Cambodia / Vietnam 2019 – The Planning

The Planning…..

Seriously, how did we get here?

And not just to planning a fourth trip, but to planning a trip that is going to involve things that we could never have imagined way back in 2014, when on the initial adventure.

Interestingly, there was never any thought that there was to be a subsequent trip; Vietnam 2014 was always just going to be a one off.

Well, that was the belief right up until that final night in Hanoi when I was sitting on the street drinking bia hoi, while texting my Aunty.

She was the one that sensed I’d fallen in love with the place, before planting that little seed that she suspected we would return at some stage.

Prior to that point, it just wasn’t a thing.

A little over 18 months later, we were once again sitting in a plane making our way towards Vietnam.

That trip involved a bit more ‘off the beaten track’ stuff, including our three days seeing a bit of Pu Luong Nature Reserve with our tour guide, and now good friend, Toan.

And it was at the conclusion of that little expedition that the tentative planning of a third trip was born.

Sitting at the same beer place in Ninh Binh we’d sat at in 2014, two things were realised.

One, I just love seeing the countryside of Vietnam from the back of a bike.  And two, while Lisa also enjoys it, she struggles to cope with it for as long as I do.

So, seeing as I was rather keen to explore some of far Northern Vietnam, and seeing as Toan would be prepared to take me there, it quickly became a case of when, not if, that adventure would happen.

And, because of the great wife that she is (think I may have just destroyed some of my image here), Lisa was quite happy to let me go on without her.

So, once again, a bit over 18 months later, I was on my way to Vietnam.

A week and a half later, with memories that will last a lifetime, as well as more photos than I’ve ever taken, I met up with Lisa in HCMC to begin the joint component of our third trip.

A couple of weeks later, and into the final week, I thought occasionally of a possible fourth trip.  You know, just trying to work out how to plant a seed in a certain person’s mind, just to kind of get the ball rolling?

I wasn’t getting a lot of joy; read absolutely none; partly I suspect because she was missing the kids, and partly because she’d now spent close to three weeks exclusively with me.

Yep, I am of the belief that I can become a little annoying at times….

It wasn’t until our final night in Hanoi, after spending some time with Shinegi (a local we’d met down at Hoan Kiem lake the morning before) that there seemed to be a flicker of light come on about a possible return.

It certainly wasn’t a bright light, but there was something there.

Or at least I hoped there was….

A couple of days later, after our 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur, we were back home in the real world.

Which was kind of nice, but at the same time, it was rather an empty feeling.  Not having a plan will do that….

Leaving the subject alone for a little while seemed to be the best course of action, so I began the love / hate relationship of writing the trip reports.

At least that gave me a chance to re-live the holiday, and I suspect when Lisa read them, it also helped her a little to really think about what we had achieved.

I then started to think about when a fourth trip could actually happen, even though it was by no means a definite.

I felt that 12 months after the previous one was too short, and seeing as May into June was both too hot, (after our May 2016 trip) as well as resulting in us having to return to Melbourne mid-winter; which I absolutely hate; then September / October was the only real possibility.

The only potential issue was trying to squeeze it in between football and cricket….

So while that was now penciled into my brain somewhere, my two remaining problems were thus – trying to come up with an idea that would excite Lisa enough to embark on Mark IV, and trying to work out a way to deal with a close to two year gap between visits.

And at that point, convincing Lisa seemed far easier to deal with than that two year wait.

It seemed soooo far away, especially considering that the three previous trips had been completed within a three year period.

Yep, like a kid waiting for Christmas, it just couldn’t come quick enough.

Fortunately, and unfortunately, those 2017 trip reports took me over six months to complete.  The advantage, and disadvantage, of being a really slow writer, as well as someone who tends to waffle on far more than he should, I suppose….

Over the time period those reports were written, the occasional comment about a ‘next’ trip was made.  While I’m not sure exactly when it happened, an attitudinal change was sensed when the country of Cambodia was mentioned.

Could it be that she was coming around…..???

And then, not too long after that, the trip became a definite!  Along with a side trip into Vietnam, of course.

Well, you can’t end up so near without returning.

