Snapshots: Macau (2007)

I'm off to Macau tomorrow! My friends and I are spending the weekend in Macau to watch Zaia and to bungee jump (hopefully!), after which we'll head to Hong Kong - two places that are definitely very tourist-y, but hopefully the bungee jump and the street food will keep the long weekend from becoming just an out-of-the-country shopping trip.

So I took this picture on my first trip to Macau around two years ago. It was one of those small alleys within Senado Square that led to nowhere. I thought it made for a nice picture though.

That's it for me this week, back on Tuesday then! Won't be able to write about my HK-Macau trip just yet but I'll definitely be posting some pictures or something, we'll see. :)

Snapshots: Batangas, Philippines

I've shared a lot of photos from trips to other countries, so to shake things up a bit, here's a picture that was taken closer to home, in Laiya, San Juan, Batangas. Being only a few hours' drive from our house, our family used to always head for the beaches of San Juan, regardless of the season. As you can probably tell from the photo, this was a trip that wasn't exactly a nice summer's day out on the beach.

But I must say that going to the beach on a gloomy and cloudy weekend also has its own charm- to begin with, you most likely have the beach to yourself on days like this, and the sea and the sky provide a different kind of peace.

One of these days, I really ought to drive to Laiya on a whim.

Hoi An, Vietnam

...In all honesty, to get how amazing Hoi An is, you have to be there and experience it for yourself, preferably with friends you love (a significant other will do, too!) who are travelling with you not to be able to get their pictures taken in as many tourist destinations as possible, but who are there to just live for the moment and enjoy it; to spend time strolling leisurely, gelato in hand, admiring the tiny stores and the little trinkets of things that they sold, smiling at strangers from different parts of the world. I hate to sound like a sappy romantic, but what can I say, memories of Hoi An bring that out in me.

April 9-11, 2009

In travel, as in life, I’m not an obsessive-compulsive planner. I don’t need to get all the details of my trip down pat. I’m pretty specific when it comes to my goals, but as to how I would achieve them is a different story. As long as I’m comfortable and have peace of mind, I would be fine to let my fairly minimal plans move along a general direction into my goal – no further planning necessary. I believe that it’s when you allow a little freedom into your life that the best things happen - a Leeway For Providence, one may call it. And when indeed providence takes over is when something magical and amazing happens that can leave you no less than pleasantly surprised.

At the beginning of our trip, our nearly three-day stop at Hoi An, Vietnam was a hazy blip in our itinerary, penciled in because it was part of the open bus tour we availed of from Sinh Café that would take us from Ho Chi Minh City upward to Hanoi at a reasonable price. We had virtually no expectations of the place: assuming the worst and hoping for the best, whatever “best” might possibly be. Thankfully, the Leeway For Providence filled up quite nicely during our stay in Hoi An, which turned out to be a romantic old town that completely took us by surprise.

We left Ho Chi Minh less than 24 hours after we had arrived there from Phnom Penh. Our Vietnam Airlines flight took us to Da Nang airport, where somebody picked us up and drove us for about an hour to Hoi An. The drive to Hoi An was a strange one, as we passed mostly empty lots and an occasional row of small houses and establishments. Da Nang’s wide, well-paved roads that could rival decent enough freeways in other cities were virtually empty too - odd, considering Da Nang is supposedly the fourth largest city in Vietnam. A recurring sight while on the road at Da Nang also consisted of massive, half-dilapidated - or half-finished, depending on how you see it - structures and the billboards that announced them to the world, with promises of progress and wealth from a tourism industry that could’ve been – or that will be, I’m not quite sure . I honestly couldn’t quite tell if Da Nang’s ghost town of a beach community was already past its prime or just getting itself built from the ground up. It all depends on perspective I guess. In any case, the wide empty roads and a driver who did not seem to speak a word of English did not in the least bit help bring clarity to our next destination. It was all getting very strange indeed.

So imagine our surprise when we entered the arches into Hoi An and saw its many small buildings and houses, and its narrow streets that looked like they were old and steeped in history but still alive and actually thriving. After checking into our hotel, Than Binh III (which was also part of the Sinh Café package), we immediately began exploring its winding narrow streets.

