two flavors: chicken and beef. Since I am by no means a food blogger, I will skip the details of our delicious Pho, but what I will tell you is that I could spend the rest of my life eating only Vietnamese food. Everything was so fresh and flavorful! And we would quickly learn that the best food came from carts and was eaten street-side on tiny stools. I think we ate in an actual restaurant twice during our entire time in HCMC – on Chrismas Day and when Terry found a McDonalds.

Look at that happy face for western-style food!

As I mentioned before, it was Christmas Eve, so after our introduction to the world of street food, we headed back to the Airbnb for some Christmas Eve traditions.

I think I can speak for everyone when I say that Christmas Eve was a great night – more so than Christmas day. This was the first Christmas that all four of us had spent together, so we tried to pull together some Christmas traditions from all the families. We listened to Bing Crosby & Raffi’s Christmas, we played cards, we drank wine & hot cocoa (not at the same time lol), we even found Home Alone on TV. And one tradition we all shared was reading Christmas stories on Christmas Eve. This year, Terry did the honors. I must say, I was quite impressed with the little Christmas we pulled together.

Terry reading The Christmas Story by firelight.

We woke up Christmas morning to the best gift Santa could ever give…

The gift of bánh bao from the 7-11 at the bottom of the building!

I don’t have a picture of said 7-11 bánh bao because by the time we took the elevator back up to the room they were already gone. Oops. It’s basically a ball of dough filled with things; ours was filled with sausage and a quail egg. You’ll just have to trust me, it was delicious.

What I do have a picture is Shane getting taken for some coconuts by a seemingly nice man on Christmas Day.

He looks so nice, right?!

I mean, I’m sure he’s a perfectly fine person, but (go figure) white people walking around in Santa hats tends to draw some attention. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve been in more random peoples photos than in the 24 hours we wore these Santa hats around town. At one point we were literally standing in a line and posing while 4 people had out their DSLRs taking pictures.

Anybody wanna make this go viral? I’d love to see those pictures! haha

Anyway, back to Shane. We are walking down the road on our way to the War Remnants Museum, and like so many others that day, this man waved and pointed at the hats and said Merry Christmas. We returned the gesture, and the next thing you know he’s asking for a picture with Shane. Then he wants Shane to hold the coconut contraption, and before you know it he’s hacked off the top of 3 coconuts (to drink the coconut water) and is asking for the equivalent of $16 USD.

What the eff!?!

After (unsuccessful) protesting to return said coconuts followed up with some negotiating, we ended up paying ~$4 USD for 3 coconuts we didn’t even want. Somehow, Terry managed to escape this awkward coconut experience unnoticed.

I don’t even like coconut water…

We were well hydrated when we reached the War Remnants Museum, which is the main museum in HCMC covering “the American War”.

Isn’t that an interesting thing. We know it as “the Vietnam War”, but of course it wouldn’t be called that here in Vietnam. I put that in the category of “things you never consider” – like when I had the realization that Anne Frank’s Diary was originally written in Dutch, not English.

I won’t go into detail about the war, but what this museum did best (and subsequently the Ken Burn’s docu-series “The Vietnam War” on Netflix reinforced; highly recommended) is that Vietnam just wanted to be a free nation. The museum started with French colonization, which morphed into Japanese control, which morphed into fighting America – all for their freedoms. And in my opinion (people are of course free to disagree) it’s just too bad that Ho Chi Minh sought training and help from communist Russia & China because the American fear of communism then was so real. Perhaps things could have been different.

Anyway, all in all, it was a terrible war for both sides. I felt like I didn’t really have a grasp about the who/what/why of it all until we came home and watched the docu-series, but what the museum was good for was a solid punch in the American-gut. We, as Americans, are taught to believe that we are the greatest nation in the world but we’ve also made our mistakes. This museum put those mistakes in the forefront. It’s always good to challenge one’s perspective, and this museum definitely did that for all of us.

So, uh – Merry Christmas to us, right?

After a heavy morning, we spent the rest of the day eating, wandering, and watching more Christmas movies on TV.

Honestly, HCMC is so big and with Christmas interspersed, I don’t feel like we got to properly explore. There’s just never enough time!

