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Upon arriving in Siem Reap it was obvious that it wold be different to the rest of Cambodia. Instead of being greeted by the usual assortment of tuk tuk drivers and traders at the bus station we were led to a tuk tuk stand (yes a tuk tuk rank where tuk tuks are hired out in an organised manner!) and whisked efficiently to our hostel on the outskirts of the city itself. It was evident however that the outskirts of the city contained dusty roads, congested markets and small, scruffy looking homes however the closer you get to the city itself the smarter the surroundings and infrastructure are. In some ways this is great because it makes a nice change when you're travelling to be back somewhere where everything is a bit more modern and clean however in another respect it is sad to see that the government has concentrated investment and redevelopment all in one area in the name of tourism but isn't protecting much of the rest of the county which lives in generally quite primitive conditions. Indeed Siem Reap has sacrificed some of its charm and authenticity in the name of being a more accessible destination for tourists. The pleasant riverside setting on the outside of the city gives way to shopping malls and a huge selection of bars and restaurants. A variety of cuisine is available and there are a number of western luxuries available here aimed at the package tourists here for Angkor Wat. There is also a 'Bar Street' which is whole series of bars offering cheap beer ($1 Anchor beer), this becomes pedestrianised at night and can get lively. I would recommend going to the Khmer Kitchen in the main area in Siem Reap which serves some interesting cuisine such as Crocodile, Kangaroo and Snake! I would also recommend tring out the Dead Fish Tower bar just outside the main area where there is actually a real live crocodile pit which makes this a unique place to have a beer! A trip down bar street is another good experience, it might not be the most cultural thing but culture isn't what Siem Reap is really about, I would recommend trying both Temple Bar and Angkor What which are both lively bar/clubs. In terms of accommodation, we stayed in the Green Town guesthouse which is out of the east side of town on the other side of the river. This is a peaceful, pleasant setting out away from the main area of Siem Reap which can be a bit noisy and the Green Town guesthouse provided an adequate base with a large room and comfortable enough beds. There are also provisions to book tuk tuk from here to head round the temples of Angkor.
Battambang is one of Cambodia's largest cities however it is completely different to Phnom Penh which is alive with urban bustle, enjoying an unhurried pace and a friendly locals. The city is, however, still keen to keep up with the country's recent surge for modernity with new developments popping up and a population keen to keep up with a large amount of private lanaguage schools and alos lots of mobile phone outlets. The best place to start exploring Battambang is at the central market which is the hub of the city. It is worth wandering around the stalls to try and spot a bargain, it is pretty cheap compared to western standards! Make sure you look out for gemstones as well as these are traded here and there are bargains to be had. Battambang doesn't offer that much in the way of sights but it is worth checking out one of the local temples, I went to Wat Dhum Rey Sor which is just of the main river stretch although it is not a stand out temple compared to others in the region it is still an interesting look. For better temples I would recommend taking a trip out of the city and visiting Wat Sampeau and Wat Banan which are both impressive. In terms of accommdation I stayed in the Royal Hotel on the western end of the market which was really good value and offered tremendous facilities including cable tv. To try some local cuisine I would suggest White Rose restaurant which serves good Khmer dishes at very reasonable prices.
Kampot, is a laid back provincial town in the south west of Cambodia. This is a great place to visit particularly if you are coming into the country via the Ha Tien border. With its riverside location, and backdrop of the misty Bokor Mountains and lovely little French shop-houses Kampot really is an attractive little town to visit. Although the town itself does not hold many 'sights' as such it is a wonderful place to spent a few days because it has such a nice laid back atmosphere and it is pleasant to spend time sipping coffees or having a few beers by the riverside. As Kampot is off the mass tourist trail there is more opportunity to interact with the locals and get a flavour of the rural Cambodian lifestyle which is of course the predominant way people live. In terms of accomodation I would definitely recommend Peppers guesthouse which is convieniently placed on the edge of town down a dusty road with a few other guesthouses. The rooms are large and comfortable, there is a pleasant outside restaurant/bar and the staff are very friendly and welcoming. With regards to food and drink you have to go to Sisters cafe which is a run by a wonderfully friendly lady who makes all the food from scratch including a sumptuous selection of cakes, you won't be able to choose just one! This is down one of the roads just off the main riverside road. Any of the bars along the riverside are good for a beer and many offer happy hours where you can sit out and relax enjoying Kampot's pleasant ambience. I would also definitely recommend hiring a tuk tuk for the day and heading out on an excursion to the salt plains, pepper plantations and also the wonderful caves on the outskirts of towns. This trip will take you out into the Cambodian countryside which will give you a real flavour of the way this country works. People are so friendly and will run out to wave at you and greet you as you come past, the local children will also offer to act as guides around the caves. This is well worth doing as not only is it great to have local guides, you can also make a contribution for there help at the end of tour which is much appreciated. I would really recommend a trip to Kampot, places like Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap take the headlines however they can often by pass the real Cambodia however a trip to Kampot captures the way that people live in this wonderful country.
