Prada shop on Orchard Road

En route to Laos

It was with some trepidation that I left home for my latest trip. This was to Laos and was to be a very different experience to any trip I had undertaken before. I was volunteering for several weeks on a new project teaching teenage girls from rural villages to sew. I was anxious my skills would be inadequate for the occasion. Whilst I can sew, I am not the most accurate of needlewomen and have never taught it before.

Rooftop swimming pool
Rooftop swimming pool
Corner of colourful building in Little India
Corner of colourful building in Little India

My journey began with a five-hour bus ride from Taupo to Manukau where I spent the night prior to catching a flight to Singapore the following morning. Here I had two nights at the YMCA. I had visited the city earlier this year for the first time in 30 years and realised it was an easy place to stopover (and it was the cheapest airfare I could find at the time which is always a consideration!) I had a full day in which I walked and walked, returning to the hostel for rest stops, to tend to my blisters (the first produced in my well-worn shoes), and to shelter from the tropical rainstorm that I was lucky enough to escape. The YMCA is located at the start of Orchard Street and a central location for exploring. It also had a rooftop swimming pool that was an attraction when I booked but didn’t use.

In the morning, I set off to wander Little India. I found this area fascinating although it was still early (at 8.30am) and many of the small shops had not yet opened for the day. By the time I had walked along Serangoon Road and returned though, the streets had come to life. I detoured along the side roads and discovered murals and colourful buildings. Along Serangoon and Race Course Roads elaborately decorated Hindu temples were interspersed amongst the shops and houses. There was a busy food area near the Tekka Centre, which seemed to have finished business for the day as the concrete floors were being washed down, making walking through it precarious.

Whilst I was strolling back to Orchard Road, the skies became ominously black, and I wondered if I would reach shelter in time. Thankfully, I did as it rained as it only knows how in the Tropics. A little later, I set off for Fort Canning Park, which is near the National Museum and behind the YMCA. The park was much bigger than I expected with a variety of gardens to wander.

The remains of Fort Canning
The remains of Fort Canning
Garden on Orchard Road
Garden on Orchard Road

It was the site of royal palaces in the 14th Century and a strategic location for the British Army in colonial times until the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. Raffles House is at one end of the park and overlooks the harbour. The flag pole in front traditionally displayed flags spelling out messages in morse code to ships entering the harbour.

There was also a film showing for the Bicentennial of Singapore which I naively thought I could watch. Tickets were sold out for the entire month so I may have to do that on my return in September.

My final venture of the day was a walk up Orchard Street, Shopping Central of Singapore! It did not appeal, but I had to look. I am not a good shopper! However, I was impressed with the amount of green space between the large malls and especially appreciated the area, albeit concrete, where I could sit and watch the shoppers from above when my feet protested the abuse I had given them all day. As with everywhere in Singapore, the streets were clean, there were wide spaces for walking and the old mingled with the ultramodern. I had dinner at a street stall before returning to my room to re-pack and put my feet up.

Science Museum

A frustrating travel day and Singapore

Breakfast before I left was spaghetti bolognese. I was not offered anything else although the only other couple in the cafe had eggs and toast. There appeared no logic to this but the waitress/receptionist only spoke a few words of English and I didn’t think it was worth a discussion.

At check out, as I suspected, the reception staff had understood the wrong time for my shuttle. They hastily re-arranged it, and a staff member drove me to the airport. On arrival she realised she hadn’t brought her purse, so I had to pay the entry/drop off fee as well as the shuttle. She left me at the international terminal but I needed the domestic as my flight went via Ho Chi Minh. At check in, even though I had booked through Vietnam airlines, ground staff told me I did not have enough time to change terminals so they re-booked me on a flight an hour earlier. Luckily, I had allowed plenty of time.

At Ho Chi Minh, security decided I had something metal in my handbag (yes, that one that had already passed security in Danang). The officer rummaged through, couldn’t find anything and put it through the x-ray machine again. Still not happy, he tipped all the contents out. When he couldn’t find anything, he just walked off, leaving me with a mess. My mood was not improving!

