When Angelina Jolie was in Siem Reap filming her first Tomb Raider movie, she supposedly hung out at the local bar, which was the only one in town. Nowadays, the city is a little less country. There is a street appropriately called Pub Street with a vast array of restaurants and bars for tourists to choose from. The Old Market is chock full of cuisines from all over the world. Korean businesses are investing en masse in Siem Reap, and some streets are so full of signs in Hangul that it looks like rural South Korea. All of this was unexpected for me, but I really wasn’t mentally prepared for the temples.
On a hot sunny morning, we met our tuk-tuk driver Kauwee and told him we wanted to avoid as many tour groups as possible. He nodded knowingly. “You want to do the reverse order for the temples, okay.” He had an intense itinerary for us with something like six temples in five hours so we got him down to three so we could take our time. We sat back and felt like royalty on the back of the tuk-tuk before I got sand in my eye and mouth and had to stop doing the royal wave. Don’t ask me why but Siem Reap is really dusty and everything is covered in a fine red layer of it.
In total, we saw about ten temples, big and small. A good friend of ours had reminded us to spend some time at the lesser known temples besides the obvious Angkor Wat, and I’m glad she did because the temples we preferred ended up being these less popular guys. Each of them are unique, but our favorites were Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei.
Angkor Thom is an expansive complex for temples and buildings which was the last seat of the Khmer Empire. We were dropped off at a bridge lined with stone statues, and then made our way through the main gate, a four-faced Buddha. It was my first taste of the Khmer temples and I was hooked. At this point I thought about how we considered skipping Siem Reap. We were so close to making one of the biggest mistakes of our Southeast Asia trip.
We ogled some monkeys before heading to the gaudy Bayon temple and making our way through the complex in the blistering heat. The restoration of each building was sponsored by a foreign country, because Cambodia is so corrupt that its “prime minister” uses its money on more important things, like himself. David W. Roberts put it quite eloquently when he stated that Cambodia is a “vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.” The Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Cambodia the second most corrupt nation in Asia after North Korea. That is pretty damn corrupt if you ask me.
It started off with a random guy who made eye contact with us at a bar. “Hi, are you Thai?” Minutes later, this British expat close-talker had me awkwardly pinned against the back of someone’s chair, practically touching my face with his as he excitedly talked to us about how much he adores New York. After asking us what we were doing later and getting a vague answer, the friendly fellow recommended a few go-go bars that “aren’t boring”. We closed up the bar at the early hour of midnight and ducked into a cab with our new friends, Power, a Taiwanese friend-of-a-friend and Rebecca, her German friend.
The cab stopped in front of Soi Cowboy — the red light district of Bangkok — and we made our way down the narrow street aglow in a rainbow of neon lights from the big signs above. Scantily-clad young girls sat or stood by the bars that lined the street, calling out to the (usually Caucasian) men looking for a good time and a happy ending to the night. Power pointed out a bar she’s been to and we were made to order our first round outside the bar as an “entrance fee”. While we waited for our drinks to be delivered, we sat outside and people-watched.
A loud group of white guys in flower print shirts caught our attention and Rebecca called out to one, asking him why all of them are wearing a similar floral print pattern. “We’re here for our friend’s bachelor party and we had to wear the ugliest shirts we could find.” It was interesting to note that the majority of the shirts are perfectly nice, and the men wearing them clearly had zero taste. The guy chatted up our German friend, asking her if she teaches English in Thailand. She laughed and his drunk eyes steadied on mine as he slurred, “You’re very beautiful.” We all laughed at this poor drunk guy and headed into the black light of the club.
A stout woman wearing a Japan soccer jersey (for some reason, the Thais rooted for Japan during the World Cup) gestured to the stools by the brightly lit stage and we sat ourselves down. We looked up at the girls in white shirt-sleeved shirts and tiny skirts and realized they weren’t wearing any underwear. Neither were the girls on the floor above, standing on the plexiglass floor and swaying back and forth. So this is what Power was talking about at dinner. I looked at them for a bit as all of them stood on the stage unenthusiastically shuffling around like cattle at auction and I felt like an involuntary perv who enjoys looking up girls’ skirts.
