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Of pho and pagodas

The motorcycle man took this photo of me outside a pagoda. I wanted him to be able
to capture the serenity of the Buddha but I got this instead. 😊

Despite being a humble social development worker, I am lucky to be able to travel a bit for trainings, conferences, and some ‘me’ time. This weekend I took a van in Sihanoukville and went to the Vietnam boarder city, Ha Tien. This is my third visit to Vietnam. The first one was ten-day visit in 2002, with my sister’s family. Her husband Tony is Vietnamese and they took me on my first travel abroad to Ho Chi Minh and Da Nang, a coastal town in the middle of Vietnam. My second visit was last year, when my colleagues at the Ratanakiri NGO Network took me in an unplanned trip to the boarder city of Pleiku. We just spent the weekend there but it was fun because my friend Serey was with me.

With my RNN colleague and friend Serey Chan at Pleiku, Vietnam on April 2018.
More photos in Pleiku here https://bit.ly/2CUN9tG

In December, since the year-end crunch took over the office, my visa took a backseat and I had to do a visa run. But then, like what I did for Bangkok a few weeks ago, I decided to stay one night and explore the city. It was a good decision on my part, as it was an opportunity to get away from the stressful boom town of Sihanoukville. I was determined to have fun, but first, I have to spend less than 100USD, including travel and hotel, and second, it has to be a relaxed trip, with no compulsion to go places and do things.

Budget. The trip was not in my planned budget, so I had to keep my expenses to the minimum. Here is the breakdown: land travel from home to hotel in Ha Tien and back, 38USD; changed 20 USD to Dong for food and souvenirs (got some 70,000 VND left because I did not buy anything exept a faux jade roller; 11 USD for a hotel with a view of the river; and 10 USD for photo at the border (office covered 35 USD visa). Total, 74USD. Me time, priceless. If you are staying in Cambodia and you are from an ASEAN country like me, you would have so many inexpensive opportunities to visit border countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Visa is free and land travel is very affordable. Flying is not so bad either. If you buy your tickets early enough, you could find budget fares to some of the key destinations to these countries.

Walking around. There are some nice touristy spots in Ha Tien, but I was not really into it. I simply wanted to take it slow and relax. I mainly walked around, and did my favorite past time when abroad, watching people. I love the laid back mood and the small town feel of this border city. Pleiku is much more developed and has its share of shopping malls and large establishments but it has its own charm. Ha Tien’s pride is the riverbanks, clean and spotted with sit down and ambulant cafes. The breeze got me in a melancholy mood and had me staring at the river half the time.

You can tell a place is safe when children play on their own in the park. I also felt safe walking around any time of day. I remember the movie Bird Box, where the presence of birds made people feel safe, because the birds react when they feel the creature is anywhere near. Anytime of day, birds chirp in Ha Tien. You wouldn’t be able to tell if the bird songs are live or recording as there are plenty of bird hotels or farms there. These are actually normal buildings, part of which people convert to bird houses (holes), where people harvest the expensive birds nest for nido soup. From a vegan point of view, this is not acceptable. Yes, bird’s nest is expensive and gives people extra income, but it’s still humans using what is NOT theirs, and what is not theirs is actually bird vomit. Yes, birds nest is made up of the bird’s solidified saliva. I sure hope the birds themselves are not being harvested. They seem to be happily going to the nests.

Some scenes I took while walking, The blue building has round holes where birds nest.

I personally feel safe as nobody gives me a second look when I travel in Asia. People in Ha Tien probably thought I’m Vietnamese, until I open my mouth. My face is so Asian generic that I have been mistaken for Khmer in Cambodia, Thai in Bangkok, Singaporean in Singapore, Northeast Indian in Bangalore, Indian in Pleiku, Indonesian in Melbourne, and Malaysian in Indonesia. As soon as I speak people would make a couple more guesses, until they say “Filipin” with a eureka smile.

Ha Tien by night. Buy Thailand shirt in Vietnam? Possible.
An off-white shirt in orange? Also possible.

