Vietnam

Suit Fitting and Drinking Like Locals

I am very glad to be leaving Mui Ne. Yesterday, we saw all the major attractions of the town in a morning tour. Sure we didn’t really spend much time in  Mui Ne proper, but I think we got the gist of the city.

Our trip started at 1:30 PM and we made quite a few pit stops along the way so it was hard to rest.

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We were dropped off in Hoi An before the crack of dawn so we grabbed some food before returning to our homestay.

Viva Homestay

We found Viva Homestay via Hostel World and true to its name, it was technically a homestay and not a hostel. Apparently homestays may be situated near other locals’ homes and the family may cook for you since the building is actually a home-turned-accomodation. Viva felt similar to a hostel except that they only offered private rooms, and had less vacancy.

Whether it be because Hoi An is a smaller town or the fact that it’s a homestay, the people living/working at Viva appear to have more time and would often strike up friendly conversation. One day we almost couldn’t go downstairs because a group of women were sorting goods and had everything sprawled across the stairway and floor.

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The rooms are very spacious, bright, and clean.

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Duna Tailors

Hoi An is known for inexpensive tailored suits so of course we had to get one. We were recommended by our homestay to go to Duna tailors so we checked it out. Apparently you aren’t supposed to go to your hotel’s recommendation because they get commission and charge more. However, we read reviews and the place sounded legitimate.

We also negotiated the price before telling them where we were staying. I’m sure we could have gotten a cheaper price by shopping around, but we didn’t have much time in Hoi An, and the negotiated price was still much cheaper than even an off-the-rack suit in Canada.

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You are able to choose an outer and lining material, button colour, lapel size – almost anything you can imagine.

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At our first visit, the working, Ling, took our measurements and told us to come back the next day for the second fitting.

In the meantime, we took advantage of our homestay’s free bikes and rode ride around the quiet town. The experience was both exhilarating and scary. If you just follow the traffic and be predictable, it is quite manageable. Remember, no need to get startled or offended when you hear car horns. The drivers just want to let you know they are passing and that you may want to move over a bit.

Dinner Like Locals

A few steps away from our homestay was a open-air restaurant that looked busy with locals, which is a good sign. Although we got a few looks when we walked in, the service was friendly. We were seated in the middle of the restaurant with large parties of patrons flanking our sides.

As I ate and drank, I took in the atmosphere and felt like a local. Although theoretically vacations should be relaxing, the reality is that culture shock and human nature makes us worry and are a constant inhibitor over one’s thoughts and actions.

However, occasionally all your worries fade and you are immersed in the moment — it’s an amazing feeling. For me, I felt this immersion during today’s dinner as we ate like locals, drinking beer, eating spit-grilled food meats, and took in the atmosphere around us.

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Sunrise at Mui Ne Sand Dunes

Still groggy, we shuffled our feet towards the Jeeps parked at our hostel entrance. Why did we wake up at 4:30am for a tour? Well, we were told we could catch the beautiful sunrise from the White Sand Dunes. Hopefully it’s worth it!

The tour was booked from our hostel and cost just $5 USD per person which includes transportation to all these locations:

  • White Sand Dunes
  • Red Sand Dunes
  • Fishing Village
  • Fairy Stream

White Sand Dunes

With an hour to roam free, we immediately headed to the highest dune we could find. Save for some gecko tracks, the dune surfaces were unmarred.

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There it is!

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Off to our next destination in these menacing Jeeps.

The Red Sand Dunes are much smaller than the White counterpart and are easier to climb. The sand was more of a gold than red although I could imagine it appearing red during sunrise.

Desert tofu for sale (豆腐花/doufufaa).

Desert tofu for sale (豆腐花/doufufaa).

Desert tofu for sale (豆腐花/doufufaa).

Fishing Village

You might miss the Fishing Village if you are driving because it is located below an embankment on the shoreside.

Just peeking over the edge floods your senses with colour. The sea is speckled with colourful fishing boats.

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The sea is speckled with fishing boats.

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Locals sorting and selling the catch of the day.

