Hi Mum, I’m still on the road

While in Vietnam, we had decided to change our plans slightly and break up our trip from Hanoi to Kunming by spending a couple of days in the old French hill station of Sapa. We took the overnight train and bought a ticket for a taxi up to the town from an official-looking vendor at the station. That was the point at which, unfortunately, we were scammed for the first time on our trip (that we know of…). We arrived in Sapa tired and ready for breakfast and a shower. Instead, we got a taxi driver wielding a metal bar at us and demanding payment a second time – claiming that the ticket we bought was not the right one even though the company we bought the ticket off had put us in his taxi. We were in no mood for bullshit and stood our ground until the owner of the hotel that ran the service gave him his money. Sapa was putting on its best for us. The town itself is a nice enough place with an alpine feel, though it seems to be in the middle of a construction boom and will soon probably be a concrete jungle at altitude. There is also the momentarily charming presence of ladies in traditional hilltribe dress scattered throughout the town. However, we soon discovered that they are just there to sell hilltribe handicrafts and trinkets to passing tourists, or to descend on tourists having a meal, or to follow them from one end of the town to the other and back again (this is no exaggeration) in the hope that you will buy something. Unfortunately for them, we were more stubborn than them and left Sapa without any hilltribe goods.

After a few lazy days in Sapa we descended the mountain, passing through dense fog and bright sunshine on the way down, and got dropped off at what purported to be a travel agent. This was where we were to meet a woman who would ‘help us’ across the border into China. Mostly, her help consisted of tottering along in high heels, ignoring us, crossing the road unexpectedly and making us lurch after her, instructing us to fill in departure cards that we already had, and pointing usefully at the signs marked ‘Immigration’. We don’t think we paid any extra for this service – thank goodness.

After having heard some stories about power-happy border officials, we were happy to face nothing more complicated than a few ‘Welcome to China’s and a quick zap of our foreheads to make sure we weren’t bringing H1N1 into the country. Alex’s first encounter with Chinese citizens in China itself was coming face to face with a tiny, wide-eyed toddler who, clearly awestruck, wandered over to shake his hand. His mother burst into laughter when we tried out a ‘Ni hao’ and smiled broadly. As we left the buidling, another, grandmotherly type patted the top of her head and then gestured at the top of Alex’s and exclaimed something like ‘So tall!’ Alex’s adventures as a 6ft3 Scandi bearded giant in China had begun.

We found our bus to Kunming and settled in, but not before encountering our first Chinese toilets. I know bus station toilets are never going to be the most sanitary, but I can’t go into any detail about the ghastliness of this one without losing the entirety of our loyal readership. I can reveal, however, that the loo in the middle of nowhere, mid-bus ride, outstripped the first in horrendousness. I could barely believe it.

Anyway, Kunming. We spent a night here, marking time before we could head out. In our experience it seems to be a relative upstart in terms of cities, rich-looking and full of neon and 6-lane streets. Not particularly charming.

We eagerly headed out on an overnight train to Dali. We had a full day to spend in this small town situated between Erhai lake and the impressive Cangshan mountain range. As with many Chinese towns, it’s neatly divided into ‘new town’ and ‘old town’ and we spent the day wandering the streets of the old town. It’s quite delightful, with small streams running down through the streets and plenty of ‘old’ houses (the more we travel in China and see its ‘Disney-fication’ the more skeptical we grow about the real age of these buildings). And finally, after eating some pretty average food in Kunming, we found some delicious food in Dali. First, some light-as-a-feather small steamed buns as an early breakfast, followed up by freshly made guo kuai, a fried and baked cakey flatbread that was crispy, warm, sweet, savoury and dense all at the same time. A bargain for about 20c. Later on, we had lunch at a hole-in-the-wall eatery that was filled with 11-year-old schoolgirls, who giggled and stared as Alex bumped his head on the ceiling. The proprietor served up a warming bowl of chewy wheat noodles in a slightly chili-hot broth, topped with what tasted like a rich pork ragout. After all the eating, we spent the afternoon walking, and then sitting by the stream on a garish pink couch, drinking endless cups of green tea. How very Chinese.

