Angkor Wuuut?

Mava and I parted ways with Felix in Sihanoukville and made our way to Siem Reap. Unbeknownst to us this would be the best bus ride. Ever. We had WiFi, our own (working) outlets, (clean) pillows and blankets, and a curtain for privacy. Pure luxury! We checked into our hostel (with a pool!) and explored the city and its markets.

While most people come to Siem Reap as a gateway to Angkor, Mava and I had one week to explore the quiet and laid-back town. Our days were spent lounging by the pool and visiting markets, and our nights were spent between the night market and Pub Street. We visited Artisans d’Angkor and the Angkor Silk Farm, where we learned how incredible the silk making process is through all the different stages, as well as understanding the traditional Cambodian weaving techniques.

We also got to visit the floating village of Kompong Phluk, mounted above the banks of the Tonle-Sap-Great Lake. Since the past season had been very dry, parts of the floating village were in fact not floating. It was interesting to see how the entire village depends entirely on the ebb and flow of the lake.

Finally, we made it to la pièce de résistance, the Angkor Archaeological Park. The entire 400 square kilometer park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, filled with historic temples, hydraulic reservoirs, ancient highways and forests. We rented bikes for the day and visited Angkor Wat, the iconic temple with lotus-like towers at the heart of the park, and Angkor Thom, the ancient walled city, within which many more temples are found. Needless to say, this was one of the most spectacular things I had ever laid eyes on. Here are four fun facts about Angkor Wat:

  • Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century as the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the home of ancient Hindu gods. With passing time, each Cambodian god-king strove to better his ancestors’ structures in size, scale and symmetry, leading to what is believed to be the world’s largest religious building.
  • Angkor Wat is famous for having more than 3000 beguiling apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into its walls. Each of them is unique, and there are 37 different hairstyles for budding stylists to check out.
  • Visitors to Angkor Wat are struck by its imposing grandeur and, at close quarters, its fascinating decorative flourishes. Stretching around the outside of the central temple complex is an 800m-long series of intricate and astonishing bas-reliefs – carvings depicting historical events and stories from mythology.
  • Eleanor Mannikka explains in her book Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship that the spatial dimensions of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the four ages (Yuga) of classical Hindu thought. Thus the visitor to Angkor Wat who walks the causeway to the main entrance and through the courtyards to the final main tower, which once contained a statue of Vishnu, is metaphorically travelling back to the first age of the creation of the universe.

 

 

Next stop: Bangkok!

Mellow Yellow rating: 💛💛💛💛💛

Traveler’s tips: we stayed at Garden Village for one night and then moved to a cheaper hostel since they were renovating the dorms (but continued to use their pool). Artisans d’Angkor is free and worth the visit if you have time. The Floating Village tour is a bit of a ripoff in retrospect. Visiting Angkor by bicycle is the cheapest option ($1 for the whole day) but can be very tiring since it’s super hot and there’s not much shade, taking a tuk tuk is more expensive (~$20) but can be worthwhile if you’re many people.

Island living in Koh Rong Samloem

Koh Rong was one of those places that I kept hearing about whenever travelers would talk about Cambodia. I was assured several times, by several different people, that I would absolutely love it. So once it came time to decide “where to next?”, we did our research and found out about Koh Rong Samloem, an island 30 minutes away from Koh Rong by boat (I’m not gonna lie, Mava and Felix did most of the research). Although developing quickly, this island is way under-developed compared to its “big sister” party island, Koh Rong. This was shaping up to be the blissfully idyllic getaway we all needed, and our Google searches assured us that we would be greeted with eye-blinding white sandy beaches, turquoise water surrounded by lush greenery, and best of all: very few people. We got to the pier in Saracen Bay in the afternoon and walked until we found the cheapest bungalow available. The beauty of travelling in low season is that we paid a third of what we would have paid in high season for a 4-person bungalow right on the beach with a five star view (we paid $20 per night instead of $60). We played odds to determine who would get the king size bed and I won! (I slept like a starfish for the 4 nights we stayed there.) Upon checking in we were told that electricity is only available from 6 PM to midnight and that there is no WiFi on the island. Perfect.

