A Year of Travel

2013 seem so distant yet a few hours ago, everyone was celebrating like it is the last night of the world. For instance, I was on my way to Sydney (or the nearest place to be) to watch the spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks. Alas, we can’t even get near Balmain backstreets or get a parking space for people were getting ready to party. The fifteen minute spectacle was viewed in a faraway park with only the upper half of the fireworks can be seen. I knew from that moment, that I will be back in NSW – Sydney to be exact for another run of the NYE celebration.

Another run holds true for the travels I have made in 2013. My travels were more of revisiting the places I have been to in the past. Not bad for some have changed through the years. Some changed after I left. Some changed me.

January was revisiting San Vicente after a long hiatus of field work in the area. It was also a return trip to Ilocos after a long time. It reignited my love for dinuguan (blood stew) with crunchy pork strips and Batac empanada.  February was focused on Siargao for the much needed presentation of the one year work we have done in the island. March is a birthday in Guiuan, which will never be the same again. It was also an opportunity for me to visit Indonesia for the first time. Ties were binded among ASEAN representatives and German colleagues after we were holed in Bogor for nineteen days.

Windmills in Bangui

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Surf Camp in Calicoan Island, Guiuan

Dinner at Bohol Bee Farm

Dinner at Bohol Bee Farm

I am grateful with my work which showers me with travels once a month. Second quarter of the year gave me an opportunity to visit Bohol, Cagayan and Hanoi. Places you learn to love as your own. A stay in Bohol Bee Farm was all natural, including the fresh flowers as salad. Tuguegarao and its vicinities made you realize there is more to Region 2 aside from the Sierra Madre and hot weather. Hanoi was an adventure for it was my first time to negotiate with the airline staff after my luggage was left in Hongkong. It made me realise that I don’t get intimated when going out socially with people from G8 countries. (big smiley here)

Inside Callao Cave, Cagayan Province

Inside Callao Cave, Cagayan Province

Tuguegarao Church

Tuguegarao Church

It was an adventure for the women in the family when we all visited Hongkong in the height of Typhoon Utor. The storm signal no. 8 didn’t deter us from walking along Mongkok, Nathan Road, Disneyland and Lantau Island. I wish to have more trips with Nanay and Lyn in the future. After Utor/Labuyo, it was all habagat on my way to Legaspi City. Thankfully, Mayon Volcano welcomed our LGU guests with open arms (and beautiful view of the cone).

Night Market in Hongkong

Night Market in Hongkong

Magayon na Mayon, Legaspi City

Magayon na Mayon, Legaspi City

The last quarter of the year was a roller coaster ride. I experienced first hand the magnitude of Typhoon Haiyan when I was in Tacloban on the day it made landfall. I endured the nite of sleeping in cold floor, the day with minimal water to drink and the long and depressing walk out of the city. No interviews, photos and videos can describe the fear I felt from 7.30 AM to 9:00 AM on 8 November 2013 in Algo Homes in Tacloban City.

What was left of everything after Haiyan. San Jose, Tacloban City.

What was left of everything after Haiyan. San Jose, Tacloban City.

George River in NSW, Australia

George River in NSW, Australia

As they always say, there is a rainbow after the rain. What a big rainbow indeed! Christmas and New Year were spent in Australia after months of dreaming of coming back. I remembered posting that I wanted to go back there in the midst of summer. Look, I was there when Sydney reached 40s. My three week stay in a suburb, faraway from home, was an eye opener. I realize that wherever you place me, I will find a way to see the sights. I will always be a wanderer by heart.

Happy 2014! More opportunities to get lost!

Made for long walks.

Made for long walks.

HCMC : Sweet as Condensed Milk

The long wait is over! After almost 10 months of preparing and researching, the much awaited backpacking trip came into fruition.

Six  hours of waiting plus flight time after,  the taxicab driver welcomed us in Tan Son Nhat International Airport with a signboard that was hard to miss. Being in the said airport just 3 weeks earlier, getting lost was not an option since I am very familiar of the nooks and cranny of the newly minted aeroporto (almost 10 hours of layover last time allowed me to explore the spaces). I think that HCMC is well prepared for the deluge of tourists arriving in their city.

Oh, the places  to stay!

Our hotel is located in the backpackers area in District 1, in between Pham Ngu Lao and Vu Dien. Being distinctly Vietnam, floor area per story is small but establishments (or in our case, hostel) can go as high as 4th floor.  Picking out a place of rest in Pham Ngu Lao was  a wise decision. It is a walking distance to everywhere – from the parks, Cho Ben Thanh (the famous market) to pubs and restaurants to coffee shops and bakeries.

