Our second full day in Saigon started off with a sobering visit to the Vietnam War Remnants museum. We took photos with the U.S. tanks and planes that were displayed in front of the museum... but that's where the photos stopped. What we saw in the museum was too disturbing to capture.
We were warned by our Cu Chi tour guide that the museum would have a very anti-American sentiment, and he was not kidding. The museum touted Americans as being terrible people and showed very graphic images from the war. It was difficult to look at the photos. And, it was a little uneasy for me to speak in front of others as I felt those around us were judging us for being American.
The brutality of war is very disturbing, no matter what side you're on. I venture to guess that both sides were equally violent, and in the museum, I had to keep reminding myself that we were only seeing one side of the story.
We saw several old men who we guessed were veterans of the war. I can't imagine how they felt as they walked through the museum. I noticed one man who had stopped in the middle of the floor, looking off into the distance at nothing with glossy eyes - he looked like he might cry. His wife came to his side and consoled him before he started walking again.
The museum is a very emotional experience - one that I'm glad to have had.
View of Saigon from the Rex Hotel roof
Saigon is a city full of scooters and the traffic is nuts. I kid you not - we saw entire families of two parents and four children crammed on to one scooter! The way the scooter drivers wove in and out of traffic was amazing, but a little nerve wracking if you're a passenger in a car. Cars are constantly honking to warn scooter drivers to get out of the way. And crossing the street... that's a whole different adventure. I felt like I was playing Frogger.
After the Cu Chi tunnels tour, we headed back to Saigon to tour the Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Palace. The palace was the headquarters of the South Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War. At the end of the war, the North Vietnamese army drove a tank through the front gates of the palace, signifying the end of the war and the "reunification" of the two sides.
The palace is preserved in its 1970's form which I thought was pretty neat because we got to see the environment as it was during the Vietnam War. The first and second floors primarily had offices and meeting rooms while the third and fourth floors had entertainment and dance halls. The basement held all of the communications rooms, including president's quarters, and we saw maps that detailed troop positions. Who knows what key decisions were made at the time!
We loved the 70's decor - Austin Powers was here...
The Reunification Palace tour rounded out our first full day in Saigon. Afterwards, we wandered the city, checking out the Ben Thanh night market. We discovered a great art gallery and bought some paintings (I can't wait to hang them up when we return to the states!). To top off the day, we had desserts at the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel and the view was great (see the photo above). It was a relaxing way to end a very busy day in Saigon!
Joe and I on the Cu Chi Tunnels tour
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is unlike any city I've ever explored. This trip held a special place in my heart because my father fought in the Vietnam War. Since he was based near Saigon, I've always wanted to visit the city. Although I experienced Saigon under totally different circumstances, I kept thinking to myself, "Are these the jungles my dad trekked through and did he walk the streets I'm winding down?"
Side note: because we had a jam-packed trip, I'm splitting my blog entries about Saigon into multiple parts.
I call Ho Chi Minh City "Saigon" because the native Saigonese people say they prefer the name as a symbol of their heritage. After the Vietnam War ended and the communist North Vietnamese government took hold of South Vietnam, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to remind the Saigonese people of their defeat. Statues and pictures of President Ho Chi Minh are all around town, which I imagine was another way to defeat the spirit of the Saigonese people.
Entrance to tunnel... barely longer than my foot!
To begin our exploration of Vietnam, we took a tour to the famed Cu Chi Tunnels. Our guide explained that when Vietnam was a French colony, the Cu Chi villagers evaded the French by digging a system of intricate tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels are made up of 250 km of tunnels, including three levels with designated kitchen bunkers, meeting rooms and hospital wards. When the Vietnam War rolled around, the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) used the tunnels to their advantage. During the day they avoided American troops by escaping into the tunnels and came out at night to fight with guerilla tactics. Those who didn't come out to fight stayed in the tunnels for days on end. There are no lights in the tunnels and they are extremely small (the Cu Chi villagers were tiny), so it is amazing that anyone could live in the claustrophobic environment. The history is fascinating and I can't do it justice in this blog, so I encourage you to read more about the Cu Chi Tunnels here
The Viet Cong used secret entrances (there are many of them along the tunnel system) to get in and get out of the tunnels. The entrances are tiny and it is incredible to think that people just popped in and out of them (see the video demonstration below). Our guide said we could try going into the tunnels this way, but I passed on the offer!
