After ripping over the surface of Langjökull with our snowmobiles, we slowed it way down for our ice cave hiking tour on Vatnajökull Glacier.
Our tour (again affiliated with Guide to Iceland for $200) began in the city of Vik, a small town located about 2-3 hours east of Reykjavik, where another over-sized Land Rover collected us. Much like the snowmobiling tour, it takes a good hour of seriously bumpy, off-roading to get to the starting point where we can start hiking to the caves. And again, like the snowmobiling tour, pee before you go. Keep in mind that this tour is only available November-March otherwise be prepared to be on a waterfall tour.
The winds on the way to the ice caves were the strongest we battled all trip (in fact we did this tour in lieu of a glacier hike option that was cancelled due to the dangerous wind speeds). Even if it’s not sunny out, I recommend bringing your sunglasses to cover your eyes from the blowing dust and ice. The tour company provides crampons and helmuts–both of which you are required to wear.
As we hiked our way towards the ice caves, which takes approximately 10 minutes, it’s an astonishing sight to see the black sand volcanic landscape all around. Our guide told us that they filmed parts of Interstellar there. Once you get to the ice caves, it’s not the immense caverns that will astonish you. It’s the fact that what you’re seeing isn’t stone–it’s incredibly polished ice. It was almost like we were inside a giant, textured glass vase.
After the ice cave tour, we grabbed lunch back in Vik at Suður-Vík. This cute little lodge had an excellent seafood soup and fried camembert.
But the real highlight (if you would consider this a highlight) was randomly seeing the Bachelor Arie and his new, second(?) fiancé Lauren. When they walked in, I at first thought I recognized them because they were on a previous tour with us or something like that. But when I leaned over to the only female in our group and asked, “Is that man the Bachelor?”, her eyes lit up, and she gave 100% confirmation that it was indeed the reality show stars. I’m not sure what was more bizarre–seeing the pair in Iceland, or recognizing them in the first place.
Special thanks to Vikram for filming. The tour guides said specifically NOT to film because of the risk of losing your phone. But Vik doesn’t really ever follow the rules…
Spending time in Reykjavik is nice, but the really good stuff that Iceland offers is outside of the city. While there were many highlights of the trip, the most “exhilarating” of them had to be the snowmobile tour on top of Langjökull Glacier.
It’s not the cheapest activity ($300 with Guide to Iceland), but in this traveler’s opinion it’s money well spent for a unique and memorable experience. To get to the outpost, you ride what can only be described as a monster truck sized rover for an hour to the top of the glacier. Be sure to pee beforehand because the ride is slow, bumpy, and will make your bladder feel like it’s on a one-hour bull ride.
Once you get to the base, and I know it’s an overused cliché, it really does feel like you’re on Hoth or North of the Wall. To give you an idea of how cold it is up there, the boiling hot coffee (and I mean it was boiling hot) they offer is ice cold within two minutes–just from holding it outside. And again, be judicious with what photos you want to take. Your camera will shutdown because of the cold. Keep it close to your body when you’re not using it to keep it from freezing.
Don’t worry about needing a jumpsuit as they provide those along with helmets, gloves, and masks–you’ll feel like an astronaut. The snowmobiles carry two people, though if there’s an odd number there will be solo riders. The vehicles are simple to understand how to use, but much harder to operate in practice.
The snowmobiles top out at incredibly fast 80 mph; you will feel it in your arms if you’re the driver. Turning these things while on inclines and declines is a serious workout, and if you don’t lean your body with the correct form it is not hard to flip these things. It’s even more challenging if you’re on one by yourself as you don’t have the passenger helping you lean with the turns. Luckily, none of us flipped! (Though we came heart-stoppingly close a couple of times…) Your face will take a beating as well from the howling wind and snow.
The views are nothing short of spectacular. It’s just 360 degrees of beautiful white, glistening snow–a really surreal sight especially with the silence. We also got lucky that it was a perfectly sunny day; we were told that weather that great comes very rarely.
The snowmobiling is an activity very much worth doing, even with the price you have to pay.
