Monthly Archives: March, 2014

Walking the Streets of the Old Quarter (Hanoi, Vietnam)

Picture3

Rain ushered us to the land of the mighty Vietcongs. The country of Duong Manh Hung, Pham Van Dung and Nguyen Dinh Kien, three of the very few good guys I used to work with back in Dubai.

Like in Phuket, immigration procedure was fast. Being Filipino or Asian who loves to travel, opportunities like this make me jump for joy.  Obtaining a visa is usually a big obstacle for us to travel the world.

In a very recent survey on freedom to travel, the Philippines was ranked 69th. Out of 218 countries, the Philippines have visa-free access to only 58. Thank you to the ASEAN agreement! It makes traveling across Southeast Asia a bit of an ease.

Just at the airport, our limited cash turned us into instant millionaires…in Vietnam Dong!  Awesomely cool having a million in your pocket huh! So that’s how it feels to be one! Until when, is what we’re going to find out as soon as we hopped on the taxi to the city.

The airport is an hour drive to the city. Public buses are available at $2 each but travel time of course is longer. Taxi costs $20 as per the lady at the Information Center. And, having instantly rose to “millionaire” status, we took the cab. Nah! I’m just kidding! We just wanted to get to the city faster as it was raining, we’re starved, tired and unsure whether Hanoi Backpacker Hostel have available rooms for us.

The road to the city is expressway so traffic was not a problem. About 30 minutes later, the taxi turned right onto a service road that led us from one narrow street to another, with old French-inspired houses lining up the streets. We must be in the Old Quarter already we thought.

The rain kept pouring and the fog reduced visibility, yet the narrow streets of the Old Quarter were busy. Throngs of Honda oms (Honda motorbikes) whizzing on the road, rickshaws carrying tourists, vendors pushing their bikes by the road side, others carrying on their shoulders baskets of goods hanging on both ends of a pole, tourists walking in the rain, locals sitting comfortably on low stools drinking bia’ hoi (local beer) on the side streets.  It’s like a normal day for everyone.

The taxi stopped at Hanoi Backpacker Hostel and the meter read VD 281,000. That’s about $6.5 short of $20. At least we know how to do the math next time.

The hostel lobby was swarmed with guests. And yes, they still have available rooms but the rates were not like those of Phuket Backpacker so we braved the rain to look for other guest houses. There were plenty to choose from but the prices were not within MY budget. Well, you know I was the unemployed backpacker here trying to follow her dreams despite a limited budget. (“,)

Suddenly, a woman with a kid on a Honda om saw us walking in the rain asked if we were looking for a place to stay. We said yes. She parked her motorbike, brought down her kid and led us to a small alley to an open door. The room is on the third floor. It was spacious with a window and costs $15, but, I didn’t feel I could get myself to sleep here. Good thing the husband was at the reception when we got down and he offered another guest house that they were managing. Along with one of his staff, we were led to Hanoi Stars Hotel.

The lobby alone gave out a good vibe. Probably because it was well-lit, the receptionist was very friendly and was patient enough to show me other available rooms when requested. This girl and the other staff became our first friends in Vietnam despite some drawbacks later that day. While we are wary of our budget, we valued good relationships more over money. Proudly, Pinoy quality! (“,)

Hanoi Stars is at No. 25 Hang Mam Street, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam. Check them on www.hanoistarhotel.com.vn or contact them at booking@hanoistarhotel.com.vn or (0084) 4 3825 0273.

Note: Except for Ha Nguyen, the dayshift lady receptionist, the other staff, all in their early 20s, are still learning how to speak English. As always, patience is the key. (Phuket Backpacker adds—“yelling will not help!”)

Once our hotel was settled, it was time to hush our growling tummies. It was almost lunch and we haven’t had breakfast yet. We walked the streets of the Old Quarter trying to locate the restaurant that the hotel receptionist suggested. Ten minutes passed but we seemed to be going in circles so we just entered the first eatery we found.

The place was not inviting but we’re starved. We were still checking the food on the glass stand when the lady at the food counter handed us rice on a plate and gesturing something probably trying to ask which dish we would like to have with the rice. She’s fast!

