Asia – World travel with kids – 2nd Month
Vietnam | Cambodia
Since we had spent two weeks of our planned four week tour of Vietnam in Hanoi, we knew we had to start enjoying more than just the three locations we had originally planned. We were also strongly guided by our hotel manager and the ever imposing Chinese New Year. As February 19th approached the city that was constantly hectic was now slowly but surely preparing for a five to seven day nap. It was explained to us in no uncertain terms, ‘you need to get out of Hanoi or you will be stuck here for another two weeks’. The businesses close and the staff return to their villages for the New Year celebrations leaving metal shutters and uncharacteristic clean and quiet streets in their wake. It was a spectacular and peculiar situation, one that we were fascinated with but it did force us to change our plans for the rest of our time in Vietnam. We flew to Da Nang in a bus in the sky. It was tight and uncomfortable but you get what you pay for and so with a smile from ear to ear and only a one hour journey we had made it out of Hanoi. A driver picked us up at Da Nang airport and drove along a long coast with beach huts spotted all over the sand. It looked like the Gold Coast in Queensland. As we travelled the 30 kilometres to Hoi An, the landscape shifted from barren, litter strewn fields to gigantic sprawling resorts. There is also the obligatory Greg Norman designed golf course and a Crown Casino.
As we approached Hoi An we turned away from the coast line, in-land only a short way before arriving at our hotel. Pushbikes are available at most hotels and hostels for free in Hoi An, so we took advantage and rode to lunch and dinner each day. Motorbike rental was only $5 USD a day and petrol was only $5 USD to fill up. Our combined transport options allowed us to make our way around the entire area, to the beaches, An Bang and Cua Dai as well as the river front area that drew crowds all day and night. The river borders the main town and three bridges of varying width and attractiveness draw visitors over to An Hoi Islet where on offer is a selection of restaurants perfectly positioned to take in the picturesque façade of the old town.
The food in Hoi An is different than that of Hanoi in that there is more flavour but there is an overuse of Chinese five spice, a favourite ingredient in all homemade Chinese food in the 1970’s. The pace is still fast like Hanoi but it’s only a few more turns of the peddle and you find yourself in a quiet area void of the persistent honking of motorbikes. During our stay we went on a village tour and had a cooking class and ordered some tailor made pants. Each activity is well known to be the most common things to do in Hoi An so we did these in quick succession before setting our own pace for the remainder of our stay.
We enjoyed the lively river entertainment and festivities that were organised for the Chinese New Year celebrations. The city was crowded with both local and overseas revellers. The river alight with ornate Chinese symbols of good luck and prosperity. Entertainers with unique carnival style challenges were kept busy by the throngs of people along the river causeway. We never made it to midnight but we were woken by the fireworks display that cracked incessantly for over 15 minutes. Over the next few days it became more and more difficult to get food as the restaurants were either closed or had simply run out of food. At best you could get a drink and some noodles. After relaxing, partying, shopping and eating in the heart of Hoi An, we decided to book a sleeper bus to Nha Trang. We were determined to continue south to avoid overstaying our 30 day visa.
Nha Trang doesn’t feel like Vietnam, it feels like a tropical paradise retreat for Russians. As we didn’t have this destination on our original itinerary we hadn’t researched it and what greeted us was nothing we had ever imagined. It was a complete shock. There is not a high regard for the western traveller just a forced and begrudging acknowledgement of your presence. Even if you spoke a small amount of Vietnamese, greeting and ordering food, they merely smiled but then laughed and walked away. Many menus were in Vietnamese and Russian, with less English than what we were used to and many shops on the waterfront were entirely in Russian. The Vietnamese food was the worst we had tasted and it was more expensive. The saving grace was the beach in the large bay. The sand was clean, the water quality was excellent and there were no waves only a small swell pushing the sand up against the shore producing a two meter drop off as you walked in. One of the biggest attractions in Nha Trang is a privately owned water theme park and as a family that loves a water theme park we thought this would be good for a day visit. We did some research and quickly chose against it due to the repeated warnings about the lack of safety standards and the amount of people that had come away with back injuries as a result of both the dangerous rides and the uncontrollable ‘large European men’ that barrelled down without allowing enough room between each person. The price was also out of our range, the cable car to get over there was $30 USD each and so we stopped looking into it and went to the beach on each of the three days we were there.
During our time in Nha Trang it felt as though we had accidentally got off the bus at the wrong spot. Needless to say we couldn’t wait to get out of there. We booked another sleeper bus to Ho Chi Min City after only two nights.
