A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: gregandissy

Southern Thailand


View Route Map on gregandissy's travel map.

By now, those of you following our blog know that we joined forces with the Drurys in Bangkok and the plan was to spend the following two and half weeks together exploring the capital and some of the islands further south. We were beyond excited to have some travel buddies for our time in Thailand and couldn't wait to see them.

I've also mentioned that their blog is fantastic and up-to-date, which means you can read all about our little foursome, if you haven't already, by clicking on the following links (in chronological order):

1: Bangkok - http://marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/bangkok-thailand/
2: Koh Samui - http://marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/koh-sumui-thailand/
3: Koh Phangan - http://marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/koh-pha-ngan-thailand/
4: Koh Phayam - http://marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/koh-phayam-thailand/
5: Railay - http://marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/krabi-railay-thailand/
6: Phi Phi - http://marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/phi-phi-don-thailand/

To avoid paraphrasing what James has already so eloquently written and because, let's face it, I'm slightly behind here, I tried to give you a summarized version.

So here goes...

Thailand 2014 with the Drurys
DSC09040.jpg

They arrived from Chiang Mai on the overnight train, and us on the bus from Siem Reap. Both teams did well to coordinate meeting in BANGKOK but somehow forgot to do any further planning!

IMG_20140718_062327.jpg

We tried to explore the city, only to find out we had arrived the weekend of a religious holiday and everything was closed. So we crammed ourselves into a few tuk-tuks, ate and drank, and talked...a lot.

DSC07955.jpg

We snacked on scorpions on Khao San Road (popular backpacker street):
collage_20140816132827587.jpg
Yes they ate the whole thing! Well...almost, the girls nibbled on the tails. Nothing to it.

We looked for more traditional street food and ordered the first of many, many, many Pad Thais.
collage_20140816132328959.jpg

We found a bar to watch the world cup final between Argentina and Germany. The boys placed their bets, I focused on my "buy 2 get 1 free" G&Ts, and Natalie searched for spring rolls. We eventually made it to bed at 5am.

collage_20140827152002038.jpg

When we finally woke up some time in the afternoon - the Drurys would have gone straight into the evening if we hadn't knocked on their door at 3pm to check their pulse - the pain was evident and we craved junk food, lots of junk food. So we hit the mall and gorged on KFC, McDs, ice cream, cupcakes, chocolate and more. It was appalling but amazingly satisfying at the same time. We also got cozy at the movies. What else were we meant to do in our state??? Greg was eyeing a Ducati on display in the mall so the foodcourt and the theater seemed like the safer alternatives.

collage_20140827152725217.jpg

We eventually got organized and saw some Bangkok sights.

Wat Prakeaw:
collage_20140827163324204.jpg

The Grand Palace:
collage_20140827162516991.jpg

Security made me wear this flattering shirt to cover my shoulders and I had to wrap my shawl around my waist to cover my calves (?). This is the only picture Greg allowed of me in that sexy getup.

DSC07985.jpg

Wat Pho or "Temple of the reclining Buddha":
collage_20140827164520622.jpg

when we thought we'd seen it all ...
DSC08036.jpg

We took a water taxi up and down Chao Phraya river for a different perspective of Bangkok:

DSC08052.jpg

collage_20140827180632232.jpg

We walked through Chinatown:

collage_20140827181058620.jpg

We strolled through the Patpong night market where we saw a glimpse of the Bangkok we had heard so much about - hint: ping pong - and that's all I'll say about that!

Greg negotiating a discount:
DSC08077.jpg

We visited Damnoen Saduak floating market in Ratchaburi province near Bangkok:

IMG_20140724_173008.jpg
DSC08080.jpg
collage_20140828091746355.jpg
DSC08153.jpg

We celebrated James' birthday on Soi 11 - a popular party hub for the local expat community

We drank buckets from a converted VW wagon on the side of the street:
IMG_20140724_173223.jpg

We found more VWs and drank more buckets.
DSC08181.jpgDSC08184.jpg

...too many buckets! So we climbed 32 flights of stairs to get into Agua Bar through the fire escape exit - because it made perfect sense at the time.

DSC08197.jpg

The owner and bouncers didn't appreciate the pink bucket Greg was trying to smuggle in nor James' flip flops. Some insults were exchanged. We were escorted to the elevator we should have taken to begin with. Big fail.

Unphased by the turn of events, Greg headed back to the main entrance without his pink bucket while James tried to "borrow" shoes from innocent bystanders.

DSC08199.jpg

Luckily, James' western feet were too big for the average Thai shoe and we moved on.

Back on Soi 11, we reflected on wtf had just happened and naturally, decided to order more buckets.

collage_20140828092919441.jpg

In hindsight...we wouldn't have done anything differently. It was a brilliant night :)

Another difficult morning led us back to Wat Pho, apparently the mecca for Thai Massages

collage_20140829203459776.jpg
Natalie getting her spine realigned. Just what the doctor ordered.

We said goodbye to modern, cosmopolitan, naughty Bangkok and boarded the overnight train to Surat Thani,

collage_20140829203703028.jpg

then a bus to Donsak, and finally a ferry to KOH SAMUI, the first island on our list.

DSC08232.jpg

We rented scooters:
DSC08234.jpg

The boys drove, the girls took pictures:
collage_20140829204709712.jpg

Greg's never impatient, no sirrie - "oh look, the sidewalk's clear, let's bypass the traffic"
IMG_20140725_153936.jpg

We hiked to some waterfalls...in flip flops...it was challenging:
DSC08258.jpg

But what a view:
DSC08263.jpg

and thankfully, quite refreshing:
IMG_20140725_154216.jpg

We eventually found Monk Luang Pho Daeng because James refused to give up the search:
DSC08280.jpg
Rocking those shades...

Monk Luang Pho Daeng died while meditating in the mid-1980s and his mummified body is on display at Wat Khun Aram. A bit creepy, I know! He apparently instructed his followers that if his body started to decay, to cremate him. If his body did not decompose however, he wanted his body to be kept in a glass casket in the temple to serve as an inspiration for future generations about the teachings of Buddha.

It's considered a miracle to some but others believe that his small intake of food, his low metabolism and reduced need for oxygen because of his meditation technique might be the explanation for his body staying so well preserved. Who knows?!

We then popped in to see the notorious Grandma and Grandpa rocks:
collage_20140829231816018.jpg
and giggled like schoolgirls.

We tasted delicious street food at the night market:
DSC08292.jpg

Apparently so did this big fella:
DSC08295.jpg

We visited more temples:
collage_20140829233031596.jpg

DSC08308.jpg
Not so good at catch?

We then boarded a ferry to KOH PHANGAN, island no. 2 on our hit list:
IMG_20140725_162952.jpg

We were there for the half-moon party and party we did:
IMG_20140725_162858.jpg

The prep, which included pre-drinks, fake eyelashes for the girls, lumo nail polish for Nats, a quiff for me and body paint for all:
collage_20140829234108174.jpg

collage_20140829234718682.jpg

I'm not quite sure what we were doing at this stage of the night but those kebabs, wow...simply the best EVER! I think the girls had 2 each despite James' words of wisdom: "eatin' is cheatin'".
collage_20140829235308778.jpg
Too cute to deny him some of our leftovers. I meant the dog, not James ;)

Another brilliant night with the inevitable painful hangover the next day - that face says it all not to mention the fact we were still covered in paint.
DSC08339.jpg

Luckily, the view from our shack wasn't too bad:
DSC08336.jpg

so we chilled there for most of the day:
DSC08346.jpg

and eventually went south in search of other beaches:
DSC08355.jpg

We found the famous full moon party venue where we assumed our horizontal chillin' positions:
DSC08364.jpg

We stopped at a bar to watch F1 (boys), blog (Issy) and plan (Natalie)...
DSC08365.jpg

and ended our very lazy day sprawled on comfy bean bags with our feet in the sand - life can be a bit tough sometimes.
DSC08367.jpg

We explored the island further and saw the different, much more authentic side of Koh Phangan, far removed from the touristy party hub in the south.

But first, we had to wait for team chubby to make it up a few hills ;)
DSC08377.jpg
When you know husband's in for a beatin'

We trekked - it was exhausting:
collage_20140830001702354.jpg
but well worth the effort

although it left some of us a little famished....
DSC08396.jpg
who needs cutlery anyway?

Satisfied with our Koh Phangan experience, we boarded an overnight ferry back to Surat Thani, a bus to Ranong and another ferry to KOH PHAYAM on the west coast of Thailand. Known to be far less touristy than its eastern cousins, it suited us perfectly as we were keen to spend a few days in a less developed environment.

collage_20140830001946983.jpg

Some interesting accessories on this particular tuk-tuk:
collage_20140830002521225.jpg

We took the ferry to Koh Phayam:
collage_20140830002806197.jpg
yes, that's the wooden gangway in the water after the captain forgot to retrieve it before pulling out. Three men and a few minutes later, it was safely back on the ferry.

