A Travellerspoint blog

Island Life: a Change of Pace

sunny 25 °C

Originally, our plans for this week of the trip involved 4 days on the Vietnamese island Cat Ba, followed by a train to northern Vietnam to hike in the mountains of Sapa (2 days) and a visit to the Bac Ha market (1 day). However, in Hue, Adam confessed that he is growing a bit weary of the constant relocating. I admit that changing hotels and scheduling your activities anew every 3 days takes a lot of coordination and effort. It is also a bit frustrating to never "unpack" and to spend so much time planning out currency, laundry, and other resources (like motorbike rental) over and over again. (Though it seems easy enough when you're building an itinerary in Excel back at home).

I conceded, and we modified our plans in order to stay on the island of Cat Ba for nearly a week (April 1 to April 7, to be precise). Cool and foggy Sapa, while it would be a welcome respite from tropical humidity and water activities, will simply have to wait for a future trip. I'm already dreaming of a joint Northern Thailand-Northern Vietnam adventure.

Departing Ninh Binh, we grabbed a very early bus, and made it to Haiphong (coastal launching-off town) with enough time to buy our boat transport tickets to Cat Ba. The Lonely Planet guide had suggested we take one of the Hydrofoils, but in the end there was a speedboat available and we took that option for the same rough cost and without having to wait two hours for the next Hydrofoil. (Though yes, it would have been cool to see/ride the Hydrofoil.)
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The speedboat took us through a sight even non-travellers will recognize from postcards, calendars, and screensavers: Ha Long Bay. It was indeed beautiful, even on a slightly overcast day like ours, with immense limestone karsts slicing out of the turquoise waters of the bay.
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Cát Bà Island (with correct inflection) is the largest of the 367 islands spanning 260 km² that comprise the Cat Ba Archipelago, which makes up the southeastern edge of Lan Ha Bay in Northern Vietnam. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) It is therefore not actually part of Ha Long Bay, but an adjoining system. Though if I may say, to most travellers, the distinction is minor. Lan Ha feels more like a less well-known and slightly more rugged little sister of Ha Long.

We were eventually deposited at one end of Cat Ba island in the early afternoon and after some investigation, determined that we were quite a distance from where the hotels and the "town" are found. A few enterprising tuktuk drivers offered to take us there for an astonishing sum of money, which we declined. One of the drivers, who we had repeatedly refused, was upset that we wouldn't accept his price and proceeded to tell the other drivers not to accept a lower price either, in some kind of weird, unfriendly tuktuk-cartel move. Not to be outdone, we found a school group down the road who was organizing a van, and paid them to let us come aboard. We were perhaps a little too happy to have beaten the tuktuk conspiracy, as the slighted driver talked exasperatedly with the van driver for some time, before stalking away in a huff that required no translation.

After an hour of travel in the van with what I think were high-schoolers, we were dropped at our hotel, Little Cat Ba. First impressions were very positive! The hotel was a charming guesthouse with about eight rooms, carved into the hill with views of a (very low) river and craggy green clifftops in the distance.
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It was one of only two hotels in the area, so it was relatively quiet and private. We checked into our room, which had some nice decor touches reminiscent of a small boutique hotel.
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They sorely needed the help of a handyman though, because our doorknob was installed backward and the bathroom plumbing was leaking. There was also a small window in the front of the room, which curiously lacked any kind of cover or screen to keep out moths and mosquitoes. All in all, these issues are pretty minor when you've seen as much "local craftsmanship" as we have on this trip. We rectified the mosquito hole with supplies from our packs, and Adam took the time to reinstall the doorknob and do a few other small repairs around the room. Handy travel buddy!

We spent the balance of the day relaxing on the patio, reading, planning, and we put our names down for Hot Pot two nights later (to ensure availability, you must order Hot Pot at least a day in advance).

We rented a motorbike so we could get around easily and explore the island at our own pace. Having our own transport also made it more convenient to be staying at an off-the-beaten-path guesthouse and made our evenings much more peaceful.

