From Vietnam to Taiwan: A Traveller’s Guide

By: City Pass Guide

Taiwan is a wonderful holiday destination and is just three and a half hours from Ho Chi Minh City, with ten flights per day from EVA Air, China Airlines, Vietnam Airlines and others.

A small island state situated off the southeast coast of China, Taiwan is roughly equidistant between Vietnam and Japan, and due north of Manila in the Philippines. It covers an area of roughly 36,000km and is home to 23.5 million people, most of whom speak Mandarin as a first language. The local currency is the New Taiwan Dollar, of which there are 31 to the US Dollar. The capital city and municipality of Taipei sits at the north of the island.

photo by Mittmac

Taipei is a cosmopolitan city full of culture and arts. Street performers are a common sight. The city’s most famous landmark is of course the Taipei 101, the tallest “green” skyscraper in the world, standing at 508 metres. The famous Ubike system of bicycle hire is in operation in Taipei. Bikes are parked in clearly marked stands. You just put in some money and ride off. This has proved to be highly successful.

Food

The country was first inhabited by aboriginal tribes, then settled by people from the Fujian region of China. The Hakka people arrived, also from China, and in the 16th century the Portuguese arrived. The Dutch colonised the island in the 17th century and the Spanish came soon after, and then the Japanese. One can imagine with this history, that Taiwanese food is a veritable melting pot of cuisines.

The street food around the night markets is very high quality; among the best in the world. There are over 100 night markets and indeed the whole country is a full-on 24 hour per day culinary delight. With most dishes costing less than a dollar, this is a very inexpensive way to sustain oneself. The noodle dishes are wonderful, as are the fine array of dumplings, savoury pastries and buns. Seafood is extraordinary on the island. The famous Dong Khung Tuna festival is held in the south each year. The bubble tea famous across Asia originated in Taiwan. The island produces high quality mangoes and mango shaved ice is available everywhere, famous through the region.

“The street food around the night markets is among the best in the world. The whole country is a full-on 24 hour per day culinary delight.”

Iron eggs are small eggs that have been stewed repeatedly in soy sauce, then air-dried. They are dark brown on the outside, have a chewy texture, and are delicious. Another local favourite are Xiao Chi, meaning small eats. The Taiwanese love their snacks. At markets like Ningxia Night Market you can get fried oyster omelettes, gua bao (Taiwanese burgers), stinky tofu and traditional rice balls. Shallot pancakes are very popular, look out for the queues to make sure you get a good one.

Shopping

There are an incredible number of shopping malls in the country, specifically in Taipei. These are not small as in Ho Chi Minh City, but huge affairs with hundreds of shops offering thousands of shopping experiences. The months of May and October are dedicated as discount shopping months and the Taiwanese turn out in their millions in search of bargains.

photo by Leon

The country is of course, world renowned for electronics and phones, computers and TVs are all big sellers here. But there is much more to it than that. The Ximending shopping area of Taipei is very popular among youth for clothing, cosmetics and everything else that they require. Elite Spectrum is a 24-hour bookstore chain, offering thousands of titles. The night markets fill a huge gap as well, not just being for food.

Medical Tourism

As with many other countries in Asia, Taiwan has developed an enviable trade in medical tourism. Understandably, the largest group of medical tourists come from China. Geographically well placed and sharing Mandarin as a language, they come in large numbers to take advantage of the excellent quality of service and the inexpensive nature of Taiwanese hospitals. More surprisingly, many come from Thailand. This speaks volumes for the level of service, when Thailand itself is famous for medical tourism.

The country’s hospitals specialise in cancer and neurological treatments. By 2013, some 80,000 patients per year were pouring in for packages that feature everything from Western-style physicals to cosmetic surgery, plus Chinese preventive Medicine.

However, Taiwan is not all about Taipei. If you visit, take time to discover the other delights that this lovely island has to offer.

