48 hours of land travel, 16 days, 4 cities, 2 countries, 1 Cupcake Girl

I am very fond of lists.

So what do I do now that I have recapped my first ever solo trip out of the country? Make one!

The most common question I got asked when I told people that I will be traveling/has traveled alone is if I am on a soul-searching journey or I wanted to go off and “find myself”. I honestly have no idea why I still pushed through with this trip solo, but what I do know now is that I learned a lot from it. It was actually a bit hard to think of a title for this post because I didn’t know what direction to take in making a summary of sorts. I don’t think a “things you will learn from traveling solo” approach will apply to everyone since we all have different priorities and personalities. I also am did not plan on a “why you should travel solo” list because I’m not gonna lie, I find traveling with a companion cheaper haha (but if I did nudge you towards that direction, let me know and I am so excited for you! :D). I decided to simply write about what I think I got the most out of from this trip: learning more about myself.

Here are the 15 things I learned from traveling solo..

I can survive with a limited number of clothes (and things in general).

I decided that since I was solo, it would be more efficient for me to have my hands free while navigating my way through a foreign city. Also, there are two things you should know about me: when I buy things, I usually am a hoarder and when I travel with a suitcase, I have enough clothes to last me up to twice the duration of the trip. I live with the mentality that if I can’t pick between two (or three) items, I’ll just get all of them, which eventually results in wastage (didn’t really get to wear that outfit, only used this shade of blush once cos I bought all six shades). Traveling with a backpack and one small handbag has made me realize that I can survive with just the basics. I had to plan my bottoms to coordinate with at least two tops, so I can use it repeatedly. I didn’t even have space to put in my flat iron, my excessive makeup bag, the third pair of sandals and an array of accessories. I didn’t go crazy buying souvenir items I am going to forget about in a few months because I didn’t have space for it. It made deciding what to wear or whether to buy something easier. Surprisingly, when I got home I noticed the practice sticking to my everyday life: do I really need to buy all three colors of the same top/I already have a similar lipstick shade/I don’t think I can use this pair of shoes beyond this event. It doesn’t really mean that I will be traveling with a backpack for the rest of my life, but it has made me realize that I really do not need a lot of things to make me happy. 🙂

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Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

I love traveling with C! He is my favorite travel buddy, primarily because he lets me take the reins in the planning. He’ll simply tell me the places he wants to go to, or the things he wanna try and I get to plan the rest. Going without him has given me moments where I see something interesting and I wish I can just nudge him so we can have the moment together. The physical distance made us feel closer than ever because our Facetime calls in bed are more meaningful, filled with more details about our days and we learned to truly enjoy each other’s company (albeit virtually). This solo trip just proved that I do not need him in my life, but I really want him to be. 🙂

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I like not having to wait for anyone.

Missing C aside, I loved not thinking about anyone else. Traveling with my family meant sleeping in the same bed as my siblings (my little sister plays with people’s hair when she sleeps), we only tend to go to family-friendly places, and there are four other people to contest your food choices. With C, I do have more freedom to do whatever I want, but it comes with a price. Literally, a hefty price tag because this guy likes staying in comfortable places and shopping. There are also differences when it comes to pocket money when vacationing with friends, which leads to different priorities on where to spend it. When it’s just me, I do not have to wake earlier than my siblings to get first dibs in the shower, spend 30 minutes just rousing C from his sleep, or argue on where to go/eat. I get to decide on my own pace. 😛

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It’s fairly easy to engage with the locals even if you do not speak the same language.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but when traveling in a pack (or as a couple), we tend to rely on each other. Are we lost? We can do this together! But when you’re solo, you rely on the help of friendly strangers. I personally was more open to engage with locals – would I have accepted that invite to get coffee with a local I met on the train if I was with C? No one would probably approach us. Or would I have hanged out with the cool girls from Saigon Hotpot on my last night in Ho Chi Minh? My mom would have insisted that I stay in and get some sleep so I can get up early. Again, I love traveling with family/friends/C, but it’s more likely for me to grab an opportunity to know people when I’m in an unfamiliar place by myself. Even when we have to rely on Google Translate to converse.

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It’s very easy to make friends.

Not only with the locals but with the Pinoys as well! There are A LOT of Filipino backpackers, and I never thought I’d say this but one week in, I missed speaking to someone who can understand what I’m saying. Whenever I hear someone speaking in Tagalog, I immediately strike up a conversation with them (or have a 7-hour one, like the one I had with the Pinay I met on the bus to Cambodia).

It’s okay to spend your hard earned money on experiences.

I’m a practical person, and admittedly, frugal on some things. I, unfortunately, have never been rich but I realized that with experiences, you never know when the chance to do something will come up again. So I paid for the experiences that seemed exciting, booked a 4-star hotel room for my last nights on vacation, and ate like a queen as much as I can. (How luxurious is it to bathe in a tub while watching television after a long day, right?)

The world is huge and yet small at the same time.

It goes without saying that we never really run out of places to see or adventures to try. But no matter how different the culture, we all live almost the same lives. We go through the same struggles: will I ever get what I want out of life? Do I get to pursue my goals someday? Is someday today? What about the bills I have to pay? I got to talk to so many people of varying races, from opposite parts of the world, only to find out that we are asking ourselves an alternate form of the same question.

Going home is as exciting as leaving.

Sure, I do not anticipate the work load I eventually have to tackle. But there is familiarity in routine that you just cannot get out of vacations.. Knowing what you know now when you get back and applying it to your life is invigorating in a weird kind of way.

 

I am more than I give myself credit for.

When I got on the plane to Vietnam, I couldn’t sleep. I was going through another level of anxiety that I don’t normally experience because I didn’t know if I could actually do it. I was raised to believe that whatever I put my mind into, I can achieve. But I rarely ever get to test my limits – how long can I walk with a 12-kilo backpack in high heat, can I sleep with seven other people in the room, I can’t eat a frog right?? And I did it all! 🙂

I rarely get enough alone time.

