Monday, June 28, 2010

Hilly in the hilly's

Hilary's photos of the dunes are much better than mine! i'm jealous.

Phnom Penh: Is that an elephant in the street?

Yup, it is!

photo by Erik

So, after the crazy night-life and busy traffic of Saigon (traffic photos to come), we've spent a few days in the still-busy but less busy capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia - Phnom Penh.

Yesterday we visited the Toul Sleng genocide museum and the Killing Fields. Toul Sleng, also called S-21, was originally a children's school which the Khmer Rouge communist regime (led by Pol Pot) transformed into a prison. Cambodians and foreigners who were against the regime (or even thought to be against it) were captured, held, tortured and killed in the prison complex. The complex itself has been transformed into a museum and many of the original gruesome artifacts are on display (including torture weapons, old bed frames, gun cartridge containers, the remnants of old prison cells, and photographs of inmates who were men, women and children). To me, the museum has a very haunted feeling - the air seemed to be filled with a strange eerie energy.... but also hope for the future and hope to heal the wounds of the past.

The Killing Fields was our next stop of the day, which is a monument to those who died during the genocide, erected in a mass grave site. It is one of the various sites where the Khmer Rouge transported its victims to - a place to bury victims in mass graves. A place to get rid of the dead, a place to kill the living. Another eerie place where the grave sites remain pockmarks in the fields, where bone fragments are found on the ground, and where the skulls of many of the dead are on display to allow people to pray for the souls of the dead.

Although they were difficult places to visit, it was worthwhile because it gave us a better understanding of Cambodia's recent past and what has shaped it's people. Cambodia has a very complicated and violent history that is difficult to fully grasp - it has only recently stabilized (with in the last 15 years or so). And we are now lucky enough to be able to visit this beautiful country.

Today we did some more relaxed touring around. We went to the 'Russian Market' - a place for shopping and eating. Then we went to the Royal Palace - a beautiful place but we found it to be a very frustrating tourist trap. The admission was rather pricey given the level of access and historical explanations that are provided to tourists. I understand that since it is a working palace it is not possible or beneficial to turn it into a museum or spectacle for tourists. However, without any literature on the various buildings and religious artifacts, for foreigners who want to learn about Cambodia's monarchy and religion, visiting the palace is not an educational experience unless you happen to have prior knowledge (or a very detailed guidebook!). So, we walked around and saw a lot of beautiful buildings but we had no idea what most of them were or what they functioned as. I think it would be great if they handed out a map of the buildings with very brief explanations. That way they wouldn't have to put signage around a very beautiful palace but tourists would still be able to learn about the Cambodian culture. 

Anyhow, that's my little rant :) Phnom Penh is a lovely city and I really like Cambodia so far (very different from Vietnam ... so difficult to compare).
Tomorrow we head for Siem Reap where we will explore the temples of Angkor. Our guidebook has some great explanations of the major temples there so I'm sure our experience will be better than our time at the Royal Palace. 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Into Cambodia...

Erik in the sand dunes, Mui Ne Vietnam

Erik, Mekong River sunset, Chau Doc Vietnam

Genocide Meseum, Phnom Penh Cambodia

Thanks to Erik for the photoshop help :)

xo Hil

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Some Photos (by Hilary, not Erik :) )

Cave in Marble Mountain, Da Nang

Bale Shoe Shop, Hoi An (where Erik had his custom-made shoes made)

Laterns, Hoi An

Xe Om (motorbikes) and Cyclos, Hoi An

Vietnamese Coffee (YUM!!!)

One of the Cham Islands just off the coast of Hoi An, where we went snorkeling

Red Sand Dune, Mui Ne

Mui Ne Village

Monday, June 21, 2010

shopping, snorkeling & sand dunes

As you know, we're now in Mui Ne. After spending some time on the beach in Da Nang where we visiting Marble Mountain - a big mountain full of caves with various carved Buddha statues inside - we headed to Hoi An, a lovely city and a shoppers paradise. There are tailors and shoemakers all over the place, and they can make you almost anything you want - customized however you'd like it. They're really good at copying name brand styles... so you could even make yourself a neon green and gold embossed pair of Nike Airs if you wanted to. Erik got a nice pair of shoes made and we both got some pretty fancy-pants coats made. They're being shipped home right now and hopefully they arrive safely. 

