A Few Days in Singapore

Singapore – 7 & 8 April 2018

I’d forgotten how charming the Tiong Bahru neighborhood is, with it’s low-slung Art Deco apartments and quiet streets – plus this time the Tiong Bahru Market with its second-floor hawker centre was open after being closed for renovations on my last visit.

Breakfast for me was char siu and rice – my favorite! – while Ak had roast pork and congee. We took a walk around, primarily in hopes of seeing Bob, a well-known neighborhood cat, but had no luck – though there were a couple of signs posted asking folks not to feed Bob because he is on a special diet to lose some weight… Oh, Bob!

So, since we didn’t get our cat fix, we did the next best thing and stopped into Tiann’s, a little cafe across from the market with a simple and light-filled interior and a very friendly staff. I’ll admit to being a bit “O RLY?” when they advised that all the food they prepare contains neither gluten nor any refined sugar – but in fact, the kaya tea cake we shared with our iced lattes was delicious.

Next stop was back in the center at the Asian Civilizations Museum. The Tang shipwreck exhibit was fascinating, with a display of the some of the tens of thousands of objects, largely pottery but also some crafted from precious metals, salvaged from the wreck. The ship was Middle Eastern and was returning home after loading up with wares from China. It’s quite a marvel to see how highly-developed things like trade, commerce and mass production were over 1000 years ago in Asia.

Did a bit of shopping on Orchard Rd. where we had our first argument of the trip – less than 48 hours in, a new record, I believe – over my inability to disguise my boredom during a visit to Abercrombie & Fitch. Srsly tho – have you ever been into one of their shops? With the blasting music, the gallons of perfume being pumped into the air and the maze-like layout, it’s enough to make anyone over the age of 30 start yelling at people to get off their lawn.

We also got to check out Don Quijote, a newly-opened branch of the Japanese discount store – here known as Don Don Donki due to an existing establishment in Singapore apparently named Don Quixote – which is a bit like Tokyu Hands meets a 100 yen store. It’s jam-packed with gummy candies, weird beauty products, toys, liquor, travel equipment and self-piercing kits – “designed by doctors” (#mm-hmmm), to name just a small cross-section of their assortment – and there’s also a grocery store downstairs selling prepared food, along with fruit, vegetables, frozen treats and what is reputed to be extremely good quality meat and seafood at great prices. Singaporeans love a bargain, so the place was packed. It was all fascinating, despite us only buying some nori potato chips and mandarin-flavored drinking water, which tasted exactly like St. Joseph’s Chewable Children’s Aspirin.

Time for a bit of a snack and apparently my blood sugar was so low that I thought that eating at the Mexican place in the mall was a good idea – though, to be honest, it was actually surprisingly tasty, if also a bit rich in its pricing. Tacos were tasty and my margarita was adequate – though Ak’s sangria was not well-executed.

By the time we were finished and back outside, it’d started pouring rain. We had rather a long wait for a Grab back to the hotel, but we made it and relaxed for a bit before heading back out to Lau Pa Sat, the hawker centre next to which is an evening open-air group of stalls all selling satay, hence it’s moniker of Satay St. We ordered from stall 7 & 8, reputed along with 10, to be the best of a good bunch. The chicken and beef satay were delicious, though I didn’t like the shrimp quite as much. I wished I’d remembered to try one of the non-Halal vendors this time, just to have some pork satay – but I guess that will have to wait until my next visit! Well, unless we’re back there this visit…

Despite a tasty dinner, there was a redux of our “conversation” outside of A&F that afternoon, so it wasn’t the most pleasant dinner we’d had together, but we did manage to hash things out successfully before deciding to walk home along Clark Quay and the river. It was a long walk but the rain had stopped and weather was comfortable.

It’d been a long day and I was so exhausted, I was asleep before 10PM, while Ak caught up on a writing project he’s doing for a designer friend of his back in Bangkok.

Although I slept like a baby, we didn’t get quite as early a start on Sunday morning as we might’ve hoped, but we did manage to make it over to Adam Road Food Centre for breakfast. We had nasi lemek, mi rebus (essentially noodles in gravy) and some BBQ pork and rice. It was all pretty tasty, though nothing really knocked our socks off.

Walked down the road to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. We started at the northern end and made our way all the way to the southern entrance. The place is huge and really just lovely, with gorgeous grounds and people and dogs out enjoying their day. The highlight was probably the National Orchid Garden, filled with a huge variety of amazing orchids. It was a bit on the crowded side in there, but we really enjoyed our walk through this garden.

Afterwards, we walked over to the Dover Street Market, a very fancy designer boutique that Ak wanted to check out. Followed this up with a stop at PS Cafe where we had a couple of delicious – and this being Singapore – breathtakingly priced cocktails: a mojito for me and rose sangria with berries and rosebuds. Yum!

Next stop, a well-reputed ice cream shop with the unfortunate name Udders. Also unfortunate was my lack of attention when booking a Grab to take us there, as I inadvertently chose the one a couple of miles farther north than the one that was about a 10 minute drive from our location – so we wound up way in the outskirts of Singapore, joking with each other that we might’ve actually crossed into Malaysia. Sadly, the ice cream was just OK. I mean, yes, it was tasty, but probably not worth the schlep.

