A Comparative Study of Tuk-Tuks Across South East Asia

Although Tuk-tuks are a popular form of transportation across Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia (Singapore not so much, they prefer taxis – booooring), riding one in each location is very much a “same same but different” experience:

 Indonesia:

Travvel Sized giant

Travvel Sized giant

(Before I start talking about Tuk-tuks in Indonesia, I would first like to point out that all of my experiences with them are from Sumatra, not Bali or any other major tourist location.)

The first thing I did when I landed in the airport in Medan was bolt straight for a Tuk-tuk. Fortunately, I had done my research in advance and discovered that the taxis and Tuk-tuks waiting immediately outside the arrivals gate will charge you a significantly higher fare than those about 50m down the road (vehicles have to pay a fee to enter the airport pickup area). Even with the “cheaper” fare, my 15minute ride from the airport to the bus terminal was still more expensive than my 2.5hour bus ride to Berastagi.

At the time, I was travelling with 2 other girls and in all of our combined past experiences, three girls (with carry-on sized baggage) had been an easy fit. The Tuk-tuk we hired in Indonesia came nowhere near this. Since my girls had squished into the front-facing seats while I was in the washroom, I was stuck with the mini back-facing seat. Now, I’m not a very big person (if you couldn’t tell from the name of the blog), but I felt like a giant in that seat, it was so puny! I’m guessing Tuk-tuk was designed to fit only one person with some baggage and our driver just didn’t want to pass up our business and tried to squish us in regardless.

Thailand:

Who doesn't love hot pink seats?

Who doesn’t love hot pink seats?

My friends and I hired 2 Tuk-tuks to give us a tour around Bangkok. Apparently, it was “Buddha day”, so gas was free to all government-run Tuk-tuks (which are cheaper on a regular day and marked with a Thai flag, but are much less in number). This meant our half-day ride was only about 25baht (about 1SGD)!

For some reason though, one of our drivers took off before taking us back to our hostel without any explanation. We returned to the location we specified we would meet him in at the time we agreed on, but he just didn’t turn up. We hadn’t paid him yet, but after waiting around, we just called on another Tuk-tuk to take us back.

 Vietnam:

So.Many.Motorcycles. So.Many.Electrical wires.

So.Many.Motorcycles. So.Many.Electrical wires.

Vietnam was the one place I visited in South East Asia where Tuk-tuks were outnumbered by motorcycles. For this reason, the Tuk-tuk felt much larger than it usually would because you tower over all of the motorcylists! This is important if you’re even a little bit afraid of getting hit by a speeding vehicle on a road that seems to have no rules or directional system.

Cambodia:

So.Much.Space!! (also collapsable seats!!)

So.Much.Space!! (also collapsable seats!!)

As far as Tuk-tuks go, the ones you find in Cambodia couldn’t be more luxurious if you had painted them gold. The seats are spacious and wide and the roofs provide refreshing shade between temples when you’re touring the Angkor temples.

A friend and I got a Tuk-tuk to pick us up from the bus depot and bring us to our hostel. Before leaving, our driver asked if we needed a ride anywhere else during our time in Siem Reap. We told him about our plans to tour the Angkor temples, and he agreed to pick us up at 5am the next morning and give us a full tour. Knowing better than we did how hot it was going to be, he even gave us some complimentary water bottles throughout the day in a cooler in the Tuk-tuks trunk (I didn’t even know Tuk-tuks had trunks at that point)!

The only issue I had with the experience was the lack of speed. Even when I told the drive I had left my wallet at the last temple we had visited and urged him to take me back as fast as possible, he drove at the same leisurely pace. Apparently the only pace in the country.

 All Together Now:

To give you a little comparison of what to expect in terms of Tuk-tuk size, speed, service, availability and price, here’s a handy little chart:

  Size Speed Service Availability Cheapness Overall
Indonesia 1 6 4 5 7 4.6
Thailand 6 7 2 3 10 5.6
Vietnam 7 6 5 4 5 5.4
Cambodia 10 1 9 10 5 7.0
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Ben Thanh Market: Cartoon Characters and Helicopter Crashes

One of the first things the front office receptionist at the hotel in Saigon recommended to check out (after a place to grab so pho, of course) was the Ben Thanh market. As she was just reviewing out deposit details for the third time, I was only half paying attention to her at that point, so from what I had gathered, she had recommended a market themed after the cartoon character Ben 10. While all I know about the show is that there’s this guy named “Ben” who can turn into 10 different aliens (which I just learned now while googling a picture of him), I was pretty sure he wasn’t popular enough to warrant a full market, but I figured that if Hong Kong can have a goldfish market, Saigon could have a Ben 10 market!

