The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Tag: Holiday (page 1 of 7)

Adventure in Dalat

If you had told me that I’d be caving, trekking, and rappelling down waterfalls during my travels, I would have believed you. I would have said, “Oh yeah, definitely in New Zealand, or maybe even Montenegro.”

If you had said I’d be doing all these things in Vietnam? I would have scoffed.

And yet there I was, in Dalat, dangling over a churning channel of water that promised to chew me up and spit me out if I let go of the rope. Above me, our guide was shouting “Let go!” The whole point was to get chewed up and spit out.

How did I get here?

You want me to do WHAT?!

You want me to do WHAT?!

I had loosely plotted my time in time in Vietnam — I knew I wanted to work my way north to south, and that I wanted to see the best of the best in the three+ weeks I had allotted myself in the country. Dalat was a question mark to me. I was interested in visiting, and the more I heard about the amazing adventures that were possible in this mountain town, the more it appealed.

Irene and I had no idea that we had timed our arrival in Dalat perfectly with one of the biggest holidays in Vietnam: Independence Day. Since Dalat is in close proximity to Saigon, many city dwellers head to the mountain town to get a break from the humidity and heat of the city. As such, we managed to snag one of the very last rooms at Dalat Family Hostel, and we were very lucky we did. The next morning, there were two girls sleeping in the hallway, and SIX people sleeping in the ‘lobby’ living room on the ground floor.

Sometimes, not planning ahead doesn’t go your way. We were just lucky we got in early enough!

We met several other travelers in our Hostel area through our friendly hostesses. One thing is clear: Dalat is absolutely an up-and-coming destination for young travelers. New hostels are opening, old ones are being renovated, and the town is gearing itself toward Western tourism more than ever before.

With our new group of friends, we went to the town center. At the top of the steps that lead down to the fountain and traffic circle, I was gobsmacked by the sheer volume of human beings that swarmed the area.

I also discovered what Independence Day meant in Vietnam: It was the day American soldiers left the country. 

This means different things, depending on where you are in Vietnam. In the north, it was freedom from tyrannical Western forces trying to impose their ideology on a sovereign nation. In the south, it was the day America abandoned them. Either way, it’s an odd time to be an American in the country. Not that any locals made me feel badly. Quite the contrary, I was always treated kindly and with respect. One old man even stopped me while I was drinking a coffee and starting chatting away about his family in California. But knowing that everyone is in the streets to celebrate the day your country lost a war is an odd feeling, nonetheless. Must be how Brits feel at their first Fourth of July!

We joined in the festivities, trying out Vietnamese pizza (more on that in another post) and mingling with the festivities that crowded the city.

Vietnamese Pizza!

Vietnamese Pizza!

The next day was our canyoning tour!

As I write this, I’ve just heard the news of three young travelers who lost their lives while participating in a tour very much like the one I took. Unfortunately, Vietnam’s tourism isn’t heavily regulated, and many people will take advantage of unknowing travelers to try to make a buck. Which is why this cardinal rule of travel is so important:

Always do your research before participating in anything remotely dangerous.

This is especially true in less-developed nations. I consulted TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet, plus did additional research by reading my favorite bloggers and googling the names of companies that offered the tours. I booked directly with the company rather than go through an agent or our hostel hosts. It just isn’t worth the risk.

Irene and I settled on Groovy Gecko, not because it was the cheapest, but because it was the most heavily vetted. When it comes to safety, you get what you pay for. An extra $10 is well worth coming out the other end alive.

There were several other companies operating alongside us as we meandered our way down the Dasar River to the Dantala Waterfalls, and a look at the equipment and group-to-guide ratio assured me that we had made a good choice.

Confident in our safety, there was nothing left to do but have fun and push the limits of our comfort zone! The photos can tell the story better than I can, but we abseiled a total of four times. The first was a ‘practice run’ down a dry canyon, then we floated for a while toward the Big Mama Jama, the Dantala Fall. In addition to the waterfalls, we got to slide down an all natural ‘rock slide’ and cliff jump. It was an exhilarating, full day of adventure, and one I won’t soon forget.

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Til next time, xoxoxo

The Wizardess

Hoi An: Love at First Sight

I was warned that it might happen , and sure enough, it happened. I fell in love while traveling, hard. And fast. Love-at-first-sight fast.

At first it was a superficial love, an attractive exterior that mesmerized and enchanted. But it quickly went deeper, and I found that everything that lay beneath the surface was just as beautiful as what lay without.

What was the name of my new paramour? Hoi An.

