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June 01 2017

Where I’m At: June, 2017 – Saigon edition

Where I’m At: June, 2017 – Saigon edition

[Where I’m At; a monthly update of what I’ve been up to, site news, and where I’m going next.]

Where I’ve Been

Greetings from Saigon! After starting the month in Mui Ne, last month was split between Saigon and a Singapore/Malaysia trip.

Singapore

Pagoda Street Market

My Singapore/Malaysia trip revolved around meeting my dad in Kuala Lumpur. Rather than flying directly to KL, I went to Singapore first. I have some friends who have recently moved to Singapore, so it was a good excuse to visit. I visited some new sights, including the Singapore Botanical Gardens – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Botanical Gardens

Another reason to visit Singapore is to eat. When I come to Singapore I usually eat what I can’t get in Saigon; cheap Indian food, and chicken and rice. There are some Singapore-style chicken and rice places in Saigon, but they are not the same, like Vietnamese food is not the same outside of Vietnam.

My first meal back in Singapore was chicken and rice, which I was dreaming of on the flight there. I also got to try the Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle – the street food stall with a Michelin star.

This place has become so popular they have opened a restaurant to cater for the crowds. The restaurant resembles a fast food chain, where you queue and get a number. I’m not an expert in chicken and rice so I couldn’t tell you if it was the best, or even Michelin-worthy. I can say it was great, and I am happy for their success. They are also opening a store in Taiwan.

Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle

Singapore is famous for being expensive, but the food prices at hawker centres are reasonably priced. In my wanders I found the ice cream sandwich guy who has been selling ice cream for years for $1 SGD. The ice cream is a slab that is served in an actual piece of bread, making it a literal sandwich. Or you can get it with the wafer as shown here.

Ice Cream Sandwich

Kuala Lumpur

I met my dad in KL, who was stopping over on the way back to Australia from London. I’ve met him in London a few times now but I couldn’t make the dates happen for this year, so KL was a good alternative. I’ve now met my dad in six countries outside of Australia (UK, Portugal, France, Switzerland, China (Hong Kong), Malaysia).

KL is one of those places where I have lost count how many times I’ve been. I first visited in 2006, and have since visited a few times a year, most of the time on the way to somewhere else. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say I’ve been over 20 times. At some point early on I stopped doing the touristy things, so this trip was a good excuse to see the things I haven’t done in KL.

The obvious tourist attraction is the Petronas Twin Towers. I still think it is one of the most beautiful skyscrapers in the world. Being twin towers it has the benefit of giving you the mirror opposite of the same building you are in, as well as the view from 370 metres above ground.

Petronas and KL Tower

Another interesting thing to do in KL is the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, which is the largest free-flight walk-in aviary in the world. This is walking distance from the old city KL train station, and it’s a large swathe of green space in the middle of the city.

Kuala Lumpur Bird Park

Penang

Rather than flying straight back to Saigon from KL, I got the train to Butterworth and spent a week in Penang. Georgetown is one of my regular haunts, and there is now a direct AirAsia flight from Penang to Saigon, so that was a good enough reason to go back.

Georgetown is so delightful. I don’t think I would ever tire of looking at all the old windows, doors, and tiles.

A post shared by James Clark ✈️ (@nomadicnotes) on May 19, 2017 at 11:39pm PDT

I have a list of favourite places to eat here, so I plan my trip to make sure I can eat at as many places as I can. It gets blazing hot here in the middle of the day, so I find a routine of wandering around in the morning and late afternoon, and work during the day.

ICYMI – Last months posts

In March I returned to Melbourne and felt the reverse culture shock feels – A bemused Melburnian returns to Melbourne after two years absence

On a recent trip to Hong Kong I popped over the frontier to visit some friends in Shenzhen. I didn’t enjoy it my first time around, so I was happy to give Shenzhen a second chance.

I have been visiting KL for over a decade now, and over the last year there have been some noticeable changes. Here are my observations on the regeneration of Kuala Lumpur Old City.

The regeneration of the Chinatown/Heritage Quarter of Kuala Lumpur

And not a new post, but an update on the best cafes in Georgetown, Penang.

May 31 2017

The regeneration of Kuala Lumpur Old City

The regeneration of the Chinatown/Heritage Quarter of Kuala Lumpur

The first time I visited Kuala Lumpur was when I was overlanding my way down the Malay Peninsula in 2006. Like most backpackers I ended up in a cheap guesthouse in the Chinatown area of KL.

I was amazed that there were so many heritage buildings that had not been restored. There are sections of old Kuala Lumpur that compare with Singapore or Penang, yet little has been done to make something of it. Like other cities in the region, Kuala Lumpur is seemingly ignorant about preservation of heritage buildings.

Since that first trip I ended up becoming based in Southeast Asia, and with AirAsia based in KL I pass through a couple of times a year. I’ve already been through KL twice in 2017, and this year I have noticed more changes in Chinatown than anytime in the last decade.

The Chinatown/Heritage Quarter area (Old City)

For this article I refer to the old area of KL as Chinatown, though there doesn’t appear to be an exact boundary or definition. Search for Chinatown in Google and you get this shaded area.

And a hotel search in Chinatown KL also clusters hotels within the area of this map.

The top triangle of the shaded area (bounded by the Klang River, Jalan Tun Perak, and Jalan Pudu) is an area popular with South Asian migrants, though it still gets lumped in as Chinatown. I’ve seen it referred to as the Heritage Quarter, and for the whole area it should be rebranded as the Old City.

Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin
[Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin – more Little Dhaka than Chinatown.]

The one street that is undeniably in Chinatown is Petaling Street, which has a Chinese arch at the entry of the Petaling St Market.

Petaling St Market

Most of the buildings on Petaling are obscured by the market. If you go in the morning before everything is set up you can see the old buildings in various states of decay.

Old Petaling St

Also in Chinatown is Jalan Sultan, which has a wealth of heritage buildings that are in danger of being lost. This row was saved from demolition and now waits for a restoration savior. If this was in Penang or Singapore it would be a row of boutique hotels by now.

Jalan Sultan

In the aforementioned Heritage Quarter, Market Square has recently been renovated as an attractive space with a water feature. Some of the old shophouses on this square also have been spruced up, showing what potential this area has.

Market Square, Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia
[Market Square, Kuala Lumpur.]

Cool cafes in old buildings

With so many heritage buildings crumbling into the ground, its heartening to discover businesses see their potential and make the most of these assets. On this trip I visited three cafes in the Chinatown area that show what appeal these old buildings have.

The first place I visited was Chocha Foodstore, which is set in the old Mah Lian Hotel building.

Mah Lian Hotel

The problem of using these buildings is that the interiors are often not suitable for modern retail shops or restaurants. Chocha have gotten around this by stripping out a lot of the interior, leaving the most remarkable features of the original structure.

Chocha Foodstore interior

A few doors away from Chocha is Merchants Lane. This is one of those “blink and you’ll miss it” cafes as it is accessed by an entrance next to an old shop. Go upstairs and there is a large warehouse space that has been converted into a cafe.

Merchants Lane

The cafe has created an open space in the middle of the building which has a little garden. There is an old tree trying to strangle the building, like the ruins of Ta Prohm at Angkor.

Merchants Lane garden

Another cafe I went to was Leaf and Co Cafe, which is in the same building as the highly-rated Mingle Hostel.

Leaf and Co Cafe

Like the other cafes, this building is in a typical long and skinny shophouse, so it’s a matter of getting creative with the space of the building.

Inside Leaf and Co Cafe

River Redevelopment

Kuala Lumpur means “muddy confluence”, which derives its name from the meeting of the Gombak and Klang rivers. The lovely Jamek Mosque sits on this very river junction, but little else about this area could be described as lovely.

River junction redevelopment
[The muddy confluence, under renovation.]

Once the two rivers become one it resembles a storm-water drain. It’s an ugly site for what is the centre of the city. Fortunately this part of KL is soon to be transformed with a massive redevelopment known as the River of Life project. There will be pedestrian walkways and new green space along the river, and the river will be cleaned up and rehabilitated upstream as well.

River redevelopment

Here is an artists impression of what the “muddy confluence” will eventually look like.

River Of Life

A new metro line

Pasar Seni metro construction
[Construction of the Pasar Seni interchange.]

Adding to the chaos of redevelopment is the construction of the Sungai Buloh–Kajang MRT line. This will connect Pasar Seni (the station serving Chinatown) with Bukit Bintang (one of the most popular areas for tourists). It is scheduled to be opened in mid-2017.

KL118 – soon to be KL’s tallest building

KL118
[KL118.]

Perhaps the biggest catalyst for change will be the KL118 tower (now known as Merdeka PNB 118). As the name hints, this will have a whopping 118 floors and stand at 682 metres, easily eclipsing the current tallest building in KL – the Petronas Twin Towers. The building is designed by Melbourne architects, Fender Katsalidis (yay Melbourne!).

If you stand at the corner of Jalan Sultan and Jalan Hang Jebat (at the Leaf and Co Cafe) you can see the construction cranes. Also included in this picture is the usual traffic apocalypse that chokes the streets of Chinatown.

Chinatown and KL118
[Chinatown and the KL118 construction site.]

Work has already begun on this project and is due to finish in 2019. There will be a new metro station here (Merdeka) which is in between Pasar Seni and Bukit Bintang.

KL118 construction

So that is the state of the old city of Kuala Lumpur in 2017. One of the reasons for lack of heritage redevelopment is the cost of restoring old buildings. With the old city being redeveloped hopefully there will be a newfound interest in restoring old KL, as there has been in other Straits heritage cities.

May 08 2017

Giving Shenzhen a second chance

Giving Shenzhen a second chance

Shenzhen and I didn’t get off to a good start the first around. It was the end of 2010 and I was finishing a two month trip in China. I was in Shanghai and I had a flight to catch in Hong Kong. Flights to Shenzhen were half the price of those to Hong Kong, so I figured I would spend a day in Shenzhen before crossing to Hong Kong.

When I visit a place my goal is to find redeemable features of even the most boring cities. Shenzhen was one of the few places where I struggled to find a redeemable feature. Perhaps it was because I was fatigued by two months of China travel, or that there is little to see for a tourist in this business-oriented city.

I never expected to return anytime soon until some friends from Saigon moved to Shenzhen for a work project. As I was in Hong Kong I thought this would be a good opportunity to see my friends, and reassess my opinion of the city.

Returning after six years, Shenzhen felt completely different. It probably helped that it was my first day back in China and I was excited to be back (as in China where you need a visa – not Hong Kong which is also China). No doubt I’ve become a more seasoned traveller since then, and my expectations have changed. The city has definitely changed as well.

Shenzhen

Shenzhen went from a town of 30,000 people in 1979 to becoming China’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in 1980. Now there are nearly 12 million people living here. Shenzhen SEZ is a relatively new city, and there’s not much to show of old Shenzhen. The six years I was away represents nearly 17% of the 36 years of its current existence. The city feels more lived in this time around. The new buildings look worn in, street trees have grown, and there seems to be more interesting things to see and do.

Dongmen St

As is my usual style, I didn’t do anything that would warrant a “top ten things to do in Shenzhen” post. I’m more of an urban explorer and observer, so here are my notes from a day in Shenzhen.

Mobile Payments

Street food mobile pay

One of the first things I noticed when I emerged from the Hong Kong frontier was the prevalence of mobile payments. Practically everything is payable by mobile now. For example I found this street food vendor selling chicken and rice lunch packs out of a shopping trolley, and he had his WeChat code on the cart.

If you are going to China then you will be using WeChat a lot (especially since sites like Facebook and Google are blocked). Alipay is the other big payment platform of choice.

Biking Rental Apps

bikes

I arrived in Shenzhen at the start of a new bicycle revolution that is sweeping across China. Competing cycle-share companies (“Uber for bikes”) have churned out thousands of bicycles which can be found on practically every corner.

Mobile bike companies

Th bicycles have a scannable code on the back which allows you to unlock the bike with your phone. You can ride the bike for a few yuan, and then leave it where ever it suits you, saving the hassle of taking it to an official dock.

scan the code

Is there a Shazam for food yet?

Some kind of noodles

One of the main memories I have of my two months in China in 2010 was not knowing what I was eating half the time. By the time I arrived in Shenzhen I was so hungry I just stumbled into the first noodle shop I could find. Whatever my first meal back was, it was amazing.

The metro is huge

On the metro

Another noticeable difference is the expanded metro network, which is on course to become the world’s largest network by 2030. The combination of metro and cycle-shares makes getting around the city easy.

Metro bikes

Electric cars and bikes

Electric bike

There are electric bicycles and scooters everywhere. Most of the delivery services I saw use them, and after coming from the most motorbike-crazy city on the planet, the silence of the electric bikes is almost deafening.

Electric cars are also making their mark here. While in the west we are enthralled by every move that Elon Musk makes, it seems that China is quietly getting on with the business of becoming a leading electric car manufacturer. If you’re in Shenzhen look out for the blue taxis, which are the electric cars.

Electric taxi

In the hotel elevator there was a TV advertisement running with someone who looked like Leonardo DiCaprio. I thought it might have been a fake Leo, but no, it was actual Leo promoting Chinese-built electric cars (or “new energy vehicles”). The company is BYD, which is an acronym for “build your dreams”. I had never heard of BYD, but maybe they will be as common as a Toyota in a decade.

The 4th tallest building in the world that you probably haven’t heard of

Ping An Finance Centre

I got the metro to my friends apartment and I emerged from underground to be greeted by the Ping An Finance Centre. It seemed tall, even by Shenzhen standards. It turns out to be the 4th tallest building in the world. It was built in 2016, a year when Shenzhen completed more skyscrapers than the entire US.

It was raining the day I was there, which made for clean air and great views the next day. I got a shared taxi from the port to Hong Kong airport. Crossing the Shenzhen Bay Bridge you get a stunning view of Shenzhen, and you can clearly see the Ping An standing tall above an already bulked-out skyline. This grainy photo from my iPhone through a car window gives you a general idea.

Shenzhen view

Where to stay in Shenzhen

Shenzhen hotel room

Shenzhen is a city without an obvious central point. Fortunately I lucked out and picked a reasonable area to stay for the casual visitor. I stayed at the Xiang Mei Hotel (my review here), which is conveniently located near two metro lines and the Dongmen walking street. It’s also close to the frontier crossing to the Hong Kong metro.

Dongmen walking street

Search for more hotels in Shenzhen here.

For further reading this Esquire article from 2007 is a great read: Digging a hole all the way to America.

May 05 2017

A bemused Melburnian returns to Melbourne after two years absence

A bemused Melburnian returns to Melbourne after two years absence

I returned to Melbourne after being away for just over two years. I didn’t intend to be away so long, as I like to return to the homeland at least once every calendar year. Unfortunately my back injury of 2016 put me out of commission for a while and I wasn’t able to travel.

This was the longest I’ve ever been outside of Australia, and only the second time I wasn’t in Australia during a calendar year (the last time being in 2000 when I was half way through a work visa in the UK). Being away for so long made the changes more pronounced and the reverse culture shock more intense.

Flinders St platform

I began this blog in February 2009 when I was still renting a place in Melbourne. I left that house in September 2010 and I have rarely been back since. Apart from a few updates I’ve never blogged about my own home city, so here are my thoughts and observations of a week spent in Melbourne in 2017.

The Melbourne apartment boom

Elizabeth Street talls

One of the most noticeable things about what is happening in Melbourne has been the inner city apartment boom. It used to be that the city was the preserve of business, and the city at night was rather quiet. Now most of the new buildings are residential, and there lots of new cafes and restaurants in the city that goes with servicing an increased population.

Melbourne sea of cranes

On the other side of the river, Southbank continues to develop into a city in itself with more apartment towers. The street level activity is still missing though so it lacks the same vibrancy of the city.

Southbank skyline

One of the current projects in Southbank is Australia 108, which will be the tallest building in Australia by roof height.

Australia 108 construction

Many of these projects haven’t happened on empty blocks that were just waiting to be redeveloped. One of the towers in the first image sits on land that was once a Victorian-era pub. And I took a photo of this historic church building which was in its last days of existence.

Wesley Place development

This is not a new building but I wanted to put this here as it looks like a homage to the tall and skinny buildings of Vietnam.

Phoenix skinny tower

Food that got politised while I was away

Even though I don’t live in Australia I still read the Australian newspapers online to keep up with the national zeitgeist. Something that has become a thing since I’ve been away is the smashed avo breakfast. This has been around for years, but as a hard-core traveller spending $15 for a breakfast was against my religion while I was saving for overseas travel.

