Monday, 20 November 2017

Vietnam, day 2: A Palace, a Post Office and a Downpour of Tea

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
15 May 2017
The kettle that was provided for our hotel room cast an electric blue glow when plugged in. That eerie nightlight coupled with the lack of windows meant that we had absolutely no clue what time we woke up. It could have been only a couple of hours since we fell asleep, or it could have been midday. There really was no telling without temporal markers and when jet lag was a possibility (a slim possibility as Singapore is only one hour difference from Vietnam, but still a possibility). Luckily we had woken at a reasonable time: 8am. We took advantage of the free hotel breakfast and ate fruit and coco pops. 
Refreshed from our deep sleep, we entered the grounds of the Reunification Palace ready for the day. The palace was where the President of South Vietnam lived and worked during the American War. 

On 30 April 1975, a North Vietnamese Army tank busted through the fence and a soldier ran inside to fly the Viet Cong flag. It would mark the end of the war. 

With iconic 60's architecture and furnishings, the palace was much more charming than I thought it would be. Indeed, as a fan of 60's culture this is no doubt one of my favourite palaces I've seen. Along the walls hung old photographs, including one of US President Nixon visiting the palace.

Some of the smaller offices felt a bit like spy headquarters. 

As well as meeting rooms and offices, there were lots of other interesting areas like a grand dual staircase connecting the first two floors, a cinema decked out in red velvet, a card playing room, and an industrial scale kitchen with a giant egg beater that looked like it ran with the help of a lawnmower motor. 

There was a helicopter on the roof! 

The basement levels were some of the most interesting, with room after room holding bleak desks with telephones or other communication machinery, and the occasional filing cabinet. 

Next on the agenda was Saigon Central Post Office, which was opened in 1891 and designed by French architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux (though many tour guides falsely credit Gustave Eiffel due to a poorly informed Wikipedia article which has now been corrected). Though it's one of the top tourist attractions in HCMC, it still functions as a post office, with stamps on display and rows of cashiers on either side of the grand portrait of Ho Chi Minh. 

Then we attempted to enter the cathedral, but it was closed at that time (and after Googling it, it turns out that it has extremely limited opening hours). Though unable to see the inside, we noticed a large amount of graffiti along the outside bricks which looked like it had been done in white correctional fluid. Next we revisited the Opera House, but were told to return at 16:30. We really weren't having luck (we did return later, but as we didn't have tickets for a show, still weren't allowed in). 

To cool ourselves in some much needed aircon, we found an upstairs table at a central branch of Cong Caphe, a chain of which we had fond memories from our 2015 Hanoi trip. I was brought a mystery juice, and I still don’t know what sort of fruit it was made from. Seemingly the server delivered a different order to me, and looked very conflicted on what to do as I had already sipped from it, so I just told her that all was well and I’d drink it instead of my order.

For lunch we visited My Banh Mi, which is a restaurant specialising in upmarket versions of the popular Vietnamese street food banh mi. Set up by two internationally renowned chefs and offering a dozen different sandwich fillings, it’s definitely not your average street food stall. I opted for the tofu banh mi with basil sauce, which was so good! Yannick chose the black pepper steak sandwich.

Though it was rather rainy, we wanted to visit the Botanic Gardens but honestly they looked a bit shit from the outside and were asking a steep entrance fee. (It was kind of funny to see groups of schoolchildren preparing themselves for character-building activities. I’m so glad I no longer have to participate in that sort of thing.)

Instead, we checked out the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a 1909 temple dedicated to the top Taoist god.

A plethora of statues and paintings representing deities, heroes, and demons loomed from pedestals and the walls. The air was thick with incense and candlelight. There was a bizarre clash between rustic style wooden decorations lit by neon tubing. We explored every available inch of the pagoda, and found that there were rooms that held shrines but also stacks of cardboard boxes and utilitarian shelving. I hadn’t experienced that in other temples, but frankly I think it was a practical use of space. As we left we spotted a very fluffy and sleepy temple-dwelling doggie who couldn’t be photographed due to the dim lighting.

