Happy 2015 everyone! I’m back in Tra Vinh, Vietnam after a two week trip where I traveled to Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon); Hong Kong; and Nanning, China for the holidays. If you’re planning on traveling to any of these places, here are some tips, recommendations, and anecdotes to tickle your fancy.
Since I live in a pretty small city, I always need to bus it up to Saigon if I want to take any international flights. If I’m traveling within Vietnam, buses are usually the way to go since they’re super convenient and cheap. The bus that takes me to Saigon even has a free shuttle pick-up and drop-off. Buses from my city leave every hour and a one-way ticket costs 120,000 VND ($6 USD). The bus ride to Saigon usually takes 4-5 1/2 hours which is the same if you were traveling from DC to New York City by bus. Once I arrive in Saigon, the bus company either provides a van or a motorbike taxi to take me to my final destination. Buses to other cities in Vietnam are also fairly easy to figure out if you ever find yourself needing to bus it to another city.
Saigon is not my favorite city but I’ve had to go there quite a few times and I’ve found that it has it’s charms. As much as I dislike being lumped in with the “backpackers” category of travelers, I do have a backpacking pack and I don’t have money spilling out of my pocket. So….. The backpacker’s district is usually where I stay since it’s where you can find the most affordable accommodations.
Saigon’s not really a city for tourists. I feel like most people stop over in Saigon for only a day or two before they jetset somewhere else. There are a few things that are worth going to though.
War Remnant’s Museum. A museum about the Vietnam-U.S. War which is worth a visit. Even as an American, my knowledge of the Vietnam-U.S. War is limited to that one unit in high school history class and things that my dad told me about the war. History is important, so if you’re in Saigon, go here and educate yourself. Keep in mind that history is all a matter of perspective and the museum is definitely biased in some of their views. That’s to be expected though with any account of history so you shouldn’t be too surprised by some of the stances the museum takes on the war. Admission is 15,000 VND (less than $1 USD).
Notre Dame Basilica. It’s pretty. Go look at it.
Saigon Central Post Office. It’s across from Notre Dame Basilica. It’s also pretty. It still operates as a post office too so you can take a look around inside while you send off the postcards you promised your friends that you would send.
Park. Go hang out in a park and people watch. Better yet, join a game of đá cầu (shuttlecock/feather ball thing). After all, it is the national sport in Vietnam. If you’re with friends, purchase (pay no more than 20,000 VND or $1 USD) one for yourself and start playing. You can stand in a circle and kick it with your feet and try to keep it in the air! Every time I’ve played this game in Vietnam, I’ve had other people join me. It’s a great way to interact with locals especially if you don’t speak the language.
Video of some pros playing da cau at the park. They watched us for a bit and laughed at us, but that didn’t get us down. We kept playing anyways.
Saigon Flea Market. This flea market only happens twice a month on Sundays and it’s not close to the center of the city BUT it’s a cool experience if you want to check out local vendors, artists, as well as a different neighborhood in Saigon. The flea market has a very farmer’s market feel to it and while things are priced a bit more than what you might find elsewhere, some of the things are one of a kind. Plus, you’re supporting local businesses and artists in Vietnam. I picked up a really awesome dress and head band and had to stop from buying more things. Check out when they’re holding the next flea market here.
I LOVE Hong Kong. If I could live there I would. The food is great, it’s super convenient, and it’s got a good balance of city and outdoors activities. This was my 3rd time in Hong Kong so I didn’t do all the touristy things but here are a few things I do recommend you do.
The Peak. The Peak is as you might’ve guessed, a peak of a mountain. You can get an amazing view of Hong Kong Island from the peak.
Travelator. It’s just an escalator but it’s the longest covered outdoor escalator system in the world. The escalator runs downhill from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and goes uphill from 10:30 a.m. to midnight. There’s lots of bars, restaurants, and shops that run beside the escalator too. SoHo runs along the escalator and is a cool area so take the escalator part of the way up and then hop off and explore all the cute shops.
Horse Races. This is my favorite thing to do in Hong Kong. Horse races happen Wednesday evenings and either Saturday or Sundays during the day on weekends. Drink some beer and make some bets on the horses. Admission is $10 HKD ($1.30). There are two race tracks. One on Kowloon and one on Hong Kong Island. If you’re interested, I can write a whole guide to the horse races. I recommend going to the races on Wednesday evenings though. It’s like how happy hour should done. At the races.
