Sunday, 31 December 2017

Vietnam, day 5: A Trip to the Beach - Naht!

Con Son, Vietnam
18 May 2017
We were woken early by roosters cawing and frantic hotel guests running up and down the stairs near our room. Unable to get back to sleep, we walked down a couple of blocks to the local market, where I stocked up on pineapple and jackfruit for later. Breakfast was at our new favourite waterfront cafe (Con Son Cafe), where I sipped at a pineapple juice (it's my second favourite fruit ok!) and Yannick tried out a bac xiu - like a normal Vietnamese coffee, but with MOAR condensed milk.
Feeling adventurous, we rented a motorbike from our hotel! Yannick's helmet was green, and mine was silver like a space cadet. Neither of us had ridden a motorcycle before, let alone driven one. I'm actually quite afraid of motorbikes because both my uncle and grandfather were in serious accidents which left huge scars across their pates. However, the roads were wide and practically empty, with just the odd bike or vehicle puttering along, and there were no extreme hills, so I felt that this would be the absolute best opportunity to ride one. What didn't assuage my fears, however, was watching Yannick get the hang of how to work the beast. He actually picked it up fairly quickly, but it was mainly my deep trust in him that got me through it. After cruising around the block a few times, we were off!

Though a bit wobbly, it was really quite fun to ride the motorbike! Yannick had to be extra vigilant because of all the potholes in the road, but the ride was wonderfully scenic and we wouldn't have been able to travel so far cross country without a motorbike as public transport isn't a thing.

Along the way, we saw an abundance of wildlife, including cows, goats, monkeys, and lizards.

The temperature was hot and humid (as it always is on Con Son), so feeling the wind rush past us as we zoomed along the coastal roads was refreshing.

Before long we had found Bai Naht, a beach that had been recommended to us by a local and through blog posts. When we arrived, there were two guys swimming and they remained in the water the whole time we were there! They must love swimming. We alternated between swimming and sunbathing. It was very exposed and there were no patches of shade on the beach, but as it was before half past ten, experience informed us that sunbating would be fine (though we were wrong). At one stage, some monks arrived in a taxi and frolicked about for a bit, which was quite a sight! The lady monks swam with all their clothes on (including head scarves), while the male monks stripped down to their pantaloons.

As is often the case in Vietnam, just across the road from the beach appeared to be some sort of landfill, though luckily we couldn't smell anything unappetising. It's always a slight shock to be surrounded by gorgeous lush hills on one side, a sweeping sea vista on the other, and then see a rubbish heap dumped squarely in the middle. Unfortunately, for all the country's wonderful scenery, it's not uncommon to see empty crisp packets bobbing along a winding river or an abandoned plastic bag sailing along in the breeze. However, we do our part by not littering, and I've learned to try to enjoy the good views over the bad.

After applying some sunscreen, we zipped off further down the coast to a wharf. Yannick never did fully manage to get the hang of stopping or starting the motorbike, but it's the thought that counts and we didn't crash so that's something. The wharf was a lot more built up than I expected it to be, with several shops and eateries on either side.

On the way back to the main settlement on Con Son, we stopped to get a closer look at a roadside shrine that was beautifully decorated with lanterns and incense, and surrounded by forest. A local woman tried to tell us something, but the words and gestures were unfortunately lost on us. She had a cute little puppy that stuck close to her ankles. 

Across the street was a strange building that looked like a hotel that had been abandoned part way through being built. It would have been a coveted location for the views over the hills and the sea. Perhaps one day construction will be finished and it will rival even the Six Senses resort that lurks on the other side of the island. 

On the way back to our hotel there were plenty of downhill sections in the road, so we had fun coasting down those. We parked and went to our room to have quick showers and it was at this point that Yannick realised he had been pretty badly sunburnt from our time on the beach. We resolved to be more careful in the future and not assume that European sun rules are the same in Southeast Asia. (Oddly enough, I was completely fine and not even a tad pink. This could be due to the fact that I had been sunbathing on our apartment's terrace in Singapore for the last couple of months and was therefore more accustomed to sun worship.)

