Hoi An and the Reunification Express

Our journey from the south to the north of Vietnam was made by rail on the Reunification Express – aptly named for joining Saigon to Hanoi, but a misleading indication of its speed. Our “first class” sleeper cabin contained four clean beds and had functioning air conditioning, but travellers must be forgiving of the cleanliness of toilets and tolerant of small cockroaches. We did not sleep well, but enjoyed the opportunity to watch the varying terrain of the country pass us by.

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Rice paddies and mountains as seen from the Reunification Express.

Half way up the country (after 900km in 22 hours), we stopped for a few days in the small city of Hoi An. Once a major trading port drawing in merchants from China, Japan, the Middle East, and Europe, a buildup of silt in the river blocked ships and put an end to trade in the early 20th century. The remaining old city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a pleasure to stroll through given that motorised traffic is banned most of the day.

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Typical structure in central Hoi An. A refreshing change from the high-rises of Saigon.

On our second day, we rose before the sun to catch a van ride to My Son, a Cham temple complex not far from Hoi An. The temples were dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The construction was similar in style to what we saw at Angkor Wat (also originally a Hindu site), but My Son originated several hundred years earlier and used small bricks rather than large sandstone blocks. It seems the Cham people truly mastered brickwork as recent restoration efforts have not been able to match the structural integrity of the original buildings.

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My Son
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Two bomb craters and a temple that they recently attempted to reconstruct. In 1969 archaeologists wrote to Richard Nixon to ask for the US army to cease carpet-bombing operations in the region. The bombing was stopped, though ground fighting continued in the area and bullet holes can be seen in some of the temples.

We returned to Hoi An by boat and spent the afternoon visiting a handful of the old houses and museums.

Of note, the famous French photographer Réhahn lives in Hoi An and opened a free exhibition space that includes a costume museum showcasing traditional clothing from many of the ethnic groups living in rural Vietnam.

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Traditional costume made of tree bark and Réhahn’s portrait of its owner before he donated it to the museum.

We also visited the Sa Huynh Culture Museum, where we learned about the Sa Huynh people living in the area about 2000 years ago. Some recent archaeological digs have revealed well-preserved ceramic pots and burial jars, iron tools, and even jewellery.

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2000-year old earrings!

Hoi An was also home to the best banh mi sandwich that we’ve had so far! We visited Banh Mi Phuong daily.

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Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

When the North Vietnamese army entered Saigon in 1975 and burst through the gates of the South Vietnamese presidential palace, they immediately renamed the city after their late leader. We assumed the new name would be used universally, but we quickly discovered that most locals and businesses still use the name Saigon. There does not seem to be any significant political implication by the choice of name (and the airport identifier is still SGN).

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Standing outside the gate that was crashed down by the North Vietnamese army on April 30 1975, viewing what is now called “Independence Palace” (also known as “Reunification Palace”).

Our short flight from Phnom Penh to Saigon was extended by nearly 50% due to some runway delays, but the pilot used this time to treat us to a flyover of the Mekong Delta.

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Mekong Delta

We spent our first day walking the city centre and visiting the War Remnants museum. The background information regarding the events leading up to the war focused on the foreign threats (France and then USA) and did not present much information about the civil disagreements between the North and South. Otherwise, the museum was quite neutral in its presentation of history. We had recently watched the Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary, so much of the content was familiar. The most impactful exhibit was about the effects of Agent Orange on the rural population and how they have been passed down through generations.

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The next day we travelled to the outskirts of Saigon to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, famously used by the guerilla Viet Cong soldiers. The tiny size of the tunnels (which have already been reinforced and enlarged for tourists) emphasizes the difficulty Americans would have had infiltrating the tunnel system – even if they could find it through the camouflage.

We learned about some interesting strategies used by the Viet Cong: air vents were carved into giant termite mounds with American clothing placed nearby to avoid detection by sniffer dogs, oven chimneys were vented far from kitchens to avoid being easy targets, they built a wide variety of booby traps, and they recycled unexploded American bombs to build their own weapons. The tunnel complex we visited also features a shooting range – we did not participate, but found the sounds of semi-automatic gunfire lent an uneasy tension to the atmosphere.

The food in Vietnam is very different from what we had been eating in Thailand and Cambodia. Most notably, we are back in a country that enjoys French bread (and executes it rather well). Banh mi, which refers to the bread as well as the popular sandwich, has been a favourite of ours so far. We also enjoyed goi cuon (fresh spring rolls), pho, and bun cha (grilled pork with rice noodles). One brand new discovery was banh xeo, a crispy rice-based crepe filled with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, and served with a fish sauce dipping sauce. As with everything else here, it is served with a giant pile of fresh herbs and lettuce.

