more messing about on the Mekong

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Having had our fill of the big Vietnamese tourist excursions, Mika and I decided that there was no amount of money that would induce us to take a 30-person trip into the Mekong Delta. So we decided to go to the bus station, hop on a minibus and see what happened and for good measure, and so someone could laugh at his quotes from ‘The Rock,’ we took Rob with us for the ride. It was a good decision, although to be fair we may have missed the floating markets, the popcorn making factory and the traditional Vietnamese dancing, I almost felt like I was scratching the surface of the country for the first time and actually getting a feel for the life here which is surprisingly difficult in Vietnam. We took a tiny minibus down to the town of Vinh Long on the banks of one of the widest sections of river and managed to get a wooden boat with a propeller out the back to take us up the river, at sunset, to a little guest house on the edge of one of the canals owned by ex-VC soliders. We had two tiny wooden bungalows set in a garden of green trees, flowers, giant butterflies and hammocks. Despite a lack on English on their part and a total absence of Vietnamese on our part we got some dinner and some beers and then set up the speakers by the hammocks near the edge of the water and drank in the hammocks listening to the sounds of the night boats motor past. Every so often the owner would come up to see how we were, sit down for a while chuckling to himself before patting Rob on the shoulder and wandering off again!

Mekong Delta, VietnamThe next morning after breakfast we walked down the path running alongside the canal past wooden houses and boats hemmed in by floating weeds. The local dogs growled at us on the way past and lots of locals laughed at us, presumably because we were walking about in the near midday heat when every other sensible person was napping in a hammock. An hour later we were back in the hammocks waiting for the boat to take us into town. From Vinh Long it was a 10km motorbike ride to a random bus stop, a two hour extended afternoon snack and chat with the local friendly security guys before we got a minibus up what may loosely be described as a road to Chau Doc. Sadly the driver had cranked up some local pop music through the loud speakers at ipod defying volume. I think I may have dis-associated for part of the trip in an attempt to keep myself sane. Amazingly it was 10pm by the time we arrived, very hot, very sweaty and dying for some food. The hotel we found had an enormous room, three huge double beds and after some excellent rice and beef washed down with Saigon beer from the street vendors, and luke-cold showers we slept like princes. Chau Doc is a really relaxed riverside town with a kind of French meets Asian communism feel to it. There are endless numbers of girls cycling around in their immaculate white traditional dresses with perfect posture and the usual ridiculous thousand and one things being ferried around on the back of motorbikes. The main street runs along the side of the river where the Mekong fans out into sections of floating houses on huge barrels, tug boats, clumps of weed and rowing boats. We are currently seeking refuge from the heat which has landed us in the only luxurious hotel in the town where we are drinking overpriced beers by the pool and eating all their free peanuts. Tomorrow we are off to Cambodia!

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the vietnamese prostitutes of Apocalypse Now

We finally had to leave the idyllic beaches of Phu Quoc and head back to the big bad city of Saigon. Mary had to get moving into Cambodia so Mika and I met up with an English guy, Rob, and some of the guys he was travelling with and with the influence of that many Brits together in a city, the next two days involved many, many beers, a thoroughly strange pub quiz, games of pool, hanging out in the Guns ‘n’ Roses bar and a visit to a terrible club called Apocalypse Now. Well actually the club was quite funny but it was full of aged white-haired men dancing to cheesy pop music with tiny Vietnamese prostitutes…nice!

We did manage to make it out to the Cu Chi tunnels outside the city which are fascinating but the tour bus we went on was the final straw for both of us. By the time the guide had introduced himself with a patter of terrible jokes, told us all we could call him John Wayne and put stickers on each of us, we decided this was the very last organised tour we were taking in the country. The tunnels themselves are interesting though; the were first constructed by the Vietnamese in resistance to the French rule in Vietnam and then during the war they were extended to cover about 250km underground, three levels, ranging from 80cm to 70cm in width and 1.2 metres high. They enabled the Viet Cong to hide, move supplies and people from the Ho Chi Minh trails in Cambodia and throughout the south of Vietnam. We got to crawl and scramble through about 100 metres of original tunnel which was very dark and very cramped. Clearly a career in subterranean communism is not for me. The strangest thing was the propaganda video that we watched afterwards, which did it’s best to glamorise the VC resistance showing them tirelessly working in the fields, digging more tunnels and enjoying relaxed games of cards. The commentator proudly announced that whatever happened they were always coming up with new ways to kill American soldiers. Military spin, it seems, never made it as far as SE Asia.

