An Afternoon Wandering HCM [Vietnam]

On our last day in HCM, we toured districts 1 & 3, home of many of the city’s sites and cafés.  Our first mission was to find one of the exercise parks that we had passed in our cab the night before.

Scattered throughout HCM are parks with exercise equipment for adults, encouraging you to work out while keeping an eye on your kids at the playground.  There are dip bars, benches for crunches, elliptical machines and bikes, to name a few.  Kursten and I had a field day testing out all of the equipment.  I also discovered the slo-mo video function on my phone, so…welp…this happened:

After our tough ;) workout in the exercise park, hunger struck.  Previously a French colony, HCM has a noticeable French influence, so we were on the lookout for a cute little café.  It took some patient searching to find this place, but L’Usine captured our attention immediately with it’s chic urban atmosphere and the smell of baguettes wafting out onto the street.  L’Usine sits on the second floor of it’s sister shop, so we picked a spot on the outdoor balcony to enjoy the breeze and watch the traffic whiz by.  

L'usine

After a long leisurely lunch, we wandered.  We didn’t have much of an agenda on mind–both Kursten and I were pretty tired and Ryan & Chris had flown out the night before.  We toured some of the main landmarks at a leisurely pace, admiring the French architecture.

  • The Municipal Theater

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  • City Hall

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  • Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica – mass was underway and people were attending their parked motorbikes outside.

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  • The Post Office

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  • …annnnnnnd a pretty neat tree (not a landmark, but cool nonetheless ;))

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Walking back to the hotel, the realization hit me.  My trip was over.  The planning, the tickets, everything that I had obsessed over for the past few months was just…over.  It’s silly to say, but I felt a loss and mourned the end of the adventure.  On the flight home, I couldn’t decide if I was ready to go home in order to (a) relax, or (b) start scheming up something new.

After 6 weeks back at home, I can say it’s the latter.  The map’s back out, and I’m scheming.

Find me on Trip Advisor (The Other A-List):

L’Usine

 

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Cu Chi Tunnels [Vietnam]

During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong had a stronghold in the Cu Chi District, where they could take advantage of their intricate underground tunnel system.

The tunnel digging actually began about 20 years prior to the Vietnam War, when the country was fighting for independence from France.  By the time the Vietnam War was in full swing, however, the tunnels had expanded to stretch over 120 miles and were key in the Viet Cong’s strategy.

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The tunnels not only provided Viet Cong troops protection from US aerial attacks, but also they served as a safe house for civilians.  The tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to transport supplies unseen and lay their infamous booby traps.

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The US and South Vietnamese troops trained some smaller soldiers to navigate the underground system.  They were called “tunnel rats” and their job was to ferret out enemy troops and booby traps.  Some parts of the tunnel system are now open to tourists, as a war memorial to the thousands of Vietnamese that lost their lives there.  An AK-47 shooting range was on site and the sound of constant gun fire helps set the scene.

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While I enjoyed learning more about the tunnels and the incredible adaptability of Veit Cong troops,  the experience was very commercialized.  Everywhere you looked, there were mannequins and little “Disney display” bunkers.  Photo ops were plentiful, with children climbing on a destroyed American tanker and folks taking photos in sections of the tunnels, enlarged for the Western ba-donk-a-donk (I am guilty, as you can see ;)).

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Another thing that turned me off was the extreme anti-American sentiment.  I suppose some of it is to be expected, as I was once told that history–not beauty–is in the eye of the beholder. Also, I’m glad I could witness the flip side of the American narrative,  However, many elements of the theme park memorial–from the videos, to the signs, to the proud display of destroyed American tanks–felt like an accusation.

I would have liked to spend more time on the farm instead.

