Taman Festival, the Bali you haven’t seen

As it was our 7th visit to Bali we wanted to see something beyond the beautiful beaches and sacred temples on this exotic island. Yoga at a wellness retreat in a secluded area wasn’t what we were looking for either. We know Bali has some unique sights and wanted to find something obscure, unusual and maybe even a little weird. We wanted to see the Bali you haven’t seen and heard about.

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That’s when we came across Taman Festival in Sanur. Built in 1997, this ambitious project set on 8 hectares in Sanur was planned to be a theme park with Bali’s largest swimming pool, 3D Turbo Theatre, nightly laser show, a man-made volcano, hotel, amphitheatre, roller coaster and other amusement park rides and animals, including crocodiles.

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We’re going into a theme park, but this is no family day out and definitely no Disneyland.

When it was first proposed to build a theme park in this area locals were apprehensive due to spirits.

Many of the rides were never completed and in 1998 it all came to a halt when struck by lightning causing irreparable damage. Taman finally closed its doors in 2000 due to lack of funds and decline in the number of tourists visiting the park and has been abandoned ever since. Or has it?

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When Taman Festival was abandoned, Mother Nature moved back in. Today, twenty years after it was built, Taman Festival is still a place many Balinese won’t go to. Due to its abandonment, state of disrepair and rumoured that someone died on one of the rides when it first opened, many locals strongly believe it was taken over by evil spirits.

Is there any wonder they still don’t want to go there? Isn’t this a great concept for a horror movie?

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Not only do we have a concept for a horror movie, we have the scene. This place is rundown and swallowed up by a jungle. We’d heard all the stories, bats taking over the buildings, cannibal crocodiles inhabiting the park, evil spirits, etc. Fortunately for us, we didn’t encounter any of these. We are going to attribute them all to urban myth. After all urban legends and modern folklore are usually based on fictional stories with macabre outcomes.

But it wasn’t desolate and void of life, the first thing we noticed in these buildings was the presence of art.

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We go into a large amphitheatre, no roof, just open blue skies and a photo shoot is taking place. Once inside, looking back towards the entrance we see a huge painted owl watching over us all.

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Many of the walls were popping with colour, evolving with new life through the imagination of some incredible artists. These derelict buildings were now an artists’ playground and urban tapestry. These walls were a blank canvas for quirky talented artists to express themselves.

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We follow abandoned paths through the complex, coming to derelict, dilapidated buildings… and more artworks.  All the buildings today are disused, very gritty and have an eerie vibe. Care must be taken when exploring here. Not only because the locals believe long-abandoned sites lure evil spirits to take up residence, but also due to the failing structures.

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There are collapsed roofs, broken windows and trees growing into the buildings. Because of the decaying walls the buildings creak and the sagging roofs are under threat of collapse.

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In the midst of the lush vegetation we come across some crumbling, decapitated statues. They have an unconventional beauty and are quite intriguing. Sitting under a huge banyan tree is a swing made from intertwined vines. Mother Nature is taking over, thick tropical vegetation, overgrown trees and paths covered with a thick layer of leaves.

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Each building is a mysterious hidden attraction and we feel compelled to explore. They are now an artists’ paradise. It’s like we are on a scavenger hunt for art. But not all of it is good art. There are some outstanding pieces of artwork amongst a fair share of vandalism. There is a lot of debris from broken glass and leaves. Everything is becoming reclaimed by nature, vines wrapped around pillars and creeping through cracks in the walls.

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It was fascinating to see the how the concrete walls have been transformed by the hands of some creative minds whilst being slowly engulfed by Mother Nature. What was once intended to be a thrilling, well equipped recreational facility is now a derelict, decaying art gallery.

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One thing that has a strong presence in this deserted place is the plague of mosquitos. They just add to the creepy allure of this quirky attraction. Then I remember the rumour some who have entered Taman Festival have never returned, eaten by the starving crocodiles left behind to fend for themselves.

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I struggled to delve too far into some of the buildings, which I am pleased about, as I later learnt many are home to hordes of large bats.

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Fortunately we didn’t discover anything gruesome or grizzly in these deserted buildings. What we did find was walls filled with colour and life.

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Sadly, the show is over. Creating this attraction turned into a waste of both time and funds. 20 years on the decaying walls are being bought to life with colour through spray cans, paint brushes and artistic hands.

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This really is the Bali you haven’t seen. Off the beaten track, this theme park will give you an adrenaline rush of a different kind and you’ll know when you’ve reached the depth of your bravery.