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the easy island life

Phu Quoc Island, VietnamWhat is it about islands? It doesn’t matter which part of the world you are in but when you put any kind of civilisation on an island small enough to drive around in a day, with hot weather and palm trees the whole pace of life just slows down and any urgency to do things kinds of drifts away with the tide. Getting to Phu Quoc island was probably the most I have actually had to work at transport in Vietnam. This country makes you supremely lazy, tourists buses have booking cafes a go-go offering you easy, inexpensive fares to everywhere you want to go, they pick you up from the door of your hotel, drop you off slap bang in the middle of all the hotels of your destination, in fact a trained monkey could probably travel around Vietnam with ease. Long Beach, Phu QuocThere are no tourist buses that go to Phu Quoc as sensible people fly directly there. We decided to take the hard route and besides, the flights were all booked out. So we had to get a taxi and a minivan to the bus station and then get a local minivan bus six hours across the bumpy roads of the Mekong Delta to Rach Gia. There were two tiny old women on the back seat with Mary and I and quite frankly they were mean. They were at least half our size and took up all the space, refusing to budge and then sprawling against and over the seats with their wrinkly arms and legs. Nice! It was a long ride to Rach Gia. We spent the night in a little hotel and then caught the morning ferry over to the island where a local bus ride and 30 minutes of phaffing up and down the guest houses on the back of three motorbikes eventually brought us to somewhere to stay!

Mary getting suited up on the boat, Phu QuocWe’d picked a small place with a series of spacious but simple bungalows with balconies and hammocks in a long garden that lead down to the beach and beautiful views of the island. All the places to stay are along the west coast in an area called Long Beach. Our section of beach was covered in white sand, a few shaded sun loungers, a few small rocks lay in the impossibly clear waters that led out into the warm turquoise sea. Blue sky, white puffy clouds, restaurant right on the edge of the beach and cheap, ice cold beer. What more do you need. Well rum actually. Mika and I brought a litre of cheap dark rum and cans of Diet coke thinking we’d never drink the whole lot. Then after dinner Mary went to bed and somehow the two of us were up chatting watching a seriously impressive thunder storm rage outside and bizarrely, by 4am, we’d finished all the rum!

Bat Fish, Nudibranch gardens, Phu QuocThe next day we managed to do nothing but swim, eat, read and lie dozing in the hammocks. I’m not usually a beach person but it’s been a long time since I switched off and properly relaxed, so it felt wonderful. The next day we went out diving in the northern area of Phu Quoc. I hadn’t done any diving for two years so although the visibility wasn’t great it felt really good to be under the water again and it has got me seriously excited about diving in Malaysia. Me Scuba Diving, Phu Quoc, VietnamWe did see the most incredible jellyfish on the first dive, a huge pulsating pink and red translucent animal with dozens of tiny white fish swimming around beneath the umbrella of it’s body. I was torn between trying not to get too close and trying to get a good picture with my new underwater disposable camera! Between the low visibility and infrequent sunshine the photos are, interesting, but I’ve put some on anyway, they kind of have an blurred, exploration of unknown depths kind of quality to them! Mika and Mary, Phu QuocThe second dive was at a place called Nudibranch gardens and apart from the beautiful branch corals everywhere it is known for the Nudibranches which are small slug-like creatures in psychedelic purples, yellows and blues. They look a little like those weird lighters they sell at festivals with fluorescent spikes sticking out of the sides! There were also bat fish, which were far larger than I’d realised from the photos, and when I turned around to spot one I was somewhat startled to see something the size of my head peering straight into my goggles. I backed up a little hurriedly and managed to take out a chunk of dead coral reef behind me… I’m so graceful!

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a city on two wheels

The crazy wiring in SaigonFinally arrived in the far south of Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City, practically everyone still calls it Saigon and it is not the large, polluted, overwhelming Asian mayhem that everyone makes it out to be. Or maybe that’s me coming from a post Mumbai/Delhi/Kolkata perspective. Still the tourist area is a collection of small, easily navigable streets with plenty of cute street side cafes, bars, travel agents and guest houses and a million shops selling photocopied Lonely Planets, Nick Hornby novels, fake DVDs and Good Morning Vietnam t-shirts. For our last day together before he headed to Cambodia I dragged James into town to see the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum.

