Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mui Ne, Vietnam: Red Sand Dunes

You haven't tried everything until you have tried sledding down a sand dune! Mui Ne is not only known for its amazing coast line, but also for its rich red sand dunes.

The sand and the water meet for an amazing view

Only a short ride by moped on the only road leading north out of town and you will find the well-known red sand dunes. Once there, it is only seconds until you have an entourage of little boys asking if they can "help" you go sledding.

The entourage

They are cute, and of course, you do need something to sled on, because last time I checked I forgot to bring a plastic sled. They work in teams and will offer to watch your moped, while the others carry the sled to the best location, which happens to be about a mile away!

Once you are there, if you still have any bit of breathe left, they will escort you on a tiny sheet of plastic, your sled, and ask you to hang on to a piece of rope. Before you know it they are behind you and push you down a pretty steep dune.

Note: Keep your mouth shut! Though you would like to scream an excited, "Wheeeee," remember, you are sliding down sand. Sand! And unless you want a mouth full of grit and grime, close the trap!

The kids will stay out there with you until you have had your fill. Frankly, hiking back up that dune a few times was all I needed for my vacation workout.


The trekking and sledding was certainly invigorating, and so was the face of the kid who was watching your moped. Now, the entire entourage, even the kid just following you around, wants to be paid. Each would like about $20, which would make your little sand sledding adventure about $200. Don't worry, they are happy with $20 altogether.

As we drove our moped back to the resort, I attempted to brush the sand off of my face, causing a nice exfoliation, bordering on peel. The best thing to do is the outdoor shower. Don't miss your ears... because the sand sure didn't.

Ah yes, the red sand... deeply embedded in every pore of my body!

Then smile, after all, you just rode down a 100 foot sand dune on a tiny sheet of plastic... and survived!

At the bottom of the dune, with a mouthful of sand!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mui Ne: Where to Stay

If you haven't already booked your hotel, I would very happily suggest Bien Xanh, also known as the Blue Ocean Resort. It is an absolute retreat, with bungalows opening up directly to the ocean. You can watch the fishermen head out at day break and come in with their catch.

They also offer on-site laundry service, which was very convenient, especially when traveling light. Bien Xanh has a beautiful, crystal clear swimming pool with a swim-up bar. Perfect for those lazy afternoons. The breakfast is a full buffet of local fruits, custom-made omelets, tables of side items, and a barrage of fresh juices.

Relaxing in the gorgeous pool and...


There is also a great restaurant located beach side offering great snacks, both American and Vietnamese. So if you are craving that pepperoni pizza, but also want some pho, this is your place. I am starting to sound a bit like an advertisement. But actually, I was just really amazed with the quality and service at the resort.

There were also other resorts within walking distance. So if you want to change it up or meet your fellow tourists, most of the resorts do have nice, moderately priced, restaurants and bars.

Pho please!

Also, watch for the happy hour. In Mui Ne, they do it right with buy-one-get-one-free drinks, 3p.m. - 8p.m. at most lounges.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Mui Ne, Vietnam: Getting Away to the Beach

When you need to get away from the hustle and bustle of busy HCMC, hop a bus and visit Mui Ne Beach, where you will find beautiful blue ocean, red sand dunes, and friendly locals more than happy to show you around.

Enjoying the blue ocean view

Mui Ne is a coastal resort town in the Binh Thuan Province of southeastern Vietnam, located on an arm of the South China Sea. The town is close to the city of Phan Thiết, the home of fish sauce, so be sure to try every varietal of fish they offer. It is fresh and the sauce is incredible!

Colorful boats line the shoreline

By bus, Mui Ne is about six hours from HCMC, making one stop at a fuel station, allow for a quick restroom break, ice cream and cookies. If this won't keep your belly full, you are free to bring your own food and drink on the bus, but be sure to purchase it the night before, as the bus leaves around 6 a.m., before most stores are open.

The bus ride was around $35 per person, round trip. The tickets can be purchased at most travel agencies in HCMC. We simply walked in one near our hotel, and the next day we were off to Mui Ne.

Our bus was equipped with a/c, which was a big plus from those Cambodian bus rides! The seats reclined, but it is close quarters and like many buses, the multi-colored cloth seats end up in the persons lap behind you when you decide to recline, so keep that in mind.

Docking time in Mui Ne

Upon arriving to Mui Ne Beach, the bus will drop you off at a fairly inexpensive hotel with small bungalows and offer you the "lowest rates." If you have not made reservations and need a place, it did look clean and many backpackers decided to stay.

