Transsiberian Rail road – Day 1: Arriving in Moscow

So finally the day had come! The trip we’d been planning for years was going to be realized. Men and my brother took a flight to Stockholm to meet up our dad. We checked in the day before, so the only task we needed to do was drop off our suitcases at Aeroflot’s check in counter. Checking in and clearing security went by in a breeze!

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We took a seat at a ridiculously overpriced café  to have something to drink. It was almost noon and we were also hungry. Glenn bought a bagel, and I pulled out my prepared lunch – a very filling portion of salmon quiche that I’d saved for the occasion. I find it to be a perfect food to bring on a trip, since it’s very easy to make, transport, pack, and eat. It’s also stuffed to the brim with protein, virtually carb-free, doesn’t take up a lot of space, extremely delicious yet healthy, and doesn’t require utensils to consume. We proceeded to our gate and hung out there for a while until boarding time.

Landing in Moscow went well despite heavy winds. All the passengers formed a cue at an escalator to avoid the misery of walking up to the main arrival hall. I was probably the only passenger who used the broken escalator on the side, as a staircase to walk up. I’ve never understood the sheer laziness of people in general. You’ve been on a flight for a few hours, and still you want to stand in a cue to avoid walking up a few steps? The body is meant to be USED, but most people treat everyday exercise as a plague and happily let their body slowly deteriorate by a combination of inaction and bad diet. Stupidity. To me, standing on still an escalator is completely unacceptable, I always walk them up. People seem to jump at any chance, however small it may be, to avoid spending energy. In my opinion, it’s doing yourself a huge disservice. Keep your body young, fresh and in shape instead by using it!

The immigration took ages. The officer in charge of our lane was extremely slow. She carefully examined all passports on every single detail and did extensive typing into the system. I’ve always been very curious about what kind of information shows up about passengers when immigration officers look them up. Maybe there’s some you-tube video about the topic.. Our officer seemed to be having a bad day. I gave her my biggest smile, but she didn’t so much as flinch a smile back – total stone face. The sun was also shining straight into the hall through a glass ceiling, and there was no AC to be found. It turned the environment into a virtual sahara desert, and I could see a lot of arriving passengers with sweat rolling down their faces. All passengers on our flight got cleared before us, simply by randomly standing in another line at immigration, and when I finally reached the baggage claim, the only three suitcases left there were ours.

Our driver was waiting for us, and took us to our hostel, which was conveniently located in central Moscow with walking distance to the big attractions. He didn’t speak English, and the only thing he said to us, what so ever, was a short “Jo.” when Glenn successfully pronounced the Cyrillic letters on a street sign. The trip from the airport took about 45 minutes due to bad traffic jams, and our driver did his best to cut the time by speeding through blocked off construction areas and changing lanes more often than Trump tweets a lie.

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We arrived at the hostel, which was named The Red Kremlin, and checked in. The lady who received us did speak a few words of English, but still needed google translate to help my understand what some guy told me when he came to the counter. Apparently, he said “Welcome my friends, I’m a bit drunk”. I understood the word priat, which is friend. The receptionist showed us to our room, which was a steaming hot dormitory of 3 wrangly bunk beds. It turns out that she herself was living in the room, and shared a bed with a skinny emo guy there – they even had a guinea pig. How they managed to live like that in a small bed which was barely large enough for one, exceeded my comprehension. The remaining guests at the hostel seemed to be only Russians who were in Moscow temporarily for travel or work. There was a crew of construction guys, and many guests left early morning wearing their work uniforms.

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The hostel itself was located in a back yard and shared the area with a barbershop, tap room, jazz & blues café, and hookah lounge. The crowd that hanged out there can best be described as progressive young punk commie rebels. If you’ve ever seen the movie Police Academy 2, the gang that Mahoney goes undercover into, would be a fitting visual stereotype to represent the Moscovites around the hostel.

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We took a walk to get some dinner at a Siberian restaurant that Glenn had localized in the vicinity. Walking there, our first impression on Moscow continued to grow. Impressive governmental buildings, a lot of gorgeous old alrchitecture, and people driving SUV’s like crazy cowboys. The city was clean, and seemed to have a good traffic infrastructure with big lights and countdowns with waiting times at intersections. The restaurant definitely exceeded our expectations! It had a nice interior, the waiter gave us great service and the food was very delicious. On the way back, we walked through a park which seemed to boast some type of historical military exhibition. We saw old cannons, people dressed up as soldiers, and a lot of communist propaganda posters.

We decided to hit the sack after a long day of travel and new impressions. The room was very warm, but none of us had trouble sleeping.

Getting veneers in Asia: Day 0 – choosing a clinic

I was lucky enough to be born with great teeth. They were symmetrical, white, and provided me with the one characteristic that I’ve received most compliments for – my smile. I’v never had any kind of issues with my teeth. No cavities, holes, pain, etc.

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My friend Martin (left) and me (right) working in a bar in Sunny beach, Bulgaria, 2007

Then life happened. I dove into a swimming pool, and hit the bottom with my front teeth. It caused cracks in both my front teeth, and a few years later during work, I accidentally hit my left front tooth when flaring with a bottle of vodka behind the bar. The impact knocked about half of the tooth off, probably due to the crack that had weakened it.

I managed to get it fixed at a local dentist, but I was never satisfied. She made the prosthetic tooth shorter than my other one, which gave me a crooked, asymmetrical smile instead of the one that I was so proud of. I never got used to it, and it always bugged me. During my twenties I also got into the habit of drinking coffee, and that didn’t work wonders for the whiteness of my smile.

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Notice that my right front tooth is shorter, giving the smile a slanted asymmetrical look

So I decided that I’d get my act together and do something about it. I did some research and decided that the best option for me was to get veneers. In Sweden, it’s ridiculously expensive, but after reading a book by Tim Ferris where he wrote about medical tourism, I started looking up prices in Asia. To my delight, they were much better. A few years of small monthly savings and I could actually afford it! I made a saving plan and started immediately.

When I had reached the amount that I estimated the procedure would cost, I started to research clinics. There is a website for this called whatclinic.com, and I checked clinics in Thailand and Viet Nam. That spring I was conveniently going to Singapore for exchange studies so my plan was to do the procedure after the school semester.

I found a few different establishments that I contacted before going to Singapore, and I received the best answer from Rose Dental Clinic in Ho Chi Minh, south Viet Nam. The answers from them were totally professional, informative, reassuring and non-selly. I decided to choose them after reading all of the hundreds of positive reviews.

