Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Vietnam: Experiencing old Saigon and cosmopolitan HCMC

Day 1 in Ho Chi Minh City. I arrived at 9 a.m. after a two and a half-hour flight from Manila. Although I was at NAIA as early as four, the lack of sleep did not deter me from rushing out to explore this dynamic city.

First impressions do last. I was pleasantly surprised that a new and modern Tan Son Nhat airport welcomed me. How I wished that the Philippines opened its new terminal sooner since all other ASEAN countries have modernized their own gateways. Outside was an orderly line of taxis waiting for passengers. I was expecting to argue with the driver as one travel guide warned. But as soon as I sat down, he turned on the meter. I was booked in a hotel along Pham Ngu Lao Street, Saigon’s backpacker haven.

Most guides to HCMC always recommend a visit to its many pagodas and temples. I thus decided to drop by one or two to get the ball rolling. I took a cab to the Giac Lam Pagoda, believed to be the oldest in the city. It was quite a distance from the city center. And the trip made me a spectator to the organized chaos that passes through the many tree-lined motorcycle-choked boulevards of Saigon. There was not too much activity in the temple as what I’ve seen in other Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia. But there were a few devotees doing rounds around the different images with their joss sticks. By the time I exited its gates, it was time for lunch.

Since I was on the run, I tried to look for the neighborhood bahn mi vendor. These are the local sandwiches which may look Western but definitely taste Vietnamese. I just love the way the pate, meats, and herbs mix very well with the baguettes, a culinary blend of East and West indeed. After walking under the sun for several meters, I finally found a stand. Until now, I still cannot fathom how a sandwich that costs only VND5,000 (approximately 15 pesos) in the streets of Vietnam is sold for ten times that much in Manila!

After that quick bite, I visited nearby Giac Vien Pagoda. The first thing I noticed as I entered was a number of shrines on each side with photos of the departed. I walked around the hall for a while and was resting on a stool, preparing to leave, when the lone monk in the hall blurted out something in the vernacular, as if calling me to come closer. When I got to his table, he threw a few questions at me which he asked in English, albeit with a bit of difficulty. He stood up, picked up a few joss sticks, and asked me to follow him. He toured me around and I made my rounds around the temple like the locals.

It was another cab ride to my next stop, the Reunification Palace. The former presidential palace of the defunct South Vietnam, it was where the Vietnam War was said to end when tank number 843 rammed into its gates on April 30, 1975, the day Saigon surrendered. It has been left the way it looked on that momentous day for Vietnam. Even the command center in the basement of the building still has its war maps, telephone and radio equipment, and other items on display in the different rooms as if the war had just ended yesterday.

From the palace, I walked to the nearby Notre Dame Cathedral and General Post Office which stand beside each other. The red-brick neo-Romanesque cathedral, built between 1877 and 1883, towers over the area. Right beside it is the well-preserved post office building, one of the more elegant French colonial buildings of Saigon. There are in fact many more buildings like it.

Further down the road was Ben Thanh Market, the best place to start shopping in HCMC. I’ve gone shopping there before. But for this trip, I had no plans of spending on anything. So I decided to skip it since warnings and tales of bad experiences are very familiar to me. No matter how alert or good you are at protecting your things, sticky fingers around the place can get really sneaky. And I didn’t want to lose my camera or wallet while even just a few seconds caught off guard.

So I walked back to my hotel in Ð Pham Ngu Lao to get some rest before going out for dinner. The streets around Ben Thanh are also alive in the evenings. As soon as the shops inside close, those outside set-up tents for the night market. Right beside the market building, a row of stalls offers fresh seafood which they serve dampa style.

