Boat ride to Siem Reap

Back in May, I was on a tour in Cambodia, and we traveled for several hours in a very simple motorboat from Battambang to Siem Reap. I wrote a bit about this earlier. Now I’ve posted the photos — see the slideshow to get a sense of life along the river in northern Cambodia.

Motoring upriver in Cambodia

This was not a standard tourist excursion, but it’s typical for trips with Intrepid Travel. I like their low-budget, low-impact, highly local approach to group travel. There were only eight people in our group. No big buses, no crowd scenes. The boat ride was long, hot, and not terribly comfortable — but it was fabulous. We got to see people in their normal environment, working on boats and in the padi fields. We saw dozens of cattle, boats, and small children who shouted “Hello!” and waved when they spotted us.

House on the river, Cambodia

I was struck by how small and simple most of the houses were, especially in comparison to the huge shining wats (Buddhist temples) in their midst. Some of the houses were temporary, constructed for the rice harvest. The annual flood was near, and some families had already packed all their belongings onto long, low wooden boats and were moving on to their rainy-season homes somewhere else. We saw motorbikes and bicycles lashed to the boats (which aren’t all that big). We also saw multiple boats strung together, floating in line like a mother duck and her ducklings.

From Battambang, we traveled by river to the Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and something of an ecological marvel — during the monsoon, the lake grows in size from 2,700 sq. km. to 16,000 sq. km., as the Tonlé Sap River reverses its flow. Water from the Mekong is pushed into the lake in the process. There is great concern that dam projects in China will effect this process, which is vital to rice production in Cambodia.

To view the trip itinerary, see this page at Intrepid.


Video: Rice Paper Crepes, Cambodia

I shot this video in a rural village near Battambang, Cambodia, in May:

Edited in Final Cut Pro. Please note that if you go to the YouTube page, you can watch it in higher quality mode (and it’s much nicer). The link is below the video on the right side. I wish I could embed THAT version!

Air travel in and to Vietnam

If only I had found out about Jetstar before I went to Vietnam!

Flights on the national carrier, Vietnam Airlines, are nice enough, but booking is a giant pain in the neck — because you must pay cash. Yes, the national airline does not accept credit cards! Even inside the country, when I booked a flight through my hotel, I had to get 2 million dong in cash to hand over for my ticket. (The same hotel accepted my credit card for my hotel bill.) Ridiculous. Especially because many of the Vietnamese banks’ ATMs would not give me cash, even though they recognized my card.

Jetstar is a budget carrier, a joint venture between Australia and Singapore. Like the fabulous AirAsia (which I recommend very highly!), Jetstar offers bare bones service, charges for extras, and has nice new planes that make travelers feel perfectly safe. I have flown on AirAsia at least six times, including recently from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh — check out their wonderful fares. Unfortunately, they don’t fly domestic legs within Vietnam.

I guess I didn’t search hard enough, because before I left the U.S., I didn’t find out about Jetstar. We flew from Danang to Saigon on Jetstar last week, and it was a perfectly nice flight — for about US$40. (The hotel charged me $103 for a ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Saigon to Hanoi; Jetstar has it for $53 t0 $84.)

Vietnam Airlines does not publish ticket fares on their Web site. This enables travel agents to totally gouge travelers — like the taxi drivers in Hanoi, I might add. (All the taxi drivers I encountered in Saigon were honest.) The first travel agent I contacted in the U.S. to try to buy a ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City wanted $198 for it. Another agent (TNK Travel) wanted only $110 for the same ticket, same day and time. (Oddly enough, the first travel agent, VINA Travel in San Francisco, was recommended by Vietnam Airlines, which will not sell tickets directly in the U.S.) I had to wire TNK the money via Western Union because they too do not accept credit cards (unless you fill out a crazy form with way too much personal information on it and MAIL it to them — yeah, right). They wanted a bank transfer, but my U.S. bank charges $35 for that; Western Union charged $4.

Jetstar (like AirAsia) permits you to book on the Web site and pay with a credit card (like any normal airline, ahem).

Watch out for extra baggage fees if you fly on the cheap carriers — weight limits and number of bags are strictly enforced. Both AirAsia and Jetstar make this transparent on their Web sites.

Back in the U.S.A.

The strangest thing about traveling is that as soon as you’re home, it seems as if you’ve never left. Of course, there’s a lot to process, to digest — much will be integrated into my world view over time. But day-to-day life can return almost immediately to normal routines.

