Saturday, June 2, 2012


Getting from Vietnam

As described in our Vietnam entry we travelled from Saigon to Phnom Penh via the Mekong Delta. Our boat brought us to the border crossing at Vinh Xuong–Kaam Samnor, it took about an hour to get everything sorted - we didn't have to do anything as the guide took everyone's passports to get stamped. We did have to provide 20 usd each and a photo. We had heard reports that when crossing it's not unusual for the fee to be quoted as 25 usd - if someone asks you to pay more they're pocketing the difference no matter what bollocks they tell you about fines or fees or charges - if you firmly state that the fee is 20 usd they usually back down. Once our passports were stamped the boat brought us a few hundred metres further up the river to a checkpoint where our passports and visas were checked again. I'd imagine the lads here had just made an impressive customs seizure as there was a large raucous group of Cambodian border guards sitting around a table passing around several bottles of Johnnie Walker black label! After another hour or so on the boat we pulled in and transferred to a minibus for the rest of the journey to Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh

When we arrived in Phnom Penh we were dropped on a street where a few taxis and tuk-tuks were waiting, we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere which made it hard to gauge a fair price for the trip into town. I asked one of the drivers if he could show me on my map where we were, he pointed at a location about 10km out of the city centre. On the basis of that we agreed a price and set off, however given the trip only took ten minutes he'd clearly been a bit creative with his cartography, but it was cheap enough anyway.

Phnom Penh stretches along the east side of the Mekong river, along the banks there is a long promenade with numbered streets radiating eastwards, most of the good spots to eat and stay are along the river or not far away. We'd booked a room in a hostel which shall remain nameless as a token of good faith. The place had just opened, but had an existing branch just across the road, unfortunately though the place itself was nice there was a fairly major problem with cockroaches - possibly due to the recently completed construction. So I spent a lot of the visit nailing the bastards using assorted heavy items. Some of the hoors were big enough that you could hear them run around, they're also surprisingly intelligent when it comes to avoiding Lonely Planet guidebooks descending on them at pace. That unpleasantness aside the place was nice, and I have a feeling they were working on all these things, hence the not naming and shaming. Let it suffice to say that if you're considering staying somewhere and they have another branch directly across the street consider staying in the older branch.

We were well aware before coming that Cambodia is significantly poorer than Vietnam so had braced ourselves for that, however Phnom Penh itself was a bit of a surprise. The feel is different to Vietnam, the streets are broader and less congested, in many places the paths and other amenities seemed newer, the city really was surprisingly breezy and pleasant to walk around. Looks can be misleading though, every day we encountered tens of children begging or selling things. They often wander into restaurants with trinkets or other bits and pieces (I wont soon forget a boy that looked about 5 asking me if I wanted to buy marijuana!). Many travelers seem to think the best plan is to take pity on the children and buy something, you should never do this - all it does is encourage the practice of sending unfortunate children - toddlers in some cases - out to wander the streets putting them at constant risk. There are a myriad of charities who do excellent work in Cambodia and your money is much better spent with them. We also began to encounter older western men with young women or girls on their arm wandering about or eating in restaurants, I'd almost imagined this to be a figment of people's imagination but it's very real and extremely offputting and seedy when you encounter it.
There's little point in trying to summarise the catastrophe of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia in the 1970s, the brutality, calousness and utter depravity of the regime is well documented on wikipedia or if you feel like getting the lowdown on yer telly watch The Killing Fields. The government systematically destroyed urban society, massacring many millions either by bludgeoning them to death (to save bullets) or by overwork and famine. Phnom Penh was completely evacuated of civilians within hours of the Khmer Rouge seizing it, the entire population deported to forced labour camps. Many thousands were seized and marked for torture and execution, most for no greater crime than wearing glasses (a sure sign of "intellectuals"), having worked for the previous government, or being educated beyond the most basic standards. To ensure no one was left to avenge their deaths their families (including the very elderly and infants) were seized and condemned also. Those who were arrested were tortured in a former school in Phnom Penh (renamed S21), then trucked out of the city to the killing fields where they were beaten to death. These two sites are incredibly powerful to visit and can easily be seen over the course of one day. It's easy to hire a tuk-tuk driver to bring you to both and wait while you visit each site, the cost is about $15.

Mass graves in the Killing Fields
The Killing Fields lie about 10km out of Phnom Penh down a bumpy dirt road crammed with traffic and hemmed in by little markets. There are no original buildings on site - the locals destroyed them when the Vietnamese invaded to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. On entering be sure to get an audio-guide - they're really excellent and provide a thorough description of the site both from a historical perspective, and also using the testimony of witnesses and even former guards, many of the stories are utterly heartbreaking. The first major stop is a large glass tower containing skulls of those killed on the site. Some might think it improper or disrespectful to display these, but it is done in such a powerful manner as to give the victims a voice from beyond their death. The tower is narrow and tall, with a corridor leading around just wide enough for one person at a time. Inside tower more than 9000 skulls - many marked by fractures and punctures from the victims torture and bludgeoning to death. We then walked along the path which winds through the site. All around there were fields of flowers and grass filled with butterflies and punctuated by trees. Large depressions and holes, now covered with vegetation mark the sites of mass graves. Not all the graves have yet been completely excavated, such was the random brutality on the site that as you walk around fragments of the victims clothing still come to the surface in places, accompanied by fragments of bone and teeth, these are collected periodically for storage. At the site of one mass grave stands two trees, from one a loudspeaker once blared patriotic songs throughout the night to drown out the cries of those being massacred, against another infants were swung by their feet - dashing their brains on the trunk before being thrown in the grave. When the site was liberated the tree was covered in the fragments of skull and brains. The path winds around a large pond which stands on the edge of the site, you can sit alongside and listen to victim testimony on the audioguide. It's a surreal and terrible to contemplate such horror occuring in a place so peaceful and beautiful now.

Clothing of those killed in Killing Fields still coming to the surface

After this we traveled back into the city to visit S21 - the former secondary school which the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison where detainees were tortured to madness before being killed. The site is divided into seperate buildings, some housed detainees of "special" value - much like the Soviet regime many of those who led the Khmer Rouge fell victim to its own madness in purges and were themselves killed. The cells are preserved much as they were when discovered by the Vietnamese on liberating Phnom Penh - the walls are adorned with photos taken at that time. The site was found by the stench of rotting bodies of the last few prisoners kept there - each of the cells contains a bed and alongside an ammunition box which the prisoners used as a toilet. The photos show the rooms with the decomposing bodies of those who were found there chained to the same beds, alongside in some of the rooms lie, as they were left, tools which were used to bludgeon these last prisoners to death. Needless to say the pictures are extremely disturbing.

 Like other regimes the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in documenting their brutality, one room contains photo portraits of thousands of those killed on the site. Some are already battered and bruised, many are young children, some are women clutching their infants. All were murdered. To look into the eyes of these people facing an abyss of terror is truly horrifying, we both felt utterly sick for a long time afterwards. The guards saved some prisoners with useful skills - the photos were all taken by one prisoner who was a gifted photographer.

Other rooms contain preserved cells, there are still bloodstains on the floors. In another there are the instruments of torture which were used, as well as paintings by another surviving prisoner (spared for his artistic abilities and put to work painting portraits) of the horrors undergone by himself and others. We were interested to see alongside devices for tearing limbs and pulling off fingernails a bed on which prisoners were "waterboarded" which we're informed nowadays isn't torture at all. In the end as the Vietnamese approached Phnom Penh the last of the prisoners were murdered, and the special few kept for their skills were hurriedly trucked off to the Killing Fields. Miracalously on the way the convoy was attacked by the Vietnamese and the prisoners managed to escape. By this stroke of luck the world gained a great insight into what happened in the Killing Fields and S21 - in particular through the horrifying paintings of Vann Nath. At 3pm a film is shown in the site chronicling the history of the Khmer Rouge as told through the story of a couple caught up in the chaos. The documentary also shows incredible footage of the painter walking about S21 with the former chief, his arm around him, questioning him and asking him to admit that what he has depicted in his art is not a lie, but the truth.

Visiting these sites in Phnom Penh is I think a life-changing experience, these events happened not far away in the past but at the time that my parents were our age, many of those you meet in Cambodia lived through these horrors.


It's fair to say we both were left dazed by the things we'd seen in Phnom Penh, but we had ahead of us a bit of break. When we'd originally been planning out our trip we knew we wanted to throw down somewhere nice and sunny for 2 or 3 weeks around Christmas. For both of us Christmas is a huge affair at home that we look forward to all year long - not just as a break from work but a time when all of our families are gathered together. In Sarah's case visiting family or having lunch in the pub or in ours gathered about brainstorming over the inevitable malfunctioning outside light or overflowing septic tank before retiring for a few pints at night in the pub in the village! Knowing we'd miss out on Christmas at home for the first time ever we really wanted to be sure we'd be somewhere we could relax together. We had thought that by mid December we'd be in Thailand and could make for a quiet spot on one of the islands, but as we made our way through China and into Vietnam it became increasingly obvious that we'd have to rush through Cambodia to make it there. So we changed our plan, having heard great things of the beaches around Sihanoukville in Cambodia we decided to head there. Sihanoukville was just 4.5 hours from Phnom Penh, we went with Sorya bus and it was grand.