Koh-Phayam dock:
DSC08446.jpg

After bartering for a couple of scooters, we found an open lodge - there weren't many!
DSC08454.jpg
Our hut at Starlight Bungalows - low season does have its perks, we had the place to ourselves!

On the rare occasions it stopped raining for more than 15min, we zoomed around the island and enjoyed the deserted beaches and stormy weather.

DSC08470.jpg
DSC08556.jpg
DSC08559.jpg
DSC08575.jpg

We found Hippy Bar, the coolest beach bar made entirely of drift wood!
DSC08471.jpg

Although closed for the season, the owner and his friends let us take refuge from the rain inside the bar and even shared a few beers with us for which they refused payment. A very cool rasta man indeed.
collage_20140830213658516.jpg

There are no cars on the island so Greg finally let me drive the scooter on the virtually deserted small roads and it was AWESOME!
collage_20140830221838311.jpg
he was confident I could do it...obviously!

It rained...and rained...and rained some more so we made 9 liters of sangria, bought 2 jars of Nutella, 2 tins of condensed milk and a Kit Kat for some - what else were we supposed to do??

collage_20140830212757976.jpg
collage_20140830214549641.jpg

The owls kept a watchful eye on us:
DSC08468.jpg
"what on earth are these people doing?"

while this evil venomous centipede tried a sneak attack on us and almost bit one of the doggies - nasty creature!
DSC08525.jpg

I think it is worth mentioning at this stage that our bungalows were slightly exposed, meaning that any curious creature of the night could come in and pay us a visit. We found a rat in the room one evening before bed - always reassuring - and a bat flew in through the front door and out through the gap between the roof and the bathroom wall earlier that day - anything else? Probably. Enough to give us city folks a few nighmares. Not sure how we managed to sleep! I'll admit I woke up a few times in the middle of the night to make sure the mosquito net was still tucked in around the bed!

In addition to all the uninvited creatures - oh and Todd (the owner) also mentioned he had seen cobras on the property, in case we weren't terrified enough - we also mingled with Wolfgang and Gas, the resident pooches. Wolfgang is Todd's gentle giant and Gas is just a pup who showed up one day and never left.

collage_20140830003657005.jpg
Aren't they the cutest??? I wish I could adopt you Gas - you took a little piece of my heart....shhhht, don't tell Bella ;)

With so much time on our hands...
collage_20140830215554289.jpg

Early morning on our way to the dock to catch the ferry back to Ranong:
DSC08592.jpg

Some of the amusing bathroom signs we saw along the way:
DSC08410.jpgDSC08601.jpg

From Ranong, we caught the bus to KRABI town further south where we spent the next day blogging, planning and doing some much needed admin, before heading to the beaches of RAILAY, known for its towering limestone cliffs and a popular spot for rock climbers.

Catching a longtail boat to Railay:
collage_20140902222612674.jpg

DSC08639.jpg

DSC08663.jpg

DSC08660.jpg
that tiny spec is a rock climber just behind our hotel.

So when in Rome....

The prep:
collage_20140902224219162.jpg

The location:
DSC08675.jpg

The athletes:
collage_20140906092828106.jpg
collage_20140902225003917.jpg

and the battle wounds:
DSC08804.jpg

because that's how we roll.

We hit the "town" after a quick recovery nap.
collage_20140903202410216.jpg
Thai Jenga = 3 regular Jenga sets because we all need a challenge. Yes that's James watching F1 on the owner's computer.

The boys ordered cocktails:
DSC08823.jpg
We didn't judge.

And we rounded things up with a fire juggling show:
DSC08928.jpg

The next morning we split up according to dehydration levels and hangover severity - Team Drury and Issy relaxed by the pool while Greg climbed a steep muddy hill to see a lagoon. It is still unclear who was the most affected by the prior night's activities....

Greg took pictures:
collage_20140903204301639.jpg
James questioned their legitimacy and implied they may have been "googled" - no witnesses have come forward so the jury is still out on this one...

We were eventually reunited and managed to leave the hotel to visit some of the nearby beaches.
collage_20140903211328072.jpg
DSC08879.jpg
IMG_20140804_131410.jpg
IMG_20140804_131107.jpg

Railay and Tonsai beaches - simply stunning!

On our last night, we thought about mixing things up a bit but decided to stick to what we knew:
collage_20140906220436361.jpg
Thai Jenga = 5 regular Jenga sets because we were that good and drinks were at stake.

The next morning, we tackled the 4th and final island on the tour - Phi Phi Don (pronounced Pee Pee).

DSC08944.jpg
DSC08951.jpg
DSC08954.jpg
DSC08966.jpg

We had more Pad Thai - it's addictive!
collage_20140903221309680.jpg

and this is where I lost everyone. One by one, the youngsters of the group went back to the hotel with some sort of stomach bug and I was left on my own to fly the team flag . Kids, they don't make them like they used to.

Me myself and I at Banana Bar sipping a smoothie and watching L.A. Confidential on their outdoor screen:
DSC08965.jpg

So no diving the next day despite our best intentions but we did manage a day trip to Phi Phi Leh, made famous in the movie "The Beach" starring Leonardo DiCaprio:

Fooling around in one of the bays:
collage_20140903224227503.jpg
DSC08995.jpg

The longtail boats could not access Maya Beach, "The Beach", directly because of the rough seas, which left us with a tricky alternative:

collage_20140903225911492.jpg

but we made it and walked onto Maya just a few minutes later:
DSC09012.jpg
less the special effects seen in the movie but still beautiful!

Some interesting Russian characters we observed on the beach...
collage_20140904231105021.jpg
we tried not to judge.

Back on Phi Phi Don:
DSC09058.jpg
DSC09064.jpg

Where everything can be bought....for the right price:
DSC09073.jpg
Not really, but his mom had fun watching him being photographed.

We managed to stay away from these dangerous concoctions:
DSC09066.jpg

and enjoyed our last day together exploring the island - it was quite emotional.
DSC09099.jpg
collage_20140906201902232.jpg
90_IMG_20140804_092248.jpg
DSC09108.jpg

Tearful goodbyes :(
DSC09113.jpg

We share James and Natalie's views that Thailand is a beautiful country but that beauty has also been its downfall in some way. The north of Thailand is quite different in that it hasn't been too spoiled yet but places like Phi Phi Don have little authenticity and culture left, which is such a shame. Who can really blame the locals for trying to make a living though? If only they could also do something to ensure the environment and wildlife are protected.

In the end, we had an amazing trip, made unforgettable memories and will forever be grateful that we were able to share the experience with the Drurys. Please come back to Cayman! We look forward to picking up where we left off. Don't forget the Nutella! ;)

180_IMG_20140804_110511.jpg

We are in New Zealand at the moment, the final destination on the Greg and Issy world tour. Wow, I can't believe we've been on the road for over five months. It's strange, our time in South Africa seems like it happened years ago yet I still feel like time has flown. An update on our week in Malaysia coming next.

Greg and Issy.

Posted by gregandissy 03:11 Archived in Thailand Comments (4)

Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor, Cambodia


View Route Map on gregandissy's travel map.

Aside from hearing that the lost city of Angkor was South East Asia's equivalent of Machu Picchu and that it was featured in Angelina Jolie's movie "Tomb Raider",we didn't know much else about the temples of Angkor before we visited.

With so many places still to see on our world tour, we had to cut our time in Cambodia short unfortunately, and we only booked three nights in Siem Reap just 8km south of Angkor.

We arrived quite late and were happy our hotel offered a free transfer from the airport but our tuk-tuk driver didn't waste any time getting down to business. He bombarded us with questions about our plans for the next couple of days before we even climbed onto his tuk-tuk trailer! We hadn't actually discussed the details and logistics of our stay in Siem Reap, the only plan was to visit Angkor so we felt a bit pressured to make a decision without having had a chance to inquire about what a reasonable price should be. He obviously wanted to be our driver for the duration of our stay and although he seemed nice enough, we told him we would let him know the next day. Our biggest dilemma was deciding the number of days we would need to visit Angkor. We initially thought that there was just one temple, Angkor Wat but when we started planning, we realized that the city of Angkor was actually a huge complex of temples covering a sizeable area. Some people do it in one day, others buy a 7-day pass. We settled for 2 days and decided we would get up for the famous Angkor Wat sunrise on the second day.

Late night tuk-tuk ride to the hotel:
DSC07683.jpg

Plans changed the next morning over breakfast and we decided to do it all in one day to leave some time for Siem Reap and the surrounding area. We were used to the heat by then and considered ourselves reasonably fit so there was a good chance a full day would work for us. I didn't want to give up on the sunrise though so I held that thought and enjoyed the ride to the highly anticipated temples of Angkor.