Danshui

Now more commonly known as Tamsui, this is a small, beautiful fishing village and a district of Taipei. The old streets are teeming with speciality food. It is serviced by a metro from Taipei’s main station. The journey takes only 30 minutes, meaning that this is very popular with the locals as well as tourists. It’s a university town and therefore inhabited by a young trendy set.

“Now more commonly known as Tamsui, this is a small, beautiful fishing village and a district of Taipei.”

Fort San Domingo was built by the Spanish, destroyed and then rebuilt by the Dutch. It’s a remarkable building that now houses a museum. These days it’s referred to as the Former British Consular Residence, and is a popular tourist attraction. Another famous attraction in the Fisherman’s Wharf is the Lover’s Bridge. This white cable-stayed bridge, earned its name as construction commenced on Valentine’s Day, 2003. This is a great place for beautiful sunset views.

Tainan

Tainan is the former capital of the country and as a result is steeped in history. It has to be said, this is probably the most beautiful city in the country. It was, in its day, the regional base of the Dutch East India Company, and is home to some of the country’s oldest temples, forts and ruins. Some of the oldest buildings here are preserved in excellent condition. It is home to the country’s oldest Mazu and Confucian temples.

The National Museum of Taiwan History is one of the best in the region. It took 12 years to build before finally opening in 2011. It covers the full story of Taiwan’s incredible and turbulent history, using life sized models of people. Early cargo ships are depicted to show how the early Han Chinese settlers arrived.

Sun Moon Lake

The Sun Moon Lake in Nantou is a popular tourist destination and an extremely beautiful place in which to spend some time. There is a wonderful 30km cycle path around the Lake, which was named by CNN as one of the top ten bicycle lanes in the world. Bikes can be hired everywhere in this country, and if you like to cycle, this is unmissable.

Penghu Island

Penghu Island has become popular as of late, thanks to the increase of bioluminescent algae here, possibly due to global warming. Called blue tears by the locals, swimming at night among this amazing natural phenomenon is exhilarating and romantic. CNN named it as one of the 15 natural scenic wonders of the world.

photo by Isander

Tourists wishing to witness it need to fly to Tainan and take a boat trip to get to the island.

Lanyu Island

Orchid Island, as it is also called, sits off the southeast tip of the country and is home to the Tao indigenous people, who have lived here for 800 years. Green Sea Turtles nest here, whilst beautiful coral reefs surround the island. Four species of sea snakes are found in the surrounding seas, whilst Humpback Whales are a historically common sight, and can still be found here.

“Green Sea Turtles nest here, whilst beautiful coral reefs surround the island. “

The island’s Flying Fish Festival is a traditional coming-of-age ceremony for young men, whose societal standing was based on how many fish they could catch. The springtime festival takes place between March and May and is very localised, with each village celebrating it on different days chosen by the village elders. The men wear traditional Tao loincloths and bark helmets. They smear the blood of a slaughtered chicken on the rocks by the sea then head out to fish. Women are not allowed to watch, but most villages make exceptions for visitors. If travelling in a party of eight, it is possible to arrange for fishermen to take you out fishing during the season.

Taiwan is a land of much contrast and great beauty. Whether you are in search of peace and quiet, culture and history, or a great nightlife, you are in for a good time.


Escape Hunt and Ubiquest in HCMC

By: Aleksandr Smechov

City Pass tries out two of Saigon’s most popular live detective games, Escape Hunt and Ubiquest, playing the role of a hard-nosed detective investigating a murder mystery.

Outside of theatre and video games, you don’t see much role play or interactive activities in Ho Chi Minh City. Luckily, we uncovered two detective games that drop you in the middle of a murder mystery, letting you live out those Sherlock Holmes fantasies (minus tobacco pipe and risk of death). Escape Hunt and Ubiquest are difficult (to an extent), immersive and rewarding – read on to find out exactly why they are some of the most fun you will have in Saigon.

