Friday, August 25, 2006

Vietnam: Hoi An town and the story of my backpack

It was this trip to Hoi An, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, which opened my eyes to the backpacking culture. In 2003, I was introduced to bus travel between countries when I took a bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to visit friends. From Kuala Lumpur, I took a six hour bus up north to Malaysia’s heritage jewel, the city of Georgetown in Penang. But I had always traveled with a large piece of luggage and it was difficult for me to move around. The first thing I would do when I arrived in a place was to look for a hotel and drop off my luggage before I could go around. The Hoi An trip changed that.

According to UNESCO, Hoi An “is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site.”

I purchased my bus ticket at an agency in front of our hotel. I was happy that I only spent US$6 for a round trip ticket. The attendant was so surprised that my return ticket was on the same day because tourists who purchased tickets from them usually bought a one-way ticket since their next stop after that would be Ho Chi Minh or they would stay overnight and come back the next day. Imagine catching the first six hour trip down to Hoi An, staying for only two hours, and taking the last bus back to Hue. It’s like commuting to Baguio and coming back down just after two hours of sight-seeing. But unlike Baguio, Hoi An was just a small town and two hours was enough to see the sights but not quite enough to experience the culture. But I was pressed for time so I had no choice.

On the wall were other destinations in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. It was then that I realized that I could tour Southeast Asia via bus. And it was that realization in 2004 which led to my three-week five-country journey around Southeast Asia last April. I remember e-mailing people about the idea and buying a map of Indochina in Hue to try to plan the trip. And thus, after two years of yearning and planning, the trip finally pushed through.

One of the added attractions of this bus trip were stopovers at other tourist attractions on the way including this place called Marble Mountain. When we arrived there, there was shop after shop of marble souvenirs in all known colors of marble. Unlike those some of those cheap-looking marble souvenirs we have in Romblon (the marble in Romblon is high quality and the souvenirs are carved from whole marble and not molded marble dust and resin like the ones here but there's something about the carvings I don't like, especially the letterings they put which make them look cheap), the shops here had so many quality items to choose from such as animal figures, small busts of Ho Chi Minh and Chairman Mao, Buddha heads and other religious images as well as larger marble items. And the prices were shockingly cheap! I remember buying a 10-inch high brown marble Buddha head for something like PHP300. To make the long story short, I bought more than I could carry and realized that I would be lifting this box of marble stuff as I went around Hoi An.

I never intended to buy myself a backpack but I ended up having to do so out of necessity. Yup, the first thing I did when I arrived in Hoi An was to buy a backpack that could carry all the items I bought. And I didn’t have to search far since there were so many shops which sold bags due to the fact that Hoi An was a popular stop in the Southeast Asian backpack trail. When I finally found a backpack which could hold the entire box, it was off for a walk around the old town to check out the sites.

So that's how I got my backpack and started bakpacking! Hehe! Anyway, I was reading Wikipedia and found this brief history of Hoi An: "The former harbour town of the Champa people at the estuary of the Thu Bon river was an important trading centre in the 16th and 17th centuries, where Chinese from various provinces as well as Japanese, Dutch and Indians settled down. During this period of the China trade, the town was called Hai Pho (Seaside Town), during the French occupation. Originally Hai Pho was a divided town, because across the "Japanese Bridge" used to be the Japanese settlement. The bridge (Chùa cầu) is a unique covered structure built by the Japanese, the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist pagoda attached to one side."

I also found this website which has a nice photo of the port area. You can check out my photos in Hoi An here.

Vietnam: Hue, Viet Nam and its Forbidden Purple City

Nope, that isn't in the Philippines. It's a photo of the Perfume River (Huong Giang) in Hue, Viet Nam which I took way back in June 2004.

I was looking through some old files to prepare a module on heritage conservation for local government units and saw a copy of the Hue Declaration on Cultural Tourism and Poverty Alleviation. It's quite significant to me not just because of its content but because I was there in Hue at the very time the Asian ministers of tourism were meeting to draft this declaration. I was lucky enough to participate and listen to the ongoing Ministerial Conference thanks to then Tourism secretary Obet Pagdanganan.

I consider this trip my first backpack adventure. In fact, it was during this 2004 visit to Viet Nam that I bought the very backpack which started my fancy for backpacking. I’ll share the funny story in the next entry. The trip was just for a few days and it should have been longer since I and sculptors Toym Imao and Norman Tiotuico were planning it for quite a while to attend Festival Hue 2004 and the 3rd International Sculpture Symposium which I wanted to duplicate here in the country. But my MBA studies started quite early and I had to cut the trip short so as not to miss too much in class.

