North Star

Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam, and the northern counterpoint to the booming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south. Despite the end of the war and reunification of Vietnam in 1976, there is still a huge divide between the North and South – culturally, politically and economically. The northerners consider the southerners to be superficial and business-obsessed, whilst the southerners view the northerners as being too serious. There is also a big difference in the weather, with Saigon enjoying a tropical 2 season climate (dry and rainy) at a near constant 30 degrees, whilst the temperature in Hanoi drops to 15 degrees in the depths of winter. Hardly Arctic conditions, though you still see the Vietnamese shivering in big coats, hats and gloves!

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Old quarter

We spent around 8 days in Hanoi, longer than we have spent almost anywhere else. We had originally planned less time, but decided to stay in a big city for Christmas so that we could keep in touch with family and find some western comforts. With so much time, we were able to explore much of the city on foot and came to know it reasonably well.

We visited most of the main sights; Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Flag Tower in the old citadel, Hoa Lo Prison Museum (where American pilot Senator John McCain was imprisoned during the war), Lenin Park and Hoan Kiem lake. All of these were interesting, but our highlight was the newly reopened Women’s Museum. This covered various aspects of women’s role in Vietnamese society, ranging from weddings to war heroics. The most eye opening was a documentary video about the street vendors, many of whom come from rural villages to the city for weeks at a time, selling wares on the street all day and living in squalid conditions to support their families and put their children through school. We certainly saw them in a different light after this, and tried to be more patient when being hassled by vendors on the streets.

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Hanoi Flag Tower

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

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Temple on Hoan Kiem lake

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Interactive learning at the Women’s Museum

Naturally we continued our food odyssey in Hanoi, keen to try the local delicacies. We gave mixed reviews – bun cha (pork patties in soup, with vermicelli noodles and greens on the side) was great, as were the ‘assemble-them-yourself’ spring rolls and the local varieties of bánh mì and pho. At the other end of the scale was corn with lard and dried onions (an accidental order), not good! Hanoi also has its share of local drinks to try, including egg white coffee. This is basically coffee meringue in a glass, and is amazing! We first discovered this in a cafe with a great rooftop view across Hoan Kiem lake. This place is almost impossible to find without inside information – there are no signs outside, you enter through the back of a silk shop ‘speakeasy-style’, and follow a series of rickety staircases to the roof. The other essential Hanoi drinking experience is Bia Hoi; home brew served up for 25p a glass, on miniature plastic tables and chairs in the street. These places are found across the city, and are packed in the evenings – a great spot to watch the world go by.

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Spring roll production line

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Egg on his face

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Lake view from the secret cafe rooftop

One evening we were fortunate to bump into a retired French couple, who we had met on our Ha Long Bay boat trip. Neither of them are English speakers, and so it was a great opportunity for us to try out our recently improved French. We went for a coffee together, and it was really interesting to hear their stories, particularly the husband who was Vietnamese by birth but emigrated to France after the war.

As mentioned, we decided to stay in Hanoi over Christmas, which was a really memorable experience. The Vietnamese do celebrate Christmas, though Christmas Eve is the main event rather than Christmas Day. All of the shops and hotels were all decorated with tinsel and trees, and the streets were lit up with festive lights. It was the first time either of us had spent Christmas away from home, and it was a strange feeling to be in a warm country away from family. We remedied this by treating ourselves to a few nights in a posh hotel, eating lots of delicious food and having a great Christmas Day lunch at a swanky western hotel restaurant.

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Christmas Eve mayhem

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Midway through the Christmas Day food crawl

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Hanoi cathedral looking festive

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Merry Communist Christmas!

Vietnam has been our favourite country so far in SE Asia – we have had an amazing time here, with so many varied experiences. Admittedly, receiving a visit from my brother and spending Christmas here made it even more special for us.

With the post Christmas blues, we are now preparing for a 30 hour bus journey to Laos. We’ve read some fellow travellers horror stories online (see here and here, admittedly the second one sounds like a bit of an idiot) and are fully prepared for the worst…

See you on the other side!

L

Enter the Dragon

Ha Long Bay is one of the most iconic areas of Vietnam; the name Ha Long means “descending dragon” and originates from the local legend of the land. It is believed that a Mother Dragon and her children were sent to protect the country from its northern invaders. In order to do this the dragon and her children sprayed the battlefield with fire and created a protective emerald wall; after thousands of years the emerald wall turned into islands and islets of differing sizes. To remember the help of the Mother Dragon and her children, the people who lived there named the bay where the Mother Dragon descended “Ha Long Bay” and the adjacent bay where her children descended “Bai Tu Long Bay”.