As it was a muggy afternoon, we visited Infiniti Cafe for a bevvy break. We both ordered cocktails (a Blue Hawaiian and a margarita) and Yannick had a bite to eat. While taking a reading break, we were amused by the cafe owner attempting to feed her small child lunch and being rebuffed. He wanted to watch TV shows on the iPad and play with his firetruck instead. Returning to our hotel, we napped for a time before heading out again.

The road to Ong Dung beach was narrower than we expected, and had some construction work that we needed to bypass. Once we found the sign, we parked our motorbike and began the walk through the jungle. A scruffy puppy, who was at the start of the path, followed us the entire way! I think he wanted food but we had none to give. When we were nearly at the beach we spotted a jungle rat who made aggrieved barking noises as though we were a threat to his safety and scurried off into the underbrush. We discovered that there were a few houses down near the beach, and the puppy stopped following us there.

Though very rocky, we found a not too uncomfortable place to sit and read. When the pointiness became unbearable, Yannick found a plank of wood and gentlemanly laid it down for me to sit upon. Two guys came down and went snorkelling for a bit. Yannick and I discusses the pros and cons of living by Ong Dung beach. On the one hand, you can swim and snorkel whenever you want, but on the other you have to carry your groceries down a long winding jungle path. Luckily there were no sandflies or mozzies, but a persistent ant kept crawling up my leg (yes, it was definitely the same ant every time).
Walking back up the jungle path, we saw loads of monkeys! They were running and swinging and fighting with each other, and this one monkey would make a very loud hooting noise which made him sound much larger than he was. Powerful lungs I suppose. He should train in opera.

We drove back and dropped off the motorbike at our hotel. After hanging out for a while, reading and eating pineapple on the balcony, we then went in search of the night market but it was nowhere to be found.
Instead, a tiny popular eatery drew our attention. While perusing the menu at the entrance, a little girl approached us and asked our names. Once we replied, she told us hers and then grabbed our hands, swinging them around and smiling sweetly. Aside from us, the patrons seemed to be mostly highschool-aged kids who raucously laughed with their friends, slurped on iced coffees, and endlessly scrolled through their phones. A cute one-eyed dog ran around from one end of the cafe to the other checking on everyone. His good eye was big and shiny and perfect for making puppydog eyes at people in case of food. The kitchen staff were run off their feet with so many customers (we were lucky to get a seat), and our orders took a while to be brought out. The green tea I had was strong, and Yannick was mightily impressed by how delicious his ciku smoothie tasted. They had run out of bun bo, so Yannick instead opted for a kind of toasted sandwich similar to a banh mi. Our whole order came to 45,000 dong, which is $2 USD. As we left, the large table of youths called out "buh-bye!"

Friday, 15 December 2017

Vietnam, day 4: Island Reconnaissance - Pancake Zone Identified

Con Son, Vietnam
17 May 2017
On the morning of the 17th, we caught an Uber ride from outside our hotel in HCMC to head to the airport. A few minutes into the ride, our driver made a phone call and suddenly passed the phone back to me. I was flustered, but after a brief conversation, it transpired that the driver had called one of his friends who spoke English to find out if we needed to be dropped off at the domestic or international terminal. How nice!
Soon enough, we had boarded a small propeller plane and spent time cloud spotting on our way to the Con Dau islands which lay 236km due south of HCMC.
Once we landed, we found the shuttle bus that had been sent from our hotel and on the drive there were given a lot of useful information (including good beaches, motorbike rental prices, local specialties, snorkelling info, and a recommendation for a noodle place).

Our hotel was small but comfortable. We had a room on the first floor with a balcony overlooking the street and a mango tree.

Wanting to explore, we quickly headed out for a wander of the town. Though Con Son is the largest settlement in the Con Dau archipelago, it had a strong village feel to it. While there were a considerable number of buildings including hotels, restaurants, and houses, there was also a lot of empty space. Sometimes you'd walk past a block filled with buildings and then cross the street to find yourself staring into an open field with a cow lazily grazing in it. 

