Angkor, Tomb Raider and more

One of many reasons to travel to Cambodia is to visit the myriad of ancient temple complex ruins. Indeed Angkor Wat was on our bucket list, but in researching this trip it became abundantly clear that there are lots (read really lots) of temples to discover, from many eras, in many styles, in various states of decay and restoration.

We booked a 2 day personal tour through and chose the 2 day classic (mini & grand tour) which looked like it was both extensive and informative. Our guide, Somondy, turned out to be absolutely fantastic, astutely judging our levels of fitness and fatigue, guiding us to the very best vantage points, helping us avoid the hordes of Chinese tourists, and really being personable and informative about all things Temple and Cambodia. We cannot speak more highly of him, his guidance really made the 2 days unforgettable.

Day 1 we started early (to avoid the crowds and the heat) and headed to the tourist ticket centre (you buy a pass that lets you access the temples for a number of days, it has passport photos and other details, that are checked at temple entrances for all non-Cambodians, natives are free to visit all temples, as they are still considered places of worship). Passes secured we then headed to Angkor Wat, probably the most famous of the temple complexes.

Some context: ALL currently accessible temples have been reclaimed from the jungle – some to varying degrees. Due to the tropical climate, jungle grows really fast. Banyan tree seeds are deposited in the roofs of buildings by bird and monkey poop and grow between the stones, gradually tearing the structures apart. Add to this the fact that much of the land here was saturated with bombs during the war, and studded with land mines (still a massive problem) and we realise that visitable sites have had a LOT of work done on them to restore, reconstruct and stabilise stone structures built centuries ago WITHOUT MORTAR (yep, just mounds of perfectly joined stacked stones). This in itself is remarkable, but the scope and scale of these temples is mind blowing. Add to this that most of the temple complexes are built on swampy land, that relies on the natural buoyancy of the water table so they do not sink and you begin to appreciate the magnificence of the engineering, let alone the architecture, which is something else entirely.

Angkor Wat is square ish, about 1.4km per side, has a 200m wide moat (hand dug), massive outer walls, 4 gated entrances, each a compass point, inner walled compound, consisting of stone plinth, stairways to the upper levels, cloister-like galleries encircling mountain-like towers surrounding a central tower at the highest level. I thought I understood its scale, until we entered the east gate and began walking to the inner compound. Rising from the ground are massive stone buildings, with cliff-like stairs. The journey towards enlightenment is supposed to be a struggle – this is enforced by the design of the buildings – to go higher you have to negotiate breathtaking flights of stairs.

The building complex is astonishing on many levels, but from an astrological perspective it is aligned so the king can watch sunrise through planned meridians on both summer and winter solstice, Angkor Wat is the worlds largest calendar. The configuration of the towers and their designs are informed by seasonal information, lucky numbers and complex astrological calculations that, alone, are amazing. When combined with the engineering and architecture, it is little wonder lunatic conspiracy theorists suggest aliens dunnit.

We explored, climbed to the top, marvelled at the geometry and layout of what must have been a thriving place of worship, then left by the west gate (most people enter here). The vast terraces still hold remnants of buildings like libraries, but the miasma of timber dwellings, promenades and other infrastructure necessary for living is long since lost – timber is food for termites, Cambodia is rife with them.

From Angkor Watt we then headed to Angkor Thom, an even BIGGER complex (at 10 square kilometres) and began exploring the many temples within this walled and gated compound. There are 5 gates, oddly 2 on the eastern wall (one called the “ghost gate” was used for funeral processions to cremate outside the temple). Here we first saw clear evidence of good and evil: 54 gods playing “tug of war” against 54 demons using a Naga (or many headed snake) as the rope, with Buddha looking on (because, apparently only Buddha can appreciate the balance between good and evil, and value them both). We saw statues of Buddha sitting on a coiled naga, with the head of the naga (a multiheaded cobra) providing shade everywhere. Sadly most statues were incomplete, missing heads, hands and feet (because the Khmer Rouge discovered these bits of antiquity fetched good prices on the black market, and funded their war efforts this way).

Inside Angkor Thom we walked through the towering South Gate, through the Bayon complex (named after a French archaeologist who re-discovered it). Bayon was the first temple we saw with huge faces adorning the compass points of each tower. Serene faces thought to be images of Buddha or the king, or gods and demons (no one is really sure). From here we headed to Baphuon, a small tumble down jungle temple we both loved. We then trekked to the Wall of Royal Palace, then up and over the Elephant & Leper King Terraces, remnants of infrastructure on a massive scale. Our guide then decided to stop for lunch, we ate well (if a little expensively by local standards) before heading (at lunchtime) to the jungle temple “Ta Prohm”, used in the filming of “Tomb Raider”. This strategy seemed to be a good idea, and worked brilliantly to avoid the herds of Chinese tourists that had been bussed to lunch.

We really loved the tumble-down jumble of temple remains, mossy carvings, and Banyan Tree root cleaved structures. Vast piles of rubble, partially collapsed passageways, tree root curtains and dramatic precarious gaps in leaning massive walls made for striking scenery – perfect for Lara Croft to find the hidden treasure we all know must be there somewhere. Adjacent were vast fields of numbered mossy stones, awaiting someone to piece together one of the universes most complex jigsaw puzzles.