Phnom Penh is Cambodia's capital city and sits in the middle of the country on the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. Phnom Penh can be quite intimidating for rookie travellers as it isn't the easiest city to navigate as there is not one main area as such and the set up of the city isn't so tourist friendly as somewhere like Ho Chi Minh or even Bangkok. Despite initial impressions I found that Phnom Penh had a strong appeal. The French influence is certainly evident in the colonial shophouses and boulevards and there are some majestic monuments and buildings to admire. Contrastingly it is also interesting to observe the way the city works at a base level and there is no better way to get a feel for this than wandering around the markets with Central Market in particular being a lively throng of activity. The best way to begin understanding Phnom Penh and indeed Cambodia as a country is to take a visit to the Killing Fields or Choeung Ek. It was here in 1980 that the bodies of nearly 9000 Cambodians were exhumed from mass graves. These people were victims of the dictatorship of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Many of the people buried here also suffered torture at the S21 Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh before being led here to there deaths. The site is dominated by a stupa full of the victims skulls placed on glass shelves sitting above a pile of the victims clothes, a harrowing and deeply upsetting reminder of the horrendous violence which occurred here not so long ago and is still very much in the nations consciousness. A tour round the site provides a overview of this tragedy and educates tourists with regards to the events that unveiled not just here but all over Cambodia whilst the country was in the clutches of the Khmer Rouge. After visiting the Killing Fields I would suggest going immediately to Tuol Sleng or S21 - you can get to both places by hiring a tuk tuk. Tuol Sleng was once a secondary school in a quiet Phnom Penh neighbourhood however it was seized by the Khmer Rouge and turned into a prison and interrogation centre were thousands were kept and tortured. The prison is a depressing sight with barbed wire surrounding the buildings and a corrugated iron perimeter ensuring no escape. The prison has been left exactly how it was found meaning that blood stains can still be seen on the floors along with pictures of torture hanging on the walls. Although a trip to these two places is certainly not going to be a barrel of laughs it is key in understanding Cambodian society as it is today, lets not forget these events were not actually that long ago and there are many survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime or those that have been directly effected by it still living in Cambodia today. I spoke to a Cambodian man who had lost both his parents to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge it really was a horrendous regime and Cambodia is still trying to recover and deal with the horrors of the past. In Phnom Penh itself it is a good idea to start exploring from Sisowath Quay which is a popular area for Khmer's to gather in the evenings and weekends. The quay is lined with bars, cafes and restaurants and the river on the other. From here you only have to walk a short distance to The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda which are both beautiful pieces of architecture. The palace is off limits to visitors but you can visit several buildings in the compound which is certainly worth doing and the Throne Hall in particular is a highlight. Close to the Palace is the National Museum which is also a nice piece of architecture, the museum is well worth a look because it displays some interesting collections of ancient Cambodian culture. It is worth having a general walk around the Sisowath Quay area as there a number of interesting monuments and buildings within the area. As mentioned previously it is also worth visiting the Central Market which is a cacophony and noise and frenitic activity as locals sell a vast multitude of wares! I always think that the best to see a city is to walk, so do try and get round as much of Phnom Penh as possible by foot - this isn't always easy as it can be very hot as I found to my cost! The downside to Phnom Penh can be the tendency of the locals to rip off tourists so make sure you keep aware generally locals are friendly but like any city Phnom Penh has people looking to take you for a ride. In terms of costs, Phnom Penh is very good value for a capital city and you can eat for around $5 without much problem, accomodation varies from backpacker haunts for under $5 per night by the Boeng Kak lake all the way through to plush 5* hotels however $20 a night will score you an adequate room with air conditioning. In terms of bars I would definitely recommend the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) which is more expensive than your average establishment but the traditional colonial British feel to makes it feel like a home away from home and it is well worth frequenting even for those on a budget. Also make sure to try the local beers there is Anchor and Angkor both similar sounding and both taste good, I would give a narrow vote to Angkor!
Phu Quoc is a quiet, fairly undeveloped tropical Island which lies just off the coast of Vietnam and Cambodia. The Islands ownership has been subject to disagreement between Cambodia and Vietnam who both believe they have the right to it. However the Island is very much Vietnamese both in ownership and the way of life on the Island. Don't worry though, this doesn't mean the Island is full of motorbikes! The Island is around 600 square kilometres in size and fringed with glorious golden, powder white beaches. There are pretty fishing villages, a tropical forested interior and an amazing archipelago of fifteen small islands off the southern tip which are great for diving and snorkelling. Really it's not wonder Cambodia would like this Island within its territory! The reason why I have urged to travel to this Island quickly is that there are plans in place particularly on the west side of the Island to build new luxury resorts and all the assorted elements of tourism that come with them. I actually stayed over on the west coast of the Island at Long Beach, currently there are a number of small bungalow style resorts looking onto the beach on a stretch of this beach but there are still large swathes of deserted beach particularly walking away from Duong Dong (Phu Quoc's main town) and round the cove. However I did see a few billboards around the place announcing the arrival of new luxury resorts which would be the more standard large scale buildings. Not only will this scar some of the scenery but there will also be an increased number of people and therefore more buildings, more services and consequently in my book less serenity and peace. My advice would be to visit quickly before Phu Quoc loses its unique charm. My opinion of the Island is based predominantly around Duong Dong and Long Beach which is the area we stayed in. However I did hear from other travellers that a few of Phu Quoc's other beaches are even more deserted than Long Beach, I particularly heard good things about Star Beach on the eastern tip of the Island. Long Beach, is the most accessible and well known beach on Phu Quoc. However this isn't like being well known on say Phuket in Thailand. You can easily get away from people on this beach. The northern end of the beach is the most crowded part as the coast curves round towards Duong Dong which is accessible via the northern part of the beach. At the northern end there are a few luxury resorts and larger hotels jostling for position for their section of the beachfront. Personally my advice would be to look further south down the beach and stay in one of the cute little beach bungalows. Certainly the further you move down the beach away from Duong Dong the less crowded it becomes and once you round the cove just past the bar Eden you will be treated to a huge swath of almost deserted beach as we found to our delight when we were there. I think this would always