After lunch we jumped back in the jeep with four other people from the lodge and set out for our very first safari drive. It was such an amazing experience to be driving in the middle of the wild on dirt roads…with wind in our hair as we sat in the open-air jeep scanning the bush for animals. We drove around for about four hours and saw more zebra, Impala, kudu, a brown hyena (rare to see), a rabbit and some cool birds. Since it had just rained over the past 2 days…things were very muddy which meant the jeeps couldn’t go off-roading and the animals didn’t need to travel very far to find water.
As the sun was setting, the ranger pulled the jeep to the side of the road and pulled out a little table he attached to the front of the car. He laid out some dried fruits, nuts and jerky as well as a few cold beers. We climbed out to stretch our legs…we enjoyed the sunset, ate some snacks and chatted.
We got back in the jeep and headed back through the dark to the lodge…the ranger held a heavy-duty flashlight against the bush as we drove, in case a nocturnal animal was roaming around. Back at the lodge, the staff was waiting to greet us as we arrived…they handed us a warm wash-cloth and a glass of port. Giff and I went back to our room for few minutes (escorted of course since it was dark) to get cleaned up. Dinner was served by a fire outside on the patio. The first course was smoked salmon stuffed with a creamy cheese which was followed by a salad and then Giff had the venison and I had the fish. The venison was by far the better choice and I don’t really even like venison, there are no fish swimming around here…it makes sense to go for the meat! For dessert, they served flan and then we realized it was already 10PM…we had to be up at 5AM for our next game drive. We excused ourselves and were escorted by our ranger to our bungalow.
At our doorstep, we stopped and gazed at the sky…it was the most beautiful sky we had ever seen. The milky way was so clear as was planet venus and many other star constellations. There is almost no pollution here on the reserve…so the sky is as it should be, it was gorgeous.
After a hot shower, we climbed through the mosquito net into bed and fell fast asleep.
Pho 24 woke our mouths up this morning. In Vietnam, hot soup is eaten all the time and specifically for breakfast, we decided to try it out. Instead of the gross hotel breakfast, our guide had us go to Pho 24 which specializes in pho…a hot soup with noodles and meat. Our guide actually met us in the lobby and walked us over to the restaurant where he helped us order breakfast and then waited outside while we ate. The soup came over steaming hot…there were noodles at the bottom, chunks of beef in Giff’s and chunks of chicken in mine. In addition, the waiter brought over a plate of basil, mint and bean sprouts, as well as a couple limes and hot sauce. We were told to throw it all in, mix it up and then dig in. As we ate it…we realized why people eat soup for breakfast…it gives you that warm feeling we all like when we drink a hot cup of tea/coffee except it is soup so it is rehydrating and fills you up with the noodles and meat. We did order a cup of coffee as well which was the consistency of a thick syrup and served in little metal cups…we had to be shown how to make it correctly. Many Vietnamese order their coffees with the milk already in the coffee, we ordered ours on the side and realized they use sweetened condensed milk vs. regular cream.
As we drove through Vietnam’s capital, we saw it was a big city with many people and more motorcycles on the road than cars. Our first stop of the day was at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which stood tall in the center of Ba Dinh Square where Ho Chi Minh had read the declaration of Independence on Sept 2nd, 1945. Inside the building lies the body of Ho Chi Minh which is protected by military guards. Unfortunately they were closed today so we could not go inside but we took a picture of this well-known building and continued on our way.
Just around the corner, we saw the Presidential Palace which we weren’t allowed into but were told when Presidents or leaders fly into Vietnam from other countries…that is where they stay. Near the Presidential Palace was Ho Chi Minh’s bungalow, a simple house set on stilts which had a very open-air feel to it. The property itself was peaceful and the bungalow sat on a pond with huge goldfish swimming around. We took a few pictures and stopped to look inside the bungalow which was set up the way Ho Chi Minh may have had it.
After the bungalow, we saw a small pagoda sitting in the middle of a lotus pond. People were lining up to climb the steps and pay their respects to the shrine. Emperor Ly Thai was the one who had it built based on a dream he had. In the dream he was given a son by the goddess of mercy while she was sitting on a lotus flower. Soon after, he married a peasant girl and was given a son…he then built the pagoda to honor the goddess. Now the shrine is popular with a lot of couples who don’t yet have children and it is known to have miraculous healing powers. Giff and i walked up the steps waiting our turn in line to see the statue of the goddess inside with candles and flowers around her.
