My 5 Favorite Things About Hoi An, Vietnam

The City of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site on Vietnam’s central coast. Known for its well-preserved Ancient Town, the whole city is cut through with canals. Its small population and compact size make it easily explorable by bicycle or on foot. Being a four-hour bus ride from Hanoi, I’d only heard of Hoi An from fellow travellers once I had arrived in-country. Since it was near other places I wanted to see, I headed south.

When I visited Hoi An, the word was just getting out among the backpacking crowd. My current research shows that the city has become a tourist mecca. 

Old Town

Old Town is in an incredible state of preservation, with narrow streets that are closed to traffic. You can wander and admire the ancient houses, pagodas and temples, wells, and tombs without navigating cars, motorcycles, and scooters. The lichen-stained patina of pastel-colored walls immediately caught my attention, especially the ones splashed with vibrant red or purple bougainvillea. In the morning and evening light, fellow shutterbugs were in awe.

I stayed in Old Town, choosing a hotel with a pool for relief from the tropical heat. It was there that I learned Hoi An was the place to go for custom-made clothing. One of the main streets is lined with tailors and dress shops, the storefront windows crammed with colorful reams of material. I bumped into a guy who I met at Hạ Long Bay at a restaurant near my hotel. He was in town, waiting on his custom-made suit. 

There are plenty of authentic Vietnamese restaurants in Old Town. I fell in love with a local dumpling specialty called White Rose. I felt so impressed with another appetizer, stuffed squid, that I took a cooking class to learn how to make the delicacy. Despite how delicious the dish was, I was the only student and I mostly sat with cold beer in hand watching the barefoot chef cook on an old hot plate. I felt like I was in an episode of The Flintstones

Hoi An Night Market

This is not your average fruit and vegetable market. It has all the fresh produce you can imagine, along with local artisans who create and sell their wares on-site. Shopkeepers have set up the market stalls along the river, across the street from a row of restaurants and specialty shops. They’ve strung up colorful lamps and paper lanterns in front of the vendor booths like distant planets glowing in the twilight. 

One of my favorite pastimes while travelling is people watching. After learning that ‘fresh beer’ actually meant draft beer, I perched myself on a restaurant patio to sip and slurp my cold brew and White Rose dumplings. I watched the busy little people shopping and selling their wares, some wearing the traditional rice hat. I couldn’t have felt any further from home and that was just fine by me. 

An Bang Beach

An Bang Beach is about a 10-minute scooter ride, or a 25-minute scenic and leisurely bicycle ride along the river from Old Town. Stepping out from the row of shady palm trees that lined the white sand beach on the South China Sea, I felt blown away by the unobstructed views for miles in either direction. I spotted an Australian woman from my hotel and asked if I could share her blanket to get off the hot sand. 

We chatted, comparing previous trips and our lives at home. She was staying in town, waiting on a custom-made bridesmaid dress for a friend’s wedding. I borrowed sunscreen to stop my pale skin from burning to a crisp, one reason I don’t spend much time at the beach. The pleasant company and nearly deserted beach made for a nice afternoon. 

The beach in Vietnam

Mỹ Sơn 

Mỹ Sơn is a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples in central Vietnam. These gorgeous structures were constructed between the 4th and 14th century by the Kings of Champa, an Indianized kingdom of the Cham people. About 25 kilometers away from Hoi An, this awesome ruin site was nearly decimated by American bombing during the Vietnam War. The government is doing its best to restore Mỹ Sơn which was once more glorious than Angkor Wat. 

I took the bus there, feeding pills to my food-poisoned Aussie friend along the way. Many of the temples suffered severe damage from the bombing. Those that survived are truly magnificent. The guided tour is a must if you’re interested in knowing the history of what you’re looking at. Bring along a hat or umbrella if you arrive in the midday heat. There is no shade from the hot sun. 

Marble Mountain & Da Nang

These authentic hotspots are also close by. I rented a scooter for a short trip and enjoyed the scenery along the shoreline of the South China Sea. The City of Da Nang was once the location for a huge US military base. Although I didn’t visit the city, I checked out two of the concrete bunkers along the beach. Across the highway, Marble Mountain was much more impressive. It has an interesting history to boot. 

During the war, North Vietnamese soldiers took refuge and set up a military hospital inside mountain caves. The US bombed the mountain so severely, they eventually blew a hole in the top. Natural sunlight now streams through the hole, lighting up the altar and shrine below. I climbed to the top of Marble Mountain and took in amazing views of the sea and Da Nang. 

Unexpected Friends

On the way to the mountain, two young girls on a scooter befriended me and said I could park across the street at their uncle’s shop. I knew I’d have to pay in some way later on. One of the smiley young ladies was waiting when I returned. She told me I qualified for a discount in the store because we were friends. In fairness, she was the one who showed me the bunkers. The store was filled with amazing marble sculptures; I took home two hand-carved candle holders. 

I’d originally planned to only spend three days in Hoi An, but after falling in love with the place I extended my stay to five. It is a great place to explore or kick back, relax, and soak up the exotic culture.

If you enjoyed my story and would like to read more about my travels in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, please check out my book, A Casual Traveler, or visit the travel section of my website.

Top Seven Reasons to Visit Sa Pa, Vietnam

Ed GagnonEdmond Gagnon grew up in Canada. A retired detective, Ed now travels the world between writing books. One of the most unique places he’s visited on his journey was Vietnam. In this quick preview, Ed shares seven reasons to visit Sa Pa, Vietnam, which he’s written about in his book, A Casual Traveler

Top Seven Reasons to Visit Sa Pa, Vietnam

When it comes to traveling, I usually venture out on my own to explore new places. In the case of Sa Pa, in Vietnam, I booked a no-brainer packaged excursion from my hotel in Hanoi. Not able to read or understand the language, I felt it was the sensible thing to do. The trip included all travel arrangements, lodging, and two days of trekking in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains, just south of the Chinese border. 

