Let’s Go to Kyoto

Going to Arashiyama was the earliest we ever traveled during our stay in Japan. And to no surprise, by the time we returned to Kyoto, it was still just lunch time. We had time to kill, but not much muscle left to kill it with. Since it was still early, and our memories of the SGMAGLEV Railway Museum was still fresh in Matthew’s mind, we decided to try the next nearest destination. The Kyoto Railway Museum. The wife may have had enough of trains for the moment though, as she let us be on our way and said that she would just go home to rest up (and do some laundry). On that, we had to rely on Google Maps to bring us to our destination.

Nope. Thomas is not here.
Nope. Thomas is not here.

It turns out, the Kyoto Railway Museum wasn’t that near the train station at all. We found that out as Matthew and myself were walking to the museum but ended up in front of the Kyoto Aquarium instead. But we persevered and walked the additional meters to get to the Kyoto Railway Museum. Was it worth it? You bet it was.

Matthew trying out a train.
Matthew trying out a train.

When we got to the Kyoto Railway Museum, Matthew was back in explorer mode. He couldn’t wait to go around and once again soak up what this museum has to offer. The Kyoto Railway Museum, unlike the SGMAGLEV in Nagoya, caters more to the history of Japan’s railway operations. You will notice straight away that this museum is bigger than the one in Nagoya. You enter the museum from an open area where you already have several trains from Japan’s rich history of rail. Matthew, as always, goes on ahead going in and out of trains where possible. You can even have your picture taken from the cockpit of a bullet train (for a price). Once you enter the main building, you are transported back in time to the beginning of Japan’s railway history. There is a very old steam engine that has been preserved on one side. And all throughout the main building are evolutions of the trains that have plowed all across Japan’s countryside. Even if you are not a train nut, it’s difficult not to be the least bit interested in trains. There are cut out cockpits of trains with working levers and switches. There was even a working public address system (which Matthew had absolutely abused). There were more trains here than in the SCMAGLEV Railway Park, so much so that if we spent half a day there, you would need the whole day here in the Kyoto Railway Museum.

At the roundhouse turntable waiting for a magic train.

We saw a model of an old train station complete with a counter, train schedules and wooden gantries. We saw the difference in classes of trains. We saw how kitchens in trains looked like and their dining cars. There were so many trains to see that we were almost lost in the museum. And then as we were heading to the exit, we saw it. A stable of steam locomotives inside a roundhouse and a turntable for the trains. The steam trains have all been meticulously restored and you can smell the grease and oil all around you. It is one of the most majestic things I have seen. The trains all seem to come to life in that place and if you close your eyes, you’d get scared that they might even start talking. But it is enough to feel the steel on your skin. That roundhouse and that turntable is a must visit.

The exit, as always, is fronted by a museum shop where Matthew’s eyes always light up. Here we got the next wind up shinkansen that completes his pair of souvenirs from the railway museums. We headed home after that. But that was not the end of our Kyoto trip.

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Let’s Go to Arashiyama

Arashiyama. When we started planning for this trip, the wife had already mentioned that we would be going to the Arashiyama bamboo grove. So during the time that I was preparing the itinerary, there was already a place holder for Arashiyama. It’s always a good thing to plan ahead for places that you would expect to be crowded, and Arashiyama is definitely one of those places.

The gardens of Tenryuji
The gardens of Tenryuji

We came to Arashiyama via Saga Arashiyama station on the JR line (Yey! JR Pass covers this). I didn’t really plan the route that well because on the map, it looked so near to the station. Thank you Google Maps! We made our way to the Tenryuji Temple grounds as we were going to use that as the pass through to the bamboo grove. The temple grounds were quite big and we got a bit lost traversing the garden paths. So much so that we didn’t manage to actually go into the temple. We were more nature lovers than temple goers anyway, so you could say that served us just fine. The gardens are impressive. Like most of the landscaped gardens that we have visited in Japan before, the gardens here are beautiful. It seems that they have a knack for picking out which greenery goes with which tree and which flower and which shrub. We could stay there for hours just breathing. And we would have, if not for the incredible number of tourists. And we haven’t even reached the bamboo grove yet. We started getting glimpses of sky high bamboo trees as we were walking along the garden paths. And we knew we were at the end of our temple trail.

