Saturday, July 28, 2012

Singapore (Part Two)

There's really not the problem of "jet lag" when you travel from India only as far as Singapore.  However, there is the fact that the clocks in Singapore are two-and-a-half hours ahead of our Hyderabad time-zone, so it's really easy to sleep-in and lose half of your sightseeing day.  Another plus to booking a trip with a professional travel agent...with their help, you have a set-time when your tour-guide shows up at the hotel, so you get up, have breakfast, and get ready to go! But we were "on our own" this trip...and my Amy being a real "power sleeper" when she's worn-down from her work schedule and has the time to really sleep in. Add this to the fact that it was raining pretty good the morning of our second-day (Saturday) - it might have taken a fire-alarm to get her up and going.

I left Sleeping Beauty in the big poofy bed in our room at the St. Regis Hotel, and made my way down the stairs to the buffet in the restaurant.  By the way, we were on the thirteenth-floor! Room #1311.  I don't think I've ever actually seen a thirteenth-floor in any hotel... much less stayed in a room on one!

The restaurant was packed!!  No room and a long wait for a table.  But they told me that they open a second restaurant annex on the second-floor on weekends, so - I could go up there if I wanted.  I asked if it was the same buffet, and they assured me that it was. Well...I went up to the second-floor and even that restaurant was packed full of people! They said that there was a table outside (where it was hot, humid and raining!) under an awning by the pool.  I took the table...and it was a good thing I did...a line began to form as soon as I took my seat.

The buffet was "just O.K." - and there's no way the second-floor version was the same as the main restaurant...for one thing, it was half-the-size! The coffee was decent, so I ordered some from room-service and carried a couple of fresh croissants up to the room for Amy.  Yeah...she was still sound asleep.  The coffee got her going and we decided to grab the umbrellas and head out for a day of seeing Singapore on the "Duck and Hippo" hop-on/hop-off bus where I had arranged for tickets.  It was soon that we should learn that all concierges as not created equal.  We asked the guy at the desk downstairs where we needed to go to catch the double-decker red tour-bus...and he pointed directly across the street and said "right there at that bus-stop".  The Duck and Hippo advertising said that a bus comes every 20-minutes, so - even if we missed one it shouldn't be that much of a wait. Right?

Wrong.  Although the earlier downpours had slowed to a soft, sticky was still pretty damp outside of the hotel.  Taking initial photos was going to be impossible for a while until our camera, fresh from the air-conditioned hotel, caught up with the humidity out-of-doors.  The lens kept fogging!  Well...we waied twenty-minutes.  Every kind of bus came...except the Duck and Hippo.  Another twenty-minutes passed, and - still no big-red-bus.  At the 50-minute mark, I had had enough.  I said "This can't be right...let's walk over to Orchard and see if the buses run there..."  

After starting over to the main drag...then coming back once to the original bus-stop - It was the right move. Not only did all of the tour buses stop at the Orchard stop - - there was a Starbucks right next to it!! AND - just like the cliche - a Starbucks across the street from the Starbucks!! We had some vanilla lattes and saw the Hippo bus come and go we knew we were on the right track! We finally got on after an hour-and-a-half of waiting...and we were off!

The first thing you notice about Singapore (other than the fact that it's not all that big!) is that there are two passions there... SHOPPING AND EATING!  It's literally wall-to-wall-malls in the Orchard district...and in-between...restaurants and eating-establishments of all kinds and sizes!  The upper-deck of the Hippo was the perfect place to soak it all in...the rain had virtually stopped and the breeze up-top was pretty nice...  The city is so very clean... And there's any sort of store you can imagine..electronics, cameras, clothing, antiques... if you have money to burn...a real shoppers paradise!

We took the bus to the end of the line so that we could replace our e-mail print-out for real bus tickets...and - replace our tickets that we had purchased for the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo from the night before.  Again..something that would have never happened on a professionally-booked tour...we had forgotten that we had tickets, thinking that they were for Saturday!  Amy told them that "our plane was delayed yesterday" - a pretty convincing little white lie that got our tickets moved... With our tour-package came a trolley-tour with a live Singaporean guide... but we had some time to kill.  Since Amy had not eaten, we found our way upstairs to the food-court in the mall we were in and found a Vietnamese place that had fresh salad-spring-rolls and pretty decent chicken pho - the owner was cool - - he was wearing an NHL hockey t-shirt, he was ethnically Vietnamese, but was Canadian by birth...and lived in Singapore by choice.  Sort of a microcosm of the whole place in one man!