Fairy Stream

I had no clue what “Fairy Stream” was before this tour so I assumed it was a lame tourist trap with a funny name. But it turned out to be my favourite attraction in Mui Ne.

Fairy Stream is a limestone formation with red sand and a warm stream running along the base.

You will want to take off your shoes because you will be walking through a stream that can reach up to your ankles. The silty sand runs off your feet and your footprints are erased by the gentle stream with every step.

If you wish you can pay a small fee to let a shop hold onto your shoes.

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Lazy Day

We pretty much visited the main attractions of Mui Ne in the span of a few hours so retired back to our hostel and enjoyed resting by the pools and trying to catch up on the blog.
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Travel Packing for Extreme Perspirers

This may sound like a silly topic, but it’s a very real problem!

For those who’ve travelled with me, you know the confused feeling of turning around and wondering how I managed to take a shower outside of the hotel.

Don’t let the fear of perspiration prevent you from traveling to hot and humid countries! These tips won’t fix the sweat issue, but at least you’ll can travel more comfortably.

Bring a quick-dry towel

You will be wet as a dog, but at least you can pat yourself down before entering an air-conditioned mall and look less pathetic. You can also visit the washroom and give yourself a nice wipe down with cool water.

Wear a hat

A hat shields you from the sun and allows you to tuck those sweaty, greasy bangs under it.

Bring a fan

This could be an electric one, but I prefer a hand fan because it is quieter, lighter, and feels less obnoxious for some reason.

Bring a bag for carrying water

In a hot country, you will notice that you can drink liters of water without needing to use the bathroom. This shows how much water is lost through perspiration. Stay alert and hydrated by always carrying bottles of water.

Use deodorant or anti-perspirant

Some of us are lucky enough to smell naturally pleasant, but for the rest of us you should probably use under-arm products even when not traveling. When backpacking, deodorant or anti-perspiring is a must.

Sometimes plans change and you can’t fit a laundry cycle into your schedule before the next night bus. Your clothes will still feel sticky, but with deodorant, at least you don’t have to smell yourself all day.

Did I miss anything? Please let me know how you cope with sweating while traveling!

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A Mark Weins breakfast, then off to Mui Ne

One of the things on our to-do list in Ho Chi Minh is to eat at Bánh Mì Hòa Mã, a restaurant that was featured on Mark Wiens’ Youtube channel.

The tiny restaurant is located on a corner of a building with seats sprawled into the alleyway. It appeared popular among the locals as almost all the tables were filled and there were many motorcyclists getting a to-go version of the meal during our meal. I guess this is Vietnam’s analog to drive-throughs?

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We ordered the most popular dish, bánh mì ốp la, from a menu of only a handful of other dishes. Bánh mì means bread and ốp la means sunny side up eggs. However this restaurant throws in some extra goodies like sausage, tofu-like meat and some pink pâté for the crispy baguette.

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The meal tastes like what you expect from looking at the pictures. Personally, there were no tastes I haven’t tasted before that would make me “Weins Face”, but I still recommend this bánh mì ốp la over other restaurants’ that just give you literally bread and engs.

On the Road Again

By now, travelling airplane-length bus rides has become routine. We boarded our bus and started our five-hour journey to Mui Ne.

Just a few observations: the Vietnam countryside has many rubber plantations (rubber is one of Vietnam’s top exports). It is very reminiscent of Cambodia including the building style and people in lounging around in hammocks. I did notice that that the Vietnam countryside looks much more green and less dusty due to better paved roads.

Russian Signs Everywhere

We arrived at Mui Ne Hills Budget Hotel, which unlike the hostel in Ho Chi Minh, was very cramped and dim. The all-tile bathroom looked like something out of a Saw movie.

Our hostel is located two hours away from Mui Ne proper on a street full of overpriced and mostly empty tourist restaurants. Apparently Mui Ne is a very popular place to visit for Russians because of its weather and proximity so most establishments had Cyrillic on their signs and menus.

Something about towns losing their locality and being catered toward tourists puts me off. In addition to relatively expensive Vietnamese food, all the restaurants also served spaghetti, pizza, and burgers.