Growing up in a family-oriented household, we were expected to share and ensure that everyone has got a share of everything. Working with teams, you are expected to be one harmonious unit. Being part of a couple meant constant attuning to your partner. By yourself, you can be selfish – and it’s okay. 🙂

It truly is about the small things in life.

May it be that hole-in-the-wall with the amazing pho, or little acts of kindness (men drinking coffee in the street walks you to your destination, two guys stopping on their tracks because you looked lost and helped you, I have endless examples!) – it is easy to find joy in the small things. My daily life is spent chasing down career opportunities, wanting better clothes, rushing to get to the office before rush hour.. but there is a different kind of satisfaction in eating a bit of grilled frog, running to catch your train and finding out you got in a few minutes before it leaves, a flat surface I can put my camera in to take photos during the golden hour or catching magnificent sunrises.

It’s okay to make mistakes (within reason).

There is a negative stigma attached to failure. Nobody’s perfect and we slip up from time to time in making those life decisions, the small ones such as where to eat or life changing ones like “WTF I’M TRAPPED IN A TAXI IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY AT 2 AM”. Some people had to chop off their arms because of these mistakes, but as unfortunate it is at the moment – we have to admit that it’s a learning moment. I forgot to bring my sunscreen and suffered from sunburns because I thought it would be okay not to buy one.. now I learned to ensure that sunblock is always in my things to pack list. I made the mistake of not doing the smart thing such as insisting that the hostel send me a car to pick me up from the airport, and I learned to always confirm before I arrive at my destination that I will get picked up. You know what they say, experience is the best teacher. 😛

The world may be a dangerous place, but you got your instincts to get by (again, within reason).

Everyone who knew I was traveling solo was very worried because (I have to quote Jab We Met again) “a girl traveling alone is like an open treasure chest”. Even my mom agrees with that, but the stubborn person that I am believed that if all the other solo female travelers can do it, I can as well. With this experience, I learned how to prepare by doing lots of research and trust my instincts: if something feels off, remove yourself in the situation and always be alert. I was lucky to not go through anything traumatic that could discourage me from going on another solo trip. In fact, I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

I should not care about what people think of me.

It is significantly different when you are aware that no one you know is watching your every move. I am very conscious of taking food photos in restaurants, posing in public, or being spontaneous. When I was solo, I couldn’t care less if they choose to stare when I sit down on museum floors, stand up to take nice food photos for my blog, or do math problems in cafe. I was so afraid of judgment from people I actually know that I have limited myself to do what I considered where “acceptable” behavior. Now, I dyed my hair the color I wanted to, sang in public karaokes and take wacky ass photos.

There is something very liberating knowing that you can go anywhere by yourself.

Funny story: I had no plans of buying souvenir sleeveless tops from the night market, but when I saw this top I knew from the depths of my heart that I had to buy it! Backpack + glasses + selfie = so me! Only the caption is untrue because even though I was alone, I wasn’t lonely. My self-confidence even increased with the knowledge that I got my own back. I can trust myself and I can take care of me. I spent my own money, carried my own things, and even washed my own clothes. This may not seem like a feat to a lot of people, but it is for me. 🙂

Who else here has traveled alone? Share in the comments below the things you have learned while doing solo travel and let’s celebrate our independence together! 🙂

Ho Chi Minh 2015 || Good night, Vietnam

I have always found the phrase “good night” as positive. It signifies a time to rest, a time for yourself, a time to dream, and well wishes for those dreams to come true once the night is over. Vietnam has been a positive experience for me, and my stay provided me the reality of the things I used to yearn to do. It was the good kind of tiring when it’s excitement and not anxiety that burns your energy. Writing my travelogue now when I’m mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted has made me want to drop everything and just leave. I’m also publishing this post without proof reading it since I’m writing this during my barely existent “free time” – let me know if I committed any errors.

Add up Ryan Adams’ 1989 cover – and all I feel is melancholy as I recall carefree times when things were simple and my responsibilities were easy enough to carry on my shoulders.

After a tiring day, such as the one I spent crawling in the Cu Chi Tunnels, I found an escape from the hustle bustle of the streets of Ho Chi Minh in Khanh Casa Garden. Although I was a bit surprised when I was paying for my order since this is the first time I had been charged with service charge the entire time I was in Vietnam.

I discovered an affinity for passion fruit while I was in Ho Chi Minh and tended to favor it whenever I find it on the menu. I ordered a slice of Passion Fruit cake and a smoothie.

Although the three-storey building where the cafe was located had a lot of quirky areas that I would usually sit in, I ultimately decided to stay at the roof deck so I can watch the street below. The cafe is located across the street from the Starbucks building. I still wonder why a big global coffee shop is in Vietnam when they have amazing coffee peddled in the streets. I heard that the first branch of Starbucks (not the one in the photo) had really long queues during their first few months of operation.

Crossroads.

I still haven’t had lunch yet when I saw Trung Nguyen and remembered Liem telling me to buy souvenir coffee from there. The smell of coffee welcomes you the moment you open the door as if luring you to step further and stay. I swear, coffee shops can be a lotus-eater trap.

I don’t remember exactly what my order was but I had a Matcha/Coffee beverage combination along with my fried chicken and rice.

