The Khmer Rouge Genocide: Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek

I will again preface this with I am not a professional historian so what is conveyed bellow is what I understand to be correct. If you know more and would like to educate me further, please reach out so I can correct any misinformation. Thanks.

Something which is known by some, but largely forgotten by the international community, is the atrocities which occurred in Cambodia under the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s. Building off the countries anger from the aggressive bombings throughout the country by the US during the second Indochine war (Vietnam War), the communist fanatic Pol Pot was able to raise a militia and take control of the country. Pol Pot had been raised by a farming family in Cambodia, and got an education in the capital while living with his brother who worked in the royal palace. Later he moved to France, where he furthered his education, and became a strong following member of the French communist party. Upon his return to Cambodia he grew in the ranks of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and eventually headed the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge militia overran Phnom Penh as well as most other major cities later in 1975, and the people welcomed them as a liberation force. Pol Pot wasted no time and quickly drained all populated areas of people and within three days there were fewer than a couple hundred people in the capital city. He told the people it was to protect them from any further air raids, but little did they know it was the beginning of a systematic plan which ended up killing more than a third of the country less than four years. Pol Pot claimed they were giving the country back the the famers and peasants and moving people out of the cities and having them begin working in the fields would increase the prosperity of the country. However Pol Pot and the high members of the Khmer Rouge deeply distrusted any intellectuals thinking they might turn agains this new power. Doctors, teachers, skilled professionals, politicians, were rounded up and taken to prisons where they couldn’t rebel. These prisons were particularly dark. Here prisoners were not just held, but tortured repeatedly until they wrote forced confessions claiming they had been plotting against the Khmer Rouge. Once they confessed they were taken out of prisons and put to death for their crimes against the Ankor. The Khmer Rouge had abolished any religion and replaced it with worship to the Ankor, the high powers in Khmer Rouge. As such many monks and religious figures were also brought to the prisons. In just a few months these prisons and killing fields sprouted up all over the country and a systematic culling of the population began.

One such prison, S-21, one of the largest in Cambodia, was located right in Phnom Penh and has been converted to a museum to honor those lost and to teach the horrific acts of the Khmer Rouge so they will never be forgotten. A primary school before the Khmer Rouge take over, class rooms were converted to holding cells, which would contain 50+ prisoners shackled to the floor. Other class rooms were converted to the torture chambers where “interrogators” would torture prisoners until they confessed and were sent to the killing fields. The museum explains the horrific conditions people were held in, and the even worse method of torture that were used. Everything from beating, to waterboarding, to being hung upside down till the blood in your head caused you to pass out, only to be dunked in a vat of rotten food and human feces to cause you to come back to consciousness. Interrogators were frequently children who were brainwashed by the Khmer Rouge head of prisons, Duch. While they were torturing prisoners, the Khmer Rouge had a very backwards control over their people. Saying they were rooting out traitors, no one was allowed to be killed until they had signed a written confession of their crimes against the Ankor. Interrogators could themselves become prisoners if they crossed a line and accidentally killed their victims in the process of getting a confession. As the Khmer Rouge rule continued, prisoners went from just intellectuals and religious figures to just about anyone the Ankor deemed “dangerous”. These “dangerous individuals” included children, simple farmers (the people Pol Pot said he was fighting for) and even a few unlucky foreigners who stumbled into Cambodian borders during the Khmer Rouge reign. Believing they were actually rooting out enemies of the state, these prisons kept detailed reports on all the prisoners who came through. In the four years of their reign, 21,000 prisoners went through S-21 alone. Only 4 survived.

Walking through this tainted place you can feel the destructive power the Khmer Rouge had over the county. Pictures from the prison’s records adorn the walls as you walk along and listen to an audio tour that tells the story of the Khmer Rouge and what happened at the prisons. To this day people still come to sort through the records recovered to see if loved ones they had been separated from had become prisoners and later victims of the genocide. Not for the feint of heart, the audio tour takes you through a journey showing the destruction this place had, not only on the prisoners, but their families, and even the people who worked there.

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Map of the spread of torture prisons and mass grave sights the country

After visiting S-21 we continued on the depressing tour 15km out of the city to Choeng Ek, commonly known as the killing fields. One of many which accompanied the numerous torture prisons spread across the country these were the sights were the “confessed” prisoners were taken to be executed. Another audio tour walks you through the place where the 21,000 prisoners of S-21 were murdered. Depressions in the ground mark were mass graves were dug and a practically constant stream of people were executed for four years straight. Deeming bullets too valuable, the Khmer Rouge found horrific ways to kill victims. Most involving blunt force by metal rods, machetes, tilling hoes, hard sticks, and just about whatever else they could get there hands on. Prisoners were typically brought out at night by the truckload so no one knew where they were going. They were blind folded and forced into sheds, not knowing their fate listening to the sound of loud diesel generators and blasting propaganda music to drown out the cries of those ahead of them. Soon after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 these sights were discovered and many of the remains were exhumed and cataloged, however as you walk around the grounds new bits of bone and clothes regularly make their way to the surface and can be seen across the ground.

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“The Killing Tree”, with the now covered mass grave of its victims next to it.

One of the hardest parts for me was “the killing tree”. Babies would be stripped from their mothers arms and taken to this tree, where their heads were smashed against the hard bark and they were thrown into the mass graves beside it. If S-21 was hard, the killing fields themselves hold an even deeper level of eerie dark power. The exact numbers are still not known but somewhere between 1.7-2.5 million people were killed this way between 1975-1979.

