Hanoi

We stepped off the train in Hanoi at 5am in the morning and were greeted by the chill of a misty platform which was quickly filling up with taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. We had been advised to always go with one of the green and white Mai Linh taxis because they were the least corrupt but as all of those had been snapped up we had no choice but to trust another metered cab. We soon realised that this was most definitely a mistake when we noticed that the meter was bounding up by handfuls of Vietnamese Dong a second. The taxi driver had apparently gone deaf by this stage and could not hear us pointing this out; a few notches up the volume scale later and he screeched the car to a halt to argue. Hanoi was still deserted at this hour and not having a clue where we were, we were reluctant to leave the cab altogether so after much negotiation we managed to settle upon an inflated fixed fare. Fifteen minutes later we pulled up outside the Hanoi Guesthouse on Ma May street in the old quarter of Hanoi. All the lights were off and after a couple of minutes spent knocking at the door, a boy in pajamas undid that latch and welcomed us in. He explained that everyone was still asleep but we could take a seat in the breakfast room and help ourselves to some tea and coffee. The team at the guesthouse were lovely and showed us to a beautiful room on the top floor which came complete with a huge bathtub, the first I’d seen in a while. It was the perfect place to get some rest before we tackled the attempt to get a Chinese visa part II. We weren’t holding out much hope as all the travel/visa advice forums we’d read online had reported much higher rates of success in Ho Chi Minh, so we started to mentally prepare ourselves for a trip into Laos if our Hanoi attempt failed. We had received one tip off though and that was to try Vietnam Impressive who apparently have contacts inside the embassy and can book train tickets too, so that might be our best shot at getting around the ‘no visa, no train ticket; no train ticket, no visa’ quandary. As soon as we were bathed and refreshed, we set off for the Vietnam Impressive offices which were in an old four story house on the outskirts of town. We’d spoken to a ‘Mike’ on the phone but he was out and about so we were dealt with by two lovely girls. They assured us that there should be no problems procuring a double entry visa and told us to leave it with them. It could take around four days they said and so we went straight back to Hanoi Guesthouse to book ourselves in for the rest of the week.

With the visa situation out of our hands, we were free to explore the wonderful streets of Hanoi at our leisure. We’d heard many people tell us what a special place it is but you really have to see it to understand fully what they mean. The first real surprise was the dip in the temperature, especially given that this was the first cold weather we’d experienced for nearly eight months. Everyone was wrapped up in winter coats, scarves, hats and mufflers and many glove and ear-muff loaded bicycles were being carted around the tourist streets hoping to make money off those tourists who had been caught out in the trip up from Thailand, Laos or Cambodia. At a nearby school, smartly dressed women driving scooters in coats and heels were busy bundling warmly-wrapped children onto their bikes. Scooters and motorbikes are the transport option of choice in Vietnam and Hanoi was no exception. Everywhere we went, the streets were filled to the brim with parked scooters and at the beginning and end of each day every street would buzz with the vibrations of hundreds of scooters making their journey home. The pollution levels were admittedly difficult to take and the cold air meant the clouds of fumes would hang uncomfortably over the city. Even the legendary Hoan Kiem lake and park, which mark the centre of Hanoi and are always full of joggers and Thai Chi groups, could offer no respite and the only option left was to make like a local and invest in a carbon filter mask/fashion statement (whether this had any effect beyond the ridiculousness of its lurid blue flower design was questionable). Strolling along the lake, masks in place, we were lucky enough to get a glimpse of the ancient turtle that inhabits its waters (as homage to the legend that Lê Lợi, one of Vietnam’s greatest heroes, returned his magic sword to the Golden Turtle at this very lake). The present soft-shell turtle, which is affectionately known as Cụ Rùa or ‘Great Grandfather’ is thought to be one of the most endangered freshwater turtles in the world and is sadly not doing so well currently, due to the polluted waters of the lake. In 2011 a rescue operation was carried out to treat the pink lesions on the turtle’s skin, thought to have been caused by floating debris in the lake but it has since been returned to the water as it is considered sacred to residents of Hanoi. Sightings of the enormous creature are thought to be lucky and we were amazed to see how quickly an excited crowd gathered around the lakes edge as word of the turtle’s appearance spread.

