South Korea – Seoul

Day 264: December 1, 2018

Our flight left Hanoi at 1:50 am for Seoul, South Korea. It was about a four hour flight. We arrived, exchanged some money, took out some more cash and bought a new SIM card. Then we walked to the train to take us in to Seoul from the airport. It was about an hour ride. Our Airbnb host had given us amazingly detailed notes on how to get to the apartment using the train system.

When we arrived at the Airbnb, we were too early to check in, but we were able to store our bags in the luggage room. We walked up the street to order some food for breakfast. I had sweet and sour chicken with a sliced up raw onion and Danny had noodles with a black bean sauce.

The street our Airbnb was on was in the middle of an area with tons of restaurants. We were worried at night it might be a party street, but it was mostly young professionals walking around.

Street our Airbnb was on

After breakfast we walked north to Gyeongbokgung Palace which was the royal palace of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). It was built in 1395. Much of the palace was destroyed by Japan during the 20th century.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Next we walked to Bukchon Hanok, a traditional Korean village. It was the residential quarter of government officials and nobility during the Joseon dynasty. The narrow streets were very interesting. There were people with signs saying to keep quiet. It seems the residents have only allowed the continued tourism if it is less noisy.

Bukchon Hanok

We then went back up a walking street and entered a cat café. It was $12 to enter, but entry came with a beverage. There were lots of different looking cats: one with stubby legs and a long body, one huge one, one without hair (a Canadian sphinx), one grumpy faced, etc. There were even two adorable kittens: one orange and one black. How crazy is that!

Cat café

We sat in the cat café enjoying our time then realized we could check in to our Airbnb. We were both super exhausted. Our room was very tiny, but worked for the couple of days we were there. Prices for accommodations were fairly expensive.

We watched some Netflix then went down to a Korean BBQ restaurant for supper. We were rather disappointed. The meat was great, but the only sides were pickled vegetables.

Korean BBQ

After supper we went to Baskin Robbins to end our day on a better note. I love the vibe of Seoul. Out on the main street we passed one store a couple of times playing Christmas music. I just wanted to stand outside the store. It made me super homesick and excited to just be home already. The streets in Seoul aren’t very crowded. There is little to no traffic noise. You don’t have to fear for your life crossing the street like in Vietnam. It’s very chill so I think we will enjoy our time here. We returned to the Airbnb and watched some Netflix before an early morning tomorrow.

Day 265: December 2, 2018

We ate yogurt and cereal in our room then walked up the street to a popular nearby hotel for the pick up for our tour to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) of Korea. The hotel was all decked out in Christmas decorations.

Lotte Hotel

Seoul has a population of 10 million. The satellite communities have an additional population of 10 million. South Korea overall has a population of 50 million. The distance from Seoul to the DMZ is 50 km. Pyongyang is 200 km from the DMZ.

Our tour started at the Freedom Bridge where 12,773 prisoners of war were exchanged in 1953. On holidays, South Koreans with a North Korean background come to the bridge to pray for their ancestors. Ribbons tied to the surrounding fences are prayers for reunification. According to our guide, the younger generation seems less motivated to reunify because they see things as fine the way they are and they lack the connection to North Korean family.

Freedom Bridge

Next we went to Dorasan Station. In 2000, the South-North Joint Declaration was made by the two Koreas. They agreed to connect the railroad line between the two nations. The Trans Korean Railway would connect to the Trans Siberian Railway and the Trans Chinese Railway. In November, 2018, trains were sent north from South Korea to survey the railway.

Dorasan Station

Six million people had died in the Korean War by 1953. A ceasefire was signed, but the country is still at war. Our tour guide told us about some incidents in the continued fighting between North and South Korea. In 1968, 31 North Koreans came up the river and attacked the Blue House, the official residence of the South Korean President. In 1983, North Korea assassinated 17 South Korean politicians in Myanmar. In 2010, the North Koreans bombed an inhabited island in South Korea.

In South Korea, every male is required to participate in mandatory military service at 19 years of age. If he goes to university the military service can be postponed. At 29 year old he must do service or go to jail. According to our guide, in North Korea, every male has compulsory military service at 16 years old for 10 years. Our guides in North Korea had told us that military service was completely voluntary.

Our next stop was the Dora Observatory where we saw across to North Korea. There was a complete lack of trees on the North Korean side which we hadn’t noticed when we were on that side. An industrial complex built by South Korea within North Korea could be seen from the observatory. It used North Korean labour and South Korean raw materials.

View into North Korea from the Dora Observatory

Korea has a multi party system with two major political parties: Liberal and Conservative. When the Conservatives are in power there is a poor relationship with the North Koreans. When the Liberals are in power there is a focus on reconciliation. The current party in power is the Liberals which have been bringing forward many steps to better relations.

Next we went to the “Third Tunnel”. Defectors have been interrogated and advised there are more than 20 tunnels from North Korea heading towards Seoul. Only four tunnels have been discovered. The one we visited was found in 1978 and was 70 m deep.

The climb down through the tourist trail to the tunnel was 350 m long. At the bottom we were in the original tunnel and able to walk 265 m along it. At the end there were three blockades to block the North Koreans. The distance from the third blockade to the military demarcation line was an additional 170 m. The tunnel is 1200 m in the North and 435 m in the South.

Sadly, we were unable to visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) where the two sides have buildings facing each other. A joint effort was underway to remove land mines from the area while we were visiting so the JSA was closed off. There are more than one million land mines spread across the DMZ.

We also read on the news later that day that a North Korean soldier had defected and crossed the DMZ into South Korea the previous day. Around 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the ceasefire.

We returned to Seoul to a ginseng centre then were dropped off at City Hall. From there we walked to Namdaemun Market which we thought had street food, but it was mostly clothes and household items. We walked a bit further to Myeongdong Market where there was street food and tons of cosmetic stores. We had mandu (dumplings), a chocolate ball smashed with a hammer, pajeon (Korean pancake) with beef and vegetables, hotteok (Korean donuts) filled with cinnamon, sugar and sunflower seeds and gyeran-bbang (egg bread).

Danny smashing the chocolate ball with a hammer

We walked around the area quite a lot checking out the different shops. After we walked back to the Airbnb then went up the street to a Mexican food restaurant for supper. It was very yummy.

After supper we went across the street to a bar. We asked if there were karaoke rooms inside and they replied, “Yes.” We were charged a $10 per person cover charge which we assumed would cover the karaoke. We were wrong.

In the private karaoke room, the server tried to explain the pricing. His English wasn’t great and our Korean is non-existent. We eventually figured out that we had to buy a certain set of drinks then the room was free. We ended up paying an additional $30 for two beers, a bottle of Soju (Korean alcohol) and a plate of nachos. We then got the room for one hour. It was becoming an expensive night!

The karaoke system was started, but I had no idea how to use the machine and the key pad was in Korean. I tried pressing every button possible to switch the song, but couldn’t make it work. Eventually, I went out to grab the server and he explained the three basic buttons.

Figuring out the Korean karaoke system

Then Danny and I rocked out! There was a pretty good selection of English pop songs. We almost wished we had paid for two hours by the time it was done because we were having such a good time.

Karaokeing

After karaoke, we went to a Virtual Reality (VR) café we had seen the day before. We paid for 30 minutes only because they were closing in less than an hour. The first game was Skyfall where you ride up an elevator then walk off a plank and fall. That was the whole game, but it was pretty adrenaline pumping. We tried another game, but Danny couldn’t get his to work. I played by myself while he tried a different game. Before we knew it our 30 minutes was up. We left and returned to the Airbnb to sleep.

Day 266: December 3, 2018

We slept in a bit and watched some Netflix. When we finally got out of bed, we walked across the street to a bibimbap restaurant for lunch. Bibimbap is rice topped with sautéed vegetables, chili pepper, soy sauce or soybean paste. Meat or egg are then usually added on top. This was one of our favourite Korean meals.

