Posts Tagged ‘vacations’

There’s been a long gap since the last update of Where’s Matthew, but that is because my new role has kept me largely office-based over the past few months. 

We had an invitation this weekend to visit Troyes, outside Paris, to celebrate the 50th birthday of Aude’s godfather.  After weeks of 35C+ temperatures, the weather turned much cooler and wetter on Saturday – not the best conditions for a 350km drive.  But we made it, even finding some time to squeeze in a little shopping at the factory outlets on the way.

We had a great time at the party, hosted in a vintner’s warehouse dating back to the 12th century.  Located in Champage, the theme of the evening was wine – starting with a comparison of blanc de blancs vs. blanc de noirs for the aperitif, then moving onto a bit of wine trivia and guessing games with each of the following courses.  Throw in a fantastic magician and a superb band, and it really was a wonderful evening.

The next morning, we decided to do a little exploring of the town.  Around noon, we decided to stop for lunch and sat down at a cafe on the main square.  Since the place was empty, we sat down side-by-side at a table of four, facing the square in typical cafe fashion. 

That’s when we had a “French” moment.  The waitress came over and asked us to move to a table-of-two.  I pointed out that there were 200 empty seats in the place, but the waitress was insistent. We got up and left.

Cafe L'Odyssee in Troyes, completely empty

Good thing we did — an hour later, it looks like the place was overflowing with customers. *rolls eyes*

One of the things that struck me about Vietnam is that reminders of the war are everywhere.  Not just in museums and plaques, but in the fabric of the country.

The first thing that you notice is that there are very few older people in Vietnam.  Most of the people here are young, the generation born after the war.  And in parts of the country where the conflict was heaviest, there are still battle-scars everywhere — the buildings, the landscape, the people.  In the streets, you see beggars who suffers from missing or deformed limbs, either direct victims of the combat or the sadder case of the indirect victims of Agent Orange.

In Hanoi, we were tipped off about B-52 wreckage that laid in a pond in the middle of a residential district.  This isn’t a monument or memorial, nor is it on the tourist track (several of our books made no mention of it, and it took the driver quite a lot of wrong turns and asking directions to eventually find this place, which sits unmarked at the end of an alley in residential Hanoi).

But there it is — a testament to the events that happened here 40 years ago.


Several people recommended that we visit the Hanoi Military Museum.  Definitely worth the trip, and an interesting chance to see 20th century Vietnamese military history from their perspective — their journey towards independence from the French and later, the “American” war.  The museum is a story of the Ho Chi Minh-era rebellion struggles, and a very important part of the story of how the modern Vietnamese see themselves.

MIG-21 at Hanoi Military History Museum

A MIG-21 sits in front of the Hanoi Military History Museum, with the ‘Cot Co’ Flag Tower, built in the early 1800s, in the background.

American tank at Hanoi Military History Museum

An American tank at the entrance of the museum.

Sculpture from B52 remains at Hanoi Military History Museum

A sculpture crafted out of the remains of B52 bombers shot down over Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

American military hardware at Hanoi Military History Museum

A collection of US military equipment captured during the Vietnam War on display.

Temple of Literature as seen from the Cot Co flag tower

A view over the Temple of Literature as seen from the ‘Cot Co’ Flag Tower.  Don’t tell the Vietnamese government that I took this photo, as there were signs everywhere indicating that photography from the tower was strictly forbidden.

Courtyard of the Hanoi Military History Museum as seen from the Cot Co flag tower

Looking down into the courtyard of the Hanoi Military History Museum from the Citadel.

No tour to Vietnam can be considered complete without a ride in one of the cyclos, the modern-day equivalent of a rickshaw.  With a little negotiating, $2 gets you an hour of peddle-power around the city, and the locals swear that this is the best way to see the place.  I swear that this is the easiest way to give yourself a heart-attack, considering the unpredictable traffic and constant chaos on the roads.  Aude’s driver seemed to be okay, but my driver managed to hit 1) Aude’s cyclo, 2) a motorcyclist and 3) stopped mid-tour to buy a pack of cigarettes so that he could smoke as he peddled.