There are a number of beaches (Serendipity and a few others) on the outskirts of the town, a few kilometres out is the furthest: Otres. Otres beach is quiet and beautiful - white sand and azure seas stretching out into the distance, the road from town is a bumpy dirt affair but an easy trip by tuktuk. Along the beach there are a bunch of bars ranging from chic beachside affairs to ramshackle setups, they're all great fun and packed with a brilliant crowd, alongside the bars are an assortment of places to stay with mostly consisting of bungalows. Needless to say like everywhere you should never bring valuables to the beach, as we were told people aren't thieves: they're opportunists!

We had heard great things about Mushroom Point on Otres - it's a small little place with beautiful round bungalows and a great bar and restaurant set amidst a lovely garden shaded by banana trees. It's important to book in advance especially at Christmas and New Years - we booked about a month ahead of Christmas and still had to move rooms once because of the bookings. The place is just beautiful with a really great common design running through everything, food is great, all the staff are wonderful - not a day goes by we don't pine to be back there swinging in our hammocks or sitting up at the bar chatting away with Irie, Spidi and Nick with the Mushroom Point dogs Link and Chi wandering about or sitting at our feet. Halcyon Days my friends, sigh... some day we'll return!

On our first night in Otres we wandered down to one of the beach bonfires and had a beer by candlelight, we found ourselves sitting next to a lovely Australian couple - Jesse and Sarah - who were also staying in Mushroom Point, we had a great chat and got some savage advice on the highlights of Otres' bars and Mushroom Point's menu! We had such perfect relaxing days on Otres, up early and sitting at sunrise in our hammocks listening to some music or reading, eating up our brekkies with a nice fruit salad and lashings of coffee, out for an early swim and a spot of frisbee in the sea, wandering along the beach. At night the bars along the sea light bonfires and serve drinks, there's everything from the maddest sun and drink fueled sport you could possibly imagine to chilled out candlelit nightcaps. It was certainly a strange feeling to roam along the beach on Christmas, some tinsel for a belt visiting the bars and chatting away with everyone and exchanging Happy Christmases with the tuk-tuk drivers; we had a great time. Our old friend Calum of Vietnamese hangover fame even showed up with some great people he'd bumped into, we had a great big Christmas eve feast with Calum, Dave, Mel and Joel as well as some excellent frisbee in the sea and pints at various hours of the day. We even arranged to intersect Calum again after Sihanoukville in Siem Reap.

Christmas-Eve Dinner!

If you're feeling like a little entertainment you can head into town and rent a cinema! Top Cat cinema, and one or two other spots, have a pile of rooms with projectors or big screen tvs and savage sound systems and will play just about any film they can bit-torrent! Not only that but they'll even order up a pizza for you to eat while watching it. I'd like to say we sat rigidly being educated by some classic of cinema, but The Inbetweeners film will have to suffice. A good time was had by all.

New Years was a giant party on the beach, we started the day by sharing a few warming Jamesons pre-breakfast with everyone in Mushroom Point, and the craic went on from there. At midnight the beach was packed with people swimming or just paddling in the dark, all the bars were letting off fireworks and the horizon was alight with more being fired in the town and down on Serendipity. It was a great feeling standing there up to our knees in the sea shaking hands and clapping backs with everyone around! Many a person welcomed the new year through an uncompromising hangover. Alas the time rolls on, not only our trip in total but our time our relaxation time in Otres. As a sign of our time advancing my hair had at this point attained afro-like proportions of rotundity, having last been subjected to a haircut you could set your watch by by my Dad in Turkey way off 6 months before when we left. So off I set into town to acquire a haircut, figuring that if the last had done me for 6 months this one would serve me admirably till we got home. For $2 I got a finely shorn and shaved leaving me good as new and looking quite a bit less like a degenerate member of the Taliban. And so the sad last day came, we said goodbye to all of our great friends in Mushroom Point, mounted a tuk-tuk and with heavy hearts we were off to Siem Reap.

Siem Reap & Angkor Temples

Siem Reap lies to the north of Cambodia, the town itself is well-developed and a pleasant place to stay - but what draws most visitors is the incredible array of Angkor ruins spread about the surrounding countryside, culminating in the world famous Angkor Wat complex.

It's an overnight bus to Siem Reap, we ended up changing bus in Phnom Penh but it was no great hassle. On arriving in Siem Reap we headed for Yellow Guesthouse - Mel had stayed here recently and was full of recommendations and Calum had arrived there a day or two before us. We'd highly recommend anyone heading for Siem Reap stay in the Yellow, the owners and staff were incredibly friendly and helpful. The hotel has its own tuk-tuk for hire to visit the temples in whatever order you want (about $20 per day), alternatively they know the usual routes backwards which is a great help for those who haven't done their research! Not only that but there's always a tuk-tuk waiting outside to give guests a free lift into the centre of town!

As mentioned above the main draw to Siem Reap is the enormous number and variety of temples in the surrounding countryside. Before I start going through our itinerary and trying to put words to the sights I highly recommend taking on our friend Calum's blog entry on the temples. He has brilliant descriptions of their layout and detail which I'm not going to attempt to match in precision or scope!Everyone has an opinion about how long to spend seeing the temples and in which order, we spent three days and followed the itinerary that the hotel suggested. On our first day we traveled 50 km out of Siem Reap to Beng Melea. One of the really interesting things about the range of ruins on offer is the widely varying standards of security and upkeep. Some of the temples are as tightly controlled and managed as we'd expect ruins to be at home - guard rails and ropes to guide you about, strict rules on where one can and can't go. Beng Melea on the other hand was about the closest you can get to childhood fantasies of clambering about exotic ancient ruins. The buildings have in many places collapsed completely, leaving corridors that end in piles of intricately carved rubble, you can duck and slip through little gaps and windows, exploring dusty rooms with shaft of light illuminating the dusty air.

We clambered up metres of rubble to stand atop precarious ancient archways, along ledges and walls gripping the roots of trees which wrap around and through the stonework. And all of this while the worst for wear from the night before. But it would be hard to let anything distract you from the beauty and majesty of these ruins, sitting there amid the forest, slowly being taken apart, like something from your imagination. Beng Melea is an absolute must see in our opinion. After Beng Melea those of us who were feeling capable had lunch and we went on to see the temples of the Ruluos group: Bakong, Lolei, and Preah Ko. Each of these consists of crumbling temple towers, their tops pared back to the brickwork and falling away, beneath are beautiful engravings and reliefs. Around these towers stand guard wonderfully carved lions. The temples are all worth seeing as part of a tour, but I'd be lying if I said they weren't struggling a little to compete with the morning spent clambering about Beng Melea.

We had spent the first day sharing a tuk-tuk with Calum, he'd been out exploring the day before we'd arrived also and this would be his last day, so we decided to head out for one more day with him which meant seeing Banteay Srei and the world famous Angkor Wat. The next day Sarah and I would go see the remainder of temples in the vicinity. Banteay Srei is a small but stunning complex with incredibly well preserved and detailed engravings, I wont even attempt to describe them - I only hope the photos do them some justice. 

After Banteay Srei we went to visit the Cambodian Landmine Museum. Cambodia still suffers enormously from landmines and unexploded ordinance - even now more than a hundred people are killed per year and many more left crippled for life. The museum was set up by a former child-soldier, Aki Ra, who having once laid landmines now dedicates his life to disarming them - often at great risk to himself. The museum has information displays on bombing and landmines, as well as hundreds of disarmed devices on display. Outside they have a small patch of fenced off land with disarmed landmines planted to give some idea of the difficulty of noticing them until it is too late. Inside there's a shop selling incredibly reasonably priced bits and pieces (I got a t-shirt for 5 dollars) the proceeds of which help the work of the museum. It's well worth a visit while seeing the temples.

Angkor Wat is by far the most famous of the sites around Siem Reap, the Cambodians are so proud of it it's even featured on their flag! However as sympathetic readers will know by now we've come to see that often the "star attraction" sights underwhelm a bit, part of this is the hype surrounding them, part maybe that their status attracts such crowds as to make it difficult to quietly experience and absorb the sites. Anyway, we made our way to Angkor Wat in the late afternoon, planning to spend a few hours around the complex and then watch the sun set behind it. The complex itself - and surrounding landscaping - are large and merit a few hours wandering about. Inside the temple are long corridors and galleries adorned with bas-reliefs, the centre of the temple consists of a set of courtyards and rooms raised above the rest of the complex along with the iconic towers, to enter there is a queue to climb the stairs. It's worth noting that women need to cover their shoulders before being allowed up which nearly scuppered us until we remember that we'd just bought a new tshirt in the landmine museum which could cover Sarah's obscene upper arms (sigh). You're supposed to stay in the upper section for only 15 minutes, we wandered about then sat in in the central courtyard taking it all in. It really is true to say that the real majesty of Angkor Wat lies in its enormous profile which really is best viewed from outside, so we retired to the gardens behind and lay in the grass watching the sky turn to gold and rendering the famous silhouette black in the evening sky. Wandering back around to the front we were assailed by vendors selling tacky ornaments and poor children begging.

We started our final day in the enormous complex of Angkor Thom. We entered this ancient walled city through the imposing stone gates and proceeded to the Bayon. This beautiful site is really one of the highlights of the entire Siem Reap area. Inside are twisting and cavernous sets of interconnecting rooms, towering over these are enormous towers culminating in carved faces. These huge serene faces are intended to be those of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, however it's said that they were made to resemble the king who ordered their construction: Jayavarman VII. We spent a fair while wandering about the Bayon trying to decipher the emotion and meaning of the carved faces, I also used my journal and a crayon to make a few rubbings of the intricate engravings that adorn the walls. Afterwards we walked to the nearby Baphuon which is a towering stepped complex which commands impressive views across Angkor Thom. Much of the site is in pieces however, during the process of the reconstruction the Khmer Rouge came to power and records of the original position of stones were lost. As you climb about walls just end or door frames stand isolated. Perhaps someday the pieces will finally be reunited with each other.