Bamboos of Arashiyama
Bamboos of Arashiyama

We exited the temple grounds and followed the directions to the bamboo grove. As we walked along the bamboo grove trail, it was obvious that the path was going to be a bit dark. The weather has not been bright and sunny from the start of the morning after all. But the bamboo grove itself lends its mysterious aura as the wind ruffles the surrounding and you feel the slow swaying of the bamboo trees. Its truly an amazing feeling, albeit fleeting for only a moment as the noise from tourists trespass into your visual and aural periphery. Yes, we knew that Arashiyama would be a tourist hot spot, but we didn’t think it would ruin the experience that much. Oh well. At least we had moments.

Tanukis or Racocon Dogs along the rails
Tanukis or Raccoon Dogs along the rails

Moving on after the required photo taking (and photo bombing), we decided to take the Sagano Scenic Train route towards Torokko Arashiyama where we were planning to take the JR train back to Saga Arashiyama. The Scenic Train wasn’t part of the original plan, but considering we still need to hike all the way to the same train station, we decided to go for it. The Scenic Train takes you across and through the mountain along the Hozugawa river. The natural state of the mountain with the river passing through it is, again, nothing short of beautiful if you love nature. The feeling was again only for several fleeting moments when you can isolate yourself from the tourists. Don’t get me wrong, we were tourists as well, but we were quiet and observant because we wanted to take in what Arashiyama had to offer. But the group of tourists that we chanced upon were noisy and inconsiderate of other travelers. It was like a wet market in the train all the way down to Torokko Arashiyama. Other than that bit with the noisy tourists, Arashiyama gave us a great time.

I should mention that it was raining by the time we reached Torokko Arashiyama. And even then, it was fun. We got lost and we got wet but we got what we came for. We enjoyed our day of travelling. But it wasn’t about to end so soon.

Let’s Go to Nagoya

Nagoya is about an hour away from our home base at Kyoto by shinkansen. And judging by the time we normally wake up in the morning, plus the time it takes us to actually get ready for going out, I had a feeling that it was going to be another long day.

Driving a train like a boss.
Driving a train like a boss.

Once again, we took advantage of the JR Pass by hopping on a train from Kyoto to Nagoya. From Nagoya station though, we had to take a local train bound for Kinjofuto station on the Aonami line. Kinjofuto is the last station and walking distance from Kinjofuto is Japan Railway’s SCMAGLEV and Railway Park. It left me scratching my head as to why a JR park would not be outside a JR station, but it is what it is. The important thing is that we made it to the SCMAGLEV and Railway Park. Despite the drizzling weather outside, the trip had been a very educational and enjoyable one. Entry to the park is a considerable amount, but it’s worth every Yen.

This is a MAGLEV Train
This is a MAGLEV Train

This is one of JR’s three museums across Japan. The SCMAGLEV catering more to the high speed trains and its evolution. Inside are actual trains like steam locomotives, bullet trains (shinkansen) and of course, the latest in high speed rail transit, the maglev (magnetic levitating trains). I’m a car guy, so trains didn’t really interest me when I was growing up. I only started understanding and appreciating trains when Matthew was growing up and we started to have a growing system of Tomica Plarail sets. When I set foot inside the museum though, everything changed. The history of Japan’s railway system is phenomenal. Yes, I have not seen any other railway system apart from Singapore’s MRTs, but this museum immediately rips open your brain and stuffs it with trains and tracks and more trains.

Trainspotting. Not.

We actually had lots of fun entering the trains whenever possible. There are trains that seem to transport you to the time that it was actually running. The complicated-looking controls were intimidating, especially on the older trains where you only rely on analog gauges to judge your speed and braking distance. As you progress along the timeline of the trains, you get to see the evolution of Japan’s shinkansen. The bullet train if you will. And memories of an old toy came to mind. A ‘0’ (zero) series bullet train. I remember the face of it clearly with that rounded nose, blue and white colorway and the unmistakable bullet-like silhouette. I was in love again. Matthew, overwhelmed with all the things that he is seeing seems to be lost in thought. You can see how ecstatic he is whenever he discovers something new, like the camera underneath the trains showing the bogeys and then the pantographs on the roofs of the trains. And then there are the cutaway bits that show even more parts in close up. It was also amazing finding out how much I actually knew about trains. Well, theoretically anyway, based on things that I have read in books, magazines and the Internet. It’s always fun to share knowledge with Matthew because he always takes it in like a sponge. The downside though is that when all the information that I have has already been sucked dry by him and he still asks for more. I do my best not to tell him to just Google it and point him to actual sources of information like books and people who know what they are talking about. Yes, those sources are scarce and sometimes inaccessible, but you do find them if you look hard enough.

