The Wedding.

I am in India primarily because of the wedding nuptials of my friend D. She was born in Kerala, and her family moved to Chennai when she was older. This was also why I chose to visit Kerala.

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Wedding traditions, even the Chinese ones, are quite confusing to me. Unlike the Chinese wedding traditions, Indian wedding traditions have not been simplified; what I saw at the wedding was exactly how it happened for D’s mother and her grandmother before that.

There’s something beautiful about that. But I was confused half the time during the weekend.

D’s wedding nuptials (2 days) were really short compared to the ones I have heard about in North India (they can last up to 7 days!).

On the evening before the wedding, the engagement party was held. At this event, the couple (supposedly) meets for the first time. The bride-to-be spends some time acting coy.

However, this couple met in May 2014. D was still rather coy at this event. Or maybe she was uncomfortable – she has always been a t-shirt and shorts kinda person.

The bride and groom takes turns to be blessed by their friends and families at the engagement party.

Here’s a picture of me taking a shot at it.
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D was patiently guiding me through the whole thing. HAHA.

The process involved tumeric, powdered red tumeric(?), fresh flowers and some red water. I had to put the powders on D, sprinkle some flower petals on her and move a platter of red water in a circular motion in front of her.

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At the engagement party.

The next day, I had to wake up very early to prepare for the actual wedding ceremony.

D woke up even earlier to put on her numerous garlands and rich red sari. Look at her looking tired.

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What’s at the back of her head.

The ceremony was too long for me to fully understand, but there were some parts I liked very much.

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The groom doing a runaway groom thing. 4 times! He was stopped in time by D’s married elder brother. The former was given silver toe rings.

Apparently, the groom is supposed to have cold feet before the wedding and tries to run away in order to pursue a life in monkhood. The father/elder brother is supposed to stop him and convince him that marrying his daughter/sister is a more profitable/rewarding thing to do than becoming a saint.

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The colour! The sights! The sounds! And the fact that everything was happening at the same time.

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The couple receiving their guests. They did this for the next 4 hours.

Guests tied gold chains and rupee notes to D’s head. The groom was left untouched.

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My wedding attire, kindly sponsored by D’s mum.

Meals were provided for all attendees to the wedding, and people were allowed to drift in and out of the hall to get food. There are no rules, no decorum. Just do whatever you like.

Food was super good at this wedding. I stuffed myself silly and skipped a meal after the wedding ceremony.

I skipped off in the afternoon for a henna session as I had missed the pre-wedding bridal henna party.

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100 INR for both hands at the T Nagar Park in Chennai. There are about 10 guys who will yell to get your attention as you walk past them. The initial offer was 100 INR for a single hand. Haggle.

In the evening, there was a dinner reception. Again, this is a super grand event.

A throne was set up on the stage of the hall.

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Kids were tumbling all over it while the couple was getting ready.

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D in all her evening finery, posing for the official photographer.

Again, the couple and their families stand to receive their guests for hours. Their guests eat themselves silly at the reception. The receptions in Chennai are paid for by D’s family. The couple will have to repeat this in the groom’s home city, and the receptions are paid for by the groom’s family.

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2 floors of food!

No food for the couple and their families, and an absolute feast was going on.

On a random note, I noticed that handles to doors in Chennai are not even with each other:
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How unusual!

I was joined by Ivan at this point of my travels in India. For 6 days, his presence helped me to avoid a lot of potentially dangerous and/or strange encounters with the local men. Men in Kerala are more respectful towards women compared to the men in Tamilnadu.

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Kottayam, and away to Chennai!

Kottayam in Kerala was my next stop. I was there to catch my night sleeper train to Chennai.

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Nevertheless, I tried to make good use of my time there by walking around on foot. It is a hot and dusty town, and I bought a cake of laundry soap which would serve me well for my stay in India.

This city is full of Orthodox churches.

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The cathedral that Pope John Paul II visited.

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I also went to the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary. To reach there, take a public bus from Baker’s Junction towards Kumarakom. The bus destinations are written in Malayalam at the top of the bus, so you will have to ask the locals to direct you to the correct bus. The public bus cost 13 INR.