Inside the tunnel
Later in the tour we had a chance to crawl through the tunnels. To accommodate bigger, western tourists, the tour site created bigger entrances to the tunnels and also expanded the tunnels so we wouldn't get stuck. Once I was in the tunnel I had to hunch over to shuffle through. Some of the taller people on the tour had to crawl on their hands and knees. I don't like dark spaces, so getting through the tunnel was a little scary. Everyone kept taking photos so that the flashes from our cameras would light our path. And, with little ventilation in the tunnels, it was hot and a little difficult to breathe.
After 20m, the tour guide gave us the option of continuing through the tunnels or getting out. I chose to exit! I was impressed by a group of tourists (I think from Australia) who ventured the entire 200m of the tour tunnel! Apparently when you continue through the tunnels you hit some bottlenecks that are really small and you go further and further underground through lower levels - I can't imagine how the Australians squeezed through!
A U.S. tank that was immobilized by a land mine
There was a shooting range on the tour in which tourists could try shooting guns that were used during the Vietnam War. I have to admit, it was a little creepy hearing the loud blasts of the guns as we walked through Cu Chi - I felt like there was a war going on around me. There were several times when the grounds would go quiet, and then all of a sudden a machine gun would go off and people would jump out of their skin!
Another creepy thing was that the tour guide said although Cu Chi was combed over for any land mines that might be out in the fields, there could still be active ones hidden in the foliage. So, he asked that we stay on the walking path (and I did!).
Towards the end of the tour, we had a chance to see remnants of weapons used in the war, including a U.S. tank that was immobilized by a land mine. Notice that Joe is wearing army fatigue colors in the photo - with his shaved head he looked like he was in the military!
The Cu Chi tour took a half day, and as you can see, it was very interesting. More to come on Saigon in Part 2 of my story. Stay tuned!
The monkey that chased me
Yes, I was chased by a monkey yesterday and it was quite a frightening experience! We'll get to this part of my story in a bit...
Yesterday was National Day here in Singapore - the country's independence day (Singapore celebrated its 47th birthday). Joe had the day off, so we went on a hike with our friend Paige, who also works for BASF. Paige is from the U.S. and has been here on assignment for five months. She also lived here as a child/teenager when her dad did a three-year delegation for BASF. Needless to say, she's been a great resource for us!
The entrance of MacRitchie
Paige took us to the MacRitchie Reservoir Park, about 20 minutes away from where we live. The park was a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Orchard. MacRitchie is known for its TreeTop Walk, which is a free-standing suspension bridge about 25 meters above ground that allows you to walk among the tree tops.
We started our hike and noticed that there are wild monkeys along the trail. At first glance, the monkeys were really cute and it was funny to see wild monkeys running around because we don't have this in the U.S. Of course, being the tourists that we are, we had to get pictures of the monkeys and got as close as we could to them. As you can see from Joe's photo below, the monkeys aren't scared of humans. In fact, I think they hoped we had food for them. However, there are signs around the park instructing visitors not to feed the monkeys because it makes them aggressive, and boy did I see this firsthand.
Joe gets close to a monkey
After Joe got close to a monkey for his photo op, I wanted a picture as well. There was a cute little baby monkey carrying a bottle around (see the photo above) and I thought, I'll get close to that one! BAD IDEA. The monkey sat still as I moved towards it, giving me the false impression that it would pose with me. As I crouched down to the grass, the monkey popped up, threw its bottle and ran right towards me. I yelped and ran away (trying to get behind Joe so he would save me), giving a crowd of spectators a good laugh. I certainly learned my lesson and avoided monkeys the rest of our hike!
The treetop trail hike was amazing (minus the fact that I was paranoid a monkey was going to jump out of the trees and land on me). The trees along the path had grown into an arch shape, creating an "overhang" above the path which shaded us from the hot, tropical sun.
TreeTop Walk bridge
The view from the TreeTop Walk bridge was spectacular. On our right, we could see the edge of the country and the ocean. On our left, we could see the high rise buildings of central Singapore. And, of course, we could see the forest floor below us through grates of the bridge floor. The trek on the bridge was a little scary because I'm not the biggest fan of heights and the bridge was shaky, but it was a fun experience. Joe and I definitely plan to visit MacRitchie Reservoir park again for another hike. Check out the photos section of this blog for more pictures of the park.
