Saigon Walking Tour

Tired as we were from flying in late, we woke up to the first ring of the alarm and took the free breakfast from Saigon Backpackers Hostel. First we ventured into the backstreets near Pham Ngu Lao to find a decent foreign exchange but believe the travel forums when they tell you to go straight to the gold jewelry stores. They do not have neon-blinking lights with their published rates but they offer the best, so go ahead and ask. Armed with a crappy map from the hostel and sheets of Lonely Planet's Vietnam guidebook, we went out and created our own tour.

War Remnants Museum

We started with the farthest point in the map and made it to the War Remnants Museum along Vo Van Tan street. The buses parked outside the museum was a telling sign that we had a literally packed day ahead.

Grim, depressing, and devastating, the museum told the story of the not-so-distant past. The walls were filled of photos showing the long-term effects of the toxic chemical Agent Orange, the protests in the US denouncing the war the government has raised against Vietnam, and photos of the civilians and volunteers caught in the crossfire. It is best to visit the place in the morning so you will still have time to fill your day with happier scenes of Saigon or make it your last stop if you want to end the day with a heavy heart. I thought I was being emotional but looking at the faces of the other visitors, they mirrored my thoughts exactly.

War museums are great for learning, but it does not do well for the heart.

We made a quick detour to escape from the sun and had a slightly expensive version of their iced black coffee. People sat in groups on the sidewalks drinking coffee from street vendors while we got ours from Starbucks' counterpart, Highlands Coffee.

Reunification Palace

After feeling rested from half a day of walking, we retraced our steps back to a nice, green park and went to the Reunification Palace located at Nguyen Du, a few blocks south of the War Remnants Museum. The palace showcased the office and residence of the last President in the south. The rooms with its plush seats, heavy draperies, and key furniture pieces were nothing too lavish. It took almost an hour exploring every nook of the Palace, including the underground offices. It was a maze underneath the palace. At one point, I started calling out to people because I could not see anyone around.

Half of the time we trailed a group with English-speaking tour guides. Free lecture for us!

Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office

Located a few blocks away from the palace are two huge French architectures, the Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Central Post Office. Though the church was closed, it still did not fail to awe us with its majestic facade. The brick walls of the church is so picturesque that it wasn't surprising to see wedding shoots along the walls.

Right across the church is the Central Post Office, but it actually looked more like a train terminal to me. Nevertheless, I was again fascinated by the structure. I might just have a bias for grandiose French architecture.

People's Committee Building and the Dong Khoi Area

Keeping in mind that we still have to visit a bookstore to get a better map, we roamed along the streets until we made it into the Dong Khoi Area, along Le Loi Street. For 15000 VND we finally got ourselves a nice street map of Vietnam. Nevermind that we found the bookstore in the late afternoon when we have already traversed the city!

Dong Khoi district is an upscale part of Ho Chi Minh, with even lovelier structures and high-end shops along the streets. Time seemed to slowly pass by in this area as people sipped their afternoon drinks and watched the traffic on the streets. This place is perfect for a lazy afternoon stroll.

At night, the lights came up to give a whole new glitz to the fancy structures. We lingered here for quite some time, observing people on their bikes in ready-to-party outfits. We wondered where the party was on a Monday night.. but we never found out.

We settled for an ice cream at Bach Dang along Le Loi before we slowly made our way back to the streets of Pham Ngu Lao. It was long day indeed and tiring as it was, I was glad we walked our way around.

Saigon will always be remembered.

Guilty Splurge Series: Can’t Stop Spending in Hoi An

Sometimes you just want to sit and enjoy the easy life, never mind the price tag that comes with it.
That was exactly what I thought when we boarded the cab from Danang Airport to Hoi An. Taking the bus will only take 1USD but who knows when the next bus will come our way? Hailing a cab was so much easier, only it comes with a meter.  
And so there we were in the backseat with our eager cabbie pointing to us the beaches of Danang, asking for our itinerary while trying to inject some of the places that he wanted to take us to. Unfortunately for him, we had our eyes set on our destination and we would not be swayed. The cabbie did not get us to pay additional dollars for the sidetrip but he did get us to pay the meter at 23USD!
Tip: If you do not wish to wait for the 1USD-bus, book a private car with a travel agency for 15USD from Danang airport to HoiAn. A couple of dollars saved will go a long way!

And as if the gods of misfortune were looking down on us, rain poured on our way to Hoi An. Because we initially planned to look for a place to stay there, we decided to get off the cab and put a stop on the crazy meter at the first hostel that we saw -- Thien Nga Hotel. If only it was not raining, I would have stepped out and looked for a cheaper hostel (room was priced at 25USD/night) but the rain would not let me. I was fretting for some time, until I saw the room!

The room was cozy, the sheets were clean and soft, and the room had a nice veranda looking out over the street. Plus they had a reliable WiFi, complimentary buffet breakfast, and flat screen TV. The lovely hotel room at 25USD/night shut me up. I could no longer complain.

When the rain finally stopped, we finally had the chance to get some food for brunch. The first stop for the day was Miss Ly Cafeteria 22 at Nguyen Hue. We were the first guests of the day and Miss Ly's American husband warmly greeted us. Every item on the menu teased my taste buds but to make our stay authentic, we decided to get the local dishes. We wanted to try the cao lau (noodles), fried wontons, and white rose so we ordered the Sampling menu which had all three.

