Saigon

Woke up this morning feeling much recovered from the flu-y bug I’d picked up — thank goodness! I’d hate to waste another day sleeping and feeling sorry for myself, and not seeing anything of Ho Chi Minh City!

We started the morning trying the incredible buffet breakfast at the Intercontinental, which had a spread of various joices, fresh fruit, cereals, hot breakfast items, sushi and some Vietnamese food. The staff were very attentive, and when I hadn’t touched my tea until after I’d eaten, were concerned that it wasn’t a good cup and wanted to replace it! They asked me to fill out a survey, including “what would you recommend us to add to the buffet”, and were very concerned when I wrote down “gluten free bread”. Did I want it right away, or would tomorrow be all right? I reassured her that tomorrow would be fine, so I think they will be scouring the city for gf bread now (or googling for recipes!)

Since we needed a Starbucks mug to add to our collection, we headed out in that direction first up, and found three Starbucks close to the hotel. Yup, the American conglomerates have begun to infiltrate! But at least I got a mug… ;)

One very cool thing we passed was an exercise park – a well-appointed public park with heaps of outdoor exercise equipment. R had a go on a couple of them…

Exercise park

Exercise park

We saw a shopping mall and decided to go in and see if it was any different (no, shopping malls are the same the world over). This one (lucky them) had a school across the road, which had just stopped for morning break, so hundreds of teenagers were racing around the mall. We found a bookshop in the basement which had a few English books, and even had some paranormal novels on remainder that I had to buy – can’t pass up $2.50 books!

While walking, we went past some kind of government building with various war machines out the front – a tank and a chopper at least. I hope there’s more than the tiny padlock on the door keeping this helicopter safe and sound!

Secure helicopter

Very secure helicopter

Next up was a massage – we went to a lovely place called Temple Leaf, which was reasonably priced and gave a very good massage, including oil, hot stones and a brief Thai-style “throwing around” at the end to crack the back a bit!

A bit of an indulgent day all round, really – lunch was hanging around in the exec lounge for afternoon tea to start – they have teeny weeny macarons! And then after checking out the hotel pool (warm, but not too warm – the only downside is that you have to walk through the fitness room past all the people doing proper exercise) the hotel sent us a cake to celebrate our honeymoon! Awww…

Awww...

Awww…

After trying out more of the hotel amenities (lounge again, then gym and pool) we started packing for the trip home tomorrow.

And I’m already in the headspace of my next trip, and have been busily booking advance rail tickets for Europe in August! See you then! :)

 

 

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Mekong Delta to Saigon

Wednesday dawned bright an early, helped along by the roosters, dogs, motor-boats and other early risers…

"pork belly" rice cake

“pork belly” rice cake

Breakfast was amazing, especially when contrasted with yesterday’s! We had fresh baguette and homemade wild strawberry jam (except me, and I had a great pho style noodle soup), “pork belly” rice cake, which has layers of various consistencies of sticky rice to resemble pork belly, tapioca dumplings, gorgeous little lady finger bananas and green tea and coffee with condensed milk. Amaaazing!

Floating market

Floating market

We left the lovely Mrs Ten and her family, and took the boat across to see the Floating Market. Unfortunately, it was a lot smaller than we had anticipated, with only a few boats there selling a small variety of fruits and vegetables. The big sellers seemed to be pineapples and sweet potatoes at this point, with the occasional coconut or other vegies.

Herb garden

Herb garden

It was interesting to see these boats though. As well as stringing the washing up across the deck, most had a small herb pot or two somewhere on the boat – obviously fresh herbs are so very important!

Rice paper factory

Rice paper factory

The next stop was to hop off the boat at a small town to visit a rice-paper factory (literally a sweatshop – really hot and sticky, with people working there for 12 hours a day on the same thing, either cooking the paper, stacking it, counting it, packing it… makes teaching seem very exciting and slack!)

Fish sauce vats

Fish sauce vats

Our next visit was to see the fish sauce factory – ohhhhh stinky. They ferment the fish in great vats in order to get the signature taste of Vietnam… I’m happy to buy it in a nice sealed bottle, after smelling that!

It smelled... aromatic!!

It smelled… aromatic!!

The last stop in the village was at a place which made various sweets – coconut toffee, puffed rice mixed with caramel, black sesame and nut toffee, and a few more, They had a couple of pet snakes here as well, but we weren’t offered a cuddle. T assured me they weren’t just being grown to be pickled in the snake wine!

Coconut toffee

Coconut toffee

The puffed rice was a pretty amazing process – one guy throws a bowl of rice into a huge wok filled with hot clean black river silt, mixed with a bit of oil, over a very hot fire, and stirs it around until the rice has puffed like popcorn!

