Continuing the tradition of going to countries I know absolutely nothing about, I decided to join a friend of mine on a trip to Vietnam for our summer vacation, during the month of August 2011, and to make a pit stop in Cambodia on the way. Have you ever looked around you and felt your entire being changing? If nothing else this trip gave me the chance to say that I have, but luckily it was so much more than that!
After a harrowing three week long summer camp I was just about ready to flee out of Korea. On the last day I ducked out of school early and after a very disturbing first encounter with some monopoly looking US Dollars I headed for Seoul to meet Carla at the bus station. After an hour long search for her, in the most ridiculously massive bus station ever, we could finally start our adventure together.
We followed some directions across the street where we could supposedly get a bus directly at the airport but after the help of numerous Koreans and a very long wait we could not find the stop for our bus and reverted to running after a bus that said Incheon International on it rather than wait any longer. We were the lone riders and had the chance to catch up and get a plan of action for this trip that we seemed somewhat unprepared for. Once there, we met up with the owner of the LazyBird Guesthouse where we would be spending the night. It turned out to be a very quaint place with a very appealing deck outside and the ocean in sight. We were thoroughly impressed the next morning when we had some of their delicious home made jam on toast and coffee on the deck watching the sunrise.
We rushed to the airport to get there by 7:20 the morning since our flight was scheduled to leave at 9:20. After we checked in and waited the two hours we were informed differently and had to wait an indefinite amount of time until the plane was “clean”. After about two hours they started handing out lunch vouchers and Carla and I hoped along to find a place with western food to start our vacation with some yummy fatty foods. An hour later we returned only to be told we still couldn’t start boarding. Disappointed we sat down so see the stewardess’ of your airliner walking up and down the hallway calling people in Korean. Carla kept saying she thinks they said South Africa in Korean but they never looked at us so we just merrily continued talking about our trip and all of the things we wanted to do.
Just after two in the afternoon our plane started boarding so we got in line. I handed my plane ticket to the lady checking it and started forward only to be stopped by a loud beeping noise and being ushered to the side by another stewardess and told to wait. After everyone else had boarded the plane there was a number of other people who had also been told to wait with us. Turns out we would have missed our connecting flight in China and that we had to wait until 7pm for a direct flight to Siem Reap on another airliner. Annoyed much?! So we got ourselves some dinner vouchers (which we never used) and decided to spoil ourselves to a long massage and have dinner at a Italian restaurant with a new friend Jeane who also got delayed and some lovely red wine.
It was already 22:00 when we landed in Siem Reap and we had a bit of a wait to get our visas, but it was all good once we saw our tuktuk driver holding a sign with my name on it… a first ever. We took such a lovely drive on the tuktuk to the guesthouse where we were staying that I didn’t want to get off. Although it got rather bumpy to the end there… We hadn’t even entered the guesthouse when I was reunited with my friend Samantha who was meeting us. After loads of hugs we threw our stuff down and rushed to the clubs to meet some of Carla’s friends – who we never found.
We ended up at a place called Angkor What? and danced and had buckets of Vodka and Redbull so that we could get the T-shirts which came with it to memorize the night. That was until it unceremoniously became time to get Samantha in bed so I rushed her to a tuktuk (mostly just to get away from the millions of other tuktuk drivers that attack you) and got her home safely. I got back to Carla with a little huff after having a long fight with a tuktuk driver. He seeminly did not want to accept that I wasn’t interested in buying any cocaine but atleast we got some more dancing in before we too headed home.
At about 6 that morning I became painfully aware of the fact that the ice in Cambodia is not made of filtered water and spent most of my day in bed or in the bathroom or trying to hold down some water. Turns out Carla was also feeling sick but to an lesser extent and so we tried to sit on our balcony watching the Khmer people pass in the street below for as long as we could stay away from the bathroom! Samantha (who was in another room) has fallen victim to the ice bug as well and did so to a much worse extent! To this day she still maintains that she was drugged. Carla headed to the market without us only to come back and throw up so we sat on our balcony some more until we felt better and she and I went back to go on a shopping spree. After that we went to go ride an elephant near the temples but they were already closed so we went too Baeyon where Carla and I made faces at the faces and ran away from little boy hawkers who somewhat scared us.