We reluctantly entered a tourist restaurant due to hunger and flipped through the menu while the waitress awkwardly hovered over our shoulder.

Lost and Found

Thankfully, Jon realized his camera was missing so we had an excuse to leave the restaurant.

By this time it was pitch black. Since we had a busy schedule the next day we had to find the camera by night.

We backtracked all the way back to the beach and amazingly we found the camera using our phone’s flashlight.

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Jon shooting his obligatory social media photo of the day, earlier that day.

Hooray, drinks on Jon for finding his camera! By drinks, we mean bottled water for the next day.

We still needed dinner but this time we decided to avoid all the touristy restaurants and choose a lower-priced one near our hostel. From our experience so far, restaurant orders take quite a while in Vietnam. However, this definitely did not prepare us for the hour wait. It felt like they were raising the pigs and harvesting the rice for our meal.

In a larger city, this wait time would be unacceptable, but in a resort town on the countryside, I guess one has all the time in the world.

We booked a tour with our hotel to see the white and red sand dunes, the Fairy Stream, and Fishing Village. What are these you ask? You’ll find out on our next post!

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Cu Chi Tunnels and Snails

We were picked up at our hotel by our tour guide who looked like an adventurous old man.

Apparently our tour group was supposed to be larger, but one family could not make it so we pretty much got a private tour with five people, for the price of a group tour.

It makes a big difference that the tour guide is enthusiastic. Our guide, Son, told jokes and explained the history of Ho Chi Minh which made our bus trip feel much shorter.

Son said he enjoyed his job (unlike Johnny from Cambodia who had “no choice”).

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels are located one-and-a-half hours from Ho Ch Minh. They are a network of underground tunnels dug by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War to hide soldiers, transport supplies, among other things.

The tunnel we went through was only 100 metres long, but it felt much longer due to the fact it was hot, dark, and cramped. I was able to hunch over for some sections, but other sections required crawling. The tunnel was already made larger for tourists and there were no poisonous spiders or scorpions unlike the tunnels Viet Cong soldiers used.

I could not imagine living in there for years.

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We were dropped back at Ho Chi Minh and walked to a market we passed by a few times. We snaked through all the clothing stalls and found the food court where we ate cheap food.

Then it started raining very hard. At first we wanted to wait it out, but when the rain showed no signs of giving up, we walked the 5 minutes back to our hostel.

By the time we made it back to our hostel we were soaked. The clerk was nice enough to let us stay and dry off and even called a taxi that we took to our next lodging, the Le Blanc Saigon Hotel.

On mange des escargots!

For dinner, we ordered multiple snail dishes and a grilled fish.

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Dinner #2

The seafood dinner was quite expensive and did not fill us up so we wanted something cheap and filling. Luckily for us, we found a hole in the wall restaurant that served pork on rice, with egg and meatloaf for 35,000 VND ($1.5 USD). A similar dish in Canada would run around $9-10 USD. The man who served us was friendly and we got our food very quickly.

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First Day in Ho Chi Minh

The awesome thing at New Saigon Hostel 2 is that it offers a complimentary breakfast during morning hours.

I mean, who doesn’t like free food?

Even though the food was a basic baguette, scrambled eggs, and Vietnamese iced coffee, it was sufficient to get us out the door and explore the city.

Tip: Look for hostel for perks such as free breakfast, coffee, or bicycles at hostels. These often cost around $1 USD each. If you can get them for free, you can eat a second breakfast, guilt-free!

Although we’ve only stayed at our hostel for one night, we already knew where we wanted to stay next: Le Blanc Saigon Hotel.

Why, you ask. Well, all the guys on this trip are fans of Mark Weins (an awesome food blogger and YouTuber) — fans enough to visit the same hotel where he stayed in a totally non-creepy way.

After checking out the size of bed, we concluded that all three of us could fit and so we booked the room.

The next item on our list was to exchange USD to VND. At first I was worried that exchanging money would be costly, but in our experience, we have not had to pay any exchange fees, and the process has always been less than 10 minutes.