The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge didn’t end with just their direct murder of a significant portion of the country. Further losses of life occurred from the forced labor when Pol Pot demanded rice production be tripled in the country. People of all ages, many of whom had no idea what they were doing were sent to work in the rice paddies. However much of this increased production was sold to China to purchase weapons for the Khmer Rouge fighters, leaving 10s to 100s of thousands of more people to die of starvation.

The Khmer Rouge finally fell from power in 1979 when they were run out of the capital by Cambodian rebels backed strongly by Vietnamese troops. However many of the heads of the Khmer Rouge lived on in Cambodia, including Pol Pot who lived until 1993 when he died in his home on the Thai border. Following the fall of the Khmer Rouge the Cambodian Peoples Party was formed with he help of the Vietnamese government. Yet somehow, even after the killing fields were discovered and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge were known the UN still recognized the Khmer Rouge as the ruling party of Cambodia until 1989! Having recently lost the Vietnam War the US refused to back a Vietnamese aided communist government so instead they recognized known murders for almost 10 years!

Phnom Penh: Not Exactly My Favorite

The bus ride across the border into Cambodia was easy and pretty fast. The bus took us straight to the center of Phnom Penh, where we got a tuk tuk to our hostel. While it may not be nearly as interesting to anyone else, I’ve been having a great time seeing all the tuk tuk variants that each country uses. And Cambodia’s are definitely a bit different. Unlike the three wheeled cars of Thailand, or the “side tuk” of Vietnam, in Cambodia they use “fifth wheel” type trailer pulled behind none other than a 125cc scooter. Even more astounding is there use of scooters to haul “busses” which are similar to the tuk trucks but frequently carry around 12+ people!!! (Seen above it is literally the only photo I took while in Phnom Penh). Cambodia has truly taught me the power of these little machines in many ways. I love the small differences you find between countries which are so similar in many ways but definitely individuals. As they say in Thailand. “Same Same, but different “.

Anyways, we got to our hostel and took the day walking around the city to see some of the main sights. Namely the waterfront, which is the hub of tourist activity, and the Royal Palace. And I’ve got to say, while it is interesting, Cambodias got nothing on the Thai Royal Palace in Bangkok. Apart from that my first impressions of Phnom Penh (PP) weren’t spectacular. On the bus and border crossing we talked to an older American guy who had lived in PP about 10 years ago and had travelled back a few times since then. He told us about the remarkably rapid growth in the capital city in that time, and how it recently blossomed from the small riverside village he knew when he lived there. All that rapid growth has lead to a big city that doesn’t really know what to do with itself, full of traffic, less desirable types, and a truly overstressed sewer system. STANKY! On a tuk tuk ride headed out of the city to see the killing fields (more on that later), we saw massive developments going up. Unfortunately however, these are all luxury apartment housing and massive shopping malls built to service the ultra wealth and the large influx of Chinese “entrepreneurs” into the country. These complexes seem vastly out of place when contrasted with the shanty huts that are also scattered around the outskirts of PP. It’s just sad to see so much development and growth that is very clearly not going toward helping the Cambodian people most of whom, if well-off, make about $110 / month.

Furthermore, that first night, Athena and I went out to experience the PP nightlife that we’d heard a lot about. Huge sections of the city are street after street lined with bars, but some of the things we saw definitely weren’t our ideal vibes. Many of the streets sport “hostess bars”, which are glorified brothels emanating a particularly sleazy vibe. Even worse was when we were walking down a street and we saw a tuk tuk pull up to a bar and an old man who must have been at least 65-70 got out holding hands with a girl who couldn’t have been more than 10 walking towards a bar. Suddenly I became significantly more aware of all the single older men travelers I had seen, some of whom had been taking naps during the day to be able to go out at night and my stomach turned. I hope I’m just a judgmental individual, but it is VERY clear that sex tourism is very much alive in PP. Of all of the the places we’ve travelled in South East Asia, this was the first place that I didn’t feel completely safe, and was very conscious of where my wallet was at all times.

After that rather unpleasant experience Athena and I headed back to our room calling it a night and getting ready for our depressing day tomorrow. The next day we visited Tuol Sleng War Museum and Choeung Ek otherwise known as the killing fields. These two sights, which explain in depth the horrors experience in Cambodia during Cambodian Genocide from 1975-1979, are overwhelmingly heart wrenching. While I can tell you what we learned was disturbing, educational,  and depressing, they deserve their own story.

After our two night “layover” in Phnom Penh, both Athena and I were quite ready get out of the city and head south to spend New Years on the Island of Ko Rong Samloem with Janine, our Kiwi friend from Dalat.

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Originally we had wanted to spend Christmas on an beach somewhere but after our quick 2 day stop in Mui Ne we decided not to stay there. And Phu Quoc, the Vietnamese island in the south, was supposed to get hit with a major storm. So as we have many times before, we modified our plans and decided to spend our foreign Christmas in good ‘ole SAIGON!!

*Quick note on Mui Ne: I’m sure it can be nice, and no doubt there are party hostels if that’s what you want, but both Athena and I found 2 days was more than enough time there. The beach front is entirely claimed by resorts that you have to either sneak onto or pay to use. That, an astronomical amount of Russians on holiday, and neon lit store fronts with aggressive hawkers make it for an all around B- experience. Oh and Athena hit the trifecta of deaths seeing a dead bird, dead fish, and a dead rat all within 10m on the beach. But hey there’s a really fantastic Indian restaurant called Ganesh India!

