For the love of Phở!

One by one I picked the basil leaves off from its stem, spreading a pleasant aroma around our table, before sprinkling them on the bowl of noodles sitting before me. My hands trembled in excitement as I decorated the clear broth with slices of Thai chilli peppers that would give the soup its subtle kick. With the help of my fingers, the wedge of lime graciously offered its blood to the concoction. I dipped my spoon into the brew and let the liquid flow into that tiny piece of silverware, then closed my eyes in preparation because for the first time in my life, I was about to taste authentic Vietnamese Pho.

Authentic Pho. I would kill for one of this again.

Authentic Phở. I would kill for one of this again.

I had an orgasm. The moment the flavors settled on my tongue and found its way to my taste buds, my head tilted back and I moaned an expletive to the high heavens. Each ingredient sang a different note that made up a well-orchestrated chorus. Heat from the chilli, the sourness of lime, the sweet, peppery basil, the added crunch from the bean sprouts that complemented the smooth rice noodles that almost melted inside my mouth, and the rich beef broth that must’ve taken hours to prepare, all fused together wonderfully in one humble dish that won’t cost you more than P100 in the streets of Saigon.

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Phở Bắc + Bánh Mì + Beef Stew + Lemonade

Before this, my experience with this popular Vietnamese street food is comparable to my non-existent sex life. Chos. Instantly, it felt like my body was being cleansed one spoonful after the other. From a guy who used to despise the taste and texture of anything that sprouts from the earth, this green-filled dish is fucking delicious. My friends and I looked at each other in agreement and the empty bowls of it minutes after we started was enough proof.

It was the beginning of my love affair with Vietnamese cuisine and how they managed to blend all these strong flavors into healthy yet affordable dishes. Even their coffee is amazing and don’t get me started with Bahn Mi. But in the arena of Asian noodle soups, I definitely underestimated Pho.

My friends have testified that once you have tasted the real thing, you will hate yourself for it because nothing else will compare here locally. They were 100% accurate.

Agent Orange and the War Remnants Museum

“Fucking Americans”, I continued to murmur while shaking my head in disgust as I browsed through the disturbing photographs hanging on the walls of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. When I first heard about the Vietnam War as a kid, I thought the Vietnamese were at fault because America has always been the hero in many history books. I should’ve known better. After reading the stories behind the horrifying images, what was supposed to be a light day around Saigon made me sick to my stomach instead.
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The gallery has several themed halls displaying pieces related to the war. One of the most heartbreaking was a black and white photo exhibit consisting of 50 photographs by Thu An. These still moments captured the everyday struggles of Agent Orange victims as they try to cope with the crippling disease left by the Americans decades before they were even born.

Unfortunate people who were exposed to several bio chemical weapons including the Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide the US military sprayed over Vietnamese villages, suffered illnesses whose impact was said to last for generations, producing many stillborn babies and children growing up with deformed or missing body parts to this very day.

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But it’s not all America’s fault. Before they got involved, Vietnam was already divided into the non-communist Chinese controlling the north and the south under the French rule. Then the rest of Indochina got involved in a battle for power and their so-called ‘reunification’ that resulted in 2 million Vietnamese deaths that included innocent lives, just because the US was afraid that communism would spread all over the world. It lasted for 20 long years and many Americans until now wonder if it was a necessary war.

The thing is… when is war ever necessary?

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Many villages were wiped out during air strikes and napalm bombings. Photos showing the final moments of Vietnamese women and children before having bullets embedded on their bodies can be found at the second floor of the museum together with fragments of actual war artillery that caused these brutal murders. These images of mutilated bodies swimming in their own pools of blood became a global outrage that caused anti-war protests back in America in hopes of putting an end to the conflict with diplomacy.

The war eventually ended in 1975, but it was too late for thousands of innocent Vietnamese who perished under the hands of those animals.

