HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, January 1, 2011


My trip to Singapore almost began in utter disaster, entirely thanks to my own laziness. I had an 8 a.m. bus from KL to catch on Sunday morning. KL is an hour ahead of Saigon, but I hadn't taken the time to reset the clock on my phone; I simply added an hour every time I looked at it. After dinner on Saturday night, which left me in the initial stages of a food coma, I set my alarm for 6:45 a.m., thinking that that would give me enough time to get breakfast and meander over to the hotel where the bus left from. I woke up before my alarm, and lay there for a minute, confident that I had plenty of time before I had to leave. Then I pulled out my Ipod, which had the correct time on it, realized with a start that it was 7:40, and immediately jumped out of bed and ripped off my clothes while throwing on a new outfit and letting loose a stream of expletives. I ran downstairs, checked out, and ran down to the corner, where a taxi just happened to be driving by. Amazingly, I got there in plenty of time, mainly because the bus left a little late. After that nerve-racking morning, I was glad to have a smooth, comfortable bus ride to cover the 350km to Singapore.

The ride was smooth because of something else that surprised me about Malaysia: a 4-lane highway called the North-South Expressway that looked exactly like interstates in the U.S. (Except that they drive on the other side of the road here, thanks to the British influence.) There were even American-style rest stops, except they sold fresh fruit instead of unhealthy crap from vending machines.

After a long wait at customs we entered Singapore, which really can't get any more modern, although that hasn't stopped them from trying, as evidenced by the new skyscrapers and subway lines going in. I took the spotlessly clean subway from the cruise ship terminal, where the bus dropped us off, to my hotel, and immediately went in search of food. I ate at a food court near the hotel, ordering cheese naan with sauce, a banana shake, and chicken rice, which is a Singaporean favorite.
Chicken rice - it's a simple dish, but when you add the sauces it's delicious
After eating I started walking towards Marina Bay and the Financial District, where the majority of Singapore's sights are located. Along the way I was once again struck by the normalcy of the city: like in KL, traffic flowed smoothly, motorbikes were far less common than in Saigon, and people actually obeyed the rules. In a strange way this actually made me realize that I missed Saigon. A lot. This city is just such a raw, visceral place that you can't help but get sucked in by the energy. Sure, you may almost get run over multiple times a day, but that's part of the fun of it. In a way KL and Singapore seemed boring; they are extremely interesting cities but it just feels weird to be in fully modernized places after spending the last 4 months in Cambodia and Vietnam. I'm not sure how well I'll be able to adjust when I go back to the U.S.

Anyway, along the way I stopped at the Raffles Hotel, an absolutely beautiful world-famous luxury hotel. I went to the hotel's Long Bar, where the Singapore Sling cocktail was originally created. Since it's not very often that one gets to visit a place where a famous drink was invented, I ordered one. It was delicious, but it was also the most expensive drink I've ever bought, and it was a little weak in terms of alcoholic content. Still, it was worth it.
Raffles Hotel

the original Singapore Sling
I arrived in the Financial District fifteen minutes later, my wallet feeling a good bit lighter. This district sits at one end of Singapore's Marina Bay, which is ringed by a number of attractions. The Financial District itself is densely packed with skyscrapers, most of them named after international banks. There is also the Esplanade, an oddly-shaped concert hall, the Singapore Flyer, the Merlion Statue, and, perhaps most spectacularly, the Marina Bay Sands resort. Next up is a bunch of pictures of all of these. Unfortunately the natural lighting that evening was awful, so some of my pictures didn't come out as well as I had hoped. Still, hope you enjoy them:
Like I said, the buildings were pretty close together.

the Esplanade

Merlion with the skyline in the background

the Marina Bay Sands

the Singapore Flyers
I'd like to talk some more about the Sands. This is apparently the most expensive hotel in the world, and I believe it cost something like $8 billion to build. There are three monolith-like towers connected by a ship-shaped structure on the top. There is a skypark, which is open to the public, as well as a pool and restaurants for hotel guests located there. In front of the actual hotel is a huge mall that made Suria back in KL look like a K-Mart: it housed an ice rink, upscale food court, celebrity chef restaurants, a cinema, and some of the most expensive stores in the world. I bought a ticket to go up to the Skypark and boarded the elevator to the roof. I was tempted to test Singapore's "no peeing in elevators" policy, but I didn't think the other people going up with me would appreciate that. The ticket was rather expensive, but the amazing views were completely worth it, since the park provided near-360 degree views of the surrounding area: you could see part of Singapore's port, the busiest in the world, cargo ships sat waiting as far as the eye could see, while inland one could see the scale of Singapore's development. Once night fell the views over the bay were simply stunning. I'll attach pictures from the Skypark at the end of this post.

