Monday, January 24, 2011

Last Night On Earth

Sunday 9 January - evening

Tonight is our last night in Vietnam and I'm feeling a little sad about that. I love Vietnam so much and the pace of this holiday is perfect. We are relaxed and don't need to be anywhere we don't want to be. It will be lovely to get home to my dog, my family and my friends, but I also don't want to leave Hoi An. I could come and live here for six months very, very easily. It's just so beautiful. Hoi An is definitely the kind of place one does not leave with enthusiasm; there is always a sense of regret.

Despite the fact that there are still so many restaurants we haven't yet tried in town, we decide to wander over the bridge tonight and seek out a restaurant on Cam Nam. We head into town and make a bee line for the bridge, which is crowded with tourists and lots people milling about. Some are wandering with purpose, whilst others are just living in the moment and taking in the visual banquet before them. The atmosphere is simultaneously festive yet relaxed. It's a lovely feeling. As with the rest of Hoi An, there are restaurants aplenty on Cam Nam and no shortage of choice. Some of the restaurants had a set menu, and even though the price was ridiculously cheap, we simply couldn't justify that much food after our late lunch. We found a restaurant that was ultra modern in its decor, but Curry thought it looked too "plastic" and we wanted something traditional and gorgeous for our last night. We kept wandering and ended up finding a place called Vuon Hai San, or "Seafood Garden" on Nguyen Phuc Chu Street. We were a little concerned that there wouldn't be anything for Caramel, but were assured that they catered for all types and there would be plenty of meat available.  We were shown upstairs to the balcony and given a table with the most beautiful view over Hoi An - looking back over Bach Dang Street and all the places we've been over the past five days. It was just gorgeous looking at it from the other side. Curry can't help herself and sets up the camera to take some night shots over the water. She's somehow misplaced her tripod, so she had to crouch down and use the railing as a stabiliser. Whilst she was doing that, Caramel amused herself by taking photos of Curry taking photos. Caramel's photos were rather amusing, as in one shot she took of Curry directly from behind her, it looks as though Curry is throwing up over the balcony. We all giggle with girlish amusement.

Again, we had a lovely wait staff who were all very friendly and attentive. The owner of the restaurant even came over to talk with us and he was so lovely and polite and very interested in talking with us. We ordered our favourites - vegetable spring rolls, White Rose dumplings, Morning Glory and decided to share these. We each also ordered a plate of our favourite noodles. Caramel had Diet Coke and a coffee and Curry and I had pots of ginger tea each. When the noodle dishes came out, there was another beautifully carved masterpiece on the side of the plate, this time a flower made from a cucumber with a carrot centre. Curry was the lucky recipient of this one, and we dutifully took pictures of it and expressed our appreciation to it creator. Again, the food was delicious and fresh. It was a lovely evening and we savoured every mouthful and every moment, knowing that it could be some time before we return here to this magical place.

When the bill arrived, we had to check it twice. No......surely not. That cannot possibly be correct, can it? However, our human calculator Curry assured us that it was indeed correct - the whole meal, including drinks cost us a total of AUD$9.75 for the three of us. Stop it!!! That's just embarrassing. We left a generous tip and departed the restaurant.

It was lovely to wander up and down the street people watching and taking in the sights. We came across the most beautiful little girl who came over and started talking to us - little pink jacket, dimples and all. This of course is always a ploy for money but I don't mind being duped into parting with some cash when the scam artist is young and adorable. Being the ultimate scam queen myself, I appreciate the talent in younger models. One does indeed recognise one's own. Sure enough, after a polite period of conversation, the hard sell is presented. "May I please have some coins for my collection?" Of course you may. We dive for our wallets and hand over $1 and $2 coins to the small but firm waiting hand. This kid will be running BHP within five years. Sure enough, like the special effects in a Harry Potter movie, the mother and a little brother suddenly apparate out of the ether and the exercise must be repeated. It is seriously a blatant rip off, but when it's done so charmingly and with such skill, homage must be paid to the perpetrators and we do so with a smile. We are permitted to take some photos of our Vietnamese dandy highwaymen, and we continue on our merry way. It is a beautifully balmy night and we take our time wandering around. Curry has died and gone to night photo heaven.

We wander back to Bach Dang Street and collect Curry's shoes. At last they're ready, and they look fabulous. She's pleased with them and all is well with the world. We keep wandering and come across a small shop with an explosion of lanterns hanging from its front window and a tempting array of purses in baskets. In the background we could hear an English football match happening and could spy a group of men gathered around a small television, watching the game with intense excitement. As we're browsing through the lovely purses, an attractive young man dutifully comes over to serve us. We choose some purses and negotiate the price. Just as we're getting our money ready, an almighty shout erupts from behind him - evidently a goal has been scored and he's missed it. I felt so sorry for the poor boy - here he is haggling over the measly sum of about $2 whilst his team finally scores a goal he's probably been waiting at least an hour for. I'm reminded of the Kit Kat ad on TV awhile ago, where the photographer waits hours for the bears to emerge from the cave, and they do so, on roller skates, whilst your man turns his back and takes 30 seconds to readjust his cushions and camera equipment. He takes off at the speed of light back to his group - hopefully he'll catch the goal on replay.

We continue our wandering and eventually return to the hotel. We've realised that we need to pack, and on the return journey with way more than we started with, it's certainly going to be an exercise in creativity and leverage!

Slow Food For A Long Life

Sunday 9 January 2011 - morning

I awoke this morning and felt like I'd been run over by a train during the night. Yesterday had been such a massive day and I think it was starting to hit me that we'd been going non-stop for almost a week. We'd agreed to meet for breakfast, but when the appointed time came, I was still in bed trying to get back to sleep. Curry came and knocked on my door and I politely declined the invitation to join them, saying that I would have breakfast later.  Maybe I was feeling just a tad melancholy that this was our last full day in Vietnam. I went back to sleep almost immediately because denial and avoidance are my friends.

