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Wandering in Dalat, Vietnam

Other than seeing my friend in Mui Ne, the destination highlight of my second trip to Vietnam was my short stay in Dalat (Đà Lạt). I had wanted to go there during my first stay, but the bus from Saigon was too long for a weekend trip and I didn’t feel like flying for just a weekend. So, when given the opportunity to get to the mountain town, I decided it was a must.

Dalat canal

The weather was great when I arrived

It wasn’t as easy getting to Dalat as I had expected. My friend didn’t know about transportation options, but I was fortunate enough to get some help at my deserted hotel. Communication wasn’t as smooth as it could have been, but it was good enough. I boarded a jitney bus in front of my hotel and marveled at the open door as we drove through town to pick up more passengers. Fortunately, the driver closed the door once all passengers were on the bus and we departed the resort town of Mui Ne.

This bus was far from comfortable for the six-hour ride and I was only able to doze for a little bit of the journey. There were some loud locals on the bus as well, including one playing a loud game on his phone, but they all got off more than an hour before we arrived. It was still a more pleasant ride than the ones I had in China.dalat

Understanding Dalat

This is a small city with about half a million people, but it can still be crowded, particularly as it is a popular summer destination for locals. Its location in the Central Highlands of southern Vietnam give it a pleasant climate–it was a little hot during the day, but not uncomfortable, and it got cool enough in the evening that my hotel room didn’t need air conditioning.

Dalat park

Công viên Ánh Sáng park

Dalat was a getaway for the French colonists to escape the heat and humidity of Saigon. It was turned into a resort town at the beginning of the 20th century, and it still retains much of that atmosphere today with domestic and international tourists flocking to the town.

Dalat Lake

Hồ Xuân Hương, the lake in the center of Dalat

The French also discovered that the soil in the region was great for agriculture and began growing a variety of fruit and vegetables. Today, the region is known for its produce–the people pride themselves on the quality of locally-grown fruit and vegetables, and everything at the market looks perfect. There’s even a local chain store that sells high-quality, locally-produced products including candied fruits, dried vegetables, coffee, and tea (I bought candied mulberries and tamarind and some coffee, and it was all delicious).

Arriving in Dalat

After getting dropped off somewhere in town with numerous motorbike taxis waiting to rip off whoever got off the bus, I consulted my offline maps and decided to walk to my hotel. It didn’t look far away, but the winding streets sure made it more difficult to find.dalat vietnam

After checking in at Binh Yen Hotel and leaving my luggage in the room, I set out in search of coffee, lunch, and sights, in that order. I first stopped in a little coffee shop just around the corner from the hotel. As with all the cafes in Dalat, the little cup of bitter coffee came with a sweet herbal tea–I was told it may have been artichoke tea, but after buying some and drinking it I believe it may have been something else.

A long walk around the lake

Finding food was a little more difficult than expected. The route that took me toward Ho Xuan Huong Lake didn’t have a lot of options and most smaller restaurants were closed between the normal lunch and dinner hours. I managed to find a small place to fill my stomach and continue on my walk.

Dalat Lake

Big C mall on the opposite side of the lake

As I approached the lake, I noticed darker clouds moving in. I checked my map again and decided that I could walk around the lake quick enough. I’m apparently not a good judge of time and distance.

The approaching dark clouds didn’t deter me from taking a detour to see a Buddhist temple, which I discovered was inaccessible because it was under construction. Chùa Tâm Ấn was still a beautiful building and would be worth a stop to take in the views once it’s finished.Chùa Tâm Ấn

While the approaching storm threatened to impede my sightseeing, the clouds over the lake and around the hills made for some beautiful photos. As much as I wanted to hurry to avoid the rain, I had to stop a few times to take pictures.dalat lake

By the time I reached the opposite side of the lake, I began to feel a few drops of rain. I hoped as best I could that the heavy rain would hold off until I could find shelter, preferably with coffee and food. As the sky opened up I was near Big C, a shopping center with two colorful glass structures that stand out in the town. One of the structures had a cafe that I could sit in for a few hours, plus it had wi-fi so I wouldn’t get too bored while waiting for the rain to let up.

Big C mall

Made it to the mall without my camera getting too wet

As the rain let up, I headed back to my hotel to rest my feet a while before heading back out in search of dinner and a few drinks. As I saw that the clouds appeared to be clearing, I decided to go in search of the Bao Dai Palace, of which there are three in the city. I noticed that one was nearby, but it turned out to be a hotel with no public access. My adventure turned into an even longer walk than originally intended.

Dalat Vietnam

Along the walk after the rain

Between the bus ride and the walk, I was exhausted. I didn’t care what I ate for dinner, though I managed to find some amazing Vietnamese curry at a little restaurant not far from the market. After that I managed to go out for a couple drinks at a bar called Saigon Nights near my hotel before falling asleep from exhaustion.Dalat Vietnam

The rest of my time in Dalat would be much better planned than my first half day, though I still managed to miss a lot of sights I would have preferred to see had I had more time in the city.dalat lake

I will be forever thankful that I had offline maps with GPS. In a town like Dalat, with winding streets and alleys that don’t necessarily connect where one would think they do, having guidance is essential.

While it did rain every day during my stay in Dalat, I had beautiful weather early in the day and in the evenings. The mid-afternoon rains gave me an excuse to sit in a cafe and enjoy another cup of coffee.

Returning to Saigon

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about spending time in Saigon again. And my trip ended up with a day more than I had originally plan in the southern Vietnamese city. I was on my way to join my friend for a few days at the beach at Mui Ne about four hours north of Saigon.

It had been about three and a half years since I set foot in Vietnam’s largest city. My memories of that time are mixed–I hated it at times, but I also had a great experience meeting some people and eating.

Bitexco Financial Tower

Bitexco Financial Tower

After years of living in more developed cities, I wondered how I’d fare against the infamous Saigon traffic. I admit to being intimidated by the thought of crossing major streets with the cars and motorbikes swerving past me. This was not a part of the journey I looked forward to experiencing again.

Fortunately, I only planned one full day and two half days on this journey, so I figured I could suffer through the negatives before heading to quieter locations in Vietnam.

saigon opera house

Saigon Opera House

Arrival in Saigon

Upon arrival I didn’t recall much of anything of Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport, but I considered that I only ever flew out of the international terminal. It was fairly efficient, albeit crowded when I approached the visa on arrival counter–there many more people than I saw in Hanoi almost four years before. The whole process took about 20 minutes and by the time I had my visa, the lines for immigration were gone, so it all worked out.

ben thanh market saigon

Ben Thanh Market, a very touristy place

While checking for transportation into the city, I noticed the airport bus and checked the route. Unfortunately, no one was near the map to help me confirm whether any stops were near my hotel. At a significant price difference to taking a taxi, which still would’ve only been less than $10, I decided to take my chances with the bus. The worst-case scenario would be that I would take a shorter taxi ride after getting off the bus.

Score! The bus stopped a short walk from my hotel, though I made the walk a little longer because I took a wrong turn after someone offered to help me with directions. It was a friendly start to the journey even if it wasn’t the best help.

Saigon hotel view

Not a bad view from the hotel

After checking in to Little Brick Saigon Hotel I was able to relax for a few minutes with a cold shower to help me prepare for the oppressive heat as I searched for food and coffee. The food I found wasn’t all that good–I have no idea what I ordered, but it was a bowl of rice noodles with some vegetables and processed meat slices. It was not what I had hoped and the only disappointing meal during my stay in Vietnam. Fortunately, I found better iced coffee…a few times.

Get me some Vietnamese coffee!

Not only did I need the coffee to wake up before meeting my friend for dinner, but I needed to escape the heat, pollution, and noise of Saigon. The simple act of crossing the street was stressful and I was already growing weary of the taxi and motorbike offers at every turn.

tuxo coffee saigon

This looks like a good place for coffee

But I found friendly little coffee shops, particularly TUXo, which was a quaint open-air cafe. There was always one person who spoke English and wanted to offer a friendly greeting, which improved my mood after inhaling all the exhaust fumes while walking. And I could watch life from the comfort of a seat–I wanted to take in the city and see what had changed in three and a half years since I was last in Saigon.

Wandering in Saigon

I attempted to wander through streets, first in the immediate neighborhood of my hotel and then farther out. It became clear that as I wandered more, I became exhausted from the heat and stressed from the traffic.

saigon traffic

Just some motorbikes riding on the sidewalk to avoid traffic

Oddly enough, the first encounter with a beggar in the city was an Irishman who approached me in a park claiming to have run out of money and had nowhere to stay. Being wary of such people, I said sorry and that I had my tight travel budget to adhere to. Note to travelers: ALWAYS have enough money to get a flight home.

