Monday, April 23, 2012

Vietnam On Solo

When I was little, I remember looking through the boxes of slide films of my Aunt from her travels around the world. I remember seeing buildings, trees, snow and blue skies. I liked looking at them but I didn’t know why. My cousin also told me that my grandma got angry at my aunt after she came back penniless from her trips. Now they're saying to me that I am like my Aunt. I may never have met her, but I guess in some way, her pictures impacted what my life is now.  I guess I was like her too, embracing the unfamiliar, just wanting to see things and know.

February 17 of this year, I went to Vietnam. It was my first solo travel. And with it were a lot of 'firsts' experiences. In general, it was all so spontaneous, interesting, weird, an eye-opener, educational. It's such a good way to begin my year.

It all began last year, when a sudden update on a local airline appeared on my email, announcing low fares on flights. I dared myself to book without any plans yet, like what I'm gonna do, or who I'm gonna go with. The possibility of traveling solo got me excited and courageous. Where are the countries that are easier to go when alone? I was thinking of Singapore, but there weren't enough sale flights left anymore. Then a friend suggested Vietnam. Although it is not an English speaking country, their tourism is well organized.  So as soon as I got home at 2am, I booked for Vietnam. I was that easy to get convinced.

I went to Ho Chi Minh, the Mekong Delta, and Cu Chi. Here are things that are memorable about the place: Coffee, pho, motorbikes, scam, lover of the local arts and history, hardworking.
At Cu Chi Tunnel. A local demonstrates how the guerillas quickly hid in the tunnels which they dug underground
during the anti-American war. It took him only three seconds to hide here. We were all amazed how agile he was!
Vietnamese prides in winning the war and it's imminent through their various war museums.

Good morning! Pho with pork cuts for breakfast. I was supposed to get  chicken, but I guess they didn't
understand me. Hehe. Pho is everywhere, and the best ones are on the streets.The mix varies, and
the most flavorful that I have tasted was the stall right at the corner of Do Quang Dau and Pham Ngu Lao
streets. It was lemony, minty with a hint sweetness, aromatic and fresh!
They say that the ratio of locals here to motorcycles is 1:1. Lonely Planet claimed Vietnam to be the king of motorbikes.
Other tourists gave advice to just cross the street and the motorbikes will find a way not to hit you. I kinda followed
that advice and ended up holding the hand of a random student while crossing.

Iced Vietnamese coffee. An espresso shot from a famous coffee shop was nothing compared to this!
The impact for me was like hard alcohol, minus the tipsiness and headache. I love it. Bitter Sweet Coffee House
is located in Le Than Ton St. in District 1, near Revolutionary Museum. For me, this was the best mix I tasted
in Vietnam. Their brand really says the taste. You can try also the coffee from street vendors for something
milder and sweeter, something more tourist-friendly I guess.

Cabbage vendors preparing, in Floating Market, Cai Rang, Mekong.

One of the many art workshops I've visited.  Watching the artists do their artworks step by step is I think good
for their sales because tourists get to know how each process is intricate and tedious, and this can increase
appreciation for their arts and craft.

And so my journey begins...

Before I even stepped my foot in Vietnam, I already had a mistake. I forgot to write the address of the hostel I was staying at. How clumsy! I was already doubting myself if I would survive the trip. Luckily, with the help of my friends, I got the address.  I arrived at the Ho Chi Minh at 2:30am. 

Tip: A friend of mine suggested to exchange money at the airport just the right amount for my taxi fare because it has tax, so the value of a dollar is lower.

The moment I stepped out of the airport, there were scammers waiting for me. One of them wanted to charge $15 to Backpackers' District. I looked for the airport taxi and it took me just about $8. I stayed at Ms. Thu's Guesthouse in 39/15 Do Quang Dau street, District 1, HCMC. The dorm room that's good for six people is $6 per night, single room is $12. The place was clean, the owner insisted her guests in keeping the bathroom clean. The place was within the residential area, so it was quiet. There's free breakfast and one could also cook his own simple meal.