So we got into Ho Chi Minh on the 23rd and we spent Christmas Eve Eve at a hostel in District 1, the backpacker central. Walking from the bus stop to the hostel we immediately understood why they call Saigon the crazy city. Holy sh*t f*ck*n hell! Hanoi’s got nothing on the madness that is traffic in this city. There are NO rules. It probably didn’t help that we arrived in the city right around rush hour but you’ll be walking down what you’re pretty sure is a sidewalk / motorbike parking lot, to be suddenly confronted by a motorbike coming straight at you, going the wrong direction, honking madly like you’re the one who’s not where they’re supposed to be. It’s all quite an experience. But we made it safe and sound. We dropped our stuff and went to check out Bien Thien, the hot nightlife bar scene of HCMC. In standard fashion we grabbed a drink walked around a bit and were back at our place by 10pm. Going out and getting drunk is great and all but it’s tiring and expensive (even if beers are only like 75¢).

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Spotted this bar on the main bar street. RIP Don-key

We woke up Christmas Eve morning with a plan! We’d decided to get a nice apartment for ourselves with a kitchen were we could hold up for a few nights and pretend like we weren’t traveling for a second. We woke up and parted ways for the first time in the last two and a half months for two whole hours to frantically search the city for little last minute gifts so that we’d have something to open on that fateful day. We serendipitously met up on yet another life threatening street crossing right after we had both finished shopping.

Still having a decent chunk of the day left we headed over to the War Remnants Museum. Outside are all manner of big pieces of left-behind US military equipment, from artillery pieces to helicopters and fighter planes. Inside however tells the tail of the US war of aggression against the north Vietnamese who were simply fighting for their own governmental freedom from the US puppet government of Saigon. And while yes there is definitely a slight propagandist bias they don’t sugarcoat the war in the way it is taught in the US. Stories of villages of innocent civilians that were slaughtered and whose homes were burnt to the ground are all to frequent. Atrocities such as prisoners being thrown out of helicopters alive with photos to prove it really make you see the war in a whole new angle.dsc03044

Quotations from intellectuals from all over the world condemning the actions of the US as aggressive war crimes aren’t hard to believe.

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I will say they do a remarkable job of noting instances of protest to the war in the US, such as the Kent shootings, to show it was not the American people but the government who had caused this war. Additional exhibits on the effects of agent Orange (dioxin), both ecologically and congenitally in the birth defects that survive 4 generations later, are not easy to stomach. Dioxin is one of the most harmful chemicals known to man, and exhibits paint a picture of the US knowingly testing this new chemical agent on the people of Vietnam, and their own soldiers, to research its effects for future wars. The contrast between the well maintained machines of death on the outside of the museum which in ways glorify war to the horrifying images and stories told within show an entirely new view on the “American war of aggression”.

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Artsy shot of our apartment using that vertical pano

After our uplifting afternoon we found a food co-op and got groceries to make ourselves a proper home cooked Christmas feast. Being both limited and wanting a slice of home, we decided on a pasta and homemade sauce with a creamy tomato soup (which I had been craving for weeks), garlic bread, green beans and some mashed potatoes. With our ingredients in hand we grabbed our bags and moved to our apartment. After some secret present wrapping and a candy cane provided by miss Athena, we had a proper fake plant Christmas tree! We closed our blinds of our 15th floor apartment, and apart from faint Vietnamese karaoke (the worst in the world, like seriously how is this whole country so tone def) you wouldn’t even know you were abroad. We started cooking dinner and realized that in our haste at the grocery store we had grabbed a bundle of shallots instead of garlic…garlic being the mainstay of our entire meal. Oh well we made it work, sort of, and enjoyed a nice dinner by a YouTube fireplace.

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The morning finally came and somehow Santa managed to fit through the computer screen and deposit our gifts below our Christmas bush. And the spoils were good! Mostly little necessities we had lost along the way or had wanted for a while but weren’t in a city, but the icing on the cake was something extra special. The day before, after we’d bought our gifts, I realized that this would be my first Christmas without a token Lego. When I was a kid I was obsessed and that’s all I wanted. and in tradition every year my mom would get me a little something to put together on Christmas Day. And Athena played along with my disappointment, so imagine my surprise when Christmas Day I open one of my presents and here is a knockoff Vietnamese lego dude…ON A MOTORCYCLE!!! I knew I chose the right girl to marry 🙂

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Christmas bush and another youtube fireplace

After a leisurely morning we set off for our one outing for the day. A family tradition of mine, we went to see a movie on Christmas Day. Since Christmas was just another Tuesday for most of Saigon, getting tickets wasn’t too hard. So we decided to go see the only half decent English film in HCMC, Aquaman. Wouldn’t have been my first choice but it was alright. The real experience though was the 10 seat private theater with HUGE leather love seat recliners and the best sound system I’ve ever heard. Top notch movie viewing experience for two for a whole $20 including lots of popcorn. The rest of the day was lazily spent hanging out. One the way home we got garlic and wine to use what was left of our ingredients for another home cooked meal. And somehow the revised leftovers were way better with just a few ingredient additions and of course garlic.

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Private theater status  (source: CGVcinemas.com)

The next day we sadly had to leave our 15th floor paradise and once again descend to the world of travel outside. It’s something you don’t understand until you travel long term but the little breaks from your “vacation” can sometimes be the best parts. And certainly some of the most relaxing.

After leaving our paradise, we decided to head back to our hostel and book a bus to Phnom Pen for the next morning because we’d already made plans to meet a friend in Ko Rong Samloem for New Years and we wanted a few days to see the capital city. So after a few more strolls through the city, and some delicious craft beer our time in Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh had come to an end.

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Finally not a lager!

