Monday, February 25, 2013

bye bye Vietnam

We hired bikes in Hoi An and rode through some beautiful countryside to to the beach, which was clean, sandy and full of Vietnamese families enjoying their weekend. We spent a couple of afternoons there chilling out, reading, drinking cold drinks and eating tasty seafood.

I rode into town a couple of times which was a bit scarier - junctions are slightly terrifying when you're in a huge crowd of motorbikes and wanting to turn left. There's also a stream of people riding bikes and scooters against the flow of traffic on the left hand side.. hey, if you're going that way and want something on the other side of the road then why not? It's crazy, you need eyes in the front, back and both sides of your head at all times but I survived!

I did a sunrise photography workshop which involved getting up insanely early (5am pickup - Dgym is not into photography or mornings so funnily enough he opted out), piled into a minibus with five other sleepy tourists and driven out of town to catch a ferry to a nearby fishing village. Fortunately this involved the intake of some lovely Vietnamese coffee and a gorgeous sunrise as we crossed the water, so everybody perked up pretty quickly. We were taken to see and photograph the fishing boats coming in to shore, women coming to meet the boats and fight and haggle over their contents, seafood being weighed and packed up, huge blocks of ice being chipped to keep the produce fresh.

We were given some very useful advice on how to photograph people, how to approach them and make sure it's OK to do so, show them the photograph afterwards and tell them "Dep!" (Beautiful) which often raises a smile. (Although you don't do this with busy fisherwomen) We were then led on a walk through the village followed by a visit to a fish sauce factory which gave us the opportunity to practise low light photography - i.e. steadying a camera / operating a tripod whilst also holding our noses!

I learned a lot anyway - it was well worth getting up hideously early for, and as if I didn't already have hundreds of photos to sort through when we get home, I now have hundreds more!

We flew out of Vietnam last week, having spent about a week and a half there. It's a tiny amount of time for such a big country and I think we barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. We arrived with a few preconceptions, mostly about it being less laid back, busier and less friendly than other countries in the region.

It's certainly noisier. The constant horn beeping in Saigon is insane, it got a lot less in Hoi An where there was much less traffic, but still the default state of most drivers is to be beeping as often as possible. It's not at all an angry beeping you might get in, say, the UK or the US - it's very much what beeping is actually meant for, saying "I'm here". Some might say it loses its meaning amid the hundreds of others also saying "I'm here" but hey.

We didn't find it at all unfriendly - we met many lovely smiley and friendly people in Vietnam, especially once we got away from the city. There was probably a little price gouging but we did find in some cases repeat business quickly started to earn discounts, so maybe it's not so much prices for locals but prices for regulars.

However, the taxi drivers need to start behaving themselves! We were aware of various scams when we arrived, so made sure to arrange for a taxi from a desk in the airport, and on the streets only pick up taxis from companies we "knew" to be reputable. Unfortunately we were still screwed over for about a tenner by a Mai Linh driver who decided the meter value (which read 40.0 or something for a 10 minute journey, meaning 40,000 dong which is about £1.20) should be multiplied up with an extra zero and we owed him about 400,000 dong. We were new to all these zeroes, and pretty sure he was having a laugh but didn't have much to back us up so we paid up, scowled a bit and moved on. Some taxis come with a sticker that make it unambiguous, this one didn't. Oh well... other journeys we took were fine but it pays to agree a price beforehand, or be very clear about how the meter works.

To end on a positive note about Vietnam: we are missing the coffee!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Vietnamese spam

More than a week after the Year of the Snake began, the Vietnamese were still wishing everybody seasons greetings and listening to Abba's"Happy New Year" which is now firmly stuck in my head.

We spent five days in Hoi An, a small town about half way up between North and South. It's quite touristy, with a very photogenic old town full of pretty buildings, colourful lanterns and little old ladies with pointy hats and fruit baskets. Westernised restaurants are common, with full english menu and the opportunity to have a hamburger or pizza.

