Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Back to Saigon: An Epilogue

Our Viet-Cam Adventure has come to an end. As we arrive in Saigon at night, we decided we should make the most out of our remaining time. So, we decided to dine in one of Saigon's most popular Vietnamese restaurants, Quan An Ngon. 

Located near the Cathedral, this beautiful and bustling French style villa restaurant serves excellent local dishes prepared on the spot. Quan An Ngon has already been an icon in the city, as hordes of tourists and locals swear by the food that is displayed like an open market. Let your senses guide you to what you want to eat, as you survey the food stalls that are scattered around its gardens. Quan An Ngon is definitely one of the best in the city and a trip to Saigon won't be complete without pigging out here.

After a heavy yet very satisfying meal, we decided to find dessert, particularly ice cream. I remembered a local ice cream parlor that served unique flavors. The name of the ice cream parlor was Bach Dang. I also thought of walking to the place, which was beside the historic Rex Hotel. A wrong turn took us to an unplanned walking tour of the city's landmarks. We passed by the Saigon Opera House and the famous monument of Uncle Ho, with the City Hall at the background. It was a time consuming mistake, but we were happy we got lost.

We were checked in a new hotel, the Dai Hoang Kim, a Korean owned inn along Bui Vien itself. Saigon Mini was already fully booked, so we had to move here. It was an older hotel, but the amenities were better and the rooms, slightly bigger. For the same cost, it was okay. Most of us preferred Saigon Mini though.

The next day was designated as Shopping Day. After a hearty breakfast at an Italian cafe named Stella (shown below) along Bui Vien, we prepared ourselves for an afternoon of haggling and bargaining.

Of course, we began our shopping in Ben Thanh Market, probably THE shopping destination in Saigon. We agreed to meet up after an hour and a half, but we ended up extending to 3 hours! No pictures were taken. Everyone was engrossed in buying trinkets, spices, silk, souvenirs, paintings and of course, those bags. I think I bought 14 bags, most of them North Face and Crumplers.

After that excursion, we headed back to the hotel to unload. We then decided to split up. I didn't want to shop anymore, so I offered a relaxing break in a quiet villa cafe, which are popular in Saigon. The rest continued shopping for shoes in a bargain district near Chinatown.

Well, I only convinced two other people to join me for coffee. We went to Serenata Cafe, one of the more popular ones in Saigon. It is a colonial house converted into a cafe. 

The setting was pleasant and relaxing indeed. I left like I was in a seaside resort, sipping coffee. It was that chill out. Our waiter told us that there was a Filipino lounge band that played every night. Unfortunately, we had to leave by 6PM to meet everyone else for dinner at 730PM.

As you well know, the coffee (ca phe) in Vietnam is strong, but very delicious. This one was particularly strong, and we had to mix in a lot of ice to make it milder. I still enjoyed my coffee though, which brought a lot of conservations about the trip that had passed.

We all met up in Augustine, a French restaurant near Sheraton. We decided to treat ourselves to fine French cuisine on our last meal together in Vietnam. And it was amazing. Imagine, for prices less than P400, we got Duck Confit, Seabass, Lamb and a host of other delectable and sophisticated dishes. Only in Vietnam would you get these low prices for fine food. We ended the night full of cheer and sentiment as well, as we are to depart for Manila in 2 hours.

The VIET-CAM Adventure took us 8 days across Indochina. Being a big group definitely had its advantages in traveling. You get to spend less as the cost is distributed more, and you get to spend a lot of time bonding and sharing unique experiences. I will never forget this trip, all the moments of laughter and fun from Angkor Wat pictorials to Angkor What challenges, to Saigon shopping and Hip Hip Mui Ne nights. It was extremely fun, and to the Power of Ten who were with me, only one thing: Till the next trip!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Sand Dunes of Mui Ne

When I go abroad for R&R for at least 5 days, I try to mix in as much travel experiences as possible. I have three travel categories that I normally rotate: culture, urban and nature. For this trip, we already had our cultural fix with Angkor Wat, the urban with Saigon and for nature, Mui Ne. I initially planned to go to Sihanoukville, a burgeoning beach destination in Cambodia's only coastline. But I've heard that it's not really that nice beach wise. I also realized that traveling with Filipinos, you get high standards for beaches. So, I didn't try to impress based the quality of beach, but on what can be done in the area. Hence, I took the risk of taking everyone to Mui Ne, which is popularly known for one astonishing geological formation, the Sand Dunes.

