Singapore is a lovely, clean, organized international city-state.
It makes so much sense, with a fantastic MRT system and English spoken everywhere.
It makes too much sense.
Singapore is the living, breathing Mary Sue of SE Asia.
It’s a manufactured place, and you can see the seams. This is perhaps best summarized through a series of photos of signs that Phil and I discovered while wandering around the city:
Don’t get me wrong, Phil and I enjoyed our time there. We had a direct flight and went there over a weekend, so he didn’t have to miss any school. The purpose of the trip was for me to renew my tourist visa. I had two additional goals: to visit an English-language bookstore and to eat some Mexican food. Specifically queso.
I found the bookstore, Books Actually, in a list of best bookstores in the world.
Maybe my expectations were a bit too high.
It was tucked into an odd area near the Singapore General Hospital that was part residential, part commercial. Well executed window displays oversold the contents of each shop we stepped into, all of them overly air conditioned, in yet another apt metaphor for the Red Dot.
The bookstore itself was small and dense with notebooks, novels, poetry collections, literary journals, and the products of their own press. They played indie songs a few years past their due, the quirkiness both outdated and contrived. Phil and I spent quite a while in there, until we both realized that we were desperately searching for something to buy simply for the sake of buying it, not because it was something we wanted to read. I’m sure it’s a great place to discover new authors, particularly Asian authors, but we didn’t do enough research in advance, and should we really have to?
We went across the street and had a coffee and split a Tau Sar Pau (a traditional red bean bun pastry) at 40 Hands, staving off both our bubbling hanger and our disappointment.
Then we stuffed our faces with Mexican food and happy hour margaritas and IPAs at Cafe Iguana. They didn’t have the liquid-y queso that I was so desperately craving, but the food was still authentic and we had trouble choosing among the items on the menu. It ended up being our most expensive meal in months. Our eyes were ten times too big for our bellies, and the first ten minutes of walking around the city after leaving the restaurant were rather miserable.
Thankfully it passed quickly.
Wandering around the city on our way to Haji Lane from there, we stumbled upon a dog agility competition. We watched until one girl gave up, her dog too naughty to jump the fourth hurdle and the heat making finishing the route not worth her trouble.
Then, we struck gold with a giant sale of used books stacked perfunctorily on rows of tables outside of some sort of indoor/outdoor shopping center. There were rows and rows of Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, and James Patterson, but we found gems—including NW by Zadie Smith and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay—buried within.
We passed so many malls and shops that we couldn’t help but feel that Singapore is all about shopping. Haji Lane was worth a visit, and I had luck finding cheaper women’s clothing by heading up some stairs to an unassuming second-story boutique hidden above the flashier street-level options. Phil was patient.
Following the recommendation of our Airbnb hosts, we made our way to the Gardens by the Bay for the Supertrees light show at 7:45pm. We couldn’t figure out how to get outside when we got off the train at the appropriate MRT station. We were stuck in a mall that was connected to a hotel and had to ask two people for directions. Turns out, we were in Marina Bay Sands, a building that looks like a surf board with three legs. In the hypothetical dystopian movie that takes place in Singapore, this surf board definitely breaks free and flies off into space and/or crashes into something, causing a colorful explosion.
Back to the show. Essentially, these big fake trees are lit up and change colors to the sounds of music. I had “Lights” by Journey in my head--specifically the lines "I wanna get back / to my city by the bay"--the whole time, but the light show was set to music more along the lines of Disney tunes. I don’t remember exactly because Phil and I were seemingly the only people NOT recording the show with some sort of device. A woman’s voice came on an intercom after the show, and she sounded as if she was calmly directing us into some underground bunker for sorting.
We considered eating in the food court near the base of the Supertrees but decided to leave the land of the selfie before we fell into a black hole of unfortunate technological advancements.
So we headed to Little India for some dinner and drinks. We had an excellent meal at the restaurant across from the Indian Heritage Centre (I don't have the name, but I'd highly recommend it), though combining that with the Mexican feast earlier in the day may not have been the wisest decision.
We brought a beer back to our Airbnb and had a lovely conversation with our hostess. Both of our Airbnb hosts were lovely and were a highlight of our trip. They made the visit a breeze, helping us with all of the little details of getting from place to place, and because they both worked for an international school, we had plenty in common.
As you can tell, Saturday was a busy day, and we may have overdone it. On Sunday, we went to Holland Village for a somewhat unsuccessful brunch, then walked around the Singapore Botanic Gardens, slowly and in relative silence. It was a gorgeous setting, but it was hot and our feet hurt. Popsicles helped.
While riding in a cab from the airport back to our apartment in Da Nang that evening, we rolled the windows down and enjoyed the cool breeze. I was planning out my lunch for the next day—$1.50 plain old fried rice to help soothe my tumultuous stomach and soften the recent blow to my bank account. Our driver slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting a motorbike as we crossed the “Sail Bridge” over the Han River.