We made a conscious effort to relax and not over-structure the week on Cat Ba. Here are some of the highlights!
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We took the bike up some very steep hills (at one point, I got off and walked, because the bike was struggling with the constant incline) to Cannon Fort. Built in 1942, it was first used by the Japanese during World War II, then later by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. It has a strategic position 177m above the sea and you can see right out across Lan Ha Bay.
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But it’s not just the commanding view that’s interesting at Cannon Fort Cat Ba. The site is quite expansive with lots of tunnels to explore and you can get a real sense of the history.
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Luckily for us, virtually no one was there. I think we saw two other tourists the entire afternoon. We met more goats than other people!
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We hiked to the peak in the National Park, on a muggy and overcast day, and were soaked with sweat and a sense of accomplishment when we reached the top.
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On the way out, these was a heart-wrenchingly sad display: what must be the dying days of some kind of zoological exhibit, with animals trapped inside dirty, dark chain link cages. Monkeys, buffalo, and tropical birds scurried around in tiny prisons with the beauty of the open jungle calling to them from all around. I think it was one of the saddest things I'd ever seen, and I wrote the Park a detailed review hoping to add to the negative press over the decision to keep the animals locked up and in such poor conditions. A depressing addition to the Park, and confusing.
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Adam has a knack for maps, and while perusing some aerial maps of the island, found a beach quite near to us. The only problem seemed to be that there were literally no roads to access the beach. How could this be? We set out (on what was possibly Day 2 or Day 3) to find out. After a few false starts, we kind of figured out what was going on. There is a ton of development happening on Cat Ba, and a new road was being constructed which would presumably give vehicle access to the mysterious beach. Only, at the time we visited, the "road" looked like this:
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Yes, there were signs saying not to trespass on the construction site. But we were tourists, and figured we could plead ignorance or "lost in translation" about the signage. I know this may not sit well with some readers, but we didn't disturb anything, and the reward was (sorry, not sorry) ABSOLUTELY WORTH IT.

The beach was small and sat between two green rocky outcrops.
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There were trees farther back for shade, and even some wooden loungers set up in front of a hotel that was in late stages of construction. There were no active workers, and best of all, there were no other people. It was, for our purposes at least, our private beach. Unbelievable.
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We spent at least a portion of all our remaining days at "our beach", arriving each time totally dumbfounded at our luck (or rather, Adam's skill).

Driving the whole of the island was a fun way to keep cool and try out the various restaurants and viewpoints that beautiful Cat Ba had to offer.
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We had some of our best food in Cat Ba, as well.
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While the food at our hotel was surprisingly bad, it helped to encourage us to try new places every night. The only real exception being the Hot Pot (for those who do not know, Hot Pot is a sort of Asian fondue where fresh food like seafood, meat and veggies are simmered in boiling soup broth).
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We had some adorable company for the meal: a couple local cats and a dog who knew well the formula: Hot Pot = scraps tossed by adoring Westerners. large_3a41bae0-3b2f-11eb-b758-1d75ed51809a.jpg

We really got a feel for the routines of the place, learning to avoid busy times on the road like when school got out, and when the other tourists tended to set out for lunch or dinners. We visited a place called Butterfly Garden, which had surprisingly few butterflies but did have one very big buffalo that I didn't notice until I was almost standing on him (it was hot, I was tired, and I have no good excuses to offer).
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We also hiked up the peaks behind our hotel, as someone had told us there was a kind of path to the top if you went slowly and paid attention. It was challenging:
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But the view at the top was extra rewarding, since it was kind of a make-your-own hike and there were no other tourists, signs, or entry fees involved.
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It was hard to say goodbye to Cat Ba island, after getting to know it so well. I hope that one day I can find the time to visit again and maybe relive some of those great memories (and see the completed road to the beach)!

Posted by Casualodyssey 02:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged coast island tropical explore motorbike Comments (0)

Northbound to Ninh Binh

overcast 28 °C

Late in the evening and with heavy hearts we said goodbye to the warm hospitality of our guesthouse staff at the Hue Riverside Villa. We taxied to the nearby train station for what would be our first (and our only) authentic Vietnam train trip.

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We were booked on an overnight train from Hue to Ninh Binh, a not-terrible duration of 13 hours in total. The train arrived punctually and all the waiting tourists slowly boarded. Too slowly in fact, since the train started pulling away with me still on the platform. I’m sure the reality was slightly less dramatic than I remember it, but I found my way onboard after a few tense moments of clinging to the outside stairwell, bags in hand.

