Thursday, February 28, 2019

This too shall pass...

How I’m waiting for February to end...!

After reading my trip blog, you’d imagine it was a fun 4 weeks for me this month. In reality, I’ve had a rather difficult time this month with my health.

It began with having to endure walking with skin tears next to my wound/site of amputation on my weight bearing area. during the early part of my trip in the first week of February. I powered through with most of my plans because I’ve had an unsaid rule since my childhood. Never say never. The minute I decide to give up on doing what I want to because I’m in pain, I’ll be over. The first time I may give up and decide to take rest indoors for something very painfful or serious. The next time it may be something I can put up with and I may end up feeling why should I when I can avoid it. This will then become a way of life because hey! As an amputee you're never really expecting a time when you’re devoid of problems entirely.. 

So that’s my golden rule. Don’t let anything stop you. I must’ve walked for 4 km a day. My husband was almost inconsolable when he got to know after day one. But regardless of how stupid he thinks my decision to prod on is, he stands by me and let’s me have my way.

Before this had healed, I realised one morning that I had a boil on another part of my weight bearing area!! So days 3-4 were about managing both this things together. Lo and behold, thanks to the strain of changing my gait to avoid pressure on the side of the boil, I ended up with an entirely sore middle area. So there.. now there was no left, right or centre left to put my 54kg of weight on. After a short walk (at 3km it probably wasn’t so short after all :P) I got back to the room and stayed there for the rest of the day slathering liberal amounts of ointments and creams I had, one for each of the issues. Y took N to the fun fair that day so she had fun. I tried to walk a little less for the next few days so that the pain would be under control. Thankfully by the end of the trip I was okay.

This trip was by far the most challenging for me in terms of managing my prosthesis and walking with it.
After that I developed multiple issues that stopped me from using my prosthesis and had to stay grounded for many many days this month. In the meanwhile, I’ve had to take some extremely tough decisions regarding work because of the kind of health issues I’ve been facing lately.

There have been several disturbing things happening around me and in my part of the world which I would not want to talk about. And almost 7 ladies in an amputee support group I am part of have been facing similar challenges of their own in the past few weeks.

I’m currently grappling with a huge boil (next to my wound) ... and I'm pretty much grounded yet again. So I'm hoping that March will turn tides and make things better for everyone. 

All of us will keep having issues to tackle every single day. Some times little issues happen together and the stress of it all invariably adds up. When you feel low or when things are not going your way, remember that.. 'This too shall pass.'

Because after every dark night, comes a new dawn..

Monday, February 18, 2019

Wonderful Vietnam!!

We decided to utilize the mid-week Chinese New Year holidays in Singapore and planned a 10-day trip to Central & South Vietnam. The Lunar New Year ("Tet") is also the biggest festival in Vietnam so it is holiday season (Think Christmas-NY in the Western World). Everything from rooms to food to transportation is more expensive, personnel at shops/restaurants/hotels are on leave, airports are busy owing to passengers travelling to be with family. But let this not deter you from paying a visit during Tet. The festive feel compensates for all discomforts I have mentioned above. People seemed very excited and in good spirits as it was New Year.

Vietnam offers a hassle-free eVisa (check eligible countries) that can be applied online for USD 25 per head.  Please make sure you only use the following government website

Scam Alert: There are many travel websites almost tricking you into believing they are government websites and offering Visa on Arrival. What they actually do is receive payment ($15-20) as service charge and provide you a pre-authorization so that you are allowed a Visa on Arrival once you arrive at their airports after submitting photo & $25. This would mean an added waiting time once you land. We had a two-hour window to catch our domestic flight and due to the crazy crowds during the holidays, we did have to rush through it all.

Day 1 : Da Nang

We booked our tickets months in advance and decided not to have a packed itinerary since we were travelling with a 3-year old (read: lazy husband).  We We arrived at Da nang airport on Day 1 in the evening and took a Mai Linh cab from the airport to our budget hotel near the Dragon Bridge. 

