The unofficial update page for Lonely Planet Vietnam (10th edition)

Bicycling girls

Last year, I spent October and November in Vietnam, to research and write three chapters for Lonely Planet Vietnam (10th edition, published in July 2009).

Naturally, some things have already changed. Currencies fluctuate, businesses relocate or close or are renamed, and, well, stuff happens.

So I've decided to keep a little laundry list here of errata and updates to my chapters: North-Central Vietnam, Central Vietnam and Central Highlands. All the information here has either been verified by me in person or comes to me via a trusted source (e.g. a business owner whom I've met in person before). I'll maintain this list until Lonely Planet commissions the next edition of the Vietnam guidebook. It's an unofficial update page because absolutely nobody is paying me to do this.

The following notes apply only to the 10th edition of Lonely Planet Vietnam, which was published in July 2009. The italicised date in parenthesis at the end of each note indicates when I learned of the erratum or change.

  • p 246-247: On the map of Hoi An, the shop Tuoi Ngoc (#88) is in the wrong location. It should be at 103 D Tran Phu, in grid square C3 (6 November 2009).
  • p 322: Dreams Hotel (151 D Phan Dinh Phung) in Dalat is missing the "Our Pick" icon, due to a production error (31 July 2009).
  • p 202: The admission fee to Phong Nha Cave is now 30,000 VND (2 April 2009).
  • p 217: Stop and Go Cafe in Hue has moved around the corner to 3 D Hung Vuong, just before Trang Tien Bridge. The phone number is unchanged (8 November 2009).
  • p 247: There is a new bimonthly English-language magazine in Hoi An, Live Hoi An Magazine, that has listings for restaurants, culture and activities (5 November 2009).
  • p 257: The restaurant Casa Verde (99 D Bach Dang) in Hoi An now has a website: http://www.casaverde-hoian.com (23 June 2009).
  • p 258: The jewellery shop Lotus Jewellery in Hoi An has moved to 82 D Tran Phu, which is near the Museum of Trading Ceramics (#31 on the current map). It also has a website: http://www.lotusjewellery-hoian.com (22 December 2009).
  • p 339: There is a new tourist agency in Kon Tum called Highland Eco Tours (150 D Ho Tung Mau, +84-60-391-2788, [email protected]). It is operated by Mr Huynh, a long-time tour guide in the region who used to work for Kon Tum Tourist (13 August 2009).
Last updated 23 November 2009.



The quick Hoi An getaway

Vintage Hoi An

Oddly enough, it was only on our last day in Hoi An that we managed to track down a cafe giai khat in the Old Town, where we could park ourselves on child-sized chairs and dawdle over Vietnamese drip coffee. The cafe was less than two blocks from our hotel, yet we had never noticed it all this while.

Local-style cafes aren't easy to find in Hoi An's Old Town. You can't pass a street that doesn't have a tourist-friendly cafe --- you know the kind, occupying a restored Old Town house with street-facing bamboo chairs, free wi-fi and a menu that offers croissants alongside cau lau. But for local-style places, you usually have to head north away from the river, towards Hoi An's other market and into the neighbourhoods with com ga (chicken rice) stalls and karaoke joints.

I didn't do much of that traipsing this time. The restaurants I was writing about were all in the tourist-accessible Old Town, and the rest of the time I mostly lolled about in a cafe or a bar. If you missed my Facebook status updates, they were (in chronological order):
Wednesday, 4 November
[Tym] is in rainy Hoi An, where there's a starfruit tree outside her window and Christmasy lights at the restaurant across the street.

Thursday, 5 November
[Tym] is falling in love with Vietnamese salads all over again.
[Tym] is watching the river rise over shots of Vietnamese rice wine at the Sleepy Gecko.

Friday, 6 November

[Tym] is off to a 'death anniversary lunch' – I honestly have no idea what this will involve, besides Vietnamese food of some kind.

Saturday, 7 November
[Tym] is on a passionfruit binge in Hoi An. So far: chocolate chip semifredo, cheesecake and juice. (Not on the same day.)
[Tym] is going to a Vietnamese wedding. No idea who's getting married, but it seems there will be heaps of food, rice wine and extremely loud hip-hop music involved.

Sunday, 8 November
[Tym] has had Vietnamese coffee, Italian coffee, Vietnamese red sticky rice liqueur and heaps of passionfruit juice – and it's not even 3pm yet.

Monday, 9 November
[Tym] has had her last bite of banana flower salad, last gulp of Vietnamese coffee and Biere Larue, and last inhalation of scorching hot air in Hoi An. Next stop: Danang, then Singapore.
Yeah, I mostly drank passionfruit juice, Vietnamese coffee and Biere Larue, and stuffed myself silly with salads.

Labels: , ,


Three days later

Washing the mud off

Been busy eating and drinking and catching up with friends. Hoi An is as charming as it was last year, despite the intermittent rain we've been having, and the food is even more splendid than I remember. I'm thinking I need to start running food tours here --- sign up in the comments if you're interested.

