Thanks for visiting and we appreciate your support.
We will be traveling starting April 14th with very limited access to the internet until mid May. I will hope to make a few posts along the way provided I can get to the net. Hope to see you again when we get home.
About this time last year we were in Vietnam and spent a few days in and around Saigon. I know the map says Ho Chi Minh City but it seemed as if that name hasn’t really caught-on with the locals. Most people that we spoke with still call it Saigon.
The city is a study in contrasts but than so is Vietnam as a whole. Saigon still feature mazes of streets thru neighborhoods packed with small merchants and thongs of people but there are also new upscale housing projects springing up everywhere along with a surprising number of skyscrapers filling in the skyline. A long time ago I remember a million bicycles filling this countries streets but they seem to have given way to mopeds and motorcycles. It wasn’t unusual to see two or more people riding a moped carrying cartons stacked six feet high. On more than one occasion we say a mother, father and two or three children all on the same moped.
We were also puzzled to see a majority of the women riding mopeds wearing long sleeves, gloves and facemasks. Later we were told it is to protect them from the Sun. It seems that pale skin is important to women in Vietnam and they work at protecting themselves from the tanning rays.
In the city center near the Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral, you can hire a shinny new rickshaw that now peddles tourists around the central attractions. The square next to the
cathedral is dotted with American fast food outlets in case you need a fix of Dunkin Donuts or Carl’s. The old South Vietnamese Presidential Palace is now renamed the Reunification Palace and even with the numerous reminders of the war most Vietnamese seem truly welcoming to visiting Americans (the official policy of the Vietnamese government is that America is now a valued ally and the people should be welcoming).
Vietnam is a bargain-hunters paradise and, at times, it is difficult to walk away from the bargains. One item that caught our attention in a number of places was the pop-up, laser-cut greeting cards. Vendors were all along Dong Khoi Street and these beautiful cards were being sold for the equivalent of a dollar or two each and we now wish we had bought more. Also the US dollar is widely accepted in Vietnam with the current exchange rate being about 23,000 Dong to the US dollar.
Dong Khoi is one of Saigon’s main shopping streets with many fashion clothing shops, galleries and furniture stores along with good hotels (Sheraton @ $150 a night) and really ood restaurants. Also on Dong Khoi is the famous Opera House, which often offers free operas. A block over is the notorious Rex Hotel with its rooftop bar that was a favorite hangout for war correspondents and military brass back in the day. They still have a great happy hour.
Ben Thanh Market. The cities central market and a must-visit it is Vietnam’s largest and most diverse shopping experience. In the early mornings locals are shopping for fresh meats and produce. Later fashion stalls take over for the rest of the day. Everything is there from silk outfits to bargain T-shirts. You can get printed T’s four as little as US$3 but we would recommend buying two or three sizes too big. I bought some large shirts that won’t fit over my head. The market is also famous for rows of coffee traders, selling an amazing selection of beans. Vietnam has become a major coffee producer with it being one of their major cash crops. Come nighttime a night market opens up alongside the main building, selling everything from clothing, to souvenirs until almost midnight.
Saigon is famous for Lacquer painting, known as sơn mài, made from the resin of the sơn tree. The art form was developed in Vietnam combining French styles with Oriental themes.
From Ho Chi Minh City you can also book a number of excursions and day tours. In the city is the Mariamman Hindu Temple, the Jade Emperor Pagoda and the War Remnants Museum. There are also a number of free guided walking tours sponsored by local schools to give students experience with English. Day tours include the technicoloured Cao Dai Temple, as well as trips to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta.
Planning a trip to Vietnam soon? We would recommend it but before you go you need a visa. While the government is friendly to Westerners that doesn’t mean they don’t need to know who you are and why you a visiting. Not too many years ago you needed an official guide to travel around the country but that has been mostly eliminated now. Getting a visa isn’t the easiest thing to do on your own we we would recommend a Visa Service to help . It might also be helpful to talk to a Tour Guide service to help you plan your visit.
Note To American Vietnam War Veterans: Before going back “in country” I had some real mixed emotions. I had experienced traveling in Europe in the early 60’s and witnessed some tense moments between Germans and people that had once been occupied. What would it be like in Vietnam? Don’t be concerned. I met more people that have bad feelings toward the current communist government than ex-American GI’s. We did run into one or two people that wanted to remind us of the war (mostly middle aged men with party affiliation) but usually we felt really welcome there.
One of the worlds truly great subway systems is the Singapore MRT and it is a solid innovator. Many of their systems are recognized and implemented worldwide. If you are lucky enough to get to Singapore for a visit you must use the MRT to get around the city. From the time you arrive at the airport you can take advantage of this remarkable transportation system.