Partially due to the recent Tet celebrations, a few businesses in Saigon were still closed. We attempted to visit a banh xeo restaurant made famous by Anthony Bourdain and a back-alley banh mi sandwich stand meant to be one of the best in the city. Sadly all we got was more exercise. At least we checked out a few landmarks along the way.

Due to some stomach issues, we abstained from the Saigon bar scene for most of our time in the city. We did enjoy a couple excellent craft beers on our first night, just a few blocks from our guesthouse. It turns out we booked a place adjacent to the main party street, Bui Vien. The area is consistently filled with wandering crowds, street performers, street food vendors, drunk locals and tourists alike, honking scooters, and bars attempting to drown each other out with unreasonably loud dance music.

Just before catching our train out of the city, Dan decided to visit the local barber for a 70k dong ($4) haircut. Worth every dong.

 

Holiday in Cambodia

When Dan was in highschool and discovering hardcore punk, one of his favourite tunes was “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys. The song’s lyrics take aim at arrogant and ignorant American youth and shine some light on the impossibly difficult life under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. We’ve learned a lot about the Cambodian Genocide over the past week, and the memorials and information centres in Cambodia do make it seem like Western countries took little notice and no action with respect to what happened between 1975 and 1979.

In the heart of Phnom Penh we visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located at the site of the former S-21 prison operated by the Khmer Rouge. The prison was used for torture and interrogations in order to force confessions about affiliations with the former Cambodian or foreign governments. Of the estimated 20,000 people who were imprisoned there, 12 survived.

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly S-21 Prison. There are four buildings like the one on the left containing interrogation rooms and holding cells.

Outside Phnom Penh, we visited the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, where prisoners who had been sentenced to death were transferred to be executed. This is not a large site, yet almost 9,000 bodies have already been unearthed from the mass graves and it’s estimated that several thousand more were killed there. While walking the site, it’s not uncommon to spot pieces of prisoners’ clothing or bone fragments sticking up from the ground – the staff will pass through every few months to collect and store these new pieces.

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Stupa monument at Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Several hundred of the skulls unearthed here are displayed within.

We only had a few days in Phnom Penh, and we used the remainder of our time to explore at a relaxed pace. We walked along the Mekong river, visited the Wat Phnom temple, and found a couple bars serving craft beer. Like Bangkok, the craft beer joints were mainly for tourists and expats but prices were much more reasonable as the beer can actually be brewed within the country. Bonus: the free peanuts at the bars come with bits of fried kaffir lime leaf – delicious!

Due to the brevity of our stay, we were not able to try quite as many Khmer dishes as we did Thai, but still enjoyed a few. Highlights included amok fish curry, beef lok lak (stir fried beef with onions and greens in a soy-based sauce), deep fried catfish, and fried noodles. There was some occasional chili spice but nowhere near the heat we experienced in Thailand.

One of the main reasons for our visit to Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat, reportedly the largest temple complex in the world. Though the whole area is generally referred to as “Angkor Wat”, we started the day at the gigantic Hindu temple that officially goes by that name. It was crowded and extremely hot, but we were very impressed by the detailed construction and bas-relief carvings.

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Approaching Angkor Wat

Next we visited Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple nearby that has become famous for the trees that have been allowed to grow throughout the ruins (and for being featured in the Tomb Raider movie). Though Ta Prohm was built shortly after Angkor Wat, our driver told us that a change in king lead to a change in religion for the entire country from Hinduism to Buddhism.

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Ta Prohm
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This temple was left unfinished after it was struck by lighting mid-construction, which was considered a warning from the gods. Note the lack of carvings along the walls… a rare sight at Angkor.

In the afternoon we visited the nearby Angkor Thom complex. We saw the Terrace of the Elephants (apparently the king would watch sports here), walked through the Terrace of the Leper King (apparently the king was not actually a leper), climbed up Baphuon temple, and wandered through Bayon temple.

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View from Baphuon temple

While visiting Angkor Wat we stayed in nearby Siem Reap. There were tons of other tourists there for the same reason, but the city felt relaxed, we dropped into a couple chill bars for cheap lager beer (between $0.50 and $1.50 US), and we enjoyed our first tuk-tuk ride of the trip!