So far on this trip, in between restaurant visits and chilling out in cafes, I've attended a "death anniversary lunch" (i.e. commemorative feast for deceased ancestors) and a Vietnamese wedding (i.e. feast for the wedding couple). The home-cooked food has been great --- who knew that bun and beef stew could taste that good --- as has the exquisite restaurant fare, and I'm wondering why I don't just move here so I can have tip-top meals round the clock.

Labels: , ,


Right place, right time

There should be some kind of alluring photo of Hoi An here, but the only photo I've taken today is of the cool gadget charging station at Changi Airport. When we got to Vietnam it was grey and rainy, and though we went out and tramped the wet and sandy streets of Hoi An anyway, it wasn't a good day for pictures.

What I really wish I had a picture of, is my expression when I exited Danang Airport. I was peering at the row of men holding cards for the guests whom they were meeting --- and then I spotted, of all people, a friend I had made in Hue last year. A handshake turned into a hug and several moments of my usual rapid-fire chattering. He was there to pick up some guests arriving on the same flight as me, which is pretty random since he doesn't get a lot of custom from Singapore. Hue is also a good two hours from Danang, so he doesn't make the trip down very often.

The sheer serendipity of the meeting left me sitting rather stunned for most of the car ride from Danang to Hoi An. What a great way to arrive back in Vietnam.

Labels: ,


So, about Vietnam ...

Hot off the press

While I was triaging 7 weeks of snailmail on Thursday, I found a chunky package wrapped in white paper (rather than an envelope) with my name and address scribbled on it. I ripped it open as if it were a gift, and it practically was, because the package turned out to be the new 10th edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook to Vietnam.

Of which I wrote three destination chapters: North-Central Vietnam, Central Vietnam and Central Highlands. If you're interested in glorious landscapes, history, the American War in Vietnam, minority groups and cool weather, those are the chapters you'll wanna read first.

On Friday night:
Suzie: how chuffed are you!
ME: very chuffed
ME: i kinda pull it out in a pai sei way to show people
ME: but then they are chuffed, so i am more chuffed
The book doesn't hit stores till July, so if you were planning to pick up a guidebook to Vietnam in the next couple of weeks, hold your horses till you see this one. The new edition has a cover photo with conical hats (predictable, I know) and basket boats on a river. Or buy it here at LP.com.

Meanwhile, I'm toting my first copy around in a protective Ziploc bag, to show to all and sundry.

Labels: , ,


I forgot how much I hate Windows

... till I started using a HP Mini today.

The machine itself is great. I had it in my bag for most of this afternoon and evening, and didn't feel the weight at all. It runs pretty fast, and while the keyboard takes a little getting used to, that's mostly to do with the placement of my hands with respect to the touchpad; the size itself is fine.

Now if only these machines could run OSX. I also miss Adium. Miranda looks positively like ICQ circa the late 1990s.

But all in all, I ain't complainin'. The nice folks at Edelman Singapore were nice enough to rustle me up a loan unit for the next few months, so I can bring it to Korea and not have to lug the Macbook everywhere. The latter held up very well against the rigours of on-the-road travel in Vietnam, including being bumped in a backpack against some rocks during an unexpectedly steep descent at Cuc Phuong National Park and enduring the rough vibralto of many motorbike rides throughout the entire trip. But my back and shoulders will be grateful for not having its weight bear down on them every. Single. Day. of the next trip.

So now I have one sparkling white Macbook and one snazzy black HP Mini. And a white cat and a black cat. Can we say photo op?

Labels: , , , ,


The Top Gear take on Vietnam

I finished writing the first draft of my Lonely Planet text last night, so it was a good time to watch the Top Gear: Vietnam Special, which turned out to be an excellent episode of travel TV and made me want to hop on the back of a motorcycle in Vietnam again.

Big welcome to Phong Nha

But let me tell you: never mind the show's premise that they weren't travelling fast enough to meet the 8-day deadline to reach the finishing line at Halong Bay. The real reason they took a train from Hue to Hanoi is because there is nothing very interesting between Hue and Hanoi. I should know, I'm writing an entire chapter on that region.

I'm not a huge fan of Top Gear like, say, G-man, but this was a good episode. Also a great PR exercise for Vietnam. I fully imagine that legions of fans are going to show up in Halong Bay looking for Ba Hang Bar and in Hoi An to make zoot suits.

Labels: , ,


On the tourist trail, then off again

Pose in front of the emperor's tomb

I've been plugging away at the writing since I got through the unexpected move and banged through Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot in about a week. If that sounds like a lot, it is: Hue, Danang and Hoi An comprise about half my total word count, while writing about Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot takes some diplomatic finesse because of how murky things are in the highlands (the social-political relations, not the air or the views, which are great).

