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SE Coast Cont...

Hoi An & Hue

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Hoi An - With photos (back by popular demand)!

Hoi An is a small city of around 75,000 along the Thu Bon River with charming streets lined with French architecture.

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Every narrow street has just enough cafés and a ridiculous amount of tailor shops. Nearly every traveler leaves here with an extra bag or two full of custom-made clothes/shoes. We were no exception and are sporting several more items to carry around for a while. The shopper in Amber surfaced and I even got into it a bit. It was good fun being measured for a couple of pants and coming back later that day and trying on the finished product. If a bit more room is needed, no problem, come back in an hour and taaaaadaaaaa, perfection!

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Our first night in Hoi An we stayed at a small guest house built in the early 1800's. The entire place was wall-to-wall wood work and just spectacular. Step out of this guesthouse and you are immediately immersed in the buzzing central market. To get to the guesthouse, we had to hike through the market, luggage and all, which was good fun. However, we learned quickly the next morning that markets buzz very early and decided to relocate after one night to a place where we could sleep a little past 5 am (we're on holiday after all).

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Our second hotel.

Good fortune blessed us and we happened to be in town for some sort of night festival, complete with floating lanterns, mock "ninja" fighting, a parade, and such. The entire old town, which is a World Heritage Site, turns off its’ electricity and the streets are filled with torches and candlelight. Complete with the ancient looking architecture, you felt as though you just got out of the Delorian in 1750!

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We rented bikes one day and headed out a few kilometers to the beach, which if you walked about 20 kilometers north, you would reach the famous China Beach. After chilling on the beach for a while we rode further along the beach to a small village, where we were overwhelmed by school children. A little bit out of the tourist area, we quickly became a spectacle to see, touch, and talk to.

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West vs. East

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Some photos around town:

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A typical Hoi An dish, Cao Lau noodles drying by the side of the street.

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Propaganda

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Hué

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We left peaceful Hoi An, taking a 4-hour bus ride up the coast to the busier, less manicured Hué. Hué ranks third in size, behind Saigon and Hanoi.

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The picturesque perfume river flows through Hué. On the south side is the main city (where we stayed), and on the north is the old city - in fact, it used to be the Vietnamese capital and cultural hub a few hundred years ago. Most of the city was destroyed during the French war, and most of what was left was destroyed in the "American War", but there were still a few sites to be seen. We rented bikes and rode around the Citadel and entered the Forbidden Purple City (no longer forbidden!).

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Justin loves cannons!

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We ran into our friends from Québec again, so we ended up hiring a dragonboat for a little sunset cruise on the Perfume River.

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This pagoda was made famous in the 60's as it was the place where the monks who set themselves on fire in the streets to protest the war came from.

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There was not a whole lot else to do in Hué, but it was a good place to relax and recover from our constant traveling.

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Our "private" balcony on the 4th floor of our hotel.

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A cat helping me finish my vegetarian sweet and sour "pork".

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Justin gives a cyclo driver a ride.

Posted by rebmamber 22:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (12)

SE Coast of Vietnam

Mui Né and Nha Trang

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After a short visit in Saigon, we had to leave in order to be able to catch a glimpse of a couple of spots along the coast. We hopped on a 5-hour bus journey to a little beach town called Mui Né. There really is only one road in this town with resorts on the beachside and restaurants, bars and resorts on the other. Since we love the beach so much, we opted to pay $5 extra ($15) to get a nice room in a hotel on the beachside, where you could hear the waves crashing from your doorstep! Unfortunately, the water was a bit rough (and cold), so we just enjoyed the nice weather on the beach. This is apparently a huge spot for windsurfers and kite surfers since the intense wind and sunny skies are fairly consistent here.

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The following day, we hired a motorbike to check out some of the local scenery. Some of the major attractions are a couple different sand dunes in the area. We didn't associate Vietnam with dry land and sand dunes, but much of the scenery around here looked like it was straight out of the desert (but with a couple of palm trees sprinkled in).

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A couple of kids off to school.

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We headed first the White Sand Dunes, which were about 35 km from town. We took a beautiful coastal road to get here, and the best thing about it is that there was hardly anyone else on it.

