Thursday, November 17, 2011

Liechtenstein: Walking around Vaduz (November 8, 2011)

If you happen to be in the area of Zurich, Switzerland and are the type who wants to visit new countries or get your passport stamped, then a trip to Liechtenstein is definitely for you. Liechtenstein is one of the smallest countries in the world with an area of just 160 square kilometers.

The drive to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, from Zurich is just one hour and thirty minutes. By public transport, you will have to take a train to Sargans or Buchs in Switzerland and catch a bus to Vaduz from there.

Vaduz is quite easy to explore and you can easily cover it in two hours. The main attraction of Vaduz is the Vaduz Castle (Schloss Vaduz). To get your passport stamped, simply proceed to the tourism office and pay €2/CHF3 for it. Visa requirements for Liechtenstein are the same for Switzerland. See more photos of Vaduz, Liechtenstein at the Ivan About Town Facebook page.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Switzerland: Driving through Sargans & the Canton of St. Gallen (November 8, 2011)

My Europe trip began with a disaster that turned into a blessing in disguise. I had purchased a Eurail Pass the day before I left for Europe. But to my dismay, when I tried getting seat reservations in Paris, there were no more allocations for pass holders. We ended up renting a car!

We drove from Paris to Zurich. As soon as we arrived in Zurich and found our hostel, we decided to drive to Vaduz, Liechtenstein which was just an hour and 30 minutes away. We stopped by the town of Sargans to take photos of Schloss Sargans (Sargans Castle). On the way back, we went through one of the stopover areas to enjoy the picturesque view of Walensee (Lake Walen). Here is the album from the canton of St. Gallen on the way to Vaduz. Read more...

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Vietnam: Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

It seemed to me all drivers in Ho Chi Minh City had their hands on the horns most of the time. As I stood in front of Ben Thanh Market in the heart of this Vietnamese city, I could no longer determine who was honking at whom. It was a typical day in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Once called Saigon, I found myself lost in its cosmopolitan hustle and bustle, drowned by the incessant beeping and the noisy motors of the thousands of motorbikes, cars and buses that crowd its streets.

Ben Thanh Market is actually walking distance from Pham Ngu Lao. And to any visitor to HCMC, the street and surrounding areas is synonymous with backpackers, budget accommodation, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, affordable tours and land transportation to other parts of Vietnam and Cambodia. So if you're on a limited budget, Pham Ngu Lao is the place to be and it's the best place to find options for your stay in Saigon.

What's to do in Ho Chi Minh City anyway? Here's a list of things I did over several visits to Ho Chi Minh City. The list of course includes interesting trips close to HCMC:

1. Enjoy a Vietnamese food trip
What I like about Saigon is that food is everywhere from hawker stalls, local fast food to fancy restaurants. Food is good almost anywhere and I'd usually buy bánh mi from the street or find the nearest hole-in-the-wall for a cheap but authentic Vietnamese meal. In the evening, the streets around Ben Thanh are transformed into makeshift restaurants.

During my trip to Ho Chi Minh City this year, Viqui del Rosario sent me an interesting list of places to eat in Saigon. Here are some of her suggestions plus others I also got to try out:
Lemongrass Restaurant, 4 Nguyen Thiep Street - a good place to try authentic Vietnamese food
Brodard Bakery, 11 Nguyen Thiep Street - a small bakeshop just across Lemongrass that sell French pastries but only take out
Ngoc Suong (Le Marina), 19c Le Quy Don - a seafood restaurant, try their deep-fried crabs
Quan Nem, 15e Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street - a good place for spring rools
Wrap and Roll, 62 Hai Ba Trung Street - another good option for spring rolls
Pho 2000, 1-3 D Phan Chu Trinh Street (beside Ben Thanh Market) - while you can get phở almost anywhere, their claim to fame is that Bill Clinton ate here when he was in HCMC for an official visit
Nhu Lan, 50-64-68 Ham Nghi Street - try out their bánh mi or bánh cuốn
Nhà Hàng Ngon, 160 Pasteur Street - bánh hỏi thịt is recommended
Quan An Ngon, 138 Ky Khoi Nghia Street

2. Hire a xe om and explore HCMC like a local
If you're comfortable in the passenger seat for a motorcycle ride through the wild hustle and bustle of HCMC, then this is the best way to absorb the sites of the city. Best to ask your hostel to look for a xe om to take you around. The good thing about a xe om tour is that you decide where to go, what to see and how much time you spend at each attraction.