My kind of diorama.

One of the highlights of the museum that we really enjoyed was the enormous diorama built around Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. We managed to catch the show, which lasted some 10 minutes cycling from morning to night. It was really awe inspiring seeing trains and cars and other vehicles zooming about and bringing the cities to life. It almost makes me want to build one for myself, and we might. At least with Pla-rail. There was also a train driving simulator where the goal is to reach each station within the allotted schedule. And knowing how incredibly accurate Japan’s train schedules are, I knew it was going to be a challenge. I wasn’t wrong. I would have had a better chance of winning at Forza Motorsport. Matthew had a go as well with better-than-me results. I guess the last highlight for Matthew was the trip to the museum shop. Oh yes, our trips would not be complete if we did not drop by the museum shops. We didn’t mind having spent half a day at the Railway Park. In fact, we should have probably arrived earlier and spent more time there as Matthew really enjoyed the place, and so did we.

Let’s Go with Alice

After three nights staying in Hiroshima, we had to bid sayonara to our kind hosts. It was time to continue with our trip and hop aboard the shinkansen once more. Our next base of operations would be Kyoto. But before we leave, we reckon there was still time to hit the arcade and spend some time with Alice!

Yeah, I married a crazy woman. And it seems that it runs in the family, Alice being her cousin and all. We went to the mall and window shopped our way to the arcade. I was already warned about claw machines and other similar prize catching machines, but it didn’t hurt to try anyway. And it’s a good thing that we did because Matthew seemed to have luck on his side with the machines. It wasn’t all good luck though, but we still managed to snag a prize or two. He didn’t quite warm up to Alice until later that day though, but they did manage to bonk each other in Mario Kart VR. Yup, since VR is practically everywhere now, why not, right?

Cross-eyed family
Cross-eyed family

After lunch, it was really time to go. Kyoto was waiting, and we had to check in at Hatagoro before we were left out in the cold. So, sayonara Hiroshima, for now.

Let’s Go to Fukuoka

The kids are still sick and we want to go somewhere. Thankfully, we got a JR Pass so our options were quite good. Since we get unlimited travel on nearly all JR trains, we booked a ride to Fukuoka. I’m loving the shinkansen every time I ride one. Travelling to Fukuoka from Hiroshima took only about an hour via shinkansen. Reserving a seat is fairly easy through any JR counter (most major hubs have more counters than others, and some even have counters dedicated to foreign travelers), and you would want to reserve a seat if you are travelling during peak hours. There were times that the three of us had to get separate seats due to the reservations being full. It’s best to always check the train schedule and your estimated arrival time at your intended destination to avoid crowds, congestion and stress.

Fun times at Uminonakamichi.
Fun times at Uminonakamichi.

We arrived in Hakata at lunch time. And as with any other meal time between me and the wife, it was time to eat. We were actually torn between eating at Canal City or just at the train station but a coin toss made that decision to go to Canal City. Now, Canal City is one of the places that we were going to visit while in Fukuoka, but we still needed to go to Uminonakamichi before going to the mall. The good thing about the initial trip to Canal City though was having a buffet pizza lunch at Shakey’s Pizza. Again, that’s pizza. And buffet. In one sentence. Another surprise that caught our attention at Shakey’s was the serving of dessert pizzas. Again, that’s pizza. And dessert. In one sentence. Who would have thought you could have cinnamon and banana on a pizza and that it actually tasted good?

Pizza as a dessert? Yes, please!
Pizza as a dessert? Yes, please!
Family time at Uminonakamichi.
Family time at Uminonakamichi.

