Road to Kampot

Road to Kampot

Siem Reap was a slow burn. Anderson was sick and the extreme temperatures along with Sabine’s open wound made it very hard to do anything for two days. Finally we made it out of the hotel for a late afternoon tour and some food. Siem Reap is busy, extremely touristy – it seems that it’s entire reason for existence is Angkor Wat and the thousands and upon thousands of people that traipse through. Our place was off the track – through the most “authentic” market I have seen. I bracket authentic because really how am I to know except that there were no tourists there and nothing to buy except raw meat, vegetables and fruit all buzzing with flies. It was a narrow passageway that was rammed with motorcycles, scooters and tuk tuks all but on top of the stalls. There was no room to move freely. And the smell was intense. I had read the the reviews of our place and all had mentioned having to go through a market but I thought how bad can it be we have been to a lot of markets! I quickly realized this was different. It was fine, we made it through daily, holding our breath and trying not to see the giant rats scurrying underfoot and sometimes overtop of the stalls. I didn’t even want to think about where the food we had been eating at the hotel a mere 50 feet away was coming from.

Morning at the pool

Poolside

We started the next day with a 4:30am pickup. I chose a tour company from Air BnB excursions – mainly because they were small, had an air conditioned van, water, cool towels and had excellent reviews. Reviews that specifically mentioned how the tour took a slightly different route than other big tour buses. Surprisingly the kids were in good spirits. We parked on the east side and walked up a long pathway flanked by trees and jungle it was dawn light pale and slightly misty. The temple emerged from the jungle. Honestly it might be impossible to describe. It is totally awe inspiring. Angkor Wat is a huge temple that is surrounded by a moat. It is essentially a microcosm of the Hindu universe, mystical and moving. The carvings, etchings and reliefs tell the story of creation as well as depicting other teachings. Unfortunately the kids were not awestruck which is something that we had sort of guessed would happen. I held out hope but it just wasn’t to be – this was keeping in line with many other parents descriptions of kids at Angkor Wat. It was just too hot, the distances to walk were too long and the stairs were too steep. On top of this we got separated – Chris with Anderson and myself with Sabine and none of us with our group. When that minor fiasco was cleared it left Chris in a frustrated mood that was exacerbated by the tour taking the EXACT same route as all the giant Chinese tour buses. There is no love lost between the Cambodians and Chinese. This we heard frequently from Cambodians – always big loud groups. Directing us to stay away from places that are over run with Chinese. It’s never nice to be confronted with blatant racism. I think it’s more of a volume issue – the tour busses are full so of course that many people are loud. We got a little taste of the sheer volume. This sardine like atmosphere combined with the extreme heat and total assholery of the kids set off Chris further because he had specifically not wanted to follow the tour. This is also combined with his desire to stay off the beaten path – which I felt was nearly impossible if not totally impossible at a world renown historical site….. anyway it was one for the books – the highs of seeing these beautiful and impossible to fully take in temples coupled with my intense annoyance with my family. We honestly didn’t even debrief through the experience for a few days. We just got home – hit the the pool and lay in air conditioning until going to the circus in the evening.

Angkor Wat cropping out people to get the shot

Crowds waiting to take the iconic shot

People enjoying what I came to enjoy how dare they

Sure he looks happy ….. also I need a hair dye

At the edge of the pool

Hating it at Angkor Wat

Looks peaceful – it is so stunning in real life

Most of the iconic stairways were blocked off for repair

One of the pools

Nothing like some monks strolling around Angkor Wat

Lotus flowers and lily pads

This guy just watching and waiting

Story of war fought

The temple of faces

I would put this face on a temple

A little more carrying Sabine

Trying to learn in the heat

Altar detail

The circus was amazing – no animals it was more of a cirque de Soleil style. What I have seen in Cambodia is a very strong drive to foster the arts and to provide places to learn and grow as artists. The country is still actively healing and growing after war. We were asked frequently if we had been to the Killing Fields or the museum – I always felt the need to explain that we chose not to take the kids – we want to focus on the positive and peace building side. People nod in agreement but I felt like part of the healing for them is having that horror seen and exposed. To better understand Cambodia and the strength of the people. We did stop at Apopo – a nonprofit humanitarian de mining agency that trains and uses giant rats to sniff out land mines. The was a big stop on our “peace” tour and even though the rats were cool – it was so hot the kids were more cranky than enlightened. This circus was similar to the dance show we saw in Siem Reap in that it was funded and supported for working with disadvantaged youth and providing a place to foster and grow talent as well as keep some art forms alive. The performers were incredible and it was a great night for all of us.

The street outside our hotel

Hero Rat!

We worked through some of our temple trauma to manage two more trips back to the temples. An evening drive past rice paddies and lotus fields with perfect rows of thatched roofs, restaurants with hammocks adjacent to every table led us to Banteay Srei. Temples atop a small mountain or really more of a large hill. We hiked up carrying some street food snacks that our wonderful driver had helped us procure. Rambutan, mango salad and bbq chicken. The best part was seeing the countryside stretch out from the base of the “mountain”. Patchwork of rice paddies with huge fires burning – at the end of the dry season the farmers burn their land to fertilize the soil and prepare for planting. Unfortunately we didn’t get a crazy sunset because is was overcast and a little smokey from the fires. The temples at the top were crumbling and closed off to the public but we could hear them teeming with bats. Just about a minute after the sun dipped below the horizon the bats winged out en masse through the dusk air. Anderson spotted the huge wave of them cutting through the sky and exclaimed loudly enough to gather people nearby to watch the excitement.

On the road in Siem Reap

Mystery fruit – maybe rambutan maybe lakum

Thatched roofs spanning a field

So so hot

Over it

He has literally carried her across SE Asia – deserves a giant medal

Can’t go wrong with mango salad

Looking for the sunset

Snakes

Detail of altar

In case you are wondering what Sabine wants for her birthday

The following morning we did an other 5am rise but this time we had our now trusted driver Leung to take us to a few temples not as popular as Angkor Wat. This was so much better. Despite my misgivings Chris was totally right – we were able to get off the beaten path. We walked about 60 meters up to a temple undergoing some repairs but with an incredible view down to Angkor Wat and only about five other people there. As opposed to our other morning of hundred and hundreds. Then we drove through the complex of temples past Elephant terrace and across the bridge lined with giant statues depicting the tug of war creation story. We got to Ta Prohm before it officially opened at 7:30. Anderson had zero desire to see an other pile of rocks and statues exactly the same as every other temple so we left him with Leung and the tuk tuk and walked around the wall surrounding the temple – we could glimpse inside and see the cleaners along with their children sweeping and picking up garbage. We came all the way around to the back where there was an other entry way – an archway with a tree growing over it. We started through hoping that once we got closer to the front it would be 7:30 and okay for us to be inside. Just through the arch we met a woman and a small child and it turned out she was a vendor – she was with her grandson and heading to her booth – she had been a vendor there for twenty years. She paid $20 USD a month for her stall but was having troubles since they had allowed new vendors to open just inside the archway. She said the Chinese tourists didn’t travel past the other vendors to see the archway. She complained that they were loud and rude. We bought some water from her and headed in. This was my favourite temple. It was like a hallway of mirrors with yoni and linga alters in building all perfectly aligned so you could look down this straight line. There were no other people there so we were able to feel that feeling of being the first explorer – to image the life that flowed through there hundreds of years previously and the hands of the builders and artists putting it together piece by piece. By 9 we were drinking fruit shakes and on our way home to relax in the air conditioning. We had a final night checking out the night market – by now we are a little saturated with the night markets and this one was the classic tourist trap lined with beer parlours, American foods and cheap trinkets. No real food stalls once inside – sort of like Bourbon Street at West Edmonton Mall.

Temporary steps

For $25 you can go up in a ballon to see Angkor Wat in the morning

Buddha

View down to Angkor Wat

Crane – they are repairing all over Angkor Wat

I guess this guy gets cold at night

Rare eyes open shot

Leung has to get up really early to get us at 5am

Sleepy gal

The cleaners and children inside the temple before opening

The gate and wall

Tree over the back entrance

Grandson of the vendor

Vendor helping Sabine

Her face right before she asks for a crappy plastic trinket knowing we will say no

Peaking at sleeping baby of the cleaners

One altar along the hallway of altars

The trees

Warm morning light

We struck out for Kampot the next day. Hiring a taxi for the day as the morning bus was sold out and the night bus had some sketchy reviews. Our driver, Piet, was a friendly man and an aggressive driver. The roads operate on a totally counter intuitive set of rules with the onus on the guy behind to make certain they don’t hit the person in front cutting them off. It feels lawless and scary. Everyone merges by just driving in – no checking to see if someone else is there or moving along faster than you – just drive on into the road and who ever you cut off better be ready. Giant trucks barrel along beside scooters and bicycles. Swerving around tuk tuks. Scooters and motos turn into oncoming traffic and then swerve over to the other side of the road and it is the drivers that they are cutting off responsibility to not hit them. It’s crazy. Chris was asking about accidents – if the roads really are as dangerous as they seem to us. Piet said that he drives his kids to school and will not let them ride their bikes. Not more than half an hour later an accident happens right in front of us. I cover the kids eyes as Chris says, “Don’t look!” I see a truck bearing down on us as it travels diagonally across from the wrong side of the road. There seem to be two forms lying on the road not moving. I closed my eyes and we went past. I opened my eyes to streams of people running toward the scene. Chris assured me it was one person on the road not two. Although he had said – in the moment – “that is someone’s child” he also assured me it was an adult. Piet explained that if the driver of the truck had remained at the scene he most likely would have been beaten by the crowd that was gathering. Horrific. We just carried on. The kids asked no questions and seemed oblivious to the fact that I had slammed my open palms over their eyes while gasping. We carried on in silence. After sometime Piet said, “that is why I don’t let my children on the road.” We just carried on.

