Category Archives: Destinations

HO CHI MINH CITY

FINALLY IN VIETNAM

Vietnam was on our radar for a couple of years but then always something else emerged and we went to other countries instead. But this year the deal was made 🙂

As usual for the past few years we found that Qatar Air had the best combination of layovers and price so we took our flight from Zagreb (Croatia) via Abu Dhabi to Ho Chi Minh City. Or is it Saigon since you will hear both names while staying there?

Having fun on a plane

As we found out Saigon was the name adopted after the French conquest in the 1860’s, and it was then renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the North Vietnamese Army took over the South in 1975. While the city name is officially Ho Chi Minh City many people still call it Saigon, especially when referring to District 1 where we’ve stayed.

Ho Chi Minh City is served by Tan Son Nhat International Airport which is the largest airport in Vietnam. The airport is only few km from District 1 so it is relatively close.

Airport Transfer

There are no trains or transfer buses so Uber and taxi are the easiest way to get from the airport. Upon arrival go to the taxi rank and look for a Vinasun or Mailinh taxi representative. They are the most reputable taxi companies and you shouldn’t have any difficulties with them. Since we are a party of five we couldn’t fit in regular cab with our baggage. We booked the minivan ride online and everything went smooth so we were in our hotel in no time (Somerset Ho Chi Minh).

Ho Chi Minh City has a population of over 9 million people and reputedly more than 10 million motorbikes. In all of our travels we’ve never seen a city with so many bikes. While the traffic seems overwhelming at first sight there is a method to the madness and the traffic flows reasonably fast, even in peak hours at morning and in the evening. We’ve learned one simple rule which is: don’t stop walking when crossing the street. The drivers will made their way around you if you will walk but if you will stop in the middle of the street you will cause some commotion for sure.

Food:

When it comes to food, Vietnamese is one of the best cuisines in Asia and even though the city is modernising at a rapid pace street food culture is still an integral part of life. You can still find a bowl of  PHO noodles for 20,000 VND (about $1), or a BANH MI (Vietnamese sandwich) for 12,000 VND (about 60 cents). And with Saigon being the biggest city in Vietnam, food from all regions of the country are represented here.

Strolling around food stalls is really an experience

We had our dinner at the Ben Thanh Street Food Market. This is probably the best place to have your meals. There is so much variety and the prices are very affordable.

Street Food Market

Our first trip was to famous Cu Chi Tunnels, just about an hour outside of HCM City. They are a 200+ km network of underground tunnels used by the peasant residents of Cu Chi during the war. Composed of over 3 layers of tunnel networks, these allowed the guerilla fighters to disappear underground when being attacked by American forces. They lived with a plow in one hand and a rifle in the other, as we were told.

The tour starts with a (relatively) short b/w movie about the Tunnels and Vietnam War in general.

You can pay to shoot authentic guns from that era near the end of the tour. This was sort of an odd thing to do right after a tour detailing the horrors of war, but it led to a chilling and unintended effect: walking through the Vietnamese jungle passing improvised bamboo shelters and mannequin soldiers posed in dioramas, bouts of gunfire breaking the silence—it was easy to slip out of the moment and into a different time and place.

One of the traps

The tour kept us above-ground for the most part. We saw the small entrances that the fighters would use to enter and exit the tunnels, and we were shown replicas of the air holes they constructed to ventilate the labyrinth. Apparently, US soldiers grew wise to the existence of the tunnels and they would use dogs to detect the air holes into which they would pump poison gas.

The entrances to the tunnel are well secured now

After the tunnels, we went to the War Remnants museum. We particularly enjoyed the room dedicated to combat photographers from all participating nationalities. This place was worthwhile and quite sobering.

The War Remnants Museum is a place that you must visit to understand more about Vietnam. I don’t think any visit to Ho Chi Minh City will be complete without a visit to this museum. It shows how cruel humans and the war can be. How the Americans actually used Agent Orange to kill others, and as a result people in later generations were also affected and developed health problems. But you have to be very careful with the kids because pictures are as real and explicit as they can get.

