City of Lanterns, are you shining just for me?

Hoi An has been on my bucket list for quite some time now, as I was really keen to see this one place everyone recommended as ‘probably the best city in Vietnam’. So when I finally got to go there, I ate all the amazing food, visited (yeah, maybe not all) beautiful places inside and around the city and.. well, got some new clothes the traditional way. About all this you can read below.

Some intro

In Vietnamese ‘Hoi An’ translates into ‘peaceful meeting’ as historically the city has been a big port where paths of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese traders crossed. This mix of three cultures and their peaceful coexistence shows as you stroll around the city. The architecture is a combination of different styles that nonetheless fit together well. The famous Japanese bridge that used to connect Japanese and Chinese communities makes the perfect example of how well the three cultures intermingled in the past.

The food

Before moving to Asia for good, I would mostly associate Vietnamese cousine with pho soup and spring rolls. The me of today, however, absolutely scoffs at this under-appreciation as there is simply so much more to the Vietnamese food and then every city in the country is a totally different, non-replicable story.
There are however some similarities – from North to South you will find Bahn Mi everywhere. What’s Bahn Mi? It’s this one good thing that came out of French colonisation of Vietnam – a mini French baguette, traditionally filled with tons of meat (pate, pork, ham, …), fried eggs, cucumbers, seasonal veggies & fresh herbs. Although the concept is same same wherever you go, there are no two identical Bahn Mi places. One of the most hyped spots for this specialty is Bahn Mi Phuong. The place got its fame thanks to Anthony Bourdain and his ‘No Reservations’, where he proclaims it as the best Bahn Mi in the world. Even as a huge fan of this French-Vietnamese sandwich I have no clue if that was really the best one I had (I still remember very well Huynh Hoa Bakery in Saigon) but for sure it was a damn good one.

Bahn Mi at Bahn Mi Phuong

On the other hand there are two dishes that are Hoi An only and these are Cao Lau and white rose dumplings.
The first one can be found anywhere around the city and as you stroll around you can often see the main ingredient, rice noodles, drying up in huge pots on the streets. However, that is not what makes them special. The secret to Cao Lau is that when the noodles are made, they are soaked in lye solution which is a combination of water from a local well and tree ashes coming from nearby Cham Islands. On top of that, you would typically get grilled pork, some sprouts and fresh herbs, altogether resulting in a delicious dish that tastes like no other noodles I have had anywhere else.

As for the white rose dumplings, apparently there is only one authentic recipe to make these and it is a well-kept family secret. Therefore, the urban legend goes that real Bahn bao Bahn vac (as they are actually called in Vietnamese) can solely be found at White Rose Restaurant and if you encounter them anywhere else in the city, they must have originated from that place anyway.

Sightseeing, we’re sightseeing!

As much as food in Hoi An only would be absolutely worth the trip, I had a bit more on my agenda. For starters, the city in itself is simply beautiful and so has found its way into the UNESCO list as a well-preserved 16th-19th century port. So just wandering on the streets of Hoi An and getting lost there (well, it’s fairly small so limited possibilities on getting really lost) makes you absolutely amazed by how pretty the city is. The wooden houses painted in mostly yellow or blue form the architecture here, omnipresent lanterns add to the charm.

These lanterns used to be simply means for lighting up after the sun went down. As they were very often attached to the outside of houses, they have also became prettier and prettier over time . Nowadays, in their traditional use they have generally become obsolete, although still remain a vivid part of the city’s decor. On a daily basis, lanterns are a common sight in in Hoi An, however, on every 14th day of the moon month the Lantern Festival brings in way more of those lights and after dark, the city turns into a truly magical place.

As beautiful as the city is, it is also quite small, so half a day of strolling around is just enough. That is not an end to attractions of Hoi An though. Positioned right in the middle of Vietnam, it boasts both a shoreline with white sands and mountains covered in green, green forest.

A trip from Hoi An to the nearest beach makes around 4 km and is easily doable by bike. Renting a bike is probably your cheapest way of transportation as it costs merely 30,000 Vietnamese Dong per day (or 1.17 EUR). Whereas, there are no specially designated bike lanes, the roads have an extra half-lane for cars & motor bikes to pull over. This is where you will generally find all the biking enthusiasts, myself included.

Except from being cheap, taking a bike to move around, also means you get to explore the nearby rice fields and the coconut forest by yourself. Whereas there are plenty of organised tours that will take you around in a group where you will probably find yourself being the odd one out among one or two Chinese families, I chose to be my own guide and use my bike to get everywhere.

The rice terraces that you can encounter when cycling around may be no Tegalalang rice terraces in Bali, rather a non-touristy version of them. I would still say it’s worth taking this trip around, as the fields create a beautiful scenery and make the ride very eye-pleasing and relaxing.

Another place where a bike can get you is the Coconut Forest and this is exactly where all the pictures of people floating in basket-like boats come from. Same as other parts of Hoi An, the place has become quite touristy, so in order to avoid the loud crowds I decided to take the trip quite early in the morning. I must say that I partially succeeded although still didn’t manage to skip the part where a local guy puts on very loudly music such as K-Pop or Backstreet Boys and starts swirling around in his boat to the amusement of the visitors. Apart from that, the boat trip is a actually a cool experience, as you can see how people still cultivate coconuts in this submerged forest.

Coconut forest

If you’re not really a beach person, or just like me forgot that the sun in this latitude can actually be strong enough to turn you into a red person, the mountains are the way to go. And Hoi An is actually a wonderful place for some trips higher up, especially that the Hai Van Pass, or the mountainous road that used to be the only land link between Da Nang and Hue is only some hour away from the city.

To get there, you can either rent a scooter, get a car or join one of those coach trips that mass tourists are so fond of. However, I wouldn’t recommend option 3, as those buses only stop at the top of the Pass, from where the view is actually quite average and way better spots can be found on the way up or down.

