Just for Pho – Visiting Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh has to be one of my favourite cities in South East Asia.  It has the perfect balance of chaos and ease to navigate.  It’s one of those cities that every time you go back you will spend an equal portion of time between visiting your favourite hang-outs and discovering new ones – normally purely by chance.  So here are my top three things to do in HCM…

1. Pho glorious Pho

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I love Asian food but I’ve never quite gotten to that stage where I can bring myself to eat rice, noodles or soup for breakfast.  With one exception, HCM Pho.  I can Pho for breakfast, Pho for lunch and still have room for Pho in the evening.  But I love all food in HCM I’ve a simple rule: the cheaper the better! Why?  Simple, HCM has the best street food you will find in SE Asia.  So pull up a plastic stall and join the locals.  I can’t guarantee you’ll always know what you’re eating… but I can promise it will be fresh, authentic and served with a smile.

For first timers, try the multiple food stalls which litter the side streets around Ben Thanh market.  Here Western expats and tourists seemingly blend in with local Vietnamese families having their evening meal.  Beer is cheap, some English is normally spoken and your meal should cost no more than a few dollars (not that you’ll ever see a price list!)

If you’re eating on the go, make sure you try a Vietnamese baguette (Banh Mi).  Delicious freshly baked bread, introduced by the French during the colonial period, with lashings of pate, pickles, ham or chicken, cheese, eggs, salad and garnished with coriander.  The baguettes are always made to order normally starting with the street vendor re-heating the bread in a little oven and then stuffing it with your choice of fillings.

For those wanting something a little more formal, try Cục Gạch Quán or Lemongrass.  In both establishments you may be surprised by just how much the prices have jumped from your street Pho but the flavours and experience are well worth the extra dollars.

2. Follow the journalists

Vietnam has a tragic and troubling  history most recently with the Vietnam war. A trip to Ho Chi Minh wouldn’t be right without taking some time to understand the trauma that the country has suffered.

During the Vietnam war many journalists were stationed in HCM capturing the war in photos and reporting back to their home countries.  If you have a day to spare in HCM then why not follow the journalists for a day.

Morning

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Take a trip to the War Remnants Museum in District Three.  Here you can discover the war through the eyes (lens) of Bun yo Ishikawa a Japanese journalist.  In the late 1990’s Ishikawa donated approximately 250 photos to the War Remnants Museum. They are now displayed in a permanent collection along with other photos and stories from journalists covering the war.

The photos are often graphic and they, along with the other artifacts and exhibitions in the museum, often lead visitors to conclude the museum gives a distorted view of the war or even that the museum is anti-American. I will let you each reach your own conclusion on whether the museum is bias but few people deny that it is a though provoking, sometimes shocking but ultimately unmissable museum.

Hint: Check with your hotel reception on opening hours, regardless of what the website says they like to open and close at strange hours on random days!

http://warremnantsmuseum.com/

Afternoon

A favourite way of passing time in Ho Chi Minh is exploring Le Cong Kieu Street.  Here lies a strange collection of small antique stores selling mainly old war remnants in particular cameras, photos and small items belonging to soldiers.  Anyone with a keen interest in history or photography can find themselves losing many an hour here.  The sheer collection of antique cameras will always have me coming back.  Some of the antiques may be questionable or overpriced but you never know what you may find and therein lies the greatest pleasure.

Evening

No day following the journalists would be complete without a sunset drink at the THE REX HOTEL – Rooftop Garden Bar.  During the war this bar was a poular hangout for journalist who would discretely meet here to discuss the key stories of the day whilst enjoying the stunning views.

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3. Send a postcard 

Before you go home make sure you stop by the old post office and send a postcard.  Not only will your friends and family appreciate the gesture but you’ll be privileged to see one of the most beautiful original buildings in HCM.

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Hints and Tips:

– HCM is a very safe city but like any other place there are pick-pockets so do keep an eye on your belongings especially if taking a bicycle ride.

– Visas: The only thing I hate about Vietnam! Vietnam does not allow visa on arrival (unless you have an ASEAN passport).  You have two options for getting a visa 1) From the Vietnam embassy in your home country 2) A pre-approval on-line from one of the many companies (Google).  Please note this is not a visa – it only allows you to board the plane.  When you arrive you need to hand in this form along with an application form and a photo with your passport for your visa to be processed.

