It’s been a while…

Hey friends!

I got home and life took over and my blog fell by the wayside.  What’s new? well I got a new job, I hiked the highest mountain in Scotland, ran a 10k, lost 3 stone and of course took a couple of trips!

I feel like I do need to round off Asia though, after Hoi An we drove to Hue.  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a big fan – anything in comparison to Hoi An was going to be anti-climatic though.  After Hue, we arrived in Ninh Binh.  Ninh Binh is on the very outskirts of Hanoi, we arrived late here.  The next day was our last day with Stray – we stopped at Trang An, where we got a boat around and I nearly fell in on more than one occasion!!

Trang An is where King Kong: Skull Island is filmed, which was pretty cool to see.  Each boat had a local doing the rowing and steering.  But we had to help too, whenever our lady thought we were getting too lazy she would give me a nudge in the back with her oar and laughed every time I had to get on or off the boat because I was so clumsy and clearly just do not have boat legs. I also want to note, each boat was big enough four only 4 westerners, but they were squeezing atleast 9 Vietnamese onto each boat  It was a great last activity before Hanoi where our tour with Stray ended.

When we arrived in Hanoi Mia (our Stray guide) took us on a walking tour and to the railway that runs through a street, she told us that this is where the poorer people live, which really makes you see the quality of life some people have. We took a walk round Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.

 

I loved Hanoi, frankly I loved Vietnam.  I’d love to go back and revisit and stay for longer – hopefully I get to!

After Vietnam, we headed back to Singapore.  I love love love Singapore.  It’s so clean and modern and it has my one true love – Innisfree. We spent our time in Singapore at the night zoo, shopping and going to the free attractions at night – the gardens by the bay and the water show.  We also went to Universal Studios Singapore which is well worth the visit!

Singapore was the end of the road in Asia for me.  I was ready to be home though, ready to get back into a routine and stop living out of a backpack! 6 months on and I’m dying to be living out of that backpack again!!

 

Bai Xep > Hoi An

Once again, I’m well behind on my blog…  This time, I’m actually home.  Oops!

Bai Xep is a quiet little fishing village where the bus couldn’t even drive down to the “main street”.  The main street was like an alley in the UK and on either side locals were selling meat and fish.   Our guesthouse was right on the beach and was called Haven Vietnam.  This was probably our most expensive 2 nights accommodation apart from when we were on the island.  The guesthouse also owns the next door hostel called Big Tree Backpackers, this is where there restaurant was and no joke this was some of the nicest food for me on the entire trip!

We had dinner with the group that night and went to bed early because the bus journey had tired us out so much.  The next day, we thought we would walk along the beach.  The sea around us was the South China Sea and holy hell it was cold, almost as cold as the North Sea! Walking on the beach was hard going so we gave up after a little while and returned to the guesthouse and lounged on sun beds reading for the rest of the day.

In Bai Xep, the fishermen use conical boats to reach their fishing nets and row in a way which makes you think you wouldn’t be able to move far, but they do.  That night we had dinner with the group again, we got speaking to the older couple in our group – Marie and Joe who were from Canada and had done the lot pass already but had loved Vietnam so much they had come just to spend 2 months there, reliving their favourite parts.

The next morning we walked back up to the bus and hopped on to go to Hoi An,  Mia had often told us that this was her favourite stop and I was looking forward to seeing why.

Dalat > Bai Xep

We left Dalat at 7.45am but not before the hotel manager forced us to at least take some bread with us so we wouldn’t starve. The drive was pretty long we were on the bus from 7.45am till around 5pm with only stops for lunch and happy rooms. We felt like we must have covered such a large distance but when we checked it was only 201 miles. That’s like Aberdeen to Edinburgh.

The first part of the journey was through a mountain pass with long twisty roads. Along this part of the journey Mia told us about Vietnamese burial traditions.

In Vietnam, they do not cremate they only bury. There are 2 sections to a graveyard: a community area and family areas. When a family member first dies they are buried in a wooden coffin in the community area for the first 3 years after they pass. After 3 years the family then dig the body up and clean the bones and put them into a ceramic pot within in the family’s area. They do this because they believe that our flesh belongs to the earth and what belongs to earth should return to earth but our bones belong to our family and they should return to them.