Angkor Wat (which translates to "City Temple") is the most famous of the Angkor temples. It was built in the 12th century by the king of the Khmer empire and dedicated to Vishnu, a Hindu deity. By the late 13th century, Angkor Wat gradually became a Theravada Buddhist temple which is still in use today. All the other Angkor temples were completed abandoned by the 16th century and began to recede into the jungle. Thanks to the Buddhist monks who cared for Angkor Wat, it became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Southeast Asia and is still, mostly intact.

Arriving in the ancient city of Angkor:
collage_20140810105855159.jpg

Our driver decided to leave the best for last so we visited the other significant temples around Angkor Wat.

DSC07697.jpg
DSC07705.jpg

When nature takes over:
DSC07721.jpg
DSC07724.jpg
DSC07728.jpg
DSC07748.jpg
IMG_20140810_111922.jpg
DSC07751.jpg

More evidence of the power of nature at Ta Prohm temple, used as a location for the movie "Tomb Raider":
collage_20140809180939995.jpg

One of our favorites: Bayon temple, also known as the "Temple of Beaming Faces":
DSC07803.jpg
DSC07792.jpg
DSC07797.jpg
IMG_20140810_110759.jpg

Some of the beautiful stone carvings we saw:
collage_20140809183810489.jpg

One of five gates into the ancient city:
DSC07805.jpg

Magnificent Angkor Wat:
DSC07840.jpg

Angkor Wat in 1866, shortly after its discovery by French archaeologists. Image in the public domain.
gohistoric_15045_z.jpg

DSC07828.jpg
DSC07838.jpg

The lost city of Angkor truly lives up to the hype. It's a testament to the power and wealth of the Khmer Empire and an astonishing reminder of what human beings were able to accomplish with only the most rudimentary tools at their disposal.

Siem Reap is the city that feeds and lodges the million tourists who visit the temples of Angkor every year so it's no wonder it's the fastest growing city in Cambodia after the capital, Phnom Penh. Walking around the city center that evening gave us the impression there was probably not much left of the village it once was. Holiday accommodation, guesthouses and luxury hotels can be found many times over on every street, night markets catering only to tourists pop up every other block, tour agencies are a dime a dozen and there are restaurants to please every pallet including those looking for a "happy" meal, if you know what I mean. And no, I'm not referring to McDonald's.

Not really that inclined to splurge on a restaurant and in keeping with our street food tradition, we went to one of the night markets in search of some local delicacies. Greg's eyes lit up when he passed a Casio watch dealer because one cheap Casio wasn't enough - the black one he bought in Zanzibar for $6 had been repaired and was still alive and kicking - he had to have another one, preferably a different color.

A matching watch for every outfit:
DSC07936.jpg

"I just had to buy it, it was only $3!....should I get another one??"

Surprisingly, that one is also still ticking. My hat goes out to the cheap Casio replicas.

We were fading quite quickly after a full day of temple "trekking" in the heat so we settled for an average food stall within the night market. I mentioned earlier that I didn't want to give up on watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat but my resolve was also fading quickly. We didn't want to pay the entrance fee again just to watch the sunrise and go back so I researched ways to sneak in at 5am on a bicycle. It didn't look very promising and neither did the weather. One traveler even went into detail about how he did it successfully and why he refused to pay the fee for "ethical" reasons. He claimed that only a tiny percentage of the fee actually goes to the restoration and preservation of the temples and the bulk of it goes to Chinese investors. I'm not sure how much truth there is to that but it all seemed too much of a mission so early in the morning. I struggle enough as it is to get out of bed when the sun is already up! I try not to dwell on it but it's one of the things we regret not doing.

We had read that if we were looking for a taste of the “real” Cambodia, we should sign up for a tour of the Tonle Sap fishing villages, so we did.

We learned that Tonle Sap lake is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. During the dry season the lake drains into the Tonle Sap River which flows into the Mekong River. But in the rainy season (June to October), the huge amount of water in the Mekong causes the Tonle Sap river to reverse its flow and flood the surrounding area, including the fishing villages.

There are actually several floating villages located on, and around the lake. We chose to visit Kampong Khleang which is the furthest from Siem Reap and much less touristy. On the way, we drove past the village of Kampong Phluk where the houses are built on tall stilts. Although we were there in July, the water levels had not yet risen enough to cause any flooding. The guide explained that when the water level is high, the stilts are submerged, and the houses seem to ‘float’. What a sight that must be!

Pit stop on the way to Tonle Sap for some bamboo rice cake or kralan which is made with sticky rice, black beans or peas, grated coconut, coconut milk and cooked inside a bamboo stick on the grill. It was delicious!

collage_20140810112810998.jpg

More snacks at a market on the way:
collage_20140810141510238.jpg

The bag in the middle is MSG (or monosodium glutamate), a food flavor enhancer, which is unfortunately frequently used for cooking in Asia. It is known to cause headaches, fatigue and heart palpitations. Some research indicates the long term effects can be as serious as Alzheimer's and Parkinsons to name a few. Hope we didn't ingest too much of it during our time in South East Asia!

Driving past insect traps near Kampong Phluk:
DSC07877.jpg

I mentioned in previous posts how motorcycles are used to transport just about anything. These take home the bacon, so to speak:

collage_20140816104810027.jpg

Unfortunately not our own pictures, I wasn't quick enough with the camera but this is exactly what we saw.

Kampong Khleang features both a tall stilted village and a floating village.

Novice monks in Kampong Khleang:
DSC07887.jpg

We saw these kids playing near a monastery (couldn't really make out what the game was) and it turns out they were playing for money. The kid in the box was the treasurer:

DSC07889.jpg

DSC07891.jpg

Stilt architecture:
DSC07896.jpg

DSC07897.jpg

Floating fishing village home:
DSC07903.jpg

Floating school:
DSC07907.jpg

Back in Siem Reap, we visited the old market where we admired the strangely wonderful variety of food for sale, including crispy fried tarantulas and barbeque snakes. It was such a bizarre foodie circus.

Insect shopping at the market - I settled for a cricket. It didn't taste as bad as I make it seem. I grimaced before my taste buds even had time to acknowledge the poor cricket. Classic mind over matter case.

collage_20140810144144209.jpg

We indulged at Blue Pumpkin which must be one of the coolest bakeries/restaurants in Siem Reap. A great place to relax and catch-up on blogging while it poured outside:

DSC07918.jpg

We concluded our tour of the city with a stroll through Pub Street, the happening/party hub of Siem Reap. Great for bars, people watching, shopping and food. We had read that Angelina Jolie's haunt while filming "Tomb Raider" was Red Piano but we didn't end up going or trying her favorite cocktail - Cointreau, lime and tonic - now named for the movie. We were quite content just taking in the atmosphere on the street.

Failed selfie on Pub Street:
DSC07935.jpg

We woke up early the next day to catch a local bus to Bangkok. We kept wondering what the catch was because it only cost us $10 each for the 8-hour journey but we had done the research and there was nothing to suggest we were in for a horrible ride. The bus dropped us off at the border and we were each given different color-coded stickers to wear depending on our final destination. We were told that "someone on the other side would show us where to go". Sure. The border crossing was a bit long - I think we were there for about two hours including time for a quick lunch while we waited for our minivan to depart - but overall, the journey was very smooth. We hit some traffic jams on the outskirts of Bangkok but we had been forewarned and the delay had been factored into the travel time.

We were meeting the Drurys in Bangkok and I think the excitement of having travel buddies for our time in Thailand kept us in high spirits through the journey and the time just flew by. I've mentioned the Drurys in previous posts and if you haven't read their blog yet, I highly recommend it as it's a great read. It's also up-to-date, unlike ours, so our time in Thailand is already posted (marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com). Our version of that great adventure with the amazing Drurys coming next.

Greg and Issy

Posted by gregandissy 19:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam


View Route Map on gregandissy's travel map.

This paragraph from Lonely Planet's website summarizes what we knew about Hoi An before we arrived:

"Graceful historic Hoi An is Vietnam’s most atmospheric and delightful town. Once a major port, it boasts the grand architecture and beguiling riverside setting that befits its heritage, but the 21st-century curses of traffic and pollution are almost entirely absent. Whether you’ve as little as a day or as long as a month in the town, it’ll be time well spent."

Hoi An is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is famous for its affordable tailored clothing so naturally, we were looking forward to spending a few days there.

