Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Lost in Saigon

On our last full day in Vietnam, we got lost.

We were up early for a less than satisfying breakfast before we got on board our mini bus tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi is about 70km from the city (2 hours in the traffic) and there are a number of ways you can get there, ranging from public buses to private cars to speed boats. We went with the mid price option of a 12 seater with a guide. The brochure said our guide would be English speaking but this was a bit of an exaggeration. The words Mr Vanz was speaking were definitely in English but with very few consonants and no pauses between them so we couldn't understand a word he said. This was a shame because he talked all the way to Cu Chi so I'm sure what he was saying would have been interesting.

On the way we made a pitstop on the side of the road to check out a road side market stall. It took a few minutes to register that they were selling live river rats, snakes and lop eared rabbits. The lack of refrigerated storage means its more sensible to sell the meat 'fresh'.

Care for a live snake for lunch?

Or maybe a rat?
The Cu Chi Tunnels were built during the Vietnamese war to help the villagers and local guerrilla fighters hide from the US soldiers. They're a network of over 250km of very narrow, underground tubes connected like spider webs to bigger, communal areas providing space for cooking and arms storage. Amidst the maze were decoy tunnels and booby traps designed to outwit the enemy. The tunnels are just another example of the resilience of the Vietnamese people and the way that they just 'get on' with life, despite whatever hardships are facing them. Because they could no longer live above the ground, they went below. They even managed sneak out of the tunnels at night to harvest their crops.

Cu Chi has become a famous tourist attraction so there are thousands of people crowding through the area every day. There are 'workshops' making rubber sandals and rice paper and a shooting range where you can fire off an M16. The area is dotted with mannequins of Viet Cong soldiers and you can buy faux soldier uniforms and aeroplanes made out of beer cans. Because of all this commercialism the site has a bit of a theme park feel to it and so its hard to appreciate that this was actually a war zone, a grave yard, a place where terrible atrocities occurred and many people lost their lives.
At one stage you can climb down into one of the original tunnels and walk/crawl for about 20 metres to the exit. This, at least, gives you an idea of the conditions the Cu Chi people lived in. I bonked my head at least 10 times in the 20 metres and in the middle where it was really dark there was a rising sense of panic until you could see the exit shaft. If you're in HCMC then the tunnels are an historical site worth seeing but you wouldn't come back for a second visit.

On the way back we made another stop at a friend of Mr Vanz so we could buy some Pho (soup) for lunch. At 25000 Dong this was a real bargain, especially if you overlooked the cleanliness or lack thereof , the chickens walking through the restaurant and the squat toilet, sans paper. Cynically, I wonder if some of these tour stops are rigged to be especially colloquial for the tourists (like the faux market shopping we did for our cooking tour in Hoi An) but if it leaves you feeling that you've had a unique Vietnamese experience then I guess it's served its purpose and the family who own the shop have made a few dong.

We got the bus to drop us off at the War Remnants Museum. This is a seriously daunting place. There is nothing done to hide the horror of the Vietnam War here. The pictures and descriptions of the atrocities suffered by the Vietnamese people are explicit, from the French prisons, to the US bombings and torture of Viet Cong sympathisers and the effects of Agent Orange. It's completely overwhelming. We've had a few people tell us that the museum is anti American. I'm not sure it can be anything else. There was no act of aggression fromVietnam that started the war and the devastation caused by the US and their allies is still having an effect here. Any other explanation would be a very inconvenient truth. I felt a great deal of shame and anger that 'my' people could have been involved in such horror and it gave us cause to reflect on the meaning of the word terrorism.

When the galleries got too much for us we retreated to the coffee shop outside and that's when the evening deluge began. We thought we'd be able to wait it out but the museum closed at 5 so we sent Sophie out into the street to purchase us some ponchos (which took about 30 secs because a poncho seller magically appeared as she approached the street) and set off in the pouring rain to walk home via the markets. Somewhere between dodging the motorcycles on the footpath, the thundering rain and the holes in the pavement, we took a wrong turn and got lost. I'm really not sure how we didn't die because crossing roads in Ho Chi Minh is dangerous enough at the best of times, let alone in pelting rain, after dark. In true Amazing Race style, Sophie kept finding friendly locals to ask directions. Unfortunately many of these were conflicting, but eventually we found ourselves outside the Ben Tanh markets - that were just closing for the day!