James and the motorbikes, SaigonOnce we got into the centre of the city the traffic did get noticeably crazier, there are just so many motorbikes, it is as if the whole place moves, breathes and pulses on two wheels and they carry anything and everything on the back of those wheels. James decided it was time for some comedy photos in front of the rows of waiting cyclists at the traffic lights. Comedy photo but it did very nearly end in tears!

reunification palace, saigonReunification Palace is like stepping back in time. It was built in the 1960s and was home and administration centre for the somewhat short-lived presidents of the Southern Republic of Vietnam before in 1975 the Communist troops from the North famously rode down the gates in two tanks and took control of the country. Now the rooms are immaculately preserved (and still sometimes used for visiting dignitaries) in a kind of 1970s time warp with their retro furniture, old fashioned bars, conference rooms and banquet halls. There are also two floors of bunkers beneath the palace with the old maps showing the allied and VC unit positions during the Vietnam war and rows of round dialed beige plastic telephones.

Saigon motorbikesThe War Remnants Museum is interesting but harrowing in places. It basically portrays a heavily Vietnamese sided account (obviously) of the Vietnam War in photographs and war relics, but mainly told through the pictures and interestingly most of the pictures were taken by American War Photographers. More Motorbikes, SaigonIt definitely manages to show a no holds barred, warts-and-all portrayal of war, from the pictures of the American soldiers crawling through mud in the torrential rain, pictures of women screaming as rifle butts are pressed up against their cheeks, a solider holding up the remains of a farmer who has stood on a mine; his head, shoulder and arm hanging down while the rest of his body lies in parts around the ground. I sometimes think that anyone who ever comes into a position where they have huge political or military power should have to sit through photos like these to understand the possible ramification of their decisions.

This evening we met up with Mika and Mary who were on our Halong Bay trip and who James was hanging out with in Nha Trang. Tomorrow James heads to Phnom Pehn and the three of us are going to try and get ourselves across to Phu Quoc island by local transport, a something they try very hard to keep you away from in Vietnam, could be interesting!

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easy riders and the crazy house

Swan Pedalos in DalatWell having gone our separate ways James and I ended up arriving in Dalat in the Central Highlands of Vietnam on the same afternoon which was a good enough excuse for me to book us into a slightly nicer hotel with a jacuzzi shower. How have I managed thus far without one, they are the most wonderful inventions. That and the hotel had a truly enormous breakfast spread of passion fruit, pineapple, dragon fruit, baguettes, peanut butter and eggs, definitely worth $10 each for the night.

Me and Thai, DalatDalat is Vietnam’s no. 1 honeymoon spot and looks very different to the rest of the country. It has a cool climate and is set up in pine forest mountains and feels bizarrely like stumbling on a mini Asian-influenced region of the Alps. The centre of town surrounds a peaceful lake about 2km along with locals fishing and jogging and Vietnamese tourists out in pedalos shaped like giant swans or taking horse drawn carriage rides along the road alongside the golf course. Dalat countrysideIn the evening we went to find the Easy Riders of Dalat, a ever-growing group of freelance motorbike drivers who take Western tourists (apparently the local tourists like to do things in big tour buses only) zooming around the area on their bikes for a handsome amount of US dollars. They hang out drinking beer in the Peace Cafe in their bright blue Easy Rider jackets and fairly soon we had sorted a trip for both of us for the following day. The trip was a lot of fun and both our drivers were really nice guys, I was one the back of Thai’s bike and James on Renee’s. Most of the bikes in Vietnam seem to be Honda dreams, they are in Thai’s words “pieces of shit but cheap and easy to buy!” We began the day by visiting the most bubblegum coloured theme park like Buddhist temple I’ve seen yet in Asia, the Vietnamese do love their kitsch and there is no such think as overdoing the decoration. Silk worm cocoons, DalatThe gardens to the side of the temple housed a huge brightly coloured dragon that wouldn’t have looked out of place with a slide down it’s back in a children’s playground. It was kind of cool. We saw a lot of the countryside with pine forests on the slopes above the road, a thicker denser jungle forest below. Elephant waterfalls, DalatWe stopped off to see vegetable gardens, strawberry fields, flower farms in huge glasshouses, a mushroom farm (weirdly looked like a scene from ‘Alien’ with suspended lines of round pod sacks hanging in a damp room from which they cultivate the fungi), silkworms and a silkworm factory. Also to James’ delight found our first impressively beautiful waterfall in SE Asia, not easy in the dry season. The walk down to Elephant falls was muddy, slippery and involved plenty of scrambling but was worth it for the view of the falls framed by the trees. 