That evening we were collected by our host for the next few days, an English teacher who has opened up his home near Shaxi, in small-town Yunnan province, as a homestay. We were anticipating 3-4 days of experiencing relatively authentic Chinese homelife, with perhaps a bit of hiking. Instead, although the accommodation was pretty impressive (a converted Chinese theatre), the host had decided to accept our cooking for accommodation while also doing extensive work to the courtyard, so that we awoke to the sound of angle grinders and shouting. Moreover, the host was barely around and we spent a few aimless hours trying to find somewhere that might sell us lunch. Add to this some mild altitude sickness (for Amanda) that put paid to the idea of hiking the hills, and an influx of flies in our room that required an amusing (if grotesque) Insect Armageddon before retiring for the night, and we decided to head off distinctly earlier than planned.

Given a few extra days in our schedule, we decided to head to Lijiang, further up towards the Burmese/Tibetan border (although of course one must be careful around here when referruing to any kind of legal delimitation between China and its "components", Tibet and Taiwan). Lijiang seems to be relatively well off the Western tourist trail in China (although this still means plenty of Westeners get there) but is Big News in terms of the Chinese domestic tourist trade. It’s known colloqiually as the ‘Venice of China’ and the old town really is a most attractive mess of winding walking streets, rivers, streams and bridges (great fun to wander round until you actually want to find something). However, like Venice, these streets are mostly thronging with tourists and filled with wall-to-wall tourist trade – scarf weavers, leatherworkers, bars and restaurants (which mostly serve some pretty dire and oil-drenched food), dismal ‘trinket’ shops, frangrant shops selling delicious dried and flavoured yak meat, and silversmiths. Amusingly, the silver shops all had men sitting out on the stoop, beating a bar of silver to prove that they made eveything inhouse. Of course, they just seemed to beat the same piece of silver every day, making it into nothing more dramatic than a slightly longer bar.

During our couple of days in Lijiang, we were as much a part of the tourist scenery as the bridges and buildings. Stopping for a beer during the afternoon, we noticed at least a dozen tourists taking photos us. Some were more subtle than others, but it was an amusing game for an hour or so to bust them and enjoy their sheepish grins. On one occasion, we were stopped by a couple who wanted their photo taken. Initially we thought we were to be the photographers, but we soon discovered that the guy wanted his photo taken next to the giant lao wai (Amanda was not required). Finally, we were accosted by an English teacher and his school group in order for his students to get some conversation practice. Unfortunately, they were all to shy to talk so we ended up having a chat with their teacher and posing for more photographs. We thought that our high curiosity value to the locals was relatively unusual, mostly based on Alex’s height (and hairiness?), but just yesterday here in Chengdu we saw a list of ‘Civilised Tourist Behaviour’ rules that included revolutionary ideas such as ‘Don’t take photos of foreigners’ along with ‘Resist superstition’ and ‘Don’t spit’. We’ll believe it when we see it.

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Hi Mum, I’m in Hanoi

After another overnight train trip, we arrived in Hanoi smelly and tired. Not the most ideal way to get your first taste of a city, so it’s a credit to Hanoi that we immediately warmed to it.

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We first walked around the large central Hoan Kiem lake, watching the (mainly) elderly citizens of the city exercising. Most of them seemed to be doing variations of Tai Chi, but some seemed to be just flailing their limbs about madly and looking pleased with themselves.

We retired to a side street for a cafe sua da (strong Vietnamese coffee, over ice and served with condensed milk) and watching the street come alive. A hole in the wall across the street was doing a brisk trade in morning soup, so we fell into line and grabbed a (tiny) stool. Other people seemed to be served up a soup of noodles, broth, some kind of poultry, bamboo and a chunk of blood, but as Westerners we were denied this last. I was secretly thankful. Afterwards we worked out that the delicious meat was actually swan. I barely need say that it tastes of chicken.

By this stage it was not yet 8am and we couldn’t check in until midday. Clearly, some kind of sightseeing was in order.

We headed to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, a prison in Hanoi that was originally built by the French to house independence fighters and other rebels. Once the French were expelled, it was used for ordinary criminals, but also famously used to house American fighter pilots shot down during the Vietnam war (including John McCain).

There was a definite skew in the storytelling here. According to the exhibits, all the people imprisoned by the French were noble and wonderful and were subjected to unimaginable horrors by the vicious French. In contrast, the American pilots had a simply wonderful time in the prison (and there are photos and video to prove it!) and really, if it hadn’t been so strongly suggested by their government that they return home to their families after the war, they would have happily stayed there forever.

