Simply out of the goodness of my own heart (and because you need to know this, obviously), I wish to hereby make it known that you can actually buy flaming yes, flaming beer in Zürich.
Not only is the beer on FIRE, it’s also larger than the average human head (care to drown away your sorrows, anyone…? quite literally).
You can order “Bier Flambé” (supposedly formerly called “Eidgenoss”) at Zeughauskeller, a restaurant in downtown Zürich that is a converted armory from long ago. The interior of the restaurant is reminiscent of Hofbrauhaus München, with long wooden picnic bench tables and a very lively buzz amongst the crowd, which still hadn’t died down whatsoever by 10PM on Monday night! The building’s eclectic decor is rounded out by some ancient-looking suits of armor and medieval weapons that complete the aesthetic.
Pro tip: book online in advance to avoid insane queues:
The restaurant has made its way onto tourists’ must-see bucket list, so book a reservation on the restaurant’s website directly to avoid queuing forever and possibly not getting a spot for dinner. Someone waiting in line behind us mentioned that their hotel had called for them and was informed that making reservations is impossible – this is not in fact that case as I successfully made one online (it is in German, mind you) and after telling the host my name, was soon shown to a table.
Now, down to the important stuff (THE FLAMING BEER!)
Once you have ordered the Bier Flambé, it will be obvious when they bring it to you on the serving cart simply by the sheer size of the glasses (goblets?). You may want to have your (video)camera at the ready, because the preparation is quick but memorable. You will likely catch the attention of nearby diners surprised by the show, as we were because it didn’t seem many people knew about this option and most everyone around us seemed to have ordered the house beer special, which while I am sure is delicious, is far less exciting (and alcoholic).
Step 1: Pour in some sort of cognac/brandy (several shots worth, mind you – the picture doesn’t represent the real size of these fishbowls)
Step 2: FIRE. Light the alcohol on fire and your waiter/waitress will swirl the bright blue flames around for a few seconds before it’s beer time – this moment makes for fun photos and surprised onlookers!
Step 3: Douse the flames with a big bottle of house beer
Now, these babies are all yours to enjoy / try to swim your way to the bottom of by the time you’re also finished with a huge meal of (likely, sausage and potatoes – because why else would you go to Zeughauskeller in the first place).
The food at Zeughauskeller is traditional Swiss German fare and very delicious! I recommend trying a dish that at least includes sausage, as they are famous for the many varieties served here, as well as their house potato salad.
Between two of us, we ordered and shared the special of the month, which included one type of sausage and potato salad, and the “Zeughauskeller Wurstspiess,” #222 on the above menu, which serves a variety of sausages (of the house) on a kebab stick alongside a few pieces of bell pepper and of course, potato salad. The heavy food actually proves quite helpful in soaking up what turns out to be a surprising amount of beer (and straight alcohol at the bottom of your glass).
This place (like many in Switzerland generally) is not cheap – you can get a feel for the prices above, and this special beer costs nearly 16 CHF… but, I would argue that it is both worth it and the equivalent of having several normal, cheaper beers anyway.
Visit Zeughauskeller for the experience and don’t miss the BIER FLAMBÉ – you won’t regret it (though your body might) – these memories last a lifetime.
Any chance you’ve recently drooled over pictures of Canada’s Banff National Park? For very good reason; the stunning turquoise of the glacial lakes, like Lake Louise, is enough to make me want to go right now. Well, I can interestingly say that I’ve found the lake’s European TWIN, in Switzerland! Let me convince you of the likeness with a couple (ok, a TON) of photos.
Gelmersee is a hydroelectric reservoir held by a dam that was constructed in 1932. The “lake” can be reached by taking the Gelmerbahn, a ride of duration 8-10 minutes with a maximum inclination of 106%! According to a map posted at the lake’s entrance, it can also be reached by foot via a hiking trail (in red, below). One can also continue hiking further upwards to reach the Gelmerhütte, a lookout point above the lake.
Gelmersee is an excellent place for a quiet hike and to enjoy the spectacular natural beauty of the glacial water. There is a hiking trail around the entire lake, which takes about two full hours to complete with some stops. If you plan to take 3489283 photos like I did or want extra time to sit and enjoy the views every once and a while, maybe have a picnic halfway on one of the large flat rocks that are perfect for sitting and relaxing, it would be best to allow several hours up at the lake. It is important to plan your visit ahead because there is limited space on the Gelmerbahn and tickets sell out, especially in summer and during nice weather. Read more here about how to plan your trip and riding the Gelmerbahn.
Starting the hike around Gelmersee – The trail is quite rocky in places and narrow in others (at one point, there is a rope to hang on to for extra balance and security), so it is recommended to bring sturdy walking/hiking shoes with good soles and be relatively sure-footed if you plan to do the whole hike. It is relatively flat, so not very strenuous.
For me, this little piece of the world is a slice of heaven on earth, and I could honestly happily stay here for hours and hours and hours, hiking around the lake again and again, staring into the turquoise water and pondering my existence… alas, I had only booked 2.5 hours at the top before our return trip on the Gelmerbahn, so we had to really make every minute count – which we did!!
Needless to say, Gelmersee has earned a permanent spot on my life’s repeat bucket list, if that’s even a thing (you know, those absolute favorite places you simply must visit, perhaps at least once a year or every few months even?!) The dream is to visit this place in summer – even though I doubt anyone dares to swim in the ice cold glacial waters, I could totally get involved with sunbathing and reading on a rock all day, minus a few layers.
Tips for visiting Gelmersee:
When I visited Zürich two years ago from my base in Germany, I can’t say I was all that impressed with the city. Perhaps it was the rainy, cold gloom that had descended across all of Europe at that time, or the fact that when we went bar and restaurant hunting in the rather quiet and old neighborhood we were staying in, we were greeted with a lot of “closed” signs.