The transfer from Phong Nha to Hoi An included two stops. The first was cultural in nature as it allowed us to visit the Vinh Moc tunnels in the province of Quang Tri. Son Trung and Son Ha villages in Vinh Moc county were strategically located on the border of North Vietnam and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (also known as the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ) and the tunnels were built to shelter people from the intense bombing by the American forces who believed the villagers were supplying food and weapons to the North Vietnamese. The idea was to force the villagers to leave the area but as is typical in Vietnam there was nowhere else to go. The villagers initially dug the tunnels to move their village 10m underground but the American forces designed bombs that could reach that far. Eventually and against all odds, the villagers moved the village to a depth of 30m! This took them 6 years to build, from 1966 until 1972 and the complex grew to include wells, kitchens, rooms for each family and spaces for healthcare. Around 60 families lived in the tunnels and as many as 17 children were born inside the tunnels. Absolutely incredible! The best part is that no villagers lost their lives.

Vinh Moc beach:
DSC07217.jpg

One of the entrances to the tunnel system made larger for us tourists:
DSC07219.jpg

collage_20140805224009914.jpg

The second stop on our journey to Hoi An was the ancient city of Hue about 140km north of Hoi An where the minivan dropped us off and we got on a larger bus for the rest of the way. We considered staying in Hue for a couple of days because it was the national capital until 1945 and boasts many historical monuments but we decided to use those days to extend our time in Hoi An instead. Everyone we spoke to raved about this peaceful city and we felt certain it wouldn't disappoint.

We arrived at around 5pm and walked to An Hoi Island on the Thu Bon river where we were told the accommodation would be reasonably priced. An Hoi is just south of the old city and is connected to the mainland by a small bridge. Knowing we had arrived in what was still considered the low season, we decided to test our bargaining skills with some of the fancier hotels in An Hoi, and by that I mean a bit nicer than the budget rooms we had now become accustomed to - not always clean, not always a blanket, not always soap or toilet paper, cupboard-sized bathroom where everything gets wet because you shower in the middle of the room with not shower curtains or raised edges to contain the water. We managed to get some discounts by employing the tested and proved "walking away" technique but not enough to justify a blow to the budget so we settled for the An Hoi, the best value for money on that riverside strip.

The old city seen from An Hoi:
02E6879F2219AC6817DDC0981EF0690D.jpg

An Hoi night market:
DSC07227.jpg

The Drurys talked about Hoi An's amazing street food in their blog and we were keen to start exploring. Feeling refreshed after a cold shower, we headed straight for the barbecue pork spring roll lady the Drury's had raved about.

She showed us how to roll our own and although ours didn't look quite as pretty as hers, the wonderful flavors were all there:

collage_20140805225005540.jpg

A nice mango shake from the vendor across the street to go with our meal and we were hooked!

To make sure we left plenty of time for any alterations, we decided to go in search of a tailor. Not an easy task in a city where every other shop is either a tailor or leather shoe maker.

DSC07231.jpg

Not wanting to make a hasty decision, we went back to the hotel to do some further research. The next day, we opted for Lana Tailor which is one of two tailor shops recommended by the free Live Hoi An guide we had picked up in Phong Nha.

We didn't spend much time preparing for our tailored clothes experience, actually, we didn't spend ANY time preparing for it, so we arrived at Lana with only a vague idea of what we would order and how much we would be willing to spend...sort of. After flicking through a few pages of a fashion magazine they provided, I showed them a design I liked for a work dress, they nodded in agreement and helped me choose the material. It was easier than I thought! I ordered two more designs and I was done. Greg's selection was even easier: two classic suits, a sports jacket and a few work shirts. Boom. All that was left was bargaining the final price tag and the measurements. They put up a good fight but we managed to get the discount we asked for. As with most things in Vietnam, we probably could have bargained harder but it's an exhausting process and we felt we were paying a fair price.

DSC07235.jpg

Our ladies went to work and measured every inch of our bodies - I'm not sure if it's because they were half our size or the fact that they had discovered those Michelin tire rolls we had been trying so hard to hide, but our confidence was shot. We looked at each other with puppy eyes knowing very well what the other was thinking. I naturally told Greg that he would look great in the suit and I loved him no matter what. Yes yes, you may have some cheese with that ;) Greg on the other hand opted for so called humor: "don't worry love, I'll just trade you in for a younger model". And there you have it, why men have no clue and proof I'm definitely the nice one in this relationship!

Quick lunch break at the Central Market where we tried Hoi An's famous Cao Lau:
DSC07238.jpg

We then found Shoe Shop No. 9, also recommended by the "Live Hoi An" guide, where we had some leather shoes and a bag made. We spoke to some customers who had come to pick up their orders and their glowing review helped to seal our decision. After another satisfying round of negotiations that included techniques such as: "ooooooooooh, expensive! I can buy for the same price in my country!" (which was not a complete lie, by the way, it just omitted the fact it probably wouldn't be leather) and "no, sorry, we can't afford it, maybe next time", we left the shop in search of cheap street food because our budget had just been thrown out the window. As we ate the delicious quail egg Banh Canh the Drury's had recommended from a street vendor near the Central Market, we planned our next few days in the area.

DSC07243.jpg
DSC07237.jpg

Vietnam Telecom - slightly alarming!
DSC07239.jpg

Delicious quail egg Banh Canh, one of my favorite!
collage_20140805235256446.jpg

Mandatory selfie with An Hoi in the background:
DSC07259.jpg

We had appointments for various fittings throughout the following day so we decided to check out the main sights and wonder the charming streets of Hoi An.

collage_20140806111247516.jpg
DSC07278.jpg
DSC07286.jpg

"aaaaaaahhhhhh - feels like I'm on the operating table":
collage_20140806112840032.jpg

We were very impressed with the preliminary results and the ladies at Lana were very helpful, never complaining about the various alterations we asked them to make because, as it turns out, we are apparently asymmetrical. Great, not only were we becoming rounder but we were also crooked.

collage_20140806000003369.jpg

The shoes were not the same quality but nice enough. We asked them to fix a few glitches and wondered the city further in search of more delicious street food. We couldn't get enough.

We ventured outside the city on day 4 and booked a cycling tour of Tra Que Herb Village, a small farming community about 5km north east of Hoi An. It’s an easy bicycle ride and a quite scenic one which involves pedaling past rice fields, over bridges, and lazy water buffaloes lounging in the mud. The tour gave us the opportunity to become farmers for half a day. Our lovely guide showed us around the village and arranged for a farmer to teach us some of his skills such as how to prepare the soil, water the crops, fertilize the land with seaweed from the nearby lake and plant the herbs in neatly arranged rows.

DSC07453.jpg

Tra Que Water Wheel:
DSC07445.jpg

Ginger and basil seed drink - it was actually delicious despite what Greg's face might suggest. Our guide had just jokingly said the seeds were frog eggs and Greg fell for it:
DSC07307.jpg

Greg at work on the farm:
collage_20140806113939710.jpg

Issy trying to keep up:
collage_20140806114316612.jpg

Team work:
collage_20140806114938273.jpg

Please excuse him...
DSC07367.jpg

We only worked for half an hour, at most, but felt we had labored under the scorching sun for hours. We are full of admiration for the villagers who do this back-braking work from dawn to dusk.

Our multi-talented guide then proceeded to make lunch for us and allowed me to help while Greg "supervised" (read: napped).

DSC07429.jpg
DSC07427.jpg
collage_20140806115921476.jpg

The beaches of Cam An were only 2 or 3 km further north so we took advantage of the full day bicycle rental to check them out.

DSC07449.jpg

Vietnamese woven bamboo basket boat:
DSC07447.jpg

DSC07457.jpg

Back in the old city:
DSC07528.jpg

Having heard great things about the cooking courses in Hoi An and being huge fans of the cuisine, we booked a course with Green Bamboo on our final day. Van was great and we quickly understood why she was no. 1 on Trip Advisor.

Van took us to the market where we bought the ingredients for our dishes:
collage_20140806121044199.jpg

DSC07491.jpg

11 of us and we each made a different dish - we have never felt so stuffed. But it was all delicious!
collage_20..06122342657.jpg

The afternoon was spent picking up our tailored clothes and shoes and organizing the shipping of said garments. The postal service in Hoi An has to be one of the best in world because they make house calls! The hotel manager simply made a call and 20 minutes later, a post office agent was in the lobby stuffing our precious new wardrobe into a cardboard box. No less than 12kgs! We watched anxiously as she loaded our box onto her motorcycle, covered it with her plastic poncho, and rode off into the rainy night. We'll see in about two months when it reaches Miami if it truly deserves the accolade.

Some purist say that flying is cheating and you can't really call yourself a true backpacker if you get on an airplane when other cheaper and "tougher" options are available. Never mind them. The overnight sleeper train was fully booked and the bus option was simply too horrid to imagine so we bought two seats on the early morning flight to Ho Chi Minh on Vietnam Airlines. The price was reasonable and it allowed us to save some precious time.

