Flat Stanley: The Philippines and Vietnam

Right, where were we…? Oh that’s right; we’d just left Sagada and were both heading north to a quaint little town by the name of Vigan. Little did we know how beautiful it was going to be, it looks like an old Southern European town.

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Flat Stanley at the hotel’s reception

The hotels here were pretty expensive, but Stanley used his negotiation skills and said he would pose for a picture if we could have the room for half price, and they said it was OK!

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Stanley posing for a picture with the hotel owner. I don’t know who the guy in the middle is though…

we spent a few days here before touring the rest of The Philippines. Stanley was having a great time. So was I in fact, so much so that we forgot to take photos together. But we got a few of the stunning scenery before we left.

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Stanley touring the beautiful streets of Vigan.

Because of this Stanley was disappointed, and asked me to take more pictures of him doing local things. I asked him what he meant and he said, “Well, in Vietnam you could take some pictures of me eating with chopsticks. I don’t think you took any photos of me doing that in The Philippines.” I agreed, and on the first day in Vietnam I made sure I got a photo of him eating a dish called ‘boon tit noong’ which is basically a bowl of Vietnamese noodles with beef, various vegetables and spring rolls. As you can see, he enjoyed it!

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Flat Stanley looking very chuffed with his ‘boon tit noong’, and the traditional iced tea in the background that comes free with every meal in local Vietnamese restaurants…

And that’s pretty much it from Vietnam. As you can see Stanley is about to have a nice long bath getting himself mentally prepared for Cambodia, where we have agreed to do some volunteer work. The school didn’t really want me to be honest; they wanted Stanley because of his negotiation skills and his ability to speak English, Thai and Chinese, even though he is made out of paper (which goes to show you can achieve anything you want if you work hard enough). So our next post will most likely be at an orphanage showing us passing on our skills to children in need. Until then, have a good day and we’ll see you soon!

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Stanley enjoying a hot bath in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. The perks of having a nice room every so often…

Dumaguete, The Philippines: The Yellow House, And The Incredible Family

So it was goodbye to Bacolod and hello to Dumaguete. I had already planned to stay here for around a week because of the recommendations I had been given about the place, but in the end the city itself was not why I fell in love with the place…

I was about to meet the second girl from the internet who went by the nickname off Kakaii. We immediately hit it off when I joined the site and felt comfortable around each other – at least online anyway – from the get go. I told her I was in Dumaguete and was looking forward to visiting ‘The Yellow House’, as when we had Skyped she took the laptop around the house and I noticed everything was bright yellow. She said she would come to my guest house to meet me the next day.

She came with her Auntie, who was very smiley and polite, and we got a motorized tricycle to The Yellow House (registered trademark) and the whole family was there, some spoke brilliant English, while others tried their best to communicate with me. They then cooked me lunch, refusing to let me pay for anything. Although I wanted to stay for a while, I didn’t want to take advantage, so I made my excuses and left. I made sure I got a picture with her mum though who had taken me in like a member of the family.

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We then went back to my hotel to hide from the sun. The plan was to relax for five minutes as it was so hot outside before heading to a restaurant where I would treat her to dinner (it was the least I could do) however five minutes turned into nearly three hours when I showed her my book. She then proceeded to read the whole thing from start to finish. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen; watching one of my friends completely engrossed in a piece of work that I had written. I left her to it trying to disturb her as little as possible as I tried to sort out my laptop (after waiting for it to load for over an hour I gave up) and messing around on Facebook on my phone as I patiently waited for her to finish it.

She did, and I got her dinner, she hilariously preferred to go to Jolibee (a fast food restaurant) than go to a nice restaurant by the seafront, which suited me and my wallet perfectly fine. We then took a detour to McDonalds, where I devoured a burger with some serious grease on it while she elegantly ate some chicken and rice (yes you read that right; in Asia they do rice dishes in places like McDonalds…)

The next day the whole family and I went to a place called ‘Area 24’ which was a large public pool. I say pool, there were about 5 different pools scattered around for kids and adults alike, and if you preferred to swim lengths or relax in the hot water. The family had taken a picnic with them, and again they refused to let me pay for anything. I felt overwhelmed by the fact they had accepted me almost like a member of the family so readily. Kindness like that is so rare nowadays…

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I got talking to Kakaii’s little cousin, a 13 year old girl who wanted to become a writer. Her English was very good and I gave her some tips on how to succeed, hopefully I inspired her. Then as we were nearly there she said to me loud enough to everyone in the minibus could hear if I will come back to Dumaguete one day. I told her without hesitation that I would.

“Ah; you’re going to come back for Kakaii…” She said, nodding toward Kakaii. The whole minibus erupted with laughter.

