Vietnam – The Hoi An lows of central Vietnam

by Kt

28.08.2012

Hoi Ann is, I think one of the nicest, if not THE nicest, laid back place I have ever stayed. Our accommodation wasn’t, budget choices here aren’t that great, but this even didn’t detract from how much we loved our stay here.

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I already had fallen in love with Vietnam in Hanoi and Hoi An pretty much sealed the deal. We chickened out of the train in the end and by-passed one of our planned stops, Hue, and flew Vietnam Airlines down to Da Nang, a resort in itself and 40 mins from Hoi An. The internal flights were crazy cheap, Vietnam Airlines were great and we arrived in the brand spanking new airport of Da Nang with the sun shining and everything sparkling.

As we drove from Da Nang we saw some interesting things immediately. The traffic was a lot quieter for one – a totally different kettle of fish.
On the outskirts of the city, were some large buildings which we wondered if were hotels or Casinos – turns out they were designed just for weddings. They were really big and fancy so the idea being that the reception type thing can be held there and the pictures will look great outside these grand buildings. I was really curious as they kind of stood in these not particularly impressive grounds, set back from the main road. But I have come to learn that the Vietnamese are quite wedding obsessed and bride spotting is one of my favourite pastimes.
Another architectural curiosity was the stadium build to look like a UFO – who knows why – and it really did.
The next thing to notice was how development has started in this area BIG TIME!!! Huge resorts have bought up all the coastal land and if there’s not a resort there already, they have big board/wall up along the length of them so as you drive, you can’t see the sea but you can see their logo and promises of luxury and pro golfer designed golf courses – just what the world needs more freakin golf courses! It’s sad but I guess that’s life, I just wish planning was a little stricter – not that there’s older buildings to save but maybe just limit the size of places and keep them lower rise. These huge resorts are like their own islands and that’s what they want – to trap the customer in there.

Anyway, we reached Hoi An and it didn’t look especially interesting as we checked in to our rough and ready hotel (with a mini pool in the lobby – why? In our time there – not one person ever went near it!). Our room was small and pokey after our luxurious one in Hanoi but it did the job so no problem there. Mark as usual was totally unimpressed and asking why I’d brought him there as he looked out of the balcony at, well a road and an odd, big disco building opposite us.
Once we headed into town and hit the riverfront, he realised why as it was just simply gorgeous. The old town is made up of a grid of mainly wooden shop house lined roads – not pokey alleyways but fair sized and with little traffic (and in the evenings with no traffic). Luckily the local government, a long time ago, slapped on laws to protect this – thank god! Lots more bikes than mopeds and cars. The river which comes in from the sea not far away means lots of interesting boats to watch and a lovely cooling breeze. They pipe low key/quiet classical music through the streets which sounds awful but isn’t.

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As the lights go down there are lanterns lit and put onto the river to float away. On the full moon – the whole river front switched it’s lights off and used only candles and absolutely loads of lanterns are put on the river. Was just lovely.

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There are a couple of food specialities in Hoi An which Mark and I became smitten with. Cau Lau which was thick noodles with pork slices, greens (locally grown amazing tasting leaves), crispy pork (hence Mark’s adoration) and a sweetish sauce lightly coating the noodles. White Rose was my obsession. This was a pork/shrimp paste centre in a rice dumpling type encasing which is steamed. Kind of like a dumpling/dim sum and then sweet dried onion sprinkled on top. I had White Rose everyday and even had it 3 times in one day. I am still totally obsessed with it and guttingly have not found it anywhere outside of Hoi An. The other thing you could have is their version of won tan – a huge one covered in a tomatoey sauce. This was nice but sometimes the sauce was a bit sweet for my liking. I could have eaten them more happily without the sauce. There is also something divine which is shrimp paste (which I think is mixed with pork mince – a pairing which seems quite common) and wrapped around sugar cane. Our 2nd day we discovered this food by trying a 4 course taster menu which is available at a lot of the restaurants. This is always a great idea to try new things and is what started off our obsession.
There was also a place we went to which was not very Vietnamese but they did great ‘proper’ wine and we shared a cheese board – you’ve no idea how much I enjoyed that, I nearly fainted with the joy. Blue cheese and brie – oh i hadn’t had that in so long!