Flat earth, terracotta dust outlineing every rib on emaciated white cows. The black soil and tufts of dry grass circling farmers plots. The landscape dotted with lollipop palms.

Road snack of sticky rice and beans cooked in bamboo

Public transportation

One of the things about being in a foreign country is the language barrier that is often also compounded by customary behaviour. This came to full light on the drive from Siem Reap to Kampot. I listened to Chris booking the taxi – which took no less than two hours – don’t even get me started on his methodology of question asking and digging and digging – I hate when it’s directed at me – it makes me incredibly uncomfortable when it’s directed at service people and yet – when he books things they generally go smoothly. While my bookings tend to end in some form of frustration like the first morning temple trip. I keep taking people at face value when they say yes they understand and will do what I am requesting. Chris doubles down on the questions. This time he had been assured that we were getting picked up in an air conditioned taxi to take us to Phnom Pehn – it was to stop on the highway outside of the city and there we were getting a second taxi to take us to Kampot. We were picked up at our hotel and then ten minutes later we pulled over and were transferred to an other taxi. So the questions started and the answer was always, “Yes, yes.” As it turned out – no, no – we ended up being driven into the city of Phnom Penh and then changed taxis in the city adding an hour to the drive. Sigh. But at least I know that I’m not crazy – I ask the questions once and accept the answer. It doesn’t matter how many times you ask the question the answer will be yes but the truth is frequently something else.

The final three hours of the drive to Kampot was a little harrowing. The gravel road was under construction and the taxi would just veer into oncoming traffic or veer off onto the “shoulder” which was perilously close to a ditch. There were trucks filled with people standing in the flatbed – I’m talking at least six maybe even seven of these “public transportation” trucks also veering around tuk tuks and motorcycles. There were also – completely unmarked and unlit piles of gravel like speed bumps that the driver would have to slam on the brakes and slow down for. Plus it was now dark. So we white knuckled it until finally arriving at our hotel.

Balcony view

Poolside

Circus training

Pool with lollipop palm trees

Dripping with mangoes

First morning in Kampot

Villa Verdici. Our room was far from the main building but a good size and modern and clean. When we woke up the next morning we realized what a gem we had hit upon. A breathtaking view over the river onto the national park. The pool is ringed with terraced rooms, a pool and ping pong table and a lounge with couch and tv. The guys went kiting and Sabine and I headed into Kampot to get Anderson a birthday present. Kampot, the city, is small and Sabine and I stayed on the main drag so it ewas mostly restaurants and tourist shops. Each open aired restaurant had at least one if not two retirement aged men – usually fairly unkempt, sipping beer – 0.50 cents a glass – no other customers. I imagine it’s the Thailand of 30 years ago or Mexico where you can live out your golden years cheaply, warmly and treated like a king. We managed to find some good gifts and snacks. We returned that night for dinner and were treated to a magnificent dinner from a South African chef. Pork belly, coq au vin, pate, sea bass, a meal that would have cost at least $30 a plate in Toronto for $9 dollars. As it turns out there are many great restaurants here – chefs from all over hanging there hats at little twenty or thirty seat spots open to the street. Then it was Anderson’s birthday – he so wanted his traditional birthday morning which is chocolate covered strawberries a giant ballon and one birthday gift. Strawberries were not to be found neither were balloons so he started the day playing hot and cold for a present – a Toblerone bar – then having Nutella pancakes and heading out to kite. Sabine and I shared a tuk tuk with a fellow Canadian from Moncton to La Plantation a pepper farm an hour away. Of course I didn’t realize that it was an hour away when we started but there you have it. Parenting my way – blindly jumping in and not asking any questions. Luckily I had a roll of Oreos in my purse and the farm had food. It was a beautiful and incredibly bumpy ride through farm land and past a secret lake and a little way up a mountain to the farm. The rainy season has started and just like that the temperatures are dropping – the rain feels glorious. I love the moody grey skies that highlight the greens of the trees and jungle. The roads are terracotta dirt that seem to glow under stormy skies.

Dramatic skies on the way to the pepper farm

Secret lake

Pepper farm

Pineapple stalk

Picking peppers

Pepper growing in the shade of palm fronds

Kefir lime grown in the shade of palm frond teepees

Gal with a pebble in her shoe

La Plantation is owned by a husband and wife from France and Belgium. It is incredibly well run and employs over 100 people from the neighbouring rural villages. They grow pepper, pineapple, passion fruit, kefir limes and banana. We got to tour through and see the picking and processing as well as the packaging. Then we had a pepper tasting. I loved every minute of it. The pepper was so delicious and all the ways they processed it made it even more delicious. Some was fermented, some smoked, some mixed with other seasonings. The farm also sponsored a school in the area and awarded three scholarships a year to send students to private school.

Fresh apple juice

Walk after the rain

So many frog and toad noises here

My boy is ten!!!

How they do nachos in Kampot

Fisherman returning home

We returned along the bumpy road playing eye spy – sorry Matilde from Moncton! Chris and Anderson had not gone kiting because of the rain so we resumed the birthday celebrations with late lunch, movie and popcorn and then cake and an other gift. Anderson had decided that he wanted his other gifts the moment he turned ten which would be at 8:59 am the following day. The kid can delay gratification unlike any I have ever known. He seems happier. This place on the edge of the river with kiting and a safe, calm and rural vibe is perfect for him. He has even said, “Next time we go traveling….” that have me giant pause and – I’m not going to lie – a little shock. I feel a slight – no more a real trepidation thinking about an other year abroad. But that he spoke of it made everything seem better even just for a moment.

Good bye Vietnam

It’s my birthday and even though I can’t even manage the number on my life dial I feel really great. I always feel rejuvenated after meeting with my goal group women. Even if it’s just virtual. I was able to articulate what I am passionate about doing even though I don’t have a clear plan toward it. I realize this travel has impacted me and is changing me even though it feels like a treadmill of fights and recriminations. I want to lean into this time with my kids – it has felt so overwhelming day in and day out to keep them occupied and learning and happy. I feel like I have failed so much of the time and I don’t know what their take away will be. But it’s okay. We are together. I am so lucky to do this so I will enjoy it for all of us. I’m just going to break down our return into manageable bits. Three month increments. Until then I’m going to enjoy every free day. I’m going to let go of the frustrations. I’m going to go back to loving my kids unconditionally.

