Super Aesthetic Adventures in Osaka (Day 1)

For the duration of the 4 day consecutive summer holiday known as “Marine Day” in Japan, my boyfriend and I decided to take our very first trip together to bustling city of Osaka!  We chose this destination because it’s much more laid-back than Tokyo and there is a myriad of things to do and see here.  You can walk by the river and sip on a Strong Zero while being right in the heart of the city where there’s never a dull moment.  I’ve traveled to Osaka about 10 times (mainly for music events), but I still haven’t seen it all.  This time I was most excited to see the Kaiyukan Aquarium and go to the old school arcades with my boyfriend who is a fighting game fanatic.  Along the way we discovered so many delicious restaurants and made heartfelt memories that I’ll never forget.

We departed from Nagoya via the Willer Express Bus at 8:30am.  This was a good move because it was cheaper than the shinkansen and we could peacefully sleep on it.  We arrived to the Umeda Sky Building (in central Osaka) around 11:30 where we walked to La Tartine for coffee and some sweets.  I found this cafe through my Instragram algorithms and wanted to try the dog macaroon because it reminded me of Pasocom Ongaku Club’s mascot.  I also tried a cookie with a beach design that tasted amazing.  All of the desserts were intricately made here.  Incidentally, we also got a free coffee jelly as a gift for discovering this cafe through Instagram.  How nice♫~

Next we made our way towards our hotel in Shinsaibashi and decided to get some okonomiyaki for lunch at Hanahana since it was nearby.  Not only was this place absolutely delicious, but it was dirt cheap too.  I ordered shrimp okonomiyaki and my boyfriend got a mix of pork and seafood in his.  It was such a satisfying meal:

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Okonomiyaki: The staple Osaka meal.

Since our hotel wasn’t quite ready to check in to, we dropped off our stuff and headed straight to Kaiyukan Aquarium which I had never been to before!  This is one of the most famous aquariums in Japan so I figured it would be the perfect date spot.  Unfortunately since it was a holiday,  a lot of other people had the same idea so we had to wait an hour to enter.  Luckily it was worth the wait.  I had been to Japan’s largest aquarium in Okinawa years ago, but I hadn’t been to another one in ages so this was refreshing.  In addition to colorful schools of fish, smiling stingrays, and the “Silence Brand” crab, they also had capybara which is my favorite animal there too!  My boyfriend most enjoyed the waddle of penguins (yes, a group of penguins is actually called a “waddle”):

We were very impressed with the large variety of sea creatures here!  I also loved seeing the “Keep distance” penguin sign, though it was an impossible challenge for the over-excited Japanese children here.  I also liked the message that said “all things are connected” at the end.  It really had me thinking for a while.  By the time we finished seeing all of the exhibits here, we were exhausted.  This aquarium is quite huge compared to other underwater exhibits in Japan.

Admission Fee: 2,550 yen (worth in in my opinion)

Not wanting to miss out on every food opportunity that life presented us, we stopped for ramen and ice cream.  The two main food groups.  I bought a capybara souvenir at the aquarium so I could forever remember this moment.  This isn’t the first time this has happened.  My boyfriend chose to eat ramen at Zundoya which has a branch in Osaka.  He said it was some of the best that he’s had in a while.  I tried the Pokemon ice cream flavors at Bakin Robbins, but unfortunately they didn’t live up to the hype.  I give them a 6/10 because they taste like sugary melted soda.  They would be much more satisfying if they contained vodka.  Fortunately that’s what we had next…

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Drinking the galaxy at Mixology Bar Factory & Gear.

Yet another bar that ended up in my Instagram algorithms was called Mixology Bar Factory & Gear.  And boy, it did not disappoint.  It was here that we met a fire bender and drank magical cocktails from the galaxy.  My boyfriend also ordered a Tuxedo Mask-esque drink and another drink that was wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer.  I ordered the “Little Planet” (pictured above) and a mysterious pineapple drink with a bubble that you can pop.  Watching the video is easier than explaining it.  This is peak aesthetic:

The taste of all of these drinks can be described as “works of art” but this Tweet sums our experience up the best:

If you have time, please check this bar out!  The average cost of drinks is 1300 yen but I promise that you won’t be disappointed.  There’s also some “Viagra Liqueur” (the opposite of whiskey dick) for those who are feeling adventurous.  We will remember this bar for the rest of our lives.

Where to Stay

Normally I stay at Asahi Capsule Hotel when I’m alone since it’s one of the cheapest places in Osaka, but since I came here with someone special I wanted to stay somewhere a bit nicer.

This time I chose Felice Hotel because it was only 5000 yen per night for 2 people.  This was within walking distance of Dotonbori and all of the bars we wanted to go to so it was the perfect choice.  Our bed was huge and extremely comfy.  There is also a public onsen bath and a rooftop bar that you can visit.  I would honestly love to stay here again!