Ho Chi Min City is very similar to Hanoi in many respects. We stayed in district 1, which is also known as the backpacker district. The food here made us fall in love with Vietnam all over again. We were able to find our favourite Hanoi dishes, even if they had a little HCMC twist. For example, noodles with beef, fresh herbs and fish sauce was a favourite in Hanoi but in HCMC they added crispy fried spring rolls on top. Not that we complained as this was a treat and filled you up more. Being our last destination in Vietnam, we made sure to fill it with as much site seeing as possible. We did a cyclo (bike driven tuk tuk) tour of the city and included in that was a visit to the war museum, a very confronting yet pertinent piece of recent history. We did the Chu Chi tunnels and the Mekong Delta and we also hit the markets in a conservative way to stock up on some clothes and other items that had taken our fancy. We only intended to stay in this city for three nights but ended up staying for five. Firstly, we were having such a good time and had a large park across the road from the lane where our hotel was situated. Secondly, our e-visa for Cambodia had not been confirmed and finally, we were happy to exhaust our 30 day visa.
The Vietnamese have a world-wide reputation for being friendly and accommodating people. We sure felt the warmth but unfortunately the cold in equal portions. Many older Vietnamese have no time or inclination to greet us and that’s ok with us. Many young people have contempt for Western travellers and there is a lot of petty theft to which we remained vigilant of. As a result our feelings toward Vietnam swung like a metronome from adoration to disappointment almost daily. Some treated us like family and others were flat out rude and had no qualms about standing in our personal space demanding money for one or another thing. When parking your pushbike in the streets of Hoi An there will always be someone demanding ‘parking fees’. We handled this tactic by pretending we didn’t understand and merely walked away. It worked most of the time but we succumbed one day at the beach, after we used the public showers, we just wanted to get on our motorbikes and get away from the forceful beach staff. In the market in central Ho Chi Min City, street stall sellers grabbed our arms and tried to force items into our hands or calculators asking us to set the price and the next thing the staff in the food court put together chairs and a serving tray to make a table and served us local price lunch and then when we ordered something they did not sell they went around the market to try and find it for us. We smiled and laughed so much during our time because if nothing else, it was strangely accommodating and easily understood.
On day 30 our visa had run out and we decided to take a gamble and get across the border with only a print out of our receipts in our hands. Fortunately for us our gamble was perceived as naivety by the Cambodian customs officers and they made the necessary phone calls and checked online for us in order to get the visas approved. This took about 2 hours and as we had mostly locals on our bus, they were not that pleased with us. The bus left us at the border and moved up the highway to a road side stop to have something to eat and stretch their legs while they waited for us. We then caught motorbike taxis to catch up.
Now in Cambodia, we instantly see the biggest difference to Vietnam, there are not as many motorbikes and many more cars. The result is a less hectic road system however still with the same unspoken road rules, such as the classic; ‘I won’t give way until I absolutely have to’. Another immediate visual shock is the masses of street rubbish. So far in our travels we have witnessed a range of public cleaning strategies that achieved what they set out to do, however we did not expect the streets of Cambodia to be so filthy. Rubbish littered the streets and there is a constant smell of fresh urine. We witnessed more than once, children going to the toilet on the footpath, anywhere and anything. Another more confronting difference to all our other locations was the number of homeless amputee’s. The children tried not to stare but they were lying in many of the entrances to public landmarks.
These observations would be common to most travellers, as well as the feeling of welcome that the Cambodian people offer everywhere. At no time did we ever feel threatened or put upon in either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, in fact we felt that these two places were extremely safe, the latter even more so. The Cambodian people are very relaxed, they take their time and are not at all pushy in the markets or any other shop, café or bar. Phnom Penh has a fantastic central market that is naturally ventilated and well spread out, with only the periphery feeling a little tight for comfort.
As for Siem Reap, we felt as though we could have swapped this short stay with our longer stay in Phnom Penh. This tiny city that seems as if it has grown in the shadow of the sprawling archaeological wonder that is Angkor Wat and co. was by far the most relaxed we have visited. The traffic on the main streets is heavy but slower and many back lanes do not have traffic at all.
The longer we travel the more we find ourselves shying away from shopping centres, staged tourist attractions (such as the costume wearing elephants at the base of the sunset lookout in Angkor) and high priced restaurants and shops. We are seeking not only cheap food and beer but experiences that are genuine. Talking to our tuk tuk drivers or the owners of shops, hotels and bars allows us the opportunity to gain an understanding of life in their eyes. We find ourselves asking many questions, from ‘how do say thank you in this country?’ to ‘have you lived here all your life and what has changed in the past few years?’ We have also struck up many conversations with fellow travellers and find them both rewarding and refreshing. We have taken down multiple notes on where to go from Canadians, New Zealanders, Americans, French and English people, we just hope that the information we shared assisted them somehow.
Two months down and 10 to go.