Once you pass the peak of Hai Van in the direction of Hue, you find yourself at Lang Co Bay which has two big highlights. The first one is definitely Lap An Lagoon that has been almost entirely cut off from the sea and now serves a huge oyster farm. This wonderfully peaceful place is where I found no tourists whatsoever, only local kids who, once spotted an obvious foreigner, came to me with all of their dogs and wanted me to hold all those puppies. And for some unknown to myself reason that’s exactly what i did.

Oyster farm at Lap An Lagoon

Oysters from the farm make their way to nearby restaurants, one of which is located at beach on the other side of this small peninsula. The beach in itself is very tranquil, with tourists hardly making their way there. Therefore, it makes for a great spot to just chill after having crossed the Hai Van Pass and, also, their way of preparing oysters is absolutely top notch (this comes from a person, who’s prior oyster experience involved having to spit them out because of how much I liked the taste).

This tailoring hype

Once you look up Hoi An online, one of the top activities to do here, appears to be getting custom-made clothing. Rumour has it that the suits made in Vietnam wear perfectly, are an ideal fit and you can make yourself any piece of designer clothing for a small fraction of it regular price. Myself, I wasn’t fully convinced if a) I believed it, b) I actually needed something tailored. However, then the monsoon came and cancelled my outdoor plans and so I was convinced that a) and b) were actually untrue.

How the process looks like is that you first give the assistant the idea of what is it that you want and then try to establish exactly how it is supposed to look like (here Google comes in very handy). For me, I think it took us some half an hour to an hour to put this vision for two dresses and a shirt on paper. Once you have an idea, they give you the price and, to my surprise, haggling is next to impossible. What I managed to do, although not without a struggle & to my assistant’s great annoyance, is get only some 12% down (where normally in Vietnam you should go ~60% off the initial price).

When this part is done and you have money issues all set, the fun part comes. To make your clothes fit perfectly, the tailors will take all the possible measures off you, and when I say all it really means ALL. For a plain blue office-like shirt that I got, they have taken note of some 15-20 different measures.

That doesn’t mean however, that your clothes will be made ready based on all of these measures only. Less than 24 hours after I have placed my order, all my pieces of clothing were ready for me to try them on for the first time. And here again, to my astonishment, my tailor found so many little items that could be improved to make the clothes fit even more perfectly. Then, only couple of hours later my order was ready for another try out, the only thing still missing were buttons. However, once I tried on all my three pieces and they were really fitting ideally, it took maximum 3 minutes for all the buttons to be already sewed into my shirt and two button-up dresses(!!!).

With this experience I think I’m way past my initial doubts about custom made clothes from Vietnam. The price (at least for my dresses) did not knock me off with how low it was, but on the other hand I would easily pay for the same type of dress the same amount of money at any of the chain stores.

To wrap it all up..

All in all, Vietnam has been one of my favourite countries to travel, as it is extremely easy to move around whether you go solo or with other people. Also, the food is delicious to the extremes and if you’re looking for a cheap beer, look no further. And then of course, there are the views and the sightseeing, everywhere you go so totally different but always absolutely stunning. And as for Hoi An, it fits entirely into this definition of Vietnam travelling.

Walk down the Phnom Penh’s history lane

Do you ever have this feeling that you have learned a lot over a very short period of time? Because this is how I would describe my first trip to Cambodia. 

As a school kid in Poland, I never got to learn about the genocide that happened in this country. As a 15-year-old, I have maybe heard something about Khmer Rouge and maybe even associated them with Cambodia, this state somewhere in South East Asia. But I never knew about atrocities Pol Pot and his comrades committed, even though once I eventually learned, couple years after graduating from university, it reminded me a lot of the history of my own country in the Second World War and under Soviet occupation.

Before I go to the details, it might be helpful to set some context and provide a brief overview of the modern history of Cambodia. As its neighbouring Vietnam, Cambodia was colonised by the French in the 19th century. However, by mid 20th century, the French have greatly backed out and 1960s and early 1970s have seen the country still having a monarchy but also something resembling democratic elections. That was the time of Cambodian golden age – the economy was growing, cities were developing, Khmer movies were being produced on a mass scale (this was mostly thanks to the King Sihanouk, who himself shot over 60 films), and even Cambodian Rock&Roll became a thing. 

In 1975 a guerrilla group called Khmer Rouge (Khmer, as the Cambodians call themselves and rouge = red, the colour of communism) has abolished the government in power, walked into the capital, Phnom Penh, and ordered evacuation of the city under the pretext of presumed American bombings. All the citizens were made to move out to the farmlands. There, they would be deprived of all possessions, made wear identical clothes, cut their hair in an identical manner and be put to live in communal ‘houses’ build out of bamboos and whatever else the jungle provided. Day after day, they would work in a 40 Celsius degrees heat on bare two bowls of rice a day. Eating whatever one could find in the forest or what grew in the fields was considered stealing from Angkor (=the organisation) and severely punished by beating or even death.

Pol Pot’s idea of the communist Cambodia was to bring the society back to the basics. What this meant, was transforming all the citizens into obedient farmers who would contribute to the only form of allowed activity, the agricultural production. The regime would call the existing farmers “the old people” and everyone who lived in cities and has over the years become Westernised – “the new people”. The latter ones were all resettled to the farmlands. This ‘basic’ world also included abolishing all the farming advances that 1970s had to offer and have everyone working the way their ancestors did – using shovel as the main tool.

Anyone who was not able to contribute, was dragged outside the common living spaces and killed. From the moment Khmer Rouge took over, until the moment the Vietnam Socialists overthrew the regime, 3 out of 8 millions Cambodians lost their life.

The moment I booked my tickets to Cambodia, I knew I wanted to learn more about what happened during this dark period. In Phnom Penh, there are two main sites where you can familiarize yourself with the past – Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S21 Prison) and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (aka the Killing Fields). In both of them, there are audio-guides available through which a Cambodian man explains the history of the place.

Security prisons (S-21) were a network of prisons spread across the country, where previous government officials, politicians, professors, artists, doctors, namely the entire intelligentsia, were tortured into testifying whatever the guards ordered. Many cases, the prisoners were forced to admit that their entire families were CIA spies or enemies of state. It did not matter that these testimonies were not even slightly true. What mattered was that they provided ‘evidence’ for killing not only the prisoners, but also their entire families. As one of the Pol Pot’s slogans went, ‘it is better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake’. Over the 4 years that the regime lasted, around 20,000 people were imprisoned, out of which only 12 are documented to have escaped and survived.

