Mandaue Unboxed

Small city that’s big on homegrown surprises

Mandaue City is home. I’ve spent four decades of my life here, seeing it evolve from a laid-back, tightly knit community to a small but dense city of vibrant economic districts.

And yet like a tightly wrapped package, Mandaue City continues to surprise.

Ironically it is during the pandemic when we found ourselves getting “boxed” in one place that I got to know about my beloved city even more.

Like many developing cities, Mandaue is not perfect. But I’ve seen many good things here over the years, thanks to a citizenry that continues to support forward-thinking leaders both in the public and private sectors.

Such a healthy dynamic between the government and its people has been crucial for Mandaue to deal with the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic has brought upon.

Such a healthy dynamic between the government and its people has been crucial for Mandaue to deal with the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic has brought upon.

So when I was asked to support an initiative to promote homegrown enterprises in Mandaue, I didn’t think twice.

And today, June 25, the Mandaue Investment Promotions Action Center (MIPAC), the investment and promotions arm of the City of Mandaue, will launch “Experience Mandaue” to help boost the City’s economy.

This is the second edition of the #ChooseMandaue campaign that was launched last year, and one cannot stress the importance of its role to promote Mandaue City’s local products and services, particularly Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) that have been badly affected by the pandemic.

Now, I’m aware that Mandaue, despite its small size, is host to numerous business enterprises, mainly commercial and industrial. But I only had a clearer grasp of what the city produces and how diverse it is when MIPAC sent me a package with a #TatakMandaue label.

Guess what’s inside the box?

But before I get into that, I’d just like to point out to you that Mandaue City lies in the heart of the island of Cebu.

And the metaphor is apt: everyone passes through Mandaue. Vehicles from the north that want to get to Cebu City and further down south need to go through Mandaue, and vice versa. Airport arrivals and departures to and from mainland Cebu must transit through Mandaue.

Mandaue is at the center of everything.

In short, Mandaue is at the center of everything. No wonder then that commerce and industry has flourished in this city of barely 35 square kilometers, the smallest among five cities in Cebu.

So what does Mandaue have to offer? That package of #TatakMandaue goods that found its way to our doorstep several days ago offers several clues.

All these goodies are certified Tatak Mandaue!

Upon unboxing, I saw a sampler of Mandaue’s homegrown food products, many of which I didn’t realize were produced in this city.

Some of the #TatakMandaue goodies inside were all-time favorite pasalubongs like Cebu’s famous dried mangoes from FPD Food International Inc. (7D brand) and Profood International Corp. (Philippine brand).

These two brands got me thinking: Mandaue isn’t big on direct tourism, but when it comes to tourism-related sales, the city is a pasalubong colossus.

Mandaue isn’t big on direct tourism, but when it comes to tourism-related sales, the city is a pasalubong colossus.

Not only that, I also learned that Mandaue hosts another huge food enterprise, Prifood Corp., which produces a sizeable range of popular snacks such as Super Crunch.

Then there’s Mandaue’s iconic delicacy called masareal, particularly Didangs Delicious Masareal, as well as excellent Polvoron from Mandaue’s Nutricious and addictive Baked Squid Bites from Baker’s Mill.

The box also came along with a package from Mama’s Little Secret Creative Burgers, which was quite a filling treat.

  • Samplers…

Of course, the best of #TatakMandaue cannot fit in a box, so I’d like to make a shoutout to homegrown faves such as Vcente’s classic La Paz Batchoy and Bebong’s to-die-for Mango Cake.

The list of #TatakMandaue brands is quite a long one, and we’ve barely touched the surface. I suggest you head out to this side of Cebu and get yourself a good old #TatakMandaue treat.


Travel Through Coffee

Explore the Philippines through its quality local beans without leaving home

Since the quarantine lockdowns began, I now have amassed quite a considerable coffee bean stash I bought online . I kept the bags with gas valves so I can reuse them for the green coffee beans I roast old school from time to time. Most of the coffee I buy are whole roasted beans, which I manually grind before brewing. This way I get to save a lot of money since four of us in the family are coffee drinkers.

But there’s another reason I’m sharing this post: all of these single-origin coffee beans are locally farmed. And from this stash, I have my favorites. More importantly, this is one of the best ways to support our local farmers: by patronizing the coffee they’ve grown with expertise and care, whether it’s the beans in a bag or the fresh brew from your go-to coffee shop.

For a family of 5 coffee drinkers, brewing quality local beans at home saves us money

The Philippines, which belongs to the Coffee Belt, is one of the most bio-diverse places on earth, and because our soils are so rich and fertile, from the Cordillera highlands to the volcanic slopes and plains of Batangas to the mountains of Davao, we get all those distinct, delightful flavors and aromas in our local brew.

Anyway, here are some of the different Philippine coffee beans I’ve brewed so far during the pandemic:


Tublay, Benguet

Kibungan, Benguet

Itogon, Benguet

Dapliyan Farm, Sagada

  • Kibungan, Benguet
  • Itogon, Benguet
  • Sagada
  • Tublay, Benguet

Mt. Apo, Bansalan, Davao

Atok, Benguet

Mt. Kitanglad, Bukidnon



Sulu (Kahawa Sug)

  • Lipa Liberica



I also ordered beans from Basilan’s Kahawa Tagime but they never arrived. A visit to a well-known coffee farm in Tuburan, Cebu will definitely happen as soon as they allow younger kids with the easing of quarantine restrictions.

Mt. Apo Arabica beans I roasted myself…

Stealing Imagery

Photography, plagiarism and the trappings of instant validation

I am writing this post as a photography enthusiast in light of a photographer who got outed for submitting another lensman’s photos to online contests (and won tens of thousands of pesos). But I’ll get to that later…

The screenshots below are a series of individual shots of a single subject I got enamoured with during a family trip in Vang Vieng, Laos. Here, I would wish to explain the work process in mobile photography that is often taken for granted. But I will also get into that later…

Wading through the Nam Song River for a good shot of the karst mountains…

As some of you already know, I have loved photography since my student days, using old school SLR cameras (film). And when I started working in a media company, I submitted feature stories with photos I myself took, still using my Canon AE1, until it eventually broke down. That time, the DSLR was king, but since I couldn’t afford it, I stopped taking photographs. It was only until the advent of mobile photography that I freely took photos to my heart’s content, both for work and leisure.

Mother and Child (2000, Canon AE1)

When I started immersing myself in phoneography (that’s what I called it) in 2009, industry professionals looked down on the craft. So I daresay I was one of the first to publish photographs using a mobile phone, mostly light subjects. But one of the photos I took of a police operation that unfolded right in front of me landed on the front page of the paper, and has since been used as evidence in court (to which I had appeared twice to testify). This (appearing in court as witness) is common among full-time photojournalists, but I was an editor of a leisure magazine when I took the photos of armed police operatives arresting a man suspected of possessing illegal firearms.

While the technology behind mobile photography was obviously revolutionary, it was at this point I realized that the phone camera had changed the game not just in journalism but in content creation as a whole. Still, both photographers of the old school frowned upon the images that came from such newfangled contraptions. Disruption, though, was inevitable.

When I became editor of a print magazine in 2012, phoneography made perfect sense to me, so I published photos shot with mobile cameras, and devoted the entire glossy inside back cover page for contributed quality themed photographs, again many of which were “phoneographs.” Every contributing photographer whose work got published in that section was given an honorarium. The amount wasn’t much, but from what I gathered, many of the contributing phoneographers appreciated the gesture. It wasn’t just the person that got recognized but the craft of phoneography as well.

Sabang, Palawan (2012, Sony Xperia)

In my phonecam journey, I met kindred spirits such as the multi-talented professional photographer Crisanto Entoma of Campo Santo Design Studio. Together, we founded Phoneography Cebu, a mobile photography group on Facebook that now has 10,000 members. Abuzz with posts and actual physical activities such as workshops, contests and exhibits, the group and its members helped promote phoneography not just in the curated spaces of social media but in all of Cebu as well.

Meanwhile, the importance of mobile photography could no longer be ignored. Late in the decade, photojournalists, armed with their long lenses and state-of-the-art DSLRs, found mobile phone cameras as indispensable tool in the profession. Other industries had gone through similar sweeping changes, albeit earlier. Meanwhile, I pursued travel photography with a passion, using whatever phone camera I had, of course.

Coron Canine (2017, Samsung Note 5)

And this brings us back to the screenshots of the astonishing karst mountains of Vang Vieng in Laos, with the Nam Song River in the foreground, during the family’s first trip abroad. The moment this view revealed itself during a foggy early morning walk with the family, my lungs filled up with lightness that buoyed me straight down to the river bank, and as I waded in knee-deep roiling waters, I found a good spot to hunker down and take shots.

Now, all I had was a phone with a camera — no tripod, no lens, no waterproof gear. But as they say, the best camera is the one you have in your hands. Slowly, holding the Samsung Note 5 with using my thumbs and forefingers barely centimeters above the flowing waters, the other fingers spreadeagle so as not to spoil the frame, I took one shot after the other, careful not to drop the device or else it would be game over, crouching all the while, my lower extremities immersed in the murky river that rushed on during Vang Vieng’s rainy low season for white tourists.

For close to an hour, I tried different settings on my phone camera…

One seldom goes wrong with using auto features, but some of the photos here, like the ones with bluish hues, were shot using manual settings (f/1.9, 1/125, 4.30mm, ISO50) of the Samsung Note 5. I just stayed mostly in one sport for more than half an hour but finding different angles and timing the eddies and bubbles that the restless river made. I was about to haul my drenched behind out of the water when I spotted a colorful object slowly descending from the upper right corner of my screen.

It was a lone hot-air balloon — during high season, I reckoned dozens of these tourist aircraft would hover lazily above the otherwise majestic karst mountains. Had there been two, it would have been one aircraft too many. But the appearance of this one hot air balloon offered the scenery a different dimension: minor intrusions into the wilderness.

Would the tourist aircraft be considered a photographic punctum as Barthes defined it, I thought? But what the heck, I caught these images on film, I mean, on file, and I’m happy. After roughly an hour shooting a single subject in the river, it was time to leave.

Click after click after click, a welcome “intruder” descends into the mountains… (2016, Samsung Note 5)

My family — the wife and three kids — had quietly left much earlier, back to our bed and breakfast. While I was excited to show them my work, I was struck with an epiphany of sorts. We were on a family vacation, and an hour spent alone with my camera is an hour lost. The minutes and the seconds will eventually add up, and while I will have more photographs in my laptop, in the end I will have fewer and fewer shared memories of sights and sceneries, the ones that really matter.

It was that very moment that I walked away from the Nam Song River that I decided that from now on I will take only the essential and compulsory photographs when we travel, the ones that grab me by the hand or seize me by the throat. The fewer the clicks, the better. Instead, I will store all these images in my head, the same images that my pack of five witnessed all at once but through different pairs of eyes.

These Lao kids know how to live the moment… (2016, Samsung Note 5)

True enough, the number of photographs I took in our succeeding trips through the years was reduced to a tenth of those taken during my manic phoneography days. Of course, I will always be drawn to beautiful images and I will photograph it the best way I can, but now I am no longer a slave to the perfect shot and the compulsion that comes along to capture it. It’s quite a liberating feeling, actually.

And this brings us back to the issue of plagiarism: while the practice is as old as art itself, social media has created new breeds of plagiarists like the image thief. One thinks he just seeks perfection despite a lack of talent, but what he really longs for is instant validation. With just a few clicks of the finger, the plagiarist takes someone else’s labor of love, and lays claim to the perfect shot as his own.

While the practice is as old as art itself, social media has created new breeds of plagiarists like the image thief.

The most recent accusations of such brazen plagiarism involves the “grand prize winner” of a Philippine telecom firm’s photo contest that awarded P50,000. His winning entry? An image downloaded for free from a stock photo site. It was later learned that a Vietnamese photographer, Quang Nguyen Vinh, took the beautiful image of a fisherman casting his net into the sea as the sun was setting in 2017 yet. My good friend and blog consultant Max Limpag provides more insight about the scandal.

But what’s more alarming than the ease with which these acts are made is the plagiarists’ lack of remorse when the truth comes out. The apologies they mutter are as empty as the excuses they make. Worse, they try to wriggle out of the mess they’ve made by portraying themselves as victims, to which their friends and followers offer generous support.

The Vietnamese photographer must have felt a mix of emotions upon learning of someone claiming his work and profiting from it: from flattery to outright disgust. Another photographer who joined the contest using his original work offers us insight: “It’s not about the prize, it’s about robbing someone of their efforts and dedication put into their art.”

This image of Batanes was used without my knowledge… (2015, Samsung S4)

As someone who is passionate about photography, I can relate, although to a lesser extent. Many years ago, someone pointed out that a travel agency used my photographs of Batanes on their Facebook page without my permission. I should have called them out, but I didn’t.

Part of me said the world needs to see those images, another wanted the travel agency go out of business. It did.

Another photo of mine used without my permission…. (2015, Samsung S4)


The ‘Parang Hindi Pinas’ Syndrome

And why such toxic insecurity has no place in this beautiful country of ours

“Wow, parang hindi Pinas…”

If there’s a toxic Filipino trait that I really wish to put an end to right now is the propensity to name the country’s beautiful spots after more popular — though not necessarily more impressive — destinations. It’s not only condescending, unimaginative and at times idiotic (e.g. “Little Amsterdam” in Sirao, Cebu, good heavens), it reinforces a people’s misplaced sense of low self-worth and heritage of smallness.

Mount Pinatubo Crater Lake

Here are more examples:

● “Little Baguio” (referring to Mantalungon, Dalaguete or the Don Salvador Benedicto in Negros, Occidental)
● “Little Guam” (referring to Guyam Island, heard this in the late 80s)
● “Maldives of the Philippines” (Manjuyod Sand Bar)
● “The New Zealand of the Philippines” (Ilocos or Batanes)
● “Little Amsterdam” (Flower garden in Sirao, Cebu City)
● “Boracay of the South” (Bantayan Island, Cebu)

Kapurpurawan Rock Formations in Burgos, Ilocos Norte

I’m sure there’s more, but this subliminal belittling of ourselves and of our natural treasures has got to stop. That means we should start asking ourselves why is it so hard for some Filipinos to acknowledge that this country is blessed with plenty of spectacular sceneries, and yet we belittle them by making ridiculous comparisons to validate their existence?

Why is it so hard for some Filipinos to acknowledge that this country is blessed with plenty of spectacular sceneries, and yet we belittle them by making ridiculous comparisons to validate their existence?

Crystal-clear waters at the Manjuyod Sand Bar in Negros Oriental

By saying that X is the Y of the Philippines/locale or X is Little Y suggests that Y is superior to X. I’ve said this many times on social media, but if this is for marketing purposes, then it’s lazy, unimaginative and misguided. It’s some sort of “reverse appropriation” but driven by a deep-seated inferiority complex towards the West and the First World, or anything more affluent or famous. While not unique to this part of the world, it is almost instinctive as much as it is prevalent among Filipino netizens.

White sand beach at Kota Point in Lawis, Bantayan Island in northern Cebu. Lawis, which means promontory, is the old name of the municipality of Madridejos.

I embrace celebrating similarities and differences, but this kind of mindset that imposes and, on the other side of the coin, blindly accepts hierarchical comparisons reflects how insecure and ignorant some of us can really get.

In the end, the thing — the Philippine Islands — speaks for itself, and I am just thankful when it is seen for what it’s really worth: appreciated, and not appropriated.


Tiny Guyam Island off Siargao Island in Surigao del Norte

Trains of thought on Vietnam’s Road of Steel

How 3 train rides for 32 hours along 1,700 kilometers of Vietnamese railway feel like for this family of 5

Saigon to Hanoi by Rail

Like a nocturnal beast prepping itself for the long night ahead, the locomotive crawled on the Đường Sắt Bắc–Nam — Vietnam’s North–South Railway — in the suburbs of Saigon, its dozen or so carriages groaning at the joints.

Train SE4 slowly gathered speed for the overnight trip to Da Nang, our first time to sleep on a train. I booked online tickets for this sleeper train weeks in advance, as well as for another overnight trip. The family will take three train rides in all from Saigon to Hanoi along the Đường Sắt Bắc–Nam, which foreigners simply called Duong Sat and translated, whether by mistake or on purpose, to “Road of Steel.” We will have two long stops: Da Nang and Ninh Binh.

A cozy sleeping compartment of Coach 9 on Train SE4

For the first leg, I got the five of us an airconditioned soft-berth cabin for four and a bed in another compartment. The new cabins on Coach 9 look neat and tidy. The four “floating” bunk beds have soft-enough mattresses with fresh beddings, each with a reading lamp and USB outlets to charge phones. The cabin has a modish keg-shaped woven lamp and flower vase on the table by the window, which is adorned with Christmas reindeer and sleigh stickers. In the vestibules on both ends of the carriage are clean wash rooms and toilets.

Each compartment is adorned with this lovely woven lamp, a flower vase, and Christmas-themed stickers on the window.

Before retreating to our beds, the family gathered at the hallway just outside our cabin to watch through the glass window the city of Ho Chi Minh pass us by. Half of Saigon was just coming to life, while the other half is getting ready for the next day. Many of those living along the railroad track left the windows of their homes wide open, unmindful of peering eyes from passing trains. One homemaker clears the table, while the neighbor next door sits slouched in front of the TV (asleep?). A tiny silhouette runs past one of the window frames. At a crossing, dozens of motorcycles with headlights ablaze gather in front of metal road blocks that will be removed by hand as soon as the road is clear of this passing train. Every kilometer or so of the rail corridor, a Vietnamese guard keeps watch for both train and the outside world. (“The train windows stay closed because some children throw stones at trains,” the Vietnam Railways website explained.)

First time to sleep on a train

Train SE4 left the Saigon Railway Station on the dot at 7:45 and is expected to arrive in Da Nang shortly past lunch, with a number of quick stops in between. The kids are thrilled to ride the sleeper train, and Bretha is happiest the kids are thrilled.

Amber’s sleeping quarters.

With all this anticipation, Cyan, our nine year old, says it’s pretty cool sleeping in a train. Arwen, our teenage resident artist, is also enamored with the idea, loving the ever changing views outside her window. Amber, our young adult, agrees. “And it’s even nicer waking up to a beautiful scenery.” Being the eldest, Amber offered to stay in the separate cabin, which she shared with a good-natured elderly Vietnamese woman. Perhaps it’s a rehearsal of sorts for the possibility that she’d be living elsewhere when she goes to college a few months from now.

With this series of travels by rail, I feel that the kids, too, now share my fascination with trains, because, among other reasons, they can take a journey not just to places on the map but in the mind as well.

And yet this fascination carries with it a tinge of longing that goes all the way back home. For how could one not yearn knowing that trains used to run up and down the length of the island of Cebu, our hometown, intersecting with the quotidian lives of the Cebuanos of old?

Blue skies in Quảng Ngãi Province in Vietnam’s tropical south.

Where the trains back then always on time? That didn’t matter, as long as they arrived, not just with people and goods like abaca, sugarcane, and cacao, but with news and even newer ideas as well.

I once had a discussion with a friend, the poet Adonis, about Cebu’s long-forgotten trains that ran along close to a hundred kilometers of railway stretching from the towns of Danao to Argao. “Can you imagine how it must have felt for the townsfolk every time they would hear a train arriving from the distance?” Adonis said. Consider that these were quieter times when everything was remote and often shrouded in mystery.

Rice paddies in post-harvest season in Phú Yên Province

I tried to imagine children running first to the station at the sound of a faint whistle, if not wait on the side of the track, then seeing a tiny puff of steam from a dot where the two lengths of rails vanished in the distance, they scream with excitement. “Naabot na ang train!” Adonis’s voice mimicking that of an excited child shrills in my head. The train has arrived, even if it hasn’t really.

Arwen’s sketches of Vietnamese folk

Slowly the same dot dilates like a pupil in the whiteness of steam that’s billowing more proudly, until this beast with an iron snout comes barreling down inches past their noses, and they give chase, begging playfully for a free ride, hands flailing as if to grab one of the bars. But the train is too fast even if it is slowing down.

I imagine cheers and applause and excitement drowning the protracted squeaking and creaking of metal against metal. And then the locomotive and everything behind it grinds to a halt. Perhaps in an hour or so, the engineer will sound the bell to announce yet another departure.

Museum stickers on Arwen’s sketches of tube houses and a colonial building.

Did the trains of Cebu arrive every day, every week, at every station? And left just as often? Whatever the frequency, time in this part of the world would be measured with arrivals and departures, such that the people’s meaningful existence relied on these intervals. Nothing could be more reassuring to the locals than the certainty of the leavings and goings from the train stations of Argao, Carcar, Sibonga, Cebu City, and Danao.

Then one day, the trains stopped coming. They said it was the war, some blaming the guerillas for the sabotage of the tracks. But why the railway was never restored remains a mystery. Perhaps the bus moguls and auto traders know.

Cemetery in Da Nang

Over time, the tracks disappeared, rail by rail, bolt by tiny bolt, and all that is left are faint traces of dust-layered trackbed over which the tracks had been fastened.

Where trains used to pass and rattled its environs, cars and buses now jostle for the same space and its expansions. The train bells and air whistles, too, had to give way to electric horns coming from all directions.

Train steward manning the corridor

The story of Cebu’s trains reminds me of Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” an end-of-days film set inside a perpetually moving train where the last of humanity’s survivors are confined. “We take the engine and we control the world,” says the protagonist who longs for change. In Cebu, the survivors of World War II managed to take the engine and the entire train along with it, but they also took everything apart, so now there’s no more train to control. In its place is a transport system that puts most dystopian plots to shame.

In Vietnam, it appears the right people still control the engine.

Passing by a intersection in Saigon

I retreat to the cabin and climb up the top bunk and plop on the covered mattress. I find Arwen in the bunk across studying her drawings of Saigon’s colonial buildings and Vietnamese folk in traditional clothes. She keeps the sketch book moments later and pulls the covers. Cyan is curled beside his mommy.

In the other cabin, Amber is probably striking a conversation with her elderly roommate. Many Vietnamese, especially the younger ones, in the bigger cities like Saigon and Hanoi speak English, but those in the interior areas don’t. So far, though, communicating with the locals, especially the train staff, has not been a problem as simple “sign language” a la charades seemed to suffice.

At the break of dawn at the coast of Vung Ro south of Da Nang

I think about telling the kids of Cebu’s once-upon-a-time trains. Maybe tomorrow. Moments later, I hear someone jump into the empty bed and a tiny voice asks me to turn off the lights. I oblige. One gets used to the noise from the running train. It now follows a cadence, a certain beat that puts one at ease. In my head, in the darkness, Death Cab for Cutie’s train song plays alongside this beat:

The coast disappeared when the sea drowned the sun
I knew no words to share it with anyone
The boundaries of language I quietly cursed
And all the different names for the same thing

Fishing boats returning to the coast of Vung Ro Bay at sunrise

I wake up early the following morning. It must be 5 a.m. My children are still asleep, and so is Bretha. The electric signboard at one end of the train corridor says we are now nearing the railway station in Hảo Sơn Village. Outside where everything is a blue blur, the sun has yet to rise over fishing grounds, rice paddies, concrete houses with brick roofs, and cemeteries.

Next station: Ga Hảo Sơn in Đông Hòa, Phú Yên

We are halfway through the day’s destination of Da Nang. The signboard says the train is cruising at 70 kilometers per hour. I look outside the window — to the train’s right — and a cargo truck cruising on the highway is left behind. Like projector slides, the scenery shifts from coast to lake sides to rows of pine trees to foggy hills to farmland and farmers’ dwellings with their bales of hay shaped like huts that tower over farm houses.

A motorized trike zooms past pine trees in Đồng Xuân, Phú Yên

I lose my thoughts in the drone of steel wheels grinding at speed on railtracks with its measured peals and clangs. It’s not the most sophisticated, most advanced train, yet I have peace of mind in its comforts. And along with the entire Vietnamese fleet of trains, SE4 seems to serve a higher purpose.

A lakeside area in Tuy An, Phú Yên

All at once, I am envious of Vietnam and its people because it has a railway network of 2,600 kilometers, at the end of which, or at every station, someone, a waiting child perhaps, would exclaim, “Tàu đã đến!” The train has arrived!

A village blanketed in fog in Đồng Xuân, Phú Yên

Truth is, I envy any place with a functioning railway system, like Indonesia, where our family took a seamless five-hour train ride from Surabaya to Yogyakarta in Java. Indonesia’s railway system spans more than 5,000 kilometers and continues to expand along with the country’s ambitions.

I envy Malaysia, too, where we hopped on a train for a two-hour ride from the quiet coffee town of Kluang to Johor Bahru, a route which is just a fraction of the country’s close to 2,000 kilometers of track.

A village of concrete houses with brick roofs in Đông Hòa, Phú Yên

And I envy Myanmar even more even just for its 46-kilometer Yangon Circular Railway because it offers its citizens cheap mass transport around the capital’s immediate peripheries, never mind that the trains move at a snail’s pace, as what my wife and I discovered when we hopped on one of the carriages five years ago. But don’t be fooled: Myanmar’s railway network boasts of more than 11,000 kilometers in total, never mind if there a few bone-rattling segments as the late great Anthony Bourdain once attested to on a slow “kidney-softening travel by rail” to Bagan. But let those numbers sink in like railway sleepers pressed relentlessly into the track ballast.

Bales of hay shaped like huts tower above farm houses in Quảng Ngãi

In contrast, the Philippines only has 212 kilometers of railway, mostly in the island of Luzon. And yet, even that I envy as a Cebuano, as I dream that one day all five of us in the family would be taking a train from Manila aboard the Bicol Express once revived, or maybe the line to nearby Bulacan when it is finished, perhaps to whichever among the ongoing and planned line expansions in the country’s biggest island materializes first, or to any of the Philippine National Railway’s existing lines that are slowly getting much needed improvement after decades of neglect. But we will hop on that train when that time comes and admire Luzon from the train’s corridors.

Passing Hảo Sơn Railway Station in Đông Hòa, Phú Yên

May I point out, though, that train rides have two corridors: the one inside the carriages along the compartments, and the other, that strip of land where the rail tracks are laid, where pedestrians often traipse and hang out, and from time to time where saboteurs and pilferers pull off their plans.

I step out the cabin and see a vast cemetery come into view. Several upright grave stones are marked with sauwastikas, ancient symbols of divinity and spirituality. I am reminded how fleeting life is. The train moves on at its own pace.

Cemetery in Tuy An District in Phú Yên Province

There is no room for the restless on trains. In a way, I pity the contemporary traveler who can think only of getting off at the next stop at the quickest possible time while his mind chronically seeks to connect with the superhighways of cyberspace. On trains like the SE4, one learns to let go of urgencies.

Hunger, this most urgent of longings, is an exception. And I am grateful the railway management included free meals — breakfast and lunch — in our train tickets. But breakfast is still two hours away and I’m starting to get famished. To our luck, the train stops at Ga Hảo Sơn .

Passing by a village of concrete houses with brick roofs near Ga Hảo Sơn

The kids are still asleep but Bretha is up. A vendor appears outside the door near the rear gangway and sells us food. I buy two meat-filled rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. The rice cakes have a name: Banh U. I know only two words of Vietnamese and she doesn’t speak our language. As though I had a glass in hand, I gesture whether they sold drinks.

Banh U from Hòa Đa Railway Station

“Coco.” she says.
“Yes, coco!” I nod, extending two fingers. Bretha and I could really use some hot Vietnamese chocolate right now, perfect for this beautiful airconditioned morning in the middle of a rural commune.
The vendor hands me two plastic bottles through the door.
“Ah, Coco. Coke. Coca Cola.” All the different names for the same thing, and why not? Bretha is speechless.

The vendor nods and grins as I hand her 50,000 dong. I reach out for my change. If there’s a language we all understand, it’s that of money.
“Cảm ơn!” I say, thanking her.
“Cảm ơn!” she says and looks for other customers.

Noodles topped with beef for lunch

But the rice cakes are really good, and I wish I bought more. Breakfast finally came and the staff with a trolley of food gives us our packed meals with sealed cups of water. Everyone is now awake, and gorge on the dry noodles topped with beef strips. Cyan, chopsticks in one hand, gives the dish a thumbs up with the other.

Amber came by to say hi. “Sleeping in a train is fun!” she exclaims, although she admitted that dozing off was hard at first because of the noise the train makes. But eventually the same monotonous rhythm of the rolling train would lull her to sleep.

Woman with a trolley at Quảng Ngãi Railway Station

“Grandma is really nice,” Amber says, referring to her Vietnamese roommate. “She offered me food and kept me company. We even ate together last night. She also taught me how stuff on the train works, like the toilet.”

“The toilet is scary,” Cyan butts in. It’s true. The water inside the bowl continuously swishes and swirls because of the train’s forward movement.

“Grandma asked me where we were heading. To Da Nang, then Hanoi, I said. She said she was going home to her family in Hanoi.”

Container freight trains in Binh Dinh Province

Now one might think that railways are the Vietnamese’s transport of choice for passengers and cargo. The opposite is true. Although the figures are increasing, few goods are transferred by rail and only one out of 20 Vietnamese uses the trains, the likes of grandma included.

Vietnam is a motorcycle country after all, and with more people able to buy cars and in the advent of budget air fares, railway use is facing stiff competition.

Motorists, bicycle riders and pedestrians wait for the train to pass at a crossing in Quảng Ngãi

And yet the Vietnamese government is pursuing serious rehabilitation of its underutilized railways, as well as expansion into the borders of Laos and Cambodia. That’s because the vital role that railways play especially in a more interconnected future cannot be ignored.

While waiting for lunch, we pass the time playing Uno. In between one of the games, I tell the kids that the cabin reminded me of the ones I slept in on passenger ships from Cebu to and from Manila during school break.

Fishing boats in Da Nang

There was a rebirth of the shipping industry then, and a couple of the main players were trying to outdo each other to lure passengers with low fare, refurbished ships, clean accommodations, and “stuff to do” like karaoke during the 24-hour voyage.

Also at that time, budget airlines did not exist, so one must either be wealthy or desperate to pay for airfare that’s 10 times the cost of a boat ticket. Choosing which boat to take often boiled down to who offered the better food, which meant the SuperFerry ships, hands down. (Fun fact: while officially called the Reunification Express, the SE on Vietnam’s trains supposedly stand for Super Express. SuperFerry. Super Express. What super similarities.)

Lunch time in Quảng Ngãi

Anyway, lunch time came rather quick, and the food server brought our free meals, this time, on a tray: pork barbecue, vegetable salad, soup, rice, and water. Trust the Vietnamese to make train food delicious.

At Da Nang Railway Station in Quang Nam Province
Does this woven cylinder at the Hoi An Night Market look familiar?

A few rice paddies and another cemetery later, we arrive at Da Nang Railway Station. We took a Grab seven-seater for a 30-minute ride to Hoi An where we would stay near unspoilt An Bang Beach with its four-kilometer stretch of uninterrupted sand for four days and three nights, then spend another three days and two nights — including Christmas Eve — just outside Unesco Heritage Site Hoi An Ancient Town.

Round boat at An Bang Beach in Hoi An

There are plenty of things that struck me about Hoi An, but I’ll leave you with two: first, the cuisine is divine, the best we’ve tasted in Vietnam, and second, they play Jose Mari Chan Christmas songs here. But let’s leave that for another story.

Christmas Eve at Hoi An Parish Church

On Christmas Day, it was time to board another sleeper train in Da Nang, this time for Ninh Binh. The second leg of the family’s 16-day trip in Vietnam was a choice between the ancient city of Hue, the cave systems of Phong Nha Ke Bang, and the karst mountains and rivers of Ninh Binh.

Passing through Da Nang from Hoi An

We settled on Ninh Binh after a fellow Filipino traveler, who was also referred by my friend Ley who worked for a couple of years near Hanoi, suggested the place.

“Ninh Binh was the former capital of Vietnam,” Janice said. “It has scenic rivers there like in Tam Coc as well as a location site for Kong: Skull Island in Trang An.” She got me at Skull Island, because kids. Janice then referred me to her Vietnamese guide whom she said was really helpful. The guide’s name? Cinnamon Que.

Now for the second leg: overnight train from Da Nang to Ninh Binh

I looked Cinnamon Que up on the messaging app Zalo — her Facebook and Instagram handles vary (different names, same person) — and asked her if she’s in Ninh Binh. “I am living in Hanoi, but my hometown is Ninh Binh and my parents are living there.” That’s great, I said, and told her I wanted to see Tam Coc and Trang An. Cinnamon said I should just pick one. “You shouldn’t choose both because they are similar.” Makes perfect sense. I asked her if she’d like to be our guide in Hanoi. She agreed, adding she couldn’t wait to meet the family, especially the kids. “I hope you have a meaningful time in Vietnam,” she said. I thank her for all the help. The meeting didn’t push through, though, as she had to return to Ninh Binh for the New Year.

Time for some note taking

The family could have flown from Da Nang to Hanoi, the capital, and from there just take a van to Ninh Binh. But that would mean we’d miss out on a ride through Hai Van Pass, a popular side trip for Da Nang visitors. And right now, at 3:30 in the afternoon, we’re on board Train SE2 (Super Express 2!).

Near a fishing village in Da Nang

The train started moving and, as the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima would write, “shook with a deep sound like that of heavy chains gnashing against each other.” In less than an hour, it would make its way through the 21-kilometer stretch of the Hai Van Pass mountains.

The unspoilt coast of Da Nang Bay
Railway guard in Da Nang

From the window at the hallway of Coach 12, the coastline facing the East Vietnam Sea begins to reveal itself as the train makes its way to Hai Van Pass. The Annamese Mountains or Dãy Trường Sơn takes shape up ahead: a mountain range that extends into the borders of Laos and even Cambodia.

SE2 making its way through the Hai Van Pass
To remind us of where we are

Super Express 2 groans as it begins its slow climb through the mountains, snaking carefully along cliff sides, part of which drop straight into the sea. Several grunts, squeaks and clangs later, the electronic signboard reads: Hai Van Pass. The scenery outside is lovely. A soft mist has covered the slopes in the horizon.

View aboard the train from Thừa Thiên Huế Province

And then the train groans again, now with more clanking like the clatter of pots and pans, as it begins its traverse on a metal bridge along the cliffs some 500 meters above the sea. “Awesome,” Cyan says with bated breath. Hai Van Pass stretches on end. A stream emerges. Far down below, the waves crash against the shore. The sight disappears as the train enters a tunnel.

A stream in Thừa Thiên Huế

I can now imagine why two ancient kingdoms — the Dai Viet from the north and Champa from the south — chose Hai Van Pass as their boundary. I can also imagine why a number of older trains fell off this route. Of, course I didn’t tell the wife and children that, although now I understand why the Vietnamese named this new line of trains the Super Express.

Passing by a supply depot at Hai Van Pass

But travel through the erstwhile perilous Hai Van Pass has gotten safer through the years, and that makes riding a determined train through the Vietnamese mountains an even more compelling trip (not to mention all that railway metal soundtrack to heighten one’s journey). After another good meal, we all slept soundly that night.

Journey in the northern part of Vietnam continues in Phú Lộc, Thừa Thiên Huế Province

Thirteen hours later, at 4:15 a.m., we say goodbye to Super Express 2 at the Ninh Binh Station. Except for one attendant at the door, we were the only souls at this spacious modern structure built just three years ago. There was no need to hail a cab as our hotel was at the block across the station. We stepped out of the station into the cold. We are in the north of Vietnam after all. In contrast, the tropical south was warm, and I am reminded that the Hai Van Pass, among its many roles, does serve as the boundary of Vietnam’s two climates.

Early morning arrival at Ninh Binh Railway Station

We put on our jackets and walked for roughly five minutes. Since our check in time was still at 12 noon, the plan was to just leave our stuff at the counter, then proceed with a morning tour. When we reached our hotel it was closed. I look at Bretha. She looks at me. Confusion is written on her face, near panic on mine.

View from Ninh Binh Railway Station

I remember her talking on the phone yesterday, asking whether they accepted credit cards for payment (my online booking through Agoda said I would pay at the hotel upon check-in). The man on the other line, presumably the hotel owner, said yes. Bretha confirmed our booking, so I’m pretty sure they knew we were arriving. So why the hell was the hotel closed? I look around. Not a soul stirred on the wide tree-lined sidewalks, the mist hanging in the cold air.

And the hotel is still closed

I tell Bretha and the kids, who were now sitting on the concrete steps at the entrance, that I’ll look for another hotel just in case. I go down the block, then turn right along the Sông Vân River. I saw one outdoor sign glowing in the distance and walk towards it. A funeral parlor, no way. I go faster and follow a neon hotel sign down a narrow road. The counter was pitch dark. Tough luck. Everyone here was still asleep. I return as the bearer of bad news.

Ninh Xuân commune in Hoa Lư, Ninh Binh
Vietnamese drip coffee after a not-so-long wait

When I get back, the metal shutters were pulled open. Bretha had texted the owner while I was away, and he and his wife had just woken up. While pulling out chairs and tables, the couple, still in their pajamas, explained they didn’t expect us this early. My bad. I completely forgot to tell them the expected time of the train’s arrival. “Coffee?” the wife asks. “Three coffees and two milk teas, please.”

Emerging from one of the caves of Trang An during a boat ride

Having Vietnamese drip coffee on the empty sidewalks of laid back Ninh Binh at 5:30 in the morning was surreal in a quaint way. “What coffee do you use?” I ask the wife. “Trung Nguyen, Number 9,” she says. “It’s the best.” I take a sip and a mental note.

After 500 steps climbing Ngoa Long Mountain
A list of Ninh Binh’s attractions from a nearby travel agency

So Bretha, to make sure, asks the husband again about paying by credit card.
“Oh, you go at 7 a.m. first to Mua Cave, then Trang An, then Hua Lu, then Bai Dinh Pagoda,” he says, while making a sketch on paper.
“How about credit card, do you accept credit card?”
“Car will be here 6:30 a.m. You leave 7 a.m.”
“Oh, the car.” Not card, but car. Different names, same thing. Different things, same names. I give up.
“You want breakfast?”

So much for the credit card then. And that means it’s time for some serious (re)calculation.

Breakfast before the early tour

Anyway, I’m glad we took the couple’s advice to book an SUV through them, leave early, and visit the sights they suggested. It saved us money. Ninh Binh is breathtaking and we wanted to stay longer (we had great bread-and-breakfast hosts).

At the location of Kong: Skull Island

We checked out at noon the next day. For the overnight stay at the hotel, whole-day car rental, and lunch and dinner with all that habit-forming strawberry milk tea and excellent drip coffee, we only paid 2.145 million dong. Cash.

Waiting for our ride to Hanoi

The five of us walked back to Ninh Binh Station, our hearts and stomachs full, and bought tickets for the train to Hanoi. Our Vietnam journey by rail was about to end. The train left shortly before 2 p.m. and we’re in Hanoi exactly two hours later. “Tàu đã đến!” The train has arrived!

And here it is…

In all, we spent roughly 32 hours for three days and two nights on three separate trains along 1,714 kilometers of railroad to visit three major cities, see their numerous natural and man-made heritage sites, and experience a unique but vibrant culture. And although we had shared experiences, the kids, with their gaps in age, saw the train rides through different lenses.

Final leg: a two-hour trip from Ninh Binh to Hanoi

Arwen sums it up with one image that struck her the most: the sea of motorists and their motorcyles waiting at the crossing. “We normally see the world from outside, but when viewed from another perspective like inside the train, it is so different,” she muses. “When I saw, even for a fleeting moment, all those people at the crossing and the light shone on each one of them all the way to the farthest end of the road, I thought the sight was amazing.”

Train snacks

And if you come to think of it, these motorists are interconnected with everyone else in a vast network of roads, waterways and tracks that are ultimately linked to the emerging country’s underutilized spine. And yet the significance of the railway that connects Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi goes beyond the economic.

Train journey coming to an end

I am yet again reminded of another movie with the train as a storytelling device. Though a zombie apocalypse movie, “Train to Busan” isn’t just a one-track, one-dimensional flick. Like “Snowpiercer,” Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan” utilizes the train as a metaphor for social class divisions. But Busan has a more poignant layer it touched on: the division between North and South Korea that still cuts deep to this day.

Hanoi Railway Terminal

In the film, a zombie outbreak further “divides” South Korea into north (an infected Seoul) and south (a secured Busan). In one telling scene, elderly family members are forcibly separated into different carriages, a subtle reference to the division of Korea after World War II. To this day, the reunification of North and South offer both dream and nightmare scenarios, a divisive theme that “Train to Busan” carried deftly to a broader audience.

After three train rides and 1,700 kilometers of Vietnamese railway, we are delighted to say, “Hello, Hanoi!”

Vietnam could easily have gone down Korea’s way. It actually did for 11 years from 1954 to 1965 when the country was divided into two, with the boundary on the 17th parallel just above the Hai Van Pass. But history favored a unified Vietnam that is now opening itself up to the world. And there we went, family of five, on these (Super) Reunification Express trains along the Đường Sắt Bắc–Nam that connects all of Vietnam, catching glimpses of an undivided, iron-willed country that’s moving with purpose on the right track.

That’s right, just a backpack each for this gang. Why Vietnam for us? Click here

Ijen to Bromo, Prambanan to Borobudur: a DIY question

Here’s how we arrived at our Java itinerary

Indonesia 101

A friend recently told me that she’s planning for that dream trip to Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo. She had looked up my post about our family excursion to Java’s volcanoes, and while she couldn’t contain her excitement to visit this awe-inspiring part of the world, there were plenty of questions in her mind. I was more than glad to help a fellow traveler.

The post about that part of our trip, though, was in need of details, so I’m sharing here our actual itinerary with more specifics, tips on planning and safety, links for maps, and select transport, booking and contact info.

Take note, the island of Java is huge — almost half the area of the entire Philippine archipelago — with many attractions to choose from, so let’s start with the places in East and Central Java one ought to visit first for a one-week trip.

East and Central Java’s major sights

■ Mount Ijen via Banyuwangi
■ Mount Bromo via Cemoro Lawang
■ Prambanan and Sewu Temples in Yogyakarta
■ Borobudur via Yogyakarta

Candi Prambanan

How many days do you need?

Kicking off the tour with transit from Ubud, Bali, five days sufficed for us to see and experience four of Java’s major attractions. We had to skip visits to the town and city centers for lack of time, though. So if you wish to engage in other activities in East and Central Java, set aside seven days or more.

Merry mix of tour package and DIY bookings

We booked the Ijen BlueFlame Tour package online for the Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo legs of our trip, starting from Gilimanuk, Bali and culminating in Surabaya, East Java. BlueFlame also arranged the trip by van from Ubud to Gilimanuk in Bali and the ferry crossing from Gilimanuk to Ketapang, Banyuwangi in Java. The tour company, of course, is named after the otherworldly blue flames of the sulfuric crater lake of Mount Ijen.

We specified that we were traveling with three children, the youngest being nine years old, and BlueFlame assured us they’ll do fine (they had a blast). Although the tour company offered the lowest rates, surprisingly, the quality of the tour, the guide, driver, and accommodations in all was beyond expectation.

As for the train ride from Surabaya to Yogyakarta, we booked it online ourselves weeks in advance, alongside the accommodation in Yogyakarta.

Is it advisable to go full DIY with your Java trip? I considered doing so, but opted for the tour package for Ijen and Bromo. I’ll explain later. Moving on…

Road in Banyuwangi in East Java
IG: @thetravelingvs

Here’s what the entire tour looks like:

Day 1
(Start of BlueFlame Tour package)

12 noon
Depart for Gilimanuk Harbor

5 p.m.
Ferry to Ketapang Port, Banyuwangi

7 p.m.
Check-in Banyuwangi

Mount Ijen Crater Lake

Day 2
Mount Ijen Volcano Complex

12:30 a.m.
Pick up for tour

2 a.m.
Start trek to Mt. Ijen

5 a.m.
Watch sunrise

7 a.m.
Stop at waterfalls
(We skipped the coffee and rubber plantation)

9 a.m.
Breakfast at hotel

Check out

12 noon
Depart for Cemoro Lawang
Stop at Pasir Putih Beach for lunch

6 p.m.
Check-in Cemoro Lawang

Cyan takes a dip at Air Terjun Jagir in Banyuwangi

Day 3
Mount Bromo
Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park

3 a.m.
Pick up for tour on board 4×4 jeeps

4 a.m.
Watch sunrise at view point

6 a.m.
Start trek to Mt. Bromo

9 a.m.
Breakfast at hotel

10 a.m.
Depart for Surabaya

3:30 p.m.
Drop off at Surabaya Gubeng Railway Station
(End of BlueFlame Tour)

5 p.m.
Board train to Yogyakarta
(We booked our train seats online weeks ahead)

10:30 p.m.
Arrive at Stasiun Tugu Yogyakarta then check-in at hotel

Day 4
Explore Yogyakarta
(We booked a 5-seater car via Klook for one day)

8 a.m.
Candi Prambanan and Candi Sewu

1 p.m.
Magelang, Central Java

6 p.m.
Rest in hotel

Sunset over Borobudur

Day 5
Yogyakarta to Singapore

5 a.m.
Depart for Adi Sucipto International Airport

7:25 a.m.
Depart Yogyakarta via AirAsia

10:45 a.m.
Arrive in Singapore

Candi Sewu near Candi Prambanan

Where we stayed

For Mount Ijen tour:
Ketapang Indah Hotel
Banyuwangi, Java
(Tour inclusion, with breakfast)

For Mount Bromo tour:
Istana Petani Hotel
Cemoro Lawang, Probolinggo, Java
(Tour inclusion, with breakfast)

For Yogyakarta tour:
BeOne Jogja
Jalan Solo, Yogyakarta
(Booked via Agoda and chose this one as it is just 15 minutes away from Yogyakarta airport, and cheap)

Tour Info

We recommend Ijen Blueflame Tour for your Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo excursions based on our experience.

Operator: Ijen BlueFlame Tour
Proprietor: Johanes Tony
Email: [email protected]
[email protected]
Johanes was with us all throughout the booking process. (Thank you, Johanes!) Request for Arif as guide, if he’s available. You won’t regret it.

Package inclusions for Bromo and Ijen tours:

✓ Private car
✓ Driver
✓ Fuel (petrol)
✓ Tickets for ferry crossing (Gilimanuk to Ketapang)
✓ Hotel accomodation for Ijen with breakfast
✓ Hotel accommodation for Bromo tour with breakfast
✓ Breakfast
✓ Guide for Ijen and Bromo
✓ Entrance fees for Ijen and Bromo
✓ Dual filter gas mask
✓ Torch light
✓ Private 4×4 jeep for Bromo tour
✓ Toll fees
✓ Parking fees
✓ Mineral water during entire tour
✓ Bonus: Waterfall side trip in Banyuwangi

✘ Horse in Bromo
✘ Lunch and dinner

Road info

Ubud to Gilimanuk Ferry Port
Distance: 130 kilometers
Travel time: 4 hours (with stops)

Ketapang Ferry Port to Banyuwangi (hotel)
Distance: 3 kilometers
Travel time: 7 minutes

Banyuwangi to Mt. Ijen (parking area)
Distance: 40 kilometers
Travel time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Banyuwangi to Cemoro Lawang (hotel)
Distance: 219 kilometers
Travel time: 6 hours (with stops)

Cemoro Lawang to Mount Bromo (drop-off)
Distance: 9 kilometers
Travel time: 30 minutes

Cemoro Lawang to Surabaya Gubeng (train station)
Distance: 114 kilometers
Travel Time: 3 hours (with stops)

Gilimanuk Port

Ferry info

Gilimanuk Port to Ketapang Port
Distance: 5 kilometers
Travel time: 1 hour to 1 hour 30 minutes
Frequency: 30-minute intervals
Fare: 6,000 rupiah (₱23, included in tour package)

Railway info

Surabaya Gubeng to Stasiun Tugu Yogyakarta
Distance: 330 kilometers
Travel time: 5 hours 30 minutes
Train class: Eksekutif (soft seats)
Train name: Sancaka
Online booking: (you need to sign up)
Tickets: 240,000 to 305,000 rupiah (₱890 to ₱1,130)
Operator: Kereta Api (major operator of public railways in Indonesia)

Passengers waiting for their train at Surabaya Gubeng Railway Station

Flight info

Yogyakarta and Denpasar, Bali have non-stop flights to and from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur via Air Asia.

Yogyakarta to Kuala Lumpur
2 hours 40 minutes

Yogyakarta to Singapore
2 hours 15 minutes

Denpasar to Kuala Lumpur
3 hours

Denpasar to Singapore
2 hours 50 minutes

You can do the Bali-Java route in reverse, depending on your entry points and flight availability. If you wish to skip Yogyakarta and just see Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo, you can use Surabaya as entry or exit points via direct flights from Bali or Kuala Lumpur.

One of the signs reads: “Be careful of the volcano area.”

Safety and other matters

■ Always follow what your guide says, especially when it comes to advisories on volcanic activity.
■ Wear the right clothing for cold weather. The temperatures on Mount Ijen could drop as low as 8 degrees Celsius with the wind chill, and even lower at the Mount Bromo viewpoint.
■ Wear comfortable hiking shoes. The hike from the drop off area to the crater rim is four kilometers. Bromo will need you to hike a little less.

The lake is one kilometer below the crater rim

■ For Mount Ijen, you need a gas mask even if you don’t have to wear it during most of the climb.
■ Masks and flashlights are usually inclusive of tour packages, but for DIY trips, you can rent a mask and flashlight at the parking area of Mount Ijen.
■ If your guide says you need to wear the mask, wear it.
■ The path to the sulfuric lake a kilometer from the crater rim is steep and unsteady so if you wish to see the phenomenal blue flames up close, make sure you’re fit to go down and back up.
■ Stay alert in the vicinity of the crater lake, especially while watching the blue flames and observing the sulfur miners, since the vents suddenly expel huge volumes of toxic sulfuric steam.

Ijen “taxis”

■ Make way for the sulfur miners. Some of them, by the way, moonlight as “taxi drivers” and offer their trolleys to hikers whose legs have given up on them.
■ Mount Bromo is a sacred volcano among the Tenggerese people, so observe proper decorum. They have a temple at the foot of the mountain called Pura Luhur Poten.
■ Since the volcano is active, those who wish to climb the crater are warned of its dangers, if not prohibited from doing so.
■ Bring a scarf or face mask as the Tengger massif is surrounded by vast sandy plains and it could get dusty when the winds blow.
■ Always bring your trash back.

Bring a quality phone camera for night time shooting so your photos of the phenomenal Ijen blue flame wont’ turn out like this. So from who’s camera is this? Mine.

Final note on DIY and tour bookings

I explored the idea of doing a DIY trip for both volcano trips, but acquiring the services of a tour organizer turned out cheaper, more convenient, and more secure for us with an experienced guide — our animated guide Arif was an ex-miner in Ijen — especially that we had three children in tow.

Consider the accommodations, which the tour package includes. When I checked the rates of similar hotels — we would have needed to book two hotels for Bromo and Ijen — the rates made little difference when I ran the numbers at that time. And to our pleasant surprise BlueFlame booked us in a three-star hotel for the Ijen leg, and then at a cozy bread-and-breakfast hotel for the Bromo leg.

The good thing with BlueFlame is that they can easily customize your trip. So, I still suggest that you ask separate quotations for tour with accommodations and tour without accommodations, then check booking sites like Agoda as they regularly offer huge discounts for you to compare.

Our guide Arif explains that pilgrims leave food offerings on the crater rim of Mount Bromo to appease the gods .

Also, consider the six separate land trips and one ferry crossing that you need to book separately. The other option is to get a package tour there. Since time wasn’t on our side and to minimize delays that could arise from having multiple “service providers,” we opted for one tour operator.

And except for some minor hitches like the ferry incident in the Strait of Bali, the trip from Ubud to Yogyakarta — to our huge relief — went on wonderfully as planned.

So, are you ready for the mesmerizing island of Java?

From Saigon to Hanoi, and surprises in between

8 reasons that make a trip to Vietnam a perfect gift for the family

Vietnam Unwrapped

Hanoi doggo
IG: @thetravelingvs

“What do you want for your 18th birthday? Party or travel?” I asked my eldest daughter several months before she’d finally become of “legal age.”

In the Philippines, turning 18 is a big deal, and many teenage girls on the brink of adulthood traditionally celebrate this rite of passage”with a “debut” party.

Many parents would splurge on these debuts like crazy. Next to weddings, it seems debuts are the most expensive events Filipino families are willing to spend on.

So, I was hoping that my daughter Amber would say “travel.” And thank heavens she did, without batting an eyelash. Good girl.

“Where do yo want to go?”


That Christmas spirit
Where to, Amber?

Since her birthday fell on a November, she didn’t mind doing the trip during the Christmas break. I didn’t mind either, since three other members of the family would be getting the gift of travel for their birthdays: Arwen and me both in December, and Bretha in early January. And wouldn’t a trip make the best Christmas gift for everyone, especially for the youngest in the pack, our restless Cyan?

There was just a catch: the expense. I checked the numbers, and the fare alone without seat sales to Japan was staggering. Since it was high season, everything costs way more, not to mention that Japan is quite the expensive place it already is.

I’ve always wanted to see Japan, but with five of us traveling, it would be beyond our means at this point in time. We had just wrapped up an unforgettable two-week trip to Indonesia — a vacation we’d saved up for for over a year — so a trip to Tokyo could break the bank.

Travel is all about perspectives

There was this alternative destination Bretha and I always wanted to take the children to, and the cost of traveling there is a third of what we’d spend in first-world Japan. I explained to Amber the situation.

The covered Hoi An Japanese Bridge was built in the 1590s

“How about Vietnam?”

“Yes, Vietnam!” she said, as her eyes lit up. “I want pho!”

Old-school pho somewhere in Hanoi
Still 7 kilos in each bag

Now that wasn’t so hard. Amber had one request, though: she wants “to chill” during the trip. During the Indonesia trip, a change of plans meant I had to squeeze in a number must-see sights, so we were on the road non-stop.

Indonesia still turned out well, way beyond expectations actually, but this time, I needed to come up with a more laid-back itinerary for Vietnam (which I will write in detail in separate posts). Fair enough.

500 steps on a stone stairway is all you need to be rewarded with this magnificent view on top of Mua Cave Mountain in Ninh Binh.

Bretha and I have been to Vietnam once — we landed in Ho Chi Minh then flew to Hanoi. We loved it there: the food, the parks and greenery, the museums, the food, the sights, the charming old buildings, the food. The children will surely love everything as well, especially, yes, the food.

And Vietnam it was.

The beautiful and well-preserved Central Post Office of Ho Chi Minh City
Inside the Central Post Office

So, what’s Vietnam like traveling with children? Rewarding at the very least. And despite the short planning stage, the 15-day DIY trip in December 2018 and early January went without a hitch. Amber couldn’t have wished for a better debut present.

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

Our two other kids — Cyan, aged nine then, and Arwen, who celebrated her 14th birthday in Hanoi — had a blast, enjoying a mix of educational, cultural, gastronomic and recreational experiences in a country where the old meets the new, and the East meets West.

And yet while Vietnam seems to be always in a state of flux, this rapidly developing country still manages to retain an identity that’s both unique and familiar in the region at the same time.

Cruising in Ha Long Bay

Here are eight reasons you should give your family the gift of travel to Vietnam:

You and your kids become jedis in Vietnamese streets

Our friend Chad the Pilot welcomed Bretha and I during our first trip to Vietnam in 2014 and guided us through Saigon’s streets, which is notorious — or famous — for the endless river of vehicles, mainly motorcycles, plying its streets.

“When you want to cross the street, just raise your palm and point it toward the incoming traffic, then proceed,” Chad advised, and it’s something every visitor in Vietnam should pay heed to.

Vietnam’s rows upon rows of tube houses can make any traveler a curious spectator on the streets, which is why one needs to pay more attention to the roads and sidewalks.

“Never stop because the motorcycles know how to avoid you, but if you do, you might even cause an accident. Just walk straight toward the other side of the road.” So that’s what we told the kids: “Just raise your hand and point your palm outward, like a jedi.”

A local shows us how to cross properly (observe the jedi moves coming to fore…)

Vietnam is blessed with easy-to-find Unesco Heritage Sites

A visit to Unesco World Heritage Sites is one of the best ways to learn about a country’s history and culture, if not to truly appreciate its natural or man-made wonders, and it’s this sort of learning that we wish to highlight with our kids during our travels.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay

Unesco sites are protected, so kids also learn about the value of conservation. Whether it’s in the capital Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh or Danang, there’s always a Unesco Heritage Site nearby.

Hoi An Ancient Town bursts with color at night

Among the more popular Unesco sites we visited was Hoi An Ancient Town, Ha Long Bay, and the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. We also spent a day in the breathtaking Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex, the lesser known Unesco site in Ninh Binh.

Part of Trang An was one of the locations for the Hollywood film Kong: Skull Island. See the gorilla mountain face? Nearby Bai Dinh Pagoda (lower right) is also part of the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex

Enjoy Vietnamese street food right from the source

The Vietnamese love to eat good food. Its streets are lined with shops, stalls and hawkers selling all sorts of food the casual traveler can’t pronounce, much less identify.

This barbecue at the Old Quarter in Hanoi is so good.
Banh mi on the streets of Saigon

Vietnam is more than just banh mi, pho and drip coffee. Since every region has a different cuisine, good luck deciding on your favorites.

Food stalls at the spotless Hoi An Central Market
Arwen draws while waiting for our food
Hoi An’s white rose dumplings

If you have time, make sure to squeeze in a cooking class or two. Bretha and Amber took a cooking classes in Hoi An from the friendliest restaurant owner in Vietnam, Phuong Ngo of Phuong’s Beach Restaurant.

Phuong Ngo of Phuong’s Beach Restaurant shows Bretha and Amber the secrets to Hoi An cooking

The best part? We got to devour Hoi An specialties they cooked: chai go (fried spring rolls), cao lao (rice noodles), banh xeo (crispy pancake), and more.

In sum, not only does Vietnamese cuisine taste indescribably good, it’s healthy both for your body and your budget.

Journeying across Vietnam aboard a sleeper train is idyllic

For 15 days, we traveled from the south of Vietnam to the north by train, and I’d say it was one of the best decisions we’ve made for the trip.

Leaving for Ninh Binh at Da Nang Station

With Ho Chi Minh City as jump off point, we had three main stops: Da Nang, Ninh Binh and Hanoi. That’s 1,600 kilometers of railway in all, and during that trip we saw unspoilt sceneries such as the 21-kilometer stretch of historic Hai Van Pass.

A cove in Hai Van Pass as seen from the train

While many of the coaches are old, some of them have been refurbished and are clean, like the ones we took. We spent two overnight trips with two stopovers: from Saigon to Da Nang, and then Da Nang to Ninh Binh (Ninh Binh to Hanoi was just a two-hour ride).

The experience of sleeping on an unfamiliar train in four-passenger bunk bed cabins — twice — is just priceless, because it also feels like you’re traveling not just to another place but to another time. And we actually did sleep well.

Vietnam’s museums are moving, if not mind-blowing

A visit to another place is never complete without a trip to the museum. And Vietnam’s history and art museums are of another world.

No, their museums aren’t hi-tech (and they don’t need to be), but the displays and the way they were curated will move anyone regardless of age and nationality.

At the War Remnants Museum

Among the must-visit museums are those that remind us of the horrors and ravages of war, such as the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and Hoa Lu Prison Memorial (“Hanoi Hilton”).

At the Hoa Lu Prison Memorial, the site of what the West called the “Hanoi Hilton”

Yes, your children (my youngest was nine) can take it, and every parent’s hope is that everyone leaves the museum premises as better human beings.

Exhibit at Hoa Lu Prison Memorial

There’s nothing like Vietnamese coffee

Vietnamese drip coffee enjoys a legendary status among coffee lovers the world over.

Hanoi coffee, you want?

In Vietnam, you can find it in every corner, in every establishment in any district from the north to the south. You can enjoy it along the sidewalk on low tables and chairs in traditional coffee shops, or bottomless at the hotel breakfast buffet.

Why the country’s obsession with coffee? For one, Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer, and when you have this much coffee, well, your people drink lots of it, and some do the next logical thing: experiment.

The original egg coffee in Hanoi

One of these more successful experiments gave rise to the iconic egg coffee, which was hatched in a quiet alley in Hanoi more than 70 years ago. Like the traditional Viet drip, the recipe is all over the place, but no one does coffee like the Vietnamese.

Cold mornings and Vietnamese drip coffee in Ninh Binh

Score great bargains from commercial districts old and new

Vietnam is an emerging manufacturing behemoth with 300-hectare industrial estates rising all over the country. That means it produces tons and tons of goods branded or not, such as shoes, bags and clothing.

One of the many tailoring shops in Hoi An

During the cold season, Hanoi is a prime spot for hunting bubble jackets and coats of all shapes and sizes. Not only that, however. Vietnam produces quality artisan and customized products, as well as quaint handmade items. If shopping for bargains is your thing, Vietnam is paradise on a budget.

There’s always something to do anytime, anywhere in Vietnam

Walking along the tree-lined streets of Vietnamese cities will always get you somewhere interesting, and the best are the ones you find by accident.

Cold evenings at Hoan Kiem Lake

In one of our long walks in Hanoi, we were headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex when I spotted a rail track up ahead. I’ve read about these train spotting spots in Hanoi, but I didn’t get to squeeze it in our itinerary.

But at that moment, I sensed something was up ahead, so we followed the rail track, and it led us to rows of old concrete houses some of which have been converted into coffee shops where the traveler can wait for the train to pass. One of this ageing yet still sturdy locomotive did arrive minutes later, then proudly blew its horn, and the crowd cheered with childlike delight.

Here it comes…

Having more than a good day in Hanoi

Love in the Time of Covid-19

Chicken soup for your wanderlusting soul

Pardon me for the hackneyed title, but this is of utmost urgency: the coronavirus pandemic is disrupting the way of life of many countries — including ours — and, to a great extent, your travel plans.

With all the travel bans and restrictions, one can imagine the kind of damage the pandemic has wreaked on the global travel industry. From hotels to street food strips that cater to tourists, their losses must be staggering.

IG: @thetravelingvs

But you’d say travel, like love, is in the air. And you need to breathe it in to feel alive. True. But you know what else is in the air? The dreaded virus, although that depends on which medical view you subscribe to, you know aerosols and microns and stuff. But would you dare breathe all that deathly invisible stuff in? So suck it up, stay put, and wait for the air to clear.

So now what?

Well, while you wait — which can be from weeks to years — you ponder. Yes, ponder. And wonder at the true meaning of your love for travel. Let’s help get you started:

Love for travel is patient. You’ve been there. That split moment after you confirm your booking, this most noble of virtues becomes you, and you wait — days, weeks, months, a year even — for that beautiful day of departure when you consummate your love and you become one with your wanderlust. So, yes, waiting for the pandemic to pass so you can move on with your travel plans demands the same virtue of patience every serious traveler must possess.

Love for travel is kind. Perhaps the Covid-19 pandemic is a blessing so that insufferable travelers like you are reminded of the virtue of kindness. By kindness we mean being kind to you bank account, which, for all we know, you must have ignored — or worse — maltreated because all this time you’ve had eyes somewhere else (i.e. your next destination, ka-ching!). This lull will allow you to truly review your finances and whether you are still living within your means. Travel is self-love after all, but so is self-preservation.

Love for travel is blind. Don’t look now, but you need to avert your eyes from that which seduces you. That means stop looking at travel sale posts on social media. Why? Uncertainty, that’s because. No one really knows where this pandemic will go next, whether it will get worse or when it will end. Is it really worth the (financial) risk? But you need not turn a blind eye on the beauty of travel itself. Read those travel posts, admire those travel photos, and stay inspired.

Love for travel does not envy. Sure your social media contact just arrived from his four-week, ten-city DIY Asian tour. But trust us, you won’t envy those who end up in quarantine, or god forbid, catch the virus. So be glad you’re safe because you haven’t gone anywhere yet. Home might feel like prison but it still is home.

Love for travel perseveres. If you’re one of those left dejected that your travel plans got cancelled or postponed indefinitely, or you’re left without a plan (because coronavirus), don’t feel too bad. Know that you love travel, and travel still loves you, and the distance that this virulence has created between you and travel, your beloved other, is all but temporary. At the end of these tribulations, travel will be waiting for you with the warmest welcoming embrace. And on that moment, you would scream at the top of your clear, healthy lungs, to all the corners of the earth: “I love travel!”

Crossing the Strait of Bali

Not a ferry smooth ride: near-mishap at sea

Like restless waters

“Allahu akbar!” the woman in the other row of seats beside me cried out loud, setting off a chorus of wails among our fellow passengers.

The men rushed to the port side to get a closer look as our ferry was inching toward a similar vessel whose engine might have conked out in the middle of Bali Strait.

I asked Bretha, Amber and Cyan to stay put and stay calm. There was little chance we’d hit the other boat, I thought, as there seemed more than enough time for the ship captain to veer away. Besides we were close to land, the Port of Ketapang looked within reach.

Our boat, the roll-on roll-off kind, had departed half an hour earlier from Gilimanuk, a port town on the western edge of Bali facing the main Indonesian island of Java. A woman from the tour operator we had booked accompanied us for the crossing. The entire process of checking in and boarding was, I should say, smooth sailing.

  • Statue of Shiva near the port of Gilimanuk (below)
  • IG: @thetravelingvs

The weather was clear that day — we had just taken a pleasant five-hour ride from Bali to Gilimanuk — but the currents in the strait were restless.

And the ferry we were on was a slow one, no different from the other diesel-engine steel ships navigating languidly through the swirling currents between Gilimanuk and Ketapang in Java.

The not-so-calm waters of Bali Strait

I could see the nearby port of Ketapang and make out the outline of a modern dock similar to the one in Gilimanuk, but bigger. Ketapang was our gateway to Java’s ancient wonders, both manmade and natural: Borobudur, Prambanan, Mount Bromo and Mount Ijen.

A wave of excitement rushed through my head, if not for the stalled vessel now just a few feet away from ours, completely blocking my view of Ketapang.

The wails had gotten louder. And louder still when our boat bumped the other with a dull clang. The impact wasn’t violent, but who knows what the condition of these ships are? I looked at our guide. She seemed relaxed, so I didn’t bother to ask if this was normal. (Obviously not.)

“No sitting on the railing”

As the other boat lolled mindlessly in the water, our ship captain managed to steer his boat inch by slow inch away from danger, at least for now.

“Allahu akbar!” the women chorused to their relief.

But the waters of Bali Strait remained restless and unpredictable. The swirling currents again drew both ships toward each other. Another impact was imminent. But how? Isn’t the sea big enough for both of these ships to navigate in peace?

The trepidation among our fellow passengers was understandable. On one of the empty seats lay the day’s newspaper. Splashed on the front page was the banner story of a continuing search for close to 200 passengers that have gone missing after a tourist ferry sank a week earlier in a crater lake up northwest in Sumatra. The infographic showed how the overloaded wooden boat sank 490 meters to the bottom of Lake Toba with only 18 people rescued out of the 213 on board. Perhaps some of our fellow passengers lost loved ones in the accident and were heading there thousands of kilometers away, and now this. But we wouldn’t know.

A copy of the day’s newspaper at the hotel in Banyuwanggi, Java

Cyan was crying. Bretha, Amber and Arwen were on the edge of their seats but calm. We had traveled on smaller boats through rougher waters back home and managed to get back on land mostly dry. As a family traveling in a place that’s both familiar and strange at the same time and now finding ourselves in such circumstances, we could not afford to lose our grip. But definitely, this wasn’t part of the itinerary. Our guide was her usual quiet self, though, and that was quite reassuring.

I went back to the port side to watch another unfolding collision. In everyday use, collisions conjure images of violent crashes, but in the scientific sense, a collision is a collision regardless of force of impact. And there we were in the middle of it all.

As if drawn towards each other like toy magnets, the hulls of both ships collided anew, and the sound of metal scraping against metal drowned the agitated wails of passengers. The other boat was empty save for the flustered crew. It was also facing Ketapang but heading nowhere.

Thirty minutes away from Ketapang Port and this happened

For several long seconds, the two ships were grinding slowly but heavily against each other, like water behemoths hemming and hawing in an age-old ritual, one dragged by the undertow, the other pushed by the surface currents, as the sea gurgled and swirled under the hulls and bows. Then a final separation announced by a collective sigh of relief. God is the greatest, everyone chanted quietly in their seat.

The accidental pair finally split for good, and for the next half hour our good old boat continued on its short journey without incident.

As our boat approached land, we saw a number of piers jutting out of the modern Ketapang Port. Several vehicles, mostly motorcycles, were queued on one of the piers, the drivers and passengers oblivious to the minor maritime incident the boat they were about to board had gone through.

Finally, ready to dock at Ketapang Port

After our boat docked, we disembarked — smoothly — and passed through a covered walkway, our guide leading us to a waiting vehicle that would head straight to the nearby city of Banyuwangi where we would check-in at a nice hotel.

The short drive got me thinking whether I had planned enough to mitigate risks. I don’t overdo it, but when it involves planning a non-conventional trip for a family of five, one must think hard about what we’re getting ourselves into.

The legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh did say, “I don’t believe in taking unnecessary risks, but a life without risk isn’t worth living.” I agree to a fault. And yet there are risks that you can’t see coming, risks that are beyond calculating. In hindsight, that incident in Bali Strait could have gone south. But it didn’t. The worst that happened was a slight delay of our arrival, 30 minutes tops.

So, if you ask me whether we’d still ride a boat from Gilimanuk to Ketapang if we get the chance, I’d say no way. We’d probably take the one from Ketapang to Gilimanuk instead.

Somewhere in the outskirts of Bali, which remains as inviting…
But we’ll be back. When? We don’t know…

Say hello to Sewu and Prambanan

A quiet place called 9th-century Candi Sewu, a Buddhist temple. IG: nsvillaflor

The art and architecture of ancient temples and the kingdoms that built them always fascinate me. So when the trip to Indonesia was hatched, the temples of Bali and the famed, massive Buddhist temple Borobudur in Central Java topped my list. Upon further reading, though, I came across an equally significant temple complex also in Central Java near Yogyakarta, which like Borobudur, was built in the 9th century. That sprawling temple complex is Prambanan, which actually houses both Hindu and Buddhist sacred grounds.

The Traveling Vs on board the Sancaka Train at the Surabaya Terminal for a five-hour ride to Yogyakarta
The sprawling Hindu temple Prambanan, which was built in the 9th century close to its older neighbor, the Buddhist temple Candi Sewu.

As the trip approached, we nearly skipped Prambanan in favor of Borobudur because of the entrance ticket costs, but I’m glad we didn’t because the Hindu Prambanan Temple and Buddhist Sewu Temple are among the most beautiful and impressive sacred structures I’ve seen. Further, because of the proximity between the two temples, one is left in awe that both Hindu and Buddhist communities co-existed in harmony. I also learned that the Indonesian word for temple is “candi,” or “pura” in Balinese.

The Prambanan complex is a fertile ground for fun and learning.

My other concern was whether the kids would have a temple hopping overdose. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded as Cyan, Arwen and Amber all found the temples fascinating, and as they went in and around the temple pathways and chambers, the statues and bas reliefs told stories that lit up their fertile imaginations, and the age-old construction methods behind these towering structures and the reasons they were built became a fount of wonder. Bretha, also a fine arts graduate like me but with an architecture background, would be quick to fill in essential details.

Quick stop at Candi Bubrah, one of the few minor temples scattered in the complex

After exploring Candi Prambanan, we biked to its lesser known but much older neighbor, the 8th-century Candi Sewu, with a quick stop just outside Candi Bubrah. The Buddhist temple Sewu had much fewer visitors, and for a time, we were the only souls walking down its serene, sacred grounds. We concluded our trip to Prambanan with a visit to the museum within the compound.

Candi Sewu

The Prambanan Temple Compounds, by the way, are listed as a World Heritage Site, and Unesco, on its website writes:

“Prambanan Temple Compounds consist of Prambanan Temple (also called Loro Jonggrang), Sewu Temple, Bubrah Temple and Lumbung Temple. Prambanan Temple itself is a complex consisting of 240 temples. All the mentioned temples form the Prambanan Archaeological Park and were built during the heyday of Sailendra’s powerful dynasty in Java in the 8th century AD. These compounds are located on the border between the two provinces of Yogyakarta and Central Java on Java Island.

“While Loro Jonggrang, dating from the 9th century, is a brilliant example of Hindu religious bas-reliefs, Sewu, with its four pairs of Dwarapala giant statues, is Indonesia’s largest Buddhist complex including the temples of Lumbung, Bubrah and Asu (Gana temple). The Hindu temples are decorated with reliefs illustrating the Indonesian version of the Ramayana epic which are masterpieces of stone carvings. These are surrounded by hundreds of shrines that have been arranged in three parts showing high levels of stone building technology and architecture from the 8th century AD in Java. With over 500 temples, Prambanan Temple Compounds represent not only an architectural and cultural treasure, but also a standing proof of past religious peaceful cohabitation.”

Until next time! — The Traveling Vs