Hoi An

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Fukian Clan, Hoi An

Hoi An is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in view of the density of temples, pagodas, ancient homes, as well as the influence from Chinese and Japanese merchants. It is my favourite place in Vietnam for its quaint riverside appeal, its traditional architecture, the special dish Cao lầu that cant be found anywhere else in Vietnam, and the scooter day trip to My Son.

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Temples of Hoi An

We found our accommodation by the recommendation on Wikitravel. “Mrs. Flower” (39 Thai Phien St) is a middle aged lady with an empty nest, and rents out her rooms to travellers. She is pleasant, keeps her house clean and tidy, and offers various other services like tailoring, motorbike/bicycle rental and tourist information. Best of all it the price of the room/bike rental was the cheapest out of our whole Vietnam trip. Disappointingly, tailoring was much better done at the shops along the main stretch.

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Hoi An town centre

The old town’s oriental charm is best seen at dusk with candles drifting along the river and glowing lanterns hanging from heritage buildings. Enter at mid day to utilize the museum tickets included in the entrance fee while the sun is at its worst. See the Japanese bridge which you don’t need to enter to appreciate. Have dinner at makeshift roadside stalls, then proceed to the bars overlooking the river for cheap ice cold beer.

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On the way to My Son ruins, Hoi An

The famous Bánh mì Phượng a.k.a Madam Phuong Banh Mi was worth running through the rain for. Toppings were generous and freshly prepared, and staff were pleasant. However it has since shifted to a different location with WiFi and is probably more commercialised. Cao lầu the most wonderful thing you will eat here, think fat, udon like noodles in thick broth topped with barbeque pork slices, fried pork rind, peanuts, rice crackers, scallions and served with lime or chili jam. Have been reminiscing and trying to find it else where but to no avail.

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My Son ruins, Hoi An

You absolutely must take a scooter trip to My Son. It takes approximately 1 hour to ride there leisurely from Hoi An, passing through some small farms alongside a river, a railway track, requiring some skilful manoeuvring through traffic, and ending up in an ancient city. Of course you could always hop on a shared minivan, but where’s the fun in that? Mỹ Sơn was a site of religious ceremony for kings of the ruling dynasties of Champa, as well as a burial place for Cham royalty and national heroes and dates back to the 4th century.

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My Son ruins, Hoi An

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Da Lat

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French gardens, Dalat

The overnight bus from HCM had almost horizontal seats, however they were not cushioned and taller people might find their legs cramping up in the small space. For me it was almost a luxury compared to a few buses I have taken before. We were shivering in the 5am fog as we walked from the bus station to the main city where we rented a scooter. Imagine how rewarding the steaming bowl of Pho was for breakfast.

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Crazy house, Da Lat

Dalat is famous for its cooler temperatures, its fruit farms and its French architecture. Just biking around in search for waterfalls was enjoyable. The “Valley of love” and the “Flower park” are manicured recreations of French inspired flower gardens. There is a “Crazy house” which is more like weird, out of place architecture to bring your kids for if you have too much time on your hands. Otherwise you are better off enjoying the mountain biking, adventure trails that nature can give you.

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Pho, Dalat

Can Tho

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Life along the river, Can Tho

The bus ride from HCM to Can Tho was approximately 4 hours from Mien Tay bus station. Ideally the plan was to wake up at 5.30am to see the floating markets but due to jet lag and fatigue we ended up waking up at 11am. We managed to hire a private boat at a higher cost compared to the shared boats that set off in the morning. The river is not so much about its beauty (as it is mud-coloured) but about its activity and how it brings people together. What was left of the floating markets was still enjoyable and I had the best bowl of glass noodles in beef broth while floating down the Mekong river. The guide took us through some small tributaries to some villages where we had lunch.

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Village by the river, Can Tho

Can Tho is a small village, however there is a mountain at Chau Doc called “Sam” which is possible to hike up. It is nice and easy way to see the Mekong River from HCM.

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Man on boat selling noodles, Can Tho

Ho Chi Minh City

Hot, humid and congested. I had to stop for hydration very frequently and any area with air-conditioning was much appreciated. The trick to crossing any road, especially the one outside the Ben Thanh Market, is to just keep walking. The motorcyclists will avoid you as long as there is not a trace of hesitation. But then again, you might want to skip Ben Thanh market as the food is as stale as the clothes for sale.

All the museums were interesting (War museum, history museum and reunification palace), but exercise some discretion when reading descriptions. We found a picture of a genetic disease known as Neurofibromatosis that was labelled “after effects of Agent Orange”, amongst the more legitimate photos of radioactive destruction and malformed babies.

