My top 25 at 25.

Being 25 is fun. You are independent enough to do what’s wrong but you’re mature enough to know consequences. So you weight down which highs you want to chase, and when it comes to chasing the next high, travel is my choice of drug. At 25, I may not always know what I want to do in life, but at least I know where I want to go.

25. Dubai (U.A.E.)

IMG_8884

Perverse and boastful show of wealth and a nightmare for eco-tourism advocates, with its indoor ski park, one of the world’s largest indoor aquarium, etc., Dubai has it all. From a simple fishing community, it has emerged as one of the richest oil producing middle eastern countries. You are never far away from a Lamborghini or a Rolls Royce wherever you are in this city. Go to any hotel and surely there’s a Porsche (cheapskate) parked somewhere.

Glitz and glamour aside, there’s one road called Al Dhiyafha where a melting pot of blue collars, the backbone of any society, gather and exhibit specialty cuisines from their respective home countries. If you want real food in Dubai, its the place to be.

24. Seoul (South Korea)

DSC_2582

Already having lots of Koreans in the Philippines, its a wonder why I even went here. But to my surprise, Seoul turns out to be a one stop shop of Korean culture which I never really was curious back at home. Amidst skyscrapers, suit clad businessmen and efficient modern public transportation that smells of kimchi during the day and soju at night, massive shrines and temples located on prime real estate locations have been left untouched by city developers. A visit to these shrines automatically and surprisingly drown out the usual city sounds, a place to slow down your pace.

23. Bruges (Belgium)

DSC_0071

Old town Brugge gives you what most European old town squares offer. Everything is built around the town’s main church, where Jesus christ torned blood stained cloth is purportedly stored. Specific shops selling different things are organized and concentrated on their respective places, bierhaus (if you need translation for this, I am not talking to you) being the most popular of course. Equally famous for their chocolates, expect to find lots of overpriced chocolates here.

22. Nuremberg (Bavaria)

DSC_0019

Nuremberg is located in Bavaria, which is a part of Germany, but when I was here, everyone bragged about being Bavarian first, only then they are Germans. Proud people, these Bavarians are. Nuremberg is most famous for its Christmas market, or Christkindlemarkt in German, it is outlandishly cute. Although it may feel like you’ve just missed the party if you visit outside the Yule season, but this city is alive, thriving with history and students alike. Hungry? Try those tasty little Nurnberger sausages.

21. Hallstatt (Austria)

IMG_3069

A short train ride from Salzburg, Hallstatt is a small town that became opulent once from the salt trade, now, its nothing more than a postcard town. Although residents still cling to the narrow strip of land between the mountain and the lake, I actually don’t remember meeting any local in my short time there. The most interesting part of my visit is that since real estate is remarkably scarce, there is a limit of 50-year lease for a spot in the minuscule but quaint grave yard. After your golden death anniversary, some family member gets to write your name on what used to be your forehead and stacked up among the rest of the oldies.

20. Venice (Italy)

DSC_0101

Venice, a once powerful kingdom and a symbol of opulence just a few centuries ago, now suffering from the negative aspects of tourism, is sinking from its fame. There is no shortage of tourist influx here, rain or shine, for better or worse. But I can hardly blame anyone who goes to visit Venice, even if they make the place sink deeper from junk, waves coming from wakes of tourist boats and cruise ships. You have to see it at least once. Oh the grandeur and renaissance. Interestingly, Marco Polo, probably the worlds most famous traveler (not just a chain of hotels), was a Venetian. He somehow made it to China through the silk road, rubbed shoulders with Kublai Khan, and made it back to tell the story.

19. Jungfraujoch (Switzerland)

DSC_0569

I started my journey to the top of Europe from the small, cliche of a German speaking Swiss town in Grindelwald. Jungfraujoch is the highest point in the Alps, hence, the rest of Europe, with an elevation of 3,471 meters above sea level. Beyond the prized title of being the roof of the continent, it is also really expensive to get here. But the fun really is in getting here. You take a really cute train that gives you a view of the quintessential Swiss country side, slowly making elevation, change trains a few times, until you get a peek of the snoq capped mountains. Bring sunscreen as UV rays get really harmful with the elevation. When it gets too cold, you can always have the most expensive lackluster cheese fondue you’ll have in Switzerland at the restaurant on top.