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Once on board we found our way to our cabin, the two lower bunks of a double-bunk cabin. We found one roomie inside, a friendly solo traveler who introduced himself as Felix from Germany. Adam’s bunk was unmade, and Felix explained that a Vietnamese girl had been in that bunk up to this point. While we had reserved that bed for the whole of the trip, apparently there were many opportunities for the train staff and the locals to self-upgrade (wink, wink). Later on, the one remaining empty bunk in our cabin was filled with a local man from another car, with no explanation given. A bribe, surely, as we saw a 50,000 dong note exchanged. Well, no bother.

It was a rough ride with lots of swinging, swaying, and noise. To make matters slightly worse, our cabin’s air conditioning seemed to be defective. Disappointing, as we had paid for the luxury! Sleep was difficult at first but in time our exhaustion took over. Our upgraded cabin-mate had gotten off at a stop a few hours before sunrise (I think) and it was just the three foreigners in our cabin when the sun came up. I was feeling groggy and grimy when the train finally stopped at Ninh Binh at around 10 o’clock in the cloudy, humid morning.

Ninh Binh province is located about 100km south of Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi. It’s a destination growing in popularity with tourists but still relatively off the beaten path. The real allure of Ninh Binh is the opportunity to spend time among the gorgeous inland limestone mountains known as karsts - which emerge from otherwise flat rice fields - making a very dramatic backdrop for exploring the many grottoes, varied wildlife, and laid-back agricultural lifestyle in rural North Vietnam.

We stayed in the nearby village of Hoa Lu and checked in to our home for the next two nights, the underwhelmingly-named Nguyen Shack. Nguyen Shack was a perfectly lovely series of shared-wall bamboo dorms with rooms backing directly onto a huge karst formation and a shallow lake, right outside your door. A thin bamboo wall is all that separates you from the nature around you (but be warned, it's also all that separates you from the noises and smells of the neighboring dorms and shared toilet). A small deck and hammock accompanied each room. The lake was very low, this being the end of the dry season, but all kinds of fish, goats, geese, swans and other bird species could be spotted any hour of the day.

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In our two days at Hoa Lu we filled our time with outdoor activities:
- We took a boat ride through the Trang An grottoes, and helped with some of the paddling;

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- We climbed the many steps of the Am Tien Caves to see the Buddha, huge iron bell, and experienced our first rain of the trip (!);

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- We rented a scooter and toured the winding highways and back roads of Hoa Lu and Tam Coc;

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- We visited the Van Long Nature Reserve … which was really just another boat ride … and saw critically-endangered langur monkeys scaling the karsts overhead.

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Ninh Binh was a relaxing and welcome departure from the big cities and tourist attractions of a typical Vietnam itinerary. I'm glad we took the time to visit, even if it was only two days.

Next up: a week among the coasts and crags of Cat Ba Island!

Posted by Casualodyssey 12:58 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Charming Central Vietnam