Spending my 25th Birthday at a Hut in Vietnam (Part 3)

After going on a grand tour of Phu Quoc Island on the day of my birthday, I decided to spend my final day in Vietnam going to Hon Thom Sun World amusement park.  To reach this amusement park, you must go to the south end of the island by taxi and ride the world’s longest cable car to another island.  You will pass over a cluster of fishing markets on your way there so it really is worth it for the view.  I remember the ocean looked so beautiful from above.  I’m really grateful I got the chance to swim in it when I landed!

As soon as I entered the park I noticed I was starving, so I ordered some vegan spring rolls, a seafood noodle dish, and a strawberry smoothie.  I was surprised at how big the serving sizes were!  There are restaurants all over the place so you’ll never go hungry:

Next I decided it was time to explore the park.  I’ll admit that my main reason for coming here was to ride the cable car.  I didn’t put much research into what attractions there were, but I figured I’d go and have fun no matter what.  I looked at a local guidepost for direction, except there was only one destination on it:

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There is only one direction!! ONE!

I thought this was some kind of joke until I looked on Inspirock and realized others had run into this same situation:

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So okay, Trao Beach it was!  At least I could ride a air-conditioned van there from the park for free.  Since it was October, there wasn’t many people there so I could relax and enjoy it all I wanted.  It was essentially a private beach.  This was one of the scenarios where it was not about the destination, but they journey.  I had a lot of nice time thinking to myself and listening to all my favorite music.  The tiki statues and chairs made out of tires that I saw here also added to the ambiance:

Even though there wasn’t a lot to see at Sun World, being on a remote tropical island was more fun than being stuck in the city.  What’s interesting is that some pictures of the park online show a water park, but it only seems to be open during certain seasons.  There was no mention of it when I went in 2018 so I wonder if it’s under renovation.  I saw all sorts of construction going on in the main pavilion near the restaurant I was eating at.  I would guess that there is some plan to expand this park because it is in a beautiful area that has a lot of nature.  It really could become something amazing!

Is it worth it?

The cost for the cable car ticket is around $15 USD (roundtrip) and entrance to the park is around $25 USD.  This actually isn’t that bad for a day on an island in Vietnam, but you could definitely go cheaper.  If you have an extra day to kill this excursion is great because of the unique cable car view—especially if you have a camera.  However, there may be only one destination available when you reach the island… you won’t know until you get there!

Upon further research, I noticed there is another amusement park called Sun World Ba Na Hills in Vietnam with the same logo (so they must be owned by the same company).  Search engines are likely confusing them in English.  Perhaps Phu Quoc’s Sun World (the one I visited) is going to be designed as a miniature version of the larger one.  Who knows?  I hope to return to Vietnam and visit the other, larger, park when it’s safe so I can expand this article!

Spending my 25th Birthday at a Hut in Vietnam (Part 2)

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Yet another beautiful sunset on Phu Quoc Island.

In my last article I talked about my expedition of Long Beach on Phu Quoc Island, but in this article I will talk about some of the other places that I ventured to outside of my hut!  I would recommend staying at least 3 full days on this island because between the beaches and the central town, there’s a lot of neat things to see.  I spent my mornings swimming on the beach and evenings chasing sunsets.  It was truly the best 25th birthday I could have imagined!

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The inside of a mini Cao Dai Temple in Duong Dong Town.

Since I wanted to see as much as possible on the island, I booked a day tour of the north and south sides of the island through Viet Fun Travel.  This is a completely private tour run by Phu Quoc locals, so it’s very high-rated and you can customize it to your liking.  I asked that they please take me to the Ridgeback Dog Farm because I wanted to feed the Phu Quoc dogs.  They happily complied with my request and created a custom itinerary for me.

Unfortunately because I was by myself this tour cost $195 USD which is very expensive, but since there are not many ways of transportation on Phu Quoc Island it was worth the money.  If you bring more people with you the price will drastically decrease.  Since these islanders don’t always make a lot during the low season, I didn’t feel regret spending this much for a quality tour.  It was fun and I got to experience so much!  My tour guide was very nice too.

Here are the places that we stopped at.  This tour lasted about 10 hours and included hotel pickup:

 

  • Pearl Farm & Fish Sauce Factory
  • Truc Lam Ho Quoc Meditation
  • Sao Beach
  • Coconut Tree Prison
  • Phu Quoc Ridgeback Dog Farm
  • Nguyen Trung Truc Temple
  • Passing Cape Ganh Dau
  • Vung Bau Beach & Ong Lang Beach

Our first stop was the pearl farm and the fish sauce factory.  Fish sauce is Phu Quoc’s most famous food and is exported all over the country.  I got to see how it was fermented in giant barrels which was pretty neat.  The “pearl farm” was a museum of pearls mostly geared towards selling them, but I didn’t mind seeing it for a short amount of time.  The pearls were so gorgeous.  If only I could afford them!  My tour guide bought me a sugar cane drink to sip on during the drive.  It was super sweet and full of sugar as the name implies.  There was also some mysterious green seaweed-like vegetable we tried.