So, the initial thinking was a trip of around three to four weeks.  And it would likely be at least half that time in Cambodia, and no more than half that time in Vietnam.

And to help with limiting our Vietnam time, it would only include southern Vietnam.  Namely certain areas of the Mekong Delta, and then finishing in HCMC.

Yep, no Hanoi.

And I was actually okay about that.  Not because I didn’t want to see it again, but because we just wouldn’t have time.

Small price to pay, I guess….

So, the research began.  And while I consider the whole research thing fun, and most definitely part of the journey, I really don’t enjoy the early stages that much.  It’s just too new and confusing at the start.

The rough plan was to start in Cambodia; mainly because I wanted to finish in Vietnam – no surprises there…. – and check out what I suspect 99.9% of people do, which is to see the temples around Siem Reap.  Finding out that flights into Siem Reap were easy to arrange, meant that this was where we would fly into.

The only other definite was Phnom Penh.  Partly to try and get an understanding of the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime, but partly also to use it as the exit point to get to Vietnam.  And the strong desire even in those early planning days, was to take a boat from Phnom Penh to the border town of Chau Doc in Vietnam.

I’d read good things about both the boat trip, and the town of Chau Doc.

But that was just two places in Cambodia and I was struggling a little trying to find other places that we could visit.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t find places of interest, it was more finding places that would fit into an itinerary that would allow the travel to flow.  Battambang was researched, and while there was some appeal, the extra time on the road just didn’t seem worth it.  Not to mention that it was sort of heading in the opposite direction to where we wanted to ultimately end up.

Kampot and Kep were seriously considered as we had also thought about checking out Phu Quoc island in Vietnam, but that would have taken out the boat between Phnom Penh and Chau Doc.

Kampong Cham was on the list for a while, and really looked like it would make the cut, but the whole road travel thing (something that we have learnt a lot about with its inherent problems in Vietnam) wasn’t making me overly excited.

The list of places, as well as some friends we had made over the previous trips, that we wanted to see in Vietnam, was also dragging significant time away from Cambodia.

And that was something that I was struggling with.  I felt that we were just not doing Cambodia justice.

Eventually, after umming and ahhhing over several weeks, it was finally decided to turn the whole Cambodia trip into a mere taste of the country.

And a rather small one at that.

I felt bad about it at the time, and I still have doubts about the whole decision.

But I guess the whole pull of Vietnam is still just too strong.

Oh well, it gives us an excuse for a second visit at some point….

Once that decision was made, the realisation dawned about what we could do with those extra days that we now had.  And we did have quite a few extra, seeing as that 3 to 4 week trip had now somehow been extended to 5 weeks.

Now knowing the date that cricket started had helped with that little decision.

So, what to do with the extra time…..

“Can we really go to Vietnam and not visit Hanoi?”, I asked Lisa one night.

“No, I don’t think we can”, she replied, as her face lit up.

While she had been enthusiastic about the trip, that enthusiasm was now at another level.  And mine was too.

I guess there’s just something about Hanoi….

So the allocating of nights began, and the mantra of ‘less is more’, remained a constant reminder.

That was hard though, because there were places we wanted to see, but more importantly, there were the friends that we wanted to catch up with again.

But I guess that that was one of the things that could help with justifying a little more moving about, than was ideal.  You know, not wanting to risk outstaying your welcome.

But maybe that was all about justifying it in my mind…..

I suppose the other thing that helped with that was the way that I hoped we could plan it out.  I said before that I’m not a huge fan of long distance road travel in Vietnam.  That’s partly a safety factor, partly a stress reducing exercise, and partly a time saver.

I also really hate backtracking, unless it can’t be avoided.

So, it would sort of be a journey within a journey.

But, how to make it flow….

If the border crossing into Vietnam from Phnom Penh hinged on a boat trip, then the map pretty much dictated what was to come next.  And that meant that Phu Quoc was crossed off the list.

While Lisa wasn’t overly thrilled with that idea, I on the other hand wasn’t quite as disappointed.

Other things that we pretty much considered ‘must dos’ in the Mekong, were returning to Green Village to catch up with everyone.  Including the new addition of Thy’s baby daughter.  Thy was actually pregnant last time we were there, it’s just that no one knew it at the time.  Including Thy.