Viet Nam trip summary

A country I’ve always wanted to visit is Viet Nam, and now I finally had the opportunity to explore a bit of south Viet Nam during a four day trip to Ho Chi Minh. With the help and guidance from my local Vietnamese friend Bonnie, I learned a lot about the city and Vietnamese culture.

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What you need to know about Viet Nam

Although Viet Nam is a united and peaceful country, there still is an undercurrent of tension between the north side and the south, since the Viet Nam war. It was a deeply divisive war that split many families and causes a lot of tragedy. If you are more interested in the war, I can highly recommend the recent 10 episode documentary from PBS – probably the best documentary I’ve seen in any category. Since the war time, there has been some confusion about the name of the biggest city in the south: Ho Chi Minh city. It’s also frequently referred to as Sai Gon, and I was a bit unsure what name to use. The city’s official name is Ho Chi Minh and it was renamed from Sai Gon to Ho Chi Minh after the war. However, a majority of southerners still call the city Sai Gon, and most of the shops and signs in the city still show the old name.

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The currency of the country is called Dong, and it suffers from a horrible case of inflation. 12 USD / 10 EUR is about 287 000 Dong. Luckily, that will get you A LOT in Viet Nam!

Transportation is easy in Sai Gon. There are a lot of taxis here that take you cheaply wherever you need to go. They use taximeters so no need to haggle for a price before getting in. Uber and Grab also have services here. There is a subway system being built by a Japanese company, but it’s been delayed for many years (probably due to corruption). My friend Bonnie said that there is a joke in Sai Gon that goes like this: “A young kid asks his father when the subway project is finished, and the father replies that it will be ready in two years. Time passes and the kid grows up to have children of his own. One day, his son asks him when the subway will be finished. -In two years! He replies.”.

A taxi from the airport to the city takes 15-20 minutes.

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh

I arrived on a Wednesday evening, the day before Viet Nam’s national 5-day holiday called Tet. It occurs at the same date as the Chinese lunar new year but the celebrations and traditions are a bit different. My original plan was to exit the airport wearing a Singaporean red military beret, but I chickened out when I saw the airport guards with automatic weapons. I didn’t know the culture well enough and I wasn’t gonna take the risk of offending a guard.

Rolling into the city can be a different and fun experience for a westerner. Most of the streets are decorated with the national flag and the communist party flag alternating on light posts every 50 meters. The city is absolutely chalk full of small shops, food stalls, and imported chain restaurants – a mix of communism and capitalism. I also saw a lot of chain restaurants I’ve never seen before, such as “Mom’s touch”, “Texas Chicken”, and “Louisiana Chicken”.

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I had chosen a central hotel called Sun Flower hotel. It was a cheap, clean and good option if one wanted to explore the central areas of Ho Chi Minh. Check in was easy and quick, the hotel had a safe, AC, free WiFi and breakfast.

Food was definitely on my mind, so Bonnie suggested we go for the “nr 1 pho restaurant” in Sai Gon. Pho is a typical Vietnamese dish made of broth, noodles, veggies and different meats. The shop turned out to be closed due to the holiday, so we went to the location of the “nr 2 best pho restaurant in Sai Gon”. It was also closed, so we tried nr 3. Closed. We decided to take a street food stall with plastic chairs near the central ben thanh market.

Ben thanh market reminded me of a miniature version of Khaosan road in Bangkok. Most big Asian cities that I’ve visited have at least one area with street food where you sit outside on plastic chairs and eat cheap good food off of plastic plates with plastic chopsticks or cutlery (no knives though – in Asia, the spoon and fork are king). It was delicious! I can recommend going to the ben thanh market for souvenirs and replica items, but be prepared to haggle. As Bonnie said: “It’s a foreigner’s market. No Vietnamese shop there”.

Day 2

The first day of Tet had arrived and we proceeded to a square type of area that had flowers, entertainment and a statue of the country’s national hero (at least for the north people): Ho Chi Minh.

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The national traditional uniform of Viet Nam is called an Ao Dai, and it’s worn by both men and women during holiday. Bonnie had been kind enough to arrange one for me prior to my arrival, so naturally we wore them! I must say that I find the Ao Dai to be a very beautiful garment, and I was definitely wearing it with a lot of pride.

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Many Vietnamese came up to me for photo requests, and were delighted to find a foreigner wearing their traditional dress. I felt like a real dep trai (handsome guy)!  That’s one thing that I’ve come to like about Vietnamese – they are very friendly. This also has a back side, which I’ll come to later..

After walking around a bit, taking photos, meeting the Vietnamese Iron man and Spider man, we headed to a cafe. I had been recommended to try the famous Vietnamese egg yolk coffee. I was a bit skeptical at first, but it turned out to be surprisingly good! I had imagined that they simply would dump a sweaty old yolk into a cup of black coffee, but the actual beverage was more like a cappuccino with a layer of egg yolk and something that probably was condensed milk. Anyway, it was very good!

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For lunch, we grabbed a cab and went to the Chinatown area to try the national version of pho. It was MUCH better than the street stall version from the previous night! Walking around in an Ao Dai in 35 degrees heat was quite tiresome and hot, so the food, air condition and water was just what we needed. After a while, we left the place to find an ATM for me.

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As we were walking on the sidewalk, some guy on a scooter rode up behind Bonnie and tried to snatch her purse and take off. Luckily, he didn’t succeed, but it was a surprising and somewhat shocking moment that for the first time showed me the dark part of Viet Nam. The crime rate here is high, and robberies are not uncommon. I’ve never been in a fight, but if that guy on the scooter would have stopped or fallen off, I admit that I probably would have tried to beat him up. I was so pissed off from the experience. I mean, come on. How pathetic isn’t that? It’s a national holiday, and the guy tries to rob a young woman from his own country wearing the nations traditional dress. I can’t think of a more fitting description of a coward low-life scumbag loser. As we were continuing to walk, I was secretly hoping that he would get run over by a truck.

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I would advise tourists to take precaution and not wear any expensive jewelry like watches. Don’t have your cellphone in your hand, because somebody could come up in a crowded place and grab it. One of my class mates here in Singapore almost had her phone stolen like that when she visited Viet Nam just a week before me. Keep your valuables safely stored! It wasn’t the only time during the trip I was exposed to street theft, which I’ll get back to later.

