<< markandrupa

Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos

february/march 2007

In addition to Travel Indochina's "Inside Vietnam and Cambodia" tour, Rupa arranged a pre-tour extension to Sapa, a five day private tour of Laos and a brief two night stay in Hong Kong.


Enjoy a slideshow of our favorite photos.

Trip log

  1. Seattle to Tokyo - february 17

    We left Seattle on a warm and sunny Saturday morning aboard a fully loaded 777. The United Airlines plane wasn't as comfortable as the Northwest Airlines plane we'd had on our previous trip to Asia, but we were fed two decent meals and watched a couple of seat-back movies. The Queen was an engaging account of the British monarchy's response to Princess Diana's death, while Flags of our Fathers offered an insightful look into the lives of the soldiers who raised the flag at Iwo Jima (an interesting choice for a Japan-bound flight). Although the flight was only ten hours long, we lost a day crossing the international dateline and essentially spent the night over the Pacific Ocean.

    United Airlines flight #875

  2. Tokyo to Hong Kong - february 18

    Between a four hour layover in Tokyo and a six hour flight to Hong Kong we spent the entire day traveling. We napped through most of the flight, although I did manage to stay awake for the movie Marie Antoinette, which presented a drawn-out, when-is-this-movie-going-to-end look at her life as the Queen of France. We arrived in Hong Kong and checked into the airport hotel around 1am and immediately sank into bed.

    Regal Airport Hotel, Hong Kong

  3. Hanoi - february 19

    Our flight to Hanoi didn't depart until 3pm, so we slept in to sync up with our new time zone. We landed in Hanoi just after sunset and met our guide for an evening walk around "Returned Sword Lake" and its small island temple, accessed via a brilliantly lit wooden bridge. After a late dinner we boarded the overnight train to Sapa, and because two of our nights in Sapa were booked at the upscale French Victoria Hotel we were able to secure a first class soft-sleeper cabin featuring a thick, comfy mattress. The second class cabins, which we passed while walking along the train, looked significantly less comfortable, sleeping six per cabin on very thin mattresses set atop steel platforms. We shared our cabin with a European couple who spent the entire evening in the bar car and didn't return until Rupa and I were already in bed.

    Victoria Express train, Hanoi to Lao Cai

  4. Sapa - february 20

    The train was not nearly as comfortable as the one we'd had in China - the track was bumpy and the train stopped four or five times to pick up passengers, waking me up each time. Upon arrival in Lao Cai we were met by our young, traditionally dressed tour guide, San May. Over the coming days we would get to know her quite well, learning that four years ago she'd left her tribal village in search of a better life in the city, where she started off selling trinkets and living on the street, and quickly worked her way up to tour guide by learning English from tourists. She was a fabulous tour guide - her English was excellent, she pointed out interesting details, told relevant stories and shared her insights into how tourism was a double-edged sword for the hill tribes, pulling them out of poverty while generating a newfound materialistic greed.

    San May accompanied us to Sapa, a slow and winding one hour drive up into the forested mountains. We arrived just after sunrise, and while the town initially seemed quite large, we would soon find out that the bulk of activity took place along a single stretch of road just a few blocks long. After a quick breakfast we drove out to the Tapas Ecolodge, where we would be spending our first night.

    Unlike the paved road from Lao Cai to Sapa the road out to the Ecolodge was hard packed dirt followed by a mile of bone rattling rocks. Along the way we passed hundreds of traditionally dressed Black H'mong villagers walking along the road into town. They were celebrating the Tet New Year with a two week vacation where they had nothing to do but stroll along the country roads and hang out in town. Friends and siblings of all ages walked arm-in-arm, while teenage boys zipped by on their motorbikes, hoping to find a girl to flirt with and possibly "kidnap". In fact, many teenage boys had saved save an entire year's worth of disposable income to fritter away on gas and treats during the fortnight.

    The Ecolodge itself was quite pleasant, and our large private bungalow was perched on the edge of a steep hillside overlooking a river valley lined with terraced rice paddies and small villages. After freshening up San May led us on a long hike down to the village of Ban Ho, a 47 family Tay village. Large bamboo houses filled the village, all built on stilts such that the main living area was lifted one story above the ground. Livestock was traditionally kept on the ground floor, but Ban Ho was a fairly wealthy village, being on the tourist map, and many of the houses were built for overnight guest stays. Consequently, the ground level was often paved with cement and used for dining and outdoor relaxation - some were even outfit with a pool table.

    On the far side of the village we walked out to a crystal clear cold-water pool fed by a pleasant little waterfall. The day had warmed to a sunny and humid 85F and we spent some time enjoying the cold water before heading back into the village for a late lunch at a local guesthouse. Much to our surprise San May cooked for us a delicious lunch of Vietnamese soup with ingredients she'd carried in her backpack. After lunch we hiked back up to the lodge, arriving exhausted and sweaty and ready for a cold shower. We spent the balance of the afternoon relaxing in our bungalow, watching as the sun set behind the mountains and gave way to a star-filled night.

    Tapas Ecolodge, Lech Village, Sapa

  5. Sapa - february 21

    I woke up early to watch the sun rise over the foggy valley below, and after breakfast we met up with San May for another day of hiking. We drove a few miles toward town, passing hundreds of Black H'mong along the way, before hopping out and hiking down through the rice paddies toward the small village of Giang Ta Chai. From there we turned into a dense bamboo forest, where we picked up a sales lady. She had her bag of goods strapped to her back, but for the better part of an hour she just followed us through the forest and into the village of Ta Van, conversing occasionally with San May and helping us navigate the rice paddies. Eventually she gave us a light sales pitch, pulling a few things from her bag, but when it became clear that we weren't interested she quietly moved on.

    We passed through Ta Van, where we noted the abundance of satellite TVs (another wealthy village) and met an adorably shy young girl, and continued further along the terraced valley to the village of Lao Chai, where San May cooked us another delicious lunch at a small open-air restaurant. Twenty or so other tourists were already lunching there, while just beyond the structure's railing two dozen local women and children were straining to make eye-contact in hopes of selling a trinket or two.

    After lunch we climbed up out of the valley and drove into Sapa where we checked into the charming Victoria Hotel. In addition to all the amenities you'd expect from a fine French hotel, the Victoria featured elaborately manicured grounds that included, of all things, a large corral filled with bunnies for the kiddies to pet. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening walking around town, where craft shops, restaurants and tour agencies lined the narrow streets and dozens of motorbike drivers ambled about hoping to give a villager a lift home. Meanwhile, the sidewalks were clotted with women and children hawking handicrafts such as embroidered quilts, woven shirts, "silver" jewelry and musical instruments. They approached in droves at the slightest hint of interest; we found ourselves besieged numerous times and were only able to work our way clear with an endless repetition of "no thank you".

    Victoria Sapa, Sapa

  6. Sapa - february 22

    The Victoria's buffet was quite impressive and lived up to its reputation, the highlights being the delectable Pain Au Chocolate, the perfectly steamed pears and the first rate omelet station. We met up with San May again today and drove out to the village of Ta Vhin where San May grew up. As we hopped out of the van we were immediately accosted by a flock of Red Dai women hoping to sell us something, anything, from their baskets of home spun wares. After tagging along for a hundred yards or so the flock gave way to a trio of more restrained older women, one of which was San May's mother.

    The women led us into the village where we stopped to visit San May's mother's typical house. Built like a two story barn, the pounded-earth ground floor was divided into a large gathering room, an expansive though sparsely furnished eat-in kitchen and a bedroom. The upper floor was used for food storage and crop drying, which was accomplished via the ground floor fire pit. The entire structure was rather dimly lit by natural light, though a pair of light bulbs hung from the rafters to provide a bit of evening lighting. After a brief tour we sat around the fire pit while the women, now joined by San May's sister-in-law, opened up their baskets. I snapped a few photos while Rupa perused their work, picking out a few small pieces as a way of helping out San May's family.

    Next up was the Black H'mong village of Cat Cat. We spent a couple of hours hiking around Cat Cat and ended up at a waterfall, where a six-year old village girl very confidently grabbed my five pound camera and took my photo. Otherwise, the village was quiet and empty, so we headed back to Sapa for a late lunch.

    We spent the late afternoon people watching in Sapa. On our way to dinner we passed the European couple from our night train and stopped to see how they were enjoying Sapa. We found out that they were expat Italians working in China, and that Filippo worked for my favorite clothing designer, Zegna. They were only in Vietnam for a few more days, but we exchanged emails and planned to meet up again for drinks in Hanoi.