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Two restaurants I would definitely recommend if ever in the area, would be Wan Lun, a street or two back from the river – great classic looking restaurant and great food (with all the above done very well). Then there is the Sunshine cafe which is 15 minutes or so out of town, very close to where we were staying. The food was fair bit cheaper than in town (where it wasn’t expensive anyhow) but was also really tasty and the woman who runs it is so lovely and friendly – a real sweetheart.

The weather was beautiful. Blue skies and sunny nearly all the time. This was a really big deal for us. Despite being away for so many months now we have had a heck a lot of rain. Even though it’s been hot, the rain has scuppered so many places, this was such a treat.

Something huge in the town is also tailors. This isn’t just like the tailors you see in all the tourist towns in Thailand with ‘Armani’ signs outside (we’ve never understood this – why mention brands when you’re making something from scratch) These were places with really lovely examples proudly on display. I began to wish we were going home to the cold just so I could have one of the gorgeous coat designs that I’d seen. We hadn’t intended on getting any clothes made but after a couple of days I realised that it might be a good idea. We both needed trousers and shopping in Thailand in Western sizes and *coughs* for Mark and I’s size was near impossible. So we took the plunge after I’d looked a few recommendations. We didn’t go to the cheapest place but it was pretty good for the money. They just had catalogs that you could look through and pick designs., then you flicked through swatches to pick the material. I decided to get a top made too and just kind of discussed an idea of what I might like with them and then got to pick the fabric. We then got measured, which was a little interesting and public but hey ho. Next day we went for a fitting, which was pretty much deciding where you wanted tighter or looser or shorter etc, then you picked up later that day. Was really great and I wished I done this sooner – being so blinkin’ short, trousers are a pain for me. Definitely something will try again in the future. Will be interesting to see how long the stuff lasts but seems really good quality. Mark’s had a few problems – his are already too big for him which we reckon might be because it was so hot when we tried things on – things seemed tighter than they were, but I’m good at hand sewing so I can do my little house wifey bit there.

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Now let me tell you about on of the things that is very funny about the restaurants here. A lot of them are converted shop house style and old fashioned and work the way they always have. The frontages are often dark wood and shady – cosy feeling while being open and cool. But the toilets on many of these, not just the cheap ones – many of the more expensive river front ones are out the back in the family residence. This means that you’re often bypass an old relative asleep on a bed as you head out to the toilet which will indeed be their ‘bathroom’ with all their paraphernalia and generally not very modern to say the least. It’s quite startling the first time you do it but then it’s just quite amusing and you just get used to it. Then it’s just amusing watching the faces of people who are doing it for the first time.

My favourite example of this was at a restaurant which has an amazing reputation for the chef, Mr Kim, who runs it is a bit of a character. You turn up and you have a choice of taster menus – meat, fish or vegetable – he decides what’s to cook. And he is quite a character indeed. He plays old french folky/jazz music which was actually amazingly cool. He has some odd things on the wall and a huge old tv, which had the tennis on when we were there. The food was great – there was one course which was a disaster for us as it was just a type of fish that I really hate and it was massive so Mark had to wolf much of it down on his own. Before desert, I popped upstairs to the floor above, which has a balcony which is the prime spot for people to eat with a view over the river. There was a posh french couple up there who’d clearly booked based on the place’s reputation. At the back end was the bathroom. The door was locked so I walked back to near the stairs to wait and the waiter seemed surprised and went and knocked on the door and said something to whoever was in there. He then asked me to wait just a minute so I moved nearer the toilet only to be met with Mr Kim in a towel – I’d interrupted him having a shower!! This is not hidden from anyone eating on that floor let me add. I thought it was hilarious and having seen a po-faced couple come down from upstairs earlier I guess this style bathroom (it was def rough and ready in there with shower cap hanging on side and half used toothpaste lying around) was not to their taste with their evening meal. Unfortunately I didn’t hang around long enough to try to read the faces of the posh French customers. I guess you can’t assume, just because a place has a good reputation or is written up by travel writers, that it means that it is what you would expect as ‘normal’ back home. In reality, it is I guess the practicality of the situation. They only have the one bathroom. These are old buildings – not easy do work on and if you’re going to spend money on things – it’s front of house you’re going to make look attractive.
It’s also quite handy I find if the place is a bit larger and you’re not share where to go, to have an old nana or grandpa out there to show you the way :)

