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SE Asia

Hanoi

We went back to Hanoi and the following day decided to take a tour south to Ninh Binh.

Our first stop was Hoa Lu, an ancient Capital of Vietnam and the temples of the Dinh and Le Dynasty.

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Woman with her Ox

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Melanie styling her Rice Paddy hat

Both of these temples were built to honor two revered Vietnamese rulers.

Our next stop was to Tam Coc, known as Vietnam’s “Halong Bay on Land”. We were taken down the river in small boats that would hold between 2 and 4 people. Our boat was piloted by an old woman. I felt guilty. I felt like I should be rowing her down the river.

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Foot paddling

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Once our boat was underway, she leaned back in her chair. She used her feet to row the oars in a bicycle pattern. The trip upstream would take 45 minutes, then turn around, and row all the way back. There were at least 100 boats on the river, all being propelled the same way. The ages of the people rowing ranged from probably 20 to 80, both men and women.

The river snaked through the marshes and fertile, lush green rice paddies. We were surrounded on both sides by mountains and limestone columns pushing abruptly skyward.

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As we continued down the river we came to limestone columns blocking our way. Nature had provided us a way thru the mountains. Narrow tunnels, carved by years of the waters flow. Some passages were just wide enough for two boats. It was a very memorable journey.

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Paddling through the tunnel

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Once back in Hanoi we spent our last day walking around the lake and people watching. We sat by the lake for a couple minutes watching the kids play.

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Several people came over to us and asked if we were Americans. Yes, we are. They asked us why we were there. What we thought of their country. They were from a local TV station and wanted to interview us. We loved Vietnam and had learned that the truth of the history will always remain hidden somewhere in the middle. Vietnam is a wonderful, beautiful country. They have their own problems and are still communist. But, the people are friendly and always willing to help. The wars are over and in the past. That’s the way they want it. They have peace and prosperity now. They are growing and very modern. Crime is low. We will return.

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Notice the fish in the back of the toilet

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Afternoon drinking with new friends from Belgium. Beer was US$0.30 a glass

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We finished off our trip with a visit to Hao Lo Prison. This prison was built by the French at the turn of the 20th century, in classical French prison design. This is where the French imprisoned and brutally tortured and executed Vietnamese freedom fighters.

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Guillotine

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Decapitated heads placed in baskets outside or the prison. This was done by the French as a gruesome reminder to the Vietnamese

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Now a museum,the prison was also known as the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War as it held American POW’s. While we were there, an old Vietnamese man and woman were also there, for the celebration of his escape from this prison. He was a political prisoner of the French. He escaped by crawling out through the sewers.

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The Vietnamese man crawling through the sewers to freedom

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Political Prisoner

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Free, many years later

His gaze met ours as we passed. He slowly made his way toward us with a smile on his face and a hand of friendship extended.

Cheers,

2WANDRRs

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Categories: 2-up motorcycle travel, 2WANDRRs, adventure travel, backpacking, Hanoi, SE Asia | Leave a comment

Ha Long Bay, One of the New 7 Wonders of Nature

Leaving Huê, we took the overnight sleeper bus to Hanoi. The bus let us off on a empty street in Hanoi at 5:30 in the morning. We made our way to our hotel which was down an alley in the middle of the city. The city was already alive with a mix of people, scooters and vendors. In the alley people were making Pho for breakfast and eating in the street alongside butchers cutting up fresh meat for the day.

From Hanoi we took a bus and ferry to Cat Ba Island, which is a large island in Ha Long Bay.

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Ha Long Bay has been a designated UNESCO world heritage site since 1994. The bay features around two thousand towering limestone karsts and tiny islets topped by rainforests rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin in Northeast Vietnam. There is a history of prehistoric humans in the area about 1,500 km² since 18,000 BC.

On the ride out to Cat Ba there was a young couple with two children on our bus. Just before getting on the ferry we were able to talk to them. They were from Germany and living in Australia. Several years ago, pre-children, they took a multi-year motorcycle trip around the world. They were familiar with Horizons Unlimited and we had several international, motorcycle traveling friends.

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We arrived at our hotel which fronted a lake just off the bay. Our 6th floor room was fantastic with a balcony overlooking the bay which was full of small, colorful fishing boats and Chinese junks with large, square red sails. For a cost of 7 US dollars per night, including breakfast, it just couldn’t be beat.

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A large boulevard running along the bay separated the bayfront boardwalk from the restaurants lining the street. We walked along the waterfront checking out the beautiful crescent moon shaped bay and chatting with various restaurant owners about their food specials for the night. Walking by a popular restaurant we look inside and see Frank, who we met up with in Huê, sitting there. We decide tonight that we would like pizza for dinner and joined him for dinner, good craic and a few beers.