Dalat: Finally Some Sun

With the aid of some over the counter “sleeping aids”, the 16 hour bus ride really wasn’t that bad. At 5′ 9″ (175cm) I’ve never had an issue with my height, but I can say traveling Asia has been the first time that I’ve ever been genuinely thankful for it. I can just barely fit with my legs stretched out, with my feet turned a bit, into the sleeper bus beds. I can’t imagine how all the 6′ Scandinavians do it. Oh fun fact, when we got on the bus in Hoi and half the seats were packed with cargo boxes because, hey why not. Anyway after a quick movie and a nice nap I woke up to blaring sunshine, and I couldn’t have been happier. We were 5 minutes out of the Dalat bus station and at some point all of the boxes had been unloaded, and I had been none the wiser. Getting in at 7:30 am we were keen to stretch our legs, so we decided to walk the 30ish minutes to a hostel that had been recommended to us by the Dutch guys in Phong Nha called the Cozy Nook. The weather was perfect and the air up in Dalat is a bit crisper than the rest of southern Vietnam. Immediately along the walk you can tell this place is in Vietnam, but very different than everywhere else. Being up in the mountains and having a cooler climate it was a retreat for many of the French people during their occupation of Vietnam and their style never really left.

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The radio tower in town is shaped like the Eiffel Tower

Like a Vietnamese Luang Prabang the architecture is semi-French influenced and the predominant color is white as opposed to the typical orange yellow of the rest of the country. Sitting in the center of the town is a lake that was initially the accidental product of poor dam management, but now acts as a centerpiece and main landmark in this mountain town.

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The blue lake….and look…BLUE SKIES!

We made it to the Cozy Nook and dropped off our bags, but being too early to check in we got a run down from the owners, grabbed our day bags, and headed out explore. The first stop on our list, which was just around the corner from the hostel, was a place called Crazy House. Rated in the top ten worldwide architecturally wild houses, it really is crazy. Its almost like A Doctor Sues book came to life with a little of Alice in Wonderland sprinkled on top. All concrete the scale and spread of the structure is remarkable and they’re still building! For the insane cost of $50-100USD/night you can stay in one of the hotel rooms built into the house and wander the grounds without the tourists at night.

I just realized that in writing these posts I invariably start talking a lot about architecture and I fully blame my parents. If you don’t know me my parents are architects and interior designers, so from the time I could sit in a car seat weekends were spent “house watching” and now it’s become engraved in my being to notice it where ever I go.

Alas, crazy house was crazy and yet again the pictures explain way better than words.

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Decent into the aquarium

After our crazy time we walked over to the lake and saw they had swan paddle boats that you could rent out. Since it was finally sunny and the lake looked beautiful we splurged the $2 and had a lovely time seeing the town from the water. The rest of the day we walked around and found flower gardens and little parks. It was so pleasant.

We headed back to the Cozy Nook and hung out with some other travelers there before the family dinner at 6pm, which was delicious, copious, and inexpensive. The traveler trifecta. There must have been at least 25 people crammed around little tables and having a great time.  And of those 25 at least 7 or 8 were Dutch. Turns out there are an insane amount of Dutch people who travel to Vietnam and there are about 3 Dutch Facebook groups for travelers, all of which rave about the Cosy Nook. I think there was only 1 time in the three nights we spent there that there wasn’t a minimum of 1 Dutch person in the common room. That being said, its recommended for good reason. The people who run the hostel are SOOOO nice, it’s incredibly clean, the beds are soft, it’s not too big and generally is just a cozy place. 10/10 recommend the Cozy Nook if you go to Dalat.

One of the big attractions in Dalat is it’s canyoning trips. And after reading about them in a couple of places including an adrenaline seekers list of SEA, we decided to splurge a little and enjoy the sun. So the next day we woke up and the two of us and 5 other people from the hostel headed to Dalat canyon for the big adventure. Not entirely sure what to expect, it was a pretty fun experience involving a lot of abseiling (rappelling) down waterfalls, cliff jumping, trekking, and lots of Bahn Mi for lunch (no complaints here). The best part is you get to do the whole thing in a body condom wetsuit and helmet to make you look extra cool. While it was lots of fun and I’m glad I did it, I don’t know if I’d really call it an adrenaline intensive activity. But maybe I’m just used to rope work from climbing and adrenaline from all my other hobbies.

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Adventure buddies forever

We got back that evening and we’re tired so we opted for family dinner again and with a whole new menu it was still delicious. And there were about half as many people. Included in our trip was a drink from the Nooks bar at dinner and their passion fruit “vodka drink” (a local special) was dank! After dinner they had a nice candle lit aperitif for everyone. We started chatting with a New Zealander named Janine from Christchurch. She’d recently finished her studies as a scarfie at University of Otago and after sharing stories we realized we had overlapped when I had been studying there. After a long evening of chillin at the nook drinking beers and talking with other folk we headed to bed and made a plan to rent motorbikes with Janine the next day to drive out to the countryside and find some waterfalls.

The next day we woke up to another amazing breakfast and went into town to find some scooters to rent and right by the central lake we found a couple of places. We headed out of town and dodged a couple of “yellow jackets” or traffic police who tried to stop us on the way out. About 45 minutes out, we stopped out Elephant falls.

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Our new Kiwi friend Janine!

And while it looks nothing like an elephant it was pretty awesome. But we’d heard about an even cooler waterfall another 45-60 minutes. So back on the bikes and the first 3/4 of the drive was fine but then it suddenly switched to the mostly rutted dirt and gravel road, which I was having a blast on, while Janine plugged her way through behind (first time on a scooter in Vietnam). And Thac Pongour, the farther falls, is just breathtaking. Payed our 20k dong entrance and got to hang out down at the base on this really cool basalt flow. It looked like it could have been in a national park back in the US.