The premises where S-21 was located previously belonged to a high school – three buildings featuring classrooms on the ground and first floor would overlook a patio, where you could imagine students passing their time in between classes. When Khmer Rouge decided to repurpose the area and create a place of torture, they have turned the classrooms into one of the three types of rooms. The first one would be a common detention cell where around 40 prisoners were shackled together on the floor. Secondly, there were cell rooms, with classroom divided into 10 individual cells. Lastly, there would be rooms having only a metal bed with shackles. These rooms were meant for the actual torture.

As is typical to such places, means of torturing people were numerous. Prisoners were starved, waterboarded, cut open alive, have worms put on their flesh. Another way of torturing was to hang people upside down and then force testimonies. Once a prisoner lost their consciousness, the guards would let the rope down a bit so that their heads would dip into a big bowl than was placed underneath. These were typically filled with water mixed with rotting body parts and excrements. In this way a prisoner immediately woke up and the interrogation was reinstated.

Nowadays, some of the rooms feature pictures of actual prison employees with descriptions of their responsibilities. What your audio guide mentions is that there was a record of a woman working in the prison as a medic. Why do you need a medic if you’re not going to heal anyone anyway?, I would think. Well, the answer is to keep the prisoners alive until the guards decide it’s time for them to die. Then only, they would be transferred to the Killing Fields.

The transfer from S-21 to the Killing Fields always happened by night. Typically, the prisoners were told that they were being relocated. Once they arrived, they were put in line against what was to become their grave. Because the bullets were expensive, and they made of noise, the prisoners were killed with a hit to the back of their head with any kind of tool that was at hand. However, as this did not always cause immediate death, a second check was performed by cutting the prisoners throats (that also prevented them from screaming). After a new batch of prisoners was killed, their bodies were sprayed with DDT, which prevented the smell of declining corpses from spreading. 

Khmer Rouge had no mercy towards anyone. In Choeung Ek you will see a tree, against which the guards would hit babies heads. The visit to the Fields ends in a Buddhist stupa (a kind of memorial), where some 7,000 skulls are displayed. By looking closely, you can learn what the cause of a person’s death was. Up until today, the bones of the victims still emerge from the ground. This happens mainly in the raining season when the water washes them out from the earth.

These two places provide some base for understanding the Cambodian society of today. One of the consequences of the genocide is that the country’s population is in 70% below 40 years old. Most of the perpetrators have never been put to justice and so today, victims live door to door with their torturers. For this reason politics or the genocide itself are hardly ever discussed. Just imagine how triggering such a conversation could easily lead to a bloodshed between neighbours.

Also, politics is a difficult topic, as the current system is far from functional. Over the past 10 years Cambodia has received over 5bln USD in foreign aid. In terms of corruption, the country makes it to the world’s top (or actually worst) 20. That is why, the money flowing from NGOs and international organisations hardly ever goes to the benefit of the society. Rather, it remains in the hands of those in power and their cronies.

However, there is a brighter side, the side where the nation starts looking into a future with hope. I got to learn about it using AirBnB experience, where I have found a food and street art tour around the city that run by Shauna, the curator to the Phnom Penh Art Gallery located in an old Levi’s factory turned living and entertainment space.

The tour starts with a visit to a local food market where you can hardly find any tourists. There you can start your day with a traditional condensed milk-coffee and my personal favourite, a doughnut made out of rice flour, covered in a coconut sugar glaze with sesame seeds sprinkled on top. Although after having eaten that, me and my travel buddy had pretty happy stomachs, our guide would take us to the other side of the street, where locals eat what you should actually eat for breakfast in Phnom Penh, chicken rice. It might sound basic but the dish actually follows the Khmer perception of food, according to which your meal should be a mix of flavours: salty (marinated chicken baked over charcoal), sour (we get pickles as a side), spicy and sweet (add sweet chilli sauce). 

After such a meal, we were ready to explore the inner part of the market. And this is where life begins – thousands of stalls selling fresh fruits, vegetables, fish (many still moving), frogs, bugs sometimes, and meat. Here’s one for the meat – according to Cambodians meat should be consumed fresh and what we, Westerns, do with it by refrigerating and freezing, is just barbaric. As some urban legends go, some people have bought refrigerated meat in a supermarket and then died, so beware. The no refrigerator principles spills on all the other types of produce – for example in Cambodia the oranges are always green because they can only turn yellow when the temperature falls below 8 Celsius degrees. And that simply never happens.

The inner part of the market features a place where we eat Num Banh Chok, a typical breakfast dish, which consists of rice noodles dipped in a cold stew and coconut milk, with pork, herbs and amazingly crunchy spring rolls. Our master chef, the owner of the food stall, has been preparing this dish everyday for the past 35 years. Each morning she gets up early, takes all the ingredients she has assembled the night before to her stall and spends the morning away preparing this mouth watering dish until she runs out of stock, which happens usually before noon. Then, it is time to call it a day, she has earned enough to sustain her family and she doesn’t need to work anymore.

From the market, our tuk tuk takes us to a place that used to be the largest lake in Phnom Penh until the government has sold the land to a private investor, who in turn dried it out to develop new buildings. This area surrounding what used to be a lake, as recent ago as in 2009, is where you can still find street art. And the street art of Phnom Penh really makes an impression – both local and international artists have created murals that feature ordinary lives, traditional motives, symbols, artists that are gone, … 

The life of the street art does not end in the Boeung Kak area though. Many of the artists have been invited to bring their talent and help develop ‘The Factory’. Old Levi’s garment factory has been given a new life and reshaped to serve a new purpose. Buildings in which previously jeans and tops were made have now become home to creative workspaces to rent, a local brewery, a trampoline park, a hipster cafe, a small garment company (you can’t escape destiny) aaand the most amazing art gallery that I have seen. 

