Friday, January 20, 2017

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: The Iconic “Pho” Meal

Our first meal in Vietnam is naturally the iconic Phở that originated in northern Vietnam but eaten everywhere in the country, on the streets and in the restaurants.

We arrived at our hotel in the city centre just before lunch time, which was a bonus because we were able to relax, recover from the long ordeal the night before and freshen up before going out for lunch. It took us actually some time to get out of the airport because of my visa. I will post a separate entry about this soon, as well about the hotel we stayed at.

A lovely spread of our delicious pho lunch.

The restaurant is located on top of the Coffee Bean Company Cafe besisde Ben Thanh market.

We found out about the restaurant courtesy of our hotel, the Avanti Hotel. Upon check-in they gave us a few 10% discount coupons of Pho 2000. It was very timing as we were looking for a restaurant to have lunch. Well, why not? The bellboy told us that it’s just around the corner above a coffee shop. At least my mom does not have to walk that far and we can check out the Ben Thanh market across after lunching.

When we arrived at the restaurant, one of the female personnel quickly noticed my mom’s walking stick and assisted her. The stairs were a bit steep but with proper assistance my mom was able to climb to the upper floor where Pho 2000 is located.

The restaurant seemed to be very popular because it was full with guests, and mostly foreigners. I was already thinking – Is this a tourist trap? But if it is, then the food must be good?

This is the scene when we arrived. So busy, eh!

I ordered the 333 beer for myself.

Not sure what my sister is doing here.

We were quickly given a table and then we ordered the restaurant’s specialty – Pho, the national dish of the country.

So what is pho actually? Pho is Vietnamese noodle soup. It basically refers to the white flat silky rice noodles but the broth is what makes it a magical dish.

My dad and sister ordered the same thing, a standard bowl of seafood based pho. My mom had a chicken pho, while I had the beef. We noticed that they were serving large bowls so we made sure that we get the standard order. I could not wait to eat and slurp my pho discreetly, haha. We did not really waited that long because the service here at Pho 2000 was really quick.

With the pho came some garnishing such as chili peppers, coriander, bean sprouts, Thai basil, and culantro. I love all these garnishing. They are like pure art to me. I love the extra heat and the quirky taste of the herbs. The Thai basil, coriander and culantro have a special taste and aroma so not everyone is easily accustomed to eating this right away. My family for example ignored them. I just wished they gave us fresh raw bean sprouts instead of steamed ones.

So here’s the real thing. When I tasted my pho? It was lovely. Like the whole world of Vietnamese cuisine opened up to me and cradled me in her arms. So poetic haha but I really felt so good when I slurped, albeit discreetly, my pho. This is one of the best noodle soups I have tasted. The broth really made a huge difference. This was much better than the noodles I have had in Xiamen. My mom, dad and sister also said that their pho were very good.

The chicken pho.

The seafood pho.

The garnishing: chili, bean sprouts, Thail basil, coriander, culantro.

This is my beef pho. Delicious.

Funnily, even after a few days we still talked about the pho we ate here at Pho 2000. So this must have been a good pho restaurant even if it looked like a tourist trap.

And oh, after gorging down the pho we saw pictures of Bill Clinton and Chelsea on the wall. It looks like the Clintons visited the restaurant many years ago and the owners used this to market further their business. Well, we came here not because of the Clintons or someone tipped us that this is best pho in Saigon. We came here because of the 10% discount coupon and that it is just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. As sober as it may sound, this is the reason.

This meal was just the start of our foray into Vietnamese food and I am already liking it. I have eaten Vietnamese food before but I have a feeling that Vietnamese food is going to become a favourite of mine after this holiday.

The Pho 2000 discount coupon we got from our hotel and pictures of Bill Clinton and Chelsea on the walls of the restaurant.

The restaurant is located on the corner, right under the Mitsubishi Electric above the Coffee Bean Company Cafe. This is across Ben Thanh market. It is very easy to find.