All lovely sentiments and very true at the time of writing – and – of course almost impossible to hold on to. I guess that is why mindfulness is such a big business because it is such a monumental task to stay present with our hearts open. My birthday was a travel day and one of the most stressful travel days we have had. It had all the tension of an action movie okay maybe more like a thriller – no one jumped in front of any trains and Tom Cruise didn’t make an appearance. We arrived at the airport with plenty of time only to discover that we needed to have $2000.00 in USD cash to enter into Cambodia because we didn’t have a return ticket. They would not accept bank statements. So either withdraw Vietnamese dong and then convert them into USD at the airport or buy some bus tickets out of Cambodia. Obviously the bus tickets are better – even if we don’t use them they won’t be as much as we would lose on converting money. The only hitch is that my cell phone has no more time left in it and once connected to the wifi won’t let me use google because it’s unsecured – when Chris figures out how to get around that the connection slows down and we can’t see any of the train options. There is no where to physically buy tickets at the airport and we don’t have time to go to the train depot. We do have one top up for the phone so we head outdoors to get the best connection and Chris proceeds to book train tickets or at least attempt to. Finally when he has loaded all four passports, birthdays and full names and addresses into the tiny phone he gets to the payment page and after putting all that information in the phone times out!!!! We have exactly 20 minutes to present ourselves and the tickets at the check in or we don’t fly. He reloads the phone and manages to get the tickets with about 11 minutes to spare. We race back to the desk and get ourselves checked in. Our boarding passes read that the plane is currently boarding even though we aren’t supposed to leave for an hour we are processing this when we come to the customs line that is comically long. The kind of long line that terrifies me when I know I have to stand in it just by myself – my body likes to get all low blood pressurery when I know I have to stand under fluorescent lights for any length of time. The kind of line I dread more with the kids and the heat and finally the kind of line that is a serious time restraint on making the flight. Miracle of miracles the kids are relatively good – maybe they feel and smell the fear sweat dripping down our backs and puddling in our underwear. Drips beside our noses to slowly roll around our mouths over our chins and down our necks. Chris, as usual, is super calm. Maybe a little quicker to snap. We make it through customs to find – if possible – an even longer line snaking around toward security. Sabine chooses this time to point out all the different people – wondering aloud with her little finger poker straight toward each person, “Is he from Africa?” Or a more definitive and happy exclamation “He is from India!” We are doing all the “Pointing is rude” “People are from everywhere” luckily one of the pointees in question laughs and we are able to strike up a conversation. The clock is seriously ticking and the sweat is seriously rolling. Then miracle of miracles we are plucked from the line and ushered through security until we are stopped or rather Anderson is stopped and his bag double searched….. WHY! Then we sprint to the gate and end up waiting. It’s a fast 45 minute flight on a super lux huge plane – that ends with the hardest landing I have ever felt on an airplane – there were actual gasps and not just coming from me. Then we need to get our Visa’s but my bank card and Visa card will not allow me to take any money out. Chris has lost his bank card and we are waiting for a replacement. Luckily he manages to get money out with his visa. Finally our Visa’s are bought and we make it through customs. The arrivals lounge is outside under a huge metal canopy with a fountain in the middle and the usual smattering of people holding signs, kiosks for SIM cards, coffee spots and a million go getters offering taxi and tuk tuk rides. It’s raining and hot. Finally I manage to get money from an ATM finally we buy our SIM cards and get a taxi to our little hotel in the middle of Phnom Penh. The hotel is nice – nothing fancy but clean and with a good pool. It’s surrounded by busy streets and taller buildings. We are informed that the power goes out between 6am and noon on even days of the month and noon and 6pm on odd days of the month. This is happening all over Cambodia as they build their own infrastructure for electricity. They have been buying electricity from Vietnam. We find a restaurant that looks yummy and is right around the corner from the hotel – so I can have a birthday dinner. Anderson doesn’t want to come because he will miss out Sunday FaceTime with his friends. Not going to lie – that hurt my feelings. After this travel day I’m loosing my YEAY I am older but wiser and going to have a great year and am thankful for all that I have in my life feelings. When Anderson chooses his friends over me – which I do totally understand – I get that distinct what’s the point feeling. Luckily it’s a great restaurant and we have a delicious meal and even a FaceTime with Paul and Nisha holding their new nephew Dion. So more family AND a ridiculously adorable new baby. When we return Anderson is suitably sorry.

Travel day

Rainy arrival to Phnom Penh

Birthday curry

Fish Amok

View from Breakfast at the hotel in Phnom Penh

  • The first day we book a walking tour/ tuk tuk tour – we end up having to tuk tuk it because the heat is too much for the kids. Then halfway through the market Anderson turns white as a ghost and is too sick to continue. He and Chris hang back as Sabine and I climb endless stairs up to the main temple at the centre of Phnom Penh. It’s a very active temple so we get to see everyone praying and our amazing guide even teaches us how to pray and greet people in the Buddhist way. He points out that since I am his elder he would have his hands together over his mouth whereas I could keep my hands together under my chin. It always surprises/annoys me when I realize that I am in fact older and people can in fact tell. I hate him for a few minutes. Then we wander around the temple and down the backside to see the giant clock in the hill and snap some tourist shots. We get back to Chris and Anderson and discover that Anderson is worse and they are returning to the hotel. So Sabine and I carry on to the Royal palace. By this point in the travels she is not excited about Royal Palaces because she knows that they contain zero Princesses. But she gamely joins. By gamely I mean she gamely eats the Oreos I bribe her with every half hour or so to keep her going. The Royal Palace is spectacular – well the grounds are – we only get to see one building and it’s where the King entertains other big wigs and royals. It’s entirely gold and is most likely the inspiration for Trumps golden penthouse. It’s all French courtier style Louis XIIII – ornate chairs with intricate gold brocade and inlay and gleaming golden surfaces. Chandeliers dripping with twinkling crystals. There are many doors – each for different people – one specifically for the king and one only used during war. Our guide is very knowledgeable and easy to understand – Sabine could care less and just wants to touch absolutely everything all the while squealing with delight when she spots any monks. We then visit the silver pagoda and the costume hall and are spit out onto the street at precisely 5:01. Then we go for an authentic Cambodian snack. A version of my favourite Vietnamese rice pancakes and a bowl of fried things – chicken feet, meatballs, embryo eggs, and a fiery papaya salad. I avoid the fried bowl – taking an innocent looking meatball and nursing it for as long as possible. Neither Sabine nor I are able to drink the sugar cane juice no matter how much ice is in there.
Some kind of sea snail

Toothy

These guys look mean

Beauty

Heading into the market the building was built in the 30’s

Walking up to the central wat

Guide photo with all the feet and a crane

Beanzie and I at the big clock

Bummed we can’t get a bird

Offerings for the temple

At the Royal Palace

Painting on the wall – three blocks long and took sixteen painters a year to finish

Prep for a big celebration with the king the following day

Sutpa with flowers

The king used to get carried around town on this seat with poles going through the loops

Lunch

Bowl of fried bits

Coconut pancakes

Mother daughter tuk tuk

That night Anderson is feeling better so we go see a dance show. I’m a little hesitant because the water puppets weren’t a big hit and the Thai dance show ran a bit long to hold the kids interest. But this show is amazing. The performers are incredible, the costumes and Apsara dance is so beautiful. It’s evolved from Hindu ceremonies and dance and this company is taught by a former Prima Ballerina from The Apsara ballet who almost single handedly helped revive the art that was all but wiped out during the war in the 1970’s. This company was founded by a man who’s intention is to put musical instruments in children’s hands instead of the guns that were put in his hands. They have evolved over the last 20 years to reinvigorate and revive art forms lost during the war and starvation period that followed. They mentor writers, teach poetry, art, dance and music. It was a beautiful show that enthralled Sabine and kept Anderson laughing. A great night.

The next morning we were up bright and early for a cycling tour of the villages surrounding Phnom Penh. We decided to take the tour with Grasshopper the same company we used in Vietnam. This tour was not quite as polished – maybe reflecting how Cambodia is still more rough around the edges. Again the heat was insane! It felt like cycling through an oven with the breezes blowing dry and hot while we were drenched in sweat and humidity. Our stop at a cafe with a silk worm farm and weavers was beautiful but so so hot. No fans, the water bottles were barely cool and the expansive array of fruit was hot – well fine room temperature but actually hot. Annoyingly when we returned from the oppressive back room after watching silkworm wriggle around on some green leaves I discovered our tour guides drinking from giant take out cups – like freaking big gulps – filled with ice and some kind of juicy looking drink. Rude. We then hopped back on the bikes to meet some lemongrass farmers, tamarind farmers and cycle through a banana plantation, we crossed the river at three points and finally were greeted at a van with cold towels and cold water and driven to a lunch spot. Obviously my favourite part of any excursion is the eating part. It’s so much fun to sit down with regular folks and eat what everyone else eats. Although I’m sure we got the “tourist” version it was still pretty tasty! We were back at our hotel by 1:30 where we all passed out for an hour in air conditioning. I have to say being able to cool our core temperatures down is invaluable. Even more amazing than the heat are the clothes that normal Cambodians wear! Hoodies! Long pants! Sleeves! Socks! Unbelievable.

Lemongrass farmer 61

Lemongrass

Helmet heads

Guides need to be trained in how to take a picture so you can see faces and not feet

Our tour group

25 cents a kilo

Beautiful fruit break

Jack fruit

The gods and their animals

This bunny is probably not named fluffy

Serious chicken

Cow and colour

Ferry ride

Tamarind harvest

Simple lunch – soup and fiery chicken pieces

Learning to spin

Spinning silk

We only stayed in Phnom Penh for three nights – our hotel along with being centrally located was also crawling with giant cockroaches – they sprayed every morning and collected the upside down leg curled carcasses frequently. But we saw them and had to remove a few from the room. Just part and parcel of being right in the action. Phnom Penh is big and very smelly. More garbage than anywhere else we have been and the smells are intense as it seems garbage can just be left where ever there is already a bag. We saw rats and bugs on all the streets. Although not in the actual restaurants so Hoi An has Phnom Penh beat there. I was happy to get into the Giant Ibis bus that was heading to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat has been on list of must sees since we started planning this trip. I can not wait to get there. We actually booked a sunrise tour for the morning after our arrival. We have learned the key to keeping the kids happy and us learning is to have a good tour guide but to also have an air conditioned taxi and lots of cold water. We found a tour that has all of those things – plus great reviews and a schedule of temples opposite of other companies to hopefully ensure a less packed experience.

From the bus on the road to Siem Reap

Bus views

Cambodia is flat and almost desert like

The view from our balcony in Siem Reap

Morning swim

Poolside art

Nothing is better than clean folded laundry – that I didn’t do!!!