At some point the girls knocked back on the door and bless their hearts of gold, they'd brought me breakfast in bed. I was so tired and shattered I'd even been prepared to go as far as skipping the heavenly sinful chocolate croissants today. However, I didn't need to and I was beside myself with gratitude (and hunger). The girls lounged on the bed with me whilst I ate and they decided to head into town to do some things for themselves whilst I caught up on some much need rest. We agreed that I'd be up and ready by lunchtime so that we could head down to the beach.

I peacefully slept the morning away whilst the girls took in some heritage sights and sites and continued their contribution to the Vietnamese economy.

Eventually, I was able to rouse myself from slumber and drag my sorry carcass into the shower and then into some clothes. The girls arrived back from town and we were ready to head out to get sand between our toes and commune with the South China Sea.  We were going to walk, but again our best laid plans were thwarted by the weather. The trek to the beach was well over 2km, which on a fine day would be lovely, but on a rainy day was ill advised. The lovely Ms Thanh on reception ordered a taxi for us and we set off down the road. Our driver was friendly and pleasant and the trip down towards the beach was very scenic and pretty. We passed a lovely looking restaurant overlooking the river, where a sign proudly announced "Slow Food For A Long Life". That definitely looks like the perfect place if one wishes to indulge in one of life's great pleasures - the 7 hour lunch. Eventually our driver dropped us right up to the restaurants adorning the beach area and we stepped out to the familiar smell of salty sea air.

Given the cloudiness of the day, we were rather surprised at how many people were on the beach, including the obligatory Japanese tourists wearing business suits. We have a little chuckle to ourselves whilst studiously attempting to evade the restaurant owners who were overly assertive in their efforts to get us to come and eat in their restaurants. Most of the restaurants were seafood based, so Caramel was fresh out of luck there. We wandered up and down the sand whilst two restauranteurs in particular shadowed our every move. We felt a little bit like Princess Di being stalked by the papparazzi and it's not a pleasant feeling. After completing the requisite ritual for Kerry (touching the sea with both hand and foot and being photographed doing it), all the while being shadowed, we kept walking and walking until the restauranteurs had to give up, and at that point we disappeared into a large copse of palm trees so that nobody else could find us. Before leaving Australia, I'd warned the girls that on China Beach (near Da Nang), the local vendors appear out from behind palm trees faster than zombies in Michael Jackson's Thriller video. They hadn't quite understood me at the time, but they were about to achieve higher understanding big time and very quickly. Almost before we could blink, about half a dozen women appeared out of nowhere, carrying baskets laden with all sorts of things and entreating us to buy from them. Although we felt bad, we simply had to ignore them and walk as briskly as possible away. If you buy from one, you must buy from all. We did have to stop to pose for photos behind the palm trees and the ladies patiently waited for their prey whilst we postured and posed for each other's cameras. The ladies followed us for some time before we decided to abandon the beach idea altogether and head back the way we came. We shot out of the palm trees and back onto the road faster than a dish licker in Race 5 at Dapto. Let's just say that the peaceful walk on the beach idea didn't go exactly as planned!

The road back towards the hotel is Cua Dai Road right at its beginning, and there are lots of little shops lining each side of the street, and these sell everything you can possibly imagine. Curry stopped to take photographs of various bottles of evil looking concoctions containing snakes, scorpions and a variety of other creatures I'm not sure we wanted to know about. Our strict quarantine laws in Australia meant that there's no way we could get those things back into the country, which is a perfect excuse not to buy them. I love a built in excuse when one is desperately needed!  We wandered a bit further and I spied a gorgeous Collingwood stripe 1950s style bikini. We were having a lovely time meandering around like Brown's cows until we realised that we'd better get some lunch soon or we'd miss the opportunity altogether. We stumbled upon a quaint and pretty little place called The Blue Wave, which went all the way down to the river at the back of the restaurant. The lovely staff showed us to a nice table at the rear so that we could look over the river and enjoy the view. We ordered and realised that we were hungrier than we thought. Even though we were the only patrons in the restaurant, the food seemed to take forever to come. We heard all sorts of chopping and pounding sounds coming from the kitchen and realised that everything we'd ordered was being made fresh and from scratch. This got us to thinking about how fast paced our lives are in the West - the 30 second grab and expectations of instant gratification really are not at all good for one's health nor are they harmonious to a soothed soul. We all need to slow down and enjoy life's experiences along the way. The slogan "slow food for a long life" certainly is apt and should be taken into consideration more often.

We used our waiting time to relax, take in the lovely surroundings and grab some photos of the pleasant view over the river. The food arrived and it was certainly worth waiting for. Just delicious and very, very fresh. No wonder the Vietnamese are so healthy.

After we'd finished our delicious and embarrassingly cheap lunch, the staff were good enough to order a taxi to take us back to the hotel, but along the way we realised we'd be better off heading straight to town. Kerry's shoes were to be ready, and I was to have my final fittings on all my outfits at Mr Xe's. I was still bloated like a whale from lunch so a couple of my things were a teensy bit snug, but they felt good and I knew that once the food had gone down, all would be well with the world. Unfortunately, Kerry's shoes still weren't quite ready and we were told to come back after dinner. We headed off for another lovely coffee at Faifoo and the gorgeous Yum Yum was still working as usual.  We wandered around for a bit longer and ended up at another ceramics shop in Bach Dang Street - this one was Tam Kim, and they were advertising sets of bowls with matching bases for $2 per set. We were very impressed, and I ended up buying a set of 8, with matching chopsticks and another set of chopsticks for ten people, complete with rests in a beautiful wooden box. At 530,000 VND (about $25) for the lot, this was an excellent bargain. We continued on our little mini shopping spree and we ended up finally purchasing our "Same Same But Different" T-shirts, together with some scarves.

Seriously, Vietnam is full on shopping porn and we can't get enough of it!

Sakura Sunset

Saturday 8 January - late afternoon

After we'd been dropped back at the offices of Hoi An Motorbike Adventures we wandered down to see everyone at Mr Xe's for another fitting. As usual, as we were heading to the shop, Mr Xe was headed in the other direction, probably going up to see his uncle. 

