A Travellerspoint blog

November 2011

Embassies

Security or No Security

I don't think I have ever been to an embassy before yesterday. I know I've seen them in Washington DC, but I don't think I've ever been inside one. The only memory I have of an embassy is from Budapest, Hungary, when my parents and I saw the US Embassy and tried taking a picture. Apparently you aren't supposed to do that, as we were quickly told to put the camera away and keep moving. We watched cars get searched with mirrors underneath for explosives, and there were elaborate gates with those spiky things to pop tires if you go the wrong way, and of course there was armed security everywhere.

When I was in Cambodia, I was told the US Embassy was the most expensive building in the entire city, which doesn't surprise me. Apparently when James and Leah fist moved in they were invited for things like a 4th of July picnic every year, but slowly those events stopped happening. Today, an American citizen cannot enter Embassy grounds unless they have made an appointment 2 days in advance. That seems crazy to me, as I always thought one reason embassies are there is for emergencies, as a safe-haven for American citizens should anything occur while traveling.

But what I didn't realize is that US Embassies seem to be the only ones changing all their rules. Yesterday I spent the morning at the Vietnam Embassy. Considering Vietnam is a communist country, I always figured they would have a tough security process to get into the embassy, not to mention get a meeting for a visa application. But I was completely wrong.

We wandered around a neighborhood trying to find the Vietnam Embassy, through what looked like million dollar homes each with fountains in front and gates around the property. When we reached the address, the only thing different about the Embassy and the other homes was that a Vietnam flag was flying out front. The gate was open, there were zero guards, and people were coming and going as they pleased. We thought the second we tried going inside we would be stopped, but we didn't see anyone who looked like they worked there, so we wandered in.

There was a nice lounge area, with a few chairs, but no receptionist and still no security. There was a really nice staircase going upstairs, but a small sign printed on a regular sheet of paper taped to the railing said "Staff Only", and still no guards. There was a door to what looked like offices, with some people working who didn't seem to mind us wandering and looking lost. And there was one room that said "Visa's Here", once again printed on a regular sheet of paper taped to the door.

We filled out the form, found 2 employees taking applications, collecting passports, and accepting the fees, and we were done the entire process in under 10 mins. We never saw security guards or cameras, we were never stopped from wandering around on our own, and we were never searched for explosives or weapons or anything as I imagine would be done at the US Embassy.

It seemed very weird to me that a country like Vietnam, a communist country that has barely opened its doors to the world in the last 20 years, would allow anyone to walk in and look around the embassy without ever being approached by an employee. And a country like the US, who historically has been open to freedom since its birth, wouldn't even allow it's own citizens inside the gates (not to mention the actual embassy) without a prior appointment. Seems a bit backwards, don't you think?

Posted by Cassi 17:24 Archived in Singapore

Done with ME3112!

Until Exams Start...

I would like everyone to know that I am Officially done with ME3112... until the exam on November 28th. Today was the last day of class for Mechanics of Machines, a class that has had zero exams thus far, and the final consists of 80% of the overall grade! The only work that class has assigned was 2 lab reports, each 10% of my final grade. No homework, no attendance and no projects make studying for finals a little bit more stressful.. but being done class on November 3rd feels amazing!

Posted by Cassi 17:00 Archived in Singapore

Tour of Campus

NUS Kent Ridge Campus

This is my last week of school before exams, crazy as it sounds I am almost done my time here! And looking back through my posts I realized I haven't showed campus much besides my hall. So in the next few days I will be putting up posts from different areas around campus. As a note, it is hard to capture campus in a few pictures, my parents can testify how absurdly huge it is, with each of the faculties being about the size of Clarkson. To start off, here is a Campus Map from the webpage:

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I live in the very bottom left corner, right underneath the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. I put a yellow and red star right over my building. All those little purple buildings are part of my dorm complex, and Temasek, the Hall next to mine.

Looking at the map you might be wondering, why is the whole middle area free of buildings? Well there is a mountain right in the middle of campus (it is more of a hill than a mountain, but by "Singapore Standards", it is a mountain).

Posted by Cassi 14:28 Archived in Singapore

Tour: FASS

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

I am going to start this tour of campus right across from my dorm and up the hill, at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (Lower Left Corner of the Map).

This is where I have GE2226, my Southeast Asian Studies class. FASS is comprised of 9 Buildings and has a cafeteria named The Deck, which has all types of food including Italian and Burger King, along with every type of Asian you can imagine. Note that in the following pictures, every building you can see (including the ones in the distance) are part of FASS.

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Posted by Cassi 16:41 Archived in Singapore

Tour: Central Library

How many libraries do we have?

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Central library is the next stop up the road from FASS, and it is the largest library on campus. Although each faculty has their own library, I can't imagine why that is needed with the size of Central Library.

