Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Travel: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Honestly speaking, Vietnam has never been in my "list-to-travel-places" list mainly because one, i don't know much about the place as a tourist destination and two, i think i won't be able to get used to the local food (because everything there seem to be served with veggies, and i don't take veggies at all.) But anyway, i was looking to get out of country for a short getaway during December "time to clear annual leave" period but airfare to practically anywhere were pretty steep. Even a return fare to BKK would cost me around $300! Usually it's only $160 for non peak period :( 

I was then randomly browsing one night and i came across VietJet advertisement and they were running a promotion to Ho Chi Minh City at only $130. Not the ideal getaway i had in mind but better than nothing, LOL Told K about it, blocked our leaves and booked the tickets to Ho Chi Minh City! Accommodation booked at Liberty Central Saigon Hotel! 
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Departure at Changi Airport Terminal 3! Flight time: 2 Hrs 5 Mins.

Prior to our trip, we did some research on where we want to visit, where to eat etc. Important note for those who stumble upon this post while researching on HCMC: Apparently there are two taxi companies that you should take. Either Mai Linh (mostly white with green lettering, though sometimes green or silver) or Vinasun (white with green and red lettering) The others are not to reliable. Fares increases by thousands but is typically quite cheap in HCMC so no harm taking, even for short distances. Exchange rate was SGD 1: 15,500 Dong when i exchanged prior in Singapore.
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I tend to take a photo of the taxi number every time i enter a taxi, just in case. Anyway it took about 30 mins to reach our hotel (Liberty Central Saigon Hotel) from the airport. Sorry, no photos of the hotel but it's highly recommended. The location is right beside the famous Ben Thanh market and the hotel is quite reputable in HCMC, paid about $100 a night? Checked in, and roamed out to the streets. Made a reservation at AB tower Chill sky bar, one of the taller tower which gives you a panoramic view of the whole HCMC. Drinks and snacks are slightly pricey but i guess it's pretty worth it :)   
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Next morning we roamed out to search for a noodle place recommended by Nina. It was scorching hot that day. I swear we should go for a colder destination for our next trip. The noodles was pretty good but i had no idea what the dish is called or what was i eating. LOL We then headed to the nearby War remnants museum because i was interested in the war aircraft static display. Admission to the museum was 15,000 dong if i didn't remember wrongly. Inside you get to learn about the Vietnam war, basically the remnants of war and whatever is left over or preserved lah. LOL
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Bến Nghé, tp. Hồ Chí Minh, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Notre Dame Cathedral Saigon. Not as magnificent as the famous one in Paris but good enough.
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1st floor, 26 Lý Tự Trọng, District 1, HCMC, Vietnam

One of the list of cafes in our list to visit: Loft Cafe. Saw photos of it on Instagram while researching on HCMC and i was like MUST GO because the cafe seem so white and chic, plus there is this huge Roman clock which i definitely must take photo with. HAHAHA i sound so bimbo. Apparently there is 2 Loft Cafe in HCMC so we googled-map ourselves to the other one. I was like, where is the clock, where is the clock. LOL Then the staff told us the other outlet is just nearby. Heng ah. Service was excellent, food was good and it's very cheap for a cafe compared to Singapore. Took my photo!
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2 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, tp. Hồ Chí Minh, Hồ Chí Minh

Another place in my list of places to go: Saigon Central Post Office. I love both of the interior and exterior of this post office! Even though it's now considered a "tourist attraction", this post office is still fully functional and you can still post parcels or send a postcard. It was pretty crowded that day but i would still recommend people to visit the place :)

Booked a Củ Chi tunnel tour the day before at USD10 which included admission fee, pickup and drop off at our hotel. There are a lot of tour agency everywhere so do survey around before booking your Củ Chi tunnel tour. Some maybe slightly more expensive because it's conducted in a slightly smaller group or they provide lunch, some might be super cheap like USD 6 which probably means it doesn't include the admission fee etc, only transport.