Right beside my hotel, was Allez Boo bar where I got to chill out, watching people and motorbikes go by this busy bamboo-walled street corner. I ordered the house special, Allezboo Slammer, a mix of amaretto, sambuca, brandy, lime juice and cointreau. Check out my photos in Multiply.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Manila: Manila Bay sunset

This afternoon, I took a Japanese friend around Manila. Our SSEAYP batchmate Noby was here for a few weeks to study tropical diseases in the Philippines. Anyway, I took him to Intramuros first. We visited the San Agustin Church and the Manila Cathedral. Our next stop was Rizal Park where we took a quick stroll around.

To cap the afternoon, we watched the famed Manila Bay sunset along the Baywalk (don't worry folks, I was assured that Lim has plans for the place and that it will not violate the law like the previous project).

There were a lot of people, several foreigners too taking photos. The breeze was strong but there was a slight odor. Then as I was about to rave about the view, I saw the small strip of beach near the US Embassy. Will the people responsible for the area please clean all the garbage up?!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Laguna: Mt. Romelo and its waterfalls

I hiked up Mt. Romelo in Siniloan, Laguna with the UP Med Outdoor Society. It's actually a hill if you compare it to other mountains. But Mt. Romelo is a popular destination because of its four waterfalls: Buruwisan, Lansones, Batya-Batya, and Sampaloc. The group visited Buruwisan Falls which was really an awesome sight. Others went to Lansones Falls too.

But it was a crazy adventure for the group and myself too. I had to change a flat tire while I was on my way to our meeting point. Our jeeps didn't arrive on time so we were more than two hours delayed. The organizers were told that one of the jeeps had a flat too that's why they didn't arrive on time. We got new jeeps instead. But since we were two hours delayed, we now had to deal with slow traffic in certain places. One of the jeeps we hired had something wrong with the tires too. So we kept on stopping to adjust the brakes.

On the way to Buruwisan Falls, my body just gave way (since I had zero hours of sleep which is quite stupid and I won't do that again). But the good thing is if there's a will, there's a horse. Yeah, I took a horse up instead. Haha! But I wasn't the only one.

Going down the falls was also difficult since the trail was very steep. But the sight of the falls was all it took to forget how tired I was. It just took a dip in the cold waters of the pool to take away all the stress.

Going back down was easier. But the ride on the horse (it wasn't a regular saddle I was sitting on) was very bumpy. Anyway, we were back in Manila at 12 midnight. After ditching our jeep in Tanay, (the group just didn't want to take the risk since we kept on stopping and it started to smell like rubber), we took another jeep to EDSA Central were we finally had dinner. Good thing Mia Gervasio sent her army of vehicles to pick us up and bring us back to UP Med.

It was fun and everything was all part of the (mis)adventure. Thanks to Gid Lasco, my Pinoy Mountaineer partner, for organizing this climb. Of course, there's Team 4, and the rest of the UP Med Outdoor Society. More photos in Multiply.

Monday, September 03, 2007

'Hilot' for a spa treatment anyone?

It's about time we promoted our traditional Filipino culture around the world. We should start with our own food since the cuisine of our own Southeast Asian neighbors are making waves in the global community. I also wonder why our own local martial arts such as Arnis or Eskrima (known as Kali or FMA abroad) are not as popular in the Philippines as Muay Thai is in Thailand, Taekwondo in South Korea (it is their national sport) or other martial arts are in their countries.

This is also true when we go to the spa. We've all heard of Swedish, Shiatsu, Thai or Indonesian/Balinese (therapies which are popular in their countries of origin). But we fail to realize that the Philippines has its own art of massage called hilot.

In fact, hilot is becoming one of the hottest trends in our spas today. The DOT is now requiring accredited spas to include hilot in their massage therapies. In some spas, this deep tissue massage is accompanied with virgin coconut oil and warm strips of banana leaves. I should try out this therapy one of these days since it sounds enticing.

Related articles
Hilot is Hot!
‘Hilot’ joins the big leagues

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Pinoy Mountaineer is now online

Pinoy Mountaineer, your guide to hiking in the Philippines, is now online! This blog is brought to you by Gideon Lasco, founder of the UP Med Outdoor Society and yours truly.
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