A Travellerspoint blog

The North vs South: Hanoi, North Vietnam

overcast 19 °C

As the capital of Vietnam, it's even more busy and crowded than Saigon.  I can't believe I'm saying it, but Saigon actually had a more relaxed vibe. Our collective first thought was this city needs a big power wash and fresh coat of paint.  The smog is so thick, it covers the city in an intoxicating gray veil. But the big difference is: you really get the feel that big brother is watching. Uniformed officers are found on every street. Some are seen searching people's cars and motorbikes. Their eyes follow you as you cross in front. We avoided taking pictures of them in fear of having our cameras confiscated. Even facebook and BBC are banned. Who knows what they could do, but you're best to avoid any interaction with local police/military here. 

The corruption is more evident too. Normally you don't see people in a socialist country driving bentley's, Rolls Royce, Range Rovers, Porsche, or Aston Martin, but we saw plenty of them here. Foreign cars are taxed at 300%! And most people pay in cash. How? Almost everything is traded on the black market. It's the only way for people to make an income worth living for. Teachers charge students' parents extra fees if they want their kids to pass, even though school is "free."

There were a couple of - as Rachel put it best: "cultural" things we did in Hanoi, that I probably could have done without. 
1. The Water-Puppet Show
The theater wreaked of cigarettes. The whole show was in Vietnamese, so you had no idea what the background story was. The puppets weren't impressive and their movements were not well coordinated with the beat of the music. The best part was that it was only an hour long.

2. Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
The amount of police and military ordering you around makes you feel a bit violated. You have to park a half mile away, then you're marched through the complex in a two by two line with officers stopping you at every intersection with a firm look and hand out, until they deem it right for you to move again. Inside the mausoleum, you continue through in a single line, briskly walking, no stopping, no talking, no hands in your pockets (which I violated; twice), right past his glass coffin while staring at the wax-like figure inside. You get at most 20seconds to try and figure out if that's real or just a puppet. My guess is someone at Madame Tousaud's got paid a little extra for this craftsmanship. 

My favorite part of Hanoi was a perfect little oasis in the middle of the city: The Sofitel Metropole Hotel. We stumbled on it from a friend's recommendation for an afternoon snack & drinks. In the middle of the old French quarter stands a beautiful  white building in classical French style. Walking past the lobby you step into a dining room, filled with a chocolate and dessert buffet bar. The other option is high tea with delicious finger foods and cucumber sandwiches. Sitting in the plush teak chairs on the veranda by the pool, all of a sudden you notice: the air is cleaner, it's easier to breathe, there's no noise pollution, and everything is clean and neat. Best of all, the waiters understand you. We missed this, so so much!

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Posted by Noemad 03:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

The North vs South: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), South Vietnam

semi-overcast 30 °C

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Saigon pulsates at the rhythm of a million motorbikes. A mix of Asia-town and French colonial flare make this city a fun and welcoming change from our time in Cambodia. Just know this: it's a big city, and very crowded. Here, a walk down the street is not just an ordinary walk. First, make sure to leave all valuables at home/hotel. No flashy jewelry and preferably no backpacks or purses as bag-snatching is very common. Passports can be left at the front desk of your hotel to ensure it won't get lost. I never thought I would actually use a money belt, but I felt (and have been warned over and over) that this was the place for it. 
Next, learning to cross the street properly. First you need to know that traffic won't stop for you. Waiting for a break in traffic will leave you old and gray by the time you get to your destination. You are a rock in the sea of motorbikes and as you cross the street, the vehicles will continue to drive past you just as a river flows around a rock. You continue straight on, steadfast in your direction and try not to panic. It's almost like a perfectly choreographed dance, as long as everyone knows their part. By all
means, don't rent a car!!
The best way to experience it all is through a cyclo-tour. Organizations run cycle tours usually to raise money for charity, so it helps a cause also. Remember how fun it was to sit on the handlebars of a bike while someone else did the pedaling? Same concept, only the handle bars have been made into a comfortable cushioned seat and you have a local guide pedaling and steering. It's a great way to see the highlights of the city - post office, opera house, Notre Dame (Saigon version), etc. IMG_3922.jpgIMG_3928.jpgIMG_3957.jpgIMG_3933.jpg

Cu Chi Tunnels
We were lucky to have a local tour guide, who was also a Vietnam war veteran, take us back in history for a refresher course on the war. He was a commander for south Vietnam and had worked as a translator for the US troops. The tunnels were an integral part of the guerrilla warfare of the Vietcong and how the north won the war. The tour started with a propaganda video where they called the US "a bunch of crazy devils dropping bomb's on their beautiful rice fields and Lilly ponds." The tunnels were used by the Vietcong to hide out during the war.