However, don't feel like you need to get roped in to the drop-off hotel. There are many great hotels in Mui Ne, offering beachfront bungalows, and a reasonable rate. So in my opinion, do your research and book online before you get there. You will get a better rate and a better location.

You will notice that there are no cabs in Mui Ne. This is because it is such a laid back beach lifestyle. You can simply flag down someone on a moped and offer them some money. They are more than happy to take you to your hotel. Just be ready to pile all your bags on the moped with you and hold on tight!

If you are interested in renting a moped, ask your driver. It was our experience that for about $10 a day, the driver rented out his personal moped and helmet, no credit card, no deposit, no hassle.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sounds and Smells of Vietnam

First, let me first say, in Vietnam, even when you are not hungry, you are hungry. No matter what your stomach might say, when you smell the warm air filled with the aroma of freshly baked pastries or the scent of fried spring rolls, your brain says, "Let's Eat!"

One night, as I enjoyed dinner while sitting in child-sized red and blue plastic chairs on the sidewalk of a busy street, the constant buzz of mopeds created whirl of warm air that I couldn't help but notice was filled with the dirt and grit of the streets. However, I have to say the grit in the air was barely noticeable while enjoying the freshly prepared Vietnamese cuisine that even a small hole in the wall restaurant can offer.

A distant crackling sounds caught my attention, as I originally thought it was coming from the kitchen, but later found there were mass of power lines all attached to a single pole that was causing the noise. After dinner I walked the streets, partly to keep from falling asleep after a huge meal, and partly (coincidentally) to look for dessert.

I quickly found that casually crossing the street was a thing of the past. No one stops. Ever. Be it bicycles, mopeds, or cars. A red light is only reason for pause. Everyone is constantly moving, but somehow it all works out. So when crossing the road, I found it important to stay constantly moving. No quick or sudden dashes across the road, or you are bound to get hit. If your movement is constant all those on the road can predict where you will be when they arrive to the intersection and what they will need to do to avoid you. I found myself holding my breath each time we crossed the road and then breathing a dirt-filled sigh of relief that we made another successful trip across the road.

Peddling his dried fish on the busy streets

I settled on bubble tea, a smoothie with your choice of fruit and small balls of freshly-made tapioca at the bottom. The building was illuminated with neon boards that read "Vancouver" and "Beautiful British Columbia," which I found rather odd. Maybe Vancouver was their city of dreams.

I sat at a small glass-topped table with a rattan chair that I was hoping would hold my weight. The table tipped from side to side as I rested my arms. I chose strawberry. They took such great care in making the smoothies, carefully blending each drink with fresh berries and sealing the top. Then they popped a thick pointed straw into the sealed top. The smoothie was delightfully fresh and cool, the seeds making me feel as if I were enjoying a 'healthy' treat.

As I headed back to the hotel, I walked down a narrow sidewalk. Though it was late, the air was still warm and small business that lined the street were still open for business. To keep busy, proprietors would brush rubbish away from the area in front of their store with what appeared the be a handmade broom, in hopes of attracting more customers. It was a constant sound from all of the businesses, straw to the concrete sidewalk. Back and forth. Some with a rhythm. Always staying busy. Always moving. Always.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Vietnam: The History of Ho Chi Minh City

I believe that you can develop a better appreciation of the present with a proper understanding of the past. Therefore, I have set out a brief history of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to help you better appreciate the amazing city that is today.

HCMC has certainly come a long way, in both name and culture, from its original beginning as a small fishing village, to the bustling metropolitan city that it is today. Originally inhabited by the Khmer people for centuries, ruled by the Vietnamese, and then conquered by the French in 1859, HCMC has a many cultural influences. HCMC was originally named Prey Nokor, which roughly means “god” or “heavenly” in Khmer. After Prey Nokor was settled by Vietnamese refugees from the north, the name was changed to Saigon.

Port of Saigon circa 1862

From 1859 to 1954, the French ruled HCMC. In 1954, the French were defeated by the Communist Viet Minh in the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, and withdrew from Vietnam. Rather than recognizing the Communists as the new government, they gave their backing to a government established by Emperor Bảo Đại. Bảo Đại had set up Saigon as his capital in 1950.

At the conclusion of the American/Vietnam War on April 30, 1975, the city of Saigon came under control of the Vietnam People’s Army. American’s typically know this as the “Fall of Saigon.”