After that we visited Marina Square mall to check out a new outpost of Nomi, a Japanese 100 yen shop. It’s an older mall with an odd assortment of shops, but I kinda liked it. And it turned out to be good stop for Ak, as we popped into Owndays, a Japanese maker of reasonably priced eyeglasses. Not only did he find a great-looking pair of new glasses, the price was extremely reasonable – about half what I pay just for frames back in the US, plus included new lenses (which were also noticeably thinner for his quite-strong prescription #sheblind) and were ready in 20 minutes! I was tempted to buy some myself, but progressive lenses are custom and take a week or so to get back, so I was SOL – though the fellow who assisted us could not have been nicer, letting me know they’d be happy to ship them to me for about US$30. Oh well! I was happy that Ak found some new specs.

We took a long walk after, crossing the Helix Bridge over to Marina Bay and making our way south to check out Marina One, a really cool and not-quite-fully open office/condo/retail complex. The architecture is impressive, particularly the interior open space which is filled with tropical greenery and pools and waterfalls, surrounded by the curving and angled buildings soaring overhead.

Since we were in the neighborhood, it seemed foolish not to pop over to Lau Pa Sat food center and the adjacent Satay St. We tried the satay from stall number 6 this time and declared it not quite as good as our usual from stand 7 & 8 – so we ordered a round from 7 & 8, just to be sure. Oh, and we also had a bowl of noodles with meat sauce and wontons and some tom yum. And some dessert of shaved ice topped with milk, sago beads and fresh fruit. C’est léger, c’est léger!

And now we’re back in our room, Ak watching “The Face” (essentially “Thailand’s Next Top Model”) and I’m clacking away on this update while listening to some disco tunes on my headphones. It’s not even 8PM here! Ordinarily, it’d be time for some wine or a cocktail, but booze is so expensive here that it brings out my inner cheapskate. So, I guess we’ll just have to be satisfied with water and the last of the Swiss chocolates from my friend Nicolas…


Singapore via Zurich

Zurich, Switzerland – 4 April 2018
Singapore – 5 & 6 April 2018

Arrived at SFO easily enough despite rush hour traffic. There was a bit of a line for business class check-in at SWISS (#outrage) but I was soon past security and seated in the not-especially-glamorous temp United lounge. It’s currently the only Star Alliance lounge open at SFO Terminal G, due to ongoing construction of what is supposed to be a really nice new Polaris lounge. Eh, it was fine – I had a seat and got myself plenty hydrated with sparkling water for the 10 ½ hour flight to Zurich.

Flying with me on this first leg was my friend Nicolas, an FA for SWISS. He kept my champagne topped up and made sure I had a great flight – though honestly, every passenger seemed to receive really lovely service from the very attentive crew.
SWISS’ 777 seating layout in C alternates 1-2-2 and 2-2-1. The single seats are nicknamed “Throne Seats” (#apropos #thisqueen) and are reserved for SWISS premium members or those willing to cough up $200 per segment for the privilege of getting these very private seats. Given that I’d used miles to purchase this ticket, I decided to go for it. And boy was I glad that I did!

Besides all the privacy, this seat has way more storage space in an around the seat. Plus, I was in 4A, one of only two bulkhead thrones (the other being 7A) – and they provide substantially more foot room when in bed mode. 4A is also in the front mini-cabin of the 777 with only two rows, so it feels very quiet and private.

Dinner was great and I got a decent amount of semi-fitful sleep after a tasty dinner. Once I was fully awake, it was only an hour-and-a-half until arrival at Zurich.

My layover before transiting onward to Singapore was seven hours. The train from the airport to central Zurich takes about 15 minutes, so it was my plan to spend a few hours in town. I’d gone back-and-forth on this plan, since the weather forecast was cold and rainy – but what the hell, why not!

Made it into town just as easily as it had been portrayed. It was chilly and the rain was steady. As I walked toward the Fraumünster, I was having second thoughts – my shoes were wet and I was simultaneously sweaty and cold. But I plodded on.

And I’m so glad I did! Fraumünster is home to a series of stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. They were breathtaking and the visit would have been so worth it just to see them. But there was also what I believe was rehearsal going on upstairs for a performance by violin and the church’s massive pipe organ. So, I was treated to music filling the church while I sat and looked at the beautiful stained glass windows.

I’ll confess I got a little misty-eyed – not just because it was a wonderful experience but it was one of those moments where I kind of can’t believe that I’ve been so fortunate in my life to travel and to visit places like this. So happy I didn’t let the rain interfere with my visit.

Next stop was Sternen Grill for a bratwurst and a glass of wine – it was great! Then back to the station, a quick trip back to the airport and then off to the gorgeous SWISS lounge in Terminal E. I had a nice long shower, put on some fresh panties and got that spring back in my step. Boarded my next flight after relaxing a bit more in the lounge.

My visit to Singapore started off rather less auspiciously than one might hope. The 11 hour flight from Zurich was AOK, as I was once again ensconced in seat 4A on a SWISS 777. I slept for only about three hours in an attempt to get myself adjusted to local time, so I watched a few movies (and liked Thor: Ragnorok substantially better than Call Me by Your Name, a film which made my eyes roll into the back of my head more than once. But I digress…)

Made it through Immigration quickly and collected my bags with the intention of buying a local SIM card at the airport. The only ones I found were for SG$38, which seemed substantially higher than I recalled, so I skipped it and headed by taxi to my home for the next five nights, the Sheraton Four Points River View.

The place is nice enough, though perhaps a bit more touristy than I’d like, especially considering how much I enjoyed the more boutique-y WANGZ Hotel I stayed in on my last visit (which had the additional plus of being named WANGZ) – but there was a substantial difference in price and Singapore is not exactly a bargain when it comes to lodging.

Anyway, after unpacking and getting a status update from Ak, who was flying in from BKK this same evening, I headed out in search of a 7-Eleven from which to purchase a SIM card. Google Maps showed two nearby, so off I went with a screenshot of the location.