I gave up on my extended walk to a market in District 10 on my only full day in Saigon–it looked like it was walkable, but after more than an hour of crossing huge, congested roundabouts, I turned around and settled for more coffee and a cold shower.

saigon traffic night

More traffic, but the color is more pleasant

After a pleasant dinner with my friend on my first partial day, I headed back to the area around my hotel to find a cheap beer before going to sleep. My mood was altered by an altercation on the main road leading to the backpacker/tourist area of the city. A Vietnamese guy resting on a motorbike said something (probably rude) to a foreigner and the Asian woman he was with. The foreigner yelled back and the two approached each other, at which point the foreigner slammed the local to the ground. He began asking for help in English, but I saw a crowd of Vietnamese men approaching–I know how fights between foreigners and locals turn out in the eyes of the public and I wanted nothing to do with it.

Nguyen Hue Saigon

Nguyen Hue pedestrian street

At that point I was desperate to find a beer. I saw some expensive new craft breweries near my hotel, but I wasn’t about to shell out $6+ for a beer in Vietnam. I headed toward the backpacker streets but became frustrated with the crowds.

Finally, I came across a small restaurant in a quiet alley with a few tables and stools in the street. For less than 50 cents I could have a cold bottle or two of Saigon Beer and release the stress of the city. Of course, finding out the price required a bit of charades skill as no one spoke more than a couple words of English and I was having trouble remembering how to even say hello and thank you in Vietnamese.

That evening ended on a much better note after finding that little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The beer was even cheaper than they had originally told me as well.

After my brief return to Ho Chi Minh City, I came to the conclusion that I had previously–Saigon is not a city in which I could live. There’s a lot to enjoy, but it’s not a comfortable place for living.

Experiencing Seoul for the Second Time

I felt myself to be, for an unknown period of time, an abstract perceiver of the world.”
-Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths

When my parents visited Taipei last spring, we decided to take a week outside Taiwan–it was a national holiday and I wanted to show my parents more of Asia that they might enjoy. After my dad decided that a trip to Kyoto and Osaka would be too expensive, we settled on Seoul. This was actually my third time in Seoul, but I don’t count the second trip as it was just a long layover to satisfy my 72-hour visa for Shanghai.

seoul mountains

Welcome back to the views of Seoul

I left my parents to themselves for a good part of the trip; I was tired from trying to plan things that I thought they’d enjoy. Instead I gave them suggestions of the major sights I had already seen–the palaces and museums that I found interesting on my first trip through Korea. The times I was with my parents, we went to eat and took a tour of the DMZ, for which we chose the wrong tour (we missed out on the shared border with all the guards).

Korea DMZ

Welcome on the Korean border

In my free time, I wandered from our hotel through the streets in search of things I hadn’t seen before. I also met up with my former coworker for dinner and a social media connection for drinks. Meeting up with friends reminded me how much I enjoyed my time in Seoul.

After my time of living in Taipei, I realized how different other major Asian cities can be–the history, culture, and architecture. It made Taipei seem smaller and less impressive. I don’t know why, but I enjoyed the fact that things are a little more difficult for English speakers in Seoul than in Taipei–in some cases it meant that I had to ask for help.

Admiral Yi Seoul

Admiral Yi watches over the city at night

I love the architecture of Seoul–the modern structures throughout the center of the city and the redeveloped classical-style buildings in neighborhoods like Bukchon Hanok Village. In the case of the latter, my father chose a hotel nearby, so I got to wander those streets a bit more this time around. Of course, I still enjoy gazing at the futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which looks like an alien UFO landed in the center of the city and was designed by Zaha Hadid and Samoo.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza Seoul

View of the neighborhood from Dongdaemun Design Plaza

In between my own wanderings without my parents, I took them to a few areas I had been before, such as Dongdaemun and Bukchon Hanok Village. I introduced them to food I hadn’t eaten since my first time in South Korea–they admitted that the fried chicken at the market in Sindang was good, but they didn’t like sitting on stools and eating in the middle of a market. I still believe this fried chicken is the best in the world, especially as it only costs $6 for a whole chicken.

Bukchon Hanok Village Seoul

Bukchon Hanok Village with a glimpse of the N Seoul Tower in the distance

While the first days in Seoul back in 2014 felt overwhelming and were a little frustrating, I felt more comfortable this time around. Maybe it was because I wasn’t living in a closet that was more claustrophobic than my current bedroom. Perhaps it was that I was on vacation and didn’t have to worry about work for a week. Whatever it was, the comfort made me feel more welcome in this enormous city.

Bongeunsa Seoul

Seoul from Bongeunsa Temple

Memories of evenings out talking with people I had just met returned as a couple struck up a conversation with me at an outdoor bar–the woman wrote foreign names in Hangul calligraphy and offered to write my name on a postcard as a souvenir of the kindness I encountered.

I thought about the days I spent walking for miles through Seoul because I wanted to see what was along the way instead of traveling underground in the subway–my feet ached and my shoes wore out to the point I had to purchase new ones so I could hike in Bukhansan.

Cheonggyecheon stream seoul

Cheonggyecheon stream, my favorite park for a stroll

After my time away, I found that I had missed out on so much of Seoul because I half-assed my weekend tours–I know I could have combined more of the tourist attractions had I planned a bit more, but I was unprepared on the first journey. Now, I wanted to stay and see it all again.

It’s been a year since that trip and I’ve thought about returning to Korea yet again, though I would hope to see Jeju and Busan instead of Seoul. The atmosphere and the aromas that waft from restaurants and street vendors call to me to see and taste everything again.

Yeoeuido Park Seoul

View from Yeoeuido Park

There are few cities I desire to return to, but Seoul is near the top of the list.

The Attraction of Vietnam: Not Quite a Love Story

This was the problem with a walk down memory lane. It was almost always foggy, and one was likely to trip and fall.
– The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

There’s something about Vietnam’s major cities, Hanoi and Saigon, that attract me. I had a love-hate relationship during my time in both, which is why I chose to depart Vietnam after two months rather than explore for the additional month remaining on my visa.

Hoan Kiem Lake street

The streets around Hoan Kiem Lake

I could identify what drove me to dislike both cities, and to some extent that is my own fault. I didn’t get out of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and I was in Saigon during Tet. Both of those conscious decisions caused me to dislike Vietnam. That my stay in Hanoi ended on a sour note tainted the first part of my stay in Saigon. It’s disappointing because I have wonderful memories of my two months in the country.

power lines hanoi

I’m not sure how this is supposed to work

But then there are the little things that made me love the cities, or at least enjoy my stay. This is a reversal of perception–usually it’s the little things that lead me to find fault in a place. There were moments in Vietnam that made me smile uncontrollably and laugh, tastes that made me stop to savor, and sounds that calmed me. While I believe I couldn’t live in either city long term, I have admiration of joyful memories to take me back.

Chaotic life & oases in Hanoi

In Hanoi, I found a few spots in the Old Quarter or just outside of it that I could return to for a moment of peace. The narrow, crowded streets that could give one a heart attack while attempting to cross made each day an adventure when all I wanted to do was find dinner or grab a beer. And after moving at a snail’s pace through the streets, dodging motorbikes and hawkers, I could find myself at a destination that provided breathing room, where I could tune out the noise and watch the lights of the city appear as the sun set behind the hazy sky.

bike hanoi

Woman rides a bike along Truc Bach Lake

Sometimes it was just a matter of reaching Highlands Coffee–a local coffee chain that had clean banh mi for lunch–to grab a meal and take in the view from three floors above Hoan Kiem Lake. It was the only view of the lake that was undisturbed by hawkers or students who approached requesting photos and English conversation.

Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake at night

Other times it was a matter of fighting my way from my room at Hanoi Graceful Hotel where I was working online all day to go grab the 2-for-1 75-cent happy hour special at Central Backpackers Hostel. I was able to meet some travelers there who had tips on places to see in my limited free time. It certainly wasn’t the same atmosphere as the dirty Bia Hoi around the corner from my hotel that served 33-cent draught beer, but that dingy little place was for other evenings.

Truc Bach Lake

Quiet view of Truc Bach Lake at night

More than anything, it was making a friend in Hanoi. A young woman stood on the side of the road inviting people into a restaurant a block or so from my hotel, and one night I decided to stop in. After talking with her during my time in the restaurant, I decided I’d find her again after my trip to Cambodia. We became friends and have kept in touch since then–she even visited Taiwan during my second stay. She gave me my first ride on the back of a motorbike, a rather terrifying experience as I don’t like being a passenger and Hanoi traffic is not exactly organized. That experience gave me a little more courage when I needed a motorbike taxi ride back to my apartment in Saigon a few times.

Away from the crowds in Saigon

I found a bit more breathing room in Saigon, or maybe it was sidewalk space. I rented a large private room in a building through Airbnb–it was down a quiet alley off Le Van Tam Park in District 1. The area was surrounded by embassies and consulates, which meant that there was more security and fewer crowds.

Saigon riverside walk

Is this really Ho Chi Minh City?

I encountered plenty of frustration in my first two weeks in Saigon–the local market refused to bargain and tried charging ridiculous prices for produce, so I ended up only buying bananas because the one vendor gave me a fair price that was still likely higher than the local price. There was also a lack of restaurants in the immediate area for lunch, which meant I spent most of my break walking in the oppressive heat to get take-out to eat while I worked.