Bibimbap

After we took the train to the west part of the city to go to the Racoon Café. We were both pretty excited. We ordered drinks then sat outside the racoon room to watch as we couldn’t bring our drinks inside.

As we watched our opinion on our visit slowly changed. The raccoons seemed significantly overweight and not happy about being there. We had thought they would be more domesticated and enjoy the company of humans. They seemed to just be looking to escape. We decided it wasn’t our thing and left.

We walked up the street to the Trick Eye Museum, which has 3D optical illusions set up for Instagramming. We enjoyed walking through although there were a few more people than we would have liked.

Trick Eye Museum

Next we went to the Ice Museum which was an ice house built inside a giant freezer. There was even a slide.

Ice Museum

After we went to the Love Museum which was an adult version of the Trick Eye Museum. It was less busy, but the pictures were maybe not appropriate for this blog.

On our way to the train, we stopped at a stand selling poutine. It was pouring rain so we stood under an overhang and ate. It was a much better poutine than the one we had in Thailand or the cheesy fries we had in Cambodia.

Poutine in the rain

We returned to the Airbnb, watched some Netflix then walked south to a restaurant near Myeongdong Market that was suggested to us by a friend. We had the bulgogi which is thin, marinated slices of beef or pork that is grilled. Traditionally, the meat was reserved for nobility. It was very delicious.

Bulgogi

After supper we walked around the market a bit then made our way back to the Airbnb to sleep.

Day 267: December 4, 2018

The excitement of going home just keeps building. I’ve found I need to put it to the back of my head or I just start vibrating. We are getting so close! I almost don’t remember the last 266 days. The start of our trip feels forever ago and I wonder if it was all a dream. Am I still in the dream? Will home feel like reality again?

Danny went for a run and I went to Starbucks to catch up on blogging. There are so many Starbucks here! Danny met me after his run and we went upstairs to a pizza place for lunch.

After we went up the nearby walking street to do some tourist shopping. On our way back to the Airbnb we stopped at another cat café. We played with the cats for over an hour and a half. Then we chilled in the Airbnb until we were hungry.

Cat café

We walked up the street looking for a cheesy rice dish we had seen on signs. We found a place, but it didn’t end up being as amazing as it looked. Korean restaurants really like cooking food at the table.

Ready for cheesy rice

After we got ice cream and sat on the second floor looking out over the street. We watched a truck promoting the bar we had gone to a few nights previously doing laps around the streets. Danny started announcing it like a race and I timed the amount of time to do a lap. We were also watching a lady handing out pamphlets. She was targeting couples, but we still don’t know what she was selling because when we left an hour later to go to sleep she didn’t approach us.

Day 268: December 5, 2018

I woke up fairly early and couldn’t sleep any longer due to excitement about going home. Danny called his parents then we packed our bags and put them in the luggage storage. We went down the street and got Taco Bell for lunch as not many restaurants were open at 11:00 am. After lunch we picked up our bags and took the train to the airport. We had to wait about an hour then we were able to drop off our bags. On the other side we found a place with salads for lunch. Vegetables were a bit hard to find in Seoul, along with fruit. All of their vegetables were pickled.

I called my parents while we waited to board. The Air Canada plane wasn’t as large as I thought it would be and there were many empty seats including the one beside us. Our flight was a bit delayed leaving, but only by about 15 minutes.

We are so excited to be heading back home. It all feels a bit unreal. We aren’t sure how we will fit into life back in Canada after being away for 268 days. I’m most looking forward to all of those hugs that I will receive from the people I love.

M

Vietnam Part 4 – Hanoi

Day 259: November 26, 2018

We had breakfast in our Hanoi Airbnb then I went for a workout. When I got back Danny went for a workout. I called my parents then cut a mango. We had ramen for lunch then took a Grab car to the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

https://www.facebook.com/tripsroundthesundm/videos/512475065916948/

Danny wanted to get the jacket he bought in Hoi An taken in a bit. The first tailor we went to only made clothes. The second didn’t really speak English, but using Google Translate we communicated and she sent us to another shop. The lady there didn’t speak much English, but Google Translate saved us again. We were able to say what we wanted and by when. We will see how it works out!

We walked down to Hoa Lo Prison which was constructed by the French in 1896. The people in the village that was there prior were relocated in order to construct the prison, court house and secret police headquarters. The prison had space for 500 political prisoners, but a maximum of 2,000 prisoners were held there.

From March 11-16, 1945, over 100 prisoners escaped through an underground sewer. On December 24, 1951, 16 prisoners escaped again through an underground sewer. The guillotine was also used by the French in Hoa Lo.

Sewer prisoners used to escape

When the French left Hanoi in 1954, the prison’s ownership fell to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. During the war with the Americans, pilots shot down were held in Hoa Lo prison. They sarcastically called it “Hanoi Hilton”. The museum said this was a little joke of the Americans as they were treated very humanely and given many luxuries. Americans, however, describe unsanitary conditions along with torture, beatings and poor food. John McCain was held in this prison during the war when he was a US Navy pilot. Every country seems to have its own way of displaying events to make themselves look better.

Prison uniforms of the Vietnamese and Americans

We left and walked up the street to a café called Cong Ca Phe which had the decor of the Vietnam War and the staff in army uniforms. We had a tea, but both of us weren’t really enjoying the busy streets of Hanoi. The traffic and honking was constant.

We walked north to Hanoi’s Train Street which squeezes between residential buildings. Many homes had coffee shops on the edge of the tracks. It was a very photogenic place to walk. We left the residents behind and thinking there would be an exit from the tracks further up, we kept walking. The train crossed bridges over the streets so where we thought we could exit we could not. The tracks were elevated from the street so there was no escape.

Hanoi’s Train Street

After going ten minutes too far we had to turn back. I felt anxious being trapped there especially since we didn’t know when the train was going to come. Back at the exit we caught a Grab car back to the Airbnb. Danny made supper and we watched some John Oliver videos before bed.

Day 260: November 27, 2018

We were up early for a quick breakfast then took a Grab car to the Old Quarter to be picked up for our day tour. The pick up was about 15 minutes late which made us both feel a bit nervous that no one would show up.

Our tour went to the province of Ninh Binh about two hours south of Hanoi. Our first stop was Hoa Lu, the first capital of Vietnam established in the 10th and 11th centuries. The local warlord Dinh Bo Linh, known as the First Dinh Emperor, created the capital in 968 after years of civil war. A majority of the capital no longer exists.

We walked through the main gate to the city which led to an open square. The city was located in a valley between steep limestone mountains making it easy to defend. There was a river running through the capital providing water and a food source. The population eventually became too big for the area between the mountains and the capital city was moved.

Main gate of Hoa Lu

We visited the Dinh Temple which had an area behind doors with a statue of the king. Businessmen will pay money to get inside to touch the statue for luck.

Dinh Temple, Hoa Lu

Outside we could see the flag of the first dynasty. It had red in the middle with yellow, blue, white and green outlines. The colours represented the five elements: fire, soil, water, metal and wood.

Flag of the first dynasty, Hoa Lu

The first king was assassinated and his general, Le, came to power establishing the Le dynasty. He married the first king’s wife to provide legitimacy to his rule. He was not as respected as the first king and therefore his temple, which we visited next, was not as ornamental.

We left and drove to a restaurant for lunch. Sadly, the food wasn’t that great. We enjoyed talking to some of the people on our tour. It is a bit sad now when people ask us about our trip. We don’t sound as excited as when we started our trip. Now we are just more excited to go home so we enjoy talking about that more than where we’ve been. It does make us seem a bit like downers, but I think we are just tired.

After lunch, we went for a boat ride. It was a row boat with space for two people. A lady rowed the boat while we sat enjoying the view. All the rowers used their legs to row instead of their arms. It was pretty impressive and they seemed to have more power.

Row boat ride, Ninh Binh

We floated passed the steep mountains and went through a few caves. Our rower was super quick and we passed everyone. Back at the dock we walked up to a restaurant and were provided some lemon tea and fruit.

