Friday, September 28, 2012

Do You...?

Do you want to go to Vietnam?
If you do, get your passport (and visa if required) ready and fly in to Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Saigon or to Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi. If going by land, you can take the bus from Cambodia, Laos, or China. Vietnam is the first country I have been to that does not require an arrival/departure card to be filled out.

Tan Son Nhat International Airport as seen from the tarmac

Do you need to adjust your watch or just toss it out the window?
Vietnam's clocks, just like its neighbor, Cambodia, are set at GMT +7 in the standard time zone. If time is no object, then by all means, toss your watch out the window.

Do you need a raincoat or a swimsuit or a pair of snow boots?
It depends which part of Vietnam you plan to visit. The northern part experiences all four seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter, but leave the snow boots at home. Unless you go up the mountains where, I hear, it occasionally snows. The south of Vietnam has two seasons: wet (May to October) and dry (November to April). The average temperature in the south ranges from 25°C to 35°C. It receives the highest rainfall from June to August.

Do you want to be a millionaire?
You can be! In Vietnam, your US$1 (or 42 Philippine pesos) can turn into 21,000 Vietnamese dong (VND). With just US$50, you can claim to be a millionaire in Vietnam! You can have your money exchanged at the airport or in the city. I suggest you get your dong from banks. You need not have all your USD exchanged to VND, hostels and travel agencies (for your bus tickets and tours) accept US dollars.

From an ordinary working class Filipino to a millionaire

Do you need a dictionary?
You might. English is not too universal after all. Based on my observation, not too many Vietnamese know how to speak English though there are those who can understand. I am guessing you have a better chance of finding somebody who can understand English in areas where tourists abound. If you find yourself scratching your head for ways to get the message across, make do with your creativity: play Charades, release your inner artist and draw, sing and dance, anything. And remember these phrases: xin chao (hello), cam on (thank you), hai vai (very fun), ngon vai (very delicious).

Do you feel more secure with a cellphone signal, full batteries, and knowing you can check your email anytime?
Type C
Type A
First, in order to check if your cellphone (or laptop or whatever gadget) is working, it must have power. If the batteries are down to 1%, time to plug it in. Vietnam uses types A and C plugs (photos from at 220V. Next, no signal? Forgot to set your roaming on? Buy a local simcard. It is cheaper than the roaming rates (well, the Philippine roaming rates). Local simcards and top-up/load cards can be bought from convenience stores or even from the streets. Bought a Viettel simcard for 100,000VND (200PHP or US$5) which already includes 50,000VND worth of airtime. Sending a text message to another Vietnam mobile number costs 250VND, and international text messages cost 2,500VND (5PHP). International calls cost 3,600VND (7PHP) per minute. Lastly, if you can't live without checking your facebook (die a little in Vietnam, facebook is banned there) or email, WiFi is almost everywhere, in your hostel, in cafes and restaurants, and in the mall.

Do you want to get around without having to walk for miles and miles?
From Tan Son Nhat International Airport, you can take the bus (operates from 7AM to 7PM) or taxi to the city center. Careful, there are many taxi drivers waiting to make some quick cash on naive tourists (one driver claimed to be from Vinasun company and was asking for 900,000VND, which is about 1,800PHP. That's highway robbery for a short 6-kilometer trip to District 1). Go for metered taxis. From the exit, turn left and look for a line of taxis where an airport personnel gives out a card with the taxi number and information printed on it. It costs about 140,000VND (280PHP) from the airport to Pham Ngu Lao street in District 1 in Saigon. Going around the city you can take a taxi, bus, xe om (motorcycle taxi), or a cyclo (for short distances). For interprovince journeys, you can either take the bus or the train (for certain destinations).

Card with the taxi number and information

Inside the sleeper bus bound for Mui Ne

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Kudos! Orange Brutus!

Orange Brutus just made my day! I'm listing two reasons. The first, and most important, is this guy:

Couldn't resist taking his picture!

Meet Mr. Zalde. He's a cool and smiling crew of Orange Brutus. Without a badge, I would have dismissed him as another Orange Brutus (OB) crew in his yellow uniform. Not this time, his badge says "Hearing Impaired".

Pick up a newspaper and scan the classified ads. Tell me how many are looking for or hiring Persons with Disabilities (PWD)? Aside from the occasional for-hire blind masseurs, the sad answer is none.

This what sets OB apart from others - they hire hearing impaired crew members. And Mr. Zalde represents the many people who deserve to bring home the bacon - regardless of disabilities.

So there goes the most important reason why OB made my day. Amidst all the "looking for female, not more than 30 years old, can speak English, with pleasing personality, blah blah" this food chain chose Mr. Zalde as a staff. Good service with No Discrimination. My utmost respect!

Another good reason to dine at OB: Reviving Inexpensive and Good food.