Across the river from the hotel are plenty of other hotels and condos and tons of restaurants, all of which seemed vaguely questionable, thanks to their photo-based menus, too-broad offerings (burgers, pizza and North Indian cuisine in one place for example) and more-than-fair share of boisterous Western tourists. Again, a bit of a let-down from the charming Tiong Bahru neighborhood I’d stayed in last time – but at this point I just needed a 7-Eleven.

My map failed me, pointing me to a street devoid of any establishments whatsoever, let alone a convenience store, so I wandered semi-aimlessly in the direction of a ramen place I knew was close by. And lo and behold, I stumbled across a different 7-Eleven – only to have the clerk tell me that her SIM registration machine was not working, which was frustrating enough, but she also used a tone that I felt was unnecessarily surly.

I did find the ramen place, Ippudo, and had a decent bowl along with some sake – which sort of took the edge off their lack of Wi-Fi (#srsly?). But all in all, I was not really feeling it my first night in Singapore – though this was no doubt exacerbated by the nearly thirty hours I’d spent in transit.

Back to hotel and awaited Ak’s arrival, while intermittently dozing. He arrived from the airport quickly, we had a brief happy reunion before we both had to hit the hay.

Friday morning we woke up early and went back out in search of SIM card, this time with directions from the front desk clerk and found the place immediately – only to be advised that I needed to present my passport and no, a copy wasn’t good enough. Ugh, y tho? Back to hotel for passport, back again and I was finally back online, thank heavens.

And I swung into action by ordering us a Grab (the SE Asian version of Uber) to take us to Maxwell Food Centre, one of Singapore’s many, many hawker centers. Due to the early hour, lots of stalls still closed, but I had a really tasty stir-fried noodles with shrimp and Ak had chicken congee and then we shared a kaya bun, “kaya” being a local coconut jam that’s a breakfast favorite here.

Next stop the National Gallery, where we looked at paintings before visiting an installation on the rooftop, a bamboo maze with a tiny teahouse at the center. Back downstairs, we ended our visit at a really entertaining video installation that also proved to be irresistible IG bait for the both of us.

Wandered around the bay until it was time for our afternoon tea at L’Eclair by Sarah Michelle. It was pretty tasty – though the eclairs, while the flavors were excellent, were done in by rather soggy pastry. Quel dommage!

Walked back to the hotel for a lie-down, then a swim, then another lie-down and then dinner in the neighborhood (preceded by a stop at the front desk to share my hope that our room would be made up prior to 4PM as had occurred today. But I digress…) at Wine Connection Cheese Bar. Ak isn’t really familiar with cheese, so we shared a plate of Brie, Tomme de Savoie and some pastrami. I was quite surprised at the high quality of all the offerings – along with a decent bottle of rose at a reasonable-for-Singapore price. As it turned out, neither Brie nor Tomme de Savoie were big hits with Ak – he didn’t hate them, but also didn’t love them. In a surprise twist, when we ordered a refill, he loved the Tête de Moine – authentically prepared with a girolle – and the Serrano ham! So, perhaps not the most traditionally Singaporean meal, but given its proximity to the hotel, reasonable price and excellent quality, it turned out to be a great pick for dinner.

Had a leisurely walk back and checked the forecast for Saturday’s weather. Rain predicted, so we’ve postponed our visit to the Botanic Gardens to Sunday and tomorrow we’ll head back to Tiong Bahru to visit the market and hawker center which was closed for renovations when we stayed nearby last time. Here’s hoping I can finally eat some char siu there!

So Long, Bangkok!

Bangkok, Thailand – 20, 21 & 22 October 2017

Hard to believe it’s my last few days here already… Spent the time mostly re-visiting some old favorite hangouts along with checking out some new ones.

Friday we mostly spent wandering around town checking out shops and snacking at Siam Paragon as usual. Dinner that evening at Soul Food Mahanakorn, but we stopped by the Okura Hotel to check out their happy hour, served on an open-air terrace off the lobby on the 24th floor. It was OK, but I was frankly underwhelmed – it just wasn’t a very interesting space and the cocktails were unmemorable.

Ak suggested we make our next stop at the Siwilai City Club at Central Embassy. WELL! This was much more to my liking. The space up on the top of the mall is really cool, with a beach-y vibe. Plus, I really liked the perspective of being only about six floors above street level, surrounded by tall buildings and hearing the BTS passing by just below. A great space and some tasty drinks.

Dinner was great, as expected – especially the miang kham, which is a plate of pork, coconut, lime, chile, ginger, peanuts and onion that you use as you like to fill a leaf and then pop it into your mouth. So simple and so delicious.

Saturday and we headed to Chatuchak Market (of course!) with a stop at Or Tor Kor Market for lunch. I even managed to order my own cha nom yen in Thai! Well, OK, the lady did correct my pronunciation, but still!

Shopping was good that day: I found a bunch of cool t-shirts, Ak got me a great new travel bag printed with angry cats along with some new toys for his cat. There was another torrential downpour which was kind of hilarious given that the “indoor” sections of the market aren’t necessarily as indoor as one might think, so we wound up rather damp. Good thing we found a little sweet shop to duck into for a snack…

After we were back in the city, we checked out an exhibit about the construction of the crematorium for the King. It was a small show, but really fascinating to learn about all of the work that went into the design and construction of this magnificent structure – that will be dismantled after the King’s funeral. There was also an amazing scale model, which I was really excited to see since we hadn’t been able to get very close to the real one next to the palace.