From Manila, I took a flight to Ho Chi Minh City where I stayed for a few hours in transit en route to Hue. I had been to Ho Chi Minh in 2002 during the Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program so I decided not to stopover anymore since I was pressed for time and I wanted to see new places. The flight to Hue was just an hour. You could opt to take a bus but that would take forever and should be reserved for a trip with lots of time to spare.

Hue, the former royal capital of Viet Nam's Nguyen Dynasty, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Replete with palaces, temples, royal tombs and other remnants of Viet Nam’s rich past, Hue finds itself in the company of other former royal capitals in Southeast Asia which have continuously aimed to preserve their outstanding architectural heritage. These include Angkor in Cambodia, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai in Thailand and Luang Prabang in Laos among others. In fact, the Purple Forbidden City in the heart of Hue was said to be patterned after the one in Beijing.

For the most part of the trip, it was raining. In fact, it is said that, "Hue's weather is infamously bad: the Truong Son Mountains just to the south seem to bottle up all the moisture, so it's usually misty, drizzly or outright rainy, and things get even drippier than usual in the winter rainy season. Bring along an umbrella any time of year." So I was always soaked from the torrential rains since our main means of transportation around were bicycles which we rented for the duration of the trip as well as cyclos which were pedicabs with the passengers in front of the biker.

Every two years, the city is alive and bustling thanks to a cultural festival called Festival Hue which attracts thousands of people from all over the country. I was impressed at how the Vietnamese value this celebration which featured various aspects of Vietnamese culture. Most Filipinos today would not “waste” their time watching cultural shows and presentations. I guess things that make us Filipino do not matter to most of us nowadays.

In fact, many of the events at the festival were free. And while I was walking around in the rain, I was lucky to chance upon this concert of an orchestra from Hanoi in one of the old art deco theaters. You just entered and sat down in the hall. I hope we have government-sponsored cultural festivals like these here in the country. It makes me feel sad that we demolish our old theaters here in Manila as well.

I got to visit the Citadel and the Forbidden Purple City, as well as the tomb of Tự Đức (right) during my first few days. But since it was raining, I didn't get to enjoy the structures as much as I should have.

Food there is cheap and one of my personal favorites was the Bánh Mì Thịt, a Vietnamese submarine sandwich made with a French baguette containing paté, Vietnamese mayo, different selections of Vietnamese cold cuts and deli, pickled daikon and carrots, and cucumber slices, often garnished with coriander and black pepper. These sandwiches are "common everywhere in Vietnam as a favorite of factory workers and school kids and eaten for any meal of the day, commonly breakfast and lunch." There was one stand outside our hotel which sold sandwiches for VND6,000 each (US$1 = 15,000 dong) so I made it a point to try a different one every morning.

I was lucky that during my last day, it stopped raining. So I contracted the services of a motorcycle-taxi who took me around the various royal tombs that lined the Perfume River. The tombs were lavish, housed in vast complexes along the banks of the river. But visiting them and other ticketed attractions was quite expensive if you planned to drop by many of them.

Unlike Angkor which sold passes that allowed you to enter all the sites (Cambodians entered free while tourists paid $20 for a day pass which was still quite expensive), in Hue, each site had its own ticket which would have been perfectly alright if not for the rates.

With the UNESCO World Heritage status, the government really took advantage of this by charging high rates for tourists to enter each one! Vietnamese nationals paid much lower rates while I think I paid VND55,000 (that's US$4) for every tomb I entered. There are eight of them if you have the time and money to visit all. Anyway, at least the fees here are channeled to restoration and not politicians’ pockets.

For the last day, I visited two more tombs namely those of Khải Định (above left) and Minh Mạng (above right) as well as the Thiên Mụ Pagoda (left). Anyway, you can check out my Patrimoine Mondial album to see more photos.

OT: To all those generations of kids
like myself who grew up learning about the nine planets of the solar system (I was an astronomy buff way back in grade school and had a monthly dose of Astronomy Magazine delivered to my home), Pluto is no longer a planet! Check out the details here.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Tara na! Biyahe tayo!

"Tara na, biyahe tayo, nang makatulong kahit pa'no sa pag-unlad ng kabuhayan ng ating mga kababayan. Halika, biyahe tayo, nang ating makita ang ganda ng Pilipinas, ang galing ng Pilipino."

Check out these videos from the Department of Tourism...

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pampanga: Mekeni! Tuki ka Pampanga!