The lady at our tour agency told us to get ready and wait in our room at 8.30am and the guide will give our room a call once they reach. The next morning, we finally got the call at 8.45am and we got scolded by the guide for being late. He was like, "The whole bus waited for you guys for almost an hour. This is not a private tour you know?" I tried explaining to him but no use. Suan le, LOL Then on the bus, we got scolded again not bringing our booking receipt along. HAHAHHA I guess he must be really pissed off with two of us but he maintained his composure pretty well i would say.
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The half day tour was really interesting i would say. Everyone got to learn about the history of Vietnam war and how they fought and utilize the cu chi tunnel. The entrance was really camouflaged well and it was REALLY small. We even got to experience a slightly enlarged 100 meter version of the tunnel at the end of tour. Not easy and very very hot.
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3/F p. q. 1, 27 Ngô Đức Kế, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Another cafe to visit: The Workshop. The interior is very nice, service and food was just so so.

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Wanted to try the famous "broken rice" so we got kelvin's friend, Ryan to this place to try their authentic broken rice. IT WAS SO GOOD that i had another serving of rice. It was just BBQ pork with an egg but the marinating of the pork was so good. It was just a stall by the wet market, makeshift area with low tables and chairs along the pavement. I guess only the locals would know of such a place. I wonder if there is a place in SG that would serve such a good broken rice dish.
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In a blink of an eye, 3 days 2 nights was over just like that. The only downside was probably our return flight was shifted earlier so we had to wake up early on the last day, like 6 am to get a cab to the airport. Arrived Singapore in the afternoon. We could have spent the morning having some local food, oh wells. Wait, we didn't even had a single bowl of Pho in the entire trip!

Till the next trip,                                 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Travel: ijen Crater, Indonesia

I actually forgot which month this trip took place but after flipping through my passport, i'm quite certain this trip happened in August. Like i've mentioned in my previous post, i always wanted to do a travelogue on  my trip to ijen crater in Indonesia but while editing the photos, i realized i have forgotten most of the details and the only thing i can still remember is how tiring the hike to the crater was. LOL Nevertheless, i picked out some photos which somewhat sums up my 3D2N weekend trip to Mt. ijen! It all started when Kelvin texted me one night to ask if i'm interested to visit ijen with his colleagues and it would be an night hike to the crater of a volcano (?!) and there will be blue fire (?!) It all sounded pretty out of the world and i went to do some google-ing and found that it's true and the photos of the place seem really magnificent. There was also an airfare promo ongoing (like around $120?) as well so i readily agreed!
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Fast forward to maybe a month later, the day has arrived. Met at the airport with the rest with our hand carry luggage (no check in luggage) and off we flew to Surabaya, Indonesia. The flight took about 2.5 hours. Upon arrival, we met our guide, hopped onto this mini van and traveled on the road forever to our accommodation for the first night. Yes, the journey took us literally the entire day. Not to mention that the accommodation wasn't exactly what we expected, LOL It's like a mini chalet kind of bungalow with the very basic necessities, 2 rooms, living room and a toilet. However there were no fans in the room, wall paints were peeling and moldy, electricity were turned off at midnight, the toilet had no shower and heater. There was just a huge basin filled with cold water and a small pail. Had a little camp fire outside with our guide and his friends, washed up and headed to sleep because we had to wake up early the following day for the sun rise - which wasn't really spectacular in my opinion. I think we slept for only a couple of hours.
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The next morning we woke up at about 5 am to catch the sun rise (which i think we got the timing wrong because of the time zone difference, LOL) Went back to the room to freshen up, had breakfast, explored the place a little and off we hit the road again. Come to think of it, i think we spent most of the time in the car, LOL! We passed by Baluran National Park which is touted as the "Africa of Asia" because of the landscape and it's like a safari zone. When we drove through the park the night before, the skies were full of stars and the view is amazing. We wanted to step out of the car to see the sky and take some photos but our guide told us it was too dangerous so we could only admire from inside the car...
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Stopped by this place along the road to have our lunch. Ordered the Ayam penyet (chicken) rice and these delicious banana and bread topped with chocolate sauce and shredded cheese snacks. I have seriously no idea why i was giving that eww expression when Sarah captured the shot. HAHA That's normally the kind of face i would give when i have eat something gross (like vegetables, lol) But nevertheless we all had a good meal before continuing our journey :)
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As we are driving up the mountains, the weather started to get colder and colder and we soon we had to put on our jacket. It was also foggy to the point where we can't really see the road in front of us! It was quite scary to be honest. Arrived at our next accommodation in the late afternoon where we unpacked and headed out to a natural hot spring. Returned for dinner and had a couple of hours sleep before waking up at 2 am to start our night hike to the crater.