On the front yard of the Museum you will find lots of Army vehicles, boats, planes and helicopters

The museum is still heavy with propaganda, which makes for an interesting look at the other side of the story, with posters encouraging civilians to ‘Destroy the American Infidel’ and talk of the ‘Puppet Regime’. The museum was actually previously known as ‘The American War Crimes Museum’ as recently as 1993, when improved relations with the USA led to a less accusatory name.

One of the most interesting places we’ve visited, during our trip, was the Reunification Palace, previously known before the war as the Independence Palace. It was the home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the war.

The centre of the allied command and the place where the North Vietnamese claimed victory in the American War.
In front of the palace

It also has historical significance as the site of the end of the Vietnam War, with the iconic photo of the tank rolling through the main gates on the day Saigon fell, on April 30th 1975. The palace itself is a real life time capsule!

Russian made tank that run through the main gate

The original palace had been bombed in 1962, and the new Independence Palace commissioned the same year. When the war ended in 1975, the palace was left exactly as it had been on that day. As you walk through the building, it really does feel like everybody has suddenly upped and left (as they did). The 1970’s decor is interesting in itself. You can tour the president’s office, the various official reception rooms, private quarters, cabinet room and ballrooms.

Bell H-1 Helicopter on the top of the palace
The view from the balcony on the top floor

By the way, everything in Ho Chi Minh City is quite affordable. We’ve traveled everywhere by Uber and the streets are also perfectly safe to walk.

Walking through the park
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the late 1880s by French colonists, is one of the few remaining strongholds of Catholicism in the largely Buddhist Vietnam.
The Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh is a glorious example of French colonial architecture, perfectly preserved with as much style as when it first opened in 1891. This building was designed by Gustave Eiffel, who also designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Inside the Post Office.

On our second day we were scheduled for a Svit’s cast removal in FV (Franco-Vietnamese) Hospital. He broke his arm twice on the last day of school back home. Thankfully everything healed fine and visit here was just a formality. But I really have to point out that if something happens to you while around HCM this is the place you want to be taken. The standards are truly Western.

Finally the the cast will go off

Mekong Delta visit:

On our last day here we went to see some rural parts around Mekong River. After 1,5h drive we’ve crossed the river on a boat. Then we proceed first on foot and then with horse carriage. We’ve learned a lot about the people of South Vietnam, tasted some rice wine, coconut candy, we took a small boat ride through the river canals and had lunch in a local restaurant in the end. It was obviously very touristy at some parts but at the end of the day kids loved it so it was worth doing it.

Boat ride across the mighty Mekong River
Rural Vietnam
Honey tasting
Making coconut candies
Rowing through the canals is a feisty business and the the competition is fearsome
We had such a fine time in the small boat

Four days in HCMC went bye really fast but we had to pack our bags and move forward to our next destination – coastal area of Mui Ne.

MALDIVES ON A BUDGET – WITHOUT THE KIDS

Maldives on a budget without the kids

You have to see them once in a lifetime, right? Especially if you know that they will eventually sadly disappear. What is the first thing that crosses your mind when you think of Maldives? Seclusion? Honeymoon? One of the best scenery and marine life in the entire world? Or is it the price that comes with this paradise?

Well, thankfully from 2009 you can see everything that you’ve heard or seen about the Maldives and you don’t need to spend a fortune on it. In 2009 Maldivian Government made a historic decision allowing locals to open their own guesthouses and restaurants to tourists.

Until then all the resorts were build on privately owned islands. For a night on luxury bungalow sitting on wooden stilts above the water with only breakfast you have to for example spend from 600$ and upwards. The numbers for All inclusive per day are going up as high as 8000$!