A good college friend once described to me a tour she took to the Yangtze River. Her advice if I ever decided to go was to never look down, because the smelly water was filled with garbage. She concluded matter-of-factly in the way she does that, “As long as you don’t look down, you’re fine.” Lowered expectations.
This was exactly how I felt in Halong Bay, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. And it would be a wonder, if it weren’t for the vast amounts of trash in the water. By this time, I was used to just how much the Vietnamese like to litter. They think nothing of finishing a bottle of soda and then tossing it out of the window of buses, taxis and trains. I tried to hand someone in a store a plastic safety seal from a bottle of water to throw away for me, and she pointed down, as in, “Throw it on the floor, where it will be swept up someday and will end up choking a baby seal to death in the ocean when it mistakes it for food.”
We knew some of what to expect of Halong Bay. We knew how overpriced the cruises were in relation to the delivered product and services, and how you have to really lower your expectations. Because as a blogger wisely pointed out, “The Vietnamese will promise you the world, but will only deliver broken dreams.”
N and I had opted for the two-night three-day tour — which tacks on an extra night in top of the tour that most tourists go on — after talking to a solo American traveler who told us that the extra day really made up for the shitty herding around she experienced the first day.
To learn about the various ethnic groups in Vietnam (and there are 56 of them), the Museum of Ethnology is a great place to spend an afternoon in Hanoi.
The circular main building is dedicated to exhibitions of the ethnic groups in Vietnam, and a separate contemporary building houses stuff from the rest of Southeast Asia. Behind both buildings are actual houses from ethnic groups which were relocated to this museum, and visitors can explore the inside of these homes to see how people live. It’s an awesome museum and well worth a visit.
During a motorcycle ride to a nearby Red Dao village, N’s driver tried to sell her on using him and his buddy for another adventure into the hills. When she tried to explain to him that we wanted to do a trekking tour, he laughed and asked her, “Why walk when you can just drive there?” Good question.
Well mostly because it’s easier to take in the views at a snail’s pace (which is us going up mountains) than on the back of a motorcycle that is careening around the mountains while simultaneously trying to bypass fast-moving cars and semis. The way these Vietnamese drive, it’s a wonder they manage to stay on the road at all sometimes.
So we signed up for a private trek with Sapa O’Chau, a tour organization founded by a Hmong woman, Shu Tan. Part of the cost of the tour goes towards the schooling of Hmong children to give them better opportunities through future employment. Attendance at the Sapa O’Chau school also includes food and lodging for the children. Our guide was a 20-year young Hmong girl who didn’t attend the school but did take English classes at the school. She was going to lead us to her home in Lao Chai, a big Black Hmong village about 10km from Sapa. Not long into the start of our hike through the town to Sapa, two Hmong women sidled up next to us to chat us up. “What your name?”
By this time, we were used to the Hmong women following tourists around town pretty assertively. “You buy something from me?” A no thank you will be quickly countered with a gentle, “Yes thank you.” And telling them that you already bought a lot of things will be answered with, “But not from me.” Surprisingly, the women are civil and friendly to each other even though they all crowd around selling the exact same things: little bags, zippered purses, pillowcases, bracelets, charms. “You buy something small from each of us and make us happy.” It’s a proposal we would consider if not for the dozens of other women who will ask you to do the same thing a minute later. And they’re all so damn nice, which makes it hard to say no. The Hmong learn their English from talking to tourists, and it’s pretty damn impressive. They speak way better English than the Vietnamese vendors we’ve interacted with over the past two months.
We didn’t mind buying from these two women, and they didn’t seem to mind walking all the way to Lao Chai with us. My lady (I say this because she chatted me up first) was cheerful and talkative, while N’s lady was quiet and wove hemp strands into string as she walked. I don’t understand this multitasking business, because our eyes were permanently glued to the uneven pathways as we walked and half-stumbled along. Oh, and I forgot to mention that they wear plastic sandals on these walks.