I proceeded to burn all I ate by walking around and searching for a snow globe to add to my collection. Ever since I had the opportunity to travel with my own money, I have always bought a snow globe for every time I visit a foreign country. It was because of this search that had me running late in meeting up with Van of Saigon Hotpot. We decided to meet up in the Ben Thanh bus station (the station I missed and had to walk back a kilometer to) at 6 PM and I got there by 6:15, sweaty from having to jog there. Van and I took a bus to Tra Sua Luan Map where they have the best milk tea ever!! Van and Vania helped me choose all the add-ons. How clever is it that they give you a straw connected to a spoon attached for the jellies. I had milk tea with blueberry jelly (Vania’s suggestion), cheese ball, and chocolate jelly with cheese filling (Van’s suggestion) for only VND 25,000 (Php 50). What!! I want to live in Vietnam where the food is cheap and super delicious!!! (Probably will gain 100 pounds, though)

After drinking the milk tea, we got on a cab to eat grilled octopus. Van likes spicy food, and Vania learned to love it as well from hanging out with Van.. you can just imagine the shock when I had the ‘OMG chili may have just exploded in my mouth’ when I dipped the already spicy squid to the spicy green sauce. Everyone was watching me eat, being the foreigner and all, and tried to hold in their laugh when I immediately lunged for the water bottle.

We walked around some more and saw Saigon Opera House. It looked so majestic at night.

Apparently, French architecture looks glorious at night. Look at Ho Chi Minh City Hall!

I finally found a snow globe in a bookstore near the park in front of the municipal hall. A lot of people were walking their expensive dogs at the park and so many things were happening at the same time. It was so enthralling to watch everything go by.

Van and I walked back to Vania’s place where she waited for us. I passed by so many things (which I wanted to try out) but settled on buying assorted jelly for the three of us. I wish I could have given these two amazing girls better souvenirs.. maybe next time then? 🙂

Since we finished hanging out too late, Van missed her bus and would be staying in Vania’s. Vania then gave me a ride back to the Airbnb apartment with her motorbike. I swear these two are awesome! I have met so many wonderful people in Vietnam and made countless memories I’ll keep forever. Traveling – one of the few things worth the fatigue. 🙂

So there goes my last night in Vietnam.. no goodbyes, though, only good nights and a hopeful ‘see you again’. 🙂

Ho Chi Minh 2015 || Cu Chi Tunnels (and my lack of upper body strength)

The resolve to get all these posts out of my Drafts has strengthened over the weekend so I finally only have this and one more left for Vietnam. After that I can finally move on to writing about the days I spent in Cambodia! The past four months flew by, and the need to keep my mind away from being idle has helped me keep my sanity. Nothing else can drive an over thinker up the walls best than having the time to get the wheels inside your head rolling. Trying to write every day has helped me with that, though. The time I spend writing oils up my rusty machine that produces creativity, and I feel energized to do a lot more (I update my Instagram (@teeshue) more often though so feel free to follow me there!). It also helps reduce this massive backlog – yay for that!

I have read so many articles about the difference between being a traveler and a tourist. I can’t really say I fall into one category because I do like to check out all the tourist spots and eat all the touristy food. I can sleep in a hostel with strangers or stay somewhere with very basic amenities (using ‘very basic’ loosely here), but I’m also willing to shell out extra money for nice hotels. I do book tours but I don’t like the package tours because I like to be in charge of my schedule and itinerary. I want to see everything and I happen to enjoy sitting down in a local cafe to read. So, yeah. I did book a half day tour to Cu Chi Tunnels and had my breakfast while walking on the way there. One of the constants on what to eat in Vietnam lists, banh mi which I bought from a random stall (I just had the guy manning the stall to put in everything lol) for VND 12,000.

I passed by this woman selling tau hu fa (which is reminiscent of the local taho and with a similar name as well) for VND 7,000. It is soybean pudding with coconut milk and ginger. I was a bit flabbergasted when I tasted the ginger because I grew up buying this from street peddlers with caramel and sago.

I also bought iced coffee with LOTS of condensed milk for VND 20,000 after checking in and getting my boarding ticket. Even with that much sweet milk, the coffee was still too strong and did a great job of jolting me awake. I saw another tourist pour half the contents of her water bottle in her cup to tone down the taste.

To be completely honest, as much as I support helping a community’s livelihood, I got seriously bored with having to stay at the stopover for Handicapped Handicrafts for a while. My expectation was we will be going straight to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

They do show you how they make the portraits. They make an outline, and fill it in using egg shells. Yes, egg shells! It undergoes a long process after that and you can see the output in the next photo. 🙂

They encourage you to buy something.. by staying in the shop for a long time (it may have only been 30 minutes but it felt like a while).

The tour itself only cost VND 59,000 but you have to pay the entrance fee to the tunnels which cost VND 100,000. The guide collects it before you arrive, or you can pay for it yourself at the ticket booth if you happen not to trust the tour guide. Of course, I went the lazy route and just handed my money over.

This is one of the many camouflaged entrances to the underground tunnel maze. It is smaller when it was still in use during the war and they enlarged it to accommodate visitors. When the guide asked for volunteers to try it out, I immediately raised my hand and…. oh fudge what the hell did I sign up for? The initial drop was okay until I had to get out and my weak core needed the assistance of an American guy to pull me up and out. Damn. (A Filipina who was on tour with her niece volunteered to hold my bag as you can see in upper right of the photo).

Since this is during war time, the Vietnamese set up so many traps integrated with nature.

Here are the air ducts that provide oxygen inside the tunnels. The invading party used dogs to sniff this ducts out so they can barricade it while the Vietnamese put pepper to avoid canine detection.

Rice paper near the shooting range. I didn’t try the shooting range because the queue was super long!