Would recommend doing the museums and leaving for fresher air as soon as possible.

Vietnam

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Streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City-> Can Tho -> Mui Ne -> Da Lat -> Hoi An -> Hue -> Hanoi -> Sapa -> Ha Long Bay.

Vietnam has ancient ruins of Hindu Archaeology, the cultural temples of the Southern Chinese dialects, and the refined gardens of the French. The perfect country to do a cross country trip due to its linear shape and its two biggest cities located at opposite ends. If a motorbike trip is your thing, the journey will take 2-3 weeks comfortably and buying/selling is relatively easy. Overnight buses are also a good option with inbuilt sleeper beds, but bring good earplugs as the vietnamese-techno music does not go off together with the lights.

We never had to use tripadvisor to pick out restaurants.  Follow your senses and eat where the locals are queuing at to guarantee deliciousness in every bite. Pho, Bun cha, and Banh Mi are staples that you cant go wrong with, and hygiene at eateries is of high standards. And the great thing about roadside stalls is that Tra Da (vietnamese iced tea) is always with compliments.

Hostels will set you back a mere 5USD per head, while homestays are always enjoyable and you are treated like family.

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Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Seville

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Plaza de España, Seville

Seville in summertime is mind numbingly scorching, arm yourself with a hat, a fan, a large cold bottle of water and be prepared to take breaks in between sightseeing to cool off. The sights are all within walking distance and they are all spectacular. We stayed in a hotel near the bus station called Hotel NH Sevilla Plaza de Armas which had EXCELLENT BEYOND WORDS breakfast. Juices, Teas (of every type you can imagine) yogurts, 4 types of olive oil!? Basically every modern girl’s idea of a healthy but yet hearty breakfast. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Plaza de España is one of the prettiest places I have been to. The curved layout gives you a sense of being surrounded by richness the details of the surrounding tiled alcoves adds to the regal feel.

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Plaza de toros de la Masetranza, Seville

Seville is not far from Ronda, the birthplace of bullfighting. Thus the city has quite a significant culture of the sport, and if you look there are butchers and restaurants that sell carne de lidia (the meat of the ganado bravo). Plaza de toros occasionally hosts bullfights in the summer, but on a normal day it operates as a museum with guided tours throughout some rooms filled with memorabilia. It was interesting to learn that cutting of the bulls ear brought great pride to the Matador, and quite often Matadors themselves die in the ring.

We checked La Caboneria out which was supposed to have free Flamenco. However the atmosphere was that of a live band in a bar in view of the large tourist crowd and the intensity of the dance felt dissipated. We left after our round of drinks.

We were spoilt for choice for Tapas in the center of the city and it seemed like everyone was out enjoying the cooler temperatures in the evening. We liked La Bodega’s tasty food and friendly bartenders. However El Rinconcillo (The oldest bar in Seville) was better enjoyed for the ambience and the drinks, the food was did not impress.

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Walking along the river, Seville

Across the river bank in Trianna there are some lesser known sights including the contemporary art museum and a few religious buildings. You can hire a boat to sail down the river.

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Milonga, Plaza del museo

Spain is always full of surprises after dark, and I stumbled onto a sweet milonga an hour before my scheduled outgoing busride.

Granada

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIslamic architecture is the main attraction in this city. Intricate tiles, precise carvings, arches and domes, and geometrical shapes are features in Hammams, Madrasahs and most grandly the Alhambra.

20160620_151117There are many well preserved buildings that have been converted into small museums that cost next to nothing to enter, and never fail to awe. I would suggest saving the visit to the Alhambra until the end of your trip to keep the surprises coming. Remember to buy your tickets in advance, and take note that access to the Nasrid Palaces (where all the iconic stucco filigrees are) is only allowed within the hour indicated on your ticket so plan your visit well.

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Court of the Lions and fountain, Alhambra

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Banos Arabes

Check out some preserved Arabic baths that have been converted into spas and be sure to book in advance too. They look divine but were all fully booked to our dismay.

At every chance I got, I ordered a Gazpacho: a cold vinegar flavoured Tomato soup that is so refreshing in the 40 degree heat. I still have cravings for that occasionally back home.

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Flamenco performer’s house, Sacramento

Sacramento’s caves are where a fusion of Indian, African, Byzantine, Arab, Jewish and Gypsy cultures created Flamenco. Its soulfulness draws from desolation and despair, and the virtuoso guitar progression keeps you mystified until the very end. Watch it in an intimate cuevo where you can get very close to the performers.

