26 July 2015

Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon

The final stop on our whirlwind tour of Vietnam was in Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, formerly know as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam and is just crazily busy! When known as Saigon it was firstly the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina and later of the independent republic of Vietnam. On the 2 July 1976 the city was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City but Saigon is still widely used unofficially.

After taking a delayed flight from Hanoi we finally arrived there in the early hours of the morning, checked into our hotel and collapsed straight into bed. Next morning, and despite the late night, we were up early, had breakfast and were ready to explore the city. First place, the incredibly grand looking Ho Chi Minh Central Post Office. As you may guess from my photo below the building was built when Vietnam was part of French Indochina and is heavily influenced by Gothic, Renaissance and French as a result. It was built between 1886 and 1891 and can count Gustave Eiffel (yes him of Eiffel Tower fame) as one of its architects. The inside of the Post Office is ornately decorated with a high arched ceiling, old maps of the area painted on the walls, wood paneling and clocks showing the times of various cities around the world.

Ho Chi Minh Central Post Office

From the Post Office we moved on to the nearby Notre Dame cathedral otherwise known as the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. It too was established whilst Vietnam was a French colony and was constructed between 1863 and 1880. All the original building materials were imported from France. It's a quite stunning building and, just like the cathedral in Hanoi, is not surprisingly very reminiscent of European church architecture. Despite the crowds outside inside was calm and peaceful and quite lovely to wander around.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
Interior of the cathedral
Stained Glass Windows

We only had one full day in Ho Chi Minh but certainly packed a lot in! Next stop was the Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Financial Tower to get an aerial view over the city. Whilst perhaps not an iconic view or skyline it was nonetheless great to get an idea of the scale of the city stretching out before us. The viewing level is on the 49th floor and offers completely panoramic views, letting you see the busy streets and junctions below and right along the busy river too. Inside the skydeck there is also a restaurant and cafe which we popped into for a drink, although the service was slow the views were again good.

View from the Saigon Skydeck

After lunch (more on that soon) and a bit of a rest back in our hotel we headed out in the evening for a few drinks with a sunset view. For our view we headed to a bar called Saigon Saigon in the Caravelle hotel. My husband had actually been here on previous work visits to Ho Chi Minh and suggested this would be a good spot to hopefully see a good sunset on our final night in Vietnam. According to the hotel's website the bar has been open since 1959 and was a popular spot for journalists in the 1960s when it was the highest spot in the city. We got there early and managed to grab ourselves a good place outside. Unfortunately the sunset was not as impressive as some my husband has seen previously but the cloudy sky still looked beautiful as the sun went down. As the city lights came on the city took on a different vibe with the streets thronging below us as we sipped on our drinks and looked back over our holiday.

The sun going down over Ho Chi Minh City on our final night in Vietnam
Lights coming on as the sun goes down

On our way back to the hotel the last sight of the night was the fabulous looking Ho Chi Minh city hall lit up. The building was built between 1902 and 1908 in the French colonial style. It really did look wonderful and is certainly one of the night time spots to photograph from the number of people milling around doing exactly the same as us.

Ho Chi Minh city hall

The next morning, our final in Vietnam, we had some time to fill and decided to visit Ho Chi Minh's botanic gardens. These gardens are clearly a very popular weekend spot for locals as the place was heaving even though we were there pretty early! Like Hanoi's botanic gardens you have to pay to get in but what we hadn't fully realised was that there was also a zoo of sorts there, I was actually surprised by how many animals there were there. Our travel guide suggested it was being closed and the animals relocated but this didn't look to be the case from our visit. Having dug around a bit more there seems to be a clear divide between those who think it's a great zoo and those who feel the animals need new homes. Personally I didn't rate it and felt the animals generally looked pretty sorry for themselves and looked to be living in less than ideal conditions. When the crocodiles are swimming in water that has rubbish floating in it that people have clearly thrown in rather than find a rubbish bin and it hasn't been removed I think you can get the general idea.

