Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) & Can Tho

I flew with Vietnam Airlines from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh (old city name is Saigon) on Saturday 7th of February. The flight wasn’t cheap but I compared the price with the train ticket price from North to South and the travel time. By train it would had taken forever to reach South and on this trip I am not interested to spent too much time in a train / bus in Vietnam. The ticket costed 97,98 USD. Vietjet and AirAsia has tickets that are half the price but I did some research and found that these two airlines are not really recommended. So this time I choose to pay extra for the flight ticket.

I had to take a taxi from the airport because in the end that was my only option. The signs are very bad at the airport so I couldn’t find the “underground transportation” that my hostel recommended (and no one knew about it of course) and the last bus had left by the time (6pm) I realized where I should be waiting for it. I paid 200 000 dongs (around 8 euros) to my hostel that is in the District 1. I think I paid 20 000 dongs too much… but not much.

My hostel in HCM was Eco Backpackers Hostel that is located in the “backpacker area”. The interesting layout of the room made me book a bed from this hostel. I kind of had my own “booth” so I thought that would give me a feeling of a private room. Unfortunately on the first night there where some Asian girls who didn’t speak much during the daytime but in the night they came and were very noisy. I thought they were a group of 20 people but no.. they were like four. But luckily they shut up quickely. Also a bit unfortunate was that the cleaning lady came to clean the washroom between 6 and 8 AM every morning (why??!). She was incredibly loud.

I spent one day strolling around Ho Chi Minh city, and I was quite surprised how it looked like. Very different from Hanoi. In my opinion the traffic is not as bad as in Hanoi maybe because of the bigger and wider streets. And the people look maybe a bit wealthier than in Hanoi.. There are more high buildings, restaurants and shops. All the city districts are called District + number (e.g. District 1) which to me reminded the Hunger Games! I was waiting for Jennifer Lawrence but I didn’t see her, bummer.

I heard from other travelers that Ho Chi Minh is awful and boring and no one really specially liked it when they visited Saigon. Some said that they even hated it. I can say that one day was enough for me but not because it was awful but I think it was a bit boring. Just a big city. But I really enjoyed the Fine Arts Museum. I didn’t want to spend another day in the city so I decided to do a one day trip to Cu Chi tunnels and Cao Dai temple. The time spent in the bus was quite long (about six hours!) but the places were interesting though. I don’t know if they were worth of all that travelling.. The Cu Chi tunnels are a 250km network of underground tunnels that were built by the Vietnamese guerrilla fighters during the war. We were able to try to walk in the tunnels and we heard some basic information about the history. I was overwhelmed about the complexity of the tunnels and just wondering how an earth were the people able to built them. If I wanted to stand in the tunnel I was only able to be in squat. And for building the tunnels the guerrilla soldiers used just a hammer and a bamboo basket.

I also liked the Cao Dai temple even though it was 170 km away from Ho Chi Minh and we only spent one hour there. It was a bit overwhelming because the temple was on a separate vast area that looked like a “religious village”. The temple itself was very cute because it had lots of bright colours, e.g. the roof was sky blue and there were silver stars and white clouds, and to me it looked like a “candy temple”. Very different from any of the other temples I’ve seen before. According to our guide there are around 2 million people who practice Cao Daism. The religion itself sounds also interesting because they accept all the religions and the people have sort of combinations of different religions.

After couple of days in Ho Chi Minh, I left to Can Tho which is in the Mekong Delta area (170km from HCM). Can Tho is a “small town” and has population of around 2 500 000. I thought it would be a small quiet town where traffic is very light. But no.. It is quite lively but it is small in a way that they don’t have many big stores. I came to Can Tho basically because of the floating markets and I did a boat tour that started 5:30 am. The tour lasted for 7 hours and we visited couple of floating markets and then just cruised around the Mekong Delta rivers which was very nice and relaxing. I was a bit disappointed about the markets because I thought they would have all kinds of things because I was ready to buy something like a bracelet or food but they basically sold only vegetables, fruits and drinks. We bought a pine apple that we ate on the boat but there was nothing else I wanted to buy. Overall the boat tour was very nice even though I had to wake up 4:40 am that morning.