Tip: Exchange enough cash for a few days at a time at different travel agencies, banks, and hotels. This allows you to average the cost of different exchange rates in case you find a cheap exchange rate one day.

With all the business out of the way, the fun can begin. We first arrived at Diamond Mall, a multi-storey high-end shopping complex similar to Nordstrom or The Bay where different brands share the same retail space.

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Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

Today is Sunday so we thought we’d visit a church. However they were having Mass and we didn’t feel appropriately dressed enough to enter so we just took a few pictures outside.

Breakfast at Texas Chicken

Of course Jonathan, the Church’s Chicken fanatic, was able to locate one in Vietnam, although here it is called Texas Chicken. We went in and ordered some spicy chicken.

It tasted like home, except our combo included a random scone.

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There must have must have been around 80 people in there. It appears chicken places like Texas Chicken and KFC are very popular in Asian as they often have multi-storey establishments in prominent locations throughout the city.

Ho Chi Minh City Central Post Office

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This post office looks looks like a WWII film set, but it is a fully functional post and parcel office. You can also book tours there and buy souvenirs.

Breakfast #2 at McDonald’s

Due to the cheap cost of food in Asia, and the fact that we are on vacation, a certain degree of gluttony has developed. Not 30 minutes since our first breakfast, we started craving McDonald’s right across the street.

To be fair, McDonald’s menus can be an indication of a certain country’s tastes and is part of the cultural experience.

The menu had the typical burgers and drinks, but it didn’t take long for us to settle on Vietnamese meat and egg on rice. For just over a buck, it was quite tasty and the rice was moist. But, the more I ate, the more I thought, “Hmm, something tastes familiar.”

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After looking at meat more closely, I realized it the same meat you would find in a sausage egg McMuffin. The taste difference was coming from the packet of thick soy sauce.

I felt cheated, but at the same time, impressed with the cleverness.

War Remnants Museum

With our stomachs filled, we visited the War Remnants Museum which was largely about the Vietnam war. The pictures and text evoked similar feelings as when we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. We learned about the horrible use of chemicals during the war that caused many birth defects in following generations. We can only hope that nations will be smart enough to avoid chemical warfare at the least, where no one wins.

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Museum of Vietnamese History

Being the efficient sightseers that we are, we briskly walked to the Museum of Vietnamese History. The museum had much fewer people than the War Remnants museum. In fact, we were the only ones there save for a group of school children, presumably on a field trip, and a handful of other guests.

I personally like seeing ancient artefacts and seeing how one culture compares with others in terms of materials used, style, and progress. The museum displayed art from stone sculptures to metal coins and shields.

Unfortunately we started touring near closing time and had to rush through the exhibits.

Our Post-Apocalyptic Experience

While making our way to our next stop, the Bitexco Tower, we encountered an entire stretch of road that was blocked for cleaning. It was dark and there were gates set up and guards preventing people from passing. Oddly, the people already on the other side of the gate were allowed to stay in.

We eventually found a small mall that we wanted to waste time in, but ended up discovering an exit that led to the street being cleaned. We made it to the other side!

It was a very odd experience as an entire, multi-lane street was dark and empty with only a few people walking on the streets. I felt like I was in a post apocalyptic movie where only a select few are chosen for the New World.

EON 51 at Bitexco Tower

We heard that there is a restaurant named EON 51 at the Bitexco Tower with a great view of the city. For 200,000 VND ($9 USD) you can go to the top of the building for a city view. Alternately, you can buy a drink and not pay the admission fee. This is obviously the better choice as the drinks can be cheaper than the admission fee.

Once you pay the fee, you are led down a corridor to an elevator to the top. Once you exit the elevator, it feels like you are a VIP. With live music and a great atmosphere, it is definitely worth checking out, even though the drinks are priced like they would be in Vancouver.

We had beers, took photos, time lapse of the city from up above.

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For dinner, we ate at a pho restaurant recommended by our hostel. For only $3 we all got a pho and drink. The soup was quite clean and beefy, the beef slices were fatty, but beef brisket were not as good. We also noticed the pho noodles were thin just like in Cambodia.