We headed to the 7 Bridges Brewery next door to view the Dragon spitting out fire and water (weekends at 9pm). We had to walk up 4 flights of stairs and the view was great, the beer was okay but food was disappointing. 

Thankfully, that was the only disappointing meal of the entire trip. N loved the fire & water spraying and kept asking us through the trip when we'd be back to see the dragon

Day 2 : Da Nang - Marble Mountains - My Son - Hoi An

The next morning we had an organized private tour: we visited the Marble Mountains in the morning. Something that we realized during our trip: Though the temperatures remained in the mid 20s, the scorching sun made us feel rather uncomfortable during the day. Evenings were cool & breezy.

Marble Mountains are a cluster of five marble and limestone hills and are named after the five elements- metal, earth, water, wood and fire. 156 steps lead to the top of the only accessible one of these hills, recently an elevator has also been installed, attached to the mountain quite jarringly on one side but I wouldn't complain as I probably wouldn't be able to visit it otherwise.

There are several pagodas of monks here with 3 or 5 levels with increasing levels marking how revered the monks were. There are caves with Buddhist temples and there is also a Buddhist monastry here.

We had lunch at a local eatery where we ate noodles. They made a vegetarian version for me with tofu, soy sauce and lemon. The fresh herb+veggie topping

We then headed to My Son, archeological site of a group of Hindu temples in honor of Lord Shiva (and Vishnu) built between the 4th and 13th century by rulers of the Champapura who settled in the region, each of the Cham rulers building new temples. 

The temples are built in a jungle valley here as surrounding by mountains that appeared to the Cham rulers to be like the 5 peaked sacred Mount Meru. Most of it was destroyed during the Vietnam War when the US carpet bombed the region in 1969 and the largest temples reduced to rubble. Most idols have been beheaded (supposedly during the war) and many have been moved to other museums.

These temples follow an Indian style of architecture with a tall entry gate or 'gopuram', a wide hallway 'mandapam', the inner sanctorum with a pointed tower that housed the deity/Shiva lingam and a storage hall where they also cooked offerings for the deity. It looked almost entirely like the structure of a South Indian Hindu temple. The biggest temple that housed a Shiva Linga, was replete with a 'Nandi' facing the inner sanctorum. The inscriptions are believed to be in Sanskrit and Cham language.

My Son was declared as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in as late as 1993 and currently conservation efforts are underway in collaboration with The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) & the Govt of Vietnam.

The construction techniques by the Cham people are still not understood for instance how exactly the bricks are stuck together without the presence of mortar. The renovation efforts of many of these structures have currently been stopped due to moss affecting the newly restored portions and structures leaning probably due to the density/weight difference in the newer bricks.

Visiting these temples requires one to walk quite a distance  despite a free buggy service for 2 km in between the gate and the site.
Surprisingly N walked for 2-3 km in the scorching sun and quite enjoyed the temples.

After the tour, we headed to our hotel in Hoi An. We had a room with a view of the Thu Bon river so after dinner at the in-house restaurant, we relaxed in our room.

Day 3 :  Hoi An - Eve of the Lunar New Year  

After breakfast at the hotel, we headed to the Old Town. 

Since it was the eve of Tet, many shops were closed but the town looked festive and full of tourists. 

Japanese-Buddhist temple

Congregation Halls

We walked to Japanese Bridge, a few temples, congregation hall etc, witnessed tourist cyclo groups, local shopkeepers haggling with tourists with fun vibes & smiles all around. 

Japanese Bridge
We had lunch at an Indian restaurant, Ganesha , that everyone kept suggesting to us. We got back to the hotel after wandering along some of the old streets of this UNESCO Heritage Town. 
Cyclo tours & ladies selling fruits

N was so excited that she took a while to go off to sleep. Y&I spent some us- time in the Balcony over looking the river and town below.

We headed out after sunset along the river and the town looked beautiful with boats and streets lined with lighted colourful lanterns, the stage set, locals and tourists equally enthused out on the road grabbing a drink and bite and getting their insta-fix with the beautiful decorations. 