I heard someone describe Ho Chi Minh city as Vietnam at its most dizzying and I couldn't agree more! Saigon, as it is known by most, is the largest city in Vietnam with a population of 9 million and almost as many motorcycles. It's known for its food, colonial architecture, war museums and markets. After the peacefulness of Hoi An, we were ready for chaos!

We arrived early and our room wasn't ready so we left our bags at the hotel and set-off on a colonial tour of the city.

Vietnamese ninja ladies - so called because they cover themselves from head to toe (yes, they're wearing socks) to avoid getting a tan despite the heat and humidity:
collage_20140806123346560.jpg

collage_20140806124423621.jpg

He climbed up the tree the old school way and his only safety equipment, a rope tied around his waist...hectic!
DSC07549.jpg

We stopped to inquire about a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels in the Cu Chi district, about 40km north west of Saigon. Everyone we spoke to said it was a worthwhile tour so we booked a half-day tour later that afternoon. We had about an hour and half for lunch and started looking for a local restaurant in the area when we noticed posters advertising the AO Show at the Opera House. The thought of attending a traditional Vietnamese show at Saigon's Opera House was too enticing to resist so we bought tickets for the following night.

The bus ride to Cu Chi was two hours long but time passed quickly. Our guide entertained us with anecdotes about the city and we were soon driving past the many rubber tree plantations near the tunnels. I had heard these underground tunnels were instrumental in the war against the Americans but what I didn't know is that they were actually built in the late 1940s as guerrilla hiding areas in the fight against the French. They were then increased into a vast network in the 1960s which the Americans never got close to destroying despite carpet bombing and the use of the agent orange.

The guided tour allowed us to explore the tunnels firsthand and we were shocked to see how small they were. The Vinh Moc tunnels we had visited a few days earlier were much larger in comparison - I could stand up in most parts and Greg only had to bend slightly.

collage_20140806124846910.jpg
collage_20140806125830360.jpg

The Cu Chi tunnels were mostly used for fighting and weapon storage but the kitchens, living and sleeping areas were also used when necessary. Despite (or because of) his claustrophobia, Greg decided to tackle the smallest tunnel on his own but soon came face to face with a bat and had to abort his mission. That's his story anyway.

Caught in traffic on the way back to Saigon - I wasn't kidding about the motorcycles!
DSC07603.jpg

DSC07610.jpg

Activities in the park - kung fu, foot badminton and ballroom dancing - why not??
collage_20140806130740122.jpg

You know it - more street food. Vietnam's version of beef fondue cooked on a hot roof tile:
DSC07619.jpg

Day 2 began with some shopping at a market near our hotel. Rows upon rows of stalls selling anything from underwear to shoes, and everything in between.

DSC07629.jpg

Surprisingly, the damage was very minimal - one pair of shoes and a t-shirt for me, nothing for Greg. We must have been overwhelmed, it's the only explanation.

More walking led me to a spa for a much needed pedicure for the scandalous price of $4.5 while Greg explored the area further. I was worried he would come back the owner of a Vespa but I banished the thought and focused on the blog.

Not one but two ladies working on my feet - were they that bad??? I'm offended.
IMG_20140708_152318.jpg

Vietnamese Pho - a classic with a twist: blood!
IMG_20140708_134154.jpg

It was almost time for the highly anticipated AO Show.

collage_20140806131745145.jpg

The show was highly entertaining! The artists used dance, martial arts, music and bamboo in a series of amusing sketches to depict Vietnam's transition to urbanization. Some of it was lost to us because we didn't understand the lyrics but the visuals were enough for us to get the big picture.

Saigon by night:
DSC07643.jpg

We went to the War Remnants museum on our last day and learned more about the brutality of the Vietnam War. Old military vehicles are in display in the front yard while, inside, the photographic exhibits tell the story. My heart broke into a millions pieces all over again. I just don't understand...

DSC07651.jpg

The vivid images still etched in my brain, I followed Greg to the restored Vespa street where he instantly cheered up and I found amusement at the thought of Bella riding in the Vespa side-car on the way to doggie daycare. What a different world we come from! ;)

DSC07654.jpg51CC5B6F2219AC681757498EC5654110.jpg

Random coconut street vendor challenged Greg to carry his load for a few meters - harder than it looks!
DSC07647.jpg

As you do:
DSC07652_2..09233058111.jpg

We checked out the Chinese wholesale market where all the other merchants get their supplies from,
DSC07665.jpg

rode our first Xe Om or motorcycle taxi which was an exhilarating experience,
DSC07672.jpg

and Greg went to the Russian market in search of more bargains while I blogged in a nearby cafe. The view from the cafe - is that tangled mess for real???
collage_20140806205425159.jpg

We are now in Singapore and today happens to be the country's independence day so we were treated to some fireworks earlier this evening. They've got nothing on Cayman's Pirates Week! The iconic temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia coming next.

Love,
Greg and Issy

Posted by gregandissy 08:12 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam


View Route Map on gregandissy's travel map.

I (Greg) first read about Phong Nha in an article by The New York Times entitled 52 places to go in 2014, published in January. At number 8 was Quang Binh province, Vietnam or more specifically, Son Doong cave in Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park, central Vietnam. The description was simple but exciting "Now open: One of the worlds largest caves", enough to make the wish list of places to visit on our trip.

The thing with extended and flexible travel is that there is always research and planning to be done, so when I read about it again in a similar article on matadornetwork.com entitled "52 tourist attractions that actually live up to the hype", published in April, I knew we just had to go. This list put it lower, at number 26, but the description was even more appealing:

"26. Son Doong cave (Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam): this is the largest cave in the whole friggin’ world. Not in Vietnam. Not in Asia. The whole world. It also has a huge underground river. As if that weren’t enough reason to visit, organized tours only began in August 2013, making this one of the least spoiled attractions on this list."

In the whole friggin' world! Every traveler's dream is to find those beautiful untouched destinations, before the mass tour groups, touts and souvenir shops setup and ruin the authenticity of the area. We all are put off by the places that have become "too touristy". Its hypocritical I know, as we are tourists ourselves contributing to the problem, but we all hope to find those places off the beaten track, before it gets "beaten". We later found out that the August 2013 organized tour mentioned, was in fact only a trial tour and the cave only actually became accessible to the public in 2014. Yes please!

As we got closer to Vietnam, I gradually started to do more research on the cave and how to access it and came across only one company which offered a seven day trek as the only option. A little longer than we had planned to spend in the area, but with such an opportunity, how could we skip it? That was until I discovered that only 200 visitor permits are issued a year and the 2014 quota, not surprisingly, had already been filled, despite the hefty price tag for the privilege of USD $3,000. A crushing blow.

Further reading however indicated that Phong Nha had plenty of other caving and trekking experiences to offer, all very impressive in their own right and located in an area of the country, off the mainstream tourist route so still relatively untouched. A good compromise.

Leaving transport and accommodation to the last minute, I reached out to a local guesthouse, Phong Nha Farmstay, that came highly recommended by the Lonely Planet. They were super helpful and responded with a long email of all the activities available in the area. Reading it made us realize we may actually want to spend some more time there despite not getting to Son Doong.

After a horrible 12-hour bus ride that turned into 18 hours due to a breakdown at 3am, we finally arrived in Dong Hoi and had a quick lunch before transferring inland to Phong Nha. Dong Hoi isn't really a tourist destination, so not much English is spoken, and sadly we hadn't made much effort to learn the local language, so ordering lunch was comical. As dog meat often appears on the local menu in Vietnam, we did our best to ensure we got chicken. We tried sign language, we tried clucking, there might have even been a chicken dance, which had all the staff laughing and actually had our waiter collapse on the floor in a pile of laughter (ROFL quite literally), but we managed to get chicken. See this language isn't so hard!

Verifying weight restriction compliance ;)
DSC06768.jpg

Broken bus:
IMG_20140627_021259.jpg

Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) shop open at 3am where we were able to sit down, have a drink and watch some football - thank God for the World Cup!
DSC06771.jpg

Vietnames sleeper bus:
collage_20140724174921843.jpg

With all the last minute indesicion on which caves and treks to do and how many days to stay, the Farmstay had filled up, so we were referred to an affiliated hostel instead, where we took our first shared dorm room.

Arriving in Phong Nha:
DSC06993.jpg

Easy Tiger hostel:
DSC07161.jpg

Due to the bus delay, we arrived later than expected so just took the time to relax and plan our activities. We decided on a 2-day trek the next day to Hang En cave, made famous by National Geographic (see attached link).