Escape Hunt

Located somewhat furtively above The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is the quietly decorated lobby area of Ho Chi Minh City’s Escape Hunt office. Four rooms sit at various angles, blocked off by tall curtains. These are the escape rooms, and you will know nothing about them until you walk in, have the door shut and locked on you, and be given one hour to solve the mystery and find the key to unlock the door.

Escape Hunt HCMC

Escape Hunt is the brainchild of an English Psychologist who, after experiencing health issues and moving to Thailand, developed the idea of a detective game that has 2-5 players pitted against an intricate mystery.

Escape Hunt now has 25 locations, with a slew of others set to open in North America. The Ho Chi Minh City Escape Hunt branch was opened in September and has been popular with teens, universities, companies, tourists and expats.

Escape Hunt Saigon

Three of our staff stopped in for a 60-minute sleuth session. We were ushered into a low-lit room, explained the rules and left to solve the mystery and find the key to the door within an hour timeframe.

We heard the door sadistically lock and some moody music creep up. The game master was available for hints, but each time we asked for help from her we got minutes shaved from our remaining time.

Escape Hunt in Ho Chi Minh City

The puzzles are tricky, teamwork-oriented, and require some outside-the-box approaches. Few if any have solved the mystery and escaped the room without at least a few hints from the game master. Finding the next clue or coming upon an item you were searching for feels highly rewarding, and you get sucked into the role quickly. Time flies as you use a whiteboard to jot down notes and figures, collect pieces of evidence and nervously glance at the large LED clock ticking away.

It’s thrilling, addictive and relies on individual strengths working in unison rather than outsmarting the other person. As a team-building exercise or a rainy-day diversion, Escape Hunt is ace.

To check out available mysteries and booking options, check out the Escape Hunt booking page.

Ubiquest

Ubiquest Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City’s second live detective game takes players outside the claustrophobic confines of a room and throws them in the streets of Saigon.

This doubles as a self-directed walking tour, but you may want to do the tour part after the live game – you’ll be too busy role playing a hard-nosed detective, questioning actors in various roles, finding mafia-tied ancient artifacts or any of the other challenges Ubiquest presents.

For our experience, we chose the Urban Tales game, a murder mystery set in Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City’s China town. We were picked up by a cute yellow 1967 Citroen 2CV, a happy-go-lucky young driver creaking away at the ancient dashboard. We arrived at a dilapidated living space, escorted up to the top floor and into one of the rooms, a few curious residents peeking at us through open doorways.

We were briefed, told to search the evidence room and given our gear (map, notebook, water, etc.), including cell phones for further instructions from the head detective.

Urban Tales takes three to four hours to complete. Be sure to go when the wind blows and the sun’s behind the clouds – you can easily get exhausted walking around in the unbearable heat on a cloudless day. Sun block and a decently wide hat are all but mandatory. You’ll be provided water but it’s a good idea to bring a bottle of your own too.

Ubiquest detective game

For entirety of the game, we set out into the streets of Cho Lon with our map and collection of evidence, going from actor to actor, uncovering details of the murder. The characters drop you clues and hints when you press them for information, sometimes refusing you if you don’t put enough pressure or reasoning into your argument. The acting is hilariously campy, and the game would benefit from some natural English speakers with an acting background, but the campiness is tolerable in the grand scheme, and allows you to play out your own amateur detective fantasies without judgment.

Ubiquest Cho Lon

We were pitted against two other teams, and although we were the first to find out the murderer, another team found the sacred artifact before us. Afterwards we all took cyclos to a Chinese restaurant for free lunch.

Urban Tales is an eclectic way to discover Cho Lon – or any other part of Saigon – just be sure to go when the sun isn’t blazing.

For more games, check out the official Ubiquest page.


Best Things to Do with Kids in Saigon

By: Barbara

Many of Ho Chi Minh City's things to do are suitable for families with kids of all ages. If you are living in Vietnam as an expat or just visiting, we list the 10 best things to do with your children in Saigon.

