We didn’t know exactly where we were going when we stepped off the train in Hue.
I did know that we should head straight into town, which was just a few minutes away, and find ourselves a place to stay. After dodging a few taxi/moto drivers, we paused to adjust our backpacks. That’s when a couple of young guys approached us with a card, encouraging us to come and check out their hotel. “No obligation,” they reiterated several times. Hardened from a month of travel, I was sceptical. Nothing is free!
But for all their exhortations to “come and have a look” at their cheap, centrally located hotel, complete with free transfer, T made the call to go along with them. Into their minivan we went, and surprisingly, it paid off.
At the Binh Duong 2, we stayed in style. For US$12, we enjoyed a huge room opening onto a private balcony with table and seats, a king bed, a bathtub, air con and ceiling fan, even crown moulding. Pretty solid.
As for Hue itself? It was a little dull, to be honest. We decided to skip the DMZ stuff and just check out the Imperial City and a tomb (Tu Duc). There were walks along the riverside, rides over the bridge and around town, a brief beach excursion, a morning at the local shopping centre and some confusion around the parking protocol.
Along with a couple of local Couchsurfers (who backed up our view that the Citadel etc were somewhat underwhelming), I also got to sample amazing local coffee and fresh fruit smoothies, and wander around a bucolic temple hidden away amongst a bush setting, where we spotted a group of monks halfway through a game of soccer.
All in all, a good place to wind down and take it easy.
Tags: asia, travel, vietnam
You might be in two minds about Hoi An, dithering about whether it’s worth a stop or not. After all, it’s not the easiest town to get to.
Sure, there are open tour buses that stop there, and fares are crazy cheap – maybe $10 – but the horror stories online, combined with your experience of long distance bus rides and what you’ve seen so far of Vietnamese roads, might seriously put you off.
The train from Saigon to nearby Danang doesn’t come cheap, at more than $50 a ticket, and a berth split with two elderly Vietnamese women who don’t look overly impressed by having to share with these foreigners and spend most of their time ‘whispering’ to each other. (It’s okay; we have no idea what you’re saying, so covering up your mouths and speaking into each other’s ears without dropping the volume one notch makes zero difference, ladies.) But at least it’s comfortable, and that is (almost) priceless for your 6’2 husband.
Then there’s actually getting to Hoi An from the train station. As per usual, we seem to be travelling the wrong way; the trip to Hoi An apparently costs twice what it would if you were travelling from Hoi An. I’d armed myself with all the information I could find about catching the cheap public bus, but with comfort and convenience in mind, we end up forking over $20 for a taxi.
Once you reach Hoi An, though? It’s completely, unquestioningly worth it.
True, while the ancient buildings have been physically preserved yet turned into rows of “same same” (to borrow a phrase) shops, there’s still an overarching old world charm that permeates.
Women (always women) presiding over their clothing shops and restaurants. Dogs ambling down the streets, or sitting dead still on the sidewalks. Vibrant galleries and bins of broken porcelain. Soothing music piped through the streets, punctuated by late afternoon public announcements that the motorbike ban is about to end.
Cheap delicious food abounds, especially the local specialty, cao lau (noodles). Oddly, the eateries seem to either embrace you, doing all they can to reel you in, or practically ignore you, leaving you to find your own seat and wait 10 minutes for service.
At night, they come out to play. The bridge is a beacon in the dark, packed with tourists jostling for photos and local kids on blades and bikes. Candles, lanterns, and portraits for sale all along the riverbank. Public performances at the corner pavilion. Music from the moored boats, where you might be able to make out singalongs to old English tunes.
It’s all a show, really, but it doesn’t make it any less magical.
My Hoi An recommendations
Where to stay
Phuong Dong Hotel. Book directly through the website. It’s inexpensive yet clean and airy, located reasonably close to the action. Our last hotel in Saigon was meant to have a bathtub but didn’t; finding one in our room here was an unexpected surprise.