There are actually two sand dune destinations in Mui Ne, the White and Red San Dunes. The Red Sand Dunes were nearer the resort town. Since it was about to hit lunch time, the sun was high, so we decided to go after eating. Our lunch venue was nearer the White Sand Dunes, so at 2PM, we headed out to the grander sand dune. 

There was a lake beside the White Sand Dune, which made the place more amazing. The landscape was beautiful. I didn't feel like we were in Vietnam, nor in Africa. We hurried down the van and walked towards the vast whiteness.

I was left speechless as I set foot on the sand. I covered myself with a sarong, and walked on the blistering hot sand. And the sand went on and on into the horizon. I didn't even see the end of it. I made it up to a peak, to get a better view of the place. It was spectacular. It really had that Sahara feeling, but in South East Asia. Our sand dunes in Ilocos do not compare. 

The sand shifted every now and then, because of the strong winds, hence the spectacular dune formations. I like the white sand dunes because it was really bigger in area.

Sand sledding was a popular activity here. We were followed by a local who didn't stop at offering us a sand sled to rent. I saw one of the travellers try the sand sled, and they didn't quite go down smoothly on a slope. So, I thought it was not worth it. I wanted to roll on slope more, than using a sled. In the end, I ran down a steep slope. It was hot, but it was fun.

We didn't explore the entire area anymore, because it was getting way too hot, and we didn't know where it would end. I didn't want us to get all tired, so we decided to go back to our van at 5PM, and catch the sunset a the Red Sand Dunes. We were surprised that we spent almost 3 hours on the dunes, taking all sorts of pictures and admiring the view. There was also a lake in the middle of the sand dunes, sort of like an oasis, where some trees offered a bit of shade. 

Very satisfied with our dune experience, we moved to the Red Sand Dunes, that was nearer the coastline, and which promised a great view of the sunset and the sea. However, when we arrived there, we were greeted by hundreds of Vietnamese tourists, probably on a company excursion. They were running around, shouting and just getting wildly excited at the dunes.

We walked further away from them towards the sea. But the sun was already setting, and again, the sand seemed endless. So we stopped at a spot and just admired the sunset from there.
Though the Red Sand Dunes were more dramatic because of its setting and color (more like saffron), I liked the White Sand Dunes because it was grander. 

Well, that ends our tour of Mui Ne. We would be going back to Saigon the next day after lunch for our last night in Vietnam. Mui Ne is a very interesting destination only 3 hours away from Saigon. There are other scenic spots in the area, but some of them were closed, like the Fairy Steam (I didn't understand the reason why they were closed). And with great food as usual, Mui Ne was indeed a good choice. I'm glad we came here. You'll never know until you experience it yourself.

Fresh Seafood Lunch in Mui Ne

After visiting the nearby fishing village, we asked our guide to take us to a lunch venue by the beach. He brought us to this seaside "dampa".

The seafood here was fresh and very appetizing. The crabs were huge and had a lighter color (don't know what that meant though). Each weighed 3 kilos minimum.

Some vendors also tried to sell us crayfish, prawns, lobsters and all sorts of other crustaceans. In the end, our lunch menu included the following: Grilled Scallops and Prawns and Steamed Crabs. All naked, meaning no cooking sauces. We only asked for soy sauce, lemon and salt.

We had difficulty buying, since our guide again seemed to have conned us into paying for more. Disheartened and already angry at the tour guide, we threatened the vendors to cancel our orders. But the crabs were already in the pot, so the vendors argued with our tour guide. In the end, we fought our tour guide, paid the price we agreed upon with the vendor, and apologized to the vendors. We knew it was our tour guide's fault that the argument over price blew up. I hated our tour guide after that and never spoke to him again. I wish I never got him in the first place. 
Nevertheless, we had a very satisfying meal.  The scallops were the winning dish. They were so fresh and tasty, and grilled perfectly. With lemon and salt as dipping sauce, we were in utopia with every bite. And they were served on cardboard!