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We spent the afternoon at a lovely place called district 7. It has a scenic walk along the river, with restaurants, lights and a water wheel among other things. It also had a nice park (where it was forbidden to pick the poisonous pumpkins), a bridge with cool lights – and three of the ugliest dog statues I’ve ever seen. We couldn’t decide if they looked like dogs, cats, rats or bears. It was a nice and relaxing evening! Lots of families were in the area and I was just in heaven looking at all the beautiful Ao Dai’s that were being worn. Managed to use my new Tamron 18-400 mm lens to snap a few pics of Viet kids  posing like the next glamour model by the water wheel.

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The rest rooms were not that good though. It’s the first rest room I’ve ever visited where somebody had taken a shit in a urinal. Thank god I didn’t have to watch the actual performance, only the result. It was bad enough..

Dinner was had at a restaurant that served the north style dish called bun cha! It was delicious. In the back of my mind though, I couldn’t completely shake the memory of that street thug loser who tried to rob my friend. I had my camera strapped around me and paid close attention to my surroundings the entire time.

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Day 3

The first destination was to visit the Ho Chi Minh national pagoda. It’s a very popular and traditional activity for Vietnamese during the holiday. Most people go here to give praise to the Buddha and god of money (which the Chinese also have).

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The outfit for the day was of course – Ao Dai! I was very happy for every opportunity to wear it. Everywhere I went while dressed in Vietnamese traditional garment, I would get a positive reaction. Lots of people giving me smiles, thumbs up, coming to shake my hand and being very friendly. The pagoda was no exception to this. I felt like the prince of Sai Gon or a celebrity – just like the time me and my friend walked around Mall of Dubai dressed in traditional Arabic men’s robe with headgear.

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After the pagoda, I wanted another egg yolk coffee, so we headed back to the same place as yesterday. It turned out to be closed, so we went in to a nearby cafe that I think was part of a hotel. We ordered tea, coffee, and water. Bonnie was almost white to the face when she saw the price list, and she told me that they probably had printed out new menus with a price increase with about 500% only because of the holiday. That “meal” turned out to be the most expensive purchase during my trip, with the total bill landing at about 15 USD – which is just slightly more than a cafe in Singapore or Sweden would charge for the equivalent order.

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For the rest of the day, Bonnie had invited me to catch a bus to the province of Tay Ninh outside of Sai Gon to experience the Vietnamese countryside and see how her parents live and work. For a guy like me who loves nature and adventure – it was an offer too good to pass up! I gladly accepted. So we headed back to the hotel to get my stuff. On the way back to the hotel, we passed through a series of smaller alleys where shops sold communistic propaganda items such as Vietcong hats and hammer & sickle flags. At a particular spot where it was too narrow for two people to walk, I met a young Vietnamese guy dressed as a hip-hop rap artist. He was wearing 80’s sunglasses, a hugely over sized Dallas cowboys game jersey, and a black baseball cap turned backwards. He greeted my by saying: “- Yo wassup’ man!” I was totally unexpecting to hear him use American street slang, so out of pure instinct I replied: “- Chuc mung nam moi!” which means happy new year in Vietnamese. Perhaps he also was surprised to hear something like that from me. Bonnie didn’t recognize his sentence, and later told me she thought he was speaking Korean 🙂

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After waiting in the blistering sun for about 45 min for a bus that should arrive every 15 min, we decided to take a cab to the big bus station to get a smaller shuttle bus instead. It would also go faster. The shuttle bus to Tay Ninh took about 45 minutes, and the driver really put the pedal to the metal. He was driving like a madman, but he got us there safely. According to Bonnie, most shuttle bus drivers drive like that since they get more commission if they get to the destination faster. Traffic in Ho Chi Minh can be totally crazy. For a westerner coming to Asia for the first time, traffic here just seems like a huge chaotic mess. In Europe, people tend to drive in a much more ordered fashion and (for the most part) obey all traffic rues. Not here. Drivers seem so be honking constantly for no apparent reason. The notion of lanes is pretty much non existent, and it’s not uncommon to see 3 or even 4 people on one scooter. Several times I also saw people on scooters taking selfies and texting.

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We arrived at her parents house, and I met her parents and brother. They didn’t speak English, but I managed to get them laughing by using the little Vietnamese I know. If there is one thing that I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that a big smile and friendly body language can get you very far. It’s a universal language that anybody can relate too.

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I was asked if I wanted to see her Dad’s rice field, which I definitely wanted! So me, Bonnie and her brother took a pair of scooters and headed out. At first I was a bit nervous to be riding a scooter in the crazy Vietnamese traffic – especially since I hadn’t driven a two wheel motored vehicle since selling my Kawasaki Ninja sports motorcycle a few years ago. I reminded myself that I in fact did have a license to drive a motorcycle, and a scooter is much easier to drive. It was a piece of cake, and the country side traffic was much less intense than in the city. We took a right turn onto a dusty road with no asphalt and after a while, we ended up at the rice fields.

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Bonnie’s dad owns three hectares of rice that he grows for the government. He visits the field every day to check on the conditions. There is a big canal of water supplying all of the farmers crops, and the field was completely soaked in water with only the leaves of the rice plants sticking up. There were also longan fruit trees there. Her family also has chickens, pigs, and a garden with loads of home grown organic fruits and veggies.

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We went back to Bonnie’s parents house to have dinner. Her family follows the Caodaism religion where a calendar orders vegan food for about 10 days every month. This particular day was a vegan food day, and I didn’t mind. I have always loved veggies, and I enjoyed the meal very much. After dinner, we relaxed a bit in front of the TV as her dad bossed over the remote from his comfy position in a low hanging hammock. His choice of show was a channel showing informational films about forestry machines and heavy duty equipment – a real farmer!