More the are the photos from Day Two:

Sightseeing on the Hippo Bus....

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Singapore for Amy's Birthday (Part One)

Let's see.  I have now "been to Singapore" three times.  The first time was just for two-hours while I had a layover at Changi International Airport - a place I consider to be the BEST airport on the planet...plenty of food choices, a Starbucks, luxury shopping, free Internet kiosks, clean, indoor gardens and koi ponds...and a Business Class Lounge that has the feel of a "nice restaurant" or club (not to mention, free-use of Apple laptop computers in their "office area"!)  What's not to love!!  The second time I went "to Singapore", I actually left the airport!  Coming home from this year's "home visit" to Los Angeles in June, I had scheduled a really-long layover (on purpose - I thought I'd spend the day seeing the sights!) - but I had gotten sick in L.A. and it was all I could do to find a cheap hotel-room and sleep for 12-hours!  I know - - these hardly count as "trips to Singapore"... so I was really glad when Amy said that she wanted to get away for her birthday on 7/11 - but that she thought we should go to Singapore!

We're such "seasoned travelers" now (Ha!!) - that I figured I would just go ahead plan and book the entire trip by myself ... and that all would be just great!!  Regular readers of the "At Home in Hyderabad" blog know that, when we travel, we book everything through our friend Eve Wertsch at Fugazi Travel in San Francisco. Although I am glad we did it this way, this time...I really learned a lesson - there is great value in using a professional travel agent like Eve. With a professional booking your journey, things rarely go wrong, and when they do, they can be immediately rectified!

Anyway, so we booked Business Class on Silk Air (Singapore Airlines local Asia carrier) and left on Thursday night, the day after Amy's birthday.  It's an "overnight" flight, so - we did out best to sleep the whole way. We arrived early in the morning on Friday and our plan was to have a coffee and hit the MRT (the Singapore subway/train systerm) and take it to the Orchard Road area where our hotel was.  What an easy experience this MRT is!!  The train from the Changi Airport station was about 10%-filled.  After the first main terminal (Tanah Merah) ...the warning I had read in the Lonely Planet Guide to Singapore turned out to be true! "Avoid the morning rush-hour on the MRT" -- This is NOT a train-ride for the claustrophobic!! Nobody seemed to get off the train - and every stop seemed to add 10 more people to our car!! The ride after the transfer at the "City Hall" station was much less-crowded.

We got off at the "Orchard" station and found a cab.  Probably the worst cab in the city, it was running on 3-cylinders - - and that's better than I could say for the driver!!  Poor guy!!  Singaporean accents (a sort of a fast patois known as "Singlish"...) are hard enough to understand....but this guy had a terrible cough and sounded like he was dying of tuberculosis! He took us to the St. Regis Hotel, which was to be our home for the weekend.  The check-in staff was most accommodating and got us into our room with no charge, even though is was a full six-hours until official check-in time.  Our room (the "Lady Astor" variety with two queen-sized beds!) was really, really nice!  The beds were so, comfy...well...we just had to check them out, right??  We did....and napped the morning away.  We took time to make an appointment with a local salon in the area (interestingly enough, called THE Salon...) - and took a much needed sleep!

We took a cab to THE Salon at Wheelock Place...while Amy was getting her hair styled, I took some time to nose-around in the mall shops.  It was here that I first realized that Singapore is not really the place to go if you are looking for bargains!!  I ducked into a golf store and lasted about 30-seconds after I saw my first price-tag.  Even though the prices were in Singapore Dollars (SD) - about 20% less value than the U.S. variety...the prices on clubs and equipment...even golf balls - were ridiculously high!!

Her hair-do was actually a good price by American standards...she had a whole team working on different parts of the procedure...and I think she looked great!  We found our way across the street and went into a "Harry's Bar" - sort of an Asian chain of upscale pubs - and had a few beers/glasses of wine...and walked back to the taxi-area and waited with about 25 other folks for a cab to show up.  It took about a half-hour!  Thoughts of "we shoulda booked with Eve!" started creeping into our minds!

And here was the embarrassing part: When we finally caught a cab, it turns out that the St. Regis Hotel is probably only one-kilometer away!!  We could have walked back and forth to the hotel during the time we spent waiting for a taxi!! Oh, and lean, they say!

Tomorrow, we begin to see the sights....tune in for Part Two!

In the are a few photos from our Facebook albums:

Our Arrival in Singapore...

