Birthday in KL

Arrival in the big and bustling city of Kuala Lumpar and it is unusually quiet due to Ramadan. Roads are empty, apartments seem unoccupied and tourist sites, malls & restaurants are all mostly closed.

We’re staying in an AirBnB apartment instead of the usual B&B or hotel and suddenly we have space the size of our flat, a sofa, Netflix and other home comforts. It is all rather nice, although we do have to remember how to use a washing machine and do washing up. We may even do some home cooking, although…

Our apartment seems to be located within the posh (but relatively cheap) restaurant area. Somehow we manage to book Tripadvisor’s no.1 restaurant – Manja – with barely 2 hours notice for a birthday treat. It was open and barely 5 minutes walk away.

We gorge ourselves on prime Wagyu beef steak, Tibetan pepper prawns with avocado and Borneo coconut tuna all washed down with cocktail and wine. It all got a little Heston Blumenthal at one point with liquid CO2 cooling down our tuna – see here for our memories of that meal. They even give us a free personalised birthday treat and schnapps to finish the meal. Wonderful.

We’ll have an explore around KL soon if only to avoid the temptation of spending all our daily budget on our apartment and gourmet food…

Good night Vietnam

Last time we were in Vietnam, Chloe got exorcist-style food poisoning that laid her out for a good few days. So there were naturally a few nerves when we arrived into Da Nang three weeks ago. Early escape options were planned, with Singapore or a return to Kuala Lumpar as possible alternative destinations.

Three weeks later, we left central Vietnam on schedule having done very little. It has been very relaxing, interesting and, apart from one place beside the beach, all accommodation we have stayed at has been good value, extremely friendly and of a very high standard.

The food has generally been absolutely excellent. We enjoyed the best pizza we’ve ever eaten, demolished two lots of Indian curry reminding us of home, had the best ever veggie noodle soup for breakfast and we found a couple of great Vietnamese places doing home-cooked delights. All this and fantastic cafés. Cathartic.

Added to all this, the tailors of Hoi An knocking up excellent quality, cheap custom-made suits and other clothes in barely 24 hours, says to us that we’ll definitely be coming back to Vietnam, and especially to Hoi An.

So, here goes for Vietnam, things we’ll miss:

  • Genuine friendliness. Ok, ok, staff in hotels and shops are meant to be friendly. However, the hospitality and warmth we received went well beyond just good training. Being greeted by all staff, by first name, when we first see them in the morning is just plain lovely. But genuine friendliness is there in all contact, whether this be grandma and kids walking down the road when we were sitting having a cold drink and she insisted the kids wave and say “hello” to us or seeing all the smiley faces when taking the photo tour.
  • Traffic free Hoi An. No motorised traffic is allowed for most of the day, so getting around Hoi An was a pleasure and even got us back on our bikes  We really enjoyed our cycling, despite the heat, even though after 15 minutes it looked like we’d just come out of the shower. The only issue was the number of large tour groups who thought they owned the streets and insisted on not looking out for other pedestrians or cyclists. Idiots.
  • Coffee shop view. As mentioned in the previous post, we found a coffee shop with a view. We saw locals taking their chickens out for a walk, tourists posing for photos, tourists being accosted (in the nicest possible way) by old ladies carrying fruit who happily posed for “a photo for a dollar” and watching the boats go across and down the river. And it did great coffee.

And what we won’t miss:

  • The heat and humidity. Oh my god, it was hot and humid. 37c with 90% humidity equated to feeling like late 40s. We, like all western tourists, were literally dripping with sweat after barely 10 minutes walk. We had to change clothes up to 3 times a day. Thank goodness for cheap and very quick laundry!
  • Construction. This part of Vietnam is one big construction site. It is not a matter of IF there is construction work near your hotel, but how noisy it is and early it starts. We got lucky for most of the time, but being away from concrete mixers, drilling, hammering and sheet metal cutters will be very pleasant.
  • Coughing. The whole “cover your mouth when coughing” doesn’t seem to have reached Vietnam. Bloke walking along the street? Not really okay. The serving staff hacking away onto cutlery when laying the table in a restaurant?  Err, no, definitely not okay.