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Strangely this place doesn’t get a mention in any tour operator’s list of must see places in Sanur. Haunted places with creepy legends are always mesmerising and I’m surprised this abandoned theme park in Bali has not become a tourist spot with some enterprising guide charging for tours.

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Would you have the courage to seek out the spirits and if so would you return to give your recount of your experience in this intriguing ghost town? I guess there’s only one way to find out…

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Are you a scaredy cat or would you love to visit this off the wall place that many never get to visit? Would the rumour of supposed crocodiles put you off? Does the mystical aura of this place make your skin crawl?

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Bali’s best Feast Market Brunch

Feast Market Brunch from 12:00pm to 3:00pm every Sunday, well that certainly got my attention. Imagine all you can eat for 3 hours. And not just some shabby mediocre buffet, but a fully serviced buffet with foods from many continents, catering for every palate. The Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort puts on a really decent spread of food and who better to write about it than me. Wow what a bad time to go on a diet, but I’ll do this for the benefit of a good wholesome story in search for the best Sunday brunch in Bali.

We arrived a little earlier than normal opening time to get a few photos before the queuing patrons disturbed the lovely presented food and was impressed with the vibrant pink décor and our greeting by the helpful staff who led us to our table where we would be seated for the next 3 hours. Given the option for the standard non-alcoholic drinks or free flow beer and cocktails package I opted for the later. It was a perfect day for a few cold Bintangs to be later followed on with a few hot Cappuccinos.

As you enter the buffet there are freshly shucked oysters, prawns on ice, a selection of sushi and condiments. Not only was the selection of food amazing, but also of a high quality and beautifully presented. Oh where to start?

Further around the buffet a selection of various antipasti, salads, olives, pickled vegetables, cheeses, chicken and meat skewers, cold meats and a large variety of breads. Are you still with me?

Now let’s venture over to the other side of the buffet where we can find freshly made to order pasta and ravioli, various Asian noodles and soups, a selection of Indian foods, pizza by the slice, chilli crab, dim sum, steaks cooked to order, roast chicken, Teppanyaki and babi guling (roast pork).

At this stage if your mouth isn’t drooling then we’ll head on over to the sweets bar located in the centre of the restaurant. This is where the big kid comes out in all of us, freshly made crepes, pancakes and waffles all to be topped with jams, sprinkles and ice-cream or maybe just a bowl of ice-cream or sorbet. Cakes, fresh fruit, popcorn, croissants and more cakes are all on offer, you’ll go back for seconds and maybe thirds.

In keeping with the pink theme, there is a pink chocolate fountain with a range of sweet delicacies like honeycomb, profiteroles and marshmallows to be dunked. The Choux swans also caught my eye.

It was pleasing to see some Asian desserts to tease our palates too. There was Lemongrass crème brulee, Cocount and pandan agar agar, Thai mango sticky rice, Sumpung waluh and Putu ayu.

Market Brunch’s food stations feature authentic cuisine from Bali and beyond. The mouth-watering morsels are served tapas style in small bites so you can sample and savour seasonal local ingredients.

I can see why this brunch goes for 3 hours, there is just so much variety. And there is no rush, the food is constantly being replenished by the attentive and always smiling staff who are also clearing used plates and cutlery, ready for the next serve.

Between food stations we met and chatted with Executive Chef Rossano Renzelli who must be incredibly proud of his talented culinary team of hard working chefs. We also met one of the other team who is very proud of the staff here, the Director of Human Resources. What an amazing team he has put together.

Now venture outside where the chefs are preparing a selection of seafood. There is a choice of crayfish and freshly caught grilled prawns, fish, squid and clams all cooked to order.

Those of you with young children don’t need to be concerned as they also cater for the young undeveloped palates of children. There was a good variety of healthy options in the form of mice, cats, owls, And when sitting in one spot at the child sized table and chairs for more than 10 minutes becomes unbearable take them over to the well supervised children’s activity area. The staff will be sure to have them entertained while you sit back with your selection of cheeses sipping on your Cappuccino Freddo Greco.

Themed “Sip, Savor, Shop” this weekly Sunday brunch is ideal for the whole family or a group of friends to gather and enjoy a delightful, relaxing Sunday afternoon, Kuta style. It’s such an easy going setting in the outdoor area with the live DJ creating a relaxing mood for all to enjoy. After your hearty lunch lounge on the daybeds sipping beers, cocktails or you can upgrade even further and enjoy free flow bubbles until 3.00pm.

Had enough of eating then take a look outside at market where you can fill up a bowl with a 1Kg of fresh local fruit ‘n vegetable and a selection of artisan breads. The attentive staff will pack it into a bright pink bag for you to consume later at your villa or just on the beach.