Puffed rice

Puffed rice

We had a bit of a shopping binge here, with lots of great stuff like coconut wood utensils, the various sweets made in the factory (R bought a pack of the durian flavoured puffed rice snack, of course, while I stuck with the coconut toffees)

Coconut juice

Coconut juice

Then it was back on the boat to drink coconuts and head back to meet our bus to drive back to Saigon. By then the cough which had started in the morning had developed into a nice head cold, and I was downing cold’n’flu.

I still had enough stamina to hit the markets with the group when we got back to Saigon, but they were a bit of a disappointment. There were about five shops repeated ad nauseum throughout the markets, with overpriced stuff, much more expensive than elsewhere we’d been. Mental note – next time, buy the souvenir-y stuff in Hoi An or Hanoi!

Last cooking class

Last cooking class

Next up was our last cooking class. This was the class that we actually made all of our dishes, rather than just one or two, even though everything was already prepared and cut up for us. We started by making squid salad, then claypot lemongrass fish, then the instructing chef made a “light egg soup”, with tomato and egg and chicken stock.

It was all pretty tasty, but the kitchen was incredibly hot. Given I was already not feeling great, I was completely dead by the end of the night! Instead of joining the others for a celebratory end-of-tour drinks, I had to return to the hotel to sleep. The head cold had seriously taken hold! It seems that I made the right decision though – the group said that where they’d gone, the Rex, was incredibly expensive.

Obligatory cat picture, taken on the way back to the bus

Obligatory cat picture, taken on the way back to the bus

By Thursday morning I’d decided that I was cursed in South East Asia – just like in Cambodia in December, I’d gotten sick! Today was our moving day to the Intercontinental, and basically all I did all day was sleep and down Codral. Feeling a bit better now, so I’m hoping for our second last day tomorrow I’ll be back on track. I have to say, the Intercontinental is worth the price hike – the room is lovely (and we had an upgrade), we can use the executive lounge for evening canapés and drinks, and they gave us a fruit basket and a gift on arrival. Plus there’s a real-sized bathtub!

The view from our room at the Intercontinental

The view from our room at the Intercontinental

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Saigon to Mekong Delta

An early start this morning, heading off to the Mekong Delta area for a homestay and some local specialties. Unfortunately the hotel, as well as being infested with ants, decided that I’d taken beer from the minibar and also the slippers from the room! It took quite a few denials and T stepping in to convince them otherwise. I certainly don’t recommend Asian Ruby 3 for anyone staying in Saigon. The breakfast is enough to put anyone off, even without the rest – rubbery eggs, raw bacon, soft “crispy” spring rolls…

Uh-oh...

Uh-oh…

So eventually we headed out on the bus for an hour or two, with only one drama — being pulled over by the police! Apparently our driver had swerved slightly to avoid a pothole, and in the process had driven over the lane line in the road, resulting in a $120 fine and losing his licence for a month! We put the hat around to help out, so hopefully things won’t be too bad for him – $120 is a *lot* of money here.

On the long boat

On the long boat

After a quick convenience stop along the way, we reached the spot on the river where we hopped on our long boat. What a lovely way to travel!

Jackfruit! Not as smelly as its cousin the Durian...

Jackfruit! Not as smelly as its cousin the Durian…

We had a bit of a walk through the fruit orchards on our way to lunch, seeing jackfruit trees, green papaya, and of course pomelo. Interestingly, a lot of the plants in these gardens are in pots rather than in the ground – at least, the smaller cumquat trees etc. Might have something to do with having a high rainfall?

Lunch was at one of the homestay places, which was a collection of buildings on stilts above the river. The food was nice and simple, rice and salad with some meat and spring rolls.

Bonsai garden

Bonsai garden

The next stop was a bonsai garden, where we tried snake wine (yes, rice wine/spirit sitting in a bottle with a dead snake in it – ewww!) or at least, some people did!

Snake wine

Snake wine

This place also had a pet snake (possibly a carpet python?) as well as the usual dogs and cats, so the more adventurous of us had a chance to pose with Monty, the 35kg snake. Gorgeous!

Monty

Monty

Then we were able to take a leaf out of the locals’ book, relaxing in a hammock in the shade while it is hottest… lovely. We are pretty keen to get a pair of hammocks when we get home!

On the sampan

On the sampan

The final activity for the day was to be paddled down to our homestay in small sampans, rowed by local ladies. This was because the tide had lowered and out bigger boat couldn’t get through. Quite a relaxing afternoon.

The river

The river

The homestay was a large farmhouse along the river where the upper level had been converted into a dormitory. There were Western loos and cold showers, but no aircon! Thank goodness for fans, as the weather is still very hot and sticky here. We spent the late afternoon relaxing in the outdoor area in the shade, and then had a quick cooking class to make another form of spring roll, this one a small, thin one which is deep fried.

