Dalat, Vietnam

It started out as an amazing first night. My hostel hosted these amazing family dinners where pretty much the entire hostel ate a local meal with the family that ran the hostel – all you can eat Vietnamese spring rolls, a salad, a soup, a vegetable, a chicken dish, and rice… all for a pricey $3!

I made friends with a group of Dutch girls over dinner (the Dutch are easily the nicest people I’ve met on my travels), and we decided to go out on the town. Our first stop was the Escape Bar which is a multi-level bar that’s designed like a maze. You buy your drinks at the entrance, and then make your way through multiple stairwells, each randomly breaking out into a cluster of tables / a dance floor / an area full of quirky artefacts / toilets / another bar to buy more drinks. You have to stick together as a group, or you aren’t going to find your friends again. I’d have pictures of the bar, but one of the Dutch girls was designated photographer for the night, and she left the morning after, without exchanging coordinates.

From the Escape Bar, it was another bar, and then another, and then another, until we ran into a bunch of partying locals on the street, who insisted we share their barbecue and beers with them; we did. We also sang a couple of Westlife songs – the only English songs they knew!

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Dalat street party. 

After that, we ended up at the only night club open till 4 am in Dalat… 2 blocks from my hostel. The club was packed: fancy locals in VIP tables on the sides of the club, not-so-fancy locals in little clusters all around the club, and tourists strictly in the centre of the club on the dance floor. The clubs have a weird no drinks on the dance floor policy, I guess they’re worried someone will smash their beer bottles on another’s head? Props to them for trying…

As we were dancing, we noticed a fight break out at the VIP tables. One of the locals grabbed the other by the collar and shoved him all the way to the DJ’s booth. Now the DJ, not wanting the crowd to miss the spectacle, promptly turned off the music so that everyone’s eyes are towards the action. Right on cue, the collar grabber pulled out a knife and stabbed the other guy right in the neck!

Now, there are some people who like to stand and watch fights like these, but not me… I fucking ran! My hostel friends, just like me, ran with. We told the bouncer at the door what happened, and he insisted we get out of there immediately as well; like we needed more convincing.

We ran maybe a block until we were a fair distance from the club, and right outside the little alley where my hostel was, we met some other people from the hostel smoking cigarettes. Clear from any danger (or so we thought), we were narrating our story to them, when we notice some shouting from the direction of the club and the guys from the club were now brawling on the streets with machetes! We ran again, this time straight to the hostel.

We were later told the two guys originally involved probably belonged to rival gangs. And sure, maybe they did, BUT WHO BRINGS KNIVES AND MACHETES TO A NIGHT CLUB! AND HOW DO YOU CONCEAL THEM!

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Anyway, Dalat is a tiny city / town, 6 hours north of Ho Chi Minh City, and the French came here to escape the blistering heat of Ho Chi Minh City. For being this close to the city, I was surprised by how cool the temperatures were. Dropping to 15 degrees at night in the middle of the Vietnamese summers, the hostels here don’t even have air conditioners installed. They don’t need it.

The place is filled with French style villas, and they’ve even got their own Eiffel Tower (it’s a telephone tower – but under renovation currently).

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There’s a lot of trekking you can do in the surrounding hills, and some canyoning as well. I enthusiastically signed up for a canyoning trip, and then proceeded to get very drunk (night of the stabbing), so I did my canyoning trip hungover. A lot of fun, but would not recommend.

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Similar to the Escape Bar is the Dalat Crazy House, which is a home / hotel that was built by the lady who was the teacher to the guy who built the Escape Bar. Quirky house, but I can’t imagine this being a peaceful hotel to stay in – there were over a hundred tourists walking around. It has a nice aerial view of Dalat though.

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Classic Asian girl pose. 

In spite of my experiences though, which I believe was a one off, Dalat is one of my favourite places in Vietnam. The family run hostels, weather, food, and coffee make it the perfect getaway.

Most tourists travelling Vietnam go to the old city of Hoi An from Dalat, but it’s a really long bus journey, so I decided to stop by the beaches of Nha Trang and break up the travel time. But it’s a city made literally just for the Russians – they’re everywhere and more in number than the locals – and everything is either in Vietnamese or Russian.

It’s supposed to be a good spot to scuba dive from in Vietnam though, but I’m poor, so I didn’t go. For what it’s worth, here’s a picture of the beach at Nha Trang.