The sign for the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary is hidden behind this sign:

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Behind the big sign for the (overpriced) resort, you will see this:

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Seriously.

When I was there, it was a week before the nesting period for the birds. I did not see many birds.

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2 random purple herons. (if you can spot them)

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Dragonflies.

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Motorised houseboat seen on the river beside the bird sanctuary.

Nevertheless, it was a nice morning walk.

I also went for an ayurvedic massage after the walk. Forget the overpriced resorts offering ayurvedic massages. Ask the locals at Kumarakom and they will point you towards an ayurveda massage centre located 10 minutes on foot from the bird sanctuary.

(I will update with details in a bit)

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The bus stand going towards Kottayam.

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The hectic bus station at Kottayam.

I then took an auto to the train station to catch my overnight sleeper towards Chennai.

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The train station at Kottayam.

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An advertisement in the train station.

I bought a lower side sleeper in the 2nd class AC car from the travel agency in Mustafa Centre in Singapore. (For your Indian travel needs, please go to Mustafa. The other agencies are sort of rubbish.)

To explain a bit, there are two kinds of sleepers in the 2nd class AC cars. There are the regular cabins with 4 beds, and the side sleepers. The lower side sleepers are seats for 2 people in the day, and can be converted to a single bed during the night. These side sleepers are located sideways on the aisle of the train cars.

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My lower side sleeper looks like this.

After scratching my head and examining the orange levers (no instructions or help were given!) for a few minutes, I managed to turn it into a sleeper.

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TADAH!

The trip was uneventful, except for the random crying kid and the passengers who got on the train at the station after ours. An elderly Indian lady got quite lost and got into someone else’s cabin. She insisted that she belonged to the cabin. It turned out that her cabin was in the next car.
Whole Indian families travel in this class together. If you cannot stand kids, please opt for 1st class AC.

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Chennai train station.

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And so, I arrived in Chennai.
Things in Tamilnadu are a lot more complicated than in Kerala.

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Drifting on the Kerala Backwaters

One of the key things to do while in Kerala is to go on a houseboat cruise down the backwaters.

So, I did another splurge and went for a 24-hour stay on a houseboat. I had doubts with the regular motor boat cruises on the Vembanad Lake due to the following reasons:

      It is not eco-friendly.
      It is going to be on Vembanad Lake with the other motor boats and I did not want to crowd with the other tourists.
      Finally, 9000 INR for a night’s stay? Hmmm.

My hostel recommended the usual motorboat for 8000 INR. I decided to shop around for better deals.

And I found it at the travel counter of Elite Hotel in Fort Kochi.
Initially, I was reluctant to take it up – it was more affordable compared to the motor boat cruises. So I was suspicious of being scammed. However, there was something about him that felt trustworthy, and he was not pushy. Plus, he’s Catholic. (Sorry, I am biased) Look for Augustine at the Elite Hotel travel counter.

The official backwater cruise company’s website (Breeze Homes) offered the same cruise at 6000 INR for 2 people. The initial price offered by Augustine was 5500 INR, plus taxi to the cruise start point (includes 700 INR for the car ride to the cruise start location). Since I am only one person, I managed to haggle the price down to 5300 INR.

Do note that this cruise starts from Cherthela and not Alleppey. Cherthela is a small village located about an hour’s bus ride from Alleppey. This cruise company is owned by Sreejith, a local who stays in Cherthela. This is his backyard.

Read reviews of Breeze Homes here.

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I was the only person on the boat. There were 3 other people on the boat with me: the steerman, the cook and the row man. They speak very little English, and we communicated through hand signals.

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The steerman at work – this is very hard work. I can see his muscles bulge with every movement of the boat.

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This place is ridiculously tranquil and peaceful. I saw a maximum of 3 other tourist boats.

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The place where I ate, read and lazed around.

The village of Cherthela is located along a small river. In some months, the water of the river is seawater. In other months, the water changes to freshwater. This is due to the different water levels of the Vembanad Lake (freshwater) and the seawater. The river will take the water of the water body that has a higher water level.

I had 3 meals on the boat. At the point of booking, Augustine asked me what kind of meals I would like. I chose fish and vegetables.