On boarding the flight, there was no room in the overhead lockers for my bag, and I had to find a space further down the plane. I made a comment about the amount of carry-on bags people brought with them and at the end of the flight watched my next-door neighbour retrieve not one, but three large bags. It is one of my bugbears and I was incensed anew!

In Singapore we couldn’t land because of a thunderstorm so circled for half an hour. I had booked a shuttle to my hotel thinking it would be quicker than the metro. It wasn’t but at least I didn’t have to walk in the torrential rain.

View from 21st floor of the Pan Pacific
View from 21st floor of the Pan Pacific

I was meeting friends, Fran and Chris, and by the time I arrived at my hotel it was later than expected. They had flown in from N.Z. where they had been housesitting for me and were on their way back to England. I was in dire need of wine so we met anyway and had a late supper. Their room at the Pan Pacific had an incredible view of Singapore which we appreciated whilst sipping our fizzy. After a delicious meal in the cafe/bar below, I walked back to my room feeling much more relaxed!

We spent a very enjoyable couple of days together before they flew on. There was no rushing about. It was too hot, and they had knee and/or back problems which curtailed their walking.

A playground in the shopping centre
A playground in the shopping centre

On the first day, we strolled to the waterfront and took the circular Bum Boat ride around the quays. We sat at the back of the boat in full sun and appreciated the slight breeze. Afterwards we had lunch and returned to the hotel via a shopping centre and a quick perusal of M & S. (Where else would you shop in Singapore? And yes, I purchased a dress and knickers!)

The pool beckoned for the afternoon. It seemed the most suitable place to be in that climate. We had a swim, chatted, had a cocktail (what decadence!) and returned to their room to get ready for more wine and dinner. For this, we walked to Boat Quay where there is a myriad of restaurants all plying for trade. We selected one with difficulty and admired the view and the light show from Gardens by the Bay as we ate. The quay was packed with people.

A bygone era
A bygone era

The following day was Fran’s birthday. They had invited me to breakfast at the hotel. This was a fabulous buffet spread. It was hard to know when to stop eating! The food was excellent and kept us sustained for the rest of the day.

A visit to the National Museum of Singapore was on the agenda afterwards. We strolled past Raffles, which is being refurbished, and first went to the Polaroid exhibition in the basement. The Museum itself, depicting the history of the island, was well presented and interesting. We spent some time there, finishing with a cup of tea in the Atrium where someone singing on the floor above deafened us. The acoustics were not the best and we couldn’t hear ourselves speak so we finished our tea and left.

At the Polaroid exhibition
At the Polaroid exhibition
Bridge to Marina Sands
Bridge to Marina Sands

The birthday dinner was at the Marina Sands Complex. This is vast and confusing. Our original intention was to have a drink at the top in the SkyPark but the queue was so long we investigated the restaurants first. We chose a Chinese one and enjoyed another excellent repast. Afterwards, the SkyPark queue was still long, so we explored the complex instead. The shopping centre had a canal running through it and we were in time to take the lift to where we could view the Gardens by the Bay light show which takes place each evening. We gave up all thoughts of the SkyPark. We were all tired and keen to return to our rooms. Before I left them though, we had to eat some of the chocolate cake the hotel delivered for Fran’s birthday. I needed the walk back to my hotel to use up some calories in the enormous amount of food I had consumed that day!

I spent my final day in Singapore on my own. My flight didn’t leave til the early evening, so I had all morning to visit the Gardens by the Bay. I strolled along the waterfront and then back through the Financial and Chinese districts.

The Gardens are home to the Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome, both of which are enclosed. The Flower Dome has displays of plants from all over the world. It was also full of people admiring the cherry blossom. Many ‘selfies’ were being taken although, given the number of visitors, it was impossible to take one without having other faces in it. After I left it, I was walking to the Cloud Forest when a voice said “I know you”. It was the real estate agent who had sold me my house in Tauranga a few years ago. I wouldn’t have recognised her, but I thought it was extraordinary to meet someone I knew so far from home!