President Ho Chi Minh

In 1976, upon the establishment of the unified communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the city of Saigon, the province of Gia Ðịnh, and 2 suburban districts of two other nearby provinces were combined to create Hồ Chí Minh City in honour of the late communist leader Hồ Chí Minh. The former name Saigon is still widely used by many Vietnamese, especially in informal contexts.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Vietnam: Flights

Vietnam has two major international airports. Ho Chi Minh City is located in the South and Hanoi is in the North. These airports are served by many direct flights from several countries overseas, but long-haul flights usually stop in Bangkok, Singapore, Taipei or Tokyo where travelers will transfer to smaller planes for another flight to Vietnam.

Tan Son Nhat International Airport (airport code SGN) in Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's largest airport, located about eight kilometers from the city center. The airport code comes from the city's former name of Saigon.

When stepping off the airplane, prepare yourself to be welcomed my a warm hug of sultry heat waves! Vietnam was one of the most humid and just downright hottest countries I have visited. Locals seem to relax during the day and sit on the street chatting, while selling all sorts of foods. Then at night, they head to the market and out on the town. Don't forget to drink lots of (bottled) water!

Tuk-tuking around HCMC

The easiest and least expensive method of transport from the airport to the city is the relatively recently introduced bus No. 152. It's air-conditioned, and will drop you off in the city center.

However, we didn't exactly know about this at the time and first agreed to take one carrier's transport service, until we found out that it was no more than a moped. But he was convinced he could squeeze us and our luggage on the tiny bike. Rather than finding out, we played it safe and took a tuk-tuk.

A stream of mopeds speeding down a Saigon street

When heading home, don't forget that you will be asked to pay a departure tax as you're leaving the country (unless it was included in the price of your ticket) - don't spend all your money before you get to the airport! I believe this is under $20.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Vietnam: What the Phở?

Where to I begin?!? The food in Vietnam is some of the best I have ever eaten. The traditional Vietnamese dish of Phở is certainly a dreamy bowl of cultural delight that amazingly cools you off on a sultry day.

Phở -nomenal

is served as a bowl of white rice noodles in clear beef broth, with thin cuts of beef (steak, fatty flank, lean flank, brisket).

Seasonings include Saigon cinnamon, star anise, charred ginger, cloves, and sometimes black cardamom pods which are sewn up in a disposable pouch and dipped into the broth.

Enjoying some phở on Mui Ne Beach... am I slurping?
I think so, but it is culturally permissible in Vietnam. Whew!

The dish is garnished with ingredients such as green onions, white onions, coriander leaves (cilantro), ngò gai (culantro, or long coriander), Thai basil, lemon or lime wedges, and bean sprouts. The last five items are usually provided on a separate plate, which allows customers to adjust the soup's flavor as they like. Some sauces such as hoisin sauce, fish sauce, and the Thai hot sauce Sriracha, are popular additions as well.

This dish differs by regions, as each region uses garnishes that grow near them. So one thing that is certain is that every bowl will be different, and the wonderful thing about pho is that it is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

And just in case this bowl of goodness isn't your cup of tea, there is a variety of other amazing dishes that will blow your mind! The seafood is caught fresh daily and literally served to you within only a few hours. I wanted to try it all!

Sea bass with peanuts and sweet chili sauce

Don't miss out on the Vietnamese coffee. Made with the richest coffee and a delightful drop of sweetened condensed milk, it is a delicious spin on your morning joe! As you see it comes with a mini filter that sits on the top of your cup, so you can make a second cup if you like!

Vietnamese Coffee

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Vietnam: Getting There

Officially named The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Vietnam is an absolutely amazing tourist destination. Vietnam is bordered by China, Laos, and Cambodia. To the east lies the South China Sea. So not only is there a lot to see in Vietnam, but it is only a stones throw away from many other destinations as well.

Though the GDP is on the rise, Vietnam is still a relatively inexpensive place to visit. With beach resorts starting at about $35. But before you head to Vietnam, make sure you have your VISA.

Heading to get the VISA... glad I am not driving!

A VISA to Vietnam can be applied for by mail or in person at the Embassy of Vietnam as early as six months prior to the date of travel. The applicant must submit:
• Original PASSPORT.
• One completed and signed visa application form with 01 passport-size photo glued or stapled.
VISA fee in the form of MONEY ORDER, or CASHIER’S CHECK, or CERTIFIED CHECK payable to “THE EMBASSY OF VIETNAM.” Applicants applying together may submit the fee in one money order.
A prepaid return envelope, if the applicant requests the visa be returned by mail. Use US Express Mail (UPS and DHL are not accepted for the return envelope). Applicants applying together may provide one envelope for visas to be returned to the same address.