I also participated on a food tour that our hotel organizes every evening. I thought it would be a great way to taste some Vietnamese delicacies. But I really didn’t give a thought about what they could be.. In the end the food tour included barbecued pork and fresh rolls (for me Vietnamese “pan cake omelette”), Vietnamese deep fried pie (for me without meat), cooked eggplant, mouse, frog legs, tofu and sticky rice. I was so interested about the mouse meat that I actually took a bite and I have to say it wasn’t bad. But the frog legs I had to skip because just the idea of eating it grossed me because they served the whole leg. Others said it tasted a bit like fish. I really loved the pan cake thingy, the deep fried pie and the eggplant!

Today I am back to Ho Chi Minh for one night and tomorrow I am heading to Cambodia! I don’t have yet a specific travel plan for Cambodia but I will start from Phnom Penh.

Short comments about the hostels:

Eco Backpackers Hostel

  • there are two very nice receptionists (girls) who have helped me a lot and seem truly interested to help but one receptionist (a guy) wasn’t very interested to do anything (not even handing me my key)
  • the beds are quite comfortable and the bed is like a booth (gives a feeling of a private room), nice washroom
  • the cleaning lady cleans really early in the mornings and she is loud
  • breakfast not included
  • good location (District 1, backpacker area)
  • one night in women’s dorm costs 130 000 dongs (5,4 euros)

Hotel Xoai

  • very nice staff
  • nice rooms and nice prices
  • location is not in the downtown but quite near (15 min walk)
  • quite expensive tours but the “food tour” made by the hotel worker was good (pay what you want)
  • roof top with hammocks
  • breakfast not included
  • private room for one night 10 USD

My thoughts about Vietnam in a nutshell:

I really enjoyed Vietnam but the pollution, traffic and fear of being robbed weren’t nice. It was the first time that I have visited a developing country so this was a very special experience for me. I felt surprisingly relaxed all the time and sometimes crossing the street in the crazy traffic was exciting. The food is absolutely great and tasty and the beer is cheap. Travelling has been made easy for tourists and Vietnam really understands how important tourists are for them. The people are sometimes really nice but I was afraid that I will be scammed if someone is being nice to me. But on the way and in Can Tho I felt that people were more genuine when they were nice to you. Twice I was in a situation where the people didn’t sell food to me. One lady got apparently annoyed when I asked too many questions (like 4-5) about the prices of the food and what was on the menu, and one lady was eating breakfast and refused to serve me even though I was told on the previous day that the restaurant opens 6 am and I was trying to get something to eat at 7 am.

I had very good experiences with all the tours and with the Futa buslines. Of course one needs to be aware in the tours and specially in the buses. My tip is to always make sure where you are going especially when you are not doing a tour and if you doubt something then double check (trust your instinct). Also get some information in beforehand. E.g. I knew that if I take a Fusa bus then in the destination a ride to hostel/hotel is included in the ticket but they didn’t tell me that. Also when I returned to Ho Chi Minh from Can Tho I got a free ride to my hostel with another bus that was heading to another city. I was suppose to get a ride to another place but because I asked they put me in this bus which was much more convenient (and cheaper) for me.

I am sad I didn’t have time to go to Hoi An because I heard many good things about it. Everyone who has been there has loved the place. Well, I guess I need to return to Vietnam.

Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa

So this my 6th day in Vietnam. So far everything has gone ok. As I mentioned earlier the traffic is crazy in Hanoi but today I felt quite ok walking in the downtown (“old quarter”). I didn’t feel like hitting and kicking everyone who is using the honk right behind me.

The narrower and the more crowded the street, the louder the honk. That’s at least how it seems to be here.. The motorbikers mainly use the horn for warning others (“I am coming”), to ask you to move away or apparently just for “fun”. It drives me nuts..