An hour into our five and a half hour bus journey – Anderson got sick again. This time he spiked a fever and horrible headache – he moaned and slept and moaned for the remainder of the trip. We arrived and his head was hurting so badly that he threw up. Luckily into a plastic bag. But it was one rocky rocky tuk tuk ride. On top of the fact that we discovered our tuk tuk was being held together with a little glue and some well wishes Sabine had had to pee so badly when we got off the bus that she had dribbled a little in her underwear and was now loudly announcing that was my fault. So between her high pitched complaints, Anderson’s moans and the time we had to stop the tuk tuk to retrieve our bags that had fallen off into the road after the side of the tuk tuk had given away on a particularly big bump, it was an anxious ride. And then totally out of the blue Sabine tried to pat Anderson to help him feel better but ended up actually poking him right in the eye. Not our best ride. Finally we made it to our little oasis just outside of the city centre. Sometimes it’s really worth it to book the bigger nicer room and prettier hotel just a little out of the way. This has worked for us here since we are now on day two of being trapped here with a sick kid and a bandaged kid. Sigh. Luckily we were able to rebook our sunrise tour of Angkor and tack on some days to our time here. Fingers crossed we can make an excursion out tonight. We have tickets to a “circus” show – an other company that works with youth to revitalize the arts.

Pool time

Salt flats and solar panels

The train was a full hour late finally depositing us at the Thap Chan station in Phan Rang at 1:30 in the morning. Luckily Vietnam Surf Camping has a taxi waiting for us. It’s always a little discombobulating to arrive at night. We emerged from the taxi into the humid night air to be greeted by Juli and her partner Tony. They welcomed us into an open air concrete bunker lit by the glow from a glass doored refrigerator. Then led us across the sand to our giant tent. The canvas tent is set up on pallets, there is a foot bath with petals floating in the water at the door and a large vase with flowers set up inside. It was spotless and oven hot. Like being inside an actual oven. Immediately the kids were moaning and lolling about on the therma rests on the floor. I had a paper fan so I just fanned away until they fell asleep. We woke up with the heat and glare of the sun stifling the air from around us. It was beautiful emerging onto the grass, dodging a few lizards and wandering over to the concrete room. In the light of day it was much nicer – soaring roof, white walls and bleached wood picnic tables adorned with small planters of succulents. The walls were cut out leaving views of the water and the beach along with the covered outdoor patio – just a corrugated roof with hammocks hanging between the poles, a couple more picnic tables and silk lanterns waving. It was sweet and rustic and perfect. Except for the heat. Our first day was fun – Anderson kitesurfed and skim boarded – I painted and Sabine played with Vietnam Surf Camping owner, Juli. Juli is of indeterminate age – heavily tattooed and very very skinny with long hair and long bubblegum pink nails. She loved Sabine and played with her for hours. She confessed to me that she had a 12 year old son who lived in France. He chose to go there when he was five and would return in the summers. Her eyes filled with tears as she recounted how hard it is to be so far away from him but that she had to let him live his dream. There wasn’t enough wind for Chris to kite so he skim-boarded with Anderson. It was kind of a perfect day. No screaming for screens, no fighting just relaxed and fun. Enjoying each other’s company. In fact the train ride had been the same. I quietly congratulated us – we are finally hitting our stride – it was exactly how I dreamed the trip would be. The heat was crazy – literally everyone else at the “resort/campground” was passed out in hammocks and or whatever sliver of shade they could find.

Ur omg up in the tent

Evening cool down

Eco friendly straws

Juli applying tattoos

Breakfast nook

No water or sand so COLOURS

Taking lessons

As one tends to do with camping we went to bed early and rose with the sun. Chris woke up sick. Fever and blinding headache. Now the heat was really debilitating and halfway through the day I decided to move us to a hotel down the road with air conditioning. There we found ourselves in a dessert oasis. The landscape in this part of Vietnam reminds me of Palm Springs and the Coachella valley. Dessert, rocky, cactus and hot. Sorrento Beach Resort was well watered with a huge lawn to lay kites out on. There were flowering cacti, trailing bougainvillea and more giant beetles and geckos than ever before. At night the sky swooped with huge bats. The couple who own and run it are Australian expats – kitesurf instructors and all around lovely people. We seemed to be almost the only guests. With a smattering of folks popping in for drinks and dinner. Chris was done completely out for three days. The wind died and with Sabine’s foot unable to get wet or sandy it was a pretty lonely few days. Once again plunged into Anderson’s boredom and loneliness. Safe to say I felt pretty silly for allowing myself to be so smug only a few days before.

Manufactured Oasis

Klassi art

Jew from the restaurant

Low tide

Sigh

Morning solo walk

Dragon fruit farm

Girl on a train

Chris is finally healthy or at least able to get up and walk around and with our Vietnam Visa expiring on April 28 we are back on the train – heading to Saigon/Ho Chi Min city. We will be staying with an old friend of Chris’s and his wife and baby. So far the train ride along the coast has been beautiful. The water brilliant blue and sparkling dotted with traditional blue and red fishing boats and big shipping vessels. Out the other side of the train window are huge sandy coloured boulders like in Joshua Tree National Park. Then fields of medusa topped dragon fruit trees, salt flats, rice paddies and solar farms. There is also fields of garbage – for a country consumed with their ancestors there seems to be little foresight or wondering how the piles of garbage will impact future generations. The sky is crystal and smog free and the light is intense. We have turned a little north and inland whipping through villages and towns peeking into peoples homes – darkened but open to the air and any little breeze generated by the train. The light shifts to warm peach and the fields spark with bright fires and black smoke. There are more motorcycles on the roads – people emerging from the shelter taken during the hottest part of the day.

I’m feeling a little nervous about staying with people – it has been so long that I feel like a hermit. How will I talk to anyone? I’m like a cave person. The last few days have been isolating to say the least. But I am excited to eat some real. Vietnamese food again – the Aussie resort was big on meat pies and soy sauce dowsed stirfries.

As we get closer to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh we mobilize the kids prepping them on big train stations and being aware and staying close to us. Both of our cell phone SIM cards have run out of coverage so if we get separated it won’t be a simple fix. We go over the plan. Then we gather everything and wait at the door of the train. Trains move quickly and if you miss your chance getting off you could get stuck on it. The train stops and we pile out. In our little formation we march forward and around the train yard, across the tracks through a wall of eight glass doors and security booths into …….. a small room lined with convenience shops, about 20 rows of stainless seating and that’s it. It’s not Grand Central or Union Station – it’s not even Spadina. Anderson is looking around for any action and eying us with a “is that all there is” look on his face and wondering why he ever listens to us. We get our phones figured out and grab a car to Steve’s. Blasting through the city, the streets chokes with scooters and people, karaoke bars, sidewalk restaurants and giant glittering malls. So many malls. We arrive at Steve’s – five high rise apartments with full retail on the main floors connected with walkways and underground tunnels. Once inside you don’t ever need to leave.

Last day in Hoi An

We are happily nestled into our “VIP” cabin for our train ride south to the beach side town of Phan Rang. We did have to evict a very small grandma with a very large rice bag into the next cabin before settling in. Now we are jostling and bumping along past the pastoral rice paddies, fields of burial grounds heavy with stone and marble tombs. Many topped with elaborate dragons, phoenixes and serpents. Our window is a little dirty but there are silk tulips in a vase and just a hint of air conditioning. The kids next door have stopped crying so hopefully the next eleven hours will fly past.

Our homestay – a little worn but we grew to love it

You can tell it’s for tourists because the chairs are regular size

More lanterns

I am sad to leave Hoi An’s incense and charcoal scented air. Chris really didn’t love the packed Ancient City teeming with tourists and knickknacks. The roads were perhaps even more insane than Hanoi, where people at least kept to their side of the street while turning. He lamented that it would have been so much better fifteen years ago. And while I agree with that sentiment it also makes me feel something – I don’t know – guilty? Annoyed? The city is how it is because hordes of us have descended on it and the majority of those hordes want easy tchotchke reminders of their time there – so the good people of Hoi An give them what they want. And then snooty people like us deem it “over” or saturated. I don’t love inching along crowded streets fending off hawkers of cheap Chinese goods either but I feel for the people who’s home we are marching through. I fell for the narrow alleyways, the gentle lanterns bobbing on the river boats and, let’s face it, the delicious pancakes. I also tried some truly delicious vegan and vegetarian foods that were modern takes on traditional Vietnamese dishes. Plus the coffee was incredible. I am a little bummed that Sabine got injured so we couldn’t spend time at the beach. But I did manage to take a fabulous cooking class on our last day – and I took it solo which was also amazing. So freeing to just listen and not worry about outbursts, enjoyment and feeding of the animals… I mean the kids.

