A Travellerspoint blog

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Take a deep breath

21st century - here I come!

Well, I don't know how this is going to go, but equipped with my new smartphone I'm going to attempt to blog my way through my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. Do I have the discipline? Will there be time in between the cocktails? We shall see.

It's Thursday night and I've just received my invitation from Cathay Pacific to check in for the Hong Kong - Hanoi sector of my flight, so it's all systems go! Dropping the kitties off at bootcamp tomorrow morning, then it will be a downhill run to my Saturday morning flight. Till then...

Posted by Andrea R 03:47 Archived in Australia Tagged me Comments (1)

Sleepless in Sapa

In the shadow of Fancypants

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After a small taster of Hanoi, which I'll come back to later, we caught the night train to Lao Cai and arrived in Sapa very early this morning. Could it even be possible that the Vietnamese trains are noisier than Chinese? With no sleep whatsoever we decided to turn our itinerary on its head and push through with the 18km walk down through the terraced valley, passing Hmong and Dzao villages along the way.

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Our guide, Lam, is an 18yo Hmong woman who grew up in this area. She spoke proudly of the cooperation between villagers of different ethnic minorities to make sure the youngsters receive a good education and have a decent future.

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Apart from the opportunity to find out about a very different way of life and admire some breathtaking scenery, we also became acquainted with all manner of piglets, ducks, geese, dogs and water buffalo. Rhetorical question: if a water buffalo fell on you from a height of - say 2m - would it kill you? We very nearly found out!

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As for the Fancypants reference, that's actually Mt Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. It will still be there tomorrow, ripe for conquering after a decent nights sleep.

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Posted by Andrea R 01.11.2010 17:22 Archived in Vietnam Tagged sapa hmong minorities Comments (1)

Hanoi

DO NOT STOP!

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Surely the most useful and relevant advice in any guidebook about Hanoi is this little gem that I recall reading somewhere: stride purposefully and DO NOT STOP.

A guidebook can help you to decide in advance what you want to see. For me it was the Old Quarter, the French Quarter, Temple of Literature and so on. What the guidebooks can't really prepare you for is the realisation that you are no longer in any position to be crossing the street on your own, despite having been doing it most of your life. OK that's an exaggeration, but coupled with a bit of jetlag and general tiredness, it's not far from the truth.

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And it's not so much the cars (of which there are relatively few) as the scooters. Traffic control does nothing to sort the motorists from the scooterists from the peds - it just gives one the sense that they have the upper hand, if only for a moment. But it all seems to work, with everyone moving slowly (but not too much so) but steadily forward, and not an accident in sight.

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So, gritting my teeth, I took this sage piece of advice and crossed the 'must see' Hanoi sights off my list.

Posted by Andrea R 08.11.2010 06:33 Archived in Vietnam Tagged traffic vietnam hanoi scooter Comments (0)

How to Fake It in Ha Long Bay

Junk Tips 101

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I was wondering what I could say about Ha Long Bay that hasn't been said before. So instead of describing the mind-blowingly beautiful scenery (how could I do it justice anyway?), I decided I would focus on how to pretend you're a VIP on your junk cruise when there are thousands of others doing exactly the same thing, at the same time.

First of all: DO book your junk with a company that uses a private pier. That way you DON'T have to mix it with the aforementioned throngs. You can step down from your road transport (which has been able to conveniently drive right to the edge of the pier), walk a few steps, then magically transform into the princess/prince you have always secretly known you deserve to be. If the junk has a slogan written on the side, "the luxury you deserve", all the better.

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Secondly: DO take the option of climbing Mt Titop so that you can get that wonderful shot of the bay that you have back at home as the desktop background on your computer. In future it will be perfectly reasonable to pretend that it's one of your own photos.

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Next: DO realise that the Vietnamese silk trimmings on the bed in your luxury cabin will help you to sleep better in the private little cove that the captain has gently nosed the junk into, to drop anchor for the night.

Finally: DO make the most of every minute, as it's a long way to come, and you'll treasure the experience forever.