Going through the caves, Ninh Binh

We then hopped on some bicycles for a short ride through one of the villages. After the bike ride we hopped back on the bus and drove to Mua Island which had a little cave at the base then a 500 stair climb to the top.

Hiking up Mua Island

The view from the top looked down at the river our boat ride had been on. The other way looked over the rice fields we had seen on our bike ride.

At the top of Mua Island

We climbed back down and then returned to the bus for our two hour ride back into Hanoi. We were dropped off in the Old Quarter and walked to a pizza place. The pizza was very yummy! There were many people working there, but we were the only customers. It was similar at the convenience store next to our Airbnb. There were about four or five people working there, most just standing around. Back at the Airbnb we fell asleep early.

Day 261: November 28, 2018

We were up early again and took a Grab car back into the Old Quarter. Our Airbnb location has been a bit inconvenient because we keep having to catch rides into the centre. It is about a 25 minute drive one way.

Our tour to Bai Tu Long Bay picked us up and drove us to the harbour about three hours east of Hanoi. Bai Tu Long is right next to the famous Ha Long Bay, but much less busy.

A small boat took us out to our larger boat which had about 24 cabins. The cabin was perhaps the nicest room we have stayed in on this trip. Our window was huge and looked out at the steep mountains in the bay. The bathroom had a two person tub with another huge window.

Our boat to Bai Tu Long Bay

I called my dad to show him the gorgeous view then we went up on the deck for lunch. We had a bit of relax time then got ready to go kayaking. We went out into the bay and rowed over to a cave. When we got back to the boat we were able to jump in the water for a swim. The water was not as warm as in Thailand or Cambodia.

Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay

We returned to the room and cleaned up for supper. It was nice to dress up a little bit since we were on such a fancy boat. We sat at the front of the boat before supper with a bottle of wine and talked about home.

Sunset view from our boat, Bai Tu Long Bay

We went to the dining room for supper and enjoyed a very nice meal. The chef brought out some very fancy food carvings. Then one of the crew members played a beautiful melody on a flute. After another member of the crew did some magic tricks. He was looking for a volunteer and I quickly pointed to Danny. He went up and did an awesome job.

Danny participating in a magic trick

After supper we looked up at the stars from the sun deck. Then we returned to the room to sleep.

Day 262: November 29, 2018

I didn’t sleep very well so I was up early enough to participate in tai chi on the sun deck. The scenery as we moved through the islands was beautiful. We had a buffet breakfast then got ready to go for a walk on one of the islands. We walked out to a small sandy beach then climbed the stairs up to a large cave. Local fishermen use the cave during large storms for protection. It was a very beautiful cave to walk around.

View from outside the cave, Bai Tu Long Bay

We returned to the boat and sat on the sun deck enjoying the view going by. Lunch was a buffet. We returned to the sun deck then until we arrived back at the harbour. Our van to take us back to Hanoi picked us up there. We stopped once to view a water puppet show. It was funny, but not as amazing as I thought it would be. Apparently the one in Hanoi is a lot more impressive.

Water puppet show on the way back to Hanoi

We were dropped back in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and took a Grab car to our Airbnb. It was in the same building as our previous one in Hanoi, but a different apartment. We relaxed for a bit. Both of us were exhausted.

We took a Grab car back in to the centre around 6:30 pm. We had supper at Bun Cha Hang Manh which is famous for its bun cha, a dish of grilled pork served with rice noodles, herbs and a sauce (fish sauce, sugar, lemon, vinegar, stock). The sauce definitely made the dish.

Bun cha

After we walked up the street to the tailor we had dropped of Danny’s jacket at to have it taken in. He tried it on and it was a bit too tight. Uh-oh! Nothing she could do. We will have to let it out ourselves.

We stopped at a convenience store to pick up some food items for tomorrow. Then we returned to the Airbnb and went to sleep right away.

Day 263: November 30, 2018

Neither of us slept very well again. I’m not sure if its just nervousness or excitement for going home so soon. We chilled in the room watching TV then Danny called his parents. After he went to the gym while I caught up on blogging.

For lunch we went into the Old Quarter to Banh Mi 25. Banh mi is a Vietnamese sub. These ones were delicious! We sat in a park eating them and watching a legit cock fight. I had no idea that they were still a thing. Between fights the “trainers” would rinse their birds with water similar to a boxing trainer rubbing down their fighter in the corner.

Cock fight

We walked up the street and I went for a massage. Danny went across the street for a haircut then walked over to the government buildings and square in front of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. He met me back at the spa and we returned to the Airbnb.

Ho Chi Minh Square

Danny made supper while I packed up. We ate and watched videos. Then we thought we should try to get a bit of sleep. Our flight to Seoul was scheduled to leave at 2:00 am so we would not be getting much rest.

While I was getting my massage I started really thinking about being home again. I think it finally sunk in that in less than a week we will be home. Danny and I talked a bit about this then eventually fell asleep.

The alarm at 10:00 pm was a very rude awakening. We got about an hour and a half of sleep. We packed up and caught a Grab car to the airport. Everything took awhile to get through because it was fairly busy at the airport. On the other side I gave my parents a call while we waited to board.

I don’t think either of us really enjoyed the city of Hanoi. It was so busy and noisy we really didn’t want to spend much time in the Old Quarter. I was glad we had two trips booked to get out of the city. Bai Tu Long was absolutely beautiful and I don’t regret us spending the money to go there in class. I’m getting more and more excited every day to get home. The flight to Seoul feels like the first step towards home and I can’t wait for the flight after that takes us back to Canada.

M

Vietnam Part 3 – Hoi An

Day 255: November 22, 2018

We woke up and took a Grab car in to Hoi An from our Airbnb near the beach. We found a place to have breakfast then walked up the street to Yaly Couture. This tailor was suggested to us by our GAdventures guide.

We went in and said we wanted to order some clothes. We were both assigned a lady to help us. They brought us catalogs to look through to pick designs. Danny picked out a nice suit with a vest. I started out looking at blazers then moved to blouses and dresses. I picked out some designs and talked through what I liked. We then went and picked out fabrics which was pretty tough. I found it hard to imagine what the article would look like in the end. Next the lady, Sally, took my measurements. I ended up getting two blazers, a long sleeve blouse, a tank top and a dress. Because I ordered over a certain amount I received a free short sleeve blouse.

We paid a 50% deposit then left feeling confused if we would like what we had purchased. We walked around the ancient town which was very beautiful. We browsed in the shops and enjoyed the lanterns hanging in the streets.

Streets of Hoi An

We ended up returning to a tailor we had passed earlier that had a very nice dress outside. I asked the price and it was very reasonable so I agreed to it. Then I also ordered a jumpsuit since finding one is always impossible for my long body and short legs. She took my measurements and I paid for the items.

We continued our walk to a food market. We ordered a traditional Hoi An dish, cao lau, which was noddles, pork, lettuce, herbs and crackers with a sauce. It was pretty good and super cheap.

Bought some bananas

After lunch we decided it was time to head back to the Airbnb. We changed into our swimsuits and walked down to the beach. It was way more windy than we expected making the water very choppy. Instead of swimming we walked along the beach then sat watching the waves.

Walking along An Bang Beach

We returned to chill for a bit in the Airbnb then went up the street to a hotel restaurant for supper. There were lots of friendly doggies around the streets to pet. When we returned to the Airbnb we went to bed.

Day 256: November 23, 2018

We were up early and tried to get a Grab car into Hoi An. Apparently, we were too early as there were no cars available. Up the street we saw a taxi so we walked up to see if it could take us. The driver was just getting ready to wash his car, but agreed to take us into Hoi An.

We arrived at the hotel where our day tour was picking us up. We walked up the street to try to find breakfast, but nowhere was open that early (it was just after 7:00 am). Finally, we went into a hotel that said they could make us breakfast. It was basic, eggs and bread. We paid then walked quickly back to our pick up point.