However, it's not hard to find proper Vietnamese food in the form of street restaurants, which are much like Thai ones except the seats are much lower - think those little foot stools you stand on to get to a high shelf. The Vietnamese are short, but not that short! People throw their napkins and food scraps on the floor, apparently a holdover from when they had pigs snuffling around cleaning it all up, only they stopped using the pigs.

We had plenty of pho - I say too much, I'm not a big fan of the delicate aromatic flavour and prefer a Bun Bo Huey, which is a spicy noodle soup with beef, pork and lemongrass - it has a similar hot & sour flavour to Thailand's Tom Yum. Baguettes were a little disappointing, in the UK a Vietnamese baguette (Banh Mi) has meat or eggs or whatever and lots of crunchy vegetables like grated carrot, beansprouts etc. The ones we had in Vietnam were less crunchy and really just a strongly flavoured meaty sandwich which didn't really suit our tastes.

Spring rolls were a particular favourite with us, especially the rice pancake variety which are filled with lovely crunchy vegetables, shrimp etc. I tried the local noodle speciality Cao Lau, in which the noodles are cooked three times in a special kind of water that you only find in Hoi An - they had quite a delicate, unique flavour.

I went on a food tour which was pretty interesting - this involved a tour of the market, a walk around the streets of Hoi An, and sampling of approximately forty different foods and drinks spread over five hours. I had no breakfast and set out hungry, which seemed like a good plan but after about six foods I was ready to stop - I'd particularly enjoyed the first few things which included half a freshly made spring roll and a delicious sweet black sesame soup called Xi Ma - it looks like motor oil or tar in a steaming bucket on the street but I love black sesame flavour and it was delicious so I foolishly opted for a second helpings.

I made it through the full forty foods anyway, trying to pace myself and just get a taste of everything, settling into a steady pace of continuous low-level eating. By the end, I wasn't even particularly full and was ready for lunch a couple of hours later!

Other highlights included silken tofu melted into ginger syrup (so smooth and creamy), rice pancakes with minced wood mushroom, crispy wontons (another local specialty, they're topped with salsa and taste like a cross between wontons, nachos and pizza).

We learned some curious things about Vietnamese tastes - during the war, Vietnamese soldiers got very hungry and started stealing cans of spam from US army bases. Somehow the delicious spammy flavour caught on and it became popular after the war finished. Native versions are produced these days, and if you sit down in a Vietnamese restaurant and see a pile of long thin banana leaf parcels on the table, those might well be spam sausages to be snacked on while you wait for the real food. We had the opportunity to try both the beef and pork flavour of these and... well, let's just say I've never really got into the spongey meat scene. (I've also sadly never tried the real thing so couldn't possibly compare).

Monday, February 11, 2013

Happy New Year of the Snake!

Being in Vietnam over the Lunar New Year has its good and its bad points. Quite a lot of shops and restaurants are closed, tours unavailable etc. It's crazy-busy, especially in the evenings. I don't know how much busier than usual. On the plus side, the atmosphere is pretty amazing - so many people, it's mayhem but it's good mayhem.

I feel I have become one with the constant horn beeping. I'm normally quite averse to crowds but these ones are very non-threatening, no pushing or elbowing, and I think it helps being relatively tall here (Vietnamese are among the world's shortest people and at 5'4" I'm the same height as the average man!) Dgym is spending a lot of time hiding out in the hotel until either all the beeping goes away or we do.

We arrived in time to see the beautiful flower displays on Nguyen Hue, a wide street which has been closed to traffic for the celebrations. It seems a popular activity for young women at this time of year is to dress up in your prettiest dress (and there are some very pretty dresses) and smile your sweetest smile while posing for photographs in front of flower displays, fountains, bonsai trees and whatever else happens to be nearby.

Flower street

On New Year's Eve we went down to the flower street to join in celebrations and see the fireworks. The street was full of people sitting down eating sausages on sticks and chatting. Midnight came and there were fifteen minutes of fireworks - it was a bit weird not having Big Ben to tell us when the moment had arrived, although there was some beeping from nearby speakers. After the display was over everybody walked back very slowly and smelling of fireworks.