We booked an all day Jeep tour with Looking Glass Jeep Tours that drove us through Hoi An and the neighboring city of Da Nang, as well as the countryside in-between. Our driver/tour guide, Jeremy, is an American that has lived in Vietnam for about 7 years and was extremely knowledgable. His tour takes you to several historical sights, many of which are associated with the Vietnam war, in an open air Jeep that is a legit, Vietnam War-era Army vehicle. Overall, the tour is great, but there are pros and cons.
Jeremy plays a lot of 60s, Forrest Gump soundtrack tunes to give the sightseeing a great vibe and brings along old photos which he will superimpose over your view so that you can see comparisons of how the landscape looked during the war.
You get to see the countryside, which you probably wouldn’t see on your own.
Jeremy stops at different parts of tiny villages, like Hua Nan, including the schools. With bags of candy he provides, you can hand out sweets to the schoolchildren in the playground during their recess. It’s intense–my heart was racing as dozens of Vietnamese children came up to the Jeep to get candy. It’s an unbelievable experience.
He stops at a slate factory, where you can experience splitting slate with the local workers, and introduces you to a local fishing boat maker, who shows you how he makes the bamboo basket boats like the ones we rowed in near the Coconut City.
The trip up Marble Mountain is long and challenging, but the view from the top is glorious. You also get to see temples made of old, shattered Heineken and Budweiser beer bottles, and a giant cave that was used as a hospital during the war.
The lunch spot that Jeremy took us to in Da Nang was called Ba Duong. It’s located down a tiny alley that you would never find unless you were a local. There we feasted on Banh Xeo, my second favorite dish of the trip. Banh Xeo consists of rice wraps with these crunchy, corn flour tortilla like things, shrimp, pork sticks, veggies, papaya, and the key ingredient–a savory beef, peanut satay sauce.
It’s an open air Jeep, so it does get VERY hot, and you will get sunburned if you don’t put on the sunblock. Jeremy does provide water however.
Jeremy does get very political and keeps bringing up how all the farmers were getting kicked out to develop hotels, roads, etc. He will rant about how there’s no urban planning in place for cars, yet everyone has them now with no place to put them and brings up several other topics that can be a little draining.
The tour will at one point drive through a long tunnel (like miles and miles) and because it’s an open air Jeep, it’s really loud, and gets extremely hard to breathe. Believe me, it’s a very uncomfortable experience. So if that’s something you’re not willing to put up with for 10-15 minutes, don’t take this Jeep tour.
A few days in Hanoi is chaotic at best because there is so much that you can do. Aside from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, Hanoi is full of activities worth checking out. There’s a lot to cover so I’ll get right to it.
Hỏa Lò Prison Museum
Open daily 8 a.m. — 5 p.m.
This is probably my favorite of the museums we visited purely because it was so visceral. Nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by POWs during the Vietnam War, this prison held Vietnamese revolutionaries during their struggle for independence from the French as well as famous Americans, such as Senator John McCain. Much of the exhibit consists of prison garments worn by Americans and a lot of propaganda videos portraying the prisoners as being treated super well (which were very amusing). But all these displays were a stark contrast to the dungeon cells that they kept unruly prisoners shackled down in, the main room made to fit only 40 prisoners, but held 100 with only one barrel for a toilet, and the several methods of torture on display, along with the french guillotine used for executions.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum
Open daily 8 a.m. — 5 p.m.
The Vietnamese hold their historical women in high regard, and that is reflected in this museum. This, along with the Hỏa Lò Prison, I think are a better combination of museums that show the history of Vietnam than the actual National Museum of Vietnamese History (coming up). The exhibits in this museum highlight all aspects of what it means to be a woman in Vietnamese culture and shows profiles of numerous women of different historical backgrounds. Some standout parts for me were seeing the bamboo tubes used to keep umbilical cords until that child passes away, a bracelet given to a girl fighting the French with her name on it, so that if she died her father could ID her body, and the picture of a mother embracing her son who she thought was a traitor for years, but in actuality was a double agent.
Walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake
There’s no way you won’t walk along this lake at some point if you’re staying in the Old Quarter. Whether during the day or night, this serene body of water offers a nice getaway from the crazy traffic and there’s a good chance you’ll see folks dancing or doing Tai Chi on the shores. Take a walk over the Huc Bridge and check out the Ngoc Son Temple (Open daily 7:30 a.m. — 5:30 p.m.; 20K VND) to learn more about the myth of the giant turtle who lives in the lake and protects the magical sword used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam.
National Museum of Vietnamese History
40K VND/Adult, 15K VND/Student
Open daily 8 a.m. — noon, 1:30 p.m. — 5 p.m.
Closed 1st Monday of the month
For an overview of the history of the area, this museum encapsulates all of Vietnam’s culture and heritage dating back to its prehistoric periods. While the Hỏa Lò Prison Museum and Women’s Museum were a bit more engaging to me than this one, if you’re into archaeology, this is the place for you. On top of the prehistoric fossils and relics, the museum features several of Ho Chi Minh’s manuscripts, anti-French revolutionary artifacts, and more Vietnam War stuff. They say no photos are allowed, but no one seemed to follow those rules, so snap away.
Bach Ma Temple
Open Tue-Sunday 8 a.m. — 11 a.m., 2 p.m. — 5 p.m.
We stumbled upon this temple completely on accident, and were drawn in because they were having a concert that was open to the public. We discovered that it is supposedly the oldest temple in Hanoi. It had the most elaborate decorations of the temples we’d see in the city, and was so compact it kind of felt like going to your hoarder grandma’s house with all her trinkets and stuff everywhere (though this could be due to the fact that there was a concert going on).
Temple of Literature
30K VND/Adult, 15K VND/Student
Open daily 8 a.m. — 5 p.m.
This temple is dedicated to Confucius and is much larger than the Bach Ma Temple. It’s made up of multiple plazas and displays several dozen stone tortoises with doctors’ stelae (a stela is a tablet that acts as the story/diploma of the doctor). Multiple pagodas in the temple house shrines to kings and Confucius, and it’s easy to see how this quiet complex would be a nice place for studying.
Long Bien Bridge
If you want to go for a bit of a hike, check out the Long Bien Bridge. A symbol of the Vietnam War, this bridge was bombed by the Americans numerous times, but was always repaired and to this day represents Hanoian resilience. We didn’t actually make it all the way across, but that shouldn’t stop you if you want to try.
26 Hàng Mành, Hàng Gai, Hoàn Kiếm
Hà Nội 10000, Vietnam
Open daily 9 a.m. — 11 p.m.
Like the rest of Southeast Asia, there’s no shortage of places in Vietnam to get a massage. While I can’t speak to all of them in Hanoi, Mido Spa was quite nice. Being so affordable, I decided to try a hot stone massage for the first time and with that experience I’ve pretty much ruined all other massages for the rest of my life. The hot stones worked out the kinks better than any Swedish, Sports, Thai, or Deep Tissue massage I’ve done in the past. So with all the walking you’ll be doing, take a few hours off, and for about a quarter of the price you would pay in the U.S.– “Treat yo self!” (There are no photos because that would just be weird.)
Drinking on Ta Hien and surrounding area
At night, Ta Hien and the surrounding area turns into a smaller version of Pub Alley in Siem Reap. Tons of people are out on streets enjoying beers and street food. If you want to go really cheap, look for Bia Hoi (25 cent beers) signs and have a seat. Bia Hoi generally isn’t offered at the normal bars; it’s just random people who make kegs of it and sell it out of their homes, but it’s an actually pretty okay pilsner and, in some cases, tastes better than the already cheap $1 corporate stuff like Bia Siagon or 333. It was at one Bia Hoi stand that we met a couple from Chicago who were wrapping up a four year Peace Corps stint. We drank multiple beers together for three to four hours and our tab ended up being about $10 total! It’s in this area you can also catch live music on the streets, see the amusing “Obama” Bar, or go into a club and inhale helium out of weird balloons that they sell (really, really popular with the locals and the most bizarre thing I’ve seen at a club). They’re pretty strict about their curfew in Vietnam, so don’t expect to go out partying super late.
