Saturday, 27 December 2014

Happy Christmas from Hanoi

I’ve been told that it’s my turn to write a blog entry, but there’s very little to write about as, the nearly 2 weeks we’ve been here, we have done precious little. We’ve cooked, we’ve read, we’ve walked a little and we’ve watched and listened to a lot of BBC programmes through the internet proxy server and we’ve been endlessly entertained by White Cat who, we think, likes us being around and has many ‘mad moments’, running around at top speed chasing her ping pong balls, sliding on her mat and generally being very silly!

The 22nd December 1944 was the day North Vietnamese troops gathered to reclaim their country after the Japanese hurriedly left and before the French reappeared. It was the 70th anniversary and we think there were lots of celebrations, but we kept away
The Presidential Palace in Hanoi
It’s the day after Boxing Day and there are a few things of note, but the one that stands out is the surreal experience of meeting the neighbours three floors down (in room 101!) on Christmas Day. They are Nick and Nick and, Jen and Jody told us before they left, are the people to see if we need anything. We bumped into one of the Nicks (the sensible, older one who goes running with Jody) on the stairs outside his flat one day, had a sensible conversation as he walked into his apartment, then hearing in a loud voice from inside from the other Nick ‘Come inside big boy and make love to me!’. Older Nick apologised, we said goodbye and in he went, so we naturally drew our own conclusions.

A nice bit of art. It's the remains of crashed US aircraft assembled into a piece of sculpture. It's at the Hanoi history museum and made a good half day visit.
Part of the ancient Citadel in Hanoi, dating from the 10th century
It turned out they were the wrong conclusions as, on Christmas Day we had a knock on our door whilst preparing a dinner and met a young South Korean girl with an empty cup in her hand asking if we had any sugar (it really does happen!). She was with the Nicks and a group of friends downstairs, they were preparing lunch and she invited us down later if we wanted. 

I saw this and thought of my daughter Fiona!
A flower garden in Hanoi. In the middle is a snowman!
Later, after we had eaten and washed up there was another knock at the door and in came the Nicks, alcohol in hand, a little inebriated, and they were like a whirlwind. Could they bring their beef joint up and cook in our oven as theirs wasn’t getting up to temperature, so on the oven went again, drinks and more drinks were poured and the conversation just flowed. Older Nick disappeared supposedly to get his beef joint, but never returned and we had a very entertaining conversation with younger Nick who is a ‘no holds barred’ person. It turns out the Nicks are not ‘together’ and in fact the Korean girl is young Nicks girlfriend of a couple of months and he’s still at the ‘can’t keep his hands off her’ stage.

The 22nd December is the 1st November in the Vietnamese calender and, as such is the start of the new lunar month. Here people are at a Buddhist temple, burning fake money as an offering. It was a Monday morning, but very crowded with people worshiping
The entrance to the temple
We were invited down to meet all their guests, there were about 10 of them, so we went down, drank more wine and had a fabulous, but really ‘off the wall’ surreal experience. The whole experience was like a whirlwind and it was really nice to get back up to our apartment to a bit of peace, and for a Skype call to Jackie’s family, Charles, Caroline, Jonathan, Lucy and Pauline.

Later, another knock at the door and it was Nick asking if he could borrow some cutlery, he took about 3 knives and forks which we haven’t got back yet, but I suppose it’s alright, Jen and Jody seem to know them!

Now here's a funny thing. This is a shelf in a supermarket catering for Westerners. In the UK we put security tags on expensive bottles of spirits, so it sets off an alarm if people try to steal them.Here they put them on expensive butter and 'Laughing Cow' cheese spread packs as they are really rare in Vietnam. Can you see the price of 8oz butter? 86,900vnd, that's just under £3. Quite expensive, but they don't seem to use it here and you can't normally buy it. This stuff is imported from Australia. I've bought quite a bit of it for baking cakes!
Jackie finds a cat in a cafe. This one was on heat and was howling for a mate!
The other thing to mention is that in Jackie’s last blog entry she mentioned about the worry we had one night with a fire in a relatively nearby building. It happened on the first Sunday night we were here and the next day we walked past to see blackened, twisted metal being removed by lots of people. It was built on a hill and the building underneath was badly damaged and the buildings either side had sustained slight damage. I didn’t take any photos, which was a bit of a shame as I could have taken one or two a day to show the progress of rebuild. In an unbelievable 7 days the site was cleared and it was completely rebuilt and functioning! New brick pillars were built to support the building on top at road level, a metal frame erected, it was covered in cladding, a new floor and sliding security door, all finished by the following Sunday, 1 week after it was totally destroyed. Now that’s impressive!