Originally I signed up for a master class for chefs and unfortunately no one else signed up so I was shunted into the regular stream. After taking a few classes on this journey you get to know the pattern. Market walk or bike ride, cool drink, back to kitchen where everything is prepared and you just kind of easy bake your way through a bunch of dishes, eat what you made and you’re done. So I was a little jaded going in – even though my early morning walk to the class through the streets and alleys was beautiful. I arrived and as I expected there were about a hundred sweaty and pink tourists melting away waiting for the tour to start. We got broken down into smaller groups and off we went. An ear splitting diesel ride on a boat dropped us off at the market. This time our guide spoke great English and was handing out tastes of anything you wanted to try – silk worms?! No thanks but I tasted new fruits and some very different herbs. We watched noodles being made and tried slicing banana flowers. It was great. Then we hopped back onto the diesel boat to the kitchen. We were treated with fresh passion fruit juice (current obsession) and an ice cold towel. The ice cold towel is literally the greatest gift you can get after a sweaty market walk. Did I mention the humidity is around 60%? After a quick cool down we were given a tour of the restaurant – this place made me think of Ottolenghi in London. It’s a monster with beautiful displays and stations manned with cooks pumping out everything from street food to high end hors d’oeuvres, everything is hand made – there was a literal army of noodle makers and dumpling rollers. We got to sample everything – which was amazing. Then we headed upstairs to a modern clean air conditioned school room with our own individual stations – stocked and ready to go. Our instructor at the head of the room with a mirror positioned over her work space so we could see every move she made. As usual we moved very quickly through and the patter was a little stale but the food we made was delicious. I finally got to make the Banh xei rice pancakes that I had fallen in love with as well as some shrimp mousse wrapped in cabbage – way more yummy that you would imagine. When we were done we were given a Vietnamese mandolin was well as all the recipes. Plus we ate like kings. Not bad at all. I took advantage of my alone time by strolling through the ancient streets with fellow tourists stopping for an ice coffee and then picking up some sandals I had made for me. The only thing I missed was a pedicure but it was time to get Sabine to the hospital for her last dressing change. And to get ready for our trip south where we will be sleeping in tents on the beach….. or near the beach. But in tents. Tents that are on platforms. Tents tents tents.

Walking into the cooking school/restaurant

Peanuts roasting

Silk worms at the market

Sticky rice and sesame cakes

Oh my heart

Trotters

Women working hard

Noodles made with water from an island well and mixed with ash

Charring onions

Duck embryo

Bettle wrapped pork on rice noodle

Banh xei (the pancake) reimagined as an hors d’oeuvre

Hoi An Silk



How can you not love a city where silk pyjamas are worn all day and not by lecherous mansion dwellers who keep bunnies, but worn all day by regular folk. Old and young alike, although the demographic most likely to be wearing identical patterned tops and bottoms definitely skewers to Boomer. Hoi An is a city where beautiful lanterns bob in every tree and sway gently across narrow alleyways. Bougainvillea pour over painted cement walls and doorways are always open. Narrow wooden doors carved with gracious swirls reveal shiny ceramic floors, family alters, blinking TVs and at least one or two people bustling or lounging. There are no curtains drawn and no worries about cleaning up for the house cleaner either just real life in small piles. 

The day after the full moon everyone eats vegetarian

Walking the ancient city


Sabine has been house bound since the accident. We waited a day and then took her to the hospital to fully ascertain that there was nothing broken. She screamed bloody murder anytime we came close to her foot and was refusing to walk – although she generally refuses to walk so that isn’t necessarily a clear indication of serious injury. She also screamed bloody murder as Chris carried her into the hospital and all the while getting her bandage changed. To be fair it really didn’t look good – and I was the one who had cleaned it after the accident. I thought I had done such a thorough job – soaking it and rinsing it and slathering it with polysporin. I am no Florence Nightingale. I was fully tsked tsked by all three nurses and the doctor checking her out. The cleaning involved a lot of iodine which seemed a little archaic but I guess that’s still how it’s done. She was given a course of antibiotics, anti inflammatory medicine and we were off with instructions to come back daily to have her bandage changed.  

Dressing change time

Laying low with LEGO


We have decided to embrace the house boundedness of our current situation – taking turns to go out and do things. Anderson and I took a lantern making class. It was only a ten minute walk from our little homestay but it was one hot walk. The temperatures here are around 35 degrees with what seems to be 100% humidity. We are dripping within a block of walking. Sauntering at a snails pace we get to see a giant beetle carcass the size of a small helicopter splayed in a death pose it’s a miracle that we arrive right in time.  Hoi An is famous for its lanterns and we learn that they were brought here by the Chinese and evolved through out the centuries until the last forty years where they have been mostly influenced by tourism. The lanterns needed to be created to pack easily and a new way of making them was developed. The little shop we are taking the class in is – suitably – awash in lanterns of many shapes and colours. We learn the names of the shapes and the significance of the silk. After all that we discover that we are making the most traditional garlic shape and we are given a choice of five different fabrics. This is a little disappointing until we start making the lanterns and then I totally understand why. We could be there for hours crafting but this is a business and they are moving people through two hours at a time. As usual the table and chairs are from a kindergarten class and we end up st a table with two strapping Australian women so there is a fair amount of jostling. This combined with a hurricane gale from the fan, delicate silk panels and some kind of super glue it’s a miracle we made anything at all resembling a lantern. Despite the slightly rushed pace it is really fun and although not perfect we are pretty happy with the end result. The class pops us out right at noon heat so we decide to grab a cold drink for the walk home. There are spots every two feet selling sandwiches, smoothies, fruit juice, noodles, spring rolls and bbq. It seems like no one ever actually eats at home. The thing is nothing about any of these streetside spots is ever particularly quick. Unless it’s pho – they scoop that up in record time BUT SO THEY SHOULD! It’s already made. It took a full ten minutes to get an iced soda water with a squeeze of lime from a narrow street side shop that had absolutely no one in it. Aaaaand I guess that’s why no one was in it. Although all the shops are the same as far as speed. 


The next day Chris takes Anderson back to Denang for surfing and Beansie and I hold down the fort. I am pretty keen to get outside or anywhere really by the time they get back but it’s not to be. We end up going to our regular spot for my new favourite Vietnamese meal banh xeo (sizzling cake) which is the incredible pancake wrapped into rice paper with fresh herbs and lettuce and then dipped in fish sauce with chilies and lime. So good and Anderson loves it too. Sabine’s foot continues to keep us pretty close to home with one of us popping out to grab take out. We have actually tried some restaurants that we normally wouldn’t have when trying to please all our tastes and remaining home. We did venture out to meet Sara and Justine’s dad and his partner B who happened to be down in Hoi An for the weekend. They took us to a restaurant right on the river in the old town where we watched the lantern boats floating along, listened to the hawkers at the night market and met a lovely rat under the table beside ours after our meal.

Boy eats duck

Nighttime in the ancient city – bit much

View from the restaurant over the river

Lantern boats


Feeling antsy after a few days holed up I organized a tour to My Son the ancient holy land. We had enjoyed our food tour in Denang so much that I asked our guide if he knew anyone who could guide us here in Hoi An. Luckily he did and Leo arrived to pick us up at 6:30 am for the hour long drive to the holy land. The ruins at My Son are a cluster of Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and 14th century by Kings of Champa. The temples are dedicated to the worship of The god Shiva. It was the site of religious ceremony for kings and the ruling dynasties of Champa. It was largely destroyed by carpet bombing from America during a single week of the Vietnam war – known here as the American war. It is similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It shows the blending and influence of two civilizations – actually three as there are also example of Roman influence. Leo had all the history down and was able to explain the influences the trade and war paths and the movement of the people and civilizations. He was incredible and this day made me never want to visit a historical site without a guide. It also helped that we were alone with him so able to corral our kids fairly easily and also make decisions when to stop and for how long. We also caught a dance show – I thought would be a touristy gimmick but the dancers were great and it also gave us a little respite from the heat. I know we have been in this climate for months but it is truthfully so much hotter and more humid here than anywhere else. It feels like we are swimming while walking. For Chris it’s double because he’s hauling Sabine – he pretty much always was but now she demands that her food be held up as well. Resulting in an even more ridiculous position that Chris manages to maintain for hours at a time.

Beak for coffee Vietnamese style

Fresh young coconut

A high leg carry and our guide

This guy might end up in a bottle of rice wine

My Son ancient holy land

Hindu influences

Kids and shells


Now before we knew that Sabine was going to be invalid this week we had also booked a cycling excursion. Even after her accident we could have cancelled but the truth is we really wanted to go – and we also thought that four days down the road she would be fine. As it turns out she still was pretty swollen and now we were on the hook. So we decided to tough it out. Yes I realize Sabine was having to do the toughing it out but frankly people – her whining is epic in its ability to shatter my eardrums along with my patience. Fingers crossed we would be the only ones on the trip. The morning came pretty quickly since Anderson has started a habit of FaceTiming his friends at around 5am our time. But since we were needing to be up and out early this was actually a bonus. Of course we still managed to be late – a last minute meltdown and a slow taxi had us slinking into the tour office apologizing profusely and deeply humiliated to see a family of five all suited up and ready to go. The have Australian accents and look super athletic – I can’t even believe this woman had given birth to three babies. We quickly grab our bikes – this company asked for your height when you book so that the bikes are ready to go. They are good bikes too – nothing like the Russian clunkers that we almost killed Sabine on. Speaking of Sabine I was a little nervous that she would be scared of the bikes. Mainly because she has refused to speak of the accident or let me speak of the accident since it happened. If anyone asks and I even take a breath to say bike she loudly asserts “No!” But she was fine. Anderson however didn’t like his bike and there was further scrambling to find something for him and further embarrassment on my part for continuing to make people wait. It’s a killer – you want your kid to advocate for themselves and that is what we have taught. As well Chris is always super conscientious of how equipment feels before we leave so that once we are out on the hill or road we can just do it. However on a day where we have already made complete strangers wait I just wish he had sucked it up – something to circle back to later. 