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Bai Tu Long Bay

The beauty of the elegant limestone rock towers have made Ha Long Bay a huge attraction, and each day thousands of tourists board vessels bound for the bay. This has placed a huge strain on the environment, in particular the dumping of rubbish from irresponsible cruise boats into the water. Having read reviews of disappointed visitors on budget cruises describing the trash in the bay, we opted to visit the neighbouring Bai Tu Long Bay. Very few boats have permits to visit this area, making this a more expensive option, but we thought that in order to avoid the crowds and pollution it would be worth it. So on a sunny Saturday morning we boarded the “Dragon Legend” 5 star cruise boat for a 2 day, 1 night voyage.

We left the busy harbour and set off into the quiet waters of Bai Tu Long Bay, where the only other boats we saw were those of local fishermen. Despite the trip being relatively short, we managed to fit a lot in – exploring several of the islands by kayak, venturing into stalactite laden caves and swimming off a pristine white beach. The remainder of our time was spent on the boat, either in our luxurious living quarters or being served endless courses of delicious Vietnamese food in the dining room. It was an absolute privilege to see the Bay, and most of the time we were fortunate enough to have it all to ourselves.

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The Dragon Legend

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Sunrise during our early morning Tai Chi lesson

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Cruising along

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Our luxury room

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Exploring the islands

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Inside the cave

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Paddling into the sunset

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The end of a great day

Our trip to Bai Tu Long Bay was everything we hoped for and more, and was definitely 2 days worth pushing the budget for. We are now back in Hanoi where we are going to stay for the festive period.

C

A Special Visit

When we were in the UK, planning our trip and deciding where to go, my brother Andrew told us that we had to go and visit the Citadel in Hué, the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty and one of the seminal locations in the Vietnam War. A couple of months ago we received an online message from Andrew saying that he had managed to secure a few days of holiday, and would be coming out to see us in Vietnam! After 4 months away from the UK, friends and family, we were really looking forward to seeing him – especially with his visit being just a couple of weeks before Christmas.

We based ourselves in Da Nang for the duration of Andrews stay, the largest city in central Vietnam. It wasn’t somewhere we had originally planned to visit, and we had expectations of a drab, soulless city. This couldn’t have been much further from the reality; Da Nang is a buzzing, cosmopolitan city on the move, and feels far more authentic than some of the nearby tourist honeypots. The city is best viewed at night, when the bridges and skyscrapers give a dazzling light display. Our highlight was the newly built ‘Dragon Bridge’, a spectacular suspension bridge shaped like a dragon, complete with head and tail. On Saturday nights the road closes for 15 minutes whilst the head shoots huge fireballs and sprays water!

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The Dragon at night

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Da Nang skyline

We also really enjoyed the food in Da Nang, and managed to cover the entire spectrum – from cheap and basic pho in the huge Com Market, to ‘Vietnamese tapas’ (picking a load of dishes at random from the Vietnamese menu and sharing) in local restaurants, to sumptuous lamb shank and rioja at a posh western restaurant. Andrew was extremely generous, and treated us to a room at the four star Northern Hotel, quite a step up from our usual accommodation. We didn’t feel the need to ask reception the usual questions of ‘is there hot water?’ and ‘does the room have a window?’.

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A bowl of quails eggs to start – standard Vietnamese fare

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The imposing Lady Buddha statue, overlooking Da Nang

Hoi An is a much visited town nearby to Da Nang, famous for its pretty old quarter and its many tailor shops – apparently over 600! Andrew was keen to have a couple of suits made, and I decided that it was too good an opportunity to pass up, as did Charlotte who opted for a new winter coat. After a good recommendation on where to go, we were measured up (and touched up in Andrews case!) by a very funny pair of Vietnamese ladies. We chose our fabrics, linings, style and any customisations we wanted, and returned the next day for final adjustments to be made. We were expecting half finished tailors mock ups just for sizing purposes, but were amazed to find that they had completely finished our clothes overnight. We were really happy with the results, though my cashmere suit and flip flops proved to be an odd combo.

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Watch those hands!