First my plan was to go to Halong Bay (an UNESCO World Heritage Site) for two days but the weather hasn’t been very good. It has been gloomy and foggy which is why I decided to go to Halong Bay only for one day. It was still nice and luckily I was able to see the beautiful isles and we also visited a cave and went kayaking. Halong Bay is around 170km away from Hanoi.

I also took a 2-day tour to Sapa which is around 380 km (6,5 hours by bus) away from Hanoi, in the north of Vietnam. I took a night bus on Monday evening and then returned by bus on Wednesday evening. I am so happy I made this trip! Even though it was also foggy in Sapa I was able to see the beautiful mountains and the rice fields. We hiked on Tuesday to a homestay and then we hiked on Wednesday to a small village where a mini bus took us back to the Sapa town (and then I returned to Hanoi). On Wednesday we hiked around 10 km which took us around 5 hours and on Wednesday we hiked only couple of hours. I have never done hiking before and I really fell in love with it!! It is so cool! We went up and down the hills and sometimes we had a small path and sometimes nothing that could be identified as a path. It was muddy and dirty – just the way I like it :-D but I didn’t fall. Our guide was amazing and the host family cooked us a delicious dinner and breakfast (pancakes, condensed milk, bananas and pine apples. Yum yum!).

We also saw many water buffalos, pigs and piglets, dogs and their puppies, chicken and goats on the way. Also it is very common that there are few local women and sometimes even children who are walking behind you and they want to help you. In the end of course they try to sell you some souvenirs. It is hard to be annoyed because they do it because they don’t get enough rice from the fields so they need another source to get food and money. But seeing the kids is very annoying because they should be in school and not selling the souvenirs. Anyhow, the trip was awesome!

First I planned to stay 3 days in Hanoi but because I was only one day in Halong Bay I am now 4 days in Hanoi. Three would be enough but I have bought a flight ticket for Saturday so I have to be still in Hanoi for today and tomorrow. Today I am pretty tired so I don’t have any special plans. I went out for a lunch and found also a cool cafe “Cộng cà phê” where I had an amazing rum milk tea. I also had a back massage (45min) and maybe later I will go to see the night market. If you are interested in the prices a meal costs usually 30 000 – 50 000 Vietnamese dongs (1,5-2 euros), my massage was 250 000 including tips (10 euros) and the rum milk tea was 45 000 (less than 2 euros).

Also what I really love here is the Vietnamese egg coffee (Giang cafe) that apparently is found only in Hanoi. It sounds strange but it is heavenly good! It is like an espresso with a sweet custard-like foam. If you are in Hanoi, you HAVE to try this! It costs only 20 000 (less than an euro).

Few comments about my hostels in Hanoi:

Little Hanoi Hostel 1

  • It is located near the old quarter, you don’t really hear the traffic noise
  • quiet hostel
  • good beds
  • nice staff
  • large breakfast
  • 6 USD (a bit over 5 euros) per night in women’s dorm

Vietnam Backpackers Hostel (downtown)

  • it is located in the heart of old quarter, you can hear the traffic noise very well
  • everything is close
  • breakfast is ok (choose from 3 options)
  • very lively, lots of people, nice staff
  • good security for luggage and valuables
  • nice beds
  • has a bar and daily activities
  • 9 AUD (around 6 euros) per night in women’s dorm

One thing has made me here super happy. Vietnamese cuisine uses coriander!! Something that I missed in Japan a lot.

edit: I forgot to mention that something very bizarre happened today. I arrived at the hostel really late and when I woke up in the morning, I noticed that my childhood friend who I haven’t seen in like a decade was in the same hostel room! What a small world!