After the excitement at the lake we decided to wander to the French quarter which is where many of the smart hotels, restaurants and patisseries are based. It was the closest I had come to feeling autumnal all year, warming up with a hot chocolate and a pain au chocolat as the evening dusk set in and the shop fronts and lake lamps began to light up. We were very glad that we would be staying in Hanoi for a good while longer because it was clear that this intricate city has a great deal to explore.

The next day we began our explorations in Ma May street where our guesthouse was based. I had come down with a bit of a cold so somebody recommended that we visit 69 Bar a few doors down for their sweet and sour dill soup and lime, ginger and honey tea. Both were delicious and helped set us up for another chilly day in Hanoi. For dessert we opted for the vegetarian Tamarind café on the same street which we heard was offering a heater and the prospect of warm apple pie for those who, like us, were missing home just a bit. Ma May street is central to Hanoi’s old quarter, and is perhaps the best known to tourists but the real action takes place on the surrounding streets which are bustling day and night with street sellers touting every kind of imaginable product you could ever wish to buy. The old district is a perfect example of a giant market where each street specialises in something different, so while one street is known for its bamboo ladders, another will be famous for coffins or kitchenware. A helpful lady we met in a shop sketched a basic street index for us, indicating which street name meant what, which helps to get across just some of the weird and wonderful things you can find in the narrow streets of the district if you know where to look:

Hang Ma – paper products; Hang Manh – bamboo mats; Hang Thiec – tin ovens; Hang Quat – religious artefacts; Hoang Hoa Tham – plants, pets; Le Duan – garages, running shoes (!); Ma May – passport, photos, cd burning; Ly Nam De – computers; Trang Tien – bookshops and galleries; Tran Hung Dao – dentists; Ba Trie – bicycles and motorbikes; Hang Bo – motorbike stickers, clothes accessories and barbeque squid (late night only); Gia Ngu – socks, stockings, underwear and gloves; Hang Luoc – plastic flowers; Hang Ga – bamboo ladders; Hang DAU – shoes etc. etc.

It was a pleasure to while away the hours just drifting from street to street, occasionally pausing to draw up a blue or red plastic stool to perch on at one of the many street cafes from which we could watch the world drift by while sipping a Vietnamese coffee. Like many South East Asian cities, the streets really are where the action is and everything from peeling potatoes, preparing meals and ‘chewing the fat’ with friends or family to having a hair cut takes place on its pavements. As the days went on, the sight of pavement slabs covered in sunflower seed husks, crab shells and discarded bits of hair became a familiar sight and one which I began to find strangely comforting. In the evenings, many of the cafes would transform into Bia Hơi stalls where fresh, 24-hour shelf life beer (containing no preservatives) would be sold by the pint for the equivalent of 15p, accompanied by freshly baked crisp baked and pipes/tobacco if desired. When we’d had our fill of Bia Hơi we would often wander up the boutique-lined Nha Tho street to Nha Chung or ‘lemon tea’ street where we were told the young, hip crowds of the city like to spend their evenings. The neo-gothic St Joseph’s Cathedral can also be found here and it looks rather spectacular lit up in the dark. This part of town bears the unmistakable markings of French influence perhaps more than any other, with its cathedral square and neatly painted, shutter fronted cafes and shops bordering it either side. The beautifully tiled La Place café provided a beautiful place to work and read from while looking out on the Cathedral and square below through the balcony window.

On our fifth day in Hanoi we heard back from Vietnam Impressive, who told us that they’d failed to get us a double entry visa (apparently visa entry requirements had become stricter in China since January 2012) but they could get us a single entry which would at least get us to Hong Kong where we should have ‘no problem securing another single entry visa’. They hadn’t even needed to sort out the train tickets from Hanoi to Nanning in order to get the visa so we decided to book those through our hotel which was a fair bit cheaper. With one more day left in Hanoi, we decided to spend our last evening at the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre on Dinh Tien Hoang street near the Hoan Kiem lake. We couldn’t leave Vietnam without seeing one performance of this traditional Vietnamese performance art and we weren’t disappointed as a live band sung, plucked and drummed their way through various water themed scenes from Vietnamese culture and legend (think buffalo’s tilling, farmers dancing, goats fighting, golden fish jumping and dragons soaring). It was a more than appropriate way to end our stay in such a wonderful and surprising city.

