Thursday, April 30, 2009
(Conclusion, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located at Halong City at the northeastern part of Vietnam. Going to Halong City from Hanoi takes around 3 hours by van, on surprisingly well-paved roads.
Halong City itself is a singularly charmless place, with the usual mix of hotels, casinos and shopping places. Located just 90 minutes away from Vietnam's border with China, i'm willing to bet that most of these developments in the city were funded by Chinese investors. Some establishments seem to cater primarily to Chinese clients,
being fronted by Mandarin-speaking staff and quoting prices in RMB.
Halong Bay is also known by the more dramatic name [drumroll, please] "Bay of the Descending Dragon." Legend has it that dragons once descended from heaven and spouted streams of jade droplets that fell into the waters of Halong Bay, forming thousands of islands and islets, and helping defend Vietnam against attacking armies.
Of course, the truth is a bit more prosaic. The islands are limestone rock formations, with caves, lakes, etc. for exploring in the bigger ones.
Truth be told, this was the part of the trip i was looking forward to the most, and was quite happy as we boarded the Chinese-style "junk" for our tour. I had heard instances wherein the junks and sampans are not allowed to depart for the Halong Bay cruise, due to fog and inclement weather. Thankfully, the sky was all clear today.
The view from the upper deck of the junk was lovely. It was quite a sight to see the various shapes and sizes of the limestone karsts and isles, with the sails of the boats silhouetted against the horizon. We dropped by a cave (for some fairly rigorous spelunking), and checked out a 'typical' fishing boat as well.
Of course, the preferred (in)activity of a certain grumpy slacker i know is just to stretch back and relax, like so:
On board, we partook of an excellent seafood lunch, before turning back to return to shore.
Aside from the daytrip cruise we took, there are tour operators offering overnight and even 3D/2N Halong Bay cruises, on board junks which are fitted with cabins and other amenities.
Halong Bay is one of the candidates for the New 7 Wonders of Nature campaign. Click here if you want to check the official site and vote for it.
SCENES FROM A 'XICH LO'
(Part Four, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)
Hanoi is the cultural capital of Vietnam, and one must not fail to tour around the Old Quarter area, basically a collection of narrow and bustling streets with tube houses selling all sorts of goods right on the pavement.
Hanoi's Old Quarter was originally arranged with each street selling one category of goods, so you have Silk Street, Silver Street, Paper Street and the like. But at present, this is no longer strictly followed.
We took a tour of the Old Quarter, while riding a contraption called the 'Xich Lo' (cyclo). As can be seen from the pics, it is a semi-open carriage, with the passenger seated in front, and the driver at the back.
At first, we were a bit hesitant to take the tour. J.N.'s mom thought it would be dangerous, since the cyclo did look flimsy. Nevertheless, our daredevil spirits prevailed, and J.N., R.T. and i were soon off, with our respective cyclo drivers pedalling leisurely.
The operative word here being "leisurely", as the cyclo drivers pedal at a glacial pace. It is much quicker to walk on your own! The ride becomes enjoyable once you get over the (very real) possibility that you will get hit by a motorcycle or car.
As it is, we were honked at lots of times by impatient motorcycle drivers, who were probably cursing underneath their breath at our cyclos for partially blocking their path.
Navigating the narrow streets of the Old Quarter proved to be a delightful experience. We passed by hotels, travel agencies, art galleries, restaurants, bars, music clubs, stores selling clothes, toys, groceries, fruits, etc., even one or two stores selling propaganda art posters; sidewalk cafes; rows and rows of motorcycles parked at the curbs.
One can really see and feel the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, at full blast. I realized, this tour by cyclo was actually a perfect springboard if one wanted to walk around and explore on one's own, at a later occasion.
After going around for some 30 minutes, we were dropped off by the cyclo drivers with all limbs intact, happy yet somewhat relieved.
So, my advice to people who are wary about the cyclo, go! Laugh in the face of danger and get on that cyclo!
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
THE 'WINDOW SILL' PHOTO SERIES AMIDST THE TEMPLES
(Part Three, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)
Around a week before the trip, i was enthusiastically telling a friend about our itinerary in Siem Reap, with stops to the various temples such as Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, Angkor Thom, and the world-famous Angkor Wat.
"That's funny, i've never thought of you as a 'temple' person," she mused.
I just laughed, and gave her remark no further thought.
My friend turned out to be quite prescient.
It was 9:30 AM, the sun was shining its warm, radiant rays cheerfully over the hordes of tourists arriving at Banteay Srei, our tour group included.
Our guide, a rather funny-looking fellow named Chay, was extremely professional and well-versed in the intricacies of ancient Khmer history. He waxed eloquently on the gods Shiva, Vishnu and Rama, amongst other things.