There was also a large amount of construction materials and equipment lying around unused. Just around the corner from our hotel was a big pile of sand that a local dog had taken to lying on much of the day, and a dump truck gathered rust further down the road.
It was a five minute walk from where we were staying to the waterfront, and in that time we were greeted numerous times by families and schoolgirls in uniform cycling past. It was like the typical celebrity feeling of Vietnam, but on steroids. I guess that makes sense as there are considerably more tourists who visit HCMC or Hanoi than Con Son. One very young girl waved to us on the back of her dad's motorbike, and when Yannick waved back she froze, arm suspended mid-wave, a look of utter shock on her face.

Just as we reached the waterfront it began to rain so we found a seat at the Con Son Café to wait for the worst of it to pass. We were given free glasses of green tea, and Yannick had a proper drip coffee. While steeping in the aromas of our caffeinated beverages, we could overhear the telltale sounds of an action movie being played on the owner's iPad.

Though there was a warning sign at the start of the wharf, we watched a group of Vietnamese tourists walk out unconcerned, so we followed suit. 

There were several old fishing boats, as well as round rowboats. We had never seen such a design before, and wondered if there was some benefit to round rowboats as opposed to the more common...boat shaped rowboats.
We continued our walk along the waterfront in an attempt to reach the long hotel- and bar-lined An Hai beach. However, we found ourselves in a weird abandoned construction site where trees had grown atop the shells of partially built houses, and were separated from the beach by a fence and then a small gully of aquatic vegetation which may or may not have contained snakes or other hazards. Though tempted to take the shortcut, we made the wise decision to go all the way around, back to the street and along to a beachfront bar that we walked through to access the sea. This seemed to be a totally normal occurrence for the bar staff and they didn't give us a second glance. I felt odd to walk through a place of business, but we could find no way to access the beach apart from this method.

We walked the length of the beach being followed all the while by a couple of fascinated dragonflies. Clearly we smelled excellent to them or some such thing, as they flitted around our legs like wasps after the scent of lemon juice. Luckily they had no desire to eat us or sting us. I spotted a tiny beige crab scuttling along, and Yannick at first thought it was tumbleweed blowing across the sand.

Deciding we wanted to see the other beach that was very close to town, we walked back through the streets (more inland this time) and were barraged by yet more cheerful greetings! It seemed that almost everyone on the island was friendly and keen to say hello to us, including two men in green army uniforms on motorbike. Our stroll took us past many small homely eateries, corner stores, repair shops, and stray dogs. At one stage we found a manicured park with pretty roundabouts. After that, we rejoined the boardwalk and passed next to a paddock where goats and cows roamed.

Bai Lo Voi beach was less scenic, but also less built up in that there was not a single hotel or bar built onto it. We waded a little, and then sat on the concrete steps that led back up to the goat field, planning on what to do the next day. Scattered around our feet were some items of refuse: mostly discarded bits of broken fishing materials such as parts of nets or lines, but also evidence of feasts like dozens of rambutan skins.

On the way back to our hotel we discovered that the wharf area we had visited that morning was a popular late afternoon swimming spot. In fact, it felt as though the whole town had come to have a post work or school swim. A number of food stalls had also been set up to cater for the increased appetite of the swimmers. As we did not swim, we weren't yet hungry enough to eat so we returned home and read on the balcony for a time.
For dinner, we chose an upmarket hotel restaurant called Villa Maison. Though undoubtedly one of the fanciest places in town, the prices remained astoundingly affordable and even offered English menus. Though the waitress had limited English ability, and we had zero Vietnamese ability, we made good use of Google Translate to work out the answers to questions.

We worked out that the vegetarian banh xeo contained no egg or dairy, so I tucked into the Vietnamese rice pancake (filled in this instance with shredded veggies and tofu) while Yannick had spicy fish. We both enjoyed a glass of rosé, and were surprised by the abundance of wildlife. Having sat outdoors on the terrace next to a small garden, I was enthralled by a couple of toads who croaked and leapt around. My favourite part was just after a jump, when they sat still and bolt upright, their chunky arms held straight, sticky fingers splayed on the dirt below them. Cats, lizards, and a really big moth also made an appearance. Apart from the wildlife, we had the entire place to ourselves, and as we were about to leave the owner came to thank us for dining. She told us that they had only opened five weeks before, and asked us if the service and food was up to our standards. We told her that everything was delicious, and suggested registering on TripAdvisor so that we could leave a review. She informed us that the weather should improve soon, and invited us to come back another time. As we left, our waiter said to me shyly "You are very beautiful." I got the sense that she had rehearsed that before approaching me, and it was very sweet. Con Son was quickly becoming my favourite place in Vietnam, and by extension, the world. 