Here's some of what I can't squeeze into the book about each town:

Hue (pronounced 'hway' or 'way', not 'hue' or 'huey') was where I first started to overdose on cultural sights. There's only so many imperial whatsits you can look at in a day before the ironic voice in my head withers in fatigue. I've never been one to diligently work through all the royal doodads that any culture puts on display (that's why I spent most of my time at Versailles lounging in the royal gardens rather than meditating on the royal fripperies), but now that the job called for it ... Well, I sucked it up and did it.

I don't like to play favourites, but I will say that of all the imperial tombs I liked the crazy Khai Dinh construction best, mostly because it seemed the least traditionally Vietnamese after all the others I'd seen. Also, I saw it around lunchtime, which is why its blazing blackness is forever seared into my memory.

This be Danang

Danang was great because it was a regular non-touristy city and every expat I met there loved it for being a regular non-touristy city. It's always been panned in previous editions of the guidebook, but I give it a big thumb's up. When you can walk for blocks without a single person trying to hawk you a postcard, conical hat or xe om ride, that's a precious thing.

Also it had excellent Vietnamese food. I'm not crazy about the local noodle speciality mi quang, so I went marginally upmarket and hit all these neat little Vietnamese restaurants instead. Writing the Danang restaurant section was hard last weekend when I was stuck at the laptop without a hearty meal within reach.

Lights for sale

Hoi An I didn't like when I first met it. Too quaint, too much like a movie set and too many damn tourists. After Danang --- when locals would do a double-take at seeing me pass them on the street and I wouldn't see another foreign face for hours unless I popped into Bread of Life or Bamboo 2 Bar --- Hoi An seemed like some purgatorial outpost wherein I'd been cast to test my patience with relentless street sellers --- "Hey you! Come here!" --- and bellyaching tourists.

Then I met some really lovely people. Then I heard some really lovely stories (personal ones, that don't get disclosed here or in the guidebook). Then I figured out that "Hey you!" is a direct translation of the Vietnamese term for addressing a stranger (the way in English you would say "Excuse me"). Then I lingered in Hoi An longer than I'd planned to --- also because Yan Wei joined me and hey, who am I to deny her a few days of Hoi An magic (especially since we spent most of our time out of town)?

I'd go back to Hoi An in a heartbeat now, mostly to hang out and eat lots of fabulous food (Morning Glory, Mango Rooms and Casa Verde, I'm lookin' at you). But not cao lau. I don't care if it is Hoi An's pride and joy, it just doesn't do it for me.

Kon Tum Village rong house

Kon Tum, then, which was very dusty and very poor. These are towns in Vietnam that you visit not for food or nightlife or ancient relics, but because they've got exotic minority (read: marginalised) villages in the area. These are places where you smile at the kids but keep them at a distance because how on earth can anyone do enough to help them all. I felt growly inside when we saw a packed tour bus leaving a "popular" orphanage and later a foreign couple dropped in on the orphanage's nursery with their guide to cuddle some poor babies (though I was a drop-in too, even if I did forbear from the cuddling).

I still feel growly. Ask me about it some time.

Reach for the sky

Pleiku was like the older sibling of Kon Tum, with slightly better but not necessarily trendier clothes. We found a cool cafe to hang out in and Yan Wei picked up a fan (the kind that wants to practise her English with us) at the market, which led to an earnest but awkward hour spent in that same cafe.

Buon Ma Thuot (pronounced 'boon me tote') had no good restaurants. All our sightseeing outside the town was great, but when we got back and had to scrounge up dinner --- well, let's just say that 'scrounge' is appropriate because there really wasn't much to pick from, even including street food options. You know a town is lacking in dining options when even our well-informed tour guide couldn't recommend us a place.

I knew a suspension bridge would be involved

I'm skimming over the details, of course, but I have to conserve my strength for tomorrow's writing. One more major town to write about, then I switch into editing and cutting-text-to-meet-the-word-count mode. I hope I've set aside enough time for that.

Labels: ,


A war zone, once

Tam Toa Church

I've spent the better part of this week writing about Dong Hoi, Dong Ha and the DMZ, which means I've spent the better part of this week getting a crash course in the Vietnam War/American War in Vietnam/the Second Indochina War/the quagmire that the war in Iraq is constantly being compared to.

(We're calling it the American War in the guidebook.)

All you really need to know is this:
  • Dong Hoi is the town immediately north of the DMZ that got pretty much shelled to bits by American bombing because it was the town immediately north of the DMZ (and hence used as a main staging area by the North).
  • Dong Ha is the town immediately south of the DMZ that also got pretty much levelled thanks to its proximity to the border.
  • The DMZ is the demilitarised zone that used to be a highly militarised area pockmarked with US bases, but almost everything was stripped by the Americans when they left or picked apart by successive militaries or people scrounging for scrap metal.
In short, none of these towns look very much like what war veterans remember, and a layman would have to really use his/her imagination to get something out of seeing these places. Not that I'm saying one shouldn't visit or respect the memory of what happened there --- just don't expect it to look like a scene out of a Vietnam War movie.