be the case as well as we were there over new year hence most of the accomodation was fully booked and the Island was pretty full. In terms of accomodation recommendations, I would recommend anyone on a bit of a budget to stay in the Huong Giang bungalows which are set back a couple of minutes from the beach in a pleasant garden. Not only are they really good value, clean and spacious but the Vietnamese family that run them are very kind and helpful. For those with a slightly higher budget we heard some really good things about Beach Club which is situated around the cove in the quiet, more remote part of Long Beach. In terms of bars, restaurants, atms and more these are all readily available in Duong Dong which is around a 30 minute walk down the beach starting from Eden. However in terms of food and drink there bars and restaurants available on the beach and also just off the beach down a wooded path out towards the road past the Huong Giang bungalows there are a few decent places with slightly lower prices. You will need to venture into Duong Dong for an atm or most other services, if you don't fancy the 30 minute walk then you should be able to order a tuk tuk from your hotel which will get you there in under 5 minutes. Duong Dong itself isn't the most attractive town but it has an interesting port-side market and on the north side you can gain a nice vantage point of the pretty fishing boats from the Nguyen Trung Truc bridge which looks over the harbour. The town itself mainly serves the purpose of obtaining money of buying things such as flip flops or swimming costumes. However I would recommend a trip to Buddy's Ice-cream cafe whilst you're here. This place serves up great ice cream and lovely refreshing fruit shakes plus you can also use the internet for free. One irritation to mention before I end my review is the mosquitos. Beware the mosquitos! This island is 70% forested and therefore is a great breeding ground for these little buggers. On our first night on Long Beach we wondered why the beach emptied as the sunset, instead we grabbed some drinks and sat out on the beach to watch the sun go down. It soon became apparent the reason why everyone heads for their hotels is because the mosquitoes come out with avegence at this time needless to say with no repellent on as well we were bitten to death and I think I counted 26 bites on one leg alone, you have been warned! In terms of travel to the Island, you can fly in from Ho Chi Minh/Saigon and Rach Gia (both Vietnam) to the airport in Duong Dong or you can catch a ferry from either Rach Gia or Ha Tien. This Island comes highly recommended for a piece of tranquil paradise. Yes the travel here is not the easiest especially if you're coming straight from the UK/Europe/US however if you want deserted beaches and natural beauty this your place.
The Xbox 360 is one of the most popular games consoles of all time. Xbox Live is an online multiplayer gaming system primarily but also has a digital media service all provided by the computer operating giant Microsoft. There are two different levels to Xbox Live, the free of charge version is known as Silver and the subscription based service is known as Gold. Firstly, I just want to make it clear that there are services which (unsuprisingly) you can only get on Gold and therefore have to pay for. The two levels share some services such as the use of the xbox live dashboard to chat to other users via the voice chat option, users on xbox live silver can also watch trailers, create their own gamecard profile and download content. This is a fairly limited list of options hence in order to really utilise Xbox Live and gain use of all its content you need to upgrade to Xbox Live Gold. Xbox Live Gold can be purchased for a years membership at about £35 or if you want shorter outlay a 3 month contract is about £12. The official Xbox 360 Wi-fi receiver can be bought with a one off payment of around £50. This is well worth doing so the console can pick up wi-fi connections whereever you move it to and you don't need to mess around with cables. The big question that is always fielded against Xbox live is why should I pay for it? The Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wi have free online gaming options so why should Xbox customers have to pay? The reason is because the Xbox Live system is better than the competition hence it is worth paying for. With the gold version of Xbox live you can play against other people online. This is a fantastic option because playing against other people rather than the computer makes the game a lot more unpredictable and even more competitive. It is not just random selection of course, on Xbox Live you can add friends and therefore you are alerted when they are online. This makes it easy to join together to play games. Xbox Live operates something called a "Party" one user starts this party and then other friends and indeed friends of friends can join the party and you can move this party straight into a game which is a great option. Xbox Live effectively means that you no longer need to trek over to a friends house or vice versa in order to play a game together which is very handy if you live a fair distance apart. Indeed Xbox Live can also be a good tool for staying in touch with people who do live a fair distance away through gaming together and the ability to send instant messages. To take this a step further you can always purchase a headset for the Xbox which you plug into your controller. This connects you to anyone that are playing with online or who you in your party so you can have group chats and also organise key strategies on games through effective communication! If you did want to take this even further you can use Windows Liver Messenger and buy an Xbox Live camera to create video chats. The great thing about all of this is that it all comes within the subscription fee you paid. So you can talk to a friend in Australia on Xbox live and it won't cost you anything unlike a phone call! In this way Xbox Live also fulfills a number of the same functions as skype does! The Xbox live Marketplace is well worth a look. Have a look on the Xbox dashboard which gives you a wide range of options to download free games and trailers or even to pay and download add ons to games for example extra Zombie maps on Call of Duty. Full games can be downloaded also, these options add even more to your gaming experience and allow you to unlock further achievements on games. You need to purchase Xbox Live points in order to buy these games/add ons etc these are available on the Xbox Live marketplace and in games retailers. The Avatar marketplace allows to buy clothes and objects for your avatar. There are loads of options some of which are even branded so you can buy Gears of War attire to clad your avatar out in for example! There are also a number of other entertainment medias on Xbox Live. Zune provides the options to buy and download movies onto your Xbox harddrive again these are paid for in Xbox Live points. Zune has a huge category of films including recent releases. There are also opportunities to download music and social networking opportunities such as facebook, twitter and last fm. Although from experience I would say that the Xbox Live system does run smoothly and efficiently online I am blessed with a good internet connection. I have played on friends consoles where the connection is not quite as good and there can be lagging and jolting as the connection struggles so beware of this. However from experience and what I've heard it appears the Playstation 3 in particular suffers even worse problems with its online gameplay. Overall, Xbox Live is a great online gaming system. Not only is the gameplay good, the systems efficient and information and features well set out but you can communicate and keep in touch with friends. Hence a number of functions are all brought together under one system! The Gold option is well worth paying for to obtain all the features, although you can do a few things on Silver it just does not give you the freedom of Gold and you cannot play online on games which I feel is the main point of online gameplay!