Now surely by this stage you’re sitting back in your chair thinking you shouldn’t have eaten so much, or is that just me? Anyway relief is in sight. The Sheraton also offers patrons of the Feast Market Brunch the opportunity to venture upstairs and enjoy there infinity pool for as long as you can tan. Grab a towel, find a sun lounge and just laze by the pool taking advantage of the last few hours of sunlight.

Alternately you could head across the road to Kuta Beach and catch some waves, but after a big feed finding a sunlounge and catching some rays might be kinder to your full belly. Or if you need to walk off all the scrumptious food there is a huge mall with over 200 shops right next door.

Just another day in Bali.

Yes, we were suitably compensated for this review and I would do it all again.

Tip: Get a loyalty card and collect 8 stamps for a Shine Spa voucher or 12 stamps for a free night in a Deluxe Ocean View room with Breakfast for 2.

Does all this talk of food make you hungry? Would you love to enjoy a 3 hour brunch at Feast?

What are you waiting for?  Share this post or leave a comment below. If you like this post and want to read more like this why not subscribe to our Newsletter? We won’t spam you or share your personal details. If you’re not doing so already, please follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram or click the StumbleUponFlipboard or other social media buttons below to share this post with others who might enjoy reading it.

*Our meal at Feast was complimentary as part of our stay at Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort, but as always, all opinions are our own.

Beachfront indulgence at Sheraton Bali

Bali has it all, lush rice terraces, temples, rain forests, beautiful coastline, beach life, culture, people with a beautiful heart and soul, fabulous food and luxurious five star resorts.

Whether you are looking for a family vacation, romantic getaway, destination wedding venue or beachfront 5 star spa resort, the Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort has all the ingredients for a great experience.

Whilst we appreciate Kuta is not everyone’s first choice of location in Bali due to its reputation of being an alcohol fuelled party area, we were delighted with our choice to stay at Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort right from the start. Located on Jalan Pantai between Poppies II and BeachWalk shopping mall, directly across the road from the famed Kuta Beach offering uninterrupted views and truly magical sunsets, we found the location perfect.

On arrival we were greeted by two beautiful Balinese ladies who placed a frangipani flower behind our ear and guided us up the escalator to the spacious and airy Reception area for check in.

As we arrived early we were advised our room wasn’t ready, so we relaxed with a welcome drink in the plush Lounge area. Here you don’t have to choose between a pool view and an ocean one, you can take advantage of both the uninterrupted views of Kuta Beach and the beautiful infinity pool. The view of Kuta Beach can be seen from each of the 203 rooms from their private balcony also taking in views of the either the infinity pool or immaculate gardens.

As soon as it was ready we were shown to our room, or should I say suite? We had been upgraded to an Ocean Front Suite, enabling us to take advantage of the beachfront location with a huge L shape balcony offering panoramic views of the Indian Ocean from Uluwatu through to Canggu and the resorts’ well-manicured gardens.

The tastefully decorated suite has a separate powder room, a spacious living area with lounge and dining suite, separate bedroom with 2nd TV, comfy chair, 2nd access door to the huge balcony and a light and airy bathroom. The king sized bed looked very comfortable and the linen was high quality and embellished with the Sheraton logo as was the glass sliding door in the bathroom.

The bathroom is spacious and great layout out with the toilet and shower sharing a sliding glass door. The bedroom/bathroom had a glass wall with a blind that could be drawn for privacy. The well appointed bathroom has luxury amenities, a huge freestanding bathtub and shower with rainhead. In keeping with the rest of the hotel, the suite is a mix of modern and traditional and the colour palette is neutral and earthy, giving it a warm, contemporary elegance.

With 6 bottles of water and an espresso machine provided at the beverage station and another 2 in the bathroom there was no risk we were going to dehydrate.  A real nice touch was the dual bins for recycling in the room, big tick with that!

Spelt out on the floor was “WELCOME to S” and on the dining table a lovely flower arrangement, beautiful chocolate selection and a personal note of welcome from the General Manager. What a nice touch!

After relaxing for an hour or so, enjoying a refreshing local Bintang (beer) and the view from our balcony we make our way to the Lounge ready for our hotel tour. We enjoy the tour immensely, not only to familiarise ourselves with the hotel layout and facilities, but also learning some of the history of the hotel, etc.

On our visit to Bene, Italian Kitchen, we learn the Executive Chef, Rossano Renzelli and the General Manager sourced the beautiful plates exclusively designed to serve all meals. The restaurant is set on 3 floors, the pool level, an upper level and the rooftop, each offering knockout views across Kuta Beach, taking full advantage of the spectacular sunsets and contemporary fine dining.