Our guide quickly walked us through a local temple nearby, it had many Buddha statues amongst other statues…we could see the difference in the figures from Luang Prabang to Vietnam but also the resemblance in colors and symbolism. We took a few pictures and walked through the temple…it seemed like every inch of space was filled with brightly colored decoration and of course incense was burning. Right outside the temple we saw a big furnace which had a fire burning in it…someone was burning paper in it. Our guide explained how they believe once in the afterlife…things are needed like a cell phone, money, etc. So…they make fake money and fake phones etc which is then burned for the person in the afterlife. The money they burn is called joss paper and is usually folded a certain way before burning it. They burn the money for their ancestors based on a belief that their ancestors continue to dwell in the natural world and can influence the fate of the living. The goal is to make sure the ancestors have continued well-being and a positive feeling towards the living. The burning of money enables those in the afterlife to purchase luxuries they need etc. Giff and I had never been exposed to anything like that…we had seen in China how the emperor had the terra-cotta warriors built to protect him in the afterlife… but we had not seen fake money being burned for people in the afterlife…interesting
After the temple we were back in the car and heading towards the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography but made a quick stop at a local crafts market. Their specialty was silk needlework…there were several pictures that were all hand-made with a needle and silk thread. There were a few people sitting in the shop working on a piece as we walked by. We admired the work and shopped around looking at the clothes and other crafts. The guide pulled us into a separate room and poured us some local tea…he also handed us Duc Tien which are small cubes made of green beans and sugar. They are the same size as a sugar cube but the consistency is very mushy and the taste very sweet…it did not taste anything like a green bean. Once we were finished with our tea time, we got back in the car and over to the museum.
This museum was really interesting and we spent quite a while reading the English displays and looking at the various artifacts. The museum was educating us on the numerous (there are 54) ethnic tribes living within the mountains of Vietnam. We read about different cultures and customs and saw typical clothing etc. We took pictures and asked many questions which our guide seemed to be pretty well-informed about. Once we were finished with the inside of the museum, he showed us the outside portion…in the back were housing structures amongst green gardens. There were only a few but they were replicas of what some of these tribal houses look like…most were on stilts but one was super tall and another was super long. We walked through them and took pictures as we thought about the different living conditions. The houses were made of bamboo and wood, the long one was that long so that each generation of family could all live together. We saw a replica sample of a tomb which caught our eye…around the tomb were figures made out of tree trunks and carved with specific sexual details symbolizing fertility and birth. We of course took a few pictures.
We had worked up an appetite so stopped for lunch. The restaurant had an open air feel…it was basically a big square. Inside the square were all the tables and chairs and around the perimeter were all kinds of food vendors to pick from. We walked around with the guide pointing to things we liked and then he sat down with us and placed our order. He picked things we had pointed out but also things he thought we would like to try. He sat down with us and we all stuffed our faces with local Vietnamese cuisine. The soups were yummy and the spring rolls were fresh, so far the food here is pretty good.
With full bellies we were ready to see more of Hanoi, the guide took us to the Temple of Literature which is the site of Vietnam’s first national university. It was built back in 1070 so is over 1000 years old and one of the few remaining Vietnamese buildings. There are 5 buildings and courtyards which are linked together through the walkways/gates and gardens. We walked around admiring the architecture. Emperor Ly Thanh Tong had the structure built and was actually a temple dedicated to the cult of Confucius. Today it is actually used as a shrine to Confucius himself who has and continues to influence the Vietnamese people.
We had one more stop to squeeze into the day which was the “Hanoi Hilton” which was named by the American POW’s during the Vietnam war. It was a prison built by the French in the late 1800s originally to hold the Vietnamese people. It is said the conditions were awful…subhuman as they crammed about 2000 prisoners in the small space. It is a reason for the bitterness between the French and Vietnamese. During the Vietnam war, American prisoners were placed here including John McCain. We walked through the old building where they had a film playing and various pictures and letters in reference to prisoners being held there. They also showed the tiny dark dungeon-like rooms where prisoners were kept. The last room held the giant guillotine where prisoners had their heads chopped off.
After the disturbing prison, we went straight to the center of Hanoi to walk around and get a feel for the city-life. The sidewalks were packed with people, the streets packed with cars/motorcycles and all kinds of electrical wires hanging from the poles. There were plenty of little boutique shops and many food vendors, one was selling duck…they had a couple of ducks walking around on the sidewalk and the BBQ had duck on the grill…a little odd but I guess it was as fresh as it gets! We walked down the little alleyways and just allowed ourselves to be absorbed by the chaos. There were women carrying a long pole on their shoulders…each end had a basket full of fruit for sale. We thanked the guide and found a place to sit down for a quick coffee before our water puppet show started.
