I have less than two months until I say goodbye to life in Japan and touch back down on US soil, if not for good than certainly for a while. As with most endings this one has left me conflicted. While I’m eager to return home to friends, family and a fridge stocked with all varieties of cheese and reasonably priced fruit, I’ve already begun to miss the home I’ve built for myself here. It’s a strange feeling, missing a place you still inhabit. Every place I go I wonder if it’s for the last time. I catch myself falling back in love with little aspects of Japanese life that had previously faded into the background. I’m both grateful for this hyper-awareness and saddened by it, because of course I’m just that much more aware of what I will miss and how fast the time is going. Continue reading
On the road again after my stop at the Ibusuki sand baths, I took several detours – I visited Cape Nagasakibana, the southernmost tip of the Satsuma peninsula, and Lake Ikeda, the largest lake in Kyushu. Both were gorgeous, offering stunning views (despite the crazy heat) and interesting history. A highlight for me was the statue of Lake Ikeda’s resident monster, Issie (pronounced ee-shee), which is absolutely the Japanese version of Nessie. The lake is actually home to giant eels, so as far as I’m concerned the lake does in fact have monsters. Continue reading
Japan is made up of 47 prefectures. I live in Miyazaki, on the southern island of Kyushu. Much like in the US, it’s very easy to travel between prefectures, and many travelers make it their goal to visit as many as possible. Personally, I’ve visited roughly ten prefectures, mostly via road trips around Kyushu. The travel fanatic in me is very tempted to go the “gotta catch em all” route, but it does seem a bit unreasonable if I’m only living here for two years.
So instead of traveling the whole country, I’ve been enjoying the sights a little closer to home. A few weeks ago we had a national holiday on a Thursday, so I took the opportunity to make a long weekend for myself and do a bit of exploring in neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture.
Before I knew it, my Tet holiday was coming to an end. After just over two weeks of adventure it was time to make my way back to Can Tho, by way of Da Nang.
In case you aren’t familiar with Vietnamese geography, Da Nang is the biggest city in central Vietnam, and one of the four biggest cities in the country. It is also Vietnam’s fastest developing city, with a handful of skyscrapers and lots of trendy restaurants and hotels. It’s only about 40 minutes from Hoi An by bus, but it might as well be a world away in terms of atmosphere.
In any case, I set out on foot for the public bus that would take me to Da Nang. I was told at the hostel it would be around d200,000 ($10) which was way more than I wanted to pay – my four hour ride from Hue had cost less! I was also told that the bus picked up nearby, but at a different location than I had been dropped off at. Hoi An being a small town, I decided to walk, figuring it must be nearby. Nope.
Almost an hour later I found the bus station, dripping in sweat and more than a little disgruntled. But I suppose my efforts paid off, since the bus I found turned out to be the public bus, which was only d30,000 ($1.50). The ride was quiet and comfortable, and after showing my hostel address to the attendant I made it off at the correct stop. Once again I found myself walking to a new hostel, but this time the directions were right, it was only five minutes.
After dropping my things off I decided to make the most of my day by exploring the city on foot. I slowly made my way along the riverside, towards the Cham Museum. I had read that this was a museum not to be missed, but I think the guidebooks oversold it. Or perhaps I should have done the audio tour. In any case, I enjoyed walking through remnants of Vietnam’s past, especially since the relics showed ties to Hinduism that I had not seen in Vietnam before. You can see similar sculptures and images all over Cambodia and Thailand’s temples, but Vietnam has a stronger Chinese influence, and so I was unaware of the shared history. I spent maybe an hour walking through the museum remembering bits and pieces of Indian art history from my time on Pac Rim, and was able to recognize several key stories and characters. I even found my favorite Hindu deity – Nandi the bull, mount of Shiva.
Once I finished up at the museum I found a bus stop and rode to the “marble mountains” on the city’s outskirts. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was a bit surprised to see a handful of small mountains rising from a very populated city. It was an interesting mix of nature and civilization. The bus attendant on my way out had spent much of the 20 minute ride trying to have a conversation with me through her bits of English, my minuscule Vietnamese, and a lot of gesturing. All of this in between people running to catch the bus, which never actually came to a complete stop. She was super friendly, and told me that if I came back to the bus stop at the right time, she would be on again and wouldn’t charge me for a round trip ticket. Her timeframe left me with about two hours to explore the mountains.
