Off the Beaten Track: Ho Chi Minh Edition

Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh

The famous Broadway musical Miss Saigon says it all: The heat is on in Saigon! Now named Ho Chi Minh City yet still known to all as Saigon, this ever moving and never boring metropolis is the place where one can find the best of the old and the new, the cheap and the extravagant.

They say that if you stay in a place long enough, you will soon uncover its mystery and become familiar with it. But with a short trip to Saigon, you won’t have the luxury to wait for the mystery to present itself before your eyes. You have to unlock them yourself by going to roads less traveled by tourists. Get out of the tourist comfort zone and into the local adept way of life.

Fantastic way to get around Saigon.

  • Rent a bike. Much of Ho Chi Minh is biker-friendly, and there are shops from which you can rent a bicycle. Perks? Biking is faster than walking, giving you a more efficient way of exploring the city. On the other hand, it also is slower than taking the bus and other kinds of public transportation, giving you the opportunity to take in sights and to even stop if you see something interesting.

Quan Am Pagoda in Cholon

  • Take a trip to Cholon. Most tourists stay within the Saigon area. The more adventurous souls, however, go to Cholon, Vietnam’s largest Chinatown and the best place to have dim sum. Roam around and observe how the Hao people, or the Chinese Vietnamese, go through their day-to-day activities. If you’re lucky enough, you can have chitchat with a local who will spill the beans about how the place was once a hothouse for opium dealing. Who knows, it still might be a busy place for selling the drug.

  • Swim and frolic in Dam Sen Water Park. If you expect something upscale, skip this activity altogether. After all, you can find a lot of other water parks anywhere else in the world. But what Dam Sen can give you that no other water park can is a glimpse of the local life in Ho Chi Minh, in a more relaxed and fun atmosphere.

Delicious dish on a rainy morning

  • Learn how to make pho. Any tourist who visits Ho Chi Minh City will agree that pho is delicious and that one will never tire eating it. If you want to taste the same goodness of this iconic soup, then learn how to make it! Ask for a local to help you source the ingredients, and have them teach you how to whip up a mean pho. If your hostel has provisions for cooking, then well and good! If there’s none though, just ask around and take down notes as best as you can.

Domestic and international airlines fly to and from Vietnam from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Davao International Airport, as well as from the Mactan-Cebu International Airport.

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Cooking: Backpacker Style

Cooking during your trip, anyone?

If you were the type who wants to go hardcore in everything he does, then you most certainly would not mind cooking your own food during trips. Before you foodies protest and throw tomatoes our way, hear this first: We know of ways on how you can cook your own food yet not miss out on the local cuisine of your destination. In fact, true foodies should already have had a light bulb moment. Here are some tips!

  • Book an accommodation that has provisions for cooking. In the first place, you would not be able to cook your own food without a stove, a faucet and other cooking utensils. There are a lot of local accommodations that have common kitchen areas that can be used by all their guests. If you’re staying in the city, look for condominium units that are rented out on a per-night basis.
  • Locate the market. You won’t find your ingredients in 7-Eleven! Ask around about where the local market is as soon as you check in your hotel or inn. Check out the products available and create your menu based on the ingredients that you find there. Aside from buying ingredients, you will also be able to learn a lot by just conversing with market vendors and observing people in their daily walks.
  • Taste the local food and try to replicate it. Don’t wait for you to get home before you try cooking that local dish that you tried! Get a local who can teach you how to cook the dish to perfection, using ingredients that make for an authentic and delicious dish.
  • Cook your favorite meal from home. For travelers who stay for a long time in a foreign land, mom’s spaghetti provides the warmth and comfort that they miss back home. It helps in adjusting to a new culture, and is a healthy homey habit for those whose feet are always walking around the world.
  • When all else fails, go instant. Being open to the idea of cooking your own meals during a travel will help you cope with different situations, such as late night cravings (which is a very valid reason to cook, by the way). You’ll never know when you’re going to need cup noodles and boiled water! If you are the type of traveler who books budget airlines such as Zest Air and Cebu Pacific, then you will most probably like the idea of saving on a few meals so you can splurge on the best meal you can ever have in your area of destination.

Books to Inspire the Traveler in You

You’d think that the desire to travel comes easily to anybody, but this isn’t the case. Some people would rather spend their money on gadgets, and some travel but don’t quite experience the real meaning of traveling.

If only they knew that traveling sets their minds and hearts free, if they knew that the value of a single travel surpasses that of the latest tech gadget, then everybody would prioritize it.

Sadly, this isn’t the case. It has become my advocacy to convince friends to get out and not miss out on all that traveling can give them. Most of the time, I encourage them to read my favorite travel blogs. An even more effective tool to inspire the inner traveler in everybody is by reading books that are travel-themed. Just as how a book provides an escape from the everyday life, so does traveling. Here are the books that create an escape and encourage its readers to go on that literal escape through traveling.