The guide asked the entire tour group which of us wanted to crawl 150 meters and again, I raised my hand along with three other tourists and another guide. The rest of them were going together and crawl 20/40/60/80 meters and exit at different stages while the four of us entered a different tunnel. Fortunately for me, I was second to the last and the same American guy (who pulled me up) was behind me. There was a point in the tunnel where you had to raise yourself using your elbows and I had a really hard time climbing up, it was getting dark while the guide and couple before us are far ahead already. The guy asked me if I would mind if he touched me and of course, I said I wouldn’t, so he placed his hands on my bum to push me up. I cannot imagine how it would feel like if I had to crawl in that small tunnel while bombs are hitting the ground above – especially with my barely existent arm strength. I was sweating like a pig once we got out and it felt like I crawled for hours. How fun and exciting!

So that was the only fun part of the tour.. And the tour + entrance fee cost more than My Tho and Ben Tre. Honestly, though, I had much more fun with the Mekong Delta tour (crawling aside). During this tour, there were so many people so the waiting time sucked. I do hate waiting. I hope you guys don’t hate waiting as much as I do.. or else I’d lose blog followers. Hahaha!

Ho Chi Minh 2015 || Mekong Delta

For some people, time is an exact tool for measurement. But as with most things, there will always be various opinions about it and I am going with the rest who believe that time (or the perception of it) is relative. Getting stranded in Manila traffic for a few hours feels like forever. The entire moment of snogging with the person you like – fleeting. In my case, I had this idea that it’s only been a few days since I last wrote only to realize now that it’s been two weeks. Ooops!

Personally, I’m on polar sides of the spectrum when it comes to spending my time. I try to always use it wisely, but I have a tendency to waste it. I know time is limited for everyone but I tend to spend it the way I use loose change – on small irrelevant things. The departure time for the tour I booked was 8:30 in the morning but you had to be there at least 30 minutes prior. I arrived an hour before departure and got my boarding pass.

I killed time while waiting for boarding by having breakfast at the cafe next door, Sasa Cafe. I had the banana crepe and iced coffee for VND 51,000. A bit pricey for Vietnam, but not unexpected since it was adjacent to a tour company. I was dining with other tourists that were waiting for their buses as well.

I booked the My Tho and Ben Tre day tour because it was their cheapest tour to Mekong Delta (VND 149,000). The Sinh Tourist is also one of the more well-known tour companies, and I heard that you can book cheaper tours along Pham Ngu Lao street but I’d rather pay more for a reputable company. Before I left the PH, I actually printed out a map of where I could find their offices since I wanted to be sure that I was booking with the correct tour agency.

The bus ride may have taken more than an hour but time flew by since I was sitting beside a Taiwanese guy who just quit his job in an advertising company in Taipei. We both had a notebook to list all our expenses. Hahaha! Although there was an awkward moment when I didn’t know how to react when he told me that I do not look in any way like I work with computer systems. In my head I went “is that a good thing or a bad thing?”.

I initially thought that I booked the wrong tour when we got inside this boat. I only wanted to visit the Mekong Delta river because everyone seemed to have the tourist-y photo of sitting in a small canoe coursing through river mazes.

The Can Tho Bridge is the most expensive bridge in Vietnam. Construction of this bridge started 2004 and it was opened for use by 2010. Now that’s a long time.

We finally arrived at a pier where we will be getting into the canoes! Woohoo!

The downside of traveling solo is they will use you as a ‘filler’. The boat can accommodate up to four passengers, and I joined three Korean tourists during this trip. I asked them if they could take a photo of me and they told me that they didn’t know how to operate a camera. T_T Selfie it is.

What it’s all a-boat. Okay, I’ll let myself out now lol.

When we got off, we walked to a honey bee farm where they were serving honey kumquat tea. They served us calamansi instead of kumquat.. but they taste similar, so okay.

It was just a small cup and the tea is for exactly seven people only.

There was some honey produce in the table where you will drink the tea and coconut products in another. The Sinh Tourist partnered with the locals of the island and they are the only agency who can tour there. I guess, in return, they have to help the community make a living. I didn’t buy anything though because the prices were definitely for tourists.

The timeless beauty of nature.

Lunch was included in the tour and the restaurant seems to be a scene straight out of a period drama.

I took a photo of a Japanese couple, and in turn, they took nice shots of me. The lady actually took more shots than I did for them, and she had me pose differently in each. Brilliant!

I asked the tour guide if I can take a photo with the snake and he let me do it. For free (I asked if I had to pay)! The snake got a bit fussy after being passed around and I heard the guide tell the rest of the tourists that the snake’s mood has soured (not verbatim but you know what I mean haha).

Again, a lot of the products from the community were sold here.

The guide grouped six tourists in a table. I was with a Filipino family and another Singaporean who was traveling solo too. I never thought I’d miss having conversations in my native tongue but call it cheesy, it’s been a long time.

One of the differences of traveling alone and with family/friends/etc is that there are higher chances of having interesting conversations with a stranger. After lunch, we had some time to roam around where I spent it with the Singaporean guy. He was older than me, had a twin, and on his graduation trip before he serves his country to pay off his government scholarship. We had to transfer to another area to eat dessert (fruits), where we were serenaded by folk songs.

Dip all the fruits in the salt!

We then had a horse-drawn carriage ride around the island. Since I was now aboard with the Filipino family, the ride was short as the women my age tell me about their life in Vietnam (as an OFW and as a wife of a Vietnamese) and I told them about going off on my own in a foreign country.

Before I even knew it, we were on our last stop. This is where they make coconut candy but my most vivid memory about this place is buying VND 15,000 sugar cane juice and the interesting wine they sold.

Yes, they make it with their bare hands (lady in green even uses her phone occasionally). Not very hygienic but a lot of people bought a pack of candy for souvenirs from them. You can taste one for free but I opted not to because I’m not really a huge fan of coconut.

Yucky wine.. eh, gecko wine. What they do is take rice wine and put the gecko (and herbs) inside for three months. They only sell it once the gecko has been there for three months. I asked if this had any medicinal purpose at all, but I was informed that it was only for recreational purposes.