After a snafu on the overnight train and a shuttle bus kerfuffle, I found myself standing on the balcony of my Sa Pa hotel. The hotel balcony overlooked the mind-blowing Muong Hoa Valley, nestled in the highest mountains in Vietnam. I found it hard to imagine what I was about to experience hiking this remote alpine paradise. 

A Unique & Exotic Place

People say that Vietnam is a unique and exotic destination to explore and they are right. But if you really want to see a truly special place, travel 350 kilometers northwest of the capital city, Hanoi. From there, Sa Pa can be easily reached by bus or train. It’s the last Vietnamese outpost, before Lao Cai, a city on the China border. 

Sa Pa is a popular trekking base. Its 10,000 inhabitants consist mostly of people from the Hmong, Tay, and Dao hill tribes. Their villages are scattered throughout the remote valley. Some are only accessible on foot or by serious all-terrain vehicles. No paved roads exist between the hamlets. Much of what is needed is carried in wicker baskets by the local women. 

A photo of some of the village deliveries

Strolling the main streets in Sa Pa is like walking backwards into time. Uniquely clad women line the sidewalks selling their hand-crafted goods — some with woven baskets and others with colorful blankets, tablecloths, and placemats. Some, wearing the classic straw lampshade hats, sell fresh produce grown locally.  

Mountain Trekking

I’m not what you’d call an avid hiker, but when I saw the pictures and read about trekking through the mountains around Sa Pa, I knew it was an adventure I couldn’t pass up. The agents told me in advance that the hike was fairly rigorous and certainly not for the faint of heart. My guide gave me a taste of what I was in for on the afternoon of my arrival. She called it a warm-up, a short jaunt through town along paved roads and easy paths.

The half-day trek seemed easy at first, mostly because it meandered downhill. We walked along a ridge on the edge of town, taking in awesome views of the valley below. Lam allowed me a beer break at a cute little village café where I gawked at the huge mountains that marked the border with China. At this point, my guide sent a woman in our foursome back to the hotel. She’d gotten drunk from a hidden canteen she carried, and my guide was afraid she might fall down the mountain. 

The hike back to the hotel was a bit harder because it was all uphill. The incline made my calf muscles tingle, and the thinner air at that elevation had me breathing heavy. I felt proud upon the completion of my half-day hike. Nonetheless, my guide, Lam, burst my bubble saying it was easy and the full-day trek the next day would be much harder.  

The Real Deal

I awoke to fog so thick I could barely find Lam outside the front doors of my hotel. It was 9 AM, and upon seeing me she said, ‘we go now’. Walking through the low-lying clouds reminded me of entering a steam bath. I heard roosters crowing but couldn’t see anything on either side of the wet and slippery path. Some local kids tried to sell me a walking stick, but I was clueless as to what lay ahead and didn’t buy one. 

It didn’t take long to get off the beaten path, a place where only mountain goats and experienced locals trekked. I found myself balancing on the edge of soggy rice paddies and figured it was only a matter of time before I fell into one. Often, I lost sight of Lam because of my slow pace, only to find her further along the path waiting for me. I tripped and stumbled over loose boulders and rocks. Lam told me my feet were too big. 

Hungry and soaked from sweat, I eventually made it to our lunch stop. It was a picnic area with a covered patio and outdoor kitchen, perched on the edge of a gorge. I heard what sounded like rushing water but the fog obscured anything below me. An eerie-looking cable bridge shrouded in fog led to the other side of the river. We ate a fresh salad and a tasty chicken stir fry for lunch.  

Amazing Scenery

After lunch, we headed across the bridge and into another valley. Like a bedsheet being drawn back, the fog slowly retreated, revealing bright green rice paddies built on terraces that climbed the side of the mountains. Puffy cotton ball clouds sat atop the rocky peaks, crested by powder- blue sky. It was rural and rugged and wickedly wonderful all at the same time.   

Oxen and Water Buffalo grazed in fields and fat pigs played in muddy pens. Village men used hand tools to chisel and carve new terraces into the mountainside for their rice paddies. Dirty-faced and bare-bottomed children chewed on sugar cane and played, oblivious to the large and sweaty white man grunting and puffing on his way by. 

Two village children

Colorful Hill Tribes

The indigenous people were more colorful than the scenic valley they called home. Lam explained to me how at the age of 12, their culture expects women to weave, sew, and dye the materials to make their own clothes. The deep red and indigo colors may seem haphazard to a stranger but each village has their own particular outfits, some including headdresses or knee socks. I saw one woman stirring a vat of indigo dye, another weaving a basket, and plenty of others carrying them to their villages.

The men work the fields while the women tend their children and homes. The average household comprised itself of nothing more than a grass and mud hut, some built with wood and corrugated metal that villagers hauled up the mountain manually. Lam showed me her village and checked in on her kids while I snooped around town and took some pictures. 

She’d been guiding for seven years, picking up as many languages just by conversing with trekking tourists. She only earned a few dollars a day and she worked seven days a week. Nonetheless, Lam said it was better than trying to pedal cheap souvenirs. It was no wonder to me that she was in such great shape, hiking five to ten miles every day. Her sister minded the kids while she was away at work. 

A view of the valley, one of the many reasons to visit Sa Pa

Remote Mountain Villages

Each village we came across was different, although each was mostly distinguishable by the women’s attire. Some places were so remote access could only be made on foot or by animal. Lam commented after one of my trips and near falls that if I became disabled, she would simply strap me to the back of the closest oxen to get me down the hill. The vision worried me but I liked her sense of humor. 

I saw a man fishing from a boulder about the size of a large bulldozer. It practically blocked the stream. We had to walk across fields of bowling-ball-sized rocks in one dry river bed and a rickety bamboo bridge that crossed the water. Lam went first to watch me cross. She waited until I was about half-way to say she wasn’t sure the structure would hold my weight. A picture of me on the back of a smelly beast flashed through my mind and I scurried to safety. 

Lam grinned, turned, and carried on, expecting me to play the part of a good soldier and follow the leader. Our 10k trek ended at a mountain village that eventually met up with Sa Pa via road. I had time for a well-deserved beer and reflection of my all-day awesome adventure before getting on the shuttle bus back to the hotel. I wanted to hug Lam for getting me back alive but gave her a huge tip instead.