Travel Period: December 2016
Destination: Ho Chi Minh City (Southeast), Vietnam

Keep in touch and follow me on Facebook: Travel & Lifestyle Diaries by Dutched Pinay Travels
Happy Travels! Enjoy Life =)

All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Cebu to Ho Chi Minh: Dodging the Storm, Wings Transit Lounge and Manila Airport (NAIA) Logistical Challenges

One of the worst nightmares of a traveller is going through bad weather.

I have learned about the impending storm in the Philippines from my friend Pie. Their whole family from her husband’s side were going to Hong Kong and Macau after Christmas so they were obsessively monitoring the weather news. I became a little bit worried because the storm is supposed to hit on the 24th, a day before Christmas and will leave the country on the 26th. This is going to be a Merry Stormy Christmas I thought and our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam via Manila is on the 26th at 22:00 hours. A bit too close for comfort methinks.

We flew with a huge Airbus plane from Cebu to Manila with Philippine Airlines (PAL).

Stressing out will do no good really so I tried to stay positive. Cebu was not really affected of the storm. We only experienced grey clouds and scattered rain showers. On the day of our flight, I heard from the news that the storm has finally left the jurisdiction of the Philippines. This was in the afternoon and our flight is scheduled in the evening.

We arrived at the Mactan Cebu International Airport early as planned. We are flying with Philippine Airlines (PAL) at 22:00 to Manila landing at NAIA terminal 2 and we will have a red-eye 5-6 hours layover before flying the next day early at 06:50 to Ho Chi Minh City. Because of this we have booked a family room at the Wings Transit Lounge at NAIA terminal 3 where we can rest and sleep. Sadly, there is no direct flight to Vietnam from Cebu.

NAIA is acronym for Ninoy Aquino Interntional Airport which is the Manila International Airport. The airport has 4 terminals with terminal 2 and 3 often used for international flights.

At the PAL airport check-in we saw DELAYED signs across the counters. The woman at the counter told us that they have just started resuming flights for the day, and well, it is almost 21:00 in the evening! The storm has crippled many airports in the Philippines and have stranded passengers over the special holidays. Such a bummer for those leaving last minute to join family. It usually takes an airport several hours to fix the flight delays, with the hope of course that the storm did not leave any damage at all.

She said that our flight at 22:00 will be delayed because the plane is still in Manila. So I reckon 1.5 to 2 hours delay which is doable but tricky for us. Then her face lighted up and suggested that there is a flight about to leave now (the 18:00 delayed flight) that we can take if we want to, but then this means we have to hurry up as they are now boarding. We right away said yes. It is a good thing that the airport in Cebu is small, because the gate is literally around the corner.

We thought we got lucky to be leaving earlier than planned  and docking the possible delay of 2+ hours.

Christmas decorations at the Mactan Cebu International Airport.

We were the last ones to board the flight Cebu to Manila with PAL.

Even though we have a layover in Manila we checked in our bags straight to Ho Chi Minh City. This was a very good decision as we were spared from the picking, lugging and re-checking in the bags in Manila. Philippine Airlines (PAL) has a free checked-in baggage allowance of 30 kilos per person. On top of that you can bring a carry-on (1 small luggage and an bag or accessory).

So still flying with PAL, and now about to land in Manila, the pilot went on air to inform everyone that we were on a long queue of requesting permission to land. Then he came back to say we were now 5th on the queue list. Then he came back again saying the same thing, and the same thing. There really was no movement and it is frustrating to know that we were stuck in a sort of loop. An air loop. Eventually we landed but the whole exercise took more than an hour.

The nice thing the PAL stewardesses did for the overtime was to go up and down the galley and serve drinks.

My sister and I in the plane. We thought it would be best to document this delay with our tired we-can't-wait-to-get-out-of-this-plane faces. It is 23:00 hours here, just an hour before midnight.

