We wanted to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but we found a great itinerary for both Vietnam and Cambodia. We booked through Pacific Delight Tours. They partner with the local company Asianventure Tours, based in Hanoi, for local guides.
We spent the 20th in a hotel in Chicago; it got us free parking for our stay plus we didn’t have to get up at dawn to get to our morning flight on the 21st. We had a long layover in Seoul, then on to Hanoi, arriving very late November 22, 2011.
We met our guide at the airport and were taken directly to our hotel, the Hanoi Royal Orchid. By the time we made it through customs and to our hotel it was around 0100. The room was very hot when we arrived so we turned the air on and cranked it. Foolish. I know all three of us were freezing that night. We all thought the others were sleeping so no one wanted to get up and turn lights on to figure out the air conditioning. But everyone woke up the next morning saying, it was so cold I couldn’t sleep!
We had a free day, November 23rd. We were told at check-in that breakfast was served until 10, but we had them knocking on our door at 0800 telling us breakfast was closing. We got up, very reluctantly. We wandered the Old Quarter that day. We went to the Hoa Lo Prison (“Hanoi Hilton”). The prison was built in the late 1800s by the French colonists for Vietnamese political prisoners. It was later used by the North Vietnamese to imprison American POWs during the Vietnam War. The prison was destroyed during the 1990s and all that remains is the gatehouse. It is now a museum with lots of artifacts from the prisoners, including Senator John McCain’s flight suit, and informational signs. We visited the courtyard, formerly the site of executions by the French of their prisoners, it now contains a memorial to the political prisoners.
We also visited Hoan Kiem Lake and the Ngoc Son Temple. The temple is on a small island in the lake accessed by the Huc Bridge (“Rising Sun Bridge”). This is a lovely, peaceful area of Hanoi.
That night we searched out the restaurant we wanted to try, Bun Bo Nam Bo. They serve one dish only, Bun Bo. Fresh rice noodles topped with crisp fried garlic, bean sprouts, peanuts, basil, and beef, it costs only 30,000 Vietnam Dong (VND), or about $2. We walked in, held up 3 fingers (for 3 bowls), and also grabbed 3 beers as we sat at the low plastic stools. There was a jar of wooden chopsticks on each table. We were prepared for that, too, and pulled out wet wipes and “sterilized” the chopsticks and waited. Simple, subtle, and delicious. We all loved it. A great start to a long love affair with Vietnamese food.
The next day we had our full day city tour. Our guide took us first to the Ho Chi Minh Complex. Like visiting Mao’s Tomb in Beijing, we were told to dress “properly”, no shorts or sleeveless shirts. We had to line up single file and not speak as we walked through the mausoleum of the modern nation’s founder, Ho Chi Minh, seeing his body displayed in a large glass case. Ho Chi Minh, also like Mao, wanted to be cremated.
We saw the Presidential Palace, formerly the Indochina Governor’s Palace, constructed in 1907. It was renamed to the Presidential Palace in 1945 and was intended to be Ho Chi Minh’s home. He didn’t want to live in such a luxurious home, however, and had a small house built on the grounds. We visited Nhà sàn Bác Hồ, or “Uncle Ho’s Stilt House”, too. We also saw the One Pillar Pagoda; a reproduction of the original that was built in 1049. It sits on stilts over a lake and is supposed to represent a lotus emerging from the water.
Later, we went to the Temple of Literature, known as the first university of Vietnam, the History Museum, and then drove out to the excellent Ethnology Museum, dedicated to Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups.
Back in town, we visited the Tran Quoc Pagoda and Quan Thanh Temple, both by West Lake. Tran Quoc Pagoda, dating back to the 6th century, is known as one of the oldest temples in the country and the oldest in Hanoi. Quan Thanh Temple, or “Place of the Gods”, dates from the 11th century. We returned to Hoan Kiem Lake, to see the famous water puppet theatre, Thang Long Water Puppet.
Next morning, on the 25th, we were driven to Ha Long Bay, or “Bay of Descending Dragons”, in a very comfortable large van. Our guide called it “the legendary Ha Long Bay” and said “it is one of Vietnam’s most impressive sights”. We all definitely agree. We had a large private boat, just the 3 of us, for our 5-hour cruise of the bay. We were served a great seafood lunch onboard, multiple courses of shrimp and other delicious fish.