After Tet, I found a little shop in my alley that had cheap lunch for local workers–it wasn’t anything special, but rice, fried fish, and vegetables for about $1 was good enough for me. A quaint cafe also opened at the end of the alley, which I headed to a few times to grab a drink after work and play with a couple kittens that hung around outside.

saigon kitten

Curious kitten at the local cafe

Every now and then I headed out in the early morning to one of three Highlands Coffee shops within a 15-minute walk that had a breakfast buffet. For about $6 I could eat all I wanted and drink as much coffee as possible for about three hours while I worked–the coffee shop had decent Wi-Fi and an outlet for my laptop. By the time breakfast was over, I was over-caffeinated and so full that I wasn’t hungry until dinner. If that location was full, I went to the one down the street that was in an old wood building–it was beautiful architecture, but it had no air conditioning, making it difficult to work.

During my first weekend in Saigon, I took a tour of the Presidential Palace. As I entered the grounds, I found two young women taking photos of each other and I offered to take photos for them. They were both recently returned students from the US, so it was easy to talk with them. For the rest of the day we walked around the Presidential Palace and talked; we exchanged Facebook contacts before parting ways. Only one of them lived in Saigon, and she contacted me after Tet to go out to dinner. She introduced me to her friend and some Korean exchange students she had just met.

Vietnam presidential palace

Presidential Palace on a hot day (now known as Independence Palace)

Before I left Vietnam, I met up with the two women for meals a few more times–they introduced me to some good food and interesting streets. Most importantly, they directed me to the Co.opmart, a government-run supermarket with set prices so I could easily buy tons of tropical fruit to enjoy for breakfast. After our second dinner together I regretted already booking my flight out of Vietnam–I was beginning to enjoy my time in Saigon and had found routines that made life easier.

restaurant saigon

Cool restaurant my new friends invited me to try

After the city returned to life following the Tet holiday, I found places to relax and enjoy myself. I found a roadside restaurant that opened in the evenings–small plastic chairs and tables with cheap food and beer. I discovered a few good noodle shops that were much cleaner than the street vendors and set out to find more high-end restaurants farther from my apartment. I grew more comfortable wandering the streets each day.

There was still plenty of daily frustration–hawkers approaching far too often and the ever-present danger of crossing the street. There was even a moment when I couldn’t physically cross a street with idle traffic because there wasn’t enough space between all the motorbikes–I was trapped on a narrow curb until the traffic began to move again.

More than anything, I have the friends I made in Vietnam to thank for my time in the country. Without them, I would have written off much of my time there. I have been fortunate enough to meet all three in Taipei and hope to be able to show them around again if they choose to return.

Have you ever had a love-hate relationship with a place? What made you love and hate it?

Wandering the Streets of Tokyo

It’s like a boulder rolling down a hill – you can watch it and talk about it and scream and say Shit! but you can’t stop it. It’s just a question of where it’s going to go.
-Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

During my time in Tokyo, I enjoyed wandering semi-aimlessly through the streets. During the workweek I didn’t have much time to see much of the city–living out in Kawasaki meant that it was a significant distance from the center of the city. If I wanted a more urban feel, I had to take the Odakyu line farther out to Machida, which was at least close enough for a weekday excursion after work.Machida tokyo

On my lunch breaks I sometimes wandered the streets near my apartment–I found a couple little temples nearby, but there wasn’t much else. I stayed in what was possibly the least exciting part of Tokyo, though many people would not consider Kawasaki Tokyo but rather just a part of the metropolitan area.

Harajuku Tokyo

Between Harajuku and Meiji Shrine

As I rarely planned my weekends, I headed out to different parts of the sprawling city and wandered–for the most part I had at least one destination in mind but didn’t plan much beyond that. Had I planned a bit more of my weekends, I would’ve made it to museums earlier or found my way to historic sites when they weren’t closed. It didn’t matter; I enjoyed my wanderings and the sights I discovered.Tokyo Street Art

Wandering through streets with only a hint of direction led me to find interesting corners of the city. Tokyo has beautiful buildings; although there are still plenty of boring buildings that were built before Japan decided it wanted inspiring architecture. But there was also something to catch my attention–either the structures, shops, or signs.

King Kong Tokyo

I thought this was Godzilla country

I was fascinated by the ability to open spaces beneath bridges–I ate dinner one night in an archway alley beneath a railway line. And I discovered many more similar areas during my time in Tokyo; when space is limited, you take what is available.

Chiyoda Street

A stroll through Chiyoda

As I walked through parts of the city, I recognized that some areas hold an identity of sorts–a shared design and atmosphere. In some narrow neighborhoods, the alleys seemed narrower with smaller independent shops and restaurants, while other neighborhoods were modern with imposing towering architecture that most people associate with contemporary Japanese culture. Obviously, finding neighborhoods with more traditional structures were rare as much of Tokyo was destroyed during World War II, though there are still some such buildings outside the center of the city (and some have been turned into history museums like at Nihon Minka-en).Tachiaigawa

On my most recent short stay in Tokyo, I wandered more through areas I previously had not visited. My friend suggested staying in Shinagawa because of its proximity to Haneda Airport. This turned out to be a great suggestion as the main road through Shinagawa from our hostel had a pedestrian/bike path and was lined with some interesting shops and shrines. A little farther from the hostel and street was Shinagawa Kumin Park, which offered a pleasant walk through a park toward the aquarium that I did not go into because they only accepted cash and I needed to find an ATM. Nonetheless, in a sprawling city with little green space, the stroll through the park was a welcome respite.

On the way back to the hostel, I took a detour along the canal. While it wasn’t as interesting as I had hoped, it was still a better route to walk. The wildflowers along the embankment brightened the already sunny day. They certainly made the dull skyline across the way more colorful.Shinagawa wildflowers

In the evening, I wandered up to Shimbashi Station after walking through the Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden, a former imperial garden that closes at 5 pm. Situated between Roppongi and Ginza, Shimbashi is best known as the salaryman’s paradise. It’s surrounded by office buildings and reasonably-priced restaurants. Unfortunately, on this day I decided to try my wide-angle lens, and it really only distorts photos.

Tokyo skyscrapers

Along the way to Shimbashi

While the walk to the area was full of modern architecture and walkways that reminded me a bit of the High Line in Manhattan, the streets of Shimbashi are more reminiscent of a foreigner’s perception of typical Tokyo scenes.

Shimbashi

Narrow alley in Shimbashi

The busy side streets and crosswalks buttressed with train and road overpasses, the alleys lined with illuminated signs to entice the office workers with food and drinks before catching their respective trains home, turned this into a scene a traveler would expect to see on a travel show or movie.Shimbashi restaurant

Tokyo is a wanderer’s city–there is a seemingly endless number of neighborhoods in which to disembark a train and stroll. The senses are assaulted; the buildings demand one to take notice and the restaurants waft welcoming aromas out into the streets. And as the sun sets, the scene changes–the city illuminates in artificial light that sends crowds out from the office buildings and into the alleys. A travel could stand around and watch the crowds head for preferred destinations, follow along, and enjoy what the neighborhoods have to offer in the way of culinary delights, sake, and beer.

Walkway Tokyo

Pedestrian walkway through Tokyo

And when exhaustion from the overwhelming city finally hits, it’s time to head back to the hostel. The FamilyMart and 7-Eleven are nearby with offers of more snacks or just a final beer or three with new friends sharing the space in the Shinagawa.

A Different View of Hong Kong

In Hong Kong you don’t take the tour bus to find good food. You don’t need to know where you’re going; you just press start.
-Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations

I planned this trip to be different in some ways. Hong Kong is still a familiar city to me, despite aesthetic changes over the years between my visits. On this short journey through Asia’s premier international city I experienced the familiar and the new.

Star Ferry

Familiar Star Ferry in Kowloon

Months ago my friend in Hanoi asked if I could meet her in Hong Kong–it would be her first time there and she knew that it wasn’t far from Taipei. I took this as an opportunity to not only see my friend but also as an excuse to return to a city I hadn’t seen in over seven years. Unfortunately, problems with my friend’s visa prevented her from traveling–it meant that I had to quickly come up with new plans for sightseeing in Hong Kong.Star Ferry View

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I escaped to Hong Kong often while I lived in Shenzhen–it was a mental rejuvenation trip of sorts to run from the chaotic mainland city to a more westernized city just a short distance away. As I didn’t have much money back then, I opted for cheaper meals and wandering through the streets of Central for most of those trips. I could only dream about fine dining in Hong Kong while earning a little more than $1,000 per month across the border.

Hong Kong Convention Centre

Hong Kong Convention Centre

This time around I had a healthy bank balance thanks to the relatively low cost of living in Taipei. I didn’t have to worry about budgeting as much (although I still thought about the cost of a lot of things because Hong Kong can be very expensive).

Despite not being able to see my friend from Vietnam, I was able to see a couple friends from New York who have been living in Hong Kong for about six years. I was also surprised to find a friend from Taipei was traveling around at the same time. I had a full day planned just to see my friends.

Hiking across Lamma Island

Lamma Island

Lamma Island

On the first day I met up with my Taipei friend and headed to Lamma Island on the ferry.