Land of Lam

My trip to Sa Pa and trekking in the mountains was easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. It is a truly beautiful and unique place that I will never forget. If you’re interested in reading more about my adventures, Land of Lam can be found in my travel book, A Casual Traveler

More of my travel stories can be found on my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

Laos: The Sleepy Sister of Southeast Asia

Harold Michael CarterBy Michael Carter

Welcome to the Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic), a land-locked and less-traveled nation in Southeast Asia. The population of the country has yet to reach 8 million. Most first time visitors to Southeast Asia concentrate on the Vientiane-Vang Vieng-Luang Prabang corridor. Perhaps rightly so, as Luang Prabang is truly a wonderful UNESCO world heritage site. But Laos has plenty of other less publicized gems located in the far southern and eastern Champasak region, hugging Vietnam and a small northern border section with Cambodia. Join me as we take a look.

Pakse, Laos

Pakse (population around 75,000) is the hub of the southwestern corner of Laos. It is located along the confluence of The Mekong and Se Don rivers. The backdrop contains a series of rugged hills. The riverside sunset views are spectacular. Mother Nature used a masterstroke when painting this scene.

What is there to actually do in Pakse? Surprisingly, I found the city has a decent selection of satisfactory eateries. The Panorama Restaurant on the rooftop of the Pakse Hotel provided a 360-degree view of the entire city. It offered optimum sunset gazing with cool, clear air in a relaxed setting. Makeshift restaurants pop up along the riverside in the late afternoon. This is an ideal way to mingle with the locals over some Beerlao. If alcohol is not your cup of tea, there are numerous excellent coffee shops in Pakse.

I rented a bicycle during the day to get around. This is one of my favorite ways to explore a new place. I get a bit of exercise and I can cover more distance than I would simply by walking. If you want a less tiring activity, watch or ask to join a game of pétanque. This French-introduced boules game is very popular in Pakse. 

Not impressed with the excitement factor yet? Read on.

Corner Cafe

Spread Your Wings

OK, so you’ve wound down for a couple of days in Pakse, Laos and now you want to become a little more active.

The nearby Bolaven Plateau is the country’s coffee-growing region. The French introduced the production of coffee in the early 20th century. Presently, Lao coffee is renowned and appreciated worldwide. Other attractions and curiosities in this area are numerous waterfalls and the villages of ethnic minorities.

The Bolaven Plateau is wedged between the Annamite Mountain Range. The Annamite straddles the Vietnamese border on the east and the Mekong River on the west. During the American-Vietnam war, the area was strategically important to both sides. The US heavily carpet-bombed the Bolaven Plateau. To this day, UXOs (unexploded ordinance) riddle the dense jungles. Sticking to marked trails or hiring a guide when hiking is advised.  

Been There, Don Det

Finished with your jungle trek and want to relax again? Head further south to Si Phan Don, a 50-kilometer region just east of the Mekong barely on this side of the Cambodian border.

Si Phan Don translates to approximately 4,000 islands, half of which are submerged during the rainy season. This is the widest area of the 4,350-kilometer-long Mekong River system, offering stunning views of lush jungles and scenic waterways. 

I caught a skiff in Ban Nakasang and settled on the island of Don Det.

Don Det gives an entirely new definition to the term ”laid back.” If you want to get your travel budget in order and slow down beyond belief for some time, Don Det is the haven for you. 

Pace of Don Det, Laos

Two Tribes

Two distinctly contrasting tribes coexist on the island of Don Det — the TVs (travelers, tourists, visitors… take your pick) and the DTs (permanent Det dwellers, locals, natives… take your pick). The TVs are a curious lot and a constant source of amusement for the DTs. I wonder what the DTs did for entertainment before the arrival of the TVs.

TVs come in all ages and from various nations, but all seem to share a fondness for lassitude. The biggest decisions of the day lie in the answers to: “Where to eat next?”, “Where to go for the next beer?”, and “Do I want to eat regular food or ‘happy’ food?”. The more adventurous of the TVs have been known to vacate their hammocks long enough to engage in the rather boisterous activities of floating down the Mekong on inner tubes, lounging on the small beach, or perhaps renting a bicycle to escape the hustle and bustle of the north end of the island. The favorite expression of the average TV is ”chill out.”

The DTs, on the other hand, are also a relaxed tribe, but in a much more traditional way. Their days are spent fishing, repairing fishing nets, playing pétanque, caring for their chickens and gardens… and of course, being amused by the behavior of the TVs.

Don Det Beach

Is it on Your Bucket List Now?

Some travelers have limited time and feel that hanging out and simply enjoying a place wastes too much of their travel time. Although true in some cases, remember that you won’t see the world in one trip. Stick around a while and enjoy the place you are at. 

If you like Vegas-style entertainment, 5-star accommodations, or piña coladas by the seaside — well, Laos might not make your bucket list.  

If you want something much simpler and want to take a step back in time for a while, then this is your ticket.

I hope to share my experiences in a different part of the world with you again soon.

The Con Dao Islands of Vietnam

michael carterWhere in the world are the Con Dao Islands?

If you happen to be wandering around Vietnam or are looking for your next tropical adventure, head east of Ho Chi Minh City to the port city of Vung Tau. The Con Dao Island group is a cluster of 16 islands located about 80 km offshore from Vung Tau. A now-daily high-speed catamaran service connects the mainland with Con Son, the only permanently inhabited island of the bunch. Traveling there takes about four hours overall.

A Con Dao Anecdote: The Day of My Arrival

Just past high noon, the ”cat” docks at the harbor, which is about 12 km from Con Son town. Con Son claims the title of largest community on the islands, proudly housing approximately 7,000 denizens. In Vung Tau, I had hooked up with a fellow intrepid traveler, Jim. Jim and I grew up in the same Canadian town; additionally, this was the first trip to Con Dao for either of us.

