Ho Chi Minh City (which everyone still refers to as Saigon) is the most energetic place I’ve ever been. It just has this relentless pace that’s impossible to not get swept up in it. Everyone is on the move. At night, the parks are filled with people exercising, skateboarding, skating, playing soccer, and dancing.
The traffic is insane. Thousands of motorbikes buzz down the road, flawlessly moving like a school of fish or flock of birds. Well, almost flawlessly. We have seen four motorbike accidents in the past week, two here and two in Phonom Penh.??Crossing the street is quite the adventure. You just slowly walk out, keeping an even pace, and the motorbikes all part around you. If someone honks at you, it means you should stop or move out of their way.
With all the frenzied activity, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we were as busy here as we were in Singapore. We had a great time walking around and taking it all in. Despite the heat and the traffic, it’s much easier to walk here than any of the other Asian cities we’ve visited. For some reason it doesn’t seem as polluted or crowded. The sidewalks are maintained pretty well. There are big trees along many of the boulevards and quite a few shady parks. There’s even some interesting??architecture, both modern and colonial.
We had some very interesting and strange experiences. First we visited the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, where we learned about all the horrible things the Americans did during the War of American Aggression (as it’s apparently called here). It had many tragic and disturbing displays and I found myself feeling very guilty, even though I wasn’t even born at the time. Of course, it was all very one-sided and, curiously, Charlie never did anything wrong. At least they did include a section about the anti-war protests in the States, showing that not all Americans are horrible??imperialists. What I found even more interesting, though, was that the South Vietnamese were barely mentioned at all. From this museum alone, you wouldn’t even know that they were involved in the war.
We met quite a few locals as well. The first was Quynh, a computer science student we met through couchsurfing, who took us to a delicious bun moc place for breakfast. Later on we met another nice university student who wanted to practice her English in the park. And then finally there was six-year- old “Adam,” who ran up to Brad and asked, “Are you Justin Bieber?” What followed was like an international version of Kids Say the Darndest Things. Adam asked us a billion questions (Are you twins? Why are you in Vietnam? Do you live in a house? What’s your favorite food?) while his mom, who didn’t speak much English, kept trying to pull him away. At one point, he said, “Hey! You guys should come to my house! Oh, never mind, it’s too small and dirty!” and his poor??embarrassed??mom shook her head and said, “No, no, it clean!” It was really funny and we even agreed to meet up with Adam and his mom the next night, so she could record a video of Adam talking to us. He also loved math and we couldn’t believe how smart he was. At six, he was able to solve multiplication, order of operations fraction problems and explain it all to us in a foreign language. ??Pretty incredible.
So to sum up, we loved Saigon and I honestly can’t figure out why some other travelers and expats have such a negative opinion about it. Maybe all of the theft and scams have something to do with it, but the same could be said of any major city. And as far as the claim that “The Vietnamese are not nice,” I would have to say it’s not true at all. Maybe as we get further north we will encounter more rudeness or anti-Americanism, but so far we’ve met super nice people. This has been a great introduction to Vietnam and I’m really looking forward to seeing more!
Cambodia’s a place we would not describe as “pleasant.” It’s been quite a test of our senses: constant noise from trucks and cars honking in traffic, bright sunshine glaring off the dry, dusty terrain, intense mid-nineties heat throughout the day, itching from mosquito bites. But at the same time we’re glad to have seen the country’s long, often tragic history.
We saw temples of Angkor, center of one of the greatest empires in the world at that time, as well as the Killing Fields, the worst time in the country’s history. Here’s our recap of our time in Cambodia.
Top three experiences?
- The temples at Angkor.
- Hanging out in Kep.
- Swimming on Rabbit Island.
- Angkor. In particular my favorite temples were Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei. Sunrise was neat to see, except for all the people and the giant scaffolding with a green tarp.
- Rabbit Island. It was a laid back, fun place.
- Kep. It’s also very laid back and beautiful.
Bottom three experiences?
- Phonom Penh. There’s very little I like about this city.
- Sunrise at Angkor Wat, just because it was such a let-down.
- Eating. The food here is just not very good, especially when compared to Thai food.
- The touts. No, we don’t want a tuk-tuk, we just got off one.
- The food. Not only is it not especially good, but it’s very expensive. Across the whole trip so far, food has cost us 16% of what we spent, but in Cambodia, food accounts for 37% of our expenditures. However, that’s partially because everything else, especially accommodation and transport, is so cheap here.
- Phnom Penh. It’s busy, loud, and we really had no luck finding anything good to eat (see above).
Nikki: Pepper crab in Kep. Really yummy.
Brad: Breakfast in Kep: a ham and cheese omelet with baguette and orange juice. But what made it so good was the pepper. Kep is world renown for its pepper farms, and the pepper on this omelet had a very strong flavor (unlike the stuff in shakers back home) and was delicious.
Nikki: Like I said, the food here is not very good. One of the worst meals was the chewy, grisly chicken and dried out rice we had for dinner in Kompong Thom.
