Mekong

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

After staying out late the night before, the early morning bus trip into the Mekong Delta came far too early.

We were on the bus and ready to go at 7 a.m. When we got on the bus we realized we were part of a large tour group that would likely result in a highly regimented and overly touristy trip through the Mekong Delta and into Cambodia. While this was exactly what it turned out to be, there probably isn’t a better option to travel from Saigon to Phnom Penh via the Mekong Delta without a lot of additional transportation planning.

Our guide had terrible jokes, many if which he repeated over and over again throughout the journey.

One the first day we traveled from Saigon to Can Tho with stops along the way for short boat rides through narrow creeks, lunch on a small island and a short trek through a fruit plantation.

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Our day ended in the town of Can Tho, where we were left to our own devices to explore and find a place for dinner.

After dinner we browsed through a few of the town’s underwhelming markets, which we stocked full of cheaply made clothes and trinkets, before making our way back to the hotel excited to see the Mekong’s largest floating market the next morning.

Friday, May 30th, 2014

Once again our day started bright and early with breakfast at the hotel before we set out with the group for the river dock in the center of Can Tho. Our entire group quickly boarded into a long narrow boat and we set off down the river toward the much anticipated market.

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The market was promised as a significant part of the tour and we were expecting to spend quite some time cruising back and forth between the many boat stalls purchasing fruit and veggie snacks. Of course, like many of these organized tours we only took one quick lap around the market before they quickly hustled us on to the next scheduled group toilet break.

From the market our boat headed deeper into the delta and we stopped at two more destinations nestled back in some of the small canals connected to the larger river.

The first stop was at a small family workshop that produced rice paper. We were able to spend about 15 minutes watching this local family work during the mid-day heat over burning ovens. It was actually a really cool process to see in action.

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Our second, and last stop, before returning to tour buses was at a small riverside village. Upon arrival we were able to rent pedal bikes and take a quick ride along the banks of the various canals, peaking into the lives of small homes and shops lining the water’s edge.

At the conclusion of the bike ride, we all piled back into the boat and set our course back to Can Tho and the awaiting tour buses.

The early afternoon was spent sitting on the bus as we made our way toward Chau Doc near the Vietnam-Cambodia boarder. En route we stopped at Tra Chu Bird Sanctuary, a flooded forest and swampland that is home to a wide variety of birds and other wildlife.

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We toured the mangrove forest in a bunch of small row boats and saw countless storksand other birds as our boats slid through the still, quiet waters.

By the time we returned to the bus from the sanctuary dusk was already beginning to set in. It wasn’t too long before our bus pulled up to our hotel in Chau Doc for our last night in Vietnam.

It took us quite a while to find somewhere to eat, but we finally found somewhere amenable and then finished the evening walking along the river bank.

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

We woke up on Saturday morning ready for our slow boat ride to Phnom Penh.

The day started as expected. We boarded a boat and visited a small fishing village before heading up river toward to Cambodian boarder.

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It was when we arrived at the boarder control after only 30 minutes in the boat that things took a turn for the worst. After passing through immigration we learned despite the fact we purchased a “slow boat” ride from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh, the “slow boat” portion of the trip was only from Chau Doc to the boarder. From the boarder we were expected to ride in a tiny minivan the rest of the way to Phnom Penh.

Although the boat was not supposed to take us all the way to Phnom Penh, it was supposed to take us to Neak Leung, with a mini van ride the rest of the way.

After a massive argument with the captain of the boat and a phone call to TNK Travel, we were unable to resolve the issue.

“It’s not a slow boat then, is it? It’s more like a slow bus.”

Frustrated and annoyed we piled into the minivan and drove the rest of the way to Phnom Penh and the Funky Monkey Hostel.

 

 

Saigon

Monday, May 26th, 2014

Our flight from Hue to Saigon was rescheduled from 2:30 p.m. to 5:50 p.m., so by the time we finally landed in the former capital of South Vietnam it was already dark.

While waiting in baggage claim we met a Vietnamese woman who offered to “split” a taxi with us to the backpacker district of Saigon near Pham Ngu Lao Street.

We dropped her off outside the ice cream shop she owned, before continuing in the taxi to our hotel, Beautiful Saigon 3 where the driver told us she paid for our whole fare.

The hotel is positioned in the heart of the backpacker district in walking distance to a number of restaurants, bars and coffee shops – including a Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Since it was already late, we decided to eat in the restaurant at our hotel before heading out to explore the streets of Saigon. After roaming around and checking out a bunch of different restaurants and bars, we decided to set up shop among the crowds of backpackers sitting street-side on bamboo mats drinking dollar beers.

We spent the rest of the night sitting on the side of the road, drinking, talking and people watching.

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Having already been to Saigon back in 2011 with @THE_REAL_JW, I helped lead Tarynne on a whirlwind tour of the best sights in the city.

Our first stop was the Independence Palace, the home of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. At 10:45 a.m. on April 30, 1975 it was the site of the end of the Vietnam War when tanks from the North Vietnamese Army came crashing through the gates. The building is now known as Reunification Palace, and serves as a museum celebrating North Vietnamese Army’s victory.

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After touring around the palace, we made our way to the War Remnants Museum. The museum contains a variety of different exhibits that show the tragedies of war. The exhibits are clearly one-sided and put together from the perspective of the North Vietnamese, but it’s definitely eye-opening seeing the war depicted from the other side.

