Saturday, January 16, 2016

Introducing Taiwan & Japan

Taiwan is Asia.  But Taiwan is not Asia.  Even after visiting Japan, Taiwan is my favourite country in Asia.  Taiwan’s charms lie in the fact that Taiwan is an Asian country.  But it is not an Asian country.

I’m confusing you.  Let me explain.

Taiwan has all of the good things about Asia without all of the bad things about Asia.  Let me give you some examples:

Scooters dominate the streets.  Asia.
There are rules that the scooter drivers actually follow.  Not Asia.

There is street food everywhere.  Asia.
You will not get a parasite from eating the street food.  Not Asia.

There are lots of souvenirs you can buy here.  Asia.
You will not be harassed to buy souvenirs here.  Not Asia.

The locals are happy to assist if you need help.  Asia.
They won’t expect anything in return for this.  Not Asia.

It’s surprisingly affordable to travel here.  Asia.
Going cheap doesn’t mean going dangerous.  It’s completely safe here.  Not Asia.

Taiwan is the perfect combination of Asian culture and western conveniences.  Taiwan’s language and cuisine are distinctly Asian, but low crime rates rank it as one of the five safest countries in the world – a completely different situation than most of the rest of Asia.  Despite the language barrier – the Taiwanese speak much less English than people in South Asia or Southeast Asia – it is completely safe and completely easy to be a tourist here.  The best part:  the price is right.  Sure it’s more than Southeast Asia, but Taiwan is easy to travel on a budget and this is one of the reasons why I love it so much.

Whether or not Taiwan is Asia is up for debate.  But there is one thing that became very clear to me while visiting Taiwan:  Taiwan is not China.

Now, for those of you who don’t know the details of the China-Taiwan relationship, basically, communists took over China a few years after World War II, but they were unable to capture Taiwan, which – at the time – was recently given back to China from Japan after the war.  Taiwan is now a democracy and independent by any definition, but their 23 million citizens are not represented in the United Nations and many other international organizations… because China says so.  China doesn’t like that they were never able to capture Taiwan.  At present, nearly everyone I spoke to – and the vast majority of opinion polls – indicate that Taiwan just wants their independence formally recognized by the rest of the world, but China keeps threatening Taiwan with war if Taiwan gets the recognition they want and deserve.  It’s a fucked up situation and completely unfair to Taiwan’s citizens.

Even with no knowledge of the complex relationship between China and Taiwan, you can look around and just see that Taiwan is not China.  Taiwan is lovely.  Taiwan is clean.  Taiwan is safe.  Taiwan is democratic.  China is… none of those things.  China is big and powerful and they use their power to bully others.  It’s not nice.  In fact, the worst part about Taiwan:  all of the Chinese tourists.  Now, I know a few Chinese people and they are very lovely – but they are the ones that are in the mindset of leaving China or at least enjoy interacting with people from other cultures and are educated enough to see through the propaganda that China serves them on a plate for every meal.  Chinese tourists travel in groups.  They are loud.  They are pushy.  And they think they own the place.  It’s a product of most of them being only children and having their parents’ undivided attention.  They think they’re special.  They’re not.  And to those Chinese who think that Taiwan is or will be a part of China again one day, I have two things to say:

1.  Taiwan is not China.
2.  Fuck you.

Taiwan gets its class and much of its culture from Japan, which is why I’ve combined Taiwan and Japan into one introductory blog.  Japan ruled Taiwan from the late 1800’s until the end of World War II.  During that time, the Japanese implemented reforms to eradicate some of the bad customs from China, such as foot-binding, and they built infrastructure to Japanese standards.  Most importantly, this included sanitation and healthcare.  Taiwan’s international rankings much more closely resemble Japan’s than China’s, and Taiwan just feels a lot more like Japan than it does like China, despite the Chinese language and more Chinese-type cuisine.

If Taiwan is Asia but not Asia, then Japan is… well, Japan is not Asia at all.

