Video: Jeep Tour of Hoi An, Da Nang, and everything in-between

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.

Pros:

  • 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.
You get to talk to some of the local children and help them practice their English since they don’t get to do it that often outside of the classroom.

  • 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.

Cons:

  • 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.

Hoi An

Of all the places we visited in Vietnam, it’s probably safe to say Hoi An was my favorite. Remember when I said that Luang Prabang was surprisingly my favorite part of our last SE Asia trip? Well in the same way, Hoi An is the city that wasn’t as famous as Hanoi or Saigon and that I knew the least about (like Luang Prabang), yet its small village, relaxing atmosphere made it the best part of the trip.

Where To Stay

La Residencia
35 Đào Duy Từ, Cẩm Phô
Tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam

I really liked this hotel. The location is perfect because it’s right outside of Old Town on the west side, so it’s closest to all the street food and the Night Market. The room we had was large and comfortable enough for three people, had a balcony, and the hotel provides a really good breakfast buffet. The employees were also very friendly and helpful and the price, unsurprisingly, was great ($53/night). It’s a bit of a walk to get into town, but it’s not overly exerting. And it’s much quieter at night because it’s not in the center of everything.

What To Do

The best way to take in Hoi An is to just walk around and get lost with all the other backpackers. Hoi An isn’t as remote as Luang Prabang, which makes it a bit more manageable in terms of getting around (there are no rickety old bridges that you have to cross over and over again to get into town). But it’s also not as touristy as Siem Reap, so it’s not overwhelmingly in your face like that city.

In order to see most of the historical sights within Old Town like the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation you need to buy a 120 dong ticket. You’re forced to purchase one at ticket booths on the outskirts of Old Town. Do not lose the ticket because they will check to see if you have one every time you walk in and out of Old Town.

Hoi An’s architecture was able to survive a lot of the 20th century wars, so strolling through town is like walking through a time capsule. In the evening, the Night Market bustles with pedestrians under the hundreds of colorful lanterns and, like the market in Luang Prabang, is filled with vendors where you can get souvenirs.

Get suited up.  They may as well call Hoi An “Tailor Town” because there are dozens of tailoring shops that line the streets of this small town. Some are obviously better than others, but in general I think you’ll find a deal on clothes no matter where you go. My buddy and I ultimately ended up getting suits made at Kimmy Tailor (which is a top rated store in both Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor). For $420 I bought 2 tailored suits and a tie. The process took three trips over the course of our stay there, but they can do it in fewer if you’re pressed for time (they just won’t be able to make small adjustments).

As of this writing, the suits have held together well and are still top notch. A competing store that we considered, Bebe Tailor, offered 2 suits for $385, and while that price is lower, Kimmy’s employees seemed a bit more on top of their work and the material was a little bit better. But if you’re a woman, Bebe does offer far more women’s options (my sister ended up getting a tailored suit from Bebe for $150).

Eat all the cheap food.  Specifically, eat Cao Lau. This is a dish you’re only going to find in Hoi An, and it was probably one of my favorite meals of the trip. The noodle dish is the perfect mix of pasta-y, salty, veggie, meaty, crunchy deliciousness with just the right amount of broth–all for $1. Also, go to Banh Mi Phuong and get a banh mi sandwich. Look for the place with a picture of Anthony Bourdain proudly displayed. Order the #9 (Pork, Ham, and Pate) for one of the best sandwiches you’ll get for 75 cents. If you go at lunch, expect a line.

Take a ride in a Basket Boat. In all honesty, we kind of ran into this activity by accident on our hike out of Hoi An to find Pho Dua Coconut City. On our way, we saw the Le Ha Basket Boat outfit and decided on a whim to give a go. For 100K dong, you can paddle your way through the coconut fields in a bamboo fishing basket. It makes for a fun, really unique experience. Our guide also provided us with Asian conical hats which made for some pretty ridiculously hilarious pictures. Note: I couldn’t find a website for the company; it was a pretty local outfit. At the end, our boat guide actually guided us back to her own house along the river where we disembarked.

Light a candle and put the lantern into the Thu Bồn River. Hoi An is the most tranquil at night, and the hundreds of candles floating down the river are a huge part of giving it that serene evening atmosphere. There are several meanings behind the floating candles, but I think it’s best to take the beauty of the tradition and interpret it however you’d like that’s personal to you.

Take a Jeep tour.  More to come in the next post.

