Archive: September, 2006

swimming by bike

novice monk - Hue

I am currently sitting in our hotel in Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. The typhoon mentioned previously has now very much settled in, such that all the “sights” are either flooded or closed! We did manage to ride out to a few of the more interesting spots before the weather worsened this morning – unfortunately we were quite a way out when this happened, hence another drenching!

Me in the rain

All is not lost however as the poor weather has allowed us to idulge in our our passion for food. Hue is quite famous for it’s royal cusinine and it just so happened that across from our lodgings in Saigon was a restaurant specialising in Hue style cuisine called My Thau (I think – Howe could you please confirm). As our host is a frequent diner (and we dined there several times ourselves) we received a list from the proprietor (a Hue native) detailing the best spots in town to try local specialties.

Cooking Hue Pancakes

So far they have been amongst our dining highlights of the trip. Small tucked away places that we would never have found ourselves, and serving only one delicious dish (thankfully as we wouldn’t have been able to order in any case), not a tourist in site and far far cheaper than much of the tourist swill we were consuming in Hoi An. It is amazing what a difference some local knowledge makes!

Unfortunately mellifluent Hue girls as promised in the menu at My Thau have been conspicuously absent – perhap the typhoon is to blame!

vietnamese fishing net

Tomorrow we teporarily take leave of Vietnam…destination Laos. I am looking forward to it immensely it is reputed to be one of the more relaxing places on the planet, although first we have to get there.

musings of a bus ride

Our latest bus trip passed through some of the most fantastic scenery we have seen so far – huge mountains that slide down to meet wide rivers or drop straight into the ocean, paddy fields squeezed between the seas and the mountains and fishing boats lining the bays and estuaries.

I was disappointed that we were stuck on our bus and couldn’t stop at some of the best spots – it would have made a great motor bike ride…maybe next time. Chhay and I have come to the conclusion that by far the best way to see this country is by motorbike or bicylce – there are so many interesting things to see on the side of the road, the little back routes are often the most picturesque and it gives you the freedom to stop or change your itinerary at will.

One of the funniest aspects of travelling along Vietnam’s main roads is their approach to road widening (I know not the most interesting way to lead off a conversation – but here goes). Instead of reclaiming all of the properties that border the road and demolishing the entire buildings as would be done in the west they only knock down the parts of the houses that impeded their progress, leaving torn brickwork and concrete with the rest of the house intact.

On yesterdays bus ride we drove for at least half an hour through an area that had recently been widened, it was quite surreal watching the remnants of people’s living rooms slip past the window one after another, different colours, stairways to nowhere, even pictures left hanging on the walls.

Later we reached an areas that had obviously been completed earlier, there people had reclaimed the exposed spaces, a lichen of retail and small lean-to extensions submerging the raw brickwork.

The funniest example of this phenomena we have noted in on the way to the airport in Saigon. There a four storey house has been summarily cut in two, but rather than abandon the exposed rooms as is typically the case, the family is still occupying them – furniture, crockery and other odds and ends all on display to the passing throngs with nothing but some exposed reincforcing rods between them and the pavement below!

Saigon Ghost Building

hoi an

The ancient port town of Hoi An, home to much APEC business if the banners all over town were to be believed, was quite delightful. We stayed in the centre of the old town amongst old Chinese and Japanese shop houses and French villas.

Had an architectural ball checking out old houses and exploring little alleyways. It is a very picturesque town although now full of tour groups and their attendant tourist shops (or is it the other way around)??

Yesterday we rented a bike and despite warnings from our hotel about an imminent typhoon, lost our way to My Son – the poor man’s Angkor. Although the ruins aren’t all that spectacular the setting was fantastic nestled amongst encircling mountains like a secret city. The misty rain added to the allure, if we had subtracted about 10 degrees it could have been Scotland!