At HCM airport there is zero order or planning here so depending on the number of flights this process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours.  My recommendation would be save time (and money – you don’t pay the agents fee) by getting the visa in advance

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Volcanoes, Beaches, Burgers and Outlets – Travels in Hawaii

I recently said goodbye to the glorious beaches of South East Asia to explore beaches further afield and from Singapore you don’t get much further than Hawaii!

When travelling to Hawaii the first thing you need to decide is which island.  The islands are as follows:

1. Hawaii – The Big Island

2. Maui 

3. O’ahu – The main island and key international airport

4. Kaua

5. Moloka

6. Lana

7. Ni-Ihau

8. Kaho-Olawe

Each of the islands has its own appeal and charm.  The islands are easy to hop between on Hawaiin Airlines.  However, as our trip was short we restricted ourselves to two islands: The Big Island and O’ahu.

The people on both islands are incredible friendly and welcoming.  You will be greeted with a warm “Aloha” wherever you go.

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The Big Island was an unexpected delight for me.  We had set aside only a few days of our trip to stay on the Big Island but in hindsight I could have spent the entire trip here.  The first couple of days were spent exploring the islands many beaches.  Mostly these are short strips of beach. Compared to Asia, you don’t have the fine white sand but each is unique and has its own charm. 

On one beach we found a charming beach club complete with Reggae artist who quickly got us into the holiday and Hawaiin spirit.  The beach was also home to incredible snorkelling. The area is mainly hard coral but has many beautiful coral cones and schools of tropical fish.

On another beach we were blessed with giant sea turtles who came right to the shore to feed at the rocks.

A third beach was black sand from the volcano.  There’s also an elusive Green Sand beach – warning if you want to go to it you can’t drive.  There’s a carpark at the top, from there it’s about a 1.5 hour trek.  There are often locals in the carpark with giant 4X4s who can make it to the beach and will take you for a small fee.

 

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The beaches here are clean and safe.  Most have facilities such as toilets and a beach shower but not much else.  Compared to the beaches on O’ahu these are more peaceful and picturesque.  You won’t find anyone offering beds or water sports here just locals enjoying the peach and quiet.

Beaches are just one side of the Big Island.  The other side is the spectacular volcano and landscape.   Kilauea Volcano is a highly active volcano.  When we were there it wasn’t currently spilling any lava but you can see activity in the form of steam vents throughout the Volcano National Park.  

The National Park is easy to access with a car (you don’t need a 4X4 there’s sadly no off-roading!) At the entry to the National Park is a visitors center which will provide an update to the latest conditions on the volcano and provide recommendations on hiking trails.  For those who would rather rest their legs, most of the volcano can be viewed from the comfort of your vehicle.  However, if you’re to do just one hike, make sure you walk to where the latest lava flows in 2004 covered the road.  You’ll be able to walk on the newest land in Hawaii!

 

 

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To access the lava flow you’ll drive approximately 45 minutes down the side of the mountain to the ocean.  It is a spectacular drive through the lava fields with stunning views of the ocean. There are many places to pull over and take photos.  The walk to the new lava is approximately 15 – 20 minutes.

O’ahu – Shoppers paradise

O’ahu is definitely the key tourist island and has a very different feel to the big island.  This is “package holiday” paradise and the place welcomes numerous tourists from mainland US as well as South America and Asia.  

O’ahu has some charm – the mountains and still stunning and the sea still clear but with it’s busy highways and towering hotel concrete blocks it definitely lacks the charm of the Big Island. 

But there are two things here that can’t be missed: Pearl Harbour and Shopping!

O’ahu (especially for us non-Americans) is shoppers paradise.  All the big brands have outlets here with far lower prices than you can get back home.  There is tax but it’s only 4.7%.  The outlets are easily accessible from the main beach/area of Waikiki which also houses the main shopping belt.  There are cheap shuttle buses which regularly take people to and from the malls / outlets.  

