I’ve always loved aircrafts and long haul flights. We boarded award winning Singapore Airlines in LAX with about 30 hours of travel time ahead of us. With 8 magazines, 6 movies, 4 meals and a sleeping pill, the time went quickly and I arrived relaxed and ready to explore. American airports are not very people friendly. Singapore’s ultra-modern airport invites you to linger with free internet terminals, a cinema, rooftop swimming pool, aromatherapy spas, oxygen bars, indoor nature garden with waterfalls and koi pond.
I’m part of 28 singles from Adventures For Singles (770-432-8225 Atlanta, GA www.adventuresforsingles.com $1885+tax with RT air from LAX.) This was a smaller group than expected, but I understand several people dropped out claiming fear of bird flu. I could sense I was part of a quality entourage of seasoned culture-vultures.
We began with an orientation tour at the top of Mt. Farber and its spectacular views. The group was impressed by this sparkling metropolis located between Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore is the leader of S.E. Asia, a bustling port that was modernized by the East India Trading Company and the British Empire. It’s called the “Lion City” and inhabited by 4 million souls. 76% are Chinese and the other minorities all blend harmoniously. Singapore is a city, state, capital and country all in one and draws 8 million visitors per year, yet few Americans have yet discovered it.
We checked into the opulent Regent Hotel of The Four Seasons. I’m given a suite and swear this hotel wins the award for the most gracious staff on the planet. We’ve arrived at a perfect time with the “Great Shopping Festival” on full swing. There’s nothing like retail therapy to soothe our jet lag minds. Orchard Road, like a tree lined Fifth Avenue, was only a block away and center of all life. Shopping is the national obsession here and bargain hunting a blood sport.
There are 150 mega-malls with some that never close. I’m a label slave and purchased a used authentic Rolex with documents, for a fraction of its original cost. We had only 4 days here. So I had much to do, it’s like Hong Kong on steroids. The Arts Festival was on with many venues from painting and sculpture to music and dance. At night Clarke Quay on the river became party central with its trendy clubs rocking until dawn. We had an astute and friendly guide named Farida who showed us all the sights with a wonderful sense of humor. We visited the lush National Orchard Gardens with its 60,000 orchids, China Town with its markets and temples and Little India with its intense aromas and vibrant colors.
Then we went to the ultra-contemporary financial district, Merlion Park with its landmark fountain and the historic colonial area that was established by Sir Stanford Raffles.
We stopped to sip a Singapore Sling at the famous Long Bar of Raffles Hotel where rooms start at $700 per night. Our other tours included Jurong Bird Park and the Night Safari at the zoo, considered the best in the world with its free roaming enclosures for 2500 animals. In our free time, we rode rickshaws around town and took the cable car over to Sentosa Island.
Some of us opted to head back to the zoo for a Jungle Breakfast with the Orangutans. At night Terry & I dinned on jumbo chili crabs and rice cakes. This vibrant island-state of Singapore is glistening clean with purple bougainvillea bushes lining the highways. All cars are equipped with alarms to sound if one exceeds the speed limit. No graffiti, no gangs and in this tightly controlled democracy, it’s the death penalty for drug traffickers. We all made jokes about getting caned for chewing gum or jay-walking.
It was a nice leisurely visit here. I usually feel like Jack Bauer on the TV series “24” on my trips with non-stop itineraries. Here I felt well rested as I boarded for our 3 hour flight to Vietnam.
Arriving in Hanoi is like stepping into another world with rice paddies, sampans, lotus blossoms, coconut milk and noodle soups. It’s like a time machine dropped us back to the 15th century in this graceful land steeped in history. It was far poorer than I anticipated. There was however, an alluring charm which was found in the gentility of the people with the sincerest of smiles. I’ve always been a fan of the Third World. Whereas Singapore was dynamic, Hanoi was culturally stimulating. The city was studded with lakes and shaded by tamarind trees. It was a dichotomy that bustled with Chi-energy and yet was tranquil at the same time.
We checked into the deluxe Sheraton Resort, an oasis of calm amidst the chaos. Our fabulous guide named Hong was with us for 6 glorious days. His first lesson was to teach us how to cross the streets. The traffic here is horrendously busy with 7 lanes packed with 2.4 million motor scooters. “It’s called the Chicken Game” he explained. “Don’t run, don’t stop, just walk slowly so the drivers can predict your direction. They will miss you!” That afternoon I stood in fear stranded 20 minutes curbside realizing this lesson went against every one of my survival instincts. Entire families passed by on a single scooter; I understand this is called the Vietnamese sandwich. Everything was transported by these mopeds, 8 piglets, a dozen chickens upside down, a TV, a tree and more. The pollution was thick and heavy. The inner city looked tired and worn. Suddenly there was a monsoon downpour. People draped ponchos and it became raincoat city. The traffic never slowed. I ducked for cover. It dissipated as quickly as it began, life went on and the air was temporarily washed clean. I finally crossed the street by walking slowly at an even pace. Everyone missed me.