Don’t forget to comment below to let us know what are your recommendations!

City Parks and their Playgrounds

The city's parks are places where childish exuberance, which can be hard to contain in a hotel room, can be unleashed. Van Thanh Park in Binh Thanh District has paths and a field for little people who just need to run, as well as a small playground and a swimming pool. While the kids are busy being energetic, adults can relax in a bamboo hut over a small pond or work up a sweat on the tennis courts.

Saigon Parks

Listening to Songbirds

Tao Dan Park in downtown District 1 also has room to move, making it a popular spot for city dwellers to take their morning and evening exercise. And it's not just people who visit the park. Songbirds are taken to the park's little cafe (fronting Cach Mang Thang Tam Street) every morning, their cages hung from purpose-built frames to encourage them to sing. It's a fascinating experience to visit the bird cafe, especially watching the bird owners take their beloved pets home by motorbike.

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre

The park, which has large playground and an indoor play centre, is a short walk from the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. The 55-minute water puppet shows, all in Vietnamese, need to be booked a few days ahead.

You could continue the bird theme with a visit to Pet Me Coffee in Phu Nhuan District. This small drinks-only cafe has a resident mini-owl and several parakeets, which can be petted, as well as some larger more exotic birds who hang out at the front of the coffee shop.

Photo Source: Golden Dragon Theatre

Family-Fun in Suoi Tien Amusement Park

One of the city's wackiest attractions in town is the Buddhist-themed Suoi Tien Amusement Park. Allocate a full day here, especially if you plan to visit the vast water park section. The amusement park can be quite baffling if you're not well versed in Buddhist stories because there is limited signage in English. Still, a stroll through the strange displays, which include a wish tree and The Royal Herbal Wine Palace, can be very entertaining. There is also an aquarium, 4D cinema, a dolphin show and the Snow Castle, the perfect place to escape Ho Chi Minh City's heat ... by plunging into a sub-zero world of ice and snow.

Photo Source: Suoi Tien - Andrea Hale

Pretending to Be Adults in Kizciti

Younger kids will enjoy learning about the world of work at Kizciti in District 4. The staff here usually has enough English to explain how each activity centre works. Each child receives a small amount of kizo, the Kizciti currency, on entry and they must decide how to manage it. Some activities cost kizo, and some earn it. A small open-air cafe serves basic food and coffee to sustain the "kiz" and their parents through a long day of "work", which can entail learning to be a pilot, a paediatrician, a delivery person or a firefighter.

Photo Source: Kizciti

Indoor Kid’s Play Centres and Playgrounds

Ho Chi Minh City has several indoor play centres and amusement arcades. In the city centre, Vincom Center has a play area and a game zone in its basement. In District 2, there's a play area in the garden of Snap Cafe and in District 7 there's an air-conditioned indoor playground inside Bee Bee Premium Kid's Cafe (4th floor, 96-98 Cao Trieu Phat, Phu My Hung).

Older kids can while away a few hours at Paintball Saigon, X-Rock Climbing, in the pool at Lan An Sports Club or at the bowling alley on the fourth floor of Diamond Plaza.

Photo Source: Snap Café

Visit a Witch-Themed Café

Younger kids can be entertained for hours at the witch-themed Ba Cay Choi (Three Broomstick) cafe on the third floor of The Vista Walk in District 2. Activities at the cafe, which can be entered via the stairs or a giant slide, include candle-making, baking, hat-making and painting. Make sure you order something with a suitably disgusting name from the food and drink menu, such as bug mud or ghost pumpkin spaghetti.

There are more cool cafés for you to bring your children to: A long rainy Saigon afternoon can be spent playing board games and snacking on poutine at Monopolatte Au Play Cafe, while a long scary evening can be spent eating ribs. (There's a pool in the outdoor section).