The temples we saw on this tour were really beautiful too (unfortunately my photography skills from 2018 do not do them justice).  Truc Lam Ho Quoc Meditation has a beautiful garden you can see when you reach the top.  I enjoyed seeing the Choco-Pies that were placed in front of the deity at Nguyen Trung Truc Temple too.  If I ever become a deity, I hope people place Choco-Pies in front of me too.

 

We next stopped at the Coconut Tree Prison that was built by French Colonists to imprison Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War.  Many tortures were performed here such as caging humans and burning off their flesh.  I didn’t take many photos because it was grotesque, but you can Google it for yourself and see just how horrible it was.  I was grateful for the personal tour because I never knew that there was a prison here!  Most people that visit Vietnam only get to see the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, as the Coconut Tree Prison is quite remote.

After that gruesome reminder of Vietnamese history was over, we stopped for my birthday lunch at a local Vietnamese restaurant.  Everything was on the house~  Cheers to turning 25 on Phu Quoc!!

At the restaurant we ate octopus, fried rice with blue crab, and I tried snails for the very first time!  The snails kind of taste like sautéed mushrooms but are chewy.  I recommend trying them at least once if you get the chance.  The flavor is actually quite enjoyable.  The best part about this restaurant was definitely the atmosphere.  Even though I was a tourist, I felt at home here.

We rode briefly through the central town of Duong Dong so our driver could get gas.  This is the largest town on the island just north of my island hut.  There is a seafood market and many temples and pagodas you can see.  We stopped briefly to see a Cao Dai temple before continuing our tour so I could rest for a bit.  If I ever some back to Phu Quoc, I would like to stay in this town for just one night to see what it’s like!

Next we stopped at the Phu Quoc Ridgeback Dog Farm so I could feed the dogs.  For some reason this was one of the most anticipated stops for me!  Phu Quoc dogs are some of the rarest and most expensive breeds in the world.  They are extremely independent and love roaming the beaches.  During the high seasons you can watch them race through courses and place bets on them.  Since I was here in October, I could only pet and feed them, but that was fine by me.  They were absolutely adorable:

My tour guide was extremely kind and gave me an extra bag of food.  He knew pretty much everyone on the island so people were always giving us souvenirs.  After I had fed every dog on the farm (and I mean EVERY dog), we decided to hit the southern Sao beaches.  I didn’t take a lot of pictures because I was swimming, but it was extremely surreal to see cows grazing out here:

While I was swimming my tour guide told me I could stay out here as long as I liked because he was practicing meditation with an mp3.  I stayed until sunset and got to soak up a lot of sun.  Everyone that is native to this island practices spirituality, but they never try to force their beliefs upon you.  I really enjoyed every single moment here even though my time was short.

I would recommend this tour to fellow adventurers because it truly takes you everywhere.  I was exhausted by the end of my trip and was thankful I could rest in my hut.  My next article will be the last of my Vietnam series!  Thank you to all that have read up to this point.

Spending my 25th Birthday at a Hut in Vietnam (Part 1)

When people think of tropical destinations in Asia, Vietnam usually isn’t high on the list.  Most people in Japan flock to Okinawa, Thailand, Philippines, Guam, or even the Gold Coast in Australia for vacation.  I wanted to experience something different so I decided to fly to Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam from Hanoi and stay in a beach hut on my 25th birthday in 2018.  This was one of my first times staying on a remote island alone, but it was completely safe and turned out to be one of the best birthdays of my life!

I stayed on Phu Quoc for four days and three nights and managed to learn a lot about the island culture of Vietnam.  Being here is completely different than from being in the city which is truly eye-opening.  In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh you’ll get a lot of stares and attention from the locals, but here you’ll find complete and total privacy:

Getting to Phu Quoc

A roundtrip flight from Hanoi to Phu Quoc only costs $65 through VietJet and takes two hours so it is quite cheap and easy to plan out.  I’ve researched other islands in Vietnam such as Cat Ba, but Phu Quoc is by far the most beautiful.  Long Beach is the best place to stay on the island because it has a lot of restaurants and you can see the best view of the sunset.  The beach looks pretty 24/7, but swimming in the ocean and watching the sky turn that lovely mixture of pink, blue, and red makes it feel as if you are living inside of a painting:

The island hut I stayed at was called Viet Than Resort.  I chose this resort because I liked the design of the thatched huts and it was only around $35 per night.  Plus it was right on the beach and had a swimming pool too!  I came during the off-season in October, but I still had a lot of fun here because the weather was perfect.  I spent my entire first day here exploring Long Beach and going swimming.  It was definitely the relaxation that I needed after several days of trekking through the populated cities.

Cuisine on Phu Quoc is cheap, healthy, and extremely satisfying.  I tried a restaurant near my hotel and ordered seafood ramen and an omelette.  After hours of swimming, this was exactly what I needed!

Another perk of staying here is you’ll often run into Phu Quoc dogs.  An islander informed me that these dogs are friendly towards people but completely independent.  They’ll let people wash and feed them, but they spend most of their time frolicking on the beaches.  I wish I were a Phu Quoc dog!

