Category Archives: Travel

Engineering Life for Success

Support systems and structures are vital to the survival of any living organism. Beyond keeping the organism alive, they protect the organism from attacks and other forms of stress. Likewise, it is important for us as people (distinct from the physiological parts of us) and organizations to have strong and robust support systems.

Since I left Vietnam in Apr 2011 with the intention of finding work back in Singapore, life threw its curves and I ended up staying in 23 different places in 15 different cities. While I’m grateful that I didn’t have to worry too much for the most part of it, I do wish that I had more robust support systems in place. The purpose of this blog post is to document lessons learned in these 16 months, and to consider what I would have done differently. I will focus on two key support systems today: Health, and social life.

There is a Chinese saying that highlights the importance of health in a revolution (身体是革命的本钱). This of course doesn’t necessarily just refer to revolutions, but can be used in the context of any endeavor. The first thing I noticed on my travels is that it’s extra tempting to sleep in. Bad move. This immediately starts the day off on the wrong foot and increases the likelihood of sleeping late, entering into a vicious cycle.

The other aspect is the lack of a social structure for me in every city that I visit. Going for dinner alone, visiting tourist spots alone can be fairly emotionally draining too.

I’ve found planning to be very effective at mitigating against such issues, and am writing this down as an SOP for future reference when I travel. Simply by planning activities with other people, I immediately sign myself into social contracts that make sure that I am not stuck in the hotel room. The below are some preparatory steps for a one month travel cum leisure trip.

  • Two weeks before the trip: Make contacts at destination. Not everyone checks their email every five minutes, and getting to know another person takes some time. These can be done on the basis of interests (e.g. language exchange), professional activities, or on very practical needs (e.g. Couch Surfing). In my last trip to Beijing, I met up with about four people whom I knew via Couch Surfing, after glancing through over 230 profiles and sending out about 30-40 messages.
  • One week before the trip: Schedule appointments to meet up with people. Look up places of interest in the city and keep the list for reference if you run out of ideas. I’m not a big fan of tourist spots, but it’s something to do together with a local. If you ask, many locals tend to be happy to bring you around a bit if they have the time. I love breakfast meetings as they help me start my day on the right note.
  • Two days before the trip: Confirm appointments, ensure contact information is exchanged. If you’ve already got to know who you’re meeting to some degree, then prepare some conversation topics and do some research! This doesn’t need to stifle the conversation, but is a backup plan to avoid awkward silences.
  • First day/night: scout acceptable restaurants near your hotel that look acceptable. These will come in handy when it’s 7pm and the last thing you want is to wander around looking for a decent place to eat. Take a few minutes out of your tired first day to mentally mark fruit stalls and other necessities, and the following days will be a lot easier. Identify suitable places to exercise. They will decrease the barriers to exercise when the time comes.

This SOP is certainly no magic bullet, but I’ve seen how the presence of people around made a huge difference to what I got out of the trip.

The Joy of Flying

For the past year, when I travel between Singapore and Vietnam on Jetstar, I fly at night because the flights are slightly cheaper. In addition, I usually book aisle seats because it is more convenient when going to the toilet.

This time I thought I’d give the day flight a try, and it was definitely an experience. As usual, I found my seat today and made myself comfortable while more passengers were still boarding. There was this lady who had two seats to my left and wanted to change seats with me because there were three of them in total. I thought, why not?, and agreed to switch to a window seat on the row in front.

From the time the plane “undocked” from the terminal, I felt a wonder inside me like a child. My eyes were glued to the view outside the porthole and I savoured every moment from taxi to mid-flight.

Ho Chi Minh City to Bavet on a Shoestring

It’s been almost one month since I got back from Manila. Fast eh? As my visa expires this coming Friday, I decided to get my visa renewed today at the Moc Bai-Bavet border. This time I decided to try the Vietnamese public bus system instead of tourist buses as I did previously.

So here’s the rundown:

  • Bus 703
    Bus scheduled every 40-50 minutes, 25.000đ one way.
  • 13:15: Got to Ben Thanh bus interchange
  • 13:38: Boarded bus
  • 15:45: Arrived at Moc Bai bus interchange
  • The walk from the bus interchange to the border is about 10-15 minutes. Upon getting down from the bus, xe oms were offering to bring me to the border for US$1 but I declined. As this is the first time that I actually walked across the border, it gave me time to stop at the border crossing and let the significance of the marker soak in to me. Just didn’t occur to me to take photos today so no pictures :(
  • Took a little while at the Bavet quarantine as the quarantine officer tried to get 20.000đ off me for “playing with the system” and just entering Cambodia to renew my Vietnam visa. However he had no official document to state that and this time I was absolutely on a shoestring and giving him that would have left me with insufficient to return to HCMC. But as a matter of principle, I refused to do that and the friendly immigration officer just opened the door and brought me to the other side heading back to Vietnam. Language does help to foster relationships!
  • 16:18: Left Bavet
  • 16:35: Got back to Moc Bai bus interchange and sat in 703 waiting for departure
  • 16:45: Depart Moc Bai
  • 17:55: Arrived back in Ben Thanh bus interchange

Overall the trip was quite pleasant. Trip back was a lot more crowded, but both trips people were generally friendly. Definitely recommend this route even if you’re not travelling on a shoestring. Just take note not to drink too much water as there is no toilet (e.g. Sapaco and some other tourist bus companies) and no toilet break (e.g. Mai Linh).