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Some red canyon views along the road.

We arrived at the White Sand Dunes, and since neither of us like to get up too early (especially me, Amber), we managed to get there in the middle of the day. Thinking back, it was probably not the best idea to visit a large expanse of sand where you have to climb up steep, sandy hills in the heat of the day, but it was very nice nonetheless.

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On our way back, we passed by a nearby fishing village with beautiful boats docked together in the water. There are boats that are used here which are completely round! When we stopped for photos, a couple of schoolgirls on their way home were interested in us. I let them take a look at the boats through my telephoto lens, and then they asked if we could get our picture together!

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We made it to the Red Sand Dunes right before sunset. On the way in, we were attacked to buy a barrage of "sand-slide salesmen", this one using a new technique which we hadn't seen before!

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It was great to eat our last meal at a nice restaurant on the beach with these guys running around your feet!

The next day, we hopped on another bus up to the town of Nha Trang. This town was definitely bigger than the last with a lot more to do, however, the first night, we hit a spout of rain which quieted the town down to a whisper.

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Nha Trang in a fog.

The next day was sprinkling on and off, so we just putted around the city. We went to an art gallery for a Vietnamese photographer, Long Thanh. It was quite a spectacular exhibit and we got to meet and speak with Thanh, himself. Check out the “Galleries” at http://www.elephantguide.com/longthanh/home.htm

On our way back to our hotel, we ran across another Bia Hoi establishment. As it was the middle of the day and hot out, we thought it would be a good idea to pop in and have one liter between us both. However, we ended up getting invited to sit with a group of Vietnamese photographers who felt it was their personal obligation to be goodwill ambassadors for their country. Many beers and interesting food bites later, we were a little past our initial one liter! The Vietnamese will not take "No, thank you", or "Cam on, kom" for an answer!

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After this, we thought it would be best to relax and enjoy a cup of the amazing Vietnamese coffee - it's nice and strong - along with some pizza!

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Another adorable kid we met in the market.

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Signs of Communism, so cheery, isn't it?

The following day turned out to be less cloudy, so we hopped on a boat cruise around the islands of Nha Trang. The scenery was beautiful, and the tour was quite entertaining, complete with snorkeling (for some), onboard karaoke, (forced) dancing, and a floating wine bar.

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Justin's reaction to the cold water.

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Our French singing tour guide belting it out.

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Preparing sea urchin soup.

We also stopped at a fishing village where we were able to get a ride in one of those circular boats. Justin gave an attempt at rowing, but he was not as good as the 10-year-old.

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Justin with Sam & Catherine.

We met the above Aussie girls on our boat, and met up with them later in the evening. We ended up running into a few other people that we had previously met (or seen) in another city. The interesting thing about traveling is if you've met someone for a minute, whenever you see them again, you are best friends - "Hey, I know you!". This turned into quite a late evening, complete with dancing at a backpacker hang out. It was fun since this was the first time we have really done this since we arrived; however, the next morning was not as fun. Luckily, we had booked a 1-hour plane instead of a 12-hour bus ride, so we were thankful for that!

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A slightly strange Swedish expat we met.

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Posted by rebmamber 03:41 Archived in Vietnam Comments (6)

Saigon

Vietnam

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City - Saigon to the people in Southern Vietnam.

After a few days of busy touring to get to Saigon, we really had no itinerary once we arrived and we were happy about that. As you might suspect, Saigon is a very bustling city, with more motorbikes than you can count. We arrived into Vietnam at the end of the Tet holidays (New Year's), so it was actually a lot quieter the first two days, but on Monday, the motorbikes were out in full force!

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The street where we stayed.

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The first night we found a vegetarian restaurant that was calling Amber's name. She was able to get all the local favorites, meat free! "Seafood" pots, "fish" cooked in clay pot, fried "shrimp", etc. I tried them all and still feel the real thing is better tasting, but I have to say, they do a pretty good job imitating.

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Fish head and all!

After tempting our anti-carnivore taste buds, we walked around the city and managed to find a few places to poke our heads into.

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Justin LOOSING at Big 2!