You can actually try the snake wine. It is made with basically the same process as with the gecko wine. Guide: Try it! Here! *tries to hand me a cup* Me: I don’t want to! Guide: Why? Me: It’s snake! Guide: You eat fish, you eat cow, you eat pig, you eat chicken. Why is a snake different? Me: ………….I just don’t want to. Hahaha!

We got back to District 1 approximately before 6 PM. Dusk is settling, and bars are starting to fill up by then. I went window shopping for clothes (no photos because I don’t make it a habit of whipping out my phone or camera at night) and had street food for dinner. I swear Vietnam could be in a different dimension altogether because the time I spent there seemed to have warped to become longer and yet it still feels insufficient. Days are brief but I fit 30 hours of sightseeing and activities in one. The sun is up by 5 in the morning, and the sun sets late. It was a time where everything was possible and I embraced the possibilities.

I am closing this post with high hopes that my blog time will soon match up with real life because my backlog is growing (!!). The writing instructor told everyone in her class that the best way to master something is to spend time doing it (ie write something every day).. so I’ll try and that’s the best I can promise right now because time is a huge investment for me. My vlogging promise is still there too –  let me know if you have any questions or vlog suggestions by sending me a message with #CupcakeGirlVlog in the first line. My inbox is open and thank you for your time! 🙂

Ho Chi Minh 2015 || The Foodie

In one of the classes I attended recently, a girl voiced out how much she hated the word “foodie”. She asked how anyone could claim to actually be a foodie since everyone needs food anyway. That admittedly made me think and from then on, never referred to myself as a foodie. However, tours revolving around food genuinely excite me and I couldn’t care less whatever they decide to name it. This was the case when I was looking for motorcycle tours in Ho Chi Minh. Almost all my friends who went to Ho Chi Minh told me to never leave the city unless I have ridden a motorcycle. XO Tours is the number one bike tour in the city (as of writing, it’s actually #1 on the Tours and Activities list in TripAdvisor), and so even though it’s a bit on the expensive side, I went for it (for reference, I paid $72 for this 5-hour tour, and the next most expensive is the tuktuk I rented in Siem Reap for $25 for the whole day).

Again, I gave them the address to the Airbnb apartment and was instructed to be at the door 15 minutes before I was supposed to be picked up. Only approach the female drivers in traditional blue and white ao dais, as it’s their uniform. I went out the apartment at 5:15 PM, and there was Huong. I was lucky that time since she already toured someone who stayed in the same apartment I did. After a mandatory safety precaution lecture, we left and were the first to arrive at a noodle place, where I met Tai who chatted me up while I sip from a glass of iced tea.

Surprise, surprise. The first meal we had is a bowl of Bun Bo Hue, with the same bowl of special chili sauce. Tai and the other tour manager (I think her name may be Fu because I remember a joke where she says it’s like Kung Fu but I am not sure) explained about the difference of bun and pho. The premise of this tour is to not just eat the usual things you’d come for in Vietnam (pho, spring rolls, banh mi, etc), but eat like the locals do and learn about the city as well.

There were 8 of us in this batch, 2 couples and a group of friends and they were a mix of Aussies and Kiwis. One of the men was a skeptic about the power of the chili, and piled on a spoonful on his noodles.. and let’s just say he got a little bit emotional over his noodles.

We drove to a few districts and visited some of the sights that tourists who don’t venture outside District 1 rarely go to. Some of these districts are even rumored to be dangerous for tourists and locals alike (I told a Filipino I met in Ho Chi Minh which districts I went to and she proceeded to tell me about unfortunate incidents that occurred there). I felt safe during the tour, probably because aside from the female riders, there were a number of male guys in black XO Tours shirts acting as bodyguards.

During the ride, Huong and I talked about our goals, what she plans to do next after she retires from XO Tours (the age limit for her job is 28, by the way), what I do for a living and what I actually want to spend my time doing, where to go shopping in Ho Chi Minh (not the Ben Thanh market), and basically, just life in general.

Our next stop is a BBQ type of place. I’m not even going to attempt to explain what goes into the sauce or the mixes for the dip, but essentially, the XO girls you’re with will mix it for you and teach you what to pair with your meat.

HUONG AND I WON THE CHOPSTICK GAME. /Asian-ed

By the way, you can order as much beer (or any drink of your preference) as you want. If you get drunk, they will tie you to their bikes with a rope until you get back to your hotel. 😛

Prawns on a stick – also, the sunburn I got from Hue is very much visible in flash photos. Eek!

Goat meat and okra slathered with sauce before grilling. I am not a huge fan of okra but this was so yummy! There were three kinds of leaves you can wrap the meat with, and of course, I tried everything.

There was beef as well, but I enjoyed goat meat more. There are some Filipino delicacies that use goat meat as well, so I wasn’t as bothered by it as the Aussie/Kiwi woman I was seating next to (she took care of a goat when she was a kid, treated it like a pet, ended up with goat meat for dinner which is honestly traumatizing for a kid).

I ate frog meat for the first time as well! I can now tell everyone who swears that it taste just like chicken that they are liars!!! It does not taste like chicken.. but if you eat the meat with its’ grilled skin, it tastes similar to grilled fish.

Probably what made me fall in love with Vietnam.. fruit with salt!

What I liked best about this tour is that I got lucky and was assigned the fastest driver that night (we were always the first ones, after the tour managers that is, to arrive no matter how late we leave the location), and that Huong liked to point out interesting places while driving – such as the local MOMOL place which was in the bushes near a gas station, the basket full of live frogs and cow’s testicles in the market, and a lot of other things. It really was an experience.

I swear, there are so many salt dip combinations in Vietnam. It’s crazy! I love each one!