Smashed Avo Special

In the last few years of my travels I’ve noticed the rise of Australian breakfast culture around the world, like Aussie-style cafes in Paris, and avocado on toast in the US.

The smashed avo breakfast become politised when a local politician suggested that Millennials should forgo avocado on toast if they want to afford a house in Australia’s ridiculously expensive housing market.

I’m from Generation X, but I will not tolerate any lazy badmouthing of Millennials, so in solidarity I had a smashed avo for breakfast.

Smashed Avo

I was nice, but not something I would do every day (especially not at $16). I went to a market and saw the avocado prices which made me think that I should get my own avocado plot somewhere.

Avocados

Another food that was politised while I was away was the Halal Snack Pack (HSP). It’s always been available, just never under that name.

HSP menu

Australia’s resident racist put the HSP in the national headlines with her objections to halal, and proving the Streisand effect to be true, the obscure HSP became an international sensation.

The HSP is basically a kebab without the bread, and with chips. It must be amazing drunk food, and even for this sober person I loved it. If it was topped with squeaky cheese it would be better than poutine.

Halal Snack Pack

Hipster doughnuts have arrived

I went to Portland in 2012 which is where I encountered my first hipster donuttery. Being the hipster capital of Australia I was surprised there wasn’t one here. This oversight has been corrected and and Melbourne now has a hipster doughnut stand.

Doughnut Time

I saw a number of people walking around the city with the doughnut boxes like it is some sort of status symbol. At $6.70 for a donut we’ve come a long way from the 25c jam donuts I recall in primary school. To be fair these things are the size of a mini cake, and they have cool names.

Hipster Donuts

Is it just me, or has Vietnamese food become the most popular Asian food in Melbourne?

Moo Moo Pho

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Vietnam that I am noticing all the Vietnamese restaurants here, but all the ones I am seeing are new.

On a previous visit back to Melbourne I visited Little Saigon in Richmond. There you will find the first wave Vietnamese immigrants in more traditional restaurants, perhaps named after the proprietor or where they came from. I saw the flag of South Vietnam flying there, and you would not see any imagery of Ho Chi Minh.

By contrast the new restaurants are modern fusion style restaurants, perhaps second generation owned who have had Vietnamese cuisine filtered through modern Australia. I visited a cool restaurant and bar named Uncle, which seemed to be a nod to the use of the word uncle in Vietnam (like Uncle Ho).

Uncle

I met a friend for dinner and I didn’t know where we were going. I was taken to a new restaurant called Ho Chi Mama. I thought to myself that it would be a great name for a modern Vietnamese restaurant, and sure enough it was.

Ho Chi Mama

Pho has become a common fast food as well.

$10 Pho

And I had to laugh when I saw there is now a Pho 24 in Melbourne. Pho 24 is a chain pho restaurant in Vietnam .

Pho 24

Thai restaurants are also evolving

Even though Vietnamese food seems to be everywhere now, Thai food remains as popular as ever and is also evolving from the restaurant with tablecloths setting.

Thai Culinary

One place I went to was a restaurant called Soi 38, which is the name of a famous street food street in Bangkok (or it was until it recently closed). Soi 38 specialise in boat noodles, which is more famous around the Victory Monument area of Bangkok.

Soi 38

I went for lunch and the interior was like stepping into a portal to Thailand. I got a little misty-eyed for the Land Of Smiles when I walked in and saw the flags and portrait of King Rama IX. The restaurant has imported all the furniture from Thailand to recreate a Thai street food scene. The food carts, tables and chairs, the 4-cup condiment holder, the chopsticks box, and even the metal water cups are all exactly like you find in Thailand. The only thing they got wrong was they had boxes of tissues instead of toilet paper dispensers.

For a non-food related touch the staff were wearing vests the motorcycle taxi riders wear.
Like any good street food cart they only offer a few items so I got the boat noodles. The aroma and soup was as just like I remembered it to be in Bangkok. The noodles were maybe not exact, which might be to do with the fact that noodles in Bangkok are pre-softened by the humidity, and are infused with tuk-tuk exhaust fumes.

At $10 it’s a great deal for Melbourne, though at 264 Baht it was certainly the most expensive bowl of boat noodles I’ve ever had, but I am not complaining. I could imagine coming here on a bitterly cold Melbourne winters day and feel like you’ve been transported to Bangkok. Maybe they should invest in some humidifiers to add to the effect.

Boat Noodles

And Melbourne is more Asiatic in general

Tim Ho Wan

I had just come from Darwin which I had hoped to be more of a Asia-inspired city. It’s not yet but it is on the way. Melbourne though has more Asian influence than ever. Part of this is from the booming university destination that Australia has become, being a large English speaking country of the region.

There are so many interesting shops and restaurants here that I really needed more time to eat and explore.

Little Sichuan

Cafes

No visit to Melbourne is complete without spending time in the many cafes. Australian cafe culture has now spread around the world, and Melbourne is the mecca for this new coffee religion.

Hipster hijab

One thing that hasn’t changed is the lack of public wifi in cafes. It’s embarrassing to think that a little roadside cafe some obscure Southeast Asian town will have wifi but not in first-world Australia. It’s wrapped up with Australia’s poor handling of internet modernisation.

One place that is internet friendly is The Little Mule.

Little Mule

I was delighted to see Old Town White Coffee – a Malaysian chain – in the city as well. The coffee is no match for a creamy Melbourne latte, but I discovered their frozen coffee drink in Penang and it is addictive.

Old Town White Coffee

I was only here a week and I had meet ups to attend so I didn’t get to go to many new places. I would need to spend a month here and have a detailed spreadsheet of every cafe I was going to visit if I was to make a cool cafes of Melbourne list.

Sk. Kilda and my old house

I would love to come back for a month and compile a cafe list, and just spend time in a great city. Part of my problem is no longer having places to stay like I used to. On this trip I ended up staying in Airbnb accommodation.

I paid a visit to my old inner city neighbourhood of St Kilda and went by my old house. When I was living here with two friends this 100-year-old house was practically falling down around our ears. The last month I was there we were paying $333 AUD a month each, which even then was insanely cheap. Each time we complained about something not working the rent would go up, so we mainly put up with it.

The house has since been sold and appropriately renovated, and it’s now the multi-mullion dollar house that it was destined to be.

I lived here

Before I left Australia, St. Kilda Beach used to be the centre of my universe. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, or at least not returning on a regular basis.

St Kilda Beach

Now I come back and I feel nothing for my old neighbourhood. It’s still a lovely place to live, it’s just not my place any more. I went to the pier where there is a great view of the city over the bay. It’s really a beautiful city, worthy of its world’s most liveable city status. For now though it’s not where I’m meant to be.

City from St Kilda

May 01 2017

Where I’m At: May, 2017 – Mui Ne edition

Mui Ne

[Where I’m At; a monthly update of what I’ve been up to, site news, and where I’m going next.]

Where I’ve Been

Greetings from Mui Ne! After returning from Shenzhen at the start of the month, I’ve been in Vietnam for the rest of the time. I was away from Saigon for a month, which is a long time in this fast-changing city. There is lots of construction going on now with the new metro line, and the continued mania of knocking down heritage buildings. I would guess that there is no other city in Southeast Asia that is looking as messy as this right now. I went to a rooftop bar to get some progress photos, and this is the current view.

Saigon panorama - April 2017
[Click for full size.]

This is the central point of Saigon, which is where a new metro line will go, along with two towers that face the metro site. The big change has been the removal of the roundabout. Here is what it looked like in October, 2016.

Roundabout, October, 2016

And in April, 2017 (you can still see the outline of the roundabout here).

Ben Thanh roundabout April 2017

Last year I wrote about the current and future railways of Southeast Asia. I still fly to many places, so this year I have been looking at what new train journeys I can take. With that in mind I took the train from Saigon to Phan Thiet, which is the station for Mui Ne. The train takes just over four hours and is a much better option than the bus.

I’m in Mui Ne on what happens to be the Reunification Day and Labour Day holiday weekend, so I have avoided travelling on the peak travel days. I’ve been to Mui Ne once before during the rainy season, so it’s been good to see it in its bright blue state.

The Mui Ne area is popular for kite surfers, though it still retains its fishing village heritage.

Travel books I’ve read

A Geek in China: Discovering the Land of Alibaba, Bullet Trains and Dim Sum

A Geek in China: Discovering the Land of Alibaba, Bullet Trains and Dim SumI got sent a copy of A Geek in China to review. I first became aware of the “A Geek in…” book series when I found A Geek in Thailand. Like the other Geek books (there is also Japan and Korea), A Geek in China is a visually stunning book that presents a condensed history of China, along with travel highlights and interesting bits of trivia. It’s an ideal book for pre-travel inspiration, or if you are already a Sinophile. This book series reminds me of the DK Eyewitness Travel series, which are better for research than planning, and it’s better as a real book (I wouldn’t get the Kindle version).

For more reading ideas visit the best travel books list.

ICYMI – Last months posts

I started catching up on a backlog of articles for places I’ve recently visited.

First up is Da Nang in central Vietnam, which is emerging from the tourism shadow of Hoi An to become a destination in itself.

Next up is Canggu in Bali, which in the space of a few years has become one of the worlds leading hipster hotspots.

After Bali I went to Darwin and I didn’t do anything in the way of sightseeing. Instead I started wondering about Darwin’s proximity to Asia. While researching about Darwin airport I saw a proposal for flights from Darwin to Saumlaki (Maluku). From there I wrote about Darwin as Asia’s gateway to Australia, which includes this rather fanciful future Indonesia-Australia route map (one can dream, no?)

Future Indonesia-Australia route map

April 20 2017

Darwin as Asia’s gateway to Australia

Darwin as Asia’s gateway to Australia

My first time to Darwin was a stop at the airport in 2007, which we all know doesn’t count as a visit. I was flying from Sydney to Mumbai, which stopped at Darwin on the way. That flight route was made famous by Ralph Fiennes and a Qantas flight attendant, though my flight was not as memorable.

The following year I flew from Singapore to Melbourne via Darwin, and I realised on that flight that Darwin is closer to Southeast Asia than it is to Southeast Australia. A quick look on the map could have told you that, but travel has a way of making you think about your place in the world.

I finally got to properly visit Darwin on my way back to Melbourne from Bali, ten years after my first “visit”. AirAsia fly from Bali to Darwin, so rather than getting a direct flight I made a detour.

I was only there for a short stopover, so I didn’t do anything of a touristic nature. Instead, this post is about my observations of Darwin’s place in Australia as a gateway to Asia.

My first impressions of Darwin

Charles Darwin in Darwin
[Darwin is named after Charles Darwin.]

“Darwin is like a big country town” were the words from the hotel receptionist, which was the conclusion I came to early on. According to the 2016 census, Greater Darwin has a population of 143,629 and is the 15th biggest city in Australia.

I stayed in the CBD over a weekend, which devoid of weekday office workers added to the feeling of emptiness. For tourists, Darwin has traditionally been the gateway to Outback Australia. You either fly in and begin an Outback adventure, or you are driving around the country and Darwin is a resupply/civilisation stop.

It didn’t help that I arrived at the tail end of the rainy season, which puts a hold on many activities that would be business as usual in tropical Asia. One thing I wanted to see was the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, which has a lively Asian food market. This only runs in the dry season, so I shall return on a longer trip to the Northern Territory.

My impression of the CBD is that it’s starting to have a renaissance, like other cities in Australia have been through. In the eighties and early nineties there were very few residents living in the Melbourne CBD. Now it is filled with apartment towers and the supporting cafes and restaurants that go with an increased population. There appears to have been a recent apartment boom in Darwin, which I think will fill in eventually.

Darwin CBD apartments
[A skyline is emerging in low-rise Darwin.]

There have been some interesting developments in the city, including the waterfront precinct which has an artificial beach surrounded by apartments and a retail area.

Beach
[The lifestyle of city living in Darwin.]

Next to the beach is a wave lagoon which also looks appealing for hot days (so basically every day).

Wave Lagoon
[Wave Lagoon (I was there early in the morning).]

With more people living in the city the cool cafes and restaurants will follow. I visited The Rabbit Hole, which would not be out of place in Melbourne.

The Rabbit Hole
[The Rabbit Hole cafe – Darwin.]

Darwin – Australia’s Asian city

My interest in Darwin is in its future as a gateway to Asia. The idea is not a new one, with the Territory’s former Chief Minister having said that Darwin is Asia’s gateway to Australia.

Darwin is Asia's gateway to Australia
[Image credit: Darwin Port Corporation.]

I arrived in Darwin after having spent the last ten months in Asia. I was not even 24 hours in the city and I was experiencing some Asia withdrawal symptoms, brought on by the wide open spaces and quiet streets. There was also the reverse culture shock (and sticker shock) to contend with as well.

Pho special
[A 222,000 dong bowl of pho 😭.]

I saw on the map that there is a Chinese temple, so to salve my withdrawals I paid a visit. I arrived to find a rather humble temple.

Chinese Temple

To be fair the inside is more ornate, which made me think of the plain exterior of churches in Italy that are more extravagant inside.

Temple altar

After visiting this temple it made me wonder about the history of the Chinese population in the Northern Territory. There have been Chinese Australians since 1818, which is a fact that is not celebrated in Anglo-centric Australia. Our shameful treatment of Chinese migrants is similar to the experience in the United States.

Even though there is a historic connection of Chinese in Darwin, there isn’t a Chinatown street like in other capitals in Australia. There is a Chinatown development that was proposed in the early 2000’s which has since stalled.

A new developer took control of Darwin Chinatown in 2016, stating that they remain committed to the original plan of “developing a unique, Chinatown themed mixed use development that provides a link to Darwin’s rich Chinese heritage”. The development will have three towers with a ground level retail and entertainment plaza.

Proposed Chinatown in Darwin
[A depiction of the proposed Chinatown in Darwin (from ntnews.com.au).]

Further Reading: Beyond Chinatown: Changing Perspectives on the Top End Chinese Experience

Darwin as a Southeast Asia air hub

Having flown from Singapore and Bali on Asia-based low cost airlines to Darwin, I wondered what Darwin would look like as a major airport serving as a hub between Southeast Asia and Australia. When I have such aviation-related thoughts I turn to the great Great Circle Mapper map maker (say that fast ten times). You can make all kinds of route maps on this site, and all the maps you see in this post are from gcmap.com.

What if low cost airlines from around Southeast Asia flew to Darwin. An Airbus A320-200 (used by AirAsia and Vietjet as two examples) has a range of 3500 nautical miles. I’ve drawn this map at 3000 nautical miles to leave some fuel in the tank. This range covers every country in Southeast Asia, and onward to every place in Australia and New Zealand.

3000 NM Range
[3000 nautical mile radius from Darwin.]

Jetstar’s attempt to make Darwin a hub to Asia

In 2009 Jetstar announced that they were turning Darwin into a hub for Asia flights. Flights that became a reality included Singapore, Bali, Ho Chi Minh City, and Manila with an onward flight to Tokyo.

By the end of 2013 Jetstar closed their Darwin base, bringing this experiment of a hub for Asia to an end. Darwin airports high airport fees were a factor, which reports in aviation forums were saying were the highest in the country. I don’t have a citation for that, but this letter from Northern Territory Airports mentions factors that make Darwin more expensive.

International flights from Darwin

Darwin International Airport arrivals and departures
[The not-very-internationl arrivals and departures.]

For a city so close to Asia there are not many international options. These were the airlines that were operating internationally at the time of my visit (March, 2017):

Airnorth: Dili
Indonesia AirAsia: Denpasar-Bali
Jetstar Airways: Denpasar-Bali
Jetstar Asia Airways: Singapore
Malaysia Airlines: Kuala Lumpur
Philippine Airlines: Manila
SilkAir: Singapore

Darwin used to have more international flights when it was a staging point for the Kangaroo Route. Qantas began its Sydney to London service in 1947, which stopped in Darwin, Singapore, Calcutta, Karachi, Cairo, and Tripoli. International airlines that stopped en route in Darwin included UTA (Union de Transports Aériens), BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation), Alitalia, and Air India. When modern jets were able to fly from Europe to Australia in one stop, the multi-legged routes became redundant.

While it’s improbable that Darwin will get such a roll call of European airlines again, there is a future for more flights from across Asia. The big missing link is direct flights between Darwin and China.

