Is My Son Worth It?

My Son, spelled Mỹ Sơn in Vietnamese, and pronounced “me son” is a collection of temple ruins in central Vietnam, about an hour from the city of Hoi An.

My Son is a Unesco World Heritage site and gets thousands of visitors per year, so the Vietnamese government has accordingly raised the price of both the admission fee and the guided bus tours. When I was there, the entrance fee was 150,000 dong, up from last year’s price of 100,000. The tours to My Son used to cost around $5, but is now around $9-11 for a share tour. The government claims that the admissions will go to restoring the site, but it seems likely the price will get more expensive in the future.

My Son was built by the Chams, a Malayo-Polynesian people who formed the Champa Kingdom around 200 CE that eventually became prosperous through maritime trade. The kingdom had a rich Hindu culture highly influenced by India. The Chams were eventually annexed and absorbed into Vietnam and now live as an ethnic minority. Many converted to Islam starting in the 11th century though some have remained Hindu.

Supposedly a traditional Cham dance, performed near My Son.

Construction of My Son began in the 4th century and the temple buildings were the main religious center of the Champa Kingdom until the 14th century and probably the most important of the Hindu buildings remaining in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, My Son was extensively carpet bombed by Americans during the Vietnam War (or American War, as it is called in Vietnam) because it was a hiding place for the Viet Cong. Because of this, the ruins are quite small, crumbling, and have lost a lot of their beauty. Since the years of the war, the ruins mostly haven’t been restored or well-maintained, and many of the more significant pieces of artwork have been taken to museums.

Carpet bomb crater.
Spider web covered bricks.

So that brings us to the question in the title: is My Son worth it?

I personally thought it was worth it, but I had my expectations in check and made the trip to get out into the countryside and see some of the permanent damage done in the country during the Vietnam war, and not just for the temples themselves.

Do not come here expecting anything on the scale of Angkor, or even Ayutthaya. If you do you’re pretty much guaranteed to be disappointed. The buildings are much smaller and have generally suffered more damage. Some of the designs and carvings on My Son are fairly similar to Angkor but not as impressive.

Hotels and homestays in Hoi An will all offer tours of My Son, the price for a tour to My Son by bus and back to Hoi An by boat was $11, the price for the bus both ways was $9. I decided on the boat trip, which included a very simple lunch of rice with some vegetables and tofu on top.

The tour bus came to my homestay around 8 am and the tour guide told the group some information on My Son and the Cham Kingdom on the way. The bus first stops at the ticket office, and then everyone crosses a bridge to a small lot. From there, shuttles are available to take visitors to the temples.

My Son bridge.
Carpet bombs.
Temple undergoing restoration.

The ruins are in a beautiful jungle setting, but keep in mind it does get very hot in the afternoon so have water and a hat. Also, it gets quite crowded, so it can be difficult to get photos without a bunch of tourists in the background.

I would definitely advise coming here with a guide or guidebook. There are basically no descriptions of the ruins in English anywhere on the site. The guide for my tour was quite a character and very funny, he provided a lot of information though at times a bit too quickly that it was easy to miss what he said.

After touring the temples, I got on the boat ride back to Hoi An. The boat ride was nice, but there isn’t much to see on the river so I don’t think you’d be missing much to opt for the bus ride. The boat can also get somewhat crowded.

The boat ride back.

As a complement to My Son, check out the Cham Museum in nearby Da Nang. The museum was built by a Frenchman in the 1800’s and holds collections of Cham artifacts from many different periods. One section has artworks taken from the My Son site.

The outside of the museum.
An Elephant-lion creature.

The entrance fee is only 40,000 dong. I made a stop here before heading to Da Nang airport. The airport is within the city so it was only about 7 minutes away in a taxi.

Da Nang from the airplane.

While I personally did find the My Son day trip worthwhile, it’s important to note that there are plenty of other Cham towers in southern Vietnam. While I haven’t been to any others myself, my understanding is that the Po Nagar towers near the beach town of Nha Trang are some of the best preserved, although the site itself is smaller than My Son. If you rent a motorbike in Vietnam, then that could provide many more options of Cham ruins to visit.