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The Reunification Express

The Reunification Express (now more commonly referred to as the “North-South Railway” outside of the tourist brochures) runs from Saigon to Hanoi – spanning 1,000 miles of beautiful pastureland, countryside and hilltops.

The railway was constructed in the thirties by French colonists, split in 1954 following the Geneva accords and remained as two separate rail systems until the end of the Vietnam war. In 1975 the two lines reunited and within a year the old route was put back into operation.

In order to book your tickets for this train you have to physically go to the station as there is no online ticket ordering service in operation yet. As the sleeper compartments usually get booked up a couple of days in advance, it can be a bit difficult to spontaneously travel onward (though there is usually room in the hard sleeper section which has as many as four bunks to a wall)! A slightly easier but more expensive way of going about booking is to go through an agency such as the efficient but expensive Vietnam Impressive (there are however many hotels and guesthouses that now offer train booking services and we found them to be cheaper). After our visa debacle at the Chinese embassy, we managed to find ourselves sleeper train tickets on the evening train out of Ho Chi Minh the next day. It was strange to think of this as the first train link in a continuous chain of connecting tracks that would eventually take us all the way back to London.

We were shown to our carriage by the attendant (each carriage has one) and after we tried to thank him in our broken Vietnamese he smiled before rushing back to his post at the carriage door. The interior of the cabins is basic but comfortable (and unlike the ‘plusher’ Chinese trains there were no television screens and sound systems so books and packs of cards came in very useful). The bottom bunks nearly always get booked up first as they are the most convenient during the day time, doubling up as basic sofas, having access to the table in the centre and enjoying the best views.

As we had booked fairly late in the game for all of our train rides through Vietnam, we were on the top bunks both times but as the train from Ho Chi Minh to Danang and from Hue to Hanoi are both basically night trains, this wasn’t a problem. This was our first introduction to the standard 4-berth sleeper carriage (most of them built by German companies) which are used on many routes through Vietnam, China, Mongolia and Eastern Europe. Each one may have differing degrees of comfort but the layout is always the same and was to become very familiar over the coming months.

The train is a really fantastic way to travel as it offers a chance to bond with both locals and fellow travellers. Our first cabin companions were a brother and sister from Australia who had come to Vietnam on a spontaneous holiday with a view to getting some wardrobe items made up in Hoi An. We spent the evening playing cards and swapping travel stories before trying some local beer to help us get to bed. It was hot inside the cabin with our air vent missing a few nuts and bolts but the night passed quickly and as morning broke we were able to see beautiful pastures and rolling hills through the scratched window pane. Our second lot of fellow cabin occupants were a Vietnamese couple who were travelling with a large number of other family members, all dotted amongst the other carriages. There was a celebratory atmosphere as they began to unpack steaming flasks of tea and pots of noodles to share amongst themselves. The women started to gather in one carriage while the men congregated on chairs by the sink area, both parties soon deep in conversation and laughter. One of the women helped us map out the exact train route on a Palin-esque blow-up globe that we a had brought along as an illustrative tool to help explain our journey. Although there was a language barrier between us, we really appreciated being privy to what was essentially a family gathering taking place on a train and they were very generous with their delicious home made dishes, which made a diverting alternative from our own carry-on dinner of crackers and peanut butter.

The train journey through Vietnam is particularly beautiful and we could see why people found it so difficult when the line was deliberately attacked and blown up during the war and resulting unrest. It has slowly but surely been patched up, mended and ‘reunified’ so travellers and locals are once more able to wind their way through the communities and endless fields of egrets and scarecrows which snake all the way along the coast from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi.

