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VIETNAM DAY 4

Posted in Interest, Life by thisisanexperiment on September 14, 2010

The problem with reaching HCMC at 4am in the morning is…that it’s 4am in the morning. Nothing is opened and the city is, for the most parts I believe, asleep.

We trooped back to our HCMC hostel (my my art house) but since we couldn’t check in, we could only wait for daylight to break as we tried to catch some shut eye while lying on the table/chairs. Daybreak came, we washed up a little, and then set out on our last day in Vietnam.

Our last day was designated street food day (since at least we’d only suffer traveller’s diarrhoea either on the plane back or in the comforts of our own home). We put that to practice. Breakfast was some soupy pho noodles from a stall snuggled right in the alley leading to our hostel, near the main road. It was cheap and tasty, served with innards of course, and lots of vegetables on the side. Good healthy start to the day.

Then, we rushed off to Sinh tourist to catch our guided tour to Cuchi tunnels on the outskirts of HCMC. You might be thinking of trying to get there by yourself, but it’s near impossible to do so (they only allow visitors via guided tour) and not advisable because your tour guide will be able to give you a good informative session on all the secret hideouts and wonders of the tunnels.

In all honesty, we probably over-estimated ourselves and our ability to withstand the claustrophobic back-bending walk through the tunnel. It’s definitely something you need to do when you’re young-ish and healthy. And I thought the tombs in Egypt were difficult, these are harder!

We only made it 40metres through the tunnels, before the sheer lack of space in there was too much. Also, because you literally have to bend down to walk through it, your face WILL be in someone’s butt. Try not to eat anything that will cause flatulence, and try to walk behind (and in front of) someone you actually like. That said, Cuchi tunnels is the one thing you MUST visit when in HCMC. It’s quite amazing to see all the (direly) clever contraptions of the Vietnamese. They are very resilient, I will say. A good history lesson, it is.

After the tunnels, we hopped on the bus back to the city. The Cuchi tunnels tour will take you half a day; we reached HCMC at about 3pm or so. After negotiating bike rentals (I believe it was USD7 per bike for a day), we set off to find the elusive Quan Nam Giao restaurant for lunch. We failed and decided to make for the Reunification Palace before it closed. Some street snacks and coconut juice were grabbed as reinforcements before we died of hunger.

Warning: their coconuts do not come with a spoon for you to carve out and savour the flesh. BUT, if you really want to have a go at it, you can do it cavemen style (like we did) and try using bits of the coconut as a primitive spoon, or better yet, trying cracking the coconut apart with your bare hands or against the wall, and then eating the flesh off the inside of the shell. You probably shouldn’t try to do that while hiding at a trashbin, behind a pillar, at the palace though. Probably.

The Reunification Palace is essentially where the last pivotal moment in Vietnam’s civil war occurred. Armed with ‘Lonely Planet’ as our guide, we toured the grounds. To be quite honest, after Cuchi tunnels, the palace came up a little short. It was nice to see the old stomping ground of the former Vietnamese President (like his reception room, offices, etc), but all the rooms are basically cordoned off so besides taking a gander, it’s not very engaging. The guys will probably find the tour of his underground shelter and command center a tad more interesting though.

Starved, we headed to Ben Thanh market (which also took a while to find). Ben Thanh is going to be where you do your shopping for coffee beans (I bought weasel coffee that I still haven’t tried), those little Vietnamese coffee contraptions, and well, if you are my mom, you would ask me to buy cashew nuts. Do not ask me why.

In all honesty, after going to the Russian Market in Cambodia, and Chatuchak in Bangkok, I don’t find Ben Thanh market particularly interesting or exotic. I guess once you’ve seen them once, you’ve seen them all, with the exception of Chatuchak. Ben Thanh is really more of an eye-opener for the Western traveller, or Asian traveller who hasn’t been to markets like these before.

So after making our aromatic purchases, we headed straight to the food section. Have you ever had crab meat noodles? Neither have I, so we tried it at what appeared to be a very popular stall (i.e, lots of people must = good stuff). It was good and although deceptive, it is quite filling. They use fresh crab meat too; you can taste it. Well worth a try.

We wanted to explore more of the streets opposite Ben Thanh, but sadly it started pouring and we, being not of the umbrella-toting sort, were forced to retreat indoors to Pho 24 for some dessert and more Vietnamese coffee. The rain eventually stopped and we were able to explore the area. Typical goods are sold such as Teeshirts and such, of which we bought some. Nothing much otherwise, it seemed.