The rest of the gardens were pleasant enough but not spectacular though everywhere was crazy busy in them. There were a few greenhouse type buildings but all seemed to be padlocked, my photo below being just one of those we could look through the gates into. It seemed a bit of a shame that you couldn't go in them to view the plants growing inside.

After leaving the gardens we headed for a very good lunch and then it was time to head to the airport and return to Singapore. We had a great week in Vietnam packing a crazy amount of things in. I think personally I preferred Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh but maybe that was because we spent longer there and I had more chance to see the city. Halong Bay was altogether different and just simply beautiful. Overall definitely a country to return to some day if I can.

If you want to read about what we did in Hanoi and Halong Bay check out mine (and my husband's) posts here,

14 July 2015

Tourists in Kampong Glam

If you are a regular reader of my blog you'll know that we got the opportunity to take up a staycation at the Hotel Clover 33 Jalan Sultan not so long ago, by the way check out the link to the post for an offer on your own stay there exclusive to my blog readers. As it was an unexpected treat I took the opportunity to take a Saturday off work to maximise our stay. After our check in and a tour of the hotel we were free to enjoy ourselves and we saw this as the perfect chance to be tourists for the day in the Kampong Glam area.

We were actually a little early for our check in initially so decided to find a cafe or coffee shop close by to kill some time. Literally just around the corner from the hotel we stumbled upon the Dong Po Colonial Cafe. I realised afterwards that I'd actually seen this place on a TV show and what a great little find it was. It was packed full of memorabilia from Singapore's yesteryear. All the tables were like ours in my photo below, glass topped and stuffed full of little mementos and, of course, there was kopi, kaya toast and a whole load of other yummy things on the menu.

kopi time

Once we had checked in we dumped our overnight bags in our room and ventured out once more. We wandered around the streets of Kampong Glam, of course, this included the famous ones like Haji Lane but because we came from the Jalan Sultan direction lots of others that I've probably barely walked down before. Asides from the shops, restaurants and weekend hustle and bustle I took the time to look for other things of interest. I'm always interested by ghost signage or hints of what a building may have originally been used for, who it was owned by or when it was built and I spotted this on one of the street corners above the modern shop frontage. Always pays to look up, you never know what you'll see or find.

After all our walking we needed lunch and decided to try out somewhere else that we'd heard lots about from friends but never got to, Pizza Fabbrica on Bussorah Street. All the hype about the place was definitely worth it and I can only agree with all those already singing its praises. The food was delicious with amazing pizzas and the service was great too. Good service is certainly something I find myself appreciating a lot more these days. 

Our starter and my pizza choice

Of course after a huge lunch like that we needed to do some more walking around the area to burn a few of those calories off. This gave us a chance to see some more of the back and side streets of the Kampong Glam area and catch different views of some of its famous landmarks. After plenty of walking we retired to a bar and enjoyed a couple of late afternoon drinks before heading back to the hotel, freshening up and heading out for something to eat. Having had such a large and fairly late lunch we weren't especially hungry but the beauty of this area is it is packed full of Middle Eastern food which means plenty of delicious snacks and mezze style dishes to choose from. Perfect for when you just want something light and also great for sharing. 

Masjid Sultan mosque from a backstreet

We didn't try this place out but the tag line amused me - one for another time perhaps.

Dinner - dining on Middle Eastern food

It was great to take some time out to explore this part of Singapore again, somewhere we probably don't spend nearly enough time in. I especially enjoyed it given that my Saturdays usually consist of a day at work so my extra free time and exploring was all the more special. Being a tourist in your hometown (or adopted hometown) is certainly something I'd recommend you try.

Don't forget to check out my blog post of my stay at the Hotel Clover 33 Jalan Sultan if you'd like to take the time to explore this area a little more yourself and also get a great deal on your hotel stay in the process! 

09 July 2015

Pedestrian Night on Orchard Road

Everyone loves going on a shopping spree now and again, don't they? Well last Saturday evening saw us head down to Orchard Road for something just a little bit different, the start of their latest series of pedestrian nights. The perfect opportunity to shop until you drop and enjoy an array of entertainment on a section of Orchard Road especially closed off for the evening to traffic.

