Vietnamese weird food

For those that don’t know my eating habits I am not unreasonable with my eating but by the same token I am not super adventurous. Dave is the one who will order things with no idea what is in it whereas I tend to stick to chicken, pork or beef and play it fairly safe. In Vietnam that is fairly easy, the biggest hurdle is to ensure that the chicken that I have ordered it not gizzards or something similar (they really like offal here). That said, for the adventurous eater there is a world of weird food out there to be eaten.

Unlike Thailand where insects are the main form of bizarre food, Vietnamese cuisine seems to encompass just about everything that moves. Indeed I have heard stories of specialist snake menus where you literally eat every part of the snake right down to the bile and heart in a shot of spirit – blech!!! Definitely not my idea of gastronomy. I had broken out of the norm one night by being bold enough to order deep fried frogs legs which I would chalk up as a big why bother. They were like fiddly chicken wings with less meat and just not that great to justify the hassle. Even so I was pretty proud of myself for being so adventurous.

However, that said our Vietnam journey would not have been complete had we not taken a food tour (every city has one) so with encouragement from the NZ couple who had joined us on the Can Tho river cruise we booked in to Mekong Tours Can Tho Food Tour.

It was a walking tour where a young gentleman, Thoai (T-why), took us to 6 of his favourite restaurants to sample the local specialities. The price was right; free but a $5 tip if you enjoyed it and the cost of whatever you ate, and the night was fine so off we went.

Wow, what a night. We began with a duck hotpot in a restaurant famous in Can Tho for this speciality dish. It had been in business for over 20 years and I can see why. The food was really good. Basically a big boiling pot of duck soup is delivered to the table with a heap of noodles, vegetables, herbs all of which you add to the pot and serve into individual bowls. Well it was all good until I hit the side dish of “Vietnamese cheese”. Turns out this little delicacy is tofu marinated (?) in alcohol. I didn’t find out the serving instructions for this lovely little gift and tipped my whole bowl into my soup. Ooops!! Turns out you only add a little at a time because it is so strong. I would equate it to strong blue cheese and as a consequence I think I might have wrecked my duck hotpot as all I could taste was strong old socks 🙂 but it was still a new flavour and something to be aware of for future eats.

Anyway, onwards to make your own rice paper rolls. These were delicious and we have tried them quite a few times already. It is a fun process and the fillings vary enormously. On the tour it was slices of locally made pork sausage and heaps of herbs and leaves. Absolutely delicious and fun to watch those less experienced than us wrestle with the rice papers.

Next was a local delicacy made in only one restaurant, a special kind of “muffin” with pork mince, bean paste and a prawn on top. At this point I decided to give it a miss (I was worried I’d be too full if I had one) but Dave raved about it.

Then came the moment I was dreading. At the start of the tour Thoai had told us where he would take us and what we would be eating and I knew it was coming… field mouse. Yep, you read that right. Mouse!!! One of the other girls on the tour felt much the same as I did (squeamish to say the least) so we made a pact that we would both have a go at it, “I’ll do it if you do it…” heheh

Shock!!!! It was terrific. Apparently there is only one restaurant in the whole city that does field mouse well and we were there. We were delivered a mouse divided into 6 portions and while it was definitely bony it was very tasty. Seemingly these mice are only found in the rice paddies and are highly prized. The whole group had a taste and in the end we even ordered seconds! Who would have thought.

Our next culinary stop was to try snake. Well, why else take a tour if not be adventurous. The snake was ok at best and not something I would line up to try again. It was a little tough and being crumbed and deep fried was not especially tasty. More sort of chewy and blah. Not unpleasant but not great.

To finish off our night we stopped at a roadside seller of dessert – sticky rice. She had a big pot with 4 different kinds of rice that she popped into a little paper cone. It was sweet and hot and really good. The black rice was my favourite as it had been cooked in coconut. Delicious.

So, there you have it. This unadventurous eater has now eaten frogs legs, field mouse and snake. Never would have believed it. Sometimes it is good to break out. I mean seriously – how bad can it be 😉 heheheheh.

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Duck hot pot – the little bowls in front were the “Vietnamese cheese”.

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Thoai teaching everyone how to make the rice paper rolls.

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Field mouse. Sorry about the blurry photo. Not a great shot but it will show you what it looked like when we were served it.

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Snake. The colours are a bit weird but we were on the street in the dark where the only light was a yellow street light. This was as close as I could get to what it really looked like.

 

 

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Sticky rice seller.

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Field mice – before 😉

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Frogs legs – before 😉

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Everywhere on the streets are great bowls of seafood. It is super fresh, caught that morning.

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We will be away from the internet for the next couple of weeks so the next blog won’t happen soon (sorry for those that like a regular read). As soon as we are back online I’ll bring you up to date on our adventures. Got some exciting things happening 😉

 

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Mekong Delta

Can Tho is a mid sized trading town in the delta of the mighty Mekong river and was one of our little side trips out of Ho Chi Minh City. It is only about 4 hours by bus and the journey was quite a surprise for us. We had expected to be travelling through lots of rice paddies and agricultural fields but pretty much all the way was towns and villages making the most of the access of the main road network.