Once I returned to street level, I did not feel like going back to my hotel. Even though I paid $50 for it, it was really nothing more than a concrete pillbox. There were no windows, and it was even smaller than my room in Phnom Penh. I walked through the Sands' stunning lobby and decided that I would be willing to whore myself out to a rich, single woman for the night, just so I could sleep in a big comfortable bed in a big comfortable room and shower in a big bathroom. Unfortunately, single women don't seem to be part of the resort's clientele, so I headed back outside.

By now the Bay was bathed in its night lighting, and it really was beautiful. Oddly enough, the city doesn't really have any avant-garde skyscrapers like many other Asian cities, so they look a little boring during the day, but at night it's a different story alltogether.

After taking many more pictures, I started heading back to my hotel, which was about a 25-minute walk away. Along the way I stumbled upon a small hawker centre and sat down to eat. I had yet more Indian food: Lamb vindaloo, naan, rice, and a Tiger beer. It was a fabulous meal.

The next morning I woke up early (and at the right time!) because I had an 11:00 bus back to KL to catch. My hotel was right at the edge of Little India, but I had had so much Indian food over the previous few days that I wasn't really in the mood for more. I looked at the map povided by the hotel and noticed an ethnic neighborhood called Kampong Glam a couple blocks away. Obviously I have no idea what that means but I spotted a street called Arab St. running through it, so I guessed it was a Little Arabia. Middle Eastern cuisine is one of my favorites, so I headed over and discovered a lovely neighborhood. The "Arab" part is a little misleading because most of the food was actually Indian Muslim in origins, but the streets were interesting and I did have yet another great meal. This time it was chicken murtabak with a glass of teh. I had never even heard of murtabak, but the restaurant claimed they had the best in Singapore, and it was damn good.
the Masjid Sultan looms over Kampong Glam

the corner of Arab St. and Baghdad St.

Chicken murtabak - basically flatbread with chicken and other goodies baked inside of it

My delectable dessert from the Kampong Glam Cafe.
Feeling stuffed once again, I walked around Little India before boarding the sterilized subway (I honestly think you could lick the floor of that thing and be fine.) and getting back on the bus. Five hours later I was back in KL.

Overall, this was a great trip. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are both fascinating, although the former is quite expensive. As you can see the food was incredible, and by the end I had come to a depressing realization: I don't know how I'm going to eat when I go back to the U.S. Even in Singapore the food I ate was cheaper than most meals back home. Eating in Vietnam is always an experience, and it is usually absurdly cheap. Malaysia has a strong street food culture, and Singapore still has plenty of food courts and hawker centres. All of this food is fresher than almost anything you'll find in America, since things aren't processed here like they are back in the U.S. Paying $10 or more for a so-so burger or pasta dish is going to be extremely painful upon my return. I really liked both cities, although right now I'd have to give KL the nod because I stayed there longer and it was more affordable. This was the first time I traveled internationally on my own, and I'm split on solo travel. It was nice that I had only myself to worry about, since I don't make many mistakes when it comes to travel (almost missing the bus excepted), and I could go wherever I wanted and spend as much time as I wanted there without having to worry about other people's opinions. On the flip side, traveling alone can be, well, quite lonely. Both my hostel in KL and the hotel in Singapore were pretty dead so I didn't really meet anyone. Budget travel also has its shortcomings: on my last night in KL I was staring longingly at every nice hotel I passed, like a stray puppy looking for a new home. Despite these issues, I still enjoyed myself, and I got to experience and enjoy two new countries on a fairly small budget. To close, here are those pictures from the Skypark:
Well, this one wasn't taken from the park.

For some reason there was a football pitch in the middle of the bay.

The resort's lobby
I have a lot more pictures up on Facebook, so if you have an account on that you can check them out. Also, I'm not sure when I'm going to have another post up, since I have a friend from the U.S. coming in on Monday and we are going up to the central coast for six days on Thursday. Anyways, Happy New Year to you all, and I hope you have a great 2011!

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