Friday, July 25, 2014

The best thing about travelling Vietnam

By Asha and Ryan
Back in Melbourne, we were always big fans of Vietnamese rolls, whether it was vietnam roast chicken rolls with pockets of eye-watering chillies from Jenny’s Hot Breads in Camberwell, pate-filled deliciousness from Johnston street, pork meatball rolls from that joint near Barkly square or bbq pork from Sunny’s on Smith St.  All super fresh, with crunchy baguettes and delicious fillings – and usually costing less than $3.

Well, Vietnam did not let us down, especially in Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon, or whatever) which seemed to be the capital for vietnamese rolls (called Banh Mi).  The rolls are often sold from street vendors, but it is best to get them straight from the bakery itself.

Banh Mi Vietnam

Banh my Vietnam

Our typical Banh Mi experience was this:  a fresh, crusty rolled, cut and spread with a lard/butter/something yellow, and then spread with pate, stuffed with three different types of pork meat (yay for mystery meats), along with pickled carrot and other vegetables, chilli, coriander, chilli sauce and a dash of fish sauce.  That normally costs around 10,000 dong (50 cents).

I think its silly to judge a food culture by what its very best dishes are – i think you need to look at the quality of the everyday, easily available street food because that is the real food culture, and in this regard Vietnam was amazing.

Roll your own fresh spring rolls

fresh sring roll Vietnam

Fried spring rolls are great, but good fresh spring rolls are even better.  And having all of the ingredients brought to the table so you can add whatever you want and roll it up – well, you just made Asha’s day.  Fresh spring rolls – in particular some we had in Hanoi – are just amazing.  Take a piece of rice paper, add some beef pan-fried in lemongrass, vermicelli noodles, pineapple (yep pineapple – it was a revelation), lettuce, vietnamese mint, chilli and heaps of other unnamed herbs and roll tightly. Dip into a sweet, fishy dipping sauce and put that glorious thing in your mouth!

Cheap Beer (Seriously, freakishly cheap) 

Beer IVietnam

Cans and bottles of beer in Vietnam are cheap enough, but draught beer (beer on tap) is ridiculously so. Even at some tourist restaurants you  can get a large glass of cold draught beer for 3000 dong (thats about 15 cents).  And the beers aren’t bad – sure, the gas coming of the 15 cent a glass stuff might have a eggy scent to it – but you get over that.

Our favourite Vietnamese beers included the super cheap Saigon (Asha favourite), Bia Ha Noi (which I was warned by a fellow traveller had given him the squirts, “i think they use dodgy water” he said, but i had no troubles with it), Larue – actually there seemed to be a beer named after each significant place in the country.  Its hot, its humid – the conditions where light tasting beers like these do there best work.

We were also surprised at Vietnam’s drinking culture – or that there was one.  But at 5pm on a friday afternoon in Hanoi, its amazing to see hundreds of people sitting on impossibly tiny plastic stools on corners around the old town drinking cold beers and having very loud conversations.

We’d heard our fair share of Vietnam horror stories before we’d even arrived. Tales of complex taxi scams, dodgy hotels, drive-by bag snatching, toddlers picking your pockets etc etc. Although we were a little intimidated by all the stories, we were determined not to be taken advantage of (much). In my opinion things weren’t nearly as bad as people say they are. Either that or we may have just been lucky. That being said we took the usual precautions: My bag was practically stapled and duct taped to my body at all times, we always took legit taxis and monitored the meters with our hawk eyes and generally avoided flashing our fat stacks of cash around for all to see. All in all we came away from Vietnam completely unscathed (or that we know of).

Hotel quality and level of service
Vietnam is light years ahead of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos when it comes to hospitality.  So often on this trip asking a question at reception has been met with confused looks or half-hearted responses.  In Vietnam it was hard to head out the door without first being made to debrief the hotel staff on what we were doing, so they could show us the best way to get there, give us tips on what to see, and make sure we had a map and knew to watch out for bag-snatchers.  So many times the staff would go out of there way to help us with our travel plans (at one hotel, the doorman rode his motorbike behind our taxi to the train station, organised our tickets, and then took our bags onto the train to make sure we got into the correct cabin).  Its great to return to your hotel at the end of the day to find two smiling staff members in reception who seem genuinely pumped that you have returned, with beaming smiles and plenty of questions about your day.

Added to this was the quality of the hotels.  We have spent on average $20 a night on accommodation between us, and in Vietnam this gets you a much nicer room than in Laos or Thailand.  Everywhere we stayed was great.