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Suited (not booted)

Whilst in Hoi An we met a softly spoken old man called Mr Trung, who owns a seafood restaurant by the river. He runs half day trips to his village, where he shows you local crafts and teaches you to cook traditional Vietnamese food. And so it was that we found ourselves on the jetty one morning with fishing rods in our hands, being instructed by Mr Trung. Despite there clearly being lots of fish moving in the water, they were wise to our tricks and evaded us successfully. Luckily Mrs Trung had been to the fish market that morning, and so we weren’t going to go hungry. After a visit to the pottery village, where we each spun a unidentifiable object on a foot powered potters wheel, we retired to the Trung family house for our cooking class. It was brilliant to be shown how to cook spring rolls, fish and noodles in the traditional style, and we enjoyed tasting the fruits of our labours. Charlotte and I particularly enjoyed doing some cooking, having eaten out 3 meals a day for several months now!

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Charlotte nurturing her creative side

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Cooking with Mr Trung

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Compliments to the chefs

In our opinion Hoi An is definitely worth a visit, particularly at night when the old quarter is closed to motor vehicles and the streets are lit up by coloured lanterns. However to some extent it is a victim of its own success, and there are now a lot of tourists, who are amply catered for.

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The pretty Japanese Bridge

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Lanterns at night

Our final stop was Hué, the ancient royal city which was heavily bombed by the Americans during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The day of our visit was grey and drizzling, and whilst Charlotte and I whined about the cold (a frosty 20 degrees) Andrew was unperturbed. The Citadel is the name of the old walled city on the north bank of the Perfume River, surrounded by a moat and presided over by the iconic Flag Tower. Within the citadel is the Imperial Enclosure – a second walled and moated complex which only the Emperors and their concubines were allowed to enter. Unfortunately, a large number of the original buildings were destroyed, but the buildings and ruins which remain are fascinating to explore. There is a startling contrast between the ornate beauty of the Emperors palace, and the bullet holes and destruction from the war.

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The imposing Flag Tower

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Bullet strafed walls of the Citadel

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An entrance gate to the Imperial Enclosure

We returned to Da Nang and the next day, after an early morning swim in the sea, we had to part ways with Andrew who began his 18 hour journey back to the UK. We had a really great 4 days, and packed in as much as possible. Once Andrew left we collapsed in our room and spent a lazy afternoon watching films, exhausted from all the sight seeing! After another couple of nights in Hoi An we are now making our way north to Hanoi, the capital city.

L

Good morning, Vietnam!

The distance between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is 291km and with the border between Cambodia and Vietnam being roughly in the middle it is an easy journey to make overland. We left Phnom Penh at 8:00am and arrived in HCMC 6 hours later. The ease at which you are able to move around SE Asia is still something that feels weird for us.

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Saigon scooters

HCMC, formally known as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam. Following the 1954 Geneva Agreement, which split the country in two, Saigon became the the capital of the southern “State of Vietnam”. In 1975 the city came under the control of the communist Vietnamese People’s Army, who had fought against the American backed State of Vietnam for the unification of the Vietnam. Upon take over the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the victorious communist leader.

The atrocities of the US in the war are well documented in the War Remnants Museum. One of the most powerful exhibits is the heartbreaking photographs which document the consequence of Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide which was used to defoliate rural areas in order to deprive the Viet Cong guerrillas of food, water and shelter. The effects of Agent Orange are still apparent today where areas of contaminated soil and sediment have resulted in high quantities of the dioxin in the food chain. This has resulted in a disproportionate number of children born with genetic diseases, serious skin diseases and certain cancers.

The museum has the potential to be an excellent resource on the Vietnam war but currently lacks a balance of information. According to the museum the only barbaric acts were those committed by the US Army.

As well as the War Remnants Museum we spent a day visiting the Cao Dai Great Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels; the former a Vietnamese religious landmark and the latter a 200km tunnel network of the Viet Cong. The Cao Dai religion was founded in Southern Vietnam in 1926 and is a mix of Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism and Islam. The Great Temple is the religions headquarters and during our visit we were able to observe midday prayer.

This was quite a contrast of sights, and we didn’t realise in advance that including the Cao Dai temple would require an extra 3 hours of driving – something we wouldn’t rush to do again.