    Victoria Sapa, Sapa

  7. Sapa - february 23

    We had the day to ourselves, so after breakfast I headed into town with my camera while Rupa prepped for our late morning checkout. I hiked out to the edge of town, roamed the market and generally just watched the morning unfold as locals went about their business. A little later Rupa joined me and we went on a walk around the city's small lake. It was still a non-working day for most of the villagers, and a fair number of teenagers were strolling around in small groups, dressed in traditional outfits and carrying pink-checkered umbrellas to shield them from the sun. Boys and girls of all ages walked arm-in-arm, and spent the afternoon conversing, eating ice cream and sugar cane, having their photo taken and printed in a small studio and generally just being seen.

    We found a landscaped fountain and spent the bulk of a lovely afternoon parked on a bench. There were few sellers this far out from the market, and the few we did get only made a half-hearted attempt at a sale. The most entertaining group to stop by was a trio of young girls aged five to eleven, who took a seat next to us on the bench. The youngest spoke enough English to have a thirty minute conversation about her family, friends, schooling and daily routine.

    A little later a Red Dai woman dressed in some beautiful hand-embroidered clothing stopped by the fountain to wash up. She caught me taking a photo and wandered over to introduce herself and show us her handiwork, which was some of the best we'd seen. She described each piece in detail, and one piece in particular caught my eye - a colorful waist wrap that had clearly been worn for some time before being replaced by a new one. She claimed it was 15 years old and took 9 months to complete. She was asking such a low price that we offered her 50% more and took home one of our most prized souvenirs.

    We sat down at a sidewalk café for a delicious dinner of fried spring rolls and pizza. Being on the sidewalk we were approached a few times by adorable children with bracelets to sell. One young girl, Ha, took a liking to Rupa and played a few rounds of "guess who" with her. We became alarmed, though, when her father reminded her not to itch her eyes and to use her eye drops, and for fear of contracting "Pink Eye" we hastened our dinner. Fortunately, days of worry came to naught as neither Rupa nor I came down with it.

    After dinner we were driven to Loa Cai to catch the night train back to Hanoi. Our cabin mates this time were an older French couple who had some difficulty speaking English, so I let Rupa carry the conversation from the lower bunk as I drifted off to sleep.

    Victoria Express train, Sapa to Hanoi

  8. Hanoi - february 24

    Our train pulled into the station shortly after five in the morning, and by six we were checking into our hotel. The only room available this early was a $20 upgrade, but we were both tired and elected to take the room. We showered up and took turns napping and playing on the computer (the hotel had free in-room internet). By the time we emerged for lunch we both agreed that the $20 upgrade was the best money we'd ever spent.

    We walked around the busy Old Quarter of town for an hour before ambling into a backpacker/ex-pat café for lunch. Hanoi's Old Quarter was nothing like the orderly streets of New York or Paris, but rather a chaotic bramble of narrow one way streets lined with an eclectic collection of small storefronts spilling out onto the sliver of a sidewalk. Any remaining expanse of sidewalk was employed as ad-hoc parking for the ubiquitous motorbikes, and we consequently spent much of the time shimmying along the curb. Meanwhile, hundreds of motorbikes and pedal bikes flew by, unimpeded by any form of traffic control and precariously laden with oversized packages, flowers, water tanks, plastic and the occasional family of five. The biggest adventure though, was crossing the street, which required a boost of courage and a blind faith that the motorbikes would weave around us as we cautiously advanced.

    Back at the hotel we met our small tour group - two English couples and one other American couple - and our tour leader, Viet. The group was headed out for dinner but we had plans to meet up with our Italian friends from Sapa. We took an evening stroll around the lake and fattened up at Fanny's Ice Cream before meeting up with Fillippo and Elizabeth at Le Pub, an atmospheric ex-pat bar. We learned that they are heading back to Italy for a few weeks in late July, about the same time that we are hoping to be there, so perhaps we'll be able to meet up for dinner and drinks.

    Galaxy Hotel, Hanoi

  9. Halong Bay - february 25

    We left most of our luggage at the hotel this morning as we loaded our backpacks for an overnight cruise on scenic Halong Bay. The two hour drive to the coast took us through the outer reaches of Hanoi where green rice fields mingled with the latest housing developments. Entire communities - hundreds of newly built cement and brick houses - lay empty among the fields, poised for the ongoing population explosion. Further along, the massive big-city projects gave way to small roadside towns lined with typical Northern Vietnamese homes. The long and skinny brownstone-like structures - 12 foot wide, 40 foot deep and two to five stories high - frequently served as both home and storefront, with large folding doors or collapsing gates exposing the entire ground floor to the street. The facades were often brightly colored and elaborately decorated, though the sides and rear were left bare in anticipation of neighboring construction, giving the houses a decidedly unfinished look.

    Our one stop en-route was a handicraft factory for the disabled, where scores of handicapped children and young adults were trained in embroidery, carving, painting or jewelry making - skills they could hopefully parlay into a self-sustaining career. Some of the embroidered wall hangings were compelling, but we elected to wait until our return trip the next day before making a purchase.

    We arrived at Halong Bay in time to grab lunch aboard our private wooden junk, one of a hundred similarly styled junks docked at the quay. Our spacious, en-suite cabin was located on the lower deck, while the middle deck was used for dining and outdoor lounging and the top deck for sun-bathing. The junk was powered by petrol, although it sported a mast and sail that could be deployed for show.

    After lunch we set off on a cruise, following the same general itinerary as half the fleet. The calm water and moderate temperature made for a pleasant afternoon as we wandered among the thousands of limestone islands that rose steeply out of the sea. We passed a small floating village along the way, tucked in the shadow of a large peak, and continued on to our first destination - Sung Sot Cave on Bo Hon Island.

    The two chambered cave was enormous - the main chamber alone was 100 feet tall and large enough to hold at least a thousand people. We snaked through on a well-defined path and admired the colorfully lit stalactites and patterned ceilings. Thirty minutes later we left the cave through a second opening just above the bay and boarded our boat for the short ride over to Ti Top Island.

    We arrived just before sunset and climbed over 400 steps to the summit where we enjoyed a 360 degree view of the bay and a marvelous sunset. Back on the boat we shared dinner and card games with the group before calling it a night.

    Overnight on boat, Halong Bay

  10. Halong Bay - february 26

    I woke up early hoping to catch sunrise this morning, but an overcast sky prevented the sun from shining through. Instead, I enjoyed a peaceful morning with the outdoor deck all to myself. I wasn't alone though - a number of junks had anchored nearby and a few other tourists were also out enjoying the morning. Meanwhile, half a dozen Vietnamese women silently rowed their small boats from junk to junk hoping to sell some fresh fruit or boxed snacks. Rupa woke up just in time to catch a quick breakfast, and we spent the rest of the morning on deck as our ship cruised back to port. We had lunch around 11 and disembarked. The ship's crew would serve the same lunch to the arriving guests, who would board mere minutes after our departure.

    We drove the same route back to Hanoi, but as it was now a weekday the rice paddies were active with thousands of people working their small plots. We also stopped at the handicraft factory again, and this time Rupa and I picked up three small pieces of embroidered artwork.

    We arrived back in Hanoi around four and checked into our new hotel. It was quite classy (hardwood floors and granite counters) and the rooms were spacious, but it was further outside the center of town. We shopped around a bit, picking up pens and toys for the village children we would be visiting tomorrow, before heading over to the Hanoi Seasons for dinner. Just before we arrived a heavy summer rain doused us as we dashed the remaining two blocks. We arrived damp and hungry, but the lovely décor, attentive wait staff and fabulous food filled our bellies and helped us forget our damp bums.

    Galaxy Hotel, Hanoi

  11. Mai Chau Village - february 27

    Today we started off with a visit to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology on the outskirts of Hanoi. The museum did a nice job detailing the traditions and daily life of Vietnam's numerous minority peoples, including many of the ones we'd encountered in Sapa. Most impressive, though, was a large outdoor park featuring life-size replicas of traditional ethnic houses of all shapes and sizes, including a Bahnar house with its steep A-frame roof designed to shed monsoon rains. A few of the houses served as small museums, my favorite of which housed a collection of antique water puppets.

    Back inside the museum a special exhibit detailed life in Vietnam under the harsh communism of the seventies and eighties, which in many ways mirrored life in America during the Great Depression. Given the continued leadership of the Communist Party in Vietnam we were surprised by the frankness of the exhibit and found it encouraging that the Party has not censored all of its past mistakes.