You can actually order more food if you’d like. They have an eat all you can until you are full policy, and I did eat as much as I can. I think we also ate a duck?

Seafood galore! We had crabs (they take out the meat for you.. it’s awkward and awesome at the same time) and clams.

I still drool over the memory of this dish. Everyone should try this! The content of this plate was gone in a flash.

The Vietnamese had their own version of balut (trứng vịt lộn or hột vịt lộn), and because it’s known for Pinoys to eat this, Huong and I shared one (much to the disgust of my seat mate haha).

Huong got me a few bottles of juice that I can take back to the apartment. As well as a ton of Drive Vietnam discount coupons that I happily gave away to all the other tourists I met in Ho Chi Minh so they can use it since I have pretty much booked tours for the rest of the days that I was in the city.

Tai cracked some buko (it’s a Filipino term for young coconut), but instead of juice, it was filled with coconut flavored jelly for dessert.

And here’s some custard with caramel and sago pearls (think leche flan with sago pearls).

I got back at the apartment a few minutes before 11 PM. I’m super lucky that all the tours I booked for this trip are very memorable and fun.

I highly recommend XO Tours’ The Foodie (along with a tour from Saigon Hotpot) to everyone who has asked me about city tours in Ho Chi Minh (they usually think I’d suggest for them to walk haha). It’s a fantastic way to see the city at night, and literally get a taste of Vietnam. I admittedly did not write about the entire tour, even though it is a vivid memory, in order to not spoil the experience. If you ever try it out (and is lucky enough to have Huong as a driver), let me know how much fun you have! 🙂

Ho Chi Minh 2015 || Saigon Hotpot and getting lost with strangers

I jumped out of the bed as I scrolled through my mail and got one from a Saigon Hotpot volunteer regarding the free tour I booked for that morning. I came across Saigon Hotpot when I was looking for things to do in Ho Chi Minh. They are a group of university student volunteers who offer free tours – by free, meaning you just pay for their transportation and entrance fees. 😛 Van had a bit of a hard time looking for the apartment as well and it was a fortunate coincidence that we bumped into each other while she was asking the neighbors for directions (I went outside so I can look for her hehe).

We took the bus to our first stop! It was like a tour bus as well since the bus we rode took the scenic route and Van pointed out all the interesting sites such as Jollibee and popular coffee shops.

We got off around the corner from the Post Office. Again, the architecture is heavily inspired by the French and as most government buildings in Vietnam, it is in the same shade of yellow and green. What’s notable though is the number of prenuptial photo shoots happening when we were there. In the photo below, you can see a traditionally dressed couple and a modern wedding couple.

The Saigon Central Post Office is still functioning and very well maintained.

Different clocks for different time zones, and phone booths (EDIT: phone booths not photo booths what was I thinking haha) for international calls.

The man in white that you can see in this photo lives 2 kilometers away from the post office. Aside from Vietnamese, he is fluent in French and English and has helped so many people with their letters while he was working there. He has retired but still spends every day in the post office, and usually, helps parents with letters/application forms/etc who has sent their children to study abroad.

Across the post office is Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral. All the materials used to build this church came from France. I actually even searched for a photo of the one in Paris to compare lol.

So many wedding photos going on (and Van’s hand).

Next up is the Reunification Palace. It is where previous presidents lived, but it is only used today as a tourist spot or for official conferences. It has been renovated a few times prior to this day due to the conflict with the Viet Cong. During that time, Vietnam is not yet unified and the war between North and South is ongoing.

The conference hall.

According to Van, this painting is of the emperor with the Vietnamese on one side and the Mandarins on the other.

The Green Room – where yes, everything is green, and all items were imported from France.

The President’s table. Behind him is a painting of his hometown where he had a bridge constructed since he used to swim to go to school when he was a kid. 🙂 Also, one of the doors nearby leads directly to the safe room where all the control panels, radios and a bunk for the President.

The ivory horns are made out of elephant tusks which came from two different elephants. There is a village that owned the elephants, but the villagers wouldn’t give them away, so they killed the entire village for it. Damn. So much bloodshed for elephants.

They actually killed two elephants (and a lot of people) for their tusks.. which is unfortunate and I kind of see the point why vegans hate meat (still won’t turn vegan but killing animals for decoration??)..

The place is aptly called a ‘palace’ and it suits the name, as every room is opulent. The living quarters much so, especially if you take into consideration the era it was built in.

The bamboo design plays a significant role in this building, especially in the Vietnamese culture where bamboo trees represent resilience and bravery. It is also present in their daily life and culture as bamboo trees can be found almost everywhere, and it is used for instruments, furniture, and so much more. This design along with the high ceiling creates a nice flow of light and lets the air in during hot days.

Looking out the balcony, you see an unusual sight in an otherwise urban city – so many trees (and of course tourist buses, such as in the photo below haha). The symmetry of parks and lack of concrete establishments along the length of this street is as designed to maintain this view.

Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, elected president in 1967, likes to hunt and has accumulated body parts from the animals he has managed to kill. It really bothers me (I’m the type of person who cried when they killed the horse in the pilot episode of Walking Dead).

An elephant family died for this. 😦

And of course, can’t miss out on an indoor garden for some zen.

To further complete the luxurious presidential lifestyle, the palace had a velvet lined cinema, a library, a game room (photo below), a dancing room (complete with a grand piano and bar) and even a helipad on the rooftop.

After touring, Van and I headed to the park outside the cathedral and hanged out like the locals do. We sat on the pavement, bought mango and passion fruit juice from the street peddlers, who in turn handed as a couple of old newspaper we can sit on and place the salt in. Have I mentioned how much I love the salt here? I even asked Van where I could buy the salt to bring home (and her mom gave me a whole tub – I still have some as of writing). She told me about working with tourists and about her internship (which she was running late for because I only scheduled a half day morning tour), I told her about my life in Manila and about getting scammed by a taxi driver, she taught me how to politely decline when someone approaches you and how to cross the street like a Vietnamese.

