Sunday, April 20, 2014

Oh My Đà Lạt, a voyage in the South Central Highlands of Vietnam

When I planned this holiday, I don't have any idea that there are more interesting place to visit in Vietnam other than Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. I always do my research a week before my trip specially for the places which are not commonly visited hence accessible by foot or wheel.
I have a friend who once told me that there is a place in Vietnam which is worth to visit. A place far beyond Ho Chi Minh's humid tropical climate, hazardous air pollution and busting traffic jam. This place is Da Lat, located in Lâm Đồng Province in the southern central highlands of Vietnam. 
Da Lat is dubbed as the "city of thousands of pine trees" and "the city of eternal spring" with elevation of 1,500MASL thus climate contrast the humidity of the central and southern Vietnam. Since it was colonized by French in 1900, infrastructures are built in European style. 
Phuong Trang Sleepers Bus
After my Cai Dao - Cu Chi tour, I checked out for a night but left my bagpack in the hostel for safe keeping. I bought a ticket from Phuong Trang Bus  for a night ride. The terminal is also located just beside my hostel, along de Tham St. Travel time from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Lat is about 8 hours thus sleepers bus is more convenient than the conventional. I was able to save one night accommodation as I spent overnight inside the bus and had a good sleep. The sleepers bus left HCM at 23:10H and arrived in Da Lat at 07:15H the following day.

When I arrived in Da Lat, the sun was up hence a cool breeze ran across my body. The temperature was about 8-10 deg. centigrade that morning.

Ben Xe Lien Tinh Da Lat Bus Terminal
From the bus terminal, I decided to just walk going to the city proper, about 3km away from the bus terminal, pine trees are everywhere. On my way to Da Lat Trip office, the tour company I've contacted prior to my trip, I was able to visit the man-made lake of Da Lat, which is fairly located in the center of the city. 
A view of Xuan Huong Lake
City town proper
I arrived in Da Lat Trip office at 08:30AM where I waited for the tour van for my country-side day trip tour. I had my Pho' for breakfast and croissant. I opted for group tour rather than the Da Lat habal-habal as it was more cheaper. We first started the tour to Da Lat Flower Farm, about 30 minutes away from the city...
The flower farm
Then we headed to Meh Lin Coffee Farm. Da Lat is the number one producer of coffee in the world according to Karen, our tour guide.

Weasel or Alamid in Philippines

Traditional coffee maker, dripping
I strongly agree that Da Lat has the best coffee in the world. I've tried the cape moka that morning.


A pose in a coffee plant

Then to Cricket Farm. You can taste fried cricket for free. I was dared to try it, it was crunchy but juicy.
Live cricket
Free taste cricket 
Few meter away from the cricket farm is the silk factory.

The Silk Factory

And then the Elephant Falls. You have to trek down for about 15 minutes for great view of the majestic falls

The Elephant Falls

Temple near the Elephant Falls with a Happy Buddha
Past half noon when we headed back to the city for our Lunch.

Then continued our tour to Da Lat Train Station, the first train station in Vietnam which is still operational.
Da Lat Train Old Railway Station

And then to XQ Historical Village.

Our last destination is the Crazy House wherein the whole architecture of the house is like a museum of abstract. 

Our tour ended about 05:00PM and went back to Da Lat office where I was dropped-off. I continued my Da Lat exploration by walking around the city while waiting for my night trip back to Ho Chi Minh.

St Nicholas of Bari, Da Lat Cathedral

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ho Chi Minh City: Outskirts and Side Trip

Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City is formerly known as Saigon. It is located in the southeastern region of Vietnam, the largest city and the central business district of the country, a city rich in culture and history. It is the bagpackers haven and home of the hundreds motorbikes and busy streets.
Before I go through with my city tour, let me show you first what I've done on my first day. Although I arrived late in the evening and with lack of sleep, I was able to wake-up early as I am excited with my HCM outskirts tour. I decided to have this tour on my early stay as I plan to go to Da Lat the following day and back to Ho Chi Minh on my last day for the city tour. I was torn between Mekong Delta Tour and Cao Dai - Cu Chi Tunnels but chose the latter because I remember, my grandfather has been part of the Vietnam war history. He was then with the American troops who fought during the Second Indochina War and atleast to internalize how they lived during the war.