Cooking class

Cooking class

Dinner was amazing. Like pretty much all the meals we’ve had, we were all stuffed even before the rice came out! We started with the spring rolls, sweet potato chips, and a huge prawn each, and then moved onto elephant-ear fish which we ate in spring-roll style, wrapped in rice paper with lettuce and herbs. After dinner we played a drinking game with the iniquitous rice wine… ick! Too strong and aniseed-y for my taste.

Mrs Moy and her great-granddaughter

Mrs Moy and her great-granddaughter

We also had some time talking with nearly-80-year-old Mrs Moy (Mrs Ten), who has seen so many changes in the country. It was interesting to find out a bit more about Vietnamese culture, such as how wives must go to their husband’s family’s house, even now, rather than staying near her parents. She said it is sad to have a daughter, because you always know you will lose her. She also mentioned that she was taught elements of Western culture and cooking from the cooperative who oversees the homestays, so that they make the traditional Vietnamese food more appealing to the Western palate. I had thought that apart from putting extra forks and spoons on the table, we were getting pretty standard traditional food, but apparently they tweak it a little to cater to the visitors, such as adding more meat to the dish (Vietnamese people will eat a lot less meat than we do, getting more of their protein from vegetables).

Bedtime was interesting – since we were on the top floor, it was quite warm! We had the fans going, and all the windows were wide open to catch any breeze possible, so we were sleeping under mosquito net canopies. I think most of us were too hot to sleep very well, but we all managed a little sleep once it was cooler in the early hours of the morning.

 

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Hoi An to Saigon

4am: wake up to get ready for early flight to HCMC

4.05am: realise my tummy is still feeling unhappy after something I ate last night

5am: start bumpy bus trip to Da Nang airport

Good start to the day! After an unhappy flight (I asked the Jetstar attendant for some water just before takeoff and burst into tears at her when she asked me to pay for it, as my wallet was in the roof rack and it was all too hard) we did eventually get to HCMC without mishap.

Reunification Palace

Reunification Palace

En route from the airport to the hotel, we stopped at a couple of the big sights for a quick photo op – the others were all very understanding of my fragility and made it snappy (hur hur :) )

Outside the post office, looking a little wan

Outside the post office, looking a little wan

 

Notre Dame University

Notre Dame

The hotel let me check in early, and I retired gracefully (relatively) to chew quick-eze and try to sleep my nausea away, while the others headed to the War Museum and the Cu Chi tunnels. And apparently had a go at shooting various Vietnam War-era guns!

By mid-afternoon I felt human enough to attempt lunch, so I ordered what sounded like a lovely bland meal from room service – steamed tofu and mushrooms, and a side of steamed rice. Unfortunately what the menu didn’t mention that it came with a really tasty satay sauce with chilli! I did taste a tiny bit before isolating the blander elements, and it was really good.

The food was what I needed, and restored to health, I had a quiet couple of hours pottering around the hotel doing washing and organising my many purchases from Hoi An.

We tried to have dinner at a local beer hall, but decided to go elsewhere – the music was loud and they turned it louder despite our requests to lower it, the food was expensive and the killer — they had no cold beer! So we headed across the park to a place T recommended which offers some local specialities.

Rice pancake

Rice pancake

After a delicious entree of rice pancakes (which were like poached egg-shaped cakes of rice batter with prawns and pork on the top, which you ate wrapped up in lettuce leaf with some herbs, and dipped into the usual dipping sauce of lime, fish sauce and herbs) R had the pork tongue, and I asked for the snails, but apparently they’d run out. I swapped to crab vermicilli in a clay pot, after being assured that yes, they were in possession of crab, vermicilli and a clay pot :)

P's Pineapple Fried Rice

P’s Pineapple Fried Rice

The standout meals were those served in fruit! P had pineapple fried rice, which arrived in a pineapple! T and T both ordered the prawns steamed in coconut juice, so they were presented in a coconut shell!

We head out to the homestay on the Delta tomorrow, so we decided on an early night.

 

 

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Hoi An Day 3

Ahhhh free day!

We celebrated by waking up a little later and meandering our way down to breakfast. Then we scheduled in a massage down the street at the Pansee Spa to ease our aching and stiff muscles from yesterday’s bicycle extravaganza. Oh, and my sunburnt arms are now back to normal, if anyone was worried!

After the massage, we had our very important trip to Yaly tailors again to have our final fitting. The clothes are awesome – R looks fabulous in his suit and 20,000 shirts, and my dresses look pretty damn cool too, especially the leopard print silk. Yum! (but which sense of the word?? Tasty, or feeling a bit sexy?? Both of course!) I may have ordered another shirt dress in a purple and cream print (obviously feeling shopper’s remorse) and almost another silk dress in a gorgeous watercolour green and cream silk crepe… but I managed to hold back. They said everything could be delivered later tonight, along with an extra shirt I ordered up for Mum. After all, it’s Mothers’ Day :)
All the design catalogues at Yaly

All the design catalogues at Yaly

Since it was getting pretty hot again, we wandered back to the hotel to hang out in the bar for a bit with the others. We stopped past the place for R’s shorts, but they weren’t ready, so we asked them to drop them at the hotel whenever they were finished. Lunch was a very pleasant affair, with Mee Goreng and the traditional mojito…

Unfortunately the pool was closed today; something to do with pipes I think. We were informed about it over breakfast, and when expressed our sadness, the returned line from “Friendly” (seriously, that’s what her name badge said) was “Thank you for your sympathy”. Very sad!