Getting Clothes Made in Hoi An

Hoi An has a lot of tailors. A lot. Picking a tailor can seem overwhelming with so many shops packed into such a small town. Luckily, many hotels will offer recommendations (often because they are paid by the tailor) and many tailors are reviewed on Tripadvisor.

Typical Hoi An clothshop.

I only got two articles of clothing made at Hoi An, a pair of jeans and a dress. I used two different tailors for each. I kind of regret not getting more clothes done, but at that time I didn’t want to spend too much.

I stayed in Hoi An for 4 nights, and I would recommend at least 3 if planning to get clothes made, and possibly more depending on the amount of clothes. When I ordered both the jeans and the dress, each tailor told me to come in the next day for a fitting. After the fitting, they told me to come in later in the evening to pick it up. I would suggest going into a tailor shop as soon as possible when arriving in Hoi An to maximize time.

I would also recommend having a pretty good idea of what you want before going into a shop. When I got my dress made, I went in without really deciding what kind of style or color I wanted, I had just assumed there would be examples I could choose from, but there weren’t. The clerk gave me her tablet which had an endless amount of dress styles and told me to pick one, so I spent quite a lot of time looking through to decide what I wanted. To make the tailor shop experience smoother, look online and choose a style beforehand, then show it to the clerk on a mobile device. Or print it out.

Tailor shops at night.

I got my pair of jeans made at Trang Cloth Shop, which is located on 47 Hung Dao St. I actually didn’t plan to go here, but while I was walking down the road an Australian lady that was coming out of the shop told me that it was a good tailor, so I went inside. I ordered a pair of dark denim straight-leg jeans. I tend to have trouble fitting jeans at most stores (I’m short so most pairs are too long on me) so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get a pair made. The price was only $23 USD, which is cheaper than a lot of jeans in stores, so it was a great deal.

Like many of the tailors in Hoi An, Trang is outsourced — the measurements are done in the shop but the clothes are actually made elsewhere. When I picked up the jeans at the shop I had to wait for a motorbike to arrive with them. They ended up fitting really well, but the problem they had was that the blue coloring was all over when I first wore them (without washing them first). However, after putting them in the washing the coloring no longer runs, and they look fine. They’re without a doubt the best fitting jeans I own.

I got my dress made at BeBe Tailor, a shop that was recommended by my homestay. They have three branches in town, and are one of the most popular of the tailors.

When I chose a style for the dress I had made, the clerk asked for the type of fabric I wanted. I asked for the cheapest fabric, and she told me it was cotton. A knee-length dress made from the lowest-quality cotton was $70 USD. The price for the highest-quality was $105. I decided on the highest quality option since the other cotton types seemed pretty flimsy, so I paid $105 for the dress. BeBe is more expensive than most of the other tailors in town, which is something to take into consideration. However, from my understanding BeBe has in-house tailors unlike the majority of shops that just outsource.

I’m happy with the fit and quality of this dress as well. I didn’t have any issues with the coloring for this one.

For me getting tailor made clothes in Hoi An was a good experience. I do hope to re-visit Vietnam sometime and if I do I’ll probably go back to Hoi An for more tailoring.

Hoi An: Outside the Old Town

Hoi An in is home to a small but beautiful Old Town located in the center of the tiny city, but it only takes about a day to see it. Here are some ideas for the rest of the time in town.

The majority of hotels and homestays in Hoi An are located at least a few steps outside the Old Town, which really isn’t a bad thing, given that restaurants and cafes outside the town center tend to be cheaper. Most accommodations will offer cheap bike rental as a way to get to the Old Town and explore the area.

About a 20 minute bike ride or a 5 minute taxi (about 70,000 dong) from the Old Town is An Bang beach, which was great for wading in the ocean and relaxing. The sunbeds/umbrellas aren’t free though, prepare to pay 40,000 dong to use one.

There’s several restaurants on the waterfront as well.

View from a restaurant.

There is another beach at Hoi An called Cua Dai, which was actually closer to my homestay but (according to what I read from online reviews) is suffering from erosion, so it’s probably best to go to An Bang. An Bang also has a few accommodation options.

Closer to the Old Town (but still technically outside of it) is the Hoi An Museum. It recently moved locations, and is now located at 10B Tran Hung Dao Street.