National Geographic link

We jumped into a minivan bright and early with our guide Than, a park ranger, four other travelers and a team of porters for a 45 minute drive into the national park to the beginning of our trek. We had been advised to wear a long sleeve shirt and long pants to protect ourselves from leeches and stinging nettles and were each given a pair of Cambodian canvas army boots as they were better suited for river crossings than our normal trekking boots.

The trek to the cave started with a steep descent down to a river which we then followed all the way to the cave entrance, crossing it numerous times on our way through the picturesque valley.

We passed through one of the few tribal villages along the way and spent some time with the locals, who just rapped off to the guide and porters in Vietnamese, their second language after their tribal language. With the small trekking groups coming through the village both on the way there and the way back, one of the cute kids was learning to say "see you again" in English. Hearing him practice by pronouncing each word as if on its own, almost abruptly, in succession to form a sentence, with "again" being the most troublesome, is a memory that brings a smile to my face. It was amazing to see how simple yet happy their lives are.

Debrief with Than:
collage_20140724175626716.jpg

DSC06792.jpg

"Seeeee yoo ahgueen"
DSC06793.jpg

Smoking some locally grown tobacco:
DSC06797.jpg

DSC06798.jpg

Our lunch spread:
DSC06801.jpg

Unfortunately the food attracted thousands of fruit flies and my extermination technique proved to be the most efficient - patience Daniel-san:

collage_20140724180903129.jpg

DSC06811.jpg

DSC06815.jpg

You can actually see one of the big cave openings on the far right:
DSC06818_2..30082432352.jpg

With rain clouds closing in, we arrived at the entrance of the cave just in time to avoid the downpour, which allowed for a well deserved rest while watching nature do its thing. The same river we followed actually flows through the cave, which is about 1.6km long, and out the other side. Downpours like this apparently carry the risk of flash flooding the cave if they continue for a few hours, but luckily this one only lasted about 20 minutes. A relief considering we were spending the night inside! We were camping about 400m in on a large sand bank which receives natural light from a huge opening that used to be the entrance millions of years ago. From the continuous erosion of the rocks, the entrance must have collapsed blocking the river's path and forcing it to carve a new entrance slightly further down, where we entered.

The big opening blocked by fallen rocks so we headed for a smaller entrance on the right:
DSC06825.jpg

DSC06829.jpg

Following the rivers path which took us deeper inside the cave and back around to the campsite:
DSC06833.jpg

Behind me, the porters setting up the campsite:
DSC06841.jpg

Another view of our campsite inside Hang En:
DSC06863.jpg

The porters cooked up a huge spread for dinner, which we devoured after the strenuous day, but not before a Vietnamese cheer which echoed through the cave and a shot of happy water (rice wine), which continued through the evening until we were cut off! Issy happened to be the only girl on the trek, so the porters turned to her with much curiosity during each shot, impressed that she was managing to keep up. The oldest of them even started doing separate shots just with her, in addition to the ones we did as a group, with much excitement. I must say she handled it well and with everybody firing on all cylinders, it was time for arm wrestling, as you do. It was a great cultural interaction through a rice wine induced haze. The older porter even challenged Issy, which she won, to much laughter from the other porters and the old man himself. Issy says it was a fair fight..... He then came back for another to save face and they left it at one a piece.

DSC06872.jpg

DSC06876.jpg

Mot! Hai! Ba! Yo! - Vietnamese for One, two, three, cheers!
30F78E012219AC6817C86594AEE6B49E.jpg

Not much light unfortunately but you can hear the enthusiasm: Hang En youtube clip

DSC06901.jpg

After many attempts, we finally managed to write the whole thing in 30 seconds with nothing but a head torch:
DSC06894.jpg

In between "happy water" shots, we learnt some more information about Hang En and Hang Son Doong. Our guide had been to Son Doong six times, which naturally had me inquiring about employment opportunities as the fast track option to see Son Doong, being unemployed and all, but he saw right through it. Hang En is actually where the seven day trekkers to Son Doong spend their first and last nights, so at least we can say we experienced a part of it.

The next morning we rose at a reasonable hour considering the previous night's festivities and set off to explore the rest of the cave. The river continues its path through the cave, and we just followed it to the other cave opening.

This tree was washed up on top of fallen rocks about 20m above the river. Just shows how high the river can get when it floods:
DSC06913.jpg

We climbed a few meters higher and finally arrived at the breathtaking site.

DSC06918.jpg

DSC06927.jpg

If you look at National Geographic's picture on the link above, you can see people near the entrance which will give you a good idea of the scale.

Incredible to think about the power and time it must have taken to carve this long route through the mountain.

DSC06943.jpg

The route to Son Doong - perhaps another time:
DSC06937.jpg

We then headed back to the campsite and onwards following the river back to the village and up the steep ascent out of the valley. This time we weren't so lucky with the rain and got drenched right through. The rain also brought out the leeches! Nasty suckers.

Issy carefully sliding back down the huge rock near the campsite - Than climbed it with a coffee in one hand:
DSC06957.jpg

DSC06965.jpg

DSC06969.jpg

DSC06975.jpg

The trek ended back on the main road with a thorough leech inspection, some beers and some more arm wrestling. A leech managed to get Issy on the leg (we think it got in through the pant leg zipper which was probably not shut properly) and must have been feasting for some time as it looked huge. She wouldn't wait long enough to get a picture, before ripping it off and running away in disgust. Girls ;)

collage_20140724220833442.jpg

DSC06982.jpg

Strolling through Phong Nha's main street that evening, we stumbled upon these ladies just chilling in the middle of the street. I tried to get closer but was quickly chased away (top right corner):

DSC06988.jpg

The following day we hired a scooter to explore the rest of the surrounding area. The odometer read over 70,000km and was broken, which meant it probably had done a lot more than that. Huge milage for a small scooter. It must of worked it useful life and then got put in the rental market!??? The chances of it breaking down were high but, as with most things since our trip began, we hoped for the best.

Risk running out of fuel or put too much in??? Risk it! - Issy shaking her head....
DSC06989.jpg

With a little hand drawn map, we made our way around in search of more caves. First stop, the dark cave. A little cave (compared to Son Doong and even Hang En, but still a decent sized cave by normal measures) on the opposite side of the river. Our guide told us to get into our swim gear and we hopped onto a kayak to paddle across the river to the entrance. The dark cave is a short drive from the main town, and on the route to the popular paradise cave, so we expected there to be some tourists, but we were the only ones there, for the full hour and a half tour, the only ones inside. Golden.

Beep beep! room for two more?
DSC07003.jpg

DSC07022.jpg

313CDE442219AC6817E27F838A3F2099.jpg

Dark Cave:
DSC07023.jpg
DSC07027.jpg
DSC07035.jpg

The main attraction of the dark cave, and the reason we were in our swim gear, are the mud pools found in narrow tunnels off of the main cave. It was absolutely incredible. The gopro came in handy until it got covered in mud itself.

Dark Cave youtube clip

A muddy mess:
314178432219AC6817A8E5FB8B3ECCDC.jpg

Thinking nothing could top Hang En and the Dark cave, we decided to skip paradise cave as we were told it was very touristy with lights and walkways and bus loads of tourists. We went in search of lunch instead. The Farmstay email had recommended a local place deep within a farming area named "The pub with cold beer", a favorite of the Farmstay owner (an Australian) who named it. The drawn map was obviously not to scale, as we made a few wrong turns and headed in the completely wrong direction a few times until we eventually found it along a long muddy dirt road in the middle of nowhere. The search was worth it, as the food was good, the beer cold and it was a great place to relax.

DSC07052.jpg
DSC07058.jpg
DSC07060.jpg

The cute girls at "The pub with cold beer" - I ordered a Choco Pie so that's what they started calling me. Priceless!
collage_20140725083702447.jpg

Lending a helping hand:
DSC07080.jpg

DSC07081.jpg

Always with a packed agenda and having missed the opportunity to stay at the Farmstay, we still wanted to head there to relax and enjoy a nice sunset over the rice fields.

DSC07086.jpg

Enjoying the atmosphere at the Farmstay, we decided to inquire about availability for the following night and luckily they had a room for us. From planning on staying in Phong Nha for two nights in the area, we had now extended it to five, it really is that kind of place.

The following day we succumbed to the temptation to visit Paradise cave having heard how spectacular the formations are, despite its touristy nature. Yes it was all lit up with walkways all the way and tourists everywhere, but the size and beauty of the formations were truly amazing and frankly the lights were needed to reveal how incredible they are.

collage_20140725085247919.jpg

Trying a shortcut:
DSC07154.jpg

DSC07159.jpg

Yummy Vietnamese coffee - that's condensed milk at the bottom:
DSC07160.jpg

Having seen three entirely different caves, we felt we had earned an afternoon and evening of relaxation at our new guesthouse.