From there we walked across through the complex of Phimeanakas, and it's raised Terrace of Elephants. The ground here are really beautiful, the open space gives way to trees and great walls, collapsed in places, opening onto old ponds which reflect the forest around, we wandered on to the deserted Preah Palilay, the across to Tep Pranam and the Leper King Terrace. After wandering about the scattered towers of Suor Prasat which stand in the grass to the east we boarded the tuk-tuk again and left Angkor Thom through the east gate, we stopped to explore several smaller temples before reaching Ta Keo with its four intricate towers. Interestingly the construction of Ta Keo was never completed, it's said the building was struck by lightning and this was taken as a bad omen leading building works to be abandoned.

Finally we arrived at our last stop: the atmospheric and enchanting Ta Prohm. This large complex of buildings is slowly being reclaimed by the jungle around, enormous trees sprout from the roofs of temples, their roots, winding and bifurcating down tearing at the stonework, penetrating windows and squeezing walls as they seek the earth. The roots seem like enormous muscles, great serpents probing each gallery and building and enveloping them. People with an interest in the arts will recognise Ta Prohm as a filming location of such great cinematic works as "Tomb Raider". Joking aside the place is beautiful and impressive. The only pointer I would give is it would be worth trying to get there early, it was packed with people when we got there which made it hard to get photographs and also to just find a quiet spot to sit and absorb it all. And thus ended our time exploring the Angkor temples surrounding Siem Reap - a highlight of any trip and worth spending several days to cover as much as possible.

On our downtime from Indiana Jonesing around ancient temples we had a great time relaxing around Siem Reap. The city is pleasant to walk around with a good mix of places to restaurants, bars, cafes, good streetfood options and several large markets. For somewhere that could have descended into tourist freeding frenzy chaos given the popularity of the Angkor ruins it's really not all that bad.

One place that deserves a "special" mention for those home-food hankerings is the Blue Pumpkin cafe. Situated right in the centre of town the cafe is awash with well put together western food options, and has an excellent bakery, great coffee, as well as milkshakes and air conditioning which makes refrigeration almost unnecessary. We had a pleasant afternoon snacks with Calum there after hard days temple hopping. They have a good wifi connection too so handy for quickly googling stuff while out and about.

In the centre of Siem Reap there's a pedestrianised street of bars called, imaginatively enough, Pub Street. There's little to say about it except I highly recommend never going to "Angkor What?" bar, and if you do I even more highly recomend not drinking buckets of long island ice tea. Especially the morning before getting up at 7 to get into a day of driving between temples in a tuk-tuk. I need say no more...
However one good aspect of Pub Street is that it serves as a handy marker for the street food spots. There's a corner opposite the end of the street with a ton of little stalls and tables serving up excellent and cheap food for dinner -  about one-tenth the price of the "normal" restaurants and absolutely delicious.

Throughout the centre of Siem Reap the streets are lined with large glass tanks filled with teeming shoals of small fish. For the princely sum of about a dollar you sit on the edge of the tank with your feet in the water and the fish swarm about and in eat the dead skin off your feet for 30 minutes. Yes this is every bit as disgusting and unpleasant as it sounds. It seems that with every business once it becomes at all succesful hundreds of impersonators pop up and so it is with this, the whole fish-feet thing being a bit of an institution we gave it a go and while haggling the guy running our tank insisted he had originally come up with the idea and now everyone was copying it. But of course there's some innovation - the copycats decided the process itself wasn't that much of an attraction so now offer a free beer too. Our despondent entrepreneur had bowed to this market wisdom and gave us beers too, so for the princely sum of about two dollars each we sat there for 30 minutes squirming and yelping in horror. Some of them are a fair size and a man would nearly be in fear of losing a toe. For some reason they particularly liked Calum which gave myself and Sarah some respite.

So with several days in Siem Reap under our belt, and a Cambodian visa that was about to expire we decided to head for Thailand. Calum had similar plans so we decided to all make for Bangkok.

Now just a note here, previously when describing crossing borders I've had a habit of dividing the details between two entries, but it's occured to me that it's probably not the most helpful way to go about it, so even though some of the following actually happened in Thailand I'll leave it here in the Cambodia entry where it makes the most sense.

Heading to Bangkok

Getting from Siem Reap to Bangkok is simple and not expensive, but for some reason the entire process gets built up into a frenzy of worry and speculation on internet forums and guidebooks. This left us a little anxious that there might be some problems or difficulties but it all went fine.
It's possible to book a bus all the way to Bangkok, but we'd heard that once across the border there were excellent Thai government buses and trains to Bangkok at a reasonable price so decided to just take a bus to Poipet at the border then head to Bangkok using those. We booked a minibus to Poipet through our guesthouse, the company was called Hang Tep. We set off about 7am and reached Poipet around 10am.

People with onward tickets to Bangkok were gathered together to complete the border process, we hit off ahead on our own. Poipet itself is pretty horrendous so under no circumstances would you want to stay a night there. The bus left us as a roundabout leading to the border itself. There are clear signs to Cambodian border departures office. Once through that with our passports stamped for exit we walked the short distance to the Thai immigration office. For us it wasn't necessary to have a Thai visa arranged before arriving (obviously not necessarily true of other nationalities). Alas the visa-waiver obtained on the border is just for 15 days, if you arrive in Thailand by air the waiver lasts 30 days. This was fine for us as we planned to visit Bangkok and then go to the north and cross into Laos in about two weeks, if you need longer it's worth arranging a visa beforehand or at least investigating the extensions process.

With our passports stamped and fingers printed we were out and into Thailand! There are only a few trains to Bangkok per day, as we'd managed to make it through the border more quickly than we'd expected we decided to take a government bus to Bangkok. There were atms just outside the immigration office where we stocked up on some Thai baht, then we took a tuk-tuk to the bus station (just 10 minutes or so). The bus was ready and waiting, it was extremely comfortable and we even received a free fruit juice and muffin! We've heard some real horror stories of people getting terrible buses or transport between Siem Reap and Bangkok but really it couldn't be easier. We definitely recommend just making plans to get to Poipet then take the government bus or train.

The bus left us at the north-east bus station in Bangkok. It's possible to travel into town by skytrain (elevated rail) but we as ourselves and Calum were headed for the same spot we decided to split a taxi. Everything was very organised at the taxi rank, we were in a taxi in no time and on our way. The journey was about 20 minutes but very reasonably priced. So! That's Cambodia done, and us into Thailand - what next for your bold protragonists? What twists, turns and adventures? Tune in next time and see!

Vietnam: Nha Trang, Mui Ne, Saigon/HCMC & Mekong Delta

Nha Trang

The journey to Nha Trang takes about 11 hours. The bus was of an unusual layout that we'd never seen before. There were two corridors running down the bus, the seats were in bunks one on top of the other. The seats were almost totally reclined with your feet fitting into a sort of cocoon which continued below the person in front's seat. It's hard to explain in words! Anyway while the ride was a bit bumpy and we didn't get the best night's sleep it was grand compared to some of the bus journeys we'd been through in India. I could however see it being pretty uncomfortable if you were particularly tall. Also take it from me, no matter how much difficulty you have sleeping on your back don't try rolling onto your front. I did this and somehow drifted off with my body at some godawful unnatural angle and woke up almost unable to move! I could probably buy the seats off the bus company and market it as a new age yoga treatment...

We arrived in Nha Trang as the sun rose at about 6AM, the bus dropped us at the Sinh Tourist office which luckily was just around the corner from the hotel we were headed for. Once again Sarah performed miracles on the accomodation front. We'd booked Carpe DM Hotel which is five minutes walk from the beach in a quiet lane close to the centre of the nightlife. We were paying €12 a night and just couldn't believe how nice the hotel was, the room seemed brand new, decor was stunning, the room had a big flat screen tv (which we didn't end up using, but still), and a beautiful bathroom with a tub and all! Sarah notes that there was a dressing table and mirror with a hairdryer too! This was the sort of room you'd pay hundreds of euro for in Europe and here it was for twelve, mindblowing. As I said the hotel was just around the corner from the Sinh Tourist office and the same short street had a ton of nice bars and restaurants and was two minutes walk from the beach.

Maybe it was the time of year but thankfully Nha Trang wasn't as much of a mad party beach as we'd expected, the beach proved very quiet and relaxed. The beach curves away on both sides for kilometres with nice clean sand stretching as far as you can see. We had a few lovely lazy days out swimming and relaxing in the sun reading on the beach. Again maybe it was the season but the surf on the beach was very powerful (almost unswimmable) at times so that's worth keeping in mind, luckily the wet weather held off and we had lovely sun every day with just a few showers here and there. We were a bit wary of leaving any valuables on the beach which proved a bit of a quandary when reading. We absolutely love our kindles but leaving them unattended seemed a bad idea, we were in luck however. Booksellers are everywhere in Vietnam. There are stalls in each market, along the side of the street people set up stacks of books, there are even mobile booksellers on motorbikes - they precariously balance a set of shelves on the back and swoop at you through traffic advertising their wares in case the urge to read a book hits you as you walk down the street! The selection is often shockingly good - as well as the omnipresent copies of "Mr Nice" and "The Kite Runner" there are some real gems. I picked up a copy of "Tristram Shandy" (which I absolutely love) and Sarah got “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith. Copied books are everywhere in South East Asia, this is particularly handy for Lonely Planet guides. Far be it from me to condone piracy ("you wouldn't steal a car?", no, but if I could make a copy of one I might...) but this is a serious money saver, especially if you've forked out 30 quid on a regional guide (like South East Asia on a Shoestring) and need an individual country guide for greater detail. Before buying a copied book flick through it well and in particular check if the maps have been reproduced readably. The higher class copiers will even have colour insets that match those in the "real" books. Which brings me to Sarah's copy of "White Teeth": some pages had failed to photocopy correctly and in their place someone had written the story in by hand!

