SAIGON/HO CHI MINH CITY:
I had debated between visiting Saigon and Bangkok, but, ultimately, based on time and costs Saigon won. After a six hour bus ride that included a dubious ferry crossing and an agonizingly long wait at the Vietnamese border, I arrived in Saigon at 9:30 p.m. Fortunately, my boss frequently visits the city and had drawn on a map all the must-sees and -dos in the city.
Unlike Phnom Penh, Saigon has numerous museums and attractions. My first stop Saturday morning was the War Remnants Museum. This was easily my most difficult experience on this trip. In addition to being generally familiar with the war, I had taken a course on the Vietnam War at Converse College. Additionally, this experience was interesting because my traveling companion was British and completely unfamiliar with the war. Prior to entering the museum, I attempted to provide a five-minute synopsis of the war, its origins and repercussions, and the general U.S. sentiment.
Many critics focus on the fact that the museum highlights the atrocities committed by the U.S. and South Vietnamese but completely ignores horrors committed by the North Vietnamese. Although this criticism is valid, it does not change the fact the U.S. did commit egregious acts during the war. The museum primarily showcased photographs from the war, but the most heart wrenching exhibits were on Agent Orange. Those photographs revealed how the use of Agent Orange was not only detrimental to the health of those directly exposed but also to their children.
After leaving the museum heavy-hearted, I proceeded to visit the History Museum, the Fine Arts Museum, the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, the Ben Thanh Market, and the Reunification Palace.
Ben Thanh Market
War rooms in Reunification Palace's Basement
Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
Fine Arts Museum
The other main attraction was the street food. Street food in Cambodia is arguably the worst in the region, so I was looking forward to some amazing and cheap Vietnamese street food. And I was not disappointed. Between the banh mi, banh xeo, pho, and mon hue, my appetite was pleasantly satisfied. Another treasured find was the best fruit smoothie place. Down a little alley in the backpacker section of town a family works behind stacks of fruit to make the freshest, largest, cheapest, best smoothies ever. The most surprising delicacy for me, however, was iced Vietnamese coffee. I do not like coffee, but I love Vietnamese coffee. Thankfully, I don't have to worry about a new habit when I return to Cambodia or the States.
Fruit Smoothie Stall Banh Xeo
SIHANOUKVILLE & KOH RONG SAMLOEM ISLAND:
Originally, I had planned to visit Siem Reap this past weekend, but due to extenuating circumstances that plan was aborted the morning I was supposed to leave. I sat in my office with my bags packed itching to go somewhere. Luckily, my co-workers were planning on traveling to Sihanoukville that night and then take a boat to KRS the following morning. They graciously allowed me to tag along.
Friday night we taxied to Sihanoukville, which took longer than expected - but this is to be expected in Cambodia. The following market we meandered around the market and surrounding areas until we had to meet the boat at the pier to take a two-hour trip to KRS. The weather was beautiful right up until we met the boat. Despite the rain and choppy waters, I was ecstatic! As previously mentioned, I am a water baby and it had been way too long since I had been on a boat. I was at home for those two hours. When we reached the island, a smaller vessel came out to the boat to carry us to Lazy Beach Resort. The resort is a collection of sixteen bungalows scattered around the beach with very basic amenities, including a limited supply of electricity at night until the last person leaves the bar (typically 2 a.m.). The island was a welcome retreat from Phnom Penh. Although it was overcast the majority of my stay, the trip was very relaxing. I spent most of my time reading books on the beach, in my hammock, or at the restaurant and bar area.
Ochheuteal Beach, Sihanoukville My Bungalow at Lazy Beach Resort
The boats that transported us between Sihanoukville and KRS
My last day on the island was amazing! We left at 6 a.m. to hike to the other side of the island to visit another gorgeous beach. After rushing back to pack and eat amazing banana crepes with nutella, we climbed into the small boat to be taken back to the larger vessel for the wonderfully calm and beautiful two-hour trip back to Sihanoukville. We had a couple of hours to spend in Sihanoukville before the taxi brought us back to reality, so we visited another beach where a companion's friend worked at the Blame Canada bar and Done Right guesthouse. The weekend was a blast and I am very glad that I had the opportunity to visit one of Cambodia's many breathtaking islands.
Koh Rong Samloem Island Blame Canada Bar at Otres Beach
Otres Beach, Sihanoukville
But even at the beach one cannot avoid the hardships that Cambodians face. On the way to Blame Canada, we passed a makeshift village on the side of the road. We learned from my companion's friend that the government had sold the land out from under the people and that they had temporarily resettled alongside the road. The friend had also just helped raise money to deliver water filtration systems to the village so that they could have clean water. Across Cambodia the government is granting land concessions to companies for economic development at the expense of those living on the land without providing adequate compensation or providing resettlement land hours from their homes and livelihoods.