18. Vienna (Austria)

DSC_1002

They say Vienna is for old people, I don’t always disagree, especially if you’re young with hormones running wild. But I enjoyed Vienna. I spent Christmas here, away from my family who were comfortably warm at our home in the Philippines. I loved Vienna for probably the most different reason why people come here. I came here for my favorite philosophically romantic couple, Jesse and Celine of the Before Sunrise series. I walked their walks, rode the creaking ferris wheel where they first kissed, because Jesse was too shy to do it on the booth at the record store, the cafes and the rest of it.

17. Bratislava (Slovakia)

IMG_3733

It does sound familiar, heard it somewhere once, where the hell is Bratislava? In the film Eurotrip, Bratislava is presented as a drab communist dead end town. Sure it does, once you cross the bridge with a weird looking UFO bar in the middle, it is the epitome of communism with its tenement housing, much like SMDC really. But if you arrive here by train, you’ll see that it must have been habituated by rich, cultured people once. The old town is just as beautiful as any other Eastern European old towns, with an overlooking upturned table-like castle. Its mystical and almost deserted in winter, but that’s where the charm comes from perhaps?

16. Pokhara (Nepal)

10154529_10152065791445098_6303542433322510313_n-1

Kathmandu can make you crazy after staying there for too long, and that’s what Pokhara is for. Get away from the city, take the nerve racking highway that falls a few hundred meters into a river that’s dotted with, wait for it, ill-fated buses. I personally just closed my eyes, prayed to the universe that should my time come, please please let me see the Himalayas first. The mountain gods must have heard my appeal and I was able to reach Pokhara, white knuckled, but safely. The city has a picturesque lake, and hordes of hippies that comes with a super laid back place. From here, I rented a plane to see the Himalayas, the rooftop of the world. Let’s just say I would more likely forget my first sex, god knows how bitter sweet that was, than my face to face experience with the Himalayas.

15. Krakow (Poland)

DSC_0441_2

Schindler’s list anyone? Save one life, save the world? Yes, Schindler’s enamel factory is located in Krakow, a 15 minute walk from the main square, Europe’s biggest square. And where else better to spend New Year’s eve than Europe’s biggest square? Yup. Spent NYE here and was rewarded threefold. Different stages for different bands of different genres, an intoxicated, super charged hormones of a crowd and you get the picture. To equalize the fun, a visit to Auschwitz concentration camp, around an hour by local bus from the square, is a never fail depressant.

14. Oxford vs Cambridge (U.K.)

DSC_0197

Let me tell something personal to you, sure, I like beautiful and intelligent students, but I like beautiful schools more. Professor Charles Xavier graduated here, prince Charles, also that egotistic physical theoreticist (clue, not Sheldon Cooper) named Stephen Hawking aka wheelz, and the infamous philanderer, Lord Byron, to name a few of my favorite, albeit one is fictional, alumni. In my next life, I only want to study here, graduate and become a fellow and tenured professor in either Universities.

13. New York (U.S.A)

288809_10150333284740098_1540305649_o

From JFK airport, I took the train to Bronx where I was staying with a friend in his flat. On the way, I had to transfer overland from one station to another, it was just before mid town, around the 30s when I got overland, luggage rolling and bouncing on rough and uneven pavement, Jay Z and A. Keys, as my friend, Angela, who, mind you, is personal friends with, even followed her back on Twitter, started playing in my head “Neeew yooooooork”. I love New York. There’s America and there’s New York. Its a city that’s got something going on at some place at any time of the day, and night. People from all over the world, with different ethnicities, from all walks of life, they’re all here, trying to make it big. As a result, really damn good food, cheap and expensive, so many interesting people, so much quirks.

12. Amsterdam (Netherlands)

DSC_0308

Amsterdam has an unfair reputation of a place where people go to for legal dosage of drugs and lenient bureaucracy. Sure, you get taxed for prostitution and marijuana, but the city itself is gorgeous on its own. With canals that smell so much better than those of Venice, low rise buildings with curious ground floor life size windows (wink) and the only place I’ve seen that’s got more bikes than people. Park your black, nondescript bike in some corner, when you come back, its impossible to tell which one is yours, hopefully not the one floating along the canal. I’ve never felt so short in my life than when I was here. The Dutch have the award for being the tallest people on Earth. It must be the cheese, that world famous Edam cheese. Spent two nights here, watched a sex show, got drunk, smoked a joint, passed out, magically woke up in my room, with pictures to show for. On the second night, got a tattoo. The following morning, really glad to have left.