Coffee Vietnam

The coffee in Vietnam is not for the faint hearted. It’s thick, black, strong and very caffeinated. And we love it.Coffee is made using individual metal filters placed over the cup. The ground coffee and water is placed in the top and the coffee slowly drips through (see more here via this sassy video). If you like your coffee with milk, the Vietnamese will throw in a generous dollop or two of condensed milk, which is probably the only substance that’s able to penetrate the concentrated coffee sludge. The bean itself has a distinctive vanilla smell to it that you really can taste in the finish product.Thats it really – we loved travelling Vietnam.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A real exploration of Vietnam by motorbike

By Phil D
I was meant to travel Vietnam a lot earlier, right after my Cambodia trip, but a rather spontaneous change of my itinerary forced me to postpone this adventure by more than three months. Having finally booked my ticket to Hanoi and a rough outline of places to visit in my head, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A good amount of fellow travelers told me a lot of good things about the country. Others said that they didn’t like the people and their attitude and that the country has already become too touristy. By that time I had already been to 7 other countries and I was worried that Vietnam would just not be able to fascinate me anymore. Luckily I was very wrong and it turned out to be a great trip, with all kinds of different adventures, beautiful places and memorable encounters with the locals.

Temple litureature Vietnam

For many, arriving in Hanoi is sort of a huge culture shock. It is loud, it is busy and it can be quiet dirty at times. I wasn’t too overwhelmed and actually got to like it pretty much right away. It’s a very dynamic city, the street food is marvelous and, contrary to what I have heard before, I found the locals very friendly. What I found very striking and what accompanied me as we traveled across the country was Vietnam’s ambivalent relation to the past and present. On the one hand the country’s history plays a very important role and sometimes seems to even dominate its society. The colonial times, the Vietnam War but also all of the ancient history – in an abstract way it is something that is ever-present wherever you go. On the other hand you will see a country that is on the move, values change, a new middle-class is emerging and the young people want to advance, leave things behind and move forward. In Hanoi this interesting mix became most evident.

Motorbike Vietnam

So what about the tourism in Vietnam? It is said that Vietnam is the touristiest Southeast Asian country just after Thailand. It is true that these days the country gets a huge influx of tourists of all kinds – backpackers as well as all inclusive tours from Europe, the US and China. But there are still ways to dodge the crowds. Our motorbike trip across the mountains of Ha Giang was a perfect example for this. It is a bit out of the way, it takes some time, it might be inconvenient for some but for us the adventure we got in exchange was more than rewarding. Beautiful scenery, authentic hill tribes and yet not a lot of tourists made it one of the best trips of my entire journey.

At the same time, things can become very touristy. Good examples would be the tours of Halong Bay (which I did but did not even cover here), in my opinion one of the most overrated things ever, the still picturesque Hoi An and beach getaways like Nha Trang. I guess it depends what you are after and how you define a great holiday. The good thing about Vietnam is, that it offers a little bit of everything.

Motorbike Northern Vietnam

One thing is for sure though; Vietnam is the perfect country to be explored by motorbike. As most of you might know by now, it is my preferred type of transport anyhow. But Vietnam offers a great variety of exciting and interesting motorbike tours. At first my plan was to buy a bike in Hanoi and then drive down all the way to Saigon to sell it. But I soon realized that, in order to travel without time pressure, this endeavor would take more than a month. Some people do it in 2-3 weeks but I think besides the riding and a severe butt pain at the end, a trip like that wouldn’t be that enjoyable. I opted for renting here and there, either for day trips or extended road trips. Looking back at it, this was the best decision and enabled us to make the most out of the 4 weeks we had. I can recommend doing the Ha Giang loop in the North, going from Hue to Hoi and via Danang and day tours in Dalat or the Mekong Delta. Every one of these trips was worth it and with an average price of about 5-7 USD per day for a bike, it’s affordable as well.

I was positively surprised by the Vietnamese people as I heard a few bad stories before. Everyone was friendly and helpful and we had some great encounters with the locals. They can be very straight forward and they do let it show if they are not content with something. But once you learn how to interpret this, everything is fine. What I found frustrating at times was the fact that you had to haggle for literally everything. Transport, goods and sometimes even a bottle of water. To a certain degree this can be found in all of Southeast Asia and it’s normal but here it was a little too much. It seemed like people perceive Western tourists as moneybags and always try to extract the biggest amount of money as possible. As I later learned, this as well has its roots in former governmental policies and is only slowly changing. At the end of my trip the constant haggling and the abstract feeling of being overcharged just became very tiring.