Fast forward two years, when I am calling Zürich home for a few months… and I really only have good things to say about this city! I have been here for a few weeks now and this place is nothing short of lovely. Here are are few things that I have enjoyed most about Zürich, and reasons it should have a spot on your Eurotrip list.
Swiss people are friendly.
Whether you are stopping to ask directions or purchase a Laugenbrötchen from a local bakery, you will find that in general, Swiss people are cute, friendly and overall cuddly – interacting with them is pleasant and you may just want to adopt some of them as your temporary grandparents. As with many European cities, I would say the English level is generally strong, but if you know a few words of German (Hochdeutsch is fine!), they will love you for trying.
It is very Instagrammable.
AKA, the modern way of saying it is simply a gorgeous city with lots of very aesthetically pleasing spots. Photographers love it, but even if you aren’t part of the Instagram game and don’t care to be, there are numerous spots around the city to enjoy a cup of coffee, glass of wine or good book with an absolutely stunning view.
There is a lot of nature.
The fact that downtown Zürich wraps around Lake Zürich automatically gives this city a very unique outdoorsy and water-based vibe. I love being around water and for those of you that miss beaches, oceans, rivers and lakes terribly when living in/visiting cities, Lake Zürich provides the perfect remedy. Swiss people have a strong reputation for loving the outdoors, which is evident by just how packed the waterfront is every evening, really rain or shine – but especially during the long sunny summer days and golden autumn evenings. Nature in Zürich isn’t only limited to the lakeside – there are many green parks throughout the city where you can go for a jog, do some yoga, or again park yourself on a bench with your journal or a good book.
It is an easy walking city.
Even though the city is relatively well-connected by public transport including trams and buses, walking throughout the city and from place to place (even if you have somewhere to be) is both convenient and pleasant. I have simply walked from my home to the Central Station several times, even though it takes 30-45 minutes, simply because it is such a nice walk! Pedestrians always have the right away on crosswalks and drivers are cognizant and courteous to let you cross. When the weather is nice, tons of people have the same idea, and you see more people walking or on bikes than on public transport.
The food is delicious.
While Swiss food is excellent (hello?!, land of CHOCOLATE AND CHEESE!!!), there are so many options if you’re not into more traditional German-esque fare (think sausage, spätzle, bread, cheese, etc.). Zürich offers quite a range of international cuisines and there are many hip restaurants downtown and slightly on the outskirts that seem to be open on weekends (even Sundays) and late into the evening. Even casual restaurants serve mouth-watering food; aka, you don’t have to worry about going hungry in this city, and you will likely love what you eat – it comes at a price though, so be prepared to spend a little more than you likely would at home. Plus, there are COOP, Migros and Denner stores all over the place that sell lovely fresh fruits, veggies, fresh bread and healthy pre-made meals (salads, etc.), fresh bakeries everywhere, and most importantly, LINDT is the mainstream chocolate option… it only gets BETTER from there *drool*. Don’t plan to go on a diet when you visit Zürich.
Fresh salad, Mamarita pizza & wine at STRIPPED PIZZA
There is a lot to do.
If you get tired of long walks by the lakeside (or if the weather prevents these), there are plenty of other activities to keep you entertained during your time in Zürich. In my case, such activities revolve heavily around EATING, but there are many cultural and social things to keep you busy as well! Here are some favorite must-do’s:
Have you been to Zürich? Let me know some of the reasons you enjoyed this city in the comments below!
Set deep in the beautiful green canton of Bern, Switzerland, a little red train car chugs its way up and down a treacherously steep track – adventurous hikers can have the ride (and views!) of a lifetime on the one and only Gelmer Funicular (Gelmerbahn).
The funicular was originally built in the 1920s to haul heavy materials and equipment up to the top of the mountain for the construction of the Gelmersee reservoir and dam. Now, the car shuttles 24 people each time, approximately 30 times per day, with the first ride up at 9:00AM and the last one down around 4:00PM (see the official schedule and book tickets here). The Gelmerbahn only runs in summer/autumn months, usually late May-late October.
The ride takes 8-10 minutes one way (so the videos you have seen on Instagram making the ride look like an insanely fast rollercoaster are on hyper-speed!), and you have plenty of time to enjoy the breathtaking views of the valley and mountains. There is only a drop-down bar (think Ferris wheel style) to keep passengers safe, but the car neither jolts, tilts, nor goes fast enough to worry about safety.
Once you reach the top, it is an absolute must to hike around the gorgeous turquoise lake (Gelmersee). This must be the Swiss-Banff equivalent; I swear, I have never seen water of such a stunning color. The hike around the lake takes approximately 2 hours, though if you are in the habit of pausing frequently or taking 23720 pictures (like me), you may want to allow yourself significant extra time, as this is not a place that you want to feel rushed.
Some important facts and tips for your Gelmerbahn trip:
How to get there:
By foot: if you are staying at the closely Handeck Hotel/Naturresort, you will only need to walk 5-10 min, either down the road, or over the hanging bridge (much more fun option) to get to the lower terminal of Gelmerbahn.
By car: there is a parking lot out in the grass/meadow just down the road from the Gelmerbahn (follow signs)
By public transport: 5 min walk from nearby bus station Handegg, Gelmerbahn
My second time to the beautiful land of Croatia did not disappoint – my last visit was in 2014 – four years ago! Not a whole lot has changed; locals are still browner than ever, spending their days sprawled on rocky beaches, swimming in crystal clear waters and munching on crispy calamari – in fact, I would bet that if I compared my photos of this trip to those of the last one, the very same fishing boats will be parked in the main harbor! (Perhaps I should give that a try.)