I was greeted by the lovely ladies and Nhung got me into the fitting room to try on all the goodies. Everything was starting to come together, and I was pleased with the progress. A couple of things still required minor adjustment, but apart from that, all was good. Just when I thought it was safe to get redressed however, Mr Xe appeared and I had to try everything on again so that he could inspect the handiwork. He is truly the Vietnamese Valentino. There is definitely no 'that'll do' attitude happening here.

After we'd bid Mr Xe and the ladies farewell for the day, we continued on our way down to Bach Dang Street, where Curry was hoping that her shoes would be ready, but alas, the heavy rain meant that the glue hadn't dried. We have to come back again tomorrow. My shoes however were ready and I was surprised at how lovely they turned out.

We proceed back to the hotel to track down Caramel and find out what she's been up to whilst we were whizzing through the jungle and having a merry old time of it. It's still pretty cold and miserable as far as the weather goes, but Curry and I are still buzzing with adrenalin from our fabulous day out. We locate Caramel and we go to her room to take tea on the balcony. It was all just beautiful and we enjoyed a relaxing period of time out before organising ourselves for dinner.

We quickly showered and changed and headed back into town. Finding a restaurant in Hoi An is certainly not difficult as there are dozens of them. The biggest problem is trying to decide which one to choose. Fabulous sights and smells greet the passer by on every street.  We ended up at Sakura Restaurant, which is located in one of the really beautiful old buildings in Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. We chose the restaurant because the building is just so gorgeous. We were lucky enough to be seated upstairs on the balcony, which gave us a stunning view over the Thu Bon river and across to Cam Nam. Unfortunately for Curry, there was a traditional music concert being held in the open air rotunda next door to the restaurant, and the sharply discordant music was really getting on her nerves. Luckily we didn't have to put up with it for too long, and Curry busied herself with taking photos on the 'night' settings of the camera. Yet again, the staff were really lovely and very attentive. The service standards in Vietnam are very high and nothing is too much trouble for anyone. The level of English is surprisingly good, even though at times, the accent may be slightly difficult to understand. However, a few moments of listening intently to the speaker usually trains one's ear and communication becomes easier. As always, no matter where one is in the world, a little patience and a kind smile seems to make everything that much smoother.

Yet again, we had another lovely meal for the princely sum of about $6 per person, including drinks. The girls simply cannot get enough of the $2 cocktails. We enjoyed another pot of ginger tea, which goes so well with the delicious food. The lovely chef carved me a  beautiful fish made out of a long red chili and it decorated my main meal. It was so lovely I could barely part with it. We took lots of photos of the fishy adoring various plates of food, including the plate of White Rose dumplings and the Morning Glory that both seem to have become a staple in our Vietnamese diet. The girls who waited on us even made a little bridge out of chopsticks so we could photograph fishy on a bridge. It was hilarious.

After dinner, we went wandering again up and down Bach Dang Street. The lanterns and the lights shimmering off the water attract people like moths to flame, and we are no exception to the mesmerising effects. It's just beautiful wandering around the streets of Hoi An at night, and particularly so after the motorbike curfew has set in. Walking is so much more pleasant when one is safe in the knowledge that some clown on a scooter isn't going to flatten one onto the road. It's quiet, peaceful and ridiculously scenic. The Sakura chef had let me take the fishy with me, and we decided to set him free in the waters of the Thu Bon. I do the Rex Hunt and give him a kiss before tossing him in with a prayer to join his brethren. He sinks below the ripples and we wave goodbye. We soak up the atmosphere and sights like sponges before retiring back to the hotel. Although I feel like such a nanna, I stick to my regimen of retiring early to bed to avoid coming down with something that will impede upon my best laid plans. The girls head back to their favourite bar near the hotel and indulge in some more cocktails.

I have a piping hot shower, don my pyjamas and am soon gliding towards the Land of Nod. It's been a massively huge day and I couldn't be happier if I tried. There's nowhere in the world I would rather be right at this very moment. I fall asleep smiling.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My Son - Lara Croft Strikes Again!

8 January 2011:
Last night, the girls had actually convinced me that there was no way that Curry and I could go on the motorbike tour to the Champa ruins at My Son (Mee Son) today. The rain lashed down with relentless ferocity all day yesterday and they were worried that I would catch pneumonia if I went out in similar conditions. I was absolutely gutted, as I’d really been looking forward to this activity, and had been excited about it for months. There are almost as many motorbikes in Vietnam as there are people in Australia, and to not see Vietnam on the back of a motorbike is akin to not being there at all. Also, I have never been to Angkor Wat, and in case I don’t get there, the ruins at My Son are the next best thing. 

We had compromised and agreed that we would wait to see what the weather was doing and make our final decision at 8:00am when we were due to be at the Hoi An Motorbike Adventures office.

When I woke up, the weather was overcast but it wasn’t raining. This was a good sign and I had everything crossed that it would remain that way. Everything has been going so well so far and the best laid plans have mostly come to fruition. I sincerely wished for this state of affairs to continue. Anyone who has ever met me for longer than five minutes knows that once I’ve made up my mind to do something, not even nuclear annihilation will change it. Despite my many charming qualities I am a stubborn bitch of the first order and rarely back down from a decision. Unfortunately I have put myself in harm’s way on many an occasion, but I’m still here to talk about it, so go figure.

Curry and I had breakfast, and as usual, the chocolate croissants didn’t disappoint. I can actually eat the pastries in Vietnam without too much worry, as the Vietnamese don’t use wheat in anything and make most of their flour with rice. The Cua Dai (pronounced goo die) Hotel is world renowned for its chocolate croissants and I didn’t feel like missing out, regardless of the consequences. The beautiful staff also make us fresh omlettes every morning and they are delicious. The girls who work at the hotel are so very charming and delightful and we are grateful that we’ve been so lucky to have had this experience. After our breakfast and a cup of tea, we go to reception to check out what other options there might be to get to My Son today if we have to cancel the bike tour. Apparently we can hire a driver to take us there for about $30. This sounds like an attractive proposition, so we’ve covered all our bases.