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They would span 300 square km at a time, so if one tunnel was found, it wouldn't connect to all the others. We saw various booby traps and even got to crawl through a 100m section of the tunnels. They were very narrow, barely fitting an average sized person (not by American standards!) and you had to squat-walk through the whole time, going down as far as 60 meters. There was also a shooting range, where you could buy bullets and maybe act out a fantasy of shooting an AK47 or M60. It seemed like a strange tourist attraction to me but it made our whole experience of walking through the jungle with the sound of real shotguns and machine guns going off all that much more real!

Backpacker District

So far in every town we've been in, there's always a well known section popular with backpackers and expats. Local bars with cheap beer and food lures everyone in, and the friendly vibe and story-telling community keeps you there all night. With Aussies, British and American vagabonds walking about it almost feels like a home away from home. Everyone is eager to meet new people just so they have someone new to converse with that speaks their language. Conversation seamlessly moves from stories of the road to great tips on future destinations, politics, and everything in between. I wouldn't have imagined that on a trip like this, I would learn more about foreign policy, international finance, business and entrepreneurship than I ever did at home!
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25 cent beers!

Posted by Noemad 02:55 Archived in Vietnam Tagged saigon Comments (0)

From Hopelessness to Happiness

New Hope Foundation, Siem Reap, Cambodia

sunny 38 °C

New Hope Foundation

New Hope Foundation

To say that our time in Cambodia was life-changing or eye-opening is an understatement. It's been mind-blowing, followed by mind-numbing. This country is poor, in the lowest sense of the word. Unemployment is at 95%. Most kids don't get an education because their parents send them into the streets to beg, sift through trash for plastic bottles that they can redeem for money, or work on the farm if they're lucky enough to have one. 50% of the population is under 18 yrs old.  1 in 5 kids don't live past the age of 5 due to malnutrition or disease. Babies are fed rice water (which has no nutritional value) because their mothers are too emaciated to produce breast milk. 

In this sense, it's been mind-blowing. The poverty; the begging children. But then comes mind-numbing: where you're just so saturated with it all, thoughts of wanting to help and how keep floating about in your head. Then you quickly realize, you can't do it all at once. We took a boat ride on the largest lake in  SE Asia, Tonle Sap, to see the floating villages. That was a whole new level of poor. These people just live in stilt houses or boathouses on this massive lake, which is mud brown and filled with snakes and alligators. They have a floating school, and market. Some have turned their shacks into restaurants, and the big attraction is the alligator "farm." That's where they have a bunch of alligators corralled off of one side of the house,  so they can't swim away, but they just hang out in their pen. Their water is full of trash. They use them to make various alligator items like belts and purses. On the menu? Probably. As our powerboat sped by, we saw lots of children playing in the  water on the banks. A few houses down there was a little kid going to the bathroom right off the side of his house. Parents will send off their little 4-5 yr olds in a bucket, floating down the river, with a huge snake draped around their shoulders so they can beg for money from the tourist boats. 
We stare and wonder, and compare our lives to the glimpse we got of theirs. Is this the lowest of the low? How could it be worse? Maybe the only thing that's worse is stagnation. 

When you grow up collecting trash for money in Cambodia, you aspire to be a tour guide or tuk-tuk driver. They wear the "nice" clothes. One of those little boys promised to make a change. He picked through the trash for plastic bottles so he could pay his way through primary school. Eventually, he was able to buy a tuk-tuk. His business ran well, and he acquired 4 more tuk-tuks. Then, he decided to start an NGO to help other kids who were growing up just like him. His foundation is called New Hope, and with volunteers from Australia and all over the world, their organization grew. 