The town was buzzing with activity and festive vibes. 

We did the touristy thing of going on a boat ride and floating candle-lanterns in the river - N had been asking to go on a boat since morning and was very excited with his experience.

The fireworks at the stroke of midnight was bang opposite our hotel so we witnessed the 15 minute NYE bash in the sky from the comforts of our balcony while the whole town was huddled up on the roads below. After a while N got bored but sat through it before going off to sleep.

Day 4 : Hoi An - "Chuc Mung Nam Moi"

A 'piece of luck', keepsake made from a currency note from a wonderful staff member to us for New Year! 

As the previous day, we headed out to the old town for a walk and to see what the New Year is like. 

Roadside entertainment...
Wearing Red for New Year!!

Most locals have traditional meals with their family so the only people out and about were tourists like us. Most eateries were shut but we found ourselves some wonderful inspired-local food at Cafe Pineapple (with a 30% surcharge).
We wandered back to our hotel after people watching and soaking in the town as we were heading out the next day. 

There was a mini fun fair and food vendors along the river and by late afternoon many locals were seen in festive clothing.
In the evening after an early dinner, I retired to the room as I had a couple of bruises and was in terrible pain while wearing my prosthesis. Y took N to the kids carnival across the bridge where she had a blast on the rides and bouncing castle.

Day 5 : Ba Na Hills

The only must-do thing I missed in Hoi An was to try the vegetarian Banh Mi from the place in Hoi An that Anthony Bourdain described as the 'Best Banh Mi in the world'. I wanted to try it from the same shop because they apparently have 5 vegetarian versions too. Unfortunately for us it was closed on all the days we were there.

We headed to Ba Na by noon and reached in around 75 minutes. 

Ba Na is a hill-station designed by the French colonists in 1919 in the Mountains near Da Nang city. 

View from the cable car
The Ba Na cable car holds the world record for the longest non-stop single track cable car. The main reasons for us to visit Ba Na was that N wanted to visit a cool place & I wanted to see the Golden Bridge and the European-esque architecture of the place.

We had arranged for a drop from the hotel we were staying because we wanted to be dropped off at the Mercure help desk at the Cable Car office. The driver didn't seem to have an idea though and dropped us at the main gate to Ba Na. We asked around and a hotel representative came with a buggy to take us to the Hotel welcome lobby at the foot of the hills, the station 5 of the cable car which is located a little further up from the main gate to Ba Na on the right hand side. Our check-in formalities were completed there and we also purchased our cable car tickets at the hotel lobby.
Waterfalls from the cable car

Our luggage was placed (by a bellboy) into the cable car we took and we had help with it after alighting as well. They carried our luggage from the cable car to the hotel reception where we got our tickets. They first put us up in a very basic room in one corner without a door to the washroom. It was  ridiculous given that we had a 3 year old so had it changed to a better one.
We went down to the Piazza downstairs and it was still crowded with day-tourists.

After a walk around the French Village we went to (it was meant to be through but when you have a 3 year old, the walk would have to be a wait) the Fantasy Park where they had an indoor playground, plenty of rides, carnival games and the likes. N wanted to go on the bumper cars but wasn't allowed because of height restrictions. Nevertheless she had a good time and we walked back to the main square. 

We decided to have an early dinner at 6pm while watching the sun set. We ate at L 'Etable, the Asian-French restaurant. Their veggie noodles were so yummy we ordered a second plate of it!! Ba Na hills is expensive for food and drink though!

By 7pm the weather turned out just perfect- not too cold but cool enough to enjoy the buildings and beauty of the French Village.

Day 6: Ba Na Hills

After an early breakfast, we took another cable car route and went to see the Golden Bridge. 

Unlike the pictures, the bridge was actually very short and not as beautiful as it looked in pictures. I probably had a very surreal image in my head that I felt underwhelmed.

At the Love Garden..

We visited the Love Gardens, Wine Cellar and the Big Buddha. We were back in the French Village by lunchtime. We went on the furnicular ride and N enjoyed it.

