Prem in Vietnam

To say Southeast Asia has been on the radar in the last few years is an understatement. The lure of Thailand’s turquoise waters following Leonardo di Caprio’s turn in The Beach (it is not a good film), architectural and religious treasures like Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the rich and war-torn history of Vietnam combine to make the region the Sahara Desert (read: hotbed).

Let me list the images that you may conjure up on the mention of Vietnam: A soldier sweating and bloodied; cities so bustling that finding the space for a star jump may be difficult; locals seated beside their stalls with a bowl of steaming hot pho at the crack of dawn; a wooden boat wading down brownish waters lined with markets floating defiantly day in and day out.

Let me now list the images that I conjure up on the mention of Vietnam, having had five months to reflect: A soldier sweating and bloodied; cities so bustling that finding the space for a star jump may be difficult; locals seated beside their stalls with a bowl of steaming hot pho at the crack of dawn; a wooden boat wading down brownish waters lined with markets floating defiantly day in and day out. You see, Vietnam does not hide its identity. That rich and war-torn history, which seems better forgotten, actually forms an integral part of the personalities of these proud people. That steaming hot bowl is symptomatic of the locals’ routine. The floating markets, the population density; all of it makes Vietnam what it is, and the Vietnamese people know it. That’s why we go.

I failed to mention the new images I see. Crystal clear waters, with shimmers of white where the sun directs its strong gaze. Mopeds doing circles round unfazed pedestrians in the middle of the road. Suits and dresses fitted to the exact contours of the human body by experts of the trade. Places of religion, of life, of daily sustenance surrounded by verdant green that we just don’t have in our “developed” nations.

Hanoi

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We started in Hanoi, and it was everything that I had expected, and wanted. It is a microcosm of Vietnam. The bustle and the history is there (two days a week you can see the embalmed and perfectly preserved body of the revered leader of the nation, Ho Chi Minh). So is the food and the quiet green spaces to take it all in. It is the capital after all. What hits first though is the heat and humidity. We went in the monsoon season in August (it rained 1 day out of 14) and it was between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius. I am an Indian, so by the textbook I should be fine. However, I was born and have lived in London all my life and therefore, unfortunately, I have developed a preference of room temperature over the years. Needless to say, do not be a hero and decide to walk around for 5 hours straight with intermittent air-conditioned rest stops in cafes to refuel. Taxis are cheap, but beware of naivety since they can be extortionate in relative terms once it is clear you are not a resident of the country. On a side note: the standard fare from Hanoi airport to the Old Quarter is around 350,000 dong (around £10) and probably the most expensive thing, outside of tours and train journeys, that you will spend on.

Hanoi’s charm is just its being. I would not say there is any particular sight that comes to mind. It is a place of people, of lakes and of pagodas. It is easy to become overwhelmed in the first couple of days here, a harsh whirlwind. For me, a more apt description is that it is like a hurricane; it hits you without warning causing a complete overload, and then you reach the eye. A stillness, a calmness, a tranquility can be found, completely unexpected. My favourite eye was Hoan Kiem Lake.

There are many places to eat. As with any big city, if you look hard enough, you will find what you are looking for. You don’t need to worry about being priced out here, and so your choice is expansive. We ate at Bun Bo Nam Bo on the first night to taste authenticity; and authenticity is what we received. As if so sure of itself, it offers only two choices: vegetarian and non-vegetarian (but with a choice of meat). The ceilings are low enough as if to affirm the stereotypically-proportioned Vietnamese local and not the frame of a six-foot three foreigner. The vegetarian food however catered to our tastes spectacularly. A simple pho but made with the knowledge of routine and perfection. Do not shy away from the street food either. You may at first be overcome by a natural anxiety given the knowledge of the consequences of your stomach not agreeing; we’ve all been there. However I had not one problem, and it is not worth missing out on the local expertise. If it’s good enough for them then it is certainly good enough for us, given they must know what good Vietnamese food tastes like.

