Back­pack­ing goes up­scale

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - FRONT PAGE - By Li­isa Atva

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.

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