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Thac Pongour

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All now starving, on the drive back we stopped at a place in one of the little towns to get some food. Janine said “how are you” in Vietnamese, which they took to mean she was fluent and proceeded a long confused conversations on all sides, which eventually lead to them just bringing us some food. Hot pot style cook your own Pho with all manner of interesting things in it. Random meat bits and blood sausage and other questionable part of things made it an interesting experience. But hey it’s a local delicacy and that’s what travel is about isn’t it.

Along the way back near town we stopped at a cafe that had a view of the valley before and tried a Dalat special, weasel coffee. The coffee beans are eaten whole by weasels whose digestive system does something and then they poop out the while bean and it’s ground into coffee. It taste pretty much like regular coffee to be honest, but now I can say I’ve drank coffee that came out of a weasels butt.

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You might not be able to tell, but that coffee came from a weasels ass!

After the last two nights being so great we did family dinner again at the Nook and afterward went to go explore the “maze bar” with some friends. Maze bar is a building in the center of town built by the same architect who designed crazy house. But unlike crazy houses extravagant outdoor stairways it’s a tight 7 “story” indoor maze with hidden levels and doors you can open and genuinely get lost in for about an hour. All for the entry price of one 30k beer. All the way at the top there’s a little garden that looks out over the city and has a quite fabulous view.

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One of the only photos of Maze Bar that had enough light
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I swear we’re not serial killers….maybe

After a bit of talking and a few drinks we head back to the hostel and hung out in the common area just chatting and having few casuals. Which is much more my speed than the crazy oomst oomst of a party hostel.

The next morning after three good days in the sun in Dalat we decided to head south and catch some beach time in Mui Ne while the sun was still around.

Hoi An: The Town of Tailors

Hoi An sits about 35km south of the much larger city of Da Nang. It’s an ancient fishing village that in the late 2000’s was named a UNESCO world heritage sight. At the time it was known for its small streets, and classic and well preserved architecture. Now however, much like the Hi Van pass, it’s infamy as the local home of Jeremey, James, and Richards extravagant tailored suits the vibe of the city has changed drastically. The small fishing town, which was indeed home to some world class tailors, is not a bustling tourist destination, in which many of the old architecture building have been taken over by either new tailoring businesses or chachki trinket shops aggressively “catering” to the tourist crowd.

When we got there right after there had been some some major flooding which meant the typically picturesque beaches were a bit thrashed. We stayed at a hostel called the lazy bear and got the nicest private room of the whole trip for a smooth $16USD.

If you know me personally or have been following along a while you’ll know Athena and I are getting married next September, and being in a city known for some of the nicest cheapest bespoke clothing in the world (next to Hong Kong and parts of South Korea) of course I was going to get my wedding suit made here. So we did a bit of research because while there are many tailors, and while many use the same materials, not all are created equal. The first day real in town we went walking and along the way saw a suit that we both really liked. We stopped in and before we knew it we were picking out colors and ties and linings and had done the whole process and right as she was giving us the price I remembered all that research I had done and went outside and googled the name of the place. It was #436 of 450 tailors in Hoi An. All the reviews were absolutely terrible! I’m so glad I remembered to do that just before paying the deposit. I slyly showed Athena and politely excused ourselves to “get cash for the deposit”. The woman knew I had seen the reviews and was immediately super hostile about how I needed to buy from her and Athena should wait while I went to go get the money. We said we’d think about it and got out as fast as possible. After that and bad-taste experience and looking around a bit more we just decided to go to the well known, definitely a little pricier tailor, Bebe. Sure I could have found somewhere cheaper but for my wedding suit I wanted it to be nice and the costly $200 for a custom suit and shirt was nothing compared to what it would have cost back home. The shear amount of options from liners to piping to cut and style to materials was truly overwhelming to an ignorant fashion novice like myself. But it was still fun. And the craziest part is that we walked out of the shop at about 11:30am having made all the aforementioned selections, and by 5pm that evening a fully custom suit was ready for the first fitting.

Aside from tailors and trinkets Hoi An also has some fantastic Banh Mi. If you are unfamiliar, you should change that since these Vietnamese sandwiches are the perfect combination of eastern and western cuisine.  French baguette bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, Vietnamese cabbage slaw, chili paste, and your choice of delectable fillings make a mouthwatering explosion of flavor. Anthony Bordain named Banh Mi Phuong, located in central Hoi An his “best Banh Mi in the world” making it a massive success which has a line out the door at all hours. But in our Banh Mi excursions Athena and I found Phi Banh Mi, a very small shop built in the front living room of a families house.  At Phi Banh Mi they make cheaper and arguably better variations on the Banh Mi classic. Athenas deep love for bread and their unbeatable price at 15-20k dong ($0.50-$0.75) each meant we ate a lot of Banh Mi in Hoi An, but I ain’t complaining.

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A picture of the lovely Phi Banh Mi (taken from the google because i forgot to take a picture) Source: http://www.tripadvisor.com

On our second day we went for another fitting of my suit and a secret mystery garment Athena had made (not her wedding dress). Trying it on again the fit was spectacular, but being the prince that I am I just wasn’t in love with the color. I had wanted a reddish/purple color for something a bit different and to look nice in the forest theme wedding. And while it was quite something the suit was best described as “aubergine” or for the Americans playing along “eggplant”. I asked the salesperson to see the swatches for suit colors again and if there was something a bit redder, and first thing she brought out, which I swear they hadn’t before, I flipped open and there it was, the perfect color. I talked to them and being remarkably accommodating they said since they had already made the first suit they’d only charge me for the cost of materials for the second one. And that’s how I now have two extravagantly colored bespoke suits made in Vietnam. Since they already had the measurements off the first suit, the second one was done in record time and both were ready and gorgeous by the morning of the next day. Inbetween our tailor appointments and Banh Mi eating, we mostly walked around the old town and it was both beautiful and sad to imagine what this place must have looked like only 10 years ago before the tourist trade.