Dinner that night at Jay Fai, a shophouse restaurant long famous for drunken noodles and other seafood dishes prepared by Auntie Fai. It’d been on my list for a long time but this was the first time Ak and I actually visited. And, it was fine. The serving was generous and the seafood very fresh – but was it the pantheon of my favorite meals in Bangkok? Nope, not really. Ak was more critical than I, particularly given the high price relative to other “street food” type places – though by SF standards, the price was not at all unreasonable, though certainly higher than is usual in Bangkok. I’m really glad we did get a chance to visit and that it was a pretty low-key affair. The place was recently awarded one Michelin star, so it’s likely to have nightmarishly long lines now – and I can say, “Oh, I ate there aaaaaaaages ago, long before Michelin star…”

Since we shared our meal, we still had plenty of room for more food next door at Thip Samai, with a reputation for serving the best pad Thai in town. I’d eaten here before with Ak and we really liked it. The food was still very good – but the line this evening was nuts. I think we waited 45 minutes for a table? And someone who shall remain nameless (but whose name rhymes with “I’m-never-coming-BACK-here”…) was already kind of crabby so it wasn’t the most enjoyable meal of this trip. I’m not a really a huge fan of pad Thai anyhow – but I think this place really does make a fantastic pad Thai. I probably don’t think it’s worth the long wait – really, what is in a town with so much amazing food? – but if the line isn’t too cray, it’s worth a visit.

Next stop was Tep Bar, which I only visited for the first time last April and really loved it. Tonight was no different, with the usual live performance of traditional Thai music. The place was packed, but we lucked out and got the last table and enjoyed a couple of cocktails. Next stop was up the road at Foo John. They had a live jazz combo playing upstairs which was nice way for us to wrap our evening – my last in Bangkok before heading back home to SF.

Up early – but not too early! – to head to the airport. It’s always so sad to say goodbye to Ak and to leave behind this city I love so much. The blow was softened somewhat knowing I’d already booked my next trip to this part of the world for April 2018. And softened even further thanks to the fact that I’m flying EVA Air business class via Taipei – making the 19-hour voyage home more than just tolerable, but quite lovely.

I’d flown EVA before. They are a great choice out of BKK, given that they have the best lounge that I’ve visited there – even better than the just re-modeled Singapore Airlines lounge, which was fine, but EVA has a nicer location with great tarmac views, an excellent selection of food and – best of all – Toto Washlets in the bathrooms. Another perk is that EVA’s regional business class is the same excellent lie-flat pod-style seat as on their long-haul flights. Many of the Asian carriers have regional configurations with comfortable seats with plenty of leg-room – but in a 2-3-2 layout which means substantially less privacy than EVA’s 1-2-1.

The one thing that surprises me – and not in a good way – is how underwhelming the EVA lounges are in Taipei, their home airport. They are quite crowded, the design feels dated, the facilities shopworn and the food uninspired. I actually preferred the ambiance at the Priority Pass lounges around the corner. Eh, first world problems.

The flights were great though. Really tasty food, excellent service from the crew and plenty of Veuve Clicquot La Grand Dame was poured as we jetted across the Pacific… Soon enough, I was wheels down at SFO, whisked through immigration thanks to the best $100 I ever spent for Global Entry and I was home in my living less than one hour after arriving at the gate. And just like that, vacation is over. Back to work in the morning – but counting the days until April… Next stop: Singapore!

More from Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand – 17, 18 & 19 October 2017

Tuesday morning and I decided I needed to finally visit Lumphini Park. I generally stay in Silom when I visit Bangkok, so it’s kind of shocking I’d never actually ventured inside the park. Well! It’s really just lovely – green and quiet and a nice respite from the bustling city surrounding it. And I saw some cats, so that’s the sign of a great day.

After the park, we walked up Wireless Road, past the US and other embassies on our way to Central Embassy mall. Besides some window-shopping (and availing ourselves of the Washlet-equipped toilets), we popped into Eathai downstairs for a snack of roasted bananas with caramel sauce and moo ping.

Next up: a movie! Bangkok’s malls, besides being home to amazing food, house some of the biggest and most luxurious movie theaters I’ve ever seen. If you’re willing to pay for it, you can sit in big luxurious chairs or even sofas or beds, along with pillows and blankets and food delivered to your seat. But I’m a cheap bastard and went with the OG style auditorium – which was still huge and comfy and reasonably priced. Oh, and we saw “Blade Runner 2049” – which I liked, but JHC, they could’ve been a bit more aggressive in that editing room. If we’d gone with the recliner seats and blankets, I’m sure I’d’ve dozed off at some point during what felt like the fourth hour…

After the movie, haircut for me and haircut and beard trim for Ak. He took me to his usual barber shop, David No. 5, a tiny two seat space right off Silom Rd. I got a great cut for only THB250! This place is now on my list of “must visits” in Bangkok. There’s nothing better than getting my fade cleaned up while I’m on vacation.

Dinner at Jae Koy, one the many great local places Ak has introduced me to here. There’s really nothing I like more than being the only farang in the place. Not only do I know the food will be good, I feel like I’m getting to see something most other tourists don’t get to experience. Food was delicious as always: grilled pork, larb, tom yum, noodles with seafood. A real feast!

In some ways, this was my favorite day in Bangkok – I think because it was so ordinary and gave me a small taste of what it might be like to actually live here.

Wednesday we tried to visit the King’s crematorium next to the Grand Palace – but didn’t have much luck. There were crowds everywhere and lots of street closures with very little in the way of instructions on how to get where we wanted to go. It would’ve felt like a bit of a wasted morning, but it was still interesting to see all the people down there – plus we had an appointment for massage that afternoon at Pai Spa, the first Thai massage place I went on my very first visit to Bangok two years ago – and happily, Jin, my therapist from that visit was there and her massage was as amazing as I remember.