New Year's Eve, Saigon style

Next day I visited the Spring Flower Festival, quite accidentally - I wanted to check out a park on the way to the War Remnants Museum. It looked as if something interesting was going on in the park, and the something interesting only cost 20,000 dong (about 60p) to get in. Museum could wait! It turned out to be... well, an assortment of things but mainly bonsai trees, ranging in size from small to really small. Also some bonsai islands - big slabs of stone modelled into tiny worlds with trees, waterfalls, tiny people, pagodas and bridges. This turns out to be a Vietnamese specialty called Hòn Non Bộ and there were some really stunning displays. There were also a few more flower displays and some cacti which seemed to be a more permanent part of the park but it was really all about the bonsai.

Bonsai scenery

Friday, February 08, 2013

Crazy traffic

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a few hours ago. First impressions are that they do a lot of beeping here, and the coffee is insanely awesome, and we wonder whether there is some connection there. It is extra-crazy here due to the upcoming New Year - the streets are beautifully lit up, I'm hoping we'll see some flower displays tomorrow and everywhere people are carrying balloons and giant plants around on their motorbikes.

We were kind of expecting the traffic - it sounds like it makes a strong impression on everybody who comes to Vietnam. The advice normally given when crossing the road is to close your eyes, step out and let the traffic weave around you. You'll grow old and die on the pavement if you wait for a clear moment. What nobody mentioned is that the same rules appear to apply for cars and motorbikes at major junctions, either that or our taxi driver was a maniac. Bangkok traffic is already beginning to look tame.

We have, however, had a lovely dinner at the Pho 24 chain (with insanely awesome coffee), followed by a couple of delightfully crunchy spring rolls and what can only be described as very thin, crispy caramelised sheets of sliced banana.

Dgym's rabies situation is under control, in that he hasn't developed any yet and has an appointment for his day-3 shot tomorrow morning. (You have to be injected on days 1, 3, 7, 14 and 30) His hand is a little bit hurty but otherwise he is fine. I've never been fainted on before, and it would have been a whole lot less terrifying had I known it was perfectly normal to roll your eyes back and convulse for a couple of seconds when you faint.

I was actually taking photos when he was bitten. One minute it was "Aww, he has a monkey friend on his shoulder, that will make a lovely picture". By the time the camera was pointed and firing away, he had a second monkey not-really-a-friend jumping up and snapping at his hand. I'm not unkind enough to post that on the internet. As consolation, here are pictures of both of us disguised as spectacled monkeys:

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Taken out by a monkey.

We have been staying in Prachuap Khiri Khan for the past week, a nice little town about 4 hours by train from Bangkok. It is on the Gulf of Thailand so this is in theory a bit of beach holiday, but in practice it has been cloudy most of the time so we have just been enjoying some walks, books and game development - great stuff!

I know we often talk about the food on our travels but that maybe just because it is easy to describe. What is hard to explain is how wonderfully relaxed the atmosphere is. People just get on with their lives without rushing and it is a joy to be back in the country.

This morning we decided to rent some bikes and head back down to the air force base just to the south of town. Visitors need to sign in and out but they have a really nice beach and we wanted to make the most of a reasonably sunny day. They also have a small population of spectacled monkeys that are very mild mannered and will very gently take food from your hand if you offer it to them. We had fed the monkeys previously and decided to go see them again, hoping to see a baby because they are a completely different colour (apparently golden, but I would have said ginger).

What we didn't count on is that while a small amount of food will be taken quite politely, a whole bag of peanuts is far too exciting, and before I knew it I had a monkey running along my arm and trying to bite its way through the plastic bag, only to miss and graze my hand slightly with its teeth. Annoyingly it was enough to draw blood so it was time to wash the wound and go visit the hospital for a rabies jab, but before we got around to that there was the small matter of my tendency to faint when I see my own blood, which I did about a minute later (can't rush these things, I'm on holiday).