The museum covers a bit of ground, displaying some Cham artifacts, old photographs of the town, and even some more recent war artifacts. The collection is small, however, and there’s little information in English. Normally the museum requires a fee or a punch on one of the 6 places in Hoi An the ticket covers, but the guard let me in anyway even though I had used up my ticket. I was glad I got lucky and was able to see the museum for free, but normally it does require a fee and it isn’t that impressive of a collection. In my opinion it’s a decent place to learn some of Hoi An’s history but can be skipped if you don’t want to spend the money. There were only a few other people looking at the collections besides me, which was nice.

The Hoi An history Museum.

The main thing I liked about the museum wasn’t actually in the museum itself, but actually the Sky Cafe at the top. I tried to get there by climbing up the stairs inside the museum but the door to the top floor was locked. Turns out I had to go downstairs and out to an elevator, then I took that to the cafe.

Some nice views at the top.

 

There were a lot of young Vietnamese people at the Sky Cafe but only a couple of other tourists, which felt strange since Hoi An has tons of tourists everywhere. It was kind of refreshing in a way to go somewhere geared more towards locals. Because of this it was also cheaper than the Old Town cafes.

Down the street from the History Museum is a Confucius Temple, which is free and was also almost empty when I was there.

Quite a few of the back streets outside the town center are worth a look either on foot or on a bike. While lots of tourist shops are around these areas, it still feels more local and less crowded than the Old Town.

Tet Lanterns near the Confucius temple.

My accommodation in Hoi An was Eden Homestay, which was a really nice place about a 10 minute walk from the main town. The room was a great deal on Agoda, about $20 USD per night for a large room with two beds for just me.

The staff was very nice and helpful, they will arrange tours outside the town and provide maps and tailor recommendations.

 

The breakfast and Vietnamese coffee were good and included in the room rate.

In this post and my previous post on things to do in Hoi An, I left out probably the most popular activity in Hoi An — getting clothes made at the tailor shops. I will discuss this in the next post.

What Not to Miss in Hoi An’s Old Town

Hoi An, a tiny World Heritage town in Central Vietnam, is one of the most photogenic places in Asia that I have been to. The blend of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and European style buildings are beautiful to look at, especially at sunset and at night when all of the lanterns are lit up.

Lanterns at the Night Market.

Hoi An is an ancient port town that was owned by the Champa Kingdom of Central and Southern Vietnam until they moved the kingdom farther south. The native Vietnamese then used Hoi An as a major trading center in the 16th-18th centuries. Ceramics from Hoi An went as far as Egypt and merchants from all over Asia and Europe traded there. In the 18th century, Hoi An’s influence diminished significantly as the port center was moved to nearby Da Nang. In that time, Hoi An has remained remarkably well-preserved.

Pretty much all of the buildings in the Old Town are souvenir shops, galleries, coffee shops, restaurants, or tailor shops catering to tourism. This also means the streets are pretty crowded with tourists. Even so, the town is really a sight no to be missed, especially when the sun goes down.

Sunset at Hoi An’s river.
It’s also a popular spot for wedding photos.

The city does have it’s fair share of touts, that might come up to tourists to give them directions and then ask them to come into their tailor shop. They weren’t pushy after I turned them down, however. But it can be kind of annoying when vendors on the river constantly try to get you to get in their boat or buy a candle.

Hoi An has a couple of landmarks and attractions of interest, and in order to enter them I had to buy a ticket. This ticket is considered an “entrance ticket” for the Old Town, but there are no ticket checks on the town’s actual borders, or at least there weren’t when I was there. It seemed entirely possible to explore the Old Town for free, but to enter a few places, the ticket is required and costs 120,000 dong. It covers 6 places, which isn’t all of Hoi An’s historical sites but I didn’t want to pay for more than one ticket so I limited myself to a few places.

Possibly the most famous landmark in Hoi An is the Japanese covered bridge. It was built by the Japanese merchants to link with the Chinese area.

The ticket will have to be punched in order to cross the bridge, but it can also be viewed from outside.

The beautiful Fujian Assembly Hall, built in the 17th century, was a meeting place for Fujian Chinese before transforming into a temple for Goddess Thien Hau.