Yes, Japan has lots of people just like the rest of Asia, and they have a difficult writing system and some questionable cuisine choices just like the rest of Asia (well, at least I find them questionable – they seriously eat raw horse), but that’s pretty much where it stops.  While most of the rest of Asia has dirty squat toilets, Japan has western toilets that clean and dry your butt after you poop.  That’s right – the toilets wash your butt and then blow dry your butt and it’s the epitome of luxury.  Hand dryers are often times built into the sink.  There is efficient mass transit in cities.  There are hardly any scooters.  Eating raw meat won’t get you sick here.  The life expectancy is the longest in the world.  The crime rate is super low (the third lowest in the world according to the source I found on Wikipedia).  They take care of people with disabilities – possibly even better than the United States does.  And the shinkansen – aka bullet train – is so fucking fast it’s ridiculous.  These magic people movers whisk you away at 320 kilometres per hour.  If they had these in the USA, they could get you from New York to Washington DC in under 70 minutes; from New York to Miami in 6.5 hours; or from New York all the way across to San Francisco in under 15 hours – which sounds like a lot, but it would probably take you a week on the Amtrak to do that now.  For the Aussies in the room, you could get from Sydney to Melbourne in well under 3 hours, which is actually quicker than the time it takes to fly when you consider the schlep out to the airports and having to arrive a little bit early.  You could get from Sydney to Perth in just over 12 hours.  On land.  That’s fucking crazy.

In fact, my only gripe with Japan:  you can still smoke in restaurants and hotels.  WTF, Japan?  I’ve been to crappy countries that have banned smoking so I was shocked when it was still everywhere in Japan.  The funny thing is:  you can’t smoke on the street.  Smoking is prohibited outside except in designated smoking areas.  The rationale behind this is that people don’t have a choice to go outside, but they do have a choice when they choose a restaurant.  Wow.

Aside from this, Japan was lovely.  Expensive, but lovely.  It’s the cost that really pushes Taiwan ahead of Japan in my travel ranking, but I would much rather live in Japan than in Taiwan.  In fact, if I knew any Japanese at all, I would quickly move to Japan.  It’s a good life there.  It’s super nice.  And I deserve nice things, right?  That’s why I moved to Australia from the USA.

More details on the places I went in Taiwan and Japan will follow in the next few blogs.  But first, let me take a selfie.

Me on my first shinkansen in Japan

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Gap Year Q2 Summary

Blogs about Taiwan and Japan are still to come, but I’m going to jump into the Q2 recap straight away!  Just like the Q1 recap, if you aren’t into statistics and lists, then maybe you should go do something different like ponder existence or something useful like inventing teleportation technology that can be used to teleport burritos to me.

Total time spent:  94 days and 94 nights
Start:  Night of Saturday, October 10 at Kuala Lumpur Airport
End:  Night of Tuesday, January 12 at Tokyo Narita Airport

Continents visited:  1 (down from 2 in Q1)
1.  Asia: 100%

Regions visited:  2 (down from 5 in Q1)
1.  Southeast Asia:  59%
2.  East Asia:  40%
In transit between regions:  less than 1%

Countries visited:  7 (down from 12 in Q1)
1.  Japan:  27.5 days / 27 nights  (29%)
2.  Vietnam:  15.5 days / 16 nights  (17%)
3.  Thailand:  12 days / 12 nights  (13%)
4.  Laos:  11.5 days / 11 nights  (12%)
5.  Taiwan:  10.5 days / 11 nights  (11%)
6.  Malaysia:  8.5 days / 9 nights  (9%)
7.  Cambodia:  8 days / 8 nights  (9%)
In transit between countries:  0.5 days / 0 nights  (less than 1%)

And just for fun – time spent in countries that drive on the:
1.  Left side of the road:  51%  (Japan, Thailand, Malaysia)
2.  Right side of the road:  49%  (Vietnam, Laos, Taiwan, Cambodia)

Border crossings:  7 (down from 16 in Q1)
-  6 border crossings by air
-  1 land border crossing (by vehicle)

Airports visited:  13 (up from 10 in Q1)
Kuala Lumpur, Chiang Mai, Vientiane, Hanoi, Danang, Saigon, Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi), Koh Samui, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kaohsiung, Taipei (Taoyuan), Tokyo (Narita)