Sok Kwu Wan

Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island

The weather was nice as we arrived and we began hiking from Sok Kwu Wan Pier to Yung Shue Wan on the other side. We began our hike in the wrong direction–a matter that I noticed after checking my offline map with GPS after 15 minutes of walking. It turned out to be perfect timing for misdirection as a thunderstorm rolled in as we reached the line of restaurants on the water. We decided to sit down at LoSo Kitchen and have a local Hong Kong beer (one amber and one pale ale) while waiting out the storm.

hong kong beer

Hong Kong amber

The rain dissipated as we finished our beer and we decided to brave the uncertain weather for the hike–the woman running the restaurant said it was only an hour hike rather than the two hours I was previously told.

Lamma Island

Power plant near the beach at Lamma Island

It was an easy hike across Lamma Island–there was only one five-way intersection at which we were pointed in the wrong direction (along with four other tourists). Other than a few scenic spots, there’s not much to see along the trail. And the town around Yung Shue Wan was busy and foreigner-friendly (i.e., more western-style bars and restaurants). Rather than hang around for another drink or a light meal, we headed back to Kowloon to refresh ourselves for our respective evenings.Hong Kong night

Drinks, dinner, and comedy in Wanchai

Nearing dinner time, I headed out of my hotel, which was not the hotel I had thought it was. I thought I had stayed at a hotel called Evergreen the last few times I was in Hong Kong, so that’s what I booked. This was not the same hotel. Fortunately, it was decent for the price and location (next time I might stay farther outside Kowloon/Central).

I met m friends in Wanchai at The Optimist for happy hour drinks. For such an expensive city, Hong Kong has some great happy hour deals. There isn’t a set discount, but Optimist has a tiered menu of inexpensive drinks, like a bramble or margarita for HK$48 (about US$6). The atmosphere of the bar was lively and it got crowded just before my friends arrived–like so many newer bars and restaurants in Asia, it looked like all the other trendy joints in Manhattan or Brooklyn. We only stayed for a drink before heading to the 30th floor for Italian food at Pirata.

bramble cocktail

Bramble at The Optimist

This was better than the Italian food I had with my uncle years ago. It was so good I forgot to take any photos (also the restaurant was dark, which would’ve made it difficult). I was told that Pirata is owned by the same group that owns Optimist, which explains the decor. Unfortunately, we were not seated near the window for views of the city.

After dinner we headed to another bar for a comedy show featuring British comic Stephen K. Amos, who was quite entertaining. Certainly not an experience I had expected when I first planned the trip. The opening act was a Scottish comedian who spoke quickly with a thick accent, making it difficult to understand much of the act. It reminded me of the guy from Glasgow I met in Edinburgh years ago (I have no idea what that guy said).

Wandering around Stanley

Stanley Hong Kong

Stanley, Hong Kong

On the second full day, I headed to Stanley on the south side of Hong Kong Island. I had heard it was a nice area, but had never been there. I decided it was a better choice than attempting a hike of Dragon’s Back trail with potentially rainy weather. It was a long bus ride from Kowloon to Stanley, but the views from the winding roads in the hills of Hong Kong Island made it more worthwhile. Once I arrived, I didn’t know where to walk or what to see–I just wandered.Stanley Hong Kong

The street market was nice to walk through if I had been interested in buying souvenirs, and it led to the coast with rocks against the waves. From there I took the coastal walkway to Stanley Market and its more popular shops and restaurants as I searched for lunch.

smoked duck salad

Hami melon salad with smoked duck

That’s when I found Pinot Duck. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as the other restaurants in the area and the prices looked reasonable, plus I love duck. I ended up ordering Xinjiang hami melon salad with jasmine tea smoked duck. I was tempted to order more, but I decided it would be better to have something light and then go out again later. The hami melon was sweet to complement the savory flavor of the duck. There was also a slight citrus flavor to the salad dressing that held the opposing flavors together. After looking at what other customers ordered, I was tempted to eat more.

Instead of eating more, I wandered the streets some more and ended up at the Hong Kong Museum of Correctional Services. As it was free, I decided to take in the air conditioning for a bit. While not the most interesting museum, it did have quite a bit about Vietnamese refugees in the early 1990s.

streetcar Hong Kong

View from the streetcar

Back to Wanchai for drinks

On my ride back to Central Hong Kong, I decided to stop in Wanchai to search for some dinner and nightlife. I got off at the wrong stop from where I wanted to be, but ended up with a cheap happy hour of rum cocktails Rummin’ Tings. With the magic of Wi-Fi, I was able to locate the beer bar I had wanted to try, a bit farther away–I was told to take the streetcar (another first for me in the city and a cheap choice for transportation). Fortunately, The Roundhouse – Chicken + Beer (there are two) was not far from the stop as it started raining again.

Roundhouse Hong Kong

The Roundhouse

Roundhouse has a great selection of craft beer, both imported and domestic. Of course, I went with the domestic beer because craft beer in Hong Kong didn’t exist last time I was there. I tried Young Master Brewery’s Mandarin Citrus IPA and Kowloon Bay Brewery Nut Brown Ale and Imperial Stout. Neither Kowloon Bay beer was particularly good–the imperial stout tasted too light for such a strong beer and nut brown was alright, but lacked a bit of punch. The citrus IPA was a much better choice–it was a double IPA with more flavor, but it was still light enough match the day’s humidity.

Young Master Citrus IPA

Young Master Citrus IPA

I ended my trip with a ride back to Kowloon on the Star Ferry from Wanchai. As I stared at the lights of the city, I wondered how much more there was that I could enjoy in Hong Kong–the sights and sounds that I hadn’t previously experienced. As I have friends there, and it’s an inexpensive flight from Taipei, I will likely return to discover those new places, or just the ones that went unnoticed before.Hong Kong night

Have you returned to a place that was familiar just to seek out new experiences? How was it?

The Streets of Osaka, Japan

No matter where I go in the world, although I can’t speak any foreign language, I don’t feel out of place. I think of the earth as my home.
-Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography

As I wander through cities, I sometimes try to take in too much at once. The sights, sounds, smells of a city are what give me a sense of place–it tells either tells me that this is not a place I’ve been before or this is someplace familiar in a way. And the streets of Osaka were in the former category.

Dotonburi canal

A quiet path along the canal near Dotonburi

Osaka overwhelmed me from the moment I stepped off the train from Kyoto–I got lost searching for the exit that should’ve been nearest my hostel. I only got more lost when I exited Namba Station and found myself at a five-way intersection with a map that wasn’t oriented with north on top.osaka architecture

Despite wandering and getting lost, I found the area where I stayed in Osaka to be walkable. Of course, it was even better when I rode a hostel bike around the city.

Dotonburi crowd

Crowds at Dotonburi

However, near my hostel in Naniwa Ward was the most intriguing Shinto shrine I’ve seen. Nanbayasaka Shrine is quite small, but is home to a fearsome lion’s head that encloses a shrine–certainly grabbed my attention as I walked by.Nanbayasaka Shrine

There is a lot to see along the streets of Osaka. Despite the history, the city is home to some of the more interesting contemporary architecture I found in Japan (alright, so I only saw metropolitan Tokyo (including Yokohama), Kyoto, and Osaka). These were not buildings I expected to see on my trip, but I was certainly impressed enough to stop and admire what I found.

Osaka architecture

My favorite building in Osaka

Of course, the main attraction for walking in Osaka is Dōtonbori–a touristy area for food. Of course, locals eat in the area, but it is crowded around dinnertime. The appeal in Dōtonbori isn’t always what’s on the plate, but what’s on the building above the entrance to the restaurants.

Dotonburi blowfish

I assume this is the place to get some fugu

Giant mechanical seafood to entice customers, perhaps? Or cartoonish depictions of Japanese culture and food. Either way, this area is fun to wander through as long as you don’t stare up too long and cause a traffic jam. It would be easy to walk with your head tilted skyward to admire the artistry of Dōtonbori, but it would most likely end in an accident. This section of the city has a kitschy appeal, but it’s well worth wandering through–there’s a reason it’s popular with tourists. Dotonburi restaurant

While the city is centered on Osaka Castle, everything surrounding it is contemporary–it’s rare to find a street with older structures, but there are some hidden away from the crowds that wander the streets.

Osaka Castle

View from the moat at Osaka Castle

Although at times I seek quieter avenues to escape the overwhelming feeling that comes with the crowds, those bustling streets are almost a requirement to get a better understanding of the city. Watching the people in the streets from a coffee shop window, or gazing at the buildings from all angles provides me with a sense of place–an image to associate later on as I recall my journeys through these cities.

dotonburi octopus

Takoyaki restaurant or anime shop?

Of course, with all this wandering through streets of a major city, food is desired. Osaka is known for okonomiyaki and takoyaki, both of which I had in Tokyo and was desperate to try again. Unfortunately, as I was unemployed at the time, my budget did not allow me to enjoy everything Osaka had to offer on a plate–I still managed to eat at one of the popular okonomiyaki restaurants.dotonburi canal

As it isn’t a long flight from Taipei, I could easily plan another weekend getaway to wander the streets of Osaka again and enjoy the architecture and culinary delights that the city has to offer. It doesn’t feel like as much of a tourist city as other places I’ve been, but there is still plenty to enjoy.

