Sunday, September 4, 2016

Exploring South Vietnam and Cambodia

I think this is an ox. Or maybe it's just a cow.
Now that we've been in China for two weeks, our travels through Vietnam and Cambodia feel like a dream. Carrying only backpacks for a month, we took 10 flights, several boats, innumerable tuk tuks and taxis, and ox. Okay, we didn't really ride the ox, but we saw a lot of them.

We started out in Vietnam with a few days in Saigon (locals don't call it Ho Chi Minh City). My first reaction to Saigon was: where are all these people going? The vast number of vehicles--mostly motorbikes--is an incredible site (and sound). People weave around and through each other in seemingly impossible ways, their bikes stacked high with goods and passengers, defying gravity. No one is moving especially fast. The flow feels organic, albeit crazy, like salmon during the height of spawning season.

This sense of so many people (and goods) on the move has stayed with me throughout our travels in Asia, in both the rural and urban areas.

We traveled up into the mountains to the charming town of Da Lat, where we attended the wedding of my former student, Au-Co, at the groom's home. Incense was burned, prayers said to the ancestors, gifts given, snacks eaten. A hotel reception followed with insanely delicious food, and a musical program featuring Au-Co's mother on the violin. of the many incidents of fantastic Vietnamese food.

Unfortunately after the wedding, I developed a sore throat, that segued into a cold and cough that lasted a couple of weeks. I engaged my "all is well" and "I am a healing machine" mantras, which helped me to relax and not push against the idea of being sick. The cold lingered, but my mind helped me to continue to enjoy our adventure.

Silkworm farmer.
In Da Lat, we met James, an American who has lived in Vietnam for years. He toured us around in his Russian jeep, taking us through beautiful vistas where coffee is grown. We also happened upon a woman on the side of the road who was tending to her silkworms.

Dave and James sampling local coffee.
One of the most amazing things we did was to take a four-day boat trip up the Mekong Delta from Vietnam into Cambodia. The boat had four cabins...but we were the only guests aboard! The crew of five treated us like royalty. This is one reason to travel in Southeast Asia during rainy season: fewer tourists. It didn't rain every day. And when it did, the rain usually fell at night or in the afternoon for short bursts...a relief from the heat and humidity.

Our cabin
What a treat to sit on board watching the rural world roll by. People washing their clothes, soaking their cattle, swimming, or just hanging out at the water's edge waved at us.

During the days, the boat docked and we disembarked with Thuy, our guide. We walked and rode bikes through small towns and countryside amidst vast, green rice fields and people's homes and small businesses. At one point, we stopped to watch a family pull dragon fruit from a tall tree. A woman walked over and with a grin on her face, handed one to me. Then she came back with a second one for Dave.

One of my favorite moments.

We also traveled in one of these small boats down byways of the Delta.
Floating market.
It's amazing to see the ways in which people live along the water.
We spent a few days in Phnom Penh, a vibrant city where we were hounded by tuk tuk drivers who wanted a fare. That's understandable, given their need to make money in a poor country, but it became a bit overwhelming to constantly be called out to and approached when we just wanted to walk around. Eventually, Dave discovered that dealing with them as buddies was a great approach. For instance, there was one guy we saw often, and Dave would joke with him in an Australian accent. Soon, they'd both be cracking up.

Most tuk-tuks are pulled by motorbikes, but we took one short trip
powered by these guys on bikes.

We flew to Siem Reap, an area famous for its World Heritage 10th-12th century temples, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. It's popular to see the sunrise there, but we wanted to avoid the madhouse crowds (which are thick even during rainy season). So we went at dawn, when most people had already left for breakfast after sunrise, and had the place almost to ourselves.

Around the temples, there are children begging. The NGOs advise not giving them money because that the kids are being used by adults who take the funds. So I brought small toys to give to the children, which were a big hit.

If you go to Siem Reap, don't see just Angkor Wat. It's spectacular--but to us, some of the other temples were more awe-inspiring.
Bayon at Angkor Thom

Ta Prohm
Next we headed to Lonely Beach on a Cambodian island, Koh Rong. We'd been looking forward to it as a quiet place to relax after our jumping-around itinerary--especially after reading about its "paradise status" on Trip Advisor. person's paradise isn't necessarily another's. I wrote about this faulty notion of finding paradise in my memoir...but I guess we have to learn the most important lessons over and over.

This is paradise for me: snuggling with someone's baby.
A Cambodian woman handed her daughter over to me when I was coveting her.
The boat ride to Lonely Beach was three hours...and when we saw the boat--an old fishing boat with bench seats--we almost bailed. Instead, we prayed for calm seas. Our prayers were not answered. Being on a bucking bronco of a boat, with waves splashing over the sides and rain pouring down in sheets, was, to put it mildly, unnerving. Especially since the captain was chain-smoking with huge containers of gasoline at his feet.

I did my best to reframe it as an "adventure." I also thought about all the refugees who have suffered such conditions for days and weeks. In comparison, we were cosy and safe.

Finally calm seas as we approach the island. These women
(from Paris, Barcelona, and Florence) were on holiday together.

Our cabin on Lonely Beach.
In many ways, Lonely Beach is amazing: It's on a strip of isolated beach plopped in a rainforest. The people who run it are wonderful, and the food is delicious. However, the cabins are extremely rustic--which normally wouldn't be a problem, but this meant no AC or even a fan. At night it was so hot and stuffy I felt like I was suffocating beneath the mosquito net.
Rainforest friend on our porch.
I enjoyed hearing all of the creatures loudly singing, croaking, chirping and hissing at night. But because of the rain, the ground was very muddy and slippery, so walking the paths from cabins to lodge, especially at night, was dicey.
We were going to spend a week there, but we left after three days; a storm was approaching, and there was no guarantee we'd be able to get out in time to catch our plane. As evidenced by our wild boat ride there and back, the seas are unpredictable. Perhaps a foray to Koh Rong is best saved for the dry season. That's also, apparently, when the water is crystal-clear blue. In the rainy season, it's brown and gray but still warm enough to swim in.
We ended up spending our last days in Cambodia at Otres Beach in Sihanoukville. For only $19 a night, we had a huge, air-conditioned room at a hotel with a pool, walking distance to the sweet beach that is lined with feet-in-the-sand restaurants.
Fun with Cambodian friends!
Otres Beach
We realized that our "sweet spot" is a 3-star experience. Taking along carry-on backpacks instead of suitcases made the journey easier. However, we aren't backpackers in our twenties and have no interest in staying in hostels--and we don't need (and don't want to pay for) 5-star luxury.

We enjoy our middle-of-the road travel, especially our moments of people-watching, people-connecting, and exploring the marvels of nature and human creations. Vietnam and Cambodia delivered it all.