Tuesday, February 21

Into Cambodia

I realized that it's taking WAY longer to blog about our trip than to actully go on it, so I decided to get off my ass and write a little.

We came back into Saigon from the Mekong and started planning our escape to Cambodia. We were ready to move on. Vientnam was good, but we were searching for the sun, and word on the street was that Cambodia had it.

We decided to head out for our last dinner in Vietnam, which honestly I don't remember. What I do remember is we ended up at a Frenchman's bar eating delicious crepes for dessert, and having a few drinks. Or maybe a few more than a few drinks... still can't remember. Come on, we were kinda celebrating leaving Vietnam.

Yup, a Black Russian with a straw... that's how they roll in Vietnam.

And even though we had had a few drinks we still weren't as bad as this guy.
(WARNING: that's a 3MB video file for those of you with slow connections, or low patience)

So, it was a good last night in Vietnam. We decided we'd take a bus trip to the border the next day, cross the border into Cambodia, and start our adventure there.

We took a bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, crossing the border at Moc Bai.

We were ready to be somewhere different... try something new. It was kind of nice getting on the bus. We had plenty of room and the trip to the border wasn't bad at all. We met this really nice couple from New Zealand, and this really nice (although a little clingy) man from Canada. They all made it a much nicer trip, we had good conversations and generally joked around. We were actually a little surprised at how well it was going. But, of course, Vietnam didn't disappoint... or I guess it did, depending on how you look at it.

While crossing the border into Cambodia we had to go through several Vietnamese checkpoints: Checking our bags, checking our passports, clearing customs, etc... at the last Vietnamese checkpoint, the guard took our Vietnamese visas out of our passports and kept the visas. We really wanted them as souvenirs, so we asked repeatedly if we could have them back. He kept saying, "NO, just go!" and waving his hand...

There comes a point when you think, "Is it worth getting shot at the Vietnamese border for a souvenier?" Obviously the answer is, "No," so we moved on disappointedly. When we arrived at the Cambodian border, it was all smiles. The guards were very nice and helpful, and they even taught us some Khmer.

The best thing they told us was, "You can't come into Cambodia without an exit visa stamp on a Vietnamese visa." Oh, shit. When we told them that a Vietnamese guard had taken our visas, they all kinda chuckled, looked at each other knowingly, and sent us back towards Vietnam.

Now we were pissed, and a little worried. The prospect of spending the rest of our lives in the buffer zone between Vietnam and Cambodia wasn't exciting. We sped back over to the guard, afraid he might not still be there, and said, "They won't let us into Cambodia without our visas!" At which point he reached into his pocket, pulled them out, gave them to us with a pissed look on his face and dismissed us with a grunt and a wave. He was gonna steal our visas and sell them on the black market!! Ah, Vietnam!

On the other side of the border we caught up with our group and awaited the bus ride to Phnom Penh. We had a nice little lunch at a street side cafe, and told our border crossing story to our new friends.

Me, the Canadian, and the Kiwi couple enjoying some lunch.

Not too much later a guide came up and told us the bus had arrived, so we hoisted our packs and wandered over to board the bus. When we got on the bus, it was already almost full. Luckily, the five of us got some of the last seats on the bus. And, of course, everyone's luggage was piled up in the aisle.

But then more people started getting on the bus...with more luggage. Turns out, there are several tour busses that get you from Saigon to the Vietnamese border, but only one that takes you from the border to Phnom Penh. So this bus was crammed with like 4 different tour groups. And, of course no one had thought far enough ahead to realize there wasn't gonna be enough room for everyone. So they got creative...

That's right... plastic kiddy chairs in the aisle.

We couldn't believe it. We thought it was gonna be Vietnam all over again... Especially since part of the trip involved stopping to wait for a ferry. When the bus stopped, these ladies approached the bus.

Peddling their wares to the bus riders...

But the touts weren't really aggressive. It was refreshing. The ladies just stood there with smiles on their faces. If they caught your eye, they'd offer something up... but there was no yelling or begging, and everything was done with a smile. Ah, Cambodia. After about a 10 minute wait we loaded onto the ferry. Keep in mind, these ferries aren't quite Washington State Ferries...

A view out of the bus on the ferry. Look closely at the back of the motorcycle (click to enlarge).

Hanging out on the ferry

Soon after we drove off the ferry, we pulled off to the side of the road. At first I wasn't quite sure why. But our Kiwi friends were on the other side of the bus and told us we were "filling up." I didn't understand, we were just at the side of some dusty road. They said, "Give us your camera..."