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Mind you, the toilet on this boat doesn’t look too tempting either…

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We’d been gotten by the ‘let me be your friend’ tactic in Hanoi so didn’t want to do it again here. To be fair there was very little of it, but there was one incident which I think was a reflection on how much I have changed since coming away. I was walking quite far ahead of Mark for some reason and a youngish guy on a bike kind of slowed up next to me and said something like ‘hi, where are you from’ – I just knew where this was going – this is the classic, open ended convo started and I was hot and just couldn’t be bothered and so without thinking I just bluntly said ‘I don’t need a chat thank you’. Now he could have been not wanting something from me but he looked a little stunned and just cycled off so successful I thought. The thing is, for anyone who knows me, I am such a wimp with people normally. I don’t complain in restaurants. My mother drummed politeness into me and I will always apologise to the person who’s barged into me. Bloody English politeness! The idea of not replying to someone who talks to you was unimaginable. That doesn’t work in South East Asia – or anywhere someone want to sell something to you frankly – as they’ll start with a leading question and you feel it’s just too rude not to answer. In Thailand we definitely toughened up and generally just reply No Thank You – to everything. It’s also the two words I now make sure I learn in new languages. That sounds awful I know and it’s not like you’re being swarmed with hassle – people just approach you and rather than ignore them, which I still can’t do as feels too rude, I find a ‘No Thanks’ does the job ( even if it has to be said 5 or 6 times). But this was a whole new level of honesty that I didn’t expect from myself and I was really quite surprised at myself (as was Mark) and if I’m honest a little proud. I didn’t beat around the bush. I knew what he was going to do. He knew what he was going to do. I politely firmly just cut this off at the pass. Get me!!!

Highlights

The Market

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BEER!!!
Now this became Mark’s utter obsession – how cheap he could find the beer and how it was cheaper than water. This amazed him, like a child and a big lollipop. On average, even in great positions on the riverfront we were drinking draft beer that was about 12p (19c US) and we saw it for even cheaper elsewhere. Luckily it wasn’t very strong and unusually for me, I really liked it, so we did spend a lot of time on the waterfront supping our (CHEAP!) beer watching the world go by. Did I mention it was really cheap?

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Mark’s street game
Half way between pin the tail on the donkey and piñata hitting. There was something – a coconut I think, hanging in the air a few metres ahead of him. He could go up to it once to work out the steps and the height. Then he was blindfolded and had to go up to where he thought it was and hit it with a stick. Simple but very funny to watch.

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The Dude
We saw this guy about town a lot. He just looked like a real cool dude.

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Lecture salad
Not sure what this was, but it’s my favourite mis-spelling/odd translation to date.

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Squatting
We’ve seen this ever since we have come to south east asia and as so many public toilets are ‘squat’ toilets – i.e a holes in the ground – it makes sense this is a position one should familarise one’s self with! To be fair, we’d encountered very few on our travels. But you also see people sat like this and just eating or hanging out outside their shops. We have decided we are going to get our bodies better acquainted with this sitting style. We have found that the getting up is the worst bit :) We’ve a long way to go!

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Vietnamese coffee
This is Marks favourite thing ever. It is strong, knock your socks off, coffee which drips (slowly!) through a filter into a cup which has sweet milk (think evaporated milk/carnation type thing) – then you mix it up at the end. Heart attack in a cup I think.

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Cigarettes 
They are soooo cheap in Vietnam. We almost felt like starting again just because they were so crazy. This is why you’d often see them in the offerings along with the usual food and incense.

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Amazing school buildings
All the nurseries and schools I have seen are just adorable.

