A Travellerspoint blog

Historic Hoi An & Hue

semi-overcast 20 °C

Nearing the end of our journey, our energy levels had slightly dampened so Hoi An couldn't have come at a better time. Its a beautiful small city situated on the coast of the South China Sea with an exceptional blend of Chinese, Japanese and French style architecture. Its quaintness & historical importance earned Hoi An its right to become UNESCO protected. Because of this you truely do feel as if you've stepped back in time as you walk along the narrow cobbled streets.

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P1030675.jpg Hoi An at night

The heart of Hoi An is the 'Old Town' which nestles against the Thu Bon river & once served as a major trading port. The Old Town is very atmospheric, especially at night when the hundreds of lanterns are lit across town and the restaurants & cafes come into their own.

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Hoi An doesn't have many tourist attractions however the city's charm is its biggest drawcard. The old Chinese style shophouses are now filled with boutique art galleries, tailors, crafts, restaurants, wine bars & cafes.
We fell in love with the food scene in Hoi An. The fresh food markets displayed the most colourful and fragrant range of produce, some of which we'd never seen or heard of before. On our second day we joined a cooking school and spent the day cooking up a Vietnamese storm.

P1030644.jpg Red Bridge coking school

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P1030678.jpg Relaxing in Cargo's..one of the best bakeries ever!

P1030663.jpg Nathan eating local dish Ca Lao

One must see in Hoi An is the Japanese Covered Bridge. It was built in the early 1600's by the Japanese community & today is the symbol of Hoi An. Another thing you can't afford not to do is get a suit or coat made by one of the hundreds of tailors in the Old Town. Once you've chosen your preferred store, decided on your material & design, they'll whip you up a made to measure piece of clothing within 24 hrs for a minimal cost.

P1030580.jpg Japanese Covered Bridge

After 5 days of good food, good wine & leisurely strolls, it was time to move on. We finally mustered up the energy and courage I must add, to jump on another terrifying bus to journey to take us 4 hrs North to Hue.

The former imperial city of Hue is the most important historical and cultural monument in Vietnam. The beautiful Perfume River flows through the centre of the city, whilst the surrounding countryside is studded with elaborate tombs built during the time of the Nguyen Emperors.

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We had one night and one full day to explore the city. Our hotel was located in the new part of town so on the evening we arrived, we decided to check out the local restaurant & bar scene which to our dissappoint was pretty average. The weather had turned for the worst too so we ended up calling it a night by 9pm and retreated back to our hotel.

The next day we woke up bright & early ready for a jam packed city tour which included a visit to the Citadel, royal tombs & a pleasant dragon boat ride down the Perfume river. Unfortunately it was still grey & drizzly outside so we didn't get to see Hue at its best. The citadel however was still impressive. It is a great sprawling complex of temples, pavilions, moats, walls, gates, shops, museums and galleries, featuring art and costumes from various periods of Vietnamese history. We managed to also stop off at the majestic Thien Mu Pagoda and had a suprise invitation for lunch by the head monk which we sadly had to decline as we had to keep with the group (this reminded me why I usually don't go on group tours). Instead we managed to fit in a fews minutes to watch the young monks share a vegetarian feast in their communal hall.

P1030743.jpg Citadel entrance

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P1030747.jpg Thien Pagoda

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P1030764.jpg Dragon Boat

Posted by willbourn 19:50 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Unexpected Beauty Of Vietnam's Coastline

Mui Ne and Nha Trang

semi-overcast 25 °C

If you're like us, when you think of Vietnam, what first springs to mind are green rice paddies, dense jungle forest and muddy rivers. So we were pleasantly surprised by long white stretches of sand and deep blue water we came across along the east coast.

After leaving Saigon we travelled for 6hrs by bus to Mui Ne. Mui Ne is Vietnam's next big beach resort which not too long ago was just a sleepy fishing village. Alot has changed. No longer can you walk or drive along the coastal road and admire the ocean. The beachfront is crammed with hotels upon hotels, the only positive point is that they've built them quite tastefully without a giant high rise in site.

P1030482.jpg Remaining fishing port in Mui Ne

Once you're on the beach standing infront of these hotels, you have the most magnificent stretch of beach to admire & walk along. As it was the rainy season when we were there, the ocean was quite vicious and the sea breeze was even wilder. This made the sea difficult to swim in, however the conditions were ideal for the hundreds of kite surfers who had arrived on its shores. Against the grey backdrop of the sky was a striking picture of colourful neon kites.