The the next day we decided to take a cruise through Ha Long Bay. For US$14 per person a bus picks us up at our hotel and takes us to the boat for a full day on the bay, including lunch.

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About 30 people from about 12 different nations sit on the top deck as we leave the bay, snapping pictures left and right. The conversations are engaging as we all get to know each other and learn about each other’s individual cultures. The views of towering limestone columns and green rainforest surround us as we cruise slowly east and north around the island, towards the main portion of Ha Long Bay.

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After about 3 hours our boat anchored in a small cove and we all had the opportunity to jump off the top deck into the cool, emerald waters below. Cans of beer were tossed in front of us as we jumped, a prize to sip on while floating in the beautiful waters below. I toasted to friendship and world peace with a fellow traveler beside me. Life is good!

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After the swim we all climbed back on the boat and gathered below deck for an incredible meal that was cooked while we were swimming. Our crew brought out plate after plate of vegetables, rice, cooked fish, squid muscles and tofu. The plates were placed on large tables where we were sitting. We passed the plates back and forth, laughing and joking with each other while trying to understand the accents of many different languages present.

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Our next stop was a floating village where we all got into kayaks to paddle through a couple of the many caves carved out of limestone in the bay. The front navigator person of the kayak wore a headlamp. We paddled through several hundred meters of pitch black cave with bats flying around us and just above our heads.

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As we exited the cave and our eyes got use to the light again, we were in a small, peaceful bay surrounded by mountains. Large hawks seem to float above us rising gracefully on wind currents. We all sat silently in our kayaks, taking in the beauty of the moment and nature around us.

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We ended up spending three more days on the island. Our day on the boat and cruising Ha Long Bay was so much fun, two days later we went out and did it again.

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Cheers,

2WANDRRs

Categories: 2WANDRRs, adventure travel, Cat Ba Island, Ha Long Bay, Horizons Unlimited, SE Asia, vietnam | Leave a comment

Huê and the 17th Parallel

There are two ways to travel north leaving Da Nang. The first is a new road via a 5 km modern tunnel through the mountain. This is reserved for buses, private vehicles and trucks carrying non-explosives. The other is a pass road of the Stelvio variety.

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Pass road, Đèo Hải Vân

This road twists and turns back on itself, climbing constantly to a tourist filled pull-off at the top with views of serpentine roads and crescent moon, blue water bays on either side.

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China Beach

After stopping to get our pictures we continue downhill off the mountain toward the historical city of Huê.

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Huê was the capital of Vietnam from the early 1800s until 1945 during the time of French involvement in Vietnam. In 1945 a communist government being led by Ho Chi Minh moved the Imperial Palace north to Hanoi. At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh, who’s Viet Minh forces already controlled a large portion of the country, declared Vietnam independent. In 1954, the French efforts to reassert control led to a violent full-scale war. The Geneva accords of 1954 provided a temporary division of Vietnam at the Ben Hai River. When the Catholic leader of the southern zone refuse to hold elections, the Ben Hai River, (DMZ/17th parallel), became the border between North and South Vietnam.

Huê’s central location near the border of North and South Vietnam put it in a very vulnerable position in 1968 and the start of the Vietnam War. During the Têt offensive in 1968 the city suffered considerable damage to physical features as well as as its reputation from the American military bombing of historic features of the North Vietnamese, and the massacre at Huê committed by the communist forces.

A main gate into the Citadel

Our first day there we went to see the Citadel, the former Imperial Palace of the Vietnamese government. The original Imperial City was constructed over a period of 203 years, starting in 1362. In 1804 the emperor ordered construction on this massive Citadel complex involving a moat and Earthen wall 10 km long. The walls had since been converted to stone. Within this complex is an area called the Purple Forbidden City. During the Vietnam war this complex was bombed heavily by the American military and the destruction was severe. Reconstruction has been going on for years but there are still bullet holes in many of the standing interior walls.

Inside the Purple Forbidden City

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In the early morning hours of January 31st 1968 the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong Army launched an attack on Huê and in the end controlled most of the city. During the initial phases of the Têt Offense American troops were ordered not to damage the city, because of the historic and cultural significance, but as time went on and casualties mounted during the house to house combat the order was gradually lifted. In the end out of 160 buildings only 10 significant sites remained. The city was named a UNESCO Historic Site in 1993.