We had breakfast each morning in a lovely place - Same Same Cafe - a minutes walk from the hotel. They served up a savage breakfast of sausage, bacon, eggs, beans and a roll with an iced coffee or mango juice for less than €1.50 each. The roll of bread served is called a Bahn Mi, the bread is very light and airy with a lovely sweet taste, they're easily bought off street vendors also and make a nice addition to most meals! In the same small area near the hotel were several really nice restaurants. In particular we loved Lanterns restaurant and La Taverna. Lantern's serves high quality local dishes in a lovely setting, the prices are a little above what you might normally expect but the restaurant provides training for local people, as well as free meals for the poor and is worth visiting at least once. They have some good cheap options like Pho for 30,000 dong which are more than ample in the portion department. If you feel like some nice pizza or pasta La Taverna had some lovely offerings which were reasonably priced. There are also some popular street food vendors selling Banh Mi filled with salad or meat for lunch and breakfast, and ladies walk along the beach selling snacks and beer if a quick bite is needed.

Nha Trang saw the first of several horrendous pissups with Calum and Mark (who if you remember we'd initially met in Nanning in China, then again in Hanoi). Wandering the streets in the evening heading for some dinner we happened across the two lads, we decided to go get some dinner together. Happening across an establishment offering, and I quote, "free beer" we decided it was as good as any other. Of course after one beer each they quickly qualified the offer as being "one free beer". Undeterred we drank and ate heartily regailing each other with travel tales and Calum's rules of drinking. Afterwards we wandered up the street to the aptly named "Why Not?" bar. I'm not sure if this is a chain of bars or just a popular name, we'd ended up in a "Why Not?" bar in Hue too. Retiring to a table we noticed they had a Shisha pipe and relating that we'd found it pleasing in Turkey and Iran the lads replied with similar stories from their trip so we ordered one up along with Sarah and myself's first "buckets". Buckets are infamous in south east asia, the idea being that serving cocktails in a glass restricts the amount one can drink between orderings and so it'd make much more sense to simply serve a larger portion in a bucket. In this case the bucket was an oversize jam jar. After imbibing quite a few of these we explained to the staff that our Irish and Scottish background inured us against the debilitating effects of alcohol. Much fun was had blowing smoke upwards through our straws, at which point Calum made the smart decision to call it a night. Ourselves and Mark took to the dancefloor and had quite the night. The next morning was not quite as jovial, we awoke with hangovers of epic proportions. As a friend once said "death would be a mercy". Calum and Mark had an even more interesting morning, they were due to get a bus at 6am, at 4 a pipe burst in their room flooding the place, so perhaps the rumours of a cold dip doing one a power of good are true after all. While we weren't to see Mark again Calum will pop up and preciptate a few more hangovers in the near future as we'll see in subsequent posts.

After all this excess some quiet nights were needed, we had some nice relaxed evenings in watching Peep Show and Seinfeld on the laptop. In order to further rejuvenate we also paid a visit to Thap Ba mud baths just outside Nha Trang. The baths are situated on a hot spring which produces lovely hot water and not so lovely hot mud. A taxi out is 100,000 dong (3 euro ish). The baths have a range of different options including massages and all sorts, we opted for the basic package of a mud bath and then a while in the hot springs. The mud bath is a big bath tub to fit two which is filled to the brim with hot mud fresh from the spring. Now I'm not particularly au fait with the latest in bullshit health treatments but was willing to partake on the basis of the affinity for muck most of us have in childhood. It's strange being in the bath, because of the much higher density than water it's impossible to keep from floating upwards requiring you to wedge yourself against the sides. I'd also advise not dunking your head underneath the surface, I was sneezing mud for weeks afterwards. After we showered off and went to a little private pool filled with delightfully mud free water from the spring, lying back in the piping water was lovely! Afterwards there's a large swimming pool filled with hot water from the spring which is nice for a bit of a paddle. The baths are good fun and worth a trip out on a lazy afternoon. And that's Nha Trang, perhaps we hit it at a less busy time but we really found it a pretty pleasant place to kick back. We were heading onward to Mui Ne. It's pretty easy, a day or two before you want to go you head to the Sinh Tourist office with your open ticket, they give you tickets for whenever you want and the cost is covered already.

Mui Ne

Mui Ne is an increasingly popular beachside town strung out over five kilometres of sea side. The bus from Nha Trang took three hours and left us at the Sinh Tourist office again. We'd booked a private room in the oddly named Vietnam Austria Backpackers Hostel. As I said Mui Ne is very strung out, knowing the address of the hostel and seeing it was only about 50 "numbers" off of the office we were dropped at we decided to walk. This was a stupid idea, the walk was about 2km in very hot weather with the bags, unless you're certain your accomodation is nearby it's best to take a taxi or one of the motorbikes that wait by the bus.  

The hostel had a pool towards the front, the back of the hostel faced onto the beach. We got a poolside room because they were cheaper, the room was grand although I've a feeling the place was pricey compared to what could be had elsewhere. There're tons of accomodation options so possibly worth mooching around a bit to see if a deal can be got on a bungalow by the beach.  Aside from the beach the countryside around the town is quite nice and many people go to visit the sand dunes outside town. The dunes are composed of red sand and attract people looking for sandboard or just to admire them. It's possible to take a tour out to see them or cycle out. Or you could also just relax on the beach.

The beach in Mui Ne stretches kilometres in either direction, unlike Nha Trang it's quite steep so there's less space on the beach which makes it quite a bit busier. Mui Ne is very well known for its kite surfing, we didn't give it a pop but there were intrepid souls whizzing up and down all day so it must be good going. Again possibly due to the time of year there were some serious waves in Mui Ne, this was great fun for me and the group of lads who assembled where they broke attempting to outdo each other in feats of death-defying body surfing, but less fun for children or people just looking for a paddle. Many's the wave that left the lot of us washed up on the beach with cuts and bruises from being slammed into the sand!

Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon

We took a bus in the afternoon from Mui Ne south to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it was formerly known. While Saigon was renamed after Ho Chi Minh the locals still refer to it exclusively as Saigon so that's what we did there and what I'll do here. On an aside when referred to as Ho Chi Minh City most people on forums and guides online abbreviate it HCMC with no explanation, so if you come across a reference to HCMC they're talking about Ho Chi Minh City, maybe I'm just dense but when I first encountered it I had no idea what was being reffered to. The owner of the hostel in Mui Ne phoned Sinh Cafe for us and as the bus was heading past our hostel on the way towards Saigon they said they'd just pick us up outside handily! The bus took 5 hours with a large amount of that consisting of being stuck in traffic on the outskirts of Saigon! 

Once again we were dropped outside the Sinh Tourist office. No doubt a local would take me to task for this but the "centre" of Saigon is Pham Ngu Lao which runs west-east. To the north lie many of the main attractions: the market, former presidential palace and the war remnants museum. To the south and east lie several parallel streets with smaller north-south lanes cutting through them all lined with places to eat, bars and assorted little shops. Pham Ngu Lao itself has some nice street food places, a park to the north and alleys which run off to the south with lots of good accomodation options on them. Sarah had found a hotel with a good reputation in one of these alleys so off we took to Thanh Thuong Guesthouse. At first it can be hard to know which alley is the one you're looking for, sometimes the hotel or hostel provide directions. If not the address is a help, for example Thanh Thuong is 241/6 Pham Ngu Lao Street. What this means is it's on alley 6, which branches off Phan Ngu Lao at address number 241. Once you're on the alley (which are very narrow, maybe a metre wide) the hotel is usually easy to spot. Thanh Thuong was very cheap, the rooms were clean and in good condition and in a great location - we'd definitely recommend it. When a hotel is jammed down a little lane you can't expect much of a view and even a window in the room is a bit of an ask usually.

Speaking of spotting the lanes usually when giving people directions this is best done by saying what's on the corner - in our case the corner of the alley and Pham Ngu Lao had a great fruit juice shop! Experimenting with different combinations I came to the conclusion that the greatest fruit shake in the world is mango and strawberry, though I must say Sarah's later invention of coconut and banana is particularly delectible. There are lots of restaurants in and around the centre but as usual some of the best options are in little street food setups selling pho. There was one in particular on a corner with an alley to the west end of Pham Ngu Lao which was absolutely outstanding with the beef served beautifully medium rare. As usual the prices are rock bottom which sweetens the deal nicely. Beer however definitely gets more expensive as you head south in Vietnam, it's still very cheap but not quite as good as up north.  On our first night we went for a few beers with Calum who happened to be in Saigon at the same time, we swapped advice and plans and vowed to meet again in Cambodia. 

Saigon is definitely less hectic than Hanoi and is really pleasant to walk around, the park above Pham Ngu Lao fills up in the evening with couples sitting together, children playing and huge circles of men playing "keepy uppy" - đá cầu is a national sport in Vietnam, instead of using a football they use a thing a bit like badminton shuttlecock but weighted with rings of metal at the front, a gigantic circle often with more than ten people forms standing about ten metres apart, the shuttlecock is heartily kicked across the circle the aim being to keep it up as long as possible. It's brilliant fun to watch and ladies circulate selling the shuttlecocks if you're interested in playing at home!