Tonight, we head to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and I can't wait! We have a jam-packed itinerary of exploration and I'll have a lot to update you on when we get back!
Our pool... I love this paradise...
Our pool... I love this paradise.
Chicken Rice stand in food court
I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but it took us five days to branch out and try a Singaporean meal (we've been flocking to dishes that we know). Last night we tried chicken rice for dinner at the Takashimaya department store food court.
Chicken rice is as basic as it sounds - it's chicken on top of rice. The chicken is cooked in several different ways - roasted, fried, steamed - you get to pick which one you want. I believe the rice is cooked in chicken broth and an aromatic oil that I couldn't quite identify. Overall the dish was good but I wasn't blown away like the guide books said I would be.
The one thing that was a little unnerving about the chicken rice stand is that they display the dead, roasted chickens in the windows, with heads and all. Seeing the sad eyes of the chickens made it a little difficult for me to eat the dish. However, displaying entire dead animals in food establishment windows seems to be common practice here in Singapore (I've seen ducks and pigs as well), so I'll continue to keep an open mind.
Today was an exciting day... our Singapore visas are official! Joe and I visited the Ministry of Manpower (or as I say, in a British accent, the Ministry of Magic) to get our documentation finalized (unfortunately we didn't run into Harry P). The process was surprisingly quick and efficient, although I should have expected no less from Singapore!
With our magical papers all stamped and signed, we had permission from the government to sign up for cell phone service. It feels good to be connected to the world again, although it's kind of weird to have a Singapore phone number. Joe and I are most excited about having our beloved maps app back to help us navigate the city. Oh how the iPhone has spoiled us!
On a more random note, I discovered a new love: fuji apple soda. Yum!
8 on Claymore
We're finally unpacked and our little apartment in the 8 on Claymore high rise is starting to feel more like home. Check out the photos tab on this site to see photos of our place!
Yesterday we explored a few different food courts and then attended a house warming party for Joe's boss, Friedrich. Friedrich just moved to an area called Holland Village which is a popular place for Singapore expats. I've heard there's a good American sports bar in that neighborhood where we can catch an American football game or two in the fall if we're feeling homesick. Unfortunately, I forgot to take photos while we were in Holland Village... but it's an area we'll definitely explore again so I'll have to remember to use my camera next time!
At Friedrich's party, I had the chance to meet a few of Joe's colleagues. His colleagues Sally and Biyon are Singaporean, so it was nice to pick their brains about what to see, where to go, etc. Sally told us that 20 years ago, you could purchase a plot of land in Holland Village for less than $10,000. Today, these plots of land cost more than $1 million! You can tell that most of the folks in the area are wealthy because they own cars. Cars are certainly a luxury in Singapore... a Toyota Camry will cost you about $178,000 - no joke! Needless to say, most people don't own cars! It's a good thing the public transportation system is so convenient and affordable.
Suntec Mall near the entrance to Joe's office
Our first 24 hours in Singapore have flown by. I meant to write this new posting last night... but holy jet lag! My body still hasn't adjusted to the time change and I was sleepwalking by about 9pm last night.
Anyways... our flight into Singapore landed around 1:30 am. Much to our surprise, and relief, we were greeted by a personal assistant at the airport who helped us navigate baggage claim (it took almost an hour to get our bags!) and took us on a "fast route" through customs. We made it to our new home, the 8 on Claymore serviced residences, around 3am and spent about an hour unpacking before we crashed.
Up at 7am the next day (Friday here in Singapore), we joined one of Joe's colleagues (who lives in our building) for an early breakfast. Conveniently for us, 8 on Claymore provides breakfast seven days a week and it's served in a nice, sunny room right next to the building's pool. A typical breakfast here includes noodles, eggs, some sort of cooked vegetable, fresh fruit, yogurt, juices and DELICIOUS coffee.
Joe had a meeting at 11am with HR at his company, so I tagged along to see where he would be working. We headed to the subway station down the street and were blown away with what we saw. We live in an area called Orchard, which is known for ritzy shopping, but we didn't expect the malls to extend so far underground! The Orchard subway station (called MRT) is connected to four floors of shopping that extend underground. Not only is there so much shopping, the subway station is IMMACULATE and smells like cleaning solution. It's a very different experience from any other subway I've ever traveled on. And, on a random note, the escalators in Singapore are really fast. You have to brace yourself before you step on to make sure you don't fall!
