Friend’s Farm in Fengxian

Last weekend my friend from work (Lixin) invited me to his farm in Fengxian (a suburb on the outskirts of Shanghai). I wasn’t really sure what to expect from a Chinese farm. My image was that it was a remote piece of land that is isolated and that he works on solely without any neighbors in sight. In reality, it was a bit different (and still a great experience). I invited one of my Chinese friends to keep me company just in case things got a little calm at the farm.

The hardest part of the trip was waking up early on a Saturday (which meant not going out late on the Friday before). My friend and I had to meet my coworker at Guanglan Road Station (near where I work) at 8:30am. This means that I had to wake up about 6:30am and leave my apartment around 8:30am. Not the first thing I want to do on a Saturday morning, but it was worth it nonetheless. After meeting up with my friend, we waited and Lixin picked us up in his car. He drives a Skoda (which we don’t have in USA) which is similar in quality to a Volkswagen. I’ve heard it described as a “value line” Volkswagen, however I’d buy a Skoda any day (his car was really nice).

Lixin’s wife and daughter also join him on his trips to the farm. I had met both of them last year when we took a trip to Huangshan and they were as friendly/cheerful as ever. About an hour drive later we arrived at the farm. The weather was beautiful- clear blue skies with the sun at full attention. The farm wasn’t quite as I had imagined it, however it was very beautiful nonetheless. The farm was more or less a collection of small houses each with a plot of land that people can rent out and use to grow vegetables/crops. There was also a common area, play ground, small pond, and soccer field where kids (and parents) could run free. It seemed to be geared more towards families who wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of Shanghai city life and have a place where their kids can run around/play/have a good time outdoors.

Rural Fengxian

Rural Fengxian

Lixin’s house was a very cozy building that had everything that a family would need for a nice relaxing weekend away from the city. It had a bed, sofa, screen door, and a very nice deck/patio where you could relax outside and enjoy the peacefulness. He was even in the process of building an additional room which would have a kitchen and fully functioning toilet/shower. After enjoying the outdoors a little, Lixin had to water his plants. He was growing radishes, carrots, and various other vegetables. I offered to help him water the plants and had my first taste of gardening in 20 years (when my dad made me do it when I was growing up).

Lixin's House at Fengxian

Lixin’s House at Fengxian

Farmer Tim

Farmer Tim

After relaxing and winding down, we went to the common area and played with all of the children. There was a playground that my friend and I played a little bit on and then went to watch the kids play soccer. In preparation for the trip, I had cooked some deviled eggs (my go-to American dish) and shared it with a few people at the farm.

Tim's Cooking

Tim’s Cooking

In the common area, there was also a variety of drinks/alcohol that we could buy at a very reasonable price. My friend and I had a couple of beers and just relaxed outside while the children played some sort of game that involved a string maze/obstacle course. There was a big Chinese group of girls/guys that had arrived on a bus and were on some sort of “match making” retreat to meet each other (with the possible hope of finding a life partner). It was pretty interesting to see the different games that they played to break the ice and get to know each other.

For lunch, the kitchen on the farm was a bit overwhelmed so Lixin took us to a nearby restaurant where we had a variety of local Chinese dishes (that were very delicious). All throughout the trip, I was very impressed with out rural everything was (despite only being one hour from one of the largest cities in the world). After lunch, we went back to the farm and relaxed a bit. After a while the kids started to do face painting (for Halloween) and my friend helped paint everyone’s faces. It was getting later in the evening, so after about an hour or so Lixin drove us to the train station where we caught a train back to Shanghai (for only 6RMB). All-in-all, the trip to Fengxian was an enjoyable experience and a nice break from the business of People’s Square (where I live). When I have a family, it is definitely the sort of place that I would love to spend a weekend at relaxing/camping.

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South Korea Vacation

This time I went to vacation in South Korea. Korea has always been a bit of an unknown to me. I have had many Korean friends over the years and absolutely adore Korean food, however I am relatively unfamiliar with the country and especially the language. My very good friend in Dallas is Korean and she recommended that I go. After checking for flights on Kayak and booking a hotel through Priceline, I was all set for my Korean vacation.