We grab a taxi into town and head into the office, where five other hopefuls were waiting patiently. The staff at Hoi An Motorbike Adventures are also delightful people, and their faces lit up when they saw us walk in. As I am want to do, I make the split second decision – bugger the weather, we’re going. We’re here and if I don’t do this, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life (or until I get another chance to come back to Vietnam). I’ve heard it said that it’s better to regret the things you did do in life than to regret the things you didn’t do. Curry was happy with whatever decision I made, so we were good to go. The staff confirmed that they carry appropriate wet weather gear and that we would be taking things carefully along the way. We were all bundled into a taxi and taken to the hangar where all the bikes are stored. We met Pete, our guide, who is originally a Kiwi but has been living in Brisvegas for many years. He and his wife operated some swim schools down on the Southside, and they’d recently sold them all and come to Vietnam to set up swim schools for the government. Pete told us that in Australia, on average each year there are 50 drownings. In Vietnam, the average is 40.....per day. Asian people are notoriously bad swimmers and it’s tragic to hear how many lives are lost during the monsoon season. People are swept into rivers at a moment’s notice and yet the locals just accept this as being part of life.

We were given our helmets and those who were riding their own bikes were taken through the essentials. Curry and I had elected to be driven as passengers. Those of us who serve a more decorative rather than functional purpose in life must know our limitations and I certainly know mine. I cannot even ride a bicycle, let alone a motorbike, and I wasn’t taking any chances on the dirt tracks. Experience has taught me that my most abysmal judgement has been reserved for choosing entirely unsuitable men.  I’d rather lie bare-assed naked on the footpath and be trampled by American tourists than be responsible for steering a two wheeled vehicle through the jungles of central Vietnam when I’m not familiar with the roads or the locals. I really do love motorbikes and would love to learn to ride one in the future, but today is not that day. In talking with the locals, they will say that one thing they despise about foreigners is when said foreigners overestimate their abilities and insist on riding motorbikes in Vietnam when they’ve never ridden one before.

I was assigned my driver and was very pleased to see he was an older Vietnamese gentleman by the name of Mr Hien. He is a contract rider for the company and he brings his own bike, a nice black Honda. Mr Hien helps me put on my helmet and secure it into place. He is a gentle and quiet man and I suspect his English isn’t exactly fluent, but he has enough to get by.

We take off and head out into the outer areas of Hoi An towards the My Son ruins site, which is approximately 55km away. As we head out of the town, we come across large plains of rice paddies, and they look just beautiful in the early morning light. The green of the fields is just beautiful, and we can see the women working in them, bent over plucking the rice stalks from their watery beds. We pass through small villages, where we see lots of children, elderly people and adults working hard or sitting in their yards. There is also the usual assortment of sleeping dogs, chickens, people on scooters, people on bicycles, people walking along with their conical hats and laden baskets hanging from planks like the scales of justice. There is a sense of calm over the areas and we pass people going about their daily lives, completely unconcerned by the tourists whizzing by in a convoy. Occasionally people would wave, but usually they just watched us with impassive faces. They know that the tourists will come and go, whilst their own lives will continue on just as they had before.

Before too long, we turned into what seemed like a small paddock, where a solitary Champa tower stands guard over it surrounding area. The site is eerily quiet, yet signs of recent activity are present – burning incense, fresh flowers and fruit, and a packet of biscuits had been deposited at the shrine outside the tower. The jungle is doing its best to take back this area, with vines growing over everything in sight. We go inside the tower and again there is evidence of recent worship. We take in the atmosphere, take our photos and soon we’re on our way again. We pass through more villages, more banana trees, more rice paddies, more houses and more beautiful scenery of daily life in rural Vietnam. The sky is still very overcast, but there doesn’t appear to be any rain threatening. All good so far!

We see many fields with graves rising up out of the mud and water and it seems strange to see such things in the middle of rice paddies. Pete explains to us that ancestor worship is very popular in Vietnam. The graves are holy shrines to the ancestors of the families living on and working the land around them. I am reminded that it’s left to us still living to miss those who aren’t and to remember them as best we can. The Vietnamese believe that their ancestors provide guidance and protection over their crops and the graves are beautifully tended.

At one point our convoy comes to a screaming halt as we arrive at a railway crossing and have to wait for a train to pass. It’s headed to Hanoi and while we wait I look around at all the other motorbikes, cycles, trucks laden with fruit, and pedestrians waiting to cross the tracks. A garbage truck, remarkably similar to ours at home stops periodically to collect rubbish. We pass by lots of construction work, motorbike repair shops, shops selling tyres and all things associated with motorbikes, vegetable and fruit stalls and all manner of village life. We cross bridges and pass Catholic churches dotted in amongst the houses.

Potholes covered the roads like minefields and some were the size of lakes. There had been some serious floods here only a few weeks ago, and the scars were still visible.