On the way back we encountered the predicted typhoon and arrived back at our hotel somewhat more damp than when we set out.

phu quoc

mango bay bungalow

Phu quoc was fantastic, albeit a little damp. After a 4 hour delay for our flight on Saturday we finally made it to our accomodation by about 4.30. We stayed at a small eco-resort – our rooms were rammed earth bungalows with thatched roofs (not so good in the wet season!) and outdoor bathrooms with solar powered hot water (again not so flash in the wet season!) Spent the afternoon checking out the place, relaxing and enjoying the sunset from the restaurant located about 5 metres from the waves crashing over rocks!

Woke on Sunday prepared for a big day of adventure, but were greeted by tropical monsoon conditions instead. After a morning reading and watching the rain, the weather cleared and against the advice of our hosts (although on their motorbikes!) headed to the remote north of the island. With only a few somewhat muddy dramas…

phu quoc mud

we visited remote beaches and small fishing villages as the gloom settled around us.
bai cua can

After struggling back to the resort for a seafood feast, I introduced the coin game to one of our French companions over a few Saigon beers.

Yesterday the weather had eased to overcast with the occasional patch of blue so we jumped on the motorbikes and headed south to the island’s most famous beach – Bai Sao. In between ducking squalls we wandered around, went swimming and watched the locals scoff seafood on the beach – much to our chagrin by the time we ordered lunch they had completely cleaned out the restaurant of crab!
bai sao

After lunch with the squalls more frequent and the patches of blue much rarer we explored the inland areas and visited Dinh Ba, a larger fishing village on the east coast of the island.

dinh ba

Closing weather saw us running for home with a stop at a fish-sauce factory to see out a particulary violent spot of weather It was deliciously aromatic – we would have got some for everybody but it is forbidden to take it on the plane!

We are back in Saigon now with only a barbeque feast tonight (highlights of the menu – goat’s penis, scorpion, snake and live prawns) before we leave for the last time.

dalat

shellfish dinner

We are still in Saigon at the moment, just back from a magnificent shellfish dinner. We have eaten all sorts of weird and wonderful things that one would usually leave on the sea floor, fishing them out of their shells with a safety pin!

This week we headed up into the highlands of Vietnam, more specifically to the tourist trap of Dalat. The scenery on the ride up was breathtaking, which was lucky given that it was an 8 hour trip!

Once in Dalat we jumped on the back of a motorcycle and toured the surrounding countryside, temples and waterfalls with the notorious ‘Dalat Easyriders’. It was quite interesting – especially as we visited some local farms and had tea with an ex-VC captain!

Yesterday we hired our own motorbike and set about finding some of the waterfalls and lakes that dot the area around Dalat. With a couple of wrong turns along the way we visited Tiger Falls (complete with giant concrete tiger – the Vietnamses really know how to ruin scenic locations with kitsch junk). Due to our navigational difficulties we didn’t quite make it to as many places as we had planned but crising through the countryside was fun anyway.

dalat kitsch

This weekend we are heading to Phu Quoc – a Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia (stolen from the Khmers according to Chhay’s dad). It is supposed to be absolutely fantastic – beautiful beaches and very little development. It will be the only beach time that we spend during this trip as we will be racing up to central Vietnam and into Laos next week.

oops we're in saigon

Saigon Traffic
I’m currently sitting in our friends office in Saigon when I was supposed to be kicking back by the Mekong in Ben Tre! We had a small mix up with our bus – well perhaps we were a bit slow to realise that we had reached the spot where we were supposed to get off – and instead of disembarking from our bus at My Tho and catching the ferry to Ben Tre the next thing we knew we were sitting at the bus station in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)!

We should be able to really check out Saigon as we are now here for 10 days. I think we’ll do a few short trips into the surrounding areas and just relax for a little bit. I woudl have liked to have seen Ben Tre but Chhay was getting a bit sick of the delta so perhaps we were meant to get here early?

Since we left Chau Doc we have been staying in Can Tho, in the centre of the Mekong Delta. We hired a boat for half a day and explored the surrounding canals and waterways, including the much vaunted floating markets. While the markets were a little underwhelming it was fantastic to watch the variety of working boats that ply the delta – especially once we got away from the main channels and were drifting through small creeks that lace the area. In fact it was possibly the highlight of our trip so far – for me at least.