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We wandered around the city the next day just looking at the different sites and talking with people. Walking through the open market the following morning was quite another experience. The blood of freshly slaughtered animals mixed with the water from the previous days rain and created quite a mess. Our senses could only take so much with the smells of the fresh fish and blood mingling with the sights of the freshly butchered animals everywhere.

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Ceiling in the DMZ Bar

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A woodcarver

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400 year old bridge

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Cooking breakfast

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Beautiful wedding

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Essential Oils store

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Top end rebuild in the street

On the following day we took a bus to visit the DMZ (the 17th parallel) and several of the major sites during the Vietnam War. The first sight we drove by was the infamous Rockpile, where the Marines had established a communication base on the top of the mountain accessible only by helicopter. A Vietnamese flag now flies high above that spot.

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Our next stop was at the Khe Sanh American Special Forces combat base. This was an interesting place with heavy equipment and aircraft. This base, which was never overrun, is the site of the most famous siege of the war and also the bloodiest battle of the war. About 500 Americans, 10,000 North Vietnamese troops and uncounted civilian bystanders died around this remote highland base. It’s eerily peaceful today, but in 1968 the hillside trembled with the impacts of 1000 kg bombs, white phosphorus shells, Napalm, mortars and endless artillery rounds, as American forces sought to repel the NVA. The bunkers have been recreated to add to the effect of the base. There is a museum but it is slanted with a Vietnamese communist platform.

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On the way there we passed an impressive bridge, built by the Cubans in 1980, that marks the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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We next stopped at the Trong Son National Cemetery. More than 10,000 Graves. It’s hillsides marked by a simple white Tombstones headed by the inscription liet si ( martyr). Many graves are empty, simply bearing names, representing a fraction of Vietnam’s 300,000 soldiers missing in action.

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We headed back to the former DMZ, the 17th parallel, the Hien Luong bridge, which marks the old border between North and South Vietnam.

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Old border of North and South Vietnam

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We next stop at the Vinh Moc tunnels. This large network of tunnels was used by the North Vietnamese to fight during the Vietnam war and also for the civilians to protect themselves from the American bombing. These tunnels stretched for 28 kilometers from the village of Vinh Mac to the coast on the north side of the Ben Hai river. The villagers had no other place to go. This was the first air assault on North Vietnam which completely destroyed the village. An average of 7 tons of explosives per person were dropped on the village. After the attack, a decision was made to start building the tunnel so everyone could go underground to be safe. The tunnels were built over an 18-month period and everybody in the village help with the construction. It is estimated that 300 people lived in these tunnels from 1966 until 1973 and that they were about 17 children were also born underground in the tunnel community.

While in Huê, we met up with a fellow German traveler, Frank, who is traveling the length of Vietnam on a 125 Honda. We met up with him a couple times while we are in town and had several beers and many good conversations.

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Cheers,

2WANDRRs

Categories: 17th parallel, 2-up motorcycle travel, 2WANDRRs, adventure travel, DMZ, Horizons Unlimited, Huê, SE Asia, vietnam | Leave a comment

Da Lat, the City of Flowers

We walk around the corner in the morning and catch the day sleeper bus going to Da Lat, about 8 hours away. Our seats end up way in the back of the bus and what feels like a tomb.

Climbing to my perch in the back I flop down into the reclining seat and my legs are too long, hanging over the drink holder in front of me because they don’t fit in the place for my feet in front of me. I slide backwards in the narrow space attempting to make more room for my feet. My head is very close to the ceiling and now I can’t raise the seat. I start to sweat, the confinement is starting to get to me. Finally I need out, now! The drivers assistant wanted me to sit back down. I make believe I can’t hear him. Finally the bus gets underway and I find a space, with good meditation, that I can survive the next 8 hours of the trip. Melanie just finds another seat. On to Da Lat.

We arrive in Da Lat without any issues. A taxi is near and we flag him down. Showing him the name and address, he has no clue. I use Maps.me and guide us once again near our destination. We get out and pay the outrageous amount of VND$30,000 (about US$1.30, it just sounds much larger). Looking around, we just can’t find it. A little boy playing in front of his house guides us down a set of stairs, and there it is. Great place for about US$8/day, including breakfast and dinner, for both of us. It is a homestay and the family is wonderful, helping us with whatever we could need.

A pig walking the streets that grunted a warning as I got close.

We got settled and take off to find a street food vender and try something that turns out to be fish ball soup. I choke one down and Melanie almost looses it. We abandon or meal and the next place has pizza, our safe food. A couple beers later and $4 lighter, we are happy.