Make sure you drop by Saigon City Hall, Saigon Opera House, Saigon Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Reunification Palace among many other attractions.

3. Join an HCMC city tour
If motorcycle rides are not your thing, don't fret since it's easy and cheap to book on an HCMC guided bus tour. It's usually less than US$10 for a day tour. But note that it does not include ticket costs to museums and other attractions. And that lunch is really not included since they'll bring you to a restaurant and tell you that you have a US$1 budget and anything beyond that you pay for. But it's all good. These tours are value for money.

The city tour I took this year included stops at the War Remnants Museum (which tells the Vietnamese version of the atrocities done during the Vietnam War), Thiên Hậu Temple and Bình Tây Market in Chợ Lớn or Chinatown (the market is their version of Divisoria, it's very interesting to Westerners who are amazed with the cheap goods, but maybe not to Filipinos who see this kind of market quite regularly), lunch at Pham Ngu Lao Street, a visit to a lacquer factory (which is staple in almost all tours for you to shop so that they could earn commissions), and the Reunification Palace (the former residence of the president of South Vietnam).

4. Watch a water puppet show
This is one craft that is uniquely Vietnamese. If you like watching cultural stuff, then you might want to reserve a night for a Vietnamese water puppet (múa rối nước) show at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, 55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai (beside the Reunification Palace). Shows are 50 minutes long and show times are 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

5. Hop on a Mekong Delta day-tour
There are actually a lot of options for Mekong Delta tours. There are day-trips to My Tho and Ben Tre, and other areas on the Mekong River. During my tour of My Tho and Ben Tre, we visited a coconut candy factory, a bee-keeping farm, got to bike around rural Vietnam, were given a shot of snake liquor, and ate local fruits while being serenaded with Vietnamese folk songs. You'd realize that this is very much like rural Philippines and ask yourself why we aren't bringing foreigners to the countryside since many Westerners like these countryside tours that they don't experience everyday.

You can actually opt for overnight or multi-day tours which will bring you to other attractions including some of the Mekong Delta's famous floating markets. The Cai Be Floating Market seems to be one of the most famous. And most of the activity happens between 6 to 8 a.m. So it's best to be in the area the night before.

6. Visit the Củ Chi Tunnels and Cao Đài Holy See in Tây Ninh
The Củ Chi Tunnels in HCMC (the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968) and the Cao Đài Holy See in Tây Ninh are two popular attractions. There are half-day tours to Củ Chi Tunnels (but note that they get you back in HCMC at about 4 p.m.) and whole day tours that include witnessing the noon ceremonies at the Cao Đài Temple.

For the Củ Chi Tunnels tour, you actually have a land or river option (the river option is thrice more expensive) to get there. But the travel time is just the same. For the river option, you take a boat on the Saigon River going there and take a van going back. I spent US$18 for that trip. While the land trip was just US$6 (price varies depending on agent). Note that there is a VND80,000 entrance fees to the tunnels that are not included in the tour price.

If you hate tour groups, there is a public bus option. Take Bus 13 to Cu Chi (VND5,000) from District 1; and Bus 79 from Cu Chi to the tunnels (VND4,000).

7. Shop at Ben Thanh Market
If you're looking for that souvenir or want to take home an export overrun or an expert fake, then shopping Ben Thanh Market is for you. Make sure you keep your valuables out of sight though if you don't want them to go missing. The market also has some interesting food stalls you might want to try out if adventurous.

8. Walk around Saigon's historic center at night
If you've seen many of Saigon's iconic buildings during the day time, you must see them at night! They are elegantly lit early in the evening. So walking around HCMC's historic center at night is worth your time.

9. Beach bum at Mui Ne
Mui Ne is a popular beach resort town of Vietnam, four hours from HCMC. It's best to stay there for a night or two to enjoy not only the beaches, but the town's famous sand dunes, with colors that range from pure white to gold in Bau Trang (White Lake), to a fiery red in other areas. If you don't have that much time, there are sunrise day-tours to Mui Ne which leave early in the morning and give you time to enjoy the beach before returning to HCMC.

