We have really been enjoying Bangkok. The people are friendly, the temperature is more tolerable and the public transport is much better, with a rail system that while not quite as good as the one in Singapore, means we can get around by ourselves and don’t need to rely on taxis etc. We have been mostly walking around various markets and going to places like Lumphini Park so far, and ducking into any of the multitudes of huge shopping malls when we want some aircon. One oddity to us is the Crows in all the parks – we don’t have them in NZ but here they are as common as Pigeons.
A couple of nights ago we caught the train over to Taksin Bridge to watch the New Years fireworks, we heard they were good and were not disappointed. The display was about 15 minutes long with constant barrages of huge fireworks from two locations, one right by us and one further along the river. Even though we arrived over an hour before the display it was still people packed in shoulder to shoulder across the whole bridge.
Today we wandered through Chinatown – it seems every big city anywhere in the world has a Chinatown – and then went to the Snake Farm at the Red Cross institute. This is a real working snake farm where they breed snakes to harvest their venom to make anti-venom, but also has exhibits and a daily show where the handlers bring out lots of different snakes from harmless ones to big King Cobras etc. None of them are de-fanged, all of them are extremely lethal and handlers let them out and then catch them again while you watch. The Cobras are really aggressive, some of the others are more docile. At the end we got to hold a big Burmese Python.
Tomorrow we are going to go to a couple of the biggest temples, we have been saving them to the last day as we have been seeing a lot of temples on this trip and we wanted a break from them. We have another half day on Friday before we fly out in the afternoon but have not made any plans yet.
As Lisa has said below, a lot of our time in Siem Reap has been spent in the Angkor National Park. This complex was build in the 12th century but was slowly lost to the jungle over the centuries and was only rediscovered by the French in the 19th century. More recently it has been under constant restoration – at least the more main temples like Angkor Wat. There are countless smaller temples, some of which have been left as they were found and are nicer to explore as they aren’t full of tourists.
The main/most famous temple is the Angkor Wat. This is a huge complex and the tallest tower is over 60m tall. No building in Siem Reap is allowed to be taller – similar to the area around the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. The scale is immense, there is a huge moat and outer walls and the main inner temple. Other large temples we visited were Bayon, Baphoun and Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is unique and very cool as it has been left with the jungle close around it and huge trees growing on and through the stone walls. Ta Prohm was apparently used for the filimg of some scenes of the Tomb Raider movie, but I didn’t know that until now as I have not seen the movie or played those video games.
The next day we went back by ourselves and explored some of the smaller temples, many of which don’t seem to have names, some of them were quite hidden and had no other tourists and were also in the shade of the jungle which was nice as shade does not seem to be much of a thing in a lot of Cambodia and when it’s well over 30 degrees is very welcome. The sun here is so much more intense than at home.
We have otherwise just wandered round a bit, but mostly in the early morning or evenings because of the aforementioned heat. Personally I am getting a bit over things as Cambodia is not as different from Vietnam as I’d hoped, plus getting as sick as we did has been a bit of a downer for me. I expected to get a bit sick given you are playing a bit of roulette with some of the food here, but I have never had food poisoning like that!. We both spent pretty much 24 hours in bed with a fever and full on muscle aches on top of the usual gastric distress and slept a fair amount of the day – and I can never usually sleep during the day. I’m also getting pretty sick of being seen as just a wallet by the locals, I sympathise with their situation to some degree but it means you can never have any real meaningful interaction, every single conversation is a sales pitch and I struggle to hold my tongue when every 5 seconds you have someone shouting “TUK TUK? WHERE YOU GOING?” as you walk down the street even when you firmly shake your head or straight up ignore them. We’ve had a couple of Tuk Tuk drivers try and scam us too – one after taking a ride said his quoted price was per person – stuff like that. He gave up pretty quick when he realised we weren’t going to back down though – they get away with it because I think a lot of people don’t want the confrontation and give in.
We otherwise had a good night last night at the circus though – we arrived early to get great seats and the money goes to a good cause – all the performers come from bad backgrounds and the circus exists to help people escape poverty and give them a career. The performance was refreshingly simple compared to some big international circuses and had excellent live music.
Tonight we are flying to Bangkok where we are based for 6 days. We don’t have any travel to other areas booked but may try to take some day trips to other areas close to Bangkok. With the size of Bangkok we may have enough to keep us occupied without having to go far though.
This evening we left Ho Chi Minh City for Phnomh Penh where we will be spending 4 days before heading to Siem Reap. Obviously not many people fly this route as despite being an international flight, we flew on an ATR-72 which are the small prop the planes that fly the regional routes in New Zealand. No wonder it cost a lot – but we couldn’t be bothered with another long bus trip. Phnomh Penh is another reasonably large city. Population is similar to Auckland but seems crazy busy with the typical South East Asian traffic. We are going to stick close to our hotel tomorrow and not walk too far as it is well over 30 degrees and very humid. There is a rooftop bar with 2 for 1 happy hour cocktails so we’ll probably be spending our evenings up there.
