Updated: Jun 15
Guest Writer - S Fenwick
I had always wanted to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia as I had heard so many great things about the place and the people. As Vietnam was so close, I decided we should go there too!
I travelled with my husband who shared my interest in the area, we went in late April (not really the best time to go because it's the hottest time of the year, as we found out!).
We aren’t really tour group people but we ended up on a small group tour of 12, run by Intrepid Travel. We were pleasantly surprised with the organisation, standard of accommodation and the level of knowledge of the guides and would recommend it. As we had limited time and a lot of places we wanted to visit, it seemed the most logical choice.
I’m glad we did decide on a tour, as we didn't speak the languages, for us, it made our travels that much more relaxing and accessible to be with guides who did.
The red and yellow flag of Vietnam.
Hanoi is a very busy city with more motorbikes than cars, it was chaos on steroids, all road rules seemed optional. Definitely a theme in the bigger cities we visited!
We ventured out of our hotel as soon as we arrived and found that stepping out in front of traffic was the only way to go, move forward, never step backwards and they will drive around you. Getting around on foot was easy and safe and we found a lot of foreigners doing the same. The heat and humidity was, however, relentless, but that didn't stop us at any point in our travels. But definitely something to keep in mind when planning a visit here.
We tried a number of local food favourites, including “egg coffee” (it was like Tiramisu in a cup). Definitely a highlight for me!
Ha Long Bay
We then went on to overnight in Ha Long Bay which was very relaxing. We enjoyed a boat trip with just our tour group of 12, definitely recommend it. The view of the bay was beautiful and breathtaking. It did required a climb up quite steep stairs.
Halong Bay, Vietnam - Photo SFenwick 2023
Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage site is an hour from Da Nang, it was decked out with a lot of lights (they have monthly light festivals) and had great night markets. It wasn’t as busy as Hanoi, much more laid back.
Hoi An, Vietnam - night markets. Photo - SFenwick 2023
The next day we took an 18 km bike ride into the country side. We started quite early hoping to avoid some of the heat.
I really enjoyed the ride, we stopped at some of the different fields and farms along the way.
At one, run by a small family business, we learned how to make rice wine (including centipede rice wine), rice paper rolls and noodles.
Life for these farmers seemed hard, wood fired stove etc. Interestingly, you would see the odd solar panel here and there. One farmer made his own bio-fuel from his pigs' poop. There was also free WiFi everywhere! Still not exactly sure how that worked... the free WiFi, that is ;)
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is a huge bustling city with bright lights and high rises. Much busier with bigger roads. There were working traffic lights, but only some working pedestrian crossings. Just don't forget to keep walking forward!
Here we were reminded that this is a communist country when we visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the war memorial and the Cu Chi tunnels. As one would expect, it is Vietnam’s perspective of the war.
It's a huge part of their history, they are proud of it and it is well documented, however for me, I could’ve done without the mausoleum and the war memorial. But for conflict history buffs, it is definitely worth the visit.
The Cu Chi tunnels I did find intriguing, architecturally interesting and cool in temperature.
The tunnels were dug during the Vietnam War -
In order to combat better-supplied American and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War, Communist guerrilla troops known as Viet Cong (VC) dug tens of thousands of miles of tunnels, including an extensive network running underneath the Cu Chi district northwest of Saigon. Soldiers used these underground routes to house troops, transport communications and supplies, lay booby traps and mount surprise attacks, after which they could disappear underground to safety. Quote from History.com
Altogether, I found Vietnam a pleasant surprise, I was expecting the difference between those who have and those who have not, to be wider then it was. As fair as we could tell and according to our guides, the system seemed fairer, the poor still lived in homes and the majority aren’t starving. A report by the World Bank also confirms Vietnam's overall economic improvement for more of it's people.
We also noticed two other interesting developments.
Electric vehicles - They have their own electric vehicle manufacturer, Vinfast and some of the motorbikes are also electric.
High rises - The commercial real estate development is going crazy, buildings going up everywhere.
Fun fact (we were told by our guides) - Despite the huge number of high rises in the cities, a lot of them are empty, and not because of COVID, some have been empty for 10 to 15 years. We were told that they are required to paint them regularly to keep up appearances!
The flag even features my overall reason for planning this adventure!
Cambodia flag - in different artistic representations, the central building of Angkor Wat has appeared on Khmer national flags since the 19th century, in the early days of the French protectorate over Cambodia.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia was distinctly poorer than Vietnam but again it was comfortable and easy to get around. Things were much cheaper than Vietnam and the food, despite being just across the border, was noticeably different. More rice, curry style vs noodles... more or less.
Cambodian history is much sadder than their neighbour, both countries had communist influence, however the Cambodian one took a horrible turn. Our visits in Phnom Penh, to the high school, that became the worst torture camp (S-21), and a nearby killing field, were eye opening and distressing. They were killing their own people.
Pol Pot was a political leader whose communist Khmer Rouge government led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork. One detention center, S-21, was so notorious that only seven of the roughly 20,000 people imprisoned there are known to have survived. The Khmer Rouge, in their attempt to socially engineer a classless communist society, took particular aim at intellectuals, city residents, ethnic Vietnamese, civil servants and religious leaders. Some historians regard the Pol Pot regime as one of the most barbaric and murderous in recent history.
Despite these terrible events the Cambodians are now moving on. The Cambodian economy is steadily improving, and the country seems to be living by the words of the Cambodian proverb, "Fear not the future, weep not for the past." (britannica.com)
One way we heard things were changing, was with help from a number of NGOs that have supported locals setting up, now thriving, businesses.
We also visited a number of restaurants that were trainee establishments. Training the students in customer service, English and cooking to enable them to find jobs to support their families. Most came from disadvantaged areas.
The 6 hour drive to Siem Reap didn't feel as long as I expected as we made multiple stops along the way. We learned about the lotus flower, what bits were edible, tasted fried garlic tarantula (leg only- see below) and steamed sticky rice with red bean in bamboo, all on the side of the road.
We also stopped at a small silk making farm where all the women employed were sole parents. The family who ran it made a fantastic lunch for us as part of the visit.
Siem Reap and the Angkor Wat was our final destination and it was so worth it.
Angkor Wat is huge, with a number of smaller temples surrounding it. But the other temples were not "re"discovered until the 1800's giving plenty of time for the trees to take over. These were fabulous!
It was interesting to learn about the historical tension between the Buddhists and the Hindus in these temples. For example, Angkor Wat, built in the 1100AD, is originally a Hindu temple, it later became a Buddhist temple (follow the link). Buddhism is the official religion of Cambodia.
The temples themselves were magnificent, the symmetrical archways, the preserved reliefs, just stunning.
And despite the hotter temperatures, I was not deter me from visiting all the temples on offer.
Banteay Srei Temple
The tenth century Hindu temple of Banteay Srei is renowned for its intricate decoration, carved in pinkish sandstone, that covers the walls like tapestry.
Ta Prohm temple- featured in Tomb Raider
Ta Prohm , originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King) built from 1186, was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII.
Ta Phrom temple - photos SFenwick 2023
That's a wrap
I thoroughly enjoyed this trip, if I were to change anything, it would have been the length of stay, I would have stayed longer in both countries. They have a lot to offer travellers who are interested in getting to know their country. The locals were very friendly and interesting.
It has certainly fueled my desire to check out other countries in the area, such as Laos, India and China :)!
Thanks for reading - I would love to hear any comments!