Quan Cong is another well-known Chinese temple in the Old Town, right across from the Old Market. I didn’t have enough spots on my ticket to go into this one, but I believe there is a museum on the inside.

A few of the Chinese style temples are free, however.

Another free Chinese temple.

Hoi An also has a lot of backstreets around the town that are quieter than the main streets and no less picturesque.

I’d also recommend checking out some of the old houses — all of these do require punching the ticket, so perhaps choose two or three. The Tan Ky house had the best tour and a lot of informative information about the generations of the merchant family that lived there.

The house at night.
Inside the house.
Inside another old house, the Phung Hung house.

In addition to the old houses, there are plenty of very charming art galleries in Hoi An holding some beautiful works of art. These are totally free to enter and provide some nice views of the surrounding houses.

Inside an art gallery.
Another gallery.

A good place to go shopping in Hoi An is Reaching Out Arts and Crafts. It’s a fair trade craft shop with some beautiful and unique products made by adults with physical handicaps.

Reaching Out workshop.

Hoi An has two main markets, the Old Market and the Night Market. The Old Market is for the day, and the Night Market for night. Both are well worth visiting. The Old Market has some local dishes made inside for only about $1. Plenty of fresh fruits and other items are on sale there as well.

The Old Market.

The Night Market has tons and tons of lanterns and other more souvenir-type stuff, such as jewelry and other trinkets.

In addition to the Old Market, pretty much every restaurant will serve Hoi An’s local dishes. Some examples are Cao Lau, a noodle dish with pork, vegetables, and croutons. Another is Com Ga, Hoi An chicken rice. White Rose is a type of shrimp dumpling shaped like a rose, and Quang noodle is a mix of pork and shrimp with yellow noodles.

Quang noodle.

Many of the restaurants in the town offer cooking classes, and hotels will also offer cooking class tours.

The town of Hoi An can only be reached by getting to Da Nang first. Da Nang is the third biggest city in Vietnam, so it has it’s own airport, train station, and bus station. To get to Hoi An, a taxi or motorbike is needed. It takes about 45 minutes from the airport. I booked a driver through my homestay in Hoi An, and it cost $15 USD.

Hoi An’s Old Town is pretty small and can be seen in a day. But there are a few more things to do outside of the Old Town center, which I will discuss in the next post.

A Day in Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh is a beautiful province only about two hours from the city of Hanoi. The limestone scenery is similar to Halong Bay, only inland.

Hotels and hostels can arrange shared tours to the province, costing around $38 per person. There were only four people in the tour group (including me). The other group members were an older English couple and a young Korean woman.

The first stop on the tour was Hoa Lu, a 10th century ancient captial of Vietnam. Hoa Lu was a small kingdom surrounded by a citadel and protected by the surrounding limestone mountains from the Chinese. The citadel did not survive, however, but a temple dedicated to Dinh Tien Hoang, the emperor of Hoa Lu, was built in it’s place.

Inside the temple.
The moat and the limestone mountains.

Hoa Lu is a beautiful spot but it was cold the day I went, and I completely wasn’t expecting it since the temperature in Hanoi was kind of hot the day before. I was wearing shorts, a thin sweater, and a thin denim jacket which really wasn’t enough for the temperature, in fact all the others in my group didn’t quite prepare well for the cold either.

After the tour of Hoa Lu the group went back to the van and headed to Tam Coc, which means “three caves” in Vietnamese. There is a buffet restaurant nearby where we ate lunch. The food was pretty average but it’s included in the tour price.

At Tam Coc, two people get inside a canoe and a rower rides along a river that goes under three caves.

The rowers row with their feet.

The ride takes about an hour and a half to go around. Some of the caves are quite dark and have bats, which made me slightly nervous.

The scenery was beautiful, and probably would be even more so during the warmer months when more of the rice crops are grown.

The Ninh Binh tour also included bike riding after the boat ride, but after being out in the cold for two hours no one in the group felt like riding bikes, so we got some warm coffee and headed back to Hanoi.