Bought Jackie some red roses for Christmas. White Cat wondered what they were!
Preparing Christmas dinner
Boxing Day was a quieter affair, but we did still eat lots, drink lots and had a great Skype conversation with my family in the evening (lunch time for them at home). The connection wasn’t very good and, with 10 of them sitting round the dinner table it was very difficult to hear what was said with everyone talking at once. Had another Skype conversation today with our friend Paul Tooze, Cat and Aaron in Brisbane, Australia and that was a more laid back affair and a great ‘fireside chat’, so thank heavens for Skype and the internet, it has transformed our lives and made travelling so much more enjoyable, allowing us to keep in touch so easily.

Yeah, Christmas dinner!
My trifle, made with Birds custard and very expensive cream!
We’ve been eating and living like Brits, almost no local food has passed our lips, we’ve stuck with our traditional fair, Chicken, roast potatoes, ‘pigs in blankets’, sage and onion stuffing, bread sauce, four different veg, followed by trifle and lots of gin and tonics and red wine. We’ve put radio 2 on from the previous day and watched all sorts of BBC Christmas programmes, including Strictly Come Dancing and the Queens Christmas Day message. A cop-out? No, we don’t think so, we’re getting our feet back on the ground ready for our on-going adventure.

White Cat has a play in her box
White Cat acts like a tart!
It’s also been a useful time to plan where we go next. We’re going to go overland west from here on 5th January, stopping off at a few places in Vietnam before going over the land border into Laos. We get a 30 day visa-on-arrival there and plan on going gradually south and then overland into Cambodia, where we can get another 30 day visa-on-arrival. After that we don’t yet know, but I’ve been reading the Lonely Planet guide on Indonesia and I’m really keen, but you can only get a 30 day visa-on-arrival, non-extendable and it looks like that will be nowhere near enough, so maybe we could get a flight to Darwin in Australia for a bit and then fly back to Indonesia for another 30 days! Don’t know yet, I’ve got to convince Jackie it’s a good idea and within budget! Anyway, it looks like we’ll still be travelling for a while yet.

You probably can't see this too well, but it's a street in the old quarter of Hanoi. One stall is selling Santa suits and further along the road another shop is selling Chinese lanterns. It just takes a bit of 'getting used to'!
White Cat wishes everyone a Merry Christmas!
Happy New Year, it’s Jackie’s turn for the New Year blog entry, just before we head off.

By the way, if anyone’s interested in the history of Vietnam, I’ve read a book of Jen and Jody’s which was very interesting and I’ve written a very brief summary of the historical part which I thought was very interesting. 

Who's this a statue of then? I'm sure you recognise those prominent features anywhere - it's Lenin

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Hanoi for Christmas - boring but Fabulous

It’s going so fast, a week since our long day at the airport!

White Cat in the apartment lounge
Sitting in the apartment and we could be anywhere – Radio 2 on iplayer, afternoon tea and cake, G&T before dinner, steak, macaroni cheese, spicy prawns, slow cooked belly pork so far, oh yes, and a tin of custard powder! Custard powder expensive - £3.50, bottle of Gordons gin £7.20. Cheddar cheese (well almost – it’s Australian) and yummy pate from the butchers. 

Breakfast on the 4th floor balcony
We were in yesterday replenishing stocks and I had to feel for the man in there, he’d gone to collect his turkey for a big gathering (someone else was doing duck as I gathered) only to find it was frozen. This I think had thrown him! We’ve only been out to dinner once – a restaurant that only does curry, but Indian curry, Thai curry, Japanese curry, all very different from each other, but my biryani was very nice.

White cat on the coffee table, eyeing up the G&T's and pringles
A nice homely Christmas scene
Our first night on our own was a little exciting – I was woken by noise, was it a party? Went onto the balcony to look, to see smoke billowing from not very far away, it wasn’t that close, and the wind wasn’t blowing in our direction, but I still had to wake Brian as it was a little close for comfort, should we pack our bags and put the cat in her carrier? What do you salvage from someone elses house? We were pleased to hear sirens and the noise of a man with a whistle. The Building, a small house, on the main road has been completely stripped, down to nothing, and has started on the re-build. They don’t hang about!