Aude in a cyclo

It was a good way to see the city, though, and we spent an hour riding through the old town, where each of the streets is dedicated to a trade.  Ironmongers on one street, porcelain on the next, and so on.  Despite having a haircut only a few days earlier, I must have had twenty offers of haircuts from the barbers who seem to station themselves at every lamp post, armed with nothing more than a small stool, chipped mirror, and pair of scissors.  Everyone needs to earn a living, I guess.

Wiring chaos in Vietnam

We never had any problems with the electricity in Vietnam, but most of the wiring looked like this picture and I was in constant fear of being electrocuted every time it rained.  The standard of wiring is similar in India, although the supply is a little less reliable in my experience.  In either case, it doesn’t really inspire confidence.

Motorcycles and scooters in Vietnam

Scooters and motorbikes are the kings of the road in Vietnam.  Cars are out-of-reach for most, so two wheels is how most people get around.  We saw anywhere from 1-5 people riding on a single scooter, and people carrying just about anything imaginable: plate-glass windows, full-sized beds, pigs, chickens, DHL deliveries.  You name it, the Vietnamese will find a way to strap it to their scooters.

After three days in Singapore, we’d seen most of what there was to see and were ready to move onto the exciting part of our trip: Vietnam.  We landed in Hanoi airport mid-morning and were met by our guide from Buffalo Tours, who incidentally did a fantastic job putting together an itinerary for us.  It took just over an hour to get into the centre of town, where we checked into our room at the Sofitel Metropole.  We took a few hours to relax, then went out for dinner and to see a traditional ‘water puppet’ show.

Traditional Vietnamese water puppet

Above, a traditional Vietnamese water puppet.

The next morning we started early on the main sights in Hanoi.  Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.

Matthew in front of Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Outside Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  Unfortunately, we visited on a Sunday when the mausoleum is closed, so we couldn’t go inside.

Inside the Ho Chi Minh complex in Hanoi

One of the French colonial government buildings, now used to receive foreign heads-of-state visiting Vietnam.

Aude in front of Ho Chi Minh's House

Aude in front of Ho Chi Minh’s house.  Apparently it was built in the style of the farmer’s houses in the North where Ho Chi Minh had spent much of his time.

Aude in front of the One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi

Aude in front of the one pillar pagoda.

Chinese Lion in Hanoi

Around the Ho Chi Minh complex.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Entrance to the Temple of Literature.

Inside the Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Inside the Temple of Literature

Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton

Inside Hoa Lo prison — the famous "Hanoi Hilton"

Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton

A plaque outside the Hoa Lo prison

John McCain's flight suit at Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton

John McCain’s flight suit and parachute, on display inside Hoa Lo Prison.

The entire tour was well done.  The centre of Hanoi isn’t very big and most of the main attractions are close to one another.

History is written by the victors, and Vietnam is no exception.  Travelling through Hanoi, I certainly heard a very different version of the "American" war than I heard when I was growing up, and while there was clearly an element of propoganda about much of what we heard, it’s always important to remember that there are two sides to every story.

Our first impressions of Hanoi were good, though.  The city was more developed than I’d expected, with an infrastructure on par with most other large, developed Asian cities.  There were plenty of very expensive cars cruising down the streets.  The French colonial architecture has been well-preserved and the streets have a small, intimate feel that you don’t find in a lot of other Asian cities.  The food is great and the people are friendly (and speak reasonably good English, for the most part).

It’s been a while since Aude and I have been on a proper vacation, so we planned two weeks in Asia to coincide with the long Easter break, starting with three days in Singapore and then just over a week in Vietnam.

Aude on SWISS flight to Bangkok

Settling into our seats on the SWISS flight to Bangkok

Tickets were courtesy of my frequent flyer miles, which unfortunately meant that we were flying SWISS rather than Singapore Airlines, since they don’t release award seats on their A380 aircraft. Neither of us particularly like flying with SWISS, at least not on the old planes with their extremely slopey seats. You spend the entire flight trying not to end up curled into a little ball on the floor every time you fall asleep.

It nearly went from bad to worse – a quick look at the menu revealed that dinner offerings were a main-course soup, a vegetarian couscous, or a steak.