Our tuktuk driver was nice enough to take us on a long drive through the village where Khmer people still live in houses made out of palm leaves. It was probably my favourite part of our time in Cambodia, not trying to steal from the unbelievable beauty which is Angkor Wat, but to have glimpse of a life so different than the one I know sent me into a trance of wonderment. It was sad and upsetting to see people live life in such a way but also beautiful. The traditions and culture has a beauty to them I never imagined possible.
That night we had an amazing curry dinner at a local Khmer restaurant after which I bullied my friends into going to a Dr. Fish. Funny thing about that though… It really tickles! Samantha, being unphazed by most things put her feet into the water and had (not so) little fishes chowing away at her feet in no time while Carla and I were screaming like little girls attracting a lot of attention from passers by! We took the longest time to get our feet in the water (well our heals) but in the end we did it and I was super proud about doing something I initially thought was a joke!
Once again inspired by the cheapness of everything in Cambodia we went dress shopping after dinner at the market, and despite all promises to never drink again (or at least on the trip) we had some very delicious cocktails at a Mexican restaurant.
The Saturday, our last day in Siem Reap, we finally got to go see as many temples as we liked. As soon as we got to the area in which all the temples are located, your tuktuk driver took us to where we could ride elephants. It was the first time I ever saw an elephant in real life and I was very excited! They were not as big as I imagined but, keeping in mind that they are Asian elephants and not the scary tusks in your face African beauties, I was still superbly impressed. They were hairy and very dark, at some places even black and beautiful. They were also very very very sad. Their eyes seemed to be one of the saddest things I have ever seen. As soon as we got into the seat on the elephants back I wanted to get off.
The realization that I payed to ride an animal that looked so sad and who walked the same road everyday a hundred times was daunting. It made me realize I would never again do something before making sure it is something I really want to do once I get into the situation or if it just something I expected to do before hand. I do realize that those elephants are a great source of income for many Khmer people who really need it, but I can’t help thinking at what cost. It was not like you for one second feel like you are a King or Queen riding to your city.
After the somewhat sad expedition we started visiting some temples. With me feeling a little under the weather we only got round to seeing Ta Phrom and Angkor Wat but we still had a wonderful day underneath the trees and walking through the temples. Despite the amazing amount of people there, it was still possible to feel a silence in your soul while walking through the breathtaking temples that day.
By the time we reached Angkor Wat it was really warm and a long walk in, but majestic in ways that are unexplainable. I have been places in my life and thought “to stand in a place that holds so much history” and realized that doesn’t real touch the soul as I thought it would… but somehow standing between those temples, climbing up steps looking over a city that I never dreamed of seeing, brings home what I can only describe as an reality check. A reality check about how small and human the people were who brought those temples to be.
Feeling sick again during most of our last day in Cambodia was a big bummer but I am glad I pushed through and did most of the things I wanted. After Angkor Wat we were really hungry and warm so we went for lunch at a local restaurant and I had my first ever coconut! Look at that exclamation mark… how deceiving. It was awful. It was warm and gooey and SO MUCH! I had a taste and decided that is one thing I would never have to try again. Just after lunch we finished the last of our shopping thinking that Vietnam would probably have most of the same things to buy as it is so close by.
That night we met up with some of Carla’s friends from Korea and we all went to a buffet dinner and a tradition Khmer dance show. We saw the most beautiful sunset I have ever witnessed on the way there and I kept wishing we would not have leave that night. Still, the show was amazing! The food was great and I had so much of it since I did not think I would ever get Khmer food ever again. The show consisted of mostly young people in traditional clothes, doing traditional dancing. They looked very convincing and some of the ways they could bend their bodies was somewhat discomforting. I still sometimes find myself trying to curl my fingers back like that.
Having a little sunstroke and having a very full stomach, I passed out somewhere during the show on Samantha’s arm and only woke up as they tried to get me back to the tuktuk. After the show we went back to Hak’s Place, started packing and had a final beer with Samantha before the shuttle bus came to pick us up.
