Packing List for Two Weeks in Vietnam

I’m about to head off an overseas trip for two weeks in Vietnam (travelling via train from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi), and like a true millenial traveller I thought it might be interesting to show everybody what I’ve packed for the occasion.

The plan is to live out of my backpack for two weeks, which, based on previous conference travelling, is a very achievable goal. My partner is also taking a backpack (albeit one slightly larger than mine).

You’ll note that this trip is unusual in that my partner is ‘encouraging’ me not to take a laptop (presumably because it’s so unusual that I travel without a laptop). That’s not much of an issue these days as smart phones can do almost anything a laptop can do these days, just with a much smaller keyboard. This lightens the backpack considerably.

The other change from my usual conference packing list is that, due to Vietnam being a tropical country and our trip being during the wet season, I’m taking a lot of medical gear I wouldn’t bother with otherwise (mosquito repellant, antibiotics, gastro tablets, bandages, and so on).

Without any further ado, here we are:

Clothing

  • 5x T-Shirts (light colours)
  • 5x Underwear
  • 5x Socks
  • 1x Shorts
  • 1x Jeans (mostly for airports and trains)
  • 1x Raincoat
  • 1x Swimwear
  • 1x Pyjama Shorts

You’ll note that five changes of clothes is nowhere near enough for a two week holiday, so we’re planning on doing laundry two or three times while we’re away. From my experience in the Philippines in 2013, laundry facilities are everywhere in South East Asia, and it’s even ridiculously cheap to pay somebody else to do it, so it makes a lot more sense than packing a suitcase to last you the entire trip (and then dragging that around with you for two weeks).

Medical / Toiletries

  • Travel Medical Kit (bandages, etc)
  • Travel Towel
  • Hand Sanitiser
  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Mosquito Repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Tablets

Other Items

  • Wallet
  • Phone
  • Passport
  • Keyring
  • Umbrella
  • Teabags (very important!)
  • USB Power Brick
  • USB Cable
  • Earphones
  • Luggage Tag
  • Luggage Locks
  • Sunglasses
  • Pens
  • Notepad
  • Staples (for changing SIM cards)
  • Foreign Currency
  • Travel Documents

And when it’s packed, it all looks like this:

I’m planning on doing a review of this bag (the Thule Crossover 32L) as it’s an awesome bag, both for commuting and (hopefully) for travel. I’ll probably write that once I’m back and have fully trialled it in every scenario.

For now though, it’s time to begin the travels!

Thoughts on the Philippines

I spent two and a half weeks in the Philippines in March 2013 for work (upgrading the network infrastructure in our office over there). As a country, there are a lot of things both similar to and different from Australia. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • It’s a coffee country, not a tea country. You can find coffee everywhere, but tea is hard to come by, and good tea is almost impossible. I’ve discovered the horror that is American-style creamer, and I don’t like the world quite as much any more.
  • Tasmanian drivers really are terrible. Drivers in the Philippines have a huge amount of skill, able to squeeze two cars past each other in ways that I figured should be impossible. It’s terrifying if you’re not used to it though. On arrival in Manila, I spent two hours in a taxi for a 8km trip from the airport to my hotel, and the traffic was abysmal (a later airport->hotel run took 10 minutes). People would drive down the wrong side of the road at full speed, with both drivers only moving out of the way at the last minute – making the most of the limited space on roads. In terms of condition, width, and congestion, roads in Manila are very similar to Sydney – or at least my experiences within the CBD areas of both cities.
  • In terms of how expensive (or rather, cheap) the country is to live in, there are two ways of thinking about it. The first is “oh wow, I can live like a king!” I found frequently that apart from electronic goods (which had the same price tag, once currency conversion was done, as in Australia) that I could afford pretty much anything I liked. An hour massage cost me less than $5, including a generous tip. I took ten people out to lunch at a fancy restaurant and ordered everything we liked, total was $100. It’s simply amazing – and the thought was constantly with me: what if I could earn at Australian rates and spend at Filipino rates? How awesome would that be!
    But there is a second way of looking at the country: “The contents of my backpack are worth more than everything these people own in their entire lives!” This way of looking at things becomes incredibly confronting when in the country areas, as I found (in my limited experience) that they were much poorer than metropolitan Manila, especially CBD Makati where I was 90% of the time). People had houses built out of coconuts leaves and corrugated iron sheeting. The “rich” houses were made out of unpainted concrete blocks. You start to feel guilty for even owning your own computer, let alone the three or four that I have. I’m also certain that there are a lot of locals (especially in metropolitan Manila) who are insanely rich – the dealerships for BMW and Mercedes will attest to this fact. It seems the country is owned by the very rich, who really control things (like in Australia) and then the poor are very poor. Maybe there is a parallel to be made with Victorian-era Britain here?
  • Cabling contractors are fabulously useless. Something that would take a contractor 4 hours in Australia takes 4 people 3 days each in Manila. I’m not sure whether it was the contractors we were using, but I wasn’t impressed. While I’m not a licensed cabler in Australia, I do know vaguely what I’m doing with network cabling, and I could have done the job myself in Manila had I not been doing a million other things – about twice as fast as it took 4 people to do it. We also went through three sets of cabling contractors within two weeks, as the first two contractors just stopped showing up. Surely I can’t be that hard to work for?
  • Some of the food is amazing, but generally Tasmanian food is much better. In particular, fresh seafood is fresher in the Philippines than it is here, and therefore tastes absolutely amazing. Mango shakes were another favourite of mine. Because mangoes are a tropical fruit, they grow easily there, and as such are very cheap (along with most other vegetables and fruit, I guess due to the labour prices). A mango shake (mango and ice in a blender, sometimes mango and icecream in a blender) costs between $0.50 and $2, and they are the perfect way to refresh yourself after being the intense heat. With that said, there is a lot of terrible food in the Philippines, especially Manila with it’s plethora of takeaway restaurants (which were welcome the first day or two, but quickly grew tiresome). Local food is good, and very cheap, but without a heap of variation – most Filipino food is curries and stews of various sorts.