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Night Herons and Elephants of the Forgotten City in Huế

Huế is a town with a rich history and a turbulent past which has dragged it through everything from the feudal dynasty of the Nguyễn Lords in 17th-19th centuries through to the Tet offensive and massacre at Huế by Communist forces in 1968 and the persistent aerial bombardment from the Americans during the Vietnam war. Even after the war had ended, the historical structures at Huế were seen as relics from a past no-one wished to preserve and many were left to rot and ruin. Since 1993, when many of Hue’s historical monuments were given UNESCO heritage status, work has taken place to preserve those buildings which managed to survive both war and neglect. And it’s a good thing too as there are some truly beautiful buildings here, not least the Thien Mu Pagoda (a 16th century structure and one of the oldest in the country) and the Imperial Citadel with its interior Forbidden City. The Thien Mu (celestial lady) Pagoda was a few miles from the centre of Huế where we were staying at a small but extremely cosy hotel called The Jade. As it was pouring with rain we decided to opt for a taxi instead of a Tuk-Tuk to the pagoda and as it’s about a 15 minute drive across the Perfume River and out of the town, the driver offered to wait for us and take us back. The monastery attached to the Pagoda is still active and so it is a peaceful place dedicated to learning – the car of the monk Thich Quang Duc, who burned himself to death in Saigon in 1963 in protest of the regime’s clamp down and violations against religious freedom, is on display here as a gentle reminder of what he fought to achieve. The bells, incense, bonsai trees, statues and spectacular views of the Perfume River make this an ideal place to take some time out to reflect and admire the many facets of this fascinating country.

Huế is certainly less geared towards tourists than Hoi An, making it an excellent place from which to observe the local day-to-day activity of the town. We were amused to watch fishermen in wooden boats on the Perfume River using traditional fishing techniques but taking breaks every now and again to talk on their mobile phones. It’s easy to forget that in seemingly timeless places such as this mobile phones have become as much a part of the culture as Nón Lá hats and you are just as likely to find Angry Birds merchandise for sale as you are silk embroidery. We also found that many young people very much wanted to practice their English and we had some interesting conversations about how they approach it. One lovely girl at our hotel was volunteering there to practice conversation by talking to guests and many of her favourite phrases had been taken straight out of Gone with the Wind and Little House on the Prairie – her favourite film/series. She said she wants to be just like Scarlett O’Hara and when I asked her why, she smiled and said “because she is a strong and fearsome woman”.

Our stay in Huế was only short as we were due to catch the train to Hanoi the next day but we couldn’t leave without a visit to the Citadel and its Forbidden Purple city within the walled and moated Imperial complex which was once the centre of life in the old capital. Most of the 17th-century buildings in this fortressed complex were destroyed or damaged during the war and bullet holes can still be seen in some of the stonework. Restoration work is in progress but slow, which suited us as there was something magical about the crumbling buildings set amongst lush green paddocks and rivers. Night Herons nestled in trees above the river while a couple of rather sad and damp looking elephants grazed in the old palace gardens (apparently they were due to appear at the Huế festival later that month but we hoped they’d be moved to better grounds after as they were on quite short tethers when we saw them). Apart from that, exploring the vine-covered city was an unexpected pleasure; we could weave in and out of its maze of buildings without coming across another soul, which brought back something of how we’d felt at the temples surrounding Angkor Wat. The interior buildings house art galleries and theatre spaces which were a great place to shelter in from the rain when it got a little heavier. There were some really beautiful and affordable pieces in the art gallery so I was able (after some gentle negotiation) to buy a charcoal sketch of two Vietnamese women despite being on a restrictive traveller’s budget.

Feeling restored and relaxed we headed for Huế train station to board our night train to Hanoi. The station was one of the more interesting we had encountered of late, with motorbikes and other merchandise being noisily crated up for transportation and delicious food being cooked up all along the trackside. I won’t forget the sights, sounds and smells of that train station for a long time and I was really looking forward to experiencing more of it in Hanoi.