Ho Chi Minh or Saigon is Vietnam's buzz city. It is a city that is accelerating both literally and metaphorically into the 21st century. Whilst Hanoi represents a vision of Vietnam's rich history and past, Ho Chi Minh has no interest in standing still and is one of the hottest properties in south east Asia for both business and pleasure. Ho Chi Minh is located to the south of Vietnam with easy access out to the Mekong Delta and also great transport links to the rest of the country including the popular route up to Hanoi. My first impression of Ho Chi Minh upon entering on the bus from Dalat was the sheer intensity of the traffic. Motorcycles hum and charge around like a swarm of bees darting through the many roads, alleys and boulevards of the city. Ho Chi Minh is more like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur than it is Hanoi. There are flashes of neon, a buzz of urban life - traffic, shoppers, businessmen and a thriving nightlife. I decided to stay with the rest of the backpackers in Pham Ngu Lao street which is a bustling area with streetside bars, busy restaurants and flashy neon street signs. I suppose it is a bit comparable to the Koh San Road in Bangkok but not quite so busy and it isn't a walking street meaning you have to dodge the stream of motos to cross the street! This is definitely an interesting street to sit out on the pavement and rela with a beer just watching what is going on around you! It is also a good place to start having a few drinks before heading off to one of Ho Chi Minh's hip nightclubs close by to mix with an interesting crowd of tourists, businessmen and young Vietnamese revellers. With regards to sights and things to see, Ho Chi Minh still holds a very interesting history. I would recommend beginning a look into Ho Chi Minh's history at The Reunification Palace. The first building built here was bombed in 1962 by the South Vietnamese Air Force as they tried to assassinate President Diem. However this was unsuccesful and the president wanted the building torn down and rebuilt to his own specifications. This was done although President Diem was murdered before its completion. Today the palace stands as a representation of the former southern republic which supported by America fought against the communist central and north Vietnam. Upon entering the grounds of the palace you will see the replica of a north Vietnamese tank which historically broke through the main gates in 1975 to reclaim Saigon back. In celebration of this the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh city. The palace is a very interesting look at how the heads of the southern republic lived and worked during the Vietnam war with all the rooms restored and presented to give you a good idea of how things would have operated. The War Remnants museum, dedicated to documenting the alleged war crimes of the United States, is an important place to visit for any visitor to Ho Chi Minh. So often the main view that we get of the Vietnam war in Britain comes from an American or western perspective through books and films such as Platoon however this is a view from the Vietnamese side. The name of the museum was changed from the Museum of American War Crimes perhaps to add a bit more balance and impartiality to the exhibitions. However there can be no doubt the Americans were the main perpetrators of the horrendous stories shown within the museum. The museum is full of photos, written accounts and tales of absolute destruction and horror. Plus a number of articles: weapons, equipment and more. There is more to the museum than just this though. There is also a number of accounts written by journalists who were writing about the war at the time and witnessed some of the atrocities. On top of this there is an interesting look at tanks, planes and prisons outside the main body of museum which although replicas give you an idea of the scale of this war. About an hour and halfs drive outside of Ho Chi Minh you can also see the Cu Chi tunnels. These although pretty touristy are worth a look because they do still envoke a bit of what it would have been like to have been a Viet Cong Guerilla forced underground by the bombs of the south Vietnamese and forced to live in an amazing underground network of tunnels. You can get in these tunnels yourself if you want to and experience how cramped and caustrophobic it would have been to live down here. It is incomprehensible to think people actually spent days at a time down here when I struggled to stay down there for five minutes! Some of the exhibitions around the tunnels aren't the most tasteful however with imitation tanks, dummy soldiers, a shooting range and a horribly biased video letting Cu Chi down. However if you ignore all the tourist kitsche and concentrate on the real life facts of it all it is an interesting and worthwhile day out. Whilst in Ho Chi Minh I generally stayed around in the district one area so I can only comment on this area in terms of places to eat, drink and stay. The backpacker road of Pham Ngu Lao provides some good places to drink with Vietnam's classic Beer Hoi on offer at around 20pence a glass! For a classic and traditional Vietnamese dish you should definitely try Pho, a noodle soup dish which is very tasty if done well - try any pho 24 or experiment on a street stall. Also try Quan Nuong which does a really good Vietnamese BBQ. There is no end of hotels and places to stay in Ho Chi Minh as in any city, I stayed in a fairly average place however I'm sure there are good places to stay, I would read some reviews before you go. Overall Ho Chi Minh is a look at a new advancing and modern Vietnam yet with still a few lingering memories of times gone by.