Pagodas. The best way to explore Ha Tien is by renting a bicycle or a motorbike and going your own way at your own time. Despite the good roads, I opted out of driving a motorbike and got an elderly man to drive me around for a whooping 100,000! Relax, that is only about 5 USD, the same fare for a three-kilometer tuktuk ride in Sihanoukville. We went to five pagodas. That might sound a lot for a small town but the map shows at least nine. I’m sure there are a lot more outside of the downtown area. Pagodas have always had a pull on me. When I was a kid, I thought a pagoda was simply a Chinese-style building, thanks to a brand of cold-wave lotion educating me about culture. Of course later on, I realized that most of them are temples. When I travel, I always want to visit places of worship. They reveal so much about the local culture. I remember last year in Hyderabad, I visited three religious monuments in one day: the Charminar for Islam, the Birla Mandir for Hinduism, and the tallest Buddha monolith in the world on the Hussain Sagar Lake for Buddhism. It made so much sense to do so in a culturally and religiously diverse city. Only in doing so that I started to understand a bit of Hyderabad, its people, and culture.

Ha Tien’s pagodas were not earth-shakingly beautiful. But as religious places, ironically for Buddhism which is not a religion, they were special on their own. Each one had a character unique to it. And they were never out of people lighting incense sticks (I saw this was not allowed in a Buddhist gathering in the middle of Bangkok, for health and environmental reasons) and bowing back and forth in prayer. Visiting the pagodas was definitely the highlight of my Ha Tien visit.

The Chua Pu Dung Temple. Most of it is under construction
but one could already see how beautiful it would be once done.

Food. Since becoming vegan, I wanted all my trips to be food adventures. I was lucky in Bangkok when I was able to visit two branches of Veganerie and had awesome food without a worry. They had an extensive menu and really worth the visit. Given another chance, I will go back to Bangkok just for Veganerie.

My food adventure in Bangkok, December 2018. More photos of my Bangkok visit here:
https://tinyurl.com/ya3t9zza

I love Vietnamese food and since Tony is Vietnamese, I had a lot of lovely authentic Vietnamese food prepared by my sister. Back in the Philippines, my rare visits to Manila often include a dinner at Pho Hua or Pho Bac. But I agree with Tony when he says they are not authentic Vietnamese. I could still remember the taste of the vegetable pho, ban seo, spring rolls, and pandan rice cakes I had in Ho Chi Minh back in 2002.

After I put down my bag in the hotel room, I went out to eat. I wanted to find vegan pho, but nobody would serve it to me. So I went to Oasis Bar, a tiny joint being frequented by expats. The owner and guests were friendly and the food was surprisingly good. I had a baguette with hummus and roasted vegetables and green ice tea. I have learned not to stir drinks lest all the sugar blend in. I’m glad I didn’t because after I emptied the glass, a layer of sugar was still at the bottom. In Cambodia I would have said ‘skar tiktik’, which means little sugar. Most Viets I’ve met love their drinks sweet. On visits to the Philippines, Tony prepares his coffee with 1/3 condensed milk. I’m still terrified of it when I see people drinking the ultra sweet concoction.

For dinner I was able to find a restaurant by the riverbanks with a staff that spoke English. I asked for vegetable noodles but made an awful mistake. I forgot to say soup. So imagine my disappointment when I received fried noodles with vegetables. It tasted good but I could still feel my vegan pho evading me. Trying again in the morning, I found 66, an eatery facing the river that served me vegan pho. Since the broth was water-based, the guy put some oil on top of it before I could stop him. He was probably worried it won’t taste good. I jazzed it up with the works, chili sauce, soy sauce, freshly squeezed lime juice, and plenty of raw leaves. It was amazing and worth the search. My visit would not have been complete without it. Walking back to the hotel, I sat by a vendor along the street selling sweet porridges. I had one with glutinous rice and red beans, topped with coconut milk. It is also one of my favorite food in Cambodia. For my lunch, I had couscous and roasted vegetable stew at Oasis Bar.

It was not much of a food adventure for me in Ha Tien, but at least I was not a hangry vegan.

After lunch, I walked a few meters to where my van was waiting at Mekong Travels and left Ha Tien with a smile on my face. For me, in Vietnam, the third time is a charm. But then four is my lucky number, so given another opportunity, I will definitely go back.

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