Upcoming events

Grand Assumption Procession
August 15, 2006, 5:30 p.m.
Metropolitan Cathedral of San Fernando
Join us as we revive one of San Fernando's biggest pre-war traditions, the grand procession on the feastday of Our Lady of the Assumption. Relive the good old "pistaym" days as we don our best Filipiniana attires. See you there!

Manyaman Pamangan Kapampangan
August 27, 2006 (Sunday), 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Santuario de San Antonio, Forbes Park, Makati City
Invite your family and friends to this one-day Kapampangan food festival. Enjoy home-made ensaimada, pako shrimp salad, San Nicolas cookies, panara, tamales and other delicacies you grew up with. Mangan tamu qng Forbes!

A Taste of Pampanga
August 14 to 25, 2006
Captain's Bar, Mandarin Oriental Manila
Experience the awesome cuisine of Pampanga, also known as the culinary center of the Philippines, as Captain's Bar brings you some of the province's flavourful and exotic fare. Join the reunion of Kapampangan old families during the opening on Monday, August 14 at 11:30 a.m. For reservations and enquiries, call 750 8888 extension 2417 / 2418.

50th Anniversary Celebrations of the
Canonical Coronation of the Virgen de los Remedios
September 8, 2006
Villa del Sol, City of San Fernando, Pampanga
Malacanang declared this day a non-working holiday in the Province of Pampanga. Join in the celebrations as we commemorate the feast of the patroness of Pampanga.

Pyestang Tugak 2006: 4th Annual San Fernando Frog Festival
October 11 to 12, 2006
Poblacion and Greenville Subdivision, San Jose, City of San Fernando, Pampanga
The province of Pampanga is known for its frog traditions and cuisine. These traditions are however fast disappearing due to inevitable progress and urban growth, hence the need to rekindle and promote these traditions.

On day 1, there will be a street dance competition and parade. While day 2 will host the traditional and fun events including the padwasan (frog-catching contest) early in the morning, frog olympics and dress-up your frog contest, and the frog cooking contests. This festival is close to my heart since I was the one who started it in 2003 when I was still tourism officer of San Fernando. So I invite everyone to take part.

Anyway, to those asking about what to see and do in Pampanga, check out the tourism MTV produced by the Pampanga Provincial Government...

Also check out the videos at Indung Kapampangan.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Zamboanga: Santa Cruz Island and its pink sand

And now, for the final installment of my recent trip is my visit to the Great and Little Santa Cruz Island Protected Landscapes and Seascapes. I had booked my trip with the DOT regional office. I could have opted to go on my own but that would mean paying for the entire boat. So I kept my fingers crossed hoping that a group would leave Sunday, and that they would allow me to tag along. Good thing there was a group of local teachers and students who booked a trip while I was in the office.

So I was up early to make sure I made the 7 a.m. call time. There was still no sign of the group at 7:15 a.m. so that got me worried. Until finally someone had approached me asking if I was the one who was going to tag along. It turned out, the group had two designated meeting places. And the bigger group which was at the pier was gone before the organizer had arrived. To make things worse, there were just three of us at Lantaka Hotel, myself, the organizer and a student.

After waiting for sometime, we decided to check again at the pier. We would later find out when we got to the island that the group which met at the pier, after seeing the rough waves which were a result of the tail end of "Inday," had backed out! Anyway, after some haggling with the boat owner, we were able to bring down the cost thanks to our appeal to pity.

So the three of us made the trip to Santa Cruz despite the rough seas. And I was tense for the most part as our boat made the slow trip to the island, rocked by strong waves. I was actually praying for sunshine. We got there in one piece. And for some twist of fate, the sun did come out a few minutes after we arrived on Great Santa Cruz Island.

The two islands which are a few meters away from each other, and the waters that surround it form the Great and Little Santa Cruz Island Protected Landscapes and Seascapes. Both islands often play host to environmental activities with students from local universities such as Ateneo de Zamboanga organizing tree-planting activities and coastal clean-ups. There are just about forty families which live on the island, all from the Samal tribe which was allowed to stay in the protected area.

What makes the sand on the island unique is its distinct pink color which is a result of tiny pink coral fragments mixed with the white sand. For a close up of the sand, click here. And just like in Malamawi White Beach, I had the beach all to myself! We learned from the locals there that even before Puerto Galera and Boracay, Santa Cruz was a popular destination among tourists. But after the spate of abductions and kidnappings many years back, its popularity waned.