Sunset from the hotel

Sunset from the hotel

The tailors eventually dropped off R’s shorts at reception, and when we collected them, it seems they have got their revenge at us not being convinced to pay more, by using a polyester fabric for them, rather than the cotton we had chosen! (The story was that they gave a price, then went back and tried to charge more, but we refused.) Plus they are too big and fall off R’s hips. Luckily, I have a bit more of a curve there, so I will be able to appropriate them for myself! Glad I bought him that gift :D Moral to the story: don’t go to Vu Thu tailors; stick with the more expensive but incredibly reliable Yaly! The girls we had help us were Cynthia and Marina – ask for them, as they said they get a bonus if they get good feedback from clients, and they definitely did a good job with us.

Beer hall

Beer hall

We popped out with the crew to the beer hall (beer shack?) for a quick one before dinner. This place seems to be the only place nearby which has the fresh beer, plus it’s really cheap, so it was popular with us, as well as a lot of others! We’ve popped in so many times that the staff know we like the table out the front, and tonight when that table was full, they moved all the motorbikes from in front of the next place so we could sit there instead!

Beer hoi

Beer hoi

Dinner was at another “local” place, which happened to be full of tourists chanting “Moat, Hai, Ba… Yo!” to toast as their tour leader had taught them. It was good fun though, a place where we assembled our own spring rolls from rice paper, skewered pork, boiled vegies, lettuce and herb leaves, and small fried spring rolls, then dipped into a soy/sesame dipping sauce. Vry tasty, but I was sitting near the deep fryer and an hour of breathing in the oil fumes and I wasn’t feeling too great. (I’m sure it had *nothing* to do with the mojito… or maybe it was a combination of the two). In any case, I was very happy to hop into a taxi and head back to the hotel, coincidentally making it back early for our appointment with the optometrist.

Wrap and Roll

Wrap and Roll

Tasty!

Tasty!

However, shopping fail. Even though they say “everything is possible in Hoi An”, it was evidently impossible to make a pair of glasses for an extremely short sighted gal in 24 hours, even though he managed to make R’s. Ah well, I’ll see what Saigon can offer.

I also had delivery of the silver jewellery (including an earring for R, so at least one of the pressies I got him works!) and the Yaly clothes. Woohoo! Shopping win!

Relatively early night – ish, because we have a very very early bus to the airport for our quick flight to HCMC.

 

 

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Hoi An Day 2

 

I want to ride my bicycle...

I want to ride my bicycle…

Today dawned horribly hot and sticky — even hotter than yesterday! Usually I cope okay with temperatures in the high 30s, but not when it’s 60% humidity as well… not great. More fun – we had a bicycle tour scheduled today, which in itself was fine (flat countryside meant easy pedalling, and pedalling meant breeze!) but standing around in 40C humidity while we had talks about various different aspects of farm life wasn’t conducive to happy feelings! Plus the bicycles hadn’t seen any maintenance for a long time and so the gears wouldn’t change, and if you tried, the chain fell off the bike.

Herb gardens

Herb gardens

Even though this bit wasn’t great, the countryside was actually pretty amazing, and we saw how to grow mung bean sprouts, how to make rice noodles, how they grow all the fabulous herbs to use in the fresh and tasty dishes we’d been eating. It just would have been good to have some shade.

Harvesting mung bean sprouts

Harvesting mung bean sprouts

The next section of the day was much less gruelling – a cooking class at the Morning Glory restaurant. Ms Vy started with fresh spring rolls, went on to demonstrate Cau Lau (pork and noodles with vegies), crispy rice pancake and rice dumplings. We then finished up with delicious icecreams (I chose lemongrass and coconut – yum!) and candied coconut and ginger pieces.

Making spring rolls

Making spring rolls

Ms Vy was interesting and articulate, and we all appreciated the airconditioning and copious amounts of cold water provided (and being able to sit down while cooking!) I’d highly recommend doing a class at Morning Glory; it’s interesting, well-organised, and airconditioned! ;)

Eating rice dumplings

Eating rice dumplings

Speaking of “yum”, that word in Vietnamese apparently means something dodgy (according to Professor Google, either blowjob, feeling lustful, or farting. Nice.) so we all tried really hard to not say it. Of course, as soon as it’s taboo…

Cao Lau

Cao Lau

After our delicious lunch, we scooted down to Yaly again for fittings. Mine needed quite a bit of work still, but they’re looking good (or as good as a sticky, sweaty woman sporting some enviable sunburn can look) so I’m really looking forward to tomorrow when I can pick them up!