One of the reasons I decided to go with G-adventures is because they support the local people with all their tours and through the Planeterra Foundation. On our tour in Cambodia, we got to visit the New Hope Foundation, take a tour of their school (even sit in class for a lesson with the kids) and enjoy a delicious local-style lunch (including crickets!)
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I'll be honest in saying that I hardly ever support foundations, mainly because I don't know where my money is going. At New Hope, I could see exactly how donations were being used. They were finally able to build a new school - we got to tour their old location too (it was a concrete base with 2 shacks  built on it). New site for New Hope Foundation

New site for New Hope Foundation


For the kids that are a little older, they learn a trade, like sewing. They are also taught to run a restaurant and about western culture so they can find work in the hospitality industry.IMG_3598.jpg

The kids usually speak at least 3 languages - their native Khmer, english, and french. New Hope also built and runs a free health clinic. It's staffed by 3-4 nurses and one doc, all volunteers who come one month at a time. 90_IMG_3612.jpg
What this foundation does, is teach children to become self-sufficient, educated individuals, gaining confidence and live a life with dignity. 

When our bus first pulled up to the old school location (which now houses a couple families and battered women and children), we were greeted by the happiest little faces. 4 or 5 kids immediately ran up to us, hugging us and grabbing us by the hand. Waving us to come in. Mark and Sam became instant jungle gyms and the laughter and joy those kids had will forever echo in our ears. It's more evident than ever that you don't need much to be happy; it all comes from within. IMG_3571.jpg
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I will fully support New Hope when I get back to the states, and if you have a moment of free time, check out their website and see for yourself what your donations could do. 

New Hope Cambodia

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Posted by Noemad 04:36 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia new reap siem hope Comments (0)

Planes, Trains, and Tuk-Tuks

Siem Reap and Angkor

sunny 40 °C

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It's quickly evident, Cambodia is a very different country. 

It is well on its way to rising out of the ashes of a brutal war that ended only 35 years ago and lasted just 3 years 8 months. But that's all it took to wipe out nearly all of Cambodian traditions. In a massive genocide, an estimated 2-3 million people were killed, half the population at the time. It was at the hands of a maniacal general, Pol Pot, hungry for absolute power and submission from the people. 
Having to start from practically nothing, the younger generations don't have much to go on in the forms of traditions, as most of their families were killed. Therefore, the western influences are quite strong. The main street is loaded with KFC's, 7-11's, and cafe's. The center of town is a lively street, "Pub Street", which really comes alive at night along with another night market. It's loaded with restaurants and bars, massage parlors and ice cream stands. A popular tourist trap are fish "foot massages" - you sit around a specially made fish tank and dunk your feet in, the fish then nibble on them and eat the dead skin cells. We're avoiding it,  I heard it's really bad for the fish. fish food

fish food

Foodie's beware, there isn't much in the form of "Cambodian" cuisine or Michelin star restaurants when eating out. They have some dishes labeled "traditional Khmer food" but it tastes more like a less spicy version of Thai food. One dish called Lok Lak, is actually pretty good and I would recommend it! It's thin slices of beef in a sauce  with white rice. We ate at The Red Piano and The Temple, both popular and well recommended restaurants, but the menus were more of a sampling of international foods: it had everything from thai noodle dishes to pizza to cordon bleu and Belgian waffles. 

Angkor Ruins

The tourism industry is catapulting the country through years of oppression, but it's obvious there's a large gap between the five star hotels that line the main road in Siem Reap and the rest of the country. The roads are mostly dirt, only the major ones are paved. 

Siem Reap is the big city close to Angkor Wat, so it rightfully has been taken over by the tourist industry serving the temple. 

In the last 5 years, over 180 hotels have been built, expanding the town to 3 times it's size. No longer a little secret, the crown jewel of all temples, Angkor Wat, attracts over 2000 tourists a day! 

On the short drive to the temple, your view is of wooden shacks and many street children and even some young mothers carrying their babies, begging. There's an orphanage and free school on the grounds of the Angkor ruins and there are a few NGO's helping the community with free healthcare and education. Kids (usually less than 10yrs old) run up to you with little baskets of hand made bracelets and trinkets cutely saying "just one dollar." Ignore them and take a few more steps and the fare quickly drops to "I give you special, two for one dollar." Selling trinkets by the Angkor Ruins

Selling trinkets by the Angkor Ruins

However, giving them money will only keep them on the streets. Sometimes these kids have pimps which they pay, other times they learn to buy booze and drugs. At least if you ignore them, there's more of a chance they will attend school.

