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. :)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Day 4: Exploring the Old Quarter Streets and Watching the Water Puppet Show

Surviving a 30-hour train ride from Saigon, we finally arrived in Hanoi very early in the morning on our fourth day. We went straight to Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel, where we made reservations. We were spent from the train travel so we decided to schedule one main highlight for the day – the Hanoi Water Puppet Show.

Our hostel was located in the Old Quarter and offered a free walking tour but after a few turns and stops, we decided to go on our own and explore the Old Quarter by ourselves.

Hanoi fruit vendor

An old city gate

The iconic Vietnamese hat

There’s a dedicated theater for the water puppet show near Hoan Kiem Lake called Thanglong Water Puppet Theater. Because there are no water puppet shows in the Philippines, curiosity got the better of me.

The water puppet show stage from our view 

The water puppet show was a spectacle to behold with its live accompaniment, colors, and lights. The performers really put their heart and soul into giving a good show to the audience, who were mostly tourists. The puppets were attached to long wooden sticks and were maneuvered by people hidden behind the wooden curtains. The puppets can only do so much though. Although I can’t say that it is the most amazing thing I’ve seen, I love how they tried to show their culture and beliefs through the music and the movements of the puppets. The performance still merits an applause for their creativity and showmanship.    

The water puppets 
The music these performers bring adds life to the puppet show

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Day 3 & Day 7: Riding the Reunification Express Train to Hanoi and Back

When we booked our tickets for Vietnam, traveling north to Hanoi wasn’t part of the plan. Otherwise, we should have just booked a flight to Hanoi, traveled down to Saigon, and crossed the border to Cambodia (now that’s an idea!). But after tons of research, I really, truly, madly wanted to go to Halong Bay. So what the heck, we built our entire itinerary in consideration of the 30-hour travel time to Hanoi and another 30 hours going back to Saigon.

Truth be told, I actually looked forward to the train ride. It lends credibility and authenticity to being backpackers – traveling like the locals would, listening to their conversations, seeing them conduct their daily activities, and watching their movies even if I didn’t understand a single word. But if there’s the good, there’s also the bad.

There are different sections of the train: the hard berth, the soft berth, and the sleeper portion, from the cheapest to the most expensive respectively. We chose the soft berth for our trip to Hanoi and spent roughly $60 each. Apparently, train isn’t cheap in Vietnam.

The soft berth section
Shortly after we boarded the train, I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy ride. Adults were talking to one another with thin, high-pitched voices. Kids were screaming and running around. When people slept, they put their feet up on the seats even up to your head. I must have given a fellow passenger THE LOOK until he backed off. The bathrooms were ill-kept. Each hour, a food cart would roll along the aisle and the seller would bark loudly for the entire world to hear. It also didn’t help that they have very little regard for health and sanitation. My neck, back, and spine ached from all that sitting and dodging all those unidentified flying liquids and solids. The train takes multiple stops in between and the passengers would leave all their trash behind – to the horror of the next passengers (but they didn’t seem to mind). I felt like time stood still. The soft berth was rarely empty all throughout the trip and my travel buddy and I – were the constants. That whole experience was death by train. And a painfully slow-moving one at that.

The sleeper section
Coming back from Hanoi, we knew better. Even if it was more costly (around $90 each), we chose the sleeper section. It is more private and comfortable and can accommodate 6 people with 3 beds on each side per room. They didn’t change the bed sheets though, so if new passengers boarded in one of the stopovers, they’d have to use the sheets of the passengers before them. There are multiple compartments in the sleeper section but the bathrooms were well-maintained. If you don’t like to hear the screaming vendor with the rolling cart, you can just close the door and lock it. It wasn’t exactly the cleanest but it was so much better than the soft berth. And this time, I got to appreciate the simple pleasures of a slow ride.

So what do you do on a 30-hour train ride?

To fight the boredom of a long train ride, I bought a book – Into the Wild by Jon Karakauer. I finished reading the book, updated my travel journal, listened to music, slept, ate (we brought our own food), and just marveled at the sights we passed by. There was one portion of the train ride where it seemed like we were teetering on the edge of a mountain and on the other side, we can see the vast blue ocean. Breathtaking. We also saw plenty of lush green rice fields, which is not surprising since Vietnam is one of the largest exporters of rice.    