First thing you need to know is one of the official languages of Singapore is English and virtually all signage here is in English. So not understanding the language is not an excuse. Second, the MRT is spotless as is all of Singapore. Saying a place is so clean you can eat off the floor is a common expression but it might actually be true in the MRT.
The Singapore Tourist Pass is a special ez-link card that offers tourists unlimited travel on Singapore’s basic bus services, MRT and LRT trains for the duration of the days purchased. You can now take in the sights and sounds of Singapore in the comfort of the island’s extensive MRT system and public bus network. If you are going to be in Singapore for a day or three you need a Singapore Tourist Pass. You can purchase the Singapore Tourist Pass at “Changi Recommends” counters at all Changi Airport terminals, SMRT Passenger Service Counters, and TransitLink Ticket Offices at Changi Airport or HarbourFront and all 7-Eleven stores. Be sure and have your passport.
The pass also requires a $10 rental deposit that is refunded when you turn in the card.
If you don’t have a chance to get your ez-Link card the system offers an all-day ticket from the vending outlets in the stations. They are easy to understand and accept major credit cards. Since we were in Singapore three different times in some cases we found it cheaper to purchase one-way or roundtrip fares to specific destinations but in any case the fare on the MRT is a truly great deal.
With the MRT, even if you haven’t planned where you are going it isn’t hard to figure out. The popular destinations are clearly named on the route map like Botanic Garden, Chinatown, Little India, Marina Bay, Bayfront, Promenade, HarbourFront and Downtown.
A final thought about the MRT and Singapore in general; the people are great. They are always trying to be helpful and friendly. While riding on the MRT young people kept insisting we take their seats (and I didn’t think I looked THAT old). Even the train kept telling us to “mind the gap and have a happy happy”…
Brunei is beautiful and modern. This is a small country (Sultanate) located on the north coast of Borneo and fueled by energy – oil (black gold) and natural gas. Bandar Seri Begawan, is the capital of the Sultanate of Brunei. It is also the location of the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. The mosque is considered one of the most beautiful in the Asia-Pacific region. It is a place of worship, a major historical site and the most famous tourist attraction of the country.
A conversation overheard on a bus in Brunei:
Canadian tourist – What form of government do you have here in Brunei?
Local young man – We have the Sultan and the Legislative Council.
Canadian tourist – So the Sultan is the head of government?
Local young man – Yes, he takes the role of Prime Minister
Canadian – How often do you have elections and are there a number of political parties?
Local young man – Oh, we don’t have parties or elections. The Sultan appoints each member of the council.
Canadian tourist– Does that much power concern you? Don’t you fear corruption?
Local young man – No. The Sultan would remove anyone that was corrupt.
Canadian tourist – But don’t the people want a say in what the country does?
Local young man – Why? We have the Sultan. He takes very good care of us…
What makes this thinking possible is an average per capita income of over US$40,000. The government makes sizable amounts of money from oil, which it solely controls, along with large investments from that oil money worldwide.
The Sultan does take care of his people. At one time a part of housing in Bandar Seri Begawan was in ramshackle water villages. But those picturesque houses on stilts standing out over the water had major problems. Sanitation was a serious issue so the Sultan has been replacing them with new water villages with modern sewage treatment and solid supports. He has also been providing virtually everyone in Brunei with a free education, health care and a guaranteed job. Also attractive free public housing is popping up all around the country.
Walking around in Bandar Seri Begawan is a pleasure. It is very safe. The city has a lot to see and the people are friendly. Although Standard Malay is the official language, English is widely spoken and understood.
There is a modern open-air market where a large gang of monkeys hang out looking for treats. There is a garden called the Eco-Corridor and, of course, the Grand Mosque. There are also boat trips out to the water village, Kampon Ayer. The city architecture is modern and boasts a large shopping mall. Interestingly, the mall is the first place where we ran into a store dedicated completely to Lego figures – you can find the likes of Darth Vader standing next to Homer and Marge Simpson and others.
We spent two days in Bangkok earlier this year as part of a month cruising around the South China Sea and those two days were the highlight of the trip. Visiting Bangkok is an exciting experience. The culture is rich and peaceful, the food is plentiful and diverse and there are many things to see and do. If you arrive on a cruise ship, you dock at Laem Chabang which is a minimum hour-and-a-half drive from the city. If your ship is only there for the day, it is difficult to get into the city and back and still manage to see a lot. If you are lucky, your ship docks one morning and departs the next evening providing you time for an adventure.
Even the trip into Bangkok is interesting as you realize how modern the area is. There are many factories and businesses along the way and rest stops which stretch great distances provide a large number of restaurants and coffee shops with many American offerings.
Once into the city, there are numerous temples and markets to visit along with museums and other historical properties. Thailand’s main religion is Buddhism so getting to a temple or two is a must. Keep in mind that there are specific dress codes (i.e. no bare shoulders or short pants) and you probably will be required to remove your shoes. Some temples do not allow photos. The word for temple in Thai is Wat.