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The Fabric of Hoi An

Hoi An is a small town, almost half way between Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and Hanoi on the East coast of Vietnam. Very accessible by train and then bus or taxi from nearby Danang, it provides a compelling antidote to the hectic city life of HCMC or Hanoi. Wearing its French-colonial heritage slightly more on its sleeve, it embraces a slower but more fulfilling pace of life. The focal point of the town is the Thu Bon River, which flows to the south of the historic district and was once central to the town’s status as a major trading port. Today it is home to fishing boats, little cafés which perch only a few inches above the waterline and people playing ornate Dan Bau (traditional one-stringed instruments) along its banks and under its bridges. At the centre of town is a beautiful 16th-century Japanese bridge (Chùa cầu), rare in that there is also a Buddhist temple located inside. The old town is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and is therefore remarkably well preserved, especially in comparison to Huế where damage from various battles and onslaughts is still very much evident. Hoi An’s prettiness has made it a favoured film set location and it was famously used as the backdrop for much of the recent film adaptation of Graham Greene’s, The Quiet American.

Putting its uniformly ochre-coloured buildings and golden-lettered shop fronts aside, the less contrived beauty of Hoi An can be found in its maze of cobbled side streets and tiny alleyways where much of the real day-to-day action takes place. It is here that many of the back stage culinary and clothes operations are revealed, and you don’t have to stroll for long before you’ll come across large racks of noodles drying out in the sun, swathes of colourful material pegged up on lines awaiting their turn through the sewing machine or circles of talkative women stuffing ‘white rose’ dumplings. A local speciality, these dumplings are made from transparent Manioc-flour stuffed with shrimp or mushrooms with fresh herbs, which apparently ‘no meal is complete without’ in Vietnam. The French gave them the name White Rose due to their bunched up appearance and they are now commonly fried with chopped shallots as a quiet nod to this origin. They are often served up with a delicious dipping sauce made from shrimp broth, chillies and lemon so you have to be quite restrained not to polish off a whole plateful. One of the running jokes in Hoi An is that if you do happen to overindulge, at least there’ll be a street full of tailors waiting on hand to adjust your garments to your newly inflated shape.

Hoi An is not only notorious for its excellent food but also for its amazing cloth shops. You won’t have to go far before happening upon one of its many tailors, each vying for the attention of passing tourists in the hope that one may be in need of a new work or casual wardrobe. Each tailor keeps a large catalogue of styles but it’s possible to get anything made up if you bring a photo along (catwalk designs are a particularly frequent request apparently). In one shop along Le Loi Street we spied some winter coats that we thought would come in very useful for the onward journey through the cooler temperatures of northern China, Mongolia and Russia. After browsing through some patterns, I found a wool coat with a fleecy lining which I thought would do the trick and would cost around £20 to be fitted and made up from scratch. The lady in the shop expertly took some measurements and proudly declared that it would be ready to collect the next morning. Later, while we were waiting for some small adjustments to be made, we had time to talk to the owner of the shop. She mentioned that it used to be much easier to manage a family-run tailoring business in the town but that in the last five years business has definitely been on the decrease. There was a time when people used to commission an entire wardrobe but since cheap factory clothing has become available in most countries they now buy only a few clothes at once, making it difficult to exist given the number of other shops they have to compete with. Unfortunately, the skill of the local clothes-makers has not gone unnoticed by major labels such as North Face who are only too happy to employ people from the family-run companies which go bust (there are many pros and cons to this according to local opinion – while wages are not necessarily terrible by local standards, the happiness and satisfaction that one gets from working for oneself is taken away and replaced with an essentially unrewarding job). Branded clothes made here also sell abroad for about fifty times the cost of production, highlighting the ridiculousness of designer labels and economic disparity. In the back streets, it is possible to find some stores selling similar items without the label or with slight imperfections for a fraction of the price they are sold abroad. We spent the remainder of our time in Hoi An exploring its beautiful streets and town paddy fields, sipping Vietnamese coffee near the riverside and browsing the many beautiful arts and crafts stores on offer. One of our personal favourites was Reaching Out which sold beautiful handmade paper lampshades, pottery and notebooks covered in silk patterns, all made by disabled artisans from the local area.

