Arriving back from Sapa at 4:30am we headed back to the hostel for a quick shower & brekkie before heading off at 8:00am for our trip to Ha Long Bay. Ha Longs beauty is immense. The karst islands peer out of the water like humps on a dragons back. This is where it gets its name from too. The islands were stunningly beautiful as we glided through them aboard our junk boat. Ha Long is the jewel in Vietnams crown – its simply amazing! We had a bit of a lucky score on this trip and we got a free upgrade to a luxury boat – Nice! We had a room with a view too as we could lie in bed and stare out at the islands as they floated by. We spent one night on the boat and got up for sunrise the next morning after breakfast we headed back to Ha Long city and onwards to Hanoi.



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Off to the hill tribes we go. We rocked into Hanoi at 8am in the morning after a slightly better overnight bus from Hue. We immediately booked our trip up to Sapa for later on that night and spent the day in Hanoi. That night we caught a sleeper train to Sapa arrived at 5am and an then another hour in a minivan up the mountain to Sapa. A quick bit of breakfast and then we were off walking with our guide Be. We were ‘accompanied’ along the way by about 20 of the local village folk who’s village we were going to. It was a really cool experience chatting to the locals as we trekked to their village. We started out in the cloud and rain which only started to let up once we got downhill a bit. Some of the tracks that they brought us down were seriously dodgy, with all the rain and moisture around it made going downhill a pretty hairy ride. At one point a french gentleman in our group lost his footing and gained a bit of momentum that nearly had half the group all going down together, but the little local women (and I mean little – all less thn 5ft tall) saved the day and stopped certain injuries. From then on it was funny to see that most people had one or two ‘helpers’ to bring them down to the village. I got a little cocky not needing anyones help and started follow the locals down at their pace and route. Of course this ended in disastor and I ended up with one leg firmly stuck in whats known locally as buffalo chocolate or buffalo shit to you and me! All the locals were wetting themselves laughing at me but sure all you can do is laugh with ’em.
The next day we picked up a new guide ‘Zi’ who was a 16 year old local girl from a new village. She brought us to the next village called CatCat and it beautiful waterfall. This ‘trek’ was a bit of a sham, as the locals had lined that walk to the waterfall with an endless stream of shops selling the usual tourist tat. But the walk back up from the waterfall was a bit better and we took a different route back running alngside the local paddy fields. Zi and Lisa became instant friends and by the end of it both lisa and herself had matching indigo blue hands as she demonstrated to us how the locals extracted the indigo dye they use to colour their hemp clothing.

That afternoon, we headed to the local markets on our own to see what was going on. We were wandering through th ‘meat’ section checking out the live fish for sale in bowls of water, the rows of chicken feet sticking aimlessly up in the air when Lisa turned to me and said “What’s that over there?” I turned to discover a rather large dog that had been skinned and prepared for cutting up. As soon a we got sight of it the local shop owner covered it up so as not to attract the disgust of more tourists. To our surprise its quite a delicacy here and lots of people eat it . There’s quite a few restarants that just specialise in dog meat. Needless to say we didn’t try it!

Hue was the capital of Vietnams imperial past. The Old citadel surrounded by a moat and huge walls protected the imperial palace, within the walls of the palace stands another citadel used only by the family and entourage of the imperial court known as the purple city. The city is flanked by the perfume river which is a handy orientation point for any new visitor. We got brave one day and decieded to do a motor cycle tour (we weren’t driving) and we were whipped around the city and it sights by 2 young fellas on the back of their bikes. It was great fun and it got us to experience whats its like to drive a bike in vietnam – bleedin’ crazy! They don’t stop for red lights, the drift along on the wrong side of the road and just kept beeping at everything. But still we arrived back alive at the end of the day, TG for that.

Hoi An, a pretty little city.
We came to Hoi An for the clothes and came away from it with one of our favourite places in Vietnam. When we arrived we headed straight for the tailors, Hoi An has between 200 & 500 different tailors around the town. Its the capital of copies when in comes to clothes, as we browsed through Armani, Vivien Westwood, Gucci latest collections in the hope of a cut price knock off. Of course we seccumed and ended up getting 3 winter jackets, one suit, one dress and one shirt, all hopefully slowly crossing the ocean en route to Ireland by now.
The town is a UNESCO world heritage site, quiet quant streets had us wandering around for hours in this sleepy fishing town. It was one of the few cities spared the worst of the war, As there was agreement on both sides not to bomb the town. This has kept much of the architecture intact like the old Chinese gathering houses and the famous japanese bridge. We really enjoyed our stay here while waiting on our clothes to be made. Mammy Bernie please look out for a box in the post. While waiting we enjoyed the Hoi An Cuisene at a little gem of a place cafe 43 where we had beers for 10cent and local dishs our favourite was the Coa Loa a fat rice noddle dish with tofu or pork and fresh herbs and lettuce yum yum !! Great for any time of the day but this is typically served as breakfast.


