chilling feet

chilling feet

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Vietnam and Cambodia: Next Antarctica Again

(Taken from the train ride into Hoi An)
I really should not have waited so long to write this post.  The further away we get from a trip the more difficult it is to look back and give it justice in a post I am not nearly as interested in writing in comparison to one about a more recent venture, or one on the horizon.  But in our last post I only took us as far as Sa Pa, which leaves a good amount of Vietnam and all of Cambodia left to cover.  To this end, I will focus this post more on Cambodia, but it will also wrap up our spectacular times in Vietnam as well - it would be a shame to leave it off.  Also, I apologize.  I edited this at least once for errors and the changed were not saved.  I was way to lazy to do it again.  Read with your hearts people. 

(The lanterns - ya we bought a few. The prices
are actually really amazing)
After Sa Pa, we visited Hoi An.  To get from Hanoi to Hoi An we took an overnight train.  This was quite the adventure as it afforded us a way of travel we have rarely taken, along with some fascinating views of the Vietnamese coastline as we came into the area around Hoi An.  We quite enjoyed our time in this part of the country.  Not only did we try and love every food specialty Hoi An boasted, from Bahn Mi to White Roses, but this is the area where they make and sell really beautiful lanterns!  Unfortunately we were not able to visit the islands off the coast due to weather (and they are supposed to be amazing), so instead we went to a cooking class and rode bikes around the farms surrounding Hoi An.  We ate lots of food, had some dresses and suits made from hand (at truly outrageously low prices for handmade clothing), and even sought out some Vietnamese beer while we wandered around Hoi An.  Great place.

(The Great Holy See Temple - Cao Daism)
Next we headed down to the infamous Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon depending on who you are talking to.  I originally thought that Saigon was an old name for the city and it was an incorrect way to referring to a place with a new name.  One of our guides, you can judge for yourself by researching just one of many articles, told us if you're pro-communist you say Ho Chi Minh City while if you're not you say Saigon.  Well after that explanation it was Saigon to me!  What an interesting place with so much going on.  Again, plenty to eat and see everywhere we looked.  Our first day in Saigon, Getaway Halong Sapa, our tour agency, which again we cannot say enough good things about, had planned an interesting day for us.

(Where is Sarah?)
As a Christian minister, I am always interested to learn more and experience what I can of the local beliefs when we travel.  While this may not always be the case, I believe there is much one can learn about a people by seeing how they approach the divine, even though, like in the case of Cao Daism, I understand so little.  This faith is a combination of Buddhist, Confucius, and Christian views and traditions merged into one faith - I think there are a few other things worked in there as well.  One part of their faith I found to be most intriguing is that one of their three most venerated prophets is Victor Hugo - yes the author of Les Miserables.  Feel free to click on the link on their name if you'd like to know more.  We visited their temple and were allowed to come in during their noonday service to watch and listen.  Unfortunately there was no interpretation of what was going on, but it was still quite fascinating.

(There she is!)
After we finished at the temple we went to Cu Chi tunnels.  This is a museum and area dedicated to demonstrating what the tunnels were like that the Vietcong used during the Vietnam War.  A visitor can see everything from examples of the different sorts of traps they used to actually crawling through a 100 yard set of tunnels that have been preserved for exploration.  Parts of the trip like this were interesting as we always heard and learned things from a completely different perspective.  At times I certainly had to hold my tongue as I considered what I was learning to be quite fabricated, but in other moments it was certainly clear I had been told things in my youth that were equally muddled in political jargon.  It as a fun place to visit, nonetheless, and we enjoyed working our ways through the cramped tunnels, which have much less air to breath than the surface.  No way I could spend much time down there! And we were the only two in our group to take the entire 100 yard stretch.  Most quit after twenty-five yards and I think the rest bowed out at fifty.

(The tunnels were small, dark, and
narrow. Though I think our ex-
perience of them was quite nice
compared to during the war)
During this part of our trip our home base was Saigon.  After our Cao Daism and tunnel times, we spent the evening exploring the rooftops and streets of Saigon at night.  In the morning we were off again, this time to the Mekong Delta to see and experience still yet another way of Vietnamese life.  There are a set of islands in this delta with people doing anything from growing coconuts (a lot of them) to making honey to growing all sorts of other tropical fruit.  We were able to taste most of these things as we enjoyed a peaceful boat ride from island to island, having a super delicious lunch on one of them, and of course trying their snake wine while we were there (not sure I would recommend it but when in Vietnam).  Coconut candy, fresh tea with honey right off the cone, and a trip that ended with live music as some locals sang folk songs to us - our day of visiting the Mekong delta area was quite nice overall.