In a country of either gritty and wild cities or sleepy and simple villages, Hoi An stands apart from the rest. Secret laneways, terraces draped in bougainvillea, cobbled streets, and ornate bridges make up the exterior of this charming town. Savvy saleswomen, friendly locals, and sinfully delicious food make up it’s personality. It’s not a sprawling metropolis like Saigon or Hanoi, nor is it the tiny village of Son Trach, with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “main town.” It’s Asia with a French flair, where food and fashion are religion.

So what should you do in this beautiful town? The options are limitless, but after I spent a week here, I can point you in the right direction.

  1. Dine Like a Royal
    Food is serious business in Hoi An, and Central Vietnam has several famous dishes that don’t always feature prominently in the West. But holy hell, are they delicious. Some of my favorite culinary discoveries in Hoi An?
    Cao Lao, a beef and wheat noodle dish that curled around your tastebuds like a warm blanket
    White Rose, a delicate shrimp dumpling that felt like eating a savory cloud
    Banh Xeo, my favorite, a crunchy, savory, heavenly pork pancake that will have you coming back for more
    I also tried the famous Bahn Mi shop that Anthony Bourdain made famous, but I still didn’t think it beat out my favorite, Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi.


    Yummy White Rose dumplings

  2. Get Bespoke Clothing
    Made-to-measure suits, dresses, and jeans? For a fifth of the price of mid-range duds in the States? COUNT ME IN! We met the sisters who run Tu Nhi Clothing on Hoang Dieu in the middle of town on a recommendation from my traveling companion, Irene. The ladies made us feel right at home, and in no time we were measuring every inch of my body for all sorts of new garments! It’s a process that takes a few days, but you won’t want to leave Hoi An anyway, so go for it!


    Discussing the finer points of tailoring

  3.  Explore Ancient Town
    The road shuts down to motorbike and vehicle traffic, and pedestrians cram the cobbled streets of Ancient Town, a relic from the 15th century and a fusion of culture. From the wooden Japanese bridge to distinctly French architectural flourishes,  Ancient Town is unlike any other. At night, you can spend a buck or two and light a paper lantern to float down the river with a wish. The twinkling lights floating away create a magical atmosphere in the warm night air, and for a moment you might think you’ve entered a Disney movie.


    Ancient Town Japanese Bridge

  4. Take a Road Trip to Ancient Temples
    Vietnam’s Hindu history comes to life at the ancient temple complex of My Son, about a 90-minute motorbike drive away from Hoi An. Hopping on a scooter and zipping through small towns and rice fields is half the adventure. The staggeringly old temples, built from the 4th to 14th century (!!) is the other half. Getting a first-hand look at the destruction wreaked by American bombing in Central Vietnam is a sobering dose of reality, the crumbled brick laid by ancient hands lying in piles next to the once-grand edifice.

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    One of the temples at My Son

  5. Learn to Cook Vietnamese Food
    The much-disputed culinary capital of Vietnam (though many will argue a case for Hanoi or Saigon), there are cooking classes aplenty in Hoi An. Highly recommended is Grandma’s Home Cooking Class, which includes a trip to the market and instruction on Vietnamese-style haggling techniques. We were invited into the home of our new friends, the ladies who run Tu Nhi, and we cooked a feast! Homemade spring rolls, banh xeo, cao lao, steamed fish with prawns, and more, all in the comfort of our new friend’s home. Hoianese hospitality knows no limits.


    Our Feast! Made by an American, a Dutch, and a Vietnamese

  6. Go to the Beach!
    Hoi An is one of the few cities in Vietnam that has a beach within it’s limits. The shoreline is crammed with cafes and restaurants, and there are few salesman slinging their wares, but the water is nice, the sand is clean, and you mix with locals as well as tourists as you laze in the sunshine.

The Beach at Hoi An

Hoi An will captivate you from the moment you arrive. Whether you stumble upon temples tucked down back roads, stroll the night markets ablaze with colored lanterns, or linger over Tigers with friends at the restaurants that line the waterfront, you will be sad when it is time to say goodbye.



Phong Nha: Vietnam’s Best-Kept Secret

I’ll be the first to admit: Sometimes I can get a little claustrophobic. I blame this (as always) on my childhood, where my older brother liked to play “let’s see how many tiny spaces I can trap my sister.” As an adult, I can mostly force myself to put mind over matter, unless I’m so confined I can’t stretch out my body. Then I panic.

So I felt a tiny twinge of trepidation as the bus pulled into Son Trach village in central Vietnam. I was about to spend the next two days exploring the caves that had recently been discovered in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park just a few miles away. After hearing about the intensity of exploring the Viet Cong tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City, I was little concerned about the Vietnamese definition of “cave.”