After having had such a relaxing time soaking up the beauty of this creative dwelling, we were in for shock with the onward journey to Huế, which was perhaps one of the strangest we had encountered so far. We decided to book onto a local bus, given that Huế was only a few hours away by road and were dropped off in the middle of a muddy clearing which was apparently the bus depot. Half an hour later, our bus staggered into the lot and emptied itself of tired looking night-passengers who had travelled from Hanoi. It wasn’t long before a remarkably irate driver – who had probably been driving all night to get here – jumped out and barked at us to take our shoes off and get our bags in. This was a sleeper bus, with three rows of tiny bunks packed top-to-toe in a filthy compartment that smelled of body odour. Not expecting to be given a ‘bed’ for three hours, we had no alternative but to climb in and try to make ourselves comfortable among the crisp packets and blankets the old passengers had left behind. Luckily the stunning scenery more than made up for the strange bed bus and we managed to make the best of it, listening to music while watching the beautiful hills, coastline and fishing villages float by. It wasn’t long before we arrived in a misty and cold Hue, the ex-national capital that sits alongside the perfume river…

Some of our favourite Hoi An hangouts:

Before and Now, 51 Le Loi – a vibrant little cà phê with delicious cakes and cocktails but it’s the wall art which really makes it worth visiting.

533 Hai Ba Trung is the place to go to sample some of Hoi An’s famous white roses. The recipe is reportedly still a secret passed down to a select few who still make the dumplings before selling them on to the rest of the town. 533 is one of the few places you can see them being made.

 

White Sail - 134 Tran Cao Van. Relaxed cà phê serving good, fresh local food

 

 

 

Papillon Noir – 30 Tran Hung Dao Street. Beautiful hand painted silks which you can also see being painted in the studio at the back.

 

 

Thanh Tu cloth shop – 16 Le Loi Street. Excellent, reasonably-priced tailors specialising in all types of clothes.

 

Cloth Shop Thien – 637 – Hai Ba Trung Street. Stocking a wide range of material but particularly good for Chinese, Vietnamese and Raw Silk items.

Huế

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Crossing the Mekong Delta into Vietnam

The ‘new’ border crossing (newly open to tourists that is) at Ha Tien is basically not much more than a dirt track with a tiny passport control shack and a giant casino (aka the ‘Ha Tien Vegas’) on the Cambodian side. These gambling establishments can be found in the no-man’s-land between most of Cambodia’s border crossings, and are a favourite weekend haunt for many Thais, Vietnamese and expats working in places where gambling is illegal. It was soon time to get out of the minivan which had taken us through the scenic drive from Kep to the border. Passing palm frond and mud hut structures alongside salt marshes and rice fields, we got the feeling that this was one of the increasingly rare areas of Cambodia to be remain untouched thus far by the tourism trade. It was soon time to walk our last Cambodian dirt track and make our way to the short queue of backpackers which was assembling at the checkpoint. The border passage was pretty uneventful, except for an outburst from an American who pulled up in a motorbike and began to row with immigration officials because he hadn’t got his Cambodian visa in advance – apparently the rules on this have tightened in recent years, much to the annoyance of the weekend gamblers.

After being stamped out of Cambodia, we made the final approach to the Vietnamese border post which marked the last part of our journey down shaky, dusty roads and our first steps back into pavements, tarmac and air-conditioning (which oddly made us feel somewhat nostalgic for what we had left behind). Even the passport control office on the Vietnamese side was markedly different from the Cambodian one, with a fanned waiting room and a bulk passport stamping operation in place. It wasn’t long before we were back on the road, this time in a slightly larger coach which would slowly make its way from the Vietnamese coast towards the urban sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon via the Mekong Delta.