The Emerald Buddha (actually made of jade) is probably the most famous and it is on the grounds of the Grand Palace (established in 1782) so you can visit both at the same time. The grounds are huge and include a number of temples and palaces, magnificent statuary, works of art and jeweled walls. There are small admittance fees but you can claim a beautiful brochure once you have paid. The Grand Palace closes from time to time for events/ceremonies so this could affect your visit.
Within a short walk of the Grand Palace is Wat Pho which is home to the Reclining Buddha (covered in gold and 46 meters in length), several other Buddhas and a variety of stone figures. Another famous temple in the area (not walking distance) is Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) on the Chao Phraya River. It can be enjoyed on its’ own or as part of a river/canal tour.
While in Bangkok we were urged to try a number of “street” foods, which are everywhere. Mostly what we sampled were fresh fruits with one highlight being a cup of strawberries dusted with salt, sugar and chili powder. Freshly opened coconuts for coconut water were available everywhere. Other foods included grilled chicken, fried bananas and pineapple. After checking into our hotel we went into the shopping district and stopped in a sports bar for a beer. We ordered chicken wings and were served the tiniest wings we’d ever seen, about an inch long.
We spent the night at the Centre Point Hotel Chidlom in the Central District. The hotel was recommended by some Australian friends and was very nice and not too expensive. It was just a few blocks from Bangkok’s major department store, Central Chidlom and a number of nice restaurants. We set out early the next morning for the Maeklong Railway Market.
The Maeklong Railway Market is 50 miles outside Bangkok and is the most unique market in Asia. The trains run down a stretch of track right through the market with shops only a couple of feet from the tracks. It features vendors (mostly food) on both sides of the tracks. They display their products along the tracks and, when the train is coming, they drop awnings and quickly pull everything back until the train passes. Afterwards, all goods go back by the tracks. This process happens seven times a day but it is best to visit early in the morning when the temperatures and smells are both lower. Food is the main item sold here.
There are many floating markets in Thailand but one of the more interesting ones is Damnoen Saduak, about 60 miles from the city. Products are displayed in boats and around the canals and you can purchase food items that have been cooked on the boats. You can hire a long boat and the operator will row you around the canals to shop and observe. Bartering is a must and payment in local currency (baht) is expected.
Some excursions can be arranged with your ship and hotels in Bangkok also offer access to tour companies. A better alternative, if you are there overnight, is to hire a private travel company like Travel Hub as they have good itineraries and will pick you up at the ship, provide touring, drop you at a hotel and pick you up the following morning for more touring and the journey back to the ship. There are fixed itineraries with a little flexibility and each group includes a guide and driver; the smaller the group, the more personal the tour. Pricing depends on the number of people in the group.
A couple of important notes about visiting Thailand: The people love and respect their king and do not tolerate disrespect. Most Thai homes include photographs or art depicting the king and his family. One story recounts an incident where someone dropped Thai currency and stepped on it to keep it from blowing away. The act was considered an insult to the king because his picture is on all currency. Another note regards the Buddha. Thailand is a Buddhist country and disrespect towards the Buddha is not permitted under Thai law. There are billboards and posters all over the country pointing this out.
If you are planning a trip to Southeast Asia you need to put Thailand at the top of your list.
The central attraction in Bangkok is the Grand Palace and Grounds featuring many temples, palaces and a museum. To do it right, the area is worth most of a day and that means at least finding a place to sit down and have lunch. If you are in the area near Wat Pho (Giant Buddha) a good choice for lunch is Eat Sight Story. The restaurant is on the Chao Praya River across from Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) with a deck featuring tables, umbrellas and great views. To find it, go down Tha Tian Alley towards the river from Maha Rat Road, south of the Naval Welfare Department.
In addition to the deck overlooking the river, ESS has tables inside along with a small air conditioned dining room. The staff is friendly and efficient and, while not inexpensive, the food is very good. The afternoon we visited, we had curried beef, Pad Thai, grilled chicken skewers with rice and cold Thai beer and were very pleased with our selections. Based on other meals we ate in Thailand we believe that their offerings are toned down some to appeal to western tastes.
The Beer Bridge was located just down the street from our hotel in the The Portico Building, 31 Langsuan, Ploenchit Rd., Lumpini, Pathumwan, Bangkok. The Beer Bridge is a modern eatery in an upscale neighborhood just a block away from Central Chidlom, Bangkok’s largest department store and near a number of major hotels.
They offered a wide selection of beers (local and imported) along with a nice wine list, cocktails and typical pub food. We ordered an appetizer which turned out to be the tiniest Buffalo chicken wings we’ve every eaten. But, after a long and warm day walking around Bangkok, The Beer Bridge provided exactly what we needed – really cold beer and some western familiarity.