The airstrip at Khe Sanh today

But let me backtrack a little first. Dong Hoi wasn't a DMZ stop. We were there to visit the Phong Nha Caves --- very nice, despite the crazy lighting scheme inside and the pouring rain outside. The only unnerving thing was feeling a mild wave of claustrophobia while we were inside the cave, even with Deanna for company. I never used to get that way.

We stumbled on other cool stuff in Dong Hoi, but for that you'll have to wait for the book. Onward to Dong Ha and the DMZ, to see grassy patches where men and their weapons once slugged it out in battles that became the stuff of legend. Seeing all the sites in one day means they all sort of blurred into one another. It's only in the writing that I've now finally sorted out a lot of the details, and thank goodness for friends who just happen to be military buffs. I now know what "Leathernecks" are and I'm replacing all references to "McNamara's Wall" with "McNamara's Line" (it just sounds better).

On a more sobering note: I didn't think too much about unexploded ordnance while I was in the DMZ, even though I pretty much followed in the footsteps of our guide, but yes, there's still heaps of it around (see Mines Advisory Group and Clear Path International for some updates) and this is one place where you're better off sticking to the beaten path.

Labels: ,


Oh, cardboard

Beach detritus

Ah, Vinh. Most people don't know where it is, but those I met in Vietnam who did, when they heard that I'd been there, were quick to offer a sympathetic gaze. "Oh, Vinh." They might as well've said, "Oh, cardboard."

It's nice to know I wasn't alone in finding Vinh utterly uninteresting, unsalvageable and uncommendable. We had to spend three nights there, right after one night in ho-hum Thanh Hoa (which isn't making a comeback in the book --- as I emailed my editor, "unless people have been clamouring for it? The town itself has little to recommend"). And even after Thanh Hoa, Vinh seemed, well, blah.

Fine, so it's a port/industrial city, and it can't help that it was bombed to bits during the war and got ugly Stalinist buildings from East Germany thereafter. But why are the streets so empty of all the street food and street life one finds in almost every Vietnamese town (even in Dalat on a cold November night)? What do all the people do when there isn't a 220th anniversary of the city's founding to celebrate? Why is there nothing to eat on the street except bun bo Hue? And why do some hotels rent rooms by the hour?

If not for the fact that Vinh is a common stop for buses to and from Laos, I don't think it would make it into the guidebook either. Sure, there's Cua Lo Beach half an hour away (see image above), but that's not a beach I'd come all the way here for.

I made a friend in Danang who had spent several months in Vinh. When I asked her how she had stood it, she said dryly, "Oh, I looked around for a bridge to throw myself off, but I couldn't find one."

Labels: ,


First impressions

An excerpt from Sunday's IM conversations:
Wahj: what have you been up to?
Wahj: besides writing
ME: writing and procrastinating
ME: if i'm not doing one, i'm doing the other
ME: today i cleaned my shower curtain and shower in lieu of writing
ME: (altho i have written quite a bit after that)
Wahj: The power of procrastination is amazing
Wahj: I'm convinced the best way to do something is to have something else to do
True dat, but I think after a week of giving in to procrastination, I finally have text on the page that I'm reasonably proud of.

However, there are also lots of stories from my seven weeks of travelling that won't make it to Lonely Planet. I mean, it's a guidebook, not a travelogue or a memoir.

So since I've been getting storyteller's block when I'm with family and friends, plus there are more stories than can be told in one sitting anyway, I thought maybe I could try blogging some of them as I'm writing about the respective places.

First stop: Ninh Binh.

Van Long Nature Reserve

When people ask me what my favourite place on the trip was, I usually hesitate to give a reply because they were all good in their own way (except for Vinh, but more about that in a couple of days). Philosophically I also don't see much point in trying to single out one travel destination or experience and elevating it as the superlative. It smacks of a certain consumerist approach to travel that I'm none too crazy about.

The blithe answer to the "favourite place" question, though, is Ninh Binh.

Ninh Binh was easy to love. The weather was positively glorious for the three days we were there. The flowers were blooming and the buffalo were amiable. The rice fields were a ripe, rich green, and the farms were buzzing with harvesting activities (including a memorable skedaddle on motorbike past a small roadside fire fuelled by dried rice plants; I made it unscathed but my friend was unfortunately singed by a stray ember).

And our motorcycle guides made things easy. The lead guide always spoke pretty good English, everyone drove safely, and all they had to do was whip us off the main path and down some country lane for me to be happy.

In the living quarters of a 14th-century temple, we sat down for tea, bananas and persimmons with an elderly nun who wouldn't let Deanna take pictures of her until she put on her official robes. On an empty river coming back from Kenh Ga village, the boatman let me take the wheel because, you know, that's what they let tourists do. Deanna led forth to breakfasts of pho ngan (duck pho in a heady broth, which I never saw again on the trip) and other market foods that I promptly forgot the names of.