I woke up about 20 seconds later and was somewhat surprised to find that I wasn't in a hotel bed and that the vivid monkey dream I had been having wasn't a dream after all. Still feeling very faint I sat up and had a drink and some food while waiting for the ambulance that someone had called. The rest is prime example of the warmth and care that we have received in Thailand - we were taken by ambulance to the military hospital where I had the wound cleaned and was given the first rabies jab as well as some antibacterials, and then we were dropped off by ambulance back next to our bikes. Because we were on a military base and went to the military hospital it was all free of charge, but I owe them a big debt of gratitude.

Thank you to all the people that helped me today and got me back on my feet. And as to the monkey, well played to the victor by knock out!

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Floating market and a 4D film

We spent a week in Bangkok, recovering from jetlag, getting used to the heat and seeing some more stuff. It's a huge city and there was plenty we didn't get around to doing last time so we had no problem filling our days with things to do and filling our bellies with tasty food.

Floating Market at Khlong Lat
At the weekend we visited a floating market - I read up on various markets around Bangkok and decided that Khlong Lat sounded genuine and untouristy and also one of the easiest to get to (where easy to get to means going to the end of the Skytrain line and then spending 20 minutes in a taxi).

Getting to the end of the Skytrain line was a bit of an adventure, when we came to buy the tickets it turned out they'd added two extra stations worth of line since somebody had written the instructions for getting to Khlong Lat, so we could go even further out in that direction. We had to change at Wong Wian Yai (the old end of the line) and get a different train onto the new bit, which we hoped would take us two extra stops. It only took us one - turns out the last station isn't quite ready yet, but we had to shuttle back and forth on the train a couple of times to figure that out!

The taxi journey was interesting too, I'd marked the wrong location on the map so, following on GPS, we started to think he was taking us to the wrong place, but weren't too bothered as he had repeated the correct name back to us twice, and also the scenery was kind of pretty and it felt like an interesting adventure either way. We ended up at a market anyway, all day we were a little unsure whether it was the right one - turns out it was.

It's a bowl of tiny fried eggs!
Khlong Lat isn't the floatiest of markets - there were several vendors on the river selling food but they didn't move around much. I'd imagined floating markets to be more like a giant sushi bar where you sit by the edge of the water and food comes to you along the canal. Most of the market action was indoors in the fixed buildings, but it was still excellent and there were lots of interesting looking stalls, unfortunately we didn't eat that much as we've been finding the heat to be a real appetite killer. My favourite bit was the lady making pretty deep-fried crackers by coating a flower-shaped mould in batter and then plunging it into boiling oil.

There were also some tiny turtles in a bucket. I thought they were probably for food (no, I didn't eat any) and Dgym thought maybe they were pets, but further reading reveals that people buy them to release into the wild, which is supposed to bring good luck. Especially for the turtle, which has just escaped being eaten and/or made captive.

turtles in a bucket
Lucky turtles
I'd recommend Khlong Lat as a nice genuine market experience - few tourists, and it was nice to see people enjoying their sunday lunch! If you're after a bustling market with lots of boats, I hear Damnoen Saduak and Amphawa are better for that, although much further out.

We headed back to Bangkok soon after lunch as we had some very different plans for the afternoon, involving the 4DX cinema at Siam and two big buckets of popcorn. We'd always assumed that the fourth dimension is time, but how wrong were we? It turns out that once you've got a 3D film, you add extra dimensions by rocking the seats around every time there's a fight (we were watching Hansel and Gretel, which has quite a lot of those) and periodically spraying people in the face and releasing scents. My personal favourite were the back kickers which kept making me want to turn round and throttle the annoying child that wasn't actually sitting behind me. Basically, if 3D didn't make you feel ill enough already, 4D's here to help. It was worth doing once though - it was also my first 3D movie and whereas 3D alone is plain lame, at least 4D made it an amusing experience.