Friday, March 16, 2018

Vietnam & Cambodia

We started our trip to Vietnam by flying to Hanoi via Seoul, Korea. With Instagram I have gotten quite lazy at blogging as I can just quickly post a photo and story immediately, so this entry is overdue! We picked up a SIM card at the airport which made for super easy navigation and internet on the go. We stayed in a central mid-range hotel in the Old Quarter; The surrounding streets are filled with a mix of architecture, tiny roadside pop up kitchens, thousands of scooters and even more people. The traffic reminds me of schools of fish dancing in between each other. It looks like chaos but is carefully choreographed with everyone knowing how and when to move, we never saw a single accident! We did a lot of walking to the nearby lake, vegan friendly restaurants, temples and markets. A highlight was the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which has expansive, well curated exhibits about the cultural groups that call Vietnam home, including history, art, housing, textiles and more. We also visited the Hoa Lo Prison, also called the "Hanoi Hilton" where Vietnamese colonial subject sea later America POWs were imprisoned. It is interesting to see history from the perspectives of other countries, and reminds me there are no real winners in war. Atlas Obscura has an article with many photos:

Vegan food was easy to find using, but many regular spots we walked past did not seem to have vegan options. Our favourite was the amazing gourmet vegan meals at Uudam Chao. My only regret was not trying it the first night so we could eat there every evening. It is expensive by local standards but a bargain by Canadian pricing. Check out a few of the delights below:

Most days we also visited La Studio for a lovely coffee, dessert or the outstanding cashew cheese and carrot 'lox' bagel. We had also read about the famous cheap vegan banh mi (Vietnamese sub) shop, called Vegan Banh Mi. So we set out to find it using our GPS map. As we were getting close, a friendly lady ushered us down the alley to a small room with plastic stools and an outdoor kitchen. We enjoyed two Banh Mi subs, two appetizers and a dessert for about $3.50 Canadian. The dessert was really great. It’s not a fancy - just good street food right off the alley. Nearby, we also discovered the Marou Chocolate flag ship store which sells gourmet, expensive chocolate. (Cheap lunch and then fancy chocolate - it's all about balance!)  This chocolate comes from Vietnam and much of it is dark chocolate and therefore vegan. It is the silkiest dark chocolate I have ever had and I must admit we ate more than a few bars! You can read a great article about the company here:

From Hanoi, we flew to Da Nang and took a taxi to our hotel in the quaint city of Hoi An, known for its well preserved old town, canals and architecture. While the hotel we picked was well situated in the old town and had a decent pool, it could have been better; it really needed a refresh and some maintenance. However, it provided a good starting point for each day of exploration and some free dodgy bikes. We did manage to ride the bikes out to see the ocean, a 12 km round trip. The streets in the central old town are for pedestrians and bicycles only (well mostly, some scooters do sneak in), making for a nice place to wander. There are many art shops and the area is known for rice paper paintings and intricate paper cards with pop up designs. The streets come alive at night with markets as well. The food was good and we spent lots of time watching people go by while having coffee. One of our favourites was the veg friendly What Else Cafe and our hotel was also close to the tasty all vegan Karma Waters and vegetarian Annen.

The highlight of Hoi An was Jack's Cat Cafe, which is a small vegetarian/vegan cafe alongside a cat rescue centre. The cafe helps fund the costs of the shelter. We took a taxi there as it is a few kilometres from the centre. We couldn't find a taxi for the way back so it was a long hot walk home! But it was worth it to see so many spoiled cats lounging around in the pretty courtyard.  We enjoyed a nice lunch while watching the antics of the cats and were able to make a donation to towards their care.

From Hoi An we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia for a few days. At the airport we were able to get a mobile SIM card for $3.00USD and an inexpensive taxi to our hotel. We stayed at Frangipani Villa Hotel, which is a good value midrange hotel. We didn't expect it, but we enjoyed Cambodia more than Vietnam. We packed in a lot of activities in our short time including Angkor Wat and Beng Mealea temples. Angkor Wat is the larger and more famous of the two temple sites. The day we visited Angkor it was over cast with rain and quite busy. We still enjoyed wandering around the site looking at the ornate carvings and building techniques. We were very fortunate to be among the first tourists to arrive at Beng Mealea on a very sunny day. The site is much smaller, and less manicured but was more fun to explore.
Spirit House at Angkor Thom

Our other big adventure was visiting Kompong Phluk Floating Village, in which houses are built on stilts over the water. We explored the village by motorboat until we reached the mouth of the lake where we transferred to small canoe for a tour of the mangroves before heading back via the river boat. Both vessels had female captains! The girl with the canoe was around 13 years old and worked hard paddling us around. To explore these three different sites we hired the nice taxi driver we met at the airport.