After lunch, we made our way by local train to Uminonakamichi Seaside Park. It is a sprawling complex nearly 4 km from end to end and is located on a narrow peninsula off Hakata bay. There seemed to be only one train that services that route and the intervals are quite long. So knowing the train schedule will help you from waiting too long at the station. There is an admission fee and a bike rental fee. And as luck would have it, my wife was already full and had the common sense to rent bikes. It was a tremendous help and I was immediately thankful that we did rent them when I realized how big the park is. We cycled through most of the park and enjoyed the cool breeze of the surrounding area. The rose garden was only one of the places that still had a good amount of flowers blooming. It was nice walking among the roses, roses of different colors by the way. I didn’t realise that there were more variations of roses than I thought. We cycled through the rest of the park stopping every now and then to rest and enjoy the greenery. According to the park information, there are different flowers in bloom all year round. We probably had the misfortune of coming to the park on one of the days that the flowers are still in transition. We missed the meadow being filled with blooms, but it was still a good stretch of the legs nonetheless. If we were to come back to Fukuoka another time, Uminonakamichi would be one of the reasons why.

Having ramen and yakitori at a Yatai.
Having ramen and yakitori at a Yatai.

We headed back to Canal City after our visit to Uminonakamichi. The feature that differentiates this mall from other malls is their canal as the name suggests. They basically have a small river running through the stretch of the mall. At one end of this is a water feature with fountains dancing on a music and light ensemble. It’s not really new, but if you haven’t watched one before, Canal City is a good place to start. After strolling around the mall, we made our way out to the nearby Yatai stalls. Yatai are basically open air food stalls seating about seven or eight persons at a time. They serve an assortment of dishes like ramen and yakitori and are open in the evening just in time for dinner or an after-office snack. And yes, they also serve beer and other beverages. In other words, it’s street food. Our experience wasn’t that enlightening, but it wasn’t bad at all. Not really sure if we were just expecting more out of it, but for us anyway, it didn’t live up to the hype. Or maybe we just ate at the wrong stall, who knows. The day went by nice and slow and we hopped on a train back to our room in Kyoto. Another day in Japan done.

Let’s Go to Okunoshima!

The last time we were in Japan, we visited Miyajima island where deer roamed freely and peacefully mingled with humans. I remember being gently head-butted by a deer that was hoping to get his teeth into my corn on a cob, which, admittedly was one of the best animal experiences I had. This year, we decided to choose a smaller animal. Smaller than a deer anyway.

While the guide book and websites tell you how to get to Okunoshima island, actually getting there is a very, very long trip. And that’s just getting to the port to hop aboard the ferry that will take you to the island. A family friend brought us there this time around since one of our nieces was sick. The long drive may or may not get a bit dull due to the distance, but I still had a good time. And that small curry restaurant that we had lunch at along the way was a nice bonus.

A Wabbit!
A Wabbit!

So what is Okunoshima island exactly?
Well, if Miyajima was an island overrun by deer, Okunoshima on the other hand, is overrun by rabbits. Yup, welcome to rabbit island.

Waiting for the ferry
Waiting for the ferry

We bought feeds from the visitor center at Tadanoumi port before we even boarded the ferry to the island. You can buy them cheap and you would want to buy them because the point of going to the island is to see (and possibly interact) with rabbits. Feeding them is one way of getting their attention. And true enough, once you get off the port at Okunoshima, there are rabbits everywhere. And just like that, we went off on a long hike through the island. That is to say, we didn’t really think about the route that we were going to take.

Eat, sleep, hop.
Eat, sleep, hop.

Of course, with rabbits to your left and to your right, the hike wasn’t really a hike. It was actually kind of a fun walk. We passed a museum that showcased the history of Okunoshima. A dark history that unfolds in contrast to the fluffy and gentle-natured population of rabbits that roam the island. The Okunoshima Poison Gas Museum represents a part of Japan’s wartime history. As the museum name suggests, Okunoshima was once used to produce poison gas to be used in the war. This was despite Japan having signed the Geneva Protocol banning the use of poison and chemical weapons some years before. The Okunoshima plant had been operating in secrecy during that time. Following Japan’s defeat, the factories in Okunoshima were destroyed. However, no one was prosecuted for the use of poison gas. This was because Japan never prosecuted any of its citizens for war crimes. The museum itself is quite small and entry is quite reasonable. It displays the actual weapons, some equipment used by the workers, historical photos and documentation.

Probably halfway around the island, we reached the hotel (and the café, yey!). We had a snack and got some souvenirs. This is the only place on the island to eat by the way, unless you packed your own food.

Feeding a furball.
Feeding a fur ball.

