#45 Discover Saigon Again – Saigon Trip Part Two

Admit it, unless there’s something really compelling, you’re more likely to be drawn to a new place than go back to a place you’ve been. The world’s a big place and there’s so much to see. But hey, even the best of us fail to give the most exciting places the time it deserves – whether it’s lack of time (I need to get to Bangkok by Monday!) or lack of budget (I can’t spend more than 3 days in this city if I want to do…) or lack of vacation days (uh-uh need to get home). So I had the pleasure and the luxury to spend a little more time in Ho Chi Minh City (from here on HCMC) and it has thrown up some interesting finds. In Part One, I sieved out the must-sees, must-dos for a quickie 3-day trip, but here’s a little extra to get ya feelers on this gorgeous Southern Vietnam metropolis.

I’ve got SEVEN things here for you – buy a conical hat, take a walk, drink some coffee and culture, go dancing, that’s one day. Then, eat a couple of freshly made summer rolls, explore a museum, watch a live performance and get a haircut – that’s another day. BUY A HAT, TAKE A WALK, DRINK COFFEE, GO DANCING, EAT SUMMER ROLLS, EXPLORE A MUSEUM, WATCH A LIVE SHOW, GET A HAIRCUT. Try saying that all in one breath. Now get all that done in 2 days — what do you mean, of course it’s doable! Come on, let’s go!

BUY – Binh Tay Market

Welcome to the Labyrinth… I mean, Binh Tay Market!

A feast for the curious eyes, a nightmare for the orderly mind. This central market of Cholon/Chinatown is as amazing as it is claustrophobia-inducing. Built in 1928, this traditional Chinese marketplace used to be an important trading hub but there seemed to be no signs of slowing down! Tons of small stores jam-freaking-packed from floor to ceiling with stuff. I could not imagine so so so many things could fit into such tiny spaces. And the inventory! How do they keep track!

Chock-a-block of everything under the sun!

Nail clippers, stainless mugs, Revlon lipsticks, childrens’ pajamas, brightly coloured women’s underwear, Monin syrups, exercise books, woks… I think this place supplies the whole Saigon. You just gotta come see it for yourself.

Now, you probably have bought nothing since it was more like a feast for the eyes. Your wallet thanks you. Go outside the market and walk down the main street Tháp Mười in the direction towards the city– you’re bound to bump into a couple street peddlers selling the iconic Vietnamese hat (non la). Here they sell it for around 20,000k VND per hat (in August 2015) , a fraction of what you’d pay in the more touristy parts of the District 1.

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#44 Beginners’ Luck – Saigon Trip Part One

You say Saigon, I say Ho Chi Minh City (or some say HCMC). It might have been a sticky issue before but it seems that this up-and-coming Southeast Asian city has better things to think about now, such as the city’s exciting new metro line under construction, the downright hip club scene, and its metamorphosis into a modern metropolis. I won’t go into too much details about HCMC’s way forward with urban transformation – me ain’t no expert – but I can point you in the right direction for a couple things to do in the city for a getaway. A bunch of friends – including my little sis and the mister – flew to the city for a breath of fresh air (in more ways than one!) in August, and the fusion of several travel personalities has led us to a comfort zone boundary-pushing yet fun-filled trip for everyone.

Ho Chi Minh City street view (August 2015)

Our group was made up of a mix of first-timer and repeat travellers, as well as some pho lovers versus virgins ;-) All in all, we spent around 4 days in the city, hitting up many places when the mood strikes. Some good, some only so-so, some which I’d consider highlight/first timer places, next to some off-the-beaten-track or less touristy spots. Here’s a map for the places… good thing they are all centrally located so if you want you could walk to them all!

 

This is PART ONE – where I picked out the places we went that are more suitable for a first-time trip to this city, especially if you only have 2 days before moving off.

There is a bit of everything here, shopping in the market, coffee drinking, boulevard strolling, museum wandering… Plus, I hope my reviews can help you plan a solid itinerary to make the best of a tight schedule!  (I’ll post PART TWO next week!) Altogether we spent 4 days in the city – not a lot but not enough either (as usual) – and missed a couple places we initially planned to go, but we’ll be back!