    Our destination for the night was a small village near the town of Mai Chau, a few hours drive from Hanoi. As the afternoon slipped by the endless plains of rice and speeding motorbikes gave way to cascading rice terraces and pedal bikes. The towns and villages out here were less prosperous than those closer to Hanoi, and Viet had arranged with the bus driver to stop at a small Muong minority village that rarely sees tourists. Not long after entering the village a large family invited us into their home for some tea and (80 proof) ice wine. After chatting for a bit (with Viet translating) we continued on through the village where we ran into a crowd of children playing in the dirt. We handed out pens, candy and toy cars as more than a dozen kids ran over to join in the fun. The kids were especially excited to have their photo taken and tripped over each other as they jostled for position in front of my lens. As I showed them the photos they all crowded around, smiling and laughing at the site of their image. I only wish I'd had a small portable printer to hand out hardcopies.

    We continued by bus up and over a mountain pass, crawling through dense haze and dodging cattle. Upon rounding the top we were treated to a spectacular view of the valley below with the town of Mai Chau nestled against hills to the left and irrigated rice paddies, like splinters of a broken mirror, amassed to the right. We drove down into the valley and pulled into a small Tai village just outside Mai Chau where we met the owner of our overnight guesthouse. Built in the style of a traditional Tai house, the wood and bamboo guesthouse differed from a traditional house in that it was larger and was equipped with a tourist-friendly bathroom. Like the local families we all shared one large room for the evening, using thin pillows and mattresses for eating and sleeping.

    Before settling in for the evening we walked around town and through the surrounding rice paddies. When we passed a volleyball game Marty stuck around to join in while the rest of continued on and arrived back at the guesthouse just before dark. Our homemade dinner was a filling eight dish affair, after which we were treated to a traditional dance performance. A troupe of 15 young men and women performed a series of tribal dances, donning different outfits for each number. They were accompanied by a trio of percussionists playing drums and gongs, and while the music was loud and lively the dancing itself was quite graceful. When it came time for the last dance we all joined in, each of us pairing up with one of dancers as we hopped over pairs of bamboo poles that were shuffled back and forth to the beat of music.

    At the conclusion of the dance the house staff turned down the room by laying out individual mattresses and hanging mosquito nets from the rafters. Meanwhile, the dance troupe packed up and moved next door for their second performance of the night.

    Local family house, Mai Chau Village

  12. Hanoi - february 28

    We woke up to a driving rain this morning and stayed in to enjoy a simple breakfast of eggs, baguettes and bananas. Shortly after breakfast the rain let up and we were able to explore the town and rice paddies. Activity was minimal, with only a few villagers out working the fields and a group of net-wielding teenagers chasing after moths driven out by the rain. The most charming moment of the morning was an encounter with a crowd of small children who peered up at us through the fenced doorway of their nursery.

    After an uneventful drive back to Hanoi we freshened up at the hotel and joined the group for a cyclo ride around the Old Quarter. An afternoon shower let up just as we got settled and for the next hour we had a front row seat as our drivers weaved their way through a sea of motorbikes. I generally prefer walking the streets, but it was a real treat to watch the afternoon unfold without having to dodge traffic or step cautiously across the slick, unevenly tiled sidewalks.

    Our cyclo drivers dropped us off at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater for an evening performance of traditional Vietnamese water puppetry. The stage was a shallow pool of water backed by a bamboo screen, from behind which eight puppeteers manipulated (via long bamboo poles concealed beneath the water) dozens of brightly colored wooden puppets in the form of fishermen, soldiers, dancers, dragons and other creatures. Accompanied by live music and fireworks, the puppets acted out entertaining scenes of rural Vietnamese life and local folk tales.

    After the show the six of us (one couple opted out) attempted to dine at the Emperor Restaurant, purportedly the best restaurant in town. Although they were fully booked for the evening they offered us a private room if we could finish dinner within the hour - apparently the Vietnamese Prime Minister had the room reserved for later that evening. We took them up on their offer and enjoyed a hasty but very nice meal before retiring to the bar for drinks and some light entertainment provided by a trio of musicians wielding traditional Vietnamese instruments.

    Galaxy Hotel, Hanoi

  13. Hanoi - march 1

    Today we toured Hanoi's most famous sights starting with Ho Chi Minh's austere mausoleum, where we waited out a (short) 30 minute line to see his preserved corpse. Although we both developed a deep sense of respect for "Uncle Ho" during our trip, seeing his entombed body didn't stir up any emotions and we were glad we hadn't waited out a longer line.

    Nearby we toured the lovely turn-of-the-century French buildings that served as government offices during the colonial period and again in the mid-twentieth century. While in power Ho Chi Minh lived on the grounds, first selecting a meager colonial-era gardener's house and later an elegant copy of a traditional Vietnamese stilted house. The buildings and park-like setting were lovely, but other than a few Ho Chi Minh relics there wasn't much to see.

    We made two other nearby stops before boarding the bus. First was the official Ho Chi Minh Museum, which turned out to be a bizarrely modern presentation of papers, photos and other artifacts associated with its namesake. Sadly, the tiresome exhibits were presented in a seemingly random order making it difficult to stay engaged or to learn anything new. Our second stop was the One Pillar Pagoda - a small wooden tower built atop a single stone pillar that rose out of a shallow lotus pond. Although rebuilt numerous times during the past 1000 years, this latest incarnation is still a special place for Hanoians who come here to pray for the birth of a son. Rupa and I were careful to keep our distance; Rupa fancies a baby girl and I don't fancy a baby of any sort - at least for another year or two.

    A short bus ride later we arrived at the Hoa Loa Prison, a colonial era prison complex that gained notoriety during the Vietnam War for housing American POWs such as Senator John McCain (whose flight suit is on display). Sarcastically dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by American prisoners, much of the complex has since been demolished and replaced by a modern high rise with the remaining portion serving as a small museum. As you might expect from the North Vietnamese, the prison tour highlights the atrocities committed by the colonial era government while extolling the laudable treatment afforded Vietnam War inmates.

    Our final visit of the day was the Temple of Literature, a 900 year old Confucian temple that served as the country's top learning center for over 700 years. At the heart of the park-like complex were 82 large stone stelae, each set atop the shell of a (wise) stone tortoise and inscribed with the names and accomplishments of over 1300 doctoral laureates.

    After a group lunch at Pho24 (fast food Vietnamese soup) Rupa and I spent the afternoon walking around the Old Quarter, paying special attention to the vast selection of services available right on the sidewalk, including mending, key making, shoe repair, tire and motorbike repair, haircuts and produce shopping.

    Our overnight train ride to Hue was a trying experience. Beyond just the rickety tracks and frequent stops, Travel Indochina hadn't booked our cabins early enough and the eight of us were split across four cabins instead of two. Rupa was off on her own, sharing a cabin with three strangers, while Viet and I were relegated to a second class six-berth cabin featuring paper thin mattresses resting on steel shelves. Viet and I were also kept up late by the antics of a mischievous two-year-old boy whose accompanying grandmother fell asleep shortly after the train departed.

    Reunification Express train, Hanoi to Hue

  14. Hue - march 2

    The train ride was a nightmare. Despite the rickety tracks, frequent stops, and overheated cabin I was able to squeeze in a few hours of rough sleep, waking up for good around 5:30 as we passed through the former DMZ. We rolled into Hue a couple of hours later and transferred to our lovely resort-like hotel complete with gardens, fountains, a pair of pools and spacious, elegantly furnished rooms. We grabbed a spirit-lifting breakfast at the hotel's fabulous buffet (including freshly prepared Pho) before heading to our room to freshen up and enjoy a brief power nap.

    A little later we began our touring by visiting a pair of royal tombs dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The earlier tomb was built by Emperor Tu Doc as part of a large palatial retreat that included a lake, canal, island, a pair of waterfront pavilions, stone "guards" and a massive stone stele proclaiming his accomplishments. The later tomb, Emperor Khai Dinh's, was smaller in scale but featured elaborate exterior detailing and colorful floor-to-ceiling mosaics inside.

    After lunch we toured the Citadel - Vietnam's two-hundred-year-old former royal palace. The complex lay in ruins but was undergoing slow restoration with the help of UNESCO World Heritage funds. Although the scale of the Citadel was not as impressive as Beijing's Forbidden City, the 37-foot thick perimeter wall and wide moat encompassed hundreds of stone, brick and wooden buildings organized into palaces, houses, theaters, gazebos, gates and schools.

    As we waited for our bus outside the Citadel a small 18-seat tour bus pulled up and 53 grade-schoolers came spilling out, excited to be on a field trip. When our bus finally arrived 20 minutes later we were all alarmed to find our bags misplaced among the seats. Apparently our bus had been repurposed during our tour (something we'd never have happen before) and our driver had tried to put everything back hoping that we wouldn't notice. I was a bit worried as I'd left $2,000 in lenses in my bag, but fortunately nothing was missing.