Airlines flown:  6 (up from 5 in Q1)
AirAsia, Vietnam Airlines, VietJet, Bangkok Airways, Cambodia Angkor Air, Vanilla Air

1.  Guesthouses:  38 nights  (40% - all over Southeast Asia and one place in Taiwan)
2.  Airbnb:  17 nights  (18% - in Hoi An, Phnom Penh, and across Japan)
2.  Friends:  17 nights  (18% - in Kaohsiung and Tokyo)
4.  Hostels:  9 nights (10% - in KL, Vietnam, and Taiwan)

Other types of accommodation:  hotels (various locations), a shitty “resort” (Koh Phangan), and one night each on a boat and a bus (both in Vietnam).

Bathroom situation:
1.  Private bathroom:  84 nights  (89%)
2.  Shared bathroom:  9 nights  (10%)
3.  No bathroom:  1 nights  (1%)

And now, for some less statistical lists…

Top 6 Experiences (in chronological order):
Because I couldn’t choose just 5 last quarter, I’m going to choose 6 here too for consistency.

1.  Meeting random travellers – I’ve met plenty of other travellers throughout the years, but it was just so enjoyable to meet and then travel with strangers outside of an organized tour.
2.  Motorbiking in Vietnam – This was totally outside of my comfort zone and I had a blast.  I was pretty good on the scooter and it was definitely more pleasant than a shitty bus.
3.  Learning Cambodia’s history – Even though it was terribly sad, I really appreciated the superb educational experiences at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre and the Tuol Sleng Museum.
4.  Being in Taiwan – after being on guard in South Asia and Southeast Asia for so long, it was such a great feeling to be in a safe country with no touts or hawkers (and cooler temperatures!)
5.  Sapporo winter wonderland – The heat was dreadful in Southeast Asia, so a little dose of snow was much appreciated.  Sapporo was a gorgeous city in the winter.
6.  Mazda Museum – Hiroshima is obviously better known for something else, but touring the main Mazda factory and seeing cars being built before my eyes was so fucking cool.  Seriously.

Bottom 5 Experiences (in chronological order):
1.  Getting sick – I spent my first four days in Malaysia with all the classic symptoms of food poisoning (I must have picked it up in Nepal.)  I had to cancel trips to Penang and Langkawi.
2.  Sweating every day in Southeast Asia – 8 weeks.  8 long weeks.  And every day was so hot.  And then hotter.  And it wasn’t even the hot season!  Constantly sweating, I was a literally a hot mess.
3.  Vietnam’s propaganda – The blatant propaganda in every Vietnamese museum really ruined the learning experience.  Some of the outright lies made me question all of the information presented.
4.  Mekong Delta – This day trip from Saigon was long, full of sales pitches, and didn’t show me anything worthwhile.  Visiting Saigon?  Skip this day tour.  Your time is better spent in the city.
5.  Koh Phangan – The Full Moon Party was a must-do, but it was pretty shit.  Aside from that, the attitude on the whole island seemed to need a major adjustment.  The Thai mainland is way better.

There were a few more mishaps than in Q1, but none of this is totally terrible.

Top 3 Places I Could Live (in preferential order):
1.  Taipei – I think Japan would be a better country to live in, but the cities there seem too big or too small.  Taipei is the Goldilocks of cities – it’s not too big or too little.  It’s just right.
2.  Tokyo – I think the massive size would wear on me after a while, but it sure would be fun to live in Tokyo.  There is so much going on.
3.  Fukuoka – Fukuoka was the closest to the right size of all the Japanese cities I visited.  It sort of reminded me of a Japanese version of Portland – not too much for tourists, but cool to live in.

All of the cities in Japan were great and very liveable, and Taiwan’s cities were right up there too.  I need to devote more time to Osaka next trip, and I’d like to check out Nagoya too.  Of all of the Southeast Asian cities I visited on this leg of the trip, the only contender is Bangkok, but it’s just so big, and so crowded, and so hot, and there’s so much traffic.