After Ta Pron, we drove to Ta Nei, another “jungle” temple, closed to public view inside because of the tumble-down ceilings, trees growing up through walls and general jungle taking over again vibe. Conservation and preservation will eventually come here but for now it’s charm lies in the fact that a great and powerful building is undone by time and nature. It is difficult to remember all the names, or whether I forgot anything as the day was long, it was baking hot and so humid you could cut the air with a knife. None the less, when we finally said “enough”, I think we had seen all but one of the temples on the itinerary for the day, had walked miles, sweated buckets and expended more energy than we thought we had. None the less it was a brilliant day, so many moments of awe and wonderment, so difficult to convey with mere words or pictures.

Day 2 was the outer circuit, car travel far and wide to see temple complexes further away and, to our surprise, we saw a whole lot of different styles, both in architecture, configuration and decoration styles. There were a few ancient kings who were really prolific with their building plans so some commonalities were also seen.

Our first temple, East Mebon, was an “island” temple, originally in the middle of a huge man-made lake (long since dried up and filled in), this temple was a tribute to the water element. Each corner, each level was adorned with beautiful full-size carved elephants. Each of the meridians was guarded by lions (clearly the carvers had never actually seen a lion, but the imagery was at least consistently inaccurate).

On to Ta Son temple, and we were shown that most of the structure was made of bricks (as opposed to quarried limestone or sandstone as was usual). Amazingly, the structure was still largely original, and had brilliantly withstood the test of time. The climb up was perilous, down even wobblier but we made it, puffing and perspiring as the humidity was on the increase, storm clouds rumbling in the distance. Our next stop was Neak Poan, the “hospital” temple on a man made island in the middle of a newly refilled lake. This temple was really different as it offered spiritual healing. Each of the 4 elements were represented by animal fountains at each of the compass points, issuing holy water into pools that pilgrims bathed in to cleanse their spiritual impurities. The central pool had a shrine to Buddha and offered enlightenment. Pilgrims in ancient times came here to pray, cleanse and heal. They bathed in and drank the water. These days, if you drank the water you would need to go to hospital I think.

We lunched early, adopting the strategy of visiting temples at lunchtime to avoid the crowds. This far out there were fewer tourists – the roads were rough and the going a bit stomach churning, but only recently accessible by car, so getting popular. After lunch we went to the “Lady Temple”, a small but exquisite rare pink sandstone temple with some of the best ancient carving that exists. Every surface was covered in deep relief work, crisp imagery and decoration, complemented by the pink sandstone made this one of our favourite temples. Charming scenes of gods and men, dancing ladies, animals and floral motifs, just beautiful.

Our last temple was the partially restored Banteay Samre, a temple in the style of Angkor Wat, but much more compact. Built to house the remains of a kings son, it had a lovely collection of inter connected outbuildings around a central tower, covered promenades, naga balustrades and fine carving, a perfect end to what was an astonishing experience. You run out of superlatives, suffice to say we were very happy with our exploration of some of the temples in and around Siem Reap, and would recommend visiting in the cooler times of the year.

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Tuk tuk, misdirection and floating village

We had a tour booked today in the afternoon, so after a sleep in and leisurely breakfast, we decided to head into town to see what we could see. It is clear this is a hotel and party zone, hundreds of hotels and a bunch of blocks dedicated to bars, more to restaurants. We had a “Tuk tuk” (a motorcycle with a passenger compartment as a sort of trailer) take us to a destination, sort of. I am not sure the driver spoke English and we seemed to go around and around until, by luck, we found something close to where we wanted to go. It was then that we realised we did not have our card of the hotel for the return journey, but assumed all would work out.

We looked around, firstly Genevieve’s Fair Trade village (on recommendation) and then various “made in Vietnam” craft collectives, community projects and the like. It is clear the Cambodian people are gentle, polite to extraordinary lengths and quiet spoken (except in markets and road stops where they are trying to hawk their wares.

We then went to cool off, and chose The Red Piano, a famous local location, Jo got an iced coffee fix and I got a lime tea – very refreshing and cooler under a fan in the shade. Nothing prepares you for the humidity here, it is like a wall that hits you when you enter it from an air conditioned room and saps your strength almost immediately. The early mornings are coolest, with the peak of discomfort in the afternoon. We have taken to carrying water – heavy but really necessary for rehydration. After Jo had her coffee hit, she decided a “fish massage” was just the thing, and dangled her tootsies in a tank full of attentive fish, who proceeded to nibble for a half an hour – she thought they did a good job. Let us hope they are fed more than tourist feet.

We then wandered around the central market, stiflingly hot, narrow passageways with fine silver jewellery right next to a pork butcher cleaving with abandon. Live fish beside durian candy, tea with tobacco, spices with patent leather shoes, Noisy, colourful, an olfactory assault but so interesting. We purchased some bits and bobs then caught a Tuk tuk to lunch at “Tevys Place”, a local restaurant that featured in Jos food research.