Dong Xuan Market and Night Market in the Old Quarter
Dong Xuan hours: Daily 7 a.m. — 9 p.m.
Like many other markets around the world, Dong Xuan Market offers the usual food, clothes, electronics, gifts, etc. for locals and tourists. On the weekends in the Old Quarter, several blocks are closed to motor traffic in order to have a pedestrian only street market that starts at Dong Xuan and runs south to the Hoan Keim Lake. It’s definitely worth taking a walk down to see, but for my money, I’d save the souvenir shopping for Hoi An (that post is upcoming).
While I’ll get to the rest of what to do in Hanoi later, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum deserves it’s own post. Ho Chi Minh is considered the father of Vietnam and is commonly referred to as Bac Ho (Uncle Ho) to the Vietnamese. His name and image are everywhere; even Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam War. So a trip to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex is a must-do when you’re in Hanoi.
The complex is a massive memorial the holds the mausoleum itself, where you can view the body of Ho Chi Minh, along with other memorials, the Presidential Palace, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and his Stilt House. It’s important to make sure that you make the mausoleum the first part of your trip to the complex (don’t confuse the museum with the mausoleum). It’s only open from 8 am–11 am on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (last entry is at 10:15 am) and is closed from September 4th–November 4th when the body is sent to Russia for maintenance.
When we showed up to the complex at 8 am, it was absolute chaos. Hundreds, possibly even thousands of people were everywhere. Soldiers lined the streets, directing different groups to different areas. The main square was an intimidatingly open space with lots of granite and Vietnamese and Soviet flags piercing the cloudy sky. In the middle was the mausoleum in all of its glory, standing tall and ominously with giant a red HO CHI MINH branded on it. It has the looks of a communist Lincoln Memorial. Hundreds of schoolchildren, all with the same adorable uniforms, stood in random lines at different points in the square. They all (and literally ALL the children) would charmingly wave and shout “HELLO!” to any person who remotely looked like a tourist. It was a strange contrast to the intimidating scene of Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place.
The square was so big that we had no idea where to go; there were lines everywhere. We first walked through a metal detector that we assumed lead to the right place, but each time we stepped in one direction, a soldier or guard would ferry us a different way. After thirty minutes of just walking with random groups around the mausoleum, we finally made it to what we thought was a ticket booth for the body viewing. We were wrong. It was a ticket booth for the museum complex. The person who worked in the booth spoke relatively good English and told us that it was free to view the body in the mausoleum, but we needed to get in line (obviously…).
So we walked back to where we started and just started to randomly ask every soldier if they could tell us where we needed to go. Finally, we found a sentry in a pearly white uniform who spoke English. He told us that we needed to walk down the street and find the end of a specific line, which he pointed us to. It was at this point that we picked up a lone Dutch backpacker who was also wandering around having the same issues as us. She had overheard our conversation with the English speaking soldier and that we actually made progress figuring out what the hell to do. So she tagged along with us as we walked, and walked, and walked until we found the end of the line.
From there, the hour and a half wait began. But it was not without it’s entertaining parts. Much like lines at Disney World, the line to get into the mausoleum wrapped in and out of random courtyards and gardens. We spent the wait time getting to know our new Dutch friend. She told us she was doing a three month solo backpacking trip throughout Southeast Asia because she just graduated from law school (jealous much?). And because she was a tall, blond, European, who stuck out like a sore thumb in the mass of shorter Vietnamese schoolchildren, she couldn’t go a hundred feet without being stopped by a random kid and asked to take a selfie. I’m not exaggerating–dozens of girls would stop her, ask for her to pose with them, and then walk away before the day was done. It was one of the more amusing things I’ve ever seen in my travels. But that’s what makes traveling great: the people you meet. Our new friend would eventually end up spending the rest of the day and night with us.