I was in the Saigon airport at 3 p.m. Thursday to catch the first of four flights that brought me to Florida. A late afternoon flight on a weekday, Saigon to Hanoi, a lot of business travelers, traveling light. What caught my notice as I stood in line to board the bus that would take us to the plane: Almost everyone was carrying a big vinyl-sided briefcase with a metal rim. I haven’t seen that style of briefcase here in about 10 years. (I used to have one.)

I looked around, searching for other styles. I saw two people carrying something more updated. Thinking back, I realized that U.S. business people carried those briefcases before we all had laptop computers.

I had a lot of thoughts about development (as in “developing nations”). Many times I thought, while in Cambodia or Vietnam, this must be what Malaysia looked like 25 years ago. The traffic in Phnom Penh and Saigon and Hanoi did much to explain to me why roads are designed as they are in Kuala Lumpur — motorbikes lead to cars, and cars are bigger, and then new roads are needed. But pedestrians were not considered in the plans when Malaysia modernized the arteries in its largest city, and as I walked in the gutters of streets in Hanoi and Saigon, I understood why it’s so hard to walk around in KL’s famous shopping area, the Golden Triangle.

In Hoi An, to preserve the old part of the city, the government is forbidding all but foot traffic, one day at a time. Eventually it will be a wheels-free zone all week long, to the benefit of tourism — brilliant.

Another thing I considered after spending time in Cambodia and Vietnam was the retarding effect of war. Cambodia held its first free elections in May 1993 — before that, real economic development was not possible. Vietnam “opened the door” in 1986-89, but I would estimate Vietnam is at least 10 years ahead of Cambodia on the development scale. Other Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia and Thailand have been able to focus on economic reforms, infrastructure, and education instead of cleaning up after a country-wide destructive conflict. When I thought about the chaos in Vietnam and Cambodia only 30 years ago, I had to judge their progress as pretty remarkable.

Vietnam has a mission right now to improve the education system at all levels, so it can properly train the next generation of skilled workers and information professionals. Night schools for learning English are everywhere, and many of the 60 journalists I met were enrolled in one. Our Intrepid Travel trip leader, Cong, had studied Russian in school for many years, but started learning English when he was 24 — about eight years ago. The level of English right now in a lot of the hotels where I stayed was poor, but with the government’s emphasis on tourism as one of its income centers, I would bet that will change soon.

I posted some new photos today on Flickr.

Another departure, with regret

Sitting in the business-class lounge in the Hanoi airport, using free wi-fi and drinking a can of passionfruit juice imported from Malaysia (huh?!), waiting for the second leg of the seemingly endless journey from east to west (although my route is eastbound, from Seoul to Atlanta). I’m sorry to be leaving Vietnam — would have liked more time in Hue, in Hoi An, in Saigon.

Tuesday night in Saigon, I walked around and watched people eating, drinking, and just generally hanging out on the sidewalk, as they always do. While I felt pretty fed up with the helter-skelter motorbike traffic and the almost impossible task of walking on the sidewalks (too crowded with seated people and motorbikes to permit much walking), I also thought I could really get to feeling comfortable in Saigon. Much more so than Hanoi. Saigon seems warmer, less harsh. Maybe I just didn’t spend enough time in Hanoi.

Our Intrepid trip leader in Vietnam, Cong, lives near Hanoi. He said if I had one month in Hanoi, I would grow to like it. But he also said, as we sat in the giant colonial-era post office building in Saigon’s District 1: “If I could live anywhere, I would live here.”

Ha Long Bay, Hue, and Hoi An

Since we left Hanoi, we have been seeing some of the most famous tourist attractions of Vietnam. All three of these locations are UNESCO World Heritage sites, meaning they are “considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” (Photos to come later.)

Right now I’m in an Internet cafe in Hoi An, at 10:45 a.m. local time. Hoi An is a beautiful old city, filled with small old Chinese-style shop buildings along narrow streets (there is one street like this in Singapore, as I recall), formerly a major trading port for seafaring people from all over SE Asia, as well as the foreigners who traveled here for the spice trade, silk, and other goods. I am the only female and the only Westerner in a room with about 25 computers and about 22 young men and boys, most of them playing online games with intensive graphics, wearing headphones, and simultaneously checking several highly animated chatrooms. They are typing very, very fast. A country on the verge of a high-tech boom, for sure!