A-frame cottages at Con Dao Camping

I don’t know the collective noun for taxi drivers offhand, so I’ll use the term ‘annoyance’. Hordes of taxi drivers waited as we disembarked, certainly eager to offer their services. “Where are you staying?”, “Where do you want to go?” Impossible questions to answer, as neither of us had ever been there before and therefore, had absolutely no idea.

We decided to incorporate the distraction of snapping a few photos of the undeniably scenic harbor as an opportunity to ignore the mini-fleet of vultures. Soon, a bus pulled up beside us and the driver opened its doors — ”jump in,” he welcomed with hand gestures.

“How much?”

No reply.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked in broken English.

“Don’t know, somewhere near the center of town.”

Understood or not, the hand gesture came into play again.

I felt unquestionably uneasy as we boarded a bus going to an unknown destination with no set price. We were the only passengers. Ah yes, the joys of an intrepid traveler.

When there appeared to be enough buildings surrounding us to indicate we happened to be in some sort of town, we requested to get off. How much did we have to pay? Absolutely nothing!

Café Soleil

As we stepped off the bus, I noticed a sign on a tree that read ”Piano Café.” Across the street, a small, open-air spot named Café Soleil beckoned. The only person in sight was a bare-chested, middle-aged man. We ordered two ca phê den da, which they didn’t have. Fortunately, Mr. Bare Torso walked a couple of doors down the road and got two for us.

Coffee shop in Vietnam. Best Vietnamese coffee in town.

A woman and a small kid soon appeared. She almost immediately touched my arm and smiled. After returning, the guy wrote a number on a piece of paper. He then wrote 1975 and pointed to himself — indicating his year of birth. He handed the pen and paper to me, particularly intent. In an effort to humor him, I wrote 1976 and pointed to my chest. A confused look washed over his face and he shook his head in disbelief. I decided to come clean and wrote my true year of birth. He gave me a thumbs-up and revealed the other number he had written — 2047. The soothsayer foretold my longevity. I am not going to die until 2047.

Despite their hospitality, we still felt damned hot. Plus, we still didn’t exactly know where we were or where we were going to stay.

Hospitality Abounds

Jim had one of those so-called “smartphones” that some people seem to enjoy carrying around these days. With the aid of his contraption, he located a nearby place that promised something good to eat. Other than the three early morning beers on the boat, my stomach was empty. After a feed, we could ask around for accommodation options.

A tree in Con Son Town, Con Dao Islands, Vietnam

The phone map touted a restaurant called Villa Maison, supposedly only about three or four blocks away. As we headed out, an idle taxi saw us hauling our bags,  filled mostly with wine we had brought over from Vung Tau. He asks the usual “where do you want to go?” question.

“It’s OK, it’s not far. We’ll walk.”

“Come in,” he says, utilizing the traditional hand gestures that graduates of Con Dao Bus & Taxi Driving Schools are required to master.

The Villa Maison was indeed only about three blocks away. The taxi driver charged us… absolutely nothing! (Now I know for sure I was certainly on a different planet.)

A friendly Villa Maison waitress welcomed us with cold, wet face towels, a lemon drink, and iced water. No charge.

Without a doubt, great first-day hospitality all around.

What to do for a few days?

Relax. If you want nightlife, head back to Vung Tau. We ended up staying at a property known as Con Dao Camping. Not camping as we know it, but rather a collection of A-frame cottages that snoozed beneath some trees, necklacing a fine beach. I spent a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking that life was a breeze. Tourists and residents alike consider Con Dao a peaceful existence, but it hadn’t always been thought of that way.

Entrance to Trai Phu Hai Prison on the Con Dao Islands.

At one time, many called this island the Hell of Southeast Asia. The French called it the Devil’s Island of the east. Why? The island used to house some of the most notoriously horrific prisons. Wardens kept their prisoners in horrendous conditions. It was here that people were subjected to in the infamous Tiger Cages. This is an article on its own, but do some research on the Internet if you don’t know about the tortuous Tiger Cages.

Michael standing behind prison bars in Trai Phu Hai Prison

I spent a morning walking through the worst prison on the island, as well as a couple of smaller ones. They were truly despicable places.

More Than Horrific Prisons

But there is more to do than reading, writing, and hanging out in prisons. When you decide to get out of Con Son town and explore the island a little more, the best option is likely to rent a motorbike. Another option is what Jim and I decided to do — hire an elephant taxi. NO, not an actual elephant, but electric vehicles that act as a major taxi service both in Con Son town and around the island.

An Elephant Taxi. One of the many unique elephant taxis.

We stopped off at various near-deserted beaches. We spent probably too much time dangling from cliff faces that dropped off into the ocean, snapping a lot of pictures.

Rather than writing a lot of words using repetitive adjectives to describe ”scenic,” I’ll let some of the pictures speak for themselves.

The Life of Lassitude Comes to an End

This was a whirlwind 10-day trip to Vietnam from neighboring Cambodia. I spent six of those days visiting Con Dao.

With every departure from a new destination, I am always torn as to whether I will ever get to — or want to — return, or whether I will continue to seek out new destinations. I’ve been to Vietnam numerous times but this was my first to these islands. I think I’ll go back someday, but for the time being, my quest is to visit what is the unknown for me. If you happen to follow my adventures on Dreams Abroad, I hope to introduce you to both recently- visited places and newly- discovered ones.

To read more about Michael’s island adventures, check out Michael’s Tioman Tale Part One and his Tioman Tale Part Two!

Spending a Month Wandering Vietnam

After living abroad in Thailand for a year, teaching English, I took a three-month trip to travel around southeast Asia. I spent the first three weeks of that journey in Vietnam. Going into the trip, I didn’t feel incredibly excited about Vietnam — not that I was bummed, but I just didn’t have high expectations. Looking back, though, it was probably one of my favorite countries.

I was in Vietnam from mid-September to mid-October, and I personally think it was a great time to go. It was hot — but Vietnam will always be hot. I visited right on the brink of tourist season. It wasn’t too crowded yet, and it also wasn’t monsooning anymore.