The most visited mountain contains a series of pagodas, and is free to visitors. I slowly made my way up to the top, pausing to take in my surroundings at each turn.
The view from the top was beautiful, and I’m not sure how I worked this out, but I managed to get there right at sunset, and except for a few monks I was the only one there. It was amazingly peaceful, and I took some time to reflect once again on where I was, how lucky I have been to have these experiences, and how amazing the past year has been. I’m not really one for spiritual experiences, but sitting on the top of that mountain and watching the sun go down was an absolute highlight of my trip, and a note I would happily end on.
Not wanting to climb down the mountain in the dark, I left the pagoda and walked toward the bus stop, pausing along the way to snap a few photos of a nearby temple. I wanted to share this picture in particular, since I’ve gotten comments before on similar scenes. You will notice that there is a swastika front and center on the temple gates. The first time I saw this I was shocked and appalled, but the symbol’s history is widely misunderstood. Contrary to popular knowledge, the swastika is a symbol that dates back over ten thousand years. In Sanskrit, it means “it is” or “well being,” and it appears in images related to many world religions, including Christianity and Hinduism. It is especially significant in buddhism, and is a symbol of prosperity. If you’re interested in the history of this symbol, and why a marker of peace was perverted into one of mass murder, you can read up on it here and here. And if you find yourself in Asia, don’t be surprised if you see it everywhere. Once I learned of the symbol’s history, I was able to take in the beauty that often surrounds it on temples and other places of worship.
But back to my trip – I had made it to the bus station a bit too early and was picked up by a new bus, which meant I had to pay for fare again. This was a bit of a bummer, but then again, $2.50 isn’t too much of a hardship, especially when on vacation. I made my way back to the city center and back to my hostel. I found a delicious pho restaurant for dinner and wandered around looking for a bit of dessert. Lucky me, I stumbled into a convenience store selling imported goodies from the US and Europe. I bought a few treats to bring back to my friends in Can Tho and walked down to the riverside to enjoy a mini hagen daz ice cream – quite a treat!
I watched people coming and going, looked at the lights on the bridges, and enjoyed the last night of my trip. Over the past two weeks I had learned a lot – traveling alone gives you a lot of time to reflect, and also sheds light on your own preferences. Even though I’ve had a lot of experience traveling, I learned so much this trip about what I do and don’t like to do, just by being the sole decision-maker. I also walked away with the knowledge that I can handle myself well, and am now more confident in many ways. For all of you reading, I would encourage traveling solo at least once in your life, as it gave me a sense of perspective and accomplishment I don’t think I could have gained elsewhere.
As I finished my ice cream and prepared to return to the hostel, I knew that this trip was something I’d never forget. I walked through town thinking about all of the possibilities the future holds, how many more places there were to see in the world, in Asia, or even just in Vietnam. This adventure was over, and I was already waiting for the next one to start.
If you find yourself traveling to Vietnam, you will inevitably hear about a handful of “must-see” destinations. Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Phu Quoc Island, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City are the ones I hear most often. But of all the places I’ve been told I MUST visit, I think Hoi An was the only one I consistently heard positive things about, and I mean overwhelmingly positive. I never met a single person who didn’t like Hoi An, and several (including my Vietnamese friends) have said it was their favorite place in Vietnam. Strangely, nobody could give reasons for their love of this town. So naturally I figured I needed to see what all the fuss was about for myself.
I set out from Hue early in the morning and boarded a sleeper bus headed for Da Nang and Hoi An, about a four hour ride. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the sleeper buses here in Vietnam are pretty comfortable,and the top bunk offers a nice view of whatever you happen to be passing. This trip was particularly beautiful, and absolutely lived up to the gorgeous travel photos I’ve seen advertising the central highlands. I wish I had stayed awake for more of this trip, but if you give me a bed and a rocking bus, I’ll probably fall asleep. I did manage to get a few photos between naps though.
