A Quick Stop in Cambodia

Our time in Cambodia had a comical start. Our plan was to get Vesper a new passport in Bangkok because it was getting full and expiring soon, but we figured he had plenty of room to get one last stamp.

Unfortunately, Cambodia’s visa is a full page sticker and requires a minimum of three entirely blank pages because why not? On the boat to Phnom Penh, one of the crew informed us that Vesper might need to pay a $30 “fine” in addition to the visa fee since he only had one blank page left. We did not have that much cash but luckily they accepted the $18 USD we did have along with the rest of our Vietnamese Dong, plus a written letter pleading to the customs official to place Vesper’s visa over a full page of stamps. Our first bribe of the trip!

We only spent a day in Phnom Penh which we used to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, an intensely powerful museum detailing the atrocities that occurred at Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge during their regime in the 1970s. The site was a former high school that was transformed into an execution center where over 17,000 people were imprisoned, tortured until they named family members, friends or associates conspiring against the Khmer Rouge, and then ultimately killed either on site or at the Killing Fields. This massive genocide of the Cambodian people resulted in the deaths of around two million people, a quarter of the country’s population.

Inside the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

From Phnom Penh, we bused north to Siem Reap to explore Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, before our flight back to Bangkok. We opted to do a DIY bicycle tour of the park, which was a fun and relaxing way to explore the many temples and ruins. Despite the heat of the day, we had an awesome time climbing up giant stone staircases, pretending to be Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, and eavesdropping on tour guides we were too cheap to pay for. Since the complex was originally Hindu but converted into a Buddhist temple, there is an interesting juxtaposition of the many Hindu gods alongside Buddha images.

Outside of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, we made to sure to try the one local brewery, strolled down the hyper touristy Pub Street, and laughed at other tourists eating deep fried tarantulas.

  Add a comment

From the Hills to the Delta

To beat the heat and humidity of southern Vietnam, we headed to the hills of Đà Lạt for a few days before heading back south to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta region.

After arriving in Đà Lạt we met up with our friend Che (who we originally met in Phong Nha) and the group of us hopped on our bikes to explore the old French colonial hill station, a term commonly used in Southeast Asia to refer to resort towns used by colonial rulers to escape the heat. Đà Lạt had the perfect weather to joyride around the hills. We got to see beautiful scenery and to visit the various pagodas and viewpoints outside of town, including Trúc Lâm Temple and Linh Phuoc Pagoda, which is decorated in mosaics of broken glass and pottery.

The French do love their Eiffel Tower.
It is good, but "Đà Lạt pizza" ≠ real pizza!
Đà Lạt's climate supports different crops than the rest of the country (like strawberries), and the countryside is filled with greenhouses full of blooming flowers and lush plants.
The Linh Phuoc Pagoda

After Đà Lạt, we had a brief stopover in Can Tho to see the famous floating markets along the Mekong River before we crossed into Cambodia. We took an overnight bus from Đà Lạt to Can Tho and arrived pre-sunrise at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am. Literally the only good thing about this was that tours of the floating markets start at 5:30 in the morning which we would never have woken up for otherwise. We boarded the small boat with bleary eyes and spent the next several hours suppressing yawns as we rode past boats selling various fruits and vegetables, explored small offshoots of the river, and visited a rice noodle factory.

Our sleeper bus actually arrived an hour early, which normally would be great... unless you were sleeping.
Our guide made us all bamboo bling while driving the boat.
You can tell what each boat is selling by what is attached to the pole as shown in these pictures.
This boat only sells coffee. Yes, please!

Even though Can Tho is the biggest city on the Mekong Delta, there isn’t all that much to do. After a few days we headed up to the border town of Châu Đốc for a night before catching an early morning boat to Cambodia.

One last bowl of noodles before leaving 'Nam!

  Add a comment

Sippin’ in Saigon

Since it was still Tet, many resort towns like Dalat and Nha Trang had ridiculously high hotel prices. We were able to find a cheap flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City, so we jumped all the way south knowing we’d probably backtrack a bit after the holiday. Despite being the largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City was basically a ghost town with everyone gone for the holiday. It was weird to experience such a big city being so empty. We still managed to see a few historical sights and Tet celebrations, but the real highlight of Saigon? Craft beer!

First, let’s talk about the (boring) non-beer related things. Although Saigon was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 for the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, both names are commonly used. Like many other cities in Vietnam, you can see evidence of the French colonial era in buildings like the Central Post Office and Notre Dame Basilica. Since Tet was still going on, we were also able to see many decorations and flower displays lining the main squares. We also visited the War Remnants Museum which contained incredibly powerful and gruesome images and stories from the American/Vietnam War as well as the Indochina War.

The Central Post Office
Decorations and performances for Tet
Around the War Remnants Museum

Now the fun stuff: beer! We hit the jackpot in HCMC. We knew that Pasteur Street Brewing Company was based here as we had previously sampled a few of its brews in Hanoi and Hoi An, so that was our first stop in town. Located up a narrow flight of stairs off a small alley, the taproom was filled with patrons all happily grinning at having finally found good beer in Southeast Asia - or at least, those were our thoughts! It was the closest we’ve been to the beer scene back home in a long time. One highlight was Pasteur Street’s amazing Cyclo Imperial Chocolate Stout, which is one of the best beers we’ve had this trip. Our second stop was Heart of Darkness Brewery, another fantastic find for our hop-deprived palates with its delicious Kurtz’s Insane IPA. On top of that, the manager gave us a list of six other places to check out for craft beer, pretty much planning our Saigon itinerary for us!