Ho Chi Minh at Christmas - Saigon General Post Office

We didn't have very long in Saigon so aimed to see the two main sites in one day: the War Remnants Museum and the Presidential Palace. The palace was the home of the president of South Vietnam until 1975 when the forces of Ho Chi Minh finally prevailed and captured Saigon. It has been kept just as it was then since leaving room after room of kitschy 70s decor which makes quite a sight. Alas we didn't get to see it - we ended up spending so long in the War Remnants Museum that it was closed by the time we got there (closed at 4pm I think). Oh well, some other time I suppose! The War Remnants Museum is dedicated to displaying information, stories, photographs and weapons employed in the war for control of Vietnam between forces led by Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnamese forces backed by the west (primarily Americans). Outside the courtyard contains a large array of American aircraft:  bombers, jets, and helicopters as well as heavy artillery. Inside there are several floors with different exhibits. 

I'd say from the outset these displays of photographs and stories are extemely disturbing and shocking at times, we both left the museum very moved. I'd also say we heard no end of people complaining about the museum being "propaganda", or "biased". To be honest we found these to be difficult accusations to listen to, I don't believe the Vietnam memorial in Washington contains any names of the millions of Vietnamese, Cambodian or Laotian civilians killed in the conflict. It boggles the mind that given an outright lack of knowledge of atrocities committed by their own country many people have the audacity to criticise the Vietnamese communists for telling their own story. Yes it's biased, but honestly even in open liberal democracies like Ireland (did I really just describe Ireland as open and liberal?!) there are major omissions and blindspots in the popular depiction of our history, history is, as Churchill the bastard pointed out, written by the victors. I think it also overlooks the many western contributions to the museum: a majority of the photographs on display were taken by western journalists, these photographers are credited, in many cases they've worked with the museum and supplied information and stories to accompany the displays. Many photographers were killed by North Vietnamese forces during the war and this is in no way glossed over. Former US combatants have written to the museum to apologise for their role in the war, some have even asked for their letters to be displayed - one even sent along the medals he was awarded. Of course that's not to say the museum is even-handed in documenting atrocities, but I think it's asking a little much to think it's even possible to present an account of this era which everyone accepts as fair, the war is inherently ideological in a way that caused civilian atrocities on both sides, there's little triumphalism on display here, and considering its recent past the lack of anti-western sentiment in Vietnam is nothing short of incredible. 

Basically the museum chronicles the origins of the war in the fight for independence from France, the key battles in this fight are covered and then the treaties which established North and South Vietnam. Newspaper clippings are counterposed with North Vietnamese and US statements, as well as further UN agreements governing the area. In the early 60s the museum chronicles the increasingly militarisation and involvement of the US in propping up the South Vietnamese regime. The war is then covered chronologically with photo sets and eyewitness account from both sides, US opposition to the war is covered along with anti-war movements throughout the world. Some of the incidents covered are well known in the west (My Lai for example), I think the hundreds of smaller incidents though are much more telling. Often these consist of a huddled photo of a family, babies, parents, grandparents taken by a western journalist, followed by their account of these people simply being gunned down. There are many many such incidents documented here, and I think it very much dispels the bullshit people were fed at the time about "a few bad apples" or a "breakdown in command", lessons which people could do with remembering concerning present day imperialist adventures. Of course it's true to say the museum does not cover massacres and killings of civilians by North Vietnamese forces except by oblique mention in US media reports, I don't know what to say to this except that it is sad, but I don't think it invalidates what is on display. Many of the stories of bravery on the part of photographers are quite incredible, a huge number knowingly faced certain death in order to chronicle the fighting, their accounts or accounts of those who knew them which are on display are astounding. 

A large section of the museum is given over to covering deaths and birth defecnts due the use of Agent Orange by the US. This was a chemical defoliant used to destroy forests being used for cover by communist forces, sprayed over enormous areas of Vietnam and surround countries the toxic chemical continues to poison the land and cause thousands of birth defects every year. In particular it's highlighted that US forces who were themselves caught up in this have been compensated but no compensation is forthcoming for the many thousands of Vietnamese and Laotians who suffered and continue to suffer. This section also includes photo essays of children of American combatants who suffered from birth defects and stories from them.

There are also displays of typical small arms used by both sides in the conflict. Interspersed are also photos taken by bombers of destroyed infrastructure paired with images taken in modern times in the same location and stories chronicling the reconstruction effort. The bottom floor has accounts of international anti-war protests, as well as a large section of letters from former US combatants on their feelings regarding the war. Again this is hardly going to feature unrepentant diatribes but we get enough of those in our international politics surely.  Lastly there's a collection of children's paintings promoting world peace which we could surely do with more of. Outside in the yard there are reconstructions of instruments of torture and prison cells used by the South Vietnamese government in detention camps. Again no mention of torture by North Vietnamese forces. The museum is an absolute must see in Saigon. I really hope reading this I don't come across as utterly biased, I was just surprised at the level of vehement opposition to it we came across among other travelers. Anyone traveling around Vietnam will encounter people who fought against the communists and continue to suffer ostracisation to this day - not to mention people injured, maimed or orphaned by the forces that now run the country, there's no doubt that these people do not have a voice within Vietnam and that is a disgrace. It's hard to get the full-story of anything in one place, if there's anything to say for the War Remaments Museum it's that it gives "the other half" of the story to many foreign travelers who themselves have only heard their own half.

 Now for something a bit cheerier! The central market in Hanoi has an incredible collection of bits and pieces - from 1001 variants on Ho Chi Minh t-shirts to pots pans and assorted animal parts! Well worth a wander about some evening. At night stalls are set up on the street outside serving food and selling anything you might possibly want.

As I mentioned we'd arranged our open bus ticket with the Sinh Tourist, they also arrange tours around Vietnam so we went to them to arrange a tour to visit the Cu Chi tunnels as a day trip from Saigon and then our onward travel through the Mekong Delta towards Cambodia. There were a variety of tours to the tunnels (which I'll describe now in a second) with different itineraries, we decided to take a full day tour which would also bring us to a Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is a new religion which originated in Vietnam in the 1920s. Its founder intended it to be a synthesis of all the best bits of Christianity, Islam, Confucianism as well as a ton of other religions. Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and Napoleon are all Cao Dai saints and join a pantheon ranging from the Buddha to Thomas Jefferson. It all sounds a bit mad but the religion has several million followers within Vietnam. 

The temple itself reflects the fusion of different religous sources within the religion, it's part cathedral, part mosque, part Buddhist temple. We arrived there at about 1130, spent 30 minutes walking around getting information from our guide before attending a service as observers at 12. It was hard to know how to take it all in, the temple is extravagantly decked out with a mix of the austere seriousness of Christianity, the mathematical patterns of Islam and the wild colour of eastern temples. The service was quite touching all the same, the people are obviously deeply faithful to their beliefs and involved in the ceremony. All in all it's definitely worth going to see a Cao Dai temple if for no other reason than the utterly wild architecture.

The Cu Chi tunnels are an enormous interconnecting network of tunnels dug by hand, originally during the fight against the French and then expanded for use as a base from which to organise logistics, communications and to launch attacks during the later war with the US. The scale of the tunnels is hard to believe - there are 121km of tunnels, each is just large enough to allow you to walk around while crouched down, some just large enough to allow crawling. The tunnels descend many metres below the ground on several levels linking rooms for cooking, sleeping, storing arms and manfactuing weapons; at one time time the tunnels were home to thousands of fighters and civilians sheltering from bombing. In many ways the designs are ingenious, smoke from underground fires is chanelled into several long chimney shafts which emerge tens of metres away so as not to draw attention to the location. 

The tunnels are entered using small wooden trapdoors set into the forest floor, when closed and brushed with leaves the entrances are almost impossible to see. This allowed Viet Cong to pop up, attack American or South Vietnamese forces and disappear again within seconds having collected weapons and ammunition from the dead. Many entrances are extremely small: designed so that foreign fighters couldn't physically fit through. The tunnels are a few hours drive from Saigon, we went with a small group and a guide. When visiting the tunnels you first go to a replica bunker to watch an old North Vietnamese propaganda film shot during the war. It's hard to take it seriously it's so over the top and even the Americans present couldn't help but smirk at the video of young female fighters being given medals for being "Number One American Killer". You're then shown around as a group with your guide and also a soldier who demonstrates numberous reconstructed booby-trap devices used to injure or kill US troops. These displays are particularly harrowing, often they consist of trapdoors in the forest through which soldiers would fall onto pits of sharp stakes smeared with pig shit to cause infection. Others were constructed from collapsing chair to trap legs and slow down patrols. 

Trapdoor leading to stakes

The tour then takes in reconstructed hidden and underground bomb factories which were tasked with deconstructing unexploded US bombs to extract the explosives and construct what I suppose in these days would be referred to as "Improvised Explosive Devices". The tour brings you along muddy trails throughout the forest, as we walked the guide would point out hidden entrances. Often we passed ponds of water which filled the craters from B-52 bombing. We all got to have a turn trying to slide down a narrow trapdoor into the tunnels, the dark when the trapdoor was replaced above my head gave some idea of what it must have been like and it wasn't pleasant! All the while while wandering around the air is filled with the sound of automatic gunfire, the tour eventually visits a firing range where for 1 usd per round you can fire any number of weapons. Sarah and I had a go of an AK-47 resulting in photos which doubtless will be used against us in a court of law at some point. Hints were dropped with with a slightly larger "donation" it would be possible to fire an rocket propelled grenade, not wanting to completely cement my status as a bearded fanatic I politely declined. 