Cat cafe. If you’re a cat lover, then you will totally enjoy the experience of a cat cafe. Korea and Japan know what’s up when it comes to cat cafes. I’ve had friends go to cat cafes in Cambodia and Vietnam which apparently weren’t the cleanest or most put together. From what little I know of cat cafes though, Hong Kong’s version was well done. I’m a dog lover myself, but it was a fun experience to see how a cat cafe would operate. It’s like any other cafe expect you have cats roaming around. All of them were friendly. I went to Ah Meow Cat Cafe. You should make a reservation beforehand, there is a minimum amount you must spend ($60 HKD/person or $7.75 USD), and there’s a time limit of how long you can stay but if you love cats, it’s worth the hassle. Plus, it’s a good excuse to take a break from all the walking and seeing that you’ll do while you’re in Hong Kong.
Public transport is amazing in Hong Kong. The subway is pretty extensive and gets you everywhere you need to go. Also, there’s a train that goes to the airport. The airport express train is $90 HKD. If you’re going to the airport via airport express, you can check your bag in before you hop on the train. If you’re going to be taking the train a lot in Hong Kong, you can purchase an Octopus card with one of the station managers so you won’t have to keep buying single tickets. It’s $150 HKD. $50 HKD is a deposit and the remaining amount is loaded for use. You can also purchase things with your octopus including entrance into the horse races. Return your card at the end of your stay and get your deposit back.
Just so you all know, China and the U.S. recently made it possible for citizens of each country to get multiple entry tourist visas that are valid for 10 years. The cost of a Chinese visa is $160. It’s good for 10 years. Multiple entry. Each entry is good for 60 days. This was good news for me since I’m planning on going to China again in the summertime and won’t need to spring for another visa like I originally thought.
I went to China to visit my Grandparents who live in Nanning. Nanning is not as exciting as other cities in China but it’s definitely a fast-growing city much like the rest of China. I was in Nanning 3 years ago and there have already been lots of changes since my last visit. A brand new gigantic shiny airport for one thing. Before, the Nanning airport was this tiny run down thing. Now it’s a huge international airport. Fancy international brand names can now be found at the biggest mall in Nanning that opened within the last year or so. Old neighborhoods are being torn down and skyscrapers are taking their place. Also, a subway system is currently under construction. Every time I’m in China I’m so amazed by how rapid change takes place there.
Internet. Keep in mind that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram as well as Viber are all banned in China. China also recently blocked gmail. You won’t be able to access those websites unless you have a VPN. I was only in China for 3 days so I didn’t really need any of those websites but it was a pain that I couldn’t even check my email. WhatsApp still works in China which I did use during my trip. I recommend downloading a VPN before you enter China if you think you need one.
Sometimes Things Don’t Go As Planned
Sometimes when you travel nothing goes as planned. Part of the joys of travel is allowing yourself to be flexible, go with the flow, and not let things like delays, cancellations, and unexpected troubles bother you too much. It’s something I always have to remind myself. If things don’t go as planned, you just have to let it go.
While in Hong Kong, I had one of those frustrating days. We had planned our last couple days of Hong Kong out only to find that our plans would have to change. We wanted to go to the horse races on Saturday but found that this particular weekend, it was happening on a Sunday. So instead, I decided that I would try to take a dance class. I tried two different dance studios that were a bit out of the way only to find that the contemporary modern classes I wanted to take were cancelled. There were other classes but I didn’t have the right footwear. After all this, I realized I could’ve taken an earlier class at the first studio I went to. Instead, I traveled all over Hong Kong for a dance class but to no avail. It was especially disappointing because once I got the idea of taking a dance class in my head, it was even more of a let down that I couldn’t do it. Living in Tra Vinh, one of the things I miss most about my life in DC is dance. 5 months without a single dance class has been tough. Especially since dance is one of my main forms of exercise and ways to relieve stress. Anyways, while it was a frustrating day, it did end very nicely with a night out at Lan Kwai Fong, one of the bar districts in Hong Kong. After only drinking watery beer in Vietnam for the past 5 months it was nice to have some good quality beer in a long time. Not to mention some good whiskey. (Vietnam is all about vodka and rice wine which I’m not the biggest fan of.)