Tiff had been in love with the 50’s-style bikes we had been seeing everywhere since we started our trip, and we all finally got the chance to try them out in Hoi An. It seemed a good idea to rent out the bikes to explore Hoi An – seemed, because as it turned out, it wasn’t a very good idea for me. I think I had the most trouble with the bikes – they were so freaking high (or I’m just really short) and I couldn’t figure out how to break and dismount without killing myself! It was all very dramatic and funny at the same time, and just part of the experience of Hoi An.

Siem Reap and its amazing temples made for a profound experience, and the grandness and history behind Angkor Wat and the other ancient structures we visited were overwhelming in their own amazing way. Hoi An, on the other hand, provided a different experience – the simple houses and narrow streets were not grand in anyway, but instead quaint and charming. Walking along them wasn’t an overwhelming experience, but a very relaxed one – our jaws didn’t drop at the stateliness and grandeur of the place, but the romantic simplicity of everything did make us smile.

In truth, there isn’t much to be said about Hoi An, apart from it being a charming ancient city by the river that’s been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with narrow streets lined with old French-inspired houses with oriental flair and tiny boutiques that sold all sorts of quirky things. But that is perhaps the beauty of the place – in all honesty, to get how amazing Hoi An is, you have to be there and experience it for yourself, preferably with friends you love (a significant other will do, too!) who are travelling with you not to be able to get their pictures taken in as many tourist destinations as possible, but who are there to just live for the moment and enjoy it; to spend time strolling leisurely, gelato in hand, admiring the tiny stores and the little trinkets of things that they sold, smiling at strangers from different parts of the world. I hate to sound like a sappy romantic, but what can I say, memories of Hoi An bring that out in me.

My best memory of Hoi An is probably sitting at one of the tables on a balcony overlooking the river in the late afternoon, the sky in that faded, light orange color that I adore so much, just talking to Jen and Tiff over coffee and some amazing dessert, thinking and talking about life – past, present, future, taking a few pictures here and there, and just…being. Being relaxed, being happy. Again, I hate to sound like a sap, but it’s so hard to not be happy in Hoi An. I don’t know if my pictures do justice to the place, but here’s to trying:

Tam Tam Cafe, where we had lunch. They had really good spring rolls!

My favorite picture from Hoi An!

Our second day in Hoi An was spent on a quick tour of the My Son relics, temples that apparently pre-dated those in Cambodia, but were bombed heavily by the Americans during the Vietnam war. Also included in the tour was a visit to an island whose residents made a living by making beautiful wooden carvings. It was a fairly enjoyable tour (with some amazingly funny moments owing to the fact that Filipina girls can easily be mistaken as Vietnamese) but to be honest, throughout the entire tour we couldn’t wait to go strolling along the narrow streets of Hoi An again, which is exactly what we did, up until the evening, when we had an amazing dinner at a great restaurant called Cargo Club, again on the balcony overlooking the river.

It takes a very secure man to carry around a pink purse!

Of course, as we are girls, there was a lot of shopping – and we bought all these random things! Jen got a beautiful jade ring from a gorgeous young Vietnamese lady and her expat husband. I bought a beautiful tapestry in anticipation of me moving into my new place within the year. Tiff bought what seemed like an entire winter wardrobe – and who could blame her? The clothes she bought were tailor-fit and cost so much less than the clothes she would’ve bought in Australia. We also bought Vietnamese paintings, tea sets, and custom-made footwear – sandals for Jen, fancy pumps for Tiff, and boots for me, in anticipation of my Hong Kong trip for later in the year (and because I’ve always fancied owning a nice pair of boots).

Our stay in Hoi An ended too soon, but we were on a tight schedule as we moved north to Hanoi and couldn’t make any extensions. If it was any consolation, our trip from Hoi An to our next destination, Hue, was on a sleeping bus that had beds instead of seats! So very Knight Bus in Harry Potter.

In saying goodbye to Hoi An, we were halfway through our Vietnam-Cambodia trip, and we were also set to explore our third stop in Vietnam, the city of Hue.

Snapshots: Puerto Galera, Philippines (2007)

I took this photo on my first solitary trip to Talipanan Beach, Puerto Galera. I needed to walk from Talipanan to White Beach in order to catch a boat home and chanced upon this girl who I assumed lived in the village along the road. I thought her billowing dress and her dainty walk made her a great subject for a photo.

