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Archive for Vietnam

5 Days in Ho Chi Minh City

I actually liked Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) a lot more than I thought I would. I thought it was basically going to be a repeat of Hanoi — terrifying traffic, dingy streets, impassable sidewalks. To my surprise, I found HCMC to be completely different from Hanoi in all the best ways. For the most part, you can actually walk on the sidewalks there — they’re not crammed full of parked motorbikes and people eating on little plastic chairs. HCMC is just so much brighter, sunnier, and generally more pleasant than Hanoi.

My first day in HCMC I decided to devote to some standard sightseeing. First I walked to the city’s most famous market, Ben Thanh market. I didn’t take any pictures there, but it’s basically just your typical Southeast Asian indoor market. I’m sure you can imagine what it looks like. I browsed around aimlessly among the narrow lanes for a while and then left.

After that I decided to check out the city’s tallest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower, which has a viewing platform on the 49th floor. The ticket price is expensive at 200,000VND, but you get a fabulous 360° view of the city.

Ho Chi Minh City

When I felt I had soaked up the view long enough, I returned to the ground and headed towards one of the most famous buildings in the city, the Notre Dame cathedral. They’re currently doing some maintenance work on it, so it’s not at maximum attractiveness, but the façade is still as stately as ever.

Directly across the street from the cathedral is the Central Post Office, so I figured I might as well check that out while I was there. I know nothing about architecture, but I can see why the post office is well-known as one of the best examples of French colonial style in the city.

On my second day in HCMC, I paid a visit to Independence Palace (formerly known as Reunification Palace). Honestly, I’m neither a history person nor a museum person, so this wasn’t the most enthralling attraction for me. I walked around the palace peeking into one fancy-ish room after another until they all started to look the same. I wouldn’t call Independence Palace a must-see unless you’re really into Vietnamese history.

The one place I knew I couldn’t miss seeing while in HCMC was the Mekong Delta. Normally I hate taking tours — I would much rather visit places on my own — but since I only had one day to visit the Mekong, a tour was both the easiest and the cheapest way to do so. I stayed at The Hideout (the most popular party hostel in HCMC) and noticed they were offering a one-day Mekong Delta tour for only 230,000VND. That sounded like a good deal, so I booked it.

Well, the tour turned out to be a major cash grab and a reminder of why I hate tours. Our first stop in the Mekong Delta was a coconut candy making workshop. Our tour guide gave us a brief demonstration of how coconut candy is made there, then offered us free samples of the finished product. After that we were given an ample amount of free time to browse around the shop and check out all the coconut-related items for sale. It was pretty obvious we were only brought there in the hopes that we would purchase something.

Later in the day we went to an apiary for a tea tasting which was nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to persuade us to buy the honey that they put in our tea. The tea was just about the most disgusting thing I’ve ever drunk in my life, so I really had no inclination to buy any of the ingredients in it. After a very basic lunch, we had about half an hour of free time to explore Phoenix Island, but it was hard to see much in such a short time. There were some pretty flowers on the island though.

After leaving Phoenix Island, we finally got to do something cool: we went for a ride down the river in one of those little wooden rowboats. Just before getting out of the boat I was in, one of the women paddling it tapped me and said, “Tip money, tip money,” so I gave her 10,000VND.

The next thing we did was listen to a traditional Vietnamese musical performance. Towards the end of the performance, which only lasted a few minutes, one of the singers came around and put a basket on each table in the hopes that we would put money in it. I think a few people tipped, but she took back most of the baskets empty.

On the way back to HCMC, we stopped for 20 minutes at Vinh Trang pagoda. This is a beautiful pagoda, and our brief stop here was probably my favourite part of the day. The pagoda is surrounded by three large, white Buddha statues — one standing, one lying down, and one extra jolly Buddha sitting and laughing.

The next day, I decided to take another day trip — this time a DIY one. I chose to go to Monkey Island in Can Gio Mangrove Forest. It’s not actually an island at all, just a nature reserve that’s overloaded with monkeys. Believe it or not, I had never in my life interacted with monkeys before, so I was super excited to be in the midst of them for the first time.