Where to drink
Buy drinks from street stalls, your room fridge, even restaurants. For some reason, water, fizzy, and iced tea actually costs more at the minimarts.
We also found a bar along the riverside that sold 65,000 dong cocktail buckets (under $4). Bargain.
Where to eat
Tran Cao Van is home to Lucky Cafe, which is run by Aussie NGO MAD Indochina and works with Vietnamese youth, serving up a mix of Western and Asian food. The menu is massive, though I really only went there for bacon baguettes on T’s behalf.
Across the road, you’ll find the Banh Mi queen, Madam Khanh, who claims to be the best in Hoi An. I went straight there and never had banh mi anywhere else. Freaking fantastic. And for some reason, I got extra meat added to mine after they found out I was from Malaysia. The downside? You won’t be able to stomach banh mi in any other town afterward – inferior versions that don’t hold a candle to the Madam’s.
Around the corner on Thai Phien are some streetside food stalls. I tried two different ones, both of which served up amazing bowls of fresh noodles. Take a look, see what tickles your fancy.
Toward the river, Trung Bac on Tran Phu was also excellent, and be sure to grab a scoop of homemade ice cream at the Art Cafe and Pizzeria right on the waterfront.
Tags: asia, travel, vietnam
I’ve been thinking about waste quite a lot.
It all started when we packed up our house back home. Moving, I find, always generates a lot of waste. Wasted food, or perhaps wasted money spent on eating out during moving. And, of course, all the stuff that you never quite got around to throwing out, that now urgently needs to be disposed of.
After that, we hit Asia, where waste disposal is a work in progress. We don’t have nearly enough public recycling bins on the streets at home, but at least some exist. Not so here. The amount of water bottles alone that must pile up is mind boggling.
As we travelled through Thailand, we saw too many dumps, recyclable materials all mixed in. On Koh Lanta, one of the quieter islands, there was detritus right on the shoreline, marring an otherwise picturesque setting. Rubbish piles randomly dotted the pavements, next to dwellings, even.
Simply by way of being there, we were further bound to add to it all, with our countless empty water bottles (recyclable! At home, at least) and our plastic containers from our (very few) takeaway meals. I really feel that making the tap water drinkable would make an immense difference – both in terms of the health benefits of clean drinking water for all, and in terms of the plastic saved.
Worst of all was when we embarked on a whirlwind four-island day trip, culminating with lunch on the picturesque and remote Koh Ngai, the remains of which would either probably be dumped somewhere there or ferried over to a larger island to be dumped.
In Koh Lanta I briefly spotted a sign tucked down a quiet alley in the township – something about supporting the island’s first recycling facility. The sooner the better, or there may not be a whole lot left worth preserving.
But hey, at least I’ve finally used up all my sample size shampoos/moisturisers. Those sachets have finally been put to good use on our travels.
Tags: asia, environment, recyling, reflections, travel
A few culinary highlights so far:
Steamboat style lunch in Hat Yai (restaurant in the Robinson’s mall). SO MANY KINDS OF MUSHROOMS!
Larb gai (minced meat salad) from a roadside stall in Phra Ae, Koh Lanta.
Thai stirfry and green curry at The Tavern, Koh Lanta.
As it turns out, we were stationed in a pretty good spot at Phra Ae. Palm Beach is down a driveway with about four other resorts, and emerges onto the street among some street stalls and very close to some good eateries. I enjoyed rice and noodles at 50 baht a pop (about $2), for example. Credit also to:
- the very good Indian restaurant, which I THINK was called Little Indra, advertising 15% off while we were there
- The Tavern, a restaurant/bar that serves good western AND Thai food at reasonable prices (T thrived on the big breakfast – 180 baht) and I can recommend – surprisingly – the nachos and stuffed potatoes. Take advantage of their specials, too – we feasted on a banquet of spring rolls, fish cakes, stir fry and curry for 299 baht on our last night.
Tom yum kung hotpot on Soi Rambuttri, Khao San Rd area, Bangkok.
Spring rolls at The Blue Pumpkin, Siem Reap.