The scenery is truly fantastic with about 3,000 limestone islands rising from clear, emerald water. There are beaches, grottoes and beautiful caves hidden among the karst formations. We stopped for about an hour on a “private” beach to enjoy the water; we also climbed the trail for some great views of the bay. On the way back to shore, we saw a spectacular sunset. Alex and Kelly called it our “yacht life”, and I felt like we were living “lifestyles of the rich and famous”! We spent the night in the Saigon Halong Hotel.
We drove back to Hanoi on the morning of November 26th, for a short flight to Hue (pronounced “hway”). We were greeted by our local guide and taken to our hotel, Hue Queen Hotel.
Hue was once Vietnam’s Imperial City and later the country’s capital under the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945). The Emperor Bao Dai abdicated in favor of Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary government in 1945.
Hue is known for magnificent architecture, pagodas, and royal tombs. We visited the massive citadel, containing the Imperial City and the Purple Forbidden City, limited to the Emperor and the royal family. This royal residence was almost destroyed during the 1968 Tet Offensive, but it is still fascinating to walk among the ruins. We went to the Dong Ba Market and tried a lot of local food from some of the vendors at the food court.
The morning of the 27th, we took a half day cruise on the Perfume River. We stopped to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, “The Temple of the Heavenly Lady”, almost 400 years old.
After the cruise we visited the tomb of Emperor Minh Mang. Minh Mang, the second emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, ruled from 1820 to 1841. It is a beautiful setting with many gardens and lakes. Ming Mang’s son and successor, Thiệu Trị, completed the complex, 40 buildings over 44 acres, with thousands of workers and artisans.
We also visited the royal tomb of Emperor Tu Duc. Completed in 1867, it was designed by the emperor before he died. The expense of the tomb and the forced labour used in its construction caused a rebellion of the workers and a coup plot that was discovered and suppressed.
That afternoon, after leaving Hue and the stops at the tombs, we drove over the Hai Van Pass, through Da Nang to Hoi An. We stopped at the top of the pass for a refreshment break and to enjoy the great views. There are multiple bunkers up here from the US war. We also made a stop to see Da Nang Beach. We enjoyed a short walk along this absolutely beautiful beach, with white sand and clear water. This area has lots of foreign investments building huge new hotels and condos.
We stayed in the wonderful Phuoc An River hotel in Hoi An. The hotel was right on the river, about halfway between old town and the beach. This city was one of my favorite things on this trip. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was a major seaport from the 15th to 19th centuries and is a fusion of Chinese, Japanese, and European influences.
It’s such a beautiful town, with amazing sites, things to do, shopping, food….I am already planning my retirement here. I especially loved the silk and paper lanterns hanging all over town. We spent the next day, November 28th, touring the town. On our morning tour, we visited the Japanese Covered Bridge, or Cau Chua Pagoda. It’s a 400 year old bridge with a wooden pagoda roof. There are souvenir copies of the bridge all over town. We went to the Pottery Museum, a beautiful collection of Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese ceramics dating from the 8th to the 18th centuries. The tour included the 200-year-old Tam Ky House, Chua Ong Pagoda, and the market. We had time for lunch on our own and we spent time on the Cua Dai Beach. That afternoon, we had a boat trip along the scenic Thu Bon River to visit a handicraft ceramic village and a boat building yard.
Tuesday, the 29th, we flew from Danang Airport to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). We were met by our local guide. We checked in and dropped our bags at our hotel, Riverside Hotel Saigon.
We visited the Reunification Palace. Until 1975, when the US pulled out of Saigon, this was the Presidential Palace. We also saw the Emperor Jade Pagoda, or Phuoc Hai, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the old Sai Gon Post Office. Built between 1886 and 1891, the post office was based on the design of Gustavo Eiffel. Walking past the former US embassy building, I could see the scene of the last helicopter with all the people hanging off it, trying to escape. The downtown, the former “Sai Gon” has many beautiful French colonial buildings from their occupation.
We had lunch at a “fast food” pho place, where you could get a variety of toppings with the basic broth, noodles, and sliced beef. Pho places are ubiquitous all over town.
We spent the afternoon at the interesting War Remnants Museum. Formerly called the Museum of American War Crimes, our guide, the son of a South Vietnamese officer who worked with the US Army, was concerned we’d be upset with the museum. We told him, no, we wanted to see it. I remember many of the images from the nightly news that my Dad watched. But as a pre-teen, I didn’t understand the context of the US involvement at the time. My daughter, 24 during our visit, was shocked at many of the photos, and kept pulling me over to look at specific images. These were some of the highly publicized photos, the little girl running after the napalm attack or the shooting of the Viet Cong prisoner by the South Vietnam general. It was powerful, disturbing, thought provoking.