Since I had no prior experience with monkeys, I didn’t know exactly what kind of behaviour to expect from them. I had heard that they sometimes bite and steal things out of people’s hands, but I guess I was too excited to be nervous around them. I was brave enough at the beginning of my visit to get right up close to them and stick my phone in their face to take their picture. There was a cute little one that I allowed to grab at my pants while I was kneeling in front of him and filming him. I thought it was charming and adorable until he started biting my leg. It was a very gentle bite that I barely even felt through my pants, but that’s when the seed of my mistrust of monkeys was planted. I realized for the first time that these creatures are savages that are not to be trusted.

A few minutes later, a bigger monkey approached me, stood up on his two hind legs, and started grabbing my bag. Decidedly uneasy now, I shook him off and quickly retreated. Later in the day, one of them actually jumped right up on my bag. Not gonna lie — I screamed a little as I shook the savage beast off. Monkey Island was definitely a cool experience, and I’m glad I went, but I don’t know if I will really be able to get excited anymore at the prospect of seeing monkeys.

If you’re not yet jaded by monkeys, and the idea of being attacked by a horde of them doesn’t faze you, getting to Monkey Island from HCMC is easy. Just walk to Ben Thanh bus station and take Bus #20 to Binh Khanh ferry station (about 45 minutes). Then take the ferry across the river and get on Bus #90 headed towards Cam Thanh. Make sure you let the driver know that you want to get off at Lam Vien Can Gio. I think the ride from the ferry station took about an hour.

All in all, HCMC is a very cool city and I had a great time there. I’m a little sad to be leaving Vietnam, and I’m both excited and apprehensive about my upcoming time in Cambodia. I’m looking forward to seeing the country, but I’ve had so many people tell me that the capital city, Phnom Penh, is a highly sketchy place where you’re at constant risk of being mugged. Well, Phnom Penh is my next stop, so I guess I’ll soon find out for myself!

3 Days in Nha Trang, Vietnam

I was pretty excited to finally leave Hoi An and arrive in the beach resort town of Nha Trang. Walking around and sightseeing in a city is nice and all, but I was so ready to be by the sea and sand. I think it must be impossible to be bored or sulky when you’re by the ocean.

On my first day in Nha Trang I walked to one of the city’s main attractions, the Po Nagar temple. The temple was cool, and the view over the water from here was pretty nice.

Nha Trang

After that I decided to walk to Long Son pagoda and the big Buddha statue behind it. The views from the Buddha statue weren’t the most impressive, but I think it was still a worthwhile and easy excursion.

My second day in Nha Trang was actually one of the highlights of my trip so far. I took the cable car across the bay to Vinpearl Land amusement park on Hòn Tre island, where I spent the day going on fun rides and soaking up these amazing views.

If you go to Vinpearl Land, don’t miss a ride on the ferris wheel. The views are incredible, and the wheel moves super slowly so you have plenty of time to take pictures.

Honestly, most of the rides at Vinpearl Land are pretty tame compared to those at other amusement parks I’ve been to. There’s only one roller coaster, and the entire ride lasts for what felt like maybe 20 seconds. Fortunately, I’m not an adrenaline junkie and I don’t like roller coasters, so the rides at Vinpearl Land were perfect for me. They were fun without being scary or nauseating. My favourite ride was these swings:

Admission to Vinpearl Land is not cheap at 800,000VND (price includes the cable car ride there and back), but I think it’s worth it. After all, you’d pay a hell of a lot more than that to spend a day at Disneyland, and there you’d spend most of the day waiting in lines. Vinpearl Land was blissfully crowd-free, and I hardly spent any time waiting in line for a ride.

