Vietnam lives up to its reputation for sweet people, delicious food and beautiful scenery. Granted there are some places with bus loads of tourists but the culture hasn’t been corrupted by the influx and the locals are still curious and friendly towards foreigners.
Hue is a city of less than 300,000 souls situated on the Perfume River. We visited the Imperial City which is being restored after all the damage that was done in the Vietnam war. You can still see bullet holes in the walls.
On the outskirts of Hue there are several historical sites to visit. We spent a day visiting gorgeous tombs of emperors.
We rented a motorbike for a one way 100 mile trip from Hue to Hoi An with an overnight stop in Da Nang. The company we used (Cong Jeep Adventures) had our backpacks shipped to our hotel in Hoi An so we only needed a tiny overnight bag. We drove over the Hai Van Pass with its twisting roads through tropical jungle and breathtaking views of the coastline far below.
Once we reached Da Nang on the other side we had our first glimpse of Vietnamese fishing boats.
We wondered how the round fishing boats could be paddled in a straight line without going in circles :).
While in Da Nang it’s worth the climb of 300 stone stairs to see The Marble Mountains. There are several caves and pagodas to gawk at. Go early in the morning to beat the crowds and avoid the heat.
The ancient town of Hoi An is an Unesco World Heritage site. At night the streets are closed to motorized traffic and lanterns light up the night with a magical glow. The river seems to glitter with stars from the floating prayer candles you can buy for a dollar.
Back on a motorbike we drove an hour outside of Hoi An to explore the My Son ruins. This temple complex was built by Indian kings between the 4th and 14th century AD. Hindu temples and palace walls are standing next to giant pits where bombs fell during the Vietnam war.
After spending a day at the beach decompressing we boarded an overnight train for the 14 hour trip up north to Ninh Binh for some caves and karsts. Good night Hoi An!
The perfect beach. Everyone has their own version, some we visit and others we dream of. We found ours off the south coast of Cambodia, on the dreamy island of Koh Rong Samloem. But first I will tell you how we got there :).
It was a long, 13 hour bus trip from Siem Reap to Kampot. Travel Tip: Don’t get on the bus that stops in Kep before going to Kampot!
We were rewarded the next day with a visit to the bat cave at Phnom Sorsia. There are two caves. After climbing a flight of stone steps you arrive at the colorful temple in the jungle. The path that leads away to the left is the white elephant cave and the one on the right is the bat cave.
We were the only people there to enjoy a whirlwind of flying furry mammals inside a pitch black cavern. Exploring the cave revealed that it had several portals of penetrating sunlight and the bats swooped in and out on almost silent wings. I like bats.
We stayed at a super cute place with individual bungalows on the river. Travel Tip: beware the firefly tour boats! Make sure it’s legit or your two hour firefly tour may actually be a four hour party boat.
Next was Sihanoukville, otherwise known as Snooky. International airport, busy town, lots of giant resorts being built. Not much to say about Snooky except for a massage on Otres Beach is recommended. Then head to the islands offshore!
No cars or scooters, white powder sand and crystal clear turquoise water are some of the key ingredients for my ideal beach. Now add a night swim with mystical glowing plankton and we have found perfection!
We enjoyed a rustic stay in actual grass hut (it had a shower too!) for a couple days before moving down the beach for a taste of luxury.
After doing pretty much nothing for four days it was time to pack our bags, take the return ferry to Sihanoukville for one night and then fly to Vietnam!
What we call ‘Angkor Wat’ is actually a collection of temples, palaces, lakes and terraces spread out over 500 acres. But there is a temple called Angkor Wat that is pictured above and below.
There are several ticket options for seeing the entire complex and we chose the three day for $62. This allowed us to see the temples for partial days and then jump in the pool at our guesthouse to cool off. It was HOT.
Our favorite temple, Ta Prohm, is the one with the least amount of restoration. Here is where you can see several ancient trees (one is 800 years old) slowly returning the beautifully carved stones to Nature.
We had arrived on a mission to see the iconic image of a face peering out from gnarled tree roots, only to find out you can’t see it anymore. We did find a tiny dancing goddess though, if you look on the left….
A strange but highly entertaining way to end a day of pretending that you’re Indiana Jones is to head over to Pub Street. Extremely cheap beer followed by a one hour foot massage will get you ready for another day of adventure!
The lights are bright, the music loud and the crocodile and frog leg Cambodian BBQ delicious. We didn’t have courage to try these tasty nubbins though…
Although the crowds can be thick at times in the popular areas of Angkor Wat you can still have time to pause and reflect in this amazing, awe inspiring place. And take a picture without anyone in it :).
Vang Vieng is a backpacker haven of fun in the sun on the Nam Song River. Add in the numerous caves that riddle the limestone karst hillside and you can have fun in the dark as well.
Renting an inner tube for 60,000 kip ($7.20 US) is almost a right of passage as you stop at the bars along the river for strong vodka and strawberry drinks. The float takes 3 hours during dry season with no stops. We went on 2 different days and it took us about 5 hours both times. We also visited a cave that we tubed into during both those trips!
Going on a hot air balloon ride was a check off my bucket list. Watching the sunset behind the karst studded landscape is a memory I will treasure forever.
We enjoyed spelunking with new friends, swimming in a blue lagoon and watching re-runs of Friends in riverside bars. But eventually we had to say goodbye to this party town and head to the capital, Vientiane.
French-colonial architecture, golden Buddhist temples, cafe and spa lined streets greet you in this former French trading post.
The COPE visitor center has a free, permanent exhibition with displays and documentaries on the history and implications of the 2 million tons of bombs the USA dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. Of the 270 million cluster bomblets that were dropped, 10-30 percent were not exploded. Now these ‘bombies’ continue to kill, maim and destroy livelihoods through much of Laos. All it takes is a child finding a metal ball and playing catch, a farmer hitting one with a shovel, or a mother making a fire for the evening meal to set off an UXO (unexploded ordinance).
A donation to The COPE Center helps provide prosthetics, orthotics and rehabilitation to people with mobility related disabilities. http://copelaos.org
After this somber reminder of the continued casualties of war it was time to seize the day, enjoy the fact that we are alive and eat French food. Vientiane has many well respected French restaurants and it wasn’t hard to find one in walking distance. Kop chai lai lai Laos! Next up: Cambodia.
The Lao are quiet people. You won’t hear thumping music, tuk tuk horns or raised voices on main street of Luang Prabang. Instead you’ll witness the improbable feat of a bustling village full of restaurants, shops and guesthouses without all the clamour usually associated with them.
Every dawn that breaks over the surrounding peaks brings hundreds of orange robed monks into town to gather alms. The monastery relies on the rice and other staples given each morning. But just around the corner you will see monks digging into their own bowls and sharing the alms with the poor.
Wat Xieng Thong is known for being one of the most beautiful temples in Laos. We appreciated the innumerable murals made of coloured glass that decorated the walls.
November through May is dry season. Of the three waterfalls to see in the area, Kuang Si was still flowing gorgeously and we were able to swim in several pools. Tad Sae was still swimmable at the top pool but mostly dried up. We didn’t go to the third one due to our time limit.
If you enjoy seeing Buddhist temples, boat rides and caves then head to Pak Ou Caves. These two caves filled with hundreds of Buddha statues can only be reached by boat. You’ll need a flashlight for the upper cave.
The food is very similar to Thai with a touch of French refinement (due to the earlier French occupation). Cheers to our first stop in Laos!