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I started my Vietnam journey with the lovely city of Ho Chi Minh. Originally called Saigon, but rechristened after the northern Vietnamese (Vietcong) won the war against southern Vietnam. Not many know about the Vietnam war, and the reasons behind it (included me, until this trip), so I’ll start this post with a bit of background. What I say may sound opinionated (it is), and it’s very likely that I have missed mentioning, or perhaps I may not even be aware of, some of the facts surrounding the war. But this is what I understand of the situation:

Vietnam was a French colony and under the French, like every other country under foreign rule, they were oppressed. Towards the end of WWII, the attitude of oppressed nations (including Vietnam) changed. The fight for freedom was gaining traction, and it was getting harder for the oppressors, especially the allies of WWII, to continue to hold their colonies while stopping Germany from doing the same in Europe – they couldn’t take a noble stance at the UN if they themselves committed atrocities outside Europe.

Vietnam demanded independence, but the French didn’t want that; the riches they were looting from Vietnam were too valuable to let go of. France had suffered heavily in WWII, and sought the help of the United States in controlling Vietnam. Under Ho Chi Minh (the leader of the Worker’s Party of Vietnam), however, the Vietnamese declared independence from the French rule. The details aren’t necessary (nor do I know them well enough), but as a result of this declaration of independence, Vietnam was split into two. Ho Chi Minh’s party controlled the north, while the French (with the help of the USA) indirectly controlled the south – installing a Vietnamese puppet to rule the south. By the mid 1950s though, the French had more or less left Vietnam, and the southern Vietnamese cause was aided and controlled only by the USA.

The Vietcong began their attempts to free the south and unify Vietnam as one independent nation. The Vietcong were a communist regime, while the south of Vietnam was an attempt at democracy. The USA didn’t want this. They wanted Vietnam (or at least southern Vietnam) to be a democracy – because they didn’t want communism in more countries of the world. Why was this USA’s problem? Your guess is as good as mine. But from what I understand, they were financially (and politically) motivated – war is, after all, the best kind of business. And while the USA didn’t ‘officially’ enter the war against Vietnam until 1965, they long funded the war by aiding the southern Vietnamese.

On the flip-side, Russia, along with a few other communist nations decided to support the Vietcong. If USA was supporting the south, the Russians probably found it fit to support the north. With this, Vietnam ended up being a battleground that continued the cold war between the communist regimes of Russia and the democratic nation of USA. The southern Vietnamese were armed with US provided helicopters, tanks, bombs, guns and other ammunition, while Russia and China took care of the Vietcong. And though the battle went on for decades, and the casualties were mainly Vietnamese.

The Vietnamese were basically pawns. The US did everything they could to force the Vietcong to retreat, including the use of Agent Orange, but the Vietcong had some serious fight in them. In spite of being repeatedly bombed by the USA: every single day, for years and years, the Vietcong did not give in. Through the war, the USA dropped 7 million tons of bombs in Vietnam – that’s more than double the amount dropped in Europe and Asia in WWII! As for the chemical warfare, please Google ‘Agent Orange’ to see the consequences of what the chemical did to the locals.

In the end, the Vietcong proved to be too resilient. They were masters of guerrilla warfare, and although USA didn’t officially lose the war – they withdrew forces from southern Vietnam, which led to the downfall of the southern Vietnamese regime – it seems pretty clear that it was a war that they were not likely to win.

A badass, war-movie like interaction took place when the Vietcong army entered Saigon, broke through what is now called the Reunification Palace (post-war name to signify the reunification of the north and south of Vietnam), and entered the cabinet room where General Duong Van Minh, the leader of the southern Vietnamese forces, along with his advisors were waiting. I quote from Wiki: “The revolution is here. You are here,” Minh said. He added, “We have been waiting for you so that we could turn over the government.” Colonel Bui Tin, the commander of the Vietcong curtly replied, “There is no question of your transferring power. Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have.”

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Reunification Palace.

Coming back to the city as it is today, they have the War Remnants Museum that gives you, admittedly, a pro-Vietcong view of the war. But the museum is worth a visit. They have a whole section dedicated to the horrific consequences of Agent Orange – and the pictures made my insides churn. There’s a lot of American tanks, helicopters and planes on display in the courtyard outside the museum, and they are pretty cool.

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Courtyard outside the War Remnants Museum.
The city also has a lovely, French style post office, as well as a French built cathedral called the Notre Dame Cathedral Saigon.
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Outside of the post office.
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Inside of the post office.
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Notre Dame Saigon.

A short drive away from Ho Chi Minh City, there is a town by the name of Cu Chi, that has what remains of the famous Cu Chi Tunnels. During the war, most of the fighting took place in the middle of Vietnam by the border between the north and the south. But the Vietcong found a way to bring the battle to the south. They took the sea route from the north, and went all around Vietnam to Cambodia, from where they entered the mainland, moved northwards, and then cut east to Cu Chi in Vietnam.

If you want to see how the Vietcong fought, this is the place to go. Masters of guerrilla warfare, these locals were farmers by the day, and soldiers by night. They used these tunnels as a place to hide, as well as a place to eat, sleep, store weapons, and sneak up on the enemy. The network forms a part of a larger network of underground tunnels, and the Cu Chi Tunnels themselves are around 120kms long – stretching all the way to Cambodia. The tunnels themselves are so tiny, it’s amazing how these soldiers moved through them. The tunnels are a measly 60 centimetres by 80 centimetres, and the only way to move was crawling horizontally on their bellies.