After a parent dies it is the sons job to worship to the ancestors every day as it is believed that the ancestors of the family help the family with their lives in the present.

We continued on the road stopping in Nha Trang for lunch. Nha Trang is a popular Russian holiday destination in Vietnam with beautiful beaches. Although Stray does not stop for long here we could have hopped off and caught the next bus later on. Apparently it is one of the most expensive cities in Vietnam.

We continued on toward Bai Xep after this, the only hiccup in this being our bus tried to fit on to a bridge that it was not built for it and the top of the bus scraped along the metal and the fan hatch was hit. Once we got through we were told no and had to reverse back under it.

Once we finally arrived at Bai Xep, we had to leave the bus at the top of the village and walk down as the roads were not built for cars only mopeds. We stayed in a cute little hostel/hotel called Haven Vietnam right on the beach. We had dinner with the group and made an early exit as we were so tired.

The next day we had the laziest day ever. We got up around 12pm had breakfast and then had a walk along the beach. I put my feet in the South China sea (which felt as cold as the north sea) and we walked back. The rest of our day pretty much revolved around eating.

Today we are on route to Hoi An!

Ho Chi Minh > Dalat

After issues checking out of our hotel in HCM we literally ran to meet our next Stray group. Thinking it would be all new people we were pleasantly surprised that we had been with 3 of them before!

Mia, our new guide introduced herself – she’s our first female guide on Stray and I’m so glad we’ve got her.

We hopped aboard the bus after he had decided to take down a couple of traffic cones to get to us and started our long drive to Dalat. Vietnam is such a long country that our travel days are pretty brutal. The drive to Dalat would take around 7/8 hours.

Mia introduced herself telling us that Mia is her English name and she chose it when she was younger based on her love of the Princess Diaries. She then went onto explain how she is 2 different ages. In Vietnamese culture she is 26, even though she was born in the same year as me and I’m 24. In Vietnam you are born 1 and they go by the year rather than the date. So in Vietnamese culture I would also be 26. In western culture, she would be 25.

On our drive we had a few stops for “happy rooms” and lunch and then we stopped at Datanla falls. A waterfall where you take a rollercoaster down the mountain to them. I wasn’t feeling well so decided against going down and sat in the sun at the top.

When I was sitting at the top it very much felt like Scotland in summer under the pine trees and with a much cooler temperature than what we’ve had since probably India.

When we arrived in Dalat, I could already tell it was going to be one of my favourite places and now after we’ve left I stand by that. That night Mia took the group to a restaurant called Artists Alley and it was cute and the food was absolutely delicious – best garlic bread I have ever eaten. We then went to maze bar which is literally a maze with thousands of staircases.

The next day we walked along the lake and around the town. We had a cute dinner and then sorted our stuff out for our journey to Bai Xep the next day.

Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh

7.30am, Ben and I are sitting in the “Fancy Guesthouse” waiting for our pick up. Today we’re catching a public bus to Vietnam. Part of the unguided sector for Stray and we were nervous about it. Public buses in Asia can be significantly different to ones at home. In some cases they’ll put seats in the aisle (little stools not fixed to the ground) in order to make more money. Luckily this was not the case for us!

Once we had been picked up and taken to the bus station and processed. We boarded the bus and said goodbye to Cambodia.

We were given little breakfast boxes and bottles of water and kept going until the border.

First we needed to be stamped out of Cambodia, we then hopped back on the bus and stopped at a restaurant in no man’s land. The food was good and the duty free had British Cadburys so we were happy. After this we drove to Vietnam immigration, this time we had to take our bags off the bus to get them scanned before going into Vietnam – much stricter than the Lao Cambodia border! Once we had all done this we were on our way straight to Ho Chi Minh!

When we arrived in HCM there were clear differences between Vietnam and Cambodia already. In Vietnam there are mopeds and coffee shops everywhere. It already felt more developed and has been easier to find things we were used to getting at home.