Mid-day we arrived in Hoi An, and upon disembarking the bus were bombarded with the usual crowd of taxi and xe om drivers looking to get a fare. Before getting on the bus I had been told that my hostel was within easy walking distance of the bus station, so I refused taxis and decided to save a few thousand dong by walking. Luckily for me, several other passengers were headed to the same hostel. None of us were particularly great at reading maps, but we made it to our destination without too many hiccups.
As far as hostels go, the chain I stayed with in Hue and Hoi An, the “Backpacker’s Hostel,” was as stereotypically backpacker-y as you can get. Everything was clean, safe, and well-located, but they also had full bars, loud music late at night, and decorations with sexual puns all over the place. This isn’t exactly my scene, but my philosophy of travel is still that the hotel/hostel is only important for location, safety, and cleanliness. I don’t tend to spend much time in the room, so I’d rather not pay a ton for something I barely use. But man, the party thing is so not for me. I also tired quickly of the shallow conversations and constant discussion of how “real” this country is. It all stung of gross privilege and a well-meant but ultimately futile attempt to find “authentic experiences.” Honestly, I could go on and on about my frustrations with backpacker culture, but I’ll spare you that for now.
Regardless, I set my stuff down and went out to get a feel for my surroundings. I walked into the Ancient Town, the central attraction that takes up a good part of the city (which is really a small town). I quickly discovered that Hoi An was an excellent shopping destination, particularly if you want to have clothes tailored. Seemingly every other shop is a tailor, and everywhere you go people try to pull you into their stores. Even though I had plenty of time to have something made, I decided that I would rather wait and have this done in Can Tho, where the prices are lower and the hustle is nonexistent. However, if you’re only visiting Vietnam for a short trip, I think this is probably one of the best places to have clothes made. It’s also a great place to find charity shops and high-quality handicrafts. I found several beautiful jewelry stores, quilt shops and even a silent tea house, all benefiting local artisans or disadvantaged children. Nothing like a good cause to help alleviate the guilt of over-shopping!
In any case, I spent my three days in Hoi An wandering the streets and going from shop to shop, and was very happy. That first night I wandered into a shop called “Cool Japan in Hoi An” and chatted with the store owner, who just so happened to have lived in St. Louis. Small world! Everyone I met in the town was super friendly, and English was widely spoken. I’ve also never seen so many expats in Vietnam! If you’re interested in the tourism industry here, I guess this is where you end up (or Ha Long Bay). There were several expat-owned restaurants and coffee shops, including one that sold chai hot chocolate and delicious coffee, and I think I went there every day of my stay.
Besides shopping and sipping coffee, I also took a bike tour of the town and spent some time at the beach. I didn’t even realize Hoi An had a beach! It was gorgeous, and if I hadn’t already had my beach fill in Vung Tau, I probably would have spent a full day there. But in the end, I really prefer looking at the water to getting in it, so I wandered back to town.
So over the course of three days I learned to love Hoi An. It was cozy, quaint, and charming. The beaches are beautiful, the town is small and easy to navigate, and the food is fantastic. I finally got my hands on a doner kabob, which I have been craving ever since I left Hanoi (that’s three years) and it was marvelous. Local specialty dishes were also quite delicious, and there was no shortage of food options. And to top it all off, Hoi An is known for lanterns, which are everywhere in town. They look nice during the day, but the town is transformed at night. Wandering the lantern-lit streets was downright romantic, even if I was on my own.
At the end of three days I was sad to see my vacation coming to an end. While I had purposefully left my plans up in the air, giving myself flexibility should I find one place more interesting than the others, I decided to take my final day of the holiday and explore the neighboring city of Da Nang, which I will tell you all about next time.
After landing in Ho Chi Minh City I had a long layover that ended up taking even longer than anticipated. In the six hours I spent in the airport I learned that pizza in Asia is not to be trusted, even if it comes from Dominoes. Just say no to Asian pizza, unless it comes from Pizza 4 P’s in HCMC, which, oddly enough, is a Japanese pizza place. Go figure.