The tour van picked us up on time then we picked up a couple other groups of people and started our drive into Da Nang. Our first stop was Linh Ung Pagoda which means “the Buddha blesses you”. The location was called Monkey Mountain by the Americans due to the monkeys located there. The pagoda was built between 2006 and 2010.

Monkey God

The highlight was a 67 m tall Lady Buddha statue facing towards the sea. She has an image of Grand Master Buddha on her crown. Her one hand shows she is meditating and the other is holding a bottle of holy water used to save the world. Her bare feet are standing on a lotus flower. Underneath the flower are clouds because she is flying in the sky to help people around the world.

Lady Buddha

We returned to the van and drove to a marble statue carving place. To make a Buddha statue it takes four months of carving and one month of polishing. From there, we walked over to one of the Marble Mountains. There are a set of five marble and limestone mountains named after the five elements: metal, water, wood, fire and soil.

We visited Mount Thuy (water) which has Buddhist and Hindu caves. We went up the elevator then climbed steps to enter the temples. There were many different statues of Buddha around. One relief showed the four holy animals of Vietnam: dragon, unicorn, tortoise and phoenix. Some of the caves had holes in the roof from bombs during the war.

Holy animals of Vietnam

We continued down to Am Phu Cave which is considered hell. Buddhists believe you go there to confess your sins and then you can ascend to heaven. There were scary sculptures looking like demons. After looking around hell, we climbed a steep staircase up to Heaven. At the top was a view out across the water to Da Nang.

From Hell to Heaven

We returned to the van and were taken to Hoi An for lunch. After we returned to the van and drove out to My Son Hindu temples that were constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries by the Cham people. The temples are dedicated to the god Shiva. My Son means “beautiful mountains”.

My Son Temple

Linga and yoni are what was worshipped inside the temples representing the male and female characteristics. The temples were very interesting to walk around. There were many towers which had windows. Then there were sets of a meditation house, a gate and a main temple. Only monks would enter the main temples.

My Son Temple

We returned to the van which dropped us off in the centre of Hoi An at 6:00 pm. We were late for our fittings, but it seemed all right. We tried on all of our clothes and our ladies marked off where things needed to be taken in. Danny looked super spiffy in his clothes.

Next we went to the second tailor and I tried on my other clothes which looked amazing. Danny kept commenting on how awesome they looked. It’s been so long since I’ve worn nice clothing especially something fitted. Danny then decided to get a wool jacket made. Then I decided to get one as well. Earlier in the day I had noticed a hotel in my only pair of pants left so I also ordered some pants.

Clothing purchases

After we had spent more money we went up the street for supper and celebratory drinks. Then we walked up the lanterned streets. At a bridge we bought lanterns and took a boat ride. We placed the lanterns in the water and made our wishes. What a magical place!

Evening boat ride in Hoi An

We walked some more, but an announcement in the streets said the tourist hours were over at 9:30 pm. We hadn’t realized there was a closing time, but we were almost ready to leave anyways. We took a Grab car back to our Airbnb then went to bed.

Day 257: November 24, 2018

We slept in a bit then walked up the street to a hotel for breakfast. Danny called his parents when we returned then we caught a Grab car into Hoi An. We tried on our clothing one last time for final adjustments. They had to do some touch ups to the button holes so we arranged to pick everything up later.

Walking around Hoi An

We went to a family restaurant for lunch then did some wandering through the streets. At 3:00 pm we had massages booked. We both came out with very sore calves; apparently we had both been tight there. We chatted with the receptionist who had brought us tea after our massages. Then we returned to pick up all of our clothing purchases.

Fancy clothe purchases

We had supper at the same place as the previous night, but ordered Vietnamese food instead of pizza. This included white rose (dumplings), wontons topped with salsa, spring rolls and a green mango salad. After we returned to the Airbnb and had a fashion show with all of our clothes before bed.

Day 258: November 25, 2018

Our host arranged a driver to take us to the airport in Da Nang. After not being able to get a Grab car the previous morning and it being a 40 minute drive we thought that was the safest route. We said good bye to the quiet neighbourhood and were driven to the airport.

We checked in and went through security. Then I called home as everyone was together for a birthday celebration. It was so nice to see my family. I can’t wait to give them all huge hugs when I get home.

We had pho for breakfast and waited for our flight to Hanoi. Danny received some messages from work that made him a bit anxious. It’s hard being so far away and not able to just handle things.

Our flight from Da Nan to Hanoi took just over an hour. At the airport we took a Grab car to our Airbnb. It is a very nice space with lots of room, perfect to relax. In the buildings was a Korean restaurant with plates of food on a conveyor belt which we thought would be fun. It ended up being a hot pot. We had so much food brought with it. We were getting worried about price, but it was actually a buffet with a set price.

After lunch we walked up the street to a supermarket. It was actually legit too. We were able to buy enough food to make a couple of meals which we haven’t done in what feels like forever. I also found enough ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies. I have been craving to make them since forever. I couldn’t find baking so Da or powder and I had to use oat flour, but they were edible.

For supper, Danny made a Greek salad and we watched a part of a series about the Vietnam war. I was starting to get sleepy so I went to bed and Danny stayed up a bit longer.

Everybody was telling us how amazing Hoi An was to visit that we were almost prepared to be disappointed. We were not disappointed. Hoi An is spectacular. The streets are wonderful to walk through and I loved ordering clothes. I kept wanting to get more and more. The atmosphere is very laid back and everyone in the streets is super friendly. It is definitely a place we want to return. Now we are in Hanoi for a couple of days.

M

Cambodia Part 2 – Phnom Penh & Sihanoukville

Day 244: November 11, 2018

We had the morning free to do what we pleased. It was Cambodia’s Independence Day this weekend so Phnom Penh was quite busy. Danny and I slept in, had breakfast in the hotel then chilled in our room. We grabbed a quick sandwich across the street for lunch then met the group at 1:00 pm to start our afternoon tour.

Our first stop was Choeung Ek Killing Field where over 20,000 people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime and placed into 129 mass graves. The location of Choeung Ek Killing Field used to be a Chinese cemetery. In Cambodia, 343 killing fields have been found. Inside each grave 30-400 people were found. The number increased over time.

Inside the gates there were grassy mounds which were the mass graves excavated in the 1980s. Behind was a forest with more graves that were not excavated. We were shown locations that rain had dug up clothes and bones. Skeletons that were excavated still had blindfolds on and wire tying hands behind the back.

Choeung Ek Killing Field

During the Khmer Rouge regime, people would be told they needed training and then taken for torture. After they would be taken to a killing field, blindfolded and forced to kneel in front of the grave. Hammers or axes were used to smash people on the back of the head one by one. Knives were then used to cut their throats to ensure no one survived. Sometimes to prolong the suffering a palm tree stalk was used to cut the victim’s throat. Chemicals were placed on top to stop the smell of the corpses. Revolutionary music was played to drown out the screams.

Palm tree stalks with little teeth

We were shown one mass grave in which naked women and children were found. The blindfolds were taken off the mothers and they were forced to watch as their children were grabbed by their feet and swung against a nearby tree. Other children would be thrown up in the air so the body would drop on a knife. Guns weren’t used as the bullets were too expensive, the sound was too loud and suffering was desired.

Most soldiers of the Khmer Rouge were children (10-15 years old) that were brain washed to remove their emotions. They would even kill their families.

Another grave was found to have soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. They all suspected each other so even they were not safe. The victims found in uniforms had no heads. It is believed the heads were used to scare the other members from betraying the Khmer Rouge.

One of the excavated mass graves

The Khmer Rouge or Polpot Regime was in power of Cambodia from 1975-1979. During this time, three million people died, almost half of the original population of seven million.

Polpot was not their leader’s original name, it was Saloth Sar. Polpot stands for political potential. He was born to a farming family in 1925. He lived in a Buddhist temple for six years and was a monk for two years. Eventually, he moved to the city to live with his sister where he studied at a good school and received a scholarship to study in Paris. There he learned ideas of nationalism and communism.