“In The Philippines it’s OK to love your lover…” She added, full of confidence. Everyone burst out laughing again, including me, the only person who wasn’t laughing was Kakaii, who looked a bit embarrassed. I high fived her cousin saying that I would remember that forever, and instantly knowing that it was going to go in my blog.

After swimming for a while I was cream crackered. Then another one of her cousins, a 20 year old bloke with abs of steel, asked if I had ever tried Tanduay before (a local rum), I said no so he broke out a 375 ml bottle and the three of us (me, him and Kakaii) took turns to neck the bottle. We finished it in about thirty minutes and I was steaming. I don’t know about the other two but I was done. On the ride back I was playing a game on Kakaii’s phone matching the colours in a puzzle game, which would have been simple if (a) I wasn’t drunk and (b) I wasn’t colourblind…

We got back to her house agreeing to drink some more Tanduay, but when I got back I didn’t have it in me. We then went down the road to her brother’s house. I was expecting some burly bloke ready to kick the shit out of me saying “What are you doing with my little sister?!?!?” But that side of the family were also really friendly. They instantly won me over by giving me a beast of a chocolate cake. Again, showing how genuinely nice they all were.

Finally I went to another pool hall with Kakaii’s uncle. He loved the fact that I was interested in pool and when we got to the hall he set up for 9 ball, which meant I was about to have my arse handed to me, and it duly was. In the end I was clapping as I marvelled at some of the shots he was pulling off. He then introduced me to a common Filipino game called 61. It’s basically like 9 ball but with 15 balls on the table, and you add up the numbers you have potted until you get to 61, then you win. I didn’t win…

And that was it for Dumaguete. The city was OK at best, but I’ll definitely be coming back to visit my new friends, or shall I say my Dumaguete family. This is one of the main reasons I wanted to go travelling around the world, and hopefully one day I can return the favour

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I was showing the family some football tricks and Kakaii’s little brother looked very interested and tried to do some tricks with me. So I gave him my Watford shirt as long as he promised that he would continue to practice football tricks, and by the time I came back to Dumaguete he would be performing at a high standard…

Meeting For The Volunteer Work In Cambodia (Yeah, We’re Proper Professional…)

I came to Cambodia to do some volunteer work and help poor and/or homeless children before continuing my journey around the world. Unfortunately for circumstances beyond my control I not only had to give up my position next week, but I also have to fly home and end the trip abruptly early (Everything happens for a reason as I always say, even though I’m gutted that I have to stop so early into my trip). Regardless Paul (Give it to me I’m worff it) kept me on in an ‘advisory role’, since I was the only one in the team so far with genuine teaching experience in a third world country with limited resources, and last Saturday we had a meeting with the owner of a coffee shop in Phnom Penh called ‘Brewhouse’ with the hope of securing a sponsor for this specific teaching camp in Phnom Penh.

We sat down a few hours early to discuss what we were going to say to the guy. Me, Paul and a Cambodian teacher by the name of Puthi started talking about what we should say, and I said to them that they just needed to be honest and prove that they weren’t some fly by night company looking to make a quick buck, but a legit non profit company that genuinely wants to help.

The owner of Brewhouse then came to join us and introduced himself as Vibol. I took an immediate liking to Vibol; when you’ve been in Asia for as long as I have you tend to notice that quite a lot of people who are in good position either have a sense of entitlement or have been handed their ‘power’ so to speak. Vibol was not one of these people at all. He was a self made man who knew where he came from and in turn had a keen interest in giving back to his fellow countrymen. Many foreigners who come to another country usually go there to help, but get disillusioned by the amount of rich people just trying to get richer at the expense of their own people. So it was nice to hear that Vibol used to have a project like this before, and was always interested in helping out the poorer people in Cambodia.

Paul started off explaining about what Away Teams was and how it had plans of becoming a global network for volunteers. Then he seemed a bit tongue tied, and I felt we were losing Vibol’s interest. So I stepped in while Paul composed himself and began to tell him about my experience as a teacher and how most English lessons – quite frankly – were boring as hell. He smiled knowingly and I proceeded to give a fucking ten out of ten speech about how I would be helping Paul and his team with Away Teams’ first project. Including what English games we could play and what songs we can teach them.

It worked! Paul composed himself, got out his baseball bat and knocked it out of the park. Vibol was impressed and agreed to advertise the project (I don’t know if he gave a donation or not, so I’m going to lie to you and say he did…). We then celebrated with doughnuts and Puthi drove us all home.

