Monthly Archives: February 2011

Hoi An and Hue

Hoi An is a Unesco World Heritage Sight, Vietnams most important trading port from the 16th to 18th centuries.   Many of the picturesque buildings are protected historic landmarks, some of which show the heavy influence of China and Japan with whom trade relations were strong throughout the history of this charming city.

Women young and old carry produce for sale in these traditional twin baskets carried on the shoulder.  They often set them on passing tourists shoulders, encouraging to take a picture, which then makes the tourist somewhat obliged to buy some of their produce.

The most popular activity in Hoi An is having custom clothing made, the city streets are full of tailor shops offering beautiful wardrobes. 

                                   The Japanese Covered Bridge, built in the early 1600’s

The city is very foot traffic friendly, there are more people riding bicycles than mopeds, a welcome relief after Saigon.

Stephane took a Vietnamese cooking class, firstly touring the market to learn about the various fruits, vegetables, and spices.  The witty instructor would dryly offer such advice as “if onions make you cry, make someone else cut them” and “if they don’t have these particular ingredients where you live, move.”  

A four hour drive, some of which was along this pretty although grey coastline, and we were in Hue (pronounced Hway).

A short boat ride on the Perfume River takes one to the Thien Mu Pagoda (Heavenly Lady Pagoda), whose grounds contain several well manicured gardens,
One of the entrances to the Citadel and Imperial City
The walls and moats were impressive but unfortuantely no match for the French and American wars which destroyed much of the area.

In the Forbidden Purple City, the Royal Traditional Theater puts on free daily performances highlighting the ancient art of nha nhac, courtly music and dance.
  We walked through a textile museum and workshop and watched the embroiderers hard at work.  Then we wandered through the centers garden area leading to the bank of the Perfume River and noticed this picture out of the corner of our eye. Never thought we would have has such a randomn reminder of home halfway across the globe!

Saigon and Nha Trang

 We were warned of what to expect of Vietnam traffic but had no idea what an extreme sport it would be to cross a street in Saigon.  We rested up at a public park where there was a festive cultural performance before getting the nerve up to brave the walk back to our hotel.

  After a couple of days of the big city we were happy to have the opportunity to kick off our shoes and walk barefoot along the beaches of Nha Trang.  Our weather was rainy and chilly so a day at the Thap Ba Hot Spring Mudbath was in order.


On the way back to the city from the mudbaths we stopped at the Po Nagar temple, established pre 781 AD in honor of the legendary Queen of Champa (who may also be identified with the Hindu buffalo slayer goddess, Durga) .  A group of local women gathered around the temple entrance and chanted while a lone drummer dressed in traditional Cham attire kept time.  Our quide showed us a mini marvel; a tree that from the front looked to be a healthy thriving green srouting branch but from the back revealed an entirely burnt and dead carcass of a trunk.  
The view from the top


The following day our group decided to take a long cable car ride over to Vinpearl Land, where there was something for everybody between the amusement park, the water park,  
the  temples,

and the Aquarium where we caught sight of this mythical creature.


Just the views on the ride back alone were well worth the reasonable price for the entrance ticket.

Dinner and fresh brewed beer at La Louisiane  before boarding the sleeper train to Danang.

Sihanoukville and Chau Doc

 The following day we found ourselves in the city of Sihanoukville, whose beaches might pale in comparison to Turks and Caicos but were a welcome nature break from the city.  The nightlife reminded me of Cabarete in Dominican Republic; restaurants lining the beachfront, coconut trees towering over rustic tables and chairs  filled with tourists.  Dinner and drinks were entertained with live fire dancing and this night should have been great fun, feet in the sand and stars overhead.  Unfortunately we were surrounded by obnoxious American men; a group of young, loud, every-other-word-a-curse-word crew on one side, and an older group of hefty, cigar smoking opposite.  Both groups had beautiful young Cambodian women flanking either side of every man, who were dishing out drinks and drunken smiles like they were superstars.  We excused ourselves early and I walked back to our hotel feeling ashamed to call myself American.  I sincerely hope that there are more visitors coming to Cambodia with intentions to respect the country, the culture, and the people that have been through so much, versus capitalising on the dark underworld of cheap access to young bodies. 

Notice the crafty use of coconut trees as dock bumpers

The boats bar

Cambodia’s version of a gum tree; the flip-flop tree 

Our guide explains various types of plants and animals during the river walk
The following days boat trip was intended to head to the Ream National Park but unfavorable weather kept us closer to the mainland. We still had fun jumping off the top of this triple decker and visiting a nearby island. 

We stopped along side this large boat who had a tall stake with a watermelon pierced through the top end.  Our guide explained that this is how you can tell the inventory aboard for purchase.

