Posted in Vietnam

Saigon in a Nutshell

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People’s Committee Building – Ho Chi Minh City

After this trip, we found a whole new respect for Ho Chi Minh City, and Vietnam as a whole. We thought we will be bored at our wits’ end and just have a relaxing staycation, order some room service and just curl up in the airconditioned comfort of our hotel room while watching re-runs on HBO. But Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) surprised us in many ways. One can never run out of things to do and places to visit in this bustling city. From Buddhist temples, to museums of sorts, to interesting architectures of French influences and other famous landmarks. The only thing that could stop you from visiting all these places is the unforgiving heat, it can barbeque your flesh in an instant, but even that didn’t stop us from roaming around.

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Ho Chi Minh City is often coined The Motorbike Capital of the World

Saigon will not let you stay in your hotel, it will kick you in the butt and let you immerse into it’s chaotic yet charming and one-of-a-kind culture. Crossing the streets alone is an adventure in itself. Saigon is often dubbed “The Motorcycle City” since motorbikes are their primary mode of transport and they are just the king of the streets here. If crossing the streets of Manila is a challenge, it could be a spiritual experience in HCMC because you might want to pray for your life and call all the saints you know while crossing. It’s just that intense it will give you an adrenaline rush.

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Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

And don’t even get me started on food. Saigon is just a foodie heaven! If you’re a sucker for street foods like me, you’re in the right city. It’s packed with immense flavour at every nook and cranny. You don’t have to make a reservation at some fancy resto to taste this world-revered cuisine.

Here’s my personal list of food you must try when you’re in Saigon. Just be ready to get your hands dirty and stretch your tummy  to fill in all this good stuff.

1.) Pho. This is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles, a few herbs and meat. It is a popular street food in Vietnam and is primarily served with either beef or chicken. We tried this at Pho 24 which is a famous Pho Chain in HCMC. We chose this joint because of its close proximity to the attractions we visited but I’m pretty sure there are better versions of Pho somewhere else. Nonetheless, it still gave us an impressive introduction to Pho.

2.) Banh Mi. Banh Mi is a Vietnamese meat-filled sandwich on a banh mi bread or the more commonly known French bread/baguette. We had ours at Highland café and some street stall. You can have this anywhere in the city and it will be delish nevertheless.

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Delicious Pho noodle soup @ Pho 24

3.) Vietnamese Spring Roll. You can have this either fresh or fried with sweet/sour/spicy (take your pick) dipping sauce on the side. Either way it’s just addictive.

4.) Grilled Red Snapper (with spicy rub). One word: dynamite! We had this at an open-air hawker-style resto at Benh Than night market and the communal dining experience made it extra special.

5.) Ca Phe Da. Finely ground Vietnamese-grown dark roast coffee individually brewed with a small metal French dip filter into a cup containing about a quarter to a half as much sweetened condensed milk. It may be a little too sweet, but what the heck, I have a sweet tooth after all so I enjoyed it a lot.

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Suoi Tien Amusement Park

Aside from visiting all the touristy spots, we also had one good whole day at Suoi Tien amusement park. We just love theme parks! And this Buddha-inspired amusement park is just out-of-this-world! It’s even considered as one of the world’s most bizarre theme parks.

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Buddha-themed amusement Park

We spent a couple of hours on the pool and enjoyed every bit of it. The sculptures, the pure tackiness of some of the rides and its overall cheesiness put a smile on our face all day.

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Independence Palace

In a nutshell, we just had a blast in Saigon! The people are very friendly and polite. The shopping scene especially at Benh Than night market is not to be missed at all. The throng of tourists just proves that HCMC has a lot to offer. And you can see that their tourist spots are well-maintained.

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War Remnants Museum

Once again I feel sorry for Manila. The streets of HCMC are just cleaner, more organized and probably more developed that I can’t help but compare. It’s sad that we seem to be really left behind by our Asian neighbours. And Vietnam shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

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Posted in New Zealand

Top 5 Reasons Why Filipinos Move to New Zealand

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Mixture of old and new architecture @ downtown Auckland

Filipinos are a proud race thus the term “Pinoy Pride” is overly used on social media with the cloying #hashtag attached to it. We take pride on our world-class performers such as Lea Salonga, international beauty stand-outs like Pia Wurtzbach and of course Manny Pacquiao who’s ruling the boxing arena for years now.