First day in Southeast Asia

I decided that I’ll try to write short updates about my trip. Today I arrived to Hanoi. I was so nervous and sure that things won’t go smoothly with the immigration inspection and with the way from the airport to my hostel. In the end the immigration officers didn’t really even care that I don’t have a visa or a flight ticket out of Vietnam, and the way from the airport to my hostel was a “taste” of real Vietnam. The bus that I wanted to take was already moving but the nice guys outside the bus ran after the bus and stopped it for me. Then me and the backpack size of me went to sit in the front. I mean really in the front and next to the driver :-D I saw the whole way from the airport to the center. I knew the traffic would be crazy but that view made me almost pee in my pants, hehe. I also got a ride from the center to my hostel with a motorcycle. Yep, me and my backpack and a driver (who made me pay a bit more that was agreed, argh) on a motorcycle. That was crazy!

Today I just decided to go to the center and walk around. I also met a nice girl from Germany who is also travelling alone. We went to see Water Puppet show which was quite interesting. Never seen anything like that.. Basically there were water and the puppets were playing in that. There was also a band that sounded very nice but the people looked bored to death. I guess the same people make the same show every day (multiple times).

First impression from Hanoi is that the traffic is crazy (people just drive everywhere, really close to you and they use a horn A LOT), it is loud and there are many people who want something from you (but they leave you alone when you show no interest), there is lots of tasty looking street food and one should be careful of robbers (I bought a money pouch right away). Taking photos with a phone is apparently risky so I guess I’ll be very picky about what I will photograph. And I think I will only load them to instagram (see on the right side of the blog).

The currency is also crazy. I am like a millioner! One euro is around 24 200 Vietnamise dongs.

If you feel stupid then you should read this

Because then you will realize that there is someone who is even more stupid than you.. me :-D

I had this mad plan that I wanted to cycle from Seta (where I am living) to Kyoto and now I had a chance to make it happen. I wanted to sell my bike to another student who is studying in another campus, Fukakusa campus. So I had this romantic idea of riding my bicycle to Fukakusa.. my goal was to get an exercise, enjoy Kyoto / Japan differently and sell the bike. The distance was supposed to be around 19km.

To make you feel better already I can tell you that one of those things above didn’t happen! I am sure we all know what that is :-D yep, selling the bike. I didn’t mention that I didn’t have internet (because I was sure I could make it without it) and I didn’t have a proper map or directions. I had just taken few screenshots from google maps.. this is making me laugh so much now that I think about it afterwards.

Luckily I achieved at least two of the goals. Yep, I got a gooood exercise and I saw Kyoto differently. Weather forecast promised sun. I got sun, and also a bit of snow and snow grains. I thought that the mountain would be my biggest obstacle but no – it was Kyoto!! After I found my way to the other side of the mountain, everything became a bit more exciting. Too exciting. I wanted to take the straightest way to Fukakusa but I found myself from Yamashina… pretty far from Fukakusa. After that it was just impossible to find Fukakusa even though it seemed that I was all the time quite near. Every time I asked for an advice to Fukakusa, the answer was “around 30 minutes that way”. Well my 30 minutes changed into almost two hours and I was still just near Fukakusa :-D haha. So the last person who I asked help took me to a station and I decided to give up. I couldn’t find Fukakusa. And I couldn’t sell the bike to the person I intended because I couldn’t take the bike to the train. So I had two options…..

.. to either cowardlessly abandon it or give it to someone. So I decided to give my bike for free to the lady that walked with me to the train station that took me to Kyoto (of course passing the station near Fukakusa, “only” 2 stops away). She and her friends put lots of effort on understanding my very poor Japanese and walked me to the station so it was an easy decision. And she looked so happy and perplexed when I asked whether she would like to have my bike.

Even though the main point of the trip didn’t happen, I am still happy that I cycled to Kyoto. I spoke with many Japanese and they were all so nice to me and helpful. Also I rode the bike in places where I assume the people haven’t seen many foreigners in those areas by the way they looked at me. Today I got a reminder that what is best in Kyoto / Japan – the street scene, mountains and helpful and friendly people.

So here is the final moment of laugh – I cycled for four hours :-D So I really got the workout that I wanted.

Now I am getting ready for a “all you can drink and eat” party.. I need a drink!