Unlike places in Thailand and Bali, Phu Quoc is NOT a party island.  It does have a lot of bars and places to socialize, but you won’t find any recreational drugs here.  I really wish that there were more islands in Japan like this.  I went to Okinawa for my first birthday in Japan and had fun, but it does not have a lot of beach huts and the best beaches require renting a car or riding a infrequent bus to reach.  I liked Phu Quoc because everything was accessible, and if I needed to get somewhere I could use Grab or ask my hotel to call a cheap taxi service.  This would honestly not be a bad place to retire.

In my next article, I’ll be talking about my island tour and how I rode a cable car to Sun World!  Thank you all for reading my Vietnam article series!  Though this happened almost 2 years ago, this island is still a very popular resort destination and a place that I would recommend to all my friends.  It’s really easy to have fun here no matter what your budget is.

Radio EVA Cafe at 渋谷PARCO

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Unit-01 is looking fresh as ever.

Though the theatrical release of the Evangelion 4.0 movie has been indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic, official Evangelion collaborations are still going full swing in Japan.  Last week I visited the Radio EVA Cafe located on the 6th floor of the Shibuya PARCO building and tried some of their delicious desserts.  In addition they have some custom merchandise for sale.  Their menu had a lot of options, but my personal favorite was the purple mousse rose with leaf-shaped chocolate:

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I’ve eaten a lot of desserts in my time, but this was my first time trying purple mousse!

This mousse was perfect because it was super soft and creamy, but not too sweet!  The little bits of pancake also added to the texture.  Though the food is quite expensive (averaging 1500 yen per dish), the pro of coming to this cafe is that you get to see special scenes from the movie!  Unfortunately recording them is not allowed, but I was able to take a lot of pictures around the cafe:

I really enjoyed seeing the comic book art-style they chose here.  The interior design was really thought out and it was interesting to see fully English quotes.  Unfortunately there were not a lot of vegetarian options, but I loved the flavored drinks and desserts.  For the full menu, please see their official website.

The cafe will be running from 6/1/2020 – 8/2/2020.  There is no online reservation system so you can just walk in.  I went on a weekday at 6pm and was immediately seated.  For those who are unable to go, fear not!  There will likely be another cafe when the movie is finally released.  When that happens, I will be sure to check it out!

Exploring Hanoi City: A Tropical, Colorful, Communist Tokyo (Part 2)

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Hanoi — my favorite city in Vietnam!

Since I published my introduction of Hanoi yesterday, I’m now going to be detailing my experience here in tropical, colorful, Communist Tokyo!  I only stayed in Hanoi for 2 days because I spent most of my time in Ho Chi Minh City and Phu Quoc Island, but it actually ended up being my favorite city in Vietnam.  Hanoi is super condensed and has a lot to see, so backpackers will rejoice at how easy and fun it is to explore.  I made a lot of friends here that I hope to see again during my future trips!

Hanoi VS Ho Chi Minh

The biggest decision that first time travelers to Vietnam will make is what city they want to see the most.  All of my Vietnamese friends in Japan recommended Hanoi because they think it’s prettier, but Ho Chi Minh is cheaper to fly to from most Asian countries so I started there.  I researched both cities thoroughly and couldn’t pick a favorite so I decided I’d see them both!  Fortunately roundtrip flights between the two cities are only $40 dollars, so you can easily see them both during your trip to Vietnam.

Reasons to go to Hanoi:

  • The streets are condensed making it easy to get around on foot.  Ho Chi Minh has a lot more traffic and you need to take a taxi or motorbike to get to some places.
  • You can access the emerald waters of Halong Bay from Hanoi.  Halong Bay usually takes 2-3 days to fully experience but is one of the prettiest areas of the country.
  • I found it much more easy to make friends here.  Ho Chi Minh is more spread out so meeting people outside of clubs was difficult.
  • There are more parks and nature around Hanoi.  You can also reach Sapa, a beautiful mountain village with terraces, from here.

Reasons to go to Ho Chi Minh

  • HCM is a huge international business hub which is why flights into this city are less expensive.  If you have an international driver’s license and are not afraid of motorbiking through huge crowds, you might save money here.
  • Though HCM isn’t near any beaches or beautiful waters, Mekong Delta is definitely worth seeing.
  • HCM has a lot of international cuisine and upscale restaurants.  I ate some of the best food I had in Vietnam here.
  • If you are a history buff, you will enjoy seeing the Cu Chi Tunnels here!

I recommend a minimum of 3 days and 3 nights in each city if possible.

Main Points of Interest

Here are the main points of interest I explored in Hanoi.  For food recommendations, please check out my Aesthetic Food Finds article!