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Even with all the tourists there are plenty of fun painted boats in this port town…she’s staring into my soul!

Which brings me to a huge side note:

So far on this trip most long term SEA travelers we talk to have mentioned their favorite country to visit was Myanmar. The very recent opening of the boarders mean it’s in ways the “final frontier” of backpacking SEA. In that it hasn’t yet been hit by the huge commercializations of tourism. That being said you still can only travel to certain areas and I think all travel is still heavily controlled by the government. Anyways while all of this sounds like we should definitely go there is the manner of the ethical question. By traveling to Myanmar, even if you try to stay locally the whole time, you’re still directly financing a government which is currently participating in ethnic cleansing. So what do you think? Is it worth a little ethical compromise to see a spectacular part of the world before it’s “tourized”?

Anyways back to Hoi An. By this point Athena and I were both just so incredibly done with the riding in the rain and it didn’t look like it was going to really stop anytime soon so we opted out. We found a motorbike shop in Hoi An and ended up selling the bikes and taking a decent, but not terrible hit on them. The next bit of sun was 16 hours south in Dalat and it would have cost about 1.5million dong ($75USD) to put them on a bus down there and after the problems with Don-key there really was no guarantee we’d be able to make any more on them once we made it to Ho Chi Minh. So alas, the motorbike portion of the Vietnam trip came to a rather depressing end. But Vietnam, you can’t get me down. I’ll be back to conquer your glorious roads someday.

After selling the motorbikes we rented regular old pedal bikes to take a little tour of the country side surrounding Hoi An. In comical fashion the day after we sold our bikes…it stopped raining. Oh well. The countryside ride was beautiful. Through vegetable gardens, palm groves, small villages and this one dude chillin on a buffalo.

After collecting our wares from the tailor and sending them 3 month seamail home, with a variable 50/50 they actually get there, we decided to head out of Hoi An and got a night bus 16 hours south the the mountain town of Dalat. As was true with every bus we have gotten on in the country, it was late. So I passed the time playing with a new puppy friend I made at the bus stop.

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Athena with “the goods”

Vietnam: The North to Hoi An, it was wet

Premature apologies for the lack and poor quality of photos. Believe it or not nice, mirrorless cameras don’t love torrential rain.

So after Cat Ba things changed a bit. Our beautiful sunsets disappeared and were replaced with grey, cold, and a truly continuous rain. The quote from Forest Gump says it the best. “One day it started to rain, and then it didn’t stop for four months”. Even in all this wet Athena and I still managed to cover some 1200km, riding through mountain passes along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, and make it down to Hoi An in just about 8 days.

Coming out of Cat Ba we took the much less scenic route through Hai Phong. Being a MAJOR port town the roads were pretty beaten up, and endless streams of big-rig trucks rolled through the streets. Luckily the rain hadn’t quite started yet and we got through the city and out to the countryside without any incident. 220km later we pulled into a nice little hostel (Trang An Eco hostel) in Trang An. Just outside Ninh Binh, Trang an is an area surrounded by limestone cliffs akin to Ha Long Bay on land. In the last 25km we had traded passes back and forth with another traveler on a Honda Win. Right as we turned down the little road to the hostel he happened to pull in behind us. We both had come from Cat Ba that day and decided to chat and grab a beer down by the little lake next to the hostel. And that’s how we met Chris from Holland. He’d just done the northern loop and was also heading south. We spent the evening playing pool with our new friend and enjoying one last good sunset before the clouds began to roll in. At dinner that night we started to hear the light pitter patter of doom.

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Final sunset before the rain started 
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Athena Chatting with our new Danish friend Chris
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The “Chang” of Vietnam

The next day we decided to check out the sights around Ninh Binh in between intermittent drizzles. But even in the grey it’s quite a beautiful place. The limestone cliffs are a beautiful backdrop to the many pagodas that are littered through out the outskirts of town.

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Pagodas for days

The Bai Dinh pagoda, which is really more of a complex of old Chinese inspired architecture, was pretty impressive. After our swearing off of temples for a while, the pagodas and houses around them were a nice change of pace. Later that day we went into town to get the oil changed in the bikes and got $2 Vietnamese haircuts. Definitely not the best but it was nice to get some hair off the old brain case when it’s hot. (Little did I know it would be very cold the next few days).

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Struttin’ my stuff in front of the Ancient Capital in Trang An

The next morning we saddled up and after 10 minutes of me trying to start Athena’s bike anyway I could think of, we finally realized the kickstand kill switch was still engaged (I tried starting it on the center stand so I’m not a complete idiot). And that was the beginning to the coldest wettest day so far. 200+km down to a middle of no where village where we got in stripped out sopping wet cloths off and sat in the shower as long as it would stay warm (about 5 minutes max). And that was the routine for the next 3 days. Gorgeous mountain roads and we’d get to the top and it would just be grey. We’d bypass anything slightly out of the way in favor of getting to the hostel faster to warm up. Needless to say there’s not many pictures from this part of the trip. And while it was a shame for sure at least we have an excuse to come back and do it again.

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Learning to embrace the wet

After 3 days we finally made it to Phong Nha national park which is world renown for it’s MASSIVE caves. We stayed at a little guest house called BFF homestay, which had a lovely family style dinner every night and an interesting crowd of people, including more Dutch people (more about that later). We decided to spend two whole nights there to try and dry off a little and not have to endure the onslaught again. So in our “day off” we rode only 45 minutes in the wet, to Paradise cave which is just gigantic. The entrance is this hole in the side of a mountain with a small staircase going down and suddenly it opens up to a gargantuan main chamber. Pictures really don’t do it justice, especially since I lost the ones from my camera so all I’ve got are cellphone shots.