Snapshots: Hanoi, Vietnam

Flowers from the rubble along one of the streets near the hotel we stayed in at Hanoi, Vietnam. Dramatic, don't you think?

Snapshots: Anawangin Cove, Zambales

My friends and I said goodbye to the summer of 2009 by going camping in Zambales for a weekend. Here's a picture from that camping trip (my first ever), taken in the woods that lined the shores of Anawangin Cove in Zambales, where a small stream weaved through the trees.

Snapshots: Macau (2007)

This was our tour guide's hand, raised above the many bobbing heads as she and our tour group weaved through the tiny streets of Macau in 2007. At the end of this month I will be returning to Macau to watch Cirque du Soleil and - wait for it - bungee jump off Macau Tower! If I find the guts, that is.

Siem Reap - Phnom Penh - Ho Chi Minh

This will be short and sweet, because it will just be about our trip back from Cambodia to Vietnam. And mostly because I can’t wait to start writing about our other destinations: Hoi An, Hue, Ha Noi and Ha Long Bay. So here's our journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and back to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, told in pictures (and yes, that is Elton John in one of the photos).

April 7-8, 2009

It was another 5-hour van ride from Siem Reap to Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh. On the way, we stopped by a roadside eatery that served turtles, with the shell and everything! It did not look delectable at all, especially as we had a pet turtle in the house before, but I just had to take a picture before they started cooking them.

In Phnom Penh, we stayed in a hostel called Fancy Guest House, where we were welcomed warmly by Phannak, its quirky owner. He claimed that Elton John had once stayed in the Fancy Guest House, and had an autographed photo of him clipped to the hostel's sign.

Contrary to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh was noisy, crazy, polluted and populated - a shock to the senses, especially after we had spent the days prior in the quiet forest of Siem Reap. We hadn't the energy (and the guts, to be quite honest) to explore Phnom Penh thoroughly but we did eat at a non-profit restaurant whose earnings went to charity. It seemed a popular joint with travelers, as it had an entire wall sprawled with messages from people all over the world. While waiting for our meals, we also saw a huge elephant pass by nonchalantly by the side of the road, much to our surprise. It was the strangest, coolest thing.

We spent the next day on a bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh, where vendors tried to sell us their goods as we sat comfortably within our airconditioned bus. Others who rode open-air vans weren't so lucky - their windows were open to the onslaught of a million sales pitches.

We finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh and checked into Bich Duyen, a small hotel along Pham Ngu Lao, a tiny blink-and-you'll-miss kind of street whose entrance on one side is a small alley that opens up to a narrow street lined with hotel upon hotel. It was, however, one of the best hotels we stayed in during our entire trip, mostly because of Chahn, the friendly hotel manager. The service at Bich Duyen was amazing, the rooms very clean, and the breakfast delicious, and all for very reasonable rates!

Here's a simple tip when trying to find good accommodation - the first sign of a good hotel with good service is its warm, friendly reply to an email inquiry. From the very beginning, when my friend sent out emails to Fancy Guest House in Phnom Penh and Bich Duyen in Ho Chi Minh, the email replies of Phannak and Chahn were already very accommodating - they answered our every question, agreed to our every request. And true enough, we were very happy with the service we received when we stayed in these hotels. Of course, I can't say for sure that this method is failsafe, but I certainly believe that the email reply to an inquiry is a good gauge of how friendly and accommodating a hotel is.

Our night in Ho Chi Minh was a great food trip and a reunion with other college friends. Our first stop was Highlands Coffee, which I guess was sort of like the Starbucks of Vietnam, and then we met with Apple, a classmate of ours from college who was working in Ho Chi Minh City at the time. She took us to Ngon, a great place that served delicious Vietnamese cuisine. The spring rolls were amazing! Afterwards we had gelato at a cute French-inspired joint. We then visited Nina, another college classmate who was in HCM on a business trip.

We got to our hotel very late at night, and discovered that hotels along Pham Ngu Lao actually close at night - much to our horror! For a few seconds we were worried that we would have to sleep on the street that night until the ever-reliable Chahn opened the hotel's door for us. Relieved, we dashed to our hotel room and slept almost immediately. The next day was going to be a long one too, as we were to take a Vietnam Airlines flight to Danang, and from there, head out to Hoi An.
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