11. Siem Reap (Cambodia)

DSC_0083

I’ve never been more humbled by this feat of mankind. The Khmers built something so vast and grand in the far east, that until now, the very basic maintaining of upkeep still puzzles the best archaeologists. Such colossal strongholds and places for worships, mysteriously abandoned, reclaimed by the forest, lost for generations until a French explorer chanced upon it. Wow is definitely an understatement. I don’t think there can be any superlative adjective used that will ever be an overstatement when describing Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Bayon, and the rest of the structures that dot the rest of the once powerful kingdom.

10. Edinburgh (Scotland)

DSC_0080

Before becoming part of Great Britain, Scotland was a mysterious land of rolling hills, foul weather and inhabited by fierce mythical creatures and hell of a tough Scottish folks. Now, Edinburgh, its capital, is truly one of my favorite cities. The only reason its in number ten is because I didn’t like the food here that much. It still retains its foul weather, tough folks with very weird accent, hence, do not ever get into a bar fight in Scotland. Like the rest of my favorite cities, literature is always an inspiration to visit. For Edinburgh, there’s Trainspotting (“it sucks being Ska-ish”) and The Da Vinci code (Rosslyn chapel). Regardless of inspirations, it is a must visit city for any self respecting traveler. To see the old town from the Edinburgh castle, walk the Royal Mile, and a real Scottish pub crawl are experiences that are truly YOLO-ing.

9. Bled (Slovenia)

DSC_0613

I arrived in Bled when it was winter, dark, and empty. Its a sleepy lake town and the fog that blanketed the whole place didn’t afford me to see beyond a few meters from me. Its the perfect setting for Silent Hill. Upon checking in at my hostel, the receptionist informed me that I was the only guest and that she was glad that I have finally arrived so that she can finally go home and leave the whole 3 floors of that damned building all to myself. Needless to say, I did not sleep well. Making it alive and unscathed come morning, I am a different man after that. Anyway, the only exciting thing about this place, is not the church planted on a small island inside the big lake, but the Vintgar gorge. A 1600 meter walkway made of sleet covered broken wood planks on top of a gushing river and in between wet mountains. I was the only traveler in town and had I fallen into the river, at least I meant that goodbye hug to my parents when they dropped me at the airport.

8. Tokyo (Japan)

DSC_0920

Tokyo, its easily the most shocking place I’ve ever been in my life. There seem to be an electric current running from the buildings to the neon signs to the people and food. Everything is alive, even the food you’re about to eat was surely living just a few moments back. You only have to see the famous Shibuya crossing and the morning auction in Tsukiji market to know what sort of energy and pace I’m talking about. During the day, everyone’s busy with work, the ideal Japanese salary man, at night, all fetishes are catered for. From Pachinko parlors (casinos), Purikura machines (a photobooth that’s girlishly blown out of proportion) to dive bars that fit 3 people the most. Food? Its all about sushi. Tuna is king and O-toro is gold.

7. Hong Kong (Hong Kong)

DSC_2079

Upfront, I would tell you that what moves people here is money, it is the catalyst in this city. People are flashy, Rolex stores are as abundant as 7elevens, but they are hard working people who know exactly what they want in life, except maybe that they have really really small expensive hotel rooms, but the rest, they’ve figured out perfectly. Duck rice, that’s what I go to Hong Kong for, that meal I cry myself to sleep at night when I want it and can’t have it. The Avenue of The Stars, the Victoria Harbour, the skyline from the opposite side of the river, shopping, nope, I’m skipping all that for all the Duck rice in Hong Kong.

6. The Sahara Desert (Disputed between neighboring North African countries)

DSC_0119_2

The Sahara, extends from Morocco to Egypt, Tunisia to Sudan. In English, its vast. Caravans of the past crossed this arid, uninhabitable, interminable landscape after landscape to do trade from Asia to Africa. Even Islam crossed this desert from the Middle East to reach Africa. Spending a night here will make even Bear Grylls humble about his self preservation instincts. Between the punishing mid day heat and chaffing camel ride to the campsite where we’d spend the bone chilling night is a moment spent siting down on top of a really tall dune, watching the most glorious sunset that nothing will ever compare to, slowly giving way into the moon and the stars to paint the sand silver and the make the rest of the desert seem like a violent ocean frozen mid wave.

