1. Happy Near Year Vietnam! Back in Ho Chi Minh City for New Year’s Eve we packed the streets along with the rest of humanity in Saigon’s backpacker district. Phạm Ngũ Lão Street is a sight to see even when it’s not the biggest party night of the year.

    Plastic chairs five rows deep line the narrow street on both sides for anyone who wants to plop down and people watch. Cheap beers and street food can be ordered in the chaos, or you can flag down any number of rolling vendors passing by. Don’t expect a lot of room for your plates though, and utensils consist of toothpicks only! Even though it’s practically a pedestrian street, motos and vehicles still zoom through the crowds— and NYE there was a monstrous traffic jam on top of the partiers lining the corridor. The backpacker district of Saigon is on par with that of Khaosan Road in Bangkok with the amount of western tourists and bars.

    In the city of Uncle Ho, we encountered yet another unique form of tourist transport, exercising grandmas en masse and tasty meat on sticks grilled just inches away from smoggy traffic. Ho Chi Minh City was highly entertaining.


  2. Nha Trang / Cam Rahn Bay We motored past a desolate airport on our way to Cam Rahn that most likely used to be part of the US Air Base, and now facilitates rich tourists. And we puttered down a road leading to a seemingly active but quiet naval base, but were understandably turned away at the gate. Other than that there wasn’t much to indicate the strong military presence that encompassed this deep-water bay throughout the Vietnam war.

    The bay did lend some very pleasant views of the local culture— wooden shacks floating on water, fishing boats, fish farms and a mysterious, abandoned mansion seemingly out of a Dickens’ novel (set in southeast Asia). We stopped for some roasted goose, or maybe it was duck, and savored our lunch while observing the bustle street-side.


  3. Nha Trang Quiet coastal town in “south, central” Vietnam where Russian tourists come to sunbathe and scuba dive. Recently known for rampant development as there’s a push to make it an international resort destination, although we didn’t notice this too much. I think it was off season. There is still plenty of wide-open space, lush nature, and a looooong coast line. I can see it turning into something similar to Cabo in Mexico, though, with private resorts scattered about and a lively town for barhopping.

    We strolled along the beach promenade and sampled some fresh shrimp at the far end of town. Then we grabbed a motorbike and took a day trip out to Cam Rahn Bay in search of deserted US military bases.


  4. Ho Chi Minh / Uncle Ton While in Siagon as a Western tourist you can’t not go to the War Remnants Museum, no matter your view on the Vietnam War. Previously known as the “Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes” and “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes,” it houses an overtly one-sided display from the North Vietnamese point of view. (Siagon is in south Vietnam.) Many of the brutal photographs are from American sources, though. During our trip, we went to many war museums with military vehicles, aircraft and weapons on display. Almost always, we were the only non-Asians visiting. Not the case at this museum, where Euro tourists, including lots of Germans, flocked to see the anti-US propaganda.

    We also stopped by the museum dedicated to the Communist Party leader who took over after the more famous Ho Chi Minh— Uncle Ton. Pretty entertaining to see how many different repetitions and forms were on display of Uncle Ton and Uncle Ho together.

    Then, it was time to take an overnight train in a hard-sleeper cabin, a la Wes Anderson movies, 10 hours to Nha Trang.


  5. Saigon / Apocalypse Now Straight out of Austin Powers, the presently named “Reunification Palace” (or Independence Palace) is a time capsule showcasing very retro power-military style. The palace was the home of South Vietnam’s President during the war, and the iconic site of the fall of Saigon when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the front gates to take control in April 1975. Reminiscent of the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, we sauntered around the lavish, formal rooms and down into the military bunkers.


  6. ho HO ho chih minh / Siagon Out of Cambodia and into Vietnam! We found ourselves surrounded by motorbikes (even more than Taiwan!) and seated at tiny plastic tables in tiny plastic chairs as the end of 2013 drew near.

    I was quite surprised by the opulence of many areas of this thriving city— with beautiful old churches, classical buildings constructed by the French, large museums, high-end hotels, and green parks for public exercising and gathering. Of course there were also cramped alleys, haphazard markets, sketchy streets, and the constant warnings about your backpack being ripped off your body by thieves on motorbikes. (This never happened, but we were warned by locals every time we left an establishment.)

    Food was always cheap, mostly great, and almost always eaten outside a foot away from the street.


  7. Phnom Pehn tuk tuk ride


  8. Phnom Pehn / Merry Christmas Overhead advertisements in Phnom Pehn tuk tuks showcase the crude tone of the city. Cheap massages and gun shooting are highlighted alongside advertisements for visiting the Killing Fields.

    This unease followed us from the city to the outskirts as we did pay a visit to the The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. A chilling memorial and museum at the site of over 20,000 mass graves. Here you walk around the death pits and past trees where the Khmer Rouge blasted music to drown out the screaming and allegedly smashed babies. A tall Buddhist stupa commemorates the dead, filled with over 8,000 human skulls. There is a small room showing images of those who died and a graphic documentary film about the atrocities committed. It is a very tough place to visit, and clouds the mind.

    Another jarring aspect of Cambodian culture— locals snack on lots of fried insects. We’d seen grasshoppers in Mexico and silkworm pulpa on display in Korea, but here there were piles and piles of many types of crunchy bugs for munching.