Overnight cruise on Halong Bay

A popular excursion from Hanoi is a trip to Halong Bay. While doing an overnight cruise isn’t a must-do, I would highly recommend it. It offers you the chance to take in the natural wonder leisurely, and there’s nothing like a quiet boat ride to de-stress you.

Before I get into the review of Halong Bay, I should begin by telling you that the weather was not nice.  And apparently, that’s not uncommon.  While I still enjoyed the time we spent out there, it would have been immeasurably nicer if the weather wasn’t cloudy the entire time.  So keep that in mind.

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The boat we chose for our cruise was Dragon Legend with the Indochina Junk company.  This was not the cheapest option ($200), but quite honestly none of us wanted to go cheap on this since we’d be staying on the boat overnight.  So I can tel you, the price is worth it.  The staff was very friendly, and very organized.  The boat was extraordinarily nice, the food was included and quite good, and the alcohol was reasonably priced (remember that reasonable in Vietnam still means dirt cheap).  It wasn’t overly crowded (there were about 30 passengers) and the rooms were super clean/comfortable.  The boat had a very nice sundeck, pool, and hot tub as well.

As far as the activities go, the cruise staff organized a 1-hour tour of the bay (we were actually in Bai Tu Long Bay which is the less touristy section of Halong Bay) via either kayak or ferry boat. They offered primarily two-person kayaks, however there were a couple of single person kayaks that you can specifically ask to use. Again, because of the cloudy weather, the kayaking wasn’t really all that great, but it was strikingly calm out on the water and very serene.

There’s also a cave walk that the staff will take you into, which again was pretty cool if you’ve never done before. If you have, it won’t be anything that you haven’t already seen to be honest.

Surprisingly, my favorite activity was the morning Tai Chi class on the sundeck.  It’s hard to put into words how calming and mentally refreshing it felt to be doing those exercises in the cool, crisp, clean morning air.

Ultimately, I would recommend this boat and company, good weather or bad. If you get good weather, the $200 is really worth it at that point. But I’m confident it’ll be a nice excursion nevertheless.

 

 

Hanoi: What to Do

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
30K VND
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.

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Vietnamese Women’s Museum
30K VND
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.

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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.

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Bach Ma Temple
No charge
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.

Mido Spa
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.)

and for cheap!

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).

Coming Up: Halong Bay

 

Hanoi: What to Eat

Like I said in my previous post, Singapore gets all the good press for excellent food in Southeast Asia. But in my humble opinion Vietnam takes top billing.  Honestly, you can go to any street or alley and find something that delicious and cheap. Generally, throughout the trip, we found that actual restaurant food was never really as good as the random street food we’d find.

I’m so glad that this is a written blog and not a video blog otherwise I would have inevitably butchered the names of all the random food places we dined in. With that, here are a few eating spots I can point to that are worth trying out if you’re in that area (again, regardless of where you go to eat, it’ll probably be good).

Phở

Phở is the quintessential Vietnamese dish.  You can get it everywhere in the country and regardless of one’s social status, you’ll see all types of people sitting on the little plastic stools enjoying a bowl.  It’s made up of some type of meat (usually chicken or pork), herbs, noodles, with sides of vegetables, peppers, and garlic that you can add in. I generally eat phở in the U.S. for dinner, but I was surprised to learn that in Vietnam it’s actually a popular breakfast dish (the phở joint across from where I live isn’t even open for breakfast). So when in Vietnam, eat phở in the morning–which is what we did. It’ll only cost you around $1-$2 for a bowl. As we ate, it was relatively amusing to see the faces of the locals watching me take pictures of the food and venue. I’m sure it’s what I would look like if I saw a tourist taking a picture of a doughnut at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Here are two of the phở places we had breakfast that stood out.

Quán phở Sướng
24B Ngõ Trung Yên, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

This place was recommended by the hotel and it hit the spot.  The phở was fresh tasting, hot, cheap, and delicious.

Bun Rieu Cua
40 Hàng Tre, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

This is a popular local spot to try bun rieu cua, which is a phở cooked in a with spicy crab broth.  Lonely Planet said they only serve it for a few hours in the morning. And we could tell because there were several locals ready to sit when the place opened.  It wasn’t quite as good as Quán phở Sướng because I found the crab broth to be a bit too seafoody, but it’s still very good.