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Cao Dai Great Temple

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Cao Dai devotees

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A secret Viet Cong tunnel entrance – just about person sized

People say that when you travel you “find yourself”, well we have “found” that we are huge foodies; a lot of our favourite travel experiences to date have been trying the local food and HCMC was no exception. Everywhere you go there are coffee shops offering hits of potent Vietnamese coffee and street sellers ready and waiting to make you a “bánh mì”, a baguette filled with pork, coriander, cucumber and carrot. Another option is “pho” a noodle soup topped with a choice of beef, chicken or offal, luckily the choice is usually yours!

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Mmm, pho!

From HCMC we started our journey north to Dalat; located 1,500m above sea level in the central highlands, it offers a spring like climate all year round. Described locally as the “city of eternal spring” it is a popular destination with both Vietnamese and international tourists. Surrounded by lakes, waterfalls and pine forests, and with an abundance of bakeries, it doesn’t feel too dissimilar to a French Alpine town.

There are lots of tourist agencies which offer trips to the nearby waterfalls, however we decided that a DIY tour wouldn’t be too difficult. Choosing where to go wasn’t tricky either; despite there being many waterfalls around the area, only one is equipped with its own rollercoaster! Armed with “Datanla Falls” written on a piece of paper we hopped on board a local bus and with the assistance of an extremely helpful conductor we made the return journey successfully. The highlight of the trip was definitely the rollercoaster – so much fun that we splashed out and did it twice.

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Riding the Datanla rollercoaster

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One of the falls

To complete our DIY tour we took a walk around the locally named “crazy house”. A fitting description for the the Alice in Wonderland styled architecture where you find yourself walking up and down narrow spiralling staircases which crisscross inside and outside the buildings.

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The ‘Crazy House’, not sure how it got its name?

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Exploring the rooftop

As mentioned we love to try the local food and alongside the usual Vietnamese cuisine Dalat offered something a bit different. On a regular street corner, when the nearby shops have closed for the evening, a pop up patisserie appears. This offers a eclectic selection of sweet and savoury pastry products, with huge vats of hot soya milk which are served with your choice of condensed milk or sugar. As someone who is supposed to avoid dairy products, this discovery was most welcome, and despite returning on several occasions we failed to spend more than £1 in one go.

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The street patisserie

We have now left Dalat and arrived in Da Nang where in a couple of hours we will meet up with Luke’s brother Andrew, who is flying in from the UK for 4 days! We are both really looking forward to seeing him and spending a packed few days around Da Nang, Hoi An and Hué.

C

Journeying East through Cambodia

After countless bus and train journeys, we decided to have a change by moving on to the next destination by boat. The journey from Siem Reap to Battambang is reputed as being particularly beautiful, following a series of small waterways through reeds and past rice paddies, and navigating through a number of floating villages.

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On the river

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Traditional fishing rig

The reality turned out to be somewhat different to our romantic notions. Due to its popularity, this route has turned into a very commercial operation, and after an early start we spent a couple of hours sitting on the pavement outside the boat office waiting to leave for the jetty. Three hours after the departure time we eventually boarded the boat, and were lucky to get a seat on one of the tightly packed wooden benches; the boat company had overbooked and so quite a few people had to sit on the floor, having bought an already overpriced ticket. The landscape on the way to Battambang was very picturesque, and it was heartwarming to pass through the remote floating villages where ecstatic children would run out of their houses screaming and waving, some of them so beside themselves that they leapt into the water out of sheer excitement. We were glad to have done this trip, but feel like we’ve now ticked the ‘boat’ box, and in future will stick to buses and trains for long journeys!

We explored Battambang by foot, but didn’t really find a lot to do here, and were happy to move on to Sihanoukville, Cambodias premier beach resort. There are several different areas to stay in – we chose Otres beach, reputedly the quietest and most laid back, and found a guest house comprised of bamboo huts at the very end of the beach. The next 1.5 miles of beach used to be filled with guesthouses and bars, but these were all demolished a couple of years ago to make way for grand new developments. Luckily the project has stalled, and so for the moment this remains an empty stretch of perfect beach. We felt like we had the best of both worlds, with restaurants and bars in one direction and deserted white sands in the other.

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Empty beach

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Enjoying the view

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BBQ!

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Sunset swim

The original plan was to spend 3 or 4 days here, but we ended up staying for 6 days. After lots of travelling recently, we treated this as a break, and spent our time swimming in the sea (29 degrees Celsius!), relaxing with a book, walking along the coast and eating tasty barbecued fish. One day we also hired a 2 person kayak and paddled to an island a couple of kilometres from the mainland, which was brilliant. Sihanoukville really exceeded our expectations, and we enjoyed every moment of our time here.