Pedestrian nights on Orchard Road will be taking place monthly until the end of the year on the first Saturday of every month with a different theme each time. The section of road between Scotts Road and Bideford Road will be closed between 6pm and 11pm for you to maximise your shopping fun, enjoy all the entertainment and, of course, by being closed to traffic making it all just that little bit easier to get to all the malls and do all the shopping!

Last Saturday's theme was all about the 'Flash Sales' with a whole host of amazing, one night only deals from various shops and malls to be had. Several malls also extended their opening hours for the evening. Along the closed section of Orchard Road shoppers were able to enjoy live music, buskers and a whole load of other entertainment as well. Future pedestrian nights will doubtless also offer up just as many amazing shopping deals, competitions and some great entertainment too.

The next pedestrian night takes place on the 1 August 2015 and will be an SG50 themed 'Red and White' party. Orchard Road will be getting into the party spirit by celebrating Singapore's pioneers, stories and national milestones from 1965 up to the current day through the Pioneer Portraits initiative. This will be launched at August's Pedestrian Night and will feature various pieces of bespoke art by local talents from a range of creative disciplines and backgrounds. 

Taking the chance to walk on Orchard Road

The September event on the 5 September 2015 will celebrate everything fast and furious with a 'Rev-up on Orchard', there will be a 'Family Fiesta' with a range of activities for the whole family on the 3 October 2015, 'Fashion with Friends and Family' on the 7 November 2015 and they'll be wrapping up the year with 'Christmas on A Great Street' on the 5 December 2015.

By the way, if you were there last Saturday, did you know there is an Instagram contest you can take part in with the possibility of winning an Instax SHARE printer bundle worth $250? Just simply upload your photo with the theme, 'You and Your Best Buy @ Pedestrian Night', hashtag, #PedestrianNight to be in with a chance.   

For the latest information about the next and future Pedestrian Nights check out the Orchard Road website, their Facebook page or Instagram at @orchardroad.sg 

07 July 2015

Halong Bay

So after a fabulous few days in Hanoi we left bright and early on an approximately three hour minibus ride for our next stop, Halong Bay. The beauty of this journey being that we got to see a little of the Vietnamese countryside and some small towns on our way. I was told beforehand that Vietnam has the most amazing different shades of green throughout its countryside and I wasn't disappointed. The colours were stunning, so vivid and yes so many different shades, just beautiful.

As we left Hanoi behind us our journey took us past paddy field after paddy field many being lovingly tended by workers and all of them a beautiful, lush green. It was interesting to observe that many of them had a corner with graves in complete with, in some cases, simply huge grave stones. It is a tradition in the north of Vietnam for people to be buried in the piece of land where they lived so therefore not uncommon to see the graves in the paddy fields. I had already noticed in Hanoi too and, this continued on our journey to Halong Bay, that most of the buildings we passed were built in a tall, narrow way, often with large balconies at the front and on many occasion looked just a little precarious. This style also seemed quite common when we got to Ho Chi Minh as well, quite different from what I'm used to seeing. If you want to see what I mean check out this link for a photo of a very typical tall, narrow Vietnamese building.

On the way to Halong Bay

As we got closer to our destination the weather gradually began to change and whilst it wasn't cold the air became damper and on a few occasions just a little drizzly. The weather stayed like this for much of our two day stay and whilst it would have been fantastic to get a spectacular sunrise or sunset it was nice to get this cooler, fresher weather just for a while to give us a small break from Singapore's pretty consistent hot and humid weather. The journey there took us through several different provinces and past the Pha Lai power station, the largest coal fired power plant in Vietnam. Finally, though we arrived at Halong city and it was time to board our boat at the pier and begin our mini cruise.

Halong Bay which literally means 'where the dragon descends into the sea' is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of over 3000 islands in various sizes and shapes. Legend says that the islands of Halong Bay were created by a dragon that lived in the mountains. As the dragon ran towards the coast his tail gouged out valleys and crevasses and as he plunged into the sea the areas dug up by his tail became filled with water leaving just the very highest land visible.