We also had a shoe fitting, and they’re pretty good too! I picked up my tourist pants – fabulous – and ordered some shorts for R, and also managed to squeeze the CC a bit more at the jewellery shop, buying a couple of charms for my charm bracelet, and replacing a silver chain that had snapped a couple of months ago. One of the guys, T, had had some glasses made up really cheaply, and I had a bit of shopper’s envy, so we wandered downtown at dinner time, but the “recommended” shop was shut. There was another one further down the street which was open, and so after astounding the optometrist with how short-sighted I am, we picked out a pair of frames to be made up in the next 24 hours before we leave. Cross fingers!

Local Pho

Local Pho

Then dinner – we couldn’t track down the rest of the group who we’d vaguely posited to meet at the beer hall, so we decided to have a bowl of Pho at the place next door. Can’t really go past a $1.50 dinner, especially when it’s so tasty! (or is that so YUM? ;) )

 

 

 

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Hue to Hoi An

We headed out on the bus just after breakfast, so with a couple of stops on the way we were aiming to reach Hoi An by early afternoon.

Pass over the mountain

Pass over the mountain

The passes over the mountains were a bit hairy in places, with the occasional hairpin turn! The drivers seem to take things a bit more carefully through these sections, thank goodness.

Pass

Pass

We stopped at a roadside stall selling distilled oil from some kind of tree that smelled a bit eucalyptus-y, which T told us was used as a cure-all kind of ointment when Tiger Balm was too strong.

Part of China Beach

Part of China Beach

The first proper stop was on part of what used to be called China Beach, where we paddled and relaxed for a bit on the beach. We also stopped at another section of beach in Da Nang, before popping into a bakery for lunch. Not much gluten free there (of course), but I’d been warned, so I’d grabbed some chips at the previous stop. T did say that one of the cakes was just made from rice, so I tried it, but the old tum wasn’t too happy later on, so I think it might not have been entirely correct. I resolved to not take the chance next time!

After reaching our hotel in Hoi An, the Phu Thinh “boutique” hotel, we all rejoiced in the aircon before heading back out for a tour of the town. Shopping is really the raison d’être for Hoi An – mainly tailors, but also cheap imported tourist tat clothes, quick-turnaround spectacles, jewellers, custom shoe makers, and the list goes on…

Markets

Markets

T showed us a couple of “recommended” places, and then left us to our own devices in Yaly, the best tailor company is Hoi An. Dangerous, dangerous place. I ordered three dresses (one linen shirt-dress, one cotton print dress and one silk chiffon maxi – delicious!), plus had a couple of tops copied for Mum, and R went to town on a suit and various shirts.

While on our way back to the hotel, clutching the smoking Visa card, we passed a place making those zip-off convertible trousers, which I’d always damned as “screams ‘tourist’”. These were black with flashes of red on the pocket, so I buckled under and ordered a pair. Then I saw twenty other shops with the same thing! Oh well…

We also got distracted into a shoe shop, Kim Anh, which copied shoes from pictures etc. R bought a parti-coloured pair of Converse-style hi-tops and some dress shoes, and I ordered some teal sandals and a pair of green with yellow piping Mary Janes, and a green handbag. The shoulder straps are even long enough, because they were made to fit!

While we were in there looking at the leather goods, the guy from the place I’d ordered the pants from came rushing in to check that charcoal grey was okay for the pants, as they didn’t have black. Amazing that he found us!

Visa card fainting under the pressure, we headed back to the hotel just in time to meet up with the gang for dinner. We were going to a “family” restaurant which an ex-chef had opened up in his home, to try some local specialties.

Tomato and fish soup

Tomato and fish soup

Dinner was fantastic, especially when washed down with a mojito or three. We had a tomato and fish soup to start, king prawns with a cumquat sauce, gummy shark with stir-fried morning glory (water spinach) and roasted pork rib. There was a bit of unpleasantness at the end when they couldn’t work out who hadn’t paid for one of the drinks ($3), which seemed a bit rich since they were the ones keeping track, plus they got a significant tip from the group at the end.

The whole tipping thing here is a bit weird. Everywhere we’ve read says that Vietnam is not a tipping culture, and not to tip unless for really amazing service, but T enforces tipping wherever we are. The taxi drivers here expect so much of a tip that they don’t even bother trying to give change, and just drive off without offering the change which was a quarter of the amount paid! A bit cheeky.

 

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Hanoi Day 5 and Hue

beginning of watermelon flower

beginning of watermelon flower

After breakfast on the boat, the chef came up and gave us a demonstration on how to make flowers out of watermelon, and the infamous carrot fishing net from last night’s dinner. It was pretty amazing how he did it!