Anyway, after a brief dip in the blue water, I decided to walk around the island. It would take two hours to walk around from end to end. So I just hiked a few meters to check out the other side. As you can see from an aerial photo which I took from the plane, the center of the island was mostly mangrove swamps and a lagoon.

We went back to downtown Zamboanga at about 12 noon and this time, the water was calmer. But I had a worse headache than the day before. Again, I decided to eat at Tini's where I ordered murtabak daging (beef prata) and roti kosong (flour pancake). Then I walked back to the pension house to freshen up and take a quick nap. I made sure not to sleep too long since I wanted to visit as much as I could during my last 24 hours in Zamboanga City.

Next on my itinerary was a trip to Mt. Pulong Bato in Barangay Abong Abong from where visitors are rewarded with a breathtaking view of Zamboanga City and the outlying islands. From downtown, I took a jeep to Abong Abong via Pasonanca which was just PHP10. Make sure you mention to the driver that you want to visit the stations of the cross so that he could drop you off at the foot of the mountain. I was dropped off at a place called canyon or Freedom Park which had some military relics, large guns in particular hence the moniker canyon, and a tomb for an unknown soldier.

I thus ended up walking an extra 1.5 kilometers to the foot of the mountain, not including the 750 meter steep climb to the vantage point. On the way up were bas relief murals of the fourteen stations of the cross. That was really exhausting! But the view from on top was worth the climb. Since the road is well paved, you can drive a vehicle up as well.

It was about 3:30 p.m. and I had to rush down and back to downtown since I had one more destination on my itinerary, the oldest mosque in Zamboanga in Barangay Taluksangay. People had warned me that it was going to be far but that did not hinder me. So as soon as I got back to downtown, I immediately boarded a jeep to the Muslim community of Taluksangay near the Mercedes District. It was about 17 kilometers away and the fare was PHP20.

I arrived there at 5 p.m. just before the sun went down. I was happy to see a marker of the National Historical Institute which emphasized the significance of the site to our nation's history.

As I mentioned earlier, this was the first mosque in the Zamboanga Peninsula. Built by Hadji Abdullah Maas Nuno in 1885, it was the first center of Islam which was recognized by the international Islamic community.

Anyway, going back to downtown Zamboanga City was going to be a problem since the jeepney driver had mentioned me that there were no more trips back. So from Taluksangay, I took a pedicab to the next barangay which was Talabaan where motorcycles-for-hire were waiting to take me back to the highway. The trip was PHP30 and I agreed since I would be able to stopover at the Gabaldon buildings in the Mercedes Central School. I was surprised to see many of the buildings intact. Aside from the main building, the original home economics and industrial arts buildings were still standing.

From the highway, I took a jeep back to downtown. The good thing about the public transport system in Zamboanga City is that all jeepneys travel to the downtown area so you can easily find you way around. I got off at St. Joseph's Church to hear Mass. The church was air-conditioned which was a welcome feeling after a humid and tiring day.

After Mass, my plan was to check out those satti outlets again. It was just 7 p.m. and I was surprised to see all of them closed! So I asked a tricycle driver to take me to the nearest sattihan. The driver mentioned to me that those were the only ones he knew. And that the reason they closed early was because they were open as early as 4 a.m. So that's why! It turns out satti was a breakfast dish in Zamboanga.

Anyway, I went back to Tini's for dinner since this was the last chance I could eat roti in a long time. And I made sure I went to bed early since my plan was to savor the elusive satti before I left on the 9:55 a.m. flight. I was up at 6 a.m. and finally, I was able to treat myself to satti! As I mentioned in a previous post, these were three small pieces of roasted beef on a barbeque stick dipped in a bowl of sweet and spicy sauce served with rice floating in another plate of the same sauce. Each was PHP3.50 and the rice was something like PHP8 per serving (if you remember the rice I had in Larsian which I mentioned in my Cebu entry, it was the same one).

I then went back to the pension house to take a quick nap. After checking out, I took a tricycle to the airport for PHP30. I was quite early for the flight but it was better to be there early than to be left behind. Good thing there was a massage service there so I got myself relaxed before boarding.

One thing I liked about the experience at the airport was that everyone on the runway, from the ground crew to the security guards waved at the plane as it left the tarmac. It was a very heartwarming experience for passengers looking out the windows.

I took a lot of photos on the plane as well. Here are two of them. The first is the Ortigas area with the Pasig River and the old Rizal Provincial Capitol in the green open space along the river close to the center of the photo. The bridge you see is the C5 Bridge.

The second photo is Makati with the Fort Bonifacio Global City and American Cemetery in the foreground. I guess that's it for now. Until the next trip.
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