Son Trach is a sleepy little town with only a few accommodation options. Most backpackers opt for the social and fun Easy Tiger Hostel, but we chose to stay just across the street at the Thien Thanh Guesthouse. For two people to share a private room it cost the same per-person as a dorm across the street (about $12 USD). A chance to avoid midnight snoring, farting and potential sexual hijinks? Count me in! Besides, the dining room and bar were open to everyone, so we could still spend most of our time over there anyway.

Our bus arrived from Hanoi painfully early in the morning — about 4 a.m. Fortunately, the Guesthouse was open shortly after the kitchen at Easy Tiger served us breakfast, and we were able to take a quick nap to recharge. The weather wasn’t cooperating when we awoke — the first rain I had seen since Otres Beach in Cambodia was refreshing, but not ideal conditions to be motorbiking through a national forest. Undaunted, we donned the full-body waterproof rain slickers our guesthouse owner provided to us and jumped aboard the motorbike anyway. I let my new friend and travel companion, Irene, do the driving.


The grey sky threw all color on the ground in sharp relief, and we whizzed past chartreuse fields of rice and young corn for a few miles until we reached the entrance of the park. Once inside, karst formations jutted dramatically from flat earth into the misty heavens, their sheer walls a cacophony of salmon, magenta, moss green and charcoal streaks.


We made for Paradise Cave — the most famous of the caves within the park grounds, but one of the easiest to access. Phong Nha only came onto the tourist scene when the park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003, and development has been slow. But the signs of it are afoot at the entrance to Paradise Cave. A newly-built ticketing kiosk and visitor center stands a few steps away from the gravel parking lot. Carefully laid wooden planks pave the way to the mouth of the cave. The cave itself is lit like a movie set, with several sets of stairs and boardwalks ensuring even elderly visitors can make the most of the cave experience.


Once I stepped inside the well-lit cavern, any fears of claustrophobia were chased away immediately. The roof of the cave soared overhead over 300 feet high. Does that even qualify as a cave anymore? The entire length of this cavern is just over 19 miles (sheesh!), but only the first kilometer is accessible via the boardwalks and stairs. There is a tour option to explore the first seven kilometers, if you’re so inclined. Because our time in Phong Nha was short, we opted to stick to the footpaths and spend more time exploring the Dark Cave.


Alas! I was having far too much fun exploring the Dark Cave to take any pictures to prove it. But rest assured, from ziplining across the river, kayaking to the cave entrance, hiking through narrow passageways (not a jot of concern about any claustrophobia!), it was worth every penny.

After shutting off our headlamps at the underground lake to truly experience the darkness this cavern is named for, we squished our way through a narrow, mud-laden channel to an antechamber that was made entirely of mud! It came up to our waists, and it took a while to get past the ‘ick’ factor. Once we did, we found that we floated in the gooey mess if we sat cross-legged. To clean up, a dip in the underground lake just outside the ‘mud room’ did the trick. Our group decided to switch off our headlamps and swim as far out as we could, much to the dismay of our guide.

Phong Nha was a last-minute addition to my itinerary — I decided to go because the Dutch girls I had met in Halong were all heading that way, and I love hiking and trekking. I figured, why not? I ended up discovering one of my favorite places in Asia, if not the world.  I have every intention of going back and spending a lot more time in Son Trach and Phong Nha.

My plans for the return trip? The 4 Day/3 Night Tu Lan Cave Expedition with Oxalis. Let’s go!

Til next time, xoxoxo

The Wizardess

Bucket List Check: Halong Bay

It’s a mystical place where the mountains meet the sea. As we bounced over the highway toward Hai Phong, I met the people I was to spend the next few days with: Two Dutch cousins, a Dutch solo traveler, a German couple living in Kuala Lumpur, and a solo Italian girl who was living in London. In no time, we were all best buds, and I knew the next few days were going to be good ones.

I signed up for the Real Halong Bay Experience at the suggestion of my ever-handy Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. What sold me on it?

  1. The price was right – with so many Halong Tours being hawked in every corner of Hanoi at varying prices, it can be very difficult to know what’s worth the money and what isn’t. This was ‘mid-range,’ which gave me confidence that I wouldn’t be shoved into roach-infested accommodation nor would I be ripped off.
  2. It was recommended by several reputable travel authorities. In addition to the Lonely Planet, this tour also ranked highly on TripAdvisor, and was mentioned in a blog or two. More than one source in agreement? I’m sold!
  3. It covered a lot. Not only would we cruise Halong Bay, which had been reported to be busy and dirty, we were also exploring lesser-traveled Lan Ha Bay. Two for the price of one!