Passion Fruit flower, DalatWe had a very cheap and very good lunch on a balcony restaurant overlooking the valley and the coffee plantations and chatting to our Easy Riders. Thai was very impressed we were both travelling on our own funds and not our parent’s. “Vietnamese children are different, they are always asking their parents for money,” he commented darkly. We finished the day off at the Crazy House in town. To be honest I think crazy is an understatement, imagine Gaudi extremely high on acid, overdosed on Vietnamese kitsch and inspired by a combination of gothic architecture and the Brothers Grimm,Crazy House, Dalat let his imagination loose in wire and plaster in the middle of Dalat. There are winding walkways in yellow and grey, giant giraffe heads, huge wire spider webs, low ceilings, melted turrets and everywhere twists and turns that connect the strangely themed rooms. Hang Viet Nga is the woman who designed and built the Crazy House and who is still building it, she has managed to avoid any political criticism and discouragement as her father was helpfully ‘Uncle Ho’s’ successor, so she has been allowed free reigns for her creative ambitions. You can actually stay in there, in rooms with strange globular shaped beds in corners, mirrored ceilings and giant kangaroos or bears with red light bulb eyes to keep you company. In the designers words: “Living in the Da Lat, the surrounding wilderness inspired me to focus on nature.” Well maybe those giant swan pedalos on the lake were a little strange but seriously? All very cool, but you wouldn’t want to sleep there!

Easy riders, Renee and Thai, Dalat

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smiles and sunshine on the walk to Sin Chai

Photos from the two hour walk that Jordan and I took to Sin Chai on our last day in Sapa…

Sin Chai Jump shot! Kids in Sin Chai Hills around Sin Chai Terraces in Sin Chai

Piglets up to no good in Sin Chai Kids in Sin Chai Bamboo, Cat Cat Village 

Sapa Fat Adult Pig, Sin Chai

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the dangerous drinking games of the Black H’mong

Boozing at Hanoi BackpackersJames and I spent the weekend at the Hanoi backpackers, mainly drinking, well if they will offer free kegs of Bia Hoi on the roof. And besides those Sunday afternoon beers were purely to settle the hangover from the previous night. Apart from drinking we did manage to go and see the water puppet theatre by the river which I loved. The puppeteers are concealed behind bamboo screens and skillfully manipulate the wooden puppets by bamboo pools concealed in a deep pool of water on which the performances take place. There were farmers riding buffalos, dragon boat races, a mating dance of brightly coloured phoenix and two golden segmented dragons that shot fire from their mouths. Red Zao, SapaI think I was more captivated than half the children present! Finally on Sunday it was time for James and I to separate, partly as we wanted to go off to different places and to stop us potentially killing each other in the future, so now I have no chance to redeem myself at cribbage. I left him in the company of three lovely Irish girls and took the rather luxurious tourist carriage on the night train north to Sapa.

Afternoon mist in Sapa, Vietnam I arrived in Sapa at an ungodly hour of the morning with an American guy called Jordan and our new Welsh friend Marina. We spent about two hours eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant watching the changing white grey mist shroud the entire town and countryside…so much for the fantastic views! The rest of the day in the mist was amusing, it was impossible to see more than about 10 metres. Sapa is a tourist town with steep streets surrounded by villages of various ethic minorities of Vietnam, particularly the Black H’mong and the Red Dzao whose women frequent the town in large numbers smiling broadly in their traditional dress and try to persuade you to buy handcrafts from them. They are lovely though once you get chatting and I brought earrings from a woman called Mai, and her friend Mai (same word, different pronunciation that we all failed to get after 10 minutes) Mai and her baby boy, Sapaand we ended up swapping some of her embroidered wrist bands for my Indian bracelets which she loved! We had sizzling local meat dishes for dinner and played cards and drank mulled wine before Marina and I totally failed to get the fire going in the room, it is pretty chilly up here.

