A end of Cambodia and the start of Vietnam
Louise woke up in Battambang with a bad case of Bottombang. At point point Chris suggested Louise should get some sleep, to which she answered "okay, but don't let me sh*t the bed". We're settling in to married life well... ;-)
Thankfully Louise was okay the next day, (we think it was a random Doxy outburst) so we hooked up with a Batman themed (Batman logos and T-shirt) Tuk-Tuk driver, called Mr Blue for the day. Battambang literally means 'lost stick' and a big roundabout in the town has a statue of an ancient king holding his big magic stick (ahem). Another king challenged him so he threw his stick at the challenger to kill him, but threw it too far and lost it. The challenger then killed the king and it is said that if you find the lost magic stick of Battambang, you will become king! Battambang's main attraction is the Bamboo train, literally a bamboo platform on 2 sets of wheels powered by a small motor. The beauty of the design is that if a train comes in the opposite direction, you can hop off, dismantle it and put it back together in seconds. The biggest train (or the one carrying a motorbike) gets to stay in one piece! The tracks were worse than anything Network Rail could be proud of and the driver had no problem hitting about 30-mph bouncing us over the joins in the track. It was unique, if a little scary. A the end of the track we were dropped off at a 'station' (i.e. a shop) in the middle of no-where and chatted to the locals. The children made us bracelets, rings and crickets out of coconut leaves. Lu got a quick craft lesson from one of the young boys.
We finished the day at the local vineyard but sadly the fruit had already been harvested. Still we tried the local tipples and Chris left a bit pissed, much to Mr Blue's delight! It's the only wine made in Cambodia and was favourably compared to paint stripper. The ginger and honey grape juice was very nice however, so we took a few bottles home with us. If only we knew some people that like ginger... ;-)
After declining Mr Blue's offer to take Chris (and leave Lu at the hotel)|to a dog meat restaurant, we compromised with an evening at the circus. We'd already read in Lonely Planet that it wasn't any normal circus. It had been set up 20 years previously to give disadvantaged children circus skills and had enabled a number of them to become professionals on the international stage. We were blown away by their performance but most of all their enthusiasm and sheer joy at being under the spotlights. At one point they got so hyped up, they started an impromptu dance routine from Gangnam Style (Google Psy's video, it's HUGE out here and you can break down language barriers easily by doing your best impression). Great night out for sure.
We spent the day after on a marathon bus journey to Sihanoukville, 14 hours on a bus for the sole purpose of getting our visa for Vietnam (done in 15 mins). Once there we just chilled out on the beach, topping up the tan, reading and drinking. It was a nice relaxing day except for 30 mins madness where Chris decided to rent a scooter and teach himself to ride in the Cambodian traffic. Made it home safe, but an eye opening experience. The evening was spent watching Skyfall and Taken 2 in the 'cinema' (basically a few 'VIP' rooms set up with 40inch flatscreens, popcorn, comfy settees and the choice of 500+ pirate DVD's).
We were itching to get to Vietnam (hence the 14 hour bus journey for a visa) and the following day was spent on another bus, this time to Ho Chi Minh City. By the time we arrived it was late, so we grabbed a quick Pho (our fave, Vietnamese noodle soup) and found a hotel. We found a cool Youtube site and spent the rest of the night learning basic Vietnamese as we plan to do the full 30 days here.
So, to the first day in Vietnam! First things first, there is a lot of motorbikes and when we say a lot, we mean a lot (like literally 20million a lot) and to make things more interesting, there are even fewer road rules then the rest of South East Asia. To cross the road, you literally have to walk out and trust the moto's to swing by you. We started the day around lunch (comfy bed at last!) then headed for a swanky rooftop restaurant called Shri (to raised eyebrows as we were dressed like scruffy hippies) to overlook the city. We got a bit homesick at this point because the restaurant was covered in Christmas decorations (inc. a huge tree) and was playing Christmas music. We knew the Vietnamese loved Christmas, but it wasn't until walking around the city later that night that we realised how much.