That's the remains of a B52 bomber in that lake apparently
We walked to the botanical gardens and to see a small lake with the remains of a B52 sticking out of it on Monday, well the maid was coming in and we didn’t want to get in her way! She normally comes every other day, but we’ve put her to once a week, as apart from fluffy White Cat fur to sweep up, what else is there? I don’t expect anyone else to do our laundry, or ironing, or shopping (though she probably would get a better deal on flowers than we would.)

Pagoda by the lake
Carpet shop and barbers on the edge of a main road
We had a trip to the bouldering wall which we quite enjoyed (after we’d waited 20mins or so for the local school class to leave) though it’s not something we’ve ever done much of so found it really quite hard, not to mention you don’t get the belaying break, so perhaps we should have taken it a little more gently. We were a source of interest for the staff though as we were obviously older that their average clientele, they seemed impressed we were there anyway! I did manage to slip on the way home, and have a bruise on my bottom and a scrape and bruise on the palm of one hand, perhaps I should claim it as a climbing injury, sounds much more impressive!

White cat hides in a box!

A wedding 'selfie' in the street below
White Cat is lovely, she is very talkative and likes to play (particularly likes a mad half hour at about 05.30 when anything on either dining or sitting room table finds itself relocated to the floor. B struggled to find the case for his glasses under the sofa this morning!) but isn’t very cuddly. I’m really hoping she’ll sleep on the bed before we go, but she’s her own cat! She gets very excited every time we eat, and has been offered a taste of everything, and turned her nose up at all of it!

Sunset from our balcony
So all in all, I’ve read 2 ½ books, watched Strictly Come Dancing on iplayer, a couple of films done some soduko and cooked lots of food. It may be time for a G&T and a few crisps before we amble out for a burger or some Mexican tonight!

Bookcase cat
It’s all very confusing watching and listening to iplayer. We’re 7 hours ahead of the UK so we can’t listen and watch todays, because it hasn’t happened yet, so we’re listening and watching yesterdays at the appropriate times so, other than the fact that it’s yesterday’s broadcast, it still feels right and we’re listening to all the Christmas music. Call us ‘sad’ if you want, ‘feeling normal’ is a really nice break from the madness of travelling, staying in different hotels and eating so many different foods. It’ll recharge us ready for more madness in the New Year.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Back to Ho Chi Minh and on to Hanoi (at last!)

The river front at Chau Doc

Planned on writing this on our first relaxing day from the apartment in Hanoi where we’re going to look after White Cat while owners Jen and Jody go off on holiday to England and Ireland for Christmas and New Year, but instead we’re writing it in the departure lounge of Ho Chi Minh airport while we wait for our delayed flight. 14:25 it was booked for, then an email announced it would be 15:20 and, at the moment it’s looking like about 18:00, but who knows. We could possibly blame it on the typhoon that hit the Philippines earlier in the week and has now made landfall in Vietnam, no longer a typhoon, just a deep tropical depression, but enough to bring lashing wind and rain, but none here yet. It looks like the worst will be in the south and the Mekong Delta (good job we’ve left), but it may be enough to disrupt flights. Hanoi isn’t affected it’s very settled, quite warm and sunny up there (18-22⁰C and zero humidity – fabulous!), but we just have to get there!

Floating houses in Chau Doc.
Chau Doc market from our hotel room
We had two more days in the Mekong Delta at Chau Doc after our last blog entry and a final night in Ho Chi Minh last night, but they were nothing very exciting. Chau Doc seemed a relatively nice riverside town with the usual hustle and bustle and there were river rides to see interesting places and Sam Mountain nearby with pagodas and temples to see, but we weren’t up to it as we both had mild cases of Delhi Belly (well, it had to happen sometime I guess!).

our hotel room at the Duc Vuong in HCMC
Think it may have been our last meal in Can Tho on Monday night, the bowl of steamed clams may have been to blame, but the other choice was something we have never tried before, ‘nesting roasted pigeon’. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, ‘we deserve everything we got’ and maybe that’s true, but these things need to be tried! It was nice enough in itself, a quite rich tasting version of chicken, but not that much meat on it as you can imagine. It was a whole pigeon, complete with head including eyes and beak, that they cut up into manageable chunks. We fed the head to a passing cat who seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, leaving nothing, not even the beak!