Dalat is nestled up in the southern central highlands of Vietnam and is noted as the country's premier hill station. It is easy to see why the town has this billing with its mish mash of mazy streets, interesting architecture and its general air of serenity. Dalat is very different to the other main places in Vietnam in terms of its climate which is cooler and easier to adjust, and also in terms of the atmosphere which I found to be generally more relaxed especially when compared to the two main cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh! A good way to start exploring Dalat is to check out the Cho Da Lat market which is spread across a couple of levels and offers a huge variety of foods, garments and more locally produced products such as flowers and hilltribe products. Although it is worth a wander around Dalat there isn't actually too much to see in the town itself aside from some wonderful little restaurants and good hotels. So make sure you get down to the lake for a wander and check out the flower gardens close to its shores for some peace and tranquility. Also on the outskirts of town is the wonderful pink Venetian style cathedral which is certainly worth a look as a unique example of a cathedral. Stroll a little bit further out of town and you will come to the "Crazy House" which is owned and built by an eccentric Vietnamese chap by the name of Vien Thuc. This is definitely worth checking out because the "house" is an amazingly themed adventure based around a treehouse sort of idea. It has to be seen to be believed - this is my way of saying I can't really describe it! Another decent attraction to check out whilst in Dalat is the Summer Palace of Bao Dai who was an old Vietnamese emperor. A visit here is a good chance to swot up on a bit of local history and take an interesting stroll around how the esteemed in Vietnamese society lived in the 1930s! Some people you must look out for whilst in Dalat are the Easy Riders. The Easy Riders are a group of war veterans who can conduct tours of the area on a motorbike. In my personal experience I found the tour to be very enjoyable and my guides knowledge of the local area particularly around the war torn history was impeccable. The best place to catch the Easy Riders is in the Peace Cafe which is actually a very good place to eat as well! The food in Dalat is excellent. Try the Peace Cafe as mentioned above for good, solid, homemade Vietnamese cuisine. Also go to the Sunflower restaurant for some more upmarket but wonderful Frenchy Vietnamese style cooking. I found the owner in the Sunflower to be a wonderful lady, very friendly, bubbly and keen to provide a great service. With regard to hotels although a number of hotels looked very good I do not have a bad word to say about Dreams hotel. There are two Dreams hotels both owned by the same family however I can personally recommend Dreams 1 which for a mere $20 a night gave me a scrupulously clean double room, power shower, satelitte tv, access to the jacuzzi and steam room on the roof, free internet and the icing on the cake the magnificent breakfasts. The family that run the hotel are also some of the nicest people you could wish to meet. Dalat having a relatively small centre gives easy access to atms, the two post offices and also has good transport links on to Ho Chi Minh, Nha Trang and other spots in the central highlands. Dalat is well worth making the effort for to see an alternative side of Vietnam.
Nha Trang sits in the south of Vietnam a bit under halfway between Ho Chi Minh right in the south of the country and Hoi An in central Vietnam. Nha Trang boasts some of the nicest beaches in Vietnam; with outlying islands, plentiful marine life and coral reefs it is also one of the best places in Vietnam to go scuba diving. However despite the natural beauty of Nha Trang it has become increasingly more touristy and therefore more crowded and more subsceptible to the issues of mass tourism. Despite thisd you can still get away and explore the pleasant examples of Cham architecture in the town and enjoy some of the outlying beauty with walks down the sweeping main beach and boat trips to the islands. Whilst I was in Nha Trang I didn't take in too many of the museums and sights deciding more to relax on the beach and leave the sight seeing to places such as Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh. However I did make it out to the Po Nagar Cham Towers just outside the city which are well worth a look and a good example of Hindu architecture. These are really interesting and a good way to spend an hour or so off the beach! Whilst I was in Nha Trang I headed out on a boat trip and took in a few of the outlying islands pausing for some snorkelling and a wander around on one of the islands called Hon Mieu which has a good aquariumand also Hon Tre which is beautiful and has a lovely fine, white sand beach to relax on! Many tour operators will offer trips out to the islands and also tours of the area. The Sinh Cafe is a solid bet for a boat trip but check your guide book for the exact location of the store as there are a few fakes dotted around the city! For accommodation I would suggest the Perfume Grass Inn which has a great cafe itself and then some fantastic rooms - if you go upstairs you can get sea views! The nightlife in Nha Trang is pretty lively, I would recommend checking out Crazy Kim's which is really friendly and collects for a good cause as well in vulnerable street children. Atms are easy to find and use in town and there are abundance of other facilites in town such as a post office and internet cafes. Nha Trang is worth a stop off to chill and relax but is becoming more mainstream, it is worth considering Mui Ne (just to the south of Nha Trang) if you only have time for one beachy place.