 

 

Hoi An: a world away (with great coffee)

After five days in central Hoi An, we’ve slipped very nicely into a daily schedule. We have breakfast, have a cycle around town, go to the tailor to order more stuff or try on what we’ve ordered, have coffee, then it is siesta time during the hottest part of the day and then it must be time for a gorgeous Vietnamese dinner. Tough.

One of the our highlights has been sitting watching the world go by, sipping excellent coffee, from 11 coffee shop. The centre of Hoi An is cycle or pedestrian-only for most of the day, so we enjoy a modern rarity: spending time in a town without the sound of engines.

Come 11am the spell is broken, motorbikes are allowed for the next hour and, on the dot, it gets busier with deliveries or people taking a short cut through town. But it is still relatively peaceful.

One day, we do manage to venture further afield and take a cycle ride out of town to the Terracotta Village. This was an unexpected gem and a fascinating place, with a three storey art gallery displaying locally produced art and sculptures, a roof terrace with gardens and a view over the surrounding countryside, ponds and lovely gardens featuring displays of world monuments including the Houses of Parliament, Sydney Opera House, Taj Mahal, the Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona and many others.

We stay longer than expected, which means we stupidly then have to cycle back at midday in the 46c heat and therefore manage to dehydrate ourselves. But, after lots of water and cold showers, we’re ready to resume our normal relaxing schedule.

Hoi An – a world away from our normal life of busy London and stressful work.

The Hoi An photo tour

Allan wanted to practice his photography, so what better than a Hoi An photo tour? This is run by a French ex-pat, has rave reviews and $45 for a 4 hour tour sounded pretty good value.

Starting off with some reminders of ISO, F settings and shutter speeds, we get put in a very noisy boat for 1/2 hour and reached a very local village. Ettiene, our guide, knows this village very well and almost everyone who lives and works there. He also explains the difference in culture between Western and Vietnamese. Essentially this boils down to Vietnamese people think it is perfectly normal to just walking into building sites, factories, farms and just asking “what you doing?”, “how much is that?”, “are you married?” and just take photographs of people without even bothering to ask.

The locals here are obviously used to Ettienne and his band of sweaty hot guests and, generally, do love to be photographed. He admits that their general thoughts of him are that he’s just totally bonkers and can’t see why anyone wants to have pictures of them working. However, he does give back to the local community and, from the smiles and “hellos” we get from young and old alike, is clearly loved as a mad old uncle.

The afternoon therefore results in us climbing around corn fields, a sesame cookie factory, a couple of building sites, a carpentry factory, a peanut farm and many a muddy paddy field all the while seeking out people to be the main subject in our attempt to get the perfect SE Asia photograph. The scenery is stunning with farms and hills for miles around.

It is hard work at times due to the heat, but Ettienne’s enthusiasm gets us all through the afternoon. We take a welcome break to drink gorgeous sugar cane, but barely half way through, our leader shouts, “come on, the light has just got perfect, we need to find a rice farmer now!”. He was right and those, including me, who followed him, are very pleased we listened and we got some good shots.

We finish in the village coming up to sunset, get back in the boat and catch the last of the sun on the way back to Hoi An. Ettienne is jumping on top on the boat, he’s directing the boat left and right to try and get us that perfect “boat silhouette at sunset” picture.

Arrival back to Hoi An, the tour is not finished. A few bits of final advice of how to take pictures of Hoi An in the dark. Extremely difficult is the answer along with some suggestions of camera settings that may work.

A great day. Here’s my attempt to sum up the day in four sections.