Everyone was thankful we finally landed, but then the pilot came back on air again informing us that we are waiting for bay parking. We thought that this could be handled within just a matter of minutes, but the minutes turned into half an hour, then into an hour. We were trapped. Everyone in the plane was very tired by now and just itching to get out of this humongous flying machine. I can sense the frustration levels of the passengers brewing up but everyone naturally understood the situation. Acts of nature are cases no one has control with. It will always take hours for airports to resume delayed operations and smoothen out the chaos the storm has left. Well, after 1.5 hours waiting on the tarmac, we were finally assigned to a bay parking. Hallelujah!

All in all, our 50 minute flight took almost 4 hours.

Still, we thought we were lucky to have dodged the storm and the longer than 4 hours delay. Had we not taken the 21:00 Cebu to Manila flight (which was the 18:00 delayed flight) we might have had a big chance of missing our 06:50 Manila flight to Ho Chi Minh. Or I will have 2 very harassed senior citizens without any sleep and rest. The latter is more important to us because of their health.

The midnight chaos at NAIA terminal 2. I took this picture quickly as I searched for the shuttle bus to NAIA terminal 3.

From NAIA terminal 2 (the exclusive PAL airport) we took the shuttle bus to NAIA terminal 3 to the Wings Transit Lounge. Unfortunately, there are no lounge and sleeping facilities at NAIA 2. There was a transfer and information desk but the queue was intimidating so I resorted to just asking around where the shuttle buses were located.

We arrived at the Wings Transit Lounge just before 02:00 and quickly settled inside the family room to rest.

The family room is good for 4 people and the standard pricing is ₱3,200 for maximum 7 hours. They offer other types of rooms, massage services and lounge access. I also believe they allow 3-5 hours for a special price. Prices are inclusive of food which are light snacks and drinks. It is also a shared toilet and shower arrangement here which I do not mind if its just for a few hours. Reservations are highly recommended but you will have to pay in advance. You can also walk in here and inquire anytime.

The woman at the Wings Transit Lounger counter should smile more often and be more nicer and accommodating. She seems to have had a very bad day.

The family room. I was very tired and it can be seen in the quality of this picture.

The eating area of the Wings Transit Lounge.

Now this is our logistical challenge and annoyance.

We were flying with PAL which flies only at NAIA terminal 2. The Wings Transit Lounge is situated at NAIA terminal 3. There really is no fast and easy connection between the 2 terminals except for the shuttle buses that go every 20-30 minutes. This long waiting time is just not acceptable. Half an hour to wait for a shuttle bus? If it was not a chaos at the airport because of the storm, and that it is midnight and that I have 2 elderly parents with me, I would have taken a cab.

Suggestion to NAIA: Please add more buses so the shuttle service go at a more frequent interval.

The shuttle buses also worked exclusively for specific airlines which I find utterly ridiculous. They double check your flights as well to make sure you have the right to avail of the shuttle service. All these pointless exclusivity and restrictions are just absurd. Why can’t they not have 1 shuttle bus operation between the 2 terminals?

I hope they address these critical issues for the shuttle bus service because it is really confusing, time-consuming, inefficient and irritating for passengers. The best scenario is that they build an airtram/skyway between the 2 terminals soon.

This logistical issue just added a lot of drama on top of the storm delay for us. But still, we were glad that we were able to rest, albeit for only 2 short hours at the transit lounge. This meant a lot for the senior citizens.

This is our gate for our Manila to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam flight at 06:50 at NAIA 2. It looks like many of these people have camped the night over here.

Here are some Manila plane views as we fly over the large metropolis en-route to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I hope you enjoy the sprawling views.

I am now geographically challenged and cannot really identify the places where these are in Manila.

Our Manila to Ho Chi Minh flight went smooth as planned. There was no drama. We landed on time. You can see here the plane views just before landing at the Tan Son Nhat International airport: Arriving Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Plane Views

Stick around for our Vietnam travel tips and experiences.

