Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Slow Down Challenge # 5: Gratefulness

I’m joining the Slow Down Challenge initiated by one of my favourite writers Jeff Goins. If you want to jump in, here’s how.

Today, try saying “thank you” — for everything.  Say it to your spouse who makes you wait for dinner. Say it to the cashier who moves too slow. Say it to your late lunch appointment or the call center operator who keeps putting you on hold. Say it to God for every inconvenience that causes you to grow. Say “thank you.” Don’t just think it or tell it to yourself. Actually speak the words — and mean them. Be grateful for the moments that slow you down, the ones that cause you to take your time. Use these opportunities to appreciate what you already have and tend to miss. As you do, see how much better life looks, and actually is, when you approach it with gratitude.

I’ve been literally on a slow-down mode for the past four months. I usually tell people I’m bumming around but I personally call it my gap months. In practice, people take a year off from school or work to volunteer, travel, or learn new skills. It’s not a popular practice in the Philippines, however and I can’t really afford a year off so I’m sticking with a few months.

It’s been a really good four months. Although I panicked after the first two months, I’ve learned to take it in stride. I owned my time now (except for the occasional household chores) so I had to make the wisest use of it. To date, I finished my travelogue series for my Vietnam-Cambodia backpacking trip, spoken at two news writing workshops at my alma mater, volunteered to take pictures of the school events my parents organized, started a photo blog, learned to cook omelette, cuddled my nephews and niece a lot, and I am about to finish the Slow Down Challenge. I still have a lot of things to do on my list so never for a second am I bored.

But what I’m really doing is waiting. Waiting for the next bus that will take me to my next destination. Jeff Goins, one of my favorite authors who also started the Slow Down Challenge, said that our big moments happen every now and then. But most of the time, we spend our lives waiting. And what do during this waiting period makes all the difference.  

The point of this last challenge is to say thank you to the people who have slowed you down. Since the gaps months was a personal decision and quite frankly, one of the best decisions I have ever made, I thanked HIM. My Creator. My Savior. For leading me to this path. For making me realize a lot of things. For making me breathe. For making me forgive. For making me let go of things I cannot anymore control. And for making me believe in HIM again. For everything. And I will always be grateful.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The Slow Down Challenge # 4: Disturb Me, Not!

I’m joining the Slow Down Challenge initiated by one of my favourite writers Jeff Goins. If you want to jump in, here’s how.

The Challenge:
1.       Decide what you will do and who you will be WHEN you get interrupted. You don’t have to let people steal your time, but choose your response before it happens.
2.       Block out time to spend with a person who usually interrupts you. Call her just to chat; if local, ask her to lunch.
3.       When an interruption occurs, welcome it. Look for what you can learn from the experience, and don’t get annoyed. Instead, embrace this as a chance to grow.

Lately, I’ve been doing a LOT of writing for my blog as a result of trying to accomplish the Slow Down Challenge # 3. For two weeks, I laboured over my travelogue series to the last letter. Fighting all the distractions was pretty hard, especially since we live next door to my nephew (aged 4) and niece (aged 3). There isn’t a day they don’t burst through the door screaming or giggling. I later found out they frequent our home to collect their daily dose of candies or sweets.

They are adorable, irresistible, and sometimes really irritating. My niece is THE BOSS. When she enters my room, she smiles sweetly and lets me cuddle her. Such a cutie. Then she grabs my hand, my fingers – whatever she can hold on to – and pulls me toward the canisters that keep the candies. At times when I’m relentlessly chasing an idea with my fingers, I pull back and resist. Sometimes, I win and she walks away. Sometimes, I grudgingly comply. On the other hand, my nephew and I can already engage in a simple conversation and he’s tall enough to reach the canisters so he simply drops by my room to poke his nose into my business, asking a series of follow-up questions to my answers to his questions. Here’s our typical conversation:

Nephew: What you doing?
Me: Working.
Nephew: Why are you working?
Me: Because I have to.
Nephew: Why do you have to?
Me: (Grasps for answer.)