Luckily the street food market was still open so we all chose something to share for our last dinner in Vietnam. It shows how far our taste buds have grown that even Taine chose local food and we ended up with a smorgasboard of dumplings, rice pancakes, spring rolls and chilli sauce.

The price of beer in Vietnam
The last few kilometres back to the hotel would have been smooth sailing if we hadn't had to travel through the riverside neighborhood. Maybe the rain and the 12 kilometres previously walked made us a bit complacent but we didn't really notice the changing 'vibe' until two guys on a motorbike mounted the sidewalk and tried to grab Sophie's purse. It was lucky that it was her vice like grip and fast reflexes, not mine, otherwise we would have ended the evening on a very sour note. As it was we were just cross she hadn't had the presence of mind to karate kick him off the bike.

Sophie says my blogs are ending without a conclusion each day. That's because I get too tired to finish them. I'm writing this one at the bar on the top floor of the hotel with the most magnificent view of this enormous city behind me.

That's it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Farewell to Paradise

So, we're back in Ho Chi Minh, and while it's great to still be on holidays, no one is happy about leaving Hoi An. I've never shed tears leaving a hotel before but when the staff from the Rivertown all lined up to have their photo taken with us and then made heart shapes with their hands as our taxi drove away... well, it was like a scene from a 4 star Netflix movie and I wasn't the only one wiping more than sweat from my eyes..

I'm afraid that it doesn't matter where we might stay in the future, nothing will ever match up to the service we had at the Rivertown. We were cared for like treasured guests of the family from the moment we arrived to the moment we left. Nothing was too much trouble and within a day of being there, everyone, from the concierge to the breakfast waitresses knew our names and our preferences, especially the front desk 'talent' Nhi, whose friendly conversations taught us so much about the Vietnamese culture and the country.

1st course of my last breakfast in Hoi An
The staff at the Rivertown were very representative of the Vietnamese people- same, same as us but different. Different in their contentment with life and their constant positivity. Same but different in their commitment to family. I asked Nhi what happens to people when they get too old to work and she looked a bit confused. Their children look after them of course, especially the youngest son of the family, to whom falls the inheritance of the house but also the responsibility of the ageing parents (I made sure Taine was listening to this bit!). If the parents don't have children then their nephews or nieces will take over and all children put part of their wage aside each week to fund the eventual retirement of their parents or childless aunts and uncles. It's not uncommon, as in Nhi's case, for four generations of family to be living together in one house. It was lucky she said, that she gets on well with her three sisters in law. It's not that capitalism is absent in this communist country but the focus is different. It seems people just want to be happy and have enough, there is no real desire to be rich or to have more than you need.
Our new friend, Nhi
We took our capitalist selves back into Hoi An this morning to pick up Sophie's boots. They still weren't completely right so the shop owner at the Friendly Shoe Shop said she would ship them to Ho Chi Minh tomorrow and Sophie can pay her by Paypal later if she's happy with them. Maybe add completely trusting to the differences between us.

Shopping out of the way we spent our last hour in Old Town watching a traditional theatre performance. It was all in Vietnamese but good theatre needs no translation and we really enjoyed the dance interpretation of the Old Man and the Fisherwomen. Soph even won a prize in the traditional bingo game.

Our flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh was on time and fantastically, half full, so we got an entire row each to ourselves. Kind of like a poor man's version of business class. It was a shame it's such a short distance.

An almighty thunderstorm hit just as we were leaving the airport, turning the 8km journey into a 90 minute tussle with the traffic and the rain. It was peak hour for the motor cyclists again and you certainly have to admire their tenacity. I was freaked out by the thunder and pelting rain and I was inside a taxi. Like a Formula 1 pitstop, these guys just pull into the kerb, grab their rain ponchos from under the seat and pull out, seamlessly back into the traffic.

We were pleased to finally reach our hotel in one piece but its a terrible let down after Rivertown. The Sunland is an ageing hippy of a hotel, complete with the most dreadful decor you've ever seen. There's a roof top bar (which was flooded) and a tiny bath tub of a pool (out of action due to the lightning). We ate at the restaurant which is clearly targeted at British tourists. We chose from the only page of asian dishes available and everything tasted like the buffet at Gateway Plaza.