At the end of the tour we got to descend into the tunnels themselves and crawl along them for a hundred metres or so, it was utterly dark and impossible to see except passing the occasional vent shaft, we were feeling our way along, at times the ceiling descended forcing us from a crouch onto our knees or stomachs. The shaft would tilt downwards without warning and then ascend again later. We emerged mucky, sweaty and with a serious appreciation of what it must have been like to spend months at a time down there under near constant bombing. Afterwards we were treated to a cup of tea and a meal of tapioca which served as the main food of the inhabitants. It was a two hour drive back to Hanoi for our last night. 

We had taken to getting dinner off of an old lady with a noodle stall on the street around the corner from our hotel. She had a little gas burner on which she fried up beef and vegetables, tossed in noodles then topped it off with a fried egg! She even provided a little plastic baggie filled with soy sauce! All this went into a plastic food box and we'd take it back to our hotel or eat it out on the street. It was more than enough for dinner and all for 20,000 dong. So for our last dinner in Saigon we went for our noodles then threw down with a beer to take it easy. The next morning we were leaving for the Mekong Delta and then to Cambodia.

Unbelievably delicious!

Mekong Delta and off to Cambodia

The Mekong river is the lifeblood of much of South East Asia, winding south from China through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and then culminating in an vast fertile delta in the south of Vietnam. This region produces much of Vietnam's rice and is the centre of agriculture in the country. The Mekong is also beautiful, vast in parts, winding through fields and forests to the sea. It emerges into a great delta south of Saigon, we'd wanted to get down to see the area and found the Sinh Tourist offered a tour which would give us two days seeing the delta and then drop us over the border into Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The tour was 48 usd each which is really really cheap when you consider all transport, food, and accomodation was included, as well as a guide - of course it's possible to head down to the delta and then into Cambodia independently, but the convenience of the tour was too hard to skip!

We left Saigon at 7am and traveled south 100km to the river. There we transferred to a boat and were brought to Cai Be floating market. Locals row out in their own boats to visit the vendors, atop their boats they have a pole with whatever they're selling (fruit, vegetables) hanging from it. Enormous boats laden almost to the point of sinking with rice chug by, local people throw watermelons between boats, a strange and beautiful scene to see! Afterwards we traveled backwards up the river to visit local enterprises where people process rice to make paper and popped rice foodstuffs. It was interesting how every part of the rice is used - to heat the rice the husks are burned. 

The scenery was very beautiful and we were made welcome everywhere we wandered. Afterwards we had a great lunch of roast fish caught from the river and were entertained with local music and singing (often a bit of a trial...). That night we stayed in the border town of Chau Doc, we were brought out for dinner then went out for a few beers with the group.

The next morning we were up early again, after breakfast we went to floating village much like the one we'd seen in Halong - as we were paddled along a woman in a boat pulled alongside and served the man rowing us a steaming breakfast of egg and noodles in broth! The houses here, like those we'd seen before, sit atop fish cages which sit underneath. We then visited an area inhabited by the muslim Cham ethnic group, we wandered about their village and visited the mosque. They showed us how on their stilt houses the high-water level of various floods were marked. Afterwards we got into a motorboat which brought us to Vinh Xuong–Kaam Samnor border crossing. The entire setup - customs and passport checking offices float on the river! And there we'll leave it - for details of the crossing and further travel to Phnom Penh see our Cambodia post.

We spent a little under a month in Vietnam in total and had an absolutely wonderful time - there's really everything here and places to suit all inclinations. Looking back now the one thing we miss more than anything is the food - once we're home we'll certainly be learning to make all the wonderful dishes we were spoiled with! So - off we go to Cambodia!

Vietnam: Getting there from China, Hanoi, Halong bay, Hué & Hoi An

Crossing from Nanning (China)

Let's pick up where we left off crossing from China to Vietnam at Ping Xiang. On exiting the Chinese border control post we walked across no man's land to the Vietnamese post. We had organised Vietnamese visas in Nanning, it is necessary to have obtained a visa before crossing the border. It took five minutes to get our passports stamped and out we went! Vietnam! We'd purchased a Nanning - Hanoi bus ticket and the bus was waiting for us on the other side of the border. It's strange how definite borders can be - although as we'd headed south in China (and in particular on the journey from Yangshuo to Nanning) the scenery had gradually changed there seemed to be a giant leap on crossing the border, we were awash with palm trees! The level of development was obviously quite a bit lower too, potholes appeared and unpaved lanes wound their way around and about the main road. Alongside posters adorned with the wise visage of Ho Chi Minh appeared, every few minutes we passed billboards with paintings of green clad soldiers, tool wielding farmers, or smartly dressed office workers standing side by side beneath a hammer and sickle and revolutionary slogans. In ways I'd expected more of this leftist triumphalism in China so it was interesting to finally see it all about! And of course with a change in language suddenly came new place names (still regretting not getting a snap of a sign for the town of "My Bum") and general signage we could read (or at least pronounce!).
On the bus to the border we'd got talking to two girls from Quebec, Julie and Andrée, we chatted away with them as we progressed towards Hanoi and decided we'd head for the same hostel there. 


Note: Where are the photos?! Well, basically we were all photo'd out from the last few weeks in China and didn't take any in Hanoi! Hopefully the text alone will suffice.

Annoyingly the bus to Hanoi left us off in some completely random spot next to a hotel in the suburbs. In a familiar routine a huckster climbed aboard and made for our cluster of western faces and began his pitch. Quickly realising we'd no interest he switched to his backup plan of arranging a taxi to the city centre for us. We were a bit wary but the taxi had a meter which seemed to run properly so off we went. There were the two of us,  the Quebecois girls and another couple - luckily we had all planned to stay in roughly the same area in the old quarter of Hanoi so splitting the taxi made a world of sense. It took about 30 minutes to get there and the fare just about 3 euro each. The traffic was desperate so getting my bearings looking out of the window and perusing a map we got off a few minutes walk from the hostel and proceeded on foot.

We'd (i.e. Sarah had) done some research on places to stay in Hanoi and decided on Hanoi Backpacker's Hostel. They've two locations so we went for the newer building which is on Ma May in the centre of the old quarter. The location was perfect for wandering about - right in the centre of the chaos and jumble, and it was cheap enough (they had double beds in the dorm for which we paid €4 each). The old quarter of Hanoi is a warren of small streets bounded by shops, bars and restaurants; the roads are lined with little stalls selling street food, fruit, renting mopeds, and generally selling anything you can think of. In the little space that's left the millions of motorbikes which throng Hanoi pulse and weave together, beeping, revving, colliding. It is through this we found ourselves trodding with our bags, agape at the literally hundreds of westerners milling about. We found the hostel easily: road signage in Vietnamese cities, just as in China, is excellent. If an intersection isn't marked with street names you're still golden, because the awnings over each shop invariably list the address. The hostel was an enormous affair, by far the largest we've ever stayed in. The ground floor has a reception with bar and restaurant, and above lie 7 floors all but one of which are full of dorms - the fifth floor has a bar with pool tables and couches to watch TV or read and a sun terrace. We got into our dorm grand and retired downstairs to have a beer, some food and generally get our bearings. It really is hard to describe how you get used to backpacking being a relatively low key affair. To be thrust into a horde of foreigners was very strange. And of course now we found ourselves on a very different sort of circuit, we marvelled at lads in tank shirts who seemed to have spent more on steroids than vaccinations before leaving, young ones caked in makeup and high heels tottering about. I half expected David Attenborough to pop out from behind a shrub and commence describing the group dynamics in hushed tones interspersed with knowing glances. Enormous groups arrived and left trailing herds of wheelie suitcases. If you felt like staying in, the food in the hostel was excellent, and they had two for one pizzas and beers at certain hours of the evening. As well as wifi throughout the building, the dorms were comfortable, the location is ideal, it's a bit odd being in such a party atmosphere (at times we joked it felt a bit like a club with dorms attached!) but we'd recommend it as a spot to stay. As the fella says it did the job.