It is 6 stories tall, and has everything you could possibly need in a library: silent study areas blocked off with glass doors, areas for group meetings, hundreds of computers, areas specifically for printing/copying/scanning, and mile and miles of books.

The library uses the same cards as the MRT and Bus system for printing. You can fill your EZ Link cards at the library, and use them throughout the city. This system is amazing, and can even be used to pay off fines for turning in books late. While at NUS I decided not to buy any text books because I won't be able to bring them home with me at the end of the semester. Instead, I have been checking out textbooks before exams and anytime homework is due, so being able to use my EZ Link card has made this process very easy. This beats Clarkson's library by like 100x....

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Posted by Cassi 20:25 Archived in Singapore

Tour: SDE

School of Design and Environment

Next on the tour we cross the road from Central Library and end up at the School for Design and Environment. I think this faculty has the prettiest campus, filled with trees and brick walkways. It is located between my Hall and Engineering, so I get to walk through it on the days I walk to class and don't catch the bus.

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Posted by Cassi 18:18 Archived in Singapore

Tour: Engineering

Yes, Engineering is bigger than the Clarkson Campus...

Just above SDE on the Map is the Faculty of Engineering, where I spend all my time. The engineering section of campus is larger than the entire Clarkson campus, and I can't count the number of buildings that belong to Engineering. Some buildings are specific labs, some are administration buildings, some a lecture halls and some are offices. We have a cafeteria named "Techno Edge" along with various other cafes hidden on the upper floors of a few buildings. We also have the only McDonald's on campus, which I have never eaten at because there are literally 100 other options.

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Posted by Cassi 19:15 Archived in Singapore

Tour: Medicine

NUS Hospital and School of Dentisty

On the exact opposite corner of campus from my dorm, we have the University Hospital and the School of Medicine and Density. Another sign that NUS is larger than Clarkson: it has its own Hospital. Although I have never had to visit the hospital, some of my exchange friends caught bad infections and have spent several days there.

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Posted by Cassi 19:16 Archived in Singapore

Tour: Science

Science and Math Classes

Next to the University Hospital is the Faculty of Science, where I have my Statistics class. All of the core Sciences (like Biology, Chemistry and Physics) as well as all Math Classes are taught in this area.

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Posted by Cassi 19:16 Archived in Singapore

Fun Facts about EH

Taking a break from the tour....

Now that I have shown some of campus, I think it is time for some fun facts about Eusoff Hall.

1) We don't have dyers... But who needs them?
Yes, after doing laundry we hang our clothes outside on lines. It is covered by a roof so the rain doesn't affect them at all, and you can leave them there for days at a time without anything happening to them.

2) We have a pet cat... and I don't know her name.
She is actually a homeless cat that wanders to our dorm each night. Some students buy her catfood, and some nights she even sneaks into the cafeteria and students steal food for her to feed her. She is the nicest cat I have ever met, if you stand near her, she will get up and come lay down on your feet until you pet her!

3) We have a "multi-purpose court"... right outside my window.
The local kids LOVE sports, and they play all hours of the night. My favorite to watch is some crazy Malaysian sport that resembles volleyball with a net and 6 people on each side (I don't actually know the rules...). Except you can't use hands! You use your feet and head and chest to pass the ball over the net, and you can spike it like a header in soccer. They are SO good at this game, it is crazy.

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Posted by Cassi 19:30 Archived in Singapore

Vietnam

Already on the way out the door...

I am currently on the way out the door for a 2 week trip: Vietnam and Laos.

I have been so busy that I haven't had the time to update everyone,. I will try my best to send emails out to people along the way as I won't have a computer. I will plan on updating this page when I return home on the 24th!

Stops on this trip:

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Hoi An, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Sapa Valley, Vietnam
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Luang Prabang, Laos
Vientiane, Laos

Then I will be back to Singapore for exams. NUS has a "Reading Week" where there are no classes, and students are supposed to take the time to study for finals. Naturally, Kourtney and I are taking this time to head to Vietnam. Then, NUS has two weeks worth of exams. Kourtney has to come back early, but my exams are all in the last week, so I will be heading to Laos when Kourtney flys home.

Posted by Cassi 12:28 Archived in Singapore

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Formerly known as Saigon


View NUS Exchange on Cassi's travel map.

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Our first stop on the trip was Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. Kourtney and I didn't know what to expect with Vietnam, but were very pleasantly surprised with what we found. The city was clean, there was a bunch to do there, and our hostel was amazing. We arrived at 8am, dropped off our backpacks, and then went for a walking tour of the city thanks to the help of the hostel owner. He gave us a map, drew out a walking route, and sent us off for the day.