Scenic Halong Bay

One of the “must-go” places in northern Vietnam, UNESCO-listed Halong Bay is certainly worth the trip to get to. There are countless cruise options; the question of which cruise to take seemed to me to depend on budget. Hotels and hostels, as well as tour agencies in Hanoi, will have a few different tours to choose from. Many tour companies run different boats with prices depending on the luxury level, and how many nights on the boat. I booked a 2 day 1 night cruise, but there were also 3 day 2 night cruises available, obviously with higher prices. The itineraries seemed to be pretty similar with each cruise.

From my understanding, it is generally advised to book the cruise with a hotel in Hanoi rather than before the trip since prices are usually cheaper in the city.

My hotel offered three cruise options, I went with the cheapest of the three, which was with Lemon Cruises. The total cost for the 2 day cruise was $100. Since I was travelling alone and wanted my own room, I had to pay a $25 single supplement, so solo travelers be forewarned.

The ship.

The price of the cruise is all-inclusive of everything except drinks, so I thought it was a good deal. From what I had read, it’s best not to skimp out too much on price for Halong Bay since you really get what you pay for. Most people I had spoken to paid at least $90 for a good cruise, though it may be possible to find something cheaper and good quality.

One great aspect about the Lemon Cruises tour is that it went to Bai Tu Long Bay, which is a larger bay above Halong that is larger, cleaner and less crowded since only overnight ships go out that way. It was indeed peaceful and water very clean for the most part. I did see other boats around but not a huge amount. If you are planning on doing a 2 day tour it may be a good idea to look for a cruise that goes to Bai Tu Long.

Beautiful!

The tour guide for Lemon Cruises picked me up at my hotel, and joined a van heading out to Halong. The ride takes about 4 hours and the van stops for a bathroom break. The pit stops in Vietnam have huge shopping areas with clothes, jewelry, and silks as well as a small restaurant and snack area.

After arriving in Halong, the group boarded the boat and we were given our room keys. The rooms in Lemon Cruises are pretty nice, though the bathroom was quite smelly (perhaps inevitable for a bathroom on a boat I guess) but I locked the door from the outside to prevent the smell from getting in the bedroom area. The bed was a good size, comfortable and clean.

The other members of the tour group were also friendly, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, which is my age group.

The first thing we did on the tour was go to a beach to do some kayaking or swimming.

The weather was beautiful and warm when I was there, but this isn’t always the case in winter. Halong Bay can be quite cloudy and cold in February, so I lucked out.

Next the group stopped at a pearl farm, where mollusks are farmed for their pearls. It was actually fairly interesting.

Of course they have a pearl store for tourists to shop, but they did let us try the pearls on without having to buy them, and they weren’t pushy either, which was nice.

I didn’t buy this.

After that it was back to the large ship, where I mostly sat on the roof and took more pictures.

The food our group was given for lunch and dinner was very good. At lunch there were a few different options, consisting of yellow curry chicken, spring rolls, tofu in tomato sauce, and others. Everyone took bits of what they wanted and put it on their plate. Dinner was prawns, fried chicken, pork spring rolls, fried fish, and a few other options.

The sunsets on the bay are absolutely gorgeous.

The activities for the night were either to sing karaoke or go squid fishing. But the karaoke machine wasn’t working so one of the group members gathered everyone to play charades. After the game was over (I think my team lost but not certain) there wasn’t much left to do so everyone either went to bed or continued squid fishing.

The next day, the group had breakfast at 7 am, which was eggs and toast. Then we went to a limestone cave. The cave was pretty cool, but every tour group seems to go there at the same time, so it was very crowded. Also the cave is small so it crowds easily.

Kind of looks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

View looking outside the cave.

After that the group went back to the boat where we made pork spring rolls in a cooking class and ate them for lunch. The meal was again good. Then the boat took the group back to Halong and on a bus back to our hotels in Hanoi.

I really enjoyed the tour of Halong and Bai Tu Long. The tour guide was informative, the food delicious, and the staff on the ship were helpful as well. The only issue was that the ship didn’t have wifi, and there wasn’t much to do on the boat after dark. Other than that it was great.

As I mentioned previously, there are literally dozens of Halong Bay tours and many have similar quality and itinerary, so there’s no need to be particular about which cruise to take. Many tours have reviews on Tripadvisor and other websites. Lemon Cruises at least for me was a great experience and a pretty good deal.