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And then you walk down the main stairs to the bottom of the main chamber!!

We were debating doing a bigger “caving trip” but many involved hiking a few hours through the jungle (while it was raining) and were quite expensive. So for the sake of our wallets and sanity we instead grabbed a few drinks in town and watched the semi finals of the Suzuki cup between Vietnam and the Philippines. (A football match where the Vietnamese usually suck but were doing quite well this year).

Sidenote: BFF hostel in Phong Nha had a tiny puppy named Bia (beer in Vietnamese) who I immediately became best friends with….or at least that what I’d like to think.

The next day we sullenly saddled up again and decided the HCM highway just wasn’t worth the extra time when it was so wet so we made our way to QL1A, the main coast road. Along the way we were going along a decently main road and came across some water buffalo walking on the side/in the road. Not an uncommon sight by any means in Vietnam. I slowed down and gave them a good berth on my pass. I then turned around to see how Athena would fair. She had also given them a good amount of space, but for some reason one of the male buffaloes decided he didn’t like Athena. Right as she went past, he jumped out in front/at her bike and she went down. I managed to see all of this in the split second I had my head turned around. Athena now in the middle of the opposite lane was stuck under/attached to her bike by the big ponchos we were wearing, which go over the bikes mirrors. I putted around and blocked off the road from any oncoming traffic, but even before I could get over to her, like 5 Vietnamese people appeared out of literally nowhere and started helping her up and getting her off to the side. Luckily she walked away with just a scrap on the ankle. Don-key on the other hand didn’t fair so well. The side the bike fell on was fine, but the side which the buffalo attacked was completely and utterly obliterated. But after a second of letting the motor unflood Don-key started right up (with a slight offset on the steering column). By the time we had this all figured out, the whole heard of buffalo had disappeared. And this was one of those moments where its clear Athena and I are very different people because my thought was, “well fuck that buffalo!” And hers was “well I hope it didn’t get hurt”.

As soon as the bike started back up Athena was back on and saying let’s go. Sometimes I think I unfortunately underestimate the badassery of my future wife. That night we stopped in Dong Ha where I had some of the best phó bó (beef pho, I’m talking to you Mr. Water Buffalo) at this random hole in the wall, of the entire trip.

The next morning we got oil changes again as we’d done over 700km since Ninh Binh (the standard recommend maintenance interval for scooters here). Yet another long wet ride south we finally made it to Hue when Don-key decided to not want to idle anymore. After dying multiple time whenever we stopped, and draining the battery so I had to ferociously kickstart it to life, I climbed aboard and rev-ed the living crap out of it like an idiot on a Harley for the next twenty minutes until we found a mechanic to fix the idle screw which had come very loose. We got some lunch for a respite from the weather and headed south again to the infamous Hi Van pass. Well known for its glorious exhibition on the top gear Vietnam special, this pass connects Hue to Da Nag/Hoi An and is well frequented for its Big Sur-esc view out over the water. So we took the minor detour and saw a little ocean and mostly grey hairpin turns all the way up, which once again Athena killed.

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The beautiful Hi Van pass

Once over the top the rain suddenly stopped for the first time in 4 days. We pulled off to the side of to take in the view and when we wanted to start up again Don-key didn’t want to start. I tried all the tricks I’d picked up from the Vietnamese people along the way and got it to barely fire but not stay running. A Vietnamese guy stopped and tried to help but when he couldn’t do any better he recommended just coasting down and trying to charge the battery which at this point was dead.

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Hi Van on the other side (The view where Don-key died)

So Athena rode the 8km down hill with no power and luckily just barely coasted into a mechanic who ended up replacing the battery (unnecessary) but it still wouldn’t start. He opened up the air intake and as he took the bolts off, a literal gallon of water came flooding out. Somehow the gasket had failed and in all the rain, water had gotten into the engine…OOOPPPSS!! No fear, shotty mechanic work is here. He cleaned out the intake with compressed air and did Don-keys second oil change of the day (since the oil was now a pinky watery mixture). Sure enough, with a few revs she fired right up. Way overpriced but effective, we were back on the road to Hoi An just a half-hour south. And we made it about halfway there…before it started to pour again.

Hanoi to Cat Ba On Two Wheels

Hanoi was cool. It’s a wildly interesting city were everything is simultaneously super fast paced and also very laid back. Of course traffic is the craziest thing to a new comer to Vietnamese cities, but after a day or two the at first madness due to complete and total lack of rules becomes a beautifully symbiotic dance. If you need to cross the street, just start walking and people will make their way around you. It’s arguably ALMOST better not to look in the direction of traffic because then they know you don’t see them. If you’re driving stay right and go your own speed, and dodge and weave. Of course I’d head about the liberal use of horns in Vietnam but the city is a literal symphony of horns of all types from bellowing truck horns, to incessant beeping scooters, to the glorious doppler effect busses that simply don’t care who’s in their way. And on top of all the auditory stimulation you’l suddenly see a motorbike fly past hauling 10 mattresses on the back being held on by maybe a bungee cord if you’re lucky. Needless to say it’s definitely a little different from Thailand and Laos. Unfortunately I was to preoccupied with staying intact to remember to take any pictures of the madness.

We spent the first couple days in Hanoi seeing some of the sights like Ho Chi Mihn’s mausoleum, the war museum, and Hoa Lao prison “the Hanoi Hilton”. While I could explain each of these day trips in detail I think its easier to let the photos do the talking.