We were warned that it will get really cold in the middle of the night and we should wear more layers. We also bought gloves as well as rented gas mask because as we get nearer to the crater, the air will be filled with sulfuric gas. It gets really difficult to breathe with the mask on after prolong wearing of it though. The journey to the crater was pretty tough as it's an uphill hike and we don't exactly have proper shoes for hiking. Then again, it was nice to see each one of us encouraging each other along the way, waiting for one another and complete the hike together. The view at night was incredible. Even though it was dark, we could still make out the mountainous landscape and the skies were full of stars. I even stopped once in awhile just to take photos of the stars with my trusty G7x Canon camera (with this amazing star mode which never fails to amaze me!) The journey up took us about 2 hours but that's not the end. *cue drama music*
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Look at the incredible starry shot that i took with my camera! So amazing right! Anyway, at the end of the 2 hours hike, we arrived at the top of the crater and from there, we were able to the blue fire as promised! It was quite difficult to capture in photo and it was very far away. The shot above was taken with zoom. We had to make a choice at that point. To head down towards the blue fire and probably miss the sunrise or hike further up and wait for the sunrise... 

In the end we decided to head down. The way down was really dangerous and most of us almost wanted to give up towards the halfway mark. It was pitch dark (we only had our head lights) there were no exact indication on the way down, there were no railing to hold on to and we had to give way if we see any miners coming towards us. No exaggerating but i felt that if anyone were to step onto a loose rock and fall, he or she would probably plunge down and die or get injured really badly. It was that dangerous. Not forgetting the difficult in breathing with our masks...

As we got nearer to the blue fire, the skies also started to get brighter and brighter. 

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There was a sense of achievement when we finally arrived at the bank of the crater where we saw the origin of the sulfuric fumes which ignited the blue fire. Apparently from Wikipedia, it's the largest blue flame area in the world. In front of us is this beautiful lake which we took photos with. It took us 2 hours to reach the rim of the crater, and another hour down to the bank.  A total of 3 hours in the middle of the night to reach this place, and that's only 1 way. LOL
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At the bank of the crater where we were at, is the source of elementary sulfur. The miners breaks the sulfur into pieces and carry it away in baskets as shown in the above photo. They carry about 75 to 90 kg each time all the way down the mountain and most of them do it as least twice daily. From Wikipedia, their typical daily earnings were equivalent to approximately USD$13 which is about SGD18 a day. Can you imagine them going up and down the mountain carrying heavy load in such dangerous conditions and having minimal protection? I still remember one of them asking if i still need my gloves when i was on the way up. I gladly gave mine away to him. Some of them would try to sell their creative sulfur cravings (e.g animal shapes) to tourists along the way to earn some extra money for themselves.
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Now that it's morning and bright daylight, we finally saw the dangerous route that we got down from. Even thought we took about an hour to get down, going up was much faster as we get to see where we are going and another reason to get away fast is because the wind is changing direction and we couldn't want to be caught in the toxic sulfuric fumes.
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The view was magnificent on the way back. It was really really tiring and guess what? We were heading back to Singapore on the same day itself. Took about 2 hours to get back to our starting point under the hot sun (totally different condition from our way up) It was sandy and slippery and a lot of people slip and fall along the way! Headed back to our mini van, changed and off we head to the airport. Another 4 to 5 hours ride and a couple of stops maybe?
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Overall it was a tiring but awesome experience. I'm quite sure i wouldn't have plan for a hiking trip like this without someone asking. (apparently there is also a Mt Bromo around the area but i guess not, LOL) It was quite an eye opener and definitely not the "usual" holiday getaway, That's it for my ijen trip, maybe you might want to try heading to ijen for your next holiday destination? :P

Mission accomplished,