    Our final stop of the day was the 500-year-old Thien Mu pagoda complex where a number of monks still live and train. We didn't really have a chance to interact with the monks and instead just walked around for some photos before catching an evening boat ride down the Perfume River.

    Back at the hotel I took a three hour nap to recover from the train ride before finishing off the day with a wonderful dinner at the hotel's lovely wood-beamed restaurant.

    Pilgrimage Village, Hue

  15. Hue to Hoi An - march 3

    We spent most of the morning on the road as we drove from Hue down to Hoi An, stopping a few times for photos as we wound our way up and over a couple of forested mountain passes. At each stop young kids would stack up at the door of the bus begging for handouts or pleading with us to buy some small trinket or snack.

    The five-hour drive was also broken up by a couple of scheduled stops. The longest was a Cham art museum in Da Nang where we spent an hour perusing hundreds of stone sculptures. Viet gave a quick overview of the Cham religion (a blend of Hindu and Buddism) and pointed out a few important pieces, but there was enough to see that it would have been really nice to have had a dedicated museum guide. Instead, Rupa and I wandered around and took photos of the more interesting statues. Nearby, we stopped for lunch at a small roadside shop where we crafted our own spring rolls out of fresh herbs, a pre-cooked vermicelli base and rice paper.

    Our final stop was just outside Da Nang at the Marble Mountains, a cluster of five marble and limestone peaks that rose above the surrounding landscape. We hiked around for an hour exploring some of the caverns, tunnels and temples scattered among the peaks.

    We finally arrived in Hoi An around four and pulled into a professional silk shop where we learned how silk worms are raised and how the silk thread is created. The quality of the textiles here was a notch above the street stalls, so while David got measured for a suit I picked out a nice $5 silk tie.

    We toured Hoi An by foot as we strolled the narrow streets and historic buildings of the old quarter, where hundreds of street level shops offered a varied selection of household goods and clothing. We stopped for a brief tour of one of the older houses around - a 100 year old ironwood construction - as well as a Chinese temple with hundreds of long-burning incense coils hung from the ceiling. $15 coils would burn for a month, and if the ceiling hadn't just been filled during Chinese New Year I'd have purchased one for good luck.

    Our Hoi An hotel was a lovely garden oasis a short 15 minute walk from the old quarter. We checked in, joined the group for dinner at the hotel restaurant and fell into bed.

    Ancient House Resort, Hoi An

  16. Hoi An - march 4

    We began with a walk though a large community vegetable garden where locals grew staples such as basil, mint, lemongrass, celery, cabbage and sweet potato leaves (the root takes too long to mature). Later we donned traditional farming cloaks and took turns working the sandy soil - tilling the land with a hoe, fertilizing it with seaweed, raking it and finally planting small cabbages. After washing up we joined in a cooking demonstration where we assembled fresh spring rolls and cooked rice-flour pancakes, which we anticipated eating for lunch. Instead, our lopsided creations were returned to the kitchen and expertly prepared copies were served to us.

    We had a free afternoon in town and Rupa and I spent it walking around Hoi An's old quarter and exploring some of the hundreds of shops. Much to our surprise the shop keepers were outwardly friendly, hoping to make a sale by striking up a conversation rather than showering us with every knickknack in the store. This made it easy to shop and we picked up a few small souvenirs.

    Before dinner we joined the group for an evening cruise along the Thu Bon River. The river was filled with hundreds of fishing boats, many of them just small two-man dinghies, pulling in their nets and returning to dock for night (likely just a stretch of barren river bank). One of smaller boats, though, was not so much a fishing boat as a photo op: The fisherman would cast out his net for the passing tourists and then pull up alongside for a tip.

    Dinner was another group cooking demonstration where we learned how to bake fish in a banana leaf, pan fry spring rolls and create a papaya and squid salad. Similar to lunch, our dinner consisted of professionally prepared servings of the dishes we had just learned to cook.

    Ancient House Resort, Hoi An

  17. Hoi An to Saigon - march 5

    Rupa and I woke up early this morning to visit the local fish market. I grabbed a $1 taxi to town while Rupa, feeling a bit ill, lingered behind and caught up with me later. The market was packed into a small corner of the waterfront quay and by six o'clock it was already a frenzied scene. A hundred fish mongers had each claimed a small area of boardwalk to spread out their latest catch, filling their baskets with more than a dozen species of fish and a selection of small crustaceans.

    At the waterfront I caught a private boat ride along the river, rowed around by one of the ladies who earlier had helped the larger fishing boats transfer their catch to shore. The ride only lasted about 20 minutes as there wasn't much happening on the water this late in the morning. Back on shore I met up with Rupa and we walked out through the produce market and back to the hotel to pack up and check out for our flight to Saigon.

    We arrived at the airport around three only to find out that our flight had been delayed until five. Apparently everyone else on the flight knew about the change, as we were the only ones in the terminal for the next hour. The waiting room had a couple of large TVs running a loop of commercials, including a laugh-out-loud-funny kung-fu cow fight clip with no apparent sponsor. When we finally boarded our Pacific Airways plane we weren't quite sure that it was up to the task - the plane was old and well worn with a stained interior that was falling apart. Impressively, the pilot got us to Saigon in one piece.

    We met our local guide, Long, at the airport and transferred directly to the hotel where the rest of the evening was ours. It was getting late so Rupa and I choose a recommended Indian restaurant and hailed a taxi for the cheap ($1.25) five-minute drive. The Indian food was delicious and a spicy respite from the relatively tame Vietnamese food we'd been eating.

    Palace Hotel, Saigon

  18. Saigon - march 6

    We spent the day sightseeing around Saigon, starting off downtown with the French built City Hall, the grand Opera House, the cavernous Post Office and the beautiful Notre Dame Catholic Church. Saigon was noticeable more Western than Hanoi or any of the other cities we'd visited with wide six-lane boulevards, roundabouts and traffic lights supporting a surprising number of automobiles. More surprising yet was the sight of pedestrian crosswalks. Non-existent elsewhere in Vietnam, the crossings here were occasionally even staffed by an English speaking tourist cop. We also noticed our first western fast food chain, a KFC, which was rather surprising given that the chicken here is more expensive than the beef. Sadly, McDonalds is also on its way, having earned government approval to start operations in 2008.

    Our next stop was the Museum of War Remnants, formerly known as the War Crimes Museum. The museum was quite large and focused heavily on the atrocities committed by French and American forces during the twentieth century. Despite the heavy anti-American propaganda the museum was quite engaging, particularly an exhibit of photographs taken by journalists killed during the Vietnam War.

    We made two more stops before lunch. The first was the former Presidential Palace of South Vietnam, now known as Reunification Palace, which became famous when NVA tanks entered the compound to end the Vietnam War. Largely restored to its mid-seventies form the palace now serves as a museum and reception hall. The second stop was the enormous Chinese Market, where Long led us on a winding tour through the narrow maze-like aisles. Like most Asian markets this one was organized by category (produce, seafood, clothing, shoes, hats, jewelry, appliances, tools, etc), but unlike most markets the shop keepers paid little attention to us, as most of their everyday items had minimal tourist appeal.

    Back near the hotel we stopped for lunch at the fast food soup restaurant Pho 2000, notable only for the dozens of President Clinton photos plastered on the walls. Apparently he dined here recently and the manager was quite proud.

    The rest of the afternoon was ours, so Rupa and I spent some time next door at the local market. Not as tightly packed as the Chinese Market, the vendors here applied constant sales pressure, assuming that our presence in a particular aisle was intentional and that we were interested in making a purchase. The attention was too much so we walked back to the hotel and rested up.

    For dinner we found ourselves a beautiful French Restaurant named La Camargue. Our outdoor table on the second floor was set amid a lovely garden terrace and felt refreshingly isolated from the busy traffic below. The food was outstanding and a great value - we enjoyed the Foie Gras, the Chateaubriand, a Caprese-like pasta, wine and a Nutella crepe, all for only $68.

    Palace Hotel, Saigon

  19. Cu Chi - march 7

    Today we visited the Cu Chi tunnel network outside Saigon. Built by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, the underground labyrinth stretched for over 120 miles to connect villages, bunkers and underground living facilities such as dormitories, kitchens and hospitals. To get there, rather than travel by bus we sailed up the Saigon River by private speedboat. The river was choked with millions of water hyacinths and our driver did his best to avoid them, but every so often he had to reverse the motor to clear the debris from the prop. An hour into our cruise we stopped at a waterfront town to visit their large street market, where vendors filled the city streets with a variety of fish, meats, produce and household goods. The lanes were narrow and crowded with motorbikes, and as we wound our way through it became clear that tourists were a rare site up here - the locals regarded us with wonder as we passed and when we stopped for photos they genuinely seemed excited.