We managed to fit the best of the best into a full day, and rarely ran into any other boats on the water. We docked to kayak the lagoons, which was an incredible experience.



Then we stopped off to swim in the clear waters of Lan Ha Bay for a while. I managed to jump from the second-level deck of the boat into the water with my favorite sunglasses on my head, losing them forever to the turquoise depths of the Bay.


We finally docked an hour before sunset at the private Cat Ong Island, where our ‘dorm’ accommodation was actually just a private bungalow with four of us in there! We shared two to a room, and I ended up in a bungalow with the three Dutchies, who were fun girls.


We hiked to the top of the mountain as a group to catch the sunset. I was the only silly one who decided my flip-flops would make appropriate hiking shoes. Fortunately, I was able to power up the hill leading the pack, in spite of my poor choice of footwear! Coming down? I had to do most of it barefoot. We were treated with an incredible view of the sunset from the highest peak on Cat Ong Island.

After we descended for dinner, we soon found ourselves a couple of bottles of wine deep. We began playing drinking games, and I learned the Dutch version of King’s Cup (it’s WAY more fun than our American version!) and I taught the group the merits of playing flip cup. I must say, the Dutch girls caught on quickly! We pitted boys vs. girls, and the girls won the day!

In no time Diep, our tour guide, was slumped against the wall with drunk eyes, refusing to go to bed until the last of us had finished. We finally retired around 3 a.m., better friends than we had been that morning and making plans to meet up with each other at different points on our journey south through Vietnam.IMG_20150421_173758

Things to See and Do in Hanoi



Get Bia Hoi in Beer Corner:

It’s a budget traveler’s dream: beer for $0.25? YUP!

Bia hoi is beer that is brewed in the morning, and is meant to be consumed within 24 hours. It’s yeasty and feels homemade, but it’s the same vibe that so many fancy craft Belgians strive for with their expensive ‘unfiltered, organic’ brews. For a quarter!

The glasses aren’t huge, but for a couple of bucks you can easily get a solid buzz under the twinkly lights that are stretched across the streets in the center of Old Quarter. Hundreds of travelers sit on tiny plastic chairs as glass after glass of the good stuff disappears until it’s sold out.

Want to cheers your new Vietnamese friends? Here’s how: Hold your glass up and say: Mot Hai Ba Zo!

Get the Best Sandwich You’ll Ever Have:

On a narrow side street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a cart stands on the sidewalk. Low plastic chairs are scattered casually around the cart, and tables are nothing more than planks of wood on plastic crates. A young Vietnamese man with a kind face, or his pretty wife will be standing at the cart, asking which Bahn Mi you would like to have. The menu is limited, there are maybe five options. But each one is a revelation of flavor.

I opted for the traditional Bahn Mi: Pork and Pate, with chili (you’ve got to have chili). And everything about it was perfection.

Light, fluffy bread with a crunchy crust. Creamy, savory pate (family secret recipe, the man tells me), beautifully seasoned pork, some daikon, carrots and cilantro for crunch, and just enough spice to keep things interesting.

Banh Mi 25 (this is the name of this ‘restaurant’) is a must-do if you visit Hanoi. Go for the food. Stay for the people.

My first evening in Hanoi, I ended up sitting around one of those tables with two Brits, a Welsh guy, and a newly-married Aussie couple for hours, downing Tigers and swapping travel stories until my train to SaPa was about to depart.

I brought my Dutch friends to try the sandwiches, and we spent time playing with the couple’s adorable son and daughter for an hour.

And when we made a final sandwich run before our bus departed for points south, the grandfather pushed glasses of tea into our hands with smiles and nods in place of words he didn’t know how to speak in English.


The History: It’s More Than the War

Many American visitors to Vietnam visit the war museum in Saigon, and I understand the reasons why. But I’m generally more interested in a country in it’s own context, rather than only learning how one nation’s history relates to my own country.

So we visited the National History Museum in Hanoi, which tells the story of Vietnam from the times of Feudal Tribes thousands of years B.C. all the way through to modern times. In this context, the war with America is but a blip in a long, storied history. As if sensing that Saigon has it covered, the National History Museum makes but a passing reference to the conflict with the West, and focuses on the art and artifacts from ancient times.

National History Museum

National History Museum

Try the Food: 

I came to Vietnam to eat. I already knew I loved Vietnamese food, and I was excited to get to tasting the real deal. Rather than wade through dozens of conflicting reviews on the various travel sites to find the best restaurants, I simply booked a highly-recommended street food walking tour. There was a daytime and nighttime option, and since I was on my own I figured night would be better, because nightlife.

