Tag Archives: transportation

Trekking in Sapa

After Angkor Wat, my parents and I headed to our next destination: Sapa. Located in northwest Vietnam, Sapa is a mountain town and is one of the only regions in Vietnam that has distinct seasons. It actually gets cold during the winter! With a population of approximately 36,000, the area is home to a number of ethnic minority groups. The Hmong are the largest miniority group in Sapa and make up a little over half of the population. In addition to the Hmong, there are four other minority groups that reside in Sapa (spellings vary): the Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho people.

Sapa is located in Northwest Vietnam, very close to the Chinese border.

Most of the minority groups work in the mountains growing rice and corn.  In addition to farming, the minority groups in Sapa make money by selling homemade products such as clothing, jewelery, bags, fabrics, etc to tourists. As soon as you step off the bus, you are immediately surrounded by swarms of women trying to sell you things. It was definitely a little overwhelming having people constantly trying to talk to you and sell you things, but it’s important to remember that they are just trying to make a living. However, even though begging and selling to tourists is so prominent, our tour guide explained to us that we shouldn’t buy from any of the children. By giving them money, it is only encouraging them to beg more instead of spending their time studying at school.

So the actual town of Sapa is a little hectic. Like I mentioned, you can’t walk down the street without being approached by groups of minority women. It has also become a pretty developed tourist hub, so the town is lined with hotels and restaurants that cater toward foreigners. Although the view from town is nice, Sapa is best enjoyed by trekking through the rice fields. Along with a guide, my parents and I completed a 12K trek through rice fields and the Hmong and Dao villages. Our guide took us on less traveled routes and we completed our trek without running into any other tour groups. We were able to see how the rice is grown and learned about the everyday lives of the minority peoples. The trek also provided stunning views of the mountainside in Sapa.

My father eating breakfast at our hotel

About 30 min into the trek, we made it out of the town of Sapa and entered the rice fields.

A water buffalo plowing the rice fields

Overlooking a Hmong village

View of the mountainside from a minority village

Close up of the rice fields

The "postcard" view of Sapa.

The only downside about Sapa is it’s a little inconvienent to get to. You have to take a 10 hour train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then from Lao Cai it’s another 1 hr 30 min busride to get to Sapa. However, most people take the night train from Hanoi so you don’t actually lose much time traveling. There is public transportation that you can take from Lao Cai to Sapa, but honestly I think it’s worth it to pay the extra money and plan ahead of time for a private bus or van. For a few extra dollars, I think it’s definitely worth it.

The next entry will be about the Bac Ha Market which is a 3hr drive from Sapa. Crazy things for sale!!!

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Scenes from Nha Trang

Nha Trang is so beautiful that I can’t resist posting some of my favorite photos from the trip. For those of you in Saigon, it’s only a $10 bus ride away and if you take the night bus it’s totally possible to visit Nha Trang over a long weekend. This is the perfect place to take a beach vacation on a budget.

For about $1.50 you can rent one of these beach chairs at the Louisiane Brewhouse for an entire day. The area is clean and waiters will bring food and cold drinks to your seats. A 330ml glass of freshly brewed beer costs you $1.50.

For $18 you can parasail along the main strip of beach in Nha Trang. That is actually me and my friend Greg!

View of Nha Trang from the Cham Towers (only a 10 minute drive away from the center of town).

For just $5 a day, you can rent a motorbike and drive along the coast of Nha Trang. The roads aren't very crowded and you get a great view of all the islands around Nha Trang.

You also pass a bunch of fishing villages as you cruise around.

For $18 you can take a 6 hour boat/snorkling tour around the surrounding islands of Nha Trang. Snorkling gear, lunch and a guide are all provided.

Who knew water this clear existed in Vietnam? Perfect for snorkling!

In addition, lodging in the backpackers district is no more than $10 a night per person, making a trip to Nha Trang very affordable. Think about how much a vacation like this would cost in a place like Hawaii! I can’t wait to go back!

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History on the Streets of Saigon

Now that I’ve been driving around Saigon for over a month, I have a pretty good handle on most major streets in District 1 and District 3. My acquisition of street names has coincided with starting to take Vietnamese lessons, and it is this convergence that has given me the idea for this post: History on the Streets of Saigon.