    Another hour upstream we pulled up to the Cu Chi tunnel park, where upon arrival we were subjected to a short documentary film with a decidedly anti-American message. After the film we were shown a scale cross section of a typical three-tiered tunnel network. Most surprising was the emergency exit, which let out under the water along the river, requiring the escapee to swim down and out through a small tunnel.

    The tunnels themselves were set amid a sparse small growth forest, the rebirth of an area that was heavily bombed and defoliated during the war. Dozens of large diameter bomb craters dotted the landscape, a dead American tank sat in the woods where it had struck a land mine some 30 years ago, and a display of booby traps demonstrated the ingenuity of a cash strapped military - wooden trap doors covered shallow pits lined with spikes designed to seriously injury the foot or lower abdomen of a passing soldier. A few of the tunnel entrances were marked off and some of us tried standing in the entry. While David and I both fit our lower halves into the hole there was no way our shoulders would fit through the narrow frame. One of the entrances had been enlarged for easier access and a few of us elected to crawl through a forty yard stretch of tunnel (which had also been expanded to better fit the western frame). The tunnel was bored through smooth, hard packed clay and we proceeded ahead under the assumption that the pitch-dark tunnel didn't offer any surprises. About half way through Marty remarked that it was about 35 yards too long, but we all made it out just fine.

    As we toured the grounds loud bursts of gunfire pierced the air. My initial thought was that the gunfire was just added "ambiance", but it turned out that a shooting range had been set up with Vietnam War era weapons. Ammo was a bit expensive at $1 a shot, but the opportunity seemed unique so I took a turn with both an M16 (typical field rifle) and an M60 (light machine gun). Both weapons echoed through the firing trench and left me deaf for a few minutes. Fortunately, the guns were mounted on flexible posts that prevented the recoil from dislocating my shoulder.

    The boat ride back to town was enjoyable but uneventful. For dinner we sought out a recommended restaurant, but it was full for the night so we headed back to our French restaurant where we enjoyed another fabulous meal. Meanwhile, as we found out the next morning, four of our group had an interesting experience when they met up at a karaoke bar only to find out that the bar was really a front for an escort service. Needless to say they quickly downed their drinks and left before the music started.

    Palace Hotel, Saigon

  20. Saigon to Can Tho - march 8

    We left Saigon by bus this morning and headed to Can Tho in the heart of the Mekong Delta. We began the road trip on newly built stretch of freeway where the lack of infrastructure spawned a proliferation of ad-hoc petrol stations featuring gravity fed "pumps" and snack carts. The highway eventually narrowed to a two lane road as passed through a number of smaller farming communities. These villages were filled with locals going about their daily routine, many of them pedaling to school or transporting a variety of household items (water tanks, pipes, bottles, mats, styrofoam and even a ladder). We also passed our first and only Cao Dai temple in one of the smaller towns. The Cao Dai religion is popular in Southern Vietnam with some three million adherents worshiping in colorfully ornate temples adorned with a large Divine Eye painted front and center.

    Our first large town was Cai Be, where we transferred to a ten-passenger wooden boat for the rest of the morning and early afternoon. After leaving the dock we immediately sailed through a floating market and watched as small boats transferred produce from large "warehouse" boats anchored in the bay, each of which advertised its inventory by hoisting skewered fruits or vegetables on a pole.

    We also pulled up to a family-run candy factory where we watched them pop rice (similar to popping corn) for rice crispy treats, mold viscous coconut candy into long strips and cook rice crackers on a cloth griddle. A short time later we sailed into a narrow canal lined with fishing boats and made our way to a small dock where we hopped ashore for lunch at cute little home stay restaurant. The delicacy here was Elephant Fish, so named for its long thin shape, which we pealed from the bones and loaded into spring rolls. After lunch we stopped for tea at a fruit farm, where our guide offered us a variety of tropical fruits, including jackfruit, star fruit, rose apple, durian, pomelo and longonberry.

    Our cruise ended in Vinh Long, were we self toured the local market before boarding the bus for the rest of our journey. Two hours later we arrived at the ferry terminal across from Can Tho. After a thirty-minute wait we left the bus and boarded the ferry with the motorbikes and pedestrians. At the last minute Long directed us up a roped-off ladder and onto the roof (a privilege he had worked out with the captain) where we enjoyed a beautiful sunset as the ferry made the ten minute crossing. When we landed on the opposite bank we realized that our bus had been diverted to a different ferry and had landed at an alternate terminal a mile away (I counted at least eleven ferries working the half mile crossing). Thirty minutes later our bus driver found us and transferred us to the hotel, where Rupa and I skipped dinner and settled in for the evening.

    Golf Can Tho Hotel, Can Tho

  21. Chau Doc - march 9

    We did most of our traveling today by boat. After breakfast we sailed over to a nearby floating market and cruised around for an hour. This market was larger and livelier than the one at Cai Be, with hundreds of boats milling about the river. For the most part the operation ran like a produce warehouse - the larger boats had arrived with tons of produce to sell and the smaller boats were buying up bulk quantities to resell at some local street market somewhere. Scattered about were also a number of individual-sized rowboats offering freshly prepared soup to those aboard ship.

    We spent the rest of the morning cruising up the Mekong River to Chau Doc, where we would spend our final night in Vietnam. I sat out front on the small deck and enjoyed the lovely overcast afternoon. All along the river cargo ships, fishing boats and large dredges were at work. Interestingly, the river was not being dredged to deepen the shipping channel but instead to replenish area farms with fertile soil. Further along we noticed an unusually large number of bricks being hauled downstream and yellow crops being hauled upstream. We soon found out why when we passed a two-mile stretch of riverfront lined with dozens of kilns spewing thick black smoke - enough to create a dense haze over the river. The yellow crop, it turned out, was rice chaff being used to fuel the kilns.

    Upon arrival in Chau Doc we pulled right up to our riverside hotel and docked. After a quick lunch I spent an hour wandering around town looking for photo opportunities. The town itself was rather ordinary but the locals were very friendly and they smiled at my camera as they rode by. They also carried an astonishing assortment of goods on their bikes - window frames, wardrobes, carpets, drywall, pipes and colorful sacks.

    Late in the afternoon we joined up with the group for another boat ride. We started off cruising through a nearby fish farm, which was really just a collection of floating houses built atop mesh cages filled with fish. We stopped by one to watch a feeding, and the owner told us that the cage beneath his fairly typical 20x40 foot house held 50,000 fish!

    Just beyond the fish farm we stopped off at a Cham village for a brief and disappointing visit. None of the villagers were traditionally dressed and the mothers were prodding their young children to peddle plates of homemade snacks. Very few of the children could communicate in either English or Vietnamese and many were outwardly rude when we refused to buy. In the end, though, we did buy snacks from a couple of the friendlier children.

    Our final stop of the day was a sunset view from the top of Sam Mountain, an isolated peak just outside of Chau Doc. We had hoped for a beautiful panorama of rice fields but a hazy and overcast sky prevented us from seeing much of anything.

    Victoria Chau Doc, Chau Doc

  22. Chau Doc to Phnom Penh, Cambodia - march 10

    I woke up just in time to catch a beautiful sunrise over the Mekong River and to pick up a rock for Marcia (after 14 days in Vietnam, I'd almost forgotten). After breakfast we all checked out and boarded a boat for the five hour ride to Phnom Penh. We ended up sharing the boat with another Travel Indochina tour group and their western guide Analisa, and we spent most of the first hour chatting with her as we watched the morning river traffic slip by.

    An hour into the ride we sailed up to the Cambodian border and spent the next hour and half waiting to clear immigration. Meanwhile, a couple of nimble-footed children hopped among the waiting boats happily trying to sell refreshments. It was cute at first, but after a while their incessant prodding became tiring and Analisa did her best to keep them off our boat.

    Having cleared immigration we finished the two and a half hour journey up the Mekong River and arrived in Phnom Penh. The river traffic was light and the banks were too far distant to be engaging so Rupa and I napped. At the dock in Phnom Penh we met our new local guide, Pauline, and transferred to our hotel to freshen up and grab our laundry (which Pauline was having done for us). Thirty minutes later we were back on the bus.