Let’s hop to it! ^_^

For The Saigon Virgin

BUY – Ben Thant Market

Inside Ben Thant Market

First up, SHOPPING! ;-) The moment we stepped inside this labyrinth, hawk-eyed and red-lipped ladies grabbed our arm and persuaded us to buy their marked-up goodies, from lacquerware to dried coffee, from preserved fruits to baskets, from “I Love Saigon” T-shirts to the signature conical hat (nón lá). Here, I was rather intimidated and got the impression even if I bargain, I’d still get ripped off. But hey, you’re on holiday and they gotta eat, right?

 

Tip: Don’t buy your conical hat here! We paid only 20,000VND for one in Cholon! (which you’ll want to go.. more in Part Two).

 

 

 

 

Getting lost inside the Ben Thant Market - Photo: Amie Hu aka pherepiecet
Look at how many different kinds of fabric in just this small space!

After getting a little dizzy from the mad maze that is Ben Thant market, we made a dash for the stalls around the perimeter. Government-regulated, no-bargain stalls. Which meant a stress-free time for those who just aren’t turned on by all that haggling.

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#42 Up Java’s Big Boss Semeru in 2D1N – Volcano Weekend Part 2

Climbing Mount Semeru was insanely difficult especially since it was my first official volcano trek. In fact, I was pretty sanguine because I had no idea what I was in for. Sometimes that sort of ignorance can be bliss since I would’ve fretted endlessly. With three weeks between having decided and actually going, even bringing the gym game super strong was barely cutting it for me. If you are a seasoned hiker who have done other volcanoes and a couple of multi-day treks, you should have no problems. In any case, the trail towards Semeru is mostly dry and through temperate forest, which is more enjoyable for me than rolling around huge buttress roots in a tropical forest which is often dim and muddy. At 3,676 metres above sea level, Semeru is the highest volcano on Java, and the 3rd highest in Indonesia.

Hillsides spewing gases - taken on the way back to Cemoro Lawang from Ranu Pane

Our trek up Mount Semeru to the Mahameru summit was a 2D1N journey. A few people have asked me if it was possible with the condensed itinerary, since this trip was commonly advertised as 3D2N, and the answer is yes!

(This is the fast and furious version as some of us cannot take too many vacation days and a longer trip was out of our budget. There is the usual version at 3D2N, where you set up camp at Ranu Kumbolo before continuing on again. Skip to the end of this post for the itinerary.)

Having a good night’s sleep the night before is crucial, since the next evening with no proper bed and the anticipation of the summit attack we barely got any sleep. On the day of the hike, we started out bright and early at around 8, with the Jeep picking us up from our hotel. We passed the Bromo entrance and continued on down toward the Sea of Sand, and then went a bit further.

We had two pit stops on this Jeep ride – the first one is the Whispering Sands and the second one is Teletubbies Hill, before moving on to our actual starting point of the hike – Ranu Pane.

These sands don't really whisper but they do get into your eyes!!!

The Whispering Sands, or Pasir Berbisik. There was a lot of ash and sand swirling in the air and we could not see further than 50 metres, let alone the actual horizon. We didn’t hear any whispering from the sand, just excited shouts of other tourists jumping off their Jeeps. The Mad Max sensation of crossing the desert was stronger here. After a few photos, we were choking on the sediment-filled air and happy to move on.

The Jeep lurched and jerked and rattled on. Continue reading

#41 Sunset at Bromo – Volcano Weekend Part I

Don’t be fooled: Volcanoes are dangerous things. Yet it’s not that common – at least not in Indonesia – to find a place where you can watch lava flowing down the slopes at close range. From far, you see gentle white plumes of smoke shaped like angels and it could appear like it’s snowing on a perfectly warm day. Get close enough, they rain down acrid flakes of nostril-clogging ash which obscure your vision and deliver enough sulphuric gases guaranteed to make your lungs very unhappy.