With the help of my excellent Vietnamese teacher, I was able to make the realization that I now know enough Vietnamese to start comprehending some of the Vietnamese I encounter everyday. While going off on one of many tangents during class the other day, we got into the topic of street names and we were able to decipher the meanings of a bunch of streets in downtown Saigon. What I found most interesting about this was almost all of the street names have significant meaning in Vietnamese history. Whereas in the United States street names can be as silly as Trumpet Circle (the street I grew up on), street names in Vietnam stand for something really important. So in an attempt to share some history and Vietnamese language with you, I have selected a few streets I spend a lot of time on and will explain their significance to Vietnamese history.

Cách mạng tháng Tám Cách mạng means revolution and tháng Tám means eighth month (August), so this street is named for the August Revolution that took place in 1945. Vietnam spent most of history controlled by outside powers. The French occupied Vietnam starting in the 19th century, and Vietnamese national forces continuously failed to win independence. Then in 1940, the Japanese invaded Indochina during World War II. The Vietnamese nationalist forces (including Ho Chi Minh) were actually supported by the United States in an attempt to defeat the Japanese. On 1945 the Japanese surrendered to the Allied powers and the Vietnamese used this as an opportunity to take over offices held by foreigners. On August 19th, VietMinh (a national liberation front created by the Communist Party of Indochina) forces successfully won over Hanoi . Following this victory, more rebellions broke out in Vietnam and on September 2nd, 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s long awaited independence and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was formed. Although this independence was short lived (the French returned to Vietnam in early 1946), the August Revolution was the start of successful steps toward true independence for the Vietnamese people.

Ba tháng HaiBa means 3 and tháng Hai means second month (February), making Ba tháng Hai a date: February 3rd. This is an important date because on February 3rd, 1920 the Vietnamese Communist Party was formed using the beliefs of Ho Chi Minh, Marx and Lenin as an ideological basis.

Điện Biên Phủ – I mentioned that although Ho Chi Minh declared independence in 1945, the Vietnamese weren’t in the clear just yet. The French re-entered Vietnam in 1946 and it wasn’t until the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, that Vietnam won a decisive victory over the French. This was significant because the battle proved that local rebel forces had the capability of overthrowing a major western superpower. However, even greater significance to Vietnam and world history lies in the Geneva Accords that preceded the French defeat. Under the Accords, France withdrew from all former Indochina colonies and Vietnam was split into two sides: the North and the South. This division would eventually lead to what Westerns call the Vietnam War, but what Vietnamese call The American War.

Nam kỳ khởi nghĩaNam kỳ means Southern and khởi nghĩa means uprisings. Nam kỳ khởi nghĩa refers to the Southern Uprisings that occurred in November of 1940 against French rule in Indochina. Although the uprising was a failure, it was important in establishing national spirit for the country and people of Vietnam. On the 70th anniversary of the uprisings this past November, State President Nguyen Minh Triet said, “The Southern Uprising laid a foundation for our people to rise up and gain glorious victory in the August Revolution, and left profound and valuable lessons for revolutionary stages in the present and the future.” The Southern Uprising was also the first time the current flag of Vietnam was used.

Uncle Ho and the flag of Vietnam

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Getting Around Saigon

It took me almost five months, but I’ve finally worked up the courage and inspiration to rent a motorbike in the city. I’ve been driving for a few weeks now and I love it, but let’s back up a bit and see how I got to this point.

When I first got to Saigon I was terrified of the traffic. I mostly walked everywhere for the first couple weeks, but even walking is no easy feat here. If you are lucky enough to be on a sidewalk, you still have to look out for bikes driving and parking in the area designated for pedestrians. After I finished my TESOL certification I started walking less and taking xe oms (motorbike taxis) more because I had to travel across the city to visit different schools. There is no subway system here and the buses scare me, so xe oms became my only real option for transportation. Xe om literally means “motorbike hug,” and has said name because riders on the bike often “hug” the driver to hold on while riding. Xe Oms are generally inexpensive ($1-$2 per ride), but are not always the most convenient form of transportation for a couple of reasons. First, there is no organization or company that xe om drivers work for, you just have to figure out which guys on the streets are drivers. There is no designated uniform, so sometimes it’s really hard to figure out who is a driver and who is not. It’s also really embarrassing to go up to some guy and ask for a ride and then find out that he isn’t a driver. Second, some areas are full of drivers and others you can walk for blocks and not find a driver. When it’s hot out, you are pressed for time, or it’s late at night, you just want to be able to hop on a moto and ride home, but that’s not always possible. Finally, although single rides are cheap, they add up. If you need to run errands around the city you can end up spending almost $10 a day for transportation. Not the most economical form of transportation here.