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Farm Visit & Cooking Class [Vietnam]

Sad to say goodbye to Cambodia, our group bus-ed from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City.  You have lots of options for this route, but we chose the Mekong Express.  At ~$13 for a one-way ticket, it’s the most expensive bus option but the reliability and relative comfort was worth it.  Plus, 13 buckeroos buys you an on-board TV, featuring 6 straight hours of dubbed 80′s love ballads.  If only I was feeling well enough to rally for a good round of karaoke.  On our last day in Phnom Penh, my stomach staged a revolt and I was struggling to enjoy myself.  If my cocktail of 7Up, white rice, Cipro, & Pepto Bismol didn’t work, I’d get better by sheer willpower.

Something was working because, by the next day, I was feeling marginally better.  This was good timing, as we had a day full of food on the docket!  Leaving the chaos of the city behind, we headed out to the Cu Chi district for Chef Tan’s HCM Cooking Class.

Mr. Tan (founder/head chef) greeted us warmly and took us on a thorough tour of his small farm. We trekked through the fields and gardens, learning about the various vegetables and roots.

Everything the Light touches

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He sure was a jokester, telling us that various Vietnamese herbs could help us improve our love lives. ;)

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He also proudly showed off his mushroom house.  I learned how to distinguish between the different kinds of mushrooms, and how to grow them in a house like this one:

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After an hour or two of touring the farm as students, Mr. Tan became “serious”.  He handed each of us a basket and jokingly barked orders about which herbs and vegetables we needed for our meal.  He ran a tight ship, challenging our choices to make sure we had been paying attention earlier (“Are you sure what’s in your hand is Thai basil?!”).

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Once we had passed Mr. Tan’s little tests and gathered all of the ingredients, we headed to the veranda to get cooking!

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Mr. Tan’s assistant took charge of washing our freshly-picked ingredients, while Mr. Tan introduced us to our little cooking stations.

F9E74C03-042F-4E80-B2A5-4E70F9ED5645_zpslirz1r5nEach dish that we prepared was simple, but rich in flavor.  There were some common elements throughout:

  • Fish sauce is to the Vietnamese as olive oil is to the Italians…it’s included in nearly every recipe.
  • In terms of herbs, lemongrass, Vietnamese mint, and basil were the mainstays
  • Cooking methods are simple.  We cooked on a stove reminiscent of my family’s old Colman’s camping stove.  No elaborate whipping, basting, or baking–we cut, chopped, and occasionally simmered.  Totally my style.

The first course was a seafood mushroom soup, followed by a water spinach salad with prawns and pork.  The salad was my favorite dish – full of fresh herbs and vegetables that were finely chopped and shredded–delicious!

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The main course was chicken thigh stew cooked in a clay pot and for dessert we made banana spring rolls with coconut ice cream.  In case you’re wondering, coconut ice cream will change your life.

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After cooking each dish, we enjoyed the fruits of our labor.   After the completing all four courses, our favorite comedian/chef staged a little graduation ceremony, and we were awarded with certificates of completion!  Watch out, Giada!  I’m coming for ya!

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HCM Cooking Class

Windsor Plaza Hotel

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Observations, In Pictures [Cambodia]

Some parting observations of Cambodia, in pictures.

Bike

Green Tea + Kit KatYou shall not pass

TP Mango Sticky Rice Tuk Tuk

Amok Cambodia Beer Takeaway coffee in love - summer rolls McKayla Maroney No Erasers Eggs Chubby Monkey

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S-21 and the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields [Cambodia]

In January, Chase and I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, and I found it to be an incredibly moving experience.  Visiting the S-21 prison and the killing fields in Phnom Penh evoked similar emotions.