We were very happy to find the overnight bus to Vietnam consisted of beds! Thin and uncomfortable but beds and I took a top bunk while Carla opted for a lower one. Once we were on the road I felt overcome by the sadness of leaving Cambodia behind. Scared that I would never see it’s majestic beauty ever again. I also became very aware of my mistake in taking a top bunk on the bus as my bed did not have a handle to keep me on the bed!
After many hours of gripping to anything I could lay my hands on and pretending to be a slug to my bed on the most pothole ridden road in the world, we stopped for a bathroom break and Carla asked if we could get off. Gone were the days of specially built places for buses to stop and rest at! There was a dodgy looking street vendor selling food I didn’t not recognize on the side of the street while Carla and maneuvered our way through barn looking place filled with trash and random crap and over puddles so that Carla could squat over half a toilet way in the back! It was hysterical… and we had a little jog about us as we hurried out of the darkness back to the bus.
Carla, who will definitely go to heaven for all her good deeds, was nice enough to switch beds with me so that I could get some sleep. She spent the rest of the night with her leg wedged between the bed and the bus window so that she would not fall of the bunk bed. What a smart ass.
By morning we had reached Phnom Pehn where we had two hours before we got onto the next bus which would take us over the boarder. We had breakfast with a guy called Garrett, who we met on our bus, at a fancy looking restaurant right next to a river which made us feel like we were living the life on some very fancy ferry! Once the wonderment of the sunrise wore of a little we had a mini wash and toothbrush session in the bathroom before we went back to get onto the next bus.
When we reached Vietnam it was raining. Still we weren’t phased as we were told we were going to South East Asia in rainy season and that it would never stop raining while we were there. It was the first rain we had seen yet. We got a taxi to Carla’s friends where we would be spending the night.
Having just come form a country where we could buy everything in dollars and where almost everyone spoke English we were surprised by the difference between Cambodia and Vietnam. Once we put our backpacks down in Carla’s friends’ apartment we were starving and so we went looking for food. We found that Vietnam or at least Ho Chi Mihn City at that moment ,was not at all as accommodating when it came to English speakers, struggling to find a place to eat and also realizing that you can not pay for anything in dollars there and that we did not even know the exchange rate! Luckily we went into the only place we recognized… an Korean Lotteria and the manager was nice enough to let us pay in dollars for a meal that almost tasted like home. With the change he gave us we went and found and very dirty internet cafe to phone home from so that we could proclaim our safety.
Once Carla’s friends came home from work, the unknown, wet and somewhat scary Ho Chi Mihn City transformed into a playground we couldn’t wait to explore. We had dinner under a really big tent… that was bustling and popping at the seams! It was very obviously a popular place to eat and we were very excited about having our first Vietnamese meal. I had morning glory for the first time and springrolls that was nothing like the ones I was used to put still very delicious and seafood like I hadn’t tasted in the 6 month I had been living in Korea. I got talked into having another coconut after being told you get different kinds and it was just as awful as the first. I am pretty sure it was around that afternoon that Carla and I fell head over heals in love with Vietnam and decided to move there as soon as we could, hopefully the following year giving up all dreams of a second year in Korea.
We ended the night with a couple of drinks to celebrate our new home and to spend some quality time with Carla’s friends before we headed to bed so we could be up and ready early the following morning for our tour of Vietnam to begin.
The next morning we walked around the corner from the apartment we were staying in to get to “The Pink Church” where we should have been meeting our tour guide for the first time. After a forty minute wait I was sure we had been scammed but he pitched after all and got picked up by a 8 seater air conditioning car just for the two of us and our tour guide and started a two hour drive to the Mekong Delta. I wasn’t long before I passed out, despite the bad road, but Carla tried to stay awake so that she wouldn’t miss anything. This was the case almost everytime we got into a car during the rest of our trip. At the Delta we got yet another tour guide who knew more about the area than the tour guide we already had and we took a boat around all of the islands that was just for us. It was here that I had my third coconut and it was finally not bad at all. Carla even enjoyed hers.
We found the Mekong to be a muddy river surrounding beautiful islands which we were lucky enough to visit. First when went to a honey farm where we had tea and I bought a bottle of home made honey that made me so excited since hadn’t had any for 6 months! We took a walk around the island and this is where Carla’s infatuation with Vietnamese chickens started… We took a donkey drown cart ride to a restaurant where we where lucky enough to have a band with singers seranade us awkwardly while we enjoyed Vietnemese fruit and some more tea.