We like the way two rooms share a main door from the corridor so the individual doors can be left open to create a common area.

We are taken from a Deluxe Room which is the standard room, through to the Presidential Ocean Front Suite. The Presidential suite is breathtaking, on 2 levels with living room, 10 seat dining room, private sundeck, plunge pool and a stunning bathroom. This area would also make an ideal location for a small intimate wedding or renewal of vows as it could be easily be setup for a ceremony and converted for serving finger food and cocktails. There is also a Grand Ballroom that can accommodate up to 500 people making it ideal for larger weddings or conferences.

Inside a Deluxe room, it is smaller but has the same quality fittings

The bathroom of the Deluxe room, again same fittings but slightly smaller

The bedroom of the Presidential Suite

The light and airy bathroom of the Presidential Suite

The Presidential Suite’s living area

Outdoor area with plunge pool for the Presidential Suite

Beautiful staircase with glass wall for the two storey Presidential Suite

The Presidential Suite has a 10 seat private dining room off the outdoor area

After our tour we head back to the Lounge to see the sun set in the Indian Ocean before heading to Bene, an Italian trattoria for dinner. The food is amazing, as is the service and the views.

Shine Spa for Sheraton with Balinese infused treatments was very relaxing. Steve opted for a full body massage and I enjoyed a foot massage. Afterwards we were both rejuvenated and refreshed. To keep travellers energised there is the fully equipped 24/7 Sheraton Fitness and Play@Sheraton Kid’s Club to round the services and keep the little ones amused by Sheraton providing EDUTAINMENT (Education and Entertainment) program designed for children up to 12 years old.

Children are well catered for at Sheraton, the room service menu can be ordered from 6.30am – 10.30pm and includes health options of First Steps from 4-8 months, Second Steps 8-36 months and kids breakfast, lunch, dinners and desserts from 3-12 years old and also have their own section to dine in Feast with their own child sized dining settings and low height buffet station away from the hot food.

Check out the miniature dining and child height buffet station around the pillar on the right 

This award winning resort has truly set the benchmark and elevated the Kuta experience. A testament of their motto ‘go beyond during every guest’s stay’ is being accredited as Best Resort Hotel, Indonesia, Best Luxury Rooftop hotel for 3 consecutive years, one of the Top 50 Resorts Worldwide and an accolade of other awards since opening almost 5 years ago.

“A guests’ experience during their stay is the single most important factor to any hotel or resort. To be recognized as one of the very best worldwide is truly humbling and a testament that we go above and beyond to make every guest stay a memorable one,” Dario Orsini, the General Manager.

Bed comfort is an important factor in a hotel and in the morning our bed proved difficult to get out of, only because it was soo comfortable. The only thing that enticed us out was the prospect of a lovely warm shower followed by a leisurely breakfast at Feast.

We enjoyed breakfast and were impressed not only with the vibrant bright pink décor, but also with the variety and quality of food. We met Executive Chef Rossano Renzelli who leads the talented culinary team and provides an exceptional culinary experience and chatted about the beautiful plates used in Bene. The selection for breakfast ranges from both Western and Asian offering fresh fruits, yoghurts in mini jars, juices and smoothies in cute little bottles, pastries freshly baked each morning, made-to-order egg station, pancakes, waffles, ice cream (it’s zero calories on holiday isn’t it?) and much, much more.

Feast also hosts Sunday Market Brunch and we wrote more about that in a separate article. In addition to the vast range of food from the open kitchen grill station, noodle station, soup station, sushi bar, Indian section, fresh pastries, seafood, etc, etc there is an outdoor market where you get to shop for up to 1kg of fresh produce included in the cost of the all you can eat buffet.

Will that be an Apple & Peach Granitea or a Cappuccino Freddo Greco? Both served with a smile.

The hotel offers some great experiences, whether it be celebrating a special occasion with your loved one watching the most romantic sunset with a cocktail on the rooftop terrace or indulging in afternoon tea in The Lounge. All the staff are extremely friendly, polite and caring with unwavering dedication and simply can’t do enough for you to provide the perfect setting.

When we returned to our suite on the 2nd day of our stay we found a lovely note from housekeeping and a little towel animal and flowers on the work desk and another cute towel animal on our bed. Late afternoon we had a knock at the door and a staff member set up a gorgeous afternoon tea for us, cupcakes, wine, cheese, dried fruits and nuts and some grapes and strawberries. We were most impressed by the effort taken to replicate our logo on the tray serving the cupcakes.