Hue is a relatively small, pleasant city, adorned with lakes and canals but with a bit of hustle and bustle about it as well. Hue is blessed with some wonderful historical sights including the nineteenth century citadel and the former glory of the imperial city which sprawls across a large piece of land just outside the newer part of Hue, this coupled with the seven Royal Mausoleums situated around Hue, the many Pagodas and the scenes of former battle makes Hue an extremely interesting place to spend a few days. To fill you in on a bit of history, Hue was held by the North Vietnamese army for twenty five days during the Tet Offensive of 1968, in the chaos of the counter assault the city suffered great damage and many buildings were destroyed or badly hurt. However Hue was given UNESCO world heritage status in 1993 which has really helped the efforts to restore and preserve this fantastic old city. A great place to start exploring Hue itself is the Perfume River. A wander down its banks and a stroll across the main bridge into Hue itself will acquiant you well with the area and give you a bit more understanding of the city. The imperial citadel stands on the northern bank of the river, here you will marvel at the old splendour of this forgotten city and be taken back to an age where walled cities and battles were commonplace. The billowing Vietnamese flag standing on the citadel is a symbol of the Vietnamese triumph and the maintenance of Hue as part of Vietnam's rich yet troubled history. The citadel in its heyday used to compromise of 148 original buildings however such was the devastation of battle that today only twenty actually survive. It is definitely worth a wander round the inner walls of the citadel however be prepared for a large area of crumbling buildings and old relics which are to understand and distinguish without the help of a guide. Not hiring a guide for the tour of the citadel was a bit of a mistake on my part, although it was good fun wandering around and discovering things for myself I think a guide would have given me a lot more idea of what I was actually looking at and given me a better understanding of the very interesting history connected to the citadel. Before I move onto to look at the other interesting sights around Hue I just want to mention a cafe called Cafe on Thu Wheels. This characterful little place tucked in down a back road to the south of the Perfume river is an absolute gem. Think friendly staff, 50p for a banana pancake and fresh Vietnamese coffee and excellent motorbike tours which have recieved rave reviews as attested by the writing on the walls in the cafe itself! I went on one of these motorbike tours myself and I can't recommend it highly enough. There was a small moto convey of about 4 motos and you each had your own driver/guide. The tour took us right out into the Hue countryside indeed it wasn't long before the city disappeared and was replaced by glistening paddy fields and farmland. The tour took us right off the main tourist trail and through small back roads, dirt paths and even up a hillside! Although we still saw some of the sights that others would see coming to Hue we did it in the best way possible and I really became a bit of a convert to the motorbike cause! The tour took us firstly to a traditional Japanese bridge which was interesting for its unique architecture, we wandered over it, took some pictures and investigated the nearby market which was pretty interesting to observe as the locals bartered and haggled for a variety of weird and wonderful things. The next stop was a wonderful Pagoda sheltered amongst the forest and set next to an idyllic little lake. Here we got to observe the Buddhist monks in there morning prayers. This was an honour to be able to watch something so special to Vietnamese culture and see how some people have such belief in religion and set their lives around it. After this sedate scene we headed to another quiet location, this time it was at the top of a hilltop but the attraction was somewhat more sombre being the French and American war bunkers which both took up at different times in the 20th century to wage war on the Vietnamese. Without doubt the star of a fantastic tour was Tu Duc's mausoleum. The mausoleum was set across a huge area of land and had been left mostly in its original state. The number of different chambers, burial grounds and various areas all set around a beautiful sedate was so interesting that I could have spent most of the afternoon there wandering around. There are a number of tour operators that go out to the Royal Mausoleums and pagoda's on Hue's outskirts, and you can get out to these sights in a number of ways from moto, boat down the perfume river and the good old minibus or taxi. Whatever you do it is worth a trip out of Hue to explore some of the fantastic sights on its outskirts, it gives you a much better appreciation and understanding of the local culture and the history of Vietnam itself. For accommodation there is a variety of guesthouses available for all budgets on the south of the river from large 4 star hotels to the cosy little budget accommodation such as that at Binh Duong 3 which was still very nice and worth a look plus it's opposite Cafe on Thu Wheels for breakfast! I would also recommend checking out the Mandarin Cafe and Omar Khayyam's tandoori for evening food, both were very good and very reasonable. ATM's are easily accessible around the city and the bus station is just over the main bridge to the north of the river (citadel side). Hue is well worth a visit and those who by pass on their way to Hanoi or Hoi An are missing out on a really interesting and authentic piece of Vietnam.
Vietnam's captivating and elegant capital, Hanoi, lies in the northern part of the country. The city is an intriguing conglomeration of old and new Vietnam meeting in a city which still idles around elements of the past. From the enchanting old quarter, the sedate lakes dotted around the city, the fantastic museums and the fallen b52 bomber, Hanoi holds plenty of reminders of the past. However the new Vietnam, that of developing offices, advertising and motorbikes is imposing itself on Hanoi. However this isn't a clash of old and new, indeed these two differing elements only combine to make the city even more interesting and enthralling. When I first arrived in Hanoi I was dropped at the bus station on the outskirts of town, what followed was a hair raising drive into the centre as my taxi swerved around motorbikes, overtook wherever possible and made turns at the last minute without any sign of indication. This I was to discover was the Hanoi way of travelling. Just crossing the road in Hanoi is a challenge. Line after line of motorbikes speed around town and jostle for position on the roads with the odd car and bus - the trick to cross the road is to just walk out and hope that the traffic will stop for you! The best thing to do is to follow a local making sure they are between you and the traffic however after a few days spent in Hanoi you may find yourself quite adept at the art of crossing the road and start to go it alone! Aside from the traffic fun and games Hanoi has so much to offer. Make sure you take a trip to the old quarter and get lost in the narrow winding streets where markets, shops, restaurants and travel agents all fight for your attention. Rest assured you will get lost here, it really is a rabbits warren of endlessly diverting twists and turns. Make sure to look for beer hoi corner - a crossroads in the old quarter where there are little places on each corner selling dirt cheap beer for about 15p a glass! Sit out on there plastic chairs and people watch, it really to meet fellow travellers and watch the motorbikes come into the crossroads whilst trying to guess which way they are going (no one indicates so this is suprisingly difficult!). Make sure to also wander around and find some traditional Vietnamese food in the endless amounts of restaurants and street stalls dotted around the streets. Another must in Hanoi is a circuit around Hoan Kiem lake. Hoan Kiem lake is small - you can do the circuit in around half an hour but it is reall intriguing. Here you can see Hanoians gathering for social activities, whether it is for a walk, for yoga or some sort of exercise or even for young couples the lake provides a spot that all can enjoy right in the heart of the city. The squat, tiered tower out in the middle of the lake is a real landmark, this is called the tortoise tower and is an important part of the old legends of the lake. The main legend around the lake is based upon a fifteenth century hero called Le Loi, whose amazing sword was swallowed by a