So we decided to give one last attempt at that elusive Quan Nam Giao restaurant. We rode, we walked in one direction, then back in the other direction. On the way, we stumbled across a roadside stall selling noodles, offering shelter under a makeshift canopy. The noodles soup consists of innards, even pig’s blood and is just a tinge spicy, but really the perfect hot piping thing to have in rainy weather. As usual, it’s served with lots of vegetables.

Later, we finally realised why we couldn’t find the restaurant although we were on the right road. Quan Nam Giao is not located just along the main road. Instead, it in snuggled deeper in one of the alleys by the road. A small sign is present, to signal you in the right direction; the sign is easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled.

Quan Nam Giao serves ‘Hue’ cuisine; you can find their address and menu offerings here. We ordered a mish-mash of food- soup noodles again, some fried oysters (or something I can’t remember) thats served with a crispy side. The fried oysters were pretty tasty, but the soup noodles were nothing special, I felt.

After that, we headed back to our hostel for a night’s rest (although not after squeezing in some time for drinks etc). We arranged for a cab driver to pick us up for our transfer to the airport (via our hostel owner) and ended our Vietnam trip with more good Vietnamese coffee and breakfast, and then some very expensive and very bad Viet coffee at the airport (you are warned). All in all, Vietnam was a good trip; hope to go back soon and hit up some of its other destinations (:

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VIETNAM DAY THREE

Posted in Uncategorized by thisisanexperiment on August 22, 2010

Our day 3 in Dalat began early. After enjoying a fantastic hot shower in Dream Hotels’ dreamy bathroom (jacuzzi jet sprays, anyone?), we trooped down to our complimentary breakfast. The breakfast spread put up is really quite incredible (especially for the USD37 that we paid for our room). Breakfast consisted fresh fruits- think mangoes, watermelons, etc- a baguette and all its usual fillings of bacon, tomatoes and the like, coffee & juice, and 2 eggs. Filling, indeed.

After that hearty breakfast, we filed into our rented car for the day (the hostel will book one for you for about USD50-60). First stop of the day was ‘Crazy House’, one of the top 10 strangest buildings in the world. An entrance fee of 20,000 dong (about SGD1.00+) later, and we entered cam-whoring heaven. Crazy House is an actual hostel/hotel, if I’m not wrong. The rooms are themed e.g. Kangeroo room, Tiger room, etc. but overall pretty spacious and comfortable-looking. The architecture of the place is difficult to describe (hence, its’ name), with winding stairs, narrow bridges, steep steps, and holes in the walls.

Crazy House is resplendent with weird-looking statues, random spider webs, gongs and so on that make for good photo-taking opportunities.

Next Stop, the Emperor’s Summer Palace. To be quite honest, the Summer Palace is not as elaborate as I thought it’d be. However, bearing in mind that this was built and lived in by the Royal Family in Vietnam in the early 1900s, I suppose it’s really not bad.

The palace grounds are filled with opportunities for posing with horses and the Monkey God, taking mini-horse rides and so on. Of course, those things come at a tourist price. I chose to skip those frills.

At the entrance of the palace, you will be required to slip on cloth bags over your shoes. It’s a little strange, but really quite a clever idea imposed by the Vietnamese. It keeps the palace as clean as it can possibly be from all that human traffic, and is not surprising. The Vietnamese, as I have observed, are very conscientious about keeping their property and the area around their property clean. Outside storefronts, you can spot store-owners and staff washing the street area (directly outside their store) with water, and sweeping it clean of rubbish. That’s something you don’t necessarily see in Singapore. A word of caution: if you have small feet like I do, the shoe slip might slip off your feet halfway through your tour. And you’ll be left retracing your path to locate the missing slip.

Within the palace, you become privy to the Royal Quarters. It’s nice to take a look, and the view of the garden from the King’s quarter is quite pretty.

Third Stop of the day was one of the temples/pagodas in Dalat. Apologies for I don’t remember the exact name. The area is home to monks, and if I’m not wrong, only a portion of the whole place is open to visitors. The real gem of the attraction is really the tranquility of the area (sans tourists).

Venture downwards, and a path through the trees will lead you to a lake. Not many of the visitors there did this, and it’s a pity for them (but awesome for us). Anyway, walking across the lake will lead you to a few stalls where you can rent a boat or a couple of Swans to pedal out on the lake. Beware, if you have shoes that lack friction (like mine), it’s slippery getting onto the Swan and falling is a genuine possibility. Getting laughed at is also a genuine possibility.