Eventually, he joined the communist party in the Cambodian jungle. The king at the time was very popular as he had freed Cambodia from French colonialism in 1953. In 1955, he abdicated for his father and became the prime minister. Many people then felt that his family was too in control and they left the city to join Polpot.

The prime minister tried to bring Cambodia out of poverty and in the 1960s it was a developing nation. Then the Vietnam War started. The prime minister decided to help Vietnam believing the Americans would lose. He allowed the use of the Cambodian border to bring in soldiers to south Vietnam which became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Many people were upset about this and left the city to join Polpot.

In 1967, the prime minister announced that those joining Polpot were his enemy. In 1969, an American bomb was used to kill Vietnamese soldiers on the border and many Cambodians were also killed. In 1970, there was a protest to kick the Vietnamese soldiers out leading to instability in Cambodia. The prime minister needed help so he left to seek support leaving the general in charge. The general betrayed him and worked with America to put in place a new government, the Khmer Republic. The people, however, disliked America due to the bombing on the border. This resulted in a civil war from 1970 to 1975.

The prime minister was stuck outside the country and needed to fight the general to get his power back. He decided to join Polpot’s Khmer Rouge and convinced others to join as well. In 1975, Polpot came to power by force and the general fled to America. The prime minister returned to Cambodia and was assigned as the head of state with no actual power. Eventually, he resigned and was put under house arrest in the Royal Palace.

When Polpot came to power, the people were told to leave the city for two or three days so the enemies could be killed. People were collected and told to raise their hands if they had an education. They were promised good jobs, but they would need training first. No one ever came back from the training centre.

Polpot followed Mao’s communism where there were no rich or poor. Schools, hospitals and temples were shut down and the country closed off from the rest of the world. Everyone was forced to become a farmer. There was no property or belongings. Twelve hour days were spent in the rice fields with only one cup of porridge a day. Over one million people died of starvation. The regime was supported by China, as the rice produced was sent there.

Anyone from the previous government was the first to be killed. Next anyone opposed to the regime was killed. Foreigners were forced to leave, but some journalists remained and were killed for being spies. Next they killed the educated out of fear as they would not have been easy to brainwash. Over 1.7 million people were killed.

Our next stop was Tuol Sleng Prison or S-21 located within the city of Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng held 17,000 prisoners. It was a school transformed into a prison used for torture during the Khmer Rouge regime. In Cambodia, there were 167 prisons that were mostly originally schools. Many have been turned back into schools.

People were arrested for talking to their friends, wearing glasses or speaking more than one language. Once a person was arrested they were either tortured or killed immediately. Most people would answer the questions to stop the torture and then were killed in the killing fields. If one person was killed, their whole family was also killed to prevent them from seeking revenge.

We first saw Building A, known as the VIP prison for governors, generals, etc. Each classroom inside the building was split into two large cells. The rooms were often used for torture. Blood stains can still be seen on the floors.

A cell in Building A at Tuol Sleng Prison

Buildings B, C and D had 11-15 cells per classroom. Prisoners’ feet would be locked by long shackles. American bullet boxes were used as toilets and were emptied only once a week. If any spilled out, the prisoner would have to clean it up with their mouth.

Building B at Tuol Sleng Prison

During the Polpot regime, Vietnam and Cambodia were not very friendly. Vietnam followed Russian communism as opposed to the Chinese communism Cambodia followed. There was a border conflict as well, as Saigon had been a part of Cambodia and Polpot wanted it back. He killed many Vietnamese soldiers on the border.

Insiders of the Khmer Rouge went to Vietnam to ask for help to stop the regime as they were against the mass killings occurring in Cambodia. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia.

Tuol Sleng prison knew the Vietnamese were approaching so the official told the guards to kill all the prisoners. Fourteen people were killed and twelve survived (seven men and five children). The men that survived were skilled in some way that was useful to the Khmer Rouge.

One of the male survivors we met was at the prison. Chum Mey had been tortured for 12 days and 12 nights and then was to be sent to the killing field. A typewriter in the prison broke and he was able to fix it. He was then kept around to fix things around the prison. His story was very impactful for all of us there. We all had tears in our eyes. I asked him how he has the strength to return to the prison and stay positive. He said the world needs to know about what happened. We purchased a book of his story and were able to take pictures with him.

Danny with Chum Mey, survivor of Tuol Sleng Prison

We were also able to meet the oldest surviving child, Norng Chan Phal. His mother was taken prisoner and he was kept with his younger brother in the prison kitchen. He overheard soldiers talking about killing the prisoners and took his brother and three younger children to hide underneath piles of clothes.

Photo of the surviving children of Tuol Sleng Prison with Vietnamese soldiers

Chan Phal had worked in construction, but recently hurt himself preventing him from returning to work. The director of the museum at the prison offered him a job, but he finds it hard to return. He feels he has no other choice though to ensure his children are cared for. His story at first was such an uplifting story of humanity under an evil regime in how he saved those children, but there isn’t always a fairy tale ending. I felt for the man who was a hero, but struggles to find stable work.

Vietnam helped free Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and then occupied Cambodia for another ten years. In 1980, the UN recognized Polpot as the Prime Minister as they wanted the communists to continue fighting each other. The UN supported Polpot while Russia supported Vietnam. Under pressure from the rest of the world, Vietnam withdrew. The UN ruled Cambodia for one year which is why the American dollar is still used in Cambodia today.

In 1985, a government made of the Khmer Rouge that had betrayed Polpot came to power, the Cambodian People’s Party. In 1993, Cambodia became democratic. The new government wanted to end the war so they accepted the Khmer Rouge back from the jungle. The government gave most of the Khmer Rouge amnesty as they said they had just followed orders. This is the government still in place today. It is said to be democratic, but the leader hasn’t changed.

In 1998, Polpot died of “natural causes”. Right before his death, he had been interviewed and agreed to go to court to tell everything that had happened during the Khmer Rouge’s time in power. No one saw how he died and his body was burned right away.

The current government has only allowed five people from the Khmer Rouge to be put on trial. The rest are still part of the government today. People who speak out against the government, even today, will be arrested. Our guide told us that the people in Cambodia don’t want a revolution as it led to a war before. They want slow change to eliminate the corruption. In schools, children are taught only the basics of the Khmer Rouge.

Our guide only told us about the recent history within the safety of the bus. We were told if someone overheard he might be arrested. In a way, it is his own personal protest. He said that many from the original Khmer Rouge are getting older and soon none of them will be left. Hopefully then the truth of it all will come out and the corruption can cease. It made me wonder what horrors will eventually come out of North Korea.

The truth of a country is sometimes hard to take. We knew going to Cambodia, that the Polpot regime had killed millions, but being there and hearing the stories makes it feel even more horrendous especially when the corruption continues. It’s hard to hear similar stories across the world of an elite that values money and power over everything even their own people.

We returned to our hotel in a very somber mood. We relaxed for a bit then went to watch the fireworks for the Independence Day celebrations. After we went to the night market for some local cuisine. We were confused about how to order so we ended up getting way too much food.

Night market, Phnom Penh

We went to a bar for some drinks after supper and played some pool then eventually took a tuk tuk back to our hotel to sleep.

Day 245: November 12, 2018

We had breakfast in the hotel then boarded our bus heading south out of Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. It was a five hour drive split up with lunch in between. Our hotel was not the greatest. Chinese resorts have taken over the area which has increased prices. Over a dozen high rise hotels were going up. It looked like the Chinese were creating their own city.

The group planned to go out to the beach. I needed some time to chill. Danny wanted to go to the beach. This led to an argument and Danny went to the beach. He came back for me at 6:00 pm in a much better mood, but I was still angry that he had stomped off. He said the group was going to eat soon so we walked out to the beach. There were pictures taken of us and we were actually not happy with each other.

Can you see the anger in this picture?