Walking in Hanoi (or trying to)

Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, is known for being a crazy place. Motorbikes zipping around everywhere, honking, and lots of traffic. But it’s really something I had to experience before understanding the full effect of the craziness.

Hanoi lacks a subway, and the taxis have a reputation for ripping people off (though I’m sure it doesn’t happen all the time). There’s also buses, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to navigate those. Generally, most tourists tend to use their two feet to get around the city center of Hanoi.

This wouldn’t be a huge problem, given that Hanoi isn’t very big. However, the constant motorbikes and lack of many street lights for pedestrian crossings makes crossing the street in Hanoi quite a task. Even the sidewalks aren’t very pedestrian friendly since people tend to park their motorbikes on it and many restaurants and coffee shops have seating outside on the sidewalk.

This is what trying to walk on the sidewalk is often like.

Despite this frustration I liked Hanoi overall. It’s a pretty city and the Old Quarter is an interesting place with markets, shops, temples, old trees, restaurants, and cafes.

One of the small streets in the Old Quarter.

There are plenty of eateries to try pho and other Vietnamese specialties around. Most hotels and hostels are located in the Old Quarter and will give out maps of the streets, this is how I generally navigated my way around. A few shops and restaurants as well as many museums were closed during most of my time in Hanoi due to Lunar New Year, called Tet in Vietnam. I arrived a few days after the actual Lunar New Year date but many places close for about a week or more during that time period. However plenty of restaurants and stores are open as well, so no need to worry about going hungry if in Vietnam for Tet.

Aside from the Old Quarter, Hanoi has a few places of interest for a tourist to visit. Hoen Kiem Lake, located on the edge of the Old Quarter, is a nice place to walk around, particularly at night. There are a few night market streets nearby as well.

There is a temple on the lake that costs a small fee to visit, which is nice but was quite crowded when I was there.

While walking around the lake, it is easy to spot the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. They have shows every day at different times. I paid 100,000 dong (about 5 USD) for a ticket. Vietnamese water puppetry goes back to the 11th century so it is an interesting art not to be missed.

Behind Hoen Kiem Lake is the French Quarter, which contains many old French buildings dated to colonial times, when Vietnam was a part of French Indochina.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Hotel built during the colonial era.
Hanoi Opera House, modeled after the Palais Garnier in Paris.

A few museums are in this area, such as the Vietnamese History museum and the Women’s museum, but both were closed for the Tet holidays. The History Museum was a short walk from the Opera house so I just checked out the exterior, which is a nice French-designed building.

One museum that I did visit that was (thankfully) open was Hoa Lo Prison. Hoa Lo was built by the French to imprison Vietnamese rebels to their colonial rule. The descriptions condemn their brutality of the Vietnamese and their prison conditions.

Hoa Lo was called Maison Centrale by the French.
French guillotine.

After Vietnam gained independence from France, the prison was used by the North Vietnamese to hold American pilots who were captured, the most famous being Senator John McCain, who ran for president in 2008.

Picture of McCain in the prison museum.
McCain’s flight suit.

Hoa Lo was sarcastically called the “Hanoi Hilton” by the Americans. The prison museum claims that American prisoners were treated well, given food and medical care. There are several pictures of smiling Americans playing sports, building a Christmas tree, and gardening. The former war prisoners dispute this narrative, of course, and the Hanoi Hilton was infamous for torturing the prisoners. Unfortunately the vast majority of war prisoners anywhere are not treated well at all (I’m sure the North Vietnamese prisoners were also tortured).

Located farther to the west of Hoa Lo is the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius and Vietnam’s first university. Very interesting, but packed during Tet.

Gangnam Style!

To the north of the Temple of Literature is the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, one of Hanoi’s most well-known landmarks. Ho Chi Minh’s body can be viewed until 11 am (last entry at 10:15) all week except Mondays and Fridays. It also closes from September 4 to November 4 for maintenance.

 

Kind of looks like a bigger version of Mao’s mausoleum in China.

Nearby the mausoleum is Ho Chi Minh’s presidential palace. It was originally the home of the French Indochina Governor-General.

The main building isn’t open to the public, but some surrounding buildings are.