My friends and I went on a 3D2N journey to see two stunning volcanoes in East Java – Mount Bromo and Mount Semeru. These two neighbours may be next to one another but they can’t be more different.

From Singapore, it’s a short 2.5 hour flight to Surabaya, a popular base in East Java where adventure seekers and hiking enthusiasts go off to bag some volcanoes. Think of Bromo as your eager-to-please photo-friendly destination, and Semeru as a gruelling scale-me-if you dare royal challenge.

We wanted to fit our trip into 3 days – but if you have more time, go ahead and plan a more breathable itinerary. We landed in Surabaya at around 9.30am and reached Cemoro Lawang via airport transfer (courtesy of our hotel – SM Bromo) by 2.30pm. With the relatively smooth traffic, it took 4.5 hours to reach the hotel. Instead of waiting till the next morning for the sunrise, we opted to see Bromo at sunset.

We set off around 3pm and walked 5km from our hotel to the entrance of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, a mostly-uphill walk that took us 45 minutes. We were treated to some pretty scenery of onion fields and rice patches like this one here.

Onion fields galore!
We stayed at SM Bromo Hotel and had a wonderful experience. We paid 200k IDR per person for one night’s stay. For this price we had hot water & good pressure in the shower, freshly prepared hot breakfast with tea/coffee included, plus great service, new and clean facilities and the smooth and efficient airport transfer. So I would say it’s more than value for money! The trade off is that it can be quite far from the entrance – this 5km can be done by Jeep too – so you decide. Note that there are a few hotels that are directly next to the entrance, which is a mere 5-minute walk to the entrance, but I read too many negative reviews to risk staying at those.

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#35 In The Heat Of Mount Papandayan, Indonesia

Mount Papandayan is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when people plan a trip to a volcano. With more than 120 volcanoes all over the Indonesian archipelago, it’s only natural that a lot of gunung apis get completely sidelined and ignored by tourists and visitors. While every volcano may have something interesting to offer, there are definitely a few that stand out because they are well-linked to cities, have more media coverage, better tourism infrastructure and better marketing, and/or are simply more beautiful, at least in the conventional way, than others, like Bromo, Ijen, Rinjani and Merapi, to name the popular ones.

Located in a highly tectonically active region, Indonesia is the go-to place to experience the raw and potentially dangerous beauty of these lava-spewing devils. So it’s a good thing that a volcano lover like me is living a short plane ride away from these hot spots. I was planning a trip to Bandung and as usual one of the first things I started hunting down is somewhere to go absorb the great outdoors. Tangkuban Perahu came up tops in searches, but the reviews about pushy touts and heaving crowds totally put me off. No matter how gorgeous a place is, it defeats the whole idea of invigorating oneself in Mother Nature when all the crowd-fighting just sucks the life out of you.

We booked a day tour via our hostel in Bandung. The sun rises earlier here in Bandung than in Singapore, and there’s traffic to beat, so we left a little past 7am. We passed small non-descript towns that resembled one another – mobile phone stalls, roadside hawkers selling bakso and batagor, vegetable sellers, and witnessed the occasional cluster of goats tied to wooden posts awaiting their fate of being sold and slaughtered. It was the Islamic festival of Eid-al-Adha. After two and a half hours, the driver brought us to Garut, a sleepy village near the volcano, to meet our guide Danny, and then we bounced for 20 minutes on rocky, bumpy terrain up to the foothills of Mount Papandayan. Danny told us that this volcano is classified as Type A, meaning it can “blow anytime”. Not very reassuring to say this now, especially since we are just about to climb up. The last time it blew its top was in 2002, and he seemed confident that volcanic eruptions of this kind is a once-every-100-year event so it “shouldn’t” happen again. Something from my geography undergrad days tell me this theory is flawed but I tried not to dwell on it, considering my penchant for entertaining irrational fears.

Do we want the standard route or “Danny’s Special Route”? asked Danny our guide. We figured we hired him to show us something ‘interesting’ so Danny’s way it is. Little did we expect to be literally walking on sizzling hot ground!