5. Varanasi (India)

DSC_2076

Basically, Hindus go here to die. If you don’t get an instantaneous heavy dosage of culture shock with that, you are one tough bastard. You are in the holiest city in India. Expect to hear chanting everywhere, poor people resigned to their fates and get cremated and the remains thrown away in the Ganges river, where supposedly, the act of reincarnation will end and your samsara, over. Literally, where fire wood are stacked, you will see dead bodies being burned open air by the river. If that’s not enough, the Ganges is popular, aside from being one of the holiest rivers, but also the dirtiest. It makes Pasig river look like Evian. But in Hindu belief, a dip here will clean up all your karma, a sort of soul cleansing, and as weird as I am, I took a not so refreshing but inner cleansing morning dip.

4. Marrakech (Morocco)

DSC_0323

Dictators, colonialists, and governments may change with time but Marrakech will always be what it is, a hub of trade, culture and energy. Marrakech is damn sexy. A veiled woman walks by, taking with her the mystery of whats hiding underneath her perfect form, the way her hips sway when she walks, intrigues you like a mad lover. The constant sound of pounding metals, shaping them, gilding them to become something so exquisite, be it a lamp, a figurine, or any other Islamic art. The curious looking conical shaped pottery from which they stew their food, when opened, explodes different aromas of cinnamon, to olives, dried citrusy fruits and animal protein. Mud brick kasbahs, riads (guesthouses) mosques and shops form the labyrinthine medina. Come night time, a visit to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square is like an assault on the senses. Everything moves, some things bite, some dance, some sing, but mostly, they cook. Its the biggest open air stage I’ve ever seen in my life.

3. Penang (Malaysia)

1975160_10152025762935098_603477258_n

From Indonesia to Singapore, there is a general consensus that Penang is the food capital of the Straits. It used to be frequented by the British colonialist for Penang Hill which offers refuge from the damning heat, overlooking the sea. I’ll give it to Penang, the island is beautiful, but nothing of the landscape and the sea can beat what the island offers when it comes to food. Let me tell you straight, you need a local friend here to know which places to visit, and how to get there. The best Nasi Kandar, Nasi Lemak, oh and the Laksa! I’ve tried them all here. This place is second only to, you guessed it, San Sebastian in Spain, when it comes to concentration of so many good food in one place.

2 San Sebastian/Donostia (Spain/Basque)

IMG_7755

San Sebastian is the food capital of Spain, there is no contest. And if Spain is, arguably the food capital of the world, then logic follows that San Sebastian serves the best food in the world. Its got more than 3 michelin star restaurants concentrated for its small size than any other place in the world. But food doesn’t have to be expensive here. Nightlife here is a system of Pintxo (tapas) bar hop. You go to one bar, order the best Pintxo (normally advertised), drink just enough wine or Txakoli (sparkling dry white wine), then move to the next one. That sounds good enough on its own right? But did I tell you the buildings have very alluring old world appeal, the people are so beautiful and there’s a long stretch of beach, actually, two or three coves that stretches long enough to cover so many good looking people.

1. Hanoi (Viet Nam)

DSC_0222_2

Of all the places in the world, this is where I had the most fun. I found the perfect ratio of strangeness and familiarity in Hanoi. From the moment you wake up in the morning to eat Banh Mi (French baguette with fillings) while you sip that strong dark and gooey Vietnamese coffee, and then you head to watch people from all walks of life and generations exercise around Hoan Kiem lake to make room for all the delicious food to be had. Then you start looking for lunch and of course, its going to be Pho (rice noodle), the only choice really is if you’ll have it with beef or chicken. Alternatively, you can dine on some authentic French cuisine, but I’d rather explore more from Vietnamese cuisine like the Bun Cha, Cha Ca La Vong, and etc. up until you walk along the old quarter to look around old French colonial architecture, while somewhere in the corner, propagandas blast from a speaker on top of an electric post.

Advertisements

The northern road to Hanoi

We were staying in Hue for a night to trim the train hours to Hanoi. Hue, pronounced as huwey, was once the capital of Vietnam, and a center of power for the French. It gives an air of imperialism with its mighty and historical citadel, with its forbidden city, meditative gardens and lakes fit for kings, it was a staging ground, a rallying point, a witness, and unfortunately, a casualty of many battles. There are also those larger than life tombs of proud feudal lords of the past.  Arriving here just after dusk, the city seems to be brimming with activities. There are night markets not unlike those we have at home. The riverside is lined up with expensive hotels, entertainment centers with bright neon lights, even one of the bridges here are colorfully lit and quite famous for young lovers. There are also some exquisite street food action, making this lane bright, safe, and fun to explore come night time.