We ate supper at a bar nearby and chatted with the group. Eventually we returned to the hotel to talk about what happened. This has been a good thing about our trip. We are forced to talk about issues right away or it becomes unbearable. I also think I’ve become better at expressing my feelings. We went to bed much happier with each other.

Day 246: November 13, 2018

We left the hotel at 8:30 am and went into town to a restaurant that served us breakfast. Then we boarded a boat out into the Gulf of Thailand. The boat took us out to a small reef. We were given snorkel masks and jumped in. Danny went in without even a life jacket. He’s become a pro swimmer.

Snorkeling in the Gulf of Thailand

We saw quite a few little fish, but the coral wasn’t doing too well. After an hour, the boat took us to an island. We swam in the clear water there, enjoyed some hammocks, then had a BBQ lunch on the beach. We swam a bit more then boarded the boat to a different reef. The waves had gotten bigger so it was harder to swim. The coral seemed a bit better there. The snorkel mask wasn’t fitting right for me so I came in after not too long. After about 15 minutes the boat dropped us off at the beach near our hotel. We walked back and cleaned up.

The rest of the group went back to the bar we were at the previous night for supper, but we hadn’t enjoyed the food there. Instead we went to a restaurant at the hotel across the street from us. I had a very nice mixed seafood plate, Danny had fish and chips and then we shared a mango sticky rice for dessert. It was all very tasty. It was a bit more pricey than the other places we’ve been in Cambodia, but still much cheaper than Canada. After we returned to our room and caught up on internets. I finished the book I was reading about the life of Buddha then we went to bed.

Cambodia has not disappointed in terms of history. The two highlights we wanted to experience were Angkor Wat and learning about the Khmer Rouge regime. The heat in Cambodia was a bit much for me, but I’m glad we were able to get onto the water and do some snorkelling. Tomorrow we head across the border into Vietnam.

M

Vietnam Part 2 – Hué

Day 251: November 18, 2018

We were up at 6:30 am to take a Grab car to the Ho Chi Minh airport at 7:30 am. We were warned that traffic might be bad, but it ended up being all right. We checked in then chilled in the airport. We ate some pho and spring rolls for lunch then boarded our hour and a half flight to Hué.

On arrival we got a Grab car to our Airbnb. I had selected the wrong address in the app so we had to do a bit of a loop. Our Airbnb was huge, but very impractical. The main floor had a living room, kitchen and garage, but it was too open to have A/C so we really only stayed up in the bedroom.

We chilled for a bit then walked to a pizza place for supper. Sadly, it wasn’t very tasty. We walked back a different route looking for a grocery store, but none seem to exist here. We did find a place to buy water then we walked back to the Airbnb to sleep.

Day 252: November 19, 2018

I was bitten by bugs all night so I ended up sleeping in to try to get enough rest. We got dressed then walked up the street, looking for a place for breakfast. We settled on a hotel restaurant, but the food was a bit disappointing. We continued walking up the street, across the Perfume River to the Imperial City.

Gate to the Imperial City

In 1789, Nguyen Anh ascended to the unified Vietnamese throne. Construction of his capital city started in 1804. The complex was the seat of power until the French arrived in the 1880s. In 1947, sieges occurred that destroyed much of the inner city. Restoration is still ongoing.

Inside the Imperial City

Ramparts, 2 km x 2 km, protect the Imperial City. The entire complex is surrounded by a moat. There were not many people visiting even though GoogleMaps labeled it as “very busy”. It was a nice place to walk around and look at the architecture and gardens.

Danny at a pool in the Imperial City

We left and went to what we thought looked like a grocery store. It was not. We continued walking to the centre of town to a local restaurant suggested by our Airbnb host. It was basic, but tasty.

We walked to a nearby mini mart and purchased some yogurt and snacks. We then took a Grab car back to our Airbnb as we were very tired of walking. It wasn’t insanely hot, but I was still pouring sweat from the humidity.

Danny went for a run and I chilled. Eventually, we walked up the street looking for food. We crossed the canal in front of our Airbnb to go the opposite way we had the previous night. There were many nice looking coffee shops, but none had food. There were lots of little local stalls, but we weren’t sure about eating at them. We ended up at a different hotel restaurant. They had really good pizza which made up for the previous night’s pizza.

We walked back to the Airbnb with full tummies, but angry moods. We had started arguing over supper about money. It doesn’t really matter to either of us, but neither of us wanted to back down. Sometimes when you reflect on what you are fighting about it just doesn’t make sense.

Day 253: November 20, 2018

We slept in a bit then talked about our money discussion the previous night. Once we were happy again, we took a Grab car to the Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh King. The driver told us he would wait and take us to our next stop which was great because we weren’t positive how we were going to get back.

Khai Dinh was the twelfth Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty and he ruled from 1916 until 1925. He worked closely with the French making him unpopular among the people. The tomb itself looked much older than it was. There were interesting bodyguard statues at the second level.

Bodyguards outside the Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh King

At the top there was a building with the tomb inside. It was a quick visit, but worth the stop.

Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh King

We located our driver, but when I put our next stop into the Grab app it said there were no drivers. We agreed to pay the price Grab had quoted in cash and drove to Thuy Tien Lake Abandoned Water Park.

When we arrived there was a closed gate with a sign saying, “No Visitors”, and two security guards. I read online later rumours that it was closed very recently due to safety concerns.

We had our driver take us back to the centre of Hué where we walked along the river then stopped at a restaurant for lunch. I had a milk tea which was sugary flavoured milk with jelly pieces inside.

Milk tea

After lunch, we walked around looking at the clothing and souvenir shops. We eventually headed back to our Airbnb. The honking here does get on your nerves and crossing the street involves a lot of dodging of scooters.

Back at the Airbnb I caught up on blogging and Danny booked us some upcoming day tours. For supper, we went up the street to a hotel restaurant. The waiter was hovering a bit. We soon learned he just wanted to chat to practice his English. We had a nice conversation with him. It is nice to talk with a local that isn’t trying to sell you anything.

We walked back towards the Airbnb and along the way we saw a mass of people sitting in front of a café. Vietnam vs. Myanmar football was on the screens and everyone was watching. The seats were packed out on to the sidewalk and spilling out onto the shoulder of the road. We took some seats on the shoulder and ordered teas.

Locals watching the football game

The screen in one café was slightly slower than in the café right next door. When something happened in the game, half the crowd would cheer then a second later the other half would cheer. It was comical to watch.

We finished our drinks and left at the half. At the Airbnb we watched “First They Killed My Father” on Netflix. It is based on a true story of a girl that lived through the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I had watched it previously, but hadn’t understood some of the intricacies of what was happening. It was nice to re-watch and understand it a bit more.

Hué was a nice quiet town, but I’m not sure if we needed so many days there. It was nice to see the Imperial City and the tombs were interesting. Next we are heading by bus south to Hoi An.

M

Vietnam Part 1 – Mekong Delta & Ho Chi Minh City

Day 247: November 14, 2018

We were up early to head east towards Vietnam. We left at 6:30 am and stopped for breakfast at 8:30 am. We continued driving for another 2.5 hours to the border. We went through Cambodian immigration then carried our bags across to the Vietnamese immigration. The heat was almost unbearable waiting for our passports to be stamped.

On the other side we boarded a new bus and enjoyed the A/C on a further hour drive to our lunch stop. Our drive then continued to our home stay in Can Tho along the Mekong Delta. We stayed in very basic rooms with mosquito nets over the beds.

Our room at the home stay near the Mekong Delta

We watched a demonstration on home to make Vietnamese pancakes which are similar to crepes filled with sprouts and ground meat. I found them extremely delicious. More dishes were also brought out and we had quite a feast. After dinner we cuddled under our mosquito net and went to sleep after a long day of driving.

Day 248: November 15, 2018

We woke up, had breakfast at the home stay then drove to the river where a boat took us out to Cai Rang Floating Market. It is the largest wholesale floating market on the Mekong Delta.