Rice terraces, SapaThe next day Jordan and I left on a two day trek into the valley with our guide, a 19 year old H’mong girl called Za. All the local guides are women, they all speak amazingly good English and they are highly amusing. The men have no contact with tourists and don’t speak English, where as the women pick up the language and sell handicrafts in the markets and basically end up supporting their families. In the villages of the H’mong, the women are most definitely in charge!

Za and G, Black H’mong guidesWe got dropped off 10km from Sapa and walked down through the rice terraces that literally cover the hillsides like huge green contour lines. In places we were side stepping along the edges of the terraces our hands being held by tiny local women to stop us falling in. We passed ducks bathing in the water, splashing buffalo, women working in the fields and the clouds swirled and drifted over the tops of the hillsides as we passed. The final part of the walk took us down a steep but scenic path into the pretty village of Ban Ho at the bottom of the valley in a crook of the river.

There were about 16 of us spending the night in the homestay in Ban Ho run by a Black H’mong woman called Lam, five months pregnant with two twinkling gold teeth and a wicked laugh. We had the most amazing dinner of beef, chicken, tofu, cabbage and spinach dishes with heaps of white rice. Me downing another shot of rice wineAfterwards we’d all had a few beers and the girls came out with three litre bottles of rice wine, “Happy Water,” announcing we were drinking all of it. And they helped. I don’t know what I expected of a homestay, but playing cards and drinking games and getting pissed with a group of women from a north Vietnamese ethnic minority was maybe not one of them. When any of the boys refused a shot B and Lam would accuse them of being lady boys and burst into hysterical laughter. I told B she had to keep eye contact when saying cheers otherwise she would have bad sex for seven years. She went bright red, the started laughing saying. “I don’t know these things, I’m not married yet!” She then told all the other women and ever time we said cheers they kept opening their eyes wide and laughing. It was a hugely entertaining evening.

Buffalo on the terraces, SapaThis morning we were all not too bad considering the amount everyone drank the night before. Jordan, myself, Za and another couple went for a long walk around the village past the thermal spring pools (we had an almost hot dip in them the previous night) and around to a tiny waterfall falling into a large green pool and falling over the rocks down to the village bridge. Vietnamese pot bellied pigThen we had a long walk uphill back to the main road. It had rained heavily overnight and as a result the path was a total mud bath. It was messy and slippery work getting back to the top but amazingly I managed not to fall over. After a noodle lunch we got taken back in a jeep to Sapa and to a warm shower and clean clothes!

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karsts and karoke from Hanoi to Halong Bay

Ducks in HanoiThe overnight bus from Hoi An to Hanoi was something of a curiosity. From the front looking in you can see three narrow rows of wooden ended bunk beds, slightly slanted and very narrow and built for skinny people about 5ft tall, not the most comfortable way to travel. And of course the ubiquitous terrible Asian pop music that cranked up at 6am in the morning so loud that the bass was seriously distorted. The Vietnamese bus drivers are real sadists! By 8am we had caught a taxi and arrived at a beautiful old French colonial house just outisde the old part of Hanoi where my friend from uni, Kate was living. It was so nice to arrive in a house, she made us coffee in her huge kitchen before heading off for work and the two of us crashed out for the rest of the morning.

Bia Hoi corner, HanoiHanoi is a bustling, motorcycle-ridden fascination of charming houses, insane electrical wiring, suicidal traffic and a lovely central lake. Everywhere you go smiling women carrying balanced bowls of fruit blackmail you into buying delicious bags of pineapple after taking their photos. We spent our two days booking trips and place tickets and getting happily lost in the back streets. On one street we discovered what the death rattles of dying frogs sound like. A lady was squatting down on the side of the pavement with a bag of wriggling fat green frogs. She pulled each one out, held it forceably down on a wooden block and with one swipe of a machete took off it’s head as it emitted a final sad high pitched croak before consigning it to the growing pile of headless animals. Yum! In the afternoon we found a small junction in the centre of the old town with a tiny Bia Hoi cafe on each corner. You sit on the pavement on tiny plastic chairs and drink rather good and incredibly cheap local draught beer for about 10p a glass while you watch the world go past. In the evening Kate took us to a wonderful open air restaurant that serves all the varieties of street food in Vietnam. We had squid, pork balls noodle soup and swan which was rather good. Having seen the dark side of swans on many punting trips in Oxford I have to admit eating mine with a slightly savage relish, no Queen to protect the evil white beauties in Vietnam!Kids at Uncle Ho’s, Hanoi