We eventually arrive at Dai Loc, where there was an important American base established during the War. Dai Loc is in the heart of the Viet Cong country – it is surrounded by jungle and hills. Apparently the Viet Cong would hide in the hills during the day and then sneak into the villages at night to obtain food and supplies and lay traps for the Americans. They would then disappear before dawn back into the hills at which time the Americans would recommence hostilities and try to come after them. It was a deadly game of cat and mouse and the Viet Cong were much better at it than the Americans were. The 7th Marine Regiment was stationed at what was called Hill 55 (because it is 55 metres high). The site is now a memorial maintained by the Vietnamese. Nothing is written in English and it is a monument to the victory of the Communist North over the American led South. Pete told us a dreadful story about how the Americans came to have a falling out with their South Vietnamese comrades. Apparently when digging the latrines at the base, the Americans chose a spot right near the sacred gravesites of the ancestors. As mentioned earlier, ancestor worship is very important in Vietnam, and for the US forces to choose a spot near the graves was insulting to the South Vietnamese (and quite understandably). When it was pointed out to the Americans that the latrine site was near the graves and they were politely requested to move the latrine site to another spot, the Americans, clearly choosing to remain ignorant to these particular societal customs, refused and proceeded to dig the latrines right on top of the ancestors. As one can imagine quite vividly, the South Vietnamese were furious. In retaliation, they set trip wires and explosives in the latrines and what followed was rather unpleasant. The Americans were horrified and couldn’t understand why their comrades suddenly didn’t like them any longer. The South Vietnamese realised that they couldn’t win in the face of such arrogance and ignorance and chose to pull out of the base entirely, leaving the Americans to it. The Americans decided that it would be a great idea to round up all the local people and put them into a kind of concentration camp near the base. Again, the cultural sensitivity was astonishing, and again, they fought a losing battle. One simply cannot remove farmers from their land, their crops and their livestock for any period of time without dire consequences. The Viet Cong eventually captured the area and the Americans were defeated. It is a beautiful spot now, and it’s eerie looking around at all the hills surrounding it and imagining how many pairs of Viet Cong eyes must have been on the area at the time. We spent some time there appreciating the surroundings and taking pictures of the religious icons and honour roll of the Northern Vietnamese dead. All the Southern Vietnamese graves have been removed – the Northerners didn’t want any ‘uprising’ of the dead and wanted the area to be a tribute to the North’s victory. It is beautiful yet sobering. Like everywhere we’ve seen, the jungle is trying to reclaim its rightful territory, however it’s having a bit of a difficult time of it in this place. Agent Orange was heavily used in this area, and the poisonous chemicals remain deep in the subsoil. The trees and vines all still grow quickly thickly, but they have very shallow root systems. As soon as the trees try to put down deep roots, they die after coming into contact with the toxic soil. Consequently, landslides are all too common here and much devastation is still being caused, all these years later. It is a continually toxic reminder of a toxic conflict.

We ride on again, passing through more rural villages and scenes of village life. It’s just beautiful. I’m astonished at how many children there are in Vietnam. The future of this nation is firmly secured in its young people. The children are just beautiful – so happy, always smiling and full of joy, despite the fact that they are living one slim rung up the ladder from abject poverty. They run out of their homes and choruses of “hello, hello, hello!” greets us as we pass through their villages. They wave and jump up and down waving and yelling out to us, and one would need to be made of stone to be unmoved by such displays of delight on their little faces. Some of them stand perilously close to the road, holding out their arms and hands so that we can high five them on the way past. It’s an unbelievably joyous experience.

The lunar new year, or Tet as it’s known in Vietnam, is approaching, and people are painting their houses, refreshing everything around them and restoring the graves in preparation for this sacred time. Billboards depicting Ho Chi Minh are everywhere and I’m reminded just how iconic this man remains in his nation’s hearts and minds, long after his death. I wonder what Uncle Ho would make of the new Vietnam with its blinding vulgarity of capitalism in the South and invasion of tourists everywhere. I suppose at least the irony is that the rest of the world must now ask for permission to enter the country, rather than waltzing in and taking it for themselves as some kind of colonial prize.

Pete stops our convoy on a huge bridge and we admire the beautiful view all around us. I’m reminded very much of North Queensland and the Atherton Tablelands in this particular spot. Vietnam is a tropical country and its vegetation is very much like the area near where I grew up as a small child. It’s just gorgeous and I commit these scenes to memory.  Pete points out to us a line on a house where the recent floods came. Apparently the house was built at the very peak of where the annual floods normally come to, and this year was no exception.

We don’t go too much further before we’re at our first stop destination. It’s a very small ‘café’. Rustic would be a generous description. I am desperate for the loo and am shown out to the back where there is the hole in the ground type of facility contained in a small concrete room. I can do nothing but cringe inwardly and hope my quads are up to the task so I don’t disgrace myself. I’ve been gripping the motorbike with my thighs for the whole journey so far so that I can have both hands free to take my photos along the way. I manage my task with success and set off back inside to have morning tea and drown my hands in anti-bacterial hand gel.

We eat some absolutely delicious bananas and have a soft drink. Pete points out that there are some Australian gum trees just outside and we duly take photographs, as is our moral obligation.

We head off again and go through more large puddles and more pot holes. Mr Hien is wonderful and takes great care to go around as much as he can. I look down at my jeans and shoes and am surprised at how clean I’ve managed to remain, whilst some of the others are rather muddy. One of our party manages to lose her bike through a large mud tract and she comes off, sliding through a big puddle. She’s in great spirits though and her boyfriend helps her right the bike and get back on track. The mud is so unbelievably slippery and everyone needs to pay close attention to the roads. It’s another reason why I’m grateful to be a passenger rather than a driver.

Before too much further, we come to another grinding halt – this time at the bottom of a fairly steep hill. Directly in front of us is a river and I briefly wonder what on earth we’re going to do before I spy a large flat boat heading towards us. We’re going to ride our bikes onto the boat and be ferried across the river. Sensational! Now I really feel like Lara Croft. This is beyond cool. We get all the bikes on board and huddle together, as there’s only millimetres of space left all around us. We reach the other side of the river and need to be helped off – the gangplank consists of two narrow pieces of timber and the mud is so slippery that the planks slide around and separate. It’s a bit hairy but we all manage to get off. Emily, a lovely Dutch girl who is joining the company as a guide, has trouble with her bike and it won’t start. We need to leave her behind with the mechanic and he will get the bike going again. The mechanic is actually Curry’s driver, and so she hops on behind Pete on his bike.

We keep proceeding along the narrow paths until we come to a spot where the mud is such a quagmire that I’m certain that entire civilizations have been lost in it. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Harold Holt was somewhere down there too. Most of our party has a fair degree of trouble getting through the mud and they are all wretchedly filthy by the time they reach the other side. Mr Hien waits until everyone else has gone through before carefully guiding his bike through the horrors of the red tar pit. He momentarily loses his traction but manages to save me from being tossed unceremoniously into the mire. We make it through safely to the clapping and cheers of the rest of the party. It was momentarily scary, but fun in hindsight. Had I ended up face down in red mud I may have retained a different view.

