Bustling Adventure: 3 Days in Vietnam

Pic1

Chào Vietnam! My name is Cindy and I’ll be an exchange student in Singapore this summer. I decided to make use of the strategic location in South East Asia and embark on a small three-day trip before the semester starts. More about the first week of class in the next blog post. The first day in Ho Chi Minh reminded me of small cities in China, very busy and unregulated. A little scary to walk around with few streetlights and left and right turns everywhere, but soon enough I got used to jaywalking like locals.

After walking around the first day by foot I was able to cover most of District One; the financial and commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh. The many main attractions like Saigon Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office are heavily influenced by French colonial rule. The grand architecture though clashes with the scooters and the street vendors on the street that remind you that you are in Ho Chi Minh.

Pic2 Pic3 Pic4 Pic5

 

 

Ho Chi Minh really is not a very walk-able city; anything beyond District one is impossible to reach on foot. In a city with about seven millions people there are four million scooters – almost the number of residents in Singapore! HCM really isn’t a place for a luxurious and pampering type of vacation, which is better left to either a resort in Phuket, or a big city with developed infrastructure. The trip however does offer a culturally rich experience. The second day, I hired a local tour guide and went around on a Vespa to other Districts in the city to see experience Ho Chi Minh like a local. I confess, the first few minutes were nerve wrecking, and there were times during the trip I thought it might have been a mistake to put myself amidst the crazy driving, but it is the fastest way to travel – even enjoyable once you’re accustomed. (Though, if you are really faint of heart, it might get to you. Still, if there is a time to take some risks it’s when traveling).

Pic6 Pic7 Pic8 Pic9 Pic10 Pic11

The third day, I left the city and went to the Mekong Delta region, the “Rice Basket” of Vietnam. The soil in the region along the river is the most fertile and almost all locals here are involved in agriculture. I was hoping to visit the Cai Be floating market in the early morning to catch the small vendors, but by eight they had already cleared out, and only lone boats or wholesale boats were left on the water. Since the drive is about three hours from HCM, to catch the busiest time of the market, it would be better to find a place to stay in Cai Be the night before…  Even then, when visiting the market – I imagine – the landscape would have been almost the same centuries ago. Less the motors in the new boats of course, but the water, the houses, the buying and the selling of goods by the same families.

Pic12 Pic13 Pic14 Pic16

N.B. I checked the price of tours online before landing in Ho Chi Minh, and must say, in this case do not plan everything before hand! At least do not buy tours, trips or vouchers before you get there. Tours that were $52 I found for $18, and $65 for $20. There is so much competition locally that you are guaranteed to find the tour you want for the lower price with vacancies for the next day.

 

 

 

 

Millionaires, Moths and Chicken Rice: An Intro to Singapore

Off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, barricaded from the Southeast Asian haze by skyscrapers and architectural marvels lies a thriving city-state and island country. I’m here squeezing the remains of a used teabag in what seems like one of the five or six homes not owned by millionaires…

I’m Sarah, an engineering undergrad at U of T with an incredible and overwhelming 13 months of travel experience to 21 countries and over 60 cities in Europe, Africa and Asia. This summer, I am working on a corrosion-based research project – go figure, Singapore’s busy port is also renowned for its ship repair services – in my field of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

I have boldly begun my exchange by dragon boating, traveling to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with the NUS rock climbing team, and much more. The following are my first impressions of Singapore.

Cargo ships lining the Port of Singapore just before landing at Changi airport.

Cargo ships lining the Port of Singapore just before landing at Changi airport.

The first and most obvious spur of culture shock is the climate difference, causing me to throw in the sweat-ridden towel and submit to the dewy island air and temperatures that are never short of 20°C. Since my immobile and sticky beginnings, I have progressed to sleeping comfortably with only a ceiling fan and appreciating the detoxifying process that is an evening run. Nevertheless, when the will to beat the heat is hanging by the cumbersome thread of my lab-appropriate clothes, air-conditioning is hardly scarce. Dehydrated and weary, I still managed to make some new friends, some of which have migrated here all the way from Malaysia in a rare swarming.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

IMG_7333

Otters, a white-faced saki monkey, a cheetah and a Malaysian giant moth. In the spirit of abusing the privilege of writing a public blog and for the sake of having someone know the reason behind my future trauma-induced illnesses, look up the Malaysian/Singaporean giant moth swarming for yourselves.

Otters, a white-faced saki monkey, a cheetah selfie and a rare Malaysian giant moths. In the spirit of abusing the privilege of writing a public blog and for the sake of having someone know the reason behind my future trauma-induced illnesses, look up the Malaysian/Singaporean giant moth swarming for yourselves.

Like other city-states I have visited, including Monaco, Vatican City and, debatably, Dubai, Singapore has an ultra-modern appeal attributed to its post-independence booming economy. Not even hiked up registration, taxes and insurance can prevent the Maseratis from flying in the face of minimalistic religious roots. Gardens by the Bay, near the man-made stretch of land carrying famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel, houses a grove of “super trees” that capture solar energy to put on an evening light show! Even campus is riddled with luxuries; rooftop infinity pools, free shuttles, terrace restaurants etc. In what I can only assume is an attempt to preserve these landscapes, there are strict laws prohibiting littering, chewing gum, eating on public transit, and even not flushing the toilet. I was greeted by my first vacant stare from a local Singaporean when I asked for a napkin with my meal. I have yet to see a napkin in this country.

Super Tree Grove

Super Tree Grove

Speaking of meals… My supervisor and new-found friends (not the animal kind) have been very helpful in feeding me and stoking my will to try Singaporean, Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine like kway teow, laksa, kaya coconut jam, chicken-rice, and stingray! Despite finding the first actual use for my tongue scraper after eating my first mouth-full of chili peppers, I am now head over bowels in love with sambal chili. I have also had my fill of exotic tropical fruits and fruit juices, like the notoriously potent durian, whose smell renders it banned from many public places.

Laksa (top left); rice cakes (middle left);  sesame peanut ball (bottom left); sambal sting ray wrapped in banana leaves (top right); sautee (bottom right).

Laksa (top left); rice cakes (middle left); sesame peanut ball (bottom left); sambal sting ray wrapped in banana leaves (top right); sautee (bottom right).

Once, after I extinguished my tongue with some grass jelly, washed my hands, and tossed my chewing gum, I ventured out for a night on one of Singapore’s lavish rooftop nightclubs. With $30SGD entry and only $50SGD per alcoholic beverage, you’d be a fool to stay home!

View of Marina Bay from one of the rooftop joints.

View of Marina Bay from one of the rooftop joints.

Stay tuned to find out how I almost met my future spouse on a dragon boat, climbed my arms off at Asia’s largest rock climbing gym and planned a trip to the location where ‘The Beach’ was filmed!