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Sure, one might think the photographs may be too one-sided against the US, but how else can you view such acts of terrorism? Mixed emotions flooded the walls of the museum. I drowned in anguish. When I bought the tickets to this museum, I expected getting bored and getting out in half an hour. But for the entire two hours we spent inside the building, I hated those fucking Americans for the barbaric things they have done. And the worst part of the whole thing is many are still suffering because of something that took place more than 50 years ago.

Images documenting the brutality of war may have been displayed throughout the museum, but the real remnants of war can be found living in the rural areas of Vietnam. They continue to suffer in memory of man’s never-ending hunger for power. A life they did not deserve.

Scenes from the sandbox of Mui Né

When the 4×4 jeep we were in rolled on the national highway we could see nothing else but a sky of midnight blue. Our driver, Vu, disturbed the morning with EDM music blasting on the stereo and all I could make out of the surroundings were hazy silhouettes of trees and a hundred tiny lights floating on the sea beside the road. It felt like a music video for Avicii except it was 4:30 in the morning and all four of us were still half asleep and shivering from early morning chills.

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Mui Ne is a coastal town in Southern Vietnam famed for the big waves on its beach and sand dunes.

The day we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, we immediately boarded a sleeper bus that would take us to Binh Thuan province. After an uneventful 6 hours of travel time on top of a 3-hour flight after a 5-hour delay caused by an outgoing storm in Manila, the four of us decided to take things slow for the rest of the day. We only had exactly 24 hours to spend in Mui Ne but everyone agreed that a leisurely stroll around town, a few hours in the resort’s lukewarm pool, and a strong dose of Pho are exactly what we needed to get our energies back up in time for our half-day tour the following day.

Our alarms simultaneously went off at 4:00 AM, and as schedules, Vu was waiting for us outside the resort thirty minutes later. Today’s agenda: Mui Ne’s famous sand dunes.

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We rented ATVs to get around because it would take too damn long and tiring to explore by foot.

To avoid the heat, we chose to start our tour at 4:30 in the morning in time to catch the sunrise at the White Sand Dunes.

To avoid the heat, we chose to start our tour at 4:30 in the morning in time to catch the sunrise at the White Sand Dunes.

Each ATV rental costs around P700 and it's good enough for two people.

Each ATV rental costs around P700 and it’s good enough for two people.

I couldn’t help but sing some lines from ‘A Whole New World’ because aside from the sand, it really felt like we were outside Southeast Asia.

The sky gradually transitioned to a subtle periwinkle. Light emerged from the horizon and poured itself over to the white slopes of wind-ssculpted sand which we saw from a far distance. Soon enough, we found ourselves driving ATVs across a great sandbox, destroying the peace with the rumble of our engines and swooping past people who decided to explore the dunes on foot.

Lines from Aladdin’s popular romantic ballad played on loop inside my head, an unavoidable thing to do when you are surrounded by what seemed to be an infinite amount of sand. We went over, sideways and under on three wheels, instead of a magic carpet ride. I drove my ATV to the tallest hill and watched as tiny strangers created patterns with their footsteps across the vast landscape. The coordinates of where I was standing can be traced with a flick of my finger, but the scenery tricked my mind into believing I was in the middle of nowhere. But regardless of my position, I was clearly in awe. It was hard to believe we were still in the same country known for streets overrun by motorbikes. There, it was just us and that enormous Saharaesque landscape.

I was in the middle of a vast sandbox. I could just lay there for hours as long as the sand’s not too hot.

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It was also my first time to operate an ATV and despite my dislike for anything too fast and furious, I had an amazing time on it.

While most tourists prefer renting motorbikes to get around Mui Ne, we opted for a 4×4 drive around the countryside. Besides none of us knew how to drive one.

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The white sand dunes is located an hour away from the center of town but is certainly worth the trip. Half-day tours cost $10 per person during lean seasons.