A trip to Hawaii wouldn’t be complete without visiting the monument and historical sites at Pearl Harbour.  There are many tour companies which will arrange your trip or you can go solo.  Quick tip – when you look on the government website it will likely tell you there are no tickets remaining. Fear not – if you arrive early (and I do mean early aka 7am) they have “on the door tickets”.  We choose a tour company as we didn’t want to get up early.  Imagine our horror then when they told us they were picking us up at 6.30am! The tour companies also don’t have the tickets they just send a scout in the morning to queue up and buy.  For this privilege and the coach there you will pay as much as USD 100.  Anyway rant over…

http://www.nps.gov/usar/planyourvisit

Having recently visited Hiroshima (blog on this coming I promise) I was eager to visit Pearl Harbour to see the other side of the equation.  Both the memorial and the historical sites/museums have been put together very well presenting facts from both sides without bias. The memorial itself is a breathtaking structure floating on the Arizona ship which lays below it. From the memorial you will have views of parts of the boat below which are visible just below the surface.  As many of the soldiers were never not recovered from the wreckage it is fitting that the memorial has been built in the water over their ship which is also now their tomb.  A moving experience indeed and a touching end to the trip to pay tribute to brave men and women who lost their lives in order that we can freely travel today. 

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Tips

– Hire a car in the Big Island (you will need it) you can do without in O’ahu

– Take water booties for snorkeling there are a lot of sea urchins

– Unless you really need a commercial fix spend less time on O’ahu and more on neighbouring islands.  The beaches on O’ahu are crowded and nothing special.  

p.s. There are never any filters used on my photos.  The sea really is that blue!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Touring South East Asia’s newest country

Timor Leste is a tiny country taking over the Eastern part of the island of Timor. Outwardly it may not be an obvious location for a group of young people but it does have a few unique attractions the key one being that it is in fact the newest country in South East Asia becoming independent in May 2002.

Timor Leste has a long and painful history one which is still very much apparent in the present day. Arriving in Dili the first thing you notice is that there is a surprising number of Westerners here. Holidaying though, they are not. They are here with the United Nations as part of the ongoing peacekeeping mission mandated to assist the newly independent Timor Leste. The UN seem very much at ease with each other and the locals. During the day they are often spotted out on patrol and in the evenings can be spotted running along the rugged coastline or at one of the local eateries. Their presence appeared to be centred in Dili but it was outside of Dili when we travelled further into the mountains that we saw more of the evidence as to why they were there.

Dili itself is a pleasant enough capital. Enough sites and attractions to keep a tourist entertained for a day or two. But the true reason we were there wasn’t to see the presidential palace or the Cristo Rei de Dili (impressive though it was), we were there to climb Mount Ramelau. Mount Ramelau is the tallest mountain in East Timor standing at an impressive 2,963 meters. Before you can start a climb of Mount Ramelau you must first experience Timor Leste’s infrastructure (or lack of) in a 4X4 for a number of hours. Certainly not for the faint hearted or those easily travel sick, the journey takes you up the side of the mountain range through the small villages who survive by farming Timor Leste’s largest export, coffee. We arrived at a small village in the early evening which was to be our “base camp” for the night. After a short sleep we were awoken around 5am to prepare for the summit climb. Even at the base camp you can feel the effects of the altitude and though it’s not a difficult climb it certainly isn’t easy. Of course we were spurred on my our tour guide who laughed frequently at how slow we moved likening us to slow-moving cows. Not deterred we pushed on reaching the summit 20 minutes before sunrise. Huddled together against the cold we eagerly awaited our reward for the climb. And disappointed we were not. The sky starts to pink at the corners and spreads quickly inwards to the whole sky is a glorious mix of reds, pinks and oranges. As the sky lightens the mist begins to clear to allow the mountain tops to peek through the clouds. At that moment everyone instantly forgot the bitter cold and focused only on getting the best possible shot (quickly realising this is impossible when you are physically shaking!)

The descent was undertaken at a far more leisurely pace. Even our mountain goat guide had slowed down to a “cows” pace though this, it turns out, was due to a nasty bout of altitude sickness. Having climbed under the blackness of night, our descent was the first time we could take in our surroundings. We had already stopped on the drive to base camp at the Australian war memorial which provided details of the sad history of Timor Leste. The descent down Mt Ramelau allowed us to see for ourselves the destruction inflicted on this small country by Indonesian forces as they retaliated against the referendum for independence. It is said that in less than one month the Indonesian military had destroyed more than 75% of the country’s infrastructure. Most of which, remains in a poor state. From the mountain side as far as you can see there are torched forests, destroyed buildings and gaping roads. And yet, through all this, Timor Leste retains this rugged, unspoiled beauty.