The main purpose behind my 2014 visit to Croatia was ULTRA music festival, occurring in Europe for the second time – it is hosted at the Stadion Poljud in Split every summer, usually in July. It was one hell of a party, and continued onto Hvar island several days later. Hvar is an equally stunning destination, complete with beaches, lovely ocean walks, delicious sea-to-table cuisine and the one and only Hula Hula Hvar beach bar – lots of great memories there.
This time, I was able to revisit Split on a bit of a last minute, spontaneous trip, and it was wonderful as expected! A few of my very favorite highlights revolve around my favorite things in life: sunshine and FOOD. So here they are!
In Croatia, Life’s a Beach
I stayed at the Radisson Blu Resort for this visit in Split, which is perched on a hill; my room had a stunning view overlooking the ocean and a beach. You can’t imagine how much I wish this were my view waking up every. single. morninggg.
After an epic breakfast buffet each morning, I would pack my bag with some sunscreen and a book and head off for some much needed vitamin SEA. The first day, I spent most of the morning and afternoon doing it “like the locals do,” lounging on the pebbly beach just a short walk from the hotel.
The Croatian coastline (also of Split itself) is lined by multiple little inlets, bays and harbors and around each corner can be found a whole new little secret paradise – just on the walk from Radisson to the main harbor (where the Aci Marina and the major ferry terminals are), there are at least SIX separate inlets – some of which are small, private and calm and others, like Bacvice Beach, that are significantly more wild and touristy.
I loved walking this path every day, as close to the ocean as possible – from the hotel to the main harbor, it took about 30 minutes easy walking. The first evening, we walked into town for dinner. The main harbor at dusk is a truly beautiful sight – the boats swaying gently and fisherman and tour groups wrap up their workday and the sun reflecting off the sparkling water, throwing a golden glow over the beautiful old buildings.
My second full day in Split was a bit more adventurous; I took the same ocean path all the way into the main harbor, soaked everything in and took an obnoxious amount of photos… and then continued on in the same direction beyond Aci Marina and past where the big yachts are docked, right alongside the path – (interesting story, one very friendly Uber driver told us that Split is a beloved getaway for several extremely wealthy Sheikhs and many celebrities like Beyoncé, who usually arrive via yacht, why not). I swear you could get totally lost aboard some of these things – they are legitimately the size of several houses, and I was surprised not to see a bowling alley and golf course on top; they have just about everything else!
The destination of my daytime adventure was a favorite spot amongst locals and tourists alike: a swimming hole/cliff jumping spot called Uvala Ježinac (Jezinac Bay). This is a place that my friends and I walked to every single day that we spent in Split in 2014 – it was the ultimate ULTRA pregame: take a cold Karlovacko, some sunscreen and hit the beach for a glorious sunshine-filled morning before heading out to party. This time, it was just as good, even sans EDM-filled nights.
Eat All The Things
Now on to the really important topic – food and where to find it in Split. The first evening in Split, we ate at a lovely, eclectic little restaurant unassumingly tucked away into a literal hole in the wall, called Artičok. With funky, hipster decor and unexpected jazz music that strangely didn’t clash with the ambiance but in fact added to it, this place is an excellent spot for a date night or nice-casual dinner in downtown. The local wine (we tried one from the island of Brac) is a must – in all restaurants really.
My next top of list recommendation for restaurants while in Split is Bokeria – again, all of my favorite things – snazzy vibes, classy yet funky atmosphere and decor, unique and delicious menu – check check check! We tried the lamb, it was delicious, and this meat and cheese appetizer platter (with cantaloupe accents, fresh jam spread made from local figs and olives) was to die for.
The last day of our visit to Split was a Friday, and luckily we were able to squeeze in one last ocean swim and a lovely lunch (and gelato!) before departing. The last lunch that we had was along the main harbor walkway, where there are many open-air restaurants lining the entire oceanside stretch. We chose The Olive Tree Vintage Caffe. Complete with real olive trees in planters and whimsical decor, this open air cafe is a bit of an experience in itself. I love finding unique, eclectic and out of the ordinary places to eat when I travel; something that connects me with the local cuisine and culture, but also brings some personality and creativity.
I feel the same as I did following my 2014 visit to Split: Croatia is a lovely place and high up on my list of places I would happily revisit time and again. There is certainly something to be said for living in a place that has a ridiculous amount of sunny days per year (something like 320+!!!) and a stunning natural landscape. In case you have any trouble identifying locals from tourists, just look for the extremely tan, fit and beautiful people who clearly live on permanent island time – Croatians all seem to have this very chill, easy going vibe about them, which I love. It is a lifestyle I could get used to!
There is still so much to be seen in the beautiful country of Croatia, and even in the surroundings of Split – this is my Croatia bucket list for future visits:
See you next time, Croatia!
Wintry days are here to stay (for those of us not lucky enough to be in tropics), and for those souls who claim to enjoy said brisk season, now is the time to bundle, bundle bundle – whip out the fuzz, the wool, the coats, scarves and hot cocoa, and commence with the crackling fireplaces, good company, coziness, and general snugglery. Here are some fun and snuggly words from around the world to get you through these frosty days and through to springtime!
Go forth and snuggle, friends – and stay warm through these last few nippy months – just keep in mind, spring is around the corner, and in the meantime, enjoy the coziness that only the cold can sometimes bring!!
Koh Lipe is a secret paradise in and of itself, and on the north most tip of the island, practically with its own private beach, is perched yet another paradise – the Mountain Resort.
After arriving to Koh Lipe by traditional Thai longboat in a sudden downpour, I was happily to drag my soggy self into a comfortable room in one of the several “garden villa huts” at Mountain Resort. In my room were two twin beds, both clean and well-made, classically decorated with Thai colors and fabrics. The furniture was minimal and tasteful, and the bathroom and shower were outdoors but walled within my room, separated from my bedroom by a sliding door (which later proved extremely helpful in keeping away unwanted mozzy visitors).