Anyway, after a long delay I finally landed in Huế, the old capital of Vietnam. Getting off the plane I was super sad to discover one of my earbuds had gone missing, rendering my sound-canceling headphones all but useless. I waited around while they cleaned the plane to try and recover them, but apparently they were gone for good. Fortunately I had picked up a new pair of “sleeping headphones” in Singapore, which are basically a large headband with headphones built in, so I would not be entirely without music and podcasts. I don’t know about you, but I find headphones pretty essential when I travel. Before a trip, especially one with a sizable commute, I always load up my iPod with podcasts to pass the time. This is particularly useful on buses, when reading isn’t always possible, and the sound-canceling feature is great when the bus plays loud variety shows on the tv.
But in any case, I sadly said goodbye to my headphones and caught a taxi to my hostel in the city, about a half hour ride from the airport. The long delay meant I didn’t get to my hostel until around midnight, and all of my roommates were asleep. Good thing I had that headlamp!
The next morning I woke up around 8 and had a pancake breakfast at the hostel. Afterward I rented a bicycle ($1 for a full day) and went out to explore the area surrounding the city. Huế is located on the Perfume river, nestled in the central highlands. The climate is a bit more mild than the delta, but it was pretty hot when I visited. I rode my bicycle through town and out to a famous pagoda.
The pagoda was lovely, and the bike ride allowed me to get a nice feel for the area. It’s a really small city, with no tall buildings and far fewer people than Can Tho. My ride took me along the river and past several smaller temples before I reached my destination.
This pagoda was full of tourists, but when I pulled up on my bike I was not sure where to leave the bicycle. Outside the pagoda were a string of drink stands and food stalls, and as soon as I pulled up and started looking for parking, they all beckoned over and yelled at me to leave my bicycle with them. I was a bit worried, but in the end decided to leave my bike (after locking the wheel) with the owner of a tiny cafe and hope for the best.
I walked around the pagoda and the grounds, enjoying the riverside views and beautiful architecture. I was a bit surprised to see an antique car on display, and upon further inspection I learned that this was the car that drove Thich Quang Duc to Saigon, where he famously self-immolated in protest of the American-Vietnam War. I walked away a bit sobered, reminded that Huế is only a short distance away from the former DMZ, and the region, while bustling and comfortable now, saw horrible things.
Leaving the Pagoda I returned to the cafe where my bike was thankfully tucked away in the back of the shop. The woman clearly expected me to stay and have a drink in return for the service, so I bought a soda and took it to go. I had already gone through my entire water bottle, it was so hot!
After the pagoda I made my way to Huế’s main attraction – the Imperial Citadel. At $5 for admission, this was one of the pricier attractions I’ve visited in Vietnam, and I’m not entirely sure it was worth it. Built in the 1800s, the citadel was the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, who unified the north and south. The building claims to be unique in that it combined features of Eastern and Western architecture, or something. Honestly it was too hot for me to care much about reading signs, I was more interested in hanging out in the shaded gardens.
A ticket to the Citadel also give you access to a nearby museum, but when I made my way over I realized it was lunchtime, and they were closed. I returned to my bicycle and figured I would find food. My map labeled one area “food street” so this seemed like a safe bet. I found a small street stall and was offered the choice of noodles or rice. Rice turned out to be the wrong choice, since it was really just a lot of onions that tasted like shrimp and almost no rice. Oh well, live and learn.
On my way back to the hostel I decided to check out a “local market” that was recommended by the hostel. Pro tip for travelers in Vietnam – markets are overwhelming, and rarely as interesting as you anticipate. Most are full of low-quality clothes and knicknacks that you really don’t need. When I saw the market I got off my bike to walk around, but didn’t even approach the stalls, I didn’t have the energy to bargain for a “Viet Nam” tshirt.
The rest of my day was pretty uneventful. I ate dinner in a small restaurant off the main drag and packed up in preparation of my departure the next day. I don’t think I’d go back to Huế, but I’m certainly glad I went.
Next stop, Hoi An!
Head’s up, this post is LONG. I didn’t mean for it to be, but I started writing and it somehow got away from me. I will try to make future posts a little less lengthy.
After leaving my friends in Ho Chi Minh City it was time for me to fly to Singapore. The city-state had been on my radar for a while, but a few months earlier I had learned that a famous drag queen would be making a stop in the city, and since the show fell over the holiday I figured why not!