We have a list of Cambodian dishes we wanted to try, and lunchtime was Fish Amok time. Simple presentation in a banana leaf cup, a subtle blend of spices, fish, a green vegetable that was a lot like spinach and coconut cream made for the perfect accompaniment for rice and a delicious lunch. The local Angkor draft beer is excellent for rehydration also, great for me, with Jo having a fruit juice mix.

After lunch, the adventure of trying to get a Tuk tuk back to the hotel began. Our driver had no English, but tried to reassure us that he knew where to go, then took off in entirely the wrong direction, we saw a LOT of Siem Reap before we could convince him to head in the right direction, only to overshoot the road and go up the wrong one for another lengthy diversion. Eventually we found “concrete drain road”, named because …. and were deposited, windswept and over it at our hotel. Time for a swim and cool-off in the pool before tour pickup.

We chose “Community First: Kompong Khleang Floating Village Tours, because the tour fees go straight back into supporting “Bridge of Life” projects in the community we visited. The tour guide was originally from the village we were to visit, so had a lot of local knowledge and many relatives still living there.

We started on a bus (small comfortable multi-seat minibus) and stopped along the way to try typical Cambodian snack foods. First up was sticky rice, cooked in bamboo with black beans and coconut cream. The long bamboo cups were charred over an open fire, then peeled to remove the black so they were thin enough to peel back revealing a cylinder of rice “cake”. It was hot, creamy and delicious. I can see why it is so popular as a snack food, and was astonished to see how many vendors lined the main road selling it. I also saw vendors with bottled liquid I assumed was sugar cane juice or some form of hooch, turned out to be petrol for motorbikes and tuk tuks.

Next stop was a Khmer baker, and samples of Khmer donuts (little deep fried rice flour and coconut snacks soaked in sugar syrup, “worm cakes”, which were rice flour shortbread of sorts in the shape of grubs – delicious (my favourite), then some dried mango (sheets of fruit leather). Fortified with snacks, we then left the bus for a long narrow motorboat to begin our river cruise.

The area we explored was the waterways swollen by the wet season rains. Locals had 2 strategies for coping with the huge variation in water level: either build your house on tall stilts, or make your house float. We saw both. Most houses clustered around small fingers of dry land, but most were surrounded by water with boat the main form of transport. We visited an island that housed a monastery and public school (their computer lab was a Bridge of Life project), learning that class sizes were 50+ in a tiny room with one teacher. Interesting what we take for granted. We saw heaps of happy kids (everyone is so nice) and classrooms, temples and pagodas. We saw people washing in the water, drinking and cooking from it, learned that their plumbing emptied into it and figured people here have strong constitutions.

We were further upstream, to learn that most of what we were boating over is actually their farmland in the dry. Locals have 2 jobs: fishing in the wet (the waters are incredibly abundant) and farming in the dry (the soils, when the water recedes is very fertile). Amazing to think that they experience a total change of lifestyle twice a year.

We visited a Bridge of Life year 1 classroom in a small but densely populated village, and a sewing school, all useful projects that suit the locals. Apparently local primary schools are the best way to educate the little ones before they can swim, and hence travel by boat to a primary/secondary school. Literacy is hard work, with a 50 or so letter alphabet, 20 vowels and a bunch of letter modifiers, the language is musical with tones making the same letter sequences mean different things.

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Motorbikes, Markets and Making Pho

As part of our holiday planning, Jo usually adds “rest” days, which are less frantic, giving us a chance to slow down and recharge. Today was our rest day, starting with a sleep in, leisurely breakfast then some low stress souvenir shopping. We are not much for souvenirs but decided to look for some uniquely Vietnamese bits and bobs. We also tried the AHA coffee house for a dose of caffeine and enjoyed people watching in the cool.

Jo had found a cooking class that offered to teach us how to make signature Vietnamese dishes (which have turned out to be some of our favourites) and our tour guide arrived and asked how we wanted to travel. Quick as a flash I said motorbike and the deal was done (much to Jo’s surprise). I was keen to try, Jo less so but off we launched into crazy busy traffic – in the end so much fun and mostly fatality free. “Grab” is south east Asian Uber, we have been using it for car travel but they also do motorbike, good to remember. The service is really responsive, you agree up front on the price, I do not know why people still use taxis.

We arrived windswept and exhilarated, and were greeted by Chef Peter who took us through the first stages in the preparation of Pho broth. Oddly the big marrow bones were washed, boiled in salted water for 15 min to clean/disgorge them, then placed in a large pot of clean water. We roasted onion shallots, red onion and ginger root unpeeled until blackened, then washed/peeled them and placed them in with the soup. We also dry roasted salt, black cardamom, star anise and cinnamon quills until quite toasted, but these would not be added to the broth for 2.5 hours (just the last half hour of cooking, else their taste is too strong). We also added dried sand worm for deep sweet umami (but were told we could substitute dried squid). 3 hours of cooking and the broth was seasoned before using.

While the broth was bubbling, we headed out on bicycle rickshaw to the markets.