I’ve come to love and hate their interruptions. I love those tykes! I’d hug, kiss, and cuddle them. But when they distract me, what little brats! But I realized it doesn’t have to be either or. And I found out, there’s a way to weave these distractions into my everyday routine. I started treating those distractions as breaks – just like bathroom breaks, and I actually use the time to play with them a little. It’s a huge help to my writing too. The effect is similar when I’m stuck in a rut and leave my desk for a while to get some fresh air or fix a cup of coffee. When I play with them, my mind relaxes and gives me a couple of new strategies to attack the piece. I’ve come to appreciate the distractions and turned them instead into necessary pauses. After all, that’s what I came back here for: to spend more time with the people I love.        

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Slow Down Challenge # 3: Writing

I’m joining the Slow Down Challenge initiated by one of my favourite writers Jeff Goins. If you want to jump in, here’s how.

I ended my Slow Down Challenge #2 with an admission: I’m a huge multi-tasker. As if on cue, the third challenge is the one that deals with multi-tasking. Here’s the challenge:

1.       Pick one task you need to accomplish; write it down.
2.       List all distractions that stand in your way.
3.       Share the list with one person who can hold you accountable.
4.       As you work, glance at your list and remind yourself what really matters.
5.       Turn off your phone and/or silence other pieces of technology, while you do this task. See how much better your can concentrate when you focus.

And here’s my response to the challenge:

The Task: Finish the blog post about my first backpacking trip.  

1.       Myself and my nagging perfectionism
2.       Internet
3.       Nephews & niece

My accountability partners: Maan and AC

It’s been four months since my first backpacking trip and I haven’t written a single word about it.  So I decided to make it my major task, only to realize later how much work and how much time it took. I went backpacking for 13 days and it’s impossible to squeeze everything in one very long post. Well, yes, if I do it sloppily – which I will not, cannot, and should not. (Refer to # 1 distraction.) I had to write more than 10 blog posts to cover the entire trip. The next two weeks were heaven and hell.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of multitasking. I was doing quite well for my first two posts – minimal checking of email, kept my phone away, being in relative seclusion to the rest of the world, and putting my entire focus on the articles. After the success of my first two posts however, I relapsed and went back to my usual routine. I struggled. The distractions loomed larger and became more persistent. My nagging perfectionism tormented me for hours. (said the voice in my head: “Nope, can’t write that.” “Boring!” “Seriously?”) There was so much going on I couldn’t resist googling the latest news about the pork barrel scam and the senators involved. My nephews and nieces kept barging into my room with all the fanfare that accompanies kids their age.

If there was anything that kept me sane for the last two weeks, it’s the thought that if you don’t know what to write, write anyway. Write anything. Just write and don’t ever give up. The hardest part of writing is when inspiration seems to have abandoned the writer. After that, everything the writer does is hard, hard work wrangling with the nouns, verbs, and adjectives and stringing phrases and thoughts together. But I showed up every day on my laptop and wrote whether I was feeling the inspiration or not. How’s that, perfectionist you. And two weeks later, I finished my major task. Hallelujah!

I still am a huge multi-tasker. It’s kind of hard to rub down years of embracing the corporate mentality that lauds multi-taskers. But with practice, more focus, less distractions, and strong will, it is possible. 

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Confessions of a First Time Backpacker

Colors of Vietnam

Four months later and looking back, I’m reminiscing my first backpacking trip from start to end. Most of it, I’d already documented here on my blog. The whole process of reading my travel journal and re-writing it into several blog posts was meticulous and tedious but it brought a lot of good memories and valuable realizations.

Backpacking is not for the fainthearted. I thought I didn’t have it in me to live on five pairs of clothing for 13 days and emerge from the bathroom dry using a thin, small towel. I cringed at the idea of riding a train for 30 hours without taking a bath. A self-confessed introvert like me balked at the thought of making small talks with complete strangers.   

But I survived! How? By getting my clothes laundered after 3 days so I had a fresh supply of clothes for the days to come, using an absorbent towel, bringing along a pack of wet tissues for those no-bath days, and finding the guts to chat up fellow travelers – not all the times but it was a good start.

