Friday, March 11, 2016

What I Learned from Our DIY Trip to Ho Chi Minh

My daughter and I recently embarked on a do-it-yourself trip to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. With a limited budget and only our bags on our backs, we took our first trip to the land of pho and banh mi with much enthusiasm.

Instead of availing any of the tours, we created our own itinerary after researching online and reading recommendations from travel bloggers. As we took a DIY tour of the city, I learned some things that I feel are worth sharing. Here they are:

The statue of Ho Chi Minh with the
city hall behind it
Learn how to read a map, whether it's on paper or on your gadget. I rarely consulted a map in my previous trips because during those trips, I was either with people who knew where we were going or there was no time for me to explore the city by foot. My daughter and I walked for some 20 minutes from District 3 to District 1 and had to constantly look at the map and the names of the streets. Map reading is a skill any city explorer should have to find the way to a city's gems.

Notice not just the places you visit, but the people you meet. Of course, we made sure we passed by the famous landmarks of Ho Chi Minh (still popularly known by its former name, Saigon) like the Saigon Opera House, Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Saigon Central Post Office. We also bought tickets to enter the Independence Palace (Reunification Palace) and the War Remnant Museum to get insights into the history of the country, especially the Vietnam War.

Saigon Opera House
But several people we met made an impression on me too. Like the two septuagenarians, sisters in their 70s who are still traveling by themselves for some sightseeing; the French tourist with an atlas who showed us the way to the Notre Dame, a Romanesque structure constructed by his countrymen who colonized Vietnam; and the elderly vendor who helped us cross the street when we were obviously intimidated by the throng of roaring motorbikes (well, actually, it was me, and not my daughter, who was hesitant to cross the street). I realize that as you travel, it's not just the landmarks that amaze you; the individuals who inspire and help you surprise you too.

The Notre Dame Cathedral
Even with less money, you can travel outside your country. Of course, you have to be patient, resourceful, and willing to move out of your comfort zone. After staking out at Cebu Pacific's website for months, we were able to book a flight on a promo fare six months prior to our travel date. We also found a private room through Airbnb for only 30 euro (around P1,600.00 including other fees). It is not a hotel, but we had the basic necessities like a good bed, air conditioning, wi-fi, toiletries, even free bottled water. Plus, we had the chance to have conversation with our local hosts.

Food in Vietnam is unbelievably cheap yet truly savory. We ate street food, but also savored Vietnamese dishes in restaurants and cafe, and sipped ca phe sua da and drank tea many times! (Instead of serving water, restaurants usually serve tea with your order) Except for a few mien, candies, and postcards, we didn't buy souvenirs. Call us frugal, but we went home rich with experience.

Our breakfast of bun bo hue (soup with rice vermicelli and beef)
at a Saigon eatery
Banh mi at 15,000 Vietnamese dong (PhP 31.00)

We also had an unpleasant experience with two motorbike drivers, but after that incident, serendipity led me to this quote written on the wall of a cafe where we had our lunch: "Freedom is not worth having if it doesn't include the freedom to make mistakes." We can't have a perfect trip no matter how carefully we plan, but we can decide beforehand to have a right perspective to enjoy what's at hand. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Four's Food Trip in Binondo

Our family of four went to Binondo to savor Chinese food. Yes, Binondo, otherwise known as Manila's Chinatown is the place to go to for delicious Chinese cuisine. Established in 1594, it is said to be the oldest Chinatown in the world. After doing our online research on the places to visit, we went on a do-it-yourself Binondo food tour to satisfy our palate.

The Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch, entrance to  Chinatown

Our first stop at eight in the morning was Mei Sum Tea House along Ongpin St. I love their sweet egg pie Hong Kong style! Their hakaw is a delight to the tongue because while the wrapper is soft, its shrimp is cooked al dente.

Egg pie
Hakaw or shrimp dumpling
Hong Kong style fried noodles

After sampling Hong Kong fried noodles, beef ball siomai, hakaw, and egg pie Hong Kong style, we moved on and stopped by a grocery store with a fruit juice corner called Healthy Options for some drinks.

We found a small stall along Ongpin cor. Bahama Streets selling Shanghai fried siopao at P18.00 each and a variety of siomai and kikiam. Perfect pasalubong!