Afterward, Van brought me back to the apartment (and broke her sandals on the way) and we have stayed in touch ever since I even talked to her while I was writing this. I had such an informative tour that I wish I could remember everything (I didn’t write anything down until now boo) so I can pass it on. So for anyone planning to tour Ho Chi Minh, I highly suggest Saigon Hotpot. 🙂 After the tour, I napped for an hour before heading out again to walk around. I have no photos from that walk though because I went window shopping (it would have been actual shopping if the dresses I wanted to buy fit me, damn petite Asian sized clothes) and bought tickets for day tours for the following days. I did meet two guys, both solo backpackers (one was Finnish, and the other, Thai) who decided to hang out. I had the address for the tour agency and two maps with conflicting information. Hence, the confused look on my face beckoned them so the three of us ended up searching for it, and they went on their way after dropping me off at the door. We bumped into each other again that same day and exchanged our plans for the rest of our stay in Ho Chi Minh. That was the last time I saw them, though. 😛

Ho Chi Minh 2015 || Slept my way to Ho Chi Minh (and my first Airbnb experience)

No, I don’t mean this. But I did sleep my way to Ho Chi Minh.. on a sleeper train!

After 2 days in Huế, I was ready to go to Ho Chi Minh. I was deliberating if I wanted to really spend 20 hours on the train, but plane tickets would cost me $100.. Aside from making a dent in my travel budget, I still had around a week left and I prefer having “emergency money”. Just in case. *books train ride*

All the train stations had free wifi which I’m thankful for because I booked an Airbnb room for my stay in Ho Chi Minh, and I talked to the host via iMessage about the train schedule and how I can get to the apartment.

I was on level 2 (upper bunk) since I booked late and all the lower bunks were already taken. 😦 I arrived at the train station 35 minutes before boarding because I was unsure what time the train will be arriving, and missing the train is not an option. At the waiting area, I didn’t understand which gate I should go wait in, but fortunately, a young Vietnamese couple my age (who apparently has noticed me looking around like crazy), approached to help me. The girl took a look at my ticket, said something to the guy who then talked to a staff, and they pointed me in the right direction before they went their way. I swear these people are awesome! A family of European (?) travelers did not have such luck, and they tagged along with me after comparing our tickets and finding out that we are taking the same train out of the city.

I sat beside a young couple and their son at the waiting area. The wife chatted me up since they were headed to Ho Chi Minh as well for vacation. They have always lived in Huế, and it’s been a long time since she went there. I asked her what’s the best thing about living in Huế (because I’m curious like that), and she told me that cost of living is lower and there are really good schools and university for her son’s education. Ethnicity and culture may vary, but good parents are universally same – they always try to provide the best for their children.

I was praying for the train to come soon (it was 15 minutes late).. or at least before my backpack drags me down. I never really realized it was that heavy since I don’t really spend a lot of time carrying it on my back. If I only knew what would happen next in Ho Chi Minh..

They were a few coaches away (I boarded #8), but the wife (I am so sorry I forgot to write down your name! I am bad with names. :() and her son stood with me while her husband took care of their bags (lucky woman!). I asked if I could take a photo of them to which she readily agreed, while her son almost ran away at that moment. Hehe. We said our goodbyes once the train was in sight and for good reason too. You have to board really quickly when the passengers get off since they try to run on schedule.

There is a pair of bunk beds in one compartment, a television, a main light switch (if you board with a stern grandma, she most definitely will control it) and a personal one for each bunk’s reading light, a pillow, a comforter, and a bed cover that you will have to put on yourself. The train’s staff changes the sheets if another passenger gets off the train, but you can also ask them for a replacement if you’re not satisfied with it (stern grandma strikes again!). There is no wifi in the train, but wifi guy (the one who occupied the upper bunk across mine) balanced out stern grandma by sharing his mobile data with me and using Google Translate to make conversation. Brilliant!

I was either in the hallways, but mostly in bed, because stern grandma from the bottom bunk likes to go tsk-tsk-tsk-ing every time I went down or open the compartment door to watch the view in the hallway (because she kept closing the curtains whenever I open it a little to peek at the view – you can see the nice view in my travel vlog, by the way, the link is at the bottom of this post). I held in my pee (not just because of my great dislike for public toilets), and only made a trip to the toilet when she made one herself so she won’t be in the compartment when I climb down. I even brought along my toothbrush so that I do not have to do it on a separate occasion. Stern grandma even kicked my sandals out of her way – under her bed, hence, I learned my lesson and brought my sandals with me when I got back and just kept it with my backpack in some sort of storage area (you can see it in the photo below). Note to self: get the bottom bunk!

I bought instant noodles from the trolley for VND 15,000. I was asking trolley guy where I can get hot water, and he may have misunderstood my question because after leading me to the hot water, he proceeded to open my noodles and pour boiling water as if he is on a cooking show. Hahaha! I wanted to tell him I know how to operate the thing but kept it to myself because of the language barrier.

Another trolley guy roams the different compartments selling meal stubs a few hours before dinner. They do give you options but since no one in our compartment speaks English (and wifi guy didn’t know how to explain it, I probably wouldn’t know how to explain the concept of adobo to foreigners as well haha), he made the universal eating gesture and showed me the exact amount of money I should pay for the stub. Stern grandma’s meal looked so much more appetizing, and I think she paid more for it. Me and wifi guy’s VND 35,000 dinner did have a huge serving of rice, chicken fillet, two strips of beef, soup, and sauteed chayote and carrots. It has made me so full that I was very sleepy after. Hehe.