Yesterday we flew into Ho Chi Minh City which is our last stop in Vietnam. It is even bigger population-wise than Hanoi, with approx 8.5 million people (a million more than Hanoi), despite the larger population it is also 1000 square kilometres less in land area so it is even more densely populated. There are more high rises here and everything is a bit newer/cleaner, at least in the areas we have been to. The CBD feels just like any other big city really, I imagine it feels like an asian/eastern version of Los Angeles or New York. Lots of flash hotels and office buildings, crazy lights and a lot of western brand names. Even the area we are staying has much wider footpaths and feels more ordered than Hanoi.
We are on a road that is about 6 lanes either direction, and in rush hour each lane will have about 3 scooters/motorbikes wide in it, the traffic is immense and there is zero chance of crossing the road here. Even the narrower roads in the city centre are much harder and scarier to cross than Hanoi as the traffic moves a lot faster and people seem much less willing to give way and go around you. The videos below are in the evening, not even close to rush hour.
When we arrived yesterday we went to the War Remnants Museum. This was a lot bigger and more comprehensive than the War Museum in Hanoi and also had a very big photo exhibition with a lot of photos taken by war photographers in the field. There was also a lot more detail given about the horrific injuries from napalm and phosphorus bombs used by the US and also the injuries and subsequent birth defects caused by agent orange – not just Vietnamese people but US soldiers that were hit by way of friendly fire.
Today we went to the Cu Chi tunnel complex which is about 50km from central Ho Chi Minh. These were tunnels dug by the Viet Cong to shelter from US bombing and to aid their guerilla warfare. We got there via speedboat up the Saigon river, the breeze from the speed of the boat was a welcome respite from the heat. It is similar/a bit hotter than Singapore (33 degrees today), but a bit less humid so slightly more tolerable. The tourist complex includes some of the tunnels, replicas of spike traps etc plus a shooting range. The tunnels have been expanded slightly to allow easier access for tourists but are still pretty small. I’d guess that the narrowest bits of the tunnels we went down are probably as wide as the widest bits of the original ones, with some sections being much narrower. I’m not a big guy but I think I’d be bigger than the average Viet Cong soldier. The 100m section of tunnel we crawled through was very hot and claustrophobic, I could crouch some of the way but was crawling to make it through the narrowest parts. I could only also just squeeze in the secret trap door entrance. There was an option to fire some assault rifles (AK, M16 or M1) and light machine guns(M60) at the shooting range but the price per bullet was high and there was a minimum amount of bullets you had to buy also, plus my shoulder is still giving me a fair amount of grief from my bike crash recently so thought the recoil of large caliber guns wouldn’t have been great for it.
One thing that you immediately notice about Ho Chi Minh City is the smog. It can be a clear day, but unless you look straight up you do not see blue sky. Hanoi did not have any smog like this, it must be the hotter temperatures here, it is also very still. It also has not rained for quite a while though they are due some in a few days. Tomorrow is our last day here, we fly out for Phnom Penh tomorrow evening. We are going to check out the zoo and botanic gardens tomorrow morning, then head back to the city centre to see the Reunification palance, the central post office and perhaps the city museum.
We have enjoyed our time here but are looking forward to something new in Cambodia. We feel like we are ending on a good note here in Ho Chi Minh City. Everyone seems a little friendlier here than some other parts of Vietnam, we are not sure if this is because they are a bit more receptive to foreigners/white people in the south given the political leanings here in the past. There is less touting here too which is nice, we have not really been harassed here at all apart from a couple of taxi drivers at the airport. It will be interesting to see what Cambodia is like. We are hoping to catch up with one of my colleagues who is also on holiday in Phnom Penh. She is about my age but moved to New Zealand when she was a teenager. She can still speak Khmer so hopefully she can give us some local knowledge!
Today we did a somewhat guided tour of some of the most important sites in Hue. Hue is a city that originally rose to prominence as the capital of the Nguyen lords. It is based around a 19th century citadel, which we visited last today. All the places we visited were the most impressive things we have seen so far, though we do not have pictures of everything as you are not allowed to take pictures inside most of the temples and the weather was quite bad today so it was hard to take pictures of some of the outside areas.
We were picked up from our hotel not by car as we expected, but by motorbike for a heart-rate increasing (and helmetless) ride to the boat station on the Perfume river. I don’t mind playing in traffic when I’m in control but being a passenger is hard for me! We took a boat ride down the Perfume River to the Thien Mu pagoda, the tallest in Vietnam.