The Farmstay on the left:
DSC07174.jpg

DSC07183.jpg

Cold beer delivery to the roof:
DSC07203.jpg

DSC07189.jpg

The most exciting part of moving to the Farmstay was their outdoor movie night. The selection was perfectly suited - at 7pm, a National Geographic documentary on Hang Son Doong followed by Good Morning Vietnam at 8pm.

Before the documentary we actually realized that both the lead caver and the first foreigner to ever enter Son Doong, a professional caver, were staying at the Farmstay that night, ahead of the next trek leaving just a few days later. That is just the beauty of this place, despite it hosting the worlds largest cave, other than the tour buses that come from neighboring towns to visit Paradise cave, there aren't hordes of people and overpriced accommodation. It remains relatively untouched with its back to basics atmosphere. We thoroughly enjoyed it, although wish we had stayed at the Farmstay from the beginning.

Through various conversations, I learnt that they have had a few last minute cancelations on previous treks to Son Doong (remember they only issue 200 visitor permits for the year, so these are like hens teeth) which they then open to either staff or tourists that have the time, inclination and money to join. Despite departing the next day, I insisted I would be available if there was a cancelation on the tour leaving two days later. I never heard anything though. I guess there is always 2015 - any takers?

In the morning we made our way to Hoi An, with a few stops along the way which will follow in our next post.

Greg and Issy

Posted by gregandissy 08:48 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

Northern Vietnam


View Route Map on gregandissy's travel map.

We were very excited to be moving onto Vietnam, a country we had heard so much about in terms of its natural beauty, history and culinary delights. We were also really looking forward to joining our friends Grant and Corinne for a long weekend in Hanoi and Halong Bay. Grant and Corinne also live and work in the Cayman Islands but are temporarily based in Hong Kong, so we took the opportunity to coordinate meeting up for a few days.

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the country's second largest city after Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon). Like most Westerners, we had heard of and seen a movie or two about the American War in Vietnam but we also learned that Vietnam drew many of its influences from the Chinese, who occupied the country for over a thousand years. Later came the French and the period of colonialism that lasted for approximately 100 years until from 1954. The Americans were simply the last in a long line of invaders who sadly left the most serious ecological and human impact on Vietnamese people's lives. The war killed millions of innocent civilians, the massive U.S. bombing of both North and South Vietnam left the country in ruins and the U.S. Army’s use of herbicides such as Agent Orange not only destroyed Vietnam’s natural environment but also caused serious health problems that continue to be genetically transmitted from generation to generation. Despite their troubled and difficult past, we found the Vietnamese to be genuinely interested in foreigners and almost always greeted us with a smile.

We arrived the day before Grant and Corinne and used the extra time to explore the Old Quarter known for its history and architecture, try some of the street food we had heard so many great things about and take care of a few things (postage, banking etc.). We immediately felt at ease in this city of 6.5 million people and almost 4 million motorcycles. We had already spent 3 weeks in India so to us, the streets were very clean and organized in comparison, although I still had to hold Greg's hand/arm to cross the street. Stepping into oncoming traffic expecting the hundreds of motorcycles to simply adjust their trajectory did not (and does not!) come very naturally to me. The advice given to tourists is as follows:

Be relaxed and self-confident.
Walk slowly with purpose.
Never step back.

Sure...

Not for the faint of heart! She's clearly not the slightest bit phased:

DSC06756.jpg

We visited Hoa Lo prison which was built and used by the French for political prisoners. Most of the prison was demolished but the Gatehouse remains as a museum:

collage_20140717182734636.jpg

Hoan Kiem Lake or "Lake of the returned sword":

DSC06203.jpg

DSC06204.jpg

Most people in Vietnam cannot afford to buy a car and as one guide explained, the average Vietnamese person gets his/her first scooter at age 16 (probably starts driving before the age of 10!) and it is not unusual for the mother or father to own two, depending on the need.

collage_20140726192328013.jpg

Another thing we noticed and loved about Vietnam is that street food is not only delicious, it is also very cheap! The average dish costs about $2-3 (or $10 if you are a famished tourist that doesn't ask for the price beforehand). Yes we got shafted by a cunning street vendor/businesswoman but not much harm done and another lesson to add to the growing list ;)

collage_20140717185141424.jpg

Can anything else fit on this bicycle?? Probably.

DSC06183.jpg

Exhausted by our day's excursions and the heat, we went back to the hotel for a quick nap before our friends' arrival to make sure we were in good form for the weekend. We spent the evening catching up over a nice dinner and some local beers.

We noticed the massive crab in this seafood shop and had to go in for a closer look:

collage_20140717185848379.jpg

DSC06221.jpg

BMI machines are rolled around the streets in case one should feel the need to do a quick health check before that next beer or late night snack.

The results were not as expected ;)

collage_20140717191122363.jpg

We had booked a 3-day tour of Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its thousands of limestone karsts, and were picked up at 8am the next day for the 3-hour drive to the coast. Half way through, our guide informed us that a storm was brewing and that we might not be able to spend the night on the boat. The local authorities have been trying to tighten security in Halong Bay after a few tragic accidents in recent years, and if they deemed the storm serious enough, all boats would have to go back to port. We could proceed as planned to the floating fishing village and would find out later that afternoon whether or not we would be permitted to stay overnight. Fingers crossed, we boarded our junk boat, left the bags in our assigned cabins and enjoyed a nice lunch on the way to the floating village.

Our junk boat:

DSC06255.jpg

The views were amazing and we couldn't help but feel disappointed that the rest of the tour might be canceled.

DSC06238.jpgIMG_20140717_192439.jpgDSC06277.jpgIMG_20140717_192710.jpgGOPR1819_2..26201817625.jpgIMG_20140717_193226.jpgIMG_20140717_193543.jpg

When we returned to the boat, it was as feared but the captain said we still had a few hours to explore Halong Bay further before heading back to port for the 3 hour bus ride back to Hanoi.

DSC06321.jpgDSC06339.jpgDSC06352.jpg

We came up with Plan B, which consisted of a tour of Hanoi the following day and a day trip to Ninh Binh just a couple of hours south of Hanoi the day after.

First stop and considered a "must-see" in Hanoi, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where one can see the embalmed body of the former communist revolutionary leader lying in a glass case protected by a military honor guard. Ho Chi Minh led the Viet Minh independence movement from 1941 onward, establishing the Communist ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 and defeating the French Union in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. He was president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) from 1945 until his death in 1969.

In front of the Mausoleum:

IMG_20140717_195025.jpg

The walk to the mausoleum was also "interesting" because the boys decided the direct route was too short. Not really, they followed a couple who, and I quote: "looked like they knew where they were going" and then, instead of asking for directions and following the correct itinerary (like the couple did!) they kept going because, surely, the map couldn't be wrong - what is it with men and asking for directions?! They think that if they keep going, somehow, miraculously, they will arrive at the chosen destination and their true genius will be uncovered. Instead we end up walking a few extra miles. Luckily for them, Corinne and I were too busy chatting to notice ;) We passed many government buildings along the way that we couldn't stop to admire because the security officers would order us to keep going or flay their arms vigorously if, god forbid, we tried to take a picture. Another sign we probably should have gone a different way.

"....but on the map it shows that...":

DSC06372.jpg

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and enjoying Hanoi's delicious street food.

Preparing for our one-hour foot massages:

DSC06374.jpg

Our travel agent Lucy who asked if we were couples and then giggled as she said: "hot boyfriends - you must find me nice foreign boyfriend":

DSC06376.jpg

The cyclo food tour we booked with Lucy:

collage_20140717224531587.jpg

collage_20140717224954849.jpg

That evening, we walked through the unavoidable night market - every South East Asian city seems to have one! To be perfectly honest, we expected more from Hanoi's night market after having been to Thailand and Laos but still enjoyed mixing in with the crowd and experiencing the culture. We took a break to have a drink at the tiniest restaurant/bar because Grant felt bad using their toilet without buying something. So we sat there for half an hour listening to N'Sync, Britney Spears and other influential musicians of our time. The night was taking an unexpected turn and the fact we all seemed to know all the lyrics was somewhat disturbing, so we quickly finished our drinks and rejoined our fellow tourists at the market. At the end of our tour and not wanting to repeat our earlier faux pas, Corinne and I decided the KFC on the other side of a busy round-about would be the best place to find a toilet. The boys say that watching us cross the street was like watching the blind leading the blind. They exaggerate, of course, we were only slightly terrified!

We stopped on the side of the street to decide where to go next and happened to stand next to two Australian couples who had just been pick-pocketed at the market even though their pockets were zipped shut. That could easily have happened to us as we were not particularly vigilant and felt lucky we had come out unscathed. So it was only natural to celebrate our good fortune by spending the money on a few more drinks.