The view from our room is a redeeming feature

Monday, September 26, 2016

Last minute alterations

Before we came to Hoi An I watched some Youtube vlogs of other people's visits and wondered how they could have spent so much time aimlessly wandering up and down what looked like the same streets for  hours on end. And yet, we've done just that for 5 days and tomorrow when we leave we will be very sad. Every time you go into the Ancient Town you see something new. And in our case, every time you walk down one of those streets you buy something new. It took me a couple of days to warm to the whole custom tailoring thing- I'm more of a ready made, Target type of girl- but my suitcase now contains 2 pairs of pants, 2 skirts, a dress, a leather belt and a pair of shoes, all designed to fit no one else but me. Geoff has a suit, a shirt, 4 pairs of shorts and some magnificent boots and even Taine has a new jacket. As for Sophie... her last purchase was a leather jacket that she was measured for at 1pm and we picked up at 7 tonight! The pleasure of owning clothes that fit perfectly is quite addictive.

This morning was our first 'sleep in'. We're adapting to the 3 hr time difference just in time to go home. Geoff and I had a very leisurely breakfast while Soph went to the gym and Taine continued to sleep and then we went into town. It's possible to get into the Ancient Town section of the city without paying the requested fee but the ticket sales go towards the upkeep of the temples and Old Houses, so we willingly paid for ours and today we used a couple of the attached passes to look inside the various temples and shrines dotted along the streets. In one, a lovely Chinese gentleman was transcribing the writing at the shrine and he explained that it had been built in memory of hundreds of Chinese Vietnamese traders who, in the 1500s, had been killed by the government when they were on a trading mission to Hoi An. This temple remembers them but also keeps their families safe on future trips. Kids in my English class know that I like to make connections between experiences to make sense of them and this story was so like many we heard in Europe - as the locals love to say here, " Same, same but different."

In between shoe fittings we bought some completely useless souvenirs and had iced coffee and Banh Mi at a cafe. Like so many of the eateries in Hoi An, the front looked like a cafe but it was really a family residence. The food is prepared in the family kitchen and the 'restroom' is the family toilet and shower. I had to wait for one of the kids to finish brushing their teeth so I could wash my hands.
In Australia we'd call it the bush telegraph, in Vietnam I think it's done by text but next minute who should show up at our table but the lovely Kim, the lady I pinky promised I'd have a massage with today. Her sister was worried we'd reneged on the deal but we assured her we were just cooling down before we came to see her. Turns out the cafe is run by Kim's daughter in law, which is a very lucky coincidence because otherwise we might have got lost and missed our 'appointment'.

Down an alley in the market we found Kim's sisters, ready to shave our legs, thread our eyebrows, pierce our ears... pretty much any beauty treatment you can think of, all dispensed from a tray of potions on a shelf above the plastic table cloth coated massage table. We insisted that no, we'd agreed to just a neck and shoulder massage for 100 dong for me and a foot massage for Soph. Kim whisked Geoff off down the street to look at her souvenir shop and just for a milli second I became a bit anxious that I was never going to see him again and that I was going to get the 'works' despite my protestations but thankfully Sophie's assertiveness won out and I was able to enjoy what was actually a fantastic neck rub. Turns out the sisters work together to run both the beauty business and the souvenir stall. They take it in turns to work in each space and to tout for business in the market, rounding up customers like us with their own special charm. By the time the Tiger Balm was cooling, we were old friends and Kim's sister even did something clever with my hair that stopped the sweat from pooling behind my ears for 3 or 4 seconds.

The tailors where Sophie got her jacket made is also a family business. The oldest sister is the manager and the 3 younger sisters, her assistants. They design the clothes and measure the customers and deliver the orders to their dad's factory where the seamstresses work in shifts, around the clock to make the clothes in super fast, same day time for the tourists. All of them have been to university for 4 years, where they studied English and Design and Dressmaking. They work 12 hours every day, with the younger girls having 2 days off a month and the manager just 3 days off a year during the Vietnamese New Year celebration. She told us they are hoping the government will mandate a 7pm closing time in Hoi An so that the shop keepers can spend more time with their children, but she's not holding out any great hope.

Our friends from Phuong Nam dress shop
Sophie's been hanging out to try the local street food by the river. The thought of all that unrefrigerated meat was too much for me but she assures me it was delish and at 25 000 dong ( about $1.35 AU), very reasonably priced! I have lots of Gastro Stop in my bag if it doesn't work out well for her.