A week before my trip, I started sending emails to the tour operators in Ho Chi Minh and Da Lat, to compare and get a reasonable price for the tour. I ended up transacting with Delta Adventure Tour because they offer good price (without making any down payment) and it is strategically located near my hostel.
Prior to my tour, I had Banh Mi and Vietnamese Ice Coffee for my breakfast, just in front of Delta Adventure business office while waiting for the tour bus. The tour bus arrived at exactly 08:30 in the morning, with Binh as our tour guide, a half-Filipino, half-Vietnamese in late 50's.
First, we headed to Cao Dai Temple in the town of Tay Ninh. It is approximately 100 kilometers away from Ho Chi Minh City, about 3 hours drive. A colorful temple in pastel colors strike my eyes when we arrived.
Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh, Southern Vietnam
We were just on time for the daily worship wherein we were greeted by the devotees upon our arrival. According to Binh, the temple structures represent major religions such as Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism etc.

 During the ceremony, the worshipers line up according to their spiritual level and designation
Cao Dai Temple interior

It was past half noon when we left for Cu Chi district, second part of the tour. We arrived around 3 o'clock in the afternoon thus weather is still humid.
Cu Chi Tunnel is a connecting underground tunnel constructed by Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam war as hiding post. I was amazed how it was built, the idea from guerillas to build an underground city, complete with armory, hospital, kitchen and quarters and even traps.
Before the walkthrough, a video presentation in black and white was played about Vietnam War and how the tunnel was constructed by the Viet Cong soldiers.

Map and tunnel structure of Cu Chi tunnel


With the Viet Cong soldiers

Entrance of the tunnel
Underground traps

The underground tunnel
 Last part of the tour was a challenge, we were asked by Binh to walk and crawl inside the tunnel, about 500m and feel how the guerillas hardly fought with the American soldiers during the war. It was exhausting as the air is limited and you have to duck walk the entire stretch.

We left Cu Chi district around 5 o' clock and arrived Ho Chi Minh just on time for dinner.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

MNL-SGN-DLI-MNL, Discovering Vietnam MMXIII

Something came up to my mind, why not spend my pre-birthday vacation somewhere I haven't been to? Not the usual beach bumming down south or trekking up north, but to a place where I would  definitely enjoy my holiday.  Looking at the map, heading to western Philippines is way better, lot of things to discover and great places to explore. Since I've visited Coron and Puerto Princesa, I skipped these islands and decided to go far beyond the boarder, Vietnam!

My trip to Vietnam was planned early this year, waiting for a seat sale offer by low-cost carriers. I've got a round trip ticket from Cebu Pacific for Php2,8000++, good deal!

"Traveling alone is an absolute freedom, it is an ability to do what you want."

"Vietnam, the easternmost country in the Indochina Peninsula, blessed with a ravishing coastline, emerald-green mountain, breathtaking national parks, dynamic cities, outstanding cultural interest and one of the world's best cuisines, Lonely Planet.

Citizens of the Philippines are allowed to stay in Vietnam for upto 21 days due to bilateral visa exemption agreement of both countries thus Filipinos need not to worry in getting a visa before flying out for Vietnam. For other citizens, you may contact the nearest Vietnamese diplomatic offices or competent travel agencies for a written invitation which will then issue the visa upon arrival.

Cebu Pacific has only one flight to Ho Chi Minh (HCM) or Saigon that departs Manila at 22:50h everyday, so expect to arrive late in the evening. Taking a bus is the cheapest way in getting to the city but bus service is only available until 18:00h, so opt to take a taxi instead. Taxi scams are common in Vietnam so make sure to transact with a legitimate taxi companies. There's a taxi queue right after getting out of the airport but make sure to approach the staff of Mai Linh (in green neck tie) or Vinasun Taxi (in brown) as they are reliable and honest.

My taxi fare from Tan Son Nhat International Airport, HCM to my hotel, Suite Bagpackers Inn which is located in De Tham St. District 1 in the bagpackers area costs me Vnd150,000 or about Php300, cheaper than expected.

de tham st, pham ngu lao district (bagpackers haven)
There are reasonable accommodation for those on a budget and can hop to any bagpackers inns around Pham Ngu Lao (PNL) area, district 1. Since I used to stay in a dorm-type hostel for my holidays, sharing a room with other bagpackers is not a big deal for me as long as individual locker is available to keep my things secured. I booked my accommodation via Agoda for only Php196/night. However, make sure to inform the hostel about your late arrival because most of the inns closes around 2am, and to avoid knocking their door once you arrive. I also bought travel insurance for this trip that cost me about Php400 as incidents of robbery and theft are rampart, and also to cover my medical expenses in case I get ill or something happen to me. 

For countryside tour in Ho Chi Minh, you may ask your hotel receptionist to arrange it for you or you may proceed to any tour agencies, widespread across PNL area. I took the service of Delta Tours Adventure, located in De Tham St, nearly across where I billeted. Most of them offers a good and cheap tour package however for the city tour, just put on your shoes and walk around the city.