I think this is the very essence of travelling by backpack: to survive on the minimum essentials, to be creative at finding solutions, and do things you normally wouldn’t do in your daily routine. It is a perfect excuse to live differently, think differently, and act differently. One might just discover that the difference was all it took to become the person you always wanted to be.

Backpacking is for the strong-willed and the goal-oriented. It is also a test of character – summoning the last inch of your self-control when a flea market vendor screams at you; and of patience – walking around for hours until you find what you’re looking for.

I could go on and on. But I am just getting started. My wanderlust has awakened and beckoned to me. And the world is waiting to be conquered, one backpack at a time.

Friday, October 04, 2013

How to Walk the Streets of Vietnam

I survived my first backpacking trip. A big thank you to the numerous tips and tricks we picked up from fellow bloggers who have traveled the same path before we did. And yet, no matter how prepared we were, a few surprises dropped in on us while we tried to navigate our way around the busy streets of Vietnam.

No, I will not teach you the proper way of walking around Vietnam (But sashaying like a ramp model is definitely not recommended!) or reading the traffic signs. (I’m bad at this.) I was a first time backpacker and I wanted to stay true to being one. Although we went with group tours for Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels, I wanted a more intimate experience with the city by walking on its streets, feeling the concrete pavements under my feet, watching the hundreds of motorcycles roar by, attempting short conversations with locals to ask for directions, and pretty much taking everything in as far as my senses could take me. So, we abandoned the idea of getting on a tour bus to the city and decided to explore it on our own.

After making several wrong turns, getting rejected by drivers who couldn’t understand us, and acting out too many sign languages, here are three tips in making the most out of your city tour:

Map of Hanoi. Gave my Saigon map to another tourist.
Get a map. Most hostels and guesthouses offer this to their guests, but there are those that don’t. We only got a map of where our hostel was located so we were pretty much blind as to where were the places we wanted to visit. In case they don’t have a map, head first to the Central Post Office to get one. Not a bad idea too. The Post Office is beautiful and will transport you to a different world altogether. Once you have the map, look at where the attractions are located and plan your itinerary.

Vietnam attractions in English & Vietnamese languages.
Know the Vietnamese terms for the places you wanted to visit. For example, Reunification Palace is known as Dinh Thống Nhất. You can look up these terms online. Very few Vietnamese people speak English. And apparently, not all people understand the English equivalent no matter how famous the attraction is. I kept on repeating “Reunification Palace” and they kept answering me in Vietnamese. That was one of the most awkward situations I got into. Also, ever heard of the phrase same same but different? This is a famous expression in Vietnam, reflecting one of the complexities of their language. Their vowels have different symbols at the top. Put the wrong symbol, it’s a word with a different meaning. So, be careful that you get the correct symbol of the Vietnamese terms. Otherwise, it will only lead to more confusion and more awkward moments.

Riding the motorcycle in Vietnam is a thrill!

Haggle with the motorcycle drivers. Riding the motorcycle in Vietnam should be on your to-do lists. For the places that are impossible to reach on foot, we rode the motorcycle instead of a taxi. Taxis were reserved for the really far areas. When you approach a motorcycle driver, ask first how much. Some will overcharge. So, haggle. Don’t get into that motorcycle until the driver explicitly agrees. If not, walk away. You’ll know they’re desperate for customers when they ride up to you and agree to the price you asked. Ask your hotel or hostel staff for the reasonable prices from one location to another. We usually spent VND 20,000 per person per ride. As much as possible, give the exact amount. Other tourists have shared horror stories of their drivers speeding away without giving the change.

These tips are all based on our experience during our recent backpacking trip. Above all, your mindset should be to embrace the great moments and even the misadventures. Yeah, you get really pissed off by bad luck or things that don’t go your way, but trust me, you’ll laugh about it later and you’ll come out of it a better traveler.

Enjoy Vietnam! :)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Day 13: Exploring the Cu Chi Tunnels

Our last full day in Saigon and of our whole backpacking trip. We booked for a half-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Same tour routine – bus picks us up at the hotel, takes us to the tourist spot, and takes us back to Saigon. Cu Chi district is more than an hour ride from Saigon.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are an important part of Vietnam’s history, especially during the war with the Americans. The tunnels served as their hiding place as well as their communication and supply routes. 