Uncle Ho’s cars.
Uncle Ho’s stilted house.

In the area is the Ho Chi Minh museum, which has a small fee and contains some relics from  the life of Nguyen Sinh Cung (Ho’s real name). Also a lot of weird Communist art. There’s a lot of documents but they aren’t really presented in a clear or informative way, in my opinion. I found it a bit confusing and didn’t learn much about Ho’s life, but the fee was cheap and it’s somewhat interesting while in the area.

Even further north is the West Lake. This area is a pretty far walk from the Old Quarter, so it might be best to go by taxi if coming from there, but it’s a shorter distance from the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

The West Lake contains Vietnam’s oldest pagoda, Tran Quoc.

Hanoi’s weather in February can be a bit weird and random. One day it was kind of hot (about 23 degrees C). But then the next day it was pretty cold (about 9 degrees). So I’d recommend bringing a jacket or a warm sweater and a few pairs of pants if visiting in the winter.

A Wet Village in the Dry Season

If the time on your 1-day, 3-day, or 7-day Angkor temple pass runs out, and you find yourself with some extra time in Siem Reap,  a trip to Kampong Phluk is a worthwhile choice, in my opinion.

Kampong Phluk is one of three different “floating villages” located near Siem Reap city. The other two are Chong Kneas and Kampong Khleang. Chong Kneas is actually the closest of the three to the city, but the reviews online were pretty negative so I ruled that one out. Kampong Khleang is the farthest from the city, about one hour or an hour and a half away, but many travel sites recommend it since it is the least tourist-ed. I ended up choosing Kampong Phluk because my hostel offered a tour for it, but not for Kampong Khleang.

Kampong Phluk had better reviews online than Chong Kneas but I had also read a lot of stories of foreigners getting charged very high prices to enter the village, so it made sense to me to sign up for the tour that was all-inclusive for $18, which is cheaper than using a tuk-tuk and ensured that I wouldn’t be getting overcharged for a ticket. My hostel was able to book the tour with Siem Reap Shuttle Tours. They have a morning tour and an afternoon tour. The afternoon tour allows a view of the sunset on nearby Tonle Sap Lake.

Another positive aspect about booking the tour is that the floating village is located past dusty roads so it’s much nicer to take the trip in a van rather than a tuk-tuk. There was a small group of people in the tour and the guide was nice and knowledgeable.

The tour van picked up the group at their hotels or hostels and drove to Kampong Phluk, a poor rural stilted village near Tonle Sap lake.

During the wet season (May-October) the village is completely flooded, and looks like this:

Kompong Phluk village
Credit: Qilin – Originally uploaded to Flickr as Village Main Street, copied here from Wikipedia.

The first place the group stopped was the village Buddhist pagoda.

The village is fairly small and a 15 minute walk will lead to the lake. A lot of kids were playing around in the streets and eager to talk to foreigners.

Drying shrimps. 

Boat to Tonle Sap.

Tonle Sap Lake is a big lake, the largest in South-east Asia. It is fed by the Mekong river during the wet season.

The boat took the group to a floating restaurant, which had a good selection of food and a nice view.

The wooden box contained a few alligators. 

I was happy that I made the trip to Kampong Phluk because it offered a slice of rural Cambodia and village life. I had limited time in the country unfortunately so I had to stay in the Siem Reap area, but the village was quite different than the touristic atmosphere in Siem Reap. I’m sure it is even more interesting to see in the wet season. I thought the share tour was also a great way of getting to the village and learning about the lives of the people who live there.

Things to do in Siem Reap

The small city of Siem Reap’s name means “Siam defeated” in Khmer, which, according to legend, refers to a time when a Khmer king successfully defended Cambodia from an invading army from Siam (Thailand). However the Wikipedia page on the town states that this legend is likely untrue. Either way, the name is pretty ironic given that Thailand did occupy Siem Reap and surrounding cities from the 18th century up until Cambodia came under French rule.

Siem Reap started out as a small village and now flourishes due to the tourism industry. In fact, it almost pretty much exists just as a gateway to Angkor. A lot of travelers criticize it for this reason, but in Siem Reap’s defense it really doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a tourist city with little to do except leave to see the temples.