Fried wontons
Cao Lau - flat noodles with croutons, bean sprouts, and pork slices. The water used in its preparation comes from the Ba Le Well
White rose - steamed shrimp in rice paper

It was all so good that we came back the next day for dinner! Of the three dishes, I enjoyed white rose the most. And of all cities in Vietnam, I liked the food in Hoi An (actually, the whole of Central Vietnam) the most. It was here where I had the most delectable and succulent food that I have tasted in the entire week. The 3 dishes including drinks cost less than 15USD for 2 persons. That is considered pricey for Vietnam where everything is cheap, but Miss Ly's specialty cooking and her husband's warm welcome more than made up for it. The guy (too bad I forgot his name) even remembered us when we came back the next day.

It was a wet and tiring afternoon as we tried to battle it out with the rain to make the most of our time, but in the end we succumbed to another inviting restaurant at Le Loi. For dinner, we chose Streets. It might be that Miss Ly's was too high of a standard because I found the food at Streets not as spectacular but knowing that you are helping out disadvantaged young kids, it was easier to pay 20USD for dinner.

The only thing remarkable I tasted at Streets: Crispy Spring Rolls

After a considerably extravagant day in Hoi An, we decided to tone it down a bit the next day. We moved out of Thien Nga to a 15USD/night room which meant no complimentary breakfast, no WiFi, CRT TV, and stuffy sheets. And just when we thought we were successful in slumming it and cutting down costs, we ended up giving in to Miss Ly's for dinner the next day! The buns they sell on the street just can't compete with Miss Ly's cooking.

Share some of your guilty splurge stories!

The Obligatory New Year Post

I'm a few days late from all the yearender and 2013 kickoff posts.The New Year is the perfect time to romanticize life and be cheesy. Kidding. 🙂
Though I am not a fan of New Year's Resolutions, I do love looking back and seeing how the year went. I look back not to scrutinize and redo things in my head, but only to be reminded how fantastic 2012 was. Despite the low points that I've mostly brought upon myself, 2012 is still one for the books. 
Here are some of the things on top of the list:

Got published.
Certified at work.
Laidback provinces.
Won free airline tickets.
Rode a bike in Vietnam and went home with a scar to prove.
Chickened out on getting a tattoo.
Chicken rice. Chili crab. Shakespeare in the Park.
Grandiose mosques.
Wept for the Phantom of the Opera.
First luxury (not!) cruise at Halong Bay.
Short-term assignment for work.

Let the photos do the talking!

Blow-by-blow Travel Tidbits:

First Quarter: 2012 started with sweating it out on a kickoff climb in Mt. Pulag, only to gain back the pounds days later while wolfing down every edible thing there is in Bacolod. February came and being the Love Month, it felt fitting to finally show love for one's self and fulfill a childhood dream of flying high up in the sky in a huge balloon. Sadly, we had to let go and see the balloons fly out on their own because flying with it costs an arm. 

Second Quarter: In what can only be called pushing it to the limit, I took a long bus ride in the middle of the summer heat to the hottest point in the country, Tuguegarao. The trip ended with longer hours spent indoors while cooling down in front of the AC and having countless servings of halo-halo. Just when I thought chunks of ice was enough to quench the thirst that summer brought, the camp site and estuary in Zambales provided much needed reinforcement.  

In May, the universe paved way for the first overseas trip of 2012. For a couple of days I found myself in Universal Studios, Sentosa, Orchard Road, and MRT, all sitting in the middle of Singapore, the "Disneyland with Death Penalty".
In a tropical country where summer is all-year long, the family flew off to Cagayan. My parents took the kids and the young-at-heart rafting at the Cagayan River, while the adults sat at the nearby resort, thinking how fun it must be if only their knees would let them. 

Third Quarter: Then came July, armed with a nice weekend spent in the heart of Manila. Seeing Carlos Celdran doing what he does best paired up with an al fresco dinner with a sweeping panoramic view of Intramuros was enough to make me believe that the once glorious city could rise again. 

In August, I tried to see Dumaguete with much gusto but dengue had the best of me. The trip was cut short, much to my disappointment. Towards the end of August, I bounced back from the sick bed and sat on the bus floor for hours, went up north, and witnessed the art of traditional tattooing. 

Fourth Quarter: With the last quarter workload push catching up on me, I quietly sneaked away for a relaxing weekend at Bellaroca. I am such a little sneak that the events that took place before I reached Bellaroca is post-worthy on its own. PNoy must have been feeling really good last October that he declared another long weekend. The thought of grabbing my things and just taking off was too appealing that in one long weekend, we hustled to Baguio. 

And then it was November and the 9-day trip to Vietnam, number one in my backlog post list. I would have loved to extend and spend a few more weeks but the 9-to-5 was impatiently waiting for me to get back. 

And just as I was ready to cap my year off and recall all in 2012, work suddenly posed an opportunity for a short assignment in Brunei in mid-December. That's the buzzer beater finisher of the year.

And so, I say goodbye to 2012 full of gratitude for what it has made me -- better, tougher, and seemingly wiser than before.

I welcome 2013 with anticipation for all the things that it might bring -- don't get me wrong though, I find that there is much joy in having no expectations.

Cheers to a rocking 2013!