HOI AN & THE COOKING SCHOOL

MEKONG BLOG 04

Wednesday March 12, 2014

As I’m sure you can appreciate, being a tourist is hard work. Really hard work. Exhausting, even. And far from envying us (like some people do), I imagine you feel SORRY for us – right? Yes, it’s a tough life this travel, but (as I keep saying) somebody’s gotta do it, eh. Which is why, every now and then, we deserve a break – don’t you agree?

Well, you’ll be pleased to know that we’ve finally got one! Yesterday and today, after being on the road for four or five days (phew!), we’ve been enjoying one of the loveliest, prettiest, most tranquil places in all Vietnam – the charming old riverside town of Hoi An. And, for a bonus-reward, we’ve been staying in the pinch-me-please-it’s-gorgeous Palm Garden Beach Resort – with gardens for Africa, a pool to die for, and a white-sandy beach with palm-trees, rolling surf and (yes, it’s true) SUNSHINE!

Yesterday morning, we made our way to Hanoi airport, flew south to Danang (one-time fishing village, now Vietnam’s 4th-largest city), and got taxied to Hoi An – once a major Asian trading port, now a bustling tourist hotspot and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After lunch at a local restaurant, we enjoyed a walking tour through the ancient town centre … greeting the laidback locals in their colourful stalls, eyeballing a Hokkien temple (for the Fukien Chinese Congregation), stepping out on a 400 year-old Japanese Covered Bridge, drinking green tea in the elegant old wooden home of a former merchant, and learning how farmers raise wriggly silkworms for the textile industry.

Before the day was out, several Mad Midlifers had chosen dresses/jackets/shirts/trousers/suits to be tailor-made overnight by Hoi An’s famous garment industry. Overnight? Yep, that’s what they specialise in here – with fashion and quality to match!

This morning we got to sleep in, walk the beach, splash in the pool, or do some more shop-shop-shopping in the Old Town. Then, after lunch, we were off with staff from the Red Bridge Restaurant for a quick walk-through of Hoi An’s Farmers’ Market … where we were introduced to vegetables, fruits, concoctions and aromas (some familiar, others strange and foreign) that were gonna form part of our dinner tonight.

Next, we boarded a water-taxi for a leisurely 25-minute glide along the Tu Bon River – and were treated en route to a fishing-net-throwing demo by a couple of local boaties. Arriving at the legendary Red Bridge Cooking School, we were greeted enthusiastically by the Vietnamese chef-cum-comedian, then shown – with lots of hooting, laughing and guffawing – how to prepare specialty Hoi An dishes (like fresh rice-paper … shrimp spring rolls … seafood salad … Vietnamese eggplant casserole … plus a variety of sauces). And we tried our hand (without much success) at food decoration – on poor, unsuspecting cucumbers and tomatoes.

Finally, we sat down (in the balmy outdoors, with bats flying around us in the dark) to a hearty dinner, where we ate our own creations. YUM!

There were some tired Kiwis tonight, by the time we got back to the resort. But hungry? Not a chance!

PEOPLE NEWS: No new Yellow Duckies to award – but a hearty three-cheers (Mot, Hai, Ba Yo!” as they say it in Vietnam) for Wendy, who bravely survived a bite from a 20-centimetre-long centipede while on the riverboat today! Wendy’s fine … and the centipede regrets the whole affair.

TOMORROW: After some more relaxing hours in our palm-smothered piece of heaven on Cua Dai Beach, we get airborne again. Destination: Ho Chi Minh City (or as you probably know it, Saigon). So stay tuned …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

HANOI BY CYCLO

MEKONG BLOG 03

Monday March 10, 2014

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m not totally sure what happened to yesterday. It’s a bit of a blur: waking up and breakfasting on the Bhaya Classic No.3 … then anchoring-up and cruising to Sung Sot Island, where we joined a zillion other tourists climbing a zillion uphill steps to the entrance of some colourfully-lit limestone caves … then motoring slowly back to port past many of Halong Bay’s 3000 islands … before hitting the road again for the long return-drive to Hanoi.