Not long after we left, a legit storm sprung up and threatened to drown our umbrella so we popped into the closest cafe to wait it out. How much tea can one person drink? I was experimenting with that question within our first two days in Vietnam. Yannick was posing a similar experiment with ca phe sua da (Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk). Though enjoying the abundance of tea, I didn’t like how often it would come sweetened without forewarning. Don’t get me wrong - I like sweet tea (especially peach), but I’d like a little heads up.

On the way back to our hotel, we walked through Le Van Tam Park, which was terribly atmospheric after the rainfall. We also stopped by Turtle Lake, but it was super shit. I much preferred the park. 

When dinner time rolled around, we headed for a local spot called Bep Me In. Funnily enough, as we turned down an alleyway that we thought the restaurant was located on (thanks and no thanks to Google Maps), we ran into an Australian couple who were in search of the same place. After a few metres, however, our advancement was stifled by incoming traffic in the form of many rickety market stalls on wheels being pushed, pulled and trundled by vendors on foot and motorbike. The alley was barely wide enough for them, so we squeezed into tiny crevices to let them past and avoid our toes being run over. Eventually we made it to the end of the alleyway, but there was a distinct lack of restaurants and only ramshackle housing. As we turned back, an English-speaking girl pointed us in the right direction. It was apparent that this sort of thing happened a lot. I shake my fist at you, Google Maps. Get your shit together.
Having been sent down the correct path by the kind stranger, we found a different alleyway in which several eateries were present (including the ever-searched-for Bep Me In). It was a bustling spot with long wooden banquet tables and backless chairs. No matter how many times I reread the menu, there was no tea, which ruined my experiment. I ordered carrot juice instead and was determined to begin my tea-filled quest anew the following day. Being tapas, mezze and all forms of “small dish” lovers, we sampled a few plates. One was a sautéed vegetable dish of what looked like green beans that had mutated slightly into a more draconian bean. They were fairly good tasting, like a mild and slightly crunchy green bean. We also ordered rice cooked inside some kind of leaf, and a green pepper and chilli pork dish. Yannick’s wine, though served too cold, was a nice change after not feeling able to afford much alcohol in Singapore for nearly four months.

Wandering back home, we dodged puddles and sudden splashes from motorbikes’ wheels. Yannick amazingly remained relatively mud-free, though I was severely dirtied. I probably washed my feet in Vietnam just as often as drinking tea.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Vietnam, day 1: Chaos Theory - Relearning the Road Code

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
14 May 2017
After packing up our apartment in Wilby Central, where we had lived for the last three and a half months, we paid our teary farewells to Singapore and took a turbulent but otherwise uneventful flight to Vietnam's capital city.
The visa upon arrival process was quick and easy, and before we knew it we had officially arrived. We bought a SIM Card each, with unlimited data for the month for about USD25. They were very simple to set up and we were able to catch an Uber ride to our hotel for only USD4! Having a data plan really makes a difference when travelling, and I think we'll try our hardest to have data wherever we go in the future.
It was fun to be back in the crazy Vietnamese traffic, with motorbikes whizzing past on all sides carrying strange and oversized cargo. Most people were either texting or talking on the phone while zipping through the lanes, and one guy had even sellotaped his phone to his helmet as a makeshift handsfree setup. As we gathered our backpacks from the boot of the Uber, a downpour began and we quickly tried to find our hotel. However, Google Maps sent us too far down the road and we had to backtrack a couple of times before we found the right place. Once checked in, we took off our backpacks and immediately washed our feet of the grime. Yannick had already spilled chocolate onto his shorts from a slice of cake he procured at the Singapore airport, and he didn't want to stain the fabric more with the dark street mud. 
Though our room had no windows, we already knew that we had to be prepared for any type of weather in Vietnam, as like Singapore it was very changeable. Armed with umbrellas and jandals, we went out in search of a spot for lunch. Down a dubious looking alleyway, we found the entrance to an apartment. Winding our way up the spiral staircase decorated with Chinese lanterns, I wasn't at all sure we were in the correct place, but then it opened up into a charming restaurant themed a bit like a mud hut: Mountain Retreat. If the heavens hadn't just opened and left the balcony sitting in a puddle, it would have been wonderful to sit out there and watch the street below.