Riverside bazaar

Image

Plan of attack

Image

Mighty gate to the citadel

Image

Imperial garden

Image

Lake fit for kings

 Image

Tallest flag pole in Vietnam

Image

     The following day, our train wasn’t departing until later that afternoon. In preparation for our impending doom, we rented bicycles, explored the city on our own, tiring ourselves in hopes of sleeping out the whole train ride. Just as Hue was a staging ground for many battles of the past, it felt like one for us too. Come afternoon, we checked out of our hotel, had our last supper, drank minimal amounts of liquid, and headed for the station. The familiar sound of train coming in, we searched for our car amidst chickens running loose, and unreserved ticket holders elbowing each other for pole position when the train comes to a halt. Thankfully, we booked one of the best cabins you can get, a couchette of four. Upon finding our car and cabin, as expected, bed linens and pillows were not for the faint hearted, its exactly what my dorm bed looked like back in college after a whole semester has gone by and linens still unwashed. We were sharing this cabin with an old, friendly Vietnamese couple who looked like they started the trip from Saigon, you know what I mean. The toilets, sad to say, for 14 hours, we never ventured into the deep unknown. When the train started moving, we wore our rain coats for protection, like lab gowns are for laboratories, our packs for pillows, as we began our descent onto our beds. There was no standing up, no moving, no talking, no nothing. From my understanding of Einstein’s theory of relativity, time gets slower when a person is in motion, for those who disprove it, they have yet to try this 14 hour train ride for an experiment! Innumerable hours later, I woke up to the sound of our train breaking into a halt, to me, it might have been the sound angels singing. It was then that our friendly old Vietnamese cabin mates animately informed us we can now get off the train. Some ways of saying things are just universal. We have arrived in Hanoi.

Impending doom

Image

Rocky is not impressed

Image

Reminiscent of my unwashed dorm bed linen after a whole semster back in college

Image

     Getting off the train station, you get a different feel from all the other capital cities you’ve ever been, but you do get a feel that you arrived at the center of culture. Its not a backwards society, but its not over commercialized, pushed to its maximum potential. Instead, in the old quarter, you get streets of colonial style two story houses, its no surprise because it used to be the capital of French Indochina. The usual tells are the wrought iron balcony railings, and those chic French windows, and more architectural flourishes that contrast the later communist ideology.  Stores that are properly categorized according to their merchandise, as it has been hundreds of years ago. Brave a dark and narrow alley, if you’re lucky you can get to see functional communal houses. Loud PA devices installed on electricity posts from almost every corner of the old quarter, making announcements. Its early in the morning and there’s a community of joggers, and Tai Chi practitioners around Hoan Kiem lake, while close to it, shop keepers are dutifully opening shops, not without having that sweet but strong Vietnamese coffee or perhaps a Banh Mi, a sliced baguette with meat, greens and sauce inside, the inevitable child of French colonialism and Vietnamese resilience.

French colonial architecture in a photogenic state of disrepair

Image

Ladies getting in shape

Image

My company doing yoga around Hoan Kiem lake

Image

Barber street

Image

     After walking around the old quarter guidebook, in hand, visiting those historical sites, giving respect to one of the good hearted communists by visiting Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the opera house, and more museums, we’ve had enough history, propagandas and  boring bureaucracy. By now, we were starving. In Hanoi and much like the rest of Vietnam, the food they eat reflects their culture and their lifestyle. You will notice that there are thriving street peddlers selling food from a cart served on children’s tables and foot stools. Mainly because Vietnamese people have a dining culture. My theory is because the working population, including women,  doesn’t have much time left beyond their working hours to cook at home, its just more practical to eat out. And with a wealth distribution that doesn’t always equate dining out with eating in western style restaurants, or fast food chains, alas, street peddlers thrive.

Street peddler

Image

Street food action

Image

My company getting lost in the goodness of her pho from a street peddler

Image

      With fairly equal opportunities, making for a tough competition, only  quality street peddlers survive. The best guide will always be the number of locals who dine, or even queue. If street peddlers aren’t your thing, there are some long standing restaurants, barely meeting our ideology of what a restaurant should be, that serve some of the best meals I’ve had in the whole trip. Cha Ca La Vong at Cha Ca Street, serves only one dish for decades now, you simply walk in and order how many orders you want. The best bun cha, a perfectly grilled meat eaten with rice noodles, mixed with some fish sauce and light greens, served from an institution of a place aptly called Bun Cha at 1 Hang Manh Street. Glorious meat filled rice paper by Miss Ann from 72 Hang Bo. Although in general, you would be hard-pressed to settle for a bad meal in Hanoi. After our long and arduous journey through Vietnam, it taught us that food is better from carts than those cooked with roof above their heads.