Bonnie asked me if I wanted to try some locally made chameleon wine. As a bartender and bar manager with 16 years of experience, I’m not one to turn down the chance to try an exotic spirit like that! She fetched a huge glass bottle that must have been at least 20 liters large. It had been sitting in the same location, unopened for 5 years, so we dusted it off and removed the plastic tape from the lid. Inside the bottle was strong rice wine, herbs, and the bodies of about 50 chameleon lizards. Bonnie warned me that it would smell strange, but I didn’t think it was too bad. I had a small glass and it went down easily! Tasted quite good. I’d describe it as reminiscent of Jaegermeister. Definitely worth the experience. This local traditional spirit is said to be very healthy, and especially beneficial to men’s libido (where that idea came from, however, one can only speculate lol). Many Vietnamese men believe that the most powerful way to raise a man’s lust is a small shot glass of snake blood, or any shot glass of alcohol with a beating snake heart swallowed whole. It’s said to be better than viagra, and according to an episode from Gordon’s Great Escape where Gordon Ramsay travels to Viet Nam to cook, a popular saying is that a shot glass with a beating snake heart will make any man capable of “five times one night”. So did it work? Yes. 30 minutes later I had a massive boner 😉 (joke). Bonnie told me that she would pack a small bottle of chameleon wine for me to bring back to Singapore, and she also asked me if I wanted to bring 60 kilos of rice with me, ha ha. So funny.

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Night time soon rolled around and it was time for bed. I was kindly given a large double bed with mosquito net and a fan. Bonnie explained that because of the heat, they slept without mattresses, and used large fleece blankets to soften the contact between the wooden bed and the body. I found it to be very comfortable and it felt good to my back to rest on a harder than usual surface like that. But I had difficulty falling asleep. There was a lot of traffic noise coming from the road outside. Cars and scooters drove by and the random honking bothered me. Just when I was about to fall asleep, the family dog thought it was a good idea to start a bark and howl contest with the other neighborhood dogs. It went on for what seemed like ages.. The next day, I asked Bonnie if the dog always did that, and she said: “- Oh, yes. He has a lot of friends!”. It was probably about 24:00 or 01:00 before I fell asleep.

Day 4

The night before ended with dog barks, and the early morning started at 05:00 sharp, courtesy of the family rooster. I drowsily asked Bonnie if he always begun at 05, and she said: “- Oh no, he had a long sleep. Normally he starts at 03:00”. Well, thanks rooster.

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Today’s itinerary started with visiting Cao Dai Holy See city, so we put on our Ao Dais and headed out with the scooters. The holy city was a 30 minutes drive, and going down the country side road in the early morning sun made me miss my motorcycle so much. The feeling of freedom that a motorcycle gives the rider is almost indescribable, and I made a mental promise to myself to buy one as soon as I get my degree.

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We arrived at the holy city and walked around to take some pictures of the nice Caodaist buildings. The color theme seemed to be yellow, blue and red.
“- Just like the Vietcong flag”, I pointed out to Bonnie. She had never thought about it, but after she realized it was true, slapped me jokingly on the shoulder. I think she wasn’t too happy about her religion having the same color as the Vietcong, but it was probably a coincidence. The Caodaist religion also had a lot of symbols of the “all seeing eye”, which I remarked reminded me of the Illuminati. Bonnie had another explanation for the symbol.

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We went to a stunning garden to look at some nice plants and landscaping, while her brother took a rest in the shade playing with his phone. We also entered the temple, which a monk claimed to be build entirely by bamboo. I took a close look at the pillars, and they were painted to look like light blue marble, but it was clearly not marble. Perhaps it really was 100% bamboo. The temple was beautiful, with lots of colorful carvings, dragons, golden chairs, etc. A monk offered to take our photo while giving praise.

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The next stop was driving to a mountain to visit an old pagoda that had been built half way up. It took about 15 minutes to reach the place, and it was totally crowded. Many Vietnamese like to visit this mountain during Tet! We bought tickets to take a cable car up, after first buying a cone shaped straw hat to protect us from the scorching south Vietnamese sun. I was shocked to see so many people walking around jeans, long sleeve sweaters, and even warm jackets! I felt like the most naked person on the whole mountain with my shorts and t-shirt. The explanation for this is that many Asians, including Vietnamese, try to avoid the sun to stay as white as possible. Vietnamese have a saying about tan skin that goes ” Đen như Miên “, and means “black like Cambodian”. Like it or not – it’s the beauty norm here. Fair skin is considered more beautiful than tan skin, which ironically is the opposite in the west. There we do anything to get a nice tan, and we jokingly say that a very white person looks frail and unhealthy.

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Getting to the top of that mountain was a tall order. The burning sun, 35 degrees, and thousands of steps later, we got there and all of us were panting and sweaty. I really wasn’t envious of the thickly clad Vietnamese who skipped the cable car and made the long, warm walk all the way up. They were sweating like pigs, and some of them carrying children. The most impressive were the workers who carried HUGE blocks of ice or packs of tamarind on their shoulders all the way up. It must have weighed at least 50 kgs. The looked like they were in agony. Their faces were running with sweat, their steps were slow and deliberate, but they got the job done (and all of them had long sleeve jackets and trousers). Bonnie asked me if I would be able to carry a block of ice all the way up like that, and despite being a former elite level athlete and fitness competitor, I highly doubted it. They made the Himalayan mount everest Sherpas look like childs play.  After walking down from the mountain, I was tired AF and my quads were burning with lactic acid. At one point during the descent, a large crowd had gathered to watch an argument which seemed to potentially explode at any moment. Bonnie said that a lady accused some guy of picking her pocket. Not even Tay Ninh province, which was far from the bustling commotion of Sai Gon, was free from low life theft. Sad.

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We left with our scooters to go back to Bonnie’s parents house and have lunch. I was a bit sunburned from riding in the scooter and wearing only t-shirt, and I pointed to my red arm and told Bonnie’s mom: “Đen như Miên”.

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Lunch was a delicious mix of veggies, meat stew, rice, and the Vietnamese national holiday food called banh tet. It’s a rice based dish that is filled with beans and pork, and wrapped tight in a banana leaf and boiled for 8 hours. Lovely! Bonnie’s mom even gave me a huge banh tet to take back to Singapore to share with friends. I was also given some chameleon wine, packs of green tea, Vietnamese coffee, and home made sweets with tamarind and banana. I was so thankful and amazed by the hospitality and kindness that her family showed me.

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We caught a shuttle bus back to Sai gon, to have a relaxing evening with some seafood at ben thanh street market, before my early morning departure back to Singapore. It had really been an amazing trip full great memories, moments and unexpected delights that I’ll keep for the rest of my life. It left me wanting more of Vietnam, and it’s a place I’m definitely planning on coming back to visit!

 

Singapore: Summary and leaving thoughts..

Just had my final exam in a freezing gym court here in Singapore. It’s soon time for me to leave this country which has been my home for the past four months. I thought I’d write a little bit about my experience here – highlights of what I’ve done, haven’t done, what I’ll miss, and not miss. Let’s jump right into it!