The coffee is also a locally-produced staple and oft-praised for its sweetness in flavour (a result of the condensed milk that is used). Other highlights of Hanoi were the night market (an assault on the senses) and just walking around the Old Quarter. Our five hours of wandering got us lost but immersed us in some wonderfully quaint and often desolate and rundown streets. We found the Temple of Literature a temple of Confucius that hosts the first national university of Vietnam. It was a beautiful place to pass a couple of hours: small but more serene than its surroundings. A visit to Hanoi is not complete without a visit to its centrepiece, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the body of their leader lays embalmed. The streets surrounding it are wide, quiet and regal and it feels like a different place. Outside, ice cream vendors provide one solution to the nauseating heat. Inside, the air conditioned space provides another. A nominal fee is paid to enter, and the museum itself is well worth a visit with a wealth of information about the history of the country and Ho Chi Minh, the man and the myth. Then there is of course the main attraction — the body that is lovingly preserved and sent to Russia twice a year for maintenance. We wandered in expecting to just come across it. Before we knew it, we had seen every crevice that the building had to offer and had somehow ended up back outside at the exit without seeing Ho Chi Minh. I convinced myself that actually, it must therefore be in Saigon. It is of course in Hanoi, but we missed it. It is open two days a week, neither of which was that day. A simple and pivotal bit of research that we had just neglected a job well done.

Halong Bay

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I was certain before going to Vietnam that Halong Bay would be my favourite place. The name conjures visions of emerald green formations rising from a crystalline turquoise, alluring in its vastness and romanticised by travellers for years. Needless to say I was looking forward to this a lot. I wish I hadn’t; high expectations are a dangerous thing. While we were in Hanoi we booked our obligatory one night junk boat (recommended length of stay instead of two) for Halong Bay. There are really three choices: budget, middle ground and expensive. Budget means party boat and for a one night stay will set you back 75 USD per person. The middle option is around 75-150 USD and above 150 USD will give you relative luxury. We went for the middle ground on an appropriately named boat called Red Dragon at 98 USD per person. This offered a better selection of food (and a cooking class), and the pictures looked good. The clincher was its good reviews (note that within all price ranges there are countless operators and boats; book in Hanoi and not in Hoi An, where there are tourists abound and prices reflecting this). We took the four-hour coach journey to Halong and boarded the boat. It’s pretty small but had a nice top deck with a few loungers and a carpeted area to relax in the sun. After an hour or so, you enter Halong Bay, the picture-perfect postcard.

It was beautiful but I was underwhelmed. Maybe my expectations had been too high. Nonetheless over the course of the two days, we met some very likeminded people (vindication for the choice of boat), saw a very interesting cave formation and did some kayaking for 45 minutes, all of which I enjoyed. We also stopped at a ‘beach’: crowded and full of litter. It was here really where my heart sank a bit. I realised Vietnam is on the cusp of a great surge of foreign interest, the likes of which Thailand experienced a few years ago, but it is not ready. Halong Bay will be sullied unless something is done fast; it doesn’t deserve the fate I foresee.

Hue

Hue was next via a sleeper train. It’s about 12 hours — we were in a cabin with a Vietnamese family of four. I drew the short straw and had top bunk. My face was so close to the ceiling it was like two boxers in a clinch. There’s not much space up in the rafters. If you happen to move around when you sleep, don’t. You will probably hear a thud and feel a throbbing pain in your head not long after. The ceiling doesn’t need boxing gloves to do that. We didn’t spend long in Hue but it was impressive. Here is where the imperial tombs lay, and there are four main ones. We chose Minh Mang, further out but more expansive and at one with the surroundings than the more frequented and architecturally-impressive Khai Dinh. It ended up being one of my favourite places.

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There were barely any people, it was in the middle of nowhere and it had a strikingly still ambience. I felt I was really seeing Vietnam here in the way I had envisioned. Three hours passed before that old friend food called out to me. We ate some excellent spring rolls in Hoa Binh Cafe and then sat in the local bar till evening chatting with whoever came in our way. I must say this is as much of a part of the travelling experience as anything else and I remember such times very well.