Our next stop is a place called An Hoa (An Waa), which is the site of a huge airstrip used by the Americans during the war. It is now eerily quiet, with just local farmers and loads of buffalos wandering around. We take more photos and head off again. Peter is anxious to have lunch and get to My Son.

We stop at another café for our lunch, and by now I’m absolutely starving. The lovely lady who owns the café has prepared a delicious lunch for us. It consists of the national soup, pho (pronounced fer), together with a pappadum looking thing that’s so big it could gag a fully grown hyena. It has seeds in it and is very coarse, but tastes delicious. It’s a shared experience and we all break off bits to dip into our soup and noodles. We are also given some ginger tea which is soothing and tasty.

We are faced with another hole in the ground situation as far as amenities go. The toilet is in complete blackness and the floor is wet, so all of us girls have to borrow an iPhone to use the in-built light so we can see. I hold the phone in my mouth whilst using all the dexterity the Good Lord bestowed upon me to get myself sorted. Holy Horrible Task, Batman!!!! We’re very grateful for the small comforts and the sooner it’s over the better. Thank goodness for anti-bacterial hand gel, which I use again by the gallon as soon as I get out of the literal black hole. It’s times like this I truly wished I had that Y chromosome and could make use of the nearest tree outside.  While we are having lunch, Mr Hien finds a stick and lovingly cleans his bike, removing all the mud from the wheels before he permits himself something to eat. I’m deeply moved by this and realise that in Vietnam, their bikes are the key to their livelihoods. Without their bikes, none of these people can make a living. To lose their bike would be to lose everything. I’m humbled and enormously grateful.

Just as we’re ready to leave, Emily arrives. The great news is that the bike has been fixed, and as soon as they’ve had their lunch, they’ll follow us to My Son.

We arrive in My Son and go to the visitor centre, which is really interesting and very modern. The weather has closed in by now and it is raining, but not too hard. We’re wearing our Chinese Drizabone ponchos which seem to be doing the trick for now. Pete and Mr Hien can’t come with us into the My Son sites, so they remain behind whilst we walk towards the relics. All the maps are in Vietnamese and there aren’t any signposts along the way, so it is somewhat a journey of self discovery. We all head off together but along the way we separate and go in different directions.

The ruins are just beautiful and no amount of literal description can do them justice. Curry and I wander around drinking in the marvellous construction and I touch the stones, hoping to absorb some of the rich history by osmosis. We latch onto a couple of small groups which have an individual guide (mostly Americans) and eavesdrop on the information being given by the guide. I learn some interesting things and we try not to look too obvious as we’re lurching from one group to the next. At one of the sites we loiter near a family of Australians who have the most beautiful Vietnamese guide. It turns out he was a press photographer during the war and I could have stood around all day listening to the fascinating stories he was telling the group. He’d been injured and spent some time in hospital recuperating. He and his party also became lost in the hills for 5 days and were in real fear for their lives. He explained how they’d get their film to the newspapers so that the pictures of the war could be printed almost as quickly as the war was unfolding. He pointed out that the large hole next to one of the relics was actually a bomb crater. The Americans heavily shelled the area during the war and some of the relics were destroyed. It’s heartbreaking to think of such antiquities being lost forever.

The jungle is thick and dense around the relics and it seems to be almost winning. As we’re wandering through, the words to Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through The Jungle” swirl through my head and I find myself mentally singing the song, thinking that nothing could have been more perfect.

Eventually we all meet back at the visitor centre. We are running behind time so Pete wants to get on the road as quickly as possible. More heavy rain is coming and he wants to be back in Hoi An before it gets dark. Luckily we’re taking a different route home and don’t have to go back through that dreadful field of mud. The rain does start coming down thick and fast, so we stop and don our heavy wet weather gear. I am so grateful for Mr Hien. He has looked after me beautifully throughout the day. There is almost nothing of him. When I put my hand on his shoulder from time to time to steady myself, all I can feel is bone. He’s about the same height as me. Each time I’ve gotten off the bike today, he has gently removed my helmet for me, and has helped me get my poncho on and off. He treats me with the same loving care as one would a small child or a delicate bird. I think he’s wonderful and count my blessings that I’ve been given such a driver to look after me. Again, the rest of the group marvels at how clean I am compared to everyone else. It is entirely down to Mr Hien and how much he’s protected me from the elements.

The trip back is just as interesting as the trip up. We only make one stop, and that is to see the wet weather rice, which is a little different to the normal rice. Unfortunately we don’t have time to stop at the silk making village. Apparently there are weaving machines there that are over 300 years old and are still being used. I’ll have to see those next time!

Again there are more children greeting us and running out for high fives. We also pass the obligatory plethora of chickens, pigs, dogs, cattle and buffaloes. Every home seems to have livestock and a vegetable patch. I’m absolutely revelling in the simple, inelegant beauty of our surroundings.

We arrive back at the hangar and have a celebratory drink. I tip Mr Hien, thank him profusely for looking after me, and leave him to clean his bike meticulously.

A taxi arrives to take us back into town and we are deposited back at the offices of Hoi An Motorbike Adventures.

We’re a bit overwhelmed, rather wet and quite exhausted, but I can honestly say that this was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I would do it again in a heartbeat and pray that one day I’ll be given that chance.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cinnamon Sunset

7 January 2011, evening

After our absolutely wonderful day of eating like queens, we were due to go on a sunset river boat cruise. It was still lashing with rain and there was no sun to be seen, but the tour company wanted to proceed with the activity. We duly rocked up at the office and were taken down to the river to board the boat. It turned out we were the only three people aboard. We felt both privileged and dreadfully guilty at the same time. There's no way the people were going to make any money out of this evening. 

The staff were absolutely delightful and the food was magnificent. We had a three course banquet and decided to try and up their profit margin by buying a bottle of wine. We chose a 2006 French cabernet sauvignon, and even though it wasn't the best we've had (we're so spoilt for red wines in Australia), it was still a nice wine and we enjoyed it. 