With an enormous menu, Mountain Retreat could make a dawdler out of any decisive person, though I eventually settled on the braised tofu and mushrooms with a side of carrot juice. Yannick ordered a lime leaf chicken dish and was excited to have access to Vietnamese coffee again.

Feeling like stretching our legs some more, we walked to the Ben Thanh market - a covered market with vendors selling souvenirs and hand crafted items. Nearby were several streets lined with produce markets.

Then to 23 September Park, where we saw a dog run past in a t-shirt, and Yannick batted a balloon back to a playful child. There was a considerable amount of construction going on nearby, which didn't help our attempts to remaster the art of crossing the road, but we got back in the swing of things fairly swiftly regardless.

The entrance fee for the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum was 10,000 dong (USD0.44) so we decided we may as well have a look.

Honestly, I would have paid more than that just to see the building itself, which was a huge and beautifully designed 1929 French villa, with airy shuttered windows, tiles, and balconies.

There was an interior courtyard with lush foliage, and while there you felt like you had been transported into a previous era (if the illusion wasn't hampered by the skyscrapers poking out above the rooftops).

Now that I've raved enough about the building itself, let me rave about the art. There were powerful sculptures, lacquer engravings, sketches of soldiers and more.

Some of the art had a Mayan-esque quality to it, as though the Mayans and Vietnamese shared some connected historical art style. It was very interesting, and something that we would see more of in Vietnamese art.

Continuing to explore, we found streets rife with antique shops and narrow apartments, thick clumps of cabling branching off like a diagram of a human body's nervous system. 

As a fan of pedestrian zones, I had to check out Nguyen Hue Walking Street. A long paved pedestrian street dotted with trees, fountains and art exhibits, I enjoyed the stroll. Along the way we saw a building in which every balcony advertised a different shop, and were called out to by many fruit hawkers. I considered buying some mango with chilli salt, but opted instead for some delicious ripe pineapple, which the lady chopped into pieces for me. 

At the end of the street we reached Sông Sài Gòn, the river that snakes through the city. It wasn't particularly attractive, with rather a lot of flotsam in the form of rubbish and aquatic vegetation, and giant billboards advertising beer. And yet as with most cities, any little bit of nature one can get is cherished. (Except for Singapore, which somehow manages to combine a modern city with nature excellently.)

From couples to tourists (itsa me!) to the elderly, an array of people congregated along the river's banks to watch the slow ebb of the water as it drifted past container ships and skyscrapers.

A few minutes' walk up the bank, we crossed some terrifying multi-laned streets to reach the statue of Tran Hung Dao, a 13th-century military leader who looked somewhat like a cross between a samurai and a figure from the Terracotta Army.

And before heading home we of course had to see the Saigon Opera House, which opened on 1 January 1900. Stylistically, it's based off the Opéra Garnier in Paris, and was intended to please French colonists. We weren't allowed inside as a show was about to start, so we decided to return at another time. The opera house was in a swanky part of HCMC, with Gucci Stores and window displays of Moët et Chandon. We passed by two historic hotels: the Hotel Continental, which was Saigon's first ever hotel (built in 1880); and the Caravelle Hotel, which was a hub of communication during the Vietnam War as it was popular with journalists, writers and was even the location of the Australian and New Zealand embassies in the 1960's. Famously, a bomb exploded in room 514 (a floor known to be occupied by foreign journalists) in 1964, injuring several people but fortunately killing none.

The People's Committee Building is another example of the splendour of French colonial architecture. Originally a hotel, it now functions as a city hall.