The tour was incredible – we cycled out to the little villages and rice paddies just over the river from Hoi An. It was lush and peaceful. As usual each little village had a specialty. We got to make fresh rice noodles with a stone mill and an indoor fire fed by rice husks (the ash is then used as fertilizer – nothing is wasted). The fresh noodles were layered with charcoal grilled dried noodles – they puff up like a papadam- then eaten like a sandwich. Then we carried on to see a ship yard, stop for fresh juice and coconuts, try our hand at grass mat weaving and finally after seeing how rice wine is made finishing with a rice wine tasting. This included several flavours of rice wine – ginseng and wild mushroom, banana, plain and lizard! The latter had several good sized lizards bloated and floating in the bottle. By this point we were great friends with the Aussies – three boys – a 13 year old and twin 9 year olds. Anderson was having a blast. The father and his partner live in Singapore and the boys and their mom live in Melbourne. Earlier Stephanie and I had been commiserating on how hard it is to be 24/7parenting she said she was in awe of us, saying they were exhausted after five days. This made so much more sense to me when I realized she was the step parent who lives in an other country. Anyway we let the boys have a taste of the lizard wine which was pretty amusing. The tour guide had been telling us all day about the importance of having boys and the strength of men. All about how families would try and try for boys if they had girls. From what I have seen – as a sweeping generalization – the men don’t do too much around here. The market is all women, the stores and shops in the main town are all women, the tailors and leather makers, the homestay owners, the kitchen workers, the servers, the field workers all women. The sitting around on the corner on mini chairs smoking and drinking Bia Hoi – all men. We have seen men with flats of beer under their tables at restaurants. The tour guide proudly says that they put scorpions, snakes and lizards in rice wine because it makes the men more virile. It gives them strength. So that seems like it might not be working. As much fun as the rice wine stop is – my favourite stop was visiting village patriarch whose family had been in the village for 14 generations. He lives with his wife and daughter in the family home and cares for the family temple and burial ground, as well as advising villagers on good matches and auspicious times to marry. He has ten children, five boys and five girls. Five were born before the war and five were born after. He was captured by the Americans and imprisoned for five years. He is a spritely 94 and his wife is 90. They open up their home and temple to tourists because if we learn about each other and are friends there will be no more war. So you know all the Vietnamese men aren’t sitting around drinking beer all day. We return to the tour office and are sad to discover that they are leaving for Singapore the following day. Anderson really could have used a couple of days of one on one friend time. But it wasn’t to be. 

 

Rice pancake sandwich with dipping sauce

Our cycling tour map

That’s got lizards in it!

Home apothecary

Rice wine distillery

She is 90 and has been weaving since the age of 10

x

So so hot. Melting hot. Chris has become a pirate

Heating the wood to bend it

Kitchen

The husband and wife now 94 and 90

The small house adjacent to the family temple and burial grounds

Making fresh rice noodles





Hanoi Haggling

The view from Cat Ba Island

It’s been so long since I have sat down to write that I needed to look at the last post to remember where I left off – the days have started to blend a bit. And I think we are into a period I want to call inertia. We have seen so many new things, tasted so many new dishes and tramped through so many night markets that we are saturated. As well as so very sick of each other. We need to do something to bring the joy back. For me that would be magically transporting some VDW – very dear women – to me so we could disappear into a long weekend of yelling stories to each other over wine and cheese, waking up whenever the fuck we want to and taking long leisurely brunches with longer walks all the while TALKING about anything other than how I have screwed something up. It might be a fantasy I have been retreating to lately.

Anyway Chris decides that we need to get to the beach so Anderson can surf and be active to the point of exhaustion for a week or so. Denang is the obvious choice – so we have booked to fly there after a final weekend in Hanoi.

Fifteen years ago I fell in love with Hanoi. I was so excited to come back and show it to Chris and the kids. It hasn’t lived up to my hype – at least for Anderson. He really hates cities – the crowded noisy streets, the dirt and the smells – it puts him off so as per my new plan moving forward I am scheduling the heck out of our time. But then we run into the weekend! This is the time Anderson has to connect with his buds back home and that means he stays up late chatting and playing and that meant our early morning excursion to the ceramics village was a tough go at first. But I have gotten ahead of myself – we left off after our little day boat trip with the yelly captain. So back on Cat Ba Chris decides we should spend a day exploring on a motorbike. Never mind the endless talk of Thailand tattoos and how dangerous it is. Cat Ba definitely seems more tame and it’s off season so there are not as many people on the road. I can tell that he’s a little disappointed that I don’t want to try to ride my own scooter. But – you know – I just don’t. Never mind the average age of the tourists scootering around. Or the insane no rules on the road traffic that flows like water. So Chris rented a bigger bike and we climbed on – all four of us – I don’t want to say we hit the road! But we headed out onto the twisty turny mountainy roads of Cat Ba. As it turns out it was almost the best thing we could have done. Almost – because the kids did manage to fight – the usual car fight but this time it was who gets to ride in front. Seriously! Seriously could someone PLEASE tell me a story of how their children manage to ruin or try to ruin EVERY goddamned fun thing that you try to do for them? I need to know that I am not alone and the buckets of our retirement that we are pouring into this venture is not for nothing. The silver lining is that it was beautiful and the noise of the motorcycle did almost drown them out.

We toodled around and got a little lost looking for a view point. After turning off the highway we found ourselves in a field of cows surrounded by steep hills, the gravel road had dwindled to a dirt path heading up toward the mountains. So we decided to skip it for the day since the four of us on a motorcycle do not make for swift ascents and it was getting late. The next day we were all excited to get back on the road. We had a lovely drive inland to the national park where upon learning there was some walking to do the kids revolted so we turned around and ended up doing a cave explore. As you may remember cave exploring is low on my list of fun things but I bucked up crouched down and explored that cave. There were bats and one occasion of paralyzing fear when I imagined being trapped in there forever. But we made it out the other side. I think I really mean it this time when I say I am not doing an other cave. Then we hopped back on the bike drive directly to an other cave. No bats this time and actual ceilings. This was a hospital built into the mountain. Basically a huge concrete bunker. There were meeting rooms and surgeries and bedrooms – they all were just empty concrete rooms. So just rooms. There were a few with mannequins in them to help with bringing it back to life.

Then it was off to catch our ride back to Hanoi.

A seller has pulled up beside and is dropping off some fruit to the fisherman

At the old armoury

At the top of the armoury

We got a bit lost on our bike explore

Farmer

Death grip the entire time

Having a casual meeting inside the hospital cave

Remains of a propaganda poster

We managed to snag an even bigger room at the homestay in Hanoi – a loft space with separate rooms so that was pretty luxurious. We got to spend an afternoon with Greg Wood and his lovely partner B at their place in Hanoi – they live just a short walk from the Old Quarter in a vibrant area surrounding a little lake. Greg informed us that the lake was actually where John McCain had been shot down and he had been imprisoned just a few kilometres away. After our history walk we were treated to an amazing meal from B who also got Anderson to help with the cooking. She speaks French and is a cooking teacher at a middle school so it was perfect. They were such sweet hosts and it was so nice to have a little bit of “family” while on the road.

Meeting a fisherman

Caught one

Sabine taking her walk in style

The lake that John McCain plane was shot down into

Greg Wood and The Bean

Learning spring rolls with B

This was seriously a super delicious cake

The next day was the ceramics village tour. This was the bomb! Our guide was amazing – his English was impeccable- he had a great sense of humour and was super knowledgeable. He talked politics, art, history, pop culture – you name it. The village we went to was called Bat Trang and ceramics have been made there since the 15th century but even prior to them the ancestors of the village had been creating pottery and ceramics at an other village further away. There is definitely a touristy bent to the village – it was filled with Vietnamese tourists as well as foreigners. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were called to by sellers and Son, our guide, gently deflected everyone. Then took us to meet the ceramics guide, a man whose name I promptly forgot, whose family had a ceramics plant and had been in the business for generations. Our tour started in the plant. We walked into a calm zen garden oasis with koi ponds and Japanese style bridges and bonsai trees. On either side of the ponds were show rooms with dark shelves that had well spaced ceramic ceremonial tea pots. It was quiet and beautiful. We walked through the gardens and into a warehouse where there were rows and rows of different stations. At the front the clay is poured into moulds allowed to dry and then removed. Then on to a finishing area where the pots are etched and polished and the handles are put on. Then to where the handles and lids are made. Finally to drying racks and the giant kilns. Apparently it takes at least five years for a worker to become a master at their station. Be it polishing or cleaning and etching. Then we walked back to the street and into a shop that made ceremonial ceramics. These are the classic white and blue vases and pots more Chinese style. The pots are for the incense that is burned at altars. We were lead into the workshop where everything is hand painted. It was all women – sitting and hand painting these incredible scenes – dragons, pagodas, fish, rural scenes, flowers. So beautiful. Then we went to try our hand at throwing a pot. We each had our own little hand wheel and our guide centred our clay and showed us a few techniques. Then we were off making huge messes. After our pottery dreams crashed and burned – it’s very very hard to do – Son took us to a little restaurant down a winding alley off the main tourist track for lunch. Here we got to see fresh rice noodles being made – a little like crepes. They were filled with pork and mushrooms and then sprinkled with crispy shallots. They are served with a warm soup that you dunk the rolled noodle/crepe into. So yummy – even the kids loved it. After lunch we got to paint our lumpy creations and then we headed home. We rested for a few hours and then hit the end of the weekend market so Anderson could get back up on a hover board and Sabine could terrorize us by driving over peoples toes in a mini scooter. I think that evening put a dent in of the romance of Hanoi. The haggling at the market, the sticky heat, the grey sky and the constant honking – even I was ready to go.