The Cloud Forest was beautiful, and I enjoyed it more than the Flower Dome, probably because there was room to move. I went to the top and walked along the Tree Tops Trail from which there was a spectacular view over the city.

I had intended to do the Sky Walk but was too tired by that point. I meandered through the gardens, past the Tall Trees, which are lit at night, to the opposite end of the park where I joined the road that went through the Financial District.

It was lovely to walk in peace away from the traffic and people, although as it was Sunday, the roads weren’t busy. I stopped in China town for a very late lunch and had a delicious plate of chicken with cashew nuts and my last Vietnamese coffee. It was enough to keep me going til my dinner on the plane.

Back at the hotel, I retrieved my suitcase and walked to the metro for the easy ride to the airport. I felt hot, sticky and dirty and, as there were no free showers, paid an exorbitant fee in the on-demand lounge. It was worth every cent!

Gate at the Imperial City

Hue and beyond

Hue appealed as a city. A large river flows through the middle with walks on either side. It also helped that the sun was shining! After breakfast I headed for the waterfront where there were many hawkers selling boat trips. I declined and kept walking.

Dragon boats
Dragon boats
At the Imperial City
At the Imperial City

The Imperial City was on the opposite side of the river and this was my destination. It was built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries so is relatively young. Much of it was destroyed during the Indo-China wars but it has since been restored, although this is an ongoing project. It was magnificent. There were many tour buses outside but because the grounds are extensive it did not seem crowded. I strolled all around it for the next three hours admiring not only the temples but also the gardens.

Lunchtime 'food court'
Lunchtime ‘food court’

By the time I emerged I was hungry and thirsty. I walked away from the tourist area and looked for a local cafe. A lady selling noodles and barbecued pork beckoned me over. I sat at one of the ubiquitous plastic tables and I enjoyed my meal until I found out the price. Either Hue was much more expensive than the north or I was being exploited! I should have asked first.

I meandered back to town and decided on some respite from the heat in my room before my motorbike food tour that evening. Being too nervous to drive a one myself, particularly in the traffic of Vietnamese cities, I had decided I would combine two desires – to try the food and experience life as a motorcyclist rather than as a pedestrian. I had felt as though I had been taking my life in my hands each time I crossed the road so far.

Fan picked me up promptly, and we spent the evening zipping hither and thither, stopping at various cafes I would never had found on my own. We started with Banh Beo and Nam, both made from rice flour and filled with pork and shrimp but one was steamed and the other crispy. Next stop was Loc, a pancake made from tapioca flour filled with shrimp and pork again. Following that was Bank Khot, rice pancakes with prawn, eggs and ham, wrapped in rice paper and served with grated papaya and lettuce. We crossed the river to eat Thit bo mong pho mai and Thit ba chi nuong, these being barbecued prawn and beef with okra which we dipped in chilli and mayonnaise. By this time, I was full, but we still had noodle soup to go. This on its own would have been a meal for me! Whilst I had sampled several noodle soups by then none of them were served with a lump of jellied blood in it. It didn’t appeal! Our last stop was back across the river for dessert soup. I had noticed the stalls earlier and wondered what they were. There were 20 different flavours made from ingredients such as mung beans, soya beans and taro. Fan recommended banana and coconut, taro and one other. The stall holder topped the mixture with coconut milk, dried coconut and lumps of ice. Fan instructed me to mix it all up. There was no way of identifying the individual flavours after that! To my surprise, I ate it all but went to bed feeling very bloated.

Dessert soup
Dessert soup

The following day did not start well. I had booked another motorcycle sightseeing tour. They didn’t arrive. After contacting them, it appeared there was some confusion over my online booking so we arranged for the tour to start at 1pm when they had found a guide. All the guides were female university students and this was the reason I used that company.