I just pointed on the first dish I could find…sautéed or steamed leafy greens and pork stewed in soy sauce and vinegar—something like pork adobo (but Pinoy’s version is still the best). I asked for soup and they brought me a bowl of cold, colorless, tasteless soup. A sip almost spoiled my appetite. My mind was thinking something else. The pork was okay, the greens was bland, just enough to satisfy my hunger pangs. Having enjoyed Vietnamese dishes prepared by my former boss’s wife who is Vietnamese, my expectations were high. So for my first Viet food experience, I give a star for hushing my rumbling stomach.

While we were eating, they removed all the food from the glass stand and placed them on one table. Suddenly there were women coming in, one after the other, took a bowl of rice, some vegetables and settled on the table near us, and were served a hot bowl of bean curd soup. I was asking my friend, “How come they get something warm and delicious and we can’t?” The older Vietnamese woman must have noticed me that she gestured for me to try the soup. I later realized they were restaurant crew. The soup was good!

We ended up taking pictures, bonding in a way where language was not a hindrance. They were genuine. Another hole in the wall not many tourists bump into. A story worth-sharing in this blog, and a soup worth-bringing the food meter two stars and a half up.

Unmindful of the weather, we walked around the streets of Old quarter.  The buildings here are generally business establishments–guest houses, shops, art galleries, travel agencies, restaurants, cafeterias, coffee shops, snack bars and more. Motorbikes and bicycles line both sides of the streets. Vendors of all kinds ply the streets (even late at night).My hat’s off to that woman carrying on her shoulder a bamboo pole with a basket with a big pot nestled in a portable stove on one end and a basket of probably condiments and vegetables on the other. Here, everyone seemed to be working. Not a single beggar is at sight.

They said it was the low season for tourism (August-September). Rounding the area, however, didn’t seem it at all. How I wish we could have at least a quarter of the numbers back home. I might reconsider not leaving the management of my family’s small guest house if that happens. Even when we took a rickshaw for a tour in the evening, tourists were everywhere. Seemingly, the roads never go empty in the Old Quarter.

Walking to Hoan Kiem Lake in the evening, we were invited by a group of locals (in their 40s and early 50s) having drinks outside a cafeteria. Since we did not want to be rude, my friend agreed to take the shot they were offering. Two of them are having their birthday that day so they are celebrating.  They offered us seats so we stayed for a while, putting up our glasses in the air, forging yet another Philippines-Vietnam friendship day!

The night even drew more crowd to these small shops where low stools and tables are positioned on the side streets and kegs of local beer kept flowing until the last drop. Here locals and foreigners commune. You hear people talking (even laughing) in different languages. Sort of celebration of United Nations Day or World Peace on the streets of Old Quarter!

Picture20Picture17Picture18Picture23Picture21Picture15Picture16 Picture13Picture22Picture9Picture5Picture6Picture10Picture7Picture11 Picture12

An Evening in Bangkok, Thailand

Picture4

We made it to Khaosan area after a 20-minute hilariously tense ride on an “original” tuktuk service from the Bus Station. The driver was just sweeping pass cars and gearing up even before the traffic light turns green. I wonder maybe he was not happy that he gave in that fast to our 200 baht offer, or that’s just how they drive a tuktuk here? Surprisingly, when I handed him the money, he smiled gently and together we did the Thai greeting…with a smile. (“,)

Picture3

Khaosan for me is like the party place in Bangkok but subdued than Patong. It’s a street lined up with bars (some with outdoor live music and others with big speakers), restaurants, inns, shops, food stalls and carts. There were people selling fashionable clothes, bags, knick-knacks and people offering tattooing service, massage and even faking documents. All at reasonable prices.

But more than the gimmick and cheap shopping, tourists crowd Khaosan as it is the best kick-off point to places of interest in the City like the Grand Palace, Victory Monument, Museums near Golden Mount, Chao Phraya River and many Buddhist temples . If you don’t want to stay in one of the guest houses within the bustling street of Khaosan, there are plenty of places to stay in near the area which cater to all types of travelers. We found this newly-opened dormitory type guesthouse a few meters from Khaosan.