The main point of interest in Can Tho was the tours along the river system taking in the local markets. Unlike many tourist places in Sth East Asia the markets here are still used by locals to do their produce selling and are not just a touristic collection of a few rubbish souvenir sellers. The river system through the delta has been used for hundreds of years to transport produce to the major centres. Now with the introduction of major highways and bridges it is becoming a lot more road driven however at a local level the river is still a big part of everyday life.

We took a 7 hour boat ride starting at dawn that was to take in 2 local markets and a few of the smaller creeks and local industries. The morning dawned well which was neat as the afternoon before the heavens had opened with a colossal thunder storm. We had stood on the rooftop of our hotel and watched the lightning striking a few streets away (terrifying moment for me) and were a bit worried about the weather for our little boat trip but all was well.

We had another couple join us on the trip, a young couple from New Zealand and they were great company along the way. Our first port of call was Cai Rang market, the largest in the Mekong delta. It was awesome. So many boats all selling a variety of produce. To demonstrate what their specialty was they would hang samples from a long bamboo pole at the back of the boat. Some had only a pineapple on their pole and the entire boat would be packed to the brim inside and out with pineapples. Others sold a variety of fruits and vegetables and their poles would be festooned with all manner of produce. Smaller boats wound their way through the bigger boats doing their buying. It was a well ordered affair and certainly enjoyable to watch.

Next we meandered a bit further down the river until we came to Phong Dien market and this one had a totally different feel. Whereas Cai Rang was large motorised boats that seemed more like wholesalers with large amounts of produce the Phong Dien market was smaller boats with a focus more on domestic purchases. We saw people selling fruit and vegetables like in the other market but here they also sold clothes, takeaway cooked food for dinner and lunch, meat, fish, you name it, they sold it. And the people doing the buying here were not bulk buying but were on smaller hand rowed craft and seemed to be doing more of the daily shopping. It was completely different to the bigger commercial market.

Leaving here we took off down one of the smaller offshoots from the river and stopped off to watch a local family make rice noodles. That was awesome. The rice slurry is smeared onto a hot plate where it is steamed then lifted off as a big disc, laid out to dry and then put through a cutter to create the noodles. The early morning light was fantastic with all the steam and people busily going about their morning routine. It was a great place to stop and appreciate the industry of local people.

We finished off the trip with a wander through a fruit garden. I don’t think it was much of a commercial project but it certainly had a vast variety of plants to demonstrate to tourists what the main varieties were.

The small arteries of the river are edged all the way with tiny homes and small plots of rice and other vegetables. I had expected large scale farming but it was much more small cropping and individual farming. The people largely used the river as a transportation corridor and every few minutes a small boat would come past carrying anything from large roofing sheets to pots and pans to fruit and meat. It was fantastic.

The Mekong is a mighty river and certainly for those living in Can Tho and surrounds it is a substantial contributor to their success and the touristic appeal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStorm front on the way in – Can Tho.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly morning on the Mekong River.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADoing some shopping from multi produce boats (note the variety of goods up the bamboo pole).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll the bigger boats had red eyes painted on the front to watch for obstacles in the water and keep the boat safe.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFlooding is a problem for these riverside shanty houses.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABuyer at the Phuong Dien market.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADave walking over the most rickety little bamboo bridge (I couldn’t do it so caught a lift on the boat 😉 )

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMaking rice noodles in the early morning.

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How much can you fit on a scooter? LOTS!!!!!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALoved the little grin on this lady. She saw me taking her piccy and instead of getting all shy or ignoring me, I was treated to this big smile 🙂

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Why I blog…

A while ago I got a comment on one of the blogs that ran “I’m not sure what motivates you or how it does but I am bloody pleased it does. Your honest, “tell them how they are” stories are so well written that we devour each episode.” – Cath.

I thought this was a lovely comment to read. Writing these little blogs is actually a lot more time consuming than most people would think. Most blogs take between 2 and 4 hours to get together. Mainly it’s because I use that time to sort through my images to find some that are either good enough to share or appropriate to the story, or hopefully both. With pretty much every photo I put them into an editing program to tidy them up a bit and give them the feel that I had while I was there. Sometimes the camera literally writes a photo of what it sees but it is not as bright as in ‘real life’ or I want to make a black and white photo or I don’t want everything that was caught in the frame so I have to crop some stuff out. Processing my images has become quite a quick and streamlined job and I generally enjoy the creative outlet.

Then once I have pulled out the photos that I want to use I sit and write the story. I always have a plan in mind of what it is that I am trying to say so the writing bit is easy. I just go with whatever comes into my head. A friend of 20 years said that “It helps because you write how you speak and I could hear you telling me like you were right here with me.” – Tracey. A few people have made much the same comment and I guess that for me that is one of the greatest compliments.