In addition to the shopping and trinkets for sale all over, the city is pretty gorgeous. Most of the buildings in the central area have old wooden fronts and pretty paper lanterns are lit up at night and the city becomes a very romantic looking place (photos to come). 

During the day-time on our first day in Hoi An Erik and I rented bikes and cycled around to see the streets and check out the beach. It was pretty hot so we were very sweaty, but we found relief in the city's market. I wasn't hungry (toooo hot!) but Erik got some pretty mean looking noodle soup and a yummy looking Vietnamese pancake with beef and shrimp. Later on, in the evening, we try out some traditional foods for dinner (including Cau Lau, a delicious noodle dish with what tasted like some kind of delicious curry sauce - delicious!). 

On our second day we went snorkeling off of Cham Island, which was a pretty fantastic experience for me. The water was incredibly clear and we got to see some beautiful coral reefs and lots of interesting fish (including giant blue starfish, rainbow fish, weird fish with pointy needle-like noses, lots of small fish in schools, and spiky black sea urchins). It was absolutely beautiful!!! I've never seen sea life like it before. Haha... and baby jellyfish were stinging us quite a bit, but after a while you just get used to the burning feeling :) I was wondering why I kept feeling sharp quick burns, and then we saw them and figured it out pretty quickly. After snorkeling we got to have a vegetarian lunch with a local family (delicious) and see a bit of one of the islands. We also had amazing iced Vietnamese coffee (which we will miss once we leave Vietnam..they roast it differently and sweeten it with condensed milk... yum!) with some locals.

As Erik mentioned, tomorrow we leave Mui Ne and it's Sahara-like sand dunes for Saigon, which means  we see the last of the ocean for the remainder of our trip. Well... soon we'll get to tube down the "Lazy River" (as Erik calls it) in Laos. So we haven't seen the last of water and sun-bathing!

Check ya later ;)
Love, Hil

Da Nang, Hoi An, Mui Ne

ok, i'm going to try to make this quick. and i'll do my best to remember some good details, but one part of the trip along these parts stands out to us.

just outside of da nang we stayed at hoa's place. a budget guest house on china beach that is kind of legendary. it's run by hoa and his wife giao. Giao is very sweet and kind and gladly helped us with anything we needed. this was the first place that was more like a commune rather than a hotel that we had stayed at. it was really layed much so that there was an honour system in place for anything you ate or drank. you just had to write it down in the book and check how many you had, then you just pay at the end. it was pretty cool except its easy to lose track of spending that way and our bill was a bit bigger than expected. but it was worth it. the beach was lovely and mostly empty during the HOT daytime. the Vietnamese are most active in the mornings and in the evenings when its not so hot. now, the reason this place is legendary is because of the man, hoa. he's been running the place for 16yrs and everybody knows him. to keep it short, he IS literally the "coolest man in vietnam." (quoted from the lamanated magazine article he showed us..twice) One thing to know about hoa is that he likes to drink, a lot. and usually he drinks in the morning, like starting at 9 or 10 and be wasted by 12 or 1pm. then around 2 or 3pm he would go for a nap haha! Giao never seemed very impressed by this and did her best to cut him off when it became clear he was drunk. his favourate things to say are "fuck you" and "you're shit". which he would say over and over again followed by either a firm hand slap or a hug. he seemed to like me i would say so i hugged the shit out of that man. haha it was pretty funny. anyway, theres also marble mountain close by where we buy "mahbole." theres more but thats it for now...

hilary will tell you about hoi an shortly. im just trying to hurry along.

so, after hoi an we were PICKED UP by our bus infront of the hotel headed for Mui Ne. another beach town but with pretty sand dunes that we motorbiked out to today and tried to take photos but got poured on after about 5mins. ill show later if theres a decent one. ok, on the way to Mui Ne we were on another sleeper bus. it was a step up from the other one, but still cramped. but at least the air con worked. after a the bus had made its second stop for toilet and food (where i got to watch some of the game) we headed out again. the ride was said to be about 16hrs. but not too long after that second stop, we awoke to a sudden BANG! followed by panic. we're not really sure what happened because we were sleeping, but our bus was hit by another vehicle! and it hit the back of the bus, and guess where we were! after a few moments the driver pulled over and we came to our senses. i looked down from my bunk at the woman directly below me and she was covered in broken glass. covered. i climbed out of bed to help but there wasn't much i could do, so she slowly picked the glass off and stood up. we helped pick off any shards we could see and made sure she was ok. and she was. whoever hit us must have kept driving because there we no one in sight. some people got off the bus for a breather and to see the damage. i find it hard to believe that whomever was driving the other car wasn't injured but i guess dealing with the ramifications of such an accident was too much for him so he took off. annnyway, after a while once things got settled, we kept going. open windows an all. falling asleep after that was a challenge so needless to say we slept like babies last night.