(Snake wine)
This left us with one more night and a day to explore Saigon before heading over to Cambodia.  Naturally this meant as much Vietnamese food as we could get our hands on in such a short amount of time (which included two stops for what they call Vietnamese pizza - so good!), visiting at least two breweries in the city, seeing the Vietnam War museum (a great place to get a different perspective on the war but quite depressing as well), drinking some ferret coffee (yes it is what you think it is), and seeing as many other sites in Saigon as we could handle in a short amount of time.  We are actually pretty good at getting out and figuring out what a city has to offer according to our interests.  The internet in combination with brochures at hotels and such can be quite a nice way to plan an adventure in any city around the world.  I read blogs that talk about particular places and foods, while Sarah reads tripadvisor .  At the end of the day it flushes out a lot of good options for what we like to do.  Here are some pictures of our "street pizza." I can taste it right now! (At the bottom I'll post our list of top things to do in Vietnam again)

Ok - Cambodia Time!!

We only went to two cities and spent six days in Cambodia.  The first of these two cities in the famed Siem Reap.  What's in Siem Reap?  Oh lots of ancient temples, most notably one called Angkor Wat.

This is one of the largest temples and archaeological sites in the world.  Not only is it beautiful and ancient, but the art and style in which the temple (and those surrounding Angkor wat) are wholly unlike almost anything we have ever seen.  The vastness of the land dedicated to the temple grounds is as much a part of the grand display as is the intensely intricate amount of detail committed to the sculptures and art carved into the walls.  One could dedicate hours to surveying the various outlying buildings and sculptures without even entering into the main structure itself.  I have not done research yet to see if what our tour guide told us was correct, but if what he said is true, the history of this place is almost as interesting as it is.  Originally built as a Hindu temple (to a very particular sect), it has survived a country who's overall religion has shifted a few times back and forth with Buddhism.  These changes are always dangerous for a place like Angkor Wat, but it seems for the most part that it did not suffer too much from the deliberate decimation that comes with religious changes.

(Angkor Wat from the backside.  There is no side to this thing that is not impressive)

We very much enjoyed our time at Angkor Wat, making sure to see as much of it as we could.  This often meant telling our guide we wanted to see a building he did not deem important enough to waste time on, but that was fine with us.  He was not keen, for instance, on us waiting the forty-five minutes to ascend to the highest part of the temple (the government only allows 100 people at a time to the top but there was no way we were missing that).  Our guide told us this was sort of the Mt. Olympus of the Hindu gods when it was built.  The bridge over the moat was like coming to the city of the gods, while the last climb we did was representative of visiting where they resided.  It was nice comparison that was easy to think about while walking through the temple.

But Angkor Wat is only the beginning of what we saw that day.  There are so many temples in the surrounding area it's almost kind of crazy.  So off we went in our tuk tuk and saw as many more of them as we could for the rest of the day, knowing we would need at least one or two more days to see even more of them.  Seriously.  Each temple we visited could have stood on its own as an impressive work of art, and each of them were only slightly over-shadowed by Angkor Wat - though one or two seemed to vie for our favorites.  I am not sure if there were temple building rules, of if each ruler had their own creative streak to exhibit, but one of my favorite parts of these temples was how they all differed from the last one.  Some of these variation were vast while others were less significant.  In some cases this meant dedicating an entire art form to the temple, like giant faces carved into almost every elevated portion of the temple, to placing a small temple in an island that can only be reached by boat after a long walkway which may or may not have existed when it was created.

To this end we went from temple to temple never really knowing what to expect.  Some had ancient looking trees seemingly growing out of the temple itself, while another seemed a giant geometric cross with corridors running along the axis of North, South, East and West.  It was exhausting trying to walk through them all and see everything they had to offer, knowing each time you chose going down one corridor you would miss something significant down the other.  But a person has only so much time to wander through temples before it gets dark and they make you go back to town.  So we did our best and tried to hurry our guide along, who was quite fond of long stories, in our attempts to experience as much as we could.

At night we would shop, eat food, get some drinks, shop some more (Sarah loves to shop), and then usually eat some more food.  I mean what better way to understand a country than to learn what types of food they eat right?  While in Siem Reap though, it is all really just resting up so you can go see more temples on the next day...unless you're into thinks like a silk farm, which we are.  The next morning we spent our time learning how Cambodians make their famous golden silk.  Super cool.  They took us through the process from beginning to end, from growing silk worms to the final beautiful silk product.  It was very interesting and good way to spend a portion of the hot day not outside walking through the hot and humid temple grounds.  I've got some great photos from this time but I might opt for only shots at more temples - still deciding.  Maybe at the end.