The commitment and dedication in maintaining high levels of excellence is evident throughout our stay. We observed the staff a lot, from housekeeping, to the bar and restaurant staff, they all did their tasks with that authentic Balinese smile on their faces. It was obvious they all enjoy their roles and inspire to uphold quality, innovation and service. It is no wonder the General Manager is so proud of his team who really do provide exceptional service to each and every guest.

When looking for a hotel, considerations are always either the location, price, service or amenities but Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort has them all. Whilst out stay was hosted, we truly believe the hotel staff allowed us to enjoy the resort like every other guest and were given the same attentive service and greeted with the same huge smiles. This is an amazing ocean front retreat in the heart of famous Kuta Beach, where you can enjoy the beautiful seaside setting of a luxury resort with seamless service for each and every guest.

We would like to thank Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort for one of the most amazing hotel experiences we have had. Not only did this hotel meet our needs, it well and truly exceeded our expectations.

So those of you who think Kuta is just a party area, pull your head in. With lovely resorts like Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort enriching the Kuta experience for worldwide travellers, Bali’s magical reputation as the Island of the Gods is being upheld.

Tip: Late night flight? Book into Feast Sunday Market Brunch and enjoy 3 hours of unlimited grazing, then enjoy a massage followed by a poolside cocktail taking in the spectacular sunset before your flight.

Photos of nearby places, Poppies Lane II, Fat Chow, Kuta Beach, Nebula.

Included in the price each evening are stunning panoramic views of sunset over the Indian Ocean.

Would Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort be somewhere you’d consider staying in Bali? Would you enjoy basking in the sunshine watching a beautiful sunset?

What are you waiting for?  Share this post or leave a comment below. If you like this post and want to read more like this why not subscribe to our Newsletter? We won’t spam you or share your personal details. If you’re not doing so already, please follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram or click the StumbleUponFlipboard or other social media buttons below to share this post with others who might enjoy reading it.

*Our stay at Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort was complimentary, but as always, all opinions are our own.

Private Tour of Ho Chi Minh City

Good morning Phu My port. We arrived early in the morning at Phu My (pronounced “Foo Me”) port Vietnam only to be faced with an overcast, wet and drizzly day. But that wasn’t going to dampen our excitement or enthusiasm, as today we were going on a private tour in Vietnam to learn about the culture and history.

Previously known as Saigon, today the name is Ho Chi Minh City and everywhere friendly faces and warm greetings meet you.

We were met at the port entrance by guide Ms Hang (Hanna) and driver Mr Lac from Best Price Travel and bundled into a modern air-conditioned vehicle to commence our journey into Ho Chi Minh City, some 55km (34miles) away. Hanna greeted us and explained our itinerary for the day in Vietnams’ largest and most populated city. We would be seeing some beautiful French architecture, enjoying some exotic food, recalling the memories of war and learning about the culture of the people.

During the drive with the assistance of her tablet, Hanna introduced us to Vietnam, its people, food and culture with easy to understand local knowledge. The drive from the port to the city is about one and half hours. Along the way Hanna informed us Saigon had a key role in the Vietnam War and much of the history was explained to us. Widely referred to in the past as “Paris of the Orient” and “Pearl of the Far East”, the city is well known for its French colonial landmarks from the French colonial times. Hanna showed us many photos and also explained the wedding traditions, the seasons and much more.

There are only two seasons in southern Vietnam, wet and dry. The rainy season is from May til the end of the year and dry season lasts until around April. Throughout the day the weather changed from overcast and drizzly to sunny and then quickly from a few drops of rain to a torrential downpour. But it was warm. In June it can get up to 37°C (99°F) and is the second highest month for rainfall with 311mm (12.272 inches).

Despite four decades since the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, the essence of the city remains unchanged. The city is adorned with wide elegant boulevards and the French Colonial tourist spots in District 1 are a short distance from each other. The air is filled with cacophony of horns beeping from the swarms of motorbikes whizzing past and calls from street hawkers.

Our first stop is the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, a beautiful red brick neo-romanesque catholic cathedral with twin towers, topped with iron spires. Named after Virgin Mary, the cathedral, built between 1877-1883 faces Dong Koi Street and is near the Post Office. The cathedral has had basilica status from the Vatican since 1962 and is the most symbolic church in the city. Remarkably every red brick used in the building was shipped all the way from Marseile to Vietnam, all the tiles and marble were imported also. It is not uncommon to see brides having their wedding photos taken here with the stunning basilica and statue of Virgin Mary as the backdrop.