The visit to the tunnels was both amazing and terrifying. I was amazed by how clever the Vietnamese were in trying to avoid the American troops. They were smaller in size compared to the latter so they used it to their advantage to build small holes and tunnels. It was also terrifying to see the booby traps they set for the American troops. One wrong move and your flesh is torn to pieces. Then again, war is serious business.

One of their hiding places cleverly disguised under a pile of brown leaves.

One brave tourist trying to squeeze himself in the hole.

As for me, I'll play it safe with the bigger tunnels.

This is one of the Vietnamese's booby traps for the Americans.

Anyone who falls into this trap will be pierced to death by those sharp wooden sticks.

Inside one of the tunnels. This was scary!

Guests have the chance to go through the shorter tunnels and I found myself crawling around the tunnels. There was a part where it was nothing but absolute darkness. Good thing my travel buddy brought her flashlight or I would have screamed in shame.

Our last stop for the entire 13-day trip was short and sweet. We were back in Saigon by mid-afternoon. Stopped by Trung Nguyen café for a late lunch and a cup of their lip-smacking coffee. Even my taste buds craved for that familiar delicious taste. Later that evening, we boarded the plane back to the country, bringing with us new memories and new experiences.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Day 12: Getting Into A Little Trouble at Ben Thanh Market

This is going to be a very short post. Well, because not much happened except for that one incident we can’t shake off our minds.

I didn’t take any pictures because I wanted to focus on shopping and if needed, haggling. I already knew what to expect in Ben Thanh since we’ve explored this a few days ago. I bought a few items and simply looked around, trying to find interesting items. My travel buddy was asking one vendor how much the item was. The girl answered. Price was too much. So my buddy put down the item, then the girl angrily asked in her curt English, “How much?” My buddy declined as she has decided not to purchase it anymore. The girl repeatedly asked my buddy and her voice was getting a little louder each time. And when we started walking away, she started shouting and saying something like, “You not very nice customers!” Well, EXCUSE ME, you are not a very nice vendor either! Aren’t customers allowed to ask for the price? My friend didn’t even haggle, she only asked for the freaking price!

I was so pissed and frustrated we decided to leave. I fought the urge to snap back when images of being locked up abroad flashed on my mind. So we walked away from her as much as possible and checked out the other stalls. When we couldn’t find anything else to buy, we left.

Next: Day 13: Exploring the Cu Chi Tunnels

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Day 11: Why You Should Start Your Angkor Experience at the National Museum

On our last full day in Siem Reap, I checked out the Angkor National Museum. I kind of felt guilty we just breezed through the Angkor Archaeological Park the day before and I thought a trip to the museum would be a good recap to the whole Cambodian journey. And it was.  But if I were to decide, I’d start my Angkor experience in this museum.

Elegant facade of the museum
First, I’d like to say the museum is beautifully and elegantly built – fit for an empire indeed. The interiors are clean and well-kept. But what is most fascinating about the museum is the treasure it holds. Yesterday during the Angkor tour, I was admiring some of the carvings on the walls. What I didn’t realize is that these temples with their intricate carvings beautifully etched on the temple walls have a lot of stories to tell about the history of the Khmer empire. My trip to the museum made me understand (although belatedly) the bigger historical perspective – who were the Kings of the Empire, who built what temple, etcetera. I was awe-struck by the exhibits too, especially the gallery of the 1,000 Buddha images in all shapes, sizes, positions, and materials. It was also kind of creepy with all those Buddha eyes on you but a good kind of creepy.

Audio tour materials
An audio tour is available for an additional fee but it was worth the extra dollars. They will provide you with a headset and a small machine that plays the audio. You can go at your own pace, even repeat some explanations you didn’t get the first time. If you don’t opt for the audio tour, each gallery of the museum is equipped with short video introductions that will provide a preview of the entire section. So no worries, everybody goes home happy. I’ve never quite enjoyed a museum tour as this one.