Transportation to/from Tan Son Nhat International Airport
Tan Son Nhat is the airport of Ho Chi Minh City. It's about seven kilometers from Pham Ngu Lao and the city center of HCMC. There are regular buses during the day time (Bus152). But in the evening, you will have to take a taxi to get into town. Note that there are safety and honesty issues with taxis (beware of the flying meters that charge low flag down rates but fly while the taxis move). To be safe, limit yourself to the SASCO Taxi inside the airport, or the regular Mai Linh, Vina or Vina Sun Taxis (between US$5 to 10 depending on your haggling skills). Make sure to agree on the price before hopping in. You can also as your hostel to pick you up (this will cost more but it's safer and you won't have problems with directions).

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Vietnam: Water puppet show (múa rối nước) in Ho Chi Minh City

If you can spare a night while in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam you might want to watch a Vietnamese water puppet show (múa rối nước). It's a craft that is uniquely Vietnamese. And if you have kids with you, they'll surely enjoy this wonderful element of Vietnamese culture.

I got to watch the water puppet show at Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre twice on two separate trips. The shows are about fifty minutes long with no intermissions. It could get a little bit boring for some, but this something you have to watch if you're interested in local culture.

Puppets are carved from wood and then lacquered. The puppeteers control the puppets from behind a screen. Water is waist deep and they use rods to move the puppets around. The water thus creates the effect of a lake, river or rice paddies in various scenes. I actually bought myself miniature versions of these water puppets at Ben Thanh Market.

There's a live Vietnamese ensemble which plays music and narrates, with everyone in traditional Vietnamese costumes. Everything is in Vietnamese so you'd have to refer to the English guide at times to understand what is happening. It's definitely something you'd want to watch even just once.

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre
55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 1
Ho Chi Minh City
Showtimes: 5 p.m. & 6:30 p.m.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Bohol: Rare Pride Campaign launched for Inabanga's Hambongan Island Marine Sanctuary

Lasting change must be community led. That is the rationale behind the environmental conservation programs of Rare, a US-based conservation organization that works globally to equip people in the world's most threatened areas with the tools and motivation they need to care for their natural resources.

Last week, we were invited to join the team from Rare on Hambongan Island as they launched the Inabanga Rare Pride Campaign together with the people of Inabanga, Bohol.

What is a Pride Campaign?
At the cornerstone of Rare's work is a unique tool called the Pride Campaign. Its mix of capacity building and social marketing equips Conservation Fellows in their development of a community led conservation plan.

The goal is to create long-term change in local behavior by inspiring pride in the threatened species and habitats that make their community unique. This begins the transformative process that has led to the growth of marine protected areas and the effective protection of threatened species all over the Philippines.

Rare currently has twelve campaign sites in the Philippines where they have launched programs for sustainable fishing.

Inabanga Rare Pride Campaign
From Tagbilaran City, we motored to Inabanga which was about an hour and 45 minutes away. The first order of business was a parade around town with Meloy, the campaign mascot. He represents a Panther Grouper, a vulnerable species that is sold for food or in the aquarium trade. All Pride Campaigns have their own mascots.

After unveiling the campaign billboard, a program was held to launch the Inabanga Rare Pride Campaign led by Mayor Jose Jono Jumamoy and Rare President and CEO Brett Jenks. Do watch the video about the Inabanga Rare Pride Campaign and the issues they are trying to resolve.

Before noon, participants took two large boats to Hambongan Island for the second part of the launch, this time with the target community of the Rare Pride Campaign. Hambongan Island was really pretty. After a sumptuous lunch, we went around the island to explore.

We were taken to one side of the island where the Hambongan Elementary School is located. The buildings of the school have large cracks due to the strong explosions from dynamite fishing that was rampant before.

To address this, the local government created the Hambongan Island Fish Sanctuary in 2000 out of 14.1 hectares of waters between Hambongan and Bugatusan Islands. A community education campaign was initiated while locals were introduced to other sources of livelihood such as seaweed harvesting and processing, and the sustainable collection of marine wildlife for the aquarium trade. We actually got to tour their small processing facility for aquarium fish.

While dynamite fishing is now less of a threat, the campaign also created a hotline for people to report illegal activities direct to the local government so violators are immediately apprehended.

What makes Rare different from many other international conservation organizations is that their approach is to work directly with the community, preparing them to care for their natural resources on their own. Once the program is completed, locals will be equipped with the necessary knowledge, skill and drive to protect the resources of their community.

If conservation does not happen now, there will be nothing left to be proud of.
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