By Laura French
A few nights ago a friend and I spent the night crashing a Cambodian wedding and boogying on down with the lively locals on the beach of Koh Rong, Cambodia, one of the most beautiful, idyllic and paradise-like islands I’ve ever seen. We returned to find (potentially rabies-ridden?) dogs chasing us up the steps, the stench of sewerage sweeping its way through my synuses and a mouse nibbling away at our bin. Meanwhile a fellow backpacker just next door woke up to a monkey chilling out in his less-than-private room and just days before my friend had woken to find a chicken – and its egg – on her bed (breakfast in bed doesn’t get much fresher).
I’d say that sums up quite nicely the contrasts between the ideal and the not-so-ideal I’ve seen since travelling, those first world problems every backpacker knows only too well. Prime example: on the day of the Full Moon party in Thailand I was having a jolly old time whizzing along on the back of some friends’ scooters, and ten minutes later we were in a Thai police station in the middle of nowhere handing over a significant amount of dollah supposedly because the drivers “weren’t wearing helmets” (n.b there were a suspiciously large amount of western (aka scammable) tourists flooding in…) A week later I was sitting in the reception of my hotel in the middle of the night being scammed for a visa with approximately 5 hours until my flight departure, whilst a huge rat with a disgustingly long tail scuttled past my feet. Yet another time in Vietnam I bought a bus pass which then magically became invalid (a long argument with various travel agents ensued in vain – customer service what?) and thus ‘nam became land of the scam – turns out ginger hair and fair skin make pretending to be a local in the know somewhat of a difficulty.
But despite the trials and tribulations of travelling in Southeast Asia I’ve had an amazing time – and I certainly wouldn’t let the odd rip-off discourage anyone from seeing the beauty these places have to offer.
After being welcomed into Vietnam with approximately 582038 billion mopeds charging through the streets and beeping their heads/horns off in Hanoi, a boat trip out to Ha Long Bay was much appreciated. We kayaked through caves, swam in the sea and spent a night on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean with a local tour guide who couldn’t get enough of making sexual innuendos with reference to various cave formations (I quote “here you imagine two people doing froggy style” – huh?)
The bay itself is made up of an infinite amount of towering limestone rocks (which according to local legend were formed by a dragon spitting out pearls to form islands – hence the name Ha Long, meaning “dragon descending”) and it was indeed spectacular – but yet more impressive were the mountainous landscapes and endless, hilly rice paddies of Sapa, 350km north-west of Hanoi. We stayed with locals (and I perfected the art of drinking rice wine without wincing), did a whole lot of hiking and learned about local farming culture, one in which women apparently marry at around 15, have however many children gets them a son, and do all the work while the men sit around drinking beer – all right for some!
Next up was Hoi An. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many tailor shops in my life and we all pretended we were A-listers by getting suits/dresses/coats made to fit. Don’t miss the all-you-can-drink-for-$4 deal at aptly named ‘Why Not’ bar – and don’t expect to remember anything the day after. Russian holiday destination Nha Trang, south of Hoi An, had a nice beach and good nightlife. We discovered the gem that is Vin Pearl, a waterpark come theme park come aquarium come arcade-land which made me so excited I almost wet myself – think bungy trampolines, kamikaze slides, bumper cars and… 6 adults all over the age of 20.
Dalat, south of Hoi An, is a small, beautiful town in the mountains which is definitely worth a visit – upon our arrival at the hostel (‘Dalat Family Hostel’) we were greeted with tea, jokes and a rather mad family running the place – great place to stay if you’re looking for somewhere sociable and ‘Mama’ cooks a big meal for everyone in the evenings. We did canyoning and I experienced two of the scariest moments of my life, one of which involved slipping off the rock face whilst abseiling down a 24m waterfall. Eventually I made it down, laughing uncontrollably in a cloud of hysteria and terror, only to find myself approximately ten minutes later running and jumping off of an 11m rock into the river and (due to failing to get the jumping part quite right) almost bashing my feet on the protruding rocks and dying a horrible death. If that hasn’t put you off it was actually a great day, and it only cost 25 dollars – when in Vietnam.
After that adventure Ho Chi Minh/Saigon was comparatively tranquil (at least more so than Hanoi, though the mopeds have most definitely found their place there too), until I ventured to the 250km long network of Chu Chi tunnels used during the Vietnamese war which, together with the War Remnants Museum in the city (housing an infinite number of harrowing photos and stories), succeeded in moving me deeply.
We continued our educational adventure in Cambodia with a trip to the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh, again a tremendously sad but informative site – and ended it with a slightly contrasting couple of nights on the Brit-filled island that is the aforementioned Koh Rong, filled with hippy types high on life (and probably many other things). Phnom Penh itself has some beautiful architecture, including the rather ornate and colourful Royal Palace, as does the relatively quiet city of Battambang, not far from Siem Reap. While in Battambang I cruised around on the back of a local’s moped – you can book tours through most tuk-tuk drivers and I’d highly recommend them. It’s a great way of exploring the surrounding rural areas, although it did involve making the age-old decision between declining questionable food and disappointing whoever made it, or trying everything with a polite smile and suffering the potential consequences; I went for the latter (apart from one ice lolly which turned out to be savoury and was just a step too far) and am glad I did; banana rice cakes and sticky rice wrapped in bamboo were actually very tasty.
Overall both Vietnam and Cambodia were spectacular. My personal favourite? Vietnam – every backpacker’s doing the same route (which makes making friends really easy), the sites are amazing (Sapa and Dalat were my highlights) and getting scammed at least gives you a great story to tell when you’re back home and in need of some entertaining chat.
Laura French is a contributing writer to Don’t Stay Put. She’s a travel writer in the making with a love for food, partying and the great outdoors. An Oxford-graduate with a burning desire to see the world – unfortunately combined with a terrible sense of direction and an uncanny ability to get into awkward situations. Check out her blog at laviedeparis.wordpress.com.
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