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Cool ladies trousers
The ladies in Vietnam, the older ones in particular, I have found to have a certain kind of simple glamour. They often have outfits of matching shirt and trousers in a lively pattern and this just looks really cool and glam (although sometimes it can look like PJs). Match this with the hat and I’d never tire of looking at these lady’s attire.

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Gatecrashing a show
On the first or second night, I can’t remember which, after we’d walked back from town we heard some really loud music going on somewhere and there was also flood lights flitting around the sky. So we decided to follow this and investigate. I was a bit nervous to be honest as it was clear this was a locals only thing but Mark had had a few so he had plenty of enthusiasm and bravado. We went in a side entrance of this huge outdoor stage/arena place. There were ticket stubs thrown all over the floor as we passed the first entrance so not sure if we were gatecrashing or not but no-one seemed to mind.
We are not sure what it was but I think it was local people performing but wow what a place to perform – the acoustics were insane and it was incredibly loud. There was some teens doing a pretty impressive dance routine and then some more singing. We were never entirely sure what was going on but I think it may have had something to do with celebrating the anniversary of independence. There was a sorry ending to the tale however, upon getting home and me doing some over enthusiastic boyband/glee style dancing in our room, I ripped my favourite top, pretty much in half. Hardcore eh?

Lowlights
Our guesthouse sucked
But other than that Hoi An is just too wonderful to find fault with!

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Vietnam – Hanoi’d when we had to leave this gem of a city

by Kt

12.08.2012

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After only a few days I immediately love, love, love Vietnam and Hanoi has my heart. We stayed in the Old Quarter which is full of character and craziness and I adored it. The traffic is the most insane I have ever seen and having been to Bali and Thailand I have seen some craziness.
Our taxi on the way in, overshot the road he meant to go down a little and stopped in the crowded street to reverse back to make his turn – trouble was he had mopeds coming at him from every direction so he could only edge slightly. It took a while but we got there in the end. It was very amusing but it didn’t bode well for us hitting the streets without the protection of a steel cage.
When we first walked out, we realised that although there were pavements, they were covered by goods and mopeds so you had to walk in the street with the hundreds of motorbikes coming at us from all angles. I think Mark wanted to go home then and there. I found it quite amusing still. To be honest the traffic is so busy that it’s not going that fast so I suppose it’s less dangerous that way.

Along with the crazy traffic comes the beeping. Like the Bali school of driving, they use the defensive method of driving. Beeping to let people know they are there. But with 5 times more traffic than Bali – this is a lot of beeping. All the time. Day and night. I found I could generally tune it out but sometimes you just wanted to scream SHUT UP! And of course there were people carrying the craziest things whilst driving said mopeds.

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We hit the lake, which offered some respite from the traffic craziness. You could watch all kinds going on there. Old folk doing their long, slow daily exercise., kids on trikes, lots of sitting and chatting. Couples go to sit on benches and kiss apparently.

Then we went to cross the road at the top of the lake. We’d been told that you just have to walk out into the traffic and they will move around you. But there were hundreds of mopeds and cars. We stood and we looked. Then a young vietnamese woman who’d started to cross, noticed us, came back and walked across with us. We really did just walk out into it. Into deep traffic. And they moved around us. Cool!
So that was the way to do it. It is often pretty scary and you do need to have an eye in every direction but you just have to go for it. I really rather enjoyed it – think it was a bit of an adrenalin rush – who needs bungy jumping eh? Watching the traffic from higher floors of buildings is an afternoons entertainment in itself.

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The streets in the Old Quarter were grouped together by what they were selling – silverware, hardware, shoes, decorations, bamboo. And the shops weren’t just selling stuff, they were making it too. I could walk those streets forever (with lots of rests in between as it is hard work). So much character, so much going on. Some interesting things for sale too. Not tourist tat, though – everyday stuff. Of course there is the tourists catches – fake watches etc. But also some incredible, genuine old stuff – watches and cameras were especially tempting.
The grave stone selling street was interesting – they were so beautiful and detailed.