When you spend most of your day looking at mountains (okay, limestone karsts) and blue skies, it's not hard to like a place.

There were other mountains and other blue skies over the next seven weeks, but it was Ninh Binh's that I saw first.

Labels: , ,


Inundated by coffee chains

Coffee good

Hot on the heels of learning that Tully's Coffee from Seattle has opened two outlets in Singapore, I just learned tonight that there's a Trung Nguyen as well (via The Travelling Hungryboy). And only yesterday I was whining on Facebook to a friend that I miss my daily dose of ca phe sua da.

Having said that, I don't think Singapore really needs more coffee chains when it already has Starbucks, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Coffee Club, Gloria Jean's and TCC (I'm sure I've forgotten someone). And the fact that Trung Nguyen doesn't serve ca phe phin (drip coffee) kinda negates the whole point of ordering Vietnamese coffee.

As I was lamenting to Yan Wei last week, what Singapore needs are more indie cafes like Saigon's La Fenetre Soleil.

Labels: , , ,


Degrees of separation

Thanks to the new friends I made on my travels in Vietnam, I am now:
  • two degrees of separation away from Michael Bolton, via a relation of his I met in Hoi An.
  • three degrees of separation away from Aung San Suu Kyi, via someone who's related to her husband's family, whom I also met in Hoi An.
  • two degrees of separation away from Dustin Nguyen,* via my friend in Ho Chi Minh City.
A less upbeat version: a few minutes ago, I learned I'm three degrees of separation away from the a Singaporean being held hostage in the Mumbai attacks.

Edited to add (November 30): Scratch that. I do know a family member of the poor woman who died in the Mumbai attacks. Which really brings a new cast to it being a "small world".

* Being able to identify Dustin Nguyen is also a good indicator of one's age/generation. I immediately identified him in a portfolio of Vietnam advertising images; my much younger friend Yan Wei had no clue who he was.

Labels: , ,


Settling in

Where's my balloon?

In a cab on my way to a family brunch this morning, I realised how quiet our roads are in Singapore. Just the inevitable engine noise, that's all. I sorta missed the rhythmic honking that's the soundtrack to every thoroughfare in Vietnam.

Later, at brunch, I was giving Packrat my two cents' worth of advice about shepherding junior college students on a fieldtrip around Ho Chi Minh City, and it seemed unreal that three days ago I was plodding around on those pothole-ridden sidewalks and today I was all dressed up for Prego's (in a skirt, Yan Wei!).

Even later, after brunch and the Anime Festival Asia and coffee with friends, I was waiting in a cab line at Marina Square as the monsoonal rain poured down, and I missed how easy it is to get a cab in Vietnam. They're always loitering on street corners, the drivers looking completely uninterested in picking up a fare, but if you approach them they're generally amenable to take you where you need to go. Yes, there are taxis with rigged meters that jump three times as fast as they're supposed to, and some drivers will deliberately take you the long way round --- but hey, at least there are taxis.

I know it sounds like I'm a little hopelessly stuck on a Vietnam loop, and I think it'll take me a bit of time to get things out of my system. But it's also nice to be home: cats, family, friends, food, apartment, Singlish, all.

Labels: ,


One last look for now

Bubbling green goodness

One last lau de (goat hotpot).

Unwinding on my last night in Saigon

One last beer in a friend's office.

Soon enough: home.

Labels: ,


Last day

Quintessential Vietnamese scene

Things I'll be glad not to have to do when this trip is over:
  • Hand-wash any clothes.
  • Carry my laptop with me everywhere I go.
  • Buy drinking water and fret over all the discarded plastic bottles.
  • Plan my water intake and toilet options around the day's itinerary.
  • Back up my text and image files on thumb drives and Gmail almost every night.
  • Point to the handwritten note that says "Toi di viet sacs cho Lonely Planet" whenever I need to explain what I do to a non-English speaker.
Things I'll miss doing:
  • Crossing the road with Zen-like impunity, even during rush hour across six lanes of traffic in central Saigon.
  • Having good coffee available just about everywhere, except at certain hotels or overly-touristed areas.
  • Eating crisp, cheap baguettes.
  • Drinking cheap beer.
  • Encountering people who are are extremely nice and helpful, even when they don't speak any English and haven't a clue what I'm trying to ask of them.

Labels: ,


And on the 50th day of doxycycline ...


I got hit by a wave of nausea after downing the pill without food. Fortunately, the stomach unease was short-lived and I managed to enjoy a couple of caprioskas at Xu afterwards.

Saigon's been a whirlwind of cafes, restaurants and bars --- more good meals and cool joints than I remember from last year. Of course, it also helps to have a friend in town who knows all the cool joints.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Vietnam. It's surreal to think about going home after all this time.