We also visited the National Museum that morning, and got thoroughly up to date with Vietnamese history and culture up to about 1900. (Did you know the Vietnamese repelled an invasion by the Mongols? Neither did I.) We also visited Ho Cho Minh’s mausoleum and the house where he lived for many years.

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I didn’t know too much about HCM, and after visiting this latter site I feel like I know even less. It felt like a Disneyland celebration of HCM – completely lacking in substance or information, and with a purely uncritical eye about the man and his role in Vietnamese history. I came away feeling kind of sorry for the guy – whatever he was like, all the interesting aspects of him have been expunged, and he is now pretty much some kind of saint. Forgive me if I’m skeptical about the reality of that.

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After having fulfilled the ‘culture’ quota of our trip, we spent the rest of our time in Hanoi walking the busy streets of the old town and finding good food.

We visited this place:

It’s apparently run by some kind of Vietnamese celebrity, and is only open in the winter months. This hole in the wall serves precisely three different things – sweet soups made of taro or black sesame, or sweet dumplings filled with either ginger coconut or black sesame, served in a ginger soup. Very Asian takes on sweet flavours, but everything (and especially the dumplings) was delicious. (We know; we sampled the whole menu.)

We also found an alleyway near the market north of the lake which was an embarrassment of delicious food items.

We had some delicious barbecued dishes, and were thrilled to find these gelatinous ‘footballs’, filled either with a pork and mushroom mixture, or a sweet coconut filling. We’ve had something similar at yum cha in Melbourne, but these were freshly made and absolutely yum.

As expected, we had some delicious pho soup for breakfast, served with crunchy doughsticks.

And in the evening we sought out bia hoi establishments. Bia hoi is basically homebrew beer, which is delivered to individual vendors daily in smallish kegs. The price ranges from 4,000-8,000 dong (about 25-50 cents) per glass, and while the quality varies considerably, some of them are very decent. Our favourite place was this bustling bia hoi joint, south of the Opera.

It was pretty big, and humming with an after work crowd. We both attracted plenty of stares, being the only Westerners there, and I attracted even more of them, being the only woman (apart from the waitresses). It was great fun; the waiters bring out enormous trays of glasses of beer, then roam around the place replacing any glasses that are even close to empty, regardless of whether you’ve ordered it or not. It would be criminally easy to get ridiculously drunk here. There was a great convivial atmosphere and some half-decent food, and it was a great night.

After a few days in Hanoi, we did what every single tourist does – we headed out to Halong Bay.

About 3-4 hours out of Hanoi, this huge coastal area filled with dramatic limestone karsts rising out of vivid green/blue water has become a ridiculously popular destination with tourists. Trips to the bay, usually overnight, leave daily, and at least 300 junks cruise the same few areas, crowding into sheltered coves overnight and visiting the same caves during the day. Watching the midday departure and arrival of thousands of tourists being packed onto hundreds of boats is a sight to see.

Alex and I were very keen not to have a horrific trip to Halong, something that seems relatively common, with competition fierce and some providers desperate to cut costs. We did our research and picked a relatively expensive trip that would give us 2 nights on the junk, and a program that took us off the beaten track, to some more remote parts of the bay.

While we had a pretty good time on the tour, it became apparent to us that the tour we had booked and the tour we were getting bore very little resemblance to each other. We had a fun day kayaking around a relatively clean part of the bay, but apart from that the trip was marred by confusion about where we were supposed to be and when. We had also become too used to being our own bosses on the road – the common tour group experience of being ordered to eat now, sleep now, wake up now was anathema to us.

After some stern words to the travel agents upon our return to Hanoi (we can’t, in all honesty, recommend Buffalo Tours) we did manage to recoup half of our costs. On that basis, we have to say that Halong Bay is a spectacular part of the world that is being sadly ruined. If you can, bring your own boat, and get the hell away from everyone else.

Hi Mum, I’m in Hue

Actually, we’re in Kunming at the moment (with a slight backlog of posts). Being in that well-known bastion of free speech, China, we’re also within the warm and protective embrace of the Golden Shield – which means no access to WordPress, Facebook or Twitter. At the moment, Flickr is available, but that is apparently a tenuous status. What this all boils down to is that we’re going to have to post blog entries by email. (Do let us know – by email – if this entry comes out wonky.)

