A tour of communist southeast Asia

It’s a Holiday in Cambodia

Our plan was to get up early enough to have time for a tour of the War Remnants Museum,Pantsuits! which is supposed to be really good. But we’re unlucky with the buses and instead take to wandering in a direction we haven’t been yet. Eventually we find a cozy little café to sit down for a mid-morning coffee and just look at people. Something we’ve been noticing all over Vietnam is the hilariously ubiquitous pantsuits, without fail worn by elderly ladies and found in all sorts of gaudy colors and patterns. To top it all off they usually have the cone shaped straw hat as well, they really are a walking cliché of everything Vietnamese.

Choeung EkHeading back to the bus station we happen upon the morning market next to the hostel which we haven’t yet explored since it’s been all tours, all the time here in Saigon. Since we both love markets, we take some time to wander around and look at all the wondrous things; live frogs, fish, snails, strange fruits, scampi and pantsuits, pantsuits, pantsuits! I just wish I was better at filming, so as to properly capture the spirit of it all!

About fifteen minutes before the bus is supposed to leave, a guy shows up to fetch us at the hostel. It’s not like it’s far or hard to find or anything, but it seems to be the standard around here. On the bus they collect money for the visa right away and off we go. They’re showing an entertainingly stupid Bollywood movie, it really has everything – thoroughly unlikable characters, inane, predictable plot and a deplorable misogynistic machismo message. It’s also characteristically long, with an 80 minute flashback to a previous incarnation of the main character, an hour or so into the main plot. It does its job of passing the time excellently though, and before long we’re at the Cambodian border crossing.

When planning the trip I found a site where you could get e-visas. I didn’t get any though, since they were twice the price of a normal visa. While waiting in line I see that a family on the same bus as us all have them, but it doesn’t seem to earn them any advantages. They don’t even get faster service. In the end the process is rather expedient and I really see no reason to get the visa online. As we set off toward Phnom Penh, Jello Biafra is manically singing in my head – “It’s a holiday in Cambodia, where people dress in black!” while outside the window casinos are swooshing by, each more unsightly than the previous one.

Choeung Ek PagodaThere’s a quick stop for lunch at what looks more or less like a garage and we’re left to point at what looks tasty. The vegetarians behind us opt for plain rice, which turns out to be a smart move as the stuff we though was just salad, actually has bits of pork rind in it! The road to Phnom Penh is surprisingly good, it’s also really straight and the bus is hurtling on at over 100 km/h.Toul Sleung Prison That, coupled with the fact that there is virtually no shoulder on the road leaves little wonder over the horrible accident statistics the guy at our table at lunch quoted.

Stepping off the bus in Phnom Penh there are loads upon loads of tuk-tuk men swarming us. I go to get some local money and find that the ATM dispenses both Cambodian riel and US dollars, the tuk-tuk man explains that most prefer dollars however so we only get some souvenir riels. Our way to the hotel gets held up when a parade decides to pass, our driver shakes his head and explains that it’s the reigning political party that arranges these stunts to make it appear that they’re popular, especially now with the election just weeks away. Our hotel is in the backpacker district and turns out to be very nice indeed. Jen had uncharacteristically enough splurged on a boutique hotel, which is basically a regular hotel, but tiny. We manage a walking tour of the backpacker area before a late dinner, which is wholly uninspiring and jam packed with the usual backpacker bars.

We had arranged for the guy from yesterday to meet us in the morning to take us around for the sights, starting out with the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. The drive there doesn’t paint a flattering picture of Phnom Penh, it looks a lot like the more run-down parts of India (which is saying something), and with predictable regularity the governmental campaign booths are declaring how good a job they’re doing. The Killing Fields area is actually just a small area, devoid of buildings and other signs that it used to be a death camp in the vein of the Nazi ones. The audio tour explains why – as soon as the regime was toppled, the locals tore down all buildings on the site to eradicate all visible traces of it. So what’s left is a series of signs and cordoned off areas that used to be mass graves.

The facts are chilling, apparently over two million people – over 20% of the population – were killed in camps just like this one all over Cambodia. Bullets were precious, so usually sharpened shovels or bamboo sticks were used to kill people. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was ostensibly out to create the perfect communist state where only honest blue collar workers are allowed. That meant that anyone with academic training was a target (incidentally the same people least likely to fall for this rhetoric…). It went to almost comical extremes, where in the end anyone who could read, or indeed had glasses, was a target.