So with all this said, why did it take me five long months to get a bike? BECAUSE IT’S SCARY!!! Not only is traffic crazy, but maneuvering a motorbike is a daunting task. My fear of driving kept me off the roads and content with taking xe oms for about four months. When February rolled around I started thinking about seriously getting a motorbike. I figured if I really wanted to make a life for myself here, I’d have to eventually start driving. While in Mui Ne, Annie and I rented a bike and practiced out in the countryside where there was almost no traffic. However, the trip ended up only increasing my fear of driving, not making me more comfortable with it. We rented one automatic bike and I found the thing big and heavy and especially with a person on the back, I felt like I’d never be able to maneuver a bike around the city.

After a few more frustrating weeks dealing with xe oms and encouragement from my driving friends here, I decided to make an active effort to get comfortable on a bike. The area of the city where I live in is way too crowded to practice driving, so my friend Javier took me out to District 7 to practice on his Honda Wave. Since I found the automatic bike too big for comfort, I decided I wanted to drive a manual bike instead. District 7 is only a twenty minute drive outside of the center of town, but feels miles and miles away from the city. There are wide streets, free standing houses, and nearly traffic free streets. It’s the closest thing to a suburb you’ll find in Vietnam.  After an entire afternoon cruising around District 7 I finally felt ready to get the bike.

Due to some logistical problems (places not having bikes ready right away), it took me a couple weeks after practicing to rent my bike. By that time I had lost some of my motivation to drive and when my bike was finally delivered to me I let it sit in my parking garage for a few days before actually taking it out on the roads. But I eventually worked up the courage and began driving. It was so scary at first and for the first few days I’d have to psych myself up each time I got on the bike. However, after I got over my initial fear, driving turned into a rather enjoyable experience. When you look out onto the traffic in Saigon it seems crazy and unnavigable, but once you get out on the road you see that it’s a system of organized chaos. Sure there are millions of motorbikes, cars, trucks and buses on the roads of Saigon, but it somehow all works.

It’s almost impossible to explain what driving is like here so I’ll leave you guys with a couple of pictures. I’ll try to get some more pictures of the traffic and post them on here later.

Me on my Honda Wave 110

Rush hour traffic on the road that I take to work

And not only is there crazy traffic but there is also some crazy construction going on

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10 Things I Liked About My Trip To Singapore

I was going to write an in depth entry about the history, culture, and rapid growth of Singapore, but then I got lazy. Besides, Mike has already done this and I am pretty sure what he wrote is better than anything I’d come up with. So check out his blog, http://mike-alongthemekong.blogspot.com/,  if you are interested. Singapore has such an interesting story and Mike does a great job telling it! So instead I’m going to provide you a list, complete with photos, of “10 Things I Liked About My Trip To Singapore.” Here we go!

1. SHOPPING!!! Wow. I haven’t been to a place that has nearly as many shopping centers as Singapore does. They also have some of my favorite stores: Uniqlo, Topshop, Gap, Steve Madden, etc. I literally could not contain my excitement when exploring all the shopping malls.

The ION Shopping Center, a new and massive underground mall

Inside Orchard Central, welcome to shopping in the future

2. Public Transportation. I have a weird obsession with taking the subway so I had a field day while in Singapore. The subway system was organized, clean, cheap and efficient.

Kallang subway stop near our hotel

The subway is so fun!

3. Clean and wide streets. The streets are so narrow, crowded and dirty in Vietnam. What a breath of fresh air to see the streets in Singapore. Their civil engineers deserve a raise!

One side of the street has four lanes...FOUR LANES! Good luck finding that in Vietnam.

4. Use of the English language. People speak English well. Signs and menus are in English. There are also English bookstores. Needless to say we spent a rainy afternoon browsing through a Borders on Orchard Rd.

Borders on Orchard Rd.

5. Seeing The Bad Plus at the Esplanade. They played a great show and it made me feel like I was back home seeing them in NYC. The Esplanade is also a beautiful venue that overlooks the downtown skyline and the Marina Bay Sands.