 

Onward to Nha trang via another poxy overnight bus made for miggets. Nha trang is basically a big city with a really good beach. There’s not a huge amount to do here but eat sleep, lie on beach and of course drinking. We stayed here for 4 nights in a cool little hotel just a 2 min walk to the beach, it was also the only hotel we’ve stayed in that we had a beach view – quite a luxury when your backpacking it and trying to pay as little as possible it was only $10 a night.On the second last day we took a snorkeling trip around the local islands. We thought we were doomed for a day of rain as it started to rain just as we were leaving port, only to leave behind the rain in Nha trang and head off into clear blue skies. The coral here was really nice and colourful, we got to stop off at 2 different sites to explore the underwater landscape. We also had the most amazingly large buffet lunch for such a small little boat. To marks to the crew of the ‘Amazing Snorkelling trip” who gave us a great spread.
 
Lisa went to the toilet after lunch and they had a large bin of water to use as a flush with a cup in it, when flushing she noticed some floating and on looking again she saw it was a small rat, of course she went balistic screaming that there was a rat in the toilet so the guys threw the bucket of water into the sea. And we said goodbye to the rat and carryed on with the snorkelling after a little rest after lunch. Funny thing happened we started to snorkel and one of the aussie guys was climbing up the ladder on the back of the boat and he discovered the little rat sitting on one of the steal trusts of the ladder so the captian came down with a hook stick thing and hit the little fella like a golf shot a hundred yards out to sea. What was soo funny was the rat came back again towards the boat, they can swim quite well and then he disapeared I think that golf shot took it out of him a bit what was quite a horrifing situation that turned kinda funny in the end with a little resilliant rat.
 


White sands, blue skies, palm fringed beaches. The booming sounds of soaring kites overhead pulling along kitesurfers at break neck speeds along the shorefront. Mui Ne is a kitesurfers dream, strong winds, nice weather and a clear coastline. It wasn’t bad for us that didn’t kitesurf either as we could whitle away hours on end watching the acrobatics of the pros and the mistakes of the novices. We spent about 3 days here with Gemma &Anthony too. It was great to get away from the city and just sit back and relax on the beach with a good book and nice weather. We popped out to see Mui Ne’s famous red & white sand dunes, The dunes though they were beautiful were a little underwhelming especially after being to the desert in Peru. They also had some sand boarding too although it was a little pedestrian by comparison,  they were pretty cool we rented little what looks like sheets of lino for like 50cent and we climbed up the dunes and then sped down on our sheets we knocked a good bit of fun out of it anyway!

Arriving into Vietnam after another dodgy border crossing, this time at the border we had a massive Las Vegas style casino sitting smack in the middle of no mans land. It was huge, dwarfing all other buildings around it. From what we heard afterwards people come from miles around to it. We arrived into Saigon under the cover of darkness and headed for the main backpacker area with a vague idea of which hotel we were looking for. We arrived at ’96 Room for Rent’ and it was a grand little find, super helpful staff, clean and tidy guesthouse and had a handy convieniance store downstairs with everything you’d ever need. Best of all, right across the street from it was our “local” a brilliant little street pub that appears at the front of a couple of shops as it gets dark. We sat there every night drinking 50c beers watching the madness that is life in Saigon go on by. We met up with Gemma & Anthony from England in our guesthouse and they helped me do some drinking while Lisa sat by drinking diet cokes (she was also on some perscription drugs for her bad cough – poor Lisa missing out on such cheap beer)

Saigon has plenty to see and do and we ended up staying 6 nights as we hopped  around from the reunification palace, the botanic gardens (zoo), war remnants museum, good art museum and some great markets. But it wasn’t the sights that really sucked you in but the buzz of this vibrant city. The traffic was incredibile, there are 9 million people living in Saigon and there are 5 million scooters, not including cars, buses, trucks etc. It was mental just crossing the road on the first day, as we stood waiting for about 10 minutes for a break in the traffic, locals were casually passing us and heading out into the traffic as scooters beeped and swerved around them. We eventually got the hang of it and we slowly crossed the road keep eyes and ears peeled in both directions for the next suicidal scooter driver came at ya! The best fun happens at around 4-5pm when everyone is heading home, they use the footpaths as extensions to the road and even beeped at us to get outta the way – sheer madness but we thankfully didn’t get knocked down.

The food here was amazing, enjoying some of the local specialties like Pho (noodle soup eaten for breakfast or lunch)were best eaten from the side of the street and we had some great meals at Quan An Ngon enjoying some of the best range of food from throughout Vietnam. Gemma & Anthony introduced us to some new Indian dishes at Mumtaz Indian restaurant which was at the end of our street, Lisa has found her new favourite in Chenna Massala (Chickpea masala curry) and its pretty amazing I gotta say.

The people too are brilliant, happy friendly, smiling people who work so hard that it would put most of us to shame. They have great pride in their city and you will see them constantly sweeping the streets outside their shops. They make great use of their public spaces too, which by day are ordinary parks, but as night starts to fall they come alive with people playing badminton, excercising or playing this cool foot volley game with a type of spring loaded shuttle cock. They seemed to be having the best craic playing it. Of course with every massive city it has its fair share of beggars, street sellers, tuk-tuk and cyclo driver trying to get a fair from you but this all adds to the vibrance of the city.