With Hanna’s assistance we made our way across to Saigon Central Post Office, known as Eiffel Post office. Designed by French architect Gustave Eiffel, this is one of Vietnam’s oldest and largest post offices. Built 1886-1891 it is still a working post office. The Gothic styled building features a long domed ceiling with looping arches, walls adorned with French colonial maps, a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh and beautifully elaborate tiled floors. The antiquated telephone boxes made from timber on opposite sides of the building remind us of the times before email and mobile phone. This is wonderful glimpse back and a reminder of the importance Post Office’s played before today’s technology came into play. I have to keep reminding myself that this is still a working post office.

We were then taken to the Reunification Palace, previously named the Independence Palace, one of the most historic, tragic and retro places in Ho Chi Minh City. Built in 1966 this classic landmark building of the era was the Presidential Palace until 1975. Since that time it is like it has been frozen in time. Even though the building’s traditional design and retro architecture is typical 60’s design, it is the historic events that took place here that give it the biggest tourist appeal.

Today the building functions as a museum, with many remembering vividly a tank crashing through the gates, it is like visiting a time capsule. The palace, set amongst lush tropical gardens and spacious green lawns, hides secret rooms with antique furniture and eerie corridors leading to the command bunker which still has the maps on its walls and a row of vintage 70’s pastel coloured phones.

The basement houses a labyrinth of tunnels, telecommunications centre and the command room, supposedly exactly as it was left. Visiting the palace is like walking through a time warp. The card playing room, featuring a kitsch circular lounge, meeting rooms, official reception rooms, even the cinema all look like everyone only just left the building. We saw the impressive banquet hall, the First Lady’s reception room, the cabinet room, the Ambassador’s chamber, the salon and the rooftop heliport, all reminders of the various important events that have taken place here.  I loved how the outside low, symmetrical façade with its stone curtain of pillars resembles bamboo which symbolises protection. A visit to the Reunification Palace showed us Saigon’s turbulent past and a reminder of the location that marked the Fall of Saigon resulting in the end of the tragic Vietnam War.

Regardless of whether you have an interest in War or not, we recommend a visit here as a ‘must do’ for anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh City. But be warned, the Reunification Palace is very popular so expect large crowds.

We were very lucky that Hanna and Mr Lac took us around the city, somehow avoiding big crowds all day, for which we are very grateful.

Mr Lac drove us back but further along Dong Koi Street to the Hotel Continental and the Saigon Opera House. A 500 seat building, this was used by the Lower House Assembly from 1956 and became a theatre again in 1975.  Built in 1897, its style is influenced by the French Third Republic to replicate the façade of Petit Palais in Paris. Seen in the same photo is the Caravelle Hotel which opened Christmas Eve 1959. Built with features like bullet proof glass in the windows, state of the art air conditioning and its’ own private generator it became a communication hub during Vietnam War and the location where the Caravelle Manifesto was presented. In the 60’s this hotel was home to Australian & New Zealand Embassies and CBS, NBC and ABC. In 1964 a bomb exploded, fortunately while all the foreign journalists were out and there were no fatalities.

Also nearby is the Rex Hotel. During its’ construction in 1961 it was billeted to 400 US Army Soldiers who held a belated Thanksgiving dinner on the rooftop. Daily military press briefings hosted by the American military command, at the rooftop bar bought the Rex to fame and became a regular hangout for war correspondents and military officers during the Vietnam War.

Another building in French colonial style is the Ho Chi Minh City Hall. Built 1898-1908, the elegant building offers great photo opportunities as it is set in a spacious landscape garden. This is one of the oldest, biggest and most beautiful French styled buildings and a prominent city landmark.

Curious to know what the locals eat, wear and use daily, the answer is always at the local market. So Hanna took us to Ben Thanh Market, an exhilarating experience. Built in 1870 from a wet market created by street vendors, Ben Thanh is the oldest surviving market of this vibrant city. Ben Thanh is a cluster of busy stalls and narrow aisles where you can find everything from colourful scarves, lacquer ware, textiles and wooden souvenirs to authentic cuisine, nuts, coffee, spices and fruit vendors. In the morning trade is bustling and the market atmosphere is a real hustle.

And now for some food. Vietnamese food is said to be some of the most delicious food in the world, but for me, who is not very adventurous with food, it is also very confronting. Here you’ll find eating stalls where you can get a taste of hawker style cuisine. The market is known for real Vietnamese food that is anything local from bubble tea, wok fried noodles and meat to seafood. All the food is freshly made to order or you can cool off with a cold drink.

It was fun watching all the locals eating lunch at Ben Thanh market, sitting side by side on their little plastic chairs at the tiled countertops as the food is being prepared and cooked directly in front of them. Large pots with noodles simmering, woks sizzling and gas bottles busy cooking some of the delicious local dishes where the smell increased the appetites of the locals.  The market is big and hard to navigate at times and surely best to avoid during the hottest part of the day, but as it’s well worth a look, a local guide is a bonus.