Travel Period: December 2016
Destination: Cebu to Manila, Philippines

Keep in touch and follow me on Facebook: Travel & Lifestyle Diaries by Dutched Pinay Travels
Happy Travels! Enjoy Life =)

All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Cebu, Philippines: A Tale of Two Shopping Malls, Trip Down Dimsum Memory Lane and More

Please excuse me but my shopping mall stories are far from over!

I really did serious ‘malling’ before Christmas in Cebu. My sister and I were cramming for our Christmas eve family get together gift giving. We managed to buy most of the gifts but we still have a few left on the list. The parents also gave us the task to buy their gifts so that added up to our to-do items. But the whole exercise was fun. It is good therapy to shop for someone, as long as you know what item to buy. It is nothing like reckless idle shopping that some of us (well, not me really) can be guilty of.

The Lights Show at the Ayala Centre Terraces, one of the two malls we visited for the day. The other was SM City. Scroll down for the short video I made.

I was also in Cebu for some personal affairs and I learned that at SM City there is a government services shared centre where you can ask information about tax services, PRC (professional regulations commission), social security services, Philhealth and many more. This is just brilliant!

When you arrive at the services centre, you just have to take a number per service and then wait for your turn. If your number is still far from bring called, you can just go out and shop, eat somewhere or do some errands and then come back. I took numbers for a few of the services. Some of my inquiry is as simple as finding out my SSS (social security) number. I have not kept track of this since I left 14+ years ago. Time to mend things. #nevertoolate

Well, it looks like there’s more work to be done. Most of my data tax-wise are in Manila and would need to be transferred to Cebu. Anyway it is a work-in-progress.

This is a really a good partnership between SM and the government.

The big Christmas tree at the SM City - North wing.

We checked out Cyberzone as well and the sister bought this Taro drink/light shake from Quickly. It is delicious, highly recommended. In the Netherlands computer-related items are sold mostly online these days. Many retail shops here have filed for bancruptcy one after the other! Not in the Philippines.

We then had lunch at the Harbour City Dimsum House. I love dimsum, I grew up with this food. Chinese dimsum is a household name in Cebu. There is a very large Chinese community here mostly coming from the Fujian province of China, hence the Chinese influence on Cebuano food. Our family often went to the local Chinese-dimsum restaurants back in the 70s and 80s.

I remember Showsheen, International Rice House, Cebu Majestic Restaurant and Ding Hao in Colon Street. We always take-out food from Snowsheen (pancit canton, asado, chao pat chin). There was also Ding Qua Qua, the sister restaurant of Ding Hao in Mango Avenue where I often sneak in for a quick steamed fried rice fix. There was also the Great Han Palace. I am not sure if these places still exists?

On special occasions we eat at the White Gold House which was the cream of the crop amongst Chinese restaurants until it caught fire and burned down in the late 80s I believe. Until now the skeletal ruin of the building still stands still, a bleak memory of its once glorious past. The restaurant was part of the White Gold House Department store which was also the biggest and luxurious then. I remember as a child standing in front of the moving escalator, too afraid to step on it because it was the highest I have ever seen. Ah, those were the days.

Harbour City Dimsum restauarant in SM City, Cebu.

A quick online research and I learned that Harbour City Dimsum House owners were the ones running Ding Hao and Ding Qua Qua before.

So we ordered only a few dishes. Sister and I controlled ourselves not to get carried away if we do not want to gain another extra kilo from this lunch. The list of food items on the menu and the ready-to-be-picked dimsum servings on the trolley cart were begging our undivided attention. Oh dear, what a very hard life we have! All those food nostalgia in the 70s and 80s started engulfing me but I have to be steadfast and say no to my cravings. *sob*

I am glad to report though that the steamed fried rice still somewhat tastes the same. The sauce still rocks. And the siomai and the lumpia as well. This is truly comfort food for us.

I have not really seen this steamed fried rice dish in Chinese-influenced cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Macau and Xiamen, especially on the similarity of how it is cooked and served, and the sauce they use as well. I still have to visit more mainland Chinese cities but I am beginning to think that this steamed fried rice is a Chinese-Cebuano food invention.