I read other peoples blogs (admittedly not many) and I admire their writing style. Most of these blogs have bazillions of followers and are of a professional quality and voice. I find them inspirational in content and I admire their writing style. But for me I just can’t find that detached travelogue information voice. I prefer to write literally what I thought, what I felt, how it was for me. I guess I want my blog to be a bit more personal.

The thing that amazes me the most is that people read it. I realise that sounds ridiculous as why else would I write it but seriously – I expected/hoped my friends and family would read it and I figured that would be about it. Turns out I have underestimated the audience. Most of my blogs have a couple of hundred readers (I literally don’t know 200 people in the whole world!) and one of them, the India blog, has had over 1000 readers!!!!!!! That is completely mind boggling to me.

It is part of what motivates me to take that time and to put out 2-3 blogs a week. I get a real kick out of the fact that people read them and that people comment on them. The last blog that I wrote, The Vietnam/American War, had one of the strongest comments for me. Unlike so many of my blogs which are just written off the cuff I had agonised over getting the history close to truth and then having an opinion that was expressed in a hopefully respectful manner but still had some fire left in it. It was such a reward for me to have someone who had lived through the political upheaval of the Vietnam War and tell me that he “Really enjoyed reading this blog posting…” – Ray. It makes me feel that my writing strikes a chord every now and then and is another reason to keep on blogging.

I think that one of the biggest reasons though is simply expressed. Sheryn said “I LOVE reading your adventures – you make me feel like I’m right there with you” and this is what I am trying to do. Not everyone can (or would want to) do what we are doing but that shouldn’t mean that they should miss out on the adventure. After all, travel is a sharing experience 🙂

Hopefully you guys will keep on reading and sharing our journey, and in the mean time – thank you from the bottom of my heart. I blog because I am inspired to and because I like it and seemingly others do too.

Vietnamese veg sellers

Herb sellers in a local market.

Vietnamese woman smoking

Cheroot smoker.

River life Vietnam

River life.

Pink Lotus

Pink lotus flower. I can’t resist photographing the lotus flowers in bloom. They are just so beautiful.

Independence Day Vietnam

Independence Day in Vietnam (2nd September) is a holiday celebration and seemingly every house has a flag outside with the Red background and the Gold star of Vietnam.

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The Vietnam / American War

Vietnam is a country that has spent hundreds of years involved in one war or another. Originally China was the protagonist having invaded the country and holding reign for a thousand years. The Vietnamese managed to kick them out in the 1400’s and reclaim their country. Tribal loyalties split the country into north and south through the following period of history with many domestic wars fought between the feuding regions. The French invaded and took over in the mid 1800’s and held power until 1954 when the communist lead Viet Minh armies of the north forced a surrender. The time of the French occupation was a brutal period in Vietnamese history and the conditions for political prisoners was horrific.

The country was split into north and south with the signing of the Geneva peace accords. North Vietnam was communist and Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh) was the supreme leader of the region. It was his belief that Vietnam should be joined into one unified communist nation. In 1959 the campaign to unify north and south began. This war is what we, in the west, called the Vietnam War but here in Vietnam it is called the American War due to the contributions of the USA (and allies) in the conflict.

Militarily and politically the USA had been in Vietnam for many years, from the time the French were struggling with the Vietnamese. Initially they supported the French however after their ousting they turned their support to the south Vietnamese government/royalty. As such they were involved pretty much from the beginning of the war until they were pressured by the world to get out in 1973, the year in which the Paris Peace Accord was signed by USA, north Vietnamese, south Vietnamese and the guerrilla Viet Cong of the south.

This war is the most prominent feature of every museum we have visited. The information I have given above was never represented in a complete manner in any of the museums we visited, it has been gathered from various sources both in country and online.

In Hanoi the message was very much that the north were trying to bring the country together into some glorious communist collectivisation for the good of the people, and that the American forces were unwelcome invaders who deserved to be beaten. The emphasis was very heavy on the international condemnation of America’s involvement and room after room was filled with photographs and petitions demanding that the US leave Vietnam. I have never been to museums that tell such an obviously biased story of a historical event. I would not suggest that they were not welcome to present the information in any way they saw fit but it was quite strange to see a war painted in such blatantly propaganda filled language. We figured that perhaps we might find a more balanced view when we got to the south.

In Ho Chi Minh City there is a War Remnants Museum that we had heard was very good. We were hoping to find a different view to the vision presented in the north. We certainly got that but it was not what we were expecting. The whole museum is made up of photographs, most images taken by international photographers who were here covering the war. The images themselves were graphic and often hard to look at but the information presented with them was a lot more unbiased. Ok, yes it was still “the Americans are bad people, see what they did to us the poor Vietnamese people” but it was a lot more factual.