Continuing our trek, it has dawned on us that the last ferry out of Okunoshima is probably in two hours time. The fact that we were out halfway, and that we didn’t have a map stirred a bit of concern. So we braved the trail while feeding rabbits and still enjoying the scenery of the island. We hiked uphill and went through some of the island’s old ruins. We found the old barracks and the remains of old gun placements. We also managed to find the old storage structures but was not fortunate enough to find the old power plant and the tallest electricity pylon in Japan. There was a visitor center though that was surprisingly stocked with information about the islands flora and fauna. We may not have explored the whole of the island, but what we experienced was plenty. And more importantly, we made it to the last ferry (yey!)!

There are already numerous guides all over the Internet providing directions on getting to Okunoshima. We took our ferry from Tadanoumi, but there is another port on the Omishima. Have fun when you get there, and please take note of ferry departure times.

Back Again in Japan

It was a long sought trip back to Japan. And after some planning and re-planning and re-planning again, we finally got our trip sorted out. We decided on doing things our way with some guidance from online itineraries and reviews. And while we had to cancel our trip to Nagano, we were still going to enjoy our June holidays.

We're leaving on a jet plane.
We’re leaving on a jet plane.

If you are going to be travelling between prefectures, or just having long distance travel in general, I would definitely recommend getting the JR Pass. The shinkansen alone cost upwards of 10,000 Yen per person, per trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima. Shorter trips cost less, and taking local trains or overnight buses would be cheaper, but it will take a day to get there. We did the JR Pass and we managed to clock a lot of hours using the shinkansen. Those trips alone have made the Pass a worthwhile investment while we were in Japan.

So, first stop, Hiroshima. Let me just say that it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. There were a lot of English speaking Japanese staff at stations and shops. There will be misunderstandings every now and then, but you will never really be without a helping hand. I can say that for the major stations and cities, though I can’t say to what extent the farther you get away. Still, it won’t hurt to learn a bit of Japanese before going.

Waiting for our ride...
Waiting for our ride…

We spent eight hours on a direct flight from Singapore to Japan and after a hop-on-hop-off affair on the Tokyo Monorail, we spent another five hours on the shinkansen to get to Hiroshima. You would think that it was tiring, but you’d be surprised. It was tiring, but it was sort of relaxing at the same time. The shinkansen rode smoothly and the seats were quite comfortable. In fact, you have more leg and shoulder room on a shinkansen than on an economy flight. I fell in love with the shinkansen that day.

Matthew getting his facts straight.
Matthew getting his facts straight.

We reached Hiroshima and met up with relatives. We had dinner at a Yakiniku restaurant and gained a kilo each on the first day (all except Matthew). Unfortunately, the kids were sick and they were unable to stay longer. We didn’t even get to play. The night didn’t go to waste though. Luckily we were able to go back to the A-bomb dome at the Hiroshima Peace Park. This was one of Matthew’s itineraries. Even though we were here the last time we visited Hiroshima, the Peace Park at night is something else.

The A-bomb dome at night.
The A-bomb dome at night.

There’s something about the cold evening breeze and the quietness of the night at the Peace Park. And while the A-bomb dome is lit up, it was lit just enough to give it ambient lighting. It enhanced the visual of the remains of the building and gave it a sad but peaceful aura. It was beautiful. We didn’t have anything that we wanted to do in particular there, so we just had Matthew enjoy his night and we enjoyed walking through the cool breeze in Hiroshima’s streets.

Gone to Saigon for Poh

We arrived at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. This was a short trip that Mum had planned when she realised that we needed to de-stress. Deciding on the destination and the dates had been quick, but it was reasonably well planned. Our itinerary was composed mainly of finding good places to eat, followed by sights to see with other tourists (we did our own tour) and lastly, we said there was no need to go shopping except for a few souvenirs.

We crashed at the Silverland Jolie Hotel & Spa in Ho Chi Minh and right off the bat, we knew we would feel at home there. The lobby wasn’t big, but the high ceiling made it feel airy. The French vibe was there although you can’t really say that it is truly authentic (very good effort though). The staff were all friendly and they were all smiles too. To top it off, we arrived just in time for tea. As we were waiting for our room, I managed to get my taste of local Vietnam coffee and I fell in love. After our afternoon tea (or in my case, coffee), we were ushered into our room. I wasn’t expecting the room to be big, considering the size of the lobby, and it wasn’t. Even though it’s smaller than some of the hotels that we stayed at before, it was a cosy little nook with a king size bed and a hot tub. We were told that they had bumped us up to a suite for the duration of our stay. Cool.