Noodles with barbecued pork in Hue.
Fried wontons at Trang Buc in Hoi An.
Hoi An, surprisingly, captured my foodie heart. From the cao lau to my quang (both traditional local noodle dishes) to com ga (chicken rice) and white rose (shrimp dumplings), good eats were to be found everywhere in this tiny town. I could have easily gotten used to wandering over to the street stalls every morning for a bowl of noodles, followed by a spicy banh mi around the corner. I rarely carried my DSLR on these outings.
That said, I don’t think any cuisine will ever surpass Malaysian for me. Laksa. Nasi lemak. Sugarcane. Ais kacang. Soya milk. Sometimes the stuff of childhood will simply never be usurped.
Tags: asia, food, travel
Saigon’s stunning old post office
Traveller vs tourist. It’s an age-old debate.
Tourists, obviously, are the ones who cling stubbornly to the beaten path, wear knee high socks (apparently) and walk around with their noses in guidebooks. Travellers are the ones with dreads, who’ll sleep anywhere, who eat strange foods and learn local phrases.
So the stereotypes go, and so the battle lines are drawn.
It’s difficult to write about this without seeming to come down on one side or the other. But I’m going to try to dive in, objectively.
See, I’ve been pondering the differences between a holiday (or vacation) and travel. Cambodia deeply affected me, and some of the comments on my post indicate that my reflections were somewhat off-putting from the other side.
The way they were phrased got me thinking. No, I wouldn’t say Cambodia is top of mind for most people when they think “holiday destinations”. But what constitutes a holiday?
To me, a holiday is all about hedonism. Sunbathing. Swimming. Eating. Sightseeing. Maybe a spot of shopping.
Cambodia is hot (though I wouldn’t sunbathe there). There’s swimming to be done, though not in the main cities. Eating, certainly, and sightseeing. But Cambodia, for me, was not about holidaying, but experiencing. Taking a step back in time at Angkor Wat. Sampling the local food, which is simple by necessity, but none the less delightful for it. And yes, that includes seeing what life on the ground is like, if only in tiny glimpses.
I knew that I would witness hardship and poverty in Asia. Life is not always polished to a brilliant shine. I can understand why people might not want to see that side of it, though. My mother only likes happy movies; on the other hand, while I find it difficult to watch films about (or that include) terrible things – war, genocide, rape, terminal illness – I also find them to be the most rewarding, when done well. Think The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Reader, Boys Don’t Cry.
Yet we all have to draw the line somewhere. For me, it was the Killing Fields. I couldn’t stomach the thought of laying eyes on human skulls. For T, it was the Cu Chi tunnels, with their decades of bad juju (and I must admit, I have my own deep issues with small spaces). These are must-see tourist sights for most, but as it turned out, not for us.
Getting off the beaten track is something most of us at least pay lip service to. For a moment, I gave serious thought to booking ourselves a river tour, culminating in an overnight stay with a “sweet Vietnamese family”, according to the booklet. Something about the idea felt a bit off, though. As appealing as a local homestay might sound, the forced authenticity made me uncomfortable. (Meeting up with local Couchsurfers proved a better way to connect.) And while it didn’t end up working out, we almost signed on for a three-day motorbike tour that promised sightings not just of the stunning Danang coast from the mountains, but swimming in waterfalls and sightings of local villagers going about their daily lives (hamstrung, sadly, by T coming down with his first serious stomach woes). We missed out on that, but in hooning around Hue and surrounds on a motorbike, we at least managed to see plenty of real houses and real families in passing.
Tourist or traveller? In trying to draw the lines for myself, I came across this gem of an idea from Jetlag Manifesto – that tourists travel to escape the world, while travellers travel to experience the world.
Maybe at its simplest, holidaying is easy, while travel is challenging.
Does that sound condescending? I hope not. I LOVE holidaying. Most of my trips to date have been pure, unadulterated holidays; sunning and funning rate very highly in my books. I genuinely do not see travellers as being inherently superior to tourists. Some prefer the structure and safety of guided tours. Some prefer to brave the local public transport. It’s all about different styles. For what it’s worth, I think we straddle the line, but probably still come down more heavily on the tourist side.