We came here on a very nice air-con minibus from Hue, where we had two days of fantastic tour-guiding by a local man named Thanh — including a day on motorbikes, zooming around backstreets no wider than about eight feet, smoothly paved with concrete. (Note: Dirt roads still prevail in Cambodia. Better roads, more paving, and fewer potholes in Vietnam.) The citadel of the Nguyen emperors impressed us, even though we were melting from the heat.

From Hanoi to Hue, we traveled on an overnight train, four beds per compartment, very comfortable and nice. The train left the station about 11 p.m. and arrived in Hue about 11 a.m. the next day.

To see the cliff-islands of Ha Long Bay, we went out on a wooden junk (with a motor) that was well-appointed for about 20 people to dine and sleep overnight. Each cabin had two beds and a private bathroom with toilet, sink and shower. The food really surprised us — the crew prepared and served delicious Vietnamese meals to us. The sky was cloudy but we had a clear view of the many tree-covered islands, other boats, and fish farms tucked away in coves. The boat dropped anchor in the late afternoon and we stayed put until morning, when we ate an early breakfast and sailed back to port.

Today we are flying from Hoi An to Saigon — then tomorrow, a tour of the Mekong Delta.

Two nights ago, Oliver Stones'”Platoon” was on HBO here. Very weird to be watching that in a room only a few hours south of the DMZ.

Ready to hit the road, in Vietnam

My best friend and her family arrived on Sunday, after a bad flight delay from Delta. The customer service from Delta has got to be the worst in the world. Their airport staff are rude and unsympathetic. I have experienced it myself — many times, in many different airports. The story of Delta making a family of four miss their flight from New York to Seoul, Korea, is basically one of gross incompetence.

Anyway, I’m not going to tell that story here. I’m glad they finally arrived safely — even though it was one day late! And all due to the stupidity of Delta and their extremely rude counter staff in Washington and New York. Naturally, when the family switched over to Korean Air, all the staff were very friendly, polite, professional, and sympathetic. What a pleasure to fly with a good airline!

So, the fast notes: Saturday, one of the Vietnamese journalists, Thuy, offered to show me around Hanoi a bit. We visited Phu Tay Ho temple — a beautiful setting, and very nicely kept up. Then we strolled around the botanical gardens. I had to meet Larry at 1 p.m., so Thuy and I parted then. Later I did a lot of walking around the Hoan Kiem Lake area.

Bell at Phu Tay Ho

Phu Tay Ho temple, in Hanoi.

Sunday morning I went to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. This is certainly among the best museums in all Southeast Asia! The highlight is the full-size traditional houses, tombs, and other buildings standing in a tree-shaded park behind the big white museum building. I loved looking at the construction of the walls, roofs, and floors. The techniques are similar to those I saw in the jungle in East Malaysia (Borneo) and also at the museum in Terengganu. The baskets and the big Chinese jars (fired pottery) were much like the ones in Iban longhouses.

My lunch on Sunday

Bun nem: Sidewalk fare, about $1.25 for lunch.

Sunday afternoon I went to Jodi’s hotel to meet them when they arrived. Sunday night I met Thuy and her friend Chung, and after a wonderful dinner of steamed duck soup with glass noodles, we went to someone’s home to hear a concert of traditional Tru singing. Wow, that was so cool! The women were all so beautiful in their ao dai dresses, and even a very young girl (about 11 years old) gave us a sample of her wonderful singing voice.

Monday Jodi’s family and I all went out for pho bo for breakfast, at Pho 24 on Thi Sach Street, followed by a walk around the lake and a visit to Ngoc Son temple (in the middle of the lake). Lunch was at Quan An Ngan, on Phan Boi Chau Street — really fantastic, and quite a bargain too.

Kids at Ngoc Son temple

Johnny and Lydia, jet-lagged at Ngoc Son temple.

After lunch, the Hoa Lo prison and then the water puppet show at the theater just north of the lake. We all really enjoyed the water puppets a lot (except maybe Johnny … we’ll ask him later). The accompanying music was excellent, and some of the skits had us laughing out loud. Even though the audience is mostly Western tourists, the show did not seem tacky or stupid (not dumbed down for stupid tourists). Production values seemed quite high, and the dozen puppeteers really showed a lot of skill in their manipulation of the wooden puppets. When they came out for a bow at the end, we all applauded them enthusiastically.

Jodi's family at Hoa Lo prison

The Schmitt-Young-Nguyen family, at Hoa Lo prison, Hanoi.

Tomorrow we are leaving for Ha Long Bay — blog posting may become very sparse!