One of the final days we were there we went off to see the Chu Chi tunnels that were used by the Viet Cong army during the war. From here they ate, lived and attacked. The tunnels are really cramped and I would hate to be stuck in them for any amount of time. They have been ‘widened’ to accomodate for western sizes as when the vietnamese used them they were far smaller. Check out the photos to see how cramped we are in them.

After Battanbang we hit for the capital Phenom Phen. When we arrived we heard that some national holidays were starting for the next few days and the city pretty much shut down as everyone headed back to their home villages. This mainly affected going out to restaurants etc but also to our laundry. We dropped it in one day and went back the next day to collect it only to find it closed for 2 days and so we got stuck for an extra 2 day’s in the city waiting on laundry!

But while there we got to visit the ghosts of Cambodia’s grizzly history, we visited the S21 prison  where a huge amount of people died and were tortured there. We also visited the killing fields, which by the end of the tour we were very depressed. It was the sight of such horror and death that really shook your soul.

After Phenom Phen we headed for the beach in the hope of finding a bit of sand and sun. Unfortunately it was still wet season so the rain poured everyday but at least not all the time. Kep was a sleepy little town with was a fashionable favorite with the French and well heeled locals before the 1940’s. When the revolution began and the French pulled out they left behind their villas to become crumbling ruins today. These eery shells have been snapped up by now but are a ghostly reminder of the towns once fashionable past. Kep is famous for its seafood, we went to the crab market a little outside the town and had lovely spicy crab and prawns with a fresh local pepper sauce which was delicious.

We went on a local river boat across to Battanbang.  The trip was pleasant enough although at the height of rainy season there wasn’t much to see, it was quite fast and for the first half we zoomed around tufts of greenery on the lake. We passed through floating villages with pretty bungalows with locals coming out meeting the boat on their small rowing boats, to send post, food and a small table and chairs up river.  They trip became more interesting when we got a bit closer to our destination as it became surrounded by  jungle lush green trees. We arrived early enough which was a surprise for us as we though it was an eight hour journey turned out to be five, didn’t know was it because the water was high or the boat was fast.

We got a tuk-tuk into town (which was about 5k away) to the Royal Hotel a grand place cheap and cheerful, clean rooms with cable and wifi for $6 a night,sound. We arranged with our tuk tuk driver Oh La La (yep, that’s his name) to do a couple of sights in the afternoon. We headed out in the afternoon to Phnom Sampeau which there is a short walk up a paved road to a buddist temple where they had probably the most colourful paintings ever. Then we went on to the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau where there is a memorial filled with the bones and skulls of some of the people bludgeoned to death by Khmer Rouge, who threw the people into the cave from a hole at the very top. It was very sad to see this but I think good to completely understand what horrors these people have gone through not so long ago, as unbelievable as it seems.

Afterwards we stopped by a local phenomenon – the Bat cave, at around 5 o’clock every evening the bats of this local cave come out to feed but there are literally millions of bats – check out the video!

All in all I would consider the Cambodians to be the most friendly genuine and honest people in SE Asia, and even after all there troubles they seem to always be smiling and welcoming, they are slowly building there country and tourism is one of the main things doing that,  I can honestly say I was a little apprehensive about the country but you don’t have anything to worry about it is genuinely a lovely place to visit.

The next day we got up early and headed for the bamboo train ride. Initially built by the french but later abandoned and developed by the locals to transport people and food between two villages, and now recently it has become a tourist attraction. You take a return trip of 20km in total flying it on this temporary open air train made from bamboo gliding through  rice paddies across make old bridges and warped train lines in bad need of repair. It was good fun stopped at a village chatted to some kids for a while and then headed back the way we came, if you meet anyone coming in the opposite direction u have to dismantle the train and wait for them to pass then put it back together on the track again. It was a cool experience and its due to close soon as the government is updating the rail line with a new modern train.

Getting up before 5:30 is never going to be our strong points but for some things you just have to do it. This was always going to be one of our highlights when we set our South East Asia and it didn’t disappoint. Our early start had us out to the main site of Angkor watt just as the sun rose and immediately we were struck with the awesome size of the place, while we had been to the Lost City in Colombia & The Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru they both had nothing on the scale of this place. The only place that we could compare it with would be something like Ancient Rome in size. Crossing the 200metre long bridge across the moat we found the jewel in the Cambodian crown. Angkor Wat envokes huge pride amoungst the Khmer people and they are right to.

We spent the day being shuttled around the sights of Angkor complex by our Tuk-tuk driver ‘Amy’. We hoped from Angkor Wat to Bayon, Bayon to Phimeanakas, Elephant terrace, Lepers King terrace and Phreah Pithu before finishing off with Ta Keo and Ta Phrom. We were finished early afternoon and headed off for some food and drinks. We sat outside a restaurant  and were entertained by the street kids who were out selling bits and pieces. We were amazed by some of them who spoke better Irish than we did along we several other languages! Although we didn’t buy anything because we were told that the children are put to work on the streets by their parents, we gave them all some food and they were delighted by this as it seems they get little at home. One of the little girls even gave Lisa some braclets and wrote her a postcard thanking here for the food and wanting to know our names – Ah bless them! It really broke our hearts.