I didn’t go into Vietnam with a set plan at all. I had a plane ticket into the country and a plane ticket out three weeks later. My “plan” included traveling to a city, hanging out for a couple of days, then figuring out where to go next and how to get there. At times, it was stressful, but it was ultimately a great decision. I’m really glad I did it that way. It allowed for a lot of flexibility and exploration.

Good Eats All Around Vietnam

My plan was to start in Hanoi, Vietnam (north) and work my way down through the country, ending in Ho Chi Minh City. On my first day, I got into Hanoi around 7 pm after a long travel day. I was starving and exhausted. Luckily, I was staying right in the middle of Old Town and there was food — literally — on every corner. I sat down at the first street stall I could find and ate a life-changing bowl of chicken noodle soup. 

Bowl of chicken noodle soup

Vietnamese food is amazing and I’m sure most people have enjoyed a westernized version of it at home. But the thing that makes Vietnamese food great is the simplicity of it. My chicken noodle soup was literally chicken broth, chicken, noodles, and herbs, made right there on the sidewalk. And it was spectacular. Vietnamese cuisine is founded on the ideas of fresh and easy, and since the cuisine’s main ingredients are water and rice, it’s one of the healthiest in the world.

Favorite Dishes

Some other amazing dishes I had in northern Vietnam were beef pho with chili (pho bo), fish soup with lemon and dill (bun cha), spring rolls, and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich on baguette). Probably my favorite meal I had was a meal called banh xeo. Banh xeo is a rice flour and egg pancake, stuffed with meat and vegetables. My personal favorite is shrimp, diced onion, bean sprouts, topped with a little sweet chili sauce. It’s like an egg taco and it’s fantastic.

Banh xeo vegetables

Hanoi was probably my favorite city in Vietnam, and I just got lucky that it was also my first. Hanoi is the epitome of Vietnam, with absurd traffic, coffee shops everywhere, and life happening outside and all at once. It’s loud, chaotic, and charming. Moving south through the country, the lifestyle might relax a little, but the Vietnamese chaos never disappears.

The Gorgeous Sides of Vietnam

The next two cities on the itinerary were Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh. They’re both very similar, geographically, except there’s an inland one and an island one surrounded by water. Otherwise, the mountains and limestone features of both cities are the same. The food, the people, and the culture are also very similar. And while these cities are much smaller and less crowded than Hanoi, they have so much to see.

Vietnam Ha Long Bay

Halong is famous. If you’ve ever looked into traveling to Vietnam you’ve probably seen boat tours around the bay. People know it for its beautiful and plentiful limestone islands that pop up in the water. Some are small islands while others are big mountains where you can dock and look around. During the boat tour, I saw a beautiful cave and got to lounge on a gorgeous beach. Just simply sailing through the bay was spectacular.

Ninh Binh

A little to the south, Ninh Binh also has the beautiful limestone hills and mountains – they’re just on land. The city is really cool to drive through because while the ground is very flat, everywhere you look there are rows and rows of mountains. I hiked up one of the mountains, Mua Cave, and it was amazing. It was so cool to see all of the peaks and valleys from so high up. More than just mountains, Ninh Binh also has rivers and beautiful lotus gardens.

Scratch the Surface

Vietnam doesn’t only offer natural beauty, though. Hue was my next stop, a city located in central Vietnam. Hue is an ancient, imperial city, and one that has been around since at least 1789. The city’s citadel is now preserved and considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Literally worlds of history attached themselves to this beautiful town.

Hue Vietnam

Some people don’t know that Hue and Vietnam have a very artistic culture as well. An old, abandoned water park turned tourist must-see and a local hang out became one of the coolest things I saw the whole trip. Over the years, graffiti and age caught up to it a little. Nonetheless, it seemed like a great representation of the art and history that many know Vietnam for. It was beautiful, secular, and bursting with history. And Hue is like that everywhere — even coffee shops and bike taxis are creative and fun to look at.

Vietnam coffee shop

The thing that stands out most to me about Hue, though, is the culture. Yes, Vietnam can be loud and chaotic, but at its heart is compassion and kindness. The host I had for my Airbnb in Hue was one of the nicest people I have ever met. He showed me around the city, cooked for me, and offered tons of help. I wouldn’t have gotten half the experience I did without him. And this is just how Vietnamese people are: helpful and warm-hearted.

Getting Around 

From Hue, I made the journey to Da Nang. When I bought the bus ticket, someone told me it would be about a three-and-a-half-hour journey. But, it ended up being much longer than that — a common theme among my entire trip. What was supposed to be an easy and fun bus ride, became a full-day event. We would make stops often — to pick up people, to pick up packages, once to even pick up a motorbike. And this is just how it works in Vietnam. Nobody is in a rush, and nobody is bothered with efficiency.  

Da Nang is Vietnam’s third-biggest city and is very similar to any metropolitan area. It has a lot of cool attractions, like the city, a beach, and a few mountains. So maybe a lot cooler than your average city. Very close by was Hoi An, another ancient city preserved. To get to Hoi An, you could either take an expensive taxi or drive motorbikes. After living in Thailand for a year, I felt confident in my moped-driving skills and made the hour’s journey to Hoi An. Motorbike riding is very common in Asia, and you can rent a motorbike in most cities. I could write a whole article about motorbikes and parking, but to keep from boring you I’ll sum it up: be careful.

After getting too close for comfort in traffic and almost getting scammed for parking in Hoi An, I finally made it to the ancient city. I grabbed coconut coffee and walked around a bit. These cities have really become gentrified and a lot of the culture has been replaced by tourist stops and shops. Most old buildings now sell counterfeit purses or the same “authentic” souvenir magnets. My favorite tourist scams include the completely overpriced tours of rice paddy fields.

Bang for Your Buck. . . or Dong

One of the biggest draws to SEAsia, for a lot of people, is the cost. SEAsia, and Vietnam particularly, is crazy cheap. If you’ve heard anything about Vietnam it’s probably about the 5 cent beers and 50cent banh mis. And it’s true — everything is ridiculously cheap. And that is especially apparent in a city like Ho Chi Minh. The conversion rate in Vietnam is 1USD to about 23,000 Vietnamese dong, so math could get a little tricky at times. It was absolutely worth it, though!

