Tuesday, May 28, 2024

May 22: Mekong River Delta + Water Puppets!

Like Singapore, I am discovering that cafes in Vietnam don’t sell food and restaurants typically don’t open before 10am. If you want an early morning breakfast, your options are a street vendor (the local preference) or a 24h restaurant (which seem designed for drunk tourists in the wee hours). 

Still being nervous about street food, I had the dubious honor of being the first customer at a 24h restaurant near my homestay. The restaurant specialized in seafood but had a big vegetarian section on their menu. 

I sat down and ordered a vegetarian pho (brothy rice noodle soup) and an iced coffee with milk. The server told me the pho might take 20 minutes, was that ok? I checked the time; I still had 45 minutes before my scheduled tour pickup. 

When the coffee arrived, I took one sip and realized I couldn’t stomach the intensity of the sweetened condensed milk that is the standard for “white coffee” in Vietnam. So I asked for another iced coffee, this time black, and mixed the two. Then it was yummy to my American tastes :)

15 minutes later, the server returned to tell me that the kitchen had made the wrong thing and that I’d need to wait another 15 for what I’d ordered. I asked what they’d made; it was just stir fried noodles instead of soup. I told her that was fine, I’d eat the noodles because I was limited on time. 

She then brought out her mobile POS system and told me that the noodles were more expensive and I’d need to pay the difference. For something I didn't order and didn't really want! So I told her nevermind, I'd wait for the soup after all and just eat it souper fast. 

I needed to visit an ATM to get cash for the day, so I asked the server if I could do that while I waited for the pho. She told me there was one just down the road and that she’d give me a ride there on her motor scooter. 

Of course this might seem sketchy, but it was 7:30am and the server was a tiny teenage girl so I just went for it. 

She told me to bring my coffee, which was in a very full glass. Hands full of coffee and my phone and hat, I climbed onto her scooter behind her and made the whole thing wobble precariously as we took off. She laughed at my lack of balance as I laughed nervously at not being able to hold on beyond my legs. We zoomed down the street to the end of the block, where she pointed me to an ATM. 

I withdrew some cash without issue, and then the server led me to a table at a restaurant next door. She communicated that this was a sister restaurant and I was to eat here instead. 

“But wait,” I protested, “I left my ($80 special filtering) water bottle and the other half of my coffee at the first restaurant!” (Remember, I had two coffees 😆) 

Not understanding at first, the server tried harder to explain that the restaurants were the same. Then she finally asked indignantly why I’d left my belongings behind! 

“Because I didn’t know this was a one-way journey,” I thought bemusedly. 

“Because I didn’t have enough hands to carry everything,” I told her. 

So she sent a different server back for the rest of my things. Thankfully, my pho showed up right around then. I slurped for about five minutes before realizing I was completely out of time. So I got the (new) server to pack it up for me, guzzled the rest of my coffee, and literally sprinted back to my homestay to grab my bag. 

my hard-earned breakfast

...which I ate on a bus :)

The tour pickup arrived just as I came back down the stairs. I boarded a giant white bus with the words “Saigon Adventures” stamped on the side, greeted by an English-speaking guide named Sang. 

Sang spent the rest of the day shepherding our group of 22 Europeans and Americans through a whirlwind tour of the Mekong River Delta, showing us glimpses of the local culture through food, drink, music, and visual art/handicrafts. 

First, Sang brought us to this Buddhist pagoda

happy buddah

I bought myself some ice cream (and iced coffee) because it was very hot

Then they put us on this boat...

...and took us to an island on the river where we were given honey/bee-pollen tea

...and presented with the bees themselves

then we tried this "royal jelly," which I later learned is a "glandular secretion" of nurse bees! they feed it to their larvae. 

Then we were put back on the boat and given young coconuts to drink and eat

then they put us on "punt" boats propelled by tiny old women using long poles

...and we were given Vietnamese hats to wear so that we'd ~fit in~

then we tasted some delicious chocolate

then they loaded us into these little trucks and drove us around in circles until we ended up at a big souvenir warehouse type thing...

...where we were shown how coconut candy is made!

spoiler alert: it comes from a coconut

...which gets mashed by this machine...

and melted with these contraptions...

...and transformed into a kind of taffy to which you can add any flavor, like pandan or peanut.

These women were very eager to sell the coconut candy to us.

Next, the boat brought us to a different island for lunch! We got seated according to our dining preferences, so I was at a table with the vegetarians. I forgot to take a photo of our food but felt a need to document this giant vertical fish about to be consumed by the fish-eating table.

Then I rode a bike around the island!

Then we took the first boat back to the bus. There were lots of these floating plants in the river; I"m still not sure what they are. Also a lot of trash, which I did not photograph.

We got back to HCMC around 4:45pm. I immediately set out again and walked 30 minutes to the Golden Dragon Theatre to buy a ticket to the 6:30pm water puppet show. 

pretty park I walked through

I then went to a high-rise hotel for a drink at their rooftop bar, but realized 5 minutes after I'd ordered that I needed to leave in the next 10 minutes if I was going to be on time for the show.