One of the museum artifacts in the lobby. Look at those details in the carvings!

The Museum Shop sells a lot of cool items from soaps to books to clothes.
That night, we rode the Sleeper Bus back to Saigon, Vietnam. In this trip, we have ridden almost every known vehicle to man – airplane, taxi, motorcycle, tuktuk, seating section of the train, sleeping section of the train, bus, sleeper bus. Yes, we are living up to the backpacker’s lifestyle. And I love it.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Day 10: Visiting Angkor and Presenting… The Happy Pizza

Chasing the break of dawn in Cambodia.

By 5AM, we were on our toes and ready to kick start the day with a healthy dose of sunshine at the famous Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, our tuktuk driver forgot to fetch us. Or simply made other plans with customers who were willing to pay more. Damn. By the time we booked with an alternate tuktuk driver, it was nearly sunrise and we tried to chase it – to no avail. Sad to say, the sunrise was not for us to see that day. :(

Didn't catch the sunrise but I can still take a photo with it!

One of the more important realizations I had that day was that the Angkor Archaeological Park is HUUUGE. Angkor Wat is just one of the temples you can visit. Thus, they are selling 1-day pass, 2-day pass, and 3-day passes for tourists. Yup, that’s a lot of temple-hopping right there. And because we didn’t have 3 days, we got the 1-day pass. I only wanted really nice pictures of myself in a background of awesome-looking temples, especially that temple where Angelina Jolie shot Tomb Raider. Yeah, sometimes I can be that shallow. It’s just impossible to see all temples in one day at a normal pace. We’ve already rented the tuktuk for a day and didn’t want to splurge a couple more dollars to hire a tour guide so we looked at the map of the entire park and marked the temples we wanted to go visit. It was sort of a wise decision though. Our first stop was in Angkor Wat and within 30 minutes of walking around and taking pictures, I was already templed out. So we told our tuktuk driver of the plan, made a route around the temples we wanted to visit, took short strolls around each temple, snapped several photos, and then went back to our guest house. 

At the entrance to Bayon Temple
Face etched on the temple entrance
Ta Prohm, where AJ shot Tomb Raider.

Later that evening, we headed to Happy Angkor Pizza to check the second item off my travel bucket list: eat happy pizza. If you don’t know what that is, google it. *wink* Some sources on the internet say there’s been a crackdown on happy pizza in Cambodia but from the looks of it, there isn’t. Stalls are flaunting their dishes happily, pun intended.

Happy Pizza with melted cheese

There are levels of “happiness” in the pizza you can order. I chose the mildest of course. I just wanted to taste it, not get addicted to it. My travel buddy didn’t want to try it so I had five slices all to myself. The pizza was goooooood. I didn’t like the taste of the happy toppings though. I could taste the herb and it’s a bitter contrast to the cheese and sauce. Thankfully, no hallucinations of any sort occurred that night. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Day 9: Apsara Dancing and Shopping at the Angkor Night Market

We’ve had quite enough of travel lately so we decided to rest through most of the day. Did I mention my travel buddy and I are introverts? We needed to recharge so we took advantage of the guesthouse’s free wifi and cable TV. Perfect. Just what we needed.

We can’t sleep in the whole day of course, so our guesthouse booked us to a buffet dinner with an Apsara performance in Amazon Angkor Restaurant (for $10) for the evening.

Apsara dancers taking the stage at Amazon Angkor Restaurant

Our guesthouse, Bou Savy, is quite popular with Filipino tourists so when the tuktuk driver came to pick us up for the dinner buffet, we found out there was a lovely, older Filipino couple who booked for the same dinner. It turned out the older gentleman was a former employee of the National Power Corporation. One of the industries of my former employer is power so we launched into a lighthearted discussion about coal, power plants, and sustainability. While partaking of the food and watching the Apsara performance, we also noted how Asian dances in general have overlapping similarities in costume and dance styles. Hmm. This was turning into an intellectual, cultural, and culinary evening.

Welcome to the Angkor Night Market!