Rest Inn has seven (7) wooden bunk beds, very clean shared shower rooms and toilets, with A/C and ceiling fans, and lockers at the bottom of the bed. It’s nice and quiet here despite a restaurant at the ground floor. The Indian national running it and his staff (of various nationalities) are very friendly and helpful. The price is reasonable too. Try working your charms up, you might get a discount. I give them 4 stars for comfort, hospitality and affordability.

With only a few hours to consume in Bangkok, we indulged on a street food trip while walking the streets of Khaosan. From tropical fruits to grilled foods on stick (the mushrooms are lip smacking) to the yummy coconut ice cream sprinkled with roasted peanuts, I suddenly forgot having a very sensitive tummy. BURPfect!

Picture5

Picture6

Picture7

Picture8 Picture9 Picture10

Barely 3 hours of sleep, we had to leave for Don Mueang International Airport.  The airport was too far from the city that the taxi meter reached 275 baht. Paying that much would have been comforting if the driver at least gave out a smile as a gesture of gratitude for getting a 25 baht tip… by force! OMG! He even looked older than my dad and yet not know courtesy. God bless his heart!

It was 6:00 AM and DMIA is already crowded. We were glad to have gotten to Bangkok earlier. The immigration queue was long and our flight is at 6:45. Thank heavens the officers were fast.  Boarding already started when we got to the gate.

(September 25, 2013)

PHUKET, Thailand, the first time

Image

It was a smooth 4 hour flight from Manila (NAIA Terminal 3) to Phuket, Thailand.  The airline have just opened flights to Phuket so we were less than 50 passengers onboard Cebu Pacific flight 5J 937.  That means there was no long queue to the toilet, more leg room, a passenger can even take up one whole row to himself, and a bigger chance to snatch a prize in their in-flight game. I got a green toiletry bag. (“,)

We arrived at Bukit, Jungceylon, the Pearl of the Andaman, at 11:35 in the night, an hour behind Philippine time. We went through immigration in a breeze but getting to Phuket Town was not, and it cost us 550 baht (down from an initial 700 baht offer) on a privately-owned, unmetered taxi.

Phuket International Airport is about 30 minutes drive to the laid-back Phuket Town and about the same to the well-known party place Patong Beach. They do have a public bus to and from the airport that costs 90 baht but it runs from 0630 to 2000 hours to town and 0920 to 1950 hours from town.  I am skeptic though with the schedule because when we were going home, the last bus to town was 1830 hours. Better yet, do check www.airportbusphuket.com or call 076-232-371/086-470-6675.

So if you are planning on a trip to here and would most likely plan on taking the late night flight for a cheaper airfare, you might want to do the math again. You might have the funds but I know you wouldn’t want to spend big just upon arrival right? Unless of course you travel with a bigger group or you meet other travelers going to the same direction and equally share the amount. On a positive note though, even if you get ripped off precious dollars that fast, the car takes you to town or Patong faster than the bus.

The driver was trying to break into a conversation with us saying we were the only passengers he had since he set on the road, saying he has 2 children (don’t say kids, he’d be baffled). While he has a day job, he also works a few hours in the evening as a cab driver to get extra income. He tried to tell us more but his limited English made the 3 of us keep wondering what each has to say or ask. It was our first hint that while Phuket has attracted a lot of tourists for quite some time now, the folks still lag behind in communicating in English. Except I think when you talk about something where money is involved. The basics, Math and English combined perfectly in doing business: “Where you go? Want taxi? Oh bus finished, only taxi! Want motorbike?”  At times like this, PATIENCE is the key. I guess if I were in their shoes, I’d be learning those basics as well.

We reached Phuket Town in less than half an hour as there was no traffic (of course) but went in circles trying to get to Phuket Backpacker Hostel. The street to where the hostel is was blocked and the traffic guy directed our driver to take another route. Had we known that it was only a few meters walk from the barricade, we should have just walked and spared another 15 minutes.