Do travellers have a monopoly on fun? Maybe tourists will never have an ‘authentic’ experience, but does it matter if that’s not really what they desire? After all, in the words of Anthony Peregrine: “There’s no moral or qualitative hierarchy of holiday pleasures”. What matters, as Joel Runyon points out, is that you make your trip memorable. (Amen.)
Only you can decide how to best achieve that.
Tags: reflections, travel
Of all the things I might have expected from my first non-hosting Couchsurfing experience, this wasn’t it.
Out of the blue, I received a message from a young woman called Tam in Ho Chi Minh. She introduced herself as a couchsurfer eager to practise her English, and offered herself up as a free tour guide. Who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth, particularly since we seemed to have trouble ‘clicking’ with the city and could do with some insider tips? It didn’t really help that I’d gotten sick the very first night and consequently spent two days more or less locked up in our room.
We met outside Notre Dame cathedral, trotted over to a nearby park, and parked our butts down on the paved paths to get acquainted. (One mystery solved: she informed us that you need permits to sit on the grass, apparently.) Over the next couple of hours, we did the rounds of a local student market and visited Turtle Lake, where we caught the tail end of a flashmob for International Children’s Day. To round it all off, she emailed through a list of recommendations of things to see, eat, and do later that night.
I think it’s super neat that there are couchsurfers like Tam around, willing to put themselves out there, make new connections, and further themselves. (Personally, I’m a horrendously lazy member. I’m more than happy to host when I can, and we did so many times over the summer, but go out of my way and trek into town just to meet up for a drink? TOO MUCH WORK, DUDE. Come to us!)
With that meetup behind us, we’re keen to try surfing for the time. If any Londoners have spare space between June 20-24, we can offer good cooking and conversation – my profile is here
Our stay in Cambodia was short and sweet, wonderful and terrible. It is a place you cannot visit without feeling something - whatever that might be in your case.
We spent just a couple of days each in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Moving this quickly, of course, inflates the daily budget. We also ate mostly in bakeries/restaurants. But staying at Hak’s House in Siem Reap, while a little bit of a trek from the main streets, provided us with a free breakfast and free mineral water refills from a cooler, as well as a cheap restaurant and easy travel bookings. Here’s how we clocked in.
- May 28 – $221.85 (including $116 for Vietnam visas, $26 for bus tickets to Ho Chi Minh)
- May 27 - $132.13 (including $20 souvenir for T’s mum from the museum)
- May 26 – $125.31 (including $40 for Angkor Wat passes, $18 for bus tickets to Phnom Penh)
- May 25 – $73.21 (nothing notable today)
Full travel day
- May 24 – $144.64 – ($40 for Cambodia visas, $36 for the taxi – an outrageous amount as we were only three passengers along with a Chilean guy, and I oh-so-generously decided we should make up the shortfall as the couple.)
Getting from Bangkok to Siem Reap was, uh, an experience. Read more about that here!
Tags: asia, cambodia, money, travel
I’d been subconsciously dreading this part a little, knowing we needed to line up Vietnam visas before entering the country. Yes, you can buy e-visas online for countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, but when you’re travelling slowly and don’t have a set itinerary, it makes more sense to take things as they come, especially as Vietnamese visas are valid only for the dates you specify.
Good news: it really is dead easy to get your Vietnam tourist visa in Phnom Penh. All you need to do is:
Find yourself a travel agent.
They all do visas. Seriously. Ask around a few different places as some charge less than others. In May 2013, the lowest price for a 30-day visa I could find was $58 (or $55 for a 15-day Vietnam visa). Every single agent said they could arrange a next-day visa. It’s a little nerve-racking, handing over your passport to a stranger, but you’ll get it back in 24 hours with a shiny new piece of paper inside.