Now it is our turn to eat and we are eager to try some authentic Vietnamese food. Mr Lac drives us to Viet Village Restaurant and we arrive at a beautifully renovated French colonial villa where Hanna has arranged a wonderful lunch for us. A five course feast of fresh, local cuisine, the food was outstanding and beautifully presented.

Our lunch consisted of:

Gỏi Ngó Sen Tôm Thịt (Lotus Rhizomes Shrimp Salad)
Bánh Mì Sandwich Cuộn Tôm Chiên (Deef Fried Rolled Sandwich With Fried Shrimp)
Canh Laghim Thịt Bằm (Lagumes Soup With Minced Pork)
Cá Chiên Xốt Chua Ngọt (Fried Fish With Sweet & Sour Sauce)
Gà Nướng Xốt Cam (Grilled Chicken With Orange Sauce)
Bó Xôi Xào Thịt Bò (Sauteed Spinach With Beef)
Cơm Trắng (Steamed Rice)
Bánh Flan (Flan Caramel)

With the volume of traffic and wide variety of local food, Vietnam on your own can be intimidating. We are so grateful to have had a private tour with Hanna as our local guide to navigate the traffic, avoid the crowds and showcase the scrumptious food and beautiful city sights for us.

Before heading back to the port we have time for one last stop. This time something very special. We stop at the Jade Temple, built in 1909, one of the five most important temples in Ho Chi Minh. Near the entrance is a pond filled with tortoises so this temple is also referred to as Tortoise Temple. It is a peaceful walk in such a tranquil place in the midst of a busy city. This really feels like we are miles away from the hustle and bustle. Inside, the temple is filled with intricate carvings and grotesque statues. There are also two large red horse statues, which we learn are to take prayers to the Gods, one for women and the other for men.

It is dark and cluttered, yet mesmerising with several locals bowing and praying. In another hall is the goddess of fertility, Kim Hua and 12 figures of women representing human characteristics, either good bad in another hall are where childless couples pray for an offspring. This temple is very much in use by the locals who come here to prayer or make offerings of flowers and light candles and joss sticks. This small temple could get cramped with worshippers coming and going. This temple is really atmospheric and adding charm, the pungent smoke of the incense fills the dimly lit passageways.

Ho Chi Minh is the nation’s economic core and the focal tourism centre of Vietnam. A first time visitor needs prior knowledge of the local culture, currency, climate, etc for a stress free trip. That is where an informative local guide is a blessing. Hanna was extremely informative and never tired of our many questions about this bustling metropolis. Our day was well planned and allowed for plenty of time to immerse ourselves at each stop. Hats off to Mr Lac, our intrepid driver, for navigating the chaotic streets of the city to get us safely to our various destinations and for ensuring our timely arrival back to the port. We were sure that one day would only provide a mere glimpse, but instead with our Best Price Travel tour, we experienced a fascinating insight into the culture, history and daily life of the locals and saw what the city truly has to offer. This tour has given us a greater understanding of Vietnamese life, food and beliefs. If you have longer than a day you might want to check out what else this spectacular city has to offer

Has this inspired you to try a private tour? What sights in Ho Chi Minh City would you like to visit?

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*Steve and I received a complimentary private tour, but as always, all opinions are our own.

Our welcoming return to Novotel Clarke Quay, Singapore

Recently we went on a cruise departing from Singapore and instead of transiting through, we decided to stay a few days and re-explore one of our favourite Asian cities.

But it wasn’t a difficult decision about which hotel to book. Comfort, accessibility to major sites and restaurants and somewhere with great service are the things we look for when choosing a hotel. Having stayed several times before, Novotel Clarke Quay was an obvious choice.

Located on the banks of the Singapore River right next to Liang Court and surrounded by Clarke Quay’s vibrant restaurants and bars with easy access to all Singapore’s major attractions via the nearby MRT, this hotel ticked all the boxes for us. Factor in the exceptional service we had received in previous stays and the generous sized rooms our decision was made.

Prior to our arrival we had received an email from the Guest Services team to let us know they were looking forward to our return and requesting our flight details so they could prepare for our arrival. This again reinforces the level of personal service and hospitality and the reason we were excited to be returning a 3rd time.

Upon arrival we immediately received the exceptional service we had recalled from past stays. Taken from the 7th floor check-in to the 30th floor premier lounge, we were offered refreshments as the prompt check-in process was completed. Having booked a flight that arrived early morning, we enjoyed complimentary breakfast in the lounge, despite our room already being ready so early.