As you get closer to the entrance of the mausoleum to see Ho Chi Minh’s body, there are multiple signs with rules to follow. No pictures. No shorts. No bags. No chewing gum. No hands in pockets. No talking. On and on… You can tell that they take the body viewing extremely seriously, which is understandable considering that Ho Chi Minh is the biggest figure in Vietnamese history. As you walk up the stairs into the massive gray structure the decibel level of voices creepily gets lower and lower.
When you turn the corner to walk into the chamber, the lighting is a dark glowing red, and in the middle of the room, to my great shock, is the body Ho Chi Minh. It’s just there. Out in the open. I figured we’d see a coffin or sarcophagus, but no, he’s on fully display. Ho Chi Minh is dressed in a black robe with giant Vietnamese and Soviet flags hanging above and behind his body (think the Smithsonian Star-Spangled Banner sized flags). The body itself is in incredibly good condition, which makes sense considering that they send it to Russia every year for two months for ‘maintenance.’ It is an absolutely surreal, creepy scene.
As the soldiers move the visitors along, one of the most flabbergasting experiences I’ve ever had happened in my travels occurred. My buddy whom I frequently go on trips with is a great travel companion. I value his company whenever I’m off in some exotic land because he keeps his a good head on his shoulders and is always willing to experience new things. But there are times, such as this one, where I go…
So he’s in front of me in line, and we’re right at the spot where the body is directly facing us. He turns around, looks me in the eye, and laughingly asks “Dude, who is that?”
I see the Dutch backpacker and my sister, who are in front of him, turn their heads, completely dumbfounded. Under the watchful stare of the soldiers that fill the room, I tell my buddy (keeping my mouth shut to try and be subtle), “Duuuddddeeee, shut up and keep walking,” as I stare daggers at him.
When we leave the chamber (you only really stay in there for about thirty seconds), I ask him what the hell he was thinking and if he wanted us to get shot. I’m all for being a smart-ass and joking around every once in a while, but I could not believe he would make a joke right at that moment. However, what came out of his mouth next was even more bewildering.
“No, seriously…who was that?”
So after taking a cab to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, looking for how to get in for thirty minutes, waiting in line for an hour and a half, walking into the massive Lincoln Memorial type building with the giant words HO CHI MINH written on it, to see, without question, the biggest historical figure in Vietnam’s history, my buddy still brain farted the shit out of the experience and wasn’t sure who we were looking at…
When all is said and done, we had a good laugh about it. I handed him my Lonely Planet with the history of Vietnam earmarked for him to read while the Dutch backpacker retrieved her bag. Believe me, it will be a story I will be telling at his wedding, funeral, and many other events for years to come.
After the mausoleum visit, the rest of the complex is relatively anti-climactic. I’d say you don’t necessarily need to do it, but if you have time, since you’re there, you may as well. For $1, you can see his Stilt House, the Presidential Palace, and the museum. We didn’t actually go into the museum because it’s closed for two hours at lunch, so I can’t really give you a review of that. But the viewing of Ho Chi Minh’s body in the mausoleum itself is definitely something worth waiting around for and experiencing.
Back in 2015, I went to Southeast Asia (which is documented on this blog) and the country we had to leave out of that trip was Vietnam. We told ourselves that one day we’d dedicate an entire vacation to explore the whole country. I didn’t think it would be a short 2 years later.
Of all the Southeast Asian countries I’ve visited so far in my life, Vietnam is now at the top of the list. It’s in the perfect middle ground of development where the cities aren’t so urbanized that you have all the seedy things like prostitution everywhere, but it’s developed enough that the water is relatively clean (don’t drink it, but brushing is okay), there’s Wifi everywhere, and the people are still very friendly (and not in the they’re trying to sell you something kind of way).
And it’s still really, really cheap. $1 = 22,600 Dong (VND).
Now that all the “dong” jokes are out of the way (trust me, I made my fair share)…
Aside from some tailored suits that I bought in Hoi An, which I’ll cover later, $124/a person (U.S.) lasted the entire 2 week trip. Seriously, it covered pretty much all the food and museums. You can easily get by on eating 3 meals a day for $5 and drinking 25 cent beer the entire time since bottles of water are given to you by the hotels. The museums cost somewhere between 50 cents to $5 in most cases (if you have a student ID, that’s gold for discounts). And souvenirs? You almost feel bad paying as little as you do for gifts. So has much as you’ll cringe throwing down inevitably four figures to get to and stay in Vietnam, all the expenses while in country will be minimal.