We got our VISA at the Vietnamese Embassy while we were visiting Phenom Penh, Cambodia. We paid the for the expedited service, which I believe cost $60. It took 2 business days. Generally, however, it takes 5 - 7 business days to process visa applications.

Vietnamese Embassy, Phenom Penh, Cambodia

It seemed that we were lucky in getting our VISAS in only 2 days because there were other travelers that were not having the same luck. I think that getting your VISA in Phenom Penh is a bit of a gamble, as there seems to be no exact process. Your best bet... plan in advance in get your VISA before you go.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Recipe - Num Tirk Doung (Coconut Pound Cake)

Khmer Krom coconut pound cake is a moist and delicious cake often taken to the pagoda for food offerings on religious holidays, and also served at local markets. A delightful treat that can be topped with fruit or eaten on its own.


  • 4 Eggs
  • 2 Cups all purpose flour
  • ½ Cup melted butter
  • ½ Cup coconut milk
  • ¼ Cup fresh or frozen unsweeted, shredded coconut
  • 1½ Cup sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons pure vanilla extract
  • ½ Teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ Teaspoon salt


  1. Preheat oven at 325 degrees.
  2. In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar together.
  3. Add egg, one at a time with butter sugar. Mix well.
  4. Add vanilla, baking powder, salt and coconut milk.
  5. Blended all purpose flour and shredded coconut.
  6. Greased cake pan with cooking oil and sprinkle some flour at the bottom of cake pan.
  7. Pour the cake batter in to the cake pan.
  8. Bake for 1 ½ hours.
  9. Remove the cake from the oven, cool and remove from pan.
  10. Cream cheese icing with toasted coconut is optional (and yummy!)
  11. Serve with tea or coffee.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cambodian Recipe - Taro Chips

When we were at the Elephant Bar at the Raffles Hotel, they served taro chips, which turned out to be a classy spin on chips and salsa, and far better than any bar food that I had ever tried. It is quite simple to make these tasty (and healthy) little treats.


One large taro
Extra virgin olive oil


  1. Peel the taro. A carrot peeler works great, but if you do not have one just use a paring knife.
  2. Thinly slice the taro, then cut into strips.
  3. Soak the taro in water to remove excess starch.
  4. Generously spread olive oil on a baking sheet and place the taro on the sheet, careful no to overlap. Can also line with aluminum foil.
  5. Sprinkle with salt.
  6. Bake for 10 – 15 minutes on each side at 350 degrees.
  7. These can be eaten on their own or served with chutney, sweet chili sauce, or even on their own.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Night Events

Phnom Penh, the capital city, is the wealthiest and most populous city in Cambodia. It is also the commercial, political and cultural hub of Cambodia and is home to more than one million of Cambodia's population of over 13 million people.

The majority of the shops and services in the central market of Phnom Penh close down pretty early. But there is a strip near the Tonle River where many tourists visit. It is a pretty happening spot with several restaurants and bars.

Raffles Hotel

For a more upscale night out own the town, visit the Raffles Hotel. It is an absolutely breathtaking establishment with a posh lounge frequented by the upscale travelers.

In addition to the beautiful hotel and bar, they also often have a buffet-style barbeque dinner on their lawn. Unfortunately, we didn't make the buffet, but the food looked (and smelled) delicious!

Don’t miss the famous Elephant Bar, where you can enjoy Femme Fatale, the cocktail named in honour of Jacqueline Kennedy; the Airavata, a cocktail of secret ingredients; or the Million Dollar Cocktail, which gained notoriety in Somerset Maugham's tale, The Letter.

Sipping a Singapore Sling... my fave!

You can sit and sip your drinks in a swanky bar, while smoking the finest cigars. For a few dollars your tuk-tuk driver will wait outside and socialize with the other drivers while you relax. Initially, I felt horrible leaving him to wait on us. However, I quickly came to realize he was very happy to have the job and an opportunity to make money.

So indulge and enjoy! But you might want to change out of your backpacker’s clothes before going. We just happened to the Elephant Bar after reading about it in our guide book, and did feel a little out of place with our hiking shoes on. However, that awkward feeling quickly disappeared after a couple fabulous drinks!

We lost track... I think it is the Airavata! Served with taro chips, delish!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Day Events – Choeung Ek Genocide Center

The Choeung Ek Genocide Center is located about 17 km south of Phnom Penh, and is the site of a former orchard and Chinese graveyard which is the best-known of the sites known as the Killing Fields.