For the remainder of the trip we decided to stay on low ground and explore the beautiful island of Atauro and beaches of Dili. Atauro is famous for its beautiful coral which sits within ten meters of the shore and is almost untouched. One not to miss for any avid snorkeler, the marine life here seems unspoiled  unexplored and unreserved. The boat ride from the mainland to Ataruo takes around 1 – 2 hours depending on the conditions. Once on the island the mode of transport is tuk tuks. There isn’t much to see here but there is a charming museum/workshop called Bonecas de Atauro which is a charity organisation providing incomes to members of the community through the production and sale of Boneca dolls and toys.

In Dili the best beach to visit is known locally as Jesus’ backside beach. This is not a comment on how the locals view its condition, but due to its location behind the Cristo Rei de Dili. Impossible to access by road, Jesus’ backside beach remains a peaceful haven for those who can find the hidden path….

Notes:

We booked a 6 day package tour through Island Explorer http://www.islandexplorer.com.au

We stayed at:
Dili – Novo Horizonte (basic but clean – used my many of the UN)
Atauro – Barry’s Place (eco-friendly accommodation run by an expat. Very friendly family and welcome – would highly recommend)
Base camp – Hatobuiliko Guesthouse

Currently the UN is due to leave Timor Leste at the end of the year. A visit to Dili isn’t complete without seeing the East Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum. The museum sets out the history of Timor Leste and it’s struggle for independence in a largely unbiased manner calling for you to reach your own conclusions on the various failings of the countries involved. You will need at least 2 -3 hours to see all of the exhibitions.

http://amrtimor.org/amrt/index.php?lingua=en

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Not just for honeymoons

I sometimes joke with my friends that I never need to get married because I’ve already been to the best honeymoon spots. A few of my girlfriends believe some places are too “magical” for a holiday and should be saved. I’m assuming most people only intend on marrying once (even if this doesn’t quite work out in practice!) So why are we scared to visit the worlds most beautiful locations and are they really “just for honeymooners”?

The Maldives is easily the most magical place I’ve ever visited. To this day it is the only place where the reality is better than the pictures. Trust me, when you’re reading your Sunday Times travel supplement, they haven’t photoshopped the sea – it really is that blue. And the sand really is that fine, the sun does always seem to shine and the people can’t do enough to help you. Sound like paradise? Well it is. So why are we leaving it to the honeymooners – we should all be enjoying it now. In fact, if you believe the reports on the rising sea levels, you may not have that many years left to wait for Mr Right to pop the question.

Can you go to the Maldives by yourself or with a friend? Yes of course you can. Recently the government of the Maldives changed the rules relating to tourism on inhabited islands. Previously, to protect the culture of the country, hotels and resorts could only be built on islands that were uninhabited. Now however, the rules have been relaxed meaning guest houses and B&Bs are opening up on inhabited islands. Not only do these provide a cost-saving alternative to the big resorts, but with the requirement to adhere to local rules you’re pretty much guaranteed to avoid any honeymooners! And for those more energetically inclined, there are many companies which offer dive or surf liveaboards. These are a great idea if you want to visit different Atolls and islands and can offer a fun way to meet like-minded people all whilst soaking up the beauty of the country. Of course I’m not ruling out a visit to the big resorts, they’re fantastic if you’re looking for a little rest and relaxation as many have a “no shoes, no news” policy, but this will never be a place if you’re single and looking to mingle.

For those of you happily “coupled-up” you should also not put off a visit. It is an incredibly romantic destination but it’s also one of the best diving holidays I’ve taken. With perfect snorkelling from the steps of your villa the holiday doesn’t have to be all romantic dinners on the beach (in fact when we were there we didn’t do one!) Enjoy the islands for what they are – the closest you’ll get to unspoilt, diverse and beautiful reef and marine life. And if he happens to get down on one knee at the end of it… well it will just be an unnecessary added bonus.

Tips

Tipping is fairly customary in the resorts and is done in USD. Change up bigger notes in advance for one dollar bills so you can tip as you go along (particuarly important if you’re on an all-inclusive package).

We stayed at:

http://www.veliganduisland.com/

If you’re opting for a water villa, the ones on the west side get sun all day and have the best snorkelling (the sea can be a little choppy here if winds get up). Those on the east side are closer to the bar and restaurants, have beautiful sun rises but will be in the shade by early afternoon. Request in advance for your preference, the hotel will do their best to accommodate you.