The hostel was dark when we arrived with few candles by the reception. We were told there was an electrical problem and they’re already fixing it. After check-in formalities, we were led to the room by a young, good vibes staff, Art, who kept on apologizing for the inconvenience.  He spoke very good English that we almost reconsidered our earlier impression.  We later learned that he started learning English at the age of 2.  His mom would put him in front of the computer not to play games but to learn English, believing this would give him an edge in the future. Smart mom huh!

As soon as we put down our bags, we went out searching for food at 1:30 in the morning.  My! We were so starved! The town was quiet and the street lamps created a quaint environment of the old Sino-Portuguese style buildings lining up the streets. I must say you feel safe walking the streets here even at an ungodly hour. Even the two bars we chanced upon were subdued.

Finally after 20 minutes, we found an open restaurant. We didn’t care whether it was clean or they served good food. We were dying to eat. Thank God, it was a real treat! It was just hard to communicate what you want to order. So when I ordered for some pork dimsum or dumplings or siomai or however it’s called, I was pointing at the picture on one of the tarpaulins hanging outside.  I was stunned when they brought me a whole tray in different kinds, colors, shapes and flavors.  Good thing I saw these customers seated on a table near us were being served the same and they started to take a pick. Ahh, so that’s how it is done. Happily, everything I picked was awesomely delightful except for the dipped fried dumplings. And the tom yam? Ahh, so yummy, but spicy enough to give me runny nose. They say I can always request “my pet” (meaning not spicy or less). But I guess tom yam is best served spicy. On my first Thai food experience, I give them 4 stars for being AFFORDable and BURPfect!

Unfortunately, the name of the restaurant is scribbled in Thai, but if my memory serves me well– from Phuket Backpacker on Ranong Road we headed towards the Fountain Roundabout, turned left and walked straight to Yaowaraj Road. The restaurant is on the far end. In case you find it, don’t miss their iced coffee.  It was strong brewed coffee with carnation evaporated milk and ice cubes! I tried a few others somewhere during the course of the trip but theirs is the best!

Phuket Backpacker is just next to the market. Surprisingly, no foul smell ever bothered us. As we walked back to the hostel, the market was already busy. There were people, probably farmers and dealers, busy unloading their goods off D-max pick-up trucks. We were, “Wow! Really? That’s cool!”  We just wished our farmers back home also get that much support from the government instead of being exploited by some nasty politicians to enrich themselves.  Phew!

Picture42

Picture2

We only had a day to spend in Phuket as we had to travel the next day to Bangkok to catch an early morning flight to Hanoi, Vietnam the day after. So we decided come daylight to just tour around the Old Phuket Town and visit the Big Buddha atop the hill and save the beach and other attractions on our return.

We set out with no clear direction, no maps, just our cameras and sheer guts. We’re already within the neighborhood of the old town so getting lost shouldn’t be an issue. Plus, Phuket Backpacker is just opposite Thai Airways Company, housed in one of those antiquated buildings in the old town.

History has it that the Old Phuket Town was founded by Hokkien Chinese immigrants in the 19th century following new opportunities in tin mining on the island.  It became a business hub for Indian, Malay, Arab and European traders who exchanged goods for tin and rubber products.  The architectural design of the structures found here is a smooth blend of Chinese characters, traditional Thai art patterns, European classic, Roman era style and Indian art.

At present, the neatly knitted structures were turned into charming souvenir shops, art galleries, inns, restaurants and other business-related establishments, while sticking to its original look.

From Ranong Road we went towards the direction of Yaowarat Road. Easily noticeable here are the large, finely decorated window panes on the upper floors. I’ve learned that this design is a European influence, while the dragon character is very Chinese usually portrayed on the ground floor—the two large windows are the dragon’s eyes while the smaller ones above them represent the eyebrows and the door is the mouth.

We turned towards Krabi Road where we passed by the Thaihua Museum and Kulthida Kindergarten School.  On Thalang Road, we chanced upon a beautifully spruced up old place among the rows of buildings which looked like a mini-museum. Turned out, it was a tourist information center. The lady there was very accommodating. She gave us a well-laid out brochure of Phuket Town, just what we needed for reference.  And “When you do the Thai greeting…,” she said, “…do it with a smile,” and she graciously did before we said our goodbyes.

