Sunday, October 28, 2018

Ringing in 2018 Phnom Penh Style

Trip date: December 2017

Dec 31, 2017 we checked into the beautiful Pavillon Hotel, a recommendation from a friend, and a great one at that. We entered the gate off the busy road into a lush and tranquil garden with two beautiful pools, a spa, a restaurant, and bar.

We were greeted with cold towels and refreshing juice before being shown to our rooms. Caitlin and I had a big suite with a king sized bed outfitted with mosquito netting. All the spaces were fantastic!

We were waiting to hear if our friend James was going to be able to come into the country and join us for the New Year's Eve celebrations. We decided to spend the afternoon at the pool with a few bottles of wine, sunning and swimming. It was about 5pm before he texted that Cambodian officials would not accept his passport, as he was 3 days short of having a full 6 months left before expiration. This was a huge bummer! James ended up flying home while we got ready for the evening's festivities.
We started with champagne on Forest and Thibault's balcony and then had a few drinks at our hotel bar which was having live entertainment.

Unlike in Vietnam, here there were many tuk tuks for getting around town, so we all piled into one and set out for Wat Botum Park and the nearby Independence Monument. It was already busy with street vendors and people getting ready for the firework show.
We had dinner at Malis which had a special $60 tasting menu for NYE including wine pairings.  Our 4-course meal was good with a nice shrimp and pork salad, soup with tamarind, roasted quail, and banana ice cream. Our main disappointment was that there was a lovely outside courtyard dining area but we were only able to sit inside.

After dinner we joined the revelers back out at the park for fireworks. We weren't really expecting much but it was a pretty good show! Happy 2018!!!
Breakfast was included with our room reservations so we all met outside at the hotel restaurant the next morning. There were fresh breads, fruits, eggs, and fried rice. It was all delicious!

Caitlin and I spent the morning exploring the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda complex . The grounds are absolutely beautiful and even though there are many resemblances to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, it is much smaller and more intimate.

Besides the temples, there are various exhibits depicting everything from royal history, uniforms, musical instruments, and palanquins.
We had a great time exploring, and it wasn't busy at all which was nice. It was however extremely hot so when we were finished we headed back to our hotel with our pool in mind. Walking back we passed lots of street vendors setting up for lunch. We also passed what seemed like an entire street lined with tables of meat drying out under the sun!

It was so nice to have lunch in the shade of the trees and next to the pool. And my spring rolls and spicy herb salad were both delicious!

Besides breakfast, our reservation also came with complimentary foot and back massages at the hotel spa, so that is where I headed next! Absolutely a fantastic day; sightseeing, swimming, spa'ing!

In the evening we did a bar crawl around town. First up was a tuk tuk to the Elephant Bar at the Raffles Hotel.

The bar is gorgeous and the drink list was really fun. They have 30+ gins, which is a very big selection for SE Asia, but sadly they were out of the Raffles Gin made for them by Sip Smith. I survived anyway!

From here we walked past the American Embassy, decorated with Christmas lights, and Wat Phnom, the highest point in this very flat city. The wat was closed for the night be we could still explore the grounds (for a fee).
While Caitlin and Forest headed off to our next cocktail stop, Thibault and I walked past street vendors selling shellfish, grilled frogs, steamed buns, noodles, etc. We decided on bao and noodles :)
We met the girls at Chinese House, which had both a very cool inside space as well as a great outdoor space with tables, couches, and a Budha. We chose to have our drinks outside!
Our last stop of the evening was also the most Western in style. Le Boutier has a really interesting cocktail menu that tells stories about Cambodian music, the family the bar is named after, favorite locals, etc. It's fun and playful and most importantly serves great drinks.

We took our drinks upstairs and sat at the open windows, watching the scenes on the street below. Some guys hanging out with their friend who had a food cart. A stray dog, hoping for scraps. A young boy, barefoot and pantless, taking a piss in a puddle on the street.
The next morning we boarded a tourist bus for our 5 hour drive to Siem Reap. I loved watching all the activity in the streets as we drove out of town!

