July in Vietnam: The Good at Ha Long Bay

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I’m going to start off with the good stuff that happened at Ha Long Bay. It was a fairly typical package tour where we were packed into minivans and trucked off in the direction of Hai Phong, stopping at the expected craft centre on the way. After being herded up to my junk and getting my passport confiscated for “safekeeping,” we headed out to Ha Long Bay proper. I was rather underwhelmed, mainly because I’d already been to El Nido, the “Ha Long Bay” of the Philippines. Of course El Nido beat this place hands down. However, taking a look at my photos again, Ha Long Bay is undeniably beautiful. It’s just a pity about the greeny-brown water.

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Our first stop was at a cave complex of sorts. I imagine it would’ve been really pretty on its own. Too bad about the garish spotlights in pink, purple and green. I really didn’t appreciate the suspect taste of whichever tourist association that put up those lights. Needless to say, my already bad mood blackened further at that point.

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At least the mood was lifted slightly by the Fun with English signs. Don’t you think it’s cute how they made sure that there was symmetry in the use of phrasal verbs. I know it’s not allowed, but I’d sure like to see how someone could write down a stalactite or draw into one!

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There were plenty of boat vendors trying to sell us wares at obviously exorbitant prices. They made for nice pictures though.

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There was also a completely pointless excursion to catch a glimpse of some local village after which they extorted money from tourists by insisting on a donation to the local school. I wouldn’t have minded donating if I actually got to see the school and meet at least a teacher, but not being let off the little boat till money changed hands was going too far. This was the one time being an inconspicuous solo traveller helped on this cursed tour. I quietly slipped back onto the boat while the others quarreled. At least the gloomy stalactite formations were vaguely picture-worthy.

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The best thing was probably the weather. It was fine for most of the time and even if the water wasn’t clear, the sky was a lovely blue that contrasted against the foliaged cliffs nicely.

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With the cliffs in the distance, it was almost reminiscent of a Chinese watercolour painting. Very pretty indeed.

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We had a little time to canoe in the bay, a nice prospect in the sunset if not for it being horribly dangerous (more later). I bring you this last photo having survived unscathed from nearly being run over by huge junks at the jetty and single-handedly steering a two-man canoe all by my little self back from the sunset.

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Enjoy.

Layang Layang: First Approach

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We flew to Layang Layang via Kota Kinabalu by chartered plane. It was a cute little propeller plane and in much better condition than the ones I flew in The Philippines and Indonesia. Nonetheless, we still had to go a bit snap-happy!

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We could see the pilots very clearly through the open cabin and were very amused watching them go through their pre-flight checks and put on their own seat belts.

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We flew over the beautiful outlying islands off KK…

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… flying low enough to see our own shadow in the pretty turquoise waters below.

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It was then followed by nothing but blue water for a while, until the pilots announced that we’d reached Layang Layang and that they would bank the plane to let us have a good view of the atoll island. It was great flying a chartered plane! Not only were they patient enough to wait for us to finish the touristy photo-taking before takeoff, they also gave us a good few turns of the island to take pictures to our hearts content.

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You can just about see the shape of the atoll in this picture, together with the lagoon formed in the middle.

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The resort is on this thick bit of the atoll that has definitely been reclaimed. There’s the air strip, the resort and the Malaysian air base and nothing else.

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The rest of the atoll isn’t really much of an island, with quite a lot of it underwater most times of the day.

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It was a lovely place smack in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but sea and sky stretching out as far as the eye could see.

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It was especially beautiful at sunset with wide panaromas of coloured sky throwing their colours onto white clouds…

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… as well as casuarinas and hardy tropical pines silhouetted beautifully against the setting sun.

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We went on sunset walks before dinner when we weren’t completely knackered from the diving to take in as much as we could.

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Inside the very charming resort, we found different sea creatures in the room. Some days we had angelfish, other days a turtle, and on one special day, we had a pair of manta rays come visit!

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And on the last day of diving, a hammerhead came to visit us. It was so sweet of the resort staff to put in special touches like these to make our day even better.

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More to come soon on the diving!

A Healthy Picnic Lunch

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DC and I went to check out St John’s Island over the weekend. We hopped over from Marina South Pier by ferry. The 45 minutes ferry ride was comfortable and painless compared to the earlier hassle of finding parking at the ferry terminal. It was one of those incredibly hot yet lovely days and it showed off the island beautifully.

