Recommendations from our recent travels

Tiny and I have just returned from a couple of weeks travelling in Vietnam and Cambodia. We only had two weeks free between the Cultural Diversity in Music Education conference that I presented at in Sydney, and the dates set for my workshops for the MSO at ArtPlay on January 30th. Thus it was a bit of a whirlwind trip, and we packed it full. Read on for descriptions of some of the places that we found especially memorable – we’re happy to recommend them to you.

Duc Vuong Hotel – our place to stay in Saigon

Duc Vuong was a very happy, calm, serene place to stay in the the heart of the frenetic pace and activity that is Saigon. It is on Bui Vien Street, which is the heart of backpacker territory, but we found this area to be much more relaxed and friendly than the districts closer to the War Remnants Museum and other similarly large tourist sites.

We had a room on the top floor of the narrow building. There is a lift. The room wasn’t big, but it had everything you needed it to have. The small bathroom was at the end of the room, and this had a window overlooking all the rooftops in the area. Tiny spent many showers gazing out the window – at his height it was easy, I had to go on tiptoes and crane my next a bit to get the same view.

Duc Vuong has a slogan – “we are a family” – and they do make quite a lot of effort to make you feel welcome and give you chances to interact with your fellow travellers. Breakfast is included, and is a buffet with a range of things, from fresh fruit and juice, to fried rice and noodles. They will also whip up an omelette or pho for you on request. You can also book in for dinner each night, and this is also free (you have to pay for drinks). The hosts get everyone to introduce themselves… I got the impression they almost put on a bit of a song and dance show some nights, but the night we were there it was a little more sedate.

You can help yourself to mineral water anytime you like (there are dispensers on the landing of each floor). The rooms are serviced daily. We paid $22USD a night for our room and it was an excellent choice.

Freedomland – Phu Quoc Island

Next we travelled by plane to Phu Quoc Island. We’d pre-booked to stay at Freedomland, a beautiful, unique place to stay that is kind of a cross between a homestay and eco-resort. We had such a beautiful holiday there. Peter and Rita are perfect hosts – warm and welcoming, making sure you have everything you need, know everything you need, but also have the space you want to make your holiday the way you want it. They have built Freedomland with love – bamboo bungalows, deep, white sand across the ground that cools your feet and is smooth as silk, cool-water showers with shower roses fashioned from coconut shells, an open-air pavilion/patio area where guests gather to chat and eat, hifi speakers cunningly housed in polished coconut shells and attached to the spindly narrow trees in the garden… there is much to delight in.

And the food! Peter is a wonderful chef – a keen, sophisticated sense of flavour and taste that brings all sorts of culinary delights to your plate. If you come to stay here, there is no need to consider eating anywhere else. For us, it was the best food of the holiday. The ‘Vietnamese tapas’ dinner was perhaps even among the best and most memorable meals of my life.

Phu Quoc is billed as Vietnam’s “next big thing” – the sleepy tropical island with its stunning natural landscape that is about to hit the big time, get developed up in a big way, and be Vietnam’s big tourism mecca. We had read descriptions of its “most beautiful beaches in the world”, so our expectations were high. It is beautiful… but it also  suffers from human impact in the form of rubbish (there is no real infrastructure for collecting rubbish, so it piles up everywhere – streets, beaches, gardens). So many guide books describe it as a paradise, and it could be… but it isn’t quite that yet. Still, we loved it. Spent one day riding (very very slowly) on a motorbike around the north of the island (moto is the only way to get around – the roads aren’t good enough for cars), and another on a boat trip out to some small islands where we snorkelled and had a picnic lunch, Vietnamese style, which meant noodles, soup, vegies in soy sauce, and fresh spring rolls. It was very tasty.

We stayed in the Mekong Bungalow – $20 per night.

A funny thing happened the first day we went swimming at the beach nearest Freedomland. I saw a great big black fish hanging around the sea floor right near me. It made me feel nervous – it looked like a groper or something similar. I am a bit short-sighted, so asked Tiny if he could see what it was… he splashed some water near it and it seemed to move. I started to feel very uncomfortable and unsafe, thinking about Steve Irwin and sting rays. Then I saw another one, another big black fish skulking on the sea floor. At this point Tiny got out of the water to get his sunglasses with their polarising lenses so that he could see it more clearly. I swam a little way away, keeping its big blackness in sight, but increasing the distance between us. Neither of us could imagine what kind of fish would be so relaxed and comfortable with humans splashing water in its direction.

It turned out to be a black plastic bag. Two black plastic bags. We laughed at ourselves, make no mistake about that. We also hauled them out of the water, filled them with other rubbish, and that was our first little small-scale effort to clean up whatever patch of beach we found ourselves on. If every visitor did that, perhaps it would take a while for the rubbish to pile up again.

Can Tho – heart of the Mekong

We left Phu Quoc by plane to Rach Gia, and from there caught a local bus to Can Tho. Can Tho seemed a fun city. We only stayed one night, and hadn’t pre-booked anywhere. We stayed at Kim Tho hotel, which is set just off the main riverside drag, and was a quiet and fairly upmarket place to stay. It had the best buffet breakfast of all our travels – annoyingly the morning we were there, we had booked a tour that was leaving at 7.30am, so we had to rush our breakfast. Otherwise, we’d have lingered for sure, as the food was delicious and there was a big range of both Western and Vietnamese breakfast dishes. (The postscript to this story is that the tour guide never arrived for us! We waited until 8am then gave up and went off to find a boat on the river that could take us on our own private tour. Basically, they forgot us. So we could have stayed to eat more breakfast! It was very unfair).