When I finally got to the market, I found the entryway had a large sign printing out “BEN THANH”, disproving my Ben 10 theory.

It ALMOST worked, okay?

It ALMOST worked, okay?

I didn’t have much time to dwell on this though, it was 5:50pm and the indoor market was closing in 10 minutes (an outdoor section would open for the night at 7pm, but the indoor area is much bigger and better). I was still hoping to see some Ben 10 merchandise (just because it would have been hilarious), but it seemed TinTin was to be the biggest cartoon influence (you can thank the French ruling for that one).

However, my disappointment quickly faded when I found a street vendor selling plastic arrow helicopters. These are little toy copters with LED lights that you shoot into sky like a slingshot and (try to) catch as they spin back down. They were really popular on the beaches in Tioman, and I longingly watched kids playing with them, wishing I could find a place to buy one for myself. While I couldn’t find any in Tioman, my time had finally come in Vietnam. I ran, squealing towards the vendor so much I couldn’t even haggle, because it was clear how desperate I was to get my hands on one (or 3) of these toys. Once I had made my purchase, I squealed my way over to the park across from market and started firing my helicopter away.

As it turns out, this requires a lot more technique than I had originally thought. You need to make sure the sling is angled properly so that the helicopter opens up, but doesn’t fly too far away.

heli copy

After several misfires and the loss of half a wing, I finally started to get the hang of things, and after my first catch, I was in a complete state of euphoria. This didn’t bode particularly well in the crowded park (there are so many public exercise facilities in Vietnam, and they’re always being used – old ladies dancing to Britney Spears at 7am is a normal occurrence). I ended up running straight into an old man while try to make a catch (I was going for my third in a row, which would have been a record). He made no effort to avoid the crash, and after colliding, just looked at me blankly while I apologized profusely, my friend laughing at me from the sidelines.

From there, I moved to a quieter section of the park, ripped one of the wings fully off the copter, but managed to break my record! Basically my definition of the perfect shopping experience: 2.85% actual shopping, 75.68% random spontaneous adventure and 21.47% maniacal laughter (with a confidence interval of ±1.84%, approximately). (On a completely separate and unrelated note, studying for my revenue management exam is going great, particular the statistical calculations!)

 

Tales of a Mekong Delta Hipster

Keeping with the trend of spending most of my time in Saigon not actually staying in the city itself, I was off to the west and the Mekong (“Nine Dragon River”) Delta and although the region is named after nine dragons, the trip would be taking me to Unicorn, Phoenix and Turtle Islands. Not surprising name choices, considering there are at least 6 countries in South East Asia alone that have an island called “Turtle Island” in their respective languages:

Country Island Named After a Turtle Origin
Indonesia Pulau Penyu Pulau = IslandPenyu = Turtle

(Indonesian)

Malaysia Taman Pulau Penyu The words have the same meaning in Malay with the addition of “Taman” meaning “Park”
Philippines Tawi-Tawi Turtle Isles Tawi-Tawi is the region in the Philippines the isles are located in
Singapore Kusu Island Kusu = Turtle(Chinese)
Thailand Koh Tao Koh = IslandTao = Turtle

(Thai)

Vietnam Turtle Island Come on, its in English already!

Also, before embarking, we were told that Unicorn Island was famous for producing coconut candy and I immediately got excited about being able to meet Charlie The Unicorn at Candy Mountain.

download (1) As it turned out, there actually was an entire mountain of candy at one of the production locations, where we were able to see the full process from coconut to juicer to mixer to stretching to wrapping, resulting in heaps of flavours combining coconut with chocolate, roasted peanut and durian!

Coconut Candy Making Collage

Continuing the sweet tour, the next stop was a local bee farm and chance to taste honey tea, ginger and nuts. I’ve always thought beekeeping was kind of awesome – there’s just something about a mini-factory literally running off flower power I guess! (Along with the fact that I spent hours researching The Fairmont Royal York’s rooftop bee farm for a university project and thought it was pretty badass that they (a) have a rooftop garden in downtown Toronto, (b) are in a partnership with Mill Street Brewery to use the honey in their beers and (c) use the extra in the restaurant to flavour their desserts.)