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Bangkok, so hot right now

We arrived in Bangkok at 6am after an overnight bus ride from Phuket. Our weary faces were greeted by hoards of tuk-tuk drivers offering a lift. Following our guidebook’s suggestion, we insisted “No we want a metered taxi to the sky train,” to which they responded the taxi wouldn’t take us to such a nearby destination. After being denied entry to a couple taxis, we learned that the tuk-tuk drivers were right and not all of them are trying to scam you (though the $5 tuk-tuk ride was certainly still overpriced).

We quickly learned on our first day that Bangkok is extremely hot and humid, regularly hitting the mid-30s. While waiting to check into our hostel we killed a few hours in the gigantic (and nicely air conditioned) MBK Centre. After getting checked in, we wandered towards Chinatown for some excellent $2 back-alley fried noodles and to witness the busy markets.

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Chinatown has been getting ready for the New Year celebrations.

The most intense market we visited in Bangkok was the Chatuchak Weekend Market, which contains hundreds of stalls selling new and used clothing, souvenirs, dried goods, footwear, housewares, fresh food, and even a pet section (that we somehow missed despite wandering the market for three hours). We had expected the market to be shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, but the sheer size of the venue made pedestrian gridlock a rare occurrence.

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Toilet closed at Chatuchak market.

We visited two temples in Bangkok – Wat Arun and Wat Pho. Though the architectural layout was similar to what we saw in Chiang Mai (it seems common to find five-tower temples with the largest in the middle representing Mt. Meru, the centre of the universe in Buddhist and Hindu cosmology), the aesthetics were quite different: fewer gold spires, more colourful tiles, and overall larger complexes.

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Wat Arun

Wat Pho is home to one of the largest Buddha statues in Thailand – a golden reclining Buddha measuring 15m high and 46m long.

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Wat Pho

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Visiting the temples gave us the chance to ride on the river boat system on the Chao Phraya. The view of the shoreline is an interesting mix of luxury hotels and a variety of dilapidated buildings.

After a long day of wandering temples in the scorching heat, we got cleaned up and visited one of Bangkok’s many rooftop bars. The drinks are outrageously priced (our one round cost more than a night at our hostel) but the view was arguably worth it.

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Naturally, Dan could not visit a foreign country without seeking out the local craft beers. We’ve learned on our visit here that Thailand has some unique legislation regarding brewery capacity that has effectively made microbreweries illegal within Thailand. As a result, Thai brewers will fly to other countries (Australia, Cambodia, USA), make a few batches of beer, and then import it back into Thailand for sale. The result is an extremely expensive scene that can only be enjoyed by tourists or the super rich. The few beers we sampled were excellent, so hopefully the laws evolve so that the beer can be made locally and be more cheaply distributed.

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Pijiu Beer Bar

We generally steered clear of the more “traditional” Bangkok nightlife, though briefly walked through Nana Plaza to glance at the many side-by-side strip clubs, girlie bars, and ladyboy shows. (We took no photos – seemed risky.)

On our last day in Bangkok we visited Lumphini Park. Complete with plenty of greenspace, trees, and a small lake, it effectively serves as Bangkok’s Central Park. One distinction from its New York counterpart is the enormous monitor lizards wandering the grounds!

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Monitor lizard at Lumphini Park

It’s likely that what we’ll miss most about Thailand is the vast amount of delicious and affordable food. While in Bangkok we ate plenty more Pad Thai, papaya salad, Tom Yum soup, sticky rice, and grilled meat. We also finally ate curry so hot that Dan’s legs started sweating and Wendy’s tongue was burned to defeat after a quarter-bowl. Worth it.

Kata Beach and the Big Buddha

On Saturday January 26 we flew down to the island province of Phuket and made our way to Kata Beach, where we treated ourselves to a few days of more traditional “honeymoon” style accommodations.

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Panorama from our balcony. Big Buddha is the white statue on top of the highest hill at the right.
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Jean LeCastor with his friend the Nook Dee elephant, enjoying the fancy hotel accommodations.

The green hills and shoreline surrounding the hotel were gorgeous and the elevated pool allowed us to enjoy the view while keeping cool. Plus the free breakfast included a plethora of American, European, Thai, and Chinese options – highlights included grilled sticky rice in a banana leaf, an omelette bar, spicy Thai sausages, and roasted tomatoes.

