The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and The Kingdom of Cambodia: How We Spent Our Christmas Vacation

Jardine family vacations are a challenge to plan.  With two sets of kids (the older boys and the younger girls), a mom who loves visiting temples and markets and a dad who needs to stay out of the sun and likes to rest while on vacation, it’s not always easy to find a happy medium.  And although I do take all of these “requests” into consideration – e.g. ESPN must be available on the television, limited temple visits, scary adventure of some sort must be included, can’t leave until Christmas night and presents have been opened at home – not every event on the itinerary is going to be a crowd pleaser.

This year’s vacation turns out to be our last in Asia during Tom’s work assignment and I am thrilled that we chose Vietnam and Cambodia.  They were always on the short list of places I wanted to see before I moved home but I wasn’t too sure how the rest of the family would  react.  December 25th:  After a big Christmas brunch we set out for the airport and flew direct to Ho Chi Minh City otherwise known as Saigon.  We were met at the airport by our guide, Nam (pretty easy to remember) who brought us to our first of five places we would sleep in 11 days – the Caravelle Hotel.  This hotel had a lot of “history” and was the temporary embassy for several countries as well as headquarters for many of the news agencies during the “American” war.  Since it was Christmas night, the streets were pretty much dead and the traffic quiet – something we would not see again for the rest of the trip.  The next morning we were back in the van early for our trip to the Cu Chi tunnels about 2.5 hours outside of Saigon.  These tunnels were used by the Viet Cong sympathizers living in the south for five years before and during the Vietnam War and they were fascinating to see and experience.  Listening to our guide explain how people lived in these tunnels for years was unfathomable especially after we took our turn walking through them (when I say “we” I mean the rest of my family who are much braver than I).  Here is a photo of Sophie trying to get into one of the tunnel openings:

Nothing like scaring the crap out of your kids on vacation!  After a thought provoking morning Tom and I got a wonderful history lesson from Nam during the long ride back to town.  The list of countries that occupied Vietnam over the last 100 years, the life and times of Ho Chi Minh and how he came to power, the new “hybrid” capitalism they practice in the country with “open” markets, etc… quite amazing.  When we arrived back in town, we had a delicious lunch at Nam Phan, a gorgeous restaurant with an Indochine feel.  Deep fried mud fish crumbs and green mango salad, spring rolls in lettuce leaves with sweet and sour sauce, eggplant with shredded pork and X.O. sauce, fried rice with egg and seafood and steamed banana cake with coconut milk.  After lunch, we got back in the van, did a drive-by of Cholon – the chinatown area, stopped off at the Cantonese Thien Hau Pagoda for a blessing and finished up with 30 minutes of shopping at Ben Thanh market (I could have stayed for hours but when asked by the guide when he should return, I felt the eyes of my sons begging me to say minutes instead of hours).  Back at the hotel for a dip in the pool and then the Temple Club for dinner.  Once we realized the restaurant wasn’t too far from the hotel, we decided to walk home and practiced crossing the street without a guide.  When I say practice it really is something you need to learn and do several times before you get the hang of it.  There are really no rules of the road in Saigon – and there are 9 million people and 6 million motor bikes.  People just go where and when they want to – in all directions.  The way to cross the street is to just step off the curb and walk slowly.  The bikes and cars will go around you.  You have to have faith that there is a force field protecting you and your children and that is the only way you’ll get across the street.  If you wait for an opening, you’ll stand there all night.  Tom got such a kick out the process, he walked into the street and stood there bringing traffic to a halt.  I don’t think people knew what to think of that.  The next morning, another early departure as we had a boat to catch.  It was a two hour drive to Cai Be where we boarded a small junk boat that took us into the larger area of the Mekong River to get on the Bassac – a teak boat with a very asian sort of feel that had 12 cabins and a wonderful staff.  Once on board, we had another delicious lunch of river fish, beef, rice and vegetables on the covered deck and we started our trip down the Mekong.  After lunch we were free to relax on deck or in our rooms and watch the world float by.  It was the first moment of the trip where Tom got his vacation wish – a chance to lie down, read and relax.  Around 4, we left the boat, boarded a small long tail boat that took us to a river village where we got off and walked around learning about the flora and fauna of the Mekong Delta.  We were invited in to a home where we had local fruits and tea and heard Vietnamese fables, folklore and superstitions.  Back on the boat, we had afternoon gin and tonics with homemade potato chips, lots of Bananagram games and then dinner at 8.  The next morning, Tom and I woke up at 5:45 to watch the floating market – the wholesale fruit and vegetable market that comes together on boats at sunrise.  Then a huge breakfast of homemade chocolate croissants, omelets, fruit, bacon, grilled tomatoes and fresh squeezed pineapple juice.  The French definitely made some wonderful contributions to the country of Vietnam, namely great bread, delicious coffee and good solid infrastructure.  We said goodbye to the staff and boarded a smaller boat and went to a larger floating market in Cai Rang.  Some of the salespeople came alongside our boat selling drinks and fruit and we were able to watch the transactions.  Then it was back on land to meet up with Nam again and our drive to Chau Doc.  Along the way we stopped for Ca Phe Sua Ba which is this cool way of dripping espresso into ice and then mixing it with condensed milk.  Delicious on a hot and sticky day.  4 coffees, 3 cokes and the bill was $5.  We estimated the same back in Tokyo would have been around $40.  This is when Nam told us about the very special coffee they sell in Vietnam called weasel coffee.  Supposedly the weasels eat the coffee beans and then digest them which does something interesting to the bean and then the beans are regathered from the weasel poop (cleaned of course) and then ground into coffee.  For the rest of the time in Vietnam Tom kept trying to order weasel coffee wherever we went.  People just looked at him funny.  Once we arrived in Chau Doc, we drove up Sam Mountain (Sam means horseshoe crab in Vietnamese and that is what the mountain is shaped like) and we had the most amazing views of Vietnam and the Cambodian border.  We were only a few miles from the boarder and it was an incredible sight.  Completely flat flooded rice paddies as far as you could see. Chau Doc is basically a town where people go to board the boat that takes you into Cambodia so there is one nice hotel and not much else.  But after we checked in, Tom and I went for a walk along the river and found an incredible food market – probably one of the most interesting I’ve seen in Asia and I was able to take some amazing photos.  Dinner was at the hotel as that was also about the only place in town to eat and we had a very early departure the next day.  There are a few ways to get into Cambodia from Vietnam, by bus, car, plane and boat.  I chose boat thinking it would a nice way to transit and it was a great choice for us.  However the boarder crossing was completely bizarre.  After about 10 minutes on the boat, we pulled over to the side and were told we would be going through the Vietnam exit procedures where we would purchase our Cambodian visas.  This photo shows Annie getting off the boat and stepping precariously over a few boards that had been laid across the water to get to land.  We waited in the office for about 25 minutes until we were told we could get back on the boat.  And we thought we were good to go but no, about 5 minutes later our boat pulled up again to the shore and we got out.  We had to officially enter Cambodia and we sat and waited for another 20 minutes or so while they processed our paperwork again.  Back on board it was full steam ahead for the next four hours until we pulled into Phnom Penh – the city where four rivers converge.  Immediately we noticed more English then we’d seen in the past few days and bigger shinier buildings.  Our guide Tavrun was waiting for us and he brought us to our next hotel, Amanjaya Pancam, a small boutique hotel right in the center of everything.   The rooms were huge and beautiful – the boys actually had the largest hotel room I’ve seen in a long time and they were loving it.  A quick lunch at the hotel and then we were off to see the Killing Fields.  Tom and I watched the movie before we left on the trip and so it was pretty fresh in our minds.  The kids chose not to watch and so were unprepared for what we were going to see.  Actually, its hard to prepare for something like that.  I’m sure its the same with visiting the camps in Germany – its just evil in its purest form and its quite overwhelming.  There is a large Buddhist Stupa filled with the skulls of thousands of those found there and everywhere you look you see grassy holes in the ground where the mass graves were discovered- sometimes thousands of them in a mass grave.

And our guide kept pointing to bits of bone, teeth and cloth on the ground everywhere and at first you think it was left there on purpose but there were so many bodies in so small a space that every time it rains or the river floods (its right next to the river) more remains surface.  Back in town, we made a stop at the Russian market (again with a 30 minute time limit) and then we were treated to a cyclo ride home.  A cyclo is like a rickshaw only the person carrying you is on a bike behind you.  It was one per person and it was a wonderful way to see the city.  The ride lasted about 30 minutes and took us straight to our hotel.  Tom felt so bad for the guy who had to carry him that he gave him what was probably the biggest tip he’s seen in a while.