Image

Image

Image

A pink colored building caught our attention which directed us to the narrow road of Soi Rommanee. I love this place. It has a sweet, fun charm which I didn’t feel in other areas of the old town. I just wished I had my travel girl friends with me that moment.  I’m sure they’ll love it here too. I here giggles and cameras clicking. You bet. This street is the most photographed of the lot.

Image

Picture43

We moved next to Phang-nga Road which houses the Phrom Thep Press Center, the Charter Bank Old Building, the On-On Hotel and whoala, a hole in the wall led us to a temple. The location is barely noticeable. No wonder only 5 of us were there. Clearly off the beaten path! This is why we preferred to explore the town on foot. I later learned that it is a Taoist temple called Saeng-Tham Shrine (Shrine of Serene Light) and true enough, it is easily missed by many!

Picture44

Image

Touring the old town doesn’t necessarily require a guide as the buildings are nicely knitted together. Whichever route you prefer to start from (which is usually where your hotel is located), you will be able to experience the Sino-Portuguese charm of the town.  If you want to dig deeper into the town’s history, drop by the Tourist Information Center or the Thaihua Museum (open daily from 0900-1700 on weekdays). You can always find local guides, tuktuk drivers and motorbike drivers all over town should you really need one. They are all very eager to offer their services. There is a sample fare matrix in the government brochure, but as per experience, rates almost always depend on how good you are at negotiating. As I’ve said, there’s a lot to choose from.

Our afternoon was spent in the market place. It is here where you get a good sense of the local people’s lives. A real drama so to speak–colorful and true! Vegetables abound and so are fruits and ready-to-eat food stalls too! Everyone’s busy. A busy place, but not chaotic. It’s clean and orderly.

Turning Niko off for a minute, I just stood on one side and observed. The locals here are down-to-earth, no frills. They love to eat, not just food but good, healthy, colorful and creatively made food. Seeing how they prepare food ensures a fun, affordable and safe food tripping spree. By the time we finished at the market, it was late for sunset by the Big Buddha. So we saved it for later.

Picture17

Picture32

Picture33

Picture38

That evening, my brother’s good friend, ate Sylvia Munar, who is working in one of the exclusive resorts here, managed to get off work early to meet us. After dinner in town, she brought us to the crazy party place, Patong Beach. No we didn’t go swimming. We instead strolled along the red light district of Patong… just for experience. I am not really a party-goer so to be there is a bit of a shocker. Looking at people’s expressions, even those working in the clubs, you get mixed emotions. Quite an experience I must admit.

Picture15

Picture11

Picture20

Picture30

We settled at Red Hot Club for some good music. The place was jam-packed and it always is said Ate Sylvia, because many love their type of music and their bands. Here we met two Filipino vocalists who had amazing voices—Nene from Cagayan de Oro and Sajid from Bulacan.  As always, the Filipino hospitality is there.  We had so much fun, even singing Jon Bon Jovi songs at the top of our voices. The fun spirit here is down-right opposite the other bar we went to. The singers may have “D” voice, but lacked character. You could even see the difference in crowd. We left Red Hot just before closing time with a huge crowd clamoring for more.

Two hours later, we were snoozing on the bus on a 14-hour journey to Bangkok.  Thank God the bus was not full.

(September 25, 2013)

Getting to Indo-China

Image

Home Bound. A woman belonging to the Flower H’mong tribe heads home with her horse after the Bac Ha Sunday Market in Lao Cai Province, up North of Vietnam.

My head was already working on how I am going to write about this trip even before we boarded the Cebu Pacific flight to Phuket, Thailand. I kept a notepad handy, but aside from important names or new words that I know would be difficult to recall later, I shunned writing my thoughts down while still on the trip because I wanted to make the most of the time digging up new things in a new place. Each new experience is kept in a tiny pocket somewhere in my uber-excited brain…detailed and sterling. I was even able to crop up a title for this blog.