Photo Source: Witch Coffee

Playing Detective in Escape Hunt

Escape Hunt is a game played indoors with a group of two to eight people. You are locked inside a room with a mystery murder to solve. It is one of the best thing to do in Saigon for families with teenagers. You must work together to find clues that will help you find out who is the killer and how to escape.

Learning Arts in Vinspace

In the expat area of District 2, there is a range of activities for older kids. Some of the more interesting include taking a workshop or joining a summer camp at Vinspace art studio.

Photo Source: Vinspace

Saigon Reunification Palace

The Reunification Palace is a prime example of a must-visit family-friendly attraction that has a special appeal for kids. The roomy but slightly run-down public areas could be the backdrop for a princess fantasy, while the basement war rooms will appeal to hero-types. Making the palace even more appealing is its location, a short walk from the Haagen-Dazs ice cream cafe.

Families traveling to Vietnam with kids should not worry about things to do in Saigon. We only listed our top 10 attractions but there are many more great ideas that will make your stay memorable. You may also want to read our article What to Do in 24-hour in Saigon.


Arabian Night in HCMC

By: Quang Mai

Funds raised from the event will be donated to Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for the Blind in District 10 to renovate and buy equipment for a Multi-Sensory Room that supports 305 students here to develope their academic learning. Multi-Sensory Learning happens when more than one sense is used to acquire and retain information – so applicable for children with multi-disabilities.

Date:

Saturday, 15th September 2012

Time:

From 7pm till late

Venue:

InterContinental Asiana Saigon
Corner of Hai Ba Trung & Le Duan St., Dist. 1, HCMC

Ticket cost:

VND3,165,000 per ticket
VND31,650,000 per table of 10

Bookings:

events@auschamvn.org
Tel: (84-8) 3832 9912

Please click here to visit Arabian Night micro website

XO Tours: Much imitated but never replicated!

By: Barbara Dorothy Clarke

We all know that it is near on impossible to copyright an idea and protect intellectual property in Vietnam.

But what does that mean for your day to day business when you have an original idea and an excellent product?

Luckily although people can steal your ideas – in minute detail – and almost totally replicate your offering - it’s the little things that make a brand – and ensure that brand still stands head high above any pale imitations.

Spend 5 minutes with Tung who is the founder of XO Tours and his passion and enthusiasm for what he does is palpable. It is a simple idea – tourists want to see the real Saigon but not on the back of a grubby motorbike and behind an even grubbier driver. Step up XO Tours with female drivers with class, style and excellent English who are also able to provide a female perspective on life in Vietnam.

XO Tours was the first company in Vietnam to offer affordable motorbike tours with attractive female tour guides dressed in traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai. All the XO guides are handpicked and fluent in English but it is Tung’s focus on service that really sets XO Tours apart.

Tung invests heavily in every detail of his brand and his employees imbue the same high brand values. All his employees are trained to the highest standards – whether it is presentation, language skills, driving skills or personability . All employees are full time and their bikes are upgraded at Tung’s expense to ensure maximum comfort and safety for clients.

This is a business where the customer experience is king – people are buying memories and that is what he aims to deliver. Staff retention is key and bonuses and profit sharing make for motivated and loyal employees who are focused on growing the company by providing the best experience they can.

Customers come from all over the world and a high percentage of business comes from word of mouth – simply the best publicity you can get – being number 1 on Trip Advisor for 2 years can’t be bad either.

Bristling with new ideas, Tung started with basic tours – he was the first to do night tours – then first to do foodie tours. Now others are jumping on the bandwagon - some good -some not so good….

In spite of this, XO Tours is expanding and bookings are full – anything between 18-24 guests go out on any one night.

So competitors can steal his ideas, follow the same routes , and visit the same areas, cosy up to the same suppliers…..

Imitate they may – replicate never!

Do you know of any businesses with similar experiences?


Saigon Artbook Did It Again!

By: Phuong Tran

Saigon Artbook Did It Again!