Now the food might be good in the hostel but you'd be mental to eat in much in Vietnam. The food is incredible, there are little street food places lining every road and it's ridiculously cheap. There are lots of staple Vietnamese dishes but our favourite is the everpresent Phở.  (What are all those mad accents on the 'o' you ask, well like Chinese Vietnamese is a tonal language too, the markings are a guide to the tone of each letter, but to be honest hard and all as it was in Chinese it was impossible in Vietnamese so phở is pho for all intents and purposes!). Pho is a noodle soup usually with chicken (phở gà) or beef (phở bò). From talking to other people I think we're woefully ignorant of world cuisine because nearly everyone seemed to have had pho before at their "local vietnamese place". However our first ever bowl of pho was the morning after we arrived in Hanoi. Heading out of the hostel we wandered down the little street dodging mopeds and ladies carrying baskets of fruit. Street food places usually consist of an open fronted shop space with the grill or fire up front and tiny plastic seats and tables outside. As we walked along we sized them up and picked one that looked busy. At the front a huge vat of soup boiled away with an old lady sat on the ground next to it surrounded by a pile of roast chickens. She had a giant pair of scissors which she efficiently used to reduce each chicken to its constituent parts, and then subdivided these again into "bitesize chunks". These got tossed over her shoulder expertly landing in the soup. Alongside this was a pot full of water for cooking noodles. We sat down and made appropriate glances of interest in the direction of the woman, her daughters swarmed in and around transferring bowls of steamy goodness to the tables. As is often the case they never asked what we wanted, but after a few minutes a plate appeared piled high with fresh herbs, beansprouts, chillies and onions, then along came two giant bowls of noodle soup with chicken: Pho! The herbs get added as you see fit along with a dose of chilli sauce to taste (or to burn your lips off in my experience). This time we paid 25,000 dong each (€1 was about 30,000 dong at the time), and I have a feeling we might have been charged over the usual odds. So it's super cheap and every city and town is full of places churning out Pho at all hours. We keep a list of foods to try cooking at home and Pho is on our immediate to do!
Of course you might want something to wash down your Pho and you're in luck because Vietnam has the cheapest beer you could possibly imagine! A 500ml bottle of a local brew (our favourite was Huda which is brewed in Hue) costs about 20,000 dong (less than a euro), and if you want a draught beer (bia hoi) a glass can be had for as little as 7000 dong (23c), we even heard tell of a place with bia hoi for 5000 dong! So it's quite possible to have a beer and a big bowl of Pho for only marginally more than a euro. The street food is excellent (as usual if a place is busy with locals then it's usually great, it's worth being adventurous!).

Vietnam is famous for it's traditional water puppets. The show is performed in a pool of waist deep water with a curtain behind. The puppets are placed on top of long poles which extend underwater and back behind the curtain allowing the puppeteers to control the puppets as they seemingly dance unsupported above the water. This is a very ancient form of entertainment which originally was performed in the flooded rice fields. With Andrée and Julia we went to a show in a theatre alongside the lake in Hanoi. The puppets are accompanied by an orchestra of bells, horns, drums, gongs and traditional stringed instruments and also two singers who sing the story as the puppets act it out, as well as calling words of encouragement or advice to the puppets as the stories progress! It's a strange display but definitely worth going to see.
Walking south through the old quarter you get to Hoan Kiem lake. The lake is at the heart of the city and is a beautiful place to stroll around at night, local couples sit hand in hand stealing kisses, people walk dogs or pick up an ice cream and dawdle about. In the middle stands "Tháp Rùa" (Turtle Tower) which is lit up at night. In the north of the old quarter lies the market area (centred around Dong Xuan market) where there are stalls selling everything you could imagine. We had a wander up there to look about, it's really interesting that just 50m or so north of Ma May there are virtually no tourists, it makes for a completely different experience compared to many parts of the old quarter where tourists often constitute a majority! This is true once you wander off away from the area surrounding the lake, it's not hard to hit out wandering aimlessly and find some interesting little streets with locals up to their normal business.
One of the great natural attractions of the world is Halong Bay in northern Vietnam. The large bay is filled with thousands of towering karst islands - originally it was just like Yangshuo in China but became flooded by the sea leaving the hills isolated in the sea. It makes for an enchanting experience and is an extremely popular destination with many people traveling to Hanoi just to do a tour. It's perfectly possibly to travel to the area independently and then organise a boat trip out amidst the islands but it is simpler and just as cheap to go from Hanoi. Our friends Aisling and Mick had recently done the same and recommended Ethnic Travel who have an office in the old quarter of Hanoi (there're contact details in the Lonely Planet South East Asia guide). We went around to the office and were talked through the various options, in the end we booked a two-day / one night tour. We'd be sleeping on the boat amidst the islands and the itinerary was packed with interesting things to see and do. We paid 98usd each for the tour which is on the high end of the spectrum for tours but everything was really high quality and with a small group so the price was more than justified in our opinion.  The tour would leave Hanoi early in the morning and drop us back there the next evening. So with that booked we set off to arrange transport southwards from Hanoi to Hue.

Most people travel down along the coast of Vietnam by bus, there are several major companies who sell open tickets allowing you to get off and stop at popular cities along the way, then catch the bus again whenever you want. They have offices in each town where you bring your open ticket and book onto a bus for whenever you want. However there's also a lovely railway line running down the coast and we weren't sure which we'd rather take, to get some experience of the train we decided to take it overnight from Hanoi to Hue. Most hotels and hostels will book train tickets for you but at an extortionate commission (literally double the face price of the ticket) so we decided to head to the train station in Hanoi to book them ourselves. The night before someone gave us a hot tip that the lady at counter 5 spoke excellent english which proved helpful! The station is an easy 30 minute walk from the old quarter and the process of buying a ticket is pretty simple, although it's best to have some idea of which train you'd like to take before heading there to simplify the process. Queues in Vietnam are much like those in India with skipping de rigueur - it's totally key to hold your ground and tell anyone pushing in front of you to fuck off - as politely as possible of course. With tickets in hand we headed back and enjoyed a lovely last night in Hanoi. We enjoyed a final meal at a street food place we had spotted which seemed packed at night, they put a little gas burner on the table with a wok over it and you get a pile of meat and veg to cook yourself! A key move here is to get an (extra) beer and throw it in too to get a stew going once you've browned the meat! After we had great iced-tea with Julie and Andrée.

Halong Bay

As I mentioned we'd booked our trip to Halong bay with Ethnic Travel and had arranged to be at their office at 8am. As we'd be coming back to Hanoi we left our bags in the left-luggage in the hostel and just brought alone the essentials, in practice it'd be no hassle to bring along the full packs if you needed to. We drove north for 3 hours through the countryside, our guide gave us great information about the different areas and farms we passed - I think at this stage I could become a rice farmer I know so much about it! We were in a group of 8, 3 lads from France, one from Israel and two women living in Germany. The group were fantastic, we quickly became friends and it really made the trip great fun to have everyone chatting away and joking. One of the French lads had actually spent a year working in Ireland subjected to the vagaries of the Kerry accent and regaled us with lots of funny stories about his time there. These sort of trips are often made or broken by the crowd you're with so we really got lucky.
Fanciest room we'd been in for a *long* time!

On arriving in Halong city we were dropped at the port and onto our boat. The boat was really beautiful, we had our own private cabin with bathroom (a substantial improvement on most of our sleeping places!). After settling in we were served lunch. The food really was outstanding throughout the trip, the lunch was a huge spread of seafood with fish, crab, shrimp, and clams accompanied by salad and vegetables. It was really impressive the quality of what they produced for us at each meal - we certainly didn't go hungry! As we ate the boat set off into the bay, the setting is beautiful. I suppose having just come from Yangshuo myself and Sarah were slightly "Karsted" out but even so it was spectacular to drift between the islands and see how erosion was gradually tapering them inwards at the water line or forming arches and caves. I'll defer to photographs for a detailed portrait of the views!

One thing to note when booking a tour: we had all been asked if we were vegetarian, but one of the lads on the tour being Jewish was unable to eat much of the food on offer (shellfish etc). So if you have some dietary / religious / whatever restriction on what you eat it's definitely worth making that known beforehand because they didn't quite seem to understand exactly what he was or wasn't permitted to eat. If you plan on having a few drinks it might also be an idea to bring along your own, beers and other drinks were quite a bit more expensive on the boat than they'd have been to bring along (read: we're cheapos). It's nice to sit with the others at night and have a drink and talk so if you're on a tight budget it's worth considering.

In the afternoon after several hours weaving between the islands and exploring little coves and sights we visited a floating village. This was a really surreal and incredible experience. These communities subsist on fishing, to keep close to their "workplace" they actually live permanently on the water. Their wooden or galvanised metal homes are built atop wooden platforms which are lashed on top of barrels. "Streets" of these homes are tied together and float on the sea in a sheltered bay. To travel around the village adults and children take to small rafts and paddle around. Some of the houses have large nets suspended beneath them containing fish farms. 

Our boat anchored in the neck of the bay and local women rowed out to meet us and take us aboard in groups of three. They ferried us around the village, we stopped at one home and got off to see it - little children toddle about on precarious platforms - I can only imagine our supposedly natural ability to swim as infants gets tested regularly here!  The village even had a floating primary school for the young children, though the guide explained that the government is trying hard to encourage attendance - as the secondary schools are on the mainland many people see little point in sending children to school at all. It was a strange experience to see a mode of living so alien to what we were used to or could even imagine. On returning to the main boat you're expected to tip the person who has rowed you about, we gave the lady the equivalent of a few euro and I wondered how it must feel to have us firing away with a camera agape at one's home place.

As the sun dipped in the sky we stopped up in a bay where we were to spend the night. We got changed into swimming gear and had great fun jumping off the roof of the boat - our first swim since we'd been in Turkey at the start of the trip! The water was beautifully warm although the current had us swimming to stand still, a hearty appetite was worked up for dinner! Our guide was from the Hmong ethnic group and came from a small village in the north of Vietnam, as mentioned she was a mine of information both on the landscape but also Vietnamese cultural practices and the various ethnic groups which compose what we monolithically refer to as "Vietnam". 

Over dinner that evening she told some incredible stories of traditional practices particularly among her group (the Hmong). As we sat agape she described how if a boy likes a girl he and his friends literally kidnap her. She's brought to his parents house and kept for two nights, they attempt to convince her to agree to marry the boy, on the second night there is an expectation that the pair will sleep together, though the girl can refuse. She is then released to her family to make a decision. This first kidnap can be refused, but afterwards the girl is generally assumed to have lost her virginity during the process and as such is considered less attractive. 