I also went to visit Ho Chi Minh, affectionately known as Uncle Ho and one of the most beloved figures of Vietnam. His mausoleum is a huge grey columned square that attracts throngs of school children and Vietnamese every morning along with a sprinkling of western tourists. You cannot take cameras or bags inside and your every move is scrutinised by guards dressed all in white or pea green carrying intimidating bayonets. As the longline filters inside the building Uncle Ho is laid out in a glass coffin with an eery oranged light bathing his waxy face and hands. Around him sunken down in the floor stand four guards and behind is two huge marble backdrops displaying the twin signs of Vietnam and Communism. Very bizarre indeed.

Our Junk Crew, Halong BayOn Thursday morning we set out on a two day trip to Halong Bay and had a bus load of really chatty, really friendly travellers. Everyone was talking away before we even got into the minivan for the three hour trip and we also had a comedy three stooges (our guide, a trainee guide and another random suited Vietnamese guy) telling stories and cracking jokes the whole way.

Halong BayAt Halong Bay City we boarded a beautiful wooden junk and motored out towards the bay. The weather was grey and overcast which added an ethereal air of mystery, shrouding the huge limestone karsts as we approached the bay and obscuring the line of the horizon so that the small fishing boats appeared to by floating in a sea of grey. Cave, Halong BayThe bay is stunning, even in the clouds although not the best conditions for taking photographs. We visited an really beautiful but hugely touristy cave complete with a large penis shaped rocks thoughtfully lit with a red light (that provoked a good 15 minutes of taking comedy photos) before taking kayaks out into a hidden bay under an overhang. The water is a really incredible dark shade of turquoise green against the sharp grey black rocks and lush green vegetation of the karsts.

Halong Bay fishing boatThat night we moored up among the other tourist boats and as night fell all the lights surrounding the area looked like a floating village on the water. Our two boats got together and ended up having a huge Karoke and beer fest until midnight which was highly amusing although I think watching my brother perform Phil Collins is an experience I probably don’t want to live through twice. The next day we were all vegged out on the deck watching the scenery roll past as we made our way through the rest of the bay and past the symbol of Halong Bay, the fighting cock island at the gateway, before heading back to land.

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cooking classes, Cua Da Beach & custom-made clothes

School girls in Hoi AnI am definitely falling victim to the infinite charms of Vietnam. This place is coming close to rivalling India for the sheer number of photogenic opportunities, whether it is farmers plowing rice paddies with huge horned buffaloes, the women in their cone-shaped hats paddling with one oar down the river, or the beautiful 18th and 19th century architecture in the town of Hoi An. Farmers near Hoi AnThe food is wonderful, the history is intriguing, Vietnam has, over the centuries fought off most of the big bad boys of Asia; the Indian Chams, the Khmers, the Chinese, and of course more recently the French and the US. I found this quote in the history section of the guide book that I particularly liked written by Le Loi who rallied the country successfully against the Chinese in 1428:

“Our people long ago established Vietnam as an independent nation with its own civilisation. We have our own mountains and our own rivers, our own customs and traditions, and these are different from the those of the foreign country to the north…We have sometimes been weak and sometimes powerful, but at no time have we suffered from a lack of heroes.”

Japanese bridge? Hoi AnJames and I arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon after a scenic drive through the rice fields and along the sea front through the town of Danang. Hoi An is full of charms, full of restaurants serving white rose (shrimps wrapped in rice paper bundles), hot pot soups of sea food and spice, LaRue beer, cafes, bars, a river front lined with brightly coloured boats- all with ominous white and black eyes painted either side of the prow, markets, old women in pointed hats selling sticky slabs of sugary peanuts, the streets are lined with brightly coloured beautiful houses, palm trees, red and pink flowers creeping over tiled roofs, old ceremonial chambers with Japanese, Chinese, French and Vietnamese architecture all blended together, and most dangerous of all Hoi An boasts an incredible 400 tailor shops.