(It's hard to see but how many faces can you count? They are carved into almost every piece of this
temple you can see)

Then we spent another afternoon walking through more temples.  This time we did not hire a guide and we just ventured out on our own to see as much as we could of the temples we had not seen yet.  Hundreds of elephants either carved into the walls or as standalone sculptures, bats hiding in the dark recesses of darkness provided by certain high vaulted areas, monks wandering around in their orange robes, way less tourists in the late afternoon and away from the larger temples - we had a blast.  There were still several portions of temples we had to rush through due to a lack of time, but overall we saw most of what the area had to offer.  We even stopped off at a nearby, though sort of out of the way, museum dedicated to the mine fields of Cambodia.  It is an interesting stop and one dedicated by a man who laid several of these mines himself during the time of the Khmer Rouge, who then committed his life to disarming them and digging them up.  Worth the stop, though short and sweet.  Sweet meaning good, not nice or fun.  It's a serious topic for sure.

As our time in Siem Reap neared an end, we decided to follow up on one last suggestion from some friends and what we had read.  Being at Angkor Wat for sunrise.  Woah.  Outside of the thousand other people who also decided being there at sunrise was a grand idea, this really was worth the getting up ridiculously early to make it happen.  I had not yet managed to get a run in while in Cambodia, having been nursing a nagging injury and giving it some time off while we traveled, so I woke up a little bit earlier to run to the temple.  Sarah took a tuk tuk and met me there, where we then played the waiting game.  For the first little bit I felt we had wasted our time due to the overwhelmingly large number of people mixed with the locals trying to sell us breakfast or coffee.  Not exactly the peaceful sunrise I had expected.  But then the colors in the sky started changing and it was all gravy.  Certainly a sunrise to remember.  And then we were able to explore some more of the grounds we had not seen during our first day walking through Angkor Wat.

This brought our time to Siem Reap to an end and we headed to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and big city life.  After an all-night bus ride, we visited the presidential palace and the silver pagoda (along with everything else on the palace grounds).  We were quite tired and rugged from our bus experience, but the palace is certainly worth visiting as there is quite a lot to see in such a small area.  We ate more food (of course), spent an afternoon exploring the city, and got ourselves situated in a hotel Sarah booked for us right on the river - super sweet.  We then looked to tomorrow and booked a tour to go see The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing fields. 

Now this does not sound like fun, and it is not.  But it is a big part of the recent Cambodia history and while some people seem to ask why we went, I think places like this are important to visit.  There is a danger in those of us who did not experience such horrific events to dismiss or avoid thinking about such tragedies.  I have heard people say things like, "Surely that many people did not die in that genocide," or other such statements.  Well I will tell you it is difficult to pretend an evil of this magnitude did not take place when you stand exactly where it did.  When you walk the hall of a high school converted into a prison by power hungry rulers with a huge conspiracy problem and see where people were tortured to death, there is no room for dismissal.  When you read a sign that explains why a particular tree is called the killing tree and the description mentions the pieces of brain from children that were found there, the heart cannot process how another human is capable of such atrocities.  But capable we all are of such things and we must be reminded how easy it is for such things to take place.

So yes, we visited these places and we read the accounts of those hundreds of thousands of people who were wiped off the face of the planet because of the whims of a madman who never owned up to what he did.  I will not mention his name, for he is not important.  Those who were killed are the important ones and places like the killing fields remind us there is a time when people just like them need protecting.  Did it define our trip to Cambodia and ruin our stay there?  No.  It helped us learn about a portion of their history where the darkness was able to reign for a short time.  It certainly was not fun to read the placards posted on the walls of the prison or on the graves where the bodies of over 400 people were all found, but it was important for us to experience these things.  Let us all experience such so that we can see it coming and defy it with all of our being.

The rest of our time spent in Phnom Penh was the usual: eating, visiting temples in and around the city, shopping at the various stores (my favorite was Daughters of Cambodia), trying some Cambodia beers, and watching locals as we walked down their streets.  The one unusual thing we did was renting a motorbike.  We decided to experience the Cambodian culture the way they and the Vietnamese get around.  We rented (a scooter might be the right word) motorbike for cheaper than we could get around in tuk tuks and we headed out into the countryside to see more of the country we were traveling through.  For anyone who has ever seen how the locals drive these machines, this was somewhat of a daunting decision to make - at least for while we were in the city.  But we jumped on one, had plenty of adventures, and somehow made it out alive.  Some stories are reserved only for the closest of friends, especially when they involve motorbikes in Cambodia.  But if you're adventurous and have any experience riding one, we highly recommend it as a way to get around.  We wished we had rented one earlier to save money and have more fun.   