On the way home tonight we met our first antsy taxi driver. We've been here 5 days so we're well aware of the route and the cost back to our hotel. Everyone here has been so helpful and trustworthy (people chase you down the street if you leave anything behind in their shops), so it came as quite a shock when half way home he suggested an agreed price of double what it should be. When we made it clear we knew what the price should be he suddenly turned in Mario Andretti and started playing dodgems with the oncoming traffic.
It's the only negative business transaction we've had in Hoi An.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Shop till you drop

Today's title is frighteningly accurate. Truth be told I only just made it back to the hotel today. Saved by a $3 taxi ride, a swim and three bottles of Saigon Red, I think I might survive but I was definitely on Struggle St there for awhile this afternoon.
Seriously disoriented, heat struck woman wandering down Le Loi St looking for  taxi.
This morning, after a less substantial than usual breakfast because our tummies are struggling from yesterday's over indulgence, we took the hotel shuttle out to An Bang Beach. I'm not a great beach person but it was nice enough lying on the sun lounge for a couple of hours. Like most things in Hoi an, the lounges are allocated according to hotel and 'connections '. I don't know what happens if you just rock up and sit on the wrong chair but we were happy in the cream lounge section under a couple of substantial beach umbrellas. It wasn't Mount Maunganui but it wasn't Warrnie with a southerly blowing either and the water was as warm as a tepid bath.

The ever present souvenir sellers were as abundant on the beach as they are in the town and so, of course I ended up with some balancing dragon flies and a new fan. What else can you say to a polite 30 yr old peddling her wares on a hot, sandy beach with a toddler in tow, except 'How much? Sure, I'll have 5." I haven't had time to study the social welfare situation here in too much depth but there doesn't seem to be as many people living on welfare or on the streets in Vietnam as we've noticed in other countries, including our own. Everyone just works really, really hard and ekes a living in anyway they can. 
Shopping on the beach
Although we've been encouraged to enter many shops, no one has begged us for food or money without offering something in return. Haggling is a bit of a game in Hoi an but at the end of the day I pay whatever they're asking because it just seems fair and reasonable.

It's so hot in the middle of the day that a siesta is almost mandatory and so we took one before heading back into Hoi an for our daily clothes' fittings. First stop was the Little Angel where we picked up Taine's jacket, my pants and skirts and Sophie's dress. Geoff liked his shorts so much he decided to order another couple of pairs, so I guess we'll be seeing the Angel girls again tomorrow! Having skipped lunch we decided to stop at a place on Le Loi St for an iced coffee and some carb loading. It was a foolish mistake to fall for the allure of carrot cake and french fries. Western food is not only expensive here, its also very bland but it was nice to sit for a bit.

Back on the street we ventured to the Friendly Shoe Shop to have some custom leather shoes made. Soft leather for my arthritic toe, strong leather for Geoff's new boots and a long discussion about the length and cut and heel size of Sophie's boots. None for Taine because his feet grow too fast to warrant the measuring!
Just like this one but with more leather, less stitching, higher heel, etc, etc- no problem
In Hoi an the shop holders remember you - every time. Shop 'loyalty' is everything and they love to see you back in the market, always honouring the deal you made the day before if you want to buy something else. So when Taine decided he needed yet another 'genuine' adidas t shirt, we had to walk all the way to the other end of the town to our 'regular' t shirt seller. She was very happy to see us and her aunty, who just happened to be visiting, took a shine to Sophie's blue eyes and black hair (a much sought after but never achieved combo in Vietnam). I'm not sure why but we found ourselves following the aunty back to her house to meet her sisters, an accomplished pair of masseurs who, faster than you could blink, had me sitting in a chair massaging my shoulders and suggesting some eye brow threading. This is the way transactions are conducted in Hoi an and while the idea of a massage was appealing, the threading was not so we agreed (by pinky promise) to go back tomorrow for the massage if only she would let go my arm and let us go home tonight!
Our favourite T shirt seller
I've been wanting to visit some of the historic buildings in Old Town since we got here but by the time we walked back to that area we discovered that Soph had left the tickets at the hotel. There was nothing for it but to stagger back to the main road to look for a taxi; there was no way I could walk all the way back to the river tonight. Heat, dehydration and over spending finally had finally taken its toll and I was almost delirious.
You can carry anything on a bike in Vietnam.
The plan was to shower, swim and then ride back into town for dinner. We only got as far as the shower and swim and then we were so well looked after by the hotel staff that we just kept ordering beers and pool side food till it was time for bed.
I wasn't the only delirious one
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Pho for dinner

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Food, glorious food.