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The sky was blue, the clouds fluffy white and the thick growth of trees a deep lively green.

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There wasn’t a great deal to the island, only a research centre for marine studies and a holiday camp. The rest of the island that was accessible to visitors was pretty much a little park, probably equivalent to a zone or two of East Coast beach.

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Still, it was a lovely walk and surprisingly not quite as hot as we expected as most of the way was pretty shady especially a bit further from the beach. It was a lovely little bit of Singapore that was a nicely contradictory combination of well-kept park and forgotten bucolism.

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There were some mangroves along the coast standing upright in the water that was so clean it was almost clear. Only the sand clouded it up slightly.

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We spent a while peering at the little fish darting amongst the stilt roots of the mangroves.

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While there obviously weren’t any roses here, coming here was a good opportunity to stop and smell and observe. And of course test out the macro feature of my new camera!

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There were also cats on the island. Here’s a pretty one watching out warily both for us…

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… and the spooky black cat with scary eyes.

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Then we adjourned to a shady park bench for a very refreshing Thai-inspired salad redolent of mint and lemongrass. The ever-enterprising DC whipped out cold drinks from a little styrofoam box and it completed our meal very nicely. All we needed to do next was head back to the ferry and home, wash up and have an afternoon nap. Bliss.

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Thai-inspired chicken pasta salad

Ingredients:
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp palm sugar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive or peanut oil (optional)
2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded
1 cup pasta, cooked
2 stalks lemongrass, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped (optional)
2 large handfuls mint leaves
2 heads baby butterhead lettuce
10 cherry tomatoes, halved

Method:

  1. Combine the fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice and palm sugar, stirring to dissolve. I use pellets of palm sugar bought from Myanmar and leave it overnight in the fridge to give the sugar time to dissolve. Taste if you dare at this point to test for balance. It should be incredibly salty, fishy and sour all at the same time. Add more sugar to temper the sourness slightly and more fish sauce or soy sauce if it’s not fishy-salty enough. Don’t worry too much at this stage, you can tweak later too.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the oil, shredded chicken and pasta, then stir in a few spoonfuls of the dressing. Now toss in the lemongrass, chilli and shallot and keep stirring till well combined.
  3. Tear the mint and lettuce leaves into the salad and keep tossing. Taste and add more dressing if necessary. Spoon into a plastic box for storage and keep as cool as possible for your picnic.

Serves 2.

August in China: Xiamen’s Gulangyu

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I flew from Xian in the central north to Xiamen at the southern coast. The weather immediately became much more humid like at home. Even the people on the streets looked a lot more like Chinese Singaporeans, not surprising seeing as a majority of Chinese Singaporeans are from the Fujian area.

My first stop was at Gulangyu, an islet famous for its pretty colonial architecture. I crossed over in the evening by ferry. Not sure why, but it was free in the evenings. A local guy told me not to bother paying so I paid by admiring the view.

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The dusk view was rather pretty as there was a nice contrast between the colonial houses on Gulangyu…

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… and the bright neon lights of the office buildings opposite in Xiamen itself.

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I had a bit of a problem getting a bed initially as the most popular place on the island was fully booked. There was a bit of a red herring moment when a “friendly local” showed me a dingy room and wanted to charge way over my budget for it. Thankfully I found another less popular but still clean and decent place that fit my budget nicely. Lesson learned: always google accommodation beforehand and get the phone number of the place, it’s not always easy to find a place from its address alone. The locals aren’t always the most informative and building numbers can be jumbled.

The next morning I had a little wander around the island. There was lots of pretty though not particularly memorable architecture…

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… and a glimpse of the most famous site on the island.

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Domestic tourists like to trek up to the top of the rock where on a clear day one can see Taiwan, or more accurately, the Jinmen Islands. It had been especially popular in the past when no one at all from the mainland could set foot on Taiwan. Having lived in Taipei for two years, of course I didn’t want to crowd with the rest of the people and was content to watch from afar.

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After a little sojourn around the islet, I headed for the famous Gulangyu fishballs stuffed with minced pork. It was a little anti-climactic though, the fishball wasn’t bouncy and the meat not very flavourful. I much preferred the Singaporean version. I think us immigrants did far better at improving on the recipe. Oh well.

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