Phil said, “I prefer this version of Asia.”
Da Lat is a perfect long weekend getaway from Da Nang—especially because there are now direct flights between the two main Da ____ cities of Vietnam.
Phil surprised me with plane tickets to Da Lat for my birthday, and we made the trip about a month later. Our experience was made because of our decision to stay at Villa Vista. The adorable bed and breakfast is run by a couple—his “passport says Australia” and she’s Vietnamese—and I’d recommend it to anyone. The views were stunning, and it was beautifully decorated, with guests’ every concern considered.
We bonded with Tim right away because he’s a jazz pianist and we wanted to go check out some live music at a bar we’d heard of called Escape Bar, in the basement of a hotel. When we asked Tim for a phone number for a local cab company, he said, “you know what, let’s all go,” and joined us. We got to the bar, and Tim went on stage and started jamming with the band right off the bat. He made sure Phil got up there for a couple songs on the bass, as well.
Villa Vista is up the hill and around the corner from the Crazy House, which is worth a trip and holds true to its name. It wasn’t a highlight for us, but we were glad we took the time to walk through it. Note: wear good walking shoes as there are some narrow, steep walkways, and get there during sunlight hours as the place is not well lit at night.
On the whole, Da Lat is high in the mountains and is quite hilly. Sneakers are the way to go. And because of the altitude, it can get relatively chilly, particularly at night and especially on a motorbike. We were glad to have layers. We also noticed ourselves getting winded more easily than usual—but we’re sea level creatures!
Per Tim’s recommendation, we went to the vegetarian place on the same road as the Crazy House. It was called something like Nhat Lien, and there’s an interesting garden out front. I can’t find a good link for it, but it’s on the same side of the road as the Crazy House, toward Villa Vista. The guy who runs it is Viet Kieu—he lived in Da Lat until he was 5, then moved to Texas, where he lived until his early 20s before moving back. He recommended a combination for meal for us, and it was fantastic—I loved the sweet and sour soup. His fiance was our server, and we felt good about supporting the two of them.
The next day we enjoyed a fantastic breakfast on our balcony at Villa Vista before embarking on a motorbike tour of the countryside. Tim again assisted us with the bike, escorting us to the gas station and through an old landing field that’s now covered with greenhouses, then telling us where to go. Thac Voi—also known as the Elephant Waterfall—was our ultimate destination. The drive was one of my favorites we’ve done through Vietnam so far. It often felt like we were in California, particularly when we were in the countryside, away from signs written in Vietnamese.
We stopped at a local silk factory to watch the process before heading off to the waterfalls. There were a couple of tour groups there, but we didn’t find it to be overcrowded and we enjoyed trekking through the grounds—Phil a bit more than me as I was recovering from a clumsy sprained ankle injury. Definitely wear good shoes if you plan on making the trip to the waterfalls, as well.
Heading back to the city from Thac Voi, we stopped at Me Linh Coffee Garden for some good ol’ weasel poop coffee with a stunning view of the coffee farm below us. (More information on their process can be found here.) It was a highlight of the trip for me.
Phil’s favorite moment came later that night. Per a recommendation from his sister and brother-in-law, we went to Artist Alley for dinner. The unassuming restaurant is actually tucked into an alley and its walls are covered with the owner’s paintings. We sat in the cosy upstairs section and were pleased with the live acoustic guitar that started around 7pm. The owner himself waited on us and everyone else in the restaurant. We ordered a bottle of their red for 300,000 VND (~$13.50) and were presented with a 1997 Bordeaux and a huge loaf of garlic bread on the house. Too bad we had already both ordered soups and mains. Our pumpkin and broccoli soups were incredible and left us with little room for our entrees. While we were finishing the bottle of wine and feeling guilty about how much food was left on our plates, the restaurant owner asked us if he could do a table-side painting for us. Did he think we would say no? In less than ten minutes, he created us a custom piece of art showing some bamboo in a typical Vietnamese landscape using just his hands (rather than brushes), an ink pad, some water, and a wash cloth. We got it framed for less than $10 at a local frame shop and we hope to get it up on our wall soon. Check out the artist's fingerprint "signature" near the bottom of the painting:
Full to the gills and rosy cheeked from the wine and the sweetness of our experience at Artist Alley, we rambled up the road to a ramshackle dive bar, a square room with a pool table in the middle, called the Hangout. We were the only people there for the first 20 minutes or so, until an entire hostel’s worth of travelers joined us. Interesting that the phenomenon of the giant backpacker crew hasn’t hit in Da Nang yet, though it seems to be well on its way. Anyway, Phil happily ran the pool table for the next couple of hours, and we returned to Villa Vista quite pleased with ourselves.
The next morning, we grabbed one more cup of coffee at One More Cafe, and then went on our way to the airport. On the ride there, I laid my head on Phil’s shoulder, tucked my hand in his and told him that we’re doing things right—which is probably what many of you think after a flawless vacation, too.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.