On this islands we had the magical opportunity to hold a phython, which I politely refused but took beautiful pictures of Carla doing it. Unfortunately the woman who places the snake on your shoulders took this as a “I’m next” gesture and before I knew it I had a very big phython draped over my shoulders… I didn’t die and felt very proud afterwards.
We went on a long gondola type of ride after between some of the islands. It was very slow but an amazing experience and a good change to slow down a little in the rush to get everything done that we wanted to during the trip. We saw islands named drag, unicorn and phoenix and also visited an island where they only make handmade coconut candy. We had a great 5 courses lunch under a gazebo on another island that consisted prodominantely of delicious seafood. I was in heaven… Carla not so much, but she dealed and tried all the seafood they served us.
That first night we stayed in Hotel Star and after lovely long showers we went for massages to spoil ourselves some more before meeting with Carla’s friends for dinner and drinks as it would be the last time we see them. We ended up having dinner a mini restuarant whose kitchen is situated across the road and still somehow managed to have 55 page menu.
We went to the Chu Chi tunnels to see how people lived during the war and ran through some of the tunnels ourselves… The widened tunnels of course. We also went to see some sites around the Ho Chi Mihn City, including an opera house and a catherdral, as well as a post office that was designed by the same person that designed the Eiffel Tower. We were very proud.
That afternoon we started slowly moving to the North of Vietnam by getting on a plane destined more for the middle of Vietnam. There we met the best tour guide in the world Tai. I think he is possibly the most intelligent person I have ever met and you could see he really loved his job and the places he took us to. It was with him that we found our favourite place in Vietnam, DaNang, right there in the center of was the best of South Africa and South Korea all rolled into one. It was a big city but not close to as big as Ho Chi Mihn City, the traffic was great, the roads weren’t in the worst possible condition ever and best off all… it is renowned for the great tailored clothes they make there!
We spent the night at the Lotus Hotel and it was amazing! They had a pool that I obsessively wanted to try out and the room was stunning… we felt like royalty standing on one of our two little balconies… We went for a walk around our hotel to see what was there and ended up having dinner right next to our hotel. We had great ass steaks… and I was once again dumbfounded by the great food in Vietnam. After we had some time to send messages home before we went to bed. The next morning I got up early so that I could make use of the swimming pool before we had to check out and get a move on to the next place.
The next day we spent to a little town named Hoi An that is like an ancient traditional Vietnamese town (or the closest thing to it) as all the building were still traditional even thought they were all used as stores and no one longer lives there. The little town came dressed up with even old people in traditional clothing posing for pictures and it was adorable. We went through just about the entire town and so just about everything the including a bridge where Carla was non- sanctimoniously grabbed by a group of old men to be in their picture. I am was so surprised at how having a foreign girl in their picture made them look so extremely proud!
We visited loads and loads of pogadas, temples and temples in caves while learning a lot about Buddism from our super smart tour guide. We also visited Marble Mountain and bought mini laughing buddhas before having yet another 5 course lunch at a local restaurant.
that night we decided to go out and have a night on the town which we started of with some really stiff cocktails at the first bar we could find. We also went looking for a place we could dance but couldn’t find one so we ended up in a backpackers pub where we met the manager Chris and had lots of drinks there before he decided he was tired of working and closed the pub to take everyone in the bar dancing. Needless to say we had a late night.
We went to the Palace…
We went to a market to do some shopping and was somewhat disappointed to find that Vietnamese markets weren’t as cheap as Cambodia and also didn’t as nice things to buy. The clothes look a lot like South Korean clothes but just worse quality. Still it was really nice to see what they had. Every part of the building was stacked to the brims and there was a good 10 minutes when a Vietnamese man took it upon himself to start dressing me up in silk pants while Carla and Tai just stood there not helping me!
After a crazy busy few days with Tai we got on our next flight the the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. We were sad to leave him though and exchanged contact information with him since he was just that cool.