golden turtle/tortoise hence the name of the tower. On the northern tip of the lake is a traditional red bridge leading across to a seperate island where an ancient temple still stands. This temple is worth a visit for the relatively small entrance fee with the highlight the hugh stuffed turtle supposedly found in the lake, located in a glass box. Hanoi's museums are well worth a look. The National Museum of Vietnamese History is a good place to take a look back at the ancient history of Vietnam. The museum contains exhibits such as drums and arrowheads, examples of the old cultures of Vietnam which hark back to the stone age - this is Vietnam's version of London's national history museum. Towards the end of the journey around the museum you will start to notice a move towards a more modern period and the French control of Vietnam. A good move is to move from here straight over to the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution which is literally just across the road. This looks at more modern history. Therefore you get a really interesting look into the French control of Vietnam up through the Vietnam war to around 1975. I found this more interesting than the older history however I think its down to personal preference and they are both good museums. Another important place to visit whilst you're in Hanoi is Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. Be ready to queue orderly, show real respect and keep moving though as uncle Ho is still extremely revered particularly in northern Vietnam and a number of surly guards will make sure that you don't linger or behave inappropriately as you make your way round the mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh was one of the great communist leaders and in true communist spirit his body has been embalmed ala Lenin and is displayed in a cold, dark chamber within the mausoleum. It is well worth a trip to see him as he is such an important figure in Vietnamese history even if it is quite a strange experience. Around the mausoleum is Ho Chi Minh's house and a museum dedicated to the former leader. Although I didn't have time to visit these I do regret this and wish I could have learnt more about uncle Ho. If you get the chance try to make it out to west lake to see the fallen B52 bomber, this gives you a real feel of how war came to Hanoi and the city had to stand tall and defend itself, the b52 is a poignant memorial to the victims of the bombing of Hanoi. It is easy to find a huge variety of food, drink, accomodation, transport and more in Hanoi. Try a ride on a xe-om or motorbike and hang on tight as you join the throngs of traffic! Make sure you give the Vietnamese food a real go there is some fantastic cuisine in Hanoi and sometimes the best thing to do is to go in some of the real local restaurants where nothing is in English and just ask for random things! The best thing about Hanoi is that it doesn't try to impress it just does it naturally. I love Thailand but there people are always trying to impress, to sell and please the tourist. In Hanoi people are friendly enough but they don't hassle you, they are how they are and this is what makes it so great. The city is yet to really stride into modernity, yes there are examples of it with office blocks, coca-cola adverts and new hotels but so much of the city goes on in a time warp still living in traditional Vietnamese style. I think it's brilliant and so refreshing to see a city stick to its roots - thats what really characterises Hanoi for me and what makes Hanoi, for me, one of the greatest cities in the world.
Pai is about a 3 and a half hour journey to the north west of Chiang Mai. It used to just be a stopover on the way to Mae Hong Son (where the long necked tribe of women can be found). But visitors have found Pai has its own unique laid back, new agey sort of charm. Tourists are beginning to come in ever increasing numbers to enjoy the hippyish feel of this little town. Yet it still retains a nice outdooresy sort of feel despite ever growing numbers of bars and restaurants. There are still a huge number of activities on offer plus lots of courses and a variety of massagey therapies available around town. The town of Pai is sweet and generally fairly tranquil though most of the actual activities take place in the countryside that actually surrounds it so don't be afraid to rent a motorbike or take a trek out and explore the countryside for yourself. Pai is a great place to go off trekking, although I didn't go myself I heard lots of good things from people that did go and you can incorporate elephant riding into your trip which I would certainly recommend, it is one of those must try things! Another popular activity is white water rafting which is great fun. The Pai river provides some decent rapids and the trip down is good fun and very good value. For accomodation I would recommend Chai-Niz village which fits into the Pai atmosphere perfectly as you can stay in traditional teepees and bamboo huts - great fun! The food in Pai is good, you can find some really nice authentic northern Thai cuisine - I would recommend trying a dish called Khao Soi, a lovely noodle curry dish with a unique taste to it. The bar scene in Pai is nice and laid back so my recommendation would be to get into that atmosphere and relax with a few Chang or Singha beers! A beautiful, laid back place to visit and enjoy.
Vientiane is small and low rise for a capital city, indeed it looks more like a collection of small towns put together rather than a city. However it is obvious that Vientiane has developed a great deal in the last decade or so as the tourists have come in increasing numbers. When I visited in early December 2009 the city had undergone a clean up and facelift to welcome the delegations from around Asia as they descended on the city for the South East Asian games. It is a mark of how both Vientiane and Laos as a country has developed in recent years that it could host an event of such magnitude. Many of the changes that have occurred in Vientiane have been for the better. There is a good selection of restaurants and a wide variety of accommodation available for visitors to enjoy whilst the city maintains its laid back charm. Vientiane's main sights can be comfortably seen in two days; That Louang, one of Laos's most important religious buildings is worth a visit to look at the intriguing golden pyramid structure. The original That Louang is thought to originate from the sixteenth century but todays structure dates from the 30s. It is particularly interesting to look at all the Buddhist imagery around the structure such as the lotus petals and stupas. Inside there are further links to Buddhism with a collection of Buddha images on show. Wat Sisaket is another important sight to see whilst in Vientiane. This temple is thought to be one of the oldest in Laos. There are some beautiful carvings and architecture around the place to look and a trip is worthwhile to get a feel for the religious history of Laos. Patouxai, Vientiane's answer to the Arc de Triomphe is worth a look. This huge concrete arch of victory was built to commemorate casualties of war on the royal Lao governments side. Although Patouxai isn't nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the Arc de Triomphe it is a interesting monument to visit and you can climb the stairs to the top for good views out over Vientiane. The main body of accommodation, shops and restaurants in Vientiane lie close to the Nam Phou fountain. The fountain itself is quite pleasant and around this there are a few nice bars and cafes where you can sit al fresco. Generally it is this area and the riverside where you will find the majority of the restaurants. These do cater to a wide range of tastes but I do recommend going down to the hawker stalls by the river and trying some authentic Lao food such as papaya salad and grilled fish and chicken, also try the spicy and sour laap. For accommodation look around these areas, I would recommend Mixay which provides decent, good value rooms with buffet breakfast for around 60,000 kip or £5 a night for a double room. As far as nightlife goes there are a few bars but there isn't really a party atmosphere about the city it is generally pretty quiet and a 11pm curfew applies. ATM's and banks are plentiful and it is easy to withdraw money with no hassle. There is a good market by the central bus station not too far from Patouxai which is good for picking up clothes and handicrafts, I picked up my Beer Lao t-shirt here and a few presents to send home. Generally Vientiane is pleasant enough but there is a limited amount to do so it is worth a visit but just not for a long period of time.