The Cost of Being an Expat

Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.
― Oscar Wilde

Every year there’s a list of cities around the world that are most/least expensive. These lists are made to give potential expats an idea of what the cost of living might be abroad. So, what is behind the numbers? What is the cost of being an expat?

This year’s list includes a few cities that I have been to–one of which I lived in for five months. Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are all in the top 10 most expensive cities for expats. Those last three are on the list mainly because of rent, though there are options for affordable housing in Tokyo as I found out.

Singapore Bayfront

Yes, Singapore can be an expensive city

The expat cost of living is a bit biased as it focuses mainly on Americans and British abroad, which is why Silicon Valley, Manhattan, and London aren’t in the top 10.

One bit I find odd in determining cost of living is that it mentions the cost of owning a car in Tokyo. I wonder why an expat would own a car considering the public transportation system in the metro area is convenient, albeit not as affordable as other major cities in east Asia.

Bund Shanghai

Shanghai along the Bund

Let’s look at some of the expenses listed in the report

Cost of coffee in Hong Kong is more than US$7. Seriously!? I know I haven’t been in Hong Kong in many years (I’m heading back in September), but I’m sure I could go to a coffee shop chain for less. I’m certain Starbucks is only about US$3. But hey, it claims a small imported beer is only US$1.2–but there are probably better beers for a bit more than that.

Victoria Harbor Hong Kong

Victoria Harbor from the Star Ferry

Of course, this also assumes one is paying more than US$12,000/mo for a three-bedroom apartment in the city. Rent is expensive (think about US$1000 for a closet in Kowloon or Central), but not that many people need a huge apartment in Hong Kong. It also mentions that a two-bedroom apartment in New York is more than US$5000/mo. I know people who have found cheaper places to live in the city.

From what I got from talking with my former coworker, Singapore is still more expensive for rent–mostly because it’s non-locals who rent. He told me that he was paying about US$1600/mo for a room in an apartment and still had a 40-minute commute to work.

sambal stingray

It’s possible to find affordable food in Singapore

And when it comes to drinking, many cities are expensive. My uncle once bought us martinis in Hong Kong for US$17 each (coming from Manhattan, even he was surprised by the price). Other than Seoul, developed cities in east Asia are expensive for drinkers, and expats tend to enjoy going out more often. Even in Taipei, where rent, food, and transportation are cheap or reasonable, a decent drink will set you back more than US$5 (about US$3 on the cheap end). I won’t complain about beer prices back home when a cheap beer in a Tokyo bar is US$7.

Taking the survey with a grain of salt

Obviously, the cost of living survey does not include expats who are teaching in these cities and living on a budget. A lot of those surveyed are likely to be sent abroad by their companies on an expat package, which provides a much higher standard of living. When I lived in Shenzhen, there were neighborhoods designed for people on expat packages–houses that cost more than my monthly salary. Many of those people ate out at high-end restaurants and took taxis everywhere (or had a private driver). Meanwhile, I could rent a three-bedroom apartment in a decent neighborhood for about US$500 (I know the rent has gone up significantly since 2009).

View of Tokyo from the Sumida River

View of Tokyo from the Sumida River

My friend in Tokyo has mentioned a few times how the city isn’t as expensive as everyone claims. The problem is that most tourists end up at restaurants with English menus, which immediately raises the price of a meal. I actually found the average meal in Seoul to be more expensive. Overall, I thought Venice was more expensive than Tokyo.

The point is, judging a city based on the prices in such surveys is ridiculous. The surveys also ignore living standards and ideas of happiness. There’s plenty to do in every city that costs little or nothing–hiking in Tokyo and Seoul is free.

Rialto Bridge in Venice, also known as the bridge of shops I cannot afford

Rialto Bridge in Venice, also known as the bridge of shops I cannot afford

It also doesn’t mention anything about healthcare. While I wouldn’t recommend most hospitals in Beijing and Shanghai, Tokyo and Singapore are top notch. Universal healthcare keeps those costs to a minimum. Sometimes it’s worth paying a little more for rent or food in exchange for cheap healthcare. I only pay about US$5 to visit the doctor in Taipei, and medication is free with the prescription.

What is the real cost of being an expat?

This answer varies on the person and region. I’ve found it easy to live well within my means anywhere in the world. It comes down to habits.

Generally, I don’t take taxis. I’ve taken quite a few more in Taipei because they’re affordable and sometimes I want to stay out past midnight, but I tend to avoid the added expense. Walking is free and public transportation is always affordable.

It's possible to find cheap espresso in Venice

It’s possible to find cheap espresso in Venice

Before moving anywhere, it’s best to consider how much space you need to live. If you’re not staying long term, why splurge on a huge apartment? I’ve found that I can live comfortably with a smaller apartment than I would typically consider back in the US. It means that should I move back, I could save on rent with a smaller place.

How often do you really need to go out for coffee? I’ll admit I’m starting to go out for coffee more often, but that’s as a treat and to get out of my apartment. In Tokyo, I’d have a coffee at Starbucks (only half-decent coffee shop within 2 miles of my apartment) so I could sit and write for a few hours. For US$2-4 I can afford to treat myself every now and then–it’s cheaper than a good beer at a bar in Taipei.

Redpoint TaiPA

I prefer to spend a bit more on local craft beer

Also, who are these people who pay US$120+ for a pair of jeans? Last pair I bought here in Taipei was about US$20. I also noticed that, in general, clothes in Tokyo and Seoul were much cheaper than in Taipei–I bought a suit in Tokyo for US$50 and one in Taipei for US$150 (I like the one from Tokyo more).

Cheonggyecheon Seoul

Some of my favorite entertainment in Seoul was free

Of course, no matter where you live, it’s cheaper to cook than to eat out (healthier, too). An advantage I found in Tokyo was going to the grocery store around 6 pm or later when they began marking down things like fruit, vegetables, and fish as well as pre-made meals. It’s similar in Taipei, but there’s no set time that the stores begin marking down food.

How do you feel about such surveys? What costs do you consider before moving/traveling to a new city?

Impressions of Yangon

This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about.
-Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East (1898)

It was my first stop in Myanmar–the city called Rangoon during British rule. After spending so much time in more developed cities around Asia, it was interesting to see a major city undergoing such rapid change–the entire city felt like it was under construction. Unfortunately, with limited time, my impressions of Yangon may not be the most complete.

Yangon Region Court

Yangon Region Court from Maha Bandoola Garden

It was easier to form opinions of Yogyakarta as it was a smaller city; Yangon is much larger and spread out. I also only had two days to see anything in the former Burmese capital (it was moved to nearby Naypyidaw in 2006) before heading off to Bagan and realizing that my ATM card wouldn’t work in the country.

The modernization process is evident at every turn in Yangon–there’s construction everywhere. And much of that construction is adorned with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean company names because they’re the ones investing heavily in Myanmar’s development. This is a city, and nation, that is rapidly adapting to technology–mobile phones are still new to the population, but they’ve already become ubiquitous.

Arriving in Yangon

My arrival in Yangon got off to a rocky start as I was dropped off at my hotel that I had booked for the first night. The traffic from the airport was rather miserable, but I didn’t mind much as the taxi was air conditioned and I could watch city life pass by. However, upon arriving at my hotel, I was informed that it was full and my room wasn’t available. The staff assured me, along with an irate Thai couple in the same situation, that they had a second hotel nearby and they’d drive us there. I worried that I’d have a similar experience as in Hanoi, with the awful hotel that locked me out at 11pm as I searched for other hotels.

The second hotel was fine–it was the same company and probably just as comfortable (same price too). It was a smaller hotel and the lobby wasn’t as nice as City Star Hotel, but there was less traffic on the street. I quickly discovered that some of the streets are nearly impossible to navigate by car and it’s best to find a taxi heading in the right direction on the most convenient road; if a taxi needs to go around the block to turn around, you’re more or less screwed out of a half hour. Fortunately, taxis operate on flat fees.

Yangon construction

Development of Yangon

The staff at Clover City Center Hotel was friendly and helpful, though sometimes it wasn’t easy communicating with them–they’re still learning English and how to deal with tourists, but they certainly tried their best to help out. Only real downside to the hotel was that they couldn’t book tickets for buses, trains, or flights–I had to find a larger hotel nearby that had its own travel agency for my flight to Bagan (the overnight buses were sold out).

Checking out the sights & people watching

After checking into my hotel and resting for a few moments, I headed out to Sule Pagoda, which was only a short, hot walk from the hotel. It took longer than it should have because crossing the street is as difficult as it is in Vietnam (and I wasn’t sure about the whole pacing to cross as I learned in Vietnam). As Sule Pagoda sits in the middle of a busy roundabout with no traffic light, it’s not a destination for fearful tourists; I survived, but it took a while to cross the street.

Sule Pagoda

Waiting to cross the street to Sule Pagoda

At Sule Pagoda, I noticed that while there were plenty of tourists, there were equally as many locals. Many were there to sell goods, but most were there to pray or mingle with neighbors.