The final rays of the sun over HCMC from the roof top terrace of the Duc Vuong
Anyway, 2am was my time to wake up thinking ‘oh dear’, particularly as we had a 3 hour bus trip and two nights in a hotel in Chau Doc booked and paid for commencing in the morning, but we both decided we could manage the journey without anything untoward, which indeed we did, but on arrival at the hotel we just flaked out on the bed, managing a delicate walk round the town later. We ate nothing in the evening, not even going out, just watched a couple of films on TV. A round of toast from breakfast all we ate all day!

On the roof top terrace
The next day we had thought about a trip to Sam Mountain, but it would be on the back of a motorbike, so we thought ‘no’. Another walk round town, an offer of a boat trip which came down from 200,000vnd to 100,000vnd or ‘name our price’ which actually we didn’t want at any price, he just wouldn’t leave us alone. But we did have a pleasant enough day, looked at a temple and pagoda, had a smoothie in a western style café (strange how you go for places, food and drink you recognise when feeling ‘off’), did go out for fried rice and fried noodle dishes and then went back, watched another film and got ready for the 6 hour bus journey back to HCMC, which turned out not to be too bad.

In time for the sunset
The bus was one of those ‘sleeper buses’ with the two levels of reclined chairs and, for the daytime they’re actually quite comfortable. You can tilt the back up a bit and it feels a bit like sitting in a garden recliner with your feet up, quite relaxing and pleasant, so we arrived back in HCMC quite relaxed. Jackie had found a cheapish hotel in HCMC ($30/£18) in the ‘backpacker district’ which turned out to be one of the best we had stayed in. The rooms were clean, reasonably large with all conveniences provided, the breakfast this morning was fabulous and to top it all, they had a roof top terrace with fabulous views out over the city, where we went to watch the sun set while sipping cocktails. It had a very western feel which was just what we wanted and, on looking at the menu, they had just what we wanted in our semi delicate conditions: Pizza! First time we have strayed from local foods, but we decided it was OK!

Which got better as it went on
Took a walk down the street after dinner and found it all a bit overwhelming, it’s a bit like Bangkok! Everything is happening, bars and restaurants everywhere, full of people, loud music, old western blokes with young local girls, a really lively place and just what we didn’t want at that time, so we retreated back to our room! Probably at other times it would have been an interesting experience, but we weren’t up for it at that time.

Cocktails on the roof top terrace
So here we are at the airport, it’s 17:00 and I’m hoping we’ll be on our way soon. Will write more from the cooler north!

We finally arrived, with our luggage (that was my next stress), at the house about 21.30 to meet the lovely Jen and Jody and slightly nervous White Cat, sit down, have a beer and it’s been fab ever since! The apartment is great, they’ve given us their room, though to be honest they are both a good size and yes, we have an en-suite, with bath, but with only the two of us here it really doesn’t matter, especially as the shower in the other bathroom is much better. Kitchen, oven, spacious lounge, bookshelf, washing machine downstairs, TV with satellite, DVD’s, dedicated laptop with BBC iplayer….. What more could we want?

The street below, where it was all happening!
Whatever it is we can probably get it outside, the area is a huge ex-pat enclave so there are wine shops and a butchers as we'd recognise it, a supermarket selling proper cheese and everything we can possibly need nearby. So we’ve got Australian steak for supper (with a bottle of red wine obviously) and some pate for lunch. Cheddar and macaroni for macaroni cheese tomorrow with smoked ham from the butchers!

HCMC by night
First picture of White Cat in our new home for Christmas
It's even cold - t-shirt and shirt over the top, long trousers and socks and I could have done with something else on! Fabulous. There are restaurants that will deliver (though we will need to buy a sim card to make that call), shops that deliver big water bottles and beer and carry them up to the 4th floor for no extra cost and a pub nearby with bangers and mash and crumble (but no custard) on the menu! Bangers and mash for 260 000vnd admittedly which would normally be the cost of dinner for both of us, but hey, we’re not paying for accommodation!

I’ve finished off this entry while Brian is mixing up a Victoria Sponge. We are going to be very happy here!