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Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

Hey Everybody! How’ve you been for the past, oh, 7 months or so? Apologies for my extended absence. This year has flown by (in a good way), and once again I guess that’s just meant I’ve been too busy (and yes, at times, lazy) to update my poor neglected blog.

But I refuse to let 2013 end without another post or two! So, I’m going to do a speed round-up continuation of a travel post I started nearly a year ago (!). By the way, I hope everyone has had a wonderful holiday season. The hubs and I just returned from Bali (where we also went last Christmas, as you’ll see below), and despite rain for 3 of the 5 days we were there, we had a very nice, relaxing time. Even after nearly three years in Singapore, I can’t believe we’re just a 2-hour flight away from places like Bali. We are so lucky to live here.

Without further ado, here are the great places I went in 2012!

Romonea Pool Sunset

February: Hanoi, Vietnam
In Hanoi's Old Quarter

In Hanoi’s Old Quarter

I went to Hanoi with my Mom (it’s about a 4-hour flight from Singapore) and met up with her best friend from Boston before they headed out on a 2-week trip around the region. I spent the weekend there and had plenty to do, but word to the wise: if you go in February, bring a warm coat and sweaters. It’s not only chilly (probably 40s-50s), but also damp, and nothing is heated. Even in shops and restaurants people are always wearing their winter coats.

With my Mom (right) and her best friend outside the Presidential Palace

With my Mom (right) and her best friend outside the Presidential Palace

Where we stayed: Hanoi Elegance Diamond. This hotel is PERFECTLY located in the Old Quarter, about a block from the lake and convenient to everything. The Elegance chain was actually recommended to me by a travel agent client; the rooms are comfortable, modern and clean, and I was particularly impressed by both the friendliness of the staff and how excellent their English was (better than when I stayed at the InterContinental in HCMC). Both this hotel and its sister, Elegance Ruby, get excellent reviews on TripAdvisor, where you’ll notice that local hotels tend to outshine the big international brands (which is fairly unusual). It doesn’t hurt that we paid about $100 for our room, whereas the Intercon or Sofitel Metropole will typically run you $300-$400.

What we saw: We hired a local guide through our hotel and visited famous sites like Ho Chi Minh’s home & mausoleum; St. Joseph’s Cathedral; the Temple of Literature; and West Lake. My mom and I also took a nice stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake (I imagine this would be especially lovely in the spring, fall, or summer — it was nice in winter although everything was very grey), and we got in some good shopping on Hang Gai Street. I got the cutest dresses made to measure from a tiny little boutique called Ngoc Anh; I only wish I could go back to get more clothes!

At Ho Chi Minh's former house

At Ho Chi Minh’s former house

What we ate: Pho (of course!); Bun Cha and Xoi Xeo street food stalls that I sought out courtesy of Hanoi Top 10; and a plethora of delectable local dishes at Quan An Ngon (which I admittedly also ate at in HCMC, and yes it’s a little touristy, but the food is delicious and high-quality and the setting is lovely). We also took a taxi to a rather obscurely-located restaurant that my Mom saw recommended in the New York Times, but I can’t recall the name of it, only that it was hard to find, hard to get a taxi afterwards, and incredibly cold throughout the meal.

Pho 24 -- the McDonalds of Vietnam

Pho 24 — the McDonalds of Vietnam

April: Australia & Bangkok
I went back to Australia for a few days of work meetings, and it was really fun getting to catch up with all my old colleagues in our Sydney office. Unfortunately it rained, unrelentingly, until the very last day so I didn’t get to do as much as I’d hoped. Fortunately I was able to catch up with old colleagues for dinner in our old neighborhood of Darlinghurst, and I got in one good run at Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, which is still my favorite running spot in pretty much the entire world. It’s hard to beat Sydney weather on a good day, and I had a particular appreciation for the coolness and lack of humidity after living in Singapore.

It's tough to beat this view when you come around the bend from Mrs. Macquarie's Chair on a good run

It’s tough to beat this view when you come around the bend from Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair on a good run

Where I stayed: The Menzies, an Accor Hotel (booked through work). I was never a fan of Australian hotels; they are so dated (TVs are often old, Wi-Fi is rarely free, and you get zero bathroom amenities) and overpriced. This hotel has a decent location (right next to a train station in the middle of the CBD, however everything in the Sydney CBD closes at night), but otherwise I was underwhelmed.
On my final night, while waiting an inordinate amount of time for the train in Kings Cross to bring me back to the hotel, I made a list of things I did and didn’t miss about living in Australia. I planned to spin this off into its own blog post, but oops! Here’s the list, though:

Things I miss
  • Smell of eucalyptus
  • Gorgeous flowers throughout the year
  • Everyone calling everyone else darling
  • Enthusiastic Aussie friends
  • Cockatoos
  • The view from Mrs Macquarie’s chair
  • Coopers Sparkling Ale
  • Turkish toast in the morning
  • The perfect temperature
  • Raspberry bullets
  • Laid back style
  • All the space — the Domain seemed to stretch out in front of me for miles
  • So many good looking people
Things I don’t miss
  • Violent drunk people (knives, screaming FUCK loudly from the train)
  • Constant rain for 2.5 straight days
  • Homeless people harassing you on Victoria Street
  • $4.60 for a smelly train (8 minute wait!) one stop each way
  • $4.80 bottle of water at 711
  • $2.30 can of Diet Coke
  • $20 cab rides
  • Too-strong sun
  • Crappy hotel amenities
  • Pre-made sandwiches
  • The hills
  • Rugby games from the 90s playing on Primetime TV
How Singaporean do I sound complaining about the 8-minute train wait?!