My third day in Nha Trang was a much-needed beach day — the first one of my trip so far! My hostel was only a 5-10 minute walk from the beach, so it was easy to leave all my valuables at home and head for the sand. (I never bring my phone or money to the beach when I’m by myself, so I only go swimming if there’s a beach within easy walking distance of my hostel.) The beach in Nha Trang is long, clean, and sandy. I almost never fall asleep in public, but I couldn’t help dozing off as I lay lazily on my towel in the sand. When I woke up, my eyelids were sunburned. Beach bum problems!

I wish I could tell you about the nightlife in Nha Trang, but I didn’t really get to experience it. I didn’t arrive at my hostel until 10:30PM on my first night, so I just grabbed some food, took a shower, and went to bed. I went out on my second night with some people from my hostel, but ended up leaving shortly after midnight because I just wasn’t feeling the bar we were at.

On my third night, I fully intended to go out again. I took a shower, put on a dress, and re-did my make-up. As I was performing this routine, my stomach started feeling funny. This was not a good sign, but I was determined to have a fun night out in Nha Trang, so I started drinking vodka and orange juice anyway. Pretty soon though, it became clear that I was way too sick to go out that night. I stopped drinking and just lay down in my bed. I ended up spending most of the night vomiting so violently in my dorm’s ensuite bathroom that my throat was sore and the water I drank didn’t taste right. Surprise, surprise — I was sick in Asia once again.

The next morning I felt fine, and continued to feel fine the whole time I was at the beach. In the evening though, my stomach started feeling off again. There was no puking that night, thankfully, but whatever was upsetting my stomach the previous night was definitely still there.

I left on the train the next morning feeling fine, but wishing I could have stayed longer in Nha Trang. It was so nice to be so close to the beach, and I wish I could have experienced the nightlife more.

Oh well. I’m sure there will be plenty of fun to be had in the next city I visit: Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon)!

A Week in Hoi An

If you’ve read my post about the time I spent in Pai a couple weeks ago, you’ll know that I had a horrible stomach virus that lasted for five days. Well, it turned out to not be the only time I would get sick in Asia. I was healthy for about a week while I was in Hanoi, then I caught a bad cold on my last day of the Castaways Island tour in Halong Bay.

Having a cold is bad enough, but it gets worse. On the third day of my cold, I had a 16-hour overnight train ride from Hanoi to Da Nang (where I would then catch a bus to Hoi An). Shortly after the train started moving at 7:30PM, my right ear started aching. I didn’t manage to get any sleep on that train because I was tossing and turning in excruciating pain all night. When I got up in the morning, the pain had finally subsided but I could still feel that my ear wasn’t quite right. I touched it and felt some nasty earwax-like stuff packed in there. (I’ll spare you the photo of the disgusting dark brown wad that I pulled out.)

Luckily, my ear never hurt again the way it did that night on the train (and there was no more nasty discharge), but I felt some definite discomfort in both ears for several days afterwards. Oh, and I’m currently on Day 12 of my cold as I write this. Ugh.

Anyways. Wanna hear about Hoi An? It’s super picturesque — a world away from Hanoi. Walking through the streets is so much more pleasant here than in Vietnam’s capital. Many of the streets are overhung with colourful lanterns, and the sun actually shines here. My first day in Hoi An was the first time I saw the sun in Vietnam. It never once made an appearance in Hanoi or Halong Bay.

Another thing Hoi An has that Hanoi doesn’t have: a beach! Actually, it has two— Cua Dai and An Bang beaches — but they’re both on the same strip of sand that’s several kilometres long. If you’re on Cua Dai beach and you walk west, eventually you’ll be on An Bang beach. I can’t say which of the two is better; they both seemed equally nice to me.

Although Hoi An is attractive during the day, it truly shines after dark. The only light in the evening comes from the strings of lanterns hanging above the streets and the silk lanterns floating in the water. My phone takes terrible pictures in the dark, but I hope these will somewhat convey the magic of Hoi An at night.