P1030459.jpg Kite surfers on Mui Ne Beach

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P1030540.jpg Mui Ne Beach on a calmer day

P1030534.jpg A Miami like sunset in Mui Ne

Not only has Mui Ne got a great beach to keep you busy, beyond it's immediate boundaries are various natural attractions which just keep on surprising you. The best way to explore this part of countryside is by hiring a jeep and using the knowledge of a local guide.

P1030507.jpg White Sand Dunes

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P1030519.jpg Sand Sledding

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P1030501.jpg Red Canyon near Mui Ne

P1030471.jpg Kate walking the 'Fairy Stream'

Our next surprise along the East Coast was Nha Trang, the premier beach town in Vietnam. We had heard more about Nha Trang but wasn't sure what to expect. Unlike Mui Ne, Nha Trang has been on the tourist map for awhile. Nha Trang is far more developed and has the high rise buildings we dread but the beach is gorgeous. Thankfully we found a nice corner of town, a friendly guesthouse and Louisana Brewery Restaurant to spend our time in. The brewery not only served us up nice beer & food, it has a prime position on the beach and has a beautiful pool for customers to use.

P1030573.jpg Nha Trang Beach

P1030577.jpg Kate on Nha Trang Beach

P1030562.jpg Louisana Brewhouse pool

As we were further north, the weather was changing day by day for the worse. We only managed to get two sunny days on Nha Trang beach before accepting defeat.

Posted by willbourn 02:31 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Bringing In The New Year In Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City

semi-overcast 26 °C

Despite the official name change in 1975, Ho Chi Minh City is still more commonly known as Saigon.

The city of motorbikes is the heart of Southern Vietnam and the capital of commerce. It's a massive city with an even bigger urban sprawl. We were pre-warned about the fast pace but nothing can really prepare you for the madness. Saigon never sleeps or has a moments rest.

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We settled in the popular backpackers district Pham Ngu Lao which is an ideal base to explore the city and an even better place to celebrate NYE. Pham Ngu Lao is filled with thinly stacked guesthouses, cafes & shops selling souvenirs, cheap clothing & dvds.

P1030417.jpg Typical street in Pham Ngu Lao

On New Years Eve day we toured the city centre on foot and had the important task of finding a nice restaurant to spend the evening. The upmarket side of town near Dong Khoi is very modern and has many high rise office buildings, air conditioned shopping malls & boutiques. The streets are wide, clean and lined with beautiful green trees, a different picture to the narrow dirty streets you usually see in Vietnam.

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On New Years Eve we drank & dined our way through the night at the restaurant Jaspers. We treated ourselves to a generous serving of Australian steak and a bottle of delicous red wine, quite the opposite to the noodles and rice we've been recently surviving on. Minutes before midnight we left the restaurant and joined the hundreds of locals in the main street near the Saigon River. At the stroke of midnight thousands of colourful balloons were released into the air and the song Happy New Year by Abba was loudly broadcasted from the speaker system.

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Like most people in the world, we had a sleepy New Years Day. We only mustered up the energy to stroll through the nearby Ben Thanh Market in the afternoon and spend the rest of the day in a cafe sipping on strong Vietnamese coffee.

P1030357.jpg Ben Thanh Market

During a stay in Saigon, a visit to the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels is a must. On our last day we joined a small tour group led by a war veteran. The Cu Chi Tunnels is an impressive network of underground tunnels stretching over 200kms designed & used by the Viet Cong during the French & Vietnam War. Only seeing them in real life can you appreciate the survival skills, strength and intelligence these people had.

P1030422.jpg Tunnel entrance

P1030444.jpg Range of American missiles found on the site

P1030421.jpg Booby trap at Cu Chi

Posted by willbourn 02:01 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Christmas By The Sea In Sihanoukville

Serendipity Beach & Bamboo Island

sunny 31 °C

Sihanoukville, Cambodia's premier beach town, is the perfect place to finish a busy cultural and heart wrenching tour of Cambodia.

We didn't have the highest of expectations after recently spending weeks on the blissful Thai Islands, however we were quite blown away with the beautiful beachfront and atmosphere.

With long stretches of white sand, upbeat bars and a huge variety of restaurants, we could understand why Sihanoukville is so popular and would be the ideal place for us to spend Christmas 2008.

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We arrived on the 23rd of December and within a matter of hours Nathan had reserved a table for us at a English owned restaurant for Christmas Day.

Our Christmas celebrations started on Xmas Eve when we spent the whole day on the beach eating lobster and drinking cold beers with regular intervals in the clear blue water.