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View of Auckland City from Mt. Eden

El Nido is often hailed as the most beautiful island in the world and Boracay the best beach there is. But behind these world-renowned personalities , pristine beaches and paradise of islands lies the fact that millions of Filipinos are unemployed, living under 2 dollars a day, and deprived of even the most basic of sustenance. Worsening traffic in the metro is enough to make you pull your hair in anger. Corruption in the government and crimes in the streets are daily news. This never ending list of socio-political issues and the slow economic growth which have been haunting the country for ages now resulted in the diaspora of Filipinos world-wide. Whichever country you go to, you are sure to find a Filipino working or residing there in search for a better future. And New Zealand is fast-becoming the top choice for Filipinos to move to.

So what are the reasons why 40,000 strong Filipinos decide to move to New Zealand?

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Flowers in full bloom @ Rotorua Museum

1.) New Zealand has the least corrupt government in the world. NZ holds this title for more than 5 years now and yet they are not being complacent and still targets to gain more public trust in the long run. There’s nothing like the comfort of knowing that the taxes you pay to the government from your hard day’s work is being utilized in the most efficient way possible; that the government is “actually working” to provide support and service to the people. Integrity, government transparency and public rights are top priorities here and everyone if fervently obliged to adhere to the laws.

2.) New Zealand provides greener pastures (both literally and figuratively). Okay to be honest, the cost of living in New Zealand is high, but if you have a decent job here you can surely provide for your family and still have a little extra for some luxuries or even holidays from time to time. And of course, it won’t hurt that you are also having the most awesome views of rolling hills, turquoise-colored lakes and snow-capped mountains on your way to work. Minimum wage in NZ is 15.25nzd/hour or roughly 550php/hour.

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Serenity and Peace @ Piha Beach

3.) New Zealand is family-friendly. Companies/employers in NZ are very lenient when it comes to family matters. Here, family comes first. You need to take a day off for your daughter’s ballet recital? No problem. You need to take a week off to tend to some family emergency? No problem. And even when you work in the retail industry, you can still enjoy a 9-5 job as most shops and malls here close at  5pm (to give everyone a much-needed quality time with the family). And during Christmas holidays, most companies are having a 2-week shut-down so you can have a full 2 weeks of vacation and Christmas break! How cool is that?

4.) New Zealand is very conducive for having/raising kids. As per the government welfare act, new mothers are entitled to up to 16 continuous week’s paid maternity leave and a further 52 week’s unpaid leave. Pre-natal care and costs of giving birth are also fully covered. Medical and dental check-ups for children are free until they reach 18. Tax credits, weekly allowances, school subsidies and housing supplements are just some of the support given by the government for working families. Plus (and this is a HUGE plus) safety here is second to none.

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Strawberry-picking is a favourite summer activity in NZ!

5.) The Kiwis (New Zealanders) are the kindest in the world! You will be surprised at how a Kiwi will go to great lengths just to help you. There was one time when I got lost and asked for directions when one Kiwi offered to just drive me to the place! You are also sure to get smiles and hellos from people on the streets. At work, Kiwis often start the day with some chitchat of how your weekend was, your plans for the weekend and just about any random stuff to lighten up your mood. The Kiwis are also known advocates for gender and race equality and diversity in the workplace is embraced here. You will feel welcomed in New Zealand regardless of your skin color, accent or beliefs.

Here are just a few reasons why thousands of Filipinos chose New Zealand as their second home. What about you, what are your reasons for moving to New Zealand or other country? Are you planning to move to New Zealand soon? I will be happy to hear your story.

Posted in New Zealand

Hobbiton: The Quintessential NZ Must-Do

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Hobbit-holes, Green Meadows and Neatly Lined-Tress

For J.R.R. Tolkien fans or so-called “Ringers” walking through Hobbiton is like stepping into a dream. Imagine being inside a Hollywood film set but instead of seeing makeshift houses that looks like empty wooden boxes everything here is real and not just a product of some computer-generated visual effects!

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Rolling hills and beautifully landscaped terrains leading the way to the Shire
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Multitude of flower pots making the already colourful hobbit-hole more vibrant!

Hobbiton is an out-of-this-world movie set location for the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit series which is found in Matamata New Zealand. It is a vast piece of estate with real patches of green meadows, rolling hills, meticulously-manicured flower beds, crystal-clear lakes, vegetable gardens, neatly-lined trees, native bushes and grazing sheeps and cattles. The hobbit-holes are not just some small-scale replica of the ones seen in the movie, but are actual “hobbit-holes” where you can have a peep inside (though, it’s empty), take some selfies or really cool photos and instagram-worthy shots!