So I took my beautiful cocktail...

In a to-go coffee cup!

The water puppet show was highly entertaining. There were 10 or 12 short acts, each with titles like "Catching Frogs" or "Unicorn Dance." I am still baffled by how the puppeteers do their job, but I know it involves them being submerged in the water, behind a screen, for the entire hour. My favorite part, though, was the live music. The musicians also sometimes did some voice acting and other sound effects for the performance, which was really really fun. 

this was a fairy dance

you can see the musicians on the sides

see the hands waving from under the screen 😂

my homestay was at the end of this super cute alley :D

May 21: Twelve Hours in Singapore

I landed in Singapore at 11pm the night of the 20th and got to my hostel at midnight. The open doorway led to a tiny foyer featuring two large electronic kiosks and a silver elevator door.

I keyed in my information and scanned my passport at one of the kiosks, which in return spat out a room key for me, along with a paper receipt instructing me on how to find my room. I stepped into the elevator and rode to the third floor, where I found a landing with a wall of small lockers and a sign instructing me to remove my shoes. The locker with my room number had an electronic lock that chirped open when I pressed my key card in front of it. 

Having left my sneakers in the locker, I walked in socks to my room, which was a dorm room with "capsule" bunks embedded in the wall, like an upgraded Bromo Camp.

I set down my bag in the designated luggage area, put my valuables in a different locker nearby, and then crawled into bed for 4.5 short hours of sleep. When you only have 12 hours in Singapore, you can't waste them all by sleeping! 

My alarm went off at 5am. I groggily gathered my things for the day and then walked 15 minutes through the dark, quiet streets to the only cafe open at that hour: the international chain Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. I delighted in the ability to order an iced drink without asking how the ice was made, as Singapore has potable tap water. 

Cold brew and blueberry muffin in hand, I called a Grab to take me to my top destination for the day: the Gardens by the Bay. My plan was to watch the 7am sunrise there, but I wanted to get there early enough to see it in true darkness, too, as the Supertrees are decorated with colored lights. I got there around 6am, according to my plan, and loved walking around the quiet gardens in the dark. I was a little nervous about getting assaulted/kidnapped, as the gardens were very dark and practically empty— but I had my pepper spray in hand and reminded myself that Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world (with only New Zealand and a handful of European countries ahead of it in the rankings). And it was #worthit to see the lights.

There wasn't much of a sunrise due to heavy cloud cover, but I was still glad for the chance to see the gardens in the dark and in the early morning light.

Dragonfly Lake <3

Marina Bay Sands

Singapore Flyer, one of the largest observation wheels in the world

Supertree Grove! With the Cloud Forest structure on the left

made a friend

sunrise over the bay!

floating baby, anyone?

reminds me of what my leg tattoo was supposed to look like

I walked through the gardens slowly to stretch out the time til 7:40am, because no food-selling businesses in Singapore open before 8am. And the only place with food that opens as early as 8am is a food court in the basement of a swanky office building, a 15 minute walk from the gardens. So that's where I headed next. 

There, I found some sweet bao buns and a weird pancake thing with ground peanuts inside. 

I believe this is black sesame

food court peanut pancake

Around 9am, I walked back to my hostel to shower (I felt absolutely disgusting from having traveled and sweated and not showered the previous day) and check out. They let me leave my bag while I explored the city a bit more before my 3:20pm flight...

4 australian oranges freshly squeezed by this vending machine for just SGD$2! (USD$1.50)

the Chinatown markets (near where I was staying) were still opening up at 10am

at this point it was already 90 degrees out

My next stop was the Peranakan Museum, which showcases the diverse but related cultures of Southeast Asia. The port cities of this region have been linked for millennia by maritime trade; there was even a simplified form of the Malay language used specifically for trade, called Bazaar Malay. 

The museum had a big exhibit on embroidered Japanese silks that were used to wrap gifts. I made my own using their software program and got it projected on the wall :D 
mine is the big maroon one

There were also exhibits on clothing, jewelry, home furnishings and decorative arts, and food. It was a lovely way to spend an hour in air conditioning :) 

My final stop in Singapore was a hole-in-the-wall vegetarian Chinatown restaurant that gave me quite possibly the best meal of my trip so far. It was a cash-only establishment where strangers shared tables to maximize space. You could choose from a small (but overflowing) buffet of food, or order off a menu. I asked a server to recommend a dish for me and added on the satay, since that's usually made of meat. It was all incredibly delicious.

After lunch I walked the short distance back to my hostel to pick up my bag and call a Grab to the airport. The Singapore airport is gorgeous, as you might expect.

ft. live goldfish in a crystal-clear artificial pond

"Passengers are *advised* to *avoid* making any *comments* that *would threaten* the safety of the flight"

It was a 2.5h flight to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). I got to my homestay around 6pm, grabbed a quick dinner nearby, FaceTimed a bit with Brina, and then hit the hay early to catch up on sleep!