A trip to Đà Lạt which is located in Lâm Đồng Province, part of the Central Highlands region is worth to visit. I was able to include this in my trip in spite of my tight schedule.  ...Exploring da Lat to be continued...
* below is my detailed itinerary and expenses - ho chi minh city countryside and da lat

Vietnam Expenses

18:00 Off to Terminal 3 (Cebu PacificAir)

150.00 LRT/MRT and Jeep from Pasay to T3 (Nichols-MRT)

550.00Terminal Fee
22:50Departure from MNL


00:20 Arrival at Tan Son Nhat Intl Airport

01:00 Taxi from TSN to Suite Bagpacker Inn c/o MaiLinh Group 150000
310.80Option (Vinasun Taxi Group)
01:30 Check-in at Suite Bagpackers Inn (228 De Tham St. ,  Dist 1, Pham Ngu Lao)

588.00Booked thru Agoda @ Php196/day
02:00Lights off

06:00Wake-up time, morning walk

07:00Breakfast (Banh Mi) 15000
31.08Baguette sandwich (along  De Tham)

Ca Phe Suada and bottled water20000
41.44Ice Coffee

Depart HCM for Saigon Tour c/o Delta Adventure Tours (De Tham)183000


Option (approach hotel recep.); Mr. Binh (guide)

10:30Snack in Tay Ninh (Bottled Water)10000

11:30Arrival at Great Cao Dai Holy See

Cao Dai religion (South Vietnam)
12:30Depart Tay Ninh for Ben Dinh

13:00Lunch in Tay Ninh80000

Fresh buko juice12000
14:30Arrival at Cu Chi Tunnel, Ben Dinh90000
190.00Entrance fee and service tax not included in the tour

Winter melon juice10000
18:00Arrival in HCM

Booked Ticket for Da Lat at Phuong Trang office (De Tham) for evening trip220000
455.84Sleepers bus for 7-8 hours travel to Da Lat
19:00Dinner at Kim Café (De Tham) Chicken Mushroom plus Saigon Bia beer9000
Night stroll around Pham  Ngu Lao (good to try street food)

Takoyaki ala Saigon15000

Bottled water14000

Putobungbong ala Saigon10000
23:25Depart HCM for Da Lat


07:00Arrival in Da Lat

Booked Ticket for HCM at Phuong Trang office (Da Lat) for evening trip220000
07:15Taxi from Bus station to Da Lat Trip office 10000

Breakfast (Pho)35000

Bottled water12000
08:30Depart Da Lat for Countryside Tour c/o Da Lat Trip (Tran Nhang Tong)310000

Flower farm

Coffee Plantation in Nam Ban (Buy fresh coffee bean)

-Weasel Moka (Alamid)400000


-Coffee tasting40000

-Lotus Tea50000

K'ho minority village; Silk factory and Cricket farm

Elephant waterfall in Lam Dong Province

Linh An Pagoda

Happy Budha

13:00Back to Da Lat for lunch62000

Bottled water10000

-Da Lat old Train station

-XQ Historical

-Crazy house40000

Tour guide tip150000
17:00Arrival in Da Lat Trip office (Drop-off point)

17:10Continue Da Lat city tour

-Tuyen Lam Lake (Man-made lake)

-Domaine de Marie convent

-St Nicholas of Bari, Da Lat Cathedral

Advent mass
19:30Dinner at Da Lat market and stroll around (Pho and Saigon Beer)45000
93.24Evening market
21:00Taxi to Da Lat bus station for evening trip 43000
22:15Depart Da Lat for HCM


Arrival in HCM

Lights off

Wake-up time

Breakfast (Ban Mhi)20000
09:30Start Saigon city "walk" tour

-Reunification Palace (Entrance fee) 30000

-War Remants Museum (Entrance fee) 15000

Buko juice break 10000

-Saigon Central Post Office

-Notre Dame Cathedral

-Saigon Opera House

-HCM City Mueseum

-HCM City Hall

13:00Lunch (Pho) 35000

Sugar cane juice 15000

Bottled water 10000
14:00Ben Thanh Market

-Coffee drip  100000
207.202 small @ VND30000 / 1 medium @ VND40000

-Blue mountain coffee 140000

-Vinamit dried fruit210000
435.122 small @ VND55000 / 1 large @ VND100000

-Key chain and magnet50000

Saigon Square

-North Face bag350000

-Bull cap120000
17:00Back to hotel for rest


-Mt. Dew 15000
22:45Check-out (Pay additional stay for late check-out)
23:00Taxi to Tan Son Nhat Airport 150000

-Duty free shopping

01:30Departure from SGN to MNL flight 5J571

04:45Arrival at Terminal 3, Cebu Pacific

06:00Bus from Terminal 3 to MRT Pasay station

08:00Home Sweet Home


*Total Expenses exclusive of Airfare