sunny 25 °C

March 25-26, 2018
Hoi An, Vietnam

After our VietJet flight out of Ho Chi Minh city was delayed by several hours, we finally arrived in Da Nang at around 10:30 pm on March 24th. From there, a driver hired by our hotel in Hoi An was waiting to transport us the additional 45 minutes (south) to the hotel.
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Hoi An is a former port city on the central coast of Vietnam, with several canals running through it. It is famous for its charming mix of architecture and for an ornate Japanese covered bridge over the river leading into the tourist district. Hoi An's Ancient Town area is accessible via numerous small bridges and is within easy walking distance (10 minutes) of our hotel.
The first morning in Hoi An we had a slow start at around 10am and did some self-directed wandering in search of breakfast. The weather was tolerably warm, but not stifling, which came as a welcome relief! The forecast for our two days in Hoi An predicted 25-27 degree Celsius temperatures and possibly a morning of rain. We have yet to see any rainfall since our arrival in Southeast Asia.
The area around our hotel was fairly quiet, but we somehow stumbled upon a cooking school that offered classes and food to order. Both of us chose a traditional Vietnamese meal: Cao Lau for me and Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) for Adam.
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According to Wikipedia, with correct accents included, "Cao lầu is a regional Vietnamese dish made with noodles, pork, and local greens, that is found only in the town of Hội An, in the Quảng Nam Province of central Vietnam." The presentation was amazing and the food was filling and delicious.
Next, Adam rented a motorbike from Mike's Bikes over Whatsapp and they delivered it to our guesthouse in less than twenty minutes. It was nearly new and outfitted with a phone holder in front so we could use our phones for navigation.
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I think I forgot to mention that in Saigon, we each picked up a Vietnamese sim card complete with unlimited data for only $8 USD each. Since then we've been able to use our Google maps, TripAdvisor, and other necessary travel apps without requiring WiFi everywhere we go. Just goes to show how overpriced our telecommunications are in Canada... but then again the population here is 3x that of our own, low population-density nation.
We headed out to An Bang Beach, the other major draw in Hoi An, aside from the Ancient Town district. It was lovely, with palm-fronded huts and beach loungers and seafood restaurants stretching out along the shoreline.
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But it was so busy! People everywhere you looked and vendors weaving in and around to offer their various wares to the sun worshippers. We grabbed a spot a ways down and up from the busiest section of the beach, and ordered some of the cheapest things we could find on the overpriced beachfront restaurant menus, and a couple beers.
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It was late in the day and people were slowly leaving the beach, making for a more relaxed atmosphere. A few dogs scampered in to investigate any snacks left behind by the vacating tourists.
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Next up, a motorbike ride back to our end of town to wander the shops, historical buildings, and waterways of Hoi An ancient town.
90_IMG_8085.jpg There were numerous shops offering custom-made suits and clothes, leather shops with bags, shoes, belts and wallets, and all the art and souvenir shops you could ever want or need.
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Lanterns hang from every tree, doorway, and bridges and give the ancient town a beautiful ambiance.
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The storefronts here are nicely decorated and less congested than Ho Chi Minh or the market streets in Cambodia, for a slightly elevated shopping experience. A square leather laptop-style shoulder bag called my name and I bartered with the girl in the store, who originally wanted $110 USD, settling at $62. More than the cost of two nights' accommodation, but still worth it in my opinion! A few scarves and t-shirts for those waiting at home also found their way into my possession.
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The streets and stores of the Ancient Town were simply packed with people after dark and so we opted to return to the guesthouse for a quick swim, beers, and an early night.
The next day we headed out of town to see the Mỹ Sơn Sanctuary. My Son is a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and the 14th century AD by the kings of Champa. Like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the temples are dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva.
Since we were travelling a fair distance on the bike, Adam looked for an alternate route that would save us from driving on busy commercial and industrial roads where the traffic is heavy (and dangerous). We pursued that for longer than we would care to admit before realizing that Google was trying to get us to drive through a river. Eventually, a nice local woman, Hang, stopped and offered us help. Apparently she had seen us looking lost, dropped her kid off at school, then came back to find us - still lost. Ha ha ha. She told us she used to work as a tour guide and now was a teacher. Her English was very good! She led us back through the town and out and up to the main route we'd originally hoped to avoid. Turns out there used to be a small path across the river but it had been washed out. So Google wasn't just trying to drown us/waste our afternoon after all.
We finally got to My Son in the later afternoon and spent about two hours walking through the expansive site. The temples were incredibly old, and many were still being restored. It was interesting to see the excavation and reconstruction process.
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March 27-29, 2018
Hue, Vietnam