The things that shocked me in the end was the facts of Agent Orange. I had heard about this chemical being used and I understood that it was a defoliant used to clear the land so that the Viet Cong (southern supporters of the north) and the North Vietnamese Army were a lot more visible. What I had never really considered was just what that actually meant. It was mind boggling to read the statistics of Agent Orange and how much damage it has done to the country and the people. It is a truly evil chemical that was known to be incredibly toxic to the water supply, the land itself and to anyone exposed to it. 2 generations on there are many families who suffer from terrible birth defects because of the spraying.

I found it heart wrenching to see the images and read the stories. But more than anything it made me mad. I was profoundly angry. I understand that power and politics are part of the reason that wars are so fiercely fought and that allies (which the USA was, sort of, to the south) are called upon to help out in times of war, but to allow anyone to knowingly use such a lethal chemical and just walk away from it in the end made me sick. I know that this blog is not a place to rant, and I also know that my knowledge comes from a rather tainted source but sometimes I just want to speak my mind and this is just one of those times.

It was a rather shocking experience to go to that museum and see it laid out in a hard light but for me it was a valuable lesson in the biased nature of all information, especially when the information is only being represented by the victors (the north Vietnamese). That said, just goes to show, what we think we know, what we are told, is so often not the whole truth from either side.

Onto our last war experience though, and we went to a place called the Cu Chi tunnels just out of Ho Chi Minh City. It was the strong hold of the Viet Cong and they built a 250km network of tiny tunnels from which to run the war effort. They had hospitals down there that could care for the wounded, rest stations and safe havens in times of bombings as well as being a way to bring weapons and soldiers into then Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). We were so lucky. Our tour guide was a 67 year old veteran who had actually lived and fought from Cu Chi. Therefore we literally got the whole experience firsthand from someone who had been there. And not only was he interesting and quite excitable but his accounts were generally well peppered with humour and sound effects. He was delightful and I think that for me it certainly gave me yet another perspective of a war that until we arrived in Vietnam I knew very little about.

I hope that in no way have I offended anyone with this blog. I am a believer that all wars are terrible, many horrific things happen on all sides in a war and that no matter how much I dislike them they are a part of our history and have lessons for us all. I could not write about our visit to this country without including something about such an important part of their history.

And do you know what the best bit is…. Nowhere have we seen, heard of or felt any animosity toward any tourists from any country. Truly, Vietnam is amazing!!!!

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This is an aerial shot taken in Binh Phuoc province in 2009 in the dry season showing the level of ground cover laid out in the bombing runs. Estimates are that there are still 600,000 tons of bombs left from the war.

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A US tank that had been destroyed by a mine in 1970.

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Mangroves after the use of agent orange. Nothing survived in the aftermath of the chemical bombing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUH – 1 H Huey helicopters, used for transport, ambulance, air convoying and scouting missions.

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Me, emerging from a secret entrance to to the Cu Chi tunnels.
Ok well, not really. There was no way I was going into those hands-and-knees hot dark holes in the ground (Dave did) but I did get to drop into the hole from the top for the obligatory tourist photo op 🙂 The tunnel construction and the inventiveness and determination of the Viet Cong was truly mind blowing.

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Nha Trang

As we have travelled through Vietnam we have met heaps of other travellers. Because the country is long and thin the tendency for most people is to start at one end and make their way to the other. For us it is north to south but many of those we met were going in the opposite direction. Part of the fun is finding out where other travellers have been and getting their recommendations of the best places to visit and things to do.

One of the quirks that we found was that many people said that the city of Nha Trang was one to miss. The main complaint was that it was too busy and touristic (which is quite strange considering some of the towns we have visited have been almost exclusively catering to tourist markets) and that it was ‘full of Russians”.

For us though it seemed like a good place to break the southward journey between Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City so to Nha Trang we went. I cannot imagine what other people saw that we didn’t but we loved the place. Yes, there were lots of Russians but with 6 direct flights from Moscow every week it is not that surprising. What was surprising was that the whole city caters to them. Almost every sign was written in Vietnamese, then Russian and maybe English. The menus in all the restaurants were the same. For Russian tourists Nha Trang must seem like heaven on a stick.

That said they certainly were not a problem for us in any way. Why would they be? They were the same as everyone else, there for a good time at a beach town for a relaxing holiday. Sometimes I wonder about the opinions of others when it comes to large populations of a particular nationality.

Either way we found Nha Trang to be awesome. It had some of the most beautiful beaches we had seen (which seems like a theme all the way down the central section of Vietnam). The bars and restaurants had a great selection of local and international foods and we even found a bar that played the Australia vs New Zealand Bledisloe Cup football match. Another night we found ourselves in the midst of a huge group of Dutch, English and German travellers that made for a crazy night in another one of the many bars. It is an eating and drinking paradise 🙂

To top it all off I even managed to get a bikini custom made for less than $25 done in 1 day!!! No where else have we seen that kind of service. Suits and clothes yes, but not swimwear. I took it to the beach to try it out and have to say it seems to work just fine :).

So in a nutshell I would have to say that Nha Trang is well worth the visit. It may be a little Russian but the upside of that is a vast selection of vodka ;). And for us it was just too gorgeous to have missed. Definitely on the “return for a second visit” list.