Samosas Yangon

I should stop here for a snack

After my first pagoda visit, which was covered with bamboo mats for restoration work, I wandered around to the nearby Maha Bandoola Garden. I wandered through the park, watching the mostly young people relaxing in the grass; many of them were taking selfies or picnicking. I walked along the surrounding streets, around the old bus terminal, and stopped off for samosas on the sidewalk.

Independence Monument

Independence Monument at Maha Bandoola Garden

One aspect of the crowds of people in this area of Yangon that struck me was the presence of Muslims. Considering the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, I was surprised to see such a large Muslim population. Unlike the violence that fills the news stories about the Rohingya, everyone in Yangon appeared to interact peacefully. Of course, I can’t comment on the ethnic background of the locals because I didn’t have a chance to really interact with any.

Other things I noticed about the people was that they’re colorfully dressed. There was definitely more bright colors, particularly for women, in Yangon than in Bagan. Of course, this isn’t uncommon around Southeast Asia with the batik industry in Malaysia and Indonesia. But Yangon felt more colorful, or maybe it was just wandering through the market with all the fabric vendors.Yangon fabric

I wandered farther away from my hotel in search of dinner. Somehow I ended up in Chinatown. I found a large, busy restaurant overlooking the city–I figured a view of life while I ate would be a great option. I ordered my beer and food and waited. It took about 10 minutes for the beer to arrive. 20 minutes later, as I was halfway through said beer, I asked where my food was. I asked again 10 minutes after that. After I finished my beer 10 minutes after my second request for my food, I walked up to the counter and paid for my beer. I was told that the food was on its way, but I flat-out refused to acknowledge the existence of the meal at that point.Yangon traffic

As I later discovered in Bagan, food service is incredibly slow in Myanmar and it’s fine to continually ask staff for updates on the food (it might even speed up the process in rare cases). Myanmar’s service sector has yet to catch up with the tourism boom.

I ended up back near my hotel at a little cafeteria-style restaurant for a light meal–at this point I was more tired than hungry. After wandering around a bit more in search of travel agencies that I hoped would be open (I ended up going back the next day), I found a small busy restaurant close to Sule Pagoda that served my first Burmese beer. As the evening wore on (it was only closing in on 9 pm), the crowd on the streets grew younger.  This is a rather young city to begin with, but it felt even younger after dinner. This could be a mindset of the older generations after decades of authoritarian rule and curfews.

Yangon nightlife

Nightlife near Sule Pagoda

The only thing about Yangon, and Myanmar in general, that actually repulsed me was the prevalence of betel nut. It was worse in Bagan than in Yangon, but it was still obvious everywhere I walked–the sidewalks were covered with red betel nut spit. This is a habit that’s still fairly common in Taiwan as well, but it isn’t nearly as noticeable. I found it difficult to talk with people whose mouths were coated red betel nut juice. Fortunately, they’re respectful enough to not spit in the temples where everyone has to be barefoot. People were even kind enough to offer me some betel nut to me (I politely declined).

Other than the betel nut chewing, there’s also the pigeon population. At times I thought I was in a Hitchcock film. Seriously, what’s with all the freaking pigeons in Myanmar?

Yangon pigeons

The birds

Overall impressions of Yangon

As I noted, I don’t feel like I spent enough time in the city to get a real feel for life and the people; I only had superficial encounters with locals. There were also plenty more sights to see–I would’ve liked to spend time along the Yangon River or in the parks.

From what I experienced, I found a city transitioning into a business hub and coping with the rapid changes. Yangon certainly isn’t a city in which I could see myself living–the traffic alone would drive me insane. But like the rest of Myanmar (or so I was told by the expat I met at the airport), the people are friendly and honest. For such a busy city in Southeast Asia, it felt safe as long as you discount the issues with crossing streets.

Sule Pagoda Yangon

Sule Pagoda and traffic

Had I stayed longer, I might have sampled a bit of the nightlife, but I know there isn’t much of that yet. As I didn’t get to see enough of the country due to my own lack of planning, there’s a good chance I’d plan another trip to Myanmar with another stop in Yangon.

Have you been to Yangon? What are your impressions of the city?

My No Good, Very Bad Weekend in Tainan

I’d hate to think that all my current experiences will someday become stories with no point.
-Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

I feel guilty writing this, but I don’t like Tainan at all. Actually, I pretty much loathe the city after my three-day weekend there. I’ve never experienced such a dislike for a place before, and it’s unsettling to admit it, but I hope to never return to Tainan.

Some may say I’m overreacting, but I honestly found few redeeming qualities during my time in the city. And it all started when I booked the high-speed rail (HSR) to Tainan Station only to discover upon arrival that Tainan Station is nowhere near the city. There’s another Tainan Station, which is a half hour on the slow train from Tainan Station. At least when I traveled to Kaohsiung, the station wasn’t called Kaohsiung Station and it was still close to the city center. Hell, the Tainan HSR station wasn’t even on the tourist map available at the information desk.

Tainan from the hostel rooftop

Tainan from the hostel rooftop

In my frustration, I grabbed a bite to eat in the station and managed to forget my umbrella, which just added to my overall feeling about the weekend.

Upon arriving at Tainan Station from Tainan Station, I found an old and crowded train station that didn’t exactly tell me which side of the station to exit (I guessed right). As I walked the 20 minutes down the main street to the Easy Inn Hostel, which I will admit was quite nice, I realized that there wasn’t much to see. More than that, there wasn’t much usable sidewalk as motorbikes and cars use the sidewalks for parking and businesses regularly create barriers to force pedestrians to walk in the busy streets.

Most sidewalks looked like this, but worse

Most sidewalks looked like this, but worse

It wasn’t just this area of Tainan that had unusable sidewalks–it was everywhere. I came close to just walking on top of the cars and knocking over the motorbikes, but I managed to control my anger in that case.

It's a miracle! A clear sidewalk!

It’s a miracle! A clear sidewalk!

I did not control my anger directed toward drivers who nearly hit me at almost every turn. I’m not just talking about close calls–I had multiple cars and motorbikes run stale red lights as I and others entered crosswalks (and that was in the first few hours of my stay). I even had to move out of the way because a car was about to back over me as I stood on the corner waiting for the light to change–because the driver wasn’t looking, he would have run me over had I not moved. Had that driver’s window been open, I probably would’ve dragged him out and beaten him senseless. As it was, he didn’t seem to give a damn that he wasn’t looking while driving.

I felt safer crossing the streets in Vietnam!

I'm not standing in line for that

I’m not standing in line for that

Then there was the public transportation, or lack thereof. I managed to take two buses–one with some other hostel guests to the far reaches of Tainan and then back to the tourist area (I had to wait 20 minutes for the second bus). However, I saw no buses on my back to the hostel (a good three-mile walk after walking for hours throughout the day). According to the bus schedule, they only run once every 45 minutes or so (assuming they’re on time with the tourist traffic on the one-lane road to the only area that tourists actually go along Anping Rd.).

An extended walk due to a lack of public transportation gave me a chance to take some photos

An extended walk due to a lack of public transportation gave me a chance to take some photos

And don’t plan on getting a taxi. On my first night, I headed back around 8 pm and I managed to walk halfway to the hostel before I even saw a taxi. The next day, I walked the whole way back because I saw neither a bus nor a taxi.

Thought I'd go to the night market. This was as close as I got

Thought I’d go to the night market. This was as close as I got

My main goal in Tainan was to eat because everyone claims how wonderful the food in Tainan is. There are few restaurant recommendations online because everyone just eats street food. It’s also a mecca for bubble tea lovers (I find bubble tea disgusting).

Milkfish dumplings were pretty good

Milkfish dumplings were pretty good

Now, I’m not a great fan of Taiwanese food–I tend to think of it as some of the worst of Chinese cuisine–but I expected better from Tainan. I became disillusioned quickly. I’m fairly certain I developed diabetes over the course of a weekend because almost everything is overly sugary.

Danzai noodles are pretty good, but particularly nothing special

Danzai noodles are pretty good, but nothing special

I had read that zongzi were a specialty in Tainan. I hadn’t had any since I lived in China, but I recall being indifferent to the glutinous rice-filled dumplings. I ordered a huge one from a popular sidewalk restaurant near my hostel only to discover that I find zongzi to be disgusting. It was gooey from the glutinous rice and filled with gritty salted pork and peanuts and covered by a sauce that was sickeningly sweet.

The fabled zongzi

The fabled zongzi

The best meal I had in Tainan was milkfish-filled dumplings. Oddly enough, even these dumplings tasted slightly sweet. I also had rum ice cream, which isn’t exactly a traditional Tainan snack. The danzai noodles and coffin bread (I can’t see that becoming popular in the US with such a name, but it is a cool idea) I had at Chih Kan Peddler’s Noodles (赤崁擔仔麵) were decent. The restaurant was more interesting than the food. And I had better coffin bread at the night market in Hualien.