You can tell from the photo that Hayden was a bit embarrassed to be doing this – he felt it was colonial

but he really didn’t want to ride home in the van alone so he went along with it.  Before dinner we made a pit stop at the FCC (foreign correspondents club) a place with tons of history and it’s palpable as you sit in the  comfortable leather club chairs and drink a fruity concoction.  If those walls could talk you probably wouldn’t move for days.  After dinner we went to the “best” restaurant in Phnom Penh chosen by our travel agent which turned out to be very bad “international” cuisine which was so disappointing.  When you only have a limited amount of meals in a foreign country you don’t want to eat food that is trying so hard to be something that it isn’t. So don’t go to Topaz.  After dinner, we hit the rooftop bar in our hotel for a big plate of french fries and a cold glass of white wine and then off to bed for an early flight to Siem Reap.  Really wish we had another day here to explore.  So much more to see…

Easy 45 minute flight into Siem Reap where we were met by our new guide Mony.  He drove us to our FINAL destination, the Raffles hotel where we would stay for 3 nights.  Yeah – no more moving!  The hotel is old and beautiful and historic – spotted a framed photo of Jackie O while having our welcome drink in the lounge.  The rooms are beautiful with dark wood and ceiling fans.  A quick change and then we were off to the Amansara to meet the Sasanumas for lunch.  Sophie’s good friend Julia Sasanuma from ASIJ was staying there and they were so kind to invite us all for lunch.  It was great fun as they also have 4 children so we had one big lovely table under a pergola outside.  Lunch was delicious and it was fun to hear the kids catching up on what they had seen and done.  Then we were off to see ANGKOR WAT!  This time we took the local tuk tuk (covered benches on motor scooters) that are the equivalent of a taxi in Siem Reap.  The trip there took about 10 minutes and was fun and a bit thrilling in traffic.  Angkor Wat: the 8th wonder of the world, the world’s largest religious building and a breathtakingly magical place.  First we went up in the tethered hot air balloon for a look from above and then we came down and started our journey inside.  We had a few clothing issues to sort out first as they are stricter then in Bali so my sarong over my short skirt idea didn’t fly.  I had to throw on Tom’s extra pair of pants over my skirt (very attractive) and Sophie needed to purchase a pair of EPL pants (our inside family joke about eat pray love wannabes) we finally made it inside the compound.  I was nervous as I thought I’d be in for loads of complaints due to the

a. heat

b. we were in a temple

c. it was the largest temple in the world

But everyone was sort of fine.  We walked around and talked and asked questions and then when it came to climbing the steep steps to go further inside, Hayden Sophie and Annie decided to stay down at the bottom and Tom, Thomas and I went up.  From up above I could see the kids playing with some local kids and so they were happy and occupied.  Hayden had one little boy in particular glued to his knee.  It was pretty sweet.  We tuk tuk’d back to the hotel for a rest and then we were picked back up by them a few hours later to take us to dinner at Cuisine Wat Damnak which was located in a residential neighborhood in a Cambodian house owned by a french couple.  The dinner was typical Khmer food, authentic, a bit different but delicious.  Green jack fruit salad with frog meat, Chhlang fish filet with green tomato relish, braised pork ribs with calamari and purple sweet potato, steamed dark chocolate biscuit pandan leaf custard and toasted cashew nut.

December 31st, awoken by a call at 6:30.  It was Sophie mid-vomit.  Hmmmm…

and so it begins, the day I was sort of waiting for during the entire trip.  Southeast Asia, non-potable water, questionable food sourcing = VOMIT.

Sophie couldn’t stop for several hours and then things calmed down for a bit.  Both boys were happy to volunteer to stay behind with Sophie at the hotel so Tom, Annie and I forged ahead with the morning itinerary.  We went to Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia to visit the floating village including a school visit and a monk’s blessing.  It took us about 45 minutes by car and then we got into a water taxi driven by a young teenager who used his bare feet to steer with a rope attached to the motor in the back.  We went on the lake for about 20 minutes until we came to a world completely built on stilts. It truly looked like a scene from the movie Waterworld.  There were pigs and cows in crates, kitchen areas, common rooms, areas for fish drying and

laundry.  It was quite ingenious. From Wikipedia: For most of the year the lake is fairly small, around one meter deep and with an area of 2,700 square km. During the monsoon season, however, the Tonlé Sap river, which connects the lake with the Mekong river, reverses its flow. Water is pushed up from the Mekong into the lake, increasing its area to 16,000 square km and its depth to up to nine meters, flooding nearby fields and forests. O.K. back to me: You can see each house is built with a first floor and then steps up to the main house.  When the river floods in to the lake, the first floor is under water.  There was a small land mass built up high where the monastery was located as well as the schools.  We got off and there were kids running around like crazy.  Most were wearing a school uniform but some were not.  The school kids all followed us into their middle school class and started asking our names and where we came from.  I’m pretty sure that was about the extent of their English but it was enough. Our guide said it cost each family about 15 cents a day to send the kids to school and for most that was too much to pay. We brought with us a bag full of school supplies that Annie went around the class passing out.  They seemed pretty excited even though it was just pencils pads and erasers.