Now you can see everything that the expensive resorts are offering for significantly lover prices. But, there is always a but, isn’t it, there are two things you have consider coming to an local island. Since Muslim religion is the only religion in the Maldives and Maldivian people feel really strong about their beliefs, there is no alcohol allowed on the local island. No, not even a beer. And the second thing is being respectful to their religion which means that you can only swim or be in the bikinis on so called “bikini beach”. This is a part of the beach on the island where only tourist can go. And local kids will be spotted around here too of course. If you are a woman walking around the local island it is respectful if you have knee length covered legs and covered shoulders. For the man shorts and t-shirt would do. You should always be respectful and try not to make them feel uncomfortable. The locals on the other hand are very friendly and always willing to help.

We’ve made a decision to come here for our tenth wedding anniversary. Our two precious kids stayed and home this time. It was mommy and daddy time. After some research about lodgings, reefs, snorkeling options, distance and transport options from Male we’ve decided to visit Bodufolhudhoo Island. The Island is part of the Northern Ari Atoll which is renowned for its breathtaking underwater life. You can take a slow 6 hour ride with public ferry for as low as 6$ pp/one way or you can take a two hours speedboat ferry on route from Male to islands in Ari Atoll for 50$/pp per way.

Ibrahim Nasir Int Airport, Male
Ice Coffee before the two hours speed boat ride to Bodufolhudhoo
Relaxing speed boat ride with some amazing scenery

If taking the speedboat ferry, you first stop on Rasdhoo Island which is well known for the schools of Hammerhead sharks. The next stop is Ukulhas and after that you’ll reach Bodufolhudhoo Island.

Approaching Bodufolhudhoo Island

The Island is very small and you can walk around it in five minutes. It has four small stores (one of them is bigger- supermarket in which you can  find basics and also ice cream, chocolate) four guesthouses, coffee shop and pizza place. I would say by the looks of it, pizza place and coffee shop are not operational. The island also has a modern health clinic and pharmacy.

Nets where people rest during the day and in the evenings

We stayed at Yonder Retreat, a small cozy place with five rooms. The total number of tourists on the island, us included, was around 18. The local people are just getting used to having tourists around and they are very friendly. Especially the kids who always greet you and look at you with their wondering eyes.

Local boy on a bycicle
Resting before the snorkeling trip

The streets are narrow, covered with sand and the small houses are very basic. But still, all are made from concrete and stones. No wooden ones like in Asia.

Bikini beach

The bikini beach in kept clean by the locals, which sadly can’t be said for the rest of the island. There are plastic bottles, bags and other garbage laying around.

Pollution and environmental issue in general is a major problem in the Maldives.

On the Bikini beach with Nika Island Resort at the back
Football game is an every day event
Dos and dont’s

There are few high end resorts nearby that you can visit if you want to experience the other way of staying in Maldives. The nearest is Nika Island Resort just minutes away from the beach. They will charge you 35$/pp entrance fee for using their bar if you want to  have a beer or cocktail ( 5$ for small Heineken or Tiger Beer, 12$ for cocktails). You can go around the island or use other facilities for additional payment (pool, spa…). We decided to treat ourselves and spent few hours at resort enjoying cocktails & beer, watching sunset and just enjoying life.

Sunset cocktails at Bepi bar on Nika Island Resort

Waiting for our boat ride back to Bodufolhudhoo
Beautiful sunset on the Nika Island

Another plus of staying at the local island is that you can do all the trips like they do it at the resorts and visit the same reefs at significantly lower price. And if it is one thing that you will fall in love with here it’s the underwater life.

On the reef
On the reef
Abundance of tropical fishes

Snorkeling on one of the most mesmerizing coral reefs we have ever seen, island hopping, being alone on the remote sandbank, open water swimming with huge manta rays…all of this you can do from Bodufolhudhoo Island.

You can see all kinds of fishes, turtles, sharks, octopuses, manta rays, sting rays, corals (most of them sadly are bleached as a result of El niño weather incident at the Maldives in 1997-98), dolphins and during certain period in the year also the gentle giants – whale sharks.

The snorkeling here is really some of the most impressive we have ever seen. House reef is just off the bikini beach and full of all kind off fishes and turtles and even white tip sharks early in the morning.