Top 3 Places to Visit Again (in preferential order):
1.  Taiwan – I’d like to devote more time to Taipei and to do more hiking and exploring on Taiwan’s gorgeous east coast.
2.  Japan – All of it.  Like, seriously all of it.  There is still more to do in Tokyo and I need to explore more of Osaka, check out Nagasaki, Nagoya, and Shikoku, and more thoroughly explore Hokkaido.
3.  Bangkok – I just really want to go shopping here when I have a job and a place to store clothes.

Aside from these, I’d like to do what I set out to do and visit Penang and Langkawi in Malaysia.  But I think I’d like to go back to the other three places first.

Top 3 Accommodations (in preferential order):
1.  Elcid’s apartment (Tokyo) – One of my besties lives in Tokyo and he let me stay with him.  It was so nice to be in an actual real home for a while.
2.  Ai’s Airbnb (Sapporo) – This little studio apartment was well-appointed and in such a cute neighbourhood.  The hostess (Ai) even left Kit Kats and other sweets for my arrival!
3.  Terao’s Airbnb (Fukuoka) – This little studio was warm and comfortable and in walking distance of most of the sights that I wanted to see.

A few other shout-outs:  The Mini Voyage Hostel in Hualien (Taiwan) was quite possibly the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in, though the bed was a bit too typically hard.  I loved the Park Side Hotel in Hiroshima because it was next to all of the main attractions and it was the first time I had been in a real proper hotel in such a long time.

And now I’m all done with Asia.  Q3 will feature a surprise cameo in Europe, a tour of the old country, and a jaunt into Latin America.  But first, let me take a selfie.

Elcid and I eating red velvet cupcakes in Tokyo.  He’s a good enabler.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


After Vietnam, I headed back to Thailand to explore some more, but I’ve already blogged about that (weren’t you paying attention?)  So now I’m fast forwarding to… Cambodia!  My mate Dave (from Seattle) and I met up with three fellow travellers that I met on my India tour two months prior.
We spent four days each in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.  I have to admit:  I’m generally pretty good at history, but I didn’t really know all too much about Cambodia.  I knew there was some sort of genocide there at some point in the not-too-distant past, but that’s about as far as my knowledge went.  I honestly don’t recall this being taught in school in the US.  Is this taught in US schools?  If not, why not?

Of all of the Southeast Asian countries I’ve been to – which is now up to eight – I think I enjoyed Cambodia the most (though Singapore is great but expensive and Bali was lovely but part of Indonesia…)  The people were probably the most pleasant in the region.  Yes, they all want to make a buck, but they need a buck and they’re generally pretty nice about it. 

A few highlights of my time in Cambodia:

Killing Fields:
When in Phnom Penh, one of the highlights is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center.  I am aware that genocide and highlight don’t really belong in the same sentence, but not all highlights have to be happy ones.  This was truly an educational experience for me.  With the museums in Africa and Asia lacking a lot of proper curation, it was actually refreshing to see a place that was put together well and provided extensive information in a digestible format.  For those of you who don’t know, the rough story of Cambodia is this:  in 1975 – some time after the country freed themselves of French colonial rule – a political party called the Khmer Rouge took over the country.  They were communists to the extreme and envisioned a completely agrarian, self-sufficient society.  That was never going to work, but still they tried.  They emptied out cities and forced everyone to go to villages to work in the rice paddies.  And the worst part is that they killed – by some estimates – as many as three million people, which was somewhere between a third and a fourth of their total population.  Many of the victims were political rivals, but these people were so fucking crazy that they also killed anybody that they thought might get in their way, such as urban dwellers, intellectuals (including teachers or anyone who wore glasses), smaller ethnic groups, and more.  In the process, they also tried their best to destroy Khmer culture (for example, you can’t keep a culinary tradition alive if you don’t have food to feed your people…)  The Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and ousted the Khmer Rouge, but they kept their place as Cambodia’s UN representative for over a decade after that because the west didn’t like Vietnam and for some reason didn’t believe the stories coming out of the refugees.  WTF, western world?  The Killing Fields was one of the places where the regime murdered people.  The country was too poor to buy bullets so they killed people anyway they could – mainly by beating or hacking them to death.  They even killed infants by holding their legs and beating them against trees.  Because infants were apparently a big threat.  Mass graves and other parts of the killing fields were on display.  A memorial stupa in the middle contained skulls and bones of many of the victims that had been dug up on the site.  Everyone had their audio guides on and the whole place was eerily quiet.  It was beyond sad, but it was definitely something that I’m glad I did.  The world needs to hear these peoples’ stories.