Coffin bread at Chih Kan Peddler's Noodles

Coffin bread at Chih Kan Peddler’s Noodles

Some of the touristy area of Tainan seemed interesting, but getting there was miserable. The hostel was excellent–I would highly recommend staying at Easy Inn if it was only in another city. And Beer Bee was a relaxing little bar with excellent beer (Mikkeller Beer Geek series!). The highlight of tourist sites in Tainan was the Anping Tree House (a house engulfed by trees). But I struggle to think of any other redeeming qualities of the city after my three days. mikkeller beer geek

As I said, I feel like I shouldn’t completely write-off the city as I have, but it was just a miserable weekend that I had hoped would be a relaxing escape from Taipei. If someone were to convince me that there is more to the city that I need to see/experience, I may be willing to give it another shot. But, as it stands, I have no interest in ever returning to Tainan.

Anping Tree House

Anping Tree House

Have you ever had an experience that completely turned you off to a travel destination that others rave about? How did you react? 

 

Get to Know Jogja in 3 Days

When, if a slow-pac’d star had stol’n away
From the observer’s marking, he might stay
Two or three hundred years to see’t again,
And then make up his observation plain;”
-John Donne, An Anatomy of the World

Some cities are easy to figure out–grid-like street layouts and prominently-displayed culture can simplify the process. Then there are cities like Yogyakarta (Jogja as it’s known to everyone there).

Yogyakarta is a complicated city. It’s fairly easy to navigate and plenty of folks are willing to talk about its history and culture, but it’s still not a city in which a traveler can immerse himself in only three days. I found it much easier to form first impressions of Taipei, Seoul, Osaka, and even Hanoi and Saigon, but even after completing my trip through Yogyakarta, I don’t feel I have a complete impression of the city. The only other cities I’ve visited for such a short time are Singapore, Osaka, and Kyoto, and I found them much easier to get a feel for.

My bus stop in Yogyakarta

My bus stop in Yogyakarta

This cultural heartland of Indonesia, with a population of less than 400,000, is unlike anywhere I’ve visited. It certainly is nothing like Bali. And I found few similarities with the places I visited in Malaysia.

My hotel was at the end of this quiet street

My hotel was at the end of this quiet street

I can point to a variety of reasons why I didn’t get a feel for Jogja, the least of which being that I was only there for three days. My hotel, though quiet and comfortable (and cheap) was a bit out of the way–I walked around on my first day to find very little to see or do (or even eat). My first full day in the city involved waking up at 3:30 to watch the sunrise over Borobudur and then seeing other temples, including Prambanan, before heading back to my hotel to sleep before dinner. My third day was mostly spent in the downtown area (i.e., the one main road), which is full of tourists (many from elsewhere in Indonesia).

The traffic on Malioboro Street isn't as bad during the day

The traffic on Malioboro Street isn’t as bad during the day

All of these factors created a situation in which it was difficult to form much of an opinion of Jogja. I’ll admit that the city is much more spread out than I expected–the lack of multi-story buildings means that the population is spread over a larger area. There were also fewer modern buildings than I anticipated–most newer structures were hotels, but I thought there would be more because Yogyakarta is known for its art.

One of the colorful sculptures along Malioboro Street

One of the colorful sculptures along Malioboro Street

There’s also a lot of graffiti. Everywhere. Fortunately, there are a lot of murals mixed in with the graffiti to make the streets more colorful and appealing. Some of the street art was interesting and even inspiring, but most of it was rather childish (which is fine if there are a lot of kids in the neighborhood, and I found plenty of kids playing in the alleys). It certainly wasn’t like the street art I found in Reykjavik, but it was certainly more appealing than the ugly graffiti all over Rome.

Borobudur: the reason everyone visits Yogyakarta

Borobudur: the reason everyone visits Yogyakarta

I didn’t manage to really talk with anyone other than asking basic questions until my last day in Yogyakarta. Rather than sightseeing, I wandered around the main downtown area in search of interesting souvenirs and gifts and, of course, all the food I hadn’t yet tried. Eating on the street was how I finally found people to talk with. Of course, those people I met didn’t speak much English (well, the college kids spoke some), and I discovered that they were all from Surabaya, a city about 6 hours north. So, it seems I spoke with almost no one who was a local other than staff at some food stalls and small restaurants.

Every bicycle taxi has a different scene painted on the side

Every bicycle taxi has a different scene painted on the side

I did, however, find that services in Jogja are fairly reliable. Buses are pretty good, but not so easy to figure out (staff at the stations are usually helpful, but it still isn’t easy to figure out where to get off the bus). Even taxis were decent–they all turned on the meter without being asked. Only problem I encountered was that most drivers had no idea where my hotel was (and on busy evenings along the main downtown street many taxis didn’t even want to go that way).

Heading to the street food vendors downtown

Heading to the street food vendors downtown

While I had a great time in Yogyakarta, I don’t feel like I got a feel for the city. It seems like a city that needs more time to grow on me. Perhaps if opportunities arise, I’ll head back to see more (and eat plenty more).

How do you get to know a city in a short time? Have you ever had a difficult time getting a feel for a city?

Preconceptions and Reality in Singapore

“We sail tonight for Singapore
We’re all as mad as hatters here”
Tom Waits, Singapore

Last year when I considered taking a trip to Singapore I thought of a million reasons to not go, most of which stemmed from the little I knew about the country.

Maybe it all goes back to 1994–I was finishing middle school and a 19-year-old American named Michael Fay caused an international incident by being sentenced to a caning in Singapore. Americans were in an uproar over the punishment Fay received for vandalism. I thought he was an idiot. But that ordeal left me, and many others, with the impression that Singapore is a brutal police state.

It’s not.

singapore-skylineYes, there are tons of laws to follow, and the punishments for breaking the law can be harsh (mostly steep fines now). The laws governing day-to-day activities, however, don’t really register with tourists. No spitting! Ok. No littering! Fine, where’s the trash can? It really isn’t any inconvenience.

And when it comes to all the restrictions, no one seems to care about jaywalking. People cross the streets when they want, but they make sure no traffic is coming first (this isn’t Hanoi). Drivers are polite enough to stop for pedestrians, but I don’t imagine they’d be as happy if those pedestrians walked in front of their cars.singapore

I always thought Singapore would be immaculate with all the rules they supposedly enforce. It is quite clean, but there are plenty of messes–there was a public restroom at an MRT station was foul (still better than any public restroom in the US). There were a few others that weren’t much better. And at the outdoor food courts, there are plenty of messes–I saw no trash cans because everyone just leaves dishes and trays on the tables for staff to clean up. I’m sure if I stayed out later, those same food courts would get a bit messy.

For a country that some might regard as a police state, there isn’t a police presence. I was there for Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral, and there were long lines of people paying their respects, so there were some police around to mostly help with directions. The police were quite friendly and helpful.

Clarke Quay at night

Clarke Quay at night

That level of friendliness and helpfulness expanded to the general population. I’ve said before how polite and friendly people in Taipei are. I found people in Seoul and Tokyo to also be polite, though not nearly as friendly. People in Singapore are more than that–they’re helpful and accommodating.

Example: I wanted to purchase a three-day metro ticket (which is not for a full 72 hours because the ticket offices aren’t open early enough), but the ticket office was closed when I arrived at Changi Airport. An MRT employee apologized because the office closed early in honor of Lee Kuan Yew. She then helped me buy my ticket and made sure I knew where to go. When I finally got to buy the three-day ticket, the ticket office was going on lunch break. There were three people ahead of me and they all desperately wanted to get things done now (I didn’t want to wait another hour either). The employee stayed to help us, but turned anyone else away. In Japan and Taiwan employees wouldn’t be so flexible.

I certainly worried about the weather in Singapore–I know it’s hot and humid year-round. But the heat wasn’t unbearable. Afternoon downpours were inconvenient, but they felt great. I had expected the city to be fully air conditioned, like in Hong Kong. We used to joke that Hong Kong was 5 degrees cooler than mainland China–I swear it got colder as soon as I set foot across the border at Luohu crossing. If I visited Hong Kong in the summer I went from frigid temperatures indoors to oppressive heat and humidity on the streets (my glasses would fog up if I went indoors for more than 5 minutes before going back outside).

supertrees-night

Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay

Singapore manages temperatures better. There was a progression to temperature changes that prevents people from getting sick and acclimates the population. It was hot and humid outside, and it got cooler as I got further into the metro stations–the buses and subway cars were quite cold, but I was prepared for it with the progression. The ticket area of the MRT was a few degrees cooler than outside; the waiting area for the train was a little cooler; and the trains were even cooler than that. The progression of air conditioning means that the city is more energy efficient than Hong Kong.

Another preconception I had was that Singapore is just a huge city. While that is true, there is also plenty of green space. The city is so well planned and covered in green. And all the plants along the streets and in the parks are well maintained. It’s not like in China where they rip out a plant just because a leaf is turning brown.

MacRitchie Reservoir

MacRitchie Reservoir

I went for a hike at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve only to find the 400-acre reserve was closed for trail renovations. There were some other trails nearby though; they just weren’t as interesting. There’s also the MacRitchie Reservoir, where I took a more than 10 km hike (I thought the hike was only 5 km). And there’s still the Gardens by the Bay and the Botanic Gardens. There is a lot of room to breathe in Singapore.