  • Hỏa Lò Prison – One of the most historic prisons used during the Vietnam War.  Tickets are around $10.  
  • Ngoc Son Temple – A beautiful white temple located on Hoàn Kiếm Lake in central Hanoi.
  • Chua Tran Quoc – A pagoda on an islet in central Vietnam.  I walked here from my hotel and reached it in 30 minutes.  On the way there you can see beautiful parks!
  • Cat Ba Island – A beautiful island in Halong Bay.  I did not visit it because I went to Phu Quoc Island instead, but I would love to go in the future!
  • Water Puppet Shows – Vietnam is famous for its water puppet shows and my biggest regret is that I didn’t book a ticket in advance to see one.  I recommend using a website like GetYourGuide to buy one before your trip because they will deliver it directly to your hotel.
  • The Obama Combo – You can eat at the same bun cha restaurant as Obama did and order the Obama Combo in Hanoi!

Honestly the highlights of Hanoi were just wandering around the streets and seeing the culture here.  This was my first time traveling to a tropical Asian country so it truly felt like an adventure to me.  I loved going for morning runs and watching people do yoga in the park.  I bargained for a scarf at the Đồng Xuân Market and ate a lot of fresh fruit.    Seeing all the different markets influenced by the doi moi policy was eye-opening.  This is what I imagined Tokyo would be like if it hadn’t radically reformed after World War II.

However, aside from a few people most residents I encountered in Hanoi seemed truly happy.  This made me happy as well!

The Toilet Club

Have you ever dreamed of throwing a Communist party in a toilet?  Because at the Toilet Club (formerly known as the IP Club) you totally can!  This is where I spent my last night in Hanoi before flying off to the tropical island of Phu Quoc for my 25th birthday.  I chose this club because of its meme-worthy name, but the variety of music the DJs spin here is pretty decent.  They have regular house and trance nights along with an international selection of artists.  You can expect to see a lot of foreigners here, but it’s still a high-class club.  Worth the experience in my opinion.

I can’t even remember what I drank here, but I remember coming here on a Monday night so the entrance was free.  I met a bunch of backpackers from Australia and we exchanged travel stories.  I had so much fun dancing!  The club closed around 1am so I ordered a motorbike through Grab back to my hostel because that’s what was most convenient.  It was my first time ever riding on the back of a motorcycle, but fortunately I didn’t fall off!  What a way to end my night in Hanoi.

Accommodation

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HANOI GOLDEN -HOTEL-

Most accommodations in Hanoi are extremely inexpensive, so I decided to book a private room in the center of the city at Hanoi Golden Hotel for $20 per night.  The neon sign outside of the hotel makes it look like the entrance to a brothel, but the rooms were extremely clean and the service was outstanding.  They upgraded me to a family room for free because they had extra rooms available which was awesome.  The staff called me beautiful (in a respectful way) even though I had been walking for hours and my hair was super frizzy.  I couldn’t help but smile even though I know that flattery is cheap.  I definitely felt good vibes during my entire stay here.

What I liked about Hanoi was that there was no strange cultural or language barrier here like there is in Japan, so temporarily escaping that was nice.  Though I could never live longterm in Vietnam because I’d get tired of all the attention and vendors chasing me down, I do see myself vacationing here.  The main advantage is that travel in Vietnam is much cheaper than in Thailand or Japan.  Just be sure to watch out for taxi meter scams!  And learning how to bargain at markets will also be helpful to you.  I’ve learned through trial and error, plus a lot of negotiation (while sometimes buzzed).

Another strong point is people have a lot less in Vietnam but seem happier.  Woman seem more liberated too.  There’s a lot that you can learn by observing the life style of people here.  In my next article, I will be writing about my experience staying in Phu Quoc Island.  Please anticipate it, because Phu Quoc is my favorite part of Vietnam!

Exploring Hanoi City: A Tropical, Colorful, Communist Tokyo (Part 1)

Since I’ve lived in Japan for over 4 years now, I often wonder what the country would be like if it hadn’t radically reconstructed after the destruction caused by World War II.  Of course the US military including General MacArthur was responsible for political and social reforms in Japan, and eventually the economy stabilized, but what if the country had been left to ruin and was forced rebuild itself from scratch like Cambodia?  I believe it is thanks to the hard work of Japanese people and the influence of the pre-existing constitutional monarchy that Japan was able to modernize itself.  Whether you agree with Japanese politics or not, the way this island country restored itself is incredible.

Then I look at countries like Vietnam who also went to war against the US but are controlled by a Communist government.  While I was in Hanoi I visited the Hỏa Lò Prison and learned about the history of the Vietnam War.  Unlike what happened during World War II, the North Vietnam military still wanted to overtake the South.  Let’s take a look at what happened in Vietnam after Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords…

“By the early 1980s, Vietnam’s government was coming to realize that communism would not provide a miracle cure for rapidly modernizing the country and growing its economy.” Goscha, The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam, pp. 398-99

Since Communism is clearly flawed, a new market reform called “Doi Moi” was introduced to the country.  This type of market revolves around supply and demand.  This means sometimes people receive more than others, but essentially the work you put forth will eventually pay you back.  Thanks to the farmers and exporters, Vietnam was able to gradually rebuild its economy.  Additionally this type of reform helped Vietnamese citizens fight poverty:

“At the end of the war, 70 percent of the people in Vietnam were living below the official poverty line. Today, that number is estimated to be less than 20 percent.”
Asia Pacific Curriculum

As of right now, many people in Japan are beginning to live on the verge of poverty, and work motivation lower than most developed countries around the world.  Though they make less income on average, you’ll notice that citizens in Vietnam have a much more positive outlook on life.  And it’s not just due to cultural differences.  You have to stop and think, why is this?