Amy Suzanne's "New Do"...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hoi An and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

"Saigon.  $#!+. I'm still only in Saigon..."  ~ Captain Benjamin L. Willard, the opening lines of "Apocalypse Now" (1979)

Our drive to Hoi An took us through Da Nang.  It was this place that I had heard so much about growing up during the Vietnam War.  They don't call it the "Vietnam" war, obviously, in Vietnam.  It's just "The War". It was sort of eerie seeing the harbor where so many troops began their journey, "in country", as the U.S. vets used to say.  So many landmarks, so many memories.  I must say that I have a new view of things now that I have actually walked around in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia)...met the people, ate in their homes...heard their personal stories. I'm a firm believer in the theory of a "just war".  I'm not sure what we did in Vietnam was very "just".  Here endeth my political rant.!

Hoi An is a peaceful village.  Probably the most "touristy" place we went on our whole trip.  Lots and lots and lots of shops selling...well...just about everything.  Amy found some cool t-shirts, we got some fancy chop-sticks (I'm still determined to learn how to use the darned things!)...

We found the most delightful restaurant right on the river with an outdoor patio/seating area, called Brother's Cafe... the food was incredible and the ambiance was...well...pretty special.  They had a beautiful fountain with frogs that croaked throughout was lovely and not-too expensive...

The place we stayed at was nice...our room had a patio as well and a view right on the river.  Hoi An is a walking town.  Many of the streets are blocked-off for shopping and walking and no cars and no taxis are allowed.  We walked a lot...we even found ourselves walking around town looking for an ATM to grab some dong for shopping (the Vietnam currency is called dong and one U.S. dollar is worth about 21,000.00 dong!!)  Tired of shopping, we headed back to Da Nang for the short flight to Saigon, or, as it is now known...Ho Chi Minh City.

Our guide in Saigon (call it what you like, the locals still call it Saigon!!) was a trip!  Young and energetic, a bit of a "motor-mouth" ... but very funny! We were nearing the end of our journey to Indo-China - and we told him flat-out that we would be needing some "down time".  Well - we hit the ground running (literally!) because we had time before we could check-in to our hotel...we saw the former Presidential Palace which was beautiful and a pretty good teacher about The War and other cultural things. It was sort of a living museum. As the palace of the former President of South was sort of a command-center for the South Vietnamese government during The War ....and there were bunkers and original radio-equipment throughout.  Very cool!

We stayed at the venerable Caravelle Hotel... one of the grande dames of hotels in the Saigon area... a nice place overall - but - getting a little shop-worn.  We had trouble with the toilet from day-one...and they shut off the water completely for "plumbing repairs" on our last day.

Our second day was truly memorable - a fairly long drive down to the Mekong Delta for a all-day boat cruise!!  This was one of the highlights of the whole trip...the floating market and the transportation of goods up and down the Mekong River probably have not changed much in 200-years! We stopped at a local village and watched the entire process of making coconut candy and a sort of "Rice Krispy treat" kind of local delicacy...and got to sample the wares!!  We made another respectable hike through the canals and streets of the village and came upon a most interesting local restaurant.  It was more of a converted also had an outdoor dining area (it was as humid as hell!) where we quenched our thirst with "333" Beer - or - as it's called in Vietnamese... "Ba-ba-ba"  The waitress was coming up behind Amy Suzanne and - unfortunately - Amy could not see what was coming as our main-course!  It was a big ugly fish with head-still-on!!  As our waitress put the fish on the table..Amy let out a scream that scared everybody in the restaurant!! A classic moment I will never forget!  Time for a lot more "Ba-ba-ba" !!

After a long (and joke-filled) drive back to the city (we passed dozens of places by the roadside where you could rent a hammock in the shade and buy cold beer!  What a great idea!  I wonder if, with the right business-plan, this would catch-on in the U.S.??)... we had a great dinner at a local place. And then back to the Caravelle for our last full night in Vietnam.

The final day, we relaxed.  There was a local coffee-shop just up the road and I walked up and got us some lattes.  Amy left the hotel for an hour or so and did some last minute shopping - but - it seems that she over-spent her last few dong. She took a bicycle pedicab back to the hotel with her purchases in-hand...and for some unknown reason, the "driver" stopped and asked her how much money she had.  Evidently, when he looked through her wallet, she was going to be a little short - so he dropped her off in the middle of downtown Saigon!!

We then headed for the airport to head back to Bangkok and then back Home to Hyderabad!

Here are the final Facebook Photo Albums from this wonderful journey!! It was truly the trip of a lifetime!!

Hoi An and on to Saigon