Flower takes shape

Flower takes shape

 

Carrot fishing net

Carrot fishing net

The trip back to Hanoi was enlivened by a stop at a Humanities Centre, which is where a number of people with disabilities are employed to make handicrafts. They do embroidery pictures, copying paintings and lacquerware. This place was basically a huge shop, with “silk” clothes (that would be rayon or polyester for the most part, but there was some silk) stone carvings, jewellery, as well as the lacquerware, paintings and embroidery made in the centre. We bought a small lacquer rice server and a couple of pressies for people back home :)

Back in Hanoi we had a couple of hours before heading out to catch the Reunification Express to Hue that night. A bunch of people used the time to fit in another museum (apparently the Women’s Museum is worthwhile) but the other half focused on getting snacks for the train ride, having a fabulous time buying up big on prawn crackers, chips, fruit and Vietnamese vodka (!) The search for chocolate was a little harder, but we eventually tracked down a couple of Snickers bars to assuage the craving.

Since we still had an hour before leaving, we whiled away the time in the beer hall next to the hotel. I don’t like beer, but I had a couple of sips of the fresh “daily” beer and it was quite light. Everyone else said it was pretty good, and at about 40c/glass, I think you can’t really go past that!

At the train station

At the train station

The train was a bit of an experience. We had the “soft sleepers” in an air-conditioned carriage, with only four berths to a compartment. Not a lot of room, but we did manage to fit all thirteen of us into one for a photo!

The whole group

The whole group

The evening was filled with raucous laughter which only became more raucous as the level in the Vietnamese vodka bottles drew lower. T, our leader, contributed a bottle of rice wine (is it still called wine at 37%?) which had the taste and smell of paint stripper. *shudder*

We fell into bed around 10.30, after a hilarious game of charades, and dare, which involved S selling a packet of prawn crackers to the Canadians down the carriage, and R taking a selfie in the compartment of some other guy who was already asleep (somehow). His girlfriend was apparently singularly unimpressed!

The train was relatively comfortable, but I don’t think it’s my favourite form of night transport. The bunk beds were narrow, but had a pillow and doona, and the aircon worked. The train had an alarming sway to it which felt even more alarming when lying horizontal, which made various doors and windows rattle and bang all night, impeding sleep for many of us. However, morning came eventually and we’d all managed at least an hour of sleep sometime during the night…

Bun bo

Bun bo

It was a bleary lot who fell out of the train at Hue, and we all appreciated our breakfast of noodle soup, Bun Bo. This is a central Vietnamese dish which is spicier than the bland Pho from the north, and has beef and maybe a bit of crab in it, as well as a lot of lemongrass and some chilli.

R made a name for himself putting a large spoonful of the chilli paste into his, which according to T was more than most Vietnamese would try! The chilli certainly helped to wake us up a bit, and the Vietnamese coffee (with condensed milk, of course) put a bounce in our step, even if temporarily.

We stopped at the hotel briefly to dump our bags and have a quick shower, removing some of the creases from the train, before heading out for our motorbike tour of Hue. This was pretty amazing, and I’m glad we were riding them in a “small” town like Hue rather than the frantic traffic of Hanoi! We weren’t driving, at least, but were perched on the back of the motorbikes with some very experienced drivers doing the hard work. It was a really humid and hot day, so the breeze generated by riding on the bikes was very welcome!

My expert motorbike driver, Dat, and me.

My expert motorbike driver, Dat, and me.

Our first taste was just 10 minutes down to the river to take a riverboat to the first stop, a pagoda and temple where there is a memorial to the monk who immolated himself in protest in 1963. His car is there, and also a photo of his heart, which apparently did not burn.

The monk's car

The monk’s car

The next step was a longer motorbike tour of the countryside around Hue. We saw lemongrass plantations, many, many rice fields, and lots of people drying the just-harvested grains on the roads.

We also stopped at another monument, a a tomb for one of the past kings, which was situated next to a lake with ducks. Beautiful, but we were all a little too hot and bothered to appreciate it.

Tomb

Tomb

As we were on our way to lunch, one of the girls, S, had a bit of a spill on her bike. A local guy came speeding out of a side track right in front of her, and their bike didn’t stop on the gravel, but slid over. All okay, apart from a few grazes, but we were all a bit shaken up, and rode very very carefully afterwards!

Lunch was at a nunnery, which meant that we ate vegetarian, almost vegan. It was lovely, fresh and well cooked, and even though it was all vegie, there was still a lot of variety. Soup, dumplings, rice with vegetables, salads and a sticky rice square with coconut and sesame seeds for dessert.
Mega-storm

Mega-storm

The rain started as soon as we arrived, after some pretty impressive thunder and lightning. Towards the end of the meal, the electricity was turned off, as the storm was directly overhead with some amazing lightning displays, and loud cracks of thunder!

