Entry #42 of our travel diary. Last days in Cambodia before moving to Vietnam for a different Christmas.
20-21 December 2016 – Kratie, Cambodia
Kratie was our last stop in Cambodia. We spent two days there, one of which on a tour of Kratie surroundings. The main ‘attraction’ was to see a unique species of dolphins of the Mekong river. We might see them or not – was my initial thought, animals cannot be predictable. Three minutes after we stepped in the boat we saw a couple of them. And they kept on ‘dancing’ around us for quite some time. All the rest of the tour I didn’t enjoy particularly. We didn’t take an English speaking guide due to overly exaggerated price. Thus the tuk-tuk driver was just driving and stopping at pre-defined places. On the positive side, we had some insight of the local life as we drove slowly on the road snaking trough the villages, saw some pagodas and a turtle conservation centre.
Next day we woke up, had breakfast and were ready for the bus to Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam. For that we had to take a lift to the bus station. Tuk-tuk arrived 15 min later than expected and I got slightly worried that we might be late for the bus scheduled to depart at 9.30am. When it dropped us of, we didn’t discover a bus station but an eatery located close to a crossroad. They granted us two chairs. We sat down and waited. And waited. 40min later there was still no sign of the bus, however two more tourists arrived. And so we waited, 4 of us now. After two hours a bus arrived and we were rushed to pick our bags and get on. To our surprise it was a sleeper bus. Individual seats were arranged like bunk-beds. Getting in a seat reminded me of Formula 1 cars I’ve seen on TV, when a driver is all packed and firmly buckled in his seat.
As soon as we found available space and settled in, we heard a rooster singing. I thought it’s just a sound of a mobile phone. But the singing repeated couple of times, loud and clear. Indeed there was a cardboard box in the back of the bus where the sound actually was coming from. Thus, now and then during the whole trip the rooster would sing. When the journey finished though, rooster’s owner picked up the box and carefully listened, then shook the box, but the rooster didn’t give any sign of being alive…
After some 7h we arrived to Ho Chi Minh city. The bus stopped in a petrol station, and that was it. Everyone left. So did we, finding ourselves somewhere in the busy city close to the airport but far from the centre. Hello, Vietnam!
Kratie is not far from Mondulkiri, but quite different. It is a small town along the Mekong River. It is cosy, with a few guesthouses, nice colonial buildings and a “lazy” feel to it. It was also the place where we felt people are more friendly. One night we stayed in a place called Balcony which was not good and then we moved to Le Tonlé Guesthouse, one of the best places we stayed during our trip. It is managed by NGO that provides hotel training to locals, so the service was stellar. This is how I feel foreigners should invest and help the country.
We visited Kratie to see the Irrawaddy Dolphin, a species of dolphin from the Mekong river. There are very few of these and unfortunately, despite good conservation efforts, the numbers keep going down. There are human causes like net fishing and pollution, and it seems the animals cannot or don’t want to reproduce.
This was our last place in Cambodia. I leave it with mixed feelings. There are some great tourist attractions and the country is beautiful. Birdwatching was great and let us find a different side of the country. On the other hand the pushy attitude towards tourists and overall quite high prices let me down.
22-26 December 2016 – Christmas in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Before we booked a hotel in Ho Chi Minh, we both agreed we wanted something decent and my special wish was to have other Western people around. Nearly half of hotels were already fully booked and we signed up for something between a hotel and home-stay. The room was all right, but we happened to be the only ones in the three-storey building. The only people we saw were two staff members.
Ho Chi Minh appeared to be one of rare big cities in SE Asia that I actually liked and even quite enjoyed spending there nearly a week. As Luis was a bit more lazy or not in the mood, I took a the time to stroll the streets on my own. I really likee the colonial architecture – the Opera house, City Hall, Museum of Fine arts, Central Post office, The Cathedral, and many other less prominent buildings. We visited an art district where many alternative crafts are sold.
Vietnam is famous for its hectic traffic, mainly due to enormous amount of motorbikes on the streets that move around chaotically sometimes using side-walks as extension of the road. But even to this special feature I got accustomed quite soon and didn’t find it stressful.
And food, of course! One can find delicious food from the street stall with Pho Bo soups for 1.5eur to the finest restaurants. And other feature here are cafés: from small cosy cafés to big chain coffee shops offering the famous Vietnamese coffee and all kind of variations of hot and cold drinks.
Here one can see that these places are not only meant for ‘wealthy Western tourists’. Vietnam is developing quite fast. We definitely see it comparing to 3.5 years back.
My wish was to find a Christmas Mass in English. And I found a nice International congregation named The Well. This is all I needed to have a real Christmas feeling. Nevertheless, the outstanding and sometimes overly exaggerated Christmas decorations all over the city and the outfit for the Christmas Eve, wouldn’t let me miss the right feeling as well.
Our Christmas Eve dinner was in the restaurant located next to the main Cathedral, thus very central place. When we left the restaurant one could barely make way through the crowds. For most of people this is a cheerful and bright party though, not the Christian celebration with a deeper meaning of it.
We decided on HCMC for Christmas because we wanted a cosmopolitan place where we could have a nice Christmas Eve dinner, and where Ilze could go to church. We were not expecting much as Vietnam is not a Christian country. Hence we were not prepared for what we got. Thousands of people in the streets, many kids dressed up in Christmas clothes. Shops decorated with Christmas trees and motifs, playing the same songs as in western countries. Streets illuminated. Locals having a party, playing with foam cans as it was snow. It looked more like a New Year’s party. Even more than in Western countries, Christmas is a brand and a reason for consumerism, more than the religious Christian celebration.
As for us, we had a great dinner at Propaganda, a modern Vietnamese bistro with great food. We strolled around the chaos of the city streets and ended up in the pub of Pasteur Brewing Co. for some craft beer. Back to hotel for a movie and some Skype section with family. No gifts exchanged.
Apart from Christmas celebrations, we took it easy in HCMC. A few walks around, a great art museum, lots of rest. The city centre is pretty, with plenty of colonial buildings. But it is such a chaos, the traffic is intense all the time, it is loud and polluted. But somehow we like it more than Hanoi, that we visited 3 years ago.