Scooter partsAs you walk around, you are likely to see actual bones sticking out of the ground, the groundskeepers are regularly picking them up but there are just so many and during the rainy season new pieces are washed up every day. You move from stop to stop, listening to the audio tour, which is very well put together with eyewitness accounts mixed with hard facts. It’s chilling to think that it’s such recent history, the worst of it transpired around the late seventies, with Pol Pot being toppled in 1979. But the Khmer Rouge stayed around as a resistance movement operating out of Thailand and even kept their seat in the UN all the way up until 1993!

The tour ends at the memorial stupa built in the middle of the compound, inside which they’ve put some of the bones they’ve dug up. The lowest levels are filled with skulls while higher up there are femurs, pelvises and so on. You can’t go up though, so all you can see up close are the skulls which all of them bears various signs of blunt force trauma. It’s like watching an episode of CSI – except that it’s real…

Gas for sale!Our driver has been waiting around and tries to talk us into taking a detour to the nearby shooting range. “You can shoot anything you like! Machine gun, rocket launcher, Gatling gun, throw grenades – nobody cares, only in Cambodia!”, he boasts smiling. We turn him down though and he takes us to our next destination; Toul Sleung prison. Toul Sleung is a former school turned prison where they kept a lot of the perceived dissidents and tortured them in the most horrible ways. There is not much to see here though, you walk around and all you see are empty rooms and a few photos. One of the buildings has a few, unbelievably cramped, ad-hoc cells and you can also see old bed frames to which the prisoners were strapped while being tortured.

Out in the yard we run into a deaf old man, selling a book with the account of his experiences as a prisoner here. The torture they subjected him to is what made him deaf and we end up buying his book. That is as much depression we can take for one day however so we tell our driver to drop us off at the Russian Market which, even if it sounds sort of tacky, turns out to be a lot of fun. They sell pretty much anything you can imagine and is packed with locals which is really fun. We pass by meat stands, street food hawkers, flower salesmen, t-shirt hawkers, art dealers, scooter parts shops (seriously, I swear you could build an entire scooter out of parts here!), jewelry stores, rug salesmen and the usual tourist trinkets as well. It’s a labyrinthine place and you easily get lost, but it really doesn’t matter since if you at any point just pick a direction you soon enough find yourself outside again.

A tour of communist southeast Asia

Snake- and bee wrangling

New day, new tour – this time we’re going to the Cai Be floating market, which is a wholesale market where barges come loaded with fruits and veggies and lock arms on the river to do their trading.Snake wrangler The market is a two hour drive though, so we take the opportunity to catch up on sleep. We’d imagined we’d see barges overflowing with pineapple, melons and exotic fruits.Beekeeper The reality is much more boring however, most of the barges are covered and you only get to see a hint of their cargo as you float past, so we don’t dwell on the market very long and instead move on to the next stop of the tour which in the description was called the “Coconut candy factory”. Now I took it as a given that this would be the usual tour stops where it’s either beautiful but entirely unnecessary stuff (that would cost a fortune to ship) or the plain crappy stuff of dubious quality that you don’t want for that reason.

But this place is refreshingly different from the others I’ve been to, it feels more authentic in a way I can’t put my finger on. There is the coconut candy that’s actually really tasty, we get to try and make the rice paper used when making spring rolls and we get to taste too many snake, pineapple and ginger infused kinds of booze (yeah, they’re pretty much universally awful). I’m off taking pictures of something when I suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, spot Jen in the process of wearing a python! The kids surrounding her are ecstatic that she dares to do it – if they only knew… =P Soon it’s my turn (my first time handling a snake actually) and it’s just awesome to feel the smooth, raw muscle sliding around on you!