Tuol Sleng Museum:
Just to ensure maximum sadness, we also visited the Tuol Sleng Museum.  This museum used to be a school which the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison.  There really was no way to win with these people – they would arrest you for no reason, and if you denied doing anything wrong they would call you a liar and kill you, but if you admitted to doing anything wrong, they would also kill you.  It was here where people were imprisoned before their deaths, and when they had too many people here to handle the killing part, that’s when the killing fields were opened.  The museum had pictures of the victims, tiny prison cells on display, and other information that was important for piecing together the tragic history of Cambodia.

On a happier note, elsewhere in Phnom Penh we visited the Royal Palace, various wats (temples), a bunch of markets, and the National Museum.  And then we took a boat from Phnom Penh up the river and through a big lake to get to Siem Reap.

Temples of Angkor:
I know I’ve seen a lot of temples already and am fully sick of temples, but the temple ruins of Angkor – the ancient capital of the Khmer empire – were outstanding.  In all, we visited twelve different sites.  Some of the more impressive were Banteay Srei, which had ornate carvings on display and was overrun with tourists, and Phnom Bok (recommended by a friend) which is virtually unknown to tourists, sitting high on a hill with great views.  East Mebon had big stone elephants which were great for a photo shoot, Preah Khan was massive, Ta Prohm is being overtaken by the jungle and was where part of Tomb Raider was filmed, and Phnom Krom – also high on a hill – made for an excellent sunset viewing over Tonle Sap Lake.  Angkor Thom was a complex with various temples, including the big Bayon temple and Baphuon, with its 60 metre reclining Buddha built into the back wall.  But the crown jewel is, of course, Angkor Wat.  The world’s largest religious monument, we spent quite a lot of time exploring here.  Like an onion, there are different layers to Angkor Wat that you have to go through to get to the middle.  The next morning after our initial visit, we went back (along with everybody visiting the country apparently) to watch the sunrise over the temple.  It was fantastic.  Later that day we visited the Angkor National Museum which had displays on the history of the temples and various relics of the temples.  It was cool to see, but I wish we had done the museum first to have a better idea of what little things we should be looking out for.

Phare is the Cambodian Circus.  It is similar to Cirque du Soleil but I actually enjoyed it more.  The performers all come from disadvantaged families in small villages.  The story they told was easy to follow and the performers made the show quite funny to watch.  If you are visiting Cambodia, this is an excellent way to see a culture fighting to make a comeback.

Elsewhere in Siem Reap, we visited the workshop of Artisans d’Angkor – a non-profit that trains disadvantaged people in traditional crafts – and got one of those fish foot massage/pedicures where the fish come eat the dead skin off your feet.  It was ticklish and weird at first, but I got used to it after a minute or two (and after much giggling!)

OMG Food:
Aside from proper curation at museums, Cambodia also had a lot of top quality western-run restaurants and cafes (serving western food, local food, and inventive new versions of old local food).  I think the high quality of the museums and restaurants is because Cambodia is so poor and has needed more help than its neighbours so many westerners have come here as NGO workers and possibly have stayed.  This is my theory.  I could be wrong, but I think it’s a good theory!  Chicken amok was a local dish that I particularly enjoyed (amok was sort of like a satay sauce).  I had a Khmer Muslim beef curry at a non-profit restaurant and had a taste of Dave’s red tree ant soup (if I could eat nasty worms in Africa then an ant or two in a delicious soup was no big deal…)  But my favourite food of all in Cambodia was… wait for it… MEXICAN FOOD!  I know what you’re thinking, but let me explain.  One night we were wandering home from the markets and we stumbled upon a taco tuk-tuk.  OMG.  Did you read that?  A FUCKING TACO TUK-TUK!  Holy crap!  I had just had dinner but I didn’t care:  I got a quesadilla and it was actually pretty good.  The guy was a local but had been trained by his old boss who was from California.  Then, also in Phnom Penh, Dave and I went to a restaurant called Cocina Cartel to get my obligatory Mexican restaurant for the country.  This place was sort of modelled on Chipotle, and I was surprised to find that it was delicious.  I’ve eaten Mexican food in 20+ countries now, and this is the best I’ve had (outside of the USA and Mexico, of course).  I was stunned, happy, aroused, satiated, and dumbfounded all at the same time.  It was Mexiphoria – euphoria caused by Mexican food.