By the time we reached the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, we had grown weary and were in need of rest. We snapped a few photos of the outside but decided to return on another day. After resting in our hotel for a while, we ventured out again for dinner. Yannick had heard that Banh Mi Huynh Hoa made a wicked sandwich, so we waited in line to acquire one. There were two lines: one for pedestrians and one for motorcyclists. For 35k dong (USD1.50), it was a ridiculously affordable dinner. I wanted something a bit lighter, so on the way back we popped into a small supermarket where I bought apples and ciku, a fruit that tastes like brown sugar. Though the banh mi made Yannick weep from spiciness, it was worth the wait and the mouth flames.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

April Account 2017

April passed in much the same fashion as March, with much walking, cooking and a bit of exploring and socialising.

I continued to go on my long walks to East Coast Park, which was becoming a favourite route of mine. It was so lovely to walk along the coastal footpath and before I knew it, kilometres and kilometres had fallen away behind me as I watched wind tousle the palm leaves and clouds glide past the horizon of ships.

One day, my friend Mel joined me on the walk and afterwards we stopped for a bite to eat at Brownice - a vegan gelateria that I had been meaning to visit. Not only was the gelato fantastic, but the garlicky waffle fries were so moreish! The flavours I chose were Earl Grey, peanut butter chocolate chip, and passionfruit sorbet.

Notice the patterns on my fingers? Well, let me tell you about it. 

Mel also accompanied me on a trip to Little India, where I had henna applied to my arm and hand. It was a novelty that I figured I may as well try once! I sent this photo to my dad stating "I got a tattoo!" Quickly followed by "...a henna tattoo". It gave him quite a fright. (Teeheehee.)

Venturing deeper into Little India, Mel and I found some very charming streets with houses in the old style. 

That was where we explored the Mustafa Centre, which was a strange kind of department store (you had to walk through the perfume shop to reach the supermarket). I found so many beautiful dates at reasonable prices and wanted to purchase all of them! Managing to restrain myself somewhat, I settled on only getting some mazafati, sokkari, safawi and ajwa dates. The nut selection similarly set my eyes alight, though I just bought a packet of cashews. (The grocery photo above was a typical haul for me, with plenty of fruits and veggies from Sheng Siong - a magical place.)

Giant Hypermarket also had great deals, and how could I pass up cheap melons?!

My meals were delicious and nutritious, what with the abundance of fresh produce in easy reach. The wooden bowl holding half a rock melon was a bargain I picked up from a secondhand store I found down the road! I love a good deal. 

On the day I visited the secondhand store, tops and dresses were half price, so I snagged this gem for five dollars! I don't know if it's a top or a dress, so I was lucky that the offer covered both clothing categories (and I've since worn it in each way).

One weekend, Yannick and I visited Chinatown where we had heard tales of a cafe called Cake Spade. Famed for their freakshakes, Yannick ordered a speculoos variety and boy was it freakish. There was ice cream, speculoos biscuits, bits of speculoos cake, speculoos spread, a caramel sauce, and speculoos crumbs. It was a little overwhelming, and Yannick couldn't finish it because it was so rich. I opted for the pink flamingo tea, which matched the bright neon decor. 

On another weekend we ventured up Orchard Road, but as we're not super into shopping we popped down a side road: Emerald Hill Road.

Known for its beautifully decorated houses (built by wealthy members of the Peranakan community), we wandered along and admired each one. Some had interesting Wild West saloon style doors, which seemed odd but somehow still fit the style.

Trendy bars are interspersed between the houses, and coincidentally a cowboyesque photoshoot was taking place at one! I suppose we weren't the only ones to spot the similarity between the door styles. 

Closer to home, on one afternoon we explored an exhibition at the National Design Centre that displayed concept art from Assassin's Creed Black Flag. It was very cool to see atmospheric sketches and paintings from the piratical video game, even if I had never played it myself. We also finally got around to visiting the National Library, which we had been intending to see since we moved into our apartment in Bugis. On show were some very intriguing old maps, photos and documents which delved into the history of Singapore.