As a tourist city goes, though, Siem Reap has pretty much everything. Hotels and hostels to suit all budgets, shopping markets, bars, pharmacies, laundries, and convenience stores. The city center is clustered with a diverse array of restaurants, serving food from Khmer to Mexican to Thai to Italian.

Siem Reap’s Pub Street.

Pub Street is the city’s main nightlife area and it’s bustling with people (mostly tourists) at night. Plenty of street foods and $1 fruit shakes are also sold here.

The Old Market, located near Pub Street has fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and various spices for sale. It was established in the 1920’s so unlike the other markets in the area, it wasn’t created just for tourists to buy souvenirs.

Later at night, the Night Market has plenty of souvenirs and also offers up some cheap massages and pedicures and manicures.

A cheap tuk-tuk from the city center is the Angkor National Museum. The price is a bit steep, at $12. Hostels and travel agencies in the city sell tickets. If you don’t mind the price that much, it’s a well maintained museum with some good exhibits and information about the Angkor era.

A few restaurants in the city will offer a dinner combined with an Apsara dance show. Apsara is traditional Khmer dancing that features on much of the Angkor temple artwork.

The price depends on the venue, but most hotels and hostels can arrange it. There’s also a restaurant on Pub Street that has a free show starting around 7:30. It’s called Temple Club, and features a bar/dance club in the basement, a restaurant on the second floor (where the show is held) and live music and a lounge on top. To watch the show you are expected to order something obviously, but it’s fine to just get a drink.

After the show is over, they offer time to take pictures with the dancers.

Me with the dancers.

Another activity is Phare, the Cambodian circus. I didn’t make it to the show because I had planned to go my last night in Siem Reap and assumed I could just buy tickets the same day, but the circus was full so I couldn’t go. The show is every night at 8 pm. Tickets can be purchased at most accommodations for $18. Just be sure to buy early rather than later.

Artisans d’Angkor is a cool handicraft workshop located in Siem Reap city center, and it was right next door from my hostel so I visited before leaving the city. There are a few guides that lead a free tour through the workshops explaining how handicrafts, ranging from wood to stone to paintings are made. There is a gift shop at the end with some really nice high-quality silks and other gifts to buy. The workers are mostly rural locals who trained for a year. It’s a good cause worth supporting so probably the best place in Siem Reap to buy souvenirs and gifts.

Artisans d’Angkor.
One of the workshops.

Despite being the gateway to Cambodia’s main tourist attraction, prices in Siem Reap are generally cheap. Meals at the cheaper restaurants tend to be between $3-$7 USD. US dollars are the preferred currency in Siem Reap, so there’s really no need to convert to Cambodian riel. However Cambodia doesn’t use US coins so change such as $.50 will be given in riel.

I stayed in the Luxury Concept Hostel in Siem Reap, and it was a very good stay overall. The 10 bed female dorm costs about $7 per night. The beds are really big (the biggest I’ve ever seen in a hostel) and comfortable. They each come with a small fan, a light, a power socket, and some hooks. There’s an en suite toilet, shower, and sink, all separate from each other reducing waiting time. The bottom bunks also have curtains. The hostel has a bar on the roof, where they also serve breakfast for $2.50, and on the bottom floor there is a small convenience store. Plenty of restaurants and laundries are around, as well as a nice bakery across the street. It is located only a few minutes’ walk away from the Old Market and Pub Street.

I stayed for 6 nights in Siem Reap, which is more than enough to see the main temples, but offers extra time for other temples further from the main center. For my budget at the time though, it was about one night too long. I hadn’t yet received my final payments from my job in Korea yet (pension, return flight bonus) and while I knew I would probably receive it in my bank account while I was travelling I wasn’t 100% certain of that. So I was pretty frugal and wound up skipping some activities to save money. That being said 6 nights does offer a lot of relaxation time and I needed that in the Cambodian heat (I’m sensitive to hot temperatures) so the ideal amount of time in the city really depends on budget, what you are interested in, and how active you can be in the hot temperatures.

Although the temples are certainly the main attraction in the Siem Reap area, plenty of people also day trip to a nearby floating village if they have an extra day or two in the city. I decided to visit one, which I’ll detail in the next post.