    We began our touring with the traditionally styled National Museum where a museum-provided guide did a wonderful job of walking us through Cambodia's religious history by using the statuary to identify shifting beliefs. We then headed over to Wat Phnom, the most important temple in the city. The wat sits atop a 100-foot manmade hill where according to legend Lady Penh built a shrine to house four sacred Buddha statues she'd found in the river. The city of Phnom Penh (literally, "Penh's Hill") grew up around this shine, which later grew into a temple. Its current form (built in 1926) houses over a hundred Buddha statues in a beautiful shrine room adorned with colorful floor to ceiling murals.

    Rupa and I ended the day with dinner at a charming restaurant featuring Asian style floor seating and an evening back at the hotel where we watched a gorgeous sunset fade into darkness.

    Cambodiana Hotel, Phnom Penh

  23. Phnom Penh - march 11

    Today we spent an emotionally draining morning at two sites linked to the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970s. First up was the high school-turned-prison complex known as Tuol Sleng. Used primarily as an interrogation center, most of the 17,000 prisoners who passed through Tuol Sleng's gates were accused of treason and tortured before being transferred to a Killing Field for extermination. What truly made Tuol Sleng an emotional experience was Pauline's first hand account of the atrocities committed during the "Terrible Time". She was eight years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and she experienced first hand the perpetual fear of death, the mandatory migrations and the forced scattering of her family.

    Our second stop of the morning was the Killing Field at Choeung Ek, just outside Phnom Penh. As many as 17,000 victims arrived here by truck, most of them inmates from Tuol Sleng, and were immediately led to a mass grave where they were bludgeoned to death (bullets were too precious to waste). Sadly, small children met an equally horrifying fate as they were held by their feet and swung head first into the trunk of a large tree. 86 of the site's 129 mass graves have been unearthed leaving behind a cratered landscape littered with shards of bone and tattered clothing. We spent thirty minutes walking among the graves before visiting the 200-foot tall Memorial Stupa, inside of which more than 5,000 bleached skulls, exhumed from the pits outside, were stacked on wooden shelves.

    Back in town we left behind the Khmer Rouge and strolled the hanger-like Russian Market, so named because of the cheap Russian imports that once filled its stalls. These days, however, the market was similar to the ones we'd browsed in Vietnam, offering a combination of touristy knickknacks, quality handicrafts (such as silks) and everyday household items.

    Our final stop of the day was the Royal Palace and the nearby Silver Pagoda. The buildings in the compound were stylistically similar to the Grand Palace in Bangkok featuring colorfully ornate rooftops and elaborate interiors. The highlights included the golden-hued Throne Hall and the silver-tiled Wat Preah Keo Morokat (Silver Pagoda), which featured a near-life-sized 200lb solid gold Buddha statue adorned with more than 9,000 diamonds.

    With no more planned activities Rupa and I spent the evening along the Sisowath Quay, a landscaped promenade sandwiched between the Tonle Sap River and a busy, shop-lined boulevard. It was a Sunday night and thousands of locals were out enjoying the evening; walking along the quay or sharing a picnic with family and friends. Vendors peddling treats, balloons, birds and incense added to the carnival-like atmosphere. Sadly, though, the locals here were not as outgoing and friendly to tourists as the Vietnamese and we were only able to elicit the occasional smile or wave.

    Cambodiana Hotel, Phnom Penh

  24. Phnom Penh to Siem Reap - march 12

    We left Phnom Penh early this morning on a six hour bus ride to Siem Reap. We immediately got stuck in a traffic jam, and while waiting for it to clear we watched a seemingly crowded pickup truck continue to take on more and more passengers. All day long we would see these overcrowded "buses" on the road, along with ox-drawn carts piled high with hay, horse-drawn carts stacked with bamboo furniture, trucks of all sorts and motorbikes loaded with scores of live chickens, ducks or pigs. And if any of these vehicles needed a fill-up, a Pepsi-bottle petrol station was never far away.

    We stopped for a mid-morning snack at Restaurant 88. In addition to the standard beverages and snacks the ladies outside offered a few novelties, including fried spiders and fresh lotus seed. The lotus seeds were fun to peel and eat, but I shied away from the spider. Rupa was more adventurous and tried a crunchy spider leg, while Pauline ate the entire thing as a live one crawled on her shirt.

    We continued along, barreling through villages and rice paddies with our driver looking for any opportunity to lay on his horn. Along the way it was easy to notice the poverty of the area, largely due to the dry climate which allowed for only one rice crop each year. To compensate, enterprising locals had come up with ways to supplement their income - some sold pottery from oxen carts, some carved Buddhas from local stone, some trapped crickets with plastic sails and others burned wood to create charcoal. Those with bikes took advantage of their wheels to make ends meet - delivering ice, transporting livestock to market or collecting car batteries (used as household generators) for recharging.

    We stopped for photos and sightseeing a few times, invariably attracting the attention of poor children who begged for handouts. Our two scheduled stops included a 1000 year old Khmer temple, in remarkable condition given its age, and a old Naga-decorated stone bridge similar to those we would later see around the Angkor temples.

    On the last leg of our journey we passed two processions. The first was a colorful wedding procession with the groom and his family bringing gifts of flowers and food to the bride's home, accompanied by live traditional music. We all hopped out of the bus to take photos, and the participants seemed as entertained with us as we were with them. The second procession was a government accountability march that was making its way by foot from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, a very impressive slog of 180 miles through 100°F heat.

    Siem Reap was much smaller and more charming than I had imagined, with tree lined avenues and local housing interspersed with small hotels and restaurants. Our hotel itself was centrally located and a real gem. The 64 French style rooms were arrayed around a lovely courtyard that featured an inviting pool. After checking in Rupa and I joined the other Travel Indochina group for a wonderful dinner at the luxurious FCC, after which we went straight to bed in preparation for an early morning.

    Day Inn Angkor & Resort, Siem Reap

  25. Siem Reap - march 13

    We left the hotel at five o'clock this morning for a sunrise visit to the famous Khmer temple of Angkor Wat. Rather than arrive with the rest of the tourists amassed at the Western gate we circled around to the Eastern gate and entered the complex from the rear. Apart from a million cicadas and the distant call of monkeys we were all alone in the pre-dawn darkness. We proceeded across the 600-foot-wide moat and through the forest to the rear of the main temple complex, where the first hint of light revealed the massive 900 year old structure. We continued around the temple to the main entrance on the Western wall where we joined the other tourists to watch a glorious pink and peach sunrise. We stuck around until the sun passed over the towers and then entered the ruins.

    Although the enormous moat surrounded an "island" of some 200 acres the temple complex itself covered just 10 acres and, while large, was not as immense as I had imagined (the Egyptian temple at Karnak was 6 times larger). Still, we spent an hour and a half walking the galleries, admiring the detailed bas-reliefs and enjoying the view from the 20-story central tower, which required scrambling 60 feet up a perilously steep set of stone steps. As we left the Western gate we paused for a minute to watch a preservation team at work on the causeway, surveying the block pattern and using heavy machinery to realign them. Our final stop was a fixed-line balloon ride where we were treated to an inspiring 650-foot aerial view of the haze-and-forest-shrouded temple.

    Our second complex of the day was the ancient city of Angkor Thom, a little over a mile away from Angkor Wat. Built within 100 years of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom covered a larger area but lacked the focus of a single massive temple complex. Instead, a smaller temple, the Bayon, was accompanied by a large plaza complete with carved terraces and platforms. Also, unlike Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Bayon were abandoned to the jungle for hundreds of years and only uncovered early in the 20th century. We spent a considerable amount of time touring the Bayon's beautiful bas-reliefs and walking among the temple's 200 large, enigmatic stone faces, some of which reach 12 feet in height.

    We rested up for a bit at the hotel before heading out for a cruise on Lake Tonle Sap, the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. During the monsoon season the lake fills with water as the Mekong River diverts its excess flow into the dead end lake. During the dry season, though, the flow reverses and the lake drains into the Mekong, dramatically shrinking the lake. Fish from the lake provide sustenance to much of Cambodia's population, while nearly two million people live directly on the lake in large floating villages. To reach the lake in the dry season we drove along a narrow dirt causeway for a mile or two and then navigated a narrow two-foot-deep canal for another mile (grounding only once).

    Out on the lake we passed through a floating village (population 7000) and its accompanying school (with rooftop soccer field), library, post office, police station, churches, restaurants and markets. We also passed a (listing) pig farm. Our destination was a floating three-story restaurant/souvenir shop/fish farm/crocodile farm. All the while we were on board women and children rowed up in small boats (or pails) and called out for our attention, hoping to sell us a snack or two.