There are a number of different accommodation options at the resort, from hut-style single-bedroom villas to raised huts on stilts down on the beach, through to more condo-style, concrete and glass rooms within a larger cluster. All have nearly equally-stunning views of either the luscious green surroundings, the ocean, the neighboring islands, or all of the above. Some of the rooms would have a fantastic sunset view, along with their own little rooftop balcony areas (romantic getaway, anyone?)
What to do: If you came to the island to lay in the sun and read all day (cough cough), well you’re in luck – the beach is your backyard. If you came to go on wild snorkeling adventures, Mountain Resort provides all the gear you need, just visit the little shack down by the beach, down the staircase from the restaurant and check in building; you can easily float just off the shore and spot various underwater life amongst the coral reefs. The beach next to Mountain Resort is the one that shows up in so many Google images of Koh Lipe – the one that juts out and becomes a bit wider and circular right at the end, lending an oxford comma to the sea. Aptly referred to as “Sunset Beach,” this spot provides an excellent view for amazing, deep orange and red sunsets.
If you for some reason get sick of being at the beach (on a tiny tropical island that you decided to come to)… Mountain Resort has got a lovely, turquoise blue swimming pool that also has a pretty impressive view of the sea, so you have the option to float around here for a while, or alternate between ocean and pool.
What/How to eat: Granted, there’s not tons of food floating around Koh Lipe, even as it is becoming slightly more touristy as time goes on. There are a few warungs and of course, a mix of backpackers’ hostels through to hotels and resorts scattered along the main stretch of beach, but otherwise not the type of place that you can roll up expecting whatever dish may tickle your fancy. Luckily, my laziness for the weekend was reinforced by delicious food, right at the Mountain Resort’s restaurant. The continental breakfast that was included in the room was quite typical for Thailand and Asian hotels, serving up the usual variety of Asian hot and western warm, cold or somewhere in between dishes. Fruit, cereal, coffee… there are plenty of small snacks for those looking to grab a light breakfast in lieu of traditional noodles before hitting the beach. It almost wouldn’t matter what you choose to eat, because the entire experience is made by the simply astounding view from the restaurant, out over the sparkling blues of the water and onto the neighboring Koh Adang.
I came to Koh Lipe for a quiet, relaxing and tropical getaway, unperturbed as possible by traffic, noise and even internet-connectedness. While the resort has WiFi, the vibe (and slow nature of all connection due to the island’s remoteness) gives a perfect excuse to unplug, throw on your swimsuit, grab a book, your flippers and head for the beach. Mountain Resort, tucked away and significantly removed from any other accommodation spots on the entire island, provides just one more added layer of privacy and luxury to an already magical place.
Ho Chi Minh was my first introduction to the beautiful country of Vietnam; as the largest city in Vietnam, I chose to visit HCMC first and experience its hustle and bustle, food, culture, history, and all that contributes to create such a vibrant and interesting city.
I arrived into HCMC Saturday morning after a sleepy 1.5 hour flight from KL, waking up to a turbulent and cloudy landing, just as our plane glided over the rooftops of waves upon waves of houses – my first glance of the city. I had already arranged everything for my visa (online application prior to traveling required) and so I went to the windows to turn in all materials necessary (application papers, 4×6 photo and $25USD) and eventually received my passport back, visa inside. After getting through immigration, I arranged a taxi at one of the many small counters inside, which was prepaid at 220,000 VND (Dong). I had read that a taxi from airport should cost around 160,000, but these counters all charged the same so I assumed the price had perhaps increased since, though in retrospect, as Grab is available in HCMC, it may have been possible to get onto the airport free WiFi and Grab, which would have been presumably cheaper (next time).
It took about 30-45 minutes to drive into the city, and I arrived around 10:30AM at my hotel, the Liberty Central Saigon Riverside. My room as reserved was not yet ready but I was informed that I could already have a 2 bedroom that overlooked the river, so I checked in and got settled. Before heading out to explore, I had a glance at the rooftop pool, which also overlooks the Song Sai Gon river, with expansive views of all the barges, cruises and everything else floating along.
Needing breakfast, I grabbed my laptop and headed just 3 minutes around the corner to The Workshop Café, on Dhong Koi street. I’ve made it my goal to at least find one funky hipster café in each new urban destination that I visit, and was able to immediately check that off my list after a delicious breakkie of eggs benedict and coffee at The Workshop. After walking up a few flights of stairs in what seems like a derelict building, I was greeted by a cozy, creative nook of a space with a central coffee bar and overhanging lamps throughout. Inside is a mix of long communal work tables and separate small tables for ones or twos.
Sleepy, but well fed and happy, I dropped my laptop back at my hotel and was ready to explore. I had downloaded an offline Google Map of the city and so getting around wasn’t a problem – I set off for the War Remnants Museum first, feeling that as such an important reminder of Vietnam’s painful history and a true must-see while in HCMC, I would start with this museum and take as long as needed there. The walk took about 30 minutes, passing by a mix of shanty shops and hole in the wall pho or street food stalls, alongside sky-scraping glass office buildings, already illustrating the diversity of the city in many realms.