Next we stop at a large wok pan, filled with very fine, heated, black sand. We get to watch as a guy pours rice into it and immediately it starts popping violently. Within 20 seconds all the rice has popped and the guy grabs a large bowl and starts scooping up the rice, pouring it through a large sieve, ridding it of sand. In less than two minutes he’s gone from raw to puffed rice, very cool! Afterwards we get to sit down and have some honey and pollen tea, it’s very nice and the subject of conversation naturally drift towards bees and he says the pollen and honey is all local. I ask him if we can see a hive and he doesn’t really like the idea. But we twist his arm until he agrees and he takes us to this woman who apparently is the bee wrangler. She happily shows us the hive, which is just next to the café while our guide is keeping a safe distance.River tour She unceremoniously picks up one of the honeycombs and hands it over to an eager Jennifer who inspects it closely all the while our guide watches with a horrified look on his face.

Elephant ear fishThe bees mark the end of our factory stop and we board the boat again to cross the river and end up at a restaurant of sorts where we get to watch a rather lame music show. Next to the restaurant is an orchard though and that part of the tour is something we’ve been looking forward to. It too is a bit of a letdown though, there isn’t much fruit in there, mostly mud and a few jack fruit trees. The best part is actually all the bugs Jen manages to find. Down to the river again and this time we’re put into a canoe and are off to explore a small side river that feeds into the mighty Mekong. It’s very serene and you actually get a bit of a jungle feeling as we slowly make our way through. Afterwards it’s time for lunch and we’re taken to a very nice restaurant that serves elephant ear fish, deep fried in its entirety. You then just hack off pieces from the flank and eat, it’s delicious and the only thing disturbing the perfect afternoon is the boatload of, presumably American, dudebros and -gals that are also getting their lunch there. This marks the end of the tour and as we get back into town we make sure that arrangements are set for the bus trip into Cambodia tomorrow morning.

A tour of communist southeast Asia

Tunneling like it’s 1969

We’re met by our guide Dominic at the hostel and he takes us down to the Mekong to a surprisingly luxurious speedboat.Vietcong tunnels Today’s tour is going to the Cu Chi tunnels, this is where the Vietnamese resistance hid during the days while the Americans were bombing. It actually was an entire community under ground, complete with kitchen and all! We booked with a tour company that guaranteed a group size no larger than 10 people and to our satisfaction we discover that we’re actually the only people on the tour. Dominic is a very nice guy with excellent English and an interest in current events, so we end up talking about anything from military service to religion and politics with him. The boat ride is really nice and the breeze really helps making the intense heat bearable.

The Cu Chi area is more than just the tunnels, you get to see a video with footage from the war, there is a parade of all the nasty traps they were setting. There is examples of how they harvested dud grenades and made them into booby traps. Other handicraft as well, like making sandals out of old tires (with the interesting side effect that they could easily fake that vehicles had passed through an area) and sewing clothes. There’s one spot where you get to see how the entrance to the tunnels would look, it’s simply a metal frame some 45×20 cm (which is about 10 cm wider than they used to be to accommodate tourists).AK-47 Dominic invites us to try and fit down into the hole and Jen manages quite easily while I have a much harder time even with my arms straight up. Some jiggling and scuffing is required for me to get down properly and it’s a bit claustrophobic for sure.

You also get to go through some, appropriately widened, tunnels. You don’t even have to crawl actually, it’s sufficient to just hunch over and you have a guy in front of you showing the way so you feel quite safe. There’s also a shooting range here and even though I’m not all that into guns I can’t resist the chance of shooting some AK-47. We split a ten shot package between us, Jen goes first and really gets the complete AK experience with misfires and all! The guy assisting us just pulls the bolt back, sending the misfired cartridge soaring in a parabola into his waiting hand and motions Jen to go on. Three misfires later he pulls out the magazine and tops it back up with the misfired cartridges before I get to go. Overall Cu Chi is a great tourist location and I would highly recommend it if you’re in the area.

The tour isn’t over though, on the way back we have a stop at a cricket farm. The place isn’t all that big, but the owners are probably well off by Vietnamese standards. The crickets live in open top boxes but seem to be content staying there. We get to dig around the crickets while they explain the rearing process and how the crickets are then shipped off to restaurants that actually serve them.Eating crickets The also have another kind of bug that they grow, but that one’s only used as food at fish farms, probably much better than the fish pellets that the salmon farms are using! We also get to snack on the little buggers, a plate filled with deep fried crickets is accompanied by another plate of greens and some rice paper. You wet the rice paper and put greens and crickets on it like a tiny tortilla, or spring roll I guess and roll it up. It’s fun to see the limbs and heads sticking out and it really is quite tasty. A bit crunchy, but not too much. We actually finish the entire plate and the family who owns the farm seem very pleased.