Over the next 2 days, we went to the Ben Thanh Market which is a huge and probably the most famous one. Sis ended up buying the best shirt of all time (well, Shane bought it for her).

We thought markets in Cambodia were crazy. You looked at something and it was guaranteed to get a sales pitch, probably by multiple people. Here, it was like they had super hearing! I swear we would whisper “look at that shirt” and we had two people on us – “Do you like that shirt? Do you like that color? I have other colors! I have a tank top version!” And, the women here were much more touchy-feely, so as Sis was trying to back out of buying a shirt, the lady turns to Shane, grabs his hand, and starts wheelin’ & dealin’.

And that’s how Sissy got a Pho-nominal tank!

(required a photo shoot of course)

We also went to a few pagodas in the city center.

The rooftop of aptly named Jade Pagoda.

And stuffed our faces. I swear, I dream about this food.

The Lunch Lady: another incredibly delicious lunch spot near the Jade Pagoda.

And that sums up our time in HCMC! Next up on our Vietnam adventure:

Ben Tre province in the Mekong Delta!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Koh Rong, Cambodia

Well friends, we’ve made it to our final stop in Cambodia; the beautiful island of Koh Rong!

After two nights at Eden Eco Village just outside of Kampot, we caught another bus to the beach town of Sihanoukville. From here, you can catch a speed ferry and in 45 min you’re on the island!

Now the time has finally come for me to publicly complain about the bus service that was Champa Mekong. Up to this point, all of our domestic travel (excluding the overnight bus) had been with Mekong Express, and despite having a few unforeseen problems which were out of their control, we had a great experience. Because of the time we needed to catch the ferry, we had to forego our beloved Mekong Express for the-bus-company-who-will-not-be-named-twice.

We arrived at the bus station and checked in for our VIP van – which we pre-booked and selected seats – without issue. It’s getting closer and closer to departure time, and we notice that there’s no 12 passenger van anywhere in sight. Only this bigger, maybe 20 person bus which is parked out front. 5 minutes before departure another even larger bus shows up and a whole crew of people pile out and head straight for the person yelling “Sihanoukville! Sihanoukville!” standing directly in front of that 20 person bus.

Can you see where this is going?

There was no VIP van. There was only that damn bus.

And despite our protests – this isn’t what we paid for! – we were told that that was the only bus going and we could either get on or rebook. AND to top it off, because we were fighting for what we purchased, we were the last on the bus. Sis, Terry & Shane ended up in the jumper seats in the aisle for the next 3 hours and I was shoved in the very back seat with a girl who didn’t give two sh*ts about personal space.

Needless to say, we were all ready to get off that bus. Lesson learned -Mekong Express or bust!

Anyway, back to Koh Rong. We had 4 glorious days in a (basically) beachside bungalow.

View from the bungalow.

If those aren’t the faces of two happy campers then I don’t know what is.

We did two main things while in Koh Rong: take a $10 boat tour around the island and dive. Let’s start with the $10 boat tour, which started out sketchy but ended up being a lot of fun!

First off, it took way more effort than expected to find these elusive $10 boat tours. I had read about them online from other blogs but none seemed to give any indication on how you actually go about booking one. The secret? You just walk up to any of the stands in the main area and ask about the $10 boat tour. You will instantly be bombarded with people trying to sell it to you.

When we purchased the tour the night before we were told there would be a max of 15 people, stops for snorkeling, fishing, time at 4k beach (a white sand beach on the other side of the island), swimming with the bioluminescent plankton after dark, dancing (YES – dancing) AND dinner + 2 beers and a whiskey & coke (lol) included.

We ended up on the “Three Brothers” boat tour, and what we got was a max of 25 people, snorkeling with kid-sized masks, one beer, fishing while drinking our whiskey & coke, time at 4k beach, dinner INCLUDING the fish we caught (didn’t see that coming), swimming with the bioluminescent plankton and dancing (it happened!).

Why was the boat so crowded? Turns out, another company sold tickets the night before and then at the last minute decided not to go, so they transferred those people to the Three Brothers tour. Guess who those people were…

Ya – we (along with a few others) were the reason for the overcrowding.

*shrugs*

Once the boat got on its way we could spread out a little and it didn’t feel so cramped.