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As you can see – terrible beaches – NOT!!!!!

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Tourists fully catered for.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA little bit of Russia

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We were in a taxi heading in to town and I could hear ducks, and the sound seemed to go with us as we drove down the street. A quick glance outside explained why. Hard to see but there are 3 baskets full to the brim with ducks all hanging out quacking like crazy. Very cool 🙂

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Central Vietnam and the gorgeous beaches

Leaving Hue we headed south to the region made famous in the Vietnam/American war as the place for American soldier’s R&R– China Beach. The beach itself stretches for miles down the central coast of Vietnam and I can see why the GI’s loved it as a place for taking it easy. We visited the two biggest towns of Da Nang and Hoi An over a period of a week and while neither of us are real beach bunnies we thoroughly enjoyed our time here.

Da Nang is a big commercial city with the main part of the town across a river from the beach side. We stayed just back from the beach and again hired a scooter to go and check out the area. The beach itself is gorgeous white sand, stunning blue water and being in a bay it is a calm safe place to swim. We ventured out onto the northern headland and while the views were awesome the roads themselves were super steep. At one point we had to give up and turn back as the poor old scooter just couldn’t make it with 2 of us on board.

I think the highlight for us in Da Nang was a place called Murphy’s Steakhouse. It was 3 doors down from our hotel and the food (while not cheap by Vietnamese standards – $15/main) was amaaaazing! The guy who runs it is an ex-pat British Aussie who has only been there for 7 months but has he ever nailed the hospitality thing. He was a great host and we ate here every night we were in Da Nang, enjoying not only the awesome food (imagine a perfectly cooked fall off the bone lamb shank when you haven’t seen one for 7 months) but also great company. Chris the owner had so many insights into Vietnam and so many stories. I think it would have to be some of the best nights we have had in ages and he is another one of those people that we have met that we will try to catch up with again at some time in the future. Travelling can often be a case of meeting people and then they disappear but sometimes we are lucky enough to meet some people that are just terrific and we try to keep in touch with these special folks. It is a real treasure find when you do meet someone like that.

So, from Da Nang we went an hour south to Hoi An and found a completely different town. This place has a historical centre that is heritage listed and as such the buildings are all pretty well preserved externally. Where originally it was a bustling commercial hub for the area with the waterways being the inroads to the warehouses and retailers, silting of the river moved the shipping to Da Nang and Hoi An seemed to stop in history right where it was. After the war years when tourism returned to Vietnam and with the heritage listing it has become a mega town of tourists, tailors and restaurants.

The architecture is really lovely with many of the really old homes preserved for tourists to visit (much to the upset of some of the families still trying to live in them). There were several old Chinese Assembly halls, each one was slightly different to reflect the different geougraphical regions of Chinese merchants that gathered for meetings. Now many of these assembly halls have temples where the smoke from hundreds of incense wafts around bizarre dragon statues. They certainly were impressive to visit though.

A highlight of Hoi An was definitely the food. Where in the north we found the food to be of a certain style, a lot more soup and noodle dishes, in Hoi An as it is literally slap bang at the half way mark there was food from north, south and regionally specific. And it was all good!!!! There were so many restaurants that we were literally spoilt for choice.

As is typical for us, with no planning at all we managed to arrive into Hoi An on the one night of the month that they hold a big festival – the full moon lantern festival. It seems that lighting a candle and sending it down the canal is good luck and the tourists and locals alike all get into the action. Unfortunately it just became a bit of a money grab with sellers pushing lit candles into our faces every second step and the crowd crush was quite astonishing however it was definitely something to see. Of course the next night was much the same and the night after that as well (when you are onto a good thing stick to it??) but the crowds were less and we were glad to have been able to see the big night.

Again the beach here was spectacular (the southern end of China Beach) and I actually got it together enough to go for a swim. I would have to say that other than beaches in the north of Western Australia I have not ever been to a beach as nice. The water was crystal clear, no waves, not too many touts, drinks available, beach chairs and coconut huts to lounge and the warmest water you could ever wish to find. It was truly divine and I would recommend it to anyone!

So I would have to say that the region of central Vietnam around China Beach was absolutely fantastic and while I would love to be able to show you some amazing photos of the area it seems that my photo mojo was on the wane that week and looking over my shots there really wasn’t anything to write home about. I have included some shots to give you a bit of an idea but I am not sure that I have done justice. Ah well, that’s life and I am sure that the camera and I will become friends again soon 🙂

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‘Everyone’ trying to get their lanterns floated down the canal. Many people hire a boat to get out to the middle of the flow instead of placing the candle at the edge.

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Typical old Hoi An.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese rickshaws are still in use throughout Vietnam although most are a bit more modern but not by much.