When the Apsara performance ended, we went back to the guesthouse. The couple called it a day and went in to retire for the night. It was quite early so we took off to Angkor Night Market.

I would love to have this is my garden!

Angkor Night Market sells a wide range of items from jewelry, souvenirs, shirts, pants, books, and decorative items. They even have a bar in the middle of the market! I had fun looking at the stuff and strolling around. There weren’t a lot of people so we had plenty of room to move around. After a few purchases, we were good and we headed back to the guesthouse. We needed to be up early the next day for the Angkor Wat tour.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Day 8: The Epic 40++ Traveling Hours For the Love of Cambodia

If Day 7 was spent entirely on traveling by train, Day 8 was spent entirely on traveling by bus, marking the completion of the longest travel time of my life to date – an epic 40 ++ hours. Phew. I seriously wonder now how we survived it although I will admit to nearly going crazy. Then again, I would say I did it all to feed the aching feet of my wanderlust and for the love of our next destination – the land of the Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

If Vietnam was about coffee, Halong Bay, and the French influence, Cambodia was about the Angkor Wat and Happy Pizza. Compared to Vietnam though, we had a shorter time in Cambodia and it was focused on Siem Reap. We ditched our plans to explore Phnom Penh at the last minute because of time constraints and because really, we needed time to breathe. The good thing about it is that I have more reasons to come back to Cambodia. And come back, I definitely will.   

Black dark clouds welcomed us to Cambodia. 

Cambodia did not welcome us with the most joyous of weathers. A huge chunk of the sky was dark with black clouds. Try adding that to the growing anxiety of being stuck in a bus for hours.

On the other hand, although the hours were excruciatingly long and tedious, riding the bus was a perfect way to gain an initial insight into Cambodia’s way of life. After passing through several houses, I noticed their houses are on stilts and the “ground floor” was reserved for livestock and in some cases, agricultural equipment. It is a country rich in agricultural resources but the people remain poor. I saw children stark naked running along the highways and makeshift houses with thatched roofs that serve as shelter to a family of four. These were all-too-familiar scenes. In many ways, Cambodia is like the Philippines.

Can you guess what this vendor is selling? I'm guessing
it's a kind of insect. The kind you don't want to put in
your mouth. 
We finally arrived in Siem Reap at half past 9, tired and very hungry. Thank God for our really gracious hosts at Bou Savy Guesthouse who welcomed us with drinks and cold towels.

That night, I read up on some highlights of Cambodia’s history and came across the era of Pol Pot, a revolutionary leader who ordered the torture, execution, and genocide of a million (some sources say 2 million) children, men, and women. Unbelievable, I know. Until now, I feel the country is still reeling from that horrific chapter in their history. We are still lucky after all, for not experiencing this level of pain and suffering. That night, my heart was broken. I was broken.

I know we travel because of new sights and fresh experiences and all things bright and beautiful. But we cannot take away the inevitability that travel can break us sometimes. And when it does, we are never the same person again.

This day was epic, indeed. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Day 6: Up Close with Vietnam’s Patriarch

So we know Ho Chi Minh was formerly Saigon but have you ever wondered where the name Ho Chi Minh came from? Or what it is? Rather, who?

I didn’t bother finding out as I’m no history junkie so after our first museum visit, I learned that Ho Chi Minh was a prominent revolutionary leader and former president of Vietnam. He was also the chairman of the central committee of the communist party of Vietnam. And somehow, the overall impression I gleaned was that he was a very well-respected, if not well-loved by the Vietnamese people. And who wouldn’t? In my brief trip to Vietnam, I’ve grown quite fond of him despite being a staunch supporter of communism.

Volcano and totems symbolizing the
great power of national liberation

Ho Chi Minh Museum. Now, don’t confuse this with the Ho Chi Minh City Museum which is in Saigon. The museum has five floors of collections of memorabilia, photographs, documents, and artifacts all pertaining to the great Vietnamese leader. I especially loved the photograph timeline where we can see the different sides of Ho Chi Minh’s persona as a charismatic president, as a father to his people, and as a war leader. What I found really heartwarming was the fact that Vietnamese people with their kids also visit the museum, trying to get to know the man who shaped their nation’s history. Our next stop would have been the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where his embalmed body lies. Unfortunately, it was closed that day.   