Will I ride the train in Vietnam again? For long distances, no. But a couple of hours can be tolerable, I guess. There were a couple of stops that were worth hopping off on, such as Da Nang or Nha Trang. I would definitely want to come back and explore what those places can offer. 

Next: Day 4: Exploring the Old Quarter Streets and Watching the Water Puppet Show

Monday, September 23, 2013

Day 2: Cruising Along Mekong Delta

Breakfast in Vietnam is typically
a baguette with toppings of your choice
We were off to an early start on our second day. We signed up for the group tour for Mekong Delta through our hostel and the bus was going to pick us up at the hostel at 7:45AM.

There are pros and cons to joining guided group tours. One disadvantage is being forced to stop at places that do not merit your interest or attention. On the other hand, a guided tour allows you to relax in the company of fellow tourists. Further, your itinerary and transportation are taken care of. As it turned out, joining a guided group tour was a wise decision. The jump-off point for Mekong Delta River was in My Tho, which is more than an hour’s ride from Saigon. Then you have to rent a boat to cruise through the river. Did I mention language is a bit of a barrier? If you’re a first-time tourist in Saigon, better take the guided group tour and see if you want to wander off on your own the next time.

Boats of trade in Mekong Delta.
The Mekong Delta River flows through China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.  The river water is brown, probably from siltation, and plays an important role in the trade and commerce of the countries and the livelihood of its inhabitants.

There were a couple of stops during the tour: a bee farm where I tasted the most delicious honey tea, a coconut candy factory, and a fruit-tasting place where we were also serenaded by traditional Vietnamese music. We also stopped for lunch (included in the tour package).

The chocoholic on a paddle cruise!

The highlight of the tour – well, at least for me – was riding a small paddle boat and cruising through the narrow river channels. It was an exciting experience! When I stepped into the paddle boat, I was so sure the boat would topple and we’d all fall into the water. I held on to my dear Hunter. (I baptized my camera Hunter. Yes, I name my stuff.) But the paddlers have mastered the art of balance and even if there were occasional boat-to-boat bumps, the paddlers deftly used the paddle and we coasted on the calm, brown waters gracefully. I was a happy kid on a sunny afternoon. 

Next: Day3 & Day 7: Riding the Reunification Express Train to Hanoi and Back

Day 1: Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) City Tour

After finding our hostel, checking in, and being ushered to our 6-bed dorm-type room, I finally hit the sack at about 4 AM. I was tired as hell but relieved that several months of dreaming, waiting, and planning did not go to waste. I woke up a few hours later at mid-morning on a Sunday.

The first order of business for the day was to eat. I was starving! There are a couple of places to eat along our street but The Coffee Lounge caught my attention (It must be the purple umbrellas.) I had bacon, eggs, bread, and iced coffee. It was a bit pricey for my standards but when you’re hungry, you cannot be so picky. I didn’t want to try Vietnamese food just yet. *wink*

Second order of business for the day: exchange our USD to Vietnamese dong (VND). This was a bit of a challenge at the start. Although Vietnam is known to be one of the low-cost tourist destinations in Asia, a lot of Vietnamese people know very little to no English. There are no English translations for shops or services so we had to rely on context clues and guts to ask shop owners. We probably walked an entire street just looking around before reaching an intersection and deciding we didn’t want to walk around aimlessly anymore. We decided to ask. We later found out that a lot of shops in Vietnam can exchange your dollars to VND. You just have to ask. And yes, if you need to, a little sign language or charades can help you put your question across. Also, a lot of shops accept USD so we saved our VND for expenses like fare and food.

Ga Saigon ticketing counters

We needed to purchase train tickets for our trip to Hanoi the next day so we took a cab to Ga Saigon (the train station). We had the same dilemma – no English translations. So we simply mimicked what the residents did despite the fact that we did not understand a single word on the slip of paper we had on our hands. Thankfully, it was the right thing to do. Now, time for some sightseeing!

Trung Nguyen's coffee-flavored ice cream

It started to drizzle after walking from the train station so we ducked into the nearest Trung Nguyen café to let the rain pass. Trung Nguyen is one of Vietnam’s homegrown coffee brands and there are cafes in almost every corner.