Brad: It’s a tie between our dinners one night in Phnom Penh and Kompong Thom. It was the same both places–plain rice with chicken, but the chicken was completely bones and what wasn’t was gristle.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: Didn’t get her name, but she was the owner of a new bar in Kampot. Originally from England, she now lives in Spain and Kampot. She was fun to talk with.
Brad: The Canadian couple we shared a minivan with from the Thai/Cambodian border. They were friendly and interesting.
Nikki: Getting sick in Kep. (Our disaster always seems to be getting sick.)
Brad: Nikki getting sick in Kep.
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: The Arunras Guesthouse in Kompong Thom. Big, clean, cool room with a super comfortable bed.
Brad: The guesthouse in Kompong Thom. The place had two entrances, one for the hotel and one for the guesthouse. From the look of the guesthouse, it could have been a hotel room. It was very nice.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: The very first hotel in Siem Reap. It ended up being okay, but going to the bathroom and seeing “This place is dangerous! Get out ASAP!” written on the door is a little too horror movie-esque for me.
Brad: Our first night in Siem Reap. The place looked fine, until we accepted, closed the door, and found “This place is dangerous! Get out ASAP!” written on it in permanent marker. Someone must have been robbed before, but we didn’t have a problem. The doors were a weird type where if you turn the key once the deadbolt doesn’t extend all the way and the door still opens. Perhaps that person didn’t turn it twice? The room was overpriced anyways.
Best thing we didn’t blog about?
Nikki: Going on a walk in the countryside outside of Kompong Thom. Nothing too exciting happened, it was just a nice area to walk around and see some of the local life.
Brad: The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh. The buildings were really cool.
Nikki: I still think the money situation here (they use both US dollars and riel) is very strange. We got more used to it, but it was still sometimes hard to figure out if we got the right change.
Brad: Karaoke videos that always seem to be playing in restaurants and on buses. The video of the local dances are hilarious.
Statistics for Cambodia
- Days in the country: 18
- Places we stayed: 8
- Rainy days: Zero!
- Blog posts: 4
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 1
- Photos taken: 648
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 173, 27% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 1
- Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 17
- Number of McDonald’s in Cambodia: Zero
Statistics for the Trip
- Countries visited: 7
- Days on the road: 185
- Places we stayed: 87
- Rainy days: 30
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 10
- Photos taken: 6657
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 1526, 23% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 7
- Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 187
We’ve spent the last week or so relaxing in the southern area of Cambodia. First we went to Kampot, a quiet town along the Kampot River. There were several fun hostels and restaurants, but hardly anyone was around. It was the weirdest thing, the place seemed like a ghost town. Finally we asked one of the bar owners what was up and she told us that it was the very end of high season. Most of the action there is in December and January. So I guess we missed the crowds, but also some of the fun.
Originally we were going to see nearby Bokor Mountain, but a tour guide actually talked us out of it. (A huge hotel and casino have just been built up there and kind of ruin the charm.) Kampot is also world famous for its pepper, but, as we’re not especially interested in pepper, we declined a visit to the pepper plantations. Instead, we rented bikes and rode through the countryside to see the cave temples. Outside of the cave, a teenage boy asked if we wanted a guide, so we hired him for $5 (a pretty generous amount, really). We hiked and crawled through the cave, with bats flying around and the boy pointing out various rock formations to us. Then all of the sudden, he said, “OK, this is the end of the tour. We must leave,” and he ushered us out. We were a little confused, because the cave seemed to go on further, but we left at his insistence. Outside of the cave, he suddenly wanted $8, but we were firm and insisted on what we had agreed on. Then he asked if he could have our flashlights! I couldn’t believe this kid. Reneging on a deal here is considered just as rude as it is back home and nobody had ever asked us for our belongings before.
We rode out to see a second cave temple, but that one was guarded by a whole gang of boys. Already a little put off by our first guide, I definitely got a bad feeling from this group, especially when they wanted money to “watch our bikes.” The implication seemed to be that if we didn’t pay them to watch our bikes, something bad was going to happen to them. I didn’t appreciate the intimidation, so we left without even visiting the second cave.
The next day we went to Kep, a tiny seaside town. It doesn’t have much of a beach, but there is a crab market and restaurants along the ocean. Unfortunately I got sick and spent the whole first night there shitting and throwing up. Once I got better, we spent our time reading in hammocks by the ocean and eating seafood dinners at sunset. It was a very pleasant place to relax for a few days. There are hiking trails through a national park in the area, but we never got around to doing them.
Then we spent a day and a night out on Rabbit Island. There were quite a few tourists there, but no roads and not much development, only basic bungalows and small eateries strung along the beach. The ocean was clear, shallow, and calm, perfect for swimming or just hanging out in. Most of the tourists were day trippers, so when their boats left in the evening, the island seemed quite empty. There’s only electricity for a few hours at night. After it went out out, the only noises were the waves, the boat traffic, the bugs, and people laughing.
Now we’re back in Phnom Penh, the polar opposite of Kep and Rabbit Island, getting ready for our next stop: Vietnam. Some backpackers love Vietnam and some really hate it, so I’m looking forward to seeing it for myself and forming my own opinion. We’ve got a busy schedule coming up, but we’ll try to keep the blog updated.