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These are not the lanterns that are floated down the river (smaller and made of candles and cardboard) but they are the ones that every shops tries to sell to tourists to take home. Beautiful when they are all lit together.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese ladies brought this entire restaurant (and that is what this is) on their shoulders in 2 baskets supported with a bamboo pole. It is amazing to watch them move through the crowd and to set up a feast.

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Fishing village nestled in a cove.

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Looking back across the bay form the beach at Hoi An. Further up the beach on the right of shot is where the town of Da Nang lies on famous China Beach.

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Ancient City Of Hue

South of the gorgeous Ninh Binh is the capital of the ancient kingdoms, the city of Hue. We arrived early evening and over dinner met some fellow travellers who had just finished with the city highlights and could give us a quick rundown of the worth it-not worth it choices. The interesting thing about Hue was that pretty much everything on the tourist list (of which there are probably only 6 things) they considered to be on the worth it list.

So next morning we set out to visit the main feature of the city, the ancient citadel. The palace of the kings was generally in poor repair but the pieces that were still standing were amazing. It was built in the early 1800’s and unfortunately was bombed again and again, first by the French in the French War of the early 1900’s and again in the “American” (Vietnam) War of the 60’s and 70’s.

We found our way to the main gate and entered through the impressive high walls and ornate entry way. Inside the walled city was the palace grounds of the emperors and their families. There are still quite a few intact buildings to view (either unscathed or restored) amid the rubble of the site in general and we really enjoyed the experience. There were plenty of info boards around to let us know what we were looking at and a great exhibition of historical photographs. It really was impressive and we could really feel the glory of the emperors and the incredible grandeur where they lived. The citadel would definitely rate as well and truly worth a visit.

From the citadel we headed to Thien Mu pagoda beside the beautiful Perfume River. This pagoda was pretty neat because of the tiers of the pagoda stretching up in a small glade of pines but further into the complex we found a lovely temple where prayers were in session. There was the usual bunch of monks chanting and dinging their bells but this group contained a collection of “baby monks”, children who are learning their religion through joining the priesthoods for a period of time. They were just gorgeous and I had a terrific time just watching them all fiddle and shuffle as little children do in any church of the world.

To round out the day we headed to one of the imperial tombs. Everywhere you look in Vietnam there are graves. Either small family plots alongside a field or acre after acre of huge mausoleum type graves. It is quite an eye opener so we figured if the local regular burial practices are so elaborate then the imperial tombs must surely be something else. Well…. Have to say – not so much. They were in expansive grounds undoubtedly but the actual tomb itself was a bit dull. Some of the local gravesites were jazzier. That’s not to say it was not worth the trip to see it because it was, if for no other reason than to get that comparison of emperor and normal people. Emperor definitely bigger but not exactly mind-blowing.

Having ticked off all the major touristic things that interested us we decided to grab a bike and head to the coast road to check out the scenery. Lots of rice paddies and plenty of small towns but definitely some of the most gorgeous beaches. There was no one there (I think we saw 4 other tourists) but I should imagine in peak season it would be fantastic. Just mile after mile of white sand. Little clusters of restaurants and if you go far enough you come upon the real local life of the fishing villages. It was awesome and a lovely way to finish off the northern part of Vietnam.

Hue, Vietnam

The citadel – Hue.

Hue , VietnamOne of the citadel gates – Hue.

Hue, Vietnam

Main emperors receiving hall – Hue citadel.

Hue, Vietnam

Hue, Vietnam

At the Thien Mu Pagoda.

Hue, VietnamSending prayers to the Gods.

 Hue, Vietnam

Tu Loc Tombs.

Hue, VietnamDave trying his hand at a little grave robbing 😉

Hue, Vietnam

The boat is swiveled back and forth to get it up the beach.

  Hue, Vietnam

As the fish are taken off the fishing boats they are sorted, weighed and removed by the on-sellers.

Hue, VietnamBaby octopus inside an egg we found trapped in nets. Very cool!!!!

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Karst Mountains of Ninh Binh

The plan was to get up at a reasonable hour and go and see Ho Chi Minhs mausoleum but like so many plans it kind of went awry. We had been trying to get there all week and we had one last shot at it but poor planning meant that whereas I thought it was open until 11.30 it actually closes at 10.30 and we had left it too late. Just means that we have to come back again J

From Hanoi we decided to go to the south to a town called Ninh Binh where they have some amazing limestone karst mountains nestled into rice fields and local village landscapes.

The standard line is to take a local tour to one of three main boat trip destinations and cruise through the paddies and into river caves while being wow-ed by the landscape. Thankfully for us we did a bit of reading beforehand and opted to find our own way on a scooter and therefore could go wherever we chose at our own timeframe.

Just outside of the town of Ninh Binh is Tam Coc, famous for its classic “rice fields with a river flowing through it surrounded by karst mountains” type of landscape but because of its fame it is a tout nightmare with heavy handed tactics being used against tourists. We decided to avoid it and instead went for the more laid back general area of Bich Dong for our first day of wandering.