  9. Phnom Pehn Cambodia has an unstable and violent past, which we felt viscerally while in Phnom Pehn. The Royal Palace and Riverside promenade along the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap are among only a few pleasant attractions in this city of two million. The violence and destruction of Pol Pot’s regime 30-some years ago has left Phnom Pehn with a long way to go in re-modernizing. The city remains quite rough around the edges.

    The Khmer Empire’s capital was moved here from Angkor Thom in 1423, but then abandoned in 1505 for 360 years while royals fought each other. The seat of government returned again to Phnom Pehn under Siam (Thai) rule in 1866. At the same time, French Colonialists moved in to build up the city with hotels and society buildings, so that by 1920 it was known to be a very lovely city— the “Pearl of Asia.” During and after the Vietnam War it turned very ugly, however. The Khmer Rouge took advantage of the chaos and forcibly controlled the city. A gruesome evacuation turned into the brutal genocide of millions of people. At present hardly any evidence remains of any once beautiful colonial heritage, and it is clear Phnom Pehn is still struggling to fully recover its soul.

    The current city is a jumble of noise, poverty, crazy driving, beggars and touts, with a tourist area jammed in along the river. But we did spot several expensive car dealerships showcasing Bentleys and Mercedes.


  10. Angkor Thom Just outside of Angkor Wat but still within the archeological park is another temple city, called Angkor Thom, meaning “Great City.” Formerly the capital city of the Khmer Empire, it was established in the 12th Century. Here is where you really start to feel like Indiana Jones, going from temple ruin to temple ruin. You can’t miss the Wat where Tomb Raider was filmed— the one with the huge Banyan tree growing out of it.

    The Bayon temple was my favorite, as the face-towers were just awesome. Was also pretty cool to drive by a family of monkeys at the end of our day. Despite the sticky heat, we were really impressed with the whole experience. There are so many temples to visit, and it’s really nice to see only the ones you want via your own personal tuk tuk.


  11. Angkor Wat is a modern Khmer name that means “Temple City,” which is very fitting. There are dozens and dozens of intact and crumbling ancient structures scattered throughout 400 square kilometers of Angkor Archaeological Park, 5.5km north of Siem Reap. The early temples of Angkor are Hindu, but later temples are Buddhist, and all are highly symbolic, religious structures.

    The entrance to Angkor Wat is truly impressive, as there’s a huge moat surrounding the grounds, and the front gate looks like a temple in itself. We visited during high tourist season, so the place was a circus at times— literally— there were elephants and massive lines. But the grounds are so massive, and you are allowed to crawl all over the temples, that it’s not too hard to find some quiet corners and staircases to climb all by yourself. The architecture really is interesting, and all of the walls are just covered in intricate scenes of great detail.


  12. Siem Reap We crossed into Cambodia overland by bus via Poi Pet. This particular crossing is infamous for scamming backpackers. We did our research, though, and did not end up paying any extra money to guys in uniform, but we sure did wait in a two-hour line to get through customs.

    We headed straight for Siem Reap, a bustling town that’s the gateway to Angkor Wat. The morning of our temple tour we secured a tuk tuk for the day, and got serenaded by the “traffic band” that plays during busy times to remind people to drive safely!


  13. Hellfire Pass Japan fought in Asia partly to eject the European imperial powers—The Netherlands in resource-rich Indonesia; the French in Indochina; Britain in Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, Burma, and India; and the Americans in the Philippines. Although Americans often aren’t aware of this, the Japanese struck all over Southeast Asia simultaneously when they launched the Pearl Harbor attack (and they had already been fighting in China for years). Britain, eager to hold on to its Empire, was the only power besides the US able to challenge the Japanese, although most of its colonies were quickly overrun. It could call upon the support of its Dominions of Australia and New Zealand, which greatly feared Japanese dominance in Asia.

    To build the railway infrastructure necessary to maintain their own nascent empire, the Japanese employed Allied POWs from newly-conquered territories (as well as Asian laborers) to dig their way through the mountains and monsoon-drenched jungles of Southeast Asia. Of the 60,000 POWs brought in (almost all Brits, Australians and Dutch) one fifth died. Hellfire pass was one of the most difficult parts of the railway. The Australian government has funded a memorial here, complete with an audiotour of survivors recounting their experience. Meanwhile, in nearby Kanchanaburi, the Thai government maintains extensive Dutch and British cemeteries.


  14. Kanchanaburi West of Bangkok— practically in Burma, is the small town of Kanchanaburi. It’s pretty laid back now, but during WWII was the site of what is now known as the “Death Railway." A railroad forcibly constructed by POWs and Asian laborers from Bangkok to Burma during the Japanese occupation in 1942. We came here to pay our respect and to see the real "Bridge on the River Kwai.


  15. Bangkok / fun & food You can’t talk about Thailand without mentioning the food!! Delicious, spicy curries for cheap cheap cheap! We found our go-to food stand where all bowls of curry were US$1— and we ordered 5 or 6 at a time. We also found plenty of fresh boiled eggs and tons of grilled meat on every corner.

    Couldn’t help but giggle and feel awkward about the crazy amount of western tourists packed into the bars and clogging the streets in the Khoasan Road area. Very infamous backpacker party street that is a bit ridiculous given its proximity to the government protests.

    While we had to check it out, we were happy to find a hostel not in the touristy area. Gave us a taste of a more authentic Bangkok.