Siomai and kikiam

My man loves vegetables so we didn't pass the opportunity to chomp on some greens at New Quanyinchay Vegetarian Food Garden also on Ongpin St.

Okra and polonchoy at P55 each

After wandering and peeking at several Chinese restaurants, noodle houses, Chinese deli shops, we gave up on scouting the entire place and decided to enter the next restaurant we found. At Four Season Cuisine we tried the more familiar fresh lumpia and added dishes that are out of our ordinary diet--fish cake guisado, sea cucumber, and turtle soup.

Sea cucumber
Turtle soup
Fish cake guisado
Fresh lumpia
There's still much to savor in Binondo and a day is not enough to try all the dishes Manila's Chinatown has to offer. We certainly want to come back.

If you don't want to walk, you can see Binondo aboard a calesa

Pink bougainvilleas

The violet fire truck across Eng Bee Tin where you can
buy hopiang ube

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

There's More to Pangasinan than "Asin"

Pangasinan, the third biggest province in the Philippines, derived its name from "asin"or salt, a product for which the place is known for. Pangasinan means "where salt is made". But a trip to the public market proves there are other goodies travelers and visitors can bring back home other than its fine, white salt.

Because of the abundance of salt and different kinds fish from the surrounding sea, dried fish are common in this area. When we recently visited my in-laws' hometown of Sta. Maria, we passed by the public market of Rosales. I made sure I bought dried beltfish (espada)a thin, elongated fish with pointed snout, thus its name. When cut into smaller pieces and fried, these thin and crunchy dish becomes a perfect complement to your morning fried rice and eggs.

Dried espada

There are also dried anchovy (dilis) and krill or very small shrimps (alamang) to choose from. Of course, Pangasinan is also bagoong country, and you can buy these condiments made from different fish species stored in bottles or packed in small plastic bags. There's bagoong isda, bagoong alamang, bagoong padas. A warning though for those with hypertension: these sauces are salty! So if you need to shy away from them, try instead another specialty for which Pangasinan is famous for-- milkfish (bangus) from the towns of Dagupan or Bolinao.

Dried dilis
Pails and pails of bagoong
Daing na bangus
Tinapang bangus

Anyone looking for pasalubong would often ask for local sweets and fortunately we found tupig being grilled by a vendor. Tupig is a delicacy of Pangasinan made of glutinous rice, coconut strips, sugar and molasses. The mixture is shaped into miniature logs, wrapped in banana leaves, and grilled over flaming hot charcoals. At P5.00 each, it's indeed a sweet treat!


Pangasinan is known for its "asin" but there's much more to enjoy in this province. You'll be satisfied with what it has to offer, whether it's salty or sweet. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

At Home sa Bahay ni Rizal

After an overnight stay at a hot spring resort in Pansol, Laguna, hubby and I had a stopover at the Rizal Shrine in nearby Calamba. The Rizal Shrine is a reproduction of the original house where our national hero Jose Rizal was born on June 19, 1861. 

Like most Filipinos of my generation, I grew up learning about Rizal in classrooms. In fact, I still have in possession an old book which my sister and I read during our early years as students. But it was only now that I had the chance to visit his family's Spanish colonial house. 

Pages from an old textbook describing Rizal's house

I feel a sense of pride as the nation's hero is also a writer and a well-traveled person. I leaped with glee when I saw facsimiles of his manuscripts and drawings displayed on the ground floor of his childhood house. I was reminded to keep hard copies of my scribbling and scan them for posterity!

The second floor of the house is the main living quarters of the family. It has a library, a living room, three bedrooms (master's bedroom for Rizal's parents Francisco and Teodora; one bedroom for his nine sisters; and another bedroom he shared with his brother Paciano), a dining room, a kitchen, and azotea. Some artifacts and utensils which the family used are also in display.  

Did you also use an arinola like Rizal's parents did?

Outside the house is a sprawling garden and a museum that houses other artifacts from Rizal's later years. The Rizal Shrine is accessible to both public and private transportation as the Shrine is in the heart of the City of Calamba. 

If you plan to visit Calamba, Laguna, you might also want to spend a day or overnight at the many hot spring resorts in nearby Pansol, or Los Banos and bring home  a pasalubong of buko pie, carabao's milk or cow's milk for which the place is famous for. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Viva, Vigan!