Wifi guy got off the train a few stations before I did, but he did put up four fingers before he left to tell me that I only had four stations to go before arriving in Ho Chi Minh station, which is the last station. I was in actual awe of myself (hahaha yes I just said that). I can proudly say that I traveled end to end of the Reunification Express by myself for a total of 34 hours, without having to learn Vietnamese and not even using English!

When I got off the train, I messaged Liem that I will be taking the bus since he sent over instructions on different ways to get to his apartment, along with a screenshot of Google Maps and a photo of the gate. His apartment, although smacked right in the tourist area (District 1), is in a quiet neighborhood which is arguably the best part for me after staying in noisy hostels for the past week. I took a bus to the Ben Thanh station, missed the stop and had to walk one kilometer back. It would have been an easy feat if it wasn’t for my heavy backpack and the sun over my head (lol). I took another bus, showed the driver the address to which he said “okay, okay”.. only to find out I missed my stop again after 15 minutes. So again, I walked, showing the address to strangers until I finally found myself in front of his gate. He may have gotten to work late that day since it took me more than an hour to get there. Haha!

My Airbnb host, Liem Pham, had the cutest rooms and it looked exactly like the photos. The entire house is cleverly designed as well, maintaining the theme all throughout and made good use of the light outside with all the glass panels in the stairway. He gave me a map he made a list of all the tourist spots and restaurants, and he wrote down his personal recommendations for me as well since I wrote on my Airbnb profile that I enjoy eating.

Finally! A room for myself. 🙂 Both hostels I stayed in had intermittent wifi connections, and I was so glad that the wifi was reliable enough for me to be able to Facetime C, and video calls my mom and siblings. 🙂

The increase in my accommodation expenses would have been an issue if I was traveling longer, but I still feel like transitioning from the 8-person room with inconsiderate strangers ($5/night) or crappy bathrooms ($10/night) to a solo bedroom with a shared bathroom that works and has strong wifi connection is worth the extra buck ($20/night).

I also made another friend in Vietnam, Vania, who has an Airbnb listing. Go check her out as well! 🙂 Get PHP 1,172 off your first booking if you sign up using this link. You’re welcome. 🙂

I have finally started writing about Ho Chi Minh, then I would be moving on to my Cambodia posts. I have mixed feelings about it, though, reliving this experience has been nice and writing about it, therapeutic.. but once it’s over, I have to come up with more blog content. Well, I did say I wanted to hone my writing skills.. And my vlogging skills – again, I am making a vlog after this series. Let me know if you have any questions or vlog suggestions by sending me a message with #CupcakeGirlVlog in the first line. Looking forward to hearing from you guys! 🙂

Vietnam-Cambodia Travel Vlog

Hi guys! I’m back in the Philippines and have shed off my angst overseas. If you were following me on instagram (@teeshue), I hope I did not annoy any of you with my daily lengthy updates on my life. I also got surprised with the Tumblr notifications that pops up whenever I get the chance to connect to the internet because.. hello to 40 new followers. Where did you all come from?? I am not complaining though but I have never had that much people follow me in the span of 2 weeks (unfortunately, I’m not popular haha). Thank you for following and drop me a message if you want to talk! 🙂

Anyway, here’s a 7-minute video of 2 weeks and four cities where I got 100 pimples and 3 shades darker. I forget to take videos/photos on most days.. admittedly, I think it’s for the better because I was more in the moment than the need to document everything (it’s also pretty hard to take videos of yourself though this video just proves I don’t need a monopod :D). The only thing I documented religiously during this trip was my expenses – down to the last dollar/dong. Hahaha!

I used Yuna’s songs since I have been listening to her albums on repeat while traveling. I love the vibe of her songs since it’s very empowering and lively. The music videos are brilliant as well and I love all her outfits (turban peg!!!). I was only going to use Rescue, “Yeah, she’s got life in her veins, she don’t need no rescuing, she’s okay. That girl is you yeah and that girl is me, that girl is stronger than the raging sea.“ but had a bit more of video left so I added Come Back (brilliant outfit and perfect LDR song if you ask me haha) as well since it covered Siem Reap where I spent 4 days before I came back home.

I can’t thank my parents enough for being very supportive by letting me live my own life (the amount of “I’m surprised your parents let you do that” I have gotten when I’m already 23 is surprising). And C for being the best boyfriend ever for accepting that I will always wander off to who knows where because I can’t seem to stay still (and all the airport drop offs and pickups and flowers and welcome home signs hahahaha).

So yay, for solo trips! I will write about this trip soon. I just have more than a thousand photos on my camera that I have not yet gone through and yet I’m already planning my next trip lol. How about you, where do you plan to go next?

Cupcake Girl Goes Solo in Vietnam+Cambodia

Hanoi Scammed on my first night in Vietnam || Ice cream for lunch because prison visits are exhausting || Museums for women will PHO-rever make me happy || Drenched in revolution, history, and a little bit of rain || Be water, my friend || Chocolate for breakfast || Fundamental change via ultimate orgasm || It’s a dog eat human world|| #KathNielHanoi || Social behavior and Social Club || Bye, Hanoi

Huế Wherever you are, be all there || Hue Riders || I did it my Huế || Huế to go!|| The Huế I am

Ho Chi Minh Slept my way to Ho Chi Minh (and my first Airbnb experience) || Saigon Hotpot and getting lost with strangers || The Foodie || Mekong Delta || Cu Chi Tunnels (and my lack of upper body strength) || Good night, Vietnam

Siem Reap Cambana d’Angkor Suites || Preah Khan || Preah Neak Pean & Ta Som || East Mebon & Pre Rup || Banteay Kdei & Phnom Bakheng Sunset || Angkor Wat Sunrise || Bayon || Angkor Thom || Ta Keo & Ta Prohm || Angkor WHAT NOW?