Prior to our trip to Cambodia, I knew that the government had recently and crudely killed its own citizens (*shudder*).  What I didn’t understand was why.  Luke Walker from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies wrote a brief synopsis that captures what we learned by wandering through the memorial sites in Phnom Penh and talking to our bike tour guides in Siem Reap:

“In order to achieve the ‘ideal’ communist model, the Khmer Rouge believed that all Cambodians must be made to work as laborer in one huge federation of collective farms; anyone in opposition to this system must be eliminated. This list of ‘potential opposition’ included, but was not limited to, intellectuals, educated people, professionals, monks, religious enthusiasts…[...]….Under threat of death, Cambodians nationwide were forced from their hometowns and villages.  The ill, disabled, old and young who were incapable of making the journey to the collectivized farms and labor camps were killed on the spot. People who refused to leave were killed, along with any who appeared to be in opposition to the new regime. The people from entire cities were forcibly evacuated to the countryside. All political and civil rights of the citizen were abolished. Children were taken from their parents and placed in separate forced labor camps. Factories, schools, universities, hospitals, and all other private institutions were shut down; all their former owners and employees were murdered, along with their extended families. Religion was also banned: leading Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries were killed, and temples and churches were burned. While racist sentiments did exist within the Khmer Rouge, most of the killing was inspired by the extremist propaganda of a militant communist transformation. It was common for people to be shot for speaking a foreign language, wearing glasses, smiling, or crying. One Khmer slogan best illuminates Pol Pot’s ideology: ‘To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.’ ” (Walker, source)

As recently as the late 1970s, there was such hatred, such an apathy toward the lives of others.  Kursten and I did some quick math.  If the genocide ended around 1978, this means that anyone we encountered that appeared to be over the age of 35 had lived through this nightmare.  The survivors were in front of us–living, breathing, working to re-establish themselves after their loved ones were murdered, their education system destroyed, their economy overturned, and the forward movement of society halted (remember, all professionals, doctors, educated people were “removed” from society).  Imagine that.  Imagine rebuilding.

The first stop on our memorial tour was the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) prison.  Previously a school, the Khmer Rouge turned it into a top-secret prison, where they kept and tortured high-ranking officials suspected of treason.

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Most people didn’t know the charges behind their arrest, but their whole family would be captured and the officials would be tortured until they confessed to whatever the Khmer Rouge said that they had allegedly done.  After they confessed (under duress or not), they were killed.  An estimated 14,000-20,000 people were kept here and the Documentation Center of Cambodia estimates that only ~200 survived or were released.

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One of the most haunting things is that  you can still see the chalkboards with remnants of old lessons on the walls of some of the prison cells.  Next to remnants of torture instruments.

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Our second stop on the tour was Choeung Ek, a killing field and mass grave of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.  People were driven out in trucks, most of them from the S-21 prison, and were usually killed upon arrival. They were hewn to pieces or brutally beaten before being tossed into large pits in the ground, mass graves.

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The Khmer Rouge didn’t even have the mercy to shoot them–ammunition was too precious of a commodity–and they were crudely killed with spades or sharpened bamboo sticks.  They bashed the children’s heads against trees.

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There is a free audioguide that comes with the admission price of $2 that helps take you back to the fields in the 1970s.  The guide does a good job of illustrating the primitive methodologies that the Khmer Rouge employed and has some chilling audio recollections of some of the survivors.

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There is a commemorative stupa set up in the center of the site.  The skulls of the thousands that died here are on display to all who walk by, a reminder of the recent past, ensuring that it is not forgotten.

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Of possible interest:

Who was Pol Pot?

Dale of Cambodia, an up-and-coming documentary

Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Tribunal a Shocking Failure

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Paddy’s Fight Club [Learn a Martial Art, Cambodia]

When we rode our bikes through the Angkor temples (in case you missed it), we met two Phnom Penh residents–an Australian girl and her Swedish roommate.  They were so friendly and gave us various recommendations of what to do when we rolled into Phnom Penh.  One of the things that they suggested was…wait for it…kick boxing at Paddy’s Fight Club.

A few days later, on the long bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we all agreed that kickboxing was just what we needed to let off some steam and lift our spirits.  Plus, with a name like Paddy’s Fight Club, how could we not go?!