In my next article, I will be highlighting some of the places I visited in Hanoi including the prison and exploring these ideas now.  Thank you all for reading!

Aesthetic Food Finds in Hanoi

As an avid lover of all things that are aesthetic, searching for unique restaurants and trying the most colorful foods around the world is one of my life goals.  As far as Vietnam goes, I noticed most of the trendy bars and cafes were located in Hanoi.  Ho Chi Minh has a lot of upscale restaurants and fancy cuisine from around the world that I enjoyed trying, but Hanoi had the most photogenic food plus the famous “Obama Combo”.

Here are some of my favorite aesthetic restaurants that I discovered in Hanoi.  Please see my first Ho Chi Minh article for some food recommendations there too.

The Unicorn Pub

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The Butterfly Cocktail – One of the most aesthetic drinks I’ve ever had in my life.

“You have entered a different world… one filled with good times and specially-crafted artisan cocktails. Enjoy your journey through our exclusive, fun-filled menu found nowhere else on Earth!” -The Unicorn Pub

While walking down the narrow streets of Hanoi as a tourist, you’ll definitely draw a lot of attention from the locals.  Food vendors with carts will follow you down the road, shop owners will yell and beckon you into their stores full of everything from bootleg designer bags to handmade accessories… At first all of the attention is nice but it gets hard to relax after a while.  My favorite example is when I sat down at a restaurant with outdoor seating and a woman selling fried bananas tried to get me to buy them.  I politely showed her my receipt and explained that I had already ordered food and I didn’t want any, but she started putting the bananas in a bag and tried to sell them for me for a discount.  Even when I started to ignore here, she simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Eventually the food that I ordered arrived and she finally left when I started eating, but man…

I understand that these vendors need business, but being polite with how you approach someone is important.  Though I ate at some smaller food stalls to give them business, on my first night in Hanoi I decided to try an upscale bar called The Unicorn Pub to see what the atmosphere was like.  And let me tell you; it was completely worth it!

The Unicorn Pub has by far the best atmosphere and original cocktails that I discovered in Vietnam.  The bar owner is very kind and speaks great English.  She came out and introduced herself and her staff to me and asked what kind of liquor I liked.  I explained that I was an aesthetic food enthusiast (though I didn’t use that terminology exactly) and she already had a cocktail in mind for me.  The very first cocktail I had was the Butterfly Cocktail!  It was sweet and had a mix of fruity liquor and vodka with the adorable butterfly decoration on the rim of the glass.  Next I ordered the Pho Cocktail which is a spicy cocktail that is exclusive to this bar.  It takes a precise level of mixology to prepare this concoction, but the flavor is out of this world!  I have never seen a drink prepared with such care before.

This bar draws in a number of foreigners and locals so it has a good mix of people.  The guy sitting next to me was Vietnamese and was telling me all about Sapa village.  I unfortunately couldn’t fit it in on this itinerary, but I’d really like to travel there in the future.  He was sipping on some 38% alcohol which I couldn’t read the name of, so the bartender let me have a sip.  I can’t even remember the taste but mixing liquors sure is an adventure in itself.  Conversation flowed easy after that.  I ended my night with some kind of lemon cocktail and walked back 10 mins to my hostel.  I added all of the people at the bar on Facebook and I still keep in touch with them today.  Fortunately the corona virus hasn’t spread as much in Vietnam and this bar is still in business!  I’ll be sure to come back some day.

Egg Coffee at Cafe Giang

Egg Coffee is without a doubt one of the biggest food memes in Vietnam.  It was invented in the 1940s while there was a milk shortage.  The true recipe is unknown but it is said to contain egg, butter, and cheese along with a coffee base.  Giang Cafe is one of the best coffee shops to try egg coffee in Vietnam.  According to The Guardian, currently the son of the coffee’s inventor runs the shop.  Not knowing what to expect, I ordered a hot glass of the standard egg coffee.  It surprisingly didn’t taste like egg at all; it had a creamy coffee texture almost like a latte but much thicker.  Plus I bet it’s still healthier than most drinks at Starbucks!  I would recommend trying a cup while you are here because it’s quite satisfying.

The “Obama Combo” at Hương Liên Bún Chả Obama

Ah yes, another great meme.  My friend informed me that there was a famous bun cha (pork and noodle) restaurant that Obama once ate at while he visited Vietnam.  This had such an impact on their business that they added “Obama” to the name of their restaurant.  Is Hương Liên Bún Chả Obama worth the hype?  The ingredients in bun cha are undoubtedly delicious, but this restaurant is pretty standard in what it offers.  There unfortunately weren’t many vegetarian options here but I had fun checking this place out and ordered my noodles without pork.  The Obama Combo tasted good, but it was higher-priced than other places and I prefer eating pho.  If you go, be sure you walk up all the floors so you can see all the framed Obama photos.  It must have been the greatest moment of honor for this restaurant!