We ordered the burger steak budget meal and chicken steak budget meal. The meal includes a choice of drinks. You can have Coke products, or if you're not into soda (like me), they can change it to iced tea with no additional charge. Not like others - Yes, you, Ronald and Jolli!

The meals have arrived
Burger Steak value meal
The Burger steak was really good. Soft and non-greasy. With small veggies on it.

Chicken steak value meal
This one is really underrated. Awesome tender chicken. The sauce is subtle, yet perfect with the meat. I'd pick this over KFC anytime.

Overall, the food was more than worth its price. And I'm so happy to say it again: More than worth its price.

Outside OB. The iconic Orange fruit.
Not really the best interior design, but they're doing it right.

Let's continue supporting OB's advocacy. The easiest way would be to spread the good news - tweet, share on fb, and blog about it. A good way is to bring friends and family to dine, and while you're at OB, the best way would be to smile and shake hands with the hearing impaired crew.

Side note:
For those who aren't familiar with Orange Brutus, it's the first Hamburger Chain in Cebu. Started in the 1980's by two entrepreneurs. It has become an iconic figure in the Cebu  food industry for its burgers and fruit shakes, with the latter being more popular until now.

My memory of OB dated back when I was in elementary. My dad brought me at OB Fuente where I had my first "brown" spaghetti. It was always "red" spaghetti in other restaurants and at home. How good was OB's "brown spaghetti"? Let's say it brought good childhood memories. And nothing's as delicious as remembering the old days.

Contact Information:
Orange Brutus
Ayala Center Cebu (032) 231 5394
Fuente OsmeƱa (24 hrs) (032) 255 2972 / 255 4783
SM City Cebu (032) 232 0722
There are over a dozen branches scattered all over Cebu. Check their website for more information.

How this Fortunate encounter bore a silent hole in Mustachio's pocket:
Burger steak budget meal Php 49
Chicken steak budget meal Php 49

Monday, September 24, 2012

I Came, I Saw, I...Spent

I came...
or rather, went to Phnom Penh with four friends in tow with very limited time (more vacation leaves please) and on a budget.

I saw...
just a piece of Phnom Penh in 24 hours (and 8 hours of it was spent with my eyes closed). One day is definitely not enough.

I spent...
yes, travel comes with a price and in 24 hours, I was 2700 pesos down.

How Phnom Penh pillaged thru Mustachio's pocket

Phnom Penh in 24 hours:
Chews Cambodia
I Came, I Saw, I...Spent (you're here!)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Chews Cambodia

After the history lessons at Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, let's move on to something more cheerful: food!

We left Saigon at 8AM and arrived in Phnom Penh seven hours later. Seven hours sitting next to the toilet did not dampen my appetite. I was famished when we got to our destination. How did we find our first meal (aka lunch) in Cambodia? We left our grumbling stomachs at the mercy of our tuktuk driver. He brought us to Sinh Foo Restaurant (#323 Eo, Sisowath Quay) which served awfully good food (Mr Driver, sir, you are the greatest!). And, no, I don't think it was our hunger making everything so delicious.

Fried morning glory with garlic (left) and meat and veggie noodles (right photo by R Abastas)
Fish amok in coconut (left photo by H Bacordio) and red seafood curry (right photo by R Abastas)

All the dishes we ordered (US$2-$5), except for the noodles, came with rice. I will not describe each for I only have one word for them: delicious! Of the five (the fifth one was fried rice but we forgot to take a picture of it), the fish amok in coconut was the best. Morning glory is nothing but kangkong, but it was the best kangkong I've ever had thanks to its sauce and the generous amount of garlic.

Passion fruit smoothie and watermelon smoothie

The smoothies (US$2) were perfect for the hot Cambodia weather. I especially loved my passion fruit smoothie but my friend preferred the watermelon. To each his own.

At Sinh Foo you may dine at the ground floor or at the nth floor (I forgot which floor it was, all I can remember is that we climbed so many flights of stairs, thus making our stomachs grumble louder). At the nth floor, you have a nice little view of the river and the park.

On the thrifty side, we had a one-dollar-dinner from a food stall found on the corner of Streets 136 and 5, diagonally across Candy Bar. You can choose the viand from the food displayed on the cart. Along with your viand, the dollar-meal will come with rice, vegetables, and soup. Talk about bang for your buck.

The one dollar (US$) meal

Pressed for time on day two, we had our two remaining meals in Phnom Penh at the hostel (Velkommen Backpackers). The hostel's restaurant serves local (Khmer), Asian, and Western food. Breakfast was a BLT sandwich (US$2.50) for me and American breakfast (half or full, you pick) for my friends. The sandwich had a good deal of BLT (yay for that!) and just enough fries. Check out the half American breakfast below and imagine the full breakfast. I think a full breakfast would last me until dinner.