What was supposed to be a 30-minute ATV ride extended to 60; but that single hour was all it took to make up for the stress we accumulated the previous day. The sun soon caught up with us and we decided to move on to the next spot in hopes of avoiding the morning rush of tourists. But in our heads we knew that was already the highlight of our day.

Unlike the white sand dunes, its much redder sibling is located just 10km away from the main resort strip of Mui Ne, making it more accessible to the public. And the more people it attracts, you are certain the more scammers flock the place.

It is populated by lady vendors making a living by balancing two plastic buckets of local delicacies on their shoulders, and a bunch of kids who are infamous for persistently offering plastic sheets to use for sandboarding. We avoided the pesky toddlers, because according to many online reports, they are notorious for stealing from tourists while pretending to assist them in the dunes. Instead, we approached one of the Vietnamese women who sold us their local version of taho, only instead of the sweet arnibal, it uses lemongrass and ginger syrup, which I personally prefer because of the play of sweet and tangy flavors on my palate.

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The yellow sand dunes is closer to the main resort strip, but because it’s open to the public, there are more people here than its white, much bigger sister.

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Flocks of middle-aged Vietnamese women can be seen wandering around the sand dunes carrying baskets of treats for the tourists.

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One of the ladies was selling a dessert similar to our Taho, but instead of arnibal, they use ginger and lemongrass to achieve an interesting flavor.

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These women barely understood any English so we weren’t able to get the names of what they were selling.

With the day’s temperature quickly rising, the four of us wrapped things up and didn’t bother any further explorations of the place. Based on experience, the sand would be scorching our soles in a matter of minutes after being exposed to too much sun. Besides, compared to the one we went to earlier, the red sand dunes seemed like it’s only worth a half-hour visit.

Vu then drove us to the quaint fishing village at the north end of Mui Ne bay but the lack of activity in the area made me feel like he just dropped us off at a random dirty beach where empty shellfish and plastic trash littered the shore. It was a Sunday in Vietnam and the fishermen were probably having their day off, leaving the beach bland and boring.

As the day progressed, the beads of sweat forming around my head doubled. The heat started getting its way into my nerves, making me more anxious to get back to the hotel than finish the rest of our tour. That’s the problem when you have too much fun way early in the day. Everything else seemed to fall short and there was no way to get the energy back after the morning’s adrenaline-filled activity.

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Used shells and trash washed up on one of the fishing villages.

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One of the few fishermen left by the shore.

Our last stop for the day is a stream that winds its way through sand formations that resembled a mini Grand Canyon. Barefoot, we treaded on ankle-deep water and followed the tiny river while looking at the striking colors that accompanied us on the way. To our left, red and white walls of sand towered over us while vibrant green vegetation with an occasional pop of lavender can be seen on our right. Above us, nothing but blue skies.

The scene came straight out of a fairy tale which is probably why the locals named it the Fairy Stream, only, at the time we were there the only fairy spotted was myself. Even though it only took us half an hour to enjoy the scenery, I left the stream feeling refreshed.

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One of the guardians at the entrance to the Fairy Stream

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This enchanting place got its monicker because it looked like it was drawn out from a fairy tale book.

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Locally known as Suoi Tien, the Fairy Stream is a small river that winds its way through canyons made entirely from sand.

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Toney and his head-to-toe poses at one of the mini canyons of fairy stream

Mui Ne delivers and is clearly one of the highlights of my Vietnam trip!

Mui Ne delivers and is clearly one of the highlights of my Vietnam trip!

Still playing his favorite club music at maximum volume, Vu parked his jeep in front of our resort around 10:00 in the morning. Glad that we still had a couple of hours left to burn before checkout, I quickly disrobed and jumped in the pool, recalling my satisfaction in the past day’s activities.

I liked Mui Ne and the fact that we didn’t have to rush despite the limited amount of time we had to fit everything in. 24 hours was just right for us at the time, but after coming back to Manila, I felt like I wanted to get to know the place more even for just another night. The place had enough sizzle. But it also has the ability to simmer you down like a lover that kisses you sensually after a hot, raunchy ride. It keeps you interested and curious for more. But you don’t feel the need for a second affair anytime soon.