First was the War Remnance Museum, which houses Planes, Helicopters, Tanks and other vehicles all used during the war. In this part of the world, the Vietnam War is known as the "American War". It was really interesting to read about the events in the war coming from the Vietnam Perspective.

Today Vietnam is still a communist country, still with no freedom of speech or various other rights that we take for granted everyday. The government controls everything that is printed, on TV, and online. They even have loud speakers set up on every telephone pole in the city, and make announcements throughout the day (we have no idea what they mean because they are in Vietnamese).

With that being said, the description of the war was Vietnam against the US, with Vietnam fighting as a united front with only a few rebels on the American side. It was hard to read and see some of the things they have on display, as you can imagine it was very Pro-Communist Vietnam and Anti-American forces. But it was still very interesting to see.

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I had to laugh when I found this description of the museum online, it is 100% the way I reacted to the museum too:

The museum was opened in a hurry, less than five months after the fall of the South Vietmanese regime. It has moved to new premises with 3 stories of exhibits and various U.S. military hardware (tanks, jets, helicopters, howitzers) on display outside the building. This disturbing display of man's cruelty during the Vietnam (American) War includes halls full of gruesome photographs, a simulated "tiger cage" prison and jars of deformed foetuses attributed to contamination by Agent Orange. There is very obvious bias as there are no "records" of any unpleasant deeds having been committed by the North Vietnamese Army.

We continued our walk to the Reunification Palace, which is massive, with a huge beautiful lawn and trees all around. It was the capital building for the South during the war, and the war officially ended when a tank from the North came through the gates in 1975. There is a replica of the tank sitting out front of the Building, just to the right side of the front lawn. After that we saw the Central Post Office, which is a very old building in the middle of the city, and an old Notre Dame Church left over from the French rule. Here's a few pictures of the old buildings left scattered through the city.

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After getting some lunch we returned to our hostel just as it began to rain, checked into our rooms and waited for the rain to pass... which never happened. The entire city flooded our first night there, with the streets turning into rivers, and motorbikes driving through them splashing anyone walking by. We went back out into the rain and got some dinner and drinks at a little place near our hostel, and met a bunch of other backpackers who were trying to wait out the storm. It ended up raining all night, and so we eventually turned in and walked back to the hostel through the flooded streets. Overall, we were very impressed with Ho Chi Minh City.

Posted by Cassi 19:12 Archived in Vietnam

Cu Chi Tunnels

Day 2 in Vietnam


View NUS Exchange on Cassi's travel map.

The second day we woke up early and went on a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, the tunnel system that was used during the Vietnam War to take over Saigon. There are over 250km of tunnels, each dug out by hand over many many years. The tunnels are three levels deep, with huge rooms underground. The first level is only 3m deep, and they connected to the trenches that were used for fighting. The second level is 6 to 9m deep, and the last was 12m below ground. They were actually started during the French rule, but were not used extensively until the Vietnam War broke out.

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We got to watch a video about the history of the tunnels, about 10,000 people lived in them at one time in the war, including entire families with small children. Then we got to see some of the traps the Vietnamese used in the war to escape the Americans, which were really gross to see. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to run into any of them. In the background of traps, there were paintings of American's falling into them and bleeding on the ground (once again, a highly biased version of the war similar to the museum.. you think I would have been used to this by now).

Next we got to go to the shooting range, where old guns from the war were set up for us to shoot, including AK47's. This was actually really cool to do, we had a lot of fun here.

And last we got to climb through the tunnels, which are so small they require you to crawl through them and are pitch black. It was really fun, but we were really dirty by the end of the day. It is hard to describe how tiny these tunnels are, I could barely fit into some of the entrances. The little hole in the ground only a few of the girls were allowed to go into, apparently in the past people have gotten stuck half way in and had to be pulled out by all the workers!

They have widened out some areas of the tunnels so that tourists can fit, and even those are tiny! This is the entrance for the bigger tourists, rather than lowering yourself into a small cutout in the ground, and here are the bigger tunnels... which aren't much bigger.

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We ended with some lunch before arriving back in Ho Chi Minh City for the afternoon. After we got back and got cleaned up, we shopped at a market in the middle of the city, which had hundreds of shops all around and was similar to the market in Cambodia. And late that night we flew up to Da Nang on our way to Hoi An.

Posted by Cassi 04:30 Archived in Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

A Beautiful Small City


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Hoi An is BEAUTIFUL. I can't say anything else that will capture this town, but it is amazing.

We stayed at a really nice hotel in Hoi An, with a sweet pool and free breakfast in the morning each day. We rented motorbikes early in the morning and went to the beach for a few hours of just relaxing. It was a beautiful beach that stretched forever in each direction, with palm trees and chairs to lay on.

