A first step into Cambodia: Phnom Penh

We arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, with the last rays of the sun. The sky was slowly getting darker and darker, as the city seemed to become more and more alive. We walked along the river and passed a small Buddhist temple where people were celebrating – with incense sticks, flowers and, most of all, music. Breathing in the night air, receiving in my heart the beat of the drums and the glittery sounds of  mysterious bells, I was keeping my eyes and my ears wide opened to capture all the scents and sounds in front of me. And I thought to myself: “This is how a religious celebration should be – full of sound and life!”

Later that night we got together with Marta and Daniel, the friends we met while trekking in Laos. And who will be our travel companions to Siem Reap and the famous temples of Angkor.

I began my second day in Phnom Penh with a trip to the Central Market. And continued it in the backyard of the Royal Palace: from the palace of the many to the palace of the few.

The world of the Mekong Delta

Waking up at 4 a.m. in Can Tho, the Vietnamese town which we chose as base for our exploration of the Mekong Delta, we find it full of people opening the gates of their shops, drinking green tea on the side of the street or having qi gong and aerobics classes by the riverside. As our driver, a smiling round-faced woman, picks us up, we start glidding in between the waters of the Mekong and the warm air of the night. Breakfast on board: bananas, coffee and small loaves of white bread. In the houses bordering the river, people are waking up and starting a new day. We arrive to the floating markets, a gathering of warehouse-like boats selling fruits and vegetables, floating markets which are now slowly disappearing as big shops kick in. Further on, we see a small business manufacturing rice noodles and a network of ever intertwined smaller canals, where the silence is broken only by the slow humming of our boat.

Back in the city, we end our day with a visit to the local night market, one of our favorite places in Can Tho, having some of the best food I’ve eaten in South-East Asia so far.

It is now time to say goodbye to Vietnam – Cambodia is waiting for us. It was a short visit, but I will be back. Someday…

Hoi An, my favorite city in Asia!

Just as Saint Paul de Vence is the city I love the most on the Cote d’Azur, for me, Hoi An is absolutely the most beautiful city in Asia (well, at least so far… ).

And this is the way I discovered Hoi An: mysterious, lighted by one thousand colorful lamps, quiet, warm, still wet after the rain.

The next days I discovered more of this wonderfully peaceful city, with its light, with the market next to the river, with one million clothes shops selling silk and cotton and everything in between, with the mysterious food stalls in front of which you would never be quite so sure whether you’re buying something sweet or salty, with the beautiful yellow colonial houses and the traditional dark wood houses, with its people, its palm trees, its light. It made me want to linger on the streets, breathe in the beauty and the colors, watch the sun playing on a wall or a wooden carving, refusing with a smile all the offers of making clothes at the shop around the corner, feeling the smell of the sea in the air or just enjoying my Asian coffee in the afternoon sunlight.

And on the last page of Hoi An’s story there is the cafe in which we waited, over a cup of green Vietnamese tea, the train towards Ho Chi Minh City (some time ago called Saigon). The street lights, the old sewing machines turned into tables, the little “antiques” hanged around us made me feel like we were continuing to be in this fairytale land we stepped into when arriving in Hoi An. Just that the cafe, as any reliable passage gateway, was already bringing into the realm we were about to leave some hints of the world laying outside the gate: bits and pieces of old computers, old telephones, flashlights, signs of busy city life, signs of future technology.

Into the waters of Halong Bay

An Unesco World Heritage site and one of the best known places in Vietnam, Halong Bay felt, the first day we were there, as if it were a kind of “tourist camp”. Everywhere you were looking, you would see a cruise boat bringing to the bay its own little group of curious tourists and the cave we visited that day, though impressively large and quite beautiful, seemed to be crossed by a living river of tourists moving slowly into the same direction. Very different was the second day, when we were guided towards the more secluded area of Lan Ha Bay. Here, we kayaked our way into bays where you would enter through corridors carved into the mountain rock or even through smaller caves, in which you would have to be careful not to let you kayak get stuck, we spotted monkeys chasing each another through the trees, we enjoyed the silence of the mountains surrounding us…

You will find below some pictures from the first day, with the “tourist camp” cave, the evening cooking lesson – rolling spring rolls, and the beautiful people we shared the boat with. On the second day, I could not bring my camera in the kayak, so I cannot really show you the most spectacular part of it, but you will understand how much we enjoyed the whole experience from the smiles on our faces.

And I made up my mind: I absolutely love being on a boat!

In between worlds – from Laos to Vietnam

Leaving Laos… Last place we visited here: Vientiane, the capital city. Fleeing images still live in me. Seeing Thailand over the Mekong river, a few meters away from the city center and the presidential palace, an almost rural area, with fishermen laying down their traps. Enjoying a jazz concert at the Lao National Culture Hall: a communist building with a south-east Asian twist, welcoming an European jazz band – reminded me just how much I love music and live performances. A passing thought, looking out the window of the bus: having palm trees in your backyard, that’s a nice idea! And, finally, waiting for our flight to Hanoi, looking at the world – as seen from Laos.

The next day we found ourselves exploring Hanoi, an exuberant city, where crossing the street means diving into a river of motorbikes, scooters and cars that won’t stop, not even if you’re on a crosswalk. Where the colors, the noise and the people seem to invade you from all sides, bringing you delight and anxiety, absolutely charming you and making you want to cover your ears, all in the same time.

We saw their Temple of Literature, still honoring the memory of Confucius (and where, apparently, graduate students love to come and take their picture), the Museum of Ethnology – and found out about the 54 ethnic groups living in Vietnam, we listened to a mini-concert of traditional music and tried some of the local dishes, all in the company of a nice young Vietnamese girl, volunteer with the Hanoi Free Tour Guides.

And we also booked our places for a cruise to Halong Bay, one of the most visited and praised places in Vietnam. But about this, I’ll tell you in my next post!