 

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We walked around to discover our new home, which took maybe 20 minutes. We checked out the 3-4 restaurants on the island dispersed between the beachside bungalows and found our favorite. Sweet Dreams is owned by a Ukrainian couple that run everything themselves, including the cooking and serving, so it takes some time but it’s totally worth it. The chocolate cake is exquisite. Also it didn’t hurt that it was the cheapest restaurant on the island.

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Visiting during low season also has its downside though – we didn’t have the best beach weather. But we did have the best chilling weather, where you don’t feel bad about doing nothing all day because you can’t do any activities in the rain, right? Either way, there’s not much to do on the island, but that’s pretty much the whole point of going to a remote tropical paradise island in my opinion.

 

Eventually we made it to the western side of the island to see what else the island had to offer. I think our laziness had been putting us off from exploring sooner, since we were told we would have to trek for about a half hour to get there. In reality it was more like a 20 minute leisurely stroll through the jungle on a flat sandy path. We were rewarded with the amazing Lazy Beach, that was ironically less lazy than the beach we were staying at. While our beach was perfectly serene and waveless, Lazy Beach had huge waves that we played in until the stunning pink sunset. We inquired about the bungalow prices on this beach, and discovered they were way out of our price range (cheapest one was $60), so we had dinner there and went back to our side of the island.

 

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The highlight of my time here (and to be honest one of the highlights of my entire trip to date) was swimming with the luminescent plankton in the ocean at night. The effect is really magnified on the island since there is no electricity after midnight, so with no lights around, the plankton glows so bright I thought I was in a scene straight out of the movie Avatar. Even your footsteps glow when you walk towards the ocean! Crazy.

We all had a bit more time before we needed to be at our next destinations so we (actually Felix) found a backpacker bar in Sihanoukville that was looking for Western staff to work in exchange for free accommodation, food, and most importantly, alcohol. As soon as we got to Sihanoukville we binged on cheap food and beer (this is due to what I describe as the island effect – more remote places are always double or triple the prices on the mainland because they have to bring everything in on boats) and caught up with the world after a couple of wifi-less days. The next afternoon we started our new “work” at JJ’s Bar. This mostly consisted of waking up for breakfast at 1:30pm, handing out flyers on the beach for a half hour, then free time until the evening, when we hand out some more flyers. Then my favorite time was around 10pm when the party starts and our job was to talk to people, hand out free shots, and generally make sure everyone is having a good time. In fact, we had so much fun that we only worked there for 4 nights instead of the initially planned 7 nights (also because I like my liver and wasn’t being very nice to it).

 

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Next stop: Siem Reap!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

A warm welcome to Cambodia

I was off to a rocky start in Cambodia. After (yet another) long busride – 34 hours this time – I made it to the capital city of Phnom Penh. To our surprise (but not really) we got dropped off in the middle of nowhere near midnight, where several tuk-tuk drivers were eagerly waiting to take us to a hostel (and rip us off). I met Mava (from France) and we grudgingly got into a tuk-tuk.  After checking in and dropping off our bags we went to go find a place to eat. On the way, two guys on a motorbike stole my purse as they drove by. Luckily, I didn’t have my passport on me, but my phone and wallet were gone for good. Shit happens. The next day, after taking care of cancelling all my cards and buying a new phone, Mava and I took it easy and spent the afternoon drinking $0.50 cent draught beers. We met up with Felix (from Germany), whom Mava had travelled with in Thailand, and thus the crew was formed.

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Mellow Yellow Disclaimer: There will be very few pictures in this post due to my reluctance to bring my phone anywhere after my robbery, so I’ll try to paint as vivid a picture as I can with my words.

Despite my rocky start in Cambodia, I was determined not to let this tarnish my perception of the country. Although pretty rough around the edges, Phnom Penh is a charming modern city and very unlike any other. Not as big and bustelling as Bangkok or even Saigon, it is a mish-mash of the few remaining French colonial buildings interspersed between newer concrete 70s era buildings. The riverside is beautiful, hosting several cafes, restaurants and street food stalls perfect for relaxing, watching street life and absorbing the local color. I was starting to realize that Cambodia’s real treasure is its people – the Khmers have been to hell and back, struggling through centuries of continued bloodshed, poverty and political instability. But with their seemingly unbreakable spirit and continued optimism, they have prevailed with their smiles intact. I have yet to meet someone who has visited the country without some form of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this kingdom.

The Khmer people have a very rich and ancient history in the region. Under the Khmer Empire (famous for their legacy of Angkor) they prospered for many years, and in the late 19th century Cambodia became a part of French Indochina. After the war ended with the French in the 50s, the newly independent country was carpet bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam War throughout the 60s. As if that wasn’t enough, the next decade brought with it a brutal civil war that engulfed the entire country as Cambodians fought Cambodians (politically the war was between the then US-backed governement and the Khmer Rouge). In 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, who completely evacuated the city and commenced what would become one of the worst genocides in history (in terms of the percentage of population killed). It is approximated that 2 million people were killed during the regime, representing one quarter of the total population. Leading the Khmer Rouge was Pol Pot, a brutal and psychopathic dictator who wanted to instate a utopian agrarian communist system. The city’s small class of skilled or educated professionals was systematically murdered by Pol Pot’s henchmen, while some managed to flee into exile. As Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid, the Khmer Rouge started to imprison, torture and kill entire families who were suspected of opposing his regime. By the time the city was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979, Phnom Penh was reduced to a shadow of its former self.

In the morning we made our way to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. A former Chinese cemetery, this is where the Khmer Rouge killed thousands of their victims during their reign of terror. Not sure what to expect when I walked in, the site is mostly bare except for a tall buddhist stupa packed full with over 8,000 human skulls, and the sides are made of glass so you can see them up close. There are also pits in the area where mass graves were unearthed, with ominous scraps of clothing and bone fragments still to be found here and there. Since guns and ammunition were too expensive, the murders were often carried out with common objects such as shovels or sharpened bamboo sticks. More chilling than the mass graves, the piles of skulls, clothes and teeth was the Killing Tree – children and infants of adult victims were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of Cankiri trees, and then thrown into the pits alongside their parents. The rationale was to prevent them from taking revenge for their parents’ death once they grow up.

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Included in the entrance fee is a very good audio tour (with a choice of several languages) with first hand accounts of several survivors and descriptions of what the site was like when it was in operation. This is very useful since the site is completely bare of what little structure used to be present. Unlike the Nazi death camps in WWII that were mostly disassembled in effort to hide the evidence of the atrocities that took place in them, most of the killing fields were looted by Cambodians that were so poverty stricken afrer their liberation that they took all that they could in order to rebuild their homes. It is a serene yet somber place, not for the faint of heart but you really need to see it to believe it.

Next we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison), a school that was converted into Cambodia’s most important prison in 1975. More than 14,000 people were tortured here before being killed here or at the Killing Fields, and only 8 prisoners survived. You can walk through the the three buildings in the complex that are each three stories high, and the rooms contain skulls stacked in cabinets, tools used for torture and disturbing images of people dying.

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After a couple of days in Phnom Penh, we made our way to the quaint little town of Kampot. Located along the river and surrounded by hills, this is the perfect place to chill out and take it easy. Which is exactly what we did. We stayed in a bungalow at Naga House, an excellent place by the river with happy hour everyday, and we were pleasantly surprised with a party one night with live music and a DJ. On our last night we took a sunset boat trip down the river where we were supposed to see fireflies (we saw maybe one). However I’d have to say that the highlight of Kampot for me was just hanging out and walking around town. Our days were often spent waking up late and crossing the bridge to the main area and having breakfast/lunch there, heading back to the hostel and chilling/reading/playing cards, then going back to the main area for dinner, and finally back to the hostel for more chilling. We discovered an amazing place for noodle soup among the food stalls at the corner before entering the main town, and ate here at least once a day. It was in this area that we also discovered a local snack with no name that we became obsessed with. I won’t even bother trying to describe it because truthfully I don’t even know what was in it. All in all, Kampot was awesome.

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Next stop: Koh Rong Samloem!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

Enchanted in Laos

It was with a very heavy heart that I left Vietnam. I somehow felt that I was leaving a part of myself behind. It also didn’t help that I was embarking on a 36 hour journey. So off I went, back to Hanoi and then on the road to Luang Prabang in Laos. My long journey was spent between sleep and thought. When I was awake I couldn’t listen to music since my phone had no more battery, and I couldn’t seem to focus on reading. And so, looking out the window at the beautiful mountains in the background and the lush greenery zooming past, I reflected on my last 3 months of travels. I thought of the places I had been, the people I met along the way, and all that I experienced in between. I felt sad about leaving Vietnam but I was looking forward to my adventures to come. I thought about how sad I had been to leave Bali, but how awesome the Philippines had turned out to be, and likewise how sad I was to leave the Philippines when the time came to head to Vietnam. It dawned on me that no matter how long you’ve been travelling for, there are some feelings you can never really shake off: the bittersweet feeling of leaving a place you love as you continue your journey, and the feeling of dread when packing up the few belongings you have into your little home that is your backpack.

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I was immediately enchanted by the stunning natural beauty of Laos. The misty mountain peaks edging around the jungle-clad valleys are sure to impress even the most jaded traveler. Eventually we made it to Luang Prabang 27 hours after leaving Hanoi. After so much time spent together on the bus, a couple of us formed a pack to search for a hostel. The next day, Marina (from Germany), Sabine (from the Netherlands) and I rented scooters and made our way to the popular Kuang Si Waterfalls. After a breathtakingly scenic ride along the countryside we made it to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, (inside Kuang Si Waterfall park). Run by Free the Bears, an organization that rescues endangered Asiatic Black Bears from poachers and bear bile farms, the sanctuary does not receive any money from the waterfall park admission and relies on donations only.

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Eventually we made it to the waterfalls, which were even more grand and beautiful than I thought they would be. The large multi-stage waterfall consists of multiple pools at different levels that you can swim in, and are swarming with the little fish that pick at your dead skin that you tend to see at fish spas all over South East Asia.

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After a day of swinging off the Tarzan rope and jumping from one pool to the next, we made our way up the 190 steps to Phou Si/Chomsy Hill to get a beautiful panoramic view of the city and watch the sunset. This was truly an amazing place to get a bird’s-eye view of incredibly romantic Luang Prabang, with its glittering temples, brightly colored robed monks and sleepy riverine lifestyle.

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That night we went to the night market for dinner where for 15,000 kip (roughly $1.50) you can fill your bowl with as much food as you want/can. Challenge accepted. After stuffing our faces, we made our way to Utopia bar where we met up with our bus buddies. Once the bar closed at 1am we made our way to the only place that stays open late – the bowling alley. Full of backpackers looking to keep the party going, I felt like I was at a kid’s birthday party. But as the game started and the beer kept flowing, I started to get the hang of it. I even coined the “Melissa Style” bowling method to try to up my game, which was essentially the same method I used when I was a kid and too weak to throw the ball with one hand, using both arms to launch the ball through my legs. While this initially garnered attention due to the fact that I looked like an idiot, after I started striking out more and more people followed my lead in hopes of improving their game. The cherry on top was when the tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at our hostel and pointed at me, then proceeded to imitate the “Melissa Style” bowling method. Priceless.

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The next day, Marina and I had a long breakfast (delicious baguette and coffee, what else?) and enjoyed the town’s picturesque charm, watching local life pass by. At night we headed to the night market, which seemed to stretch on for miles and miles, showcasing the best Laotian wares – intricate weavings, elaborate silver trinkets (sometimes made out of unexploded mines leftover from the previous decades of seemingly endless wars), and tasty specialty foods. We went to Gary’s Irish Bar for some good live music (and a free beer between 8-10pm) and ended the night at the infamous Sakura Bar (famous for its “drink triple, see double, act single” tank tops worn by backpackers across Southeast Asia, which you can get for free for every purchase of two vodka drinks).

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Our next stop was the thriving tourist center of Vang Vieng, commonly known for being the backpacker mecca for partying. Although things have seemed to calm down quite a bit since the government has cracked down on the number of bars in the area, Vang Vieng seems to have established itself as the exception to the rule that Laos doesn’t have a nightlife. Besides that though, the limestone cliffs and riverside scenery remain gorgeous and offer a lot of potential as a base for adventure tourism if that’s your thing. While the main attraction for many visitors remains the tubing (read: 20-something year old backpackers), it’s quite easy to avoid the party scene and use the town as a base to explore the surrounding countryside. After a night of indulging the party scene, Marina and I decided to skip the traditional tubing experience and instead went on a day trip outside the city. We swam through a cave on tubes and went kayaking down the Nam Song river (that covers the same part of the river as tubing and a more untouched part further upstream).

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The next day was raining so we took advantage of the situation and spent the day eating pancakes and watching Friends at a restaurant near our hostel and ended the day with an amazing traditional Lao massage. Unfortunately I only had one week in Laos, since I stayed a bit longer than expected in Vietnam, so I didn’t get to see as much of Laos as I had planned. Having said that, I heard amazing things about trekking in the far northern provinces, the mysterious Plaine des Jarres, the lazy island life in the far south, exploring the ‘in between’ in Pakse and the 4000 Islands at the border of Cambodia.

Destinations aside, Lao food is sure to entice the inner foodie in you. Spicy buffalo salad (that I hadn’t tried personally, being a boring vegetarian and all), sticky rice, noodles, curries and the culinary remnants of French colonial occupation in the form of delicious crunchy baguettes and sweet ice coffee. Add to that an ice-cold Beerlao (obviously) and take in all that Laos has to offer.

Next stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

What’s Sapa-ning?

As my time in Vietnam was coming to an end, I made my way north to Sapa, a picturesque hill station high in the mountains and a remnant of the French colonial era. The area is very popular with nature and trekking enthusiasts, as it is famous for both its fine, rugged scenery and also for its rich cultural diversity. Sapa and its surrounding regions are home to a multitude of ethnic minorities, the majority of which are the Hmong (pronounced Mong). I had previously heard other travelers often raving about their experience in Sapa and their “authentic home-stay experience” with the local hill-tribe people (I say this in quotation marks because I cringe every time I hear the word “authentic”, or even worse, “off-the-beaten-path”). The first time I heard about Sapa was on my second day in Vietnam. A fellow traveler told me about the vast rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam. Truthfully I wasn’t too keen, since I had just come from the Philippines, where I had done a 3 day trek through the rice terraces of Banaue (often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World), and before that did a 3 day trek up the 3,700 meter high volcano of Mount Rinjani in Indonesia. However, with the rave reviews at the back of my mind, a couple of days left to my visa and the discovery that I can cross from Sapa to Laos (and probably most importantly because I wasn’t ready to leave Vietnam), I decided to go for it. Lucky for me, on the overnight bus from Hanoi I ran into the lovely English girls that I had met a couple of weeks before in Nha Trang. As soon as we got off the bus in Sapa we were swarmed by a sea of Hmong sisters, all dressed in black with colorful embroideries and accessorized with silver jewelry and a fez-like headpiece.

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The girls and I found Mama Chu, who greeted us with bracelets and took us to get some breakfast before starting the 10km hike to her village. Even though the weather was quite cloudy, the landscapes and views were absolutely astounding.

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It started to pour as soon as we got to Mama’s, but we were finally home sweet home! We settled in while Mama and her daughters made us dinner in one pan over a small fire. After enjoying the delicious meal all together (consisting of spring rolls, fried morning glory, pork and rice), Mama showed us the different jewelry she had for sale, and gave us each another gift to thank us for staying with her.

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The next morning we started our trek back to Sapa after a breakfast of thick rice pancakes and bananas. About halfway through it started to rain very hard, so we got lifts back to town on motorbikes. The girls were heading back to Hanoi on the evening bus, so we said our goodbyes and I ventured out to find a hostel in the rain (this was just the beginning of my constant struggle with the rain in Sapa).

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I ended up at Mountain View Hostel,  a newly opened hostel in the same family of the Vietnam Backpacker Hostel. I was planning on staying for 2 nights and then getting the bus to Luang Prabang in Laos. It’s funny how plans can change so much. On the day my bus was supposed to leave, I was informed that the road to Laos was “broken” (that’s literally what I was told by the lady at the bus company). So I took some time to figure out what my options were, and somehow ended up staying in Sapa for one week. Between free beers on Sundays, happy hour with 2 for 1 beers everyday, all you can eat and drink ricewine at Mama’s for $2, and obviously the amazing staff, no wonder I got stuck in Hotel California. If you happen to be there when it’s not raining 24/7 there’s plenty to do around Sapa besides the trekking. There is a small market not far from the center and a couple of waterfalls you can motorbike or take a taxi to. You will see Hmong sisters scattered around the town selling trinkets and souvenirs all day. If you’re not used to it they might seem pushy, and when you say no thanks they’ll probably swear at you in Hmong, but they are just as charming and good-humored as they are business savvy. All in all, I had a great time in Sapa and wouldn’t change a thing! Lucky for me, the weather was beautiful on my last day and I got to explore the beautiful town and its surroundings on motorbike, enjoying views of the beautiful rice terrace laden mountains and the valley below.

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Next stop: Laos!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

Traveler’s tips : There are many agencies in Hanoi that will book your Sapa home-stay experience for you, but be warned that they are charging you double or even triple and are pocketing the difference. The best thing you can do is find a Hmong sister yourself when you get off the bus, that way you know exactly where your money is going. Also VBH will book a ticket to Laos for you from Hanoi – if you want to leave directly from Sapa (shorter journey but roads are in worse condition) you can book a ticket at the store selling trekking gear with a picture of a bus on the sign, it’s right next to Mountain View Hostel (next door to the bakery).

Lovely Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

Hanoi was amazing. I just had to start with that. After yet another overnight bus from Hue, Ben and I made our way to the famous Vietnam Backpacker Hostel. After going on the free walking tour around the city, we settled down on beer street for the night, drinking $0.25 pints of fresh local beer, Bia Hoi.

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The next morning we headed out to explore and get down and cultural around Hanoi. We started at the Women’s Museum and then headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mosoleum. We ended up at the park next door, where we were able to partake in some outdoor fitness activities with some locals (a little bit of zumba, a little bit of ballroom dancing). We also discovered an amazing dish native to Hanoi called Bún nem, which was absolutely amazing (drool).

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On one of the many nights spent on Beer Street, we met an expat who told us about an alternative to the infamous Castaways Booze Cruise, as both Ben and I were hesitating dishing out $200 USD for a 3 day/2 night boat party. A couple days later we headed out to Cat Ba, an island in Ha Long Bay. We would take a boat through the bay and see the world famous towering limestone cliffs, as well as the floating villages in the bay.

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Lucky for us, the trip took all day so we really got to fully experience Ha Long Bay, both during the day and at nighttime. Unlucky for us it started to rain as soon as we got to Cat Ba, and it wouldn’t stop in the whole 5 days we spent there (we would later find out this typhoon-ish storm caused the most rainfall the area had seen in 40 years, and that about 40 people had died in the bay). So what do you do when you’re trapped on a beautiful island with beautiful beaches in the middle of a typhoon? You feel extremely grateful that you have a TV in your room with TWO movie channels in English (and no commercials!).

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On a cloudy but not so rainy day, we jumped at the opportunity to explore the island. We rented a bike and went to Fort Cannon, a small fort built by the French during their colonial rule. We also visited the Hospital Cave, a 17 room underground hospital and hideout which was in use until 1975. The cave is so vast that it was virtually indestructible, and seemed like real life James Bond underground lair. After a little chat with the guide at the entrance (who is an avid coin collector by the way – he had coins from all over the world, and I gladly gave him a Singapore dollar and some Filipino Pesos I had left over to add to his collection) he took us through the cave. We were able to see the different rooms that were built into the cave, some of them surgery rooms, some of them meeting rooms and so on. They even had a pool for exercising, as well as a dedicated area for combat training.

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After our boat back to Hanoi was cancelled twice because of the storm, we decided to take the longer and less scenic route that unfortunately avoids going through Halong Bay.

Next stop: Sapa!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

Traveler’s tips : If you’re looking to party, meet people and have a fantastic time (and aren’t too tight on your budget), then do Castaways! Otherwise Cat Ba is a really great alternative, typhoon or not.
http://www.vietnambackpackerhostels.com/trips/ha-long-bay/ha-long-bay-and-castaways-island-3-days-2-nights/

I also wanted to mention someone else we met on lovely Beer Street, whose name escapes me at the moment. A photojournalist from Switzerland, this guy travelled to Saigon to document the life of the rich and famous in the “Sin City” of Vietnam, and then to the mines in the very north of the country with the aid of a translator. There he captured the portraits of miners and the conditions they work in, demonstrating the vast gap in the lifestyles and quality of life of the Vietnamese. I highly suggest taking a look at his portfolio on a computer to fully appreciate the quality of his work.
http://www.mirkories.ch

Good morning Saigon

Oh Saigon. I wasn’t sure whether I would love it or hate it, since, in my experience, most people usually feel strongly one way or another when it comes to big cities while traveling third world countries – Bangkok, Saigon, Manila, etc. For that reason exactly I only booked one night at a hostel, so I can get a feel for the city and then decide what my next move would be. First thing I did when I arrived was walk around and eat a delicious pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and get a Vietnamese ice coffee – I was officially in love.

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I spent my six days in Saigon exploring the city, eating delicious food and taking in the vibrant Vietnamese culture. What struck me about Saigon was that, although a bustling city, it still had a warmth to it, a certain je ne sais quoi. Less crazy than Bangkok (although I loved Bangkok), less concrete jungle than Manila, Saigon just felt awesome. Even though Western capitalism started creeping its way into the city (they had a red carpet event for the opening of the first McDonald’s a couple years ago), Saigon still had an authentic feel to it. It’s a city of contrasts where commerce and culture collide – from high end hotels to cheap guesthouses, classy restaurants to delicious street food, Saigon certainly has something for everyone.

Having said that, what I think I loved most about the city was wandering through the small alleys of the city, walking past local homes, restaurants and incense lit offerings, which all seemed to have almost stood still in time. Which seems weird, given the turmoil and destruction the city and its inhabitants experienced only one generation ago. The truth is, the Vietnamese people have experienced hard times but still remain genuine and unjaded towards tourists. Saigon’s real beauty lies within its seamless blend of these two worlds that are old and new, past and present.

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One of the first sightseeing activities I got to visit were the tunnels of Cu Chi, a large network of connecting underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War (called the American War by the Vietnamese). The tunnels were used not only as hiding spots during combat, but also as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon storage and living quarters. To keep enemy forces out, the Viet Cong had camouflaged trap doors on the jungle floor leading to the tunnels that rendered them almost undetectable, and the tunnels were also often rigged with explosive booby traps or bamboo stake pits. We were also able to crawl inside a part of the tunnels, which although have been made slightly larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists, I was only able to crawl about 10 meters before taking the first exit out.

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In the following days I was also able to visit the War Remnants Museum, where I witnessed a disturbing display of man’s cruelty during the Vietnam/American War. The museum includes halls full of gruesome photographs, a simulated “tiger cage” prison and jars of deformed foetuses attributed to contamination by Agent Orange, as well as a full floor dedicated to telling the story of the war journalists from all over the world who documented the war and often died or disappeared during the war. I also visited the Reunification Palace, formerly South Vietnam’s presidential palace, which feels a bit like a time warp to the 60s, as it was left largely untouched from the day before Saigon fell to the North. The war ended on April 30, 1975 when tank #843 crashed through the gate, and a replica of the tank sits on the lawn outside. Although a bit kitschy, it was cool to see the different rooms full of vintage 1960s phones, radios, office equipment, etc that were supposedly left exactly as they were found when the North  took over. Although I have no pictures to share from the museum, I encourage you to read a letter written to President Obama by Agent Orange victim Tran Thi Hoan in 2009:

http://basicgoodness.com/2013/letter-to-obama-by-2nd-generation-agent-orange-victim-tr%e1%ba%a7n-th%e1%bb%8b%c2%a0hoan/

On my last day in Saigon I visited the Mekong Delta River, which looks almost like a water world, where boats, houses, restaurants and even markets float on the many rivers, canals and streams that flow through the region like arteries.

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Next stop: beach time in Nha Trang!

Mellow Yellow rating: 💛💛💛💛💛

Traveler’s tips: I stayed at a quiet hostel in the backpackers area in District 1 (Ngoc Thao Guesthouse) which was amazing, but if you’re looking for a more party hostel stay at Hideout. Most hostels will arrange tickets for you to Cu Chi, Mekong Delta River or any overnight bus to your next destination. There’s also a really excellent free walking tour every Saturday and Sunday that meets in front of the Crazy Buffalo (for more information about the tour you can check out http://www.trailstalessaigon.com/#_=_).