The fence outside of the War Remnants Museum sports signs with peace slogans and cheerful emblems – once inside the compound, American military planes, helicopters and tanks already contribute to the discomfort of the place. An adult entrance ticket costs 15,000 VND. Immediately at the entrance is an example structure of the prisons and torture areas utilized during the war; models and explanations of the ranging and many torture techniques employed against prisoners, including “Tiger Cages” and many revolting practices are illustrated through models and information boards explaining. This section as well as the entire museum includes photography, some certainly more graphic than others, so good to come prepared. As would be imagined, the museum itself, through three floors of exhibits, offers quite a solemn and difficult experience. Comparable (experience-wise) to a visit to the concentration camps of Europe or the museums and memorials commemorating the tragedies and atrocities of WWII, the War Remnants Museum offers a sobering glance into the history behind the American war of aggression as perpetrated in Vietnam in the 1960s-70s, the lasting impacts, many of which have transcended time, and the worldwide sentiment of solidarity with Vietnam which emerged during that time. As mentioned, some exhibits are more graphic than others – particularly those illustrating photographs with descriptions taken in and around the battlefield, the aftermath of American time bombs, which both during and (many years) after the war, caused many deaths. The exhibit focused on the impact of Agent Orange (and more specifically, the toxic dioxin chemical), is especially grim, showing detailed photos of the effect on many people during and after the war, including four generations of children born showing a multitude of physical and genetic defects caused by the exposure of their parents and ancestors to the horrific substance. An elderly Vietnamese woman, giving a tour in Spanish, explained – “the effects of the dioxin chemical were horrific and long lasting. Eventually, the American veterans that were affected with symptoms demanded from the U.S. government for retribution, and they were helped. The U.S. never helped the Vietnamese people that had been affected and were still suffering.” The museum is noticeably propagandist, but nevertheless an important, necessary and interesting experience to have while visiting Vietnam and HCMC.
After spending about 3 hours scouring the exhibits of the War Remnants Museum, I decided for a change of scenery. I was headed for Ben Thanh Market when after walking for about 15 minutes, I felt the first few heavy drops of rain… not wanting to stand for who knows how long exactly under a random overhang, I decided to keep going and try to at least find a spot to eat; I had read about a Pho restaurant right across from the market and knew I was getting close. In the time it took me to walk only 100 yards, the droplets had turned to downpour, people scattering in all directions to find shelter. Hurrying the last few steps and slipping in my flip flops, I ducked into the “Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf” café, above which was the restaurant I was looking for, Pho 2000. I was pleased to find that I was one of, if not the only non-local in the nondescript spot. I ordered vegetable Pho (Pho Chay) and a Vietnamese iced coffee. Alongside the Pho was served plates of fresh bean sprouts and fresh herbs to mix into the broth, and delicious rich coffee, poured over ice and sweet condensed milk (a Vietnamese specialty – get involved if you aren’t already). Who’s to know how strange they thought I was, sitting alone at my little table, dripping ever so slightly.
After a delicious lunch of Pho, I ventured back out to find that the rain had all but ceased, so I crossed the street between motorbikes and into the Ben Thanh Market. Ben Thanh is one of the largest and most famous markets in HCMC, which translates into most touristy, but it is still an amazing place to see, experience, and get some souvenir shopping done. Selling everything from clothing and bags to magnets, candles and all crazy trinkets in between, Ben Thanh market is home to a constant noisy hum, absolutely buzzing with activity. Vendors shouting out to me from all sides, I wound my way deeper into the market, pushing past bundles of clothing and tables full of collectables. After haggling the price at least in half (and a piece of me thinks I should have done even better), I bought a few things and headed on my way. To give you an idea of price, I was told that a cloth backpack with embroidered flowers (similar to bags in Thailand and SEA) was 800,000 VND – I ended up paying 380,000 for the bag and several smaller trinkets. I was later told that a single scarf costs 1,000,000 – I ended up with 2 for less than 400,000, but the ones that weren’t “100% silk”. The argument for higher prices is always something along the lines of the goods being handmade up in the mountains, or real pure silk, or some other variation; I completely agree with this and also that the goods are amazing works of art, though I also know that no matter what I end up paying, it is still a very decent deal for the vendors and so in the interest of saving money, I bargain to the bitter end most of the time anyway – it is expected and anticipated for in the high first prices that are given, which are always up to double for tourists anyway.
After visiting the market, I made my way back to my hotel (the whole day I explored by foot, as I felt this would allow me to slow down and take in all the sights and surroundings as much as possible to experience the city better). Nearby my hotel a lady stood outside handing out business cards for the upstairs massage business, and after taking a few steps past, I thought “why not” – and circled back to inquire about a foot massage. I ended up getting a lovely foot massage, though more expensive than I am used to in KL (only by a few USD of course), and adherent to a much more pressured tipping policy. Of course, tipping varies in every country and then further in each massage house, but in this case the lady that I was with followed my foot massage with “so you tip me” – not exactly a question. I had said of course and pulled out the VND I had left, which clearly did not please her. She became a bit flustered, exclaiming how small the Vietnamese money is and that this is nothing, she then said I would pay and tip by credit card. At this point, I didn’t have a choice and followed her down to a hotel lobby (they must collaborate) as she carried my credit card and told the lady at the desk what amount to charge (300 for massage, 100 for tip) – something that just wouldn’t happen in Malaysia, or hasn’t yet to me, but it was a one time thing, so fine. Nevertheless, it was lovely and I returned home lazy and comfy after a long day of wandering, exploring, and was embarrassingly ready to turn in for the evening.
I had heard and read a bit about the backpacker street (supposed Khaosan Road of HCMC), which is the go-to night spot for travelers and locals to have a beer and chill or get wild. Despite my desire to explore and experience the full spectrum of life in the city, after getting back to my room to drop off my stuff, I was feeling so tired from the early morning of travelling and not much sleep the night prior that I couldn’t bring myself to leave again. So, I proceeded to convince myself that I wouldn’t be missing TOO much, and that surely it is similar to all of the other “backpacker streets” in Asia (let me know if I was horribly mistaken and should go back?!) and swallowed my FOMO, to happily curl up in bed.