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Vietnam, day 3: She Drinks the Iced Tea Drink, She Drinks the Smoothie Drink...

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
16 May 2017
On our third day in the capital, we decided to soak up even more French culture with breakfast at Une Journee A Paris. 
A cute little cafe, it serves both locals and foreigners. I had lotus tea in an adorable goldfish tea set while Yannick had hot chocolate (he described it as "fruity and dark like good Lindt") and viennoiseries. 
While there, and old man who was probably French shuffled off with a bag of croissants.

Our first touristing of the day was at the Hindu temple of Mariamman. Built in the late 1800's, its central altar is dedicated to the goddess Mariamman and serves the small population of Hindus in the city.

In need of more fresh air, we took a stroll through Tao Dan Park with all its lush vegetation and statues. The cactus garden was my favourite part, though the lotus pond was what caught many an eye, including a swarm of avid amateur photographers. Apparently this park is popular in the early morning, when hordes flock here to exercise. We were too late in the day to experience that, but we did see one lady learning to dance.

Just a few blocks from the Reunification Palace, we visited the Venerable Thich Quang Duc Memorial. On 10 June 1963, the Buddhist monk self immolated to protest religious inequality. The South Vietnamese president was Catholic, and issued policies discriminating against Buddhists even though the vast majority of Vietnamese people were Buddhist. As his body was burning, he remained silent and stoic while those around him wailed and prostrated themselves before him. It was a demonstration that shook the world, and even US president J F Kennedy commented on how much of an impact the photo of the burning monk had.

He had self immolated on the site of a busy intersection, and it remains so over fifty years later.

The Xa Loi Pagoda is where the body of Thich Quang Duc was carried once the flames had subsided. Apparently even after his body was cremated, his heart stayed intact, and is on display in the pagoda (though as we didn't know this at the time, we didn't find it). There was a separate staircase leading up to the pagoda for men and women, and at the top there were several people on their knees praying. We didn't want to disturb them, so just had a quick peek and then left, though on the way down Yannick could see a secret garden from his staircase. It was beautiful, with hanging vines, lotus pads and pineapple bushes.

We didn't spend long in the War Remnants Museum, as I became overwhelmed with horror and despair. Before my eyes became completely dysfunctional with tears, I took a photo of this scene showing a demonstration (against the American War) in Aleppo, Syria in 1967. The first floor displayed dozens of photos showing war protests around the world (including New Zealand), but as Aleppo had been recaptured by Syrian government forces during the civil war only five months before our visit to the museum, I found it of particular interest in terms of current affairs.

With my appetite completely destroyed, we decided to go on a café crawl instead of getting lunch. We had seen many quirky looking cafés online and used this opportunity to try out several. Our first stop was La Fenetre Soleil, a hip café bar set in an old colonial era apartment. 

The airy windows lit up the eclectic decor, which had a mixture of cosy worn sofas and Japanese chairs amidst exposed brick. We were the only patrons apart from a couple who were having a nap in the corner. I ordered rose bud iced tea, which had actual little rose buds in it, and we were given a free dish of candied lotus seeds. I'd never tried them before, but wow yum! I'm glad we visited at a quiet time, as apparently smoking is allowed freely. However, it would be fun to return at night when the dim bar would be bustling and the music area (including white grand piano and drum set) would be jamming. We left when some irritating people sat near us and watched a reality show singing contest, the already less than stellar vocals blaring through shitty phone speakers.

Next was Loft Cafe, which had a huge clockface window. 

So unique! So stylish!

Yannick, figuring he had better not have too many coffees in one day, had a smoothie and lime white chocolate mousse while I sipped at lavender tea. After leaving the cafe, we followed the spiral staircase up to the top of the building, where we saw an antique wrought iron lift with a heavy-looking counterweight suspended from the ceiling. 

Someone called the elevator from a lower floor and we watched as the weights went up and down on their cables.