So, we were off to a different start, but as I mentioned before if you expect about 50% less than what you imagine then Cambodia will never disappoint you. From that point on, we just went with the flow and ended up having a great time. There were a few other small issues along the way, but we just soaked them up as part of the day!

Back on the boat after snorkeling.
Sis attempting to catch a fish while drinking her whiskey & coke.
Terry caught 4 fish!
(Poor) Little Mermaid reenactment on 4k beach.

I like to call this next series “Hold me like those girls on Instagram”.

Very freshly caught fish for dinner. Oddly enough, Terry wasn’t a fan.

Not pictured is the bioluminescence on account of it being – ya know – pitch black water. Which, I would like to give a little shout out to Shane here because he loves to dive but he has an irrational fear of open water, or should I say open water in which he can’t see what’s around. But, with a little peer pressure and #YOBO (you only ‘Bode’ once) chanting, he jumped in, long enough to see the plankton and call it a day.

Also not pictured were the two adorable brothers who were the co-captains to their dad and grandpa that day and were THRILLED when we gave them a pack of Oreos and a can of Pringles as a “tip” for helping out.

Sissys at 4k beach.

Next up, for Shane & I at least, diving!

We had planned to dive two days, but since Shane was recovering from his Kampot sickness, we were only able to go once. We haven’t been in over a year, so we had a one-day refresher course which made for a nice, relaxing day of diving, but man – what a tease! Diving is just the greatest.

Awkward family photo?

I will say, Shane did push his limits a little here with his recovery time. For those non-divers, you really shouldn’t dive if you’ve had respiratory or sinus problems because it makes it hard or even impossible to equalize pressure as you go under. Shane felt good again, but you know how it is after a cold, things are still just a little bit off. All was OK until after the 2nd dive when he about gave the guide a heart attack. He must have popped a blood vessel in his nose because it started bleeding and was collecting in the bottom of his mask. That, mixed with a little water, and he looked like Carrie when he took his mask off at the surface.

So, uh – lesson learned.

Other than that, our time in Koh Rong was spent playing on the beach and

OH!

We almost adopted a cat.

The first morning, we picked a random, cheap place for breakfast, and a cat and her kitten came up to the table. This wasn’t really anything new because there are (sadly) strays everywhere. This lil’ missy though, hopped right up into Shane’s lap, and where mama went – baby followed.

Naturally, our kitty loving heart-strings were pulled. Shane ate breakfast with both of them in his lap (because how to do you even say no?). By day 2, she was named Xena (after the warrior princess) and by day 3 we were Googling how to get her out of Cambodia and back to the Netherlands. Turns out, since Cambodia is a “high-risk” country for rabies it’s a 3-month process. Had it only been a 1-month wait (like it was for Meatball) I’m pretty sure Shane and Xena would have had an Airbnb in Phnom Penh until she could fly. Alas, we left our warrior princess in Koh Rong, but during our short time with her, she got all the breakfast snuggles and hotdog pieces a kitty could want.

Waiting not so patiently for her hotdog.

Koh Rong was the type of place that just grew on you. Despite this island being my idea, I was a little bit nervous about coming because I had started to read about how it was a “backpackers paradise”, but not in a good way. Yes, there was a party every night on the main beach, but we stayed far enough down that it wasn’t really an issue. And you could very easily find parts of the island where there was no trace of the party mentality. The longer we stayed, the less I wanted to leave and, to be honest, the more I wish we had stayed on some of the other, even more remote beaches. All in all, I’d say Koh Rong has something for everyone.

And, if you ever find yourself in Koh Rong, you should wander down one of the alleys to find Sigi and his delicious authentic Thai food! He’s a delightfully sarcastic one-man show, cooking staples from his home-county while he sings to Shania Twain. We went there twice.

And you should definitely follow up any meal with a $1 shake. Blended fruit + milk (or not) makes for the most delicious treat.

Koh Rong felt like a relaxing retreat after the (fun) but hectic first 10 days of the trip. It was nice to dive & spend some time in the sun.

Especially since the 36 hours after leaving Koh Rong would be spent traveling to our next destination…

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam!

Tot ziens,

Whitney