The food in Vietnam is also easily the best of all the Southeast Asian countries. Before my trip, I kept hearing about how good the food in Singapore was, but in my opinion the food I had in Vietnam was FAR better. Although there were some culinary gems in Laos that are tough to beat, on the whole the food in Vietnam was superior because it just tasted fresher and you got more for the money. Even the chicken in our $1 noodle soup bowls (Phở) on the street tasted better than any gourmet chicken I’ve had at a U.S. restaurant. I’m guessing it’s because everything in Vietnam is as organic/free range/whatever else roaming animals do to be tasty as it gets. And my companions went absolutely fruit juice crazy with every possible fresh squeezed juice available for them to drink at a fraction of the Whole Foods price. (“Where to Eat” will be posted next.)
Hanoi itself is quite intimidating when you first get in. It’s communist government is on full display during customs check at the airport. And once you get into Hanoi proper, it’s like walking into a frenzy of Evel Knievel wannabes. Remember my mantra when going to countries such as this: Elbows in! And that certainly applies here with all the scooters, cars, and people zig zagging each and every way. It’ll take you a day or two to acclimate to the streets and get to that point where you become calm enough to be a what I call a “precision walker” and just walk across the street with no fear as traffic flies around you (you will literally have scooters and cars come within inches of you).
The cab from the airport to a hotel in the Old Quarter, which is where you’ll want to stay while in Hanoi, should be about $20 or 450,000 VND (it really will take you a while to get used to paying for things in the thousands).
Located perfectly in the Old Quarter, a quick walk from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, most of what you’ll want to see in Hanoi is within walking distance or a short cab ride away from Essence. Like a lot of Southeast Asian countries, the hotel hospitality is top notch. As you check-in you’re offered tea and a hot towel. But unlike the hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the staff here isn’t overbearing in their want to please you; they’ll give you the space you need after a long trip to get there. The rooms are not the biggest in the world, but they’re clean, and each has a laptop for guest use. The hotel also has a spa that, when we were there, has a two for one massage deal. Ultimately, two of us would each get a massage for $15.
Raffles Hotel is like the “Cheers” of Singapore. It’s a super touristy site that you kind of have to go to if you’re in Singapore for the first time. The hotel itself is pretty cool; it’s one of those turn of the 20th century looking, old school hotels that gives you the feeling when you walk in that you’re a European on some grand, exotic journey.
It costs a pretty penny to stay there, but most people only visit for its claim to fame–the site of the creation of the Singapore Sling. Note: There is no dress code to get into the bar, despite what the guidebooks say. There is however a dress code to enter the hotel, but when we visited they weren’t letting non-guests into the lobby to take pictures anyways, something they supposedly normally do.
I had heard of this cocktail before, but as far as fruity cocktails go I never really tried it because a Pina Colada, Mojito, or Daiquiri was always closer to the top of my preference list. When in Singapore though, get a Singapore Sling. So we went to the bar, waited a generous 20 minutes or so to get in, dove into the free bowls of roasted peanuts they have out (there are peanut shells all over the place so if you’ve got an allergy, stay away) and ordered our whopping $31 SGD Singapore Sling cocktail. The drink itself is essentially pineapple/cherry juice with gin (a whole lot more juice than gin I’m afraid…). Was the drink worth that price? No. Was it good? Actually yeah, it was super refreshing after a hot day of walking around.
Afterwards, you can pop into the nearby St. Andrew’s Cathedral which is down the street. It’s worth seeing while you’re there, but nothing special so you can just make it a quick stop.
The museums aren’t worth visiting just for the historical lesson; they are a great excuse to get out of the heat! If you only have time for one museum, this is the one that I would suggest prioritizing. From this museum we discovered that for such a small city, Singapore does have an incredibly rich history. The closest thing I can compare it to is Jerusalem. Singapore, like Jerusalem, is a giant melting pot of so many Asian, European, Arab, and Australian cultures, and much of that history is on display at this museum.