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Justin wishing he was as cool as Axl in the GN'R bar.

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Amber is showing off her 1 MILLION DONG!

The first full day in Saigon we went on our own "walking" tour of the city, complete with the hiring of a cyclo, Vietnam's version of a tuk-tuk, human-powered, with seating for 1.5 people.

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The Vietnamese Flag in flowers.

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The Communist Party Flag.

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A bowl of Pho, a famous Vietnamese dish. This was eaten at Pho 2000, made famous because President Clinton ate here in 2000 when he visited.

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The traffic going by.

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The endless stream of motorbikes.

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The Municipal Theater.

The following day we headed out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, part of the Viet Cong's tunnel network constructed to combat the southern Vietnam and American alliance stronghold around Saigon. This highly visited tourist site was actually really interesting and impressive. The introductory video was not very kind to us Americans ("evil-doers"), but you have to realize that this is a government-run attraction in a "communist" country. The ingenuity and adaptability of the people who lived in these tiny tunnels for weeks and months was amazing. We got an opportunity to try out a 100-meter (~350 feet) section of the 240 km narrow tunnel network, including going to the second level which is about 20 feet below ground.

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Snake Wine - we bought you all these for gifts!

We also visited the War Remnant's Museum (formerly called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes), again a gov't-run institution. It mainly contained photographs of many atrocities committed by the Southern Alliance (i.e. America) during the Vietnam War, or American War as it is known here. Despite the one-sidedness of the photographs displayed, it was a very chilling and horrific view of what happens during wartimes (and is surely happening somewhere as we type this).

One of the highlights of the day was our guide, Cao. Cao served in the southern Vietnam army during the end of the "American War", after which he was sent to a Re-Education camp for two years by the north. It wasn't until 1990 that he was legally allowed back into Saigon, although he had been living there illegally for many years.

We also had the opportunity to hang out some more with our Canadian and Dutch friends, including spending our last night together having a few drinks at a Bia Hoi establishment. "Bia Hoi" literally means "fresh beer", Vietnam's very own microbrew. Basically, they are set up wherever there is room, and this one spilled out into the streets every night. I guess that's because for a 1.5-liter jug, you pay 8,000 dong (or 50 cents!).

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Nathalie & Steve

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Jeroen & Jos

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Posted by rebmamber 18:25 Archived in Vietnam Comments (8)

Mekong River

Cambodia to Vietnam

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As much as we would have liked to stay in Cambodia and seen more of the country, we had to make our way to Vietnam if we wanted to see the sites up the coast.

We decided to take the less traveled route to Vietnam and hopped on a 3-day tour down the Mekong River, through the Mekong Delta, all the way to Saigon. It was very nice to not worry about the next place to stay, the next stop, the next bus, etc. for a change. We managed to be "paired" up with a couple of French Canadians and a couple of Dutch guys. We left Phnom Penh in the morning and headed down the Mekong for about 5 hours, through the Cambodia/Vietnam border, and to the town of Chao Doc.

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Our "deluxe" yacht in Cambodia - just like the brochure!

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This border crossing was a little less hectic than coming into Cambodia!

The trip along the river was very scenic, passing many farms (mainly rice paddies), men tending to their water buffalo (look like oxens) and small villages. Every village greeted us with smiling children jumping up and down along the riverbank screaming "HELLO!"

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All the houses are hooked up with TVs, as you can see by the number of antennas.

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The Mekong sustains an incredible amount of life, from fishing farms to vegetable farms to rice fields to live stock. The Mekong Delta region produces 70% of Vietnam's rice, plus all the rice that they export. This all surprised us greatly considering that the river is the place where everyone washes themselves, their clothes, pets, dishes, whatever; where all waste (trash, human, etc.) is disposed of and the list could go on and on. But, I'm sure that is how things were done (and maybe still done) not so long ago in the "first worlds" of the world.

We stayed our first night in a guesthouse just outside of Chao Doc at the base of the Sam Mountain (all of 230 meters high). We hiked up to the top of Sam Mountain/big hill for sunset where we could see Cambodia to the west and the Mekong to the southeast.