All in all, it’s a country I’d really like to go back to – there’s a lot more of the country that I would like to see. I wouldn’t want to live there (the pollution is terrible) but the really friendly people make it a pleasure to visit.

Manila, Part 3

20130323_174852Another update on my trip to Manila. I spent Saturday morning at the birthday party for a one-year old child. It seems to be celebrated much the same as in Australia. It was held at Jolibees, which is a local version of McDonalds in their party room. First there were the usual games involving what I thought was pass the parcel – but was actually a clever ruse to “randomly” pick the foreigner out and get them up to the front of the room so they could dance for everybody…

20130324_143142There is a video, somewhere, out there on the Internet, of me dancing badly to Gangnam Style in front of a six-foot tall poster of Barbie. No, I am not giving you the link.

Saturday was very hot during the middle of the day, and the dancing wore me out a little, so I slept through most of Saturday afternoon. In the evening I went out and did some shopping (I needed more clean clothes) and had dinner. For dinner I had stir-fry¬†broccoli¬†and mushrooms with rice. I’ve been making more of a concerted effort over the last few days to eat more fresh food, especially vegetables. I think it is why I had been feeling so terrible late last week – bad nutrition and bad sleep do not go well together.

20130324_142029On Sunday I went to the Manila Ocean Park, a combination aquarium and theme park. I had a great time, mostly because tourist attractions are designed so that you don’t have to use your brain, which was exactly what I was after. I saw quite a few eagles and so on, as well as my first view of the ocean in a week, which was great! The other interesting thing in the aquarium was the “snow village”, which looked suspiciously like somebody had copied it right out of a book on Santa Claus! The cold felt just like Tasmania in winter, and I loved it!

At work I’ve been playing with a lot of cool stuff. I’ve been particularly impressed by the Aerohive Enterprise-class wireless network equipment I’ve been setting up. 20130324_144822The Private PSK feature is very handy – basically you can have a single SSID with multiple passwords, so you can revoke an individual’s password without having to go around and change everybody’s stored password on their machine. Such a simple idea, it’s a wonder nobody thought of it earlier. I’ve also been spending a lot of time setting up VLANs on semi-managed switches. Last time I ever recommend Netgear switches, I’ve discovered the VLAN support on them, while it works fine, is very annoying to manage due to an abysmal user interface.

A Week in Manila

So… a week in Manila. I’ve been working very hard on the job I’m doing here (network infrastructure upgrades) which is both very challenging and very rewarding. I just hope I can get it all done before I go home.