All photos from Phnom Penh here

Other posts from this trip:

Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part One
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part Two
Cruising the Mekong River

Sailing Away; Vietnam to Cambodia
Wat a First Day
Temples Take Two
Stationed in Siem Reap

Monday, October 22, 2018

Sailing Away; Vietnam to Cambodia

Trip date: December 2017

Technically we were still on our Mekong Eyes River Cruise Tour but we had left our boat, were picked up in Cái Bè and were on our way to Chau Doc, Vietnam via minivan. After about 2 1/2 hours we stopped for lunch at Cá Sáu Long Xuyên, a crocodile farm and restaurant.
We had a really interesting tour and learned all about this very sustainable resource. The crocodiles are huge. And scary! We also saw some of the babies. Super cute and still scary. We even saw crocodiles having sex. Hot and scary! And then we had lunch. One guess as to what was on the menu!

We had another 2 hour drive to Chau Doc, a small town near the Cambodian border. We weren't expecting much when we checked in to the Victoria Hotel as it was a part of our package, but the hotel was excellent! It sits right on the Bassac River, which is a tributary of the Mekong, and is colonial in style.
We changed into our suits, met down at the pool, and relaxed with some beers and a view of the river.

As we explored the small town that evening, it seemed that everyone was out and taking advantage of the cool evening. Kids were practicing martial arts, families were strolling, and everyone was eating street food!

We wandered past lots of vendors, and I finally had a chance to buy some dried squid, which is a snack often had with beer. Quite good! We also bought some bao, bowls of delicious stir fry, and "Vietnamese pizza". All super tasty!
Unfortunately I lost my debit card somewhere along the way, luckily I had another card with me for the trip. The bigger issue, we learned when we returned to the hotel, was that our friend James would not be able to join us for the journey into Cambodia the next day. Turns out that he was 3 days short of having the required 6 months left on his passport before it expired.
In the morning 4 of us boarded a riverboat while James was taken to Ho Chi Minh City airport to see if he could get them to allow him to fly in. It was a gorgeous day and the boat was small but comfortable for our 5 hour trip. We made stops at customs on both sides of the border where we were fingerprinted and presented the visas that we had purchased through our boat operator.
Once we were on the Cambodian side of the river, the poverty was really shocking. The little shacks were surrounded by mainly dirt and debris, and they looked as if they would fall into the river at any moment.
We had brought beers on board, and the operator served us a little lunch. The rest of the time we just hung out on the stern of the boat and watched the scenery.
We arrived at the harbor in Phnom Penh just after lunch and were picked up by an arranged taxi and taken to our hotel. It was New Year's Eve and the party in Cambodia was about to get started!

All photos from the Mekong River here.
All photos from Phnom Penh here

Other posts from this trip:

Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part One
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part Two
Cruising the Mekong River
Ringing in 2018 Phnom Penh Style
Wat a First Day
Temples Take Two
Stationed in Siem Reap

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Cruising the Mekong River

Trip date: December 2017

We were leaving Ho Chi Minh City and heading to the Mekong River where we had booked a private charter with Mekong Eyes. A mini van picked us up at our Airbnb and in 2 hours we arrived at our boat, Dragon Eyes 2, in Can Tho on the Mekong Delta.

The boat was much nicer than we had expected! There was a formal library/sitting room, 2 staterooms each with their own bathroom, a fantastic upper deck with lounge chairs, a covered dining area as well as an uncovered one.

We were welcomed on board with drinks and soon after we set sail our steward spent some time explaining where we were going (Cambodia) and what we would be seeing along the way. I was super excited! We had some time to relax and watch the life of the river before lunch.
Our lunch was fantastic! It started with a whole fried fish that we picked the meat from and used to make our own fresh spring rolls, being advised by our steward.
This was followed by some delicious grilled chicken served with rice and vegetables. We were really pleasantly surprised by the meal! After lunch we spent some more time on our lounge chairs, napping and reading. It was so relaxing. And the scenery was pretty incredible.

As our boat passed various villages, little kids ran to the riverbanks yelling HELLO!!! Most likely the only English they knew and excited to see foreigners sailing by. Seems like they had the schedule down pretty well!

Late in the afternoon we made our first stop in one of the tiny villages.  We were led off the boat and crossed the river on a pedestrian/motorbike ferry, it probably could have held a car but I doubt that anyone in the area owned one.

We were welcomed by a local family to explore their home, which had a mini farm of goats and pigs onsite, as well as fighting cocks, and a bath where snakes, frogs, and fish were kept for cooking. The house was plain from the outside but pretty modern when we peeked in.
From here we continued through the village and out to a rice paddy where we watched one of the villagers seeding. The color green was so beautiful!