Despite the bad situation in buying lunch, we ended up happy and full. Goes to show how much good food can change your mood that fast.

The Fishing Village of Mui Ne

The next day was tour day. Since we rented the van for the whole duration of our stay, we had something of a customized tour, at our own pace. That's what I like about renting your own transportation. And if you do your math, more often than not, especially when you're with a group of more than 3, you get to save a lot of money. So, in Mui Ne, we hopped on our van, and visited our first destination: The Fishing Village.

The coastal towns of Vietnam are mostly fishing villages, and in Phan Thiet (province where Mui Ne is), you could see a lot of a unique type of boat: the basket boat.

The basket boats are unique to Vietnam, so the traditional boat has become a tourist magnet. Most local fishermen still use these basket boats, to carry their catch. Some use bigger boats to pull these basket boats filled with bounty. You can actually see plenty of huge fishing vessels, an indication of a thriving fishing industry. 
We rode a basket boat and paid 50,000 VND, which is pretty expensive. Our tour guide (we hired one to help us translate), seemed to have charged us higher, since we saw him give a smaller amount to the boatmen when we gave him our money. That made us very frustrated. More on this tour guide later.

The basket boat ride was unstable, and you'll feel you'll fall off. You needed to sit or squat to keep your balance. The boatman swayed in a funny rhythm as he paddled us around. We approached different kinds of fishing boats, small and large. It was interesting and being fascinated at boats, I was enjoying the ride.

The entire area smelled fishy of course, and the humid air was salty and sticky. After the boat ride, we took some more pictures on the top, to get a better view.

The beach looks nice here, but it's a typical fishing beach. The water also looks perfect blue, but it was murky. Probably, the light of day made the place spectacular in photos. The fishing village is definitely a must see when in Mui Ne, and just taking a snapshot is worth the visit. Of course, riding one of these basket boats made the experience more memorable.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Onwards to Mui Ne

From the Saigon airport, we rented a private van to take us to Mui Ne, around 180 kms north of Saigon. The van also served as our transport around Mui Ne and would take us back to Saigon after 2 days. The van cost us $100, so it was worth it, given that we were 10 in the group. Our resort in Mui Ne was Mui Ne Resort, owned by Sinh Cafe. We arrived in the evening, around 10PM, so these pictures were taken the next day.

The resort was decent and perhaps, the most luxurious accommodation that we stayed in for the entire trip. What's even better is that it only cost us $35 per room per night. The rooms were spotless and had a comfortable bed. The bathroom was also spacious and had a separate shower (our past hotels had no division). 

The pool was also huge. There was a bar beside it, and one can lounge by the pool benches surrounding it.

The beach of Mui Ne is not exceptional. In fact, it reminded us of Puerto Galera's. The sand quality is rather poor compared to Philippine standards. The water was also unclear, and the waves were storng, making it a bit unsafe to swim.

We thought that there was an entire beach fronting the hotel, but we found none. The resort was elevated, since the tide rose at night, making the beach disappear. There was a small area though on the elevation, where one can lounge facing the beach. 

Mui Ne Resort is a good budget choice, given that the average price in the area for resorts is at $60. If you want a beach front, better get a resort further on the Southern part, the area that you first reach upon entering the Cape of Mui Ne from the town.

Cooking in Cambodia

When I realized I was going to Siem Reap for the 2nd time, I knew I had to do something different. We only had limited time, so I was running out of options. Good thing I discovered a cooking class at Le Tigre de Papier.

We inquired about the class when we we dined in their Italian resto during the 1st night. We were told that the cost of the class would be $12 per person, which is inclusive of the ingredients and a market tour. It was a good deal I thought, so we confirmed our attendance.

However, when the day came, only 3 of us were able to wake up, since we partied the night before. We were worried that we won't be accommodated anymore, since with all of us, it was supposed to be a private class. We still took our chances, and after some begging, we were allowed to go on the class, but without the market tour anymore. It was alright for us, since the market tour would just introduce us to the ingredients, which we wouldn't buy anyway. All the ingredients were already prepared. We won't be going to the market here anyway.