My Sunday in HCMC started well-rested, and with a lovely continental breakfast at the Liberty Central Saigon Riverside hotel. After eating a leisurely breakfast, I geared up for more exploring (read: highly touristy sightseeing) and headed out. On my way to the sights, my attention was caught by THE MOST AMAZING boutique shop – Thuy Design House. Just from the windows outside, this place looks crazy. Once inside, I was greeted by colors, sequins, crazy patterns galore; just my kind of place! This shop seems to combine traditional Vietnamese styles, patterns and fabric with the insanely eclectic creativity of the designers, who have created some truly amazing pieces! Certainly quite unlike anything I had ever seen before. After dabbling in the store for a while, I continued on my original quest. Here are the places I visited:
Saigon Notre Dame Basilica and Central Post Office
The cathedral, a mini Notre Dame in light reddish brick, sits perched in a well-manicured garden in the center of a roundabout-like square, backdrop to a variety of tourist photos and wedding shoots. I did not go inside actually, as there seemed to be a service going on for Sunday, and the gates were closed. I have also been advised that because this cathedral is so popular, it becomes extremely busy inside to the point of almost not worth seeing around. Regardless, it is indeed a beautiful building from the outside and very photographic, so recommended to at least see. The Saigon Central Post office is a vivid yellow building from the exterior, almost directly across from the Notre Dame cathedral. Designed and built by Gustave Eiffel in gothic style, it began operations in 1886 and still remains one of the most famous and celebrated structures in the city – and is still in full use as a proper post office! The interior of the post office, with stark contrasts across a long, domed roof, is drippingly instagrammable and striking in and of itself – definitely worth a glance inside.
Tan Dinh Market
Having already explored Ben Thanh the previous day, I wanted to see a different type of market, and Tan Dinh was just that; this is a place for locals, truly. I didn’t honestly encounter a single tourist nearby or inside the market, which sells a staggering variety of goods, on a massive scale. The market is most famous for its cloths and fabrics, of silk and any and every variety, color, print, and style that you could imagine. If you seek traditional Vietnamese fabric or any variation thereof, and especially if you plan on designing some of your own clothing, this is your place. One downside is that the fabrics are mostly sold in quite large quantities, which are perfect to buy for the purpose of clothing design etc., but just so happen to be a bit inconvenient for the luggage-bound traveler. Still, an amazing place to have a look around, and the vendors are far less pushy and rather uninterested in visitors, so you can wander through quite peacefully. The glances that I got wandering through were some of the most amusing- some quizzical, some simply bewildered, and some of the warmest smiles I’ve seen. Being in this market, and wandering even to the very back, among the bags of rice and spices and household goods and foods finally felt like a piece of true Ho Chi Minh, if not of Vietnam.
Tan Dinh Parish Church
Where Barbie goes to church. No really, I’m serious. Have a look for yourself. This church was built in the 1880s, during the French colonial period. The church is the second largest in the city (after Notre Dame) and is drenched in the most obnoxiously precious shade of bubblegum pink. Instagrammers, at the ready (ew). What a beautiful church though, pink or no pink – although the color certainly helps its random appeal (you’ll see what I mean when you see the street at which it is situated) – with impressive roman architecture creating a splendid grandeur, smack in the middle of an otherwise rather rough and tumble Asian street. A peaceful garden outside of the church hosts statues of Jesus and apostles, and offers a peaceful, quiet and shaded place for those wanting to pray, reflect or just sit and take it all in. Looking through the windows, I could see the inside of the church is completely whitewashed (it was closed for entry that day, and the gates to view the outer part were closed until 2PM, probably due to services).
Seeing these main sights took me a fair distance through the city, and after I had visited them all it was nearing my time to head back. As I would, I got caught in a total downpour while walking back, ducked into a high end mall alongside many other soggy walkers, and eventually ended up hopping in a taxi for the short ride back to my hotel, as the rain didn’t seem to intend on slowing down anytime soon. The rest of my time before airport was spent in the hotel lobby, happily curled up with a cup of coffee and reading.
My time in Vietnam (the very first for me!) was short but filled with interesting experiences, thoughts and observations. I would like to go back for a longer visit, to get an even better feel of the society, culture, and history.
If you are going to Penang Island for art and heritage, a weekend getaway from city life in KL, or of course travelling through at your leisure, you won’t want to miss the northern side of the island.
Batu Ferringhi beach stretches for miles down the coast of the northern part of the island, and offering soft sand, various watersports and other attractions, is one of the most popular beaches in Penang. Park Royal Penang Resort is perched at an ultimately relaxed, secluded spot along the beach and within a short drive of the more lively Georgetown – read about my visit to the Park Royal here, so you can decide if it’s the place for you!
Batu Ferringhi is about 30-40 minutes by car (I recommend using Grab everywhere in Malaysia) from the airport and about 20 from Georgetown. Penang isn’t too large of an island, and the beach is along the coastal road on the north end.
Backed up right to the beach with its own access, Park Royal Penang Resort is a tropical paradise in and of itself, with expansive lawn space in the back, covered with sun lounges and palm trees. Laying in the sun tire you out? You can get a massage with a view at the small hut in the hotel’s own backyard, and grab a piña colada at the bar afterwards. Not to mention the beautiful pool, with sparkling blue water and surrounded by palm trees, luscious tropical plants and flowers that create a relaxing oasis. Just down the path is a kiddie pool for youngsters – even better.
The hotel has quite a few rooms, bigger and smaller; my room was clean, comfy and lovely. The bed was soft and, while I would have happily done more sleeping, I slept great while I was there.
Park Royal is a 5 minute walk from the Ferringhi Walk, a night market and bazaar with various stalls, selling clothing and trinkets, and food. It is nice to have a glance through while you are on this end of the island, but there is nothing here that you cannot also buy in the shops and markets of Georgetown, which arguably have a larger selection.
In My Opinion: I can’t decide which is my favorite; the beach or the pool. I chose to spend my time back and forth between the two, and just can’t get enough of the sun, so the lounge area all around the hotel is perfect, if you don’t feel like getting sandy. The breakfast is nice and the open restaurant looks right onto the pool. The hotel is clean, comfortable and has a very relaxed and isolated vibe, which I loved to escape to after busier times walking around and seeing the sights in Georgetown.