Hoi An

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A fourhour bus journey laterwe reached Hoi An. This is the picturesque intermission. Like the ice cream you get in the interval at a theatre, it is the real star of the show. It is a beautiful place to walk around, with markets surrounded by overhanging trees, a weathered wooden bridge over a flowing river (the photographer’s dream) and a coastline. There’s also the small matter of a fully tailored suit for the equivalent of £50. I used Peace Tailors because of numerous excellent reviews and the suits are still going strong. For me however, Hoi An didn’t have that special intangible quality that makes me love a place. I cannot say more, since for many other people it did, and that is simply down to personal preference.

Whale Island

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Travelling around Vietnam is tiring. It can take its toll. Three days we now spent in Whale Island to rest it off. Those shimmering, crystal clear waters I mentioned earlier, that’s over here.  I am a very big advocate of environmental sustainability, and therefore this eco-lodge appealed. It is not cheap, nor would I say it is authentic Vietnam in terms of the terra firma. No, this was authentic Vietnam for the life under the water. National Geographic set up a dive centre here for a reason. You can guess at what level my expectations were. I wasn’t prepared for them to be dealt a blow again, but that’s what happened. Recent years of tourism again had destroyed delicate ecosystems. Snorkelling in the water with me were crisp packets and non-biodegradable plastic bottles. In one and a half hours of snorkelling, with the promise of turtles and even sharks if luck was on your side, I settled for an average-sized barracuda. I probably saw a total of 50 fish. That is really debilitating for once a global hotspot for diving. Back on land though, life was good. The bar overlooked the beautiful, warm water, we met a couple of people and during the day we just went straight into exploring the bush. There were paths we were meant to follow but I’m not sure where they were. We reached the other side anyway, completely deserted but for some incredibly vibrant-looking lobster heads. There are sometimes unexpected encounters with wildlife in Vietnam. There was the scorpion that joined us in the room here, and there was the snake in the grass in Hanoi. This is a novelty I will never get sick of.

Saigon

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The final stop was the most famous. Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City. Subject to so many war films, (“I love you long time”), this is maybe the place of the richest history anywhere in the world. It is also the place with the greatest museum I have ever seen. The War Remnants Museum was mesmerising, horrifying and must absolutely be visited by every person who visits this country. It is three floors depicting the horrors subjected to the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War, and in particular Agent Orange. I am not going into further detail because you need to find out by going. Outside were tanks and planes which very heavily appealed to my XY chromosomes. Saigon is the other big city of Vietnam with Hanoi. There is often a debate between visitors about which they preferred. For me it was Hanoi. I had never seen South East Asia, and that first city will always be the one I remember as the place where I experienced this corner of the largest continent in the world for the first time. Saigon has all the same choice of food and entertainment as Hanoi, maybe more. We stayed in District One, right amongst the markets and restaurants of which we were definitely spoiled for choice.

The truth is I hadn’t come to Saigon to see a place of surface beauty with numerous sights and things to do. I had come to feel the history of Vietnam, and make sure that when I boarded that plane back home it would still be with me. Believe me it was; remnants of the war made sure of that.

Prem

Colombo Matrix

Food – 1.5

People – 1

Ambience – 1.5

Sights & Activities – 2

X-Factor – 1.5

Total – 7.5 out of 10

Bhav in Phuket

Thailand, a country full of amazing sights, colours, culture and food!

Unfortunately, we didn’t do a lot of traveling around Thailand; instead, we had an incredible family trip to Phuket. Two weeks sounds like a long time in one place. However, we spend every day of our lives running around and being constantly on the go, so two weeks of relaxation was ample time to rejuvenate and spend quality time as a family.

We started off in full swing. After a 14-hour journey, rather than crashing at the sight of our beds, we quickly freshened up and were up and about roaming the local streets, eyeing up restaurants and exploring the maze of evening street merchants. The night life around Karon Beach is simple yet exhilarating.