Dinner that night at the new location for one of our favorites, Suppaniga Eating Room – or so we thought. We arrived at the riverside inn where it’s located and were directed to the elevator up to the roof. It was a nice spot with a lovely view – though for some reason, the staff seemed a little flustered by our arrival and my assertion that we had a reservation – but we were seated nevertheless.

We ordered a couple of drinks and a snack – and I remarked to Ak that the menu seemed kind of weird. A lot of fancy Western-sounding dishes like pasta, but little in the way of the Thai food we know and love at Suppaniga. We finally figured out we were in a different restaurant entirely – Suppaniga is on the street level, across from the hotel entrance. So, NBD, right? We paid for our cocktails and headed down for our actual reservation – only to discover that the afternoon’s torrential downpour had left the alley between where we were and where the restaurant’s entrance was flooded with knee-deep water. So, not our most successful evening – but we made do by heading back to our old stomping grounds and visiting our usual branch of Suppaniga. Granted, no view of the river and Wat Arun but the food was great as always and we were able to enter the restaurant without fording any streams…

Thursday was for shopping! First stop: Jim Thompson Factory Store, which I was so happy to discover last time I was in Bangkok. Got some new pillow covers and a couple of other goodies at prices not quite as high as in the shops in town. I think it’s mostly first quality, just last season’s colors and patterns. After this, we spent some time back in the malls and stopped in for an underwhelming afternoon tea at Erawan Tea Room.

Back at the hotel, Ak availed himself of the large tub in our bathroom and attempted to take a bubble bath. I wasn’t really sure what he was up to in there but there seemed to be quite a bit of commotion – eventually followed by the crestfallen exclamation that there were no bubbles.

When I went in to help get things sorted, I may have rolled my eyes – and Ak cried, “But I don’t know how to take a bath!”

“What do you mean ‘I don’t know how to take a bath’?” I said.

“I’ve never taken a bath. I’m from third world,” he replied, using his hilarious catch-all excuse for anything that he doesn’t know – or, as is more often the case, can’t be bothered with. Anyway, he had his bath and all went well.

Thursday evening was a special dinner at Restaurant Sühring, a German restaurant helmed by brothers Thomas and Mathias. It’s reputed to be one of Bangkok’s best restaurants and I had been wanting to try it for a while. Granted, I felt a little guilty about not eating Thai food for every meal, but I figured I’ve been to Bangkok enough that I can start expanding my culinary horizons a bit.

Ak was dressed in his fancy new shirt that he’d gotten for his birthday – sent to him by a designer friend Timmyyy from his latest collection. Appropriately, our first stop was at Vogue Lounge for cocktails before dinner.

Then we headed to the restaurant. This turned out to be fun! I’d not told Ak where we were going, only that it was someplace nice. I was sure he’d have figured out our destination, but as we continued along our way, he announced he had no clue where we were or what our destination could be. When we arrived and he saw the sign out front for Sühring, he was genuinely surprised and very excited for dinner – as was I!

The place is lovely – an old house with three separate seating areas: The Garden, an atrium looking out on the lovely grounds; The Living Room, the main seating area; and our choice, The Kitchen, where we sat at the counter and watched our chefs prepare all of our courses.

What can I say? It was an amazing meal and a wonderful experience. The service was both highly professional and very personable – there was none of the stuffiness that sometimes accompanies service in a high-end restaurant. We had some excellent wine, thanks to the recommendations of the sommelier.

And the food – wow! I enjoyed the entire meal – though looking back on it, a few of the courses that stood out for me and still remain very fresh in my mind were the pretzel rolls served with obatzda – a mixture of cheese and butter – along with tiny steins of beer; crawfish served with a sublime assortment of tomatoes and a scoop of Ossetra caviar; a simple and stunning cut of lamb; and a dessert with buttermilk ice cream and gin-and-tonic sorbet that made me laugh out loud at how amazing the G&T was.

And as clever and amusing as some of the presentations were, it never felt like they crossed into being overly precious. We also both really enjoyed interacting with the chefs, who served some of the courses to us themselves as they explained how they’d prepared it.

After twelve course, we left feeling deeply satisfied – but not gluttonous! – and happy to have shared such a lovely meal together. It was a wonderful evening.

And Now Back to Bangkok!

Bangkok, Thailand – 15 & 16 October 2017

A mostly uneventful flight from SGN to BKK. I say “mostly” only because when we were served a box of spaghetti as our snack onboard, I suggested we ask for fresh parmigiana – and Ak found this unamusing. So humorless!

Made it through immigration quickly and immediately spied one of my favorite sights at any airport – a driver holding a sign with my name on it, waiting to whisk me away. And soon enough we were climbing out of the cab at my usual home in Bangkok, Le Méridien. As we’ve come to expect, the staff recognized us as soon as we got out of our car and welcomed us back – despite our last visit being six months ago. I could honestly quibble with some aspects of the hotel – mostly related to the room decor feeling like it could be refreshed despite it being as comfortable as ever – but the staff here are delightful, delivering service that is excellent, genuine and effortless. It’s absolutely my favorite hotel in SE Asia for this very reason.

We were quickly settled in and then grabbed a bite to eat before it was time to take care of the first glamorous order of business: schlepping a couple of bags of dirty drawers and stanky t-shirts to the laundry. It was exhausting! So much so that we dragged ourselves to Dahra Spa for a couple of hours of massage therapy…

Feeling much revived, it was nearly time for dinner. First stop was at Above Eleven, a rooftop bar with a nice view of Bangkok by night. Then downstairs for dinner at Charcoal, an Indian place that specializes in tandoori – and amazing cocktails.