Day 1: My feet all over the city

City Hall, Opera House, Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, Revolutionary Museum, Reunification Palace, Ben Than Night Market

A graffiti along backpacker's district

My route in highlight. Most architectural sites are walkable.

Tip: $1 = 20,000 dong (for a lot of tourists). But I got mine for 20,700 dong. I exchanged money in a pawnshop across Ben Than Market. Just search through that stretch of pawnshops and find the best deal.

The People's Committee Hall

For a person who walks leisurely and takes pictures at whatnot, like me, it took about 30 mins. to walk from Do Quang Dau street (in the Backpacker's area) to The People's Committee Hall. You'll actually see the Opera House first before the Hall which is perpendicular to it. The Hall is not open to public.

Also called the  City Hall,  the French architecture is one of the usual sights in HCMC, plus motorbikes.

The Opera House

Notre Dame Cathedral

A bit less chaotic is the church of Notre Dame, with framework and decorative details in Romanesque influence and subdued Gothic style. The area has a more artistic ambiance as paintings and crafts of the church and everyday scenes of Vietnamese life are sold on the streets. I even saw couples having their prenuptial photos taken on the area. Expect to get busy though at the Post Office which is on the right side of the church due to souvenir shops inside.

I wanted to capture the details of the architectural design in a Gothic way.

The Post Office

Pop-up greeting cards sold on the streets

The Revolutionary Museum

It houses artifacts from prehistoric era up to the Anti-American war. You'll see traditional costumes, wood carvings, traditional farming way of life, actual materials used during the Anti-American war such as artillery, newsprints about the resistance, maps, to everyday objects like shoes. I just wished they have a more detailed information about their prehistoric artifacts like what the concept behind their sculpture was, the symbolism, and what the influences were behind the art.

A traditional wedding ceremony
Objects used during the war

Independence Palace

The building is composed of different rooms for different function meetings used by local officials during the resistance. The most interesting part here for me were the actual basement rooms they used for communication. You can sign up at the entrance for a guided tour inside the rooms.

The communication rooms at the basement felt eerie.

A map showing the route with telephones at the foreground

DAY TWO and THREE: The Mekong Delta

For a couple of years, I designed printed materials for documentaries from different countries neighboring the river, all focusing how this vast body of water changed their lives in time. And while I was doing the projects, I dreamt of riding a boat along Mekong. So I was really excited that it would finally come true.

A pineapple vendor

My dream of breathing in Mekong deep into my lungs was close but not close enough. I was on a motorized ferry and envied those few tourists I saw on small boats, the mud colored water just inches away from their fingers. Considering I was solo for the first time, I thought it was best to join a group tour. I confirmed that it wasn't for me.

Taking a bath the Mekong way. Hmm, there are other ways to take Mekong deep in my lungs.

Well, it varies from person to person. In any case, Vietnam is a candy land of travel agencies. I booked at Lac Hong Tours, 305 Pham Ngu Lao Str. Dist. 1 HCMC, I got them too for the Cu Chi Tunnel. They were very accommodating, helpful and honest. The tour guides, which for me are very essential and is probably the best advantage of group tours, were considerate and very knowledgeable about the place and history.


The ferry took us to Ben Tre and strolled the tropical fruit farm, bee farm, saw water coconut trees, the Laughing Buddha, observe the step-by-step making of coconut candies, and watch a singing and musical performance using traditional instruments while eating tropical fruits. Coming from a tropical country too, the fruit farm was something I could have skipped. 

The water coconut
Conquering the bees

The traditional instruments. The leftmost has only one string, the middle has only two, and the guitar has four.

Coconut candy making

The Laughing Buddha

Like I said, I am the type who likes to see a place leisurely. I take pictures a lot. So this stop in this vast pagoda in Vinh Trang was really bad because we just had fifteen minutes to roam inside. All I was able to do was see the giant, friendly-looking Buddha.