Reusable wooden chopsticks. Yum!

Image

Bun Cha from 1 Hang Manh Street

Image

Meat filled rice paper by Miss Ann from 72 Hang Bo Street

Image

72 Hang Bo Street

Image

Street party in Hanoi

Image

We found Bobby Chinn

Image

      After a much deserved overnight cruise to the mystical Ha Long bay, we bid Vietnam farewell. When it was time to catch our flight bound for Manila, I reminded myself that just as all good things come to an end, the most underrated thing about traveling is coming home.

Ha Long Bay

Image

Ha Long Bay from our junk boat

Image

Getting deeper into Vietnam

When my company and I were planning this 14-day south to north Vietnam trip, we knew it wouldn’t be complete without experiencing Vietnamese trains. When the French built a colony here, much like any other European super power of their time, they brought railroads with them, as it is one of the most functional forms of logistics and transportation. I presume these trains would have been state of the art in their time. It had the air of luxury for the first class cabins with their butlers and buffet cars. And that industrial look of the coach which of course, the rest of the blue collar masses had to partake in. When the French left, the trains continued on , much of it the same with what they used in their good days here. With a little research and visuals, we have formed a brief but solid idea of the current state of these trains, and the conditions of taking them as our main source of transportation. It would have taken almost 2 days of a train ride marathon to reach Hanoi from Saigon. With the figures in hand, we counted how much water consumption versus visits to squatting toilets. If shower is even possible, would it make us cleaner than our previous unbathed states? Or are those couchettes worth the bites? It was then that we decided to cut the trip in half by taking a domestic flight from Saigon to the city of Da Nang, located in central Vietnam. A strategic point, from which we can cut the train ride ordeal significantly.

When we arrived Da Nang airport after an early morning flight from Saigon, we were glad to have made arrangements for transfers to Hoi An, A UNESCO world heritage site in central Vietnam, instead of having to bargain with drivers at 7 o’clock in the morning. From Da Nang airport en route to Hoi An, we would be able to visit the famous marble mountains of Da Nang. There will be some exquisite marble carvings lined up below every mountain, just before the entrance, tempting the most impulsive tourists to ship larger than life sizes of these marble carvings. These five marble mountains spread around the city are more like larger hills. It should not intimidate the most out of conditioned travelers, there is a lift for a nominal fee, if you don’t care to walk. There are pagodas that dot each mountain, small caves that may open up to buddhist idols carved out straight from the mountain itself. For the curious kind with keen eyes, there will be lots of small pathways veering off of the provided map, some will be your most rewarding lone moments because these mountains are quite touristy. But the most rewarding view would be once you get to the peak of the hill and enjoy a 360 degree view of Da Nang. Mountains on one side, and the seemingly interminable coastline of Vietnam on the other. From the time of visit, there have been lots of on going construction of what seemed to be chain of hotels along the coastline. I can only imagine how this pristine area, with its white sand and near perfect shores will be the next hot spot of tourism for Vietnam.

Off the map walkway

A charming pathway off the map in one of the marble mountains

Marble statues carved out straight from the mountain

DSC_0804

Made it to the top with my guidebook!

From the top of one of the marble mountains

Marble mountains side

IMG_1682

Interminable coastline

IMG_1683

     Upon arrival in Hoi An, we decided to stay in nearby Cua Dai beach that’s lined with hotels fit for a James Bond villain. After all, we have spent some rough but fun times during the previous half of our trip. Hoi An is nicknamed “The Venice of the East”, for its beautiful river streets and historical significance of being a wealthy trading post, giving this town an air of wealth and grandeur. The Portuguese settled and traded here too. Its got a preserved architecture and grid city street planning. Buildings are indubitably similar to each other, a whole town filled with old Chinese and Vietnamese houses, now in their antiquated yellow-washed but intact walls, the reason that it has become a tourist attraction. But what I really like about Hoi An is that it still remains a place for locals to live in. They have not been gentrified by negative aspects of tourism. Local industry is still intact. You will have some of the best tailor made silk clothing here as you will see from every tailoring shop. There’s also some good food at cheap local prices to be had from those stalls lined up across the river, apart from the more established restaurants within the town.