From Trung Nguyen, we decided to stop and look around Ben Thanh Market. They sell about almost everything in Ben Thanh from coffee beans, bags, and souvenir items. We bought a few items and when we remembered that we still have several days of traveling (and spending) to do, we swore to go back before flying back so we know how much money we can still burn.

An old Canon camera in the museum

Ho Chi Minh City Museum. This wasn’t part of our original itinerary but after a lot of wrong turns and stops, we somehow ended up here so we explored it anyway. For a small fee of 15,000 VND (around Php 30), you can see interesting pieces of artifacts from their history.

From the balcony of the Palace
Reunification Palace. The quest to find the Reunification Palace inspired a lot of travel tips for navigating the streets of Saigon. More on that in another post. Entrance fee was 30,000 VND.  From outside, it looks like Malacañang. I loved the water fountain in the middle of a very green circular field. Other than that, I found it too plain. What we found there are different meeting rooms with well-preserved furniture. Quite frankly, I enjoyed my museum visits more than this but then again, history was made here so it still feels great to visit a place that was instrumental to the country you’re visiting.

Amen!  A sight for the tired eyes.

Notre Dame Cathedral. A fellow Filipina we met at the Reunification Palace suggested we should check this out because of its architectural beauty and it was indeed a sight to see.

The clock on the building does the trick.

Central Post Office. The only reason we even trooped to this place was because we badly needed a map and a few people we asked told us this is where we could get it. The post office was also conveniently located beside the Cathedral so all we needed was to walk and get in. It’s a busy, busy, busy building with lots of people coming in and out. For some weird reason -- although I highly suspect it was the big clock on the façade of the building and the beautiful Old French interiors – I imagined I was in Europe. This place is a haven for tourists, too. 

My travel buddy & blogger Maan inside the Post.

There are several ATM machines, money exchange booths, items to sell, and a mailing center. It wouldn’t be called a post office for nothing. We lounged around a bit because we were tired from all the walking, even exchanged some USD, and just watched people doing their own transactions.  

Diamond Plaza. By the time we left the post office, my stomach was grumbling. We saw that there was a mall within the vicinity so we went in and guess what we found – KFC! Ahh, the little joys. Although their gravy is nowhere as lip-smacking as the one we have here, I was just glad I had my first rice of the day.  

Saigon Opera House at night.
 Saigon Opera House and City Hall. Dusk was starting to settle when we left the mall. We just had to see Saigon Opera House and the Ho Chi Minh City Hall, which are both astounding at night with the  lights illuminating the French-ness (if there is such a word) of the buildings.

Our tummies and our hearts full, we decided to call it a day.

Ho Chi Minh City Hall. There's actually a wedding pre-nup shoot happening right there!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Vietnam: Into the Motorcycle Capital of the World

A couple of bloggers and travelers have named Vietnam as the motorcycle capital of the world. And I acquiesce. At least for the major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), the moniker does give justice to the hundreds and hundreds of motorbikes that rumble into the streets each day, sending locals and tourists a run for their lives. You cannot go to Vietnam and sashay like a ramp model. Of course, that wasn’t the impression running through my head in the pre-Vietnam days. Vietnam for me, meant coffee, French colony, and the UNESCO World Heritage site, Halong Bay.

We touched down at Tan Son Nhat International Airport at an ungodly hour. Our flight was delayed for more than an hour, pushing our 12:20 AM arrival further into the wee hours of the morning. The airport was almost deserted, save for a few sleepy personnel. We took a cab ($20) and went straight to our hostel in Pham Ngu Lao Ward in District 1. Fortunately, the taxi driver knew where the hostel was exactly located. The city was asleep too except for a couple of bars that were still open. I thought Saigon was a nice, quiet little city – until we slept and woke up the next day.

Saigon literally roars to life everyday with the motorcycles. One of the local tour guides told us that with the exception of children and old people, everyone owns a motorcycle in Vietnam. They outnumber the taxis, private cars, and buses and goodness, they run alongside these bigger modes of transport as if they were the same size!    

In Vietnam, a motorcycle driver is the king of the road -- even at rest.