We saw houses on stilts and floating houses along the shore. There were lots of boats selling tropical fruits. Usually there are 100-200 boats. The market is open from 5:00 am to 4:00 pm. You can purchase a three kilogram watermelon for $1 USD. A lady selling refreshments came alongside our boat, hitched on and offered us coffee.

Lady selling coffee and other beverages from her boat

We continued floating around the market. Then we stopped and got on a young family’s boat that were selling pineapple. The woman showed how she cut them. We bought one for $1 USD and it was absolutely delicious.

Pineapple boat

A boat in Vietnam costs about $2,000-$8,000. Many people live on their boats to save money to buy land and a house on the mainland. The toilet on the boats go straight into the water. It didn’t look too clean.

Our next stop was a noddle factory. We watched them mix rice flour and tapioca starch (cassava root) to make a batter. It was then cooked for 30 seconds and transferred for drying under the sun. The rice paper produced was then cut with a machine to make noodles. The factory makes 300 kg of noodles per day and they charge $1/kg.

Noodle factory

Next we visited a local market where people shop for their daily food. Then we boarded the bus for our last bus ride into Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. It has an unofficial population of 13 million. It was much more modern than the cities we visited in Cambodia.

We checked in to the hostel where Danny and I were in separate rooms because we were separated by gender. We walked with the group to a street food market for lunch. Some of the group went for massages, but we stayed with our guide, Happy, who took us on a walk around town.

We walked to the Reunification Palace originally built by the French in the 1860s. It was named Norodom Palace after the King of Cambodia. The French governors used it as their residence and office during their occupation. During the Vietnam War, it was home to the Prime Minister.

Reunification Palace

Next we passed the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon built by the French between 1863 and 1880. Bricks to build the church were imported from France. Approximately seven percent of the population is Catholic.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon

Up the street was the Post Office constructed between 1886 and 1891. Next we walked down a street full of book stores then over to “Times Square”. We eventually ended up back at our hostel. I was sweaty by the end, but it definitely wasn’t as bad as the heat in Thailand or Cambodia. I actually really enjoyed the city.

Post office

At 7:00 pm we met for our farewell dinner. We received a little gift from Happy. She was so incredibly sweet. After supper we went up Bui Vien Walking Street where our hostel was located to find a bar for some drinks.

Bui Vien Walking Street

It was so loud in the bars that Danny and I decided to just get ice cream. I’ve never experienced such a party atmosphere. The music was blaring out of all the bars. There were people everywhere. After ice cream we returned to the hostel to sleep.

Day 249: November 16, 2018

We were up pretty early for our trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. It was about an hour and a half drive from our hostel. Even though our GAdventures tour had finished, six people in the group were continuing on tour through Vietnam with GAdventures. We decided to join them on this day trip.

France occupied Vietnam in the 19th century creating the French Indochina colony in 1887. When France fell to Germany in WWII, Vietnam was transferred to Japanese control. At this time Vietnam asked the United States for help to remove Japan from their country. Ho Chi Minh declared independence for Vietnam in 1945. The French then returned to Vietnam resulting in another Indochina War.

In 1954, the big countries sat down and China wanted to split Vietnam into two. The United States and France were happy with this as well. They agreed to hold elections in two years at which time the country would reunify. The south was backed by the United States and Ngo Dinh Diem became Prime Minister. He was anti-communist and Roman Catholic. Ho Chi Minh, in the north, was backed back China and Russia. He wanted to reunify the country under a Russian style communism.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are part of a 250 km tunnel system from Saigon to Cambodia. The tunnels started being built during the French occupation of Vietnam. The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong as hiding spots during combat, but also to transport supplies, store food and weapons and serve as sleeping quarters. In the daytime farmers helped the Americans, but at night the farmers became the Viet Cong.

The tunnels were chosen in this location as it was close to a river that could be used to hide soil that was removed from the tunnels and also to escape into. The soil was very hard making it supportive for tunnel building.

The first layer of the tunnels was 0.5 m deep and used for fighting. The second layer was 2-3 m deep and used for old and young people to hide. The third layer was 8 m deep and used to escape from chemical and rocket attacks. The bottom layer was 12 m deep. Wells inside the tunnels provided water.

Cu Chi Tunnel system

Many tunnels had traps inside. The American troops were trained to stay against the walls so traps would be placed along the edges. Most of the traps were used to catch the soldiers, but not kill them. Hooks on ends of spikes were used to make them hard to pull out. The Viet Cong wanted to demotivate the soldiers so that they would leave Vietnam.

Trap around the Cu Chi Tunnels

We saw a hiding hole and a private bunker where guns would point out. Ventilation holes were used to provide fresh air in to the tunnels. The Viet Cong learned to put hot peppers there so the American dogs couldn’t smell them. Later the dogs were trained to smell the hot peppers. Then American clothes were cut and placed in the holes to throw off the dogs.

Ventilation hole

The Viet Cong would cut open American unexploded rockets to get the explosives out to make land mines. Many land mines still remain even though the war officially ended in 1975.

Some of the group tried shooting AK47s. The noise of the guns in the area was intense. Danny and I played with an orange kitty. We were then able to crawl through the tunnels for about 200 m. The tunnels have been expanded 30% for tourists. At the end we were fed cassava with salted peanuts as a snack which soldiers would typically eat.

Danny in one of the tunnels

Nixon was responsible for putting in place “Vietnamization” which shifted responsibility of fighting to the locals so that the Americans could pull out their troops starting in 1970. The Paris Peace Accord was signed in January 1973, but American military involvement did not cease until August 1973. The North Vietnamese Army captured Saigon in April 1975 officially ending the war.

The United States placed an embargo on Vietnam from 1975-1995 which harmed Vietnam’s development. Even after the war, the Vietnamese were very poor and starving. Many countries took in refugees during this period. Canada is home to 240,000 citizens with Vietnamese ancestry.

We returned to the city which took more than one and a half hours. We went with the group back to the street food market for lunch then said our goodbyes. We headed towards the hostel, but got caught in the rain. Luckily, it didn’t last too long.

We picked up our bags from the hostel and took a Grab car up the road to our Airbnb. We relaxed in our own space and I called my parents. For supper, we walked up the street to a Korean restaurant. Then we returned to the Airbnb to sleep.

Day 250: November 17, 2018

We slept in then I FaceTimed Caitlin. While Danny FaceTimed his parents, I went to the gym to workout. After, we took a Grab car to the War Remnants Museum. Outside there were many American planes and tanks.

American plane outside the War Remnants Museum

On July 20, 1954 the Geneva Conference was signed to cease the fighting in Indochina and recognize the independence of Vietnam from France. The country was to be split into two until elections could be held in 1956. The United States gradually eliminated the French influence in southern Vietnam and sponsored Ngo Dinh Diem as Prime Minister of the “Republic of Vietnam”. Ho Chi Minh had support of the population in the north and was backed by the People’s Republic of China.

According to the museum, the United States and Diem tried to sabotage the Geneva Agreements by preventing reunification of the country. A military coup on November 1, 1963 removed Diem and killed him. On August 2, 1964, the United States Army fabricated a story, “Gulf of Tonkin Incident”, accusing the Navy of Vietnam of attacking a US destroyer. This authorized the American entry of direct fighting in Vietnam.

Agent Orange was used during the war in Vietnam to destroy the tropical rain forest and prevent the Liberation forces from hiding. It had a high dose of dioxin, a carcinogen with genotoxic effects passing to at least three generations. American veterans have been compensated for the damage, but Vietnamese victims lawsuits have so far been dismissed by the US Supreme Court. 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange. The photos showing the effects of Agent Orange were difficult to view knowing that it all could have been prevented.

Seeing the atrocities of war, the immediate impact of napalm bombs and the lasting effects of Agent Orange was very emotional. After a couple of exhibits I just had to sit down.

Statue in one of the exhibits of the War Remnants Museum

In the museum, the war is referred to as the American War in Vietnam which gives a much different perspective than I grew up learning. I remember being told it was a civil war that the Americans became involved in. The Vietnamese see it much differently. Our guide at the Cu Chi Tunnels had told us the local people wanted independence and the Communists were helping them with this. Vietnam is proud to be reunified.