Vang Vieng is a small town situated between Laos two main towns Louang Prabang and Vientiane. This little town has become established on the tourist route but for quite unorthodox reasons. Initially the town saw a few tourists come to visit its lovely caves situated close to the town and admire the beautiful location in a spectacular limestone karst valley. However the town has seen the arrival of a greater amount of tourists by the year as the word of 'tubing' is spread round. Tubing takes place down the river Namsong and is essentially where you hire a tractor inner tube and float down the river getting off at bars located to the side of the river! The views are good with limestone outcrops outbound and if the little rapids and islands in the river aren't enough to keep you on our toes try some of the activities put on at the bars from ziplines, mud volleyball, slides and more theres always something going on down the tubing route! If you are going to tube all the way from the inital bars back to Vang Vieng beware that the distance is a good 4kms. I found this as I was having a nice relaxing tube down the river at around 5pm only to be told by a passing tuber that there was still a good 3kms to go and the light was going. Needless to say I ended up out on the river in the pitch black, hitting the shallow parts of the river and getting helped in by the local kids! Vang Vieng is not really a place in which to observe Lao culture. The small town centre is full of westernised bars and restaurants many of which have tvs blasting out Friends and Family guy from multiple screens. People generally relax in the bed style areas watching these shows before lumbering out in the evening to sink some Beer Lao's and whisky buckets. There is a bridge which leads over to what is called the 'island' this island simply contains several bars which sell cheap buckets and play loud music, they are good places to chill and relax though and some good parties get started here as the tubers exit the river here. The beautiful riverside scenery of Vang Vieng makes it perfect for stopping off and relaxing from a hectic sightseeing schedule in Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Whether you head out and try the tubing, chill out in a hammock, explore the caves or go drinking in one of the riverside bars it is a great place to spend time.
Laos for many years was generally an unknown destination for Western travellers. However, the country has seen a real increase in tourism since the 1990s as this old-fashioned socialist republic has crept more onto the tourist route. Laos is landlocked between China and Myanmar (Burma) in the north, Vietnam in the east, Thailand to the west and Cambodia to the south. The main places that a tourist would visit in Laos would be the two main towns of Louang Prabang and the capital Vientiane but also increasingly creeping onto the agenda is the small town of Vang Vieng, as people flock to have a go at tubing in a tractor inner tube down the Nam Song river. A couple of other important attractions in Laos are the mysterious Plain of Jars, a strange landscape of bomb craters in which there are clusters of urns distributed around the landscape, a really interesting area to explore and delve into the country's history.To the south of the country there are also the ancient ruins of Wat Phou which was one of the most important temples outside of Cambodia and the Angkor temples. Laos is a very rewarding country to visit. It has yet to really become established on the tourist route to the extent of somewhere like neighbouring Thailand. Be prepared for basic roads, a rugged and somewhat unexplored landscape and a real variety of culture and sights. One thing that particularly struck me about Laos was the sedate nature of life. People always seem relaxed, in no rush and generally very friendly. The three main areas of Vientiane, Louang Prabang and Vang Vieng all hold attractive natural scenery, interesting sights and good activities. However if possible try to arrange a trip to the real rural areas of Laos (of which there are many) the best areas I would recommend would be the north of the country where you can go on treks to see hilltribe villages or the south where the stunning Si Phan Don, a collection of river islands scattered across the Mekong boast truly stunning scenery. My advice would be to really get into the heart of Laos and experience the real warmth and hospitality of the people and explore the landscape of the country, it is truly spectacular. Laos as a country is very affordable to visit. The main cost is actually getting into Laos, once there you will find cheap accommodation, food, drink and excursions. The quality of the accommodation does very much vary round the country, in places such as Louang Prabang and Vientiane in particular you can stay in very upmarket and comfortable hotels for a very reasonable price, for example I stayed in a restored French style villa with fantastic architecture and comfortable amenities for just £13 a night. However if you wanted to be really budget you can find rooms in Laos for as little as £3 a night. Food and drink in Laos again varies, if you are out in the rural areas you will be restricted to local cuisine mainly based around sticky rice! If you are in the main places you can get all sorts of different cuisines. As far as banks in Laos go, be wary that this is a developing country and you won't find atms out in remote areas. The main places do have good access to atms but it can be limited elsewhere. Laos is a fantastic place to visit, I do hope this review helps to give some pointers on what it will be like and don't shout the secret too loudly!