We also, if we could arrange it, wanted to visit Wang, (one of our guides from our Mekong tour in 2017) and his parents again in Soc Trang.  We had spent a single night there in as an authentic homestay as you could get, back in 2017.  And to say that that experience, along with their genuine hospitality and generosity, had touched us, would be a gross understatement.  It was truly one of the most memorable nights we have had in all our time in Vietnam.

Again, looking at the map, Chau Doc to Can Tho, (Green Village) and then Can Tho to Soc Trang, were relatively short bus trips.  And that was something else I wanted to do; use public transport as much as we could.  My, how far we have come….

So, with that rough plan in mind, emails and Facebook messages were sent out.

I wasn’t too concerned about having any issues with Green Village, until Camille, the young girl we’d met last time, messaged Lisa and said they were fully booked.

After a slightly surprised message back, she then messaged back saying she was joking.

She’s such a funny girl…..

But it just confirmed why we love spending time there.

Wang quickly replied saying that his parents were as keen to see us again as we were to see them, so that was fantastic to hear.

We also talked to Wang about how to get back up to HCMC, and it was decided we could do an overnight motorbike tour up through the Mekong, a bit like we did last time.

More than happy about that, as seeing Vietnam from the back of a bike is one of my favourite things to do.

HCMC was next to sort out, and there were a few people we wanted to catch up with while there.

Tung, who we stayed with last time, Pierre who we’d seen on our previous two trips, Stefan who we met in 2016 in both Hanoi and HCMC, and who now lives there, as well as Khoi who had helped organise our Mekong trip in 2017.

Potentially a busy time, but I’ve always said that people make a place.

Incidentally, while talking to Khoi about our trip, he’d mentioned the possibility of an overnight visit to Can Gio.  That was duly slotted into our HCMC time.

HCMC would then be followed by our beloved Hanoi.  And while there, the possibility of seeing Shinegi again, who we had met in 2017 at the lake.

Facebook was once again utilised, and during that process, the option of her showing us around her home town of Thanh Hoa came up.

Again, amazing how far we’ve come.

And where is Thanh Hoa?  And how do you get there?

It’s about 3.5 hours by train, south of Hanoi.

And what town do you go through to get to Thanh Hoa?

Ninh Binh.

Yep, Ninh Binh.

Once again, the map is telling us what to do.

An email was quickly sent to Toan with some date possibilities.

Yep, the itinerary now looked vastly different from the initial thoughts on the trip.

Being one of those anal planners that likes to know where I’ll be on any given day; but not ever really caring about what we’ll actually do on most days – happy just to let most days unfold and see where we get carried; it was time to lock in days.

And then to begin the long and involved task of finding accommodation.

Vietnam was, well, relatively easy, while Cambodia was somewhat of a mystery.

I started with Siem Reap, seeing as that was our first stop.

It has a street known as Pub Street.  I obviously don’t know exactly what it is like, but I think I have a bit of an idea.  I know we’ll have to see it; and probably spend some time in it; but I’m not expecting to like it much.  While I love a beer; if you’ve read some of the Vietnam trip reports I probably didn’t have to mention that; I do prefer particular places to enjoy that beer.

And doing that with a whole lot of other people that look me, well, that isn’t really what I’m looking for.  I need much more local type places.

But, because this is just a taste of Cambodia, we kind of need to be close to the action.  But not too close.

I’d finally narrowed it down to a final three or four, and just as I was about to make a decision, I found what seemed to be a small family run place, in what looked to be a pretty local and fairly quiet area.

Loving what I saw and read, it was duly booked.

Phnom Penh?

Well, same kind of thing.  Want to be close to it all, but don’t want to be right in it.  And the more I researched; both by reading and by looking – a bit of street view was used – the more difficult it became.

As well as more concerning.

Over the three trips to Vietnam I’ve come to work out what I like, but more importantly, also what I don’t like.

And while doing all this research on Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, I was now really concerned that I wasn’t going to be overly enamoured with either place.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ll be able to find areas that I will really enjoy, but this being just a taste of the two cities, I felt we needed to see a bit of the areas that ‘everyone’ sees.