We stopped mid-route at a huge arts-&-crafts centre that employs hundreds of talented young people who are variously afflicted/disabled/deformed thanks to their parents’ wartime exposure to toxic Agent Orange. (We’ve already had other sober reminders this trip of what’s referred to here as ‘The American War’ – and there are more to come, for sure. Watch this space …)

Today (another grey, misty, wettish one) gave us a chance to ‘do’ Hanoi properly. So we started by ticking-off some biggies: the city’s tallest pagoda (where we happened upon a bright, noisy, once-a-year Buddhist parade) … the city’s smallest: the One Pillar Pagoda (an important symbol built by Hanoi’s founder, King Ly Thai To in 1049, then blown-to-bits in U.S. bombing raids, and later rebuilt) … the garish-yellow Presidential Palace (and the nearby much-humbler home of the country’s late great hero, Ho Chi Minh) … the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and its vast parade ground (where we witnessed the Changing of the White-Uniformed Guard) … and the Temple of Literature (where we got a glimpse into Vietnam’s past).

At some point (I’ve forgotten when), we broke for lunch at the popular Koto restaurant, where former street-kids are taught skills which enable them to find employment in the hospitality industry. (We Mad Midlife Kiwis all chipped in to buy a ‘brick’ in the wall – our US$150 going to support this uniquely good project.)

But wait, there’s more. To really feel the beating heart of Hanoi you’ve gotta ride a ‘CYCLO’ through the renowned Old Quarter – which is what we did this afternoon. And, oh boy, what fun that turned out to be!

It’s hard to describe the experience in a sentence or two: the fleet of cycle-rickshaws lined up at the kerb … the (mostly) silent men who pedalled us slowly through this maze of small back-alleys … the commercial precinct previously known as ‘36 Streets’ (with each street specialising in a different product: ‘Silk Street’, ‘Gold Street’, ‘Coffin Street’, etc) … the gushing, rushing traffic that flowed like a river around us: pedestrians, motorbikes, cars and trucks going in all directions at once, horns blaring … stalls stacked with flowers and fruit and clothes and shoes and bags and souvenirs, vendors cooking up hot mysteries on gas-or-charcoal burners in their rickety two-wheel carts, locals squatting on their heels on the sidewalk, yacking with their neighbours, snacking from tiny bowls with chopsticks. To us, the chaos seemed overwhelming – but to these swarms of people, young and old, this was just a normal Monday at the office.

We wrapped up this memorable day at a theatre somewhere – with a traditional Water-Puppet Show (accompanied by loud Vietnamese opera-type wailing, ouch!) – and then dined out at Hanoi’s ‘5-Spice’ restaurant. I tell you, this authentic Vietnamese food is something else! You wanna hear our menu? Kebad Rice Noodles … followed by Home-Made Spring Rolls … followed by Hanoi Grilled Fish ‘Cha Ca’ … followed by Roasted Duck with Orange Sauce … followed by Grilled Egg-Plant with Oil & Shallots … followed by Mixed Fried Rice … topped off by a Fresh Fruit Dessert.

(Is your mouth watering yet?)

PEOPLE NEWS: Another hotly-sought-after Yellow Duck found a new home today:

  • The ‘Armed & Dangerous Award’ was claimed by Wendy – who accidently crossed the forbidden yellow line outside Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, causing one of the very stern bodyguards to blow his whistle loudly and threaten to shoot her. (Nah, just kidding about the shooting …)
  • The ‘Knocked Over By Buddhism Award’ was easily won by Barbara – who was sitting on the doorstep outside that big pagoda, listening to our guide’s explanation, and leaning back against the (by now) closed wooded doors, when those same wooden doors suddenly burst open and she tumbled backwards into the pagoda. We looked around, startled by the loud crash, and there was Barbara – flat on her back with her legs in the air (unharmed, fortunately, and giggling).

TOMORROW: We fly south (like the birds) to the charming old riverside town of Hoi An – a UNESCO World Heritage Site: once a major Asian trading port, now a bustling tourist hotspot. So don’t change channels …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

HALONG IN THE MIST

MEKONG BLOG 02

Saturday March 8, 2014

 

It’s Saturday night here in North Vietnam, and you’d never guess where this blog-posting’s coming from. We’re on a boat, but not just any old boat. We’re on an authentic Chinese junk in the middle of Halong Bay, an astonishing emerald-green seascape that’s three-and-a-half hours’ drive from Hanoi. Halong Bay, ‘the Land of 3000 Islands’, is one of the New World’s Seven Natural Wonders. And we’re overnighting here on the Bhaya Classic No.3.

It’s pitch dark outside, coolish on this vast expanse of water, but we’re not alone. We’re surrounded by other junks-cum-cruise-boats, large and small, anchored like we are amongst the jutting limestone rocks, and lit up like Christmas trees. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ is playing on one of them, the sounds reaching us easily. I’m sitting at a tiny wooden table on the tiny balcony that’s outside our cabin. As I peer at the screen and tap these words on my laptop, my wife is inside on the bed, enjoying a foot massage delivered by a very capable young Vietnamese.