One journey ends, another begins

I am leaving Japan soon and going towards my next great adventure. I am excited and horrified at the same time because I’ll be travelling alone in Southeast Asia. I will go to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and I will spend around two weeks in each country. Yikes!

The most nervous I am about Vietnam because I’ve read that especially in Vietnam the locals want to just exploit you.. this is what someone wrote about his negative experiences in Vietnam:

“To give you an idea, while in Vietnam for one month I was targeted by scammers falsely posing as representatives of the Red Cross, got in an aggressive confrontation with a cab driver who tried to charge me the equivalent of $80 USD for a 5 minute ride, got hit by a menu switching scam in a restaurant, and was unfairly overcharged numerous times. Also, at one point a wild monkey ran off with my beer, though I’ll try not to blame that on Vietnam.” (source: www.indietraveller.co/destinations/travel-guide/vietnam)

I guess Cambodia and Thailand shouldn’t be that “bad” places but yeah I am terrified a bit. All the countries have of course many pros but few things worry me. E.g. I don’t like to bargain.. At the moment my plan is to visit Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay, Ho Chi Minh and Can Tho in Vietnam; Phnom Penh, Kampot, Sihankoukville (maybe Koh Rong) and Siem Reap in Cambodia; and Bangkok and a few islands in Thailand. In Thailand I will meet up with a friend and we will travel in Thailand together!

I am sure I will have an amazing time and this will be one of the most special trips I will ever make. I am also sure that everything will not go smoothly. But that’s life! If someone has any tips about what to pack in my backpack or any other advice, I would be happy to hear them. :-)

I hope something like this is waiting for me in Thailand..

Let’s talk about my favourite topic: FOOD!

I love food! I love talking about, I love eating it and I love watching cooking shows (especially MasterChef hehe). I don’t love to cook myself but it’s fun too, sometimes. As some of you know, I don’t eat red or white meat, which means e.g. beef, pork, chicken and turkey. I do eat seafood and I love especially fish.

Before coming to Japan I heard that I might have hard time in finding vegetarian food and it has been partly true. Although I thought it would be even harder than it has been. In Finland I am quite used to find at least one option from the menu that doesn’t include meat, here it has been harder to find restaurants that would have that kind of an option. There are restaurants that are clearly meat-oriented but luckily there are also restaurants that have atleast a seafood option. I have to say that the vegetarian dishes that I have eaten here have been some of the best vegetarian meals I have ever eaten! Sometimes it has been really hard to find something I can eat (and enjoy at the same time) and I can tell you, don’t let me get too hungry.. :-D that is not a pretty view to look at!

The first times I went to the supermarket, I just wanted to run away and start eating fast food. The supermarkets can be overwhelming. All the sounds, packages with cryptic language and the unidentified food can make you want to crawl back to your home depressed. Somehow I got over this and was able to find some recognizable ingredients and cook at home. I’ve made so many shopping failures and thrown money straight to garbage that I’ve lost my interest to buy anything new lately. But this is how my healthy food basket looks like:

Food basket

Basically I’ve tried to keep my diet versitile but it hasn’t been easy. I’ve eaten lots of eggs, tofu (there are many kinds of tofu), salmon and shrimps in order to get some protein, and vegetables, potato and rice to get healthy carbs. For snacks I’ve been eating lots of nuts, “bulgarian yogurt” (I have actully no idea what it is but the taste is similar) and some bread and “cheese”. I reaaallly miss the Finnish bread because the variety is so much bigger. Here one can find only white bread, and the cheese for bread is like processed cheese slices (yuck). Luckily we have a small grill which makes the sandwich eatable. It was also hard to find what to eat in the mornings but I found a killer brekkie: cereal (unsweetened), milk and a banana. It was also surprisingly hard to find cereal that is unsweetened.. and just couple of weeks ago I realized that the milk that I have been drinking here (the cheapest hehe) is as “fatty” as the fattiest milk sold in Finland. And I really like it! Maybe I have to believe my grandmother and continue drinking the fatty milk. :-)

I’ve noticed that the Japanese eat lots of tempura fried food, and also usually there are some nice looking fishes that one can buy from the supermarkets. Also very specific to all kinds of stores that sell groceries is that there are lots of different kinds of snacks. I mean like quite a few shelves of only sweet and salty (and some undefined tastes) snacks!