Anyway, back to Hue.

Hue was a few hours by train north of Hoi An, during which we passed some spectacular coastal scenery. We arrived to a wet and miserable city – it was the first real rain we’d encountered on our trip. We had to break the jeans and jumpers in order to go foraging for our favourite thing – food.

Hue used to be the imperial capital under the Nguyen emperors. There are plenty of remnants of their pomp and majesty (more about that later) but in reality they were little more than puppets under the French colonial regime. One of the remnants of their rule is Hue cuisine. It’s said that emperors insisted on extravagant meals of 50 unique courses, with tea brewed from dew collected each morning. Some of the dishes are still widely served in Hue especially banh beo, tiny shallow dishes filled with rice flour jelly (like a thick and glutinous rice noodle) and topped with minced shrimp and a piece of pork crackling. Ladle on a bit of sauce, detach from the saucer, eat it in one bite and move on to the next. Delicious.

Most other Hue food we tried was relatively similar – combinations of thick rice noodle, minced shrimp and some kind of crunchy pork. It wasn’t very fulfilling as a full meal (severe lack of greenery) but wonderful with a bottle of the local beer, Huda. (Another of Hue’s local brews, Festival, is one of the best beers we’ve found in Asia.)

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We had a good spread of such food at Lac Thien, a stalwart of the Hue scene, always featured in guidebooks and run by friendly Mr Lac, a deaf mute. While you eat, he proudly fashions bottle openers from a length of wood and a bolt, signs them and gives them to his guests. The restaurant appears to be thriving, despite its neighbours – a bunch with an admirably entrepreneurial spirit, but slightly less than full respect for intellectual property. The surrounding restaurants bear names like Lac Thanh and Lac Tran and boast about their inclusion in the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. I’m sure they lure in some gullible punters, but gratifyingly the original seemed to be the busiest.

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One of Hue’s drawcards is the Forbidden Purple Palace, a walled palace within the citadel of Hue (and now neither for. Much was destroyed during the Vietnam war (and possibly also the war with the French? Don’t quote us on it) and by an earthquake, but there seemed to be a lot of work going into restoration.

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It’s beautiful, in quite a tame way. We wondered around for a few hours, enjoying the relative quiet.

The next afternoon we had a train to Hanoi to catch, but spent the morning travelling up the Perfume River to see a couple of tombs of the Nguyen emperors. They were designed by the emperors themselves during their own lifetimes (a bit egotistical, not to mention morbid) and were pretty impressive.

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Hi Mum, I’m in Hoi An

Another country, another UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. Yawn.

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Except not. Hoi An, the 18th-19th century village that served as a hub for Vietnamese/Chinese/Japanese trading, managed to escape the ravages of the Vietnam War and of the rampant growth which seems prominent in other cities in Vietnam. Its small streets, picturesque river and tiny alleys serve as a reminder of what the town used to be like, long before the tailors and the tourists moved in.

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There must be thousands of tailors in Hoi An. As soon as you mention that you’re passing through Hoi An, everyone has something to say about the tailoring. It’s great! So cheap! Really shoddy quality! Not as good as you’d get in Bangkok/Hong Kong/Saigon/Melbourne/Mumbai! Overpriced! Not worth it! Absolutely worth it!

Something that gets as many polarised views as this can’t be all bad. (See: Vang Vieng.) We’re moving to London and need a new wardrobe anyway, so why not? We ended up spending four days in Hoi An (having planned to spend a lot of that time at nearby China Beach, but the grey skies and low 20s weather put paid to that idea) and end up buying clothes from four tailors. We spend amazing amounts of time getting fittings, being carted around town on the back of a moped, often wearing bits of the suit being made, to visit ‘my uncle’, the head tailor, who’ll fix this lapel or that shirt. We make very good friends with the young, bored, vain girls who work in their family’s shop and spend their spare time looking in the mirror and buying cool, commercially made stuff. (Bespoke clothes? How old-fashioned!) We fend off continual cries of ‘Hello, you want something? Come into my shop!” In the end, we ship 15kg of suits, jackets, shirts and dresses to London, having paid a relatively tiny amount for what we think is really good work. (One of our tailors, Mr Xe, was only “90% happy” with one of Alex’s suits, and has promised to make him another one gratis and send it to London.) And we have a lot of fun doing it.