I finished my journey in the Mekong Delta which somehow felt like coming home or the end of an important part of my trip. I had followed this “Mother of Waters” all the way down from Thailand, through Laos and Cambodia before making it here, where the stream empties into the South China Sea. The river had accompanied me for a long time and it made for some great memories along its banks. As different as the countries are the Mekong flows through, as different are the many faces of the river itself. From a slow and lazy stream to wild and roaring waterfalls and finally branching out into a network of small distributaries – the Mekong represents the many facets of South East Asia and I am sure that one day I will explore its origins in China and Tibet.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Flying over Inle Lake, Myanmar on Hot Air Balloon

InleLake is the largest lake of Myanmar, nested among mountains of the Shan State. Inlelake is often known as the top places in Myanmar for trekking and adventures. Adding more activities to adventure lovers, ActiveTravel Asia introduce a new product –Inlehot air balloon – for new and unique experience when travelling to Myanmar.

Myanmar Hot Air Ballon

How the trip look like?
The passengers will rise up early for being collected from hotel and transfer by boat to the balloon point. The morning mist of the lake is also a nice image to enjoy the trip from beginning. Arriving in the balloon checking point, an experience UK-licensed Commercial Balloon Pilot will provide a comprehensive safety briefing. After that, the balloon will take off gently. The flight duration is about 1 hour.

What is the highlights?
The passenger will certainly enjoy the best panoramic view of the lake when the balloon gets the standard height. Depending on the wind, the view can be various with:
- Motorized canoes transporting visitors along the main canal from Nyaungshwe on a day’s expedition
- Inthafish men is rowing the boats with one legs
- The layered mountain surrounding the lake
- Floating vegetables and gardens

In some occasions of festivals or better weather with strong winds, the passengers will have lucky         chances to witness:
- Inle famous festivals at hidden villages under the shadow of the mountain
- Across the bird sanctuary
- Or even to even to Ywama village with its tall teak stilted houses and its famous floating market. 
The passengers booking Balloon trip will enjoy fresh tee, coffees and light cake before taking off. After landing, enjoy fresh water, fruit juice, fruit and a celebratory champagne style chilled sparkling wine in glass flutes whilst the enthusiastic crew pack the balloon away. 

Is that trip safe?
All pilots are UK-licensed Commercial Balloon Pilot who are well trained and experienced with balloon ride control.

If the winds are too light for the balloon to cross the lake, the pilots are experienced enough with advanced practicedto land the balloon at the top a purpose-built floating balloon platform that follows the balloon all the time. The balloon will then be “sailed” back to shore, adding an extra dimension to morning’s flight.

How to book?
The trip is taking the very first flight on Oct 2014. And now open for booking via our website ActiveTravel Myanmar. With new hot air balloon trip in Inle, now passengers have more options to take balloon ride: in Bagan, in Mandalay and in Inle Lake (Myanmar)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Seven things must do in Hanoi

By Phil D
After my Myanmar adventure, I flew into Hanoi for about a month of traveling Vietnam. My plan was to cross the country all the way from the North down to the South and into the Mekong Delta. I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about Vietnam. On the one hand I was excited to explore a new country, sample the famous Vietnamese cuisine and embark on a promising motorbike adventure Northern Vietnam. On the other hand I was a little skeptical after hearing stories about crime, people constantly being overcharged and certain places already spoilt by mass tourism.  But I wanted to see for myself and tried to keep a positive attitude. After a day in Hanoi, I met up with Angel from Canada who I had met in Bagan, Myanmar.  We arranged to team up and travel together for a bit with Hanoi being our starting point. Hanoi may not have the tropical charm of Saigon but makes up for it with some of the best street food in Asia, a lot of culture and history and a likable type of gruffness and authenticity. Here are my personal highlights which you should definitely check out:

1. Old Quarter
No Hanoi trip would be complete without spending some time in its Old Quarter and luckily our hotel was right next to it. The quarter features the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi and is the only remaining merchants’ quarter in the whole of Vietnam. It was founded in the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400) and back then consisted of only 36 streets. Each one of these was home of one of the guilds and bore the name of their craft which is still the case today. Hang Bac (Silver Street) was home to the silversmiths, in Hang Lan Ong (Herb Street) you can buy all sorts of herbal medicinal products and Hang Ca (Fish Street) is the home of the fish mongers. Although these names no longer necessarily represent what is sold there it is still the best place in Hanoi to buy anything from souvenirs and fake designer label goods to traditional medicines and Buddhist artifacts. Even if you’re not shopping, it is superb place to immerse yourself into the daily Vietnamese life.

Hanoi old quarter

2. Hoan Kiem Lake
Named after an ancient legend, Hoan Kiem Lake (lake of the restored sword) is the epicenter of old Hanoi and serves as sort of a focal point for its public life. In the early mornings you can watch locals practicing Tai Chi on its shores, it’s a popular spot for young couples to spend time in each other’s arms on one of the park benches and at night it makes for a great panorama. The small Ngoc Son Temple is located on a little island at the northern end of the lake. During daytime it can be accesses via a an old red wooden bridge, the Bridge of the Rising Sun. The pleasant surroundings of the lake make for a nice break after having toured the Old Quarter.