The next day we went by bus to Can Tho where Amber and I went to a home stay for the evening. We were picked up from the town and taken by motor scooters to the home of the family we were to stay the night with (I (Justin) just happened to see (and be involved in) my first scooter accident, just minor rear ending, I survived unscaved!)

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Safe and sound at the home of a family of 8, we had lunch and enjoyed a little nap in the hammocks under the banana trees. In the afternoon, we took a walk through the village with Niem where we met his grandparents, who in perfect grandparent-style, fed us fresh food from their garden. Niem fired many "how do I say in English?” questions to us while telling us about the different farms in the area.

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This is called a monkey bridge - I think you can see why.

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That night we had dinner and homemade rice whiskey with the family. We ate dried fish (well I did), steamed banana flowers (we didn't even know those were edible), rice, and veggies w/tofu. One shot glass was passed around while two people would share each shot, half & half. Despite our attempts to claim our "last shot", it wasn't until the bottle was empty that we were done. Luckily, rice whiskey is not very strong (unluckily, it's not very good).

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Our Vietnamese breakfast - noodle soup and tea.

The last day we visited a floating river market, saw how rice noodles were made, and then made our way to Saigon.

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Rice Noodles drying.

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We look just like the locals!

Posted by rebmamber 04:10 Archived in Vietnam Comments (11)

Phnom Penh

Cambodia

After 4 nights in Siem Reap, we headed to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, which is much smaller than you would expect a capital to be. Another nail-biting, white-knuckle bus ride kept us on the edge of our seats for the 6-hour journey. No rules, no one else deserves to be on the road but us, and no looking back - just amazing!

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This was our route.

We found ourselves at a little riverfront guesthouse with air-con, hot water and cable TV (all the luxuries for only $10/night). We did not have any itinerary planned while in Phnom Penh, just relaxing and seeing the city a bit. We managed to stumble upon the Foreign Correspondence Club (FCC) the first evening where we sipped some drinks, watched the sunset, and pretended to be journalists. The prices were decent since it was happy hour, and the views from the balcony onto the streets below were great!

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The national museum of Cambodia at sunset.

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The first day we simply walked around the City and let the sites come to us. We stumbled upon a bustling street market that kept us entertained (and disgusted) for a while. Brilliant fruit and vegetables abound, people everywhere, and some not so pretty sites (especially for the vegetarians in the crowd). Scooters, people, vendors and the occasional stray dog filled every inch of this street.

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The following day we hired a tuk-tuk to take us about 15 km out of town to the "Killing Fields" of Choeung Ek. This was just one of thousands of horrific sights in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge practiced genocide from 1975 to 1979. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers killed 1.7 million Cambodians, or 21 percent of the population, in an effort to return the country back to "year zero" (a completely agrarian society) by exterminating or "re-educating" the intellects and those against the regime. It's hard to imagine that such atrocities happened just a couple of decades ago and they are surely happening elsewhere now. We were also surprised how little we knew about it before coming here (almost nothing).

The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek contain approximately 8,000 human skulls in a glass shrine that were excavated from this location. As you walked around the grounds there were many human bones and tattered clothing that were partially exposed, which was equally hard to stomach.

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After the Killing Fields, we headed to the S-21 prison memorial site in Phnom Penh where 17,000 people were detained, interrogated, and tortured from 1975 to 1979. This former high school was taken over by the Khmer Rouge as a prison. In the prison cellblocks, there were haunting photos of the former prisoners; young, old, men, & women. If you could read or write, or even wore glasses, you were a target of the Khmer Rouge. Only about 15 people who were detained in this prison survived.

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We spent a lot of time just walking around and exploring the city, as there are not too many "tourist" attractions. Here are a few photos:

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One of the local kids you see around town. Some are clothed, some partially, some not at all. His family was nearby enjoying the park.

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In Cambodia, gambling is a national pastime. Almost every alley you look down has a group gathered around a deck of cards. At night, they play by candlelight on the street.

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A comfortable place to nap?

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Two different worlds - girls walking down the street with buckets on their heads next to a Mercedes.

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Posted by rebmamber 08:26 Archived in Cambodia Comments (5)

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