Vietnamese Coffee

Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện
Tạ Hiện, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

The Vietnamese love their coffee, and we, like the locals, drank this stuff pretty much every day (usually Iced to combat the heat). What sets Vietnamese coffee apart is the sweetened condensed milk they add in, giving it a uniquely sweet dairy flavor. I wouldn’t recommend ordering Vietnamese coffee without the milk because it is incredibly bitter on its own. While there are coffee chains all over, such as Highlands Coffee, those locations tend to overdo the sweetened condensed milk, so it becomes more like a frappuccino (though we did figure out that you can ask for half the amount of milk to make it less sweet). The best places to get coffee are just the random local cafes where you sit on the sidewalk, like Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện.

Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện

This no nonsense, no frills cafe always seemed to have people on little plastics stools spilling out of it into the street. As far as we could tell they only really sold coffee, which is fine because it’s not the most comfortable place to lounge around for a long period of time. But their coffee was the best we had in Hanoi.

Bun Cha

Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim
67 Đường Thành, SHàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Yes, the name of the place is a mouthful. But on the flip side, because the name is so long it’s very easy to spot the sign on the crazy street it’s on. Very similar to phở, but much heartier and less brothy, bun cha is another noodle bowl that’s main ingredient is barbecue roast pork with thinner vermicelli noodles. Served separated, you mix together the chunks of pork, noodles, and vegetables together as you’d like it. Obviously order the bun cha, but I’d also recommend getting a side order of nem cua be (spring rolls) to share.  Not everyone needs to get the spring rolls; one side order is enough for two people.  The price is around $4 for bun cha and spring rolls.

Banh Goi

Quán gốc Đa
52 Lý Quốc Sư, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Banh Goi are essentially Vietnamese empanadas and they make the perfect to-go food if you’re walking around Hanoi. There are different types, which I’m sure have specific names, but I ended up just pointing at different shaped ones and rolling with it. Most should have some sort of pork in them. You’ll see these everywhere, but Lonely Planet suggested this one stall near St. Joseph’s Cathedral that had some of the most dynamite finger food ever (you can get 3 for like $1).

Sticky Rice

Xôi Yến
35B Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Rice is unsurprisingly a staple Asian food, but I always thought sticky rice was more of a Laos, Chinese, Sushi type food and never really thought of it when thinking of Vietnamese cuisine. Most of the guidebooks say, like phở, sticky rice is generally eaten for breakfast in Vietnam. The Chinese in me wasn’t feeling that. I’m sure the locals do it, but where I come from, sticky rice is served with dinner and, unlike the phở, we weren’t really budging from that stance.  Sticky rice is just too damn heavy for breakfast.

Xôi Yến is open all day and night, so people do eat it around the clock, and when we showed up at dinner time it was busy as ever. The sticky rice comes with your choice of two toppings. The choices vary from every type of meat to vegetarian options like dried mung beans.  Again, it’s a cheap, quick option if you’re tired of noodle bowls and what something a little heavier.

So much Sticky Rice

I’d avoid…

Lonely Planet in general is a good guidebook, but there are some misses.  Two in particular.  The first one is Minh Thuy’s.  It wasn’t even there.  They said it’s a must-try and it doesn’t even exist anymore (I emailed Lonely Planet to tell them to update their guidebook for the next edition).  The second place is Koto Restaurant near the Temple of Literature.  This place wasn’t bad; generally it’s always nice to be able to get off the streets and sit down in a nice, air conditioned restaurant with tablecloths every once in a while.  But the food was as “meh” as I can describe, and pricier than what you’d find on the street. The only reason I’d say it’s okay to go is because Koto operates as a hospitality training school for some of Vietnam’s most disadvantaged young people.  So while their food might be pedestrian, and cost a little high, at least it’s going to a good cause.

Hanoi: Where to Stay

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.)

The ultimate cheap, fresh, delicious eats. Everything in this picture probably cost a total of $4.

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).

Essence Hanoi Hotel & Spa
22A Tạ Hiện, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm
Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam

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.

 

Singapore: What to do

What to do (aside from shopping your mind out on Orchard Road)

Raffles Hotel
1 Beach Rd, Singapore 189673

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.

Singapore Slings

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.

St. Andrew’s Cathedral

National Museum of Singapore
93 Stamford Road, Singapore 178897
$15 SGD

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.

National Museum of Singapore

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.

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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.

Peranakan Museum
39 Armenian St, Singapore 179941
$10 SGD

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.

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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.

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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…

On a cloudy day, the view is awesome.

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.

Also, if you happen to be around Fort Canning on a Sunday, and you time your walk right, you can catch the ceremonial changing of the guard at the Istana (President’s residence) on Orchard Road.

Ceremonial changing of the guard