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The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is open in the mornings where you can go inside and pay respects to the great embalmed leader. *Fun fact: every year his body is shipped off to Russia for 2 months where it undergoes, restoration. Even the dead need a vacation from time to time.*
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The Vietnamese Government loves this orangey yellow color on all their buildings
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Soldier train outside the Presidential Palace
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The placard tells you these are the wreckage of American planes the “Vietnamese freedom fighters shot down in the defense of the nation”
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This tank was originally American but after being repurposed with the communism star after its capture during the war

One place definitely worth mentioning on its own is Hoa Loa Prison. At the time of its construction in 1886 it was the largest prison in  the Asian continent. It was built by the French during their occupation of Vietnam to house political prisoners and revolutionaries. It tells an interesting story from the perspective of the Vietnamese prisoners, some of whom were able to escape, but many more of whom died from poor prison conditions or the “French Oppressors Guillotine”. Later during the Vietnam-American War it was used to house American POW pilots, including John McCain. The museum makes sure to portray how well kept the American Pilots were during their time there earning it the name “The Hanoi Hilton”.

 

 In addition to sight seeing around town we spent some time near our hostel to explore the narrow streets of the old quarter indulging in delicious treats and on the hunt for motor bikes. Being backpacker central there are motorbike rental/ sale stores every block and numerous bikes with for sale listings on them parked in from of hostels.

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A small Cafe in the old Quarter on an, I hope, abandoned train track?

In our strolls nothing was really jumping out at me until we were just walking down a street and I saw these three travelers on scooters with racks but no bags. I stopped and asked them what there plan was and that’s how I met Jason and his two late teenage kids, from Portland OR, who had just ridden up from Saigon (HCMC). Originally they had bought knock-off Honda Wins, the only real manual option, which I had very much wanted to do, but after breaking down more than 4 times in three days and loosing out on their vacation the scrapped them and got scooters that went the rest of the ride up without a hitch. I’ve always said it’s more about who you’re buying from than the actual bike because you can polish a turd and it’ll sparkle for 10 minutes. After a quick test ride and some planning we figured they wanted a few more days of travel around and we wanted to check out Sa Pa so I got his number and said if we didn’t find anything better in the next few days I’d message him and we could meet up after we got back from Sa Pa. (more on that awesome experience a different time) And that’s how it went down. The day after we got back to Hanoi they came by our hostel at 11am we exchanged blue cards for a remarkably fair price as they were leaving and were willing to help out some fellow PNWers and we were on the road.

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Old owners say goodbye as we claim our trusty new set of wheels

We grabbed the last bits off our supplies list and hit the roads east towards Ha Long Bay. Athena did great for her first time on two wheels (with a motor). She was a little wobbly and overwhelmed at first by the Hanoi traffic but once we got on the “highway” it’s was smooth sailing into Ha Long. We missed the last ferry over to Cat Ba island so we stayed at a hostel in town and got some dinner. We explored around “sun world”, an amusement park with a view of the bay. It was dark so we missed the roller coasters but sill a cool place. There is an astounding amount of development going on in Ha Long and after the hustle of Hanoi it was nice to be somewhere that while still a bugger place wasn’t so energized.

The next morning we rode over and caught the ferry to Cat Ba. An hour long ferry ride through Ha Long Bay to get to the island was spectacular. We talked to another traveler on the ferry who said he had done a cruise the day before but preferred the ferry ride since it wasn’t as commercialized and overcrowded. On the ride over we decided the bikes needed names so keeping in spirit of my previous bikes Athena had the honors. Thus our steads became “foreign bae”, a running joke with all of my bikes, and “DON-KEY” (which must be pronounced like you’re in shrek).

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Waiting for the ferry with a not half bad view
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DONKEY (left) and Foreign BAE (right) make their first ferry crossing with us as owners
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Athena made form friends from the Ukraine along the way
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Who need a cruise when you can just take the ferry?

Satisfied with their names our bikes took us across the island to Cat Ba town where we found a hostel, dropped our crap and headed to a beach for our first encounter with the Pacific Ocean in this side. And man the water was warm!! And the view wasn’t to bad either.

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Sunset numero uno, through the high-tech camera filter known as “my sunglasses”

We stayed there till it started getting dark and we found a good spot to watch sunset over the limestone cliffs. We grabbed dinner, and in a last minute choice decided to book a climbing trip for the next day since Cat Ba has such amazing limestone climbing. All set to start at 8:30 the next day we headed off to bed.

We woke up the next morning to go do our safety check and headed to Hidden Valley, a crag which the climbing guide Mr. Zoom has set up himself 4 years ago so he could start a business and also benefit local climbers who can come for free if they have their own gear. I had said I could lead, which I used to be able to do, but now after some 2 years not actually leading a route I was a little nervous. But the routes themselves started pretty easy so I figured why not give it a shot. It all came back and we had a great day of climbing. By the end I’d lead a (semi sandbagged) 5.10- Not bad for a 2 year break. We had a great time chatting with our fellow climbers and enjoying the beauty of hidden valley from the top of the routes.

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Gotta love when the crux is the last bolt and you’re leading
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Hello down there!

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Mad Monkey on a vine

We didn’t get back to the town till about 2:30 so we grabbed lunch at a spot recommended by one of the guides and went to check out Hospital cave. This was a cave that had been turned into a bunker during the Vietnam-American war and was used as….surprise a field hospital. Pretty wild. We got back into town right at sunset and grabbed a beer from one of the bars overlooking the bay and saw another KILLER sunset. Vietnam is spoiling me.

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After beers we headed back to the hotel and planned our route to 244km down Ninh Binh for the next day and hit the hey to wake up nice and early.