In our research we had not really found a central fresh food market, but there was one and we headed there through crowded streets, the pedal cars are a fun way to travel for the passenger, could imagine they are a nightmare for the driver. Everything you could imagine was on sale, all fresh that morning, colours and smells were a sensory riot. Meat, seafood still alive, penned live soft shell turtles (I had to fight the urge to set them free), innards, eggs – some with unhatched chicks inside (local remedy for headache, it would replace headache for nausea with me). Everything fresh, nearly no smell, even in the corner they were making fresh shrimp and crab pastes.

We bought fruit, noodles (vermicelli and Pho), shoulder and belly pork, herbs, live prawns, pineapple, sugar bananas (wow are the bananas different here, they have flavour, and are not starchy, more juicy and delicious, and nothing like the boring cavendish or ladyfingers back home) and other ingredients for our coming feast. The chef talked to us about how to spot freshness and things to avoid. Most families visit markets each morning when apparently it is even busier but everything comes in from local farmlands fresh each day. It was a wonderful experience, so much to see as we walked back to the kitchen.

Back in the kitchen we learned how to chop and marinate pork for bun cha, make dipping sauces for bbq pork and spring rolls, how to stuff and roll fresh spring rolls and how to finish off the pho prior to service.

Then it was time to eat what we had cooked, so delicious, so abundant – probably the biggest meal so far, but fresh, familiar flavours (as in we had these dishes from street vendors and they tasted the same). Our host also poured many cups of his homemade rice wine (this one was darker in colour and sweet, a little like a Madeira). Stuffed full to exploding, we got a grab car back to the hotel for a welcome sleep, happy tummies and tired other bits.

We had a welcome sleep-in before a leisurely late breakfast, finished packing then went out to our nearest Cong Cafe for Jo to get her coffee fix – she has fallen in love with Vietnamese Iced Coffee, and we now have all the gear to make it ourselves at home. We have loved our time in Hanoi. The food, the people, the sights – just an amazing destination, and I think the perfect amount of time here to see it. Next stop Siem Reap in Cambodia…. hope you are enjoying the commentary so far as much as we are enjoying the trip.

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Ninh Binh, the Old Capital and the Dragon Stairs

Today we had an early start as we were being picked up for a day trip to Ninh Binh, the district that used to be the site of the original capital city of Vietnam, in Hoa Lu. Otherwise known as “Halong Bay on land” because of the maze of limestone mountains found there. We boarded a small passenger bus and, after collecting the other passengers from their hotels we were off on an arterial and pretty quickly was in farmland. The journey of about 2 hours took us through rice farm land and other agricultural areas. It became clear why there was a smoke pall all around: rice in this area has just been harvested. We saw it spread out to dry on pavements and driveways, locals raking and sweeping it into piles. Apparently after 3 days drying it is ready to husk and winnow. Other places we saw fires, rice straw being burned and the smoke was choking.

Our first stop, a restroom break, was at a handicraft barn, where disabled artists wares were for sale. Glorious silk embroidery paintings, clothing, other bits and bobs and a welcome restroom. Suitable refreshed, we headed on to Hoa Lu, the old capital.

Not a lot of the old capital is left, certainly nearly one of the original city. It was Vietnam’s first capital city, a relatively small area, bounded by limestone bluffs, on a single river. It was deemed in-developable but was defensible. Population pressure and developing army meany they had other options, eventually settling in the area now known as Hanoi. We visited a temple for the first King, saw his “dragon bed” – a carved relief stone platform that I can o lay assume was padded to make it comfortable. Most of the remains were a result of a refurb in the 17th century, all of the original city had long been robbed as building material by the locals.

We learned that the biggest local industry was cement making. They use the limestone to make it, one wonders how they decide which mountains to grind up for cement, given the natural beauty of the area, but is certainly lucrative, evidenced by the largest and most extravagant private residence owned by a cement mogul in the area.

We then travelled to the main village in Ninh Binh and made our way through a cultural village to the base of a mountain containing Mua Cave. From there we began the 500 step climb up the dragon stairs to the T junction 2/3 of the way up the mountain. Here paths lead to either the pagoda or higher to the dragon and lady Buddha. I chose the dragon, Jo chose the pagoda. It was blistering hot, humid and the climb was really hard work for both of us. Uneven, steep steps, with a zig zag up and little shade, the comical sun hats we were lent seemed more of a liability than an asset. At my summit, the final clamber to get to the dragon was terrifying but the views were breathtaking (possibly because I was exhausted and out of puff), but I reached the dragon and managed to touch it (it felt like an achievement). I met Jo on the way back down and we staggered back to the bus pretty well on schedule, but hot, thirsty and totally done in.

The surrounding area was really picturesque, with a lotus pond planted and timber walkway woven through it. Really pretty Japanese lotus, planted for the flowers. Vietnamese lotus are used as a food source, with pretty well all of the plant edible.

We were bussed to our lunch venue, a large buffet style restaurant offering a myriad of Vietnamese dishes. There were cool drinks and aircon, this served to revive us, to an extent. We were then taken to Tam Coc and Jo and I boarded a boat as passengers, our driver skilfully paddled us up the river, under 3 mountains and between limestone monoliths that were amazing. The way the light filtered through the gaps, and the snaking waterway were magic, a real treat. Our paddler paddled with his feet – fairly unusual but typical for this area. We were on the water for about 1.5 hours, surrounded by stunning scenery, just amazing.