Our last stop is back in town, where we’re served a very nice lunch at a very nice restaurant that we’d never found if it weren’t for this tour. It wasn’t the cheapest company out there, but easily worth the extra money. Dominic is an excellent guide and we got exactly what we wanted out of the tour, so I have nothing but praise for Buffalo Tours that set it up! The remainder of the day is spent wandering around, like we are wont to do. We make sure to make it back to have time to go for the blind people massage that is more or less next door to our hostel. I have all sorts of preconceived notions about how great it will be but maybe my high expectations end up being the problem. It’s not that special actually, as usual the masseur doesn’t have any training, he only does the usual poking and prodding that you get anywhere. His English is rather limited too, but at least it’s a relaxing hour for a measly 60 000 vnd (less than 20 sek!), so I’d call it a win.

A tour of communist southeast Asia

Tailor Made

With delays and all, the ride to Da Nang takes about 16 hours. We exit the station in blistering heat and are accosted by various cab drivers.Biker chick One guy catches our attention with above average English and a suggestion about doing a tour by motorbike. Since we’re only staying the day here, our only plan was to do two sights; the Hoi An old town, which is something like 15 km outside Da Nang and the Marble Mountains which is still in Da Nang, but not very central. We weren’t even sure we’d be able to do both, but with these guys it wouldn’t be a problem. After a bit of negotiating we get a price of 400 000 dong apiece (about 125 sek) for being driven around all day on motorbikes, hitting both our planned sights and even squeezing in a dip in the ocean to boot!

Locals wants to pose with usFirst off we need a place to store our bags though, and since this rather major train station oddly enough doesn’t have any storage lockers we entrust the bags to this family owned kiosk for a modest fee. Off we go, down south to Hoi An! The landscape isn’t that interesting, the beach access is mostly closed off due to various construction projects, mostly it seems to be country clubs and resorts they’re building. Many of them seemed to have stopped half way and my driver explains that they were having trouble with their permits, I guess they didn’t pay off the right officials or something. Getting to Hoi An takes a little more than half an hour and my driver says that I will spend a lot of money there. I disagree and say we’re not there to do shopping, he only smiles.

They drop us off in the center of town, right next to a tailor shop. It’s almost lunch and since we’ve haven’t had any breakfast we decide to go for lunch before anything else. Walking up the street it seems like the café/restaurant right where we started out is our best option. During lunch I’m warming up to the idea to get a tailor-made shirt or two, so we walk over to the shop and sit down to look at models.Marble Mountain Temple About 15 minutes later I’m picking out fabric for the three piece suit I’m getting made. It’s unclear how it happened, but I actually need a suit, so why the hell not..? Jen decides to get three dresses and after our measurements have been taken they tell us to come back in an hour for fitting.

Hoi An is touted as an ancient town and a great tourist destination but we’re not really impressed. While it’s clean, has a fair amount of greenery and relatively nice houses it’s just plain boring. It’s very touristy, everyone is shouting after you and it actually turns out that about 50% of the shops in town are tailors! We find a very spartan café where we can escape the blistering heat and just wait for our outfits to be done. The suit actually fits perfectly on the first try and Jen’s dresses need only minor adjustment. All in all my three piece suit and two shirts cost me just over 2600 sek, not bad at all.

Pigeon!Going back to Da Nang we stop at the Marble Mountains, which are these two marble knolls that oddly stick up from the otherwise very flat landscape. You can go up on one of them and it’s basically covered with temples. It’s fairly small and half an hour is plenty of time to do it, even if you explore every nook and cranny. Our guide, which we didn’t ask for, is a friend of our drivers and naturally she owns one of the hundred or so marble shops at the foot of the mountain. So we dutifully go and look at her wares and as per usual with these kinds of places most of the stuff is really pretty, but also wholly impractical and not something you’d want in your home. We end up buying the smallest thing we can find just to placate her and move on back to town.