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Lunch – a traditional Kerala spread. I did not finish the food.

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Dinner – another meal typical in Kerala. Again, I was unable to finish the food.

The boat cruise lasts for a day. In the evening, the boat will dock in Cherthela. There was a canoe ride in the evening.

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I slept on the boat, and checked out at 9am the next morning.
I would recommend this over the regular motorboat as this is eco-friendly and supports the locals who live around the backwaters.

Price of overnight stay (booked with Elite Hotel): 4600 INR, excluding car ride to Cherthela
Amount of food consumed: Too much
Some swimming was done. Please ask the crew. Although: I encountered some difficulty while trying to haul myself back on the boat from the sea. Ab muscles are required for this stunt. All 3 crew members had to haul me back up like some whale.

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Lazing it up in Fort Kochi, and a strike.

Indian food in Singapore will never taste the same for me again. Coming to South India has opened my taste buds to Indian food made in the manner that it should have been made.

Except for the highly suspicious prepaid taxi driver on the first day of my stay in India, nothing bad has happened to me so far.
A word of caution: decent male taxi drivers will not ask females to sit in the front with them, nor will they leave the passenger waiting in the car for five minutes while they stop by the roadside stall for some tea. They will also not propose to bring the solo female traveller to another hotel.

I arrived in Fort Kochi at midnight on 26 January 2015. A friend’s wedding was to happen in a week’s time and I decided to explore the state where she was born: Kerala.

Fort Kochi is a place where one can ease into the Indian culture and society gently. It is a place used to seeing tourists and one can find good western food as well as Indian food in the beach town.

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If you start the day early, you can probably visit all the attractions within one day and move on. I spent 2 days there because of a transportation strike – which meant that I could not go to another town. Nevertheless, I spent the extra day taking pictures of the artwork on the walls.

Strangely enough, Kerala has many pro-communist messages on the wall. Maybe it’s not so strange – most of the inhabitants in Kerala are poor but highly educated.

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A comment by the locals on fast food?

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Inside the St. Francis Church in Fort Kochi

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The Santa Cruz Basilica.

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The Synagogue in the Jew Quarters – a must go. This place has the history of the Jews in India on the walls.

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The Saigon City Tour.

I wish I had more time in Saigon. But I didn’t. So, I took a city tour of Saigon. City tours are probably the fastest way to see the notable sights in the city.

The tour guide who came to get me the next day was a war veteran who fought on the side of the Americans. He is a slight, dark man with sunglasses. He is half Filipino, half Vietnamese and about 65 years of age. He hates doing the city tour. His favourite tour to do is the Cu Chi Tunnels because he had war experiences there.

The War Remnants Museum

Mr Tour Guide hated this museum because he felt it only told the Vietnamese side of the story.

“Nobody won the Vietnam war. Everybody lost the war. So many Vietnamese suffered because of the war.”

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You can spy Mr Tour Guide in the lower left corner of the picture, in brown.

Mr Tour Guide gave us only an hour and a half to get through the three floors of exhibits. Hardly enough. He suggests that we start at the top, then move downwards.

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Three floors. MOVE IT!

He was right – the third floor was the most interesting. This floor had three exhibits: one honouring the photojournalists who worked to document the war (there was even one from Singapore!!), another one depicting the effects of Agent Orange and the last one about the weapons used during the war.

I practically ran through the exhibits on the ground floor.

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Weapons used during the war.

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Small text at the bottom reads: Propaganda of the Indian Communist Party published in Calcutta, supporting Vietnam against the U.S. aggression.

Thiên Hậu Temple

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Exhibit A: It was hot, and I woke up late with no breakfast (so, I haven’t eaten anything since the night before). I was starving at this point in time.

So obviously – My ancestors are from South China and I have already seen many of these temples around Asia. So this sight is not as rare to me as the visitors from the west might find this temple.

This temple is dedicated to Ma Zu, who is the goddess who watches over the lives of seafaring people. She is very relevant to the South Chinese as they depend a lot on the sea to make a living. She is also known as 天后, which means the Queen of the Heavens.

Still, the carvings in the temples are worth the visit. Especially if you are going to pop by the nearby Ben Thanh Market.