Qantas did trial a Darwin-Hong Kong charter flight with the hope of making it permanent.

There have been calls to reopen the Kupang-Darwin route, and Indonesia has invited Australian airlines to fly from Darwin to Saumlaki in Maluku, where the Indonesian government is developing the area as a tourism destination.

Darwin as a Australia’s bridge to Indonesia

Indonesian halal food
[Don’t mention it’s halal and they’ll eat it by the boxful.]

The population of Indonesia in 2013 was 249.9 million. That’s a quarter of a billion people in a nation with over 17,000 islands, yet most Australians only experience of Indonesia is Bali. Indeed, I have read about bogans in Bali not even knowing they were in Indonesia. For a country that is so close to Australia, we really should be better connected.

What would a future Darwin airport look like with a prosperous Indonesia and if Australia offered a reciprocal 30-day free travel visa. Maybe a route map would look similar to this:

Future Indonesia-Australia route map

Currently the only flights from Darwin to Indonesia are to (you guessed it) Bali. There used to be flights to Jakarta (Java) and Kupang (West Timor), and the only recent new proposal has been the aforementioned flight to Saumlaki (Maluku), which seems unlikely.

To Jetstar’s credit they tried to do something different by offering a Perth to Lombok flight in 2013, which lasted less than a year. I think a better route attempt would have been Darwin to Yogyakarta, where Jetstar (or any airline) could at least market visiting the biggest buddhist temple in the world.

The Darwin non-stop to London option

Qantas announced that they will launch a non-stop Australia to London service from Perth. The flight will take 18 hours using a 787-9 Dreamliner with up to 236 passengers.

I personally have no desire to fly 18 hours non stop (unless it was in one of these), not to mention the long term effects on the crew who are continually in a plane that long.

What about if the service ran from Darwin. Here is the Great Circle Mapper map of the two routes:

London to Perth and Darwin

Darwin to London is 13,872 km while Perth to London is 14,499 km, making Darwin 627 km closer. A 787-9 Dreamliner has a range of 15,750km.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer suggested that Darwin should pinch the planned Qantas Perth international hub and become Australia’s Dubai (referring to the current Qantas hub in Dubai).

No doubt Qantas gave it thought, with Perth as the preferred option for being a bigger city with a large British expat community.

The Northern Australia “open skies” proposal

Another proposal that would have opened up Darwin airport to Asia was a Northern Australia “open skies” plan.

The Northern Australia Green Paper suggested allowing foreign budget carriers to operate domestic flights between airports located north of the Tropic of Capricorn (latitude 23.5° south). That would include flights between Broome, Darwin, Cairns, and Townsville.

For example a carrier from Singapore could fly Singapore – Darwin – Cairns, and be allowed to carry domestic passengers between Darwin and Cairns.

Singapore - Darwin - Cairns

This would have the benefit of opening up Northern Australia to more competition between regional routes, encouraging growth between the major cities of the north.

The open skies proposal would also allow quicker international flights from Darwin. Currently Darwinites have to backtrack to the southern cities for international connections, especially as Qantas likes to funnel traffic through Sydney.

The plan was of course vehemently opposed by the incumbent airlines who enjoy a monopoly on northern routes.

Foreign jets on domestic Australian routes has been done before, so maybe its time will come again.

A free trade zone in Northern Australia, and other radical ideas too radical for Australia

The most radical idea that reappears every few years is the idea of a free trade zone in Northern Australia. This ranges from the entire region above the Tropic of Capricorn, a chunk of Northwestern Australia, or a special economic zone in a selected city (like Darwin or Broome, for example).

An S.E.Z has been attempted before with the Darwin Trade Development Zone. This began in 1985 and ended in 2003 by “government interference and a focus on low-skilled labour”. It remains as Australia’s first and only free trade zone.

Another idea to populate the north is this proposal for a Singaporean ‘charter city’ in the northern parts of Western Australia. How about if the Darwin Trade Development Zone was restarted under this idea?

The charter city idea sounds similar to the Multifunction Polis (MFP) proposal that was meant to be some kind of futuristic Japanese city of high-tech industries. The idea was thrown around on the national news for years (this was pre-internet), and in the end no one really understood what it was meant to be. Also the Australia of the eighties was not ready for the idea of integrating into Asia.

In the eighties, racist scaremongers were selling this as a frightening Bladerunner-esque city with Japanese food on every corner. I say shut up and take my money! This idea would probably have a better chance today if it had a more catchy name than MFP.

This ABCTV story on the 7.30 Report from 1990 is an interesting time capsule of that era.


Multi-Function Polis.

What is the likelihood of any of this happening?

Highly unlikely. Big ideas are not Australia’s forte, so don’t expect any of these ideas to happen anytime soon.

Not that there hasn’t been any opportunities to build a hub/develop Northern Australia. Much has been written about how Australian governments have blown mining boom cash and subsidised mining companies rather than extracting more taxes from them. Norway built the biggest sovereign wealth fund in the world with revenue from its offshore oilfields. We could have had a sovereign wealth fund like Norway, or a government investment company like Temasek Holdings of Singapore (which at one point owned more of Australia than Australia).

Privatised airports haven’t helped either. Sydneysiders are well familiar with the price gouging that goes on at Kingsford Smith, and you know privatisation was a bad idea when a conservative paper rips into it.

What if instead of handing a monopoly to a private company the airports remained government owned (like Dallas/Fort Worth). Landing fees could be kept low, or even subsidised from the proceeds of mining income in order to develop the region.

These are all thoughts for another post, so I’ll stay out this proverbial rabbit hole for now. I’m sure I will return to Darwin to visit Kakadu and the Outback, so I look forward to seeing what’s new in Darwin.

April 17 2017

Canggu – the hipster paradise of Bali

Canggu

I first visited Canggu in 2014 when it was already creating a name for itself as the next cool place in Bali. By then it was called “the new Ubud” and “Ubud for surfers”, so of course I had to see for myself. Sure enough I could see the new-age/organic of vibe Ubud fused with hipster surf culture.

Canggu - 2014

Three years later I found myself back in Canggu and I was staggered at the changes over that time. This little hipster enclave has appealing cafes and restaurants everywhere. If you measured its cool factor by hipster cafes per capita, it might just be the coolest place on the planet right now.

I enjoyed my visit in Canggu, though I know it’s not for everyone. For me I have come to associate Bali as being a luxurious recovery stop in between visiting Indonesian islands. Travel east of Bali and coffee comes in a sachet and hot water in a guesthouse is a rare luxury. You’ll be hard pressed to find cultural travel in Canggu, but if you want a beach town with an amazing variety of food and great accommodation, then this is your place.

Where is Canggu?

Canggu (pronounced as “changgoo”, and known as The Gu if you have been there long enough) is an area in South Bali, between Seminyak and Tanah Lot. If you look on the map of Bali, tourism development has gradually eaten its way north from the airport through Kuta, Legian, and Seminyak. Canggu is after those well-known travel hotspots.

From rice paddies to hipster paradise

What I like about Canggu is that it is still set among rice fields (for now). I’m based in a concrete jungle teeming with motorbikes, so I found the change of pace refreshing.

Rice field

My first impression of Canggu was of it being similar in vibe to Ubud, which has a high proportion of organic/new age shops.

Earth xpress

The difference being that you can drink, smoke, and eat hamburgers here, and not feel guilty about it.

Black Shores

And of course the one thing that Canggu has over Ubud is a beach. At first glance the beach doesn’t look appealing (like the brown beach of Pangandaran) but upon closer inspection it is soft beach to walk on.

Batu Bolong Beach

The Australian influence is prevalent here, but not overrun with bogans like in Kuta Beach. I’ve heard Canggu being described as “Bondi on Bali” (named after the trendy Sydney beach neighbourhood).

I found a cafe called Little Flinders, which is a reference to a street in Melbourne.

Little Flinders

It’s not all Aussie cafes though as there is a wide range of international representation here. Scandinavians are a well-travelled lot, so it is not surprising to find a restaurant of Scandinavian comfort food.

Fika - Scandinavian comfort food

French and Chinese fusion doesn’t sound obvious, except when you are in The Gu.

Bro Resto - French and Chinese fusion

Walking up and down the main road I just wanted to eat everything.

Einstein Dim Sum

Filing under TIL – I learned that you can make flour out of dried bananas, which is what Made’s Banana Flour Company does (the world’s first banana flour bakery).

Mades Banana Flour

A rare beast in Southeast Asia are good Mexican restaurants.

Localita Mexican

And excuse this blurry photo – you can get Cubanos here!

Cubanos

Even with all the foreign influence it is still Bali at heart. Balinese temples and shrines are everywhere, and the ubiquitous daily offerings are laid in front of every building.

Kung Food

Paradise or parody?

At times it feels like Canggu is one big parody of itself, with paleo this, vegan that, and organic everything else.

Avocado Cafe

Can I interest you in some colon hydrotherapy?

The Detox Room

If you do Crossfit on the beach and didn’t Instagram it, did you do Crossfit on the beach?

Beach Crossfit

And no hipster paradise is complete without a hipster barber shop.

Dirty Sanchez

My favourite cafe in Canggu

There are plenty of cafes in Canggu serving espresso-based coffee, though I wasn’t there long enough to compile a “best cafes in Canggu” list for my Bali cafe list. The best coffee I had was at Machinery Cafe on Jl. Pantai Batu Bolong.

Machinery Coffee

And for the drinkers

I don’t drink, but if I did I would have found myself at Ji, which is a Japanese fusion restaurant/wine & sake bar. The bar is housed in a Kang Xi period temple from 1706, which was facing demolition in Java until it was transported and reconstructed in Bali. This is more like something you would find in Seminyak, which is overflowing with uber-cool world-class bars. This is perhaps a harbinger of things to come as the Seminyak influence creeps its way north.

ji

Less formal is this beer cart that you may find on your travels.

Bar the way - beer cart

The institution of Canggu is Old Mans, which is on the beach at Jalan Pantai Batu Bolong.

Old Mans

Where I ate

I visited Hungry Volks purely for its location near my accommodation, and it turned out to be a favourite. I liked it unpretentious Indonesian/Western menu and reasonable prices (for Canggu), where many places are charging Australian prices.

Hungry Volks

I prefer eating local where ever I go, which is a challenge in Canggu. I enjoyed Warung Bu Mi which is a modern take on traditional Indonesian restaurants that serves rice and your choice of side dishes.

Warung Bu Mi

Digital nomad scene

Offices for rent

I’ve been hearing the buzz about Canggu on various nomad forums so I was curious to see its suitability as a place to live and work. Canggu is spread out without a real town centre so there isn’t an obvious congregation spot. There is a co-working space here, and some villas have been set up and marketed specifically for digital nomads.

At this point Canggu is still a mix of surfers, hippies, hipsters, digital nomads, and expats who fled to Canggu to escape the development of Seminyak to the south, which has now caught up with them and who are now complaining about said development.

I prefer living in big cities, though I could see myself spending a month here to get some work done.

Getting around Canggu

Getting to and around Canggu is a pain. As Bali has grown over the last few decades little thought has been given to future infrastructure planning. Perhaps they did think about it, only to put that thought back in the too hard basket. Family land ownership is a big deal here, and properties are built up against public roads, making property acquisition and road widening an impossible task.

To make matters worse, the two main roads of Canggu run parallel with a valley of rice fields separating the two. It is here that you will find the infamous short cut road that crosses the valley to connect Batu Bolong and Batu Bewara. The short cut is wide enough for one car, so cars have to check the other side of the valley to make sure no other cars are coming before making the crossing. I have seen photos of cars that have rolled into the rice paddies.

Rice paddy shortcut

The taxi mafia is powerful in Bali and there is resistance to the new wave of ride apps that are sweeping Southeast Asia. The big app players here are Gojek, Grab, and Uber. I personally use Grab in Vietnam, so that was useful to have the same account already work in Bali. I also tried out Gojek to see what the buzz is about.

[Open a Grab account via my link and we will both get a free ride: Join Grab.]

The Minister of Transportation banned online transportation services in December, 2015 and then lifted the ban a day later. So they are still legal but taxi mafia strongmen have been known to intimidate riders and drivers of the new transportation companies.

Taxi mafia

At my guesthouse the listed price to get from Canggu to the airport by private taxi was 200,000 IDR. The rate I was quoted on Gojek was 63,000 IDR for the 45 minutes drive to the airport by car. It was about the same price for Grab to the airport.

Gocar Canggu to Airport Grabcar Canggu to airport

One time I took a Grab car from Seminyak to Canggu and the driver messaged me to ask if he could cancel and add another 10,000 to the price. The price was still way cheaper than a mafia cab, so I obliged.

I prefer the apps because when you are in a new place and unfamiliar with what the actual transport price should be, it is given to you without any haggling or tipping to worry about.

Goride Canggu to Seminyak

Gojek also offer a variety of other delivery services.

Gojek Services

Where to stay Canggu


There is a serious accommodation boom happening in Canggu (849 properties were listed on Agoda at the time of my visit). The cheapest places are the home stays that can be found down little alleys off the main roads. Some of them have online booking, but if you are here for a while it would be worth enquiring at ones you pass in an area that interests you.

Ris home stay

I was only there for a short time so I didn’t want to spend my time finding a place by foot. I prefer to book in advance and I found a good homestay option on the main road. It’s a bit of a hike from the beach but if you are going to be here a while with a bike it is a good option. Find out about Canggu Stay here.

Canggu Stay

For a guesthouse that feels like a resort have a look at Coconuts Guesthouse Canggu.

Coconuts Guesthouse

In the 4-star range the Aston Canggu is walking distance to the beach.

Aston Canggu

Search all hotels in Canggu here. And don’t forget Airbnb as an accommodation option. If you haven’t used Airbnb you can get a $20 credit when you sign up here.

How will Canggu handle future development?

As I mentioned previously, the pace of change has been staggering. I suspect if I visit again in another three years time more agricultural land will have been paved over. Before I left I passed this rice field on Batu Bolong which was being boarded up ready for a new construction project. This rice crop will be the last one on this field.

Last rice crop

The word is definitely out the Canggu is the place to be, with the Intercontinental putting up a new hotel here.

Project Intercontinental Canggu

Further reading

cangguguide.com – The local destination guide to The Gu.

Canggu Guide – Bali-based Travelfish has a big guide on things to do.

The Ultimate Guide to Canggu for Independent Travellers and Digital Nomads – Carolin from breathingtravel.com spent a few months in Canggu and put together this guide.

The best places to eat, surf and hang around in Canggu – A guide by off-the-path.com.

April 10 2017

Da Nang – A dragon rising

Da Nang skyline

I was in Da Nang for a wedding which was a great excuse to return to a city I enjoy visiting. I’ve been four times now over the space of 12 years. The first time I was in Danang was in 2005, where I only passed through on a bus from Hoi An. I remember the city looking dusty and run-down. When I returned in 2013 it – like the rest of Vietnam – seemed to have transformed so much in such a short time.

Traffic

Danang has long been in the tourism shadow of Hoi An, which is a 30 minutes drive to the south. The city is growing and becoming a destination in itself. With its ideal location of being half way between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the government has plans to turn it into a modern hub city. There is a skyline emerging along the riverfront, and a fire-breathing dragon bridge has become the symbol of the city.

Dragon Bridge

A city with a real beach – My Khe

Another noticeable change over the years has been the development of the My Khe beachfront. This was known by American servicemen as China Beach, and backpackers in the nineties and early oughts could find cheap guesthouses here. Until recently the beachfront was lined with seafood shacks. These restaurants sit on prime beach front land, so it’s no surprise that these are being replaced by hotel developments.

There are not many cities in Southeast Asia that are true cities on the beach front. I can see this stretch of beach becoming a mini Gold Coast.

Beach

Overdevelopment issues

I’m all for this section of the beach becoming a city-by-the-sea and for Da Nang to become a more world-class city. What is concerning is the surrounding developments. Part of Da Nang’s charm is it being so close to the mountains and the sea. Overlooking the Bay of Da Nang is the Son Tra Peninsula which is about to be a mass of construction.

And along the coast between Danang and Hoi An it seems that the whole beachfront will soon be wall-to-wall resorts, which is already seeing its beaches eroding from overdevelopment.

Coastal development

A convenient airport

Arriving at Da Nang

Another thing Danang has going for it is its centrally-located airport. It takes about 10 minutes to drive from the airport to the downtown area by the river.