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I was surprised to see everywhere, ladies with the traditional south east asian hats and sticks to carry heavy goods. You expect to see this out in the fields but wasn’t expecting it to be all over the streets of a city. Occasionally the younger ones try to get you to perch one on your shoulder for a photo opportunity for cash – got used to ducking and diving. The older ladies wouldn’t have dreamed of such a thing though, they were just getting on with it – moving or selling their goods.

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Here more than anywhere else we’ve been, they wear the face masks. The girls also, in Hanoi, wear little hoodie style jackets, usually in a cute flower print – sometimes with mask to match:

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Food wise we of course had Pho, the ubiquitous street food Vietnam is most famous for. We also tried some Hanoi specialities. Their spring rolls were a bit different with minced pork and other mushy stuff but were really nice.
My favourite was Bun Cha. This is small pork patties which you have with rice noodles, fresh herbs – some kind of bitter mint – all mixed in together in a sweet fish sauce. Mmmmmm.

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Marks favourite was the Vietnamese Coffee – this was getting filtered coffee with evaporated milk in the bottom to mix in. Yuckity. With that and all the pork fat he’s been having in Asia, he’s so gonna have a heart attack soon.

Having been French ruled for so long, this affects not only the look and style of the city but also the food. There was lots of french touches and food available, though of course it tended to be a little pricier.
It was a nice treat to have French Onion soup for breakfast one day!

We did a little trip on the electric car tour. They are like oversized golf carts (with seating for maybe 9 people, that drive you around the old quarter area for about an hour stopping at some of the key stops for you to pop out and take photos. This was cheap and a really great way to get around because it was so slow, so you could properly look at things and take photos. It’s generally too dangerous with the traffic to stop and take a photo on the busy streets. We found some great streets that we could then walk back to later so was great for orientation. Only downside was that being electric, it’s really quiet, so people couldn’t hear it coming so we had a few close calls and one little bump with a cyclist!

On Sunday, I dragged Mark around the Museum of Revolution was was fascinating to me and which he did enjoy some bits of. It’s an amazing country which has been through so much and they have an amazing sense of pride. I particularly like the communist illustrations and imagery. You got a really good idea of the crap deal this country had had for so long – everyone’s kicked it about a bit over the years.
We were there during the 65th anniversary of Communist independence from various control they’d been under for so many years and the advent of the Ho Chi Minh years so the city had flags and posters up everywhere which I was rather geekily excited about – they were a modern day take on the famous communist imagery.

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The Cyclos (rickshaws) were hilarious. We got one down to the museum and that’s a great fear inducing adrenalin rush. They ignore all the road rules and go up the road onto incoming traffic – with you perched out in the front. You can only laugh as you’re hurtling towards certain death. They are also really small so Mark and I not being *coughs* slight people – it was a tight fit and the old guy impressively picked up a good old speed with us. The longer journey we did the next day, from a much younger guy, he struggled a lot more with – wimp!

Walking along the streets, on the way back from the museum, we were suprised to find badmington nets setup on the streets tied to trees and buildings and the markings painted on. This was not in the busy, old quarter area, obviously, but it places where they had wide pavements and were pretty quiet. Old folk and young kids alike, enjoying Sunday badmington was fun to watch.

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There was also a little area cut into one of the park areas for people to practise their tap dancing. Fabulous!!!

This area had big grand buildings, including the opera house which is stunning and the metropole hotel with is gorgeous and I totally drooled over. They had a divine couple of old cars parked outside.

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Another sunday activity was down by one of the large statues in town – all the kids had their skateboards and rollerblades/skates and were happily scooting around. Teenagers down to tiny, little ones. Really nice to sit and watch, though there were a few close calls with little ones wheeling out of view towards steps, being a little alarming! Not as alarming as the old legless, lady in the wheelchair being pushed across one of the busiest parts of the road by her small young grand daughter. You know it’s not good when the locals look concerned. They made it though :)

I just found it to be always fascinating and oddly relaxing. Not sure I could put my finger on it and can so see why so many don’t like it – maybe I have a slight masochistic streak, liking the lack of over-niceness. Maybe it’s nicer when someone smiles because they really mean it or because you’ve made a bit of effort with the language or generally just not to be a rude tourist. Also, a lot of things (taxis aside) are really just straightforward and organised. So it’s a strange mixture of mayhem, noise, order and calm!!