Whilst in Sihanoukville we started a new hobby – learning French! Some friends we made introduced us to an apple app called ‘Duolingo’, which is great for learning languages, and provides some extra motivation by ranking you against your friends on a weekly leaderboard. We’ve both intended to improve our French for a while, and so far this seem like a great tool. If anyone reading this uses Duolingo, or fancies starting, let us know and we will add you to our leaderboard!

Reluctantly, we had to leave Sihanoukville and move a couple of hours along the coast to Kampot, a provincial capital which is renowned for the pepper it grows – reputedly some of the best in the world. As a result, most of the food in Kampot is seasoned with very liberal quantities of fiery pepper! Whilst here we visited nearby Bokor hill station, and were treated to a fantastic view over vast swathes of jungle leading down to the sea. It was amazing to hear all the animal noises rising out from the canopy. There are various abandoned relics on the hill, including an old French colonial luxury resort from the 1920’s, a Khmer Rouge luxury hotel and casino from the 1960’s, and a newly opened (yes, you guessed it) luxury hotel. Third time lucky?!

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Looking down from Bokor hill station

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The derelict Khmer Rouge casino

Our tour was lead by an interesting Cambodian guy who had grown up during the Khmer Rouge regime, and it was fascinating to hear about it from someone who had survived it. Afterwards we returned to Kampot and took a ‘sunset cruise’ along the river, heading upstream away from the town in the hope of seeing fireflies once darkness fell. Instead of a sunset, the cloudy sky grew darker and darker, and as we reached the furthest point a mighty thunderstorm began. It was incredible to ride along the river in the pitch black, watching lightning forks light up the sky. Needless to say, the torrential rain kept the fireflies at bay…!

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Calm before the storm

One of our favourite places in Kampot was a small independent cinema called ‘Ecran’, run by a Belgian ex pat, which makes its own hand pulled noodles and delicious dumplings. We visited a couple of times just for lunch before visiting one evening to see a film. The main screen was an assortment of sofas and beanbags in front of a projector, and homemade popcorn with fresh coconuts to drink made for especially good cinema snacks!

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Pulling noodles by hand at Ecran cinema

Our final few days in Cambodia were spent in the capital, Phnom Penh. Like most Asian cities, Phnom Penh is big, frantically busy and very polluted; despite this we liked it here. On the first afternoon we wandered to the nearby ‘Olympic stadium’, which confusingly has never actually hosted the Olympic Games. We had a great swim with the locals in the open air 50 metre pool, and finished with some diving in the adjacent pool. We didn’t venture up to the 10 metre board, primarily because of the corroded metal ladder leading up to it, with several rungs missing (that’s my excuse anyway). Afterwards we headed up to the main amphitheatre of the stadium, where thousands of locals come in the early evening to join in with free group aerobics classes. There were lots of different groups comprising all ages and body types, exercising to pumping dance music, and it was fun to watch and soak in the atmosphere.

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Olympic pool

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Group exercise at the stadium

The next morning we paid a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This is housed in the notorious ‘S-21’ detention facility, where over twenty thousand people were imprisoned, tortured and executed during the 3 years of the Khmer Rouge regime. The museum wasn’t particularly well laid out or informative, but the content was so harrowing that this didn’t make much difference. There are thousands of photos pinned up with the faces of the victims staring out at you from the past, and some of the blocks still have the cells laid out as they were at the time. It was an incredibly powerful exhibition, and we left feeling downbeat.

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S-21 rules

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Prisoner cell block

Our final experience in Phnom Penh was visiting the night market, which runs at weekends on the banks of the Mekong river. There is a fantastic food stall section, which encloses a picnic style area where you can sit on mats to eat. We wandered round and sampled some delicious street food, finishing with what can only be described as a saxophone-shaped biscuit tube filled with Mr Whippy ice cream – not a classic Khmer delicacy as far as I’m aware!

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Tasty food at the night market

We’ve had a great few weeks in Cambodia; overall the people have been welcoming and friendly, the food has been delicious, and there are some amazing things to see and do. We have however noticed a big difference since reaching one of the well trodden countries of SE Asia, with lots more tourists and all the development which goes with it.

I am writing this post on the bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which we should reach in a few hours. It feels odd to be moving on to another country, but we are both excited about seeing Vietnam!

L