Before heading back onto the boat we were given a little information on the local church's religion of Cao Dai. And then it was cocktail hour aboard the boat, while we continued sailing along at sunset. They made us gin and tonics and set out some fresh fruit, coconut, and spicy peanuts.
We were seated outside for dinner and were served another fantastic meal of dumpling soup, shrimp and bamboo salad, and a stirfry. I'm pretty sure we drank them out of wine!

We were up bright and early the next morning for breakfast, a big spread of scrambled eggs, toast,  juice, coffee, and platters of fresh tropical fruit. Then we had another 2 hour sail, the river was very quiet early in the morning.

We came to another village and said good-bye to the Dragon Eyes 2. We were transferred, along with our luggage, to a smaller traditional style boat, and taken to the Tan Phong islet, where we transferred again into sampans, for a tour of the canals, rowed by villagers.

After reboarding our smaller boat, we cruised along to the Cai Be floating market. Just like your normal farmers market, with vegetable, juice, soup, cookware vendors, only all the vendors here were working off their boats. It was small but pretty interesting!

Our last stop on the Mekong River was a factory where locals were making coconut candy and rice paper wrappers. None of us were very interested to be honest, but we were polite and followed our guide in. The stop ended up being really interesting, and the candy delicious. It was so cool to see how they made everything, but especially the rice paper, a brand that I buy here in Seattle, being made and then dried on bamboo racks outside next to the river!

We weren't at our final destination yet, but we were leaving this part of the Mekong River sadly. A van arrived to pick us up at the dock in Cai Be and we loaded in for the next part of our adventure.

All photos from the Mekong River here.

Other posts from this trip:
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part One
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part Two
Sailing Away; Vietnam to Cambodia
Ringing in 2018 Phnom Penh Style
Wat a First Day
Temples Take Two
Stationed in Siem Reap

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part 2

Trip date: December 2017

Continuing my top ten (1-5 are in Part 2, here)

6. Drink on a rooftop bar.

I don't think I've ever been to a city that has more rooftop bars. They are really a thing in HCMC! The first one we checked out was Social Club on top of the Hotel des Arts Hotel. They have a long G&T menu, pairing different gins with tonics that they feel are complimentary, fantastic city views, and a scary glass bridge that you can cross, 25-floors up. It's a bit posh and definitely more expensive than other places we drank at but we had a great afternoon up there.
More casual was the oddly named Broma Not A Bar. It took us a bit to find the building, marked only by its address, and then work our way up the dark interior stairs to the roof. But the bar has good views of Nguyen Hue Street, is very comfortable, and had a large craft beer list as well as cocktails.
The Caravelle Hotel rooftop bar is well known for being the bar to correspondents during the Vietnam War. The bar has a good menu of drinks, and has both inside and outside options. 

As we were there during the holidays the hotel also had some large and very fun gingerbread displays, including a replica of the hotel itself!

7. Ride a motorcycle.

One night our group decided to take a "Back of the Bike Food Tour". Ho Chi Minh City is huge with over 10 million people and 8 million bikes. Roads are jammed packed with bikes and intersections don't always have signals. Crossing the road can be a death-defying act. So we were all a bit nervous, and a bit excited, to zoom around the city on the back of a motorbike.

We were picked up at our Airbnb and set out for the night. Our tour was 3-hours and our drivers were mainly college students, they were super friendly, fun, and great to chat with.

I started out so nervous that my guide joked I had "very strong thighs"! haha! There was more than one intersection where we came very close to having a collision. But that's kinda the way it is in Saigon!

We made five different stops, all over town, and at each one we were served drinks and the specialty of the house. Everything was delicious and our guides also sat with us and showed us how locals would use each condiment and eat each item.

We tried goi du du bo (traditional green papaya salad with dried beef liver and prawn crackers), cut chien bo (fried quail with pickled mango), bun cha Hanoi (grilled pork meatballs, crispy spring rolls, sliced pork belly with rice noodles, herbs, and fish broth), banh xeo (crispy rice flour crepe with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts), and a selection of desserts of fruit, ice cream, and sticky rice combinations.

Our friend James got to try making banh xeo, and at this particular stop you could try balut eggs also. These are the eggs containing a partially developed fetus. I chose not too but I think Forest did?