One has a choice among high end, mid range and affordable yet comfortable types. Being in the backpacking area, affordable yet comfortable are the buzz words. Guesthouses, houses turned hostel and little hotels line up Pham Ngu Lao and Vu Dien streets. Hostels  generally provide free breakfasts which most likely consist of baguette, butter, jam and scrambled egg plus coffee and/or juice. Can’t say no to free breakfast, no? One has to note, though, that their 1st floor is actually a second floor. The first floor is really a garage slash dining area or receiving area, so be prepared for a long climb especially if  you end up at the 4th floor. Oh yeah, do leave your footwear by the stairs on the 1st floor, it’s customary.

Oh, the sights to see!

Ho Chi Minh connotes Vietnam War, Cho Ben Thanh, Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral and a whole lot more. One never runs out of places to visit in the city. Ben Thanh alone needs almost a whole day for those buying sprees of anything Vietnamese (hello, ref magnets, bangles, lacquer sets and wallets) and TNF and Kipling bags. If the market closes on you by 7 P.M., a night market will open beside Ben Thanh by 9 P.M. for uninterrupted shopping again. When I checked out the prices, they increased a bit but still cheap.

Notre Dame Cathedral

For history buff, however, the sights within District 1 is enough to satiate the historical craving one got upon stepping in the city. Unfortunately for me and my BFF, we never saw the shadow of the The Reunification, City Hall or Opera House. Boo-hoo for us! We made up for it, however, on the morning before we left for Cambodia. We took a short drive to Notre Dame Cathedral to gawk at its structure and color. Beside it, lo and behold was the Central Post Office. How lucky can we get?  We got to see a building designed by Mr. Eiffel!

Central Post Office

HCMC = Cu Chi Tunnel. This is the reason why we are in HCMC : to see, feel and experience Cu Chi Tunnels. Going to the area is a 2 hour bus ride passing through rural Vietnam. Dusty roads , rustic interiors followed by a rubber plantation – these are the sights on the way to Cu Chi.

A visit to the Handicap Handicrafts before Cu Chi Tour

Spider hole with Ty

As a background, Cu Chi is an underground system of tunnel with numerous levels and spread like a cobweb over 200 km. It became the base of the Cu Chi District Party which resisted the Americans. It was a place to sleep, eat and socialize ( if there is such a thing back then).  One can not fathom how the Vietnamese lived in tiny spaces for a long time, alluding American soldiers.

Entrance to a tunnel

Booby trap

I’m crawling down

Oh, the things to do!

Take a tour to Cu Chi, I must say. Our group was lucky to have Ty as our tour guide for Cu Chi. He is young, hip and funny. With an accent to boot! There was never a dull moment with him, for sure.  The tour, btw, was arranged through the hostel and the guide will pick each member of the group in their respective hostels. It was a half day tour composed of  looking and going into the holes Cu Chi people made, looking into traps (foot trap, body trap, leg trap—name it, they invented one), going through a portion of the tunnel and shooting real guns (for a fee, that is).

The highlight of the tour was walking inside the teenie weenie tunnel for good 25 meters in the actual tunnel size! Not the one adjusted for tourists. Thanks to Ty, he suggested to get into the actual one to experience the real thing and avoid the long line atthe tourist tunnel. WTG, Ty!

Another must do has something to do with a motorbike. No, it is not crossing the busy streets since one can get the hang of it. It is actually riding one! We were supposed to join the VespaAdventures that will tour the city at night via Vespa but it was too expensive at 75 bucks each. The next best thing came through the disguise of manong that took us to the Notre Dame via motorbike. Yes, it is like riding a habal habal. Yet, the new thing was that we were in Vietnam and manong drives like he is in a motorcycle race! Whew! It was an exhilarating yet exciting experience.

Joyride

To be authentically Vietnamese, take a sit at those low chairs, face the road and drink some iced cold coffee. Yes,the ultimate killing time moment. It is nice to see the world go by while finishing up  those last drops of sweetened milk.

Oh, the food to eat!

Similar to Ha Noi, one can get a fill of hot pho, banh mi and ca phe anytime one craves for some Vietnamese food. Added to the list, though, is the savory fried chicken with golden bread (a fried bun similar toasted siopao bun) sold outside Cho Ben Thanh. Partnered, with Saigon Beer (What else?!), it is the best beer match in this side of Viet Nam.

Bunsof chicken

Buns of chicken

Or something fried like the spring rolls can make for a relaxing meal.