Vigan, the capital of Ilocos Sur in the Philippines was voted as one of the New7Wonders Cities of the world. This was announced on December 8 by Bernard Weber, founder and president of New7Wonders Cities. The other cities included in the list are Beirut (Lebanon), Doha (Qatar), Durban (South Africa), Havana (Cuba), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), and La Paz (Bolivia). 

I can see why Vigan charmed voters from around the world. Vigan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where structures from the Spanish colonial period still exist. Last July, I visited Vigan together with my mother, sisters, and nieces. After a seven-hour night trip  by bus from Cubao, we arrived in Vigan at dawn. After alighting from the bus at Plaza Salcedo, we immediately walked to Calle Crisologo, the center of the said historical district. It is here where many of the 18th century colonial houses can be seen.

The cobblestone streets and Spanish houses of Vigan

Souvenir shops and antique stores along Calle Crisologo

Tour the city aboard a horse-drawn carriage called calesa

We hired a calesa for a tour of the city for P150/hour and saw various historical places.

Monument for Father Jose Burgos, one of Gomburza, the three
martyred priests during the Spanish period

St. Paul's Cathedral, the Baroque-inspired Catholic church
completed in 1800
Bantay Belltower
Nearby is said to be the grounds where Ilocano hero
Diego Silang fought the Spaniards
Antiques from the Burgos Museum

Vigan is also popular for its abel weaving and clay jar industry. We have been using blankets made of abel cloth and they are really sturdy. We saw a demonstration of how the cloth are woven and were also given a chance to try it at Cristy's Loom Weaving Shop. 

Trying my hand at abel weaving
Abel cloth
Potters forming clay jar

Vigan is a city where structures from our Spanish colonial past have been preserved. It is also a city that showcases the craftsmanship of our people with crafts such as weaving and jar making. It is a city that cradled martyrs and heroes. And now it is one of the New7Wonders Cities of the world. Viva, Vigan!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thankful Traveler

As I turn a year older and make a list of things to thank God for, I couldn’t miss the blessing of traveling. Hans Christian Andersen, Danish writer of fairy tales and travelogues once said, “To travel is to live.”  Another writer, Gustave Flaubert, explained it this way: “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

It’s true. There are more than 190 countries in the world. Aside from my country, the Philippines, I have only been to seven other countries: France, Germany, Brazil, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, and Laos. Traveling to these places made me realize there is a big world out there and there is so  much to discover. Visiting these countries has enriched my life experience.

I’ve experienced autumn, spring, and summer. I have yet to experience how freezing it would be in winter.

Autumn in Bonn, Germany

To speak with the locals, I’ve spoken a phrase or two in German, Portuguese, Swahili, Bahasa, Lao, and of course, English.

Haggling at The Village Market in Nairobi

I’ve tasted French bread, Thuringian sausage from Germany, Brazilian churrasco,  laksa and nasi lemak of Malaysia, Hainanese chicken rice of Singapore and yes, sticky rice and fried insects from Laos.

Food trip in Malaysia

Free taste of Brazilian coffee

I flew by plane to reach all these countries. Rode the ICE (Inner City Express) train in Germany, saddled on a motorbike in Vientiane, toured via a safari van in Kenya, went from place to place through the MRTs of Singapore and Malaysia. Always rode the taxi in all these countries, and yes, walked some distance.

Walking in Vientiane

I’ve been to centuries-old castles, museums, churches, temples, monuments, and parks. I had close encounters with giraffes and saw hippopotamus from a safe distance in their habitat. I’ve posed with a tribesman for a souvenir photo, walked into the writing room of a famous historical figure, and met many interesting people from different culture.

At the Giraffe Center

Each time I travel, I learn something new about a country, its culture, its people. I also discover something about myself. And always, I see how God provides, protects, leads me to different places and brings me safely back home.

I’m aware that there will come a time when God would call me to that final destination. It’s going to be a glorious place incomparable to any place in this world. Seeing God’s providential hand in my journey on earth, I could trust my life to no another but to Him, my Lord Jesus Christ. I’m one thankful traveler on this earth but I’m certainly looking forward to that final trip to heaven someday.

Do you want to know more about heaven? Here's a short article about heaven