Panoramic view at Mount Papandayan

Panoramic view at Mount Papandayan

The first part of the “Special Route” was a shortcut through a series of skin-grazing, low-lying shrubs. Around 40 minutes later, we arrived at a vantage point to admire the spectacular view. The initial ascent was steep and I had to pause a few times before reaching the ‘top’, which was one of the accessible summits (not the ultimate one). Here we enjoyed panoramic views – looking far and wide, we could see all the way down to the flat rice plains and another mountain, Gunung Cikuray, in the distance. Down below, a trail of backpack-wielding hikers was making its way up to the other side of the volcano where apparently you could camp overnight on a grassy clearing.

Time to explore sulphur-emitting geysers, colourful ribbons of water, cascades of steaming hot liquid, and bubbling mud holes! Continue reading

#28 Deported, Bags Like Chekhov’s Gun

I thought about writing this for quite sometime now. I didn’t before, because I felt ridiculously sore about it  weeks after. To be a warrior at travelling, I have to accept that bad things happen, we fall, we brush ourselves off, we get up and we go again. (Plus it makes for a good 5-minute dinner party story.)

My boyfriend and I booked a trip to visit the famed Borobudur and some of the volcanoes in Java in February. I was more than psyched because it was close to the top of the to-see list for me. I sold the idea shamelessly to him, and since I did all the legwork as usual — trip planning, booking and all that jazz — he was agreeable. Sounds like another adventure waiting to happen.

A little sense of foreboding nagged at the back of my mind. My psychic mind told me it’s not going to be a volcanic eruption or anything of that sort. I prayed that the budget airlines plane will fly straight.

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#15 Humbled in Si Phan Don, Laos

So, there I was, on the idyllic Don Khon, enjoying the cool breeze along the Mekong and gazing over at Don Det on the opposite bank… We just arrived in Si Phan Don, located in the southern region of Laos (right across the border from Cambodia).  Stomachs growling, we ducked in a rustic-looking restaurant overlooking the murky brown Mekong River.

That was when a Laotian boy, around ten years of age, armed with an impressive command of English, came up and served us our menus.

Seizing the opportunity to practice a bit of English, he asked, “Where are you from? China?”

I shook my head politely, but in my head I was once again slightly affronted. With all due respect, I may look Chinese but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m from China.

“Hmm, so where are you from?” He asked inquisitively, bouncing along with me as he showed me the way to the ‘bathroom’, a toilet bowl fixed upon a tiny attap outdoor cubicle, haphazardly built in between a chicken coop and a tool shack. Tiny green crabs were skittering across muddy tufts of grass while a yellow-furred dog stretched lazily in the afternoon sun.

“I’m from Singapore.” I wasn’t sure if he knows where that is, yet at the same time, I sort of hoped he did too. After all, Laos and Singapore aren’t that far apart. Let’s see if this kid stayed awake during his classes.

“Oh!” His saucer-like brown eyes lit up with recognition, two rows of shiny white teeth baring as he grinned.

He paused as if to ponder over that knowledge.

“Singapore? It’s a small country.” He actually sniffed and waved his hand in dismissal.

Every time I traveled to a less developed country, I try to play down on the fact that I came from a more well-off place. I did not want to let any preconceived notions or differences come between my making new connections with people I meet on my travels.

Yet, this was the first time I was faced with such an unexpected role reversal. I felt the need to defend where I came from. But more than that I battled with conflicting emotions: I didn’t know whether to feel glad at least we were “on the map” enough for a village boy to recognize us, or aghast that we are so small and unimpressive that a boy who has probably never traveled out of his village actually scoffed at us with distaste.

Later, it occurred to me that the boy probably learnt his English from the hordes of tourists that flocked to the islands all year round. It was also equally possible that he garnered his knowledge about the world from the Lonely Planet guides that travellers left behind… In any case, he is young and the world is his oyster. And hopefully, by being around tourists all the time will inspire him to reach out and see all the foreign places he has heard about.

One revelation that I came away with? That more often than not, surprises hit you when you least expect it, and in this case from a young boy barely half my age. ♥