After all that walking and pedalling, ’twas time to break for lunch. Lunch was at another Lonely Planet recommendation- Trong Drong Restaurant. We ordered a number of dishes- a caramelised fish dish, some Vietnamese spring rolls, and a number of side dishes served with a sweet-tangy-spicy peanut sauce that just really hits the spot with all its paired with.

The caramelised fish dish is highly recommended. The fish is very fresh (and doesn’t have that fishy smell/aftertaste), and has a good balance of spicyness. The rich taste is complemented by the Asian staple- white rice. Overall, it was a very, very good Vietnamese meal, and quite affordable, really.

After lunch, we headed to Domaine de Marie, another religious attraction. The church itself and its grounds are pretty, although very recently built (1992). However, it’s probably an attraction you can skip if you’re pressed for time. The plus point about it is that it’s a great vantage point of Dalat.

You can apparently buy fresh produce like Strawberries from the Sisters that live on the grounds, although I did not see any.

Next, we moved our lunch-bloated bodies to gaze upon one of Dalat’s many waterfalls. The attraction offers you a ride downwards to the waterfall, if you’re in a rush, or in our case, kind of lazy. Pay about 30,000 dong for the ride down (and more for a return trip), and you’ll be treated to a pleasant surprise- the ride was unexpectedly fun, like a mini-rollercoaster.

The waterfall itself is not the most magnificent, but still a good sight to see. It’s a place to whip out those cameras and start snapping too.

The last tourist-y stop of the day was Dalat’s Railway station. It now offers 30mins (or so) rides to nearby areas, and has 2 of its old trains stationed permanently at the station for photo-taking opportunities. Or, if you’ve always wanted to examine the engine room/whatever you call it, you can as well. You can skip this attraction if you’re out of time. Entrance is free though.

Afterwards, we headed back to the hostel and asked for a recommendation for a place to get massages. The owner recommended a place about 400m away from the hostel. They offer Thai massage, and various hot oil and hot stone massages at 60mins, 75mins, 0r 90mins. Prices are extremely affordable and in my opinion, highly worth it. I love massages. I don’t however, recommend getting manicures there. Their cuticle cutting skills were rough around the edges, and left my fingers bleeding and hurting slightly the day after. Their nail painting skills are also not much to shout about. All in all, a 60min hot oil full body massage and manicure cost only SGD13.

While we were getting our nails done, the guys went to rent some bikes. We then took a ride around Town, determined to find a affordable French restaurant. We failed on the affordable aspect, but we did succeed on ‘French’. In the end, we dined at Le Rabelais, a place that Lonely Planet advised to cart in wheelbarrows of dong, just to pay for the meal. Our payment experience was not so dramatic, although we did have to pay in a combination of dong, USD and credit card. A 4 course meal costs USD65 each. The dress code here is not rigorously implemented-  I was wearing leggings, an oversized shirt, and Toms with 3 holes in them (on each foot).

The restaurant is gorgeous and located in an equally gorgeous colonial building. Think of its as the Raffles Hotel of Dalat. The starters were alright, and I did enjoy the cheesey sauce/cream and meat pairing, although I thought the vegetable soup (as much as I adore vegetables) was really average.

I’m probably going to get shot by some for saying this, but it was the first time I tried Foie Gras and I liked it. Foie Gras is the fattened/overgrown liver of a Duck or Goose who has been force-fed. :\ Okay, yes even the definition of it makes it sick. However, it doesn’t change the fact that it does taste terribly yummy & was possibly the best dish of the meal 😐  It was served with apple crisp and a side of vege.

My main was braised veal cooked in red wine, served with a stick of beef (or was it pork), garlic bread and a serving of tomato-sauce. The veal was on the tough side; it was a tasty but not very outstanding meal. By the time dessert was served, I was beyond stuffed. That said, I could taste the sweet (thankfully light) dessert through my full stomach. The sweetness of the apples and bananas were balanced with the biscuits, and the sorbet was really fantastic with the surprise of a muffin/cupcake below! Quite a genius combination I must say. Who would have thought of combining a sorbet with a muffin?

That night, we departed from Dalat on a night bus back to HCMC. With seats that recline by quite abit, complementary sleeping pillow & blanket, plus the lack of trafffic on roads(and fast driving by the bus driver), we made it comfortably back to HCMC in 4 hours.