What I’ll miss

There is a lot to love about SG. Here are the small everyday things I’ll miss the most.

  • NTU. I’ll miss my university. I have many good memories just walking around the beautiful campus in the sun, feeling happy, care free and with a smile on my face
  • Daily interactions with “uncle’s & aunties” in coffee shops and food stalls. I love to practice speaking mandarin with them.
  • Getting rudely chewed out by one auntie in koufu canteen when not pronouncing my order correctly 🙂
  • Listening to the smooth jazz & blues on 98.3 Money FM after hours
  • Taking the elevator down to my apartment complex gym
  • The idea of most other south east Asian countries are only a short plane trip away
  • Escalator etiquette. For the most part, people behave very civilized and know the proper way to stand in an escalator: To the side, so that there is room for non-lazy people like me to walk past them.
  • Taking walks in the Sunday sun to Boon Lay mall for some ice cream and movie after morning workout
  • The clean streets. I’ve seen only ONE single piece of trash on the street in 4 months
  • The HUGE amount of choices when it comes to everything. Food, shopping, entertainment, cool things to see and do, etc. It’s impossible to be bored in SG.
  • Transportation. It’s so easy and convenient to get anywhere. SG’s MRT and bus system is well developed.

What I won’t miss

No place is perfect. These are the very few things that bug me about Singapore.

  • The rampant phone addiction
  • People walk EXTREMELY slow, and have almost no situational awareness. Goes hand in hand with the phone addiction.
  • The singlish dialect. I’ve gotta be honest here, I don’t find it very flattering. The way they just crop the pronunciation of words really short. I think it sounds like a strange mix of Caribbean and South African English accent.
  • Sticky humid heat. I know, I know. How dare I complain about the sunny warm weather, right? I do love the sun, but like any well dressed man knows – it makes dressing well much more arduous.
  • My dorm room. It’s right next to 10 lanes of 24/7 trafficked highway. Not exactly perfect conditions to get a stress-free night of relaxed sleep.
  • The over-use of AC. Come on guys, do we really need to be freezing and shuttering indoors?

What I haven’t done

Believe it or not, there is stuff that I haven’t done that normal people do often. Here is a list of three average Joe activities that I haven’t done a single time in Singapore

  • Visited the beach
  • Gone out to a club
  • Drunk alcohol (except for Singapore sling and a small bottle of chameleon-infused wine)

What I’ve done

I haven’t been a sloth here, that’s for sure! During these four months I’ve been active and managed to do a ton of stuff on the side of studying full time. Here are the highlights!

Finished an online diploma as a certified men’s style consultant
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Did a DJ performance at a local music festival

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Finished an online certificate in Adobe Audition
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Been on Inglesia Ni Cristo Philippine church global TV show

 

Started an online course in voice recording
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Participated in a kimchi making workshop
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Visited the super trees
Definitely one of the top 10 coolest jaw dropping visual experiences of my life
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Stayed at the iconic hotel Marina Bay Sands

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Learned to tie a half-Windsor tie knot
I only knew 1 knot before, so now I at least have two to choose from.
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Been interviewed by a popular YouTube channel (smart local)
– Coming as soon as they put it up on their channel

 

Lost over 15 kg (33 lbs) while having close to 20 pints of Ben & Jerry’s (mission to try all the flavors I’ve never seen)
When I arrived in SG I weighed in at 92.4 kg and was in terrible shape. I managed to lose slightly over 15 kg (33 lbs) over the course of my four months here, which I’m very proud of. It’s the first time I’ve attempted to diet without any kind of way to track my calories or make my own food. I think the feat is even more impressive in the light of me having so much ice cream, several bags of chips, lots of krispy kreme donuts and cookies from twelve cupcakes. Not to mention, exploring the delicious SG food variety!
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Gettting a Korean haircut
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Tried Chinese pineapple tart

 

Had made an Asian style business suit at a tailor
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Visited a Hello Kitty restaurant
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Tested Singapore’s best cheesecake
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Tried the cheapest one Michelin star meal in the world
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Visited a two Michelin star restaurant for the first time
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Tried Japanese Cheesecake
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Tried the original Singapore Sling

 

Tried Youtiao, Doujiang and sesame ball
Youtiao is a fried bread stick which many Chinese like to have for breakfast, along side some doujiang (sweet soy milk drink). The sesame balls come with various fillings, and the one I tried had lotus seed paste. It tasted like a sweet mix of mashed potato and marzipan.

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What I haven’t done, but would have liked

I have a very good friend that was planning to visit me while here, and I saved a lot of great activities that I planned to do with him. Unfortunately, he bailed out of the trip even though we had planned it a long time. I was very disappointed in him, since he prioritized a lot of financial purchases instead of coming (which he could have done after the trip instead, and still afford). These are the things that I had planned to show him.

  • Super tree dining. They have a restaurant on top of the biggest super tree!  I though I’d take him there. How cool isn’t that!?
  • Nautical museum. SG has a famous nautical museum at a place called Sentosa. It’s like a huge resort for resorts.
  • Casino. I thought we could go to the Sentosa casino dressed up like high rollers and have some fun.
  • Universal studios. Yup, SG has that too. And I missed it! Thanks, Vlado..
  • Botanical gardens
  • Army museum

 

Singapore: A nation of slow walkers

I love Singapore. The country has a lot of good things going for it, and I have no regrets of coming here to study for 4 months and learn about the Singaporean culture. I could move here to live and work, for sure.

But in this post I’ll address what I personally find is a less than pleasant aspect of Singaporean behavior: people here walk EXCRUCIATINGLY slow.

For a fast walker like myself, it can be very frustrating to move around in public places like malls. You never get anywhere, because the paths are blocked by slow walkers, dragging their feet while completely lost in their phones with no situational awareness what so ever. It literally feels like being surrounded by zombies.

That’s another thing I think is or will become a problem for the country: the severe phone addiction.

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I’ve never understood people who walk slow. Just think about it, it makes no sense at all to walk slow. You are making a choice to waste your most valuable resource (time) and reach your destination slower.

I walk at about 6 km per hour, and the normal walking speed is perhaps around 4. Singapore probably averages around 2. Consider the consequences stretched out over a lifetime. Let’s do a simple calculation and see.