So it wasn’t the quiet city I initially expected it to be, but it is a nice city. Their coffee exceeded my expectations and is incredibly delish. Something about the way they prepare the coffee or their water or their milk makes it really special. I brought home coffee from Vietnam and tried to make a cup as tasty but it is not quite the same. This is something you really have to try for yourself.

Trung Nguyen is one of Vietnam's homegrown coffee. (the chocoholic's favorite)
The French colony influence did not disappoint either. Vietnam has beautiful architectural structures. What I also admire is that they seem to be hell-bent in documenting their history, as evidenced by the number of museums they have. Sometimes, their museums overlap each other in some aspects. Nevertheless, it’s a conscious effort towards preserving their history and culture.

I will talk about Halong Bay in a separate post, as I am about to break down our backpacking trip per day. Because I really wanted to visit Halong Bay, which is in Hanoi (north) and still cross over to Cambodia (we are quite the ambitious first-time backpackers), we had to plan our itinerary really well. Although we ticked off a few items during the actual trip, we pretty much followed the itinerary we set for ourselves. Here’s a quick overview of our itinerary:

And so begins our journey.   

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How We Almost Didn’t Make It To Vietnam

The chocoholic's backpack
No journey is ever complete without a few bumps along the way. The first bump of our first backpacking trip came right at the beginning when we missed our flight to Vietnam.

No, we weren’t late for our flight. In fact, we were already at the Mactan Cebu International Airport two hours before our 6:15 PM flight to Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), where we’re supposed to take a 10:50 PM connecting flight to Ho Chi Minh. Between the 7:30PM estimated arrival time in NAIA and let’s say, the estimated boarding time of 10:20 PM, we had more than two hours of layover. We even checked in online so we can avoid the long counter lines. Besides, we took the term backpacking literally to heart and we carried one backpack and a smaller handbag each so no check-in baggages and more mobility for us. We were more than confident we’d catch the flight. The one thing we forgot: to factor in the moody, often tempestuous weather that the rainy season brings. June is, after all, the start of that season.

Our flight to Manila was delayed for about an hour. By the time the plane took off, I was very anxious. We’re going to have to make a run for the international airport as soon as we touchdown. The flight was a little turbulent – something I’m quite used to. I was a little relieved when I started seeing the buildings as we were about to land although I noticed the plane was shaking from the turbulence a little more than the usual. Like what I normally do before landing, I closed my eyes and waited for the landing thud. Instead, the plane accelerated, turned its nose upwards, and flew steeply back into the air. I quickly turned to my travel buddy with horrified eyes. It didn’t help that the week before the flight, the airline hit headlines when one of their planes overshot a runway in Davao airport. I recalled one passenger’s testimony of his experience. How convenient. Times like that, you NEVER want to remember things that can only aggravate your already frazzled nerves. Not one passenger said a word but we were looking at each other with meaningful expressions. We really thought we were in trouble.

Then the PA system cackled to life, breaking the uncomfortable silence and the captain explained that he had to abort landing due to zero visibility. Phew. He said he’d try to land the plane again but while we’re still circling the skies, he received a different order: all flights are to be diverted to Clark. Uh-oh. I told my travel buddy Maan we could get off in Clark and spend our dollars in Subic if everything else fails. Of course, that was just a joke in an attempt to lighten the situation. But deep inside, I was fighting my dwindling hopes. We landed in Clark safely and smoothly. Thank God, we’re alive! But we were stuck there, in our seats, inside the plane for 3 hours. At around 1AM, the plane received clearance to go back to NAIA.

By the time we arrived in NAIA, our plane to Saigon already left. The Cebu Pacific crew offered to put us and several passengers in the next flight and even extended their hospitality by graciously booking us in a nice hotel with free breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next day before being shuttled back to the airport to take our rescheduled flight.  The rescheduled flight would have sufficed but hey, the free accommodation, shuttle, and meals did not hurt one bit either. In fact, the gesture was truly appreciated.

After all the paperwork was completed, we were shuttled to St. Giles Hotel in Makati. After assuring our parents we were safe, we finally slept at 4AM. What.A.Night! Despite hitting an unexpected snag in our plans, I am still extremely grateful that I lived – to tell the story and to write it.