Other than its beautiful lanterns, Hoi An’s biggest claim to fame is its proliferation of tailor shops. Pretty much everyone who visits Hoi An gets at least one item of clothing custom-made. There are literally hundreds of tailor shops in the city, all offering custom-made clothing for a fraction of the price that you would pay at home.

I decided to have a dress made. Before I left for my trip, I found a few pictures of dresses I liked so that I could show the tailors what I wanted. The hard part was choosing which tailor to go to. I had heard that Bebe is widely considered one of the best tailor shops in Hoi An, but also one of the most expensive. I decided to go and inquire how much it would be to have the dress I wanted made. I sat down with a consultant and showed her a couple pictures of the dress. She told me it would cost $100USD to have it made. No way am I paying that much for a simple sundress, custom-made or not, so I thanked her for her time and left.

After that I decided to just wander down the street and pick a tailor shop at random. I didn’t need something super high-quality; I just wanted a cool souvenir. I walked into a shop and showed the lady inside a picture of the dress I wanted. She told me it would cost $35USD. I asked if she could bring that down to $30 and she agreed. She then took my measurements and made a little sketch of what the dress would look like. I paid her a deposit of 500,000VND, then she wrote me a receipt and told me to come back in two days to try on the dress.

I didn’t have high hopes for how the dress would turn out. I knew the quality wasn’t going to be anywhere near the quality I would get at Bebe, and I had a feeling the dress was going to end up looking nothing like the picture.

When I went back to the shop two days later and tried on the dress, I wasn’t happy with it. I wanted to ask the tailor to make some adjustments to it, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was that I wanted changed. I left disappointed, but glad that I had only spent $30USD and not $100USD.

The next day, I decided to give the dress a second chance. After all, people often don’t like their new haircut the first time they see it, right? It usually takes a while to get used to. Sometimes it’s the same with clothes. So I tried on the dress at my hostel, and when I looked in the mirror I realized it’s actually not half-bad. I spent some time twirling around in it and checking it out from every angle, and I came to the conclusion that it’s actually pretty cute. Go figure.

Here I am in the dress:

Besides the lanterns, the beaches, and the tailor shops, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Hoi An, so I decided to take a day trip. I chose to visit the Marble Mountains, a group of five marble and limestone mountains located between Hoi An and Da Nang. Each of the mountains is named after an element (fire, water, wood, metal, and earth), with Water Mountain being the one with most of the attractions and the one everybody visits. I climbed the steps up the mountain and explored the beautiful pagodas and mystical caves dotted all around it. If you go, be sure not to miss Huyen Khong cave. It’s definitely the coolest cave on the mountain.

Hoi An

Huyen Khong cave

Hoi An

Entering Huyen Khong cave

Hoi An

Huyen Khong cave

Hoi An

Huyen Khong cave

Pagodas and caves are nice and all, but the main reason I went to the Marble Mountains was for these views of Da Nang from the top of Water Mountain.

Getting to the Marble Mountains from Hoi An is super easy. Just walk to the bus station and take the yellow #1 bus heading towards Da Nang. The bus costs 30,000VND (at least that’s what they always charge me, but I think locals only pay 20,000) and the ride only takes about half an hour. From the bus stop, it’s only a few minutes’ walk to the main mountain.

To conclude, Hoi An is a very pretty town that definitely deserves at least a day’s exploration. To be honest, I feel like a week is too long to spend here though. I had trouble keeping myself occupied, but my hostel and train ticket were already booked so I had to stick it out. Don’t get me wrong, I like Hoi An a lot; it’s just that there’s not a ton to do there. By the end of the week, I was so ready to leave.

Next stop: the beach town of Nha Trang!

A Week in Hanoi 

Read More →

My Itinerary for 3 Months in Southeast Asia

It’s been ages since I’ve posted anything. Since returning from my 3-month-long Europe trip at the end of August, my life has been just like that Rihanna song: work work work work work.

Well… work and trip planning, that is! I’m heading out in just over a week to spend almost three months in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. As you can imagine, I’m pretty friggin’ excited!