After the museum our final stop of the day was the Ben Thanh Market where “anything and everything is for sale”.
The next day, we were driven northwest of town to a district called Cu Chi to visit the incredible network of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong. The Cu Chi Tunnels stretched over 200 kilometers, from Saigon to the Cambodian border. Started in the 1940s during the war of independence from France, they were greatly expanded as the US Army moved in. The tunnels have been specially constructed with living areas, weapon factories, field hospitals, command centers. We visited a supposed “widened” section of tunnels, but at 5’10” I am 5-8 inches taller than my two companions and our guide and moved a lot slower doubled over. I totally understand how difficult the tunnels would be to navigate for most American soldiers. We went to the rifle range after the tunnels. I’ve been through weapons training in Army Basic Training but my daughter really enjoyed firing the AK47s and M16s and other rifles.
After leaving Cu Chi, we went to Tay Ninh, the headquarters of Cao Dai Sect. This religion was founded in 1923 and now numbers over 2 million members; it is a combination of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Catholicism. Our arrival was timed to see the mid-day service and their amazing and uniquely beautiful temple. We took our shoes off, like required of the congregation and all visitors, then were led to the balcony for guests. We watched the priests and the followers fill the hall with their brightly colored robes.
On Thursday, we went to My Tho, for a tour of the Mekong Delta. We had a small boat to navigate the narrow canals. We saw many of the islands of the delta, including Unicorn Island, where we stopped to visit some farmers and taste a variety of local fruits. We transferred to even smaller boats, row boats, to visit Ben Tre Province and have lunch. We were given the opportunity to try some of the snake liquor. Not recommended. We all enjoyed the visit to the delta very much. Driving back to Ho Chi Minh City, we stopped to see the Ving Trang Pagoda and Saigon’s Chinatown, locally named Cho Lon.
We stayed in this area to have dinner. Like many of our meals the past week, we ordered a number of items to share, because everything was so delicious and we all wanted to try so many of the dishes. I remember this place because Alex and Kelly asked for extra rice at the end of the meal since there were sauces left and they wanted to finish them. I was facing the kitchen and enjoyed watching the waiter’s face as he watched them. He kept shaking his head in amazement, as the foreigners stuffed their faces. Kelly and Alex kept asking me why I was smiling, I didn’t tell them about the waiter until much later. The food was extremely delicious!
The next morning, we had a short flight from HCMC to Phnom Penh. We were met by our local guide at Po Chen Tong Airport and taken to our hotel, the Cardamom. We saw the Royal Palace, built in 1866 where King Norodom Sihamoni and the royal family live. We saw the impressive Throne Hall, the Chanchhaya Pavilion, used for state and royal banquets and for the King to address the crowds, Hor Samran Phirun, “the pavilion where one sleeps peacefully” used as a royal rest house and waiting area where the King waits to mount an elephant for Royal processions, Phochani Pavilion, used for receptions and dances, and the amazing Silver Pagoda, or Wat Preah Keo Morokat, with 5326 solid silver tiles covering the floor. It contains many valuable cultural and religious objects including a large Buddha made from emeralds and a 90kg golden Buddha with 2086 diamonds. This is the most sacred temple in the country.
After our visit to the palace, we climbed the small hill to visit the legendary Wat Phnom and had a great view of the city. Phnom means “hill” in Khmer. Legend says that Daun Penh, a wealthy widow, found four bronze statues of Buddha and constructed a small shrine on an artificial hill to protect the sacred statues. Eventually this became a sacred site and sanctuary where people would make blessings and pray. The city is named for this legend, Penh’s hill or Phnom Penh.
The next day, we had a morning tour of the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum and the notorious ‘Killing Fields’ of Choeung Ek. The prison is an old high school where the S21 prison was located. An estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured at Tuol Seng, “hill of the poisonous trees”, just one of many prisons of the regime. The pictures of the prisoners are displayed throughout the museum.
Choeung Ek, a former orchard, is the site of a mass grave. 8895 bodies were discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, many were political prisoners. The regime executed over one million people between 1975 and 1979; this is one of the many mass grave sites. There is a Buddhist Stupa on the site with more than 5000 skulls, they’ve exhumed many of the bodies but are still finding human bones. There is a video at the site about the Khmer Rouge, the millions killed, the trials of the regime’s leadership, and discovering the mass graves.
Both sites provided insight into the bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge. After our powerful and depressing history lesson, they took us shopping! We went to one of the city’s open markets, Psar Toul Tom Pong, also called the “Russian Market”. We walked around this very busy area with our guide; there are plenty of local handicrafts and a food court.