Beautiful pathways..

...daughter helping her dad get a taste at the Debay Wine Cellar 

After lunch and a nap we went out for a stroll and then took N back to the Fantasy Park for a while. We went to the Beer Plaza for a buffet dinner with a live music performance. 

The spread was extensive but the choices for vegetarians were limited. I stayed at the Salad Bar for the most of the night and enjoyed it thoroughly. We walked back to the hotel and strolled around town once more. N loved the nightly strolls at Ba Na and was so excited with the weather and was running about.

Day 7: Da Nang

Our flight to Saigon was delayed so we decided to take a room at Danang until evening. We came down the Cable Car at Ba Na to the hotel's welcome lobby and took a metered cab into Da Nang city. We checked-in at Ana Maison which was at walking distance from the beach. After lunch, we took a short nap and headed to the beach in the evening. The plan was to either visit Son Tra peninsula along with the Linh Ung pagoda and the huge Lady Buddha statue or relax by the beach. We decided to let beach-crazy N have some fun. It was cool & breezy at the beach where we snacked on fresh cut mangoes from a shop nearby. They were yummmm!! The Lady Buddha was visible from the beach and the views of the sea & the Son Tra Peninsula at sunset was beautiful. N enjoyed at the rather crowded beach though she did miss her beach toys!

After visiting a Mini Mart nearby, we went back to the room to freshen up and get airport-ready. Dinner at a nearby restaurant was simple but tasty (Rice & Stir fried morning glory with garlic)

Everything about the flight was smooth and we took a Grab to the hotel as there was an extremely long queue for airport taxis.

Day 8: Ho Chi Minh city / Saigon

After an extremely late breakfast, we left for the War Remnants museum. Though I wouldn't say it is the ideal place to take kids, we managed it as N is only 3 and not old enough to understand the severity of what the museum entails. 

We let her stay in the small play area on the top floor while we took a tour of the two rooms on this floor sketching the timeline of the war. We fetched N and headed to the second floor. As these exhibits contained very graphic pictures of the effect of the war and aftermath of Agent Orange, we almost rushed through it while keeping her busy with candy. It helped that it was crowded and at 1 metre tall, she couldn't see much. The ground floor was safe to take her along and she did so happily. The jet fighters and tanks on display outside the main building caught her fancy. They have a ramp to enter from the left side of the building & elevators but I'm not sure if they have accessible washrooms as I didn't visit but I believe they should. This is one attraction that would be wheelchair accessible.

A gentleman came up to us quite randomly and said he'd love to take a picture of the loveliest couple he'd seen that day!

He was a Liverpool fan & asked where N's jersey was!

We took a cab to Ben Thanh market and had a late lunch at Pizza 4P's as many other places were closed for Tet. Apparently this place had only opened after holidays the day we were there so was crowded and the service wasn't great. They have several vegetarian pizza options and the food was quite good. The seating is mostly on the second and third floors (with no elevators) while their washroom is on the third. The stairs aren't too easy to negotiate either.

We strolled into the Ben Thanh market which was relatively quiet I suppose with a lot of shops being closed but enough for us to get a feel of the place. We then walked past street markets to Saigon Centre and rented a stroller as N was asleep. While Y went back to the hotel room to drop the stuff we had bought, N&I made friends with a 12 year old boy Theing & his 8 year old sister Sei. Sei played with N while Theing and I were chatting about school & daily life in Saigon while their dad politely sat across us while waiting at the mall for someone.

We then headed to Game On Sports Pub to watch the Liverpool vs Bournemouth match at 10pm. N cooperated through the match (as she was allowed access to the iPad). She was very excited when Liverpool scored goals each time jumping and cheering along with the rest of the expat Liverpool fan club there. 

Day 9: Saigon

We began the day with a walk around the city. We first walked to City Hall & Ho Chi Minh statue and the Opera House.

Opera House

We had told N that we would take her on a cyclo trip so we did. We saw the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office (designed by Gustav Eiffel who also designed the Eiffel Tower) and rode across markets and the Saigon River before alighting at Vincom Centre.