Aroi Dessert Cafe

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Beary Delicious!

Aroi Dessert Cafe is a cozy relaxing space that’s open 24 hours and serves the cutest desserts!  I came here to charge my portable wifi and try one of their famous bear cakes.  It was light, fluffy, and filled with chocolate.  Exactly what I needed after walking around the city all day.  In addition to cakes they have a large selection of coffee and fruity cocktails.  It’s really easy to kill time here between planning your next move so I would recommend it!  I recall the chairs being extremely comfy too.

Oh Manh!

Remember my story about the old lady who tried to sell me fried bananas?  I narrowly escaped her by ordering this sandwich and showing her my receipt.  Oh manh!  A Spicy Perspective describes manh as “one of the most vibrant and delicious sandwiches in the world” and I can agree.  Manh is usually filled with pork and fresh vegetables, but the stall I ate at in central Hanoi had a vegetarian option too!  The pickled vegetables in the grilled baguette topped with mayo and spices definitely made my day.

Thank you for reading yet another aesthetic food article for me!  I hope to take another trip to Vietnam when things start to calm down.

Floating down the Mekong Delta in Vietnam

After hiking around Black Virgin Mountain & Cao Dai Temple, I decided it might be nice to go out on the water for a day.  Mekong River Delta, home to a maze of rivers, swamps, and floating markets, is the perfect place to go boating and experience an agricultural community.  This river starts in the Himalayas and flows through four other surrounding countries before reaching Vietnam.  The murky brown color of the water comes from the soil it washes up so the river itself is actually quite clean.  A majority of Vietnam’s rice and fish is transported to other areas from Mekong Delta, so it’s vital to the country’s economics.  Not to mention its jungle-like aesthetic makes it the perfect place to go on an adventure!

Mekong Delta can easily be reached from Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s cheapest to go on a tour.  I booked a group tour through Get Your Guide for around $28 and found it to be quite helpful.  I got to explore parts of the jungle, eat delicious Vietnamese food, and see some of the smaller islands.  One is even named after a unicorn!  I was fortunate that the other people on my tour were kind and welcoming.  I met one woman from Colombia that introduced me to her sons that were around my age (mid-twenties).  We all awkwardly laughed.  No vacation is complete without awkward random encounters!

Sailing on the Mekong Delta was amazing.  The weather was humid but fortunately there was a cool breeze.  No matter which direction you look there is a lot to see:

I highly recommend buying a nón lá (leaf hat) from the market during your trip.  Initially I thought that wearing one of these as a tourist would be embarrassing, but the hats are ideal for the weather here.  During warm days they can shield your entire face from the sun, and during rainy days the droplets will slide off  them keeping you completely dry.

After a while of sailing we stopped at Ben Tre, the capital of one of the largest provinces in the Mekong Delta, and got to explore some of the beautiful scenery on foot.  There was a tiny wildlife preserve with crocodiles, porcupine-like creatures, and other exotic animals.  A woman came with a colony of bees and showed us how honey was made (fortunately the bees didn’t seem hostile).  We also learned how coconuts were used to make desserts and got to try some coconut jelly!  It was so delicious.

Besides boats,the main form of transportation around the muddy banks of the Mekong Delta is by horse.  Although a lot of residents of Vietnam own motorbikes, they seem to be quite challenging to ride around here.  That is another reason why I recommend booking a tour.  Though it can take days to see the entire Mekong Delta here, just a day trip was enough for me.

I said it once but I’ll say it again: Vietnamese Cuisine tastes amazing and severely underrated.  For lunch we had a buffet that included elephant ear fish (see top picture), shrimp, omelette, rice, crackers, fresh fruit, and coconut jelly.  This kind of meal is simple but very filling.  Since I don’t eat meat, I informed the chef and they were able to accommodate my request.  If you’re looking for a fancier dinner, you can always order one back in Ho Chi Minh City!

I visited a similar place to Mekong Delta in Cambodia last year called Kampong Pluk.  It also has a floating economy, amazing fish, and many similarities to Vietnam.  I recommend checking out both because their cultures are slightly different.  I can’t pick a favorite because both of them were an entirely unique experience.

Here are some other things I recommend checking out in Ho Chi Minh City:

  • Notre Dame Cathedral – A historic church with beautiful architecture.
  • Ho Chi Minh City Hall – An iconic landmark of the city,
  • Cafe ZONE 69 – I found this place during my morning run and thought it was hilarious.  I have no idea if it still exists or not, but it’s in the heart of the city.
  • Ho Chi Minh Opera House – I sadly didn’t have enough time to go, but I’d love to see a show here in the future.
  • Jade Emperor Pagoda – One of the prettiest temples in town.

I only stayed 3 days in Ho Chi Minh City, but that was enough for me because I got to see and experience a lot of different things.  In my next article, I will be talking about my experience in Hanoi and how it differs from this city.  As always, please stay tuned for more updates!