-TBC-

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VIETNAM DAY TWO

Posted in Interest, Life by thisisanexperiment on August 13, 2010

On Day Two of our Vietnam trip, we woke up bright and early to catch a 745am bus ride to Dalat. HCMC (at least in the backpackers district) is a city that sleeps late, and rises early. It was about 7am when we ventured out of our hostel, and the place was bustling with street food stalls, hawkers, and motorbikes everywhere.

Bracing ourselves for what we thought would be a 5-7 hours ride (it turned out to be 8), we grabbed a breakfast baguette & iced coffee combo right from a street stall opposite ‘The Sinh Tourist’. You can choose to take away your meal, or eat it on some plastic chairs facing the road, which is not a bad option for people-watching.

Their iced coffee remains the best one I had in my entire Vietnam trip. It’s bitter-sweet, with a slight nutty taste to it. The baguette is tasty & extremely filling- they basically fill it with meat, vegetables and a sauce, so it’s a good start to my day, especially at SGD2.50! Take that Subway!

We sat on the backrow of the bus to Dalat, which was a really unfortunate thing since it can be quite a bumpy ride up the mountain, and makes it a little difficult to get shuteye sometimes (although I have found that I have this talent of sleeping anywhere that’s relatively clean).

2 stops & 8 hours later, we arrived in Dalat. As a side note, I am happy to report that the toilets at the stop overs were very clean. The downside is that the stopover for lunch only had one option, which sucked and was a rip-off.

Dalat is supposedly known as the Little Paris/Europe of Vietnam. I suppose it’s called that more for its weather which, during the day, hovers at a PERFECT 20degrees celsius (although it gets colder at night). There, we stayed at the highly-recommended ‘My Dream Hotel’ which has 2 branches (Dreams 1 and Dreams 2).

The hostel owner is a friendly and trilingual lady (she speaks Vietnamese, English and French). The spacious hostel room we stayed in was originally meant for 2 but in reality, fit all 4 of us. The toilet is incredibly clean and honestly looked just like a hotel’s. It’s got a jacuzzi shower! And if you want, you can enquire about using the hostel’s hot tub. No pictures though, I was too bus weary.

Dalat’s cool climate means that taking a walk is not a sweaty ordeal, although one will get tired. If you don’t want to explore Dalat by foot, you can always directly rent a bike from the hostel. We checked out Dalat’s market on our first day there; if you’re interested, it’s not too bad, and it’s quite interesting seeing the live poultry, fish, and street food that lines the street. You don’t get that in Singapore anymore.

At night, we headed for dinner at another Lonely Planet recommendation- The Art Cafe. The name is derived from its owners artistic ambitions. The walls of the restaurant, with its prominent bamboo themed decor, is adorned by the owners’ artwork. The cafe is warm and inviting and serves fusion Vietnamese food. The mains are not particularly mindblowing, but the French Onion soup is spectacular. Under a layer of cheese hides a generous, salty, flavour-packed amount of onions. Likes. Very. Much.

Later, we hopped on our bikes and braved the winds for a round of hot drinks and traditional Viet Coffee at a Cafe near the market. A row of pubs/cafes with inviting atmosphere overlooks the slope, so have your pick of any one of them. Vietnamese coffee works by piling on your coffe powder into that simple steel contraption you see. Pour hot water in it, and allow your coffee to slowly drip into your cup. Add condensed milk and enjoy. Beware: it is extremely thick because of the use of condensed milk so make sure you have enough coffee to balance that out.

The day ended with a chilling windy ride through the town/city, back to our hostel. I have a video of it, perhaps I will upload it one day if I’m not too lazy. More to Come!

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VIETNAM

Posted in Life by thisisanexperiment on August 11, 2010

Guess who’s back, back again….It’s me! Here’s a recount of the past few days…in parts of course.

HO CHI MINH CITY- DAY ONE.

Our Vietnam adventure began and ended in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)/Saigon. HCMC’s international airport is clean & modern, and honestly, not the worst I’ve seen. If you need a visa to enter Vietnam, your wait might take a little while though. SGD0.30 will put you on a clean, air-conditioned bus (#152) from the airport to central HCMC. Our hostel ‘My My Art House’ along with tonnes of other hostels is located in the main backpacker’s district at Phan Ngu Lao.