“You have a boyfriend?” I told Gom that I didn’t have a boyfriend, and she reassured me — a pathetic spinster in her eyes — that being single was good because I had the chance to do anything I wanted. She told us about how she recently married a guy who was a friend of her ex-boyfriend’s. She told us about a Hmong custom where a boy will ask a girl he is interested in to come live in his house for four days. She is expected to go, and she spends time with him and his family to see if she would be happy there as his wife. At the end of the four days, the girl decides if she wants to marry the boy. This is what happened with Gom, and while she wasn’t crazy about her husband, he was nice enough so it was OK. She turned her attention to us. “Everyone thinks you two look like boys,” she giggled. I told her that it happens a lot, and left her to wonder why.
We got up way too early in the morning to take a bumpy, nauseating ride to Bac Ha, where the Flower Hmong gather every Sunday to sell their stuff. There was freshly-harvested honey, bright red chilis, fruits, vegetables, moonshine-like rice wine, farm animals, metal tools and expensive pet birds. A major plus was meeting a great couple from California, and being able to explore the market with them. The tour stopped into a small village where we got a quick glimpse of life there. Another major highlight was stopping at the Chinese border and being given the chance to stare longingly at Mainland China, the land of opportunity. On the way home, a dog (that was probably purchased for food) shat in the box in the back of the van but the driver refused to stop, so we sat marinating in the smell for almost three hours. Good times in Vietnam.
My wife likes to let people know that I “hate children”. When I argue that I don’t “hate” them (it’s such a strong word), this Baby Whisperer who I’ve married tries to reassure me that it’s fine and that I should just own it. It’s especially pleasant when she volunteers this information to strangers with children, who are left to secretly wonder if I’m the kind of monster who also hates puppies, cupcakes, rainbows and everything else that is good in this world.
Fortunately for me, N kept her mouth shut when we met an Australian couple with two young kids at the Phong Nha Farmstay. After a couple of exciting forays into the Vietnamese bush (hehe) with this family, we decided to join them on a full-day tour to see two caves in the Phong Nha National Park and although the cost of the tour was pretty steep for us ($100/person; we’re in Vietnam, people!), we decided that spending the day with this family would be more fun than being transported around with a bunch of strangers.
We got up at 6:45am and we were off on our journey an hour later, hopping onto an old American Army jeep and an old Russian motorcycle with Craig (an Australian) and Hung (a Vietnamese local) as our guides. They pointed out wartime scars on the landscape as we headed into the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. During the war, there were no American soldiers on the ground in this part of Vietnam (most of the fighting took place in the south), but they bombed the shit out of it for years, killing civilians and resistance fighters alike. During the day, people hid from bombers in the caves and worked on transporting supplies and building roads and landing strips during the cover of night.
The whole area is still covered with land mines that the Americans dropped during the war. Our guide Hung had deep scars on his arms and face from playing with a land mine when he was a child growing up in this area. He survived, but his four friends weren’t so lucky. Just the day before, two young boys living a few minutes from our Farmstay were killed while trying to pry open a land mine they had found in the mountains. I immediately thought of Bosnia — still deeply scarred from its war over two decades ago — and the chilling skull and crossbones signs we saw there, the international symbol for land mines. You can’t just bounce back from war, and this was a reality I had the luxury of never having to experience firsthand like these people did, and still do.
I felt it during the four-hour train ride to Dong Hoi. The subtle but unmistakeable rumbling of oncoming gastrointestinal distress. Remembering the 10-day involuntary cleansing ordeal I went through in Saigon and Dalat, I pleaded with my body and then tried not to think about it. After all, we were heading to the countryside to explore caves and harass cows and ain’t nobody got time for that. It had also only been about two weeks since the end of the first bout, and I had already lost at least 3kgs since I started traveling. I was withering away into a stick insect (plenty in this area). Completely ignoring my pleas, it started right after dinner that night and continued throughout the next four days we spent in Phong Nha, an otherwise relaxing country village.
We were staying at the Phong Nha Farmstay, which I expected to be a glorified mud hut in the middle of rice paddies (lowered expectations!) but it ended up being pretty nice and comfortable, complete with a small pool. Now I wouldn’t call this place a Farmstay. It’s more like a hostel or hotel, in the middle of rice paddies and farmers’ homes. I didn’t eat much that week but I also didn’t miss out on much judging from the taste of the food.