Killing Field Memorial

Here, the Khmer Rouge regime executed about 17,000 people between 1975 and 1979. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Human bones displayed on a chopping block

Many of the dead were former inmates in the Tuol Sleng prison. Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa that is filled with skulls of the victims.

Only a few of the mass number of skulls located in the Memorial

It was a very somber but educational experience. At first, I was not exactly excited about going, and even when I was there it felt strange staring at piles of human skulls and peering into pits that were used to throw human; however, in the end, I am glad that I had the experience because it helped me to better understand the culture and history of Cambodia.

A sign of life and hope

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Day Events – Russian Market

Commonly known as the Russian Market, this paradise of stalls and booths is any shoppers dream come true. From silk scarves and bags, to cosmetics, to intricate handicrafts and sculptures, the Russian Market has it all.

Entrance to the Russian Market

In the center of the market is the “food court” with a variety of freshly cooked culinary delights. We opted for the waffles, made fresh over firey hot coals, certainly the best waffles I have ever eaten. I often crave these. The batter was just a bit sweet, and served with dragon fruit, this is the perfect meal for any time of day, and at only 12 cents for two waffles, you can’t go wrong.

The most delightful waffles ever!

Just remember where you entered because it is certainly easy to get lost in here! This market twists and winds. There are rows of sort, but every hawker squeezes in to peddle their goods. An elderly woman was selling raw silk scarves and hand-made silk purses and pencil cases. Take you pick for $1. The head scarf and blue shirt I was wearing in the pictures at the Royal Palace both came from this market.

Digging for a bargain

The market was so crowded that the food vendors would often carry trays of food on their head to deliver it to customers, since a tray in their hand would easily be knocked over in the crowd.

The food court of the market... see the woman with the tray on her head!

You will also find rows of actual sewing machines set up and running quickly as local seamstresses hurriedly work to complete orders for custom made suits and dresses. Unlike Thailand, the seamstresses had suits on display and catered mostly to women. They were very delicate designs and patterns.

The sewing stalls... I am smiling, they are not. Looks like hard work!

The hands of the seamstresses sewed with great precision and accuracy. I had never seen a cleaner seam. However, since we had been burned with our Thailand suit experience, we didn’t opt for a suit here. You can also buy uncut fabric to take home with you for upholstery, curtains, or even clothing.

Looking a little lost in all that fabric

You can also find a great variety of travel books for Asia. Most are the Lonely Planet, and I think they have just been reprinted (likely without permission) but are legible and colorful. These sell for about $3 and were our saving grace during the trip. They provide lots of great information and are helpful when you need to point our a destination to your cabbie.

The handicrafts include everything from stone sculptures to chopsticks to wall décor. I wish I could have bought more because the quality here was far superior to that found in Thailand. The prices were a bit higher, but it was worth it. This is definitely a place to visit on your trip!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Day Events – National Museum

The National Museum, Phnom Penh is Cambodia's largest and was built in 1917–20 by the French colonial authorities then in control of Cambodia, in a traditional Khmer style, with French influence. It is an absolutely beautiful burnt red building with huge columns. It encompasses an indoor - outdoor style that is very welcoming.

Entrance to the National Museum

The National Museum is located at Street 178 & Street 13, next to the Royal Palace, every cabbie knows how to get there. The admission costs is only $3.00 and the museum is open from 8:00 a.m. -5:00 p.m., everyday. You will likely find people selling books and refreshments on the corner outside the museum. You are not allowed to bring in the drinks, but the books are a good bargain and cover Cambodian tourist and culture.

Outer paths and gardens

There are over 5000 objects are on display including Angkorian era statues, lingas and other artifacts, most notably the legendary statue of the ‘Leper King.’ Though the emphasis is on Angkorian artifacts, there is also a variety of pieces from later periods, including a special exhibition of post-Angkorian Buddha figures.

One room of the Museum

Most of this is an open air museum with plenty of natural light to help you examine the treasures. There is a particularly nice area dedicated to Buddhist offerings, surrounded by small stones with word such as “peace” and “love” written with stones. Museum employees hand out flowers so everyone can give something to Buddha. It is a very beautiful and spiritual shrine.

Buddha shrine

There are also beautiful statues adorning the walking paths, and beautiful koi ponds as well. This is a very beautiful and serene place to spend an afternoon.

Beautiful exterior display