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Beautiful Bagan

Every blog has to have a first post.  I’m sure I’m not the first blogger who has almost fallen at this first hurdle “what shall I write about?” I’m sure there are many more logical ways to start but I will start with a post about the place which inspired my page: Bagan.

With so many amazing places to visit in the world (let alone Asia) you may ask, “why Myanmar?” Well the answer to that is simple, it’s the perfect time and it may not be for long.  Why do I say that? Well compared to it’s neighbours: Thailand, Laos and China it just hasn’t seen many tourists.  Of course there are many political reasons for this – but I have no desire to write about those here.  The point is, Myanmar is now open for business which means it’s open for tourists as well!

So what’s the rush? Well we all know that tourism has paid dividends to the economies of South East Asia but we also know it comes at a price.  When mass-tourism hits a country it loses a little bit of its culture with every souvenir taken home.  Myanmar is the fresh-faced undergraduate of Asia and it’s keen and ready to welcome you but trust me, give it a few more years and they’ll know as many scams as your ping-pong salesman on Khaosan Road!

I started my journey in Myanmar in the old capital of Yangon.  The government of Myanmar moved the capital from Yangon in 2006 and looking at the city I’d say they exited in a hurry.  Many of the buildings are derelict and are being left to decay in an undignified manner.  There are however, a few architecture wonders left, particularly if you like old colonial buildings.  The Old City Hall is a fine example.  The main city can be easily covered on foot in a morning, the afternoon you may want to dedicate to the Shwedagon Pagoda which is one of the most impressive religious sites I have ever visited.

Having seen the best that Yangon has to offer in a day, you can move on to the reason you are there: the airport.  The only way to get to beautiful Bagan is on a domestic flight and these are fairly frequent from Yangon.

Bagan is situated in the North-West of the country on the Irrawaddy river.  The airport is on the edge of the Archaeological Zone and is connected by road.  Once in the Zone, the main modes of transport are house and cart or pushbike.  The Archaeological Zone comprises of over 2000 Pagodas and Temples in varying condition.  Taking a horse and cart through the area is like being whisked back in time more than 1500 years.  Each Pagoda has its own charm and attraction which adds to the beauty of the land.  The people here are friendly and approachable.  They have seen enough tourism to know there is money in local arts and handicrafts but are still fascinated by each new individual who passes through.

At the end of our tour we asked our coachman to take us to his favourite Pagoda.  We pulled up alongside a large Pagoda a good few meters higher than its neighbours.  The coachman explained that it was one of few Pagodas where you could still reach the roof.  Of course he failed to mention that this was via an external staggered wall.  The final part of the climb was through an internal tunnel and a short flight of stairs. Upon emerging I lost my breath.  This is the only time a view has been truly – breathtaking.

 

Tips:

Myanmar controls its currency meaning you will not be able to obtain any local currency if you are not within Myanmar borders.  The main currency used by tourist is USD which is accepted almost everywhere.  Please however note that if most places will not accept notes which are torn, too creased or marked in anyway.  Credit cards are not widely accepted.

An application was made in 2006 to obtain UNESCO World Heritage Site status to the Bagan Archaeological Area and Monuments this is still tentative.  You will be asked to make a donation to the restoration of the area before leaving the airport.

We stayed at:

http://www.chatrium.com/chatrium_hotel_yangon/

http://www.thiripyitsaya-resort.com

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Hello world!

I suppose I should start at the beginning and tell you a little something about me… But I guess there have been many beginnings of many wonderful journeys.  I’m not quite ready to share those yet so let’s start here, with a story.

Once open a time there was a little girl who dreamed of lands far away.  Her world revolved around distant dreams of exotic places, of nature, of people.  When other children would escape and play with dolls or computers, she would escape into an Atlas and plan world adventures.  She would meticulously document every item she might need should she ever be stranded in the Amazon and at night she would dream of the journey that would take her there.

That little girl is me and I am on a journey to make all those childhood dreams come true.  I haven’t yet needed my Amazon survival pack but I have had many amazing adventures.  Some of which I will share here… And together we can find enough wonderful places to satisfy even the most curious traveler or failing that, my 8 year-old self.

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