A quick introduction and welcome from the Manager was a very nice touch and certainly reflected their motto #FeelWelcome. A warm welcome, familiar surroundings and our room ready well before check in time, what more could we ask for a pleasant stay?

We were delighted to have been upgraded to a Premier Floor room.  A room on a Premier level gives access to the Premier Lounge, sometimes referred to as the Executive or Club lounge. Access to the lounge offers all day refreshments, breakfast, light snacks and complimentary free flow happy hour and canapes. We enjoyed the personal service from the lounge staff who handled our check-in, instead of us having to queue in the main lobby.

It was then time to head to our room, refresh ourselves and hit the ground running. Having seen some of the amazing features at Changi Airport we were keen to familiarise ourselves once more with Singapore.

The room was well laid out, spacious and offers great views overlooking, Clarke Quay or Fort Canning Park.

The large bathroom has a separate bath and huge shower with rainhead and ample amenities. A Nespresso machine is provided in the room, but we never used it, considering we could just head to the Premier lounge for an enjoyable cup of coffee while we were using the iPad to update Facebook, etc. Complimentary bottled water was also provided which came in handy to take out when exploring what the beautiful city has to offer. It was also noted that the tap in the bathroom has a sign that the water was safe to drink.  The King size bed was extremely comfortable and not only could we control the TV via remote, but the bedside has a control for the lights, aircon and privacy sign.

Sadly we didn’t spend a lot of time lazing about in the hotel, utilising the pool or gym as we only had two days and wanted to see some of the sights of Singapore. With its location directly across the road from some of the best restaurants and bars, Clarke Quay has a great choice of cuisine from around the world. Sitting at one of the restaurants having lunch on our first day we heard a sound that we later learnt was that of a family of otters swimming along the banks of the river.

After a day exploring the city you are going to want to relax and unwind with a drink. That is where Happy Hour from 6pm-8pm in the Premier Lounge is a blessing . The best views overlooking the marina, exceptional service and best canapes and snacks. We might not even need dinner. 

The appeal of Singapore only gets better once the sun goes down so after happy hour we went back to Clarke Quay and we decided on Japanese for dinner at EN Sakaba for a teppanyaki grill and some Japanese Beer, Asahi. Back at the hotel, before heading up to our room we stopped at the bar Le Rouge for a refreshing nightcap.  

We found our room very quiet and the bed very comfortable so had a relaxing nights’ sleep.  In the bathroom the shower was quite large and easy to control the water temperature. It was fitted with a rainhead so the water pressure just right too. We had sufficient towels and a robe to lounge in.

The following day, instead of breakfast at the Premier Lounge we opted for a full breakfast at The Square located on the Lobby level. There was a wide selection of fresh food to suit a variety of tastes and if it hadn’t been raining we could have eaten our breakfast outside overlooking the pool area.

As I said earlier, the hotel is located at Liang Court shopping complex which has 7-Eleven, McDonalds, Starbucks, Subway, Meidi-Ya Japanese supermarket and many other cafes, restaurants, shops and salons so can pick up some snacks to take while out sightseeing.

We made our way across to Clarke Quay MRT and caught two trains to Boon Lay and a bus to Jurong Bird Park to see the beautiful pink flamingos.

We saved SGD 14 each when we bought our tickets online and navigated our way on the MRT with the assistance of the Smart phone provided for our use for the duration by the hotel. It was great peace of mind to know we had the use of a variety of apps, google maps and even free phone calls to assist us find our way around. I could easily post updates to Facebook and photos to instagram throughout the day and not have to wait until we returned to the hotel to use the free wi-fi. We also were able to bring peace of mind to our families and phone them on our arrival at the hotel, all thanks to free use of the phone.


For those not in a Premier room there are some iMac computers for use.

One thing we love about Novotel is how environmentally friendly they are. There are little notes reminding us to hang our towels if they don’t need washing and provided fair trade toiletries, made with fair trade certified ingredients like sugar cane from Mauritius, Brazil Nut Oil from Brazil and Avocado Oil from Kenya.

During our stay we had a personal note from the Manager with a lovely selection of fruit, sweets and savouries delivered to our room and the following day a lovely dessert platter was provided.

On our final day we took advantage of the late checkout before making our way to our cruise ship for our next big adventure.

We’d like to thank Novotel’s Management for the upgrade and the staff for being attentive and welcoming. As always this review reflects our own opinions which was not influenced by our upgrade.

Have you stayed in Clarke Quay? Do you tend to return to hotels who go out of their way to make you feel welcome?

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