Backpacking goes upscale
LEASE feed our fish your dead skin” read the sign over a large fish tank in the night market of Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Foot spas, where fish nibble away your calluses, leaving your feet silky smooth, are the perfect solution for sore feet after a day exploring the nearby Angkor ruins.
Sitting around the tank soaking their feet, happily chatting, beers in hand, were three 20-something women, all with sun-bleached hair in beaded or dreadlocked strands. Cheery Australian accents intermingled with a Swedish “yah, yah.” Backpackers, we presumed. We were two ladies, old enough to leave backpacking to our kids, adventurous enough to pass on a group tour, but not carefree enough to try the foot spa.
Using travel guide books, and sample itineraries from the tours we didn’t book, we planned a 17-day trip through Vietnam and Cambodia. My travel companion’s daughter, Julianne Austman, joined us in Hanoi for a few days at the end of her three-month backpacking trip through Australia and Southeast Asia.
We booked a hotel for the first two nights before we left Canada; the rest we sorted out along the way. As we left one hotel, we booked the next, using Expedia online, paying $120 to $130 per night until we learned that four-star hotels could be had for less than $50.
Julianne began her search for a hotel upon arrival at her destination, paying no more than $12 per night for hotels that had no amenities, but were clean and fairly new. Having a look at the room before taking it, Julianne ruled out those she said had, among other things, “sheets that looked like they were from your grandmother’s basement.”
Hanoi offered a sidewalk smorgas- bord: cinnamon-flavoured Vietnamese coffee at lakeside cafes, fresh French baguettes, and steaming pots of soups and noodles. Many street vendors provide sidewalk seating on child-sized plastic chairs and tables. As Vietnamese are typically small in stature, the tiny furniture suffices. We squeezed ourselves onto the tiny chairs after Julianne passed on backpacker lore; “the shorter the stool, the cheaper the beer.”
From Hanoi we took a day tour to the Perfume Pagoda, a destination a guide book referred to as an important pilgrimage site visited by hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese annually. After several hours on a bumpy road in a rickety minivan, we reached a river and boarded a sampan. Engrossed with the dead rats floating beside us, we failed to notice until we were in the middle of the river, that there were no life-jackets, and that the water was inches from swamping the sampan. Thankfully, the boat ride was short.
After a hike, and a gondola ride, we reached the limestone cave wherein lay a small, unimpressive shrine, reminding us that a pilgrimage is about the journey, not the destination. The tour included lunch at one of the riverside restaurants that advertise their menu by hanging dead animals out front, including at one, a freshly caught deer still dripping blood.
In Halong Bay, three hours east of Hanoi, we set sail on an overnight cruise. With hundreds of boats plying the same waters, Halong Bay is not a pristine wilderness, but the bay, dotted with islands of limestone hills and caves with stalagmites and stalactites, is beautiful.
The 12-cabin Calypso Cruiser built in 2009 resembled an old-fashioned Chinese junk, and was one of the nicest boats on the bay.