After our boat ride, we were given the option of cycling around the village. I decided I could manage it, Jo was tuckered out and found somewhere shady overlooking the river while I cycled. It was fun and fairly flat, so not too exhausting. I had not been on a bike since Lyon, so took a moment to get less wobbly then I was off. I had previously developed a technique of riding and photographing at the same time, which in traffic was hilarious (I have discovered I laugh in terrifying traffic situations, not sure why, must be a coping mechanism). We cycled past rice paddies, fish ponds, and through the back streets and the workings of a typical village – really interesting and a fabulous end to the day.

The trip back was long, dark (few streets are lit in regional centres) but punctuated by more rice straw fires (so do not expect a view tomorrow) and afforded some a nap. The night markets had once again closed many streets so we had to be creative finding our way back in to the city and our accommodation.

Totally buggered, but hungry, we decided to go street food, and returned to a family restaurant that served dried beef salad (so saucy, tangy, crunchy green papaya and more) and some crispy spring rolls from the lady in the alcove we visited on our food tour – so delicious. We finished off the evening with iced coffee/tea at a Cong Cafe (a local franchise) before staggering home for a shower and welcome bed. We expect not to be able to move tomorrow, our “rest” day …we shall see.

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Temples, Pagodas, Literature and Water Puppets

We had a day of walking around Hanoi, with the intent of exploring temples and pagodas. Knowing nothing we thought these were interchangeable, they are not. A “Temple” is a shrine honouring important dead people – kings, scholars, prophets and so on. The Viet people are really devoted to family and ancestors, believing in you visit a temple, with an offering, gives you the right to ask for something in return. They are also highly insistent on respect. Ladies need to cover their knees and shoulders, hats and sunglasses off. We saw them cringe at tourists that arrived in shorty shorts, offering them skirts for inside the temple complex. Inside they are richly adorned, oddly with mostly Chinese calligraphy (one of our guides said Viet think the Chinese characters have more meaning than traditional viet calligraphy), offering tables, statues and likenesses, shoes off, high step in to force you to bow as you enter.

Pagodas are associated with Buddhist faith and spiritual worship, and are quite different to Temples. We saw a couple of pagodas, both with likenesses of Buddha and (odd to us) female Buddha (maybe he was much more comfortable in a dress?). The pagodas are usually surrounded by gardens, walled compounds and are meant to be havens of peace and reflection. It is clear to us that the Viet are, on the whole, very spiritual and most shops have shrines piled with offerings tucked away in a corner. They also use flags to signify the presence of a temple or shrine (different ones for each) as some are unassumingly tucked away behind unremarkable facades.

The one pillar pagoda was charming, but had a narrow stairway up and a queue of tourists waiting to gawk. We trekked there after walking past Uncle Ho’s mausoleum on what turned out to be a blistering hot and humid day. The parklands around the mausoleum are huge, a fitting show of respect for a much loved leader. We were on our way to the Temple Of Literature.

The Temple of Literature complex is Vietnam’s oldest university. Scholars would come here to be in the presence of masters, doctors of all disciplines to learn and take exams. The compound is set out as a series of gated courtyards, each more esteemed, each accessible by more and more learned people. The gardens were cool and shaded, quiet and contemplative, an oasis from the tropical heat.

Dragons feature heavily in imagery and legend, indeed Vietnamese say their country is shaped like a dragon. Legend says the carp turns into a dragon, and the adornment of all buildings and planters, incense holders, door gateways are all “guarded” by dragons. The deepest most sanctum had a crossways pair of courtyards, one lead to a pavilion containing a huge drum, the other a massive bell. We really liked this temple complex, the audio guide was a wealth of information and really made the visit.

After the Temple of Literature, we had lunch in a training restaurant, similar to the one we have dined in at TAFE, trainees under the direction of instructors made our meals, delicious set menus featuring fresh and zingy salads, delicious grilled meats and lush desserts. We hope feeding and serving us was as instructive as it was delicious. Well fed, we returned to our hotel for a cool down.

That afternoon we had booked for us tickets to see a water puppet theatre experience. The show takes place in a theatre, with a pool as the stage, traditional musicians on either side of the pool, and wooden articulated puppets on long poles manipulated and moved under water by the puppeteers who are behind screens. It was weird and wonderful in equal measure. We both came out wondering wtf we had just seen. Perhaps an English translation might have made it less guesswork as we tried to work out what was happening. We did notice, however, many charming vignettes of village life o and around the river and rice paddies. The mythical critters were cure also, who knew dragons breathing fire would work underwater. This was unique, and since we have been walking around we have seen cute “water puppet” objects for same also in shops.

After the show we headed across to Pho10, a popular restaurant that serves one of our favourite dishes, we ordered a pair of steaming broth with rare beef, well cooked brisket, noodles, herbs and then adjusted the condiments to suit. Just delicious and I think one of the best Phos we have had.