There are plans to expand the current airport while it continues to gather a collection of international flights, making it an attractive entry point into Vietnam.

International flights are limited to East Asia and some Southeast Asia cities (KL, Singapore, Bangkok). With Vietjet Air expanding their reach it is likely that more Southeast Asia options will be added, and I predict that one of the big Middle Eastern airlines (the ME3) will fly here within 10 years.

And a convenient train station (but not for long)

Ga Da Nang

The train station is also in central Da Nang, but it will be moved eventually. The train used to loop through the city, which you can still see the old track. The train now has to switch engines at the station, which is a time consuming process.

Old railway track

The station will be moved outside the city so train will be able to pass through. In the future the station will become a hub for trains coming in from Laos and Thailand.

Living and working in Da Nang

Whenever I visit a city I like to see what it’s like to work and live. For now Da Nang doesn’t have the big city diversions that I find in mega cities like Saigon and Bangkok. Watch this space though, as I think this will change in the next few years. I suspect hipsters that have been priced out of Saigon and Hanoi will come here, and there will be a wave of interesting cafes and restaurants opening up.

I look forward to my next visit.

April 01 2017

Where I’m At: April, 2017 – Shenzhen edition

Where I’m At: April, 2017 – Shenzhen edition

Where I’m At; a monthly update of what I’ve been up to, site news, and where I’m going next.

Where I’ve Been

After months of hardly travelling at all, March was a busy month. My travels revolved around making my way back to Australia, which I had been away for over two years. I was long overdue for a visit.

My month began in Vung Tau and Saigon, and then I hit the road for the rest of the month. This post is a summary, and more detailed blogs will follow for everywhere I went.

Hoi An / Da Nang

Hoi An riverfront

I was invited to a wedding in Da Nang so I went a few days earlier to visit Hoi An, which is about 30 minutes away from Da Nang. It’s a photographers paradise, with so many interesting buildings to see. The historic area is compact, so at times it feels more like a theme park than a real town as it’s overrun with tourism. I love to visit, but I wouldn’t live here.

Da Nang

Da Nang is a city I could live in, or at least down the track when it has more big city diversions. I’ve been to Da Nang a few times now and each time I visit it keeps evolving. It’s getting a skyline now, and I think in a few years there will be more cafes and restaurants to choose from.

Da Nang also has a beach in the city, which is one if its drawcards. My friends got married at one of the beach resorts, and it was a beautiful day (congrats to Justin and Aiza!)

Kuala Lumpur

KL Sentral

My visa expired the day after the wedding, so I got a flight from Da Nang to KL. I go to KL a couple of times a year on the way to somewhere else, so it always reminds me of being in transit. Rather than fly directly back to Australia I took the option of stopping along the way. I haven’t done a long international flight since before my back injury last June, so I wanted to ease myself back into travel.

Bali

Seminyak - Bali

After my visa expiring in Vietnam I had to wait until later in the month to see my family in Australia. With a week to spare I figured I’ll fly halfway to Australia and stop on in Bali. I spent the week in Seminyak and Canggu.

Batu Bolong Beach

On my last visit to Bali (3 years ago) I took a day trip to Canggu, which was the latest up-and-coming cool beach destination. I don’t think you can say it’s up-and-coming anymore as it has definitely arrived. I’ve heard it described as Bondi-on-Bali (named after a trendy Sydney beach), and everywhere in Canggu you can see Australian influence in the businesses that have set up. I like it there, and I can see how it has become popular for location independent types.

Darwin

Charles Darwin

AirAsia fly from Bali to Darwin so I made a stop there on the way to Melbourne. I had never been to Darwin before which was a good enough reason for me to go. At 2.5 hours flying time, Darwin is closer to Bali than it is to Melbourne. After being in the big cities of Southeast Asia, the “big country town” vibe of Darwin was even more pronounced. I was also there on a weekend, so the city area was quieter than during the week.

Melbourne

Flinders St Station

Ahh Melbourne, my old home city, and the place I still call home whenever I need to answer that question of “where do you come from?” I didn’t intend to be away for so long. 2016 was only the second time I wasn’t in my home country in a calendar year. 2000 was the other, when I was in the middle of a 2-year work visa in the UK.

With only a week to spare my time was spent seeing family, visiting friends, and getting paperwork in order. I also felt like a tourist in my home town as there have been so many changes.

I started this blog in 2009, which was the year I left my rented house and went full time in the nomadic life. With only fleeting visits since then the city has changed more than I have been able to keep up with.

Singapore

Changi chickens

From Melbourne it was back to Asia with a flight to Singapore. I had a night here and met a friend at the airport. Changi is rated as the best airport in the world, and it probably has the worlds best food court at an airport. The food court in the basement of Terminal 3 has food stands that are worthy of any hawker centre, and they don’t charge outrageous airport prices.

Hong Kong

Star ferries

Hong Kong has become an annual tradition for me, so rather than fly directly back to Vietnam I detoured here for a few days. I should probably spend a month here some time, but for now I content myself with short visits and explore as much as I can.

Shenzhen

Shenzhen

Some friends who were living in Saigon have recently moved to Shenzhen, which is on the border of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Shenzhen became China’s first Special Economic Zone in 1980, and it was transformed from a fishing village to one of the biggest cities in China.

My hotel is in the Dongman Pedestrian area which has some fake old buildings. Nothing here is old. The city is more like a modern version of Los Angeles. I went out to the district where my friends are, and they live next to the worlds fourth tallest building. The city is also building the biggest metro system in the world, with a total of 32 metro lines covering the city.

Travel plans

After a month that had seven flights and every days accommodation planned out, I have gladly not planned anything for April.

ICYMI – Last months posts

The more I travel the less I blog. In this case a month of travel equals zero blogs. I will be catching up this month on all the place I visited.

Nomadic Notes Around The Web

As I have been based in Saigon the last few years I was asked some questions about living in Hồ Chí Minh City at BBC Travel.

March 07 2017

How to get from Saigon to Vung Tau by ferry

Saigon to Vung Tau by ferry

Vung Tau is the closest beach town to Saigon, so naturally it’s a popular city escape for Saigonese. The easiest way to get there is by the fast boat service. This used to be the quickest way before the Long Thanh expressway opened. Now getting a minivan takes about the same time.

There was some confusion over the future of the ferry after the Vina Express hydrofoil caught fire in 2014, and services were suspended.

The service restarted but then the government announced that the Soviet-era hydrofoils used by Vina Express were to be retired by December, 2016. There are now other operators so this isn’t the end of the Vung Tau ferry.

Ferry operators

Vina Express was the hydrofoil operator whose service has since been suspended.

The other two operators are Pacific Express and Greenlines. The tickets are the same price and from the same location, so I went with Greenlines for the departure time that suited me.

The pier for boats to Vung Tau used to be at Bach Dang pier in District 1, near the Majestic hotel. The departure point has since moved down the river to District 4. The jetty is off Nguyen Tat Thanh Street near the Ho Chi Minh Museum.

Greenlines and Pacific Express

Greenlines Ferry Review

Greenlines on Saigon River

The Greenlines catamaran looks like a little tug boat so I was surprised at how fast it goes.

I’ve been on many ferries in Southeast Asia with narrow and broken seats. It was a welcome relief to see that the seats weren’t crammed into a small space.

Onboard

The seats are wide and provide plenty of leg room, and they are made of a soft netted/mesh fabric that are comfortable to sit on. The life vests are easily accessible from under the seat as well.

Seats

There is wi-fi onboard and video entertainment. They were playing traditional Vietnamese music and it wasn’t too loud, which is usually the case. They also had the air conditioning set at a reasonable level and not set to “freezing”.

Entertainment

Part of the appeal of this trip is putting Saigon in context to the surrounding waterways. While the rivers the boat travels on aren’t part of the Mekong Delta, there are sections that felt like being in the Delta. Being in urban Saigon I didn’t realise how big the ports and waterways were here.

Phu My Bridge

There is a small deck out the back but it’s not really suitable for sitting. This a fast boat service and not a pleasure cruise, so I made do with looking at the scenery from the window. There is a clean western toilet at the back, and there is no snack bar onboard (you get a small bottled water though).

Toilet

Most of the trip is smooth sailing (so to speak) along the rivers. It is only on the last section where the river meets the sea and the boat cuts across the bay that it gets a bit rough.

Ferry at Vung Tau

The trip take about 90 minutes and the from the jetty at Vung Tau you can walk to the downtown area of the Vung Tau Front Beach.

Saigon – Vung Tau Boat Route

Here is a map of the Saigon to Vung Tau boat route, which starts on the Saigon River, then joins the Soai Rạp River, and finishes in the Ganh Rai Bay.

March 01 2017

Where I’m At: March, 2017 – Vung Tau edition

Where I'm At: March, 2017 - Vung Tau edition

Where I’m At; a monthly update of what I’ve been up to and site news.

Where I’ve Been

Saigon

I started the month in Saigon which is where I spent most of the month. I have a single entry three-month visa, so when I get that visa I stay in the country. I’ve had a pile of work to do and I’ll be travelling again soon so I was happy to stay grounded for a while.

With my back feeling better I’ve been going out on more wanders and exploring some of the construction sites around the city. There is a metro line being built and several big projects going on, the details of which is posted below.

Saigon under construction

With over 8 million people in the city there is always somewhere new to eat. A friend wrote about this amazing biryani place hidden away in an alley you would never find by wandering. A group of us went and it was worth the trek outside of my usual grazing zone.

Mutton Biryani

And there are always new cafes to visit as well. One new cafe I visited was Vietcetera Cafe, which is by the same team that publishes Vietcetera. It feels like a Singaporean cafe, with Melbourne-style coffee, and American-sized coffees (or at least bigger than the usual Vietnamese sizes).

Vietcetera Cafe

Vung Tau

Front Beach - Vung Tau

Vung Tau is about 90 minutes by ferry or van from Saigon. The beach isn’t much to report about, so if you come to Vietnam for beaches you are better off saving your time for other places. I came here to try out the new ferry which is back in operation after the last one sunk. Even though it isn’t a great beach I like the vibe here and it makes for a good city escape. I will have a guide about Vung Tau soon.

Travel books

I usually feature travel books I’ve read, but this month I’ve been reading non-travel fiction. Instead of a travel book review this months book is a history book/biography recommendation.

I attended a book talk by Denise Chong, who is the author of The Girl in the Picture. This is the story of Kim Phuc, the girl from the famous picture of the Vietnam War who was burned from a napalm strike.

It was fascinating to hear how this book was researched when it was written in the mid-90s. This was before the internet was a research tool, and before Vietnam had become accustomed to western visitors.

I haven’t read this book yet as I was planning to buy it at the event. It turns out that everyone else at the talk had the same plan, so I missed out on a signed copy. It’s moved into my “books to read next” list.

The talk was hosted at the Old Compass Cafe, which has been putting on some great talks of interest to history buffs of Saigon and Southeast Asia. It’s worth checking their schedule if you are passing through.

I have a big travel book list of non-fiction personal narratives. My next list will be of historical books about history and place.

ICYMI – Last months posts

The changing face of Saigon – 2017 edition – In 2015 I wrote a post about the developments happening in Saigon. This is an update on changes to the city.

The Vietnamese dong – the world’s highest denominated currency – Vietnam has the worlds highest denominated currency, so I put together this brief history of the dong.

My travel gear list for 2017 – An inventory of the travel gear I’m currently using.

February 23 2017

The changing face of Saigon – 2017 edition

Changing-face-of-saigon

With around 8.5 million people in Saigon the city will soon join the ranks of the world’s megacities. I wrote about the changing face of Saigon in 2015 which summarised the changes to the city. Much has happened over the last two years so here is an update on the changes – good and bad – of Saigon.

Saigon from the air
[The soon-to-be megacity of Saigon.]

Metro Construction

There are six metro lines planned, and some others that have been proposed but not made official. Of these, two lines have officially begun, which is the same status as two years ago.

The first line is behind schedule but making progress. Outside of District 1 you can see the line above ground, and some of the station shells have been completed.

Metro construction in D2
[Metro construction in District 2.]

Line 1 is underground in district 1 so it’s hard to gauge the progress. The biggest disruption to the city has now commenced with the closure of the iconic Ben Thanh roundabout. This is the central point of the city and will be the biggest station.

Ben Thanh metro construction
[Ben Thanh metro construction.]

I’ve seen many comments of people upset that this roundabout has closed. I’m happy to see it go. A roundabout is not a heritage site, and this section of road is so pedestrian-hostile that a redesigned pedestrian area would be a welcome change.

The roundabout
[The roundabout before it closed.]

To build this central station some trees had to be cut down as well. Ironically the trees were in a park that replaced the original train station of Saigon before it was moved further out of town.

Tree clearing

Most subways systems around the world have delays and cost blowouts on their first line, so this isn’t all that unusual. What would be helpful though would be an official metro website with regular updates and photos. There is no official map either, so finding out exactly where the future metro lines will go isn’t known. There are two maps in circulation with the 6 lines. This one is on the Ho Chi Minh City Metro Wiki page.

Saigon metro lines

Another map by a map enthusiast has the 6 lines plus other proposed tramways and extensions.

Proposed Saigon Metro

Each map has different interchanges so who knows which is the correct one.

So far there are only updates from the construction company, which offers little in the way of maps and station information.

The most useful roundup has been this update on Saigon’s subway construction from May, 2016.

Lost heritage buildings

The heritage buildings that were listed as endangered in my 2015 post are still standing, while other buildings have been lost.

The sentimental favourite of the city was the Tax Trade Centre. This building had so many changes over the years that at the end of its life it didn’t look like a heritage building. The interior had a beautiful stairway with mosaics and the shops were eclectic and from an era that cannot be replicated.

Last days of Tax Centre

After being closed for the last two years it was finally demolished to make way for a hotel and mall development.

Demolished Tax Centre

At the other end of the Tax Centre block was a row of colonial-era shop houses.

Le Loi and Pasteur

The buildings on the corner of Pasteur and Le Loi have now been demolished as part of the same redevelopment.

Le Loi and Pasteur - After

Great cities have layers of interesting architecture from every generation of its existence. One of the more unusual items was this wall of pigeon cases which had a tree growing on it like the Ta Phrom temple at Angkor Wat.

Pigeons case

This was behind the row of old shophouses, so it too has gone.

Demolition rubble

Ba Son Shipyards

Ba Son redevelopment
[Ba Son redevelopment.]

Another loss was the Ba Son shipyards, which I never got to see due to it being military property. There were some old warehouses along the river which would have made for a great space for markets and food courts, like Asiatique in Bangkok. Instead it has been knocked down and some generic glass towers will stand in its place.

Asiatique Bangkok
[Asiatique Bangkok.]

Fake old buildings replacing actual old buildings

One of the saddest heritage losses was an art deco office and apartment block on Dong Khoi. I didn’t know it was being demolished so I never got any photos of it.

In its place is an extension of the historic city hall. If you are new to the city you may not notice that that this is a new building as it blends in with the old.

City Hall extension
[City Hall extension.]

Projects

Saigon Centre

Saigon centre construction

This building was just a hole in the ground two years ago. Now it has topped out and is advertising for tenants. The ground level was opened last year with a mall featuring the Japanese department store Takashimaya.

Saigon Centre mall

Landmark 81

The Landmark 81 tower is under construction with the base floors now protruding out of the ground. At 461.2 metres it will become the tallest tower in Southeast Asia, eclipsing the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur by 20 centimetres (in your face, KL!). The glory will be short lived though, with KL set to retake the crown with the KL118 tower. They are not taking any chances with losing the crown again in a hurry, as this will be 630 metres (in YOUR face, Saigon!).

Landmark 81 rising
[Landmark 81, as viewed from a bus crossing the river.]

Saigon Jewelry Center (SJC) tower

Saigon Jewelry Center
[Saigon Jewelry Center block.]

Opposite Saigon Centre is the Saigon Jewelry Center project, which will be 54 floors. This was a car park for years and then construction equipment moved in. No sooner had it began, the equipment disappeared overnight, so who knows what is happening here. I know this because there is a great Bun Thit Nuong street food stand here, which I eat at every week.

Spirit of Saigon

Spirit of Saigon
[Spirit of Saigon dragon towers.]

Even though Saigon was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, the name lives on in plenty of buildings – old and new. This project was originally called 1HCMC and now it is called the Spirit of Saigon.