If a person walks 2 km per day, and lives 28 000 days, it will total a traveled distance of 56 000 km during the persons life. A person with the walking speed of 3 km per hour will spend 777 days of his life walking (a bit over 2 years). If a person instead walks with the speed of 6 km per hour, the time spent walking the same distance will 388 days (slightly more than 1 year). HALF the amount of time wasted compared to the slow walker, for the same distance walked!

Speaking of walking, here is a nice tune by Akshin Alizadeh that I like. It’s called walking down the street 🙂

Another very peculiar walking phenomenon I’ve noticed here has to do with Singaporean women. I can be walking down the street, and a woman might be walking toward me. Then, for no apparent reason, she changes to my side of lane so that I have to change to her previous side in order to avoid a collision.. It’s not some random one time occurrence – this happens more or less daily and often several times per day. I can’t find an explanation to it. Is it a subtle hint that I should initiate a conversation? That’s what I guessed first, but after paying close attention to if she tries to make or maintain eye contact, it clearly isn’t the case. I asked my Singaporean friend Sarah if she know what’s up with this? She said it never happened to her and she didn’t know.

If you know any possible explanation to this, please let me know because I’m very curious ha ha!

Singapore: first 2 weeks updated summary

After being here in this cool country for about two and a half weeks, I figured it would be cool to write a shorter summary of what it’s been like, what I’ve done and update my impressions.

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My first impressions with Singapore are very good! It’s apparent that they’ve successfully built a well functioning country and society. It’s clean, people have good manners, and I think there is a tangible feel of community, even though the nation consists of a very diverse collection of ethnicity and languages. The official language is English but every day I hear Mandarin, Bahasa (Indonesian), and a few others. The Singapore English (Singlish), sounds like a surprising mix of south African English and Jamaican English. I’m not making it up – it’s just how they pronounce certain words that give the dialect this cool sounding blend. Being a well experienced traveler and having lived in over 7 countries, I find that Singapore has built it’s country around cherry picking good traits and best practices from other successful, leading countries.

And I’ll definitely take back what I said in my previous post about the rain here only being a fine mist.. Since then, we have been “blessed” with a few monsoon-like rain and lightning attacks that have been pretty awesome (if you’re indoors).

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Interesting stuff I’ve noticed, and facts:

  • Singapore was awarded nr 1 in the category Best travel destination in Lonely planet 2015.
  • So far I’ve seen only ONE piece of trash on the ground (a lonely can)
  • Singapore started the worlds first formula 1 night race
  • So far I’ve seen only ONE mosquito
  • Stated to have worlds 2nd most efficient healthcare, according to Bloomberg
  • The government here seems to care a lot about health and well being. It’s the first place I’ve ever visited to have FREE PUBLIC GYMS spread out over the country.
  • So far I’ve only seen ONE fly
  • Stated to be 2nd safest city in the World (Economist 2015)
  • Was worlds largest indoor tunnel for skydiving
  • The public transportation system here is very good, and cheap. You can reach almost any place of the country conveniently by using the MRT and buses.

The skyline here is totally incredible. I’ve been to both Dubai and New York, and to be honest, the skyline in SG blows both those places out of the water. There are just too many freakishly cool architectural buildings here that other places can’t compare. I’m talking about Marina Bay Sands, the helix bridge, the museum, merlion, on an on. If you like architecture and buildings, this is a very good place to snap pics and marvel at innovative construction.

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Shopping here is excellent. I’d state it as better than Dubai, as SG has a wider range of pricing options to cater for everybody’s wallet – and more malls. This has to be the place on earth that has the most malls per area of land. It’s like every stop on the MRT has it’s own mall, and it’s not uncommon for 2-3-4 malls to join together by sky walks over the trafficked streets below. If you are looking for shopping – this is a GOOD destination. SG has everything from highly luxurious uber expensive malls with marble floors and walls, down to the “luggage market” – a kind of flea market set up close to the parliament building where immigrant workers such as house maids sell used clothes at very cheap prices out of their suitcases.

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Entrance to a mall

Food choices are good here too. There are restaurants from all over the world, at all price levels. All malls have food courts as well as restaurants, where you can find anything you want. I’m planning on trying a few top end exclusive Asian food restaurants here. The interior design of those places is absolutely stunning. Places like Imperial Treasure Super Beijing Duck Restaurant, Japanese Gourmet Town, Black Society Seafood Chinese DimSum, Chrystal Jade Golden Palace, to name a few. Gordon Ramsay also has an establishment here, and other top name chefs. If you prefer cheap but delicious street food, SG has PLENTY of options. Just visit any of the hawker stalls or food courts where you can find food from most Asian countries (and western options) for very low prices. Amazingly enough, there are even two hawker stalls here that have a michelin star each! How cool isn’t that.. The cheapest michelin meal in the world; 2$. I’m definitely gonna check that out.

The university courses started last week, and NTU has a system called the “add & drop” period where students panic frantically for about two weeks to try to get their optimal schedule and register the courses they want. Luckily enough, I got all my courses on day 1. I had been very strategic in planning my courses, and opting for those that had a lot of vacancies, no final exam, and no classes on Fridays. At the same time, all of the courses I got are about stuff I’m genuinely interested in, and will find useful in both my private life and future career. I managed to get a very good schedule, with class on Mondays to Wednesdays, which means that I have four days off per week! That gives me a lot of opportunity to take shorter trips to other Asian countries. And only one of my courses has a final exam!  The courses I got were:

  • Digital Marketing: Connecting with customers in today’s world
  • Creative Strategies
  • Advertising Creativity and Copywriting
  • Introduction to entrepreneurship

So as you see, I’ll be learning a lot of good skills that are highly applicable to almost any ambitious persons repertoire. In creative strategies and Advertising, the teacher is a really good German gentleman with 25+ years of running his own advertising boutique, with prestigious clients from the auto industry and more. The first day we had to cut the lesson a bit shorter, because he said that he had to attend a “f*ck-youlty meeting”. That immediately reminded me of a funny scene in Hellboy, where one of the actors says ‘focused’ with a German accent – and it sounds like he says ‘f*uck-used’ 🙂

So what have I actually been up to these last two and a half weeks? I’ve done a tone of stuff already. Time has really flown and it feels like I’ve been here for 6 months. Here a few thing I’ve been up to:

  • Visited most of the bigger malls
  • Visited Chinatown
  • Had measurements taken for an Asian style business suit by one of Singapore’s best tailors (post about that is coming)
  • Bought a cat mask and a panda mask
  • Participated in NTU’s Chinese new year event and concert
  • Secured two coming DJ performances. One at a culture night, and the other for student farewell party.
  • Tried lots of new exotic fruits and foods
  • Met my internet friend from 6 years for the first time
  • Took pictures of the gorgeous skyline
  • Tried three new Ben & Jerry’s flavours
  • Lost 4 kg’s
  • Tried two of the free gyms on campus
  • Continued making my weekly radio show
  • Made my first elevator pitch
  • Signed up for a hike
  • Signed up for a course on how to pickle veggies
  • Got myself a Korean haircut
  • Signed up for introduction to latin dance
  • Signed up for the NTU buddy system

The best thing though is that I still haven’t visited any local neighborhoods or any of the main city attractions, except for an evening walk to see the skyline. I’ve saved all the best stuff to explore during the spring! Singapore has a TON of cool stuff to do, like plant-animal-wildlife related, Sentosa island, universal studios, and on..