Final stop is at the beach where we pay like 1.25 sek for entry and go for a quick dip in the ocean. Mostly it’s the shower afterwards we’re after as it’s been an intensely hot day and we’re facing another night on a train before we get to Ho Chi Minh City. With plenty of time to spare before our train leaves we get dinner at this really hipstery place with nevertheless pretty good food. Of course the train is late as well, so we spend upwards two hours in the sweltering hot station house before being let out into the railway yard. I’m calling it a railway yard because that’s what it mostly is; there are no platforms at all, and no indicated places to cross either. It’s rather difficult to discern to which track you’re supposed to go, so basically we just go over to one of the trains and ask an official-looking person to point us the right way.

Squid manOur compartment this time is split with a Vietnamese family with two people sharing one of the cots and three people in the other. This leg is supposed to take around 14 h but end up taking 16, excluding the late departure. Luckily we can buy some noodles to tide us over until we pull into Ho Chi Minh City. The taxi guy is trying for a full five minutes to get us to pay a fixed price but we’re adamant and it actually ends up costing us almost half as much as he wanted us to pay. Not a great start to our Ho Chi Minh City experience.

The hostel is hidden away in a cramped alley, next to what feels like at least 20 other hostels. It has decent WiFi, clean rooms and a nice bed – all you need really. After cleaning up we quiz the staff about sights and head out on the town. We start by getting dinner at what in hindsight, seemed to be a frog restaurant. This wasn’t very clear at the time though and the menus or the staff weren’t very helpful in that respect. We ended up eating grilled whole pigeon and some kind of frog stew, both rather tasty, especially the pigeon. It’s dark by now but having rested most of the day we decide to do a walking tour of the city center. Pretty early on we decide that it’s not as likable as Hanoi, there is a lot of traffic for instance, even late into the night and there is also a much larger emphasis of car traffic. We walk all the way down to the Cathedral where a lot of younger people are hanging out, seemingly just talking. In Sweden they would all be drinking alcohol but here there is none in sight, just a lot of food sellers, including a guy pushing a cart full of dried squid (the perfect late night snack!). We also pass through the super posh quarters around city hall, packed with European luxury brand shops. When we finally make it back to the hostel we’ve probably walked upwards to 10 km.

A tour of communist southeast Asia

Dong Country

We say goodbye to Jaime in the morning and sleep in a bit since our flight doesn’t leave until the afternoon. Hong Kong airport really is something, very modern and pleasantly able to keep a sane level of air condition, where others just opt for the ‘Celtic frost’ setting.Students We’re left sitting on the runway for a while due to heavy rain and thunder, but all in all we come into Hanoi not more than half an hour late. We did the visa application online, but there’s still another form to fill out once we get there of course. Double entry visas are $65 apiece and we don’t quite have that in USD but the guy is nice enough to take it in Chinese Yuan. When looking up the exchange rate though, he selects CHF (Swiss Francs) instead of CNY which actually gives us more money back than the visas cost! We help the poor guy realize his mistake though and he’s very embarrassed and helpful after that.

Adorable kids!Surprisingly many of the money changers won’t take Chinese Yuan, so Jen with her 15,000 Yuan pack of bills is having a hard time getting her hands on Vietnamese Dongs (heehee). The ATM I find has a fee of 30,000 dong (˜10 sek), which seems to be true for most ATMs (except at least VientinBank). We also get a Vietnamese SIM card since they’re only about $10 and it could be handy if we’re in a bind somewhere. A taxi into central Hanoi ends up costing us 500,000 dong (225 sek) for the 45 minute ride, a bit more than expected, but whatever.

The Golden Time Hostel 2 has the most adorable and service minded owner you can imagine. She’s super helpful, speaks decent English and really goes out of her way to set things up for us. The hostel itself if very nice as well, with large clean rooms, a big bed and decent WiFi. She tells us that we can leave our big bags at the hostel while we go for the cruise in Ha Long Bay and even have a shower as we get back before getting on the train to Da Nang! First we have an evening in Hanoi to look forward to though. The owner marks a bunch of sights on a map, but most of them are closed at this hour. There are a ton of cozy little shops lining the streets so we just head out to wander around looking at those. We happen on a bag store, and since Jen’s backpack has seen better days and she needs a slightly bigger one, she gets a huge new one (75 + 15 l!) and a smaller carry-on, all for 800,000 dong!