For the next four or five hours, we traced the banks of the Mekong, watching various scenes of river life unfold along the way. We began to realise that the Mekong highway is perhaps the longest high street in the world with its almost unbroken stream of small shops and family businesses, parted only by small bridges, water gardens or fisheries. The river is the lifeblood of most of these businesses and settlements, providing either the source of their trade or a means to transport it by. Large barges carrying gravel and construction materials and smaller boats ferrying everything from food to furniture between jetties were seen at regular intervals from our bus window. Punctuating the route every few metres were small cà phê joints, selling the ubiquitous cà phê sữa đá (strong Vietnamese iced coffee), Com (Steamed or fried rice with vegetables) and Phở dishes which are staples of the local cuisine. As was to be expected on such a long journey, there were regular stops, or more appropriately pauses, which gave us the opportunity to sample some of the local delicacies such as the roasted sweet potato and dried bananas. We had to be careful to keep up with the bus however, as it often didn’t actually stop but continued to move slowly along a line of traffic, for example when we were heading for the chain-ferry across the Mekong itself. Shortly after we jumped back on, a number of street sellers followed suit, boarding the bus with packages of rice, hot corn-on-the-cobs and Bánh mì, leaving only moments before we made it onto the chain ferry. By this point, the sun was setting and we were greeted on the other side of the river’s bank by the sight of colourful kites floating in the wispy sky. Kite flying is something we very much came to associate with Vietnam and China – which we romantically interpreted as the display of irrepressible freedom in the face of control.

It was late by the time we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as the centre is still referred to by most locals) and after surviving the now customary haggling for a taxi we found ourselves in a sweet little guest-house (the Diep Anh) right in the heart of the less-sweet backpacker district. The following day, we dodged the prostitutes and motorbike touts down our guesthouse’s alley to make our way to the Chinese Consulate. Due to border disputes in the South China sea, relations between China and Vietnam are by all accounts slightly strained, which meant that acquiring our Chinese visa was sadly not as straightforward as we had hoped. In a strange piece of circular logic, in order to get a Chinese visa in HCMC/Saigon you must already have a ticket from there to Mainland China, but in order to get a train ticket, you need a valid Chinese visa… We were nearly thrown out of the Chinese embassy after growing increasingly frustrated at this intractable consular blockade. We were told we would have to book a direct flight, which we thought ridiculous and thinking there must be a way round we decided to accelerate our journey north to Hanoi to try our luck with an agent there.

The train is an increasingly popular way of exploring Vietnam as a tourist and there are now many agencies which can help you book the tickets and have them delivered to your hotel if you can’t get to the station yourself or if your Vietnamese language skills are lacking (you cannot currently book train tickets online unfortunately and must usually book in advance at the ticket counter). Vietnam Impressive is a well regarded agency (though they do add on a fairly large agency fee) but many hotels now offer a booking service too so it’s worth asking around. We managed to get ours through a guest house and so prepared to leave a very hot and busy Ho Chi Minh City the next evening. The American legacy of the Vietnam War is still alive and well in HCMC/Saigon, leaving it a polluted, maddeningly busy pit of expensive designer marketing and exploitation on a mass scale. After a day of wandering the streets and marvelling at the hypocrisy of the designer outfits setting up shop in the very countries where the extortionately priced goods are being made for a fraction of the price, I was only too glad to see the back of it. It was with great relief that we boarded a sleeper train that evening, bound for Danang (the nearest station to Hoi An). The next morning, we woke up to the beautiful sight of paddy fields, rivers and lush greenery, a welcome exchange from pollution clouds and dust…

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Kampot Pepper and Le Bout du Monde in Kep

The riverside idyll of Kampot lies just an hour and a half’s drive west from Sihanoukville. There used to be a train which ran between the two every other day but the passenger line has been suspended due to bad tracks, so we opted for the mini bus option instead which was about $7.50 a ticket. We’d received four pieces of advice villas – three of which me managed. The Bodhi Floating Villas were a little way out of town and as we needed to leave on an early bus for Kep the next morning we thought it best to stay near the centre. Sadly this meant trawling the high street for vacancies and we ended up with a room filled with mosquitoes that hadn’t even been cleaned after the last guests (the Mojitos we had later that evening helped us to ignore this detail at bedtime). Kampot bears marks of its days under both French Colonial and Khmer Rouge rule, though it is doing its best to cover up the scars. It is almost too easy to forget how recent its turbulent past is while strolling along the spacious riverside boulevards, alongside colourful villas and bright pink bougainvillea. The market building and many of the others that line the town and riverside are undeniably French in character and make for a pretty scene alongside the wide streets dotted with bicycles and Tuk Tuks (the very averagehe main form of transport here and is by far the easiest way to zip across the town or idle along the river by (the Cambodians have a word meaning just this – Dar-laing). We were particularly amused to see a poster in a local family-run transport shop advertising bike trips in and around the area, displaying a picture of a rather red looking Boris Johnson puffing away on a London bike at its centre. The guy behind the desk was rather confused when we showed that we recognised him and said that they had just searched for random bike images on the internet, opting for this one as they thought it might appeal more to tourists… Rather liking the family and their home operated business (we were soon to find out that the grandmother of the family was taking a nap under the desk we had been sitting behind), we decided to book our transport to Kep with them the next day. We spent the remainder of our time in Kampot soaking in the sun next to the riverside and exploring before finishing up with a cocktail from the rooftop bar of Rikitikitavi as we watched the sun set over the Elephant Mountains.