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Once I had satisfied my sweet tooth enough to last the rest of my life, I realized my hipster levels were the next thing in need of a recharge. So I hopped off the “mainstream” motorboat we had been traveling on and into an alternative Can Tho small boat while ironically sporting a conical Asian hat.

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From there, I ate a locally and organically produced lunch while listening to an underground Viet band, whom I eventually joined in on, playing the Vietnamese đàn nguyệt, or moon lute.

Because my ukulele was becoming too mainstream

Because my ukulele was becoming too mainstream

After my jam session, I hopped on one of the fixed speed bikes the restaurant rented out for free and cycled out to take crappy artsy pictures of an abandoned carousel with my DSLR and drink some Trung Nguyen coffee (basically the Viet version of Starbucks: its expensive (by Vietnam standards) and names its brews things like “discover”).

Its not supposed to be a good photo, okay? Its ironic!

Its not supposed to be a good photo, okay? Its ironic!

Why conform to standard and efficient ways of preparing coffee when you can use a slow drip?

Why conform to standard and efficient ways of preparing coffee when you can use a slow drip?

At that point, I realized that if I did anything else hipster-y, I’d run the risk of hipster-logic kicking into overdrive, convincing me that breathing is too mainstream, so instead, I called it a day and made my way back to Saigon (also, the tour had finished, so I had to go back anyways, but that’s beside the point)

Out and About Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City

While the city was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh after the communist victory in the Vietnam War, since the city is in the South (where the capitalists who opposed the communists were headquartered), many Vietnamese still refer to the city by its original name, Saigon (also because “Saigon” takes less time to say than “Ho Chi Minh City). In addition, the river, airport and many hotels and landmarks were not renamed with the city, so for simplicity, I’m just going to call the city Saigon.

Moving on, after exploring the Cu Chi Tunnels, we decided to take a tour around the city, leading us to the Reunification Palace, which housed the leaders of South Vietnam during the country’s separation. While the palace is full of boss meeting rooms and a pimpin private movie theatre, bar, casino and discotheque (it was used in the 70s, okay?), South Vietnam’s rulers were all huge targets for assassination, so the palace also houses an underground bunker. Even this didn’t keep the palace safe from a bombing in the 1960s from rebel army men stationed as helicopter pilots at the palace. Since the communists eventually gained full control of the country, one of the bombers moved on to fly passenger planes across the country until his eventual retirement.

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The Wednesday meeting room, used for important government meetings held on Wednesdays

Location of the bombing, off the roof of the palace

Location of the bombing, off the roof of the palace

After the palace, we quickly stopped by the Notre Dame Cathedral (built by the French, even though Buddism is much more widely practised) and the post office.

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Then, it was on to a water puppet show at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. The show was only 7USD, and while it was in Vietnamese, you didn’t need to speak the language to be able to understand that the puppeteering was expertly done. The show featured dopey fishermen reeling in each other more often than any fish, phoenixes (who I think had a sex scene which consisted of them bobbing their heading up and down, then producing an egg) and dragons who, in a surprise grand finale, shot fireworks out of their mouths!

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While the characters were hilarious, even trying to figure out how the puppets worked was amusing enough. At first I thought it would make sense to control them using a stick from below, but then, how would the puppeteers breath if they were underwater? Through a tube disguised in the puppet? Wait, that boat is moving far too fast for someone swimming underwater to be controlling it! Finally, after the performance (and some delicious pho), I flew online to find the answer and put my unstoppable curiosity to rest. As it turned out, the puppets are controlled from behind the background building, with the puppeteers running back and forth! Check it out:  

Becoming a Cu Chi Tunnel Hamster

After being exposed to a bunch of Cu Chi-communist propaganda, it was now time to learn a bit more about the actual tunnels. They consist 3 levels, with kitchens and eating areas on the first level, sleeping areas on the second, and bunkers and artillery storage on the third. In order to hide kitchen smoke, “chimneys” were built to funnel the fumes up to 200m away from the actual kitchen in order to throw off American soldiers. Passageways connecting each of the areas take dramatic turns, drops and often result in dead ends. Basically, I learned the tunnel system was going to look something like this:

2454249154_f2732aaafc_oOnce our tour actually began, I was pretty excited for some hamster-style exploring. Upon learning that our first entry point into the tunnels was through a secret entrance, I wasn’t disappointed.