After leaving Da Nang, I made my way south to the capital city. Ho Chi Minh is the biggest city in Vietnam, with more than a million people. It’s also huge and has many different neighborhoods like most large cities. And like most cities, each neighborhood has its own personality and signature. There is District 1 for backpackers, Little India, Phu Nhuan, Chinatown — and so many more. The best thing about each of these is that they are all different versions of Vietnam. And even though Saigon is a huge city, you can get all of these perspectives of the country at really cheap prices. You get a modern-city-feel for a fraction of a modern-city-price.

Ho Chi Minh

Staying in Ho Chi Minh

I stayed in an Airbnb in between the Japanese district and business district. I was walking distance to all of the tourist stops, right next to tons of restaurants, but still right in the heart of a local neighborhood. It was $12 a night (Twelve). All of my meals were cheap and delicious. And while you usually expect to see tourist spots with outrageous prices, places like the War Remnants Museum and the Independence Palace were fairly reasonable. They were well worth it, too. It was really cool to learn about the Vietnam/American War from Vietnam’s point of view.

Independence Palace

By this point in my trip, I had two and a half weeks of laundry to do. So after some searching, I found a place doing a kilogram of laundry for 75 cents (USD) — washed, folded, delivered. Sounded fantastic to me! I dropped off a huge backpack of laundry. It was returned the next day for less than $5. These hard-to-believe costs are all over Asia and especially apparent in a city like Ho Chi Minh. It’s one of the reasons I recommend Vietnam to anyone who asks. Not only is a great city — but it’s a great city for a great price.

A Month in Vietnam

Vietnam is one of the coolest countries I’ve ever visited. Even a month might not be enough to fully take advantage of just how awesome it is. You’ll eat some of the best food you’ve ever eaten, while bouncing around to any landscape or city imaginable. There’s plenty of history and culture to see. You’ll get all kinds of comfort-zone-pushing experiences, while being able to stay under budget. Vietnam is truly a fantastic place and I can’t recommend it enough.

 

I have written a lot more about my trip to Vietnam and Asia on my own personal blog. If traveling to Asia is something you’re interested in, or if you just like to read about other cultures I’d love for you to check it out!

 

experience vietnam

What It’s Like Teaching English in Cambodia

by Edmond Gagnon

Michael CarterIn the first part of Michael Carter’s interview, he told us how and why he chose Cambodia as his new home. He targeted Southeast Asia but did not have a particular country when he first decided to come. Then, he visited a friend he’d made from Germany who was living in Cambodia. Seeing Cambodia’s gorgeous atmosphere and rich culture, he immediately applied for a job there and the rest is history. 

Here is the second part of his interview teaching English in Cambodia.

What is a typical day at your school like? 

“A typical teaching day for me begins at 7:40 a.m. and finishes at 4:10 p.m. Many schools run early evening classes as well, but not where I currently work. There is a long gap between morning and afternoon classes, between 10:30 a.m. and 1:20 p.m.). This is mainly to coincide with typical hours of Khmer schools. Most students study for a half-day at Khmer school. Students from wealthy families who can afford English schools spend the other half of their day there.”

How many people do you work with? How many classes do you teach?

The place I work employs a lot of people for various duties. There are probably about fifty to sixty teachers on staff. The day is divided into six classes — three before and three after midday. I teach anywhere from four to six classes a day, which adds up to twenty-four teaching hours per week. Most schools here use a twenty to thirty hour teaching week as a base. Notably, the afternoon classes do not have the same students as the morning.”

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

Teaching English in Cambodia“I tend to work independently most of the time. This is partly because I am the only one teaching the courses I do teach (i.e. sociology and psychology). But for other subjects, there are typically three teachers teaching the same thing and they often share ideas and materials. We also have a computer database where teachers can store and access lesson plans or worksheets that have been shared.”

What is your favorite part of the day? Why?

 “Quitting time — 4:10 p.m. Reasons are obvious I would think.”

How is the material being taught to students? Is there a specific method being used?

“I think most schools are looking for similar teaching styles, but I certainly would say it’s student-centered. We are meant to keep the TTT (Teacher Talking Time) to an absolute minimum. Group work and pair work are preferable to independent studying. Encourage learner interaction and incorporate critical thinking into the activities whenever possible. I create a lot of supplementary material and often look for short video segments on YouTube which may add another dimension to the lesson.”

How do you prepare your lessons for each class? If you don’t plan lessons, how do you prepare for class?

One of many city temples“You can’t always stick to a lesson plan to the last detail, but you should have something planned anyway. Sometimes the timing can be tricky, but you don’t want to have flat or inactive moments.”

I always plan some type of warmer (five to ten minutes) to bring the learners on board. This doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with the material in the lesson. It could simply be a short competition of some kind. The purpose is to grab the attention of your ‘audience’. Think of watching a film at the cinema — or reading a story. The first few minutes of a film are crucial to catch the interest of the viewer, just as a writer needs a ‘hook’ to make the reader want to continue. Teaching isn’t any different. Get their attention, wind them up, and then let them go.

After the warmer, give brief but clear instructions for the class activities. This is your time to teach any new material… but don’t ramble on for too long.

The rest, and longest part of the class must allow students to interact/practice etc. Depending on what you have taught, give a short (five minute) recap/review of the lesson’s key points at the end and assign extra practice (homework) from time-to-time.”

Do you work at a bilingual school? Is English being taught as a subject or throughout all classes at the school? Describe the ways English is being implemented. 

“Our school is strictly English only. We don’t simply teach English, we teach subjects in English. Of course, they learn their basics of the language there as well. However, they study social sciences, history, geography, computer, sports, etc. — all in English.

There are other schools which do just teach English language as a class, though. These places usually have early evening classes that cater to young adults after work.

Our school operates a Khmer language school as well and some students study half a day at each.”

What are the standards classroom teachers use to measure the performance of their students?