Front of the Esplanade

The Bad Plus playing the Mosaic Music Festival at the Esplanade

6. Drinking a fresh Singapore Sling while overlooking the downtown skyline. So what if it cost me twenty Singapore dollars. Sometimes you gotta go big or go home.

Sipping on a delicious Singapore Sling

7. Spectacular views of skyscrapers. The views of downtown are literally breathtaking. Mad props to the architects.

Buildings downtown...and do you see how a couple posing for wedding photos snuck into the photo?

Same buildings, different view, no bride and groom

So cool it looks fake

8. The Marina Bay Sands. Architecturally, the Marina is one of the coolest buildings I’ve ever seen. In addition to the hotel the Marina offers a casino, celebrity restaurants and a gigantic shopping mall complete with an indoor ice skating rink.

Marina Bay Sands at night

Inside the Marina Bay Sands hotel

9. Being a nerd at the Singapore National Museum. I really enjoyed some of their temporary exhibits, especially one called “Eating on the Street” that examined the lives of Singaporeans from the 1950’s – 1970’s through street food sold by hawkers. Their permanent exhibit on Singaporean history came along with a fantastic audio guide and I learned a lot about how a busy trading port turned into one of the most advanced cities/countries in the world.

Singapore National Museum

10. Drinking from a public water fountain. Unheard of in Vietnam.

Public Water Fountain in seven different langauges!

So to summarize: I liked Singapore.

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Homestay in Ben Tre

After touring Unicorn and Turtle Islands, our boat lady dropped us off on the island Ben Tre. It was pitch black by the time we arrived and when we got off the boat the moto driver we had met earlier in the day was waiting for us on shore with a flash light. He led us through the dark forest and to our homestay. It looked like 20 or so people could have stayed at the homestay, but we were the only people there along with one other couple. On our walk from the boat to our room our driver talked about how the lands are haunted with lots of ghosts and pointed out all of the graves in front of the houses. Most of the residents of Ben Tre are Buddhist. Since Buddhist graveyards don’t really exist most people just bury their ancestors outside their homes. Well I think now most are cremated, but there are still shrines and monuments set up to honor the dead. Almost all of the houses we passed had graves outside of them. Now adays Christianity is becoming more popular in Vietnam, but it is mostly wealthy city residents that follow Christianity and the farmers in the countryside are mostly Buddhist. So back to the homestay. It was pitch black, supposedly haunted, and we were basically the only people in the middle of nowhere. Creepy!!!

Made it ashore, and there is a sign for our homestay!

Ok I look this photo while riding on a moto bike so not the best quality but hopefully it will give you some idea of what the graves look like

When we got to the homestay we put our bags in our room and then went to order dinner from our host family. Seafood is especially fresh in the Mekong so we decided to order an Elephant Ear Fish (it actually looks like an elephant ear) and shrimp. After we ordered a man came over to us with a huge fish inside a fishing net. It was our dinner! He showed the fish to us and then killed it. The fish was basically dead when he brought it to us, but I guess it was necessary to then hit it with a large stick to make sure it was dead. We got to go into the kitchen in the main house and watch a lady cook the fish for us. The wok she used was super big. I guess when you are cooking large fish you need a large pan. The dinner was amazing. She made fresh spring rolls with the fish and they were filled with fresh noodles, vegetables and pineapple. The sauce we dipped the rolls in was kind of spicy so the combination of the spicy sauce and sweet pineapple was delicious. Definitely the best spring rolls I’ve had here! We also had a bunch of massive shrimps, some vegetables and rice. We ate all of the food and enjoyed the company of our host family and some of their friends while eating. We went back to our room after dinner because we had a bike ride planned for the next morning at 5:30AM.

Elephant Ear Fish...DINNER IS SERVED!

Cooking that sucker

Ready to eat!