In Chau Doc we booked a river cruise to witness daily life on the Mekong Delta.  Every mile was dotted with fishing boats, women washing clothes, children bathing, and farmers growing crops along the banks.  The river acts as home for thousands who live aboard boats and in floating villages.    We made a stop at a fish farm, a floating house resting on top of a giant fish cage with a small square opening in the floor used for feeding. 
A typical walking bridge off the marsh areas of the Mekong

A remnant of the European influence

Getting our helmets on and choosing our moped and drivers of choice

To end the day we hopped on moped taxi’s to climb Sam Mountain, well worth it as it was the most spectacular sunset of our trip.  A nearly full moon followed, almost shedding enough light to get a good picture of this temple.  After four attempts without flash, this was as best as I could do.

Phnom Penh

 Our first day in Cambodia’s capital, we took a thirty minute tuk-tuk ride outside the city to the Artisans d’Angkor silk farm.  Along the way we saw several mopeds carrying four passengers or more, some with children sandwiched into the pile (notice the driver above texting who thought it best to not only leave helmets off his kids but place his smallest child on the back end), others carrying loads so large you could not  even make out the driver at all.  Once at the farm we were given a tour and explained the entire process from silkworm to textile. I had no idea it was such a lengthy and delicate process to make a scarf!  It is a highly impressive process, please click here for another author’s great overview.

On our way back to the city I snapped a few images of rice fields.  What a tough job that would be; up to your knees in water sogged soil, bending over to collect tiny rice pellets day after day.  Life in general in Cambodia is hard, 40% of the population are living below the poverty line.  We had read about the  Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital and their desperate need for blood, especially types A and B.  We had our tuk-tuk driver drop us off and within an hour we had successfully left a bit of ourselves in Cambodia in hopes that it would save a life.

At dinner that night a local woman was selling these lotus seed pods, which are edible and quite fun to eat.

Apparently we are not the only ones to think so

These monkeys are city dwellers, residing in the park surrounding Wat Phnom

They were quite the entertaining group.  Two youngsters put on quite the show bickering over a pair of mens pants.  This momma seemed to look on with disdain as she nursed her baby.

Wat Phnom, literally temple of the mountains, has been a sacred site since 1373


        The colorful murals in this temple were so elaborate it became one of my favorites from the trip

These young men were practicing for the Chinese New Year celebration

The Tuol Sleng (Hill of the Poisonous Trees) Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields were emotional and perplexing experiences.  A group of us got together and purchased this man’s book, a personal account of his story leading up to his imprisonment on to his miraculous survival.  Out of 17,000 estimated prisoners, he is one of only seven who made it out alive.  I had hoped to gain a better understanding of who this maniac dictator Pol Pot was and exactly why he exterminated an unbelievable 21% of his own people.  Unfortunately there is no clear reason, not in the book, not after talking with Cambodians today on their perspectives and what they have been taught, and not after researching a bit of what the history books  say.  I suppose there is no real answers when it comes to genocide, only shock and disbelief that such horrific events are humanly possible.

To lighten the heaviness of such atrocities we ended our day at the bustling market; trying to replace all the images of death with images of life in Cambodia today.

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Waving children on the road

New Hope students learning English

Our group sits down to dinner at the New Hope restaurant, a brand new facility that will help fund the organisations many efforts

  Our first day in Cambodia was spent in Siem Reap, a city of 750,000 with a very distinctive visual line drawn between the haves; large modern hotels with well manicured front entrances dotted with tourists, and the have-nots, dusty dirt roads lined with shanties frequented by shoeless children.  We arrived late in the afternoon and went directly to a grass roots NGO, New Hope Cambodia,  where we stepped into the schools classrooms and joined the kids in their English lessons.  They were a smiling, talkative bunch and we took turns asking all kinds of questions.  Their English was amazing, their stories were sad.  The majority of students were orphans, having lost their parents to war or disease.  Thanks to this organisation 150 children are receiving an education, 180 impoverished families are receiving food, and up to 100 sick per day are being treated with medical care.  After class we headed over to a freshly built one room restaurant and listened to the volunteers talk more about what New Hope does and what we can do to help.  This is a truly remarkable organisation with far reaching goals, please consider making a donation here.

Angkor Wat slowly revealing itself with the sunrise

At 4am in the pitch dark the following morning, armed with a headlamp and a flashlight, we were crossing the threshold of the largest religious monument ever constructed, the capital of the Khmer kingdom from 802 to 1295.  I had grand notions of what to expect at Angkor Wat, literally “city temple,” quite fitting considering the entire complex is a spansive 37 square mile city in itself, tough to navigate purely in a day.  Once the sun started to spread light on a temple fronted by massive ponds, (water storage vital to the inhabitants in it’s days of glory) every minute added excitement.  We traversed through the highlights, each more impressive than the last.  Every wall of every temple was something to marvel; stone reliefs told mysterious stories of the past, the detail mind boggling when considering the vast quantity contained in the entire complex. And speaking of pictures, they can’t begin to give the experience justice but please see below. From wikipedia:

One of the first Western visitors to the temple was Antonio da Magdalena, a Portuguese monk who visited in 1586 and said that it “is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of”.[5]
 However, the temple was popularised in the West only in the mid-19th century on the publication of Henri Mouhot’s travel notes. The French explorer wrote of it:
“One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”[6]

All images by PepperKeyStacie