The sun shined every day on our tours which included the Temple of Literature, One Pillar Pagoda, the French Quarter and the Ho Chi Mihn memorial. We lined up with hundreds of people and entered the tomb where Ho Chi Mihn’s preserved body is visibly encased just like Lennon in Moscow. Armed communist soldiers commanded us to remain in silent reverence, no cameras, umbrellas, sunglasses allowed and arms at our sides at all times. Later we visited Hoa Lo Prison, or the Fiery Furnace. Built by the French in 1896, thousands of political prisoners were tortured here until 1954. We viewed the dungeons with leg irons, torture equipment and head cutting machines. In the 1960’s the Vietcong used it as a prisoner of war detention center for American pilots shot down during the Vietnam War. It was our captive pilots that sardonically named this place “The Hanoi Hilton.” We also did a walking tour through the Old Quarter where each narrow lane was named for its ancient craft: Silk St., Coffin St., Grilled Fish St., etc. Hong led us to a food market with turtles, sea slugs, pig heads and other unmentionable creatures for sale. “Thit Chow” is dog stew which is considered peasant food here and “country rat” is ceremoniously served at all birthday parties. They say it’s much healthier than “city rat”.
Most of our meals were included and thankfully rodents were never offered. We enjoyed elaborate American and Japanese breakfast buffets and 10 coarse lunches. Every restaurant was affordable. One evening my dinner menu presented salad of jellyfish, deep fried eel, ginger crickets and sticky rice with tender roasted pigeon. It seems the Vietnamese will eat anything that moves because it all tastes like chicken.
We attended the Water Puppet Show, an ancient art form unique to Hanoi. This blend of music and dance on water was has been the source of entertainment of villagers for centuries. We then scattered to explore the city, Asia’s oldest capital. Some went for massages and pedicures at prices that couldn’t be resisted. Some shopped for souvenirs while others had clothes tailor made for them. I had an embroidered silk dress cut to my body in 4 hours for only $45. We also visited the handicraft villages for bargains in art. Want a Monet No problem, just $25. Be careful, it’s wet. There were also ceramics and beautiful lacquerware. The currency was a great challenge for us as $10,500 Dong equals 65 cents. We felt like millionaires, yet it was disheartening to learn that the annual per capita income is just $320! We tipped generously throughout.
Vietnam’s pulse is found in its cities whereas its decorous grace is found in its villages. We headed out through the countryside for a full day cruise on Halong Bay. The air was fresh as we passed rice paddies, duck and prawn farms. It was rice harvest time and hundreds of rice farmers were laboriously bent over their ponds. Timid children smiled and waved as we drove by. We arrived at this natural UNESCO World Heritage Site and boarded our private wooden junk boat. Quietly we sailed into a peaceful dreamscape that looked surreal with 3,000 islands of sheer limestone cliffs emerging from the calm emerald sea. There was a timeless, haunting quality to this scenery. Nat. Geo. called it magic in stone and water. We enjoyed a fantastic seafood lunch with fresh caught crab and prawns. It was a perfect day in the sun in the land of escapism and serenity.
The highlight of the trip for me was our group’s cyclo-tour through Old Hanoi on the last day. We turned a corner downtown to find 28 bicycle-rickshaws lined up to peddle us individually for an hour through the narrow scooter filled lanes of oncoming traffic. There were some near-misses at the red lights which were always ignored. We all laughed as the locals stared. Terry at 6’4″ is considered huge even in America. Here he looked like King Tut seated on a throne as his 90lb. driver peddled him effortlessly in line with our group. Later we went our separate ways for independent exploration. After several hours, I found myself lost in an area of town with no taxis. I had to get back to join others for dinner. I had no choice but to hire a ride on a scooter. Dressed in a skirt with my arms full of bags, I mounted the tiny seat and off we went. On the highway, I wrapped my arms and legs around my driver like an octopus. He laughed the entire way to the Sheraton.
We flew back to Singapore for a good nights rest at the Le Meridian before our long flight home to Los Angeles via Tokyo. I reflected on journey well done with new insights gained on history and culture. It was like visiting two different planets within one vacation. The contrast of this trip is evident in our photos from the contemporary garden paradise of Singapore, to the new renaissance of traditional Vietnam. This is certainly an Asian affair to be remembered.