After a good night sleep we wake up to cooler temperatures. Da Lat is situated in the mountains at an altitude of about 1500 meters. This makes for a fairly consistent weather pattern and mild year round temperatures. This also makes Da Lat the flower and vegetable growing region in all of Vietnam. This area is the flower exporter capital of all of Vietnam.

A VW covered in flowers in a roundabout in the center of town

A flower covered motorcycle in the same roundabout.

The skies are clear and the temperature mild as we walk down to the local market. There is an absence of any supermarkets here, plus no street lights and basically zero crime. The market is packed with people doing their shopping for the day. Everything you could possibly want is here. Fresh flowers for your home, vegetables, fruits and freshly butchered meats and live fish are displayed. In places the cement floor is still slippery from the fresh blood. The smells are strong of everything that we see mixed with curry and incense burning.

Beans

Flower and Cactus

As fresh as it comes

And beef and pork

Shrimp, octopus, and fish

All sizes of fresh eggs

We wander around in awe of finely stacked fruits and vegetables and brilliant colors of every shade of the flower bundles.

Stacked Strawberries

Green zucchini

Overwhelmed, I need to sit some distance away and order the best coffee you can get. Vietnamese espresso with sweet, fresh cream over ice, US$0.75.

We continue our journey around the lake. People are walking, sitting in coffee shops, sipping tea out of tiny porcelain cups all the while talking and enjoying each others company. They meet us on the street, our eyes lock, a smile crosses our faces and we both give a slight nod, saying hello.

My back finally calls it quits and we hire a taxi back to our homestay.

The next day we head out on scooters with Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee and Han

He is going to take us around to see a few things. We get out of town and ride down small lanes avoiding numerous potholes. Most of the roads are new and good.

Good roads

Our first stop is at a Buddhist temple. We wander around looking and discussing what we see and our thoughts of the day. Always an engaging discussion. Melanie is so much smarter than I am. I feel I was kept in the cave too long.

Inside a Buddhist temple

Dragon

We stop at a flower farm, a strawberry farm and a coffee farm. Mr Lee explains many things about life in mid Vietnam. We openly discuss the Vietnam War. We are told that the Vietnamese haven’t forgot and and still remember, but it is now buried deep in their hearts, where it will remain. They are happy that their country is finally at peace after hundreds of years of war. They welcome all nationalities, including Americans, with open arms.

At the coffee plantation we are shown the trees and the coffee beans and told of the process of making Weasel Coffee. They use to follow the weasel through the jungles collecting the excrement. Now the weasels are kept in captivity and fed a diet of coffee beans and bananas. The beans are ground very fine and hot water poured on top in the drip coffee maker. After several minutes you have a tiny cup of espresso Weasel Coffee, which is quite rich. We sip slowly on the large back porch with commanding views of the mountains and lake surrounded by beautiful flowers and lush green coffee trees.

View from the deck of the coffee plantation

Drying Weasel poop

Cheers

Weasel Moca, so good

Our next stop is a silk factory. We see the worms, cocoons and the entire process leading up to the purple silk robe Melanie bought and the two silk ties I bought, not for me but for my two boys. Paying for our items, I get a chance to sample a dried silk worm larva. An Iranian man next to me jokes about eating the small creatures. I tell him they are very crunchy, but they would have tasted better with salt or covered in Chocolate. We both laugh.

Silk worms

Coccoons

Boiling the silk coccoons

Silk threads

Boiled and dried silk worm. Yummy

Moving on down the road we see what looks to be a distillery. There is a pile of discarded coffee beans shells out in front drying. We are told nothing goes to waste.

Cobra in the Rice wine

They also make coffee here and they have several cages occupied by weasels. They are using the discarded coffee bean shells for the fire under the large pots boiling the rice mash for the rice wine. I am fortunate to be able to dip a shot glass into a large storage bin and pull out a 1st run sample with a proof of 140.

Cheers

It is strong, better than moonshine, but surprisingly smooth like a 10 year old Scotch. It will go through 4 different runs that will cut the alcohol content to under 40% before the other ingredients are added for curing. Some of these bottles sell for more than US$500. The pictures below show some of the ingredients of the more expensive wines.

Large Lizard fermenting in the rice wine

Looking at the bottle with the furry ingredient sort of turned me off to any further sampling.

Bird and snake in rice wine

The last stop we make is to Elephant Falls, one of the largest in the area. We park at another temple and take a look around then walk down the street to the top of the falls.