‘My My Art House’ is admittedly a little bit difficult to find. Its’ entrance is located in a back alley, so you will need some navigational skills. The easiest way is to find Allez Boo pub, make a right turn into an alley and find your way through (assuming Allez Boo is on your right). Asides from its slightly mysterious location, the Art House is clean and follows a ‘no footwear’ policy, so take off your shoes before stepping in.

A picture of our twin room & the toilet- simple and clean. If you need drinks like bottled mineral water, beer or soft drinks, you should find it in the mini-fridge in your room, or just ask the hostel owner who’s friendly and will be glad to help you. Free internet usage at the ground floor as well.

A note of caution if you are a shower/hygiene freak like me, the water supply for the bath rooms come from a water tank, so if many guests are using the shower at the same time,  you run the risk of running out of hot water, if any even flow out of the tap. I had to find out the hard way, after shampooing my hair into a soapy state -.- Also, I found the level one toilet to smell abit like poop; that could just be my sensitive nose.

Anyway, the great thing about staying at Phan Ngu Lao is that it’s got a great atmosphere that’s partly created by the locals and by the international crowd of backpackers.

By day, the area is buzzing with activity. Money changers, tour operators, street food vendors and cafes are available for your needs. ‘The Sinh Tourist’ (formerly Sinh Cafe) is pretty reliable and offers many buses and tours to numerous locations in Vietnam and beyond. It also has a money changer inside which offers pretty strong rates- 1 SGD: 13,500 Vietnamese dong. We arranged for a bus (that departs at around 745am) to Dalat there.

If you can’t take a bus that leaves Dalat in the morning, you can arrange for an overnight bus trip back to HCMC (or to other destinations) when you are actually in Dalat, from other bus service operators.

At night, there are plenty of pubs to chill out and people-watch at. A few notable pubs are Allez Boo (which apparently features quite a few hook-ups, if you know what I mean), GoGo, and Crazy Buffalo. We visited GoGo and Crazy Buffalo on Day Four and Day One respectively, and I have to say that the crowd and atmosphere (but not necessarily the drinks) at GoGo is definitely the stronger of the two. Crazy Buffalo tends to play very mambo-like music, so if that’s your thing, the music isn’t a problem.

Nevertheless, both are good places to people watch. If you’re sitting right next to the road, you are going to be facing plenty of street vendors hawking their wares (anything from pirated books to cuttle fish). If you’re interested in taking home some art, there are plenty of art shops/galleries here that do great affordable pop art and replicas. Elsewhere in HCMC, we visited the War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Post Office (which is right across the road from the cathedral). We really should have just taken a taxi to these places, but we wanted to walk. Mistake. Hot, humid and not much fun when you get lost. But, oh well.

The War Remnants Museum is a good visit. A ticket costs about 15,000 dong and will bring you 3 levels of exhibits and a prison model. The exhibits not only showcase weapons used in the Vietnam war, but also provides photographic documentation of the victims of Agent Orange. If you’re easily disturbed, you probably will find the images upsetting. Outside the main building, there is a prison exhibit of what imprisoned Vietnamese had to endure.

When visiting this attraction, it’s a good idea to bring along a fan, just in case the air conditioning is not switched on. It gets especially stuffy on the 2nd and 3rd levels. Notre Dame is a pretty enough cathedral, though nothing particularly breath-taking, in my humble opinion. The Post Office is architecturally picturesque, and its quaint colonial interior is probably what draws tourists. It was fun to pretend to use those phone booths (still functional, apparently), but not much to shout about over all. You could always send out a post card.

Let’s now talk about FOOOOOOD! First food stop was Lam Cafe over at Phan Ngu Lao. Turns out it was a good random choice. I had the Beef Pho, while my other friends had the Chicken Pho, curry and yes, there was a burger ordered by someone.

The beef pho is sweet and I do honestly think it’s lovely. The pho noodles in Vietnam is textured with ridges, which really gives it this fantastic QQ/chewy bounce to it.

But the Star of my meal there is the Strawberry juice and shake. It’s thick and you can really taste the generous amount of strawberries put into it. Yummy.

Dinner was at Pho 24- a Vietnamese chain restaurant- that was recommended by Lonely Planet as the best pho. Our opinion? It was ‘meh’ and definitely not up to expectations, so you can skip it if you wish. The fried Spring Rolls were yummy though, so you can give that a try.

That marks HCMC, Day One. In other news, my dad’s just has his heart bypass operation. So far so good, hopefully it stays that way. Good night, World.