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!

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:

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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~

The Best of Taichung: Visiting Rainbow Village & Sun and Moon Lake (Part 1)

 

Wanting experience life outside of Taipei, I researched other cities in Taiwan that would fit my adventurous spirit.  Taichung, Taiwan’s 2nd most populous city, caught my interest right away because of its Rainbow Village and picturesque Sun and Moon Lake which are both accessible by bus from the central station.

Rainbow Village

The bright and beautiful colors of this village immediately caught my eye–plus I was curious to know the origin of how it became so psychedelic–so I wanted this place to be my first destination in Taichung.  I took the MRT from Taipei to reach Taichung Station within 2 hours, then I took a local bus to reach Rainbow Village within 15 minutes.  I was greeted by these crazy-colored murals painted on a neighborhood of cozy houses.  The village was a bit smaller than what I had expected, but there were literally so many things to see here!

This village was designated as a home for refugees that fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, but was sadly planned to be demolished after the war ended.  Not wanting to see his home destroyed, Huang Yong-Fu (who was drafted for the war but still resided in the village), started painting the entire village in rainbow colors in hopes that it would be preserved.  Though not many other refugees were living there at the time, his artwork was noticed by nearby university students and they formed a petition to keep the 11 houses intact.  Fortunately it was successful, and the village has become a popular tourist attraction for everyone to enjoy and learn about the history of the war.  Yong-Fu is nicknamed the “Rainbow Grandpa” of the village, and his murals will always be an important part of Taichung’s history.

This village is literally a photographer’s paradise!  I was really happy to capture a lot of quality footage on my GoPro even though there were a lot of people around.  The murals seem to have cultural influences from all around the world.  There are a number of animals and humans depicted in them with interesting symbols so your interpretation of them completely depends on you.

After spending a good hour here, I decided to take a taxi back to Loosha Hotel where I was staying for the night (I chose it because it was cheap and centrally located).  Taichung can be done as a day trip, but I would recommend staying here 2-3 days if you can see everything.  I will be covering the famous Sun and Moon Lake in my next article this week!  Thank you for reading.

Visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia: A Gruesome Past We Must Never Forget

Warning: I’m going to talk about some gruesome topics in this article as to thoroughly explain Cambodia’s history, so please be wary of this when reading.

While I was staying in Phnom Penh, I decided to visit the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum to learn about the gruesome history of Cambodia.  I booked a cheap bus through Get Your Guide and arrived to Choeung Ek, the largest of the killing fields which is now a memorial, in the early afternoon.  Though I knew this visit was going to be a sad part of my trip, I didn’t expect the audio recordings and personal stories from some of the victims to move me to tears.  The reign of the Khmer Rouge was a truly horrid part of Cambodia’s history, and many of the country’s own people were trained to become merciless assassins and slaughter innocent victims that were targeted or framed.  It’s a miracle that some of them are still alive today, so I think that this is an important part of history we should never forget and never let me repeated.

The Khmer Rouge reigned in Cambodia from 1975 – 1979, but in these 4 years they caused more damage to the country than what anyone could truly realize.  During this time 1/4 of the Cambodian population was killed by cruel and unusual punishment, disease, and starvation mostly by the hand of their own kind.  Toul Sleng, which is now the genocide museum, was the prison where “enemies” of the Angkor were sent for questioning and torture.  However, most of these people were innocent and the Khmer Rouge just wanted a confession from them so they could control the country in an extremely corrupt way.  This was mostly due to paranoia as the Vietnam War and secret bombing campaigns were simultaneously occurring, but this also shows the darkest side of communism.