In April I went to a Bangkok for a week of meetings with clients. I’ve been to Bangkok many times so there’s not much to re-has tourist-wise, but there were two highlights I’d like to mention:

Where I stayed: Sofitel So Bangkok, which had only opened about a month previously. I LOVE this hotel; the rooms are so stylish with amazing views of Lumpini Park, and each of the on-site bars is really cool. There’s a delectable chocolate shop on the ground floor (I highly recommend buying a jar of one of their handmade chocolate spreads), and the breakfast buffet is delicious. And not a bad view from the rooftop pool, right?
The pool at Sofitel So Bangkok

The pool at Sofitel So Bangkok

Where I ate: I had a fantastic French tasting menu at the chef’s table within Sofitel So, Park Society. (Funny story: my co-worker tried to make a booking but was told the restaurant was full, then she ran into one of the chefs in the elevator, where he proceeded to totally hit on her and insisted that we could get a booking after all. Voila!). Some of our clients also took us to a wonderful meal at Patara Fine Thai Cuisine in the very cool neighborhood of Thong Lor. The food is delicious (they actually have locations around the world, including a recently-opened outpost in Singapore), but the best part was the gorgeous setting, which is basically a lush tropical garden strung with fairy lights. You totally forget you’re in the middle of Bangkok.

June: Japan & back to Bangkok

The trip we took to Japan was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. In total I spent about two weeks there (four days for work, and 9 days on holiday), and visited Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. The country is so fascinating (and clean!), the food is ridiculously awesome (so varied, and all so good), and the people are so gracious and kind. Pretty much the only two things I didn’t like about Japan were 1) The insanely expensive taxis (it costs, like, $250 to take a taxi from Narita into Tokyo — which I why I took the bus) and 2) The crazily complicated addresses that no one – not even taxi drivers – can discern. From what I can gather, street numbers are based not on where it’s located on the street, but rather when a building was built. Um, what?

I couldn’t possibly recall everything that we saw and did, but here are some highlights:

-A company dinner with all-you-can-drink sake and countless “Kampais!”
-Late-night karaoke in Tokyo singing “Turning Japanese” with my Japanese colleagues
-A day trip to the beautiful city of Kamakura, famous for its hydrangeas, artwork, and temples (we also had lunch at a Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant, which would normally be so my jam, but unfortunately I was still hurting from the aforementioned night-of-too-much-sake)
A bamboo forest in Kamakura

A bamboo forest in Kamakura

-A ride on the Nozomi Bullet Train from Tokyo to Osaka
-Strolling along Osaka’s 2.6km Shinsaibashi shopping arcade
-Nightlife in Osaka’s Dotonbori area
-The seemingly infinite, serene temples of Kyoto
-Strolling along Kyoto’s lovely Philosopher’s Walk by myself, in the rain (the poor hubs was sick in bed for most of our time in Kyoto)

Kyoto's Philsopher's Walk

Kyoto’s Philsopher’s Walk

-Kyoto’s historic Gion District
-Every Japanese department store (Takashimaya in Singapore is such a poor carbon copy of the Tokyo version!), which seems to be at least 10 floors and features the most beautiful gift-wrapping
-The Japanese obsession with stationery (which I share); not only did I spend about 90 minutes marveling at the legendary Ito-ya, but even every 7-11 has a dedicated stationery section!
-Japanese showers (and the robotic toilets)
-Attending a Japanese baseball game with friends at the Tokyo Dome. Between the sushi & noodles ballpark food, the brass band that played throughout, the individual song that the crowd chanted for each player, and the high quality of play, this was one of the most fun baseball games I ever attended.
The crowd goes wild for Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants

The crowd goes wild for Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants

Where we stayed: Man oh man are Japanese hotels fantastic! They are also quite expensive (and unfortunately the yen was at a high when we were there), but the service and amenities are so outstanding you almost forget about the cost.

In Tokyo during my work meetings, I stayed at the b Akasaka, a client hotel of our team in Japan. The rooms weren’t huge, but the bathrooms & amenities were great, the location is convenient to a subway stop, and the complimentary breakfast and free Wi-Fi were nice, too.