Hoan Kiem Lake

3. Temple of Literature and University of Vietnam
About 2km west of Ho Kiem Lake you will find Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. It was built in 1070 and was dedicated to Confucius whose influence is still an important part of Vietnamese culture. The temple honors Vietnam’s finest scholars and men of literary accomplishment. A few years later Vietnam’s first university was founded here.The temple is a great place to wander around, unwind and explore the many pavilions, pagodas, courtyards and gardens.  If it’s not too crowded, the temple makes for a good sanctuary from the traffic outside.

Temple of Literature

4.Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The place where Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body, or affectionately referred to as “Uncle Ho”, is kept. The Mausoleum is an impressive Russian style building always guarded by two soldiers dresses in white. You can actually go inside to pay your respect but lines are supposed to be long and you have to adhere to an elaborate set of rules as you enter. In the end we are talking about Vietnam’s holiest of holies. Unfortunately we were not able to go inside since the mausoleum was closed during our stay (as it usually is during October and November).

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

5. Hoa Lo Prison Museum
The Hoa Lo prison was built by the French in 1896 and was used to incarcerate “anti-colonial revolutionaries”. After the French were ousted in 1954 and during the Vietnam war, it was mainly shot down American pilots who were detained in the prison. It was then when it received its new name: The Hanoi Hilton. An interesting artifact is the flight suit of former senator and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and photographs of his capture by Hanoi locals.

6. Eat Phở
Hanoi is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest food capitals and a street-eater’s paradise with plenty of options for those who want to eat like a local. Vietnam’s and especially Hanoi’s signature dish is Phở, a soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, meat and herbs. The dish comes with plenty of garnishes like onions, basil, bean sprouts and lime wedges. There are two varieties of Phở: Phở Ga which is made with chicken and Phở Bo which is made with beef.  It’s fresh, light and is traditionally served as breakfast food. Very small, very local, very cheap and very tasty.

Pho, Vietnam

7. Drink Bia hơi
Bia hơi is a specialty of the North and probably the cheapest beer in the world. The light beer is brewed daily, matured for a short period of time and then delivered to the many bars around Hanoi. These popular street corner places are referred to as beer stations and that’s what they are. You sit down on small plastic stools, order a beer accompanied by peanuts and that’s it. Locals love it and if you pick one of the non-touristy places outside the Old Town, it’s a truly authentic experience. Since the beer is brewed daily, quality varies from day to day. I actually liked it. Downing a few after a long day wandering around a city was nice and the good best thing about it is that it’s so cheap. One glass for about 3.000 VND to 5.000 VND which is equivalent to about 15 USc to 25 USc.

Beer hoi, Hanoi

Hanoi was a great start for my Vietnam trip. It takes a bit getting used to it with the crazy people and the constant hustle and bustle in the Old Quarter. But then it’s a great place to immerse into the Vietnamese culture and daily life. There is a lot to do and see, by day and by night and the food, especially the street food is amazing. I think after Thailand, this was the second best I tried during my entire trip. Good value and the friendliest and most helpful staff ever.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Impressive Hoian ancient town

By Daniel Noll

Hoi An is considered the architectural and culinary gem of Central Vietnam, receiving the stamp of approval from UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. We arrived there on a tourist bus from Danang and were dragged through the typical Vietnamese tour routine.

Hoian Vietnam

The bus conveniently stopped at one hotel where we got a hard sell. Those tourists who returned to the bus were taken to a second hotel, with guesthouse touts literally following the bus until its final destination. We had expected Hoi An to be over-touristed, but we weren’t expecting this intense welcome. Once we broke free from the bus and the touts, we felt the laid-back (as much as is possible in Vietnam) feel of Hoi An’s old town.

Hoian ancient tow

Hoi An served as a major trading port in the 16th and 17th century, making it home to many Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, and French traders. You can still see the Chinese influence today – in the architecture and families descended from the original Chinese traders. Merchant houses line the streets and are usually outfitted with a storefront on the ground floor and living quarters in the back or on the second floor. Today, the storefronts are mostly full of souvenir shops, tailor shops, or restaurants catering to tourists.

Cycling Hoian

We filled our days in Hoi An easily, spending time at tailor shops, taking cycling tour Hoi An and cooking course, eating  specialties like cao lau and wantons, and just wandering around the windy streets. We found people friendly and not as jaded by tourism as we would have expected given the number of tourists coursing through the town. It makes for a pleasant break from the intensity of Vietnam’s big cities.