Don’t worry, mind will be kept very much open.

Anyway, after more use of booking sites and Trip Advisor than I’ve ever done, a decision on Phnom Penh was finally made.

We will eventually see how good those decisions were…..

Chau Doc was fairly easy, apart from a small booking issue, but we eventually got there.

Can Tho was easy, once we got past Camille’s little joke, and Soc Trang and the trip back to HCMC was more or less taken out of our hands.

It’s lovely when you can trust people.

HCMC took a bit of time, but that was mainly because someone mentioned a ‘homestay’.  I’d never really thought about homestays in large cities before, so that caused me to look in places I normally wouldn’t.

In the end, I’m absolutely rapt to have found what I did.  Hopefully I still think the same way after our stay.  But I’m pretty confident I will.  And judging by the tone of the emails, it wouldn’t surprise me if we end up with some kind of friendship out of it.

Hanoi was easy; same street as usual, just a different building this time.

And Ninh Binh and Thanh Hoa will be sorted out by Toan and Shinegi.

So the rough breakdown?

Cambodia 8 nights, (yes, I know….) the Mekong 9 nights, HCMC area 6 nights, Hanoi and surrounds 11 nights.

Yes, eleven nights allocated to a place / area that we weren’t even going to visit this time.

Almost as embarrassing as just the eight nights in Cambodia…..

Oh well.

As we got closer to the time we began to sort out the other bits and pieces.

With the help of some very generous people on Trip Advisor, a tuk tuk driver was booked.  I actually didn’t realise that many people actually book this in advance of their trip.  But I’m always happy with a recommendation.

The domestic flight in Vietnam was easy, while the flight between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh took a bit more time.  Partly because I wasn’t convinced we should fly, and partly because the flight times I could find weren’t terribly convenient.  Either very, and I mean very, early in the morning, or too far into the afternoon for my liking.

I then, by accident, stumbled across a much more user friendly time with an airline I hadn’t heard of.  Having not heard of that particular airline can, I suspect, be both good and bad.

We shall see….

E-visa into Vietnam was then arranged, and while the website is rather painful to use, it all went relatively smoothly.

Research was then needed on the boat to Chau Doc from Phnom Penh.  In the end it wasn’t difficult to decide on the operator that we did.  Only really finding two – there may be more – I have a one in two chance of getting it right.

Like with all two horse races I’m confident of my backing ability, but it’s worth pointing out that I don’t have a terribly good strike rate when it’s a choice of one or the other.  Again, we shall see.

So, with that sorted, everything was pretty much organised.  And I felt really good about that until I stumbled across some information stating that the Vietnam E-visa wasn’t valid on the particular border crossing we were due to use.  Even though I was firmly of the belief that it could be.

Heaps more searching, a few emails, including one to the official E-visa website which was never returned – wasn’t really surprised – and I finally had confirmation that the E-visa was accepted.

Huge sigh of relief, especially as a fair chunk of this trip actually revolved around that particular boat journey.

Yep, relief.

But that only lasted for a couple of weeks.

With just three weeks to go, it all then went to shit….

Lisa had an ultrasound that showed a reasonably fast growing cyst.  And while it was unlikely to be anything sinister, it needed to be removed.

And removed sooner, rather than later.  Yep, before the trip.

Appointments were squeezed in, along with a date for surgery.  And that date would be 16 days before departure day.

Recovery period?

Seven to ten days.

Likelihood of still being able to travel?

Possibly.  Probably.

But no guarantees.

So, just six days after being squeezed in to see the surgeon, surgery date arrived.  And while it was only six days, those six days seemed to take a very long time.

The hope was the operation could still be done laparoscopically, that it would all be relatively straightforward, and most importantly, that it would look all rather benign.

And that is exactly what did happen.  Which was a huge relief.

We still had to wait for the results, and fortunately, just 48 hours later, she was given the all clear.

Now there’s just one thing left to do; recover.

So, now down to less than two weeks, and with the recovery seemingly going well, the countdown is back on.

Hopefully the next time I feel the need to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, it will be about the actual day of departure, and that initial flight out of the country.

Fingers are well and truly crossed…..