I had the Muffety Mai – described as “a whimsically floral and refreshing combination of Bombay Sapphire gin, fresh cucumber, tarragon, lemon, jasmine, and chat Masala.” It was sensational – some of my absolutely favorite flavors all in one cocktail! Plus it was gorgeous, with a lattice of decorative spice adorning the glass.

As for dinner, it was great! Seekh kebab were pretty good, though perhaps a bit softer than I care for – but the flavors were great. Tandoori prawns were meaty and delicious. But the two standouts were the chicken biriyani – tender and fragrant – and the special dal. This was the best dal I’ve ever had – our server explained that it’s cooked for 14 hours to bring out all the richness of the ingredients. The spices made the dish complex and so tasty. Even Ak, who’s not a big fan of legumes declared it fantastic!

Monday we headed first to Nightingale Olympic, a store that’s been on my list of places to see in Bangkok since my first visit. It’s an old department store housed in a cool, somewhat brutalist looking structure. Once you walk inside, it’s a literal time capsule of products from 60s and 70s: faded hairdo accessories, rusting “vibrating belt” weight loss machines, weirdly out-of-date clothing, wooden tennis racquets. The place is theoretically an actual business, with plenty of sales clerks there despite the dearth of customers. I actually wanted to buy something displayed in one of the dusty showcases – but the clerk could not be bothered to interrupt her phone call. The place is weird and amazing and I hope it’s around for another hundred years.

Spent the rest of the afternoon wandering Chinatown and the Sampheng Market – which literally sells everything: phone accessories, fake flowers, toys, notions, designer knock-offs. It goes on for what seems forever and it’s kind of a madhouse and it’s pretty fun.

Also in Chinatown are tons of shops selling car parts and various metal rods, slats and other fabrication materials. It was hard to winnow down all the photos I took of them – the colors and shapes at each place seemed more amazing then the last. Same could be said for all the shops selling LED lights.

This was all very exhausting of course, so we also needed to break for lunch, stopping for dry tom yum noodles and fried wontons at Tock Long Moo Noodles, one of Ak’s favorite places. It was delicious – of course! We also managed to find time to pop into Siam Center and have a bit of dessert.

As I write this, I realized that I’ve visited Bangkok enough times (this was my fifth visit!) that, while there is still plenty for me to see and do, I spend a great deal of time doing my absolute favorite thing: eating! I really do think Thailand has the best food in the world and I’m lucky that my friend Ak is there to take me to places I’d never know about as a farang.

Anyway, that evening, we ate a little neighborhood place specializing in Isaan style food called Larp 3. Dinner was great – we had larb (natch) and som tom tai and moo krob – plus they were playing one of the many fascinating Thai soap operas on the TV inside.

Walking home afterwards, we got caught in a crazy downpour – so we had no choice but to duck into Eat Me down the street and wait out the rain with some drinks: a couple of very good cocktails for me and some excellent craft beer for Ak.

A fine way to wrap up our evening. The rain had let up after a couple of rounds, so off we toddled back to the hotel. Tomorrow: more food!

Weekend in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 13 & 14 October 2017

Today’s agenda was rather similar to yesterday’s – though this morning we had a food tour! Our guide Vu from Vietnamese Street Food Tours met us in the lobby promptly at 8AM. This was one of the few tour companies that had options that didn’t require traveling by scooter. Now, I’m all for adventure and trying new things when I travel, but I’m also pretty focused on remaining alive – so today’s walking tour was much more my speed.

We first went by taxi to District 4 but the remainder of our morning was spent on foot. We started off having what our guide told us were called Cambodian noodles. Really good – a little spicy, a little sweet. I did refrain from eating the pork intestines that are one of the ingredients – I’m not as adventurous an eater as one might hope.

We continued through the market area and tried lots and lots of different things, including a really nice banh mi, traditionally-prepared Vietnamese coffee and the best phở I’ve ever had. According to Vu, Phở Mùi is well-known (and typically mobbed for breakfast and lunch) thanks to the 14-hours the broth spends simmering. It was really delicious with a depth of flavor unlike any other phở I’ve tried. Really amazing!

Wrapped up our morning with a wee dessert: egg custard, served in an eggshell. Really yummy and just the right amount after all we’d eaten over the course of our walk.

Tours like this are a great reminder to me of how lucky I am that English remains the lingua franca of travel (though I suspect Chinese will soon replace it, given the huge number of Chinese citizens who travel internationally). Wherever I go, there’s a high likelihood that some locals will speak enough English to communicate – and I can always find a guide who is fluent, like Vu. I always enjoy hearing the vocabulary used by people who speak multiple languages – in this particular instance, Vu observing (accurately!) that Ak’s floral-printed sneakers were “outlandish.” I have to remember to use that word more often!

Ak and I spent the afternoon at the War Remnants Museum. It’s absolutely a must-see for anyone visiting HCMC, but it is also harrowing. I suppose to some extent this is especially true for me as an American – it’s hard to fathom the horror of war, especially one where the underlying reason was largely, “We don’t like the form of government you’ve chosen for yourselves.” The most dispiriting thing is realizing that the U.S. government appears to have learned nothing from what happened in Vietnam. We continue to intervene in the business of other countries that don’t want us there with no clear strategy of what we’re doing.

There was an excellent (and extremely difficult) exhibit focused on journalists who had been killed while covering the war. Seeing their work preserved and their stories memorialized felt agonizingly personal. I had to stop a few times to regain my composure – but it was a very effective presentation that should not be missed.