We couldn't see too much in the way of river activity because of the rain and the mist, but once it got dark and the lanterns came on, the cruise was a wonderful opportunity to see all the pretty fairy lights and lanterns along the river bank. It was only a 2 hour activity, but it was just a lovely evening and we were pleased we went. The staff were so kind to us and we tipped them as we left.

Once we'd docked back at Bach Dang Street, we headed into a shoe store recommended by Nha, one of the lovely girls on the boat. We chose some shoe styles to have made, and then settled in to negotiate the prices. It all became a bit of a comedy of errors for Caramel, who was going to be charged $70 for a simple pair of loafers. She pulled the pin and walked away. Luckily Curry and I were able to pick up shoes for $30 a pair, and these allegedly will be made in good leather. We'll reserve judgement on that until we see them tomorrow. The shoes will be ready for fitting at 6:00pm.

We walked around the town a bit longer and took photos of all the beautiful lanterns and some buildings. It's just gorgeous to simply stroll around in Hoi An. The streets are fascinating and there's just so much to look at. There are people out walking at every hour of the day and night so people watching is an added bonus.

We had another rat alert, which could have become troublesome and embarrassing, but we decided not to make spectacles of ourselves and instead proceeded at a brisk and steady pace away from the offending creature. 

We decided to walk home, given that the taxi drivers were showing a bit of attitude this evening and wouldn't take us back to our hotel for the price we wanted to pay. Clearly we're getting a bit stingy now, as the fare is really only about $1. However, as Curry keeps telling me, "it's the principle of thing luvs!"

We also realised that after the amount of food we’d eaten today, we’re going to have to walk to Bundaberg and back to work off the calories, so we’d better use up some energy whilst the opportunity presented itself. The walk home was very pleasant, and along the way, Caramel decided to try her luck with the ATMs to see if there had been some miraculous turn of events and her card would actually work. Sadly, no such luck. Caramel and Curry had discovered a little bar not too far from our hotel, and they’d been spending the evenings there having $2 cocktails. The way we figured it, a girl only gets so many cocktails in her life, so if she can get them for $2, then her lifetime allocation should be taken up with those that cost the least amount of money. 

Back to our luxurious rooms and fall into the shower and the crisp white sheets of our king sized beds. Just heaven.  What an absolutely magnificent day we've had!

Food Glorious Food

7 January 2011:

Awoke this morning to the sound of heavy rain. One cannot possibly be homesick for poor old sodden Queensland when it's pissing down here like a small dog with a bladder infection. 

It was clearly far too wet for us to walk into town to go to our cooking class. Aside from the fact that it was just too wet, there is a great deal of construction work going on in Hoi An near our hotel, and the roads are one great big quagmire of brown mud and potholes the size of the Great Lakes. We ordered a taxi and for the princely sum of $1, we were deposited near Le Loi Street. Cars and motorbikes are only permitted in certain areas of Hoi An, and even then, the motorbikes are only permitted in certain streets at certain times. If someone is riding a motorbike when the curfew comes, they have to stop it, get off and push it the rest of the way until they're outside the pedestrian zone. We had to walk the rest of the way down to Morning Glory and luckily we had the huge golf umbrellas given to us by the hotel staff. 

Another thing I love about the Vietnamese people is just how hard working and enterprising they are. I swear that before 10 drops of rain have hit the ground, you will find a gaggle of women materialising out of nowhere to offer ponchos and umbrellas for sale. They appear as if by magic. When one stops to consider that most Vietnamese people earn less than $250 per month, it's no wonder and completely understandable that they must try to earn a living in whatever way they can. I applaud them for their tenacity and creativity.

Because we had our umbrellas and were relatively dry, we waved off about 4 poncho bearing vendors before we arrived at Morning Glory. It's a combined restaurant and cooking school, and although the name Morning Glory causes most westerners (particularly those of the Y chromosome variety) to snigger with juvenile mirth, morning glory is actually a water spinach in Vietnam and is very tasty and nutritious. It's  absolutely divine when stir fried with garlic and chili. Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant and Cooking School is another of Madam Vy's businesses and it's just beautiful. We sit around for a few minutes awaiting the arrival of the rest of the participants. As we wait, the rain becomes heavier and heavier and we soon realise that there's not a chance in hell we're going to be able to walk around the markets without a poncho. We curse ourselves as we scour the now empty street for one of the ladies who could supply our desired item. Sure enough, within seconds of our popping our heads out, three ladies popped out of the mist like apparitions, laden with dozens of ponchos in a variety of colours. We select our ponchos and part with the $1.25 that they cost us. 

It seems that we have a completely full class today and we're split up into various groups. Our guide for the markets was a gorgeous, tiny little thing named Thuet (Tweet), which apparently means snow in Vietnamese. She had a lovely big smile and a softly lilting voice. We head off towards the food markets, trying to avoid big puddles and the occasional doggy doo doo. Thuet had warned us not to take money in our pockets because the markets were very busy, and like every place in the world where lots of people are thronging together in close confinement, there are pickpockets around. I was OK because I had my backback bag on under my poncho. Trying to keep the camera dry was another story, but it seemed to be safe for the moment. The market is absolutely fascinating. Like many cities and towns throughout Vietnam, there are no supermarkets in Hoi An. Everyone buys everything fresh every day from the markets. Firstly we visit the vegetable market where we are shown a variety of different roots and vegetables. Some we could identify and some we couldn't. It's astonishing to see some things in their natural form when we are used to seeing them other ways - turmeric for example is one. It is a root like ginger but I'd only ever seen it in powered form before. The market stall holders were very good in allowing Thuet to demonstrate the cutting process for some vegetables. At one point, after she'd finished cutting some shallots with a fabulous knife that looked like a trowel, the stall owner returned and spied the remains of the shallots on the knife. The look on her face was a classic Kodak moment and she spoke sharply to Thuet, much to our amusement. We questioned Thuet as to whether she'd just gotten into serious trouble for befouling the knife, to which she replied, "Oh, it's OK, this is my mother so I can do this". We all then said hi to Luong and she gave us all a big smile. As we left the stall to move onto the meat markets, Thuet leaned over and confessed that Luong wasn't really her mother, but she says that so that people think everything is OK. We laughed at this - we've discovered on quite a lot of occasions that people will tell us that someone is their relative when they're not. I'm sure that the people figure that us stupid westerners won't know the difference anyway, so where's the harm.