It's actually hard to believe how much food we've eaten today!
We started early, at 6.30, with the breakfast buffet. The chef here does the best eggs benedict- so far our only concession to western food - and then there's the dumplings, the noodles and the fruit and Vietnamese yoghurt and today Geoff even tried the congee, a rice dish that our waitress told us is sure to fix any health problems that you have. There's so much to choose from that we have to have a game plan before we go down each morning!
Its not going to be a good day for these chickens
At 8.15 we were picked up for our cooking tour. We sat on a corner at the market waiting for our guide and watched all the stall holders managing their day. The traffic intersections in Hoi an are amazing. There are no lights and no rules. Everyone beeps their horn as they approach the intersection and then they just weave seamlessly, like a choreographed dance, from one side to another. Although we've seen a few people fall off their bikes on the bridge, we've seen no crashes in the town, no road rage and remarkably, no squished pedestrians.
Ride sharing - helmets worn by some adults but rarely by children
Our guide, another delightful girl called Nhi, took us to the market to buy the ingredients for our lunch. We all donned traditional cone hats and as we moved from stall to stall she gave us a lesson on Vietnamese ingredients. I struggled to concentrate because I was too busy counting the diseases we could get from the unrefrigerated meat (it was already 32C), the flies gathering in the shrimp bowls and the salad being washed in river water. Geoff was more gung ho, happy to be getting his money's worth from the horrendously expensive typhoid and hepatitis shots but I've already counted the lack of public toilets in Hoi an and we still have 5 days to go! In any event I needn't have stressed because the shopping trip was a bit of a sham. The baskets were left at the market and the food we cooked came directly from a pristinely clean fridge tucked away behind a screen at the cooking school.
Nothing screams 'tourist' like foreigners in cone hats!
With our shopping lesson completed we hopped on a boat for a trip down the river. At the sea mouth we transferred to some traditional bowl boats to travel through the coconut groves to the cooking school.
Driver looks thrilled but at least the siblings are being nice to each other
There, our chef, Mr Happy, showed us how to make four traditional Vietnamese dishes; Goi Cuon (spring rolls), Banh Xeo (crepes) with Nuoc Leo dipping sauce, Sea food fried noodles and Grilled pork with noodles. And then we ate, and ate, and ate. All of this was washed down with endless glasses of passionfruit juice. Passionfruit is about $1 per kilo, so it is served with everything.

Fanning the BBQ - as if wasn't hot enough already

Looking very pleased with his creation. I hope the thermie can reproduce this!
After the banquet we tried our hand at traditional fishing, in this case, hand lines thrown into a very small and enclosed pond of pretty tame fish. Everyone caught one and then we threw them back.
What a whopper!

Even Mr Happy tried his hand with a rod
By the time we bussed back to our hotel we were full of food and exhausted from the heat so we had a nanna nap and caught up on the disappointing news from home that the Nth Warrnambool Eagles had lost the Grand Final.

It was beyond us to imagine walking into town for our tailor's fittings so we lashed out and caught a taxi. Thankfully it was Sophie's shout because it cost $24 000 dong - about $1.40!

After a few days here I'm still lost but the others seem to be able to navigate from one seemingly identical street to the next so we were able to get from the Peace Tailor's to Little Angel fairly efficiently. We also found some free wifi to tap into so we could follow the last exciting quarter of the AFL Preliminary Final - Go Doggies! Hoi an is a labyrinth of streets and alleys all brimming with little shops and while we were looking for our planned dinner stop, we found a whole new part of the Old Town that we hadn't seen before. We crossed the Japanese covered bridge into a much more upmarket part of the city. The 'real' shops here sold exactly the same items as the ones that come out of cardboard boxes in the market but with higher price tags and less ambience, so we bought nothing.

As the night falls, the whole of Hoi an transforms into a party atmosphere with colourful lanterns swinging from the shops and the trees and families lining the riverbanks eating street food on plastic chairs and tables. The boats on the river are also lit by lanterns to create fairytale scene of light, accentuated by the tinkling sounds of the Vietnamese language.

Riverside dining
Even though we couldn't possibly have been hungry, we stopped at the Citronella to rest our feet and drink beer. And because we were there we ate dinner as well, (what's a few more calories?). It was a bit disappointing because the menu was clearly 'dumbed down' to cater for western taste buds. It was all a bit bland and uninteresting - but we ate it anyway.
And then, because I have been craving chocolate, we found a shop selling Belgian chocolate and better still, because of the chocolate, the inside was beautifully, wonderfully , refreshingly cool, so we sat and ate fondue.
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