Taking each day as it came, we saw loads of places, missed a few attractions (like Phi Phi Island) and made a number of new local friends.

The first day started off as an exploratory mission: we got a feel for what was around us, checked out Karon Beach and met the locals. Supposedly, August is winter on that side of the world, but given that temperatures were generally between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius, there was no chill in the air. The few stormy showers at this time of year may be offputting, but with short 10minute bursts of torrential rain followed by the bright sun, we were dry just as quickly we got soaked!

We made our first friends on this exploration – they invited us to a Hindu temple up in the hills between Kata and Chalong and we made a note to go the following day. This was exciting for my parents to say the least. That evening we visited an evening market on the Wat Suwan Khirikhet grounds that runs from 4pm until late every Tuesday and Sunday. Like most markets, you can find stalls selling everything from clothes and electronics to souvenirs along with rows and rows of street food stalls. I actually bought a couple of pairs of good sunglasses for just a few pounds, which I am still using a few trips on. Being vegetarian, we were extremely cautious about the street food, but it’s definitely worth trying if you have the stomach for it.

I’d recommend exploring outside of the hotel and asking a few tour guide shops that sell excursions. If you are in the middle of a busy area, like Karon or Patong Beach, you’ll find plenty of these around. Haggling with them to get the best price can save you a few hundred Baht along the way.

Speaking of Patong Beach, a mustsee is Bangla Road. By day, this is a street full of bars and tourists. By night, the road is blocked off to cars and things get crazy! Lets just say, this is not a street you want to walk down with your parents at night, I’ll leave you to your imagination on that one.

The Thailand “Ladyboy” population is vast, and to celebrate this Simon Cabriolet was created. A full “Ladyboy”-only cast entertains the audience with a mixture of Thai culture, music, humour and raunchiness. Taking the parents was of course one of the most awkward experiences in my life, but they were probably just as amused as us!

Phantasea, a popular show in Phuket that is favoured by most tourists, takes you on an exciting journey through Thailand’s history and culture. As we had time on our hands, we then headed to see Siam Niramit towards the end of our trip. It wasn’t as elaborate as Phantasea, but it did give a great insight into Thai culture and so it is worth seeing if you have the time.

Ko Khao Phing Kan Island is one of the most popular islands to tour in Phuket. It’s more commonly known as James Bond Island since “The Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed here. I’d recommend taking the speedboat rather than the long boat as you get to see more places and spend more time on the islands. During the tour, we visited various islands and a bat cave. This involved close encounters with the bats (one flew straight into my leg). The tour then continues onto James Bond island. We explored each corner of the island and took a few touristy pictures (as you do…). The trip included lunch on Panyee Island and we had time to tour the island’s small village and maze of streets and shops.

Upon leaving Panyee island, our speedboat experienced a spot of engine trouble. We made it just in time (slowly but surely) to jump into the canoes for a calming tour through the lagoon around Hong Island, whilst the crew attempted to salvage the speedboat engines. In the middle of the sea with one engine pushing us along slowly, we made it Naka Island. At least we weren’t stranded at sea. Whilst waiting to be rescued by a new boat to return us to the mainland, we took a quick dip in the clear blue sea and relaxed on the soft clean sand under the beautiful shining sun.

Elephant trekking is one of the most talked about things to do in Phuket. I’m generally against chaining animals up for entertainment, so we did our research (more so my sister than me), and decided on the 4-in-1 safari tour with Siam Safari which included a sunset dinner cruise.

The weather was against us on the day, but we still powered along for the tour unlike many of our fellow tourists. We’d paid for it, and were not going to let a little rain ruin the fun. As a result, we had a tour guide all to ourselves! It was great – the atmosphere was intimate and fun at the same time. We instantly befriended her as well as other guides who had tagged along for fun. This safari tour included sessions on learning about Thai culture, how they grow rice, make coconut oil, the vast array of herbs and spices that go into a Thai curry, as well as a short baby elephant show. After this, we had the most incredible smooth silky coffee that was sweetened by a layer of condensed milk at the bottom That made me feel I had been drinking coffee all wrong my entire life. My main reservation about the elephant trek was that they generally treat the elephants quite harshly, but, to my amazement, the guide led the elephant through the woods by tickling her behind the ear with his toes!