Annie was their age and she towered over them. Tom brought a football and started teaching the boys how to hold it and throw.  At first they were popping it up like a volleyball but after a few quick lessons they got the hang of it.  Then we went next door to the monastery where we had a private blessing by the monks, making sure to not sit on the red ants on the woven mat. Then back in the boat for the return trip home.

We hurried back to the hotel to check on the patient.  She had been sick again and so we

called in the doctor (who only spoke french) but we were able to communicate through an interpreter and he gave her a shot after which she fell fast asleep and I started to freak out about the fact that I just had a strange doctor give my daughter a shot of god knows what in Cambodia.  But after an hour or so she woke up and was feeling better.  The afternoon activity was riding quad bikes in the jungle and so Tom took the rest of the kids and I stayed behind with Sophie and we actually watched EAT PRAY LOVE.  The kids came back a few hours later dirty and exhausted having had the best time.  They were allowed to ride as fast as they wanted through villages and rice paddies and kids kept running out to say hello and meet them.  Annie rode with a guide behind her in the same bike and when they came to a rest he said he was nervous to continue in her quad!  You go girl!  It was New Year’s Eve and the hotel had a compulsory dinner that we were “invited” to and it began across the street from the hotel in the formal gardens for music and cocktails which was very nice.  Sophie stayed behind in the room.  When it was time for dinner we collected her and she limped along trying her best to feel better.  The event was set up outside by the pool which Annie informed me was the biggest pool in Cambodia and on the list of the most beautiful pools in the world.  And it was pretty magnificent.  They lit 1000 candles and floated them in coconut shells.   However about an hour into the event Sophie was done and I took her up to bed.  I stayed with her until she fell asleep and then went back down, not feeling too good myself.  By 11pm my family had had it – they had been sitting at the same spot doing not much of anything since 8pm and they basically called it quits which I was relieved about because in about 30 minutes I too would be throwing up from some special ingredient I ate or drank (not alcohol related at all – it was the first New Year’s in my memory where I felt too ill to drink anything!) We knew it was midnight by the grenade like fireworks going off but at that point I could care less.  2011 went out with a bang.

The next day was our last in Cambodia and so we put on rally caps and went on with the itinerary.  First stop, Bayon Temple and a walk about on elephants. Next stop, Ta Prohm, the famous temple with overgrown trees where Lara Croft was filmed. Our guide had set up a scavenger hunt inside the temple which only Annie wanted to play but she was rewarded with hidden scrolls, small paintings, a cambodian scarf and a buddha head!  Very well done.  Back to the hotel for our only afternoon of rest and sitting by the pool.  We managed to squeeze in a few spa treatments before dinner at the hotel and an early bed time.  We were leaving for Vietnam the next day.

After checking in at Siem Reap we were informed that our visas were not the kind that would allow us re-entry into Vietnam and so our plans for one last afternoon and evening in town with our tour guide Nam before our midnight flight were pretty much ruined.  We ended our trip in an airport lounge that we had to pay $180 to get in but only allowed us to stay for 3 hours, which sent us to the gate 4 hours early.  It was a very boring end to a very rich and wonderful experience and I’m sure the silly ending will soon be forgotten – but the people and the culture of these two intoxicating countries will not.  If you happen to be in this part of the world some day and get the chance, by all means GO!!!

7 thoughts on “The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and The Kingdom of Cambodia: How We Spent Our Christmas Vacation

  1. Thanks so much for sharing. You have a wonderful way with words and since reading this, I now know that I’ll have to go to Phnom Penh. I’m sorry you missed you last day in Vietnam – I am guessing that you would have gone to Hanoi and experienced the wonderful French influences there. In any case, it wounds wonderful (except the getting sick part of course).

  2. Wow! Great blog – I’m desperate to experience something like this. So difficult to get the money together! How did you enjoy the Hot Air Balloon Ride?

    1. thanks so much for comment! the hot air balloon was a little bit of a disappointment as it was tethered and fairly far away from the temple. i wouldn’t say it was a must do. the same with the elephant walk around the temple. could have skipped it. but if you are with kids its a fun respite from all the temple walking!

  3. Great stuff. Yeah, I heard the teathered experience definitely detracts from the fun. Am hoping to do one this year so I’ll keep you posted. 🙂

  4. Hi! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
    He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this write-up to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Beautiful blog with full information. It will help me a lot in my trip. Thanks for sharing these information.

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