If you are a foodie visiting Cebu, you must try the dimsum here. Do not forget to order the steamed fried rice. They have chicken, pork and seafood versions. Definitely a must eat when in Cebu!

The dimsum concept is the trolley food cart. This waiter dressed in Chinese emperor garb goes around the restaurant with the trolley full of good Chinese dimsum goodness. He also takes down your order for items that are not in the trolley cart, such as the steamed fried rice.

What we've ordered: Pork-shrimp siomai (upper right), Steamed fried rice pork (lower left) and Lumpia (lower right). They still cut the spring rolls this way, and they usually do it before serving =)

After lunch we continued shopping for the remaining items on the family’s gift wish list. We were almost complete except for the wish list of our dear nephew. He wants some NBA - Golden State Warriors stuff. There is only 1 NBA store in Cebu and it is located in Ayala Center, which is another big mall.

So we headed off to Ayala. It is not too far away from SM City but the traffic in Cebu is unspeakably horrible. I cannot imagine how the traffic situation is going to be like 5 years from now if they cannot solve this current frustrating congestion. To drive to the other side of the city, which before only takes 10-15 minutes, will now take you an hour! Unbelievable.

Traffic. This is the one thing that I really dislike about Cebu these days. Hmm, time to invest perhaps in a helicopter if you have the money, haha.

The harem of lights inside the activity centre area of Ayala Centre Mall.

This area is a new wing addition in Ayala. It looks very nice and green here. It is full of yummy and chic restaurants, as well as cool places to hang out.

In Ayala we managed to buy the NBA – Golden State Warriors items our nephew wants. The products sold at this store were not cheap at all, but we were very glad that we were finally done with all the Christmas shopping. Nephew is crazy about Stephen Curry, one of the Golden State Warriors players. I guess he is his idol, well for now.

I also asked the nephew if he likes football. I was surprised that he knows FIFA but said that he only likes Real Madrid. Hmm, he still has a lot to learn about the world of football. Well, he is still a kid. He is but 10 years old =)

We also managed to see the Christmas lights show at the Ayala Terraces. Very nice! I even took some pictures and a video.

The lights show go every 30-minutes I believe.

And a little snack down memory lane. Sister said she always buys this when watching a movie.

Sister and I were knackered out and hungry as well but we didn’t have the energy to sit in a nice restaurant anymore, so we resorted to a much easier and faster option, fast food. We both have eaten at Jollibee already, well we had a take out on the second day of my arrival, so we settled for another nostalgic fast food – Chowking.

My sister has lived in Singapore for years and she will soon be moving to New Zealand so we both share the Filipino food sentimentality and craving.

I was however craving for vegetables so I ordered their chop suey. This was nice for a change. When I go for days of not eating (enough) vegetables, I noticed that my system reacts and yearns for it, which is good.

Yup, no meat please, and not too much on the rice and cola as well.

This was a triumphant day because we have finally finished shopping for the gifts!

Travel Period: December 2016
Destination: Cebu City (Cebu - Visayas), Philippines

Keep in touch and follow me on Facebook: Travel & Lifestyle Diaries by Dutched Pinay Travels
Happy Travels! Enjoy Life =)

All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Kasadya sa SRP in Cebu, Philippines (Local Funfair + Street Food)

The sister and I never really planned on visiting this local funfair, the ‘Kasadya sa SRP’ but while we were having dinner at the Lantaw Native Restaurant SRP, we were entertained by strange noises and music in the background. We wondered where it was coming from and then we realized it was from a night event nearby.

Entrance to the Kasadya sa SRP

It was actually the noise, and not really the music that intrigued us. We kept on hearing this eerie sound of a dog howling, followed by scared people murmuring in the background and then a woman screaming at the top of her voice. The musical live band act of the restaurant already left so this was literally our background sound the whole time were eating our alfresco dinner at Lantaw. Can you imagine? Haha. (We later found out that the noise was from the Horror Ride attraction)

So we asked one of the waiters about the night event and found out that it is a funfair. Since we have an hour to spare before midnight we decided to check it out before going home.