South Korea

I have nothing but good things to say about Korean Air. They are definitely up there with JAL/Cathay as far as quality of service goes… in other words the best. I caught a taxi from my apartment in Shanghai to Pudong Airport around 11am. After killing about two hours in the first class lounge, I boarded and made the hour and a half journey to Seoul Incheon Airport. After landing, getting baggage, money, and a SIM card (from the convenient store), I was tasked with how to find a way to get to the Renaissance Seoul Hotel. I was a bit nervous before hand as I normally take a taxi to my hotel, however the airport in Seoul is so far away than a taxi would have run about $100 or so. Instead I wandered around the airport and actually found a bus from Korean Airlines that stopped directly in front of my hotel. At 16000 Korean Wong (about $16), this was a bargain. After a long hour and a half bus ride through Seoul rush hour, I arrived at my hotel in Gagnam District.

Bus from Incheon Airport

I went to Korea alone. My friend from Dallas had got one of her friends that was living in South Korea to meet up with me on the Saturday, however for the first night I was left to fend for myself. That night I wanted to get some Soondae as it is one of my favorite Korean foods. I soon found out that UberX was free in Korea due to it just being rolled out into a new market. UberX is a sort of ride sharing application where people with their own cars act as the taxi. The experience tends to be more enjoyable and the service/price (even when it is not free) is miles ahead of a normal taxi. Anyway, after the UberX picked me up at my hotel, I showed the address in Korean and we were off. The restaurant was in Gagnam in a pretty lit up street full of bars/restaurants. After navigating on foot a little, I found the restaurant and order some soondae soup, a combination soondae dish, and some beer/soju (Korean liquor). It was really good and delicious! Also, which is typical with Korean food, I was served kimchi (in this case kkakdugi).

Soondae combination with soju

A little bit tired, I walked back to my hotel (which was about 15 minutes away) and went straight to bed. The next morning was my chance to do some of the touristy stuff in Seoul. After waking up around 9am, I made my way to the Seoul metro station to make my way to Gyeongbokgung. After going to Yeoksam station and buying a T-Money/Pass card from a machine, I navigated through the subway (which required one transfer) to Gyeongbokgung station. My impression of the Seoul subway is pretty positive. A little less anarchic than the Shanghai subway, but a little bit more noisy than the Tokyo subway. Still, even during rush hour, it seemed to operate very smoothly and pleasantly. Once at Gyeongbokgung, I exited the station and walked around outside. After buying a ticket for about 3000 wong (about $3), I entered the palace. The palace itself is pretty impressive. It looks like a very typical Korean architecture. In the main area (where the main palace is), it was a bit crowded/loud. I specifically remember seeing a bunch of Chinese tourist groups. If you walked around to the side though, the crowds thinned out and it got more peaceful. The weather was magnificent and I enjoyed walking around/relaxing for a good hour or so (while taking pictures).

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Garden around Gyeongbokgung

After making a short visit to the folk museum next to Gyeongbokgung, I boarded the subway back to my hotel. After I left the subway near my hotel, I was a bit hungry (it was lunch time). I video chatted with my friend in Dallas, and she saw a really nice/cheap Korean food restaurant that is known to give you a good bang for the buck. The place is called Gimbap Heaven and specializes in Gimbap. Being next to my hotel, I ended up going to this restaurant a few times. I never spent more than around $5, so this definitely turned out to be a bargain. THe first time, I had kimchi ramen and a regular gimbap.

Gimbap from Gimbap Heaven

That evening I met with my friend at my hotel’s lobby. We decided to go to a park that boasts a very good view of Seoul called Namsan Park. We took a (free) UberX there and walked around a bit in the park. In the park there is a very recognizable tower called Seoul Tower. We walked/hiked around the park to the base of the tower. Again, tons of tourists here (many from mainland China) and the crowd was a bit overwhelming. The wait to get into the tower was a bit long, so we decided to just enjoy the views around the tower and take the cable car down.

View from Namsan Park

Seoul Tower

After catching another UberX, we went to a restaurant next to my hotel called Bono Bono. This is a sort of super buffet that has everything from king crab, to sushi, to German sausage. After a day of walking around this was definitely a welcomed dinner. A bit expensive (I think maybe around $50 a head), but the amount of king crab alone that I ate made up for it.

King crab from buffet

After dinner, I got my friend a free UberX back to her home and I returned to my hotel and passed out. The following day (after sleeping in until 10am) I had an early lunch of Tteokbokki and kimchi gimbap from Gimbap Heaven. I then took an UberX to a park my Korean colleague from TI suggested called Hangang Park. It was a very nice park and very relaxing to walk around next to the Han River. It seemed like a place local Koreans went to run/exercise/relax (and there wasn’t a tourist in sight except for me). After walking around for an hour or so, I made my way to the subway to meet my friend at Hongik University station. Around the station, we had some sort of Korean pork soup called gamjatang. It was very good (and spicy) and was accompanied by the usual array of side dishes/kimchi.