A night in Saigon
A night in Saigon

We rested for a while and took out my crudely detailed map of where we could go. In my map it looked like all the places we were planning to go to were all nearby but we decided to hit Ben Thanh Market first. Being the great navigator that I am, I kept my fingers crossed that I was actually walking us in the right direction. Well, I was, for 90% of the time. For the other 10% I had to rely on Google maps and the portable WiFi that I rented from Changi Recommends before we left for Saigon. Since this is not a review of the Changi Recommends portable WiFi, let me just say that it is a handy thing to have to keep you connected when you need to. For about 5 SGD a day, I had unlimited Internet access for up to six devices while we were in Saigon. There are terms and conditions and such, so it may end up different for each country and for the duration of your stay. Overall, it was cost effective and useful for our trip. Especially since I had to rely on Maps to navigate the city (which was pretty cool). The highlight of the night was Ben Thah Market Food Centre where we had our first taste of Vietnam food. The tasty dinner was enough to make me and the wife happy. Matthew, on the other hand was in his moody self once more and was trying his best to keep the dark clouds over our heads. Unfortunately for him, when our tummies are happy it is quite difficult to keep us down for long. We ended the night by burning the fat we took in by walking back to our hotel.

Book Street.
Book Street.

Breakfast at the hotel went great the next morning. I got my Vietnam coffee fix first thing and chowed down on some excellent Asian fusion buffet. We took to the streets of Saigon once again in comfy clothes. We were already expecting the weather to be hot and humid so we had prepared our gear just for the occasion. We did the tourist thing on the second day which had been an adventure with a few surprises along the way. We walked by Nguyen Van Binh while finding our way towards the Saigon Central Post Office. While we didn’t buy any books from this lovely book street, it was a beautiful place to be in (even if you just want to chill) with bookstores and books left and right and just the right amount of refreshments in between. We reached the Central Post Office and it was a very interesting building in itself. Beautifully preserved and fully functional, it felt nice just to be there (heat and sweat and all). Within the halls of the post office are remnants of the olden days with telephone booths that dial in to specific countries, postal services to cater to any of your postal needs, and of course, souvenir shops. Matthew finally had a blast. Across the street is the Notre Dame Cathedral, which is another architectural wonder in the fast growing city of Ho Chi Minh. Unfortunately during our visit, it was being renovated and no visitors are allowed. Sigh. Trudging along, we managed to make our way to the Reunification Palace (gotta’ love Google Maps). We had a peek into history here and as much as there are similarities in the décor and feel of the Reunification Palace, it still made an impression that says “Vietnam”. The palace is huge. Walking through its halls lets you see the life of Vietnam’s highest ranking political figures during the war and through the end of it. It was a great way to end our sight seeing. We wanted to do more, but the heat and exhaustion of the day caught up with us and we made our way back to the hotel (should be back in time for high tea, of course). Our third day turned to a shopping spree when we found the malls and the decent prices of pretty little things. That is to say, we were lugging an extra bag by the time we were on our way home.

Souvenir shopping.
Souvenir shopping.

What we found most interesting (and strangely enjoyable) is dodging motorcycles and cars as you cross the streets of Saigon. They are literally everywhere. They are on the road, on the sidewalk, heck even in places where there is no pavement. Surprisingly, we survived the streets of Ho Chi Minh without a scratch on any of us. That should be something that can be ticked off a bucket list. The rest of our trip involved enjoying local Vietnam food. And while we may not have taken the more adventurous route of eating from side street vendors (it was kind of difficult when you have a picky eater travelling along with you), we hoped that the places we ate at were authentic enough. Either way, we did enjoy a great deal of eating in and around Saigon. So much so that we even had some instant Pho taken back home. What was really neat was that the food in Saigon cost considerably less and taste considerably better than what you can get in Singapore. Must have something to do with all the herbs and spices that they put in their dishes.