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Pristine and Crystal-clear Lake

The Hobbiton Movie Set Tour usually starts at the Matamata I-site or at the Shire’s Rest Café then a bus will bring you to the location. The buses leave approximately every 30 minutes. It is wise to book for this tour ahead of time to avoid any hassles and since walk-ins are not allowed on the actual movie set. The fee is around $79nzd which is a bit of a tourist-trap for many but the experience of witnessing this natural as well as man-made grandeur is truly worth it! Sounds cliché but it is a classic must-do when you’re in Middle Earth even if you’re not a fan of the movies.

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Which way are you up to?

The tour guides will usher you to each section of the Hobbiton Movie Set location and provide really fascinating facts about the place and fun trivia about the movie. According to them, this farmland was discovered on 1998 when a location scout was having an aerial search of the perfect place for the movie LOTR and when they happened to saw a “party tree” near the lake complete will rugged hills and mountains, they instantly knocked on the doors of the Alexander family and the rest is history. The construction of the “Shire” even involved the New Zealand Army as heavy earth-moving machineries were required to shape and contour the lands.

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Loaves of bread, anyone?

If you’re lucky enough, you can even see cold-blooded LOTR junkies clad in their extravagant “Gandalf” or “Lady Galadriel” attires or a 6 feet tall man in a full hobbit costume parading the place!

After the tour of the whole place which takes around 30 minutes or so, you will be directed to the intricately-designed Green Dragon Inn (pub frequented by hobbits) where you can relax and have some complimentary Girdle Fine Ale, Sackville Cider, Oak Barton Ale or Southfarthing Ginger Ale. There are also some light snacks offered on their menu if you are hungry from all the walking or you want something to match your free booze. Once a week, there’s a special tour wherein the guests are treated to a feast in the inn like a true hobbit!

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Relaxing by the fireplace with a warm mug of ale and cider
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Unlike the hobbit-holes, Green Dragon Inn was built inside and out!

Russell Alexander, the owner of the estate is a true genius for deciding to make this movie set location a permanent tourist attraction. Thousands upon thousands of visitors flock the site each year and are left dumb-founded by the sheer magnificence of the place making it one of the most visited locations in the country. It is indeed a quintessential New Zealand experience wherein you can marvel in nature’s beauty and be awed by the artistic hands behind it’s grand display of imagination and creativity!

Posted in Taupo

Taupo: Nature’s Ultimate Playground

Had we not plan to do a 10-hour road trip from Auckland to Wellington (New Zealand), we probably won’t realize how freakin’ly awesome Taupo is! Auckland to Wellington is approximately 10 hours drive so we decided to have a one night stop-over at Taupo which is what we considered the middle of our Middle Earth journey. We leave Auckland at around 8:45ish in the morn with a few pitstop every now and then for bubba’s nappy change so we reached Taupo at roughly one past noon. We only have about half a day to roam around so we didn’t waste any time and managed to visit 4 to 5 attractions which isn’t so bad considering that the weather wasn’t too cooperative that day.

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Cascading Water Flowing through the Huka Falls

 

On top of our list was the magnificent Huka Falls which is regarded to be New Zealand’s most visited and most photographed natural attraction. It’s an amazing 11-meter high waterfall in Wairakei Tourist Park, just a few minutes drive north of Taupo following the Waikato River. It’s crystal clear blue waters cascading through vertical rock walls is a spectacle to a multitude of tourists equipped with cameras and phones ready to capture its grand splendour.

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We were intrigued with the term “Craters of the Moon”, so we drove to Karapiti Road and paid $8nzd each as an entrance fee to this geothermal walk. It was a 45-minutes walk to a protected geothermal site complete with paved pathways and boardwalks so anyone can easily complete this loop regardless of one’s fitness level.

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Vents, and sulphuric steams

Since the bubba was sleeping, we leave her in the car with my mom so it was just me and hubby who visited this thermal wonderland.

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Moon-like terrain @ Craters of the Moon

 

Rugged, moon-like terrain, sulphuric steams and sudden bursts of volcanic vents  can be experienced as you go through the walk which added to the other-worldly feel that the place conveys. There are several lookouts as well for those much-needed selfies. Others were saying that this geothermal site was a bit of a let-down compared to the ones in Rotorua, but we haven’t been so Rotorua’s and we are those types who are easily pleased so we enjoyed the place nonetheless.

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Photo Wall @ Huka Honey Hive

 

We also visited Huka Honey Hive which is a store for all honey stuff with actual bees and beehives on display. I sampled some of their Manuka Honey and honey-flavoured Kapiti Ice Cream while my mom and hubby had their afternoon coffee break at their on-site cafe. Manuka Honey from New Zealand is said to contain anti-bacterial properties which is highly beneficial for digestion and over-all well-being.  Then we spent the rest of the afternoon at the lakefront just people-watching, strolling and taking snapshots of the Great Lake Taupo. Later on, we had dinner at one of the coolest McDonald’s in the world which housed an impressive decommissioned D3 plane as part of the restaurant and with actual seats inside for that authentic aero-dining experience!