It’s a shame I won’t be directly involved in the project. But like I said it was out of my control and I wasn’t supposed to be there this time, and at least I’m only an email away if they need advice or a second opinion on something. And I will be emailing Paul with ideas and lesson plans to keep the kids entertained and excited about English. I wish the team all the best, and am looking forward to eventually being an actual part part of the team one day.

If you are interested in volunteer work at all, then feel free to check out the Away Teams website by clicking here…. or don’t, I’m not your mother…

Ho Chi Minh Part 2: The Generic Tourist Experience…

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OK, so long story short I tried to get a visa for China in Ho Chi Minh but because I got there at 1 in the morning, I woke up too late to apply for a visa. I then realised I was about 30 minutes away from the embassy and reports online suggested that the Chinese embassy there was less than helpful, so I decided that I’d stay in the south for 15 days, then do Cambodia for a while getting my visa there before going back to Vietnam and doing the north for 15 days, essentially spending double the time in the country. (Sorry, that wasn’t short at all was it?) So after doing Nha Trang and Da Lat I eventually said to myself that it would be a cool idea to do Ho Chi Minh again, but this time do the tours of the tunnels etc instead of doing the non touristy experience that i did the week before…

I stayed bang in the centre of the tourist area, and to put it politely, it was a shithole. Fortunately for me I’d already experienced the real Ho Chi Minh and knew what it was really like, otherwise I would have looked at the place blankly, shouted “NOPE!” and carried on travelling…

I stayed in some unmemorable hostel with my own room. It was OK, the tour guide downstairs tried to sell me everything except her immediate family. I booked a tour to a temple and the Chu Chi tunnels for 180,000 dong with them (just under £6) so I didn’t bother checking anywhere else and booked it for the next day, also handing in my washing after they said it would be done by tomorrow so I’d be set to go into Cambodia the day after that.

The tour itself was really cool. The temple was gorgeous and we got there just in time to watch them pray and chant. Apart from that, nothing else happened, apart from Luke Skywalker and Peter Griffin bursting through the ceiling and fighting to the death. The tour guide kept saying “NO PICTURES!” so I can’t actually prove this. But I said it so it must be true…

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Then we got back on the bus and I got chatting to an Italian legend by the name of Dennis. He and his girlfriend had been living in Australia (or New Zealand, I can’t remember, so lets meet half way and say Madagascar…) working there for a few years and were now travelling around Asia. I recommended a few places to go in Chiang Mai because I’m an English gentleman and then generally talked over him until we got to the Chu Chi tunnels.

I admittedly know very little about the Vietnam war, so I was intrigued to find out more about it. I did the killing fields in Cambodia 5 years ago and felt it would be a similar energy and interest in terms of historical importance.

At one point we found a secret tunnel that the Viet Cong used. It was tiny, and the guide joked that the fat Americans could not fit down it, and it had been made slightly bigger  so tourists could use it. “Who wants to try?” He said enthusiastically.

“Well I’m the skinniest person here, so I guess I’ll give it a go…” I replied. Prompting angry stares from women on diets. Nonetheless I walked with a swagger towards the hole and slipped right in. The guide then stood on the trap door and said “Bye bye!” To which everyone laughed. I stayed down there for a about 20 seconds and then made my way back up.

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Then we got to some nasty looking traps. One was a false floor which spun around sending you falling towards some evil looking spikes. “I’m not trying that one!” I said in jest. The guide looked slightly disappointed…

Then we saw a few more horrible looking traps before we all walked through the tunnels. I did all of the tunnels but my legs didn’t thank me for the next few days. The tunnels were 1.2 metres high and roughly 1 metre in width, so you had to crouch or crawl through. Then we watched a video about the war describing the Americans as evil people. I tried to concentrate but my legs were killing me so I slumped on my seat and waited to die. I didn’t die…

Then I got back to my hotel. I’d seen a price for a ticket to Phnom Penh in a tour agents across the road but I thought I’d give the money to our tour agents, as they had been nice to me. However when I asked the price it was 90,000 dong (£3) more than the ticket across the road, so I told them this and they started getting aggressively persistent, like the touts in India who talk over you thinking that this is a good sales technique. In the end I bluntly excused myself walked 50 metres across the road and booked the ticket for nearly half price. Then I saw that the same tour I had taken had been sold to me for 50% more than what this company were offering. “Oh well, you win some you lose some…” I thought nonchalantly.

Then the hotel said my washing wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow. I told them I would be leaving tomorrow and that it needed to be ready, considering they promised it would already be done by now. The next day 1 hour before I was about to leave they again told me it wasn’t ready, and I needed to wait for 2 hours. I told them I was leaving and that they needed to get my stuff done. It was ready just as the bus was about to leave (they wouldn’t give me my passport either) then the lady barked at me, “YOU NO PAY YET, YOU PAY NOW!”