    Back in town we dined in the courtyard of a lovely French restaurant and arranged with our TukTuk driver to pick us up at five in the morning for another sunrise visit to Angkor Wat.

    Day Inn Angkor & Resort, Siem Reap

  26. Siem Reap - march 14

    As planned, we met our TukTuk driver for an early morning ride to Angkor Wat. We stuck around for the sunrise and then headed over to the Bayon Temple for a big-head photo and to watch the morning light illuminate the faces. From there our TukTuk driver dropped us off at Ta Prohm where we dodged the peddling children and joined our regularly scheduled tour. We spent an hour touring the temple, which had been cleared of small undergrowth but otherwise left in a ruinous state. Massive trees enveloped the walls and towers, ever so slowly tearing them apart block by block. Sunlight filtered through the leaves as we squeezed through narrow corridors and scrambled over toppled walls.

    While Ta Prom was dedicated to the king's mother, our next temple, Preah Khan, was dedicated to his father. Although overgrown and lichen-covered, Preah Khan was in better shape than Ta Prom, making it easy to identify the nested enclosures and walk straight through from end-to-end. The site also featured a Hall of Dancers with amazingly well-preserved bas-reliefs of dancing apsaras (angels) across the lintels. While crossing the moat on the way out we watched a fisherman hunt for dinner.

    Lunch was a planned event today as we took part in a cooking demonstration at an eco-friendly restaurant outside town. The owner, Phalika, was studying in France when the Khmer Rouge came to power in the mid-seventies and recently returned home after thirty years in Europe and America to help revitalize traditional Khmer cooking. We helped prepare a couple of dishes and then sat down to enjoy a wonderful three course lunch (once again not the food we had prepared ourselves).

    Back at the hotel Rupa and I spent the afternoon relaxing before joining the group for a dinner show. Dinner itself was a large buffet, and although the food wasn't anything special it afforded us the opportunity to try a few new dishes. The show, however, was loads of fun. A small cast of dancers dressed in colorful outfits performed five or six traditional routines all accompanied by live music. Their movements were graceful and methodical, almost ballet-like sans the running and jumping. The show ended in quite the frenzy as dozens of Asian tourists jumped up on stage to get their photos taken with the dancers.

    Day Inn Angkor & Resort, Siem Reap

  27. Siem Reap - march 15

    We skipped sunrise this morning and instead left the hotel at the completely reasonable hour of eight. We set out for a trio of temples further afield, and no sooner had we left Siem Reap than we ran into the government accountability march we'd passed three days earlier still going strong with a hundred or so marchers.

    A little later we arrived at our first temple of the day, Beng Mealea. In contrast to Ta Prohm, where the jungle and temple had achieved a pleasing balance, here at Beng Mealea the jungle had nearly subdued the entire site. The little visited site was more of a rock scramble than a walk, as we ducked through windows, shimmied along ledges and surmounted hills of stone. Entire galleries had collapsed, the libraries were nearly unrecognizable and half the site lay hidden amongst the undergrowth. No wonder the archeologists had left it alone - most of what was left resembled a giant three-dimensional puzzle with 500-pound pieces. This was the Indiana Jones experience I'd been looking for, and I had a blast peering around corners and scoping out unique formations.

    Another hour's drive through dry rice paddies and we arrived at our second site, the red sandstone temple of Banteay Srei. The small 1000-year-old temple was re-discovered in 1914 and has since been reconstructed and protected from water damage by an elaborate irrigation system. The smaller dimensions, the extensive and wonderfully preserved carvings and the pink-hued stone evoked an intimate appeal unlike any of the other temples. The completeness of the temple aided the attraction, making it easier to imagine the complex as it must have appeared 1000 years ago.

    After lunch we toured our final temple, Banteay Samre. Nearly complete after a 1930s reconstruction, this relatively small complex featured intricate carvings and an extensive interior moat upon which the libraries and sanctuary "floated" (had the moat been filled). Unfortunately, it was a steamy afternoon, and with the sun beating down on us we made a quick loop through the temple and headed back to the bus.

    Our last stop of the day was a small village on the way back to town where we stopped for souvenirs. I purchased a few palm-frond origami animals from an adorable young girl and then proceeded to take some photos as the others finished their shopping. Rupa and I also handed out all of our empty water bottles (which could be redeemed for a few cents each) as well as extra toothbrushes, shampoos and combs to the grateful children.

    For dinner Rupa and I joined Marty, Cathy, David and Carol for the set menu at the lovely restaurant next door to our hotel. The food was delicious, but I had foolishly failed to apply insect repellent and I came away with at least 20 small bites that would itch for days to come.

    Day Inn Angkor & Resort, Siem Reap

  28. Siem Reap to Vientiane, Laos - march 16

    We flew back to Phnom Penh this morning and then on to Vientiane. As we touched down we noticed a thick haze covering the city, likely from slash and burn cultivation. We transferred to our hotel, and after a brief rest left to find some dinner. We tried walking but the hotel was on the edge of town and the streets were torn up and dark, so we hired a colorful TukTuk to take us into town. Sadly, there wasn't much going on, particularly for a Friday night, and we settled for a light dinner at a small café.

    Novotel Vientiane, Vientiane

  29. Vientiane - march 17

    We found out at breakfast this morning that avian flu was responsible for two recent deaths in town so the city had banned all chicken, duck and egg products for the next two weeks. The hotel still managed a nice breakfast, though, including fabulous pastries - one advantage of being a former French colony.

    We spent most of the day touring Vientiane's more interesting sites. First up was Haw Phra Kaew, a 16th century temple that for 200 years housed the sacred Emerald Buddha statue currently enshrined in Bangkok. Restored in the mid-twentieth century the temple now served as a small museum of Buddha statues as well as a large stone jar. Just across the street we visited Wat Si Sisaket, a Thai-inspired temple built in the early 1800s. Although the sanctuary's interior frescos were badly damaged the encircling cloister was stuffed with an impressive 10,000 Buddha statues, including 120 large bronze statues that date from the founding of the wat.

    Our final stop of the morning was the National Museum, which showcased the history of Laos from ancient times all the way through the Vietnam War (known in Laos as the Secret War). The museum was well laid out and quite thorough and we left knowing more about Laotian culture than we ever thought we would.

    We skipped lunch and rested up at the hotel before continuing our tour under the glare of a blazing sun. We started with the small but pretty 500-year-old Wat Simuang, but a private induction ceremony kept us from visiting the main sanctuary. Next up was That Luang, the country's most important religious site. Set atop the highest hill in town, the 150-foot-tall golden spire of the current stupa (reconstructed in the 1930s) rests atop numerous older incarnations dating back to at least the 12th century. Our final stop was Victory Monument, a tall but thoroughly uninteresting concrete arch built in the 1960s to commemorate Laotian independence.

    With our touring finished for the day we settled into a café and checked email before heading over to the waterfront to enjoy sunset along the Mekong River. Unfortunately, this being the end of the dry season the sandy river bed was exposed and the river itself was barely visible along the Thai border a half-mile away. Along the riverfront dozens of indistinguishable open-air restaurants offered us cheap eats, but in stark contrast to Vietnam and Cambodia, which were teaming with local activity, only a handful of people wandered the riverfront and most of those were tourists. Regardless, we sat down and enjoyed a cold local beer as the sun set behind the haze. We then hastened off to dine at an elegant but generally stale French restaurant where we finished off the night with a fabulous profiterole.

    Novotel Vientiane, Vientiane

  30. Luang Prabang - march 18

    This morning we left boring Vientiane behind for the scenic and adorable Luang Prabang, an ancient capital city now home to a mere 26,000 Lao. We checked into our hotel and took a stroll around the small town, which was clearly set up for the backpacker community. Dozens of guest houses lined the narrow streets and alleyways while boutique handicraft shops, restaurants, internet cafés and tour operators filled the main drag.

    We met up with our guide for an afternoon hike up Mount Phousi, a 300-foot-tall peak in the middle of town. A number of small wats and statues cascaded up the mount, which was topped by an 80-foot tall gold-colored chedi. The view from the top would have been amazing during clear weather, but the same dense haze that afflicted Vientiane covered Luang Prabang as well.

    We ended up back in town around six to find that a night market had magically appeared along the main road. Hundreds of women had set up shop by dropping a blanket and a wooden lamp on the pavement and then spreading out their wares. Embroidered slippers, purses and pouches accompanied woven silks, scarves and clothes along a quarter-mile stretch of road. A number of food stalls had also been set up, including a couple of small "buffets". We skipped the stalls and instead found a restaurant offering authentic Lao cuisine, which was little more than a blend of southern Chinese and Thai recipes.