Parking was easy peasy. There were some locals in the parking area hoping to earn a buck or two. I normally give them P10/20. Not sure if they will be really guarding your car but they usually come of out the blue when they see you are back and about to leave. I mean, if I can make someone happy with the P10/20, well why not?

Outside the fun fair grounds is a big street food pongko-pongko scene.

Outdoors eating: Pongko-pongko Cebuano style.

Grilled meat and fish, larsian-style. No vegie dish in sight. Filipino food is all about meat and rice.

Well, we have eaten already so we decided to just walk around and see what they have. Within seconds, the food vendors were all over us, showing the food they have on offer and inviting us to eat at their stalls. I managed to take pictures of the food and even spoke to a few vendors. It’s how I learned the name of the funfair – ‘Kasadya sa SRP’ and that this is an annual event held here at the SRP during the holiday season which is between November and January.

The eating style here is called Pongko-Pongko, which I have to add is an Asian thing. You basically sit outdoors in rudimentary plastic tables and small chairs to eat. In Vietnam, where I was recently visiting, they have a similar concept as well.

Do try and experience this when visiting the Philippines. Eat with the locals!

Salted eggs are a favourite of mine. My mom always buys them when I am around. Delicious with diced tomatoes and onions doused in vinegar and chili. You eat them as a side dish.

Chicken feet were also a popular delicacy in Xiamen, China where I visited before arriving in Cebu. And oh, I love those plump chorizos for breakfast. Yum! 

There is no entrance fee to the fun fair. Be warned though that there are a few children at the gateway giving pranks to funfair goers asking them if they have a ticket. If you answer no, they will ask money from you. Most people seem to know they are just pranksters. If you are new to coming here, just simply smile, ignore their request and walk past them.

If you are feeling a little bit blessed, a few pesos giveaway to the kids is also appreciated but be ready for a deluge of kids following you around asking for their share as well. For security sake, I would not suggest this, unless you are in a group.

Anyway, this funfair is, how shall I call it, very poorly setup and managed. Quality is non-existent? I do not want to even bring up safety. If you are the fussy snob, you will quickly leave after taking a peek. But sister and I were game, so we gave the place a chance and explored it a bit. Let’s just say that we want to be surprised.

We walked around inspecting a few interesting rides and we really had fun watching the Swing called the Dragon Twister. They waited a bit until they had a 90% capacity before starting the ride. Everyone was screaming haha.

We didn’t take part in any of the rides though, we just watched.

The swing was going quite fast! 

Our entertainment highlight was the ‘Horror Ride’. The whole setup was pretty elemental and primitive. They made an open-seat train ride from a derelict multi-cab. We got lucky as children and teenagers were just piling on top of the seats for the next ride. They were practically scrambling on top of each other non-stop whilst screaming. Haha, it seems that they were pretty much psyched up for it. It probably took some 10 minutes of constant jostling, screaming, jumping and changing of seats before the multi-cab finally started the engine and drove away. Then after less than a minute we saw the multi-cab on the other side of the corner, just a mere 100 metres away. Wow, that was one supersonic horror ride?! LOL

Sister and I were laughing to bits. For all the psyched up preparation they had prior to the ride and only to go through the actual ‘Horror Ride’ in less than a minute, maybe 30 seconds. It was a quick 100-metre ‘Horror Ride’. Priceless.

Anyway, it was almost midnight. Time to go home.

This is the priceless Horror Ride =)

Card and betting games in the funfair.

Do stay tuned. There will be more soon of Cebu!

Travel Period: December 2016
Destination: Cebu City, Cebu (Visayas), Philippines

Keep in touch and follow me on Facebook: Travel & Lifestyle Diaries by Dutched Pinay Travels
Happy Travels! Enjoy Life =)

All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.

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