Greetings from Saigon and another edition of Where I’m At; a monthly update of what I’ve been up to and general site news.
Where I’ve Been
As I mentioned last month, I was in Hanoi with the intention of going to China from there. I didn’t get a China visa but I still had my flight to Hanoi booked, so I made use of the ticket.
I was in Hanoi during the funeral of John McCain, which got me thinking that I have never seen the John McCain monument at the lake where he was captured. Not that I’m on a pilgrimage of visiting places where American politicians have been (an exception made for Bun Cha Obama). In this case though the memorial is at Truc Bach Lake on a road that separates Truc Bach and West Lake, so it is worth visiting for the walk alone. If he had landed in an industrial estate I would not have made the detour.
The memorial is remarkable in that there are so few monuments regarding the belligerents of the war. There is a monument to the French at Dien Bien Phu, and an Australian monument at Long Tan. While this monument is not celebrating McCain, he is a respected figure in Vietnam.
While visiting the monument I realised that I haven’t been to the more famous McCain site, which is the old Hoa Lo Prison (known by American inmates as the Hanoi Hilton). I’ve never been there, and I’ve never been to the Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon either. Maybe I will one day, but my sightseeing selection process usually revolves around food and coffee.
For this trip I picked out some street food locations and cafes I wanted to visit, along with visiting the route of the metro that is being built. I got a Grab bike to what looked like an interesting area near a metro station, and walked back from there. By doing this I walked through neighbourhoods I had never been to before.
Hanoi (like Saigon) are currently building their first metro line. I saw one of the test trains, and it will be open for business later this year. I tend to visit Hanoi once a year, but I rarely stray outside the old city area as the traffic is horrible. With the metro opening up, other parts of the city are going to become more accessible. You can already see that businesses are making the most of the metro, and new apartments are being built along the line.
With my plan to catch the train to China from Hanoi sunk, I followed up on a railway story in Singapore instead. There used to be a direct train service from Singapore to KL, but that was discontinued in 2011. With the railway closed there is a now an undeveloped corridor that has been turned into a park. Here is my report on the old Singapore railway
In Singapore I got the metro to the border crossing at Woodlands to get the shuttle bus to Johor Bahru in Malaysia. As someone who works for themselves I tend to forget what day it is. I quite happily work on a Saturday night while taking half a Tuesday off. Not thinking about the fact that it was Friday afternoon, I made the border crossing to Malaysia when a sea of Malaysian workers were going back home for the weekend. I’ve never seen so many people at a border crossing.
While waiting in line I was seriously considering turning back, getting the metro to Singapore Airport (where everything runs so smoothly), and flying to KL. Of course that would have taken all day, and cost more, and I wouldn’t have gone to JB, but these are the illogical things you think when you are stuck in a giant queue.
After 90 minutes in the queue I emerged in Johor Bahru, and I’m glad I stuck it out. The city had a reputation of being a seedy bordertown, but now it’s reinventing itself and it’s becoming a destination in its own right.
To get an idea of the scale of what’s going on I’ve put together a list of current and proposed construction projects in Johor. It’s easy to see why JB has been likened to Shenzhen.
There is also an interesting old town area, and I’ll have a blog post about old and new Johor Bahru later this month (now posted at The Shenzhentrification of Johor Bahru).
By chance a friend of mine from KL was visiting JB for the weekend, and saw that I was in JB via Instagram (the benefits of live instagramming). We went to Tanjung Piai National Park, which is where the southernmost tip of continental Asia is located.
In keeping with my rail-themed trip, I got the train from JB to KL. This trip has gotten more complicated now that there is no longer a direct service from Singapore. I’ll have a separate blog about that trip and how to take it.
This was my second time to Kuala Lumpur this year. Like Bangkok it’s a city I could see myself spending a month or two in, but I’m happy enough to get in frequent short visits.
There is so much going on here that the skyline is different every time I return. This homage to the Marina Bay Sands (Sky Suites KLCC) was not here the last time I was here.
Near Chinatown the PNB 118 tower is about 30 floors into its 118-storey journey to becoming the biggest tower in Southeast Asia (644 metres). While Bangkok is a much bigger city, I think that KL is going to end up having the best skyline in Southeast Asia.
I returned back to Saigon and it wasn’t long before I was reminded that September is the wettest month of the year here. This is the peak of the rainy season, and the chances are high that you will be out and about one moment, and then taking refuge in a cafe the next.
In a bid to break out of my well-trodden path of inner city haunts, I’ve been visiting the new cities that are being built in the outer districts. Of particular interest is Thu Thiem, which is a mostly undeveloped area on the other side of the river to the old city. While checking out some of the new apartment towers I found a hammock cafe. For 20,000 VND ($0.85c USD) you can get an iced coffee and have a siesta in a hammock.
The good thing about the rainy season is that on the non-rainy days the skies are much clearer. After my Thu Thiem exploration I went to the riverbank and watched the sunset over District 1. The sky was so clear that you could see Venus shining brightly (it’s the white dot to the left of the first skyscraper).