What kept me from just laying in our room like a useless lump on a log was an adventurous Australian family we met who was also staying at the Farmstay. It was their idea to rent mopeds to explore the countryside, and N somehow agreed to rent one of her own (I wasn’t there to stop her during the rental transaction) even though she had never ridden one in her life. Genius.
It all worked out in the end one afternoon, when Nigel (the father) kindly offered to drive the two of us on the back of one moped while Pip (the mother) and the kids rode on the other one. Nigel somehow maneuvered the cumbersome scooter around potholes, rocks, hay, rice drying in the sun and cow patties on the windy dirt roads towards the Chicken Lady, who is rumored to have the best chicken in the village. We got lost thanks to the crappy map the hotel gave us to decipher, but we got back on track once a friendly local pointed us in the right direction. So friendly that she got full cuddle time with my wife before we took off again.
At a non-descript cafe on the side of a non-descript street in Da Nang, I sipped a cà phê sữa đá and thought of a recent conversation I had with my mother before leaving for Southeast Asia. I was having a coffee then as well, and I had mentioned that caffeine tends to keep me up at night if I have it too late in the day. My mother made an incredulous face and said, “That’s because you don’t work hard enough. If you work hard like your father and I do, you can fall asleep right away.” To me, that was a strange thing to say because my mother doesn’t work (and has never really worked), unless you call unnecessary clothes shopping a form of employment.*
So there we were in Da Nang, proving her point. We were getting tired of constantly bouncing from one place to another and the Southeast Asian heat followed us around, quietly beating us into submission. A friend in Saigon suggested Da Nang as a quiet place to hang our hats for a while so we trusted her. The city itself doesn’t look like anything special, and is as unassuming as they come. But look a little closer, and there is an empty, beautiful beach lining its eastern coast, a lush peninsula to the north and some damn good food.
We did the required touristy stuff like checking out the Bodhisattva of Mercy on Son Tra peninsula (we called her “The Lady”) and spending the day exploring the Marble Mountains. While both of these places were pretty interesting in their own ways, what we enjoyed doing the most was chilling by ourselves during the day and getting the more local experience with our new friends at night.
Beaching was very much on our list of priorities so we made a beeline for a private beach on My Khe. Well, not really a beeline, because we skirted around the main entrance to the hotel and entered through the side entrance to the beach like a couple of sketchy mofos… I guess we kind of are. Don’t get me started on privatizing beaches in these developing countries. We had lunch at an overpriced but decent restaurant next to the beach, soaked up the cleanliness of it all and pretended for a moment that we were guests of this overpriced resort.
There is nothing more pleasant than going on a full-day group tour by bus and boat while suffering from stomach issues. Uncle Ho’s Revenge, Vietnam Vengeance, Saigon Squirts, call it what you will, but it sucks ass. Literally.
I woke up that morning feeling sick and fully prepared to abandon N and let her go on the tour alone, but I didn’t want her to be all by her lonesome so I muscled up every ounce of willpower that wasn’t flushed down the toilet and ran for the bus before it left without me. A heavily made-up Vietnamese tourist took multiple selfies of herself a few seats in front of us but I felt too drained to photobomb them.
It was only after we got off the bus 1.5 hours later by the Mekong Delta that I realized that the majority of our fellow tourists were Korean. I don’t know why but besides our group, there were a billion Koreans on the Delta that day, with the men wearing colorful hiking apparel and the women all covered up to protect themselves from their worst enemy: the sun.
After tourists snatched up the $1 cone hats to wear in the sun, the tour guide led us onto a riverboat which was surprisingly smooth and pleasant. The seats were comfortable and I gradually started feeling a little better by the time we got to our first stop, a rice paper-making workshop. I was busy making sure there was a suitable bathroom (just in case) while the tour guide explained the process of making rice paper, which seems pretty easy.
We had about ten minutes of them trying to sell us bags of toasted rice paper crisps in different flavors, and I watched from the periphery as the selfie-snapping wife of a middle-aged Vietnamese couple — dressed like they were going clubbing immediately after the tour — ignored her adorable little son and generously opened her wallet for the first of many times that day.