People

Scenery

Sunset

Night Time

Hoi An: strong, stable & sunny

With the General Election looming and Allan still in recovery mode, we opt for a full week in Hoi An. It’s only 40 minutes drive from Danang, but a world away. The shining, high-rise towers of the city blur into wide, meandering roads lined with old-fashioned bungalows. Traffic thins, the ‘bicycle to car’ ratio rockets and the pace palpably slows.

Good job too because it’s still hot. And humid. Still. Our hotel, Banana Garden Villas, is friendly, spotless and a has a pool. Yes, we can stop here for a bit.

The old town is 20 minutes walk (did we mention the heat?) or five minutes cycle ride. There’s only one thing for it – Chloe is going to have to get on bike. Frankly, if it’s going to happen anywhere it’s here. Turns out, she loves it! There’s plenty of room to make up for her rusty road-sense, and locals are well-used to stupid tourists who aren’t used to the ‘just keep moving forward and someone will get out of your way’ approach to traffic management. Laugh? She nearly ploughed through a party of Japanese students…

We pop in and out town once or twice a day to visit our tailor (ha!), the brilliant B’Lan. Once again, we are amazed at the speed and quality. We would probably only have needed two or three visits except that every time we go in they ask us one very sensible question – ‘you want another?’ Two suits, a dress, a shirt, trousers, three skirts and a pair of culottes later and we might just be done. Might.

Allan even takes a side visit to Buffalo Leather, who are able to create a leather jacket for him in barely 36 hours. He’s been eyeing Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor jacket (itself modelled on U-boat captains’) for over ten years now. It was just too good an opportunity to miss.

And so, on Friday we get up before dawn to catch the UK exit polls. We stare in disbelief. Chloe has a little cry for joy. Then we bundle the Fairy of Hope back into the Holding Cell of Cynicism and Broken Dreams. Setting our jaws, we prepare for a long morning of having any remaining optimism slowly flayed from our bones.

Over the next eleven hours, the worst disappointment we have to cope with is the misreporting of Philip Davies’ demise (surely the nastiest and pettiest man in Parliament) and Amber Rudd’s abject failure to lose her seat.

OK, Labour didn’t win but, in six weeks, Jeremy Corbyn put heart, passion and principles back into politics. Young people turned out and were rewarded with proof that they have enormous collective power. May’s ‘strong and stable’ chant became just ‘stable’. Even that was quickly knocked on the head when she did a deal with climate-change and human rights deniers just to keep her position.

The extraordinary spectacle called for curry and beers all round that night. Now we settle in to watch the next six weeks unfold…

Good evening Vietnam

Da Nang, our starting point in Vietnam, was chosen for one reason – it was the only destination somewhere near the centre of the country that had a direct flight from Siem Reap. We haven’t been here before and most people, just as we did last time, skip the city to head straight down to road to the far more trendy and tourist friendly town of Hoi An.

We, therefore, didn’t have too many expectations. So I’m sure the next three nights here will be just planning for Hoi An and the rest of Vietnam?

Day 1. We arrive at our hotel and are given a room on the 6th floor that gives a spectacular panoramic view of the mighty Han River and mountains all around. Hang on, this is quite nice.

Day 2. The lovely staff at our hotel – who bring us ice-cold water every time we come back from the shops or even come down to order next day’s breakfast – casually mention that Da Nang is currently hosting the firework world championships, and tonight is Italy vs Australia. Hang the right on, we didn’t know about that, how wonderful. We spend an hour and a half beside the river right next to our hotel ooo’ing and ahh’ing at the amazing displays of colour while surrounded by thousands of locals having picnics. It is noisy, it is busy, it is very hot, but it is excellent. We thought Italy won, but both teams were pretty fantastic. I have no idea how to take picture of fireworks, so I’d appreciate answers on a postcard on how to take better ones.

Day 2 & 3. We search out somewhere to eat wanting some comfort food. We find a Japanese/Italian fusion place called Pizza 4P that both of us agree cook us the best pizza we have ever eaten. That’s ever, not just in Vietnam or SE Asia. We get to the restaurant through wide unjammed streets, there are pavements that are actually walkable and we see a city that is clean and clearly has some money around. The pizza was so good, we had to go two days in a row. Now, hang on, we’re liking Da Nang even more.