Cambodia marked the end of my eight weeks in Southeast Asia.  I’ve been sad to leave a lot of places, but I was quite content to finally escape the heat and head somewhere with more reasonable temperatures.  Taiwan, here I come!  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Cambodia, follow this link:

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

South Vietnam

The area that was once South Vietnam was definitely a lot more interesting and more comfortable than the area that was once North Vietnam, by pretty much every metric.

A few highlights of my time in South Vietnam:

Random travel buddies:
While my travel experience in North Vietnam was pretty easy and lacking any major mishaps, my travel experience in South Vietnam was better and a big part of that was because of my travel companions.  I somehow managed to pick up an American guy and a German couple in Phong Nha and the four of us travelled together for the rest of my time in Vietnam.  I dubbed us the “Super Amazing Travel Squadron” because… well, because I wanted to.  We were super, we were amazing, we were travelling, and we were just a few cool pairs of flight goggles short of being a squadron.  I had heard from other friends that it was quite easy to meet other random travellers in Southeast Asia and stick with them for a few days, sharing accommodation and cutting costs (or spending more but getting a nicer experience), but I wasn’t sure I would meet people that I wanted to spend that much time with (because I’m a picky bitch).  John, Nicolas, and Jasmin proved to be suitable travel buddies and it was great to have company and people to share the new experiences with.

I also met up quite a few times with various travellers from my Halong Bay cruise.  We all seemed to be on similar itineraries so we coordinated a big group reunion dinner while in Hoi An.  It was also great just randomly bumping into them in restaurants, museums, and temples in different parts of South Vietnam.  It made me feel popular.

Hue (pronounced like “Hway”) is an ancient capital of Vietnam and its main attraction is a large citadel which houses a palace, temples, library, theatre, garden, and more.  We explored the citadel and its attached museum on our first day in Hue.  On day two, we rented motorbikes (yikes!) and thrust ourselves into Hue traffic.  The start was rocky, but I quickly got the hang of it.  My travel companions and I rode around to three different tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty as well as a big pagoda and the beach.  In all, we rode roughly 75 kilometres!

Our day riding motorbikes around Hue was just a practice round for a much longer trip.  The next day, we headed out on motorbikes for the journey south from Hue to Hoi An.  With stops, the journey ended up taking the full day – we arrived after sunset.   We hired a guide to lead us down the coast and we stopped along the way at a fishing village, the Elephant Spring (where we went for a swim), and various viewpoints around lagoons, mountain passes, and beaches.  We did have some problems… or, actually, just one major problem:  one of the motorbikes died en route.  Luckily we had the guide to assist.  We ditched the bike and piggy-backed for the rest of the drive.  One of the bikes also ran out of gas/petrol toward the end.  Ooops!  Despite the mishaps, the drive down was awesome.  I had never ridden a motorbike before, but I did really well and it was a lot of fun just having the breeze in my face (except for all the pollution…)

Hoi An:
Hoi An is one of the must-do places in Vietnam and is on the itinerary for nearly every tourist.  The town is famous for its suit-making tailors and caters well for tourists with lots of shops and restaurants.  A tourist ticket provides access to five out of twenty-something sights in the town.  The sights consisted of the town’s icon – a Japanese covered bridge – along with temples, various Chinese congregation halls, a museum, a cultural show, and some historic houses.  Nothing really stood out as a must-see sight, but it was interesting nonetheless. 