So far I haven’t had a single drop of alcohol or gone to a party. Don’t worry mom, I’m not becoming straight edge or muslim, it’s just not very high on my priority list at the moment. One of my absolutely favorite things to do is go to exclusive hotels and just look at the lobbies, restaurants, lounges and bars there for design inspiration. So that’s on my to do list as well. I’ve been quite busy just having fun, studying, getting involved in activities etc. Have so much stuff to write about! So keep your eyes open because material is coming.

Cheers!

Ben & Jerry’s bonanza

One of the best things about traveling to a new place is checking out the food in supermarkets and grocery stores. Discovering local brands and flavors you’ve never heard of or even considered! For a westerner coming to Singapore, the food scene delivers big time on this point.

This post is about a specific area of discovery, namely my mission to taste and review all the flavors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that Singapore has but that I can’t find at home. This is one thing I love about Ben & Jerry’s – their ability to experiment with delicious and unexpected combos. In my opinion, they blow all of the competitors completely out of the water.

Here in Singapore, Ben & Jerry’s even have an online delivery service! Just go online and choose your flavor. I don’t know what delivery costs though, but I’m guessing you’ve probably have to be pretty loaded, since one pint of B&J here in Singapore costs about 16$! Yes, I’m not joking. It’s insane..

So what are the candidates that I’ll hunt down during my 4 month stay here? Let’s line em’ up! Which one would you like to try?

Oat of This Swirled™

Buttery brown sugar ice cream with fudge flakes and oatmeal cinnamon cookie swirls

Click here for my review!

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Truffle Kerfuffle™

Vanilla Ice Cream with Roasted Pecans, Fudge Flakes & a Salted Chocolate Ganache Swirl

Click here for my review!

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Urban Bourbon™

Burnt Caramel Ice Cream with Almonds, Fudge Flakes & Bourbon Caramel Swirls

Click here for my review!

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Vanilla Caramel Fudge

Vanilla Ice Cream with Swirls of Caramel & Fudge

Click here for my review!

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Boom Chocolatta ™

Mocha & Caramel Ice Creams with Chocolate Cookies, Fudge Flakes & a Chocolate Cookie Core

Click here for my review!

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Brownie Batter Core

Chocolate & Vanilla Ice Creams with Fudge Brownies & a Brownie Batter Core

Click here for my review!

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Chocolate Therapy®

Chocolate ice cream with chocolate cookies & swirls of chocolate pudding ice cream

Click here for my review!

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Cookies & Cream Cheesecake Core

Chocolate & Cheesecake Ice Creams with Chocolate Cookies & a Cheesecake Core

Click here for my review!

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Red Velvet Cake

Click here for my review!

Red Velvet Cake Batter Ice Cream with Red Velvet Cake Pieces & a Cream Cheese Frosting Swirl

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Everything But The…

A Collision of Chocolate & Vanilla Ice Creams mixed with Peanut Butter Cups, HEATH® Bar Chunks, White Chocolatey Chunks, & Fudge-Covered Almonds

Click here for my review!

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Caramel Cheesecake

Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolatey Covered Waffle Cone Pieces and a Caramel Swirl

Click here for my review!

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Cotton  Candy

Click here for my review!

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Keep caramel and cookie on

Caramel Malt Ice Cream with Shortbread Cookies, Fudge Flakes & Caramel Swirls

click here for my review!

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Singapore – first impressions

Finally arrived in Singapore! This will be my home for the coming 4 months as I study here to work on my masters.

* Fastest immigration checkpoint ever. The officer even said thank you in Swedish. Never happened before.

* Changi airport, which has been voted worlds best airport multiple times even had a luxury Hello Kitty bakery & cafe!

* Classy smooth relaxing jazz background music in the airport and lots of plants, waterfalls and almost parks. Like it!

Felt so good to check into a hotel when I arrived. It was too late to go to the university to pick up the keys to my dorm room, so an airport hotel was the best option. The 8 hour flight from Doha to Singapore took an unpleasant turn when a family with the olympic gold medal in bad parenting was assigned to the seats next to mine. They gladly put their kids on auto-scream for the entire trip (and did noting about it) – to the dismay of several other passengers. Fortunately I was allowed to move to a seat farther away, but even earplugs + headphones couldn’t save my ears completely.

 

The first thing I noticed about Singapore was the temperature and weather. I arrived in the first half of January and this time of the year normally has a lot of rain. It’s not the kind of rain I’m used to though. In Sweden, if it rains, you get WET. There is no escaping it. The Singaporean rain is more like a fine mist – you see that it’s raining, the puddles are showing rings from rain drops, but you kind of don’t feel the rain drops on your skin or get wet. Maybe it’s because the air is more humid here and it makes your skin slightly wet all the time. Dunno. During February and forward, I’m told that the weather will become increasingly warm and sunny. Looking forward to that! I didn’t change -25 and snow for some humid misty rain..

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I woke up at 05.00 am and was determined to get to the university by using the allegedly very good public transportation system. It turned out to be very easy, although it did require about an hour on the MRT, as NTU is on the opposite side of country when coming from the airport.

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Singapore has indeed a very good public transportation system. The MRT takes you to almost every part of the city and there are several lines. It’s frequent, very cheap, and easy to understand how to use. The green line took me almost all way there. I did have to take a bus the last 5 minutes to actually get into the campus area, but I ran into some trouble. A lot of other students and staff were also waiting for the bus and it was a huge queue. With my two heavy bags, misty rain in in the air and time ticking until my first briefing, I figured it would be better to grab a quick cab so I went to the taxi area outside the MRT station. I was quickly approached by a pair of friendly Asian students who saw that I was new to the country. They offered to give me a ride in their car, even though they themselves were late! That’s really kind. Thanks to them I got to my briefing on time.