We spent the rest of the afternoon mostly wandering about District 1. Despite the crazy traffic, HCMC is actually pretty nice for walking. There seems to be regular greenspace and still plenty of charming old buildings and tree-lined streets. It was a nice way to decompress after the museum.

Before dinner, we stopped for a cocktail on the roof of the Rex Hotel. A nice view of Nguyễn Huệ Street from our table and decent cocktails – though I did manage to not only knock my drink over, but to shatter the glass in the process. Ugh, I’m a disaster!

Dinner at Quon Bui. We managed to get into a taxi just before a really epic downpour. Happily, our driver got us right to the front door and the restaurant had someone stationed out front with an umbrella to shield arriving patrons. Sadly, though, the weather put the kibosh on our plans to dine al fresco on the roof.

But the room was lovely and we enjoyed a great meal. We totally over-ordered, not realizing how big the hotpot would be – but the fish and noodle with greens was really delicious.

Made an early night of it, returning to our hotel to share the tiny cake we’d pick up while out shopping earlier. It was beautiful to look at, but rather ordinary tasting – plus, in a highly illegal move, it contained no layers! RUINED.

Saturday was our last full day in Vietnam. Ak and I had contemplated visiting the Mekong Delta. There was a bike tour that sounded great – but weather seemed really iffy with possibly torrential rains plus the bus ride there was two hours. We decided to save that trip for next time and just spend our day exploring Saigon.

We didn’t venture too far afield. Our first stop was for phở for breakfast at a place next door to our hotel. As is so often the case here, it was away down a narrow alley that turned it another quite charming little alley. The hidden location along with the pastel pink and green interior of Phở Minh really made it seem like we were far away from hustle and bustle of the streets of Saigon. It was wonderful.

Our server recognized that we were not Vietnamese speakers, so she just confirmed “Phở?” and we nodded. She first brought us some delicious little meat pies that I discovered are called bánh pa tê sô – which is from the French “pâté chaud.” And then nice big bowls of phở – which were tasty, though yesterday’s phở remains the winner.

We spent the morning visiting a couple of museums. First up, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts. It’s in an impressive old building that was originally constructed as a residence for a wealthy businessman and his family in the early 1930s. The collection was mostly contemporary art and I did enjoy some of the collection – though there wasn’t a whole lot of information on what was being shown or how the works were organized. Of course, given that I’m good friends with more than one paintings conservator, I was made very uncomfortable by the fact that the only climate control for the galleries was ceiling fans and open windows…

Next was the Gia Long Palace, another gorgeous old building housing some exhibits of propaganda material and the history of the city. We had a quick look around before deciding we needed to refuel with a frozen coconut coffee at Cộng Cà phê… which was right next door to building that I’d seen the other day, former home of a CIA apartment and the roof of which was used for helicopter evacuations during the Fall of Saigon. It still boggles my mind to imagine that this beautiful and charming neighborhood was a war zone when I saw it on TV as a child.

We found a charming little place next to the hotel called The Old Compass Cafe – it’s run by the same folks who run the website The Rusty Compass which is an invaluable resource on things to do in Vietnam – especially restaurants. Down an alley and up a few floors in an apartment building, it’s another one of HCMC’s many, many little hidden gems.

Back to hotel for a swim in the quite lovely rooftop pool, along with a snack at the bar. Then a foot massage at an unmemorable but adequate place nearby. Then, time for dinner!

Tonight we ate at Chi Hoa. Crispy rolls, really excellent bbq pork ribs, steamed bánh mi (which was not as interesting as it sounded), shrimp and some delicious clams. A really great dinner!

Sadly, this was our last night in HCMC before flying back to Bangkok. We’d had three full days here – and honestly, as much as I enjoyed it, I wish we’d had more time here. There’s lots more of the city that we didn’t see and plenty of nearby places to visit outside Saigon. I really liked it here very much. It’s definitely a big noisy city – but there are trees and greenspace, lots of great old architecture and every alley and nondescript building seems to contain a cool bar or restaurant or cafe or shop or something. It’s a city that I hope to come back to and learn more about.  

Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh

Hong Kong, SAR China – 11 October 2017
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 11 & 12 October 2017

We had all morning and part of the afternoon to finish up our visit to Hong Kong before heading to the airport. We were up early and taxied to the Victoria Peak – a trick I’d learned before my last visit, i.e. taxi up early to avoid the crowds for the cable car up, then ride it back down with no waiting. Views were quite good and we had very nice weather.

Once back down, we made a beeline for Maxim’s Palace for dim sum. It’s quite well-known and the dining room is huge with a nice view of the harbor. As for the food? It was OK. Honestly, I still like the dim sum better back in SF at Yank Sing. Maybe because I grew up with it, maybe because it’s geared to Western palate – who knows? I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was disappointed, but I also wouldn’t rush back here if I were in  Hong Kong again.

As much as we enjoyed our time in Hong Kong and at Disneyland, the fact is neither Ak nor I had fallen in love with the city the same way we had with some of the other places we’ve visited. I think this had a lot to do with the fact that we had more misses than hits when it came to meals – and just about everything (with the exception of public transit) felt rather breathtakingly expensive.

We took the train to the airport. Wow! It’s amazingly easy. Taxi to the in-town air terminal where, if we’d not been flying cheapo VietJet, I could have checked my bag in before boarding the train and it would be transported and checked into my flight. Even without this added benefit, the train is great and leaves you off right inside the terminal.

