It feels disingenuous to try and summarize the last few days of travel into a single blog post. Nevertheless, I'll have to give it my best effort. Since departing Sihanoukville, Yousef and I roughed it for three days on the tiny undeveloped island of Koh Rong, hopped on a plane to Northern Vietnam to meet up with our mutual friend Bill, took a three day excursion to a private island on Halong Bay, and weaved our way through the frenetic streets of Hanoi, eating everything in sight. It was a whirlwind week packed with awe inspiring sights, adventurous experiences, and incredible people. Hold on, because here we go!
We started off by taking the ferry from Sihanoukville to the islands off the Southern coast of Cambodia, where the water is pristinely turquoise and the lush interior is laced with gorgeous white sand beaches. On the boat over, Yousef and I befriended Fae from France and Demmie from Holland, two fellow travelers who were reuniting in Cambodia after originally meeting in Myanmar. We teamed up as a foursome to find housing in the tiny stretch of bungalows and guesthouses that makes up the main village of Koh Rong before finally settling in at Zen Bungalows, where we were greeted at the top of the hill with this gorgeous view from our bungalow’s porch.
Koh Rong is as close as I’ve come to experiencing anything like Leonardo Dicaprio’s infamous backpacker movie about an idyllic utopian paradise, The Beach. Although currency is still accepted at the bars and restaurants, most inhabitants of the island are completely removed from the normal trappings of everyday life. The island just instituted 24 hour electricity a few weeks ago, there are no ATMs, and the only two modes of transportation around the beaches are by foot or by long tail boat.
Zen Bungalow's only employee in sight was “Lion", a 58 year old Irish expat who has been living in Southeast Asia for the last three years and was full of ridiculous stories ranging from life with local tribes in the woods of Cambodia to attending Jerry Garcia’s funeral in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park 20 years ago. He told us to avoid the more populated section of the town and take a 15 minute trek through the woods to “Police Beach”, where we found a beautiful sparsely inhabited stretch of sand that was the perfect spot for an afternoon dip and drinks.
That night, Yousef and I had our introduction to Koh Rong’s vibrant yet compact nightlife, replete with bars full of long term travelers and sand dance floors adjacent to the ocean where the party doesn’t stop until sunrise. The following morning we met up with Fae and Demmie over breakfast, where they convinced us the best activity for the day would be an excursion to the fabled long beach, a miles long stretch of completely undeveloped white sand on the other side of the island where travelers show up with just basic survival supplies and a hammock to camp out away from it all.
Although we could have taken a relatively painless boat ride or trekked up and over the island’s mountain through a jungle pathway, Fae told us about her friend who had enjoyed going the long way around the perimeter of the island and somehow convinced us that would be the best plan of action. The four of us stocked up on $1 baguettes, filled our water bottles, and set off, unaware of the treachery that lay ahead.
The path was rocky but bearable at first, and we were having a great time scrambling up and around the massive collection of gorgeous rocks that line the island’s exterior. Along the way there were stunning views of the pristine ocean and the neighboring sister island, Koh Rong Saloem.
However, the “path” which Fae’s friend had promised was pretty much non-existant, and we instead found ourselves in a challenging rock climbing excursion, with nothing but overgrown jungle to our right and sheer cliff drops into the ocean on our left. For the next few hours we feared for our safety as we crossed over seemingly impossible boulders, climbed dead trees that lay in our path, and got laughed at by the boat drivers taking the easy way over to long beach. It was undoubtedly not a route we would have chosen knowing what lay ahead, but the rewarding feeling of relief when we reached long beach just under 5 hours after departure was unrivaled.
Once on the beach we were greeted by an environment and an attitude of years past. Along the massive stretch of untouched beach there were travelers playing music, stringing up hammocks for the night, and even living in camps set up on the beach for weeks or months at a time. It was an introduction to a simpler life, where ones only priorities are water, food, shelter, and, of course, rum.
As we made our way back to the other side of the island (this time taking the “short” hour long trek though the jungle), I couldn’t help but notice the backhoe digger that had somehow made its way onto that side of the island and the impending construction site at the end of the beach. Although long beach is still a vestige of simpler times today, I know it won’t be the same whenever I return.
That evening, despite our exhaustion from the day’s excursion, we reveled in the nightlife of the island one last time, meeting some amazing new friends, swimming with phosphorescent plankton on a deserted beach, and constantly finding ourselves awestruck by the sheer enormity of the stars in the night sky. We finally made our way back to the bungalow just as the sun’s light was beginning to illuminate the clouds and ocean, making for a drop dead gorgeous sunrise view from the deck of our bungalow.