Highlights:

Our hotel room
We had been upgraded and the room was lovely and spacious with big, dark wood furniture, the hugest doors you have ever seen, a balcony and 2 beds. Considering when we’d booked it had said the room had no windows, this was a bit of a result. The main thing was though, that the beds where the most comfortable EVER! I never wanted to leave that bed. It was dreamy.

Architecture
Driving the 45 mins from the airport to the centre of Hanoi, I was immediately impressed with the architecture. The tall, slim but long free standing buildings looks like they could topple. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before and I like the idea of living in spaces like that. Deep into the city you get them too – jutting out high about other lower buildings. All kinds of interesting balconies and roof gardens going on too.

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Soviet icons
I was quite surprised to see the soviet scythe icon in so many places. I guess it made sense as that was their big support for so long but I guess it’s funny with it not being something u’ll likely see in Russia itself. There was also a big statue of Lenin by one of the parks. Am curious if there are any standing anywhere else. I know that there is a ‘statues grave yard’ in Hungary somewhere that has some of the former soviet statues.

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Weddings
We saw lots of brides and grooms posing for their pics near the lake and various other Hanoi sights. They were all lovely and it was interesting to see the different styles.

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Pho jokes
That jokes never stopped being funny frankly

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Police uniforms
It is such a lovely shade – a kind of peachy beige. So kitsch – am sure they don’t like the idea of that but very 70s lounge musician (see Bob Downe!)

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Train tracks
Pic explains it all

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Lowlights:

Scamming
We were quite apprehensive about Vietnam as we’d heard so much about.

Taxis
The absolute worst thing about Hanoi (and Vietnam to some extent). The taxis are notorious for ripping you off – driving you to hotels where they want to take you rather than you want to actually go, having shonky meters and charging ridiculous amounts. Even the locals complain it’s a common problem and have gotten into shouting matches when they refuse to pay over what they know they should pay for a frequent journey. We booked our transport from the airport which was good so that was sorted but after that it was a real pain that there was no reliable way of getting about if it rained (we had no probs in the dry doing lots of walking or getting the rickshaw things). We had a great instance one evening when we were a bit worse for wear and got a bit lost in the pouring rain. A taxi picked us up and drove us about all over the bloomin city – I knew he was going further and further away from our hotel so it was quite disconcerting – in the end, after driving for 15/20 mins he dropped us at our hotel which was pretty much where we had started and charged us way too much. So that definitely didn’t help with my lack of trust of taxis. It’s a real pain!

Cakes
There was lots of lovely cakes on display in a few shops about the place. We assumed it was the french connection and tried a few on a couple of occasions but generally found them to look way prettier than they tasted. The sugary, deep fried treats from the ladies selling on the streets were nicer but could be soo sweet – I couldn’t handle them much – even Mark gave in.

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Rain
Boy did it pelt it down. It was monsoon season and most days it would only do it for an hour or two but it was crazy hard – thank goodness for our sad ponchos

Not seeing Ho Chi Minh
I really wanted to go and see Ho Chi Minhs body which is on display each morning and people from every far corner of the country come to see him. The main reason we never ended up doing this was the two things above – rain and taxis. It was a bit too far to go on foot in the heat we were having so we’d have to either get a rickshaw, which turned out not to be possible in the bad rain which left us with the dilemma of having to get taxis which can’t be trusted so it didn’t work out in the end. But it’s the first thing I’m going to do on my return to Hanoi (which I will definitely do), after getting some tasty bun cha of course.

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Thailand – Chiang Mai oh My

by Kt

03.08.2012

We immediately liked Chiang Mai. It is a very laid back, interesting city with lots going on and great food. Not being by the sea, it’s just got a different vibe to it. Very little hassle from anyone and it’s the second largest city in Bangkok (though it’s small by most city comparisons) so it has an identity/life of it’s own without just tourism. On the first day I saw a bunch of VW beetles which was a good sign – there are loads of them here it seems – always happy news?