Labels: ,


Last stop

I'm in Dalat (yay!) enjoying the cool weather (yay!) and staying in a hotel with an incredible shower (yay!).

But the hotel has no wifi (boo).

So. I'm guessing there won't be updates for a while. Oh well, miles of cool countryside to bike around in the meantime ...

Labels: ,


Town and country

We knew Buon Ma Thuot was going to be a dusty town because the orangey accumulations on the sides of the road got heavier, not lighter, as we entered the town. We felt the dust sheath our faces and clothes as we tramped all over the town centre for me to get my mapping and hotel visits done. I'm not sure I got all the dust off me last night; our bathroom ran out of hot water so I couldn't have a proper scrub-down.

But the good thing about being in a dusty town is that it makes you grateful for being able to get out of it --- out into villages filled with Vietnam's "other" people (some of the 53 non-Kinh ethnic groups), most of whom didn't bat an eyelid as we peered curiously out of a car or treaded carefully down a path between their longhouse homes. No constant echoes of children's "Hello! Hello!" here, like we had last Sunday while cycling across Cam Kim Island off Hoi An. These few days in the central highlands, it's been mostly bland indifference, which also makes me feel mercifully like less of a tourist.


Jarai village girls

One more day of poking around villages and the countryside tomorrow, then we should be off to the last working stop of my trip.

Labels: ,


Two weeks to go

Choosing Vietnamese cherries

It feels like it was just yesterday that I blogged about being halfway through my trip, and now I'm down to the last two weeks. This is the part where the days start to fly past, I guess.

We've spent the last few days stomping across dusty towns where we're the only tourists in sight and there are no cafes serving "backpacker fare" (mushroom omelettes, French fries/croquettes or banana pancakes). We're surprised if we run across a menu available in English at all.

On the one hand, I've definitely got a touch of travel fatigue and part of me wants to be home, where I can hug my cats and I don't have to handwash anything after I shower at night. On the other hand, I can't quite imagine fitting back into sedate Singapore life after all this on-the-go never-knowing-exactly-where-tomorrow-leads frame of mind.

Mostly I'm pleasantly gratified that after five weeks on the road, countless horror stories from friends and other travellers, and the odd unpleasant encounter on the street --- I still really, really like Vietnam.

Labels: ,


Going native

Street game in Hoi An

I'm not deliberately trying to be more Vietnamese, but I've started to:
  • Politely touch my left hand to my right forearm when presenting business cards or other things to a Vietnamese person.
  • Look for fish sauce before tucking into any Vietnamese meal.
  • Need a cup of Vietnamese green tea to round off a meal.
  • Wear my slippers/flipflops everywhere.
  • Ride pillion on a motorbike without holding onto anything.
On the flip side, I've also had to buy and wear my first tourist T-shirt. In my own defence, it's a cheap replacement for one of my shirts that's sprung a hole. But still: it's got a dragon and the word "Vietnam" embroidered in gold thread on the front.

Labels: ,


Halfway point

Sunglasses' POV

Yesterday marked the exact halfway point of my trip. I would've blogged it last night, but in the midst of sorting photos and clearing email, I was hit by a wave of fatigue (no doubt somewhat Larue-induced) and decided to sleep instead.

My mind does not quite compute that I've been travelling for ages, it seems, and seen so much --- yet I'm only halfway to the finish line. Then again, last night I met someone who was travelling across Vietnam for 12 weeks with his partner and daughter, making him the first traveller I've encountered with a longer itinerary than mine.

In 25 days, I've eaten less than five bowls of pho (I'm "off" it for some reason, this time around), many plates of spinach fried with garlic, and I'm trying not to eat too many banana fritters. I went cycling for the first time today, but my plan to spend the entire day on a bike was thwarted by the relentless, raincoat-penetrating rain. I continue to be mistaken for being Vietnamese by locals and foreigners alike.

I don't know how many kilometres I've travelled, although Wahj gave me a crash course on using Google Earth via Skype last week, so maybe I'll plot my entire trip on a map when I have the time. Suffice to say that I'm halfway down the coast of Vietnam in Hoi An, and I hope to remain typhoon- and flood-free while I'm here. (Last week, the river rose to 1.5 metres at its banks. I'm not staying at a hotel near there, but still.)

Onward ho!

Labels: ,


Zen and the art of being a motorbike pillion rider

On the road to Ba Na Hill Station

James remarked over email that he couldn't imagine me scooting around in Vietnam on a motorcycle. I'm kinda surprised at it myself. Before this trip I had been on a motorbike exactly twice in my life, both times as a passenger: the first time a less-than-10-minute ride in central Hanoi from the hotel to a cafe; the second time when beeker took me out for lunch when I was jetlagged.