We spent a few of the less windy days on the beach, wandered the weekend street market, and had a few meals at the beach-side seafood restaurants. The food in Phuket was pricier and not quite as delicious as up in Chiang Mai, but we still had easy access to the Thai staples. We expected tons of drunk Australians to be wandering the beaches of southern Thailand, but instead we mostly encountered Chinese families and only slightly drunk Europeans.

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Kata Beach. The water was crystal clear and made for excellent swimming!

Before sunrise one morning we set out to hike up to Big Buddha. We could see the 45m statue from our hotel balcony, but the walk there was over 6km and took almost two hours due to the steep climb up the mountain.

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The trail included ropes to help us climb up the steepest sections – not to be confused with the nearby power lines.

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Once at the summit, we could see the opposite side of Phuket and Chalong Bay through the early morning haze.

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Chalong Bay as seen from Big Buddha.
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Three wise monkeys by the exit of the Big Buddha site.

Chilling in Chiang Mai

After stops in Toronto and Shanghai, we arrived in Chiang Mai late at night on January 17th. We reserved a long stay here so that we could explore at a relaxed pace, give ourselves time to adjust to the 12-hour time difference, and eat massive amounts of cheap delicious northern Thai cuisine.

Chiang Mai has over 300 temples (“wats”), and we spent the first few days wandering the city and visiting the most notable ones. Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phan Tao are all located within the old city and are visually stunning.

Early one morning we caught a red truck (a sort of communal taxi) up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the most famous temple in the area, located up in the hills outside the city. By arriving at the temple shortly after 7am we were able to wander the grounds without throngs of other tourists and were able to climb the 306 steps to the temple without the oppressive midday heat. The temple was gorgeous, though the view looking down onto Chiang Mai illustrated how severe the smog can be here.

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View of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep. The smog makes it difficult to see much of the city.

One of the popular tourist activities in Chiang Mai is taking a Thai cooking class. Though at least a handful are located in the city, on Monday afternoon we took a van ride out to a cooking school located on a small organic farm. After wandering the grounds and sampling their on-site ingredients (Thai basil, sweet basil, chili peppers, galangal, lemongrass, etc.) we set to work making our own feast: spring rolls, Pad Thai, Tom Yum soup, and red and green curry. This was our first time making curry paste from scratch – we learned that it requires a lot of muscle work with a gigantic mortar and pestle, but is not too difficult if you have all dozen or so ingredients on-hand. Hoping we can remember how to make all these dishes once we get home!

Over the past week we’ve eaten a ton, from stir-fries and curries and Pad Thai at restaurants to tropical fruits and mystery-meat-on-a-stick at the street markets. The night markets can be pure chaos, with food stands and shops every few feet, hundreds of tourists and locals wandering and eating, and sometimes cars and scooters trying to squeeze through.

Other parts of Chiang Mai can be very calm though, with quiet alleys surrounded by flowers and banana trees, lazy dogs wandering the streets, and plenty of relaxing coffee shops (it turns out they grow and roast some excellent coffee beans in northern Thailand).

One of our main reasons for visiting Chiang Mai was to go on a trek in the mountains outside the city. This started on the morning of January 23 with a ride to the Mok Fa waterfall. We were surprised at the height (guessing about 50m) and intensity of the water considering that we are now in the dry season here.

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Mok Fa waterfall with our tourmates.

Next we drove further north and started an afternoon hike through a national park that is home to a a few dozen hill tribe villages, populated by the Karen people and Akha people. Luckily our guide was from one of the villages and provided plenty of insight into their recent history and agreements with the government. Despite most of Thailand being Buddhist, the Karen villages we visited were converted from their own traditional beliefs to Catholicism by missionaries after WWII. Though they now have a few motorbikes to get supplies from nearby towns, the locals live off the grid, mostly without cell service, and with just a few battery-powered lights. We slept in one village and were treated to an amazing Thai dinner and then a huge breakfast before continuing our hike.

We then visited a small elephant sanctuary, from which we rode a bamboo raft down the Mae Taeng river. We expected a lazy river but ended up having to navigate several sections of rapids, and we both lost our bamboo poles by the end of the ride! Thankfully no one on our raft fell overboard. It was a thrilling end to a really fun trek.

The Numbers

To summarize our road trip…

  1. Days away: 154
  2. Nights camped: 51
  3. Nights in the van: 10
  4. Number of friends/family visited: 48
  5. Flat tires: 0
  6. Air mattress holes patched: 1
  7. Kilograms of oats eaten (dry): 3.75
  8. Bears seen: 9
  9. Wolverines seen: 1
  10. Kilometres driven: 31,359

Happy New Year!