Through the area there are not only the impressive mountains of the karst limestone rising up from the landscape but also a myriad of caves. We found a really cool temple that unbeknownst to us had a huge cave in behind it. There was no lights and all we had was a small head torch in the bag. I, of course, bailed on the dark hot scary expedition but Dave was full speed ahead. He ended up on top of the mountain with amazing views. By the time he got back to me he was dripping wet with sweat and well happy with his adventure.

We finished the day at a private nature reserve called the Thung Nham bird park. The sad thing was that we were in the wrong season for the birds but there was plenty else to see. This park had a selection of different caves to access so we started with 349 steps up to the top of one mountain where a big cave awaited (Vai Gioi Cave). The cave was too much for me but Dave went in and said it was pretty good. My caving pleasure came from further in the park where we boarded a small boat and were rowed into a lovely river filled cave with interesting stalactite/mite formations and plenty of tiny bats. It was cool and peaceful and quite enjoyable.

The following day we just cruised the countryside checking out any small road and getting plenty of wry looks from locals who assumed we were generally lost. It is such a joy to just roam anywhere we like with the freedom of the scooter.

We finished off the day with the classic 2hour “cruise” through the karst. We went to La Trung and found a group of lady rowers who all take turns in rowing the tourists out into the waterways. Our lady spoke no English but was really delightful and very strong. She rowed us for the full 2 hours without breaking a sweat. I would have to say that the quietude of being one of only 3 boats on the waterways was just lovely and certainly matched the inspiring serenity of the landscape.

For anyone considering the Ha Long Bay experience (which is the karst mountains springing from the ocean) and finding the costs prohibitive, I would certainly recommend Ninh Binh as an affordable and equally beautiful alternative.

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Tiny little village house tucked under the shadow of the mountain.

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Spraying the rice.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur little boat, boat lady and her friend helping to park it 🙂

 

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A glimpse of Hanoi

Ha Noi city is proving to be a great place. With lower expectations sometimes comes great surprises that make such an impact. Hanoi is certainly a big surprise.

Compared to other cities we have visited the traffic here is one of the biggest shocks. Crossing the road in India was always a bit of a game of Russian roulette. Everyone drove aggressively and with maximum speed that they could muster in the traffic. Any ideas of pedestrian crossings was risky at best and we adopted the ‘move with the crowd’ method for safe crossing. Thailand is more like a western culture where they generally obey road rules and traversing a street is not such an issue. Here however is a whole new ball game. The roads a literally jam packed with scooters, motorized pushbikes and cars. To cross the road you try to find a less intense moment with no cars and just step out into the flow. As long as you just keep walking at a very slow and measured pace everyone just goes around you. The first couple of times are a bit hair-raising I can tell you. There is something very unsettling about slowly walking through a moving wall of vehicles and just relying on faith to get you through. It does seem to work though, thankfully. We have seen many less brave tourists stranded on the footpath waiting for a break in the traffic that will never come. I almost want to tell them – just be bold and be steady and you’ll get there.

The footpaths here are beautifully maintained and would be a pleasure to walk on if only there were room. It seems that a footpath is the perfect place to park your bike, set up your restaurant, play a game of cards with your mates or just hang out sipping tea. Inevitably a wander up the street means exactly that – out onto the street you go. That said, it is just like crossing the road. As long as you don’t make a sudden move everyone just cruises around you. It is quite a fun experience and certainly the life on the footpaths is one of the really neat things about Hanoi.

The restaurants that are set up daily on the footpaths are another quite unique thing compared to other Asian countries we have visited. In Thailand for example the street food vendors pay to keep their tables and chairs and the mobile cooking stall in one place and they break it down at the end of each night and cover it with tarps, before setting it up again the next day. Everything is collapsible, with trestle tables and stacking chairs and simple kitchen set-ups. Here in Hanoi it is completely different. Instead of a mobile kitchen they work out of their small restaurant in the back with all the elements of the dishes on display. The dining area is out on the footpath as the space inside is taken up with food cooking and display. The tables and chairs are childrens plastic sets with tiny little stools and communal tables of 4-8 people.

There is usually some kind of menu in English but it will only have a couple of dishes. Our technique so far has been to find somewhere that is packed with locals (and some places literally have a line up of people waiting for a seat) and then forgo the menu in favour of the point and nod method of food selection. And we have been scoring big time!!! Pretty much everything we have eaten has been amazing. Using ‘I’ll have what they are having’ means that you can see the dish and make sure it is not a collection of ricepaddy snails with calf liver served over who knows what. All of that said there are of course normal restaurants with proper menus and meal descriptions but we are quite enjoying the adventure of ordering dinner by sight.

In the centre of the Old Town is a gorgeous little lake with a couple of small temples, one accessible by bridge where seemingly everyone makes a stop and one on its own little island. Surrounding the lake is a spacious green area where locals and tourists alike go to sit and take a break from the heat and bustle. We ventured down and grabbed a bench to just sit and relax and were approached by a group of young Vietnamese students who asked if they could practice their English. It is a fun way to spend half an hour. They had all finished college and were keen to start their own businesses or get into their chosen university field of study. It was so nice to see these keen and enthusiastic people talking about their aspirations and dreams, and their English was certainly good enough to understand. Looking around the park it seemed that pretty much every tourist had a small group eager to test their language skills.