Hotel fit for a James Bond villain

IMG_1698

Night swim in our hotel

DSC_0966

Established riverside restaurants

DSC_0983

Munching on some tasty cheap food from Hi restaurant just across the bridge

DSC_1051

Buildings in their antiquated yellow washed walls

DSC_1023

Hoi An at night

Hoi An at night

     After recharging for a couple of nights, we were ready for the next half of the adventure. From Hoi An, we made a short stop in another Cham kingdom relic in My Son en route back to Da Nang, from where we are taking a famous, afternoon scenic train ride to Hue. For our first train ride in Vietnam, we were expecting something quite worse than what we actually experienced. The train cars have definitely come from the French era, but apart from old carpets, worn, funky smelling seats, universal dusty curtains and a distinct smell of dried fish brought by some suspected passengers, it didn’t turn out as bad as predicted. This three hour train ride goes through coastal railroads, and as the sun sets, unobstructed by the sea stretching into the horizon, it makes for the most glorious back drop. Each tunnel we passed through was an eclipse of total darkness, until a different cove appears, darkness gives way for orange skies, reflecting on undeveloped white sand beaches, sometimes just cliffs that fall straight to the open sea. But my favorite is whenever we cross arched stone bridges as we head for a turn and sneak a photo from outside the window when no official is looking. Its one of the most moving train rides to be had, just make sure you sit on the left side. Over all, I would do this trip again.

Vast My Son relics from the Cham kingdom

DSC_0020_2

Ga could be either chicken or train station

IMG_1765

Inside the train

IMG_1777

Coastal railway view

Scenic train ride from Da Nang to Hue

IMG_1784

     That’s it for now folks! Watch out for our following misadventures in Hue, impending doom of a train ride to Hanoi and the rest of our north Vietnam experiences from the next and final installment of my Vietnam series.

A preview of what happens next

IMG_1774

First taste of Vietnam

We entered Vietnam via Cambodia through a convenient tourist bus company, apart from our door collapsing in the middle of nowhere which caused a delay,  eventually making us miss our bus connection and forcing an overnight stop at Phnom Penh, at least immigration went smoothly.

     With no shower and a clean toilet for almost 48 hours now, my company and I met up with a friend who is a long time expat in Saigon. Saigon because only foreigners call it Ho Chi Minh. After all the pleasantries and the much needed shower, we headed for our first experience of a proper Pho, a Vietnamese version of noodle soup, from one of the many interesting restaurants along Pasteur Street. Like among every city I’ve been, I usually get to know the people with what they eat. I find that what people eat has a direct relationship with their lifestyle, culture and history. But more of that in a while, let me take you to my first legitimate Pho experience. My friend and I ordered two of the classic Phos which you will encounter in any self respecting Vietnamese restaurants, the Pho Ga, meaning with chicken, and the Pho Bo, with beef. Pho is served with greens on the side, which tells me that the Vietnamese are humble people because they allow you to adjust the taste to your preference. Phos arrive, clueless on how to start, our friend taught us the universal Truths. First, you taste the broth, only then do you add those curious greens on the side. Basic greens consist of basil, bean sprouts, and the most distinguishable taste even after mixing them together, cilantro. As for my personal experience, I would not advise adding that tiny looking chili on my good friends, it might have ruined the whole experience for me had I not been warned against it. Instead, i was told to try it on a separate bowl to my good fortune. To the Vietnamese, the broth is always the star of the show, not the rice noodles, which are almost always perfectly cooked anyway. Each sip of broth, mixed with rice noodles, and the occasional bite of distinguishable cilantro was  worth the trip in itself. We would also later discover that Phos made from street peddlers are so much better than ones that come from kitchens with roof above their heads. There are also other staples that do not cross Vietnamese borders, like Cha Ca La Vong, a restaurant that has been serving only one dish for decades now, also that Bun Cha, a perfectly grilled meat in tube form, and my favorite breakfast, Banh Mi, made with sliced baguette with some meat, mostly greens and lightly added with a mayonnaise like sauce, a positive offspring of the French colonialism and Vietnamese resilience.