We then went to three different tombs, the tomb of emperors Minh Mang, Tu Duc and Kai Dinh. All three were quite different owing to different eras and the different personal tastes of each emperor. Kai Dinh is the only emperor where the location of his burial is known, but he is under 9 metres of concrete. Both Minh Mang and Tu Duc have a tomb that you can see, but they may not be buried there, they may be somewhere else on the site. All the men who carried them to their final resting place were beheaded (which they volunteered to), so nobody knows exactly where they are buried.
Lastly we visited the Imperial city. This is an immense site with multiple temples, the royal palace etc. Both interior and exterior of the buildings are amazing, ornate carving, gilded details etc but you are not allowed to take photos inside of most places – same with the museum that has a lot of artifacts owned by various emperors. Rather than worshipping gods, there seems to be a lot of ancestor worship. Each emperor in the main temple had an altar dedicated to him which would be worshipped by emperors that followed. Some of the city was destroyed in the Tet offensive of the Vietnam war, only half to two thirds of the buildings remain, but some have been restored or rebuilt.
If you ever go to Vietnam we would highly recommend visiting Hue and seeing these places for yourself. Photos do not even come close to doing them justice.
Today we flew from Hanoi to Hue, leaving drizzle and 15 degrees for heavy rain and a humid 25 degrees. You could see all the flooded fields from the plane as we landed. The forecast is a bit better tomorrow, hopefully it improves as we have another day trip tomorrow on a boat down the Perfume River to various royal tombs and then back to the imperial city. The weather in central Vietnam has been unseasonably bad for this time of year, Da Nang and Hoi An which are our next destinations have had heavy flooding but again hopefully cleared by the time we get there.
Today was our last full day in Hanoi, we fly out for Hue on Wednesday the 12th. We are finally getting used to the crazyness and sort of remembering where some of the streets go, but the old quarter is still very hard. The bigger roads around Ba Dinh Square were easier to find out way around but just as daunting to cross.
Today we went to several of the most important places in Hanoi. We walked to Ba Dinh Square were Ho Chi Minh read the proclamation of independence in 1945 and where he now lies in the Mausoleum built after his death. He lies preserved similar to Lenin does in Russia, despite wishing to be cremated. The Mausoleum is under constant guard and you must walk through silently, without stopping and no photography is allowed. In the same area is a museum and also a house where he lived and worked. You are allowed to take pictures here but it seemed better to just observe and experience as it is a very solemn place. There is still a huge amount of reverence for the man they call “Uncle Ho”. Also in the area is the One Pillar Pagoda, the presidential palace and the current government buildings.
We visited some other temples in the area, you have to pay a small fee to enter but it is worth it to see them and they were much quieter than the Ngoc Son temple on Hoan Kiem lake which we did not go into as it was far too busy.
We also visited the Imperial Citadel which is amazing and the war museum, did not get too many photos in the war museum of the outdoor exhibits as it was raining quite hard. Our last stop for the day was the Hoa Lo prison which was mostly demolished for modern developments but the gate house and some other adjoining areas remain as a museum. This was built by the french colonialists in the late 1800’s and housed many Vietnamese prisoners in atrocious conditions. When the Vietnamese reclaimed their country and gained independence it was then used a prison housing American POW’s in the Vietnam war including former US senator John McCain.
We have been dining on a lot of street food here, mostly Banh My, but had a meal tonight in a basic restaurant down the road from our hotel. Food here is very cheap especially in basic restaurants/eating houses of which there are literally hundreds in the old quarter. Tonight we had a huge bowl of noodles, beef and vegetables and an iced tea each for 110000 dong which is a bit under $7NZ.
Managed to get a reasonable sleep last night after being awake for 22 hours (no sleep on the plane for me), Lisa was not so lucky. We wandered for a bit and found a cheap cafe / eating house and had a traditional Singaporean breakfast of kaya toast very soft-boiled eggs and sweet coffee with condensed milk The locals here don’t speak much English as we are not staying in a very touristy part of town but are very friendly. The cafe owner insisted on taking a photo of us with two of his staff, we are obviously quite the novelty.
We then caught the amazing train system (super easy even for tourists) into town and had a wander around, ducking into shopping malls when we needed to escape the heat. We walked through Fort Canning Park which was very peaceful and a nice break from the bustle and then got the train again to Marina Bay which is quite the spectacle. Lunch at the shopping mall there which almost seemed like a city in itself and then had a walk around the gardens there.
Headed back to our hotel as all the walking we have done in the heat is hard work. Heading out to get dinner soon – another local delicacy which is Frog Porridge.