anyway mui ne is very pretty. the beach is awesome and motorbiking here is a breeze. even in the pouring rain. next we go to saigon, and from there we get out of this god forsaken country and into cambodia.

i love it here but its pretty nuts at times.

ok, im done. love you and miss you.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Hue - a pretty place

Tomorrow we’re leaving Hue for Da Nang to chill out for a few days on China Beach. There’s supposed to be a pretty cool place to stay there, right on the beach front, called Hao’s Place. Hopefully they’ll have space for us when we arrive. Our bus leaves at 8ish am tomorrow, and the ride is only 4ish (probably more like 5ish) hours, which won’t be too bad.

As you can probably tell, we’re a bit behind on some of the things we wanted to post (see the Hanoi food entry by Erik below). So, I guess it’s time to give an update on how much we enjoyed our time in Hue. It’s a great, beautiful, historic and low-key city with a fun night life (we watched some World Cup games at the popular DMZ Bar…  some fun games and prize-winning for us two as well) and a great atmosphere overall (despite the constant pestering of business people persistently and repeatedly asking all tourists to ‘eat here now’ and to ‘ride moto – one hour’ etc. etc.). Erik just said: “I love it here” and I feel the same.

On our first day here we visited the Citadel, a large old section of Hue that was the original city (it’s actually a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site). It is huge and we couldn’t walk the whole thing but what we saw was stunning. The old city was set up in the exact layout as China’s Forbidden City and with the same architectural style. Sadly, most of the buildings were destroyed by bombing during the American War (aka the Vietnam War), but what remains has been restored very well.

On day two we did a fantastic tour of the Demilitarized Zone, where North and South Vietnam were divided. We had a great guide who was a Vietnamese War veteran (he fought for the south – so we’re guessing he was/is not a Communist supporter but we didn’t outright ask him). We got to see Con Tien Firebase (a former American bunker where you could still see remnants of sandbags and even the inside soft shell of a helmet), a few Vietnamese graveyards, the former border site between the North and the South (the DMZ), the Vinh Moc Tunnels (an amazing tunnel system built in Vinh, a small city in the North, which reaches 23 meters deep – the people of the city lived in and out of the this tunnel system during the war for years and above ground you can still see the holes left behind by bombing where they haven’t yet been filled in), and an old Catholic church that was all shot up and in ruins… among other things.

Today, our third day in Hue, we visited the Tien Moc Pagoda by motorbike (Erik was driving of course), which was my favourite spot in Vietnam so far. It is a gorgeous and amazingly calm Buddhist monastery that is still in use (Erik got some great shots of the monks that you can check out on his blog). The architecture is beautiful and the history behind it is quite interesting. After our visit at the pagoda we rode around on our motorbike (got caught in the rain and got lost a few times). AND!!! For dinner we finally found a Pho place that measured up to the Golden Turtle in Toronto! Actually, it was BETTER! We haven’t been able to find the authentic stuff until tonight, which is strange since Vietnam = Pho! But just across from our hotel is a small stand surrounded by a bunch of small Rubbermaid plastic tables and seats. AND WOW! That stuff was good! Erik got beef and I got veggie (or “an chay”).

We’ll post another update soon! XOXOXO

Citadel Wall

US Helmet Shell at Con Tien Firebase

Bomb Hole

Beach outside of Vinh Moc Tunnels

Tien Mu Pagoda


The table.

No I didn't go swimming, that's sweat. But who cares, the chicken was amazing and so was the tofu. One of the tofu dishes had onions in it and it tasted kinda like a McD's cheese burger! It was good haha..

Hil eating lots of tofu! mmm...I'm excited to go back to Ha Noi at the end...I'm gonna eat everything.