I was a bit nervous as I boarded my flight because, while I would consider myself fairly well-traveled and am generally comfortable with the ups and downs of exploring new places, this was the first time I would be truly on my own. In the past I have always had a travel buddy, a friend I was visiting, or someone to meet me on the other side. Even coming to Vietnam I knew that I would be received by people from the English Center once I made my way to Can Tho. But this time it was just me. I didn’t know anyone in Singapore, and didn’t even really have a plan beyond going to the drag show, and I had four days to fill. This was both scary and exhilarating.
Getting off the plane it was obvious I wasn’t in Vietnam anymore. Singapore is one of the wealthiest countries in Asia, and their airport is one of the nicest in the world. The national languages are Chinese and English, so everything was easy to navigate, and I quickly made my way to the airport MRT station. After a friendly stranger asked where I was going and pointed me in the right direction, I was on my way. Riding the train I got a glimpse of the city, which is extremely modern, but has tons of green space. The views weren’t particularly exciting, but that didn’t really matter. Once I made it to my stop I found my hostel with no problem and began plotting what to do next.
For the first day I set out for lunch a bit late, and was disappointed that the local Hawker Market was closed for the Lunar new year. After settling for a small Chinese restaurant I took a quick nap and decided to walk around and see what was close by. While I was only a 10 minute walk from an MRT station, the area surrounding my hostel wasn’t particularly interesting. After a bit of walking I found myself in the Arab Quarter, which had beautiful mosques and interesting shops. This part of town is supposedly known for its boutiques and coffee shops, but I figured I would come back later to explore a bit more in depth.
Next I found myself in the Bugis area, which is my kind of place – shopping heaven! It had been so long since I saw a mall, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen malls quite as big as these. Once again, a lot of places were closed for the new year, so I resolved to come back in a few days when everything would be open again.
After walking around I hopped on an MRT to Chinatown to see the fireworks for the first day of the New Year. It was so crazy crowded! I wandered through the night market, enjoyed the displays and bought a few trinkets and finally found a place to eat. A mix up with the server left me with more food than I needed, but it was very tasty and I was feeling happy, if tired. I decided to head home before the fireworks because the crowds were a bit much for me, and on the way a friendly stranger told me about a less-crowded MRT station nearby, then walked with me to make sure I didn’t get lost. I made it back to the hostel without a problem and learned how useful the red bulb setting on my headlamp is – if anyone out there is planning on traveling to hostels, I highly recommend getting one. The red light is less intense and wont wake your new roommates. So great!
The next day I ate my free hostel breakfast and went down to the marina to see the Gardens by the Bay. You may have heard of the Singaporean Supertrees, and this is where they are. The gardens are free, unless you want to visit the two bio-domes, which are a bit on the pricey side. I decided to splurge and visit the “Cloud Forest” which ended up being pretty cool. The whole structure reminded me a bit of a Ghibli monster (Castle in the Sky, anyone?) and the cool temperatures were a nice break. I also met a trio of women from Chicago who were doing almost the same trip as me, but in reverse. They offered suggestions for my time in Hoi An (which I’ll tell you about next time) and were very friendly.
After lunch at a tourist trap I visited the Asian Civilizations Museum, which is pretty interesting and also free. I sort of wished I had gone there first, since I was a bit tired, but I learned a lot about the history of Singapore and the various ethnic groups that call it home. And their gift shop was nice too.
I walked back through Bugis and the Arab Quarter again, and this time I walked through the famous “Haji Lane” which is known for street art and boutiques. After snapping some photos and drinking some delicious (but expensive) coffee, it was back to the Gardens to see the light show. The show is free and happens twice a night, and there are plenty of great places to sit and watch. It was really cool to see the “supertrees” light up, and the music was fun. At one point they used an instrumental version of a popular Korean Pop song, which was funny.
Walking back to the MRT proved to be a bit more complicated than I’d anticipated, and I found myself a bit lost. A man walking the same path was in the same predicament and we decided to try to find an exit together. Once again I was surprised at how friendly people could be, and I ended up talking to this man the entire long walk and train ride back towards the hostel. We said our goodbyes and I ventured out in search of a late-night Thai dinner, which was amazing. Sitting at the restaurant enjoying my pad thai, I made a decision to come back to Singapore again sometime, as I was already positive my time would be cut too short, and I was loving it.