  • Eat, Pray, Love. At the top of our list is the travel novel of today Eat, Pray, Love. It is a visual story that leads the reader through author Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey as she moves on from a failed marriage. It effectively captures the essence of a travel, letting go and being open to all possibilities, even to the possibility of finding new love.

 

This novel epitomizes the art of letting go and opening yourself to possibilities
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Call it geeky, call it unrealistic, but isn’t this what traveling is all about? This work of fiction (unfortunately, technological advancements in this book hasn’t been developed yet) is an interesting read that will unleash your inner geek. Aside from being great at inspiring you to travel, it also serves as a great read during a long wait at the Caticlan Airport. It’s best to bring a less bulky edition of the book over the hardbound gold-printed one.

Take me to the other world.

  • The Odyssey. Another geek book? Before you walk out on me, let me just say that no work of fiction can excite going to Greece or Italy more than Homer’s masterpiece (unless you’d rather read a Greek Mythology reference book). Moreover, the adventures of Odysseus are a good standard to set you off to your own adventure, whether it’s in Greece, in Italy, or in the streets of Metro Manila.

Epic poems, anyone?

  • Lord of the Rings. Since we’re along the lines of adventure (cyclops and whirlpools, anyone?), let’s not forget JRR Tolkien’s epic novel that has inspired travelers and non-travelers alike. The fellowship of the ring travels Middle Earth to fulfill their purpose; you should too, travel Middle Earth (that’s just the world, in plain non-Tolkien words) to find and fulfill your purpose in life.

Our beloved Frodo… and Gollum

  • No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach. I love the show, I loved the book! Anthony Bourdain is someone I can look up to in terms of wit, taste, sarcasm and experiences. How I wish I could take my own version of humor to dine in the best restaurants and to travel the ends of the earth. Can you imagine a sushi restaurant in Japan that serves 20 pieces of sushi for P16,000? Now, can you imagine eating there and eating the best sushi you’ll ever have in your whole life, and get paid for doing it? Anthony Bourdain is one lucky bastard.

    Wit, humor and of course, good food

Around the World in a Week: An International Cuisine Trip in Metro Manila

I love Manila. Save for the horrible traffic and the need to keep my wallet and cell phone in my bag’s most secret pocket (Yes, my bag has a secret pocket. Try living in Manila and you’ll know why.), I love the life that Manila has given me. I can easily go to the mall because I think there’s one every kilometer, and more and more restaurants are being set up.

In fact, you can go on an international cuisine trip without booking a flight to any other country. Manila is home to excellent restaurants that feature cuisines from around the world. Take one of the many cheap flights to Manila and enjoy the best of the world in the following restaurants:

Mediterranean: Cyma

Logo from Cyma’s Facebook page

Just the mention of the restaurant makes me crave! Cyma is my Achilles’ heel; I immediately think of the rich flavors of the sauce and herbs that they place in their dishes. I’m still not dismissing the thought that the chefs and waiters purposely put an ingredient that turns one from a casual eater to a Cyma addict. For a Greek restaurant that isn’t in Greece, Cyma rocks!

Must-trys: The Saganaki (an appetizer made of cheese), Gyros (Greek shawarma in simple terms), Chicken Souvlaki (skewers with pita bread and yogurt dip)

American: Johnny Rockets

Logo from Johnny Rockets Philippine website

Large serving portions? Check! American diner restaurant design? Check! Milkshakes? Check! Dancing waiters and waitresses to the tune of retro American songs? Check! Unlimited fries? Check!

Johnny Rockets has everything you want in an American restaurant. After all, its branches in Manila are franchises from the US, which means that this diner is nothing short of true blue American. Just don’t expect some hearty healthy meals here. What you should expect are unapologetic large servings that are so tasteful you’d know it’s unhealthy but you would not give any care in the world.

Must-trys: Original Burger, French fries (unlimited!), milkshakes

Thai: Thai at Silk

Logo from Thai at Silk Facebook page

Although a lot of other new Thai restaurants are springing up around the Metro, Thai at Silk in Serendra is still my favorite. The ambience is classy, the waiters prompt, and the food always a hit and never a miss. Although the dishes are not uniquely different from common Thai food, the tastes are always a notch or more higher than other Thai restos in Manila.

Must-trys: Catfish salad, Pad Thai, Sticky rice with Mango

Italian: Gotti’s

Logo from Gotti’s Ristorante Facebook page

For a budget eater like me who frequents the mall a lot of times, Gotti’s is the perfect Italian restaurant. Although food critics would say otherwise, for my lifestyle of easy and breezy, Gotti’s suits me well. It serves tasty Italian food like pizza and pasta. What else would you want to eat in an Italian restaurant anyway?

Must-trys: Garlic Shrimp pasta, Quattro Formaggi pizza, Banana Nutella Crepe