When the hubs joined me in Tokyo, we treated ourselves with a stay at The Peninsula Tokyo, which just might be the best hotel I’ve ever stayed at. The rooms were MASSIVE, service was impeccable, the location is super-convenient to both shopping in Ginza and sightseeing at the Imperial Palace, and the bathrooms were nothing short of insane. I mean, here’s a picture I took of the Red Sox playing on the TV in our bathroom:

In Kyoto, we stayed at The Hyatt Regency Kyoto. According to my Japanese colleagues, this is the nicest hotel in Kyoto, and it was quite lovely, but somehow I didn’t love it (perhaps because a typhoon blew through so I associate our stay with torrential downpours and wind). The lobby was always full of Americans using the Wi-Fi on their iPads, it was kind of depressing. I think if I should ever stay in Kyoto again, I’d opt for a more locally-flavored (if also expensive) ryokan.
Finally, we stayed at The St. Regis Osaka, which comes a close second to The Peninsula for its wonderful-ness. The rooms were equally gorgeous, and the hotel has a super fantastic location right on top of a subway station. I really liked Osaka — the restaurants, shopping and nightlife are all great, and the public transportation system is really good (Japanese trains totally live up to the hype). We actually visited because my grandmother was born in Osaka and I wanted to see if we could find any remnants of where she and my great-grandparents once lived, but most of the present-day city seems to have been built since World War II, so no dice. All the same, I really enjoyed Osaka and look forward to visiting again with my parents when they come back to Asia next month.

What we ate: 
Again, this is just off the top of my head and I’m surely missing some things, but highlights I recall include:

-Okonomiyaki (savory, slightly sweet, friend noodle pancakes that are beyond description) at Tengu in Osaka (courtesy of this CNNGo article)
-Super-delish, cook-your-own meat at Matusakagyu Yakiniku M in Osaka:
According to my carnivorous husband, that marbling is gorgeous.

According to my carnivorous husband, that marbling is gorgeous

-Michelin-starred tempura at Yoshikawa Inn in Kyoto (I loved it – particularly the gorgeous private room setting overlooking a Japanese garden – but the hubs thought there was far too much fish involved. It seems like it would be an amazing place to stay as well).
-Mouthwatering pork tonkatsu at Maisen in Harujuku (such great shopping!), Tokyo. Here’s a great post about if from popular Singapore foodie blogger Lady Iron Chef.
-Greatest ramen of my life at Ippudo in Tokyo (get your Google Translate ready!). This is a chain with multiple locations – including one in Singapore – but the hard-to-find Ebisu location was just amazing (I also ate at the Ginza shop).
Ippudo Ramen: Mouth...is...watering

Ippudo Ramen: Mouth…is…watering

-Unbelievably fresh sashimi at what was essentially a hidden shack deep within Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market. No, we didn’t show up at 3am for the tuna auction, but my wonderful Japanese colleague Yukiko did treat us to what she calls her “secret spot” and we enjoyed a seemingly endless parade of sashimi, crabs and grilled fish in a private room (in fact, I think we were the only customers allowed in at all for lunch). It was simply amazing.

Fresh sashimi by Tsukiji Fish Market

Fresh sashimi by Tsukiji Fish Market

-Best of all, sushi at Kyubei in Tokyo. According to Yukiko, this was Steve Jobs’s favorite sushi restaurant in Tokyo, and judging by the surroundings it was certainly popular with Japanese businessmen. Check out the list of reservations that we found upon arrival:
At Kyubei: which one of these bookings is not like the others?

At Kyubei: which one of these bookings is not like the others?

Since we didn’t have the time or patience to try for Sushi Jiro, we thought this would be a good option since it was also close to our hotel, and both the hubs and I LOVED it. Not only did the owner personally greet us (while also proudly presenting us with a print out of this WSJ article, which was adorable), but the chef (who spoke great English) talked us through the entire meal while we marveled at the counter (such a treat!). Neither my words nor my photos would do this meal justice, but I would describe the sea urchin as “a party in my mouth” and would convey the freshness of everything by mentioning how the shrimp literally jumped off my plate, even after its head was cut off.

I absolutely loved Japan, and am so excited to go back again over CNY in January (and yay for the yen being much lower against the dollar this time around!).

The day I got back from our epic Japan trip in June, I took a taxi home, emptied out my suitcase, re-packed, and headed back to the airport for another work trip in Bangkok. Nothing too exciting to report on, other than the hotel.

Where I stayed: Sofitel Sukhumvit. Like Sofitel So, this one has just opened up so the rooms were very nice, if more conventional and a bit less stylish than at So (fair enough, it’s a slightly different brand). I personally don’t like the Sukhumvit area – it’s crowded, dirty, and kind of dark since the elevated BTS line runs right down the middle of the street – but the hotel is ultra-convenient to the skytrain as well as the popular Terminal21 shopping mall. A lot of people also like the sleazy nightclubs in Sukhumvit and I know that’s a big draw in Bangkok but again, not really my scene.

Ok, I think I need to break this up into one more post! Coming in Part 3: Hong Kong, Bangkok (twice more!), Siem Reap and Bali…