Hanoi is a city with plenty of tourist attractions and we have been out and about learning about the Vietnamese culture and history through museum and gallery visits. It is so lovely to be in a new country where we know comparatively little about and to be learning new things.

Still a few museums and Ho Chi Minhs mausoleum to check out so stay tuned for more adventures 🙂

Portrait sketches in HanoiAround the lake artists sketch people. I thought this guy was doing quite a good job.

Hoan Kiem LakeTemple in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi.

Water puppets HanoiWe went to a famous water puppet theatre here in Hanoi and it as all in Vietnamese but the stories were nice and easy to follow and it was certainly entertaining.

Crockery seller HanoiEverything imaginable can be sold from the back of a scooter, including ceramics (wouldn’t want to crash with this lot on board).

Scooters HanoiOne of the small street/footpath scooter carparks.

Hoan Kiem Lake HanoiA lady and her daughter were feeding the lake fish.

Asleep HanoiTypical late afternoon scene. Hot days make for tired men 🙂

Thousand Arms and Eyes HanoiThe one thousand eye and one thousand arm Guan Yin at the Fine Arts Museum of Hanoi. Very impressive in real life. About 300 years old, made of wood and laquered.

 

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On to Vietnam, hello Hanoi

Koh Chang was blissful for us. After so long of moving constantly it was a joy to just sit still for a bit. Admittedly it did take me a week or so to get used to the idea but once settled in properly with favourite spots established I found myself really getting into the groove. We began our travel break with big plans of daily exercise, clean living (read ‘drying out a bit’) and a list of things that needed doing. Of course in the end almost none of that was the reality. We just chilled out and relaxed.

Most days were a combination of reading or internet browsing until the rain cleared, then off for a bit of a poke around the island (waterfalls and such) then sundowners on the beach at one of two favourite spots close to home. Dinner then beers back home on the verandah, either sitting around chatting or playing scrabble. We did make friends with a fantastic Aussie bloke who owns a restaurant and for the last couple of weeks we made a visit to him several times a week for fun adventures. Indeed, one night after closing he took us out to one of his favourite bars and we were treated like royalty just because we knew him. Great times. (For anyone looking for good food and a lovely bloke on Koh Chang go and check out Strawberry Moon Restaurant) 😉

While perhaps little was achieved of our initial plans the upside was that we now start the next part of our adventures fully recharged.

We have a couple of months to kill before we head to Africa with a couple of close friends so decided to go and check out Vietnam. Neither of us have been before and it was close enough to get to so decision made, visa applied and approved so flight booked and away we go.

We found cheap tickets to Hanoi in northern Vietnam so chose that as our starting point. Now I should clarify here that I had heard and read a huge mix of things about Vietnam. Most of the reports/blogs/articles I read said that it was another love/hate type of place. Most people felt that at some point in their travel they had been blatantly ripped off and for many travellers that happened too many times for them to like Vietnam or to even speak kindly of their travel there. Others raved about it and travelled there often.

We decided to just go along and see for ourselves. Fore warned is fore armed so at least we were ready to keep an eye out for obvious scams etc. At worst we could always leave before our month visa and go somewhere else.

With a bit of trepidation we landed in Hanoi and I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised. Apart from the standard “pay too much” to get from the airport to town (which is not uncommon in any country) we have been pleasantly surprised.

While I don’t think the people are as openly friendly as some other Asian countries, the upside of that is that we are finding that they leave us alone a lot more, less hassling. The city of Hanoi (such as we have seen in 2 days) is really nice in the Old Town area, lots of little streets with people, scooters and few cars thronging the roadways. Plenty of small streetside stalls selling food of all kinds. While we have only had a few meals they have all been good, tasty and cheap. Beer here is about $1 for a pint glass for tap beer, meals range from about $3 upward. For example last night we had 3 beers each and a tasty noodle and meat meal (pork and beef) for a total bill of $11!!!! Fantastic!

Seems that Vietnam will suit us just fine. 🙂

Koh Chang beach elephants

These baby elephants take tourists into the surf at Khlong Prao beach on Koh Chang. The little one kept popping under the water and rolling in the waves.

Vietnam Hanoi garlic shellingA lady shelling garlic – just sitting on the street in front of her shop.

Dried shrimps - Hanoi, VietnamThe main market in the Hanoi Old Town area has a large dried food section. There were hundreds of different sized dried shrimps. Smellllllly 😉

Our new church Found a new kid of religion that I really rather like.

In the rain - Hanoi, VietnamNot one to let the rain stop her this lady just popped on a poncho and kept on going.

In the rain - Hanoi, VietnamTorrential downpour in Hanoi. Well, it is the wet season in the tropics!

 

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