 

Exploring Black Virgin Mountain, Cao Dai Temple, and the Cu Chi Tunnels

After having some unique dining experiences in Ho Chi Minh, I decided to get out of the city and explore Black Virgin Mountain and the Cao Dai Temples on my 2nd day in Vietnam.  These are two very historic places in the southern part that I highly recommend checking out.  I booked a private tour through Get Your Guide because I wanted to hit as many destinations as possible and some are very difficult to reach alone.  This journey also brought me to the Cu Chi Tunnels which is a massive underground network around the country.  Seeing remnants of the Vietnam War was surreal and a memory that I’ll always carry with me.

The tour was a little over $100 which is pricier than most I’ve gone on, but my guide was excellent and matched my pace.  This price also included the entrance fee to all of the places I was going to.  I prefer spending my days outside of the city learning about history and culture while spending my nights at the local bars so I have a complete experience abroad.  I was able to see and learn a lot in the time that I had which I am grateful for.

Black Virgin Mountain

The tour started at 7am and I was picked up directly from my hotel by my friendly tour guide.  She was a Vietnamese student who spoke polished English and was very skilled at conversation.  I was lucky to have met her!  We boarded a small van and made our way to Black Virgin Mountain, an inactive volcano in the south of Vietnam.  What makes this mountain so famous is its legend that has been passed down for generations.

As we boarded the cable car to the peak of the mountain, my guide told me the full story.  The Legend of the Black Virgin actually has two variations.  In one version she falls in deeply in love with a Khmer soldier.  When he is drafted to war, she jumps off the mountain out of heart break and agony.  In another version, she jumps off the mountain to protect her virginity when she is forced into an arranged marriage.  In both versions, she is a lady with black skin who is highly devoted to Buddhism and purity.  The legend is quite sad, but her faith and unyielding spirit is admirable.  There are many altars where you can leave offerings in her memory.

When we got off the cable car we reached a market area and a series of temples.  The cable car doesn’t take you all the way to the top, but you can easily reach the pagoda within 15 minutes of climbing.  According to other travelers, the mountain takes around 6 hours to climb to the top and back.  I am happy I rode the cable car because this was only my 2nd day here and I had a lot planned.  Perhaps in the future I will attempt to climb a Vietnamese mountain!

It was fascinating seeing the design of the temples here because they were painted in extremely bright colors.  They are similar to those in Thailand and Cambodia since they are bordering countries.  The fresh fruit being sold at the market also tasted amazing!  I also grabbed a bowl of Pho because it was cheap and the perfect food for exploring Vietnam.  I also noticed some scorpion wine at a gift shop but I didn’t buy it.

My guide took me to a temple where you first pray and make a wish, then pick up 3 splinters of wood and drop them on the ground to determine your fate.  If they all face the same way, then your wish will come true.  I was fortunately able to make my wish come true on the very first try (you get 3 tries total).  If you fail, it is highly implied that you can climb the mountain on another day and try again.

I’m not allowed to tell anyone my wish, but it has to do with traveling and connecting my aesthetic tastes with my career.  Maybe starting this website was part of the prophecy…

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The Wood Splinters of Fate.

After I finished paying my respects, I Mario Karted down the mountain.  It was honestly the perfect way to end my trip to Black Virgin Mountain because my body was surging with adrenaline!

Cao Dai Temples

Our next stop was Cao Dai Temple that sits not far from the base of the mountain.  It is famous for its beautiful architecture and the articulate painting of the sky in its main hall.  This is hands down the most impressive temple that I saw while I was backpacking through Vietnam, so please check it out if you get the chance!

Caodaism is a mysterious religion that was founded in Vietnam in 1926, so it is fairly recent.  The majority of Vietnamese people are non-religious or follow the teachings of Buddhism, but this religion is gradually gaining followers even in western countries.  Cao Dai means “high tower” and is represented by the divine eye.  Cao Dai blends Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam.  The worshippers wear white robes and perform several chants at the temple every day:

There is a scene from the movie Ghost in the Shell: Innocence that looks like it was influenced by Cao Dai Temple:

gis

Though I’m not religious, being here made me feel very alive.  It’s amazing to think about how much this religion has caught on!

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels are perhaps the most iconic attraction around Ho Chi Minh City because they were utilized in the Vietnam War.  Fortunately we came late in the afternoon when not as many people were here.  The cool thing about this museum is that it’s almost entirely outdoors and encased in a green forest.  The tunnels have been widened so they’re easier for tourists to get through.  I enjoyed see all the trap doors and hideaways hidden in foliage.  There is also a large tank and shooting range you can check out.  This museum doesn’t highlight the horrors of the war so much like the Hoa Lo Prison (which I’ll get into later).  The Cu Chi Tunnels show a more strategic approach to how the Vietnam War was originally fought.  I was surprised to know that there were a number of woman soldiers involved as well.

Overall, this was an amazing tour that lasted the whole day.  I couldn’t believe that this was only my 2nd day here and that there were many more ahead!  Look forward to the rest of my adventures~