If you’ve ever observed 73829 stag parties, steadily drinking their way through the classy establishments of Kuta Beach, Bali to the steady hard bass of Sky Garden’s electro lineup or the kitschy but irresistible dance anthems at Paddy’s Pub… you may be a die hard Bali goer… or you might be longing for an ever so slightly more relaxing, low key getaway.
I have two words for you: Nusa Lembongan. Lembongan is one of the many small island getaways just a short boat ride from Bali, but is a bit further from the beaten backpacker path than say, the Gilis or Lombok. This is my third or fourth trip to Lembongan, and I’m already checking my calendar to see when I can fit in my next trip… why do I keep coming back? Because this, my friends, is paradise. Yes there are thousands upon thousands (literally) of remote islands with gorgeous pristine beaches in Indonesia (not to mention Thailand and beyond), but Lembongan just has a special vibe – maybe you’ll love it too, maybe not. But hey, either way, you’ve gotta see it at least once. I first discovered Lembongan while living in Jakarta, and desperately needing to escape to a beach every weekend, away from the deadly traffic (another story). It was love at first sight.
This weekend, I returned to Lembongan for the first time in a full year, and it felt just like home. I chose to do this weekend trip as an easy getaway from my KL workweek, a great beach escape that still has an element of total relaxation and for my second weekend back in SEA, ease of familiarity.
Flying out of KL late Friday evening, I arrived to Bali Denpasar around midnight. After clearing immigration and customs (sigh) I made my way out to the familiar throng of haggling taxi drivers, who naturally triple their prices at the first glimpse of blonde hair. Despite my attempts to go lower, I managed to get a very kind older driver to take me for 80,000 IDR (note on taxi from airport to Kuta Beach: don’t pay more than 100k, though it will likely be challenging to find anything as cheap as a ride in simply because drivers claim the need to pay several additional tolls and fees associated with leaving the airport grounds). Part of my routine, I naturally told him to head to “Grand Barong Resort, Popies dua” (note my extensive knowledge of bahasa…….) The familiar decorative gateway in traditional Balinese style marked my arrival to good ol Kuta Beach, a grimy and horribly touristy, but undeniably charming desintstion in its own right. We trundled down Popies Lane 2, past all of the closed down trinket and souvenirs shacks lining the alleyway, the occasional partygoer wandering his and her way home.. somehow. Eventually, the lights of the Kuta party scene tellingly illuminating the street beyond and the unmistakeable din of the bar next door told me I was back. Amongst countless lovely, cheap, luxurious and anything in between options for accommodation in the Kuta Beach area or surroundings, I continue to return to Grand Barong for a few reasons, which may or may not be totally justifiable. I know EXACTLY where the hotel is, meaning I can even give a taxi driver directions from a certain point in Bali, and I know the surrounding area and where to quickly and easily seek out snacks, water, ATM and so forth.
As the hotel is also a 3 minute walk from the main party street of Kuta, it’s certainly accessible if you’re looking for a stable place to stumble home to after a good rally at a night out. As I almost always took the last flight into Bali, it became a favorite activity of mine to walk down to this street to sit at one of the bars (playing the loudest music imaginable and with a sign in the back naming their house cocktails, including “Green Fuck, Boom Sex, and Dark at Surfer”. I would order a large still water and spring rolls, and just revel in the hilarity of how perplexed the wandering and inebriated bachelors became at my apparent sobriety, and moreso at the fact that this seemed intentional. They just couldn’t comprehend that I was “only in town for about 10 hours, just here to have a snack and head to bed.” (It’s still funny.)
There are most certainly always cheaper ways to accomplish things in Indonesia, but for the sake of storytelling, I’ll tell you how I’ve arranged my boat trip. If you stay with various hotels on Lembongan, they may offer (and even reach out to you by email, for example) a round trip boat service from various points – including Sanur, the main harbor of Bali – often with car pick up and drop off on both ends of the trip. This is all usually offered (also available directly from Grand Barong) for 500,000 rupiah (about $35 USD). While you could get the boat trip for 300 and negotate a much cheaper version of transport to and from the harbor on your own (perhaps Grab, perhaps a friendly motorist with a scooter; plenty of them offer), the choice is yours simply for price vs. convenience. Arriving to Sanur Harbor, I grabbed some coffee and corn flakes at a nearby homestay-style hotel’s breakfast and waited for the ferry. If you haven’t been, the harbor is lined with many of the same exact shops that you will find in Kuta or other central tourism-heavy areas of Bali, selling swim accessories, batik and various trinkets and souvenirs, in case you feel the need to do some last minute shopping. There are a few different cruise companies that do shuttles to and from Lembongan, including Lembongan Fast Cruises and Marlin Cruises (I have been on both, recently on Marlin). To board the boat, you will throw whatever shoes you are wearing into one big plastic bin, so flip flops are advised. You’ll then hand over your baggage to be kept aside by the crew, sometimes on the roof – if you just have a smallish backpack, they’ll let you keep it on your lap during the ride. Some boats require a metal ladder to board, while others are accessible directly from the water after wading out, knee-deep. The boat ride only takes about 30 minutes as they are quite speedy, and then in no time, you are pulling up to the lovely little island of Lembongan!!