The one-pillar pagoda remains to be a place of offering

One-Pillar Pagoda. The name already says it all. It’s a pagoda balanced on top of one pillar. Nothing much to see here or do, except take pictures or make an offering.

Beautiful contrast of the yellow Palace against
the lush greens
Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace. One of my favorite stops for the day was the Presidential Palace. Not only did I find the yellow palace beautiful set against very lush greens, I also found the walk around the area very relaxing since there were plenty of trees and greens. Although we weren’t allowed entry into the Palace itself, the surrounding areas were equally wonderful. We saw some of Ho Chi Minh’s cars and his bamboo stilt house, which is said to be where he lived for quite a time before his death. The stilt house is very reflective of his simplicity and humility. (No wonder why I really like this man!) I also loved the huge fishpond with koi fishes fronting the stilt house. I could almost imagine Ho Chi Minh walking around the place, in his kamisa de chino-like clothes and slippers, feeding the koi fishes, or walking up to his mango orchard.

My ride! 
I would love to live in this bamboo stilt house! 
Unclo Ho fishpond

One of the interesting figures inside the Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature. I insisted we check out this place, half-imagining we could get to browse some of the old Vietnamese poems or short stories. I was expecting more on the literature side and less on the temple side but it turned out the other way. It used to be a school but now it’s a place for people to pray.

Vietnam National Museum of History. Can I just say that Vietnam is swarming with museums? I felt like we had too many museum visits and yet, we haven’t even visited most of them. The National Museum of History was an interesting place in that it keeps historical artifacts such as jars, tools, even the teeth, skull, and bones of early Vietnamese people. (Chocoholic's Note: Cameras are not allowed inside the museum.)

We wanted to check out the Museum of Revolution but we couldn’t find it and the non-English-speaking locals could not help either. We decided to call it a day. We had to catch a train ride later that night. (Yes, the 30-hour train ride again back to Saigon.) 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Day 5: Halong Bay in a Day

Halong Bay Day, finally!

For our Halong Bay tour, we chose to go with a guided group tour, again for economical reasons. Halong Bay is located in Quang Ninh Province, which is a good four hours away from Hanoi so even if we had an early head start, we arrived at the Bai Chay Tourist Wharf at noon. This was our jump-off point to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The monolithic rocks of Halong Bay over floating fishing villages

What makes Halong Bay amazing is the giant rock structures towering above everything else. They make you stop and wonder how they were formed or what lies beneath those monoliths. I wasn’t very enticed by the water, however. It was green and disappointingly dirty. I think this was because the area where we stopped was near floating fishing villages.

We had the chance to go boating or kayaking (for an additional fee) but since the waters weren’t pleasing to the sight and the weather was uncooperatively high (‘twas hooooot!), we lounged in the shaded portion of the awesome roof deck of our boat, just taking the sights in. 

Tourists boating on the bay

There are tours that go for as long as two to three days and they usually explore other islands in Halong Bay. That’s something I’d like to try in one of my future travels. :)

Looks like a scene from a movie, but this is an actual shot of natural light
shining beautifully inside Thien Cung Grotto.

One of the stopovers of the day tour was the Thien Cung Grotto. I’m no fan of caves but this was a sight to see. It’s not purely natural now that they put in concrete steps for the tourists and installed artificial lights. I must say though that the lights illuminated the beauty of the stalactites.

Just look at those formations behind me!

We got back in Hanoi a bit late that night and refusing to feel drained or defeated – we just spent eight hours traveling, which was more than the time it took to tour Halong Bay – I dragged my travel buddy to a restaurant to grab dinner before retiring for the night. We found a nice restaurant, Newday, which was small and almost inconspicuous but served a very delicious and cheap dinner. I also didn’t let the occasion pass without tasting Vietnamese beer, Bia Hanoi, which was served in a 420ml bottle, making our local beers look puny. 

Bia Hanoi. Ahhh, beer. That magic elixir after a long, tiring day. :)