One of us ventured to ask if this had ever happened our guide and she told us it had, but she's managed to evade "capture" by locking a door and climbing out a window! To say this sort of practice seemed shocking to us would be a profound understatement, I suppose it really cuts the to heart of some of the great questions of our day, the legitimacy of cultural practices and the conflict between them and notions of the universality of rights we consider to be self-evident. Everyone should be confronted at times by stories and conversations which challenge their world view, I suppose the frequency of this happening is one of the great experiences of traveling. Our guide didn't seem angry or even particularly disapproving of the practice, she did however seem sad that her choice of a career in the city had alienated her from her own people and marked her as different in a way that would make it hard for her to marry in her home village. Same as it ever was I suppose in ways, but it's different to be confronted by a person's own story than an account of broad statistical shifts.

The next morning we were up early and off to a good spot for some kayaking. Sarah and I took off in ours and had a great time flitting about (after some initial heated exchanges soaking each other with ill-advised rowing techniques!). We paddled through caves into hidden coves and explored the coast for an hour or so, it was brilliant fun and we've both agreed we'll be doing more kayaking when we get home.

The boat returned us to port where we had a final lunch in a restaurant, as usual the food was great. After saying our goodbyes to everyone we were off back to Hanoi. We went back to the hostel to collect our bags and kill an hour before getting the train. To our delight while sitting in the common room we bumped into our ambulance driving Scottish friends from Nanning: Calum and Mark. We chatted away comparing plans then said our goodbyes and headed for the train station. We had booked 3-tier hard-sleeper beds on the train and they were pretty similar to the trains in China - perhaps marginally less comfortable but absolutely fine nonetheless. The train was a weird experience, in China we were always the only foreigners on the train which led to a lovely time "talking" with people whereas a clear majority of those on the train from Hanoi to Hue were travellers like ourselves. So off we clickety-clacked south from Hanoi, across the old demilitarised zone which constituted the border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam during what they call here "the American war".


We arrived into Hue in the morning, there were tons of taxis waiting at the station. When traveling you hear many people guffawing at the use of a meter and claiming they always negotiate a lower fixed price themselves, this is complete bollocks in my experience - when available (and assuming the meter isn't rigged to run fast - if it is tell the driver to stop and get out) we've always found the meter to give us a lower price on short trips than can be negotiated. It's telling that the drivers prefer a fixed price to the use of the meter. Hanoi Backpackers hostel have a sister hostel in Hue which we were headed for.

Hue Citadel

Hue Backpackers is a more sedate affair than it's Hanoi counterpart, it's on a small street off of the Perfume river which divides Hue. The dorms were grand if a little bit cramped. The common area / bar was brilliant, we had one or two down days here getting caught up on emails and the blog, the bar was under the command of a bearded Icelandic man who should be running a classic rock radio station - there was a constant stream of great music and some brilliant deals at the bar. In particular 2 for 1 beers in the evening worked out nicely and there were 2 for 1 cocktails for two hours in the evening, I'd particularly recommend the Passionfruit Leg Opener which was responsible for some groggy mornings and was so delicious Sarah managed to chip a tooth lashing into one! The hostel also had excellent value breakfasts, wifi, and nice balconies outside the dorms. The one thing I'd say is we were really starting to notice the relative lack of "dorm etiquette". Now a dorm is obviously shared space, it's not reasonable to expect it to be quiet all the time, people have different schedules and different habits, but a little consideration and common sense goes a long way. For example if you're planning to leave at 5am it wouldn't kill you to pack your bag the night before. In Hue we often had people let their alarms go off blaring for several minutes, roll out of bed trundling about, turn on the main light then begin to loudly pack their bags, at 5 in the morning this is pretty unreasonable. Sarah notes "the worst culprits seemed to be girls", being an equal opportunity cynic I'll say nothing and keep saying it. Anyway that's just a quick aside and nothing specific to the hostel in Hue, it's a good spot to base yourself in.

One last thing worth mentioning is after arriving in the hostel we threw down on chairs outside and something momentous happened. A lad sitting nearby ordered what looked like an iced-coffee, so I decided to give it a lash too. Thus began our iced-coffee love affair. Iced coffee is hugely popular in Vietnam (and as it turns out, all of south east asia), black coffee is poured over ice and then they add sweet condensed milk. To me iced-coffee always seemed a ridiculous affectation being pandered for 12 euro a cup by starbucks, but here it's very cheap and available everywhere. I can't describe the ecstasy of sitting down dying with the heat then sipping it at just the correct rate to leave one on the precipice of a brain freeze, while the caffeine lights up ones brain. Exaggeration? Nope.

Boats on the Perfume River

There's tons to see around Hue, for us though one of the most interesting places to wander around is the citadel which was on the other side of the river. Hue is built on either side of the enormous Perfume River, the muddy water flows swiftly beneath the great spanning bridges, it's lovely to watch the boats chugging along beneath you - the bows painted and carved to resemble dragons. It's also possible to take a boat trip if you'd like see more of the river. Hue is familiar in the west to anyone who's seen Full Metal Jacket - the closing scenes of the film depict the battle of Hue in 1968. During the Tet offensive the Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese forces seized the city, the American counter attack and ensuing battle essentially levelled the city.

Hue Citadel, reduced to farmland

The very centre of Hue is a walled citadel which once contained numerous palaces, temples and gardens, a moat runs outside the wall which is 8km in length. The citadel was once quite similar to Beijing's Forbidden City and housed the emperor. The citadel was damaged in fighting for independence from the French in the 40s and large parts utterly destroyed in the battle of 1968. In a strange way this makes it all the more fascinating, some building remain standing in good condition, there is a display showing a 3d reconstruction of how the entire complex once looked. Large swathes destroyed by bombing are now grassland where farmers work amidst ruins, stone platforms where palaces once stood stand empty except for tufts of grass. The walls are pockmarked with holes from gunfire, in parts blown away by explosives.

In the south of the citadel stands a grass area filled with captured American tanks, artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns. Some have clearly been damaged and others stand seemingly intact except for the toll taken by the weather, you can climb up on top of the tanks and slip in through the access hatches. Signs in front identify each vehicle and explain they were captured from "Retreating Imperialist American forces and the Puppet South Vietnamese". It's pretty fascinating, all over Vietnam the legacies of the "American war" remain, be it in benign forms like this or the sadder legacy of chemical weapons and unexploded ordinance which continue to take lives. We spent a rainy afternoon wandering around the citadel musing over it all, how many times have we watched Full Metal Jacket or some other film depicting war and bothered to reflect over the actualities of these places. Interestingly the film itself was shot in a disused British Gas facility in London in the 80s!

Hoi An

Our next stop was to be Hoi An, we still weren't sure of whether we'd make some of the later hops by bus or train so decided to just book a once off bus ticket to Hoi An through the hostel. The journey was just 3.5 hours, it was lovely, winding along the coast watching the surf break to our left. The weather grew wet and stormy and we arrived in Hoi An amidst a hearty downpour. Sarah had found a great spot to stay -  the Sunflower hotel - just outside the centre of the town so we booked a room there. Handily the hotel had sent a minibus to meet the bus from Hue to pick up anyone with a booking or others who needed somewhere to stay. The hotel was a great choice, a private room was pretty cheap, there was a pool in the back (albeit pretty cold!) and they had the most incredible buffet breakfast we've ever seen. Aside from the usual bread and assorted jam, cereals, there was a lady frying up eggs, omelettes and pancakes, and a gigantic selection of other hot food! Beans in sauce, noodles, meat dishes - even spaghetti carbonara! To wash it down there were a few different types of fresh fruit juices (passionfruit proving to be as delicious as ever). This breakfast was an unexpected feast and set us up for the day quite nicely!

There was a little spot just outside the hotel renting bikes very cheaply which made it very simple to get around. Once the weather cleared up we cycled the 4km to Cua Dai beach. The beach itself was lovely albeit a bit stormy for swimming due to the weather. The cycle out is very beautiful too, passing lagoons lined with palm trees and rice paddies. The centre of Hoi An is very beautiful with many old buildings in the Chinese style arranged along little streets and lanes then fronting onto the river. It's a lovely place to wander about for a day stopping up for a coffee or beer or to eat something. Walking through the town you reach Dragon Bridge -  a traditional covered bridge carved with reliefs. 

Hoi An is also renowned for its tailors, many people travel there specifically to have a suit or dress made. There are lots and lots of little shops offering this service so it's probably worth asking around amongst people who've had something made for a recommendation. As you'd expect you don't get something for nothing so opting for the cheapest thing going probably wont result in a spectacular outfit but for a modest outlay you can get a suit that would cost thousands at home. We didn't get anything made there but by all accounts you could be quite handsomely sorted for every wedding and funeral likely to come your way for about €200.

From Hoi An we were continuing south to Nha Trang. The major city of Da Nang lies in between but isn't that popular a destination. It's possible to get a train from Hoi An to Da Nang and then complete the journey to Nha Trang by bus, however at this stage we decided to just get an open bus ticket and bus the rest of the way southward. There are lots of companies offering open bus tickets, the most popular (and seemingly most reputable) was the Sinh Tourist (previously known as The Sinh Cafe). The hotel sorted the ticket for us. Travel in Vietnam is fairly cheap - the open ticket covering all our travel with stops onward to Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City was $36 each. So in the evening after a marathon blog writing session (Trekking in Nepal... sigh) we set off for Nha Trang.
On Sarah's advice (backed up with a healthy dose of statistics from google analytics ;-) ) that no one is going to wade through much more than 5000 continuous words on Vietnam I'll leave it there and continue our journey in Nha Trang in the next post