House reef turtle

We also went on so called picnic island. It’s a small sandbar between Bodufolhudhoo and Mathiveri Islands. The boatman dropped us off with water and snacks and we were alone on it for next five hours. There is a great turquoise lagoon and the sand on the island is powdery soft. There is almost no shade on the island and Maldivian sun can be unforgivable so be prepared for that and bring lots of sun block and stay hydrated! We swam around, made lots of photos and even saw a baby sharks and sting rays frolicking in the shallow waters of the lagoon.

Approaching the Picnic island
Picnic Island with Mathiveri Island at the back
Uninhabited island
Picnic Island
Being alone on the Island has its benefits
Mesmerized with the colours
Looking back to Bodufolhudhoo Island

The island hopping to Mathiveri  island was nice too. The island is twice the size of Bodufolhudhoo and there are around 900 people living on it. It’s greener and they actually grow vegetables and papayas on it.

Mathiveri Island Port
Vegetable garden

It has a beautiful turquoise lagoon with the view of Gangehi Island resort at the back of it.

View from Mathiveri to Gangehi Island Resort

There is also a sunken floating bar (wooden sailboat) off shore. It went down two years ago and it’s still lying on the ocean floor. Floating bar is an elegant and legal solution for getting alcohol in Maldives if you are not staying at the resort. It has a bikini beach and house reef in front  of Casa Mia resort but in our opinion they are not as good as the ones on Bodufolhudhoo.

Lots of stingrays on Mathiveri Bikini beach
Mathiveri school
Narrow streets

Swimming with Mantas was one of he best experiences in our lives. We sailed from the island at 9am and went in to direction of Gangehi Island Resort. Our boatman knew exactly where to find them. And there were lots of them swimming around eating plankton. They are so elegant and gentle. If you don’t scare them off by vigorously splashing with fins, you can really come close to them. Swimming with mantas includes quite a lot of swimming and strong currents in some parts so it can be tiring but you forget all this the second you see this elegant creature. The sharks and eagle rays was also a surprising addition to this trip.

Swimming with Mantas is really a lifetime memory
Manta ray
Spotted Eagle Rays

In conclusion I have to say that staying in the private resort is, I imagine, for sure unforgettable experience but if you want to experience real Maldivian culture and life you should stay at local island.

Waiting for a speed boat back to Male
Arriving at Male Int Airport

 

So here is the breakdown for the expenses:

 

550$/pp for the Etihad tickets to Maldives (Ljubljana-Belgrade-Abu Dhabi-Male)

100$/pp return speedboat fare ((Male-Bodufolhudhoo-Male)

1100$ room for two on all inclusive basis with six trips included (six

35$/pp Nika Island visit

45$ drinks at Nika Island

 

CAMBODIA

CAMBODIA, THE LAND OF TEMPLES AND SMILES

Cambodia and Angkor Wat precisely was on our bucket list for quite some time now. This year we decided to take a flight from Manila to Siem Reap (Cambodia) and combine our main destination (the Philippines) with this beautiful and friendly country.

We landed in Siem Reap as it is known to be a gateway to Angkor Archaeological Park where you can see Angkor Wat, the most iconic temple in Cambodia and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Angkor Park includes over 100 spectacular temples, some of which are older than one millennium. There are also many other temples and monuments in the close vicinity. It used to be a small laidback town until the temple complex became so popular. Nowadays, Siem Reap is attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually and boy they have plenty to see and do around here.

The Airport can easily be an example for many bigger SEA airports. We had our e-visa arranged prior to arrival so we went through immigration control smoothly. You have a few ATM machines so that you can get your USD which is preferable currency here. You can (must) pay everything/everywhere in dollars and you also get them in return (only amounts smaller than 1 USD will be returned in their national currency which is Cambodia Riel).