We had to stay there for a while longer, as it was too stormy and wet to ride. It was lovely to just sit and watch the rain! A lizard popped out of the garden to catch the moths that were divebombing into the water, and we watched the lightning and the rain.

Eventually we had to move though, and some of us were a little apprehensive about motorbiking in the rain along the slippery paths we’d been taking. No further mishaps though, and at least the rain had damped down the dust.

Our next stop was the Citadel to visit more of the kings’ temples and memorials. This section was receiving much more of the restoration budget, so there were sections that were beautifully done, with lots of red and gold lacquer.

Unfortunately we were all really tired by this point, and were happy to just see the main areas rather than exploring the whole complex. I did have another celebrity moment when another tourist asked to have a photo with me. I should start charging a fee I think!

Thankfully, we headed back to the hotel after that, joining the throng of mopeds in rush hour. Even though we were gaining confidence, this was pretty hair-raising!

After a quick dip in the pool to refresh, we met for dinner at a local restaurant, Ushi, which had some really good food. I tried the crispy rice pancake for entree, which was nice, and then had the lemongrass and chilli squid for mains. This was delicious, although the chillis varied a lot in heat – I was able to have most of them without issue, but the last one had my eyes watering and my throat burning all the way down to my stomach!
Dinner

Dinner

R continued to build his reputation of the chilli man (earning his new sobriquet of “Scotch Bonnet”) by eagerly taking half a pickled chilli offered by T. Sweat popped out on his forehead, his skin turned red and he gulped down all the water he could get! Turns out, this inoffensive-looking pale green chilli is one of the hottest ones, and is only ever eaten in very small pieces mixed with food, not gulped down by itself in large doses!

After this, an early night was definitely in order.

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Hanoi Day 4 – Halong Bay

We started the day with breakfast at the Hong Ngoc hotel – lots of the usual continental breakfast food like pastries and fruit, and then some unusual foods like spaghetti, chips and of course, congee.

The bus to Ha long Bay left at 8, so we all piled on, waved merrily on by the street sellers who were back in force, wielding more booty: fans, necklaces, bags, as well as the expected tshirts.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

The trip took about four hours, including an obligatory stop at a ceramics factory for a quick tour and exit through the gift shop, There was some nice lacquerware, but the painted ceramics were quite mixed! R bought me a small soy sauce bowl with a short-winged dragonfly on it, which was cute. The much-discussed cafe had a good-looking menu, with cappuccino etc, so a few of us ordered one, only to find it was actually a “cappuccino” from Jarrah-style powder and warm water from a thermos, rather than anything approximating real coffee! Ah well, it was warm and had caffeine!

Next stop: the harbour of Ha Long Bay. We boarded our boat, the Ngoc Bien 6, our home for the next 20 hours or so. The boat had three levels: the top level was all su deck, the second held the dining room/bar and a couple of cabins, and the lower level had the rest of the sleeping cabins, including ours. The rooms were quite comfortable for boat accommodation, with a double bed and an ensuite wet room style bathroom, with the obligatory shower over the loo. At least there was enough hot water, which we were happy about later on.

Cocktails with lunch

Cocktails with lunch

We gathered for lunch in the dining room, and were regaled with eleven dishes for lunch including steamed prawns, salad, fish, sesame pork, and finishing with watermelon for dessert. The bar was pretty well-stocked, but no sparkling wine or cider, so I was forced to resort to cocktails — what a tragedy! The drink prices were expensive for Vietnam, but pretty good to Australian eyes – $6 for a cocktail!

boat-shops

boat-shops

There were lots of ladies in little rowboats traversing the bays between the cruise boats, selling snacks and drinks. They would row up to the side of the boat and call out “you buy something? You buy?” but their prices were amazingly high! One lady was asking 150,000 dong for a chocolate bar (about $7.50) – even worse than airport prices, if you can believe it.

The "cannon"

The “cannon”

The two activities for the afternoon were the cave walk and the kayaking tour of the bay. The cave walk was pretty amazing, even though it started off with 300 steps to get up to the entrance to the cave! We were treated to stalactites and stalagmites and some pretty awesome rock formations, including what one tour leader called “the cannon” and ours was calling something else!

view from the cave

view from the cave

The kayak tour was fabulous, even though our arms and backs are all pretty sore now! W headed out between the bigger boats and were able to go through a small cave area (Monkey Cave?) into a gorgeous secluded bay, where the only entrance was the water under the cave. Then we went for a loop around another cave formation before taking our aching bodies back to the boat.

Kayaking in Halong Bay

Kayaking in Halong Bay

We were pretty keen for a swim earlier on, but after seeing all the rubbish in the water as we were kayaking a few had second thoughts! Most of us headed back in for a dip before dinner, but not many were game enough to put their heads under water.