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After the trek, we headed down to the shore in our minivan to board our now private boat for a great banquet out at sea. Our tour guide joined us. Per the protocol she shouldn’t have eaten with us, but after a lot of insistence and with enough food for the dozens, her and the whole crew joined us to tuck into this meal (we enjoyed their company and were happy that the meat dishes didn’t go to waste). As we headed further out, the gods were on our side – the clouds cleared up a little to give us a hazy yet lovely view of the setting sun.

As part of a city tour, we headed up to Big Buddha in the afternoon: an attraction you cannot leave Phuket without seeing. It sits on top of the Nakkerd Hills between Chalong and Kata. Even with the short amount of time we spent there, the peaceful atmosphere at the foot of the grand statue was refreshing whilst looking out at the view of the whole island. The foot of the statue is covered with little wind charms that people have placed there in hope to ask for blessings, wishes or to give thanks.

This was followed by a trip to the Buddhist temple of Wat Chalong and a walk through Old Town.

Located on the edge of Old Town is the weekend night market. With a vibrant atmosphere, the market is full of stalls selling a vast array of things from clothing, make-up and electronics to jewellery, food and toys. The list is endless, just as is the market! The stalls that are set up for the weekend are amazing — the merchants set up a huge maze that you can get lost in and can’t help but to spend spend spend (why would you say no to designer T-shirts for £1!). I actually bought some beautifully-crafted jewellery boxes, essences and placemats as gifts for people back at home. One area of the market is lined with rows and rows of food stalls, selling everything from fruits, coconuts, freshly roasted sweet corn, fried grasshoppers (gross right?!), to sweet fluffy cakes and desserts. I have to admit, some of these stalls really do get the mouth watering.

Heading into Old Town, we decided to use the local bus instead of taking a tuk-tuk. The local bus costs around 35 Baht per person from Karon Beach to the centre of Old Town. This was an experience I’d definitely recommend and a great way to meet the locals! We explored Old Town by visiting a number of Buddhist temples, as well as the Sikh temple (parents were adamant on it). Then we headed down to a small Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, on Ranong in old town, that looked more like a little hut but we definitely were not put off. Given that the area was surrounded by a number of temples, we were confident that the food would be purely vegetarian. Although it didn’t look like the most appetising of places, the food was phenomenal! The array of noodles, Thai curries and spring rolls felt like authentic Thai cuisine. This had to be the best meal that we consumed on the whole trip (as well as the cheapest at few hundred Baht). For the life of me, I can’t remember the name of the place, but you’ll sure to find most places down that road will be amazing authentic home cooked thai food!

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Tip: Most Thai people consider fish to be vegetarian, so if you don’t eat fish and don’t want to take your chances, ask for Buddhist Vegetarian. We found that many of the smaller restaurants do try to alter the menu for you. One place even made a complete meal from scratch for us!

A visit to Thailand is incomplete without a few massages along the way. The days we spent not exploring the islands, we headed down to the local massage parlours (the streets are lined with them) for a relaxing foot and leg massage, which felt after spending the previous day walking around. On the off chance that you choose to experience a full on Thai massage, I’ll prepare you now (trust me, I wish someone had prepared me): expect to not only get a full relaxing massage from the your neck down to your toes with strong vapour rub, but also to have the masseur walk up and down your back (just hope that you get a nice petite lady – I had a very butch one walk on my small frail frame). Most of all, expect every muscle in your body to be stretched to its limits! I think the once was enough for a lifetime.

If the above didn’t sound relaxing enough, we took pleasure in spending a few days between trips to head down to the beach, sit back with a coconut and just watch the waves flowing onto the golden sands as the sun set on the horizon.