RE: the topic of cheaper transport, the 500k IDR that I have paid for the full return trip including pick up and drop off on both sides; as I never even have more than a small backpack for the weekend and if I stay at Cliff Villas, it is actually accessible from a path that runs up from the main harbor area alongside the cliff, past The Deck (my favorite cafe on the island!) and on up the hill, which I feel would honestly take far less time than the shitshow (excuse my French) that is usually the process of even finding, let alone waiting for, someone vaguely involved with your given tour company until enough straggling visitors are gathered to fill one of their transport trucks, after which they will drive you around the island and drop everyone off at their respective hotels, in no apparent given order (the beauty of Indonesia, my friend). All things considered, I think I’ll just say to hell with it and walk to my hotel next time, to get to my point. Anyway, transport was eventually found and I was dropped at Cliff Villas, to be greeted by a familiar peacefulness and breathtaking tranquility. There are only about 15 villas that, as the name suggests, perch along a lush green hillside with views out over paradise to the harbor, where one can see the small boats lazily making their way around, or dedicated surfers who have paddled out to an excellent spot to catch the rolling waves. There are two swimming pools at Cliff Villas, one down at the reception level (all outdoors) and one at the highest level, all the way up the stone staircase. This infinity pool is the ultimate definition of dreamy getaway, with chairs to lounge and sunbathe in surrounding the blue water, which in my opinion is the perfect temperature and with the same amazing view of the harbor and the rich tropical flora decorating the island. You could certainly make a day (or a week) of lounging by this pool, cocktail or fresh juice in hand. After saying hello to the pool and checking into my room, I donned my island clothes and rented a scooter from the hotel (they say 80k/day but I ended up paying about that much for 1.5 days because it was all the cash I had on me and my host preferred that over taking my card…)
I navigated the familiar rocky paths out from Cliff Villas, which is quite tucked away, to the main road, and turned right – towards dream beach and the yellow bridge. I headed for the famed yellow bridge, the singular crossing connecting Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan, its slightly less-developed neighbor but home to equally beautiful sights and experiences. I had read an article several months prior that during a religious festival, so many people had crossed the bridge all at once that it collapsed under the weight – fortunately, it seems to be up and running (rebuilt) again, even stronger than before, and just as yellow! A quick crossing brought me to the Ceningan side, and turning right at the first fork, I followed the small road that winds along the water for some distance, passing by small shops and houses, greeted by locals and passerby with a variety of waves, comments or confused expressions; perhaps at the prospect of a strange tourist riding a scooter in a bikini with a half silly smile pasted across her face. I kept following the road along until it too turned into rocks and dirt, and eventually came to a familiar pull out with a small sign indicating “Blue Lagoon.” Perhaps the spot had become more popular among travelers, or perhaps I just chose a busy afternoon, because the spot I once had gone to sit alone, staring out at the ceaseless waves, was now the backdrop of numerous selfies and snapchats. After spending a few minutes catching up with the lagoon, I backtracked just a way to “Le Pirate Beach Club,” as made famous per Instagram- I’m sure you’ve come across at least one photo of it’s cute turquoise beach huts in a precious row, facing the ocean. As Le Pirate isn’t only a place to stay, I try to stop by for lunch or at least a smoothie bowl every time I’m on Lembongan, because the food and views are too lovely to pass up. I usually sit down on the sun deck overlooking the water, in utter paradise, happily munching away at my hot pink dragonfruit smoothie bowl.
Following my peaceful lunch, I returned to my scooter and rode my way back across to Lembongan, and headed for one of my favorite destinations on the island (and perhaps ever)- Dream Beach. I played around a bit, riding my scooter over the open expanses of dirt and the small ruts and hills across to the point where busloads (literally) of tourists were scrambling across the sharp rocks, taking pictures against the backdrop of ocean spray and sparkling water. I spent the rest of the day reacquainting myself with one of my favorite beaches in the world, and then made my lazy return to the hotel when I could tell the sun would be setting soon. I wanted to walk to my favorite cafe for dinner – The Deck Cafe – it is a perfect walking distance from Cliff Villas along a special path overlooking the ocean and nestled among flowers and shrubs and passing by various hotels, resorts and restaurants. The familiar whitewashed wood and hipster vibe greeted me at The Deck, where I literally haven’t ever had a bad time, nor a bad meal. I always sit downstairs at one of the sofa tables or the chairs along the bench directly overlooking the water and harbor, so I can have the full view of the gorgeous island and water and little boats. From here you can watch the surfers catching their first (or last) waves, watch cruises and fishing boats arrive to the harbor, and watch small private snorkeling and diving tours coming and going. The music, setting, menu and everything about this place creates the absolute best vibe, and I have to say the food is delicious from morning til night; I just don’t think you can go wrong. I munched on my dinner while watching the sun go down across a purple sky, simply happy to be alive. I walked home that night in peaceful quiet, watching the moon reflect off of the calm ocean, and because I had zero other commitments for one evening, I decided to go to bed – at a splendid 7:30PM – it just doesn’t get any more wild than that.
Thanks to my extreme bed time the night before, I was up and wide awake by 7AM Sunday morning, and got to see the first surfers paddling out for a post-sunrise ride on the fresh new waves, with the mists of the night still fading into the rapidly warming morning. After preparing my things to check out that day, I headed for breakkie back at The Deck, which was once again gorgeous in the morning sunlight. After a wonderfully relaxing and delicious breakfast, I came back to my hotel and my scooter to head for a beach day. On my way back to Dream Beach, I stopped by the Leaning Tree boutique, just down one of the side streets near the turn off for Dream Beach. This boutique has an airy, effortless vibe and sells all of your bougie (but awesome) beachy necessities, from Bali style bikinis to clothing for women and men, to accessories, cute Turkish towels, bags, and even kitchen decor! I spent the rest of the morning and into the afternoon effectively posted up on Dream Beach, dipping into the strong salty current every once in a while to cool off. Sufficiently salty, sandy and sun kissed, I eventually rode back to my hotel, once more saying goodbye to a place I love so very much, but to be back again soon!
As is the case with Sunday returns, it was the classic ferry to Bali, taxi to airport and flight to KL that eventually saw me into my bed, bleary eyed and already missing my sunny palm-tree paradise.