A Weekend Trip To Mai Chau

As I mentioned before, during the student exchange program between my school and the Singaporean school, it was my job to accompany the students on excursions to teach them more about the Vietnamese culture. Most of those excursions took place around Hanoi, but during one weekend, we went out of the city to Mai Chau, a small town set in a valley northwest of Hanoi. It’s small and therefore not as well-known as other destinations in the north, such as Sapa or Ha Giang, but it’s quiet and relaxing, and the landscape is very pretty, if not as grand as those of the mountainous towns.

A typical panorama of Mai Chau

Because the drive took so long (the distance is 150 km, but the road is winding and dangerous, so it took us over 4 hours to get there), we opted to leave on Friday evening, so that we could get some rest and an early start the next day. We stayed at a traditional stilt house, surrounded by verdant rice fields and rolling blue hills. For the Singaporean students, who have lived in a city their whole lives, it was quite impressive.

Our hostel

The view from the village

On Saturday morning, we were picked up by electric cars that took us around town to visit some of the surrounding villages and take in the local life.

Colorful woven cloths for sale along the village road

A newly constructed stilt house

Then, in the afternoon, we rented some bikes to go exploring on our own. We went deeper into the hills, through bamboo forests straight out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and beautiful green fields. It rained a bit, but that didn’t stop us, and we were rewarded with a rainbow later!

We also met a family of cows going to the river for a drink

That night, we were treated to a performance of traditional songs and dances at the hostel, which was fun.

On Sunday morning, I left the students to their own devices (they must complete a short film during the course of the program, so a lot of them went off to shoot) while I walked into town to check out the weekly market. It’s not that different from our normal markets in Hanoi, though you don’t often see live frogs or beetles being sold in Hanoi 😉

These ladies are selling betel leaves and tree barks for paan

After lunch, it was time to head back to Hanoi. On the way, we also stopped at a rock quarry so that some of the students could finish their shooting – the quarry is covered in pure white rocks, so it makes for a very striking background for their film.

Iceland in the winter? Nope, Vietnam in spring!

All in all, it was a fun trip, for me as much as for the students. I’m glad I got the chance to check out a part of Vietnam I haven’t been to and discover some new beauties.


Singapore Diary #5: Food

Saving the best for last.

With 3 weeks in Singapore, I was determined to be a little more adventurous with my eating and try more local fares. Even though I cooked most days (we stayed in an apartment complex, so there is a kitchen), I did manage to get a taste of Singapore. During our excursions into the city, we often ate at hawker centers – they’re open buildings with tables in the middle and stalls along the sides selling all kinds of food. These are sometimes combined with a market, but often they just serve as food courts. The food is cheap (well, compared to a restaurant meal) and authentic, and there are a lot of choices.

Maxwell Food Center near Chinatown

There are so many dishes that I didn’t get to try them all. Others I didn’t try because they’re too expensive (chilli crab, hello) or sound weird (like carrot cake, which is not a cake and doesn’t contain carrot). But below are some of my favorite:

A literal ice-cream sandwich – yeah, it pretty much tastes like ice cream and bread, but the bread helps to soak up the drips, which are unavoidable in the Singaporean heat

Roti prata – think an Indian crepe dipped in curry sauce. They can be plain or stuffed with egg, mushrooms, cheese, etc. There is also a sweet version

Laksa – noodle soup with prawns and spicy coconut-milk broth


Chendol – shaved ice smothered in palm sugar syrup, coconut milk, sweetened red beans, and green “worms” (rice flour jelly)

Waffle with kaya (coconut jam) – locals have it on their toast, but I took it one step further

The one dish I had but never enjoyed was chicken rice. I don’t understand how it can be considered the national dish of Singapore – it’s just steamed or roasted chicken on top of rice cooked in chicken broth. That’s it! Sure, it’s cheap, but I’d like something with a little more taste (not to mention vegetables), thank you very much.

Finally, this is unrelated to food, but I think it would be appropriate to close out my Singapore posts with a mention of the Merlion. If you’ve read my account of my previous trip to Singapore, then you’ll remember that I didn’t see the Merlion last time. This time, during our city tour at the beginning of our trip, we did go to the Merlion but it was all covered up because, according to the sign, the Merlion was taking a shower! Luckily he was done before we left, so I came back on the last day and finally got a super touristy photo.

And that was it for my Singapore trip! Until next time…


Singapore Diary #4: Nature And Street Scenes

Singapore is known as the “Garden City”, so I thought it would be fun to have a post on the contrast between the modern, even futuristic-looking architecture and the pockets of nature in the city (no wonder they shot a sci-fi film there.) During my 3 weeks there, I revisited the Botanic Garden (and the National Orchid Gallery, of course) and did some short hikes/walks around Mount Faber Park and Sungei Buloh, a wetland reserve near the Malaysian border. As fun as the city is, it’s great to get out once in a while and just lose yourself in nature.

The Helix bridge

The Henderson Waves bridge

It was raining heavily while I was at Mount Faber, but it was super relaxing to simply sit (there is always a covered rest area along the way) and listening to the rain or enjoying the incredibly sweet and refreshing smell of the trees. If my shoes weren’t soaked through, I would’ve stayed longer.

View of the Singapore River toward downtown

Mangrove forest at Sungei Buloh

Some of the flora and fauna of Sungei Buloh

We didn’t see any crocs though – just these signs

The ION Orchard, one of the most famous shopping malls along Orchard Road

Orchid arches at the Botanic Garden

Colorful houses along Clarke Quay

Colorful orchids at the National Orchid Gallery


The national flower of Singapore (the Vanda “Miss Joaquim” orchid) and a crazy-looking (but sweet-smelling) flower at the Botanic Garden

A mother hen and her chick at the Botanic Garden

There is still one more Singapore post left, so stay tuned!