K-Bach is a contemporary art gallery, where you will find mostly the art from the streets. Pieces that would typically be sprayed on the walls, have found their ways into canvases. From time to time, there are creative events organised during which some artists would feel so inspired that they would live paint a two-by-three meters canvas, which has now become a part of exhibition. Next to the street art, the gallery also displays works of young Cambodian artists, which is utterly unique, as the Khmer art is just becoming to rise again after total destruction in the times the Khmer Rouge.

Pieces of art in The Factory and K-Bach Gallery

As much as I wish it was the case, what I described above is not a result of history lessons I have taken in early childhood or my pure innate wisdom. I must admit, there were several sources I used to get an insight into Cambodia’s reality. On one of those Netflix kind of evenings, instead of watching another episode of Billions, I decided to opt for First they killed my father, a movie shot from a perspective of a girl, whose family is being evacuated from Phnom Penh as Khmer Rouge enter the city. On one of those chill days, instead of dwelling into Michelle Obama’s diary, I would open Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare to try to understand how a person could become one of the most evil characters in human history. In Cambodia itself, I would never have learned so much if it hasn’t been for the audio guides at the S21 Prison and the Killing Fields, as well as our amazing food & street art guide, who although an expat from Ireland, had a 4-year Phnom Penh living experience, fluency in Khmer and answer to all of my questions, irregardless of whether about the genocide, the shape of society or the main source of energy in Cambodia…

If I was to summarise, I would say that I am grateful I could learn so much about this country and extremely happy I took this opportunity. But I would also say that I experienced a reality check and so will leave couple of facts as a food for thought. When the genocide in Cambodia was happening over 1975-1979, the Western world apparently didn’t know… When Vietnamese freed Cambodia from Pol Pot’s regime and the country joined UN, Khmer Rouge was its representative to the organisation for the next 20 years.. Pol Pot was never put to justice and enjoyed the rest of his life in the company of his children and grandchildren until he died, aged a bit over 70…

First time in China?

How was Beijing? Well, absolutely like nothing I was expecting. I thought that after having lived in Taiwan and Malaysia and gone around Asia quite a bit I am immune to cultural shocks here. Obviously, I was very wrong.

When I reached Beijing, it was already quite some time past midnight so the public transport was long closed. Without having much of a choice, I just lined up to get a taxi. Warned by my best friend, who I was visiting, I was prepared – had the name of the place I wanted to reach written down in Chinese, as apparently taxi drivers are not fluent in English, or should I say, they do not speak it at all. 

There I am, it’s 2 am in the morning, no internet as I couldn’t buy a SIM card, showing my driver the place where I want to go and the only thing he tells me is ’no’. I’m sorry what do you mean no? He looks at me, looks at the name of the place and bad picture of the map I took earlier and again says ‘no’. So we’re having this conversation, me talking English, him Chinese until I realise that he doesn’t know the place. Then I start pointing at the address and his phone trying to convey the message that he could Google (pardon, Baidu) it and take me where I want. Okay, ‘no’ is turns into ‘dui’ (yes).

This time round I did my homework and so I know that once in a taxi I need to make sure that my driver turns on the meter so that I don’t end up paying through the roof. Of course, I have long forgotten anything useful I learned when I was living in Taipei and the only way I can communicate is by miming. And this is exactly what I do, I lean to the front and point at the meter. Oh how much I was unaware how much anger this is going to trigger. My driver starts shouting in Chinese like crazy, probably treating me and my whole family to his most nasty swear words. But I am tough, I am not gonna sit still until he turns it on. And then, victory, I won, he turned the meter on. Awesome.

Forty minutes later, we reach my destination. Or at least this is what the map says. My driver drops me off and drives away immediately, tyres screeching, not really concerned with the fact that the place where he leaves me looks like there is nothing open around, not even mentioning a youth hostel. 3 am in the morning, great, what do I do now, do I sleep here on the street? I start asking random half-drunk people on the street showing them the name of the place I am looking for. One person after another just says ‘no’ and this is the only thing they say, then laugh and go away. After sixth one I get annoyed. Okay, two girls are coming, they have their phones in their hands, let’s try. Not surprised at all, they also give me this ‘no’ that I know so well already. But now I am tired and lost my patience, so the same as with my taxi driver, I start pointing at their phones and suggesting they just check it. I can see an ‘aha’ moment in their eyes. Maybe, I am saved. They look up the place and it’s exactly where we are standing. Finally they give me a number to the place and start walking away. Well, I cannot make calls in China, it turns out. I run after them, and apparently tired of this annoying girl who ruins their 3am walk home, they call the place. Someone picks up. Someone comes to pick me up. He only speaks Chinese, so there would be no use even if my phone was working.

Next day I wake up, go out on the streets and… I am amazed. The area where I am staying is just beautiful. One-storey, Chinese style brick houses, tons of extremely pretty small shops, street food shops that smell like heaven. Wow, this is not the Beijing I imagined.

Hutongs (small shopping alleys that used to be residential streets) next to my hostel.
Nanluogugxian hutongs around my hostel offered plenty of delicious street food such as Hong Kong style mango in glutinous rice.

What did I imagine? Concrete and glass, Hong Kong style tall sky scrapers, trash on the streets, smog in the air. Did I find any of these? Well, just a bit of smog but come on, my home town, Warsaw, has it as well. What I found though was an extremely clean city. For a European, it is looking as if someone spread an extremely pretty Chinatown over the whole city. No artificial modern architecture, just all the buildings in the typical Chinese style, everything fitting together architecturally, pleasing your eyes.

But that was not my cultural shock. The cultural shock came from Beijing’s people. Once you start walking around the city, you realise that it is extremely common to clear your throat and spit everywhere. You walk a bit more and realise that people around you just keep burping and farting as they go and it is absolutely normal and widespread. You find yourself queuing to enter the Forbidden City? There is a huge chance that this girl next to you just does *burp* *burp* *burp* very loud.