Day 4. We’re leaving Da Nang this morning. But first, a special mention to how bloody hot it is here. Our weather app is saying “37c in the shade and feels like 48c”. There is little shade and unfortunately, the heat has stopped us exploring – a real shame as there is a lot of history and sights (China beach, Marble Mountains, Lady Buddha etc.), but we’re still sad to say goodbye to Da Nang and would like to come back – when it’s a little cooler.

 

Cambodia – we’ll miss you

Traditionally, as we leave a country we take time to reflect on what we’ll miss (and what we won’t). We’ve been a bit slack on this trip, only managing New Zealand and Australia so far, but are determined to revive the exercise. It’s a good way to compare perceptions and helps balance any bad memories with good ones.

So here goes for Cambodia. We were last here six years ago. This time we will miss:

  • The genuinely open and hospitable people. As tourists we are essential to people’s livelihood, so we would expect a warm welcome from people working in industries where our dollars are the focus. But, more than any country we have visited, people return smiles in the street, appreciate our pathetic attempts at Khmer, are interested in talking about themselves and finding out about us. Culturally, Cambodians are wired to maintain a sunny exterior and we simply don’t know enough about the whys and wherefores of that to understand its effect on individuals. All we do know is that it automatically breaks down that first hurdle to social interaction and makes the country an easy place to spend time.
  • The pride in all Cambodia has to offer. Despite the depredations of colonialism and the Khmer Rouge, there is still a rich cultural heritage to explore, and places like Battambang are incubating a new generation of artists and performers. Everyone is keen to prove that Cambodia is no husk and that economic poverty does not need to mean an intellectual or cultural desert.
  • Thirst for knowledge. Every young person we meet is studying something – whether it’s the waiter who goes to night school or the tuk-tuk driver improving his (they are all men) foreign languages by talking to customers. That said, the loss of Cambodia’s keenest minds in the 70s has left a gap that they are still working to bridge. The quality of further education is variable at best (how can someone studying web design not learn how to Google?) but rebuilding an army of brilliant teachers takes generations. Remember that next time someone complains about experts…

And what we won’t miss:

  • The poverty. For all that we have seen some signs of improvement in people’s standard of living, it is clear that increased wealth remains firmly in the hands of a small minority. Few people have refrigeration (especially in rural areas), electricity is eye-wateringly expensive and social care is generally provided by family or charities. It’s hard to envisage something as life changing and precious as the NHS or welfare state emerging here any time soon.
  • The struggle for hygiene. Without potable water on tap, decent housing, affordable medicine or effective waste management, and with temperatures regularly in the 30s, it’s amazing anyone is ever well. Child and maternal mortality is high, mostly from preventable or easily treatable conditions. When Allan came down with a nasty dose of food poisoning we were able to buy medicine for a handful of dollars. He was on the mend within 24 hours. For some families, that’s more than they could possibly afford, even if they could get to a reliable pharmacy. For us, it translates into mild anxiety about finding well-prepared food. For many Cambodians, the risk is very real.
  • The roads. In towns, traffic speed is fairly slow, with most people travelling by scooter or bike. Although driving rules are vague to non-existent, there’s a mutual need to look out for other road users. On the main roads connecting towns, where there are more lorries, buses and four-wheel drives, the tone changes. Delivery drivers are under constant pressure and are equipped with old and dangerous vehicles. On the journey to Battambang our bus driver was, thankfully, on the ball when a driver pulled straight out into traffic and into his side, forcing the front of the bus off the road. The other driver couldn’t get round him so simply waited for the bus to move off, all the while talking into his mobile phone. Road accidents are another major cause of death and good quality hospitals are rare and expensive.

It will be fascinating to see what the next six years bring. Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to find out for ourselves in 2023…