Unfortunately, after twenty minutes or so of standing under the sweltering heat, i was already suffering from 'temple fatigue', and wanted nothing more than to pour a cold bottle of water over my head.
So it went with our visits to the other temples. I could barely remember any of the historical tidbits narrated by Chay!
But of course, to keep myself interested, i resorted to taking my usual 'trick' camera shots and enlisted tour groupmates R.T. and J.N.
"Let's take some artsy, meticulously-arranged yet supposedly 'candid' photos, just like they do in most travel magazines," i suggested.
Hence, our visits to the temples degenerated into horsing around, making weird poses. Here are some of the 'artsy' photos we took, which i henceforth dub the "Window Sill at the Temples" series:
This one above is me, leaning against the wall while thinking despondently of my stock portfolio.
This pic above is of J.N., grinning like a cat who just devoured a whole saucer of condensed milk (instead of mixing it with his iced Vietnamese coffee ;D). He's probably thinking of his latest painting.
Due to the overwhelming, insistent clamor from my readers [i can imagine my friend, amazonic R., muttering scornfully, "yeah, right!"], i've included a face pic of myself. Haha.
Seriously now, this one was taken at Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom. I really like the contrast of this one, the dark foreground hiding the subject (me) in the shadows while the smiling image of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looks down benignly on me, as he gets a suntan.
Bye for now, folks! Stay tuned for posts regarding Halong Bay and the cyclos of Hanoi.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
THE GUS GUIDE TO ENJOYING A FEW DAYS IN SAIGON & HANOI, VIETNAM
((Part Two, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)
Part of what makes travelling to other countries fun and not-so-fun are the different customs, beliefs and practices one encounters, which leave one either open-mouthed with amazement, or shaking one's head in disgust, or exasperated by the absurdity of the locals, or all of the above.
I've come up with a partial list of stuff to expect in Saigon and Hanoi, so future first-timers to these wonderful cities have an equally wonderful experience. Here goes:
1. Money exchange
When changing money upon arrival at the airport, some banks offer a more favourable US$-VND exchange rate, but with a 3% service charge written in the fine print.
Better choose a bank which clearly states "No service charge", even if their exchange rate is less. You will come out ahead.
2. Crossing the streets
In these cities, the motorcycles rule the streets by sheer number. It constantly amazed me that there were hardly any accidents involving these vehicles.
Crossing the main streets can be problematic. Make slow, firm steps, while putting out your hand to signal "Stop!" to the onrushing motorcycles. Under NO circumstances is it advisable to do the cha-cha ("double-double-single"), as this is a surefire way to get hit.
While the motorcycles seem like ready to run you over, just stay rooted on your spot, and they will part like the Red Sea and weave around you. Take my word for it.
Bargain hard, but always with a smile. The old trick of walking away when the vendor doesn't agree to your price works surprisingly well, but do not squeeze the last VND from them. Hey, they probably need the money a lot more than you do.
The lady vendors at Ben Thanh market in Saigon are particularly aggressive, to the point of pulling at your shirt and whacking you on the shoulder if you inquire about prices, but fail to buy.
Surprisingly, English comprehension is not that good. It is best to learn some basic phrases, such as: "Xin chao" (hello), "Cam on" (thank you), "Bao nhieu" (how much?), "Mac qua" (too expensive!), and "Co dep qua" (you're beautiful).
According to Frommers, "any show of anger is a definite no-no", as this causes the locals to lose face.
Of course, if the taxi drivers are taking the long route to your destination; or the coffee shop waitress forgets the condensed milk when you ordered the "Iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk"; or they tell you a can of bottled water costs 15,000 VND when it is clearly stated as costing 10,000 VND on the menu (all of which happened to us), then go ahead by all means and raise your voice a bit.
6. Food & Drink
Speaking of which, not to try the "Iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk" (Ca phe sua dac) even once during your visit is borderline criminal!
When visiting the Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon (a must-see, in my opinion), bring insect repellant.
I repeat, bring insect repellant.
8. Money matters
Be extremely careful when buying stuff and getting change, especially if you pay in US Dollars and the store will give change in VND.
The various denominations of the VND notes tend to look alike (the green-colored 10,000 VND and 100,000 VND notes are deceptively similar-looking), given that they all have Uncle Ho beaming at you, making them prone to mistakes (intentional or otherwise) on the part of the seller.
After all, one must not give up one's millionaire status by being careless, right?
(Many thanks to May Ibalio and Diederick Helder for the lovely photos)
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
HOW TO BECOME A MILLIONAIRE IN ONE EASY STEP
(Part One, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)
Forget all those 'Rich Dad, Poor Dad' books, and their ilk.
All you have to do is board a plane and fly to Vietnam, where one US Dollar gets you the equivalent of 17,700 VND [Vietnam Dong].
So, when i exchanged US$100 at the airport upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh (also known as Saigon) city, i was handed more or less 1.7 million VND. Woohoo!