We reached Hanoi during the day time and there was only a driver waiting for us with a massive minibus to take us to our hotel. What he did not have in English skills he made up for in the massive car we could run around in. It was a very long drive from the airport into the city and we got pulled over by the police (which made us somewhat nervous) but it we got back on the road and for the first time since started the planned our tour in Vietnam we had some time to just go exploring on our own.
We had a good nap that afternoon and then starting getting ready to go out. Carla searched some places on the internet and then we went of exploring the town. We found Hanoi to be much more English friendly than the south of Vietnam but to have a very strange and different vibe to it. Not bad just different. We had both had two awful cocktails at the first place we found and then went in search of a better place.
Where did we meet that random guy who managed the bar and then went dancing? We walked around for a bit and found a backpacker bar where we some drink at met a guy who had been managing the bar for a few months while traveling and once he was tired of having everyone in the bar he threw us all out and took us dancing down the street. It was great. All of these random people from all over the world just saying having a great time together in a little bar in Vietnam. I couldn’t stop smiling and trying to take in everything about that night.
The next day we were picked up by a new tour guide and headed to Hoi An for a two day cruise and we were super excited! It was a bit of a drive but once we got there and saw all of the boats and the people on them it all just look so great we couldn’t wait to get on. It took us a while to realize that we where not going on one of the very big boats with lost of tourist on it but rather on a luxury boat made for only 8. We were silent when our tour guide introduced up tot he four middle aged Spanish men that would be going on our trip with us.
The disappointment about not being on a party boat melted away the second we got on the boat though as they were handing out our cold face towels and greeting cocktails… it for some reason didn’t seem so bad anymore. Our rooms on the boat was better than some of the hotels we stayed in and the food… the food was some of the best food I had ever tasted. The men on our boat turned out to be really nice although we did still mostly keep to ourselves, except for group activities.
Our tour guide took us rowing between the massive rocks and through them and it was literally the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. We went to a floating village and saw the school and where you could go to buy fish. It was amazing to think that people live that way. In those small little houses balancing on barrels in water! We docked at an island and had a swim there, I even got Carla into the warm amazing water. After dinner we had some drinks with the other people on the roof of our boat and just sat there looking at the grace that surrounded us. It was then that we were most grateful for being put on the boat that we were on rather than on a noisy boat not enjoying what we had gone there to see.
The next day I woke up to find that all of the boats had opened their sales like I had been hoping they would since we first saw them and then went to go climb a very steep mountain see some impressive caves and then climb the hundreds of steps back down. On the way back our captain stopped the boat and we jumped and climb of the side and swam in the deepest water I have ever been in. It was great fun. We were very sad when we docked a little after lunch and left with promises that next time we will go on a week cruise.
Carla and I decided we wanted to go for a massages AGAIN so we looked up a place on the internet and went looking for it. When we finally found it we specifically asked for an hot oil stone massage to make sure it was exactly what we wanted and was assured it would be. I am still not sure where it all went wrong… 60 out of 70 minutes was a dry massage where I felt I was being attacked by a teenage girl who had no idea what she was doing and who tried to massage my forehead… before then burning me with some stones. Needles to say I was astounded when they demanded a tip while we weren’t even dressed yet.
After an annoyed dinner of Carla trying to get me to eat, and me not having the heart to tell her the real reason I did’t want to eat is because I saw where they wash the dishes we went for some much needed drinks. We went into a very nice place called dragon fly, got some drinks and sat ourselves down on the only open seats we could find. A waiter later came over to say that the seats are actually reserved but we can sit there until the people showed up. After about 2 minutes some other foreigners showed up and asked if they could join us. Turns out that they were two really nice guys for Australia, a guy and girl from Chile and a girl from France. We ended up having a great time with them and by the time the owners of our table actually showed up were nice enough to also just join us.
From there we all went to the only little bar we could find that wasn’t stacked with people and listen to an endless supply of Micheal Jackson music. Later Carla and I walked in circles trying to find our hotel again but found some beautiful Siberian husky puppies in the mean time so we were not disappointed.
On our last night in Hanoi we went Sky Cafe to have dinner while looking out over the city and has one last cocktail at a corner cafe before we sadly went to bed so that we would be awake in time to catch our flight back to Korea.