Singapore impressed me.

Have you ever visited a place with a preconception that was quickly broken?

Memories and Travel

“Elliot had in his memory so many jokes
They seemed to breed like microbes in a culture

Inside his brain, one so much making another
It was impossible to tell them all:”
-Robert Pinsky, Impossible to Tell

Sometimes our memories fail us. We don’t remember things as they happened, and sometimes we have false memories. Lately, I’ve had faded memories, or rather blending memories.

A wholly unremarkable street in Rome. Where was I going at the time?

A wholly unremarkable street in Rome. Where was I going at the time?

After a year and a half of wandering around Asia (and that little bit of time in Italy), things have started to look and feel the same. For most of the first year I had a set routine during the week–work all day and go for a walk around the neighborhood in the evening, and then take in the sights on weekends. Most of those days spent wandering around with little direction led to wandering thoughts along the streets.

A game of croquet in the park in Seoul. I forgot about this until I perused my photos

A game of croquet in the park in Seoul. I forgot about this until I perused my photos

I’ll find a spot in a city and believe that it’s familiar–it looks like somewhere I’ve been before, but I haven’t been to this place, have I? I’ve returned to Tokyo and Taipei, so I’ve revisited neighborhoods, but are these the same? And how have neighborhoods changed since my last visit?

I know this is Osaka because it's saved in my Osaka folder

I know this is Osaka because it’s saved in my Osaka folder

When I wander neighborhoods, I rarely pay attention to street signs (assuming they even exist in some places) and I never carry a map around. This makes it difficult to identify where I’ve been–I have dozens of photos of places I can’t recall; they’re surrounded by identifiable tourist sites, which gives me a general idea of location.

This feeling of déjà vu of sorts happens more now than it used too. I’m lost in thought and something in the surroundings catches my attention and brings me back to memory of a place and time that is not recognizable. Sidewalks along rivers as traffic flows past and children play in the nearby park–the river is from one journey, the park another, and traffic is everywhere.

Bet you didn't know Saigon had such a pleasant riverside walk

Bet you didn’t know Saigon had such a pleasant riverside walk

I know that much of the problem is that I’ve been traveling mostly around Asia–the temples and mountains look the same, and even the languages and cultures have similarities. Was I walking through Saigon that day or was it Seoul in summer? Did I see that in a market in Siem Reap or Taipei?

These memories and moments of travel déjà vu bring me back to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and the impossible stories of non-existent cities Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan. There are impossible, or improbable, tales travelers tell to audiences–over time those stories become blurred and we associate one story with another, thus leading to the confusion of places. It’s not the image of the place that we always remember when reminiscing; it’s the experience of that moment in the surroundings and the internal monologue we have when there’s no one around to share that experience.

Shanghai People's Park in 2006

Welcome back to Shanghai (the air was only this clear 9 years ago when the photo was taken)

There are stories of places and experiences that I have yet to write on this site. Those stories float in my consciousness but haven’t yet materialized on the page. Perhaps in time they’ll return for another story for you to read, or maybe they’ll fuse with other stories and turn into tales of what may or may not have happened on the journey.

How do you remember everything while traveling? Do you wonder if your memories betray you when telling stories?

Short Stay in Phnom Penh

“Behind them were the lights of the market, the lanterns and candles and witch-lights and fairy glitter, like a dream of the night sky brought down to earth.”
Neil Gaiman, Stardust

The New York Times reminded me of what to see and do with their “36 Hours in Phnom Penh” feature. The video online talks about the food and people being the best reason to visit, but they show high-class restaurants with foreign chefs–these are restaurants that Cambodians can’t afford. The article makes Phnom Penh seem like a trendy city full of great food and nightlife while neglecting the other side that most people encounter, unless they ignore poverty and prostitution. I understand NYT’s intention in such articles is to promote luxury travel, but you can’t ignore the rest of Cambodia.phnom-penh-traffic

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time in Phnom Penh, but it’s not an easy city to experience. There’s still a large seedy side; there are still major problems throughout.

During my few days in Siem Reap, I stayed in a nicer hotel–not quite luxury, but close. I chose the Angkor Riviera hotel because there was a problem with the hostel I had originally booked and I needed something last minute; I decided to give myself a treat for a little less than $50/night. It was great and comfortable, but felt detached from the society just steps from the door–it’s the same reason I felt a little uncomfortable on Pub Street.

Pick up some tasty treats at the night market. Can you identify any of it?

Pick up some tasty treats at the night market. Can you identify any of it?

I went with something less appealing when I got to Phnom Penh.

I was fortunate enough to have a contact in the city to show me around one night. Paul took me out to one of the nicer bars, Metro Hassakan, that could fit into any American or European city (and the prices weren’t too bad, but still unaffordable for most of the local population). I also got to see the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), which shows its age but exudes character and charm. Given more time to enjoy the city, I’d probably head back to the FCC for the views of Phnom Penh–we had to sit at the bar because there weren’t tables available by the windows facing the city or the river.

Get your Angry Birds on a stick to eat

Get your Angry Birds on a stick to eat

One attraction in the city that was missing from the New York Times piece is the night market. It’s unlike the street night markets in Taipei or Hong Kong–it’s set up in a square across from the Tonle Sap River on Sisowath Quay. It doesn’t have the same draw as the historic Central Market, which has a great food market for lunch and snacks during the day, but it has a more friendly vibe.phnom-penh-night-market

I skipped the stage performance and the stalls selling clothes and souvenirs and headed to the back of the market for food. The food vendors are set up around the dining area, which is just some bamboo mats and carpetson the ground–you have to take off your shoes to eat in the area. There’s a variety of delicacies ranging from grilled who-knows-what on a stick to full plates of chicken or fish with rice. After ordering, some vendors will deliver the food to you on the bamboo mats and carpets.

My meal at the Phnom Penh Night Market

My meal at the Phnom Penh Night Market

The dining area is more of a social event for locals–they order plenty of food to share as they talk and listen to the musical performances on the other side of the market. Sitting there with my food was the experience I sought; it was boisterous and friendly–I was warned about safety, particularly in crowds in Phnom Penh, but it felt comfortable in the evening warmth. I felt more at ease in that night market than I did in any of the markets in Vietnam.

What do you think? Can local night markets be a part of a luxury tour of a city? What are some of your favorite markets?

Travel Necessity: Making Coffee on the Road

and the cool air off the hills
made me think of coffee,
so I said, “Coffee would be nice,”
-Kwame Dawes, Coffee Break

One of the greatest expenses on the road can be coffee, especially for addicts like me. When I worked overnight in New Jersey, I would regularly make a full 10-cup pot of coffee. Plus, I’d drink tea later in my shift. (Note to coffee companies: You can sponsor my travels.)

In some destinations coffee can be expensive. In touristy parts of Italy, a cup of coffee will set you back at least EUR 3. I got spoiled going to my local used bookstore for good coffee for $1.75, with free refills, which usually convinced me to buy yet another book to read (one addiction feeds the other).venice-coffee

Before I set out on this journey I worried about my ability to find coffee at the grocery stores–I remember how difficult it was to find non-instant coffee when I first moved to China in 2005; I practically wept when Carrefour and Jusco moved in near my apartment in 2008  with a consistent supply of coffee and cheese. I was so desperate back then that I would travel an hour and half on a bus to the foreign import store and buy a tub of Folgers for more than $10 when I knew it was much less expensive back home.melita-coffeemaker

Fortunately, my parents’ friend had a Melita cup-top hand drip coffeemaker. It was the best going-away present I could receive (well, other than money for future plane tickets). Because I didn’t want to have to always go out to find new filters as I traveled, I set out in search of a reusable coffee filter–the stores didn’t have the specific one for this Melita product, but I managed to find one that fit.

More than a year later I’m still making my morning coffee with this. Fortunately, there’s a Carrefour near me in Taipei and I can buy 1/2 lb. of ground coffee for NT$99 (about $3). It’s not great coffee, but it’s good enough. If I buy really cheap coffee, like I usually did in New Jersey, I just add some cinnamon to the grounds as I brew my cup–it tastes better and the cinnamon helps the body regulate blood sugar.carrefour-coffee

Of course, I still enjoy going out to coffee shops. I went to a few in Seoul–they weren’t difficult to find as the Korean capital has more Starbucks than any other city in the world (plus a few dozen other coffee chains). During my second trip to Japan, I spent a lot of time at Starbucks working on my China Survival Guide and other writing and ramblings–I usually avoid Starbucks, but there wasn’t anything else near me. I was forced into a few coffee shops in Hanoi when the power went out at my hotel while I was working. Plus, I had to try the egg coffee–it was good, but a little too sweet for my taste.egg-coffee-hanoi

In Taipei, I sometimes go out to Cama Coffee, a chain that serves great coffee in very small shop spaces. They also have whiskey hot chocolate–you can’t taste the whiskey, but the hot chocolate is really good. There are plenty of other options around the city at varying prices (most don’t have seating though).

How do you feed your coffee addiction while traveling?