Mid-afternoon, Saturday, we took a short flight to Siem Reap, the base for visiting the world famous temples of the ancient city of Angkor. We stayed in the lovely Siem Reap Riverside for three nights.
Angkor Wat, Temple City or City of Temples, the main reason we flew half way around the world, was the capital of the powerful Khmer Empire from 802 AD to 1350 AD. After dropping our bags off, we started our tour at the South Gate of Angkor Thom. The entrance is famous for its series of colossal human faces carved in stone. In the center of the complex, we visited the impressive Bayon Temple. It was built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the state temple of the King Jayavarman VII. The towers are covered with faces, considered to be the Hindu God Brahma.
Located within the Royal Palace compound of Central Angkor Thom, Phimeanakas was constructed long before the other buildings within the complex. Built at the end of the 10th century by King Rajendravarman II, the main function of Phimeanakas (Celestial Temple) was for religious ceremonies for the King to worship the gods. It has a 3-tiered, pyramid design and has undergone several additions, the most significant of these being in the 11th Century under King Suryavarman I.
We also saw the Royal Enclosure, the beautiful Elephant Terrace, and the Terrace of the Leper King in Central Angkor Thom. What a day!
We went to an Apsara Dance that night in Siem Reap. The Apsara Dance is inspired by the apsara carvings and sculptures of Angkor and developed in the late 1940s by Queen Sisowath Kossamak. Her granddaughter and protégé, Princess Bopha Devi, was the first star of the Apsara Dance. The central character of the dance, the apsara Mera, leads her coterie of apsaras through a flower garden. We also saw the White Monkey & Golden Mermaid dance, or Hanuman & Sovann Macha, which tells the story of the abduction of a queen, her rescue by an army general, and the mischievousness of a beautiful golden mermaid. The monkey general falls in love with the lovely mermaid and wins her over to be a partner against evil. This same story is told in bas relief at Angkor Wat, which we saw the next day.
Included in the show were a couple of folk dances, adaptions of dances often found in the countryside or inspired by rural life. The fishing dance highlights love and romance between a young couple while fishing. The Coconut Shell Dance is one of the most popular and well-known folk dances and shows the friendship and prosperity of the Cambodian people.
The next day, Sunday, the 4th, we went to Ta Prohm, built in the late 12c by King Jayavarman VII to honor his mother. Five rectangular enclosing walls surround a central sanctuary. Some of the face towers have collapsed. At one time, moats could be found inside and outside the fourth enclosure. Ta Prohm has been left in much the same condition in which it was found. With silk-cotton and strangler fig trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surrounding it, Ta Prohm was my favorite temple, absolutely amazing.
Then we visited the complex of Angkor Wat. Our guide took us around this massive monument, exploring many galleries with columns, libraries, pavilions, courtyards and ponds full of water reflecting the towering temple.
Angkor stairs are notoriously steep. The length of the riser often exceeds the tread, with an angle of ascent somewhere between 45 and 70 degrees. Our guide said archeologists think the reasons appear to be both religious and monumental. From the religious perspective, a steep stairway can be interpreted as a “stairway to heaven,” for the way to heaven is not easy. “From the monumental point of view, the advantage is clear – the square of the base not having to spread in surface so the entire building rises to its zenith with a particular thrust”, Angkor scholar Maurice Glaize.
We finished our perfect day with a walk up Phnom Bakheng Hill for a beautiful sunset over the temples and ruins. Alex, Kelly, and I visited the Siem Reap Night Market when we returned to town.
On Monday, December 5th, we drove northwest, beyond the Angkor Complex through the Preah Dak village to the intricately carved and well preserved Banteay Srei Temple. Banteay Srei was one of the most memorable temples we saw in Cambodia. Carved of hard red sandstone, with intricate carvings covering almost every bit of stone, it’s a very beautiful temple. The modern name means citadel of the women or citadel of beauty and is probably related to the detailed bas relief carvings found on the walls and the small dimensions of the buildings themselves. Some have speculated that it relates to the many devatas carved into the walls of the buildings. Devatas, like apsaras, are minor goddesses.
We continued north to the Phnom Kulen National Park, location of Kbal Spean, or Bridge Head. This interesting site is locally named the river of 1000 Lingas, the phallic symbol for the Hindu god Shiva; it has been largely reclaimed by the jungle. We had a 2 kilometer walk through the jungle, uphill and through large boulders to reach the site. It consists of a series of stone carvings and formations carved in the riverbed and along the banks. Unique and beautiful. We saw a cobra on a tree on the way down and were much more careful where we put our hands and feet. I had taken a photo of Alex leaning against a tree on the way up! Scary.