My work colleagues are a really great bunch of people. In fact, in general, people here in the Philippines are just amazingly nice. Tomorrow I’m going to the birthday party of the child of one of my colleagues, who is turning one. It’ll be nice to spend some time socially with people.
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My boss (from Australia) has left the country now, so the next week will be more challenging as I won’t have him for support – but at the same time my life will be a lot easier because of it (he’s very intense). I’ve spent a few evenings with him, the most memorable of which was one where we went to the barber together. We went in and I just said ‘yes’ to everything – which resulted in a shave, a haircut, manicure, pedicure, scalp treatment (not sure what the treatment was for, but whatever), foot scrub, and a facial with the cucumbers and stuff. Happy to try everything once, but I have honestly no idea why people bother with that. The shave was also a disappointment, the razor was a bit blunt and they used chemical goo instead of traditional lather, so I now have terrible razor burn.
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I’ve also, naturally, been eating a lot of food. There are two things that I have found incredibly difficult to find. Tea is the first. Being a former US colony (so I am told, haven’t fact checked that) they have little tea to be found. I have been surviving on Starbucks chai lattes (about three or four a day). Today I found a shop that sells tea leaves retail, but it is the most expensive tea shop I’ve ever seen in my life. One of my work colleagues is going to get some at a suburban supermarket and bring it to work on Monday, which will be a godsend. The other thing which is surprisingly hard to find is traditional Filipino food. I have seen exactly one Filipino-style restaurant (amazing food, but the service was terrible) in the time I’ve been here, and I had to really search for it. Most restaurants serve everything but Filipino food, as they all seem to have a theme. Japanese, Korean, Italian, Persian, etc. I ate in an Italian restaurant the other day which had foods named after actors and characters from movies and TV shows. I could have had a “Joey Tribbiani Four Cheese Pizza” but decided against it and had a carbonara (sadly I can’t remember the actor it was named for) underneath a poster of Frank Sinatra. As far as the lower end of the food spectrum goes, Filipino stuff becomes easier to find at lunchtime on weekdays as carts with street food appear and open up offering all kinds of good things. The vendors don’t speak brilliant English, and as I am not fluent in Tagalog I couldn’t tell you what they were – but most of them revolved around the concept of frying dead things and putting them on sticks. I have also had a Balut, which is fertilised duck egg. While there is nothing wrong with it, it’s a bit like black pudding – if you know what it is you don’t feel like eating it. Unfortunately I’ve also eaten my share of takeaway food. There are US food chains everywhere. EVERYWHERE. There are probably seven Starbucks and three McDonalds, as well as numerous other chains, within a 100m radius of the office. When people say they are going down to Starbucks (and there is no other choice for coffee here, weirdly), they actually have to qualify which one.
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Unfortunately due to the fact that I’ve been working all week I haven’t done as much as I would have liked. This weekend I’m hoping to make it to a couple of museums etc, as well as go to the Makati Ocean Park, which is a combination aquarium and theme park.

There are armed guards everywhere. If you are in a public place, and turn around 360 degrees, you will see at least two of them. They are at the entrance to every major building. They are in the parks, and there is one at each end of the underpasses under major streets. All of them are armed. Most have pistols, but some have machine pistols or machine guns (probably 1% of guards have automatic weapons). They check the bags of all the Filipino people who enter buildings, but as a westerner they give my bags only a passing look – it’s weird to be the recipient of reverse racism. I’m not a fan. The reason for the armed guards, so I’m told, is because of religious tensions between the Catholic majority and a minority of Muslims who live in the south of the country, and they are scared of terrorist attacks.

Neither my phone nor the work iPhone I was given work properly here (due to different 3G bands) so I have bought a new phone, a Samsung Galaxy S3 mini. It’s quite nice. Still getting used to a different keyboard layout though. 3G here is generally very reliable, much better than Hobart. The wifi in the hotel I’m staying at is slow as anything, but at least it works. I was expecting much worse in this regard.

On Sundays there are Catholic masses everywhere. There is a chapel in a shopping mall near where I am staying. They have mass in the foyer of a McDonalds. They have mass in an ATM vestibule in a bank. With that said, I’m yet to see an actual church, so it may simply be out of necessity – there are no other spaces.

That’s all I can think of now. See you later.

First Impressions of Manila

20130317_165734First impressions of Manila: Everything is either really clean and shiny, or old and dirty. Very obvious that a lot of cash has come into the country in the last decade or so. Apart from airport taxi drivers that have no idea where they are going, everything here is very safe and comfortable.

Everything is broadly similar to Australia in that it is fairly westernised (in the city, at least) but the culture is very different. Because labour is so cheap, everybody works really hard to compete because if they don’t… no food on the table. I was surprised also at how much like Sydney it is. Smoggy, all the drivers are insane (in Hobart the least used part of a vehicle is the horn, here it is the most used), and there are 7-Elevens everywhere. Some of the poles carrying electricity and phone cables are amazing – there must be junctions of 100 cables onto one pole in some places.

20130319_124238I haven’t forgotten to pack anything really important, but I did need to go out and buy toothpaste. Very glad I won’t have to cart 40kg of computer equipment back with me though, that was insanely heavy (and I was stressing out when it took an hour to get through to the carousel). The flight over, while smooth and on-time, was the most mind-numbing experience I’ve had in a long time. If I can afford it, seriously considering upgrading to business on the way back – just for something different.

The heat here is very different to Hobart (duh?), it’s only 8:30 in the morning and already at least thirty degrees. Not sure what I’m going to get up to today – probably just walk around a lot and see what’s what (I’ve never been one for tourist things, and my boss says there aren’t really many anyway).