The city is currently negotiating a deal to build a bigger airport outside of Siem Reap that will accommodate large Boeing Jets for international travel. As of right now, only local flights are allowed and the number of flights are limited each day. There were no direct flights from Chiang Mai, so we had to connect through Bangkok, each flight only 40 mins long. Though that was a pain, I can't imagine what an even larger influx of tourists would do to this city. Angkor Wat is already showing signs of wear with marginal efforts for preservation and restoration. The holy temple and surrounding grounds have been renamed to "Angkor Park," which only makes me wonder how soon it will be before Mickey Mouse shows up. 

BUT, let me just clarify, Angkor Wat and all the other ruins surrounding it (over 1000 of them) are absolutely magnificent. Without a doubt, a must see lifetime experience. Pictures won't do it justice, and reviewing those picture afterwards will take your breath away a second time. We saw Angkor Wat at sunset the first day we got in. Then we made a group decision to wake our asses up at 430 the next morning to see it again at sunrise. Even though sunrise is at 630, you have to get there that early or otherwise the other hundreds of tourists will take up your good view. Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Angkor Wat at Sunrise


If you're a die hard coffee drinker and just can't crack those eye-booggers in the morning, no worries: there's a whole village of locals who line the edge of the temple, and will happily take your order and bring you a cup of coffee or tea for just one dollar. (BTW, although the local currency is the "Real", the dollar is accepted everywhere. So much so that you don't even have to change over money and even ATM's spit out dollars).

Angkor Wat at Sunset

Angkor Wat at Sunset


Bas-relief

Bas-relief

Monks at Angkor Wat

Monks at Angkor Wat

When I looked at the itinerary of this trip, I wondered why we would be touring the ruins for 3 days. Well it turns out, there's so many ruins no less magnificent than Angkor Wat, it would be a shame not to visit more. 

My favorite was actually Ta Prohm, aka, the tomb raider ruins. Yes, Angelina Jolie pranced around these ruins herself, but what's so cool about them are the trees. There's a special tree called the "Spung" tree. It has a shiny bark, enormous roots, and grows very quickly (for a tree). So they have grown on top of and inside of these ruins, with their roots growing over walls into the ground. It's spectacular and truly makes you feel like Indiana Jones and Lora Croft are giving you a tour of their set. 
Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Temple


Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Do you see the face?

Do you see the face?

Ta Prohm Ruins

Ta Prohm Ruins

Ta Prohm Ruins

Ta Prohm Ruins

Ta Prohm Ruins

Ta Prohm Ruins

We also visited Angkor Thom, which was actually an ancient city. It's 5 times bigger than the Angkor Wat complex, so the best way to get around is via bike or tuk-tuk, or you can be posh like us and have a van drive you around. The heat was very hard to bear, it registered 41 deg C, and one of our group members (sweet Rachel) almost had a heat stroke. Hydrate! Use sunblock & a hat and scarf to drape over you! 

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Posted by Noemad 16:08 Archived in Cambodia Tagged siem_reap angkor_wat ta_prohm_ruins Comments (0)

Same Same, but different!

As the Hangover II so aptly made famous, "lady-boys" are a common sighting in the major cities of Thailand. We couldn't help but watch one of the Cabaret Shows at the Chiang Mai Night Matket, which is a drag show to shame most others! 

Our tour leader described the history of how it all became popular. Obviously, same-sex attraction and relationships are taboo in most of the world, even today. In Thailand the young boys who clearly felt attracted to the same sex, were so often shunned and demoralized by their friends and family that they would commit suicide. The Thai, being a very sensitive people, especially in family matters - were so hurt by the many suicides, that they slowly began to accept the true identity of their children. This resulted in more and more openly gay dress and eventually drag shows. After about 10 years and an increasing popularity and international exposure for the shows, the thai became embarrassed by the notoriety they gained and slowly shut down many gay bars. Although not hard to find, gay bars are more often associated with brothels these days. 

Honestly though, when looking at the faces of some of these drag queens, it's next to impossible to tell the difference of their true sex - I mean, they make beautiful girls! So now when looking at some of these girls without a trained eye, the saying goes "same same, but different!"  Better look twice!

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Posted by Noemad 03:38 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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