On the 27th, our next hotel in Hue sent a car to pick us up at 10am from Hoi An. The taxi would also serve as tour for the day and bring us back through Da Nang to see the Marble Mountains, across the Hai Van Pass to see some stunning mountain + ocean views, a quick stop at a former war bunker site, and lunch on the beach at Lang Co, finally arriving at our hotel in Hue around 4pm.
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Our hotel in Hue was right on the river, and Adam hoped it might provide an opportunity for some fishing. IMG_8201.jpg
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We walked around the tourist area after the sun set and had a light dinner, including a glass or two of white wine, selecting a Vietnamese wine made in Dalat. It wasn't very good as far as wine goes but it also didn't cost very much. No regrets.
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Hue seemed very similar to Hoi An, though bigger, or Ho Chi Minh, though smaller, and by this point in the trip we both felt pretty comfortable in Vietnam's cities.
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Enjoyed a few drinks back at the hotel on a bamboo platform overlooking the river, with bats flitting by, catching insects, and an occasional rat walking along the riverbank below us.
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The temperature was lovely at around 25 degrees in the late evening. I'd had enough of plus-35 degree weather at that point so the change was more than welcome.
The next day we went for a walk through the town in search of a fishing supply store Adam had seen on Google. He did find it, and it was a bit like watching a kid in a candy store.
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Adam tells me the rod and reel came in at less than half of our Canadian prices, and tools and lures maybe 10-20% of the prices back home. There was a small puppy at the fishing shop which kept me occupied while he picked out all his products.
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Food options were great in Hue, a nice balance of Vietnamese and Western in case your palate craves some comfort food (like mine does at breakfast time).
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Adam spent the balance of the day and night fishing and while it would be a better story if he caught anything, he didn't. At one point a young local teenager in a carved out boat came sliding along in the dark, using a flashlight to spotlight and scoop up numerous fish as we watched. In about 45 seconds he'd collected four or five fish and was out of sight, moving along the riverbank in the dark.
The next day we took the afternoon to visit the Hue Citadel and Imperial City. Hue was at one time the imperial capital of Vietnam, from approximately 1804-1853. The Citadel is a large square walled area on the Northern bank of the Perfume River, has a moat around it, and ten gates.
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Inside the Citadel are numerous tombs and the Imperial City itself, where the King would have lived during this period.
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It was a huge site to explore on foot, but we did our best. The walk to and from the Citadel to our hotel added another 4km of ground covered.
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In the next post, we'll take our first train in Vietnam - an overnight to Ninh Binh, we'll stay in a bamboo hut, and see some magnificent inland limestone karsts and landscapes.

Posted by Casualodyssey 05:31 Archived in Vietnam Tagged coast shopping vietnam tourist central lantern scooter hue hoi an danang da nang Comments (0)

War, What is it Good For?

semi-overcast 32 °C

March 23-24, 2018
Saigon has been a fun stop on our trip and over the last three days we've been spoiled by the cheap, delicious food and abundant services offered here.
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We visited the same spa, tucked away in one of the inner alleys near our hotel, on two consecutive days for massages (and a manicure for me).
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A 60-minute massage cost 8 USD and my manicure was half that.
While in Saigon, the most interesting activities have been watching how the city operates so efficiently with so many people, so much traffic, and so much advertising... competition for products and services is intense, and ads shout at you from every exposed surface and in numerous languages.
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Seeing daily life in other countries is probably my favourite part of travel. Yes, even more than restaurants, shopping, and beaches!
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We took a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the North Vietnam Communist fighters constructed an elaborate system of underground tunnels to evade their opponents during the war and to keep their families safe.
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There were three levels of tunnels, with the lowest level as deep as 10 metres underground.
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Seeing the level of detail and planning that went into this project was impressive, although seeing all the working models of traps designed to injure and kill people was a bit disturbing.
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It would have been terrifying to be an invading soldier in this territory and be pitted against enemies who knew the terrain, weather, dangerous plants and animals, and had the cunning to use every bit of it to their military advantage.
Like when we visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia, it was difficult to wrap my head around the immense suffering of war.
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At the end of the tour, they offer the chance to shoot some of the weapons at a shooting range and the money is used to fund and enhance the historical site.
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To round out our Vietnam War siteseeing, we visited the War Remnants Museum. There were a ton of collossally large weapons on display out front (curiously, all American)
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and a museum with two floors and numerous rooms documenting the war, albeit from a single perspective. The information and photos showing the devastation and effects of the chemical weapons used in the war were particularly harrowing.

Posted by Casualodyssey 01:07 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

I Yacht to Write More Often

sunny 35 °C

March 17-21, 2018
I've fallen too far behind in my travel writings to document each day we spent on our boat, the Toum Teav.
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Suffice it to say that each day was similar in structure but different in content.

Breakfast:
At 7am or 8 am, coffee, tea, juice, and water served with eggs to order, bacon available most days, pancakes, pastries, corn flakes (no one touched them), yogurt, and a selection of tropical fruit like dragonfruit, milk fruit, mango, grapefruit, lychee, pineapple, banana, soursop, and the list goes on.