If like me, you’re a foreigner who only speaks ‘duo shao’ (how much) or ‘cesuo’ (toilet) and ‘wo shi bolan-ren’ (I am Polish), you might be up for a bit of a challenge. English is not spoken almost at all (unless you go to the Pearl Market – one of Beijing’s main shopping spots, known for haggling – everyone speaks perfect English there). If you’d like to buy tickets to the tourist attractions, you can do it easily online. Although it may turn out impossible once you figure out that only Chinese names are accepted. Wi-Fi is common, however most case scenario you have to register using your mobile phone. Oh, you don’t have Chinese phone..?

Hongqiao (or Pearl) Market is where everyone speaks English and you can find bargain pearls, jewellery (both real) as well as fake bags, watches, electronics.

Whereas every Westerner at an arrival in China gets a VPN in order not to get disconnected from all the life-sustaining apps, Chinese people simply use only the government-approved applications. The main one would of course be WeChat. And what WeChat can do is just mind blowing. It is basically Facebook’s dream of internet domination that is never going to materialise. Of course, the app is for messaging, but it also plays a role of your Instagram, fitness tracker, wallet, Game Center, government services provider, tickets vending machine, you name it. Just amazing.

I would not be fair if I only gave this account of my trip to China. Because the country, although only seen from a perspective of a four day trip, amazed me. 

As I mentioned, Beijing is like nothing I imagined. The city’s most famous landmark, the Forbidden City, brings you to your knees with its greatness. It is an absolutely enormous complex of halls and small palaces. The place that used to be home to Emperors, which no one could leave or enter without the Empreror’s approval is now teeming with hundreds of tourist. Just the scale of the premises can overwhelm you. And then, after the exit from the Forbidden City starts Jingshan Park, which offers a perfect view over the Forbidden City and Beijing itself.

View from the Jingshan Park over the Forbidden City.

A trip to China, and Beijing especially, would not have been complete without seeing one of the World’s Seven Wonders, the Great Wall of China. Before arriving, I was convinced that it is a place where you take a whole day stroll, probably with some small vendors offering water or beer on your way. Again, I was very wrong. Only small parts of the Wall, that have been restored are available for visitors. What my best friend taught me was that the way Chinese built it was by building two brick walls and then throwing earth, stones and wood in between. Therefore, the Wall in its original design is not necessarily suitable for tourists. Also, it is more of a hike than an easy stroll. But, as with every hike, once you get to the top, you know it was worth it. With a clear sky, you can see up to 15 towers stretching out into the green woods.

The view from the hike up the Great Wall of China
The view over the Wall from one of the watch towers.

Our conquest of the Chinese Wall started and ended in Gubei, a small but gorgeous town that is known for its waterways going through the city and making it an extremely picturesque spot. It is a popular tourist destination and this is why there are plenty of attractions happening throughout the day. There are boat tours, Chinese theatre, water shows and a lantern show in the evening. Having seen Lantern Festival in Taipei, where hundreds of people gather in one village to set fire to the lanterns they have made and send it to the sky together with wishes, this lantern show again took me by surprise. It came out, that the lanterns were actually running on batteries rather than hot air. Because of that the lanterns can actually be arranged in different shapes in the sky, every time causing a sigh of awe from the audience on the ground.

Lantern show the Chinese way.

Looking with hindsight, this trip was the one that took me most by surprise, but also taught me a lot. The country left me completely flabbergasted, it’s just the street culture part that I have to learn to accept.

Gooooood morning Hanoi!

In my five months in Asia I have managed to visit Vietnam three times. I know, I must really love the country. But let me explain.

The place where I went twice already and where I first fell in love with Nam was Hanoi. For me, having lived in Taipei before and visited a couple of Asian countries on the more developed side (Japan or HK), it was a totally new experience. The downtown area, called the Old Quarter is made of two to three storey buildings that look rather rundown, a bit as if they were about to collapse. Just by looking at it, you would not guess that you have just found yourself in the country’s capital. And this is exactly where I have found this city’s charm.

Typical streets in Old Quarter

Together with a friend of mine we decided to stay in the Vietnam Backpackers Hostel, which is a part of a chain of 10ish hostels spread throughout the country. The great thing about this place, next to daily happy hour and free shots every evening, is that they run free walking tours that are actually free. Back in Europe, these kinds of tours were one of my favourite ways of seeing new places. Usually they would be run by a local who is very enthusiastic about the place they come from and so will have plenty of stories that are not necessarily featured on the Wikipedia. At the end the guide would name the average price for a similar sightseeing tour and leave it to the guests to judge whether the experience was worth less or more. This time around, as I guess the guide is actually paid by the hostel, that final judgement part never came. Nevertheless, the trip was pretty awesome. 

My favourite statistic about Vietnam is that there are 95 million people and 52 million motorbikes. And indeed, Hanoi is an extremely busy city with motorbikes being everywhere and coming from nowhere. That is why the first big rule in the city is whenever you are trying to cross the street, just close your eyes and keep walking. Especially at the beginning, if you don’t follow this rule, the chances are that walking to the other side will take you some good half an hour because the motorbikes never stop. On the other hand, if you just continue walking at the same pace, the bikes will just magically take you over and you will be able to get to the other side unscathed. 

Once you master the art of crossing the street you can actually use it to go and see places. The first place we went to was a local market. First, we passed small shops where you could buy all sorts of fruits and spices to then get to the ‘wet’ part. This is exactly where you find fresh (and very much alive) fish of all sorts, meat (not that much alive anymore) but also soft shell turtles (yes, they are edible and yes, people eat them). Take a couple stairs up and you find yourself inside of an enormous building full of fabrics, clothes, shoes, fake bags & watches, plastic jewellery, glitzy hair accessories, you name it. There is so much stuff that I don’t think it would be possible for any vendor to sell their whole inventory over one lifetime.

Street market
Soft shell turtles and eels waiting to be selected for dinner
Inside of the market hall

Just walking the streets of Hanoi you can see all sorts of the amazing things. There is a street with bird cages hanging on the trees where from time to time the owners organise a birds’ song contest. There are motorbikes carrying king size bed mattresses or ladies basically operating a shop from a motorbike. There are people washing meat on the pavement, people whittling bamboos, people cutting they toenails in the middle of the street. Also, there is wonderful street art (this time I will let you be the judge and just leave to the pictures instead of writing too much). 