We very much enjoyed our Vietnam/Cambodia times.  Wonderful countries you should go visit.  The food and the people are amazing in both countries, offering so many places to go and wonderful things to do.  Both countries are super affordable to visit, though the prices for visiting the temples around Siem Reap have raised recently to reflect how significantly amazing the experience truly is.  We recommend everything we did during our stay in both countries, though as I mentioned in our last post on Vietnam, sometimes people do not have as much time as we did during our stay.  Below will be a suggestion of how much we enjoyed various places in Vietnam should you have to choose when making your own visit, and should you care what we think.

Our next post will be on the recent trip we took back to Antarctica.  This trip was very different and all through a cruise boat Sarah worked on as a doc.  Way more animals than our previous time spent at the South Pole, which was really amazing and I cannot wait to share about our times there.

A list of top things to see/do in Vietnam:

1.  Food - we loved all of the food we ate, with the exception of a few poorly made Ban Mi sandwiches, but I think that is because we had two that we so delicious.  I recommend you search what foods to try in each city.  It was more fun to try and eat dishes a particular area or city that was known for making it - such as egg coffee in Hanoi for example.

2.  Halong Bay - I had looked forward to it and it one of the most beautiful places we visited.  It was a bummer that there was a little bit of trash floating around but we also saw boats of people picking it up - nice.  I could have spent more time here!

3.  Hanoi - Originally I did not think I would enjoy having as much time as we had built into our schedule to be in Hanoi.  When we left Vietnam I wanted to go back to Hanoi.  There is so much to do and see!  From food and drinks to temples and museums to countless streets to shop on, Hanoi was very enjoyable for us.  We highly recommend spending some time here.  We walked a lot!  But we love to walk, and it was a great way to see the city.

4.  Hoi An - We very much enjoyed our time in Hoi An. Unfortunately we could not visit one of the highlights for this time, the Cham Islands, because of weather.  But we were thrilled with some food that is specifically Hoi An (seriously one of my favorite food spots in our Vietnam travels), had some dresses and a suit made here, and bought more than a few of the hand made lanterns (the prices are super good).  We liked Hoi An and you should go to there.  

5.  Mekong Delta - The delta was an interesting trip.  We got to spend a lot of time on the water and visit some fun places.  Coconuts!  This one I will talk more about in our second blog post on Vietnam, but it's a fun way to spend a day.

6.  Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon - Again, we enjoyed the time we spent in this big city quite a bit.  Breweries, food, rooftops, more food, and mostly just walking through the city to get a feel for Vietnamese city-life.  Quite the adventure.

7.  Hoa Lu/Tam Coc Day Tour - We enjoyed this tour but it took a long time to get there.  And while very beautiful the guides who rowed us up the river were a little bit pushy about tips.  Though it did not sour the experience it sure made it weird.  It is a nice area but if you were pressed with time I would visit Halong Bay or something higher on this list.  Still worth seeing and experiencing if you have the time to see more of Vietnam.

8.  Cu Chi Tunnels - This is lower on my list only because it was difficult to tell if we were actually traversing any of the tunnels that were used during the Vietnam War.  I would hazard a guess - no.  But it is the same area and if you are into history this is a must see place.  I will write more about this in our next post.

9.  Sa Pa - So I actually wrote a lot about Sa Pa in this post and though we did like it I rank it lower on our list because our weather was so damp and dismal.  I do believe if we had had a clear day this very well could have been a highlight of our trip.  We did enjoy it and it is worth seeing but it does take quite a bit of time to get there.  You should probably go to Sa Pa, however, if time is short I would not feel too bad at having left it off your list.

10.  Cao Dai Great Holy See Temple - This is last on my list for a few reasons.  It is on my list because through all of my religious studies in college and in seminary, this temple is quite unique.  I will write more about it in the next blog post, but what an interesting place!  I wish we could have spent more time there with someone who could have explained what was happening during the portion of a service we witnessed.  Watching any religious ceremony in another language is difficult, though still fascinating.

Some of the most memorable things we did, which I hope I will include in these posts, are things we stumbled upon or one of us discovered while researching what to do in certain areas online.  Go read up on these places by people who have been there and find some off the beaten path places to explore.  And make sure you won't end up missing something right near where you are traveling!!