Once taken the the Killing Field, the soldiers would blindfold and smash the heads of victims into spears as to not waste bullets, then dispose of their bodies in mass graves full of thousands of people.  While they were being killed, eerie symphony music would be played as to mask their screens and keep other prisoners from overhearing.  Children were beaten to death against “The Killing Tree” so they would be unable to take revenge when they grew older.  This tree is now adorned with colored bracelets in memory. Very few people survived or were spared, and those that did have lived with horrible memories from this inhumane place.  The skulls have now been moved to a memorial in the center of the museum to serve as a reminder of this terrible reign.  However, there are still many fragments of bones around the fields as the devastation of this tragic event still affects this country to this day.

Those who weren’t sent to the killing fields were forced to work on communal farms in harsh conditions.  Anyone educated or that stood up to the Khmer Rouge were immediately sent to the fields or prison for questioning.  This is comparable to the Nazi concentration camps as it resulted in a mass genocide and left many people without families or hope for the future.  So how exactly is Cambodia doing now?

Fortunately Cambodia has received aid from other countries, and tourism there is gradually increasing, but most Cambodian people live in poverty and it is far from becoming the democratic society that it was promised.  Yet, while I was staying there I noticed that a lot of Cambodian people are quite kind and are usually smile a lot when talking to you.  They are far less aggressive than people in Vietnam or Thailand, and I didn’t fall into any major scams while I was here.  Why do modern day Cambodians appear happier than a lot of other people in Asian countries?

As a fellow traveler examines in The Happiness Plunge:

“When you live through a genocide, life is kind of like a miracle. And maybe the people here live each day like it’s a miracle.

I suppose when every day is a miracle, you see things you wouldn’t otherwise see – things that make you smile.”

A very important lesson we can learn from the Killing Fields is to appreciate our currents lives and carry on each day as if it were a miracle.

Koh Rong: The Happiest Place in Cambodia

Koh Rong, a tropical island in the Sihanoukville Province of Cambodia, is an extremely attractive destination with its white-sand beaches, jungle full of waterfalls and wildlife, and its weekly parties on Police Beach.  Though the island is about the size of Hong Kong, most of it is undeveloped so it feels like an untouched paradise.  Most of the villages here only stretch for about a mile so everyone recognizes one another and knows each other by name.  I compare a lot of the islands that I’ve traveled to The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, but this actually felt like an island straight out of an RPG the way it was laid out.  There are tons of places you can freely explore on foot, and you can also take boat taxis to access more remote parts of the island.  Or just stay in the main village and enjoy drinking with the locals every night on the beach!

Similar to Koh Phangan in Thailand, there are Full Moon Parties thrown here that attract a lot of backpackers, but the atmosphere of this island is truly rural and more off-the-grid than any other island I have ever traveled to.  Most of the people I met here had already been to Thailand and were looking for a different experience.  I learned a lot from the observing the life of the villagers here and am extremely excited to share my experience!

Getting to Koh Rong

In order to reach Koh Rong, you must fly or take a bus to Sihanoukville and take a ferry  because there are no airports on the island.  I opted to take an overnight bus from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville that I booked through 12goAsia for $25.  The journey was 10 hours, but I actually slept quite well on the bus because I was exhausted from exploring Angkor Wat and the floating village.

When I first booked this bus, I was expecting to meet some strange people (like those you see riding the MegaBus in America), but I was surprised to see that actually everyone riding this bus was quite normal.  Everyone around me were international backpackers trying to save money, so we opted for the cheaper route.  I even cheersed the guy that was holding a beer beside me with my tiny bottle of wine.  After about an hour, almost everyone was asleep so it was a pleasant ride.

Sihanoukville itself is a strange town full of construction and Chinese-owned casinos.  The roads are absolutely chaotic, and though it has beaches, the ones in Koh Rong are much more beautiful so I would not recommend staying here.  Go straight to Koh Rong and experience life in paradise instead!  The ferry ticket there was only $11 and the ride was about 30 minutes long.  Though the overnight journey took a while, everything I was about to discover on the island would make it worth it.