The free hotel shuttle was already in front of the Airport so we were set to go. On our ride we’ve noticed how clean the roads in Siem Reap are and how well maintained the buildings they have. It was not comparable to the Philippines and it was a pleasant surprise. We stayed at La Niche d’Angkor Boutique Hotel (TA review) and it was perfect little spot. They were very helpful with arranging the excursions to the temples and getting us tuk-tuks when we needed it. And also for a very reasonable prices too. Ride to Pub Street/Night Market was 1 USD and one day trip to the Angkor Park small tour was 30 USD.

The next morning after breakfast our tuk-tuk driver was already in front of the hotel and our adventure could begin. Svit and Nia were really excited about the tuk-tuk ride and even small worries that they will get bored visiting temples soon evaporated.

Getting tickets for the Park
Getting tickets for the Park

The Angkor Archaeological Park is said to vast (around 400 square kilometers) and there are a lot of temples that dots the area. After purchasing our day tickets for the small tour (20 USD/adult, free for kids) we made the plan with our driver which temples we’ll be visiting. It usually takes two full days of temple hopping before you experience the so-called “temple fatigue”. So go slow and go for quality over the quantity of temples you visit. Time limited we decided on so called “small tour” which includes the following sites: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm

You can start off with the most famous one, the Angkor Wat, then move on to other smaller, but not less impressive ones.

  1. Angkor Wat:

Angkor Wat is the biggest, most magnificent temple in Siem Reap. It was discovered by a French explorer looking for butterfly and to his surprise, he just found a lost city. Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II and it took 300,000 people, 6000 elephants and 30 years to build it. King Suryavarman II is often referred to as King of the Barbarian due to his strong small stature, his bare body filled with tattoos and mid length shorts he’d always worn. Angkor Wat was designed as the gate to heaven and build for astrological purpose as well.

Come during sunrise (be there by 5.30). Our guide said that sunset is amazing. If you come during sunrise, don’t sit around at the outside, the best view is from the inside.

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We arrived here around 10 am and it was already getting very hot so bring plenty of water and do wear sunscreen lotion. There is always huge crowd of people at Angkor Wat so be prepared for that too. If possible you can also start with other temples and you leave this beauty for the end of your day.

One of the side doors

Inside the Temple
Inside the Temple

You have to take the famous picture of Angkor Wat with the small pond in front in which the building reflects. With some clouds or red sun light you can take some amazing pics here.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

2. Angkor Thom – a 3 sq. km walled royal city built in the 11th century which stood proud as Capitol of Angkorian Empire. There are 5 entries/gates to the city. We entered through the South Gate.

South Gate entrance
South Gate entrance

The temples inside are not in such a great shape than in Angkor Wat but their beauty is unmatched. There are a multitude of faces etched into the stone temples of Angkor Thom in a variety of expressions. If you’re lucky you may see some traditional dancers wandering the grounds or see Cambodian monks clothed in their orange robes.

Bayon:  main Angkor Thom Temple

If you see only two temples, Angkor Wat and Bayon should be the ones. The giant stone faces of Bayon have become one of the most recognizable images connected to classic Khmer art and architecture. The Buddha Face will make a great photography.

Bayon Temple Entrance
Bayon Temple Entrance
a
Buddha face

b

c

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Bayon was built under reign of the last Cambodian king who was a Buddhist. When the last great King passed the concubines were all massacred as to follow the tradition. The next in line was his nephew. Due to all the violence he had witness he had turned Angkor Wat into a Buddhist temple as a way to repel the sin of the Kingdom. That is why so many Buddha statues are built in Angkor Wat which was then destroyed by the Khmer Rouge leaving only a single Buddha remains. Bayon is one of the legacies left behind by the Buddhist King. People of Cambodia gravelly disapproved this change of religion and gradually left the great Angkor Thom complex.

  1. Ta Keo

The temple is enormous, rising over 20 meters, making it one of the tallest buildings at Angkor. It’s towering but plainly decorated temple-mountain dedicated to Shiva. Known in its time as ‘the mountain with golden peaks.’ Kids really enjoyed this one because they could climb (be a bit careful though because the stairs are very narrow at some place) and pretend that they are explorers and archeologists.