We headed for Ninh Binh the next day, a city known for the nearby karst scenery and ancient cities.The tour bus stopped in Hoa Lu Ancient Capital first.

As we got off the bus, Greg was approached by a lady selling "non la", the Vietnamese conical hat, and would not take no for an answer: "you buy from me, cheap cheap".

DSC06418.jpg
DSC06424.jpg
collage_20140717230314794.jpg
DSC06425.jpg

After lunch, we were taken to the main attraction, a two-hour excursion by small boat along the Ngo Dong River, beginning at the village of Van Lam and proceeding through a scenic landscape of rice fields and limestone karst mountains.

IMG_20140718_054936.jpgDSC06505.jpgDSC06483.jpg6677EE212219AC6817CFED4D42E34279.jpg

I think we were all taken by surprise when all the rowers changed their position shortly after setting off and started rowing with their feet. No joke.

collage_20140718060132752.jpg

Ngo Dong River youtube clip

Why the rest of the world hasn't caught on, I'm not sure but putting aside esthetic considerations, it seemed much more efficient than the traditional method!

We floated through three natural caves with ceilings about 1-2m above the water.

IMG_20140718_060830.jpgDSC06496.jpg

Back in Van Lam, we were each given a bicycle for the last part of the tour: a leisurely countryside ride.

DSC06554.jpg
IMG_20140718_062302.jpg
IMG_20140718_062453.jpg
DSC06580.jpg

Greg was determined to buy the "peak" motorcycle helmets we saw in Hanoi - the guide said it would be cheaper in Hanoi so we left without it. In hindsight, he should have bought it because we didn't take the time to look for one in Hanoi and they weren't quite the same further south.

DSC06579.jpg

We arrived back in Hanoi at 7pm, just in time for Greg and I to have a quick dinner and catch our 8pm ride to the train station.

DSC06585.jpg

We had a great weekend despite the last minute changes and were sad to say goodbye to Grant and Corinne. A big thank you to them for making it happen.

Our next destination had been a subject of debate for a few weeks. We had two options: a) visit the Sa Pa district which is located 380km north west of Hanoi, close to the border with China or b) tackle Ha Giang province about 280km north of Hanoi, considered more beautiful and less touristy than Sa Pa. After reading James and Natalie Drury's glowing review of Sa Pa and due to time constraints, we opted for Sa Pa and booked a 3 night / 2 day tour with our friend Lucy Lu as follows:

1. June 23 - overnight train to Sa Pa
2. June 24 - 12 km trek to minority village and overnight in homestay
3. June 25 - 6 km trek back to Sa Pa and overnight train to Hanoi

DSC06589.jpg

A young girl named Li, dressed in traditional costume and no taller than 4'10", met us at the hotel in Sa Pa where we were dropped off and informed us she would be our guide. She also mentioned we were the only ones on the tour and whilst we appreciated the private tour, we were also looking forward to meeting other travelers and sharing our stories. Our weekend with Grant and Corinne made us realize our trip had been fairly solitary to that point and how much we craved some interaction. So we chatted Li's ear off and asked a million questions about her life, the different tribes in the area and their culture. We found out that Li is only 18 years old, has two younger siblings and helps her parents supplement their income by guiding tourists on different treks through the beautiful sloping rice fields of Sa Pa. She is part of the Black H'mom hill tribe, one of five in the province and she really impressed us with her English which she said she learned by just speaking to tourists from an early age. A truly remarkable young woman.

We set off just after breakfast and were followed by two other women also dressed in traditional clothes and no taller than Li.

DSC06593.jpgDSC06594.jpg

The Drury's mentioned them in their blog so we knew they would follow us to a certain point and then try to sell us some of their handmade crafts. We didn't mind and were happy to have them tag along. They actually helped me through some tricky muddy paths and I felt like a complete fool in my fancy trekking boots. These ladies were just cruising through in their plastic sandals as if it was the most natural thing.

Before I continue I just want to pause for a minute to thank James and Natalie for their amazing blog which we heavily relied on throughout our time in Vietnam. They also took the time to give us additional tips and recommendations whilst also trying to plan their own travels.

Back to Sa Pa. Greg often points out that I'm trigger happy with my camera (and I have to agree) but since I'm the one sorting all the pictures, I don't feel too guilty about it. My thought process is that I'm not a good photographer and taking pictures of the same thing over and over again just increases my chances of getting that one good shot. Well this place was on par with our African safaris in terms of picture quantity. The trek was just incredibly scenic and I couldn't stop clicking! The pictures really don't do it justice.

IMG_20140718_082253.jpgIMG_20140718_082916.jpgDSC06626.jpg

Fearless kids:

IMG_20140718_084009.jpg

DSC06603.jpgDSC06659.jpgDSC06671.jpg

One of the local crops used for the hemp, not the high:

collage_20140718083801527.jpg

The weaved hemp is used to make the tribes' traditional clothing and the distinctive blue dye is made using plants, ash and other natural ingredients:

collage_20140718082720815.jpg

We arrived at Mrs. Phan Nam May's Homestay at around 3:30 pm. The family we stayed with is part of the Red Dzao hill tribe and Li knew them well.

DSC06687.jpg

Our cute and half-naked host:

DSC06697.jpg

A quick luggage inspection before letting us in:

DSC06699.jpg

We noticed a sign that read "Herbal Bath" so naturally, we inquired about it. It's essentially a soup. They boil water with a variety of medicinal plants and herbs and pour the mixture into a wooden barrel. Unsure if anyone larger than Li would fit in the barrel and discouraged by the additional charge, we decided not to ask for one and opted for a free cold shower instead. It turns out they misunderstood our inquiry for a request and we were told our baths were ready just after sundown. This was one of the few misunderstanding we were actually thrilled about because it was fantastic and Greg actually managed to squeeze in.

DSC06714.jpgDSC06721.jpg

The evening got even better because they cooked up a storm for us. They were also quite generous with their homemade rice wine, or "happy water" as they like to call it.

collage_20140718090406035.jpg

One thing led to another and before we knew it, we were all trying to stick suction cups to our foreheads. They explained that they use them to treat all kinds of ailments including headaches and we finally understood why Li had a gigantic purple bruise on her forehead (we thought it was a birthmark). Greg's forehead is too small and the cup wouldn't stick but I wasn't so lucky. You'd think I'd want to avoid a round purple bruise on my forehead after seeing Li's but I am obviously not that bright because I still managed to leave it on for too long:

collage_20140718090844144.jpg

I blame the happy water for clouding my judgment.

Despite me looking like a complete idiot, we went to bed very happy to have had the opportunity to share a great night with a beautiful family.

DSC06712.jpg

It started raining soon after breakfast and we hoped it would stop by the time we would have to start trekking again. Unfortunately it didn't let up and we arrived in Sa Pa completely soaked.

GOPR1822.jpgGOPR1837.jpg

Beep beep, coming through:

GOPR1887.jpg

I didn't do a great job at securing a plastic bag over my day pack and the train tickets were also soaked. We began to panic when we noticed the hotel staff's reaction to the drying tickets on the table. They were worried the controller wouldn't accept them and we would have to pay for two more tickets. I couldn't believe they would be that strict! The corners were damaged but the dates and ticket numbers were still clearly visible. Greg was giving me the I-can't-believe-you-forgot-to-put-them-in-the-dry-bag look - you know the one- and we didn't relax until we were taken to a restaurant/travel agency near the train station where a lady was able to staple them onto vouchers and reassure us that it would be ok. Luckily for us (ie me), they passed the test and we were soon in our cabin sharing stories with a very nice Norwegian traveler.

The first thing we did when we arrived in Hanoi was to visit our favorite travel agent Lucy to book our onward transportation to Dong Hoi, near Phong Nha - Kebang National park where we wanted to spend a few days exploring the park's famous caves. Lucy was great as usual and booked us on an overnight bus scheduled to leave Hanoi at 7pm that same night. We spent our last day in Hanoi wandering around, eating some of the street food we loved and trying new things like Egg with Coffee which the Drury's highly recommended. You can’t miss the unique way coffee is brewed in Vietnam through a small coffee pot/filter that sits on top of a glass or cup and often served with condensed milk. But, the lesser known, “Egg with Coffee” can only be found on certain coffee shop menus.

Whipped egg yolk with sugar and condensed milk - absolutely delicious!

DSC06764.jpg

We are now in Krabi, on the west coast of Thailand and having an amazing time with our travel buddies James and Natalie whom we met in Bangkok on July 12th. They are fantastic people and we couldn't have wished for better travel companions. Like I said in my last post, their blog is great and much more up-to-date than ours so keep an eye out for their Bangkok post which should be coming soon (marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com).

Phong Nha update next.

Greg and Issy.

Posted by gregandissy 06:28 Archived in Vietnam Comments (5)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 22) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 »