Day three was quite eventful, as I had decided to make the long journey to the zoo to see MANATEES. Yes, the Singapore zoo has manatees, and as soon as I learned this I made up my mind to go see them. Now, if anyone is going to Singapore and wants to go to the zoo (it’s a nice zoo) you should know that it’s pretty far outside of the city. To get there I walked 10 minutes to an MRT station, rode for maybe 15-20 minutes, then caught a 20 minute bus ride to the Zoo itself. Luckily all public transportation in Singapore is super easy and well labeled, and they all take the same EZ card (which I unfortunately lost as I got off the bus. Whoops!) Also, you should buy your tickets ahead of time. I had to wait almost an hour to get my tickets, and they were almost $30 for just the one park and boat ride. I was a bit irritable when I actually got inside, and then had to walk the whole distance of the zoo before I got to the manatees, but it was all worth it. I spent over an hour in the manatee enclosure, fighting kids for the best viewpoint. In case you were wondering, yes, I still love manatees. I walked away feeling very happy, and bought myself a little keychain to remember the experience (sidenote – the gift shop devotes way too much of its space to panda memorabilia, which is a big mistake in my opinion. Those pandas looked so sad…)
Anyway, I bought myself a new EZ Link card and slowly made my way back to the hostel to change and decide what to do next. Eventually I went for a walk and found a burger place for dinner and walked around some shops before calling it a day.
The next day was my last full day in Singapore, and my designated shopping day. I slept in until 9 but still made it out a bit too early for most of the shops in the Arab Quarter. To kill time I decided to visit a nearby cat cafe, and spent an hour petting cats and sipping on overpriced apple juice. The cafe was much nicer than those I had visited in Hanoi and Phnom Penh, but the owner was determined to spend the whole time talking with me, and all I wanted to do was write in my journal and pet some cats. This is pretty much the downside of how friendly people were overall to me as a single female traveler. I was never lonely, but I sometimes wished I could sit in the hostel lounge without people trying to strike up a conversation about where we had been and where we were going. But in any case, the cats were cute, and when I left I was finally able to check out the shops.
I won’t bore you with the details, but the shops were mostly very cute and I bought entirely too much. I even found a Kinokuniya bookstore and bought new books since my Kindle was sadly lost en route to Guam (but has since been replaced – thanks Grandma and Mom!)
By the end of my shopping spree I was feeling a bit down, I guess all of the solo time had finally gotten to me. But there was no time to dwell on sad things – I had to pack up my stuff and go to the drag show! I put on a new dress and got a bit lost in an underground MRT station/mall before finding the venue with a huge crowd lined up to get in. I found my place in line between two groups of very flamboyantly gay expats, and I spent about 20 minutes listening to their conversations. It was amusing, but also kind of lonely. I’d never been to a show by myself before, and I found myself missing my friends.
Once inside the club was pretty small, and people were standing around tables in groups, and I wasn’t quite sure where to go. I stood on the side of the stage awkwardly waiting for the show to start when a nearby woman asked me if I was alone. I said I was, and she said that was unacceptable, and promptly invited me to join her table right in front of the stage. The woman I talked to was there with her cousin, and two other solo show-goers were there as well. All of them were from Singapore, and I had a great time talking with them before the show.
The show itself was a blast. Adore Delano is fantastic live, very funny and personable, and she really can sing! I was so close I could have reached out and touched her, and she frequently walked by my table. I was so glad to be there.
After the show I went out for coffee with the girls at my table, and it was really nice sitting and talking with new friends. They were all big drag race fans, and we talked about the local drag scene, life in Singapore and their time spent abroad. I think this was my favorite night of the whole trip, just talking in that coffee shop.
I went back to my hostel feeling great, and spent some time reflecting on the wonderful experiences I’d had over the past few days. I decided that Singapore was a fascinating place I’d love to see more of, and that solo traveling was more fun than I had anticipated. As far as I could tell, the only real downside was that meals couldn’t be shared, and that occasionally it was a bit lonely. But what they say is true, if you leave yourself open to new people and new experiences, you’ll find them.
I left Singapore the next morning and made my way back to Saigon, and the next leg of my trip: Central Vietnam.