“Testing mainly. I personally think students are tested too often but this is what the Cambodian parents want and expect. We also make a part of their score based on speaking from day-to-day class activities. Once a month they are given a project or assignment connected to what they’ve been studying. A mark is given for this as well.

At the beginner levels, we stress fluency. Once they’ve attained that, the higher levels base their scores on both fluency and accuracy.”

Does your school have a set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help their students succeed?

Stone Masons at work

I’ve probably touched upon these already, but in a nutshell:
  • Critical thinking skills. Students need to be able to both think and express their ideas and opinions. It isn’t about simply remembering a lot of facts and formulas.
  • Social skills. Cambodians tend to have tightly-knit families. Unlike in most western countries, teenagers do not go out or just hang out with friends. They almost always go out as a family unit. Group work at school affords them an opportunity to interact with non-family members. Social media is perhaps changing things a bit, but not necessarily in a positive way.
  • Confidence. Unlike some schools, we do not automatically pass everybody in order to continue collecting their money. Pushing a student to a higher level when they are not ready is wrong. Students will soon realize their skills are inferior to others and this will kill their desire to participate. Getting good grades is something wonderful for younger learners to show their parents. Giving some verbal praise from time-to-time can do wonders, especially for older, less confident students.

Looking back at the first Teach Abroad interview, what have you learned most about yourself since first being in the classroom this year?

“I have been teaching for around twenty years and for about the first fifteen of those years, I didn’t teach anyone younger than the age of about seventeen or eighteen. It was almost exclusively young adults under thirty. This was both in Indonesia and Cambodia. I now teach kids as young as eleven and twelve and up to the age of seventeen or eighteen. One thing I’ve had to adjust to was having patience dealing with young, wandering attention spans. My partner is Cambodian and we have three young children together so I have become used to this fairly naturally.

Something I’ve known all along but continue to practice is changing up the way I conduct my lessons. Yes, I could replay what I’ve done in the past, though I would find that boring. Keeping things fresh is a key to retaining job interest. Nobody likes a mundane job.”

What It’s Like Teaching English in Cambodia

As you are reading this, Michael is seeking shelter from the 37°C temperatures that don’t normally come until at least a month from now. If you have any questions about teaching English in Cambodia, or the country itself, please don’t hesitate to ask.

The Cambodia Killing Fields

by Edmond Gagnon

To truly understand the country of Cambodia, one must first understand its past. Forty years after the massive genocide committed by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), more commonly called the Khmer Rouge, I endeavored to do exactly that. Having an interest in the Vietnam War, I’d heard about the mass killings in the neighboring country of Cambodia. It wasn’t until I watched the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, that I had a better understanding of what really happened. 

The Khmer Rouge

Despite the massive bombing campaign by the United States, the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian civil war that ran from 1970 to 1975. They eventually took political control of the country. Their goal was to maximize production by making everyone farmers. To reach their goal, they eliminated an entire social order that included political opponents, doctors, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, and all other upper-class professionals. 

massive genocide cambodia

Nobody knows the exact numbers, but some estimate the Rouge arrested, tortured, and killed anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million people — a whopping 25% of Cambodia’s population. The Khmer Rouge caught civilians and loaded them onto trucks. From there, they brought their victims to remote areas known as the Killing Fields. Here, their executioners sentenced them to death and buried them in shallow mass graves. 

To save the cost of ammunition for such a large task, executioners used poison, shovels, clubs, knives, as well as sharpened bamboo sticks to get the job done. Some executioners took young children to a large tree where they smashed their heads against it. The idea here was that they wouldn’t avenge their dead parents later in life. 

killing tree

This politically ironic catastrophe happened because China and the U.S. trained and supplied the Khmer Rouge with weapons and intelligence to counter the power of Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Sadly, it took thirty years for the monsters the world powers created to fade and finally be brought to justice. 

victims of killing fields

Learning About the Past in the Cambodia Killing Fields

None of what I’d previously read hit home until I visited the Cambodia Killing Fields monument. It sits about ten miles out of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. I felt overwhelmed by a sense of grief. I felt like I should remove my shoes to walk on the sacred ground. Constructed of concrete and glass, the towering monument contains stacks of human skulls. It was as if I could see the faces of the multitude of victims parading through my mind. 

killing fields Cambodia temple

I felt afraid to speak or ask questions as I quietly explored the marked grave sites. Signs explain to the visitors what exactly professionals found in each mass grave — naked women or headless bodies or children. A knot formed in my stomach; no other place on earth evoked such a strong emotion from me.

victims of mass murder

The result of this mass genocide undeniably set Cambodia back decades. With most of the country’s professionals executed, the financial, educational, medical, and political systems were in chaos, with only young and inexperienced people to fill the void. I witnessed the effects of this first hand. It’s something the country is just now almost fully recovered from. Many still consider Cambodia as a developing country, partly because of its past. Nonetheless, there are many other beautiful things to see and do there.

truck stop cambodia killing fields

The Royal Palace and surrounding grounds are a must-see while in Phnom Penh. Close by, on the river, colorful boats offer a waterside view of the capital city. The passage of time, lessons learned, and experience gained has led to Cambodia entering the 21st century successfully. If you’re visiting Thailand or Vietnam, Cambodia is close by and a cheaper alternative to absorbing the Southeast Asian culture

 

How I Traveled to Cambodia and Stayed to Teach

Harold Michael Carter(Harold) Michael Carter was born and raised in Stratford, Ontario. He studied journalism and discovered at an early age his affliction of wanderlust. Michael furthered his education in life by backpacking his way through Europe. The most important thing he learned from traveling was that he needed to do more of it. 

I met Michael through extended family, when we visited Stratford, home of the Shakespeare Theatre. When he wasn’t working as a manager or bartender in town, he shared photographs and stories of his travels abroad. We bonded over beer, wine, good food and tales of far away places.  

He left Canada for Cambodia in January, 2000, using Phnom Penh as a base from which he could explore Southeast Asia. In 2005 he left for Indonesia, where there was plenty of work back then. He managed to travel and visit home in 2006 and then returned to Cambodia in 2007. He still resides, teaches, and travels from Cambodia today. 