At the end of our trip, our guides nicely offered to drop us off at the cocktail bar we were going to. And I was definitely in need of a cocktail!
It was a fantastic tour, I highly recommend!

8. Get some history

Vietnam's history here can be a little overwhelming. As can trying to understand this one-of-five still communist governments in the world. I have only been to communist Cuba before, which is much more traditional with its lack of capitalist businesses, ration-carded locals, and a government which is still very much feared. Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world right now, which I don't generally associate with communism.

We started our trip with a nice walk around the city, and it was easy to spot the communist flag flying from all government buildings. We strolled past the Reunification Palace, the site of the end of the Vietnam war when a North Vietnam tank crashed through it's front gates.

From here we walked to Notre Dame Cathedral, and then into the big old beautiful central post office.
We continued on to the Hotel de Ville, and then into the pretty city park where the statue of Ho Chi Minh stands.
Another day we all met up at the War Remnants Museum which chronicles the support from other countries of Vietnam as well as the war crimes of the Chinese and Americans against the Vietnamese during the war. It's not for the faint of heart and I had to cut my visit short after about an hour.

There are also displays of bombs used on the country, and planes, helicopters, tanks, etc. that were captured or left after the war.

9. Drink coffee

Vietnam is known for their coffee and for good reason. Served hot it typically arrives with a traditional single brewing filter. Served iced, I had mine with regular milk, but condensed milk gives you a decadent caffeinated buzz.

Caitlin and I went shopping at one of Nguyen Coffee retail shops so that we could bring home bags of beans. They also sell the little tin pour over contraptions.

One morning we made our way to L’Usine cafe. This part boutique/part cafe, served up excellent coffee. We also had a delicious brunch here. It wasn't a cheap & cheerful type of spot but it was very good and it's in a cool building.

In the backpackers district, near our spa, we checked out The Note Coffee. The baristas spent about 15 minutes asking us all sorts of questions regarding how we wanted our coffee order. We were served delicious coffee, with cute little notes attached, at a ridiculous expensive price. The free WiFi almost made it worth it.

10. Go to the market.

Ben Thanh Market sits right in the center of District 1 and is bustling with every type of good you could want. Clothes, household items, produce, meat, flowers... it's all here. We stopped in one afternoon in search of a snack and were confronted with way too many options. We chose to sit at a very small stall that was being run by 3 women, and the specialty seemed to be all manner of mollusk. Not on ice.
We went for the safer items of bo lot and bun cha  with a few beers. But the displays of shells were impressive and they had a lot of customers ordering. I was just amazed that the 3 women were able to prep, cook, and do dishes in a space the size of my bedroom closet!

It was really hot that afternoon and it was sweltering in the market so we only did a quick browse after our snack but it's an awesome market for sure.
There is also the Ben Thanh Street Food Market which happens at night. It's a great atmosphere with all sorts of food stalls, communal picnic tables, and is very tourist friendly. In fact, I doubt there were any locals but it was perfect for our group as we could all get whatever we wanted and sit together with a bunch of Tiger beers.

I was after banh khot, tiny savory rice flour "pancakes". I found them and got a delicious variety order of them, as well as had some great bo lot  and a good banh mi.  It was also a very fun atmosphere.

Farther away in the Cholon district, we visited the Binh Tay Market. This area is called Chinatown and the market is massive! When we were there, the main building was under construction so stalls were in long, narrow, temporary buildings. Each one seemed to be selling the same things; one of kitchen products, one of candy, one of Chinese New Year decorations. The walkway down the middle was hardly there!

When we were able to find a proper walkway we had to jump out of the way of motorbikes and dodge street food vendors. It was a madhouse and very claustrophobic! It was also unlike any market I have ever been to (which is a LARGE number!).

The Cholong neighborhood was also an absolute sea of traffic. Just the noise was confusing to the senses! Buses, taxis, cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, all jammed together with no streetlights or crosswalks. It was crazy!

I'd recommend going to this market and area but I would actually hire a private guide to lead.

We found that there was so much to do, see, and eat in Ho Chi Minh City that we never got outside of it for any day trips. I absolutely loved this huge bustling city and hope to get back to explore more.

All HCMC photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part One
Cruising the Mekong River
Sailing Away; Vietnam to Cambodia
Ringing in 2018 Phnom Penh Style
Wat a First Day
Temples Take Two
Stationed in Siem Reap

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