Spring Festival: Singapore and Vietnam

There are two weeklong public holidays in China per year. For the first of these, National Week in October, I went to Mongolia, which is still one of my favorite trips I’ve ever taken. The second (and most important) is Spring Festival—otherwise known as Chinese New Year.

This was my first time truly celebrating CNY, and it was tons of fun. Just like Western new year, it all starts on New Year’s Eve, and that day I had a wonderful brunch with friends from PiA and Harvard and then counted down the new year by stuffing my face with homemade 饺子 (dumplings) at my coworker and close friend Ami’s house. Only three hours after the Year of the Dog officially started, Ami and I woke up and jumped on a plane to Singapore, the first destination on our Spring Festival travel itinerary.

I’ve had such an idealized image in my mind of Singapore for so many years now, so it was near the top of my bucket list of places to visit while living in Asia. It certainly didn’t disappoint—SG is shining, warm, summery, amazingly clean, and crazy fun. The city is run like a well-oiled machine, which the perfectionist in me really appreciates (for some perspective, my college roommate used to call me “Functional Kathryn”). It’s also remarkably diverse; throughout its history as a colony and then an independent state migrants from all over the world have come to work and make their homes there, so on a walk down any given street you’ll meet people of all different races, religions, and backgrounds.

Plus, the Singaporean nation shares my birthday—August 9th is inarguably the best day of the year.

We kicked off our Singapore weekend with Chinese New Year fireworks at the River Hongbao festival right on Marina Bay, then spent our second day touring various neighborhoods with another of our coworkers, because she was down visiting her boyfriend (who is Singaporean) for the holiday. Of the neighborhoods, Little India was my favorite—we ate an amazing South Indian vegetarian lunch and wandered the colorful streets chatting.

To finish our second day we went dancing at Clarke Quay; the plan was originally Zouk, SG’s most famous club, but the cover charge was double because of a headliner that night so we went to one of the many other options in the area and had fun. Because of our night out, our last day was spent entirely lounging on the beach at Sentosa island, which is an excellent escape from the city for some sun. We finished off with a delicious dinner of Hainanese chicken rice in Chinatown.

After Singapore, we spent the next week taking in various places around Vietnam. We started with a day in Ho Chi Minh City, which immediately became one of my favorite cities; perfect weather, lots of fun, great food (my first bowl of pho in Vietnam was nothing short of a religious experience) and just the best vibe overall. It’s also an important place to go as an American, I think, because of its war history. It’s easy to look at vibrant, modern Vietnam and forget how much it suffered only a few decades ago as a result of brutal war, the effects of which are still felt today. We visited the war remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh, and while making it through the whole thing is an extraordinarily painful experience, it is an absolute must.

Our next three days were spent touring the Mekong Delta, a region in the southwest corner of Vietnam where the Mekong River meets the South China Sea. I can’t recommend this highly enough—while parts of it (like the floating markets in Can Tho) felt uncomfortably like a tourist machine, our tour went a bit off the beaten track to Ben Tre province, where we cycled, boated, kayaked, and hiked through small fruit farms, on rocky paths, and along jungle rivers. It’s a stunning place.

After the Delta we flew up to Hanoi, where the chilly, rainy weather was a slap in the face after four hot, dry days in the south. Though I preferred HCMC, Hanoi’s old town is so cool, with narrow, snaking streets where local people will be out and about doing everything from selling clothes, to cooking, to eating, to dancing and playing music. It’s also an excellent gateway to the beautiful nature destinations of northern Vietnam; we had a quick but great day in Ha Long Bay where the sun peeked out just long enough for us to get some pictures and kayak amongst the cliffs. Ami also stayed a week longer than I did to do tours of Ninh Binh and Sapa, two other famous regions in the north.

A key highlight of this trip was Uber Moto—because everyone in Vietnam uses mopeds to get around, Uber has a moped-sharing service that allows you to call a driver and ride on the back of his moped for a fraction of the cost of a car. And guys, it’s SO MUCH FUN. In both cities, anytime Ami and I needed to go someplace we would just call two mopeds and zip there in minutes, obnoxiously taking photos and videos of each other as we did. Seriously, Uber Moto should exist everywhere.

Overall, I absolutely loved Vietnam. It’s a beautiful place with rich history and warm people, and should be on every traveler’s bucket list. However, right now Vietnam’s tourism infrastructure is centered around organized tours, since many of the country’s famous sights are natural gems that are difficult to access and navigate on your own. I get the feeling that Vietnam has not quite figured out how to handle the sheer influx of tourists who have come in the last few years, so they cope by throwing them on tours and treating them a bit like sheep on an assembly line.

My Ha Long Bay guide, though, said something interesting about the country as we were finishing up our tour—it was along the lines of “if you are not satisfied with the service for any reason, come back in a few years, and I promise Vietnam will have changed.” Vietnam recognizes the potential gains it can make through tourism and is working to facilitate it; though it might be a slower process, ideally the future will bring about a Vietnam where tourists can experience its many wonders smoothly and enjoyably, contributing to the economy in a way that does not disrupt locals’ lives.

In the meantime, though, go and visit. Tour or no tour, this place is worth taking the time to really see, and I wish I’d had more than a week to soak it in. For now I’m back at work, a few weeks into the beginning of our second term teaching Flourish. I can’t believe how fast this year has flown, but I’m looking forward to making the most of my last four months.

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