There’s also the official embassy, but apparently it costs more and can take longer, and wasn’t all that conveniently located.
On a related note: should you stay in Beung Keng Kang? Well, the area is full of travel agencies; the one we used even had a laundry service. Two birds, one stone! It’s close to Lucky Supermarket, the excellent Tous les Jours bakery, and a ton of other restaurants. It’s also close to the Naga clinic, where staff speak English and T got his stitches out. However, it’s a bit of a hike to the Central Market and the river.
Find yourself a ride to Saigon.
The Mekong Express bus company seemed to come well recommended, and for good reason.
Heck, it’s more like an airline than a bus. You’ll get a free cleansing towel, breakfast pastry and muffin, water, and there’s even TV and wi-fi aboard. The seats are incredibly roomy; it more than makes up for the ominous cracks in the windows and windscreen.
Rather than tossing bags into the storage compartment willy nilly, each one is assigned a luggage tag. (However, they will unceremoniously leave your bags out in the dust when you cross the border at Vietnam customs. You have to pick them up, get processed, put them through the x-ray machine, then get back on board.) Staff make announcements over the intercom, and hold passports for everyone in the group, helping you through the customs process. Expect a quick lunch stop pre-border crossing, where it’s cheaper to pay in US dollars (the baht/dong prices are way out of whack).
Seriously, I can’t say enough good things about Mekong Express. It’s the Emirates of buses.
Tags: asia, travel
As soon as I posted about heading to Vietnam on my blog’s Facebook page, a reader wished me luck.
Eep. I didn’t want to jinx it by saying anything, but I hadn’t had any tummy troubles up to that point.
Sure enough, though, before I’d even finished my first bowl of noodles in Ho Chi Minh, I felt my guts start to roil. I was up off my stool in a flash, ready to seek out the nearest toilet. Luckily, the first stab of indigestion passed quickly, as did the momentary sweats and dizziness.
I didn’t even pause to consider it at the time, but I believe I had a pretty good detox after arriving in Asia. Existing solely on fresh, simple, real food was a treat for my tastebuds – and it also did wonders for my innards. It wasn’t until I had my first bar of chocolate or pastries that I started to experience stomach pains or gas again (TMI? Sorry). I didn’t crave sugar ONCE during this time; amazingly, I didn’t miss the absence of ice cream, cake, and cookies.
Honestly, Ho Chi Minh/Saigon was not wonderful for us. I spent a lot of it lying in bed feeling pretty crappy. It’s fairly international, so T took the chance to get in a lot of Western food. I’m pretty sure this didn’t sit too well with me, and I quickly swore to get back to noodles and rice, which seemed to help.
I wonder how the changes in diet once we hit Europe will affect me … and whether processed foods are going to be totally off limits.
Tags: food, reflections
I can’t remember exactly when I first discovered the round-the-world travel blog community, but much like the personal finance community, one will lead you to another, and to another, and so forth…
Today, I’m highlighting a few of the travel blogs that have inspired and informed me over the past year or so.
Married With Luggage
Warren and Betsy are a total powerhouse, building their own lives as digital nomads, and breaking down their expenses every month. Thoughtful, helpful, insightful.
Traveling 9 to 5
Josh and Caroline take great photos (and are crazy photogenic themselves) that will stoke your wanderlust to no end. While they’ve finished their year-long trip, they’ve committed to creating a new kind of life for themselves.
Hannah left England in 2012 and has been travelling ever since. I love her unpretentious, free flowing narrative style and admire her humble attitude!
So Many Places
Kim and Brian also left on their trip in 2012, though they departed from the USA. Brian has a mean beard and Kim is continually honing her writing chops.
After Sarah and Tyrhone met abroad, they decided to pack up their lives and hit the road. They’ve been all over Asia and are currently in Mexico!
Shoutouts also to two of the couples we’ve hosted through Couchsurfing who are also documenting their own adventures: Noah and Amanda, and Jenna and Blake.
Got any favourite travel blogs, RTW or otherwise, to share?
Tags: blogging, travel