We left early the following morning to take the short bus ride to Kep, a former French colonial beach settlement just along the coast from Kampot and further towards the border with Vietnam. We’d booked a stay in a palm-fronded bungalow in the gardens of a businesses have re-emerged in various parts of Cambodia, albeit with a more locally sensitive attempt at integration this time around. Some of the best have not only offered local employment and educational opportunities but have also turned a spotlight on ecological or responsible tourism. All of the accommodation at Le Bout du Monde for example, has been made in the traditional style so the houses have been built on stilts, out of wood and other natural materials which means that they remain cool in all seasons and do not need to be air-conditioned. They also offer various styles of bungalow meaning that people on tighter budgets are also catered for which we felt was important in the battle to prevent eco-lodges becoming associated with and branded as the preserve of the wealthy, luxury accommodation chains and trend-followers.

Proving that the finer things in life don’t need to cost lots of money, Le Bout du Monde is refreshingly different to other more exclusive settlements in the area such as its neighbour, the Veranada Natural Resort. Our bungalow ‘Holy’ (named after one half of the Bertrand Tavernier filmwhich was filmed on location there), may have been one of the more basic on offer but it was just what we were after. The bungalow and wooden slated balcony (complete with hammock) was surrounded by lush greenery and beautiful views out to the Gulf of Thailand, especially at sunset; but it was the evening and dawn choruses of tree frogs, geckos and various other jungle inhabitants that made the experience really unique.

When we finally managed to tear ourselves away from our hammock pod, we discovered that Le Bout du Monde was also a great starting base for treks through the national park. Many routes through which have only recently been opened up thanks to the efforts of the charismatic Christian from the local Led Zep café (which itself has fantastic views of the coast from its hill top location and is great place to enjoy a post-walk drink). Following Christian’s squirrel icons through the hills will take you to sunset rocks, horse icons, a little Buddha and a disused, gothic nunnery. Along the way, we saw snakes, lizards and lots of exotic birds. We later learned in the Led Zep cafe that there is now sadly only one Great Hornbill, a male, regularly seen in the Kep area since the disappearance of his mate a few years ago. It is currently unclear as to why Great Hornbill numbers are in decline in Cambodia but they are now listed as near threatened on the endangered species list.

The jungle canopies offer refreshing respite from the town below which the French established as a holiday resort (Kep-sur-mer) back in the early 2oth century where they could go to escape from the heat and bustle of Phnom Penh. The ghostly presence of the old colonials is still visible in the form of abandoned, crumbling villas (many of them pockmarked by bullet holes) which were left to decay during the reign of the Khmer Rouge and haven’t been touched since. Kep is far from lackadaisical though, its famous crab market is garnering global attention and word is quickly spreading through internet forums, magazines and newspapers of its adjoining restaurants which serve up fantastically fresh dishes making full use of Cambodia’s famous salt and pepper. There are also sailing clubs, boutique hotels, juice bars and yoga retreats spurting up in abundance - often advertised by leaflets thrust out to you from a passing bike.

offers some particularly enticing drinks mixes, for those that find themselves in the area. It was difficult to leave Kep with its lush green forests and rich, red dirt tracks burned crimson by the huge setting sun. But with our visas running out, it was time to make the very short journey to the newly opened Ha Tien/Prek Chak border checkpoint where we would cross into Vietnam…

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