Hangang Park – so peaceful

Gamjatang and side dishes

After the late (second) lunch, we went to a Korean culture center where they showed you how to make kimchi. I was the only one here (in addition to my friend), but it was very fun none the less. They showed you how to mix the spices, cover the lettuce, and wrap everything so that the kimchi would be ready to ferment. The way that kimchi is made is that after the lettuce is spiced, it has to sit around for a week or so (in the old days, they buried the container in a ground). Since we didn’t have a week to let it ferment, they had some premade that tasted delicious! Afterwards, they had a few traditional Korean clothes that I could try on. I got some pretty interesting pictures of mean in Korean garbs.

Teacher explaining how to make kimchi

Me making kimchi

Me in Korean clothes

Afterwards, we went to a very tradition/touristy Korean road called Insadong to buy some souvenirs. After a quick ride on the subway, we arrived and started to walk around. It was a very interesting area and there were a ton of good souvenir shops. I bought some post cards to write to my friends and family in USA. We also stopped by a tea shop and got some really nice tea ice cream.

Road in Insadong

Tea ice cream

After we walked around Insadong for a bit, it was time to get dinner. I had been planning on eating live octopus on this trip (it had been on the bucket list since seeing it on the TV show Bizarre Foods) and it seems that it is one of the more notorious Korean foods. My friend did some research and found a very highly rated place in Korea to get the octopus. After a short subway ride, we arrived. The restaurant was a bit small and situated off a lively street close to the subway station. In the front, there was a small aquarium with a few live octopuses. After being seated, we ordered beer and a couple of octopus dishes (fried with vegetables, and an actual live octopus). The live octopus was truly a unique experience. The restaurant lady came with two octopuses in a small metal bowl of water as well as two wooden sticks and some spicy chili sauce. When I gave the word (after making sure I had ample beer), she grabbed the octopus (she had gloves one), pressed it against the stick, wrapped the tentacles around, dipped it in sauce, and I ate it in one bite off the stick. This was the first (and admittedly probably the last) time that I killed something with my mouth. The octopus is still alive when you bite it off the stick and the sensation is very unique. Each individual suction cup on all the tentacles grabs different parts of your mouth and is a little unnerving. At one point, a tentacle grabbed the back of by throat and made me slightly wanted to gag, but I muscled through the chewing and swallowed. I wasn’t really concentrated on the taste, but it was more or less like extremely fresh sushi. My friend also did this for the first time (despite being Korean) and had a similar reaction. We took a video of the entire experience.

Octopus about to meet his fate

After the live dish, we ate another dish where a bunch of vegetables were brought out on a large metal pan and put over a stove. A live octopus was cut/added and chili sauce was added. You could see the tentacles squirm even after being heated a little. This was a very delicious dish and was a bit more manageable to eat than the live octopus. Of course, like all Korean meals, we had the assortment of side dishes/kimchi to complement the main meal.

Fried/Cooked Octopus

After dinner, we took an UberX to the Intercontinental Hotel in Gagnam for a farewell drink in the bar on the top floor. I had read that this bar boasts one of the best views of Seoul and I was not disappointed. Despite paying about $20 for a beer, it was a nice atmosphere and the view was indeed splendid. There was a nice live piano/viola performance going and it was a nice end to a wonderful day. After spending some time in the bar, I bid farewell to my friend and caught a normal taxi back to my hotel to sleep (UberX was too far away).

View from COEX Intercontinental

The next day was a bit of a wild card. Originally I wanted to take a DMZ tour on this day, however I had waited too long to book tickets and was unable to go. Instead, my friend from Dallas sent me a link of an international festival going on in Itaewon. Itaewon is a district in Seoul that I believe is situated near a military base. As such, there are many foreigners/expats in this area. After waking up and getting ready, I stopped by Lotteria (a Korean fast food chain) and got a Bulgogi Burger. I the caught an UberX to Itaewon and was greeted by a lively street festival. There were many booths/souvenir shops ligning the street and the road had been shut to normal traffic. Each booth had a country associated with it (I remember the American one being steak themed) and there was no shortage of yummy food. There were a few street performances going on as well. One memorable one was a “K-pop magic show” where two street magicians did magic tricks to loud Korean pop music. There was also a Taekwondo performance and various musical/rock performances. One interesting thing I remember is a bunch of booths set up for craft beer. Having had the typical light/lager Asian beer for the past few months, I welcomed the opportunity to get a hoppy IPA beer.