The Verdict? It was amazing!

A group of six other really awesome people? Check.

The coolest, nicest, most fun tour guide, Johnny? Check.

A night of stuffing my face with half a dozen Vietnamese delicacies until I looked pregnant and vaguely hated myself? Double check.

We tried pho, we tried spring rolls, we tried bahn xeo (hold the freaking phone, that stuff is delicious), we tried duck, we tried bahn mi, we tried everything you can think that’s traditional Vietnamese yummy. And it was all yummy.  Our guide took us to all the hole-in-the-wall spots I never would have found on my own, down narrow alleys and even through the setup of a wedding! He let nothing stop him from giving us the best of the best.

If you want to do the same tour, look for Awesome Travel’s Street Food on Foot Tour (and try to haggle them down a few bucks by booking in person). If he still works there, ask for Johnny. He is awesome!

Cheers! On Beer Corner

Here’s Johnny! On Beer Corner

Culinary Explorations

Bahn Xeo: My New Fave Vietnamese Dish

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum:

One of the more macabre things to do in Hanoi (at least to us Westerners), is to view the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh (yes, the actual HCM) at his imposing Mausoleum in Hanoi.

The body of Ho Chi Minh is sent to Russia once per year to be re-embalmed, and many Northern Vietnamese visit the Mausoleum to show their respect for their former leader.

I stood in the line with my tall, blonde and blue-eyed Dutch friends, sticking out like sore thumbs amidst the nicely-dressed Vietnamese that surrounded us. Signs posted warned us not to speak or take photos of the body, as this is a sign of great disrespect. Thus, I cannot share with you what HCM looked like in visual form.

But the vision of that small, unassuming, waxy figure lying in repose, his hands folded over his belly and his eyes closed as if in sleep, that vision will probably stay in mind’s eye forever, anyway.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

Bac Ha Market

The only things brighter than the beating sun are the garments of the Hmong.

Wade into the bustle and brightness to watch and participate in the weekly trade. Part shopping center for the village tribespeople, part tourist attraction, nothing will make you feel so foreign as a morning at the Bac Ha Sunday Market.

IMG_20150419_112455 (1) IMG_20150419_112103 (1) IMG_20150419_110010 (1)

Reeling in tourists with the beautiful colors of their dress, tribeswomen do their best to sell a little piece of the color that makes them so unique.

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Puppies, chickens, pigs, even water buffalo — Nothing is off limits when it comes to making some money at the markets.


Babies strapped to the backs of their impossibly small, impossibly young mothers sleep serenely through the fevered negotiations, the shouts of merchants, the screech of chickens.

IMG_20150419_113047Richly-colored thread — now made in China — is sold to the locals so they can embroider their intricate designs.

How to Visit:

When: The Bac Ha market is only on Sundays, so plan your Northern Mountains Travel accordingly.

How: There are plenty of bus and tour connections available from SaPa. Booking a day in advance is best, since the market is a good 90+ minutes from SaPa town.

Cost: It will vary, but about $19 should get you a day tour to the Bac Ha Market.

The Mountains of Vietnam

I had gotten dropped off at the locals’ train station.

I didn’t even realize it until I was left at the glittery, neon-signed tourist train station when I came back hours later to catch my train in Hanoi. After trudging around the block to the dingy, quiet train station where I had bought my ticket, I realized that this was actually a win.

I had only paid $24 for a trip to SaPa – everywhere else online had told me it’d be $40. I worried about the quality of my bunk, but figured there was nothing to be done.

My room for the night

My room for the night

I was one of the first people on my train car, and I nearly jumped up and down clapping at the sight of the spacious 4-bed bunks. I settled myself in, claimed the charger space, and immediately made myself cozy. Fortunately, my only bunkmate was an elderly Vietnamese man with zero English. Unfortunately for me, he was a smoker in a country with zero smoking regulations.

I finally dropped off into a deep sleep a couple of hours after midnight, about halfway through the train journey. When I fell asleep, we were whizzing through the dark. And now all around us unfolded a misty mountain wonderland. Was I still in the same hot, humid country I’d left the night before?

I was glued to the windows as we passed through rice paddies with farmers already hard at work, their pointed hats bent over their labor, backs hunched. Mountains rose up behind them, the peaks shrouded in mist. Everything was green, bathed in that early morning glow that lights everything up from within.