Singapore Diary #3: Museums And More

One of the things I didn’t get to do during my previous stay in Singapore was to visit some museums, which I love to do whenever I travel. This time around, I rectified it by going to the National Gallery and the ArtScience Museum. The National Gallery was newly opened in the former City Hall and Supreme Court – it actually looks a lot like the National Gallery in London. It houses a large collection of Singaporean and South East Asian art, and I was excited to find some Vietnamese artists amongst them. While I was there, it also had a special exhibition on the relationship between Britain and its colonies (Singapore being one of them) and how this relationship influences art, so there were quite a few pieces borrowed from the Tates Museum as well – which is great, since I didn’t get to visit the Tates while I was in London!

This is not a giant sculpture, but rather the column inside the building

A fun installation – the strings move, so the light bulbs make a tingling sound as they hit the mirrors

ArtScience Museum is the funky building (supposed to be in the shape of a lotus or a hand) in front of the Marina Bay Sands. As the name suggests, it contains exhibitions on art & science with a focus on technology and media. I saw exhibitions on NASA and Escher, and had a great time in the interactive Future World (it’s mostly for kids, but there are fun/beautiful things to look at as well.) The admission is a little steep though (35 SGD, 40 on Fridays and weekends).

One of the most famous exhibitions of ArtScience Museum – Crystal Universe

Also, as a part of the exchange program, we were given a tour of two interesting places – a water treatment center (water treatment is a big deal in Singapore since they have no natural reservoirs) and a studio on the nearby Indonesian island of Batam. The water plan was very informative and has some trippy-looking exhibitions, and it was pretty fun to see the sets of some HBO Asia shows at the studio, plus Batam itself is beautiful. I wish we could’ve stayed longer.

The water treatment center also has a lot of koi carps in their pond

The set for “Serangoon Road

A part of the “Half-worlds” set

A Mediterranean seaside resort? Nope, it’s Batam!

Also, I think it’s a rule to always have at least one cat shot amongst my travel photos, so here’s one we met in Batam:

I may have gotten my museum fix, but there are still others I wish I had time to check out – like the Singapore National Museum or the Museum of Asian Civilizations. Maybe next time 😉


Singapore Diary #2: Gardens By The Bay

I didn’t put this in with my “Old Favorites” post because even though Gardens by the Bay was an old destination for me, it was also new. This time I finally got to visit the two conservatories, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest, and catch the light show at the Supertrees Grove later at night (which I missed last time.) The light show was fun but not exactly memorable, but the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest are well worth their admission price (28SGD). Imagine two giant glasshouses, one filled with colorful flowers always in full bloom regardless of the weather outside, and the other with the lushest, greenest tropical plants. I could spend a whole day in there. I burned out two – I repeat, two – camera batteries because I was photographing everything. I only went out reluctantly because I forgot my scarf and it was freezing inside (as usual with everywhere else in Singapore, the air inside the conservatories is kept cool.)

They have a display of the Chinese zodiacs inside the Flower Dome, though this one is more “Game of Thrones” than Chinese

In the Cloud Forest, you can also take the elevator up to the top of the “Cloud Mountain”, a six-story tower covered in plants and a waterfall, and walk down a path. Although, it may not be the best choice for someone who’s scared of heights like me. I was walking down with no problem when I made the mistake of looking down and immediately reacted like this. I spent the rest of the walk staring fixedly ahead.

After all that gorgeous nature, it was a bit anti-climactic to go to the Supertrees, to be honest. Still, it was interesting to learn that the Supertrees are not just for decorations but are actually a part of the Gardens’ eco-friendly design, used to collect rainwater and help with the cooling of the air. Beautiful and functional. Now that’s what I’m all about.


Singapore Diary #1: Old Favorites

During my first week in Singapore, I spent most of my time with my students at the school, though we did get to go on a tour of the city to see all the prominent neighborhoods – Chinatown, Little India, and Kampong Glam (the Malay area). Last time I was here, I mostly just walked through these streets, so it was fun to see them with an actual guide and learn more about their history. Of course, I stopped by Haji Lane and checked out the shop where I got the cat brooch (The Dulcet Fig). This time they were having a sale on their brooches so I splurged and bought two. I even met the cat again!


Chinatown at night, and the Sultan Mosque

Graffiti in Haji Lane

Little India at night

Kampong Glam’s Sultan Palace (now the Malay Heritage Center)

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown, outside…

… and inside

Lunar New Year decorations in Chinatown

And finally, here’s some gnarly-looking “medicine” being sold in Chinatown:

Dried lizards. Yum!

I’ll be back next week with new things I’ve discovered in Singapore!


Hello From Singapore

singapore outfit by 14 shades of grey

Just a quick post to let you guys know my week in Singapore is going well. It’s been raining almost every day, so it’s a lot cooler than I expected. I could’ve worn jeans if I wanted to! Still, I didn’t regret my packing strategy – I have plenty of choices for mix-and-match. The above outfit is a good sampler of what I wear most days (often I would have to add my blazer as well, because like I said, Singaporeans like their AC set to “arctic”.) I actually left a pair of sandals at home – three pairs of shoes are plenty – and I didn’t miss them at all.

I’m pretty busy with my students in classes and on excursions so I won’t be able to post much in the next two weeks, but there will be SIA posts on Monday as usual. See you guys!