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After a few hours we wandered the streets near the beach and went shopping. Hoi An is known for custom clothing and tailors, and they make everything within a few hours. I had a new bathing suite made for me, top and bottom, for only $20 USD. It was done by the end of the night, fits perfect, and I've already used it in HaLong Bay and it heldup all day and night! I half expected it to fall apart by the end of the first hour, but it is a really nice bathing suit. I am very happy with it.

And then the adventures started in Hoi An...

If you don't know, motorbikes have secret compartments under the seats, so when you are driving you can put bags or towels or whatever else in them. The trick is, you open them with your key, by turning it the wrong way in the ignition, which opens the hatch. The problem arises when your keys are in your bag, which ends up under the seat, which locks automatically when closed...

Yes- I locked my keys under my seat of the motorbike which I rented. So now what? Does the hotel have a spare set of keys? No... Can we break into the compartment? No... Time to jump on the back of Kourtneys bike, and find a locksmith! We had to drive 5 miles back to town center, as Kourtney was driving and I was taking pictures of the sites and fields we went by. First stop was the hotel, where they told us who we were looking for. Then we drove into the market area, we found a locksmith who hopped on his motorbike and followed up back 5 miles to the beach, and he only took about 5 mins to open up my bike. Luckily it only cost like $5 (thanks to the hotel telling me which locksmith to go to) and we were back in action on our bikes!

After that escapade, we took our bikes into Old Town Hoi An, about a 15min motorbike ride, where the buildings are beautiful painted yellow, with trees all over, and vines around the windows. We walked around, saw temples, a show of local dances, and of course walked through hundreds of shops.

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Here are a few things you wouldn't find back home, but are all over Hoi An:
Ladies balancing fruit plates on their shoulders....
Overloaded boats... no joke these boats were packed full of people and motorbikes...
Live chickens on the back of motorbikes...

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We ended the night with dinner by the river at sunset, and of course we got Banana Pancakes for dessert later in the night. I know I've said this before, but Hoi An is one of the most beautiful towns I have ever seen in my life.

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Posted by Cassi 20:02 Archived in Vietnam

Sapa Valley Trekking: Take One

Beautiful Views


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After Hoi An we flew up to Hanoi, spent a few hours wandering the city, and then took a night train up to Sapa Valley, Vietnam. It is located right on the border of China in the Northwest corner of the country. The night train was 9 hours long, we didn't arrive until around 5:30am, and then had an hour minibus ride to the actual town.

When you are in the middle of nowhere Vietnam, and the minibus driver turns on music at 5:30am, there is some music you just do not expect to hear... Our driver had a super remix CD, involving an extra long version of MilkShake... yes, a techno remix version that just repeats the lines "My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard" over and over and over... it was horrible! However, it made everyone in the minibus laugh with the little sleep we had gotten the night before.

We decided to go to Sapa on a guided tour, organized by a group called Hanoi Backpackers. If you ever are in Hanoi or Hue, Vietnam you must stay with them - assuming you are under 30 and backpacking through Vietnam... which probably doesn't apply to many people reading this. They are an amazing group who are well organized and super easy to work with.

There were 10 people on our trekking adventure:

- Kourtney and I, who were the youngest of the group (Kourtney is over a year and a half older than me... making me the baby for the trek)
- Three girls (two Canadian and one American) who had just finished teaching English for two years in Korea, and were spending their final paycheck backpacking the whole region before heading home for the holidays
- Two guys from Australia who were also on a backpacking trip across multiple countries over multiple months
- Two dutch guys. Not really sure what their plans were... they didn't talk much...
- One solo traveler from Australia who was just beginning his multiple month journey through Asia, I think this was one of his first destinations

Everyone else in the group was 25 to 30, and obviously no one else was still in school.

When we arrived we had a few hours to shower, grab some food and whatever supplies you needed (backpackers tend to run out of things like shampoo, or they lose things along the way, or things break...). And at 9am, we started trekking!

We aren't really sure how far we hiked, everything we read said something different, but we think Day 1 was around 15km. We had one guide, named Hein, who was really funny. He was hiking in a clean, perfectly white, pressed shirt, and somehow never got it dirty. They rest of us were disgusting by the end of the day. But it was all worth it for the views that can be seen from the trail!

The views were amazing, but also impressive were the little old ladies that were trekking with us. There are these tiny women who hiked the whole way with us (trying to sell us things out of their baskets of course) but they were solid! They helped in areas where it was hard to climb up, they showed you the best way to get through rivers and which rocks to step on, and they let you know if you were taking too long taking pictures of the views! Even though they got annoying at times, I will never be in as good shape as these old ladies.

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Posted by Cassi 20:36 Archived in Vietnam

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