Giant bonsai and koi ponds

Unmoulding a pot

The very liquid clay

Out of the moulds

The green clay is a proprietary mix

Etching

Handles

Polishing

Before firing – after it will be cobalt and white

Hand painting

The following day was travel day – our flight to Denang was in the afternoon and we magically transformed into sloths for the entire morning. Cozy in the little loft – everyone on their personal screens. I feel itchy just thinking about it. But I told myself that sometimes we need a zone out reset. The flight was only an hour and everything was moving along fairly easily until I decided to stop at the cell phone kiosk at the airport in Denang. I needed to top up and it’s easiest at the airport because usually the person at the kiosk can speak English. But not this time – it took ages for us to understand each other. Then when we got to our hotel, the room we had booked was not a available so they offered to move us to an other hotel. So off we went on foot. The other hotel was a couple of blocks away and the room for us was nothing like what we had booked. So after some more haggling we were taken back to the first hotel where they magically found us the room we had originally booked. Bright side is that the kids learned of the term bait and switch. We woke to very loud construction and no hot water. Which – honestly would not have been an issue any other time – but this time I specifically booked a room with an actual tub and shower to properly bathe Sabine and also for ourselves just to have a relax. Our bathroom situations have been very modest. Modest in that the “shower” at our hotels and home stays for the last month and a bit have been just hoses with small shower heads hanging on a hook above the toilet. I was really looking forward to having a long hot shower and a long hot tub. But it was not to be. At least there was a pool and it was bright and hot out. Chris and Anderson has surf lessons and Sabine wanted to play at the pool. So off we went. But as it turned out the pool was at an other hotel! Upon reading the small print on our booking it stated very clearly “access” to a pool. So two blocks later Sabine and I found ourselves at the rooftop pool. Alone for the entire day – not even a mosquito stopped by let alone an other kid. It was nice to swim but it was a little lonely. The guys didn’t have any luck either – the surf was canceled for lack of waves. So after that bummer day we were really ready for our food tour that I had booked for the evening. This was an other stellar tour! Airbnb experiences have been knocking it out of the park. We got picked up by Tam, Tim and Jack and scootered around Denang stopping at the beach and flying over bridges and eating at four different spots to try the local traditional foods. They were super hosts – funny and fun and full of interesting facts. We tried so much food that we never would have tried – just because we wouldn’t have known what to order. It was a spectacular night – Anderson loved it and had a great time on the back of the scooter whipping around town. He even tried Durian. We all did. That is one confused fruit. The next day woken again by construction, no hot water and no waves we made the radical decision to get out of dodge. It took an entire morning of negotiating with the hotel and booking.com but we were able to get out money back from our prepaid room. So we booked a family room in a homestay in Hoi An and hopped a cab. I was really excited – the homestay looked great, two separate bedrooms and a beautiful pool. Upon arrival everything was a little more worn than the pictures depicted and even though that seems to be standard I felt a little flat and disappointed. I hate letting everyone down. But the smaller dingier pool was filled with children as was the worn couch in the big reception area. Phew. Other kids and families – just what we really need right now. So we drop our bags into our well worn room and head back down to the reception. It turns out the majority of the kids are leaving. But we do get a tip on an excellent kid friendly restaurant around the corner. Aaaannnd we almost make it. But it’s that little bit too far past lunch and the sun is a little bit too hot and we stop to check to see if we are on the right path just a little bit too long and the meltdown happens. These just drain us all. I can feel myself switching off so I don’t take all in. They really rock Chris and I – so much that sometimes when we are all having a great time and Anderson cracks a particularly sarcastic joke we just freeze thinking we are back in a meltdown. We have meltdown ptsd. Anyway we get through it – and this is now how I get through them – I just remember that it will end. He will come back. I will not say the incredibly angry and horrible things that I want to say. The good news is that the restaurant was great – inexpensive and not super touristy as well as delicious. We head back for a swim and the plan to walk the old town in the evening. We have the swim but something happens – the inertia comes – we listlessly lie on our beds reading or playing with dolls depending on our age. Finally we can’t even convince Anderson to come out. So we leave him and take Sabine to a restaurant across the street. Where she is a nightmare. What is happening??? I can only guess that we are tired – burnt out from travel – have spent too much time lazing about? I don’t know. We make a plan for an excellent bike ride in the morning. Hoi An is known for lanterns, tailoring and being easy to bike around not to mention the Unesco world heritage site at its core.

So the morning comes and as usual we are slow to rise but we manage to finally get our butts onto bikes with towels and bathing suits packed by 11. Once on the road it quickly becomes clear that Hoi An is not actually a great place to cycle. Well not if you are 9 and your parents have neglected to teach you your bike signal skills. Once again things got a little tense. Chris was in front with Sabine on the back of his bike – they had a leather cushion over that flat part that you could use as a book holder. She rode like that when we did our bike to the village on Cat Ba. In the morning we had gone over the rules about keeping her feet in the little pegs installed on the side of the wheel. Anderson had just narrowly missed being swiped by a scooter because he misread a signal so we had stopped to check in. He was scared and angry and hot and he didn’t want to go to the beach anymore so we abandoned the plan to head home – with the idea we would get off the road we were on and find a quieter street. We had just started down the street when Sabine wailed in that horrible way you know means a serious injury. I looked ahead to see her shoe on the ground and her foot bent into the wheel. Chris had stopped the bike and a man ran out from a cafe to help. Chris got her foot out and had her at the side of the road. Luckily we had water and towels to clean it and get a better look. We got a cab and I took the kids home – Chris got the bikes back. So day one in Hoi An was a bust. Sabine is doing well – her ankle is very swollen and bruised and her heel is raw but she spent the rest of the day watching videos, her ankle on a pillow with a bag of ice. Just before she fell asleep she said, “I keep thinking about it and I don’t want to remember it.” Poor little angel. I guess this will slow us down a little. Well probably not that much since Chris carries her everywhere anyway. Really considering all the crazy ways we have traveled we are lucky this has been our only injury.

Loft in Hanoi

Pho shop

We just fell in love with the man on the fawn statue

Fresh rice noddles tolled

Ceremonial pot for incense

Basket boats Danang

Our dinner tour

Clams

Shrimp and squid

Pho shop

Where the magic happens

A Bean and some buns

Hanoi

Honouring the women whose silent scarifies help the Motherland – mothers who lost their children or husbands

I was heart broken to see the smokey air obscuring everything including the airport as we landed. I had booked a ride through our hotel because they said on the website the hotel was hard to find and down an alleyway. There is a totally different style of driving here than everywhere else – tons of honking and light flashing. We crossed a bridge from a unicorn fantasy with arches lighting up in rainbow colours. Our room is nice and clean – a little small but we aren’t planning to hang around. We find a restaurant that is supposed to be good – Yin and Yang – and it was fine maybe even good for a first night but both Chris and I wished we had grabbed a small plastic stool at the streetside hot pot bbq close outside of the hotel. We were all a little rangy with travel and feeling like we wanted to sit non actual chairs and not stools. Our bed is – if possible – harder than the dock. No matter what happens we are not stying an other night. The next day we find a better spot – a little homestay that is bright and cheerful with a restaurant next door that has its kitchen on the third floor and sends the food down in a dumbwaiter. We barely manage to pull the kids away. We walk – through the Old Quarter and get tickets to the water puppet show, the kids get their portraits sketched and we stay out late walking the night market. The streets close down to traffic on the weekend for the night market. It’s the usual suspects of meat on sticks, treats and shopping but with the added bonus of street theatre. It’s a fun night that finds us home late with an Elsa ballon and nitrogen cooled ice cream balls that smoke.

Hanoi pulses with an energy that is at once welcoming and alien. The traffic flows like water around river rocks. You pretty much close your eyes and step out on a wing and a prayer. Both our hotels have been down narrow alleys off the side streets. The Old Quarter is twisty and narrow with remarkably huge trees. The streets have a canopy of electrical wires and leaves. It is a little disconcerting to repeatedly have to veer off the side walk onto the street to walk around parked scooters. We decided to stay the weekend because the weather at Cat Ba and Ha Long was calling for rain and the night market in Hanoi is only open on the weekend.