A lot of the museum is dedicated to Lee Kuan Yew who in 1965 was elected the country’s first Prime Minister after years of French, Dutch, and Portuguese colonization. The highlight of the museum is watching him give his acceptance speech and pointing out that Singapore is “not just Malay, not just Indian, not just Chinese,” but a the “multi-racial” country that values all its diversity.
One rather unique exhibit is the Glass Rotunda upstairs. In there, projection lights shine through stain glass displays creating a pretty cool revolving show. And if time permits, stop into the Food for Thought café in the museum lobby. The food is more expensive than you would typically pay for in Singapore, but a portion of the proceeds go to aid charities.
The Peranakan Museum is dedicated to the local Peranakan culture and is an idealistic showing of how their local culture is a successful mix of several races into one. The museum is broken up into separate rooms, each displaying different parts of Peranakan culture: weddings, religion, home life, education, etc.
The big exhibit consists of really impressive glass beaded artwork from blankets to kitchenware to clothes. Other items on display include a cool food and feasting gallery, a room filled with shrines worshiping deities (including an odd Asian Christian one that has Jesus Christ surrounded by bunch of Asian stuff) and funeral room exhibit.
The funeral room in particular is a little creepy to be honest (there are signs warning visitors that it might not be good for children) with a coffin on display and examples of unsettling mirrors marked with a big “X” to mark the death of a family member. I’m not usually weirded out by that kind of stuff, but it did send a bit of a chill down my spine (though nothing compared to what would come in Hanoi…more on that later…).
Fort Canning Park and Marina Bay
Singapore has a ton of green space and a great harbor that are fantastic areas to just lounge around, people watch, and relax. Problem for us was that it was raining–a lot. So our trip from Marina Bay to Fort Canning was a deluge of a mess. As such, we opted not to spend the $$ to go to up to one of the popular rooftop bars on the water just to get the same sight that I saw on Table Mountain in South Africa…
That being said, the walk around Marina Bay is worth doing.
It’s also not hard to see that Fort Canning Park is a great spot to take a long walk as well on a sunnier day. One thing we did miss out on that I really wanted to see was the Battlebox Museum. Our Lonely Planet guide gave us incomplete visiting hour information–while the museum, yes, is open during the range of hours that the guidebook provided, it’s only open to those who have a guided tour, which happen only at 3 or 4 selected times during that range of hours…I was none too thrilled to discover that.
Going on a safari is a must when traveling to South Africa. There are several safaris available in country (the most famous being in Kruger National Park), but the one we chose was in the 22,000 acre Entabeni Game Reserve. After a quick flight to Johannesburg from Cape Town, the bus ride out to Entabeni is about 3 hours. Our tour guide on the bus really hams it up as we enter the reserve and the gates open, announcing over the loud speaker “Welcome…to Africa” (cue the John Williams music).
In order to maximize the time, they start the safari right away, so be prepared to have anything you need for the next few hours and into the evening because it does get very cold as the sun goes down. We hopped off the bus and into open air Land Cruisers (while your luggage makes its way to the lodge). These are not your suburbanites’ Land Cruisers either. These vehicles are the real deal, taking 10 of us over boulders and on 45-degree rocky inclines and declines. I’ve got to hand it to the folks at Disney World because the rocky wildness of the Indiana Jones ride is a spot on copy of how ruggedly off road we were going.
We spent a few hours out in the safari and immediately saw wallabies, which got everyone amusingly super excited. I say amusingly because seeing a wallaby is like getting into a tizzy over seeing a squirrel in the city; by the end of the trip, after seeing hundreds of wallabies, no one gave a shit about them. So don’t go crazy wasting film on them if that’s the first thing you see.
We did however also see rarer creatures in the wild. Because there are too many animals to list out, you’ll be able to see what we encountered in the galleries below. Over the next few days we’d go on excursions at sunrise (waking up very early) and sundown, as those are the best times to try and see the animals. They key animals that you want to try and spot are the big five game animals: the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. During our time we were lucky enough to see all except the leopard, a historically hard animal to spot because they usually only come out at night and are very shy.