We then set out to explore the “night markets”, where around the lake the close many streets to motor bikes and cars, causing even more transport chaos, and the streets fill with vendors selling everything you can imagine, and even more that you would never think of. It is bewildering, crazy busy and you have to search really hard for an actual bargain as the quality is not great on most things. We bought sweet buns, briefly searched for further paper shops and returned home sweatballs. Shower and bed for an early wake up call and another huge day ahead…

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Halong Bay

One of the “must do” locations, from all Jos research was a visit to Halong Bay.

There are a number of options for this out of Hanoi, a day trip, overnight on a cruise ship or 2 nights with island hopping on the second day. We opted for the overnight, and our hotel organised it for us. The only real issue was this form of organisation left us with no paperwork. In the morning we waited for our transport for an hour before learning the bus was full and had already left, they sent a private car for us and that got us to the docks in time, but there was a little anxiousness until that was sorted, with reassurance from the hotel staff, in the end it worked out ok.

The journey to the docks was interesting, after a small amount of time in city traffic, we joined an arterial and were in farming land almost straight away. Banana plantations opened out to vast areas of rice, fish farms mixed crops, punctuated with little shrines and family burial plots, so different and picturesque.

On arrival to the docks, we joined the general hubbub and checked in, having our booked room confused twice, but eventually were lead, with luggage to a motor launch that took us out to the Orchid 3, a lush 3 deck cruise liner designed for about 30 people all up. Our room had been conquest with a father and son booking, so we found 2 single beds and they quickly re-jigged them to be a king double, all good, time to settle in as the ship began motoring down the coast towards the inlet that takes you into the system of bays, part of which is Hanlong.

The landscape was amazing, with stark limestone tors and bluffs rising dramatically out of the blue green water, fringed and topped with shrubby growth, more the more you look. I could imagine e it would be really easy to get lost, each shipping line taking varied routes to spread out among the thousands of islands.

After a many course lunch we had some relax time before being offered to explore limestone caves on one of the islands. We were warned there were lots of steps and narrow, low parts but decided to give it a go. Our launch took us over to the island, apparently inhabited with 13000 people, not sure how as there seemed little infrastructure, perhaps on the part we did not visit. After a wild and woolly drive on snakey narrow roads we reached the start of the cave walk and set off.

It was hot, really humid, but we climbed the concrete stairs, hundreds of them up to the cave entrance. The cave is now part of a newly formed national park, designed to help preserve the endangered local monkey population (whose only fault is that they are, apparently, delicious). We scrambled though low, tight passageways into vast chasms, low caves, dogging stalactites and stalagmites (who can tell the difference?), dodged a cluster of startled bats and generally felt cooked and claustrophobic until the cave system opened out into jungle, and a short path to a jungle bar. Oddly we had been advised only to bring cameras, so no one had money for drinks. The bus picked us up (sparing us the need for a return cave experience) and we were back aboard in no time.

Rest, relaxation and happy hour were all greatly appreciated, then we joined in a cooking class (fried ricepaper spring rolls) which was a nice appetiser. Sunset among the mountains is breathtaking, looking back, one of our photos do the colour or scale justice, just magic.

There was a many course dinner, lots of yummy things, but we were pretty done in and retired to the air conditioned comfort of our room. Apparently they offered late night squid fishing, not sure if there were any takers. We had a relatively early night and slept really solidly. I get motion sick in a bath, but felt no ill effects of the ocean, I am guessing the myriad of islands keep the water really calm.

Awaking refreshed and recharged, we opted for the sunrise tai chi class, and really enjoyed the slow-motion ninja poses, giving our muscles a thorough but gentle workout. We have no idea if we did it right, but it was fun trying. We then had an early breakfast as we wanted to go kayaking. Donning togs, shirt, hat, sunscreen, life jacket and signing last will and testament, our launch took us to a rickety pontoon, and, somehow, we got into kayaks -Jo in the front and me in the back.

The experience of paddling among the limestone monoliths was breathtaking. We circled some, paddles under overhangs of others, all the time in awe of the scenery. Over an hour flew by and then we made our way back to the pontoon, concerned we would be last and they would have to come looking for us. Fortunately that privilege fell to an American couple who paddled off in a direction and that was the last we saw of them until we were leaving, when we went looking for our lost couple. All good fun.

Back on board, showered and fresh, time for the boat to return to port, open bar, lunch and the experience was largely over. I could not imagine you would see very much if you did it as a day trip, and I am sure that would be even more exhausting than our 2 day adventure. We would highly recommend the experience.

On return to Hanoi, the hotel staff were amazing, welcoming us “home”. We had a health spa massage booked and it turned out to be a perfect way to unwind and relax before cocktails (I had a Manhattan, Jo a Pina Colada) on the roof bar followed by dinner and drinks at The Street Food Cafe (justly highly recommended on TripAdvisor). The owner was really friendly, topping off our meal with cups of his favourite coconut rice wine – terrifyingly potent but yummy (it reminded me of some of the smoother sake I have had). Walking through Hanoi fairly pickled is an surreal experience but we safely found our way back and were asleep soon after. What a huge day. More to come…..