Texaco - Cambodian style.

After the refueling operations were complete, it was an uneventful journey into Phnom Penh.
So nice to be out of Vietnam and into Cambodia!


Monday, February 13

Mekong - Photo Essay Part 2

As promised, here are some more pics of the Mekong:

What comes after lunch? Dessert, of course! After lunch they took us to a place that makes coconut candy. This is a pic of a guy doing just that. First step: heat coconut, butter, and sugar in a pan. The woman next to us said "Well, it can't be that bad for you, it's all-natural." Yes, just keep telling yourself that.

Then they wrap the candies in rice paper and package them up. We were suckers and bought a package of candy.

We were also suckers and took a shot of coconut wine. No pics of our faces after the shot, but let's just say it didn't taste good.

Once we'd gorged ourselves on coconut candy (which honestly didn't take long because the stuff was so rich), we got on smaller boats which would take us on the winding canals that branch off of the Mekong.

More views of the canal boats.

View to the bow: this is the woman who paddled us down the canal.

Tom held the camera up and took a picture towards the stern. Something tells me the woman behind him didn't know he was taking a picture.

We passed several boats along the canal.

Some villagers standing on a bridge, watching the tourists watch them.

Yay, Mekong!


Tuesday, February 7

Mekong - Photo Essay Part 1

On our second day in Saigon, we decided to take a tour of the Mekong Delta. (Yes, we'd said we'd never take a tour again, but we just didn't have time to do the Mekong independently.) It started with a bus ride from Saigon to the Delta:

On the bus ride, our tour guide introduced himself and started giving us a little info about the area. He was a very friendly, knowledgeable guide and we instantly felt better about taking yet another tour. The Mekong showed us the up side of tours: if you have a good guide and a good group, you can learn a lot about the area while meeting other cool travelers. In fact, our guide was such a nice guy that we couldn't help but forgive him when he tried to lead the bus in a round of the "Coconut Song." What's that? You don't know how the Coconut Song goes? Well, first of all, cocount must be pronounced "conk-o-nut."

Conkonut! (high pitched)
Conkonut! (low pitched)
Conkonut! (high pitched)
Conkonut! (low pitched)

Repeat ad nauseum. Now you understand just how nice he was - we were able to forgive him even after that.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the Mekong. It's an incredible area, and at risk of seeming lazy, pictures really are the best way to describe it. No one ever really reads the text anyway, right?

So, what follows are A LOT of pictures of the Mekong, with a few informative captions interspersed. In fact, so many pics that we'll do this in two installments. Here's the first. Enjoy.

A line-up of the Mekong tour boats. We were hoping we didn't end up on the boat third from the left. (And we thought Sea Change had a list!)

Side view of one of the tour boats.

Tom talking to our conkonutty tour guide.

Some houses along the Mekong.

As you might guess, boats are a very important part of life on the Mekong. All of the boats have very loud 2-stroke motors that sound exactly like the THWAP THWAP THWAP of a helicopter. Interesting background noise for our tour of the Mekong.

Two ferries passing under overcast skies - just like home!

There were a lot of people living on their boats, which they covered with tarps to keep the rain out. Again, just like home!

Many of the boats had giant eyes painted on the bow - apparently these are dragon eyes that are meant to scare off sea monsters.

Our first stop on the Mekong was a small town with a fruit market. Although we were just as sick of exploring markets as you are of seeing pics of them, it was neat to see all the Vietnamese flags flying in honor of a national holiday (unfortunately, I can't remember which holiday!).

Villagers loading up their boats to shuttle goods down the Mekong.

After the market we stopped on an island for lunch. It had been pouring all morning, but there was a miraculous break in the rain after lunch, so Tom and I wandered off down a path to do some exploring. The tour group was a good bunch of people, but it's still nice to exercise your independence every once in awhile!

Tom crossing a rickety bridge, wearing the ubiquitous and highly fashionable plastic bag rain jacket - totally waterproof! (Until you rip it after owning it for 2 minutes).

More Mekong pics coming soon...

- Jessi

Sunday, February 5


Two days were about all we needed in Nha Trang, especially since the weather never did get better. So after the hot springs we packed up our bags and continued south on a night train to Saigon.

At 8 hours, it was our shortest train ride yet, which was good and bad. Good because it was a short train ride. Bad because we left Nha Trang at 8 pm, which meant that we arrived in Saigon at 4 am.