As we crossed the threshold of the hole-in-the-wall gym, the great idea we had on the bus suddenly seemed like a terrible idea.  These people were serious boxers and I was sure they would pulverize me…were the Australian and the Swede joking when they suggested this?!  We shyly made our way to the desk at the back where we paid our $6 (cost per lesson, every night at 7pm), and started stretching.

Around 6:45, a couple of the serious boxers that were practicing before grouped us newbies into little pods and took us to a separate section of the gym to teach us some moves.  We mostly just did drills and then got some 1:1 time with the instructor to do what we had learned on his command.

1-2…1-2…1-2-3-4. Kick right.  Kick left.  Hiiiiiiiya!!!!!

I felt like the bad ass that I’m not.  I was in love.

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Back at the hotel that night, I sent an email to Chase: “Let’s start kickboxing”.

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Phnom Kulen National Park [Cambodia]

On our third day in Siem Reap, we wanted to get out.  Perhaps the prior day’s trip to Beng Mealea had affirmed the good times to be had when you step out of tourist central.  Or perhaps it was the thought of cooling off in a waterfall. ;)

We used our hotel, the Golden Butterfly Villa (full review here), to arrange a car for the day.  Our destination: the waterfall in Phnom Kulen National Park.  Ever since Ryan (also with us on this trip) organized the trip to Havasupai Falls in 2012, I’ll admit that I’ve been a waterfall chaser.

Sorry, TLC, but your advice sucks.

Phnom Kulen sits on a mountain top, approximately 2 hours outside of Siem Reap by car. After confirming our plans and the cost with the driver, we crammed into the back of the sedan and stomached the drive with no AC or leg room.  What I didn’t realize is that by hiring a driver to take us to Phnom Kulen, we also were agreeing for him to funnel us through two additional sites on the way there.

The first stop was an archaeological site at the base of the mountain, the River of 1000 Lingas.  We emptied out of the car, and–unsure of what to do–we started hiking along the river.

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We didn’t have a guide and most of the significance was lost on me, but I did gather some info about this site.  To many, lingas are a Hindu symbol of divine energy, associated with the god, Shiva.  To the non-Hindu that I am, they were squares with raised bumps, carved in the river bed.  As the water passes over these holy carvings, it is sanctified, made holy for the temples downstream.  We made two friends along the way, who enticed us into our second game of jump rope in Cambodia.

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The next stop on the way to the falls was Preah Ang Thom, home of the largest reclining Buddha in Cambodia.  We passed up these steps, lined by children and merchants selling flowers or other offerings.

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We removed our shoes (a couple of ladies fought over who would watch our discarded shoes while we went up to the temple.  Later, the lady who won demanding payment for her watchfulness) and continued up the steps to view the Buddha.  I don’t believe there is an explanation for why it is reclining, but it is magnificent, painted gold and surrounded by offerings of vibrant colors.  The terrace surrounding the Buddha’s room affords a nice view of the surrounding jungle.

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We piled into the car again ready for our final destination…the waterfall!  As with Preah Ang Thom, we passed through various vendor stalls and merchants before arriving at the falls.  The first set of falls was tiny, and I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed.  We came all this way for a tiny waterfall?  :(

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Then, we heard a larger thundering sound…there was another waterfall further downstream!  We climbed down some structurally questionable wooden stairs to find this bad boy:

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I could hardly believe it!  It was incredible.  Plus, the park was pretty empty, so we were able to enjoy the falls as if they were our own.  We waded out to a large rock poking out in the center of the pool and made that home base.  From there, we played in the falls and basked in the sun for the rest of the afternoon.  Too soon, it was time to leave.

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This place has to be Siem Reap’s best kept “secret”.  To be sure, the temples are spectacular, but this place had that intangible…je ne sais quoi.  It was peaceful, and beautiful, and it wasn’t somewhere we had to “check” off our list, but rather someplace we wandered in hopes of finding something amazing.  And we did.

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Phnom Kulen National Park

Genevieve’s Restaurant (where we ate after our day by the waterfall)

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