To get to the base of the falls you have to climb and scramble over large boulders, walk across a 4 inch diameter log while holding on to vines and and slide down a slimy flat rock face. Once on the bottom the mist of the falls pours though a slight crevice in a deafening roar. The rocks push toward the sky all around you as the algae forms the surface of the rocks fighting for sunlight. I step out into the watery onslaught briefly for a quick photo. Very intense.

We stop back at the top for a brief respite of the 35°C heat and rest and a quick drink.

Our last stop is the Da Lat train station. The train station was design by French architects in 1932 and opening in 1938. The building was largely undamaged doing the Vietnam War but the track sustained significant damage and was closed. It opened in the 1990’s with limited service as a tourist attraction.

Da Lat train station

Budda carving

Cog railway to get over the mountain

Always wear your Horizon’s Unlimited shirt. A couple Brits saw it and wanted to talk.

Tomorrow we are off to our next location, Hoi An.

Cheers,

2WANDRRs

Categories: 2-up motorcycle travel, 2WANDRRs, adventure travel, backpacking, Da Lat, Horizons Unlimited, SE Asia, vietnam | Leave a comment

Châu Dõc, Out of Control

Have you ever been on a Merry-go-round and it just keeps going faster and faster until you are just tossed to the side, your senses frayed and your body aching? Welcome to Châu Dôc!

I will back up a day.

After returning from the sensory overload at the Killing Fields we sat, drank and talked. Talked about what we had just witnessed and what the US seems to be doing, erasing history. What does it say about a society that is embarrassed of it’s past so it just erases it, to continue doing the same things over. Take responsibility for what you have done, teach the children your mistakes so they don’t have to make the mistakes over again. We have so much to learn.

Free dinner cruise

Anyway, we decided to take a FREE sunset cruise that night and just chill over dinner and drinks, with a gorgeous sunset and Cambodian music playing in the background. Beautiful night.

Sunset on the Mekong River

This building had a huge waterfall coming down it’s side, just lights, but so real looking.

Melanie chatting with girl from France

The next day we were taking the fast boat down the Mekong River, across the Cambodian/Vietnamese border to the town of Chãu Dõc. We sat on the back of the boat, just the two of us, as we passed more floating villages, fishermen and farmers in fields on the sides of the river. Pumps chugged and smoked, pushing brown water from the Mekong River up the banks and into the small fields they tended.

We passed banks full of children playing in the dirty water, smiling and francticaly waving until they squealed with laughter when we waved back with the same enthusiasm.

Happy children

We passed what looked like water buffalo splashing in the water just meters upstream from the children. It’s amazing they don’t get sick.

Water Buffalo?

Crossing into Vietnam was a simple process involving get off boat in Cambodia and getting the Visas stamped out, cruising a couple hundred meters through no man’s land, then off the boat again and Visa stamped back into Vietnam.

Cambodian border crossing

We docked, sort of, in Châu Dôc and the chaos started. WHAT??!! Carry our backpacks on the back of a scooter? NOPE! Not gonna happen. Ok, this little tin chariot on the back of a bicycle will have to work. The merry-go-round is starting to increase it’s speed.

Melanie’s Tim chariot

Finally we make it to the hostel only having near misses by at least 8 buses, 20 vans or trucks and about 10 gazillion honking scooters all racing to the same invisible goal. The great part, they all waved and smiled at us and each other while cutting everything off. We commented that in Mexico and Central America the road signs were just recommendations. Here the road signs don’t even exist. None. Nadda. Not even a yield! That means no one EVER stops. Everything is always just a yield, even crossing the road on foot. You just enter the road, go slow but never change your predicable speed, and they maneuver around you. Magic, but not for the faint of heart.

Next was finding something for dinner. The merry-go-round is now about to fling us off. Trucks, buses, scooters on sidewalks and down the paths of the market, people all moving and outdoor food stands with little plastic chairs everywhere.

We get swept in with the movement and end up down a market isle with the smells of cut up, day old fish and blood, dried fish and fish parts and buckets of squid everywhere. Melanie is losing it, I see the panic on her face. I need to get her out of there before she vomits. Watch out! A scooter almost collects us down a 1 meter wide walkway. We finally duck into a pizza restaurant, full of confused, crazy eyed foreigners like us, the only restaurant in site with a great menu. We will have the supreme pizza. They don’t have that. Too bad the only thing they have available is tomato and cheese pizza, beer and coke.

We feast like it was filet mignon.

Cheers,

2WANDRRs

Categories: 2-up motorcycle travel, 2WANDRRs, backpacking, Cambodia, Horizons Unlimited, SE Asia, vietnam | 1 Comment

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