Since I got to Vietnam, I've been on a motorbike at least every other day, and then often for the better part of the day. And it's been great. As they say, there's no better way to see Vietnam than on a motorbike. How else would you appreciate all the little back-roads through villages that don't appear on the map, the speedy efficiency of stopping, parking or even making a U-turn against traffic, and most of all the feeling of going somewhere? The occasional sore butt or dirty feet and legs (from the driving rain and puddles) are well worth it.

It's even got me hankering to learn how to ride a bike when I get home.

But being the driver would take some of the fun out of it. What I enjoy now: the freedom to partially disengage from the world, and let the ride take you, well, wherever. It's easy enough to follow the rhythms of the motorcycle's motion, and since you can't simply doze off as a passenger in a car can, you have plenty of time to think, or just be.

Riding on the back of the bike has been the best time for me to think nothing more complicated than, "Ah ... Vietnam!" --- or, conversely, to come up with new ideas and possibilities for work, life and the future. It's easy to let the mind go, either way, and there's a reassuring "Feel the Force" aura to it.

Now I know why we have Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Long Way Down/The Long Way Round, and any number of motorcycle-inspired narratives. Maybe if Singapore was big enough to have more long and winding roads that we could ride down, we'd all be a more Zen population too.

Labels: ,


Lessons learned from backpacking after the age of 30

Rain, rain, run away

I thought I did good this trip on packing a bag that I can carry (although I can't lift it up to an overhead compartment without assistance). Compared to previous trips (see here and here), I have only three pairs of footwear. Plus I offloaded a couple of small items with Deanna, who was travelling with me but has now gone back to Singapore.

Still, there's always something new one can learn:

1. When kicking off a long trip in a developing country with a hot climate, don't fall for a new brand of shower gel (especially the moisturising kind) just because it smells great.

2. Bring more plasters (band-aids) because wearing the same pair of comfy broken-in footwear for two weeks in a row will still give you blisters.

3. The $3 army poncho (available at Beach Road market in Singapore) is a total bargain. It's lightweight, dries quickly and covers someone my size carrying two backpacks.

4. Listen to ampulets and bring a bandanna. Here in Vietnam, it would've been useful to shield my hair from the insides of all the motorcycle helmets I've had to wear. (More than once I've been tempted to buy my own helmet at a market.)

5. Steal soap from hotels that generously replenish toiletries --- the bars will be useful for emergency laundry later on the road.

6. Steal disposable chopsticks --- you never know when you want to eat something in a hotel room that doesn't have cutlery.

Tomorrow I hit a new town, where there are more lessons to come, I'm sure.

Labels: ,


Toi khong hieu

So apparently, I look Vietnamese.

Despite my short hair.

And sunglasses (when it isn't raining).

And camouflage-pattern daypack.

And Tevas.

I don't get it.

Labels: , ,


Pictures, but no text

The flag tower at the citadel of Hue

Not sure when I'll write a proper blog entry again, but I'm trying to add images regularly to my Flickr photo set, so mosey over there for updates.

Labels: ,


Rolling down those Vietnam roads

Taking pictures

This picture is from my first day of official Lonely Planet work in Ninh Binh. Our pace has been considerably more go-go-go since then.

We have so far seen Ninh Binh (loveleh), Thanh Hoa, Vinh (meh) and now we're in Dong Ha drying out our shoes and socks after today's on-again, off-again rainbursts. I was wearing a green army poncho for most of today; now I have a better idea of how American GIs must have felt during the rainy season some forty years ago.

American GIs and Vietnamese war veterans are on my mind, because today we saw a replica Vietnamese wartime village and tomorrow we hit the DMZ. For details you'll have to read the guidebook, because after tramping around the countryside all day, I'm just too goddamn tired at night to write a proper blog post (even when I do have stable wifi).

However, my Flickr photo set for this trip has been updated, if you're interested.

Labels: ,


Getting things sorted

Minh's Jazz Club

When friends at home saw me online this afternoon, all they wanted to know was a) how was everything in Hanoi, and b) what was I doing online instead of checking out the place I'm supposed to be writing about?

To the latter, the answer is: I'm not writing about Hanoi, I was chillaxing for the day and I was online only to finish up some prep work for tomorrow, which is the first real "working" day of my trip.

Today we wandered around Hanoi some to run errands --- buy train tickets and Vietnam SIM cards --- and I got to eat a lot more street food than I did the last time. No pho yet, but plenty of time for that (seven weeks, to be precise). Today we had bun cha, baby pineapples, some dumplings with, er, mystery meat, a salad-y thing with something that resembled beef jerky, and cha ca la vong. I was too busy eating to take pictures of anything.

Hanoi is still a fun place to get lost in, just don't let the motorbikes run you over, but I think the air quality has declined distinctly. The quality of light at night is just off, somehow.

Tomorrow we're off to Ninh Binh, and I don't know if the hotel we're checking into has wifi. So don't mind if there's silence around here for a few days ...

Labels: , , ,


Welcome to Hanoi

System fail

Despite the portentous signs at Changi Airport's Budget Terminal, we did get to Hanoi, safe and sound and on schedule.