The tourist accessible spot of the Cu Chi Tunnels are some of the few tunnel networks that have been preserve by the Vietnamese government, and a lot of the tunnels collapsed during the war because of the bombings. There’s an original entry point that you can briefly enter into to see what it was like to be in the tunnels, and there’s also a 100m stretch of tunnel that they’ve more than doubled in size through which tourists can enter to see what it was like being in the tunnels: claustrophobic, cramped, terribly hot, and tiring – in spite of them being king-sized.

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One of the original entrances to the tunnels.

I also visited the Mekong Delta, which is a vast network of rivers and rivulets that the Vietnamese use for trade and travel.

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Cruising the Mekong Delta.

In terms of food, Ho Chi Minh City offers pretty much every kind of cuisine you could want. I stuck to Vietnamese food for the major part. I love bahn mi, and it’s probably one of the few good things the French did to Vietnam: they gave them the recipe to a perfect baguette. During my tour of the Mekong Delta there was also some snake infused rice wine on offer. It’s rice wine with some snake poison (the alcohol makes it harmless) and the snake itself (for added zing maybe?). A cool souvenir to take back from Vietnam.

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Ready to drink snake infused rice wine.
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Take away bottles for tourists.

A lot of people don’t like Ho Chi Minh City, but that’s probably because they are expecting a Bangkok like experience. I really liked the city, its history, and as is standard with most of Southeast Asia, the people.

 

Hong Kong

Reluctantly, but because my expiring visa, I had to leave Bali and make my way to my next destination: Hong Kong. I had a connection in Singapore, and I don’t know what it was, but I was really tired when I got on the plane in Bali, but I just passed out. I haven’t slept like that on a plane, and when I woke up, we were already docked at the gate in Singapore. I quickly got up from my seat, picked up my bag from the overhead bin, and got off the plane: WITHOUT PICKING UP MY BELOVED KINDLE FROM THE SEAT POCKET! 😦

As you all know, I was travelling during my birthday this year, and obviously haven’t received any gifts from pretty much any of you. I am willing to forgive the delay in return for a Kindle (not the cheap one please) from any kind soul who feels like getting me one. Please do text me separately and let me know.

Now, Hong Kong is not part of the banana pancake trail, and rightly so; it’s almost like a European city with European city rates. Hostels are tiny and expensive, and they’ve got 3 tier bunk beds in an already cramped space. The food is amazing though, and there’s malls everywhere. In fact, there’s only malls. It was hard to hold back because Hong Kong does not have any sales tax, so clothes, shoes, perfumes and electronics are cheaper than pretty much anywhere else . I was there for 10 days, and I felt like it was a few days too much for Hong Kong. Most people stay for no more than 2 or 3 days. But there’s something about big cities that I just love. I like staying in small towns and villages, but for the long term, it’s always going to be a city for me.

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In terms of the touristy stuff Hong Kong has a few things to offer, and they are all quite nice. But even though I had 10 days, I didn’t get to Victoria Peak / the Peak Tram – the lines were just insane – and I’ve been there many years back already. The captions with pictures below are sufficient explanations for the tourist spots.

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Victorian era cannon that’s fired at noon everyday.
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Cable car in Tung Chung.
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Big Buddha.
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Cable car views on the way back.
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Temple Street night market.
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Lovely Chinese temple.

Hong Kong has dim sum shops (obviously), and dim sums are my favourite things to eat (right after pasta). I had loads of them. There’s a bunch of Michelin star restaurants in Hong Kong, and some of them are surprisingly cheap! By Michelin star restaurant standards anyway. But something all the restaurants in Hong Kong do, much to my chagrin, is serve tea with every meal. If it were free, I wouldn’t care; but it’s not. You need to shell out anything between HK$ 3 to 15 for the tea – whether you want to drink it or not. I don’t drink tea, so it was a few HK$ wasted with every meal. But I think the food made up for it.

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Noodles at Din Tai Fung

Later at night, the pier on both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon have some nice spots, and it was calming just sitting by the water and watching the beautiful city by night. It would have been a lot nicer if I had a Kindle to read a book on while I sat there, so in case you skipped paragraph 2 of this post, I repeat: I am accepting Kindles as gifts.

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Looking at Hong Kong Island from Kowloon.

For my last few days, I also ran into this goofball, who brought me some delicious wine from Australia. And in spite of her bellicose nature, I think overall she was tolerable.

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I guess she’s trying to tell me it’s time for food?
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Airport goodbye… no ragrets.