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A depiction of one of Li Bai’s poems.

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Probably carved from a single tree trunk. Such delicate work is rare these days.

Ben Thanh Market

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If you are not here to buy food, bugger off somewhere else. Food items are priced reasonably here (you will still need to bargain a little). Clothes are not the cheapest here.

This is a good place to wander around and enjoy the market scene. If you are here to buy coffee, it pays to wander a bit away from the market and into some of those shops near the market. I bought 300g of local coffee for 24,000 VND from a middle-aged Vietnamese man who spoke Cantonese. I also bought some flower tea in the market – 12 flowers for about 150,000 VND, after some bargaining.

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For clothes and accessories, seek Saigon Square instead.

Here’s an example how reasonable the prices are at Saigon Square:

I bought a pair of pants in Hoi An. (See Exhibit A: Photo of me standing in front of Chinese temple, above) Those pants. They cost me 90,000 VND (about SGD$5.65) in Hoi An. These are size 4, so they cost a bit more – more material! They have pockets.

I saw a pair of similar pants at one stall in Ben Thanh market, but without pockets. The guy quoted me 250,000 VND. I laughed in his face, and told him I bought my pants for 90,000 VND. He immediately lowered his price to 100,000 VND. That, I believe, was the local price. But I was looking for a pair with pockets. So I walked on.

I came upon another stall selling those pants, this time with pockets. I tried to bargain it down to 100,000 VND, but the shopkeeper lady was adamant – she said 100,000 VND was her purchase price. Thus, I bought a pair of pants at 120,000 VND.

Later in the evening, I stumbled on Saigon Square. Something in me told me to go in.

I went to the second floor, and I saw a stall selling these pants by the truckloads. There were some Caucasian kids in there trying to haggle down the price of 90,000 VND for a pair. (Come on, guys!)

Without even bargaining, her price was 100,000 VND for size 4 pants. I knew that was the base price, so I bought another two pairs of pants.

These are officially my favourite pair of pants to travel in when in hot countries. They have pockets, are lightweight and suitable for conservative Asian countries. ♥ Packing just became easier.

Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception and The Central Post Office

These came at the end of the tour, and they are next to each other.

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The Vietnamese were having their rosary session in Vietnamese when we entered. It was about 4.15pm. I understood that much as it sounded like us saying the rosary in English.

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Two inscriptions – in Chinese characters(?) and Latin – stating the year – 1880 – that the church was built.

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The interior of the Central Post Office was a sight to behold.

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So Victorian. ♥

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Booths for people to make long-distance calls. I believe these are still in use today.

There are many tourists in the place, but this building is still actively used by the locals. I keep contrasting this place with our own General Post Office in Singapore. Oh well.

And with this, the city tour ended.

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My trip ended with the screaming fans of T-ara at the airport. I seriously couldn’t care less, but I was amused by their enthusiasm nonetheless.

N.B: If you are looking for a place in District 1 to change your money to VND, my hostel recommended a goldsmith shop named Kim Mai – click the link for address (with accent marks!) and phone number.

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I obtained a rate of 16,120,000 VND to 100 SGD in this shop. This rate was quite similar to the rate online.

Cost of tour: USD$10
Duration of tour: 8.30am to 4.30pm – I have filtered out the not-so-interesting places from this post.
Places I visited in this tour:

      War Remnant Museum
      Chinatown, Thien Hau Temple
      Ben Thanh Market
      Handicraft Workshop – manned by the disabled. However, things are VERY expensive there.
      Reunification Palace – YAWN
      the Basilica/The Cathedral
      The Central Post Office
      City Hall – I don’t have an impression of it at all.

Next stop: Kerala! In fact, I am on the plane to Kerala right now. This post was written in advance.

(My mum has resigned herself to the fact that I will be backpacking India solo. For 6 days only!)

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The Bus and the Taxi Stand Lady.

I am not going to do this city justice. I only had 2 half days and 1 full day in Ho Chi Minh City Saigon.

I arrived at the domestic terminal of the airport in Saigon late in the afternoon, and found my purse very thin – I only had 160,000 VND. It costs 200,000 VND to get from the airport to the centre of the city – this is foreigner price, by the way. The woman manning the taxi stand did not accept USD, and she told me (in quite a rude manner, really) to go find a money changer’s.