After checking in at the hotel we walked ourselves to McDonald’s – a truly beautiful thing.

The next day we walked to see the independence palace and the war remnant museum. Both very interesting places. Walking round HCM, I felt very safe and the city as a whole felt a lot cleaner than anything we had seen in a while.

The next day we would be driving to Dalat!

Kampot > Phnom Penh

We left Sihanoukville with only 8 in our group. This was strange for us as we had just come from a group of 27. Our new guide was called Tong. We took the short trip to Kampot and checked into our hotel. Ben and I were completed zonked. 20 days of doing nothing had ruined us.

We eventually got up and wondered around the town stopping at a bakery for a sandwich. I didn’t take many pictures there but here are some:

The fruit above in the middle of the roundabout is durian. Durian is probably the worst fruit I’ve ever tried but Asian people love it. Tong likened the taste to creamy garlic. But the smell is rotten. Many hotels will not let you have durian in the room as the smell is so bad. But I’m still going to bring home some durian sweets and biscuits for my parents (you’re welcome guys).

This morning we started our journey to our last stop in Cambodia – the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

On our way there we made 2 stops. Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng. These are also known as the killing field and S-21. These are both the most well known of the killing fields (there are over 300 in Cambodia) and the prisons. If you aren’t familiar with the Khmer Rouge regime, basically a man named Pol Pot and his political party wanted to make everyone equal, no rich and no poor. He did this by forcing everyone in the cities out of their homes and forcing people to become killed. Enemies of the Khmer Rouge were people who were intellectuals – scholars, doctors, teachers, monks etc. Even if you looked like an intellectual you would be killed. Examples of this include if you wore glasses and if you were white. They severed family connections and forced people to live with strangers.

No one knows the exact figure of how many people died but it is estimated over 1.5million which is more than a quarter of Cambodia’s population. They were not killed quickly by bullets either. Bullets were too expensive. Most were beaten to death by wooden clubs, axes, farming tools. Thrown into mass graves, women and children too. One of the quotes that has stuck with me is how they justified killing babies “to remove the grass you must remove the roots too”.

Choeung Ek (the killing field) is where people came to die. Music played to mask the screams and today there are mass graves everywhere. They have not recovered all the bodies as it is an impossible task, in the monsoon season it is common for more bones and clothes from the deceased to surface on the top.

We then drove a short distance to Tuol Sleng (S21). S21 was where many of the people executed at the killing field were tortured for information on intellectuals before they were killed. Today I not only saw the methods of torture, I also saw photos of these innocent people after they had been. It was truly horrific. My only thought for them was that at least once they were dead they were no longer suffering at the hands of their torturers. The regime even had painters (other prisoners) come in and paint these people as they were tortured.

Today, we met Chum Mey one of the 11 survivors of S21. He survived by becoming a painter.

Today was an emotional day for all, once we arrived at drop off point we said goodbye to all but 1 of our group who we will head to Vietnam with on Saturday. We arrived at our guesthouse and got ourselves a well deserved curry.

Koh Rong Samloem

On our way to Sihanoukville Dollar told us his family’s story during the Khmer Rouge. He was born after the regime ended but his family lost his grandparents, his aunt and uncle and his older brother and sister. His grandparents were tortured and had their fingernails pulled out, his aunt and uncle were tortured by water boarding and his older brother and sister were swung by their feet against a tree. Every family in Cambodia was affected by the regime and they all have their own stories.

3 days later in Sihanoukville we had said goodbye to Dollar and the rest of our group and hopped on a ferry to the Cambodian Island Koh Rong Samloem, our home for 15 nights. Longer than we had spent in both India and in Myanmar.

On arrival we jumped aboard our resorts boat and were taken to the resort where we were welcomed by Joyce and Vig and their entire team. The next 15 nights were spent relaxing and getting so sunburnt that I got blisters.

Our resort had 7 dogs which already makes it heaven for me but it truly was a paradise. Here are some photos from our time there:

Next: Kampot!