More exciting than the temples (I’ve seen soooo many temples at this point) was a day spent at the beach.  Our Airbnb was located halfway between town and the beach (20 minutes by bicycle in either direction) so we opted to spend one day on the sand and in the water.  The weather was a bit cloudy, but the waves were strong which made for a fun swim.  We had spring rolls and beers delivered right to our lounge chairs so I won’t complain about a few clouds.  Another big highlight were the ruins at My Son.  My Son was the religious capital of the ancient Champa Kingdom which ruled what is now southern Vietnam until the Vietnamese conquered it.  Many of the structures are still standing despite heavy bombing by the US during the Vietnam War.  Seeing the old temples and buildings and learning about the history was a great excursion outside the town.

Danang is Vietnam’s third largest city and we didn’t do all too much here.  We stopped for pictures by the beach on our way down to Hoi An, and we stopped at Marble Mountain on the way back to Danang to catch our flight to Saigon.  Marble Mountain, as you can probably guess, is a mountain… made of marble… which is home to a bunch of cave temples and some great viewpoints north to Hoi An and south to Danang.  Our biggest accomplishment in Vietnam was successfully navigating rush hour traffic on motorbikes in this big city.

While Halong Bay was beautiful, the Phong Nha caves were adventurous, and Hoi An was very relaxing, the highlight of Vietnam for me was Saigon.  Officially now called “Ho Chi Minh City” by the communist government, most locals still refer to the city by its real name: Saigon.  Saigon had some of the most interesting sights in the whole country.  The War Remnants Museum was fairly gruesome in telling the story of the Vietnam War, particularly the section detailing the after effects of Agent Orange.  The museum did have quite a bit of propaganda, but nothing nearly as bad as in Hanoi.  The “Reunification Palace” is the old South Vietnamese presidential palace and was wonderful.  The palace has been kept pretty much as it was when the communists came in and took over.  It shows everything from reception rooms and bedrooms to the command centre for the war and the underground bunker.  I was impressed by the building and it only shows how nice South Vietnam could have been today if North Vietnam hadn’t taken over.

While the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace were my two favourite attractions in Saigon, there was plenty of time to visit a few more.  I felt obligated to see at least one temple while in the city, so I made it the Jade Emperor Pagoda which sits on a quiet residential street and is semi-famous for its turtle pond.  The Ho Chi Minh City Museum details the history of Saigon both before and after its name was forcibly changed to Ho Chi Minh City.  The museum had plenty of propaganda for me to chew on and spit out (I refuse to swallow propaganda.)  The History Museum had many ancient artefacts and the Fine Arts Museum had some really cool works but didn’t have much propaganda unlike its counterpart in Hanoi.  Some of the newer works on display were filled with scenes from the war or were inspired by the war, but didn’t really do so in a propaganda-ish fashion (which sort of helps to illustrate the divide between the mindset of the north and the south.)  I had a drink at the top of the Bitexco Tower – Saigon’s only true modern skyscraper – and took a day trip to the Mekong Delta.  The day trip was… terrible.  The bus ride was long, we barely saw anything, and it just seemed like they were trying to sell us stuff all day.  For those of you going to Vietnam:  skip this.  If you really want to see the delta, go on your own and spend a night there.  The tours from Saigon are pretty rubbish.

Put it in my mouth:
I know this is running long, but it wouldn’t be a blog about a country if I didn’t mention the food.  I ate an inordinate amount of spring rolls while in Vietnam – both fresh and fried.  I had several banh mi (Vietnam’s answer to the sub sandwich) including two banh mi at Banh My Phuong in Hoi An.  This little hole-in-the-wall restaurant was made famous by Anthony Bourdain when he proclaimed it the best banh mi in the world.  I had pho (Vietnam’s answer to a big fucking bowl of soup) and tried the local beer everywhere I went (Hanoi beer in Hanoi, Halong beer in Halong Bay, Huda beer in Hue, Larue beer in Hoi An, and Saigon beer in Saigon).  And just to add some sanity to the mix, I of course had Mexican food in Saigon and western brunch in Hoi An (and maybe I went to the Aussie-run Dingo Deli three times and maybe two of those times I had the breakfast burrito… maybe…)

Despite the propaganda, I really had a nice visit in Vietnam, particularly in South Vietnam.  Sixteen days really wasn’t enough, but I was excited to head back to Thailand to explore one of the biggest, most exciting cities in Southeast Asia:  Bangkok!  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in South Vietnam, follow this link: