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:

ARABICA

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

ROBUSTA

Kalinga

Sulu (Kahawa Sug)

  • Lipa Liberica

BARAKO IBERICA

Batangas

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…

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?”
“Sure!”

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.


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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?”

“Japan.”

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

Laos + Malaysia + Thailand + Singapore: a family itinerary

This is how a 14-day backpacking trip with kids to 8 Southeast Asian cities looks like

Let’s go fly away


Planning a 14-day backpacking trip with the family can be tricky. It’s not just about deciding where to go and how much time to spend in each place. The toughest part? Timing your transportation plans and booking them ahead of time. Here’s a quick look at our two-week itinerary that covered four countries (Malaysia, Laos, Thailand and Singapore) and eight cities (Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Bangkok, Malacca, Johor Bahru and Singapore):

Street food kiosks just across Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in KL

Day 1
Journey Begins

Cebu to Kuala Lumpur
3:05 p.m. to 6:55 p.m. (AirAsia)

KLIA2 to KL Sentral
7:10 p.m. to 9 p.m.
(Private car)

KL city tour
Check out Petronas Towers at night

Overnight Kuala Lumpur
Easy Hotel KL Sentral (Agoda)
110, Jalan Tun Sambanthan

Inside the beautifully curated Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Day 2
Kuala Lumpur Stop

(Story here)

Explore Kuala Lumpur
Hop on Go KL City Bus
Walk along KL’s tourism belt
Visit Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Overnight Kuala Lumpur
Easy Hotel KL Sentral

Wattay International Airport in Vientiane

Day 3
Start of Laos Leg
Vientiane and Vang Vieng

(Click here: Why Laos)

Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane
7:25 a.m. to 9:10 a.m. (AirAsia)

Vientiane to Vang Vieng
12:40 p.m. to 4:20 (Private van)

Explore Vang Vieng
Walk around neighborhood
Watch Karst Mountains at Nam Song River

Overnight Vang Vieng
Abby Boutique Guesthouse (Agoda)
Sengsavang, Viengkeo

Vang Vieng’s magnificent karst mountain range along the Nam Song River

Day 4
Vang Vieng

Explore Vang Vieng
Climb Tham Chang Cave
Caving and bathing at Tham Phu Kham Blue Lagoon

Overnight Vang Vieng
Abby Boutique Guesthouse

Monks bathing at Tham Phu Kham Blue Lagoon

Day 5
Luang Prabang

Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang
7 a.m. to 11 a.m.
(Private van)

Explore Luang Prabang
Sightseeing by bike
Night market

Overnight Luang Prabang
Villa Ban Phanluang (Agoda)
Old Bridge, Nam Khan River

Scenery going to Luang Prabang

Day 6
Tour Luang Prabang

Explore Luang Prabang
Temple and museum hopping
Climbing Mount Phou Si
Mekong River cruise

Overnight Luang Prabang
Villa Ban Phanluang

Taking a dip at the lovely pools near Kuang Si Waterfalls

Day 7
Luang Prabang

Explore Luang Prabang
Witness Alms Giving Ceremony
Elephant bathing
Bathing in Kuang Si Waterfalls

Overnight Luang Prabang

Morning alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang

Day 8
Luang Prabang

Explore Luang Prabang
Walk around neighborhood

Luang Prabang to Bangkok
4:45 p.m. to 6:05 p.m.
(AirAsia)

Overnight Bangkok
(Airbnb)

The Luang Prabang International Airport has direct flights Bangkok

Day 9
Bangkok Leg

Explore Bangkok
Temple hopping
Chatuchak Market on a weekday
Ferry ride on Chao Phraya River

Overnight Bangkok
(Airbnb)

On board an old but clean bus in Bangkok

Day 10
Start of Malaysia Leg

Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur
10 a.m. to 1:10 p.m.
(AirAsia)

KLIA2 to Melaka Sentral Bus Terminal
1:20 p.m. to 3:40 p.m. (KTB Citiliner Bus)

Explore Melaka at night
St. Paul’s Church and Cemetery
Christ Church Melaka

Overnight Melaka
(Airbnb)

Must-see Malacca River

Day 11
Melaka

Explore Melaka
Malacca River Quayside Square
Jonker Walk

Melaka Sentral to JB Sentral Bus Terminal
3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (Bus)

JB Sentral to Bandar Medini
7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. (Taxicab)

Overnight Johor Bahru
Afiniti Residences (Airbnb)
Bandar Medini
(Airbnb)

Melaka Sentral Bus Terminal

Day 12
Johor Bahru

Whole day in Legoland Malaysia

Overnight Johor Bahru
Afiniti Residences

Five happy kids at Legoland Malaysia in Bandar Medini Iskandar

Day 13
Singapore Leg

Mall of Medini to JB Sentral
7:20 a.m. to 8 a.m. (Causeway Link Bus)

Explore Singapore
Gardens by the Bay
Marina Bay

Overnight Singapore
Champion Hotel (Agoda)
60 Joo Chiat Road, East Coast

Late afternoon at the Marina Bay: when the 14-day trip is about to end

Day 14
Singapore

Singapore to Cebu
8:20 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. (TigerAir)

Home!

(Keep posted for more itineraries and stories of this two-week, four country backpacking journey with the family…)

Bird feeding in Bangkok: there’s quite a story here…

Side (food) trip in Kuala Lumpur

Gateway Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur is our favorite gateway to neighboring Southeast Asian countries, especially those in Indochinese Peninsula. This time, we were bound for land-locked Laos.

This meant we had to stay one night in KL, something the family always looked forward to, for a number of reasons. Food and familiarity, are just two of them.

Upon our arrival in Malaysia’s capital, my fraternity brother Marlowe Aragon fetched us at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, and brought us at our hotel in Little India.

“Tito” Marlowe (a.k.a. James Bond 007) met us at the KLIA2, then gave us a cool night tour of the city
At a tandoori place with good, spicy food and warm staff in Little India
At the magnificent Petronas Towers at night. Thanks Tito Marlowe for the pic!

After a heavy dinner at a tandoori place nearby, he gave us a quick tour in the city with a mesmerizing close up view of the Petronas Towers at night.

Marlowe, a consultant who shuttles by car between Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, then dropped us at the hotel . He told us to just give him a buzz when we arrive in Bangkok a week from now as he might be there (he was).

We always look forward to having breakfast in Kuala Lumpur, and so the following day we had one at a roti and tea place just outside the hotel in Little India. We took our time on the sidewalk to relish our food.

Roti and tea breakfast at Little India

We then went around Kuala Lumpur, hopping on a Go KL City Bus that offered free rides to check out the Islamic Arts Museum, which is considered the biggest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

We also passed by the Muzium Negara and National Space Agency compound along the way.

Free ride on board the Go KL City Bus on our way to check out Muzium Negara

The Islamic Arts Museum, though, was on a league of its own as it housed an impressive and extensive collection of artifacts from the region, such as sacred thrones and books, as well as traditional armor and weaponry including those from the Southern Philippines, and detailed scale models of mosques from around the world.

The Islamic Arts Museum hosts the largest collection of Islamic art in Southeast Asia

There was a fun activity center for children at the Islamic Arts Museum, but our kids actually enjoyed the main museum that we stayed there longer than expected. We even went back after having lunch at a hawker area just right across the museum.

We returned to the hotel on foot through the labyrinthine streets of the KL Sentral area. We had dinner at another hawker place that served Chinese-style dishes like chicken rice and roast pork rice just on the edge of Little India.

Dinner at a hawker place just outside of Little India

Getting to bed early was in order as we would be leaving for Vientiane tomorrow morning. The bus at the KL Sentral Station was slated to leave at 5 a.m. It did. On the dot.

Our Kuala Lumpur Itinerary

Day 1
Gateway: Malaysia

Cebu to Kuala Lumpur
3:05 p.m. to 6:55 p.m. (AirAsia)

KLIA2 to KL Sentral
7:10 p.m. to 9 p.m.
(Private car)

KL city tour
Check out Petronas Towers at night

Overnight Kuala Lumpur
Easy Hotel KL Sentral (Agoda)
110, Jalan Tun Sambanthan

Day 2
Kuala Lumpur Stop

Explore Kuala Lumpur
Hop on Go KL City Bus
Walk along KL’s tourism belt
Visit Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Overnight Kuala Lumpur
Easy Hotel KL Sentral

Day 3
Bye, KL, for now

Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane
7:25 a.m. to 9:10 a.m. (AirAsia)

(Check out the full 14-day itinerary here)

Green Kuala Lumpur

Loving Laos

And how we ended up in the Land of a Million Elephants

Laos and Found

Five backpacks, three kids, two adults, four countries, two weeks.

After a year of planning, deciding where to go, waiting for seat sales, hunting for room discounts, and scrimping on just about anything until the day of departure, our first trip to Indochina as a family of five was finally happening.

We also did it by traveling light, each one carrying a backpack weighing less than seven kilos, the airline limit for hand-carried bags.

The Siete Kilos Gang does it again. Five backpacks for five travelers, good for 14 days. Guess which bag barely lasted the entire trip.

So where exactly where we heading? Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and land-locked Laos.

Wait, what — Laos? Well, Laos does sound like a pretty unlikely destination for a family that will be out of the country for only the second time around. Our first family trip abroad was in Hong Kong to see Disneyland, of course, in 2014. And yet we spent six days in this most laid-back of countries in the Indochinese region.

So why the off-kilter trip to a country like Laos? Five words: Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and elephants. Of course, we would soon find out Laos has plenty to offer, from delicious street food and great traditional coffee to natural attractions that locals and visitors can enjoy to their heart’s content.

A coffee joint in Vang Vieng. Traditional Lao Coffee is one of my favorites, along with Vietnamese drip coffee, Sagada arabica, and Malaysian Kluang coffee.

But I do have a healthy obsession with heritage sites, and I decided a few years back that I will show my children as many heritage sites as possible in our home country the Philippines and in Southeast Asia (mainly because it’s visa-free for us Filipinos when traveling to Asean countries and fares are far more affordable).

The ancient town of Luang Prabang, a Unesco World Heritage Site, fascinates me in particular, and while it was growing in popularity (e.g. morning alms giving by monks), I reckoned that the place would still retain its laid-back vibe, and it was perfect for a visit in 2016. Apart from that, there was an elephant sanctuary we could visit to see these magnificent beasts for the first time.

Having seen Vang Vieng’s dramatic karst mountain landscapes in pictures, I also thought that this town in central Laos would make for a good stop from the capital of Vientiane.

Imagine what wonders are hidden behind the karst mountain range in Vang Vieng.

Another reason to visit Laos was that it’s one of the few Asean countries my wife and I haven’t been to yet. The year before, we went to Bagan in July to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary, while the kids stayed behind.

Now planning this family trip was one thing. Deciding exactly which places to see was another. Consider our entourage: me, my wife and three kids ages 16, 12 and 7. My main concern was that everyone must enjoy the trip, or that each one has something to look forward to in the entire trip.

Making a seven-year-old share your passion for Southeast Asian art and architecture would be pushing it too far. But talk about seeing elephants up close and watch his eyes light up with excitement.

Let’s play Spot the Elephant in Luang Prabang!
We gave these majestic creatures a bath and a fine scrub in the Mekong River near the elephant sanctuary in Luang Prabang, Laos.

In truth, Laos wasn’t our first destination of choice. The wife actually left it up to me to plan the itinerary, and what I sorely needed from Bretha was a mother’s imprimatur.

And guess what? I came up not just one, or two, or three possible itineraries, but 12. Yes 12 iterations of a two-week trip.

I chose between two hubs for our entry and exit: Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, as these two offered the cheapest fare. I also decided that we would see Legoland in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, which meant we might as well see nearby Malacca, itself a Unesco World Heritage Site, both of which are accessible from KL and SG by bus.

Luang Prabang International Airport is an hour away from Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok.

For the first few itineraries, I plotted a trip to Krabi in Thailand with a side trip to Penang. All these involved checking bus, train and air fare from various schedules. Laos came to the picture later.

As one itinerary took shape, I’d proceed to another, until I had 12 different itineraries, all of which I showed to the wife for approval. She promptly sent everything back, saying, “You decide.”

So I did and chose the itinerary with Laos in it. And the trip that began on the fourth week of May 2016 looked like this: Cebu-Kuala Lumpur-Vientiane-Bangkok-Singapore-Cebu. Four countries, two weeks.

Arriving at KLIA2

We spent two nights in Little India in Kuala Lumpur, our favorite gateway city to neighboring Southeast Asian countries since it’s become a familiar city to us with great food.

After arriving at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 the previous afternoon, we toured the green city of KL the following day, as we had the whole morning and afternoon free.

That night, when everyone was fast asleep ahead of our flight to Laos next morning, a thought popped inside my head: are the roads to Luang Prabang safe?

The shells of two unexploded ordnance mark the entrance to a wooden bridge in Vang Vieng

Now as someone who’s from the Philippines, I usually take travel advisories from Western countries with a grain of salt, but I still did check them many months ago just in case. Laos was generally safe, they said.

That nagging thought, though, prompted me to check the latest travel advisories, and to my horror, they warned against travel along the route we’d be taking from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, following a series of attacks on vehicles carrying foreign passengers from a construction site late last year.

A Lao soldier watches over a mountain range in a remote part of northern Laos

On the verge of panic, I considered changing the itinerary and checked direct flights from Kuala Lumpur or Vientiane to Luang Prabang.

The rates were prohibitive, which meant I had two choices: cancel the trip or push through with it. I read the advisories again and, with a clearer head, arrived at the conclusion that the incidents in question were isolated and had more to do with issues concerning the construction project, not random attacks on travelers.

I lost a bit of sleep over those exaggerated travel advisories, but that was the worst thing that happened during the entire trip.

Early morning bus to the KLIA 2 airport. The bus left on schedule at exactly 5 a.m.

We woke up really early the next day to catch the first bus bound for the airport. It left promptly at 5 a.m. An hour later, we were at the KLIA2 for our 8 a.m. flight. From KL, we landed safely at the Vientiane airport at past 10 a.m.

We took a cab that brought us to a corner where the van bound for Vang Vieng stops to pick up passengers, and bought tickets from a group of men huddled in the shade. The entire gang was famished.

Since we had two hours to spare before the van would pick us up, we asked the ticket seller where we can have an early lunch.

Old and new meet at an intersection in Vientiane
Rue Phanompenh: the road to good Lao noodles in Vientiane

“You want Lao food?” said the ticket seller.

“Yes. And cheap?”

“See that building? Turn left, then right. It’s where Lao people eat.”

So off we went in a huff.

This must be it
Where the magic happens

We found the quaint noodle joint and placed our orders based on what they suggested. Every serving of Lao noodles or khao piak sen came with a plateful of vegetables (lettuce, string beans and mint leaves) plus mongo sprouts, pickled carrots, eggplant and cucumber.

Bretha and the kids relished their hefty bowl of noodles with hot, flavorful broth. I had Sticky Noodles, which turned out to be fried pork noodles with blood cubes.

I used to gorge on barbecued blood cubes in Cebu but not as noodle toppings. So how did this Lao dish taste like? Odd but in a good way.

Either way, you’d mistake khao piak sen for pho if you had no idea, and I’d say it’s up there with the Vietnamese staple. I shouldn’t be surprised since both countries have a shared culture and history, including colonial times.

We returned to the corner to find the men now taking their lunch of sticky rice that they ate after rolling it into small rice balls by hand and paired with various dishes.

The taste of delicious Lao noodles and the sight of locals enjoying their staples bode well for the entire trip, which would begin in a few minutes with a 160-kilometer van ride to mystical Vang Vieng.

The van ticket sellers and tuktuk drivers have lunch of sticky rice balls

________

Our Laos Itinerary

After coming up with 12 different itineraries, we finally settled on one that took us from Cebu to Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Bangkok, back to Kuala Lumpur, then Malacca, Johor Bahru, Singapore, and finally back to Cebu. Here’s the Traveling Vs’ six-day itinerary for the Vientiane-Vang Vieng-Luang Prabang Leg of the 14-day trip:

Day 1

Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane
7:25am to 9:10 a.m. (AirAsia)

Vientiane to Vang Vieng
12:40 p.m. to 4:20 (Private van)

Overnight Vang Vieng
Abby Boutique Guesthouse (Agoda)
Sengsavang, Viengkeo

Day 2

Tour Vang Vieng

Overnight Vang Vieng
Abby Boutique Guesthouse

Day 3

Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang
7 a.m. to 11 a.m. (Private van)

Overnight Luang Prabang
Villa Ban Phanluang (Agoda)
Old Bridge, Nam Khan River

Day 4

Tour Luang Prabang

Overnight Luang Prabang
Villa Ban Phanluang

Day 5

Tour Luang Prabang

Overnight Luang Prabang

Day 6

Tour Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang to Bangkok
4:45 p.m. to 6:05 p.m. (AirAsia)

(Check out the full 14-day itinerary here)

Waiting for our ride to Vang Vieng
Friendly Vang Vieng

_________

Tagaktak thoughts in Kota Kinabalu

Sabah after the quake

THE delicacy that the Badjau girl prepared for guests at the cultural village in Kota Kinabalu looked familiar.

“Tagaktak!”someone from our group exclaimed.

We watched in wonder as the tuft of thin noodle-like strands made from sticky rice, sugar and coconut milk turned golden brown in the pan. Another Badjau girl readied another batch: she pours the batter through a perforated bowl contraption over the pan. There was no doubt what the deep-fried triangular fritters were.

I looked at the snack with a sense of bemusement. The tagaktak is as Mandauehanon as delicacies can get. But here it was, a thousand kilometers away from my hometown, being deep fried with a local’s expert hands then carefully placed on banana leaves for us tourists to enjoy.

So the obvious had to be asked: Is this a Badjau delicacy? The two Badjau girls nodded. And in these parts, they call it “ kuih jala.”

Want some “tapai”? This fermented rice wine is served during rites and ceremonies in Sabah, particularly among the Kadazan-Dusun.

We took a few bites – yes, just like our good old tagaktak back home – before proceeding to the other demo areas and tribal huts at the Mari-Mari Cultural Village. We got samplings of rice wine, honey and a complete meal cooked in bamboo (sounds familiar?), as well as participate in local customs such as shooting blow darts, getting (henna) tattoos, and partaking in a communal sport on a makeshift trampoline inside a hut.

The half day inside Mari Mari – “mari” means “come” in Bahasa – was quite an experience, far from the hackneyed tours one might associate with “cultural villages.”

Beehive in a Rungus home
Called the longhouse, this traditional structure of the Rungus, the fourth biggest tribe in Sabah, can host up to a dozen families. The word Rungus comes from Tomborungus, the son of Aki Ragang who, according to legend, lives on top of Mount Kinabalu.

For one, the Mari Mari village serves as an interactive outdoor museum that seeks to preserve Sabah’s culture and tradition by gathering five ethnic tribes – the Murut, Rungus, Lundayeh, Kadazan-Dusun and the Badjau – in one area, a forested terrain where a river runs through.

Hanging bridge over a river at the Mari Mari Cultural Village

The Kadazan-Dusuns, we learned during the visit, is the biggest ethnic tribe in this melting pot called Sabah, followed by the Badjaus. And the latter happen to be connected with the Badjaos in the Philippines.

Sabah, with a population of 3,117,000, has 450,000 Badjaus, many of whom migrated from Sulu in Mindanao due to armed conflict. And therein lies the irony: the Badjau in Sabah seem accepted in the community, if not more prosperous, than their marginalized counterparts in the Philippines.

A colorful traditional Badjau home in Sabah

A recreation of their dwellings in Mari Mari shows an interior of colorful and intricate designs, what a home of a cultured people looks like. Among the other tribes in the cultural village, the Badjau home seemed the most vibrant. It probably is.

On our way from Kudat back to Kota Kinabalu the previous day (the quake still in the back of our heads), we passed by a cluster of houses on stilts along the coast in Kota Marudu. We stopped – and this wasn’t part of the itinerary – to take a look, to get a glimpse of a Badjau community.

A Badjau community in Kota Marudu

What was striking was that the houses, though made of light materials, looked sturdy, and were clustered in clear surrounding waters where their machine-powered wooden boats with wooden anchors were docked.

Some boats were for fishing, while others were for transport (one had cargo of LPG tanks). In the backdrop was a mangrove forest, where the Badjaus harvested wood for their needs.

And this is what we saw, in Kota Marudu and Kota Kinabalu: the conditions of the Badjau in Sabah were in stark contrast to those of the Badjaos in the Philippines, from where their ancestors came, the same line of ancestors who probably introduced to us tagaktak, that intricately prepared crispy delicacy that brings joy and pride to all and sundry.

The tagaktak will never look and taste the same.

LPG containers on a boat in Kota Marudu

Indescribable El Nido

So who deserves to see Heaven on Earth?

Time Travel in Palawan


“EIGHT hours?!”

That’s what I get every time I tell someone how long it takes to travel from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. Of course, I fail to mention that’s by bus, which takes a hundred of stops picking up and dropping off passengers along the way.

But there’s a faster way, I assure them — by van. Only five hours.

“Five hours?!”

More driftwood at 7 Commando Beach

At this point of the conversation, I am tempted to drop the thing entirely, but decide against it, and instead nudge the aspiring El Nido tourist into action.

“Yes, five hours,” I’d say, citing the recent trip we made. “But that’s ‘Heaven on Earth’ we’re talking about. And we did it with children.”

Arwen, 8, Amber, 12, Cyan, 3

I’d then talk about how smooth the trip along the concrete highway to paradise was, except for the last 45 minutes or so of unpaved road, and omitting that part when one of the kids puked twice during the stretch where the highway snaked through the rainforest.

There would be no need to tell the aspiring El Nido tourist how priceless a reward of reaching this popular destination would be, because everyone already knows that, but I felt that travelers have an obligation to persuade others to take a vacation from their comfort zones.

Playing near driftwood at Secret Lagoon
Lunch at the beach is almost ready

“Make that trip happen,” I’d challenge the reluctant tourist more. “We’re not getting any younger.”

Nothing like the last statement prompts a soul filled with wanderlust into action. On the other hand, nothing could be as false as the exclusivist idea that the best kind of travel is restricted to a particular demographic, the way paradise, in its archaic sense, is reserved for a few.

El Nido, for all its remoteness, can be enjoyed and admired by anyone who bothers to go there, regardless of age. Like our group, for example — my wife and I, our three kids, and my mother-in-law.

El Nido, for all its remoteness, can be enjoyed and admired by anyone who bothers to go there, regardless of age.

Behind that boat are two crevices leading to Secret Beach

Powered by chaolong

The key to good travel is preparation that falls within the “Goldilocks Zone” (not too much, not too little).

Yet I felt that the kids should be prepared to endure the length of time they’ll be spending on the road. So, a couple of months before the trip to El Nido, we took a road trip along with another family and drove all the way from Cebu to Sagada in the Mountain Province, and back. A total of 72 hours spent on the road would be more than enough to prepare the children for that five-hour trip to El Nido. My wife and Momyla, my mother-in-law who’d be joining us, thought so as well.

Let’s do this!

So on the day of the trip to Palawan last June, we were confident the kids would do just fine, behave and sit still. But five hours is five hours, so we didn’t take any chances and hoarded lots of chewable candy (for dizziness) and a dozen barf bags we stashed from the flight from Cebu. We also needed to take a full meal for the long trip ahead.

After booking a van ride for El Nido at a “terminal” just outside the Puerto Princesa airport, we headed straight to our favorite noodle place in the country, Bona’s Chaolong, a hole-in-the-wall on Manalo St. just a couple of minutes away.

A legacy of Vietnamese who took refuge in Palawan decaddes ago, chaolong is pho with a Filipino twist. This satisfying noodle dish with a savory broth has started to become ubiquitous in the city, but Bona’s arguably are the locals’ favorite.

Ever since I found out about Bona’s Chaolong last year, I realized my trip to Palawan would never be complete without a lovely serving of beef stew or pork bone noodles garnished with fresh mung bean sprouts and even fresher mint leaves, paired with honest-to-goodness garlic French bread.

And I thought, what better way to start a trip to El Nido than with chaolong.

Five hours, 200 kilometers

We had arranged for the van driver to pick us up at the chaolong house at 1 p.m., and in no time we were cruising along the national highway. The van made two 15-minute stops — one in Roxas town after two hours, then in Taytay an hour later. Wonderful scenery greeted us along the way.

After close to five hours and more than 200 kilometers on the road, we knew El Nido was near, as the jagged limestone karsts began to peek from the horizon. We arrived a bit ahead on time, shortly before 6 p.m. The sun was still up.

Upon stepping out of the van at the terminal, massive limestone karst cliffs called “taraw” loomed before us. At its feet was the new market, where we would buy cheap lapulapu, squid and prawns for dinner days later. Hidden behind the cliffs was the reason El Nido has been called “Heaven on Earth” – clusters of astonishing geological formations scattered across Bacuit Bay. We couldn’t wait to see what “paradise” looked like.

We took a short tricycle ride through town to the edge of Rizal St., at the beach front where our lodgings were. Our room on the second floor of the inn was spartan, but it accommodated all six of us and offered a fantastic view of the bay and nearby Cadlao Island, which rose 600 meters above the sea, twice taller than the country’s tallest building. Dozens of outrigger boats anchored near the shore floated still.

Down below the inn, the streets were still abuzz with life, even as nighttime fell.

After having dinner at a carenderia run by a Filipino chef, we went straight home and slept. The tiny airconditioner groaned, but we hardly noticed. It will eventually give up before our three-day stay in El Nido is over.

Tours A and C, if there’s time

Every day, electricity in paradise goes out at exactly 6 a.m. and returns at 2 p.m. I began to suspect that this was scheduled that way to force travelers to leave their rooms and take any of the four tour packages on offer, if not head to the town’s other attractions.

But the power shortage sounds legit — since El Nido is quite remote, electricity here must be pretty expensive, just like most basic commodities, with the exception of seafood.

View from our room…

Now taking the tours is a must. First timers in El Nido are advised to take Tour A or C, or if they have the time, both. There’s an option for a combined Tour A and C, since the each cluster of islands are just nearby. The tour starts at 9 a.m. and ends shortly past mid-afternoon.

We took Tour A first, then Tour C the following day. Both tours included lunch.

The tour begins: first stop, Helicopter Island
Will it rain?

Tour A centered on the lagoons: after a dip off Seven Commando Island, we headed to Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon, had lunch at a beach beside Secret Lagoon, and then ended the day after snorkeling off Shimizu Island.

Tour C was mostly a trip in and around Matinloc Island, a long stretch of rock that holds pockets of beaches and many other secrets. We visited Secret Beach, had lunch at Talisay Beach, explored Matinloc Shrine, and spent the rest of the afternoon at Hidden Beach during low tide. We were glad we did both tours separately.

The sights probably meant little to the boatmen, but we, their passengers, were in awe. Each destination was just incredibly beautiful and each spot was uniquely breathtaking. One of the lagoons even inspired some writer to write a book, only it wasn’t about the place. (What’s the name of that book, again?) But still.

And it wasn’t just the scenery — it was the experience of discovering for oneself what other wondrous sights were hidden behind a clump of towering islands or walls of rough-hewn cliffs, for instance, swimming through a crevice to find the clear blue waters of a lagoon surrounded by even taller limestone karst cliffs lush with bizarre greenery.

7 Commando Beach

Each time we passed through shallower waters that revealed rich coral cover, the islands hunched on both sides — many taller than highrise buildings — appeared to be in constant motion, ceaselessly shifting sideways, as though these were the terrifying gates of some colossal kingdom in the middle of the sea.

Each time we passed through shallower waters that revealed rich coral cover, the islands… appeared to be in constant motion, ceaselessly shifting sideways, as though these were the terrifying gates of some colossal kingdom in the middle of the sea.

Hidden Beach

Elsewhere, boulders jutted from the water, their serrated edges cutting the surface of the sea at odd angles, like rigid waves. One could imagine meteors falling from the sky millions of years ago. Farther still, clumps of rock lined the horizon, blurred, suggesting only depth and distance. Somehow, we managed to get there, and closer.

By the end of the first tour, I realized that no words can describe this place. In the middle of Tour C, I was resigned to the idea that no photograph or video can capture the essence of Bacuit Bay and its geological wonders.

Swimming in the Small Lagoon
What a view from Matinloc Island!

For example, to stand on the shores of Talisay Beach on Matinloc Island can be disorienting, because everywhere one turns, he is surrounded by exceptional natural beauty he can immerse himself in. This holds true to just about every spot in Bacuit Bay.

We expected to see something beautiful and amazing in El Nido, but not this many in only a few clusters of islands, not 360 degrees of breathtaking awesomeness at any random spot.

Here in El Nido, before each wondrous sight, one runs out of breath and superlatives. Heaven on Earth — that’s the best we can come up with?


(A version of this article was published on SunStar Travel in July 2013)

Hidden Beach up close. Until next time, El Nido…