So we were made to choose 2 dishes to make per person, one appetizer and one main course. We chose two salads (Spicy Shrimp Stringbean Salad and Mango Salad) and Fresh Spring Rolls. For our main courses, we chose Stir Fried Beef, Chicken Amok and Spicy Seafood Curry. We prepared our ingredients, cutting and chopping. We even made our own curry paste.

We also made a dessert for free. The picture above shows the dessert, Tapioca Balls and Pumpkin in Coconut Milk (much like ginataan but with pumpkin instead of kamote).

The picture above is one of the finished products, the Spicy Shrimp Salad. The picture below obviously shows the Fresh Spring Rolls.

This was the Seafood Curry in the making. Our teacher had a secret ingredient: Chicken Powder. She added it to almost all the cooked dishes. She said it gave more flavor. Think MSG.

I plated my Chicken Amok on banana leaves. I was hoping to put it in a coconut shell though. The amok that we made was different from the one we tasted the day before in our lunch at the temples. I liked the one we previously had.

We finished the class around 11:00 PM, so it took us around 2 hours to cook everything. We invited all the sleepy heads to taste our food. This was our lunch was well. It was enough for all of us!

Cooking in Cambodia was definitely an eye opener for me. I love Asian cuisine, and this was my first class on Asian fare. I am seriously considering taking up more courses, and even get a diploma in culinary studies. Mhy ultimate goal of course is to put up a restaurant by next year. I hope that pushes though.

So, with that, I end our short but sweet and jam-packed adventure in Cambodia.  We now fly back to Saigon, and head onwards to our final destination, Mui Ne in the province of Phan Thiet, Vietnam. 

Loving Siem Reap

It's been a whirlwind trip to Angkor and Siem Reap. We only had one full day since we arrived night time of the 1st and left at noon time on the 3rd day. That full day was maximized, so we had that quick tour of the Angkor Temples and explored Siem Reap in the evening. We stayed in a reasonably-priced hotel ($25 up per room) called Tanei Guesthouse. 

It had a large pool, which was a requirement for me in Siem Reap. You'll know why after visiting the temples. Tanei wasn't our top choice, Le Tigre De Papier was. However, the owner revoked our booking, so we had to find another one. I settled for this one, again, because of the pool. The websites of our choices are:

That night, after our tour of the temples, we decided to go on a cultural dinner buffet. It was a touristy thing to do, but we were told that the price of the buffet was $5. Well, unfortunately, the price was really $12, so we were disappointed. 

There were a lot of people, mostly foreigners on tour. This was probably included in most tour packages to Siem Reap. Our guesthouse was able to reserve a nice table though, close to the stage, where a performance of traditional Khmer dances were set.

After that, we walked back along the main road and shopped for souvenirs and bags. We bought several North Face back packs at around $10 to 20 per bag. We almost ransacked the entire store, and we had almost 8 huge plastic bags filled with bags!

We planned to go out and get drunk, so after shopping, we headed straight for the popular bar, Angkor What?, in Pub St.  There were a lot of graffiti on the walls, that served as its decor and charm. I remember writing something as well in my previous visit, but I just can't remember where. Well, it was almost impossible to find my mark, since the entire place was covered in colorful graffiti. 

We ordered drinks in pitchers for only $8, and enough to keep us yapping and laughing and screaming all night. We ordered pizza as well, from next door, Le Tigre, the same pizzas we had last night. We were probably the only Asians amongst a sea of drunk Westerners who were dancing and cheering all night long.

We walked back to our guesthouse for about 10 minutes. We occupied the entire street, and we were noisy. We were all tipsy or drunk to control our laughter. It was indeed a memorable night.

The next morning, we were supposed to go on cooking lessons in Le Tigre de Papier, but only 3 of us woke up sober and early. More on that cooking encounter in my next post. Meanwhile, I'll show you how some shots of Siem Reap's Pub St. and establishments:

We checked out at 12 Noon, and headed to the airport for our 2PM flight back to Saigon. We initially were to take the bus back, but after that long and exhausting bus ride going here, it was unanimous that we fly back, even if it set us back $125 each. 

The Siem Reap airport was a boutique airport, and looked like a resort. It was small, and very upscale. The airport charged $25 airport usage fee, so that's another blow to our budget. Nevertheless, we were happy we were onboard an hour's flight back to Saigon. 

Onwards to our last destination: Mui Ne in Vietnam!


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