Our lodge was located at the top of a mountain in the reserve and it takes about 30 minutes to get from the lodge to the main areas where the animals reside. The lodge itself is extremely comfortable and the tap water there is safe; we were not roughing it at all. Huge rooms, hot showers, comfortable beds, outdoor patios, a spa, and a pool–the place has it all. And don’t worry, they have South African plug adapters available for guests. We were however warned to stay in lighted areas as to not get attacked by an elephant or rhino or something.
All the rangers who acted as our guides were highly knowledgeable, super friendly, and worked very well together over radio to call out where particular animals could be sighted. For example, believe it or not, trying to find elephants is NOT as easy as you’d imagine. Despite their size, elephants are actually extremely quiet (unless of course you piss them off), so it did take a lot of driving, tracking, and radio chatter among the rangers to pin down their location.
If you can get access to one, I’d highly recommend bringing a camera with a telephoto lens. Although an iPhone works fine, the rangers might not necessarily be able to get you super close, so you’ll really want the real deal if you’re going to take pictures. By the end of the trip, I wanted to stay another week. It literally is the Lion King come to life out there (I swear we saw the cliff that had to be the inspiration for Pride Rock). With the animals walking right up to and around the Land Cruisers, you’re equal to them like no where else in the world. Specifically the cheetahs–yeah they’re really badass–and the lion parents with their playing cubs were so close you could pet them (and then immediately get your hand ripped off). It’s a beautiful experience, one that’s worth the price and time to get.
Penguins? In Africa? That was my first reaction when I heard that African penguins existed, as I always thought they were animals native to Antarctica. But an African penguin colony was one of the stops we made on a half day trip we took with a personal guide named Answan (who had some really, really interesting stories himself about growing up during apartheid). If you’re able, try and get out of Cape Town for a few hours and check out some of the surrounding areas such as Kalk Bay where you can see seals hanging out on the docks in a similar fashion to the sea lions in San Francisco.
We also drove to Simon’s Town to visit the aforementioned Boulders Penguin Colony to visit the hundreds of African penguins. There’s a 70 rand fee (which is like $5) to walk along the boardwalk to see the animals and needless to say the little guys were charming to watch.
Lastly, a trek out to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point rounded out the half day. Good Hope represents the furthest southwest point in South Africa on the Atlantic side while it’s compadre Good Point is close by on the Indian Ocean side. Marine biologists say that the Cape of Good Hope is where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. It’s here that you can get magnificent views of the crystal blue oceans and breathe in fresh air. The hike up to the light house at the top of Cape Point is relatively challenging, but there is a tram available. Be warned: There’s is constantly construction on the one road leading to this area so there’s a high chance you’ll hit delays either coming to or from Good Hope/Point.
Looming over Cape Town is the beautiful Table Mountain, a must visit on any Cape Town trip. Just like stupid Robben Island, Table Mountain is subject to worker strikes that may or may not make your excursion possible. On our visit, there was a strike going on and there was a 50/50 chance of us being able to go up. Unlike Robben Island however, we were able to make this stop actually happen because the day of our visit the workers and employers and come to an agreement.
That being said, it was a little cloudy on the day we went which is not uncommon, so keep that in mind. But we were lucky enough to catch a few breaks in the clouds to get some spectacular views of Cape Town.
There are multiple trails of varying degrees of difficulty to hike up or you can take a 4-minute, 255R cablecar ride that has a pretty cool 360 degree rotating floor. As a group, we took the cablecar, but a return trip to South Africa to hike up the mountain has been added to my to-do list. Once at the top, there are 15-, 30-, and 60-minute trails to walk around the top of mountain as well as cafes for refreshments. A rock climbing company was also at the top offering tourists a chance to scale down the side of the mountain (another on my to-do list), and you’ll most likely run into a dassie or two, an indigenous animal that looked like a mix of a squirrel and a gopher.