After all our jam packed tours we spent the rest of the time lounging in the lovely hotel pool and checking out the city. The tuktuk taxis, which are scooters with a special trailer attached for passengers, are very affordable and plentiful. One of the days a driver just followed us from stop to stop for the day and then back for our hotel for a cost of $6.00.

We also had some of the best food of the entire trip in Cambodia and our number one favourite was Morgina bar which we visited every day it was open. The tofu nuggets and Banh Mi were out of this world! The space has a great ambiance with outdoor sheltered tables. We met a nice couple from Australia there and visited for a few hours one evening. We also shared a able another night with an American man who works remotely and rides a bike everywhere, such great stories! Another unexpected food delight was discovering a roadside treat called Kralan, which we were introduced to via our driver. It is a sweet treat of sticky rice, a few beans and coconut milk stuffed inside a bamboo stock and then cooked on an open fire, in little carts on the side of the road. You just peel the bamboo and eat, no packaging or utensils required. With happy tummies we left Cambodia to head back to Vietnam!

We started our visit to Ho Chi Minh on a sour note, falling prey to a taxi scam at the airport, in which the normal rate was inflated by 4 times. We realized the price was outlandish, but being that we didn't want to escalate the situation or have him drive off with our bags, we paid the fare after letting him know the price was not fair. Looking back, there are several preventive measures we could have taken including taking a photo of the taxi, keeping the slip of paper given to us at the taxi stand rather than handing it over to the driver as requested and insisting the taxi drop us in the designated hotel spot (he of course had an excuse about the construction preventing him from parking there). For more tips on taxi scams see;

When we confirmed with the hotel that the price was ridiculous we decided to not pursue it, as we also didn't want the driver to possibly end up facing a harsh punishment. For example; Two 18-yr-old Vietnamese sentenced in Jean Valjean-like bread theft. We were initially quite annoyed at being taken advantage of, but that negative energy is wasted, so instead we made several Kiva loan donations to low income folks in Vietnam. As the saying goes "How people act is their karma, how you react is yours." Ironically, I had been admiring the driver's Bodhisattva statue in his taxi. (In Buddhism, Bodhisattva (/ˌboʊdɪˈsʌtvə/ BOH-dih-SUT-və)[1] is the Sanskrit term for anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated Bodhicitta, which is a spontaneous wish and a compassionate mind to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. source

Outside of this initial poor experience, the rest of the city visit was uneventful. We were warned about risks of theft but we didn't experience any concerns. We try to travel with out flashing expensive gadgets, keeping items close and not showing off. I can understand the temptation to steal when many are struggling with poverty and low wages. Sources vary but "According to the Japan External Trade Organization, the average monthly salary of a Vietnamese worker last year was $145 in Hanoi and $148 in Ho Chi Minh City" (source

We booked a fancier hotel in Ho Chi Minh, which was still a bargain by Canadian standards, so we'd have a reprieve from the busy streets, plus it also has a nice roof top pool. This proved to be money well spent as we spent time hanging out at the hotel than we normally due trying to get over our chest infections. Unfortunately mine started the day before we left so by this point it had been progressing for a few weeks. I finally relented and used our emergency travel antibiotics which did seem to help. The recovery was hampered by the poor air quality across Vietnam. Check out the photo below for a comparison between Hanoi and Calgary in January 2018! Unfortunately richer western nations are also responsible for this pollution through outsourcing a lot of manufacturing to save money. (See: CO2 emissions are being 'outsourced' by rich countries to rising economies).

We were fortunate to have several good options for food as well. Our favourites restaurants included: Hum a fancier placer with tranquil ambiance, Pi Vegetarian Bistro, and Vegan Kitchen.

A highlight of Ho Chi Minh is the Museum of History where we enjoyed a great exhibit on Buddhist statues, jewelry, and cultural artifacts. It is housed in interesting building with a lotus pond in the courtyard. There are quite a few green spaces in the city where we relaxed in the cooler evenings. After Ho Chi Minh the next stop Tokyo, Japan!

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