Vietnam and Cambodia – Travel Review
By Robert & Grace Palin
After years of wondering what this exotic land across the other side of the world was like, our curiosity got the better of us and we decide to feed the beast and travel east.
Having only two and a half weeks to complete this adventure it makes the decision as to which part of Asia to go to a very difficult one. Would it be the wild and wonderful life of Thailand? Perhaps the mystery and lure of Laos? Or how about the calm and tranquillity of Indonesia? In the end we decide to set upon the enchantment and enticement of Vietnam and Cambodia.
Crossing the roads in Hanoi is a national sport. Once you figure out the rules it becomes quite simple and the relentless car horns become your own personal fanfare. When you finally manage to cross you can look up and admire the French colonial buildings. Food vendors sell baguettes on every corner – yet another reminder of the influence of France. You can be forgiven for feeling disoriented in the Orient. However, you certainly feel as though you are in Vietnam when you focus back onto street level and find yourself in a sea of lanterns, pho noodles and local women selling fruit from baskets on sticks.
“The warm glow of thousands of lanterns and lights”
Hanoi has a range of exciting things to do. One of which is enjoying the array of local parks. Here, not only can you experience friendly locals talking to you and practising their English, but also witness young newly-weds having their photos taken with the stunning mountains and lakes forming the backdrop.
A famous park that provides inner city solace is Lenin Park. Though it has a minimal entry fee for visitors it is worth more than what you pay. Swan pedalos, a jittery old dragon ride and evening tai chi are all part of the experience. At night-time the area becomes a place for the romantics as the park becomes illuminated by the warm glow of thousands of lanterns and lights.
Vietnam has not forgotten the atrocity of the war. There are minimal reminders of this on the streets, but the museums reveal the brutal honesty of events. They do an excellent job of telling their side of the story. A particularly memorable museum is the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. A section of this museum details the roles of many heroic women during the Vietnamese war.
“Mist falling over the surrounding mountains”
It is worth taking a day trip or two to see a little more of fantastic Vietnam. A lot had been spoken of Ha Long Bay, one of the seven wonders of the natural world. This mystical part of the ocean will leave you feeling enchanted, especially as the name translates to ‘Where the dragon descends into sea’.
Huge chunks of rock burst out of the water to form a number of various shapes. They are open to interpretation, but some people say young lovers kissing, others say, well… a chicken. The mist falling over the surrounding mountains makes you feel as though you have been taken away to another world. Tourists are given the opportunity to try sea kayaking. We say, go for it!
Before leaving Hanoi we watch a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show. With expertly crafted puppets and intriguing story lines it is a most enjoyable experience. Although prepare to not have much legroom in the theatre!
Hoi An is widely recommended in the guide books. Our initial feelings are sceptical, believing it could be something of a tourist trap. On the 30-minute drive from Da Nang airport the scenery changes from city scape to quaint.
“A death-defying cruise on a tiny bamboo boat”
We soon find ourselves in the centre of what feels like a model village. The river running through the centre and the narrow streets bring forth the feeling that we are somehow in a small town in France. The cars and buses of Hanoi have now turned into pedestrians and cyclists. All our scepticism of Hoi An is unwarranted. This place is not only charming but it has a lot going on and feels almost homely. We decide to follow the crowd and rent some bicycles. At one US dollar per day we have the freedom to create our own journeys and memories. We are now living in our previous daydreams of cycling by rice fields and water buffalo.
The city formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is where we leave Vietnam. The city itself is built up on the basis of tourism and commercialism. Communism appears to have made an exception for Ho Chi Minh City. Political persuasions aside, Ho Chi Minh City is a great base camp for taking day trips.
We opt for the Mekong River trip. It is definitely worth spending a day floating down this famous waterway. Our trip includes a death-defying cruise on a tiny bamboo boat through bamboo shoots on a vessel barely big enough to contain four terrified tourists and a fearless rower. Scary as it is, we are in safe hands. The tour also includes a traditional folk music show as well as the experience of seeing how they make the delicious local coconut candy.
“A paradise of clear blue sea”
Our adventure has now taken us to Cambodia. Unfortunately, one of the first things to notice in contrast to Vietnam is the amount of poverty. It can’t be forgotten that Cambodians have a rough history. But the positive nature possessed by the Cambodian people is undimmed.
Our list of recommendations leads us to Sihanoukville, a small southern coastal town. Opting for a more subdued and secluded area we stay in a beautiful and serene hostel on Otres beach. Stepping outside in the morning means stepping into a paradise of clear blue sea with traditional fishing boats and palm trees stretching out as far as we can see. By dusk, the sunsets are breath-taking. Suddenly paradise takes a sharp blow when the wrath of Zeus is bestowed upon us.
Lightning bolts scatter across the sky as though it is cracking open. Thunder bellows so loud and low that you can feel your bones shaking. The rain batters the roof so hard it sounds like a million marbles dropping from above. As the water comes flooding in there is an exchange of fearful glances. But apparently this is normal for Cambodia. Soon enough paradise is regained and we continue to enjoy all it has to offer.
The only way to reach Siem Reap from Sihanoukville is via a 15-hour bus journey via Phnom Penh. Siem Reap is a tapestry of markets, restaurants, bars and world heritage sights. The markets are full of bargains, gifts and souvenirs. You can buy anything from hippie treasures to authentic spices.
“Absorb the ancient scenery and its aura”
The real reason that any traveller would visit this spectacular place is for the astounding Angkor Wat. This building has a set place in history. From its religious past to its starring role in films it is steeped in splendour and awe. We caught it at sunrise where we witness the awakening of its beauty. As the sun slowly awoke it outlines the incredible architecture.
Of course you will be in the midst of a selfie riot involving all your fellow revellers. But if you can, take a moment to absorb the ancient scenery and its aura first hand. It gives you a memory you will never forget, witnessed not through a camera lens but with your own eyes. Of course, photographs must be taken at some point.
The time had come for this far eastern adventure to end. Not only can you taste the spice of life in Vietnam and Cambodia, but you can live it too.
images © Robert & Grace Palin