We go to the meat market and see all the unfortunate chickens and ducks lined up on tables, complete with their heads and feet. Their feet are stuck up in the air, claws forever curled in rigor mortis. There are large tubs of liver and every other kind of offal you can imagine. There are also whole pigs, which is a little creepy to see, but that's how they come.

The fish market was rather surprising in that it didn't smell at all. This is an indication that the produce is very fresh. Mercifully, everything at the fish market was already dead and there wasn't anything squirming around on any of the tables. The only ghastly thing on display was shark embryo - apparently this is a delicacy and we saw a large sac filled with unborn baby sharks. I almost fainted just looking at it. Absolutely revolting but the locals love it. 

We went back through to the fruit market, and along the way, several of the tarps covering the stalls became so waterlogged that they buckled and water came pouring down on top of us. There's absolutely nothing for it but to laugh. we were wet, and wet we were going to stay. 

Once we'd seen all the market stalls we headed back to the cooking school and went upstairs into the classroom. Madam Vy was there and we were all beside ourselves with excitement. This woman is legendary in Hoi An and is revered by hundreds. She employs half the town and has wonderful business practices. We were just so excited that we were actually getting Madam Vy to take our class. 

Madam Vy demonstrated how to cook five different dishes and we all copied her. The food was absolutely sensational and we were loving every minute of it. Along the way, she gave us loads of information about the culture, society and family life of Vietnam. Madam Vy is an inspiration, and to learn from her is both an honour and a delight. She sold her wedding ring to buy her first restaurant, The Mermaid. After six months of solid hard work, she had saved the total sum of $100. She said she felt like she was the richest woman in Vietnam because she had so much money. She said that she gave it to her mother to keep for her. Vietnamese people don't trust the banks so they keep their money at home. After continuing to work very hard Madam Vy had enough money to open some more restaurants, always giving her mother her money when she made it. Madam Vy's mother is her banker. She said that for a long time she never bothered to check how much money she had, but when the opportunity to buy the Cua Dai Hotel came up, she went to her mother to ask how much money she had. Apparently her mother was concerned that Vy didn't trust her any longer and asked why she wanted to check. Vy told her she'd like to buy the hotel. Her mother was so excited and ran around the house looking for all the money. Apparently it is also customary to hide money in lots of different places in the house. After an extensive search, Vy's mother came up with $90,000. After Vy wondered whether this was enough, her mother said to her, "just wait. I will do another round and look again". This round produced another $10,000 and so Vy had $100,000 to buy the hotel. 

I've never in all my born days seen a group of Australians (about 22 in all) so quiet. We were all sitting in absolute awe of Madam Vy and were hanging on her every word. Caramel, being the fabulous foodie she is, was furiously scribbling notes into a pad and we were taking photos at every chance. 

We ate the five courses - fresh rice paper rolls, Hoi An pancake, marinated chicken, mango salad and pho (pronounced fer) and my mouth was watering so much I thought I'd dribble all over myself. 

After the class ended, Madam Vy came around and handed out all the recipes for the food we'd cooked, and she also gave us one of those amazing knives used to peel the mangoes. Caramel was beside herself because she was planning on buying one. How we're going to get them back in our luggage is another story, but at least we have them now. 

We rolled out of the restaurant like the Michelin Man and tried to walk off some of the food we'd eaten. The rain had stopped the tiniest bit, but not much. It was still sodden and wet everywhere. We visited our tailors for the fittings that were due, and strangely enough, a couple of the things were the tiniest bit too tight. No wonder after eating our own body weight in food!

After the fittings we headed back to Faifoo to see the lovely Yum Yum and have a coffee. 

We were truly overwhelmed by what an amazing morning we'd had, and it will be an experience we'll never forget.  

Friday, January 7, 2011


7 January 2011:

A quick note from yesterday. Whilst being attended to by the beautiful Nhum at the tailor, the inevitable measuring process had to be undertaken. She took me next door to see another lady who clearly is the measuring queen. This lady's young son had come in from school, still wearing his delightful uniform. The school uniforms in Vietnam are just lovely and look very professional. The little boy would have been about 8 years old and he was the cutest little thing. He is clearly very used to living his life surrounded by tourists having clothes made. He took it upon himself to look at the pictures of all the outfits I'm having done, and started looking me up and down and comparing me to the picture. The brazen confidence of this boy's appraisal was fabulous. As his mother is measuring me, she started running her hands over me and was feeling up my breasts and my bottom. Vietnamese women are very, very slender and generally have figures like adolescent boys. They are fascinated by Western women who have a bit of meat on them and they're also fascinated by pale skin. Although they think we look like ghosts, they find it alluring and exotic. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone came up to me and touched my face or my arm. As the tailor is measuring me and feeling me up, she remarked, "you have big bum. I like. I like. I no bum!!!" At this point, the little boy, evidently bored to sobs by now, decided to start singsong to me "bigbum bigbum bigbum" over and over. This caused a great deal of amusement to all the women in the shop and they were in bits laughing until they spied the look of unadulterated horror on my face. The mother moved with lightning speed to reach over and cuff the boy sharply over the back of the head. 

Fearing that I was going to turn tail and disappear out of the shop faster than Brendan Fevola's football career, instant sobriety was adopted and apologies were made by all the ladies. I was actually fine with it and could see the funny side. Although I'm carrying a bit more weight than I would like, I'm still a size 8 and so in the greater scheme of things in life, my bum isn't that big compared to many others out there. Besides, how fortunate are we in the west to have enough food to eat so that we can get a big bum in the first place? Food sources are a constant crisis for so many of the world's people. Vietnamese people don't have big bums, but they do have the most delightful sense of humour.

Rule number 1: unless she is Beyonce, never, ever, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever tell a western woman she has a big bum if you want her to be your friend or buy something from you!!!