Pho Ga and Pho Bo

Pho Bo and Pho Ga

Cha Ca La Vong

Image

Banh MiImage

     After that glorious first meal, we decided to learn some history at the graphic, albeit biased Museum of American War Crimes. It was the saddest thing we have ever done in the whole trip. In hopes of clearing our minds from haunting photographs of human atrocity, we decided to go for some bright architecture that surrounded Ho Chi Minh square. The French definitely left better buildings than what has been destroyed during the war. The central post office on one side of the square, and the Notre-Dame Basilica, a stone’s throw away, are true testaments to French colonial architecture.

Museum of American War Crimes
Image

Around Ho Chi Minh square

Image

Notre Dame cathedral of Saigon

Image

     The most obvious problem you will have in Saigon is crossing motorcycle plagued streets. In my pedestrian judgement, there seems to be more motorcycles than people here. Take note, Saigon might be a pedestrian nightmare but there is a brave solution on how to maneuver the dreaded crossing of busy streets and intersections. Once you’ve made the first step away from the curb, you don’t stop, hesitate, or avoid motorcycles, they will avoid you. Live by that rule and you will live. Reminds me of Bruce Lee’s famous lines, “Be like water.” It took a while before my sense of self preservation got used to turning a blind eye on motorcycles that seem to be gunning after me. So when I finally had the chance to rent a motorcycle along Pham Ngu Lao or better known as backpacker district, it was finally my turn to instill fear on some unfortunate and innocent tourists, so says the man who said “if you can’t beat ’em, join them.” My Mad Max moment ended our momentous and gratifying city tour of Saigon.

Motorcycle plagued street

Image

My turn to harass innocent tourists!

Image

     Next on our itinerary was a day trip to the mighty Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is a river that stretches over around 4,500 km, all the way from the Himalayas to Vietnam, passing through different countries of Indochina, making those fortunate lands fertile for agriculture due to its abundant source of irrigation, making Vietnam one of the top producers of rice. Our day trip only allowed us to visit certain areas, which would be a speck of dust compared to its vast totality. After a 2 and a half hour bus ride from Saigon, we arrived at our first destination, a tourist stop where you can sample exotic delicacies which include some local rice cake which is very comparable to our bibingka, which wasn’t a surprise because we are both rice growing regions.  Also some rice wine with the usual suspect of a baby cobra inside, supposed to make you more potent. Take it with a grain of salt, I always do. If everything I’ve taken where I’ve been told will make me more potent, I should have an indefinite sense of sensuality. After those tastings, we finally got in on our man powered boat, wearing cone hats that the Vietnamese people are almost known for. Curious enough, it was the woman’s legs which were doing the rowing. While she rowed gracefully, we were cruising and snaking along some beautiful tight mangroves, narrow enough to touch the greenery that surrounded us. It wasn’t the best experience we’ve had, factor in the unforgiving sun, humidity, the persistent mosquitoes and the almost unpredictable chance of a shower.

One narrow mangrove of the interminable Mekong Delta

Image

Rice Wine

Image

     The following day was spent on another day tour to the mighty Cu Chi tunnels. Made by the Hanoi backed Viet Cong, the armed resistance during the Vietnam war, these tunnels were dug to conceal and protect them from the US backed Saigon army and more especially, from their aerial supremacy. But what goes beyond amazing is that they have made communities out of these tunnels. This will be your first hand experience of real Vietnamese resilience. Besides the fact that these tunnels have functional kitchens, toilets, bedrooms, and most of the basic necessities for living, these tunnels stretch for hundreds of kilometers, giving possibility for the Viet Cong to travel in safety. With these tunnels, the Viet Cong employed guerilla tactics against their southern nemesis. Giving them enough perils regardless of how much more advance they are in terms of technology and fire power, to make them decide to give up and end one of the most atrocious events of the 20th century.

Cu Chi tunnels

Image

      In contrast of all the violence involved in our previous destination, we visited the curious Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh afterwards. I do not always encounter a religion that’s got some interesting selection of patron saints such as, Victor Hugo, Joan of Arc and Winston Churchill, to name a few. We then got a timely chance to watch what seemed to be like a mass. A pleasant contrast of the colorful temple and white robes of its members. Its architecture just as its beliefs seem like a mix of different religions, making it seem familiar but still strange enough for imagination.

Cao Dai temple

Image

Contrast of white robes and the colorful interior

Image

     When it was finally time to leave Saigon and the rest of southern Vietnam, we were armed with basic Vietnamese survival skills taught by our most precious almost local friend. He taught us words for bargaining, lying, gratitude and some really really mean words. From here, we’re going nowhere but up.

DSC_0627