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Trains, Paper and a Bamboo Circus

Hanoi is a city of over 15 million. It breaks my brain to imagine in that number of people in such a small area but there you have it. Today we had booked a walking tour with some university students from “Hanoi Kids” – a volunteer tour service where the kids get to practice English in exchange for being shown around and refreshments.

Our tour guides were Le and Evan, a couple of 20ish year olds, Le is a native Hanoian and Nathan was from the country further out. Both had fairly good understanding and we said we wanted to see the old quarter, French quarter and generally get to know the city a little better. We walked, and we walked, through throngs, back alleys, through hidden bookshops, across impossibly busy streets – it was fun, and really interesting talking to some locals about life in Vietnam generally.

We learned, for example, that young people volunteer 2 years national service in a military capacity, either straight from secondary school or delayed by university study. We learned that families stay close, it is rare for family members not to all live together, we sensed the family ties were strong across the generations, the mother ruled the house and that it was possible to get lots of people into terrifyingly small houses and still be happy. We also learned of the love people have for “Uncle Ho”, and how invested they are in communism. They could not get their heads around our democracy, interesting perspectives.

One of my goals, when visiting Hanoi, was to acquire some of the local handmade paper. After some research I found a village driven paper making collective called Zo Project, who had a store on Train Street (so named because it is both a residential and thriving market street and train line) so we asked the boys to head us in that direction as part of our ramble. I managed to purchase some lovely thin sheets of duong paper and have rolled it and ensconced it in a tube for travel home – I cannot wait to try it.

Our return journey, we asked to be taken to a recommended place for Banh Mi (a baguette with various fillings, we chose bbq pork, but no liver pate – added to most Banh Mi apparently). A delicious and light lunch before returning to our room for a cool off.

When we were in Venice, we visited the Opera House but could not get tickets to the show. Jo did some research and found a show at the Hanoi Opera House so off we went. Entitled “Our Village” it was a brilliant cultural rendering of village life, seen through the eyes of circus. Everything was bamboo, performers used it as props, fastened it together into towering structures they then did gymnastics on. There were contortionists, acrobats, jugglers, an active orchestra that spent some time in the pit, the rest on stage. The music was mesmerising, a total soundscape with traditional instruments. We both were really wowed by the show, and the Opera House was a grand old building also.

After the performance we trekked to the other side of the lake for a meal. We started with fresh spring rolls (ricepaper filled with prawns, noodles, herbs and a dipping sauce we must find a recipe for. Delicious. We followed it by steaming bowls of crab noodle soup (the signature dish of the restaurant) which proved delicious and entertaining to eat (the noodles were slippery little suckers indeed).

Returning via the lake, beautiful reflections and hilarious/odd groups of ladies in exercise groups, sort of line dancing to various musics in the cool breezes from the water. Apparently this, and morning tai chi are common group exercise regimes for lots of the city and there must be agreed rosters of friends, neighbours, work colleagues and so on.

We staggered home, having got our step count up to 18600 steps, and we had to pack and reorganise for the trip to Halong Bay on the morrow. We are taking one bag, leaving our other luggage and some laundry for the hotel when we return. More to come…

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Food, glorious food

Feeling hungry (if a little bloaty from airline food), we waited in the lobby for our walking tour guide Chris. We thought we had booked a private tour, but were accompanied by an English couple and a pair of gents for Sydney. This mix turned out to be fun regardless and off we trekked.

Spring rolls. Our first stop was really close, a small family in an alcove adjacent to a large hotel were deep frying ricepaper bundles filled with carrot, rice noodle, pork and other fresh ingredients, wrapped and fried in front of us, delicious as an appetiser.

After a brisk walk through crowded streets we stopped at a small family restaurant, white tiled, busy, and tried a dried beef salad. A delicious combination of green papaya, rice noodle, dried beef, jerky, peanuts and Vietnamese mint dressed in a dipping sauce. Little chillies on the side as garnish, such yummy tastes, fresh and crunchy. 

We were told we would visit many “family” restaurants, and had no real idea what that meant. Turns out the restaurant is part of their house, kitchen out front to show the freshness of the wares, living space above (we saw trap doors, ladders and lofts above us where the family lives). Real estate in Hanoi is prohibitively expensive, these shops have been owned by generations of families, handed down, generally specialising in a few dishes, cooking just them to a faithful clientele. We learned the hallmark of a good streetfood vendor also, common sense regarding cleanliness, preparing fresh and a strong local patronage ensure a good turnover and likely freshness. All useful information for the days ahead.

We were then taken to a family restaurant to try Bun Cha, a bowl of dipping sauce with pork shoulder ground to make char grilled meatballs and slices of belly pork. Accompanying it was a mound of rice noodles and salad of herbs. The instructions: mix it all in together, add chilli if you like and eat it any way you like. We are adept with chopsticks and had no trouble demolishing it. We had bottled Hanoi beer with this, apparently it was called “The Obama Special” as it was what was had by a visiting president a few years back – I can see why, just so delicious.

From there, en route to another shop we passed a tropical fruit stall and sampled mangosteen, sweet and sour little beauty it was as well. We then went to a Pho family restaurant and had a “dry” pho. Pho is the name of the noodle used, and this came with chicken, herbs and soy sauce instead of the ubiquitous fish sauce – quite delicious and different to the big bowl of broth and rare beef we have had before.