From Hong Kong, I have now made my way to Vietnam (without leaving anything else behind on the plane – thank God), and it’s been such an adventure already; so more on that soon…

Bali and the Gilis

After the emotional rollercoaster of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, my original plan was to visit Malaysia to dive in the Sipadan, but ridiculous Malaysian visa restrictions required me to apply for a visa from India / Thailand / Singapore only, which was cost prohibitive to do. So after $400 lost in flights in and out of Malaysia + internal flights to the Sipadan + non refundable Hostelworld booking advances (should have paid the $1 for flexible bookings!), I decided to make my way to Bali.

Now, Bali is, undisputedly, Indonesia’s most famous island destination. What the map doesn’t tell you though is how huge that island is. I spent close to a month on the island, and I couldn’t even visit the major areas of the island. I remember when I was still home and planning my trip, I had decided to give Indonesia 1 month where I would start in Jakarta, and then visit Yogyakarta, Bali, the Gilis, Lombok, Komodo, Florence, the Java islands, Sumatra, and maybe a few other places I can’t recollect. It all seemed doable looking at the map, but the truth is far from it. Indonesia is an archipelago of over 17,000 islands – and it would take a lifetime to visit them all. What’s more, the islands are spread out, like really really spread out, and though Indonesia has good and cheap internal flight connectivity, trying to visit Indonesia’s top spots in 30 days would be a ludicrous idea.

I started off  time on the island at the luxury tourist spot of Seminyak. I stayed at a hostel that had capsule beds (my favourite kind of dorm), and although the hostel had a party vibe that’s usually not my drift, I had a pretty good time in Seminyak. There’s the famous Potato Head Beach Club, my personal favourite: La Favella, and a bunch of other nice (and expensive) clubs and pubs. My friend Jack, who I also ran into at the start of my trip in Bangkok, was also in Bali for most of my time there, and with him, it’s always a party. We visited a few gay clubs in Seminyak as well, and I even had a Balinese Beyonce try really hard to make out with me, in spite of my resistance and polite refusals. One of they days, I even made my way down to the Single Fin sundown party all the way in Uluwatu (2 hours drive south of Seminyak), which was really nice overall.

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Jesus watching over your drinks at La Favella.

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After Seminyak, I went slightly south and stayed at the most touristy beach in Bali – Kuta Beach. While I did spend a few nights there, they were mainly to rest at night after my advanced open water qualifications dives in Nusa Penida (for manta rays!) and Tulamben (for the USS Liberty Wreck dive – a ship that was hit by a Japanese torpedo and beached near Tulamben during WWII). The dives were spectacular and definitely one of the highlights of my time in Bali.

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Shipwreck dive.
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Nusa Penida.
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Getting my tan on. 

From there I met up with Jack again and made my way to Ubud – the hippy town in the middle of Bali. Eat, Pray, Love is based in Ubud, and besides the acres and acres of rice fields (no beaches here), there are oodles of yoga centres and vegan restaurants. There’s a monkey sanctuary that I didn’t go to, but it’s probably pretty fun on the inside. I also attended my first ever yoga class (you read that right) in Ubud, and it was pretty calming and relaxing.

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Toilet in Ubud spitting truth bombs. 
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Road near the monkey sanctuary. 
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Sexy yoga pose. 

On to the Gilis from there, where we spent a few nights in Gili Trawangan – the party island of the Gilis: super trashy, followed by a few nights in Gili Air – the relaxing island of the Gilis: super nice. I also did a few fun dives while I was in the Gilis – I saw sooo many turtles – and also managed to catch a few good sunsets.

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Evenings in Gili Trawangan.
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More Gili T.
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Sunset in Gili Air.
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Last night with Jack in Gili Air.

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Dropped by Mr. Turtle’s for breakfast. 

I went back to Kuta from there where I met up with my friend Niharika who flew down for her birthday weekend. I did another couple of fun dives, went to surf school, and even visited the most famous bar / pub / club in Bali – Sky Garden!

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After Niharika left, I went to Canggu Beach, the surfer beach of Bali, and after perhaps Gili Air, this would be my favourite spot. The beaches were far less crowded and the waters were perfect for surfing.

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Overall, I really liked my time in Bali (and the Gilis). The beaches are beautiful, the food is delicious, and the people, like most of Southeast Asia, are super friendly. I hope to return some day.

Honorary mention: AVOCADO. Bali (and I think Indonesia in general) is really big on avocado… and it’s cheap! If you love avocado, and pay a mini fortune for below average avocados where you live (like I do), that’s probably added incentive to make that trip to Bali.

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Best brekky. 

PS – I realise that this post was quite drab, and that’s mainly because so much happened in that 1 month in Bali, and I’m writing about it a whole month after I left, so the stories aren’t that fresh in my mind, and it’s hard to condense it all in one post anyway. Bottom line, need to post more often.