On the opposite side those murals, there is a place where you can find roasted dogs. For some reason the dogs are only sold in halves so you can chose either front or back of the dog. And this is where everyone starts to grin and turn their heads around. However, if you try to understand why they eat your puppy’s great-great-great-great cousin, it makes more sense. Eating dogs in Vietnam became widespread during, what the Vietnamese call, the American War and the rest of world calls Vietnam War. Shortages of food caused people to resort to eat whatever was available and in this case these were dogs. Also today, dogs are no delicacy, to the contrary, they are eaten by the poorest members of society who cannot afford to buy other products.

Couple of steps away from the dogs and you’re at the most instagrammable (or so I heard) place in Hanoi, the train street. Although it is very narrow and trains run several times a day, life happens as if the trains were never passing through. It is packed with cafes and bars and makes an extremely chill spot to just hang around and enjoy your beer while watching everyone around trying to get that perfect shot. However, when the train finally comes, you better make sure than you and your beer hide inside a cafe as apparently train drivers don’t have it in their habit to slow down and watch our for tourists.

We ended the tour at a hidden cafe where to enter you have to go through a shop and a corridor that makes you feel as if you have just walked into somebody’s house. At the very end of the long hall and three floors up there is a cafe that serves Vietnamese specialty, egg coffee. If like me you only drink your coffee in the darkest shade of black, no add ons, that would probably not be your beverage of choice. On the other hand, if you have a bit of a sweet tooth, this black coffee topped with egg whisked together with sweet condensed milk, would be a perfect choice. Although I admit, it is crazily creamy in its texture and looks very tempting.

What I love most about Hanoi though, are not its streets during the day but only after the sun goes down. This is when locals walk downstairs from their houses and start cooking just on the pavement, in front of where they are living. Usually, they would prepare one or two dishes for which the recipe has been passed on through generations and sell it to the general public. It doesn’t really matter which stall you would chose, in Hanoi you can never go wrong with these. There would be small plastic chairs and tables where you can sit and enjoy your freshly prepared, amazingly delicious pho ba or buncha (local soups) or any other local dish.

I also adore Hanoi because it is just so relaxed. During the day you would be strolling around the lake and realise that there are plenty of locals just chilling, having a midday beer or two and basically spending their whole day chatting with each other. When the night comes, they would be doing the very same at those pop-up ‘restaurants’ – just order couple of Saigons or Hanois (local beers) and talk the night away. If the food vendor doesn’t have bottled beers at hand, no problem in that, probably in the radius of maximum 50 meters someone is selling a beer from a keg for a mere 0.2 Euro cents a pint.

As much as I Hanoi’s vibe makes me want to just procrastinate there forever, that would actually be a waste. Not a long drive away there are wonderful nature spots and anyone who has ever been to Ninh Binh would agree that this is the place to go. Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex located there has made it to the UNESCO World Heritage list, full approval there from my side. What we did there was to go on a boat ride that is fully operated & paddled by a local (or more specifically his or her feet). From the very first moment I was on this boat and started gazing around, I was in awe. The colour of the river is rather brown but as it flows it matches perfectly with dark green hills and occasional bare rocks. Every now and then there are paddy fields emerging on one of the river banks and if you look closely enough you could spot goats jumping high up on the rock formations. Further down the river is where numerous caves start and each of them is home to thousands of bats. The weather on that day was rather foggy and drizzling but that was exactly what gave this place a bit of a mystical character. 

After the boat ride, it was time to go back to the habits I got while living in The Netherlands – bike riding. This 20ish minutes ride makes for the perfect ending of the trip. You would get yourself a bike to pass through beautifully green paddy fields, peddle down by the river seeing all those feet-operated boats going down the river while constantly having as a background those dark dark green hills. 

This first encounter with Vietnam made a way greater impression on me than I was expecting. The views, the vibe, the food, the culture, the weather that was like a breath of fresh air for someone coming from all-day-every-day-36-Celsius-degrees-KL and the history I haven’t managed to dwell on this time round, it all made me want to come back for more. And not long after that I actually did. But this is a story for another time… 

  1. Great writting! Beijin seems like a really good place to visit and have a bit of an adventure. Come to…

It’s more fun in The Philippines

Or so is the official slogan of the Filipino Tourism Department. Although, I must say, I don’t disagree.

Even though me and a my travel buddy live in Malaysia, getting to El Nido was not exactly the easiest of travels. After getting on our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Manila and then changing in Manila to get to Puerto Princesa, we had to find a van that would take us north all the way up to El Nido. Luckily enough, the first van we approached was almost full and we were told that we will be leaving immedaitely. Well, that almost happened – these vans are typically 12 people vehicles driver included, however entrepreneurial Filipinos would try very hard to squeeze in an extra person or four as of course extra passengers equals extra income. That’s why, for the next half an hour or so we were checking whether for example in our three people row we could fit in four people. Unfortunately for the driver, our row was in a very strong opposition to spending the next six hours scrunching up. Couple of trials later and no success, we were finally ready to go.

The roads is El Nido are not your typical European highways or not even standard Asian roads. Basically, Palawan has one main road that was built only very recently. As we learned from our fellow passenger, a French guy who used to run a restaurant in El Nido before the government regulation demolished his place, we were lucky because just 5 years before instead of asphalt, it was a full-fledged dirt road with special attractions come rain. Even though we were quite privileged to use this new road, I must say it is still was the bumpiest road of my life. That’s why, to avoid my car sickness spreading outside, I have spent the majority of this five hour drive trying hard to breathe and sleep.

Our travel companion also taught us a bit about the sociopolitical climate of the island and the small town we were heading towards. Palawan has two airports – one in Puerto Princesa, the one we decided to fly in and where three significant air carriers operate, and one in El Nido which is operated only by a small private airliner. Apparently, there is a plan to build an airport no. 3 but for the past twenty years the development plans have been being staggered by a big magnate Filipino family. This family is called de Ayala and indeed, they have made a pact with the government to buy 40% of the resort’s land. Because they want to control the prices and the inflow of tourists (to also control prestige), the new airport is highly unlikely to open anytime soon and actually a lot of business activity in the region depends on de Ayalas’ vision.