Finding myself at an unexpected loose end, I had to think what to do. Back to the river, I went! I walked all the way along, past the railway station beyond the Imperial City, crossed a bridge further up and walked back along the other side. The walk was mostly in the shade which I appreciated. At one point, the noise from the cicadas was deafening and the racket from the traffic was inescapable.

My guide, On, arrived on time and we set off for the village of Tuy Chanh. It seemed a long way, past rice fields, but she assured me it was only 4kms. We admired the covered Tanh Toan Bridge which dated from the early 18th century and then went into the small agricultural museum. Fishing, cooking and farming implements were on display and an old lady demonstrated the winnowing and grinding of rice whilst croaking the songs she used to sing when doing it in her younger days. The operation was not sophisticated.

Old Bridge at Tuy Chanh
Old Bridge at Tuy Chanh

Back on the bike, we went across town to Lavin Decor. A young female entrepreneur had set up this business as a homestay and shop in which she employed deaf people to make beautiful paper flowers. We each had a cup of help-yourself herbal tea (not the tea bag variety!) and chatted to her for a while before setting off again to Vong Canh Hil.

Making paper flowers
Making paper flowers

This had a view of the river and is a popular spot for admiring the sunset. It was very peaceful away from the noise of the city. On didn’t like it. She was afraid of the silence and being alone. I loved it!

We passed artistic displays of incense sticks as we drove to Tu Hieu Pagoda where we arrived just as a monk was banging the drum for prayers. He began to chant and I would have liked to have listened for a while but we had to get to Kai Dinh’s Imperial tomb before it closed.

Here, I went in alone and climbed up all the steps to the temple at the top. There was an abundance of ornate ceramic decorations on the walls and elaborate painted ceilings. It was also closing, and the staff were keen to move people out.

We negotiated the rush hour traffic back to town. On had been anxious about driving in the dark but we were back in the city in plenty of time. My tour finished with dinner at a vegan restaurant near the hotel. I tried not to notice the rats that emerged from the drains and raced around the tables!

My room was blissfully quiet until the rowdy music started again in the nearby bar. Have I said I can’t cope with loud noise?

The next day was moving day once again. I was spending one night in Danang prior to flying on to Singapore and had booked a shuttle bus again as I wanted to travel over the Pass. I didn’t read the small print of the booking and found myself back at the village I had visited yesterday so I waited in the bus whilst the other passengers had a look. We had two more stops before the Pass. Firstly, at a service station with shop counters and an abundance of staff hovering and the next at a deserted resort on the beach. It was a beautiful setting where we could stretch our legs for about 15 minutes and look at the shops.

Deserted resort
Deserted resort
Entrance to my hotel's street
Entrance to my hotel’s street

The Pass itself was spectacular as we climbed higher and higher. The bus stopped along with hordes of others next to a hill where the remains of some American bunkers perched. I walked up, took some photos, ignored the traders and returned to the bus. It wasn’t long after that we were in Danang, the third largest city in Vietnam. It was very modern. I had booked a hotel near the beach. The road was so new, there was still sand at the entrance and the bus driver dropped me off as near as possible for which I was grateful. The English of the reception staff wasn’t the best but, like everywhere I have stayed in Vietnam, they were exceptionally helpful.

I left my bag in my immaculate room and walked down to the beach. I had had grand ideas of exploring, but my energy was low and I spent the whole afternoon flat on the sand after a dip in the blissfully warm sea. It was wonderful and just what I needed. With hindsight, I realised I needed a rest day long before this as I had been getting irritable and weary.

That evening I hunted for a local cafe that didn’t have the menu in English. I picked something by looking at the pictures and had got no idea what it was. A lady (owner?) arrived and pointed to something else which she said I would like. Too late, I’d already ordered. It was chewy and gristly and I still have no idea what it was. The beer was good though and the rats once again provided my dining entertainment!

Danang beach
Danang beach