Upon setting sail we were able to enjoy a delicious lunch of various local dishes whilst enjoying the views as we sailed further out into Halong Bay. There were about twenty of us on the boat so, whilst we could chat to our fellow passengers if we wanted we also had plenty of opportunity to enjoy our own space as well. In fact on many occasions we were practically the only ones up on board the outside deck. Though this may have been partly due to the drizzly weather which, as I said before, we thoroughly enjoyed!

Views sailing out into Halong Bay

After lunch first on our itinerary was a visit to the Cua Van floating fishing village. Cua Van is the largest of a number of floating villages in the area with about 130 floating houses and a population of around 600. Leaving our boat we got taken in a small bamboo boat by one of the village residents around the village for a closer view of their homes and way of life. The village is located beneath a number of tall mountainous islands which gives them some protection during typhoon season. This village is quite unique as it is the only one with a primary school and a clinic which are also floating in case you were wondering.

It was a quite fascinating place to visit and to see all the normality of life with washing hanging out to dry etc. but all done on the water rather than on dry land. It was incredibly peaceful too. At the end of our visit we got taken to the place where all their fishing catches come which also includes a small visitor centre telling you a little more about these unique communities and the work being done to ensure the environment is protected and the villagers can remain living here as they wish to.

From the village we returned to our boat to spend the evening on board, enjoying more food, some drinks (including two happy hours) and just simply enjoying a peaceful evening away from the connected world. Our boat did offer wifi but, as you'd expect, it was a bit sketchy so it really was all about just enjoying the moment. We also got to try our hand at some late night squid fishing off the side of our boat. Which included a beginners luck moment for me as I actually managed to catch one! After posing for photos the squid was promptly returned to the sea and proceeded to show his disgust by squirting ink out in the water.

As I mentioned we unfortunately didn't get any spectacular sunsets, but watching darkness fall over us and the other boats moored nearby in amongst the beautiful rocks of Halong Bay was simply stunning.

Evening arrives in Halong Bay

The next morning and after a very good night's sleep we were up bright and early, I'm talking well before 7am for coffee and delicious pastries. We then had the opportunity to take part in a Tai Chi class up on the outside deck. Of course we joined in, it was fun and kept nice and simple as I suspect none of us joining in were hugely proficient. The morning began as the day before with mists covering the tops of the rocks and just a light drizzle. It really was a spectacular backdrop to our class.

After that we were off on another visit to the nearby Titop island. Titop island was named after Gherman Titov, a Russian cosmonaut. If you look at my photo of the island below you can see a structure right at the very top. The main thing to do here is climb the many steps to the top and this viewing platform. Something we did and despite the relatively cool weather we still managed to get incredibly warm! The views from the top are quite beautiful, even with the misty conditions that day. It is well worth doing the climb and is relatively easy, thanks to the steps going all the way to the top. 

After coming back down again there was a chance to go swimming, we opted just to go paddling as the water was very cold. Though we did see a few brave or crazy (you decide) people going out into the water. After dipping our toes into the water we just enjoyed sitting on the beach despite it raining just a little more heavily by that point.

Approaching Titop island

View from the top of Titop Island

Heading back to our boat once more we enjoyed a delicious breakfast, something I think we were all ready for after our early morning of Tai Chi and climbing rocks. Then it was time to head back to Halong city and back to dry land once more.

Halong Bay truly was beautiful and definitely up there as one of the best places I've had the opportunity to visit since living in Singapore. We visited in February and whilst the weather may not have been amazing for us it was a delightful change. It also wasn't cold at all, in my opinion. It was fairly busy but I think visiting then it was quieter then it would be at peak season so for us it was definitely the best time to go. Certainly somewhere to return to one day if I have the chance.

30 June 2015

Homescapes Photography Exhibition

As Singapore's 50th anniversary of independence fast approaches lots of events celebrating Singapore are starting to happen all over the place. One such event is this photography exhibition which I popped along to to take a look at. Being right on my doorstep how could I not?

