At last we arrived in Hanoi. This was to be Katie's final destination in Vietnam, and the beginning of my solo overland trip to Beijing. We stayed in the Old Quarter, a small section in the middle of the city. The Lonely Planet calls traffic in the Old Quarter “oppressive,” and I couldn't agree more. Simply walking across the street required absolute concentration and patience to avoid the swarms of motorcycles. But, as in every other Vietnamese city we had visited, Hanoi delighted the senses.
The train was nearly empty, and it left an hour late. Most of the carriages were sleepers, though there were also a couple of hard-seat cars and a luxurious dining car. We spent most of the afternoon watching the ocean-side scenery, including rice fields at the foot of emerald mountains, cemeteries, wooden houses and tropical vegetation. We also passed through several towns and cities. Before coming here, it was hard to imagine what 90 million people, packed into a country twice the size of Wisconsin, might look like. But after seeing city after huge city, I was beginning to understand.
The owner of the "home stay" was a short and slim man with crooked yellow teeth who wore an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt on top of a wife-beater. All day he sat on his living room couch, smoking cigarettes, playing with his iPad and awkwardly flirting with every female who entered the place. He didn't flirt with me, but he did grab my arm and try to sell me stuff whenever I walked past him. “You could use a suit. My sister has a tailor shop, she'll give you a great price.” “You want to take a tour? My friend can set it up.”
Our Train arrived in Da Nang at 6am. We walked to the main road and got on the bus to Hoi An. The attendant was wearing sunglasses, and a mask covered her mouth. A local woman who boarded the bus in front of us paid 20,000 dong. I tried giving the attendant the same amount, but she demanded 40,000 each. After getting ripped off – and threatened with a knife – in Can Tho, I was already leery of Vietnamese bus attendants. And now we were being charged double, simply because we were foreigners.
Katie and I decided to take a day trip from Can Tho, Vietnam to a small town, about two hours away. At the bus station we found a chaotic jumble of attendants and salesmen running around, trying to drag potential customers into their buses. We went to one company's official ticket window, but none of their buses were going where we wanted. Instead, we walked to the parking lot, where several buses were waiting, and asked the salesmen for guidance.
Katie and I decided travel from Cambodia to Vietnam in style: in an enclosed speed boat down the Mekong River. We climbed aboard and left Phnom Penh early in the afternoon. A few hours into our journey, Katie cracked open a beer. As if on queue, we stopped at the border, where we had to get stamped out of Cambodia. Katie sipped her beer while waiting in line. She commented that it was her first, and probably last, time drinking alcohol at an immigration checkpoint. The officials didn't seem to mind. They simply stamped our passports and we were on our way. Next we got stamped into Vietnam and continued our trip, watching the slow-paced life along the river's shores.
Horrific as S-21 was, Choeung Ek was even worse: this was the killing field where most of S-21's prisoners were actually executed. Every night, covered trucks would show up, full of the condemned. From there, they would be marched to the edge of a mass grave, and the slaying would begin. Bullets were scarce, so the executioners used whatever they could get their hands on: machetes, car axles, sharpened bamboo sticks, palm fronds, rocks. Music was played over loudspeakers so the local villagers wouldn't hear the screams of those being bludgeoned and hacked to death.
For our visit to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, we hired a driver named Pie Ran to take us in a tuk tuk from nearby Siem Reap. We left early, arriving at the famous Angkor Wat temple at dawn, along with several hundred others. Most of the crowd stayed near the ponds in front of the temple to get a classic sunrise photo, while we moseyed right on in, practically alone. We spent a few hours walking around before heading to the next site.
Before coming to Cambodia, I hadn't realized how many ancient sites there were near Angkor Wat. We ended up spending two days checking out the ruins, and we still didn't see nearly everything. My favorite temples were Bayon, where giant faces are carved into the stone, and Ta Prohm, where parts of the movie Tomb Raider were filmed. Almost everyone came away from their visit feeling like an explorer, myself included.
Countless motorbikes zoomed past us in a free-for-all, like a swarm of angry wasps. On the edges of the road, people rode bicycles with trailers carrying stacks of wood for cooking. Sometimes they wore face masks, but almost never helmets. Once a guy on a primitive tractor, with huge wheels and a tiny motor, hogged the middle of the road, going a few miles per hour as his machine chuffed out smoke. Whenever we tried to pass him, we launched ourselves through a big rut, then battled the oncoming traffic until we finally gave up, tucking in behind him. Half an hour went by before he finally pulled over; the line behind him must have been hundreds of cars long.
I looked out of my taxi's window and took in the city. There were few cars and thousands of motorcycles. Lane markers meant nothing, but there was so much traffic, it was impossible to drive quickly or aggressively. Filth and poverty were all around me. Many foreigners, too. Like the locals, they drove motorcycles, and squeezed between other bikes whenever a tiny space opened. They wore shorts, muscle shirts and flip-flops in the sweltering heat. One motorcycle passenger leaned back and clenched the seat behind him. His hair was pulled into a bun behind his head. His driver wore a helmet, but he didn't. He looked happy as the breeze whipped against his unprotected face. This was Phnom Penh, the sprawling capital of Cambodia. It was my first day in Southeast Asia.