By Marilyn Jones
When I decided to visit Vietnam and Cambodia, I checked with my travel agent to see what was available. I decided on Exodus Travels because of their stellar reputation and their comprehensive guide to activity levels. I was immediately drawn to the Classic Vietnam & Angkor schedule and the leisurely activity level. Beginning in Hanoi and ending at the mystical Cambodian temples along with like-minded travellers, as it turned out, was the right choice; a trip filled with fascinating sites, experiences and new friends.
Old Hanoi streets are lined with shops selling everything from souvenirs and clothing to cookware and flowers. Easy to find near Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the area features the original street layout and architecture dating to the beginning of the 20th century. On foot or in a two-passenger cyclo — a bicycle with a seat for passengers in the front — the area is easy to navigate; its charms draw guests in to meet the locals and make a few purchases.
Other sites to visit include the Temple of Literature and Hoa Lo Prison.
The temple, built in 1070, is dedicated to Confucius and is the oldest university in Vietnam. Inside the ornate gates are a pond known as the Well of Heavenly Clarity, a pagoda, and statues of Confucius and his disciples.
Hoa Lo Prison or “Hanoi Hilton,” where US POWs were held during the Vietnam War, was another planned part of our tour. What is left of the prison is the gatehouse that now houses a museum focusing on its use by the French and North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.
The first rooms are cavernous and show the deplorable conditions endured by Vietnamese political prisoners held by the French during the 1950s. At the time, the Vietnamese were struggling for independence from France.
The rooms dedicated to the prison’s American POW detainment take on a different tone with the illusion of humane treatment with photos of POWs celebrating the holidays by decorating a Christmas tree and enjoying a festive meal. When the POWs were released, they told of inhumane torture during their years here.
Outside in a courtyard is a wall etched with manacled prisoners; a reminder of the prison’s history and the horrifying way many of its prisoners were treated.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is dotted with almost 2,000 islets and islands. Aboard the Bien Ngoc cruise ship, we sailed away from the dock and into the beauty of the bay. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves including Bo Hon Island, where we explored Sung Sot Caves. Climbing stairs cut into the rock, we entered a giant room with stalactites and stalagmites. Coloured lights illuminated the room and offered a beautiful backdrop for the formations. Room after room, up and down stairs and along pathways, we passed one breathtaking scene after another.
Back on board the ship, we watched the sun set and enjoyed a drink on the ship’s stern as the crew prepared a delicious dinner. It was peaceful and dreamlike watching the other ships bob in the water as we all chatted and laughed about our day and our lives. All 16 tour members were becoming fast friends.
Once a major Southeast Asian trading post from the 15th to the 19th centuries; city streets are lined with houses and businesses from different centuries and different architectural designs. The UNESCO World Heritage Site showcases the different nationalities who worked together for the betterment of the community: Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and European. Chinese temples, a Japanese-designed bridge and Vietnamese Assembly Hall are all restored and open for tour.
The city is small, easy to navigate on foot and many streets are limited to walking and cycling traffic. Lined with souvenir shops, Hoi An is also known for its expert tailoring. Visitors can order a suit, dress or jacket and it will be ready before they leave the city. Rich silk fabric and soft leather can be chosen by guests for one-of-a-kind garments.
Guests can take bike rides into the countryside, visit the night market, eat at one of the excellent restaurants or just enjoy an afternoon by the pool at one of the city’s lovely hotels.
Ho Chi Minh City
Like in Hanoi, the best way to get to know Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is to take a City Cyclo Tour. Immersed amid packs of scooters and cars, the string of cyclos weaved in and out of traffic along busy streets, beside the Saigon River, and into residential neighbourhoods with stops at a wholesale flower market and Buddhist temple.
The infamous Cu Chi tunnels north of the city is another attraction that visitors need to see to better understand what American soldiers faced during the war. Used by the Viet Cong, the network of tunnels includes three levels and incorporates hundreds of miles. The entire network went from just north of Saigon to Cambodia.
The tunnels were used for communications, to transport supplies and mount surprise attacks. After the attacks, the Viet Cong would disappear under ground to safety. The tunnels grew to house entire villages including kitchens, ordnance factories and hospitals; even theatres and music halls to provide entertainment.
After an introduction to the tunnels, guests walk into the jungle past dugout areas illustrating the size and use of underground rooms. At the end of the hike, visitors are invited to enter the tunnels. Not for the claustrophobic or faint of heart, but very educational for those who can handle the experience.
The Mekong Delta, known as the “rice bowl” of Vietnam, produces most of Vietnam’s fruit, sugar cane and coconuts. Included in the tour was a guided boat tour on the Mekong River past floating markets, landmarks and other ships before boarding small, flat-bottom boats and rowed along narrow canals for a closer look at life along the water.
After a delicious lunch featuring Elephant Ear Fish, a musical production was presented followed by a tour of two factories making puffed rice and coconut candies.
On the second day of our Mekong Delta tour, we had the opportunity to see the Cai Rang floating market; the biggest and most lively floating market in the Delta. The wholesale market boats are filled with produce as smaller boats dock at their sides making purchases. It was fascinating to watch the transactions, as well as buying coffee from a café set up on a small boat and bananas from a retail vendor. The organized chaos was a lyrical ensemble of commerce at its best.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Leaving beautiful and historic Vietnam behind, our next adventure took us to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the fascinating and mystical Angkor Archeological Park, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After checking into the hotel and a quick lunch, we were all excited to visit Angkor Wat, the most famous temple and the largest religious monument in the world.
Walking into the complex, the sight of the temple stretching across the horizon is a surreal and dreamlike experience. Upon close inspection, the detail is imaginative and perfect. Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century. Estimated construction time was 30 years. Built by King Suryavarman II and dedicated to Vishnu, a Hindu god, it later became a Buddhist temple.
Through the first temple building, we came out again to yet another and another. The final building is the most elaborate with swimming pools on two floors. Buddhist monks bless visitors, tourists click off thousands of pictures and everyone wonders at its very existence.
The next day, we visited the Royal City of Angkor Thom, including Bayon Temple with its towers carved with the face of Buddha; Ta Prohm, which was the filming site of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones; and Banteay Srei — Citadel of Women — a beautiful 10th century Hindu temple complex made of deep red sandstone with intricately carved scenes of Hindu legends.
Walking the street of historic Vietnam cities, sailing along the Mekong River and wandering through the mysteries of ancient temples all bring to light the enchanting and welcoming heart of Vietnam and Cambodia. With the not so distant echoes of war and genocide, it is amazing a people could come together and thrive in a new era; a time when foreigners are welcomed with open arms. But they have. Their smiles and friendly conversation say it all: We are moving forward, Please come with us.
IF YOU GO:
Two weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia under the supervision of Exodus Travels, their expert guides, drivers and itinerary was an awe-inspiring experience. Exodus Travels offers tours on six continents. For more information: www.exodustravels.com.