The next stop was Banteay Samre, with striking relief depicting the scenes of Vishunu and Krishna legends. We also saw the temples of the “Grand Circuit” temples, including Preah Khan, Kravan, Neak Pean, Krol Ko, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup.
Preah Khan is a large complex built as a monastery and a center for learning by King Jayavarman VII. At its peak it accommodated 15,000 monks, teachers and students and about 100,000 farmers produced rice to feed all the population of the large complex. The Garudas (bird-gods) around the walls are highlights of the temple and serve as the mythical guardians of the temple complex.
East Mebon and Pre Rup are often referred to as the Twin Temples. Similar in style, they were built at the end of the 10th century. They are earlier Angkor temples, or temple mountains, and Hindu in style (dedicated to Shiva) with a crowning quincunx (5 towers arranged in a cross) of towers.
Neak Pean, is the most unconventional of the temples, a unique island-temple in the middle of the Northern Baray and surrounded by other 4 small square ponds. Originally, Neak Pean could only be reached by boat. Two Nagas or serpents encircle the base of the island, giving the temple its actual name, which means “coiled serpents”.
Ta Som is a small Buddhist temple built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century in a classical Bayon style. Its remote location and its ruins, make this temple quiet and very beautiful. A large ficus tree has grown out of the east gate, it’s caused considerable structural damage but is considered a highlight of Ta Som.
Finishing around mid-afternoon, we all decided to get massages. A full hour for $6! We gave them $20 each and told them to keep it, still super cheap. That evening we also had the Dr. Fish “fish massage” (fish pedicure) in Siem Reap. It felt really odd at first, very ticklish, but we all really enjoyed the little fish eating all our dead skin and it makes your feet feel very soft. Later after dinner, we visited the Angkor What Bar.
The next day, Tuesday, December 6th, we visited the famous Tonle Sap Lake. This shallow lake is the largest natural fresh water body in Southeast Asia and flows into the Tonle Sap River which joins the Mekong River in Phnom Penh. We started on the small river and cruised the lake. We explored floating villages, saw some of the locals living on houseboats, and lots of local fishermen. We had the afternoon and early evening free. We spent some time at the hotel pool, then went in search of all our favorite meals. We had 3 full meals in less than 7 hours, because everyone wanted a last taste of the noodles and pork amok and beef lok-lak and fish soup. It’s an understatement to say we were all rather full. We were transferred to airport mid-evening. We had a 5-hour layover in Seoul. Despite just eating 3 large meals, Alex went searching for kimchi soup that she had been craving. Kelly and I didn’t eat again for about 30 hours, until we arrived in Chicago.
Vietnamese and Cambodian food is AMAZING. Diverse, delicious, inventive, fresh … we loved every single meal. Just a short sampling of the delicious food we ate over 2 1/2 weeks.
- Ban Khoai – Shrimp, pork and bean sprouts in savory fried pancake of rice flour with dipping sauce
- Fresh Spring Rolls
- Fried Spring Rolls
- White Rose Dumplings with Shrimp
- Won Tons with vegetables
Soups & Salads
- Mango Salad – Green mango, dried shrimps, peanuts, mixed herbs
- Banana Blossom Salad – Shredded banana flower leaves, mint, Thai basil, chicken and chili pepper.
- Papaya Salad – Shredded papaya, roasted peanuts, bean sprouts, tomatoes, chili, onions and basil with tamarind sauce
- Cambodian Sweet And Sour Fish Soup with Pineapple
- Vietnamese Pho – beef, noodle soup
- Fish Amok – steamed coconut fish with turmeric sauces and spices, and served in a coconut shell.
- Khmer BBQ – Grill thinly sliced beef, chicken and/or fish and vegetables on the charcoal fired volcano pot
- Vietnamese BBQ – Grill spicy beef, okra, green beans on gas grill
- Beef Lok Lak
- Caramel Pork
- Bun Bo Nam Bo – rice noodles with sliced beef, fried garlic, peanuts, fresh basil, lemongrass
- Fried Fish in Mango Sauce
- Elephant Ear Fish with rice paper, lettuce and peanut sauce
- Mackerel in Banana Leaf
- BBQ Pork
- Bamboo Beef – beef cooked with chili peppers in bamboo
- Caramelized Fish in Clay Pot
** All photos property of Lisa, not to be copied or reproduced **