Now, I’m guessing the Vietcong must have all been midgets because that entrance was tiny!! I have to say that I was actually kind of surprised that even I fit.

Tunnel Collage

With that, I was even more shocked when our guide then urged the biggest German tourist in our group to try to squeeze into the tunnels right after me: the man’s hips appeared to overextend the entryway’s area by over an inch on either side. This didn’t deter him, however, and he proceeded to jump into the hole.

Well, kind of. He got about halfway in before getting jammed and the group stood in horror as he began to struggle, seemingly stuck halfway in.

As the German fidgeted awkwardly, our guide began to explain that the Vietcong designed the tunnels to be this narrow in order to slow the American soldiers, should a chase ever occur. He finished the explanation, and for a few brief moments, the entire group stood in horror, realising the German was still stuck in the entryway.

I was so scared for him, Winnie the Pooh flashed before my eyes

I was so scared for him, Winnie the Pooh flashed before my eyes

Soon enough, however, he popped himself and took a bow to everyone’s applause.

Our next activity was a full 50m hands-and-knees crawl through the tunnels. Although the German barely made it in the entryway alive, he was the first to volunteer to crawl through (he must have been hired by the tour company, or really drunk, because he seemed to have no fear at all)!

Yes, I grew an extra pair of ears, just to crawl through the tunnel!

Yes, I grew an extra pair of ears, just to crawl through the tunnel!

One by one, we all followed his lead through the tunnels, turning and diving in seemingly random directions. As it was pitch black inside, our group tried to send messages back to each other like “watch out, we’re dropping down a meter” and “check out that cute little lizard on the ceiling”, but like all games of telephone, these warnings got pretty jumbled by the time they made it to me, and if I had listened to them, I would have encountered endless free-falling abysses and evil 7-headed dragons. Instead, I channelled my inner Hamtaro hamster skills and scurried on through.

Returning to face the sun, I moved on to learn how rice wine (sake) and paper is traditionally made. Having worked in an upscale Japanese restaurant (despite not being Japanese somehow), I’ve been able to try some pretty good sake, and have to say the production process has some a long way in the past couple hundred years, as the traditional variety is comparable to rocket fuel.

The last stop on the tour was a look at the various traps the Vietcong used during the war, along with several tanks and bombs. All in all, the Vietnam War was vicious, with many weapons being designed not to kill the enemy, but to seriously main them.

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The rolling trap was designed to injure the legs and back of the vicim unlucky enough to fall in

The rolling trap was designed to injure the legs and back of the vicim unlucky enough to fall in

Altogether, while the tunnels were fun to crawl around in, they come from a pretty dark time in Vietnam’s recent past. Together, it makes the tunnels a place that’s definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area.

 

Cu Chi Tunnels with a Crazy Devil

(Aka Why I Don’t Want to Be a Communist)

About an hour and a half north of Ho Chi Minh City is the Cu Chi area of Vietnam. What was once a peaceful farming community became the centre of heated dispute during the Vietnam War in the late 1970s. For those of you who have a few gaps in their Vietnamese history (myself included), the Vietnam War was a civil dispute between Vietnam’s predominately northern-based communist regime (“Vietcong”) and the predominately southern-based capitalists. Although many of their allies took headquarters in Hanoi during the war, a group of Vietcong found shelter around the southern area in Cu Chi during the war. From this area, the Vietcong were able to set up various attacks against the capitalists. However, since this was so close to South Vietnam’s capital, this required a LOT of tactical planning (read: hiding for their lives).

The black lines on the 2nd map show the actual tunnels

The black lines on the 2nd map show the actual tunnels

The entire area is still laden with booby traps and landmines to this day, but the most notable feature (and biggest tourist attraction) is the impressive tunnel system, which claims to be over 200km long, consists of 3 levels and is full of secret underwater entranceways.

As a tourist, you can check out the tunnels on a tour, which can be booked online (I used the Sinh Tourist but wouldn’t recommend them, our guide was significantly grumpier than he was knowledgeable), or through pretty much every hotel in the city. The price of a half-day tour is about 300,000dong and can usually be paid for with 15USD.