Jen in Ha Long BayThere is a little lake right in the middle of the area we’re in, so we go for a stroll around it. The mood is very cozy and non-threatening with kids running around all over even though it’s late-ish (around 21). We run into a bunch of students that have gotten an assignment to interview tourists to practice their English. They are very cute and we stay and chat for a bit. All things considered, Hanoi is really nice so far; cozy little stores, salesmen who will take a no gracefully, and very nice food.

We have an early pickup the next day for our cruise in Ha Long bay. Surprisingly enough, the traffic is really slow and feels rather safe here, no one is driving full tilt and overtaking anything that moves. The drive out takes about 3.5 hours and even though it’s off-season, the boat is full. The cabins are very nice even though the boat exterior has seen better days. As we pull out you can really appreciate how lovely the scenery is here in Ha Long bay, I was a bit nervous that the pictures you see of the place were more or less taken at the same little area from different angles. But that turns out to be unfounded, the bay is very large and the rock formation endless in their variety. It has been overcast the whole day so far, making the light difficult to take good photos in and as we pull up to our first stop at a private island; the heavens open up and a torrential rain starts pouring down.

Swimming in the rain!The island has a cave and we go there first. It was discovered by some fishermen, which made it their home for a while (and trashing most of the stalactites in the process), until the government took it over. Now the cruise company rents the island and are obligated to take care of the cave too. The problem is that ‘taking care of’ apparently includes putting masonry all over the ceiling so that stuff doesn’t fall down on tourists or something. It’s still a rather impressive cave though. Emerging from the cave again, the rain has turned into a full on thunderstorm! The storm is not that close though and there are plenty of high islands and boats for the lightning to hit, so we’re not that worried about going swimming. It’s maybe not the Ha Long bay experience you see in the brochures, but we’re having a great time!

For dinner we’re seated next to a the nice deaf couple from San Fransisco and we have conversation through note-passing. I tell them that they should try diving since communicating for them wouldn’t be any different from what they do on land. They like the idea and say they’ll probably give it a shot. The next stop is the following morning and it is a fishing village. Since the the islands around Ha Long bay are all limestone and rather steep, it’s not really possible to live on them. So the families are all living in floating houses here.In the fishing village So we each get a private ferryman/woman that rows us around the village. It’s rather cool to see how they’ve adapted to the life on water with little fish farms, generators for electricity and little store-boats going from house to house.

Each ferryman/woman also has a scoop net to pick up trash as it floats by, but I guess that is just common sense when tourism is a major source of income for the village. The tour ends at the oyster farm where we get to see how they cultivate pearls by prying the oyster open, putting a tissue graft from (basically a piece of shell polished into a ball) another mussel inside, followed by a gob of antibiotics to take care of possible infections. Naturally there is a shop to buy all manner of pearly creations, but we manage to escape unscathed. The village is the last stop on our cruise so after boarding we vacate our room and have one last delicious lunch. The crew are all in a row to say goodbye while we’re all gathered and the engineer even whips out the most out of tune guitar I’ve ever laid ears on and do a heartfelt ballad about Hanoi. Following lunch we grab our stuff and head up top to bask in the deck chairs and take in the view of Ha Long bay.

BaskingThe ride back to Hanoi includes a stop for a water puppet show. This is an old local tradition where you have these puppets mounted perpendicular at the end of long sticks. These sticks are then held under water so that only the puppet is showing. The puppet masters are standing behind a curtain, out of view and the result is kind of neat. The show is divided into short glimpses of everyday life; the farmer plowing his field, fending off the fox when it comes for the chicken and so on. It’s somewhat entertaining, but quickly gets boring. Fortunately it doesn’t drag on too long, considering that we have a night train to catch back in Hanoi. Luckily for us the traffic isn’t very bad and we have time for both the aforementioned shower and a light dinner before catching a taxi to the station.

At Vietnamese trains they don’t check the ticket on board the train, instead they check it as you leave the station house to enter the tracks and again as you enter the station house at your destination. If you lose your ticket there’s a sizable fine. We end up sharing a compartment with two American girls who are part of a group trip doing basically the same circuit as we are, but including Thailand as well. They are super nice and there are others from the group joining us for an evening of stories, laughter and exchanging of travel tips.