Penang, the coolest city in Asia?

Penang was he first stop in my trip around Malaysia, where I landed from a Taipei layover / quick visit. Despite the long trip, I still had the energy to get on a public bus (401) toward the central street Lebuh Chulia. The bus took ~45 min, the same a taxi would, and cost RM2.7 ($0.6) vs. the RM38 ($9) of a taxi. Once in the central area, it was easy to find a decent hostel for RM40. I took a quick walk and swallowed some delicious char kway teow (fried noodles) from a stall, before heading to bed – the next day would be a long one.

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How to visit Taipei during a layover

Similarly to Dubai or Singapore, Taipei is a fantastic city to visit on a short layover. I was on my way to Malaysia for a 2 week diving vacation, and had booked a cheap flight through this airport, without giving it much thought. Once we touched ground, I realized that I had nearly 6 hours until my departure to Kuala Lumpur. I immediately checked on my phone whether I needed a visa (short answer: no for most nationalities, but check the latest info), and if I could see the highlights of the city in just a few hours (short answer: yes). This was my step by step itinerary, which I would call very successful 🙂

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Boating and eating in the Mekong delta

Our time in Vietnam was coming to an end, after travelling all the way from Hanoi overland to Ho Chi Minh City, stopping in Ninh Binh, Hue, Danang, Hoi An and Nha Trang. We had two more days left before flying home via Hong Kong, and we wanted to spend them exploring the Mekong Delta. There are numerous operators offering day trips from HCMC to My Tho, the nearest river town, but I had heard terrible things about them. Instead, we decided to take a bus to Can Tho and once there arrange a boat tour. We took a taxi to Mien Tay bus station (on the way back we would take a public bus, it’s quite easy), and bought tickets with Thanh Buoi (VDN 100,000, $4.5). There were many options available, we chose these buses because they took less than 4 hours and had free wifi. They also offered a free shuttle from the Can Tho bus station, in the outskirts, to the center, but I believe all of them did.

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How to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels on your own

The Cu Chi tunnels are one of the best known “tourist attractions” in South Vietnam. And I put quotation marks because the tunnels are much more than a museum for the enjoyment of national and foreign visitors; they are raw history of Vietnam’s war times. The local people of Cu Chi started digging this 250km network of connecting underground tunnels during the French occupation in the 40s and continued in the 60s, when they were used by the North Vietnamese to fight the American/South Vietnamese army. The tunnel system comprised not only corridors, but also all sorts of rooms (sleeping, dining, hospital, storage), booby traps, air filtration systems, etc., and was estimated to have hosted 16,000 people. The history of the tunnels is fascinating, a classic example of a guerilla resisting against a military superpower. The US launched massive bombing campaigns against the tunnels and sent several infantry divisions to try to find the entrances and force the Viet Cong out, but failed repeatedly. Being a history enthusiast, I definitely wanted to see this site during our trip to Vietnam, even more so after our day getting educated about the war in Saigon.

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Saigon and the horrors of war

Ho Chi Minh City is commonly referred to by locals and visitors as Saigon. These names encapsulate the rich past of Vietnam’s largest city, the “capital” of the South. It’s definitely not a charming town, but it is an excellent place to learn about history and war. We had arrived on a night train from relaxing Nha Trang beach, and after a quick fruity breakfast at the famous Ben Thanh Market, we were eager to start exploring.

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A break in Nha Trang beach

Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break. After two months backpacking through Nepal, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, we needed some days of relax to recharge batteries. Luckily, the beach town of Nha Trang was on our way, and we had enough SPG points to get a free room at the Sheraton there. For those who don’t know, SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) is probably the best hotel loyalty program in the world. I travel for work a lot, and try to stay at their Westins, Sheratons, Ws and St. Regis as much as possible to horde points, which accumulate fast once you have platinum status. And it’s to use them in moments like these, to get a free suite at a nice hotel by the ocean, and stuff yourself at the included buffet 🙂

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The temples of My Son, a great day trip form Hoi An

Pretty much unknown to us, the Champa Kingdom was one of the greatest Asian civilizations, ruling central and southern Vietnam from the 2nd to the 17th century. Hoi An was their commercial capital and My Son the spiritual one. Dozens of Hindu temples were built at this location between the 4th and the 14th century, only to be reclaimed by the jungle when the empire fell under the Nguyen dynasty.

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Walking around Hoi An, Vietnam’s jewel

Hoi An is, without a question, the most charming city of Vietnam. Nicely preserved and protected by its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, it enamors you with its yellow French colonial buildings, Chinese-style shop-houses, lively riverfront and colorful nights. It is, in contrast with the rest of the cities we visited in this trip, a city for pedestrians, with the Old Town closed to cars and even motorbikes at certain times. Continue reading “Walking around Hoi An, Vietnam’s jewel”