This is arguably the most prime block of land in Saigon, opposite Ben Thanh market and what will be the biggest metro interchange. This project stalled when the Ritz-Carlton pulled out as the main hotel.

The 55 and 48 level towers represent dragons, each with a figurative pearl in their mouth. The dragons are from Vietnamese mythology, and the pearls represent the city’s fame as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, which people really need to stop saying as the city lost that title long ago.

At the time of this post the foundations were finished and work on the ground level was beginning.

Spirit of Saigon basement construction
[Spirit of Saigon basement construction.]

Saigon One Tower

Saigon One Tower
[Saigon One Tower still covered with orange construction nets.]

There are numerous abandoned projects scattered across the city, with the most prominent of those being the Saigon One Tower. In my 2015 update I had this listed as the SEABank Tower, though as usual there is little information about the status of this building. I compare this to Bangkok’s ghost tower, which is also an abandoned riverfront project.

Thu Thiem New Urban Area – The Pudong of Saigon

District 2

If you look across the river in downtown Saigon you will see mostly empty land of Thu Thiem in District 2. This area has been planned to become a new business district and urban area.

Development has been continually launched and stalled here but at the moment it is still mostly all quiet on the riverfront. One of the projects is the Empire City Tower, which would be a metre higher than Landmark 81. This was meant to start in late 2015. Also planned is a car and pedestrian bridge.

D2 bridges
[Two new bridges (and shiny blue water) for the Saigon river.]

This area sounds similar to Pudong, which is on the other side of the river of historic Shanghai (also once known as the Pearl of the Orient). Pudong was farmland until it became a Special Economic Zone in 1993. Now it has one of the worlds most spectacular skylines.

Pudong
[Pudong skyline – future Saigon?]

So that is a small overview of some things that are going on in Saigon. Hopefully I do another update in two years and tell you about riding on the first metro line.

February 21 2017

My travel gear list for 2017

My travel gear list for 2017

It’s been a while since I’ve done a packing list (my last one was in 2014). I was planning to do another one until I realised my 2017 list is remarkably similar to 2014. Not much has changed in my bags, or the bags themselves. Hell, I might even have the very same underwear in there, so I will save myself the embarrassment of cataloging my entire wardrobe again.

I thought it was odd that I haven’t updated my gear, but then I have been travelling long enough now and I have refined everything I need to travel.

Instead of doing a breakdown of everything in my bag, this list is of physical gear I use, and shortlisted replacement gear. I will do another post of websites and apps I use for travel planning.

Bags

Primary Bag

REI Stratocruiser Wheeled Convertible Luggage - 25I’ve had the REI Stratocruiser for over four years now and it is still going strong. When it comes to bags it pays to buy quality brands that are known to last. The amount I’ve spent on crappy knock-off bags from markets in Asia I could have bought one good bag.

I have no reason to upgrade this anytime soon, though if I had regular access to an REI store I would probably buy a new one as I can’t help myself in that shop.

Here is my original review of the REI Stratocruiser Wheeled Convertible Luggage.

Day Bag/Carry-on Bag

I’m in the market for a new day bag. I’ve been using the Afar by Eagle Creek as a laptop/electronics bag, and a Carry-on by Minaal for small trips. Both bags are still great, but I have had to change my travel style after injuring my back last year. Doctors orders says no more lugging bags on my back, so my backpacking days are well and truly over.

On my short list are the Copilot Luggage Roller and messenger bag by Timbuk2 (or brands similar to these styles).

I need a carry-on bag with wheels and the Copilot comes in three different sizes. (And I never though I would be saying “carry-on bag with wheels.”) The big carry-on size would be ideal for short trips, and double as my electronics bag when checking a bag.

I’m also looking for a messenger bag that is big enough for a laptop and not much else (to stop me overfilling it). Basically an informal briefcase. This can then be packed into either bag when travelling with the two wheelie bags.

Electronics

Laptop

Apple MacBook Air 11.6-Inch LaptopI’m still using the same MacBook Air 11″ that I bought in 2012. Previous to this laptop I was a PC user. I went through 5 laptops over the space of 10 years (I bought my first laptop in Dublin in 2002) and previous to that (before my nomad life) I was a desktop computer user.

Working in Ho Chi Minh City

I’ve gone from an average of two years per laptop to four and a half years on the same laptop. Here is my original review of the Macbook Air. It’s a durable piece of machinery, though I’ve had the battery replaced in London, and the hard drive replaced in Saigon (doubling the size) after I dropped it on the floor.

Dead laptop

I’ve also gone through countless power adapters. I’ve literally lost count, but at a guess maybe six (I recall buying new ones in Bucharest, Penang, Singapore, and Saigon a few times). The fragility of the power cords are the most annoying thing about Macbooks.

I was originally planning to upgrade when I dropped the laptop. I had the choice of buying a new one or getting a new hard drive. I figured the new version was coming out soon so I would wait.

If you are a Mac fan you would know what a disappointment the 2016 update was. After four years the Macbook was virtually the same (apart from the weird touch strip). One review described the MacBook Pro as an expensive MacBook Air on the inside.


[My reaction to the new Macbook.]

I don’t know what is going on in Appleville. Maybe they should spend less time on designing door handles and more time coming up with a computer that wows again.

I’ll probably just upgrade (or sideways-grade) to another Macbook Air before they are taken off the market. I love my Macbook, and every time I use a PC at a netcafe to do some printing, my eyeballs hurt from looking at Windows. Having said that I am not a loyalist and I would switch again if there is a better offer. Indeed, I like to keep my options open because it is consumers like me that Apple should be concerned with – the ones that will switch again.

Who knows, maybe I will be rocking a Xiaomi or a (gasp) Surface Book by the end of 2017. For now the good money is on a old Macbook Air.

Mobile Phone

iPhone 5Previously I was using a Samsung Galaxy until I switched to an iPhone 5 in 2013, so I have had the same phone for over three years. Like my laptop, my phone has served me well with its current specifications. We haven’t hit peak smartphone yet, but I am at the point where I no longer need to keep updating.

I’ve had a replacement battery over the previous three years, and I am now getting to the point where the current battery is not lasting a day, so I maybe in the market for a new phone this year.

Contenders include upgrading to an iPhone 7, which is basically an excellent point-and-shoot camera with a computer attached. At over $700 though it is a considerable investment. I’m not a brand loyalist when it comes to phones either, so I am keeping my options open. Maybe I will be a Xiaomi fanboy by the end of the year, or try out a Huawei or Oppo.

Camera

Olympus PEN E-P3I’ve had my Olympus PEN E-P3 since 2012 (my review here) and it has been a great camera. Last year the camera got wet on a rainy day in St-Malo, France and it hasn’t been the same since. Sometimes when I turn it on the image on the screen doesn’t show and I can’t take a photo at all.

I definitely need to upgrade, though I haven’t done extensive research on a replacement. I’ll probably keep it simple and stay in the PEN series (which is now up to PEN E-PL8) and keep my lens from my current camera.

e-reader

Kindle PaperwhiteRounding out the electronics I bought in 2012 is the Kindle Paperwhite (original review here). This device is as good as the day I bought it. The battery life still lasts for weeks, and the backlit screen means I can read anywhere. As someone who lives outside of English-speaking countries, having an e-reader has been essential for me to keep up with my reading.

iPod touch

By far the oldest electronic item I own is my old iPod touch. I don’t remember when I bought it, but it is either a 2nd or 3rd generation iPod touch (released in September 2008 and 2009) so it is sometime around then. I prefer to listen to music and podcasts on this rather than using my iPhone, otherwise I would be burning through my battery life on my phone.

The iPod touch is now up to the 6th Generation and is cheaper than what I bought mine for. An improved product at a cheaper price is what is meant to happen to electronics, which did not happen for the Macbook.

Clothes

Shirts

Libertad Travel ShirtI have a Libertad which is an excellent travel shirt (here is my review). My travel shirt definition is a travel shirt that doesn’t look like a travel shirt. I’m not spending my days in the jungles of Borneo so I don’t need a beige meshed shirt with zips and large logos on the breast pocket. My shirts need to look good in an urban environment, yet be durable enough to be on the road without an iron, and be able to handle sweaty environments.

I’m in the market for a new travel shirt so I will either get another Libertad if they are available, or try some other brands.

This is my current short-list of stylish shirts for travel:
prAna
Wool&Prince
Ministry of Supply
Outlier

Jeans

Muji stretch denimYou may have heard the saying that “once you go Mac, you never go back.” As you have read above, I might prove that maxim wrong. I’m going to make up another saying that “once you go stretch denim, you never go back”.

Seriously, if you wear jeans and are still wearing normal old jeans that don’t stretch, then go out and get into some stretchy denim. They are like wearing trackpants while still looking like normal jeans.

I wear the Muji stretch denim, though all the other jean emporiums are on the stretch wagon as well.

My only concern is that this is a fad and we will soon be forced to wear normal jeans again. I was thinking of stocking up – just in case – but I don’t want to be that guy who loved Bell Bottoms in 1977 and bought a lifetimes supply. Maybe we will be looking back in 20 years and saying “can you believe people used to wear stretch denim!”

T-shirts

AIRism MESH

Since my previous packing list I have discovered the best travel t-shirt I’ve ever owned – the AIRism MESH by UNIQLO.

They come in t-shirts and polo shirt, and they are ideal for tropical wear. They have mesh on the side, but not in a creepy fishnet singlet kind of way. The mesh is only apparent if you look closely, otherwise it looks like a normal t-shirt. You can sweat all day in this and not look like you were dipped in a swimming pool.

I have seen similar style shirts from the leading sports brands, but I hate wearing clothes with a big sports logo on it, so this is ideal.

I usually stock up on t-shirts when I visit Bangkok or KL stores, or you can buy online.

Shoes

Apart from the countless amount of cheapo flip-flips/thongs that I have worn through over the years, I have the same shoe that I bought every year for the past three years.

The Merrell Men’s Moab Ventilator Hiking Shoe is a comfortable and lightweight shoe, and – most importantly – is well ventilated. Shoes that can’t breath in the tropics are not a good idea.

I would happily buy these online, but being a nomad does not lend itself to ecommerce purchases. I buy a pair of these every year when I visit London from one of the many outdoor and adventure stores on High Street Kensington. I don’t even remember the name of the shop, I just go there and know where it is.

The first time I bought these I loved them, but I figured I would do something different and buy something else. I probably spent a whole day of my life wandering around shoe shops in London before settling on a new pair of shoes that I was not sure about. Sure enough the shoes were awful and I could not break them in after weeks of wear. Upon my return to London to get my flight home I dropped into the store I know and got my old favourites.

I hate shoe shopping, so now rather than wasting a whole day each year in looking for shoes, I know to go to this store and pick up a new pair. I get why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same thing every day.

I also have a pair of black dress shoes for those occasions which require such footwear, though they are uncomfortable, so I would like to get a durable and comfortable pair in the future.

Other Gear

Wallet

I would like to get the Bellroy Travel Wallet except it doesn’t fit the extra pages Australian passport. I am waiting for the upgraded size.

Watch

I think it’s time (ahem) I got back into wearing a watch. I’m aware of how often I pull my phone out of my pocket to check the time, and next thing you know I’m checking Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I’ve also been in situations where my phone has ran out of battery during the day and I’ve been unable to check the time.

I don’t know where to begin in this department, so to help me make a choice I will be polling other travellers about their watch and how they came to choose it.

Post Disclaimer

All gear reviews and recommendations are personal editorial. There are no inserted paid links or advertorials here. I have affiliate links where offered, which don’t change the buying price. Other links are listed for your convenience without consultation with the brand.

February 12 2017

The Vietnamese dong – the world’s highest denominated currency

The Vietnamese dong - the world's highest denominated currency

The dong (…) is the currency of Vietnam, and at the time of this post 1 US dollar was equal to 22701.48 Vietnamese dong (VND). The dong has the distinction of being the world’s highest denominated currency.

The world’s highest denominated banknote (as opposed to the world’s highest-value notes) is the 500,000 dong note. With just two of these you are a dong millionaire.

500000 dong

Every month I have a fistful of dong as I go to pay the rent in cash. Many Vietnamese banks only allow 2 million dong withdrawals, though if you find a Citibank you can withdraw 8 million in one transaction. My first month I spent about 16 million dong.

10 million dong

Etymology

The word đồng derives from the Chinese tóng qián, which refers to Chinese bronze coins from the dynastic periods of China and Vietnam.

In Vietnamese a “d” with a strike through it (đ) is a hard d, while a regular d is soft, sounding like y or z, depending on which pronunciation of Vietnamese you use. For the purpose of this article đồng has been anglicized to dong.

The currency symbol is ₫.

Other highly denominated currencies

The previous highest denomination record-holder was the Zimbabwean dollar (ZWL), which reached $10(14) (somewhere in the trillions) before the currency was disbanded in 2009. Zimbabwe now uses other currencies, including the United States dollar, South African rand, Botswana pula, Pound sterling, Indian rupee, Euro, Japanese yen, and Chinese yuan.

Currently the unofficial rate of the Venezuelan bolívar (VEF) is running at 4300 per dollar and rising fast, so maybe it will take the crown soon unless it is disbanded.

Note that the Vietnamese dong is relatively stable (or at least rising in line with other currencies of Southeast Asia), so the comparison of numerical denomination with Zimbabwe and Venezuela is not a comparison of economies (more on that below).

A better comparison would be with Indonesia, which is also a rapidly developing nation on a similar trajectory to Vietnam. The Indonesian rupiah (IDR) is the world’s second highest denominated currency. The rupiah is just over 13,000 to 1 USD, and to be a rupiah millionaire you need $75 USD.

The 1 dong note that got me thinking about the dong

I was in Saigon having coffee with a friend and his wife, and she produced a single dong note from her purse. My eyes lit up with curiosity when I saw it. I doubt she has ever seen a man so excited to see a dong, so she said I could have it. I don’t know if it’s a cultural faux pas to accept a dong from a friends wife, but I’ll take it.

Viet Nam 1 Dong

In 2017 money a single dong is worth 0.000044 USD. Or to put it another way, you would need 22701 of these to make 1 US dollar. Needless to say, you never see a 1 dong note in circulation.

Dong shower thoughts

If the dong was Australian a 1 dong note would be called a “donger”. There is a campaign in Australia to rename our dollar the dollarydoo, named after a Simpsons episode. If when Australia becomes a republic maybe we should also be re-evaluating the name of our currency. It could be a dollarydoo, or it could indeed be a donger. With over twenty currencies using the name dollar, we should break free with a new flag and new currency identity.

The smallest note I have seen in circulation is the 200 dong note. I occasionally get 500 dong notes from the supermarket, but the most common small note is 1000, which is .044 cents (it’s the nickel of Vietnamese currency, but in note form).

Puzzled over when a solitary dong would have been worth something, I looked it up and found that the Viet Nam 1 Dong is from 1985 from the second dong series.

A brief history of the dong

After WWII, North and South Vietnam replaced the French Indochinese piastre with the North Vietnamese dong and the South Vietnamese dong. At the end of the war in 1975, the South Vietnamese dong was replaced by the liberation dong (which gets my vote as the best name for a currency ever). The two dongs were unified in 1978, becoming the first dong. In 1985 the dong was revaluated (second dong) with 1 new dong equal to 10 old dong.

The 1 dong note I have is from this era, with 500 dong being the largest note printed at the time. The new dong also marks the beginning of rampant inflation, which can be seen from this historical graph by fxtop.com.

Dong rates from 1983 to 2017

In 1986 the rate was 1USD/23VND, then by 1987 it was 78VND, 630VND in 1988, and 4500VND in 1989.

Dong inflation

In 2003 Vietnam introduced plastic polymer banknotes (which was first used by the Reserve Bank of Australia), which is now used for notes from 10,000 and above.

My first visit to Vietnam was in 2005, when the dong was worth 15,000. At that point US dollars were still circulating as an alternative currency. I had arrived from Cambodia where the US dollar was (and still is) the defacto currency, so I was using USD for much of that first trip.

Today, shops are no longer allowed to advertise in USD or accept USD as payment. If you ask nicely I’m sure shops will any form of currency, but officially its illegal.

Future redenomination of the Dong

Despite having more zero’s than any other currency, there has been no mention of the currency being redenominated (rededonginated?)

In my search for news articles relating to a future redenomination, the only articles I found were related to dodgy websites that were promoting the Iraqi Dinar revaluation scam.