Before that, it was a mad day of rushing about. This was partly my fault because I procrastinated on various errands that I could've done weeks ago (changing money, photocopying, making extra keys). Exacerbating the situation was the fact that Ink chose the eve of my departure to develop a cornea ulcer.

A cornea ulcer. It sounds worse than it looks (it looks like he has the pink-eye), but it entailed additional last-minute running around and pet care arrangements (thank you, Suzie and PetBuddy extraordinaire). One hour before I was due to leave for the airport, I was still sitting at my computer and wondering how many other things I needed to do.

Somehow, I made it. I wasn't even late for my flight.

In Hanoi, we've checked into a decent hotel that has an excellent as-good-as-at-home-if-not-better wireless network, had a drink with a fellow Lonely Planet writer and done a little laundry to boot. Plus there's a cool old Chinese house opposite the hotel that I can't wait to see in daylight.

Labels: ,


We're not in Ho Chi Minh City anymore, Toto

Red marks the spot where the bomb landed

  1. Don't stroll across a road and expect oncoming traffic to slow down or stop. In fact, no more rampant jaywalking, period.
  2. Don't expect the made-at-home morning coffee to jolt me off my chair. My coffee is as strong as it's always been, but now it's sorta bland-tasting. I suppose my tongue will acclimatise to the missing sharpness eventually.
  3. Don't smile at the waitstaff, even at expensive cafes. They don't smile back.
  4. Stop measuring walking distances in terms of how they compare to the walking route from Kim Hotel in Pham Ngu Lao across the park to Clinton's Pho (i.e. Pho 2000), then down Le Loi to downtown Saigon.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Labels: ,


Give the people beef, said the Communist paté

We had a lot of beef, but we didn't get around to any banh mi with paté, mostly because every time we walked past a banh mi stall, the sight of the hefty baguettes made me think I wouldn't make it beyond two bites before I declared myself full.

But we had pho everyday, from street stalls and airconditioned eateries (Pho 2000's broth and menu is superior to Pho 24's, which must be why Clinton dined at the former back when he was still POTUS) --- with beef slices, beef balls or other cow parts which aren't on the average foreign traveller's diet, and, one time, pho with a baguette on the side. After one mouthful of soup-soaked bread, the only thing either of us could say was: "Now why the hell didn't anyone think of that before?"

Pho, glorious pho

I swear the pho in Vietnam tastes better simply because all the ingredients are locally grown, which means they not only taste fresher but also taste of, well, Vietnam. No Australian beef, no imported leaves and the soup's probably been brewed in the same scraped-up pot they've been cooking in for the last ten years. Don't look too closely at the pot or the dishwashing area --- it might put you off your meal. Just concentrate on the bowl of hot soup in front of you, never mind that the same shop's separate translated menu gave pho tai chin and pho chin vien the same description in English, all the iffiness has been scalded away anyway.

In between overdosing on pho, we traipsed up and down the streets of Saigon (meaning District 1, not some fond pseudo-American affectation): pondering narrow buildings and indecipherable shop signs, waving off offers of motorcycle or cyclo rides, sidestepping the inevitable puddles in the streets or cracked sidewalks (it rained everyday we were there), gawking at expert capteh players or neighbourhood aerobics classes in the park.

View from the room

Ho Chi Minh City was not as crowded, nor as grating, nor as smelly as I'd been led to imagine. People were generally friendly, and most people who tried to sell us something backed off quietly when we declined with a smile and a shake of the head. Shopkeepers tried to get the best price outta us, of course, but we never paid more than we wanted to for anything. It was generally the young guys who were easy to bargain down, not the cheerful but adamant aunties. Flinty they could be, and completed uninclined to coddle our rudimentary bargaining attempts.

When we wanted a break from the street scene, we hunted down some of Travelfish's top 10 Saigon cafes. Creperie & Cafe was the perfect antidote to a waterlogged afternoon in serious propaganda-filled museums. La Fenetre Soleil, though tucked away in a splendid second-floor space, offered plenty of people-watching opportunities.

La Fenetre Soleil

Other times, it was back to our daily diet of cafe sua da (iced Vietnamese coffee with copious dollops of condensed milk); I probably consumed an entire month's worth of sugar in my four days.

Museums, sightseeing and urban rambles aside, we decided towards the end that what we really liked to do was to park ourselves streetside on the edge of backpacker district Pham Ngu Lao and watch the people stream by. Locals on bikes, of course, but also foreign tourists of both the amiable and the sketchy sort, or child street performers with fire-breathing or shoe-shining talents. Not to mention what seemed to be the nightly ten-minute blackout that would prompt the crowd's cheer (jeer?), as the only light left came from the individually-powered food stalls.

One last bowl of pho, one last T-shirt stuffed into an over-full backpack --- and then we flew home.

Baggage labels


Technorati Tags: , , ,

Labels: , ,