BLT sandwich for breakfast

American breakfast (this is "half"... full is two of everything)
Photo by H Bacordio

Lunch came and I was still quite full from the sandwich. But we were still seven hours from our next destination. Got myself the five spice chicken (US$5) and was surprised when it came out of the kitchen. It could feed three people (or two really hungry ones)! It was well worth its price. My friends got the fried rice and curry. Couldn't resist tasting something new, I had to take a spoonful of each. I have yet to find food that does not agree with my taste buds.

Five spice chicken

Fried rice and curry
Photo by H Bacordio

If you're ever in Phnom Penh and would like to find these places, I have a little map for you:

Did we ever get hungry in between meals? On the ferry, there were ladies selling fried insects. Crickets anyone? Cockroaches? Yes, I think I saw one selling cockroaches. That, I would never dare put in my mouth. Crickets, though, tasted like crispy spicy potato chips.

Snacks anyone?
Photo by H Bacordio

Look what's in my goodie bag

Phnom Penh in 24 hours:
Chews Cambodia (you're here!)
I Came, I Saw, I...Spent

Saturday, September 22, 2012

History Lessons in Phnom Penh

After reading First They Killed My Father, a book written by Loung Ung about her experience during the Khmer Rouge, I made a mental note to visit The Killing Fields and Toul Sleng if I ever get to Phnom Penh. Two years later, I drag my friends along for some history lessons.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center or The Killing Fields

Go: Choeung Ek is about 15 km from the city center. Travel time on a tuktuk will be 45 mins to an hour.
Fare: US$12 roundtrip for a group of 4 or less. We paid US$15 since we were adding extra load, i.e. my butt.
When to go: Any day between 8AM to 5PM. You can enter at 5PM and they'll wait for you until you're done.
Prepare your pocket: US$2 entrance fee, add US$3 for an audio guide
Prepare your itinerary: I suggest renting an audio guide. Although the site can be explored in just 15 minutes, you will need at least an hour to listen to the entire audio guide. When they run out of audio guides, there are tour guides to assist you.
Prepare yourself: Choeung Ek is one of 300 mass graves scattered all over Cambodia. About 20,000 people were executed in this site. When the Toul Sleng prison (S21) could not accommodate anymore, the prisoners were brought to Choeung Ek to be executed. When the number of prisoners brought to the killing field daily grew and the executioners could not eliminate all in one day, they built a detention center where the prisoners were kept to be killed the next day. Chemicals were used to cover the stench of corpses and to kill the victims who were buried alive. There are still many bones, teeth fragments, clothes buried in the ground and these come to the surface over time (flood and rain).

Do get an audio guide

Memorial Stupa where remains are preserved

A closer look at the Stupa

Mass grave of 166 victims without heads

Bracelets left on the grave by visitors

The killing tree where children were beaten to death

Where a loudspeaker was hung to drown out the moans of victims as they were executed

Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum or S21 (Security Prison 21)

Go: Toul Sleng is located in the city, about 4 km from the Royal Palace.
Fare: US$8 roundtrip but we paid US$15 for the tuktuk to take us to three places (Royal Palace, Toul Sleng, Russian Market). Although the Royal Palace is walking distance from the hostel, we opted to take the tuktuk since we were pressed for time.
When to go: The museum is open daily from 8AM to 5PM.
Prepare your pocket: US$2 entrance fee. You can also buy a booklet about Toul Sleng for US$3. Guides are also available but I wasn't able to ask for the rates.
Prepare your itinerary: Allow at least an hour and a half. More if you hire a guide. Original 1979 footage of S21 is shown every Mondays and Fridays at 2PM and at 9AM on Wednesdays.
Prepare yourself: Toul Sleng used to be a high school and turned into a prison and torture and interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. The site has four buildings. Building A contains cells used for jailing, torturing, and interrogating. In some of the cells, you will find a bed, torture device, and an enlarged photo of the victim as it was found by the Vietnamese in 1979 (the year Khmer Rouge fled the prison). Building B holds thousands of photographs. Each of the prisoners were photographed when they arrived in Toul Sleng. There are also paintings made by Vann Nath, one of the seven prisoners who made it out of S21 alive. The paintings show how people were tortured. Rooms in building C were subdivided into smaller cells made of brick or wood. Each small cell had a small box that served as the prisoner's toilet. The barbed wires on building C were to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide. Building D contains memorabilia and instruments of torture.

Rules of the prison

One of the cells in building A

The gallows

A painting by Vann Nath of how the gallows was used

Inside building B

 A painting by Vann Nath of how babies were killed

The barbed wires of building C

Small brick cells found in building C

Graves of the last ones executed by the S21 agents before they fled in 1979.
Their corpses were discovered in building A by the Vietnamese.

Chum Mey, one of the survivors of S21.

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

Phnom Penh in 24 hours:
History Lessons in Phnom Penh (you're here!)
Chews Cambodia
I Came, I Saw, I...Spent