We caught a taxi from the train station into Saigon and plopped down at a street cafe to drink tea and watch the city wake up. Saigon... what a great city. There is something about it that I really like. It somehow feels more open, youthful, and brighter than Hanoi.

Anyway, by 6 am most of the guesthouses had opened their doors, so we began searching for a room in earnest, and after wandering around for a couple hours we finally found a place we liked. As they say, there are two kinds of travelers: Bag-Ditchers and Room-Searchers. You'd think that because we rarely stay in a place for more than couple nights, we'd be Bag-Ditchers (find a room - any room - drop the heavy bags and start exploring). You'd think wrong. I refuse to settle! I want that great room: $10 for a balcony and A/C and hot water, and yep, even clean sheets.

After we dropped off our bags and showered, we headed out to explore. Our first stop was the War Museum. As an American, it was a tough place to visit. But I'm glad we experienced it. The War Museum is very well-done, with numerous artifacts and some chilling re-creations.

This is a wax figure inside a re-creation of a POW cell

Another wax figure inside a cell.

War artifact

After the War Museum we felt like something a little more upbeat, so we headed to the huge market. On our way we passed a Christmas display of the sort I only thought I'd see on a lawn in Wisconsin (I can say that because I grew up there).

Yay, presents!

Frosty and Tom didn't hit it off

After tearing ourselves away from the tasteful lawn decorations, we entered the Market. It was chaos. For some reason the women selling t-shirts were especially aggressive towards Tom, in a pseudo-charming kind of way. They'd grab Tom's arm with huge smiles on their faces, grinning and laughing and saying "You buy t-shirt! You buy t-shirt!" It was funny for the first couple minutes, but then it got a little weird. At one point I was literally playing tug-o-war for Tom with a Vietnamese shop girl. Let go of my man!

Tom makes a run for it

I guess this would be a good time to explain that almost all stores in Vietnam are organized in districts: there will be a bunch of stores right next to each other that all sell t-shirts. Then suddenly the t-shirt district ends and you find yourself walking by shop after shop that only sells ceiling fans. Then the cabinet district. Then the Tupperware district.

Candy district

Flower district

Silk district

The silk was gorgeous

Fruit district

Once we tired of the market, we decided to head across town to find a pagoda in Chinatown. A woman at our guesthouse told us about a bus we could take to the pagoda, and we were immediately turned off. Tour bus? No thank you! But it turned out it was a public bus. A local public bus. Perfect! So we headed for the bus station and on our very first try we got on the right bus!

Unfortunately, once we got off the bus we had no idea where were going. Although Lonely Planet books are great for giving you a general orientation to a city, their maps are crap for navigating. We finally just walked into an office building and asked for directions. It was a good move. The businesspeople in the office building were incredibly nice. After sitting us down in plush armchairs, they proceeded to make 15 minutes of phone calls and poll almost everyone in the office before one man was finally able to draw us a map that lead us right to the pagoda. It turns out the pagoda was just a few blocks away, but we couldn't find it because the street names change every 2 blocks. Oh, of course.

The pagoda was really cool. Similar to the one in Nha Trang, it was an active temple, not a tourist site. There was a constant stream of people filing in to worship, so we didn't take too many pictures because we didn't want to offend anyone.

The red cone swirls are hanging incense

After the pagoda, we hopped on a bus and headed back to the hotel. We'd been going strong since 4 am and were pretty tired by this point. Drinking beers on the balcony had become something of a ritual by that time, so we opened a couple of cold Tigers and enjoyed the view.

Streets of Saigon

Yum, Tiger beer!

City sunset from our balcony

- Jessi

Friday, February 3

Nha Trang - Thap Ba Hot Springs

After Monkey Island and our experiences with Wolf, we decided that tours weren't for us. Not enough freedom - in terms of both what you do and who you're with.

So the next day, even though our guesthouse offered a "special package tour" to Thap Ba Hotsprings, we decided to do it ourselves. We were looking forward to some relaxing hot springs, mud baths, and maybe even a massage. We caught a taxi to the hotsprings and bought our tickets upon arrival, for the same price we would've paid had we done the "special package tour." (Our guesthouse had sworn we'd pay 5 times as much if we tried to do it independently...) Although Thap Ba was a little more touristy and less organic than I was hoping, overall it did not disappoint.

Tom in the mud bath

Jessi relaxing

View from the tub

Argh! Turn it off, quick!

Kidding. The "hydrotherapy" showers were actually really nice.

It was a fun relaxing day, just the two of us. Just what we were after.

- Jessi