The following day we bid farewell to Fae and Demmie and made our way back to Sihanoukville in the evening, where Yousef and I got a much needed full night’s sleep. The following morning our packed itinerary set us off on the road again, this time taking a packed, steamy minivan through the bumpy roads of Cambodia to the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. We took a quick tuk-tuk tour of the sprawling, chaotic city, but didn’t have time for much more before heading to the airport and boarding our flight for Vietnam.
We didn’t reach Hanoi, Vietnam’s northern capital, until almost midnight, but Yousef and I were so excited with the prospect of meeting up with our friend Bill that we couldn’t even think about heading to sleep yet. It didn’t take long after our arrival at the infamous Vietnam Backpacker’s Hostel to find Bill, who fit right in to the chaotic backpacker scene with his long hair and grizzled mane. He quickly introduced us to 5,000 Dong ($0.25) beers, tapped from kegs right in the city streets and the developing party scene outside the hostel. It felt invigorating to be reunited with another friend in a foreign country and see Bill back on the traveling trail after we had last seen each other in Northern Thailand almost five months ago.
The following morning our alarm went off far too soon at 6:30AM for an early morning departure to Halong Bay, our second UNESCO world heritage site of the week. We booked our trip through the hostel, and set off with 35 other fellow backpackers from all around the world. Five hours, two busses, and two boats later we arrived at Castaways, our own private island set in the middle of the majestic bay peaks and it was here that the debauchery began to take over.
We quickly grew accustomed to the pace and environment of the amazing private island and our fellow inhabitants, where the only thing to spend money on is beer and the only thing that matters is having a great time with friends both old and new. That afternoon, we relaxed on the waterfront, went out tubing and kayaking in the gorgeous surroundings, and Bill even had his chance to wakeboard just as the sun began to set around the majestic cliff formations.
The following morning the group shook off the cobwebs to depart on our own personal cruise around the islands, where we danced and sang along to our favorite hip-hop jams, kayaked through stunning sections of beaches, coves, and islands, and took in the sights of the surrounding fisherman floating villages.
The entire group of compatriots at castaways is not one I'll forget soon. They were a hilarious bunch, always down to cause a ruckus, start a dance party, or even fake a panic attack in order to retrieve more beers from the bottom of the bus. It was with heavy hearts and brutal hangovers that we left the bay the following afternoon, having thoroughly enjoyed our time on Castaways, but equally eager to return to civilization so that we could explore the storied city of Hanoi and Yousef could check the score of the recent Houston Rockets playoff game.
Vietnam's second largest city, Hanoi practically oozes with charm and culture. As Yousef, Bill, and I walked the curving, tree-lined streets, got lost down tiny back alleys filled with street food, and explored the Old Quarter's calming lake, it barely took an hour for me to fall in love with the city. Although undoubtedly frenetic and packed with honking motorbikes and bustling infrastructure, Hanoi is significantly less anonymous than the massive Saigon and is best navigated on foot.
As we walked around Hoan Kiem Lake, enjoying the fresh breeze on a perfect warm spring day, Bill was approached by a young Vietnamese student.
"Do you have any free time?" he asked, in broken English.
"Uhh...sure" Bill responded, unsure as to what he had in mind.
"Do you mind if we talk to you? We would like to practice our English," the student requested, gesturing to a group of friends patiently waiting behind him.
Suddenly, our threesome was engulfed in a beginner's English lesson, as we sat down on the benches surrounding the beautiful lake and began a basic exchange of getting to know each other. The students were 19 and genuinely interested in just having a conversation in English, collaborating with each other in Vietnamese to figure out how to answer our basic questions and taking the opportunity to tell us about their schoolwork and interests.
For the next few hours we strolled leisurely around the lake and the surrounding neighborhood with a growing gaggle of young Vietnamese, stopping to get Pho Noodle Soup as a big group around lunch time and then getting treated to ice cream and traditional Vietnamese conical hats as gestures of thanks for our time and attention. It was surely one of the most unique and hilarious traveling experiences I've had on the entire trip, and I laughed the entire time as we taught them basic English grammar and even some American slang.
At night, the streets of Hanoi come alive with pedestrians filling a bustling street market and a vibrant nightlife full of locals, long-term expats, and backpackers. On Yousef and Bill's last night in the city, we explored all of the street food options before making our way back toward a massive party in the backpacker section of town. It was bittersweet to bid them each farewell the following morning, as Yousef headed back to the states and Bill hopped on his motorbike to drive South down the coast of Vietnam, but I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had an amazing time with them in an exotic, inspiring locale.