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The first few weeks are not very interesting to report on. We picked something up on the bus I think. I’ve been pretty healthy since traveling compared to constantly having every ailment going back at work. Then 13 hours on a bus stuck with people in air con & I get sick! Anyhow, that wasn’t fun we weren’t up to much for a fair while which was frustrating. After that we tentatively explored the nearby areas as took ages to feel properly better.
Then we took the opportunity of good consistent wifi to get some work done. Koh Phangan and Hua Hin had been a nightmare with connection just dropping all the time. We managed to get our site finished (www.feelgoodyouknowthatyoushould.com to get the plug in – anyone who wants some great relaxation music, or music to run to or cute music for kids and other ‘feel good’ things in the future) and so that has been a big block of our time in Chiang Mai – slogging away at our very own table and chairs – see below.

Na Inn – our home for most of the month was a revelation for the tired travelers. We had a table and chairs – our own table and chairs – oh yeah! You have no idea what a treat that was. A big fridge, lots of space and slap bang in the middle of the old city. Perfect. Plus it has it’s big light up sign right out our window which I’ve grown very fond of. 7pm every evening our room gets all Hulk-esque.

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The most exciting thing was that we… bought a kettle. Oh yes – rock and roll – i know! And look at the label – you can make coffee AND tea! Silly as this seems being able to have a cup of tea whenever you want makes such a difference. Plus it meant we could do the closest we’ve come to cooking since Oz. OK so it was only Thai style pot noodle (for Mark) and plain noodles for me – but was handy to have a stock of stuff so not having to go out.

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On the first few days we found the Topps supermarket out near the airport, after we’d had a very early morning and lots of waiting around to extend our visas, down the road. I got ridiculously excited that they sold some products from Waitrose and that I could get decent tea bags and cheese! They were the cost of gold of course, but sooo worth it.

Food in general was great for international food in Chiang Mai. You could get the usual Thai food, though nowhere ever seemed quite as good as our food down south. The local specialty Khao Soi was prevalent and a great cheap eat. This was a coconuty soup with soft noodles and crispy noodles on top – usually with chicken though weirdly the tofu ones were my favourite. Having been a vegetarian for 14 years, I never encountered a decent mouthful of tofu, but here it’s delicious. There are quite a few vegetarian restaurants here and healthy food style too. I had brown rice for the first time since leaving home so that was a treat (yes i know, most folk don’t like that but I love it). One of our fave nearby restaurants did the most amazing healthy juices too.

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Best restaurant which was an absolute treat and delight was ‘Ginger & Kafe’. A gorgeous relaxing, sumptuously decorated place with just stunning but quite hearty food.

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We indulged in lots of street food. Particularly on Sunday nights when the nearby streets would close to cars for a walking market. Huge sprawling market which included filling up the grounds of several Wats (temples). Some of our fave foods were Roti (egg n banana pancake with a yummy burnt butter taste), Sausage on stick, Goyoza, Corn on kob

  • * from Mark – just wanted to mention that you could buy pork crackling at the street markets. It was amazing! bye.

The Ant egg omelette was a mistake though – see lowlights!

In several places along the market they had rows of blind singers/musicians lined up along the centre of the street to perform. They were really rather amazing. Mark was in awe. There was also a little band that played outside one of the Wats with a very old, white haired lady singing – I was in awe of her, she had a real kind of glamour and grace which was quite entrancing amongst the hustle and bustle.

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Along with Ginger & Kafe the other highlight, I hate to say was finding a lovely roast dinner. I know it’s very ‘Brit abroad’ of us, but so many months away it was the thing we dreamed of the most. ‘The Pub’ was a fair way out of town but close to a more residential but cool district of the city so easy enough to get to.
It was nice also as was set back in some grounds – all trees and peaceful. This is rare in Chiang Mai which has v little green space. It’s one park is incy. It’s a shame as it’s expanded, no-one had the forethought to leave open spaces for public use. It’s the biggest downside of the place I think. Anyway, we had a lamb roast and a pint of Kilkenny each. They were both very, very good and we were a little dewey eyed. The beer was as expensive as the roast – which was expensive for Thailand – but so worth it.