This exhibition is a part of the SG Heart Map, a whole series of events all over Singapore aiming to share and celebrate the many places that are special to Singapore residents and the many different reasons why. You can even upload your own story, special place and memory on their website.

The photography exhibition is a collection of local photographers and pupils from Raffles' Girls School photos exploring the concept of home and what it means to Singaporeans. As you may expect there are photos of HDB's, views of different parts of Singapore but also more personal photos of families in their home and people's personal trinkets. Also included, and in keeping with the SG Heart Map theme, are individuals memories of the different parts of Singapore that they lived in and what that place means to them.

You can just see in my photo above some white boards covering the safety railings of the HDB walkways. Some were white and some red and at the launch these made a rather cool massive heart design. I saw it the following morning on the way to work and it really looked fabulous in the morning sunshine. I made up my mind to get a photo when I returned home later but sadly by then they'd taken it down! A shame that it couldn't have been left for a little longer, however if you want to see it for yourself check out the SG Heart Map website or this YouTube clip.

This is a really delightful collection of photos and worth checking out if you are in the area.

 Just a couple of the photos on display

The Homescapes photography exhibition is on now at the void deck of Block 99, Old Airport Road just near Dakota MRT station. It is free to the public and is on from 10am - 8pm but hurry as it ends on the 5 July 2015.

For more information about this exhibition and other events check out the SG Heart Map website here.

26 June 2015

STEPS in the Park 2015

‘STEPS in the Park’ 2015 organized by the Singapore registered Charity EmancipAsia is back!

The aim of this event is to enable people to ‘take their first step’ toward understanding modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

'STEPS in the Park' is a 5km fun run/walk that the whole family can take part in.

The event details are as follows:

Date: 12 September 2015

Venue: OCBC Square, Singapore Sports Hub

Time: 7.30am to 12:30pm

Cost/pax: SGD 15

Other than the run, there will be live performances, merchandise sales, exhibitions, film screenings, interactive learning and fantastic lucky draw prizes to look forward to. We look forward to seeing YOU, your family and your friends there!

Visit http://stepsinthepark.com/ for more information and to register online NOW!

21 June 2015

Wandering Around Hanoi

After an interesting first day exploring Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum etc and in-between stuffing our faces full of good food we still had plenty of exploring of the city to do before moving on to our next stop, Halong Bay.

One of the first things we did was buy tickets for the water puppet show which several people had told us was a must see during our visit. Hanoi is also apparently the place to see one of these shows too. The theatre we chose was just a short walk from our hotel so we booked to do this in the evening after our explore of the mausoleum. There are several theatres giving these performances but we went to the Thang Long water puppet theatre. The place was packed out with both locals and tourists and although you buy tickets, either in advance or on the door, there are no allocated seats so get there prompt to ensure a good view! 

The water puppet shows are a tradition that dates from the 11th Century. As the name suggests there is water involved, the show being performed in a waist deep pool. The puppeteers are hidden behind a screen and control the puppets via long rods, giving the allusion that the puppets are moving on the top of the water. This type of puppetry came about when villagers would entertain each other when the rice fields flooded. The water acts as a stage for the puppets as well as a symbolic link to the rice harvest. The puppetry is accompanied by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra and the singers perform songs which tell the story being acted out by the puppets.                      

We were given a programme for the evening and got to enjoy fourteen performances that had been selected from a repertoire of 400! A lot of the stories come from Vietnamese folklore and centre on day to day life with stories of the harvest and fishing amongst many more.  The performances follow straight on from each other and apart from a couple that got a little confusing I was able to identify each performance from the visual performances despite not understanding any of the words being sung or spoken. It was fun and quite a different way to spend our evening.

Displays of just a few of the puppets in the entrance to the water puppet theatre

The orchestra that accompanies the puppeteers

Our couple of days in Hanoi gave us the chance to explore a few of the city's other famous landmarks. One place we decided to take a look at was Hanoi's Botanic Gardens, whilst not quite in the same league as Singapore's or Kew Gardens it was nonetheless pleasant enough to kill a little time in. It is quite a drive from the centre (we got a cab) and I'm not sure you would want to spend hours there but it did also give us the opportunity to then walk back via the Tran Quoc pagoda on the West Lake. For me though the main thing really spoiling the gardens were the cages with monkeys and peacocks in. It would have been far nicer to see the peacocks and monkeys roaming freely in the park. 