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Oh yeah – of all the interesting memorabilia for sale – Tarynne gets Despicable Me, Monsters Inc and Up coasters…for the glasses and house we don’t even have. Hey, it was a good purchase. 

We ended up closing down the War Remnants Museum, and it was already beginning to get dark as we made our way home. On the way back to the hotel Tarynne made us stop at a gym to see if they offered yoga classes – they did, but Tarynne determined it was so expensive the zen benefit wasn’t worth it.

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Once we made it back to our room we cleaned up and set out for dinner. We decided to eat at a place @THE_REAL_LW and I frequented during our past visit to Saigon. The restaurant is located at the end of one of the backpacker alleys and made up of a couple of plastic tables and chairs.

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We sat back and relaxed under the lights of the city, sipping on Saigon beers and enjoying yummy, cheap Vietnamese food. Eventually we decided it was time to head back to the street-side bamboo mats for some night cap drinks and quality people watching.

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

During the night a massive rain storm rolled in and from the moment we woke up until late afternoon it poured rain. We took refuge for most of the day in a Starbucks and I worked while Tarynne researched our next few destinations.

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(T: The streets all flooded which translates to a no-go with citywide plumbing. Our hotel smelled like a septic tank so we played musical rooms a handful of times before deciding our only option was to burn enough incense until a thick heavy scented smoke distracted our noses). When the rain stopped we went back to the hotel and booked our trip for the next day to the Mekong Delta and subsequent boat and bus ride to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

With our trip booked for the following day, we decided to take one last stroll around the city. Dark clouds loomed on the horizon behind the Saigon skyline, but directly above us the rain held off.

We set out in the evening light to take a look at the famous Saigon Post Office and nearby cathedral. Unfortunately we weren’t able to bring the camera due to the imminent threat of a torrential downpour.

Thankfully, after seeing the post office and cathedral we were able to make it back to Pham Ngu Lao Street without getting caught in a rainstorm.

We ate dinner at the restaurant in our hotel before returning to our drinking and people watching perch on the bamboo mats on the side of the road. We ended up sitting roadside late into the night, chatting with the people around us.

With a large number of Saigon Beers in our bellies and an early start the next morning we finally determined it was time to go home, but not before we made a quick detour to the neighborhood McDonald’s for a late night snack.

 “Boo, we hit McDougs hard last night.”

Hue

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

We left Hoi An in early afternoon. It was sad to say goodbye to the Sunshine Hotel, our clean, cozy and comfortable home for the previous five days. We would miss the spacious room, palm tree surrounded pool and extravagant buffet breakfast, but were excited to continue our adventure on to the next destination: Hue.

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Hue is the capital city of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province, and between 1802 and 1945, it was the imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty. Our bus rolled into central Hue in the early evening and we were already hungry by the time we checked in to Hue Backpackers Hostel. While not quite as impressive as Sunshine Hotel, Hue Backpackers has a sweet bar, fun vibe and is in a great location for exploring the city.

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With only a limited time to explore the former imperial capital, we set out for a stroll around the neighborhood under the evening light in search of food and a cold drink. We eventually stumbled across a Gecko Restaurant and decided we better eat there, before we got too hungry and ill-tempered. After dinner we made our way to DMZ Bar, an old ex-pat and backpacker’s institution where we had some beers, vodka diets and chatted the night away.

Monday, May 26th, 2014

We woke up on Monday morning to find that our early afternoon flight to Saigon had been delayed until 6 p.m. With almost a full day ahead of us, we rented a scooter and set out to explore the city. After filling up with fuel at a gas station dangerously positioned on the perimeter of a massive roundabout, we whipped across the Perfume River and headed west toward the Thien Mu Pagoda.

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The pagoda itself is fairly underwhelming, but it’s located on well-kept grounds and the gardens boast nice views of the surrounding lush green jungle spilling into the deep murky river that winds in and out of Hue.

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Having enjoyed a quiet walk around the pagoda and through the grounds we climbed back on our scooter and cruised back into the city to visit the old, crumbling Imperial City of the Nguyễn Dynasty.

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The Imperial City is made up of a large walled area on the north side of the Perfume River. Back in its hay-day, inside the great walls was a forbidden city where only the emperors and those close enough to them were granted access. Today, mostly what remains of the forbidden city are a few structural walls and various building foundations. Although, significant renovations are underway and the city is once again beginning to come to life.

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The ancient city is not only in ruins because of its age, but also because of excessive damage from air strikes during the Tet Offensive. In early 1968, Hue was seized by the Viet Cong and the entire city, along with the ancient imperial city was subject to extensive bombings by the U.S. and South Vietnamese. Bullet holes from the fighting can be found in the stone walls and remaining metal artifacts.

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After walking around and exploring the massive, maze like imperial city, we hopped back on our scooter and headed back across the river for a late lunch at Mandarin Cafe.

Mandarin Cafe is a must visit restaurant for anyone staying in Hue and is owned by local photographer Mr. Pham Cu. While we were eating, we had the privilege of meeting Mr. Cu and he showed us some of his fantastic photos of Hue and the surrounding landscapes. His photos have been taken over decades and clearly show how much the city as changed and evolved.

Having gotten wrapped up in conversation with Mr. Cu we lost track of time and had to race back to the hostel in time to catch our bus to the airport.

Thankfully, we made it back in time for the quick 30 minute ride to the airport. Our flight left about two hours later, just before 6 p.m., and we were on our way to Saigon.