Taekwondo Demonstration

Itaewon Festival

After hanging around the festival and buying souvenirs for an hour or so, I headed back to my hotel via subway. I got a quick snack of gimbap from Gimbap Heaven and decided to take a killer afternoon nap. The rest of the day I was busy doing nothing. This might sound like a waste to stay around the hotel for an entire evening in South Korea, however this was my vacation and I just wanted to relax. I did leave the hotel to go to a Korean barbecue place on a road next to my hotel. I wandered around a bit and found a place with an English menu. After sitting down and pointing to what I wanted, the waitress brought out a grill and a selection of vegetables/meat. I think she sensed that I was not direly familiar with Korean barbecue, so she actually put all the meat/vegetables on the grill and helped me cook it (normally you do this yourself). It was very delicious and a nice dinner on my last night in Korea.

Korean barbecue

The rest of the night was very relaxing with one exception. I wanted to relax and drink some wine while watching a movie/reading a book so I went to the 7-11 and bought a moderately priced ($15 is moderately priced for me) bottle of red wine and some snacks. When I brought it back to the hotel, I used a cork screw that the hotel provided to open the bottle. I got the cork out, but as I did I accidentally hit the bottom of the bottle on the counter and the entire bottom shattered. This left everything that I was wearing soaked in red wine (luckily I had taken off my shoes) as well as a colossal mess- needless to say it was not exactly the relaxation that I had in mind. After cleaning up, throwing away a nice pair of shirt/shorts, and having the hotel clean the carpet a bit, I went and got another bottle of wine (I was determined). Finally, I was able to enjoy my evening while sipping wine and watching TV. The movie Leon was on TV which I had not seen for ages.

The next day it was time for me to return to Shanghai. I slept in late (until about 10am) and went to Gimbap Heaven for a final meal of tuna gimbap and kimchi ramen. I then lounged around the hotel a bit and caught a bus to Gimpo Airport. The trip back to Shanghai was uneventful and I got back to my hotel around 7pm or so.

The trip was definitely a lot of fun and an interesting experience. It is interesting to travel to different parts of Asia and see the differences in cultures/societies. South Korea is definitely a lot more modern than China and is in the “first world” bucket. I remember walking down the streets a few times and thinking how nice that it was that cars weren’t honking their horns and people weren’t spitting on the street. People in Korea were definitely very friendly to me and I will think back on the trip with warm memories. Hopefully next time I visit Korea I will be able to take my time and visit other places such as Busan or Jeju. Seoul is definitely a modern city and I would without hesitation recommend anyone to go visit.

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Favorite/Worst Things about Chinese Life

The other day a family member asked me what the best/worst things about living in China. I kind of rushed to answer it, however afterwards I thought about it for a little bit. It is hard to narrow down into one thing in particular, so I thought I would compile a list of a few things that I like about Chinese life as well as a few things I dislike about Chinese life.

Likes

  • The Convenience – Shanghai is a big city and it is also a very convenient city to live in. You can pretty get anything you want delivered to your door: laundry, groceries, food- you name it. The taxis/trains are also very easy and cheap to use. It is definitely a step up from Dallas as far as convenience goes. Owning a car here is more of a luxury rather than a necessity.
  • The Food – Not only is the Chinese food awesome, but pretty much any sort of food in the world that you might want is an internet order away or a short train ride away. I live in Peoples’ Square and I can definitely say the wide range of choices near me allow me eat very well.
  • The People – The majority of Shanghai people are very nice and intelligent. It is the metropolitan center of China and the best/brightest tend to live in China. Most people seem genuinely friendly and eager to help if you ask.
  • The Cost – China is a second world country that is still developing. For this reason, if you compare it to developed countries like USA/Taiwan/Japan you will realize that it is incredibly cheap to live in. Sure, compared to other countries such as Thailand or Vietnam it might be expensive, however compared to my life in Dallas things are drastically cheaper here. I pay about $1400 a month for a huge apartment in a very nice part of town. In Dallas, the same sort of apartment in Uptown would range closer to $1600/$2000, and in San Francisco you would be hard pressed to find anything at the price (let alone in the city center). Food/Alcohol tends to also be a lot cheaper (as long as you avoid the 5 star foreigner/ripoff bars/supermarkets).
  • The Culture/History – China has a rich culture/history and there is no shortage of cool museums/temples/palaces to go visit. You could spend your entire life just studying Chinese history and people do. I am definitely looking forward to exploring some of the more historical places like Xi’an.
  • The Lights – The lights of Shanghai are gorgeous. I never get tired of walking on The Bund and staring at the Oriental Pearl and bright lights of Pudong. Even from my apartment you can see tall sky scrapers that tickle the sky and are an absolute treat to look at.

Dislikes

  • The Spitting – People spit in China- a lot. They hack out their entire lungs and clear their sinuses on the street. This happens in the USA also, however a lot less often and never indoors. In some cases I’ve seen people do it in the train station which makes me cringe even more. It’s dirty and unsanitary, however the next item is even worse.
  • Kids shitting and pissing on the street – Diapers for babies seem to be a rarity here. Instead, kids have these specialized pants with a slit where the genitals are. The parents actually let their kids shit and piss on the road. Sometimes they pick it up, but sometimes they just let it sit there. This is absolutely repulsive and parents who do this should not be parents. This is how disease/germs spread and I truly believe parents that do this should have their kids taken away from them.
  • The Internet – The internet in China sucks. It is heavily censored/monitored and as a result extremely slow/sluggish. Not to mention the most interesting/useful sites (Google/Facebook) are blocked. Me being a expat engineer, I have to make late night conference calls overseas quite often from my apartment. The extremely sluggish internet that China provides does not make this easy. A few weeks ago I went to Vietnam and enjoyed the fast/open internet that they had in their country. You know it’s bad when Vietnam has better internet that you.
  • The Noise – Shanghai is considerably more noisier than places like USA/Taiwan. People honk their horn quite often here. I’ve been told people honk their horns not out of anger or extreme caution (like the do elsewhere), but purely out of information. Usually the honking subdues after about 10pm, however it makes taking an afternoon nap quite difficult.
  • The Government – I think this one speaks for itself.
  • The Pollution – China is known for it’s pollution in it’s big cities. To be fair, Shanghai is not the worst (I hear that medal goes to Beijing), however there are definitely less blue days compared to when I lived in Tokyo or Dallas.
  • Being Approached on the Street – If you are a foreign guy and walk alone on the road you have to put up with people approaching you and asking “You want watch? Bag? Real bag! Massage!? Hello!!? You want massage!? Lady massage! Sex!?” I wish the police would do something to make these people go away.

This is by no means a complete list and I am sure I will make posts in the future that elaborate and give more insight. Overall, I definitely do enjoy my life in Shanghai. I think the dislikes are easy enough ignored (with the exception of the kid shitting thing) and I think as a whole I prefer living in Shanghai over Dallas. It’s definitely an experience and I do look forward to learning more as I live here!

Vietnam Vacation

Vietnam. The country has a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people depending on generation and circumstances. For me, it was always a country that I associated with the Vietnam War. This might have been because I grew up watching movies like Forrest Gump and Full Metal Jacket, however the notion of visiting the country (much less for leisure) never really crossed my mind. However, a couple of months ago my friend from Houston contacted me and said that she was going to be in Vietnam to visit family/friends and offered to be my translator/tour guide if I could get myself over to Vietnam. If I did not have a local that knew the language/culture, I probably was never going to go to Vietnam which made this opportunity so unique. After checking flight prices from Shanghai (it came out to about $300 round trip on Vietnam Airlines) and booking a hotel using my miles, I was set to go to Vietnam. Originally I was supposed to just stay within Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), however after a coworker showed me some pictures of his trip to the island Phu Quoc, I decided to book a couple of days at a hotel on the beach.

I left my apartment in Shanghai about mid afternoon and made my way to Pudong International Airport. Getting to the airport is usually pretty intimidating, but I am getting used to the art of hailing a cab down from the street. After making it to the airport with time to spare, I checked into my flight on Vietnam Airlines. The flight was really nice and I remember being very impressed with the food served on board. I’ve had the sensation of smelling freshly baked bread on an airplane before (let alone in Coach), however Vietnam Airlines did an awesome job with their dining option and even had some of the best coffee that I have ever had (and I am not even a coffee drinker).

Anyway, after about a four hour flight (where I watched Braveheart on my tablet), I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam is one of the rare countries that Americans actually need to get a visa (China an North Korea are also in the same bucket), however the process to get the visa is very easy. There are a slew of online services that will do the visa application with the consulate for you so that all you have to do is pick up your visa at the airport. I used MyVietnamVisa and it seemed about as good as any other. The one thing I forgot to do was to bring enough money to cover the visa fee at the visa counter in the airport. Luckily, they let me go through customs (keeping my passport as a retainer) and pony some money from an ATM. After catching a metered taxi from the queue, I was off to my hotel The Intercontinental Asiana Saigon. In the taxi, I was able to get my first glimpse of Ho Chi Minh and the ensuing traffic. The first thing that any westerner will notice is the shear number of motorbikes. I’ve been to Taipei (where motorbikes are also prominent), however in Vietnam the numbers are almost overwhelming. They swerve in and out of traffic like schools of fish and it is amazing how much coordination everyone has. I’d definitely get into a wreck if I tried.

The schools of scooters in Ho Chi Minh

Anyway, about ten minutes later I arrived at the hotel and met my friend in the lobby. The Intercontinental is a very nice western hotel and I was very impressed with the service and quality of the hotel. When I was in college, I opted for the cheaper hotels/hostels, however now that I have an adult job I normally tend to get the fancier hotels if price allows. After checking in and dropping off my luggage in my room, I walked with my friend to get a dinner. The place we wanted to go was about ten minutes walking from the hotel and was next to the “reunification” palace. Walking on the street, I started to get the authentic feel that I was in an exotic and different country than the USA (and even China/Japan). The city has a certain smell to it- not a bad smell (although in certain parts those also exist), but almost a spicy aroma that gives you the sense of being in an ethnic and culturally diverse city. At this point, it had already become dark and the streets were dimly lit by the scattered street lights. I remember crossing the road was somewhat stressful in Vietnam, however I had a local with me that was more than happy to keep this dumb foreigner from getting hit by a school of scooters.

The restaurant we went to had a nice feel and atmosphere to it. It was a restaurant that specialized in grilled seafood and had the layout that one might expect from a German Beer Garden. All of the seating was outside and various trees/vegetation decorated the restaurant to give a very nice and relaxed feel. Various mist machines where situated next to strong fans so that the customers would not get too hot during their meal. My friend and I opted to get a variety of seafood dishes. I also took the opportunity to sample the local Saigon beer and was not disappointed. Beer in Asia tends to be on the light side and you are lucky if you can get anything that isn’t a generic lager. Saigon Green, despite being a lager, was very smooth and refreshing. Sitting in the moist evening of Saigon while eating roasted clams with a coconut glaze along with charred scallops in a honey vinegar sauce really made be feel like I was on a legit vacation.

Great shellfish and beer

After dinner we walked back to the hotel (stopping at a Circle K to pick up some tooth paste that I had forgotten) and called it a night. The next morning we had to wake up relatively early to go to the airport to catch a ride to Phu Quoc. As said before, the original plan was to stay in Ho Chi Minh City the entire time, however after seeing a coworker’s pictures from his vacation I decided to take a detour for a couple of days to Phu Quoc. Phu Quoc is a small island situated off the south west coast of Vietnam that is known for its inviting beaches and accommodating tourist resorts. From Ho Chi Minh Airport, we were able to check in quickly and board a prop-jet plane bound for the island. I haven’t been on a prop-jet in ages (I think the last time is when I went from Dallas to Lubbock), however somehow being in the older plane made me feel more adventurous. After a smooth one hour flight (during which we saw the beautiful cityscape of Ho CHi Minh as well as the coastline of Vietnam), we arrived at the airport. I was a bit surprised by the airport- it was very modern. It gave me the false impression that the island was a little bit more developed than I had previously anticipated, however after grabbing a taxi to our hotel I found out that the airport was the most modern part of Phu Quoc (by a very large margin).

The prop-jet to take us to Phu Quoc

The taxi jetted from the airport to a main highway where we were able to see our first glimpse of the beach. Adding even more to the excitement/anticipation, the taxi turned down a very wooded/windy/small side street. We were a bit worried- this was rural. Sure, the hotel had good reviews online, but what happens if it was just some staunch shack in the middle of a Vietnamese beach? The hotel we stayed at was Mai House. After a few minutes on the twisty road we arrived at the hotel where I was pleasantly surprised. The hotel owners/staff were extremely friendly and our “bungalow” was about 20 meters from the beach (we could even see it from our window). It’s a little hard to describe the hotel/resort as I have never really encountered anything like it in the USA. It is almost like a summer camp layout. There is a main lobby and a bunch of individual huts/bungalows lining up to the ocean. We had booked the superior sea side bungalow that cost about $65 a night. I really recommend Mai House as the service/location are impeccable. The owner is really friendly and speaks great English (I sensed a bit of a French sounding accent).

Entrance of Mai House

View from Mai House’s beach

Our bungalow itself was like something out of a movie. A huge king sized bed with a mosquito net draped around the edges. Hard clay floors with the various commodities/furniture that you would find in any five star resort. As expected there as an air conditioner (I made sure there was before I booked) that worked like a jet engine. The bathroom was simple, but adequate. The shower in sort of an open setting and a separate outdoor washroom to clean sand off your flip flops after a long day at the beach.

Our Superior Seaside Bungalow

King bed complete with mosquito net

We decided to take the day easy (we arrived around 1pm or so) and just soak in the sounds and sights of the beach. The resort had their own private beach front cafe/restaurant and we ordered a variety of seafood dishes. The highlight of lunch was a sweet and sower seafood stew that included fresh squid, white fish, and octopus. I ordered a refreshing tiger beer and relaxed while overlooking the beach. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. We went swimming in the beach and also walked along and enjoyed the sunset while eating grilled squid with a lime juice and salt dip. One thing I noticed about the beach is that there was a lot of trash. The water itself was clean, however slightly above the banks of sand you could see trash/litter from all of the resorts. Mai House appeared to do a good job cleaning it up, however the trash was still noticeable (however like I said, the view was not spoiled).

Sunset on the beach with a dog

The next day we had booked a tour of snorkeling/boating with one of the local tour agencies. After a quick breakfast by the beachfront (Mai House provided a standard breakfast of fruits, omelettes, bacon, etc.), the tour van picked us up at about 8am. The van took us to a larger bus where we joined other members of the tour group. You might remember that on my post about Chongming Island I mentioned that the bus ride was the roughest that I have eve been on, however the Vietnam tour bus was 100x worse. It didn’t help that the roads were pretty much non-existent (dirt bath with tons of bumps/potholes), however it was pretty crazy. There were a couple of times that I was airborne off my seat. Still, the bus took us through some of the more rural parts of the island (which is saying a lot). You could see Vietnamese cows grazing next to the beach and there were also rurals houses lining up the thick and muggy jungle setting. Our first stop was a pearl farm. They showed how to cut the pearl out of a shell and my friend bought an authentic pearl ring for a discounted price.

Road that the tour bus took- so bumpy!

Taking a pearl from a shell

After about 40 more minutes of the bumpy roller coaster bus, we arrived at the beach where our boat was located. There was a bit of an outdoor cafe lining the beach with various souvenir shops lining the beach side. Once we got to the beach it was absolutely gorgeous. This is the sort of beach that you see in movies and the word picturesque does not even begin to describe how beautiful it is. The beach had powder white sand sitting below crystal blue waters. Various tour boats sat a good 50 meters or so off the beach. We loaded up on a smaller boat that took us out to the main larger boat. The larger boat was pretty standard. It was two floors and pretty spacious. All in all, there were about 25 other people in the tour groups with nationalities ranging everywhere from Vietnamese to European to American. One lady that we made good friends with was French (although living in Spain). After taking a few pictures and sitting through a safety demonstration, we were off.

View from the beach

Small boat to take us to larger boat.

Me on the larger boat

The boat took us around the island and we admired the awesome scenery and views. The lush jungle mixed with the green hills mixed with the blue water really gave a euphoric feeling of enjoyment and vacation. Our first stop was a fishing location where we were given a few fishing lines and started to line fish. This was pretty much a bust and only a few people caught fish. I was a little boat sick at this point, however the feeling eventually subsided after I drank enough water. Our next two stops were definitely the high point of the tour- snorkeling. My friend and I were given snorkeling gear and we jumped off the boat to admire the gorgeous coral and sea life of Phu Quoc. I saw many fish, coral, crabs and vegetation. The one regret is that I forgot the sunscreen and ended up getting a pretty killer sunburn which was felt for the next week or so. One interesting thing to note is that the weather was absolutely perfect. This was a bit unusual because it was monsoon season. According to the hotel owner, it had been raining hard constantly for about a week before we arrived- so we were very lucky as the vacation could have been spoiled by an untimely monsoon.

Snorkeling! So fun!