Lessons aside, after some 18 hours since I left my house, we have finally reached our destination – Outpost Beach Hostel located, well, just on the beach. Absolutely starved, we headed to a place that was recommended by the very same French fellow traveller, namely Las Cabanas beach. Sitting there, looking at all the nature around – beautifully blue sea and small mountains raising out of it – all we were able to say was pretty much ‘oh my god, I really cannot believe we are here!’.

On that day the best was yet to come. Having eaten amazing prawns and made some good use of a happy hour, we made our way back to our hostel. And then the sunset started. The thing with this sunset was with every minute it would just get better and better. Starting from blue-yellow colour, slowly turning more orange and then pink. Plenty of millennials there, all trying to capture this amazing moment with their phones. You think you just got the best shot of sunset in your life, you look back and realise that it has just gotten 1000 times better than those 5 seconds before.

Sunset development.

Next day started off easily, perfect view from our hostel made it also a perfect breakfast spot. Also, very easy as we have signed up for an island hopping tour with our hostel that was staring, well, exactly, from our hostel. The boat we were about to take was parked just some 200 meters from the staring point so we just hopped on a smaller boat to get to the final one. The day was extremely hot already so as the first small boat could only accommodate just half of the total boat crew for the day, without too much hesitating, we decided that it’s high time to take a swim in those crazily blue waters. In the meantime, the rest of the people came and so we were ready to go. 

Twenty-ish minutes and we were at our first destination. And more importantly, we were the one and only boat around the beach called Paradise Beach. When we were parking our boat, we passed by a big sea turtle that was just swimming away from us.

On that day we visited three other beaches and some small lagoon and the thing was that each an every one of them was a bit different but all just incredible. What’s more, because our tour did not follow the boat tours organised by tourist agencies, in most of the spots we would be the only people around. 

One of the great things about those island hopping tours is that in the morning our Filipino guides would go to a local market, get fresh fish, shrimps, calamari, you name it, as well as fruits and veggies. When you’re having your fun swimming in the blue waters, sunbathing, playing volleyball or just enjoying the views, they would prepare a mouth watering lunch to enjoy on the boat. As this tour was organised by our hostel that is known to be a not bad party place, we also got to try local rum and use it for playing drinking games. This late afternoon rum drinking made for a good start of the party, as that night we were planning to go to downtown El Nido to figure out how the bars and clubs are.

Filipino lunch on the boat.

Having left our hostel around 21 we headed to a bar that was advised to us by some people who went out the night before. Well, fortunately they also gave us suggestion no. 2, as the bar no. 1 turned out to be a very much hookah place where there wasn’t too much going on. Bar no 2, called Pukka Bar, turned out to be a bit better but still, after not long before midnight we decided that it time for the old people to go to sleep. In sum, El Nido is not exactly your crazy party place.

The second day started in a quite similar way. Still in Malaysia, we have booked a tour with one of the travel agencies. El Nido’s most famous attractions are Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon. Due to high number of tourists and accompanying pollution, the government has made efforts to significantly reduce the human impact on these areas. Therefore, currently if you would like to see any of them, you need to book a tour couple days in advance as it requires obtaining special permits. Quite frankly, the boat experience was not as nice as the day before – whereas in the hostel organised tour we had a very spacious boat, group of 20-30 years olds and quite relaxed atmosphere, the agency tour was quite the opposite. The boat only allowed you to sit in your place, our travel companions were a big Asian family and some three British/Americans and our guides seemed quite strict about the house rules.

First stop – 7 Commando Beach. Our boat had to park in a second row of boats because there were so many others. Such a difference compared to the day before. Anyway, we got out of the boat, went swimming around to explore the area.  

A bit unimpressed with the tour so far, especially bearing in mind the previous day experience, we were hoping that the next stop is going to be worth it. Fortunately, the next stop was THE BIG LAGOON. We parked our boat before the official entrance and already from there we could get a glimpse of the spot. Even though you couldn’t see much, what you could see was that this is probably going to be one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, place you have ever seen. The only way you can explore the lagoon is by renting a kayak (no swimming in allowed, but you can hop off the kayak once inside), so that is exactly what we did. Lagoon itself is actually quite big so you can almost get your workout done rowing there and back. The views were absolutely breathtaking, the sea kept changing colour every time I put the paddle into the water, around us limestone rocks and a lot of deep green coming from trees. I don’t think that any picture I have taken there reflects how stunning it was.

Entrance to the Big Lagoon

After the Big Lagoon it was high time for lunch. We stopped at a place called Secret Beach. While we went snorkelling, our tour guides set everything up for the lunch on the beach. Again, the food was perfection, Filipino eggplant salad is sure to become one of my favourite foods. 

Stomachs were happy, so high time to go to the next spot – Secret Lagoon. Well, not that secret if you ask me. We had to swim from the boat to the entrance to the lagoon. The entrance itself is quite small, you need to squeeze in to get there. However, before we were able to get inside we had to wait as (literally) 100 people had to get out. Great thing about that – when they finally got out, we were the first ones to be in, meaning the lagoon was empty!!!!! 

Last stop for the day – I have no clue what the name of the place was BUT it was amazing snorkelling. You would leave the boat and immediately after stepping out you would find wonderful reefs. Just lay on the water and start observing and you will see the world of Finding Nemo. Dory, big purple fish, sea urchins, hoards of sardines, you name it. Of course that was also the day my good old Go Pro decided to die… Well, can’t have it all.

On no other day was the sunset as beautiful as we had it on day one, anyway, probably still better than 80% of sunsets in my life. That night, with couple of people from the hostel we decided to give an apparently famous pizza place a shot. One thing to remember about El Nido – good Filipino food is quite hard to find as they are catering for Western tastes so crepes, burgers, pizzas, pastas are plentiful. That was also a night I got convinced to go hiking at 6 the next morning. I was told that it’s more rock climbing and you get gloves but no harness and no lines, which made me a bit unsure, but then I saw the pictures of how it looks like and in the end I said okay.