We were very excited to make our first visit to Ho Chi Minh City, especially given how much we’d enjoyed Hanoi last year. The flight from Hong Kong was mostly uneventful, save for the weird charade that so many low-cost carriers put their passengers through – that is, weighing carry-on bags, telling you they are overweight and forcing you to offload some stuff into a separate bag which I just moved back to the other bag before boarding. Eh, you get what you pay for…

The ride from SGN airport to our hotel in District 1 was surprisingly fast and soon enough we were relaxing in a spacious (especially compared to our cozy accommodations in HKG!) room at the Liberty Central Citypoint, with a lovely view toward Nguyen Hue St. and Bitexco Tower – along with the somewhat less lovely view of the subway station being constructed just next to our hotel.

The evening started off inauspiciously when the first two ATMs I visited refused to dispense any money. I naturally assumed that I would be completely unable to acquire any cash and that our trip to HCMC was already ruined, but as it turned out, the third ATM I tried gave me the VND3,000,000 (US132) I’d requested. Sadly, this episode put a bit of a damper on our first evening, but we got through it.

Next morning, we were up early and had some phở up the street at Phở24 before returning to our hotel to meet our guides from Saigon Free Walking Tours, Kiara and Tien, for our Saigon City tour. We started of at Ben Thanh Market, just a short walk from our hotel, where we met up with a couple of Aussies who joined our tour. Spent the morning walking about District 1 while our guides talked about the history and pointed out different sights.

We stopped by the beautiful Saigon Central Post Office and had a look around before checking out the exteriors of Notre Dame Basilica across the street. No visiting the inside as it’s under renovation right now.

While we were walking around, Tien pointed out the building just next to where we’d had a coconut coffee at Cộng Cà phê. We were about a block away, so had a good view of the six-story apartment block which had a small square structure on top. It was the site of the now-iconic photo of a CIA Air America helicopter boarding evacuees during the fall of Saigon.

I don’t know why I found this so astonishing. I suppose it’s such recent history that it still feels very much a part of my own memories of watching the news as a child. There’s also something quite jarring about walking through a lovely tree-lined neighborhood (and across from a shiny mall) and being reminded that it wasn’t too long ago there was a war taking place right on this very spot – and all the human suffering that is the result of war. The location felt so ordinary, so the thought of helicopters evacuating people from the roof felt really extraordinary. It was fascinating, yes, but still difficult to wrap my head around.

Next stop was Independence Palace – it’s another spot where it feels difficult to reconcile the history of what went on in this building with the fact that the palace itself is an amazing example of mid-century design interpreted through the eyes of architect Ngô Viết Thụ. The building is marvelous – it’s airy facade and light-filled interiors give it a gracefulness one might not associate with a largely concrete structure.

Even more amazingly, virtually the entire building is open to visitors, from the public conference and meeting rooms on the main floor to the private residences and rooftop to the underground bunkers and sleeping quarters. Much of the original furniture remains – which is so wonderful to see! Until that is, one envisions Henry Kissinger sitting here plotting with the South Vietnamese government. It’s eerie. I enjoyed the building most when I was able to appreciate its design – but it’s not always easy to separate that from what went on here, especially from its opening in 1966 through the liberation of Saigon in 1975. For me, this was the highlight of today’s tour.

We headed back to the post office to say our farewells – but our guides really went above and beyond the call of duty as they not only shepherded us to the Mobifone store to get local SIM cards, they stayed around to ensure that the surprisingly lengthy process completed satisfactorily. Ak and I were very grateful!

Lunch at a place across the street called My Banh Mi. It’s def catering to the tourist crowd – but the food was delicious nevertheless. My banh mi was probably the weakest link, but our crispy rolls and Ak’s pork with noodles were excellent.

After such a vigorous morning, it was obviously time for a massage. We headed to Moc Huang Spa which had good reviews online. They were able to take us right away and I thought the experience was amazing. The massage was definitely of the “intense” variety, which I really like. It might be hard to endure at certain moments, but I know that I’ll feel like a million dong afterwards. I was a little worried that Ak wouldn’t enjoy his massage, since he prefers a more relaxing style of massage – but he was snoring away in the next room, so I assumed he’d survived (despite his subsequent statements that the massage was way too strong and his refusal to believe me when I told him I heard him snoring through most of it).

Dinner that night at Secret Garden. I’d’ve never found it on my own, but the internet gave good directions to the appropriate alley, as did a local scooter driver who helped the two lost looking foreigners trying to figure out which building to go into. There’s a fairly long climb up the stairs (no lift in the building!) to the roof – and then we were welcomed to a charming little oasis on the top of this apartment building. It was raining pretty hard this evening, but the space still had a nice indoor-outdoor feel to it.

Food was great! Ground pork grilled in lemongrass was excellent. I didn’t take notes of what else we ate – but we had soup and meat and noodles and salad. It was all lovely and in a great space with friendly service. And there was a cat there too! Sadly, we didn’t even notice her until the end of the evening as she was fast asleep on top of cabinet across from our table.

After dinner, we wandered toward the river in search of Snuffbox, a bar I’d read about somewhere online. We found the location easily enough – but it seemed to be a block of darkened buildings and warehouses, though with some street vendors and locals hanging out – and who once again came to our rescue and pointed us into the correct nondescript staircase. We climbed up one flight and found ourselves inside a lovely jewelbox of a bar. I think we were the only patrons (it was still early) and we were made to feel very at home. Fancy cocktails were very tasty and we had an extremely engaging server who guided us through the menu and chatted with us about our travels and some of the upcoming goings-on at the bar.

It was a great first day in HCMC, especially after last evening’s rather difficult start. Tomorrow morning: food tour!