Having timed it just right with the odd opening hours, we finally managed to go inside the cathedral. However, it wasn't particularly interesting so we left quickly.

Crossing the street, we passed by the Post Office, where a woman in a green army uniform was directing traffic and a banana vendor hawked her wares.

Then we found L'Usine (meaning "the factory" in French). The bottom level was a clothing store, but up the stairs was a spacious café where Yannick drank red wine and I had a smoothie. We tried to work out why it was named L'Usine - could it be that the building used to be an old factory, or is it to do with the clothing store?

Last on our café crawl was The Old Compass Cafe, which was kind of hidden down a narrow alleyway and up some stairs in a 1960's apartment block. We didn't stay long as Yannick was full of drinks and didn't want any more, so I ordered a green tea. The server asked Yannick to order something as well, but he declined and the mood was rather awkward so I enjoyed my tea, took some photos and we left.

We rested back at our hotel for a spell, and then headed out again in the evening for dinner. Along the way, we saw a cute chubby kid in a black martial arts outfit. 
At Hum Vegetarian, we had an array of dishes including spring rolls with an amazing dipping sauce, fried tofu in spicy sauce, red curry with tofu and rice noodles, and carrot fried rice which was delicious. We had opted to sit outside as the heat wasn't so unbearable after the sun set. Yannick was bitten by a mozzie that caused him to itch throughout our dinner, and our ears were occasionally beset upon by the barking of a dog in a nearby alley and loud singing from a neighbouring karaoke joint. Even with those negatives, the food was excellent and more than made up for it. Our waiters were so nice, and the cherry on top of the evening was dessert: sticky mango rice. 

So sticky! So mango! Yannick, who usually isn't a fan of mango, surprisingly loved it.
On our walk home, we were called out to with a bold "Hello hello!" and looking around we found that it came from a child who was slouching between her two parents on the back of a motorbike, glaring at us in anticipation of a response. I don't know if I'll ever grow tired of that celebrity feeling when I'm greeted by strangers just for being a foreigner. 

Monday, 20 November 2017

Vietnam, day 2: A Palace, a Post Office and a Downpour of Tea

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
15 May 2017
The kettle that was provided for our hotel room cast an electric blue glow when plugged in. That eerie nightlight coupled with the lack of windows meant that we had absolutely no clue what time we woke up. It could have been only a couple of hours since we fell asleep, or it could have been midday. There really was no telling without temporal markers and when jet lag was a possibility (a slim possibility as Singapore is only one hour difference from Vietnam, but still a possibility). Luckily we had woken at a reasonable time: 8am. We took advantage of the free hotel breakfast and ate fruit and coco pops. 
Refreshed from our deep sleep, we entered the grounds of the Reunification Palace ready for the day. The palace was where the President of South Vietnam lived and worked during the American War. 

On 30 April 1975, a North Vietnamese Army tank busted through the fence and a soldier ran inside to fly the Viet Cong flag. It would mark the end of the war. 

With iconic 60's architecture and furnishings, the palace was much more charming than I thought it would be. Indeed, as a fan of 60's culture this is no doubt one of my favourite palaces I've seen. Along the walls hung old photographs, including one of US President Nixon visiting the palace.

Some of the smaller offices felt a bit like spy headquarters. 

As well as meeting rooms and offices, there were lots of other interesting areas like a grand dual staircase connecting the first two floors, a cinema decked out in red velvet, a card playing room, and an industrial scale kitchen with a giant egg beater that looked like it ran with the help of a lawnmower motor. 

There was a helicopter on the roof! 

The basement levels were some of the most interesting, with room after room holding bleak desks with telephones or other communication machinery, and the occasional filing cabinet. 

Next on the agenda was Saigon Central Post Office, which was opened in 1891 and designed by French architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux (though many tour guides falsely credit Gustave Eiffel due to a poorly informed Wikipedia article which has now been corrected). Though it's one of the top tourist attractions in HCMC, it still functions as a post office, with stamps on display and rows of cashiers on either side of the grand portrait of Ho Chi Minh. 

Then we attempted to enter the cathedral, but it was closed at that time (and after Googling it, it turns out that it has extremely limited opening hours). Though unable to see the inside, we noticed a large amount of graffiti along the outside bricks which looked like it had been done in white correctional fluid. Next we revisited the Opera House, but were told to return at 16:30. We really weren't having luck (we did return later, but as we didn't have tickets for a show, still weren't allowed in). 