The subway ride was about 20 minutes to Suntec Mall where Joe works. You jump off the subway and exit into the mall (more shopping!... we've been told 1 in 10 people in Singapore are millionaires - the highest concentration of millionaires in the world) and it's about a 10 minute walk to where BASF is located in Tower 1 (I think there are about 8 towers that comprise the Suntec complex). I hung out at the Coffee Bean, which I've read is more popular than Starbucks here... not to mention that Starbucks in Singapore costs about twice as much than in the U.S.
Korean bibimbap - our first lunch in Singapore
After Joe's meeting, we headed to lunch at the Singapore convention center with two of his colleagues. Singaporeans love food and there are a million food courts here that are the popular choice for meals. The food court experience in Singapore is vastly different than in the U.S. There is a mix of asian food from different countries, and the meals are restaurant quality - no greasy fast food here! You can get a full meal for about 5 U.S. dollars.
Funny enough, we didn't try the Singaporean cuisine for our first lunch in Singapore. Instead, we had Korean bibimbap for lunch. Joe says it's the best bibimbap he's ever had in his life.
Food court at the Convention Center
After lunch, we headed back to our home for a few hours and relaxed in the air conditioning. Singapore is about one degree north of the equator, so it's tropical, hot and humid here. In fact, the first thing I noticed when I stepped outside of the airport is that this country smells a lot like the caribbean countries that I've been to. Because it's so hot, the buildings are heavily air conditioned in Singapore. I have to make sure I take a sweater with me everywhere I go because I freeze in all of the buildings!
We headed back to Suntec Mall around 3:15pm because Joe had a meeting with his boss, Friedrich. Again, I hung out at the Coffee Bean and relaxed with a book (it's so nice to have time to read for pleasure!). After Joe's meeting, Friedrich took us to dinner at the Vivo City Mall (yes, yet another mall!). Since Friedrich is German, he suggested that we try a German restaurant called Brotzeit.
Dinner with Friedrich at Brotzeit
Dinner was delicious and very fun! It was nice getting to know Joe's boss, who is a very interesting man. He's been a delegate with BASF in Asia for the last eight years. Friedrich is an adventurous man - his idea of a vacation is driving across the desert in a jeep for two weeks, camping along the way (he and his wife just got back from doing this in Australia!).
My jet lag really kicked in towards the end of dinner, giving me vertigo-like symptoms, so we called it a night around 8:30pm. When we got home, I crashed and was determined to sleep in the next morning. Unfortunately, my body still thinks I'm in the U.S., so around 3am I was wide awake :) I think it's going to take a good week before I'm on the Singapore schedule.
So, in a nutshell, our first day in Singapore was fun, we're jet lagged and we still haven't tried any Singaporean food. We'll see what happens today!
At the Delta Sky Club lounge
We arrived in Tokyo to find out that our flight to Singapore is delayed by about 50 minutes. I actually welcomed this break from sitting on the plane! I was quite restless after our 13-hour flight, although it was relatively comfortable since we were fortunate enough to travel in business class.
The bed pod seats were pretty awesome! It's nice to be able to lay flat on a plane, although I always have trouble sleeping on planes so I wasn't very successful at getting some rest, even with the added comfort. I passed the time by watching a million movies (my favorite was Bolt) and reading (currently reading Eat, Love, Pray). Joe and I were really pleased with the food onboard... our dinner of braised short ribs and pureed parsnips with baby carrots was surprisingly delicious for an airplane meal!
Joe and I are currently chilling in the Delta Sky Club lounge at the Narita airport to pass the time. It's super nice and I love the spread of Japanese food. My favorite thing here is the fact that they have iced green tea on tap in the soda machine... oh how I love Asia! And, I was quite surprised by the heated toilet seats in the bathroom... which would have been a little more pleasant if I wasn't hot and sweaty right now (those of you who know me well know that I sweat like a man!). My only complaint is that the airport feels like it's 100 degrees. They need an air conditioning boost in here!
Our bed pod seats on the plane