A quick shower to clean up, and it was time for pre-dinner cocktails! The conversation meandered a lot around differences in vocabulary between the Brits and Aussies, with some startled discussion of whether a “lolly” was a lollipop or any kind of sweet! And let’s not get into the doona/duvet controversy.

carved fruit and vegetable "bouquet" plus crab and prawns!

carved fruit and vegetable “bouquet” plus crab and prawns!

Dinner was amazing, even more so than lunch! The chef on the boat had created a spectacular spread, with stuffed crab, bbq’d prawns, carved fruit and vegetables, marinated fish served in a “net” created from a carrot, salads, a curry, and fruit for dessert. All accompanied by cocktails of course!

Fish in carrot "net"

Fish in carrot “net”

After dinner, T our guide showed a couple of videos, intended I think to show us something about Vietnamese culture. The first one would have probably been okay for an 18-25 year old audience, but we weren’t really interested in a pair of bmxing kids who were drinking snake blood and blowing things up. The second one went down like a lead balloon too, but for different reasons, with a hilariously purple prose narrator who sounded like he’d been to the William Shatner school of narration, leaving random long pauses in the middle of the overwritten sentences, One more metaphor about the Ha Long Bay hills being like the “lonely Pyramids of Egypt” and there would have been blows.

One by one, the group snuck off upstairs to the sundeck to gasbag, before heading off to our cabins to nurse our very full bellies.

 

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Hanoi Day 3

Pho

Pho

We started the day off with a quick walk to a Pho place, serving the traditional breakfast food, beef or chicken noodle soup. I chose the chicken, and it was delicious, a blend of silky rice noodles, tasty broth, melt-in-the-mouth chicken, and piquant herbs.

Our second stop was at the Hanoi Cooking Centre, where we tried some Vietnamese coffee, served either black or with a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk. This wasn’t too bad, but a bit strong for my tastes! We sat up on the roof terrace and people-watched for a while, leafing through cookbooks like the KOTO one we’d been given by a friend last year.

Frogs? Toads? Alive!

Frogs? Toads? Alive!

Once we’d forced ourselves to move, we all walked along to the fresh food market to have a quick guided tour. They had an amazing array of incredibly fresh food, a lot of it live!

Vegies

Vegies

There were a lot of recognisable foods, like various greens and herbs, and others that were not so familiar, like live toads (!!), water snakes, baby crabs, and some styles of vegies not easily available in Australia.

Durian

Durian

After trekking through the food market, the next stop was the Old Quarter for more food! We stopped for a couple of different types of street and local food, like rice pancakes, crispy spring rolls, fertilised egg (a baby chicken still in the egg, cooked in the shell), the famed stinky fruit durian (not as bad as I’d feared!) sweet potato fritters with shrimp, black sticky rice and even crème caramel. You can see the French influence here!

Kitties in the market

Kitties in the market

We jumped into taxis to take us to a traditional teahouse near the Temple of Literature to learn about Vietnamese tea. The expert was very expert, but since everything had to be translated to us, it took a really long time to watch his presentation, and since we’d eaten quite a bit just beforehand, there were more than a few yawns! The tea ceremony was interesting though, and we all tried a tea of our choosing afterwards. I can highly recommend the Honey Ginger tea.

Tea ceremony

Tea ceremony

The rest of the afternoon was free time until the cooking class back at the Cooking Centre in the evening, so a bunch of us went to a massage place T recommended, and had reflexology and pedicures. Almost fell asleep there, but ended up with fabulously relaxed and painted feet nevertheless!

Pedicured toes

Pedicured toes

I think I can safely say that the cooking class was the highlight of the day for most, if not all of us. We made a variety of Vietnamese dishes, like crispy seafood spring rolls, banana flower salad, caramel pork, and we watched as the teachers made a black sesame and crushed peanut dessert. It all tasted amazing, and we got to keep our Cooking Centre aprons and we have the recipes to take home, too. Thank goodness it was a lot cooler, as the class would not have been quite as fun if we’d been sweating onto our chopping boards!

Mixing

Mixing

A few of us decided to stay at the hotel bar for a drink before bed, and were eventually propositioned through the glass frontage of the hotel by a woman selling tourist t-shirts. She had one with Tintin, so I decided to grab one to add to R’s Tintin in Cambodia t-shirt I’d found him in Phnom Penh. Two of the others decided to get in on the action, so some heavy-duty bargaining came into play with the end price a satisfactory-to-all 60,000 dong each.

After all this excitement, we were having a fabulous time until the bar was shut and reception came to tell us to go to bed (at 10pm!) since we were making too much noise. It seemed a bit rich since we could barely hear each other over the street noise outside, but so be it, we headed to our rooms to pack for our trip to Halong Bay in the morning.

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