I paused. The airport at Hanoi had a public bus running from the airport into the centre of town. So, I whipped at my phone (getting that SIM card with data access was the best decision ever) and did a search on the internet.

And. I was right.

“The cheapest way is to take public city Bus # 152 parking in a lane few steps away on the right side from the Arrival’s entrance.

It takes you downtown to the Bus Station on the opposite side of the traffic round about from Ben Thanh market, at a cost of 6,000 dong + 6,000 dong if your luggage weighs 10kg or beyond. It runs every 20 minutes from 6 am until 6 pm.”

Link to full article here

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Bus #152. Picture taken from xotours Vietnam

The bus has a big sign with “152” painted on the side facing the terminal. I showed the address of the hostel to the bus driver. He nodded and said, “Near near.” I took the bus to District 1, but paid only 10,000 VND in total for my backpack (about 12kg) and person. He made sure I got off at the correct stop. When it was my time to get off, he caught my eye in the rearview mirror, nodded and gestured straight and left with his hand.

Asian privileges. *grin*
And… Take that, rude taxi stand woman!

It took me a bit of time to get to my hostel – the Saigon Backpackers (very nice and clean, but the stairs can be quite killer) because I got lost. I do that from time to time. The streets in Hanoi are more organised. In contrast, Saigon had streets running at a 15-degree angle from each other. Often, I would stand frowning at Google Maps on my phone and the streets because I did not know how to navigate the streets.

Note to self: Please get data on your phone if you can.

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Fresh Beer!

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Am I in Heathrow?

In order to save time, I took a bus from Hoi An to the airport in Da Nang. I was blown away by how much it looked like Heathrow in the United Kingdom.

I bought an air ticket which would bring me from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City (seriously, it’s easier to type “Saigon”. Is it politically incorrect to type “Saigon”?) for about USD$47. This journey took about one and a half hour. The same journey by land would take 22 hours and will cost around the same amount. I am not going to spend a whole day on the bus or the train.

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I took the domestic budget airline: VietJet Air. Check out the air stewardesses’ uniform. I love those shoes but the shorts… well… All of the air stewardesses on my flight looked like pretty Korean girls.
Picture above taken from Vietnam Online.

I checked in and got past customs, and I saw this sign waving at me from a distance in the departure hall:

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FRESH BEEEEEEER!

I made a beeline to the counter, and even took a picture of it because… damn… I missed my draft beer so much. Draft beer just tastes better.

When I got there… I realised… to my great disappointment… that they had draft beer, yes. But it was Tiger on tap. I remember being VERY VERY upset.

I dislike Tiger so much that between Tiger on tap and some other beer in a bottle, I would take the bottle. Tiger makes me burp so much.

You see, I am actually quite picky about my alcohol – if it is going to be bad for my body, I should choose to drink alcohol that I actually enjoy. If wine is available, I would pick wine. Then beer. Then hard liquor. In that order. The local wine in Vietnam (from Da’lat – be warned) was awful, so I went for beer.

Beer is very cheap in Vietnam – one bottle of Bia Hanoi/Bia Saigon/Biere Larue (depending if you were in the North, the South or Central Vietnam) cost about 20,000 VND (or USD$1).

Needless to say, I drank like a sailor (my late grandfather was a sailor, so I guess that justifies…?) while I was in Vietnam. I drank at least a bottle of beer everyday.

The local beers are light, fizzy and wheat-tasting beer (they are all bottled lagers) but they are not… DRAFT BEER.

If Bia Saigon and Bia Hanoi are made locally in Vietnam, where in Vietnam are these beers served on tap?

Vietnam, you need to sell your own beer on tap at your airport.
This Singaporean came to your country to drink your local beer, not to drink Singapore’s beer at your airport.

#rantover

P.S: My VietJet Air flight was delayed by two hours because of bad weather. Do schedule a bit of buffer time when flying domestic in Vietnam.

P.P.S: The exterior of the airport in Da Nang looks like Singapore’s Changi Airport. Serious.

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