Cam­bo­dia

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - TRAVEL -

A few months ear­lier, one of the boats sank, drown­ing all 12 tourists aboard. Since our boat was a newer one, we didn’t let that de­ter us and the cruise was a trip high­light.

With a pop­u­la­tion of 90 mil­lion in an area one-third the size of British Columbia, Viet­nam is crowded, and the streets choked with traf­fic. With ten rows of mo­tor­bikes ap­proach­ing from both direc­tions and few traf­fic lights, try­ing to cross a street can seem fu­tile. The Viet­namese sim­ply saunter slowly across, let­ting the traf­fic swerve around them. In Hue, my travel com­pan­ion plucked up her courage and crossed the street Viet­namese style. When I was un­able to do the same, a lo­cal man, chuck­ling at my predica­ment, marched over, took my arm, and led me across.

The main at­trac­tion in Hue is the Im­pe­rial City, built in 1805 and mod­elled af­ter the For­bid­den Palace in Bei­jing.

We took the lo­cal train from Hue to Da Nang; it was old, but ad­e­quate, and the fare only three dol­lars. Our guide book said it was a four-hour trip. Af­ter two hours, the train made its first unan­nounced stop. As there were no signs in English, or other English­s­peak­ing pas­sen­gers to ask, we as­sumed it wasn’t our stop and stayed on board. As the train pulled out of the sta­tion, the con­duc­tor ap­peared, glanced at our tick­ets, threw her arms up and ex­claimed, “Ah your stop!” Re­al­iz­ing the next sta­tion was hours in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, half-jok­ingly I asked if she could stop the train. She rushed away but soon re­turned say­ing, “Hurry, train stop, not long.”

The train groaned to a stop, the other pas­sen­gers helped throw our lug­gage out, and we jumped into a pile of rub­ble at the side of the tracks. Af­ter we’d cheer­ily waved good­bye to the laugh­ing pas­sen­gers, we re­al­ized we were miles from the near­est town. We were spared a long hike by a help­ful lo­cal.

Hav­ing ad­mired a dress that Ju­lianne had made in Hoi Ann, a shop­ping paradise fa­mous for its tai­lors and seam­stresses, we went on our own shop­ping spree and had 16 items cus­tom-made in two days. Our best buys in­cluded cot­ton sun dresses for $15, em­broi­dered silk dress for $30, and a cash­mere wool win­ter jacket lined with silk for $45. The qual­ity and ser­vice ranged from ex­cel­lent at Mekong Tai­lor, to poor from seam­stresses in the cloth mar­ket.

Al­though cus­tom-made cloth­ing can be made overnight, with an over­whelm­ing choice of fab­ric, de­signs and tai­lors, three full days in Hoi Ann would have given us time for last­minute al­ter­ations.

In Siem Reap, the town clos­est to the famed Angkor ruins in Cam­bo­dia, we stayed at the Borei Angkor Re­sort and Spa. The ser­vice was, by far, the best I have ex­pe­ri­enced any­where in the world. Upon en­ter­ing the lobby re­splen­dent with ma­hogany wood, we were greeted by a host­ess of­fer­ing glasses of pan­dan ice tea. Af­ter invit­ing us to sit, she checked us in as we were ser­e­naded by a lady play­ing a Kh­mer xy­lo­phone.

Our ho­tel room was a lux­u­ri­ous re­treat swathed in raw silk, with a spa-like bath­room com­plete with a rain shower. All this lux­ury cost $60 per night, in­clud­ing air­port shut­tle and an ex­trav­a­gant break­fast buf­fet.

At the Angkor ruins we mar­velled at their ar­chi­tec­tural com­plex­ity, elab­o­rate carv­ings and vast­ness. Some sources say that at its peak in the 12th cen­tury, Angkor, the for­mer cap­i­tal of the Kh­mer em­pire, was the largest city in the world, with an area of 1,000 square kilo­me­tres, and one mil­lion peo­ple. Two of the more well-known sites, Angkor Wat and Phom Bakehng, are part of the tour-group cir­cuit and can be crowded, es­pe­cially at sun­set. But the per­haps even more im­pres­sive Ta Prohm site was al­most empty.

Dur­ing late April and early May, the weather in Cam­bo­dia was hot and steamy, with tem­per­a­tures in the high 30s. We stayed cool by hir­ing a driver with a tuk-tuk, a car­riage pulled by a mo­tor­bike, less ex­pen­sive and more fun than an air-con­di­tioned car. Ju­lianne opted for a cheaper “moto,” a ride on back of a mo­tor­bike — pos­si­ble with a back­pack, but we didn’t try it with suit­cases. How­ever, in Chau Doc, we took our lug­gage on a “cy­clo,” a pedal bike with a buggy in front.

A locally ar­ranged two-day tour took us from Phnom Penh back to Viet­nam through the Mekong Delta on many dif­fer­ent modes of trans­porta­tion. On the first leg, it was only the two of us in a pri­vate mini­van, pos­si­bly that of the travel agent’s un­cle. As the road nar­rowed and sight­ings of other tourists be­came scarce, we won­dered what we had got our­selves into. The road be­came a dirt lane so nar­row that an arch strung across it for a wed­ding had to be dis­man­tled to let us pass. Even­tu­ally, we reached the Viet­namese bor­der cross­ing of Ving Xuong, where a sam­pan and boat­man awaited us. The slow, peace­ful trip down a trib­u­tary of the Mekong River evoked 1930s Viet­nam.

Al­though the two-day tour was a bud­get one pop­u­lar with back­pack­ers, we mod­i­fied it by pay­ing ex­tra to up­grade the ho­tels. As well, if we weren’t thrilled with the looks of the restau­rants that the tour guide led us to, we searched out our own.

Did we feel safe? Other than rick­ety boats and death-de­fy­ing traf­fic, we had only one un­set­tling in­ci­dent. In Ho Chi Minh City af­ter pay­ing a taxi fare in full, the driver swapped the 50 dong bill we’d given him for a 10 from his own pocket, and then in­sisted that we hadn’t paid him enough. When we hopped out of the taxi, he chased us men­ac­ingly, but backed off when a po­lice­man ap­proached.

On a few oc­ca­sions in north­ern Viet­nam we re­ceived hos­tile looks from older peo­ple but, oth­er­wise, young and old alike smiled, waved or flashed the peace sym­bol.

De­spite the mishaps, we never once wished we’d opted for a group tour. Not only did we save money, but we had an ex­cit­ing ad­ven­ture with ex­pe­ri­ences we might oth­er­wise have missed. The 17-day trip, in­clud­ing ho­tels, meals, en­trance to tourist at­trac­tions and travel within Viet­nam and Cam­bo­dia (but ex­clud­ing air­fare to and from) cost $1,500 each.

The $800 to $1,200 saved by not tak­ing a group tour was more than enough to fi­nance the shop­ping sprees.

A pip­ing hot bowl of Bun Cha (Hanoi’s sig­na­ture dish) is served at a street stall in Hanoi’s Old Quar­ter. Pil­low-soft bites of fried pork, sa­vory broth, sliced green pa­paya

and herbs are aug­mented with fresh bam­boo, spicy chile sauce and pick­led gar­lic.

Vis­i­tors to Viet­nam’s lovely Ha­long Bay

will be quickly tar­geted by lo­cals who row madly about in small, cov­ered boats and of­fer up ev­ery­thing from ap­ples to bananas to spiky dragon­fruit — not to men­tion candy, cig­a­rettes, beer and

choco­late.

Ven­dors cook­ing on the streets of Hanoi.

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