Fried spring rolls in one of the foodstalls at the night market

Fried spring rolls in one of the foodstalls at the night market

One can never have enough of Ho Chi Minh. The hustle and bustle of downtown Saigon and the rustic feel of the countryside maybe worlds apart but in this city, you will gladly embrace the idea that they are made for each other. The tandem makes HCMC one of  the must visits in South East Asia.

Comfort of Dalat

Dalat in Lamdong Province is unheard of among the many cities of Vietnam.  It was question marks all over when I was asked to go there for a workshop. All I know is that it gets pretty cold in the area. Reminds one of Baguio City.

Welcome to the middle of nowhere. Dalat City is still 30 minutes away.

On the way to the city

Pine trees are everywhere. Feels like you’re in Baguio.

As I was facing a personal low that time, it was also a difficult decision to proceed with the said travel. For some reason, I think, that being in Dalat helped me in dealing with the loss of my father. The place comforted me like a blanket in the cold night. It brought serenity and somehow, I felt so close to Jesus. Maybe it was the church that I see everytime I look at the window. Or the quiet streets and rains while I walk along the pine tree-lined sidewalks. All I know, Dalat will be a special place among the destinations I’ve been.

The Catholic Church from a far

Canal near the hotel

Hot pho in a cold night

Night time in Dalat

 

 

Cruising through Hanoi

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My two-day stay in Hanoi was not really enough to explore the temples (did not have a chance to visit one) or marvel at the whole Old Quarter (it was more of get lost in the Silk Street) but I made most of my free time feeling the city.

Watch out!

Wow, Do they love their motorcycles? It really didn’t matter if you are dressed in skirt or wearing shorts because motorcycles can really get you from point a to point b pronto. Saying that, one must be careful in crossing the streets. Being good navigators, drivers mastered the way of avoiding pedestrians. Just don’t panic when you see swarm of Vespas going your way.

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Hoam Kiem Lake

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Pho, banh mi and coffee

There are three foods that Viet Nam is famous for : rice noodles or pho, coldcut sandwich or banh mi and Vietnamese pressed coffee.

Pho is your typical rice noodles similar to the noodles used for pad thai. The difference is that the noodles swim in a bowl of tasty broth with a hint of cilantro, spring onions and red hot bell pepper. Srachi sauce and lemon are optional. You can pick out from three proteins to go with the noodles – chicken, beef or ground pork. One can get this from the swanky restos in the Old Quarter or the stalls at the nearest side street.

The true pho experience, however, is eating it on the side street with the rest of the common tao. The makeshift tables, plastic soup spoon, sweaty forehead and all, make slurping pho away an unforgettable dining experience. It didn’t matter that I had to do some kind of sign language while conversing with manang tindera for the type of pho that I want.

Cold cut sandwich reminiscent of cold heros is very Vietnamese if one is eating it with their baguette. Unlike the French counterpart of the bread, their baguette version is not as makunat as one can imagine. And one can buy this from vendors hawking them on their bicycles. Such a treat because it is like their version of pandesal at 12 pesos for a 6 inch bread! As for the spread, one can have the pate spread, chicken strips or ham over a bed of lettuce. Did I mention cheap and healthy?

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Dark  rich coffee that can really kick your ass. It can awaken the senses ala barako but it is best savored with condensed or fresh milk. The taste shouts pressed style, the Vietnamese way.

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You definitely have to forget all your imported high end coffee shops because in Hanoi, it is hip to sit on those low chairs sipping hooooot coffee.

Overruns overload

Viet Nam,lately, is also synonymous to Northface, Kipling and Samsonite at very low prices. Funny thing is that when we were looking at these stalls, there was only one toursit couple I saw buying the goods (probably for their backpacking trip up north) but met alot of pinoys. Are we the only one so into export overruns? One thing for sure, you will get a TNF Borealis at 80 percent off the original price. Be your own quality control when buying them, though.

Feel French

Being colonized by France, it is but logical that there are parts in the city that shouts French. And I am not referring to the bread or the fries (hehehe).

There is the Old Quarter which houses alot of buildings reminiscent of France with ornate facade and large columns. And these buildings house cafes, cosmetic shops, boutiques and all. Aaaah, and the lighting inside these stores add to the drama.

The grand Opera House and the rotunda ala Arc d Triomphe (based on my Vietnam 101) are the ultimate influence. Yellow and all, you will be in awe just like I did when I saw them.

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VIet Nam has a lot to offer aside from the food and the overruns. There are temples to explore, Halong Bay to pay homage to and all the historical places in Ho Chi Minh. One thing for sure, I will be back. Maybe soak in the Vietnamese culture, dip my feet in Halong Bay and crawl my way in Củ Chi tunnel. In between, I’ll still be sippling coffee and eating pho on those low chairs.