Easter was an interesting time of year, living next to a church. Bells could be heard at any time of the day and night, and choirs were frequent. I actually didn't mind the choirs, and preferred them to the other forms of celebration, which on one night included what sounded like someone singing along badly to karaoke. For some reason the church decided to put their speakers on full blast, letting everyone in the greater Bugis area hear the good news about their lord and saviour. During this time especially, I made sure to stretch my legs and walk around the city capturing invisible monsters via the Pokemon Go app. This 'big blue dude with little red umbrella' was a favourite PokeStop of mine and just around the corner from the church. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Pulau Ubin

29 April 2017
Fancying another day trip, we caught the bus to Changi ferry terminal and waited around for a "bum boat" to become available to take us to Pulau Ubin. Why bum?!
Anyway. Before long, several other people had gathered awaiting a ferry and we were shown along the pier to one of the boats. 

It was definitely a more rustic experience than some ferries I've been on, with a bustling captain who I'm pretty sure had poor vision due to age. But as the journey was very short, cost us only $3, and we seemed to be in no danger of sinking, I wasn't particularly worried. 

Upon disembarking, we quickly found the main street and decided that it was well and truly time for me to learn how to ride a bike! For a reasonable rate we secured such a contraption and moved further down the road so we could have a quiet area in which to practice. Much to my surprise, I picked it up fairly easily, and in no time at all I was pedalling around with a big grin on my face. I did need to build up momentum before I took off each time (using my left leg to kick off mightily), and was rather wobbly, but by god! I was on a bike! Without training wheels! We returned to the bike rental shop so that Yannick could join me in wholesome two-wheeled fun. 

No taxis for us, thanks! We are cyclists now. 

Utilising my newfound skill, we cycled along to Bukit Puaka, where we ditched our bikes and trekked up the slope. The cicadas here were going mental and the clamour was a bit overpowering. From the top, we could see a couple of different quarries that had been filled in with water to make lakes, and a vast expanse of forest stretching out to the sea. It definitely felt more like we were in the jungle than other walks we've undertaken in Singapore (such as in MacRitchie Nature Reserve), which have felt more maintained and cultivated. 

Gathering our bikes again (aka our new best friends) we zipped along the paths towards the east side of the island. Along the way, we saw many little houses and sheds. One had a sign out front offering free yoga! What a place. Next door, someone had painted an Oriental Pied Hornbill onto their wall. We weren't able to see this type of bird on our trip, though we did have a close encounter with a small green snake!

A small village on the east side of the island is called Chek Jawa, and we took a quick peek at the visitor centre (which is housed in an old colonial era-cottage). Through the cottage, you can access a jetty from which you can see mainland Sinapore not far in the distance. 

Next we took a nice stroll along the coastal boardwalk and had our photo taken. Yannick had a chilled can of 100 Plus to sip on, as handily there were several vending machines dotted around the island for parched and overheated daytrippers. 

The coastal boardwalk turned into the wetlands boardwalk, which was surrounded by mangroves and funny mangrove trees. Here we spotted a monitor lizard and after a few minutes he decided to go for a swim!

A point of interest was the Muslim cemetary, which I could find no information about. It was signposted, so clearly some part of the island's history, but details elude me. 

Around the bikepark (carpark for bikes) we saw a couple of wild boars who were rooting around in the underbrush. It was a shock when we saw the first one, as we weren't aware Pulau Ubin was home to wild boar!

Some cheeky monkeys had also invaded the bikepark by the time we had returned from the boardwalk, and were flinging around some plastic bags and empty crisp packets they had found and leaping from bikes to trees and back. This guy, who casually sat atop a toppled bike, scratched his side as he peered around searching for more opportunities for mischief. 

On the way back to the dock, we rode along the Sensory Trail. Though I have no idea why it was named that, there was a lovely lotus pond, and it was good practice to ride along a gravel path. 

I'll leave you with a photo that depicts pure joy. Oh, to be a kid again, even if just for a few minutes.