Staying in a Treehouse

Since the village of Koh Touch is near the weekly Police Beach parties, I opted to book a private room at Treehouse Bungalows.  I paid around $50 a night for this room, but in my opinion, the stay was worth it!  Not only is it quiet and more private than other hostels, but it also has a great view of the beach.  I enjoyed playing music from my balcony and being up in the trees.  There is a wonderful restaurant down below, and a massage place on the beach that I went to nearly every day.  For those looking for cheaper options, please check Hostelworld (some dorms are only $5 per night).

I made a somewhat funny video to commemorate my treehouse stay which you can watch below:

Chasing Sunsets

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Sunset on Long Beach, which I was informed by one of the islanders is the best beach to watch the sunset.

During my first day at Koh Rong I decided to explore the beach nearby my treehouse called 4K beach, and I also hired a motorcycle driver for $30 to take me to some of the other remote beaches.  What amazed me is how truly undeveloped this island is.  Most of the roads are made of dirt and some twist through the jungle, so I would recommend hiring an experienced driver or a boat taxi your first time.  These can easily be found within the village, and the bartenders can also recommend you where to get a cheap ride.  There is also a lot of abandoned property on the island.  I really hope it is put to use someday, because the atmosphere of this island is lovely.

Sweet Dreams Beach was the first place that we ventured to. It was extremely gorgeous with its swimming pool and paved road to the beach.  I saw a few families staying here because this is a safe and relatively quiet location away from the main village:

The next place we went to was Long Beach so I could go swimming and watch the sunset. My driver told me that in the fall season this is the only place where you can clearly watch it, so I was grateful to see this on my first night.  I think this is one of the most beautiful beaches on the island because it is extremely quiet and pristine.

In addition to the beaches that I visited, you can find a fantastic Koh Rong Beach Guide here.  There is also a nearby island called Koh Rong Samloem with a nice vibe that I will be covering in my next post.  Overall I really loved staying on the main Koh Rong island due to all of the nice people that I met and the privacy of my treehouse.

Finding Happiness

Throughout the main village of Koh Touch (and other locations in Cambodia) you will see signs advertising “happy” consumables that you can buy, but also signs reminding you that you cannot buy happiness.  What do these things all mean, and what is happiness to Cambodian people and travelers on this island?

Happiness is Khmer is “សុផមង្គល” (so ph mongkol), but rarely will you see the word written in anything but English.  Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and many of the country’s people were slaughtered by their own kind or forced into slavery during the rule of the Khmer Rouge.  The country is still rebuilding itself from those times and the devastation from the war is very apparent.  However while traveling here–especially on this island–I saw nothing but smiles from all of the local people.  As a fellow traveler examines in The Happiness Plunge:

“When you live through a genocide, life is kind of like a miracle. And maybe the people here live each day like it’s a miracle.

I suppose when every day is a miracle, you see things you wouldn’t otherwise see – things that make you smile.”

A lot of backpackers come here to escape life and party on the beach to find happiness, as well as consume psychedelics and cannabis to forget their worries, but the miracle of happiness and life that Cambodian people have cannot be replicated by this.  However, staying on this island gives everyone a chance to connect with one another and appreciate nature while learning about the culture of this country.  This feeling cannot be bought because happiness is not a concrete thing or consumable, but it can be shared a celebrated with others and found within yourself.  Though the horrors that Cambodia has faced in the past cannot be erased, we can do our best to pay our respects and look forward to a brighter tomorrow.

Happiness is both a journey and realizing to be thankful for what you have in life.  Whether it takes a happy cookie or a long journey to realize this depends on you.  But if you make it all the way out to Koh Rong, likely you will find happiness in some way or form.  Life here is so different than living in the city or a first-world country.  People have simple lives and because of it they are relatively carefree.  You can learn a lot by simply spending a few days here.  If you are living a high-stress life, then coming here may simply be the cure.

In my next article, I will be writing about the techno rave in the jungle I went to while I was here for my birthday and re-examine happiness once more.  Thank you for reading.