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That evening we had a BBQ seafood dinner at a open air restaurant which overlooked the bay of Serendipity Beach. From our candle lit table, we watched the beach bars light up with various fire shows & firework displays. In usual Christmas Eve tradition, we continued the night drinking & dancing at the popular Session's Bar on the beachfront. They put on a big party with their own fire display, loads of old school Christmas tunes and the bar staff all dressed up as Santa.

P1030189.jpg Xmas Eve dinner overlooking Serendipity Beach

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Christmas Day started with a swim on Serendipity Beach and a few relaxed hours soaking up the sun. With great anticipation, we arrived at Tranquility restaurant at 4pm for our traditional Christmas Dinner. The Brit's had decorated their restaurant with the usual festive decorations and had traditional Christmas tunes playing in the background. We couldn't have asked for anything better than what turned up on our plates. Roast Turkey with all the trimming..pigs n blankets, roast pots, cranberry sauce etc! They even topped it off with Christmas Pudding with custard brandy sauce, mince pies and Christmas Cake. After several hours in Tranquility we finally rolled back to our guesthouse.

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P1030249.jpg Xmas dinner at Tranquility

A few days later we decided to spend a couple of nights on the nearby Bamboo Island in the Gulf Of Thailand. This was a real Robinson Crusoe destination. With very limited electricity and only a handful of beachfront bungalows, it was the ideal place for some r & r. We only had to walk a few steps from our bungalow to the sea and could hear the sound of the ocean's waves as we went to bed each night.

P1030329.jpg Bamboo Island

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P1030339.jpg Our bungalow on Bamboo Island

P1030343.jpg The beach only steps away from our bungalow

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P1030350.jpg Koh Ru restaurant, Bamboo Island

We returned to Sihanoukville on the 29th of December for one last night before leaving Cambodia bound for Vietnam.

Posted by willbourn 03:55 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

A City With Two Faces

Phnom Penh - The Capital Of Cambodia

semi-overcast 28 °C

We arrived in Cambodia's capital city at midday which gave us a few stress free hours to find a guesthouse & feed our growing appetite. Zipping through the city's centre on a tuk tuk, we took in the sights and were quite impressed on how manicured & clean the streets were. The boulevard which runs alongside the river has a lively restaurant scene and later we discovered is lovely to walk along in the afternoon when the blazing sun has calmed down.

P1030130.jpg Phnom Penh riverside

P1030134.jpg Roadside barber..brilliant!

Phnom Penh has two sides to it. You have to take the good with the bad. Although there is alot of wealth in Phnom Penh, there is a hell of a lot of poverty, especially on the outskirts.

P1030097.jpg Famous map of Cambodia in S21

There is a constant reminder of the torment this Country has experienced from the Khmer Rouge and how recent those events took place. No matter where you are in the city, you don't have to look hard to see the after effects. You could be sitting in the nicest cafe in the nicest street and have a poor amputee crawl up to you & beg for money which is quite difficult to deal with.

Since entering Cambodia, I've been reading the book 'Voices from S21' by David Chandler which describes the horror of Tuol Sleng (a torture & detention centre also known as S21) from the tortured and tortures themselves. Learning more about Pol Pots revolution and genocide in Cambodia, I was even more nervous but eager to visit S21 & the killing fields in Phnom Penh.

Words cannot describe the feeling you get from walking the corridors of S21. Shortly after the fall of Pol Pot, S21 was discovered and quickly turned into a memorial/museum for surviving Cambodians and international tourists to visit. Most of the cells have been left untouched however in the rooms where prisoners were interrogated, mug shots and photography of the war now line the walls. After spending a moving 3hrs in the museum, we jumped in a tuk tuk and drove 15kms south to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

P1030110.jpg S21

P1030106.jpg Corridor in S21

On entering the Killing Fields, you can't help but feel a wave of grief for the thousands of innocent victims who were executed here. Half of the graves have now been excavated however the other half remains untouched. What is really disturbing is some of the victims clothes and shattered bones are still scattered around the grounds. Rising above the centre of the fields now stands a tall white stupa which serves as a memorial to the victims. Kept within the stupa's glass walls are over 8000 skulls found during the excavation here.

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A visit to Phnom Penh is an emotional one, however like I said you have to take the good with the bad. Luckily there is alot of good going on now. On one of our more pleasant days touring the grand palace and riverside, we stopped off at the Friends International restaurant. The restaurant is one of the many projects this organisation has to help kids get off the streets & build a better future for them. It was uplifting to be in there, not to mention it had fab food!

Posted by willbourn 02:01 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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