After getting off the bus, the first stop on the tour is a brief documentary film circa 1978. Since the communist party filmed it during the war, you’d be right in guessing it’s a propaganda piece. The residents of Cu Chi (including the Vietcong) are crooned over for being happy, peaceful people, who were needlessly terrorized by “crazy devils” known as Americans. I almost began to sympathise with the civilians, then one of the 12-year-old kids they had been featuring as a cute, innocent little school girl was suddenly joining in on the armed combat and being awarded a medal for being an American-killing hero.

The Vietnamese Army (who opposed the Vietcong) wore pins with blue and red to represent capitalism and communism respectively. Now, the flag is all red.

The Vietnamese Army (who opposed the Vietcong) wore pins with blue and red to represent capitalism and communism respectively. Now, the flag is all red.

While at first I thought the “crazy devil” reference was kind of funny (my travel companion was American), I quickly realized the severity of the reference. You could not only feel the dripping hatred in the movie, but also got to witness them openly support the use of child soldiers, claiming youth had signed on because “they were filled with a vengeance”.

While I’d like to think they just show this movie to accurately reflect the Vietcong’s sentiments’ during the time, whenever someone would ask where me and my friend were from, I couldn’t help but to pipe in with “Canada” as quickly as I could before she could admit to being one of those crazy American devils.

Today, North Vietnam’s communist defeat over the South is still celebrated as a national holiday and while their economy is market (capital)-based, their government still holds communist-level control. For this reason, many Vietnamese refer to the political and economic situation as being “communist by name, capitalist by nature”. While citizens have few civil rights, since adopting this government regime, their economy has experienced some of its largest and quickest growths in its history.

Good Morning Vietnam!

(Apologies for the delay in posting, but as this is kind-of a travel blog, I feel like the excuse “I was off travelling and just really started learning how to play around with the shutter speed on my camera, so I didn’t want to post any crappier-than-usual pictures taken from my tablet” is as viable as I can get!)

So to get you all up to speed, as soon as I found out I get a “study” week off of school at the end of the regular semester and before exams (in addition to recess week mid semester), I spent what felt like eons planning this 1 week + 1 day trip to Vietnam and Cambodia while trying not to fall too behind on my schoolwork. Since I’m a tourism student, using this week to “research tourism strategies in the developing nations of southeast Asia” seemed like an acceptable use of my time. So the minute after I finished my last presentation of the term, I was off on a plane to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) (aka Saigon), Vietnam.

After a typical flight in with Tiger Airways (read: slight delays / cramped seating / what can you expect, you’re paying a third of the price of any other airline), and a lengthy (over an hour long) process of getting a tourist visa, which I had, for the first time ever, applied for in advance, I was in Vietnam! Although the country is currently under a communist regime, it’s a beautiful country full of friendly people and great pho (which, as I learned, is pronounced like the French word for fire, “feu”). Maybe even more importantly, its biggest city, which, like Toronto, is not the national capital, is home to the amazing Hong Han Hotel. At less than 10$ a night, it grants you a comfy bed, cozy blankets, a clean private washroom, a mini fridge and AC. Compared to dorm life, I felt like I was staying in a palace and proceeded to prance around the room, squealing about how much I loved every detail.

AC AND a fan nonetheless <3 (gotta appreciate the small things in life!)

AC AND a fan nonetheless (basically the biggest deal of my life)

The next morning was even more ridiculous when I was given Vietnamese drip coffee (more on that later), scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions, bananas and a viet-baguette.

Breakfast of champions, not even in a sarcastic way (still gotta love appreciate the small things)

Breakfast of champions, not even in a sarcastic way (and never mind the last photo, this was now the biggest deal)

Which I found out is shorter, fluffier and fatter than a Cambodian baguette, which is skinnier and thinner than the traditional French variety. To map it out for you, here’s a table comparing the three:

  French Vietnamese Cambodian
Fluffiness Crispy on the outside, light on the inside Like eating a delicious cloud Softer than a rock, I guess
Size Can’t even make it into a sandwich, its too massive Perfect length/width proportions for banh mi sandwiches 1 lettuce leaf and a cherry tomato would fill it
Taste A certain je-ne-sais-quoi? (Read: flour and yeast) Heaven You’re eating bread in Asia instead of rice or noodles, clearly its still pretty good!
Who could forget the big things!?

This WOULD be the biggest deal, but I don’t think I could deal with a sandwich this big..!