Well, the truth to be told, that was totally out of my comfort zone. From the very beginning of the path you actually climb, never walk, just climb. There are quite a lot of spots where if you fall you will surely die, because if you fall, you fall on limestone rock that is very often shaped like a spike. Also, you can be going vertically some 5-10 meters up, no protection included. At one point of this hike our tour guide came to me to ask if my legs are managing because I am shaking (my legs are perfectly fine, dumbass, I’m just scared to death).

In all honesty, the view from the top will take your breath away – morning sun glazing over El Nido bay, mountains emerging from the deep blue waters, limestone rock formations. And the feeling of achievement – but for me it was only when I was safely walking on the pavement that I embraced it.

The rest of the day was supposed to be easy – we planned to take a tricycle with a driver for the day, go chasing some waterfalls and end up chilling at one of the best beaches on the Island – Nacpan Beach.

Finding a driver was a piece of cake – the first price he offered was already way lower that we were expecting to pay based on other peoples’ experiences.

Our first stop was Bulalaco Waterfall. Side note here: The day before, some friends we made in the hostel also took out a tricycle with a driver and were told not to go to the waterfalls as it has been dry for a long time (true!), there is hardly any water and it smells. At first, our driver was not much of a fan of our idea – to go to this waterfall you need to first take the main road and then turn into a mud & dirt road that is currently under construction. The road indeed turned into being my no. 1 when it comes to the worst roads of my life. As my friend Tess said it “Well, wasn’t that bad we were only holding hands once” (that was when we though there is imminent death approaching from the truck coming from the opposite side).

We made it and, to our surprise, our driver decided to also be our guide on a small hike to the waterfall, so very kind of him. As you might have guessed, the waterfall was fine, full of water and 100% not smelly. A bit of climbing rocks up and down again, a bit of just sitting in the middle of a 3-level waterfall and just gazing at the nature around. As both, me and Tess, are not huge fans of wildlife that can bite you, we decided against swimming in the waterfall as the water was a bit murky and, according to the wisdom of YouTube vlogs, leeches are widespread.

Having ticked this point off the to do list, we headed to Nacpan Beach. The road there was another adventure but I think at this point in time I started getting used to that. An hour or so later, we were there. I know I say it about almost every beach in El Nido, but the beach was beautiful – yellow, ultra soft sand, coast covered with palm trees and oh, I got the most perfect coconut there, the one you can eat the flesh once your finished drinking (while drinking in my case). That was the first time I actually laid down this holiday. For some reason I just enjoy so much this moment when you can hit the sunbed and sleep. So that’s exactly what I did. In the meantime, my friend managed to down 3 red horses (theses babies are freaking strong). Both super happy, we headed back for the last night in El Nido. 

Nacpan beach.

Morning after we were taking a van back to Puerto Princesa. Again, this wonderful drive. As we knew the food on the way is not really edible, we decided to stuff ourselves with banana pancakes and fruits for breakfast. Yes, one more breakfast with the perfect view. One downside, that we didn’t really consider, was that if you’re full your car sickness does not get any better. On the way, we received a message from Cebu Pacific, saying that our flight was rescheduled, well, ok, looks like we are flying out an hour earlier. Almost at the airport, I opened the message again and this is where it hit me – the flight was indeed rescheduled to an hour earlier but on the next day and the flight today is cancelled! #*#!& We need to get back to work tomorrow, okay, easy let’s try getting something done at the airport. 

Hostel breakfast with a view.

One thing about the culture here is that there is a huge mess. At the airport they were absolutely unprepared for the cancellation and having to answer queries from people who are missing a connection. Also, once we have given up our passports for them to check possible options, the lady holding them was running around like crazy – chatting with her colleagues approaching from all sides, checking in other customers in the meantime, laughing like crazy but absolutely not informing us at any point of what is happening. Once asked she would just say not now.

All in all, there was no other way to go back to Kuala Lumpur that night and the only option was to stay for 24 hours in Puerto. Fortunately, we were given a 3* hotel (quite frankly, our hostel had a way better standard) and some pocket money.

As always in such situations, the plan is, okay, whatever, let’s just party. Not in Puerto, my friend. However, what is great about the place is that you can find a really decent Filipino food. That evening we headed to a place called Badjao Seafront. It is a restaurant located almost on the water that you enter through a mangrove forrest. Apparently, normally you need a booking but if two blond girls enter into a Filipino restaurant, it comes out that the only place left, is the one with the best view. That night we also finally saw the final episode of Game of Thrones (oh my, how bad was that?).

View from the Badjao Restaurant.

On the next day, we still had half a day to kill and sitting in the hotel is never really an option. If you’re staying in PP airport area, all the nice beaches are at least an hour away, so that was out of reach. We managed to find a restaurant/bar that was supposed to be on the beach and looked quite good on Google. There you could see what happens is the beaches are not taken care of properly. The place had an enormous potential, however because they don’t really clean the beach, it is full of seaweed, leaves as well as occasional plastic trash and not really nice to go into the water.

After some two hours we spent there anyway, we heard the thunderstorms. Ooops, time to go. Fortunately, our previous driver came back for us and saved from getting completely soaked. He drove us to, what came out to be, my favourite restaurant in Palawan. Kalui is a place is the centre of the around-airport Puerto Princesa. The place is decorated in a traditional Filipino style with local artworks everywhere, at the entrance you are requested to take off your shoes and if you’d like you can chose to sit on the floor. Food-wise, it also makes for a perfect choice. We went for Tubbataha salad (fresh tuna & mango & papaya & cashews), catch-of-the-day tuna steaks (!!!!) and a fresh coconut for me, of course. The staff there was extremely friendly, we got a free dessert but still decided to order a coconut flan next to it. That meal was an absolute cherry on top of this trip (even though this cancellation happened…). 

Fortunately, no surprises on our way back, made it safe and sound and on time to the Asian city of twin towers.

  1. Great writting! Beijin seems like a really good place to visit and have a bit of an adventure. Come to…