As can be seen from the pic below, the VND notes come in big denominations, most commonly 100,000, 50,000 and 10,000 VND.
The largest note is 500,000 VND [not in photo].
The smaller ones, such as the 500 VND and 1000 VND notes, also come in coins and are pretty much useless, since most prices seem to start at 10,000 VND.
Of course, it took a while to get used to seeing and hearing prices quoted at such huge amounts. And even more difficult was mentally converting prices into US dollars (and then on to PHPs).
While at the Ben Thanh market, i inquired how much a box of coffee was.
"50,000 VND," stated the rotund vendor.
"What?! Mac Qua! [Too expensive!]" i cried, only to realize a few seconds later that this amount was something like US$3.00 only. Well, it was still expensive, and we eventually bargained her to a more reasonable level.
A sampling of other typical prices include:
Paper fan at Ben Thanh market = 15,000 VND
Pho [noodle soup] at a Pho 24 outlet = 34,000 VND
N & M [local upscale brand] men's pants = 499,000 VND
Of course, the astute reader will point out that there is a catch to my millionaire status in Vietnam. After all, it is not the amount of money per se that matters, but the amount of goods and services one can purchase or exchange for it.
As my college thesis partner-turned-financial whiz MonT. will probably put it, "You may be a millionaire on paper, but you have the purchasing power of a pauper. Olats ka pa rin! [Loser!]"
Thursday, April 02, 2009
COLORFUL TIBET IN SHANGHAI
It's March. Yup, the time of the year to fly again to Shanghai for work.
It was also another chance to have dinner with my friend JPL, and the friendly couple, Mary and Looi, who had chosen a Tibetan resto this time. (We had eaten at a Xinjiang resto the last time 2 years ago)
After some walking around in circles, we finally found the resto. The exteriors are nothing much to write about, and i had a huge feeling at the back of my mind that this resto would be a stinker. Tibetan cuisine wasn't exactly setting the world on fire, was it?
But once one stepped inside, everything suddenly changed. To say this resto was bursting with color was an understatement; it was breathng and exploding with vivid colors any where one looked!
And should one feel compelled to dine inside a tent, just like they do in Tibet (?), there's a colorful tent waiting:
The staff, who are dressed in colorful costumes, go around table to table, offering toasts in their native tongue.
We had absolutely no clue what they were saying. Hopefully, it wasn't in colorful language. :D
Onwards to the food.
The menu featured a one-page ad on their whole roasted sheep (complete with a ribbon tied around its head!). It looked tempting; alas, it has to be pre-ordered a day ahead.
Mary and Looi took charge of ordering, so i didn't have an opportunity to write down the exact names of the dishes. Below is a run-through of most of the dishes we ate:
First up, a dish of Alfafa sprouts, which proved to be chewy and tasty.
Second, lamb ribs. Lip-smacking good! A tad too oily, though. Nonetheless, I could have eaten another order of this all by myself.
Third, yak meat. When i tasted this dish, i asked JPL, "Why does it taste so much like eggplant?"
Well, that's because it WAS eggplant mostly. Turns out the yak meat was those little bits and pieces ground up.
Up next, the Tibetan baked macaroni. :D
It was actually a tomato stew, with cheese, potato, etc. Looked a bit yucky at first, but it was actually pretty good. The tomato was intensely sweet, but perfectly balanced by the potatoes.
Then, it got more exotic. The picture below is of the quail egg/veggies/dates/chili/hotdog/fishball soup with Tibetan ants.
Yes, you read correctly. Ants. These were supposed to be good for one's health.
With some trepidation, i scooped a bowl of the soup, turned to JPL, and solemnly stated, "I hereby appoint you as executor of my last will and testament", to everyone's hearty laughter.
Here's a close-up view of the ants:
They're pretty big and horrific-looking, but you won't really taste them at all. Everyone agreed the soup was good, and got second helpings, myself included.
Then, spinach soup, with naan bread. More like pureed spinach, sort of a goop. It tasted like, well, spinach.
Yak tea [not pictured] was also served, which in my opinion, tasted like regular tea mixed with low-fat/skim milk powder.
Throughout dinner, we watched the cultural program being performed by the staff, which consisted mainly of dancing and singing. At the end, guests were "invited" to join in a group native dance.
To our amusement, JPL was roped in to go up the stage and partake of this audience participation segment. He proceeded to do the Tibetan tap dance and Tibetan two-step shuffle with much gusto. (No pics here though, lest his reputation take a permanent beating ;-D)
There was a raffle as well, and i won a coupon entitling me to the lamb ribs dish (worth RMB 80.00) during my next visit!
Yak!! (Tibetan word for "Yes!!!", or so i think :D)
(The resto is located at the ground floor of the Shanghai Stadium)