Massive shrimp

Making our spring rolls

When we woke up the next day it was pitch black out so we had to wait until there was a little light before we set off on our bike ride. One of the guys had drawn us a map the night before, but it was honestly the worst map ever. All of the distances he estimated were wrong, there were no street names and he didn’t explain to us that we would have to first leave the wooded area we were staying in and make it to the main roads in Ben Tre before we started. It took us a while to finally make it out on the main road, but with some help from locals we were able to find our way. Our bike ride took us through the town of Ben Tre and past a set of rice fields. We got lost and had to stop for directions at least 10 times. And Ben Tre doesn’t have many tourists so people probably thought we were crazy. Even though it was a little stressful and the bike itself was unbelievably uncomfortable to ride, it was a fun morning. The town wasn’t that exciting but the ride through the rice fields was beautiful. We stopped at a local restaurant close to our hotel before finishing the ride to have breakfast. When we got back to the homestay our hosts helped us get to a bus station and we were back in Saigon before 1pm.

Stopping for directions in Ben Tre

Rice fields and my bike

Bike path

Rice fields at sunrise

Much deserved breakfast

Waiting for the bus in Ben Tre

The Mekong is a perfect place to do day trips and there are a few other cities I’m really looking forward to visiting. On the way back to Saigon we met a guy who owns a huge fruit farm in Ben Tre. He spoke great English and told us we are welcome anytime to come visit his farm and try out all the different fruits. Since My Tho and Ben Tre are only a little over an hour away I can definitely see that happening in the future. Overall the trip was a success and a great escape from the bustling streets of Saigon.

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My Tho and Ben Tre

Despite being work free this week, it has taken me days to finally sit down and continue writing about my trip to the Mekong. I’ve been running errands around the city and just haven’t been in the mood to deal with my slow computer. My last post left off in Can Tho, where Annie and I had just finished seeing the floating markets. Since we started our boat ride at 5AM in the morning, we finished around 11AM and were able to gather our stuff and catch a minivan headed toward our next destination, My Tho, before noon. We took a nice charter bus to Can Tho, but our ride to My Tho was definitely not as glamorous. We were packed in a large minivan with about 15 other Vietnamese people. It was a tight squeeze, but we made it to My Tho without any problems. When we arrived in My Tho we met up with another housemate, Rhona, at the central market in town. It wasn’t much of a central market if you ask me, but our moto driver who took us from the bus stop to the market informed us that the real attractions in My Tho are the canals and islands. He worked at a local homestay located on the island Ben Tre and we booked a boat tour through him that toured all the islands and ended at the homestay in Ben Tre. It’s kind of crazy to think that we trusted this random moto driver but like I said, you just have to go with the flow here. He accompanied us to our boat and said that he would meet us at Ben Tre after we finished the island tour.

The boat ride around the islands was nice, but it wasn’t as interesting as the boat ride in Can Tho. There was just so much more to see in Can Tho. The river was lined with houses and riding around all morning gave me a really good sense of what life is like for people who live in the Mekong Delta. In My Tho the islands had local inhabitants, but the islands seemed much more catered toward tourists. Unfortunate, but what are you going to do?

We first stopped at Unicorn Island and sat down to try out some local honey tea, banana wine, ginger candy, coconut candy and fruit. The honey tea was amazing, but the banana wine was pretty gross. It is called wine but it smelled so strong and definitely tasted like something much stronger than wine. The one shot I did there is probably the last shot of banana wine I”ll ever do. The coconut candy was really delicious and we decided to buy a few packs to take back home to HCMC.

Our boat lady with a lot of honey bees!

Honey tea and ginger candy

BANANA WINE!!

Coconut Candy Factory

Selection of local fruits

Before leaving Unicorn Island, we temporarily changed boats and hopped on a smaller boat to ride through some of the canals. After Unicorn Island we moved onto Turtle Island to hike along the river and watch the sunset. Our walk around the island was very beautiful because the sun was setting and the color of the sky kept on changing. As we walked around the island we passed by some local homes and saw lots of kids playing outside, adults preparing dinner and twenty some year olds gathered around in groups playing gambling games. Our  boat lady gave us twenty or so minutes to walk around the island and then we had to be back on the boat to watch the actual sunset on the river. Luckily, there weren’t many other tours near us so we got to experience it in relative peace and quiet.

Paddling through the canals

Sun setting on ride from My Tho to Ben Tre

It was quite windy on the boat!

Annie hiking along Turtle island

Sun is almost gone

So my first trip to the Mekong is almost fully documented. There will be one more post that will have pictures from the fish feast we had at our homestay and the morning bike ride we took through the local streets of Ben Tre. I hope you guys like these pictures and they make you want to come visit!!!

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