Climbing the stairs
Climbing the stairs

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We made it to the top
We made it to the top

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  1. Ta Prohm

This temple is also known as Jungle Temple. Ta Prohm’s popularity has soared in recent years along with the rest of the Angkor complex, but especially because of its appearance in the movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”.

Ta Phrom
Ta Phrom

This was one of our favorite place with lots of greens and the giant tree roots. Ta Prohm was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery and was enormously wealthy in its time, boasting of control over 3000 villages, thousands of support staff and vast stores of jewels and gold.

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Inside the walls of Tha Phrom
Inside the walls of Ta Prohm

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Srah Srang Lake
  1. Beng Mealea

Beng Malea is a far-away temple that we visited the next day. Unlike Angkor Complex, this temple is far from touristy. The temple is largely overrun by vegetation and very lightly touristy giving it an adventurous, ‘lost temple’ feel. The natural state of it made us feel like we were in Indiana Jones movie. It is located about 60km east of town and it took us about 2 hour tuk-tuk ride to get there. During these two hours we experienced two storm showers and plenty of sun, so there was not a dull moment on the road.

One for the road
One for the road 🙂

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This was one of the most authentic ways to experience the life outside hustle and bustle of the city. The open air of a tuk tuk allows you to soak in the culture with all of your senses.

Regular admission tickets are not required but there is a separate $5 entrance fee.

During the years Beng Mealea was abandoned, nature took its course and the whole site has been overrun by plants. Trees grow out of stone, vines are wrapped around gateways, and roots have stretched through walls. Combined with the parts of the temple which have collapsed from neglect, it creates a sense of romantic rustic ruins.

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One before we go
One before we go

It’s without a doubt worth a relatively long trip out here, though. The road will almost certainly become more travelled as the temples around Angkor get more and more crowded and the discerning tourists look for more peaceful alternatives.

Siem Reap things to see and do:

From the Cambodian scarves and cheap T-shirts that you will see in many local shops, to wooden masks and silverware, Siem Reap is a good place to learn more about the rich tradition of Cambodian people. Some places like meat market may seem unappealing at a first glance, but don’t let be fooled because you may blow your chances and miss a really authentic experience in the heart of the country.

  1. Go to the Night market. It costs 1 USD with tuk-tuk to reach most destinations in city center. Drop by the market near the Siem Reap River to buy souvenirs. Bargaining is expected so don’t be shy to ask for a better deal. As a general rule whatever price was asked I would start by offering half the amount and stallholders would generally meet me somewhere in the middle. Prices were set low to begin with so it’s not necessary to bargain hard like on Khao San RD in Bangkok for example. You can also enjoy light snacks there, and even full meals. It’s also close to other restaurants along and around Pub Street where you can find may different cuisine options.

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Being so hot by day, Siem Reap locals can also buy their groceries at the night markets. There are stalls selling fresh vegetables, seafood and meat, some looking tastier than others. Street vendors sell fruit, drinks and from carts too.

1 USD for pancake
1 USD for pancake
Night Market streets
Night Market streets

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Searching for suvenires

Searching for souvenirs

Window shopping
Window shopping
  1. Pub Street

The Siem Reap Night Markets are a great place to get a few inexpensive pieces of clothing (just remember to check the sizes first) but there are also a whole host of other shopping opportunities.

Siem Reap Pub Street
Siem Reap Pub Street
Motorbikes as a main transportation
Motorbikes as a main transportation
Don't let our fish be hungry:)
Here fishy fishy…

The city center in Siem Reap is a giant cluster of markets including Old Market, Pub Street, The Alley Lane and Night Market. The Market is opened from the afternoon all the way till dusk. You can get everything you need here. From shopping to food this is the place to go. At night there are lively strips of bars and pubs lighting up the streets.

We only visited Siem Reap but we have instantly fallen in love with it because of the awesome night markets, friendly and welcoming people and nice accommodation. All that plus the whole Angkor experience was fantastic.  We worried a bit that all the sightseeing will bore the kids but as always they loved every single day and every single thing we did here in this amazing country.