Mountain dew: Traversing Mt. Batulao

Greasy hair, scum underneath my fingernails, the smell of dried sweat on my clothes, insect bites, sleeping on uneven ground, cramped tent space, and holding in my bodily wastes for hours until I find a cleaner throne. As much as I like busting out a sweat outdoors and pretending to be a forest nymph tramping in the woods of a mountainside, the physical discomforts of camping is the main reason I prefer day hikes than staying for the night.

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Feeling refreshed by the view. Mt. Batulao was the first mountain I summited back in 2013, and the second for this year.

We received an email from Smart Mountaineering Club, the official outdoor adventure club of Smart Communications, to join them for a fun climb at Mt. Batulao. For us daily grinders that work for a subsidiary of Smart, it served as an invitation to be part of their elite mountaineering group whose weekly training means taking the stairs to their office at the 32nd floor of Smart Tower. #Intense

But it was more than another opportunity to climb. Given the chance to have proper outdoor survival training and be a part of a group whose idea of fun involves reaching a stunning view at the end of the day is something I’d take in a heartbeat. Suddenly, almost 30 of my colleagues at work signed up and we were divided into three groups where I was voted one of the Team Leaders because they thought I had the most “experience” in the mountains. Had they known about my misadventures I’m pretty sure none of them would trust me with any important decisions.

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Horses tread the narrow trails to and from the campsites, which explains all the random shit one needs to watch out for while trekking.

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My Team! (L-R) Paolo, Arvin, Anna, KL, Aaron, Julia, Iris, Alex, and Penelope.

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Being one of the most visited dayhikes near Manila, the trails in Batulao are well established. I still recommend hiring a guide though.

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At some stop overs, kids will be selling bottles of Mountain Dew to tired mountaineers at P25 each.

The last time I climbed the muddy trails of Batulao I was wearing slip-on shoes that made the trek twice as troublesome as my footwear kept getting stuck on the mushy earth with every step. But that was me circa 2013. Now, I’m glad I invested on decent equipment and apparel after several trial and errors outdoors. One time, instead of a backpack, I brought a tote back on a hike and one can imagine just how inconvenient that was.

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With the help of Smart Mountaineering Club, we planned to traverse the mountain from the Old Trail to the New Trail.

Anyway, by the time we reached the campsite, after a little over an hour of trekking the dry trails that were occasionally dotted with horse shit and cow dung, our team immediately prepared camp after lunch. Since we were there for a traverse, we knew that we were only halfway done for the day. We were back on our feet a couple of hours later as we headed for the final assault to the summit which was mostly composed of steep ascents that pushed our calves to breaking point.

I panted and gasped for air. My legs screamed for a break every 5 minutes. This last stretch was the toughest challenge in the entire traverse and I was clearly out of shape for it.

Our campsite. The green tent is where I shared the night with officemate, Julia.

Our campsite. The green tent is where I shared the night with officemate, Julia.

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After setting up camp, we started the steep ascent to the summit. Even though I had the most experience among my colleagues, the hike still took its toll.

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One of the highlights of the Old Trail feature a rope-assisted ascent during the final stretch which may look daunting at first but is actually easy.

This old trail was much more challenging than the one I took a year before. Steeper slopes and rope-assisted ascents included. Good thing the gloomy skies loomed over our heads with clouds that saved us from the potential heat of the sun and stayed that way until we got back to the campsite before dusk. Having the presence of guides from SMC also made the experience more amazing and less strenuous than it should. They were able to motivate everyone in the group, which were mostly first-time climbers.