Our next stops were visiting East West Brewing Co. during its soft opening, the week-old Winking Seal Brewing Co. to sample its two brews, and then BiaCraft which had several of its own plus a few other local beers on tap. To round out our beer circuit, we visited Rouge Saigon, a fun rooftop bar full of local beers we hadn’t yet been able to try.

Laura is ruthless.
Cheers to good beer!

  Add a comment

Hoi An & Da Nang

For most people, Hoi An is probably their favorite place in Vietnam, and the nearby Da Nang is just another big city. For us, we found Hoi An to be extremely touristy and overly prescribed, and Da Nang to be a fun, down to earth city and a nice place to hang out during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Tet is the most important holiday in Vietnam and being there as a foreigner is probably comparable to being a foreigner in the US during Thanksgiving: the cities become ghost towns while everyone is at home celebrating with their family.

We can see why many people love Hoi An: the Ancient City is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site where many of the buildings date back to around the 15th - 19th centuries. The entire area is beautifully preserved and wandering around can take you back in time. We walked around the area for a half day before we felt we had had enough. We simply found it too touristy; the entire area, shops, vendors, and historical attractions are there just for tourists. You even need to buy tickets to enter any of the old buildings. Lucky for us, our hostel had some tickets leftover from another guest so we were able to visit a few places for free.

The Japanese Covered Bridge
Food at the market including one of our favorite dishes: bún thịt nướng.
One day we rented bikes and peddled out to the beach.

With Tet just around the corner, our host family treated us and the rest of the guests to a traditional lunch. We are not really sure what most of the food was, but it was all pretty good - including the fruit that looks like eyeballs!

Tet lunch with eyeball fruits (aka longan).

One thing Hoi An is known for is custom tailored clothing. Even the Vietnamese will travel from far away to stay in Hoi An for a few days to have clothes made. We had planned on ordering a dress or two for Laura, but when we found out the ordeal we would have had to go through to find a good tailor, pick out the right fabrics, and nail down every last detail, we figured it was not worth our time. Instead, we settled for something we had been craving for a while: a Juicy Lucy from Circle Cafe. The Minnesotan owner makes one of the best burgers we have had all trip with real crispy bacon and cheddar oozing out onto your fries. Asia doesn’t really do cheese or bacon, so this was an awesome taste of home.

Delicious Juicy Lucy and Pasteur Street's IPA (more on this brewery in a later post).

After Hoi An, we headed about 30 minutes north to visit the much larger city of Da Nang. Since everywhere was shutting down for Tet, we figured a large city would have a better chance of things being open. One day we scootered to the top of Monkey Mountain for a good view of the city just before a rainstorm, then visited the tallest Buddha statue in Vietnam, the Lady Buddha. Another day we scootered to the Marble Mountains and hiked around the cluster of five limestone hills with numerous caves and several Buddhist and Hindu grottos, offering great views of the city.

Some of the street decorations for Tet. Also, this dragon bridge breathes fire at night!
Just in time for one picture before taking shelter from the storm.
Lady Buddha, the tallest Buddha statue in Vietnam.
A giant pagoda (and a tiny tree) near Lady Buddha.
An entrance to one of the cave temples in the Marble Mountains.
Inside one of the cave temples in the Marble Mountains.

  Add a comment

The Dynastic City of Huế

In 1802 when the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty established control over all of Vietnam, Huế became the seat of power and the capital of the nation. It remained so until 1945 when the last emperor abdicated and the capital moved north to Hanoi.

Even though much of the city was damaged or destroyed during the Tet Offensive of the American/Vietnam war, Huế’s dynastic past comes alive with a visit to the vast 19th century Citadel. This enormous complex surrounded by a moat and fortified stone walls includes the Imperial City, numerous gardens, and the Forbidden Purple City.

Outside the city, we toured the tomb of Minh Mang, the second emperor of the dynasty. When we say tomb, we really mean giant complex with numerous temples, buildings, and gardens in addition to the actual tomb.

We also visited the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, another remnant of the Nguyen Dynasty. In addition to its beautiful grounds, bonsai trees, and rock gardens, this temple also houses the car which drove the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức to his self-immolation in Saigon in 1963 to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.

A relic of more recent times, we scootered to an abandoned water park just outside the city. Previously an off-the-beaten-path backpacker hangout spot, this park is now a popular place for tourists to experience an eerie glimpse of a world being reclaimed by nature and for locals to make a buck off all the hype. The park’s centerpiece is a giant dragon, but you can also find old slides, statues, and - if you believe the rumors - the occasional crocodile.

The food throughout Vietnam differs as you travel north to south, and Huế had several unique dishes to try, plus one new Vietnamese beer! While most of the beer in Vietnam comes from either Hanoi or Saigon, Huda is brewed right in Huế and fits right in with the other light (flavorless) Asian beers. To go along with our new beer, we also tried:

  • Bún bò Huế: Although we have had bún bò before, the noodle soup from Huế has slightly different ingredients and is spicier than its counterparts. In addition to beef, oxtail, or pork knuckle, this soup sometimes include cubes of congealed pig blood. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds, and it really just looks (and tastes) like very firm brown tofu.
  • Bánh bèo: Rice cakes served in small dishes and topped with ingredients like shrimp, scallions, mung bean paste, and fried shallots with a bit of a fish sauce mixture put on top. Small and tasty, these make a perfect appetizer or snack any time of day!
  • Nem lụi: These are sausages skewered onto lemongrass, grilled, and then served with herbs, cucumbers, pickled veggies, chili paste, and a delicious sauce that you roll up into rice paper. Eat, enjoy, and be happily messy.

  Add a comment