To cool ourselves in some much needed aircon, we found an upstairs table at a central branch of Cong Caphe, a chain of which we had fond memories from our 2015 Hanoi trip. I was brought a mystery juice, and I still don’t know what sort of fruit it was made from. Seemingly the server delivered a different order to me, and looked very conflicted on what to do as I had already sipped from it, so I just told her that all was well and I’d drink it instead of my order.

For lunch we visited My Banh Mi, which is a restaurant specialising in upmarket versions of the popular Vietnamese street food banh mi. Set up by two internationally renowned chefs and offering a dozen different sandwich fillings, it’s definitely not your average street food stall. I opted for the tofu banh mi with basil sauce, which was so good! Yannick chose the black pepper steak sandwich.

Though it was rather rainy, we wanted to visit the Botanic Gardens but honestly they looked a bit shit from the outside and were asking a steep entrance fee. (It was kind of funny to see groups of schoolchildren preparing themselves for character-building activities. I’m so glad I no longer have to participate in that sort of thing.)

Instead, we checked out the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a 1909 temple dedicated to the top Taoist god.

A plethora of statues and paintings representing deities, heroes, and demons loomed from pedestals and the walls. The air was thick with incense and candlelight. There was a bizarre clash between rustic style wooden decorations lit by neon tubing. We explored every available inch of the pagoda, and found that there were rooms that held shrines but also stacks of cardboard boxes and utilitarian shelving. I hadn’t experienced that in other temples, but frankly I think it was a practical use of space. As we left we spotted a very fluffy and sleepy temple-dwelling doggie who couldn’t be photographed due to the dim lighting.

Not long after we left, a legit storm sprung up and threatened to drown our umbrella so we popped into the closest cafe to wait it out. How much tea can one person drink? I was experimenting with that question within our first two days in Vietnam. Yannick was posing a similar experiment with ca phe sua da (Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk). Though enjoying the abundance of tea, I didn’t like how often it would come sweetened without forewarning. Don’t get me wrong - I like sweet tea (especially peach), but I’d like a little heads up.

On the way back to our hotel, we walked through Le Van Tam Park, which was terribly atmospheric after the rainfall. We also stopped by Turtle Lake, but it was super shit. I much preferred the park. 

When dinner time rolled around, we headed for a local spot called Bep Me In. Funnily enough, as we turned down an alleyway that we thought the restaurant was located on (thanks and no thanks to Google Maps), we ran into an Australian couple who were in search of the same place. After a few metres, however, our advancement was stifled by incoming traffic in the form of many rickety market stalls on wheels being pushed, pulled and trundled by vendors on foot and motorbike. The alley was barely wide enough for them, so we squeezed into tiny crevices to let them past and avoid our toes being run over. Eventually we made it to the end of the alleyway, but there was a distinct lack of restaurants and only ramshackle housing. As we turned back, an English-speaking girl pointed us in the right direction. It was apparent that this sort of thing happened a lot. I shake my fist at you, Google Maps. Get your shit together.
Having been sent down the correct path by the kind stranger, we found a different alleyway in which several eateries were present (including the ever-searched-for Bep Me In). It was a bustling spot with long wooden banquet tables and backless chairs. No matter how many times I reread the menu, there was no tea, which ruined my experiment. I ordered carrot juice instead and was determined to begin my tea-filled quest anew the following day. Being tapas, mezze and all forms of “small dish” lovers, we sampled a few plates. One was a sautéed vegetable dish of what looked like green beans that had mutated slightly into a more draconian bean. They were fairly good tasting, like a mild and slightly crunchy green bean. We also ordered rice cooked inside some kind of leaf, and a green pepper and chilli pork dish. Yannick’s wine, though served too cold, was a nice change after not feeling able to afford much alcohol in Singapore for nearly four months.

Wandering back home, we dodged puddles and sudden splashes from motorbikes’ wheels. Yannick amazingly remained relatively mud-free, though I was severely dirtied. I probably washed my feet in Vietnam just as often as drinking tea.