Smiling people, sights, food & cost make Vietnam a dream
After finishing a stint at the Shanghai Daily newspaper in China, I took a three-week holiday travelling through Vietnam and Cambodia with my other half.
The first dilemma that faces the tourist to Vietnam is which end of the long and skinny country to prioritise. In an ideal world you'd be able to both trek among the highland tribes in the jungles of northern Vietnam and sail the Mekong delta rivers south of Ho Chi Minh City, but travellers with limited time and keen to relax as well as sightsee will choose either north or south.
We went north - I was keen to experience the French chic of Hanoi, and in no hurry to spend time in loud and chaotic Ho Chi Minh City after two months in China.
Flying into Hanoi from Beijing was a revelation - I realised there had been a serious lack of smiling faces and playfulness in China. In Hanoi dads hoist their giggling sons into the air, and kids kick a ball around after school. Vietnam may be a communist country like its looming northern neighbour, but the atmosphere is very different.
The level of comfort a penny- pinching traveller can afford in the two countries is also worlds apart.
The exchange rate is brilliant - $100 is worth 1.5 million dong - so we were able to afford proper hotels rather than iffy hostels. We paid about $US25 a night, including breakfast and an airport pickup, for the Little Hanoi Hotel, located bang on Hanoi's central Hoan Kiem lake.
Hanoi is a city of three million people, which is hard to believe in the compact, walkable old town at its heart.
I recommend the Vietnam Lonely Planet's walking tour, so nice we did it twice. Each street in old town is named for an established trade, be it tin utensils, dried herbs or buddha statues.
We took about 400 photos on the walk, which speaks for itself.
Hanoi bears its former French colonisation on its architecture but also its menus.
Coffee and pastry shops cluster around St Joseph Cathedral, our favourite being La Place, where we spent several afternoons reading and taking advantage of free wi-fi while the bustle of the street filtered in through open french windows.
For the best Vietnamese street- style food visit the bustling Quan An Ngon.
We couldn't believe our luck to stumble on Fanny Ice Cream's monthly $8 all-you-can-eat gelato night.
All this eating and lounging got too much though. We signed on for a two-day boat tour of Halong Bay, a very popular tourist activity - probably too popular.
While the bay was undeniably breathtaking when the sun sank behind the dozens of islands and traditional ships bobbing in the bay, it's packed and hawkers in canoes hound the junks, shouting at tourists to buy chocolate and cigarettes.
We also disliked being part of a tour group - we were relentlessly shunted from cave to floating village, with little time to relax and all too much enforced jollity. A bit more research on tour companies might have made all the difference.
Our last destination in Vietnam was Hoi An, a town halfway down the country, and a complete delight - we stayed seven days, eating, wandering and shopping in a blissful stupor.
The sun didn't always show its face and this only added to its charm. It was off-season, and the town was still, lush and green, with morning glory and moss adorning the low stone buildings, which avoided being bombed in the Vietnam War due to an American base at nearby China Beach.
There are dozens of Chinese- style temples to explore in Hoi An, but the town is famous for its tailors, hundreds of them, promising bespoke clothes at prices ranging from $30 to several hundred, depending on quality. My partner lost his head and ordered suits aplenty; I stuck with a single pair of leather sandals which are still good as new.
While Ben got measured, pinned and chalked, I headed to a cooking lesson at Morning Glory restaurant.
Morning Glory is a Hoi An institution, one of four owned by Madame Vy, who single-handedly put Hoi An on the culinary map 30 years ago.
Over four hours our cooking class plunged into the town's huge fresh market, then cooked five dishes from scratch, including summer rolls, mango chilli salad and prawn soup. I can't recommend it more highly.
Aside from Madame Vy's high- end restaurants, our favourite place to eat was Cafe 43, a relaxed, dirt-cheap joint tucked away in a residential street, where three courses plus a beer is $3, and the staff are as friendly as the stray kittens that befriend customers.
From Hanoi we flew to Siem Reap, the Cambodian city famed for the ancient Angkor temples.
Where Vietnam had been temperate, Cambodia was fiercely hot and blindingly bright. We found it difficult to be outdoors for hours either side of noon.
Cambodia's culture was just as much of a contrast to Vietnam as its climate. Where the Chinese have shaped Vietnamese culture, its neighbour has grown under India's sphere of influence. Cambodia's architecture, traditional dress, its stunning Apsara dancing and written language all have an Indian flavour.
The poverty in Cambodia is much more pronounced. Vietnam is seen as South-East Asia's economic success story, while Cambodia is still recovering from the devastating Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s.
Our reason for being in Siem Reap was of course to visit the temples. I recommend hiring a tuc-tuc driver for the day, who will wait for you as you explore each temple in the huge complex and will recommend the best sights - a day's hire is only about $20.
My Lonely Planet recommended allowing five days for the temples - I really think one is enough. They are stunning, of course, but like Europe's castles, by the fourth or fifth they start to look the same, and by the end of the day we had aching feet and were dying to escape the heat.
Our favourite temple was Angkor Thom, where the film Tomb Raider was set. It was a mystical place, an ancient city complex lost for hundreds of years, with huge trees and vines growing in, on and amongst the crumbling stones. Another highlight was an elephant ride around Bayon, the temple decorated with hundreds of carved faces.
What stayed with me from South-East Asia were the smiles, laughter, modesty and helpfulness of every Vietnamese and Cambodian person we encountered, all the more remarkable given the poor and difficult lives many lead, and the tragedies and conflict in their histories.