All the classes we took while in Laos were so much fun that I book us into three more “experiences” here in Hanoi. The first is a small version of the homestay that we did in Thailand. We take a cab a few kilometres out of the city – like any big city it doesn’t really seem like we have left the city – the suburbs blur into the village seamlessly. All of a sudden the streets are narrowing the buildings have fallen away and we are dropped unceremoniously on a corner and pointed down an even more narrow alleyway. At the end of that alleyway we bumped into our guide Manh and his wife and kids on their way home. The village has been there forever – as long as Hanoi at least. There were tombs and monuments on the side of the narrow streets – the village has obviously grown and changed into more of a neighbourhood but people were buried on their land and those people have not been moved. The Vietnamese are not united with religion – there are many iterations of spiritual life some that revolve around Pagodas for the more formal honouring of Buddha and other gods and Temples which are for remembering people who have become godly with their lives. There is big Chinese influence – burning paper that signifies your wishes as well as worshipping the Mother Goddess with music and dance. One tradition that unites the Vietnamese is the honouring of their ancestors. We saw this on our first day in the Old Quarter when we visited The Ancient House – the main room had a huge heavy teak wood armour with pictures of dead family on top surrounded by food offerings, incense and candles. Every house we peaked into as we wandered down the alleys of the village had the same style of alter set up. Mostly the houses are one room with big doors open. The kitchen and sleeping rooms are smaller buildings set away from the main home. There is usually a courtyard style front that is paved or tiled or stoned. Then some gardens, pots of orange trees, bonsai pots, jack fruit and guava trees, chicken pens and koi ponds. We wandered the streets past a few larger plantation areas with banana trees and then down to the river’s edge to watch the sunset. Manh’s five year old son joined us, happy to try out his English skills and to teach Anderson and Sabine a game involving violently whacking the heads off weeds – it was a huge hit no pun intended. Then we walked back up to the village to see the temple that was built at the furthest point on the small peninsula that the village is situated on. It was a temple to honour two women from the 11th century who were warriors. This is an other reason I love Vietnam – the women do it all here – they have always been not only central to family life but they are also warriors and soldiers as well as business runners. You see only men sitting about on tiny plastic stools sipping Bia Ha (young or fresh beer) the women are busy getting stuff done. The Temple has three rooms and is cared for by a league of people in the village – again I saw mostly women. We gazed out over the water to the crazy disco unicorn bridge we had driven over in the dark just two brights before. Then we went back to Manh’s home that he shares with his family and his wife’s family. His brother in law lives up the street with his family and his in-laws. Inside we find the big ancestral altar along with giant poster sized pictures of Manh’s wedding. When I booked the experience we were supposed to cook with his mother in law – I’m

not sure what happened – maybe we played too long at the beach or stayed too long at the Temple but the food was cooked and ready when we arrived. We sat down – low as usual – you would think that I would be getting better at the squat but it eludes me still. I am as awkward as ever all knee and limb sprawled about taking up as much space as a small family. The food is amazing – pretty much all pork based – but super fresh and with tons of my favourite morning glory on the side as well as a huge fried river fish. Everyone eats family style picking bits of huge plates with chopsticks and putting it on top of little bowls of rice. Anderson is now an expert with the chopsticks while Sabine still eats with a serving spoon. We eat and talk through Manh learning about the family and the customs of the village. Then Manh organizes a cab to bring us home.

Cute homestay in Hanoi

Watching the dumbwaiter

Just some light electrical

We do not fit the furniture

Outside an artist house

Street life

Obsessed with lanterns

Temple in the pond

Puppets at the water puppet show

Street performer

Our brunch spot

My love affair with chickens continues

Maybe you can fit more in a basket – short leg breed

View from the temple

Walking to the temple

Sunset looking toward Hanoi

Whacking weeds

Finding stuff

Picking flowers

Dinner with the family

The following day buoyed by the new found “experiences” booking magic – I find a leather workshop in the Old Quarter as well as a well as a cake making class with a women who owns a bakery. It’s brilliant. The leather making manages to keep us engaged and working for five hours! Anderson even designs and makes a bracelet for Chris.

The baking class is at Thuey Anh’s home. She owns a bakery but since it’s a Sunday we meet her at her apartment building and spend the afternoon making brioche and caramelized banana bread. She has her own recipes and is self taught. Her kitchen is tiny and her main room dominated with the altar to her ancestors as well as a large poster sized picture from her wedding. She also has two kittens so it’s a fun day for both kids.

It’s true we are too big

Making stuff with leather

Making stuff with dough

Watching the oven

Brioche!!!!!

Guys my kid can make something useful

From the women’s museum in Hanoi- work and be ready for combat

Waiting for our pick up

The next day we are picked up at ten am for a bus ride and ferry to Cat Ba island where we will cruise the bays – Lan Ha and Ha Long. Here is where full time travel is a drag – researching and finding the best way to see the spots – tours – I know this isn’t the most cool but I tend to like tours – maybe I’m lazy but I like getting picked up knowing we don’t need to worry about food or where we are going we just have to look and learn. But of course there are all manner of tours and prices and it’s easy to get ripped off or to just get something that is not right for us. Ha Long is a tourist Mecca so there a about one million companies to look through. There are at least as many blog posts on them as well. Chris also really resists organized tours – wanting to figure it out himself and to try to get the most authentic experience. So while I find two really well reviewed options for families they are both a little pricy and when Chris looks at booking it all separately we end up deciding to do that. The other thing is the age range with us – Sabine can’t do a lot of the fun tour things like kayaking and hiking. Anyway we decide to just get ourselves there and figure it out. It’s a packed ride up – one thing that they excel at in Vietnam is packing it in – small space? No problem – motorcycles are parked with not even a whisper between them. Buildings touch with narrow alleys leading to back stairs that run up to many doorways. And tourists, giant non Asian bodies, get jammed into busses narrow enough for the streets. We are poured out of our bus and onto a tiny half submerged ferry bobbing in the grey green murky water at the bottom of a ladder. “There is NO way that all of us and our luggage is going to fit in there”, I think. Oh but it does. Tetris in real life as the bags are tossed down into the ferry and quickly shunted left or right onto a growing pile that remains neat as a pin. Then we are back onto a bus on Cat Ba Island navigating a lane and a half width highway past piles of oyster shells and women mending fishing nets in their front yards – the bus’s horn warning cows and goats to get out of the way. Our hotel is halfway up a hill outside of the main town – it is higgilty piggly all crooked staircases and steep inclines with little terraces jutting out in all directions. We are led to our room by Thea – originally from Norway who has chucked it all for a life of travel and front desk duty. We get the full run down including learning all about her cultural mix and her previous eight months in Africa. While she is a Chatty Cathy her stories are entertaining and she promises to help us set up a private tour. Our family room is fantastic. It’s a loft with huge two story windows overlooking a bay filled with fishing boats all toggled together as well as small fish farms lashed to the small shacks with laundry hanging outside. It’s bright and colourful and the kids love it. They run upstairs and wave to us while standing beside the “safety” railing that is at best to their knees. I love what passes for safe here. And yet everyone seems to stay alive.

In the morning we are picked up for our private tour – as soon as we get to the pier we can tell something might be amiss. We have booked any tours during the last few months – classes, day trips, overnight trips and it is always surprising that everything always seems to turn out right. We have been shunted off to different rooms, our pick ups have been late, seats have been uncomfortable but everything has always worked out in the end. So it was bound to happen once. A bad trip. Truthfully it wasn’t even a bad trip it just was not the trip we thought we had booked. The captain did not speak English, the boat was very uncomfortable, we were taken directly to the one location we specifically did not want to visit, the food was cooked with egg so Sabine had nothing to eat except for rice, there was no drinking water – like no actual water to drink on the boat and to top it off it was a grey and moody day. It wasn’t all bad. We had a great bike ride into a village. The lunch was delicious and more of it for us. Lan Ha and Ha Long are beautiful

No matter what the weather – there was swimming. I know Chris was thinking what I was – which is WTF is going on?! But we both decided to just go with the flow. Even though our captain knew one word in English that he would yell to get our attention – HELLAH – and then occasionally he would yell – HA LONG – I guess to remind us we were on Ha Long bay. It was still a beautiful day. Although it was a day that made me lean more toward booking further tours with everything all included as opposed to playing broken telephone with hotel desk jockeys. Today is scooter around the island day. It’s also the day to decide where to go next …….. north or south…..

Captains quarters

Leaving the harbour

The Village

Farmers home

Working

Living on the water

Beach Temple

Famous Karst

Still carrying Sabine across SE Asia

Ha Long Bay

One of my favourite boats

Layers

Moody bay

Yoga on deck

Lunch spread

The yummiest squid

Tea time on the boat

More carrying Sabine around

The big fish

Fish farm

Chickens in a basket

At least we have helmets

Cock of the walk

Chickens in a basket

Water buffalo

Boat relax

View from our room

Yep we did it