Can Tho

Now we are staying with friends I should be able to dowload a few more pictures so keep an eye out here and on our flickr page.

chau doc

Chau Doc

We are now just inside the Vietnamese border in a little riverside town called Chau Doc. The boat trip here was quite uneventful, some interesting scenery but the river was so wide that little detail was available from the boat – very different from the trip from Siem Reap to Battambang.

This morning we climbed (with the small help of a couple of motorbikes) the local protuberence into the otherwise dead flat Mekong Delta. The views from the top were quite impressive – the border between Cambodia & Vietnam clearly marked out and water covering 75% of the territitory we could see.

Excessive beauracracy to get into the country aside, Vietnam seems much more organised than Cambodia and definitely cleaner. There is food absolutely everywhere – baguettes for sale on every street corner, and iced coffees wherever you go (heaven for me). So far the fodd that we have tried has only been ok – the cold rolls that we had for lunch today couldn’t compare to Chhay’s efforts at home but I am expecting great things as we get closer to Saigon…

phnom penh

Royal Palace - Phnom Penh

We are still kicking around Phnom Penh – taking it very easy at the moment. We have ticked off most of the must do’s – royal palace & museum, Tuol Sleng S-21 genocide museum, killing fields, Russian & Central markets and numerous strolls along the riverfront.
Highlight so far was our trip this afternoon, we hired a motorbike and headed out to the Sunrise Children’s Village – an orphanage run by Geraldine Cox – a relatively well known expat aussie (their website is well worth a perusal if you have time) We had attended a fundraising dinner for the foundation in Brisbane earlier in the year so it was great to see first hand the facilities that they have set up, and to meet some of the kids. Chhay was an absolute hit because she could speak Khmer – she was swamped with kids at one stage and even managed to pick up a new sister in the process! The trip out was also fun – dodging Cambodian traffic and trying to keep us all in one piece (no helmets or insurance in Cambodia)!

We have one more day here before we head into Vietnam to amble through the Mekong Delta. Any ideas for presents for Chhay’s upcoming b’day warmly welcomed.

pictures!

monks at angkor thom

I have added a couple of photos to some of the previous posts. For more pictures check out our flickr page. I will be adding more in the next couple of days. None of the photos are great – the light in Cambodia seems particularly ill-suited to photgraphs at this time of year. They do say that in order to get good shots we would have needed to be at the temples just past dawn – but you can imagine the chance of that happening when Chhay & I are involved 😉

100 mile food

Battambang Market

Before we left brisvegas one of our plans was to host a 100 mile dinner – sourcing all the ingredients from the local region. We ran out of spare weekends in the end and didn’t get around to it. There are various arguments around at the moment with regards to the sustainablility of our food systems in the west and the distance food travels to get to our plate

Hanging out with Chhay’s cousin and her daughters who run a restaurant in Battambang, and just generally watching the process of food production/shopping in Cambodia it has been interesting to note how locally sourced so much of the food is.

Most dishes are sourced exclusively from the local market where produce is sold directly from the farmer in small stalls or on mats laid out on the ground. Not only fruit, spices & vegetables but also baskets of fish and seafood and fresh meat hanging from hooks open to the elements!

It helps that the countryside in Cambodia is incredibly fertile with large amounts of water available so that a huge range of produce can be farmed in most areas.

Much of this system is due to a lack or refridgeration, however it also means that the food is fresh daily (that is not counting the whole smoked pigs and ducks that hang bright orange in other stalls – but that is another story) and full of flavour. It is also a much more sustainable food system – relying a lot less on oil for transportation.

It’s quite funny to see systems that have been abandoned in the West but that are now being reintroduced in limted niche upmarket areas (think farmer’s markets) for lefty greenies like me are still a daily way of life for much of the world.