We stopped off at a local coffee vendor to try weasel poo coffee, well, Jo did as I do not drink coffee. The store owner prepared it several ways, Jo preferred the frothy variety with condensed milk but I think coffee snobs would have probably liked the first pressing black. It was difficult for them to understand I did not like coffee and could not drink it. We also got introduced to a bong-like smoking pipe locals use for tobacco.

Next on to a Banh Mi family restaurant, with the grandma watching Vietnamese general hospital (or days of our lives, episodic teledrama seems universally badly acted and loved by their viewers) while we supped on goose Banh mi with some savage but yummy home made chilli sauce. Toasted in a charcoal stove, the combination of crunchy baguette, fragrant herbs, crunchy salad and lush meat topped off with condiments made for a tasty end to our savoury journey.

Next on to a dessert restaurant, we chose pandan sticky rice topped with coconut ice cream, cooling and delicious. Seems lots of things are served in “sweet soup”, essentially sugar syrup, including poached fruits, seeds and other mystery objects. Nearly full, we then headed off to the coffee house that invented “Egg Coffee”. Born of necessity, when fresh milk is not common, a cappuccino like beverage is topped with a sabayon (whisked egg yolks, honey cooked gently to make a foamy stable egg foam). Jo had coffee, I had chocolate (interestingly I think it was Milo), a suitable topping off for what was a diverse and interesting culinary journey.

I want to say it was cooler as we walked back to our hotel, but the humidity was oppressive and we returned as tired and cooked sweatballs, ready for sleep. Too tired to blog, or even check photos taken, we set an alarm and went almost immediately to sleep. Such a terrific, busy, diverse, hectic, perfect day. More to come…

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I am willing to admit that my least favourite part of travel is transit. The endless sitting around in uncomfortable designer furniture waiting to be allowed into transit lounges that are less comfortably furnished, timing ablutions and generally filling in time while we wait to board. Plane travel in economy, for someone with legs, is miserable but … eyes on the prize makes us line up to do it again.

This trip, heading to Hanoi in Vietnam, we decided on 2 legs and a sleep stopover in a transit hotel at Changi Airport. This was a good decision because we got a chance to rest, shower (NEVER underestimate the restorative value of a shower) before the 3ish hour flight into Hanoi to arrive fairly fresh and rested.

We landed, got bags, slipped fairly uneventfully through customs and were met by a driver from our hotel and, reminiscent of the terrifying drive from Istanbul airport, we hurtled through traffic, seemingly ignoring line markings, traffic lights and other drivers. Arriving safely at La Siesta Diamond Hotel, we were greeted graciously with fruit, juice and a welcoming concierge who explained the lay of the hotel and surrounds and then showed us to our room.

After settling in, we decided to head out to get our bearings. We are stationed in the “Old Quarter”, near Hoan Kiem lake, so first stop was a local Vietel outlet for a SIM for my phone. We now have local data and some calls, should be tons for our visit, with Jos phone on international roaming only as an emergency contact point. Her phone number is associated with our booking so it makes sense to keep that active, but due to Oz telco pricing, the charges for doing so are extortionate.

Let’s talk about traffic. You think you understand it, right? So did we. Turns out, road rules are for weaklings here in Hanoi, the streets are a chaotic mix of cars, motorbikes, pedalled rickshaws and bicycles. There are traffic lights, signs, road markings and I have not idea why. It is glorious and terrifying to watch no one get killed, exhilarating to launch yourself off the footpath heading for the other and have that chaos just accept your presence without brutally murdering you. We had read about road crossing, and think we are fairly good at it, but the first few crossings were terrifying. Interestingly, the seeming chaos that just works reminds me of my vision of an autonomous vehicle future, where vehicles just negotiate with others their traverse, and I can see that it could work well, even in “peak” times.

We navigated to the edge of the lake (and worked out a point of reference should we get lost), then walked round to the Huc Bridge to Ngoc Son Temple and paid an entrance fee to walk across. We found 3 dazzling shrines inside a fairly plain building. Mummified giant tortoise and incense added to the stifling humidity and local aroma, a heady mix indeed.
We strolled around the lake, taking detours out into the surrounding parkland and side streets to explore and orientate, located venues we will travel to other days and visited a large grey cathedral (Nha Tho, which seems strangely out of place). I went inside a little temple, shoes off, adoring the interior decor only to notice a monk, saffron robes, singing prayer and drumming and gonging as he meditated, just beautiful and so serene.
We finished our lake circuit and returned to our room and the relative ecstasy of aircon for a rest and rehydration prior to our 6pm pickup for a walking food tour… to be continued.

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South-east Asia, here we come for a sampler

Vietnam and Cambodia are our next destination, and with a week to go it is beginning to get exciting.

We have yet to do a test pack, but think we have all our shopping done, clothes (for the tropical climate) sorted and a bunch of exciting destinations in the plan. With Typhoid and Cholera immunisations endured, trick knee, hives, allergies and other distractions behind us, we are excited to get going.

A busy week ahead, but eyes on the prize.

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