Photo from an exhibit in the War Remnants Museum

We left the museum and walked back to a shop Happy had taken us to. Then we went to a sushi place for an early supper. Sushi is much cheaper in Vietnam than in Canada. We caught a Grab car back to our Airbnb. Danny went for a workout while I watched Netflix before bed.

Ho Chi Minh City has been a bit of a surprise. I was expecting not to enjoy it since I don’t typically like cities. The air was cooler there than in Cambodia which was a relief and it was a nice place to walk around. It has been a very nice start to Vietnam and I’m excited to see what our next stops in Vietnam have in store.

M

Cambodia Part 1 – Siem Reap and Tonle Sap Lake

Day 241: November 8, 2018

We were up at 5:30 am for breakfast in our Bangkok hotel. We met our GAdventures CEO, Happy, and the rest of our group. There are 13 of us on the tour. We started our drive out of Bangkok at 6:30 am to try to avoid the traffic.

After two hours of driving we had a bathroom break and filled out our arrival cards and visa applications. Others had previously completed e-visas, but we hadn’t had time as we had been confirmed on the trip only two days before.

Another two hour drive and we stopped at the Cambodian consulate and our driver got our visas completed. It cost almost double to get it completed express. A five minute more drive and we got off the bus and went through Thai immigration.

We then had to walk through crowds and vendors to get to the Cambodian immigration. Apparently if you go later in the day the line is crazy. It took one group four hours to get through previously.

A public bus was waiting for us on the other side to take us to a bus station where our private vehicle met us. Another 45 minute drive and we stopped for lunch. We ordered beef lol lak, a Cambodian dish. Then we continued our drive to Siem Reap.

Most of the group went quad biking, but we stayed in the room and chilled. At 7:00 pm we met the group to go to a local community for supper. We rode in sets of four in a trailer with benches attached to a motorbike.

The place we went was called Phila’s House and it supports the education of underprivileged children in the area and is run by locals. We sat like a family on the floor and were served many different dishes.

After supper we had a chance to play with some of the local children. Most were more interested in our phones than us. Danny worked up a major sweat playing soccer though. After we took the same mode of transportation back to the hotel and went to bed.

Day 242: November 9, 2018

We were up at 4:00 am to leave at 4:30 am for Angkor Wat Temple. We purchased our tickets and our pictures were printed on them. Then we walked to the temple in the dark.

There was already quite a crowd of people in front of one of the pools. We found a spot along the side and took some pictures and waited for the sun to come up. The mass of people kept getting bigger.

Sunrise crowd at Angkor Wat

At 6:20 am we met to go into the temple with our guide. Most people were then returning to their hotels for breakfast so it was prime time to visit.

Angkor Wat was built between 1113 and 1150 under King Suryavarman II. He built it for the Hindu God, Vishnu, and it was to be the king’s temple and capital city. It is the largest religious temple structure on Earth. Most temples face east, however, this one faces west which is the death direction. This is because the temple also acted as a tomb for the king.

Sitting on the steps of Angkor Wat

The temple had three levels. The first represents the underworld, the second the earth and the third Heaven. The stairs to the third level are steep and tall because it is hard to reach Heaven. The temple represented Mount Meru (Mount Everest) which is the home of God.

The foundation is kept wet because of a nearby lake. There is a built in drainage system to take water to the surrounding moats. Cambodia only has dry and wet seasons. It was currently the dry season so there would not be rain until April.

The temple is built of sandstone from a quarry 40 km away. The largest stone weighs 10 tons. Water canals would have been used to transport the stones on bamboo rafts. Stones were cut on the ground then placed on top using a pulley system. Carvings were made in place taking lots of precision and patience.

The exterior carvings on the temple show pieces of the Hindu stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. There were also carvings of 1,800 apsaras or lady dancers.

Carvings of Hindu stories

The temple compound is 1.5 km x 1.3 km. It was originally built as a Hindu temple, but turned Buddhist in the late 12th century. The original name of the temple was Vrah Visnuloka, but when it became Buddhist it was named Angkor Wat, meaning temple city.

We walked around the temple then out to our bus. We were returned to the hotel and had breakfast around 8:30 am. We were given some free time so I called my parents. Then at 10:30 am we headed back out with our guide. We went through Angkor Thom Gate which had 54 demon statues on the right and 54 God statues on the left leading up to the entry.

Angkor Thom Gate

Angkor Thom or Great City was the last capital city of the Khmer empire built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. In 1432, the city was abandoned.

Within Angkor Thom was Bayon Temple also built in the late 12th century. It has 54 towers each with four faces of Buddha. We walked around inside enjoying the carvings.

Bayon Temple

Next we boarded the bus and drove to Ta Prohm Temple. Tomb Raider was filmed there in 2001. Civil war in Cambodia lasted until 1998. After filming the movie, Angelina Jolie stated the country was safe and that brought many tourists to Cambodia.

The temple was built in the late 12th century for King Jayavarman’s family. There would have been wooden houses within the walls with 12,500 people living inside.

There were spung trees growing on the temple that are 200-300 years old. They have soft wood and are hollow inside. It was getting very warm out walking around the temple and it was very busy there as well.

We had lunch nearby and then returned to the hotel for some free time. At 4:00 pm, two masseuses came to our room to give us massages. They focussed much more on the feet than other massages. They used a nice lotion that smelled like Vick’s.

We relaxed until 7:00 pm when we met the group and took tuk tuks to the Pub Street. We had supper at a restaurant there then Danny and I went to the Night Market to do some shopping. We found a vendor selling scorpions, snakes, tarantulas, crickets and silk worms. We tried them all and the scorpion was the most tasty and meaty. It tasted similar to shrimp. Once you get your mind around eating insects it wasn’t that bad.

The vendor said he gets 20 kg of water snakes at a time. For the scorpions, he has to dig then skewer them and he gets about 10-20. For the tarantulas, he only gets two to three. We each bought some clothing then took a tuk tuk back to the hotel and went to bed.

Day 243: November 10, 2018

We slept in a bit then had breakfast and met the group at 8:30 am. There is another tour doing the same tour through Cambodia, but they continue through Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. We joined forces for the next bit of the tour.

We drove about 1.5 hours to Tonle Sap Floating Village. During the wet season, the lake is 14 m deep and 10,000 sq km. During the dry season, it is only 2 m deep and 3,000 sq km. There are more than three million people living in and around the lake. Fishing and agriculture is how 90% of them earn a living. Anchovies are popular for farming on the lake.

Houses of Tonle Sap Lake

The Cambodians live in stilted houses and the Vietnamese that migrated during the war in their country live on floating houses. We took a boat ride out on the lake to view the different villages. We went out until all you could see was water in front.

Primary and secondary schools are present in the communities. There were many groups of children in uniforms paddling boats together. High School would only be in a larger centre, but most children don’t go that high in their education.

Children paddling

We stopped at a temple and walked through a local market. The heat was killer especially in the sun. The boat took us back to the bus for another 1.5 hour drive to our lunch stop. Then we were back on the bus for another two hour drive to an insect market. There were huge piles of tarantulas, scorpions, silk worms, crickets, grasshoppers and more. Some of the group bought a tarantula and ate the legs then no one wanted the body so Danny and I ate it. It was better than the tarantula the other night. It had a sweet and sour sauce on it.

We continued our drive to Phnom Penh. We arrived around 7:30 pm and took our bags up to our room then met the group to walk up the street for supper. We had a private room at the restaurant and made our own karaoke party. We all sang along to some classics which was super fun. After we came back to the room to sleep.

Cambodia so far has been quieter than Thailand. There is more space between towns and less people. The cities also are less developed. We have some time in Phnom Penh tomorrow to learn more about the history in Cambodia specifically linked to the Polpot regime. I am very much looking forward to learning more.

M