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.

 

Will the real Vietnam please stand up? And photos !

Vietnam – the country where nothing seems real.

Prices: Having to barter the price for the same bottle of water with the same seller every day is tiring. And don’t get us started on dual pricing between Vietnamese and Foreigners…

Culture: Defeating the American imperial forces and everything they stand for, then embracing American culture with skyscrapers, pool and KFC.

Cuisine: Wonderful Vietnamese cuisine in London and other cities. In the ‘real’ Vietnam, Pho Bo (beef noodles) everywhere, sometimes the only option, and “would sir/madam like eColi with that?”

Customer Service: What seems to equate to customer service in Vietnam is far too many people working/watching when it would be quicker with half the number of staff.

Capital: Ha Noi is the capital but all newer buildings, business and most of the “sights” are in Saigon.

Overall Vietnam had some great places to visit – Halong Bay was worth this whole trip alone. It did however have the most frightening roads known to humanity, the dirtiest streets we have seen so far, some good food on occasions (but the least said about some of the food hygiene the better).

Maybe it was the timing of the visit, coinciding with missing certain home comforts, the almost constant rain and food poisoning in north Vietnam, but 4 weeks in Vietnam did sometimes seem a long way from home.

Click here for our photos – we still managed to get out and about to see some amazing sites. And still beats working for a living!

Here be dragons

Thought we’d share this one with the wider audience as it caused much mirth amongst the Cowleys.

Whilst perusing the menu at our lovely cottages on the coast, we spotted a very strange menu item. Shrimp Salad and Dragon at a slightly expensive 80,000 Dong. Cue jokes amongst us (and the Cowleys) of’ ‘flame grilled’, ‘bet that’s served rare’, ‘bet it tastes like chicken’, ‘dragon wings’ and all sorts of other puns too rubbish to mention.

Allan simply had to order and found it was a salad of giant prawns and dragon fruit. For those who haven’t tried dragon fruit, which we hadn’t before we came to SE Asia, is a delicious, magenta, funny-shaped fruit.

So, Shrimp Salad with Dragon. Very good but still need to find St. George to taste the real thing.

The ghosts of invaders past

The longer we spend in southern Vietnam, the stronger the feeling that there is a presence here we are missing. But what is it tickling our subconsciousness?

It is not until the first evening in Mui Ne that realisation dawns. The prevalence of old pool tables. The strong preference for late 60s and early 70s music. We slowly realise that these are not evidence of some new craze for thirty-year old Americana but genuine relics from the US presence here.

The pool cues we are holding are certainly old and heavy enough to be from the 70s. Who else has held them? It’s like playing billiards with ghosts.

The next day, during a massage, Chloe can’t stop herself from looking to check whether the machine blasting out the Carpenters and Carole King is actually an 8-Track.

Oh what a beautiful morning!

Awoke this morning to the news that Andy Coulson has finally resigned. It took long enough, I suppose, but the longer he was in post the more damage was caused.

BBC World coverage was fairly low key and short-lived, but I suppose it’s a purely domestic story.

We speculated who had held onto the ‘new evidence’ long enough to ensure that it demoted Blair’s appearance before the Iraq Inquiry to second place news, but in the end just decided to savour the moment…

Mui Ne or not Mui Ne?

We eventually decided that after some, frankly, miserable weather in the north of Vietnam we deserved a bit of semi-luxury by the sea and hopefully some sun as, dear readers, we do need to keep up the tans to make you all jealous on our return.

Deciding on Mui Ne, 4 hours away by bus according to the Rough Guide, and a place called Little Mui Ne Cottage Resort we got on the bus from Ho Chi Minh City. $8 lighter, 6 1/2 hours later (has anyone from the Rough Guide actually been to South East Asia? – that’s a post in itself) and we arrived in the 6km sprawled out beach of Mui Ne.

Reviews of this place were very mixed. What we found was something not of 5* luxury but not far off, and we’re certainly not paying 5* prices. Lovely swimming pool, nice big rooms that you can hear the sea from, good seafood and cold, cold Saigon beers. It’s like we are dreaming, especially compared to the hell of Chloe’s food poisoning in Ninh Binh earlier in Vietnam.

Allan decided to stay in the sun a bit too long but, thankfully, not too long to go lobster. Chloe refused the knotted hanky hat that would have nicely completed the picture of the English abroad.

Now click on the picture above and feel free to send us abuse or photos of where you are at the minute.