After snorkeling at both stops we had a light lunch on the boat. For fear of my boat sickness, I did not partake in the meal however it looked like a good mix of fresh seafood and vegetables. After lunch, we also paid for the tour. It was absurdly cheap. It came out to about $20 for the entire day. This included the bus ride from the hotel, a 1.5L bottle of water, the boat ride, snorkel/fishing gear, and a lunch. For that price you cannot go wrong! After the lunch we returned back to the original beach where we were given some free time. My friend and I tried to get a jet ski, however there was some problem with the gas of the jet ski so we had no luck. At the beach I bought one of those Vietnamese hats for a dollar or so. After another bump filled ride, we arrived at our hotel.

I bought a Vietnamese hat

Somewhat exhausted, we decided to take it easy for the night. We walked to a smaller cafe that was near the main road of the resort and ordered some seafood dishes. This was one of those restaurants where you picked out the fish before they cook it. I picked a red snapper, a tuna, and a few squids. I was not disappointed with this food. The squid was some of the best squid that I ever had and was grilled with various spices/herbs and served with a lime juice chili sauce. The tuna/red snapper were prepared in a similar manner, however it was up to us to pick apart the fish with our chopsticks and navigate around the bones. Of course there was some ice cold Saigon beer to wash it all down.

Picking out our dinner

The result

The grilled squid- my favorite!

After dinner, we bought a couple of souvenirs (postcards which I mailed to friends/family) and returned back to the resort for an early night. We were set to fly out the next day around 4pm, so we woke up early to enjoy the beach life some more before we left. The seafood we had the day before was so good that we returned to the shop and had some more tuna/squid. On the way back we decided to get a massage as they were really cheap. My friend also wanted to get a pedicure/manicure, so I entertained the idea and went along with it. The massage/manicure/pedicure was very cheap (maybe around $10) and was very relaxing. After grabbing a tequila sunrise on the beach, we checked out of the hotel and headed for the airport. After an uneventful one hour flight in the prop-jet, we were back in Ho Chi Minh City and back at the hotel. We decided to order Vietnamese pizza hut (which to be honest was nothing special) and called it a night.

Getting a pedicure

The next day was the only full day that we had planned in Ho Chi Minh City. After waking up, we took Uber to an indoor market where we were set to buy some souvenirs. I bought some dried kiwis, mangoes, and coconuts for my coworkers as well as some snake/scorpion whiskey as my own souvenir. The whiskey had a full cobra/scorpion in the bottle which was bit intimidating. Of course I don’t plan on drinking it as it looks far too dangerous, however it is an interesting souvenir. I also stopped by a pharmacy where I bought some prescription drugs for dirt cheap. Nothing dangerous, just standard allergy medicine and antibiotics for if I get sick in China. We also stopped by the central post office where I mailed a couple of more post cards to friends./family. After shopping, we walked back the restaurant that we had gone to the first day and had another round of grilled seafood and glass noodle salad.

Cobra/Scorpion Whiskey

Market near our hotel

That evening, we met up with a few other friends and went to this sort of Vietnamese tourist city on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh called Binh Quoi. This is a small area that is situated along a river and has been built up with traditional Vietnamese architecture and gardens. The main theme of the area is the huge buffet that contains many traditional Vietnamese dishes. We took a few pictures and helped ourselves to generous portions of grilled seafood, sweet and sour snail soup, and other seafood dishes. Again, the weather was perfect (albeit a little humid) and the entire atmosphere was very enjoyable. There was also a band that was playing traditional Vietnamese music that added to the ethnic atmosphere.

Binh Quoi. Decided not to try the bridge

Nice and peaceful at Binh Quoi

Charred fish

Various grilled seafood

Vietnamese band

After dinner, we took a cab back to the hotel and hung out by the pool for an hour or so. The pool was a little bit interesting as the bottom part was see-through and you could see anyone that was in the pool. My friend took a couple of funny pictures of me.

Crazy pool!

The next day I had to wake up very early and catch an early flight back to Shanghai. It was a bit sad saying goodbye to my friend, however I am sure that I will see them again soon. The entire vacation was very enjoyable and I am glad that I made the borderline impulse decision to go. Vietnam might be a country that stirs a lot of bad history with Americans, but I can vouch and say that now it is a very welcoming and beautiful country with very friendly and hospitable people. The cost of living is also very cheap and makes it very easy for budget travelers to live like a king on a very small budget. I am glad I went and am looking forward to my next adventure.