Indonesia have been talking about redenomination for years, but knowing Indonesia they will still be talking about it for years to come. The plan there is to remove three zeroes from the currency, so the current Rp 1,000 note (about .75 cents USD) would be Rp1.

With Vietnam being proclaimed as ASEAN’s ‘Silicon Valley’, and being on track to becoming the 20th biggest economy in 2050, redenomination would make sense.

knocking off four zeros would turn a 20,000 dong note into a 2 dong note, so 1 USD would equal about 2 VND. The current notes would then convert as follows:

500 = 0.05
1,000 = 0.10
2,000 = 0.20
5,000 = 0.50
10,000 = 1
20,000 = 2
50,000 = 5
100,000 = 10
200,000 = 20
500,000 = 50

With a redenomination you could then reintroduce coins (there are some rarely-seen coins in circulation), though if Vietnam plan to go cashless by 2020 then maybe coins will be redundant.

February 01 2017

Where I’m At: February, 2017 – Year of the Rooster edition

Where I'm At: February, 2017 - Year of the Rooster edition

Where I’m At; a monthly update of what I’ve been up to, site news, and where I’m going next.

Where I’ve Been

The month began in Nha Trang where I got the train back to Saigon. In the time I was away the Santa Claus decorations that were all over Saigon were transformed into roosters. There was still a few weeks to go of the Monkey year, but already the Rooster was making it’s way into peoples psyche.

Rooster of Saigon

There is a palpable buzz in the air in Saigon during January in the lead up to Tet (the Lunar new year holiday). Rather than just have a big party night and the next day off – as we do for the calendar new year – Vietnam spends the weeks before the holiday in preparation. Shops and homes are cleaned, decorations are everywhere, and the police are out in force collecting fines from motorists for their lucky money.

Tet Decorations

If you are living in Saigon you have to decide early on if you are going to stay for the holiday or leave. I checked flights a few weeks before the holiday and they were all outrageous (I searched from “SGN” to “Anywhere” on Skyscanner). I was in China one time during the national holiday month which was horrible to try and travel in. During big national holidays I try not to travel unless I need to. No need to add to the mayhem.

If you do stay you will be rewarded with empty streets once the holidays begin. Officially there is a week of holidays. Some businesses only take a few days, while others will extend to the Monday after the next weekend. It feels slightly apocalyptic to be walking around with very little traffic. Reminds me a bit of Australia in the 80’s when all the shops were closed on Sundays.

Quiet streets during Tet

Most shops are closed over the holidays, though you can always find something to eat. There is a pho place near me which is the only one open in the area, which has come known to me as Tet Pho, and so I only eat there during Tet.

Another good reason to hang around is to see the flower exhibitions. The main exhibition is on Nguyen Hue, which is a walking street in the middle of the city. It’s free to enter, and people come from everywhere and get dressed up and take photos. The selfie game is strong here.

Nguyen Hue Flowers

Wishing you all a happy rooster year!

James and the giant rooster

Travel books I’ve read

Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett.

Unruly PlacesThis is a fascinating read about the world’s hidden geographies, such as disappearing islands, secret cities, no man’s lands, and floating islands.

I’ve read about breakaway territories that are not recognised as countries, but these little stories are about geographical anomalies that I had not considered before.

For more reading inspiration see my best travel books list.

ICYMI – Last months posts

I haven’t been flying much lately, so it seems fitting that I have been working on some railway posts.

Nha Trang to Saigon by train is a great way to travel if you get the train during the day.

I’ve have previously done two Eurail trips and now I’ve finally put together a Eurail Pass travel guide. This is a massive post so bookmark it if you are planning a Eurail trip. You may not even need a Eurail pass, so this guide will help you decide if you do.

Eurail Pass Travel Guide

January 30 2017

The Eurail Pass travel guide – choosing the best rail pass, and tips for your Europe travels

Eurail Pass Travel Guide

EurailTo travel by train is one of the joys of visiting Europe. For non-europeans there is a rail pass that lets you travel across the continent. This rail pass is the Eurail Pass, and this guide will help you decide which pass to get, and how to get the most out of your pass.

Why travel by train in Europe

Hamburg Hbf

First-time visitors to Europe (especially Americans and Australians) might be shocked to find how comprehensive the rail network is across the continent. European governments still spend money on maintaining and expanding the railways, and train transport is a viable alternative to owning a car.

Centrally-located stations

Frankfurt Hbf

Most stations are centrally located which enables you to walk from the station to the city centre.

A relaxing way to travel

Working on the train

With a train you can just turn up to the station a few minutes before departure and get on the train. No need to check in your bags – you take them with you. Onboard you can stretch your legs and walk around, get a coffee, or do some work.

Admire the architecture

Strasbourg Station
[Old meets new at Strasbourg Station in France.]

Many of the big railway stations are architectural marvels that are worthy of a visit even if you aren’t getting the train. I always visit train stations of any city just to see what it is like. In the case of Liège-Guillemins, I visited the city just to see the station that was designed by Calatrava.

Calatrava's Liège-Guillemins train station
[Calatrava’s Liège-Guillemins train station.]

Meet the locals

Before Sunrise meeting on the train

Before SunriseIn the 1995 film, Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke plays an American travelling Europe with a Eurail Pass. On the train between Budapest and Vienna he meets Julie Delpy, which is where the story begins.

I’m not trying to imply that you too will meet a Eurobabe by travelling by train, but I will say that your chances of doing so are severely diminished if you are on a tour bus with your fellow countrymen.

Independent travel by train means that you are riding with the general population, and not in a tour bus with fellow tourists. I would never have met the people I did who live in Europe if I was on a tour bus.

What is a Eurail Pass?

A Eurail pass is a train pass that offers unlimited travel in 28 European countries on most European railroads (and some ferries). The pass was started in 1959 (when it was known as a “Eurorail pass” or “Europass”) by a consortium of European railway operators and shipping lines.

Eurail partners

The pass allows free train travel on regular trains where you can just on walk and take a seat. Premier trains (such as high-speed and night trains) require an additional reservation fee with your pass.

Who can use a Eurail Pass?

Rail passes are only available for non-European citizens. While it is rare for a ticket inspector to check your passport with your ticket, they do occasionally check to make sure the pass is in the right hands.

European citizens can apply for an Interrail Pass.

Interrail

How many countries are covered by Eurail?

Officially there are 28 countries covered in the Eurail Pass, which are as follows:

Austria
Belgium
Bosnia-Herzegovina
Bulgaria
Croatia
Czech Republic
Denmark Finland
France
Germany
Greece
Hungary
Ireland
Italy Luxembourg
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Poland
Portugal
Romania Serbia
Slovakia
Slovenia
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
Turkey

While there are 28 countries listed, technically you can visit 31. It’s possible to visit Monaco on the French railways, and you can visit Liechtenstein via Austria or Switzerland. You can also visit Northern Ireland which is included with the Ireland pass, so that adds the UK to your country list.

Monaco Train Station
[Monaco Train Station, operated by SNCF of France.]

Can you travel in Britain with a Eurail Pass?

BritRailBritain is not included in Eurail. If you want to travel by train in the UK there are some good rail passes available, including the BritRail Pass.

Types of Eurail Passes

There are several pass types, ranging from days available to travel and defined countries and regions. Passes are also sold by age and groups. The Youth Pass is for 12-27 year-olds and the Adult Pass is for 28 year and over. A family pass is for adults and kids (4 to 11).

Instead of creating a student discount, Eurail have opted for the system of selling 2nd class tickets for the Youth Pass, and 1st class tickets for the Adult Pass.

Here are the main pass types which are available to all age groups.

Global Pass

The Eurail Global Pass is the pass that Eurail is best known for, and it is also the most popular. This pass gives you access to every country in the Eurail network. It’s ideal if you are going to visit 5 or more countries, and passes can be either a select amount of travel days or continuous days.

Flexi Pass
5 days within 1 month
7 days within 1 month
10 days within 2 months
15 days within 2 months Continuous Pass
15 days continuous
22 days continuous
1 month continuous
2 months continuous
3 months continuous

The Select Pass

The Eurail Select Pass lets you travel in 2, 3, or 4 bordering countries by train in 27 participating countries. You can choose the countries to tailor the trip of your choice, which is useful if you already know where you want to go. Eurail also list the most popular choices to give you an idea of itineraries.

One Country Pass

As the name would suggest this pass covers one country, which include the following countries:

Austria
Bulgaria
Croatia
Czech Republic
Denmark Finland
France
Greece
Hungary
Ireland Italy
Norway
Poland
Portugal
Romania Slovakia
Slovenia
Spain
Sweden

This pass type also includes some regional passes, including:

– The Benelux Pass (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg).

– Greek Islands Pass (2 trips between Italy and Greece, 4 trips throughout the Greek Islands, and train and bus service between Patras and Pireaus).

– Scandinavia Pass (Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland).

Is it worth getting a Eurail Pass?

Buy your Eurail pass hereThis is the most common question when it comes to considering a pass. There is no simple answer is it depends on where you are going and how much travel you plan to do. There are many variables, but in summary:

You should get a Eurail Pass if:
– You are planning to see many cities.
– You are visiting mostly Western European countries.

You should not get a Eurail pass if:
– You only plan on visiting a few cities.
– You only plan to visit Eastern Europe/The Balkans.

If you are visiting less than 5 cities then you would be better off buying individual tickets.

The Eurail Pass has been devalued somewhat over recent years with the expansion of the pass into Eastern Europe. Train travel is still relatively cheap in Eastern Europe, and there is not a great choice of destinations in the Balkans. If you were to get side-tracked spending weeks riding the rails in eastern Europe or the Balkans then you would not be making the most of your pass.

If you are spending most of your time in Western Europe (especially Scandinavia, Benelux, France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland) you will easily make up the value of your ticket.

Which pass is the best option?

These are the best rail passes, depending on your travels.

The “don’t buy a Eurail pass” option: Instead buy individual “point-to-point” train tickets

Voyages-SNCFIf you are only planning on visiting a few cities then a pass won’t save you money. In this case just buy individual tickets for your travel needs. You can buy tickets on the day at the train station, though for longer trips there should be discounts if you book in advance.

Discount tickets will lock you into a time and date, but if that is no problem then buy tickets online at Voyages-SNCF. This is the French railway website which is surprisingly English user-friendly for a French site, and you can book tickets across Europe on this site.

Eurail Flexi Pass – For the D.I.Y “Grand Tour of Europe”

A Flexi Pass is ideal if you are planning to visit 5-10 cities, especially if they are spread out across the continent. This pass is like a Do-It-Yourself Grand Tour of Europe. The 10 days within 2 months pass would enable you to see the most famous cities in Europe, giving you enough time to enjoy each city between travel days.


[Visit All European Highlights with Eurail.]

Mix and match with the Flexi Pass and individual tickets/flights

With the Flexi Pass you could use that to cover long distances by train, and then take a mix and match approach for the rest of your travels. For example once you are at a chosen destination you could take a short day trip from this city base. Paying for an individual ticket for small trips would be cheaper than using one of your travel days.

SkyscannerYou could also fill in a couple of legs with low cost airlines. If you get caught short by a day or are at the wrong end of the map, do a flight search to consider your options. With Skyscanner you can type destination “Anywhere” and that will find the cheapest flight out of your destination. You could then restart your rail journey from there.

Eurail Global Pass – For the ultimate European travel adventure

Gare du Nord, Paris
[Gare du Nord in Paris. You’ll probably pass through here at some point.]

The Global Pass is a continuous pass ranging from 15 days to 3 months. This pass offers unlimited travel within the tickets time frame on trains that don’t require reservations. This is the best rail pass if you are planning an all-out European travel adventure, where you are roaming from one city to the next nearly every day.

The dream trip is spending a summer roaming around Europe on a 3 month Global Pass. For many people this is the trip of a lifetime that will be talked about for years to come. You will be on the rails nearly every day, discovering charming secondary cities and medieval towns. This is the Golden Ticket of rail travel.

Eurail Global Pass - The Golden Ticket

The 3 month Global Pass also works out to be the best value Eurail Pass. If you consider that you get 92 days in a 3 month pass, then that works out at €14.22 per day for the youth pass and €17.75 per day for the adult pass.

Eurail

Where to buy a Eurail Pass

The easiest way to buy a Eurail Pass is to order it online at Eurail. They ship worldwide, and for US customers there is the option of free economy shipping.

Standard and Premium shipping is available which allows you to follow the status of your order online. This option is by registered mail, so someone has to sign for the package.

Eurail Pass mail pack

Can I buy a Eurail Pass if I’m already in Europe?

If you have left your planning for the last minute and are already in Europe, you can have your pass delivered to hotels and hostels (just let them know to expect a letter). I have twice had passes sent to hotels I was staying at.

Can I buy a Eurail Pass at train stations in Europe?

Gare de Lyon, Paris
[Paris-Gare de Lyon: lots of trains, no Eurail Passes.]

One place you can’t buy the pass is at train stations, and you can’t have passes delivered to a station either. One of the benefits of having a pass is never having to queue for a ticket.

Pre-trip planning

Eurail map with coffee

The Eurail Pass is known for the freedom of being able to jump on a train whenever you want to travel across Europe, but you will get far more out of your pass if you do some planning. From what I have read on forums, most people who were disappointed in the pass didn’t really understand what they were doing with it.

Here are some tips to prepare before you travel.

Get a Europe guidebook

Before I had ever set foot in Europe I had not even heard of half of the places I ended up visiting. There are hundreds of amazing secondary cities that you never hear about if you don’t live in Europe. Before embarking on my European travels I got the classic Lonely Planet Europe and studied up on all those places in between the famous cities. I know it is cool to be spontaneous, but it’s also helpful to know what cities are of interest and what cities are grim industrial towns.

Use the Eurail map

You can use the pass up to 11 months from the date of purchase, which gives you plenty of time to prepare. One of the benefits of booking in advance is that you will get your ticket sent to you along with the Eurail travel map. This beautiful map shows everywhere that the train goes within the Eurail countries. It’s a great visual aid to work out a grand master plan. You can download the exact same map as a PDF from the Eurail site, but there is nothing like having a large paper map laid out in front of you to get you excited about travel.

Eurail Map

Download the Eurail App

Rail Planner Eurail/InterrailDownload the Rail Planner Eurail/Interrail app for Apple or Android before you travel. This is one of the most useful travel apps I’ve ever used, and worthwhile getting if you are a frequent rail user in Europe.

The app has a database of virtually every train service in Europe and you can use it offline. This app is useful for planning your itinerary to get to know travel times and departure frequencies. When making my initial plans I was drawing lines all over the map. I inputted potential routes to work out how long each leg would take, and what frequencies are available.

Short-list destinations

With the aid of the map, a guide book, and the app, you can now start making a list of places you would like to visit.

One suggestion for the map is to make a “Europe dream board.” Put the map on a cork board and put a pin in your “must see” destinations. Or you could put a pin in every place you want to see, and use a different colour for the “must see” destinations, and another colour for the rest. If you have too many pins you can then try and whittle the list down to an itinerary that you can work with.

If you prefer online pinning then make a Europe board on Pinterest to collect destination ideas.

Flights to Europe: Plan your start and end points

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport
[Amsterdam – A great place to start Eurailing.]

Another reason to plan ahead is to work out your start and end points. You don’t want to find yourself at the other end of Europe to where your flight home is when the ticket ends. There is no point spending any more money than you need to.

If you are buying a return ticket (for example you are flying in and out of Amsterdam) then you need to plan your trip so that you are doing a loop. Or you may prefer to fly into one city and out of the other.

A good way to determine which cities to start and end from is to list which cities you would like to spend the most time in. While there are many cities you’ll be satisfied to wander around for half a day, there are some cities you may never want to leave. If you are using a continuous pass where every day counts, then you don’t want to be spending too many days not travelling.

For example maybe the two cities you desire to spend the most time in is Paris and Budapest. Arrange your travels so you arrive in Paris well in advance before your tickets starts, and book your return trip from Budapest for however many days after your pass expires.

Skyscanner

Eurail itinerary examples

There are over 10,000 railway stations in covered in the Eurail network, which means there is a countless amount of itinerary options. Eurail provide a sample of popular options to give you an idea to start with.

Here is how I visited 57 cities in 31 days with a 1 month Eurail Global Pass.

Can I visit every country on the Eurail Pass?

When surveying the Eurail map I think everyone must have thought at one point, “I wonder if I can visit every country on the Eurail Pass?” It would be an extreme challenge to do so but it’s possible. I have worked out an itinerary of how to visit every country with a Eurail Pass. You would need the 3 month continuous pass to do this, otherwise you would just be spending all your time on trains without enjoying the cities on the way.