Not until the last leg of our 15-day Indo-China trip when I lost my money to someone on a bus en-route to Phuket while I was so deep in sleep.  So while my head is quite full with various things, I couldn’t get my mind working on it. The once overflowing thoughts ran dry and everything seems a blur. I just slept on it most of the time since I got back. I tried putting up an “I am okay” front but I was all the more cranky than before I left, not even able to sit down and talk about my travel without a tinge of hostility, probably scarring my relationship with my family who worried so much when they knew of what happened, pulling resources and time to ensure I come home safe.

So if you are reading this blog, I want to forewarn you that this is an emotional stuff that is not really cut for a travel writer’s entry which I earlier hoped to pull in. It’s been 8 days since I got back and getting the ball rolling is quite difficult, but I know somehow, somewhere, I have to start writing. And I did…from the end.

Going on a backpacking spree to some far away land with an ‘UNEMPLOYED” status in my immigration card stunned the officer on duty. She quizzed me on a lot of things from where I got my money, where am I going, what used to be my job before I fell on the unemployed category, which school I attended in college, what degree I finished, whom am I going with, what relation do I have with the person, etc, etc, etc.

That was probably 10 minutes. Well, she was clearly JUST doing her job and I, on the other hand, was JUST being honest… a wal-lang chasing her dream of traveling the world.

Ten months since I came home, I’ve been staying with my mom. I was back being the home-girl I used to be after I finished college, tending her sari-sari store (mini-grocery shop), became the resident cook for her restaurant, attended to guests in the family-run inn, did the housekeeping and even took care of the pigs, the chickens, the duck and the dogs since I am most of the time left alone. In short, I was busy, I was working, I was not idle. That means, I shouldn’t be categorized then as “unemployed” should we agree with Thesaurus’ definition of unemployment as being without a job, redundancy, idleness.

But which category then should I belong? Self-employed? Business person? The only business I could claim my own is retailing phone credits to globe/tm subscribers and selling snacks to employees of the local government that doesn’t even rake up an average of 100 pesos daily.

I kept a clean pile of empty bottles, cardboards, used papers and bottle caps from the store to be sold to the junk shop. I even bought our neighbor’s empty bottles to add up to my pile. I skipped the salon and did my own haircut.  I cut back on small things that I know I could survive without, like unnecessary text messages or phone calls. It may not be enough but for me, a little always helps.

My parents, supportive of my dream, harvested vegetables from the farm, patiently carried them on a 45-minute hike to where transportation to town is available, sold them and handed me the money.  Every single cent piled in my travel money bag, including a P100 tip from a French guest for the nice meals and the hospitality he said.

And when I said I have kept savings from my previous stint in the UAE, I was telling the truth.  It was not much and it was supposedly kept for another application abroad, but I just couldn’t shrug off this travel bug. All of these and my siblings pitching in, I believe I was financially able to go backpacking.

Had I gone through all these details, I probably missed my flight.  Thanks to my travel-buddy, Kuya Dave, who is a travel writer and photojournalist, for helping me get through Immigration.  I was not ready for another hiccup at Immigration. I thought having proofs of travel abroad would have somehow stepped up my standing but I was wrong. For a moment there, I missed being an Overseas Filipino Worker as stamping out of the country takes less than a minute with an Overseas Employment Certificate. It makes me wonder how other Pinoy backpackers manage such a situation? If you are one, I would appreciate if you could share your two cents worth on this one.

If only the person who stole my money knew how I managed to realize this travel, would he/she have second thoughts? God bless his/her heart. I am just thankful I came home unscathed, well except for insect bites which happen all the time even while home, that I can still find a way to get back what I have lost.  At least he didn’t get my Niko, my phone, my passport and my cards, and even left me with a few Thai coins to pay for the toilet, a few Vietnam dong and Cambodian riel for souvenir and enough Philippine Peso to get me from NAIA Terminal 3 to my brother’s house in Antipolo.

On a positive note, I got my birthday wish. The wonderful experiences, even this appalling incident and all of the stress come with the package.

Until next time. Remember, no matter what gets on the way, always keep the faith, follow your heart, stay safe and travel light.

(September 25, 2013)

footwork

footwork

Just when I thought I was early for a morning walk along the rice paddies in Ba-ag, Tam-an, someone came much earlier.