We hurried over to the theater which was only a few blocks away…we already had our tickets. Once inside, we saw the theater was crowded but we had assigned seats in a pretty good section. We were given a program which had an English version and was helpful in understanding what we were about to watch. Water puppetry dates back to the 11th century from villages in Vietnam…when the rice fields would flood it was how they entertained each other. The show takes place in a pool of water, there is a screen in which the puppeteer’s are hiding behind. The actual puppets are made from wood then lacquered over, and have long poles attached to them which the puppeteer’s hold onto to make the puppets move around. There was also a group of musicians who played instruments and sang live during the show. There were many scenes acted out…all having to do with harvest time. The show was about an hour and was entertaining…we would recommend the experience.
After the show we walked through the night market…the street was closed off and many vendors were lined up selling clothes and various other crafts. It was crowded and we weren’t really interested in shopping…it had been a long day and we wanted to find food and our bed. After walking for quite some time, we finally found a restaurant that looked packed which was a good thing (always eat where other people are eating). We found seats and saw the menu had all porridge dishes. With the help of the waiter we picked two piping hot porridges and slurped it up before taking a taxi back to our hotel.
We took a taxi over to one of the cute areas of Singapore. It basically had a bunch of restaurants and bars built around a harbor, it kind of reminded us of Darling Harbor in Sydney. Once we were there it really was more of an evening place for bar hopping. We walked along the water peeking in at various restaurants along the way. We sat at a Mexican restaurant for a beer, chips and salsa for a bit as we looked at the map to see what other areas we should check out.
We only walked a few more steps when we saw a brewery playing football on their TV’s. Giff has been deprived of football this year, so we sat and ordered lunch. We have been eating all kinds of Asian cuisine but this place had a burger and since we are in Asia the next couple months…we thought it may be our last opportunity for a while, so ordered a big juicy cheeseburger, fries and beer to wash it down.
After lunch, we took a taxi to another part of downtown…it was the area where the casino was and similar to Las Vegas…it was surrounded by many name-brand stores such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton. We took some pictures as the modern architecture was beautifully done, specifically the museum which had a very particular shape. Across the street was one of the nicest and most expensive hotels in the world, Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Since the casino wouldn’t let us in (we forgot to bring our passports) we walked across the street to look in the hotel. We only saw the lobby which didn’t really stand out as anything spectacular but I’m sure if we would have looked around a bit more, we would have been impressed with more than just the outside of the building. We could have also paid $20 each to go to the top where they have a huge bar and gorgeous views but decided it wasn’t worth the money.
Back at our place, we decided to try the infamous local cuisine called Laksa. There were all kinds of signs stating our hotel restaurant was the best in town. We sat at the restaurant and ordered a large one to split, as well as a salad. It was actually very good and very spicy. The oily broth base was made of coconut cream with a strong chili pepper undertone…enough to make us sweat as we gulped down each bite. It had noodles in the bottom, a few prawns, a couple of quail eggs and a handful of herbs on top. For dessert we tried a slice of the durian cake since it was supposedly the chef’s specialty. For those of you who haven’t had durian before…how should I describe it? The smell is so potent…there are signs in public places like subways and hotels saying no durian fruit allowed. The texture is thick and custard-like. The taste is well, you have to taste it yourself…it does have a sweetness but it is not the kind of sweet one would crave. In fact, it stays with you…as in burping up the same taste you forced down- it is no bueno. It is however very healthy…but we will find other healthy things to eat instead.
We relaxed with a bottle of wine and movie for the evening.
We spent our whole day on a boat cruising down Li River…it was beautiful. We had our own table and chairs with a big window, we sipped on tea as we gazed out at the scenery. The river snaked its way through all kinds of mountains…one of the scenes our guide pointed out was from the 20 yuan bill. We kept going back and forth from our seats to the top deck to get pictures and feel the wind on our faces.
After our day of cruising, we ended in a little town called, Yangshuo. It was a cute town with tons of little shops and vendors selling their goods. Things were super cheap too, we picked up a few things along the way to find dinner. The guide had recommended a place, and we found it at the end of town, upstairs in a building with an outside patio.
The menu was really interesting, the first page was a list of holistic herbal soups. The ingredients cooked together created a healthy concoction…each for something different. We ordered one made with lotus root which had a surprisingly strange consistency…although it was hard, when we bit into it…it was really stringy, each bite would leave your mouth covered in a hair-like consistency. It didn’t have such a strong taste but very weird. We also ordered river snails and a veggie stir-fry. No, we didn’t order the dog but…it was on the menu!
After dinner, we were in the car for a couple of hours before we got back to our hotel. On the way, we stopped at one of the street vendors for our first pomelo. We had never had one, and they seemed to be in season since they were on every corner. It tasted like a grapefruit but less juicy. Back at our hotel, we relaxed, got packed and went to bed. Tomorrow we are back at the airport.