After lunch we headed to the War Reminants museum. Outside it was a collection of American tanks, planes etc and inside was a very disturbing collection of war photos (very communist biased). It was interesting, except for the Agent Orange affected foetuses preserved in formaldehyde.
In keeping with our slightly classier day (and perhaps a knee jerk reaction to weeks of living on the cheap), we headed to Temple Club for tea (a white table cloth affair) then an upmarket Ice Cream parlour called Fanny's for dessert. To cut a waffling story short, the food in Vietnam is up there with the best.
At night HCMC lights up in a sea of neon and motorbike lights. We spent early evening walking round the big French boulevards in the city centre, marvelling at the skyscrapers. Walking past the big department stores with their very impressive Christmas displays (lights, trees santas, snow, music, polar bears etc), we could easily have been in New York...the atmosphere was magical and Vietnam looks like it will give us a good Christmas party!
We rounded off our night getting slowly drunk in the local disused opium refinery, which has been turned in to a courtyard bordered with nice bars. In the other countries we've been to, the small towns have always won out over the bigger cities so we weren't expecting to love HCMC as much as we do. It was Monday when we both realised how much we love this place.
On Tuesday we had a guided tour round the Reunification Palace home of the famous scene where the tanks crashed through the gates to end the Vietnam war. If we're honest the palace was a bit boring and were shown round countless state rooms which differed only in colour and chair design. A tour guide made a point of making sure we knew why each colour had been chosen ("this is the yellow room, chosen because yellow make you happy!") Not exactly scintillating stuff, but hey!
Wednesday was much more exciting as we visited the Cu Chi tunnels. At their peak, they were the largest tunnel network in the world at 256km long. They were used to hide from and launch guerilla attacks on the French firstly in the 1950's, then the Americans during the Vietnam war (or American war as its called over here). Our guide to the tunnels (Mr Bean!) was a little bit extra, as he was veteran (American side) from the war and had a lot of explicit opinions on the Communist propaganda which is the only side of the story you'll officially hear in Vietnam. He didn't hold back with his story telling and seemed to be good friends with Oliver Stone, John McCain and John Kerry (all Vietnam vets). There was something a bit spooky about being led round by someone who knew the tunnels before they were a tourist attraction, especially when he sat us all down on the ground to tell us one of his accounts. The highlight of the trip was a chance to go through a 100m stretch of the original tunnel network, but it was so small and cramped (Chris was on his hands and knees, apparently the VC used to run through them) we had to bail out after 30metres. Still, an experience and Chris has learned more about the war in 3 days than a 2 year A-Level managed. We ended the tour with a group rendition of "Hey Jude", led by Mr Bean. Every day's a surreal experience.
To finish the day, we nipped to the local hospital to get Louise's bloods checked out. Don't worry she's fine, but with the weight loss the meds have been reduced! :-)
And finally, on to Thursday! :-)...Chris started the day with a lovely new take on the ham omelette - a ham sandwich, before we headed off to the local theme park called Dai Nam. It was in a 'Don't Miss' box in Lonely Planet, so we thought we'd try something a bit different. With it being a weekday, we expected it to be quiet, but not a ghost town. There's something very sad about a theme park with no people, the rides not running and the vendors looking bored to death. We wanted to go on their big rollercoaster, but we couldn't find the ticket attendant, we think he may have gone to lunch. Just bizarre. The first and only ride we could find that was working was memorably called the 5 Unicorn Labyrinth. It was supposed to be a Buddhist version of Disney's 'It's a Small World' ride and took us through different rooms leading up to the final Nirvana room. It was a proper Blue Peter job but Louise was still screaming while Chris couldn't stop laughing. After this we headed for the "beach" (concrete) resort they had built in the middle of the complex and messed about in the wave machine pool for a few hours. We took the bus home and were both mezmorised by a lady who had ripped the end of a French baguette and was using it in lieu of a nose mask to protect from traffic fumes. Either that, or she just massively loved bread.
Today we're in Nha Trang after a 11hour bus ride yesterday. It's beachy, but then we head to Dalat the honeymoon capital of Vietnam. We've heard some very kitsch honeymoon stories about Dalat, but we'll save them for the next blog...