Hoi An riverW e were recommended a tailor shop called Peace by our hotel and we went around on our first morning. I planned to get one dress and maybe get a copy done of the top I brought in Brazil and have worn to death travelling. The women in our tailors are lovely, and the things they make are beautiful and lets just say that this is day three in Hoi An, James has one suit, two trousers and three shirts and I have a total now of one Vietnamese traditional outfit, two tops, one dress, a formal skirt and a winter coat. Whoops. I have told the owner if she talks me into getting anything else I will stop recommending her shop to people!

CuaDaBeachApart from popping into the tailor shop (which invariably involves the girls getting me to try some weird fruit or sample a local soy bean drink while we have a chat) we’ve been wandering around the old town, visiting the historical sites, sitting drinking Orangina in cafes, cycling down to Cua Da Beach and vegging out on the soft sands, eating incredibly well in the wonderful restaurants in the evenings and drinking ice cold beers while we play cribbage in the bars (I am still loosing)!

Cooking class HoiAn

Today I left James and went to have a half day cooking course with the Red Bridge Cooking School in town. We started off with a tour of the local market and I found out what a good deal of the unusual fruits and vegetables were, my favourite being a nobbly wrinkled green fruit which is a bitter melon. Tastes like crap apparently but is very good for the body! Unusually for someone who generally has the domestic leanings of a fruit bat, I ended up buying kitchen utensils! A very funky mutli-purpose blade that slides dices, peels and shreds, it’s actually very cool! River crabs, Hoi AnAfter the market we all piled into a colourful wooden boat and travelled down the palm fringed river to the cookery school pausing to watch a local fisherman expertly fan out his net into the water to catch fish. Well actually he wasn’t catching any fish just then, he was showing off for the cameras and then frantically paddled up to ask for some money!

The cooking course was brilliant, and our chef had a very dry sense of humour which is unusual in Asia, he kept saying the most amusing things in a totally dead pan tone:

“For this use lemon grass, or if you don’t have lemon grass use fresh ginger. If you don’t have fresh ginger in your country…move.”

We learnt how to make spring rolls, rice paper, seafood salad, Hoi An pancakes, Aubergine in clay pots and cucumber and tomato carving. We ate all the food we made and then had yet more for a late lunch, we were all stuffed as pot-bellied pigs when we climbed back aboard the boat back to Hoi An.

Hoi An Fisherman

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where there’s a will there’s a Hue

Citadel, Hue I have no excuse for the blog title whatsoever, apart from the fact that it was too wonderfully cheesy to resist. James and I spent our day in Hue on a City Tour, all the obvious sights and sounds of the city in one hit and to be honest it was a pretty good day. We visited the Forbidden Purple City in the centre of the old citadel with its ornate ceilings, carvings and roof work. Citadel, HueIn typical Asian style if you an emperor of days past the done thing was to stock up on many royal concubines. Then build them a city that only you had access to and leave a substantial guard of eunuchs on guard to preserve their chastity and so you could be sure that your heirs were your own. Sadly for Emperor Tu Duc he was made sterile by small pox, so he concerned himself with ordering his tea to be made with the fresh morning dew instead! We also stopped by one of the traditional Madarin houses from the previous century. The Mandarins were the educated elite in Vietnam, those who held doctorates and were much involved with the politics and administration of the state. They were also not above, it seems, when they didn’t like a particular emperor or his heirs, bumping them off to improve the situation!

Khai Dinh Tomb, HueAfter lunch, we went to visit a few of the old tombs built to house the remains of 19th century emperors of Hue. The Tomb of Tu Duc set amongst pine trees with a beautiful wooden poetry house built on the edge of a large pond. And the impressive hill top tomb of Khai Dinh guarded by rows of stone mandarins. We visited the beautiful Thien Pagoda, the first built in Hue and learnt how to distinguish the ‘small monks’ from the ‘young monks’ and the ‘real monks’ based on their hairstyles and then took a brightly painted dragon boat back down the perfume river to the city. Dragon Boats, HueIn fact the only downside to an otherwise pleasant day was James continuing to kick my ass at cribbage. I have now lost the Thailand cribathon, got trounced in Laos and suffered three straight skunkings in Vietnam. Clearly the gloves need to come off!

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