My strong team of 9, plus 2 SMCnoys FM and Kris, arrived first on the summit and we were welcomed by thick white mist that surrounded the entire peak. We were enveloped in clouds, it seemed. In a matter of minutes the rocky peaks of Batulao appeared as the fog moved on to another place in the sky. Strips of sunlight peeked through the sea of clouds above us, giving emphasis to the contours of this mountain’s famous peaks. Soon enough, we were no longer alone at the mountain top. One by one the rest of our party emerged from the tall grass that fenced the summit and everyone was able to share the view of Batangas’s scenic landscapes.

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FM, our Team Leader from SMC who went on ahead to the summit while we finished the last challenging obstacle.

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Aaron with a magnificent view of Batangas in the horizon.

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Bird’s eye view of the iconic rock formations of Batulao’s peaks illuminated by the sun’s rays peeking through the clouds.

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On a high as Chito, our climb organizer who introduced us to SMC, waves his arms for a photo op. We are eternally grateful!

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The fearless pooch that scaled the steep ravine at the summit. We feared for his safety but I guess he was used to the height already.

We all had to go down eventually. It took a few bottles of Mountain Dew, a dozen of halo-halos, a plateful of turons, and several more minor peaks at the new trail before we ended back at camp.

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Our local guide, Erwin (R), resting atop one of Batulao’s peaks beside his friend.

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The standard refreshment available in Batulao. Other huts have halo-halo and fresh buko juice.

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We had good weather all throughout the day. Not too hot, not too cold.

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Exhausted, we got back to the campsite before it got too dark and in time to prepare dinner and socials.

We dined underneath the stars. Dinner was made up of chicken adobo, quinoa, pesto pasta, and plenty of hot coffee to go around. The night was filled with conversations and alcohol (or just more coffee on my part). The full moon watched over our heads until each one fell into slumber inside their respective tents. The uneven ground was not enough to keep my tired body from succumbing to the solitude the night offered. The kind of atmosphere you only get hundreds of meters above sea level.

The next morning, I woke up with my hair all entangled and greasy. The ends of my fingernails still black from all the dirt stuck underneath them. The clothes on my back smelled like yesterday’s adventures and I haven’t taken a dump since I left Manila 24 hours ago. But I’d do it all over again.

The places I have come to miss the most: El Nido

Back then, it was like a dream. I would wake up at 6:00 in the morning and hear the waves gently crashing right outside our room and it would feel like the water could reach the foot of our beds, sweeping our slippers away out into the sea. The ambient sound of the ocean soothes as nature plays one of its lullabies in an attempt to put us all back to sleep. Each time the tide would break on the shore my consciousness would slip a little. I stretched out my arms in protest and headed straight for the veranda in hopes of catching my first sunrise in El Nido.
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El Nido was everything I expected it to be, which is nothing short of the paradise that most travellers boasted about on their journals. The town itself is a haven for western backpackers and despite its notoriety for being a place for people with deeper pockets, my experience proved otherwise. Having a tight budget did not rob us of an amazing experience getting lost among the hundreds of limestone cliffed islets dotting the Bacuit archipelago.

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On our first day, we had to swim underwater and through a narrow opening in a rock wall to reach the secret beach that inspired Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, which was written while the author was in El Nido. Our second day involved riding a tricycle to Nacpan where we spent that one perfect afternoon lazying at the beach. On the third, we paddled through the famous lagoons on a canoe and ended the day waiting for my third sunset in Palawan.

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There, after an overdose of vitamin sea underneath a blanket of blue skies, the sunsets brought a feeling of uneasiness. Yet none of us were seasick. ”I don’t like sunsets,” Brenna said, “it means something good is about to end.” And sure enough, a lot of things have ended. Some taking longer than it should have.

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That El Nido trip was enough to fill an episode of my life with clips marked for future references and behind the scene footages that should never be aired. An episode tagged as one of the best in history despite the downward emotional spiral that it caused afterwards. An episode archived in my memory drive, waiting to get overwritten with one having a better script. Same setting, different cast.

Because back then, it was all a fantasy.

This is part 1 of a series about all the places I miss.

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