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If you’re more of an adrenaline junkie, Taupo offers a bunch of activities such as tandem skydiving for as low as $299nzd which is said to be one of the cheapest in New Zealand and one of the most scenic as well as you will get to have a good aerial view of the Great Lake Taupo. A hike to Tongariro National Park, a dual world heritage site is highly recommended as well as it is heralded as the best one-day trek in NZ. You can opt to do a freedom walk or avail of guided services. Huka Falls Jet which is an half hour of pure thrill and adventure with 360 degree spins on the awe-inspiring river backdrop filled with native flora and cliff-like rock formations will surely suffice your cravings for excitement.

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by the Lakefront @ downtown Taupo

 

Taupo is indeed New Zealand’s ultimate natural playground with so much activities to offer either for those seeking to have a quick escape from the city’s humdrum, or those pushing themselves to the limit and go for that adrenaline-pumping escapades. It is an ideal place for a family getaway too as Taupo provides family-friendly activities such as hiking, biking, golf, and there are museums, indoor-playlands and different parks to choose from. Whatever it is that you fancy doing, Taupo is sure to fulfil it’s promise of good, clean fun and enjoyment!

Posted in Wellington

Weta Cave: A Geek’s Wonderland

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“It’s a dangerous business Frodo, going out of your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

This famous quote from the epic movie, The Lord of the Rings, echoed into my consciousness one nippy mid-day as my husband, bubba, mom and I approached the troll-guarded Weta Cave which resembles more like a hobbit-hole than a cave. Yes, I am a big (no, huge) fan of The Lord of the Ring series and when I discovered that the creative geniuses (Weta Workshop) behind the most-awarded movie of all time have a retail shop/mini-museum in Wellington, New Zealand I just have to go by all means necessary.

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Life-sized troll guarding the Cave

Weta Workshop is a Wellington-based design and creative works provider to almost all critically-acclaimed movies of stunning visual effects. It is said to be the center of New Zealand’s cinematic empire thus the term “Wellywood” was coined. Think of a movie that blew your mind with superb and other-worldly cinematic experience and they are most probably the hands behind its exceptional set design, props, costumes, make-up, etc. They designed the armours, weapons, prosthetics, miniature sets and other special effects of movies such as LOTR, The Hobbit, Avatar, The Adventures of TinTin, KingKong, Narnia, Spiderman, and the list just goes on and on. Their world-class design studio won several accolades from Academy Awards, Bafta, etc.

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Miniature Orc displayed on a glass-shelf

Entrance to the cave is free but to get the utmost experience you need to pay for several tours that they offer in site. Below are their rates as of this date:

Weta Cave Workshop Tour – $25nzd

Miniature Stage Tour – $25nzd

Weta Studio Tours Combo – $45nzd

There and Back Again (guided transfer) – $65nzd

There and Back Again (full-experience) – $85nzd

An Evening with Weta and Coco (with 3-course dining experience) – $145nzd

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Model of Smaug, the dragon in The Hobbit movie

We didn’t avail of any of the tours as they were way beyond our budget so we just got contended scrutinizing the jaw-dropping displays of models of  the different characters from LOTR such as Smaug, Lady Galadriel, Uruk Hais, and Gandalf.

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Frodo’s Hobbit-Feet

A display of Frodo’s prosthetics on glass-shelves as well as the different armours used in the movie Narnia can be viewed. There was also a cave-like wall at the far-end side of the store with an array of different LOTR miniatures. Wide-range of collectibles, apparels and publishings for LOTR, The Hobbit, TinTin, Chappie and the like are also available for purchase at the shop.

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Cave-like wall with LOTR miniatures

The cave was a bit underwhelming as it is only a tiny store so you can have a complete tour of it for less than 20 minutes but the obvious lack of space was compensated by the sheer vividness of imagination and unquestioned passion put into making each and every display as detailed and fascinating as possible. Weta Cave is not just for LOTR geeks but undoubtedly for anyone to feast their eyes on!

How to get to Weta Cave from downtown Wellington:

  • Take bus #2 from downtown Wellington to Miramar. Get off at Camperdown Road. You can ask the driver to drop you here. Weta Cave is located at 1 Weka Street.
  • If you are driving, you can see several signs at Miramar pointing to Weta Cave. Just follow the signs near the shops in Miramar and drive to Camperdown Road.