A 48 Hour Day

Yesterday and today just seemed to merge to form an extra long day. From leaving for work in the morning till now. After work yesterday, I headed down to Trung Nguyen opposite Diamond Plaza for a Linuxfest organization meeting. It was an informal gathering with some people trying to get me into a relationship with the waitress :S

On the way back to Doc Lap where I would meet my brother and sis-in-law to go to the airport, I decided to go for some ice cream. The Mailinh driver was really good and recommended me an ice cream house along the way – Bo Gia Ice Cream. Bunked there for 2 hours and just poured out my heart to God. I really don’t know how my heart slowly drifted over time. And how should I deal with people who try to nudge me into a relationship?

After that headed to Doc Lap and then to the airport. Flight departed at 1:20AM and was a little annoyed as I felt the check-in staff were being a little difficult by not allowing us to share weight. Didn’t get much sleep on the flight. After touch down, we moved around from the airport to Victory Fort and to Ps Junn’s place and back there, before finally heading to our hosts’ home.

Am really inspired by the financial status of the host and hope to gain some insight from him in the next few days. After settling in and having lunch, we went to Festive Mall in an attempt to find my camera battery charger. We then returned to SM South Mall where my group bummed around till we just wanted to go back for some much needed rest. I woke them up for dinner which was absolutely lovely spaghetti and we’re now getting ready to go back to bed again.

So, that concludes my first day in Manila! Lovely city overall. When we first left the airport, I just felt it was reminiscent of Hawaii. No idea why.

Good night!

Last Day in Cambodia

I must love my hotel room. It faces east and the my bed faces the window, which means that I do not need any alarm clock as my eyes get flooded with sunlight every morning :-)

Got up this morning and headed to Orussey market to do some shopping. Bought 10 scarfs at 3,000 riel each at the top floor. I had done some searching online and based on someone’s account and he recommended Mekong Express, so I decided to give this company a try on the way back. Paid US$12 for it, but it was really comfortable and service was definitely a notch above Sapaco. They had fabulous pastries too! If comfort is your thing, Mekong Express is definitely the way to go.

On the bus the person next to me was telling me that the cheapest bus is 170,000 VND, operated by TNT, a sub division of the Vietnam military but they have no toilet on board.

That about rounds up my Cambodia trip this time. Looking forward to doing this more since I understand the bus system now!

Touring Phnom Penh

Despite having been to Cambodia 5 times, I’ve never once stepped into the grounds of the Royal Palace. I finally decided to go check it out today, and thankfully I had a friend to bring me around :). Got to sleep in today heh. When I woke up it was time to head out to a friend’s place for lunch. We had lunch at Khmer-Thai Restaurant which was really good – some of the best Khmer food I’ve had in Cambodia to date. After lunch I met up with my friend who would bring me around.

Khmer-Thai Restaurant
Address: No. 26Eo, Street 135, Sangkat Boeung Trabek, Khan Chamkarmorn, Phnom Penh
Phones: 011 668455, 099 910912, 011 910912, 023 994236

Our first stop was the Royal Palace. Ok, from an objective point of view it wasn’t really my cup of tea. Just a place to walk through to say that you’ve been there and done that. Entry ticket for foreigners was exorbitant at 25,000 riel (៛), around US$6. On the other hand it is 1,000 riel for locals. Walked one round through the whole public compound in about an hour.

After that we headed towards the riverside to just enjoy the view. Watching the boats on the river like the locals, I thought of how nice it would be to go on a river cruise, and we decided to do that. By then, it was approaching 6pm, and we went to look for the place to go for the river cruise. The river cruise was 4,000 riel per person, for a 1 hour ride. This was probably the best US$1 I’ve spent. It was really awesome. Nice and romantic. FYI you can hire the boat for US$15 an hour which I wouldn’t mind to bring my girlfriend out for a date once in a while. Probably could get 3 hours (30 minutes to an open spot, 2 hours floating around, 30 minutes back) for US$30.

We then went for dinner at another nice place, but no idea where I left the business card.. Khmer setting with live music.

Well that’s about the end of my holiday. Will be heading back tomorrow—which means that I’ll probably need to get up earlier to go hunt for a coach back. Oh wells. Time to catch some rest!

Bus Trip to Phnom Penh

Today was the first time I took the bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, thus having to cross the Vietnam-Cambodia border (by land). The bus went through the Moc Bai (Mộc Bài, Vietnam) – Bavet (បាវិត, Cambodia) border. Today I went with Sapaco Tourist. Bus condition was satisfactory based on expectations, but I should have a clearer picture when I take another company back to HCMC. I was charged US$12 but when I paid in VND, 200,000 (US$10.54) was collected from me.

Upon boarding the bus, the conductor collected my ticket and passport. Turns out that upon reaching the Vietnam side of the border crossing, the conductor will hand the whole stack of passports over to the immigration officer. Everyone just waits around till their name is called. I have absolutely no idea why they do this instead of following the convention of clearing immigrations individually.

On the Cambodian side of the border, we cleared immigrations individually. The room was awfully stuffy as electricity was out, but the immigration officers were doing really well despite sweating profusely. Oh, interestingly, someone (I guess the bus conductor) had prepared a Cambodian arrival form and even filled in the details for me, and placed it inside my passport.

The next stop after immigrations was health check and customs. Customs was taking a day off due to lack of electricity. But I guess they would just follow their intuition and check the luggage of anyone that behaves suspiciously. Health check was basically someone using a contact-less thermometer to check my temperature. He asked me what is my nationality and said thank you in Malay (terimah kasih) which really surprised me!

The whole journey took a little over 6 hours including a 20 minute lunch break. That’s my account of the border crossing. Bring lots of water, but try not to drink unnecessarily if you want to avoid the toilet on the bus. Going out for dinner :-)