Delicious mocktails at a little fancyish cafe in Ha Noi.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hello from Hue


Ok, quick update; we are in Hue, not Dong Hoi. After another hellish bus station experience, where our taxi driver dropped us off a block away from the hidden bus station and pointed us in the wrong direction. Luckily we were accompanied by another couple going to the same station because they gave the driver their hotel's card (they do the booking) and the driver called and figured it out. Anyway, everyone at the bus station was white and stressed. The transportation systems here are a mess. no one knows whats going on, not even the vietnamese! But theres always a sweet heart or two in there somewhere who does know and isnt trying to take advantage of you in a confusing situation.

So we got on the "sleeper bus" (HAH!!) headed south to Dong hoi. it was hot and cramped with no toilet. The "air con" that was promised was worthless and everyone was basically lying in sweat. doesnt even bother me anymore! Once you accept the fact that you're going to be wet always and delirious most of the time, it's not so bad. But on the way we started to get a little uncomfortable with the idea of being dropped off in a small town, with no hotel booked at 4am. Not to mention, everyone else was skipping Dong Hoi and going straight to Hue. So we asked if we could skip the stop and keep going. The guy was annoyed when he finally understood us, but on we went.

Now we're in a nice hotel at a good price and Hilary's doing the laundry..IN A TUB!! (haven't seen a tub since we got here) hey, i offered. :) anyway, I think I slept for about an hour, so I don't know if this makes sense. it's 12:43pm and bedtime. But I guess we'll have to perk up and giter' done'd.

We're having a great time despite all the difficulties involved with getting around. The food is amazing and everyone is eating constantly. In Ha Noi we found a couple of really great places to eat. A small spot with mostly vietnamese eaters, where hilary's only option is noodles, but mine is Bun Cha, one of my favourate things to eat. The other place is a small street side place that does a lot of delivery to workers during the lunch hour (that's how i knew to go there. Also no white people.), and also makes a few mean tofu dishes, as well as some wonderful chicken and pork. "cheap cheap"! about $3.75US for a table full of food. Now I'm hungry.

Ok, we miss everyone and we love you's.
See you soon..ish..


Here's a photo or two from cat ba island...just one because it's taking too long.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay

For the last few days we’ve been on Cat Ba Island, where we got our first taste of the South China Sea. Getting there was an adventure (especially at the bus station in Hanoi where everyone was trying to convince us to get on their bus – the wrong bus). It was about a 2-3 hour bus ride to Hai Phong, where we got on a boat for about 30 minutes to cross over to Cat Ba Island. From there, it was another half hour drive to Cat Ba Town. Once we arrived we had to grab something to eat before even thinking about finding a place to sleep (we MUST remember to bring snacks on all bus/train rides from now on). Finding a place to stay wasn’t easy, since we arrived on a Friday and didn’t book ahead - we were vacationing with Hanoians, and most of the rooms were full. So we lugged our packs around and eventually found a lovely place called Nam Duong to stay at with a view of the harbour for a decent price (after rejecting another option where we climbed 5 flights of stairs only to find that the sink was off the wall – the place was a dump and they wanted us to pay the same as at Nam Duong). The hotel owners at Nam Duong were very nice – they even gave us a free bottle of water when they saw how tired and sweaty we were (nothing is free thing in Vietnam so that was a nice gesture!).

On our first day on the island we rented a motorbike and explored the beaches, where we swam and sat in the sun for a while. We got to the beach early, before most of the tourists and Vietnamese on holiday arrived, so it was very peaceful. The second day we went on a cruise through Lan Ha Bay (rather than Ha Long Bay, the more popular tourist destination) so we were able to see the landscape with a bit less clutter. We were on a boat with about fifteen other tourists and we got to kayak around the bay and into a lagoon, hop off onto island beaches, go swimming off the boat, and (not my highlight) kayak into a bat cave (disgusting! and much worse compared to the ROM’s bat cave of my childhood – we didn’t stay in there very long). On our last evening in Cat Ba Town we had a great experience with a few local young men, who shared their rice vodka and chicken hot pot with us. They were very hospitable and fun, despite the language barrier – and they even wanted to pay for our meal (we didn’t let them)!