Visit every country with a Eurail Pass

If you have done this let me know!

Do I need a visa to travel in Europe?

Keep in mind that if you are planning extended travels in Europe that you will have to observe the Schengen Visa laws. There are 26 countries covered by Schengen, and you can spend 90 days in any 180 days period in this area. Different visa rules apply for every nationality so research before you go.

Get travel insurance

Make sure you arrange travel insurance before you go. I recommend World Nomads for European travel. If you are unfamiliar with travel insurance then read this on why travel insurance is a good idea.

How to travel with a Eurail Pass

The day has arrived and you are ready to begin your rail travel adventure. Here are some basic tips for Eurail travel.

Validate your Eurail pass

Validated Eurail Pass

Before you travel you need to validate your pass, which can now be done online when you buy your pass.

If your pass is not validated you can go to the ticket office of the train station on your first day of departure. At big stations they may have a dedicated Eurail window, otherwise just go to a ticket agent and ask to have your pass validated. make sure you go a bit earlier on the first day, just incase there is a queue.

Fill out your pass as you travel

Stamped Pass

Another important bit of paperwork is to fill out your journey details as soon as you start your journey. Don’t fill this out until you are actually on the train, just incase your scheduled train didn’t arrive and you take another option. This is stapled to your pass and it has a table where you can fill out each leg.

I found that most of the time the ticket inspectors didn’t look at the details, but the one time I hadn’t filled out the form they asked for it. I had just sat down on and a ticket inspector came up to me before I had even opened my bag. Filling out the form is usually the first thing I do so I don’t forget. They were a bit grumpy but I filled it out on the spot.

Eurail 10 Days in 2 Months

Make the most of stopovers and junction towns

One of the benefits of using Eurail is not being locked into a train time. You can get off and see other cities on the way to your next destination.

While travelling through Germany I had to change trains in Hanover. I wouldn’t have though to visit here otherwise, but for an hour and fifteen minutes it was great to wander in the town and see some of the sites.

Hanover Old Town Hall

On a trip from Strasbourg to Nuremberg I had about ninety minutes between connecting trains in Offenburg. This is a small city which I knew nothing about, but as the station was close to town I figured going for a walk was better than standing on the platform for over an hour. In that time I found these delightful man-birds on the street which made the detour worth it.

Man-birds of Offenburg - Germany

Going back to my guidebook recommendation, have a look for interesting towns to visit on the way between big cities. There are so many small towns that you can wander around in for an hour in between trains. Also look for places that you could take a detour instead of a direct train.

Note that if you have a reserved seat then you have to stay on that train, which is another reason I prefer not to use trains that require reservations.

Reservations

Eurail Pass with reservation ticket

Even though the Eurail Pass is a ticket to free travel around Europe, in some cases you need to make an extra paid reservation for certain train types. The reservation is for special intercity, high speed, and overnight trains. These reservations are required because the trains often are booked out and seats are assigned. For these trains is makes sense to assign seats when a train is 16 carriages long, otherwise everyone would be stampeding to the first available carriage.

How to avoid paying for reservations

I personally find it annoying that there is an extra fee for some trains, as it kills the magic of being able to hop on any train, any time. Having said that it is quite easy to avoid paying the fee with some planning.

You can still travel around most of Europe without a fee, and the trains are easy to find when using the Eurail app.

France is probably the hardest place to travel without a reservation fee as they have so many TGV (high-speed) trains for intercity services. The good thing about this is that it made me consider other trains, and in the process I saw some wonderful cities I would have otherwise missed.

InterCity - France
[A comfortable InterCity train in France – no need to take the TGV.]

Paris to Brussels is a classic example. The THALYS high-speed train has a hefty reservation fee, so I took local trains to travel between the two cities. By doing this I got to visit the charming little cities of Amiens and Lille on the way.

Lille - France
[Lille – France]

When making a reservation makes more sense

I made it a point in my travels to avoid paying for a reservation. Sometimes though you will find your itinerary is so tight that it will make more sense to make a reservation. I paid a €6.75 reservation fee for a 3-hour train ride in Spain, instead of spending a full day on local trains.

Also make use of the night trains if they are available and make economic sense. The Lisbon to Madrid is an overnight service and you can reserve a bed in a 4-bed sleeper (2nd class) for €29. In this case you are paying a reservation fee instead of a night in a hostel or hotel.

A suggestion for considering reservations would be to give yourself a budget. If you set a budget of, for example, €50 then consider that whenever you are planning a route.

Onboard services

Each country operates their own trains, so services on trains in Europe vary according to the class type and country.

Internet

Onboard internet has been rolling out across different train services across Europe, though it’s not a common service yet. The times I have used it I have found the service to be patchy, so I’ve only used it for light duties like getting booking details from my email and reading the news. It’s a bonus if you have it, but come prepared to not have it.

Wifi on train in Netherlands

Power

Power outlets are available on some services – mainly on newer trains and in first class.

Power outlet - Poland

If you have numerous devices a powerstrip is a useful device. It is best to come prepared though and have everything charged the night before.

Power outlet, Austria

Food and Drink

Food and drink is available on long distance trains, but I wouldn’t rely on it for sustenance. Snacks are usually junk food, and the meals in the dining carriages can be costly.

My travel system is to have breakfast before getting the train, and to prepare the day before with some snacks from a supermarket.

Coffee cart - Poland

Sometimes I didn’t have breakfast so I had the onboard options. As much I loved these chocolate croissants, I wouldn’t want to be eating them every day.

Coffee and croissant - Poland

If you do get caught unprepared most long distance trains have a dining cart.

Dining car - Poland

In first class on Austrian trains you can get real coffee served in a real cup.

Coffee on RailJet, Austria

In addition to arriving at the station a bit earlier to have breakfast, I found myself trying out all the coffee vending machines in every country. Some of the coffee was good (and all of them better than any US brewed coffee).

Coffee vending machine, Czech Republic
[An unusually big coffee in the Czech Republic.]

Toilets

One of the many reasons that trains are better than buses is having access to a toilet. While some buses have toilet, they get scary real quick.

Toilet - Poland

Some of the older trains still have an open hole which flushes onto the tracks, while the newest trains have vacuum flushes similar to an aircraft toilet.

Forbidden to use toilet during halt in station

One thing you will soon discover about Europe is that most public toilets have an entrance fee. In a continent where human rights are so valued, it seems that going to the toilet isn’t a basic human right. The average toilet charge in Western Europe is 50 cents, so going to the pay toilet over a month can soon add up.

If you are having a stopover or think you will be a while before you reach your hotel, then pay attention to when your final stop is and go to the toilet on the train before you get off.

Timetables

As you will be spending so much time on trains you will need to know how to read a time table.

Train station timetables

Every train station has departure and arrival times printed out and posted to a wall. The standard convention is the yellow paper is the departure information and the white paper is for arrivals.

The timetable will list all the trains stopping at the station throughout the day, listed in time order. The Netherlands is an exception in that they show arrivals and departures grouped by destination.

Yellow departure sheet (Germany)

Plan with the Eurail App

I mentioned in the pre-planning section that you should download the app before you go. If you haven’t already done so then go ahead and do it now. This app will save you so much time and frustration when trying to work out rail itineraries.

The app works offline, so no need to be on wifi to use it. Enter your start and end stations and the app will work out the rest. I had many travel days that involved complex connections, and this app will give you the best option. Most crucially you can filter out trains that require a reservation if you are trying to avoid extra fees.

As an example here is my suggested itinerary to get from Ceske Budejovice to Hallstatt. These two small destinations have no direct service and trying to work it out from the timetable book would have been a hassle.

Ceske Budejovice to Hallstatt

The app also shows you where you are in the journey, or at least where you should be if everything is running on time. As it is offline it doesn’t have real-time tracking. If your train is late and you miss a connection then input your new times and places to find the best route.

Printed Timetables

The Eurail package that you receive in the mail includes a timetable booklet with the most popular cities listed. This doesn’t list every place so the app is the best way to plan.

I was in a hostel and I found an old Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable book. This used to be the rail travel bible when it came to planning European train travel. Before the age of mobile phones this was the guide that was most useful.

Thomas Cook Timetable

After 140 years of publication Thomas Cook stopped publishing the timetable. The book has now been resurrected by rail enthusiasts and relaunched as the European Rail Timetable.

Carriage information

When waiting for the train it’s important to take note of the carriage composition. InterCity trains can be 12 to 16 carriages long. Even if you don’t need a reservation it is still advisable to check where the 1st and 2nd class carriages will be located so you don’t have to wait.

For regional trains, some are only two carriages long so make sure to stand at the right end of the platform to avoid have to rush down the other end.

Some countries will have a poster on the platform with the train composition mapped out for each train.

Train carriage information (Germany)

Another place to check carriage information is on the departure board on the platform.

Carriage locations (Switzerland)

Types of trains

Regional Trains

Regional trains usually stop at every station in between big cities.

Regional Train seats - Poland

Some regionals have 1st and 2nd class, though it’s common for them to have just a 2nd class. There are no drink carts either so come prepared.

Ceske Budejovice - Summerau

The most ridiculous regional train I took was from Wroclaw (Poland) to Usti Nad Orlici (Czech Republic). This trip took over 4 hours and stopped 36 times, and some of the stations were nothing more than a platform in a forest. There was no other option to get where I needed to go, so I brought food and made sure my devices were charged. It was a pleasant morning of travel.

Regional Train - Wroclaw, Poland

InterCity

IC at Frankfurt

As the name would suggest the InterCity services travel between the big cities and don’t stop at smaller stations.

1st Class - Switzerland

These are my favourite trains as you can travel great distances in comfort without having to make a reservation.

1st Class - Belgium

High Speed

High speed trains travel between the big cities, with stops at a fewer cities along the way. These trains require a reservation on top of your rail pass in order to secure a seat.

TGV - France

Eurail Extras

Read up on any extras that your pass offers in case you can use them on your trip. Some cities have lounges that are similar to an airport lounge, and these are available for 1st class pass holders.

SBB Lounge, Zurich - Switzerland

There are discounts available for ferry travel which might help in your itinerary, and also look out for city metro use.

Planning Accommodation

Another big consideration of your trip is planning accommodation. Gone are the days where you could just turn up to a hostel and get a bed. If you are travelling in the summer then you should plan ahead as much as possible.

These are my best tips for planning accommodation:

– Book in advance but use the “pay later” or free cancellation option.

– Consider Couchsurfing. I’ve stayed at few places where hostels were booked out so Couchsurfing is a good backup option. It also fits in well with the spirit of the pass and “meeting the locals”. After being unable to find a hostel bed in Groningen I found a proverbial couch and had a great night in the process.

– Be mindful of where your accommodation is located in relation to the train station. This doesn’t apply so much if you are staying in a big city for a few days. If you are staying in a mid-size city and are only there for half a day, it is better to find something that is near the station. This way you can easily walk to the hostel, dump your bag, and begin exploring straight away. In the morning you can get up and be at the station without having to rely on public transport or taxis.

One that springs to mind is the Generator Hostel in Hamburg which is opposite the entrance of the main train station. Saving 30 minutes of travel in the morning is worth it when you are getting early trains.

Hamburg - Generator Hostel
[Generator Hostel in Hamburg.]

Eurail Resources

This guide is compiled from the experiences of my two previous Eurail experiences, and I am also planning to do the 3 month continuous pass at some point.

If you have any questions let me know in the comments, and if it’s relevant I will add answers to this guide. If you have completed a Eurail trip and would like to share your itinerary, that can be published at Eurail Travels.

Eurail

January 13 2017

Nha Trang to Saigon by train

Nha Trang to Saigon by train

Vietnam by train is a great way to travel if you are making your way up or down the coast. While I wouldn’t traverse the whole length of the country in one go (especially when flights between Hanoi and Saigon are so competitive) it’s good for the stops in between.

Trains in Vietnam follow a single north-south route, with just a few spur lines on the way. Most of the trains are plying the Hanoi-Saigon route, which is the train that I caught from Nha Trang to Saigon.

I booked train SE7, which departs Nha Trang at 8.35am, and arrives in Sai Gon at 4.05pm, making it a 7.5 hour journey.

I booked online in advance to save me going to the station, and to also get a good seat, or bed in this case.

SE7 train booking

If you like lying in bed all day reading books then this trip is for you. The beds in the sleeping cabins are fixed, so they are not converted into seats during the day (as they do in Thailand). I think the SE7 is the best train from Nha Trang to Saigon as it doesn’t depart or arrive at inconvenient hours.

The station at Nha Trang is centrally located and I walked there from my hotel in about 10 minutes.

Ga Nha Trang

I was at the station 30 minutes early and to my surprise the train arrived five minutes before the scheduled departure. The SE7 begins its journey in Hanoi the day before, so there is plenty of opportunity for it to be delayed along the way. Trains in Vietnam are known to be late so this was a good start.

There is an information board at the platform which will tell you which end of the platform to wait for your carriage.

Train information at Nha Trang

Todays engine is the Doi Moi, which is the name of the economic reforms of Vietnam which began in 1986.

Doi Moi

The track at Nha Trang does a loop through the city to save having to change engines at a dead-end track. This is the train track which I walked by while I was in Nha Trang.

Nha Trang rail track

Here is what the four-bed berth (first class sleeper) looks like.

Four-bed cabin

You are assigned a bed number, and the old sheets are removed before you get to your bed. After we left an attendant came through and gave me a fresh sheet, but unlike the trains in Thailand they don’t make your bed.

Fresh sheets Saigon Railways

I got a lower bunk, but if you don’t mind the top bunk both beds are the same size (compared to Thailand where the top bunk is smaller). There are no curtains on these beds, though being in a compartment you can seal yourself off from noise and light during night travel.

There was no dining compartment on this train so there are drink carts throughout the day and a lunch trolley.

Drinks cart

I wasn’t expecting a power outlet so it was a bonus to find one at the light switch. In this case it is advantageous to have the top bunk. There are only two outlets between four beds, so a power strip would be handy here. The compartment was air-conditioned, and it wasn’t set to freezing as they do on some trains in Asia.

Power outlet

I went for a walk to see the other services on the train. There is a hot water unit for instant noodles and tea makers.

Hot water unit

Other seats available include “Soft Seat” class, which offer individuals seats in 2×2 configuration.

Soft seats

The cheap seats are in the “Hard Seat” class. They are not joking when they say they are hard seats. These wooden seats resemble park benches. With passenger numbers declining from increased competition by low cost airlines, perhaps it’s time to do away with these seats and install more more comfortable seats.

Hard seats

There are squat toilets and western toilets onboard, so you may have to go exploring to find your preferred style.

Squat toilet

Note that all toilets have bum guns, though you should bring your own toilet paper in case there is none.

Western toilet

As most of the railway is on a single track the north and south trains share the same line. As a result the trains are timed to pass each other at designated passing loops. This is why so many trains in Vietnam travel at odd hours of the day. And if one train is late it will have a knock-on effect for the timetable in the rest of the country.

Passing loop

Travelling through southern Vietnam you will see miles of dragonfruit plantations.

Southern dragonfruits

At one point the train was running parallel to a highway, where our train had the humiliation of being out-run by someone on a scooter.

Overtaken by a scooter

If this is your first time arriving to Saigon by train then you should rouse yourself out of bed and view the spectacle that is passing through the districts of Saigon. Even here in the city there is only one track to serve north and south trains, and the buildings are built close to the line.

Arriving in Saigon

To my amazement the train arrived at exactly 16.05, just like it said it would on the ticket. The train terminates at “Ga Sai Son” (Saigon Railway Station), which still keeps its old name even though the city become Ho Chi Minh City in 1976. The station is in District 3, not far from District 1 and central Saigon.

Ga Sai Gon arrivals

The total journey is about 411km, so the 7.5 hour journey averages about 55km an hour. There were talks of a high-speed train from Hanoi to Saigon which would travel at 350KM/H. Another plan has a high-speed train from Ho Chi Minh City–Nha Trang via the new Long Thanh International Airport project (which I have included in my future Southeast Asia map).

I don’t think they need a high-speed train, but a train that can travel at 160KM/H (like the current fastest train in Southeast Asia) would reduce the travel time down to under 3 hours.

Flights between Nha Trang and Saigon only take 40 minutes, but if you are not in a hurry then take the train and enjoy the designated stay-in-bed day.