“I KNEW YOU’D TRY THAT!” I said angrily, slapping the receipt saying that I’d already paid on the table, before saying that I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them. I managed to get my passport again, but this left a nasty taste in my mouth, trying to scam tourists for as much as they can get (maybe a lot of people panic when they still have your passport, the bus is about to leave and they shout at you to pay even though you already have done). Again, why I hate touristy areas…

So to summarize, the tours were great, the tourist area was not. Go to Ho Chi Minh, it’s a lovely place, but for the love of god don’t stay in the tourist area, unless you are one of those tourists who loves to party all day and doesn’t really give a shit about offending people or other people’s cultures.

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Basic map of the Chu Chi tunnels. They are surprisingly advanced considering the tools they had at their disposal…

Not Your Usual Travelling Experience in Ho Chi Minh…

I made it to Vietnam! I flew in at 12:30 in the morning (which is going to be my last flight on this trip, honest!!!) and didn’t like the look of the taxi drivers and motorbike guys who were following me around and not leaving me alone. I’d seen on the map that there were hundreds and hundreds of hotels nearby so I decided to walk with my heavy bags and find a hotel by myself.

“This was a terrible idea!” I muttered to myself after 10 seconds, not having a clue where I was going. I realised I wasn’t in The Philippines anymore and assumed it would only be a matter of time before I got robbed. After walking for 15 minutes I found a palace of a room for 300,000 dong (about £10) so I did a jig and celebrated the fact I didn’t die…

The next day a friend of mine contacted me and said “Yo blood; I’m gonna be bowling it through Ho Chi Minh tonight. Make yourself known playa or get the fuck out of my life bitch!!!” (I may be slightly paraphrasing that…) I agreed to his demands because I’m a pussy and met up with him. He had a really nice room in a ridiculously posh hotel. I accepted the fact that my friend may be a secret drug dealer and broke into a dance. A dance that we later called the ‘Give it to me I’m worff it’ dance…

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The view from the top floor of my friend’s hotel. We even had food and cocktails for free!

We had a few drinks, then went off to explore the city. He convinced me to go to Cambodia to do some voluntary work there with him and I did one more dance, however he saw this as a challenge to his masculinity, and proceeded to have a dance off with me. I can neither confirm nor deny whether I cried afterwards or not, but I did lose…

Later on that afternoon I found a Vietnamese restaurant to have some authentic Vietnamese food and I accidentally locked eyes with an angry looking Vietnamese guy about my age. “Oh shit…” I thought to myself. I tried not to antagonize him any more by swiftly looking away from his gaze but it didn’t work, and he angrily walked towards me.

“Hi, do you want to sit with me?” He said in a friendly tone. I’ve never been good at reading people. There’s a reason I don’t play poker.

We sat down and got chatting, he said his name was Taylor and loved writing music and art. I told him my sister was an artist as well which he liked. Soon he was inviting me to go with him to his hometown for the weekend, which I thought was a cracking idea as I had nothing planned anyway.

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Me at one of the temples in My Tho, Taylor’s home town.

That evening I wanted to go out for the night to celebrate the birth of my nephew. A kind girl at the restaurant told me about a place called ‘Vuvuzela’ so I headed in that direction. It was a great place, but it was a shame that I went there by myself because I couldn’t enjoy myself as much as i wanted to, but it’s definitely worth going once if you ever end up around the airport area of Ho Chi Minh…

The day after that I met up with another friend of mine I had been talking to online. We met in a coffee shop and she revealed she was big into meditation and asked if I wanted to join in a session she was about to do. I said why not? and did a little bit of meditating, because I’m worff it… She then took me to her house where I met her family and they cooked me lunch. We had fish and brown rice and it was amazing! After lunch we went to her room and she started chatting online. The next thing I knew I had fallen asleep on her bed and had been there for 3 hours! I woke up alone and with the lights off. She’d obviously seen I had fallen asleep and left me to it. As I came to I thought to myself, “What a lovely person.” We then chatted for about 30 minutes before her mum asked me if I wanted to have dinner. I did really want to, but I had to get back to my hotel for 8 o clock before the copy shop shut. So I thanked them all for their hospitality and went on my way.

So I didn’t do what everyone normally does in Ho Chi Minh, I didn’t see the war memorial or the tunnels, but as I’m going to Cambodia I have a chance to do that the next time I go through Vietnam. Overall I had a great time and wouldn’t change it for a stereotypical travel experience through Ho Chi Minh. I’m very fortunate to be having a real travel experience. Long may it continue!