Anyway, $40US per night was the cost of the room. Rooms with a river view cost closer to $50, but they were noisier and after our long bus ride we craved some quiet. That whole afternoon and evening there was a pneumatic drill churning up the riverfront road so any room with a river view was going to be up for a noisy night.

Chau Doc – frontier town

Perhaps the less said about Chau Doc the better. Even the dogs were hostile here! It was odd – so much glorious praise has been written about Chau Doc in the various guide books – the friendliness of the people, the colourfulness of the buildings, the overall charm of the place – but this was not our experience. Chau Doc is the place from which lots of boat trips into Cambodia depart from, and indeed, that was what we were doing there. Perhaps they have learned that no tourist stays for long, so you need to extract their dollars from them as efficiently and expediently as possible. And there is no point in making friends.

We got pan-handled by an eager-beaver, pushy young man on the riverfront to check out his hotel. We got there, it seemed okay, we were tired and figured it would do just fine. But it’s interesting to consider in hindsight how much our Chau Doc experience might have improved if we’d got ourselves out of there and found a nicer place to stay. It was fine… but various ‘extras’ – like cotton sheets to sleep on rather than a 100% nylon bedcover – all had to be negotiated and paid for, and it was a tiring set of negotiations to do after traveling.

making our escape from Chau Doc – we are in separate cyclos, heading to the ferry terminal. Tiny took this photo – if you squint you may see me sitting in the cyclo in front – ponytail, white blouse.

So. No names mentioned (partly because I can’t remember the name of the place we’d stayed). But I would recommend you do your research and choose a hotel before getting there, and definitely avoid any of the touts on the riverfront. Seasoned travellers probably already know this. We were not seasoned at that time. But we are now.

The Golden Mile in Phnom Penh

Street 278 in PP seems a little off the main tourist area when you first direct your tuk-tuk driver to go there from the boat station, but in fact it is a good place to be based. There are quite a few hotels in this street that all have the word ‘Golden’ in their names (hence the reference to the ‘golden mile’). My mum stayed in one called Golden Tour Eiffel when she was in PP for several months in 2008. They were full the day we arrived but steered us toward another – the Golden Bridge Hotel. (There is also Golden Gate, and Golden Sun). It was nice. $17 a night and we had our own bathroom. We started off in a front room at the top of the building, but the crazy Australian hippy woman in the room next door to us had her TV on so damn loud at 4am in the morning that she woke us up. She had the volume up so high she couldn’t even hear us calling for her to turn it down. So we changed rooms and that was no problem at all.

The hotel also has a free laundry service, and they washed, dried and ironed all our clothes in 24 hours, returning them to our room on hangers and placing them in the wardrobe. That was a nice touch. The women who run the place hang out in the foyer wearng their pyjamas (in the evenings, to be fair), watching Cambodian historical dramas and soap operas on the big widescreen TV. You can feel a bit like you are walking through their living room, but they were all very friendly and helpful, and we were happy staying there.

Further down that street, on the same side as Golden Bridge, are a few restaurants. I can’t remember the name of the one that we liked best – it is probably 4 or 5 doors down from Golden Bridge, and sells traditional Khmer food (I think the other places on that side sell Thai and Indian). They had a special offer for amok dishes – 1 amok, plus rice, plus wine, plus fruit for dessert. Tiny loved this place – I think we ate three meals there. He declared it the “best amok of the holiday”. It comes served in a coconut shell and was indeed very delicious.

However, if you are up for a special treat, then a wonderful place to discover divine Khmer food is a restaurant called Malis, at 136 Norodom Blvd, walking distance from 278. The food here was superb. Tiny and I were confused by the menu – it was so glossy, so beautifully photographed (like a gastroporn recipe book), with prices that seemed so reasonable – that we assumed the portions would be really small, so we ordered an entree and a main each.

How wrong we were! We found that Cambodian meals were nearly always of very generous portion. That night at Malis, we savoured every flavour and morsel, but were stuffed to the gills before we were even halfway through our meal. So please be guided by our error – if you are not famished, you could probably share a couple of dishes. And then go back again the next night. And again, and again.

A place to cool down in Temple City – Siem Reap

From PP we flew to Siem Reap (a 50 minute flight for $54 a ticket – bargain. It is a 4-6 hour bus journey). We had two full days of Angkor Wat discovery ahead of us, so we chose a place to stay that offered a Swimming Pool. We figured that would be just the thing to relax our weary bones after a day of ancient monuments.

Quite a lot of Siem Reap establishments include a swimming pool among their attractions. We chose to stay at Green Garden Home Villa, and it was lovely. Breakfast not included, and frankly seemed a bit overpriced, but hey! This is Siem Reap, built on tourism, and food is one of the great cash cows of the tourism business. The breakfast was healthy and fresh and filling, and they start serving at 4.30am (thus taking care of the sunrise-seekers who head off around 5am).

We had a corner room just off the foyer in the main building and with two of the four walls being shared with the courtyard, we wondered if it might be oisy at night, the late-night poot-party revellers. But no, it seems everyone at Green Garden preferred early nights and quiet – there wasn’t a peep to be heard after about 9pm. Perhaps this is the reason to stay a bit away from the more populated tourist areas (which were ten minutes pleasant walk away).

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