Inside Hanoi's Botanic Gardens

As I said from the, slightly underwhelming, Botanic Gardens we made our way back to the centre walking past the huge West Lake. Take a look at my photo below, it is a simply massive lake! We stopped in a place for coffee, a breather, a bit of wifi and watched the world go by for a while before carrying on to the Tran Quoc pagoda. 

The West Lake, stretching as far as the eye can see

Tran Quoc Pagoda

The Tran Quoc pagoda is the oldest pagoda in the city. It was originally constructed in the 6th Century during the reign of Emperor Ly Nam De who reigned from 544 to 548. The pagoda was originally constructed on the shores of the Red River but was moved to the West Lake in 1615. When we visited there were a lot of people making offerings, burning incense and saying prayers. It was lovely to observe just a little of that too as we took in the beauty of this ancient pagoda.

Thap Rua Tower (Tortoise Tower)

Back nearer the city centre and we found ourselves near the Hoan Kiem Lake on several occasions throughout our couple of days in the city. As we walked around it you can see a small tower on an island in the lake. This is the Thap Rua Tower or Tortoise Tower. It looked like a beautiful tower on an isolated little island which I admit I would have loved to have been able to go across to and visit. 

I've since learnt that it was built in 1886 on a site where a temple had once stood and at some point previously had been destroyed. This tower was built to commemorate a warrior called Le Loi born in 1384 and the impact he had on Vietnam.The story goes that whilst he was growing up he witnessed many atrocities committed against the Vietnamese people by the Ming Chinese who occupied Vietnam at that time and that he vowed to free his people. Eventually in 1426 a battle took place at Tot Dong to decide the outcome of this rebellion. This battle resulted in the Vietnamese being successful in capturing and executing the Chinese General and luring the Chinese forces into Hanoi where a trap had been laid. Instrumental in all of this was Le Loi and the use of his mystical sword which it is said he received from the Dragon King in his underwater palace. The sword was said to have given Le Loi great power and strength and also increased his physical stature when he used it. The lake that the tower stands on is called Hoan Kiem Lake which means Lake of the Returned Sword. It is called this because this is the lake where the Dragon King reclaimed his sword after Le Loi's victory. Legend says that Le Loi was in a boat on the river when a turtle came out of the water and took back the sword and despite Le Loi's best efforts the sword was never found. Le Loi determined that the turtle must have been sent on the Dragon King's behalf to retrieve the sword and he renamed the lake, Hoan Kiem Lake. The tower therefore stands in honour of what Le Loi did for the Vietnamese people and has stood since as a symbol of patriotic pride for the people of Hanoi.

St Joseph's cathedral

Our time in Hanoi would not have been complete without a visit to the very European looking St Joseph's cathedral, built in the late 19th century it is quite spectacular up close and dominates the small streets in its vicinity. The architectural design is said to resemble the Notre Dame in Paris, hardly surprising I guess. It was one of the first structures built by the French colonial government in Indochina when it was opened in 1886 and is the oldest church in Hanoi. We were able to go inside during our visit with the interior being a peaceful retreat from the bustle of Hanoi's busy streets.

Whilst we did not go inside we also stopped by the Hanoi Opera House, enjoying a Vietnamese coffee in a nearby cafe. Another legacy from the French colonial government built between 1901 and 1911. It certainly is a beautiful building! Today it seems to be in the centre of the hustle of busy traffic going to and fro but definitely stands out as a real landmark of the city.

Hanoi Opera House

All to soon our time in Hanoi was over and it was time to head off for the next stop on our Vietnam adventure. Hanoi was busy and certainly a lot crazier than the likes of Singapore but it is somewhere I would happily return to if the opportunity ever arose.

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