As we changed from the train to a van, we wound our way up the terraced mountainsides, pine trees reaching for the sky. Soon, women in rich colors and patterns shuffled along the roadsides, dogs at their heels and children on their backs. They were shorter, their faces rounder, their eyes narrower.  The Hmong tribespeople were a class of Vietnamese all their own, their very garments a celebration of a culture they refused to abandon.

SaPa was a breath of fresh air all it’s own – after weeks of heavy humidity, it was a blessing to breathe in cool mountain air. The Fan Xi Pan Mountains jutted majestically above everything, knifing the sky with it’s harsh crags. Waterfalls fell from the peaks, and trails beckoned. The town was curious mix of Vietnamese exotic and a typical mountain village — perhaps some things are universal, like the towering pines in the village center, or the log-cabin construction.

Perhaps if anything is universal, it’s the mountains and the feeling that they give us. Their forests wrap you in a hug, their peaks remind you of how small you are, and their valley vistas are the closest a human being can get to flying with both feet on the ground.




I hired a motorbike driver and we took off onto the winding mountain roads, stopping off to explore waterfalls, to gape at the mountain peaks, and to admire the geometric terracing that raced up mountainsides and across valley floors. All around, daily life for the mountain villagers carried on: women trimmed bamboo, a man herded water buffalo down the road, stall owners chatted with each other on the roadside.



As I descended the mountains a few days later, I knew I would miss the feeling of being wrapped so entirely in nature’s beauty. Little did I know that I was bound for a place where the mountains met the sea.

Welcome to Cambodia

Cambodia has become synonymous with the 400+ square-kilometer temple compound of Angkor, found just outside of Siem Reap. And it is stunning. But Cambodia is so much more than that, and is worth a lot more time than most visitors give it.

In addition to a few days touring the temples, here are a few of the other places and things worth doing:

  1. Volunteer: I spent a week with children at the Missionaries of Charity in Siem Reap, and it was one of the most heartbreaking and fulfilling experiences of my travels. There is so much need in Cambodia, and so much opportunity to help. I was lucky to spend time with a big group of volunteers from the UK and Australia, who assisted with anything from teaching English to providing legal assistance to an NGO focused on preventing spousal abuse in rural villages. The Cambodians are such beautiful, kind people that it’s almost impossible not to help.
  2. Go Island Hopping: Cambodia’s coast has islands to rival those of Thailand, with easily 1/3 the traffic. Still relatively undiscovered but with enough amenities to be comfortable, Rabbit Island, Koh Rong, and Koh Rong Sanloem are well worth a few days stay. Or you can park yourself in the sleepy Otres Beach or party-town Sihanoukville and take day trips that will hop amongst the smaller islands just off the coast.
  3. See a Different Side of Khmer Rouge Atrocities in Battambang: Phnom Penh is the most famous for it’s killing fields, where millions of innocent Cambodians were ruthlessly slaughtered by the army led by Pol Pot. Because of an increase in petty theft crimes in Phnom Penh, I opted to avoid the city as much as possible. However, I still wanted to experience and understand the history of the country. In Battambang, we took a day tour, which included a stop at a Killing Cave, where Cambodians were tossed 50+ feet to their deaths. It’s a chilling experience, and hiring one of the local students is well worth the cash for the history lesson.
  4. Get a Taste of Local Life in Kampot: This largely rural area isn’t a top ranker for tourists (other than the French), but it is a charming city with heaps of waterfront accommodation options along the Kampot River. Plus, the best pepper in the world is grown in plantations just outside of town, and one of the oldest temples is nestled in a cave in a national park. I had one of the best days of my life on the back of a motorbike zipping through the village roads outside of Kampot.
  5. Learn to Cook Cambodian Cuisine: Thai food is an old staple, and anyone can whip up a curry without much skill. But how many people can say they know how to cook Fish Amok or Beef Lok Lak? These are two typical Cambodian dishes that are really delicious. Unlike Thai food, Cambodian food isn’t spicy, so you don’t need to worry about alienating your capsaicin-fearing friends.

And here are some practical details for a visit to Cambodia.