In true Jodie style, I have my entire itinerary planned out in detail and all my hostels booked, weeks before my plane takes off, even though conventional backpacker wisdom says to wing it and figure out your route as you go. (As I’ve said before, I like to have peace of mind knowing that I will have a bed to sleep in, in the hostel that I want, when I arrive in a new city.)

Here’s my painstakingly planned-out itinerary:

Jan. 19: Fly from Toronto to Bangkok (arrive Jan. 20)
Jan. 20-27: Bangkok
Jan. 27: Take the train to Chiang Mai, Thailand
Jan. 27-Feb. 2: Chiang Mai
Feb. 2: Take a minivan or “sawng teeo” to Pai, Thailand
Feb. 2-8: Pai
Feb. 8: Take a minivan or sawng teeo back to Chiang Mai, then fly to Bangkok to spend the night
Feb. 9: Fly to Hanoi, Vietnam
Feb. 9-18: Hanoi (Feb. 14-16 spent on the Castaways Island Tour in Halong Bay)
Feb. 18: Take the overnight sleeper train to Da Nang, Vietnam
Feb. 19: Take the bus to Hoi An, Vietnam
Feb. 19-26: Hoi An
Feb. 26: Take a bus back to Da Nang, then take the train to Nha Trang, Vietnam
Feb. 26-Mar. 2: Nha Trang
Mar. 2: Take the train to Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), Vietnam
Mar. 2-8: Ho Chi Minh City
Mar. 8: Take the bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Mar. 8-13: Phnom Penh
Mar. 13: Take the bus to Battambang, Cambodia
Mar. 13-17: Battambang
Mar. 17: Take the bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia
Mar. 17-23: Siem Reap
Mar. 23: Fly to Bangkok
Mar. 24: After arriving in Bangkok late at night, take the 6:00am bus from Khao San Road to Chumphon, Thailand, then take the ferry to the Thai island of Koh Tao
Mar. 24-28: Koh Tao
Mar. 28: Take the ferry to the nearby island of Koh Phangan
Mar. 28-Apr. 2: Koh Phangan (Full Moon Party on Mar. 31! Wooooooooo!)
Apr. 2: Take the ferry to the mainland, then take the bus to Ao Nang Beach in Krabi, Thailand
Apr. 2-6: Ao Nang
Apr. 6: Take the ferry to Koh Lanta
Apr. 6-11: Koh Lanta
Apr. 11: Take the ferry to Koh Phi Phi
Apr. 11-15: Koh Phi Phi
Apr. 15: Take the ferry to the island of Phuket
Apr. 15-19: Phuket
Apr. 19: Take a 14-hour bus ride back to Bangkok
Apr. 20: Catch my early-morning flight back to Toronto
Apr. 21: Touch down in T.O.

As for what I’m bringing with me, my packing list will be largely the same as the one I used for my Europe trip. The biggest difference is that I will be swapping out a few pairs of shorts in favour of long skirts and maxi dresses. One of the requirements for visiting temples and the like in Southeast Asia is to have your shoulders and knees covered. No way am I going to be one of those clueless tourists who turn up to Angkor Wat in a tank top and booty shorts!

I’m also excited to use the brand-new anti-theft bag that my mom gave me for Christmas. OK, so it’s not the most fashionable handbag ever, but it’s got slash-proof straps and body panels, as well as locking compartments. (If only I had had this bag when I was in Berlin last June, my passport wouldn’t have gotten stolen. Sigh.) It’s even got “RFID blocking slots” thrown in for good measure. I’m not sure exactly how those will come in handy for me, but hey! Cool!

southeast Asia

Locking zippers. Why doesn’t every handbag come with these?!

If you’re interested in purchasing this bag, here it is on Amazon:
Travelon Anti-Theft Signature 3-Compartment Crossbody

Looks like Travelon has tons of other anti-theft bags with varying designs, too, so you have lots to choose from.

As for me, I’ve just got a few odds and ends to tie up before I take off. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be in Thailand!