I interviewed Michael Carter to offer an insight into how traveling and teaching abroad can turn into a life lived abroad. 

 

Why did you choose to teach in Cambodia?

“I didn’t choose this country in particular, but I did target Southeast Asia. The main reason was that I wanted a base for traveling in this part of the world. I had previously visited Thailand and initially considered moving there. However, I came to Cambodia to visit a German friend who was living here at the time. I applied for a job just for the hell of it and the rest is history.”

Have you ever taught before? If not, what were you doing before you decided to move abroad?

“This was my first teaching job abroad. After roaming the globe for many years, I decided I wanted to base myself some place other than Canada. I was inspired by a writer from Montréal whom I met in the Czech Republic. He was writing and teaching in Prague. I thought to myself, “This is exactly what I want to do — write and travel and be able to financially support this lifestyle.” I had recently severed a relationship and no longer felt ‘tied down.’ I returned to Canada to work for a few months and by the end of the year I was Asia-bound.”

What did you think teaching would be like? Where are you teaching now?

“I thought teaching would be an ideal venue to interact with local people. It was a new venture and was somewhat exciting in the early days. I probably followed the script in the beginning but soon developed my own style. I am currently teaching in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where I reside with my family.”

Carter Family

How did you prepare for your teaching job? What steps did you take?

“I knew I would need some sort of certification and so I bunked with a friend in Toronto and took an evening and weekend TESOL course. If giving advice on the matter, today I would suggest taking a month-long CELTA course. TEFL is accepted in Cambodia but the best schools are now looking for CELTA certification.”  

What are your perceptions of Cambodia during your time there?

“Cambodia is an interesting country as it is evolving so rapidly. While many things have improved, many aspects of the country endeared me more when I first set foot here twenty years ago. To be honest, if I just arrived for the first time today, I doubt I would choose to live here. I now have established a family here and so now I will always have one foot here at least. Where would I choose instead of Cambodia? I suppose if I were single and starting over with Southeast Asia in mind, I would choose Vietnam.”

Angkor Wat Cambodia

What are your goals while you are abroad?

“Life long goals continually change. Travel opportunities would have been my initial answer to this. I now have a Cambodian partner and we have three children together. My goal now is to establish a reasonably secure base for them before I retire. At that time, I hope to pick up with my travels again. (With Cambodia as my base — health permitting). I have taught here and in Indonesia and was a whisker away from taking a job in Azerbaijan. However, I no longer have the desire to take a job in another country.”

What has been your most difficult time there?

“Tough question. I really haven’t experienced too many difficulties. I suppose becoming a financial prisoner is the main issue. Teaching pays well in some countries (such as South Korea & Japan), but the cost of living can be high in those countries. The cost of living is relatively low in Cambodia but the average rate of pay for teachers coincides with that. Most teachers can live here comfortably so long as they don’t expect to have any money left over to move on. It’s sort of like collecting a welfare cheque — it pays the bills with not much leftover. The other issue that could become a difficulty is health care. Cambodia is lagging behind other countries in the region in this department. This is not the place to be if one has health problems.”

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh Cambodia

What has been your best experience?

“Although I might not have thought so at the time, I suppose it was when I took on the task of being an adviser to a Cambodian senator who was overseeing the ASEAN conference his country was hosting. That is my best memory from a professional point of view.

From a personal point of view, I would have to say that collectively I have met a lot of interesting people here. This experience has shaped and reshaped my ideas over the years.”

How do you feel about the culture there? Do you feel you have immersed yourself into the culture?

“Cultural differences and cultural sensitivity will always be an interesting, yet sometimes challenging part of the relocation. I lived in Indonesia for a little more than a year and seemed to fit right in. In Cambodia, I found it more perplexing in the beginning. I suppose I will never fully be immersed in this culture because differences always come up with child-rearing strategies for example. My partner and I are often at odds as to how to raise our children. Essentially we have the best interest of the kids in mind but we have very opposing tactics as to how to achieve this. Cambodia is predominantly a Buddhist nation and Buddhism allows for tolerance. It is pretty much live and let live here — even though my ways may seem curious to others and vice-versa.”

Mekong River Phnom Penh

What advice would you give to other participants about their first year? What are some of the things they must do, and things they absolutely must not do?

Bousra Waterfall Cambodia

“My advice may differ from some you might hear, but here goes. Try to find out information about the schools first and then try for a job at the BEST possible school. (Not necessarily best paying, but one with a good reputation and proven record of longevity). Some people might suggest going for any job and making rookie mistakes at a lesser institute and using that as a stepping stone. Bull to that. All you will do is acquire bad habits. Work with the best or don’t work at all.

Arrive with enough money to sustain yourself for at least two to three months. Schools usually pay once or twice a month. Even if you land a job immediately, you won’t see money for at least a month and you will have initial expenses to deal with.

Finding a School

Most reputable schools are not interested in fly-by-nights. Get a place to live as soon as possible — not just a guesthouse address. Many new arrivals have the attitude they will stay in a cheap guesthouse until they find work. My advice is to look like you are serious about staying and provide an address for your potential employer. If you are only looking for a six-month stop-over to collect some travel cash then you could do better looking at a lesser operation with a guesthouse address. But if you seriously want to spend some time in the country, then present yourself as someone who might stick around. No reputable place of employment wants a high turnover rate of employees.

I’ve taught in two countries in Southeast Asia – Indonesia and Cambodia. In both countries, local transportation is relatively cheap but distances between potential employers are often far and quite spread out and transportation costs while job searching will add up quickly. If you have money, consider getting a small motorbike. If not (as was my case), pick up a cheap, used bicycle. You can get one in Phnom Penh for around $35 US. If you’re old school like me, sling a briefcase over your shoulder with your CVs and go from place to place.”

Stay tuned for Edmond Gagnon’s second interview with Michael Carter on how he traveled to teach in Cambodia. They will be sharing more great adventures with his experiences at his school. To find out more about Edmond Gagnon, visit his website.

by Edmond Gagnon