    After dinner we checked email and wandered through some of the cuter shops in town before grabbing a crepe for desert and wandering back to the hotel. En route we passed the night market, which was dwindling to a close as the ladies packed up and headed home to beat the city's ten o'clock curfew.

    Sala Prabang, Luang Prabang

  31. Luang Prabang - march 19

    We ate breakfast at the hotel's waterfront restaurant and then began our touring at the Grand Palace, which served as the residence of the king from 1904 until the communists took control in 1975. Built as a blend of Thai and French Beaux Arts, the building was more refined and understated that its counterparts elsewhere in SE Asia. We toured the king's and queen's receiving rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms, as well as the large golden-hued throne room and it's thousands of glass figurines implanted in the wall and arranged in story-telling form. The palace also housed the Great Buddha - a 120 pound gold/silver/bronze alloy statue that, according to legend, was cast in Sri Lanka 2000 years ago, found its way into the hand of the Khmer empire, and was gifted to the king of Laos in 1359.

    Next we boarded a private boat for a two hour ride upriver to the Pak Ou "Buddha" caves. Along the way we passed local men, women and children out "fishing" for seaweed - scraping it off the riverbed with their feet and pulling it out of the water. Later, once it dried, they would add sesame and tomatoes and sell it in the market. There were also a number of real fishermen along the waterfront working with large nets marked by a string of floating "bouys".

    Arriving at the caves we toured both the upper and lower caves. The lower cave was shallow but filled with hundreds of Buddha status of all shapes and sizes. The upper cave was deeper and darker but not as jam-packed, while at the back a small bin was filled with dozens of broken and unrepairable figurines. The caves are still featured in a yearly procession from Luang Prabang and many Buddhists travel here to pray for good luck.

    Back in town we spent some time at Wat Xieng Thong, a beautiful 400-year-old temple that has somehow managed to survive numerous sackings. The restored temple wasn't large but featured lovely gold patterns and artwork painted atop black and red walls throughout the interior as well as glass figurines embedded on the exterior walls, much like the Grand Palace's throne room.

    By now it was five o'clock and we headed off to cooking class at the luxurious Le Residence Phou Vao Hotel. We were the only two in class, which was held poolside and conducted by one of the kitchen's sous chefs. A waiter helped to translate the instructions while we made spring rolls, red curry and chili shrimp. The lesson was less interactive than our previous classes, but at least this time we were allowed to eat the actual dishes we had prepared. We dined at a nearby table overlooking the pool, and as the sun set the hotel staff lit hundreds of candles throughout the grounds and switched on hundreds of paper lanterns nested among the tall trees overhanging the resort. We finished off with some ice cream - bananas foster and sweet tamarind - before heading back to our room and straight into bed.

    Sala Prabang, Luang Prabang

  32. Luang Prabang - march 20

    We awoke early this morning to watch a procession of 200 saffron-robed monks walk a short loop through town to collect alms (bread, rice, etc) from villagers. Actually, they weren't so much collecting from villagers but rather from tourists who moments earlier had purchased alms from on-site vendors. The entire scene took less than ten minutes to unfold, after which we had breakfast and grabbed a short nap before meeting our guide at nine.

    After a month of temple-touring we were ready for something different, so today our guide led us out to the scenic Kuang Si Falls. On the drive out we stopped to walk around a Black H'mong village, but it was little more than a tourist trap handicraft market. We did manage to meet some cute kids though, each with their own little table of cloth bracelets for sale. As we knelt down to pick out a bracelet a young boy came by proudly dragging his half-dead "pet" frog around by a string tied to its leg.

    On our hike up to the falls we passed the Bear Rescue Center where a dozen or so orphaned cubs frolicked and napped the afternoon away and a lone tiger paced about his private cage. A few hundreds yards ahead we encountered the first in a series of turquoise pools nestled below the forest canopy. Small waterfalls cascaded into each pool, a few of which were open for swimming. We continued up to the main falls where a stream of water cascaded down a 100 foot drop. We scrambled up a steep and slippery path to the top only to find a flooded forest floor that prevented us from reaching the best views.

    Hiking back to the car we stopped for a swim in one of the shallow pools. Just as we were drying off the temperature dropped, a brisk wind rolled in and a light shower began to fall. A thunderstorm echoed through the valley, and on the drive into town the mid-afternoon sky faded to a deep yellow and then black as the thick clouds blotted out the sun. We waited out the storm at the hotel and then spent the evening browsing handicraft shops and the night market.

    Sala Prabang, Luang Prabang

  33. Luang Prabang to Hong Kong - march 21

    I woke up with a sore throat and exhaustion this morning so I spent the morning napping while Rupa packed up and read. We spent the rest of the day transferring to Hong Kong. Our flights went off without a hitch, though it was entertaining to watch the gate agent in Luang Prabang fill out boarding passes and baggage tags by hand. Upon arrival we caught the express train into town and then boarded a shuttle bus to our hotel. It was eleven pm and with the streets nearly empty the bus driver whipped through town, accelerating and cornering as if driving a 30-foot go-cart. We arrived safe, though, and checked into our swanky waterfront hotel.

    Harbor Plaza, Hong Kong

  34. Hong Kong - march 22

    A windy, rainy and overcast sky greeted us this morning, and since I was still fending off yesterday's cold we spent the morning in the hotel. We finally made it out around two and spent an hour wandering the shop-laden streets of Kowloon before catching a 25-cent Star Ferry for the eight minute cruise to Hong Kong Island. We wandered around for a few more hours, during which we gazed up at IM Pei's Bank of China Tower, caught a skinny double-decker trolley to Market Square, followed a suggested walking tour down the narrow, sloping streets of old Hong Kong, and finally ascended the world's longest escalator system (1/2 mile long) as it crossed neighborhood streets lined with bars and restaurants.

    For dinner we found the large and popular Yung Kee Restaurant where we hesitantly tasted the thousand-year eggs and feasted on their justifiably famous roasted goose. This being our only evening in town we decided to check out the Temple Street Night Market back in Kowloon. A short metro ride later we found ourselves on the seedy fringe of the market where decrepit stalls were filled with sex toys, porno flicks and chincy tourist crap. We persisted though and eventually found the heart of the market with it proper stalls and everyday household goods offered for drastically discounted prices - DVDs in slip-case packaging started at $3.

    We worked our way back to the waterfront, stopping for McDonalds pies along the way, and caught the shuttle bus back to our hotel. It was eleven pm and we were ready to plop into bed, having spent most of the afternoon and evening on our feet. Instead, we spent 30 minutes camped out on the hallway floor while three levels of management worked to open our room after the card key reader battery died.

    Harbor Plaza, Hong Kong

  35. Hong Kong to Guam - march 23

    We awoke to another hazy, overcast morning. Exhausted from yesterdays walking and with me still fighting off a cold we lounged around the hotel again until one o'clock, at which time we caught a Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island and rode the cable-pulled tram up the 45-degree incline to Victoria Peak for 1300-foot view of the city. Even through the haze the view into Hong Kong's central district and out across the harbor was fabulous. With some time to kill we took a pleasant one hour walk around the forested peak and grabbed an early dinner.

    As it turned out we killed too much time and had to rush back to the hotel - down the peak tram, on foot through the central district and across to Kowloon on a Star Ferry - arriving in what must have been record time to catch the airport shuttle and express train. Our flight to Guam was a short four hours, but we lost time by flying east and spent a short night sleeping on the plane.

    Continental Airlines flight #910

Souvenir List

  1. Vietnam: Hand embroidered Red Dao bum cloth
  2. Vietnam: Two small and one large hand embroidered wall hangings
  3. Vietnam: Silk tie
  4. Vietnam: Magnet
  5. Vietnam: Chopsticks and chopstick rests
  6. Vietnam: Asian spoons
  7. Vietnam: Small soy sauce bowls
  8. Vietnam: Two vintage Air France advertising posters
  9. Vietnam: Vietnamese kitchen grater
  10. Cambodia: Stuffed-elephant mobile
  11. Cambodia: Turquoise broach
  12. Cambodia: Five palm leaf origami (fish and birds)
  13. Cambodia: Palm sugar cubes
  14. Cambodia: Magnet
  15. Laos: Woven silk shirt
  16. Laos: Two tiny woven silk chicken dolls
  17. Laos: Woven silk wall hanging
  18. Laos: Two hand embroidered baby books
  19. Laos: Stuffed elephant
  20. Laos: Traditional Lao infant shirt
  21. Hong Kong: Magnet