The first two choices both break some of my long-held dietary beliefs, namely 1) soup is not food and 2) a meal isn’t a meal without meat. I’m not a big fan of steak on planes, but in this case, it was the best of a bad lot.

We were sitting in the very last row of the cabin. It was touch-or-go about whether they’d run out of steak before they got to our row, but in the end, we were in luck. I ended up with a steak (not great, but not terrible) and Aude chose the vegetarian couscous (just as lousy as it sounds, reports Aude).

I know that no one flies for the food, but come on, SWISS. On an 11-hour flight, you should offer a proper meal. When you’ve spent the better part of $4000 on a business-class ticket, it’s a bit cheeky to try to fob someone off with a bowl of soup.

Okay, that’s my white whine for the day.

Singha Beer and dim sum at the Thai Lounge at BKK

Almost worth the stopover in Bangkok: Singha Beer and dim sum at the Thai Lounge in BKK airport

We changed planes in Bangkok for our connecting flight to Singapore (on Thai – bigger, more comfortable-seats and better food, despite a flight-time of just under two hours) and arrived mid-afternoon. As always at Changi airport, we were through passport control in minutes, and our bags came out almost immediately.

A quick flip through my blog reveals that I haven’t been to Singapore since December 2009. That’s not entirely true – I passed through the airport on my way to Indonesia in January, but I barely had time to change planes, so that doesn’t really count. In any case, a lot has changed in 18 months, including the completion of the Singapore Flyer (a huge Ferris wheel) and the construction of an incredible new casino complex.

It was Aude’s first visit to Singapore, though, so we made sure we hit all the highlights. We started with dinner at a hawker centre, a great first taste of Singapore (see what I did there with that clever pun?) followed by a walk along the waterfront and a drink at Indochine. We spent considerable time looking for the Merlion (“I swear it was right here the last time I was in Singapore”) only to discovered that it’s been covered in cladding as part of a temporary art exhibit. At least we got views of the spectacular new casino, which was still being constructed the last time I was in Singapore.

Marina Bay Sands Hotel & Casino, Singapore, at night

The Marina Bay Sands Hotel & Casino, Singapore

Singapore Merlion and Merlion Hotel

We spent ages looking for the Merlion, which seemed to have disappeared since my last trip. ("No, I swear Aude, it was right here the last time I was in Singapore!") Turns out it was housed in the red 'Merlion Hotel' in the shot -- some art project that most of the locals dislike.

Singapore CBD skyline at night

Skyline of the Singapore Business district, as seen from the harbour

Singapore Flyer at night

The Singapore Flyer, Singapore's answer to the London Eye

Esplande Centre in Signapore

The Esplande Centre in Signapore, otherwise known as the 'Durian' CentreThe classic Fullerton Hotel in Singapore

Over the next few days, we hit all the big sights in Singapore: shopping on Orchard Road, visiting Chijmes, Arab Street and Little India. We hit the Funan centre to buy a new camera for Aude, and sampled some of the nightlife at Clarke Quay. We had white pepper crab at No Signboard Seafood (where we encountered the fiercest, rudest dragon of a hostess I’ve ever encountered).

Aude in Clarke Quay

Aude absorbs the ambiance of the nightlife in Clarke Quay

Mosque on Arab Street, Singapore

Mosque on Arab Street, Singapore

Arab Street, Singapore

Arab Street, SingaporeArab Street, Singapore

Singapore buildings

Singapore buildings

Little India, Singapore

Little India, SingaporeLittle India, Singapore

Aude in Little India, Singapore

Aude in Little India, Singapore

Finally, we hit Raffles for a Singapore Sling – horrendously overpriced, but a must-visit spot on any trip to Singapore.

Peanuts at Raffles Hotel, Singapore

Peanuts at Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Be sure to throw your shells on the floor.

Singapore Sling and Peanuts at Raffles Hotel, Singapore

Singapore Sling and Peanuts at Raffles Hotel, Singapore. At US$25 a drink, something of an expensive photo opportunity.

Aude poses with a Singapore Sling

Aude poses with a Singapore Sling

Matthew drinking a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel
Drinking a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel

All-in-all, a great visit and an easy way to get into the swing of Asia before starting off on our real adventure: Vietnam.