 

We aren’t food critiques, but we love our food. And after our visit to Ho Chi Minh, we love our Poh. And not just Poh. Saigon is a great place to be when you want to eat. We had a sample of Banh beo (water fern cake), Banh nam (rectangular dumpling) and Banh bot loc (chewy tapioca dumpling). I can’t really say what was in them, but they were great appetizers. The Bun bo Hue, while not Poh, is a flavourful soup dish made primarily with vermicelli and beef. Like Poh though, the Bun bo is filled to the brim with vegetables and other spices while still having a generous portion of meat. The broth was rich, the noodles were firm and the beef was tender. There isn’t really anything to say about it from a normal person’s point of view except that you can’t go wrong getting this dish when you are in Saigon. Then we had Banh Mi, which, after some research told me that it was the Vietnamese word for bread. More specifically, baguette. Hoping to cut down on some of the fat that we were ingesting, we decided to get the grilled chicken variety from a local street stall. One thing to remember about Banh Mi, and bread in general, is that they always taste better when toasted. We tried some Banh ram Hue, which was like deep fried cake. Some Banh canh, which is another soup dish with thicker Vietnamese noodles. And then there was this fried chicken with minced chicken meat inside of it served with fried rice. I can’t remember the name, but it was good. And of course, you can’t leave Vietnam without having a taste of Poh. There were all sorts of Poh and we tried a number of them from different restaurants all the way until we were back at the airport. Yes, you can say we came to Vietnam for the food and you wouldn’t be too far off from the truth. Up there where the food is good, tasty and cheap, we wouldn’t mind going back just to eat some more Poh.

Breaking the Year (Part 1)

School break happens in June for us with kids going to school in Singapore (and some other countries as well). And while it should be a normal break where the kids are taken out on road trips and swimming and horse back riding, this year is different. PSLE.

Of course that shouldn’t really stop us from having a proper holiday. It is a shadow of what is to come in a few months and one has to accept it before one can move on. We did our best to squeeze in extra head banging in the first few weeks of the break. We’re not really sure how much it helped, but it is time to put that behind us for a short while. It is time for a break.

 The Crew

Matthew had always been about family. And the closest that we have are his cousins living on the island next door. We packed our bags and took the ferry to Batam and then a speedboat to Bintan. We drop our bags in our rooms at Nirwana Gardens and put our feet up to chill. It probably won’t be enough to cover the stress coming for us until the end of the year, but some is better than none.

The kids had a game of giant chess before we were up in our rooms. Then we hit the pool with the kids in the middle of a downpour. In the end, we couldn’t decide if we got wet in the rain or in the pool. Luckily it was just rain or else lightning would have put a stop to the fun. Everybody seems to be doing their own thing but everybody was having fun so that wasn’t really an issue. We realised that we weren’t the only crazy people there as there were a handful of us enjoying the rain (It’s not something you see much in Singapore, believe me). When the rain stopped, we stepped out of the pool and back into our rooms. We spent the rest of the night on a game of bowling. Let’s just not talk about who won and how. It was a friendly game after all (and those last two gutter balls were intentional). The boys had a go at shooting using airsoft guns. I heard it didn’t go too well.

Check mate
Check mate

Buffet breakfasts were the norm in hotels and resorts and that meant we had an hour or so to fill up before doing any more activities. The younger kids went on to horse back riding while the boys stayed behind to do their own thing. Andrae pretended that he was a sniper and did target shooting with an airsoft rifle while Matthew pretended that he was as good as Hawkeye and did archery on the field right beside rifle shooting. Neither one of them broke any records. After deciding to forego the ATV and buggy riding, the same boys decided to team up and hit the paintball skirmish course. It was father and son versus father and son. After laughing our heads off because of our ridiculous outfits (seriously, flip-flops with full paintball camo and armor don’t go well together). It was the most fun shooting someone else we had. Some of us died more than the others and we finally proved that paintball hurts. We’ve got the bruises to prove it. Nobody did capture the flag so there was no clear winner. What was clear though, was that the dads weren’t as fit as they thought. We were panting halfway through and judging by the way we couldn’t fully take cover on the low barrels shows just how fit our bodies were. There will be round two. Soon.

Paintball took the wind out of us and that was it for Nirwana. We headed back to Batam soon after checking out. Getting to and from the resort was smooth, but it did take close to an hour (one way) and then there was the speedboat (choppy waters, claustrophobic quarters, no seatbelts, yep, that was fun) that took us between Batam and Bintan. Back in Batam, we shopped and we ate. It was so much fun eating that we probably gained more pounds in the shortest span of a two days. Tired but full, we head back to Singapore to lull the last few days before school starts again.