The Notre Dame Cathedral

We couldn't find any interesting eateries within Vincom so we walked to 'Nha hang ngon' which was a good choice to make. They had an extensive menu with Japanese, Korean and Chinese food too but what appealed to me most was the vegetarian options they had :)) The service was below par but the ambience did compensate for it!

The Post Office

We walked to Vincom B towers as N was asleep but couldn't find strollers on rent so settled at an ice cream parlor where Y dozed off for a while too.

N woke up a little too late to get to the Water puppet shows (5pm and 6.30pm) so we didn't rush and decided to take her to the play area in the mall instead. She had a blast there and thoroughly enjoyed the dance & performances too. She danced to Vietnamese songs with the local kids and even made friends (though all she knows in Vietnamese is 'Hello' , 'Sorry' & 'Happy New Year' while most of the little kids do not speak English).

\We headed to Nguyen Hue which was where most people came to.. kids playing in the colorful water fountains, street food, street performances, musicians - a very festive feel to the place. They road is lined on both sides with eateries, bars and restaurants, many of which were shut for Tet. We had a good dinner at 'Ciao Cafe'; my last meal of the trip was a vegetarian Pho.

Day 10: Heading home

After packing our suitcases, we walked out to the main street Le Loi to buy some gifts & souvenirs- I bought a nice set of wooden serving dishes and a bowl with lacquer-work :)

The trip back home was quite and N & I discussed the highlights of the trip and she told me she enjoyed the trip very much and that she wants to visit Vietnam again!!

So let me give you an overview of our experience...

People: When I got to know that the Vietnamese loved children, I probably didn't expect this. N was showered with affection and attention everywhere we went- people entertaining her in shops/restaurants/sidewalks, chatting with us about how adorable she is, talking to her, smiling at her, enjoying her goofing around and being genuinely happy with her being around. In general people are very friendly and we never encountered any negativity or pushy behaviour.

Weather: The weather was good in Feb to visit Central & South Vietnam. We didn't encounter a drop of rain and though the sun came down strong, there was plenty of cool breeze through the day. Evenings were pleasant.

Food: With being fed a few scary stories from fellow vegetarian friends  about struggling to find veg food in Vietnam, I had armed myself with a list of vegetarian restaurants in most of the places we visited. Though they are big on Beef and Pork, I was pleasantly surprised to see the amount of vegetables they incorporated in their daily meals. Even at the smaller eateries I was able to get rice & stir fried vegetables that were so tasty. I am still missing the wonderful variety of the kinds of noodles I got to try there. N was pretty happy with all the local food and we didn't have any issues with food whatsoever.

Cleanliness/Hygiene: Though some of our stays were on the lower spectrum of where we usually stay, we didn't see too much of a cleanliness issue at the hotels/eateries/public restrooms. N is a stickler for these things but didn't fuss much to use any of the washrooms through the trip.
We did avoid street food entirely because of N but I don't think we'd have had too many issues even if we did. Only pointer would be to eat from stalls that the locals are eating from.

Expenses: Vietnam is one of the cheapest countries we've visited. While we visited during Tet when it is surge pricing across the country, accommodation, food, supplies etc are still cheaper than what you would expect. Beers cost marginally more than water! But if you plan to do some branded shopping, we found that prices are comparable to places like Singapore (from the little we checked).

Safety: While we didn't encounter any safety/theft issues whatever through our trip, many locals warned us that bike-snatching and pick-pocketing is rampant. We were more alert than we would be in other crowded places and it is always better to be safe than sorry. N too understood that she has to stay close to us.

Overall: We all loved Vietnam and I can now relate to why people even prefer Vietnam to countries like Thailand. We are yet to explore Northern Vietnam and look forward to visiting Halong and Sapa within a couple of years. We wouldn't be delaying it too much though because most places are not suitable for wheelchair users and people with walking disabilities, having to climb rickety stairs at most places. Most definitely a country not to be missed!