In the down time, we cook (a bit).

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We did a morning class at Morning Glory restaurant’s cooking school. It’s more of an exercise in assembling ingredients than really cooking, because (as you can see) there is absolutely no prep work to be done. Luckily, the food we make is delicious and we’ll be using these recipes again.

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We also spend a lot of time just wandering the streets and enjoying the sights.

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And of course, we eat. We have the local speciality, cau lau, a spicy broth with chewy wheat noodles, ‘croutons’ (deep fried squares of the same noodles) and herbs, down in the bustling market. It’s wonderful. The woman in the stall next door orders us to come and sample her banh xeo, small crispy mungbean flour crepes with pork and prawns, eaten with a handful of herbs and wrapped in rice paper. We are very obedient.

Another evening we find this woman plying her wares down by the waterfront.

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She was making banh can tiny little fried crepes filled with a single quail egg in each, eaten with lettuce, herbs, papaya salad, a vinegar dressing and a dollop of the local chili jam.

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It’s so delicious that we return the next day, and make friends with the little girls who were eating here as a treat, because it was the 35th anniversary of the liberation of Hoi An.

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It also coincided with Earth Day, when all (well, almost all) electrical items were switched off in the town for an hour. The townsfolk sold paper lanterns with small candles for people to float down the river while the power was out. It was a beautiful night.

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Despite the inevitable carnage.

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Hi Mum, I’m in Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City, as it’s officially known, is still Saigon to everyone else. We’d been hearing very mixed views on the place and quite polarised opinions about Vietnam itself for a while, so I was a bit apprehensive about spending three weeks in a country I might hate.

What we did find in Saigon was a vibrant city that’s undergoing change at what seems to be a great rate. It’s a place where new money is unabashedly on display (to get rich is glorious, right?) but communist propaganda still encourages the masses to do their bit for Uncle Ho. It’s a town that (at least aesthetically) benefits from its French heritage with plenty of green spaces, boulevards and colonial architecture but, in the race to renew, property disputes are settled with a wrecking ball. Saigon is a bit mad, but a perfect first taste of Vietnam.

We arrived after a six hour bus ride from Pnomh Penh, which is starting to feel like a very short hop. John, an old family friend, had kindly agreed to put us up for a few days and it was not long after we arrived that we were sitting in his leafy courtyard unwinding with a bottle or two of wine and making our acquaintance with his kitten Claypot*. After more than six weeks away from home we were maybe a little too keen for feline company, but Claypot didn’t seem to mind the attention.

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John, being The Man About Town, had an invitation to head down to the beach at a very flash new development in Ho Tram for a couple of days and we had been invited to tag along. Little did we know that this meant being initiated into expat culture – which as far as I can tell is a series of excuses for moderate to severe alcoholism. We did, however, manage to drag ourselves away from the martinis for long enough to go for a few swims and a tour of the local area in an old Minsk motorbike with sidecar – drawing plenty of stares and reactions from amused locals.

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Once back in town we got the chance to wander round Saigon itself and found that there’s more to it than the touts and traffic that everyone talks about (whilst both are very thick on the ground, they’re easily managed if you keep your wits about you). Picking from the list of sights worth seeing, we visited the euphemistically named Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum – the former being the South Vietnamese presidential palace (though a wonderful example of 1960s architecture) and the latter being a damning indictment of the “American War” interspersed with weapons and machinery used by US forces. Both sights offer a highly propagandised version of events, but that didn’t stop them being worthwhile, if only to help us appreciate the Vietnamese take on recent history.

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Propaganda makes Alex a hungry boy and it was fortunate that Saigon had plenty to offer when it came to getting our chow on. Whether it was backstreet banh mi carts, 1000-seat BBQ restaurants or restaurants serving snails, we found plenty of fantastic and dirt cheap eats (OK,  the fertilised quail eggs were an exception. Avoid those). The highlight were these banh xeo from Banh Xeo 46a.

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Crispy and delicious, served with more greens than we could identify, they’re produced by a couple of ladies working some ancient pans over open fires in a back alley outdoor kitchen. It’s places like this that I hope don’t get lost in Saigon’s race to reinvent itself.

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*Claypot is named after the large terracotta urn where she was found. Her predecessor disappeared after a neighbourhood sweep resulted in a large proportion of cats gracing the plates of local restaurants.