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Scams in Vietnam

Goodbye, Cambodia!

Although it’s been a jam-packed week in Cambodia, I am extremely satisfied with this leg of the trip. We tackled multiple attractions a day, learned how to walk through Cambodian traffic, and learned how to bargain for and get around by tuk-tuk.

I really hope to come back and get a proper tour of the Siem Reap temples for a more educational experience. I would also like to travel outside of the Siem Reap and Phnom Penh areas as I’m sure the beautiful country of Cambodia can not be summed up by just two cities.

Now, we leave for the 8:30am bus and are due to arrive in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam at 3:30pm.

Scam at the Border

If it were not for the Vietnamese signage and the border process, undiscerning eyes would be hard-pressed to differentiate the Cambodian and Vietnamese countryside. Buildings are similarly narrow and the designs both have French influence. The countryside is just as vast and green.

At the border, we entered a dim warehouse-like building where they x-rayed our bags and told us to walk through a seemingly broken metal detector (my oft troublesome belt did not set anything off). Then we were directed to wait outside in the sun on a broken sidewalk with other confused backpackers and non-phased Vietnamese natives. Our bus eventually pulled narby us and an inspector went inside to check the contents of the bus.

“Where are our bags?” we wondered for 20 minutes before we saw a dodgy man pulling a cart with our luggage. He started motioning to each passenger asking which bag belonged to them. We saw people pulling $1 bills to pay the man before he was willing to put their bags on the bus. I guess, we have to pay him if we want our bags.

Clarence’s bag somehow got mistaken for another passengers so he did not have to pay. Me and Jon really did not want to pay the man. Deep down, I knew the bags would have to be put back on the bus anyway. However, being in a foreign country’s border with many guards, I didn’t want any trouble and surrendered my $1. I’d like to think that the man could use the dollars more than I could.

As we pulled further away from the border, I felt more at ease. A few more hours, and we will be in Ho Chi Minh.

Our First Hostel

My preconception of a hostel turned out to be completely wrong: I had always pictured a disaster relief area with people piled over each other in a gymnasium-like building.

So imagine my surprise when I entered the New Saigon Hostel 2 — located in an alleyway along with many other hostels — and saw a bright white lounge with light wood furniture. I was also very impressed that the clerk poured us a cold fruit drink upon checking in.

The room has everything you need: large wooden locker, sturdy bunk beds, A/C, fast WiFi, and a soundproof washroom with a hair dryer.

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Since it was dinner time, we headed out and explored the nearby backpacker area. Crossing streets is much more stressful than in Cambodia and left us quickly exhausted. Our only solace was that the weather was about 10 degrees cooler (still around 30 degrees, mind you) than in Phnom Penh. Instead of a green light for “go”, no light, means go. The light for “stop” is a red cross. Further complicating things is only one street of the intersection has traffic lights so you may have to crane your neck and see if you can go based on the perpendicular lane’s light. While some intersections have countdown timers, many others have is no indication of the staleness of the light and may change abruptly as you are still crossing — something we have experienced while in the middle of a six-lane highway.

If this happened in Cambodia, the drivers would swerve around us, but in Vietnam, they honked and even advanced their vehicles. Our street-crossing skills of Cambodia obviously did not apply in Ho Chi Minh. The wave of scooters is much denser and it’s not possible for them to swerve around you on the larger streets, and the cars don’t care.

Scammy Frog Legs

Though all the restaurants we passed looked similar to our tired eyes, we eventually settled on restaurant in an alleyway. We contorted our sweaty bodies onto tiny red plastic chairs and squeezed into a low metal table. The fact that we were in Vietnam started to sink in.

We ordered a beef and pork dish with fries, Yang Chow fried rice, fried frog, and water spinach. The food was decent and prices were moderate.

When the bill arrived, we were charged an $5 extra for frog. We tried disputing this, but the waitress insisted that we were served two frogs. Not knowing exactly how many frogs we ate, we ended up paying.

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Yang Chow fried rice and sweet beef and pork with fries.

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Water spinach.

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Fried frog legs.

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Total came to around $20 USD.

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