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There was a little bar we were quite fond of which often played Spanish or some other kind of unusual, smooth music and the guy who ran it was a sweetie.
One night we were drinking there and he had to ask mark to drink his beer out of a paper cup. It was because elections were on. It turns out it is compulsory to vote and drinking is banned during this time. I think mainly to stop political disagreement to get over heated. Strangely my wine glass was ok, which made me think the rule was designed mostly for local men.

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We took a trip one day out to one of the huge Tesco Lotus hypermarkets outside of town. That was fascinating to see some things familiar and some things totally different but in the familiar environment of a Tesco style shop. The fish and meat counters were amazing. The thing that stunned us most was the big open tray of mince (pork I think) – they would just scoop into it. It seemed out of place with the shop and I’m not squeamish but it did seem the thing most likely to be unhygienic – with everyone picking up the scoops and dipping in and out, but I guess it works!

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One of the little stores in the Tesco complex was selling some desert type things for birthdays which were cute but wasn’t sure what they were… blamange? jelly?

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Hightlights:

Dogs with pony tails or bunches
Always funny

Snooker
Mark found someone to play snooker with and went off to this massive snooker hall where you paid virtually nothing to pay on great quality tables. He was very happy (I was happy for the peace and quiet!!)

High kicking sport
On our visit to the park we came across this game where a net with 3 or 4 baskets was put high up in the air and they had to high kick the ball in. Was very impressive.

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Tuk Tuks
They are so retro here – they are very cool.

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All that glitters
There is so much gorgeous gold with so many wats every few metres in the old city. Lots of amazing statues and of course great portraiture of the royal family.
There were always monks milling about and probably helps give Chiang Mai it’s chilled out vibe.

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The statue that lost it’s body
Just funny.

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Urinal vegetables
A urinal with some kind of… gherkin(???) in it

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Quirkiness
Being a city it has some nice modern, arty touches which I’d found I was missing in the places I’d been to for a while.

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Punks
We saw a group of them the other day hanging outside a little cafe. Seriously – full on, huge Mohican, stud necklace Thai punks – just didn’t expect it.

Lowlights:

Ant egg omelette 
I think it was actually the omelette himself that tasted foul – was kind of like a custard tart consistency – just tasted wrong. Mark insisted that the ant eggs popped in his mouth but I think it was just his mind running away with him, big baby!
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Rock n roll troll
The tiny, tiny, little older Thai woman we saw with a slip knot t-shirt. She was wrong.

Smugglers Cove
We went to this Englishy pub when we were recovering from being really ill and we couldn’t face Thai food and didn’t want to walk far. It’s harmless enough but inside it’s got some grim old men who seem to have a nice deal of not getting off their backsides much when they have Thai girls who will do it for them. Not a big deal really (although more common in the Southern beach resorts than in Chiang Mai I must say). It was the old guy sat in there who suddenly put up an umbrella over his lap, did a bit of grappling around (alarmingly) and then after taking it down, a disinfected kind of smell wafted over. Was he really too lazy to go to the bathroom to apply some medication – DOWN THERE??? I shudder at the memory.

Language
We’d intended to get some language lessons but we never got around to it and our Thai has not improved much at all. Must try harder!

Everyone, EVERYWHERE, smiles in the same language

8 months ago now, my partner Mark and I left the UK, our jobs, families and friends to go travel the world for a year, maybe 2. Me, at 36 and Mark at 41, had never backpacked before and had always had relatively ‘normal’ holidays. We did independent travel usually but we’d never not had basic home comforts. And we were leaving our very cosy home and good life. It was nerve wracking to say the least. So, we started things a bit easy with Fiji and then onto New Zealand and Australia, where language would be little problem. We have since moved on to what could be perceived as more challenging travel in Asia – to Bali, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam so far. Nowhere has been tough or scary, as I may have thought, because even if people can’t understand each other, a smile and a friendly approach will always get you a long way.

A smile says please, it says thank you, it says ‘I know how you feel’, I guess ultimately it says I respect you enough to make the effort to smile and be friendly and THAT says a heck of a lot for any international relations. Read more…