Yesterday we arrived back in Hanoi, where I went on a mini-shopping spree (silk skirt and a tank top… for wearing here of course J) and we stayed the night. Today we take an overnight sleeper bus south to Dong Hoi -  a small and lightly touristed city where not a lot of English is spoken – where we will try to visit the Phong Na Cave (hopefully no bats there!), relax on the beach and check out some of the war remnants.

View of Cat Ba Town

Fish Farm in Ha Long Bay


View from a beach in Lan Ha Bay

Lan Ha Bay

Friday, June 4, 2010

Around Hanoi

 In Lenin Park, Hanoi

One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi

Buddha statue, beside One Pillar Pagoda

Thursday, June 3, 2010

So Hannoyed!

Last night we fell asleep around 6 or 7pm. probably not a great strategy, but it had to happen. after waking up at 1:30am, we soon fell back asleep, only to wake up at 6am. Eventually we got up and went down stairs for breakfast, included in our stay price. Omlette and a fresh fresh and so soft. And french. I love bread and i was very happy to see it for brekky.

After a tasty meal made by an elderly woman in the little kitchen, we decided we would head south to the french quarter. I think we left the hotel around 9:30am? Along the way we were over charged for four doughnuts by a woman selling them on the street. they looked good and we had seen them the day before and wanted to try them. We paid $30 000dong for basically 2 timbits and 2 small crullers...$30 000= about $2.30 many timbits do you get for $2.30?? hehe anyway, not a big deal but we just felt a little taken. It's been a learning curve to figure out the converstion and to calculate it in the moment. We're nice canadians, it's hard not to assume the price is right. I mean, if we forgot our change in a tim hortons, someone would run out and give it to us...

To speed this up..We walked and found a pretty crazy little market..very back alley, lots of produce and lots of animal parts. Not enough people cooking them though...;)

After a while we did our best to head back towards "familiar" grounds. I've never had so much trouble navigating anywhere! Everything looks the same, but still you recognize when you are somewhere new. After a stop for food at a place with listed prices, we headed back to the hotel. It took us i'd say an hour to find it from only a few blocks away. We were losing our patience. Then this woman came along with fresh pineapple and basically put the carrier on hilary's shoulder and insisted I take a photo. Neither of us even had a camera out at the time. We both knew where this was going, but hell, i took out my camera and snapped one! haha...Hil was already irritable and lost, this was not a welcome gesture of robbery. Then, we switched. I took the carrier and stood there almost falling over while hil took an out of focus photo of me just to get it over with hah. Then she tried to sell us two small pineapples, sliced, for $50 000d! We talked her down to $25000...when really we should have just said no thanks in the beginning.

It's not so much the money, it IS relatively cheap for most things. But it's the constant feeling that you're being charged a different rate and don't know how to defend yourself. its kind of degrading and frustrating. It compromises my sense of entitlement as a white person. It's just not fair. :)

Ok, that's all from me. I'm going to go study the exchange rate.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hello from Hanoi

Well we're here, in Hanoi! We survived our flights (really, they weren't that bad) and we had no problems getting our visa or going through customs. We got a ride to our guest house (Tung Trang I), which was a good first taste of the city's haphazard traffic and crazy honking. The guest house is run by a lovely woman who has already been very helpful. Our room is also quite lovely.

After settling in we had our first taste of street food. I wasn't too hungry so I thought I'd just go for a drink. Erik pointed at a few things on the menu (which was actually just heaps of food sitting out, ready to be dished onto plates) - shrimp, pork, tofu - and then we sat down. They brought us TWO plates of what he pointed at... so I passed the pork on to Erik and ate my rice and tofu and some shrimp too. Oh the good old language barrier - I'm sure this kind of miscommunication will happen many times over :) Also we must remember that $1 = 18,000 Vietnam Dong (because we think we were overcharged just a bit). Anyhow, it was tasty! And we got to eat sitting out on the street with the locals.

Our meal at the Hong Kong airport (Ramen noodles with pork/with Veggies) was our first non-airplane meal. It was a fast food type of thing, but delicious! Just for fun, here's what my almost fully eaten meal looked like:

It really is nice here. Loud, humid and a bit dirty - but beautiful and somehow calm despite the noise and traffic. I'm sure we'll get a better idea of the city over the next few days... and now it's time to relax.

BIG P.S. Just realized there is no facebook in Vietnam. Communism = facebook blackout.