Saigon Artbook is a quarterly publication that catalogs the work of three artists who live in the Saigon area, in the hope of promoting innovative and undiscovered artists. With each catalog, Saigon Artwork hosts a party where people can come to meet the artists and enjoy their work. For more information, visit Saigon Artbook Webpage.

The third Saigon Artbook, held on 24 and 25 April at 2 Le Cong Kieu Street, District 1 in Saigon, attracted a huge number of spectators and fans to the illustrations of Kristopher Kotcher (Frenemy), Khoa Le and Laurent Judge. Strong interest during the first two Artbooks had prompted the organizers to hold the third Artbook over two days. Given the success, they may have to extend future events even further.
The exhibition was only open to people who had registered online for a limited number of free tickets, but such was the interest that all tickets had been claimed within the first half-hour! This proved the effectiveness of Saigon Artbook’s viral marketing.
With each ticket, a person was given two coupons: one for a bottle of Peroni beer and one for the beautifully designed book featuring artworks of the three artists – the main reason most people come to the quarterly exhibition.

Saigon Artbook third versionTwo coupons were used to exchange for one Peroni and one artbook copy

The building that Saigon Artbook chose was a run-down, old-style house on Le Cong Kieu Street in District 1. They had spent several days painting and decorating it, and I was surprised at how they virtually turned it into a new house.

Saigon Artbook third versionFrenemy Artwork on the rooftop

On the first floor, right after a typically French, narrow stairway, was a big room with a yellowish wall offset by windows painted red. This provided a good background for the artworks.

Most people could lurk around this exhibition area, have a chat, exchange their coupons for a beer and the book, and of course talk to the artists.
Each artist had their own ways to express their skills and artistic sense. Kristopher (or Frenemy) occasionally chose a random wall to draw on. Khoa Le created an awesome body-painting on a female model. Meanwhile, Laurent was busy signing fans’ books – well, he not only signed but drew: every single one of his signatures was an artwork in itself.

Saigon Artbook third versionLaurent's signature (I think this one is specially for me!)
Saigon Artbook third version

 


Frenemy was busy with his iconic cartoon creatures

The second floor was the rooftop where people could enjoy the DJ’s performance and watch Khoa Le’s body-painting model (many guys took photos with her as well). This was a great place for people to relax in the fresh air while sipping Peroni beer and having a good chat with new friends.
I went to the last two Saigon Artbook parties but this one was the biggest and it just keeps growing. I really look forward to introducing my foreign friends to this must-see event in Saigon.

City Pass Guide caught up with the three illustrators:

From left: Frenemy, Khoa Le and Laurent

City Pass Guide: Could you define your style in one sentence?

Frenemy: Cartoonist, colorful with a mixture of graffiti.
Khoa Le: Pop-surrealism meets illustration.
Laurent: Many, many styles mixed together but mainly impressionism and surrealism, I think. 

CPG: What is your source of inspiration?

Frenemy: From the cartoons and comic books that I watched and read when I was a kid. I have read a couple of manga titles before but never get into it much because I don’t like the style.
Khoa Le: From many things, music, film, cartoons, books, novels, magazines, etc. I particularly listen to Radiohead and Muse.
Laurent: I basically read, watch and observe whatever exists around us.
 
CPG: What is your favourite artwork out of all the ones displayed here today? And why?

Frenemy: Each of my artworks communicates a different message and has its own beauty and characteristics. It would be unfair if I favour this over that.
Khoa Le: It would be my “Deep Sleep”. It completes my satisfaction.
Laurent: It is “Lightning Bolt” because it comprises many styles: impressionism, surrealism, cubism, etc. I also have all the times and a huge variety of objects combined altogether. Its details are so rich that one can easily get lost while looking at the piece.Saigon Artbook third versionDeep Sleep by Khoa Le


Saigon Artbook third versionLigtning Bolt by Laurent Judge

 

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