It’s been misty and low-cloudy all day. The light rain that followed us from Hanoi seems to have stopped. And dinner will shortly be served in the dining room two decks up.

Is it magic? You bet it is! But this is the kind of experience we’ve come here for. And, so far, Vietnam has not disappointed us …

Our Thursday flight from Auckland to Singapore was uneventful. And our giant beds in the ultra-modern Crowne Plaza Changi Airport (connected by a walkway from Terminal 3) felt awfully good, I’ve gotta say. Then early yesterday morning we rode the Skytrain to Terminal 2, boarded another Singapore Airlines jet, and flew north to Vietnam’s cosmopolitan capital.

You could be forgiven if you’ve grown up not realising that Vietnam is “more than just a war”. The fact is, this modern get-up-and-go land of 90 million people (plus 35 million motorbikes!) is truly something else. And our re-education began almost as soon as we arrived. We ventured out through the drizzly rain to Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology – where we viewed artefacts and costumes and model huts/houses from some of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities.

This morning, after a Weight-Watcher’s breakfast in the Sheraton Hanoi Hotel, we said “Tam biet!” (goodbye) to the wet city and hit the road for 3½ hours. Our route took us through the rich farmlands of the Red River Delta … past scenes of rice paddies, water buffalos, crowded towns and everyday Vietnamese village life.

Arriving in the bayside resort town of Bai Chay – gateway to beautiful Halong Bay – we were welcomed onto this modified wooden-hulled junk (36 passengers in total) for a two-day cruise.

As we motored out through the amazing pointy limestone rocks, we made ourselves at home in our cabins … photographed passing islands and villages and boats of all shapes and sizes … downed a fresh-cooked lunch … and got ferried by coolie-hatted women (rowing small boats made of woven bamboo and tar) to the Vung Vieng floating village, home to 800 fishing families – before an onboard demo of traditional Hanoi cooking, followed by dinner and bed at our anchorage.

Tomorrow morning, our leisurely cruise through this immensely photographable region will continue – with some tai-chi out on deck before breakfast, and a shore-stop at Sung Sot Island, where we’ll witness some colourful limestone caves.

But you’ll be desperate to read this … so I’m signing-off for now.

PEOPLE NEWS: Our first Midlife Madness Quacky Yellow Ducks have been claimed:

  • The ‘See-Through Award’ went jointly to travel companions Barbara and John S – for the little bathroom drama that overtook them in our posh Singapore hotel. The room they were sharing had glass-and-only-glass separating the bedroom from the bathroom – a potential embarrassment which had to be negotiated with care. It wasn’t till morning that they discovered the pull-down blind which could’ve solved all their problems!

TOMORROW: We return to Hanoi for a tour that includes a famous pagoda, an ancient temple, and a cyclo-ride through the city’s Old Quarter. So don’t hang up just yet …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

SORRY, WE’VE GOTTA FLY …

MEKONG BLOG 01

Wednesday March 5, 2014

Only one more sleep to go – and (gulp!) I haven’t really started packing! But it’ll get it done, even if I don’t sleep tonight. And, come tomorrow morning, what doesn’t get done really won’t matter … because we’ll be up-up-and-away to Singapore, Hanoi and beyond!

MIDLIFE MADNESS ON THE MEKONG: that’s what we’ve got planned – in fascinating, colourful, utterly different Indochina. It’s one region of the world that truly gets under your skin: Frenchified Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (in what was North and South Vietnam) … the bustling Mekong Delta … the floating villages, temples, architecture, art … quaint Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia … the mind-boggling World Heritage monuments of Angkor Wat.

And we’ll be seeing much of this from the decks of the beautifully appointed river-cruiser: the Mekong Pandaw (one of the ultra-popular replica steamers that make up the Pandaw fleet) … soaking up the atmosphere on the legendary Mekong River … being pampered day and night … watching famous sites, rural scenes and jungle landscapes glide slowly past our big cabin windows … and so much more.

(I bet YOU wish you were coming – right?)

In short, we’re gonna have a BALL! But more of that later – because Robyn and I have gotta RUN!

I’ll add more blog entries once this journey’s actually underway … let you know what our fellow-travellers get up to … and include some award-winning pix. So, whatever you do, stay tuned …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.