My dorm room lies on the 5th floor of one of the Pioneer hall buildings. The complex has an auditorium, food court, recreational rooms, study rooms, basketball courts, vending machines and lots of other exciting stuff. The complex is built around a river and has lots of green plants, trees, bridges and cozy hexagon shaped seating areas with roof. It even has a small gym that’s open 07:00-24:00! That’s definitely something I’ll check out. If I can get by for 4 months with the basic necessities without having to purchase a gym membership here, it’s a big plus and I’ll be able to travel more on my spare time.

This is what my room looks like:

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It’s smaller than I expected but has the necessities and it’s clean. I have the option of paying for air conditioning, but the ceiling fan has done a good job so far. Maybe when it get’s warmer, I’ll use the AC.

The drawbacks to my room are a few.

  1. It’s located right next to a bigger trafficked road and the sound of traffic 24/7 is loud.
  2. Shared shower and WC with the other people in my corridor
  3. No access to kitchen. My meal planning went up in smoke 😦

I brought food containers to store home cooked meals, as I was planning on staying in good shape and saving some $ by making my own meals. I was told Singapore was expensive when it comes to living costs. But now it looks like I’ll be eating out for all of my meals. That obviously makes dieting so much harder since you don’t really know how many calories you are taking in per day. I’m a bit bummed over not having the access of a kitchen, but on the other hand, I’m also very excited to be “forced” to eat out and try so many restaurants and foods! After all, NTU campus has about TWENTY different food courts. Crazy! Or, Siao, as it’s called in Singlish.

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There is a work around for the meal planning though, and that entails eating at chain restaurants, like subway. Most chain restaurants have all their meals nutritionally calculated in some PDF that you can download from their website. It’s less fun than trying local alternatives but if I wanted to be really anal about my food intake, that’s how I could do it. I checked out subways nutritional charts and by choosing any 12 foot sandwich sub, the caloric total would still be less than 1000 kcal. That means that I could have a 12 footer for both lunch and dinner and still be on a large deficit ant loose body fat. Subway also has a venue at the NTU campus so that’s a possible go-to place for days where I just want to get lunch done easily and continue studying.

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After quickly dropping my bags of in the room, I headed to one of many bus stops of the campus, where shuttle buses take students around to the different parts of NTU. The campus has a system of buses going clockwise and anti-clockwise to take students for free around the huge campus area.

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I made it just in time for 11:00 briefing for exchange students at one of the faculties where I plan to take a few courses. We were given a guided tour, and served a free delicious lunch buffet with a mix of Asian dishes. After that, we headed to the North Spine plaza to attend the big official briefing for all 900+ exchange students. NTU gave us lots information about various aspects of the country and school. A few fun facts were presented:

  • Certain crimes are punishable by CANE!
  • Narcotics crimes are punishable by DEATH!
  • It’s illegal to engage in any “nuclear activities”…

Damn, I was hoping to split a few atoms in my dorm. NTU had guest speakers from insurance companies, police force, hospitals, etc. They made sure we were taken care of and have a good basic understanding of the culture and country. I found it interesting to learn that the Singapore police have a very vigilant anti-terror system going. Citizens are trained to learn CPR and first aid and there is an app called SG Secure that you can download to report suspicious stuff and receive government info in case of emergencies. They showed us a short film about uncovering a plot that 4 Indonesian terrorists had to blow up Marina bay sands with rocket launcher.

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Marina bay sands

One thing I found about Singapore is that they like to come up with short “slogans” for stuff so that it’s easy to remember, for example STARS, GEM, OGEM, etc. The info material from NTU is full of these shorthand block letters for various aspects of school programs and government stuff. This is very USA-inspired, from my experience.

My first experience of the Singaporean people was very good. Everybody is polite, well mannered and very helpful. The country is clean and I still haven’t seen any graffiti at all what so ever.

Well, there you have it. My first impressions!

Dubai day 6

In the morning we decided to try the waffles and pancakes station at the hotel breakfast buffet.

We went back to the huge mall of Dubai for more shopping. Vladimir got a new pair of business shoes, a leather jacket and more clothes. Food wise we felt like trying something new, so we headed for a Persian restaurant called PARS.


Dessert at cheesecake factory for fifth time. I tried to have 2 pieces (DON’T do it..)

Monaco and Vegas have nothing on the amount of fat cars here. Any given time you exit a mall you are bound to see a ton of exclusive rides. When we left the mall we saw an Audi R8, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Mercedes g-wagon, Bentley, Rolls Royce all within a 50 m radius.

On our way home we spoke to the cab driver like always. He turned out to be a completely insane Persian man. Filmed him teaching us some Farsi (highlight movie will be off the hook)!
We got ourselves suited up and decided to visit club Vanity and enjoy hiphop & RnB music from DJ stylez.

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I had a white suit and Vladimir Vojinovic a grey. He also wore a zorro-mask that got a lot of attention! Here are a fex pics from the club

 

Dubai day 5

We started the day by visiting the breath taking view of Burj Khalifa, the worlds tallest building 828 m high. They had a guy who’s job was to rotate a revolving door by hand.. Can’t think of a more boring job! A lot of tourists at the top. Another Indian guy with a mustache wanted a picture with me. Starting to believe that I might look like an Indian celebrity?


After Khalifa, we went for more shopping. Vladimir Vojinovic bought a blue suit and two cowboy hats, I bought a funny disguise (that will still remain a secret), and a gift for a friend back home. Of course we had dinner + desset at cheesecake factory for 4th time! We got a lot of attention whipping out our masks and the “you should be here”-sign. At the table next to us were a few Philippinos with a selfie-stick. First time I’ve seen that! A lot of people from the Philippines work in Dubai. I understand why, they speak good English and are very service minded.


We headed to Neo’s sky bar on 63:rd floor. On the way there, a taxi driver told us he shares one room with 8 guys and works 12 hour shifts 7days a week. The employer follows his car by gps and if it is still for more than 1 hour they call and press him to drive and find customers. No salary but 35% commission.

 

I enjoyed a glass Hennessy cognac and Vladimir had a mojito. We took picture with a shady ‘businessman’ from Syria, and got some great secret tips about dubai from the serbian bartender!