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We became regulars at one particular little stall along the beach where we shared stories and laughs with the old lady that owned it. Visiting the lady on our final night in Phuket was as emotional as saying farewell to family that you visit abroad. As we left, we were parting with a beautifullycultured island that we called home for the past 14 days.

Bhav

Colombo Matrix

Food – 2

People – 1.5

Ambience – 1.5

Sights & Activities – 2

X-Factor – 1

Total – 8 out of 10

The Colombo Matrix

No prizes for guessing where this concept originated. Two authors and a friend were in this city when the Colombo Matrix was born. It is our best effort to rate cities or countries we have visited. It will become a regular feature of this site and for you, the reader, be an easy indicator if a place ticks the right boxes. Every travel tale that is told is accompanied at the bottom by a rating per the Colombo Matrix.

Keep an eye out for our favourite places ranked using the Colombo Matrix: The Yugengo Ratings.

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Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The Colombo Matrix Explained

Each place ends up with a total out of 10, made up of 5 equally-weighted categories:

Food    /2
This comprises not only quality, but additionally the range of options available to cater for all budgets. That is to say, a place with a limited number of very good but expensive options may not be ranked as highly as a place with a number of very decent quality and reasonably-priced cuisine. Then again it may, it depends how damn good that food is.

People    /2
This is more about the locals rather than that backpacker you met or that person you knew. You may have been looked after amazingly by a host, experienced the place off the beaten path thanks to some local knowledge, or been impressed with any facet of the inhabitants’ form and persona.

Ambience    /2
How a place feels. Are there too many people? Does it feel rushed? Does the grey cloud change the mood? Are the visuals in balance? Maybe they aren’t and that’s why it works. Can you feel the beat of the city?

Sights & Activities    /2
A good score is if it never occurs to you, “I should not have been here this long”, regardless of whether you have three days, three weeks or three months.

X-Factor    /2
The distinguishing factor, this place has it or it doesn’t. May not be tangible. Could be that you knew someone, could be anything else not covered above.

Meet the Team

We said there were five of us. Actually six, if we include you! Let us introduce the five minds behind Yugen Go:

Bhav is our talented photographer. The only time we’ve seen him without his camera is at his wedding. He loves cooking. 

Bhav’s Yugen: To see, experience and capture the true beauty of Phuket. Living as a local in  a world that is so different from our normal life that it feels so distant, yet is so close.

Monica doesn’t miss a beat. Her honeymoon itinerary was the most organised, comprehensive tour of New Zealand we have ever seen. Monica gets things done.
                                 
Monica’s Yugen: When I wake up in the morning there is light; even in darkness, there is light. When I see the one I love. When I experience the power of a smile, genuine compassion lights the way. When I smell fresh morning air and when I witness selflessness. When I turn the page of my favourite author’s masterpiece. I could be on the west coast of the USA or in a rural Indian village. Wherever I go, these are my moments of true beauty. These are my moments of yugen.

Neha is an idealist. Her favourite place is the outdoors and she is always on the lookout for adventure. She loves sailing.   

                    
Neha’s Yugen: Spectacular sunrises and sunsets. My highlights (so far) are Parc Guell Barcelona, Charlotte Amalie St Thomas and home. Yugen to me is the silence and humility that hits me when I see something that I’ll never forget.

Prem is tall. He plans to run a not-for-profit some day and loves anything to do with sports. He has his own special brand of dance moves.

Prem’s Yugen: Lying on the bed of the Amazon Rainforest under an orange sky, meeting the eyes of a caiman on the bank of the great river doing what I was: nothing.

Ven loves a challenge. He visited Antarctica in shorts and a t-shirt, ran the London marathon in 2015 and conquered Kilimanjaro in 2016. Ven loves KFC and rambutans (they are not lychees).
                               
Ven’s Yugen: To live in the moment. Whether it’s relaxing on a hammock with a drink in hand, listening to the laughter of loved ones, discovering the hidden beauties the world has to offer or pushing oneself to the limit.