I have no ideas what these fishes are but they look delicious. Nice colours!

I have no idea what these fishes are but they look delicious. Nice colours!

Lots of tempura fried delicacies!

Lots of tempura fried delicacies!

Here are some pics of foods that I’ve been enjoying (sorry they might already exist in some posts):

Some things that I really miss are proper bread, real cheese, quark, oatmeal, Finnish Karelian pie and dry apple cider. I haven’t had a real oven here so I also miss food that is cooked in the oven. But soonish I’ll be able to eat all these delicacies! I also miss making smoothies!

I also bought my personal chopsticks. Cool, ne? I engraved one of my life philosophies to the chopsticks: “Hyvä ruoka, parempi mieli” which means basically “Good food, better mood”. They didn’t have the Finnish ä letter so I had to make a small change to the phrase and put oishii in stead of hyvä. Oishii means delicious or tasty in Japanese.

My personal hashi (chopsticks)

My time as a tourist

My friends left yesterday back to Finland, which means that also my holiday and fun days are over for two weeks. Next 2 weeks will be all about finishing the semester and trying to survive from the assignment work load. I am slightly stressed but I refuse to be a nervous wreck.. I still have classes and I think the final assignments will take all my freetime. :-( Hopefully during my last week in Japan I can just enjoy the last days here.

So my friends were here for two weeks.. what did we do? Time flew fast but it feels that we did a lot. Some of my friends went also to Tokyo. In general we did sightseeing in Kyoto, and we also went to Kobe, Nara and Osaka. In Kobe and Nara we just strolled around and enjoyed the atmosphere of the cities. In Osaka we visited Japan Universal Studios, and that was one of the best things I have experienced in Japan. I felt like a kid again! I can’t believe how happy the park and the rides made me! We went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Back to the Future ride, Jurassic Park ride, Spider Man ride, Terminator 2 show and to Space Fantasy ride. So in total we managed to visit six different places in seven hours. We queued a lot during the day but somehow the queuing was planned so that it wasn’t extremely painful. In the evening the waiting times for the rides were shorter than during the day.

My favourite rides were definitely the Spider Man and the Harry Potter ride. I believe both use 4K and 3D/4D technology. I was so amazed! Both were so amazing rides and I couldn’t tell when I was seeing “real” characters and when only images. I still get goose bumps when I think about the rides! Some rides were maybe a bit old and weren’t using the latest technology but they were “entertaining” hehe. Very cool place! You can see the whole area from here.

Here are some pictures from Japan Universal studios:

Here are some random pictures from Kobe and Kyoto.

We celebrated the New Year’s Eve in Kyoto, and I had a hard time to think how could we celebrate changing of the year.. I was sad that I wasn’t able to see fireworks that I usually see in Finland but at least we made Finnish potato salad (which was super yummy). The Japanese eat traditionally on New Year’s Eve a special kind of soba. We also ate matcha (Japanese green tea) flavoured soba and had matcha sake.

I thought that we should go and try to experience the ringing of the bell but as often here it didn’t go like planned. I thought that I found a reliable source that pointed out that in Nanzenji one could be able to ring the bell on New Year’s Eve night but for some reason it didn’t happen (at least not for us). The temple was closed when we went there.. Either it really wasn’t happening this year or we were there either too late or too early. After that we decided to head to Yasaka Shrine which was packed with people.. Next year I’ll buy lots of fireworks to compensate this New Year’s Eve’s weak celebration :-D

The annual Japanese Zodiac sign for the year 2015 is a sheep, and because of that there are many New Year things, like calendars, that have a sheep theme on them.

I hope my friends enjoyed their holiday. I was happy to have them here :-)