We stayed in Can Tho for the night. Vietnamese food are healthy(maybe it's the reason why I never saw chubby people there). They like veggies and fruits a lot, and the sidewalks in Can Tho offer a lot of these, as well as other bargain souvenirs like bags and clothes. I bought a traditional  dress for way lot cheaper price than in HCMC.


Day two was much more interesting for me. We started early for the Cai Rang floating market, then off to a rice husking mill and rice noodle workshop. The market sold fruits and vegetables.


The families with their produce live inside their boats. One boat, one family.

Rice Noodle workshop

Rice noodles. The first step on the right is to mix rice and tapioca.

When the mixture thickens, it is formed into a circular sheet on a pan, transferred the sheet on rattan to dry out on the sun.

The dried sheet is then inserted in this machine to cut it into noodle strips.

Dragon fruit farm

We spotted the cleaners of this fruit farm

DAY FOUR: Art Workshop, Cu Chi Tunnel and War Remnants Museum

Day four was history and arts day. I took a tour going to Cu Chi tunnel good for half a day. It is not to be missed, as you will be seeing the actual tunnels dug by Vietnamese during the anti-American resistance, and the makeshift weapons and traps used against them. Before heading for the forest, we watched a documentary about the abundance of Cu Chi before the American occupation, and the situation after and during the war. Our tour guide, Dong(I couldn't forget his name because his name was our money), was exceptionally good because he explained very well up to the the smallest but important details of each tunnel and each circumstance. He was also able to answer very well all questions of the people. There were refreshments and tapioca served to us at the end of the tour. The highlight of this trip for me, the best way to feel like the locals on hiding, was going inside a tunnel.

History 101 with Dong, before watching the documentary.

Dong showing a hole shaped by the Americans. Since the tunnels were too small for the Americans, they smoke the holes to suffocate the Vietnamese inside.

They modified one tunnel, expanded and ventilated it for the tourists to fit in and go inside. As we crawl our way in it, the tunnel gets narrower and I felt like fainting. I ended up finishing only ten meters, which felt like ten years already. But it was worth the try.
There is light at the end of the tunnel! Thanks to a friend whom I met
while inside the tunnel for taking this picture!

The Art Workshop

Being a lover of the arts, I was happy our bus stopped at this art workshop before heading to Cu Chi.  Watching how intricate and delicate each process of this art made me think of how cheap the markets sell these pieces.
The patterns are carefully measured and traced on the shells.
Each piece is then slowly cut according to its drawing.

On the left, the cut shells are pasted one by one on the canvas. To I guess make the final product economical,
they used egg shells for the rest of the parts, broke it into pieces and assembled it.

The War Remnants Museum

At around 3 in the afternoon,we were back in HCMC. The bus passed by the War Remnants Museum for those who haven't seen it yet. I was such an idiot not to bring the extra battery of my camera I just charged the night before, and so my cam gave up just before I entered the tunnel. Hence, no photos for this museum. There are two things I can describe this museum--heavy and touching. I was teary eyed when I saw uncensored photos of casualties of the Vietnam war, a letter for Obama written by a child victim of the Agent Orange chemical spray mission, and stories of heroism. Some rooms are not good for children.


No man is an island.

In the Philippines, it is not very common to travel alone. I know I may not have enough experience this, but I must say, at least in my Vietnam trip, that traveling solo is a true testimony of the saying no man is an island. It was refreshing after exchanging stories with my random seatmate on a bus, exchanging opinions with roommates, having dinner with fellows on my group tour, sharing fruits despite the language barrier, or just saying hi to them. It was nice to know that one would still long to connect to people, not just for travel tips, but to keep one company.

There may have been lots of weird things that happened too, but having experienced it for the first time, they were all interesting to me. This trip will be really memorable, and I look forward to my next adventure :)


  1. WOW!!! love et!! considering vietnam this yr. Great shots!! super love q ung pag ka capture mo sa mga birds...

  2. What an AWESOME resource . THANK YOU. I recently purchased the digital set San Francisco, any chance there is a guide for that one.. Have you ever see the pop-up anniversary cards. I found them on google, their website : So glad you were able to create with the die, I knew it would be special. Thank you