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Posted by Andrea R 10.11.2010 17:30 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam luxury junk halong_bay Comments (0)

Tailor-made in Hoi An

One man's true story

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You've probably heard of people who've gone to Vietnam and had a whole wardrobe tailor-made for the price of a nice bottle of wine. They were almost certainly talking about a visit to a lovely little city called Hoi An in central Vietnam. I didn't indulge while I was there, but a few of my travelling buddies did. This post is about the experience of one of them. Let's call him Phil (not his real name...OK it is). Phil had decided before arriving in Vietnam that he'd like to get a couple of shirts made.

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Day 1: Starting the day with a leisurely stroll around the town centre, we can't help but notice that every 1.5 commercial premises belongs to a tailor. Late morning - maybe 11ish - our guide takes us into Yaly Couture on Nguyen Thai Hoc St. This visit is just to show us where his personal recommendation (affiliation?) is for getting quality clothing made at a good price, and hand around the business cards so that in our free time we will come back here, rather than go to one of the thousand other tailors in Hoi An. A few people get distracted and we are there for about 10 minutes. Phil has already picked out the fabric for his two shirts and has been talked into getting a business suit made. He'd made a preliminary choice of fabric for that as well.

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The afternoon is taken up with a boat ride and a cooking class and other such touristy stuff, so Phil is unable to return until after 5pm to start negotiating the specifics. No problem - they are open until at least 10pm, and perhaps later but I wouldn't know because that's my bedtime. He confirms his original fabric choices and with help from his style advisors (! - that includes me), he selects his suit lining and has all his measurements taken. The tailors begin the process of assembling the garments.

Another 'buddy' tells Phil his suit is going to be dull, so everything is thrown into doubt. Luckily by the end of the evening all is resolved, as he trudges over to the other Yaly shopfront and selects a different lining.

Day 2: Phil is tied up all morning with important touristic duties, but gets dropped off in town just after midday to attend his first fitting. When I come by at about 1:30pm, he is wearing the suit pants which are already pretty much done. He thinks they're a bit snug. I have to agree; I mean, if he doesn't feel comfortable, he must be right, right?

Mid-afternoon, the pants are perfect and the basic construction of the suit jacket is done. Again - a bit tight across the shoulders. No problem. Phil stays while they let it out a bit, then begin attending to the stitching detail.

By late afternoon, we've heard on the street that the suit is close to being ready. We return to Yaly and Phil is still there, about to have a final fitting before everything is locked in.

We catch up with Phil around 9:30pm in a local restaurant across from our hotel. Yes, he has his shirts and his suit, safely tucked away in the extra piece of luggage he's had to purchase, to fit them in. He also has a pair of handmade shoes in a bag at his feet, which have just been delivered to him by motorbike at the restaurant by the aunty of the cobbler. Unbeknownst to us, this was a suggestion of the ladies at Yaly, while Phil was waiting there during the fitting process. The beautifully crafted shoes have taken mere hours to be selected, cut and put together. The only caution was that Phil couldn't wear them for 2 days, as the glue needed to dry properly.

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So there you have it. With only a day and a half to spare, you can hang around in Hoi An and get your complete outfit made, down to the shoes.

Posted by Andrea R 16.11.2010 20:38 Archived in Vietnam Tagged shopping vietnam shoes clothes hoi_an tailor fitting Comments (0)

Saigon

Doing the delta

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The Mekong Delta is Vietnam's treasure, at least as far as agriculture is concerned. So fertile, it produces three crops of rice per year - one more than in other parts of the country. This would be one of the reasons that the area is in (passive, I believe) dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia. The area described as the delta sits below Cambodia, is partially populated by Khmer people and obviously there is a lot of history there. Make up your own mind.

A daytrip to the delta - primarily to Cai Be floating market - showed me the Vietnam I'd always imagined. Rice fields as far as the eye can see, interspersed with every other imaginable agricultural pursuit suited to this type of climate. Banana trees, coconut palms, the odd mango; even at least one pineapple plantation that I noticed. I guess it all has to come from somewhere. A surprising number of cows, and duck-rearing in pens built on the edges of the new freeway (is it called the verge?). Keeping it all looking postcard-romantic, frequent glimpses of farmers tending to the crops on their haunches, sheltered from the sun by their conical hats.

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In Cai Be, the floating market is a fascinating variation on the traditional village market. Vendors advertise their wares by tying samples to a tall pole on the front of the boat; longan, cassava, watermelon, banana, sugarcane, and if it's a mixed business you can probably guess that the pole becomes quite decorative. The boats are generally both commercial and residential premises, so while there are no customers the vendors go about their daily household routines.

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One day was really not long enough to do more than scratch the surface. The delta deserves at least a few days. Maybe next time...

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Posted by Andrea R 18.11.2010 20:09 Archived in Vietnam Tagged cow market fruit duck saigon mekong vegetable delta cai_be Comments (0)

Interlude

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I was going to work on my blog tonight, but suddenly I've had too much beer *blush*. #PhnomPenhWaterFestival

Posted by Andrea R 20.11.2010 20:15 Archived in Cambodia Tagged beer cambodia phnom_penh festival Comments (0)

Temples of Angkor

An unscientific experiment to determine how many temples is 'enough'

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Let me begin by saying that the entire point of coming to Cambodia was to see the temples of Angkor. Over 1.5 days I was privileged to explore 8+. Based on the number of temples and the short duration of the visit, I posit that I am qualified - albeit in a very non-professional manner - to conduct this experiment. My conclusion is that there is no limit - each temple has something unique to recommend it. Read on if you are interested to find out more.

Our Sunday visit began with the surprisingly modern and efficient process of obtaining a photographic ticket, which was to be worn AT ALL TIMES while in the temple precinct. I should add that the temple precinct covers many, many square kilometres. For example it took almost an hour to drive from #1 to #2.

The first, and I think my favourite, was Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom includes two exceedingly worthwhile sights; the awe-inspiring Bayon and the charming Elephant Walk. Although not as famous as its neighbour Angkor Wat, you would be familiar with Angkor Thom from the enigmatic smiling faces of the Bayon. They tend to grace the covers of travel guides and form the basis of the majority of artistic souvenirs (ie paintings, sculptures and the like). The smiling faces ARE the temples of Angkor, and there are more of them at the Bayon than you could imagine, if you haven't seen them for yourself.

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Also known as the Terrace of Elephants, the Elephant Walk is over 300m of almost life-sized elephants carved into a platform formerly used for parades. Sadly, the real elephants are long gone from this area, save for a couple that trudge around transporting tourists from one side of the Angkor Thom complex to the other, but the Elephant Walk allows us to imagine what once was. The elephant is still a really important symbol of Cambodian culture, despite their scarcity in modern times.

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Banteay Srei, or the Citadel of Women, is a lovely, small temple carved from pink sandstone. I think our guide said it was the oldest temple on our visit schedule. My choice of unique features for this temple - although there are many - is the monkey-headed guards watching over the shrines. In the right light they might cause you to do a double-take, or look back over your shoulder to see who is watching you.

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Preah Khan is structured around two very long corridors; east-west and north-south. As you move further along the corridor towards the place of the king, the doors become lower and lower, so that by the time you're in the presence of the king you have no choice but to be bowing your head. Carvings at Preah Khan include the most beautiful renditions of Apsara dancers.

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East Mebon is small, but includes lovely elephant sculptures at each corner of the two main platforms.

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Pre Rup is the temple we were taken to in order to prepare for our Angkor sunset experience. The sunset itself was nice but nothing special. The thing about Pre Rup that will stay in your memory is that it's built in the style of a mountain and is therefore very tall. The original, steep stone steps are still in use on all four sides.

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If you make it to the top, you deserve to be able to sit a while and enjoy the view!

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To be continued...

Posted by Andrea R 21.11.2010 09:57 Archived in Cambodia Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises temple cambodia angkor sculpture buddha Comments (0)

Temples of Angkor II

The remaining evidence

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My previous post ended with sunset at Pre Rup on day one of my Angkor visit. Day two was really only a half day, but one that began very, very early.

In order to secure a good spot from which to view sunrise at Angkor Wat, we had a 4:30am wakeup call. Yes, 4:30. This was to get us to the lily pond in front of Angkor Wat by about 5:30. Naturally at this time of day it is rather dark, but this only served to heighten the expectation. We knew the temple lay before us - we just couldn't see it.

Again, the actual sunrise was a bit of a fizzer, but the preceding 30-45 minutes, watching the sky gradually lighten - from black to indigo to all shades of a sombre sunrise - to reveal the details of the temple bit by bit, was worth every last yawn. For me, the silhouette at sunrise is the unique feature of Angkor Wat that I'm submitting as evidence for my theory/experiment (see previous post).

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The next temple was Ta Prohm, lovingly known to the locals as 'Tomb Raider Temple' thanks to Angelina. I prefer the original name. Again this is one that you may know by sight rather than by name. It's the one overgrown with enormous banyan trees. There are other temples that have a bit of tree action going on, but nothing like Ta Prohm. Are the banyan trees the unique feature I'm going to use to recommend Ta Prohm? No. They certainly give the temple atmosphere, but so I thought does the lichen colouring the sandstone all shades of green from lime to verdigris. It gives you a real sense of the temple having been forgotten for all those hundreds of years. Imagine what it must have been like for the Western person who discovered the temple in recent times.

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My last temple was Ta Keo. Like Pre Rup, Ta Keo is a temple mountain. I'm not sure whether it was simply a trick of perspective or the lack of adornment (or the lack of sleep) that made it appear an unconquerable monolith. Whatever the case, Ta Keo's unique feature is certainly its scale and the fact that the very idea of climbing it defeated my entire group.

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Here concludes my evidence that there will always be something that makes an Angkor temple unique, and therefore you can never have too many.

Posted by Andrea R 21.11.2010 16:22 Archived in Cambodia Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises trees temple angkor lichen Comments (0)

Phnom Penh Water Festival

The last post

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The Water Festival is the most important event of the year in Cambodia. It is a 3-day celebration of a unique biannual occurrence - the turning of the river's flow. This quirky characteristic truly makes the Tonle Sap lake/river system the lifeblood of the country. Teams from all over arrive in Phnom Penh to compete in the dragon boat races; families from provinces near and far come to the capital to try their luck at earning a little extra income with either an official stall or something much less formal set up on the side of the street; and above all, everyone is just happy to be invited to the biggest party of the year.

So how is it that I could plan to spend 5 days in Phnom Penh and NOT be aware that my visit would coincide with the festival??

On the Thursday, I was doing an orientation tour of Phnom Penh. My 3 clues that the Water Festival was imminent were: 1) dragon boat training on the river, 2) marquees being erected all along the quayside and 3) by mid-afternoon the traffic had slowed to a crawl. The traffic congestion was useful as it allowed me to see that it was being caused partly by the hundreds of tuk-tuks being used to transport all the paraphernalia for the street stalls. We sat at the traffic lights next to a tuk-tuk with two smiling girls literally hanging out the sides, because the cab and the roof were completely full with a cafe-worth of tables and chairs. Safety be damned.

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By Friday night the public spaces were filling up noticeably and it was getting more difficult to move around. The normal population of Phnom Penh is 1.5M but during the festival it can swell to over 4M.

On Saturday morning there was no doubt that Phnom Penh was putting on her party dress and getting ready to go out. All of the streets near Sisowath Quay were closed to traffic - a sight to behold in itself - and throngs of people were pouring into the city.

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Walking through the area I could hear Khmer Gaga blaring over loudspeakers, I could see exotic snacks like tarantulas and crickets being prepared for sale, and I could run into a lady selling paper hats as elaborate as anything you'd see in a Melbourne milliner's leading up to Spring Carnival. Later that night, when the half-hour of fireworks was over and wanting to walk back to my hotel by the most direct route, I found myself having to go in the opposite direction and kind of double-back, because I literally could not move through the crowd and couldn't even see any potential to do so, no matter how patient I was prepared to be.

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Sunday was more of the same, including the impressive fireworks display - this time for 40 minutes! For such a poor country, they really know how to put on a good show.

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I couldn't write about the Water Festival and not mention the tragedy that occurred as it was wrapping up on Monday night. I can only imagine what it must have been like, as I'd left for home that morning. Hopefully Cambodia can find a way to continue the celebrations in the future while honouring the memory of the lives lost, because god knows this is a country that deserves to have something to celebrate.

Posted by Andrea R 29.11.2010 16:34 Archived in Cambodia Tagged lakes people parties night traffic cambodia festival fireworks Comments (0)

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