Getting Around: 

  1. Bus Companies: There are many bus companies that will take you almost anywhere you want to go. The best of these, without a doubt, is Giant IbisEspecially if you’re traveling overnight anywhere, like I did from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, you will not regret spending the extra money on a sleeper bus ticket with GI. The beds fully recline, there is an outlet and lamp for each individual bed, and your own air conditioning vent that you can adjust at will. If you have to sleep on a bus, this is the way to do it. Pro Tip: Get a top bunk, because full buses mean that sometimes someone will stretch out in the aisle… directly next to you.
  2. Share Taxis: If you find yourself in jam, like I did when I wasn’t switched onto the right bus just before Khmer New Year, there is a share taxi option. This is faster, but very tight, and usually a little more expensive than a bus. A typical sedan will cram four people in the back seat, and sometimes two in the front, so get ready to get cozy with the Cambodians! You can try to get more space by purchasing two seats. Recommended for shorter trips only.
  3. Private Taxis/Tuk Tuks/Motorbikes: Jumping on the back of a motorbike is by far the cheapest option to get from A to B, provided you are traveling solo. It’s a fantastic way to really take in everything around you, and it’s the most direct and quickest way to get wherever you want to go. Just be cautious, the drivers don’t always have extra helmets for passengers. Because of the lack of paved roads in many parts of Cambodia, grab a surgeon’s mask from one of the kiosks on the side of the road that sells gasoline.


  • They use the US Dollar! This makes things so easy for us Americans, since no currency exchanging is necessary at all. However, many merchants will not accept bills manufactured before 1975, and if the bill is ripped or overly creased, it will be denied. I learned this the hard way trying to buy my pass to Angkor with a bill that didn’t pass muster. If a merchant tries to give you shoddy bills as change, hand it back and ask for a new one. It’s a common practice in Cambodia and not considered rude.


  • I started off staying at the highly-recommended Mad Monkey in Siem Reap, and ended up with the worst case of bedbugs I’d ever had in my life. Because of this, it was the last time I used a dorm room in all of Southeast Asia. Because of my intense reaction to bedbug bites, it wasn’t worth saving a few bucks. In fact, I spent any savings I would have had on medicine and getting my bags and clothing cleaned and treated. Thumbs down.
  • However, I was able to negotiate my way into a hotel room, with air conditioning, a nice shower, and included breakfast, for $15/night. Online, the price was double! It never hurts to walk in and negotiate.

Living the High Life in Saigon

If it hadn’t been for the Vietnamese on the signs that lined the frenetic streets, I could have mistaken it for New York. High rises towered above, streets clogged with motor and foot traffic, men in business suits bustled down sidewalks, and neon signs advertised everything from Coca Cola to the evening news.

Sure, there were still the markers of a large Asian city: Banh Mi and Pho street carts, alleyways full of stalls bursting with fresh produce, live poultry and very dead, yet-to-be-butchered pigs.

But Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), was a mad mix of it’s Vietnamese roots and it’s love affair with the West. Perhaps because it was home to many American soldiers during the Vietnam War, perhaps because of it’s proximity to economic giant China, or perhaps because Westerners are flocking toward the opportunity in Asia, Saigon was a surprise.

I was lucky to have a host for my time the city, a friend I had worked with in Seattle who had moved here to continue his career in advertising. After two months in Asia, I decided to take a (little) break from Asian food, and so we set out to eat and drink our way through this glittering metropolis.

Where We Ate: 

Cuisine: Mediterranean
Price: $20 – $35 USD for appetizer, main, and wine.
Walk into this cozy, tasteful little bistro, and expect an immediate and effusive greeting from either the lovely staff or the French-Vietnamese owner. Upon sitting, you’ll be brought a glass of champagne (gratis!) and an overview of the specials for the day. They take their food very seriously, and have a menu that will leave you struggling to make a decision. I dined entirely off the specials menu, which consisted of a baked brie appetizer (I hadn’t had cheese in ages!) and a seafood paella that was very delicious. I also was finally able to indulge in red wine! To end the meal, a limoncello shot and a fragrant flower bracelet. By Vietnamese standards, it was a ‘splash out’ meal, but for less than $40 USD I was stuffed, tipsy, and definitely happy.

Baked Brie

Finally… CHEESE!


The roof inside Saffron – clay pots
















Urban Kitchen + Bar
Cuisine: Vietnamese-Western Fusion
Price: $12 – $18 for brunch
The interior of this industrial space made me feel tres chic as I sipped my Vietnamese coffee in a desperate attempt to rid myself of a hangover. We had come for their weekend brunch, and I dug into my baked eggs and bacon hash with gusto as coffee after coffee disappeared. This was a locals place if ever there was one – in the heart of Japan Town, surrounded by upper-class Vietnamese and other expats, with a menu to match. It apparently also does a good business as a late-night cocktail and snacks bar, too.

YUMMY Hangover Brunch @ Urban Kitchen

YUMMY Hangover Brunch @ Urban Kitchen

Cuisine: French Bistro
Price: $7 – 14 for lunch
The hipster movement hasn’t left Vietnam untouched, if this boutique/home goods shop/bistro is any indication. It’s the sort of place I’d park with my laptop all day, ordering Croque Madames and coffees and pretending I was penning the next great American (Vietnamese?) novel. The shop has all sorts of interesting and adorable trinkets that would make very unique souvenirs or gifts for friends and family back home. Just beware, the price of goods within the shop match American prices – no deals here!