Book Nha Trang to Saigon train tickets online or search for more train tickets in Vietnam.

January 04 2017

Nha Trang Travel Guide

Travel Guides > Vietnam > Nha Trang Travel Guide

Nha Trang Travel Guide

Nha Trang is a coastal city on the South Central Coast of Vietnam. The appeal of Nha Trang for me is it’s a “proper” city on beach, as opposed to a beach resort town.

City by the beach

The city has been experiencing rapid growth in the last few years, especially since the airport has moved from the city. The original airport was in the city next to the beach. This was originally an American Air Force base that was then turned into a commercial airport. With the airport in the city there were height restrictions on surrounding buildings.

The airport has now moved to Cam Ranh, another former US Air Force airport, 30km south of the city. With height restrictions removed the seafront is now building up, and there are plans to convert the old airport space into a massive new development.

Old airport redevelopment

In addition to the airport redevelopment there are also plans for a beachfront development, which is hard to tell if this is a good thing or not.

There a collection of islands in the bay with many diving and snorkelling trips on offer. From the beach you can see Vinpearl Land, which is a theme park on an island that is connected by the world’s longest oversea cable car.

Nha Trang is a popular destination for Russian tourists, and there a few blocks on the beach where the streets are lined with restaurants and travel shops catering for Russians.

Russian mini market

I sometimes hear backpackers exclaim that “Nha Trang is full of Russians!” To say that though is to admit that you didn’t venture beyond the few touristy streets in which they are enclaved. Walk a few streets back away from the beach and Nha Trang is a regular Vietnamese city with interesting markets and great street food.

A good market to visit is Cho Xom Moi.

Xom Moi market

Another good market to visit is Dam Market, which is remarkable for its central roundhouse structure.

Dam Market

Where to stay in Nha Trang


The beach is the obvious draw of Nha Trang, so anywhere near the beach is going to be popular. South of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai there are many hotels along Hung Vuong and Nguyen Thien Thuat. This area feels the most touristy and there are many Russian shops around here.

North of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai there are lots of guesthouses and feels more like a city than a beach resort. I stayed at the Binh An Hotel, which is a good example of what a decent budget hotel looks like in Vietnam.

Search for more cheap hotels in Nha Trang.

Mid-range Hotels

Blu-One Hotel and Residences and the Majestic Star Hotel are well-rated 3-star.

Luxury 5-star Hotels

Most of the luxury beach front hotels in Nha Trang are separated from the beach by Tran Phu Road. The Evason Ana Mandara Nha Trang Resort is one of the few hotels in the city that is on the beach.

Evason Ana Mandara

What to eat in Nha Trang

Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa is a specialty of Ninh Hoa. The easiest place to find this is on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, west of Nguyen Thien Thuat, where there are some Nem Nuong emporiums.

Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa
[Quan Nem Ninh Hoa Nha Trang at 39 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai.]

Bun Ca (fish noodles) is another famous soup that Nha Trang does well. I never thought I would like fish soup, but the fish is not overpowering and the broth is always good.

I had the Banh Canh Cha Ca at Nguyen Loan (123 Ngo Gia Tu). I went for breakfast and the place was packed.

Banh Canh Cha Ca
[Banh Canh Cha Ca at Nguyen Loan, 123 Ngo Gia Tu.]

Banh Can are mini rice flour pancakes with different topping, such as egg, meat, and seafood.

Banh Can lady
[Banh Can at 24 To Hien Thanh.]

Another regional specialty that can be found in Nha Trang is Bun Sua (Jelly Fish Noodle) which unfortunately I did not try.

For Banh Xeo visit Banh Xeo Chao 85 at 85 To Hien Thanh.

American-style BBQ at Livin Collective is a fresh alternative to the western cafes by the beach.

Livin Collective
[Livin Collective at 77 Bach Dang.]

Cafes in Nha Trang

Garden cafes are a popular concept in Vietnam, and Nha Trang has an abundance of them. A garden cafe is usually a large property set in a garden setting, either in a real garden or inside a cafe with a recreated garden environment. They usually have a water feature like a pond or waterfall on the wall. They are a great place to relax and have a Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese Iced Coffee).

Venice Cafe on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai is a typical garden cafe.

Venice Coffee
[Venice Cafe at 43 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai.]

Coconut Coffee is on the road behind the old airport is a good option.

Coconut Coffee - garden cafe
[Coconut Coffee at 15 Hoang Dieu.]

For espresso and Vietnamese-style coffee check out Iced Coffee on Hang Vuong and Nguyen Thien Thuat.

Cafe Iced Coffee
[Iced Coffee at 146 Hang Vuong.]

FA Cafe at 87C Ngo Gia Tu is in an interesting old building and has been decked out with funky art work.

Bali Coffee on the corner of Tran Binh Trong and Le Dai Hanh worth a look as well.

How to get to Nha Trang

When you search for flights the airlines advertise the flights as Nha Trang, even though the airport is Cam Ranh. There are flights to Cam Ranh from all over Vietnam, and most of the international flights are servicing Russia.

Skyscanner

The airport bus costs 50,000 VND and takes 45 minutes. It stops on the beach front (near the old airport) and close to the main hotels area.

Nha Trang is on the main north-south railway lines and there are trains to Saigon and Hanoi.

Nha Trang railway

The trains leave at random times throughout the day and night, which are not random but specially timed to fit the north and south trains on the single railway track.

Nha Trang train timetable

It’s best to book trains tickets in advance to get a good seat class and preferred time of day. I use 12go which offers train and bus ticket bookings.

Macbook Repairs

The trackpad on my Macbook Air died while I was in Nha Trang, so I opted to get it fixed there rather than waiting to get back to Saigon. I went to Mac Nha Trang who got the part sent to them and waited until 10.30 at night for it to arrive so they could fix it before I left.

Blogs

Discover Nha Trang – News and information for everything related to Nha Trang and its surrounding areas.

Guide Books

Lonely Planet Vietnam (Travel Guide)

Photos

Nha Trang photo gallery – Photos of my visits to Nha Trang.

January 02 2017

Where I’m At: January, 2017 – Nha Trang

Where I'm At: January, 2017 - Nha Trang

Where I’m At; a monthly update of what I’ve been up to and site news.

Where I’ve Been

Bangkok

A photo posted by James Clark ✈️ (@nomadicnotes) on Nov 30, 2016 at 11:32pm PST

I began December in Bangkok, which was my third visit for the year. I wasn’t planning to visit again until I saw that there was an Asia railway conference on around the time I needed to do a visa run from Vietnam. The conference was more for business rather than public, but I figured it would be good to go to make contacts related to my future Southeast Asia map.

In Bangkok

Nong Khai

This month took on a train theme as my next destination was to Nong Khai in northeast Thailand, by train. From Nong Khai there is a shuttle train that crosses the Mekong River to Laos, which is what I wanted to see, and I’ve published a post on how to get from Bangkok to Vientiane by train.

Instead of going to Vientiane in one trip I stopped in Nong Khai for a day. Nong Khai is on the Mekong River, which forms the border between Thailand and Laos. There is not much going on in Nong Khai, which was part of its appeal for me. I like to go to these unremarkable cities to even out the times when I go to overly-touristed places.

Mekong River - Nong Khai

When I was booking a guesthouse in Nong Khai I was looking for something near the river, so I booked into Mut Mee Guesthouse. This turned out to be a great choice as it has a cafe/restaurant in a nice garden setting by the river.

Mut Mee

Vientiane

Tuk-tuks in Vientiane

It had been about seven years since I was last in Vientiane so I was curious to see what has changed. For a start there was no train to anywhere in Laos when I was last here. Part of the reason for my visit was to see Vientiane before the age of the China-Laos railway, which began construction in December. The line will pass though Vientiane and connect to Thai Railways in Nong Khai. The railway is expected to take five years to complete, and Laos will become a crossroads for travel between China and mainland Southeast Asia.

For now Vientiane still retains its title as the sleepy capital, even though there are far more cars now and traffic jams at peak hours. Vientiane sits on a bend in the Mekong River and in the evening the riverfront comes alive with a market and strollers who come out of hiding from the days heat.

Mekong Sunset

For flights out of Vientiane there still aren’t many options. AirAsia fly here from Bangkok and KL but there are no other low cost airlines from Southeast Asia. There are no non-stop flights to Saigon, though Lao Airlines offer a direct service with a stop in Pakse.

Vientiane airport is so close to the old town area that it only took six minutes by tuk-tuk to get there.

VTE airport construction

When I’m visiting a country that I may not return to (or at least not for a long time) I try and work out how much cash I need for the duration. Standing at the ATM in my first hours back in Vientiane I tried calculate in my mind how much to take out, knowing that 8000 Laos Kip equals around one US Dollar. After overpaying the tuk-tuk to the airport by a whole dollar I was left with enough for a coffee and muffin, with the equivalent of about 10 cents left to spare.

Coffee and muffin
[Amazing Laos Coffee and a muffin, and my last 1000 Kip (about 12c USD).]

I flew with Lao Airlines back to Saigon, who fly ATR turboprops. Here is my Lao Airlines flight review.

Lao Airlines ATR 72-600
[Lao Airlines at Vientiane Airport.]

Saigon

December is an extra festive time in Saigon. Christmas decorations are up in full force and “All I want for Christmas is you” and “Last Christmas” is played everywhere on heavy rotation. Around half way through the month decorations start going up for Tet, the lunar new year in Vietnam. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the Christmas and the Tet decorations, or they merge together to become a Tetmas hybrid.

While many people celebrate Christmas here in a traditional christian sense, for many people it has become a “selfies with Santa” festival. Christmas day isn’t a public holiday here, so it is quite odd to be walking around on a Sunday afternoon and going to a mall on Christmas day.

Nha Trang

I finished the year in Nha Trang, which is a city by the beach in south central Vietnam. I went to escape the end of year madness in Saigon. As someone who doesn’t drink I’m not a fan of the craziness that NYE brings out. It is known as amateur night to my non-drinking friends, where people who don’t usually drink during the year go crazy on this night. Of course there is parties happening in Nha Trang, but not on the same scale as in Saigon. I used the time in Nha Trang to review the year that was and to make plans for the year ahead.

I’ve been to Nha Trang three times now, and it has changed a lot since my first visit in 2005. Nha Trang is popular with Russian tourists, so my mission was to avoid the hotel area and find local places to eat. I will have an updated guide for Nha Trang soon.

Nha Trang beach

Travel books I’ve read

Seven Years in Tibet

Seven Years in TibetThis is one of those classic travel books that I had somehow still not read. Heinrich Harrer was an Austrian mountaineer who escaped from a British internment camp in India in 1943. He and a fellow Austrian trekked across the Himalayas where they managed to make it to Lhasa, which was a forbidden city to foreigners back then. He became friends with the young 14th Dalai Lama and stayed until the Chinese Communist takeover. Even though the Tibet depicted in this book no longer exists, I was looking up flights to Tibet after I finished.

For more travel reads visit the top travel books list.

ICYMI – Last months posts

How to get from Bangkok to Vientiane by train – A comfortable alternative to flying or getting the bus.

Cafes in Vientiane – I visited the best cafes in Vientiane while I was there, and I’ve also updated my Vientiane Travel Guide after my recent visit.

Nomadic Notes around the web

The rise of the digital nomad – I was featured in Gulf News, the biggest online site in English in the Middle East.

December 18 2016

Cafes in Vientiane, Laos

Cafes in Vientiane, Laos

During my trip to Vientiane I did the rounds of the best cafes in the city. It had been nearly seven years since my last visit to Vientiane so I was curious to see how much has changed. There is now a good selection of cafes to work from here, so whether you are on a trip around Laos or doing a visa run from Thailand, keep this list for reference.

Vientiane Cafes Map

For easy reference the cafes can by found on this Google Map: Vientiane Cafes Map

For Foursquare users here is the list of Vientiane Cafes.

Naked Espresso

Naked Espresso

Naked Espresso was the best latte I had in Vientiane. There is an Australian influence here which you can tell by the style of latte. It’s a big space as well with plenty of tables (at least at the one I went to). There are two branches and I visited Naked Espresso 2 which is more centrally located.

Naked Espresso Cafe Latte

Location: Rue Manthatourath, Vientiane
Website: www.facebook.com/Naked-Espresso-260655370705707/

Le Trio Coffee

Le Trio Coffee

Le Trio Coffee is a French-owned operation, and walking into the cafe I was overwhelmed the aroma of roasting coffee. I enjoyed sitting outside in the morning, before it gets too hot. Le Trio and Naked Espresso were the best coffees I had.

Location: Rue Setthathirat, Vientiane
Website: letriocoffee.com

Joma Bakery Café

Joma Bakery Café

If you have been to Hanoi or Phnom Penh you may be familiar with the Joma name. I first went to a Joma cafe in Hanoi, though the original began in Laos. Joma is a proper bakery operation with an extensive food menu.

There are three branches and I went to the centrally-located Joma Nam Phou.

Location: Rue Setthathirat (near Nam Phou fountain), Vientiane
Website: joma.biz

Comma Coffee

Comma Coffee

Comma Coffee is a nice little cafe with indoor and outdoor seating, and they use Lao Mountain Coffee.

Location: Rue Setthathilath, Vientiane, Laos
Website: www.facebook.com/Comma-Coffee-686719781381506/

Espresso Cafe

Espresso Cafe

Not to be confused with Naked Espresso is the Espresso Cafe, or @ Espresso on the front sign.

Location: Rue Samsenthai, Vientiane, Laos
Website: foursquare.com/v/espresso-cafe/4e30f7c418380c94aca65cd8

Sinouk Cafe

Sinouk Cafe

One of the great things about visiting cafes in the Greater Mekong Region (ie Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) is that there are local cafe chains that have had time to get established before the big boys (Starbucks, Coffee Bean et al) arrived. Starbucks opened in Cambodia in 2016, and has not yet reached Vientiane. Sinouk is a local coffee chain that has a few branches around town and other locations in Laos.

Location: Rue Francois Ngin, Quai Fa Ngum, Vientiane
Website: sinouk-cafe.com

The Coffee Bar

I didn’t go here so I can’t comment personally, but it looks great and I’m sorry to have missed it. They serve cold brew and hot drip coffee, which looks to be the first of its kind in Vientiane. Read a review of The Coffee Bar at eatdrinklaos.com.

Location: Khun Bu Lom Rd, Vientiane
Website: www.facebook.com/TheCoffeeBar.LaoDerm/

Cafe Nomad

Cafe Nomad

With a name like Cafe Nomad I had to pay a visit. Cafe Nomad is outside the city centre near the Thailand Consulate Office, so there is a good chance you will see digital nomads while waiting for a visa. The cafe even has a public computer and printer if you need documents printed for your visa.

Location: House No. 342, Unit No. 1, Ban Dongpalanthong, Meuang Sisattanak, Vientiane
Website: www.facebook.com/cafenomad.lao/

Coffee Today

Coffee Today

In the same area as Cafe Nomad is Coffee Today, which has a nice outdoor area.

Location: Phonsinuan St, Vientiane
Website: www.facebook.com/coffeetodaylaos/

Timeline Cafe

Timeline Cafe

Another alternative in the Thailand Consulate area is this cafe/bakery.

Location: 2nd Floor of MeShop, Phonsinuan, Vientiane
Website: foursquare.com/v/timeline-cafe/5510ff84498edabc0e03e273

Dee Cafe

Dee Cafe

This not near where a tourist would visit but if you are around Nongbone Rd this little cafe in a office block is a good option for coffee and wifi time.

Location: Nehru Street (corner Nongbone Rd), Phonesay Village Vientiane
Website: www.facebook.com/Dee-Cafe-1593652944190405/

Parisien Cafe

Parisien Cafe

Another cafe/bakery option is Parisien Cafe.

Location: Corner Rue Samsenethai and Rue Pangkham, Vientiane
Website: foursquare.com/v/parisien-cafe/54990bcb498e19813194f51f

For cafes in other cities visit the cafes page.

Vientiane Travel Resources

Vientiane Hotels: Search for discount hotels in Vientiane.

Flights to Vientiane: Compare the cheapest flights with Skyscanner.

12go – Train, Bus Travel: Book train and bus tickets for Vientiane.

Travel Insurance: Don’t leave without travel insurance. World Nomads covers your health and travel belongings.

Vientiane Guide Books: Lonely Planet Laos (Travel Guide)

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