 

 

Madrid

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20160617_153515 Royal Palace of Madrid

The first thing I saw when I arrived is a big sign hanging over Plaza de Cibeles saying “Refugees Welcome”. It made me feel good about Madrid instantly. I stayed in Sun Gate hostel, which was very central, however the drunk young people scrambling into beds at 4am and collapsing to snore totally put me off hostels catered to the young. I also detested the vegetarian dinners (oily, salty, not very nutritious considering the starch ratio to vegetables) and opted to eat out after the first one. I loved the receptionists though, and found them extremely helpful and friendly.

Sandeman’s tour guides were very amazing. Most were non locals studying history in the universities. They made the whole Philips / Charles sequence entertaining and were very passionate about it. They conduct free tours twice a day from Plaza Mayor and they also do paid tours throughout the day.

The walk through the Palace towards…

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Madrid

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Royal Palace of Madrid

The first thing I saw when I arrived is a big sign hanging over Plaza de Cibeles saying “Refugees Welcome”. It made me feel good about Madrid instantly. I stayed in Sun Gate hostel, which was very central, however the drunk young people scrambling into beds at 4am and collapsing to snore totally put me off hostels catered to the young. I also detested the vegetarian dinners (oily, salty, not very nutritious considering the starch ratio to vegetables) and opted to eat out after the first one. I loved the receptionists though, and found them extremely helpful and friendly.

Sandeman’s tour guides were very amazing. Most were non locals studying history in the universities. They made the whole Philips / Charles sequence entertaining and were very passionate about it. They conduct free tours twice a day from Plaza Mayor and they also do paid tours throughout the day.

The walk through the Palace towards the temple of Debod was very enjoyable, and the Retiro park was lovely on the Sunday that we went, with a grandstand band, couples boating in the lake, and various musicians playing jazz.

I had very memorable grilled octopus from Mercado San Anton, heaped tapas and great wine from Txacolina, and great everything from Mercado San Miguel, especially the Paella.

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Mercado San Anton

The layout of Reina Sofia was quite confusing and did not lead me from room to room seamlessly and some floors were closed. It took 20 minutes for me to figure out how to exit the building. When I managed to find the Dali and Picasso paintings I could appreciate the collection slightly more so than the Dali/Picasso paintings elsewhere. I did appreciate the siesta I took in the shaded courtyard where there were already visitors doing the same. I had more fun walking around the National History Museum because of my preference for history.

Segovia

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Cathedral, Segovia

A pity this famed sleeping beauty castle inspiration was undergoing refurbishment thus I could not get a nice picture. The castle seemed a lot bigger from the outside, but was grand nonetheless.

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View from the Castle, Segovia

The other interesting piece of history was the aqueduct albeit totally refurbished. Had a good crispy roast pork leg at La cueva de San Esteban, and the shrimps in olive oil were a sure-win choice as usual.

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Aqueduct, Segovia

Toledo

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Toledo scenery

The day trip I liked better. The scenery was beautiful viewed from the city centre, atop a hill. There were lots of churches, synanogues and alleys to wander about in and a great mercardo to stop at for lunch.

 

Spain

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Bright red poppies standing out against the golden backdrop of Segovia

Madrid Granada Seville

This country takes my heart away. Somehow I love the enthusiasm of the people, the richness of their culture and the influence of all their colonies albeit their dark history. I did not have that great an impression when I visited Barcelona a few years ago, due to my hurried nature of travelling and the inability to understand the language. Our experience was also marred by the pickpockets on the subway en-route to a football match.

However this time my trip to Spain was after spending 2 months in Latin America, absorbing the language as diligently as possible, soaking in the roots, branches, stems of this community. Taking my time in each city, not just hoping to “see the sights” but to feel, smell, taste and experience.

To get started in Spain, every part has a different special palate, and it is not wise to just go in search for Tapas and Paella. Also, raw and intimate Flamenco is best experienced in Granada where it was born, but the best dancers are found in Madrid and Barcelona where they are geared towards an international audience.

The transport system is great, buses connected the cities well, and even getting to Lisbon was a breeze. In cities, walking was enjoyable and every street corner had something of interest.

Tapas at 8pm means drinking and bar hopping, having snacks until 11pm when it becomes officially late enough to actually sit down to eat dinner. I was completely incapable of dinner after 3 cups of wine with my asian alcohol tolerance. But it was pretty fun trying.

Locals were very friendly in bars, buses, markets and restaurants. The passenger next to me in the bus from Madrid to Segovia was able to ramble on for 2 hours straight. A well dressed man bought me and my travel friend a copa of the specific wine that he frequented that bar every evening for. The old man serving us at a bar let my friend crawl under the counter to have a picture with him and he gave her a beso on request. And so on. Make conversation and you will have a good time.