A morning jaunt:
On most days there would be a stop in the early morning at a rural village to meet local artisans, visit a school or a pagoda, or just tour the town.

Afternoons:
Then back on the boat for lunch and the heat of the day until another stop at 2pm for another quick tour.

Evenings:
Sundown drinks and dinner on the boat and free time at night on the boat if cruising or ashore if docked (both options we typically filled with more drinks). It was a pretty charmed life!
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On our day trips, we:
- Toured a brick and clay pot factory
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- Toured a tilapia and catfish fish farm. We fed the fish and created a brief but intense feeding frenzy
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- Visited numerous pagodas and temples, and received a blessing from a senior monk
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- Toured a fruit orchard and sampled all the different types of tropical fruit
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- Saw how rice paper and rice wine are made (the wine has cobras and scorpions in the bottles), which we were told had certain aphrodisiac effects (!) 90_IMG_7783.jpg
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- Saw how certain locally-derived snack foods are made
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and visited a honey farm where we sampled honey and royal jelly (again, a "cure-all" product and many health claims were made... I wish I had taken a picture of the list of benefits. From memory, this stuff cures diabetes, ulcers, increases libido, increases beauty and eliminates wrinkles, cures Hepatitis A through C, and much, much, more).
- Visited a local school and bought pencils and notebooks for the kids (creating another brief but intense feeding frenzy!)
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- Took a ride on an oxen cart (Oregon Trail or bust)
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- Saw a floating market (sort of, there weren't many vendors left as a road bridge had recently been built)
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and shopped at the night market, briefly turning down the wrong street (think red light district)
- Saw a traditional Apsara dance on the boat done by kids in a Phnom Penh cultural training program for disadvantaged youth. We also had a small dance party with the boat crew
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- Took a ride on a traditional Vietnamese sampan boat
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- Visited the largest local food market in Vietnam c8752aef-2..bae2fa81f9b.jpg
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- Saw rural and urban life for Cambodian and Vietnamese people from the land and from the water
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- Saw the most incredible trees, 90_36271D20AE9ABD760AE2848E3C31757B.jpg exotic flowers, IMG_7615.jpg plants, 90_IMG_7787.jpg landscapes and scenery, at times starkly contrasted with extreme poverty, horrendous working conditions, lack of hygiene, and widespread pollution. A valuable reminder of how lucky it is to be born in a country like Canada. We make a conscious effort to set a good example, be socially aware, give our tourist dollars to good causes, and be good stewards of our planet as we travel.

All day, every day, we saw boats. Fishing boats, dugout canoe-type boats with incredibly loud, longtail motors, tugboats, huge industrial boats with cranes dredging up the canal bottom, other boats to carry the muck away, rice ferrying boats with rice drying out on huge tarps in the sun, and very very occasionally, we saw another passenger vessel like ours.
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As we leave Cambodia behind, I reflect on the interesting fact that I was able to speak English in essentially all the places we visited. Even in the rural towns, children are learning English in their schools and greet you on passing motorbikes with a loud "HELLO!" and a wave. In the markets, even the rural food markets, the prices were given in US dollars and our change was as well, with only the last fraction of a dollar given in the Cambodian currency, the Real.

Our Cambodian guides had gone to university and earned a degree in tourism before getting jobs as tour guides and specializing in either French or English tourism (and increasingly, Cantonese). These types of jobs are some of the most desirable jobs for millennials in Cambodia's biggest cities.

It was really incredible to feel so welcome, so safe, and so wanted in Cambodia. To be able to participate in an exchange where our tourist dollars are helping - and we are getting so much in return.

We covered a fair bit of waterway over these five days and crossed into Vietnam from Cambodia from the comfort of our boat. An immigration official - who was indistinguishable (to us) from an ordinary fisherman - boarded and we were processed and on our way within about an hour. We learned afterward there was a small hiccup with one of the French passports having the wrong type of visa. I believe it was resolved quickly with a small change fee. We never even left the lounge deck.

Posted by Casualodyssey 04:14 Archived in Cambodia Tagged water local boat traditional ship cambodia river vietnam canal tropical tour mekong palm delta Comments (0)

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