So French! So Creative!

So French! So Creative!

Secret Garden
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Price: $10 – $12 for dinner
I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one Vietnamese restaurant in my culinary tour of HCMC. Set in a pretty courtyard on the top floor of an easily-missed building in a laneway, this one is worth seeking out. It’s authentic, it’s not flashy, and the food is delicious. And it’s cheap! Maybe not street-cart cheap, but inexpensive enough to miss on your credit statement.


Where We Drank:

Glow Skybar
What’s a big weekend out without an evening on a rooftop? Here I started off with a (strong) martini, and the rest of night got fuzzy pretty soon thereafter. If you want to avoid the backpacker scene and see what a weekend out would look like if you lived and worked here, this is place to go. It’s a see-and-be-seen sort of spot where the locals always seem to run into a friend or two.

Just getting the night started...

Just getting the night started…

Another rooftop bar? These seem to be the the thing to do for the business crowd of this city. This one is a little flashier, and little more colorful, but also with good cocktails and service.


I’ll be honest: My memory of this place is pretty fuzzy. I recall a huge bar in the middle of the place, a luxe VIP area and bottle service with some heavy-hitters in the Saigon advertising scene, dancing in a cage for a few minutes, and little else. But I’m assured by my guide that it is indeed one of the more fun places to visit, if you aren’t white girl wasted like I was.

It's a cage. But it's fuzzy, like we were by this point in the night...

It’s a cage. But it’s fuzzy, like we were by this point in the night…

After only a few days in the city, I could almost see myself living there. With so much influence from the US and Europe, many of the creature comforts of home are readily catered to, and with a booming economy, opportunity abounds. Don’t be surprised if Ho Chi Minh City is the next ‘it’ place for city-lovers to live in Southeast Asia.

The Back Roads of Kampot

The air was fresh and dewy, the sun not high enough in sky to bring the thick heat that would soon roll over the fields we sped through, a plume of dust feathering out behind us like a golden jetstream.

I watched as bamboo huts, palm trees, small gardens and wide open fields whipped by, scenes from a life so different from my own playing out in montages around me. A barefoot little boy running after a chicken. A thick woman with glossy dark hair falling over her shoulders as she swept a porch. A pot-bellied, shirtless old man smoking a cigarette, crouched over the disassembled motor of a bike.

Everything seemed clean in that early morning light, the promise of a new day stretching out in front of all of us in this dusty back road behind the city of Kampot.

We arrived at our destination, and I hopped off the back of the motorbike. Dozens of little boys ran over, but stopped short a few feet away, brown eyes shyly avoiding contact with me, but giggling with each other. One came forward and asked me in perfect English, “Ma’am, would you like a guide to show you the temple?”


My friend Dara at the mouth of the cave

With the assurance that I only needed to pay a tip of my choosing, I was led up a steep set of stone steps by an officious-but-slightly-bored Dara and an entourage of young boys fanning out around me, scrambling over rocks, dancing ahead on the steps, trailing behind, afraid to get too close but desperate not to miss the action.


After much encouragement, they finally crowded in for a photo

It was the start of one of the best days of my travels. There wasn’t any particular reason why it was the best, other than the restoration of a peace, a contentment, that had gone missing for a few weeks. It wasn’t the 4th century temple I visited, but it might have been the mischievous smiles of the little boys who accompanied me there. It wasn’t the pepper plantation or the salt flats I saw, but it might have been the pride of my driver, who explained in broken and limited English how these supply all of Cambodia and most of Vietnam. It wasn’t the roads that we traveled, but it might have been the fresh air in my face and my hair as we sped along. It wasn’t the sleepy river city of Kampot, but perhaps it was wildness of it’s riverfront, or the unworried steadiness of it’s countryside.

I spent the entire day with a man I didn’t know and would never see again, using sign language and a few words of English to communicate.

I glided on the river and watched the fisherman coming in at dark, the trees lit up like Christmas trees from the fireflies.

And as I departed the next day for Vietnam, I knew that somehow I had found my equilibrium on the back roads of Kampot.

Phnom Chhngok Temple

Phnom Chhngok Temple, the ancient temple in a cave in the mountains

Kampot Countryside

Those backroads


The salt flats of Kampot


The pepper plantation


Kampot River Cruising


Rustic accommodation on the river’s edge


Pride of Kampot: It’s world-renowned peppercorns

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